Autumn's colourful foods

16:00, Mar 22 2014
Caponata ratatouille
SUNSHINE STEW: A caponata is a simple way to combine and rejoice in the farewell flavours of summer..

Being up to my eyeballs with a new baby this week has put something of a damper on getting my autumn garden planted.

This does not bode well for winter or spring crops at our house, and pretty much ensures I will be a fixture at my two local farmers' markets.

At all times of the year I shudder at shrink-wrapped this and vacuum-packed that, sprayed with chemicals, dyed with synthetics, corrected with some enzyme, improver or preservative. But being a dedicated seasonal eater can have its challenges for a busy household.


During the winter months the supermarket produce aisle becomes almost pointless to me, pausing for a turnip or a head of cabbage as I breeze past imported tomatoes, capsicums, courgettes, green beans and aubergines.

However, for the next few weeks these lovely mainstays of the Mediterranean are all I have eyes for. An organic food box delivery is eking us through this first six weeks at home with our newborn and, along with the obligatory overkill of carrots and daunting bag of kale (juice it or compost it), the autumnal harvest is packed with bright colours and lots of flavour.


It may be unproven hippie beliefs, but I strongly feel that the bright, vitamin-rich burst of food provided in autumn prepares our bodies for fighting winter colds and duller months ahead. It feels as if all the warmth of summer growth is held in a bright yellow capsicum or a big, purple, spongy aubergine.

You may have heard me give this recipe on Radio New Zealand National last month - it is an annual staple in my kitchen. It is the best way to celebrate autumn. This is my version of a simple dish called a caponata (thought to be Sicilian).

Although it is usually eaten cold and often as part of an antipasti, I have turned it into a family dinner. The husband is happiest if he gets a slab of organic rump steak alongside. Our toddler prefers just about everything in it raw, so she gets a stack of capsicums and celery with a bowl of hummus.

For me, I like it best served simple as a vegetarian stew with soft cooked polenta and a pile of fresh basil. It is a dish easily tailored to suit a few tastes and preferences.

Polenta is a great favourite of mine, probably because it was on the menu at a restaurant where I worked, so I got past the fear of making it.

Instant polenta is really easy to make. It takes about five minutes and once you have mastered the "whisk and pour" method, yours will be lump-free and happy.

My top tips for polenta are cream, herbs and stock. As long as the liquid you are mixing in with the polenta tastes great, so will your finished product.

Whisk about one cup of polenta into three cups of simmering stock and cream. This gives enough to serve four, with some left over. I like to add about 70 grams of grated parmesan or similar hard cheese and finely chopped aromatic herbs like thyme, oregano, rosemary and marjoram to the hot stock.

Occasionally a little crushed garlic is nice but it can be overpowering.

Leftover polenta sets hard and can be fried up like potatoes. With eggs, smoked fish and a spoonful of caponata added to the morning frying pan, it rivals any cafe breakfast.

Sunday Star Times