Just as shop windows spend this month trying to tempt us with the last chance to buy some winter woolies, we’re also starting to run out of time to enjoy the autumn/winter collection of seasonal foods. The new season’s greenery and fresh flavours will make its presence felt soon enough in our shops and restaurants. Before it does, why not make the most of winter’s last indulgences with some of these classic, end-of-season must-haves.
January 31st marks the end of the UK game season for pheasant, partridge, duck, goose, woodcock and Scotland’s brown hare. The ones around this month are going to have tougher meat than the spritely young things you might have been flash-frying back in the heady days of early Autumn. Such late-season game will benefit from leisurely pot-roasting; with wine or cider slugged in for flavour and added succulence.
Older game has a more intense flavour in the same way that mutton from sheep which must be at least two years old has greater depth than lamb – at less than a year old – could hope for. (Hogget comes in at the middle for sheep who are over a year but less than two.) Mutton works so well in robust winter dishes. If you struggle to get hold of some locally try ordering a mutton box from award-winning Langley Chase Organic Farm. There are mutton haunches and saddles to be stuffed and roasted; shoulders and neck to be casseroled.
A meaty casserole can sometimes be the only thing for taking the cold burr out of January. Whenever I make one – whether it’s beef, venison or mutton – Dorothy Hartley’s advice from her 1950s Food In England rings loudly in my kitchen. She wrote that beer when used for slow cooking tough beef would “soften a frozen mammoth”. Dorothy knew what she was talking about and it’s not just beer, either. Alcohol’s acidity gives succulence to the meat by breaking down its enzymes. Guinness, red wine, cider, marsala or port – they’re all good for casseroling and meat tenderising. Those sluggings I recommended for pot-roasting older game are doing an important job. And if ever it seems the meat I’m using might have too much of the frozen mammoth about it then I call in the acidic big-guns and marinade it for a few hours in a mix of equal parts vinegar to any of those boozes mentioned earlier, or in some buttermilk.
The root vegetables that are also coming to the end of their season make a fine addition to casseroles too. A very tasty way to cook a joint of meat if you happen to have a glut of carrots, parsnips, turnips or celeriac hanging around is to make a bed of a medley of chopped root vegetables in a big pot, lay the meat on top, and then cover it with more of the veg before sealing with a lid and cooking.
Those of us without vegetable gluts might prefer to enjoy the last of these seasonal roots in their own right as an accompaniment to meat or fish. Try salsify peeled, lightly boiled, sliced and then finished under the grill with some lemon juice, parsley, butter and breadcrumbs over the top. Celeriac works best, I think, when mashed with potatoes or with some apples that joined it in the pan for the boiling. That goes down a storm with anything in the pork line. Sticking with mashed roots, how about the traditional Welsh dish of punch-nep? Just mash together equal quantities of turnips and potatoes, pile it into a bowl, dab holes in it, and pour into those some cream and/or melted butter. A recipe which is admittedly not much a goer for anyone on a January carb-free, fat-free detox.
Maybe jerusalem artichokes are a bit more ‘January’. These roots are packed with iron, potassium and vitamin B1. They work well in a gratin, or baked with garlic and capers. Jerusalem artichokes were commonly grown in 19th century kitchen gardens as a wind-break. An amusing fact for ten year-olds who know what else jerusalem artichokes are famous for wind-wise.
Moving swiftly along. To fruit. And specifically to the apples and pears which we may be used to having all year-round, but whose British crops will be starting to near their natural end. That must be the perfect excuse to indulge in some pears that have been poached in cinnamon, red wine, ginger and saffron and served with thick cream or custard alongside. Or maybe some spiced apple chunks wrapped in filo pastry with a toffee and whisky sauce. Cinnamon ice-cream would offer a lighter touch that will soon become very appealing. As February beckons it carries with it the promise of the new season. Winter’s wares won’t feel right for very long then. So for now, I say: wrap up, enjoy the cold, and eat snugly.