The kitchen and garden are fizzing with energy. The pot of lemon thyme on the kitchen steps is sporting the first absinthe flush of leaves, the crab apple, greengage and plum trees are a froth of white blossom, and the market has bags of wild garlic and early asparagus – the first welcome signs of a cook’s spring.
The soft green garlic leaves are to tuck raw among curly lettuce and sprigs of watercress in a spring salad – or, better still, to wilt briefly in a hot pan and stir into a bowl of hollandaise sauce. The woods where I grew up were carpeted with the leaves and their white star-like flowers each April, the smell intriguing as I made my way through them on my way home from school. If only I had appreciated the verdant bounty at my feet.
A wild garlic pesto is a gorgeous thing – a vibrant paste thick enough to spread. A sauce for pasta, yes, but so much more. I like to spread it on sheets of puff pastry, roll them up and slice into rounds. Baked in the hottest of ovens, they emerge as fragrant, savoury Danish pastries. Wild garlic pesto is also one to use instead of or in partnership with mayonnaise.Equal parts of each is a good rule of thumb.
This week, I made a filling for puff pastries with some of my haul of leaves and some crème fraîche. Wet from the kitchen tap, they steamed in seconds in a hot pan. Squeezed dry and roughly chopped, they were stirred through the dairy produce and used to cover tiny broccoli shoots in a pastry case.
After a full day of spring sunshine, a chilly evening saw me get out the last of the white chicory and use it in a casserole with chicken and another tub of crème fraîche. The piquant notes – light, creamy and fresh – feel right for these first spring days in the kitchen.
Wild garlic and broccoli pastries
You could use asparagus in place of the broccoli, if you like. Blanch the stalks and tips first, cut into short lengths, then drain and place them in the puff pastry cases before covering with crème fraîche and cheese. Makes 4 long, slim tarts
puff pastry 230g
long-stemmed broccoli or purple sprouting 200g
wild garlic leaves 100g
pecorino 60g, finely grated
extra thick double cream or crème fraîche 200ml
Preheat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Place the puff pastry on a lightly floured work surface and roll it to a rectangle, about 28cm x 22cm. Have the longest edge facing you, then slice down into 4 rectangles. Transfer them to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Use the point of a knife to score a rectangle within each piece, roughly 1.5cm in from the edges. Don’t score so deeply that you cut right through. Brush the outer rim of each rectangle with some beaten egg. Bake for 15 minutes.
Bring a deep pan of water to the boil. Break the broccoli into long-stemmed florets. Dunk the broccoli into the boiling water – it will go a deep shade of green in seconds – drain and set aside.
Remove the tray of pastry cases from the oven. Carefully push the centre-scored rectangle of each case down with the back of a small spoon to form a large dip in the centre of each.
Wash the garlic leaves and stalks. Put them, with water still clinging to them, in a small pan and cover with a lid. Place over a moderate heat and leave for a couple of minutes until they have wilted. Turn them over with tongs and cook for a minute longer then remove, squeeze dry and roughly chop them.
Stir the chopped garlic leaves and the grated pecorino into the cream or crème fraîche, then season lightly with ground black pepper and set aside. Divide the broccoli between the tart cases, then spoon the garlic cream over each. Return to the oven for 10 minutes or until the cream has melted and is lightly honey-coloured in patches. Serve immediately.
Chicken with crème fraîche and chicory
A mixture of chicken pieces including thighs, drumsticks and breasts, on the bone, will work well here. Serves 3
olive oil 2 tbsp
butter a thick slice
chicken pieces 6
chicory 3 heads
brown sugar 2 tsp
white wine or vermouth 125ml
lemon juice of half
crème fraîche or thick cream 100g
parsley a handful, chopped
Warm the oil in a wide, deep casserole dish over a moderate heat. Add the butter and, when it melts, put the chicken pieces in, snuggled up close but with room to brown. Turn them once the underside has turned an appetising pale gold and continue to colour the other side. Remove them from the pan.
Preheat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Peel and finely chop the shallots. If the butter and oil is still in good condition, you can use it for the next stage. If not, discard and add a little new oil. Add the shallots to the pan and let them soften over a moderate heat for 6-8 minutes until soft and pale gold, stirring occasionally.
Slice the chicory in half and place it in the pan, among the shallots, cut side down, and cook for about 5 minutes until the undersides have started to colour. Turn the chicory over, sprinkle in the sugar and a little salt and pepper. Once the chicory has darkened add the wine or vermouth and bring to the boil, then return the chicken to the pan and cover with a lid.
Bake for about 50 minutes until the chicken is tender, then remove from the heat. Transfer the chicken to a serving dish and keep warm. Put the pan over a low heat and stir in the lemon juice, then the crème fraîche or cream. Bring to a low bubble, stir in the chopped parsley, then check and correct the seasoning.
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