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Deep autumn, the fire is lit, winter is so close you can feel its icy breath. Autumn food has long been licked by the flames: ribs and drumsticks whose bones are sticky with caramelised treacle and spice; deep pots of beans with dark, mustard, herb and tomato sauces, their surface hidden under a breadcrumb crust; baked apples whose skin has blistered and whose flesh has turned to snow. I feel little temptation to stray.
This week there was a dish of amber-hued onions, soft and yielding from being steamed before roasting, their outer layer a glistening crust of miso, ginger and spice. I also caramelise figs while I still have the chance, pressing their seeds into a pool of pomegranate molasses, then grilling them until they singe and the smell of sweet, sugary smoke fills the chilled evening air.
Roast onions, miso and sesame
Roast onions, bronzed by the oven, are one of those side dishes I have elevated to that of a main course, either by stuffing them with goat’s cheese and thyme or by serving them with a sauce, rice and a crisp accompaniment. The inherent sweetness of their caramelised outer layers is a contrast to the deep, savoury quality of miso, and with a bed of brown rice this becomes a most satisfying dinner. The essential point is to simmer them long enough in their bay-scented stock to be on the verge of collapse, rendering their layers soft and giving, before putting them in the oven for their final roast.
4 bay leaves
6 black peppercorns
8 medium-sized onions
50g piece of ginger
4 Tbsp sake or dry sherry
2 good pinched chilli flakes
2 Tbsp honey
4 lightly heaped Tbsp light miso paste
3 Tbsp lemon juice
1 Tbsp sesame seeds
For the rice
150g brown or white Basmati
3 bay leaves
6 cardamom pods
5cm strip lemon peel
2 Tbsp parsley
Bring a deep pan of water to the boil with the bay leaves and peppercorns. Set the oven at 200degC.
Peel the onions then lower them into the boiling water and lower the heat to a simmer. Leave for 25-30 minutes, until the onions are almost translucent and soft enough to pierce effortlessly with a skewer. Lift the onions out with a draining spoon and place them, just touching one another, in a roasting tin or baking dish.
Peel the ginger and grate to a paste on a very sharp, fine-toothed grater. Scrape the ginger into a small bowl and stir in the sake or dry sherry, chilli flakes, honey and miso.
Blend in the lemon juice and 4 tablespoons of warm water. Pour the resulting dressing over the onions, turning them over so they are glossily coated. Scatter the sesame seeds over the onions. Bake in the preheated oven for 40-45 minutes, occasionally basting with the juices from the baking dish.
Wash the rice in three changes of warm water, swishing the rice around in the water with your fingertips — a strangely pleasing task. Drain the rice, tip into a small saucepan and cover with enough water to come 3cm above the rice. Add the bay and cardamom pods, cracking the pods open as you go, then drop in the piece of lemon peel.
Bring the rice to the boil, lower the heat and cover with a tight lid. Leave to simmer for 10 minutes, then remove from the heat and leave, lid untouched, for a further 10.
Peel and halve the cucumber, remove the central core and seeds, then cut the flesh into matchsticks. Roughly chop the parsley leaves, then toss with the cucumber. Shake over a few drops of rice or wine vinegar.
Remove the lid to the rice and run the tines of a fork through the grains to separate them, stir the parsley through the grains, then spoon on to deep plates. Place the onions on top, spooning any sauce over the top, then scatter with the cucumber and parsley.
Caramelised figs with pistachio and mint yoghurt
The figs get very little cooking here, so make sure they are ripe.
50g shelled pistachios
15 large mint leaves
200g creamy natural yoghurt
8 plump, ripe figs
3 Tbsp pomegranate molasses
Put the shelled pistachios and mint leaves in a food processor and reduce to a crunchy, bright green paste. Scrape from the bowl with a rubber spatula then fold lightly and briefly into the yoghurt.
Heat an overhead grill. Slice the figs in half. Pour the pomegranate molasses on to a saucer then place each fig into it, cut side down. Press firmly. As soon as the grill is hot, place the figs cut side up on a grill pan, then place under the hot grill. Leave for a minute or two until caramelised. Serve on plates or small dishes with the pistachio yoghurt.
— Guardian News and Media