And so the time of year is upon us where the rewards for all the garden labour start to pay off. Strawberries, tomatoes, baby spring onions, peas, chanterney carrots, nasturtiums and blackcurrants are just a few of the lovely things that are coming into season, albeit not in abundance quite yet.
You may think it’s too early to get cooking – and indeed, one of the joys of gardening is eating your crop directly from the garden (maybe after a quick squoosh under the garden hose) when it’s at its sweetest. However, with a little creativity (and liberal use of the herb garden) it’s easy to ensure almost every meal has some element of homegrown about it – something that’s particularly nice when you have people over to dinner.
Option One: Get into nouvelle cuisine
Yep, it’s very 1980s but hell, if fashion can hark back to the 80s then there’s no reason food can’t too. The below dish turned the first six tomatoes from the windowbox, plus two round carrots, four baby spring onions, a couple of sprigs of mint, a few leaves from the salad box and the first few peas into a starter for two, with nothing added other than a packet of mozarella and a couple of blobs of balsalmic glaze. Yes, it’s ridiculously kitch, but it tasted yummy and put a smile on the dinner guest’s face. Albeit a slightly patronising one.
Option Two: Take advantage of strong flavours to dominate a dish
Baby spring onions may be small but they can easily impart their flavour to a dish even if you only use two or three. They’re much sweeter than fully grown spring onions, and are so tender that you can use the entire onion. Try scattering finely chopped baby spring onions through a grated cheese, mayonnaisse and mustard mix for a fresh and summery twist on a cheese and onion sandwich. They also work well folded through creme fraiche as an accompaniment to smoked salmon or roast chicken. And obviously, they’re great in potato salad, particularly when teamed with chopped nasturtium leaves, which should also be making themselves known about now.
Option Three: Use them as a garnish
If you only have a single strawberry, a couple of fresh carrots or child’s handful of blackcurrants, don’t make them the centre of a dish: use them as a garnish. As baby carrots are so tender and small, you can cook them by simply holding them in boiling water for a few minutes, leaves on (keeping the leaves out of the water carefully, of course) giving you a stylish garnish for a stew (after trimming back the leaves a tad). A few blackcurrants won’t make any impact in a summer pudding but scatter them over a creme brulee and they give a tart contrast to the creamy dessert. (NB: Leaving leaves on – assuming they’re not poisonous – is a good way to broadcast the home grown heritage of your produce). And nasturtium flowers will make almost any dish look prettier (they work best with dishes that can be helped by the peppery edge: fish for savoury, and chocolate for sweet are just two of the options).
Option Four: Use under-ripe produce
Option Five: Be patient
Obviously, the longer you wait, the more produce you’ll get so you may want to hold fire. However, if you’re into instant gratification it’s worth remembering that the more you cut herbs, the more they grow (once they’re established) so adding fresh herbs to every meal will help ensure a bumper crop.