At a Glance
Jerusalem Artichokes, Red Cabbage, Celeriac, Celery, Parsnips, Sprouts, Cauliflower
What more do we need to know?
Seasonal fruit and vegetables are the best around - especially if you've grown them yourself. Too many items of fruit and vegetables are around all year round, from Spain or Brazil or China or somewhere else far flung. Often, these are items of produce that will only grow in our climate for a few select months of the year, and we get them imported to satiate our impatience and desire for everything when we want it.
This is destroying seasonality though - when our parents were young, people would only have gotten the very best tasting strawberries in June and July - but now we can get American strawberries in December… but what is the price? Well the fact they taste rubbish can't help! Food grown and harvesting when it is in season is the best tasting there is.
In this new monthly series of features, we're going to look at what's in season each month, and a brief history of each, and why we shouldn't eat it out of season!
There's so much about sprouts you probably don't know. They're one of the few remaining proper seasonal vegetables (alongside Peas and Jersey Potatoes to name two others), and are only typically available from September until March. Foreign imports are available, but don't taste as good, and are contributing to the madness that is permanent global summer time. Sprouts are also said to taste better once they've had some frost on them in the winter months.
Despite the fact sprouts are one of the tastiest vegetables and the only recognised seasonal one on the Christmas dinner table, sprouts are one of the least popular vegetables, particularly among children. Memories of rock hard bullet sprouts from childhood only perpetuate this myth of an unpleasant taste, yet if cooked to perfection they can almost melt in the mouth. Although, many people prefer them much crisper, with some crunch left, and cooking them for less time retains more of the goodness and nutrients in the vegetable.
One of the most welcome sights in the vegetable section of the supermarket around late Autumn and winter is the appearance of sprout stalks; that is, sprouts sold on the stalks they grow on, ranging from 18 inches to 3 feet in length. The sprouts store better on the stalk, since they can take moisture from the stalk itself, and they're more fun to prepare than a simple bag. If you can stop the kids stalk-fighting for a moment or two, they can even be persuaded to help prepare them.
Sprouts are very versatile for cooking; boiling or steaming is the traditional and typical way, but they can also be stir-fried, or pureed in a blender with cream. Our advice is to check out a few recipes, play around a bit and find out the tastiest way you can to eat them!
A staple winter vegetable on the dinner plate, there are so many different varieties of cauliflower that it has little seasonality anymore; with spring, early summer, late summer, early autumn, autumn and winter types, cauliflowers are technically in season all year round. Different types of cauliflower do require different climates however, for example winter cauliflower comes from the mild climate south west.
How to cook cauliflower depends on how you prefer to eat it; cook it lightly to keep it crunchy and full of nutrients, or cook it longer if you prefer it soft. The head, or florets of cauliflower are made up of unopened flower buds that didn't finish growing. The nutrients in cauliflower are stored in the stalks these buds are on; therefore, to get the best from cauliflower, eat all of it! You don't have to cook cauliflower to eat it; it can be eaten raw for the best benefit.
Different colours of cauliflower are available; white is the obvious one, but a mutant variety called Purple Cape is available with a purple head, which is packed with anthocyanins, thought to be anti-cancer agents. So, another good reason to eat cauliflower!
Although it is grown all year round abroad, parsnips are a winter seasonal treat. Parsnips are slow growing, started from seed one year, flowering in spring and summer the following year, and maturing for harvest in autumn and winter. Parsnips are best eaten after the first frosts, which convert more of the starches in the roots into sugars and makes them tastier. Parsnips are very hardy, and will survive some of the harshest weather while still in the ground; for this reason, that they became popular, since they were ready for harvest as potatoes finished one year, and would last almost until the first potatoes the next year.
Parsnips are best roasted or chipped to eat; their skins cook nicely and contrast well with the sweeter pulp of the vegetable. Some people recommend not peeling them, because a lot of the tastiness and goodness is found just underneath the skin, but others understandably have a reluctance to eating unpeeled vegetables; there is no problem with this as long as they are well washed. When roasted, they fit well on the plate alongside roast potatoes and beef.
Parsnips are easy to grow; its best to wait a bit later than most seed packets will advise, to avoid carrot root fly, and after that just treat them like slow growing carrots.
Not always thought to be the tastiest of vegetables, celery can be delicious when eaten in season, more important than any of the other vegetables discussed in this article. Out of season, celery can be tasteless, watery and stringy, but traditionally grown celery is full of flavour.
Traditionally grown celery is not common; it is a very labour intensive process to grow it. Regular celery is typically self-blanching; that is, it doesn't require the stems to be covered to promote the blanching (turning white), whereas traditionally grown celery, typically grown in the Fens in their black, rich soil, require the earth to be drawn up around the stems to blanch them. Also, the frosts that help promote such a good flavour in the vegetable can also ultimately destroy crops.
Celery cannot only be eaten raw; it adds flavour to sauces, and will also absorb flavour of whatever it is cooked with.
Celeriac looks like something out of Halloween; a gnarly, warty round corm or stem base, which has something to do with its lack of popularity until recently. However, people are now starting to get past its skin deep lack of beauty, and realise it is a delicious vegetable when used in a recipe.
Celeriac is very closely related to celery. The part of celeriac we eat is not the root but a swollen stem base, like swede. This part of the plant is used by the plant to store all the nutrients it needs to survive over winter, although it is hard to grow to a decent size, so the best place to get it is to buy it rather than grow it.
The flavour of celeriac is very similar to celery, but sweeter and not so harsh. Celeriac can be roasted, but also boiled and mashed, or pureed, and mixes with potatoes for these two purposes well.
A welcome change from the somewhat plain looking white cabbages, red cabbage is a bit of a seasonal treat. It's an excellent accompaniment to many other seasonal treats, particularly when slow cooked or braised, in particular with seasonal meats such as pheasant, or cooked chestnuts. Of course, it can always be cooked just as white cabbage for Sunday dinner.
The red-purple of the leaves can actually be affected by the pH of the soil the plant is grown in; on acidic soils, the leaves will be more red, and an alkaline soil will cause more bluish leaves.
Red cabbages are typically grown from seed in spring, and harvested in autumn, and are therefore annual plants. It also keeps better than white cabbages.
Not the most common of vegetables, Jerusalem Artichokes are a small tuber, like a potato, but more knobbly and rough. They have a somewhat unique flavour, sometimes said to be sweet or nutty. They are large plants when grown, the stems growing up to two metres tall, and require a fair amount of space. Grown together, they can form a very tough windbreak.
Jerusalem Artichokes don't have anything to do with Jerusalem; their name stems from the Italian for sunflower, girasole; this is due to the sunflower-like flowers produced by some varieties.
People unfamiliar with the vegetable may be surprised by just how versatile Jerusalem artichokes are in cooking. They can be boiled, fried, roasted or chipped like potatoes, but unlike potatoes they can also be eaten raw or in a salad. When boiled, they can turn soft and eventually mushy very quickly, so they are ideal for purees or soups.
So why have you not heard much about Jerusalem artichokes before? Unfortunately they have a tendency to produce large amounts of wind in anyone who eats them - that's bound to get the kids eating as much as they can when they find out! This is due to a compound called inulin, which is indigestible, and can lead to flatulence. Bring on the Jerusalem artichokes!