Anyone whose New Year's resolution was to buy British will probably be at the end of their tether right now. Fresh and bright as those carrots, leeks and parsnips are it takes a shopper with a will of iron not to cast a wandering eye over the imported vegetables. Those green and pleasant beans, avocados and cauliflowers from less frosty climates tease and tempt even those of us most determined to have no truck with 'air-miles' vegetables. Once you catch sight of a snow-white fennel bulb or a box of tissue-wrapped chicory all is lost.
And there is worse. Those locally grown apples such as Cox's Orange Pippin that store so well through the winter months are starting to look dull birds next to a box of golden papaya or a pile of fat passion fruit, especially when you think of that sunny yellow juice within. OK, the mangoes aren't brilliant, I've had three woolly ones in a week, but what about those pink grapefruits and pineapples heavy with juice? It's enough to lead a cook astray.
There's a bit of cheer if you search for it; the rhubarb is still pink and sweet, purple sprouting is as perky as a bunch of daffodils and there is no better time to make Jerusalem artichoke soup. I put ginger in it last time and added a fistful of chopped parsley and coriander at the table. As fine a winter soup as you can get. Even so, I kept dreaming of a plate of asparagus.
The real good news is that new shoots are starting to pop up and there is definite movement in the garden. Any day now we'll be fondling spring carrots and even the first outdoor rhubarb and radishes. By which time we'll be gasping for something grown on our own turf and that hasn't spent days in transit.
No one can grumble at the fish. Rarely have I seen fishmongers' shops looking in better fettle. Fish pie is a fiddle and a half to make but worth every dirty pot and pan. I used smoked haddock and whiting last time I made it, put button mushrooms and shredded, butter-softened leeks into the sauce (made with the milk from cooking the fish and no cream) and put hot milk and grated nutmeg in the mashed potato topping. A big pie that served six of us for a Sunday lunch with only stewed rhubarb for afters. Though I did flatly refuse to do all that washing up.
Halibut has been burning a hole in my wallet this month. It works out at over a fiver a pop but it is a supper to remember. I've been cooking it on the bone in a non- stick pan with only the tiniest bit of butter (put the lid on for a few minutes to make sure it cooks right through to the bone) and a tangle of those Kenyan French beans at its side. Thrills rather than frills.
At the other end of the fishmonger's slab the kippers are worth a try maybe (have them for supper with lots of buttered brown toast), as is the farmed sea bass. Two five quid bass will feed four for Sunday lunch and take about 30 minutes to roast. Tuck slices of fennel and lemon inside their split bellies for a change and steam some large, old potatoes, peeled and cut into big pieces. So much more interesting to eat with fish than over-priced new potatoes from who knows where. Meat eaters may bemoan the disappearance of their favourite game birds till next autumn but there are always guinea fowl around for those who like their birds to have more flavour than chicken. Try the birds rubbed with butter, salt and pepper and pot-roasted on a bed of halved white chicory, celery stalks and bay leaves. Pour a glass or two of chicken or vegetable stock in the bottom of the pan. After an hour of roasting it will have made some flavoursome juices for itself. Serve the softened vegetables with the carved bird, spooning over some of the (seasoned) cooking juices at the table.
To follow, I would make the most of those papaya, lychees and passion fruit that are looking so good this month. Together they make a first class fruit salad, especially if you keep the papaya in large slices and squeeze both seeds and juice from the passion fruit over them. If you feel like messing around with gelatine, then a vanilla panna cotta would slip down well with a moat of passion fruit juice around it. The lychees are the modern eater's answer to a bag of toffees. Just peel and suck while you watch the box.
This is the last month we have a real excuse for making proper puddings. By which I mean the sticky, fat-and-sugar winter warmers like ginger sponge, Eve's pudding, spotted dick and steamed syrup sponge. After April they are definitely an indulgence rather than the absolute necessity they are right now. They are easy to make, the recipes are in any old cookery book and apart from the gas you burn cooking the things they are the cheapest pleasure going. Until you get out the accompanying jug of unpasteurised double Guernsey cream that is. But what's money when we've got home made treacle sponge for pudding?