Sweet and Sour
These are months of multi-coloured displays in the garden, on the farm and in the wild. Not quite the start of winter yet because nature still has an arsenal of energy to throw at us with an ever-changing landscape of reds, golds,purples, and deepening pinks. The low evening sun throws a warm glow on the faces of nasturtium as they peep between their green parasol leaves. Berries of elder and ash beckon hungry birds in the hedge rows while late fruiting raspberries manage to hide from winged predators by shying under their droopy leaves.
It’s a comforting time of year when vibrant carrots, beetroots and squash are at their best for slow roasting or tasty wholesome soups. These deep luxurious colours of the autumn harvest are a prompt to build up our defences for the oncoming winter chills and a reminder of just how appropriate seasonal food is for our physical health. Packed with anthocyanins, vegetables with deep reds and purples take centre stage in autumn and couldn’t make a more timely appearance in the run up to winter when our immune systems need to fight off viruses. The reliable leafy greens and brassicas are also essentials for boosting our resistance and need to be eaten regularly to provide the recommended nutrients .Red cabbage comes with an impressive list of accolades, providing vitamin C and K as well as being a source of iron. Cooking cabbage can diminish some of its food value so it should not be over cooked or drowned in too much water. If, like many, you aren’t inclined to cook cabbage every day it can be enjoyed in its fermented form as sauerkraut which will provide the added benefits of probiotics and can be enjoyed in small amounts as a condiment.
It is the mighty red cabbage that has been attracting my attention over the past months as their hefty hearts swell under the watchful company of sunflowers. I had made some small batches of sauerkraut in jars with some white cabbage and could see how fermentation would be the ideal way to harness the renowned goodness of these beautiful specimens. When my neighbour Niamh offered me the use of her crock pot, designed for the purpose with a moat lid, the kitchen table was soon a production line of shredding, salting and packing .
The crock was filled with the shredded , salted cabbage and pressed down to encourage the inky juices to rise and submerge the leaves. I did not use any recommended weight to do this but covered the top with the large outer leaves of the plant which were trimmed and overlapped to fit the surface area.( I would ideally use some weight to keep the cabbage submerged). The lid was then placed on top and water was carefully poured into the ‘moat’ ridge. This is the simple and ingenious design which allows the inner co2 to escape with a reassuring burp while keeping out any oxygen or unwanted critters. For the following weeks it sat on the counter top, frequently reminding me of its activity.
The process of fermentation is very basic and needs no more than raw shredded vegetables, unrefined sea salt and clean jars or crocks. The subject is well documented on various sites on line though I have followed the expert wisdom of Sandor Katz to guide me through the basics. On his advice I have used roughly 1 ½ -2 teaspoons of salt to a pound of veggies. The recent batch of red cabbage sauerkraut was left for three weeks at room temperature before I opened it and decanted the contents into clean jars before storing in the fridge. It is wise to prepare in advance with a supply of clean wide rimmed jars with non-metallic lids. So far the feedback from my various tasters has been very positive with only the suggestion to shred the cabbage finer. This came as no surprise; my knife skills got a bit careless after the third head of cabbage it took to fill the crock.
This is also a heartening time of year when the local harvests of apples and pears are exchanged, reminding us to taste the difference between seasonal, native produce and the bland, polished specimens that crowd the supermarket shelves all year round. The flavour and texture of local apples and pears make them ideal candidates for pies and cakes or simply cooked to have with a breakfast cereal or dessert. There is a popular recipe for a pear cake which uses ground almonds to add texture and flavour and can be served warm as a pudding or cold with a coffee. Here is a version of same which has a moist caramel centre.
Pear and almond cake
175g caster sugar
110 g ground almonds
110 g self -raising flour
Flaked Almonds for topping (optional)
3 or 4 firm pears, quartered and cored and cut again into wedges ( depending on size;6 or 8 pieces per pear)
Begin by glazing the cut pears on a medium heat with a tablespoon of the sugar and about 50g of the butter. Turn them as they begin to colour in the melted caramel but don’t over cook them.) Set aside to cool.
Line a spring form 20cm cake tin with baking paper. Set oven to 180 c.
Cream the butter and sugar until it is light and fluffy (it helps to allow the butter to soften at room temp. in advance)
Add the eggs, gradually, beating well each time. A teaspoon of flour with each egg will avoid the risk of curdling.
Gradually fold in the sieved flour and ground almonds. The mix will be quite thick.
Cover the base of the cake tin with 2/3 of the cake mix, spreading it evenly to the edges.
Carefully place the cooled pears on the cake base, arranging them in a circle. (Alternate the pointy end with wide end to make them fit evenly). Drizzle over with the caramel juices on the pan.
Dollop the top of the cake with the remaining mix with a spoon. No need to spread it or worry much as it will melt and blend in the oven.
Bake in a medium/hot oven for about 25 mins. Sprinkle with flaked almonds and bake for a further 10 mins or so. Times will vary according to your oven. The centre will be soft and moist.
Slices of char grilled pears served with a wedge of ripe Camembert and red cabbage sauerkraut is a sweet and sour treat that is the essence of autumn. Equally good is red sauerkraut and creamy hummus atop a crispy cracker. These are the tastes and colours that lure us into winter; relish them while they are at their best.