Figs have a reputation, and it’s one of those reputations. Sensual, sexy and erotic, there’s a taste of the Garden of Eden in each one. Perhaps it’s the way you scrape the soft, textured flesh away with your teeth, or the fact that their green or black skins conceal such a colourful centre that makes them so alluring.
They have been enjoyed throughout history and have their origins in the Middle East. Their season is fairly short, mid-late summer to mid-autumn, so enjoy them while they last. Then it’s back to dried figs again.
With buying figs it’s a touchy thing. You have to pick them up and give them a careful squeeze, checking for bruised or soft spots. . They should have just a little 'give’. The colour of the skin gives little indication, varying from green, mauve or brown: the centres can differ as widely.
Purchase figs the day you want to eat them for the best results. Store at room temperature and be careful not to squash the fruit by piling them, or anything else, on top. Due to their delicate skins it is worth searching for individually wrapped figs to ensure each one arrives at your table in peak condition.
Some people choose not to eat the skin, it can sometimes be bitter, but it comes down to personal taste. Figs can be eaten with both savoury and sweet condiments.
Serve fig halves spread with mascarpone and wrapped with thin sliced prosciutto.
Grill figs and serve with vanilla ice-cream or toss figs, goat’s cheese and rocket leaves together in a salad. Cut fig in half, top with a splash of sweet wine and serve with vanilla ice-cream. Make fig jam, and extend your enjoyment of them beyond the usual season.
Although nuts are available all year round it’s in autumn that the new season’s crops appear. New seasons almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts are all worth purchasing to use in the months ahead. Ask to try before you buy to be assured of freshness and store nuts in shells in a cool dark place for 6–9 months. Pre-shelled nuts are best bought in small amounts and used quickly to prevent them going rancid.
While most nuts can be enjoyed by simply cracking the shell and eating the sweet fresh nut inside, they are also widely used in cooking. Nuts can be toasted before use to enhance their flavour. Do this either in a preheated medium oven, stirring them often until brown, or in a small pan over a low heat taking care they do not burn. Either way it will take around 5–8 minutes.
Nuts are excellent in nut tarts, usually complemented by autumn fruits, such as apples, pears and quinces, they have great savoury uses as well. Nuts can be added to many salads, scattered into vegetable side dishes and added to rice pilaf and stuffing.
The fresh pistachio nut is quite different from the dried, salted nuts that you can buy pre-packed. Fresh pistachios are soft and milky-sweet with an intensely perfumed aroma. Pistachio praline turns them into a crunchy proposition, ideal for sprinkling over scented milk puddings, tarts, cakes or almost any dessert.
Serve a bowl of fresh pistachios as a nibble with drinks. Add toasted pine nuts, almond flakes or walnut pieces to salads or add crushed nuts to breadcrumbs and use to coat fish or chicken fillets.
The pungent aniseed flavour of fennel is incredibly useful in cooking, although there are many people for whom fennel is just too overpowering. The world it seems is divided into those who love it and those who certainly do not.
Fennel can be thinly sliced and used in salads where it brings a great natural freshness and crunch. It is also excellent added to soups, especially vegetable and fish soups, where cooking transforms fennel from an intense taste to a mild and gentle one.
No matter if it is raw or cooked fennel is best used in smallish quantities as it can easily dominate a dish when used with too heavy a hand. Fennel bulbs come into season in autumn and continue through winter, though baby fennel bulbs are often available throughout summer.
Buy fennel bulbs with their feather like tops still attached as a sign of freshness. Make sure the bulb is not damaged or discoloured. A sweet smell, rather than a bitter aniseed aroma should be apparent..
Store in the crisper section of the refrigerator for 2–3 days. To prepare fennel it is a matter of following the directions a recipe gives you, and cutting bulb accordingly. Usually the bulb is cut in half and the bitter core removed using a small knife. If eating fennel raw it is important to slice or dice it as finely as possible or the aniseed flavour will dominate everything else.
Fennel goes well with other strongly flavoured foods. Add diced fennel to soups and braises. Fennel slices can be blanched briefly in boiling water to reduce its aniseed pungency. Top blanched fennel slices with cheese sauce, sprinkle with breadcrumbs, cook under a grill and serve as a gratin or lay blanched fennel pieces in a casserole dish, cover with fresh tomato sauce and bake for 20 minutes.
Fennel is also excellent stewed with red capsicum, herbs and olive oil until it softens and breaks down like caramelised onions. This is great served with grilled fish or pasta. Add sliced fennel to rocket and radicchio salad and toss with a sherry vinegar dressing.
Leeks are the mild flavoured members of the onion family. Smoother, longer and somehow more sophisticated than regular onions they add a delicate touch wherever they are used. An excellent use for leeks is in stocks and soups where they combine with other vegetables and herbs to create a strong flavour base.
Leeks will keep in a cool, dark place for 2–3 days or for 4–5 days in the crisper section of the refrigerator. It makes good sense to remove the green tops to make storage easier. Use the green top for stock; an easy vegetable stock can be made with leek and celery tops, chopped onion and some chopped carrot.
To prepare leeks for cooking they require a good wash to remove dirt. Remove and discard outside skins and the dark green tops from leeks.
Spilt in half lengthways then rinse well under running cold water and drain well to remove excess water.
Leeks respond well to long slow cooking methods, rather than short sharp frying. As many recipes call for leeks to be cooked in butter, always take care to cook over low heat to prevent burning. Leeks can be substituted in any recipe that calls for onions, but they usually take longer to cook.
Leeks can also be used in dairy-based dishes such as goat’s cheese tarts or with cream based pasta sauces. They are also matched deliciously in chicken and leek pies. Braised leeks are wonderful side dish and should be cooked more often, and perhaps served alongside a roast. Baby leeks are excellent to serve in this way as they cook quite quickly and are a good size for the plate.
Make a classic leek and potato soup or add diced leek to risotto and pasta sauces in place of onions. Braise leeks in an ovenproof dish for an hour or two with white wine, butter, garlic and lashings of chopped parsley or serve braised leeks under pan-fried fish.