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I am always relieved to leave January behind and drift into the second month of the New Year. We are still cloaked in the depths of dank winter, and the comfort of stews, soups, braises and casseroles is ever necessary to save spirits.
Peering out into the garden, my vegetable patch looks sodden and unyielding with despondent rain. But all is not lost - there are parsnips to pull up. At their prime, they should be firm and dry. The likelihood of a tough, woody core seems to increase with size.
Sweeter than their autumnal cousins due to the sharp frosts of winter, parsnips grown in the New Year can be rendered into a warming, restorative soup with just a sprinkling of spices. Turmeric and cumin are old comrades, but experiment with whatever you have. A kick of cayenne will work wonders for sniffly children with irksome colds.
I like to cook the parsnips to a gentle gold in their spices before adding a good quality vegetable stock. This gives the soup a deeper flavour and a wonderful colour reminiscent of heather honey. If you fancy something a little more luxurious, a dollop of crème fraiche or a swirl of cream adds a smooth gleam to this soup.
Warming spices are a real saviour when the weather is rotten, and I love to cook up a rich Hungarian goulash on a miserable night. Goulash can be prepared from beef, veal, pork, or lamb. Good cuts to use include the shank, shin, or shoulder because goulash derives its consistency from tough, well-exercised muscles rich in collagen, which is then converted to gelatine during the cooking process. Cut the meat into chunks, season with salt, and then brown with sliced onion and garlic in a pot with oil or lard. The essential spice in a goulash is paprika, so stir in a generous spoonful. Smoked paprika adds a great additional flavour layer. Top up the pan with stock, tinned tomatoes and winter vegetables and leave to bubble gently for as long as you have. For a genuine Hungarian experience, toss a couple of chopped red peppers in for the final hour of cooking.
When I fancy something a little lighter for a February supper, I can always turn to Purple Sprouting Broccoli. Winter marks a disappointing couple of months for leafy vegetables, so I am always pleased to see these green shoots reappear. Broccoli is a flowering member of the Brassica family, and has its origins in the Mediterranean. Other family members include cauliflower, cabbage, kale, kohlrabi and Brussels sprouts.
Broccoli's sweet and earthy taste means it plays nicely with both placid and punchy flavours. Try sprinkling its stems with grated parmesan and grilling for a pre-tea treat. For a vibrant supper, lightly steam the broccoli and enjoy piled onto thick toast with poached eggs and sautéed anchovies, chillies and garlic.
Cauliflower is also in season this February, and is the perfect transitional vegetable to take us through to spring. For those still hankering after a comforting meal, nothing beats a quality cauliflower cheese. For a sunnier snack, I like to roast large chunks of romanesco cauliflower with cumin, sea salt flakes and pepper, and then dip into a homemade garlic sauce and drizzle with lemon juice.