Although it probably doesn’t seem it right now, spring is just around the corner (in fact, as I’m writing this, the rain is beating at my windows with a fair amount of vehemence). It’s a good time to start thinking about moving into the next season of flavour and coming a little out of the cuddly winter comfort foods.
I know it’s a little cliched, but it is a hopeful time of the year as a bit more blue sky starts to appear and pretty bulbs are bursting through the ground. My rhubarb, the one plant that carries on surviving with fairly limited attention from me, is poking up and every day gains a few inches and a few more unfurled leaves.
It is a bit of a funny time, foodwise, as we’re not quite into the salad season just yet, but there are some delicious ingredients popping up (even if I’m waving a teary goodbye to one of my winter favourites, blood oranges).
One element of eating in a more conscious and mindful way is eating with the seasons. There is of course a huge environmental benefit of eating this way, but actually, there’s also a taste benefit. I defy you to taste a tomato in and out of season, and not declare the juicy, bursting vegetal summer tomato far superior to the flavourless, watery stuff that still seems to be in supermarkets in January.
And, for the budget minded, eating seasonally is much cheaper. There’s a reason prices soar when things are out of season – so when you see a big price hike, it’s probably a good indication that you should be avoiding that particular product (though don’t get me started on seeing stuff shipped from half way around the world when fruit and vegetables are in season locally. And I mean you, asparagus and rhubarb!)
I really love cooking with vegetables as they add so much vibrancy to a plate – and a palate. I actually eat a predominantly vegetarian diet because I enjoy it, but even when I eat seafood (which is normally a handful of times a week) I make sure I have lots of veggies included there too.
I’ve put together a few of my seasonal favourites with some flavour match suggestions. These can be used whether the vegetables are a side dish or the main attraction. I never get bored playing around in the kitchen with flavours, as that’s what keeps food and cooking exciting. Roll on spring!
Spring Flavours 1. Cauliflower
Ban any thoughts of tasteless mushy caulis. Cauliflower is fantastic raw in salads (with a good zesty dressing) and really comes into its own when roasted. I also throw it into quick mid-week stir fries or to add crunch to curries. The secret, as with most vegetables, is not to overcook it.
Cauliflower’s subtle earthiness can blend into the background of a dish or add interesting texture. However roasting brings out its sweet nuttiness, which just begs to coated in good olive oil, a little butter or a dollop of creamy yoghurt.
Great cauli flavour matches:
- sharp cheddar cheese (especially the very mature type with crystals)
- cumin seeds (ideally toasted) or ground cumin
- toasted almonds
- caramelised onions
- mustard (and mustard seeds!), from spicy English mustard to tangy Dijon
- lemon, juice and zest
- a little drizzle of honey
- fresh nutmeg
Cauliflower recipe suggestions:
Spring Flavours 2. Celeriac
My husband will eat most foods, apart from celery. And for a while he included celeriac as too similar tasting to celery, so I ate it all on my own when he was out. Fortunately he has become a celeriac convert, and I’m so pleased.
Celeriac is one of my favourite things to make a creamy soup from (using creamed coconut or a little double cream), and it makes delicious oven roasted ‘chips’. You can also slice it thinly and add raw to salads. Celeriac is another earthy veg, but has a sweet edge to it and only just the vaguest hint of celery.
Great celeriac flavour matches
- creamy natural Greek yoghurt
- coconut milk
- ground coriander
- white miso
- black pepper
- orange juice and zest
- toasted walnuts
Celeriac recipe suggestions
Spring Flavours 3. Purple Sprouting Broccoli
This delightful broccoli adds a splash of colour to any plate (especially as the previous two vegetables are quite white!). It’s really important to add vibrancy and colour to what you’re eating. It’s a good way to ensure you’re getting lots of variety – but also it’s a simple way to get a smile: a little splash of colour is instantly uplifting!
Purple sprouting broccoli has a little light bitterness and a hint of sweetness, but this is one you definitely don’t want to boil into oblivion or it will become sulphurous. Stir fry, steam, griddle or gently roast – and eat the whole thing: stalk and florettes.
Great broccoli flavour matches:
- the holy trinity of garlic (lots of it!), ginger and soy sauce
- toasted sesame seeds (and sesame oil)
- orange zest and juice
- maple syrup
- extra virgin olive oil
- parmesan or grana padano cheese
- creme fraiche
Purple sprouting broccoli recipe suggestions
Spring Flavours 4. Leeks
For some reason we often only eat the white part of leeks. News flash – you can eat the green bit too! You might want to chop off the very top bit if it’s a bit dry, but otherwsie it’s perfectly edible and lovely added into stir fries. The same goes if you are roasting chunks.
Leeks have a bit of the spicy bite of onion, without being quite so pungent, and this mellows on cooking. I particularly like leeks when they are slightly chargrilled as the smoky char adds a bit of sweetness. Generally they can stand longer, rougher cooking than some of the other veg included above. There is a huge glut of leeks at this time of the year, so take full advantage.
Great leek flavour matches:
- goat’s cheese (and most cheese really!)
- natural yoghurt
- porcini mushrooms
- any fresh green herbs
Leek recipe suggestions
Spring Flavours 5. Forced rhubarb
Ingredients like forced rhubarb are one of the reasons that eating seasonally can be so exciting. If ingredients have a fairly short window of availability, I get so excited when they start popping up in the shops and on Instagram. The appearance of forced rhubarb is always my first inkling of slightly warmer times to come.
As I mentioned in my crumble recipe, forced rhubarb is a touch more delicate than normal rhubarb, so you don’t want to overcook and lose the flavour – or texture. It has a lovely lightly tang that just cries out for something creamy or zingy to go with it (i.e. thick organic cream and tonnes of ginger!).
Great forced rhubarb flavour matches:
- ginger – fresh, ground or crystallised
- soft goat’s cheese
- pink or black pepper
Forced rhubarb recipe suggestions
And some other tasty seasonal mentions…
The first of the wild garlic will start to appear soon, so keep your nose out if you live outside the cities. One of the highlights of a very long run that my husband did last year in the Yorkshire Moors (160 miles!) was stopping for a bit of wild garlic picking about 5 miles out from the end. Fortunately most people don’t need to go to such extremes to get hold of some!
You can also catch the last of the brussels sprouts and salsify before they disappear for the year.
What flavours get a spring in your step?