I don’t think I’ve ever been more relieved to see spring, and feel the sun’s warmth on my back.
There were days during the cold winter I thought it would never come. But, thankfully, it has returned, and with its bountiful early vegetables and herbs …
Our everyday name for the spears which botanists call asparagus officinalis, the French asperges, and the Italians asparago, originates from the Persian ‘asparag’. In the south of England, in the heart of the old asparagus trade, the shoots of this member of the lily family are called ‘sparrow-grass’, or in shorthand simply as ‘grass’. Almost every European country has its own variety.
“In Germany, by Lake Constance,” Jane Grigson writes in her Vegetable Book, “asparagus grown locally is served up 20 different ways. One Düsseldorf restaurant runs to 209 asparagus dishes.”
Here, the short six-week season starts in late April. Once harvested, asparagus loses moisture and sweetness by the hour: the newly-emerged stems are full of sugars, which gradually convert to starch after picking, so picking it the day you eat it or, at a pinch, the day before, really makes a difference.
In the kitchen, if you examine the stalks you can easily decide where the skin becomes inedibly thick. Remove it from that point downwards towards the cut end, with a vegetable peeler.
Lay the shoots flat in a pan, or cook them upright in a tall, narrow steamer, with the boiling water up to about a third their height. Either way, asparagus is perfect after seven to eight minutes.
Alternatively, you can toss the fresh stems in olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and then roast them for 15-20 minutes.
They are good grilled over charcoal too, where the smokiness they take on makes up for the slight lessening in the juiciness. Asparagus can be baked in foil with butter, a few sprigs of tarragon or chervil and some moisture in the form of white wine, so they steam in the sealed parcel.
For dressings, all asparagus really needs is some salt and, perhaps, lemon butter or hollandaise, or simply dipped into a boiled egg instead of soldiers.
Other good dressings include grated parmesan or pecorino, a sauce of roasted tomatoes with olive oil, garlic and a splash of red wine vinegar, or a pan of fried bacon or pancetta snippets poured over the freshly-cooked spears. Alternatively, try asparagus in a salad with cold salmon.
The Scots gardener and horticulturist John Loudon, writing in 1822, called cauliflower “the most delicate and curious of the whole Brassica tribe”. As well as the white variety, there are orange cauliflowers, violet ones like the ‘Purple Cape’, and the bright lime green ‘Romanesco’, with its mathematically perfect head of florets repeating in a fractal pattern.
Cauliflowers are available all year, but they are at their peak now in spring and later in autumn. Their leaves are the truest indicator of freshness and, if still healthy, they can be very sweet, succulent and increasingly tender as you move in towards the curd. In 19th-century Ireland, the florets were gently cooked in a little milk, a knob of butter, salt and pepper. Few vegetables, with the possible exception of spinach, take to cream so well – and cheese: parmesan was made for this brassica.
Cauliflower’s mild, creamy quality makes it a successful contender for spice treatment, such as coriander seeds, green chillies, paprika, fresh ginger, curry spices and garam masala.
As Britons have cheese sauce, so the Indians have their aloo gobhi, and the Spanish their fried florets scattered with paprika, capers and vinegar.
Cut the cauliflower into small florets, then steam and serve just dusted with freshly ground cumin, or toss raw in a salad with yoghurt, lime juice and toasted poppy seeds. The raw florets, crisp, mild and white, are also good tossed with a dressing of soured cream or yoghurt, mixed with chopped herbs such as parsley or tarragon, and then served as an accompaniment to smoked salmon. Alternatively, scatter green olives amongst a salad of lightly-cooked cauliflower, lemon juice, olive oil and capers.
Purple Sprouting Broccoli
As you may have gathered from the name, these brassicas were developed in Italy: broccoli being the plural diminutive of brocco, meaning a sprout or a shoot.
Both the fat, green, cloud-like bunches we get all year (officially not broccoli but calabrese, from Calabria in southern Italy) and the longer, slimmer stems of sprouting that surface now in the spring, are made up of masses of tight flower buds. The buds, left unharvested, will open into yellow flowers adored by bees.
To cook purple sprouting broccoli, lay the stems out in a single layer in a shallow pan with about 8cm of boiling salted water.
Steam or boil hard, uncovered, for a couple of minutes and then test with the tip of a knife – the stems are ready when the knifepoint goes into the thickest part without any pressure. Another method is to tie 10 thin shoots, trimmed right down, into neat little bundles with string. Stand them upright in 8cm of boiling water for about seven to eight minutes, until the stems are soft but the heads not collapsing. Put a bundle on each plate, season, and add a dollop of butter and lemon juice, or mayonnaise, or a few drops of dark soy for a salty zing. Like asparagus, you can dip the smallest shoots into a soft-boiled egg, or drizzle with hollandaise sauce.
“The great T’ang Emperor T’ai Tsung had an idea,” wrote Jane Grigson. “He asked tributary rulers to send him the best plants their countries grew. And in 647, the King of Nepal sent him spinach.”
The Persians developed spinach earlier in the sixth century – the name the Chinese still use, poh ts’ai, ‘Persian vegetable’, reflects its origin. The Persian word aspanakh gives us our European names, from spinaci in Italy, espinaca in Spain, to spinazie in Dutch. Many of the classic spinach recipes tend to be Indian or Italian – à la Florentine always means something baked on a bed of spinach.
“When spinach is truly fresh, it squeaks as you rummage around in the pile, like the sound of wet wellingtons on a rubber floor,” writes Nigel Slater.
The leaves need little or no water in the pan, and will often cook in the moisture that clings to the folds in the leaves after washing, and taking seconds, rather than minutes, to become tender. Spinach also disappears in the pan: a tight, bursting potful of fresh leaves can melt to a mere fistful, or smaller.
Spinach goes with everything, especially potatoes, and pulses such as lentils, chickpeas or beans. Oeufs Florentine and eggs Benedict all attest spinach and eggs to be a marriage made in heaven. Spinach and garlic, mushrooms or yoghurt are also natural allies, while nutmeg is an essential part of creamed spinach.
Any bright-tasting citrus fruit such as lemon or lime, or lemongrass will cut the earthier notes of spinach leaves. Salty little anchovy fillets have an affinity with spinach too, as do bacon and pancetta in a salad.
Wild and Garden Herbs
Four garden herbs emerge in early spring: chives, fennel, sorrel and lovage, joining the hardy perennials parsley and chervil that happily grow outside for most of the winter.
The magic thing is, if you keep picking chives, fennel, sorrel and coriander, which comes up later in April, they’ll remain succulent and tasty for longer; left unpicked for weeks, they’ll flower and then seed, and lose their flavour.
You can freeze herbs in ice trays: finely chop them, mix them in a little water and fill the trays. You can add these cubes to soups and stews. Herb butters are also ideal if you have too much of any one herb. The flavour of all these herbs comes from the oil in the leaves. Parsley and lovage will take some cooking and still retain their flavour, but for chives, chervil, sorrel, fennel and coriander, the rule is ‘less is more’. Add them just before taking the pan off the heat.
In a damp part of almost any wood in spring, you’ll be greeted by an amazing carpet of wild garlic, which flowers at the same time as bluebells. Scatter the flowers or break up the fresh green seedpods over salads and soups. The leaves are best blanched first.
Dandelions also flourish in any soil, however poor: “Whenever lettuce and endive are scarce, dandelion might be dug up from the roadside and pasture,” advises Loudon’s Encyclopaedia of Gardening.
In Honey from a Weed, Patience Gray recommends this Italian recipe for a salad of bitter dandelion leaves: “Gather young dandelions by cutting a stub of milky root together with its head of leaves, or take the plant whole when small.
“Wash under the tap, pare the root, leave in water for one hour, then drain, shake dry, and serve with a vinaigrette dressing, or add to a well-dressed beetroot salad.”