Written for Edible Santa Barbara - Spring 2016

Late last winter I found myself on a plane headed for the mountains in Idaho. The season had come to an end early due to a dearth of snow – good thing too lest I be tempted to go and play in the white stuff – I was there to work, so the fewer distractions the better. Some 700 aeronautical miles separated Santa Barbara from my final destination, and I was struck, as I looked down on the landscape 30,000 feet below, at how monochromatic everything looked. Close to 700 miles of a bland khaki-gray, drab-colored patchwork of fields, farms, and desert. It was bleak, as though someone had sucked the color out of the earth. It looked and felt parched. Indeed it was, and as we all know had been for far too many months.

The landscape also reminded me of the cold, damp British winters I had slogged through as a child, where everyone longed for a sunny day, some warmth and a sign of the end of the endless grey weather with omnipresent clouds weighting down the ever-paling population.

I walked daily in the cold mountains, looking at the dormant landscape, imagining the transformation that would hopefully take place as spring arrived. Like my fellow Londoners who emerged from their winter chrysalis on the first warm day of spring, rushing to the parks to expose their insipid-looking bodies to the sun’s rays; so too, did the earth transform itself with the arrival of more temperate weather. Flower buds emerged, daffodils danced in the breeze trumpeting the new season, long dormant grasses grew, blossoms bloomed and the earth came alive.

Back on the central coast, the arrival of even a little rain set this metamorphosis into action. Tiny bright green shoots emerged from the hillsides, colorful flowers popped up along the roadside and the trees and the soil felt invigorated. Looking down from my bedroom window I watched as the apricot tree in my garden exploded with white-pink powder puff blossoms as though a winter storm had delicately placed snowflakes upon its branches. This was a harbinger of great gustatory things to come.

I am, by nature, a creature of habit. Most Saturday’s will find me slowly meandering through the farmers market’s aisles, chatting with friends, sampling fruits and vegetables and talking with farmers about their latest harvest. The market is a microcosm of the season and a reflection of nature’s cycles. It is one of my greatest pleasures, one that I savor and the source of many a culinary inspiration. If there is a time of year  at the market that I enjoy the most it has to be in springtime; finding the first cherries, relishing the idea of a rhubarb crumble, anticipating the short but sweet apricot season, delving into a plethora of peas, fava beans, pea sprouts, freshly picked asparagus, green garlic and discovering some hidden gem. This season unleashes a mad frenzy in my kitchen, making jams and preserves, testing recipes, savoring an apricot clafoutis, an apricot tart, a tagine filled with meyer lemons and almonds, roasted cherries, fava bean salads, chanterelle crostini if we’re lucky enough to find them. I always feel as though the earth has woken up and decided to shower us with a multitude of delicacies, each one fresh, invigorating and tempting.

If a color could illustrate a season, then spring is bright green, the luminescent green of the inner part of a fava bean, the fresh green of just shelled English peas or the vibrant green, tinged with purple of new asparagus. Is there anything better than filling your market basket with these eye-popping vegetables, then coming home, preparing them, cooking them, drizzled with a fruity olive oil, some fresh herbs and a pinch of coarse sea salt?

During the colder months of the year, I hunger for these revitalizing vegetables with their crisp, herbaceous flavors and have a tendency to go a little overboard when they first arrive, a type of visceral spring fever that propagates salad upon salad and dish upon dish which in turn calls for impromptu meals with friends, the first al fresco lunch, or a picnic in the back country. Can walking through the farmers market generate all of this? Absolutely!

Cherry, Pea and Fava Bean Salad
(excerpt from Salade: Recipes from the Market Table)

The fava bean and cherry seasons overlap for about four weeks, which doesn’t give you much time to make this salad. You see the cherries but not the fava beans, then the beans but not the cherries. However, when you do get both of them together, they are magical. This salad is the essence of spring.

Serves 8 people

Olive oil
4 shallots — peeled and sliced
1/2 lb English peas — shelled 
1/2 lb snap peas — sliced on a bias
1 lb fava beans — shelled (you will need to remove the beans from the pods, and then the outer shell of the fava bean — it’s easier if you blanch them first for 2 minutes) 
Sea salt and black pepper 
1 lb cherries — pitted and halved
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
1/2 cup basil leaves
1/2 cup mint leaves

  1. Pour a little olive oil into a skillet placed over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook for 5 minutes. Add the peas, snap peas and fava beans, a pinch of salt and some pepper and cook for 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.
  2. Pour 3 tablespoons olive oil into the bottom of a salad bowl and then whisk in the lemon zest and juice, a pinch of salt and some black pepper. Place salad utensils over the vinaigrette and then add the cherries to the bowl. Place the mint and basil leaves on top of the cherries and add the cooked peas and fava beans mixture to the bowl.
  3. When you are ready to serve the salad, toss the ingredients well. You can make a different version using chives and cilantro leaves instead of the basil leaves.

Asparagus Trio Salad with Arugula and Basil
(excerpt from Salade: Recipes from the Market Table)

This is one of those dishes that was inspired by a walk through the farmers’ market. It was in the middle of asparagus season with fresh green stalks piled up everywhere. When I came across some purple asparagus, they were so beautiful to look at, I couldn’t resist them. The stalks are a deep burgundy with flashes of green peeking through. The same day, I found some white asparagus in another market. The trio of colors looked so appetizing on my kitchen counter that I decided to make a salad with all three. By a complete coincidence, I had three varieties of basil in my garden and used the small tender leaves from each in the salad. Thai basil is quite strong, so I wouldn’t use too much of it, as it may overpower the delicate flavors of the asparagus. 

Serves 8 people

Juice and zest of 1 large lemon 
5 tablespoons olive oil 
Sea salt and black pepper 
4 oz arugula
1 small bunch of each green, purple and Thai basil — leaves removed from the stems and left whole 
1/2 lb each green, white and purple asparagus — tips trimmed and left whole, the rest of the stalk cut on a bias into very thin slices
1/2 lb English peas — shelled (that is the shelled weight so you’ll need about 2 lbs with the shells on)

  1. Pour the lemon juice, 4 tablespoons of olive oil, a pinch of salt and 4–5 grinds of pepper into the bottom of a medium-sized salad bowl. Whisk together well. Place salad utensils over the top of the vinaigrette. Place the arugula and basil leaves on top of the utensils and set aside.
  2. Pour the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil into a large skillet placed over medium-high heat. Add the sliced asparagus, the asparagus tips, peas and lemon zest and sauté for 3–4 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat.
  3. Add the asparagus-pea mixture to the salad bowl. Toss all the ingredients until well combined. Divide the salad equally between the plates, The salad is lovely when the asparagus are still warm.

Roasted Cornish Hens with Apricots
(excerpt from Les Fruits: Savory and Sweet Recipes from the Market Table)

In the garden of my home stands an apricot tree. The first spring we lived here, I watched, mesmerized, as the snow white blossoms bloomed and, a few short weeks later, tiny buds formed. Warmer days brought about a blush on the fruit, yet they were not quite ready. One morning, I heard a host of birds merrily chirping away, eating a delicious breakfast of fresh apricots. I rushed outside, arms flailing, scrambling to pick the ripe fruit. I needed help! 

I made this dish to thank everyone who had descended upon the house to help with the harvest. It was quick and easy to prepare, scrumptious and satisfying, with the added bonus that it fed lots of people. We sat on the terrace as the sun set, pleased with our day’s work, glass of wine in hand, and tucked into a dish made with the fruits of our labor. My favorite kind of day!

Serves 8 people

Olive oil
4 Cornish hens — split along the breast and pressed flat
3 lemons — quartered 
12 apricots — halved and pitted
1 large bunch green onions — ends trimmed and sliced
12 shallots — peeled and halved
3 sprigs rosemary
10 sprigs lemon thyme
Salt and pepper

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Pour a little olive oil into a large roasting pan. Turn the Cornish hens in the pan so that they are coated with the oil. Rest the hens skin side up.
  3. Scatter the lemons, apricots, green onions and shallots around, under and on top of the hens. Add the rosemary and thyme sprigs and sprinkle with some salt and pepper.
  4. Roast for 1 hour. Let the cooked hens rest on a cutting board for 5 minutes before slicing in half. Serve each piece with lots of the apricots, lemons and the lovely pan juices. 

Apricot and Frangipane Tart
(excerpt from Les Fruits: Savory and Sweet Recipes from the Market Table)

This might sound odd, but when I make this tart, it makes me feel French. It’s odd because I am actually half French. The thing is, the tart is just, well, so French! If I close my eyes, I see myself sitting at a café, a piece of apricot tart before me on a small round bistro table, with an espresso on the side. A vignette of sorts. It’s a dessert that’s guaranteed to make me smile. I hope you like it as much as I do. 

Serves 8 people

For the tart shell:
9 oz (2 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour 
5 1/2 oz (11 tablespoons)butter — cut into small pieces
Zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon powdered sugar
1 large egg
Pinch of salt

For the frangipane:

4 oz (1 1/4 cups) almond meal

3 oz (1/3 cup plus
1 tablespoon) sugar

4 oz (1 cup) butter —
cut into 1-inch pieces 

1/2 teaspoon vanilla paste or pure vanilla extract

2 eggs

2 oz (1/3 cup) unbleached all-purpose flour


For the fruit:
4 lbs firm ripe apricots — halved and pitted 
2 tablespoons apricot jam

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Butter a 9 x 12-inch rectangular fluted tart pan and set aside.
  3. Place all the ingredients for the tart shell in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Pulse until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Use longer pulses until the dough forms a ball. 
  4. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate it for 20 minutes.
  5. Place the almond meal and sugar in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse to combine. Add the butter and vanilla paste and pulse again to mix. Finally, add the eggs and the flour and mix until the frangipane is smooth and homogenous. It will be quite sticky. 
  6. Place the unwrapped tart dough on a lightly floured board. Roll out the dough to a 10 x 13-inch rectangle, 1/4-inch thick. Line the buttered tart pan with the dough. Trim the edges and then prick the dough with a fork.
  7. Spread the frangipane mixture 1/4-inch over the tart base. 
  8. Starting at one end of the tart, stand the apricots upright in the frangipane. Alternate each row so that the apricots face in opposite directions. They should be tightly packed. 
  9. Bake the tart in the center of the oven for 45 minutes.
  10. Remove the tart from the oven and brush the apricots with the apricot jam. Return the tart to the oven and bake for an additional 5–10 minutes. The shell and apricots should be a golden brown. Remove and let cool to room temperature.
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