Just like that, September is upon us. Suddenly I’m scouring the hedgerows for blackberries and detouring to the village orchard to see if the apples and pears are out. They are!
In the early years of moving to England, September was always accompanied by a little dread. It signalled darker days and the inescapable approach of yet another winter. I’ve been living in England for close on a decade now, and the time has taught me some wisdom on coping with September blues.
First of all “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes”. I first arrived here in the depths of winter with a coat bought in Johannesburg, and made for the sunny, positively blissful Highveld winters. It did little to keep me warm while dodging puddles on icy English mornings. All too often I found myself shivering on station platforms, vowing to return to the southern hemisphere. Since then I’ve learnt the value of a proper winter coat and good shoes.
Secondly, over time I’ve come to savour what this new season has to offer. Gone are the languorous days of summer, and in their place something altogether cosier. Digging out our knitwear for morning walks, which are now a little frosty. Making this year’s batch of sloe gin, while taking surreptitious swigs of last year’s brew. Stocking up the woodshed ready for the first fire of the season. Popping a stew on the stove and letting it bubble away for hours. These little things somehow make autumn more bearable, almost enjoyable. In fact, it’s on it way to becoming my favourite season of all.
As I sit at my desk on an early Friday morning, sipping yet another coffee, boisterous little children are running past the window on their way to the village school. Their uniforms freshly pressed and their shoes perfectly polished, ready for the new school year. Their eager faces are alive in anticipation of what’s to come and in many ways I feel just like them. September is a month of fresh possibilities, and this year even more so, with the imminent addition to our little family. There is vague anxiety as we dutifully spend our Saturdays painting the nursery and making our way through baby check lists; but there is also a real sense of excitement. We’re teetering on the precipice of an almighty life-changing event. This is a new beginning like no other. The start of a little life and the many joys and tribulations that come with it.
I’ve heard rumours that new parents barely have enough time to shower, let alone cobble together a meal. So last weekend I scrubbed down our old wooden table, dug out the bone-handled cutlery and good napkins, popped a chicken in the oven and whipped up a pear tart. It was a lunch to celebrate September. We ate, drank and chatted well into the evening, and toasted on more than one occasion, to “glorious new beginnings”.
Simple Roast Chicken
For something that’s considered to be an easy, bung in the oven recipe, roast chicken is notoriously easy to get wrong. It’s always a battle to achieve perfectly crispy skin and delicately tender meat. All too often it’s one or the other. I’ve gradually learnt that perfecting ones roast chicken has more to do with understanding the quirks of ones oven than anything else. That aside, there are a few little tips I’ve picked up for a good roast chicken
- Always buy the best quality bird you can afford.
- Always make sure your chicken is at room temperature before you start cooking.
- Lather the chicken with oil or butter, and season generously.
- Try very hard not to over-cook your bird. A thermometer is useful.
- Don’t under-estimate the importance of letting the chicken rest after cooking.
Any other tips are most welcome!
Ingredients (serves 4)
1 x Whole free range chicken
1 x lemon, halved
a bunch of thyme
1 X garlic head, halved
Salt and Pepper
Remove the chicken from the fridge an hour before cooking to allow it to come to room temperature. Preheat the oven to 190°C.
Place the chicken in a large roasting tray. Put the lemon and garlic into the cavity, followed by the bunch of thyme. Drizzle the chicken all over with olive oil, rubbing it into the skin and making sure it reaches all the corners. Season generously with salt and pepper.
You will need to cook the chicken for 20 minutes per pound, and an extra 15 minutes for luck. If at any point during cooking it looks like the skin is getting a little too burnt, cover the chicken loosely with tin foil and continue cooking.
The chicken is ready when the juices run clear between the leg and the body. Lately I’ve taken to using a thermometer, just to be sure. It should be over 72°C.
Cover the chicken with foil and leave to rest for at least 20 minutes before serving. Reserve the drippings for gravy.
A few years ago I ran a weekly supper club with a great friend of mine. We hosted it in her tiny top floor flat, squeezing all our guests around a little wooden table. It was some of the greatest fun I’ve ever had in the kitchen. We learnt so much, made heaps of mistakes, and most importantly laughed ourselves senseless. Our guests included people from all walks of life, but as diverse as they were, they all shared an unbridled passion for food. This dauphinois potato recipe was a staple on our menu and a real crowd- pleaser. We used to serve it with lamb, but its fabulous with chicken too.
Ingredients (serves 4):
3 large Maris Piper potatoes
3 cloves of garlic, skinned
300ml double cream
1 knob of salted butter
freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp ground nutmeg
Drop two cloves of garlic, chopped in half, into your pot of cream and leave overnight, or for as long as possible. This step is by no means essential if you don’t have time.
Preheat the oven to 190C. Chop the third clove of garlic in half and rub it around your heatproof dish, followed by a generous layer of butter.
Peel and grate the potatoes, and rinse through a sieve under cold water to get rid of the starch. Leave to drain fully.
Put all of the grated potato into your greased dish, grind plenty of fresh black pepper on the top, sprinkle over the nutmeg and then pour the cream (less the chopped garlic) evenly over the potato.
Bake for about 40 minutes, until golden brown and bubbly. Serve straight away.
Honey Roasted Vegetables
This autumnal recipe is inspired by the talented Gill Meller. His book, Gather, is a stunning collection of recipes, and I find myself getting caught up in its pages again and again. I love the addition of blackberries, not only do they look beautiful, but they add wonderful flavour too.
Ingredients (serves 4):
4 parsnips, quartered lengthways and cored
10 baby carrots,
1 tbsp runny honey
1 tbsp apple cider vinegar
3 tbsp olive oil
2 or 3 sprigs of thyme
freshly ground salt and black pepper
blackberries and a few sprigs of thyme to serve.
Preheat the oven to 190°C. Place the parsnips and carrots on a roasting tray. Drizzle over the olive oil, honey and cider vinegar, and toss to coat. Season with freshly ground salt and black pepper and roast for 40 minutes, tossing again halfway through cooking.
Remove from the oven, scatter over the blackberries and fresh thyme sprigs.
Pear Frangipane Tart
This is a favourite dinner party recipe as it’s so easy to make in advance. I’m always a fan of less stress in the kitchen. There’s nothing worse than slaving over a hot stove, while one’s guests are having all the fun. Pears and almonds are a classic combination. I like to serve this with a big dollop of mascarpone or crème fraiche. It’s delicious the next day too.
(Enough for a 25cm round tart tin)
For the pastry
450g plain/strong white flour
140g icing sugar
225g unsalted butter, chilled and cubed
1 egg, beaten
For the frangipane
2 large eggs
100g unsalted butter
100g caster sugar
100g ground almonds
70g self-raising flour
2 drops almond essense (optional)
2-3 large pears, cored and thinly sliced
Apricot glaze (optional)
To make the pastry (ready-made short crust pastry is fine for this recipe too) rub the flour, icing sugar and butter together in large bowl until it resembles breadcrumbs (You could also do this in a food processor). Add the beaten egg, along with 1 tbsp cold water. Mix together with a table knife. Bring the dough together and knead lightly to create a ball. Wrap in Clingfilm and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
Roll out the pastry thinly on a cool, lightly floured surface and line the tart tin, pressing the pastry into the sides. Evenly prick the pastry base a few times with a fork, then place in the fridge or freezer for a further 30 minutes.
When you’re ready to bake your shell, preheat the oven to 190C/375C/Gas mark 5. Blind bake the shell for 15 minutes, remove the baking beans and parchment, reduce the heat to 160C and return to the oven for 10 minutes. Leave to cook on a wire wrack until required.
To make the frangipane, beat the egg lightly in a jug, place the jug in a basin of hot water to warm the egg through. In a food processor, whizz the butter until creamy, then add the sugar and whizz until the mixture is pale and fluffy. Add the almonds and whizz until combined. Pour in the warmed egg in a slow, steady stream. Pulse in the flour and the almond essence, if using. It should have formed a paste; it doesn’t matter if the almonds are slightly gritty.
Spread the frangipane over the base of the pastry shell. Fan the pear slices over the top. Bake for 45-50 minutes, until the frangipane is cooked through.
I like to brush my tart with a little apricot glaze, but this is optional and a dusting of icing sugar will suffice.