I absolutely adore this time of year, everything in the garden is springing into life and the first of the new fruit and vegetables are just ready for picking. In the kitchen garden there are pale tender shoots of seakale hiding under the terracotta forcing pots and lots of delicate pink rhubarb stalks for tarts and compotes. Already we have had some spears of asparagus- just enough to have a tiny feast.
Down in the wood the wild garlic has also made its appearance and we have been putting the tender leaves into green salads and soups and scattering the pretty white flowers as a garnish over salads and starters. However, the main excitement this week was when I took my reluctant and more than sceptical students on an expedition to gather young spring nettles and watercress to make soup. I cockily assured them that if one clasps the nettles firmly one doesn't get stung - 'We want a demonstration' they taunted, 'No problem' says yours truly who got roasted alive - Wow, Spring nettles really do sting! - so needless to say much hilarity at my expense so we quickly resorted to rubber gloves. - Here's our recipe for nettle soup which hopefully will purify the blood.
Watercress is much easier to pick, it can of course be bought in bunches in many supermarkets, but if you want to gather some yourself make sure the water in the stream is clean, no animals directly upstream. As children we always collected it in Spring, along the banks of the stream that flows through the Chapel meadows outside the village of Cullohill.
The water must be constantly flowing, watercress is packed with vitamins and minerals and its peppery taste is irresistible in salads as well as soups – its at its best and must succulent at present.
The main course for our Easter lunch has to be lamb. You’ll need to order young Spring lamb a week or two ahead – I know many people choose salmon or turkey for Easter, but for me it wouldn’t be Easter without sweet, succulent Spring lamb. You’ll need to order it ahead from your local butcher. Leg, loin or shoulder can be roasted, the latter is the most delicious of all, but more of a challenge to carve than the leg.
Young carrots would be delish and if available the first Irish potatoes. If not, why, not make a gratin of potato and spring onion and cook it underneath the lamb so that all the juices are absorbed by the potato – saves making gravy too.
Use the first mint leaves to make a simple mint sauce. Serve a green salad of young Spring leaves – sorrel, rocket, watercress, claytonia or just mixed leaves. Scatter a few primrose flowers over the top to emphasise Spring – yes, they are edible and delicious too.
For pud for our Easter lunch – Rhubarb Tatin served with soft brown sugar and cream.
After all of that you’ll enjoy a long walk in the country or along your local strand.
Have fun and happy Easter.
Watercress or Nettle Soup
There are references to watercress in many early Irish manuscripts. It formed part of the diet of hermits and holy men who valued its special properties. Legend has it that it was watercress that enabled St. Brendan to live to the ripe old age of 180! In Birr Castle in Co. Offaly, Lord and Lady Rosse still serve soup of watercress gathered from around St. Brendan's well, just below the castle walls.
Many older people particularly still like to eat nettles several times during the month of May to purify the blood and keep away arthritis for the coming year.
12 ozs (45g) butter
5 ozs (140g) peeled and chopped potatoes
4 ozs (110g) peeled and chopped onion
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 pint (600ml) water or home-made chicken stock or vegetable stock
1 pint (600ml) creamy milk
8 ozs (225g) chopped watercress or nettles (remove the coarse stalks)
Melt the butter in heavy bottomed saucepan, when it foams, add the potatoes and onions and toss them until well coated. Sprinkle with salt and freshly ground pepper. Cover and sweat on a gentle heat for 10 minutes. Meanwhile prepare the watercress. When the vegetables are almost soft but not coloured add the stock and milk, bring to the boil and cook until the potatoes and onions are fully cooked. Add the watercress or nettles and boil with the lid off for 4-5 minutes approx. until the watercress or nettles are cooked. Do not overcook or the soup will lose its fresh green colour. Puree the soup in a liquidiser or food processor. Taste and correct seasoning.
If you have never cooked carrots before you might like to try this method of cooking them. Admittedly it takes a little vigilance but the resulting flavour is a revelation to many people and you won’t cook them any other way again.
1 lb (450g) carrots, Early Nantes and Autumn King have particularly good flavour
½ oz (15g) butter
4 fl ozs (100ml) cold water
Pinch of salt
A good pinch of sugar
Freshly chopped parsley or fresh mint
Cut off the tops and tips, scrub and peel thinly if necessary. Cut into slices ⅓ inch (7mm) thick, either straight across or at an angle. Leave very young carrots whole. Put them in a saucepan with butter, water, salt and sugar. Bring to the boil, cover and cook over a gentle heat until tender, by which time the liquid should have all been absorbed into the carrots, but if not remove the lid and increase the heat until all the water has evaporated. Taste and correct the seasoning. Shake the saucepan so the carrots become coated with the buttery glaze.
Serve in a hot vegetable dish sprinkled with chopped parsley or mint.
Tip: It’s really important to cut the carrots into the same thickness, otherwise they will cook unevenly.
You must keep a close eye on them so they don’t burn, particularly if its your first time.
Roast Spring Lamb with Mint Sauce
Young Spring Lamb is sweet and succulent and needs absolutely no embellishment apart from a dusting of salt and pepper and a little fresh Mint Sauce.
For me this is the quintessential taste of Easter.
1 leg of Spring lamb
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 pint (570ml) lamb or chicken stock
a little roux
salt and freshly ground pepper
Sprigs of fresh mint and parsley
If possible ask your butcher to remove the aitch bone from the top of the leg of lamb so that it will be easier to carve later, then trim the knuckle end of the leg. Season the skin with salt and freshly ground pepper. Put into a roasting tin.
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/regulo 4. Roast for 1-1¼ hours approx. for rare, 1¼ -1½ hours for medium and 1½- 2 hours for well done, depending on size. When the lamb is cooked to your taste, remove the joint to a carving dish. Rest the lamb for 10 minutes before carving.
Meanwhile make the gravy. Degrease the juices in the roasting tin, add stock. Bring to the boil and whisk in a little roux to thicken slightly. Taste and allow to bubble up until the flavour is concentrated enough. Correct the seasoning and serve hot.
Traditional Mint Sauce made with tender young shoots of fresh mint only takes minutes to make. Its the perfect accompaniment to Spring lamb but for those who are expecting a bright green jelly, the slightly dull colour and watery texture comes as a surprise. Thats how it ought to be, try it.
2 tablesp finely chopped fresh mint
2 tablesp. sugar
6-8 tablesp boiling water
2 tablesp. white wine vinegar or freshly squeezed lemon juice
Put the sugar and freshly-chopped mint into a sauce boat. Add the boiling water and vinegar or lemon juice. Allow to infuse for 5-10 minutes before serving.
4 ozs (110g) butter
4 ozs (110g) flour
Melt the butter and cook the flour in it for 2 minutes on a low heat, stirring occasionally. Use as required. Roux can be stored in a cool place and used as required or it can be made up on the spot if preferred. It will keep at least a fortnight in a refrigerator.
Gratin of Potato and Spring Onion
Potato gratins are a tasty, nourishing and economical way to feed lots of hungry people on a chilly evening, this recipe could also include little pieces of bacon or a lamb chop cut into dice, so it can be a sustaining main course or a delicious accompaniment as served here with Easter Lamb.
Serves 4 as a main course
Serves 6 as an accompaniment
3 lbs (1.5kg) 'old' potatoes, eg. Golden Wonders or Kerrs Pinks
2 bunches of spring onions
1 oz (30g) butter
3-6 ozs (85-170g) Irish mature cheddar cheese, grated
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2-: pint (300-450ml/13-1: cups) homemade chicken, beef or vegetable stock
Oval ovenproof gratin dish - 122 inch (31.5cm) long x 2 inch (5cm) high
Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/regulo 6.
Slice the peeled potatoes thinly, blanch and refresh. Trim the spring onions and chop both the green and white parts into approx. 3 inch (5mm) slices with a scissors or a knife.
Rub an oven proof dish thickly with half the butter, scatter with some of the spring onions, then a layer of potatoes and then some grated cheese. Season well with salt and freshly ground pepper. Continue to build up the layers finishing with an overlapping layer of potatoes, neatly arranged. Pour in the boiling stock, scatter with the remaining cheese and dot with butter.
Bake in a preheated oven for 1-13 hours or until the potatoes are tender and the top is brown and crispy.
Note: It may be necessary to cover the potatoes with a paper lid for the first half of the cooking.
Rhubarb Tarte Tatin
This delectable tart is an adaptation of a traditional recipe which was originally cooked in a bastable over the open fire – everyone adores it.
One could also add a couple of teaspoons of freshly grated ginger to the rhubarb, but try it unadorned at first, its seriously good.
In season: late spring
900g (2lb) red rhubarb
255-285g (9-10oz) granulated sugar
310g (11oz) flour
20g (¾oz) castor sugar
1 heaped teaspoon baking powder
pinch of salt
55g (2oz) butter
175ml (6floz) full cream milk, approx
23x5cm (9x2inch) round tin. We use a heavy stainless steel sauté pan which works very well, if you don’t have a suitable pan, par cook the rhubarb slightly first.
Preheat the oven to 230C/450F/regulo 8
Trim the rhubarb, wipe with a damp cloth and cut into pieces about 2.5cm (1inch) in length. Put into the base of a tin or sauté pan, sprinkle with the sugar. We put the stainless steel sauté pan on a low heat at this point while we make the dough.
Sieve all the dry ingredients into a bowl. Cut the butter into cubes and rub into the flour until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Whisk the egg with the milk. Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients, pour in the liquid all at once and mix to a soft dough. Turn out onto a floured board and roll into a 23cm (9inch) round about 2.5cm (1inch) thick. Place this round on top of the rhubarb and tuck in the edges neatly. Brush with a little egg wash and sprinkle with granulated sugar.
Bake in the fully preheated oven for 15 minutes then, reduce the temperature to 180C/350F/regulo 4 for a further 30 minutes approx. or until the top is crusty and golden and the rhubarb soft and juicy.
Remove from the oven and allow to sit for a few minutes. Put a warm plate over the top of the sauté pan, turn upside down onto the plate but be careful of the hot juices.
Serve warm with soft brown sugar and cream.
Wild Garlic also known as Ramsoms (Allium Ursinum) and Three cornered Garlic (Allium Triquetrum), also known as Snowbells, are in full bloom all around the countryside at the moment - many people will recognize them and smell them, as they go for walks, but not many realize that they are, not merely edible but a most delicious addition to sauce, salads and soups.
Bunches of fresh mint are now available in the supermarkets, spearmint has the most delicate flavour. Use for Mint sauce or make a fresh mint infusion –bring fresh cold water to a boil. Scald a china teapot, take a generous pinch of fresh spearmint leaves and
crush them gently in your hand. The quantity will depend on how intense an infusion you enjoy. Put them into the scalded water. Pour the boiling water over the leaves, cover the teapot, and let them infuse for 3-4minutes. Serve immediately in china cups.
All the shops have a range of Easter eggs and chocolate bunnies – look out for little ones to hide around the garden for the Easter Egg hunt – Marks and Spencer, Lily O’Brien and locally made Eve Chocolate and O’Conaills who sell at Midleton Farmers Market. Have a tempting peep at Hot Chocolate in Cork’s Castle Street.