Oh my goodness, a whiff of Spring at last, Was that not the longest and often dreariest Winter many of us can remember? I loved tucking into many warming stews, tagines and slow cooked braises but now Iâ€™m so ready for the fresh tastes of Spring. The Jerusalem artichokes that have added excitement and so much nourishment to our Winter meals have now started to sprout are gone past their best for eating but try get your hands on some so you can plant a few tubers of this superb vegetable for next year.
Weâ€™ve been loving rhubarb for the past few weeks and now we have sea kale â€“ Alleluia. Such joy, to lift off the cloches to discover the blanched stalks of seakale ready to harvest. Itâ€™s Latin name is Crambe MaritimaÂ and I believe it is the only truly seasonable vegetable there is. Itâ€™s in season in April, you are unlikely to find it is your local supermarket, but possibly in a brilliant small greengrocer or a Farmerâ€™s Market.
Look out for it at Midleton Farmerâ€™s Market for the next few weeks, by the end of the month the first of the Irish asparagus will be in season but only until the beginning of June.
Whereas seakale and asparagus may sound luxurious and exotic they are not the onlyÂ nourishingÂ and delicious foods to get excited about at present. Young nettles abound throughout the countryside, a growing band of foragers are harvesting them to deliver to cool chefs who are excited to showcase wild and foraged foods on their menus.
Weâ€™ve also been enjoying Winter cress or bittercress as itâ€™s sometimes called. The peppery leavesÂ are delicious in salads andÂ deliver quite the burst of vitamins, minerals and trace elements. Pennywort or navelwort is in abundance, growing out of stones walls, tree trunks and in woods. The fleshy leaves add extra deliciousness and nutrients to starters and salads and make an enchanting garnish for months on end.
When you start to keep your eyes peeled for edible treasure, all of the above are free to gather in both urban and rural areas.
Bitter little dandelion leaves too add zip to a salad and youâ€™ll hate the taste at first but soon grow to love that bitter flavour so lacking in our diets at present. One can also blanch the leaves as the continentals do by covering the plant with a large lid or bucket to exclude the light for several weeks until the leaves lose their green dark colours and become pale yellow and temptingly sweet.
Here are just a few recipes to showcase some of Natureâ€™s bounty, enjoyâ€¦
Top tip:Â Wild foraged foods. A growing number of restaurants are incorporating wild and foraged foods including seaweeds from our shore line into their menu. Check out Pilgrims in Rosscarbery, The Mews in Baltimore Ballymaloe House, The Glebe Garden CafÃ© in Skibbereen…..
Where can I taste Seakale?
Ballymaloe House in Shanagarry will be serving seakale from the walled garden on its menu throughout the month of April and into early May. The seakale plants have been growing and tended in theÂ two acre walled garden in Ballymaloe for over 60 years. Now thatâ€™s a perennial vegetable worth making space for.
To buy seakale plants try www.fruithillfarm.com or www.johnstowngardencentre.ie
Seakale on Toast with Prawns and Hollandaise Sauce
The cooking time depends on the freshness of the seakale. As you can imagine, cooked mussels would be delicious here also.
1 teaspoon salt
18 prawns, cooked and peeled
6 slices of toast, buttered
Hollandaise Sauce (see recipe)
a small bunch of chervil
Wash the seakale gently and trim into manageable lengths â€“ about 10cm.Â Â Bring the water to a fast boil and add the salt.Â Â Add the seakale, cover and boil until tender â€“ about 4-6 minutes.Â Â The cooking time depends on the freshness of the seakale, as you can imagine. Cooked mussels would be delicious here also. Just as soon as a knife will pierce the seakale easily, drain it.
Meanwhile, melt the butter in a pan on a gentle heat and toss in the prawns to warm through.
Serve the seakale with the prawns on hot buttered toast, and drizzle generously with Hollandaise Sauce.Â Â Pop a little bunch of chervil on top of each toast and serve immediately.
Serves 4-6, depending on what it is to be served with
Hollandaise is the mother of all the warm emulsion sauces.Â Â The version we use here is easy to make and quite delicious with fish.Â Â Like Mayonnaise it takes less than 5 minutes to make and transforms any fish into a feast.Â Â Once the sauce is made it must be kept warm: the temperature should not go above 70-80C or the sauce will curdle.Â A thermos flask can provide a simple solution on a small scale, otherwise put the Hollandaise Sauce into a delph or plastic bowl in a saucepan of hot but not simmering water.Â Â Hollandaise Sauce cannot be reheated absolutely successfully so itâ€™s best to make just the quantity you need.Â Â If however you have a little left over, use it to enrich other sauces or mashed potato.
2 egg yolks, preferably free-range and organic
110g butter cut into dice
1 dessertspoon cold water
1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice, approx.
Put the egg yolks in a heavy stainless saucepan on a low heat, or in a bowl over hot water.Â Â Add water and whisk thoroughly.Â Â Add the butter bit by bit, whisking all the time.Â Â As soon as one piece melts, add the next piece.Â Â The mixture will gradually thicken, but if it shows signs of becoming too thick or slightly scrambling, remove from the heat immediately and add a little cold water if necessary.Â Â Do not leave the pan or stop whisking until the sauce is made.Â Â Finally add the lemon juice to taste.Â Â If the sauce is slow to thicken it may be because you are excessively cautious and the heat is too low.Â Â Increase the heat slightly and continue to whisk until the sauce thickens to coating consistency.
It is important to remember that if you are making Hollandaise Sauce in a saucepan directly over the heat, it should be possible to put your hand on the side of the saucepan at any stage.Â Â If the saucepan feels too hot for your hand it is also too hot for the sauce.
Another good tip if you are making Hollandaise Sauce for the first time is to keep a bowl of cold water close by so you can plunge the bottom of the saucepan into it if becomes too hot.
Keep the sauce warm until service either in a pyrex bowl over hot but not simmering water (do not have gas jet on).Â Â A thermos flask is also a good option.
Burmese Pennywort Salad
Â Â Serves 4
2-3 shallots, sliced and soaked in ice cold water
2 large cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon crushed peanuts
1 large or 2 small tomatoes, halved and thinly sliced
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
2-3 tablespoons sesame seeds
2 teaspoons fermented bean paste
3 tablespoons fried shallots
Fish sauce or salt
Wash and dry the pennyworth leaves.
Slice the garlic paper thin and allow to dry on kitchen paper.
Heat some peanut oil in a frying pan and cook on a medium heat until crisp and golden.
Drain on kitchen paper.
Put the pennyworth onto a plate.Â Â Sprinkle the garlic and shallot oil over the top, then the freshly squeezed lime juice, fermented bean paste, fish sauce, thinly sliced tomato and sesame seeds.
Toss and mix with your clean fingers as the Burmese do.Â Â Add most of the fried shallots and half the peanuts.Â Â Â Toss again.Â Â Taste, correct seasoning.
Divide between 4 plates, sprinkle with the remainder of the fried shallots and peanuts.
Serve immediately, each salad is made to order.
Asparagus, Rocket and Wild Garlic Frittata
The pan size is crucial here.Â Â If you donâ€™t have the exact size, increase the eggs so the frittata is 4cm deep, otherwise the frittata is likely to be thin and tough.
This is an example of how we incorporate seasonal ingredients into a frittata.
8 eggs, preferably free-range, organic
225g thin asparagus
1 teaspoon salt and lots of freshly ground pepper
50g Parmesan, Parmigiano Reggiano, freshly grated, or a mixture
2-3 tablespoons roughly chopped wild garlic and rocket leaves
2 tablespoons olive oil
wild garlic and rocket leaves and flowers
non-stick frying pan â€“ 19cm bottom, 23cm top rim
Bring about 2.5cm of water to the boil in an oval casserole.Â Â Trim the tough ends of the asparagus, add salt to the water and blanch the spears until just tender for 3 or 4 minutes.Â Â Drain. Slice the end of the spears evenly at an angle keep 4cm at the top intact. Save for later.
Whisk the eggs together into a bowl.Â Â Add the blanched asparagus except the tops, most of the Parmesan and wild garlic leaves.Â Â Season well with salt and freshly ground pepper.
Heat the oil in the pan, add egg mixture and reduce the heat to the bare minimum â€“ use a heat diffuser mat if necessary.Â Â Continue to cook over a gentle heat until just set – about 15 minutes.Â Â Alternatively after an initial 4 or 5 minutes on the stove one can transfer the pan to a preheated oven (and this is my preferred option), 170Â°C/Gas Mark 3 until just set 10-15 minutes. Arrange the asparagus tops over the top.Â Â Sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan.Â Â Pop under a grill for a few minutes but make sure it is at least 5 inches from the element.Â Â It should be set and slightly golden. Turn out on a warm plate, cut into wedges and serve immediately with a salad of organic leaves, including wild garlic and rocket.
Garnish with wild garlic flowers
Seakale Tempura with Chervil Mayonnaise
Serves 6-8 as a starter
Â 450g seakale
2 tablesp cornflour
250ml iced water
225g chervil mayonnaise
Mix the cornflour into the water.Â Â Put the flour into a bowl.Â Â Add the water gradually, stirring with chopsticks, it will be a bit lumpy at first but a will eventually be a light creamy texture.Â Â You may need to adjust the consistency by adding a drop more water or flour to get a thin even coating batter.
Heat the oil in a deep fry to 180C.
Trim the seakale and cut into pieces 10-11.5cm.Â Â Â Dip one piece into the batter and fry for a couple of minutes or until crisp but not brown.Â Â Taste for seasoning and adjust the batter if necessary.Â Â Continue to cook the rest, drain on kitchen paper.
Thin the mayonnaise with a little water to a dip-like consistency.Â Â Add lots of finely chopped chervil and a nice sprinkling of sea salt.
Serve the crisp tempura immediately with a little bowl of chervil mayonnaise.
Rhubarb and Sweet Cicely Compote
Rhubarb and sweet cicely are a wonderful combination as are rhubarb and strawberries now that strawberries have a longer season we can enjoy them together.
450g (1lb) red rhubarb, e.g. Timperely early
450ml (16fl ozs.) Stock Syrup (see below)
4 to 6 leaves of sweet cicely
Cut the rhubarb into 2.5cm (1 inch) pieces. Put the cold syrup into a stainless steel saucepan, add the rhubarb and sweet cicely, cover, bring to the boil and simmer for just 1 minute, (no longer or it will dissolve into a mush). Turn off the heat and leave the rhubarb in the covered saucepan until just cold.
Stock syrup is the basis of homemade lemonade, fruit salad and all our compotes. We sometimes flavour it with sweet geranium, elderflower, mint or verbena leaves.
275g (10oz) sugar
600ml (1 pint) water
To make the stock syrup: Dissolve the sugar in the water* and bring to the boil. Boil for 2 minutes then allow it to cool.Â Store in the fridge until needed.
*Add the flavourings at this point if using.
Compote of Rhubarb with Sweet Geranium
Add 4-6 large sweet geranium leaves to the sugar and water before it comes to the boil, then continue as above â€“ omit the strawberries from the recipe.
Rhubarb and Strawberry Compote
225-450g (8oz – 1lb) fresh strawberries, eg. Cambridge favourite, Elsanta or Rapella
Make the rhubarb compote as above
Hull the strawberries, slice lengthways and add to the cool rhubarb compote.Â Chill and serve with a little pouring cream and a light biscuit.
Rhubarb Compote with Rosewater Cream
Poach the rhubarb in the usual way, allow to cool.Â Serve with rosewater cream.
Rhubarb and Strawberry Smoothie
Rhubarb and Strawberry Compote (see above)
Drain off the syrup and save for Rhubarb Lemonade. Whizz the compote to a smooth puree with yoghurt. Taste add a little of the rhubarb and strawberry syrup if necessary.