As spring starts to peek its head out after a long, grey winter, we turn to the ingredients that are so symbolic of this early spring season – and speak of hope, optimism and an irresistible freshness.
Here are our top 10 early spring ingredients, with inspiring suggestions for ringing in spring delightfully and deliciously.
We’ve been seeing wild garlic more and more across culinary capitals as part of the “wild cooking” trend, and we can’t help but relish its delicate garlic flavour and uplifting bright green leaves. With their UK season running from March to June, and taste peaking before the flowers bloom, now is the time to embrace this pretty spring green. Try making a flavoured butter with wild garlic for a retro chicken kiev, wild garlic and potato soup with a slug of your best extra virgin olive oil, grated Parmesan and wild garlic bruschetta (great as a starter with aperitifs), or simple-but-delightful gnocchi with cavolo nero, goats cheese and a zippy wild garlic pesto.
Another seasonally symbolic leaf and a popular foraging find, nettles grow all over the UK and can mostly be found near human populations due to the dense quality of soil. Famous for their sting, once stripped of this they can be treated as a dark green leafy vegetable, with a taste similar to spinach. When cooking with nettles, feel free to treat just like spinach – I would recommend making a satisfying and comforting green-nettle risotto, penne tumbled with sautéed nettles, pancetta and Pecorino, or as a sauce for some grilled hake, served with whipped potato and crispy bacon.
Native to European waters, sea trout looks and tastes similar to wild salmon and is identified by its silvery-grey skin with black or reddish-brown spots. Full of Omega 3 fatty acids, it’s a very healthy, subtle-tasting fish that often works best cooked simply and gently. I suggest pan-frying and serving with dandelion leaves, blood orange and green olives, steaming and serving with a sorrel sauce, or grilling and serving with wild garlic hollandaise.
Purple Sprouting Broccoli
This flowery, leafy species of broccoli comes with long stems and clusters of buds, which can be green, white or purple. With a taste similar to cabbage, but quite subtle, it can pair well with piquant flavours and is zealously embraced during its peak season in early spring. Mix into a salad with Cashel blue and nostalgic pickled walnuts, use as a crunchy tool for dipping into St. JOHN’s moreish Welsh Rarebit mixture, or as a tempura in the lightest of batter: made with flour and ice-cold sparkling water, and sprinkled with coarse sea salt and chilli flakes, served alongside a soy and blood orange dip.
Famously earthy and boasting a sweet candy stripe, heritage beetroot is as aesthetically pleasing as it is flavourful – and let’s not forget texture-rich, as it adds a livening crunch and bite to seasonal salads. Extremely versatile (and often forgiving), heritage beetroots love being roasted, pickled, used raw and worked into salads, mains and desserts. Try as a vegetarian tartare atop potato pancakes with horseradish crème fraiche, or shaved raw and served with cauliflower, radishes and pomegranate. And don’t throw away the leaves… instead sauté and mix with anchovy, garlic and chilli to dress some orecchiette.
Giving a deep, yellow colour and with a size larger than a quail’s eggs but smaller than a hen’s, these are perfect seasonal foods to be treasured, and cooked with creatively. In season from next month until the end of June, seek them out for a guaranteed spring feeling. Try making Scotch pheasant eggs with venison meat and best sausage meat, served with coronation mayo, soft-boiled in a salad with smoked trout, beetroot and horseradish crème fraiche, or simply poached on top of a leek and potato soup.
Meaning “sour” in French, sorrel’s chief characteristic is its bright acidity, which works to naturally lift any dish. A large, pleasingly green leaf with a little crispness and ample flavour, sorrel works well cooked or used raw in a salad. There’s really no beating the Ivy’s classic sorrel sauce to go with salmon fishcakes, and I would also work it into a butter sauce for seared scallops, adding apple for sweetness and acidity. For a simple, seasonally charged dinner, shred into an omelette with some crumbled Saint-Marure.
Jerusalem artichokes are still in fine fettle: their knobbly and somewhat unsightly pink demeanour encasing the sweet, nutty flavour that lies within. Often treated the same as potatoes, they’re a versatile vegetable and can be roasted, sautéed, baked, boiled, steamed or used raw. Cream them with butter and Parmesan and top with sautéed kale and garlic, roast with rosemary and olive oil and serve with roast chicken, or pickle with coriander seeds, white-wine vinegar and bay leaves, and serve with a green bean salad with ham hock and toasted walnuts, or with smoked fish.
In season between February and September, this wild-growing leaf is round and scallop-edged, with a bite that’s fleshy and rather juicy, with a pea-like taste. Inspired by recent travels in Sri Lanka and Hoppers’s version in Soho, use chopped raw pennywort to make a gotu kola sambol, by mixing with fresh coconut, lime and chilli: in a dish that’s full of vim and vitality and accompanies Ceylonese roast chicken at Hoppers. After a visit to Dan Barber’s wastED today on Selfridges rooftop, I’m inspired to remake a dish of spiralised vegetable core, aquafaba, salad cream, spinach stalks and cucumber seeds and skin, garnished with pennywort, or use as a simple salad to accompany whole grilled mackerel alongside a rhubarb relish.
A spring-ingredients conversation would not be complete without mention/praise of rhubarb. Bright, tart, crimson and crisp, rhubarb has long been a favourite of British cooking and a key ingredient to springtime baking, favoured for its unique mouth-puckering piquancy. Rhubarb nicely cuts through fatty pork and duck dishes with aplomb – think pork chop with punchy rhubarb chutney. It’s also great with oily fish, like another great British food, mackerel, served with braised leeks, whipped potato and rhubarb… and a blood orange posset with poached rhubarb to finish.