Down here in Central Otago, there's a sense of magic in the air at this time of year. The days parade by, blue-skied and breathless and, at an ever-quickening pace the landscape turns to wildfire. It's so spectacular this crescendo of colour, and so fleeting. We know that at any minute a biting storm will crash in from the Antarctic and blow it all away.
In the garden, plants race to ripen and set their seed, knowing that winter is waiting on the sidelines with its icy frosts, collapsing tender crops to mush.
The crispness of the air, the rustle of falling leaves and the honking calls of flocks of gathering migratory geese out on the lake remind me that I must hurry to pick all the frost-tender vegetables and store the pumpkins. Soon, suddenly, it will be over, the birds will be gone, the leaves will be gone and the chilling blasts of winter will render the landscape mute.
Inside, the fire is roaring and my kitchen benches are covered with an assortment of peppers, chillies, eggplants and tomatoes (tomatoes will ripen inside as long as they are no longer bright green and have just started to turn colour). There are buckets of apples and pears and a fridge full of the last late peaches. It's so satisfying this harvesting time, and my squirrel instincts are assuaged.
The rhythm of the seasons is something I love about living in the country, a visceral sense of being at one with the cycles of nature. While every season brings its rewards, autumn, more than any other, is when I feel oh-so-lucky to be a cook. There's a depth of flavour to the harvests at this time of year that reflects a full season's growth – fat, heavy eggplants, bright red peppers and ripe, sweet tomatoes demand attention, to stew or braise, grill or roast.
For as long as mankind has grown and farmed, this time of year has signalled a moment to stop and reflect, taking in the marvel of nature that each year produces the food we need to survive and thrive, and celebrating the harvests safely stored.
As nature's wheel turns another cog, it's time for our own harvest festival celebrations. Light the fire, pour a glass of pinot and savour the last golden days of autumn over a harvest feast shared around the table.
Beef Rib-eye with Smoked Garlic and Chilli Aioli
Ready in 1 hour + marinating + resting
1.5kg trimmed beef rib-eye (scotch fillet), tied
2 Tbsp pureed chipotles in adobe sauce, or more to taste
Zest of 1 large lime, finely grated
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp salt
Ground black pepper, to taste
Rocket leaves, to serve
Smoked Garlic and Chilli Aioli
1 cup mayonnaise
1-2 Tbsp pureed chipotles in adobe sauce
2 cloves smoked garlic or regular garlic
1 Tbsp lime juice
2 tomatoes, cored and coarsely chopped
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
Rub beef all over with combined pureed chipotles, lime zest and oil and season with salt and pepper. Stand at room temperature for at least 30 minutes or in the fridge for up to 24 hours, bringing back to room temperature for half an hour before roasting.
Preheat oven to 200C fanbake. Roast meat until internal temperature reaches 53C for rare or 60C for medium-rare (about 30-40 minutes). The temperature will rise by a couple of degrees after it comes out of the oven. The meat can also be roasted in a covered barbecue. When cooked, cover with tinfoil and a couple of tea towels and rest for at least half an hour. (It can be rested for longer and reheated in a 200C oven for 10 minutes before serving.) To make the smoked garlic and chilli aioli, whizz together all ingredients until semi-smooth – it's nice left a little chunky. Refrigerate until needed. Thinly slice beef across the grain and serve on a bed of rocket leaves, drizzled with aioli.
Annabel says: This is a knockout dish for a special occasion like an autumn feast. The aioli will keep in the fridge for at least a week, and leftovers of beef and aioli are fabulous in a big, crusty sandwich with rocket and any leftover eggplant salad.
Charred Eggplant and Pepper Salad
Ready in 1 hour + cooling
4 red peppers
3 fat cloves garlic, fresh or smoked, crushed
½ cup chopped parsley
4 Tbsp lemon juice
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
6 Tbsp olive oil, plus extra to garnish
Preheat oven to 220°C fanbake and line a large, shallow roasting dish with baking paper. Cut 4-5 deep slits lengthways into the eggplants, place them in the dish and roast for 20 minutes. Add red peppers and continue cooking for 15-20 minutes until peppers are blistered and eggplants have collapsed. Cover charred eggplants and peppers with a clean tea towel until cool enough to handle.
Peel off and discard the eggplant skins. Finely chop the flesh and place in a bowl with garlic, parsley and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper and mix in the olive oil. Spread mixture on to a presentation chopping board or platter and use a knife to make indented ridges across the top. De-seed peppers and rub off and discard charred skins. Cut flesh into thin strips. Pile in a band across eggplant mixture and drizzle with a little extra olive oil. Serve at room temperature.
Annabel says: Here I've given instructions for charring eggplants in the oven, but if you have an open fire they're even better cooked directly in the embers. They take about 10 minutes each side. The skins will blacken and char but leave them to cool then peel off the brittle charred skins and the flesh with inside will be soft with a wonderful smoky flavour. If you are cooking inside using an oven and want that smoky taste you can sit the eggplants and peppers over a gas flame to blacken before finishing them in the oven.
Ruby Roasted Pears
Ready in 1½ hours + chilling
2 cups sugar
3 cups red wine or pomegranate juice
2 cinnamon sticks
4 bay leaves
1 vanilla pod
6-8 just-ripe pears, with stems intact
Whipped cream, icecream or creme fraiche, to serve
Choose a pot that will fit 6-8 pears sitting snugly upright in a single layer. Heat sugar, wine, cinnamon sticks, bay leaves and vanilla pod, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Peel pears, leaving them whole with stalks intact. Slice or peel the base of each pear so it will stand upright. Place in the pot with the poaching liquid, arranging the pears so they are covered as much as possible by the syrup. Simmer gently for 30 minutes or until tender, turning occasionally. Cool pears then place with their syrup in a container, cover and chill for at least 24 hours or up to 3 days, turning occasionally so that they colour evenly. Lift pears out of the syrup and arrange in a shallow baking dish. Place the syrup in a pot, bring to a rapid boil and continue cooking until reduced by half (about 20 minutes). Remove bay leaves, cinnamon and vanilla pod. You can rinse and dry the vanilla pod and then store it in a sugar container to use again. When you are ready to serve the pears, preheat oven to 220C fanbake. Baste the pears liberally with syrup, ensuring they are well coated, and roast for 12-15 minutes. Brush with more syrup as they come out of the oven. Place on serving plates, drizzle with a large spoonful of syrup and accompany with whipped cream, ice cream or creme fraiche.
Annabel says: These pears are first poached and then roasted, which gives them a wonderfully intense flavour and deep burnished autumnal hue. They taste best if poached and chilled in their liquid for up to three days before roasting, so they can absorb the flavours and colour of the syrup.