Spring is often a bit of an odd time for eating. Yes, there are things that come into season right now, but most of the recipes that you'll find yourself making will either take advantage of the tail-end of the older winter crops or use new, young or baby versions of not quite fully grown vegetables. As a result, we tend to eat quite delicately, which is fortunate. We're still in the mood for hot food, not quite ready for salads and barbecues, but don't want heavy winter dishes any more. And most of us are still presumably on the tail end of our save money/lose weight drive after winter, so it's quite serendipitous, really.
Vegetables that come into season around now and over the next couple of months, and which are worth looking out for in Tuscany, include leeks (small baby leeks, in particular), celeriac, certain types of squash, chicory, beetroot and spinach. Leeks are a favourite vegetable of mine, and when they're tiny and tender they're very good: you can blanch them for a few minutes in chicken or vegetable stock, and then serve them with a little melted butter. Or cut them into diagonal slices and then stir them into a plain risotto, adding a little Grana Padano or ricotta cheese just before serving. Braised leeks are also delicious: cook them slowly, with plenty of butter and seasoning, in a covered pan and serve them with grilled or roasted meat.
We've talked about the greatness of celeriac before, but it's at its best right now. Try making it into a soup; if you can get hold of any horseradish (rafano) add a little bit to the pot while you're cooking. Be careful, though: less is more, and you may find this opening your sinuses up a little too much. Once you've cooked the vegetables with onion, seasoning and plenty of stock, you can blitz the soup with a hand blender, strain through a fine-meshed sieve and stir in a little cream or butter before serving with wholemeal bread and butter.
Squashes and beetroots can be steamed, boiled or roasted, or-again-turned into nice soups. Chicory, on the other hand, is a little bit more difficult to get a number of dishes out of. You may be familiar with the pointed, crispy, butter leaves from salads, but they can also be cooked: braising them with butter and orange juice makes them soft, sweet and interestingly textured. But if you do choose to eat them raw, try slicing them very thinly and tossing them with thin slices of red onion. Next, sauté some pieces of chicken liver and cubes of pancetta and mix these into the salad. Finally, make a vinaigrette from balsamic vinegar, mustard and first cold-pressed olive oil, which you'll also see starting to appear now, and dress the salad with this.
Lamb is best during spring: you should make the most of the tenderness of the meat and serve lamb chops and grilled cuts of meat cooked quickly and served medium rare, with vegetables, potatoes and herb dressing. Rosemary, also in season, goes particularly well with spring lamb. If you make a dressing out of olive oil and rosemary, and use this to dress boiled potatoes and baste a little onto your lamb before you cook it, you'll be rewarded with a very lightly flavoured, fresh-tasting meal. Try roasting leg of lamb in the oven; an old trick that works very well is to cut tiny slits into the meat and push a sliver of garlic, a single strand of rosemary and a small piece of anchovy into each slit before you roast the meat. The flavours combine and make a delicious savoury coating (don't worry, it doesn't taste of fish).
Mussels are commonly used in zuppa di cozze or saffron- and broth-based seafood dishes, but they're abundant in springtime and can be a meal in themselves. The bivalves are best when steamed with wine and vegetables, but if you don't fancy anything rich and tomato-based, you can put them in a large pan with a lid, in which you've previously fried some shallots and garlic in butter. Pour in wine (or, if you feel like it, some Guinness), reduce the broth until it stops smelling of alcohol, and then tip the mussels in, put the lid on, and steam them over medium heat until the shellfish have all opened. Strain the broth into a separate pan, add cream and some butter, and add a little finely chopped fresh parsley. Pour this into the bottom of bowls, top with a generous amount of mussels, and then serve with bread to mop up the juices.
Ingredient of the fortnight: SPINACH
Next month, spinach is at its tastiest. It also comes properly into season and is available in abundance until May. As a result, you'll see it appearing as the daily vegetable selection on a number of menus around town; it's tasty stuff, represents good value for money, and is full of goodness. It's easy to digest, contains very few calories, and is full of minerals, particularly iron, and vitamins. It's a fundamental part of Florentine dishes, lest we forget.
It also tastes like spinach, and as a result people tend to either like it or dislike it. However, if you fall into the latter camp and balk at the idea of being presented with a platter full of the wilted, dark green leaf, left unadorned apart from a little bit of lemon juice and some salt and pepper, you can hide it quite capably in other dishes, using it to bulk out strongly flavoured recipes like curries.
If you love it, though, bear in mind that it goes quite well with a number of other tastes: not only the cream, cheese, and egg flavours that tend to go into a lot of Florentine specialties, but also nutmeg, white pepper, ginger, and citrus.
Recipe of the Fortnight: Perfect Potato Wedges
800g potatoes, peeled
4 tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper
4 tbsp flour
Soured cream or yoghurt
1 spring onion or scallion
1 tbsp finely chopped parsley
Slice the peeled potatoes in half lengthways and place them flat side down on a chopping board. From top to bottom, slice them into long wedges, about 1.5-2cm across at the thick end.
Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Add the potatoes to the pan and leave them for 10 to12 minutes: you're looking to parboil the potatoes, so take them out before they cook all the way through. Drain and leave to cool for five minutes.
Tip the flour and some salt and pepper onto a plate and then add the potato wedges to coat them lightly, in batches. Place them into a roasting dish.
Heat the olive oil in a small pan and add the rosemary. Cook lightly for three or four minutes to infuse oil with the flavour of the rosemary.
Pour the oil over the potato wedges and toss them, ensuring that that they are well coated. Place into a hot oven for 25 minutes until browned and crisp at the very edge of the wedge.
Mix the trimmed, finely chopped onion and parsley into the cream or yoghurt. Serve as a dip with the wedges.