Eat the season and feel healthy too

Chicken breast3

January is so often about the dreaded three ‘D’s: detox, diets and denial.

None of these are likely to contribute to your wellbeing during the cold, dark winter, but you may well want to redress the balance a little, to counteract some of the Christmas excess. The solution? I propose we celebrate what is often lamented as an anticlimactic, depressing month by focusing on all the colourful, delicious seasonal produce around at this time of year, and ways of incorporating nature’s treasures into some balanced, healthy recipes: high in vegetables, colour and flavour.

Although you may think seasonal produce in January doesn’t extend much beyond root vegetables, imports of beautiful citrus from further afield brighten the shelves at this time of year, and early season rhubarb, with its shockingly Barbie-pink stalks, is Mother Nature’s way of telling us to cheer up. Here are five fantastic ingredients that are plentiful in January, and a few healthy recipe ideas to make the most of them.

Blood oranges and other citrus

Blood oranges come into season at this time of year, usually imported from Spain or Italy, and they are a thing of beauty. Slice into their stained-glass interiors and feel inspired to use them in everything from salads to sorbet. Segments of blood orange work beautifully in a salad with thinly sliced fennel (use a mandolin if you have one), black olives and an olive oil dressing. Chunks of blood orange are also excellent for livening up salads made with nutty grains and pulses: lentils, chickpeas, couscous and quinoa all work well, especially when you add some crumbled feta, toasted almonds and baby spinach leaves. Thinly sliced blood oranges are also excellent scattered over a baked cheesecake, especially if you add a little dried fruit and candied peel to the mix, and I love them in this gorgeous blood orange, olive oil and cardamom syrup cake. They also work beautifully in a winter fruit compote to liven up porridge, granola or yoghurt: try my recipe here.

Lemons and grapefruit are also excellent at the moment. Use the former to liven up salads and stews; and, when you feel like indulging, to make a lemon tart! Thinly sliced lemons are gorgeous strewn over a tray of roasted chicken thighs, where they caramelize in the heat of the oven and the fat of the chicken. They are also surprisingly good scattered over a spinach and goat’s cheese pizza before baking, provided they are sliced super-thin. Grapefruit is glorious in a salad with thinly sliced red onion, baby spinach, avocado, basil, mint and hot smoked salmon or halloumi, or simply segmented atop your morning yoghurt and granola.

Kale and other greens

Winter greens are infinitely versatile, and the easiest option is to stir them into any stew or soup you’re cooking until they’ve wilted, to add a boost of vitamins and healthy green goodness. They are also excellent in stir-fries and pasta dishes. Cooked kale or raw spinach are wonderful in a salad with crisp green apples, avocado and toasted pecans, particularly when drizzled with a dressing of yoghurt, lemon juice and fresh basil: try my recipe here. Also try saag paneer, an Indian curry of spinach leaves and bouncy paneer cheese, which you can make with any robust greens, or a Keralan-style thoran, with shredded cabbage, coconut and chillies. You could also stir-fry your greens Vietnamese style, with garlic and fish sauce: traditionally this is done with greens called ‘morning glory’, but any robust leaves will work.

Potatoes

These may not strike you as the healthiest option, but if you leave the skins on (most of the nutrients lurk here) and avoid the tendency to mash and add lashings of butter, they can be a delicious and satisfying addition to healthy dinners. My favourite way with potatoes is to cut them into cubes or small chunks, toss them with lemon zest, smoked paprika, salt, pepper and finely chopped rosemary, then roast them in a hot oven (around 200C), tossing them occasionally, until burnished and crispy. I then add some baby spinach, halved cherry tomatoes and crumbled feta, give it a stir and bake for a few minutes more, for a colourful, flavoursome and nutritious traybake. It’s a great side dish for roast meats or fried mackerel, but is also excellent on its own.

Try layering thinly sliced potatoes (use a mandolin or sharp knife) with some greens and goat’s cheese, then covering with a little vegetable stock and baking in the oven until everything is tender and the potatoes on top are golden brown: a delicious gratin, with no cream or butter required. You can also add these versatile vegetables to a curry with tomatoes, turmeric and baby spinach for a filling and nutritious main course – particularly good if you’re looking for an alternative to a meaty curry.

New season rhubarb

Although you do need to add a little sugar to make rhubarb palatable, the new season variety is much sweeter and more tender than its stringy, green summer counterpart – as well as a much more appealing bright pink colour. Sweeten with a little sugar or honey then bake in the oven until just tender; it makes a delicious tangy topping for porridge, yoghurt or granola, and is lovely partnered with some raspberries or blueberries, for another of your five a day. It also works surprisingly well in a Persian lamb stew, adding a touch of sourness to balance the sweetness of lamb meat, and with pan-fried mackerel - we’re always being told to eat more oily fish, and pairing it with a tangy rhubarb compote is a lovely way to do just this. Salmon works well, too.

Leeks

A sadly underrated vegetable, the leek, so often relegated to a mere supporting role. Make the most of them by placing them at the centre of a creamy risotto made with pearl barley and a little goat’s cheese or feta, or bake them, halved lengthways, in a little stock until tender before scattering with currants, crumbled feta, thinly sliced red onion and fresh mint for a deliciously different side dish. I love this Ottolenghi recipe, which sees soft leeks folded into a moreish, slightly spiced pancake batter to be served with a tangy green yoghurt sauce. They are also excellent folded into a fish pie to up the vegetable content – just sauté them until tender before adding to your white sauce. The tough green part of the leek, which you would often discard for most recipes, can be used to make a tasty vegetable stock for soup or risotto.

Elly McCausland is a food writer and blogger at Nutmegs, Seven. She has a passion for travel and all things gastronomic, with a particular emphasis on fruit, breakfast and proper British puddings. When not concocting recipes or planning her next cultural odyssey, she is an English literature academic, specialising in children’s literature.

 

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