The Hungry Gap is almost over, that’s the name gardeners give to the three or four weeks between the end of the winter vegetables — roots, kale and leeks —and the beginning of the summer bounty when there is little or no fresh produce available in gardens and virtually no greens on supermarket shelves. People all over the country are discovering the seasonal treasures in their own parishes, local honey producers, farmhouse cheese makers, fish smokers, poultry and egg producers, charcuterie makers and artisans of all shapes and sizes.
We’re so fortunate to be in the midst of a 100-acre organic farm in East Cork with hens, pigs, cows, a micro diary which yields Jersey milk, homemade butter, buttermilk, yoghurt and thick rich cream everyday. There’s a Bread Shed in a converted mega trailer and a Fermentation Palace in another repurposed trailer, but best of all is an acre block of greenhouses (a relic of a horticultural enterprise which operated right into the 1970s) which we now use as a protected garden. Although it’s not heated, the crops mature two or three weeks earlier than outdoor vegetables and herbs.
I feel elated when the first of the beetroot is ready to harvest. Three super delicious vegetables in one — the beets, stalks and leaves. Most people just think of pickled beetroot but the young beets are delicious served as a hot vegetable, particularly with a roast duck or a fish gratin. I pickle the stalks too. They cook in a minute or two, drizzle them with extra virgin olive oil and add a little shredded fresh mint for a feast. We add them to stews, fish dishes, on and on, but certainly don’t waste a scrap.
We also have the first bunches of spring onions and the new season’s Sturon onions are bigger than a golf ball by now with lots of green leaf. I’ve been melting the sliced bulbs in extra virgin olive oil for four or five minutes on a gentle heat, then adding every scrap of the sliced greens, some thyme leaves… A gorgeous accompaniment to a main dish or add a good dollop of cream to make an unctuous sauce to accompany a steak. The green spears of asparagus pop up in beds in the garden so try this asparagus and spring onion tart during the few weeks when Irish asparagus is in season.
We’ve also had the very first globe artichokes this week. Simply cooked, in boiling well salted water with a dash of vinegar, then served with a bowl of lemon butter to dip the base of each leaf in and to enjoy the heart in chunks.
We’ve had lots of rhubarb for weeks now, I eat it almost every day in a sweet or savoury recipe and as a compote for breakfast. A little stewed rhubarb makes a change from apple sauce and cuts the richness of pork deliciously.
We’ve got masses of rhubarb recipes, here’s another one that you might like to try.
The new season’s beets are just ready to harvest. The beets are swelling everyday but one can eat them from when they are the size of a table tennis ball. We love them served hot as a vegetable when they are young and sweet but we use the stalks and leaves too. The leaves are delicious served fresh in a salad or wilted down like spinach. The stalks and leaves can be served together or the stalks can be blanched, refreshed and drained, then tossed in a little extra virgin olive oil and some freshly snipped herbs and serve warm or cold.
How to cook beetroot Leave 5cm (2 inch) of leaf stalks on top and the whole root on the beet.
Hold it under a running tap and wash off the mud with the palms of your hands, so that you don’t damage the skin; otherwise the beetroot will bleed during cooking. Cover with cold water and add a little salt and sugar.
Cover the pot, bring to the boil and simmer, or in an oven, for 15-20 minutes (in May/June when they are young) depending on size — they can take 1-2 hours in late Autumn and Winter when they are tough. Beetroot are usually cooked if the skin rubs off easily and if they dent when pressed with a finger. If in doubt test with a skewer or the tip of a knife. Use in chosen recipe.
Peel the freshly cooked beetroot, use rubber gloves for this operation if you are vain! Chop the beetroot flesh into cubes.
Melt the butter in a sauté pan, add the beetroot, add the cream, allow to bubble for a few minutes. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper and sugar.
Taste and add a little lemon juice if necessary. Scatter with fresh parsley and serve immediately.
Whole Globe artichokes are quite fiddly to eat.
First you pull off each leaf separately and dip in the sauce. Eventually you are rewarded for your patience when you come to the heart! Don’t forget to scrape off the tickly ‘choke’; then cut the heart into manageable pieces, sprinkle with a little sea salt before you dip it into the remainder of your sauce. Simply delicious.
Some restaurants do very complicated preparation but I merely trim the base just before cooking so the artichokes will sit steadily on the plate, rub the cut end with lemon juice or vinegar to prevent it from discolouring.
Have a large saucepan of boiling water ready, add 2 teaspoons of vinegar and 2 teaspoons of salt to every 2 pints of water, pop in the artichokes and bring the water back to the boil. Simmer steadily for about 25 minutes. After about 20 minutes you could try testing to see if they are done. I do this by tugging off one of the larger leaves at the base, it should come away easily, if it doesn’t continue to cook for another 5 - 10 minutes. Remove and drain upside down on a plate.
While they are cooking simply melt the butter and add lemon juice to taste.
To serve Put each warm artichoke onto a hot serving plate, serve the sauce or melted butter in a little bowl beside it. Artichokes are eaten with your fingers, so you might like to provide a finger bowl. A spare plate to collect all the nibbled leaves will also be useful.
Preheat the oven to 200ºC/400°F/Gas Mark 6.
Sieve the flour with the salt, cut the butter into cubes and rub into the flour with the fingertips. Keep everything as cool as possible; if the fat is allowed to melt the finished pastry may be tough. When the mixture looks like coarse breadcrumbs, stop.
Whisk the egg yolk and add the water. Take a fork or knife (whichever you feel most comfortable with) and add just enough liquid to bring the pastry together, then discard the fork and collect it into a ball with your hands, this way you can judge more accurately if you need a few more drops of liquid. Although rather damp pastry is easier to handle and roll out, the resulting crust can be tough and may well shrink out of shape as the water evaporates in the oven. The drier and more difficult-to-handle pastry will give a crisper shorter crust.
Cover with cling film and chill for half an hour if possible, this will make it less elastic and easier to roll out. Roll out the pastry and line the tin. Line with greaseproof paper and fill with baking beans. Bake ‘blind’ for 20 minutes approx. until the pastry is three-quarters cooked, remove from the oven. Remove the baking beans, brush the base with beaten egg wash and place back in the oven for another 5 minutes.
Slice the rhubarb and spread over the pastry base.
Whisk together the egg yolks, sugar, vanilla extract and flour and spread over the rhubarb. Bake in a preheated oven for 10 minutes, this will start the rhubarb cooking.
Meanwhile, whisk the egg whites until fluffy. As they stiffen, trickle in the caster sugar and continue to whisk until stiff. Remove the tart from the oven and pipe or spread the meringue on top.
Reduce the heat to 180ºC/350°F/Gas Mark 4, return to the oven. Bake for a further 25 minutes.
Cool on a wire rack and serve with softly whipped cream.
110ml (4fl ozs) cream salt and freshly ground pepper
1 x 18cm (7 inch) quiche tin or 1 x 18cm (7 inch) flan ring
First make the shortcrust pastry.
Sieve the flour into a bowl and rub in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Mix in the egg to bind the pastry. Add a little water if necessary, but don’t make the pastry too sticky. Chill for 15 minutes. Then roll out the pastry to line the quiche tin or flan ring to a thickness of 3mm (1/8 inch) approx. Line with greaseproof paper and fill to the top with dried beans and bake blind for approximately 20 minutes in a moderate oven, 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4. Remove the beans, egg wash the base and return to the oven for 1-2 minutes. This seals the pastry and helps to avoid a ‘soggy bottom’.
Next make the filling Melt the butter, add the olive oil and onions; sweat the onions with a good pinch of salt until soft but not coloured.
Cook the asparagus in boiling salted water until al dente, then drain. When it is cool enough to handle, cut into 1cm (1/2 inch) pieces.
Whisk the eggs in a bowl; add the cream, almost all the cheese, onion and the cooked asparagus. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Pour into the pastry case, sprinkle the remainder of the cheese on top and bake in a moderate oven 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4, for 40-45 minutes.