The kale is wonderful this year. Not just my own three rows in the vegetable patch but everyone else's I have seen, too. Leaving mine till they get a flash of mellowing frost, I have been buying the curly edged plumes by the armful from the Saturday market. We ate them three times last week. Twice as a side dish with a seasoning of crisp garlic and red chillies, and another quickly sizzled with olive oil and a scattering of smoky, rust-red chorizo and crunchy almonds.
This is a good time generally for greens' eaters. Tight, sweet English cauliflowers are around, and offer a gentle alternative to the more strident members of the brassica family. I sometimes make a cauliflower soup, using chicken stock to enrich and a little cream. I find a spoonful of grain mustard and a scattering of Stilton gives a welcome edge.
Earlier in the week a couple of those cauliflowers found their way under a crisp crust of crumbs, oats and sunflower seeds – a less rich version of the classic cauliflower cheese. It appeared here as a main course but it would have also made a very fine accompaniment to thick gammon steaks or baked fish.
The January King cabbages, with their deep green and purple leaves, are looking tempting, too. Heavy to carry home from the shops, their many layers will provide plenty of opportunities to eat well throughout the coming week. The outer leaves, roughly the size of a dinner plate, are just begging to be stuffed. Despite my usual reservations about stuffed cabbage, these vast leaves make a tasty wrapping for a generously seasoned filling. One based on softened onions, brown rice or pearled spelt and given texture with chopped walnuts, raisins or maybe dried cranberries or sour cherries is often more interesting than the timeworn one of sausage meat and breadcrumbs.
Those big beefy soups of beans and root vegetables come to life when you add a last minute handful of shredded cabbage or kale. Cabbage leaves are quicker and easier to shred if you pile them one on another and roll them up before shredding. Thick slices, about the same width as papardelle form a satisfying but vibrant tangle in among the roots and deep broth. They need only a minute or two in the soup before you serve them.
The neat heads of inner leaves of the cabbage family make invigorating salads. Pecan nuts, toasted macadamias and little shards of crisp smoked bacon lift them out of the ordinary. A pungent dressing of walnut oil, lemon and smooth mustard would set the cabbage's pulse racing.
I do think a good frosting makes kale and the darker greens milder and sweeter. No real proof of course, other than my own taste. Or maybe it is just another reason why I can't get enough of this crisp, finger-numbing weather. Let it snow.
Good quality chorizo is not the cheapest of meats, but a little goes a long way. Serves 2 as a light main course, 4 as a side dish.
250g curly kale
250g cooking chorizo
a little groundnut or sunflower oil
50g skinned whole almonds
a clove of garlic, peeled and crushed
Wash the kale thoroughly – the leaves can hold grit in their curls. Put several of the leaves on top of one another and shred them coarsely, discarding the really thick ends of the stalks as you go.
Cut the chorizo into thick slices. Warm a non-stick frying pan over a moderate heat, add the slices of chorizo and fry till the pieces are golden. Lift them out with a draining spoon on to a dish lined with kitchen paper. Discard the oil that has come out of the chorizo and wipe the frying pan clean. Add the almonds and cook for 2 or 3 minutes till pale gold then lift out and add to the chorizo.
Warm the oil in the pan, add the crushed garlic and shredded greens and cook for a couple of minutes, turning the greens over as they cook, till glossy and starting to darken in colour. Return the chorizo and almonds to the pan, add a little salt and continue cooking till all is sizzling, then tip on to hot plates.
I have used both Spenwood and Sparkenhoe Red Leicester cheeses for this with good results. But any firm, punchy farmhouse cheese will work. Serves 4.
for the vegetables:
3 medium-sized onions
a clove of garlic
2 bushy sprigs of rosemary
2 tbsp olive oil
800g cauliflower or romanesco
a handful of sprouts tops or cabbage leaves
100ml vegetable stock
80g deep-flavoured hard cheese
for the topping:
60g rolled oats
100g fresh white breadcrumbs
40g sunflower seeds
Set the oven at 180C/gas mark 4. Peel the onions, halve and slice them thickly. Peel the garlic and slice it thinly. Pull the rosemary needles off their stems and chop them. Warm the oil in a large, deep pan, add the onions, garlic and rosemary and let them cook over a moderate heat for a good 15-20 minutes until the onions are pale gold and soft. They will need an occasional stir.
Bring a pan of water to the boil and lightly salt it. Break the cauliflower into large florets then slice each one in two or three, so you have lots of flat pieces. Widely shred the greens. Add the cauliflower to the water and cook for 6-7 minutes, or until the cauliflower is almost tender to the point of a skewer. Add the greens, give them a minute then lift everything out and drain in a colander.
Lightly butter a baking dish. Tip in the lightly drained cauliflower and greens. Season the cream and vegetable stock with salt and black pepper and pour over. Grate the cheese and scatter over, reserving a small handful.
To make the topping, mix the oats, breadcrumbs and sunflower seeds and pile on to the vegetables. Add the reserved cheese. Bake in the preheated oven for 45 minutes or so till the crust is golden brown.
DRIED APRICOTS WITH GRAND MARNIER AND YOGHURT
The yoghurt is an essential part of this almost jam-like dessert, being a startling contrast to the sugary fruits. A thick goat's yoghurt is probably about perfect. Serves 4.
500g dried apricots
a handful of golden raisins or sultanas
200ml Grand Marnier or other orange liqueur
a cup of sugar
thick, sharp yoghurt to serve
a few shelled pistachio nuts, chopped
Slice the dried apricots into short thick pieces. Put in a bowl and pour over half of the water. Leave for a good hour or more. Overnight won't hurt.
Put the apricots and their water into a medium-sized saucepan together with the golden raisins or sultanas, Grand Marnier (or other orange liqueur), sugar and the remaining water. Bring to the boil then turn down the heat and simmer for approximately 40 minutes till the fruit is soft and the sugar and alcohol have formed a thickish syrup.
Allow to cool. Serve with thick yoghurt and chopped pistachio nuts.