Sometimes, you just have to celebrate. That moment when the first long, slender stalks of rose pink rhubarb appear in the shops, marks, for me, a final good riddance to Christmas and New Year and heralds the very start of things growing again. OK, so it's forced. Nothing, save a snowdrop, is going to poke its head through the soil just yet, but I always feel reassured, heartened, that life will begin again, soon.
This is winter proper, the weeks when our ancestors lived from the store cupboard; when my parents would send me to dig out homegrown parsnips from a hessian sack of sand in the garage. It is time to use those dried beans in the cupboard, to hunt out that recipe for polenta, to dig what Katharine Whitehorn once referred to as UFOs (unidentifiable frozen objects) out from the depths of the freezer. Apart from the pleasing frugality of it all, it means a meal without going to the shops.
Perversely, it's the fruit that attracts my attention this month. Those elegant stalks of rhubarb and the fat pineapples at the greengrocers are unmissable. That rhubarb, pale pink and only faintly tart, has probably come from the dark sheds around Sheffield, where the stalks never see the light of day lest the leaves turn green, and the harvesting is done by torchlight. This is the most delicately flavoured rhubarb there is, cosseted and pampered to keep its subtlety. The stalks cook in minutes splashed with orange juice in a hot oven . You will barely need the sugar bag, but a little will ensure you get a gallon of vivid ruby juice. Cream would somehow adulterate its purity. Custard would be an abomination. Save it for the deep crimson stalks later in the season.
Pineapples come to us all year but their juice, honeyed yet faintly tart, is more welcome under a grey January sky. Have you baked one? Peel the fruit, leave it whole but dust it with vanilla sugar before baking it.
The real stars of the vegetable rack are the brassicas. Great pointed spring cabbages, crinkly-leaved Savoys as beautiful as any flower, and the long black-green leaves of Cavolo Nero are a treat for anyone who loves their greens. It's tempting, when they are this fresh and crisp, to do nothing more than plunge them into boiling water, and serve them up in great piles, unadorned and tasting only of themselves. But, hey, a splash of oyster sauce and some shredded ginger and garlic are hardly a complex seasoning. Greens, drained and tossed in that way are a clean tasting supper on top of a bowl of yellow egg noodles. I sometimes put a hashed red chilli in there too.
In our house we don't really eat a parsnip until there's a chill in the air. That cold snap is crucial, some say to the flavour of the parsnip itself, but for me it is simply a question of the right food at the right time. I could no more contemplate a parsnip in August than I could a peach in January. They are not for boiling. Steam them for mash (butter, salt, maybe some fried onions on top) or add them to the vegetable basics of a stew (carrot, swede, celery and onion) and let their sweetness flavour the broth. Eat them with lamb, beef or pork, less good with chicken, but do try them with boiled bacon. And, for once, a plea for butter. Olive oil just tastes wrong with a parsnip.
Shellfish is still at its peak. Mussels are sweet and tender, native oysters still begging to be shucked. Much else will depend on the weather. The other day I took a whole sea bass, cleaned and gutted by the fishmonger, and filled its belly with a pulp of lemon grass, ginger, peppercorns and coriander. It took seconds to make in the food processor. Drizzled with lime juice and wrapped tightly in foil I baked it until the flesh came easily from the bone (it took 20 minutes for a 500g fish on 200°c/gas 6). The aromatics gave a faint hint of ginger and lemon to the fish whose flesh we broke into thick pieces and dipped into soy sauce at the table.
There is a cast iron pot in my kitchen that I use for long, slow cooking. Black, oval, old as the hills. It comes out at this time of year for casseroles of pigeon and pheasant. The method is much the same for either: The birds are browned all over then cooked with softened onion, celery, chestnut mushrooms, a bayleaf or two and maybe some strips of bacon with red wine and a little stock or water until they are tender. Simmer on a low heat until the birds are soft, but not falling apart. Lift out the meat, turn up the heat and bubble until the sauce has thickened. Sweeten with redcurrant jelly and serve with steamed potatoes (no butter, no nothin'). It works with old rabbit too, if that is what you have. Vacherin - melting, oozing, fragrant - is the cheese on everyone's lips at this time of year. Try with sourdough toast and a few ribbed cornichon. Alternatively you could bake it and partake in one of the most sensuous experiences the food world has to offer.
So the perfect January meal? A crisp, bitter white salad of chicory maybe, dressed with mustard vinaigrette and some flat-leaved parsley; a game bird, long-cooked in copious gravy; a little mound of parsnip mash; a spoonful of vacherin and a celery stalk to finish the wine, then poached rhubarb, clean, sharp and bright and as pink as a winter sunset. Sometimes you just have to celebrate.