Well, here we are, the end of another year, the calendar has come full circle, we’ve seen everything the world has to offer over the months since January. December, apart from the obvious Christmas and New Years Eve, has very little to recommend it, snow, ice, lots of rain and pretty cold, it’s a dire sort of a month really. Yet there does always seem to be just a little patch of mild weather every December (watch me be wrong this year though), often around Christmas.
For those of you with apples trees, some will still have a few apples clinging on, albeit rather tenuously, especially some of the cooking varieties, these of course can be used in all sorts of ways to keep out the winter chill. Solid winter fare such as apple pies, steamed apple puddings, baked apples, apple crumble are all welcome dishes at this time of the year. Try adding a quince to your apple pie next time; it really does make a superb addition. Picked in the late autumn the quince keeps exceptionally well and is a really super fruit. They improve apples in any form immeasurably as well as making the most fantastic rose-coloured jelly.
Jewish mythology has it that the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden was in fact the quince, not an apple at all! The quintessential fruit of good and evil.
From the vegetable garden we get good quality cabbages at this time of year and the red cabbage is no exception to that rule. And what a fantastic vegetable it is, last month I waxed lyrical about the humble cabbage in all its guises but this month I feel I must expand a little on the red cabbage. As blue as they are red their outer leaves seem to develop an ever-deepening blue bloom as the winter wears on and the cold and the rain work on them. As hardy a vegetable as any you will find the red cabbage will happily sit in your garden waiting to be picked at any time throughout the winter. Then, once picked, it will still sit there in your fridge for what seems like weeks if you wish it to without deteriorating too far.
Red cabbages are fantastic when slowly stewed with juniper berries, brown sugar and vinegar and is just wonderful with venison or any type of game. A much-overlooked vegetable deserving of far greater use.
One of the biggest problems at this time of year is that there is no fruit around. Yes, I know, there are raspberries from New Zealand and redcurrants from Holland, mangoes from Brazil and melons from Spain, strawberries are coming in from the USA and even from Belgium while from South Africa we are getting peaches, but that’s not real fruit! It’s all out of season, American strawberries in December may look great but be serious, you can’t actually eat them! Not only that but watch their price rise throughout December and see how expensive they become the closer we get to Christmas.
We have of course, as I’ve already mentioned, still got apples and even some pears around at the moment but we want something different don’t we, my favourite, forced rhubarb isn’t around until next month although there is often a little on the market just before Christmas. All citrus fruits are good during the bleak months of winter and of course blood oranges will be in season soon too.
Cranberries are synonymous with this time of year, instead of just using them in a sauce or jelly to go with the turkey why not try making a cranberry ice cream or what about a cranberry and vodka sorbet – even better still! You could even add them to your apple pies and crumbles as you would blackberries. Lychees, not a fruit that immediately springs to mind you must admit but did you know that they are in season at this time of year?
One other fruit that does deserve a mention at this time of year is the pomegranate, hardly a locally grown commodity, but with their slightly tart yet sweet ruby red seeds they go well with a variety of meats such as lamb, venison and pheasant.
At this time of year, I normally bang on about how good scallops are, in fact how good all molluscs are, mussels should not be overlooked either. They don’t need to be served a la marinier you know, there are plenty of other ways to deal with them but whatever you do please use fresh mussels, not these gigantic (horrible) green-lipped mussels. Try making a soup from fresh mussels or a sauce for a fish. What about roasted fillet of cod on a bed of mash with a broth of mussels, celery and thyme (celery is at its best during the cold winter months too) for instance!
I suppose as Christmas is almost here, and despite bird flu, and the possibility of a scarcity of quality turkey’s this year I can’t possibly get away without talking turkey! Did you know we have been eating turkey in Britain now for about 450 years, give or take the odd year here or there? But it is only since the Victorian era that they really became established as the bird to be eaten at Christmas. Up until then it would have been traditional to eat goose. The Aztecs domesticated these wild birds, native to America and it was the conquistadors of Spain that allegedly were the first to take the turkey to Europe where they were bred to be much plumper that their wild cousins. Turkey’s, as we know them, returned to the Americas sometime in the 1600’s when the early European settlers took this now genetically modified stock back to its home country.
Wild turkey is known to have existed in its native America for over 10 million years, fossil evidence haven been found to bear this out and the American Indians are known to have hunted the turkey both for meat and its feathers (used as flights for their arrows and of course to adorn ceremonial dress) since AD1000.
Of course, ‘Boootiful’ turkey growers have been trying to persuade us to eat turkey all year round, they have been producing smaller birds in the 5-8lb range, a size unseen a few years ago, as well as the monsters, some of which can reach as much as 70 pounds. Who knows, soon it could end up like chicken; once seen as a luxury food now they are so common that they are almost boring.
When buying a turkey always allow 350-400g/12-14oz per person, slightly more if you are only buying a small bird and only 280-350g/10-12oz if using a really big bird. If you are going to stuff the turkey then only fill the neck cavity, not the body as the temperature in the centre will never get that hot. Allow 20 minutes per lb plus a further 20 minutes after that cooking time for birds up to about 6.75kg/15lb and 15 minutes to the lb for birds larger than this with 15 minutes extra. Like any meat once cooked allow it to rest well before carving. As always, if possible, buy a fresh turkey, rather than one of the frozen ones, the difference in flavour and texture will astound you!
While on the subject of meat let’s not forget that the game season is in full swing and December often sees the prices of all game, and more especially pheasant and partridge, coming down to a ridiculously low level, offering incredible value for money. Roast Breast of Pheasant on a Bed of Red Cabbage surrounded with Roasted Chestnuts and served with a Compote of Apple on the side, a complete December meal, what more could you want?
Let’s finish this year by talking about goose as it is definitely a bird worth trying, many people will not try it however, as they are convinced it is going to be inedible because of the fat it carries. Well, if it is cooked properly then it will be no fattier than a duck. Score the breast of the goose with the point of a sharp knife along its length at 5mm/½in spacings, this will enable the fat to run off, the more you score the fat the more fat will drain away. Goose is starting to become the fashionable alternative to turkey so if you want to try it before it goes up in price (inevitable once popularised) you had better do so soon, next year may be too late!
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