I have literally dozens of cookbooks, and their usual fate is to sit forlornly on the shelf only to be taken down and flicked through once or twice a year when I’m really stuck for an idea (though this should not be revealed to my husband who already suspects this to be the case and is beginning to forbid me to buy any more – horror). There are however a few exceptions; books that are dog-eared and food splattered from constant and varied use. These books are as indispensable to me as my Le Creuset casserole or my favourite knife. And I have a sneaking suspicion that British Seasonal Food by Mark Hix is going to become one of these oft-opened books, always at hand to provide me with some interesting and more importantly seasonal inspiration. In the mere weeks it has been on my shelf it has already been taken down, and even cooked out of, way over its allotted number of times.
Former GQ chef of the year, Mark Hix has three renowned London restaurants, including Hix Oyster & Chop House in Smithfield Market, as well as a fourth restaurant high on my hit-list in Lyme Regis, Dorset. He has long been a champion of British produce and recipes, even before it became fashionable to do so. Who could forget for example his amazing stargazy rabbit and crayfish pie on Great British Menu a few years ago (a recipe for which is included in the book)? So, this book (newly released in paperback) is a collection that he obviously feels passionately about. Personally, the more I write this blog, the more I feel compelled to think seasonally about food. It’s so easy to cook with any ingredients these days because our supermarkets stock fruit and vegetables year-round. But part of the pleasure of cooking is to wait and enjoy a certain ingredient when it’s at its very best. There is something exciting and almost joyful about the first rhubarb or English asparagus coming through – a joy that we are in danger of losing!
So, when I saw this book I was really excited on a personal level to be encouraged to think a bit more seasonally about the dishes I put on my table. With a chapter for each month, Hix focuses on a small selection of home-grown ingredients that are at their best during that month, providing a few recipes for each from the simple through to the more complex and inventive. He provides information on how to source and prepare each ingredient.
Whilst some of the featured ingredients are perhaps best described as “forgotten”, such as cod’s chitterlings and tongues, the book as a whole is definitely not inaccessible or intimidating. Even from the first flick-through test, the pages explode with recipes that you really want to cook and produce that you love eating but perhaps haven’t known what to do with before.
Throughout the recipes are illustrated with beautiful photography from Jason Lowe, who frequently collaborates with Mark Hix. The simple and unfussy images only serve to accentuate the modern clean flavours that run throughout the book. I also love the quirky illustrations from the brilliant Marcus Oakley.
If you’re anything like me, when you first get a cook book you mark up the recipes that you want to try. Well as a testament to the appeal of the recipes in this book, my copy is littered with scraps of paper marking the pages that I want to come back to. High on my list are:
- Gamekeeper’s Pie (February)
- Lobster and Jersey Royal Salad with Bacon (May)
- Steamed Cockles with Bacchus and Samphire (June)
- Gooseberry and Eldeflower Meringue Pie (June)
- Farmhouse Salad with Scotch Duck’s Egg (July)
- Perry Jelly with Summer Fruits (July)
- Treacle Cured Salmon (August)
- Slow-Cooked Pork Belly with Autumn Squash (September)
- Christmas Mess (December)
Of course, I have to wait until the appropriate season comes around for each recipe, and that sense of anticipation is what seasonal cooking is all about. What I really love about this book is how exciting and inventive it shows British cooking to be. Just looking at the above list there is none of the “unimaginative stodge” that has traditionally typified British cuisine. These recipes are fresh and modern, whilst retaining the classic flavours that British cooking and produce represents. I really can’t recommend this book enough – it showcases the absolute best of British produce with exciting and delicious recipes that will restore the joy of seasonality and make your heart swell with pride to be British. Go, buy and be seasonal.
The Proof is in the Pudding…
As I’ve already mentioned, I’ve cooked or adapted a number of the recipes from the book already, including the very first two in the book featuring cauliflower! Having recently been treated to an exceptional use of this assuming vegetable in the cauliflower cheese souffle at the Curlew, I’d been hankering to cook more with cauliflower and also since it has been increasingly reported that cauliflower sales having been slumping over recent years, it seemed to typify the idea behind this book: reviving and celebrating our culinary gems! And who, presented with the below, wouldn’t scurry down to their greengrocer immediately for a few florets of cauliflower.
So, the recipes were cauliflower cheese and cauliflower soup. Both were absolutely delicious. Below I provide an adaptation for the cauliflower cheese recipe so you can try it yourself. Creamy, cheesy, and completely moreish, I defy you not to love this recipe. Its perfect accompaniment is bacon – either chuck some smokey pancetta cubes into the recipe or serve with crispy fried streaky bacon or even bacon chops.
- a medium cauliflower, leaves retained
- 1 litre milk
- 1 bay leaf
- sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 60g butter
- 60g plain flour
- 100ml double cream
- 120g mature Cheddar cheese, grated
- a handful of parsley, finely chopped
First cut the cauliflower into florets, making sure to retain the leaves for a bit of green! Put the milk in a medium saucepan along with the bay leaf and a good amount of seasoning. Bring to the boil, then add the cauliflower florets and leaves. Simmer gently for about 7-8 minutes until tender. Drain the cauliflower over a bowl to reserve the milk.
Melt the butter in a pan over a gentle heat and then stir in the flour. Using a whisk, continue to stir over a very low heat as you gradually mix in the warm reserved milk. Bring to a simmer and then turn down to a very low heat and then simmer for 20 minutes or so, stirring frequently.
Add the cream and simmer for a few more minutes until the sauce is thick and coating – it should coat the back of a spoon. If it doesn’t seem the right consistency just carry on simmering for a little longer. Strain through a fine sieve into a bowl before stirring in most of the three-quarters of the cheese. Check the seasoning.
Now preheat the oven to 220°C. Making sure the cauliflower florets are completely dry (pat them with kitchen towel if not), mix them with about half of the cheese sauce and transfer to an oven-proof dish.
Spoon over the rest of the sauce and scatter with the chopped parsley.
Then generously sprinkle the remaining cheese on top.
Bake in the oven for 20-25 minutes until golden and bubbling. If the top hasn’t browned sufficiently, pop it under the grill for a minute or so.
I served generous spoonfuls with bacon and cabbage (sautéed with even more bacon!). Heaven.