At a glance?
Savoy Cabbage, Carrots, Chicory, Endive, Salsify, Scorzonera, Rhubarb
What more we do we need to know?
February is a bit of a strange month; chicory and endive are the stars, backed up by Savoy cabbage, salsify and scorzonera, and at a stretch, onions. Leeks, rhubarb, Swedes and sprouts are still in season from previous months.
Chicory and Endive
Chicory and endive are quite closely related and are similar in use, so we will deal with them at the same time. They can both be eaten all year round, but help give a more varied platter in the heart of winter. Chicory is particularly bitter, which may not be to everyones taste; this is eased by cooking.
There are several different subtypes to these vegetables; curly endive is quite popular in England, looking more like lettuce with a mass of leaves. Radicchio is another popular type, brought into the mainstream by much gastronomic culinary use in the 1980s and 1990s.
The varieties that are more commonly known as chicory are the header sugarloaf variety, and the "witloof" forced variety, which are forced in darkness in a similar method to rhubarb and seakale. This forcing gives them a pale colour (almost white), and to make them less bitter. Radicchio can be forced in a similar manner, to give a brighter, red colour rather than the usual brownness.
Got bad memories of overboiled, mushy cabbage from childhood? If so, you might like to try Savoy Cabbage. It has a nutty flavor and good texture (as long as it's not overcooked of course). While you can get cabbage of some sort from all year round, when there's not much else around in February, cabbage can seem more exciting than the cabbage you can get at the height of summer when so much else is available. This is somewhat unfair in a way to cabbage. Savoy though, is ready when little else is; it's similarly hardy and safe against frosts as kale, and indeed tastes better after the first frosts like sprouts.
Savoys can be prepared in a number of ways; the texture of the wrinkly leaves works well for stuffing but if that's too much trouble, they are easy to cook. First, the stalk should be removed, followed by some chopping, and steaming for a few minutes, before tossing with butter and pepper and serving.
Salsify and Scorzonera
Not a particularly common vegetable, Purple Salsify is the variety that can be eaten, and of it, the roots and young shoots are edible; the roots are said to have the taste of oysters, sometimes giving rise to the name oyster plant. It's native to the Mediterranean region, and is widely cultivated in much of Europe and America for its 8 to 12 inch long, 1 inch diameter root.
Although it's quite rare in England, it's worth chasing down or growing; when dealt with properly, it has a sweet mild flavor, and is ideal for use in stews, casseroles, or creamed or mashed with vegetables.
Scorzonera is also known as black salsify.
It's really too early to discuss onions as seasonal English vegetables here - it's the right time to plant it, but even if you start it in November in the greenhouse, it's still too early to harvest.
Forced rhubarb is one of the few fruits that is still grown seasonally, and in the way it was grown many year ago. Forcing rhubarb is an odd process, which requires subjecting the plant to both darkness and heat; searching for light causes the tender shoots to grow rapidly. Rhubarb is grown in one of the strangest conditions; it is grown in low-height long sheds, in total darkness, with teams of people harvesting the rhubarb by hand, by candlelight. The result is the almost viciously pink shoots, providing probably the only colour excitement of the month.
The British rhubarb industry is located in a tiny area of West Yorkshire, called the "Wakefield Triangle". A number of factors caused the industry to concentrate here; favourable weather, heavy soils, good availability of coal for heat, and good transport infrastructure all contribute. The cold weather in autumn chills the roots of the rhubarb, so they can be dug up in mid-November and replanted into the sheds, ready for forcing.
In the middle of the last century, the rhubarb industry was of huge importance; a dedicated "rhubarb express" train carried hundreds of tones of rhubarb down to the south of the country. Today, the industry is much smaller; it has no trains of its own. Rhubarb isn't as popular as it once was, due to the ready availability of exotic fruit, and the expense of the labour-intensive growing and harvesting process. This is a shame; many recipes exist, such as Rhubarb Fool or Rhubarb Crumble which are simply delicious. A much overlooked fruit, rhubarb shouldn't be passed upon, particularly not tender forced rhubarb.
A staple ingredient of many stews and soups in the winter, leeks are in season from August to March but at their best in the depth of winter, when few other vegetables are fresh in season. They were made popular by the Ancient Egyptians, Romans and Greeks, who all helped spread leeks from their native Central Asia across Europe.
Whilst leeks are fairly limited in their uses, they are superb for the few they are good for. A true gourmet vegetable, it has a subtle flavour that its relatives such as onion and garlic long for, making it a delicious meal in its own right, steamed, sauted or grilled. It is good for flavouring soups and stocks, and furthermore, easy to grow, making light work of surviving cold, wet conditions that kill off other plants.
The white part of leeks is coloured this way by pulling up soil around the plant, which blanches the stems. This is the part of the plant that is typically eaten as a meal, although the green leaves can be used for flavouring stocks.
Leeks are a great addition to the diet; they have many of the dietary benefits of onions, including reducing cholesterol and helping combat the offset of diabetic heart disease, and also to help lower blood pressure. Allium vegetables have also been shown to reduce the risk of prostate and colon cancer if taken as little as two to three times a week.
One of the most hardiest of all root vegetables, Swedes are excellent winter vegetables in a cool climate. Not exactly glamorous, they are thought to be a cross between a turnip and a cabbage, although the name is an abbreviation of "Swedish turnip". First popular in France and Southern Europe in the sixteenth century, it first came to Britain from Holland, and quickly gained popularity, being known as the "turnip rooted cabbage", from the root that looks like a turnip, and the top that looks like a cabbage. Oilseed rape is a variety of swede without the swollen stem-base.
As mentioned, swede is extremely tough, and can be left stored in the ground after maturing, and they are very easy to grow. Recent advances in breeding has resulted in varieties that are disease resistant and tastier still. Swede is popular alongside potatoes, in particular mashed. They can be sliced, cubed or roasted like parsnips, or added to casseroles and stews.