The No Recipe Man: Season’s eatings


Posted by in October's Magazine

Tom Wheeler 

Few people would disagree with the principle that cooking according to the seasons is an excellent idea. And even fewer people could ever be accused of putting that principle into practice. This shouldn’t be a surprise: the supply chain has developed over decades to meet our desire for standardisation. Never mind the quality, feel the consistency. 

Who, other than the most dedicated label-squinter, really notices the day when pale, flavourless British tomatoes are replaced on supermarket shelves by pale, flavourless Spanish ones? And in the rare cases where we do have some meaningful shared concept of seasonality – the arrival of Jersey Royals and British asparagus each Spring, for instance – this has more to do with canny marketing than our innate appreciation of nature. The disconnect between food production and consumption has never been greater; but as long as we can get strawberries all year round, we don’t much care.

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Pickling for the winter, you know it makes sense 

But it looks as if seasonal cooking is about to receive a boost from an unlikely source – specifically, the shower of self-serving, ignorant, myopic charlatans currently engaged in the task of running the UK into the ground. I should probably insert the usual ‘at the time of writing’ disclaimer at this point, on the off chance that Brexit is actually going swimmingly by the time this goes to print. 

As I type, our future lies in the hands of wild-eyed no-deal zealots who see the reintroduction of rationing as an aspiration rather than a risk. And who knows, maybe this is all part of a brilliant masterplan to take us back to our culinary roots. We’ll soon shake our obsession with avocados if the vast majority never make it through customs and the handful that do cost a tenner a pop. So we can all return to a dreamy, bucolic, 17th century way of life – just as long as the turnip harvest doesn’t fail.

But whether this happens by ingenious design or incompetent accident, the upshot is the same. Imported food really is going to become scarcer and more expensive, and the need to live off what we produce ourselves will get ever more real. So as the Scottish sort-of-summer bids us farewell for another year, here are a few thoughts on autumnal cooking to get us ready for the season of mists, mellow fruitfulness and socioeconomic suicide.

For most of us, the colder half of the year brings with it the least culinary potential. With the exception of the occasional cabbage, everything green has withered and died and hardy tubers become the order of the season. But it’s unfair to blame the innocent carrot for our collective lack of imagination. Not every root has to be grimly boiled and mashed; and at the risk of banging an overly familiar drum, the way we perceive the food we eat has at least as much to do with texture as flavour. 

Our future lies in the hands of wild-eyed no-deal zealots who see the reintroduction of rationing as an aspiration rather than a risk

For instance, my old colleagues at Bia Bistrot in Bruntsfield serve a starter of beetroot and parsnip – so far, so uninspiring. But the reality is utterly different. Cooked beetroot is sliced wafer-thin with a mandoline – a task that used to fall to me, so it’s borderline miraculous that I still have my original complement of full-length fingers – and laid out carpaccio-style on a plate. The raw parsnip is finely grated and mixed with apple, capers, mayonnaise and herbs to make a remoulade, which is shaped into an elegant tower at the centre of the beetroot slices. With a few drops of dressing, the dish is done – and it’s infinitely tastier, prettier and more indulgent than a parsnip/beetroot combo has any right to be.

You might not have the same skill, ingenuity and equipment as the chefs at Bia. (I certainly don’t.) But that’s OK – we can all improvise. If you don’t own a mandoline, or don’t trust yourself with one, the humble tattie peeler will produce a slightly rougher-hewn version of the beetroot carpaccio. And while the grater attachment of a food processor makes short work of 30 portions of remoulade, a fine cheese grater is more than adequate for smaller quantities. 

Cut finely enough, there’s scarcely a vegetable that can’t be served raw in a salad. And if you find yourself with more vegetable slivers than you know what to do with, grab some sugar and your favourite whole spices and concoct your own pickling vinegar. Thus preserved, the veg will be ready to use in a couple of days but will continue to pep up your meals until Spring – offering further reminders that winter roots needn’t mean winter stodge, and a salad doesn’t have to be all about lettuce and tomato.

And even in the improbable event that post-Brexit Britain turns out to be the land of milk and honey we were promised all along, what do we really have to lose from making better use of home-grown produce and paying a little more attention to the calendar – other than a few airfreighted baby corn from our diets? To finish where I began, most of us approve of seasonal cooking in theory. It’s time to start practising what we preach – deal or no deal.

Twitter: @norecipeman

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