Wild garlic leaves make a sauce – with olive oil, basil, parmesan and pine nuts – that is more delicate and interesting than the usual pesto. It lacks the bitter heat you can sometimes get when using cloves of garlic, and the colour is simply ravishing – a deep, shining emerald. I like to toast the pine nuts over a low heat – which I wouldn’t do for my usual pesto – and add a shot of lemon juice. During April and May this is the sauce I make for gnocchi, asparagus and so much more.
The sauce – thick, creamy and coarse with ground nuts and cheese – lasts in good colour for several days in the fridge, though you would do best to cover it, to halt its habit of pervading everything within reach. The verdant paste will sit happily while you decide whether to spread it on to hot toast and cover it with mozzarella (flash it under the grill until the cheese oozes) or add spoonfuls of it to baking peppers or tomatoes.
I made mine this week simply to thicken and enrich a spring vegetable stew of beans and peas. With pencil-thin leeks, flageolet and broad beans, a deep bowlful was sufficient, though I noticed allcomers went in for more.
You need to be quick to catch the garlic before it disappears, but you can use rocket leaves instead or double up on the basil. Use big, pungently spicy basil leaves if you can find them. I introduce the merest pinch of caster sugar when using rocket, and make sure my leaves are small and not too bitter before starting to mash them.
You can make this sauce in minutes in a food processor, but I am an old-fashioned cook sometimes, and love, absolutely love, pounding and grinding the leaves to a paste with a pestle and mortar. The scent – peppery, lightly garlicky, then almost clove-like when you introduce the basil leaves – is reward enough for all that elbow work. Despite the lush ingredients (none of them are cheap) there is something basic, utterly timeless, about using a pestle and mortar for something you know you could do quicker in a processor. Handmade, the colour of plaster, stained from ground turmeric and black peppercorns, it is itself a thing of beauty. And all the more so for a vivid streak of wild garlic.
Wild garlic and basil sauce
Makes a 500g tub
wild garlic leaves 100g
pine kernels 50g
olive oil 150ml
lemon juice a shot
Tear or roughly chop the garlic leaves and stems, then put them in a mortar. Add a pinch of sea salt – it helps the pestle grip the leaves – then pound and stir until you have a dark green paste. Expect this to take a while, and you might like to do it in two batches. Alternatively, grind the leaves to a paste in a food processor.
Add the basil and keep pounding and twisting the leaves to a paste. Grate the parmesan finely. Put the pine kernels in a dry frying pan and leave over a moderate heat until pale gold. Watch them carefully (they burn in a heartbeat), then add them to the paste, smashing them against the sides of the mortar with your pestle, then mash them with the parmesan and garlic leaves. Add a dash of lemon juice.
Add the oil in a slow stream, working the mixture to a thick, luscious cream then set aside or refrigerate – you will need to cover it tightly – until needed.
A little stew of flageolet, broad beans and peas
broad beans in the pod 500g (200g podded weight)
leeks 200g, small
spring onions 200g
courgettes 200g, small
flageolet beans 1 x 400g
vegetable stock 1 litre
peas 200g, podded weight
parsley a handful
wild garlic and basil sauce from recipe above
Remove the broad beans from their pods. You will need about 200g.
Bring a deep pan of water to the boil, salt it lightly, then add the beans and boil for 4 or 5 minutes. Check them for tenderness, then drain them in a colander. If they are small and tender, you might like to leave them in their pale skins; if they are larger, then I suggest popping them out of their skins with your thumb and finger – it will only take a few minutes. Set the beans aside.
Slice the leeks into thick coins and wash them very thoroughly in a bowl of deep, cold water. (Grit has a tendency to get trapped between the layers.) Thinly slice the spring onions.
Heat a couple of tbsp of olive oil in a deep, wide pan, then add the leeks and spring onions. Place a piece of baking parchment over them – it will encourage them to soften in their own steam, without losing colour – and then cover with a lid.
Let the leeks and onions cook for about 15 minutes, until soft and pale. (Young, thin leeks won’t take long at all.)
Cut the courgettes into small pieces. (You can dice them, but I also like to cut them in half lengthways, then in half again and then into thick slices.)
When the leeks and spring onions are soft and still bright green, remove the greaseproof paper, add the courgettes and continue cooking. Drain and rinse the flageolet beans (you don’t want the aquafaba in this recipe), then add them to the pan, together with the vegetable stock, and then, as it comes to the boil, the peas. Turn down to a simmer and leave for 5 minutes, till the peas are cooked.
Make the wild garlic and basil sauce (as above). Roughly chop the parsley and stir into the soup. Ladle the soup into bowls then stir a good tbsp or two of the garlic sauce into each bowl.
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