What's in Season?

Award Winning Chef Ian McAndrew's Seasonal Food Guide - May 2023

May is a month of promise, tantalizingly close to abundant crops of spring vegetables but in most years just out of reach. If we are lucky, we will see quite a few early spring crops appearing in our shops, for the gardener his main crops will not start until next month but for those of you that have a large greenhouse or poly-tunnel then many of these can be brought on that little bit sooner. 

If the weather has been kind, then spinach should be just about ready for picking later this month, its dark green leaf being the one vegetable no self-respecting chef would ever be without, providing as it does colour, texture, flavour and a platform for so many dishes. Thankfully spinach is available pretty much all of the year as without it in my kitchen I think I would be totally lost. True spinach, with its deep bottle-green arrowhead leaves, is also one of the most nutritional vegetables, high in iron and other minerals as Popeye will readily attest to and especially if harvested and eaten in a very short time, unlike the tinned spinach that Popeye gorged himself on when needing that ‘little bit extra’ to save Olive Oyl from another terrible fate. Popeye of course was used by the advertising men as tool to get children to eat better and more nutritious food, maybe its about time they tried to come up with another character for today’s children. 

Peas are another spring and summer vegetable I look forward to with anticipation too but these days’ peas, like most vegetables, seems to be available all year round, I certainly remember seeing them in the supermarket in February. I suppose there must be a lot of people out there that have never tasted a fresh pea, being as it was one of the very first vegetables, not only to be frozen, but also to be frozen so successfully. As good as the frozen pea undoubtedly is it is only a caricature of the real thing. Processing seems to exaggerate their sweetness, accentuates their colour and uniforms their flavour; it has left us with a bland acceptance and even contempt of peas borne out of familiarity as they are to be found almost on every plate in every country all year round. In reality the pea is a fantastic vegetable and the first tiny sweet peas of the year are a real delight. Laborious to shell and a big bag to carry home if you are wanting a worthwhile amount but if you can be bothered and they are not too large – large ones are often the only ones to make it to the greengrocers shelf as B---‘s E-- or another similar company have probably rejected them for being too big for their purposes – they are simply wonderful.

All being well we will still see purple sprouting broccoli around this month, this is a vegetable that seems to plug the gap we have between the winter crops and the start of the spring crops proper giving us a taste of the delights to come next month. Purple sprouting is another of the vegetable family that is best cooked and eaten very soon after picking and you will often find that although the supermarket has it on its shelves, (over recent years it seems to have become more popular and therefore much more readily available) it is more often than not very tired and limp looking. Used in the same way as you would use asparagus, it will never be the same but it is almost as good as the real thing while you are waiting.

You won’t have long to wait though, of all the vegetables we grow in this country it has to be asparagus that to me is the very best, the one eagerly awaited above any other, when it comes, I find myself eating it almost everyday, and with such a short season it seems that no sooner has it started that it has finished for another year. But it has to be English, none of this foreign muck you understand, as anything other than English pales into insignificance alongside it. It is quite simply the best in the world. Loving wrapped in their paper bundles these delicate, delectable, tender, purply-green spears are a joy to behold and savour.

The asparagus season is always keenly anticipated and if you are lucky enough to have it in your garden, I applaud you and envy you in equal measure. I have done many things in my time and there are many more I would like to do and believe it or not growing asparagus is one of them, for one reason or another I have never had the opportunity, I suppose it is because it takes so long to bed a plant in that it is years before one can start cutting, and I’m afraid I’m too impatient. If I did have my own asparagus bed though I would probably end up camping outside beside it from the middle of April waiting for the first stalk to pop its head above ground!

For a keen gardener not to have an asparagus bed is almost inconceivable, yes it does take a long time before they can be cropped and it only crops for a very short period while also tying up the ground for the remainder of the year, but asparagus is a rare, very special, and expensive vegetable. Why bother to grow row upon row of cabbages when these can be bought easily, cheaply and all year round, when the same ground could reap such a fantastic harvest as asparagus year in year out?

The term ‘Grass’ is how it is known in market or greengrocer speak and it comes in many different grades and when really thin is very grass like. This thin grass, commonly known as sprue, is normally much cheaper, this in no way means it tastes any less delicious than those thick jumbo stalks that tend to fetch the real money though. Of the other sizes available the one I would normally not choose to buy would be jumbo. These extra thick stalks do not hold the same magic for me, rather go for select or extra select for preference. 

The season for asparagus in this country runs from around mid-April or early in May as the weather allows through to 21st June, normally only around six- 8 weeks, precious little time to enjoy this delicacy. This year I managed to buy my first English asparagus in early April, I guess because the weather has been so mild.

Asparagus deteriorates very quickly once cooked, and is a vegetable that benefits from cooking as soon as possible after picking, and certainly on the same day as picking, always look for crisp firm spears, ones that look as though they have just been cut that day, if they are in anyway limp or dull looking they are best avoided.

Once you have your asparagus in your kitchen what are you going to do with it? Whatever you decide please, please, please don’t for heavens sake use one of those infernal asparagus pans, you know the ones, where you place the asparagus in vertically, they are a waste of good money and my advice would be to put a bunch of tulips in it on your kitchen window sill and use it for the rest of its time as a vase! These absurdly expensive pans are meant to cook the thicker lower parts of the stalks while gently steaming their tender tips, forget it!

Asparagus should first be tied together in bundles, not too tightly, just tight enough to stop them falling out of the bundle then these should be plunged into sufficient boiling salted water so that they float. Return the water to the boil and boil gently for about 5 minutes (depending upon the thickness of the stalks) until just cooked. Carefully lift them out with a fish slice or a very large perforated spoon if serving hot then serve immediately or alternatively, for use in a salad, plunge them immediately into iced water till cold.

Undoubtedly the best way to eat asparagus is simply cooked as above with melted butter or hollandaise yet they are also extremely versatile. I was looking through some of my old menus recently and it is amazing how many ways one can use it. Try them served with mashed potatoes finished with lots of olive oil. Fry some cubes of chorizo or similar sausage in a little butter, add some chopped chives spoon this mixture over, add a reduction of blood orange juice to your hollandaise to give it a twist, douse them in a dressing of mashed soft boiled eggs with grain mustard and chervil or simply add a generous amount of mixed freshly picked herbs to your melted butter or hollandaise. Served with a shrimp butter or a dressing of anchovy and chillies for something really different. Drizzled with olive oil and a little balsamic vinegar, in a salad with pencil thin baby leeks with a little fresh yoghurt, in a frittata or omelette, try grilling them on the barbeque or just under a hot grill for a totally different flavour, the list just goes on and on. 

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