Purple prose

William Clement 26 October 2009

The vibrant colours of late autumn speak as much for the time of year as its abundance of seasonal ingredients. This week William Clement finds inspiration in purple.

I hope I don’t get too exuberant and flowery in my descriptions – because I know I’m a bit like that. Especially when it comes to food. What seems, to me at least, to be vibrant moments of sensuous experience captured in stirring and impressionistic prose, reads, I imagine, like so much drivel. Nonetheless. Plough on.

The time of year is without doubt my favourite. We’re far off the gloom of the early New Year, but it’s getting properly wintry and there’s a hopeful and not too distant scent of Christmas cooking in the air. Of course, it’s hard not to feel favourably towards those late winter days when there’s a chance layer of crunchy snow, or to spring when the first primroses appear, or to summer when the sun makes a dozen kind of soft berries lyrically warm and sweet and you can sit by the river drinking Pimms.

But no. There is something brilliant about late autumn. A new kind of clearer, colder air makes the sunlight more penetrative. It’s not just that the colours are different from the ones that predominated a couple of months ago; they’re differently illuminated. I was floundering a little for something to write about this week – stuck between the autumn fruits I’ve covered in the last three and the inevitable pumpkin of the next – but a visit to the market was enough inspiration: an abundance of things in purple.

There were the roots: deep, red-purple beetroots, those strange knobbly purple potatoes (which when cooked are quite floury and are therefore ideal for baking in their skins or mashing) and turnips with their violet blush. There were the leaves and brassicas: purple sprouting broccoli, red cabbages, radicchio, purple kale and chards in various shocking shades. Then there were the not so seasonal but still lovely aubergines. The kinds you find in the supermarket are absolutely fine, too, but I was quite taken with the etched stripes of these. A little pyramid stack of them on my mantelpiece looked so good it seemed sacrilege to cut into them and cook them as they’d lose some of their lustre.

Nonetheless aubergine is a lovely thing, not just to look at – and not just as an auxiliary. They often get a bit lost (though they’re absolutely essential) among the other strong tastes of moussaka or ratatouille. A salad of grilled aubergine – a sponge for good olive oil – shows off the cooked vegetable’s smoky creaminess. Melanzane alla parmigiana with just mozzarella and a light tomato sauce leaves room for the melanzane to taste of itself. Aubergine is always a good thing to serve with lamb, particularly a generous serving of poor man’s caviar with a couple of lamb chops, cooked just pink.

I happened to have some duck breasts this week. The rest of the recipes are good things to go with duck, each countering its gorgeous richness without overpowering it.

Roasted beetroot is quite different from the boiled and pickled kind.  Roasting it intensifies its sweetness and seems to make its also intensified earthiness acceptable to people who don’t usually care for it.

Radicchio is another difficult taste, being distinctly bitter, but again, caramelised with butter they contrast with the sweetness of the beetroot. Also with the next dish of braised red cabbage – which is perhaps the best, certainly my favourite, accompaniment to duck. The smell of it cooking is delicious: throat-catching vinegar, sugar, apples and strong herbs.

To cook the duck, slash the skin a few times in a crosshatch to let the fat escape. Salt generously and cook skin-side down in a dry, medium hot pan – the fat which comes out of the duck will be plenty to cook it in – until the skin is golden and the breasts are half cooked-through.

You can see by eye where the flesh has cooked. Turn the breasts over and finish the cooking to your taste. Allow five minutes for the meat to relax, and then deglaze the pan with some dry sherry. Add a little salt and this is enough for the sauce. (Or simplify the bigarade -type sauce: grate in a little zest of orange, its juice, and a little gastrique of sugar and vinegar.)

If you’re hungry all you’ll need otherwise is some mashed potatoes. Go overboard, use the purple ones.


Salad of grilled aubergine

Aubergines are surprisingly resistant things; I don’t find salting necessary but it does have the advantage of breaking them down. Cut into third-of-an-inch slices lengthways. Cook in a dry pan or grill without oil until they are soft and taking a good dark colour. It is best to cook them quite slowly. Lay them on a large, attractive plate. Pour good olive oil very generously over the slices. They’ll soak it up, which is what makes them glorious, so don’t be mean. Crumble over some feta. Grate over some lemon zest and spritz its juice too. Sometimes parsley or coriander feels in order. Oregano is good.

Melanzane alla parmigiana

Fry slices of aubergine until quite soft and taking colour.  For a light, quick tomato sauce, fry chopped garlic in olive oil and half an ounce of butter (butter, like all dairy, takes the edge off tomatoes). Add salt and chopped parsley. As this spits, turn up the heat and add very good tinned tomatoes. Cook them fast for five minutes. Layer the aubergine, mozzarella, tomato sauce until you’ve used all the ingredients. Grate over a little parmesan. Bake at 220C until it is brown and the mozzarella has melted.

Roasted beetroots

At home I would cook the beetroot from raw in a little duck or goose fat (if to be served with duck) in the oven. But it is often easier, and quicker, to buy cooked beetroots and pan-roast them – that cheffing euphemism for frying.

Caramelised radicchio

Butter and enough sugar to cover the bottom of a frying pan. Place eighths of radicchio cut side down and cook until the sugar has caramelised and the radicchio wilted.

Braised red cabbage

I love this dish, an excellent accompaniment to duck, but also pork and of course goose. It’s such an old and frequent recipe I’m sure everyone has their own ideas how it should be made and how it should taste. This is how I like it. Shred half a large red cabbage. Peel, core and chop a large bramley apple. Chop an onion. Add all this to a pan along with a couple of fluid ounces of vinegar, a handful of sugar, preferably brown, thyme, a couple of bay leaves, a good couple of pinches of salt and twenty or thirty turns of the pepper mill. Simmer until the cabbage is soft and the flavours have softened and mingled. Add more sugar, vinegar or salt as necessary.

William Clement