Saturday, 1 October 2011

Summertime in the autumn

It has been a crazy few days. There we were, slipping into the autumn, with long-term weather forecasts predicting a tough, cold winter – and one that will start early in October – and what happens?

Summer pops it's face back above the parapet and we find ourselves enjoying glorious sunshine and sizzling temperatures.

Yesterday morning, with condensation dotting parked cars and a bank of mist suspended just above the grass in Haggerston Park, the towering buildings of the City beyond seemed almost spectral in the stunning light. The day warmed rapidly and even the night was muggier than any in the usually sweaty August.

There are no complaints here at this reprise of heat and light, but nonetheless, it's had me in a spin on the food front.

There I was, having accepted the departure of summer and starting to relish the bounty of the new season.

We had watched from the office window at work as a white wagtail had stopped for a rest on the nearby sedum roof; a breather on its journey to Africa - the blustery weather had even been sending migrating birds off course.

I was contemplating roasts and casseroles, mushroom heaven, baking blitzes on chilled Sunday afternoons, warming soups and even advance preparations for That Festival at the End of the Year.

And then, in what might sportingly be referred to as a curveball out of left field, our crazy weather forced all that back out of sight, leaving me foundering around with a feeling that I needed to prepare summer dishes again - but with a completely changed larder.

So just what do you eat in such confusing weather? On Saturday morning, sitting outside in the garden in shorts, with notepad and pen, I leafed through Gordon Ramsey's A Chef for All Seasons, hunting inspiration.

It is, I realised – gazing with pleasure on page after page of food porn – not really that difficult.

Ramsey is not a cook who really go in for massively heavy dishes, so even his autumn dishes, making the most of the seasonal produce, are not overwhelming. Pigeon breasts, for instance, which I've been enjoying throughout the summer, would still be perfect now.

With a list drawn up, it was off to Broadway Market.

Then it emerged that Andy was not there with his game stall, which meant a rethink. And at the top end of the street, across the road from London Fields, was a scene of chaos.

It looked like someone had taken one of those huge bins and strewn the contents everywhere. Empty bottles and cans lay all over the place, behind a wide cordon of crime scene tape and police.

It seems that the heat had been bringing people out to party for the previous three nights. In the early hours of Saturday morning, however, it had turned from a boozy street party into someone more serious, as shots were fired and a woman was caught in the crossfire. She is in hospital. It was the third shooting in the borough in a week.

Good old Hackney. However trendy the area becomes, there are still the gangs and there are still the guns; and there are still youngsters with no apparent hope or self respect beyond what they believe such things offer them.

And like August's rooters and looters, torching people's homes and wrecking small businesses only a little further away, they don't give a damn about anyone else getting caught up in their spiral of self-hating and self-destructive violence.

Depressed, I turned away and tried to concentrate on the shopping, but was distracted enough that I forgot the butter and actually had to return a short while later.

Fortunately, an afternoon spent 'watching', via the internet, as Manchester City overcame the week's tribulations by beating Blackburn Rovers 4-0 away from home, cheered me.

But what were today's culinary solutions?

First, for lunch, a salad of endive, with wafer thin red onion, a small Cox apple, blushing pink inside when it was cored and sliced, shavings of Montgomery Cheddar, cob nuts and a dressing of lemon juice, virgin oil and honey.

Full of taste and textural contrasts, and a perfect celebration of English ingredients to mark both the end of British Food Fortnight and British Cheese Week. Seasonal, yet light. It can be done.

It was inspired by a recipe but didn't follow it to the letter – the Cheddar instead of blue cheese, and no blue cheese dressing, cob nuts instead of walnuts.

And the evening presented a similar opportunity. I had been intended to do Ramsey's pan-roasted cod, served on a bed of garlic potato purée, with ceps.

But there was no cod, so I picked up some of Vicki's beautiful smoked haddock instead and did a little adjusting.

In this case, I roasted the fish in a gratin dish, dotted with plenty of butter and covered in foil, at about 155˚C for 20 minutes.

The potato was cooked, pressed through the ricer and then had butter and good double cream beaten into it.

The ceps were thinly sliced and cooked gently in a little butter, before a good squeeze of lemon was added, the pan shaken carefully and then left to heat back up.

And that was pretty much that - except instead of adding garlic to the potato, I seasoned it and the ceps with a little of the truffle salt that I'd bought in Carcassone back in July.

All in all, it was scummy. And suitably seasonal but not too heavy. And also not simply taken straight from a written recipe.

For dessert, a combination of seasonal pear – and downright unseasonable (but English!) strawberries: a match that seemed to completely exemplify the situation.

Later, as The Other Half and I sat outside in the dark, smoking, neighbours enjoyed a barbeque while watching The X Factor on a portable TV. At least not all partying in Hackney is violent.

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