Six years ago I took on the role of Head Chef at River Green, still a junior partner at the time, but nevertheless, the kitchen was my domain. My first mistake (of which there were many) was to plan a brand new menu to start in February!
If you’re going to launch a new menu on the world, you’ll be best advised to do it in the Summer! That’s not to say that there isn’t any produce to choose from in the winter, but far less than would be ideal to launch a showcase of your repertoire and skills! In fact, there’s so much great produce around in the summer, that it’s easier to impress if you start there, and things can go rapidly downhill thereafter! At least starting at the low point of the year, you can work your way up! The only issue then, is managing expectations...
So here we are in ‘The hunger gap’ where we traditionally fill the space between freshly harvest autumn goods, and the new blossoming of Spring, with stored produce and hardy vegetables. The trick is to use the available produce to their greatest extent, without resorting to imported or greenhouse grown goods if possible. The exception I will make, as mentioned previously, is never to let a bargain sit moldering on the supermarket shelves if it’s been reduced for quick sale!
My pet hate is going out to eat in the depths of winter, only to find the chef has decided to include asparagus in the dish, or garnish the dessert with strawberries in January! (I kid you not, I came across that at a restaurant in Kent earlier this year… Asparagus in a salad, AND strawberries in a dessert, in January! I mean, strawberries are nice in season, but flavourless in January, even if they do manage to ripen them!)
My wife and daughters will also groan if they see these ingredients being presented to them out of season… But less because of the principal, more in anticipation of the embarrassing fuss I’m about to create!
Seasonal produce early in the year is dominated by leafy brassicas that grow into the winter and store well, hence all the Brussels sprouts in December, followed by Kales like Cavolo Nero (once an exotic import, now a farm staple). Also in January and February, and into the spring, there are all the roots which are harvested into the winter and can be stored for months.
Roasted roots are a simple way to add colour and texture to a dish in winter, you can cut them in interesting shapes, mix in some other veg like cauliflowers or broccoli, a deep red beetroot alongside the orange carrots and paler swedes gets you halfway along the rainbow if you're following the advice to eat colourfully!
At this time of year, there's no reason why you should be using imported sweet potatoes in stews and mash, when swedes will do the same job (yes they take a bit longer to cook), sweet, but not sickly sweet as the American potatoes can get.
Cauliflower, once just a summer vegetable has been selected to crop at different times of the year, and now seems to be available all the year round, just check the label to make sure you're getting a UK product.
The early months have their own seasonal specialities: Forced rhubarb from the 'Rhubarb Triangle' in Yorkshire, almost from the get-go in January, is a very delicate fruit (well vegetable) which you can also use judiciously in savoury dishes, and is followed by slightly more robust early rhubarb stems from around the UK.
Sprouting broccoli (not calabrese) is a quick an easy vegetable to prepare; Never boil it, you'll lose all the colour. Simply fry the whole stems (maybe cut the thick ones in half lengthways,) in some vegan butter over a high heat, add a splash of white wine, water or stock, cover and reduce the heat, cook covered for up to ten minutes and serve immediately. If you like, take the lid off at the end and turn the heat right up to evaporate the liquid and caramelise the stems! There should be a nice crunch to the stems, not completely soft and floppy, although some can be a bit stringy if they've been stored too long. You can also roast it in the oven very quickly, or use it in vegan quiches.
Thanks to global warming, spring is coming even earlier and more tender greens are already coming into season, pointed or Hispi cabbage, but also chard and salads grown under cover. Our supplier has loads of 'Lamb's lettuce' which is strongly peppery like watercress used to be when you were at school. What I'm looking forward to is the foraged wild garlic which is already appearing on some suppliers' lists, great for pasta and risotto dishes, but also salsa verde and pesto sauces (simply whizz some up with almonds or walnuts, some nutritional yeast, salt and pepper, and a little cold pressed Norfolk rapeseed oil.)
A final mention here to my second favourite member of the onion family (after true garlic); Leeks.
The winter crop of leeks gives us some nice fat examples at this time of year which are really good value for money. Sliced very thinly they can be used in place of shallots, of substitute them for onions in many dishes, they have their own flavour, so creamed leeks (which needn't contain any cream, vegan or otherwise)makes a great accompaniment, and a leek soup with or without other vegetables is just right at this time of year. If however, you fancy something a little different, try turning leeks into a gluten free cannelloni wrapper!
The filling you use has to be something quite stiff, so you can use a vegan roast or sausage mix, or even a vegan mince, but you may have to thicken the mixture with (gluten free) breadcrumbs or oats etc. just so you have something that you can mould into sausage shapes, and that won't melt and collapse during cooking. With a couple of nice fat leeks, put a slit into the centre, all the way along the length of the leek and wash it under a running tap (root end towards you, so the mud runs out of the leek and not further into it.) Then steam the leeks for ten minutes or blanch quickly in boiling water, immediately plunge them into cold water to stop the cooking. Then you can unroll the leeks and lay the leaves out on a sheet of clingfilm, like sheets of cooked lasagne or sushi nori, making a rectangle. Make a sausage shape with your stuffing and lay it along the length of the leek leaves about a quarter of the way in, and wrap it up like a sausage roll, using the clingfilm to help lift the leaves altogether and secure it into shape. Chill the sausage, then carefully cut it into cannelloni lengths and remove the clingfilm. You can then cook them in the oven on a lined baking tray, covered in foil to stop them drying out (about 20 minutes), or even quicker, pan fry in vegan butter, turning carefully once or twice, until the leek leaves are just coloured and the filling is cooked through. Serve with a white sauce of your choosing, you can finish the dish under a grill with some cheese on top, or add some crispy fried leeks.