Seasonal treats and old-time favourites

The winter soil hides a larder full of treasures. Mark Hix digs for victory
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Indy Lifestyle Online

If you're a market rather than a supermarket shopper and like to look for food that's in season, you'll probably already have realised that vegetables can be a bit dull at this time of the year. Carrots, potatoes, leeks and parsnips look at their muddiest and knobbliest. I'm a great believer in buying as much locally produced and seasonal produce as possible when it's in perfect condition, but in the depths of winter, even the best home-grown veg can do with a bit of help to make it more interesting. Just by some clever seasoning or by matching with another ingredient, something as basic as new-season leeks can take on an exotic new life: how about cooking them to perfection and scattering with capers and olive oil for the perfect winter starter. Hardly dull, is it?

Or consider cooking winter veg unconventionally. What I've got in mind is roasting a cauliflower to bring out a different flavour, instead of boiling the hell out of it. Or cooking celery instead of losing it in a sauce or keeping it in the bottom of the fridge in the hope that someone will get round to munching on a raw stick of it. Many vegetables contain natural sugars that are lost when they're boiled or steamed but caramelise when you roast them at a high temperature, making them taste far less bland. In our fish restaurant, J Sheekey, now that Cornish cauliflowers are in season, we often put roasted cauliflower mash on the menu. It goes really well with fish, and is so popular that customers ask for it out of season. It's so simple: trim it into florets and simmer for 5-6 minutes in boiling salted water, then roast in the oven at 180C/gas mark 4 with a little olive oil and seasoning. Coarsely blend and finish with butter. You'd never think you were eating something related to soggy boiled cauli.

Roasted cauliflower and radicchio salad

Serves 4

Plain boiled cauliflower can be one of the blandest of vegetables. But there's so much more you can do with the beautiful white flowery heads. Look around the world, and you see it deep fried, curried and blended in a soup with raisins. Here I've boiled and roasted it, and taken inspiration from Italy by serving it with radicchio, the bitter leaf that brings a blast of colour and flavour to winter salads. You could also use the skinnier treviso, which is in season too and makes a good contrast with the leafier radicchio.

1 small head of cauliflower, trimmed and cut into florets
1 head of radicchio, root removed, washed and dried
2tbsp olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

for the dressing

1tbsp raisins covered in hot water and soaked overnight
1tbsp good quality red wine vinegar like cabernet sauvignon
4tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Pre-heat the oven to 220C/gas mark 7. Cook the cauliflower in boiling salted water for 5 minutes, drain and run briefly under the cold tap to cool. Simmer the raisins in the water they have been soaked in until the liquid has almost evaporated. Stir in the vinegar and olive oil and season.

Meanwhile heat the olive oil in a small roasting tray in the oven, cut the cauliflower into rough 1cm chunks and season. Cook for 15-20 minutes, or until golden brown, basting and turning every so often with the oil, then remove and leave to cool.

To serve, arrange the radicchio on plates with the pieces of cauliflower and spoon over the dressing.

Grilled duck with celeriac and apple mash

Serves 4

Cooking-apples and celeriac are both loners - they're not that easy to match with anything else. But together they are great, especially with grilled duck breast, as a change from roast. Duck and apple is a classic combination, and adding the celeriac makes it not just a sauce but a complete meal. There are some very good large, meaty English ducks around and you could buy a whole one and use the legs for another meal. Otherwise it's easy to buy duck breasts from most good butchers and supermarkets.

4 duck breasts weighing about 180-200g each
1 small celeriac, weighing about 500g, peeled and cut into rough chunks
1 cooking apple, peeled, cored and roughly chopped
A good knob of butter
Caster sugar to taste
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cook the celeriac in boiling salted water for 8-10 minutes until tender, drain and mash with a potato masher or ricer. Meanwhile melt the butter in a thick-bottomed sauce pan, add the apple and cook on a medium heat, stirring every so often for 8-10 minutes until the apple starts to disintegrate. Mash it and mix with the celeriac to get the right balance of flavour - apples vary in size so taste as you go. You can mash them as finely, or coarsely, as you wish. Taste the mixture and add a little caster sugar if the apple is a bit tart, then leave it to keep warm.

Meanwhile with a sharp knife cut incisions into the skin of the duck about 1/3cm apart. Pre-heat a ribbed griddle or heavy-bottomed frying pan. Season the duck breasts and cook skin-side down for 3-4 minutes then turn them over and cook for a further 3-4 minutes then turn over and cook for another couple of minutes on the skin, draining any excess fat as they are cooking.

Leave the duck to rest for 3-4 minutes then carve into 6 or 7 slices across the breast and serve on the plate with a spoonful of the mash.

Carrots with chilli

Serves 6-8 as an appetiser

When I first moved to London some 20 years ago, we used to go the Good Friends Chinese restaurant on Shaftesbury Avenue. It was cheap and cheerful, and probably our first introduction to proper Chinese food. I still remember the free bowl of sweet pickled carrots with red chilli that was always on the Formica table. I've never really seen a recipe for this and guess it could only have been rice vinegar with some sugar added. It's a great snack to serve before a dinner party, or as part of a selection of starters. You can adapt it by adding finely chopped fresh ginger and sprigs of coriander at the end to give it a herbal fragrance. The carrots can be cut up into any shape. The ones I remember were really roughly chopped with a f Chinese cleaver, but you can shred them, slice, or cut them into neat ribbons with a Japanese slicer or the side of a cheese grater. They don't have to be left in the vinegar too long - an hour is enough or else they'll lose their crunch - so you don't have to remember to make them long before guests arrive.

4 medium carrots, trimmed, peeled and cut into shapes as above
1 medium-sized red chilli, thinly sliced
Rice wine vinegar to cover (about 250-300ml)
1tbsp caster sugar

Mix the sugar with the vinegar and chilli, pour over the carrots and mix well.

Jerusalem artichoke and bacon soup

Serves 4

Surely it's time Jerusalem artichokes finally became popular. OK, the stubbly old tuber has a bit of a reputation for backfiring once you thought you'd seen the last of it, but we can all live with a little of that. This, sometimes referred to as Palestine soup, has such an earthy natural taste that it can take on all sorts of additional flavours such as rosemary or truffles, to make it more intriguing. You can blend it to a smooth pulp or keep it chunky.

1 large onion, peeled and finely chopped
4 thick rashers of streaky bacon, cut into rough 1cm pieces
A good knob of butter
1 litre chicken stock (a good quality cube dissolved in that amount of water will do)
200ml double cream
500g Jerusalem artichokes, peeled and cut into rough 1cm chunks
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

to serve

2 1cm-thick slices of bread, crusts removed and cut into 1cm dice
2tbsp olive oil
A good knob of butter

Gently cook the onion and bacon in the butter for 3-4 minutes until soft, add the stock, season and simmer gently for 15 minutes. Add the double cream and artichokes and simmer for about 10 minutes, or until the artichokes are cooked and the soup has thickened slightly. Blend a cup of the soup and return to the pan.

Meanwhile heat the olive oil in a small frying pan and cook the croutons for a couple of minutes until they begin to colour, then add the butter and continue cooking for a minute or so until golden. Transfer to some kitchen paper and leave to cool a little. Reheat soup if necessary, check seasoning and serve with croutons scattered on top.

Roasted onions with goat's cheese

Serves 4

No serious cook can survive without onions. I try to keep small onions and shallots in the fridge, avoiding having onion halves stinking the place out or going mouldy. If they take my fancy in the market, I'll have red onions, too. Before Christmas I bought a couple of lovely strings of flat Italian onions, called cipoline, from Borough Market. They look so good hanging in the kitchen I can't bring myself to take them off the string and use them.

I've had a log of St Tola goat's cheese made by Siobhan Ni Ghairbith in County Clare and decided to match it up with these simply roasted onions. You could also use Ravensoak, Ragstone or any soft log or crottin. With crusty bread this would make a supper dish, or serve as a starter or side dish.

8 medium sized white onions, or 4 red and 4 white onions
200g soft goat's cheese such as St Tola
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1tbsp olive oil

Pre-heat the oven to 180C/gas mark 5. Put the onions, in their skins, on a baking tray lined with foil and bake for 1 hour 15 minutes then remove the foil and leave to cool. Remove the skins, quarter the onions and return to the tray. Season and spoon over the olive oil and return them to the oven for 30 minutes, or until the onions begin to colour a little and caramelise, turning them with a spoon every so often. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.

To serve, spoon on to plates with any of the cooking juices and a little more olive oil if you wish and break the goat's cheese into small pieces over the top. Add parsley, or chopped chives to the onion for colour if you like.

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