Autumn is here in force - it's chilly, rain-swept and equinoctial winds are hustling the leaves off the trees before they have even changed colour properly. My friend Angela of Collected Yarns in Texas has been longing for rain and cooler temperatures but I would happily have a few days of her heat in the nineties. I think the poor English summer means I have a feeling of having been cheated of my rightful dues in terms of sunshine and warmth.
One of the things that is good, however, about Autumn is the change in mood of what's cooking in the kitchen. Soup again figures prominently. Savoury muffins, golden with cornmeal and with a kick of heat, seem the ideal accompaniment to soups and stews and I find myself hunting out recipes that are aromatically fragrant with head-clearing spices. Flapjack and dark, sticky gingerbread are lining up to elbow out the muffins bursting with summer fruits and the scones and sponges sandwiched with summery jam of recent months.
My shopping list no longer features pomegranates, celery, broccoli, monkey nuts, sunflower seeds and other bird food, as my parrot guest has now returned home, leaving a handful of fluffy, bright green feathers, a wall spattered with ruby-coloured pomegranate juice that won't come off, (even with the vicious application of a scouring pad,) and a gaping hole in the household. I miss him a lot.
Anyway I digress. In place of bird food on my list, is fall food - orange pumpkins, burgundy-skinned onions, bright yellow cornmeal, burnt orange cayenne pepper and paprika, smoky-red, hot chilli powder, soft ochre-coloured ground ginger, earth-toned ground cloves and dark soft brown muscovado sugar, golden syrup and pale-toast-coloured oats.
Some of these ingredients have been turned into Nigella Lawson's Guinness Gingerbread, from her book, "Kitchen".
I only ever buy Guinness to cook with, which is probably a bit of a solecism. But while I certainly wouldn't give you a thank you for a pint, or even half a pint, of the stuff to drink, my goodness, it makes great cake! (and beef casserole incidentally!) Nigella's Guinness Gingerbread is very good indeed - dark, aromatic and surprisingly light-textured. In fact, her book, "Kitchen", all told, is very good indeed - if you don't possess a copy, hie thee to Amazon and order one, or put it on your Christmas list!
Some of the other ingredients on my list have been turned into the following soup and muffins which are my own recipes. I love this kind of food - it's cheap, entirely good for you and very delicious!
Roasted Pumpkin and Tomato* Soup
I always roast pumpkin before using it, as it intensifies the flavour beautifully. Otherwise it can be a bit bland. It's also an easy way to prepare it. The tomatoes* add a welcome note of sharpness which works really well with the gentler pumpkin and they deepen the colour to something that is the essence of a Flaming Fall. Cheerful and warming for chilly autumn days, such as are now upon us.
*Edited as of 14/10/12 to add that as an alternative to the tomatoes, Anne of Life In Mud Spattered Boots has come up with an even better and more quintessentially autumn alternative - rose hip purée, which works in exactly the same way as the tomatoes do, in cutting the blandness of the pumpkin - I love this idea and have to try it if only for the sheer delight of announcing that what is on the table is Pumpkin and Rosehip Soup! Have a look at Anne's post here for her instructions.
What you need:
I small pumpkin
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 tbsp olive oil
1 large tin of chopped tomatoes
1 l vegetable stock (or boiling water)
freshly ground black pepper (and salt if you want)
What you do:
Preheat the oven to 180 - 190 C. Hack the pumpkin into about six or eight wedges. Using a small sharp knife cut away the seeds and pith from each wedge and place the wedges in a roasting tin.
Roast the wedges for about an hour. Remove and set aside to cool sufficiently to handle without burning your fingers.
Heat the olive oil in a pan and add the onion. Cook gently until well-softened. Now take your pumpkin wedges and peel away the skin which should come away nice and easily. Use a knife to scrape away any flesh stuck to the skin, so you don't miss any. Cut the now beautifully soft and melting pumpkin flesh up roughly and add to the pan along with the tomatoes, stock (or water) and seasoning. Bring to the boil and simmer gently for ten minutes or so in an ordinary pan, or pressure cook under pressure for five minutes. Allow to cool a smidgeon and then whizz to a beautiful, deep, burnt orange-coloured purée in a blender.
Serve with bread or these spiced cornmeal muffins which I love with soup.
The idea for these came from my friend, Victoria in Tennessee, who mentioned that her mother always made cornbread muffins "with a bit of sweet and heat" whenever she was a child and had a cold. She adjusted the amount of heat by eye, depending on how much head-clearing was required. Capsaicin, the hot substance in peppers and chillies is sometimes used in commercial cold cure preparations for its decongestant properties but I'd rather have my capsaicin in cooking than in pills, any day!
The recipe is my own - the conflation of a number of different ones, culled from my cookery books and the Internet and seasoned with Victoria's expert advice. It's a doddle to make and SO good! Thank you, Victoria, so much for the idea - it is now firmly entrenched in my autumn and winter repertoire of recipes.
I began cautiously with the amount of heat and would advise you to proceed similarly - we are after hot and spicy here, not baby furnaces to blow your socks off and the strength and heat of chilli powders do vary quite a bit from brand to brand. 1/2 tsp of ground cayenne pepper or chilli powder will give you a warm glow but not take your head off. Stay in the kitchen and use more if you can stand the heat! Like all muffins and cornbread, they are best eaten fresh and warm from the oven but they freeze beautifully so if you want to make them in advance, or have some left over, just freeze and defrost as required.
Chilli Kickin' Cornmeal Muffins
What you need:
1 cup plain white flour
1cup cornmeal / polenta
1 tsp salt*
2 tsps baking powder
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1/2 - 3/4 tsp cayenne pepper or chilli powder or a mixture of both
1 cup wholemilk yoghurt
1/4 cup olive oil
2 large hens' (or 4 bantam) eggs
1 tbsp runny honey
*Cornbread, I find, really does need enough salt or it can taste rather bland so, although this is more salt than I would normally use in something like this, I think it needs it. If you normally use quite a bit of salt in your cooking you might even want a tad more.
What you do:
Preheat the oven to 190 - 200 C. Line a muffin tin with muffin papers. I find the mixture makes ten rather than twelve, reasonably-sized but not enormous, muffins, but you can eke it out to stretch to a dozen if you want to.
Mix the flour, cornmeal / polenta, salt, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and spice in a big bowl.
Whisk the yoghurt, oil, honey and eggs together in a jug. Pour into the dry ingredients and mix.
Spoon into the waiting muffin cases and bake for about 25 minutes until well-risen and bright, golden yellow.
(And if you have a cold, let that good old capsaicin get to work and clear your head!)
And incidentally, if you love cornbread, then Angela has a delicious version for a single batch recipe rather than individual muffins, on her blog here. It is cooked in a beautiful, timeless, cast-iron skillet and has a crispy crust to die for, sizzled in bacon fat, mmmm - you have been warned!