As we reach the heart of an extraordinary winter, the morning soil is brittle and it’s bounty sparse. Beetroot, cabbage, spuds, sprouts, parsnips and winter squash are dripping into markets, but little else; it’s a time then when edible imports are utilised more than ever.
From a couple of generations back the ramifications of a long icy winter would be as real in-side the kitchen as out-side. It’d be wrong to romanticise such times but they were at least times when the home kitchen was (necessarily) engaged with the rhythms of the changing seasons and they are a fine example of when a narrow framework can bolster the imagination. The preserves of late summer – cured fish, salt beef, pickled vegetables, jams, syrups and vinegars – gave life to the kitchen even on the leanest winter days. Now winter larders of spices, oils, garlic, pulses and tinned Italian tomatoes are a blessing, it’s as good a time as any to look abroad for culinary inspiration (and revitalise the perhaps jaded January palate).
A common January buzz seems to be ‘comfort food’. What exactly does it mean? Food that lacks pretence? Food cooked with love? Food which in cooking and eating steadies and satisfies? Aren’t these all attributes of home cooking generally? Perhaps it’s only an idea to re-engage us with the very basics of cooking – and their intrinsic emotional content. A departure from the glossy food magazine garnishes and wacky flavour combinations, towards an appreciation of the process of cooking. If so, then for me comfort food is frying onions. That is the smell that so easily wafted through the purposely shut kitchen door bringing with it hunger and curiosity and beckoned me in to first peer over the stove as a five year old. It needs those two culinary attributes – control of heat and patience – that are essential for such unadulterated alchemy.
Onions, beetroot, butter beans and sorrel
I first tried this one by cooking the onions in the embers of a fire for a day and night. Apart from the fact that there aren’t many real fires in doors left, they didn’t turn out cooked too evenly and needed a bit of touching up. An oven is of course much more reliable, but if you do have a fire its worth chucking a whole load of embers in with the onions for baking so they can impart a little bit of smokiness.
Pop the onions – whole and unpeeled – in a baking tray, cover them and put in a hot oven, after an hour turn the heat down to low and leave them in over night. They’re sugary juices will render, reduce and caramelise inside the skin, when they’re ready they should be soft to the touch all over.
Soak some butter beans overnight, you don’t need many here, just four or five per serving, but they’re versatile as can be so it’s often worth cooking more and using them for other things.
The beetroot need a shallow braise/bake in a quite high oven until tender, so pop them in a baking dish, again whole and with skins on, and fill half way with water, season well with salt and pepper and cover with tin foil. When they are ready and have cooled a little peel them with your hands and cut into quarters lengthwise.
Boil the butter beans hard in unseasoned water for twenty minutes, skim, and then simmer them until tender (some garlic, bay and rosemary in the pot too will take to them fondly). When they’re tender leave them in their liquor to cool, otherwise their skins will pop and shrivel, but season the liquor with salt and a little vinegar.
When ready to serve peel the onions and chop in half – lay each half flat-side up on the plate (this can of course be served in a big serving dish) add to them a couple off beetroot quarters, a few butter beans and a couple of fine leaves of sorrel. Sprinkle a bit of flaky salt over the onions and drizzle over it all a little bit of a light simple dressing.
Squid, pickled onions and bitter greens
Frozen squid is always a temptation – particularly the devilishly cheap packets of whole un-tampered ones in Asian supermarkets. Its worth asking your fishmonger about fresh ones if they aren’t all ready on offer as there are squids of all sizes (some almost a foot long) being caught on the west coast of and on through the year.
Use whatever the best bitter greens you can get your hands on. Dandelion, frisee, mustard leaves and watercress would all work well. Also make sure when you’re ready to serve that their not cold straight from the fridge – the whole salad works plenty better at room temperature.
Clean the squid, leaving the skin on if possible (perhaps your fishmonger can give you a demo) and separating the tentacles from the main body. Pop the bodies in a pot and cover with half red wine half water, add a bundle of fresh herbs and season with salt. Bring carefully to barely a simmer, skim, and let them cook very gently for half an hour.
Mean while cut off the top and bottom of your onions and then cut them into quarters. Discarding (or saving for the stockpot) the outer two layers and the core, pull apart the onion into its individual boat shaped segments. In a pot boil half water half cider vinegar seasoned with salt (with a few coriander seeds if at hand), add the onions and boil for a minute then strain. Save the pickling liquor and pour back over the onions when it’s cooled (also it’ll be fine for future salad dressings) until ready to use.
When the squid is ready let it cool take out a couple of ladlefuls of the liquor (letting the squid cool naturally in what’s left of it) add a pinch of sugar to it and reduce to a third of its volume. Mix through with some olive or rapeseed oil to make the dressing (about a 1:3 ratio), it may need a small squeeze of lemon juice.
When ready to serve, fry or griddle the tentacles (season well just before) on a crazy high heat for just long enough for them to sear brown.
Mix through the braised squid, onion segments, bitter greens and dressing very gently with your hands. Plate up and add the crispy tentacles just before serving.
Red onions, butter, rosemary and wine
A good one for some grilled lean beef and left over butter beans.
Peel and halve the onions. Cluster then into an oven proof pot, add lots of butter, plenty of rosemary ripped from its stalk, a red chilly (fresh or dried), a sliver or two of orange zest, fill a quarter of the way up with white wine and season (relative to the saltiness of the butter). With the lid on put them in a quite hot oven – 170 degrees would work well – and let them be, except for the occasional shake of the pan, for an hour (before things get too friendly inside and the onions turn mushy).
After that hour give it twenty to thirty minutes with the lid off, enough time for the wine to mostly reduce and for the smells and colours to begin to noticeably intensify.
Mashed potatoes and burnt onions
Burnt onions are a shockingly good foil for unapologetically butter-and-creamy mashed potatoes. Regular onions and leeks have both worked well but shallots probably the best.
Give them a medium/small dice – around a quarter inch, but make sure it’s fairly regular. Pour a fair deal of neutral oil in a hot pan – enough to go half way up the onions. Pop in the onions and fry, tossing/stirring now and then to make sure they cook evenly. They’re done once they’re almost black all over but before they become charcoal (they’ll still be slightly sweet in the middle). Pour the onions and oil straight through a sieve then pop the onions straight onto paper towel and season with salt.
Fold through your mash just before its time to serve, not too much but just enough so you’ll likely have one or two surprising sweet-bitter charred nuggets in most mouthfuls.