Pick Of The Crop: Spring

Munch your way to a PB with our quick and easy guide to making the most of Britain's best spring produce


Posted: 12 March 2009
by Alice Palmer

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There are many reasons to eat seasonal and local food, from the environmental benefits of reducing the miles your food has travelled, to the simple fact that it is often cheaper to buy local food. It could even have an impact on your running.

Most runners understand the benefits of a healthy, balanced diet, and fresh, seasonal food can play a big part in making sure your diet is made up of the freshest and most nutritious food available.

Spring is the perfect time to start eating seasonally, with Britain's countryside kicking back into action after the long winter to produce a feast of tasty and tender young vegetables. As the days get longer and the weather gets milder the first fruits of the season, such as rhubarb, will be finding their way to market.

Spinach

Spinach is available frozen and fresh all year round, but for the tenderest spinach leaves, head to the shops in April and May.

Why? Where to start?! It was Popeye's favourite for its iron content, but spinach has countless other strengths. It's packed with a mind-boggling list of goodies - vitamins K, A, C, B2, B6 and E, plus antioxidants, calcium, dietary fibre, protein and Omega-3 fatty acids.

This treasure trove of nutrients works hard for runners, promoting strong bones and protecting against heart disease and arthritis, among other diseases.

Cook: Spinach is supremely versatile and found in food from all over the world. It takes centre stage in a huge range of pasta sauces, curries and mezze dishes, but it's just as tasty in salads or simply steamed for a flavour-packed side dish.

Try this: When making curry sauces, whizz 500g wilted spinach in a food processor before adding to the simmering sauce. The spinach will add a rich flavour and texture that'll even let you substitute natural yoghurt for the artery-clogging cream and ghee found in many Indian curries. 

Buy: Spinach can be bought in all good greengrocers and supermarkets, and it often comes pre-packed in plastic bags. The large bags may look like more spinach than even the healthiest runner could put away, but spinach rapidly shrinks to a tiny proportion of its size once cooked. Avoid spinach leaves that look broken, limp, discoloured or slimy. Try to pick smaller, young leaves, as older spinach can be tough.

Garlic and wild garlic

Wild garlic is a catch-all name for a number of plants in the allium family, which also includes onions and leeks. Its heady scent returns to most parts of the UK in the spring, with especially fertile foraging to be found across southern England from Cornwall to Essex. The leaves come out of the ground in spring, and a few days after that would be an ideal time of the year to go picking garlic.

Why? A staple of the famous 'Mediterranean diet', studies have shown that garlic can help prevent maladies ranging from high blood pressure and cholesterol to diabetes, impotence and even cancer. Avoid time away from your trainers by including garlic in your diet - research also suggests that people who eat plenty of garlic brush off coughs and colds better than those who don't.

Cook: Use wild garlic in a meal by adding the leaves towards the end of cooking for a fragrant and subtle garlic flavour. Halfway between garlic and a salad leaf, wild garlic is also an interesting addition to salads, sandwiches and stir-fries. In soups, stews and casseroles, omit garlic cloves from the early stages of cooking and stir in some leaves at the end instead.

Buy: Garlic can be found in almost all food shops, while obtaining wild garlic is a bit more of an adventure. If you can't track it down at farmers' markets, go foraging. Wild garlic is identifiable by its large flat leaves and white flowers, and tends to grow in woods near or among bluebells. City-dwellers can even cultivate their own supply of this hardy, fast-growing plant in a window-box or small pot.

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Rhubarb

Tender forced rhubarb (grown in the dark and a speciality of the "rhubarb triangle" area of West Yorkshire) comes into season in January. Outdoor, field-grown rhubarb comes into its own later, around April. It's less tender, but full of that unique strong rhubarb flavour.

Why? Rhubarb is excellent running fodder. It's rich in calcium, a crucial mineral for bone formation, muscle growth and contraction. The impact of running increases bone mass and boosts calcium absorption, so it's especially important for runners to get lots of calcium in their diet. Rhubarb is also packed with vitamin C, which builds connective tissue and helps in the formation of adrenaline and red blood cells.

Cook: Rhubarb's unusual taste perks up puddings from sponges to crumbles, as well as plain yoghurt and breakfast porridge. Rhubarb's sharpness also makes it a quirky addition to meat and oily fish – it goes especially well with the richness of duck.

Try this: Granola with stewed rhubarb and yoghurt. Wash a couple of rhubarb stems and then slice them into small pieces. Put the rhubarb in a pan with a little water and simmer until the rhubarb is soft and the liquid thickened. Add sugar to taste. Layer with natural yoghurt and granola – or stir into porridge – for a healthy and filling breakfast. You can make up the stewed rhubarb whenever you have time – it should keep for a couple of days in the fridge, ready to be added to breakfasts and puddings.

Buy: Yorkshire's forced rhubarb crop appears at markets and greengrocers from late December to late March, when it trades places with field-grown rhubarb, which is more widely available in supermarkets. Go for firm, plump stalks with a deep pink colour outside, and completely white inside. The (inedible) leaves should be neat, and a bright, pale green-yellow colour.

Carrots

The British munch their way through a staggering 700,000 tonnes of carrots a year. They are grown year-round, all over the country, with straw-grown carrots from Nottinghamshire and Scotland hitting shops during the spring months. Often in store within 24 hours of harvest, British carrots are some of the freshest produce on sale.

Why? Carrots are a nutritionist's dream. These humble orange veggies are high in fibre and brimming with beta-carotene, which can help prevent muscle soreness, as well as being a source of antioxidant vitamin A. And, while a few carrots won't quite allow you to run through the night, beta- carotene has been shown to boost vision. On top of all this, you can munch away to your heart's content as carrots are naturally low in calories, fat, saturates and salt.

Cook: For a healthy approach to mid-afternoon munchies, try raw carrot sticks on their own or dunked into dips. Carrots are a bright addition to salads as well as a great side dish, steamed or boiled gently and pepped up with a little orange zest. Or why not glaze with honey and roast along with other temptingly sweet root vegetables such as parsnips and sweet potatoes for a satisfying Sunday lunch alternative to calorie-laden roast potatoes.

Buy: Go for bright and firm carrots, and pick smaller ones for a more sweet and tender flavour. Avoid dented, bruised or broken carrots. For more information, visit www.britishcarrots.co.uk.

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Leeks

British leeks are available nearly year-round, but the season peaks in spring and autumn; leeks are actually at their best during the colder months.

Why? Part of the allium family, along with garlic and onions, leeks contain a range of nutrients and antioxidants, including an antioxidant called querticin, which is especially effective at fighting off bacteria.

Cook: A versatile vegetable, leeks are perfect for adding to soups, stews and casseroles for an easy health kick. Baby leeks can also be steamed or griddled whole for an attractive side dish.

Try this: A warming leek soup is the perfect healthy meal – just grab a selection of seasonal veg for a fresh and cheap lunch option that's easy to prepare ahead. You can whip up a batch of soup in less than half an hour, and could even make extra to reheat.

Buy: British leeks are easy to find, stocked in greengrocers, markets and supermarkets across the country. Most supermarkets label the country of origin of fresh food, and some now even specify the county and grower. For the pick of the bunch, look for tender small to medium leeks. Pick firm, straight leeks with dark green leaves and white necks, and avoid yellow, wilted or bruised leeks. For more information, visit www.british-leeks.co.uk.

Lemon sole

When? Lemon sole can be found throughout northern European waters. Fishing of sole is largely unregulated though, so go for fish from the North Sea or Cornwall where fishing restrictions make sole a sustainable option. Steer clear altogether over the summer, when this fish is spawning.

Why? It's often known as the poorer relation to Dover sole, but overlook this flat white fish at your peril. A thrifty choice, lemon sole is just as nutritious as other white fish, but cheaper than most.
Fish is an extremely healthy option and a great source of lean protein, essential for muscle repair and regrowth after exercise.

The Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish will also improve your running performance by enhancing oxygen delivery and energy levels, as well as having an anti-inflammatory effect on any strains or niggles you pick up. And on top of that, studies have shown that eating fish twice a week can cut the risk of death from heart disease by a third.

Cook: Lemon sole can be substituted for most recipes featuring white fish such as cod, whiting or plaice. It also works really well with healthy cooking methods and is delicious grilled, steamed or baked whole.

Try this: Rub boned lemon sole fillets with half a garlic clove, some olive oil and lemon juice, before grilling for a few minutes on each side, until just done. Serve with boiled or sautéed new potatoes and a spinach and cherry tomato salad. Perfect for a quick weeknight supper or simple weekend lunch.

Buy: Lemon sole will be available in most large supermarkets, but make sure you check the label for its place of origin – Cornish sole ticks all the boxes for sustainability and low food miles. When shopping for lemon sole, look for firm, bright pieces of fish, which don't look dull or smell too 'fishy'. The texture isn't as dense as Dover sole, so you may come across a few bones.


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