Spring is upon us and the garden fizzes with acid greens. The deep bowls of golden soups – pumpkin, mushroom, bean and barley – have given way to clear broths of miso and spring vegetables. Immediately, I want bright, clean tastes that go hand in hand with the season.
On the table this week: a salad of small, pale-green lettuce leaves that were so tight I could barely part them and white-tipped radishes dressed with a citrus vinaigrette; chalk-white goat’s cheese crumbled into a bowl of vivid green peas; asparagus with a lemon zest and butter sauce. A soup was made with the leaves of young rocket, their peppery bitterness muted slightly with potatoes and the sweetness of white crabmeat. A batch of mackerel fillets sizzled under the grill.
I want vital, refreshing, bitter notes which are the very opposite of the sweet, spicy, sticky stuff I have enjoyed all winter. Flavours which are clear and sharp. That was most evident in this week’s mackerel supper. The seasonings I most regularly use with oily fish – onions, mustard, lemon, vinegar and dill – are there purely to flatter its oily flesh. They usually turn up in a spirited marinade (a sort of souse); as the liquor for ceviche and as a cure, with the necessary amount of salt, for a mackerel “gravlax’”. And yet, despite having done this for years, I have only recently thought about using those ingredients to baste a fish as it grills. What you get, as you anoint the shining skin with the lemon or vinegar, the mustards (one hot, one aromatic) and the herbs is food that is in-line with the turn of the season, something with which to celebrate pleasures to come.
Grilled mackerel with mustard and dill
The day we first ate these little fish as a light lunch – their mustard and dill marinade sharing much with the sauce normally used to accompany gravlax – they shared a plate with a salad of torn parsley, crisp aniseedy fennel and the bulb’s own feathery leaves. They are pleasing as a first course, too, with dark and sticky rye bread, generously buttered.
mackerel 6 fillets
For the marinade:
olive oil 2 tsp, plus a little extra
liquid honey 1 tbsp
Dijon mustard 1 tsp, smooth
grain mustard 1 tbsp
lemon juice 2 tsp
juniper berries 6
dill 4 tbsp, chopped
Pour the olive oil into a small mixing bowl, add the honey, mustards, lemon and a generous grinding of salt. Crush the juniper berries to coarse grains with a pestle and mortar, or spice mill, then stir into the marinade with the dill.
Heat the overhead (or oven) grill. Oil a grill pan or heavy baking sheet, place the mackerel fillets, a few centimetres apart, on the sheet then spoon over the marinade. Cook them under the grill for 5 or 6 minutes until they are just starting to colour. Using a palette knife, transfer to plates and serve.
Rocket and potato soup with fresh crab
There is both the comfort of starch and the energy of bitter greens in this, a soup that will sit happily in both winter and spring. The bitterness of the rocket is welcome in a salad – a handful of its hot and spiky leaves in the same bowl as soft, sweet butterhead lettuce is very pleasing – but can be too much in a bowl of soup, which is why it finds itself in the calming company of potatoes and sweet crabmeat. To preserve its character and freshness, it is important not to cook the rocket, only to let it warm gently in the hot soup.
crab meat 250g
onions 3, medium
olive oil 5 tbsp
potatoes 2, large
vegetable stock 1 litre
salt and black pepper
Peel the onions and roughly chop them. Warm the olive oil in a large, deep saucepan over a moderate heat, add the onions and leave them to soften. Peel the potatoes, cut them into large chunks then stir into the onions, adding salt and letting them cook, without much colour, for about 20 minutes until they are almost tender.
Heat the vegetable stock to boiling point, pour over the onions and potatoes and return to the boil, then lower the heat and leave at a steady simmer for a further 15 minutes. Introduce a grinding of black pepper towards the end of cooking. Stir the rocket leaves and parsley into the broth then immediately ladle into the jug of a blender, taking care not to overfill it. (Sorry, but it is easily done and the result can be both dangerous and horribly messy.) Process to a thick, bright green, then return to the pan.
Taste the soup, adding black pepper and perhaps more salt. It should be soothing yet with a faint, underlying bitterness from the rocket. If the bitterness is too evident, calm it with a little cream or hot milk. Ladle into deep bowls then spoon the crab meat on top.