The first things to start growing in Spring are usually weeds – but thankfully many of them are edible. Here are some recipe suggestions.
Warm Dandelion Salad with Bacon and Egg
Dandelions leaves should be picked whilst they are very young and tender – as soon as they begin to appear in early spring.
For each person, dice a good cube of very fat pancetta. Heat a solid iron frying pan and cook the lardons of bacon gently until the fat begins to run. Now add cubes of bread, which will absorb the fat and begin to crisp along with the lardons.
Whilst this is cooking wash and dry your dandelion leaves and bring a small pan of water up to simmering point ready to cook the poached egg(s).
When the bacon and bread croutons are crisp remove them from the pan. Slide the egg(s) into the gently simmering water where they will take just a few minutes to cook. Deglaze the pan with a couple of tablespoons of red wine vinegar. It will bubble and reduce to almost nothing, but capture all the flavour from the pan. Remove the pan from the heat and quickly toss the lardons, croutons and dandelion leaves in the pan. The dandelion leaves should do no more than wilt slightly and pick up the flavours from the pan. Turn the salad out onto a plate and top with the poached egg. The soft centre of the egg will be all that is required by way of dressing.
Soups made with green leaves, be they wild or cultivated, usually have potato as the thickening ingredient. Use the following as a master recipe, which you can vary depending on the leaves to hand: watercress, wild garlic or herbs for example. The principle is the same each time, you make a well flavoured base of onion (and/or leek) and good stock (chicken is my preference). To keep the colour vibrant, the leaves should be cooked only briefly.
25g/1 oz butter
300g/10 oz potatoes
110g/4 oz onions
110g/4 oz sliced leeks
Salt and pepper
1 litre/1¾ pints chicken stock
150g/5 oz young nettle tops
150ml/¼pint single cream
Peel and chop the onions and potatoes. Both can be weighed before preparation, the potatoes should be cut into dice of approximately half an inch. Clean and slice the leeks, which should then be weighed after slicing.
Melt the butter in a heavy based saucepan that has a close fitting lid. Add the prepared vegetables, season them with salt and pepper and stir to ensure that they are all coated in butter. Then put the lid on the pan and sweat the vegetables over a low heat for 10 minutes so that they soften without colouring.
Add the stock and bring to the boil. Simmer the soup until the potatoes are soft.
Wash the nettle tops. If you are confident that your food processor will chop everything thoroughly you can add them to the soup now, but if you are using a less efficient blended where the leaves might wind themselves around the blade, it would be safer to chop the nettles first (wear gloves if doing this by hand).
Once the nettles are added to the hot soup they need cooking for only a minute or so. The hot liquid will destroy their sting.
Blend the soup until smooth then return it to the pan together with the single cream. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Reheat to simmering point and serve.
WILD GARLIC PESTO
This is made in exactly the same way as the classic basil pesto, but with wild garlic leaves. It is quite pungent so use it sparingly – added to the top of the Winter Vegetable Soup below for example, or mixed with warm Pink Fir Apple potatoes for a spring potato salad.
1½ oz young wild garlic leaves, washed
2 tbsps pine nuts (or substitute almonds or wild pignuts)
Extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsps finely grated Parmesan (or substitute a mature British hard cheese such as Cheddar or Old Smales)
Put the wild garlic in a food processor with the nuts and process until finely chopped. Continue to process adding a stream of olive oil until you have a loose paste. Stir in the grated cheese by hand.
This can be stored for a couple of days in a jar in the refrigerator but cover with a fresh layer of olive oil first.
WINTER MIXED VEGETABLE SOUP
Treat this recipe as a guideline only. The idea is to use up whatever winter vegetables are still available, supplemented by dried beans, pulses or grains. Think of it as a British version of Minestrone.
1 large carrot
1 stick of celery
1 potato (weighing about 6 oz/150g)
8 oz/225 g diced swede, turnip or squash
3½ oz/100g split peas (don’t need soaking, but pre-boil for 10 minutes)
3½ oz/100g spelt (whole or pearled – pearled may be added uncooked but whole should be pre-cooked for about 20 minutes)
4 pints stock (chicken, ham hock or vegetable)
Shredded cabbage or wild garlic to garnish (if you prefer you could make a wild garlic or parsley “pesto” as above)
Peel and dice the vegetable. Soften the onion in the olive oil first, then add the carrot and continue to cook for about 5 minutes before adding the rest of the vegetables and cooking for a further 10 minutes. Add the hot stock, split peas and spelt and cook for a further 20 minutes or until everything is tender. Add some shredded cabbage or wild garlic towards the end of the cooking so that the colour remains bright.
Egg and Bittercress Sandwiches
Forget any thoughts of those tired egg sandwiches that usually get left at any buffet selection. Freshly made, with free range eggs and good bread, they are in a completely different league.
Mustard and cress is the traditional accompaniment and sprouting seeds is an excellent way to get some early fresh greens. Supermarkets more often sell sprouted rape seeds. If you want to sprout your own, sow the cress three days before the mustard so that they will both be ready at the same time (5 days after you have sown the mustard). All you need is a damp piece of kitchen roll in a shallow container.
Alternatively you could harvest Bittercress from your garden. It has a similar, strong peppery flavour, and is almost certain to be growing in profusion! It looks like a little spiders web of fine leaves.
To make your sandwiches, simply hardboil the eggs and then plunge them into cold water. This both makes them easier to handle and prevents a ring forming around the yolk. Peel as soon as you can handle them and mash with a fork adding a little mayonnaise, salt and pepper. Cut your cress and fold through. Fill the sandwiches and serve immediately.
See also Spelt Recipes for Frumenty with Wild Garlic and Leeks and Nettle Ravioli.