Having grown up in a part of the Northern Hemisphere that saw bitter, icy winters with hardly a hint of life for the better part of six months, autumn in Wellington feels almost like a tease. No forests ablaze in mustard* and vermilion, no mountains of raked-up leaves lining the streets. Here we rely on subtler hints that it’s not summer anymore: a little edginess to the wind, the sun just a bit duller, glimpses of gold and red here and there. But our autumn still stirs up that sort of peaceful melancholy that sets in around this time of year, a settling-down feeling, not altogether unpleasant. I’ve been relishing it – listening to the right music (a lot of Angus and Julia Stone, can’t believe I only just discovered them over the weekend), eating lots of apples and pears, wearing tights and woolly jumpers and learning to play the blues on the saxophone.** Melancholy, yes, but also sweetly satisfying.
And autumn’s all about satisfaction. Spring is hopeful and yearning, all green, tender asparagus shoots, and summer’s luscious and burning and exuberant, but autumn:
Autumn is full of the satisfaction of pulling fruit off vines, off trees, vegetables from the ground, the warm lingering contentment of apple crumbles and steaming cups of tea. And this salad, with succulent bits of chicken, tangy goats’ cheese and tender, yielding leeks, is such a pleasure to eat it almost feels wrong. It’s not. It’s plenty good for you, and the warm, roasted pears, meltingly sweet, push this dish over the edge: bliss.
No manmade dessert comes even close to the deliciousness of an unadorned, soft-ripe pear, but roasting them brings out that mellow sweetness when all your pears are firm and you don’t feel like waiting around for them to ripen. It feels a bit like cheating but the result is delicious in its own right.
I had almost forgotten about how good this salad is, having made it a couple of times last autumn out of the then-current issue of Cuisine. I’m so glad I spent a few luxurious hours over the weekend curled up in bed with the cat, thumbing through a stack of cookbooks and magazines. It’s the perfect salad for the weather, for the season, for the mood I was in.
So make this salad, now, maybe a couple of times over the next few weeks, but don’t overdo it (it’s a little bit special). Make it when you’re feeling fulfilled and content and just a wee bit sad, make it when you’re wholly satisfied and things couldn’t be better, make it when the skies are pleasantly grey and little dead leaves are blowing across the pavement. And then don’t make it again for a whole year until that wistful autumn half-smile appears on your face again, and relish in the thrill of rediscovery.
*Speaking of mustard, aside from it being delicious, I am positively lusting over bits of mustard popping up on clothes and accessories this season… am very much feeling the need-a-new-autumn-wardrobe vibe. So far, have been squirreling my money away responsibly instead… but a girl can dream.
**For what it’s worth I mostly sound like a dying goose but my goodness it’s fun. And by “the blues” I mean fiddling around with blues scales and feeling very triumphant about it.
ROASTED PEAR, LEEK & CHICKEN SALAD: (serves 3-4)
(Only very slightly adapted from Cuisine, May 2010)
3 chicken legs**
2 firm pears, cut into wedges
1-2 leeks (depending on size), sliced on the diagonal
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon yellow mustard seeds
1/2 tsp fennel seeds
1 to 1 1/2 cups torn ciabatta
baby cos and baby spinach
crumbled goats’ cheese
salt, pepper, olive oil
Preheat oven to 200ºC.
Season chicken with sea salt and cracked black pepper, place in roasting dish with the pears and leeks. Give everything a good drizzle of olive oil and sprinkle the mustard and fennel seeds and chopped garlic over everything; chuck it in the oven for 40-45 minutes until you can’t stand how good your house smells and the chicken is brown and crispy-skinned and the pears and leeks are meltingly soft. Once it’s done, pull the roasting dish out of the oven and let it sit for a few minutes.
While the chicken’s in the oven tear up some ciabatta bits (or any stale bread you have lying around will do), give it a swirl of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt and pepper, pop that in the oven too, but only for about 10 minutes until it crisps up.
In those last minutes of waiting, get the salad ready: place the greens on a big platter or on individual plates. Remove the chicken, pears and leeks from the roasting dish, carve the chicken into big, juicy chunks, place on top of the greens with the pears and leeks.
Pour off the fat from the roasting dish and heat on the stove, then deglaze with red wine vinegar, letting it bubble and mingle with the little bits stuck to the pan. Pour this over the salad, immediately sprinkle the goats’ cheese on top, and dig in while it’s still hot and the leaves are crunchy.
*I used legs because I prefer juicy dark meat, but you could just as easily use breasts, a combination, or a whole spatchcocked chicken as in the original recipe. If you do this you may need to increase the quantities a bit, or just have leftover chicken. All good either way.