And so autumn came, unexpectedly and suddenly, and there were leaves in the street and the sky was pink, and mornings crisp and fresh, and the start of term. I was not expecting autumn this year (summer was so long and full of storms), and it caught me unawares, and I was so glad of it: autumn (smell of bacon as I fasten up my laces and the song the milkman sings) is my favourite of all the seasons.
I have been walking everywhere, and there are leaves in great heaps on the pavement, and assorted scarves, and humming the Harvest hymns of my childhood (jet planes meeting in the air to be refuelled, all these things I love so well) and the wind moves on the wide river. The river is the best thing about London; at one end is my childhood (swimming in the Cherwell, sausage rolls and wasps) and at the other is the sea, and somewhere in the middle is me, following the river home. I have always wanted to follow a river home, and now I do, watching the river, watching the sky (clouds that look like familiar faces, and a winter’s moon with frosted rings). Three miles along the river, a mile from the river to the tiny flat. And in the tiny flat is the Tall Man, and supper.
At the moment supper is inevitably this curry: just fancy enough to dolly up an ordinary Thursday, but hearty enough to feel like a reward for an eight mile walk. It’s full of autumn: dark orange squash, sweet sharp Persephone pomegranate, cardamom and clove and cumin and caraway roasted whole in a dry frying pan and crushed together with a heavy stone pestle and mortar. Caraway, I think, is vastly under-used, and it makes me think of seedy-cake, and nursery teas, and warm spicy autumn. We will use plenty of caraway, here, and we’ll hurry home together, boots on the flags by the river, a sharp bonfire smell everywhere, and all around evening drawing in, and all these things I love so well.
Hurry Home Autumn Pomegranate and Coquina Curry
Serves 4; 40 mins altogether
Suitable (yes!) for vegetarians
Two medium squashes. I used coquina, because they looked rather lovely; this is essentially only a fancy butternut.
Three medium red onions
Four cloves garlic
Two baby fennel.
Half a pomegranate
A largish bag of raw spinach
A thumb-nut of fresh ginger
A reasonable handful of fresh coriander
A good glug (a glug is a couple of shakes, Caroline) of pomegranate molasses
Stock to cover (one stock pot; some water)
About a teaspoon of powdered ginger; one of garam masala; if you have it, and the same of powdered fennel.
A good quantity of caraway seeds, cumin seeds, cloves, and cardamom; and two of those little dried chillies with the seeds rattling about inside.
A biggish pot with a lid (I do it in the wok); a pestle and mortar or other means of crushing; grater; chopping board; knife; bigger, heavier knife (mine is a Japanese cleaver); spoon. You could even, I think, do this beautifully in a slow cooker.
Put on a jumper, and socks, and an apron, and open the window wide to let autumn in. Peel your coquina. You will need to be fairly firm about this, if you’re using a peeler: the skin is thicker than you think, and tenacious, and if you let it stay even a little bit it will give your curry an oddly…chunky texture. So. All must go. All shall have prizes, and the prize here is that all that gorgeous striped coquina-skin is of absolutely no use to you whatsoever. (This is one of the many reasons why sensible readers will use butternut in its place.)
Dice your thoroughly peeled squash into reasonable bits- little misshapen cubes about half the size of your little finger, but it doesn’t really matter. Tip the whole lot into a plastic bag, shake in your powdered ginger, and your powdered fennel, and shake the bag thoroughly. Then you can ignore the bag for a moment.
Peel and chop your onions and your garlic in the ordinariest way, and peel and grate your ginger. An ordinary grater will do just fine. (Having written this sentence I am suddenly baffled: does one usually peel onions?mis that the right phrase? Take off the outside-skin, anyway.) Chop too your baby fennel (ordinary fennel will also be lovely here, only I think baby fennel is very adorable)- take off the toughest outer skin, if it seems a little yellow, but otherwise pretend it’s an onion and you shan’t go far wrong.
Set the kettle to boil, for the stock.
Now. Take your clean dry pan, and put it over a medium heat. Let it warm a little. Into this pan go your spices, like this: four or five cloves, crushed between your fingertips (all approaching Christmas and cold in the air), five or six cardamom pods, crushed with a pestle to break the tough little skin (sweet-sharp abroad-smell), two dried chillies (chopped roughly into the pan with scissors, retaining the seeds), and two big pinches each of cumin seeds and caraway seeds. Nothing else. Don’t let them burn, stirring occasionally. They will give off the most gorgeous, autumny smell, and when they are a golden-brown sort of colour, tip the lot into your mortar and crush them together, making a coarse powder, all beautiful warm spicy scents and flavours.
Take your onions, garlic, fennel and ginger, and put them into the hot pan, left on the heat. (You may need a little oil here.) Stir through your spice-powder, and let absorb for a minute or two. Maybe so many as five or six minutes: don’t let it burn, let the onions become translucent and fragrant and utterly incandescent with autumnal joy. Throw in the garam masala, too.
Add your squash, which has been sitting with the dried fennel and ginger, and brown it the way you might meat, letting all sides of the squash-shapes sear against the hot pan. Another five minutes, here, and while it’s browning make up about half a pint of stock. You are now familiar with my methods (stock pot added straight in to the pan and stirred vigorously, water gauged by eye to top up afterwards, to avoid dirtying a jug) but you, as they say, do you.
Your stock should just about cover your squash. Put in a hefty glug of pomegranate molasses, which is a sort of miracle-drug: sour-sweet balsamic, if balsamic tasted like this. I am learning to make my own, but it is cheaper and easier to get it from Waitrose (and probably other supermarkets, too, only Waitrose is my default fancy-treat supermarket. The last time I was in Waitrose an elderly lady in a clear plastic raincoat cursed me with the apocalypse. It remains my favourite fancy-treat supermarket). Stir fairly thoroughly, turn the heat to medium-low, and cover. It will take about half an hour for the squash to soften. Honestly, though, like most curries, the longer you leave it, the better the flavours will be: if you’re doing this in a slow cooker, it will be absolutely fine on a medium heat for a good wee while.
Take your pomegranate, and deseed it. There is no easy way to do this that I know of; I tend to approach with a sharp knife like an incompetent hunter, pouncing on each individual ruby seed with undeserved glee. Once your pomegranate is as deseeded as it can be, decant the seeds into a little bowl, all glossy and translucent. And have a few moments off. Unless you want rice with this (I suggest black Thai), in which case sort that out.
Taste your curry. Let’s proceed as if it’s softened exactly as it should (if not, look, stir, cover, write, check. Or something. More stock. More time.), which is to say that you could cut the squash with a spoon. Summon to table. Stir through as much of the spinach as you can get in (it will wilt fairly fast), and the fresh coriander. Taste. A good twist of black pepper, possibly a little salt. About two thirds of your pomegranate seeds. Stir.
Spoon into bowls. Stud with pomegranate seeds, like little jewels (autumn days when the grass is jewelled and the silk inside a chestnut shell…) Hug yourselves with glee. Autumn. And a great big thank you.