Given the hostile, unseasonable weather we have been suffering, it's hard to believe that spring has arrived. But the tasty evidence is there. The strawberries and asparagus are on the shelves, the rhubarb is flourishing in the garden and the whitebait are running in the rivers.
The official whitebait season is from August 15 until November 30 (or September 1 until November 14 on the West Coast). Whitebait, the young of five native fish species, are expensive to buy because they are seasonal and usually in short supply. They're definitely a special treat for those of us who aren't whitebaiters but they are one of New Zealand's much-loved foods.
Asparagus made a late entry to spring but my first mouthful was chock-a-block with flavour. One of my favourite ways of serving the green is to blanch it quickly in boiling water until crisp-tender. For the sauce, I melt 50g of butter for 400g of asparagus, add a cup of Sauvignon Blanc, flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste then simmer and stir it until well mixed.
Technically, the strawberry is a "false" fruit. The seeds - unlike those of other fruits - are on the outside and are the true "fruits" of the plant. The flesh to which they are attached simply serves the purpose of holding these fruits.
Choose brightly coloured, plump, even-sized strawberries that still have their green caps or calyxes attached. Do not wash until ready to use. Store - preferably in a single layer on a paper towel - in a moisture-proof container in the refrigerator for up to three days.
Rhubarb is a vegetable but it is nearly always used as a fruit. The new stems of rhubarb are tender and they do not require peeling. The older the stems, the more woody they become. If tough, string them back like celery. Rhubarb is high in moisture so if whole chunks are required do not stir while cooking.

RECIPES
WHITEBAIT SPRING STACKS
Whitebait fritters are served topped with stir-fried whitebait. Great served with a new-vintage sauvignon blanc.
Whitebait fritters
150g whitebait
1 tablespoon flour
2 tablespoons milk
1 large egg, separated
salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley
rice bran oil for frying
Stir-fried Whitebait
100g whitebait
2 tablespoons flour
salt and pepper to taste
rice bran oil for frying
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley
2 lemons, cut into wedges
To prepare the fritters, rinse the whitebait and pat dry with paper towels. Whisk the flour and milk until smooth. Beat in the egg yolk, salt and pepper. Add the whitebait.
Whisk the egg white, until stiff. Fold into the whitebait mixture.
Heat 1-2 tablespoons of the oil in a non-stick frying pan. Shallow-fry heaped tablespoons of the whitebait mixture, until golden on both sides. Drain on paper towels.
Meanwhile, prepare the stir-fry. Rinse and pat dry the whitebait. Toss in the flour seasoned with salt and pepper. Heat 1-2 tablespoons oil in a frying pan. Add the garlic. Stir-fry the whitebait for about 1 minute, stir in the parsley.
Serve the fritters topped with the stir-fried whitebait. Serve the lemon wedges to one side. Serves 4 as a starter.

ASPARAGUS & BACON GALETTES

4 rashers streaky bacon
1 small onion, diced
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
400g asparagus, thick ends discarded, cut into 3cm pieces
3 sheets pre-rolled flaky puff pastry
200g soft goat's cheese
Preheat oven to 220C.
Pan-fry the bacon in a non-stick frying pan, until crisp. Crumble or chop and set aside.
Add the onion and thyme and cook until just softened, about 2 minutes. Add the asparagus and cook until slightly crisp and golden. Add the chopped bacon. Remove from heat and set aside.
Cut 6 rounds of pastry about 12cm in diameter. Spread about 2 tablespoons of the goat's cheese over each pastry round, leaving a 1cm border around the edges. Pile the asparagus mixture on to the cheese. Crumble a little extra cheese over the top.
Bake until golden and puffed, 20-25 minutes. Stand for a few minutes before serving.
Excellent served an appetizer or light lunch with a salad. Serves 6.
STRAWBERRY SALAD WITH COCONUT TANGELO DRESSING
Dressing
2 tangelos, peeled
1/4 cup desiccated coconut
1 tablespoon honey
2 teaspoons each: canola oil, balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon grated root ginger
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Salad
6 cups mesclun or torn iceberg lettuce
100g rice noodles, cooked
2 cups strawberries, hulled and quartered
3 spring onions, sliced
70g sliced almonds or macadamia nuts, toasted
Combine the ingredients for the dressing in a blender, until smooth. Place the lettuce in a large salad bowl. Add 2 tablespoons of dressing and toss to coat. Place the noodles, strawberries, spring onions and nuts on top. Drizzle with a little more dressing just before serving.
The top can be garnished with tangelo segments, if preferred. Serves 6.
RHUBARB & CUSTARD MUFFINS
1/2 cup caster sugar
2 tablespoons brown sugar
75ml canola oil
1 large egg
finely grated rind of 1 tangelo or orange
1 cup plain yoghurt
300g self-raising flour
1 1/2 cups finely diced rhubarb
4-5 tablespoons Meadow Fresh Thick N' Creamy Vanilla Custard or cream cheese
caster sugar, for sprinkling
Preheat the oven to 180C. Line a 12-hole muffin pan with paper cases. In a medium bowl, beat together the sugars, oil, egg, tangelo rind and yoghurt, until smooth. Combine the flour and rhubarb in a large bowl. Stir in the liquid ingredients, until just blended. Three-quarters fill each paper case with the batter. Make an indent in the top. Add a small teaspoon of the custard. Cover with the remaining batter. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until golden and cooked through. Sprinkle each with a little caster sugar while still warm. Best eaten fresh. Makes 12.
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