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What’s in season… November/December

What’s in season… November/December

Fresh produce supplier James Wellock takes a look at the ingredients needed for a traditional festive lunch, while Madalene Bonvini-Hamel, chef-owner of the British Larder in Bromeswell, Suffolk, cooks up some seasonal treats for December

The ingredients of a traditional Christmas dinner have stood the test of time, not just because somebody thought they would be a good idea, but because they are available at this time of year. It rounds off  the message that I deliver every month: of the benefits of using seasonal produce.

When we combine the latest scientific advances with the growers, armed with their generations of knowledge, the basics can get even better. But focus even closer in the search for the perfect ingredient and you will understand why this is. In years gone by, all vegetables were grown everywhere – and in some cases they still are – but knowing when to work the soil and perfecting which crops grow in which fields in all-important rotation is of increasing importance.

This is the case with sprouts – everyone’s favourite! We have been lucky to find a grower based in Berwick who, along with other farmers all along the coast from Newcastle to Aberdeen, is on a three-year crop cycle. Why? Well, the thing is that you have to be into sprouts in
a big way to do them properly. The big benefit of growing sprouts (or swedes) is that they put massive amounts of nitrogen, along with
other nutrients, back into the soil. So farmers who are producing cereals or working with livestock can use sprouts as part of their crop
rotation – it makes sense to grow these together.

So why is this area near the coast so important for sprout growers? It is the proximity to the sea that is key, as this protects the crops
from sharp, hard frosts. The temperature in the fields may go down to 0°C, but just a couple of miles inland it can be -15°C. The east coast also endures less rainfall than elsewhere in the UK.

However, the soil is not very good for anything other than sprouts. It is very gravelly, with lots of stones, and therefore very dry. The swede and the sprout thrive in this environment, as they do not want to be clogged up in wet soil or indeed very harsh temperature fluctuations.

The atmosphere is also very clean as there is no pollution from heavy industry, and the final benefit from the land is the massive amounts of water underground. The farmers tap into this supply through boreholes to run their washing facilities. The water is tested before it comes into the factory and is guaranteed to be perfect. It is used only once and then naturally cleaned in settlement ponds and reed beds and then goes via natural streams into the sea.

The grower also goes to great lengths to use all of the sprout plant, so not only do we have several sizes of sprout, but also the leaf and the plant top can be sold. And let’s not forget that sprouts have four times the level of vitamin C of oranges.

Roots and shoots

It is a similar story with parsnips, carrots and onions. The best soil for these, though, is a lighter, sandy one – we definitely don’t want stony ground here as the carrot and parsnip need to grow straight down without interruption from stones, but the soil must also have good drainage. Before the introduction of sugar, parsnips were used to sweeten dishes, as they have such a high starch content that turns into sugar when it gets cold.

The crop is graded both by eye and mechanically, but all of it can be used. Baby parsnips are now becoming very popular, and any parsnip with a 35mm crown used to be dumped.

It is the same situation with onion growers in Norfolk, who now sell baby red and brown onions the size of a golfball – perfect for roasting whole. This is a massive about-face against the supermarkets, who previously demanded a certain size.

Tasty tubers

No Christmas dinner is complete without roast potatoes. The preferred option varies as you move up the country: Maris Piper and its
new derivatives Markee and Saguita are mainly grown around the Lincoln/Cambridge area, as the soil here is very sandy, giving great drainage and therefore the dry matter content in a potato is perfect for a crisp, golden fry. As you move north into Scotland it is all about the Red Rooster. The flavour is fantastic, but will not be as crisp, as it will soak up more fat.

Citrus fruits are available all year round, but it does not get better than in December – just when you need lots of vitamin C to fight off colds, nature gives it to us. The sunshine of Spain and Italy gives us navel oranges and, my favourite, the blood orange. Its vibrant red segments not only make it look the part, but its flavour is more intense. We also have easy peel clementines and satsumas, lemons oozing
with juice and, for a real treat, the Italian leafy lemon. The leaves on both the lemon and the clementine are beautiful and enrich any dish
– just rub them in the palm of your hand and you will see the oil and smell the fragrance – it takes me straight back to the lemon sherbet of
my childhood.

But the last to land and the best, in my opinion is my favourite pear, the Passe Crassane, which starts in December. It was created in 1855 in a nursery near Rouen, and it is the juiciest and most flavoursome pear of them all. Once you have tried one, you will measure all the others against it. If it is grown under bad conditions it will become too grainy, and it is always better from the Paris area than the Alps. As any grower will tell you, you adapt the variety to the soil and the climate, not the reverse – this is why Granny Smith apples do not grow in the UK.

So nature continues to give us the goodness we need to be healthy when we need it most, so make sure you get plenty of goodness into
your customers and make everybody’s Christmas a joyful one.

Salmon with pickled apples, cucumber and celery

Serves 4 as a starter

For the pickled apples, cucumber and celery

100g caster sugar

100ml white wine vinegar

1 cucumber

2 sticks celery

2 large eating apples (such as Discovery or Cox’s)

Sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper

For the candied sunflower seeds

50g sunflower seeds

1tsp unsalted butter, melted

1tsp clear runny honey

A pinch of mild curry powder

A pinch of sea salt

For the yogurt sauce

150g natural yogurt

Finely grated zest and juice of 1 lime

For the hot-smoked salmon rillettes and pan-fried salmon

200g hot-smoked salmon

1tbs mascarpone cheese

1tbs chopped fresh mixed herbs (such as chives, chervil, dill and parsley)

Finely grated zest and juice of 1 lime

5 salmon pieces, 80g each, skin and pinbones removed

2tsp rapeseed oil

First prepare the pickled apples, cucumber and celery. Place the sugar, vinegar, salt and pepper in a small saucepan over a medium heat.

Stir until the sugar has dissolved, then increase the heat and simmer for three minutes. Remove from the heat and leave to cool. Divide the pickling liquor between two bowls and set aside. Peel the cucumber and peel or de-string the celery.

Thinly slice the celery widthways and place it in one bowl of the pickling liquor. Use a small melon-baller to scoop out balls from the cucumber (avoiding the seeds) and add these to the celery. Leave to marinate until needed – they are ready to use in 10 minutes.

Remove the core from the apples using a corer (keep the apples whole), then use a mandoline to slice the apples into 2mm-thick slices. Place the slices in the second bowl of pickling liquor. Leave to marinade until needed – they are also ready in 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the candied sunflower seeds. Preheat the oven to 180°C and line a baking tray with non-stick baking paper. Mix all the
ingredients together in a small bowl and spread out on the baking tray. Bake in the oven for 6-8 minutes until golden brown and toasted.

The mixture will be soft at this stage, but will become crisp once cooled.

For the yogurt sauce, mix the ingredients in a bowl, season to taste with salt and pepper, then cover and chill until needed.

Next, prepare the salmon rillettes. Place the hot-smoked salmon in a small bowl, then add the mascarpone, herbs, lime zest and juice, season with salt and pepper and stir to mix. Take one raw piece of salmon, dice the flesh very small and add to the smoked salmon mixture.

Stir to mix and adjust the seasoning to taste. Cover and chill until you are ready to serve. (The rillette mixture should not be made too far in advance; it is best made fresh and served on the same day.)

For the pan-fried salmon, heat the oil in a large non-stick frying pan over a medium heat. Season the salmon fillets, then place them in the pan, presentation side down, and cook for three minutes. Flip the fish over and cook for a further minute, then drain on kitchen paper.

To serve, spread some of the yogurt sauce on each plate. Drain the pickled apples, celery and cucumber. Place one apple slice on each plate, then place a large spoonful of the hot-smoked salmon rillettes on top, and then top with another slice of apple. Arrange the cucumber and celery on the plates and place one pan-fried salmon piece on each plate. Sprinkle with the candied sunflower seeds and serve.

Tandoori-style partridge

Serves 4

For the tandoori-style paste

10g cumin seeds

10g coriander seeds

4 green cardamom pods

1 piece of cassia bark

10g paprika

25ml sunflower oil

40g diced white onion

40g fresh ginger, peeled and chopped

3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

1 large red chilli, seeds removed and chopped

75g tomato paste

1 lemon

25g natural yogurt

20g fresh coriander, chopped

Sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper

For the partridge tandoori-style breast and coconut balls

4 partridge breasts, skin on 80g of tandoori-style paste

4 partridge legs

1tbs sunflower oil

1 chicken breast, skin removed and diced

1 egg white

50ml double cream

Sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper

1tbs nigella seeds

1tbs desiccated coconut

For the tandoori-style yogurt sauce

80g tandoori-style paste

100ml natural yogurt, hung in muslin to remove any excess liquid

First prepare the marinade. Heat a small non-stick saucepan over a medium heat and dry toast the cumin, coriander, cardamom and cassia
bark for two minutes. Tip it into a pestle and mortar, add the paprika and grind until smooth.

Return the pan to a medium heat with the oil and sweat the onion, ginger, garlic, chilli and spices, and add the seasoning. Cook for 6-8 minutes, covering the pan with a lid to prevent colouring, and stir occasionally.

Add the tomato paste and cook for a further two minutes on high heat, stirring continuously to cook the paste out. Blend the paste until smooth and cool over ice. Once cooled, stir in the coriander and yogurt and chill until needed. Rub the paste over the partridge breast, cover
with clingfilm and refrigerate for at least one hour.

Roast the partridge legs with seasoning and the oil on a lined roasting tray in a preheated oven at 180°C for 22-25 minutes, until cooked.
Cool, remove the skin and bones and flake the meat. Set aside to cool. Make a mousse with the chicken breast. In a food processor, blend the diced chicken with the egg white until smooth and then pass the chicken purée through a fine drum sieve. Return the chicken purée to a bowl and gently whip in the cream and seasoning. Add the cooled, flaked partridge leg meat, check the seasoning and chill for 30 minutes.

Scoop out 25g balls, place on a roasting tray and chill until ready to cook. To make the tandoori-style yogurt sauce, mix the marinade with the dry and thick yogurt and transfer to a piping bag or squeezy bottle.

Keep chilled.

To cook the partridge breast, heat a cast-iron pan over a high heat and add one tablespoon of sunflower oil. Pan-fry the partridge breast
skin-side down for three minutes, then turn it over and cook for a further two minutes. Reduce the heat if it’s colouring too much. Rest the
partridge breast for two minutes before serving.

In the meantime, cook the partridge balls in a preheated oven at 180°C for eight minutes and, once cooked, roll in the nigella seeds and desiccated coconut.

Serve the partridge breast and ball on a skewer with the tandoori-style yogurt sauce.

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