Some people talk about eating with the seasons as if it's an endurance test, with the winter months existing only to test our devotion to the yield of our pleasant pastures. It isn't true that the summer months provide all the best produce, but winter vegetables are perennially, and undeservedly, out of favour.
"The poor things do have a bad reputation," says Jane Baxter from the Riverford Field Kitchen. "They're generally associated with the grey days of winter and stodgy, unimaginative grey food. A lot of it probably comes from them being overcooked in the past. They have their purpose in fuelling us cheaply during the cold months, and with a little imagination, their flavours can be enhanced to create some great dishes."
The first step towards getting the most out of the winter vegetable haul is to take stock of what's on offer. There are plenty of roots and tubers: parsnips, celeriac, Jerusalem artichokes, potatoes, swedes and turnips. But there is also a fair variety of greenery about, such as Brussels sprouts, curly, Red Russian and black (cavolo nero) kale, and regal stems of purple sprouting broccoli.
One of the easiest ways to cheer up a dish of winter vegetables, says the chef Mark Sargeant, owner of Rocksalt in Folkestone, is to cook a selection together. "Lightly boiling or steaming a selection of winter vegetables like swede, turnips, carrots, potatoes, parsnips, sprouts, kohlrabi and salsify gives you an amazing array of colours. Then mixing them with a simple sauce vierge (olive oil, lemon juice and green herbs such as basil, chives and parsley) and serving them warm as a salad gives a lovely piquant and summery feel."
The arrival of citrus fruits throughout our winter always seems somewhat unseasonal, but we should exploit their colour, zest and tang in vegetable dishes. Helena Puolakka, head chef at Skylon, adds blood oranges or other citrus flavours such as preserved lemon to her purple sprouting broccoli with some chilli, and serves it as a warm salad or side dish.
If you have lemons, make a gremolata, a dry sauce which bakes into a nice crust. The blend of lemon zest, parsley and garlic is traditionally used for osso bucco, to lighten the rich flavour of slow-cooked veal and sweet marrow, or with chicken or fish to add another flavour and texture. It works just as well with a dish of boiled or roast vegetables, and is very quick to prepare.
Puolakka has a lot of time for root vegetables. "I grew up in the country of roots, Finland, where we use them every day, and I love them. You can make crisps, purées, pickles, you name it. Be creative."
As well as swede and turnips, Puloakka uses a tender white radish, and might coat them in a marinade à la grecque – olive oil, parsley, lemon, thyme and garlic – with lots of coriander, fennel seeds and star anise.
The Modern Pantry's Anna Hansen loves all roots, especially parsnips and carrots, but she grew up in New Zealand and is also partial to a few unusual vegetables, such as crosnes, which she describes as little maggot-shaped potatoes, and a yam called chioca, which is oval, sweet and tangy and similar to plantain.
Hansen recommends raiding the spice rack and thinking more creatively (and adventurously) about your use of chillies. "Spices keep cooking interesting," she says. "People get tired of eating the same flavours, but that's because they cook these vegetables in the same way every time. When I roast vegetables I often use some of my favourite spices such as fennel seeds, mustard seeds, turmeric and cardamom. I make a carrot and cardamon purée which is bright and cheerful and fresh –perfect for a drizzly day."
Chillies, says Hansen, will add a kick and another layer of flavour – try urfa or aleppo. She also adds amchur, green mango powder, to roasted vegetables.
Because potatoes are so popular and plentiful, we never have a problem thinking of interesting ways to cook them – roasted, mashed, puréed, baked, fried, gratinéed. With root veg, roasting is often the default option. "Try substituting some of the more unusual roots that would normally just be roasted for anything that you would do with a potato," says Baxter.
For example, you could make parsnip Skordalia, which is a Greek potato and garlic dip, or make a celeriac gratin or a galette of mixed root vegetables.
When you don't fancy making a soup, celeriac and Jerusalem artichokes can seem a bit confusing. Baxter says that in fact they're very versatile. Grate celeriac and cook it quickly, or serve it raw with remoulade dressing, the classic French way. You can eat Jerusalem artichokes raw, roasted and in gratins. Or make Riverford's Windy City Salad with shredded sprouts and very thinly sliced artichokes mixed in a dressing of oil, lemon, honey, goat's cheese and hazelnuts. And yes, the name does refer to the anti-social side effects that may come of mixing sprouts with Jerusalem artichokes.
Sprouts are Sargeant's favourite winter veg and he uses them all the time at his seafront restaurant. Of course, we associate sprouts with Christmas, so cooking them might not put you in mind of the bright summer days ahead we're longing for. Instead of steaming or frying with chestnuts and bacon, take some inspiration from Asian cooking and match them with ginger, soy and sesame seeds.
You can even add another favourite winter ingredient into the mix – bread. Ditch the Dukan and grab a hunk of bruschetta instead, recommends Baxter, and pile it high with braised kale and a spicy new season olive oil.
For more winter vegetable recipes go to riverford.co.uk
Windy City Salad
This makes a fresh and interesting winter starter. Jerusalem artichokes are great when sliced very thinly and eaten raw, and the flavour works well in combination with finely shredded raw sprouts, goat's cheese and truffle oil. But there can be antisocial side-effects from bringing together root artichokes and sprouts – hence the name. Fennel tea will ease the problem.
200g Jerusalem artichokes
Juice of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon honey
3 tablespoons olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
100g winter leaves, washed and dried
200g sprouts, trimmed and very finely shredded
1 tablespoon toasted hazelnuts, chopped
2 tablespoons goat's cheese dressing
A drizzle of truffle oil
Peel the Jerusalem artichokes and slice very thinly on a mandolin (you can use a potato peeler instead).
Make a quick dressing with the lemon juice, honey and oil. Season. Toss the artichokes, winter leaves and sprouts all together in a bowl with the dressing.
Arrange on a serving dish, sprinkle with the hazelnuts and drizzle with goat's cheese dressing and truffle oil.
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