"Right food, right place, right time"

Tender pork, grape gravy, roasted squash and a brown sugar cake add up to the perfect fall feast.

By Nigel Slater

Published October 31, 2006 1:00PM (EST)

Roast pork with grapes, juniper, and Vin Santo

Autumn grapes, sweetly honeyed and with their distinct whiff of Muscat wine (or, to some, cat pee) are clearly the fruit of the moment. On a single shopping trip I find dusky-bloomed Fragola grapes at the cheese shop, softly flushed Muscats at a supermarket in Marylebone, and even decent Italia grapes at the greengrocer's. The Italias are almost yellow and virtually translucent, though knowing the greengrocer this is probably more by luck than good judgement. They taste of honey and elderflowers. A bunch goes in minutes, with the guilt of gluttony being forgotten in the knowledge that this is fruit and therefore "a good thing." The dark Fragola grapes have curiously loose skin and the faint flavor of hazelnuts and strawberries. They are as addictive as M&Ms. Their season will be over within the next couple of weeks, so again greed can be forgiven.

Those that aren't eaten straight from the bag or put in a bowl on my desk to be eaten as I type are used in the kitchen, adding sweetness to the gravy for roast pork. Any sweet grape will do here.

Get the butcher to score the fat, so that it crisps nicely into crackling. Make sure the pork fat is dry when you season it. I find it best to leave in the fridge, completely uncovered, overnight. That way the skin has a chance to dry out a bit. Wet fat rarely crisps up properly in the oven.

4 lbs boned pork loin, scored
olive oil
1 1/4 teaspoons black peppercorns
a generous tablespoon of juniper berries
8 cloves garlic
a large bunch of Fragola or Muscat grapes
3 bay leaves
3 glasses Vin Santo (or dry Marsala)
6 medium sized potatoes

Preheat the oven to 425 F. Rub the pork all over with a little olive oil. Crush the salt, peppercorns and juniper berries in a mortar and pestle. You want a rough spice mixture; the berries and the peppercorns need crushing only lightly. Sit the pork in a roasting pan and rub in the spice mixture. Inevitably some will fall into the pan but pat it down on the meat as best you can. Press down on each of the garlic cloves with the flat of a large knife blade so they are squashed, then peel off the skins and put the cloves around the roast. Pull the grapes from their stems and put them in the pan with bay leaves and two glasses of Vin Santo. Put the meat in the oven, roast for ten minutes, then turn the heat down to 400 F and continue roasting for fifty to sixty minutes, until the juices run clear when the flesh is pierced with a metal skewer. If they are pink, put the meat back for a bit longer.

While the pork is cooking, peel the potatoes and cut them into halves or quarters. Bring a pot of water to boil, salt it, then lower in the potatoes. Let them boil for twelve minutes, then drain and shake them about a little in the pan, so the edges 'bruise' -- this will make sure they crisp nicely. Warm a little olive oil in a roasting pan or cast iron baking dish, add the potatoes and put them in the oven, on a lower shelf than the pork.

When the pork is done, lift it out onto a carving board and keep warm. I cover mine with an upturned mixing bowl. Let it rest for fifteen minutes; it will be juicier that way. Bring the potatoes up a shelf in the oven, turning the heat up a notch if they look like they need a bit of help.

Put the roasting pan over a moderate flame and stir the pan juices. With a draining spoon, crush the grapes and garlic into the juices, then pour in the last glass of wine and simmer until reduced to a thin gravy. Taste, season, then pour through a sieve. It should be slightly sweet from the wine, slightly bitter from the juniper. Carve the meat thinly and serve with the potatoes and the hot 'gravy'.

Roast squash with thyme

I have never enjoyed shopping for my supper more than in the last few weeks. The air is crisp. The market stalls are groaning with fat roots, purple cabbage, and wacky mushrooms. The new apples spurt with juice and the Conference pears are still hard enough to hurt your gums. There are pomegranates, quinces, and fat figs. Partridge is there too, with plump, wet scallops and diminutive beets complete with their bloodshot plume of leaves. Above all, someone, somewhere, is roasting chestnuts. It is the squashes that steal the show, tiny crinkle-edges patty pans, long necked butternuts and others as fat and round as a football. I tend to prefer moderately sized fruit, squashes whose skins are thin enough to cut without resorting to the axe and small enough to bake within an hour. I simply roast them with butter and thyme. A plate of sweet, carmelized flavors for a cold night.

4 small to medium squash
2 tablespoons butter
a generous tablespoon of olive oil
fresh thyme leaves

Set the oven to 350 F. Cut the squashes in half and scoop out the seeds from the center. Lay the squashes cut side up on a baking sheet. Cut the butter into thick slices and put a slice into the center of each squash, together with a little olive oil, a good pinch of thyme leaves, a grinding of salt and plenty of black pepper.

Roast for an hour, checking them occasionally to see how they are doing. You want them to be sweet smelling and the flesh to be totally tender when you pierce it with a knife.

Enough for 4

Brown sugar lemon cake

Cake sounds like an eccentric thing to serve after a weekend supper for four. But somehow the lemon note seems right for the day. Almond cakes will keep for several days in perfect condition. I like them with a spoonful of heavy cream, thick Greek yogurt or tart creme fraiche and fruit. That is when they become a dessert rather than something for tea.

1 1/4 cups butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup all purpose flour
2/3 cup ground almonds
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
a large lemon
4 large eggs

For the topping:
a lemon
2 generous tablespoons brown sugar
4 tablespoons water

For the syrup:
2 generous tablespoons brown sugar
the juice of one large lemon

Set the oven at 325 F. Line a loaf pan, about 10 x 4 x 3 inches deep, with baking parchment (simply cut a piece of paper the exact length of the tin and lay it inside the tin and up the longest sides).

To make the topping, slice the lemon thinly and and put it in a small saucepan with the sugar and water. Bring to a boil, then watch closely for five minutes or so, until the water has almost evaporated and the lemon slices are sticky. Set aside.

Beat the butter and sugar together in a food mixer until they are light and fluffy. You can expect it to take a little longer than it would with superfine sugar. Meanwhile, measure the flour and almonds and mix them with the baking powder. Grate the zest of the lemons and add it to the flour mixture.

Break the eggs and beat them lightly with a fork, then add them to the creamed butter and sugar a little at a time. The mixture will probably curdle a bit but don't worry. Remove the mixing bowl from the machine and gently fold in the flour, almonds, and baking powder with a large metal spoon (a wooden spoon would knock the air out).

Scoop the mixture into the lined pan, then lay the reserved lemon slices on top, overlapping them down the center of the cake. Bake for about 45 minutes, until risen and golden. Insert a metal skewer to see if it is ready. If it comes out clean, then the cake is done; if it has mixture sticking to it, it needs a few minutes longer. Remove the cake from the oven and set aside.

For the syrup, stir the brown sugar into the lemon juice; it will only partially dissolve. Spike the top of the cake with a metal skewer, then spoon over the lemon and sugar. Leave to cool.

Enough for 8.

Nigel Slater

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