Sybil Kapoor on making the most of an extraordinary array of spring greens
As the trees unfurl their leaves and the morning air smells sweet and dewy, cooks start to long for spring dishes filled with fresh, bitter-tasting greens. It has been the same for millennia. As the days lengthened, people would scour the countryside for sorrel, nettle tops, wild garlic (ramsons) and watercress.
In the past, such foods were regarded as a necessary spring tonic after a monotonous winter diet. The greens were mixed into salads and simmered in soups and stews. The Victorians even served watercress sprigs with breakfast as a health-giving fillip—much tastier than kale juice.
Today, the majority of urban cooks forage for their greens in specialist shops and stalls. They seek out seasonal delicacies such as lush bunches of sorrel and wild garlic, and pick through the myriad different leafy green imports ranging from cicoria to agretti.
After all, who can resist some griddled salmon napped with a tart sorrel sauce, or a cheesy pizza bianco topped with a glistening pile of blanched cicoria that has been sautéed in olive oil with garlic and chilli?
Watercress, sorrel and wild garlic
Many traditional British spring greens, such as watercress, sorrel and wild garlic are equally good eaten raw. Everyone loves a crusty sandwich with a ruffle of watercress leaves, especially if it is filled with a prawn or egg mayonnaise or roast beef and mustard, and dinner tables take on a spring-like air when a beautiful green salad is placed centre-stage.
The airy leaves of little gem lettuce mixed with watercress sprigs, ripped sorrel, wild garlic and a few torn leaves of tarragon taste wonderful after a plump roast chicken or grilled steak.
Sorrel, meanwhile, tastes surprisingly good cooked with apple in both sweet and savoury dishes, from apple and sorrel sauce, to apple and sorrel fritters or apple and sorrel mousse. It makes the apple taste extra fresh and sweet.
As wild garlic leaves can taste quite pungent, the wise add them cautiously to their dishes. You only need a few finely sliced leaves dropped into a spring soup of chicken broth and diced vegetables to imbue it with a wonderful garlic aroma. They are equally delicious in a mixed herb omelette or blanched and stirred into spinach risotto.
A defining characteristic of spring greens is that they have a tendency towards bitterness, which increases with maturity. Sorrel is an exception to this rule, tasting sour rather than bitter due to the astringent oxalic acid in its leaves. Consequently, it is always worth ensuring that your greens are young and tender.
Stinging nettles, for example, are not worth picking from June onwards as their leaves undergo a chemical change, which makes them unpleasantly bitter and fibrous. However, they’re excellent from March until the end of May, especially when simmered in a creamy wild garlic and potato soup or stuffed into home-made ravioli.
For the latter, blanch the leaves, then finely chop and mix into ricotta with lemon zest, egg yolks and sautéed spring onions.
For those cooking stinging nettles for the first time, wear rubber gloves when preparing them and wash them in several changes of cold water before stripping the leaves from their stems. Discard the stems. The leaves have a slightly woolly texture once cooked, which soaks up creamy ingredients, for example, butter, crème fraiche and soft cheeses.
Among the less familiar types of greens available to cooks in the spring are clumps of succulent, needle-leafed agretti, also known as saltwort or friar’s beard. This salt-tolerant, marshy Italian plant has become fashionable among chefs in the last few years and is now being grown in Britain.
Agretti leaves have a bitter, saline, mineral taste. They are washed and blanched for a minute in boiling water before serving, usually dressed in olive oil, sometimes seasoned with lemon juice. In my opinion they are best enjoyed in moderation, as they have quite a chewy texture and strong taste.
Although the current fashion is to serve them as an accompaniment to fish and shellfish, I think that their saline flavour is better suited to sweet-tasting vegetables such as beetroot or roast onions and light, lemony, salty cheeses, such as brine-cured feta or soft goat’s curd.
Rapini is another popular early green. Confusingly, it is often sold under different names, such as cime di rapa, broccoletti, broccoli di rapa or friarielli. These originate from different regions in Italy, but the green itself is a type of rape or turnip top which is now also being grown in Britain. From the cook’s perspective, the preparation is always the same prior to cooking.
Only buy pert tops with tight green buds. Wash thoroughly, then pare back to the tenderest stems and strip away any tough leaves. Before cooking, test nibble a leaf. If it is too strong, blanch the tops in boiling water before the final cooking.
Antonio Carluccio recommends serving them with cecatelli pasta in his book, Vegetables. He fries crumbs of luganiga (Italian sausage) meat until crispy, then adds garlic and hot fresh chilli before mixing in the raw, prepared cime di rapa and a tiny bit of water to steam the greens.
He cooks the mixture for 20 minutes, then seasons it with salt and a little red wine vinegar before tossing it in the pasta and serving it with grated pecorino cheese.
Other Italian recipes are equally hearty. Olive oil, garlic, chilli and fresh tomatoes combine with the rapini for a pasta sauce that is finished with pecorino, for example, or garlic is sautéed in pork fat before the rapini is added and seasoned with lemon juice as a side dish.
A similar approach can be used with cicoria, a variety of chicory, which is also known as Italian dandelion or cutting chicory. It looks like a giant dandelion and has glossy, dark green serrated leaves and an intense, bitter green taste.
Many chefs develop a taste for this type of green bitterness, which they love to partner with rich umami tastes and earthy flavours such as a dish of lentils or fava beans. The former might be simmered with finely diced root vegetables, stock and wine; the latter cooked plainly before being finished with salt and a grassy olive oil.
They can be served as a starter or as a side dish and they can, of course, also be cooked in a more British style—lightly boiled, tossed in butter and served with roast lamb and home-made gravy.
Our desire to cook such bitter greens can be as ephemeral as spring blossom. If you get the urge, give in and experiment. You will find that for a few brief weeks, your food captures that wild, verdant taste of spring.