Cook the Season – Spring into Summer with Irish Seasonal Ingredients
May signals the last leaps of spring or the early throes of summer, depending on your perspective. Either way, it is a month of delicious seasonal bounty, from the natural choice of Spring lamb to less obvious picks like gooseberries and samphire.
As well as the promise of longer evenings and even the odd ray of sunshine, May brings with it an array of delights which work beautifully together on a plate. Compiling a list of separate ways to make the most of the darling buds of May proved in fact quite difficult, as in so many instances the ingredients begged to play together.
There is a corner of Killarney National Park that would knock Dracula dead on his tracks with the pungent aroma of leafy wild garlic dancing through the air. Not ideal for those who don’t relish the scent, but irresistible to garlic lovers like myself and it is here that my love affair with the bulb’s more delicate sister began.
The grassy flat leaves, not unlike allium in appearance, are at their most flavourful, even punchy in some instances, before the snowy white flowers appear but are deliciously subtle in their chlorophyll rich, garlicky tang. Added into pea soup or tossed through a stir-fry of spring veggies like asparagus and scallions, these leaves are a precious commodity to be savoured while in season.
The simplest way to make the most of this seasonal treat is to whizz the leaves up in blender to make Wild Garlic Pesto. I make mine with a big bunch of wild garlic, small handful of walnuts, drizzle of rapeseed oil, the zest and juice of half a lemon and a pinch of nutritional yeast, which I feel is more delicate than traditional Parmesan and allows the wild garlic to shine while still adding a savoury edge. This incidentally makes the recipe dairy-free and vegan friendly, but don’t hold that against it!
Asparagus, pea, mint and feta may as well be called Spring on a plate, a perfect afternoon pick me up salad bursting with flavour. Pair with a nicely chilled Sancerre, which itself has a green and grassy asparagus undertone, and you have lunch al fresco perfection.
Thin asparagus spears are also underrated dunking devices for all manner of dips from guacamole to hummus, steam slightly if desired or simply snap the ends and enjoy raw. Asparagus is a match made in heaven with a soft boiled egg, and for extra snazz chef Gareth Smith coats his and deep fries in this impressive Crispy Egg with Asparagus and Watercress recipe – a wonderful Spring/Summer dinner party starter.
When shaved into lithe, crunchy strips with a veggie peeler, asparagus adds instant pizzazz to fish dishes. Better still, trim your asparagus and eliminate waste by tossing the peels in a light coating made from blending three parts all purpose flour and one part cornflour. Pass this through a sieve two to three times to aerate the flour mix and season with sea salt before coating the peels and popping into a pan of hot oil until crisp. Serve as a side or add crunch to a salad or steak – these are perfect in so many ways.
This deliciously saline sea grass is a staple on restaurant menus alongside delights from the same neck of the woods and understandably so. Samphire plays beautifully with all manner of fish dishes, offering natural seasoning as well as retaining the toothsome al dente qualities too often overcooked asparagus aspires to.
A more surprising seductive combo however is the pairing of salty samphire with another seasonal treat, spring lamb. In the same way that richly saline anchovies highlight the subtle sweetness of lamb, samphire makes a delicious bed fellow for the foremost protein of the season and needs little more than the kiss of a lightly oiled pan to serve with blushing pink rack or leg of lamb.
Some would disagree, but for me, crab has pound for pound more flavour and succulence than lobster, which usually takes the crown of king of crustaceans. Rich and unctuous brown meat blended into a creamy mayonnaise will put any and all jarred condiments to shame and claws need little more than a toss in a pan of browned butter to shine.
To make the most of the whole beast, Imen McDonnell chooses to whip them up in the style of her fellow Americans with a simple Crab Boil, in which she utilises the delicious and ample Brown Kerry Crab with little fuss but plenty of flavour.
I love the combination of crab and grapefruit, either tossed together in a chicory leaf or bulked up with some toasted hazelnuts, avocado and baby spinach to make a sharp and lively summer salad which dances on the palate. To make a super healthy but light spring-summer supper, try out the delicious combo of fresh crab meat tossed with courgette noodles and creamy avocado dressing made by simply blending a ripe avo with some lemon juice to loosen.
My 97 year old grandad is the keeper of a garden of delights which comes into its own in spring time and becomes abundant and irresistible in early summer. Before the tart gooseberries burst through, we have pink and blushing rhubarb to play with.
Apart from the usual custard pairing, there are so many delicious uses for sharp rhubarb, both in sweet and savoury dishes. I love to pair roasted rhubarb spears with rich, fatty meats like roast duck and pork belly. For the easiest duck accompaniment ever, you can line your roasting pan with the rhubarb and top with the whole bird, allowing the duck fat to trickle down creating a kind of quick confit – impressing guests with minimum effort!
The sharp sour edge of rhubarb is the perfect topping for meringue, as my Brown Sugar Rhubarb and Almond Meringues recipe demonstrates. I replace cream with similarly tart creme fraiche and fold in flaked almonds to create a simple seasonal treat for dessert. Marcus Wareing similarly pairs his rhubarb with tangy Buttermilk Panna Cotta, allowing the flamingo like spears to shine.
Have you ever heard the expression ‘she’s a peach’? As much of as a compliment as that is, I’d much rather be known as a nectarine – granted it isn’t as catchy but my God, a ripe nectarine is a thing of beauty. Like avocado, they ripen at their own pace, but when you bite into one just at the sweet spot in its lifetime, it is as the name suggests, irresistibly nectarous.
Stoned, roasted and topped with mascarpone and a drizzle of honey and you have a seasonal sweet treat easy enough to whip up for a midweek dessert. For more elaborate sweet indulgence, replace any recipe which calls for plums – I’m thinking clafoutis – and sub in this vastly superior stone fruit. You could also replace the usual berry topping of the ultimate summer dessert, pavlova, with juicy ripe nectarines, a tip I picked up from Sabrina Ghayour’s Sirocco.
For that perfect sweet and savoury marriage in a salad, I adore char-grilling nectarine halves and tossing through a baby leaf salad with pecans and the addictive saltiness of crumbly St. Tola goat’s cheese. Pick up the ash-coated version if you can to highlight the smokiness of the charred fruit – heaven.
The most obvious nod, but a delicious one, is to that of Spring Lamb which interestingly takes on different nuanced flavours depending on the part of the country it is reared in. Achill lamb, Ring of Kerry lamb and Wicklow lamb all benefit from feeding on different grasses and flora, most notably in the case of Ring of Kerry lamb, grazing on sea sprayed hillsides – natural Atlantic sea salt seasoning!
Lamb is so versatile, lending itself to showstopping dinner party mains with the crowning glory that is a french trimmed rack, BBQ’s and quick midweek meals depending on the cut. In the latter case, lamb chops are quick, easy and always a hit with the whole family and Marcus Wareing brings out the best in the cut pairing it with a simple shallot puree in his Griddled Lamb Chops recipe.
If the sun makes an appearance, try your hand at Madeleine Shaw’s simple and light Grilled Lamb Rump with delicious cauliflower mash, which makes for an earthy and interesting lamb side dish spiked with traditional rosemary.