Updated: Dec 22, 2019
A Care Package for Brumal Blues
The Darkling Thrush, Thomas Hardy
I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.
The seasons have nearly completed their annual cycle, with winter returning every year can there be anything to describe it that has not already be said? There is, it is said, nothing new under the sun, or under the unrepentant gloomy, wet skies. T.S. Eliot argued that ‘mature poets steal’ and it would certainly take a mass event of amnesia to present new insights to winter. So instead, maybe this article is best served by revisiting some familiar, but partially forgotten thoughts about how to enjoy this most wonderful time of the year. Autumn drifted by on a cooling breeze and winter arrived in its secretive darkness and I thought of how to welcome the days of silver sunlight and cool blue skies. I looked forward to standing on earth hard as iron after a frost and coating myself in padded warmth from head to toe when the Atlantic fronts tire of washing over us with rain. Regardless, you and I have heard it all before, we receive the same annual instructions: hunker down, retreat to a warm spot beside a fire, eat a comforting stew, make yourself a pipingly hot cup of choc and maybe light a candle. You may even, on an invigoratingly cold evening, take a trip to an ice rink and prance around with all the festivity of the skaters in Pieter Bruegel’s The Hunters? Yeh, me neither.
I would love to experience the romantic winter which I read and hear so much about. At school I was told of Keats’ face in the wind and Wordsworth dancing with a robin; the thrill of those white wintry remains may be locked nostalgically in childhood memories, but unfortunately, most of the time winter seems to be nature’s way of tripping me up. I freeze on the way to the tube and overheat when underground, the only fog is from the sickly coughing exhausts and I wake up in the dark and return from work in the same gloom. The only snow seen is in A Muppet Christmas Carol and this winter, with distinct festive cheer, we were gifted with an election. Winter transforms London into a Dickensian nightmare, light is artificial, people retreat into themselves, choking fumes from cars become visible and rise in headlights like a phantom. My music changes also, Jesus and the Mary Chain take on a certain clarity and the heartfelt sincerity of Sufjan Stevens finds his way back into my headphones. More serious than my grumbling, is the fact winter is a treacherous time of the year for many, the homeless, elderly and poor suffer disproportionately. Therefore, this petty moaning may seem inconsequential, but I think we can try to make the most of this invigorating time of year. Our attitude to winter may be a symptom of a society which needs to redirect its values towards the well-being of its citizens lives’ rather than its growth in GDP (how radical!). For me, a clear pathway for this can be cut with what we put on the dinner table.
In case I have been equivocal, I really do love this time of year. Within the compression of the days, there is the coolth mornings, the necessity of a duvet, the sweet and crispy roasted root vegetables, the cold breath rising from frosted ground and drinks drunk, hot and cold, with friends; in fact, my problem is that it is all too rushed. The yuletide, a Germanic festival stemming from the Nordic myth of the Wild Hunt and the Anglo-Saxon festival of Mōdraniht, was celebrated from mid-November to mid-January, with an extended period of good will, drinking, and ceremonial copulation… sound familiar? Our collective festive cheer seems to have been diluted down to a few jam-packed days in December. Office workers, solitary as oysters, check out at 11:59 on Christmas eve after staring into their screen contemplating the deadline looming over them. We gavage one big overblown meal and watch on as our festival is hijacked by consumerism and television advertisements (apart from that John Lewis dragon, he can stay). I don’t want to diminish Christmas Day, but surely, we can do better than one day of festive cheer. Charles Dickens helped homogenise our view of Christmas as a time of gift giving, philanthropy and an abundance of food, but this ‘Christmas cheer’ is condensed into one, ultimately overly filling day. We need to reclaim winter for what it should be, a season of sociability, a time of crisp walking and ambling talking, a chance to leave the office before six; it should contain days frequently interrupted by tea, cake and toast, but most importantly, it should be a time for delicious cooking and guiltless eating. Most of all, it can be a time where the warmth of human relations and cooking can soothe the hardship of the season.
Food in winter takes on an added significance, I find it doesn’t just compliment the day, as it seems to do in summer, but it becomes the day. The expectation of a dish which will warm both heart and soul can get you through even the bleakest of midwinter. A whole-hearted creamy leek and potato soup dipped into with an enthusiastically buttered chunk of bread, a casserole drowned in cider with browned sausages poking out of the top or a tray of roast potatoes, parsnips and carrots crisping in olive oil and rosemary. Cooking is about congregation, most of the year we separate during the day, flung to different jobs and meetings, but by the end of the day we are pulled back together towards a bowl or plate of food. Anthropologists emphasise the importance of communal meals as a catalyst for the development of a functioning society, Michael Pollan, the philosopher king of the foodies, tells us “the family meal is the nursery of democracy." A place where we laugh, discuss, argue and fill the dark evenings with conversation. The opportunity to eat, especially in the winter months, is an opportunity to gather and enjoy, it really only takes a little cooking to achieve it. The reason we don’t, is potentially because we don’t have to. Especially this time of year, when the day feels shorter and the sofa more tempting, the efficiency of food delivery services, microwaveable meals and fast food shops become ever more tempting (I am told), but if we have time to scroll through a hundred Instagram pictures of food, or spend half-an-hour deciding which food delivery you’re going to get, then I am sure we can find some time to make and eat something delicious. The gathering of friends, family or flatmates is, I would argue, the best thing about the festive season and we don’t have save for a couple of meals. Why not spread out the seasonal cheer and wrestle back some time? I reckon the excuse of eating something nourishing and spending time with friends is the best way of doing this and to 'steal' a line from George Eliot, “let the god of the hearth exist for us all”.
So, here you go, a few winter recipes which have made it onto the table of the flat regularly, all easy to make, full of comfort and heft and everything needed to enjoy a winters day.
Roast Purple Sprouting Broccoli
Ingredients: Purple Sprouting Broccoli, 2 Shallots, 6 cloves of Garlic, Olive Oil, Balsamic vinegar, Rosemary.
Makes the most delicious, sweet, and crispy side.
Spread the broccoli along a shallow baking tray.
Chop a couple of shallots, crush some garlic and add to the roasting tray. Give the vegetables a good few glugs of quality olive oil or rapeseed oil and make sure the vegetables are coated.
Splash with the vinegar (about two tablespoons), sprinkle with a few chopped sprigs of rosemary and roast at 180C for 25 minutes.
Watch closely as they tread closely between beautiful and crispy and burnt.
Stuffed Squash (inspired by a River Cottage classic)
Ingredients: One medium sized (preferably a buttercup or crown squash), a good knob of butter, 1 large leek chopped, 5 tablespoons of double cream, 100g cheddar cheese, thyme, wholegrain mustard.
Start by turning the oven up to 180C.
Heat a chunk of butter in a saucepan, with a little splash of oil. Add chopped leeks (make sure you give it a good clean), after a couple of minutes bring down the heat and pop a lid on the pan.
Cook until very soft, then add the wholegrain mustard, cheddar and cream. Season well.
Cut the bottom of the squash so it can stand up on the roasting tray. Cut a hole into the top of the squash and scoop out the seeds.
Poor the creamy leeks into the squash and tuck a couple of sprigs of thyme (which have been rolled in olive oil) into the top – give the squash a sprinkle of olive oil and a season.
Cook for 45 mins, until beautiful, golden and soft.
Green Silky Pasta
Ingredients: 400 g spaghetti, 2 cloves of garlic, 1 large leek, 2 large handfuls of kale, 2 tbsp crème fraiche, a handful of basil, parmesan cheese, olive oil.
Fry the chopped leeks and garlic in olive oil until soft, season well.
Drop the kale leaves into boiling water and cook for 3 minutes, remove and add to the pan.
Remove the pan from the hear and add the greens to a food blitzer – add the crème fraiche, handful of basil and parmesan cheese to the mixture and blitz until smooth.
Put the pasta on to cook in well-salted water.
Add the mixture back to the pan and once the pasta in cooked to al dente add it to the green sauce, along with some pasta water. Mix together until the pasta is coated in the silky green sauce.
Top the pasta with some good olive oil, some torn basil and a healthy grating of parmesan.
Brussel sprouts, Apple and Bacon
Ingredients: 4 rashes of Higher welfare free range streaked bacon, 200g Brussel sprouts, 3 Cox Apples, cider vinegar, 100ml white wine, sage, rapeseed oil, brown sugar, lemon.
Crisp bacon in the pan with a small splash of rapeseed oil, when golden take out the pan and put aside in a bowl.
Chop the apples into crescent moons, removing the core. Fry the apples, along with a handful of sage, in the pan for five minutes until golden. Then add a tablespoon of sugar. Add a splash of cider vinegar.
Discard the coarser outer leaves of the sprouts, chop in half and add to some boiling water which you have salted well. Cook for three minutes. (Or you can roast the sprouts for 20 minutes at 190C before adding to the pan)
Add the sprouts to the pan, then add around 100ml of white wine. Cook down until the wine has reduced, season and serve with a good squeeze of lemon.
Sausage and Lentil Stew
Ingredients: 4 Wild Venison Sausages, one large carrot, one large onion, one stick of celery, 2 cloves of garlic, 300g puy lentils, 500ml good vegetable stock, 150ml red wine, a tin of plum tomatoes, rosemary, dried chili flakes, lemon, parsley.
Brown the sausages in a casserole dish with some good olive oil and remove when done.
Add a little more oil to the pan if necessary, and add the finely chopped onion, carrot, celery and garlic. Cook and stir until soft, it should take around ten minutes. Be patient, put on the radio, practice some meditation, whatever floats your boat, but don’t rush vegetables.
When the vegetables are cooked, add some atomised fresh rosemary, a personalised sprinkle of dried chili flakes and lentils to the pan and fry for a couple of minutes. Then squeeze (with your hands) in the plum tomatoes.
Add the red wine and then the stock. Put the sausages back into the pan and bring to a boil and then simmer for 45 minutes, or until the lentils are soft and have absorbed most of the water.
When finished cooked squeeze half a lemon, throw some fresh parsley over the top, and serve with some seasonal greens alongside.
- Elliot Prior
- Photographs by the awesome @zoewarde-photography