The seasonal cook: January

Categories: Expert guidance

Sybil Kapoor is an award-winning food writer and broadcaster, author of eight cookbooks, and regularly writes for Borough’s website and Market Life magazine. She has also contributed to the new Borough Market cookbook. As part of this series, Sybil takes a look each month at what’s in season, and explores how cooking can be enhanced through colour, forms, textures and aromas

As dawn breaks across London, a blackbird trills in a bare tree. It’s the start of January. The air smells snowy, the earth damp and the wind raw and fresh. The new year has begun, carried forth by the virtuous resolutions of the city’s 8.6 million inhabitants.

For many, the desire to live better and eat more healthily leads them to embark on a rigorous diet. After a month of jollity, a reduction of food and drink can only be to the good, but the spartan nature of most diets tends to mean that few of us stick to them for long. In my view, it’s far better to turn over a new leaf by adopting a very different approach to cooking and eating.

Instead of worrying about whether you’re consuming these calories or those superfoods, concentrate on cooking simple, seasonal ingredients. Go natural and make as much of your own food as possible, from lunchtime sandwiches to late-night nibbles. If your goal is to lose weight, reduce your portion sizes, limit your alcoholic drinks and cut out sugary puddings and cakes, fizzy drinks and fattening snacks like crisps. Initially this is quite hard, especially for comfort eaters like me, but gradually, as you become accustomed to smaller portions, it will become a pleasurable sensation, which is reinforced by the weekly loss of a pound in weight.

Interesting and varied
The key to creating a sustainable diet is to make it so interesting and varied that you feel spoilt. This in turn will make you feel happy, which has the added benefit of lessening your appetite. And gustatory interest is best achieved by letting your ingredients and culinary techniques evolve to reflect the passing seasons.

The first step towards this goal is to become aware of your environment. In others words, step out of the alternate reality of the internet and mobile devices and take time to look, touch, smell and listen to your environment. On a rainy January day, instead of diving into a warm building, stop and absorb what is around you. The swish of tyres on the wet roads, the delight of children splashing in the puddles, the fresh smell of the air and the discomfort of rain trickling down the back of your neck. Even one damp moment can change how you cook and eat.

On one level, it reconnects you to warming dishes that make you feel toasty inside. A simple bowl of leek and watercress soup, sopped up with brown bread, for example, is no longer merely something tasty to eat; it is a dish that links you back to the feel and scent of cold wet gardens and cosy kitchen tables. In the same way, an end of season pheasant slowly simmered with caramelised onions, apples, cider and creme fraiche acts as a restorative dish after struggling home in the wet rush hour. The physical contrast of winter rain and warming food will make you feel far more alive than living in a controlled ambience where the need for hot or chilled food is minimal.

Sense of excitement
On another level, the sheer beauty of a rainy London day, when the lights sparkle on the wet streets, can inspire you to create zingy, fresh-tasting dishes such as a warm salad of seared scallops tossed into pale curls of frisee leaves and seasoned with a warm Seville orange, chilli and soy sauce dressing. Tropical fruits, such as pineapple, can also imbue winter dishes with the same sense of excitement. Seared cajun salmon served with pineapple, lime and chilli salsa, for example, or a pudding of griddled pineapple slices served with fromage frais flavoured with orange zest.

The icy, almost monochromatic simplicity of a British January begs to be translated into pure-tasting, pared back dishes with simple colours: a wobbly, misty pink, fresh lychee jelly, for instance, or a simple risotto made with sautéed treviso leaves and shallots. Contrast the latter with an accompanying salad of raw treviso leaves, raw sliced mushrooms, lemon juice and peppery olive oil. Such dishes are ideally suited for a new healthy eating regime.

As the days start to lengthen and the first snowdrops appear, the temptation to create new dishes grows. If you wish to continue eating healthily and this temptation takes the form of butter-rich pies and gooey puddings and cakes, resist. Instead, indulge in delicious but small tropical puddings such as banana flambé with lemon and rum, or a mango, papaya and passion fruit salad. If that doesn’t help, serve a starter in place of a pudding and sweeten your mouth at the end the meal with a square of the best chocolate you can find.