I’ m usually woken by the sound of my children announcing that the day has begun, but at this time of year the dawn chorus starts to get in there first. The gap between nature’s chorus and nurture’s is brief but so very blissful, though I usually hide under the duvet throughout both.
This cusp between the seasons brings with it a rethinking of the domestic and professional menu alike. I adore winter, with its warming heartiness, but the food of spring truly excites me. Zingy flavours (tart green almonds, sour sorrel, sharp pomelo) combine with the natural sweetness of fresh new leaves to add a punch to spring salads that resets the palate and stimulates the spirit.
Lightly pickled spring veg with wasabi and ginger cream
This dish is beautifully colourful. It’s important not to overcook the vegetables, or to pickle them for too long, or they will discolour. You want them all roughly the same size, so they take the same amount of time to cook: if the asparagus is very thick, cut it lengthways down the middle; if the carrots are tiny, leave them whole. If you’re lucky enough to get carrots and radishes with their leaves attached, just trim the stalks to 2cm long: that will give the dish a lovely rustic look. Serves six.
300g asparagus, woody ends trimmed and discarded
2 small courgettes, cut lengthways into 4- to 5mm-thick slices
1 small fennel bulb, cut lengthways into 2mm-thick slices (reserve any fronds)
100g baby carrots, trimmed and cut in half lengthways (or left whole if very small)
100g red and purple radishes (cut in half if large)
2 tbsp olive oil
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp white-wine vinegar
1 tsp caster sugar
10g tarragon leaves
60g fresh peas (or frozen and defrosted)
5g pea shoots (or watercress)
1 tsp urfa chilli flakes (or half that amount of regular chilli flakes)
For the ginger and mustard cream
5cm piece fresh ginger, peeled
1 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp wasabi paste
Heat the oven to its highest setting (250C). Put the asparagus, courgettes, fennel, carrots and radishes in a large bowl with the oil, garlic, half a teaspoon of salt and a good grind of pepper. Mix well, then arrange on two large oven trays lined with baking paper, making sure the trays aren’t overcrowded. Roast for eight to 12 minutes, until starting to brown and just cooked (the vegetables should still be crunchy) then transfer to a large bowl and leave to cool.
In a small bowl, whisk the vinegar and sugar with a quarter-teaspoon of salt. Once the sugar has dissolved, pour the liquid over the roast veg and add the tarragon. Toss to combine and leave to marinate for 10 minutes.
For the ginger and wasabi cream, finely grate the ginger into a bowl, then squeeze the flesh through a fine sieve, collecting all the juice (you should get about a tablespoon and a half). Discard the fibrous flesh and stir the juice into the cheese with the lemon juice, wasabi and an eighth of a teaspoon of salt.
Divide the cream between six small plates or one large platter, spreading it out into a 0.5cm-thick layer. Divide the vegetables between the plates, arranging them randomly over the cream, dot with the peas, pea shoots and any fennel fronds, and finish with a sprinkling of chilli.
Burrata with sorrel and pea salsa
If you can’t get sorrel, use young spinach leaves instead, adding an extra squeeze of lemon to compensate for their lack of sharpness. You can also use buffalo mozzarella instead of the burrata, if you prefer. Serves four as a starter.
2 burrata balls, weighing 250g in total
130g peas (frozen and defrosted, or freshly podded)
80g sorrel (or spinach) leaves, shredded
5g mint leaves, shredded
1¼ tsp nigella seeds, lightly crushed
Flaked sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 pitted green olives
60ml olive oil
Finely shaved zest of ½ lemon, plus 2 tsp lemon juice (or a bit more, if using spinach), to serve
Take the burrata out of the fridge when you start making the salsa: you don’t want it to be fridge-cold.
Bring a small saucepan of water to a boil and blanch the peas for a minute. Drain, refresh under cold water, drain again and put in a bowl. Add 30g of the sorrel, the mint, a teaspoon of nigella seeds, half a teaspoon of salt and plenty of pepper.
Put the remaining sorrel in the small bowl of a food processor with the olives, oil, a quarter-teaspoon of salt and plenty of pepper. Blitz smooth, then stir into the pea bowl and set aside for 10 minutes.
To serve, tear each burrata in half and divide between four small plates. Spoon the sorrel and pea salsa on top, sprinkle each portion with a pinch each of the remaining nigella seeds, lemon zest and a pinch of salt. Drizzle over half a teaspoon of lemon juice and serve.
Green almond salad
Almonds picked at this time of year are often raw and green. They consist of an inner core, which turns into the familiar dried almonds, and a fuzzy outer skin that comes off later in the season. In the eastern Med, green almonds are eaten in their entirety. They are intensely sharp and really wake the tastebuds. You can eat them as they are, just dipped in salt, but I prefer them sliced and added to salads. If you can get it, use purslane instead of lamb’s lettuce here; it has a gloriously succulent texture. This salad is great with roast meat or slow-cooked stews. Serves four as a side dish.
120g green almonds, cut into 1mm slices (use a mandoline, if you have one)
2½ tbsp lemon juice
60g lamb’s lettuce (or purslane)
10g parsley leaves, roughly chopped
5g chervil leaves (or 10g basil leaves, torn)
5g mint leaves, shredded
1 small garlic clove, peeled and crushed
1½ tbsp olive oil
⅓ tsp nigella seeds
Mix the almonds with the lemon juice and marinate for 30 minutes (this stops them going brown). Just before serving, toss everything else bar the nigella seeds in a bowl with an eighth of a teaspoon of salt, stir in the almonds and the lemony liquid, sprinkle on the nigella and serve.
Seared prawns and pomelo salad
All the elements of this dish are finished just before serving. You want the prawns and topping to be hot, and the salad only just tossed, so the herbs don’t wilt and the pomelo doesn’t release its juices. Serves four to six.
2 pomelos, peeled, pith and membrane removed, flesh broken into 3cm chunks
2 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
20g mint leaves, torn
20g Thai (or regular) basil leaves, torn
1kg sustainably sourced jumbo king prawns, deveined and shells removed, but with the tails left intact (you want 24 prawns in total)
1 tbsp groundnut oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp lime juice
For the dressing
60g palm sugar (coarsely grated, if using a block)
100ml lime juice (ie, the juice from about 5 limes)
1 tbsp fish sauce
2 red chillies, cut into julienne strips
4cm piece fresh ginger, peeled and cut into julienne strips
1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed
For the topping
120g peanuts, roughly crushed
2 tbsp groundnut oil
1 tbsp sesame seeds
First, make the dressing. Bring the water and palm sugar to a boil in a small saucepan, stirring to dissolve the sugar, then cook for three to four minutes, until thick and reduced by a third. Take off the heat and stir in the lime juice, fish sauce, chillies, ginger and garlic, and leave to cool.
Put the pomelo, shallots, mint and basil in a large bowl, but do not stir.
Just before serving, make the topping and cook the prawns. Put the peanuts, groundnut oil and an eighth of a teaspoon of salt in a small saucepan on a medium heat. As the peanuts start to turn light-golden – after about four minutes – add the sesame seeds and cook for a minute, stirring often, until the nuts and seeds are golden-brown. Tip into a bowl to stop them cooking further.
In a medium bowl, mix the prawns, groundnut oil, half a teaspoon of salt and a grind of pepper. Put a large frying pan on a high heat, then sear the prawns for a minute to a minute and a half on each side, until cooked and browned (depending on the size of your pan, you may have to do this in two batches). Tip the cooked prawns into a bowl, pour over the lime juice and toss.
Pour the dressing into the pomelo bowl and stir gently but thoroughly. Divide the salad between six plates, top with the prawns and then with the warm peanut topping, and serve at once.