20-05-2000TERESA AYUGA

Summer started earlier than usual this year and it was hotter and stickier than ever. But it has also come to an end somewhat sooner than in recent years — and I, for one, am extremely grateful.

In the 1960s and before, one could predict the end of the hot weather with uncanny accuracy: every year a thunderstorm a couple of days before or after August 25 sent the temperatures into nosedive. Two or three days later we had another storm — and we went straight into autumn, with winter just around the corner.

But over the past 15 years or so, that pattern slowly came to an end: no storms in August (or even in September) and the hot sunny days continuing well into October or later. It’s all part of the climate change that’s hitting (and will eventually devastate) countries all over the world.

As I write, it’s too early to say if autumnal weather has arrived but the fierce heat has gone out of the sun and won’t come back until next year.

However, one thing is for sure: autumn has arrived safe and well at the island’s markets and shops — and the fruits and veggies we most associate with this time of year are very much on display.

The winter greens we’ll soon be using for comforting pulses dishes on cold days are already much in evidence. You’ll see cabbages in 50 shades of green, some of them on the large side. But you don’t have to buy a whole one: stallholders and supermarkets sell halves and even quarters.

On the three very autumnal days we’ve had so far, I bought a lovely bunch of large-leaf Swiss chard (acelgas) and made a Spanish potaje with potatoes and chickpeas. Very rustic, very tasty and very healthy.

You’ll also see some petite posies of spinach that are ideal on their own with capellini, fettuccine, fidelini or one of the other long thin pastas. Shred the leaves as finely as possible but without chopping them. Sauté them gently in lots of butter and a little finely chopped garlic an toss them with the pasta, adding extra butter (or a drizzle of virgen extra olive oil), and finishing them off with generous sprinkle of grated parmesan.

This makes an excellent light luncheon with a green salad — and you can keep to the Italian theme by using rocket, halves of cherry tomatoes and roughly chopped walnuts, with a dressing of only virgen extra olive oil.

The green side of autumn continues with broccoli, narrow or broad French beans, pale-coloured beans in the pod and beautifully coiffured bunches of watercress (berros).

Very few stalls at the Mercatd’Olivar stock watercress and if you want it you’ll have to ask — I’ve never seen it on display because stallholders prefer to keep it in the fridge.

Cauliflower, one of our most neglected veggies, is also there in abundance and we should make the most of it. When done in a bechamel sauce and baked so that the grated cheese topping is crisp and golden, it’s an ideal pairing with roast chicken or leg of lamb.

Leftovers are delicious cold, heated through or blitzed in a blender to make a creamy soup flavoured with your favourite herb and served with deep-fried croutons — extra special on a cold winter’s day.

We are now into the best time of the year for root veggies. Bunches of young carrots with bright skins and bushy frilly tops of a dark green hue, have already put in an appearance and white turnips, also with huge mops of edible green foliage, will soon be plentiful.

The green tops of turnips are called grelos and they are an essential ingredient in Galician cuisine. Galicians adore thee sometimes simply boiled and then sautéed in olive oil with cloves of crushed garlic and eaten as a starter or with boiled meats.

A famous Galician dish, which you will find at all restaurants doing dishes from that part of the country, is lacón con grelos. Lacón is the Galician equivalent of gammon. It is cut into thick slices or wedges, boiled, and served with boiled potatoes and roughly shredded grelos. It’s country fare and a good dish for a cold day.

Sweet potatoes (boniatos) seem to be on sale all year round, but in the autumn and winter they are at their best. Majorcans adore sweet potatoes and you will find them at every stall and supermarket. You can get both kinds — the white ones and those with an amber-like flesh.

Every time I get sweet potatoes at a restaurant I find them absolutely delicious and promise myself I will eat them at home — but I never get round to doing it. I’m going to make a big effort to get them into my shopping basket this year, using some of the many recipes in my collection of books on American regional cooking.

Pumpkin, that other winter veggie which Americans use more frequently than the British, is already everywhere. It is a popular addition to Spanish soups and vegetable stews and vegetarians make good use of in.

In the past two or three years Palma restaurant cooks have also started to add pumpkin to their dishes and sometimes they even serve it as the main veg with some meat dishes. It’s absolutely delicious when baked in the oven, unpeeled, and served as the main garnish with roast chicken or beef.

Watch out for the season’s new garlic shoots (ajos tiernos or ajetes) that look somewhat like rickety leeks. They have a subtle garlic taste and can be stir-fried as a garnish for grilled meats, or finely chopped and mixed into omelettes and scrambled eggs.

There is nothing anorexic abut the leeks now on sale: they are large and sturdy and ideal for shredding finely and adding to soups, potajes and all kinds of beans dishes. The Basques adore leeks and frequently slice them up into chunks, simmer them until al dente and serve them as a starter.

The first pomegranates I saw were the strangest I’ve ever come across — they were large, of a uniform beige-like colour, and the skin looked as if it had the texture of a sheet of fine sandpaper. I would never buy one because I want them with their usual colours of a Vermont autumn — partly because they look so pretty on a platter of fruit.

I saw these beige pomegranates in a long-established and serious fruit and veg shop near where I live and run by a Majorcan family that knows more about this fruit than I do.

What made them choose this an unattractive batch? I’ll have to check up, because it could be that under that sandpaper skin the seeds will be sparkling like gems — and with a very special taste.

Other pomegranates (granadas in Spanish) were most colourful although they were on the small side. I also stay clear of them. I usually prefer fruits to be smallish because they are sweeter, but I always go for large pomegranates — their seeds have a richer taste and are juicier.

Between now and well into February I’ll be having them as a dessert fruit and using them in delicious Majorcan and Middle Eastern dishes.

Another fruit we see only at this time of year is the quince (membrillo), not exactly the prettiest fruit at the market but a useful one for cooks and those who are into home baking.

The quince has a soft flesh although it is so extremely tartish that no one ever eats it raw. But they are a treat when cooked as a compote, made into jam, used to fill a tart, or done as other kinds of dessert.

Spaniards turn this fruit into a solid jam-like paste called dulce de membrillo, but most people say membrillo for short. It is sold in slabs of about 250 grs weight although you sometimes see a thick soft version that can be spread like jam.

The slabs of membrillo are cut into slices and served with certain hard cheeses at the end of a meal — and sometimes as an afternoon snack. You can buy these slabs at some supermarkets and also at the cheese counter of El Corte Inglés.

The quince season is surprisingly short, so if you intend to cook something with them it’s a good idea to do it sooner rather than later.

We are also entering the season when oranges, lemons, mandarins and other citric fruits are at their best. There is usually quite a big difference in the quality of citric fruits.

It’s a good idea to buy small quantities at different outlets (no more than two at a time) and when you find an orange that isn’t stringy and is sweet and juicy, keep going back to that shop or supermarket for more.

Grapes are one of the fruits that are at their best in September and El Corte Inglés has some varieties I have never heard of. A seedless green grape called Cotton Candy@ is very sweet and most popular with children…as well as many adults.

Two others to look out for are K2 (green, juicy and with an exotic flavour) as well as Sweet Sapphire (black, oval-shaped, sweet and crisp).

Candy Hearts is a seedless reddish variety, crisp-textured and with a caramel-like taste. And those who go for the moscatel grape with its unique and intense sweetness should look out for the Muscat Beauty variety.

We will also be seeing exotic and somewhat expensive fruits from far away lands, although nowadays many of them are grown in the Canaries or the south of Spain — or perhaps they come from not-so-far-away Israel.

Avocados (aguacate), custard apples (chirimoya) and Japanese persimmon (caqui) are among the three favourite fruits of Majorcan housewives and their families at this time of year.

Four weeks ago El Corte Inglés in Jaime III had some lovely ready-to-eat avocados at €3.99 a kilo, a good price. They were so deliciously soft the flesh could be scooped out with a spoon. I did that, put it into a deepish plate and mashed it smooth with a little salt, pepper, a pinch of mixed dried herbs and a generous spraying of Modena vinegar.

Spread very thickly on four Swedish rye crispbreads, with a glass of wine followed by a nectarine and two plums, they were a lovely light lunch for a sunny day. I’ve had one ripe avocado per week since then and I’m loving it. It’s such an easy lunch go make —and to eat.

Mashed avocado well flavoured with Modena vinegar and without raw onion and flakes of hot chillis, is so much more elegant and tastier than guacamole — one of the many over-rated dishes in Mexican cooking.


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