I love this time of year. The landscape changes from green to golden amber, a carpet of leaves is now laid out for everyone to walk and crunch through and the sun is low in the sky. It’s stunning. I do feel lucky to live in a country where we get proper seasons…sometimes all four in one day! I do think there is something special about Autumn. I love seeing the colours changing and I love the produce that it brings. When I think of Autumn, the first thing that springs to mind is the butternut squash.
I love butternut squash, not only for its taste but also its versatility. It is perfect in pasta, risotto, curry, stews, pies and soup. One of my favourite recipes is this very simple one from Nigel Slater for Roasted Butternut Squash Pie. Crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, this is the perfect pie for a chilly autumnal day. I made a lovely butternut squash and sweet potato soup this week, click here for the recipe. You could also add it as an accompaniment to a Sunday roast. Just chop and bake in the oven with a touch of nutmeg or cinnamon. Or you can mash it with a splash of cream and a knob of butter.
Butternut squashes can vary is shape from cylindrical to half-dumbell. When buying, you should look for a smooth tan or beige skin which should be firm and unbroken. If you can push a fingernail into the rind of a squash it is immature and will be lacking in flavour and sweetness. They’re generally quite heavy as they have a high moisture content. Bigger squashes tend to have a more highly developed flavour.
The hard rind, dense flesh and awkward shape mean that butternut squash require careful cutting. Use a large knife or cleaver to carefully cut down the length of the squash. Scoop out the seeds and any fibrous-strings. If you require chunks of squash, cut a small piece of each end, enabling you to stand it vertically and trim off the rind before slicing and dicing.
Squash should be cooked until tender. Baking a halved butternut squash is an excellent way of preserving and intensifying its flavours. Cubes can also be added to casseroles or curries. Boiling is quicker than baking but will result in some sugars being absorbed into the water and so is best used for dishes (such as soups) where the flavoured water forms part of the dish rather than being discarded. I personally like it best when baked. It is so good when paired with sage, you could make a delicious butternut squash ravioli and serve with a sage butter.
You can keep a butternut squash in a cool (not refrigerator-cold), dry, well-ventilated place for three months or more. At room temperature, or in the fridge, they will deteriorate more quickly, but should be fine for at least a couple of weeks.
Apples came into season last month and they are still going strong into October. As well as apples, pears are at their peak in October too.
Pears come in a range of flavours and textures and can be enjoyed in many different ways. Try poaching them in red wine, with vanilla or chocolate drizzled sauce. They also work well raw in salads or added to an after-dinner cheese board – they go particularly well with Pecorino or Roquefort.
Pears are very delicate and bruise easily when ripe, so always buy slightly under-ripe (they should be firm but not hard), then ripen at home. They ripen from the inside out – when they’re ready they should give a little at the base. Avoid any pears that are mushy or bruised.
Choose your pear according to your taste – here’s a rundown of some of the main varieties available in the UK…
Conference has a long, conical shape, with a yellow skin with russet markings. Its flesh is grainy, sweet and juicy and it cooks and eats well.
Comice is more bulbous in shape, and has juicy, meltingly tender flesh; it’s good for cooking and eating, particularly with cheese.
Concorde is a cross between Comice and Conference.
Packham’s is native to Australia, has a wide-bottomed shape and a smooth green skin that ripens to yellow. It’s succulent and is great to eat raw.
The green-skinned Anjou is large, sweet and good for cooking and eating.
Red William has a speckled, bright red skin, and buttery, sweet flesh.
Rocha, from Portugal, has firmer flesh and is juicy and sweet.
Williams Bon Chrétien is tender and juicy, and good for cooking and eating.
One of my favourite vegetables, the leek, is also coming into its own in October.
Leeks are related to onions and garlic, but have a subtler, sweeter and more sophisticated flavour. They can be used in soups and stews, savoury tarts, or you can add them to mac & cheese to make it a bit more interesting. I had leeks tonight, simply steamed on the side of my grilled salmon. They had such a buttery, sweet flavour that all I did was add a little sea salt to them and they were perfect.
When buying leeks, make sure they are firm and unblemished. White at the bottom and with bright green leaves, they should have a crisp texture. Smaller leeks tend to be sweeter and more tender.
Also at their best from now until March are mussels.
I adore mussels. I love them best when they’re steamed with white wine and shallots. In fact, my last boyfriend won my heart by preparing the most wonderful meal when we started dating and that was the first course. I remember thinking that anyone who could make such a perfect meal was surely the man for me.
When buying mussels, try not to choose ones that have chipped, broken or damaged shells. Fresh mussels tend to be tightly closed. To clean mussels, scrub in plenty of cold water to remove barnacles or sand. Discard any that float to the top. Give any open mussels a sharp tap with a knife and discard any that fail to close (they are dead). Remove the ‘beard’ – a fibrous clump of hairs that sprouts from the shell – by giving it a sharp tug towards the hinge end of the mussel. Place cleaned mussels in a fresh bowl of cold water until ready to use. Change this water two or three times to remove any salt or sand that the mussels may expel.
Mussels are so quick and easy to cook and you can change the sauce depending on your mood. I’ve had them with cider and bacon; leeks, thyme & bacon; and one of my favourite ways…in coconut milk with lemongrass, chilli and lime.
artichokes (globe and Jerusalem), aubergines, beetroot, borlotti beans (for podding), broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbages (various green varieties, red and white), carrots, cardoons, cauliflower, celeriac, chard, chanterelles, chicory, chillies, courgettes, cucumber, endive, fennel, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, leeks, marrow, mushrooms, nettles, onions, parsnips, peppers, potatoes, pumpkins (and squashes), rocket, salsify, spinach, spring onions, sweetcorn, turnips, watercress.
apples, blackberries, butternut squash, chestnuts, crab apples, cranberries, damsons, elderberries, grapes (English hothouse), hazelnuts, juniper berries, medlars, mulberries, pears, quince, raspberries, rosehips, rowan berries.
MEAT & GAME
beef, chicken, goose, grouse, guinea fowl, hare, mallard, mutton, partridge, pork, rabbit, turkey, wood pigeon.
FISH & SHELLFISH
cockles, cod, crab (brown, hen and spider), eels, hake, lobster, mackerel, mussels, oysters (native and rock), prawns, river trout (brown and rainbow), salmon (wild), scallops, sea bass, shrimp, sprats, squid.