At a spring table
I love to think about food! The menu on this spring table was dreamed up the other day looking out into the garden and thinking of planting for summer. I wanted to make a three course meal to celebrate the change of season.
We have indeed survived another winter and spring has begun. The first blossoms on the trees are so exciting and I know it is truly spring when the winter crops that have been languishing in the garden begin to take off with a spurt of growth. It makes me think about new season food and taste combinations a little different from winter options.
When I am creating a menu I try to think about texture and taste combinations, colour, and a balance of light and heavy. I also consider health and nutrition. A meal that is good for you tastes better as well. I hate pot lucks because it is so difficult to get a balance of these attributes. A bunch of mismatched dishes on a plate does not inspire me to eat.
The first blast of spring for me always begins with asparagus. I cannot get enough of it in that short time of the year that it flourishes. I like it in a whole raft of different combinations but the accompanying asparagus soup recipe is one of my absolute favourites. You cannot make it with anything other than fresh asparagus so make the most of it during the next few months. I think it is a great way to arouse the taste buds for a great meal.
The second course combines four elements. Lamb and white beans is a Mediterranean combination I particularly like. I have used cannellini beans but haricot beans will work just as well. I always cook them with either garlic or shallots and herbs. I choose different herbs depending on the flavours I am looking for.
Cooked spinach has the most wonderful intense colour. I like its soft texture and it combines really well with beans and cuts through the fat of the lamb.
To provide a crunchy counterpoint to the wilted spinach I like to add some sauted cavolo nero. Cavolo nero is an Italian kale. It is not common in food markets in Nelson but it is available from time to time. I grow it myself and it is a great green to have throughout the year.
It is quite tough in texture so it benefits from a little cooking. I chop it and saute it in olive oil. It goes crisp and added to the spinach makes an interesting texture and taste twist.
A lamb rack smeared with a paste of ground fennel and oregano and garlic and cooked quickly under the grill, served pink and succulent is close to perfect. I paired it with a hot and spicy red sauce I invented in the moment. The four elements of this plate go really well together.
For pudding I wanted something with lemon to be a counterpoint to the meat and to cleanse the palette. A tangy lemon sorbet to accompany a fat slice of coconut cake made with plenty of vanilla is an excellent finish to this spring meal.
500g of asparagus
4 shallots or 1 medium onion
2 tbs of butter
1.2 litres of chicken stock
2-3 sprigs of fresh marjoram
¼ cup of light cream
Peel the asparagus to about halfway up the spears. You need to peel them or alternatively you will need to sieve the soup at the end to get rid of the fibrous stringy pieces. Cut the spears into three pieces. Reserve the top 2cm of the tips of the spears. Slice the shallots.
Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the shallots and the asparagus pieces except for the asparagus tips. Saute until the vegetables soften. Add the chicken stock and simmer the soup for at least 30 minutes. Take off the heat and cool. Puree the soup until smooth. Return to the pot and bring to a gentle boil, reduce the soup by at least a third to concentrate the flavours. Turn down to a simmer and add the asparagus tips. Cook until the tops are just tender. Add the cream and salt and pepper to taste.
RACK OF LAMB WITH FENNEL AND OREGANO
Two racks of lamb. Remove the silver layer on the meat as it will make it tough if you leave it on. Slice just underneath it with a very sharp knife and pull off gently.
Make a paste with 1 tbs of fennel seeds and 1 tbs of oregano, 1 clove of garlic, sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Pound the ingredients in a mortar and pestle. Add a drizzle of olive oil and coat the meat with the mixture. Let it sit for at least an hour. Turn the oven to grill and heat to 200 degrees Celsius. Place the meat on a rack and grill for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and let the meat sit in a warm place for 10 minutes before slicing the chops from the rack. Serve 3 chops per person.
SPINACH AND SAUTED CAVOLO NERO
Wash about 6 cups of spinach and 6-8 cavolo nero leaves in cold water. Remove the stalks. Place the spinach in a saucepan and cover with a lid and cook over gentle heat until the spinach has completely wilted. Season to taste. Chop the cavolo nero leaves roughly and add to a pan with a little olive oil. Saute until it turns brilliant green and is a little softened. Mix the two together
WHITE BEANS WITH SHALLOTS AND THYME
200g of dried haricot beans
Whole head of garlic
Large bunch of fresh thyme
Salt and pepper
3-4 tbs of extra virgin olive oil
Soak the beans overnight in plenty of cold water. Drain the water from the beans and place in a large pot. Cover with fresh water - two to three times as much water as beans in the pot.
Bring to the boil and then turn down to simmer. Add the head of garlic. Remove the excess loose skin from the garlic before putting in the pot. Add the fresh thyme. Leave the lid of the pot off slightly to allow steam to escape and to prevent it from boiling over.
Simmer until the beans are tender. If the water evaporates to the level of the beans before they are tender, add some vegetable stock to increase the level of liquid. You want to have a little juice left over when the beans are tender. This process should take about an hour.
Before serving, squash the head of garlic against the side of the pot with a large wooden spoon to extract all the soft garlic from the cloves. Remove the squashed garlic head. Remove the stalks of the thyme.
COCONUT CAKE WITH LEMON SORBET
Heat the oven to 180 and butter and flour a 25cm cake tin
1 ½ cups of self raising flour
1 cup of sugar
1 ½ cups of shredded coconut
125g of melted butter
3 eggs lightly beaten
¾ cup of milk
1 tsp vanilla
Mix the flour, sugar and coconut together in a bowl.
Add the eggs and butter, milk and vanilla. Stir well together and pour into the cake pan.
Cook for 45 minutes.
Serve with a good quality lemon sorbet.
HOT AND SPICY RED SAUCE
2 red peppers sliced into quarters
4 medium sized tomatoes halved
4 anchovy fillets
1 red chilli
2 cups of coriander
Roast the pepper, chilli, shallot and the tomatoes in a medium oven with a little olive oil until they are tender. Remove from the oven and process in a food processor with the anchovies and the coriander. Season to taste. It should be spicy hot.