Tom Parker Bowles — recently shortlisted for the PPA Food Writer of the Year award for his Country Life columns — shares his tips on seasonal eating in May.
Ah, the lusty, thrusty month of May, with its darling buds and fresh-faced, coquettish charm, all playful winks and amorous skips. This is the start of lush abundance and sees the arrival of all those verdant pods, shoots and stems. The weather may not be quite as mild as we always like to think (rain can pelt and temperatures plummet), but who really cares, sitting, as we are, on the cusp of summer. ‘As full of spirit as the month of May,’ wrote Shakespeare in Henry IV, Part 1. May Day, May poles and yes, those dreaded Morris dancers, too.
It’s asparagus that is the superstar of this month and, although the polytunnel specimens may have been around for a while, this is when those Wye Valley wonders flood the market. The key is to get it as fresh as possible, as all that lovely sugar turns to starch within moments of being cut. I once heard the tale (possibly apocryphal) of a man so obsessed by eating his asparagus at its very peak that he set up a tent next to his crop. As the spears reached perfection, early one May morning, he harvested them and cooked them then and there, on a portable stove.
What foods are in season in May?
Asparagus; basil; broccoli; carrots; chervil; chives; cod; coriander; crab; dill; Jersey Royals; langoustine; lettuce and salad leaves; new potatoes; oregano; pak choi; parsley (curly); peas; plaice; prawns; radishes; rhubarb; rocket; rosemary; sage; samphire; sardines; sea trout; sorrel; spinach; spring onions; tarragon; watercress; wood pigeon
As I said, that could be taking asparagus love a touch too far, but make sure the cut ends don’t look too old and that the tips are pert and tightly furled. I like it steamed and dipped in butter. Or cooked on the barbecue, slick with oil. Or eaten cold with a brusque vinaigrette. Jeremy Lee, that magnificent chef at the helm of Quo Vadis, wraps spears in brick pastry and a good coating of Parmesan, before baking and serving as snacks. They also make a fine addition to risotto.
Asparagus isn’t the only star of May. Fresh peas, picked straight from the plant, are a luxury every bit as exalted as caviar — albeit at a hundredth of the price. In fact, I’ve spent many a happy hour at my mother’s house (or anyone else with peas climbing up their canes) simply wandering up and down, picking, opening those pods and munching them with no further ado. From now until the end of the season, I crave the simplicity of a pound or two of peas in the pod, eaten slowly with a mound of Maldon salt until your fingernails are stained green.
This is also the time for carrots, pak choi and radishes eaten with a splodge of salted butter. Don’t forget those peppery salad leaves. Rhubarb is ready to be picked, stewed and turned into a fool. Or mixed with vodka and sugar, then left for a couple of months to produce a decent flavoured spirit. It also works wonders with mackerel, now abundant and cheap, grilled over hot coals or fried in oatmeal.
Look out for spider crabs as they move into shallower waters to mate. The time spent picking through those long, spindly limbs and spiky carapace is easily worth the effort, as the spider crab yields some of the sweetest crustacean flesh you’ll ever eat. If you see some at the fishmonger, snap ’em up.
Seasonal recipe of the month for May: Risi e bisi
This recipe comes from one of Felicity Cloake’s wonderful ‘How to cook the perfect…’ columns in The Guardian. Risi e bisi is a Venetian dish, traditionally made to celebrate the feast of Saint Marco on April 25. Peas arrive a little earlier in Italy and fresh ones are preferable, if not obligatory — you don’t get the sweetness and depth from the frozen variety. This is all about that first taste of fresh peas.
- 1kg young peas in their pods
- 1 litre good chicken or vegetable stock
- 40g butter
- 2tbspn olive oil
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 100g pancetta (optional)
- 250g vialone nano rice (or carnaroli if you can’t find any)
- 50g Parmesan, finely grated
- Small handful of mint or flat-leaf parsley leaves
Pod the peas. Fill a pan with 1½ litres of water and put just enough pods in there to be submerged. Discard the rest. Bring to the boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for 30–60 min-utes, until reduced by about half.
Strain and discard the pods. Add the pea liquid to the chicken stock and bring back to a simmer.
In a heavy-based saucepan, melt half the butter with the oil, then add the onion and cook until it begins to soften. Add the pancetta and cook for another five minutes or so, until it begins to release its fat.
Stir in the rice and cook until all the grains are well coated with fat and begin to look translucent, then turn up the heat a little and add a ladleful of stock. Cook, stirring all the time, until most of the liquid has been absorbed, then repeat until the rice is tender and the dish has a thick, soupy consistency (you may not need all the stock). Add the peas after about 12 minutes.
Once the dish is ready, stir in the cheese and remaining butter, cover and leave to sit for five minutes. Season to taste, divide between shallow bowls and top with the herbs.
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Tom Parker Bowles shares his advice for seasonal eating in April.
Throughout the year, Tom Parker Bowles will be sharing his advice on how to eat seasonlly, month-by-month. We kick things