The raw flavour of seasonal fruit and vegetables is a powerful thing. All my life I had refused to eat the token sprout that appeared on my plate at Christmas, even with my mother’s clever rebranding trick, dubbing them ‘Little cabbages from Brussels’. It worked on my more trusting brother, but not me. Then I spent a year cooking for a family in the Cotswolds, bound to the confines of their kitchen garden for my produce. By the middle of October, with the summer glut long since jarred and pickled, I was desperate for some new material. Following the kitchen gardener through the thigh-high jungle of Brussel sprout plants, she gave me one straight from the stalk, urging me to take a bite right then and there. Much to my mother’s annoyance, I’ve never looked back. Raw, sliced thinly with hazelnuts and pumpkin oil, sautéed with pancetta à la Nigella, roasted with pears and walnuts, these intensely sweet little cabbages stretched out a whole new avenue of winter cooking.
There are a couple of strong arguments for only eating fruit and vegetables when they’re in season. Plants are naturally adapted to perform well during their real seasonal window, so in general, fewer fertilisers or pesticides are required to get them to full size. From a mental perspective, not having a year round supply of our favourite foods can be an excellent lesson in patience and self-restraint. In an age of instant gratification and life “on-demand”, it is refreshing to live by a natural, unpredictable timetable.
I wish I could say that these are the sound, sensible reasons for which I eat seasonally. The fact of the matter is, seasonally-grown fruit and vegetables simply taste better. Bitter winter greens, delicate spring peas, crunchy, sweet cucumbers – the concentration of flavour in seasonal produce cannot be found outside of its real seasonal window. It’s that intensity of raw flavour that led me to Italy, where cooking has held onto its seasonal roots. Recipes bring together two or three fruits or vegetables with complimentary characteristics, matching sweet with bitter, savoury with acidity. Basil and tomatoes in an insalata caprese, pumpkin and sage ravioli, orange and radicchio salads – all of these unforgettable Italian combinations came about because their ingredients grow at the same time of year. If those dishes aren’t reason enough to eat seasonally, I don’t know what is.
Warm leek and spinach salad
Serves two as a light lunch
For the dressing
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tsp white wine vinegar
Salt and pepper
For the salad
One large leek or two small ones, rinsed and trimmed.
A bay leaf
1 tbs white wine vinegar
100g baby spinach
1 tbsp olive oil
A thick slice of bread, whatever you have to hand
- Preheat oven to 180 degrees.
You’ll need a medium sized pan and a frying pan.
- First make the dressing – whisk all the ingredients together and leave to stand.
- Bring a medium-sized pan of salted water to the boil with the bay leaf and drop in the eggs, boiling for seven minutes. Tear the bread into crouton sized pieces, toss in a tablespoon of olive oil and throw into the oven while the eggs are cooking.
- Slice the leeks in half lengthways and then into six. You should end up with roughly finger-long strips of leek.
Once the seven minute timer goes off, remove the eggs from the water using a slotted spoon and plunge into a bowl of cold water. Remove the croutons from the oven and leave the pan of water boiling.
- Pop the frying pan onto a medium heat and pour in a tablespoon of olive oil. Throw in all the spinach and wilt, seasoning well. Once wilted, turn off the heat and leave it in the pan.
- Drop the slices of leek into the egg-boiling water along with the tablespoon of white wine vinegar. Boil uncovered for 3-5 minutes, until soft but still nicely green.
- Meanwhile, peel and quarter the eggs.
- Drain and tip the leeks into the frying pan with the spinach, along with half the dressing. Fold together, then arrange on the plate with croutons and quarters of egg.
Drizzle over the remainder of the dressing and serve with a nice glass of dry white wine.
Recipe by Clementine Hain-Cole
Illustrations by Liv Amato-Pace