From spring to early autumn, cooking seasonally is a sprint. Fruits and vegetables ripen before your very eyes, bursting with heady flavours that run straight onto the plate. Cooking becomes a race for ripeness – a bid to capture a fruit’s full potential before the next variety comes into season and knocks it from centre stage. Fruit in particular passes by in a blur; strawberries, cherries and blackberries leaving behind a bright trail of destruction on your apron.
All of this changes once the clocks go back. As the days shorten and temperatures drop, both plants and cooks have to work harder to produce flavour, concentrating our energy on getting through these naturally challenging months. It becomes a marathon, not a sprint. The slow but steady contenders left in the fruit race – citrus, stored apples and pears – are joined by a new running mate: rhubarb. Barring citrus, whose raw, bright acidity reawakens the senses, winter fruit requires us to slow down and savour them for longer. Baked into a pie, covered with oats in a crumble, stewed and stirred into porridge, these fruits round out into dishes designed to keep you going through dark days and cold nights.
Poaching is another staple technique of winter cooking, one that teaches you to control your pace in the kitchen. Done too quickly and you’ll lose the shape and flavour of the fruit, which is especially sad when it comes to precious, tender stalks of pink rhubarb. Done right, it’s a chance to both celebrate and reinvigorate overtired winter fruit. The syrup can be made up with any liquid you happen to have: orange juice, red wine, water, last summer’s fruit liqueurs. Citrus zest and dried spices such as star anise, cinnamon and cardamom offer a natural flavour peak, something to strengthen the culinary backbone of the fruit itself. The trick is to take each step slowly. The spices or zest should be added to the syrup at least ten minutes before the fruit, so that the flavour have time to infuse. Have the heat low, so that the liquid is barely simmering once the cooking starts. That way the flavour will seep slowly into every part of the fruit but not cause it to burst open. Keep the fruit covered with a circle of damp baking paper so you don’t lose any precious flavour in evaporation. Once cooked, it’s even better if you can leave the fruit to cool down completely – preferably overnight – as the flavours will deepen.
It might seem strange to dedicate so much time to poaching fruit. But in my experience, the best way to enjoy cooking during the winter months is to take it slowly. Take each day as it comes, becoming a master of reinvention for the produce left in your trug. The day when you wake up to find a strawberry within reach, it will have all been worth it.
Poached pears with clementine zest and cardamom ice cream
By now we’re left with the hard varieties of pears that store well and lend themselves perfectly to cooking. I’ve paired it with the last of the Christmas clementines, which lift the flavours perfectly.
I am forever indebted to my mother for introducing me to this Nigella recipe for ice cream. I add different flavours to it throughout the year: a cupful of pureed fruit in autumn, stem ginger during winter, lemon zest and meringue offcuts to go with fresh strawberries during summer.
For the fruit:
4 pears – I used the hard Madernassa cooking variety
5 clementines, preferably unwaxed
200g caster sugar
For the ice cream:
600ml double cream
1 tin condensed milk
8 cardamom pods
Half a lemon
- Make the ice cream first, roughly eight hours before you want to eat it.
Crush the cardamom pods to remove the black seeds. Crush the seeds in a pestle and mortar before sifting into the cream. Sifting might seem unnecessary but there tends to be some dusty, papery bits that you won’t want in your ice cream. Using the fine size of a grater or a microplane, add in the zest of half a lemon.
- Whip the cream to fairly stiff peaks and add in the condensed milk. Mix well and pour into a tupperware – et voila! Freeze for eight hours or overnight.
- Zest the clementines into a wide bottomed pan, then squeeze in their juice. Add the sugar and water and bring to a gentle simmer. Leave to infuse for at least ten minutes.
- Meanwhile, peel and halve the pears using a teaspoon to remove the core. Rub with a lemon to prevent browning and place into the simmering liquid.
- Cover with a circle of dampened baking paper and cook for fifteen minutes. The pears are ready when you can pierce them gently with a small, sharp knife.
- Serve at room temperature with a scoop of ice cream.
Illustrations by Olivia Amato-Pace @livvyamato