If you go down to the woods today or any day in the next week or so, you should find swathes of wild garlic. Right now is the time to pick it, while the leaves are young and at their most tender for cooking.
Although it looks more beautiful later on, when the small white flowers pierce out from amongst the lush greenery, it becomes a little more fibrous to eat.
Even if you aren’t able to go foraging for it yourself in the woods, this delicate wild plant has now become available in farmers’ markets and specialist shops, so it’s worth seeking it out to enjoy it during the short season. Although called ‘garlic’, its flavour is more like a gentle spring onion and when cooked, it is only softly pungent and enhances other flavours, rather than overpowering them.
Supplemented with a few spinach leaves from my garden (still going strong despite being overwintered), all I needed were fresh eggs, a spoonful of ricotta and fresh herbs to make the perfect early spring dish.
Even though my vegetable patch is looking pretty sparse at the moment, outside of the garden the first opportunities of foraging are beginning, starting with nettles. Stinging or common nettles (ortica dioica) are a great wild gift of early spring and right now is the time to gather them, when the first tender leaves are starting to sprout.
Few things can be as menacing yet desirable as the stinging nettle. Their flavour is delicious, a bit like an intense, rich spinach and they’re full of health giving vitamins and iron. You need to pick just the tops off each plant, where the leaves are at their most tender and once cooked for 2-3 minutes in boiling water, they’re free from the sting. If you don’t cook them long enough, you can still get a harmless little tickle on the tongue.
Most of the eggs that we will eat at Easter will be made of chocolate, so here’s a healthy, seasonal recipe as an antidote to all that wonderful indulgence.
Roasted beetroot has a really intense, sweet flavour but the long cooking time means it’s not ideal when you want a quick salad. To get around this problem, I usually roast double or triple what I need, all at once when I have time, like on a Saturday morning, and then use the beetroot for different dishes throughout the week, like salads and quick soups.
With some roasted beetroot in your fridge, you can make this salad as an easy lunch dish, and the eggs provide all the protein you need for one meal. I sometimes serve this with smoked eel and horseradish for an extra treat.
Hand made gifts often mean more than anything bought. It’s not just the thought they require, it’s the time taken too. Last Christmas my sister gave me a basket full of jams and preserves she had made with fruit grown in her garden, and special ingredients foraged from the Cornish hedgerows where she lives. Every time I open a jar to scoop out some green tomato chutney or some rowanberry jelly, I think of her and the flavours transport me to rural Cornwall.
The experience of food can be a hugely evocative thing; taste and memory are so closely intertwined and many memories are of dishes cooked for us, or eaten with, our mothers: the restorative vegetable soup she made when I was ill; her English muffins baked fresh for breakfast with homemade marmalade; roast lamb for Sunday lunch. These are not just memories of the taste and texture of the food, they bring back the experience of the table where we ate; the room; the light and the emotions.
Now is the perfect time to be picking nettles. They are young and tender and like any new season’s produce, at their freshest and best. Given that we spend most of our time avoiding contact with these stinging plants, it’s surprising to think what a pleasure they are to eat. So welcome their new growth and arm yourselves with gloves to go picking, because the reward is certainly worth it. Last week I ate a superb dish of nettle pappardelle at the River Cafe which inspired me to deviate from my usual nettle soup or ravioli recipes. (See my recipe for the Guardian for ravioli stuffed with nettles and ricotta ) The fun of this new method is getting the green colour and the flavour of the leaves into the pasta dough, rather than using the nettles as stuffing for ravioli or blended in a soup.
Fresh young nettles, stings still in tact
It’s pancake day and there are a number of ways you could choose to make them: fluffy ones for breakfast with crisp bacon and maple syrup; buckwheat galettes for lunch rolled around a fried egg and a slice of ham; drop scones with jam for tea and finally and arguably the classic, and still my favourite – lace-thin crepes for pudding at dinner, with a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkle of sugar.
Fluffy breakfast pancakes with berries, bacon and maple syrup