WHAT'S IN SEASON?
Brussel sprouts, Cauliflower, Medlars, Pears, Quince, Sloes
WHAT DO WE NEED TO KNOW?
Beginning the march into winter, November is a period of transition for the garden. All of the remaining summer crops will have been cleared by now, and the winter ones are just starting to harvest. In times of old, November was a tougher month than most but with our permanent global summer time, we get treated to many things in November we shouldn't.
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!
You may not have heard of Medlars before, and only the most determined of food gourmets will get to taste them. They were very popular in past times, particularly the Victorian era, but it's unusual flavor and cultivation problems have forced it into obscurity.
Related to the apple and the quince, it flowers in May, and almost ripens in November. Almost ripens, because the Medlar originally comes from warmer climates and they never ripen properly in Britain to be eaten off the trees. Therefore, in November the fruit is still hard and inedible. It can be made into a jelly from this state, but to eat it raw, you must do what's called "bletting", which is the process of allowing it to rot for a few weeks; basically it decays internally but not externally. In the case of the Medlar, this involves internal fermentation which gives it it's peculiar taste.
The fruit itself looks like an oversized reddish brown rose hip, and can sometimes be found growing wild in hedgerows in the south of England, although most will be grown in gardens now.
Like apples, pears are another fruit subject to the crazy whims of supermarkets. They are not quite as hardy or comfortable with the British climate as apples, but still happy enough to grow well here. Over 550 different varieties have been identified, ranging from earlies, lates, cooking pears, dessert pears, or for making perry (pear wine), but guess what - over 90% of pears sold in this country are of five varieties, conference, comice, concorde, flamingo, and forelle. Even worse, supermarkets import over 75% of their pears from outside of the UK.
The British pear season runs from August to the last of the stored pears in March. Supermarkets won't stock many British pears, so try farmers markets, market stalls and farm shops, or even grow your own.
Pears aren't left to ripen on the tree like many fruits; they are picked when they are still hard, and are left to ripen in a more controlled manner in either your fruit bowl or in storage. It's difficult to pick the perfect stage of ripeness; too often, they can go too far and end up squidgy and mealy, and quite unpleasant.
Quinces are, like medlars, related to apples, but again hard to find. Richly aromatic, ripe yellow quinces are not suitable to eat raw; they must be cooked, either by stewing, baking or poaching with sugar and honey. When cooked, they make a rich dessert; or, you can make marmalade with them.
Sloes once again are not particularly common, and the only real use for them is making sloe gin. The sloe is in harvest from September to November, and is the small, old ancestor of modern plums. They are too bitter to eat raw, so should be made into sloe gin, which is as easy as half filling an empty wine bottle with pricked berries, filling it up with gin, adding half the berries weight in sugar, and corking the bottle. Given time (at least two months) and a shake here or there will make a vivid red liquid. Sloes can also be made into jelly too, with a somewhat sharp taste.
Sloe shrubs are easy to find, growing in hedges, woods and scrubland throughout Britain. Ripe sloe berries are a deep purple in colour. They can be found from September onwards, although it is waiting until after the first frosts, which has a tendency to soften the skins.
Parsnips, Celery, Celeriac, Red Cabbage, Jerusalem Artichoke