A Year in Flavour comes to an end... what to grow, sow and cook, this time of year

KATE RYAN has educated us on what to grow, sow, forage and cook, throughout this year in her series A Year In Flavour. Here’s her final instalment, for December, as 2021 comes to a close
A Year in Flavour comes to an end... what to grow, sow and cook, this time of year

Rolled Pork Belly with Sage and Apricot Picture Kate Ryan

I REMEMBER as clear as day sitting at my dining room table in early January, opening the cover of a new journal to begin writing my manifesto for ‘A Year Of Flavour’, and it’s hard to believe the year is already done.

I planned out the raised bed, ordered seeds, and created a timeline of planting, growing, harvesting, and making food from produce grown in my small garden.

I made lists of my favourite wild foods, and scoured memory, photos and notebooks for ideas and recipes tried and tested, and new inspirations too.

There was anticipation of what would dominate the flavours of each food month – one month, leaves, the next, flowers, another, berries. Noticing how foods straddled different seasons, or even the starkness of some months compared to the bounty of others.

A Year of Flavour has been my living journal for 12 months, and I have learned that by paying closer attention to the natural cycles of our food, we gain new knowledge and understand better how interconnected our food is to everything else around us; how one crop or wild plant will thrive one year but give way to something else another year.

This is nature working her magic, of course. We aren’t supposed to eat the same food all the time. We are omnivores, after all; variety adds to our diet, keeps our taste buds alive, and we can appreciate those foods that make an appearance for a short time each year, like mushrooms or asparagus, and to which we look forward with bated breath.

But, to the month in hand. December is filled with talk of seasonal food of a different kind - food is all about glorious celebration. You will have filled your boots with recipes for Christmas pudding and the best way to cook a turkey; but there is life in the bleak mid-winter.

Time to sort through your seeds and see what you need for planting next year. Picture: Stock
Time to sort through your seeds and see what you need for planting next year. Picture: Stock

GROW IT YOURSELF

No change in the garden. The recently planted garlic is still just poking its head above the soil, and kale and pak choi are keeping us in robust green leaves. The first of the celeriac are ready to harvest now too – the frosty nights doing wonders to sweeten the bulbous roots.

Elsewhere in the garden, plants are relaxing into their winter sleep. Tender herbs are in the greenhouse to hopefully over-winter well.

It’s a good time of year for parsley, which grows better in cooler than warmer weather, but pick frugally to encourage continued growth throughout winter.

Time to sort through seeds and make a plan for what to grow next season. When growing in raised beds, it’s best to alternate what is planted each year. 

Next year, I’m hoping to grow a group of crops known as the Three Sisters: beans, corn, and squash. It is said to be the ultimate crop grouping as they each benefit the growing conditions of the other without severely depleting the soil.

I have my seeds selected; I’m looking forward to learning how these crops grow!

FORAGE FOR IT

The forager’s year is well and truly done and won’t start again until late February, when those first enticing signs of spring begin to muster. This is the time to relish your efforts in preserving the wild bounty: pickles, syrups, liqueurs, jams and jellies, dried herbs and more besides. All ready with perfect timing for our festive celebrations.

Love them or loathe them... they are the veg of the season. Picture: Stock
Love them or loathe them... they are the veg of the season. Picture: Stock

SHOP FOR IT

Sometimes, I feel sorry for December veg! Brussel sprouts and swedes (or swedes, Swedish turnips, or just turnips; you may even call them rutabaga) are rarely anyone’s favourites; but I love them and so have come up with two recipes below for helping you love them too: Braised Swede Puree with Caraway and White Pepper, and Caramelised Brussels Sprouts on Toast. See recipes below.

Sage is the herb that sings of December. I use it liberally, but its natural pairing is with pork. Try my Rolled Pork Belly with Sage and Apricot Butter for a show-stopper dish with exceptional crackling!

Pears are a luscious fruit this time of year. Refreshing yet comforting, the most luxurious way to eat them is poached. Try this recipe I’ve been making for years which is effortlessly delicious: Rosemary and Vanilla Poached Pears with Salted Caramel and Whiskey Sauce.

I hope you have enjoyed following this series, and that the guides on what to forage, grow, shop, and cook have inspired you to try something new and keep exploring the wonderful produce at our fingertips.

Eating seasonally and locally has never been more important than it is now, and part of what I wanted to do with A Year of Flavour was demonstrate that great food doesn’t have to be flown in from across the world; that there is an immense diversity of food, ingredients, and produce within the shores of this island, much of it right here in Cork!

Finally, I’d like to dedicate A Year of Flavour to my erstwhile kitchen companion and self-proclaimed sous chef, my dog Buddy, who passed away this month and provided us with 13 years of canine camaraderie.

Thanks, Buds, for all your friendship.


COOK IT

Braised Swede Puree with Caraway and White Pepper

Taking inspiration from where the swede hails from, this dish gets a Scandi flavour hit with caraway seeds. The puree goes really well with pork tomahawk, which is how I served this up at home.

Braised Swede Puree with Caraway. Picture: Kate Ryan
Braised Swede Puree with Caraway. Picture: Kate Ryan

Ingredients

1 swede, peeled and cut into 1cm dice

1 tsp caraway seed

1 tsp whole white peppercorns

1 tbsp olive oil

30g butter

100ml water

100ml double cream

Method:

  • Toast the caraway seeds and white peppercorns in a dry pan until the pepper becomes aromatic.
  • Take off the heat, place into a pestle and mortar and roughly grind the spices down.
  • Place a saute pan over a medium-low heat, add olive oil and butter. Add ground spices to the melted butter, then add the swede to the pan. Stir everything together to coat in the fats and spices.
  • Cover with a piece of parchment paper, clamp on the lid and leave to cook for 15 minutes.
  • Uncover, give everything a stir, add half the water, cook for 10 minutes. Repeat with the rest of the water. When tender, place everything into a blender, add cream and blitz to a puree.
  • Place the puree into a saucepan, and add 1tsp of sea salt. Stir through, reheat and serve with a knob of butter on top.

Caramelised Brussels Sprouts on Toast

This would be an interesting way to kick off a festive dinner, served alongside a terrine with pickles, to really get people thinking differently about Brussels sprouts.

100 g smoked bacon lardons

1 bag of Brussels Sprouts, prepared and cut in half

1 tbsp Wildwood Damson Vinegar

1 tbsp Olive Oil

Salt and pepper

Toons Bridge Dairy Fior di Latte Mozzarella

Hazelnuts

Slices of toasted sourdough bread

Method:

Rolled Pork Belly with Sage and Apricot Butter

This could easily be a replacement turkey on Christmas Day, or as a spectacular centrepiece for a New Year’s Day celebratory dinner.

Ingredients

1.5 kg pork belly

100 g butter

3 tbsp fresh sage, finely chopped

Handful of dried apricots, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, grated

1 tsp fennel seeds, toasted

Salt and pepper

1 large onion

Olive oil

You will also need some butchers twine and a pair of scissors.

Method:

  • Into a bowl, add butter, sage, apricots, garlic, fennel seeds, a generous pinch of sea salt and a few cracks of black pepper. Bring everything together using your hands to ensure the flavours are well dispersed throughout the butter.
  • Lay the pork belly onto a piece of parchment. Score the skin diagonally taking care not to cut through to the meat. Turn the belly over, and paste the flavoured butter all over the meat.
  • Roll the pork belly over so that the skin is on the outside. Using the twine, as best you can, tie the pork belly to secure into shape. It doesn’t have to look pretty, but it does need to be tight enough.
  • Rub the skin over with sea salt – if you made the fennel salt earlier in the year, use that. Cover with the parchment and place in the fridge overnight.
  • Next day, heat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius. Prepare a roasting try for the pork belly by cutting the onion in half and into thick half-moon slices. Lay these down the centre of the roasting tray and lay then pork belly over the top.
  • Place in the oven for 30 minutes and 200 degrees Celsius, then turn down the heat to 180 degrees and roast for a further two hours, finally turn the heat up to 225 degrees for 30 minutes to really get the crackling done good and proper.
  • Remove from the oven, snip off and take off the butcher’s twine. Cut into slices – this is best done using a serrated bread knife to cut through the crackling. Serve with cranberry sauce, and all the trimmings!

Rosemary and Vanilla Poached Pear with Salted Caramel and Whiskey Sauce_Phot Credit: Kate Ryan
Rosemary and Vanilla Poached Pear with Salted Caramel and Whiskey Sauce_Phot Credit: Kate Ryan

Rosemary and Vanilla Poached Pears with Salted Caramel and Whiskey Sauce

This dish is very simple to make, but put your focus on making sure that the pears are poached well, and the caramel sauce is golden brown. If serving to children, leave out the whiskey in the caramel.

Ingredients

For the poached pears

4 pears, peeled

Juice of 1 lemon

1 tsp of vanilla bean paste

2 sprigs of fresh rosemary

120g white granulated sugar

For the Salted Caramel and Whiskey Sauce

8 tbsp light brown sugar

30g salted butter

1 tsp sea salt

Sprig of fresh rosemary

150 ml double cream

2 tbsp Irish whiskey

Method:

  • Place the pears in a large saucepan and add enough cold water to just cover them. Add the lemon juice, vanilla bean paste, rosemary and sugar, bring to the boil, then reduce heat to a gentle simmer until the pears are softened.
  • To make the caramel sauce; into a saucepan over a medium heat add sugar and gently heat until dissolved and begins to change colour. Then add the butter, sea salt, rosemary, and cream and stir well to combine and thicken. Add the Irish whiskey, stir through, remove the rosemary sprig and remove from heat.
  • To serve, pour a generous amount of the caramel sauce into a bowl, top with a poached pear, and serve with a scoop of best quality vanilla ice cream.

You can catch up on the full Year of Flavour series here.

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