At a Glance
Rhubarb, Kale, Kohl Rabi, Leeks, Swede, Sprouts, Parsnips
What more do we need to know?
We still have sprouts, cabbage and cauliflower coming from December, to bolster up the plate on Sunday roasts, plus the first fruit of the year is just about to drop onto the plate. Plus, leeks and Swedes enter the fray and our casseroles, and kale and kohl rabi also join the party!
Forced rhubarb is one of the few fruits that is still grown seasonally, and in the way it was grown many year ago. Forcing rhubarb is an odd process, which requires subjecting the plant to both darkness and heat; searching for light causes the tender shoots to grow rapidly. Rhubarb is grown in one of the strangest conditions; it is grown in low-height long sheds, in total darkness, with teams of people harvesting the rhubarb by hand, by candlelight. The result is the almost viciously pink shoots, providing probably the only colour excitement of the month.
The British rhubarb industry is located in a tiny area of West Yorkshire, called the "Wakefield Triangle". A number of factors caused the industry to concentrate here; favourable weather, heavy soils, good availability of coal for heat, and good transport infrastructure all contribute. The cold weather in autumn chills the roots of the rhubarb, so they can be dug up in mid-November and replanted into the sheds, ready for forcing.
In the middle of the last century, the rhubarb industry was of huge importance; a dedicated "rhubarb express" train carried hundreds of tones of rhubarb down to the south of the country. Today, the industry is much smaller; it has no trains of its own. Rhubarb isn't as popular as it once was, due to the ready availability of exotic fruit, and the expense of the labour-intensive growing and harvesting process. This is a shame; many recipes exist, such as Rhubarb Fool or Rhubarb Crumble which are simply delicious. A much overlooked fruit, rhubarb shouldn't be passed upon, particularly not tender forced rhubarb.
Kale is probably one of the hardiest, most rugged vegetables there is; few vegetables will provide sustenance from September through to March, through the heart of midwinter. A traditional Scottish vegetable, it was commonly grown by crofters in the Highlands.
It's a handy vegetable to grow; leaves can be picked off when they are needed, making it very practical. Kale is coming back into favour of late; it develops better taste after a good frost (much like sprouts). It is cooked much like cabbage but the tough stalks should be removed, steamed, or cooked in a soup.
Related to turnips and swede, kohlrabi is a curious vegetable; a small, odd looking orb with stems growing out, it is commonly used as animal fodder, but is better than that! It's quite tasty, and is a popular addition of recipes in Central Europe. It's name is a combination of the German word for kale, and the latin species name for turnip, rapa.
The swollen orb is not a root, like a turnip or swede, but is a swollen stem base, which grows above ground. Kohlrabi stores energy in the summer in its swollen stem base, so it can survive the winter dormant. It is a biennial plant, so if left in the ground it will then flower the following spring. Plants can be harvested anytime after the summer, but it is best saved for the winter to add some variety to winter dishes. It can be eaten raw (grated or thinly sliced into salads), braised, roasted or added into soups or stews.
Kohlrabi is best eaten when the size of a tennis ball, and should always be peeled. The stalks and leaves that are left over can be cooked and eaten like cabbage.
A staple ingredient of many stews and soups in the winter, leeks are in season from August to March but at their best in the depth of winter, when few other vegetables are fresh in season. They were made popular by the Ancient Egyptians, Romans and Greeks, who all helped spread leeks from their native Central Asia across Europe.
Whilst leeks are fairly limited in their uses, they are superb for the few they are good for. A true gourmet vegetable, it has a subtle flavour that its relatives such as onion and garlic long for, making it a delicious meal in its own right, steamed, sauted or grilled. It is good for flavouring soups and stocks, and furthermore, easy to grow, making light work of surviving cold, wet conditions that kill off other plants.
The white part of leeks is coloured this way by pulling up soil around the plant, which blanches the stems. This is the part of the plant that is typically eaten as a meal, although the green leaves can be used for flavouring stocks.
Leeks are a great addition to the diet; they have many of the dietary benefits of onions, including reducing cholesterol and helping combat the offset of diabetic heart disease, and also to help lower blood pressure. Allium vegetables have also been shown to reduce the risk of prostate and colon cancer if taken as little as two to three times a week.
One of the most hardiest of all root vegetables, Swedes are excellent winter vegetables in a cool climate. Not exactly glamorous, they are thought to be a cross between a turnip and a cabbage, although the name is an abbreviation of "Swedish turnip". First popular in France and Southern Europe in the sixteenth century, it first came to Britain from Holland, and quickly gained popularity, being known as the "turnip rooted cabbage", from the root that looks like a turnip, and the top that looks like a cabbage. Oilseed rape is a variety of swede without the swollen stem-base.
As mentioned, swede is extremely tough, and can be left stored in the ground after maturing, and they are very easy to grow. Recent advances in breeding has resulted in varieties that are disease resistant and tastier still. Swede is popular alongside potatoes, in particular mashed. They can be sliced, cubed or roasted like parsnips, or added to casseroles and stews.
There's so much about sprouts you probably don't know. They're one of the few remaining proper seasonal vegetables (alongside Peas and Jersey Potatoes to name two others), and are only typically available from September until March. Foreign imports are available, but don't taste as good, and are contributing to the madness that is permanent global summer time. Sprouts are also said to taste better once they've had some frost on them in the winter months.
Despite the fact sprouts are one of the tastiest vegetables and the only recognised seasonal one on the Christmas dinner table, sprouts are one of the least popular vegetables, particularly among children. Memories of rock hard bullet sprouts from childhood only perpetuate this myth of an unpleasant taste, yet if cooked to perfection they can almost melt in the mouth. Although, many people prefer them much crisper, with some crunch left, and cooking them for less time retains more of the goodness and nutrients in the vegetable.
One of the most welcome sights in the vegetable section of the supermarket around late Autumn and winter is the appearance of sprout stalks; that is, sprouts sold on the stalks they grow on, ranging from 18 inches to 3 feet in length. The sprouts store better on the stalk, since they can take moisture from the stalk itself, and they're more fun to prepare than a simple bag. If you can stop the kids stalk-fighting for a moment or two, they can even be persuaded to help prepare them.
Sprouts are very versatile for cooking; boiling or steaming is the traditional and typical way, but they can also be stir-fried, or pureed in a blender with cream. Our advice is to check out a few recipes, play around a bit and find out the tastiest way you can to eat them!
Although it is grown all year round abroad, parsnips are a winter seasonal treat. Parsnips are slow growing, started from seed one year, flowering in spring and summer the following year, and maturing for harvest in autumn and winter. Parsnips are best eaten after the first frosts, which convert more of the starches in the roots into sugars and makes them tastier. Parsnips are very hardy, and will survive some of the harshest weather while still in the ground; for this reason, that they became popular, since they were ready for harvest as potatoes finished one year, and would last almost until the first potatoes the next year.
Parsnips are best roasted or chipped to eat; their skins cook nicely and contrast well with the sweeter pulp of the vegetable. Some people recommend not peeling them, because a lot of the tastiness and goodness is found just underneath the skin, but others understandably have a reluctance to eating unpeeled vegetables; there is no problem with this as long as they are well washed. When roasted, they fit well on the plate alongside roast potatoes and beef.
Parsnips are easy to grow; its best to wait a bit later than most seed packets will advise, to avoid carrot root fly, and after that just treat them like slow growing carrots.