Anyone who cooks every day will at times lack inspiration about what to cook for the next meal. Nature should provide us with that inspiration, offering up the best produce of the season. We will soon be entering the “hungry gap” – that time of year when even the stored fruit and vegetables of autumn and winter are well past their best and spring has yet to offer up much that is harvestable.
Yet it is not only during the “hungry gap” that people struggle, partly owing to us having become used to everything being available from somewhere or other in the world at any time of the year. How I have laughed recently at those panicking at not being able to buy a courgette or iceberg lettuce this winter!
Supermarkets, for many varied reasons, are not good places to buy food. Even chefs, who rarely go out to shop but instead rely on suppliers to deliver produce to their kitchen, suffer when they lose their connection to the ingredients. I have witnessed this many times, most recently observing at close quarters how a love of cooking can be rediscovered by reconnecting with produce and producers through personal shopping at farmers’ markets. All good cooks will be familiar with the frustration they experience on holiday when they visit a market but don’t have a kitchen in which to cook the produce. Every now and again it is helpful for all of us to shake up our buying habits to find that inspiration again.
To help you evaluate whether your food shopping has got into a rut, try the following review, which considers what you ate this past winter, from 1 December to 28 February.
- 1. Winter is peak time for wild game, how many of the following did you eat?
- Pheasant or Partridge
- Wild Venison or Boar
- Wild Duck
- 2. How many of the following did you buy, direct from the producer, as a whole, half, or quarter animal?
- Chicken or Guinea Fowl
- 3. Whole (or part) carcass buying does not always include the “odd bits”. How many of the following did you eat?
- Ready-made Black Pudding, Haggis or Faggots
- Tail, Trotters or Feet
- Kidneys, Liver, Heart or other internal organs
- Cheek, Tongue, Brain, Ears or other part of Head
- Sweetbreads or testicles
- Short ribs, Bavette or Feather-blade beef
- 4. We are an island nation and yet our fish consumption is low and very limited in variety, how many of the following did you achieve this winter?
- Cooking a whole fish on the bone
- Eating fish at least twice a week
- Eating mackerel, sardines, kippers or sprats
- Eating at home oysters, mussels or other bivalves
- Cooking fresh squid, cuttlefish or octopus
- Eating any of the following: sand eels, conger eel, gurnard, grey mullet or megrim sole
- Eat any of these shellfish: hand-dived scallops, creel caught langoustine, British lobster
- How many types of vegetable or salad leaf did you have growing in your own garden/allotment/windowsill during the winter?
- 6. How many of the following did you grow or buy direct from the grower?
- Flower sprouts, sprouting broccoli or other sprouting brassica
- Celeriac, Jerusalem artichokes
- Land Cress, Mustard and Cress or other micro leaves
- Root Chicory, Radicchio
- White cabbage
How did you do?
The above is not an exhaustive list of British produce available in the winter and some things are easier to source than others, for example if you ate cardoons you probably grew them yourself. Snipe, plover and woodcock are all illegal to sell (although not to shoot) and hare, whilst legal to sell, is rare in some parts of the country. So, you may not even wish to eat everything on the list, but it does highlight how we limit our choice if we source our food from only one place. Here are some suggestions for widening your range of produce.
I could not eat such a range of meat if I did not own a chest freezer. At the peak of the shooting season I can have half a dozen birds in a week. Although I like to eat game close to the season, really just because it messes with my mind otherwise, I know there are plenty of people freezing down pheasant breasts for their summer barbeques. Game is fantastic value and very good for you, being high in Omega 3 and low in fat. Some of it is in such plentiful supply that numbers need active control – wild deer being the top example but pigeons and rabbits can also exist in such large numbers that they are a pest. If you shoot yourself, there will be farmers who will welcome your help in controlling these. If you don’t shoot, make friends with someone who does or look out for game on sale at Farmers’ Markets.
A freezer also enables you to buy farmed meat direct from the producer in larger quantities. There are considerable savings to be made if you can buy, for example, a whole or half lamb. For the farmer, it means that every part of the animal is sold, as when people buy single joints from a butcher there tends to be a big inequality of demand for different joints. You don’t even have to live near the farmer to buy this way, many of them sell online.
Chefs have done a great job in popularising some of the lesser known cuts of meat. Sometimes this results in a previously cheap cut becoming far more expensive – lamb shanks being a case in point. Staying ahead of these trends is the way to continue paying less for your meat as well as helping ensure that every part is used.
Since we lost so many local abattoirs it has become increasingly difficult to find many of these less popular parts. The offal has to be used whilst the carcase is still hanging. Abattoirs are supposed to return any requested offal to the farmers but my local farm shop reports that they are constantly having battles because they can see that some of the things returned to them don’t relate to their own animals. Apparently, it all gets quite mixed up at the abattoir, and that is if they comply by returning things at all, I have, for example, found fresh suet increasingly difficult to buy.
You will find many direct suppliers of meat online, here are just a couple of sites to start you off:
Unless you live by the sea, finding a fishmonger can be very difficult. Unlike meat, fish does not freeze well, but if you do have to go down this route it is better to buy it ready-frozen than to freeze your own – unless of course you have caught it, in which case you have little option. Fish that has been frozen at sea has been frozen very fresh and very fast, which reduces the size of the ice particles that form – the major problem for texture when freezing.
Others methods of preservation are well-worth considering. I get to buy fish just once a week but will often buy delicious Craster Kippers alongside my fresh fish in order to eat fish at least twice a week. Smoked Mackerel or canned sardines are also excellent options for lunches, but you need to find a quality source. I buy Connetable sardines online in bulk so that I always have a supply in my larder.
The fishmonger I use has a stand at the local Farmer’s Market and it always has the longest queue of any stand there. Despite the fantastic selection that they have on display, and their skills in preparing it for you, I am always amazed by the number of people who seem to buy the same thing every week – usually fillets or sometimes steaks, salmon and cod being the most popular. Cooking fish is quick and easy – the buying is the hard part. If you are not confident, this is one subject where it really pays to do a cookery course. Contact me if you would like to come to Somerset for a day learning how to cook fish. Or just buy yourself a good fish cookery book and work your way through that.
Everybody ought to grow something themselves, even if it is just mustard and cress on the windowsill. Quite a few gardeners grow only in the summer and yet the active gardening, even for winter vegetables, has to be done whilst the day length is sufficiently long for the growing. Winter vegetables then just sit there enabling you to harvest them over a long period and to always have something fresh you can fall back on. If you want to try this for the first time, Cavolo Nero would be my suggestion – it looks wonderful and you can strip as few or as many leaves as you need, even when there is snow on the ground. They will regrow, albeit fairly slowly. Don’t forget a pot or trough, kept close to the back door, from which you can snip some fresh salad leaves – I grow Landcress for a winter supply.
More and more people now have a vegetable box delivered. Try to make this from a local grower. I think we have rather missed the point if the vegetables are being grown abroad and then transported all over this country. Local growers will often offer a cheaper price if you are prepared to take a box of unstipulated vegetables, enabling them to pick whatever is at its best at the time.
I hope this has given you a few ideas for increasing the range of food you eat. Your starting point should always be the produce, then find the recipe rather than the other way around. Happy Eating!