Nigel Slater: Come what May

'Be Prepared,' say the boy scouts, but it might as well be the motto of anyone cooking a meal in the month of May. Today I had lunch in the garden (buffalo mozzarella, tomatoes from the Isle of Wight and peppery basil from Italy), but by dusk I was looking for my fleece jacket and regretting my decision to have just a bit of fish and some fennel for dinner. A warming stew would have been more like it.

This unpredictable month can exasperate or challenge, depending on the mood you are in. The only sure-fire thing in the kitchen is local asparagus. Once ranked alongside caviar and lobster, a bunch of locally grown spears now costs little more than a bag of frozen peas. At this point you will be paying £2 a bunch, but by the end of the month it could be down to half that.

If you stick to the short May- June season of the locally grown spears, familiarity will never breed contempt. Whether you boil it in deep salted water and dip it in butter softened on the back of the stove, or grill it with olive oil and a grating of Parmesan, asparagus can never seem anything but the most sensuous vegetable on earth. Dip it into a pot of golden hollandaise or toss it in chopped red chillies and oyster sauce: it is always the ultimate vegetable. Pity that the methionine it contains makes your pee smell.

Those who cannot face the terrible trauma that is making hollandaise sauce might prefer to dip their asparagus in the molten centre of a soft-boiled egg. Lower the eggs into a separate pan of boiling water once the vegetable has been cooking for 7 or 8 minutes.

It should be ready by the time the stalks are tender to the point of a knife. If you really like eggs, hunt out a duck egg, with its stronger flavour. Farmers' markets and butchers have them now - a beautiful ivory white or pale blue, and half as big again as a hen's.

So whose daft idea was it to mess around with mustard and cress? Grown as it was 20 years ago, roughly 50/50 of each seed, there was quite a bite to its delicate, pointed leaves. That bite was the point of the stuff and gave a pleasing kick of heat to a summer sandwich of cool cucumber and soft, fresh white bread. Sainsbury's Salad Cress (for instance) is a shadow of the real thing, containing a pathetic 5 per cent mustard and 10 per cent cress. The other 80 is bland rapeseed. In other words, mustard and cress for people who don't actually like mustard or cress. The real stuff, peppery and perky, is available from farm shops and farmers' markets.

Globe artichokes are enough to test anyone's patience. Order one in a restaurant and you are left plucking and sucking while everyone else is drumming their fingers. Much as I love their flavour, I get a bit bored halfway through a big French one. The small Italian ones are easier to manage. You eat pretty much the whole thing. Now they are about 50p a pop and, like asparagus, need to be rushed to the pot as soon as you get them home. They keep better cooked than raw, rubbed with olive oil and put somewhere cool.

Talking of awkward vegetables, there are some pink-shouldered young turnips about. They tempt, you buy them, then full of fine intentions you get them home. You then forget about them till the leaves have wilted and you can't think why you bought them. There should be an exquisite recipe somewhere for this beautiful, scorned root vegetable. The nearest I get to it is to cut them into quarters, toss them with melted butter, a splash of olive oil, and salt and black pepper. I then roast them for 15-20 minutes till they caramelise around the edges. Not bad with pink ham and the last of the purple sprouting.

Food shops are often badly laid out, as if to make it as difficult as possible for us to get a decent look at the produce. The excellent Neal's Yard cheese shop in Borough Market (6 Park Street, London SE1) is as big as a football pitch, yet come Saturday, the space in front of the counter resembles a rugger scrum. The layout needs a rethink, but the cheeses are a gift from God and the staff really know their stuff.

If you like a bit of clout to your cheese, ask for a taste of Mine Gabhar. Made by Anne and Luc van Kampen in County Wexford, the flavour of this organic, vegetarian log-shaped goat's cheese (the name means 'little goat') keeps coming at you. Sublime with a juicy pear. I also eat it in thin slices with wedges of ice-cold Ogen melon and then, at a second sitting, with crisp radishes.

Radishes are the first vegetable up in my garden. I have planted two varieties this year: the creamy-white Icicle and the traditional red-and-white tipped French breakfast. From packet to table in three weeks, the French won the radish race. I served them with sweet hand-churned butter (from Neal's Yard Dairy) and a tiny dish of Maldon salt flakes. A whole row went even quicker than the slugs ate my hostas.

We have learned to be suspicious of early fruits, and strawberries in particular. Mine are still in bud yet those grown under polytunnels in the warmest parts of the country are proving surprisingly good even this early. If you have some that are holding back on you, slice them and drop them into a bowl, shake over a few drops of balsamic vinegar (1 tsp should do 400g), squeeze over the juice of an orange and cover with clingfilm or a plate. Leave for 2 or 3 hours and return to find your berries (almost) as deeply flavoured as those you'll pick in deepest June.

This month it's worth keeping an eye open for crab and lobster, prawns (grill them in their shell then dust with lemon and very finely grated Pecorino), whitebait for dusting with flour and chucking into hot oil, and salmon trout.

The imported red mullet has also been good this year, especially when I marinated it in olive oil and chopped rosemary leaves before grilling it. There are clams, too, which I have cooked like mussels and tossed with thin spaghetti.

Meat eaters might like to check out rabbits. A slow braise of jointed bunny with pancetta, thyme leaves, new-season's garlic and onions (use chicken or vegetable stock to top up the dish) is a good early-summer lunch, especially served with plump buttery noodles or pearl barley.

Meal of the month would be asparagus, served hot and with melted butter; a roast organic chicken served warm, not hot, cut at the table into thick hunks. Serve it with flakes of salt and a bowl of lightly scented garlic mayonnaise mixed with chopped fresh dill and parsley. A bowl of broad beans would be all the accompaniment it needs. And to finish, a dish of the very first strawberries.

The wild salmon season starts now, although prices will remain prohibitive until next month. I will leave it to the last minute to decide whether to serve it warm with a butter sauce or (almost) cold with mayonnaise. Optimism is all very well, but you look stupid serving salad if the day is cold and windy. Be prepared to change your recipes to suit the weather. A cook just never knows what May will bring.

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