May always feels like the greenest of months. The fizz of new leaves in the gardens, seedlings sprouting on the windowsill and early bunches of asparagus in the shops. The first of the homegrown radishes and tiny soft-leaved lettuces call out for salads by the bowlful: new potatoes with a puree of green peas and rocket; a broad bean salad with yoghurt; and a hollandaise sauce for asparagus into which are stirred wild garlic leaves. All of these have been on the kitchen table in the past few days, as have some early strawberries with the first few spikes of the garden mint.
Could it have been the pandemic that has made this spring feel so life-enriching? Like a long glass of elderflower cordial on a parched summer’s day? Never has the arrival of the early green vegetables – the peas and the broad beans, the lettuce and rocket, the mint and the asparagus been such a welcome sight to this cook. Green to heal and invigorate us, to inspire and energise, to replenish and renew, after what feels like the longest winter of our lives.
Broad beans and new potatoes
Pea shoots taste, at least to me, of childhood. In particular the memory of snaffling peas – when no one was looking – from the rows my father grew at the bottom of the garden. I like it that the wispy sprigs now come in bags from the supermarket. Like salad leaves, they won’t keep long once the packet is opened, so I empty mine straight into a plastic storage box and keep them, tightly lidded, in the fridge. They are good with new potatoes and broad beans – your entire plate tastes of early summer.
As good as fresh peas are, I rarely eat them any way other than raw straight from the pod. I use frozen peas in most recipes that call for more than a handful. Mixed with rocket and olive oil they make a fresh, bright tasting purée. We used it this week as a dressing for new potatoes, but there was enough left over to serve in little scoops aside slices of cold roast pork and cold, salty crackling, although I think it might be even better with a slice of pork pie. The purée kept well in the fridge for a couple of days.
peas 300g (podded weight)
broad beans 400g (podded weight)
new potatoes 500g
olive oil 200ml
pea shoots 50g
air-dried ham 200g, thinly sliced
Bring a deep pan of water to the boil. Cook the peas for 3-4 minutes till tender. (They will take a little longer if you are using fresh peas.) Remove the peas and set them aside, then add the broad beans to the water and let them cook for 5-6 minutes till tender. Drain and, if you wish, pop the beans from their papery skins.
Bring a pan of water to the boil, salt it generously, then add the new potatoes and let them cook for about 10-15 minutes until tender. Drain them and, if you wish, slip off their skins. Cut the potatoes in half and put them in a bowl.
While the potatoes are cooking, wash the rocket and put the leaves in a blender with the cooked peas and the olive oil. Process to a thick, bright green purée. Halve the radishes. Trim and wash the watercress and pea shoots in cold water, then shake them dry.
While the potatoes are still warm, toss them in the pea purée and transfer to a serving dish. Scatter the broad beans over the potatoes, lay the air-dried ham over the potatoes and add the watercress and pea-shoots.
Beetroot with mustard and maple syrup
Beetroot with mustard and maple syrup. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin/The Observer
So busy have I been baking beetroot I had almost forgotten how good it is raw – earthy and intensely crisp. Coarsely grated, it keeps its crispness better than any other root and it takes a dressing well. Maple syrup, despite its sweetness, is particularly good in a dressing for raw beetroot, especially when – borrowing from gravlax – you include dill and grain mustard. I should add that this salad keeps well, even after it is dressed, refusing to go soggy overnight. It is most appropriate with salmon, but is gorgeous with cold roast pork or beef too.
You can, of course, grate the lot, but I like to take advantage of the beautiful candy-coloured rings of chioggia – the striped beetroot. Continuing the gravlax theme, this salad makes a fine filling for a sandwich made with dark, treacle-coloured rye bread and smoked salmon.
beetroot 1kg, small, mixed
cider vinegar 4 tbsp
dijon mustard 2 tsp
grain mustard 2 tsp
maple syrup 1 tbsp
dill 15g, finely chopped
Peel the beetroot. Slice half very, very thinly, place them in a shallow dish, sprinkle with the cider vinegar and set aside for a good 45 minutes.
Coarsely grate the remaining beetroot – I use the matchstick setting on the food processor.
Make the dressing by mixing the two mustards and maple syrup with the vinegar from the beetroot. Add a pinch of salt. Finely chop the dill and stir into the dressing. Toss the grated beetroot with the mustard and dill dressing, and set aside for 15 minutes.
Toss the sliced and grated beetroot together and serve.
Asparagus with wild garlic hollandaise
Asparagus with wild garlic hollandaise. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin/The Observer
Wild garlic leaves seem more plentiful than they were. I can buy them, in generous 100g packs, in two local greengrocers, and a bagful comes in the weekly organic box. I notice you can get them online too. I have tried repeatedly to grow them at the shady end of the garden but they flatly refuse to take. I have given up. (The clue surely, is in the word “wild”.)
There is a softness, a subtlety, to young garlic leaves that you can never find in even the freshest of whole cloves. The idea to put them in a hollandaise came from the mint that I used last in a butter sauce to accompany courgettes. It was a hunch and it worked. As always, the route to success with any egg and butter sauce is to ensure it never gets too hot. I often switch off the heat half way through making the sauce, beating the last of the butter in using just the residual heat of the water underneath. Should your sauce curdle, then it is worth trying my trick of removing it from the heat, adding a tablespoon or two of boiling water and whisking furiously. I have often rescued a naughty sauce that way.
wild garlic leaves 100g
asparagus 16 spears
egg yolks 3
white wine vinegar 1 tbsp
Remove and discard the stems of the garlic leaves. You should end up with about 50g of leaves. Wash them, then put them in a pan over a moderate heat and cover tightly with a lid. Let the leaves cook briefly, for just a minute or two in their own steam, until they have wilted, then turn the leaves over with kitchen tongs and cook, again covered, for a further minute or two. Remove them from the heat, drain the leaves in a colander, then squeeze the water from them and chop finely.
Put a saucepan of water on to boil. Melt the butter in a small pan and remove from the heat. Put the egg yolks and vinegar into a heatproof bowl that fits neatly into the top of the saucepan, and place over the boiling water. Lower the heat to a simmer and slowly beat in the melted butter with a whisk. Continue beating until all the butter is added and you have a thick creamy sauce. Stir in lemon juice to taste, then a little salt and the chopped garlic leaves.
Cook the asparagus in deep, boiling water till tender (about 9 minutes depending on the thickness and freshness of your asparagus). Drain the spears carefully and serve with the garlic hollandaise.
Cucumber, chickpeas and prawns
Cucumber, chickpeas and prawns. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin/The Observer
There is an interesting contrast of textures here. The crunch of toasted chickpeas and cucumber, the chewy, herb-dressed flatbread, and the hot and spicy softness of the prawns. All is brought together by the cool yoghurt and garlic dressing. I am not really one for garlic with seafood, but here it works. You can get the chickpeas and cucumber ready an hour or two beforehand, cooking the prawns and assembling at the last minute. The crucial detail is the last-minute addition of the paprika-hued oil in which you cooked the prawns. Add it only at the last minute, just before everyone tucks in.
For the chickpeas
chickpeas 1 x 400g tin
olive oil 4 tbsp
garlic 3 cloves
For the bread
olive oil 100ml, plus a little extra
For the salad
thick kefir or yoghurt 350ml
olive oil 4 tbsp
prawns 12, shelled
mild paprika 2 tsp
Set the oven at 180C fan/gas mark 6. Drain the chickpeas, pat them dry, then toss them with the olive oil. Spread them out on a baking sheet, tuck the peeled garlic cloves among them, and bake for 20 minutes till golden and lightly crisp. Remove and transfer to a bowl. Set the garlic aside.
Tear the flatbreads into large, bite-sized pieces and lay in a single layer on a baking sheet. (I use the one I used for the chickpeas.) Brush with a little olive oil and bake for about 7 minutes till just crisp, turn, then bake for a further 3-4 minutes.
Crush the roasted garlic and stir it into the yoghurt. Peel the cucumber and cut in half lengthways, then scrape out and discard the central, seedy core. Slice into finger-thick pieces. Mix the cucumber and garlic yoghurt in a large bowl and season.
Make the dressing for the bread: in a blender, combine the mint, parsley and coriander with 100ml of olive oil. Dunk each piece of flatbread in the dressing.
For the prawns, warm 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a shallow pan, season the prawns with the paprika and a little salt and fry for about 3 minutes on each side till golden.
Toss the chickpeas with the cucumber and yoghurt and the pieces of flatbread. Add the hot prawns. Trickle the paprika-flecked cooking oil into the salad at the last minute.
Strawberries with orange blossom cream cheese
Strawberries with orange blossom cream cheese. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin/The Observer
The velvety texture of the cream cheese, the cream-coloured curds scented with black pepper and orange zest, will depend on the careful whipping of the cream. As the cream thickens and starts to feel heavy on the whisk, slow the speed down, so you can stop easily when the right texture is reached. The ideal consistency is when the cream is thick enough to keep a shape, but not yet thick enough to stand up in stiff peaks. As you introduce the mascarpone and the flavourings, do so with as few turns of the spoon as possible, to avoid over-mixing.
You can use a sieve to shape the cream (I use a plastic carton with little holes in) so the whey can drain away – there won’t be much, but you need to get rid of it, so you end up with a thick, almost cheesecake-like texture. You may not need all of it for four people, there may be some left over. You could spread it, in thick waves, on hot toasted brioche, or fill a croissant with it. Without the sweetness of the mint syrup, you will probably need a fine dusting of icing sugar over the surface.
For the cream cheese
double cream 200ml
orange flower water
For the mint syrup
caster sugar 4tbsp
mint leaves and stems 10g
Make the cream cheese: put the double cream in a bowl and whisk till it starts to thicken. Stop when the cream will lie in soft folds. Gently fold in the mascarpone. Finely grate the zest of the orange and add to the mixture with a few turns of coarsely ground pepper. (You really need little more than a pinch.) Add two drips – no more – of orange flower water, then gently mix together.
Line a small sieve with a piece of clean muslin, spoon in the cream cheese and fold the muslin over the surface. Place over a bowl to collect any drips of whey and leave overnight to drain.
The next day, make the syrup. Put the caster sugar in a small saucepan, pour in the water and bring to the boil. Crush the leaves and stems of the mint in your hand – to release their fragrance – then add to the syrup, cover and set aside for 20 minutes.
Slice the strawberries in half and remove their stalks and leaves. Put the berries in a bowl, pour over the mint syrup and refrigerate for an hour (any longer and they are inclined to go “woolly”).
To serve, unmould the cream cheese (it just needs a good firm shake), and serve in generous spoonfuls with the marinated berries.
The Insidexpress is now on Telegram and Google News. Join us on Telegram and Google News, and stay updated.