Spring's rich bounty

Serve with fish ... Fennel and anchovy gratin.
Serve with fish ... Fennel and anchovy gratin.

The change of the seasons is particularly inspiring for the chef and avid cook. Spring is here and as the weather warms, the days get longer and new harvests hit the markets. The change of available ingredients helps trigger creativity - I always look forward to cooking with globe artichokes, beetroot and broad beans, for example. Favourite recipes can be revisited and tweaked, fresh dishes appear from the imagination and there's a sense of rejuvenation.

At any time of year, choosing seasonal ingredients produced locally is important whenever possible. Vegetables are much tastier at their peak. Always choose fresh produce carefully. Fruits and vegetables should feel heavy for their size, be relatively blemish-free and bought as close to the time you plan to cook them as conveniently possible. Paying attention to these smaller details can make the difference between a good meal and a sublime experience.

Each of these recipes for side dishes has spring vegetables as its hero. Asparagus, fennel and peas in mint condition and bursting with flavour take the meal to the next level.

Asparagus stir-fry

We serve this with steak but asparagus is a great garnish for chicken, pork, fish or on its own with rice or noodles.

2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 large knob ginger, peeled and finely sliced or grated
2 long red chillies, sliced
4 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
1/2 medium Spanish onion, sliced
20 asparagus spears, stalks snapped off
1 tbsp kecap manis
2 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp honey
1/3 cup chicken stock

Heat vegetable oil in a wok on high until shimmering. Add ginger, chilli, garlic and onion and toss for a minute or two. Add asparagus, toss then add remaining ingredients. Bring to the boil and stir until asparagus is just cooked and sauce has reduced to a glaze.

Serves 4 as a side

Fennel and anchovy gratin

You can cook this gratin in a large oven-proof dish and place on the table as a ''serve yourself'' side. A rocket salad and boiled potatoes make good additions.

50g butter
2 medium brown onions, finely sliced
4 garlic cloves, sliced
6 sprigs lemon thyme
Salt and pepper
1 large fennel bulb, trimmed and finely sliced
300ml chicken stock
60g bread crumbs
45g anchovies, chopped

Pre-heat oven to 180C. Melt butter in saucepan and add onion, garlic and thyme. Season and cook until soft. Remove thyme stalks. Add fennel to onions and stir to combine. Place in four oven-proof gratin dishes. Pour over chicken stock. Mix bread crumbs with anchovies in a small bowl and spread on top of fennel. Bake for 30 minutes to 40 minutes or until breadcrumbs are crisp and golden and fennel is soft. Serve with fish.

The crisp, salty bacon is the perfect contrast for the sweet and creamy pea custard.

150ml milk
10 large fresh sage leaves, torn
2 garlic cloves, peeled and flattened
200g fresh peas
375ml cream
Salt and pepper
4 eggs
4 jumbo quail, cut in half
4 rashers bacon, trimmed and sliced
1/2 cup walnuts, roughly chopped

Pre-heat oven to 160C. Grease eight large friand moulds well. Place milk, sage and garlic in a saucepan. Bring to the boil, remove from heat and cover with a lid. Stand for 10 minutes. Place peas in a cylindrical container suitable for a stick blender. Bring cream to the boil and simmer for two minutes to reduce slightly. Pour over peas with strained milk and blend with a stick blender until smooth. Season well with salt and pepper. Pass through a coarse strainer.

Lightly beat eggs and add to cream mixture. Re-strain and pour into moulds. Place in a baking tray and fill the tray with warm water to two-thirds up the sides. Bake for 20-30 minutes or until just set. Allow to stand for 10 minutes before carefully turning out. Grill or pan-fry quail on both sides for four to five minutes, keep warm. Fry bacon in a non-stick pan until crispy. Add walnuts and toss to warm through. Serve quail with custards and garnish with bacon and walnuts.

Serves 8 as an entree

This story Spring's rich bounty first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.