Spring has sprung, which means bountiful supplies of juicy cherries, delicate zucchini flowers and sweet fresh peas, writes Brigitte Hafner.
I cook Thai and Vietnamese dishes at this time because that's what I feel like: green mango salads with chilli, fish sauce, lime juice, fresh mint, Thai basil and fried, crushed peanuts. I love the crunchy freshness mingled with the sharp, hot dressing. It's also a salad that can have many variations including crab meat, grilled prawns or beef, garnished with fried, blackened dried chillies and lightly roasted ground rice.
Green mangoes are the hard, unripe mangoes that are prized mostly for their crunchy texture and tangy flavour. Personally, I prefer them when they are beginning to ripen - still very green but not rock hard, with just a hint of give. That way, they still provide the textural crunch in salads but also taste more like a mango. They are sold mostly at Asian grocers.
Mangoes are great until late summer, and I always think how lucky we are in this country to have these sweet and delicate fruits. Mangoes are mostly grown in the northern tropics, such as Darwin and Katherine, and along the sub-tropical coast of Queensland. They are now also being grown in parts of NSW as varieties and growing techniques improve. So that's a good thing - more mangoes for everyone.
In the shops, look for unblemished fruit with no black spots. They should feel soft but not mushy and still have some firmness. When ripe, they'll smell sweet through their skin. The most common variety is the Bowen mango, which I think is the king of mangoes.
About every year, just after Christmas, my uncle Wilfred brings me a box of freshly picked morello cherries from his farm in Gippsland. I love them. I make one pot of red wine pickle because pickled cherries are great with terrines, as well as roasted pork and confit duck later in the year. Then I cook another pot in sugar syrup to make cherry compote, which I use when I bake my version of my mother's Black Forest cake that I like to call chocolate cherry cake (see the recipe below). As kids, it was our most requested birthday cake. She uses a Sacher torte recipe as the base but mine is a little lighter and is finished with ganache and chocolate curls.
Cherries come from the Young and Orange districts of NSW, and Wandin, Wangaratta and Shepparton in Victoria. They can be very drought-affected, so let's hope we have good crops this year. Of the many varieties that come out from October to February (their peak season is in summer), some are a deep red, such as the Black Douglas, and others have a paler flesh inside. Cherries should be shiny and plump with green stems. They keep best in the fridge and, once pitted, will lose their juice, so use them promptly.
I refuse to buy Californian cherries in the middle of our winter because they don't have half the flavour of cherries grown and picked here. Also, eating cherries seasonally makes me cherish them because I have to wait a whole year until they're back.
From now until January, I'll be enjoying cherries in syrup over ice-cream, cherry jam, cherry crostata with lemon-scented pastry and walnuts, and cherry clafoutis - a French dessert of cherries doused in kirsch liqueur baked with a batter over the top. Fresh out of the oven, sprinkled with icing sugar and served with fresh cream, it's delicious.
This is my favourite herb because it's so evocative of summer and all things Italian.
One of the nicest things I've learnt to do with a bunch of basil is make pesto like they do in Genoa - crushed in a mortar and pestle with pine nuts, grated parmesan, extra-virgin olive oil and soft butter. This mixed with a little salty water from cooking pasta, then tossed with the pasta, is just superb. It's also wonderful in tomato and buffalo mozzarella lasagne. Leftover fresh basil can be chopped up and covered with olive oil to use later in cooking for flavouring. It keeps remarkably well this way and is certainly better fresh rather than dried.
These are the lovely tiny flowers you can stuff with something delicious, such as goat's cheese, feta and herbs, ricotta flavoured with parmesan or chopped rocklobster bound with a little mascarpone. Make a light batter and deep-fry them. The male part of the plant producesa flower on a little stem. The female part also producesa flower, but with a baby zucchini attached, and these are the most commonly sold. I prefer these as you get the bonus of a tender zucchini attached. They can be cut in half and gently cooked in extra-virgin olive oil, flavoured with lemon zest, pine nuts, currants, parsley and pecorino to have with spaghetti.
These are at their best in late spring when they are wonderful cooked as a side dish. I always buy peas in their pods because they get starchy shortly after shelling and, hey, shelling is relaxing. Sauté in butter and eat with thinly sliced prosciutto, torn buffalo mozzarella and fusilli pasta.