There is wild garlic on the stove, a tangle of dark green leaves and their spaghetti-slim, luminescent stems, stewing in a heavy pan with a slice of pale, sweet butter. In three or four minutes, they will be as tender as antique silk, with only a fleeting whiff of the bulb. The ramsons are a bit late this year, and should still be around for a week or two longer.
The long, pointed leaves, a gift from friends with Welsh connections, were at the market this week, too, in a tin jug sitting on the garlic stall next to the strings of last year's nicotine-coloured heads. The smell of the crushed leaves that wafts up from your shopping bag on the way home gives the impression of an intense garlic experience to come, yet once in the pot with a drop or two of water and the tiniest crumble of sea salt and squeeze of lemon, the flavour is one of unexpected subtlety, as if someone has walked past your table in a bistro with a plate of sizzling escargot.
As a true urbanite who has to be dragged kicking and screaming into the countryside, such wild gifts are especially welcome at my door. This third serving of buttered ramsons will be going alongside a trio of lamb steaks (Welsh, just to make them feel at home) and some small organic potatoes, scrubbed, boiled, drained and lightly crushed with the back of a fork so their creamy-coloured flesh soaks up the buttery, lemony, garlicky juices. Had I been roasting a fillet, I might have wrapped it in the leaves first, or maybe let a few of the most tender leaves, washed and lightly torn, melt into the gravy.
I spent much of yesterday in the garden, putting in sunflower seeds where the runner beans will soon be poking through, schlepping the watering can up and down the path for the sweet peas and evicting the pesky snails from the rhubarb patch. For my pains, I also have a colander full of nettle tops from which to make soup. They grow happily in the tiny, dark alley that runs along the bottom of the garden, appearing only once the snowdrops have died back. I have often been tempted to pick them as a vegetable, then thought better of it and opened a packet of peas instead. This time their neat rosettes of hairy, saw-edged leaves seemed so new and fresh from the spring rain as to be irresistible. Had I got round to them sooner I could have cooked the whole plants, and even made a tonic from their histamine-rich young shoots, but for now I am just using the top few leaves.
Nettles need thick rubber gloves for picking and half an hour or so rest for their stinging quality to evaporate. But cook them before they wilt. I don't have enough to use as a vegetable this time, but have left the plants in the ground in the hope they will send up new bushy crowns to harvest later. Should you have nettles aplenty then treat them like spinach, letting them wilt in a hot pan, still wet from their rinsing water, then drain and toss with a little butter, lemon-scented olive oil or herb cream cheese.
Nettle and lettuce soup
This is not a thick soup, and neither should it be. If you feel the need to enrich it with dairy produce then I suggest a dollop of creme fraiche, whose clean, sharp richness would be pleasing here. For a thicker soup you could add a finely diced potato to the onion, though it will take a little longer to cook. The flavour is not unlike spinach, though probably most accurately described as simply 'green'.
4 spring onions
a thick slice of butter - about 20g
a small carrot
a small garlic clove
1.5 litres of stock (vegetable or chicken)
a small- to medium-sized lettuce
100g nettle leaves
Cut the roots and most of the dark green leaves from the spring onions and discard them. Slice them thinly and let them soften with the butter in a large saucepan while you finely chop the carrot and garlic. Add both to the pan and stir occasionally while they become tender. Heat the stock and pour it in.
Wash and tear up the lettuce leaves and add them to the stock with the thoroughly washed nettles, peas and a seasoning of salt and pepper. Bring back to the boil, then simmer for about 7-10 minutes until the nettles are tender but all is still bright green.
Blitz in a blender or food processor till smooth (this is not a soup for the Mouli or food mill). Check the seasoning and serve.
Steamed wild garlic
Perfect for lamb (but I suspect pretty good with roast beef, too), this recipe produces sweetly fragrant, buttery juices that benefit from a few potatoes to sponge them up.
4 handfuls of ransoms
a squeeze of lemon juice
Wash the leaves thoroughly and remove any tough stalks (the tender ones are fine) and bits of grass. (If by any chance you find a bulb among them, then plant it in the garden.) Melt the butter in a heavy-based saucepan, adding the leaves, water still clinging to them, before the butter starts to sizzle. Cover with a tight lid. Cook for a few minutes only, turning them from time to time, until they are soft and tender.
Add the lemon juice and a very little salt. Serve immediately with their juices.
Spinach with garlic
Be sure not to miss the mounds of bright and springy spinach around at the moment. The bunches I bought from a wicker basket at the market last Saturday were some of the freshest I have ever seen and were in a pan with thinly sliced garlic within five minutes of me walking in the door. We ate this not as any part of a meal but on hot, thick toast, within seconds of it leaving the pan - a little celebration of finding something so lush and full of life.
Peel a couple of juicy, but not huge, cloves of garlic. Slice them thinly then heat them in a deep pan with a glug or two of olive oil. Let it colour only slightly. Wash the spinach, remove any tough stems, but don't shake them dry. Get some thick slices of toast on the go.
Add the spinach to the garlic, cover with a lid and let the leaves cook in their own steam. Toss them from time to time. In two or three minutes they will be bright green, but wilted and juicy. Pour off any liquid - there may be quite a bit - then squeeze in the juice of half a lemon, add a grinding of black pepper and a trickle of thick, fruity olive oil. Eat immediately on, or alongside, the hot olive-oil saturated toast, while the leaves are still bright green and silky.