As a (mostly) vegetarian who tries to source as much of his food from the UK as possible, this time of the year offers rather slim pickings. This was, of course, true for our ancestors as Ruth Goodman et al have made clear over recent years – though they (the ancestors) didn’t have the option of buying strawberries flown in from countries as yet undiscovered by Europeans.
Fruit is more-or-less limited to cooking apples, with an occasional and very welcome sighting of forced rhubarb arriving from candle-lit sheds in the shadow of the M62. For vegetables, you can find brassicas though I refuse to eat sprouts and find cabbage too insipid in both flavour and colour to buy (oddly, as a child I also rejected cabbage but then for its excess of undesirable flavour). Kale is available and has both taste and colour, but has become rather fashionable of late – and I do try and avoid soi-disant super-foods (or foods as I call them) as a matter of principle (obviously, any food clad only in lycra and sporting a cape would be an exception – especially if it were also airborne). This only really leaves root vegetables as a local option in a normal year. This year, being far from normal, I can still obtain locally grown peppers, courgettes and aubergines as they have yet to face a real frost – which makes for a rare treat (or is this a taste of climatic things to come?).
Generally, in this country the root vegetable is considered (at best) as a side dish and often good only to feed to animals – though admittedly, even I have yet to try a mangel wurzel in my home cooking (not that I’m not tempted, I just don’t know where to source one). I have made some use of carrots, parsnips and even celeriac over recent years, though usually only in modest amounts – but it is only recently that I have perfected the luxurious dish for which I believe they were born (grown? bred?). This is my take on a winter ratatouille – inspired by 10 Greek Street followed up by significant web research and a lot of experimentation in my underground bunker.
Please tell us this wonder recipe, I hear you cry (or was that just the voices in my head, as per usual?). Well, as you asked so nicely, and it’s been a while since the last recipe published on GofaDM, here goes:
Take selection of root vegetables (I used carrots, parsnips, celeriac and swede) and slice or dice them into smallish chunks. My experience is that the swede should be in the smallest chunks – or it can remain stubbornly hard after cooking. Coat in oil and roast for a while – at least 30 minutes and perhaps a little more (yesterday they had nearer 50) – at a high temperature (I used 200°C). Once your root vegetables have roasted, roughly chop a clove (or two) of garlic and an onion (I used a red one) and gently fry in oil (I used rapeseed) for a few minutes to soften. Then add a tin of chopped tomatoes, the roasted vegetables and seasoning to the pan and cook through for a few minutes to let all the flavours suffuse. Meanwhile, grill some slices of a rinded goat’s cheese (I’ve been using Kidderton Ash). Serve the ratatouille garnished with the grilled cheese and prepare your taste buds for the time of their lives! Well, I really like it, frankly it almost makes winter worthwhile on its own.
It is also a dish made of pretty cheap ingredients – which must be a boon in these austere times. It reminds me of advice I was given by the redoubtable Katherine Whitehorn when I started university (in a book you understand, she was not my personal advisor when I was a student – if only). She wrote then that if meat was 70p/lb it was cheap while if vegetables were 70p/lb they were expensive: so eat more vegetables (I paraphrase). Whilst the prices (and units) may have changed somewhat since the mid-80s, I think the advice is still essentially sound.