Skye Gyngell: British spring produce is here all too fleetingly so catch it while you can

British spring produce comes and goes in a flash – but while it is here, you'd be foolish not to make the most of the deliciously vibrant flavours
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Indy Lifestyle Online

British produce never stays with us for long – and that is one undeniable thing about its charm. We wait with anticipation, use it with great excitement and within six weeks it has vanished, so we must wait patiently until the next year, when we greet it with as much joy as we did the year before.

Indigenous produce for me is like children: a great marker of time. I was pondering on this just the other day, when I realised it will be no more than the blink of an eye before 12 August is upon us: the first official day of game season. But as we say goodbye to the glorious produce of spring – peas, spinach and asparagus – I could not resist giving a few final recipes with which to usher out the season.

Skye Gyngell is head chef at Petersham Nurseries, Church Lane, Richmond, Surrey, tel: 020 8605 3627,

Chickpea, spinach and sweet potato on toast

Chickpeas are good any time of the year, but wonderful teamed with fresh spinach. The trick is to flavour them really well – chilli, lemon juice, olive oil and lots of herbs. This is good enough to eat as a salad all on its own. Here, I have paired them with spinach, toast and sweet potato.

Serves 4

200g/7oz cooked chickpeas
The juice of 1 lemon
1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
1 bunch of mint, leaves only, finely chopped
1 bunch of flat-leaf parsley, leaves only, finely chopped
1 red chilli, finely chopped, seeds removed
Sea salt
70ml/3fl oz extra-virgin olive oil
1 sweet potato
2 tbsp olive oil
A good pinch of salt
100g/31/2oz small-leaf spinach
1 tbsp olive oil
Sea salt and black pepper

Place the cooked chickpeas in a bowl and squeeze over the lemon juice. Add the garlic, mint, parsley and chilli. Season generously with sea salt and pour over the olive oil. Toss together really well with your fingers and set aside.

Now peel the sweet potato and chop into generous chunks. Place in cold, well-salted water, enough to just cover, and place over a medium heat. Bring to a boil and then turn down to a simmer. Cook until tender then remove from the heat and drain. Season with salt and drizzle over the olive oil while still warm.

Wash the spinach well and wilt over a gentle heat. Once wilted, remove from the heat immediately and drain. When cool enough to handle, squeeze out excess water, dress with the olive oil and season with a little salt and black pepper. Now toss the chickpeas, spinach and sweet potato together. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary.

Grill four bits of chunky, peasant-style bread until golden brown. Pile on the chickpea, spinach and sweet potato mixture then drizzle with a little basil oil (see recipe for grilled rabbit, below). A grilled tomato also works well as an optional garnish.

Serve at room temperature.

Pea and asparagus soup with pancetta and rice

This soup could almost be served up as a meal in itself: sloppy, thick and chock-full of good things. It is one of my favourite soups that we cook at this time of year.

Serves 4

40g/11/2oz unsalted butter
1 red onion, finely chopped
1 eighth-inch slab of pancetta
1 bunch of mint
150g/5oz rice such as calasparro or carneroli
1 litre/13/4 pints chicken stock
200g/7oz fresh peas, podded
1 bunch of asparagus, woody ends removed where they will happily bend and snap
75g/3oz freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Place a large, heavy-based pan over a low heat. Add the butter and, when it has dissolved, add the chopped onion, pancetta and mint. Season with a little salt and pepper, and sweat gently for 15 minutes – the onions should be translucent but not brown.

Now add the rice and stir well to coat in the onion and butter. Cook for 10 minutes until the rice is just beginning to become slightly translucent around the edges. Pour over the chicken stock and increase the heat slightly. Cook until the rice is just beginning to become tender, but definitely still has a chalky bite. At this point, add the podded peas and continue to cook until the peas are really tender – this will take five minutes or so but taste them just to make sure. Chop the asparagus into slices of about eighth of an inch and add to the soup along with the Parmesan cheese.

Taste and season generously with salt and pepper, remove the bunch of mint and the pancetta, ladle into bowls, and serve.

Grilled rabbit with basil oil

Rabbit is a favourite white meat of mine – farmed rabbit preferably, because wild-rabbit meat is a lot stronger and very often riddled with shot. Rabbit lends itself best to either slow or very quick cooking; anything in between can leave it tasting tough. Here, the rabbit is cooked quickly over a grill and served with zingy basil and juicy tomatoes.

Serves 4

4 legs of rabbit, top bone of the thigh removed (ask your butcher to do this)
2 tbsp olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 very ripe sweet tomatoes, sliced into rounds
1 small bunch of small-leaf purple basil

For the basil oil

3 large bunches of basil
1 clove of garlic, peeled
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
200ml/7fl oz extra-virgin olive oil

Start by making the basil oil. Pull the basil leaves from their stalks and put them into a food processor with the garlic and a good pinch of salt and pepper. Process until the basil is finely chopped. With the motor running, slowly trickle in the extra-virgin olive oil through the funnel and continue to blend until you have a beautiful, moss-green purée. Leave to stand for a few minutes, then taste and adjust the seasoning. Pour into a jar, cover and refrigerate until ready to use. (If you have any left over, this basil oil will keep well in the fridge for up to a week.)

Now heat your grill to its highest setting. Rub the rabbit legs with the olive oil and then season with the salt and pepper. Once the grill is hot, lay the rabbit pieces on and cook without turning for five minutes – the rabbit should be well-browned. Turn and cook on the under-side and cook for a further eight minutes, by which time the rabbit should be cooked through to the bone. Remove and let them rest for a few minutes.

Season the tomatoes with a little salt and pepper, drizzle with the basil oil and place the cooked rabbit on top. Spoon over a little more basil oil, and, if you can find it, scatter over some purple basil and serve immediately.