For those who follow this column, you will have read all about my passion for this glorious season.
As well as the first salmon of the year, wild sea trout, wild herbs and a lovely collection of exciting vegetables, spring also brings with it fantastic, flavoursome beans and peas – some small yet wonderful ingredients that can really bring seasonal dishes to life. Anything fresh and green that comes in a pod is pretty much a winner for me at this time of year.
Fresh Scottish peas are a favourite of mine, adding colour, flavour and bite to a whole host of dishes. I love the sweet taste of fresh peas, and it always takes me back to my childhood as I remember eating them straight from the fields behind where we lived, in Pittendreich, Kinross. Even back then I couldn’t resist the burst of flavour from this small but perfect ingredient. Popping fresh peas from their pods is one of life’s great simple pleasures.
The taste of peas symbolises spring and they work well in a huge range of recipes and food marriages. Anything from salads and side dishes to stir-fries, or even as a snack on their own if you’re as fanatical about them as I am. In addition, something like a fresh pea soup (served either hot or cold) is spring simplicity itself.
Peas come in different forms. Edible pods (like the most well-known, sugar snap peas), garden peas (or petit-pois, which are young garden peas) and even flat snow peas are great, but equally tasty are pea shoots (dainty leaves that grow before the plant produces the pods). Looking out for bright green, plump varieties is a good way to tell the freshness of any kind of peas, and you will find these are usually the most crisp – they burst in your mouth, releasing a wonderful flavour. They should have crisp shells on the outside and a soft creamy texture on the inside.
Fresh garden peas are in season from late May until late July, if you’re luck. Another good option is mangetout, which are actually undeveloped garden peas, picked while the pod is still edible.
The great thing about peas is that if you source them fresh, they really don’t require much preparation at all. In fact, often it’s a case of the simpler the better. You can quite easily boil them briefly until they are just tender and add a slither of butter, seasoning and spring herbs. You can crush them lightly and serve them with fresh seasonal seafish or add them to pastas and risottos for extra bite and freshness.
Another favourite spring gem is fresh broad beans. Unlike peas, these are harder to eat straight from their pods and do require a little work to prepare, but it’s well worth it. The sweet, delicious flavour you get from these beans is complimented by a lovely smooth, creamy texture – perfect with a seasonal fish like salmon, trout or monkfish. They only have a short natural season, from early June to around the middle of July, so I recommend that you make the most of them while you can. The way to tell if the beans are fresh is to look out for pale green, soft shells, and quite small beans will be found inside.
Beans are high in protein too, so not only do they taste great, they’re a good addition to a healthy diet. Like peas, you only really need to cook them briefly if you buy them fresh at this time of year – get your hands on some now, because as the season goes on the pods of broad beans get tougher. Broad beans also marry well with seafood or meat dishes like hogget or mutton.
Whichever glorious greens you try this spring, my advice would be keep it as fresh and simple as you can to appreciate the ingredients at their very best.
Pearl Barley Risotto with Peas & Lettuce
For the risotto
½ large onion, finely sliced
100ml white wine
500ml chicken/vegetable stock
50g parmesan, grated
200g pearl barley
splash sherry vinegar
For the garnish
80g fresh peas
80g fresh broad beans
handful pea shoots
½ carrot, chopped
For the pea purée
½ white onion, finely chopped
90g unsalted butter
1 tbsp salt
600g fresh/frozen peas (podded weight)
100ml whipping cream
2 baby gem lettuce, thinly sliced
To make the pea purée
In a frying pan, sweat the chopped onion in 50g of the butter for four or five minutes.
Bring a pan of water to the boil and add a tablespoon of salt. Blanch the peas for one or two minutes and then refresh in iced water. Drain the peas and then add about a third of them to the onions – keep the rest for the finished dish.
Add the cream and seasoning to the peas and onions and cook together for a further two minutes. Then add the lettuce.
Blitz the mixture quickly in a food processor or blender and leave to chill – this helps keep the purée green until you are ready to serve.
To make the risotto
In a heavy-bottomed pan, melt half the butter on a medium heat. Add the onion and sweat gently for one or two minutes (don’t allow them to colour).
Add the pearl barley and let it sweat for 30 seconds before seasoning with salt. Then add the white wine and reduce until dry.
Add the stock so that it just covers the barley and cook for 17 or 18 minutes, adding more stock (just to the level of the barley) until it reduces. Stir continuously.
Once cooked, add two tablespoons of the pea purée, and mix through the risotto so that it takes on a lovely fresh green colour.
Take the risotto off the heat and add the remaining butter and the parmesan cheese, mixing until they melt. As the risotto starts to cool, it will thicken with the cheese and butter.
Add seasoning and a dash of sherry vinegar, then add a handful of fresh peas and broad beans, and mix together.
Add a handful of fresh peas, fresh broad beans, carrot, fresh pea shoots and sliced parmesan to each dish of risotto, then serve.
Monkfish Poached in Saffron Broth with Peas & Broad Beans
4 pieces monkfish tail fillet (about 150g each)
100ml fish stock
pinch saffron strands
freshly ground black pepper
30g unsalted butter, in pieces
1 tbsp whipping cream
200g freshly podded peas
200g freshly podded broad beans, skinned
1 tsp chopped chives
100g cherry tomatoes, halved
100g baby spinach leaves
When you are ready to cook the monkfish, pour the fish stock into a fairly shallow, heavy-based pan and bring it to the boil. Add the saffron strands, then lower the heat and simmer gently for two or three minutes.
Season the monkfish on both sides with salt and pepper and then carefully lower into the stock. Poach very gently for four or five minutes on one side, then turn the fillets and cook on the other side for the same length of time – the stock should barely simmer.
To check if your monkfish is cooked, gently insert a needle or fine skewer into the thickest part of the flesh – if it doesn’t meet with any resistance, the fish is cooked. Once ready, remove the fish from the pan with a fish slice to a warmed plate and keep it warm.
Simmer the poaching liquor until reduced by three-quarters, then whisk in the butter and cream. Add the peas and broad beans and simmer briefly until tender.
Add the chives and then the tomatoes and baby spinach. Remove from the heat.
Ladle the sauce and vegetables into warmed bowls or deep plates. Place the fish fillet on top and arrange the vegetables. Serve at once.