The Ice Saints have been and gone, and just as Josie said it would, the weather has turned warm and it is now safe to plant out the tender vegetables. The other day in the market, I counted sixteen varieties of tomato plants. I am waiting until next week to plant mine out, as my house is crammed with boxes to unpack from my move out here from England.
The broom is blooming yellow in the sun, sending out waves of scent as sweet as honey. The skies are blue, blue, blue. The grass and the weeds are growing visibly under my eyes. The fields are dotted with bright poppies, the butterflies are out, the flies and the swallows are back. The nightingales fill the valley with song, day and night, and the stalls in the market are abundant with vegetables. Each week there is more to choose from; artichokes, asparagus, broad beans, delicious strawberries and lettuces of all types.
Recently, I ate a delicious spring soup at a local restaurant, which inspired me to make my own. It is a version of Soupe au Pistou, a classic Provençal dish, similar to an Italian minestrone, usually made with beans and potatoes and fine pasta. This one is more of a broth: I have left out the potatoes, the pasta and the dried beans and I have used small artichokes, which are plentiful in the Mediterranean, and asparagus for a spring treat. You could try trimming a couple of large artichokes and chopping the heart up into smaller pieces. Watch out you don't include any choke! Both asparagus and artichokes are naturally cleansing vegetables and very good Spring tonics for the liver. The broad beans I bought in the market were small and tender. The older ones have pale, tough skins and need skinning.This recipe can be adapted to whatever is in season. You could use courgettes, fresh peas, green beans, squash and you could add some tinned cannellini or flageolet beans or potatoes for more substance. The pistou is similar to Italian pesto without the pine nuts. Fresh garlic is excellent in this.
I made a vegetable stock, using onion, carrot, celery and celeriac as a base. To this, I added clean potato peelings, spring onion trimmings, the asparagus and some of the artichoke trimmings. Leek trimmings are also good. Don't overdo the artichokes, as they can add a bitter note. The carrot and the onion add the necessary sweetness. The celeriac gives it a full flavour.
SPRING BROTH WITH PISTOU - 4 helpings
FOR THE STOCK
2 carrots, roughly chopped
I onion, quartered
1 stick of celery
Trimming from potatoes and spring onions, if you have them, or other vegetable trimmings to hand
Artichoke and asparagus trimmings
FOR THE SOUP
Asparagus - 8
Artichokes, 5 of the small ones, trimmed into quarters
Young broad beans - a couple of generous handfuls, podded
2 diced carrots
2 thinly sliced spring onions
FOR THE PISTOU
Big bunch of basil
100ml olive oil
A little grated parmesan
Cover the vegetables for the stock with about 1 1/2 litres of cold water and leave to simmer for a few hours. Add a couple of teaspoons of salt and strain.
Cut the tough ends off the asparagus and trim the artichokes - small ones if you can find them - quarter them, cut the top third off, peel of the tough outer leaves and trim away the chokes, leave attached and peel a section of the stalk. (See below)
Make the pistou: Put a good handful of basil into a blender with 100 ml of olive oil with a desertspoon of freshly grated parmesan and a pressed clove of garlic. Blitz throughly.
Add the quartered artichokes to the broth and simmer for 2 minutes.
Add the asparagus and the carrots and simmer for another 2 minutes.
Add the broad beans and the spring onions and simmer for another 2 minutes.
Season with salt and pepper.
Place the vegetables in the bowls and ladle broth on top. Serve with the pistou.