Don't be surprised if your supermarket bill is frighteningly higher than usual this month – and next. This late winter-early spring period has traditionally been a lean time when it comes to finding food, which is why fresh produce reaches premium prices in the supermarket. Your own garden greens will have withered under the stress of cold temperatures, and your stores of potatoes, yams, kumara, pumpkins, and onions will be all but gone. It's no accident that, for northern hemisphere medieval peasants, this hungry time of year coincided with Lent, the pre-Easter month of fasting when going without food could at least be seen to be virtuous!
Wise gardeners who have planned for exactly this dearth will have at least a little produce to tide themselves over – a few heads of silver beet and celery in a tunnel house or outside under a cloche, some healthy kale still holding its own in the garden, a late planting of leeks fattening up before running to seed, perhaps even a spring cabbage ready to heart up at the first hint of warmer weather.
But even if you haven't planned that far ahead, all is not lost for, by careful salvaging from your own garden, and a little sleuthing for wild fare, you will still be able to salvage enough to toss into a salad along with cheaper ingredients such as carrots or cabbage, or to stew up with some other tasty ingredients. The secret is knowing what to look for and where to find it.
Pay attention to the heads of Brussels sprouts which, at this time of year, are beginning to send out new growth which can be snipped off and finely sliced into salads. Similarly, any cabbages which have been cut off at the base but which still have a stalk in the ground, will be sprouting new growth that can be as tender as a cabbage heart itself. Even before you are thinking of sowing new-season broad beans, seeds which you have missed harvesting in late summer and which have dropped to the ground during winter, will now be growing bright new edible leaves. Lettuces, mizuna, and chicory which have wintered over may appear shrivelled and slimy but clean off a few outer layers and, underneath that decay, is a tender heart or a handful of fresh leaves that can be harvested. Rocket, which seeds almost everywhere will also be growing of its own accord around the garden where you least expect to find it, along with giant mustard, sorrel, and a shallot or two that was not spotted at harvest time. The leaves of winter's daikon radish delicious raw or stir-fried.
This is the season when herbs such as chives, Chinese leeks, and oregano all begin to come through the ground or develop tiny new leaves. These flavour boosters, carefully collected, will continue growing long after you have helped yourself to a little serving so do not be afraid to snip them.
When you have exhausted the garden for signs of life, turn your attention to the lawn where dandelions are making a comeback after the long winter. In Mediterranean countries these 'weeds' are treated as delicacies (their fame has now spread to the extent that Kings Seeds actually offers dandelions as a garden seed). Boiled in plenty of water to remove their bitterness, then doused in olive oil, lemon juice, and cracked black pepper, wild dandelions are delicious served with crusty bread. Watch out also for puha (sow thistle) growing among other weeds. Along with dandelion, puha chopped fresh into a bowl of feta cheese with a few leaves of leek, and a beaten egg, make for a delicious filo pastry pie. As spring marches on, keep an eye out for berries ripening on native fuschia trees, and your meal will be complete.
At this difficult time of year, steer clear of the supermarket shelves of fresh produce where you can, and gather instead from the wild and from your own garden. Such spaces are unlikely to let you down.
Warning: eat food collected from the wild only if you can thoroughly identify it.