A seasonal spring lunch

Alice Hart has created a vibrant menu, accented with fresh herbs and edible flowers, to celebrate the best of the season

There is a definite moment in the British calendar, usually in early May, when spring stops being coy and bursts joyfully into full bloom. This change is accompanied by a sudden abundance of delicious seasonal produce – the greenest shoots and stalks, sweet peas and beans, edible flowers in every hue and armfuls of soft, fragrant herbs. It’s an exhilarating time for keen cooks. This month’s menu is written with those ingredients and the first sunny garden lunches in mind. Pick and choose dishes as you wish, or make them all to really push the boat out for a lunch crowd.

Food Spring Lunch

THE MENU

Seasonality is at the heart of this springtime lunch, which is a true celebration of longer, warmer days and their bounty. The menu is designed to serve six, except for the gateau, which happily provides for extra helpings, and, while I’ve included both a soup and a tart to begin the meal, you could choose to do one or the other and still more than satisfy your guests. Most of the dishes can be made at least partly in advance so that things aren’t too frantic on the day itself.

TO START Crab, broad bean, tomato and marigold tarts
TO START Spiced yoghurt and herb soup with saffron butter and borage flowers
TO START Caesar-style salad of baby kale, spring herbs and flowers with pecorino crisps
MAIN Barbecued lamb with fennel flowers and a herby carrot pilaf
DESSERT Apricot, pistachio and rose gateau
DESSERT Early summer berry and roast rhubarb compote with a muscat and orange blossom syllabub
DESSERT Lilac flower sodas

SET THE SCENE

Food Spring Lunch

The dishes in this menu are a visual as well as a gastronomic treat, so allow them to shine by opting for a pared-back table dressing. The menu is all about celebrating the best that nature has to offer and the setting should echo this organic theme. Think slightly crumpled linens in muted shades of stone and grey, textural crockery with a handmade feel and glassware with a simple, unfussy form.

Add colour with scattered flowers and foliage in pretty shades of pink, purple and cream. Cuttings of delicate, rangy clematis, fragrant herbs, such as sage, English roses and blossoming hedgerow plants like cow parsley are the perfect adornment to this look and help to foster an informal, relaxed air for a leisurely lunch in the sunshine.

CRAB, BROAD BEAN, TOMATO AND MARIGOLD TARTS

Food Spring Lunch

Serves 6

These little tarts, a vague riff on a much-loved Nigella Lawson recipe, are crammed with plenty of crab, broad beans and peppery marigold petals in a gentle custard. Top them with a pea shoot and nasturtium salad for a beautiful starter.

500g all-butter shortcrust pastry
6 small plum or large cherry tomatoes

100g podded broad beans, fresh or frozen
300ml double cream
¼ tsp saffron threads
5 marigold (calendula) flower heads, petals only
4 egg yolks
Salt and freshly ground pepper
250g fresh white crab meat

For the salad
Handful of nasturtium leaves
50g pea shoots
1-2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
Squeeze of lemon juice
Handful of marigold or tagete flowers, to serve

1. Pre-heat the oven to 190°C, gas mark 5. Roll the pastry outbetween two sheets of greaseproof paper to the thickness of a pound coin. Use to line six 8cm diameter tart tins or one deep 20cm tart tin with a removable base. Leave the overhanging pastry untrimmed. Prick the bases several times with a fork and chill for 30 minutes.
Line the pastry with baking paper and baking beans and bake blind for 10-15 minutes until cooked but still very pale. Remove the paper and beans and bake for 10 minutes more, until pale golden.
2. Turn the oven down to 170°C, gas mark 3. Put the tomatoes in a heatproof bowl and cover with boiling water. Leave for a minute then drain and peel. Halve and set aside. If the broad beans are frozen, add them to the tomatoes and cover with boiling water as above. If they are fresh, simmer in boiling water for 2 minutes, drain and refresh under cool water.
3. Warm 3 tbsp of the cream with the saffron and half the marigold petals and allow to steep off the heat for a few minutes. Beat the egg yolks and the rest of the cream and then add the steeped cream to this. Season to taste.
4. Place the tomato halves, cut- sides down, and broad beans in the tart shells. Loosely fold the crab meat into the custard and spoon into the tart shells. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until set and golden on top, but with a hint of wobble within.
5. Toss the nasturtium leaves, pea shoots and remaining marigold petals with olive oil and lemon juice. Season and pile on to each warm tart, scattering with extra marigold or tagete flowers.

SPICED YOGHURT AND HERB SOUP WITH SAFFRON BUTTER

Food Spring Lunch

Serves 6 as a starter

Handfuls of summer herbs take centre stage in this variation on an Ottolenghi recipe. The saffron butter adds luxurious depth to the vibrant soup base.

2 tbsp olive oil
1 sweet white onion, peeled and roughly chopped
1 fat garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped
3cm piece fresh turmeric, peeled and finely chopped (or ½ tsp ground turmeric)
1 tsp cumin seeds, lightly crushed
300g young spinach leaves
70g watercress, tough stalks removed
Handful of fat-leaf parsley, including stalks
Handful of chervil, including stalks
Small handful of mint leaves
900ml vegetable stock
Salt and freshly ground pepper
120g Greek yoghurt
Extra parsley, mint, watercress and chervil leaves, to garnish
2 tbsp borage flowers, to garnish

For the saffron butter
Large pinch of saffron
30g lightly salted butter

1. Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan. Add the onion and garlic, and cook over a low heat for 10 minutes, until soft but not coloured. Add the turmeric and cumin and cook for 2 minutes.
2. Stir in the spinach, watercress, parsley, chervil, mint and stock. Simmer for 10 minutes. Season, then blitz the soup with a hand-held blender – or in a free-standing blender in batches – until smooth. This can be done up to 2 days in advance and kept chilled until needed.
3. To make the butter, lightly crush the saffron in a pestle and mortar. Transfer to a small bowl and cover with 2 tbsp boiling water. Set aside for 5 minutes. Melt the butter in a small saucepan set over a low heat, add the saffron in its water and warm through gently for 10 minutes. Season to taste and keep warm.
4. Reheat the soup to just below boiling point and pour the yoghurt into a bowl. Whisk a ladleful of hot soup into the yoghurt, stirring constantly to temper it and repeat with a couple more ladles of soup. Next, tip the yoghurt mix into the soup and whisk until smooth. Season to taste. Ladle into warmed bowls or serve cool in cold bowls. Spoon the butter over and finish with extra herb leaves and the borage flowers.

CAESAR-STYLE SALAD OF BABY KALE, SPRING HERBS AND FLOWERS WITH PECORINO CRISPS

Food Spring Lunch

Serves 6

Kale leaves are robust enough to carry a strong dressing. I would use baby or young kale as it is more tender, but larger leaves can be de-stalked and shredded finely. To make this a truly vegetarian option, replace the anchovies with four chopped black olives and use a vegetarian Parmesan-style cheese.

For the crisps
100g pecorino cheese, finely grated
75g pecans, chopped
Freshly ground pepper
For the dressing
50ml milk
2 anchovy fillets
½ garlic clove, peeled and crushed
1 egg yolk
5 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
2 tbsp lemon juice, or to taste
1 scant tsp Dijon mustard

For the salad
150g baby kale leaves, tough stems removed
Handful of chervil, chopped
Handful of basil leaves, torn
Handful of edible flowers, such as pea flowers, violas, cornflowers, chive flowers

1. Pre-heat the oven to 190°C, gas mark 5. Line a baking sheet with non-stick paper and use half the pecorino to make little piles of grated cheese, about 3cm in diameter and half a centimetre thick, leaving a good space between each. Place a couple of pecan pieces on each one, reserving half of the pecans, and season with black pepper. Bake for 5-7 minutes, until the cheese has melted into a lacy disc and is beginning to turn golden at the edges. Leave to cool for 5 minutes, then transfer to a plate lined with kitchen paper. These crisps can be made up to four days in advance and kept in an airtight container in a cool place.
2. Put the milk in a small bowl and add the anchovy fllets. Set aside for 10 minutes to make the anchovies less salty, then drain and discard the milk.
3. Crush the anchovy and garlic to a paste in a pestle and mortar. Stir in the egg yolk, gradually adding the oil as you continue to mix. Stir in the lemon juice and mustard with 2 tablespoons of water. Season generously with black pepper.
4. Put the kale leaves in a bowl and pour two-thirds of the dressing over. Using your hands or salad servers, mix the kale and dressing, being quite vigorous as this tenderises the kale. Set aside for a few minutes then toss with the herbs and the remaining pecorino and pecans. Scatter with the flowers and crumble the pecorino crisps over to finish.

BARBECUED LAMB WITH A HERBY CARROT PILAF

Food Spring Lunch

Serves 6

Butterflying a leg joint cuts the cooking time down drastically, allows the marinade to penetrate deeply and makes the joint easy to serve. The pilaf and ginger-spiked marinade gives it a North African feel.

1.5kg boned and butterflied leg of lamb (ask your butcher)
1 lemon, finely grated zest and juice
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
Thumb-sized piece of ginger, peeled and finely grated
4 large fresh fennel flower heads, roughly chopped, or 1 tsp dried fennel flowers or pollen, crushed, or 1 tsp fennel seeds, crushed, plus extra fresh fennel flowers, to serve
6 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Sea salt fakes

For the pilaf and sauce
2 tbsp olive oil
2 banana shallots or 4 standard shallots, peeled, halved and finely sliced
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp coriander seeds, lightly crushed
1 large cinnamon stick, broken
300g brown basmati and wild rice mix
2 large carrots, scrubbed and coarsely grated
850ml vegetable or chicken stock
100g flaked almonds, toasted
½ lemon, finely grated zest and juice
4 medjool dates, stoned and chopped
Large handful of mint leaves, finely chopped
Large handful fennel fronds or dill, finely chopped
2 tsp honey
100g feta, crumbled (optional)

1. Put the lamb in a non-metallic dish. Mix the lemon zest and juice garlic, ginger, fennel flowers and olive oil together in a separate bowl. Season with plenty of black pepper and a little salt. Keep half of this mixture in the bowl (cover and chill) and spread the remainder over both sides of the lamb and leave to marinate at room temperature for 30 minutes (or cover and chill for up to 24 hours, but bring to room temperature before cooking).
2. Pre-heat the oven to 220°C, gas mark 7. Sit a large, sturdy rack in or over a large roasting tray (to catch the lamb juices) and make sure a shelf is positioned near the top of the oven. Scatter the lamb with sea salt and lay it, skin-side up, directly on the bars of the rack. Slide into the oven and roast for 25-30 minutes, depending on thickness, until sizzling and blackened in places. Alternatively, cook on a barbecue over white- hot charcoal for 30 minutes, turning every 5 minutes or so. Remove the lamb from the oven and tent loosely with foil for 20 minutes.This should yield medium- rare lamb. For medium-well done, rest for 30 minutes before slicing.
3. Meanwhile, make the pilaf. Put the olive oil and shallots in a medium saucepan and set it over a low-medium heat. Cook gently for 5 minutes, then stir in the cumin and coriander and cook for 5 minutes more, until the shallots are beginning to turn golden. Stir in the cinnamon, rice and carrots and stir to coat in the oil. Add the stock, bring to the boil then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer, cover and cook for 20 minutes, until the liquid has evaporated. Remove from the heat and stir in the almonds, lemon zest, dates, half the mint and half the fennel fronds. Season with lemon juice, salt and pepper.
4. Fold the remaining chopped mint, fennel fronds and the honey into the reserved bowl of marinade to make a rustic herb sauce. Slice the rested lamb on a board, garnish with extra fennel flowers and take it to the table with the pilaf, the crumbled feta (if using) and the herb sauce.

APRICOT, PISTACHIO AND ROSE GATEAU

Food Spring Lunch

Serves 8-10

This light and floral gateau celebrates distinctive Middle Eastern flavours. The subtle perfume of rose adds a hint of exoticism, but don’t be tempted to overdo do it as it will overpower the honey-like apricots and pistachios.

For the apricots
6 ripe apricots, halved and stones removed
1 vanilla pod, split
120g golden caster sugar
2 tbsp lemon juice
½ tsp rosewater

For the cake
310g very soft unsalted butter, plus extra to grease the tin
100g shelled unsalted pistachios
300g golden caster sugar
6 medium eggs
210g plain four
2 tsp baking powder
1 lemon, finely grated zest and 1 tbsp juice
4 tbsp milk

For the icing
250ml double cream
250g Greek yoghurt
1-1½ tsp rosewater, to taste
2 tbsp icing sugar
3 tbsp nibbed or chopped pistachios, to decorate
A large handful unsprayed rose

1. Put the apricot halves in a saucepan and scrape in the vanilla seeds, also adding the pod itself, sugar and 150ml water. Bring to a simmer over a medium heat until the sugar has dissolved, then reduce the heat to low for 5-10 minutes, poaching the apricots until they are soft, but still holding their shape. Add the lemon juice and rosewater and set aside to cool, then peel the skin from the apricot halves and discard.
2. Pre-heat the oven to 180°C, gas mark 4. Grease the base and sides of two 18cm cake tins with a little butter and line the bases with baking parchment. Put the pistachios in the small bowl of a food processor with 15g (1 tablespoon) of the caster sugar and pulse blitz until quite finely ground.
3. Using an electric whisk, beat the butter and caster sugar together until very light and fuffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating thoroughly between each
addition. Should the batter curdle, stir in a spoonful of the four between the egg additions. Sift the remaining four and baking powder over and fold in with the blitzed pistachios. Add the lemon zest and juice and the milk, then gently fold the mixture together. Divide the cake mixture between the tins and level the tops. Bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour until golden and risen. If the tops start to brown too quickly, cover the cakes loosely with a double layer of foil.
4. Drain the apricots and transfer the syrup to a jug. Douse each of the freshly cooked cakes with 2-3 tablespoons of the poaching syrup (any remaining syrup makes a great addition to cocktails) and leave to cool in the tins for 20 minutes. Carefully turn the cakes out on to a wire rack and leave to cool completely. Once they are cool, slice each one in half horizontally.
5. Whip the cream, yoghurt, 1 teaspoon of rosewater and icing sugar together very briefy until thick and smooth – be careful not to over-whip, you only want to combine them. Taste and add up to an extra half a teaspoon of rosewater, if you like. Place one cake top upside down on a serving plate so that the cut side faces up. Tuck four strips of baking paper round the very edge of the cake (so that they can be easily removed) to keep the plate clean while you decorate. Spread the cut side of the cake with a couple of tablespoons of the yoghurt and cream mixture, going right to the edges. Put four apricot halves on top; they should be soft enough to “spread out” into an apricot layer. Lay the corresponding cake base on top, cut-side down and repeat the yoghurt cream and apricot toppings. Now lay the remaining cake top on this, cut-side up, add another layer of yoghurt mix and the last of the apricots and cover with the last cake base, cut-side down (so that the top is a clean, flat surface).
6. Now spread the remaining yoghurt cream on top of the cake and bring over the sides with a palette knife, swooping round so that the icing is partly “scraped” to reveal the surface of the cake for a rustic look. Carefully remove the pieces of paper, then scatter with the nibbed or chopped pistachios and the rose petals to finish.

EARLY SUMMER BERRY AND ROAST RHUBARB COMPOTE WITH A MUSCAT AND ORANGE BLOSSOM SYLLABUB

Food Spring Lunch

Serves 6

The first summer berries don’t need any real cooking, but a quick warm-through with roast rhubarb and orange juice will really bring out their favour. Add an exquisite, dainty syllabub of sweet wine and a hint of orange blossom to balance the fruit. The orange shortbread accompaniment makes this dessert a cut above, but any delicate, buttery biscuit will do, bought or homemade.

For the orange shortbread
115g unsalted butter
55g golden caster sugar, plus 2 tbsp extra, for dredging
150g white spelt four, sifted
2 tbsp cornfour, sifted
Zest of half an orange

For the roast rhubarb and berry compote
400g rhubarb, trimmed and sliced into 4cm lengths
1 orange, finely grated zest and 2 tbsp juice
75g caster sugar
300g early summer berries, such as raspberries, blueberries and strawberries, hulled if necessary

For the syllabub
300ml double cream
2 tsp orange flower water, plus extra to taste
Juice of half an orange 150ml muscat wine
3 tbsp icing sugar, sifted

1. Start by making the biscuits. Pre-heat the oven to 170°C, gas mark 3. Use an electric whisk or a wooden spoon to cream the butter and sugar together until soft and light. Gradually beat in the sifted fours and orange zest until just combined.
2. Tip the mixture on to a lightly foured pastry board and gently roll out to a thickness of about 1cm. Stamp out 6cm circles with a biscuit cutter (re-roll any scraps and stamp out more biscuits), space out on a lined large baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes, until just starting to colour at the edges. Dredge in caster sugar and allow to cool for 5 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely. Keep the shortbreads in an airtight container for up to 3 days, or wrap up well and freeze for up to 3 months if you don’t want to eat them straightaway.
3. To make the compote, pre-heat the oven to 180°C, gas mark 4. Toss the rhubarb, orange zest and juice and sugar together and spread out in a medium-sized baking dish. Cover with foil and roast for 10 minutes. Add the berries, stirring them in carefully, re-cover and return to the oven for 5 minutes or so, until the rhubarb is just tender and the berries are beginning to release their juice. Set aside to cool.
4. To make the syllabub, whisk the cream, orange fower water, orange juice, muscat and icing sugar together briefy, until the mixture forms soft peaks. Taste and stir a little more orange fower water in if you prefer a stronger favour. Divide the syllabub between bowls and serve with the compote and the shortbread biscuits.

LILAC FLOWER SODAS

Food Spring Lunch

Makes about 10 drinks

This features a delicate and delicious syrup made with fresh lilac blossom and blueberries (the berries give the syrup’s subtle purple hue a little more oomph). Whether you add a splash of vodka to each glass is up to you.

For the syrup
200g caster sugar
Cupful lilac blossoms, plus extra to serve
150g blueberries

For each cocktail
Crushed ice, enough to fill each serving glass
25ml lilac syrup (above)
25ml vodka, optional
Soda water, to top up
Squeeze of lime juice
2 lime wedges

1. Start with the lilac syrup. Put the sugar and 200ml water in a saucepan. Warm through gently until the sugar dissolves then bring to the boil and simmer for a minute. Add the fowers and 100g of the blueberries, reduce the heat and simmer gently for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and cool for 10 minutes. Strain through a fne sieve. Cool the syrup completely, then cover and chill for up to 5 days.
2. Fill as many serving glasses as needed with crushed ice. Add a 25ml measure of syrup (and an optional 25ml of vodka), diluting the syrup to the ratio one part to four with soda water. Add a good squeeze of lime juice, a couple of lime wedges, a sprig of lilac and a few extra blueberries to each glass before serving.

Food Spring Lunch

Photography/ Emma Lee
Styling/ Karen Akhtar

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