Spring brings Asparagus, Onion Weed, and Nasturtiums to the plate

Spring in Auckland has crept up and surprised me – I really didn’t see it coming.  It seems just a couple of weeks ago that the gracious Plane trees lining our streets gave us an open view to the sky.

Plane Tree archway down Picton Street, Ponsonby

Newly clothed with green they lean together to create the charming archways that are a feature of Auckland’s leafy suburbs.  The trees leafing up, longer days, and packed garden centres are clues that there is definitely a change of season.

I know spring is here when asparagus arrives.  Asparagus is the first vegetable of the new growing year.  Price wise, now is a good time to eat asparagus as there is plenty at the markets and in the shops.

Another spring time resident on our property, and most likely in yours, is often cursed by gardeners as a nuisance.  For me wild onion or onion weed is a spring onion alternative and it’s free! To harvest, use a fork (unless the ground is very soft with rain) otherwise you will fail to get the small bulbs out. Eating them is a most satisfying way to keep your wild onion weed under control.  They take a little time to wash and sort but they are really tasty.

The onion weed with its distinctive clusters of white flowers marked with fine
green lines.  You can eat all parts of this weed, the small onion bulbs,
the stems and the flowers .  Test that its not a decorative bulb by running
your hand down the stem and it will smell of onion.

Spring inspires us all to get back into salads. Here’s a way to make one bunch of asparagus go a long way.  This salad could be a satisfying lunch on its own or a wonderful side to the first barbequed sausage of the season.

My Risoni salad as photographed by my daughter Tansy with a proper camera

Risoni Asparagus Salad with Onion Weed and Nasturium Flowers

This salad because can fool you. It’s made from Risoni (pronounced ree-soh-nee) and while it could be mistaken for rice, it’s actually a type of pasta. It’s also known as risi (Italian for rice) and is sometimes referred to as orzo, although this tends to be slightly larger.  Risoni in Italy is often used in soups.

 I really like to use Risoni for  salads – because it looks like rice but has a smooth soft texture that takes up the flavours of olive oil, herbs and lemon to create a salad that is eaten with relish in our house. 

I was missing my old glass lemon squeezer so Peter found me this
wonderful kitchen tool, its a lemon squeezer, zest and fine grater all in one..
its so useful and only cost $5


One bunch of asparagus (or as much as you like)
juice of a lemon
3-4 Tbsp olive oil
3/4 Cup of Rizo pasta
a handful of walnuts chopped
Preserved lemon rind finely chopped (optional but really gives this salad a lift)
About 1/2 cup of chopped onion weed bulbs and white part of the stems
Salt and Pepper
Generous bunch of herbs chopped- whatever is available
Alternatively if you have some pesto you could add 1-2 tbsp (to taste)
Cos or any lettuce leaves

On the base of risoni build up the flavours with herbs or pesto, spring onions
or onion weed, chopped nuts (optional) and then add the lemon juice and
olive oil to taste and then add sliced up asparagus.

Cook the risoni pasta as you would any other dried pasta – with plenty of well salted water.  I use 3/4 of a cup of dried pasta and this made plenty of salad for 3.  Once cooked (don’t overcook it or it will all stick together and not free flow) pour into a sieve and run cold water through the pasta to separate.

While the risoni is cooking, also cook the asparagus.   You could oil them and simply grill them, but for this recipe, I prefer to cook them in a high sided pan in salted boiling water until “just” cooked. It only takes 1-2 minutes.

Make sure you don’t include the end woody bits.  I simply bend the asparagus holding the stalk end until it snaps.   It breaks in the place where the stems are soft.   You may think what a waste but you don’t want to chew on woody asparagus.

Take out of the hot water immediately and spread out on a tea towel to cool quickly. This will ensure the asparagus remains a good green.

You can use more parsley and herbs for this
recipe than I did here as I was restricted by the
quantity available.  Two tablespoons of parsley
per person gives you your daily vitamin K requirement.

Next chop up your herbs.  I use whatever herbs I have around – parsley, I nearly always use, and on this occasion added some fresh mint that goes really well with asparagus, a little fennel and coriander.  In the summer tarragon and basil are great additions too.

Put all the ingredients together, adding the oil and lemon juice last and to taste.  You may not need to use all your lemon or you may want more.  It’s so important to taste your salad to ensure you have a good balance of flavours.

I served this salad on a bed of mini cos lettuce that gave a crunchy contrast to the soft flavourful risoni.
I added two of my favourite edible flowers nasturium and calendula petals. Both these plants are flowering now and I find their bright colours make for a happy and tasty salad.   Nasturtiums are also called Indian Cress.  The flowers give a peppery bite to the salad.

I discovered a great blog and will try this recipe  Garden Betty’s Nasturtium Pesto
when I find enough nasturtiums.
Photo from Mens Health.co.uk that I liked.

Asparagus is a powerhouse vegetable and I discovered a great description of the health benefits of this first vegetable of spring on   UK Mens Health in an article titled “Four Reasons to Eat Asparagus”
They also have recipes and suggest using asparagus in risotto…I whole-heartedly agree.

In spring at the Otago Farmers Market in Dunedin everyone waits in anticipation for the asparagus from Palmerston.  It’s sought after because it is so fresh. There is no comparison with the asparagus you buy from shops.  Asparagus quickly deteriorates, eating its own sugars, so to taste the sweetest asparagus you need to grow it yourself, or buy directly from growers, or at a farmers market.

Peter seeking shade and smelling the pelagonians
at Auckland Botanical Gardens

It’s Labour Weekend.  Traditionally this is a time to plant your potatoes and other spring crops.   Do take some time out from work to just stop and enjoy the warmth, soft colours and birdsong of spring.

A spring salad with garden pesto

My two boys Gus and Francis both work in the food business so I must have done something right in my kitchen to inspire them.   I  have decided to write this blog for my friends who would like me to share my recipes and ideas for making the most of seasonal food.  

I have a large garden to call on to create my dishes.   I love to forage for free tasty additions to meals.  

I am inspired by:  Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall because of his connection with growing the food he cooks, Lois Daish who was into seasonal food before it became fashionable, Julie Le Clerc and Rowan Bishop who give healthy alternatives to favourites,  and our own local farmers market cook, Alison Lambert, a real food enuthusiast and who manages to create an array of dishes under difficult weather and space restrictions.

So my first shared recipe is something I whipped up for lunch….

Risoni Salad with Beetroot, Miners Lettuce and Hazelnuts.
Risoni is a pasta shaped like rice and has such a wonderful soft texture – it looks like rice but is soft like pasta and it makes a great host for a flavoursome garden pesto*.   Cook 1 cup of risoni (this will give 2 big helpings) until tender in boiling well salted water – drain and add pesto and a dash of olive oil or one of my favourites Avocado and Lime oil and season with salt and pepper.   I also added chopped olives (about 10 kalamata olives).    This is the base of the salad and you can add a number of toppings but I used miners lettuce but you can use rocket if you prefer a peppery tang.   I like the vivid green and slightly succulent texture of miners lettuce.  (once you have this in your garden you will always have it).   I grated cooked beetroot but you can use fresh beetroot.  Top with chopped and toasted hazelnuts or any nuts or seeds you want (but best you toast whatever you add).  Squeeze over a little lime or lemon juice and a splash of olive oil – and there you have a delcious lunch for a perfect spring day like today on the Otago Peninsula.

*Garden Pesto – a paste of herbs, oil and nuts that it a flavour booster to dishes that transforms  the ordinary to become a taste sensation
This is so easy to make and you dont have to only use basil.  I use whatever is growing in the garden, often using parsley as a base.  For example for this pesto I used sorrel, parsley, chervil, and rocket.   I take only the leaves of the parsley not the stalks.   Put all your chosen green herbs into a small processor or stick mixer, add a clove of garlic finely cut, an anchovy if you like to add some kick, salt and pepper, a handful of roasted nuts (I use almonds, walnuts or hazelnuts as pinenuts are so expensive) and enough olive or a mix of olive and other vegetable oils to make into a paste.  Pesto usually has parmesan cheese added but I prefer the cleaner taste of just oil and the herbs.   Lastly add lemon or lime juice to suit your taste so that it keeps its colour.   Always taste to see if it needs addition of lemon juice or salt/pepper.  Will keep in the fridge for up to a week and is a great simple quick meal when spooned through pasta with a little grated parmesan and extra oil and chilli if you like.