Thursday, 30 April 2009

Pea shoots and scores

The highly esteemed chef Mark Hix has put his face to the pea shoots campaign this year claiming that the tender leaves of the traditional garden pea plant harvested after just two weeks are his first choice in the salad department.

Hix takes a leaf out of Chinese cookbooks and stir-fries pea shoots with butter, rapeseed oil and wild garlic flowers then serves them with scallops or poached sea trout. He also makes a cool minted pea salad with Little Wallop goat’s cheese and a cider vinegar dressing and a flavoursome chilled pea shoot and spring leek soup.

Pea shoots have crunchy stems and delicate leaves, like watercress, and taste of freshly shucked peas. Use them to make a pesto with lightly toasted walnuts, feta and pea shoot fritters or even in a super summery strawberry and cucumber salad with a honey and balsamic reduction.

Drinks wise, a Crossroads Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Marlborough (Wine Rack, £8.99) bursts with crunchy green fruits and is ideal with warm salad and fish dishes.

For more recipes visit

Saturday, 25 April 2009

New season asparagus - bundles of joy

The first English asparagus is in the shops now – thick stalked spears from the Wye Valley and there’ll be plenty more to come over the next eight weeks.

Whichever way you choose to cook asparagus - boiled, griddled (a combination of the two), steamed or oven roasted – don’t overdo it. The best spears are those that have only been a couple of hours out of the ground. They have an unbeatable, intense grassy flavour.

Serve asparagus with a fresh squeeze of lemon juice and butter; evoo – twitter speak for extra virgin olive oil -, balsamic vinegar and shaved parmesan cheese; with a Hollandaise to dip; blanketed in Parma ham; in a frittata with tarragon, or on a bed of cooked ham topped with a poached duck’s egg.

Asparagus festivals are held across the country from Essex to Yorkshire – see for more details. Tomorrow sees the Great English Asparagus Run, starting at the Bell Tower in Evesham.

Watch a video on How to Cook Asparagus at

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Pollock is now a fish called Colin

Sainsbury’s has renamed the fish pollack as “colin” - the French word for pollack - to save customers blushes when they ask for it.

Pollack is a cheaper, sustainable alternative to cod or haddock. Two of the most popular varieties in the UK are Alaskan Pollack (often spelt with an “o”, confusingly) whose fillets deliver a bone-free whitefish with a consistent snow-white color. They are lean with a tender texture and excellent flaking qualities. While Atlantic Pollack, a different species, is greyer and more oily, and has a "fishier" flavour. Both types are used for fish and chips and fish fingers.

A traditional ditty went “Pollack for puss, coley for the cat” but pollack works perfectly well in a fish pie, pan roasted with chorizo and butter beans, served with a fresh parsley sauce, or cooked Sicilian style with raisin and shallots. Try a Les Champs Bordelais Sauvingon Blanc 2007, Bordeaux (£5.98; Asda) for its fish-friendly citrus tang.

For more information on the fishing industry and fuss-free recipes check out Mitch Tonks’ new book Fish: The Complete Fish & Seafood Companion (£25; Pavilion) or visit the Marine Stewardship Council’s website (

Monday, 13 April 2009

Strengths of spinach

Popeye’s secret weapon, iron-rich spinach is available all year round, but the best stuff grows in the spring time.

A big handful of washed spinach is simple to cook, with or without butter or oil in a pan. It is a light vegetable with a high water content and so reduces to around a quarter of its size when cooked. As long as the stems are not stick-like, keep them for an added bite.

Alternatively, tender spinach leaves can be blanched and chopped before being reheated with spring onions sautéed in olive oil and mixed with crème fraiche or fried paneer. It’s an ingredient friendly leaf that pairs up smoothly with nutmeg, garlic and olive oil as well as most fish, smoked haddock in particular, and with cheese, especially feta and ricotta. It works well wilted into pasta dishes with bacon and chilli, in a crab frittata or in an English muffin with smoked salmon and a poached egg.

For an ultra-healthy salad, try raw baby-leaf raw spinach simply dressed with olive oil and lemon juice and scattered with toasted pine nuts, raisins and sunflower seeds.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Spring lamb for Easter

Signs are beginning to appear in butchers’ windows in the south for the first of this year’s spring lamb. British raised lamb is only available fresh from about now until November.

New season’s lamb is traditionally associated with Easter and, if it’s had a spell hanging, has a tender texture, rosy pink hue and white crumbly fat. At this time of year, it is likely to have been reared indoors on its mother’s milk and supplementary feed with possibly some grazing on lowland grasses. By late May onwards if the animal is fed on lush pastures it will develop a deeper, juicy-sweet flavour that is enhanced by grilling.

It is said that the accompaniment to roast or grilled lamb should be based on the lamb’s natural diet. Hence young lamb goes well with baby spinach, watercress and mint, which are all plants that grow at a low level around streams. However, fennel, marinated artichoke hearts and roasted cherry tomatoes work well, too.

A bottle of Santa Julia Fuzion shiraz malbec (£4.49; Somerfield), from Argentina, is a good-value match for roast lamb with its dark fruits’ fragrance and peppery notes.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Hot cross buns

Hot cross buns are small festive breads traditonally eaten towards the end of the Lent fast on Good Friday in Britain. Made from white flour with spices, sugar, dried fruit and dairy produce, these were special treats when most people lived on coarse wholemeal breads.

A good hot cross bun should be round, 7 – 10cm in diameter, well-risen (not squarish and squashed) and highly glazed, with a cross on top (this is usually made with flour and water paste, although strips of marzipan or cutting a cross are alternatives). The crumb should be fairly pale, not too soft or sticky, and have a light flavour of sweet spices and/or candied peel and dried fruit.
Eat warm or split, toasted with butter for breakfast, tea or a snack, and make bread-and butter pudding with leftovers.

The rhyme “one a penny, two a penny, hot cross buns” recalls the habit of selling them warm from bakeries like the Chelsea Bun House in the 18th century. Avoid the cheap packs from supermarkets made using the Chorleywood industrial baking process.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Jersey Royals connections

These delicious British potatoes are one of the keynotes of the seasonal food calendar and in a good year they’ll be available in time for Easter lunch.

Despite so many rival mini new spuds on the market, from “Charlotte” to “Pearl”, it’s hard to beat the first plate of pukka Jerseys topped with parsley or snipped chives, flakes of sea salt and lashings of butter.

JRs are grown using the local vraic seaweed as fertiliser and handpicked from the Channel Island soil. They have a firm texture, a papery skin that you can be rubbed away with your thumb, and an earthy flavour. Their firmness makes them great for both cooking and salads.

Jersey Royals are the only fresh British product to have PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status awarded by the EU. This guarantees the origin and quality of these potatoes.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Remembering rosemary

A spiky evergreen bush, rosemary is a member of the mint family. It has a pungent, pine-like taste with lemon and camphor undertones that add flavour to meats, potatoes and breads and is a common ingredient in marinades and soups.

Rosemary is at its best palled up with garlic on roast spring lamb or chicken, on blistering hot focaccia bread with a splash of olive oil or in slow-cooked tomato sauces. It also works well with rabbit, mustard, honey and oranges.

To use sprigs of fresh rosemary in cooking, strip the leaves from the woody stalk by holding the tip and pulling down on the leaves in the opposite direction they are growing. Chop the tough leaves finely before adding to other ingredients, ideally at the start of cooking to allow it plenty of time to break down.

Dried rosemary loses some of the aromatic perfumed flavour of the fresh stuff but is handy to have to hand in the kitchen. Simply hang a bundle of freshly clipped sprigs upside down in a cupboard for about four to five weeks then transfer the leaves to an airtight container.