Savour spring

BY JAN BILTON
Last updated 10:14 07/10/2010
J Bilton
The strawberries and asparagus are on the shelves, the rhubarb is flourishing in the garden and the whitebait are running in the rivers.

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Given the hostile, unseasonable weather we have been suffering up and down the country, it's hard to believe spring has arrived. But the tasty evidence is there. The strawberries and asparagus are on the shelves, the rhubarb is flourishing in the garden and the whitebait are running in the rivers.

The official whitebait season is from August 15 until November 30 (or September 1 until November 14 on the West Coast). Whitebait, the young of five native fish species, are expensive to buy because they are seasonal and usually in short supply. They're definitely a special treat and one of New Zealand's much-loved special foods.

Asparagus made a late entry to spring but my first mouthful was chock-a-block with flavour. One of my favourite ways of serving the green is to blanch it quickly in boiling water, until crisp-tender. For the sauce I melt 50g of butter for 400g of asparagus, add a quarter cup of sauvignon blanc, flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste, then simmer and stir it until well mixed.

Technically the strawberry is a "false" fruit. The seeds – unlike those of other fruits – are on the outside and are the true "fruits" of the plant.

The flesh to which they are attached simply serves the purpose of holding these fruits.

Choose brightly coloured, plump, even-sized strawberries that still have their green caps or calyxes attached. Do not wash until ready to use. Store – preferably in a single layer on a paper towel – in a moisture-proof container in the refrigerator for up to two to three days.

Rhubarb is a vegetable. However, it is mostly used as a fruit. New rhubarb stems are tender and do not need peeling. The older the stems the more woody they become. If tough, string them back like celery. Rhubarb is high in moisture so if whole chunks are needed do not stir while cooking or it will be mushy.

WHITEBAIT SPRING STACKS

Whitebait fritters are served topped with stir-fried whitebait. Great served with a new-vintage sauvignon blanc.

Whitebait fritters: 150g whitebait

1 Tbsp flour

2 Tbsp milk

1 large egg, separated

salt and pepper to taste

1 Tbsp finely chopped parsley

rice bran oil for frying

Stir-fried whitebait: 100g whitebait

2 Tbsp flour

salt and pepper to taste

rice bran oil for frying

1 clove garlic, crushed

1 Tbsp finely chopped parsley

2 lemons, cut into wedges

To prepare the fritters, rinse the whitebait and pat dry with paper towels. Whisk the flour and milk until smooth.

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Beat in the egg yolk, salt and pepper. Add the whitebait. Whisk the egg white, until stiff. Fold into the whitebait mixture.

Heat one to two tablespoons oil in a non-stick frying pan. Shallow-fry heaped tablespoons of whitebait mixture, until golden on both sides. Drain on paper towels.

Meanwhile, prepare the stir-fry. Rinse and pat dry the whitebait. Toss in the flour seasoned with salt and pepper. Heat one to two tablespoons oil in a frying pan.

Add the garlic. Stir-fry the whitebait for about one minute, stir in the parsley.

Serve the fritters topped with the stir-fried whitebait. Serve the lemon wedges to one side. Serves 4 as a starter.

ASPARAGUS AND BACON GALETTES

4 rashers streaky bacon

1 small onion, diced

1 tsp fresh thyme leaves

400g asparagus, thick ends discarded, cut into 3cm pieces

3 sheets pre-rolled flaky puff pastry

200g soft goat's cheese

Preheat oven to 220 degrees Celsius.

Pan-fry the bacon in a non-stick frying pan, until crisp. Crumble or chop and set aside. Add the onion and thyme and cook until just softened, about two minutes.

Add the asparagus and cook until slightly crisp and golden. Add the chopped bacon. Remove from heat and set aside.

Cut 6 rounds of pastry about 12cm in diameter. Spread about two tablespoons of the goat's cheese over each pastry round, leaving a 1cm border around the edges.

Pile the asparagus mixture on to the cheese. Crumble a little extra cheese over the top. Bake until golden and puffed, 20 to 25 minutes. Stand for a few minutes before serving. Excellent as an appetiser or light lunch with a salad. Serves 6.

STRAWBERRY SALAD WITH COCONUT TANGELO DRESSING

Dressing: 2 tangelos, peeled

1/4 cup desiccated coconut

1 Tbsp honey

2 tsp each: canola oil, balsamic vinegar

1 tsp grated root ginger

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Salad: 6 cups mesclun or torn iceberg lettuce

100g rice noodles, cooked

2 cups strawberries, hulled and quartered

3 spring onions, sliced

70g sliced almonds or macadamia nuts, toasted

Combine the ingredients for the dressing in a blender, until smooth.

Place the lettuce in a large salad bowl. Add two tablespoons of dressing and toss to coat.

Place the noodles, strawberries, spring onions and nuts on top. Drizzle with more dressing just before serving.

The top can be garnished with tangelo segments, if preferred. Serves 6.

RHUBARB N' CUSTARD MUFFINS

1/2 cup caster sugar

2 Tbsp brown sugar

75ml canola oil

1 large egg

finely grated rind 1 tangelo or orange

1 cup plain yoghurt

300g self-raising flour

1 1/2 cups finely diced rhubarb

4-5 Tbsp Meadow Fresh Thick N' Creamy Vanilla Custard or cream cheese

caster sugar, for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 180C. Line a 12-hole muffin pan with paper cases.

In a medium bowl, beat together the sugars, oil, egg, tangelo rind and yoghurt, until smooth.

Combine the flour and rhubarb in a large bowl. Stir in the liquid ingredients, until just blended.

Three-quarters fill each paper case with the batter. Make an indent in the top. Add a small teaspoon of the custard. Cover with the remaining batter.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until golden and cooked through. Sprinkle each with a little caster sugar while still warm. Best eaten fresh. Makes 12.

Copyright Jan Bilton

- The Marlborough Express

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