The new season asparagus and artichokes are in the market and the sunshine has finally returned - so salads are back in vogue and the winter vegetables will soon be forgotten for another year.
Certainly Charles and Nancy from New Mexico, and my latest market tour and cooking day clients, were wowed by their freshness and flavour last week. Not that we had sunshine then - the market tour took place under a leaden grey drizzly sky which emitted a torrential downpour at the end of the afternoon.
The small violet artichokes are a little fiddly to prepare and one of those things that you only really get right once someone has shown you how to tackle the job, which means it is the perfect task for a cooking day. Most people have never prepared one so it is a fun job to have a go at with a bit of supervision. I like to cook them immediately on the day they are bought because they tend to go soft quite quickly if left. Look for small hard artichokes with the leaves still tight. The idea is to prepare them quickly and then you can keep them for a good few weeks in the fridge in a sterilised jar and cooking liquid used to cook them - although they rarely last a couple of days in this household!
The cooked artichoke hearts are fabulous in our superfood salad with asparagus and avocado, a wonderful combination of flavour and texture and a great vegetarian dish if you stop there and don't add the crisped cured ham which adds an additional salty crunchy texture to the vegetables.
The tender top ends of the asparagus spears were used in the salad but the lower snapped off tails of the spears were not discarded but used to make an asparagus soup - a fabulous way to make your produce go further and to reduce food waste. Wherever you have snapped your spears there will still be a good few centimetres of useable green spear that will give more than enough flavour for a simple but elegant soup and for this the thinner spears work better than the fat ones. Discard any really wooden ends and you may also need to sieve the finished soup to remove any stringy bits. Of course, if you buy your asparagus ready cut and packaged up from a supermarket chain you will miss out on this option as the supermarket will have already trimmed them and charged you more for the privilege!
The main course for the cooking day was a French classic - coq au vin. I think of this as a Spring or Autumn dish because it is the lightest of the classic French casserole dishes and can be made with either a good fruity red or a dry white. I like to marinade the chicken for 24 hours in the wine with some garlic, bay and thyme. I use finely diced onion, celery and carrot in the cooking of the dish but cook the lardons, mushrooms and leek separately in a frying pan right at the end and add to the finished dish when serving it - this way they keep their colour and a bit of crunch and add texture to the dish rather than being cooked down to nothing in the wine. Serve with pomme puree and the cooked down sauce drizzled over.
Here is how to prepare the artichokes.
Pull away the hard outer leaves until you reach the softer light green leaves inside. Trim off the hard tips (about halfway down the head), cut off all but 5cm of the stalk and the trim the outer layer of that remaining 5cm. Rub the prepared artichoke all over with lemon juice to reduce discolouration.
In a pan large enough to take your artichokes, finely chop one shallot and sweat gently in a little butter and oil until softened. Add 100ml of dry white wine and bring to the boil before immediately turning down to a simmer. Add the artichokes and lemon juice, a bay leaf, a sprig or two of time and enough water to just cover and simmer very gently until cooked (when a sharp knife just penetrates the artichokes with ease - do not boil or overcook or they will fall apart)
Either serve immediately or leave to cool before packing into sterilised jars topped with the cooking liquor. They will keep in the fridge for several weeks.