Shops are now bulging with fresh produce from home and abroad in anticipation of the festive season, with plenty of clementines, root vegetables for roasting, Brussels sprouts, turkey, goose, smoked salmon, stilton cheese and dried fruit and nuts. Winter brings a huge selection of fresh fruit and vegetables including root vegetables, cabbages, apples, pears and citrus fruit. The game season is still going strong with plenty of meat for roasting and stewing, as well as a huge selection of seafood for lighter meals.
Cabbages of all shapes and size are in abundance. They can be boiled, steamed, stuffed, braised and deep fried or simply served raw shredded in a salad. Choose cabbages that are heavy with strong coloured leaves without yellow discolouration or bruises. In general it is best to cook cabbage briefly, remove the outer leaves, quarter, decore and finely shred leaves, cook in boiling water for a couple of minutes or prepare and cook as required. For Chinese Crispy Seaweed simply shred the outer leaves of savoy cabbage, deep-fry , toss with a little caster sugar, Chinese five spice and a little salt. Red cabbage is excellent when shredded and slowly cooked in the oven with brown sugar, red wine, sliced onion and a grated eating apple for 2 hours.
Brussels Sprouts are everywhere with the coming of Christmas. Why not try something different? For a vegetarian Christmas see our recipe for Brussels Sprout and Chestnut Ravioli or shred sprouts and cook in a stir fry (this also works well with savoy and white cabbage.) Brussels sprouts are delicious as long as you don't over cook them, as not only will they smell awful they'll look and taste bad too.
Broccoli is at its peak this month. Choose those with firm heads without limp leaves and opened flowers. Deep fry in a light batter, steam, puree or serve raw as a crudite. Make a rustic Broccoli quiche accompanied with fresh herbs and a little cheese of your choice.
Chicory are bud shaped vegetables with white leaves and a sweet bitter flesh. Belgian endive is the variety commonly sold under this name in the U.K. Remove core before cooking, boil, steam, braise and sauté. I love them shredded, simmered in vegetable or chicken stock and then sautéed in butter with bacon and wild mushrooms or in a warming gratin.
Root Vegetables are widely available throughout the winter months, these include: parsnips, jerusalem artichokes, salsify, swedes, celeriac, carrots. Jerusalem artichokes are a real treat but awkward to peel, so choose large ones. Yummy roasted in their skin, sliced and sautéed, they are also excellent in a soup or gratin. Swede is similar to turnips but larger with yellow, sweeter and milder flesh. Choose medium, firm, unbruised swedes (larger ones will have coarser flesh). Trim ends, peel, wash and cut as required, boil, roast or even deep fry. Celeriac is the edible root of celery. It has knobbly rough skin and ranges from the size of an orange to a swede. It is best to choose smaller celeriac for easier preparation. Use and cook as for carrots but you will need to put cut flesh in water with lemon juice to stop it from browning. Yummy roasted, deep fried, boiled and mashed, or raw in salads.
For a delicious seasonal soup try our recipe for Celeriac, Apple and Stilton Soup. Salsify is a less common root vegetable in Britain but is slowly becoming more popular. It looks like a stick with a long rough stem that covered in dirt. Peeled flesh needs to be placed in water with lemon juice to stop it browning. Peel slice and sauté, roast, boil or deep fry. For deep fried salsify cut peeled roots into pieces 6-10cm long (cut thick ones in half) cook in boiling water until just tender (6-8 minutes), crumb or coat in a light batter and deep fry until golden brown.
Onions, shallots, garlic and leeks are all good in December. Onion varieties vary hugely from yellow all purpose cooking ones, to Spanish red onions excellent in salads, salsas and dishes needing a milder flavour, white onions are best in salads or try in a simple sandwich, small pickling onions are good in stews and other slow cooked dishes, while shallots are for more refined dishes with a delicate but developed flavour. Choose firm, dry, and unblemished onions and store in a cool dry place out of direct sunlight.
Watercress is available all year, but is at its best in winter (summer watercress is often bitter.) Buy fresh bright green leaves that aren't yellow and stringy. Serve as an accompaniment to grilled steak or roasted game with game chips or in a soup or salad. Make a simple salad with watercress, stilton, sliced pears and walnuts.
Black Truffles, from France and Spain, make for decadent dining. Roast a chicken or turkey with slices under the skin, garnish a wild mushroom soup with them or prepare our recipe for Truffle Risotto with Scallops.
Butternut squash: great for roasting - an Australian roast wouldn't be the same without them. Risotto, soups or try making gnocchi with it.
Radicchio, radishes, celery, kale, calvo nero, chillli peppers, avocado and fennel are widely available in December.
British apples and pears are still plentiful in December, but will soon be gone. Take advantage of the abundance, bake an apple pie, prepare pear sorbet, poach pears in a spicy syrup, bake a Pear and Almond Tart or Roast Pork with Apples. Pears come in all shapes and sizes, varying in taste and texture.
Bright red cranberries from America are to be found everywhere with christmas on its way. Cranberries with their tartness work well in both sweet and savoury dishes. Try making your own cranberry sauce, it's easy to make and much tastier than commercial ones.
Satsumas, clementines and similar citrus cover the shelves of grocers and supermarkets. Clementines with their leaves give the home a Christmas touch. Satsumas and Clementines have sweet juicy flesh and are easy to peel. Their juice makes a refreshing change from orange juice.
Fresh and dried dates from North Africa are to be found everywhere during the Christmas period. Stone and fill dates with a little marzipan for a delicious petit four or christmas snack. Prepare a chicken, lamb or goat tagine with fresh dates.
Almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, brazil nuts and chestnuts are an essential part of the British winter. The smell of roasted chestnuts from street vendors is always welcoming on a cold winter day. Chestnuts have great culinary use as they equally as good in savoury and sweet dishes. Fresh chestnuts are best stored in the refrigerator after being dried in a sealed container. To remove the skin of the chestnut you can use several methods but is important to pierce the shell first. To roast chestnuts preheat an oven to 180C score the skin and place in the oven for 20 minutes, remove and wrap in a tea towel for a couple of minutes before peeling (this can also be successfully done on the barbecue. Walnuts make the most scrumptious bread almost an essential accompaniment to cheese. A mixture of nuts make an excellent crumble or pastry.
Also good are grapes, quince, early forced rhubarb, grapefruit, pomegranates, Asian Pears (Nashi), bananas, custard apples, figs, lychees, sharon fruit, lemons, limes, mangoes, pineapple, and persimmons.
Native Oysters are the caviar of oyster and are only available from September to April. They have flat shells with ridged edges. The oysters available all year round are pacific oysters these have much more elaborate shells and are usually larger. Baby native oysters grow in their mothers' shells from May through to August. By killing them oyster farmers would be killing their future stock. Pacific oysters have a different reproduction system: their eggs are spawned directly into the sea. Oysters used to be the poor man's food but these days is considered a luxury usually only consumed only in restaurants, even though they're readily available and are relatively cheap to purchase. The best way to enjoy oysters is on their half shell with their juices but this is far from the only way to eat them. The traditional way to serve them is on ice and seaweed with pointed ends facing inwards in a circle, with a side dressing of shallots and vinegar, lemon slices, and rye or brown bread. You can enjoy oysters in as many ways as any other shellfish, you can bake, grill, steam and deep fry them or put them in a soup, stew or pie. For something different why not try our recipe for Deep Fried Oysters. Store oysters in the refrigerator cup side down and eat as soon as possible. To shuck an oyster place it cup side down in the palm of your left hand (right if left handed) wrapped in a thick tea towel and insert an oyster knife or small sharp knife in the hinge of the shell and twist it to open it, then work your knife around the edge to pry it open.
John Dory can be found in many fish mongers in December. This is my favourite fish, its flesh is firm but tender and light on the palate. John Dory is best cooked simply in olive oil pan fried or grilled.
Mackerel and Herrings:while highly prized in Europe they have never reached great popularity in Britain despite their abundance. These oily fish are rich in flavour and can be prepared in numerous ways eg. cured, steamed, deep fried, smoked, pan fried, barbecued and baked. Try coconut crumbed fillets of herrings in our recipe Coconut Herrings or traditional Roll Mops. Soy and Honey Mackerel on Coconut Jerusalem Artichokes makes a light seasonal meal.
Scallops make for indulgent festive entertaining. The very best way to buy scallops is live in their shells, this way you can guarantee their freshness and taste. Scallops are easy to open: Wash them to remove any sand, place the scallop flat side down on a board and simply run a thin sharp knife between the shells running it along the bottom shell, keeping it as close to the shell as possible. This will kill the scallop and the shell will open. Carefully remove the scallop from the top shell with the knife. Trim the scallop leaving simply the tender white meat and the coral (optional). Of course you can ask your fishmonger to do this but it means that the scallop is killed and will need to be cooked soon as the flavour will quickly deteriorate, I like to open them just before cooking. Delicious simply grilled. See our recipe Scallops with Herb and Garlic Butter.
Langoustine, prawns, shrimps, clams, cockles, whelks, mussels, turbot, halibut, monkfish, tuna, grey mullet, farmed salmon, gurnard, brill, plaice, lemon sole, red and black sea bream, sea bass, haddock and hake are all included in the huge selection of seafood in December. Try a simple mussel or clam chowder for a light meal or poach a whole salmon for entertaining or make a spicy Green Prawn and Monkfish Curry for an easy meal.
Game season is still in full swing with plenty of stewing and roasting meat.
Grouse is in its last few weeks, so should be reasonably priced. The older birds are best cooked slowly stewed or braised.
Venison traditionally was only available in the winter months. Now it is farmed extensively in the U. K. and is available all year. Venison has a smooth and rich texture that is low in fat, so it is important not to overcook it as it will dry out. Breed and the hanging of the meat will affect its quality. If you are lucky enough to have a farmers market near you, it will be likely that you will have a good selection of venison to choose from. For a warming winter dish try a Venison and Mushroom Pie.
Wild Goose is unlike the farmed variety with lean darker meat with a gamey flavour. Due to their leanness, geese need regularly basting when roasted.
Pheasant are at their best in December with the hens being the best. Try pot roasting pheasant with apples and cider.
Partridge is my favourite game bird, try Roast Partridge for a Christmas meal for two or for a small group of people. Partridge breasts are also excellent pan fried. You could stuff them with a little apple and sage or crumb them, accompany with game chips and Brussels sprouts or a little watercress.
Mallard, teal, guinea fowl, pigeon, snipe, woodcock, hare and turkeyare all good in December. For more game recipes see our recipe index.
Stilton is the king of British cheeses in December. With the coming of Christmas cheese mongers, delicatessens and supermarkets have stocked up on a huge selection of this rich cheese. When buying whole stilton it is best to check a small piece; ask your cheese monger to iron it (remove a small bit of cheese with a metal spike that draws out a little cheese). Stilton isn't just good for a cheese platter, it has many culinary uses. Try using it in a fondue or a salad with pear and walnuts or as a filling for ravioli or prepare a stilton soufflé (its uses seem endless).