There's a blackbird nesting in the hedge next to where I had planned to plant a row of spring onions and radishes. At the risk of disturbing proceedings I have left the patch bare, worried that even my lightest tread might cause them to do a runner. This week the eggs have hatched and there is now the sound of hungry babies, and the sight of mum and dad swooping to the hedge with worms is fun to watch. All very delightful, to be sure, but it has meant that there are no spring onions on their way yet.
I appreciate this thin, elegant member of the onion family for its mildness, and the gentle note they impart when cooked. A spring onion, finely sliced, adds savour without the caramelised sweetness of a slowly cooked large onion. Good for when you want to introduce the allium's flavour but not its thick, sugary mass. Despite the somewhat inaccurate name - the spring onion grows happily in all but the coldest weather - they do have a late spring freshness about them. I have yet to see a greengrocer without a bunch.
The sight of a trimmed, pencil-thin onion resting across a classic, freshly spun lettuce salad is an early summer pleasure of the first order, but I like them cooked over my little charcoal barbecue, too. There are two ways to grill a young onion. They need little more than rubbing with a mild olive oil, seasoning, and placing on the grill. Larger onions need to be cooked briefly in boiling water first, then oiled, seasoned and grilled. The boiling need only be for a few minutes, just to soften the heart of the onion.
If the outside browns on the bars of the grill, the onion will still be sweet. Should it blacken, then just peel off the outer shell and inside will be soft, deliciously moist layers of flesh. This week I grilled my onions, then put them on a plate and trickled a little more oil over them, a squeeze of lemon juice and a few drips of sweet and mellow balsamic vinegar. (I'm not usually one to throw this expensive and somewhat intrusive condiment over everything, but here it works.) We ate them stuffed into soft, flour-dusted baps, but they would have been just as good eaten as a salad with slices of mild, lactic Caerphilly or perhaps something fresh and light like the snowy, slightly floral Ticklemore that Debbie Mumford makes at Sharpham in Devon.
You can pickle a spring onion, too. I think they make a better short-term pickle than a preserve for the larder. Bring the onions to a simmer with vinegar, coriander seed, white peppercorns, allspice and a sprig of thyme and simmer until the onions are soft. Pour into a clean jar, seal and leave to cool before refrigerating. They will keep for several days in the fridge.
The spring onion is very similar in flavour to the larger fresh green onion used by the Chinese. It serves the same purpose, useful at the start of cooking as part of the ginger-onion-garlic kickoff, then at the end, scattered over the finished dish. It acts as both a backbone ingredient and a seasoning.
These wispy, green-topped onions can be used in a spring vegetable tart, giving a lighter, more summery note than the more usual softened sweet onions. You can use the green tips, too, slicing them very thinly and tossing them with asparagus tips, chervil, young spinach and parsley. Last week's asparagus tart recipe can be used as a base for one also containing spring herbs and sliced onions.
There is much debate over whether you can use the green shoot, and most of them end up in the compost, or worse. Much depends on the recipe. If you are grilling them then the green shoots are fine, and they stir-fry well enough, too. Some people find them indigestible - like the green shoots on garlic - and others just say they are a bit tough, but I have never had a problem. It's up to you. What the sight of a crisp, freshly picked spring onion means to me is that summer is just around the corner.
Prawns with Sichuan peppercorns and spring onions
Spring onions have the advantage of cooking in seconds, which is partly why they are used, along with ginger and chillies, to start a stir-fry. Cut finely, they will soften in no time. Like all onions, their sugars can burn, so you need to move them around the pan quickly in the smoking oil as they cook. Serves 2.
2 fresh hot red chillies
a tsp Sichuan peppercorns
a large pinch of sugar
2 tsp of finely minced (or very finely chopped) ginger
4 cloves of garlic
6 spring onions
6 tbsp groundnut oil
400g large, shell-on raw prawns
Halve the chillies, scrape out the seeds, chop the flesh finely, and put into a small bowl. Put the peppercorns into a non-stick frying pan and toast for a minute or two until fragrant. Tip them out and grind to a fine powder using a spice mill or a pestle and mortar. Add to the chillies with the sugar, minced ginger and a teaspoon of sea salt.
Peel and finely chop the garlic. Trim the spring onions and chop them into fine pieces then add, with the garlic, to the chillies.
Pour the oil into a wok and get it smoking hot. Lower in the prawns and let them cook for a minute, then lift them out with a draining spoon. Add the chilli mixture to the wok and stir it round for a minute or less as it sizzles, so it does not burn.
Return the prawns to the pan, continue cooking for a couple of minutes, then
serve immediately and eat while hot and peppery.
Crystal noodle salad with pickled ginger and lime
Spring onions, eaten raw, have the effect of adding both heat and crispness to a salad. Their mildness makes them more suitable than using even the sweetest Spanish onion. I love this salad and its light, almost invisible dressing. If ever there was a salad to clear your head, this is it - a dazzling mixture of clear, bright, herbal flavours. Serves 4.
100g cellophane (mung-bean) noodles
2 bird's eye chillies
4 tbsp lime juice
15g pickled ginger
a good pinch of sugar
2 tbsp Vietnamese or Thai fish sauce
5 spring onions
a large handful mint leaves
a large handful coriander leaves (about 25g)
4 tbsp sprouted mung beans
Put the noodles in a heatproof bowl and pour boiling water over them. Add a good pinch of sea salt and leave them for 2-3 minutes until they have softened. Cool them under running cold water, then leave to drain in a colander.
Halve the chillies, discard the seeds and cut the flesh finely into rings or hair-thin strips. Put in a bowl with the lime juice. Slice the pickled ginger into small shreds and add to the chillies with the sugar and fish sauce. Thinly slice the spring onions into matchsticks then add with the roughly chopped mint and coriander leaves.
Cut the cucumber and carrots into matchstick-sized pieces, peeling them first if you wish, then add them, together with the mung beans and the drained noodles, to the rest of the salad.
Toss the salad gently, chill for a good 20 minutes, and serve.