Smashing pumpkins: roasted squash with chilli. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin for the Observer
I had my first sniff of autumn last week. That first hint that the season is changing usually involves some form of decay, in this case a couple of courgettes that had rotted to golden mush under their rain-sodden leaves in the veg patch. But the scent of early autumn is often one of extreme ripeness, too. Late-fruiting raspberries, plums of every sort and cherry-sized tomatoes are heady now, and their presence marks the change as clearly as turning a page of the calendar.
The smell of autumn hangs over the kitchen with a plate of plums so ripe as to be on the verge of collapse. This year I used early Victorias in a sorbet. It was good enough, though unexceptional until my second attempt when I roasted the fruits first, their flesh caramelising in the oven. The difference was amazing, the richness making it a clear winner. I put a carton of the pale pink and gold water-ice on the table with extra fruit, roasted with gin and juniper.
The plum season begins in July, starting with the diminutive golden Mirabelle, and continues until the dark red Marjorie's Seedling in early October. During the last few autumns I have tucked various varieties into classic sticky gingerbread; chutneyed them with raisins and malt vinegar; churned them into ice cream and served them as a compote with anise- seasoned pork ribs. Roasting them with gin has its roots in my jars of crimson damson gin, the nearest I am likely to get to home wine-making.
The pumpkins in the shops now are generally young ones with soft skins. While some of the larger ones are still sitting in the sun "curing", there are plenty about for roasting. Cut into wedges like melon or hacked into lumps and roasted, pumpkin needs something either spicy or very savoury to stop its slide into sugariness. This week I roasted one in small pieces with butter and then tossed it with a hot and sticky syrup of chillies and coriander – something I intend to try with sweet potatoes, too.
Sweet fruits, sweet vegetables and a distinct whiff of woodsmoke in the air. For the home cook, this is surely as good as it gets.
HOT SWEET BAKED PUMPKIN
This is an excellent side dish for baked ham, pork chops or cold beef, or as a main with steamed rice. It is essential to ensure the pumpkin is tender before adding the spices.
Serves 6 as a side dish
pumpkin or butternut squash 1.5kg, unpeeled weight butter 50g
For the dressing: caster sugar 4 tbsp water 200ml ginger a thumb-sized lump red chilli 1 large, medium hot limes 2 fish sauce 1 tbsp, or to taste coriander a small bunch, finely chopped
Set the oven at 200C/gas mark 6. Peel the pumpkin, discard the seeds and fibres, and cut the flesh into small pieces, about 3cm in thickness. Put them in a roasting tin with the butter and bake for 50-60 minutes, turning occasionally, till soft enough to take the point of a knife.
Put the sugar and water in a shallow pan and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down and simmer till the liquid has reduced by half. Meanwhile, peel and roughly chop the ginger and put in the bowl of a food processor. Halve the chilli lengthways and chop roughly, removing the seeds if you wish for a less spicy seasoning. Add the chilli to the bowl, then grate in the zest of the limes. Squeeze in the juice from the limes, then process to a coarse paste.
Stir the spice mixture into the syrup and simmer for a minute before adding the fish sauce and coriander. Remove from the heat.
When the pumpkin is fully tender, spoon most of the chilli sauce over, toss gently to coat each piece, then return to the oven for a further 5-10 minutes. Toss with the remaining chilli sauce and serve.
A SORBET OF ROASTED PLUMS
A well-flavoured plum ice that is easy to make with or without an ice-cream maker.
For the syrup: water 150ml caster sugar 150g
For the plums: dark, ripe plums 500g caster sugar 1 tbsp lemon juice of 1
Set the oven at 200C/gas mark 6. Bring the sugar and water to the boil in a small saucepan, switch off the heat and leave to cool, then chill thoroughly.
Wipe the plums, remove their stalks and put in a baking dish with the sugar. Bake for 30 minutes until they are soft and the skins have burst. Remove from the oven, leave to cool and remove the stones.
Mash the plums and their skins with a fork. I prefer a lumpy mash to add texture, but remove the skins if you prefer. Stir 200ml of the sugar syrup into the plums, then add the lemon juice. Pour into an ice-cream maker and churn until almost frozen or freeze by hand by pouring the mixture into a plastic freezer box, then leave to freeze for 4 hours stirring it every hour to introduce a little air. Serve with the hot plums below.
ROAST PLUMS, GIN AND JUNIPER
Even slightly under-ripe plums will respond to this treatment. Serve as a hot pudding with cream or spoon it over the sorbet above.
Set the oven at 180C/gas mark 4. Melt the butter and sugar in a nonstick pan, then add the gin and juniper berries. Wipe the plums and put them in a baking dish, then pour over the butter and sugar mixture.
Bake for 50-60 minutes till the plums have burst their skins and are soft and slightly caramelised. Serve with a jug of double cream or the plum sorbet above.