Nigel Slater’s spring recipes

Getting fresh: a bowl of no-rules quick green minestrone. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin for the Observer

Newly picked and bursting with flavour, this season’s green veg and salad crops are the taste of spring in a bowl

The fridge is as green and lush inside as I have ever seen it. There is a bag of spinach leaves, a bunch of broad beans in their fur-lined pods, a couple of bunches of spring onions and some leeks barely thicker than my middle finger. There are the first Italian courgettes and a superb spring cabbage. There is a vast, crisp-leaved lettuce bought as the base for the weekend’s salads but whose crackling leaves would be so much better in a sandwich with some soft, flour-capped white bread and a few sprigs of watercress.

The idea of a green meal suddenly appeals. Big bowls of soup, chock-a-block with beans and maybe peas, a well thought-out mixture of the first greens of the summer, will be tonight’s main course. If I fancied something more filling I could blitz a third of the mixture in the blender and return it to the vegetables to make an altogether richer soup. An alternative would be to use a meaty broth instead of a light vegetable stock.

Green and light is the way to go at this point in the year. A frittata of asparagus. A spinach soufflé. Little pancakes of herbs and spring onions or perhaps a crisp filo parcel of green beans, sheep’s milk cheese and spinach. You could make a hummus with broad beans and dill, a fettucine with a sauce of fresh peas and parmesan, or a mixture of herbs with lemon zest and a spoonful of ricotta.

A favourite verdant supper of mine comes courtesy of the River Café. Broad beans, garlic and tiny, waxy-fleshed potatoes are simmered in olive oil and water with a last-minute addition of asparagus and peas until the vegetables are tender and the liquid has almost disappeared. A handful of mint, fresh, uplifting and vibrant, is stirred in at the end.

I don’t feel the need to have protein with every meal but, if you wish to, any green dish can be volunteered as a side dish to a piece of grilled fish or meat. A couple of days ago we ate broad beans stewed still in their pods with olive oil, water and mint. After 20 minutes of cooking over a moderate heat they were tipped on to a plate alongside some lamb cutlets I had grilled with thyme and crushed dried chillies. The coolness of the stewed beans with the slightly spicy lamb was delightful.

Even the home-grown fruit is green this month. The first, hard, young gooseberries are still sour enough to make me shudder: cooking gooseberries as I think of them, rather than the sweeter dessert varieties that will come later. Not having quite enough for a pie, I chuck in a handful of red ones from the freezer. And rather than a rich, butter and egg yolks pastry, I use light curls of filo – a pastry for early summer.

A quick green minestrone

Chop and change the vegetables to suit what you have available. The point is to keep the ingredients fresh and green. French beans chopped into short pieces are an option, too, as is thickly shredded, mild-tasting spring cabbage. To make the soup more substantial you could add spaghetti, broken into short lengths, or any of the tiny star- or rice-shaped pastas. As this is a variation on the traditional tomato-based minestrone, there are no rules. You can add and subtract according to what is in your shopping bag. You could include some bits of chopped pancetta, too. Add them with the leeks and onions.

Serves 4 to 6
broad beans in the pod 400g
baby leeks 200g
spring onions 200g
courgettes 200g, small
flageolet beans 2 x 400g cans
peas 200g, podded weight
vegetable stock 1 litre
chives 25g
parsley a handful
parmesan grated, to serve

Pod the broad beans, boil them in lightly salted water, then drain and cool under running water. Unless they are really young and small, I like to pop them out of their pale skins, but it is up to you.

Thickly slice the leeks (I like to do them diagonally), thinly slice the spring onions and cook them in a saucepan, under a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, covered with a piece of greaseproof or baking parchment to encourage them to steam and soften rather than fry. You want them to be tender, but they shouldn’t brown. Cut the courgettes into short lengths.

When the leeks and onions are soft and still bright green remove the paper, add the courgettes, the beans, peas and then the stock, bring to the boil, turn down to a simmer then add the chives, chopped into short lengths. Roughly chop the parsley and stir into the soup. Season, and pass round a dish of grated parmesan at the table for those who want it.

Gooseberry filo pie

Placing a baking sheet in the oven before you put the pie in will help the pastry to crisp. Cream is essential to accompany this.

Serves 4
gooseberries 350g
caster sugar 80g
ground almonds 125g
butter 50g
filo pastry 6 leaves
Demerara sugar a little
cream to serve

Top and tail the gooseberries, removing any stalks and dried flowers. Put the berries in a bowl, add the caster sugar and the ground almonds and toss them gently together.

Melt the butter, then brush a little of it on the base of a 22cm metal baking dish or shallow cake tin. Lay a piece of filo pastry in the tin, leaving the edges overhanging the sides, then brush it with butter. Add a second sheet and continue, layering and brushing until all the sheets are used. Set the oven at 180C/gas mark 4 and place a baking sheet on the oven shelf.

Tip the gooseberries into the baking dish, then pull the over-hanging pastry sheets into the middle to lightly cover the berries. If you twist the pastry sheets as you do so you get interesting folds and ripples and the crust will crisp nicely. Brush lightly with butter and sprinkle with Demerara sugar.

Bake for 20-25 minutes, on the hot baking sheet (the extra heat will help the base to cook, although it will always be slightly soft) till the top of the pastry is crisp and golden. Serve hot, with cream.


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