Forever fall’n

I have been waiting some time for it to really become autumn, but the seasons don’t seem to do what they’re supposed to be doing these days. First it was too hot, then it was too grey; the week so far has been dense and muggy. We’ve had a few mizzling wet days, but today is the first, I think, that can really be described as crisp, the adjective properly associated with autumn. The trees opposite my house are a bright yellow, and I am contemplating buying more sweaters.

Every cook I know loves autumn. It is a time to get back in the kitchen, after the lazy months of bread and salads, to break the richly muted skins of roots and gourds and stew and braise and roast them. It is a time, most importantly, of lacerating nostalgia – both for the just-dead summer and for Octobers long gone – which is the very best mood in which to cook. It is strange what a couple of bay leaves can conjure out of the past. More fundamentally, it is a time for eating soup.

Making the staff meal at work the other day, I sweated some sweet onion and celery in olive oil, stirred in a little pumpkin puree and some dried chilli, then added a parmesan rind and a quantity of ham hock broth, which puttered away thickly and happily. Half an hour before we ate I added some fregola and the shredded outer leaves of hispi cabbages; fifteen minutes later I took it off the heat and added some croutons, grated cheese, chopped parsley, and quite a lot of black pepper. Soups like this need a little rest.

Now, while this took me minutes to put together, a full recipe for it would seem a daunting prospect; it relies on leftovers and byproducts, the kind common in a commercial kitchen or perhaps in some idealised farmhouse, but less so at home. More achievably, perhaps, the other night I cooked some yellow lentils in a spiced tomato passata (mine was fermented, yours needn’t be) and, separately, some chubby tubes of pasta, putting the two together with some grated kashkaval cheese and a whole pack of spindly rocket, leaving the lot covered for five minutes like a calm risotto before stirring vigorously together so the rocket wilted into a hot and bitter vegetable; I’m not sure if the result was a soup or a pasta dish, but it warmed me right through to the edges.

Quietly Shining

When you step outside to dump yesterday’s coffee grounds, to relieve the dog, to squeeze your curing hams or to otherwise do whatever it is you do first thing in the morning, and you find that the grass crunches underneath your feet and the sharp air catches in your nostril – when, in short, there is every sign that the ministry of frost has been busily fulfilling its duties overnight, it is time to think about boiling bones.

Although the health claims made for bone broth are dubious at best, the Jay Rayners of this world are wrong about one thing – it is not the same as stock. Not at all. A properly made stock has never risen above a simmer; it has been skimmed and pampered its whole life through, and the end result is eerily clear. A soup made with stock, with neatly diced vegetables cooked just-so in it, might be right for a summer day; a good bone broth, never.

I have some pork bones boiling up right now, in with a good smoked gammon hock – and they will be boiled. They will be cooked until the collagen and the fat breaks down and emulsifies with the water, which will be cloudy but glistening and almost tacky to the touch, like the pellicle on the skin of a drying mackerel. You can see, when you make broth, how bones become glue.

Personally, I rarely put in vegetables when I’m boiling ham and bones, though the skins of brown onions give a satisfying colour. As you’re normally doing something else with it, you can add the vegetables then, and give them a fighting chance to retain their integrity; not much outlasts the smoke and salt of a boiling ham hock. Today, when the broth is done I will sweat diced onion and carrots, add some pickled cucumber and its brine, then buckwheat and the broth and finally parsley, great handfuls of parsley and dill, and maybe some soured cream. I’ll share it with some good friends and some good beer, and we will know in our bones that it is cold outside and we are warm.

Quel Outrage!

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The best of summer requires so little in the way of human intervention on its way to the plate that it often seems, by the end of the season, as if I have almost forgotten how to cook. Tomatoes fall apart under the knife, providing their own dressing to soak into yesterday’s bread; slices of cured fish nestle just-so against piles of freshly-picked herbs; torn pieces of greengage and peach drip down the chin and onto the wrist. I’ve gone for months barely chopping an onion – I’m not ready for the endless peeling and dicing of squashes, roots, tubers and stalks, the slow building of flavour through sweating, stirring and braising.

Although the weather still thinks it’s high summer, however, the garden disagrees, and this time of year demands that you at least show willing, perhaps heating a few things together, boiling this, toasting that, moving slowly back from assembling towards cooking; it helps, in this situation, to have a well-stocked cupboard, fridge and freezer. It’s amazing what you can throw together when you’ve spent the last few months squirrelling things away. If you don’t spend your entire life in either a professional or amateur kitchen, then this recipe will take a little more time – in fact, it will become a whole series of recipes. All of them are worth making, though. Sit down with a bowl of this and a glass of rosé and you will have successfully extended summer by another hour.

FERMENTED TOMATO BOUILLABAISSE

To serve 4, or thereabouts

around 2.5 l of good fish stock

8 fermented tomatoes, plus 250ml of their brine

1 tbsp tomato puree

a long splash of absinthe or pernod

a small wine glass of good olive oil

some fish

Basically, you just put all of these things in a pan and boil them, hard. This is to force by violence the oil to emulsify with the other liquids, and is probably the only fish soup to require this treatment. You want to reduce the whole by about half.

I suppose the fish stock is the thing here. Any Marseillaise or probably any other Frenchman, and certainly anyone who has read Elizabeth David, will tell you that it is impossible to make a bouillabaisse outside of that fair port. The variety of fish is key, this soup originally being composed of the tiddlers too small to go to market; the only essential, we’re told, is that is contains scorpion fish, a peculiarly ugly creature which lends, I believe, a certain gelatinous quality to the broth.

To all this I offer an elaborate Gallic shrug. If the real thing is impossible to make, then so be it; we can do as we like. My stock was made with lobster carapaces (although I didn’t, it is quite fun, when making soup, to smash these up with a thumping pole) and cod cheek trimmings, along with several branches of flowering fennel and of sweet cicely. The cartilaginous frames of the various rays do very well in a stock, replacing, perhaps, the aforementioned horror; fishmongers, who normally sell the wings alone, often have several of these quasi-skeletons knocking around in their freezer. The carcasses of whatever fish you intend to use should probably go in, unless they are sardines, herrings or mackerel. What the hell are you doing, putting pelagic fish in a bouillabaisse? Salmon heads, on the other hand, turn the whole a rather lovely shade of coral. At this stage, you don’t want to boil your stock, and neither do you want to cook it for long – a gentle simmer for twenty minutes or so should do nicely.

That’s that, then. The fish depends on how much of a meal you intend to make of it – perhaps a fillet or two of white fish per person, a handful of mussels or clams, whatever. You have already offended the proud Provençal, you might as well carry on. Stick a whole bloody crab in it.

Oh, and you’ll need aioli, rouille, croutons and cheese. Carry on.