This is my absolute favourite time of year. Now that the clocks have come forward, the days are magically longer and energy levels are suddenly higher, it's fantastic!
The woods behind my house are coming to promising life, full of the sound of song birds and the new shoots of tasty little ingredients like elder flowers and young nettles. Some of the elder trees along the stream by the back of the wods are dead or dying, and grow a fabulous mushroom called Jelly Ear or Wood Ear. They're used a lot in Chinese cookery and are usually sold dried in this country. They remind me of the ears of those creepy hairless cats like Mrs Whiskerson (Rachel's cat on Friends, duh) But they are absolutely delicious. They don't have a ton of flavour, but their texture is similar to a tender seaweed.
So now that Spring is here, I'll be done with hearty winter dishes for a while I think, preferring lighter salads, grilled dishes and lots of veggies, as they start to come out of the ground outside. Because last year we got three tons of bum compost delivered, our harvest was frustratingly sad. I left all the beetroot and parsnip seedlings that had failed to thrive in the ground, fully expecting the snow and worms to finish them off, but they over-wintered really well, giving us a surprise spring harvest.
I practice crop rotation in our garden, so last year's beets had to give up their spot this week to make way for other things, so I pulled these little golf ball-size babies out of the ground, keeping all the tender young leaves for my salad.
I made a spring vegetable minestrone, the basic recipe for which I 'borrowed' from Delicious magazine. It has broken tagliatelle in it, but you could use any left-over bits of pasta that you have lying around, or none at all.
The salad is a simple beet leaf, avocado and baby beet pile, full of the flavours of this time of year. It's the sort of thing that makes you feel better about having feasted on stodge and carbs all winter.
Spring Veg Minestrone With Broken Tagliatelle
serves 2, takes less than 20 mins
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
1 stalk celery, roughly chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 small red chilli, de-seeded and finely sliced
1/2 cup each, frozen peas, broad beans, sliced green beans (or similar
the heart of a romaine lettuce, cut into large chunks
6-8 asparagus spears, cut into 1" pieces
handful dry tagliatelle or spaghetti noodles broken into three
1 litre good veg or chicken stock
salt and pepper to taste
2 tbsp olive oil
Put the onion, celery and garlic in a food processor with a couple of tablespoons of water and pulse into a smooth puree. Sweat this mixture with the olive oil in a medium saucepan for 4-5 minutes, until translucent and fragrant. Add the sliced chilli and the chicken stock, then bring to the boil before adding the broken pasta and cooking for a further 8 minutes, until the noodles are tender.
For the final two minutes of the cooking, add in the frozen veggies, asparagus spears and lettuce.
Season before serving with crusty bread and butter.
Beetroot and Avocado Salad with Baby Beet Leaves
Serves 2, takes 2 hours (because of cooking and cooling times)
6-8 baby beets (depending on size) tops and roots trimmed
large handful baby beet leaves
1/2 avocado, cut into small, bite-sized pieces
2 large romaine lettuce leaves, sliced thinly
1 tsp dijon mustard
1/2 clove garlic, minced
1 1/2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
2 salted anchovy fillets, chopped finely
2 tsp walnut oil (optional)
Boil the beetroot in a pan of salted water for 45 mins-1 hour, depending on size. They're cooked when tender all the way through to the tip of a knife. Drain the beets and allow them to cool completely.
Peel the beets by rubbing them with your thumbs, the skins will slide right off. It's best to wear latex gloves while you do this, as the colour from the beets will stain your hands.
Cut the beets into halves or quarters, depending on their size and pop into a bowl with the walnut oil, (or some olive oil) a little of the vinegar and a sprinkle of salt.
Use a fork to whisk together the remaining dressing ingredients, then toss the avocado, lettuce and beet leaves through the dressing well.
Pile onto plates and top with the gorgeous jewel-like baby beets.