Indian summer hasn’t materialised and London is gently drifting towards autumn. The last runner bean and courgette have been picked and spiders abound, swinging their nets across the garden so that you have to duck to reach the verging on empty wood store.
I am not quite ready for Keat’s season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. I wanted one more chance to barbecue the squirrel sitting waiting in the freezer, and pile the coals with fresh local corn wrapped in their husks. It’s not to be. The Met Office has already named the first storm of the year, and the NHS are already warning about flu jabs. It is time to light the fire, break out the woollen rugs and think about warming meals.
When I moved to London proper – from an outer ‘burb’ – in early 1989, the hallowed doors of the River Café in Hammersmith had been open for just eighteen months. Not that I knew that at the time, as I was too busy settling in with three children and a career taking off in technology. It was a few years before the rumour mill wafted news of the wonderful Italian cooking of Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers to my outpost in North Kensington. However, these murmurings of culinary greatness first reached my son at Bristol university. His interest in food was, and still is, legendary. He was renowned for his refusal to step over the threshold of a fast food establishment, instead leading his friends into the French bistro chain, Café Rouge. His Christmas present to me in 1995 was the first blue River Café Cook Book.
It was an eye opening introduction to real Italian flavours and food, not just the ubiquitous pizza or spaghetti bolognaise. I liked the importance that the River Café chefs placed on quality produce, linked with seasonality. West London at the time was blessed with small independent food suppliers, as well as the weekly appearance of vegetable stalls in Portobello Road. Finding great ingredients at the right time of the year was never a problem. But it was my introduction to polenta that had a lasting impact. I had never been a potato or pasta fan so polenta soon became my carbohydrate of choice, served wet with rivers of butter and parmesan cheese, or baked into a lemon drizzle cake – unadulterated bliss!
By the time I visited the Hammersmith restaurant, five or so years later, I was already in possession of the yellow River Café Book Two, with its emphasis on vegetarian dishes and on the hitherto unknown technique (to me) of wood roasting. My first visit wasn’t a disappointment. We sat near enough to the mouth of the wood burning oven to watch as still steaming plates of colourful roasted vegetables were carried to the tables – zucchini, aubergine, tiny cherry tomatoes drizzled with oil, herbs, and seasoning – the aroma was extraordinary, as was the taste.
The sad fact is, that as much as I would like a wood oven in the back garden to enable me to cook my vegetables this way, there isn’t room. Our 20ft by 20ft shady back ‘yard’ is already rather cramped with a very tall shed and the essential wood store. Fortunately, the same effect can be achieved in a domestic oven, by ratcheting up the temperature and tray baking the vegetables on a lower shelf. They still taste delicious, but you miss out on the enhancing smell of wood smoke – hmm – I feel the need for a bigger garden coming on.
I often combine these two autumnal favourites of polenta and roasted vegetables with slow roasted stews, herby sausages or just gamey meat served sizzling from under the grill.
Creamy Polenta and Oven Roasted Vegetables
This serves three. Preparation time is about forty minutes
117gms organic Bramanta polenta flour
Sea salt and freshly ground white pepper (I prefer not to have little black specks, but not essential)
50gms slightly salted butter
68gms freshly grated parmesan
Measure the polenta into a jug, so that you can pour in a controlled stream.
Boil the water in a kettle, then measure out 800mls into a heavy pan, keeping the rest of the water in reserve. Bring to the boil and add a good pinch of salt. Lower to a simmer and pour the polenta in, slowly whisking all the time. Whisk until it is all blended when it will start bubbling like a volcano. Lower the heat as much as you can – if you have one of those heat diffuser mats great – if not just stir regularly with a wooden spoon and add in a splash or two of the excess water if it starts sticking. This will take about 35-40 mins to thicken properly into a deep yellow and grainy porridge. Stir in the parmesan and butter and season to taste.
Oven Roasted Vegetables
You can make up your own mix of vegetables to roast – fennel, carrots, parsnips all work very well. I normally include courgettes but at the time of writing my garden stock was over and I couldn’t find any in the local supermarket.
1 aubergine, sliced into thick discs
14 or so small cherry tomatoes – halve if big
2 medium shallots, skinned and sliced lengthways
1 green or yellow pepper chopped large (contrast colours with other veg)
1tbs dried oregano
1tbs fresh thyme in small sprigs
3 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Preheat the oven to 220C/425F/Gas7. Use a separate tray for the aubergine if possible as it takes longer to cook. Lightly brush the aubergine with oil on both sides. Scatter with half the dried oregano, half a smashed garlic clove, and season. Bake for about 10 mins. Turn over and season the other side with oregano, garlic, salt and pepper. Return to the oven with the other vegetables.
Whilst the aubergine slices are in the oven for the first bake, lay out the other vegetables on a baking tray, drizzle with oil, and scatter with the thyme, the rest of the garlic and season.
Place both trays in the oven for 15 – 20 mins. The vegetables should look soft and a bit crisp around the edges.
If you have any left over, this is wonderful cold, tossed with a light vinaigrette.