The cooler autumn weather is a welcome relief to the hot, parched summer we’ve had to endure. One of the first things I feel like doing is baking puddings, cakes and buttery tarts. I look forward to cooking a long lunch for friends that ends with a pear tarte Tatin; the rich, golden pastry offset by molten, caramelised pears and a fine egg custard.
I particularly enjoy eating red sensation pears. They’re one of the first pears available in autumn and will be around until about May. A variety of the William pear family, red sensations also go by the name of crimson beauty. These pears sport a lovely yellow-green colour with a red blush when fully ripe. They have sweet, buttery flesh and are ideal for eating raw and using in salads.
One of my favourite salads includes pears with roasted walnuts and hazelnuts, radicchio, and either fresh goat’s cheese or roast poultry such as pheasant, duck or quail.
Both walnuts and hazelnuts are wonderful right now. Australia has a relatively small walnut and hazelnut industry, and you should make the most of the opportunity to buy locally grown, freshly harvested nuts whenever you can.
Last year, I bought some fresh hazelnuts from the Abbotsford Convent Slow Food Farmers’ Market in Melbourne. You can really savour the flavour of fresh nuts by cracking them open straight away and roasting them with a little olive oil and salt. The hazelnuts were divine, simply roasted and tossed in a warm salad of radicchio, witlof, roast pheasant and shallots.
One of my favourite desserts is crêpes, filled with crème pâtissière and served with a hazelnut sauce – made from crushed roasted hazelnuts, a touch of lemon zest, sugar, butter and lemon juice – and vanilla ice-cream. I also like to make a walnut tart in the style popular in the south-west of France. Who could resist flaky, savoury pâte brisée pastry, filled with the season’s freshest walnuts, cream, egg yolks and honey and baked until it becomes a dark-brown caramel? Naturally, it must be topped with freshly whipped cream.
A more unusual walnut recipe I’m experimenting with at the moment is rabbit braised with onions, pancetta, rosemary and olive oil. I cook the rabbit until it’s browned all over and the onions have become soft and golden. To this I add a tablespoon of honey – I still have some of my uncle’s honey from last year, which is all dark and crystallised – a tablespoon of red wine vinegar, light chicken stock and finally some roasted, skinned and chopped walnuts.
Around this time of year, I always visit my sister on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula to pick wild mushrooms. They need crisp but not too cold weather and a decent amount of rainfall to grow. Every year I’m hopeful there’ll be a good season – and that I’m able to get there before everyone else does. It’s such a joy to set out on a cold, misty morning, wearing gumboots and carrying baskets and pocketknives, to forage for mushrooms under the pine trees. Slippery jacks are one of my favourite varieties. They have a chocolaty brown cap that feels quite wet – or rather slippery, hence their name – with a yellowish, spongy underside.
Foraging for mushrooms is fun, but it’s important to be careful which you pick. Many people are poisoned each year, so go with an experienced picker. And remember to cut mushrooms at the stem so they can regrow.
Slippery jacks are often found covered in pine needles and debris because of their sticky skin. The best way to clean them is to wipe them with a damp cloth. If they’re very dirty, they can always be peeled, but don’t soak them in water because they’ll absorb the moisture.
Once clean, you can slice and sauté them with butter, thyme and shallots – in a light fricassée – to go with roast chook or steak, or even an omelette. Slippery jacks are also great in risotti – they have a delicate texture and a powerful flavour.
A friend of mine, whose relatives come from Calabria, taught me her aunt’s recipe for pickling mushrooms. They would’ve used fresh porcini mushrooms, but you can substitute slippery jacks because they are quite similar. Combine 300gm of sliced mushrooms, three cups of water, one cup of white wine vinegar and three tablespoons of salt in a pot and bring to the boil. Drain and spread them on a tea towel to dry, then add to jars with two cups of olive oil and slices of garlic and thyme. Let the flavours develop overnight.
It’s harvest time in some olive-growing areas of Australia, so you will no doubt begin to see fresh specimens appearing in farmers’ markets. My sister Michele has a biodynamic olive grove down on the Mornington Peninsula, but because they are a cool-climate variety, she usually picks her crop in about the last week of May.
I asked Michele what to look for when buying fresh olives for pickling. She says that olives are a bit like stone fruit – “They should be firm to the touch with a slight give, but not rock-hard” – not so soft that you can feel the pip, as they will bruise easily and become squishy. Michele picks her olives when they’re mature but not fully ripe. That way they have flavour but they won’t bruise during the brining process.
A good way to enjoy this season’s Kalamatas, and other green olives, is to pickle them as they do in Sicily and Greece. Simply split the olives on the stone and keep them in salt brine for six to eight weeks. Once they’ve lost their bitterness, marinate the olives in fennel seeds, lemon rind, garlic and olive oil.
The cooler weather brings with it earthy produce made for comfort cooking, such as pears, walnuts and slippery jack mushrooms, writes Brigitte Hafner.