'Tis the season of The Big Pan: the great cast-iron casserole that spends its summers gathering dust on the top shelf, yet in winter is hardly off the hob. Right now it's home to a chicken, a couple of fat carrots, two onions and some ribs of celery that have been simmering quietly, more of a shudder really, for an hour or more. Any minute, I shall slip in the cotechino sausage that has been boiling more energetically on the gas ring behind, and tiny pencil-thin carrots to remind everyone spring is on its way. We will eat it for lunch, slices of lean chicken and stickily gelatinous cotechino in shallow bowls with mashed parsnips and ladlefuls of the stock.
The sausage is serious stuff: the same coarse grain as a good black pudding, but slithery and softly succulent. Some might even say slimy. Believe me when I say cotechino is not for the faint-hearted. As something to warm your soul on a dull February day, there is nothing to beat it. You boil the sausage - Italian delis have them hanging from the ceiling with their larger cousin, the zampone - in its silver pouch for just 20 minutes, then serve in thick, steaming slices with haricot beans or soft mounds of yellow polenta. Or let it form part of a mild-flavoured bollito misto with poached ox tongue and chicken sassed up with a mustardy green sauce of parsley, basil, capers, anchovies, red-wine vinegar and olive oil.
This must be sausage weather because the other night four of us tucked into black pudding, too, three hefty slices apiece with rings of fried Cox's apples and a sauce made from double cream, lazily chopped parsley and grain mustard. More mash, this time a half-and-half of nutty-flavoured celeriac and Maris Piper potatoes. The spuds were there to support the sloppier purée of the celery root.
I need this big boy's food more when the weather is grey and wet than I ever do when there is snow on the ground. Snow never lasts long enough for me, though I admit I cursed it when I fell flat on my face outside the dentist's. I need pastry and gravy, too - something to cheer me up in the flat, grey weeks before the blossom appears on the fruit trees at the bottom of the garden. This means steak and kidney pie. You can have the brown, raggy meat, I'll have the crumbly pastry and the glossy brown gravy. You can buy ready-made puff pastry that keeps its promise, but I prefer to use a rich shortcrust made with both lard and butter, and I only make a top crust.
I rather like winter vegetables, the sweet blandness of boiled carrots aside. A roast parsnip and a couple of potatoes is all I want with a slice of roast meat and its juices. If you parboil the roots before adding them to the roast, do so only for a few minutes, then add them to the roasting tin later than the spuds. That way you should end up with parsnips that are sticky and soft at the fat end, and sweet and chewy at the point. Without pre-boiling they can, if they are of a mind, develop the hide of a rhinoceros.
Think what you like, but I still get a buzz from shopping for greens. There is something about bringing home something so lush and vibrant on a sod awful winter's day that fills this cook with joy. The sight of a British cabbage field on a frosty winter's morning is surely as beautiful as any of those French market stalls to which photographers are so easily drawn. I tend to let my three little vegetable patches rest over winter, under a thick mulch of bracken and horse manure from the Lake District, but next year I may plant some cabbages of my own. Last night I snapped the leaves off a big blue-green Savoy and shredded them in thick ribbons, like pappardelle. Instead of water, I cooked them briefly in a puddle of olive oil in a tightly sealed shallow pan. They were ready in three minutes, and we ate them with foil trays of Mr Brain's faggots in gravy from the freezer cabinet at the local Spar. So much more juicy than any I have ever made myself.
Come the depths of winter, there is much pleasure to be had in a crisp, bright-tasting salad. I'm not sure they always need a dressing. I made one of thinly sliced, ice-white fennel bulbs, watercress and ruby grapefruit last week. The green, white and garnet-orange snapped me out of my February doze. Ignore whatever I have said about pink grapefruits before; they may be too sweet to be a truly piercing breakfast wake-up call, but their tempered acidity is just what you need alongside the bitter bite of watercress. Orange works splendidly, too. Catch the Italian oranges while you can - they have a nip to them and juice galore.
Not all winter puddings need be hot. I used three oranges last week - so recently picked they still had their leaves attached - to decorate a pavlova in the absence of passion fruit. You have to think ahead with passion fruit. The supermarkets sell them unripe, so you have to bring them home and let them wrinkle for a few days before you slice and squeeze. They are ripe when heavy and their skin is pitted like hammered pewter. You need their sharp kick, or that of a winter orange, to lift the sweet, white snowdrift that is a pavlova.
I'm getting ahead of myself. There's some staggeringly good fish around. I cooked pieces of hake the other night, baked with olive oil and crushed whole garlic cloves. Squashed might be a better description. Two minutes before I removed the fish from the baking dish to warm plates, I sprinkled it heavily with fresh breadcrumbs fried in olive oil and stirred through with equal amounts of chopped parsley and coriander leaves. We ate it with boiled potatoes and hunks of bread, with more olive oil poured over at the table. A green feast for a grey day.
There was cheese to follow so many of the meals this month, the blue cheeses in particular. Roquefort, Bleu des Causses, blue-foiled Bleu d'Auvergne and Stilton are all in fine nick and their punch seems right to follow the mildly flavoured carbs that are so much a part of our winter cooking. My meal of the month was the sausage stew above followed by a salad of baby spinach and Dolcelatte - a mass-produced cheese, which I like probably more than I am supposed to.
A quiet plea for rhubarb. No fruit so cleanly slices its way through the month's 'dustbin-lid' skies. Early, pale-pink fruit needs less sugar than the thicker stalks we will see later on. The supermarkets pack it neatly in plastic trays, or you can carry it home by the foot from the farmers market like a bunch of gladioli. I chop the long, pink stems into pieces the length of a wine cork and drizzle it with honey or dust it with unrefined sugar and a squeeze of orange juice. I then leave it to bake in a low oven so that it softens to the point of collapse. Warm, it is sharp and soothing like a glass of hot Ribena. Cold, and eaten before eight in the morning, it's a rose-tinted wake-up call. A trumpet sound that says spring is on its way.