Hannah Burton has some fresh new recipes using seasonal leeks and wild garlic this spring…
Waking up in a room dappled with sunlight can only mean one of a few things; either you’ve massively overslept and are in big trouble at work or spring has sprung!
Finally, after a long, bleak winter, spring is on its way. Lambs are starting to gambol around in the fields, the journey to and from work can be enjoyed in daylight hours and you can start peeling off the winter layers. In terms of food, we can look forward to a whole host of new flavours and dishes, as some of the best produce comes into season. As any good chef will tell you, the best ingredients yield the best results, so we should really embrace new seasons and the cooking opportunities they bring.
In spring you can look forward to seafood like crab, cockles, oysters and sardines, as well as excellent lamb and venison. Spring greens come into their own, including watercress, rocket and spring onions, and it’s also our last chance to make the most of the mighty leek, whose season ends towards the end of April. Foraging opportunities abound in spring, making it the perfect time for new foragers to get started – look out for nettles, goose grass and elder, as well as wild garlic.
We all know leeks as one of the national emblems of Wales, but all too often this fantastic vegetable is overlooked in our kitchens. As we’ve only got a few weeks left of its prime season, we need to be making the most of them.
Leeks were Emperor Nero’s favourite vegetable, as he believed that they were beneficial to his oratory prowess. I’m not sure about that, but there’s plenty of evidence that leeks have amazing health benefits. They contain flavanoid kaempferol, which is known to reduce the risk of several diseases, including cancer. It protects blood vessel linings and is just an all-round good egg, really. It comes from the allium family, so its siblings are onions, garlic and shallots, but it has a much milder taste. This, in addition to the fact that they’re much more substantial in size, means that they’re easier to incorporate into meals. They add a lot of fibre to dishes as well as plenty of vitamins (A and K), and are jam-packed with anti-oxidants. Ready to eat some leeks now?
My favourite way to cook leeks is slowly in heaps of butter – they take on a sweet but savoury flavour and a lovely fondanty texture. I find they work particularly well with cheese, ham and potato, but they really bring out the flavour of sausages and fish too.
Jamie uses this recipe as a rather decadent side dish to a roast dinner, and it is superb. I’ve found that you can use whatever cheese you have in your fridge, and you can adapt it in so many cheesy, leeky, delicious ways – imagine this as a filling to a pie with crispy bacon or piled high with roasted veggies. Yes please. At my house, we stuff homemade Yorkshire puddings with cheesy leeks and serve them with local sausages and lashings of thick gravy. You can make a flatter Yorkshire pudding in an oven dish and add in sausages to the batter, as if you’re making toad in the hole, and when it’s ready, pour the cheesy leeks on top of it all for a heavenly family dish.
For the cheesy leeks:
For about 4 people, you’ll need to slice 2 large, trimmed leeks into 2cm-thick slices. Put them in a large pan (we use a wok, as we don’t have a decent casserole-type pan) with a drizzle of olive oil, a knob of butter, a small, crushed garlic clove and the leaves of one or two sprigs of thyme.
Cook the leeks on a medium heat, stirring occasionally. After a few minutes, when it’s all bubbling, turn the heat down and continue to cook for 35 minutes, stirring every now and then – they’ll be soft and sweet if you have the patience to do this slowly. Add a little salt and pepper and 35ml single cream with a splash of water.
Sprinkle about 40g of grated cheddar and 15g of grated Parmesan cheese over the top (you can adapt the cheese quantities depending on preference), and add in about 35g of Brie, torn into chunks. Stick the pan in the oven (or transfer to an oven-proof dish if necessary) for 15 minutes at about 180C – it’ll be golden, bubbling and delicious when removed from the oven.
For the Yorkshires:
Drizzle a small amount of vegetable oil into a 12-hole muffin tin and put it in the oven at about 210C for 20 minutes or so – the key to cracking Yorkshires is searing hot oil.
While the oil is heating, sieve 140g plain flour into a large mixing bowl and add 4 eggs. Beat together until smooth. Gradually add in 200ml milk until the mixture is completely lump-free. Season with a little salt and pepper.
When the oil is hot enough, carefully remove the tray from the oven and pour the mixture into the holes. You want the holes to be about 2/3 full – it’s better to under-fill them than to over-fill them, as they need enough room to rise up.
Carefully put the tray back into the oven and cook for 22 minutes, or until they are golden brown. Do not open the oven door during cooking, as the heat is essential in making them rise, and you want them to be as big as possible.
Once out of the oven, stuff them with your cheesy leeks, stick in some sausages and drown in gravy.
This has become a staple weeknight dinner for us, as it’s incredibly quick to make. For two people, trim and slice 2 leeks and fry them in a knob of butter for about 10-15 minutes, until soft. Cook 170g of pasta according to the packet instructions – you want al dente pasta – and preheat the grill. When the leeks are soft, stir in a 200ml pot of reduced-fat crème fraiche and chunks of smoked mackerel (you’ll need 2 small filets, skinned and flaked into chunks). Heat through for a minute while you drain the pasta. Stir the pasta into the sauce and tip everything into an oven dish – if you want to, sprinkle 50g of Parmesan cheese on top at this stage, otherwise scatter 25g of breadcrumbs and grill until crisp.
Wild garlic starts to come out in late winter, and its season lasts throughout spring. It’s quite an easy ingredient to find, so it’s ideal for those new to foraging. You can find wild garlic in semi-shaded, moist conditions, so woodlands are ideal. Pleasantly, it can often be found amongst bluebells, so you’re in for a picture-perfect day of picking – just take care not to pick lily of the valley, its deadly twin.
Two key factors make wild garlic easily identifiable: 1) its long, lush leaves and 2) its garlicky smell. To make sure you’re picking the right thing, slap the leaves on to your hand – if it doesn’t smell like garlic, it’s best to move on.
Unlike domestic garlic, wild garlic is championed for its leaves, not the bulb. The bulbs are much smaller, if you can find them at all. Wild garlic does flower prettily towards the end of its season, but the flavour is best before too many flowers have bloomed.
The flavour is milder than domestic garlic, and you can eat it raw or cook it. It’s lovely in salads or soups, and makes a beautifully delicate version of spinach when wilted in olive oil. Alternatively, you can give these easy-peasy recipes a go:
Pasta with wild garlic pesto
For the pesto, I like to follow Food Urchin’s recipe. Blitz a large bunch of wild garlic in a food processor with a small bunch of curly parsley, 60 grams of toasted pine nuts, 60 grams of Parmesan cheese and a squeeze of lemon juice for a minute or two. Add in 150ml olive oil slowly, until it’s all blended in nicely.
You can add this pesto to mash, stuff chicken breasts with it or use it in pasta dishes with sausages like Jamie Oliver and I do.
Roast a few sausages (enough for 2 sausages per person) in the oven – Cumberland sausages are lovely with garlic, but any good quality sausage will do. Whilst they’re cooking, prepare some fusilli pasta (aim for 80 grams per person). Once cooked, drain the pasta and toss in your wild pesto. Chop up the sausages and add to the garlicky pasta with a generous sprinkling of Parmesan cheese on top.
Wild garlic marinade for lamb
For a real taste of spring, use your wild garlic as a compliment to lovely lamb. Preheat a little oil in a roasting tin. Finely chop wild garlic leaves and add to a generous knob of butter, mixing it in. Spread the butter over lamb chops or fillets and place into the roasting tin. Roast the lamb as normal, for about 25 minutes at 220C, and serve with buttery mashed potatoes and seasonal greens.
After more tasty recipes? This way please…
Flippin’ marvellous pancake recipes
The magic ingredient to exceptional health and radiant skin
Guinness and chocolate cake anyone?
History buffs, bake a pie that Charlemagne would praise