Sybil Kapoor is an award-winning food writer and broadcaster, author of eight cookbooks, and regularly writes for Borough’s website and Market Life magazine. She has also contributed to the new Borough Market cookbook. As part of this series, each month Sybil takes a look at what’s in season and explores how cooking can be enhanced through colour, forms, textures and aromas
There is something very British about February—a peculiar mixture of restraint and energy. Delicate bare trees outlined against washed out skies, snowdrops shimmering in the dewy grass and sunlight that carries the first hint of warmth. The year is turning, spring is stirring and British cooks begin to feel excited about cooking once again. The dark days of January are over. No more plain, wintery dishes—instead, we can draw on our surroundings for inspiration, creating new colours, tastes and textures in our food.
The limpid colours of roseate dawns, primrose sunsets and tangled purple-green wet undergrowth are captured in the simplest seasonal dishes, such as the swirls of a rose-coloured rhubarb fool or the pearly white flesh of cod served with a lemon butter sauce and wilted chard. Even a creamy pale celeriac remoulade hints at spring with its parsley flecks, especially if accompanied by the curls of pale yellow curly endive and some pink flakes of smoked trout.
Few cooks can resist the piles of spring greens and purple sprouting broccoli. Their natural bitterness tastes of spring and their dimpled leaves and pretty florets are the perfect foil to warming stews and sticky stir-fries.
Bright green hearts
The ruthless discard the bitter outer leaves of spring greens to reveal their tender, bright green hearts. These can be dropped into hot and sour soups, stir-fried with mustard or sesame seeds, or steamed and served with a caress of butter with a wine-rich venison pie or beef and carrot pudding.
Purple sprouting broccoli proves even more irresistible and once trimmed (the tougher stalks should be peeled) can be stir-fried with ginger, garlic and or chilli. Even better, it can be blanched and tossed in a salad and served as a starter, perhaps seasoned with a lemony tahini dressing or a ginger, honey, orange and soy vinaigrette. The blanching reduces their bitterness, while retaining their pert spring-like look. Strangely, their crunchiness also feels like an expression of spring.
As the days grow longer and the first green shoots start to appear underfoot, so too does the desire for sharp tastes to cut the salty, umami (savoury) and sweet tastes of winter food. The savoury intensity of a venison steak, for example, is lightened by the accompaniment of some sweet-sour pickled pears or quince. In the same way, fried bread-crumbed cod (or haddock) tastes twice as exciting if seasoned with a generous squeeze of lemon juice.
Pure, clean tastes
Odd as it might seem, sourness works best in simple dishes. A rhubarb or lemon jelly needs nothing other than water, sugar and gelatine. You can add other flavourings such as kirsch or gin, or in the case of lemon, peppercorns and cloves, but in truth it only makes a subtle difference to the pleasure of eating such pure, clean tastes. The same is true of a winter sorbet, be it blood orange, rhubarb or lemon. Even pancakes need nothing more than sugar and lemon.
Introducing textures that suggest the first glimmer of spring is harder. First you have to consider the texture of wintery dishes, such as comforting slow-cooked meats, unctuous simmered pulses and warming, luscious fruit combined with buttery pastry or melt-in-the-mouth crumbles, for example pear and almond tart or rhubarb and (frozen) raspberry crumble. Then you have to decide what would introduce a sense of excitement and hint at the promise of spring.
You need lightness, such as in the fluffiest of celeriac and potato purees, a pear soufflé or a fragile rhubarb meringue pie. You need crispness—imagine biting into a delicate venison pasty, or a crisp pear, cucumber and curly endive salad. Finally, you need contrast, such as the buttery texture of a waxy charlotte potato dipped into some unctuous melted raclette cheese and eaten with a crunchy gherkin or pickled cocktail onion.
As the sun rises a little higher each day, it is impossible not to be captivated by the idea of starting afresh and creating new dishes. Inspiration is everywhere but most of all, there is intense pleasure to be had in gathering up seasonal ingredients and cooking them as simply and as beautifully as you can.