Experiment with seasonal veggies

Freshly harvested Jersey Royals or English asparagus are good enough to eat on their own. But, says Mark Hix, there's no harm in experimenting
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Indy Lifestyle Online

They're not just any old spuds and green veg. Two of my favourite vegetables, Jersey Royals and English asparagus, are in season now and I make no apologies for concentrating on them this week. They are luxuries, but like all really good food - and especially when you find out how much effort it takes to produce them - it's worth treating yourself.

I was invited to Jersey a few weeks ago to dig some spuds. I also unearthed all sorts of other inspiring produce on the island that once had a reputation for bargain holidays and duty free. But it's still the precious little potatoes that it's best known for. The start of the Jersey Royal season has always been celebrated, but in supermarkets, eagerly awaited seasonal produce is easy to overlook when there's so much else to distract and the price competition from imported new potatoes is fierce.

Jersey Royals aren't cheap, but when you've seen what goes into growing and harvesting them you appreciate why they command these prices. I visited the farmer Colin de la Haye in St Martin overlooking St Catherine's Bay. He goes through the traditional, but not so common, process of ploughing local seaweed into the ground and planting potato seeds by hand, as the slopes that most Jersey Royals are grown on are too steep for machinery. Every potato on Colin's 100 hectares is dug by hand. Unlike our asparagus these potatoes are unique to Jersey, so there's no competition from overseas.

Asparagus comes from all over now, but the English asparagus season is something to make a song and dance about. At The Rivington, one of my restaurants specialising in British food, I introduced an asparagus menu with four dishes that change every week using asparagus from different parts of the country, such as Suffolk and Evesham. It's been such a success that even the asparagus in the display basket on the bar has to be raided by the kitchen. I've roped in some local artists to draw an asparagus spear on the menus, which will be auctioned off at an end-of-season asparagus feast to mark the end of this home-grown treat for another year.

Jersey Royals and asparagus with bacon and tarragon

Serves 4

There is nothing better than freshly cooked asparagus with melted butter. A few weeks ago I was in Gloucestershire visiting friends and couldn't resist a couple of bunches of the first Evesham asparagus. I did the same with the small box of Jerseys Colin de la Haye dug me when I left his farm. We ate them at home that same night with melted butter and they were quite delicious - like fish caught and eaten on the same day. f

300g Jersey Royals
1bunch of English asparagus (500g) with woody stems trimmed
4 rashers of rindless streaky bacon, finely chopped
1tbsp olive or rapeseed oil
120g butter
1tbsp chopped tarragon
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cook the Jerseys in boiling salted water for 8-10 minutes, depending on their size, then drain. Meanwhile cook the asparagus in boiling salted water for 5 minutes (or less, depending on thickness) until tender. Drain then cut in half.

While the asparagus and potatoes are cooking, gently cook the bacon in the olive oil for 2-3 minutes without colouring then add the butter and tarragon and leave on the heat until melted, season then toss with the Jerseys and asparagus and arrange on plates.

Asparagus with focaccia and Parmesan

Serves 4

Asparagus as a snack? It's not just for dipping into Hollandaise and creating fancy starters. When the season is so short, it's good to think of all sorts of ways of eating it and as many occasions as you can. This is a kind of bruschetta or crostini and can also be miniaturised into drinks canapés.

300-350g asparagus, woody ends trimmed
A good knob of butter
4 slices of focaccia bread about 8cm x 6cm, or from a ciabatta or similar
1 clove of garlic, crushed
3-4tbsp olive oil
100g piece of Parmesan
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cook the asparagus, drain and cut the thicker ends down to about the length of the bread. Coarsely blend the trimmings into a rough purée then reheat in a pan with the butter and season.

Mix the garlic with a tablespoon or so of the olive oil and brush on to the bread. Toast on both sides then spread the purée on to the bread and lay the asparagus on top (hot or just warm). With a peeler or sharp knife cut the Parmesan into thin shavings and scatter over the asparagus, and drizzle with olive oil.

Jersey Royal and Arbroath smokie salad

Serves 4

A humble Arbroath smokie or even a bloater can be transformed into a perfect dinner party starter with a simple partner like new potatoes. Those old artisan ways of smoking haddock and herrings are in danger of disappearing as fewer people seem to want to eat them, and herring fishing is in decline too. A few smokers, such as Bob Spink in Arbroath, keep the tradition going, smoking small whole haddock as faithful to the old method as possible within modern-day restrictions. Some Sainsbury's sell Spink & Son's smokies tied with the red twine used to hang them during smoking. All Spink's smoked fish are also sold online at www.rrspink.com.

450g large Jersey Royals
2 Arbroath smokies
2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
1tbsp chopped chives
1tbsp freshly grated horseradish

for the dressing

1tbsp good quality white vinegar, like Chardonnay
1tsp English mustard
4tbsp extra virgin rapeseed or olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cook the Jerseys in boiling salted water in their skins, drain and peel them while still warm. Cut in half and keep warm in a bowl covered with clingfilm. Remove skin from the smokie and carefully remove the flesh from the bones keeping it as chunky as possible. Add the flesh to the potatoes.

Make the dressing by mixing all the ingredients together and season. Toss the potatoes, smokie and shallots together and season, then arrange on plates. Scatter over the horseradish and chives and serve.

Jersey Royal, saffron and cockle broth

Serves 4

Now that the price of Jerseys has dropped somewhat to almost standard small potato prices we can be a little more relaxed in how often and how we use them. Live cockles sound troublesome, but they're not. All you need to do is give them a good rinse first to get the grit out, and then add them to the soup. Simple as that. If you can't find live cockles then small clams or mussels will do just fine.

1 medium leek, cut into rough 1cm dice and washed
A good knob of butter
250-300g large Jersey Royals, scraped, quartered and sliced
1.5 litres fish or chicken stock
100ml double cream
250g cockles, washed well under cold running water for 30 minutes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1tbsp chopped wild fennel or dill

If you're using live cockles, agitate them every so often while you are running them under the tap to release any sand and give them a thorough rinse. Gently cook the leeks in the butter in a covered pan for 4-5 minutes, stirring every so often until soft. Add the stock, season and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the cream and potatoes and simmer for another 6-7 minutes. Add the saffron, cockles and fennel and simmer until they have opened then serve at once.

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