Dry leaves are swept up, swirled momentarily then tumbled among the debris around the yard. Magpies struggle, warbling in protest, to hold on to the overhead wires they pendulously grip. There’s an unmistakable icy bite in the air. Our lilli pilli tree, as sweetly a named native as one could hope, is dropping juicy bombs of pink that explode on the deck. The small, pretty fruit can be made into jams and jellies, an old fashioned kind of Australian cooking, but as most recipes seem to require shocking amounts of sugar to impart any actual flavour, I’m content to sweep the daily windfall away. The lemon tree, far more useful, is bearing loads of ripe yellow globes that are being squeezed into, and over, everything.
Poaching quinces with rosewater and dried cherries to sit atop morning porridge; layering vegetables in a dish, bathing them in stock and a dribble of oil; carving smiling wedges from a hefty pumpkin. Cool weather pleasures abound in the months ahead. There will be bracing dog walks on the beach, dodging the eerily blue jellyfish deposited along the shore by wilder, seasonal waves, and gnarled driftwood to collect along the way. Ours is an ever expanding pile. Winds that blow away the cobwebs; scarves and socks and not shaving your legs. Reading and writing in a sunlit room on a bright, cold day. The joy of running without muttering breathlessly about the ‘bloody heat’.
Some rain came this week and washed away the fragment of self doubt that’s been hanging around. I walked the dog during one of the exceptionally gorgeous breaks between downpours. It was only then that the flame reds and burnished golds of autumn were, finally, revealed. What can I say? It was beautiful. Back in the kitchen I realized that pumpkin wasn’t going to carve itself. Then Cindy reminded me that the combination of fennel and pumpkin is utterly inspired. I got out the Big Knife and merrily carved away.
So, what’s for dinner? I’m very glad you asked.
Pumpkin, fennel and olive pies – feeds 4-6 (makes 8)
Do I really need to tell you that what makes this so very good is the Spicy Moroccan Butter? It’s based, in part, on a Paula Wolfert recipe via Deborah Madison’s Savory Way. It has loads of uses, but roasted with a tray of vegetables it is exquisite. The rest? Well, that's all my own work. And yes, I do know that filo really is better when brushed with melted butter than oil. Do as your conscience and waistline see fit...
Spicy Moroccan butter/oil:
½ teaspoon of sea salt
4 spring onions, white part only, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 heaped teaspoon of smoked paprika
1 tablespoon of cumin seeds
1 teaspoon of coriander seeds
1 teaspoon of fennel seeds
½ teaspoon of hot chilli powder
Small handful of parsley, chopped
Small handful of coriander (cilantro), chopped
125g (½ cup) of unsalted butter or 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
Using a mortar and pestle, crush the sea salt, spring onions, garlic and spices to make a paste. Add the herbs, and pound until quite smooth. Chop the butter roughly and pound it into the paste until well combined. Form the butter into a log, wrap tightly, and place in the fridge to rest while you get on with the recipe. If you’re using the oil, blend in all together well and set aside. The butter, well sealed and frozen, will keep for months; the oil in a lidded jar in the fridge for 1 week.
1 kilo (2 generous lbs) of pumpkin (winter squash)
2 fennel bulbs, trimmed, soft fronds reserved
Spicy Moroccan butter (see above)
2 handfuls of kalamata olives
1/3 cup of pine nuts, toasted
1 packet of filo pastry (thawed if frozen)
Preheat the oven to 180 C (375 F).
Peel the pumpkin and discard the seeds. Chop into chunks and place in a baking tray. Quarter, core and thickly slice the fennel bulbs. Add to the pumpkin, drizzle over a little oil and dot with 2 rather generous tablespoons of the butter. Bake for 45-50 minutes, tossing once the butter has melted and twice more during the process.
Chop the reserved fennel fronds. Pit the olives and roughly chop. When the vegetables are ready, remove from the oven and toss with the fennel fronds, olives and toasted pine nuts. Roughly divide the filling into 8.
Unfurl the pastry on a bench and place a clean tea towel on top. Brush the first sheet with a little oil and top with another sheet. Continue oiling and layering until 6 sheets thick. Using a sharp knife, cut the pastry in 2 widthways. Spoon the filling in the centre of each filo sheet, top with a little more butter if you dare, and gently bring the sides up. Pinch to make a ruffled ‘purse’. Brush with a little more oil, place on a lightly oiled baking tray and continue with the remaining pastry and filling to make 8.
Bake for 30-40 minutes, until golden and shatteringly crisp. Serve with a salad of bitter leaves dressed with grain mustard and red wine vinegar.