For most of its 31 days March can be every bit as miserable, marrow-chilling and monotonous in terms of seasonal vegetables as February. But it doesn’t matter, because March has something the February lacks: hope. However cold and wet it gets, various life-enhancing things are sure to have happened by the end of the month.
Primroses bloom and hedgegrow plants compete furiously with each other. The wild chervil nettles and alexanders are all half a yard out of the ground before the carrots have shown a couple of inches. There are other wild spring greens to look out for, hogweed shoots (these can be served like asparagus), watercress and wild garlic.
I can’t emphasise enough how worthwhile nettles are as a vegetable. Freshly gathered and given a quick wash, they are ready to make soups, teas and vegetable dishes.
Blanche the nettles and use the cooking liquor as the base for the tea. You can sweeten with honey, sharpen with a squeeze of lemon and drink as a fortifying brew. Nettles are rich in iron, formic and silicilic acid and natural histamines – a healthy spring tonic if ever there was one.
Nettle and Sorrel Risotto:
- Use the nettles blanched to make the tea. Pick only the heads of the young plants, a generous colander-full will do. Chop them before use.
- Pick about half the quantity of wild sorrel leaves – finely shredded.
- 900ml chicken or vegetable stock
- 1 white onion
- 50g butter
- 175g Arborio Rice
- 50g finely grated Parmesan
Heat the stock firstly and keep on a simmer.
Finely chop the onion and sautee with the butter in a heavy based saucepan until the onions are soft and translucent but not brown.
Add the rice and mix well to coat the grains well with the butter and cook while stirring for about 2 minutes.
Add the heated stick a ladle at a time, all whilst stirring. Wait until all the stock has been absorbed before adding more. Once you have about a third of the stock left, add the nettles.
From then on, add more stock a little at a time, stirring constantly, until all the liquid has been absorbed and the rice is nicely al dente. You may not need to use all of the stock but the texture should be loose and creamy.
Stir in the shredded sorrel leaves and check for seasoning.
Finely stir in the parmesan (and another knob of butter or splash of cream if you wish).
Serve straight away with more parmesan and a grater at the table. I like to top mine with toasted pine nuts also as it lends an amazing smokey texture.
Primrose and Champagne Jelly
This is an Edwardian dish, and is visually stunning, with a floral citrus flavour.
- 7 gelatine leaves
- 125g caster sugar
- 500ml champagne or a dry sparkling wine
- 175ml sherry
- 2 egg whites with the eggshells crushed
- The zest and juice of 1 orange and 1 lemon
- 12-16 primrose heads (depending on the size of your jelly mould)
Soak the gelatine leaves in a dish of water for at least 5 minutes,
Put the sugar, wine, sherry, 250ml water and the orange and lemon into a large saucepan and heat while stirring until the sugar has dissolved.
Add the gelatine and stir until that is dissolved too.
Lightly whisk the egg whites and add them and the crushed shells to the pan.
Stir occasionally until the mixture becomes very frothy and comes almost to the boil.
Remove from the heat and strain through a thoroughly wetted muslin or cotton cloth into a bowl.
Pour about a quarter or the jelly mixture into the mould and allow to set in the fridge until very lightly set.
Arrange a ring of the primrose heads face down (pressing lightly into the tacky surface).
Carefully pour over the next quarter of the unset jelly into the mould and put it back into the fridge.
Continue in this way, creating 2 or 3 rings of primroses set into the jelly.
To unmould the jelly, dip the dish very briefly in hot water and use the tip of your finger to judge when the jelly is coming away from the dish, Choose your serving dish and flip it over with a little shake and lift off the mould.