Monday, 30 March 2009

Go wild for garlic

Wild garlic, also known as ramsons, thrives in damp woods and beside semi-shaded hedgerows. It is recognisable by its garlic-like smell and long lush leaves, similar to those of Lily of the Valley.

Now is the time to pick leaves while they are young and tender. The torn leaves have a mild oniony flavour and can be eaten in salads or cooked in soups and sauces. The white flowers make a pretty garnish for salads and can be deep fried in a tempura batter. The bulbs are tiny but edible.

Alex Venables, chef at the award-winning Tollgate Inn, in Holt, near Bath, is a fan and uses wild garlic in a range of dishes including omelettes and bubble and squeak. For recipes other than salads it is best to blanch the wild garlic: put it into hot boiling water for about 20 seconds then refresh it in ice cold water. Now it’s ready to chop up and use.

To make a wild garlic pesto put a handful of blanched leaves into a blender with walnuts, a healthy slug of olive oil and some crumbled Keen’s farmhouse cheddar, season, blitz and serve with pasta or baked trout.

Mutton dressed as lamb

Spring lamb is just around the corner but in the current spirit of cheaper cuts and “stick with what your grandma ate” philosophy mutton has been enjoying a renaissance.

Mutton means meat from a sheep more than two years old, but it could be as mature as four to five years. Carcasses should be hung for three weeks and the meat, which is gamey red, is best boiled or braised slowly in the oven until tender.

When the Prince of Wales began a campaign, in 2004, to revive mutton – once Britain’s traditional meat before it was usurped by roast beef in the 18th century – he shared some morsels with food industry guests from his own rare breed Hebridean flock at Highgrove. The meat was marinaded for hours in red wine and slow cooked then served with pearl barley and mixed vegetables.

Try mutton in a broth or biryani, or a leg of Herdwick mutton from Cumbria roasted very slowly and served with black pudding and root vegetables. For more recipe ideas and regular masterclasses visit

Where to buy: Graig Farm Organics (01597 851655;, sells; Farmer Sharp (01229 588299; is at Borough Market; Ardalanish Organic Farm (, (buy through Loch Fyne, 01499 600264;

Monday, 23 March 2009

Ready, steady mango

Obviously mangoes don’t grow on trees in Blighty but it is the right time of year to keep eyes peeled for stacks of mango boxes outside Asian and Middle Eastern grocers.

The prized contents are usually Alphonso mangoes from India. These mangoes are smaller, thinner-skinned and more golden than the hard green specimens found in supermarkets. They have a pointed end, an intoxicating fragrance and a pure nectar flavour.

Much of a mango’s flavour is in the aroma that’s released into the mouth when biting the flesh off the washed skin.

Knead the fruit without splitting the skin, chill it in the fridge and then cut a hole in the skin and squash the pulp straight into your mouth.

TV chef Anjum Anand uses the pulp of alphonso mangoes to make a lassi yoghurt drink and a velvety mousse cutting the fruit’s natural sweetness with a squeeze of lime juice.
The flesh can be puréed and frozen to use in sorbet and ice cream.

Look out for the Kesar variety towards the end of April for a beautifully sweet, juicy and aromatic thin-skinned mango from India and Pakistan.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Sussex produces 98% local menu

It is no mean task to create a decent menu from 100 per cent local produce in this country.

Sussex is leading the way with its Celebration of Sussex menu - the brainchild of Martin Hadden, head chef at Historic Sussex Hotels, who claims to use 98 per cent fodder from the county.

Hadden’s dinner starts with Selsey lobster canapés and a brown crab egg custard tart with white crab meat Hollandaise and spring salad leaves, followed by roast best end of lamb with a spinach mousse, and half a dozen Sussex cheeses.

Drinks include a pinot gris 2008 and pinot noir 2006 from Bookers Vineyard, in Bolney, and a mead from Lurgashall Winery.

The honeyed mead is a sweet match for the tangy Sussex Pond pudding, which is traditionally slow cooked for eight hours, allowing enough time for the entire lemon inside to collapse and infuse the syrup which spills out – like a pond – when the casing is broken with a diner’s spoon.

Although there are growers of pak choi and edamame (soya beans) and makers of halloumi in Sussex there are no locally-produced lemons – the menu’s alien 2 per cent.

Photo via Flickr.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Calcots - Catalan's spring onions

It’s still a bit early in the year to find young, tender spring onions grown in Britain but calcots, from Tarragona, in north-east Spain, are in season now.

At annual festivals, known as calçotadas, calçots, which look like a cross between a scallion and a leek, are roasted on a grate over coals and vine trimmings until they are charred on the outside but soft on the inside.

The vegetables are then wrapped fish-and-chips style in newspaper to steam and finish cooking them and served on a terracotta roof tile ready to be peeled at the table and eaten dipped in a pungent red romesco sauce, made with tomatoes, garlic, ground almonds and peppers. It’s a great sauce to use with leeks or roasted sweet red onions. Try them at London’s recently re-opened Fino restaurant.

Calcots, or at least the ones from Valls, have EU protected status and are best eaten with red wine or cava. A Muriel Rioja Reserva 2003 (£9.99; The Co-operative) has a rounded mellowness that suits roasted vegetables.

Sorrel, I haven't a clue...

Sorrel is part of the lettuce family and grows abundantly in the countryside from early spring. It is also available in selected supermarkets and farm shops. Its arrow-shaped leaves resemble a paler looking type of baby spinach and have an astringent lemony flavour that comes from the high content of oxalic acid.

Because of its acidity sorrel is often combined with other mellowing ingredients. It is ideal in soups, sauces or salads with avocado and cucumber, goat’s cheese and beetroot or chopped like a herb and added to stuffing.

Like spinach and watercress it cooks down to minimal quantities and works particularly well with fish, chicken and egg dishes. Try shredded sorrel cooked in butter on sourdough toast with a poached egg, or oily fish such as poached sea trout or grilled mackerel with a sorrel sauce (made with fish stock, cream and vermouth).

The citrus notes, not unlike lemon verbena, mean that sorrel can even be added to fruit salads, jellies and custard.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Limes light up dishes

If oranges and lemons tend to hog the limelight then it’s not because limes lack bite. The lime has a stronger more sour taste than lemon and is a dynamic little culinary catalyst.

It is mainly used for its juice in Asian curries or, along with its zest, as a marinade or salsa for fish and chicken. In ceviches it effectively “cooks” the raw seafood.

Use the juice to make a refreshing sorbet with mint and a splash of vodka, or to liven up icing on a cupcake. Lime juice muddled with brown sugar syrup, rum, soda and spearmint makes a mojito or, for a more crude cocktail, stick a wedge in the top of an ice cold bottle of Mexican beer.
The sourness in limes provides a great foil to sweet dishes: for example, in Florida’s famous Key lime pie where it partners crushed Digestive biscuits and condensed milk, or in a sponge pudding topped with lime curd and mascarpone.

Choose limes that are firm and heavy for their size, and have a glossy, deep green skin – the colour indicates that they are at the peak of their zingy tartness.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

In praise of parsley

Parsley is probably the world’s most popular herb. It derives its name from the Greek word meaning "rock celery" and, indeed, carries a hint of celery in its taste as well as dill and mineral flavours and a slight sweetness. In the kitchen it is first and foremost a garnish but it is also highly nutritious.

The two most popular types of parsley are curly parsley and Italian flat-leaf parsley. The Italian saw-toothed leaf has a more fragrant and less bitter taste than the crispy, tightly bunched curly variety. There is also a third type of parsley known as parsnip-rooted (or Hamburg) that is cultivated for its roots, which resemble salsify and burdock.

Combine chopped parsley with bulgur wheat, finely sliced green onions (scallions), mint leaves, lemon juice and olive oil to make the Middle Eastern classic dish, tabbouleh.

Use parsley, combined with garlic, orange and lemon zest, to make herby sauces such as salsa verde or gremolata as a marinade or dip for chicken, lamb and beef or to finish grilled fish dishes.
Serve a bright salad of fennel, blood orange, vine tomatoes, pumpkin seeds and parsley leaves.

Good old parsley sauce is a “comfort blanket” made for gammon and salmon fishcakes and there’s just as much flavour in the stalk as in the leaf.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Go bananas

There are more than 300 different types of edible banana, but almost all of the commercially grown ones belong to just one type, the Cavendish variety, according to the new Rough Guide to Food (£12.99). This monoculture deprives us of speciality bananas such as the Red Makabu and the tiny Lady Finger and makes bananas more vulnerable to disease, since whole regions are planted with genetically identical stock.

Although bananas are inescapably heavy on food miles, they remain the most iconic food of the Fairtrade movement. They might lack the colour and juice of other winter fruits such as oranges and pomegranate but they have a versatility and comfort factor second to none and are packed with potassium, fibre and the serotonin related B6.

Bananas are a key ingredient for breakfast smoothies or comforting old-school dishes such as banana custard made with fresh vanilla and cardamom pods; banana bread baked with crushed pecans and topped with a lemon syrup; flambé bananas with rum or deep-fried banana and sesame fritters.

Tip: you can freeze ripe bananas to use in cooking at a later date – they will go black in the freezer but taste just fine.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

It's OK to okra

If you've had your fill of cabbage this winter but are still seeking greens then scoop up a bagful of okra next time you're shopping. The only reason we don't eat more of this shapely vegetable, also known as ladies' fingers, is because most of us are uncertain how to cook it or have experienced it overcooked when it becomes slimy and tasteless.

Trim and slice the okra and add to a splash of vegetable oil in a heavy-based frying pan with a tight-fitting lid. The trick is to get the okra to sweat without burning it; flick in a bit of water, shake the pan and cook until tender.

Add to ratatouille, a Thai Monkfish curry or fry with chickpea flour, chilli and chaat masala. Okra is the key thickening ingredient to gumbo, a gelatinous stew from Louisiana made with meat or seafood and Cajun spices.
When shopping look for bright green pods that are soft to touch.