SPRING is always an exciting season in my kitchen. The days get lighter and longer and a new collection of produce arrives, adding fresh flavours, interesting matches and bright colours to our dishes.
This year it is an even more welcome arrival than usual, although for many of us it doesn’t feel like it’s quite here yet.
It has been a tough year for a huge number of our producers and suppliers as a result of so much snow and bad weather. I think right now many chefs are just desperate for some green to arrive in our kitchens. Much of the produce we would normally have at this time of year is yet to come, so, when it does, it will be a welcome, refreshing addition to menus across the country.
The really important thing for me, and the thing I try to instil in all my chefs, is that we have to understand the challenges our suppliers face in their daily growing, shooting or diving. I need my chefs to step inside the world of the producers we rely on every day, and really respect how they work. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to deliver the levels of excellence we do.
Any good chef needs to understand there isn’t this unlimited supply of food. The diver can’t go out diving if the weather is terrible. He risks his life daily to bring us the very best produce but he also knows when the risk is too great. The baby grouse this year will be affected – if the weather is really bad, they can’t survive. A really harsh winter can also knock back the growth and production of many seasonal vegetables.
A chef or cook who understands produce, seasonality and his suppliers is, for me, a good one. We work together to understand each other so that, despite these seasonal challenges, we are supporting each other in any way we can. My supplier can call me up and offer me fresh produce caught, shot or farmed that day, and we will work hard to change our lunch menu so we can share that fresh produce, right in season, with our guests. We rely on talented people, their expertise and the risks they take to be able to deliver the wonderful food we do, no matter what the time of year.
What we’ve found has been really successful in the past has been inviting our suppliers and producers into the restaurant to see how we work. This helps them understand why we demand such a level of perfection.
Just as important is our chance to go out and meet our suppliers in their environment so we can see into their world – what affects them and how the weather can make all the difference to the produce they supply us with. The better we understand each other, the better we all work together.
When this year’s spring greens do eventually arrive, I’ll be savouring every moment and every taste, appreciating the work that goes into bringing it to my kitchen. Despite the challenges, I know my suppliers, many of whom I’ve worked with for years, will do their best to source us the best produce available – wild spring herbs, salad leaves, wild salmon, sea trout, lamb, rabbit. I’m already eager to start cooking with fresh asparagus, peas, broad beans and other lovely spring vegetables.
The Scottish asparagus season is another reason to celebrate, and it only lasts for around six weeks so I like to make the most of it when I can. Scottish asparagus is as good as you will find anywhere in the world and Sandy Pattullo of Eassie Farm, near Glamis in Angus, ensures I get my hands on the first glorious green spears of the year. Thankfully, the heavy frosts in winter don’t affect asparagus much, although the rain can, which is why good drainage is so important. Asparagus really is one of those vegetables that, if served fresh, you don’t need to do a lot with to make an outstanding dish.
The same goes for many other seasonal vegetables if you source them from a quality supplier and serve them fresh. This vegetable papillote is ideal as the method of cooking in a sealed parcel means the beautiful flavours are all trapped inside. I’ve often cooked fish en papillote, but recently tried the same method with vegetables and loved it. The great thing you can do with this dish if you have guests, is serve it wrapped in the parcel, so that you can add an element of theatre to your meal – a true celebration of the spring season now that it has finally arrived.
Use any fresh seasonal vegetables you can get your hands on.
For the nage
2 carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
1 onion, peeled and roughly chopped
2 celery sticks, roughly chopped
½ fennel bulb, roughly chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled and halved
finely pared zest of 1 lemon
1 bay leaf
1 thyme sprig
For the vegetable papillote
olive oil (for cooking)
1 carrot, peeled and quartered
1 fennel bulb, trimmed and quartered
8 asparagus spears, trimmed
juice of 1 lemon
1 courgette, quartered lengthways
½ head of broccoli, divided into florets
2 baby gem lettuces, halved lengthways
1 tsp thyme leaves
To make the nage
Put all the ingredients into a saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil, lower the heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove from the heat, leave to infuse for ten minutes, strain through a sieve into a bowl, discarding the vegetables and flavourings, then set aside.
To make the papillote
Heat the oven to 200°C/gas mark 6. Heat a wide, heavy-based pan and add a splash of olive oil. Add the carrot, fennel and asparagus. Pour on enough vegetable nage to cover, add a squeeze of lemon juice and cook over a high heat for five to six minutes.
Add the radishes, courgette, broccoli and lettuce and cook for a further one and a half minutes, adding more nage as needed. Remove the vegetables from the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside. Bring the liquor back to the boil and let bubble to reduce by half.
Add the thyme leaves, another squeeze of lemon juice, a splash of olive oil and a touch of salt. The sauce should have a nice vegetable citrus flavour.
Tear off two large sheets of foil, lay one out on your work surface and fold up the edges. Place a 20cm round of greaseproof paper in the middle and place the vegetables on top of this. Carefully spoon the cooking liquor over the vegetables.
Cover with the other sheet of foil and fold the edges together to make a tightly sealed parcel.
Now, carefully lift the papillote into an ovenproof sauté pan and place over a medium heat until the foil starts to puff up. Transfer the pan to the oven and cook for five minutes.
Open the parcel at the table to get the full effect.
Asparagus soup topped with ricotta, chives & crispy chicken
You can serve this soup hot or cold. The shaved raw asparagus and crispy chicken and chives give a lovely contrasting finish.
800g asparagus spears
olive oil for cooking
1 white onion, peeled and sliced
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
450ml chicken stock
50g baby spinach leaves
For the chicken and ricotta garnish
12 chicken wings
olive oil for cooking
salt and pepper
1 tsp caraway seeds
1 tsp chopped chives
4 asparagus spears, trimmed
extra virgin olive oil
freshly cracked black pepper
To prepare the asparagus for the soup, snap off the woody ends of the spears and peel the lower end of the stalks. Finely chop the asparagus. Heat a heavy-based saucepan over a medium heat and add a drizzle of olive oil. Add the onion, season with a little salt and pepper and sweat gently for two to three minutes.
Meanwhile, bring the chicken stock to the boil in another pan. Add the asparagus to the onion and sweat together over a high heat for a couple of minutes. Pour in enough of the hot stock to just cover the asparagus then simmer for five to six minutes until the asparagus is just cooked, adding a little more stock to keep it covered if needed.
Add the spinach and cook very briefly until it just wilts. Tip the soup into a blender and blitz until smooth. Taste and adjust the seasoning as required. Unless serving hot straight away, transfer into a bowl and cool quickly over another bowl of ice to preserve the lovely vivid green colour, then cover and refrigerate.
Heat the oven to 180°C/gas mark 4.
To make the garnish
Put the chicken wings into a bowl, drizzle with olive oil and toss to coat, then sprinkle with salt, pepper and the caraway seeds. Heat a large, non-stick, ovenproof frying pan over a medium-high heat and add a drizzle of olive oil. Add the chicken wings and colour for three to four minutes on each side. Transfer the pan to the oven for eight to ten minutes until the wings are cooked through then set aside to cool slightly.
Once cooled, pull the meat from the bone and tear into strips. Place in a bowl with the ricotta and chives. Mix together and season with salt and pepper to taste. When ready to serve, trim the four raw asparagus spears then cut lengthways into fine slices using a sharp knife. Rub with extra virgin olive oil and season with salt and pepper. If serving the soup hot, reheat it gently.
Divide the soup between bowls and top each portion with a generous spoonful of the ricotta mixture and the raw asparagus slices. Top the ricotta with a sprinkling of cracked black pepper and drizzle a little olive oil around the soup.