Madalene Bonvini-Hamel, owner of the British Larder pub and restaurant in Bromeswell, Suffolk, looks ahead at January’s seasonal delights
January marks not only the beginning of a new calendar year; it also marks the middle of winter. The Brussels sprout season is coming to a close, while kale and – weather permitting – the first purple-sprouting broccoli provide us with the much-needed winter greens.
Parsnips and swedes are still going strong. Celeriac isn’t strictly speaking a root vegetable, but it will add punch to soups and stews. Leeks are a useful stand-by. Pink forced rhubarb, less tart than maincrop stalks, has a cult following with chefs.
The window for buying Seville oranges is small, but this is their moment. They’re the classic marmalade orange and ideal for canard a l’orange too. Blood oranges are starting out; however, this early in the season the colour can be a bit hit and miss.
The game season is winding down: time to say a last farewell to partridges, pheasants and wild ducks.Halibut, turbot, hake and John Dory are superb during January, along with the sweetness of mussels and oysters.
Deep-sea hake comes from the same family, phycidae, as cod and haddock. This streamlined, mild-tasting fish has a flaky texture and silver skin. To the Basques of Northern Spain, “merluza” is a delicacy especially served with a lightly emulsified salsa verde. Try pairing it with strong tasting flavours such as lemon, capers and anchovies. Introducing spices to hake can create interesting recipes.
Mussels are arguably the only mollusc that is plentiful, not endangered and environmentally sound. Norfolk is known for its mussels with a wide selection from Morston to Brancaster. Mussels are only good to eat in months with an “R” in them, and it also depends on the temperature of the sea – the colder the better. Farmed mussels are easier to clean than wild ones but the jury is out on whether they are as good to eat.
Brussels sprouts are from the brassica family and are a cultivar of wild cabbage. They are small leafy green buds or miniature cabbages that sprout from a thick stem. How much cooking they need depends on their size, but overcooked sprouts are among the greyest and most horrible vegetables that can ever be served up. They can be perfect blanched and sautéd or thrown into a stir-fry. It’s best to buy Brussels sprouts on the stalk. Once they are removed, the sugars start turning into starch and the flavour changes.
Parsnip is a root vegetable related to the carrot with a very strong and distinctive flavour. It’s said that parsnips had been eaten long before the discovery of potatoes and in ancient Roman times they used to be much smaller, more the size of a baby carrot when fully grown. When the Romans travelled north, they found that the parsnips grew bigger, closer to the size we know now. Parsnips rely on the frost to develop their flavour. Parsnips are a good source of dietary fibre and are particularly rich in potassium; they are also richer in vitamins and minerals than their close relative, the carrot. Parsnips are very versatile and may be used for plenty of sweet or savoury dishes. If you buy large ones, you will probably have to cut out the woody core when you prep them.
Partridges are non-migratory birds from the pheasant family phasianidae. In the UK, there are two types of partridge available: grey partridge and the red-legged partridge. Grey partridge is a smaller bird than the red-legged partridges and it has tender and delicate meat early on in the season but as the season progresses the meat becomes richer and stronger. Red-legged partridges are larger birds with a delicate flavour.
To make the most of what’s around, work with the obvious fresh produce: the Seville oranges, forced rhubarb and purple-sprouting broccoli, but look at the pulses and legumes too. There are many varieties of haricot beans – from the cannellini that are essential for a Tuscan bean soup to the tarbes without which no cassoulet would be authentic. Split peas, too, shouldn’t be overlooked – not just for soup and pease pudding but paired with gammon hocks, knuckles and terrines.
Season’s best during January
Bananas, blood oranges, beetroot, brill, Brussels sprouts, cabbages, cauliflower, celeriac, celery, chicory, clams, clementines, cockles, cod, duck, haddock, hake, halibut, hare, hazelnuts, horseradish, Jerusalem artichokes, kale, kiwi fruit, kohlrabi, leeks, lemon, lemon sole, mussels, oranges, oysters, parsnips, passion fruit, pineapple, pomegranate, potatoes (main crop), purple-sprouting broccoli, rhubarb (forced), salsify, scallops, sea bass, Seville oranges, shallots, skate, swede, truffles (black and white), turbot, turnips, venison, walnuts, winkles, woodcock.