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Fall's Not Just in the Air,
but on the Palate

By Nigella Lawson

This seems to have been the longest summer. At this time of year, people should, by rights, be growing bored with fall, and yet it seems just to be starting. And anyone would think that I, as one who has written about extending summer, should be pleased, yet I find myself hankering after traditional autumnal evenings, with food that is warm, cozy, homemaking and welcoming.

I have nothing against the sunny, fresh, light foods of summer, and while they need not be abandoned entirely, taking culinary pleasure in the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness is one of the real pleasures of home cooking. Fall food is perhaps the most satisfying for those who like eating: lamb lightly sauced, sweet with garlic and burnished with Marsala-spiked orange, followed by musky, spiced oven-poached plums. This is a proper autumnal dinner enough to cloak you in warmth, but not so much that you feel smothered in some sort of gastro-quilt.

The lamb itself has a kind of sprightly air. Though it manages to evince a depth of mellow flavor, it takes very little time to cook and has an almost radiant lightness.

The sauce is nothing more than some water and the zest of half an orange simmered in a pan with a fistful of garlic cloves. Yes, 10 cloves seems a lot, but because the garlic is whole, not minced, and poached rather than fried, what you get is warmth rather than heat, sweetness rather than acrid bite.

Buy lamb steaks if you can though if you want to tack a bit, duck breasts also work quite well. While the garlic is poaching in its pan, fry the steaks in a scant amount of olive oil until they are flavor-sealed and heat-darkened outside, but still juicily tender within.

At this stage, slosh in the contents of the simmering pan. Add the juice of the half-zested orange and a slug of Marsala (though sherry, brandy or any wine you have open will do), along with some leaves stripped from thyme sprigs. Let everything bubble away a little, the sauce lapping the meat in the pan, before removing the steaks and reducing the liquid until it is a gorgeous, savory, shiny syrup.

Just as the garlic, despite the number of cloves, doesn't pervade bossily, the orange doesn't give too invasive a citrus kick. This is an ideal culinary collaboration: all the ingredients dovetail into mellow harmony. Hence the name of the dish.

I would think of serving no more with this than a bowl of crunchy fine beans, though a gentler, starchier accompaniment would be a warmed jar of those soft, braised bottled peas for which the French have a particular weakness.

It's not that you couldn't bulk this up with potatoes, but I don't see the need not least because you should consider leaving room for the plums afterward.

Now, those plums: there are many ways you can eat them, but I present them here without accompaniment, knowing that they are perfection as is and that you can always tinker with them later as you will.

The important thing is that they are poached in the oven. I find this the best way of infusing the fruit with flavor (and believe me, you can start with plums as hard as pool balls and still end up with juicy, ripe-bellied fruit). And they keep their shape.

In a pan on the stove, halved plums easily start turning into pulpy fuzz before they cook enough for the taste to deepen satisfactorily. Anyway, the process is not tricky: just put water in a pan, along with honey, maple syrup, cinnamon, star anise and a murmur of balsamic vinegar. (Even desserts need acidity, and plums in particular are a wonderful balance of sharp and sweet.) When everything comes to a boil, pour it over the halved plums in an ovenproof dish, cover with aluminum or a lid and stash in a low oven for an hour.

I love these after they sit 20 minutes or so, but I make sure some are left over to eat later. With cream, custard or store-bought cinnamon ice cream, they are dreamy.

If you can be bothered to make some rice pudding, it provides an exceptional pairing, especially when it is warm and the plums are cool.

Cool though never chilled, please these plums are also heavenly with pecans just toasted by tossing in a dry pan over fairly high heat a few minutes and then sprinkled over the juicy fruit. If you wonder why I specify two pounds of fruit for just four people, it's because it would be a terrible waste to make these and not leave enough so you can eat them cold for breakfast the next day with some granola and a splodge of whole-milk yogurt.

Recipe: Mellow Lamb Steaks
Recipe: Autumnal Spiced Plums


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