Mind the hungry gap: the best seasonal fruit and veg in March
This month winter stews are replaced by springy soups, flavoured with aromatic green herbs.
“March is a rude and boisterous month… possessing many characteristics of the winter, yet awakening sensations perhaps more delicious than the two following spring months; for it gives us the first announcement and taste of spring.” William Hone, The Year Book (1828)
Winter stores are depleted —fresh apples and pears are truly over until September — the hungry gap begins. From March until July locally grown, seasonal produce is at its lowest ebb, until summer fruit and vegetables return in abundance. As you see the first springing of wild flowers and green herbs, look out for wild garlic growing in the hedgerows. In the kitchen start substituting winter brassicas and root veg by spring greens. Common to many of these vegetables is a soft, edible stem (petiole), as well as large, fleshy leaves.
Swiss chard (Beta vulgaris)
Chard is a favourite among vegetable gardeners because it’s easy to grow, it looks beautiful and has a good flavour — not to mention it’s one of the healthiest foods you can eat. Its leaves and bright coloured stems are rich in vitamins C, A and K, fibre, iron, folic acid and magnesium which help maintain healthy eyesight and improve the immune system. Chard has a mild taste, very much like spinach. You can eat it raw and use it in salads.
The darker, fleshier and more mature leaves are best for cooking. Chard leaves are hardy and robust which makes it good substitute for watery spinach, holding its own in creamy or thick sauces. For a simple seasonal dish, try sautéing chard in butter with wild garlic and lemon, accompanied by fried fish.
Not actually ‘Swiss’, but from the Mediterranean. The name is a misnomer and possibly acquired after a Swiss botanist who first described chard under the Linnaean system of plant classification. The rainbow variety is genetically the same as Swiss chard (green leaf and white stem), but with pigmentation from Betalains which also gives beetroot their deep crimson purple colour.
Spring onions or scallions (Allium onion)
A one-time favourite flavour of crisps, spring onion is light, crunchy and sweet with a gentle bitterness. These are milder than onions but actually the same vegetable, just plucked earlier from the ground. Methods for slicing and dicing spring onions are personal and cultural: some discard the green tops and use only the white bulbs, while others thinly slice the scallion lengthways for elegant strips, or cut aslant for a firmer bite. But those who really enjoy spring onions might crisply fry the green petioles as crudités, or brush with olive oil and chargrill whole.
Winter salad leaves
What is a winter salad, you ask? It’s composed of strong, peppery assorted leaves, usually mustard greens (streaked and frilled), salad burnet, rocket mizuna, komatsuna, texsel greens and oriental greens. You can buy bags of mixed winter salad all year round, but we rely on it more during the hungry gap, before summer lettuces return in May.
Hardy winter leaves are set apart from mild baby gems, romaines and round lettuces by strong tastes and tough textures. Eaten raw, these bitter leaves taste best with a tart mustard dressing, especially with lime juice and roasted fennel seeds. If you’re a fan of hardcore greens — if munching on a hedgerow with a strong vinaigrette appeals to your tastebuds— then winter leaves are for you. Try some of the best loved combos with fried halloumi, artichokes, olives or crayfish.
Wild garlic (Allium ursine), known as ‘ramsons’
A chef’s delight in spring, this native herb grows prolifically across the country from mid-February to July, just as stores of common garlic bulbs (Allium sativum) are depleted until summer. Vast carpets of wild garlic are found in deciduous woodlands, river banks and even pavement cracks. Those living in the city can find it more easily at a local farmers market or high-end supermarket (oddly, it grows next to my local Waitrose!).
The word ‘ramsons’ is from the old English word, hramsa, which meant the bitter flavour of onion and garlic, or the ‘rank’ taste of butter, milk and cheese from cows that have been munching the stuff.
Used in cooking, wild garlic infuses an even and characteristic flavour in dishes in ways which are more difficult to achieve with garlic cloves. Treat the leaves like basil or any pot herb, adding towards the end of cooking. Wild garlic is best eaten fresh as the flavour degrades the longer it cooks. If the leaves dry out the aroma tends to turn oniony and stale.
A word of caution: if you’re gathering wild garlic for the first time be careful not to pick lily of the valley by mistake, which is poisonous.
When preparing wild garlic in the kitchen all parts of the plant are good to eat, except for the roots. The fresh leaves goes famously well with mayonnaise, butter and bread, like its bulbous cousin. Other traditional uses include pesto, risotto, pizza and pasta. The bulbs, stems and buds can also be pickled whole and preserved in jars.
Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum)
Winter oranges are over and rhubarb is ready to harvest, as we await June’s berries, peaches and nectarines. These sour stalks are a spring delight when paired with strawberries and used in desserts. Not usually eaten raw (although it has been known), stewed rhubarb for pie or crumble syncs well with warming ginger, cloves and allspice, but must be sweetened with lots of sugar. Rhubarb stem doesn’t have an outstanding nutritional profile but does serve as a source of fibre and vitamin K. This ‘fruit’ gains most appreciation from sweet-toothed pudding and jam afficionados.
Classic rhubarb combos with strawberry and custard have been national favourites since the mid 19th century, when sugar became commonplace in most British households. Before then it would have been considered too tart eat for any occassion and is actually a vegetable.
We now know rhubarb’s enticingly rich leaves are poisonous: they are high in oxalic acid which destroys calcium in the blood, and, in large quantities, can severely damage the kidneys. Reports of poisoning after World War I when rhubarb leaves were wrongly listed as a healthy food suggests this hasn’t always been common knowledge. It is likely that Thomas Jefferson, who first cultivated rhubarb in 18th century America, also ate the leaves, which he described as ‘excellent as spinach.’
Spring greens (Brassica oleracea), known as ‘collards’
Nutrient-dense kale is a tough act to follow, but no brassica pairs as well with the soft herbs of spring like collards. Shred them, chop them, steam them, sauté them, bubble ’n’ squeak them; come the hungry gap you can have fun with with this mild-mannered leaf.
Spring greens taste milder than hardy winter cabbages, easily overpowered by pungent, camphorated herbs such as thyme, sage and rosemary. Rather, the soft and nutty flavour works best with parsley, tarragon, mint and dill. It’s also delicious sautéed with wild garlic and butter, leek and caraway seeds.
Spring greens are a useful source of vitamins C and K, fibre, folate and minerals. At the biochemical level they contain sulforaphane and indoles which have been clinically shown to protect against cancer. Indeed, in ancient Rome and Greece, brassicas were considered medicinal. In Natural History, Pliny the Elder documents the health benefits of cabbage, including ‘the smooth type with large leaves’ (collards, probably). He mentions a raw cabbage remedy that was taken once in the morning and was said to be ‘good for headaches, impaired vision and spots, the spleen and the stomach’.