After diving in to take up wild swimming Catherine Devaney offers some warming autumn treats worth savouring.
Announcement: I’ve taken up wild swimming. I have stopped cowering on the sidelines in my fleece. I have stopped lurking around the edges of Facebook wild swimmer groups and stepped forth into the light.
I have finally given in to this trend for all things cold and wet and I have plunged – well, ok, inched – my way into the nearest tidal pool (with a resounding burst of expletives for which I apologise to my neighbours).
I’m not sure I’ve timed this new venture very well as we head into winter (as usual I’m a little late to the swim party), however needless to say, I’m hooked.
Seasoned outdoor swimmers smile sagely and resist the urge to say “I told you so”.
I’m told the water is actually at its warmest just now, although my polite swim vocabulary is already composed of words like “fresh” (usually more apt in the context of a nice salad), “brisk” and “invigorating”, and that’s before sea temperatures really begin to plummet.
This Monday morning found me flapping along the beach in my sea shoes, dooking into the slate grey North Sea, in the rain, to test out my shiny new wetsuit and dryrobe.
Taking the plunge
On a personal level, and a serious note, I can absolutely vouch for the mental health benefits of all this cold water immersion, however what really spurs me on, what propels me from car to shore, is the post-swim shivery bite.
Any incentive to consume extra calories is, for me, an invitation worth accepting.
When that walk over the cold sand feels impossibly crazy and the first lapping waves unbelievably frigid, thoughts form a loop of “hot chocolate/scone/cake/bacon roll…”, “hot chocolate/scone/cake/macaroni cheese…”, and before you know it I’m bobbing around like a crazed seal.
Onlookers might reasonably observe that I lack the seal’s natural elegance, despite the suctioning effect of 5mm of neoprene, but why spoil the wonderful illusion.
So while the usual seasonal slide into the days of golden mists and morning chill always triggers my desire for recipes that comfort, this year I’m feeling even more energised than usual to create food that brings autumn warmth from the inside out.
Souping things up
Tenderstem broccoli and Isle of Mull cheddar soup is a favourite of mine; I adore the freshness of the broccoli alongside the sharp tang of the cheese with a good dose of raw spinach thrown in for its vibrant and invigorating green colour.
Start by preparing the broccoli; I use two x 220g packs.
Chop the florets into small pieces and set aside, then slice the stalks into thin discs.
Saute half an onion in a knob of butter (25g) and splash of oil; when it’s starting to soften, add a chopped clove of garlic and stir.
Add the chopped stalks to the pan and cook for about three minutes until they start to go translucent and the aroma is fresh and heavenly.
Then tip in one litre of vegetable stock, bring to the boil and simmer for five minutes.
Add the chopped florets and bring back to the boil (be careful not to overcook).
Blitz the soup with a hand blender, adding four handfuls of fresh spinach while blending (adding fresh, raw spinach at this stage adds a wonderful brightness to the finished soup).
Lastly, add one tablespoon of creme fraiche and 100g grated Isle of Mull cheddar and blitz again.
Throw in a pinch of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste, then serve with a drizzle of olive oil and some toasted pumpkin seeds.
This is an ideal soup for flasks and shivery bites, but if you’re after a heartier meal try adding a little pile of smoked haddock and topping with a poached egg.
The joy of pies
For a hearty, comfort-filled main course for those darkening evenings, nothing sparks joy like a homemade pie.
There’s a sense of quiet celebration in the setting down of a pie in the middle of the table to be shared.
This pie – chicken, leek and fresh dill – makes a meal in itself.
The only sides I would add would be some lemony, buttery green beans and some crusty bread to mop up the sauce.
Start by slicing four chicken breasts into thin strips and saute lightly in rapeseed oil with a handful of sliced chestnut mushrooms until beginning to colour, then add one sliced onion and one leek, thinly sliced, and 50g unsalted butter.
Stir everything as the butter melts and the vegetables soften, then add 50g plain flour and stir well to a sandy texture.
Gradually add 450ml hot chicken stock, stirring well with each addition, to make a smooth sauce that thickens as it bubbles and cooks (if it’s too thick just add a little more hot stock).
Next add 1 tbsp of wholegrain mustard (just add less if you’re not a mustard fan), a generous handful of fresh dill (tarragon would also work well), the zest of one lemon and a good pinch of salt with a grinding of black pepper.
Let everything simmer for 10-15 minutes until the chicken is cooked, stirring occasionally, then stir through four tablespoons of creme fraiche.
The sauce should now smell divine. At this stage you can either let it cool completely and top with pastry later on – the perfect make-ahead meal – or simply add a layer of puff pastry and bake straightaway.
Put the chicken pie mixture into a large oven proof dish and lay a sheet of puff pastry (frozen ready-made pastry is more than acceptable for ease), tuck it in at the sides and use a sharp knife to gently make a criss-cross pattern on the surface (without pressing all the way through).
Brush the top all over with beaten egg and bake in a hot oven at 180C Fan/200C/400F/Gas Mark 6 for 30-40 minutes until the pastry is well risen, golden and the filling piping hot.
Apple crumble appeal
For pudding it’s at last time to do something with all those apples that are starting to fall from the trees.
For a little twist on the traditional, try caramel apple crumble sundaes; think of this as a cross between soul-warming apple crumble and a nostalgic trip to an old-fashioned ice cream shop.
I’m unable to resist the toffee apple sweetness, so reminiscent of frosty days and the fast approaching Bonfire Night.
First make the crumble topping: rub together 50g cold butter, 50g light brown sugar, 50g plain flour and 1 tbsp porridge oats to make crumbs.
Spread the mixture out on a baking tray and bake at 180C Fan/200C/400F/Gas Mark 6 for 10-15 minutes.
Let it cool slightly then break it up into pieces.
Next, prepare the apples: peel, core and dice four apples (I find eating apples are best for this) and toss them in two tablespoons of soft brown sugar, half a teaspoon of ground cinnamon and quarter of a teaspoon of mixed spice.
And for the sauce
Set them aside while you make the caramel sauce: warm 125g double cream and 75g unsalted butter in a small pot, whisking gently until the butter is melted and the mixture smooth, then remove from the heat and set aside.
In a separate pot, place 150g sugar on a medium heat until the sugar caramelises, swirling very gently as it melts, to a deep golden colour (be careful not to let it go too dark).
Then turn off the heat, add the hot butter and cream and whisk to a gorgeously glossy caramel sauce.
Add a dash of ginger wine (if you haven’t had this for years look in the back of the drinks cupboard, I’m willing to bet you have a bottle tucked away… try a sip, I suspect it also has positive post-swim fortifying qualities).
Pour the sauce into a bowl to cool slightly.
Using the same pot (there should be a lovely residue of caramel) add 25g butter and swirl until it foams.
Then add the apple mixture, stirring to coat everything in the hot butter.
Add two tablespoons of water and leave to simmer on a low heat for 10-15 minutes until the apples are soft.
Lastly, whip up some double cream with a little icing sugar, a drop of vanilla essence and another dash of ginger wine.
When you’re ready to serve, get four tall glasses and layer up the apple mixture, crumble topping, caramel sauce, cream and ice cream (then repeat!).
Top with more crumble pieces and a drizzle of hot caramel.
Food for the soul
So whether you’re plunging walrus-style into the balmy waters of the North Sea, or sensibly hunkering down and just enjoying the change in the air that the chill of autumn brings, this is simple food for the season to warm the soul and gather everyone together at the kitchen table once again.