I'm glad Christmas is over. I can't believe I'm writing this, as in the past I've rather prided myself on being a Christmas type, identifying (bizarrely to those that know me) with Scrooge's jolly hearted, blind man's bluff-playing, back-slapping nephew in Charles Dickens's 'A Christmas Carol'. Quite out of character. A strange fantasy. But this year Christmas was, frankly, a bit of a nightmare.
First I enjoyed a dose of genuine, old-fashioned influenza. Of the 1918 variety. Or was it Victorian Scarlet Fever? This wasn't Man Flu, this was the real McCoy, with delerium, high temperatures, rapid weight-loss and other unpleasant and unmentionable side effects. Had me in bed for two weeks.
Then, the moment that one was over, our beloved, pesky little sixteen year old Burmese cat, Oskie, decided the time was right to fall seriously ill. Multiple organ failures, infections, you name it- she had it. On a drip, and in the Belgravia animal hospital, the poor beast had more medication than you and I've had hot dinners. You know its time to get worried when the nice vet starts talking in a low voice and throwing around euphanisms ("we need to make a 'decision' very soon".) The whole thing was utterly, completely traumatic. We were devasted- as only those who have animals will understand. And then Oskie developed further complications- cat 'flu possibly picked up in the animal hospital. A few days before the monstrous hordes descended en masse, to sample our bread sauce, christmas pudding and Turkey Surprise. Anyway, the family has now gone, The Cat has made a miraculous recovery (O Hallelujah!) and the decorations have come down, as tradition dictates. Peace and Harmony reign. Almost.
I like January, especially if you've got a beautiful red amaryillus about to burst into flower. And then there's Twelfth Night, which sadly, these days, is barely recognised. It marks, of course, The Epiphany- the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas, the date when the Three Wise Men finally made it to the stable. But should Twelfth Night fall on the night of the 5th January or the 6th? Historically, it was a time for merry-making and anarchy. A Twelfth Night Cake (containing a bean and a pea) was baked and a King and Queen of the Night's Festivities crowned. Shakespeare's 'Twelfth Night' was written to be performed as a Twelfth Night entertainment, though the first recorded performance was in front of Queen Elizabteth in the Middle Temple Hall at Candlemas, February 2nd, 1602.
Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to artichokes. Jerusalem artichokes. January's vegetable is without any shadow of doubt, this noble ingredient. They're nothing to with artichokes by the way: bizarrely, they're actually the tuber of a species of sunflower, Helianthus tuberosus; winter root vegetables. They look a bit like small, knobbly potatoes, with a pinkish coloured skin, and were grown by the Native American Indians long before the arrival of the European settlers. I love their subtle, slightly earthy, smokey, velvety taste. But why Jerusalem? It's possible that it's an English corruption of the Italian word Girasola, meaning 'sunflower'. Gerard's 'Herball' of 1636 describes it as such.
And there's something else it's essential to know: Jerusalem artichokes make you "windy"- whatever that means. Every time some television chef mentions Jerusalem artichokes on screen, they suddenly "come over" all coy (the otherwise excellent Nigel Slater was a recent culprit), it's slightly bugging; my theory is that if you cook them well enough, you shouldn't have any problems.
Here's how I make an excellent Jersualem Artichoke Soup, which I would recommend without hesitation. Probably one of my all-time favourite soups. It's velvety smooth; and utterly delicious:
Chop up an onion or two and fry gently in butter and oil with some chopped celery. In the meantime, take a decent amount of Jerusalem Artichokes and using a peeler, remove the skin. You might find it easier to cut off the knobbly bits first. Plunge the peeled artichokes into a bowl of cold water into which you've given a good squeeze of lemon. This will stop your artichokes turning grey. You'll find that they start changing colour very quickly if you don't.
Chop the artichokes into small pieces, and add them to the hot pan. Stew them gently with the onions and the celery for about fifteen minutes. When they're soft, pour in some stock (I used an excellent, slightly salty ham stock), and simmer for a further twenty or so minutes.
When the artichoke pieces are cooked (ie soft), transfer the contents of the pan (the artichokes and the hot liquid) to your magimix or blender, and puree the mixture until smooth. The soup will be a creamy-white colour.
Push through a sieve into a clean pan (this will help to make the soup velvety-smooth), check the seasoning (I used an oak-smoked salt from Waitrose which helps to bring out the slightly smokey flavours, lots of freshly grated nutmeg and some white pepper) adding a decent squeeze of lemon juice, and stir in several tablespoons of double cream to taste. Stir carefully and simmer gently for a few more minutes until hot enough.
Serve with crisp croutons and garnish with fresh dill.