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February is the iciest month of the year, when all we want is cake and a cup of tea, or crumpets, or a hearty roast on a Sunday with all the trimmings - crunchy, squishy roast potatoes, long, spindly parsnips, crispy at one end and soft at the other, some heavy, iron-rich greens like cabbage or kale and lashings of gravy, all washed down with a hefty bottle of red. And then pud - it's got to be a steamed pudding at this time of year.
Sorry - slight food daydream there. So, what gorgeous produce is on the shelves this month and what can you do with it?
The leek is a curious vegetable; used correctly in many a dish it should provide a background, relatively indeterminate flavour with a depth and unctuousness much less harsh than that of its cousin, the onion. One of my favourite dishes has the leek as hero and couldn't be simpler to prepare. Soften some shredded leeks in a little butter. Mix with double cream, season well and pour into an ovenproof dish. Bake for 20 minutes or so until the cream is bubbling - an easy side dish that's perfect with roast lamb.
The leek's best friend though is cheese. Add some to my previous suggestion or after sweating the leeks, add some creme fraiche, plenty of grated cheese and eggs and pour into a pre-baked pastry case for a decadent tart to serve with a simple, sharp, green salad.
Oranges, blood oranges and Sevilles are at their peak now. So turn your hand to a bit of marmalade-making - a sugar thermometer is a cheap and worthwhile investment that will have you turning out perfect marmalades, jams and jellies in no time. Ideal for crossing over from sweet to savoury, oranges' acidity lends a welcome freshness when combined with fennel and goat's cheese in a salad, dressed with a good olive oil, a splash of vinegar and some toasted crumbled walnuts.
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Oranges add a freshness and zing to salads
A favourite pudding is the 'whole orange cake' made by boiling oranges in their skins and then blitzing these up and adding to the cake mix - the peel adding that zesty, fresh edge so welcome in a cake.
Much like cabbage, this tender, ivory-coloured vegetable has a vaguely sulphurous whiff that is somehow quite chemically comforting. At Spanish chef José Pizarro's new restaurant, Pizarro, José serves little florets of the cruciferous vegetable with a drizzle of good olive oil, a sprinkle of sea salt flakes and black pepper. It's stunningly simple and delicious and makes a great nibble to have with drinks (as well as being ludicrously cheap if you're throwing a party).
One of my favourite twists on a cauliflower classic is a cauliflower cheese soup studded with vinegary pickled walnut pieces. But, is this gilding the lily? Is there any better way of serving the veg than in that ultimate incarnation, cauliflower cheese? Mix it up as you will - throw in broccoli, pasta or bits of bacon or ham hock, but really, the basic version is comfort food at its best. Use a strong cheese like gruyère mixed with some parmesan, and scatter breadcrumbs over the top for extra crunch. A warm, velvety blanket of a dish...
The butternut is the member of this American family that we most commonly find in the UK and thanks to the likes of Jamie Oliver, has found a secure place in our vegetable drawer. Although most frequently eaten as a savoury dish, a butternut squash can easily replace the pumpkin in that Thanksgiving favourite, pumpkin pie - combined with double cream and flavoured with the warming spices of vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger.
Steamed squash can be pureed with a little wholegrain mustard and butter as a perfect side dish for roast pork while roasted wedges are a dish in their own right, drizzled with natural yogurt and sprinkled with fresh coriander, finely shredded spring onions and garam masala. Butternut is a great curry addition too: Hot Stuff, the fantastic Indian restaurant in London's Vauxhall, does a dish called 'butternut 'n' spinach', in which large chunks of the gourd provide a contrast with the savoury spinach. If you really fancy pushing the boat out, you can even use them to make doughnuts.
Perfectly ripe pears are a rare find and best eaten wearing a bib or leaning over a sink waiting for that inevitable burst of sweet fruit juice. Interestingly they are one of the few fruits that actually ripen almost entirely off the tree. Somehow they're only ever ripe for the merest of moments and then they're over.
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Unripe pears lend themselves very well to cooking
The joy of unripe pear, however, is how well it lends itself to cooking. Poaching pears is a doddle and you can chop and change ingredients in the poaching liquor to suit your tastes. A less-sweet version might be made by poaching pears in perry or white wine with a touch of vinegar to give a sharp edge. Use these pears in a salad with watercress, pecan nuts, crumbled blue cheese and crispy, chewy croutons with maybe a few sultanas soaked briefly in the poaching liquor too.
A wintry twist on Eton mess can be made with a sweet poached pear chopped up and tossed with smashed meringue, double cream, chocolate sauce and some preserved ginger.
Before you turn your nose up at cabbage with memories of schooldays and vegetables boiled to nothing but mush and smell, pick up the cabbage again. Start with the Savoy. Shred it and use it to make a winter slaw, tossed with yoghurt, mint, pumpkin seeds and some shallots cut into rings. Throw in some bacon for good measure and it'll be perfect with cold cuts.
Next, remember how good red cabbage is, slowly cooked down with apple, brown sugar, butter, spices and vinegar - so good with roast lamb or even better, with a few dried sour cherries thrown in and served alongside slow-roasted duck or goose. Then the white variety - pickle it as sauerkraut and stuff into sarnies with grilled sausages and a splat of Dijon mustard. Or, as they serve at Tsuru Sushi, try finely shredded spring pointed cabbage on top of a katsu sandwich, deep-fried pork or chicken in breadcrumbs, Japanese mayo and Tonkatsu sauce in the fluffiest of white bread). Now tell me you don't want to revisit the cabbage.
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