Brighten up dull February days with blood oranges, red peppers and a pinch of imagination, says Nigel Slater.
For many cooks this is the low point of the year, the time in which all seems humdrum in the kitchen and garden. (I will admit to rather enjoying these calm few weeks of what I call cupboard cooking before the shops and markets flood with the first spring produce and the fruit and vegetable garden starts needing daily attention.) But there is still plenty to brighten up the dark days: lemons from Italy; deep ruby blood oranges with their rich juice; our own scarlet rhubarb; snow white and purple cauliflower; dark green cabbages and the occasional import to cheer up the vegetable rack.
Peppers with cannellini and gorgonzola
A few red peppers will cheer any winter shopping basket. I have never been a fan of stuffing them with the traditional rice, but beans, well seasoned and sometimes mashed, is another matter. With the addition of blue cheese this is a rather rich dish, so I like a crisp salad on the side, made with watercress perhaps or frisée.
red peppers 4 medium to large
cannellini beans 2 x 400g cans
chives 3 tbsp, chopped
Slice the tops from the peppers, scoop out and discard any core or seeds, then trim the bases so they will stand firm. Put the bases into a baking dish or roasting tin, close, but not touching, and set the oven to 180C/gas mark 4.
Drain and rinse the cannellini beans, then tip them into a mixing bowl and mash them with a fork or potato masher. I like to keep mine quite rough, but the texture is up to you. Fold in the gorgonzola, spreading it evenly through the beans together with the chopped chives. Season carefully with salt and black pepper then fill the peppers with the mixture. Place the lids back on top, cover loosely with foil then bake for an hour. Remove the foil, check the peppers' progress - they should be really soft and sweet. Continue baking for 15-20 minutes or so to lightly brown the peppers then serve.
Lamb's liver with sherry vinegar and blood oranges
In the 70s, there was a popular restaurant dish where liver was matched up to sweet vermouth and orange. Weird though it sounds now, the flavours worked rather well. In this recipe I have swapped the sweet vermouth for the mellow notes of sherry vinegar. Very creamy mashed potato would be a good side dish.
medium red onion 1
blood oranges 2
lamb's liver 200g
Dijon mustard 1 tbsp
sherry vinegar 2-3 tsp
Peel the onion, slice into thin rings, then fry in the butter for 10-15 minutes till lightly coloured and translucent. Slice away the peel from the oranges with a very sharp knife, then remove the segments from their skin. I find the easiest way to do this is to hold the orange in your hand and slice down between the skin and flesh of each segment then flip the flesh out with the knife. Retain the pulp and any juice.
Slice the lamb's liver into thin strips.Remove the onions from the pan then add the lamb's liver and cook briefly on both sides till still pink in the middle. Squeeze the juice from the pulp left after removing the orange segments and add it to the pan together with the Dijon mustard and sherry vinegar. Shake the pan a few times so the ingredients come together. Add the orange segments to the pan then serve.
Rib and rhubarb broth
Cooking apples, lemon and gooseberries have all been used to balance the rich, fatty qualities of pork. Rhubarb is used less often, but works brilliantly.
small pork ribs 500g
groundnut or sunflower oil a little
vegetable stock 1 litre
star anise 2
black peppercorns 8
bay leaves 2
spring onions 2
rhubarb a small stick
In a large, deep pan, brown the ribs on both sides in a little oil. When they are nicely coloured pour the stock over them, add the star anise, peppercorns and bay leaves and bring to the boil. Lower the heat so the liquid continues cooking at a low simmer and leave for 50 minutes to an hour, keeping an eye on the liquid so it doesn't boil away - you want to end up with a rich, quite concentrated broth. Season to taste.
Remove the ribs from the liquid, pull the meat from the bones and cut it into chunks (I sometimes leave them whole). Roughly chop the spring onions and drop them, together with the meat, into the hot broth. Thinly slice the rhubarb into long matchsticks and add to the broth. Serve immediately, just as the rhubarb starts to soften.
Salmon tartare with quick pickled cauliflower
A modern take on the traditional potted fish that was so popular in Victorian times. The original idea was to preserve the fish or shellfish with a thick layer of butter. Here it is used in smaller amounts, just enough to bind the tartare together. Toast is good with this, or a dark pumpernickel-type bread. It is served with a clear, crisp cauliflower pickle.
For the pickled cauliflower
cider vinegar 300ml
granulated or caster sugar 100g
coriander seeds 1 tsp
For the tartare
butter about 2 tbsp
salmon 200g (skinned and prepared weight)
chives 3 tbsp, chopped
chopped parsley 1 tbsp
To make the pickled cauliflower, break the cauliflower into large florets, slicing any particularly large pieces in half. Bring the vinegar, sugar, water and coriander seeds to the boil then add the cauliflower and continue for 8-10 minutes till the cauliflower is tender but crisp. Leave to cool. Serve with the salmon tartare, keeping any remaining in a preserving jar in the fridge.
To make the tartare, melt the butter in a small pan and leave to cool. Cut the salmon into 1cm cubes and put them in a bowl with the finely chopped chives, chopped parsley and a little salt. Lightly mix in the melted, cooled butter. Pile on to pumpernickel bread and serve with a little of the pickled cauliflower.
Lemon mascarpone with crumble
Blood oranges are one of the highlights of the dark months. They make great juice, yes, but also in salads with watercress and roast pork; with smoked mackerel or herrings and in the pan juice for duck breasts and pigeon. Here I use them in thin slices, with citrus-spiked cream cheese and warm crumble.
small blood oranges 6
lemons grated zest of 2
icing sugar (optional)
For the crumble
plain flour 100g
light muscovado sugar 3 tbsp
water a little
Peel the blood oranges with a small, sharp knife, leaving no white pith, then slice them thinly, and divide between six dessert plates. Grate the lemon finely, taking care not to include any of the bitter white pith that lies just under the yellow zest, and stir most of it, together with a little of the juice to taste, into the mascarpone. You can, if you wish, sweeten the mixture with a little icing sugar at this point, but I prefer not to. Place scoops, spoonfuls or rough dollops of the lemon mascarpone alongside the sliced oranges.
To make the crumble, rub the butter and flour together until they resemble coarse, fresh breadcrumbs. This is something I do by hand, but can be done with a food processor in seconds. Stir in the sugar, then scatter lightly with a few drops of water and shake the mixture gently, so you get an assortment of small crumbs and clusters. It makes the texture of the crumble more interesting.
Tip the crumble into a lightly buttered or parchment-lined baking sheet and spread evenly, then bake at 180C/gas mark 4 for approximately 10 minutes till crisp and pale biscuit coloured. Scrape the crumble from the baking sheet and, while still warm, scatter over the mascarpone. Finish with the remaining grated lemon zest and serve.
Peppers with cannellini and gorgonzola. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin