Our parents and grandparents would never have questioned that the food they ate was ‘seasonal’. For them, seeing strawberries in December or buying Caribbean bananas as easily as English watercress would have seemed unbelievable. Now, it’s locally grown food that ripens naturally and is harvested at its peak that’s seen as special.
Our home-grown produce is available for only a few weeks, so let’s enjoy tender lamb, iron-rich spinach and delicate asparagus while we can. Not only does food grown and eaten in season taste better, it also tends to be fresher, so retains more of its nutritional value. And because there’s more of it and it hasn’t travelled hundreds of air miles to reach us, it’s cheaper, too.
Small and tender lamb chops are easy to cook and delicious served with new potatoes, sweet carrots or a big bowl of steamed greens. I put spinach, peas, runner beans, French beans and purple sprouting broccoli into a large bowl, drizzle over extra virgin olive oil, add plenty of freshly ground black pepper and very finely chopped mint, squeeze on fresh lemon juice to bring out the flavours, and mix together. You can serve the vegetables immediately, or have them cold as a salad, with added rocket and sliced deep red tomatoes. Or you could give your meal a North African theme by serving the chops with couscous flavoured with lots of chopped herbs, such as parsley, coriander and mint.
Nutritionally, lamb is a great source of protein, which our body needs to build and repair tissues, organs and cells. Lamb also has a good balance of essential amino acids and it's rich in iron, which is needed for healthy blood. It’s also high in zinc, which is important for many functions, including growth, sperm production, our sense of taste and smell, maintaining a strong immune system and wound healing.
Lamb contains fat (which can increase levels of ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol in our blood and raise risk of heart disease), however that shouldn’t be a problem if it's eaten as part of a balanced diet. Whether you’re buying chops or a leg of lamb, choose the leanest meat with firm, creamy-white fat, which shows the meat is young and fresh. Grill chops so excess fat runs off, or if you’re cooking a leg of lamb, drain the juices from the bottom of the pan and allow to cool. Then you can remove the excess fat before using the juices to make gravy.
I love to eat poached rhubarb with yoghurt and granola for breakfast, or as a pudding with custard. Forced rhubarb (which is when the plants are grown under covers to encourage the stalks to come up early) is available from January, but the majority of rhubarb hits the shops in springtime. Rhubarb is high in fibre (so it’s great to keep the gut moving), immunity-boosting vitamin C, folate, which is essential for cell division, and beta carotene, which studies suggest slows cognitive decline and boosts lung health in older people.
Small, creamy and flaky new potatoes are a firm favourite at this time of year – and Jersey Royal new potatoes are the cream of the crop (it’s the island’s unique growing conditions that bring so much flavour to these humble spuds). If you can, buy new potatoes unwashed, as the soil seems to help preserve them better. Store them in a dark place and eat within two days of bringing them home. To cook, simply scrub them well and steam or boil in their skins until tender. I love to eat them with homemade mayonnaise in a potato salad
, or simply add a knob of butter and a sprinkling of fresh herbs – mint, chives and parsley all work well. New potatoes are high in fibre and vitamin C, and the carbohydrate they contain is a great source of energy.
Vitamin and antioxidant-packed spinach is available all year round but I think it tastes best now, when the leaves are small and tender and the mineral flavour isn’t too overpowering. This is one vegetable that you can’t have too much of – the leaves wilt down a huge amount when cooked, so buy a big bag and keep it in the fridge, ready to throw into a green juice or smoothie, a salad or sandwich instead of lettuce, or as a side dish (I love it with fresh fish). Wash before cooking and steam it in the water clinging to the leaves. I also love it sautéed in a little coconut oil with fresh red chillies and spring onions.
Although it’s known for being rich in iron, spinach contains a natural chemical called oxalic acid that binds with the iron and makes it harder for the body to absorb. Cooking spinach can help to release some of the iron, and a squeeze of lemon juice over the top will help to increase absorption (it’s the vitamin C that increases uptake of this non-haem iron; that is, iron from a non-meat source). Spinach also contains calcium, fibre and folic acid.
Catch-it-while-you-can asparagus is spring’s seasonal star. It begins to perish soon after picking so buy it as fresh as you can and eat it quickly (you can store it in the fridge, wrapped in a damp paper towel for a day or two). Boil or steam until just tender, around three to five minutes. Or roast the stalks in the oven with a drizzle of olive oil, then serve with crumbled feta and torn mint leaves. Any woody ends of stems can be used to create a richly flavoured soup, simmered with just some vegetable stock and diced carrot, onion and potato, then blended until smooth.
Asparagus punches above its weight nutritionally, too. It’s rich in folate, which helps in the production of red blood cells that carry oxygen to our muscles. It’s high in saponins, compounds that reduce production of inflammatory chemicals called cytokines that can cause a flare up of symptoms for arthritis or inflammatory bowel disease. It contains heart-friendly quercetin, which can reduce the build-up of fatty deposits in blood vessels. And finally, it’s one of the best sources of glutathione, a powerful antioxidant that studies show may help protect against ageing, free radical damage and the growth of cancer cells.
The bright, firm flesh of wild sea trout is a world away from pale and pasty farmed trout. It’s available from April to September but although it is stocked in some supermarkets, you’re more likely to find it at a fishmonger's or farmers’ market. Look for fish with bright eyes, red gills and a sheen to the skin, and ask the person behind the counter to gut, clean and scale it for you. Sea trout is delicious poached in stock or baked in the oven, or wrapped in a foil or paper parcel with herbs, a drizzle of oil and thinly sliced vegetables. It’s a good source of omega 3 fatty acids, with are linked to a reduced risk of heart disease and some cancers. A diet rich in omega 3 fatty acids can help reduce inflammation and alleviate arthritic pain.