Eat your greens

You know it’s peak asparagus season when it’s all you can see as you thumb your way  through Instagram.

We’ve reached the end of what farmers call the hungry gap, when, in early spring, there is little fresh produce available. That period is well and truly over, with greens lining up on the shelves of our greengrocers: watercress, cucumber, leeks, spring greens, and my favourite, asparagus. They’re often regarded as a delicacy, but these stubborn little spears are a hardy lot and will generally stick around in the salad drawer for a good week or so.

Spring is definitely here (how can it be mid-May already?) and as the days get longer and temperatures rise, I want to cook easy meals with fresh flavours.

Asparagus season comes but once a year, so I’m making the most of these green shoots while I can. Instead of boiling, I prefer to pan fry them in a little olive oil with salt and pepper and a generous squeeze of lemon juice.

Asparagus works well in most dishes, from pasta to pastry, and because of its robust flavour and texture, it will often take the starring role alongside other ingredients.

This simple risotto takes under half an hour to cook and uses buckwheat (which contains 13.25g of protein per 100g – that’s more than eggs) instead of rice. The wild garlic adds a sweetly mellow flavour, but it’ll be gone in the next few weeks, so two cloves of garlic will also do the trick.

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Buckwheat risotto with asparagus, spinach and wild garlic. Captured hanging out of our kitchen window for optimal daylight (we don’t have a garden).

 Buckwheat risotto with asparagus, spinach and wild garlic

 

Serves 2

Ingredients

150g buckwheat, rinsed and drained

8-10 asparagus spears, ends removed and roughly chopped

500ml vegetable stock

Half a leek, diced (or use half an onion, peeled and diced)

3-4 wild garlic leaves, roughly chopped (keep the edible flowers for a garnish)

3-4 large handfuls spinach

The juice of 1 lemon

A pinch of chilli flakes (optional)

1 tbsp olive oil

Salt and pepper

A few leaves of fresh mint, roughly chopped

 

Heat the oil in a large pan, then add the leek and sauté for 3 minutes. Add the wild garlic and the chilli flakes and cook on a medium heat for a further 2 minutes. In a separate pan, fry the asparagus in a little oil; do this over a medium heat for around 10 minutes.

Add the buckwheat to the pan and mix well, coating each grain in oil – add a little extra if necessary. Add a ladleful of the hot stock to the pearl barley and stir well. Bring to a simmer as the liquid is absorbed by the rice.  Continue adding more stock, a ladleful at a time, letting the buckwheat absorb it gradually; do this for about 15 minutes, until soft.

Add the cooked asparagus to the pan with the spinach, lemon juice and salt and pepper and stir until the spinach has wilted. Turn off the heat and stir through the chopped mint. Squeeze over some more lemon juice and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, if you like, and decorate with the wild garlic flowers. Add a smattering of sunflower seeds for extra bite.

 

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Taking stock

It’s a funny old month, April. The days are longer and it’s warmer than it was even a couple of weeks ago (yesterday, I went out without a coat) but spring still feels a little wait away. Today, as I sit at my kitchen table writing this, I’m waiting for it to rain. It’s been forecast all morning but despite the dishwater grey skies, it still hasn’t come. All is quiet in the flat and on the street outside and I haven’t really spoken to anyone all day. Far from feeling lonely, I’m relishing it.

I’m not quite ready for my spring renewal, not just yet. In the last year there’s been so much change in my life (going freelance, moving to another city and writing a book) and now I’m ready to sit tight and take some time to rest and reflect. I’m still working, of course, but life is a bit slower while I try to assemble all the thoughts in my head into some sort of orderly fashion.

What’s next? Surely it’s what anyone asks after writing a book. It’s almost a month since The Occasional Vegan was published and I’m enjoying all the lovely things that people are telling me, but I’m also itching to start something new. I have some exciting projects lined up (including a new vegan menu at Milk & Sugar in Cardiff) and there’ll definitely be more food writing in the near future.

I had such a lovely time at the launch event for the book last week. So many of my nearest and dearest came along to support me (and to buy a signed copy of the book – thank you!) and despite my quavering voice, I managed to say a few words about why I wrote the book and what it means to me. Even though I do lots of TV and radio stuff, I feel anxious every single time so I’m glad that it went down well. In the middle of my rambling, I quoted from a review of the book, by my friend (and fellow vegan), Sareta.

“This book proves that veganism really is for everyone which is refreshing in a world of books by polished west London daddy’s girls. Sarah’s food is real food for real people.”

Now, I have nothing against anyone who’s had life handed to them on a plate (and if that helps them make a living, lucky them) but that’s clearly not me. I’m passionate about making eating well accessible and affordable to everyone and that will continue to be my ethos.

This week, I’m back in the kitchen and cooking simple meals using seasonal ingredients. I’m no purist, but the locally grown stuff tastes like heaven (and it’s often cheaper, too) and the appearance of new season tomatoes and strawberries at my local supermarket or greengrocer really does get me excited. Sometimes I do a little solitary fist pump – people must think I’m odd.

Wild garlic is all over my Instagram feed at the moment and it just so happens to be growing in the woods near to where I live. It’s free and plentiful at this time of year (although don’t pick from private land without permission and only take as much as you intend to use) and is so easy to whizz up into a quick pesto. It has a much mellower flavour than garlic, so you can afford to use a bit more of it than you would with the ordinary kind, but you’ll still get a sweetly fragrant sauce for your pasta. My other half’s not a fan of overly strong flavours (something I’ll never understand) so it got the thumbs up from him, too.

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Pasta with wild garlic pesto

Pasta with wild garlic pesto

Serves 2

For the pesto

5-6 large leaves of wild garlic, chopped finely, stalks removed

2 big handfuls of rocket, spinach or watercress

80g walnuts

4 tbsp olive oil

The juice of one lemon

Salt and pepper

 

150-200g pasta of your choice

 

Boil a pan of salted water and cook your pasta for about 10 minutes (or according to the instructions on the packet) until al dente.

Meanwhile, put all the ingredients for the pesto in a blender and pulse on high for a minute or so. You should end up with a fairly smooth paste, although a grainier texture (if your blender is quite basic, like mine) is fine, too.

When the pasta’s cooked, keep a tablespoon or two of the water and then drain. Return to the pan, stir through the pesto and the pasta water and heat for a minute, then serve.