A Year in Flavour: April is all about the blossoms

KATE RYAN continues her monthly series, A Year of Flavour, where she looks at what food is in season, to grow, forage or cook.
A Year in Flavour: April is all about the blossoms

 Crystalised Primroses and Fresh Violets on Cupcakes. Picture: Kate Ryan

It’s April in A Year of Flavour, and the blossoms have arrived! What’s more, it’s asparagus season…

Not long after I first moved to Cork, I heard John Spillane’s song The Dance of the Cherry Trees: “Let me tell you ‘bout the cherry trees, Every April in our town, They put on the most outrageous clothes, And they sing, and they dance around…

Throughout April, Cork is festooned with blossoms of the cherry tree, giving the city a Mardi Gras feel. Branches, thick with blousy pink blooms, hang heavy and really do dance as the April breezes push through them.

April has always been about blossoms for me and the life they bring with them — the bees and their buzzy fuzziness. It’s a time for collecting and playing with blossoms in the kitchen, enlivening the food we eat, and our drinks too!

Dandelion; gorse with their heady coconut aroma; cherry, apple, and plum blossoms; primroses and violets who go so perfectly together in nature that they always grow side by side. White flowers too: the common daisy, as well as the blooms of wild garlic and three-cornered leek that pack more punch than the leaves themselves! All are edible and bring colour and flavour to even the simplest of dishes.

Green and White Asparagus Duck Eggs Gubeen Cheese. Picture: Kate Ryan
Green and White Asparagus Duck Eggs Gubeen Cheese. Picture: Kate Ryan

But the most exciting thing about April is asparagus season! Locally grown asparagus has a short season, but because of the temperate climate of Cork, especially in West Cork, asparagus will start appearing in farmers’ markets now, whereas other parts of the country must wait until May to get their fix. My favourite way to eat them is gently grilled with salt, pepper, and olive oil with a rich, thick, bearnaise for dredging. That or a dippy duck egg.

GROW IT YOURSELF

April has been unusually cold, so there is currently little to pick from the garden. My potatoes are growing nicely, despite the constant threat of frost, as are my radishes and spring lettuces. As soon as the weather warms a little, they will put on speedy growth and I’ll be pulling ruby radishes and peppery salad leaves in no time!

My carrots will soon be ready to pull. I planted these before winter, and they have been slowly growing for the last six months. A few have quite the impressive array of carrot tops, so I clipped a few to make a delicious Carrot Top, Wild Garlic and Hazelnut Pesto. Clipping just a few means you can make a manageable amount of pesto, so nothing goes to waste. Alternatively, just wait until your carrots are ready to harvest and make use of the tops then.

SHOP FOR IT

Did I mention it’s asparagus season?! These beautiful spears are the joy of growers and eaters alike! We wait ten months of the year for the spears to poke through the ground and then gorge on them until they are finished, and we go back to waiting again.

Locally grown, organic, in-season asparagus has a flavour that is incomparable to the imported crop. I once read it’s impossible to describe the taste of asparagus because nothing else tastes like it. I completely agree and find that the best way to eat them is: Simply. Steamed, grilled or sauteed — never boiled. Asparagus is happiest when accompanied by something luxuriant to dunk it into. A soft-boiled duck egg, perhaps, or a tarragon- spiked bearnaise.

A vegetable that is becoming more popular every year is Sea Kale. It is force grown in the dark, its stems are creamy white with hints of apple green and cherry blossom pink, topped with a robust curled leaf. The whole thing is edible, cooks in mere moments and is perfect with fresh trout. See my recipe below for Braised Sea Kale, Pan Fried Trout Fillet and a Shallot, Lemon, and Caper Sauce.

IPA Braised Hispi Cabbage Picture: Kate Ryan
IPA Braised Hispi Cabbage Picture: Kate Ryan

Spring Cabbage, also known as York, Sweetheart or Hispi Cabbage, is in season now too. Braising cabbage intensifies the flavour, and I like braising in beer, preferably a crisp, hoppy IPA. Quarter the cabbage, removing as much of the stalk as possible while keeping the leaves together. Season with salt and pepper and fry in lots of butter in a saute pan until caramelised on all sides. Add the beer until about halfway up the side of the cabbage, clamp on the lid and cook, turning once, until on the just tender side of al dente. Remove the lid and cook until the liquid is reduced by half.

Fresh tarragon herb is in season from now and all summer long. Tarragon is probably my favourite herb, and I adore it with chicken.

In last month’s column, I gave a method for making herb oil — use this same method for making tarragon oil and baste a roast chicken — be generous, it’s divine!

Tarragon is great with asparagus and I love it paired with crab meat. Try my recipe below for Crab, Tarragon and Potato Croquettes with Pickled Asparagus.

Slow Cooked Lamb Shoulder. Picture: Kate Ryan
Slow Cooked Lamb Shoulder. Picture: Kate Ryan

Lamb is my favourite meat of all and is perfectly suited to low and slow cooking. For our Easter Sunday feast, I marinaded a half shoulder of lamb (on the bone for maximum flavour) in a mix of natural yogurt, garlic, lemon juice and zest, and ras al hanout overnight and roasted in a 150 degrees Celsius oven for 4 hours, covered. The meat will fall off the bone — stuff into a flat bread with peppery leaves and pomegranate seeds.

FORAGE FOR IT

April is all about those blossoms! Primrose and violet are perfect for crystalising, giving any ordinary cake or dessert a glamourous touch. To crystalise flowers, foam up one egg white with one teaspoon of vodka, paint the flowers with this mix then dip into caster sugar, shake off the excess and place on parchment to dry completely. Store in an airtight container.

Infuse blossoms with spirits, vinegars or make sugar syrup. Dandelion, gorse, and violet blossoms are great for this, but remember that alcohol denudes colour, so if you want to reproduce the colour of violet blooms, for example, mix up some purple food colouring and add. A simple syrup is equal quantities of sugar and water, heated until the sugar dissolves, add blossoms and leave to infuse overnight. Strain and bottle. For vinegars, bottle good quality white wine vinegar with a large handful of your blossom of choice and leave for at least a month before using.

Also on the forager’s list this month are the leaves of the Hawthorn tree. While they are still young, they have a sweet herbaceous flavour, older leaves tend to be bitter. They are delicious paired with sweet spring carrots — see my recipe below for Spring Carrot and Hawthorn Salad with Dandelion Vinaigrette.

Sorrel, a long and rounded green leaf with a distinctive lemony flavour, is also great for picking now and for the next few months and adds an incredible punch of citrus flavour to seasonal leaf salads.

Also nettles and wild garlic are still good for picking. Use nettles with mashed potatoes to make a seasonal potato cake; or mix wild garlic with Hegarty’s Mature Cheddar into dough for a savoury scone.


COOK IT

Carrot Top, Wild Garlic and Hazelnut Pesto

A seasonal pesto great stirred through pasta with chicken for a speedy and delicious mid-week meal.

Carrot Top Wild Garlic and Hazelnut Pesto. Picture: Kate Ryan
Carrot Top Wild Garlic and Hazelnut Pesto. Picture: Kate Ryan

Ingredients

Handful of fresh carrot tops, washed and dried

5 leaves of wild garlic or three-cornered leek

1 tbsp hazelnuts

15g smoked Gubbeen cheese, grated

2-3 tbsp of Rapeseed oil or extra virgin olive oil (you may need more depending on the size and freshness of the carrot tops)

Salt and pepper

Method:

  • Put everything into a blender and wiz until combined. Check for seasoning, add more if needed.
  • Add more oil if a looser texture is needed. Blend again.
  • Will keep in the fridge for up to two weeks in an airtight container.
Sea Kale Trout Caper Sauce: Picture Kate Ryan
Sea Kale Trout Caper Sauce: Picture Kate Ryan

Braised Sea Kale, Pan Fried Trout Fillet, Tarragon Oil, Shallot, Lemon, and Caper Sauce

Ingredients (serves two)

Butter and olive oil

2 large fillets of fresh trout

1 bunch of sea kale, trimmed

250 ml veg stock

100 ml white wine

Tarragon Oil (make ahead)

2 shallots, finely chopped

Zest and juice of 1 lemon

2 tbsp capers, roughly chopped

100 ml double cream

Trout roe (optional)

Method:

  • Trim trout fillets and season with salt and pepper both sides. Set aside.
  • Set a saute pan over a medium-low heat, add a knob of butter and olive oil and melt. Add the Sea Kale to the pan with white wine and stock. Cover with a lid and allow to cook for 5-8 minutes depending on freshness of the sea kale. Stems should be the tender side of al dente when cooked.
  • Heat a frying pan large enough to hold two fish fillets. Heat some oil in the pan, add the fish fillets and cook for 3-4 minutes skin side, flip, cook for another 3 minutes. Flip again, add a large knob of butter, allow it froth up and spoon the browned butter over the fish for one more minute. Remove from pan onto a piece of kitchen towel.
  • Make your sauce. Place a frying pan over a medium heat, add butter and melt. Add shallots and gently fry until translucent, try not to brown. Add cream to shallots, stir to combine. Add lemon zest and juice, stir, and bring to a gentle simmer. Add chopped capers, season with salt and pepper. Stir, allow to thicken, remove from heat.
  • Plate the sea kale then the fish. Spoon over the caper sauce, drizzle over tarragon oil and add a little trout roe.

Crab, Tarragon and Potato Croquettes with Pickled Asparagus

This is a sweet pickle recipe. Make a large quantity towards the end of the asparagus season will help to preserve the harvest for longer!

Pickled Asparagus

4 bunches of asparagus, trimmed and sliced using a mandolin or veg peeler

250 ml distilled vinegar

500 ml caster sugar

750 ml water

Method:

  • Into a sterilised jar, place the asparagus ribbons. Heat the vinegar, sugar, and water together until sugar dissolves. Allow to cool. Pour over the asparagus, seal, and leave for at least two hours before using.


Potato Crab Tarragon Croquette Pickled Asparagus Picture: Kate Ryan
Potato Crab Tarragon Croquette Pickled Asparagus Picture: Kate Ryan

Crab and Potato Croquettes

Ingredients (makes 8 croquettes)

250 g picked crab meat

4 floury potatoes, peeled, steamed until soft, allow to cool slightly

1 tbsp tarragon oil (make ahead, see above), salt and pepper

1 egg, whisked

Panko breadcrumbs

250 ml sunflower oil

Method:

  • Mash the potatoes, place in a bowl, add crab meat, tarragon oil, salt, and pepper.
  • Take some of the mix and roll into a croquette shape. Make sure the potato mix is well compacted else the croquette won’t hold during deep frying.
  • Heat oil in a deep sided frying pan. The oil must be hot.
  • Roll croquette in egg, then panko until well covered. Drop the croquette into the hot oil using a slotted spoon. Cook until golden brown all over.
  • Remove from the oil and drain on paper towel. Repeat until all croquettes are cooked.
  • Plate

up croquettes with a salad of pickled asparagus and raw radishes thinly sliced.

Spring Carrot and Hawthorn Salad with Dandelion Vinaigrette

This would make a lovely side dish served with a chicken roasted in tarragon oil.

Ingredients

For the Dandelion Vinaigrette

3 tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1 tbsp of The Wild Irish Dandelion Vinegar Shrub (available online at www.wildirishforagers.ie)

Pinch of sea salt and ground black pepper

For the Salad:

Peel and grate carrots using a box grater. Depending on the size of your carrots, 1 large or 3 new season carrots.

1 tbsp toasted pumpkin seeds

Handful of freshly picked Hawthorn leaves

Method:

  • Place into a clean jam jar with a tight lid and shake until combined.
  • Place carrots, seeds and Hawthorn leaves in a bowl and mix. Add the vinaigrette a little at a time, toss through until everything is coated just enough. Store vinaigrette left in the fridge.

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