Northern delights

Diana Henry spent five years touring the chillier parts of the world, sampling traditional fare. The result is a collection of heartwarming, strangely magical winter recipes. Photographs by Jason Lowe
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Indy Lifestyle Online

For me, food is as much to do with the imagination as it is with flavour. A dish comes from somewhere, contains tastes that make you think of the sun or snow. It comes with associations, with history, and it can take us to new places.

I have visited Austria, Switzerland, Hungary, Scandinavia, Northern Italy, America and France, collecting recipes as I go, and I've realised what a great hunting ground these countries are for a British cook. They all use much the same basic autumn and winter produce as we do - root vegetables and brassicas, orchard fruits, pork, game and cheese - but their flavour combinations are different. The dill in Scandinavia brings a breath of chill air and pine forests to the table; and the pairing of horseradish with pork, as in Austria and Russia, makes you see the potential of a root we only bring out for roast beef.

The Scandinavians seem to be much better at dealing with cold, dark months than we are, and food is their antidote to darkness. I hope the dishes I have found will also add some light to your life.

'Roast Figs Sugar Snow' is published by Mitchell Beazley, priced £20. To order a copy for £18 (including p&p), call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897

Roast figs and plums in vodka with cardamom cream

Figs, of course, come from the Mediterranean but, like exotic spices such as ginger and cinnamon, we see them as a prime autumnal ingredient in northern kitchens. The appearance of their bloomy purple bodies is as much a sign that autumn has arrived as are Cox Pippins and wild mushrooms. I like this pudding chilled, but you can serve it warm or at room temperature if you prefer. Replace the vodka with extra red wine if you feel this is a little too boozy. The blackberries look gorgeous - like glistening, old-fashioned buttons - but if you can't get them, use small seedless black grapes instead. Serve with ginger biscuits or Scandinavian pepparkakor.

Serves 8

16 fresh firm figs
12 firm plums
150ml/5fl oz red wine
100ml/31/2fl oz vodka, plus a little extra
200g/7oz sugar
6tbsp cassis, plus a little extra
300g/101/2oz blackberries (if available) - or seedless black grapes

To serve:

4 cardamom pods
275ml/9 1/2fl oz whipping cream
Icing sugar

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas4. Cut the figs in half, lengthways, without slicing all the way through. Halve the plums and remove all the stones. Put the figs and plums into a shallow, ovenproof dish that will hold the fruit in a single layer.

Mix the wine, vodka, 150g/51/2oz of the sugar and 4tbsp of the cassis in a pan and heat, stirring to help the sugar dissolve. Simmer until reduced by a third, then pour it over the fruit. Sprinkle the rest of the sugar on top of the fruit.

Bake in the preheated oven for 25-30 minutes. (If you are using grapes instead of blackberries, add the grapes 15 minutes before the end of cooking time.) The fruit should be soft, but not collapsing, and slightly caramelised on top. Let the fruit cool, then add the blackberries, if using. Pour a slug of vodka over the fruit and drizzle with a couple more tablespoons of cassis.

Remove the seeds from the cardamom pods and grind them in a mortar, or in a heavy bowl, using the end of a rolling pin. Put the cream in a bowl, add the crushed cardamom and then whip the cream, adding icing sugar to taste. Serve with the fruit.

Stuffed quail with marmalade and whisky

Marmalade's bitter-sweet flavour seems just right for winter and it gives such a lovely burnished glaze to meat.

Serves 4

8tbsp marmalade
8tbsp whisky
Leaves from 4 sprigs fresh thyme
Salt and pepper
8 quail
8 rashers streaky bacon, cut in two
400ml/14fl oz very well-flavoured chicken stock, plus another 2tbsp whisky

For the stuffing:

1/2 small onion, very finely chopped
2 rashers streaky bacon, finely chopped
15g/1/2oz butter
50g/2oz breadcrumbs
1tbsp very finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 small egg, beaten

Mix the marmalade, whisky, thyme, salt and pepper together and spoon over the quail. Cover loosely and then leave to marinate for anything from 1 hour to overnight.

Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas6. Make the stuffing by sautéeing the onion and bacon in the melted butter until golden. Add the breadcrumbs, chopped parsley, egg, salt and pepper. Stuff each quail with this mixture and put a criss-cross of bacon on top of each bird. Season with pepper. Spoon the marinade over the birds again. Put the birds in a pot in which they will all fit snugly, and cover. Cook in the preheated oven for 25 minutes.

While the birds are cooking, reduce the chicken stock by half, or until it is slightly syrupy, and add the whisky.

Serve 2 quail per person with a little of the sauce spooned around them.

Pumpkin tarts with spinach and Gorgonzola

Pumpkins and squash are great in tarts. It's that mixture of the sweet and the salty in savoury pumpkin pies that really gets me. This makes one large pie or 6 small ones.

Serves 6

For the pastry:

225g/8oz plain flour
175g/6oz butter
Good pinch salt
A little very cold water

For the filling:

450g/1lb pumpkin or squash
Olive oil
450g/1lb spinach
2 large eggs plus 1 egg yolk
275ml/91/2fl oz double cream
50g/2oz Parmesan, grated
Freshly grated nutmeg
200g/7oz Gorgonzola

For the pastry, put the flour, butter and salt into the food processor and, using the plastic blade, process the mixture until it resembles breadcrumbs. Add just enough water to make the pastry come together. Wrap it in foil or clingfilm and refrigerate for about 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas4. Cut your pumpkin from top to bottom into broad slices, remove the inner stringy bits and seeds, and peel. Brush lightly with olive oil and bake in the preheated oven for 20 minutes, or until just tender. De-stalk and wash the spinach. Put it into a large saucepan, cover, and wilt in the water left clinging to it (about 4 minutes over a medium heat). Drain well and leave to cool.

Make the custard by mixing together the whole eggs, egg yolk, cream and Parmesan. Season well. Roll out the rested pastry and line a tart tin 23cm (9in) in diameter and 4cm (11/2in) deep. Chill for another 30 minutes. Prick the bottom of the tart and bake blind - line the pastry with greaseproof paper and put ceramic baking beans or ordinary dried beans on top - in the preheated oven for 7 minutes. Remove the paper and beans and cook for another 4 minutes.

Cut the pumpkin into small slices, about 10cm (4in) long and 1cm (1/2in) thick. Squeeze every last bit of water from the spinach and chop it up. Season both of these and add some freshly grated nutmeg to the spinach. Spread the spinach over the bottom of the tart case then add the slices of pumpkin and dot with nuggets of Gorgonzola. Pour the custard mixture over the tart and bake at 180C /350F/Gas4, for 40 minutes for 1 large pie and 25-30 minutes for smaller ones, or until the pastry is golden. Leave for 10 minutes to let the custard finish cooking.