What in Season: December

01 November 2013
What in Season: December

James Wellock, of quality fresh and dry ingredient supplier Wellocks, looks ahead to the flavours of December, while the British Larder's Madalene Bonvini-Hamel cooks up some recipes using prime seasonal produce

It is not by chance that we have sprouts, parsnips and carrots as our traditional Christmas vegetables. They can all withstand the frosts and, more importantly, it is this weather that enhances the flavour of the sprout and removes its bitterness. There is also a big debate on health supplements at the moment and, if you think about it, the seasonal produce that nature has for us should really negate the need to take any. It is a little-known fact, but sprouts are four times higher in vitamin C than oranges.

I always loathed sprouts. Like many, I have childhood memories of overcooked, soggy and bitter-tasting vegetables with a sulphurous odour. However, things have moved on a bit since then, and now it really is the first vegetable on the Christmas menu and growers are offering various sizes. For that extra-fresh offering, buy them on the stalk and keep them in water.

The berry most associated with Christmas is the cranberry, now mainly grown in North America. A very tart fruit, it is described as a superfruit with its nutrient and antioxidant qualities. A little tip here when cooking them: don't add the sugar until the end as it toughens the skin.

The best citrus of the year is available now. From Spain and Italy we have oranges and, my favourite, blood oranges, easy-peel clementines and satsumas and lemons, all oozing juice. For a real treat, there's Italian leafy lemons and bergamots. Australia has added the finger lime (also known as lime caviar) to this offer and, though very expensive, it is becoming popular. The fruit is about 4-8cm long and comes in amazing colours, from pink to green. When opened, it really does look like a vibrant caviar.

To finish the seed/caviar theme, pomegranates from Spain are also at their best.

No Christmas lunch is complete without roast potatoes, and for the best golden crisp finish you cannot beat a Maris Piper, with newer varieties Marquis and Sagitta giving an even drier fry. Red Rooster - a great all-round potato with amazing flavour and yellow flesh - will not crisp up as much and cooks slightly darker, but will take on more duck fat.

The star of the month, though, is the Passe-Crassanne pear. It's so good that the only way it used to be sold was with each pear being wax-tipped to stop the moisture escaping. However, as we now have much faster routes to market this is an extravagance and, for me, not really necessary. Yes, there are lots of varieties of pear available at this time of year, but I can assure you they just do not come close to this one.

This is going to be the first year that we will have Yorkshire forced rhubarb for Christmas, and this is a sign of confidence in a product that only a few years ago was disappearing from the landscape. There will be more on this amazing story when we look at January's larder next month, but it will be nice to see it alongside the Dutch product so early.

I have talked about why seasonal produce is so good for all of us, but there are other products that are deemed necessary at this time of year, and all your good work to have a great GP-busting healthy menu can be undone at Christmas by ordering southern hemisphere items such as strawberries, peaches, nectarines and apricots. They are not fresh when they eventually get here, so they are losing goodness all the time. They taste of very little and cost a fortune. If ever there is a month to work with the seasons, December is it.


(Serves 6)

For the pheasant breast
6 pheasant breasts, skin on
200g Stichelton cheese, crumbed
120g soft unsalted butter
Sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper

For the braised barley and quince
75g unsalted butter
150g celery, finely diced
150g banana shallots, finely diced
2 garlic cloves, crushed
200g quinces, diced
100g pearl barley
225ml port
225ml pheasant stock
Sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper

For the port-poached quinces
250ml port
1tbs caster sugar
1tsp rapeseed oil
2 quinces, peeled, cored and sliced
Sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper

To serve
200g cavolo nero
2tbs linseeds
2tbs toasted sunflower seeds
2tbs reduced port
100g Stichelton cheese, crumbed

First prepare the pheasant breasts. Make a pocket incision in each breast and divide the cheese among them, pushing it into the pockets as deep as possible.

Rub the soft butter over each pheasant breast and place in a refrigerator for at least 30 minutes before cooking.

To braise the barley, preheat the oven to 180°C. Heat a medium ovenproof casserole dish over a medium heat with the butter and sweat the celery, shallot, garlic, quince and seasoning for about seven minutes, add the barley, mix and add the port and stock.

Bring back to a simmer, cover with a lid and place in the oven for 20-25 minutes. Adjust the seasoning, if needed, and keep warm.

In the meantime, poach the quinces in the port. Bring the port, sugar and oil to a simmer and add the peeled and sliced quinces. Place a cartouche over the quinces, weigh down with a plate and reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Poach the quinces for 8-10 minutes, until soft to the touch. Set aside until needed.

To cook the pheasant, heat a non-stick frying pan over a medium heat, season the chilled buttered breast and pan-fry the pheasant breast skin-side down until golden brown. Then flip it over on to a lined roasting tray and finish in the oven at 180°C for eight minutes. Let the pheasant breast rest for five minutes.

To serve, spoon the warm braised barley on to warm plates, arrange the poached quince and serve each pheasant breast on top of cooked cavolo nero.
Garnish with linseed, sunflower seeds and crumbed Stichelton cheese.


(Serves 8-10)

For the Madras spice mix 2tbs whole coriander seeds
1tbs each of cumin seeds, fenugreek, yellow mustard seeds, black peppercorns, turmeric
40mm piece of cassia bark
5 whole dried Kashmir chillies
12 whole green cardamom pods
10 fresh curry leaves

For the pumpkin soup 100g unsalted butter
1kg pumpkin, peeled and roughly diced
2tbs Madras spice mix
Sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper
1.25 litres white chicken stock or vegetable stock
200ml double cream

For the pumpkin bhaji
1 large free-range egg
25ml milk
1tsp vegetable oil
100g pumpkin, peeled and coarsely grated
50g white onion, finely sliced
1tsp Madras spice mix
50g self-raising flour
Sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper

First prepare the Madras spice mix. In a non-stick frying pan over a medium heat, dry-toast the spices for 1-2 minutes, shaking to ensure that they do not catch and burn.

Do the same with the curry leaves: they will dry out and become crispy. Let the toasted spices cool and then grind them to a fine powder using a spice grinder. Keep the toasted ground spices in an airtight container until needed.

For the soup, heat a large saucepan over a low heat with butter and sweat the pumpkin, Madras spice mix and seasoning for about 8-10 minutes. Keep the pan covered with a lid, and stir to prevent it from colouring. Add the stock, increase the heat and simmer the soup for 20-22 minutes until the pumpkin is very soft and falling apart. Add the cream, bring the soup back to the boil and blend until smooth. Pass the soup through a fine sieve and adjust the seasoning if needed.

While the soup is simmering, make the bhaji mix. Whisk the egg, milk and oil in a mixing bowl. Add the coarsely grated pumpkin, sliced onion and spice mix with seasoning. Lightly mix to combine, add the flour and mix.

Heat a deep-fat fryer with oil to 160°C and, once hot, deep-fry teaspoonsful of the mix for about 4-6 minutes until golden brown and cooked all the way through. Drain the bhajis on kitchen paper and season with table salt.

Serve the boiling hot soup in warm soup cups or bowls and serve the bhaji on the side.

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