The complements of the season

Do your groundwork and you can find fresh, seasonal produce that doesn't cost the earth. Mark Hix knows just what to do with it
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Indy Lifestyle Online

One of the joys of food is looking forward to what's next on the menu. By that I don't mean eagerly awaiting your next, but rather anticipating with pleasure the new foods coming into season. OK, I know it can be tricky making sense of the seasons these days, because nearly everything is available all year round in supermarkets, but if you shop in farmers' and street markets you will notice changes in what's on the stalls from week to week. And if you get into the habit of shopping away from the supermarket you also get to know the league table of seasonal foods for the year, and what to expect when.

One of the joys of food is looking forward to what's next on the menu. By that I don't mean eagerly awaiting your next, but rather anticipating with pleasure the new foods coming into season. OK, I know it can be tricky making sense of the seasons these days, because nearly everything is available all year round in supermarkets, but if you shop in farmers' and street markets you will notice changes in what's on the stalls from week to week. And if you get into the habit of shopping away from the supermarket you also get to know the league table of seasonal foods for the year, and what to expect when.

We're pretty much done with roots now, and other interesting vegetables such as sprouting broccoli, sea kale, early spring greens and rhubarb are popping up to brighten up the end of winter. Some of these delights may present a challenge if you're trying to plan a dinner party - they're not the most refined of ingredients - but simply cooked and unfussily served they have plenty of home-grown charm. What makes cooking seasonally so interesting is that you have to shop first and see what's just arriving, rather than going to one shop with a list and throwing everything in the basket. I often create dishes by just buying the main ingredient and taking it from there. You will be surprised by what you can conjure up with those odds and sods in your store cupboard or fridge, plus one really fresh tempting seasonal thing.

Sticking strictly to the seasons can be tricky; when it comes to suggesting menus for clients of our catering company Caprice Events, you often need customers to taste and approve the dishes months before it takes place. Then I'm often surprised by what can be sourced from around the world to satisfy the expectant diner. For example, samphire is now available from Mexico, months ahead of our native stuff. And there are wild strawberries from southern Spain and North Africa. Although it makes me a little uneasy, there's no doubt that growers are responding to the demands of the restaurants and caterers, not to mention supermarket shoppers. For a list of certified farmers' markets in your local area, visit www.farmersmarkets.net.

Purple sprouting broccoli with pickled walnuts and Poulcoin cheese

Serves 4

It's leafy, green and delicious and it's in season now. But purple sprouting broccoli must be f one of the most underrated vegetables going. Only sprout tops are more obscure. This type of broccoli is perfect to serve as a starter or with a main course. It has a fairly erratic season and you are likely to find it either end of the cold winter months.

Poulcoin is a small, hard, Irish organic goat's milk cheese, rather similar in texture and taste to Pecorino or Parmesan. You'll have to buy it from a specialist cheese shop like Neal's Yard Dairy. If you can't find it, use Parmesan.

400-500g purple sprouting broccoli
12 pickled walnuts, chopped
4tbsp olive oil
60g butter, melted
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
80g Poulcoin, Pecorino or Parmesan cheese

Cook the sprouting broccoli in boiling salted water for 4-5 minutes or until tender. Depending on the thickness of the stalks the cooking time will vary; very thin ones will take only a couple minutes. Drain well then season the broccoli and toss in the melted butter and arrange on plates.

Mix the pickled walnuts with the olive oil and spoon over the broccoli then cut thin slices, or nuggets of the cheese and scatter on top. You could serve it as a bruschetta on toast rubbed with garlic and drizzled with olive oil.

Red gurnard with steamed cockles

Serves 4

Gurnard is one of those fish that you have probably stared at on the fishmongers block. You'll have admired its cute-looking jaws and eyes and tried to work out what this weird fish that looks like red mullet with a squashed nose is called. Then you'll have bought cod as usual. Well, gurnard is a fish species that you can eat with a clear conscience, because it is not targeted by commercial fisherman. I remember catching the odd one as a kid and returning them every time. Not that I had marine ecology in mind then, just that no one had told me they were good to eat.

It's in season now so if your fishmonger hasn't got gurnard in stock, he will be able to order it for you. Same goes for the cockles. Don't throw the fish bones away either as they make excellent stock for fish soup. Before using the cockles, wash them under cold running water for half an hour or so, agitating them with your hands or a wooden spoon every so often to remove any sand from the shells.

2 x 450-500g gurnard, scaled, filleted and boned
A couple of good knobs of butter for frying
250-300g cockles, washed
2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
50ml white wine
1tbsp chopped parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Melt some butter in a pan, preferably non-stick. Season the gurnard fillets and fry them (skin-side down first) on a low heat for 2-3 minutes on each side. Meanwhile, put the shallots in a pan with the wine and bring to the boil, add the cockles and parsley, season lightly and cook on a high heat for 2-3 minutes with a lid on, shaking the pan a couple of times until they all open, then stir in a good knob of butter.

Put the gurnard fillets on to warmed plates and spoon the cockles and cooking liquid over the top. Mashed potato goes well and so does purple sprouting broccoli or spinach.

Rhubarb pie

Serves 6-8

Rhubarb isn't one of those tastes that kids get really excited about, is it? It's not like biting into a juicy strawberry or sucking round a mango stone, but treated with respect and turned into a pie or cobbler or crumble and served with thick Jersey cream or custard it's one of the delights of British cooking. Of course it isn't really a fruit, but it's coming into season now and its pretty pink colour alone qualifies it as a classic dessert.

1kg rhubarb, trimmed and chopped into rough 2cm pieces
1 large cooking apple, peeled, cored and roughly chopped
300g granulated sugar, plus a little extra for the top

for the pastry

200g plain flour
50g butter, cut into small pieces
50g lard, cut into small pieces
30g caster sugar
1 egg, separated (reserve the white)
1-2tbsp milk
A little extra butter for greasing

Put the rhubarb and apple in a thick-bottomed pan with the sugar and cook on a medium heat with a lid on for 3-4 minutes, stirring every so often. Remove the lid and continue to cook for another 15-20 minutes on a fairly high heat, until the rhubarb is soft and most of the liquid has evaporated, and the mixture has a jammy consistency. Remove from the heat and leave to cool.

Pre-heat the oven to 200°C/Gas mark 6. To make the pastry, rub the butter and lard into the flour with your fingers until you get a breadcrumb-like consistency. Add the sugar, egg yolk and enough milk to form a smooth rollable dough. Grease a 17-18cm x 2-3cm flan ring with a little butter and roll two-thirds of the pastry to about 2-3mm on a lightly floured table. Line the flan ring with the pastry and trim the edges.

Then line the flan ring with a circle of greaseproof paper or foil and fill with baking beans. Bake the tart for 15-20 minutes, or until the pastry is lightly coloured.

Meanwhile, roll the rest of the pastry out just a little larger than the tart. You can make a straightforward full pie top. Or cut the pastry into strips about 1cm wide to lay on top in a lattice pattern. If you have a fancy lattice cutter use this. It rolls over the pastry, making slits in it, which can be stretched to form a lattice effect.

Remove the baking beans and paper from the tart and spoon the rhubarb mixture in. Lay the rest of the pastry over the top, trim the edges and press them on to the edges of the pastry base with your thumb and forefinger. Brush the top with egg white and scatter some granulated sugar on top. Bake for about 30-35 minutes until the top is a golden crisp. Leave to cool to room temperature and serve with thick custard, or clotted or thick Jersey cream.

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