The season is slowly changing: the trees and woodlands are starting to show signs of new life, with green shoots appearing, but with the unpredictable weather - very mild one minute, freezing cold the next - it's hard to know where this month will take us and what impact it will have on produce.
Valentine's Day is fast approaching, and is the perfect opportunity to use tropical fruits such as bananas, pineapples and passion fruit. Wild venison and hare are still going strong but not for very much longer.
Blood oranges are at their best, and the wonderful red-stained orange brings much-needed colour to our dining tables. Leeks, kale, salsify, cauliflowers and the chicory varieties are also at their best during February.
The indoor forced rhubarb season is slowly winding down during February - however, it will be replaced with outdoor rhubarb instead. Rhubarb is great for sweet or savoury dishes and even makes delicious chutneys and jams.
Cockles, mussels, winkles and oysters are perfect and sweet this time of the year. Sea bass, hake and lemon sole are also plentiful.
With February being one of the leanest months for seasonal British produce, dig deep into the store cupboard for dried pulses such as butter beans, haricot beans, chickpeas and dried borlottis - and don't forget about lentils, rice and barley. Soak the pulses in plenty of water to hydrate and use to add nutrition and variety to stews, soups and bakes.
Lemon sole, a small flat fish related to flounder, produces thin fillets that cook quickly. Cook lemon sole on the bone or remove the fillets and cook them either in a hot pan (very quickly) or steam. Alternatively, you can batter or crumb them and deep-fry quickly till golden brown.
Cockles are bivalves and are a member of the clam family that live in the sandy beaches of our coastline. They are small and it might feel like hard work retrieving the salty sweet cockle flesh but they are delicious. Cockles served with vinegar and brown bread are synonymous with going to the seaside, but they are equally delicious served in soups and sauces. Eaten raw, their texture is similar to fresh, raw oysters - creamy and soft - while cooked they tend to be more chewy and firmer. As they live in the sand, cockles should be washed well in cold-running fresh water to remove as much sand as possible.
Blood oranges are a variety of orange with unusual, red-coloured flesh and are smaller than common oranges. The red-coloured flesh is due to the presence of anthocyanins, pigments that are usually found in flowers and rarely in fruits, apart from this particular variety of orange. Early in the season the colour can still be more orange than red and later on this variety can be found to be entirely red-fleshed. Blood oranges are ideal for fresh savoury salads and served with white-fleshed fish such as lemon sole and hake. Blood oranges are also ideal for desserts.
Leeks are a vegetable related to the onion and garlic family, allium porrum. The dark green parts are bitter and should be used carefully when added to stocks and sauces. Leeks contain natural thickening agents, which will thicken sauces and stocks naturally. Because the flavour is slightly sweeter and less intense than onions, leeks are a preferred aromatic in stews and soups.
Chicory or endive, also known as Belgium endive, comes in two colours - red and white. Chicory is grown in sandy peaty soil and grows in the dark to keep the colour white. The leaves are bitter in taste and can either be cooked or eaten raw. The roots are ground and used as a coffee substitute. Radicchio is a variety of chicory - the spicy, bitter leaves become sweeter and milder once cooked.
SEASON'S BEST DURING FEBRUARY…
Bananas, blood oranges, brill, cabbages, cauliflower, celeriac, chicory/endive, cockles, duck, haddock, hake, halibut, hare, horseradish, Jerusalem artichokes, kale, leeks, lemons, lemon sole, mussels, oranges, oysters, parsnips, passion fruit, pineapple, pomegranate, potatoes (main crop), purple sprouting broccoli, radicchio, red chicory, rhubarb (forced), salmon, salsify, sea bass, shallots, swede, turbot, turkey, truffle (black), venison, walnuts, winkles.
http://www.caterersearch.com/Articles/08/02/2012/342217/lemon-sole-cockles-chicory-and-burnt-butter-sauce-by-madalene-bonvini-hamel.htm" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer">Lemon sole, cockles, chicory and burnt butter sauce >>Orange posset, blood orange granita and jelly, orange sablé >>
WHAT'S IN STORE NEXT MONTHJames Wellock of fresh and dried ingredients supplier Wellocks takes a look at what's coming into season in March Everybody is always eager to push on with their spring menu, but be patient: the weather has had a huge impact on produce and so many things are late. Last summer, for example, was very dry in Yorkshire, which resulted in a poor growth for rhubarb (no energy was getting into the roots). This was then compounded by a warm autumn, right up to Christmas, which is no good for rhubarb because it needs to be cold so that it goes dormant. Once dormant, it can be taken into the cathedrals and reawakened in the candlelight, tricking it into thinking it's spring and then, hey presto - forced rhubarb! All of this, though, means that the yield of forced rhubarb will be significantly down as the season has only just got going.
There are a couple of UK producers now growing early asparagus under glass and this will be available mid-March, cutting into the early French and Spanish green asparagus season. However, this is the month for me when the French white asparagus is at its best and should be a must.
For outdoor asparagus, a nice warm and damp spring will result in the roots coming to life and spears shooting out, but if it's cold they remain dormant. This has been the case for the past two years - in 2009 we had fantastic Yorkshire asparagus at the beginning of April but last year, after a really cold spring, it was nearly May.
Your issue as a chef is to decide when you are going to put it on to your menu. The glasshouse product is there as a back-up to ensure that we have the product, but it's not nearly as good as the outdoor crop, in my opinion. There is another option - the French market produce - which is lovely but more expensive.
The first Turkish morel mushrooms will be here next month, but, yet again, is massively dependent on the weather - as last year's pictures of Turkey under snow showed! Hence, a massive early season price of £70 per kg - however, this is cheaper than the dried price by about a third. The normal starting price has been around £55 per kg in previous years.
Most woods will have an abundance of wild garlic leaves, but if you are unable to get your own your forager or veg supplier will have the goods. We have also got a Yorkshire garlic grower with a wonderful garlic plant with a very small bulb on and next month it will be a wet garlic.
The southern-based baby salad growers will have started their fresh herbs and baby salad leaves, while Jersey Royal new potatoes will be expensive as it is the crop grown under glass.
French gariguettes and frais des bois really do pack a punch - not just the fragrance but the flavour is amazing. The frais des bois come in various guises and, pretty much, are all farmed. As always, the key to them is to get them fresh as they soon deteriorate. We now get them from a specialist in Malaga and he has two grades. Both are very good and packed with ice packs inside a cool box. The guarantee comes with the grower you use.
The key to all this is to maintain communication with your supplier and use his knowledge to work with the season and be ready for when the local product is in full flow to maximise freshness, and therefore flavour - and because it is plentiful, it is very good value for money.
James Wellock is managing director of Wellocks, a supplier of fresh and dry ingredients sourced from all over the UK as well as abroad.