Cooking with Autumn & Winter Produce
Autumn is a time of sheer abundance: a vibrant season bursting with colour and flavour. It’s no surprise that many chefs claim autumn is their favourite season of the year, as they reap the rewards of their sumptuous harvest, which ripens and develops in the warmth of summer. The peak of the summer heat gives way to cooler, crisper days and the days gradually shorten to make room for longer nights. This is the season to say goodbye to summer stone fruits and berries and say hello to an abundance of apples, pears, figs and nuts that are bursting forth right under your nose.
When it comes to cooking, it’s important to eat with the seasons. Not only is it better for the environment, but it also supports local communities and benefits your purse, too. Produce that is in season will be harvested at its peak at the time of ripening, making it ideal for cooking because it is full of nutrition and flavour. As long as you’re buying local, the produce has fewer food miles since it minimises travel time between farm to plate, whereas produce that is not in season is often harvested before the full ripening process has occurred. These fruits and vegetables are often stored and cooled to slow the ripening process, before they are transported to stores and are available for sale.
To eat smart, it’s essential to know when produce is at its peak throughout the year so you can shop seasonally whenever possible. Of course, there are regional differentiations, so this is a broad guide only. Even in autumn there are seasons within seasons and different months see the peak of different produce. The early harvest in March is full of the likes of plums, peas, apples, figs and persimmons, while April sees wild mushrooms and nuts flourish. The late autumnal harvest is different again, boasting plenty of gourmet goodies like quinces, carrots, celery, parsnips, rhubarb and Brussels sprouts. If you can’t grow your own at home, your local farmers’ market is a great place to experiment with different produce and find out what’s in season.
Whether you’re making a pumpkin pie or an apple cobbler, here’s a guide to some of the best gourmet goodies you can enjoy during the autumn harvest.
Although apple season in Australia officially starts in summer, autumn is the peak of the season. This is the perfect time to experiment with different varieties of apples, all of which boast different flavour profiles and textures. The harvest starts with the Royal Gala (usually available from February), quickly followed by the Fuji, Golden Delicious, Jonathan, Granny Smith and Pink Lady. One of the newest members of the apple family to hit shelves recently is the Jazz Apple, a cross between the Braeburn and Gala, which is deliciously crunchy and sweet. Next time you shop, look for firm apples without bruises. Good storage in a cool, dark place is also essential to keep apples crisp, since warm and humid temperatures usually cause them to turn stodgy and soft. Alternatively, experience picking apples straight from the source at your local orchard: those on the outside of the tree are usually the ripest.
Apples are an ideal snack but are wonderful baked in comfort food like apple pies, muffins and strudels or gently poached on top of your morning porridge. On the savoury side, apple pairs beautifully with roast pork or a crisp textural side like a slaw. They also make an ideal stuffing for your next roast chicken or Christmas turkey.
This nutritious superfood is a popular vegetable all year round; however, they shine the most in autumn when they are plentiful and sourced locally. Kumara, known for its orange skin, is the most popular variety, but it’s worth experimenting with lesser-known types like the heirloom, white and red sweet potatoes. It’s best to select sweet potatoes that look firm, are as smooth as possible and have an evenly coloured skin. Like apples they are best stored in a dark, dry place.
Sweet potatoes are one of the most versatile vegetables going around: they are delicious steamed, roasted, mashed and stuffed. Try cutting them into thin slices and layering them in an oven-baked gratin, baked into wedges with a little sea salt, pan-fried as fritters or just simply roasted in the oven with a sticky maple glaze. They are also delicious in an autumnal soup, in a coconut curry or stuffed with chickpeas as “jacket potatoes” drizzled with a tahini dressing.
Hail the humble quince! These “golden apples” of Greek mythology are one of the earliest known fruits. They look a little like a cross between an apple and a pear, but their similarities stop there. Unlike apples and pears, quinces are generally inedible raw even when ripe. The beauty of quince lies in its sweet fragrance when it’s cooked as its hard flesh softens, gently blushes and becomes beautifully sweet.
Quinces can be used for so much more than just an accompaniment on a cheese platter. Since quinces have a high pectin content, a naturally occurring starch, they are ideal for pastes, jams and jellies. Try slow cooking, baking or pickling them in honey. One of the easiest ways to cook with quinces is poaching them in a delicious blend of spices and a touch of honey. On the savoury side, quince pairs beautifully with meaty dishes including lamb, turkey and duck. For the ultimate autumnal comfort food, substitute the usual apples with quinces in your next crumble or cobbler.
The falling of autumnal leaves also celebrates the start of the pear season. Sweet and tender William pears are usually the first pears to ripen in the season, followed by the brown Beurre Bosc and Packham. Don’t ignore the lesser-known pears which shine in their own right including the Nashi and Corella, a small pear with a sweet flavour. Choose pears that are firm and slightly swollen and plump in appearance — they are usually the juiciest.
If eaten at the right time, pears are so juicy and delicious to eat on their own. They are also the perfect accomplice for a flaky filo tart, galette or upside-down cake. Try poaching them with brown sugar, cinnamon and saffron and serve them on a bed of mascarpone, or for a simple show-stopping dessert, poached in red wine or cranberry to achieve the most beautiful reddish/purple hue. On the savoury side, try serving them with rocket and parmesan in a salad or teamed with gorgonzola and caramelised onion on a home baked pizza. Nashi pears are perfect for Asian cuisine, in a salad or a crispy slaw.
Is there anything sweeter than biting into the soft flesh of a fig on a crisp autumnal day? The limited season of the fig makes it so much more tempting. Figs are abundant during autumn and are packed full of vitamins and minerals.
Figs can be eaten raw and are equally delicious poached or baked. Add them to a salad complemented by buffalo mozzarella and prosciutto with a drizzle of balsamic dressing, or on a wood-fired pizza with gorgonzola. On the sweeter side, they are lovely accompaniment to a panna cotta with a drizzle of honey, or to naturally sweeten your morning porridge or muesli.
If you haven’t already, autumn is the time to jump on the mushie bandwagon. Get experimental and work your way through the different varieties of wild mushrooms ranging from Porcini and Slippery Jacks to Milk Caps. Nothing screams autumn more like mushroom picking! Scrub up on your mushroom knowledge and experience picking mushrooms first-hand with some foraging — just be sure to take an expert with you so you don’t pick the poisonous ones.
Mushrooms are particularly popular for a plant-based diet, since they are a great alternative to meat due to their “meaty” texture and umami profile. They are perfect for comfort cooking and are delicious grilled, sautéed and oven-baked. Think mushrooms braised in a white wine and garlic sauce on a luscious bed of pappardelle or polenta, wild mushroom risotto with shaved parmesan and truffle or just roasted or pan-fried with a splash of extra-virgin olive oil.
Unfortunately, persimmons are one of the most overlooked fruits. But this not so trendy fruit is so versatile for both sweet and savoury recipes. There are two main varieties: the original persimmon, well known to older generations, is a large heart-shaped fruit, ranging in colour from pale to a deeper orange; and the sweet persimmon, also known as the Fuyu Fruit, is round with a slightly flattened top. The original version is far too astringent when eaten too early and needs to be harvested once fully ripened when the flesh is soft and sweet. The sweet persimmon is a non-astringent version and can be eaten when crisp and crunchy and has an edible peel.
This fruit can be eaten like an apple or whipped up in a homemade jam or compote or added to a cake or even bread. It provides a lovely texture and sweetness in an autumnal salad.
From the sweet butternut pumpkin to the big Queensland blue, pumpkins are abundant in autumn and are a must-have in your kitchen pantry. Is there anything more comforting than a big bowl of pumpkin soup on a crisp autumnal day? Think beyond pumpkin soup and get creative in the kitchen: pumpkin-stuffed ravioli with burnt butter and sage, pumpkin pie and stuffed whole pumpkins with lentils, nuts and a myriad of spices.
Pumpkin is usually reserved for savoury dishes, but get experimental and try a pumpkin pie or even pumpkin-spiced muffins or cookies. The list is endless.
Apple and Cinnamon Muffins
- 115g unsalted butter, melted
- ⅔ cup brown sugar
- ¾ cup milk
- 2 eggs, lightly whisked
- 2 apples, peeled, cored & chopped
- 2 cups flour (plain or wholemeal), sifted
- 1 tbsp baking powder
- 2 tsp cinnamon
- Pinch salt
- 1 apple, unpeeled & sliced
- Preheat oven to 190ºC.
- Whisk together the butter and brown sugar in a large mixing bowl, then add the milk and eggs and whisk gently. Gently fold in the apples. In a separate bowl, combine the rest of the dry ingredients and gradually add them to the milk mixture, using a large spoon until just combined, ensuring not to overmix.
- Spoon mixture evenly into 12 non-stick muffin tins, then place two small slices of apple on top of the batter of each muffin.
- Bake for 15–20 mins until cooked through and slightly golden.
- Cool in the muffin tin then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
Sweet Potato, Peanut and Coconut Curry
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 brown onion, finely diced
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2–3cm fresh ginger, grated
- 1 tsp ground turmeric
- 3 tbsp Thai red curry paste
- 400g tin diced tomatoes
- 400g tin coconut milk
- 3 tbsp smooth peanut butter
- 1 tbsp brown sugar
- Juice 1 lime
- Salt & pepper, to season
- 2 sweet potatoes, peeled & diced
- 1 red capsicum, deseeded & sliced
- 400g tin chickpeas, rinsed & drained
- 120g baby spinach
- Coriander, red chilli, extra peanuts and rice to serve
- Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium–high heat, then add the onion and cook for 4–5 mins until soft. Add the garlic and ginger and cook for 1 min until aromatic, then stir in the turmeric and red curry paste and allow the flavours to develop for another 1–2 mins.
- Add the diced tomatoes and two cups of water (or stock) and bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to simmer and add the coconut milk, peanut butter, brown sugar and lime. Season to taste.
- Add the sweet potato and capsicum and cook for 10–15 mins. Once the sweet potato is tender add the chickpeas and baby spinach and cook until the spinach has just wilted.
- Serve immediately with fresh coriander, chilli, extra peanuts and rice.
Easy Apple Tart
Makes: 1 tart
- 1 packet sweet shortcrust pastry
- 6 large apples, peeled, quartered & cored
- 3 tbsp brown sugar
- 1 tbsp water
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- Seeds from one vanilla pod
- 15g butter
- 1 tsp lemon juice
- 1 tbsp melted butter
- 2–3 tbsp apricot jam
- Preheat oven to 180ºC fan-forced. Line a 20cm tart tin with the pastry and gently press down on the sides and remove the overhang with a sharp knife. Using a fork, indent the sides of the pastry slightly to create a pattern.
- Cover the pastry with baking paper and top with baking beads (or dried rice or lentils) and blind-bake in the oven for 8–10 mins. Remove the beads and baking paper and bake for another 5–10 minutes until slightly golden.
- While the pastry is cooking, make the filling. Slice 4 of the apples into thick wedges and place in a saucepan with sugar, water, cinnamon, vanilla and butter. Bring the mixture to the boil, then reduce the heat and cook until apples have softened, adding a little more water if necessary. Remove from the heat and mash gently, then allow to cool slightly before placing in the pastry base.
- Slice the other two apples thinly. Place in a bowl and mix with lemon juice so they don’t brown. Arrange the apple slices concentrically in circles around the tart, overlapping each one slightly, then brush the top with melted butter.
- Bake for approximately 30 mins until apple is cooked and starts to go slightly golden.
- Once the tart is cooked, brush with a little apricot jam to give it a lovely glaze. Serve immediately while warm.
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