Updated: Mar 27
March is the most misleading month, I find. And this week has proved my point. Every day this week in Newcastle, I have awoken to find my bedroom filled with the brightness of a pale blue sky and sunshine. Although there is little warmth in those rays yet, I have been able to have an afternoon cuppa on my back step, with the door open, soaking up the radiance. But, a glance at the weather ahead tells me that it is most definitely not time to get excited yet. Rain, wind, chilly nights and hard frosts still await us for several weeks in the North.
I find similar frustration in food. The warmer, brighter days have me craving crisp salad, fresh peas, sweet berries and juicy tomatoes. (I spent a very pleasant afternoon yesterday perusing Catalonia by José Pizaro, dreaming of warmer evenings, warm red wine and tapas, JOY!). Yet our supermarket shelves are still dismally stocked with the same brassicas and roots that we've grown so tired of all winter. Early spring does have a few of her own delights though- asparagus and jersey royals being my favourites. They'll soon be appearing on restaurant menus but it'll still be a few weeks until the supply is steady enough to trickle into the supermarkets for us to enjoy at home too. Until then, the most exciting new produce to get our hands on is wild garlic and purple sprouting broccoli.
So, this month, quite frankly, I'm feeling a bit sick of brown foods. I'm trying to use up the stews, casseroles and soups that I've been stashing in the freezer over the last few months, ready to make way for a more vibrant supply of stocks and sauces once spring gets properly underway. (And more ice cream of course. Ice cream is essential.) This month most of my recipes are centred around alliums - onions, leeks and garlics - as I attempt to make the most of the last of winter.
1) Not Quite Dauphinoise Potatoes
This potato dish is great for this time of year because it's a bit lighter than dauphinoise and roasties, but is just as comforting and delicious. I plan on making in long into spring as it'll work well with new crop baby potatoes too. Leftovers reheat well - just cover with foil and pop in the oven.
Serves Four, with leftovers
Approx 8 medium sized spuds, washed- waxy is best but any variety will taste delicious!
200ml chicken or vegetable stock (from cube is fine)
salt and pepper
bay leaves/ rosemary / thyme
2 large cloves garlic.
1) Preheat the oven to gas 4/ 170c. Wash the potatoes to remove any mud. Take a large, sharp knife and slice the potatoes as thinly as you can - aiming for about the thickness of a 50p piece. It's best to get into a rhythm, slow and steady, to achieve even results. If you're worried about the potato slipping, take a slither off the longest side to create a flat edge. This should help it hold still. Or, if you have one, you can use the slicing attachment on a food processor.
2) Arrange the potatoes in nice rows in an oven proof dish, as you see in the picture above. Or if you're using a round baking dish, concentric circles.
3) Pour the stock and cream over your potatoes. The liquid should come up about half way. Season and scatter with the herb of your choice. Crush the cloves of garlic with the flat of your knife and add them to the medley.
4) Cover the tray with foil and place into the oven for about 30 minutes, until the potatoes are just soft.
5) When the potatoes almost cooked, turn the oven up slightly to gas 6/ 200c and cook for a further 15 minutes, until you have a lovely crispy, golden topping. By this point most of the liquid will have evaporated, but the bottom half of your potatoes will still be creamy and soft.
2) Wild Garlic Vinegar
Last year, during the height of the wild garlic season, I saw an idea for infusing vinegar with wild garlic which I've been wondering about ever since. I've never tried infusing a vinegar before - oil, yes- but never a vinegar. So this year I hope to be able to give it a try. I think it'll be delicious for salad dressings through the summer.
If that fails, I certainly intend to make wild garlic capers this year. I'm a recent convert to capers; their briny, sour flavour certainly isn't easy on the palate when tried in isolation. But like olives, red wine and coffee, once you've broken that taste barrier, there's no going back!
3) Garlic Soup - with an egg?
One of the most thumbed books on my cook book shelf is Julia Childs Mastering the Art of French Cooking. My love for this book is due, in part, to the film Julie and Julia which brings me such joy, no matter how many times I watch it. I also simply love French food and French cooking. For me, French home cookery combines the simple beauty of fresh, local, seasonal ingredients with technical rigour, creating dishes which aren't fancy but are flawless.
Whilst looking for a recipe for French Onion Soup I found a rather intriguing recipe for Garlic Soup - or Aigo Bouido. In this recipe, Child blanches 16 cloves of unpeeled garlic for 30 seconds, before boiling it with some herbs and aromatics such as black pepper, sage, bay, parsley stalks and cloves for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, she instructs us to whip 3 egg yolks with olive oil, as if making a mayonnaise. When the garlic stock is ready, the hot, strained liquid is then added slowly to the eggy base. This presumably thickens the soup and gives it a more unctuous texture.
I've never seen a recipe for a soup like this before and indeed when you read the list of ingredients it's hard to imagine that it's as delicious as Child suggests. But, adding egg yolk to my Coq au Riesling sauce, as Child suggests in her recipe for Fricassée de Poulet à l'Ancienne, elevated the sauce to a new height I didn't know it needed to go to so this gives me cause to feel optimistic about this unusual soup recipe.
The recipe ends with the line "Serve immediately, accompanied with bread and cheese." - who can argue with that instruction!
4) Wild Garlic Pesto
Perhaps a little unimaginative but it's the easiest way to extend the life of the wild garlic season into later spring and early summer. Although mine never usually lasts that long.
If the wild garlic is particularly strong, I pour a kettle of boiling water over it to quickly blanch it to take the punch out. Drain thoroughly and squeeze out as much water as possible.
Blitz up the garlic with the usual trappings - olive oil, parmesan and pine nuts, as well as a little lemon. But go rogue - try walnuts instead of pine nuts, add some spinach or rocket as well as the wild garlic. Omit the cheese, add chilli flakes, add parsley, add a clove of garlic, use rapeseed oil... the options for variation go on and on.
I like to use the pesto to dress steamed vegetables such as asparagus and broccoli. I take a spoonful of the pesto, water it down slightly with a good squeeze of lemon juice and toss my greens through the dressing. Delicious with roast lamb or chicken, or fish.
5) Garlic and Miso Butter
This is currently my favourite sauce to serve with steak but it's also delicious with langoustines (very in season at the moment!), prawns or melted over steamed veggies. If you want, you can add chilli flakes for an extra hit.
To make it you need some unsalted butter which is at room temperature, a clove of grated garlic (or thinly sliced wild garlic) and a teaspoon of white miso. Blend the ingredients together, adding more miso if required. Miso is a really strong flavour so it's best to start with a little and add as you go along. You shouldn't need to add salt as the miso provides enough savoury umami deliciousness.
6) Spinach and Onion Pie
This pie is everything you could want from comfort food- double carbs and cheese. It's perfect for a Sunday night when it's gone all grey and blustery, or it's yummy served cold for lunch in the garden basking in the fleeting moments of spring sunshine.
The cheese quantity is approximate - as this recipe was born from the remnants of a cheese board so I had several wedges of cheese which needed using. Use your discretion and add as much or as little as you like!
Serves 4, with leftovers
1 roll puff pastry
4 medium white onions
1 small pot double cream
Selection of strong cheeses - approx 200g. I used cheddar, camembert and goats cheese but you can use whatever you have. Even just cheddar would still taste great. Blue cheese would also be delicious.
8 medium waxy potatoes
Sprig of thyme
Butter, olive oil, salt and pepper
2 large handfuls spinach
1 large bunch wild garlic (optional)
1) Peel and halve the white onions, slicing them into thin slivers or half moons. In a large, high sided frying pan, melt 1 tablespoon unsalted butter and a glug of olive oil until the butter is foaming. Add the onions and reduce the heat to medium-low. Season with flakey sea salt and thyme, and allow the onions to sweat slowly. When they're done they should be reduced in volume by about half and just starting to turn a gooey caramel colour in places.
2) Meanwhile, wash the potatoes, the spinach and wild garlic. In a large dry pan, wilt the spinach. Drain it and squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Roughly chop the spinach and the wild garlic and set aside.
3) Slice the potatoes thinly, like for the dauphinoise above. You want them to be about the thickness of a coin - if they're too thick they might not cook properly in the pie. Place them in a saucepan - I refused the pan I'd wilted the spinach in - and cover them with cold, salted water. Bring the potatoes to the boil and immediately turn them off and drain. Don't over cook them as you want them to hold in the pie. Whilst they're still hot, add 4 tablespoons of cream and about half your cheese to the potatoes. Mix well to create a thick creamy sauce around the potatoes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add a splash more cream if needed.
4) Add a further 3 tablespoons cream to the softened onions, and check the seasoning. Spread the onion mix over the base of your pie dish. Next, layer up with the spinach and wild garlic. Scatter half of your remaining cheese mixture over before topping with the potatoes. Scatter over the remaining cheese and push everything down. You should see a bit of liquid squelching up the sides as you press down. Add the pastry topping and egg wash it.
5) Bake in a preheated over at 180c for about 30 minutes or until the pastry is golden. Allow the pie to stand for 5 minutes before slicing. Serve along side a crunchy green salad spiked with slices of apply and celery, served with a punchy mustardy dressing.