I bring radishes home, two bunches at a time, snowy tipped and bushy leaved, and plunge them, leaves and all, into deep, icy water. It feels like the start of something. And so it is, with those late-spring, early-summer trips to the greengrocer, coming home with peas and broad beans – tiny, like doll’s house vegetables – the first tomatoes from the Isle of Wight and, of course, asparagus. There is mint and basil in pots on the windowsill getting their first taste of early-summer sun.
I make a dressing for my daily salads, but I have also taken to eating salad leaves fresh from the icy water, with not a jot of olive oil of vinegar – just to taste each leaf, each sprig, pure and crisp and clean. We had a vegetable tart the other night, too, raiding the veg-box delivery for early radishes and leaves, with herb-freckled cream cheese and some unnecessary but beautiful wild garlic flowers, like tiny white stars. Cut into slices and eaten outside, it felt like we were celebrating something. Perhaps we were.
A spring vegetable and herb tart
I have always liked the point where puff pastry meets something soft and creamy – . The filling can be thick cream cheese or a mixture of that and goat’s cheese. You can add ricotta, too. Drain even the thickest of cheeses in a sieve before you fill the tart, to drain any excess whey. Serves 6
broad beans 100g
egg a little, beaten
cream cheese 500g
spring onions 2
tomatoes 2, small, sliced
peas 50g, raw
You will need a large baking sheet, lined with baking parchment. Set the oven at 200C/gas mark 6. Roll the pastry out into a rectangle measuring about 38cm x 22cm and transfer it to the baking tray. Score a line around the pastry, 2cm in from the edge, without cutting right through to the baking sheet.
Brush the outer rim of the pastry with a beaten egg, then bake the pastry for about 15 minutes until crisp. Remove from the oven. Press the central rectangle of pastry down with a palette knife to give a shallow hollow into which you can put the filling. Transfer to a wire cooling rack.
Put a deep pan of water on to boil and salt it lightly. Have ready a large bowl of iced water. Trim the asparagus, removing any tough ends, then cook in the boiling water for 8-9 minutes or until the spears are tender. They should bend slightly when lifted from the water. When the asparagus is cooked, lower it carefully into the bowl of iced water.
Cook the broad beans in deep boiling water for 4 or 5 minutes depending on their size, then drain them. If you wish, remove the beans from their papery skins. Toss the beans in a little olive oil and set aside.
Put the cream cheese in a mixing bowl. Trim then finely chop the spring onions. Finely shred the basil leaves and chop the dill, then add to the cream cheese. Halve the cornichons and add them to the cream cheese with the capers and a little salt and coarsely ground pepper. Stir gently to mix all the ingredients together, then spoon the mixture into the cooled tart case.
Remove the asparagus spears from the water and dry them carefully on kitchen paper. Place them on the cream cheese, then add the beans, raw peas, tomatoes and the radishes, together with the small salad leaves. Serve within 30 minutes so the pastry stays crisp.
Ricotta stracciatella dessert
Commercial trifle sponges have the ability to soak up a lot of liquid. They are often lighter and less buttery than a homemade sponge. I have taken to letting down the alcohol with fruit juice. The effect is more refreshing, less “Christmassy” and delightful with fruits, such as apricots and strawberries. I’m not sure whether this dessert was inspired by trifle or tiramasu – it feels like a distant cousin of both. The strawberries are tempting at the moment, but it is good with raspberries, too. Serves 4
For the sponge base:
sponge fingers 125g
orange juice 60ml
lemon juice 60ml
white vermouth, such as Noilly Prat 60ml
runny honey 1 tbsp
For the ricotta cream:
dark chocolate 80g
double cream 125ml
Break the sponge fingers into short lengths and divide them between 4 wine glasses. Mix together the orange and lemon juices, then stir in the vermouth and sweeten with the honey. Pour over the sponge fingers and let the liquid soak in, pressing it down lightly with a spoon, so the sponge is fully saturated.
Put a small pan of water on to boil. Chop the chocolate into small pieces and transfer to a heatproof bowl that will sit comfortably in the top of the saucepan. Set the bowl over the boiling water and turn the heat down to a simmer. When the chocolate has melted, remove from the heat. Halve the strawberries and divide between the glasses.
Whip the cream until it starts to thicken, then stir in the ricotta and a couple of drops of vanilla extract. Trickle half of the melted chocolate over the cream and ricotta, then refrigerate for 10 minutes until the chocolate has set. Very lightly fold the chocolate into the cream, trickle over the rest of the chocolate and refrigerate once more.
Spoon the chocolate ricotta cream on top of the strawberries and serve.