Leeks, especially young or baby leeks, are at their height in spring. Their subtlety makes them a good alternative to the stronger flavour of garlic and chives, to which they’re closely related. Leeks grow almost entirely underground so they require thorough washing to remove the soil that hides between their leaves. The easiest way to do this is to split each leek down the middle first. I prefer to use only the inside white, pale yellow and green layers of larger leeks because the outer layers are tough, stringy and coarser in flavour. Baby leeks can be used in their entirety (just trim their bases), and they look gorgeous presented en masse at the table. I like to cook leeks with a little butter or olive oil and salt over a gentle heat until they are just soft and wilted to bring out their sweetness. This is a great starting point for many dishes. Simply layer them in a shortcrust pastry case with a little speck and nutmeg, then top them with an egg and cream savoury custard mixture; add some lightly beaten eggs to the same mixture and scramble away for a lighter treat or serve them with smoked salmon on toast. Leeks also work well with cheese. I love a warm salad of leeks (cut into 5cm lengths and blanched until tender) with hazelnut dressing and goat’s cheese.
These are a rare find at the markets these days, so if you see them, snap them up. In the Spanish city from which they take their name, these orange trees are planted throughout the streets, and when they’re in blossom the air is heady with their scent. Here, they’re grown in the Riverina region of the Murray Valley, although producers say they have declined in popularity and many trees no longer exist. The growing season is short, from June until September. Their flowers are used to make orange-blossom water and cordial, and the intensely flavoured peel makes the most wonderful syrup to pour over cakes or add to biscuits or crêpes. The peel is also amazing candied – a light sugary frosting is the perfect foil for its bitterness. Of course, Seville oranges also make the world’s best marmalade – one of life’s greatest joys has to bebuttered sourdough toast with homemade Seville orange marmalade. My friend Pippa has mastered the making of it. She soaks the Seville oranges in water overnight, to help draw out the pectin, then gently and slowly cooks the fruit. For every kilo of oranges, she uses two litres of water and 1½ kilos of sugar. She keeps the pips and adds them to the pot, tied up in a piece of muslin. The seeds contain a lot of pectin, which helps set the jam. Pippa recommends adding the juice of two lemons for good (pectin) measure. Sometimes she uses a mixture of half oranges and half grapefruit, which creates a lovely contrast of colours and flavours.
We are very fortunate here in Australia to produce generally excellent free-range lamb, which is at its best in spring. These lambs grow up being fed on the beautifully rich grasses and flowers of the season and nowadays it’s great to see different breeds emerging in farmers’ markets, such as Shropshire lamb, which is a stocky old English breed that has a particularly lovely sweet flavour. Young spring lamb has a delicate taste and should have a rosy pink flesh and pure white fat. I cook it very gently – so that it is still pink in the middle – even if it’s a leg of lamb. After cooking, the meat should always be rested, covered loosely in aluminium foil in a warm spot, to improve tenderness. I think resting the meat – all meat really – also allows its flavours to fully develop and integrate. Spring lamb goes well with other things that are young and delicate in flavour, such as buttered baby carrots and fresh peas with chervil or thyme; baby green beans; or gratinated baby leeks. For recipes, check out our
Shelling peas in front of the TV used to be a childhood chore, but now finding the time to do it is a luxury. These days, I enjoy shelling peas over a glass of wine while preparing dinner. I get great pleasure from cooking peas in spring because they are so sweet and delicious. Freshly shelled – and I mean really fresh peas, not floppy pods that have been sitting on the supermarket shelf for too long – have a far superior flavour to their frozen counterparts. Beware of buying pre-shelled peas, though, because they can quickly turn starchy unless you know they have been shelled the day you want to cook them. Try to buy pods that are full and heavy for their size, with a crisp snap to them when broken, in the height of the season. Be sure not to overcook them – they just need a few minutes in salted boiling water and then you must use them straight away. At their freshest, peas don’t require much embellishment. Personally, I’m addicted to them tossed with salty French butter. Peas go with just about anything. They’re beautiful in a risotto with a little Fontina; with crumbled feta and mint or sautéed onion; or with prosciutto and basil tossed through fusilli pasta or orzo. They can enliven a soup if added at the end, and they make a wonderful frittata. My favourite way to serve them is buttered with roast chicken, Dutch carrots and, of course, a little gravy.
In early spring, everything seems new again, so celebrate with tiny green peas, tender lamb and sweet little leeks, writes Brigitte Hafner.