The seasonal cook: May

Categories: Expert guidance

Sybil Kapoor is an award-winning food writer and broadcaster, author of eight cookbooks, and regularly writes for the Borough’s website and Market Life magazine. She has also contributed to the forthcoming Borough Market cookbook—in the run up to its official publication in October, each month Sybil will take a look at what’s in season, and explore how cooking can be enhanced through colour, forms, textures and aromas

Cooking seasonal ingredients has become natural to most Britons. As spring stretches into summer, few can resist English asparagus or tender young lamb. Once in the kitchen, most cooks will rely on their ingredients to create a sense of seasonality in their food. Some may favour traditional British recipes, such as roast lamb and mint sauce, while others will draw on global influences to make dishes such as asparagus risotto or lamb kreatopita—a Greek meat pie made with filo pastry.

However, it’s possible to deepen this feeling of seasonality by employing other culinary methods. In the next few months, I am going to explore the different techniques you can use to evoke a sense of time and place in your cooking.

Many of my ideas draw on Japanese aesthetics, which in turn were influenced by ancient Chinese philosophy. I’ve adapted them to modern British food and my own sensibilities. After all, seasonality can only resonate if it means something to the cook and the eater.

Sweet-smelling earth
Serve a bowl of chilled stinging nettle soup made with leeks, potatoes and cream, for example, to a Japanese visitor and it will be enjoyed as a delicate-tasting pureed soup. Offer the same dish to a fellow Briton and it will be experienced on many levels, as the taste and subject evoke memories of rampant green undergrowth, wellington boots and sweet-smelling earth.

There are many fascinating aspects of seasonal cooking to explore. How often do you consider whether you are including references to the seasons by using farmed, wild or marine ingredients? Do you factor in the temperature, texture, scent or colour of your food when creating a meal? Do you include ingredients that are at the beginning or end of their season to induce a sense of anticipation or sadness in the eater?

Even the crockery upon which you plate your food can influence the mood of the diner, such as the physical coolness of glassware in the summer and the warmth of stone-fired ceramics in winter.

A sense of summer
The first step towards creating a stronger seasonal feel in your food is to integrate ingredients that are coming into and going out of season. Thus, in May, alongside prime ingredients such as wild salmon, lamb and Jersey royal potatoes, try adding early spring herbs and home-grown broad beans. If you add them to leafy salads, pastas and such like, they will give a sense of summer unfurling.

At the same time, add a reference to something going out of season, such as wild garlic flowers. Dipped in a delicate tempura batter, accompanied by prawn tempura and a soy lemon dip, they act as a subtle reminder that all things pass.

Conjure up spring colours on your plate: think pale yellow brimstone butterflies, emerald green leaves and floppy pink peonies. Perhaps a dish of potted shrimp with watercress or an omelette flecked green with sorrel, chives and parsley?

Try to capture the sharp, verdant scent of spring in your food. Draw on soft goat’s cheese redolent of fresh grass, early summer herbs such as mint, borage and lemon balm, unpasteurised butter and cream, spring onions, lemons and peppery olive oil. Use them to accent your dishes—from seared salmon accompanied by a rocket and cannellini bean salad flavoured with lemon and olive oil, to a fragile coeur à la crème served with a rhubarb compote.

Look natural
Draw the eater’s eye to the food itself by presenting everything in a sparing, simple manner, emphasising the pure nature of spring. Add less to your plates and keep arrangements to odd numbers, such as five pieces of tempura. Crucially, allow your food to look natural.

Spring and early summer are soft, fuzzy seasons. A salad should fall onto the plate and accompanying vegetables should look beautifully wild. Allow dishes to reveal themselves. For example, serve fruit compotes with their flavourings—poached loquats look exquisite served in their syrup with a translucent strip of lemon zest, fragrant dried rose buds or a glossy vanilla pod.