March hangs over the cook like a black cloud and I am not sure I can take much more rain, wind and Brussels sprouts. Late winter is as low as the cook's year can get. But that is to ignore the watercress, blood oranges, purple sprouting and ice-crisp Jerusalem artichokes that are at their peak right now. Think first of fluffy white farmhouse bread with nothing but mayo and cold, peppery watercress. Then ditch the suburban dinner-party soup with its swirl of cream and chuck rough-torn leaves into golden chicken stock with noodles and lemon instead. Makes a change from coriander. I refuse to faff with the cellophane bags of tangled pre-washed watercress stems and go for great fat bunches wrapped up in a rubber band, hacking off their vital, emerald leaves and tossing them into grapefruit or blood orange salads. The almost-freezing water in which it grows at this time of year boosts the leaves' inherent pepperiness.
Winter salads still have a snappy freshness. Try shredded white cabbage with pumpkin seeds and sprouted mung beans, or some of that watercress with finely sliced fennel and a shot of lemon. Spinach is looking good, especially when it is sold with its roots intact. Wash in ice-cold water, then pack it in a plastic bag in the fridge for an hour or two to crisp it up even more. Toss the leaves with matchsticks of salami and fat black grapes. I am afraid you really must seed them. Sloppiness rarely eats well.
What is truly new this month is the early season's purple sprouting. Good enough steamed and buttered, it enters another level altogether when served with the Hollandaise sauce normally reserved for asparagus and sole. Even the fattest stalks are tender this early on, but expect to find locally grown available till May, when, conveniently, local asparagus will take over.
It is fashionable to treat purple sprouting and its deep-mauve heads like asparagus and I am happy to take some of the blame for that - there are fewer suppers I would rather eat. You need nothing more than a jug of the classic egg yolk and butter sauce and some thin slices of bread and butter. We can smugly discount the amount of cholesterol consumed at one sitting because of the life-enhancing greens it accompanies.
Talking of which, the Asian greens, such as pak choi with its Chinese soup spoon-shaped leaves, are well worth casting your eye over. At the risk of being labelled a turncoat by the cream-and-sugar brigade, I have developed an almost missionary zeal about greens. True, I cook most of them in a similar way, throwing them in the steamer (a wannabe Heath-Robinson affair with a colander and a saucepan lid due to friends who have borrowed and failed to return my old Chinese steel steamer) and toss them briefly in hot oyster sauce, sesame oil and garlic.
I must say, all the greens are stunning at the moment. Rarely have I seen Savoy cabbages so dark and handsome. I got all geared up to add shredded leaves to a bean and barley soup last week, but so good did they look in the colander, water droplets trapped between their wrinkles, that I just threw them into boiling water and cooked them as they used to at school - only for an hour or two less. The result, squeezed dry and tossed back into the empty pan with the juice of half a lemon and some unsalted butter, made me feel as good as a cook can in this god-awful growing season.
As good as curly kale can be, it does make me feel like a donkey chomping a mouthful of thistles. Make it easier to digest by scrupulously pulling the leaves from their thick stems. Not that the stems aren't good, but there is a fibre limit and the leaves' tenderness becomes more apparent when detached. Flash them in boiling, heavily salted water, drain as soon as they are tender, then toss them with a wee drop of sesame oil in which you have briefly popped some black mustard seeds over a moderate heat. Good with cold roast pork, that one.
While street markets and farm shops are a must for fat carrots and chunky parsnips for roasting, and firm, ivory-fleshed Jerusalem artichokes and golden swedes for mashing, we must look elsewhere for our culinary excitements. Even the most committed of local shoppers will find their eyes wandering this month.
Impatient eaters, bored out of their skull with cabbage and potatoes, will already be toying with the French produce that always comes a good few weeks earlier than ours. Having early sunshine and no floods (friends in the south of France have already phoned to boast they are wearing shorts) means we have a chance to get ourselves, albeit briefly and at a price, out of Brussels sprout hell. I think of these imports as a 'top up' rather than an 'instead of'. If ever there was an excuse for the imported green haricot bean, I suppose this is it.
Yesterday I pounced on a supply of tiny, crisp beetroots and turnips barely bigger than marbles like one of those overexcited foodies I am always sniping at. There were glassy, white-tipped French radishes and punchy basil, too. Frankly, the sun was shining for the first time in weeks, and I got an urge for a plate of pasta pesto made with fresh basil rather than the silage they sell in jars.
Mashing the basil leaves and pine nuts so early in the year was fun, especially as this cook is 'running in' a beautiful new pestle and mortar, but the garlic was a bit tough and dry and I ended up disappointed. Some might say justly.
But enough of the green and the healthy. There is plenty of red meat about, and the last bits of feathered game are unlikely to disappoint if you cook them slow and with enough liquid, but I have been edging toward offal again. Kidneys aren't just for grilling. Have a go at cooking them quickly in butter in a shallow pan with an equal amount of quartered small mushrooms (I put in the fungi first, let it colour, then, while the butter is still fizzing, drop in the halved and cored kidneys). Once they have coloured, lift them from the pan and add a glass of dry Marsala, let it bubble down a bit, then add a few capers and whisk in a thick slice of butter. Return the kidneys and mushrooms to the pan and let them warm through for a minute before seasoning and serving. Try the idea with liver, too.
It is easy to overlook the array of cured and smoked delicacies on offer. We have moved on from the days when the choice was ham, tongue or mortadella. Check out the salamis and coppa at Esperya.com, a supremely efficient website that delivers all manner of goodies from Italy for less than a tenner carriage. Now is also the weather for smoky tastes such as mackerel and trout. I skin my mackerel, tear it into thick hunks and toss it in a big white salad bowl with rocket leaves and crisply grilled and crumbled bacon or pancetta. What is it that seems so right about smoky flavours when the weather is cold? Are they a distant reminder of when we had a coal fire burning in the grate?
Look out for blood oranges with their garnet-mottled skin - I found organic ones recently at the Sundance Organic Centre in the not-so-fashionable King's Road. (Where, incidentally, you can get a good range of organic mixed peel, dried mango and other good things.) They're full of magenta juice: I sliced them up with nothing but a fat and deeply scented mango. A brightly flavoured salad for a cold day with enough juice to ensure you slurp it from the bowl.
The apples and pears are still good for juicing - try a blend of Queen Cox and carrot and look out for the charming orange-flushed Adam's Pippin - but their crunch is starting to tire and most are best in the pot. Take a leaf from the Shaker bakers and make crisps and crumbles, pies and tarts before we are back to the imports. Oh, and catch the last pink-skinned lychees before their season goes. Ignore the silly recipes around and just peel and suck.
Those determined to stick with what we can safely call our own might like to try this elegant and quietly restoring leek and artichoke soup I made this week. I am not generally someone who blends soups to a purée, preferring mine knobbly and interesting, but you should do it with this one, the most velvety soup imaginable.
Chop and thoroughly rinse 4 medium-sized leeks, then let them cook slowly in a deep pan with a little butter and olive oil. Peel and roughly chop 500g of Jerusalem artichokes and add them to the pot, letting them soften. Pour in 1.5 litres of water and bring to the boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for 30 minutes till completely soft. Add a handful of chopped parsley, season generously, then blitz in a blender or food processor till smooth.