By the middle of August, many of my friends begin to lament the passing of summer: subconsciously turning their faces from sun to fireplace, I can hear them muttering “winter’s coming” under their breath. Distracted by the noticeable chill in the evening air, protesting at the suddenness with which darkness has begun to fall, they don’t see that the best time of year is unfolding before their very eyes: autumn.
At no other time of year are we treated to such a broad spectrum of flavour, texture and colour. Just today, I’ve been eating the last of the homegrown tomatoes: deep red, their meaty flesh heavy with juice and imbued with the ripe taste of summer. As one would expect, I am relishing the experience all the more in the knowledge that it’s fleeting – I won’t eat another fresh tomato until next June. Meanwhile, the crisp, tart delights of a Russet apple tempt me further down the garden. On the windowsill, a disorderly band of squash bask in the sunshine, curing for the colder months ahead.
It’s a time for celebration, not resignation. As children we heaped produce on tables for harvest festivals, as adults our tables could be laden with dishes mirroring the fantastic collision of flavours that can only happen right now.
Harvest Vegetable Gratin
The rule with a vegetable gratin is to cook any root vegetables a little before adding to the dish. Whether it’s beetroot, carrots, parsnips or pumpkins, a quick roast will make sure they cook at the same rate as the softer produce and also add a creaminess to the dish.
By this time of year, spinach has a tendency to toughen slightly, so it’s best wilted into the onions. In spring, I would just layer the delicate leaves straight into the dish.
30cm ovenproof dish
1 large onion
3 cloves of garlic
600g of ripe tomatoes
600g of pumpkin – I used butternut but you could use any variety: delica, crown prince, onion
Handful of parsley
100g best bread, ripped into chunks. You could also use shop-bought breadcrumbs.
- Preheat the oven to 200 degrees.
- Cut the peeled squash into 2cm cubes, toss in a bowl with 3tbs of olive oil, seasoning well with salt. Arrange in a single layer on a lined baking tray and roast for 15 minutes.
- Meanwhile, bring 2tbs olive oil to a medium heat in a wide frying pan. Add in 2 cloves of crushed garlic, quickly followed by thinly sliced onion. Season generously with salt and twists of pepper. Once the onion is translucent, add handfuls of spinach at a time, mixing thoroughly with the onion.
- Cut the courgettes in half widthwise, then into 1cm thick slices. You should end up with long rectangles. Toss 1tbs olive oil, pepper and a good pinch of salt.
- Slice the tomatoes into 1cm slices.
- In a small bowl, mix together the ricotta, pepper and zest & juice of the lemon.
- Starting with some of the spinach mixture, layer the ingredients in your gratin dish. Alternate layers of courgette, spinach/onion and squash with one of tomato, adding teaspoon-sized blobs of the ricotta mixture as you go. The top layer should be tomato and any remaining ricotta.
- Whizz the bread with a clove of garlic, 2tbs of olive oil and a pinch of salt and then spread over the top of the gratin. If using breadcrumbs, finely chop the parsley, crush the garlic and mix together with the breadcrumbs using the same quantity of olive oil.
- Cover the dish in tin foil and bake in the middle of the oven for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for a further 15 minutes, until the breadcrumbs are crisp and golden.