Just before you hop off the Veganuary bandwagon, late winter’s harvest still has much to offer
To eat in season all year round we need to know which produce is available locally each month. Perhaps the best reason for doing so is that food tastes better at the time it’s harvested, it costs less and you learn how to make better use of ingredients and reduce waste.
February is the last month of winter and the tail end of the cycle before new crops are sown again in March. Those available now are mainly folate-rich brassicas that are more resilient to the cold than summer-loving runner beans, asparagus and peas. Brassicas are known for tasting sweeter after the first frost and are happy to be left in the ground over winter, withstanding sleet and snow. Other cultivars we eat this month might be forced into premature growth (chicory) or fare well for long periods in storage (swede). Most root crops can stay fresh for up to three months thanks to the naturally occurring insulation in those knobbly, thick skins.
Endive or chicory, same thing, really. Both crispy, fresh and delicious
The most common varieties are red radicchio and the Belgium endive, known as as ‘witloof’ (‘white leaf’). Sugar loaf is another common cultivar and looks similar to Romaine lettuce. The prized part of chicory is the tender baby heart (‘chicon’) which provides those bitter, crispy shoots that taste delicious dipped in a bowl of olive oil, salt and balsamic vinegar. If you have spent time in Italy during the winter then you may have been fortunate enough to try dressed puntarelle, a close cousin with the same fresh flavour and crunch.
Chicory is naturalised and common all over Europe. It grows wild along roadsides, dry verges and hedgerows. In the summer months you can easily spot the bright blue daisy-like flora and wiry stems, mimicking the vivaciousness of the cornflower, both belonging to the dandelion family.
The blue chicory flower blooms throughout the hot summer months
Whichever European region you happen to be dining in, however, chicory is always a ‘winter leaf’. Cultivating those crisp chicons that go so well with anchovy paste is something of a technique and can’t be left to nature. Growers must force the shoots to grow prematurely for weeks in the dark, which means natural sunlight is lost on this leaf. Like all winter leaves chicory is rich in vitamin C, Vitamin K and potassium making it great for the immune system, bone health and eyesight.
These little guys are your friends, as long as you don’t overcook them
A traditional winter vegetable, Brussels sprouts assume a lowly status on the dinner plate but are one of Britain’s most valuable field crops. They make a prolific appearance from September to March when supermarkets sell around 750 million individual sprouts, of which half probably go to waste. Like marmite, Brussels sprouts divide nations with their bitter flavour. For many people there is something just a bit ‘off’ about them.
We call them Brussels sprouts (not ‘brussel sprouts’ or just ‘sprouts’!) because they were first cultivated in Belgium and sold at markets in Brussels city since at least the 13th century, before making their way into British kitchens. Food historians say that green grocers stocked them from the mid-19th century onwards; around the same time that Christmas became commercially and culturally popular. In Britain a Christmas dinner just isn’t authentic without a helping of overcooked Brussels sprouts skidding about the plate. Perhaps we could blame the Belgians who first came up with the terrible idea of boiling them and serving with a knob butter, which invariably results in those mushy green spheroids with the noxious aroma.
Just in case you were wondering, yes, Brussels sprouts are mini cabbages, belonging to the same brassica family. In terms of nutrition they are one of the world’s healthiest vegetables and we should eat more. Think of them as super hits of vitamin K, vitamin C and the antioxidant kaempferol, great for maintaining healthy bones and eyesight and immune function. If your taste buds still need convincing then try braising your Brussels sprouts in olive oil, throwing in a few sundried tomatoes, garlic, artichokes and olives for an appetising Mediterranean salad.
The ‘king cooking apple’ had unlikely beginnings in an English garden
This properly English cultivar is known all over the world as the ultimate cooking apple, but not many know that the first ever Bramley apple tree is still thriving and producing fruit in its hometown of Southwell in Nottinghamshire, 200 years on. Today it stands proudly as a town treasure and an annual festival is held every October to celebrate the Bramley apple.
If you have yet to bake a traditional apple pie then now is your chance. February is the last month of harvest until next October, which means the final call on homemade Bramley apple crumbles and pies. If you like tangy apple sauce with your roast then you could take this opportunity to make a homemade batch for your kitchen cabinet. Since they are not considered a lucrative crop for fruit farmers, you can feel good knowing you are supporting the only three families in the country that still grow the fruit, and help save the legacy!
Be creative with cauliflower, just don’t naked boil it!
Yet again, another fine brassica we’ve been getting wrong all this time. The cauliflower may look humdrum but it’s a multitalented ingredient. The cauliflower curd (white crown) can be accurately described as ‘a bulk of dense, branched peduncles that bears many thousands of pre-floral meristems’. This sophisticated anatomy makes it perfect for trapping and soaking up lots of flavour. Unlike overpowering beetroot, cauliflower is a comfortable addition to most curries, soups and stews. The much-loved Indian side dish, Aloo Gobi, or simple roasted garlic and cheddar cauliflower are both delectable examples of its culinary worth. Scrumptious and nutritious, these dishes are filling, quick and cheap to make. They demonstrate just how the curd lends itself as a sponge for choice seasonings.
It is a shame that cauliflower has endured lasting damage to its reputation, perhaps among the multitudes that came through the institution of school dinners hoping never to cross paths with it again. If only dinner ladies could have been informed sooner that to boil cauliflower and serve it up in a puddle of water at the side of the plate was a gross assault on an excellent vegetable. This most sensitive and sociable brassica is not for naked pot boiling; it is to be marinated in herbs and spices, fried in butter, braised, curried, smothered in rich sauces, roasted or pureed, but never overcooked. On the other hand, if vintage food is what you hanker after then Piccalilli (colonial Britain’s weird cauliflower delicacy) is not to be overlooked.
This ancient European root has only been taken seriously by British cooks
The parsnip doesn’t have much to show off in terms of style and sophistication. It just is what it is: sweet and simple. On the continent the flavours of Mediterranean cuisine are more complex owing to the warmer climate and wider range of aromatic herbs and spices. The blunt sweetness of the parsnip has never found a place in classical French or Italian cooking, where the vegetable has been cultivated for centuries as ‘food for farm beasts’. It is quite unlikely that a Spanish green grocer would know what a parsnip is. Thankfully, British cooks took ownership of this dejected root and brought us some unforgettable winter recipes such as honey-roasted parsnips, spicy parsnip soup and parsnip gratin with mustard sauce. Before the days of refined sugar, when honey was very expensive, parsnips were valued for their sweetness; they were crushed, pulped and the liquid was drawn off to use as a substitute for honey. The parsnip of today gets along best with traditional ingredients like sage and apple, butter and cream.
Stock up on these blushing beauties now because they won’t be back again until next year. There are three varieties in abundance this month: the Moro (the reddest); the Tarocco (the sweetest) and the Sicilian Sanguinello which has the longest fruiting season, stretching until April. Blood oranges are absolutely a winter fruit as the red pigments (anthocyanins) can only develop at night when the temperature drops. If you try a Tarocco and detect a hint of raspberry flavour this might be because the same pigments are found in raspberries, blackberries and plums. All orange citrus are at their best in winter. This is just as well as we rely on the high doses of vitamin C they provide to keep us strong against sicknesses that thrive in the cold season.
Swede (neeps or rutabaga)
Starvation or salvation?
Think of swede as an upgrade on the Old English turnip. It has more flavour and can withstand lower temperatures and less daylight. This might be because it grows wild in Scandinavia (including Sweden, of course!) where long hard winters are embraced with enthusiasm and swedes are enjoyed with relish. In Scotland ‘neeps and tatties’ is a celebrated national dish, but anywhere else in Europe this cumbersome root has long been associated with hardship and toil. Especially in places worst hit in the two world wars, swede was often the only food to be had in times of shortage, when it was boiled in water to make a plain soup. For those forced to survive on this starvation broth, it could have been worse; it could have been the less nutritious turnip. An excellent source of fat-soluble vitamins C, E, K and vitamin B6, as well as manganese, potassium, carotene and fibre, swede is perfect winter fuel. To make a truly tasty Sunday roast trimming all you need to do is boil and mash it with carrots and butter. But if you want to elevate swede a bit higher this month then you can’t go wrong with Lanttulaatikko, Finland’s famous turnip casserole.