The darkest root

Carrot harvest

I usually grow at least one whole bed of root vegetables at the allotment. Carrots, parsnips and beetroot are my staples, but I have toyed with swedes, celeriac and turnips, although with limited success, so always return to the first three. Carrots haven’t always been good on the heavy local clay, but a fellow plotholder who always has superb rows of huge carrots suggested incorporating some sand in the soil and that appears to have made all the difference! This year’s carrot crop is a great improvement and I’m actually in a position to store some for the winter. Even the slugs have steered clear this season: whether they’re averse to the gritty sand on their slimy skins or have been attracted elsewhere, I’m not sure – but I’m certainly not complaining! Even the dreaded carrot root fly haven’t made an appearance this year. Admittedly, some of the carrots were the resistant Flyaway variety, but by no means all. Homegrown carrots have such a superb taste, it’s so satisfying when they do well.

Parsnips usually do extremely well for me, but this year I’ve had a complete crop failure. They take so long to germinate, that by the time you realise they haven’t appeared, it’s often too late to do anything about it. I used fresh seed, so have no idea what went wrong this time. It happens….

Beetroot on the other hand, always do well – and this year was no exception. I love beetroot simply roasted individually, wrapped in foil, in a hot oven at 200°C / 400°F / Gas 6, then served warm or cold with a salad. I often cook a batch, sprinkle with balsamic vinegar, and store in the fridge for a good week or so. Recently, I was inspired to find a recipe for beetroot risotto, as much for its dark and sultry looks as anything else. After much researching, I couldn’t find exactly what I had in mind, so resorted to adapting a Diana Henry recipe that looked promising. The result was divine – a deep red plateful topped with creamy white cheese. So good.

Beetroot Risotto – serves 1

Beetroot risotto

25ml butter
1 small red onion, chopped
1 leek, finely sliced
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
50g Arborio rice
100g fresh beetroot, grated
450 ml fresh vegetable stock (or use chicken if you prefer), hot
75 ml Martini Rosso (or use red wine)
few sprigs fresh thyme
2 tbsp Pecorino cheese (or Parmesan), grated
50g Lancashire cheese (or Wensleydale, feta or goat’s cheese!)
Dill to garnish

Heat the butter in a frying pan and cook the chopped red onion, leek and garlic gently until tender, but not brown – about 10 minutes. Add the rice and thyme leaves, then stir to coat thoroughly. Add the grated beetroot (use disposable gloves to grate, or peel and use a food processor!) and cook for another few minutes. Pour in the Martini Rosso or red wine and allow it to bubble up and reduce slightly. Then start adding the hot stock, one ladle at a time, waiting for it to be absorbed each time before adding the next. Stir constantly and start testing the rice after 20 minutes or so to see if it is tender, but with a slight bite. Add the grated Pecorino, chopped dill and season to taste. Serve in bowls garnished with crumbled or grated Lancashire cheese (or the cheese of your choice – a chalky white cheese is the best foil for the dark earthiness of the beetroot) and more dill, if you have it. Enjoy!

This serves just one, but you can multiply according to how many you’re serving. You could also add cubes of roasted beetroot to garnish for maximum effect.

Another favourite beetroot concoction involves throwing together a Puy lentil salad with beetroot and feta or goat’s cheese. The sweet earthiness of the beetroot is the ideal complement to the smoky lentils and the chalky cheese sets both off to perfection. Sometimes I add carrots or squash too to provide an orange contrast, and even a few cooked green beans if I have any. I like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s way of cooking the lentils, although I find they don’t take quite as long to cook as he suggests.

Beetroot & Puy Lentil Salad with Feta – serves 4-6

Beetroot and lentil salad

250g Puy lentils
Vegetable stock or water
1 bay leaf
Few sprigs thyme
2 garlic cloves, crushed
Parsley sprigs
Juice of a lemon
Seasoning
4-6 beetroot
4 carrots (optional)
100g butternut squash (optional)
Olive oil
Balsamic vinegar
100g goat’s cheese or feta
Dill to garnish

Wash the beetroots, cutting off the top and tail, then wrap individually in foil, before roasting in a hot oven at 200°C / 400°F / Gas 6. If serving squash and/or carrot as well, cut into chunky cubes or barrel shapes, sprinkle with olive oil, chopped garlic, seasoning and thyme leaves, then roast in an open dish at the same time as the beetroot, although they will probably only need 30-40 minutes. When tender, remove from the oven and cool. The beetroot skins should come off easily when cool, and the beetroot can then be cubed.

Meanwhile put the lentils in a pan, cover with plenty of water, bring to the boil, simmer for just one minute, then drain. Return to the pan and just cover with more water or vegetable stock if you have it. Add the bay leaf, sprigs of thyme, garlic and parsley. Bring back to a simmer and cook gently for about 20 minutes, until just tender. Drain the lentils, and discard the herbs. Dress with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice, then season.

Serve the lentils lukewarm or cold with the roasted vegetables, more olive oil if required and a dash of balsamic vinegar. Garnish with dill and cubes of goat’s cheese or feta. The flavour gets even better as it sits, so don’t worry if you have leftovers for the next day…

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Apple watch

The apple season has been unusually protracted this year, starting as it did in late July/early August with the shiny red Katy apples and now in full flow with the main crops ready to be harvested for storage: Bramleys and an unidentified, but delicious Cox hybrid in my case. I’ve been eating windfalls for months, but this weekend is on my calendar as apple harvest time – if the weather decides to play ball! I’ve been away or otherwise occupied so much recently, and am going away for work again next week, so this weekend is really my last chance before the winter weather sets in and the prospect of frost rears its ugly head.

After a delightful couple of days here in the South-East with glorious autumn sunshine and a soft breeze – combined of course with a full workload and no time to go outside and play – Saturday morning dawned wet and gloomy: not the ideal weather to cut the long overdue lawn and harvest my apples…. Fortunately, tomorrow’s forecast looks better, so I abandoned all hope of a day catching up in the garden/allotment and spent a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon pootling around in the kitchen, baking instead – good for the soul :-).

I haven’t had much time to bake since getting back from holiday, so a good opportunity to restock the cake tins (and freezer). My younger son is dog-sitting next week while I’m away; heaven forbid that I should leave him with no cake! Today’s session included spiced apple shortbread, hazelnut maple biscuits (courtesy of Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries III, and a brace of ginger cakes, including one for the freezer. I also made a mocha ice cream and a good, old-fashioned apple crumble for tonight’s dessert. My favourite kind of afternoon….

I also wanted to share two other apple recipes I’ve made recently in this most apple-centric season: a walnut apple galette and a fragrant Apfelkuchen, a yeasted cake topped with sliced and spiced apples. The galette is from an ancient M&S Seasonal Freezer cookbook I’ve had since the year dot: Leo the labrador (6 today!) chewed it indiscriminately during his puppyhood, so it now has no front cover and rather mangled edges, but I haven’t the heart to throw it away. As for the apple cake, it’s based on a Nigella recipe from her delightful Domestic Goddess book, but with lots more fruit following a discussion with German colleagues in the Foodie Translator group on Facebook. Definitely one to make for breakfast or brunch when you have a house full of guests as it makes a rather large cake.

Walnut Apple Galette – serves 8

Walnut galette

3oz walnut pieces
3oz butter
2oz soft brown sugar
4oz plain flour, sifted
2-3 large cooking apples
Juice of half a lemon
2oz sultanas
1/2 tsp mixed spice (or cinnamon)
1-2 tbsp sugar (or to taste, depending on the sweetness of your apples)
1/4 pt double cream
3-4 tbsp natural yogurt
Icing sugar, sifted (to serve)

Grease two baking sheets and pre-heat the oven to 180°C, 375°F or gas mark 5.

Grind the walnuts to a coarse powder in a food processor, then add the sugar, butter and flour, and process until it comes together to make a firm dough. Divide the dough in half and roll out each half on a piece of floured baking parchment until you have an approximate disc shape measuring at least 8″ in diameter. Then mark a disc shape on the rolled dough using the base of an 8″ cake tin. Place a greased baking sheet on top of the shortbread disc and carefully flip it over using the paper at the sides to hold it in place. Remove the paper and repeat with the second half of dough and the second baking sheet. Bake in the pre-heated oven for 15 minutes or until golden. Remove from the oven and cut one of the shortbread discs into eight segments while still warm (it will crack if you try to do it when it has cooled!). Leave to cool on the trays.

While the shortbread is cooking, prepare the filling. Peel, core and slice the cooking apples and put in a pan with 2 tbsp water and a dash of lemon juice to prevent the apples going brown. Add the sugar to taste and the mixed spice or cinnamon. When the apples are soft and fluffy, add the sultanas and leave to cool.

When ready to assemble, whip the cream until soft peaks form, then whip in the natural yogurt (or you can just use cream if you prefer – I like the lighter and tangier effect with added yogurt). Place the unsegmented base on a serving plate and spread half the cream on top. Spoon on a generous layer of the apple mixture, then spread the remaining cream and yogurt mix on top. Arrange the shortbread segments on top and dust with icing sugar. This softens the longer you leave it in the fridge, so if you want to enjoy the contrast between the crispness of the shortbread and the soft billowing layers of cream and apple, don’t assemble too long before eating! That said, I adore it in its slightly softer state the following day too: the flavours just seem to meld superbly….

Apfelkuchen – serves 8-10

350g strong bread flour
1 tsp dried yeast (I use Dove’s Farm)
1/2 tsp salt
50g caster sugar
200ml milk
1 medium egg, beaten
25g butter

1 egg, beaten
1 tbsp cream (or crème fraiche)
7-8 eating apples (I used Katy, but any crisp dessert apple will work beautifully)
Juice of 1/2 lemon (or lime)
1 tbsp demerara or caster sugar
Fresh nutmeg, grated
1/2 tsp cinnamon or allspice
Handful flaked almonds

I make my bread dough in a breadmaker, but you can do it by hand if you prefer. For the breadmaker method, just put the first seven ingredients in the breadmaker and prepare the dough using the dough setting. My machine (Panasonic) takes 2 hours and 20 minutes for dough, but other machines may differ. I tend to make the dough in the evening and then leave in the fridge, covered, in a bowl overnight for a long, slow second prove.

The following morning, knock down the dough on a floured surface, then press into a greased 20 x 30 cm Swiss roll tin or roasting tin. It will take some pressing to make it expand to fit the tin, so be patient – it will get there in the end! Then set aside in a warm place to prove again while you prepare the filling. I find this takes up to one hour in a warm kitchen; if you’re lucky enough to have a proving drawer or an airing cupboard, you may get away with less.

Peel and core the apples, then cut into slices, coating in lemon juice to prevent browning as you work. Place in a bowl with the sugar, cinnamon or allspice and toss to mix evenly. Pre-heat the oven to 180°C, 375°F or gas mark 5.

In a small bowl, mix the beaten egg with 1 tbsp cream and grate in some fresh nutmeg. Then brush this mixture over the proved dough. Finally arrange the apple slices neatly in rows on top of the dough and sprinkle with flaked almonds. Bake in the pre-heated oven for 30 minutes until the fruit is tender and starting to turn golden brown. Dust with icing sugar and serve warm in chunky slices with a beatific smile. My German colleagues suggested lashings of whipped cream – but even I draw the line at whipped cream for breakfast!

A peck of peppers, anyone?

Pepper and chilli harvest

The weather has been unremittingly awful this September so far, so much so that it feels as though it’s a good month later! Whereas normally I’d be taking my pepper and chilli plants out of the conservatory in October, I found myself emptying them today as they were covered in whitefly and the atmosphere is so damp, they were starting to cause mould growth on the windowledges and windows – yuk! I experienced this once before when I went away on holiday in late September and forgot to leave the window vents open: damp + plants breathing meant my window ledges were green by the time I got home! Nothing that a spot of bleach couldn’t cure, but still – not very nice.

Time to take out those plants that have finished (aubergines, sadly – although they’ve been super-productive this year, so I can’t complain), harvest any ripe fruit on the chillis and peppers, and spray the rest of the plants with soft soap outdoors. I had intended bringing them back in having washed all the surfaces down, but in the end, they got so wet in today’s torrential rain that I’ve left them out; it’s unlikely to freeze, I think, and I really don’t want the same problem again. This is the issue with using a conservatory for cropping plants: when they’re in full flow, it’s fine, but as they start to go yellow and die back, you really don’t want to look at them any more. Fortunately, the basil plants are still looking good and should continue for another month or so.

So what to do with all those peppers? The chillis will be dried and stored in a basket for autumn/winter use, but the peppers won’t keep for long. In the end, I decided on a roast pepper & tomato soup that I’ve been meaning to try for a while from the Covent Garden Soup Book, an old favourite of mine.

Roasted Red Pepper & Tomato Soup – served 5-6

Roast pepper and tomato soup

6 red peppers, halved and seeds removed
8 tomatoes, skinned and halved
glug of olive oil
handful of basil leaves
1 tsp sugar
1 fat garlic clove, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 litre vegetable stock
seasoning
dash of balsamic vinegar to taste

Pre-heat the oven to 180°C/Gas 5. Place the red peppers skin side up in a large roasting tin. Add the skinned tomatoes (I usually place them in a bowl and add boiling water, leave for a couple of minutes, then drain off the water, after which the skins should peel off easily), cut-side up and sprinkle with sugar, chopped garlic, chopped basil leaves, a glug of olive oil and seasoning. Roast for 50 minutes to 1 hour until nicely charred around the edges.

Meanwhile, cook the onion in a large pan with more olive oil until softened (15 minutes or so). Add the roast vegetables, then the stock and bring to the boil. Cook for 5-20 minutes to allow the flavours to meld, then cool in the pan. Liquidize in two batches and add a dash of balsamic vinegar to taste.

Another absolute classic I try to make every year when I harvest my own fruit is Delia Smith’s classic Piedmont peppers – if you haven’t experienced them, I can only recommend you to try – so good! It turns out that this is originally an Elizabeth David recipe, so has a fine pedigree. When you taste them, you’ll realise why….

Delia’s Piedmont Peppers – serves 4 as a starter
(but scale up or down as you require!)

Piedmont peppers

4 red peppers
4 medium tomatoes
8 tinned anchovy fillets
2 cloves garlic, chopped
handful of basil leaves
black pepper
olive oil

Halve the peppers lengthways, keeping the stalk on. Place skin side down in a large roasting tray. Skin the tomatoes (I don’t always bother, I must admit, but if the skin bothers you, please do!), quarter and place two quarters in each pepper half. Snip the anchovy fillets into small pieces and distribute between the peppers. Add the chopped basil and garlic, season with pepper and drizzle with olive oil (the original recipe suggests 1 dsp per pepper half, but I just pour by eye). Roast in the oven at 160°C/Gas 4 for 50 minutes to 1 hour, until starting to char round the edges.

Serve as a starter or a summer salad, with plenty of good bread to mop up the divine juices.

It’s that time again…

Marjorie plum tree

Yes, it’s official, autumn has arrived with a vengeance here in sunny (or not-so-sunny at the moment) Sussex. The children have gone back to school, the nights are drawing in and there’s definitely a nip in the air. It would be nice to have an Indian summer, extending the season just that little bit longer, especially after a dampish August, but it’s not looking likely on this week’s showing. Still, harvest time continues and I’ve got apples and plums coming out of my ears. Time to get the preserving pan out again…

Plum jam isn’t usually one of my favourites, as I find the skins, when cooked long and slow in the preserving process, can be quite obtrusive. Jelly is an option, of course, but never quite as satisfying as jam and certainly not right slathered in a traditional Victoria sponge or topped off with clotted cream on a scone. I scoured the internet for recipes that didn’t involve the skins, but didn’t find anything that took my fancy. I also had an urge to use cardamom pods and/or citrus to make a spiced jam, inspired perhaps by my current take on plum compote. This involves halving the plums and removing the stones (you can leave a few in if you like for their extra almondy flavour, but not too much as the kernels actually do contain cyanide!). Place in a rectangular ovenproof dish, sprinkle with a couple of tablespoons of Demerara sugar, the juice and rind of one large orange, and add a star anise. Then roast for 30 minutes or so at 180°C/Gas 5 for a delectable, Spiced Roasted Plum Compote.

Diana Henry’s plum, cardamom and orange jam came close to what I had in mind, but included the orange rind, like a marmalade, and wasn’t strained to remove the plum skins. Finally, I decided to adapt one of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s fridge jam recipes from “Fruit Every Day”. I’ve used this technique for a divine Morello cherry jam before now, and while you have to keep it in the fridge once opened, it stores perfectly in a cool larder before opening – and uses half the sugar of traditional jams, which has to be a good thing. I was pretty happy with the results, but see for yourselves:

Spiced Plum Jam with Cardamom, Orange & Cinnamon – makes 3 jars

Plum and chilli jam

1.5kg plums, stoned (I used my late-season Marjories)
750g granulated sugar
2 oranges, grated rind and juice
300ml water
8 cardamom pods, husks removed and seeds roughly crushed
1/2 cinnamon stick

Halve and stone the plums and put in a preserving pan with 300ml of water and the juice and rind of the oranges, cinnamon stick and cardamom pods. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook for 20-30 minutes until very soft and pulpy. Add the sugar, stirring until fully dissolved and bring back to the boil. Cook for 5-8 minutes until the right consistency is reached – drips should run together when you hold up the wooden spoon over the pan. Carefully pass the mixture through a large sieve into a clean jug or bowl and push through the pulp to extract all the jam. Then pour into sterilised jars and seal as usual (see here for method). Deliciously tangy and no chewy skins!

Chillis and tomatoes are also in abundance at this time of year, and whilst you can dry chillis for use in the winter, it’s also nice to make your own chilli preserves too – so much less sweet than shop-bought offerings and often with more of a kick too. I’ve shared Sarah Raven’s sweet chilli dipping sauce here before, but I also like her chilli jam recipe for a thicker preserve. I usually double the quantities Sarah suggests, but still find it only makes 3-4 small jars – you don’t need much, though, so it’s well worth experimenting. My son thinks the jam could be even hotter, but I like it just as it is. Of course, much depends on the heat of your chillis, and your tastebuds, so do apply caution if using unknown chillis. You could literally be playing with fire! I didn’t have enough Thai fish sauce either for the doubled quantities – why does it come in such small bottles? – so made up the difference with Worcester sauce. It does contain anchovies after all…

Chilli Jam – makes 3-4 small jars

1kg ripe tomatoes
6-8 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
8 large red chillis, seeds left in if you like your preserves hot
large piece of root ginger, chopped
600g granulated sugar
4 tbsp Thai fish sauce or Worcester sauce
200ml red wine vinegar

Roughly chop half the tomatoes and blitz in a food processor with the garlic, chillis and ginger. Pour into a heavy saucepan. Add the sugar, fish (or Worcester) sauce and vinegar and bring to the boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Reduce to a simmer. Dice the remaining tomatoes finely and add to the pan, then simmer for 40-45 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the mixture thickens and turns slightly darker and sticky. Pour into sterilised jars as above and seal while still warm. Keep in the fridge once opened.

Now, what to do with the next batch of plums, I wonder?! Happy harvesting!

Leo near the plunge pool

Still catching up

Poppy in the shade Aug 2017_cropped

An extra day off this Bank Holiday weekend has meant that I finally feel I’m catching up with myself down at the allotment – and in the garden at home for that matter! What a difference an extra day makes, especially when the weather was kind to us for a change, and the sun shone throughout. Lawns duly mowed, fruit trees summer-pruned – well, what I can reach at any rate. Even with extendible loppers I couldn’t reach the topmost branches of one of the crab apple trees at home, and I restricted myself to just trimming the branches I could reach with secateurs in the allotment orchard. Pruning all five apple/plums in one go is too much otherwise. As it was, I took 3-4 barrowloads up to the allotment bonfire site, and there will no doubt be the same again when I finish the job with the long loppers next weekend. So satisfying 🙂

Apple juice with lunch

The harvest is coming in thick and fast now with courgettes multiplying in size overnight and windfall apples aplenty. Fresh apple juice with the red-skinned Katy apples is a must at this time of year, especially as they don’t keep. I even resorted to putting a basket on the road outside the house this morning for people to help themselves to overgrown courgettes and apples – virtually all gone this evening, thank goodness, especially as I came back from the plot with yet more apples, windfall Bramleys this time, and spare French beans.

New basket

Beetroot is another veg in plentiful supply this year. Much as I love having a bowl of cooked beetroot (baked in their skins, after which the skin peels off beautifully, and served sprinkled with balsamic vinegar) in the fridge to accompany my lunchtime cheese and crackers, I’ve been wondering how else to extend my beetroot repertoire. I’ve already made my favourite spiced beetroot & orange chutney, but wondered about a cake. I’ve made Nigel Slater’s beetroot & chocolate cake before (Tender Book I) and liked it, but my beetroot-averse daughter-in-law cold still detect its presence. This time, I thought I’d try some brownies. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recipe appealed, but contained normal flour, no good for gluten intolerance. Searching for a gluten-free version, I came across this Riverford recipe, which sounded perfect – and was! Delightfully chocolatey, fudgy and moist, I can’t detect the beetroot at all – it remains to be seen whether it will pass my daughter-in-law’s test….

Chocolate & Beetroot Brownies – makes 18

Chocolate and beetroot brownies

250g dark chocolate, chopped
200g unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1 tbsp Tia Maria or other liqueur (optional – I forgot and it still tasted divine!)
250g raw beetroot
3 eggs
A drop of vanilla extract
200g caster sugar
50g cocoa powder
50g rice flour
1 tsp gluten-free baking powder
100g ground almonds

Preheat oven to 180°C/Gas 5. Use baking parchment to line a rectangular tin, roughly 28x18cm.

Wash the raw beetroot, remove leaves and surplus roots, then wrap individually in foil  and place on a baking tray. Bake in the oven for 1 hour – or longer depending on the size of your beetroots! Leave to cool in the foil, after which the skins should peel off easily. Turn oven down to 160°C/Gas 4.

Put the chocolate and butter in a large bowl and place it over a pan of simmering water, making sure the water doesn’t touch the base of the bowl. Leave to melt, then remove from the heat and stir in the Tia Maria, if using.

Purée the cooked beetroot in a food processor. Add the eggs one at a time, followed by the vanilla and sugar, and mix until smooth.

Sift the cocoa powder, rice flour and baking powder into a bowl and stir in the ground almonds. Stir the beetroot mixture into the melted chocolate and then fold in the dry ingredients.

Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and bake in the oven for 30–35 minutes, until just firm to the touch. It’s important not to overcook brownies; a skewer inserted in the centre should come out slightly sticky. Leave to cool in the tin and then cut into squares.

Delicious with coffee, but would also be good as a dessert with whipped cream 🙂

An Abundance of Aubergines

Leo over the fence Aug 2017

Apologies for the long absence: as some of you may know, it was my son’s wedding at the end of July and life was rather put on hold in the run-up. After a fabulous weekend of celebrations, it’s taken me quite some time to come back down to Earth and catch up with myself…

Needless to say, the garden and allotment have continued apace throughout, but I’m gradually starting to restore order, even if the grass isn’t as neatly mowed as it could be. Cropwise, it’s been a fantastic summer so far, with even my carrots putting on a good show and the pumpkins looking promising for autumn. In the conservatory, my aubergines are flourishing, as ever, and maturing faster than I can cook them. Such a satisfying problem to have! Last night I made the walnut-stuffed aubergine dish from my Spanish yoga holiday at Las Chimeneas – still delicious, and equally good heated up for lunch today. Earlier in the week I made Nigel Slater’s scrumptious baba ganoush, a heavenly, yet oh-so-simple take on an aubergine dip, and tonight I’ve made an old favourite from my ancient Sainsbury’s wholefood cookbook, lentil moussaka. Meat really does fade into insignificance in my summer diet.

Baba ganoush – serves 2

Baba ganoush

I large aubergine
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 tbsp tahini paste
1 – 1 1/2 tbsp olive oil
Seasoning

Prick the aubergine with a fork, then bake in the oven at 200°C/Gas 6 until the skin is charred and the insides are soft – about 40-45 minutes. Leave to cool, then scrape out the flesh with a spoon into a bowl. Mash with a potato masher, then beat in the lemon juice, crushed garlic, tahini, and olive oil until you get the right consistency. Season and serve with good bread (I used courgette, lemon and sultana bread, lightly toasted, which went beautifully) for a middle-Eastern-inspired lunch or as a decadent starter.

As for the moussaka, well, this is a delicious vegetarian twist on a classic Greek dish that I first tried in a Greek restaurant in Bolton, of all places, in the late 70s, way before I ever travelled to Greece and sampled the real thing. I seem to remember it was pretty good then too, and my mum, never a particularly adventurous cook, even included it in her repertoire: very avant garde in those days! These days, I grill the aubergine slices rather than frying them beforehand, as the original recipe suggests, but which uses up gallons of olive oil. In fact, my mum says she now cooks her oil-drizzled aubergine slices in the oven, as suggested by Mary Berry, for 20-25 minutes at 180°C/Gas 5. Now that’s definitely worth a try as the grilling method still requires you to stand over them, getting hot and bothered, even if they don’t take up anywhere near as much oil as frying.

Lentil Moussaka – serves 4-6

Lentil moussaka

2 large aubergines, sliced crosswise (you can salt them beforehand if you like, but I don’t think it’s necessary these days)
Olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
4 celery sticks, chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 can chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato purée
250g green lentils
Fresh thyme (or basil), finely chopped (optional)
2 tbsp soy sauce
Black pepper
900ml water
2 eggs, beaten
150ml fromage frais
100g Cheddar cheese, grated (or use Parmesan if you prefer)

Heat a glug of olive oil in a large pan and cook the chopped onion until softened, then add the garlic and celery. Cook for a further 5 minutes, then add the tomatoes and their liquid, tomato purée, green lentils, soy sauce, herbs if using, black pepper to taste and water. Bring to the boil and simmer, covered, for 50 minutes, removing the lid towards the end if it still looks very liquid.

Meanwhile, arrange the aubergine slices on a grill pan (or baking trays if you’re trying the oven method), brush with olive oil and either grill on both sides until starting to brown and soften, or bake in the oven at 180°C for 20-25 minutes. (You may need to do this in two stages if using the grill, whereas you can cook two trays at once in the oven – I must try it!) Either way, you will need to turn them halfway through. When cooked, drain on kitchen paper.

When the lentil mixture is ready, spoon half into a rectangular ovenproof dish and arrange a layer of aubergines on top. Repeat with the other half of the lentils and the rest of the aubergines. Mix the eggs and fromage frais for the topping, season and pour on top of the aubergines. Sprinkle with cheese and cook in a hot oven at 200°C/Gas 6 for about 30 minutes.

Serve with a green salad and be instantly transported to the Mediterranean…

This also freezes beautifully – sometimes I think the flavours meld together even better once it has stood for a while, which chimes with the way such dishes are served in Greece: cooked in the morning to be served just warm at lunchtime. Yum!

Oh and the wedding? It was amazing, such a joyful day. I can’t resist leaving you with a picture of the happy couple. Have a fabulous bank holiday weekend!

Happy couple

 

 

Currant Favourites

Currants galore

There’s a time of year when everything seems to come ready at once – everything in the soft fruit department, that is. Just as the raspberries were coming fast and furious, all the currants – red, white and black – AND the gooseberries suddenly reached peak ripeness and demanded to be picked and eaten. Cue many hours of harvesting and bowls of fruit borne home for freezing/processing, eating just as they are. A boon, really, but it is also a bit daunting to have so much in one go! Then , just as quickly as they come, you go away for a weekend (my future daughter-in-law’s hen weekend no less!) and come back to bushes stripped clean. I don’t know how the blackbirds do it, but they seem to find a way under the nets every year. Fortunately, I’d picked the majority by then, so I don’t mind sharing some of my bounty with the allotment wildlife.

What to do with all this produce? The usual suspects of jam and freezer, of course, but I also experimented this year with a couple of recipes I’ve been meaning to try for a long time. My younger son and his girlfriend are staying this month, between lets, so a great excuse to cook more elaborate dishes than I’d normally do for myself.

Blackcurrants are one of my favourite soft fruits and rather than stick to the standard pies, crumbles and fools, I had a couple of interesting recipes on my list: Nigel Slater’s blackcurrant trifle and a delicious-sounding blackcurrant & liquorice sorbet that took me right back to the sweet shops of my childhood.

Blackcurrant Trifle – serves 8

Blackcurrant trifle

500g blackcurrants
3 tbsp caster sugar
4 tbsp water

250g sponge cake (I used half a Victoria sponge I happened to have in the freezer, but you could use trifle sponges or bought cake)
100g amaretti biscuits
2 tbsp caster sugar
1 large egg, separated
vanilla extract, 1/2 tsp
300ml double cream
2-3 amaretti biscuits, crumbled, to garnish

Strig the currants and put in a pan with 3 tbsp caster sugar (or to taste) and the water. Cook gently for 7-10 minutes until soft and juicy. Remove from the heat.

Break the sponge into pieces and put into a trifle dish with the amaretti biscuits. Spoon the hot blackcurrants over the base and leave to cool.

Put the egg yolk and sugar into a bowl and mix, then stir in the mascarpone and vanilla. In a separate bowl, whisk the cream until it forms soft swirls, then fold lightly into the mascarpone mix. Finally whisk the egg white until it forms stiff peaks and fold that into the cream mixture.

Spoon the mascarpone custard over the cool blackcurrant base and refrigerate for a few hours before serving. Decorate with crumbled amaretti biscuits for added crunch.

Blackcurrant & Liquorice Sorbet

Blackcurrant and liquorice sorbet

200g granulated sugar
200g water
450g blackcurrants
Juice of 1 lemon
25ml aniseed liqueur (I used Marie Brizard, but ouzo or pastis would work too – or leave it out if you prefer)
1 tbsp liquorice powder (I ordered this online, but specialist Asian shops might stock it too)
1 egg white

Dissolve the granulated sugar in the water over a low heat and cook for 5 minutes or so. Leave to cool and form a sugar syrup.

Strig the blackcurrants (no need to remove all the stalks as they will be sieved afterwards) and put in a small pan with the lemon juice. Cook gently for 5 -10 minutes until soft. Add the aniseed liqueur. Purée the fruit mixture in a liquidiser, then press through a sieve.

Transfer to an ice cream maker and churn for 20 minutes, then fold in the stiffly whipped egg white for the last 20 minutes. (Alternatively, fold in the egg white straightaway and freeze in a container for 1-2 hours, whizz again in a food processor and return to the freezer until set.) The alcohol gives the sorbet a lovely texture and means it can be served virtually straight from the freezer. Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

 

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