6 October 2006: Apple-y goodness

1. Witness the glory that is this tarte tatin made by Marie and Laurent last weekend:

It's perfect, isn't it? It was made using this recipe here, and Marie's method for pastry: mix together with your fingers 200 g of flour and 100 g of butter, cut into small pieces. Add an egg yolk and a little hot water and mix, just until it forms a ball. Don't overwork it!

2. Mmm, cider mountain.

Last weekend a bunch of friends and I went on a walk between Carrick-on-Suir and Clonmel. As we were staggering into the outskirts of Clonmel after a hard day of slogging through the rain, Dave pointed at some trees poking over the edge of a brick wall, and said something to me that I heard as "That's the bulbous orchard". I blinked and smiled politely. Fortunately Gavin had functioning ears (or perhaps just a functioning brain) and could translate for me: that was the Bulmer's orchard.

I neglected to have a pint of cider at the source that evening (too busy drinking whiskey), but the next morning as I was wandering through Clonmel towards the canal, feeling the autumn chill, I started to smell a beautiful warming aroma - not quite like hot cider, a bit more feral and obviously fermenting, but very pleasant. It was the Bulmer's brewery, gently puffing out cidery smells to the surrounding streets. As I was passing along the lane beside the brewery, I spotted this (presumably recent) apple delivery, in two piles each almost as tall as I am, left in the driveway.

3. A bowl of apples is a guarantee of dessert.

A very easy apple dessert I made last week: wash a couple of red apples, don't bother to peel, and chop into 1.5 cm cubes (avoiding the core, obviously). Add to a small saucepan with a good glug of apple juice, a slug or so of calvados, some brown sugar and a bit of mixed spice. Simmer over a low-medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the apples are soft but not falling off their skins and the liquid is gone, about 10-15 minutes depending on the apples. Spoon into little bowls and eat warm with a spoonful of creme fraiche and a sprinkle of cinnamon.

4. Anticipatory apple enjoyment: Heidi's curried apple couscous is on my to-cook list.

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4 October 2006: Warm autumn salad

One of the very few things I don't like about autumn? Eating dinner after dark, so food photos look dim and gloomy. Take it from me that this salad is actually a lot more beautiful in the flesh!

Some of the many things I do like about autumn: washing all my woolen jumpers after their summer sojourn in the back of the cupboard; chosing which scarf to wear in the mornings; wanting to drink hot tea again; my new thigh-high stripey socks (one pair dark and light green, the other red and orange); crisp air; apples - juice, cider, calvados, apples eaten out of hand, apple tarte tatin, apples in general; cooking interesting birds (I've got a guinea fowl ordered from Fallon and Byrne to pick up on Friday); planning sloe-picking; generally digging the mellow fruitfulness of the world.

This salad jives with some of those things: it's warm and nutty (the spelt and the pine nuts combine to be nuttier by far than the sum of their parts), darkly herbaceous, earthy, bitter and mellow by turns. I've made variations on this for lunches a couple of times over the last fortnight, sometimes using piles of sliced raw chestnut mushrooms, once adding borlotti beans, or substituting steamed sweet potato for the roast squash. However it goes, it always has the combination of green leaves, herbs and radicchio, some kind of more substantial and filling additions, and the mustardy, cidery dressing for that splash of apple flavour.

1 cup spelt or farro
1 small butternut squash
olive oil
cider vinegar
sea salt and black pepper
1/4 cup pine nuts
4 portobello mushrooms
2 cloves garlic
a bunch of baby spinach
fresh flat leaf parsley and oregano
a few leaves of radicchio
200 g feta cheese
walnut oil
seed mustard

Rinse the spelt or farro in a sieve under running water for a couple of minutes, then add to some lightly salted water or vegetable stock and bring to a simmer. Cook for 20-40 minutes or until the grain is soft but still has a bit of chewiness. Drain and set aside. (The cooking time really will depend on the type and age of your grain - sorry I can't be more specific. You only want the grain warm, not hot, anyway, so it's fine if you drain it and let it sit for a while until everything else is done.)

Preheat the oven to 180 C, then peel the squash and cut into pieces 2x2x1 cm. Toss with some olive oil, a splash of cider vinegar, and some salt and pepper, and roast for approximately 30 minutes, or until it is golden on the outside and soft in the middle.

Toast the pine nuts well in a small frypan. Keep a close eye on them so they don't burn, but make sure they get well browned, so they taste good and nutty.

Cut the mushrooms into pieces. Peel the garlic and halve each clove. Heat some olive oil (and a little butter if you like) in a large frypan, and add the mushrooms and garlic. Stir briefly, then leave to sit and cook gently for 5 minutes. Give another stir then leave again. Continue in this way until the mushrooms are deep dark brown and very tasty, about 15 minutes. Season with a little salt and pepper.

Chop the spinach, parsley and oregano leaves. I use lots of parsley, and the leaves from several sprigs of oregano. Tear the radicchio leaves.

Make the dressing by mixing together a little cider vinegar, some olive oil, a dash of walnut oil, and a teaspoon of seed mustard in a little jar. Shake well, until it emulsifies.

Toss together the grain, roast squash, pine nuts, mushrooms, leaves, crumbled feta and dressing. It's best if the grain, mushrooms and squash are still a little warm. Eat at once, preferably with a glass of cider.

Serves 2 generously.

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