Food cooked on the hob demands constant attention – a stir, the rigorous monitoring of heat, the regular check of progress. And there is always the temptation to tinker. Food cooked in the oven tends to get on with business itself. Yes, we slide out the Sunday joint to baste it lovingly with the roasting juices and we gingerly test the spring of a cake with a finger, but intervention is less crucial when dinner is cooking behind a closed door.
At this time of year I like to put a tray or two of the season’s vegetables and fruits in to bake, some to be eaten whole, others to be transformed into a silky, translucent purée. Wedges of pumpkin and big fat apples, parsnips and pears and Jerusalem artichokes are at their most delicious when they meet the heat of the oven, a little butter and some robust, woody-stemmed herbs. I often cook the ochre roots – carrots, swedes and sweet potatoes – not to eat hot, but to dress with walnut oil and cider vinegar as they come from the oven then tuck away in the fridge. Treasure to plunder over the next few days to be eaten with slices of air-dried hams or smoked mackerel.
The flavour is so heightened that I have taken to lightly roasting vegetables and fruit destined for a purée to make the most of their caramelised sweetness. The watchword here is “lightly”. They need to be on the pale side of gold, otherwise their crust will affect the texture of the purée.
Apples and pears, whose crisp flesh puffs to a sugary froth in a roasting tin or bakes sweetly under a pastry crust, are useful offerings. Puddings, yes, but also crushed fruit to dip into for breakfast or fold into custard for a fruit fool, whole roasted pears to accompany cold roast pork and chewy crackling or to eat with an amber-coloured cheese or hastily knocked-up caramel sauce for dessert.
Roast autumn vegetables
The flavour of the roast celeriac and Jerusalem artichokes is intensified by a light roasting. The colouring should be no more than a very soft gold.
For the mash:
Jerusalem artichokes 250g
hot vegetable or chicken stock 250ml
For the roast roots:
carrots 8, small to medium
garlic 6 cloves
beetroot 4, small
thyme 8 sprigs
sunflower seeds 3 tbsp
parsley 2 heaped tbsp, chopped
smoked salt 2 tsp
Set the oven at 200C/gas mark 6. Peel the celeriac and cut it into large pieces, about the size of roast potatoes. Put them in a roasting tin. Peel the Jerusalem artichokes then add to the tin. Dot the butter over the vegetables, season, then roast for about an hour until lightly browned. They mustn’t crisp but instead develop pale gold, lightly caramelised edges. Test for softness – a skewer should slide through with ease.
Scrub or peel the carrots and parsnips, cut in half lengthways then put in another roasting tin. Tuck in the garlic cloves, still in their skins, then add the beetroots, trimmed and quartered, with the thyme and butter. Season generously then bake for about an hour, turning once or twice.
Tip the roast celeriac and artichokes into a food processor, add some of the stock and reduce to a smooth purée, introducing more of the stock as necessary. Check the seasoning. In a small pan, toast the sunflower seeds over a high heat until they smell nutty, then add the chopped parsley and smoked salt.
Spoon the mash on to a serving dish, add the roast vegetables, scatter with the seeds and serve.
Baked apples and pears, toasted rye bread
You only need a small amount of rye bread for the crumble. Use some of the loaf for a stuffing, crumbled into chopped onions softened in butter then mixed with chopped, crisp bacon and pine kernels.
sweet apples 4, large
pears 3, large
cinnamon 2 tsp
caster sugar 4 tbsp
For the crust:
dark rye bread 100g
golden raisins 6 tbsp
mixed spice 2 tsp
cranberries a handful
Set the oven at 200C/gas mark 6. Peel and core two of the apples and two of the pears then cut into thick segments. Put in a roasting tin. Add the cloves, cinnamon and 6 strips of orange peel.
Cut the remaining fruit into segments, coring – but not peeling – as you go, and put in a second tin. Scatter both tins with sugar. Halve the lemon and squeeze its juice over, then dot the butter over the fruit. Bake both trays for 45-50 minutes.
Crumble the rye bread into a bowl and stir in the golden raisins and mixed spice. Melt the butter in a small pan, add the rye bread mix and toast over a moderate heat. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Take the tray of peeled fruit from the oven. Remove the orange peel and spices, then mash or blend the fruit. Transfer the purée to a serving dish.
Scatter the cranberries over the other tray in the oven. When the fruit is golden and sticky and the cranberries start to burst, remove from the oven. Spoon the roast fruit over the purée, then scatter with the toasted rye bread.