Fed up of the same old winter ingredients? Just try taking a new approach...
So, happy new year. The days are getting longer... and so is my belt after all the feasting. Now I'm looking towards a lighter, more healthy approach to my food.
But spring is still a distant prospect. There won't be any wild garlic or spring greens for some time to come, and parsnips and leeks seem to have lost the appeal that they had back in November.
Well, it's like this: all we need to do is look at these seasonal offerings from a slightly different angle. Goodness knows we are fed up with pheasant and mallard in our house by this time of the year.
We get offered a lot of shot game by people we know and it never occurs to me to turn down the free meat. But you certainly don't want roasted pheasant every day and a mallard is a real nightmare to pluck by this point in the season. So, how do I re-invent a lighter more healthy feel to the food and yet keep using the same ingredients? Simply by using a different set of skills to those traditionally associated with that ingredient. In other words, thinking outside the seasonal box.
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Let's take the humble parsnip first. We love to roast them, make a creamy puree or mash, dripping with butter and perhaps a touch of nutmeg. But how about a salad?
Parsnip salad, I hear you ask – has Tim been at the leftover booze cupboard? Poor dear, it's all this writing – it's turned his mind.
But you heard me right. A parsnip salad is a thing of wonder. And parsnip is a natural bedfellow for that stalwart of winter stored fruit, the humble apple. Peel a couple of parsnips and grate them up – use a mandolin if you have one, but a normal common or garden box grater will do the job just fine. Then, grate an apple and place this in a bowl with the parsnip, chop a handful of parsley leaves, squeeze over some lemon, drizzle with your favourite oil – mine is currently pumpkin oil, but I am sure something else will usurp it soon – and then take it from there. Add a little dried fruit (if that's your thing), salt, pepper, chilli, some croutons or maybe a few nuts and seeds instead. If you're really hungry, throw in a few cooked lentils. You could even go so far as to grate up a carrot and chuck that in as well. How about some cold shredded chicken left from a roast? You get the picture.
I am quite a big fan of a winter vegetable soup. That sounds thoroughly unappetising, so let's call it a "minestra d'inverno"! Dice an onion and some garlic, chop a chilli and finely chop some smoked bacon. Start to "swry" this off (somewhere between sweating and frying!) and then get chopping: carrot, onion, celery, stalks from some kale, parsnip, swede... Chop it all up carefully so it's all a similar size and add these to the pan in descending order based on how long they will take to cook.
Keep back any greens until right at the last minute. Add some stock – chicken or vegetable will work fine – season and simmer until all the veg is tender. Whip up a quick pesto (I like to use parsley and pumpkin seeds at this time of the year) and then add the greens to the soup and serve!
I like to make way too much and just have a small bowl for lunch, then place the rest of this hearty soup in a casserole dish, add a layer of stale bread to the top, grate a little cheese and drizzle with olive oil. Bung this in a hot oven with the lid on until it's hot then take off the lid and add the cheese to the top. Bake it until it goes a little crispy. It makes a wonderfully satisfying supper.
Pheasant and mallard, a million different ways...
Right then, let's make this clear. It is better to use up these birds once they have been shot. Whether you agree with the idea of raising birds to shoot them or not, the fact is that it happens. Once these birds are dead it would be wasteful in the extreme to not eat them and they tend to be very cheap and readily available, but we don't want to roast a January cock pheasant – it will tough as old boots.
And so, we must be creative. Rather than waste time plucking these birds, I will simply remove the breasts and legs with a knife. Once that's done it becomes evident that what you have is lots of meat that is rich, flavoursome and yet low in fat.
You can now do whatever you fancy with this meat, but it's worth taking a few things into consideration... The leg meat will be tough. You can just about get away with pan roasting a pheasant thigh, but try it with the drumstick and you will regret it. Keep the drumsticks, save them in the freezer and once you have a whole bunch of them, braise them down. Let this go cool, and pick the meat from the bones and sinew. Mix this back in with the braising liquor and veg and pop it back in the freezer to use as pasta sauce.
The breast meat is a different story. I tend to lightly dry cure the breasts with a simple, salt, sugar and spice cure. I just sprinkle the mix on each one like a seasoning, and pop them in a tub in the fridge with a little light oil over them. They will keep fresh this way for up to a week, but you can freeze them after a day in the cure and they will be fine in the freezer for a month or more. Then you can do what you like with them – cook them like a steak, or cut them into strips and give them the stroganov treatment, curry them or even turn them into spicy fajita-style wraps, maybe with a little parsnip salad on the side...
To learn more about game preparation you could book a course at the River Cottage HQ or have a private lesson with Tim or one of his team. Visit www.greensauce.co.uk for more information.