As many of you will know, I am a huge fan of shopping, cooking and eating seasonally. Your food will be cheaper, fresher, taste better, have travelled fewer miles and you will be supporting local farmers. In summer this philosophy is easy to follow. I could never get sick of a glut of stone fruits; peaches, nectarines, plums, apricots, cherries. As for vegetables, I love making a spicy rice stuffing which can be used for summer veg like capsicum, squash, eggplant or tomatoes.
But in winter, eating locally and seasonally requires a bit more patience and a bit more willpower. Otherwise it’s too tempting to capitulate and next thing, you find yourself buying hothouse-grown pale tomatoes or cherries that have travelled thousands of miles from the USA. Instead, it’s worth learning to embrace winter vegetables, especially Brassicas.
Our vegetable crisper is full of Brassicas at the moment – cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cavolo nero and broccoli. The family also includes mustard greens, horseradish, kale, watercress, red cabbage, bok choy, radish, kohlrabi and turnip roots and tops. It’s worth noting that the isothiocynates in Brassicas break down to give off that infamous sulfurous smell when overcooked, which gives these vegetables a bad name. Try cooking them lightly until they are coloured and softened but not soggy and overdone, and you will be pleasantly surprised at how fantastic they taste.
NB: Kids’ palates are much more sensitive to sulfurous tastes than adults are, so they will be more likely to reject the vegetables if they are overcooked.
This is a great way of increasing your vegetable intake and making mashed potatoes a bit more interesting.
Peel floury potatoes and cut into large pieces. Place potatoes in a large pot and cover with cold water and a large pinch of salt. Bring to the boil and cook at a moderate boil until they are just soft when pierced with a sharp knife. Drain, mash or push through a potato ricer and add milk or cream, finely sliced shallots, butter, salt and pepper.
Finely shred white or Savoy cabbage or kale and fry in butter or olive oil with salt and lots of pepper until lightly coloured and softened, but not overcooked. Stir the cooked cabbage through the mashed potato, add a bit (or a lot!) of extra butter and serve with a wintery beef stew, pork chops or traditionally, boiled ham.
Brussels sprouts with bacon
We have a good friend who has always been an avowed Brussels sprouts hater, but this dish converted him.
I prefer to treat Brussels sprouts like cabbage by shredding them finely rather than boiling them whole, which tends to leave the outer leaves overcooked and soggy by the time the middle is cooked through.
Dice and fry bacon (or pancetta, prosciutto or ham) until crispy. Add shredded Brussels sprouts and a bit more oil or butter if the bacon hasn’t released enough fat. Fry for a couple of minutes over a medium heat until softened but not soggy. At the end of cooking time, throw in a handful of chopped nuts – toasted hazelnuts, roasted chestnuts, slivered almonds or walnuts, lots of pepper and a pinch of salt (remember the bacon will have added saltiness to the dish).
Instead of nuts, you could try adding a couple of teaspoons of lightly crushed fennel seeds, which is especially good with pork.
Cavolo nero with rigatoni
Cavolo nero, or Tuscan cabbage, is the exception to most Brassicas in that it needs a LOT of cooking.
This sauce is very simple, so it’s worth splashing out on a nice pasta for this dish. Use a good quality short pasta that will hold the sauce well eg. orecchiette, maccheroni, or rigatoni. This dish might sound unappealing with the combination of cabbage, anchovies and garlic, but I PROMISE it tastes amazing – go on, give it a try.
Cook pasta in a large pot of salted water until al dente, then drain, retaining a couple of cups of the cooking liquid. Don’t be afraid to leave it with a bit of bite to it because you will cook it further in the sauce.
Trim 2 bunches of cavolo nero and remove the stalk so you are just left with the gorgeous dark, crinkled leaves. Boil the leaves in salted water for at least five minutes. Take a bit out and taste it to check it is cooked. It will have a strong, irony taste, but should be tender and not bitter. Drain and puree the leaves in the food processor. Add a splash of the pasta cooking water to help it puree smoothly if necessary.
In a pan, over a medium heat, gently cook sliced cloves of garlic (1-2 cloves per person) and anchovy fillets (2 per person) in HEAPS of olive oil until softened but not coloured. Add to the cavolo nero puree in the food processor and puree until the garlic and anchovies are well combined.
Return the sauce to the pan and simmer over a low heat. Add the pasta and extra cooking water from the pasta if necessary to reach the correct consistency. Simmer again for a couple of minutes so the pasta absorbs some of the lovely green sauce. Remove from the heat and stir through a couple of handfuls of grated Parmesan, dried chilli flakes to taste, black pepper and serve.
You can use broccolini instead of cavolo nero in this dish – just chop the steamed broccolini finely rather than pureeing it.