Three recipes to celebrate spring
- Credit: Frances Bissell
Spring is well and truly sprung. The white blossom on the Heath has gone, the wild garlic has flowered, the nettles are growing fast, so if you want tender tops to make soup, you'd better be quick.
At the Farmers' Market piles of root vegetables are giving way to leafy greens, satiny green and white asparagus, bundles of herbs and early strawberries.
May is my favourite month with its Bank Holidays offering long weekends, good company and sometimes fine weather. So in remembrance of those far-off weekends and in the hope of more to come, I have been cooking my favourite spring dishes. Coddled eggs with sobrasada, with English asparagus for dipping. A soft Majorcan pork sausage with a hint of piquancy from pimenton, sobrasada doesn't get the same air-time as 'nduja, but is a favourite breakfast item in Spain. Both Basco and Brindisa stock it. Scrambled eggs, omelettes, soup, wilted greens, all respond to the addition of sobrasada, as does a cod loin, glazed with crushed garlic and olive oil.
Herbs may not be the brightest produce in the Farmers Market, but their contribution to cooking can be bold, subtle or exotic. Dill and mint figure prominently in my spring kitchen often, but not exclusively, with fish. Dill's distinctive flavour with aniseed overtones also goes well with chicken, in cream sauces, and root vegetable soups - best added towards the end to obtain maximum flavour. Dill is delicious with raw cucumber or blended with cream. Fronds and seeds can be steeped to make a vinegar for salad dressings and mayonnaise.
I never cared for the traditional uses of mint in English cooking, with roast lamb, new potatoes or peas. It was only when I spent time in the Maltese islands that I appreciated its culinary value. Cooking fish with mint for the first time was a revelation. Try steaming a skate wing over a fresh mint infusion, and serving in a warm salad dressed with olive oil, orange juice and chopped mint.
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I love mint tea, fresh mint ice-cream, chopped mint in a stuffing for vegetables or a few leaves added to the fruit when making blackcurrant jelly. In Yorkshire, mint with bilberry pie is a classic.
Many mints lose their fragrance quickly, and should not be added to dishes which are going to be refrigerated re-heated, or frozen. I once made a mint sorbet the day before, thinking I would save myself time. When I came to serve it, it tasted like old hay.
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Mint sauce for fish or chicken
75 ml white wine
75 ml fish chicken or vegetable stock
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt, crushed with 15 g fresh mint leaves, plus extra for garnish
3 to 4 tablespoons crème fraîche
Pour the wine and stock into the pan and reduce by two thirds. Stir in the crushed mint leaves and crème fraîche. Season with lime juice and pepper, if liked, and serve with pan-fried fish fillets or chicken breasts. I particularly like this sauce with halibut fillets or hake steaks. The addition of a little chilled unsalted butter swirled into the pan at the last minute adds richness to the sauce.
Baby beet, avocado and potato salad with dill, ginger and mustard mayonnaise (serves 4)
8 baby beets
12 small potatoes
2 tablespoons good mayonnaise
1 teaspoon mustard
1/2 teaspoon honey
1/2 teaspoon fresh grated ginger
lemon, or lime juice to taste
1 small ripe avocado
Separately boil the vegetables until tender. Pop the beets out of their skin, and then put in a bowl with the potatoes.
Mix the mayonnaise, mustard, honey, ginger, dill and seasoning, including a dash of citrus to sharpen the flavour, and then mix into the vegetables. Peel and dice the avocado, and mix in.
Mint-stuffed vegetables (Serves 3-4)
12 -16 small vegetables, such as tomatoes, courgettes, peppers and onions
200 g cooked rice, couscous, bulgur wheat or coarse breadcrumbs
3 cloves garlic
1 heaped tablespoon finely chopped mint
Freshly ground black pepper
Generous pinch ground cumin
Extra virgin olive oil
Prepare the vegetables. Cut a slice off the top of the tomatoes, scoop out the seeds and juice. Rub these through a sieve, and reserve the juice. Sprinkle with salt, and stand upside down to drain.
Cut courgettes in half horizontally, and scoop out some of the centre, leaving about 1 cm flesh attached to the skin. Finely chop the centre, and reserve.
For peppers cut off the top, remove seeds and pith from inside. Grill and peel them, or if you don't mind the skin on, par-boil for 4 to 5 minutes, and rinse under cold water. Peel the onions, par-boil for 5 minutes, and remove the centre, leaving the outer two layers for stuffing.
To make the stuffing, finely chop the onion centres and mix the cooked rice or breadcrumbs together with the tomato juices and chopped courgette. Peel and crush the garlic and mix into the stuffing, together with the mint and spices, and season to taste.
Spoon the mixture into the vegetables, and place in a lightly-oiled roasting tin. Sprinkle a few drops of olive oil on each, and bake in a preheated oven at 180 C, gas mark 4 for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender.
©Frances Bissell. 2021. All rights reserved.