First fruits of the year are here...

In her second instalment of A Year of Flavour, in which she looks at what produce you should be eating at this time of year... and how, KATE RYAN tells us what the best energy-giving seasonal foods are right now
First fruits of the year are here...

Cauliflower Bhaji. Picture: Kate Ryan

FEBRUARY, and spring has arrived! The month of the Grand Stretch... but when frosts, nips and even returning Beasts from the East remind us that we are not out of the wintery weather woods yet.

Thanks to Lockdown number three, there is ample time to revel in slow cooking and cosy nights beside the fire.

While we hunker snuggly inside, farms are busy with new life: lambs, calves and kid goats are all ready to arrive. It’s the start of a new dairying season and much of this month’s cookery has celebrated our rich milk, butter, cream — and cheese with everything!

This is also the month when the first fruits of the year arrive: forced rhubarb and jewel-like blood oranges from distant sun-soaked lands.

Veg-wise, February is about boosting energy and immunity: mushrooms and every type of brassica.

I’m still picking leeks, kale, beets and some salad leaves from my garden, but while forage is still thin on the ground, one hardy plant is no match for the chills and snow: Hairy Bittercress.

GROW IT YOURSELF

The microgreens are still going strong, although these will be finished by the end of the month. My tomato plants have germinated and begun to unfurl their first set of ‘true’ leaves, which means they are almost ready for transplanting out of their cells and into their first pot. It’s not too late to sow tomato seeds, and even if you only have space for one or two, it’s still worth it.

On my windowsill the potatoes are chitting, sprouting growth. Depending on the weather, I hope to plant out in early March. Growth should be speedy as soon as warmer days arrive.

I’m attempting to chit garlic seed too! It’s not something I have done before but exposing them to light on the chilliest windowsill in the house should make them hardier for when I plant them out at the end of the month. I’ve only ever grown garlic once before, so I’m looking forward to growing it again.

I used the remaining baby leeks and rainbow chard from the garden in a rustic tart with mushrooms and goat cheese, see recipe below.

SHOP FOR IT

February is the start of a new dairy season, kicking off with St Brigid’s Day, the saint associated with dairying, and even comes with its own hashtag: #februdairy!

Cork is home to 25% of all the cows in Ireland, but we also have great quality milk from goats and water buffalo. Celebrate all forms of dairy in spring when milk is at its peak nutritionally, and the cream is rich and thick.

Some of my most favourite sweet things are based on dairy: baked custards and set creams, baked rice pudding flavoured with Turkish Delight-inspired flavours of Rosewater, Vanilla and Pistachio. 

Or creamy milk simply warmed through and scented with Cardamom and Cinnamon. They are comforting and everything you need to stave off the last seasonal chills.

I was looking forward to forced rhubarb this month, but there’s something of a shortage locally. The Village Grocer in Castlemartyr has some in stock, and no doubt a trip to The English Market will see you leave with armfuls of those shocking pink stems, but in West Cork I must wait a little longer, until Champagne Rhubarb season arrives.

In the meantime, I turn to foods that are packed with Vitamin C, D and Iron. 

By February, I always feel as though my stores are running on empty; I feel tired and lacking motivation, but just before I fade completely, beautiful, Vitamin C packed Blood Oranges arrive, and all is well with the world!

I made a delightful Blood Orange and Campari Jelly to top off a Buttermilk Panna Cotta and found it equally good served by itself with a splash of pouring cream. See recipe for the jelly below.

I stock up on mushrooms too. They are packed with Vitamin D and combined with dairy, helps aid calcium absorption. Did you know mushrooms are Ireland’s largest farmed horticultural crop, worth over €119 million annually!

As well as button, chestnut and flat mushrooms mass grown, there are niche mushroom growers in Ireland too. West Cork Mushrooms and Ballyhoura Mountain Mushrooms are most local to Cork selling cultivated and wild varieties.

I’m a big fan of putting things on toast, including my indulgent Buttered Chestnut Mushrooms with Madeira, see recipe below.

Red Cabbage Steaks. Picture: Kate Ryan
Red Cabbage Steaks. Picture: Kate Ryan

Beautiful brassicas are essential eating this time of year, ready with their army of B Vitamins and Iron. I’ve been cooking with different types all month, including Lamb Stuffed Savoy Cabbage Rolls, Red Cabbage Steaks with Hazelnuts, and Chargrilled Purple Sprouting Broccoli with Pomegranate Molasses Dressing. There were very moreish Cauliflower Bhajis, find the recipe for these below.

FORAGE FOR IT

Forage is still thin on the ground. I was hoping to see the first nettles and wild garlic but it’s a little too early, although in sheltered woodland spots it maybe possible to pick a little and lightly until things warm up a bit more.

Earlier this month, and taking advantage of a break in the rain, I ventured out into my garden and noticed, growing far too well in one of the flower beds, was Hairy Bittercress — a wild, invasive plant that grows rampantly wherever it can take hold!

Being neither hairy nor bitter, it is a member of the cress family, along with Water and Land Cress, and like them are also edible.

Instead of consigning it all to the compost heap, I kept some back and made a delightful salad with some Land Cress growing still in my little greenhouse and microgreens.

I paired these deep green leaves with slow roasted beetroots, segments of jewelled Blood Orange, crumbled goat cheese and toasted zinc-packed pumpkin seeds.

A divine lunch inspired by a small plant often overlooked!

COOK IT

Buttered Chestnut Mushrooms with Madeira

Madeira, butter and mushrooms is a match made in heaven! Serves one generously, two with a leafy salad.

Ingredients

25g butter

½ tbsp olive oil

250g Chestnut mushrooms, sliced

2 garlic cloves, crushed

1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves, taken off stalks

1 tbsp Madeira Sea salt and pepper

2 slices of bread, toasted.

Method:

  • Heat a heavy bottom frying pan over medium heat. Add butter, melt. Add olive oil, garlic and thyme, swirl together.
  • Add mushrooms, stir to coat in buttery juices. Cook off all the moisture released from the mushrooms, cook down until they begin to caramelise. This can take up to 10 minutes.
  • Add Madeira, cook for 2 more minutes. Season with salt and pepper and serve on freshly toasted sourdough.
Mushroom Leek Chard and Goat Cheese Tart. Picture: Kate Ryan
Mushroom Leek Chard and Goat Cheese Tart. Picture: Kate Ryan

Mushroom, Leek, Chard and Goat Cheese Tart

If you want to make your own pastry case, this works a dream with wholegrain flour for a nuttier texture and flavour. Otherwise, use a ready-made all-butter pastry to line a tart case and blind bake before adding this filling and baking in the oven.

Ingredients

200g mushrooms, quartered

2 garlic cloves, chopped

2 tbsp fresh thyme, or parsley

4 baby leeks, washed, trimmed and sliced in half lengthways

2 large handfuls of rainbow chard, blanched, drained and chopped

4 large eggs

200ml whole milk

200ml fresh cream 100g goat / feta cheese

Salt and pepper.

Method:

  • Pre-heat oven to 180 degrees Celsius, bake the pastry case.
  • Saute mushrooms with butter, garlic and thyme until slightly browned and softened.
  • In a jug, whisk together eggs, milk, cream, salt and pepper. Set aside.
  • When the pastry is cooked, take out of the oven and fill with cooked mushrooms and chopped blanched chard. Pour over the egg mixture, place the baby leeks on top and crumble over goat cheese.
  • Place back in the oven to bake for 40 minutes until golden on top and set. Remove the tart from the oven and allow it to stand for 10 minutes before slicing.
Cauliflower Bhaji. Picture: Kate Ryan
Cauliflower Bhaji. Picture: Kate Ryan

Cauliflower Bhaji

These make a great little starter for sharing. I love to eat them with a little spritz of lemon, and some mango chutney or sriracha mayo.

Ingredients (around 12)

1 small head of cauliflower, pick off florets, trim stalk and chop

50g plain flour

1/8 tsp bicarbonate of soda

Lemon zest

40g grated mature cheese (e.g. Hegarty’s mature cheddar)

1 whole egg

60ml Buttermilk

1/8 tsp cayenne pepper

½ tsp garam masala

½ tsp mustard powder

¼ tsp turmeric

1tsp smoked sea salt

1 scallion, finely sliced

Small bunch coriander, chopped, stalks and leaves

500ml sunflower oil (for deep frying).

Method:

Blanch cauliflower in salted boiling water for 2 minutes, drain and rinse with cold water.

  • Make the batter. Mix together remaining ingredients, except the oil. Reserve some coriander leaves for garnish.
  • Drain and pat dry the cauliflower. Chop into smaller pieces and mix through batter.
  • Into a deep saucepan, carefully heat the oil. Test heat by dropping a small drop of batter into the oil. If it bubbles, the oil is ready to fry with.
  • Drop the batter, spoonful at a time, into the hot oil. The bhajis will puff up and turn golden brown.
  • Turn over to brown all over. Remove from hot oil with a slotted spoon and place on kitchen paper to drain e

xcess oil. Each bhaji will take about 2 minutes to cook.

Blood Orange and Campari Jelly and Pannacotta. Picture: Kate Ryan
Blood Orange and Campari Jelly and Pannacotta. Picture: Kate Ryan

Blood Orange and Campari Jelly

I made this to top off a buttermilk panna cotta and there was some left over. It was heaven on its own with just a drop of pouring cream. Serves up to 4.

Ingredients

350ml Blood Orange juice (approximately 5 oranges, strained to remove pulp)

50g golden caster sugar

4 gelatine leaves (bloom in cold water)

50ml Campari

Method:

  • Into a saucepan over a low heat, add orange juice and sugar. Stir until sugar is dissolved and juice is just warm.
  • Squeeze out excess water from gelatine leaves, add to the warmed juice and stir until dissolved. Add Campari, stir, pour into serving glasses and refrigerate until set.

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