In Food of Love (Pitman, 1971), a book sponsored by the Bath Music Festival, which encouraged musicians to enlarge on their idea of the perfect menu to accompany a romantic tryst, Benjamin Britten included a recipe for Miss Hudson's Soup. Miss Hudson, enabling rather than partaking in Britten's seduction plans, had obviously had trouble with gluts of winter veg, as her soup uses armfuls of the stuff currently clogging up your vegetable rack and delivery boxes. You need a "great deal of onions, celery and carrots, varying in emphasis according to preference of taste". Britten notes that "we like a lot of carrots", but as his perfect menu also contains instructions on cooking a sole ("go down to the beach first thing in the morning" and find "a fisherman..."), you might want to go your own way on this point. Chop the veg into chunks, add "the bone of a good English sirloin" (though "any bones will do") and simmer for three hours in water.
The advent of British winter veg is a challenge to a country now well used to a year-round diet of unseasonal produce flown in from abroad, but in the calamitous financial soup we now inhabit, Miss Hudson's broth is the kind of food we should all be cooking and eating: local, plentiful, healthy, using up lots of old stuff that's been lying around for ages and, once you've got it simmering, requiring very little attention – just like a marriage, really... It's also extremely adaptable. As Britten discovered, you can chuck in varying amounts of anything and it'll still taste wonderful – a boon for the veg-box recipient who must now spend the next couple of months receiving not mouth-watering deliveries of fashionable salad leaves and designer tomatoes, but tons of roots; more bloody turnips and swedes than you can shake a stick at, icy sprout stalks, cabbages, cauliflower and blanket-sized leaves of curly kale, stiff, resistible and smelling of dank January fields.
Dank and January are the words to note here – veg such as parsnips and sprouts, kale and turnips need a hard frost to bring out their sweetness, so they'll be particularly fine this month, and soup is not the only thing they're good for. Think of mash, purées, colcannon, baked onions (a favourite of Monet), coleslaw, chicory au gratin, bubble and squeak, even risottos if you fancy a bit of class. Those who supply veg boxes naturally take a robust view of their winter contents; some have even produced cookbooks telling you how to make the most of every last leek and cabbage leaf.
One of these, Keith Abel, ebullient founder of Abel & Cole, author of the Abel & Cole cookbook and the man who invented swede chips with mustard mayo and a way of cooking pheasant in a loaf tin, is predictably hugely enthusiastic about winter veg: "I want things to be really easy. If you chop up kale, or cabbage, for instance, and stir-fry it with cumin for two to three minutes, you've got a wonderful veg dish. Any roast veg is simply delicious; just chop up anything you've got and put it in the oven with a bit of olive oil. Afterwards, you can mash it into a sauce, add a few herbs, and have it with pasta. There's no root vegetable that isn't good boiled, mashed with a bit of cream or crème fraîche and ladled over pasta." So that's what you do with your surplus turnips, then...
Daylesford Organic, meanwhile, believes soup is the way to go. "This is when produce is at its very best: full of nutrients, natural goodness and plenty of taste. Soups made with real vegetables, and home-made chicken or vegetable stock, are traditional comfort food – ideal for these cold days. After the excess and indulgence of Christmas, why not poach a chicken and serve it with a salsa verde and mashed potato, then use the poaching stock for a sensationally cheering parsnip and chestnut soup." You'll find this recipe on Daylesford's website.
Riverford, one of the largest box delivery companies in the UK, devotes a whole section to turnips and swedes in its Riverford Farm Cook Book (Fourth Estate, £16.99), maintaining that "nothing goes better with roast beef than mashed swede with plenty of pepper and butter". Well, that might take care of a brace of roots, but what about the rest?
Mark Hix, restaurateur and champion of seasonal British food, and chef in residence at The Independent, is the man to ask about winter veg. "Quite a lot of it improves with the frost – extra sweetness makes them great for roasting. Or you could try a mixed mash of root vegetables using parsnips, turnips and swede, or use them to make a spectacular winter soup with a piece of mutton or ham hock."
Fortunately, brassicas and root veg are now becoming fashionable as well as cheap – not a combination you often come across, but one that exists courtesy of the rise of the gastropub and the championing of seasonal British produce by cooks such as Hix, Valentine Warner and Rose Prince. Cavolo nero is a case in point. The subject of a spectacular makeover in a much-praised dish at the River Café, it's now bathed in the glow of celebrity and appears on all the best restaurant menus (disguised as cavolo nero, red Russian kale or curly kale). It was only a matter of time before it invaded the winter veg box, too – which is why you've got loads of it in your kitchen right now. But think of it not as a cabbage substitute, or cattle food, but a brilliant addition to such filling dishes as sautéed potato, chorizo and a poached egg, roast venison or, in the case of cavolo nero, with black rice for a dark-night-of-the-soul supper. You can find the River Café cavolo nero with borlotti beans in River Café Cook Book Easy (Ebury, £17.50). It's delicious and will use up some more of those intractable winter companions – onions, carrots, celery – as well as one of the tins of beans that multiply in your store cupboard.
Cauliflower has yet to achieve these dizzy heights but is another vegetable you (or more likely your children) will be seeing far too much of over the next few weeks. Pay heed again to Mr Hix, however, and it will take on a whole new persona in your kitchen. "The best winter varieties come from Cornwall and have a great flavour – if they are cooked properly," he warns. He suggests roast cauliflower with devilled lambs' kidneys, or make your own piccalilli with the florets. To forestall complaints from teenagers, liven it up with a couple of rashers of bacon. Constance Spry has the definitive recipe. Patrick Gale, the novelist who has an alternative existence actually growing the veg on a farm in Cornwall, is now something of a cauliflower expert. "I've tried all sorts of recipes over the years," he says, "but the one I repeatedly came back to is a vaguely Sicilian warm cauliflower salad where you steam the broken-up cauliflower until just tender, then toss it while hot in a dressing made by frying some chilli, ginger and garlic in olive oil then adding lemon juice."
In Gale's view, "the key thing to remember is that mustard is a member of the cabbage family (or that cabbages are mustards) so there's a natural affinity between them. Cheese sauce for cauliflower cheese is hugely improved by a generous dollop of wholegrain mustard. There's also a quite unbotanical affinity with bacon so it's worth garnishing the end result with some crisped pancetta or smoked streaky, or serving cauliflower cheese with a roast ham. Vegetarians can get much the same smoky treat by adding some Spanish smoked paprika to the cheese sauce – the good stuff tastes so like bacon it can even placate meat eaters."
Gale also makes a version of the cauliflower classic crème du barry. "Chop a cauliflower into florets, discarding leaves and woody bits. Finely mince a shallot. Melt a large chunk (about three to four ounces) of butter in a large pan. Add shallot and cauli, cover and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add a pint of milk and a crumbled chicken stock cube, a good pinch of white pepper and a generous grating of nutmeg. Bring to the boil, then cover again and simmer for a further 10 minutes or until the cauli is soft. Liquidise and serve. It becomes a special-occasion soup if you add a slug of truffle oil while liquidising, not least because the oil makes the finished soup deliciously foamy. And, of course, it's great garnished with crisped bacon."
Pumpkin and apple soup with toasted seeds
3 English apples, peeled, cored and cut into 2.5cm (1in) chunks.
1/2 large or 1 whole small pumpkin, peeled, deseeded and cut into 5cm (2in) chunks (keep the seeds).
A few glugs of olive oil.
Pinch of chilli flakes (more if you fancy), or you could use fresh chilli if you like, or a pinch of powder.
Drizzle of honey.
1 1/2 – 2 mugs of vegetable or chicken stock.
Salt and freshly ground black pepper.
A little crème fraîche (optional).
Preheat the oven to 220C/425F/gas 7. Toss the apples and pumpkin in a few glugs of olive oil. Throw them into a roasting tin, sprinkle with the chilli and drizzle with honey. Bake for about 30 minutes or until the pumpkin is tender, turning it once or twice during the cooking time.
While the pumpkin is cooking, wash the seeds in a colander to remove the fleshy bits. Dry them on a clean tea towel and pop them into a medium to hot frying pan with a very small dash of oil. Shake these around for a few minutes or so, until they start to brown and pop. Remove them from the heat and season with a little salt. Now put the contents of the roasting tin (scrape out every last bit) into a large saucepan. Add 1 mug of stock and simmer for about 15 minutes. Take it off the heat and give it a good blitz with one of those handheld blenders, or use a food processor.
Add more stock until you have the consistency you want for your soup. Season with salt and pepper, garnish with the toasted pumpkin seeds and a dollop of crème fraîche, and serve.
'The Abel & Cole Cookbook' by Keith Abel is published by Collins, £12.99
Cavolo nero with borlotti beans
Serves 4 as a side
500g cavolo nero
4 garlic cloves
2 red onions
1 celery head
1 dried chilli
400g tin borlotti beans
Extra virgin olive oil
Half a teaspoon of fennel seeds
200g tinned tomatoes
500ml chicken stock
A quarter of a sourdough loaf
Peel the garlic, onion and carrots. Roughly chop three garlic cloves, the onion, pale celery heart and carrots. Crumble the chilli. Drain and rinse the beans. Heat three tablespoons of olive oil in a thick-bottomed pan, add the onion, celery and carrot and cook gently until soft. Add the fennel seed, chilli and garlic and stir, then add the tomatoes, chopping them as they cook. Season, and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the beans and stock, and cook for another 15 minutes.
Discard the stalks from the cavolo nero and boil the leaves in salted water for five minutes, drain and chop. Keep four tablespoons of the water. Add the water and cavolo. Stir and season. Cut the bread into 1.5cm slices. Toast on both sides, then rub with the remaining garlic and drizzle with olive oil. Break up the toast and divide between the soup bowls. Spoon over the soup and serve with more olive oil.
From 'River Café Cookbook Easy' by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers (Ebury £20)
Roasted root vegetables
About 1kg mixed root vegetables – choose from:
red onions or shallots
4 garlic cloves, unpeeled
olive oil for drizzling
1 teaspoon thyme leaves and/or chopped rosemary
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Peel the vegetables and cut them into three-centimetre chunks; if you are using beetroot and carrot, cut them slightly smaller, as they take longer to cook.
If using onions, simply cut them into quarters, leaving the root on to hold them together; leave shallots whole. Parboil the potatoes for two minutes, then drain.
Put all the vegetables in a roasting tray in a single layer, add the garlic and drizzle with olive oil.
Sprinkle with the thyme and/or chopped rosemary and season with salt and pepper. Place in an oven preheated to 180°C/gas mark 4 and roast for about one hour, turning halfway through, until all the vegetables are tender and browned.
'Riverford Farm Cookbook: Tales from the fields, recipes from the kitchen' by Guy Watson and Jane Baxter (HarperCollins, £16.99)Reuse content