Like many of us, chef and sustainable food champion Xanthe Gladstone used to dread winter. However, since living in the Welsh countryside and growing her own food, she has come to appreciate the darker months. Here she offers us some inspiration for eating seasonally in winter –and no turnips or swedes in sight!
Until I moved to Wales, I used to really hate winter. Over the last three years, I have grown to love this season. The two things that changed that were firstly, being prepared for it and secondly, accepting it. If you do both of these, then winter can be a very rewarding time of year.
The end of summer usually brings a glut of fruit and vegetables in the garden. In September, I focus on ways that I can stretch these yields for as long as possible. Apples are quite literally falling off the trees at this time of year, so I collect as many as possible and process them into apple cider vinegar and stew and freeze them. I dry out fig leaves to make syrups for ice cream and other sweet things. I pickle the last of the cucumbers and make bucket loads of chutney with the last of the tomatoes, even the green ones that haven’t ripened. This chutney will go onto almost every plate of food I make over the following months!
As I complete my autumn tasks the days begin to get shorter and darker, and the weather gets colder. The garden begins to empty out and it becomes harder to spend hours on end out there. I rely mainly on vegetables that grow locally to me, whatever the season. I don’t claim to be perfect, and I do go further afield for many ingredients, but where I can I try to go local. In winter, this is more of a challenge, but a challenge I’ve come to accept. My inspiration? The wonderful kitchens of Italian cooks, who seem to know exactly how to handle winter.
In my eyes, the Italians are the masters of food because they understand how to let ingredients sing, whatever the season. Once I came to understand this, I really embraced winter food.
Take soups and stews, for example, two foods that I make and eat every day in winter. They are both dishes that could be classified as boring but, given the right attention, can be nourishing, substantial and delicious.
The best way to approach these dishes is to think about them in layers. To begin with, dice shallots or onions, sweat them on a low heat making sure they don’t burn, then add diced celery and carrots. Cook them until they are soft, lastly adding garlic and maybe a little bit of water to keep it all from burning. At this first step, you could also add any herbs you have in your fridge or garden – bay, thyme, sage or rosemary would work. The smell coming off your hob should be amazing and are some of my favourite smells in the kitchen.
This base you have created is called a ‘soffritto’ in Italian and is the secret to any delicious soup or stew. Be patient and go slowly with it, it’ll be worth it. On top of the soffritto, begin to build up the layers either adding roasted vegetables (such as squash, leeks, potatoes or cauliflower) for a delicious hearty soup, or tinned tomatoes, chickpeas and cavolo nero for a stew that can go on the side of any dish or just be eaten with a baked potato. Don’t be afraid of multiple winter herbs in one dish. They’re not only incredibly good for you (especially at this time of year) but also add so much flavour and depth.
Another thing to be unafraid of is frozen vegetables, which retain their nutrients and flavour surprisingly well. Frozen spinach and peas are a perfect way to mix up your winter soups for something lighter and refreshing.
My main advice is don’t skip the soffritto stage and do get creative with flavours, vegetable combinations and herbs. Winter is good when we embrace it and welcome the changes it brings. This starts by getting a good coat and gloves, getting outside as much as possible when it’s still light, and remembering that there’s still so much we can create in the kitchen.
(Image credits: Department 2)