I’m slowly emerging from a long winter of building works on my cottage and starting to believe that mud, dust and depression might not be taking over after all. The newly built extension with my wonderful new kitchen is settling down, a garden is starting to emerge from a sea of mud and weeds ready for new planting with kitchen garden and cooking area, the 16th century bones of the original Wealden hall house are being revealed from beneath layers of carpet and chipboard, and I know I have a very beautiful dwelling that seems to be appreciating the care and attention that is being lavished on it.
I have to admit that cooking and food shopping have slipped way down my list while I’ve been living in what one friend has termed a ‘squat’. But shopping at the market is always a pleasure and I have turned to items that I would normally pass by, and enjoyed the experience. What talented producers and cooks we have on our doorsteps! I’ve eaten some marvellous ready-made dishes, everything from pies and cured meats to great bread and the superb cheeses that are increasingly on offer locally. Though it has sometimes felt that I’ve been living on toast, it’s not really the case but I must say I am looking forward to getting in my kitchen and starting work on new projects. And I hope to be writing about them here…
The weather this winter seems to have given us a taste of almost everything so far with floods, frosts and gales but local producers have to get their products to market whatever the conditions so it’s up to us to support them and make that extra effort even of the weather tempts us to stay an extra hour in bed. You know you’ll feel better if you get out and about, and come home with some special goodies to enjoy at their best.
If it’s February then it really should be fish on the menu. Buying produce when it’s in season means you get the best quality at the best price and for fish that means when they are also at their most abundant. Stormy seas make for challenging conditions for the fishermen but bring some species closer to shore. Choosing to shop at a farmers market also allows you the chance to check with the fishmonger from where his catch has originated. For more information before you visit check the Marine Stewardship Council’s web site at http://www.msc.org. The MSC is the world’s leading certification and eco-labelling programme for sustainable seafood with a global programme for fisheries that assesses wild catches of seafood.
Lemon sole, halibut, skate (more properly called ray), monkfish and sardines are all good now, and for it’s a great month for shellfisher lovers with clams, mussels, oysters and cockles all good. Local Kent and Sussex coast scallops come in this month – and have their very own festival to celebrate the season (check out Rye Bay Scallop Festival which this year kicks off on Saturday 20st February at http://scallop.org.uk) so make sure you don’t miss one of the region’s most enjoyable treasures. Try them wrapped in local streaky bacon and baked or with cooked on a griddle with slices of black pudding or chorizo. Make in a risotto or just cook with chilli, garlic and plenty of chopped parsley and toss with spaghetti.
For meat eaters looking for comfort eating, try mutton for its rich flavour or a lovely piece of rare breed pork – stuff a shoulder joint with rosemary, garlic and slices of lemon and slow cook for 12 – 14 hours (find a recipe on the internet) for a Sunday celebration. Rich beef stews and braises are also wonderful now so make up a large batch with meat from the market and freeze some for future meals. A freezer is the market shopper’s best friend. Locally caught game makes an excellent choice for healthy eating. Venison, guinea fowl, wood pigeon, partridge and hare are all good in February. Most modern game is lean and full of flavour so cook steaks or breasts simply on the griddle or quickly stir-fried, or braise tougher cuts or older birds with wine and bacon and serve with pureed celeriac.
Serve your meat with steamed kale or Brussels sprouts, both at their best this month. Savoy cabbage and purple sprouting broccoli work perfectly in stir fries and curries, and go well with rich meats such as duck and pork. Main crop potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, parsnips and turnips provide the starch that keeps us going in the cold so mash them together to go with your game dishes. Or try a mix of roots roasted in rapeseed oil or lard for really good flavour and scattered with sea salt and rosemary.
Local fruit is sparse this month but there are still apples to be enjoyed – the storing varieties keep well until April so make sure to go on buying local when you see them. The flavour is still sweet and fragrant for many crops. Early forced rhubarb is the cook’s friend now – wonderful in traditional crumbles, compotes and pies. Make into chutneys and jams or cook with Chinese spice to go it also goes well with rich flavoured meat and fish such as grilled mackerel.
Stuffed slow roast pork belly with prunes and apple cider gravy
A lovely piece of locally reared belly pork, cooked long and slow to melting goodness is a real treat this month to cheer us up through the dark days before spring arrives. Apples, prunes and cider are classic partners for pork as the acidity and sweetness balance the rich meat. Serve with mashed roots and spring greens for a seasonal plate to cheer the soul!
Serves 8/Time to prepare: 15 minutes/Time to cook: 4 – 5 hours (or longer – see recipe)
2 kg piece boned free range belly pork
250g soft prunes
123 fresh sage leaves
1 lemon, sliced
4 eating apples, peeled, cored and sliced
1 tbsp flour
300ml local cider
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
300 – 400 ml chicken stock
1- 2 tbsp really good local cider vinegar
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 Preheat the oven to 200C/fan oven180C/ Gas 6. Pierce the skin of the pork all over with a skewer then pour boiling water over it and then pat dry with kitchen paper. Push the sage leaves into the centre of the prunes with a slice of lemon. Make slits all along the side of the belly pork where the flesh meets the fat and push the stuffed prunes in as far as possible.
2 Place the pork in a sturdy roasting tin that fits it snugly. Roast for 20 minutes. Lower the temperature to 150C Gas 3. Cook the pork for a further 3 – 5 hours until the skin is tender and golden. (The pork can go on cooking for up to 12 hours or even longer and will get richer and more meltingly tender). Two hours before you remove the pork from the oven add the apple slices around the pork and baste with the juices.
3 Remove the pork from the oven and leave to rest in a warm place for at least half an hour for the juices to settle. Add the flour to the pan juices and cook for a minute then add the cider and mustard to the pan, place over the heat and scrape up all the juices, mashing the apples into the sauce. Boil until thickened then check the seasoning and add the vinegar. Slice the pork and serve with the pan juices.