A proliferation of asparagus in the shops suggests that summer might be on its way, but as far as I am concerned we have not yet said goodbye to cold weather eating. That said, a winter of robust roasts and stews leaves me craving something greener and cleaner.
Currently at their very best are leafy greens: pointy cabbages, curly kale, spring greens, sprouting broccoli, rainbow chard and bok choy are all positively squeaking with crispness and bounce, and packed with vitamins and minerals. Often much maligned, these sturdy and most benevolent of crops bridge the so-called hungry gap – the period in the farming year when winter crops are almost over, and new crops are not yet ready for harvesting.
Only last week I made the most satisfying salad simply by picking leaves from over-wintered veg in my garden: snippets of mustard greens with brilliant yellow flowers, peppery land cress, red-spotted chicory, emerald bok choy with its crunchy white stalks, and the last of the rocket. They were certainly coming to an end – even the snails had given up – but tumbled together with toasted hazelnuts and a mustardy vinaigrette they made an excellent and colourful starter.
Those of a certain age may shudder at memories of boiled greens, but in the hand of a loving cook even the lowly cabbage can be a feast for a king. The secret is the shortest possible cooking time for crispness and colour, as in my recipe for Glorious Green Stir-Fry. A tip worth remembering when boiling greens is to cook them uncovered, otherwise acids in the steam gather under the lid and drip on the leaves below, changing the colour to an unappetising khaki.
I have developed a fondness for roasted greens. It may not be the most obvious way of cooking them but it really does concentrate the flavours to the point where they become startlingly meaty and sweet. Try tossing chunks of sprouting broccoli or cauliflower in olive oil, sea salt flakes and freshly ground pepper. Spread out on a baking tray, cover with foil and roast at 240°C/gas 9 for 10 minutes. Remove the foil, flip the vegetables over and roast for another 10–15 minutes or until nicely browned at the edges.
I am also addicted to kale crisps – apparently all the rage in London where they are served in smart pubs and wine bars. Tear kale or cabbage leaves into pieces about 6cm across (remove the stalks first). Toss with just enough olive oil to barely coat, and a sprinkle of sea salt flakes. Arrange in a single layer on a large baking sheet and roast at 150°C/gas 2 for 10 minutes until crisp. Tip into a serving bowl lined with a colourful napkin and serve right away with drinks. Your guests will be pleasantly surprised.
© Christine McFadden, April 2013