Matt Wilkinson
19 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Jacqui Melville

Ah, winter. The coldest season, when people suddenly think it’s okay to wear socks to bed (ugh!).

I tend to feel a bit older in winter – creaking bones and creaking floorboards. It reminds me of living in Edinburgh when I was an apprentice chef and having no heating. Getting into bed and snuggling down, and never wanting to get up. And when I did get up, wrapping myself in seven layers, and getting lost in scarves, hats and gloves.

Still, nothing beats opening up your curtains in the morning and seeing snow. There is an amazing light in winter, one that is clear and crisp. The colours of snow, so white that it is almost blue. The leaves have fallen from the deciduous trees, and everything looks dormant and lifeless. When you walk outside on a clear winter day, the air is so fresh and bracing that you can feel it burning all the way from your nostrils into your lungs. And it is filled with the smell of smoke from other people’s open fires, which is always so inviting. It’s the most hypnotic thing, to sit in front of an open fire and watch the flames leaping over each other.

In the northern hemisphere, the animals are hibernating – like the little hedgehogs, my favourite! Creatures hibernate here in Australia too, though we don’t associate hibernation with the southern hemisphere as much. All the eels and yabbies head into their burrows in the waterways, staying inside until it starts to warm up again in spring. And the bees and the butterflies have disappeared. Where do they go?

It is the end of the cycle – and also the beginning of the cycle – of life and of rebirth. For this reason the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, is celebrated in many cultures across the world. This day is seen as a turning point, from which the sun gets brighter and stronger as the year progresses. It was considered a particularly sacred time in the yearly cycle of life – a time of reflection and ritual, of giving thanks and goodwill within the community. It has its roots in pagan times, when so much depended on the gifts of the seasons, and incredible importance was placed on seasonal celebration.

Even now, though we try to make the most of the reduced sunlight, everything seems to slow down in winter. We cook with the secondary cuts of meat, ones that need to be braised for long hours at a low heat. We spoil ourselves with warming whiskeys and full-bodied red wines, and eating becomes an indulgence. We eat more. Robust stews and roasts are the order of the day, along with big, hearty warming bowls of soup with chunky bread. We brew ourselves concoctions of ginger, honey and lemon to protect our bodies from winter bugs.

And what is coming through in the garden protects us too. Citrus is in full swing in winter – loading us up with vitamin C that our body craves to ward off colds. Lemons, limes and gorgeous winter oranges are all in fruit, and bring some vibrant colour into the season. And they also bring juice, ready for preserving in the form of cordial. We tend to associate fresh lemonade with cooling us down at the height of summer, but lemons aren’t actually in season in summer! It is the preserved juice from the winter crop that allows us to enjoy a refreshing lemonade on a sweltering day.

There is definitely not much happening in the winter garden; the plants are conserving their energy for the time to come. Everything slows down, and it is the slow-growing vegies – the Brassica family – that really love winter. Cabbage has been in the ground for four months, but now it sits proudly, waiting to be harvested. There is a reason why cabbage is so central to the cuisine of most of Europe – it’s all about making the most of what you can get to grow. Bring on the sauerkraut, I say!

The broccoli will have been slowly growing for three months or so, and by now you should have some gorgeous heads sitting atop the woody stalks. If you want to try something different, plant some delightful Romanesco broccoli; you can pick up some seeds at any continental supermarket. They have the most crazy, delightful pointy crowns on their head.

Your cauliflower should have bloomed a big tight head, all nestled in and protected by its outer leaves and stalks. And then there’s my old mate, the warty, funny-looking brussels sprout. It is a truly ugly plant, but it’s so lovely to eat.

Kale is a delight of the winter garden, too, and close cousin to the cabbage. It makes headlines these days for being one of the ‘new’ superfoods, but it has been widely enjoyed since Roman times. The cultivation of kale was encouraged by the British government during World War II as part of its ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign, as it contained so many of the nutrients that were missing from an austere rationing diet. That, and it is super-easy to grow.

All those old-fashioned vegetables, like turnips and swedes, make you think of your Grandma making soul-warming winter soups in the kitchen. These vitamin-dense vegies are full of the nutrients our bodies need to get us through to spring.

But there is really not much happening in the garden. It’s not like the height of summer, when you really need to be in there every day, watering and tending. You can afford to be a bit more reserved in winter. The ground is hard with the cold, but now is the time to put in a bit of preparation work for the seasons ahead. Manure and manicure the garden and give it a good blanket to really protect it from the frost. It’s time to think about getting your seeds into trays now, to get planted out once spring rolls around.

In the kitchen, winter is the time to start pulling out all the preserves and pickles that were made and put away with all of summer’s excess produce. There is a limit to the amount of produce that will grow in the winter, so it is always good to be able to supplement what you have with what you have preserved. It’s time to cut into last year’s salamis, and to pull out the jarred stonefruits for your warming winter pies and crumbles. You’ll be glad you went to the effort, believe me!

Early winter

The vibrant colours of the many varieties of citrus give light to a time when the cold and gloom sets in. Mandarins, clementines, navel oranges, ruby grapefruit, lemons, lemonade fruit, limes and kaffir limes, just to name a few. My mum always gave us half a grapefruit to eat at winter for breakfast (which Mum, if you read this, can I tell you was a bad idea after you made us brush our teeth – toothpaste and citrus just don’t go together). It will be another month until my favourite of all the citrus, the blood orange, comes into season, but I can wait when there is so much flavour of the other citrus varieties around.

The leaves are off most of the trees, and it is the time to rake them up and place them into your compost. Many of my old Italian and Greek neighbours walk the streets at this time collecting the piles of yellow, orange and many hues of brown from the roadside.

Mid winter

All is not bad in the garden, well for me anyway, here in Melbourne. I’m actually chuffed at how well my cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower and kale are doing. The leeks and onions are looking splendid as well, but it’s time I pruned a few things, in case there’s an early bud burst the month before spring. And I should, if the weather is nice on the weekend, really manure the strawberries and mulch everywhere. It’s cold and dark in the morning when I wake, and dark on my way home, but the smell of wood fires burning through the air is a delight.

Blood oranges are here and it’s time to crack open some of my ‘summer in a jar’ – my home-made sugo – and make a pasta, maybe with a refreshing rocket and radicchio leaf salad that I harvest straight from the garden. Salad leaves taste so good in winter.

Late winter

I'm over it now – the cold, the wet, the dark. When will you arrive, warmer weather? I’m sick of standing in the shower until the pipes warm up and the cold water turns to hot. I’m sick of clearing the front window of my car of frost. I’m sick of the Brassica family – I don’t want to see another bloody cabbage or cauliflower on the plate again ... but hey, that's eating and being seasonal.

That said, the first signs of change are in the garden. The daffodils are shooting, the wattle tree is about to flower, buds are starting to burst on some of my trees, and even certain birds have come back to the garden. The vine I thought I had overpruned is starting to show shoots, and damn I need to weed the garden. And we really need to eat some more leafy greens... the rocket, speckled radicchio and cos lettuce are going crazy.

Other uses for pea and prosciutto dressing

–Smashing with roasted potatoes.

–Perfect through pasta.

–Use as a topping and sauce for steamed or baked white-fleshed fish.

–Great on top of toasted ciabatta or focaccia; for a cheeky little lunch, add a poached egg!

–Stir through a plain risotto just before serving.

Other uses for green olive dressing

–Great with any root vegies.

–Dollop over barbecued calamari and rocket.

–Toss through a cold pasta salad.

–Use like a tapenade.

–Smear over roasted tomatoes and zucchini.

–Mix through a simple boiled potato and egg salad.

Other uses for romesco sauce

–Great with grilled asparagus and spring onions.

–A simple dip for crudites and bread.

–Drizzle over slow-cooked lamb or chops.

–Brilliant with roasted crayfish, lobster or prawns.

–Dollop on a couscous salad or toss through pearl couscous.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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