What food to grow, shop for and forage this month...

In her monthly column A Year in Flavour, KATE RYAN tells us  what to sow, grow and cook, as May comes to a close
What food to grow, shop for and forage this month...

John Dory Cockles and Sea Veg. Picture: Kate Ryan

FIRST come the blossoms, then come the leaves.

Every May, I am hit with the same sense of astonishment as, overnight, where once were bare tree branches, suddenly the trees unfurl their leaves and everywhere are bluebells.

Mother Nature waits and waits until the time is just right, then flicks the switch and delights us with all possible shades of green.

May is when the forager’s season begins in earnest, and in the garden, veg patches offer up their first harvest: potatoes, radish, and salad leaves. In the kitchen, minds turn to preservation. Truth be told, the need to transform and preserve our food continues all year round, but from now until October, activity hits a peak to capture the essence of both wild and cultivated food.

This month, I focus on capturing the seasonal flavour of leaves, from trees, shrubs, and plants.

Preservation is an exercise in time and patience, which means not all this month’s efforts are ready for tasting yet. I must wait to see how a recipe for an old herbal tea originating from Russia turns out, or how I’ll end up using a syrup from spruce tree tips.

Other leaves are better used immediately, lest we lose their essential flavours and aromas, like blackcurrant leaves or those of the common mallow that grows all along the coast in Cork.

So, let’s dive in, and start making the most of the darling flavours of May.

Rosebay Willowherb Bunch. Picture: Kate Ryan
Rosebay Willowherb Bunch. Picture: Kate Ryan

GROW IT YOURSELF

It’s not been quite so darling a month for gardeners. An unseasonably long cold spell, northerly winds, little rain, and frosts well into the first month of summer, resulted in slow growth for any outdoor-reared veggies.

The weather impacted on planting out my beans and peas, desperate for fresh soil and more room to grow.

There is warmth enough now to transplant my pea, mange tout, runner and borlotti bean seedlings around their little bamboo cane wigwams for support.

A new raised bed arrived too and is planted up with tender herb seedlings. I’m looking forward to picking fistfuls of fresh herbs with every meal soon, while also cutting and drying herbs for when their picking season is over. Some for their leaves only, but later coriander and fennel will go to seed which I’ll collect and dry too.

As far as picking goes, things are still slim. 

I have pulled the first radishes though, nothing better than to dredge these ruby coloured, crunchy, peppery spheres through a lemon spiked homemade mayonnaise.

Radish is in the mustard family, and this time of year the tops are tender and carry that mustard piquancy in their leaves. I like to use them in a salad, so nothing is wasted.

The broad beans are beginning to put on strong growth, but I want to concentrate the growth near the bottom of the plant for the time being and picking out the very top shoots helps to do that.

These leafy shoots are edible, have a definite ‘bean-y’ aroma to them, and are great added to a stir fry — no waste here!

Over-wintered chard or spinach may begin to ‘bolt’ to try and produce flowers and seed. Keep this under control and producing new growth by cutting the thick stem down as far as you dare. The plant will recover, and you can harvest the leaves off the stem and use for dinner that night too.

If you happen to have a couple of blackcurrant bushes growing in your garden, or if you know someone who does, did you know you can make the most amazing cordial from an infusion of blackcurrant leaves and syrup? Celebrated cork chef Caitlin Ruth gave me her tips for making this cordial and how to use it in a seriously seasonal cocktail too! See below for both recipes.

SHOP FOR IT

Asparagus season is still going strong. Keep supporting local growers when buying this. Did you know, from seed to first spears it can take five years to harvest asparagus?

Also on my hot list this month are new season potatoes, spring carrots, spring onions and the first of Irish grown garlic!

I am most excited about garlic season mainly for garlic ‘scapes’. These are the flower shoot produced by the bulb of garlic in the ground. Over the past few years, growers of garlic have found a market for scapes after years of having to throw them away because no-one knew what to do with them.

A versatile vegetable, treat them the same way as asparagus. 

Chefs were the first to recognise the potential of garlic scape, but now home cooks are clamouring for them too. 

Scapes pair fantastically with any kind of sauce that is rich, thick, and ideally made from eggs!

My favourite way to make them is to bake them into a savoury seasonal tart, topped with an obscene amount of Hegarty’s Templegall nine-month-old raw milk cheese. Bake until set, allow to cook slightly before slicing. Serve with a seasonal salad.

West Cork Garlic may have some scapes available online or from their market stall in Skibbereen, or, further away, Drummond House in Co Louth sell scapes online from this week onwards online for nationwide delivery — maybe grab a jar of their new garlic scape pesto too!

Finally, strawberry season has arrived! To kick this occasion off in style, see below four things to do with strawberries in May.

Sea Beet.
Sea Beet.

FORAGE FOR IT

Let’s begin our May forage by the sea — Sea Beet is ready for picking. As the name suggests, it is similar in look and taste to regular spinach, but with a wonderful salinity due to its proximity to the sea. 

Mineral rich, it is a great source of iron, cook them as you would spinach. See below recipe for John Dory with Sea Kale and Sea Beet.

Another plant that grows on rocky ground near the coast is Common Mallow. As the name suggests, in years gone by the root of this were harvested to make marshmallows, but I’m interested in using the leaves.

I recently read that leaves of the common mallow can be used in the kind of tasty chicken broth given when under the weather. I happened to find a mallow growing in my garden, so I’m looking forward to making this soup to see how good for the soul it is. Poach chicken in chicken stock with lots of garlic. When the chicken is almost ready, finely slice mallow leaves and add to the pot.

 

Rosebay Willowherb Oxidising Picture: Kate Ryan
Rosebay Willowherb Oxidising Picture: Kate Ryan

Now to the trees! I have two experiments ongoing in the kitchen: the first is a herbal tea made from the leaves of Rosebay Willowherb, and the other is a syrup using bright green spruce tips.

I’m ashamed to say, after years of yanking Rosebay Willowherb out of my garden, I’ve discovered its actually a very useful, edible, wild plant! It’s a coloniser plant, and will rapidly spread if left untamed in a garden; but in the wild, you’ll recognise it for its fuchsia pink stems of flowers, the seeds of which turn into cotton-like whisps.

But it is the leaves that are perfect for picking now, just before the flowers start to appear, and make a good substitute for a caffeine-free green tea! The method and recipe for this herb tea originates from Russia, and has five stages to it: harvest, wilt, roll, oxidise, and dry; but the whole process takes just a few days!

I’m currently in the oxidise stage, but already the aroma has changed from grassy to floral. I can’t wait to try it!.

The craft and micro brewing industry have been using resinous spruce tips for many years as an alternative to hops. Now is the best time to pick them, and they are recognisable for being the bright, lime green, new shoots growing at the end of spruce pine trees. We have a lot of forestry, so this is an abundant crop. Pick when the shoots are still tight, as they contain the most sap from which you can extract a more concentrated flavour in the syrup.

COOK IT

Blackcurrant Leaf Cordial

Ingredients (makes about 1 litre of cordial)

500g white sugar

1 litre water

2 thick lemon slices

150g blackcurrant leaves

Fresh lemon juice (to taste, ½ - 1 lemon)

Method:

  • To a large saucepan, add sugar, water, and lemon slices and bring to the boil. Turn off the heat, add all the blackcurrant leaves, place the saucepan lid on securely then leave overnight to infuse.
  • The next day, place a fine mesh sieve over a bowl large enough to catch all the liquid and line the sieve with a piece of muslin. Pour the contents of the saucepan into the lined sieve and squeeze until you capture every drop of syrupy liquid.
  • Taste, and gradually add a little lemon juice at a time until you have the right level of acidity to your taste. Decant into a sterilised bottle, keep in the fridge and use within 1-2 months.

Blackcurrant Leaf Martini

Ingredients (makes 1 serving)

Fine sea salt

75 ml Blackcurrant cordial

50 ml vodka

Bitters, dash

Ice

Method:

  • First, prepare your martini glass by damping the rim slightly using wetted kitchen paper. Shake some sea salt onto a plate and coat the rim of the glass with a fine layer of salt.
  • To a cocktail shaker or jam jar with a lid, add the ingredients, top with ice, firmly place on lid, and shake until a fine film appears on the outside.
  • Pour through a sieve into the glass. Garnish with a fresh blackcurrant leaf if you have one.

4 WAYS WITH NEW SEASON STRAWBERRIES

Strawberry and Elderflower Spritz: Picture: Kate Ryan
Strawberry and Elderflower Spritz: Picture: Kate Ryan

1. Elderflower Cured Strawberries

Ingredients

1 punnet of strawberries, hulled and halved

100 ml Elderflower cordial

Method:

  • Place strawberries into a container, pour over the elderflower cordial, cover.
  • Shake gently. Place in a fridge for two days, gently shaking once per day.

2. Strawberry and Elderflower Spritz

Ingredients

Reserved liquid from the Elderflower Cured Strawberries

Either: sparkling wine or sparkling water

Method:

  • Pour 25
Shortbread Vanilla Whipped Cream Elderflower Cured Strawberry. Picture: Kate Ryan
Shortbread Vanilla Whipped Cream Elderflower Cured Strawberry. Picture: Kate Ryan

3. Strawberry Shortcake

Make this with either a homemade shortbread or a good quality shortbread, such as Seymours Irish Shortbread.

Ingredients

Shortbread fingers or rounds

100 ml Double cream

1 tsp vanilla bean paste

Elderflower cured strawberries

Method:

  • Into a jug, pour cream and add vanilla bean paste. Whip the cream to soft peaks.
  • On top of the shortbread, add a thick layer of cream and top with an Elderflower Cured Strawberry.
White Chocolate Dipped Strawberries. Picture: Kate Ryan
White Chocolate Dipped Strawberries. Picture: Kate Ryan

4. White Chocolate Dipped Strawberries

Simple but timeless. I’ve used white chocolate here, but you could also use milk or dark chocolate depending on your preference.

Ingredients

100 g white chocolate (I like Green & Black’s Organic White Chocolate with Madagascan Vanilla)

1 punnet of strawberries

Method:

  • Prepare a piece of parchment on a baking tray. Clean and dry the strawberries.
  • Half fill a small saucepan with water, place over a medium-low heat. Into a bowl, crack the chocolate into small pieces. Place the bowl over the saucepan. It should not come into contact with the water. Melt the chocolate.
  • When all the chocolate has completely melted, take the bowl off the heat and carefully dip strawberries into the chocolate. Shake off any excess and lay onto the parchment.
  • Place tray of chocolate dipped strawberries into fridge until chocolate has set.

Spruce Tip Syrup

Ingredients

200 g spruce tips

200 g white sugar

125 ml boiling water

Method:

  • Into a large jar, create roughly equal layers of sugar and spruce tips, starting and finishing with sugar.
  • Close the lid and leave to stand for minimum 24 hours.
  • Place a large saucepan over a medium heat. Add sugar and spruce tips, then boiling water. Heat and stir until all the sugar has dissolved.
  • Place a fine mesh sieve over a large bowl and line it with muslin. Pour through the hot syrup mixture and press down with a wooden spoon to capture every bit of flavour.
  • Decant into a sterlised bottle. Store in a cool, dark place.

Pan Fried John Dory, Cockles, Sea Kale, Sea Beet & Asparagus

John Dory is one of my favourite fish – meaty but still with a delicate flavour. The use of cockles is my choice here, or swap for mussels or clams.

Ingredients (serves two)

Butter, lots

½ tbsp Irish rapeseed oil

Equal quantities of sea kale and asparagus; handful of sea beet

50 ml water

Two fillets of John Dory (ask your fishmonger to scale and pin bone)

Juice of one lemon

1 tin of cockles in brine

Method:

  • Place a saute pan over a medium heat. Add butter, oil, sea kale and asparagus and fry gently for 2 minutes. Add water, clamp on lid, and turn down heat to medium low.
  • Pat fish dry with kitchen paper and season with salt and pepper both sides. Heat a large frying pan, add a generous amount of butter, melt, then add the fish skin side down. Press down with a fish slice and cook for 3-5 minutes depending on the thickness of the fillets. Turn the fillets over and cook for a further 2 minutes.
  • Back to the vegetables. Take off the lid and add sea beet stems first. Add lemon juice, half the cockle juice from the tin and more butter. Shake to combine, then add the leaves. Put the lid back on, turn off heat and allow the sea beet leaves to wilt.
  • Add drained cockles to the fish pan, flip the fish back onto its skin, and baste with the buttery pan juices.
  • Onto a warm plate, place vegetables, top with a fillet of John Dory, scatter over cockles, and finish with a drizzle of the lemon-butter juices from the vegetable pan.
  • Served with steamed new season potatoes, butter and chopped chives.

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