The big challenge for many a busy mum and dad nowadays is to feed the family with wholesome nourishing food on a diminishing budget. Of course it is possible, but it takes more time, energy and determination to ferret out fresh local food in season. Vegetables are by far the most important food group yet we seem to be eating less and less. Food is invariably better, fresher, less expensive and much more delicious and nutritious when it is in season. However confusion still reigns, for younger people particularly, it is incredibly difficult to work out when an item is in season. There are few hints on the supermarket shelves, where most fruit and vegetables are available from January to December regardless of flavour.
Root vegetables, many brassicas and citrus are at their best during the Autumn and Winter season. Many of the roots are both filling and satisfying eg. Swede turnips, parsnips, carrots, celeriac, globe artichokes… Kale, Savoy cabbage, sprouting broccoli and other brassicas really give us that extra pep in our step. They are all easy to prepare and cook and are terrifically versatile. A fine cabbage can cost as little as one Euro, ridiculously cheap when you realise what time and effort goes into growing it. The brassica family of which cabbage is of course a member is full of goodness and is fantastically versatile. Fortunately, few people nowadays boil cabbage for hours on end as was the practice years ago – it’s so much fresher and tastier when thinly shredded across the grain and cooked in a little sizzling butter and with a couple of tablespoons of water to create steam. Good sea salt and freshly cracked pepper is really all that’s needed but I love to ring the changes with chopped parsley and chilli flakes, or a generous sprinkling of cumin seeds and lots of fresh thyme leaves and maybe a dash of cream added are also delicious and is particularly good with game.
Cabbage also makes a refreshing salad. If you are tiring of the ubiquitous coleslaw try a mayo free version with lots of mint leaves and a few raisins or dried cherries. My absolute favourite at present is Skye Gyngell’s Autumn Coleslaw with both red and white cabbage, carrots, raw beetroot, fennel, apples and hazelnuts.
Cabbage can also be stuffed whole or the leaves can be blanched and used to make delicious parcels with a variety of fillings – minced pork, beef, lentils well flavoured with herbs, spices, nam pla, sweet chilli sauce… For a more traditional filling and though not expensive meal, I like to stuff blanched cabbage leaves with little chunks of boiled bacon, champ and parsley sauce. Half a kilo of boiled streaky bacon will make about 8 fat cabbage parcels. Comforting, thrifty food at its best. The tougher outside leaves of the cabbage don’t need to be wasted either follow the example of the Chinese and make crispy seaweed. It makes a delicious nibble and a moreish snack. Even the stalk needn’t be wasted just chop finely or grate and add to a cabbage salad or coleslaw.
Here are a few lovely homely recipes that won’t break the bank but should have your family and friends licking their lips.
Bantry Irish Stew
3 lbs (1.3kg) gigot or rack chops from the shoulder of lamb not less than 2.5cm (1 inch thick)
1lb (450g) (8 medium or 12 baby carrots)
1lb (450g) (8 medium or 12 baby onions)
1lb (450g) Swede turnip, cut into 1 inch (2.5cm) cubes
225g (½ lb) Swede turnip and 225g (½ lb) parsnips
10 -12 potatoes, or more if you like
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 3/4 pints stock (lamb stock if possible) or water
1 sprig of thyme
1 tablespoon roux, optional
1 tablespoon freshly chopped parsley
1 tablespoon freshly chopped chives
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/regulo 4.
Trim off the excess fat from the chops. Remove the bones and cut into generous 1 inch (2.5cm) cubes, you should have a minimum of 2 1/2lbs (1.1kg) lamb. Set aside. Render down the fat on a gentle heat in a heavy pan (discard the rendered down pieces).
Peel the onions and scrape or thinly peel the carrots (if they are young you could leave some of the green stalk on the onion and carrot). Cut the carrots into large chunks, or if they are small leave them whole. If the onions are large, cut them into quarters through the root, if they are small they are best left whole. Peel the turnip and parsnips if using and cut into cubes
Toss the meat in the hot fat on the pan until it is slightly brown. Transfer the meat into a casserole (add the bones also but discard later). Quickly toss the onions and carrots in the fat. Build the meat, carrots, onions, turnip and parsnips up in layers in the casserole, carefully season each layer with freshly ground pepper and salt. De-glaze the pan with lamb stock and pour into the casserole. Peel the potatoes and lay them on top of the casserole, so they will steam while the stew cooks. Season the potatoes. Add a sprig of thyme, bring to the boil on top of the stove, cover with a butter wrapper or paper lid and the lid of the saucepan. Transfer to a moderate oven or allow to simmer on top of the stove until the stew is cooked, 1-1 1/2 hours approx, depending on whether the stew is being made with lamb or hogget. (If the potatoes are small, use twice as many and add half way through cooking)
When the stew is cooked, pour off the cooking liquid, de-grease and reheat in another saucepan. Discard the bones. Thicken slightly by whisking in a little roux. Check seasoning, then add chopped parsley and chives. Pour over the meat and vegetables. Bring the stew back up to boiling point and serve from the pot, in a large pottery dish or in individual bowls.
Serves 8 (as a main course)
This strong, crunchy, earthbound salad comprises everything that is good about autumn – apples, cobnuts, red cabbage and beetroot. My last meal on Earth would have to be some sort of salad…this might just be it! Pretty pink and white candy-striped beetroot looks amazing, but the purple or golden variety will taste just as good. If you can’t find cobnuts, use hazelnuts instead.
200g/7oz cobnuts or fresh hazelnuts, shelled and very roughly chopped
1 pomegranate, quartered
¼ red cabbage, cored OR half red and half white cabbage
1 fennel bulb
4 raw beetroot, washed
3 carrots, peeled
4 dessert apples (preferably Cox’s Orange Pippins)
small bunch tarragon leaves only, finely chopped
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
juice ½ lemon or to taste
2 organic free-range egg yolks
1 tbsp honey
1 ½ tsp Dijon mustard
1 tbsp cream
1 tbsp cider vinegar
1 tsp pomegranate molasses (optional)
200ml/7fl oz mild olive oil
Heat oven to 180°C/160°C fan/gas 4. Spread the cobnuts or hazelnuts on a baking tray and gently toast them in the oven for 3-4 mins. Set aside to cool. Carefully extract the seeds from the pomegranate avoiding the bitter membrane. Set aside.
Finely slice the red cabbage into thin ribbons. Cut off the base of the fennel bulb, remove the tough outer layer, then slice very finely. Cut the beetroot into very thin rounds. Shave the carrots into long ribbons, using a swivel vegetable peeler. Quarter and core the apple, leaving the skin on, then slice thinly.
Place the red cabbage, fennel, beetroot, carrots, apples and chopped tarragon in a bowl. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper, drizzle over the extra virgin olive oil and squeeze over the lemon juice. Toss gently together with your hands and set aside while you make the dressing.
For the dressing, put the egg yolks into a bowl. Add the honey, mustard, cream, cider vinegar and pomegranate molasses (if using) and whisk together to combine. Season with a little salt and pepper, then pour in the olive oil in a slow stream, whisking as you do so emulsify. It should have the consistency of a very loose mayonnaise. Divide the salad among individual plates, piling it high. Drizzle over the dressing and scatter the pomegranate seeds and cobnuts around the plate to serve.
White turnips and kohlrabi are also delicious cooked and served in this way. This recipe provides a perfect first course for a winter dinner party, and raises the Jerusalem artichoke to a more sophisticated level. Serves 4
350g (12oz) Jerusalem artichokes, very carefully peeled to a smooth shape
7g (1⁄4oz) butter
salt and freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons hazelnut oil
11⁄2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1⁄4 teaspoon Dijon mustard
salt, freshly ground pepper and sugar to taste
a few oakleaf lettuce leaves
25g (1oz) hazelnuts, toasted and sliced
sprigs of chervil, for garnish
Cut the artichokes into 1cm (1⁄2in) slices. Bring 125ml (4fl oz) of water and the butter to the boil in a heavy saucepan and add the artichokes. Season. Cover and cook gently until the artichokes are almost cooked. Turn off the heat and leave in the covered saucepan until they are almost tender. Test with a skewer at regular intervals; they usually take about 15 minutes from the point at which you turn off the heat.
While the artichokes are cooking, prepare the hazelnut dressing by mixing all the ingredients together.
When the artichokes are cooked, carefully remove from the saucepan, making sure not to break them up. Place them on a flat dish in a single layer. Spoon over some of the hazelnut dressing and toss while still warm. Taste and correct the seasoning if necessary.
To assemble the salad, divide the sliced artichokes between 4 plates. Put a little circle of lettuce around the vegetables and sprinkle some of the dressing over the lettuce. Garnish with the hazelnuts and chervil sprigs. Eat while the artichokes are still warm.
6 bacon rashers, chopped (optional)
420ml (15fl oz) double cream
350ml (12fl oz) milk
2 garlic cloves, sliced
1 tablespoon rosemary, finely chopped
1 red chilli, deseeded and sliced
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 celeriac (about 500g/18oz) peeled, quartered and thinly sliced
500g (18oz) potatoes, peeled and very thinly sliced
Ovenproof gratin dish 10 inch (25.5cm) x 8 1/2 inch (21.5cm)
Pour a little of the cream mixture onto the bottom of an ovenproof gratin dish.
Arrange a layer of celeriac, scatter with bacon, then season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Pour over some more of the cream mixture and repeat the same process, alternating potato and celeriac, finishing with a layer of potato. Cover with the remainder of cream mixture. Bake for 1-1 1/4 hours in the preheated oven until golden and the vegetables are tender when a knife is inserted. Leave to sit for 5 minutes, and then serve.
Remove the stalks from the outer leaves. Roll the dry leaves into a cigar shape and slice with a very sharp knife into the finest possible shreds.
Heat the oil in a deep fryer to 180°C/350°F.
Toss in some of the cabbage and cook for a few seconds. As soon as it starts to crisp, remove and drain on kitchen paper! Sprinkle with salt and sugar, toss and serve cold.