It's the time of year to enjoy some of the British produce with the shortest of seasons. Madalene Bonvini-Hamel looks at this month's best ingredients
After a warm start to spring, a few unexpected frosty nights have snuck in causing havoc for gardeners and farmers. Sadly, the devastation will reflect in the prices of fruit and vegetables this year. We have had a bit of rain but still not enough in some counties to secure a good start to the summer crops.
Fresh herbs are plentiful and with the warmer temperatures, if you plant herbs now, it should be easy to grow your own supplies throughout the summer. Growing herbs is generally low-maintenance gardening, although they do require regular watering. With frequent harvesting, the plants should produce plenty for the whole season. For a good selection, try flat-leaf parsley, tarragon, sage and rosemary as well as a variety of thyme and mint. Summer savory, on the other hand, is not as easy to come by, so growing your own would provide you with something slightly different for your menus.
Salad leaves of all kinds are in season now, from rocket to baby spinach and baby gems. The latter not only makes a delicious crisp ready-to-eat salad leaf but also are perfect for cooking. To braise baby gems (this recipe is enough for four), heat a large non-stick frying pan with one tablespoon of unsalted butter over medium heat. Once it starts to foam, brown two baby gems that have been halved lengthways. Season and cook until lightly browned on both sides. Add 400ml of chicken, white fish or vegetable stock. Cover the gems with a cartouche and a lid and transfer the dish to a preheated oven at 180°C for 15-18 minutes, cook until the gems are tender and the stock has reduced to a glaze. Drain and serve the braised gems with pan-fried sea bass, John Dory, sea trout, salmon or even roasted rump of lamb or pan-roasted woodpigeon.
For the keen coastal forager there is plenty to choose from. Look out for sea purslane, sea beet and marsh samphire.
Edible flowers can provide something special and different for the chef to work with. Examples include yellow rocket flowers, pink chive flowers, blue borage (flowers and leaves), pink and white rosemary and thyme flowers as well as violet and nasturtium (flowers and leaves). These flowers are all very different in their own rights and are perfect for a variety of dishes from sweet to savoury. Drying edible flowers will not only preserve them but could also add an interesting texture and increased intensity of flavour to your dish.
Elderflowers should be ready to harvest from the end of May and on into the first few weeks of June. It is best to harvest and preserve them as quickly as you can.
The English asparagus season has started, so there should be a regular steady flow of home-grown asparagus available throughout May. Try to select an ungraded variety as it keeps the cost down.
Records show that the Egyptians have used asparagus since 3000BC for its culinary and medicinal purposes. It has also been written about in the world's oldest surviving cookbook. Asparagus grow from crowns that bear fruits only after a year following sowing, making it a labour of love for gardeners. Asparagus grows best in sandy soil and has a short season; in the UK, the season is usually from 23 April till midsummer's day. Green, white and wild asparagus (also known as Bath asparagus or ornithogalum pyrenaicum) are also available during the asparagus season. It's important to use asparagus as soon as it has been harvested; fresh slim tender stems are usually the tastiest, as the thicker ones usually turn woody. Asparagus is best when paired up with simple ingredients such as eggs and cheese.
A few classic asparagus dishes are: butter-glazed steamed asparagus served as a vegetable/side dish and warm freshly cooked asparagus with poached eggs and hollandaise as a classic starter.
With thousands of crab species in all shapes and sizes to choose from, choice comes down to personal taste. In the UK there's brown crab, spider crab and, occasionally, velvet crabs, but we also get frozen imports. Crab consists of a combination of distinctly sweet flaky white meat and pasty, stronger-tasting brown meat. Both are edible and used for a variety of different recipes. The European brown crab, also known as cancer pagurus, is the most common species used for cooking and is available all year round.
However, Cromer crab from Norfolk is particularly popular owing to its high ratio of white meat to brown. As with lobsters, not only is the meat used in cooking but once the meat has been removed, the shells can be used to make a valuable bisque.
Crab dishes to consider: crab cakes with dandelion salad and chilli tomato chutney; Cromer crab and asparagus tart; potted crab with toasted sourdough and crab cannelloni with a crab bisque.
Sambucus nigra is a beautiful tree-like shrub native to most of Europe. The shrub is better known as the elder, elderberry or black elder and is the bearer of glorious cream-white flowers in the spring, followed by deep black-blue-purple berries in the late autumn. The flowers are commonly used to make a cordial that dates back to Roman times. It's usually diluted with water and served as a refreshing drink but has become more popular over the years as an ingredient for desserts. Elderflowers themselves can also be dipped into a sweetened batter and fried "tempura" style and served as a dessert. If you're on a mission to make your own, remembering a few key factors can result in guaranteed success:
● Always pick the flowers furthest away from a main road to avoid road pollution and choose flowers higher up the tree to prevent animal contamination.
● Buy all the required ingredients such as citric acid (used to prevent crystallisation and acts as a preservative) beforehand.
For culinary purposes, we use curly parsley or Continental flat-leaf parsley (cultivars not botanical varieties). Both are equally popular. Parsley is easy to grow and is used successfully for companion planting, especially with tomatoes. Another cultivar is root parsley. It is less well-known in Britain and looks like a parsnip. It tastes a bit like celery and flavours a waterzooi, a Belgian fish stew made with zander. As its name implies, one uses the roots of root parsley, instead of the leaves, in various stews and soups.
A few well-known parsley recipes are: salsa verde, gremolata and persilliade served with grilled meats, fish and shellfish.
Marsh and rock samphire are very different from each other in appearance and taste. The rock variety has a perfumed aroma and needs handling with discretion or it will overpower the flavour of fish. Marsh samphire can be used like a vegetable, providing it is picked young because it rapidly gets stringy as it develops its characteristic candelabra shape.
Rock and marsh samphire are commonly found around the costal shores of the British Isles but the best of these are found in Norfolk. Samphire grows close to the water, on muddy sandy flats often around estuaries and requires a high tide to flourish. The plant looks hardy, however the stems are succulent and juicy and will bruise easily. It's best used when freshly harvested. It is easy to cook; simply blanch in boiling water for one minute or toss in a pan over high heat with a teaspoon of butter or olive oil. Good served with fish and it is the perfect accompaniment with salt marsh lamb.
Store cupboard staples: I have focused on the following three store cupboard staples for the seasonal recipes in May.
This is a gelling agent suitable for vegans and is produced from a mixture of carbohydrates extracted from red sea algae. It is also known as kanten in Japan and referred to as "icing glass" in Mrs Beeton's cookbook. The most significant characteristic of agar is that it requires heat to be activated - hence the need to boil it for a minimum of one-to-two minutes. Unlike gelatine, it won't start to melt until it reaches 85°C therefore enabling agar jellies to be served warm. As with gelatine, agar's setting ability can be jeopardised by irregular pH balanced foodstuffs such as those with either too high acidity or alkaline content - for example, too much salt, or, when using chocolate, spinach and pineapple. If you are using ingredients with a high tannin content, boil together with the agar for two to five minutes. This should reduce the milk colour caused by the tannin. Boiling will also purify and clarify the jelly hence the use of agar as a clarifying agent.
Almond trees grow successfully in Britain, with fresh almonds available during late autumn and early winter. Ground almonds, flaked almonds and blanched almonds are available all year round and should be regular storecupboards staples that are best kept in a cool, dark and well-ventilated cupboard. Fresh green almonds can also be used for a variety of sumptuous baking and savoury dishes. It may be interesting to note that almonds are not botanically classified as nuts. The tree bears a fruit called a drupe, inside which is a seed. This is the bit that we eat and, therefore, it is incorrectly referred to as a nut. Almonds keep well for a long period of time after having been processed - however, as they naturally contain high amounts of almond oil, they will go rancid quickly during changeable weather. Always refer to the best before date on the pack before using. Almonds remain at their freshest if kept refrigerated. Purchase them in small quantities in order to guarantee the best and freshest quality at all times.
TIPO "OO'' FLOUR
Also known as pasta flour. "00" flour is made using pure durum wheat, which has a high natural protein content. This very fine, soft wheat flour is the best type of flour with which to make pasta, as you will end up with a very smooth fine velvety finish. Pasta flour is also suitable for making bread, pizza dough, cakes and biscuits.
seasonal best for may...
Artichokes, bananas, borage flowers, British asparagus, broccoli, carrots, chervil, chives, cod, crab, dill, elderflowers, herring, Jersey Royal potatoes, John Dory, kiwi fruit, lamb, lettuce, mangoes, marsh samphire, nasturtium flowers and leaves, nettles, new potatoes, parsley, plaice, pollack, prawns, radishes, rhubarb (outdoor), rocket, salad onions, salmon, sardines, sea bass, sea purslane, sea trout, sorrel, spinach, tarragon, watercress, whelks, whitebait, wild garlic, wild mushrooms, woodpigeon.
James Wellock of fresh and dried ingredients supplier Wellocks takes a look at what's coming into season in June
WHAT'S IN STORE IN JUNE
June is a magical month when the UK comes into its own and one or two gems become available from Europe. It's a time when flavour really comes to the forefront and, more importantly, produce is more affordable.
Soft fruit berry growers are seriously at work this month. The big growers are mainly working under polytunnels now creating an amazing five-to-six-month season, so fruit will certainly be in abundance from the end of May. Raspberries, blackberries and blueberries will be starting to become available as the month unfolds, but as ever, watch out for the sun.
One berry that seems to be forgotten is the gooseberry and for me this is such a shame as it cracks a real punch! It only has a short season and while you can get other berries pretty much all year round, gooseberries really are only available in June, making them quite unique - so why don't we start celebrating them as such? You should be able to get them for around £3 for 450g. Another June-only ingredient is the blackcurrant, which are becoming increasingly harder to get your hands on as they are pretty much grown only for Ribena - but continue to ask and pester your supplier.
Soft stone fruit are in abundance from Europe and will give you a great price point. I insist on sourcing mine from Provence as I feel the produce there is the real deal. White peach and nectarine, large apricots and my favourite of all, the paraguya flat peach, were great value last year at £11 for 5kg.
New potatoes are everywhere now with Cornish ones, in particular, taking a real foothold. The wide availability definitely brings the price down. Jersey Royals are still around and then, depending on the weather, other new potato varieties from further up the country become available and then you really will be spoilt for choice. The other thing worth noting is that by the end of the month all the old-crop frying potatoes will be finished so be very careful about what you are using to fry with. A good variety to start off with are Accord.
St George mushrooms are now gone, but there are still plenty of other varieties available. As such, prices are good with ceps, morels, mousseron and girolles ranging from £15 to £35 per kg. Make sure you speak with your supplier as you will have a choice on size and, with extra care and grading, you really can get what you want in a plentiful market.
Summer truffles will also be starting right at the beginning of the month and should be inexpensive (last year's starting price was around £140 per kg which makes these accessible to all, but the key is to have them fresh).
Local summer vegetables will be starting but talk to your supplier as weather will dictate exactly when. You also have the option of baby vegetables - just ask the grower to pull the vegetables while they're young. Summer cauliflower is a great example: they are cheap and fantastic for your gross profit, but by asking your supplier to get them pulled out of the ground early you can have a golf-ball size instead.
At various stages through the month, carrots, beetroots, broccoli and leeks will start - try not to order them before the UK crop is ready as you will be receiving European imports and therefore, in most cases, they will be expensive.
It has to be your podding month as local garden peas and broad beans are at their best and, in my opinion, Yorkshire has the best! These peas and beans are complemented by some beauties from Europe such as borlottis, white coco and yellow beans, which will all be available but, as always, at a price (normally around £30-£35 for 5kg). The choice is yours.