Around the world, the arrival of spring is greeted with rituals that celebrate the rebirth of nature. In Uzebekistan, people still grow trays of sprouting wheat to display and eat a traditional dish of sumalak made with germinated wheat seed.
In Sicily, seeds of fennel, wheat and lentils are planted in the winter ready to harvest in spring when they are made into little bouquets, wrapped with ribbons and placed on graves to show that life will always win over death.
For millennia the spring equinox — the day when the time between sunrise and sunset is exactly 12 hours and the sun rises directly in the east and sets directly in the west — has marked the transition of winter into spring. The word equinox comes from Latin "aequus" (equal) and "nox" (night).
The seasons have an enormous influence on vegetation and plant growth. Over winter most plants go into hibernation mode but as the days start to lengthen a new growing season begins as seeds sprout, leaves unfurl and flowers blossom.
Most of our food/season connections tend to be built around summer, when there are so many harvests to choose from, flavours are ripe and sweet from the sun. Spring tastes, on the other hand, are subtle — nothing is too strong or too loud. Fat, heavy bulbs of fennel can be thinly sliced and served raw, crisp and lightly anise in a salad or roasted to sweet, buttery tenderness. The first baby radishes offer a gentle ping of heat, asparagus spears are grassy crisp, cauliflower is crunchy-sweet, snow peas are tender and sweet, beets are earthy with leaves so green you can taste the chlorophyll. These are the tastes of spring to savour.
Here in New Zealand we celebrate spring on the first day of September, which gives us a welcome jump on the celestial timing of the vernal equinox, (Wednesday, September 23). Spring is always a magical time as the world comes alive again. The birds start chirping their happy spring songs, buds burst into bloom and the landscape transforming like a chameleon from a dull brown to a soft green haze of new growth. Everything feels hopeful and full of promise.
What better way to welcome in the new season than with salads that bring to the fore spring's gentle, light flavours?
Spring Salad with Boursin Cream
Boursin cheese is expensive to buy but this home-made version is simple to make and tastes close to the real thing. It keeps in the fridge for at least a week and makes a useful spread or dip. Here I've used it as the base for a pretty salad starter served with baked pita crisps.
Ready in 20 minutes
Serves 6-8 as a starter, boursin cream makes 1 1/2 cups
250g cream cheese
100g feta cheese
1 clove garlic, crushed
2 Tbsp capers
Rind of 1⁄2 lemon, finely zested
1 Tbsp very finely chopped chives
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Use a selection of spring greens, for example
2 dozen snow peas, blanched and halved lengthwise
3⁄4 cup shelled and cooked broad beans or edamame, thawed if frozen
8 fresh stalks asparagus, tough ends snapped off and stalks sliced in very thin rounds, leave tips intact
Some thick slices of raw cauliflower or florets of green broccoflower
4 radishes, cut paper-thin
Handful of micro greens, or snow pea shoots or baby leaves
Flaky sea salt, to taste
1⁄2 cup roasted pine nuts
8 white anchovies (optional)
Drizzle of extra virgin olive oil or lemon-infused oil
Pita crisps, to serve (see below)
Puree all the ingredients for the boursin cream until they form a smooth paste. The cheese will keep in a covered container in the fridge for at least a week.
To plate salads, spoon a heaped tablespoon of boursin cream on to the centre of each serving plate. Use the back of a spoon to smear it across the plate in a rough band.
Arrange vegetables prettily on top, scatter with flaky sea salt and pine nuts and top with an anchovy if using. Drizzle a little oil around the plate and serve accompanied with pita crisps.
Split pita breads and cut into wedges. Brush with a mixture of crushed garlic and olive oil. Season with salt and bake at 160C until crisp and golden, about 20 minutes. Cool and store in an airtight container.
Three-way Beets with Goat's Cheese, Hazelnuts and Crispy Prosciutto
The components of this salad can be prepared well in advance. Assemble just before serving.
Ready in 30 minutes
Serves 8 as a starter
80g prosciutto, thinly sliced
3 Tbsp olive oil
750g cooked beetroot, cut into small wedges
1 Tbsp pomegranate molasses
1 Tbsp olive oil
Pinch ground cloves
Salt and pepper
Pinch of sugar
200g creamy goat's cheese or goat's feta
2 small colourful beetroot, e.g. chioggia and yellow, peeled and very thinly sliced with a mandolin or potato peeler
1 punnet baby leaves or microgreens
¼ cup roasted hazelnuts, roughly chopped
Preheat oven to 180C. Place the prosciutto on a baking tray, drizzle with the olive oil and bake until firm and the fat is lightly golden, about 10 to 15 minutes. Allow to cool then crumble prosciutto very finely in its cooking oil. Set aside.
Place 1 cup of the cooked beetroot in a blender and puree with pomegranate molasses, olive oil and ground cloves. Season to taste with salt, pepper and sugar. Place in a bowl and put to one side.
Using an electric whisk, beat the cheese to a smooth, creamy puree with 2 to 3 Tbsp of boiling water. Season with a little pepper. Place in a small piping bag, or clean plastic bag with a small corner cut off.
To assemble, divide the beetroot puree between serving bowls. Toss the cooked beetroot wedges with prosciutto oil crumb and pile on top of puree. Fold the slices of raw beetroot in between and scatter with baby leaves. Pipe small mounds of cheese on to the salads. Sprinkle with hazelnuts.
Fennel Salad with Blue Cheese and Pears
Crisp fennel, buttery cheese and crunchy walnuts are a timeless combination.
Ready in 20 minutes
Serves 6-8 as a starter or side dish
1 lemon, halved
1 large head fennel, halved and very thinly sliced with a mandolin
2 pears, cored and cut into thin wedges
150g baby rocket or watercress tips
150g goat's cheese or blue cheese, crumbled
1 cup walnut pieces, roasted
2 Tbsp lemon juice
1⁄2 tsp brown sugar
1 tsp Dijon mustard
3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
Squeeze lemon halves into a large bowl of cold water. Place sliced fennel, pears and rocket or watercress into lemon water and leave for at least 15 minutes to crisp (they will hold for several hours).
To serve, drain off water and place vegetables and pears on a clean tea towel to absorb moisture. Shake dressing ingredients together in a jar.
Place greens, pears and fennel in a large bowl and toss with dressing. Pile on to a platter and scatter over cheese and nuts.