Foolish pleasures

Flower teapot We might well regard gardening as a foolish pleasure given the awful weather we’ve had today: heavy rain, verging on sleet at times, wicked winds and a general wintry feel to the day. Hardly what you’d expect from the end of May. I’ve been playing yo-yo with my tomato and courgette plants all week, in and out of the conservatory to harden off in the day and then back in for protection from the chilly nights. Today was so dreadful, I brought the tomatoes back in after an hour when they were all knocked over by the wind like so many spindly skittles…. I had hoped to plant them up in their pots outside this weekend, but I think I may have to delay by another week as my mother, the weather oracle, says it’s finally due to warm up NEXT weekend. Instead, I think I’ll be forced to pot them on into their final pots, but squeeze those into the conservatory overnight without their cane frame and keep my fingers crossed that the weather warms up soon! Courgettes, cucumbers and squashes/pumpkins can definitely wait another week before braving the elements down at the allotment, even though my little grow frame is rapidly running out of room.

I don’t think I can recall such a late start to the season for quite some time: last week I had a lovely day up at the Chelsea Flower Show – clad in winter coat, boots, a cardigan over my dress and a pashmina for good measure! And whilst the sun did come out at some points during the day, I really didn’t feel tempted to divest myself of any surplus layers! Fabulous show though: I loved Jo Thompson’s M&G Retreat garden with its natural swimming pond and romantic pastel planting, and Chris’ Beardshaw’s Healthy Cities garden had a glorious colour palette, as did Adam Frost’s immaculate Homebase garden. The slate-filled Brewin Dolphin garden was also breathtaking close-up, much more so than it appeared on television, with a clever juxtaposition of that beautiful slate, water and delicate naturalistic planting. And whilst I admired Dan Pearson’s artistry in recreating a patch of Chatsworth, for me, it wasn’t a garden, more of a landscape – so definitely wouldn’t have been my choice for Best in Show! Each to their own…

Chris Beardshaw's garden M&G garden retreatThis week I was tempted into my sandals on a sunny visit to the Savill Garden near Windsor, where the azaleas and rhododendrons are in full, heavenly-scented bloom. Unfortunately, it’s back to winter today, though – roll on summer!

Rhubarb and asparagus are still going great guns down on the plot, and I managed to plant my runner and French bean seeds and net all my soft fruit against the birds last weekend, so I feel relatively up-to-date. I even sneaked up after work on Wednesday and weeded my root vegetable bed; the protective fleece covering seems to encourage both the vegetable seeds and the weeds, but hopefully weeding at this stage will allow the baby seedlings to get ahead of the game. Flea beetle have targeted both the radish and swede, but with any luck they won’t destroy the plants. Parsnips, carrots and beetroot are looking very promising, though, despite the odd gap in the rows where the slugs have obviously had a munch – soon topped up with fresh seed.

The constant flow of rhubarb calls for more recipes, both old and new favourites. One old faithful is silky-smooth rhubarb fool, served this time round with gluten-free almond tuiles for added crunch.

Rhubarb Fool

¼ pint custard

1lb rhubarb, chopped into 1 cm pieces

Grated rind and juice of 1 orange

4-6 tbsp demerara sugar

¼ pt double cream, softly whipped

Make the custard using 1/2 tbsp custard powder, 1 dsp granulated sugar and ¼ pt milk (or make fresh custard with eggs and sugar if you prefer, although I think the thicker consistency of cornflour-based custard powder works better and stops the fool becoming too runny). Cool slightly whilst cooking the rhubarb.

Cook the chopped rhubarb (no need to peel unless really stringy) in a covered dish in the microwave for 4-5 mins with the grated rind and juice of the orange and the sugar (to taste), until tender. Leave to cool.

Purée the custard and the rhubarb in a food processor until well blended – you may not need all the juice from the rhubarb. Turn into a bowl and fold in the whipped cream. Use a balloon whisk to mix gently together if you can still see bits of cream. Pour into 4-5 sundae dishes and chill.

You could use yogurt instead of custard (or cream), or crème fraîche for that matter, but I love the unctuous mixture of custard and cream. Gooseberries work well too as the rhubarb season comes to an end.

Serve with almond tuiles (or shortbread or amaretti biscuits if you prefer!).

Almond Tuiles

makes about 16

3oz butter

3oz caster sugar

2oz flaked almonds

2oz plain flour (or rice flour for gluten-free)

Pinch salt

Beat together the butter and sugar. Crush the almonds in your hand as you add them to the mixture with the sieved flour and salt. Mix well. Place heaped teaspoonfuls of the mixture, spaced well-apart, on baking trays lined with baking parchment – probably only 4-5 on each tray as they will spread while cooking! Cook at 200°C / Gas 6 for about 5-7 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on the trays and repeat with the rest of the mixture. They will be very soft when you take them out of the oven, but set to a lovely, crisp finish when cold.

The original recipe is with plain flour, but I experimented with rice flour for my gluten-free guest this time and it worked beautifully!

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The Joys of Seasonality

tulip recreado cropped Tulip Recreado

One of the things I love most about gardening and cooking is that they keep you attuned to the rhythm of the seasons. I’m pretty sure I’d hate to live in a country where there wasn’t a marked contrast between the various times of the year: what would you have to look forward to? As it is, I relish the first rhubarb of the year, then the first asparagus, and so on through the year. Every season has its favourites, right down to parsnips and leeks, which are all the better for a hard frost in the winter!

Flowers too are so much more special for their fleeting appearance in the year’s calendar. The tulips have been heavenly this year, just going past their best now, but rapidly being overtaken by the purple drumsticks of alliums in their moment of glory. I’ve been delighted by my Sarah Raven selection from last autumn: the deep purple Recreado, bright orange lily-flowered Ballerina, and fabulous rich red Couleur Cardinal. The one slight fly in the ointment was the Pimpernel, supposed to be a deep scarlet and intended to fill one of the tubs flanking either side of my garden arch with Couleur Cardinal on the other side. Unfortunately, they’ve come up as a pretty pink and white viridiflora variety (Groenland, perhaps?) – lovely, but definitely not what I ordered and certainly not the matching colour I’d hoped for!

Tulip BallerinaTulip Ballerina

Couleur Cardinale Tulips Tulip Couleur Cardinal Viridiflora tulips

Tulip viridiflora ???!

Tulips from previous years have flowered beautifully on my sunny island bed, as ever, with carmine-pink Doll’s Minuet, scarlet Oxford and apricot/pink Menton putting on a splendid show, preceded by the early and reliably perennial white Purissima. My experiment with last year’s container tulips down at the allotment was less successful, with only a few flowering again; the varieties I’d transplanted were the later-flowering Cairo, Belle Epoque, Ronaldo and Bruine Wimpel, and only a handful of the Cairo made an appearance, despite the bulbs being a decent size when I transplanted them. I’ll leave them in situ and see how they perform next year, but also try a few of this year’s earlier tulips and see how they do. It could be that they don’t get the baking they need due to the overshadowing asparagus ferns for much of the summer….

Seasonal harvests are another joy: my haul from the allotment this evening, despite the so-called hungry gap, was an impressive basket full of rhubarb, asparagus, lettuce, purple-spouting broccoli and parsley!

Harvest May 2015I couldn’t believe how much the asparagus had grown since picking my first spears last weekend: there must have been well over a kilogram tonight. Fortunately, I was dropping a birthday card off at a friend’s house on my way home, so left a bag full of rhubarb and asparagus too!

Deciding what to cook with your seasonal goodies is another delight. I rarely plan ahead once the allotment is in full production, just wait and see what’s ready and then decide what I fancy cooking. Not unlike a Masterchef challenge, really, but with considerably less pressure…..

Tonight I opted for a Roast Asparagus & Smoked Salmon Risotto, followed by Rhubarb & Amaretto Syllabub – heavenly combinations both.

Roast Asparagus & Smoked Salmon Risotto – serves 2-3 generous portions

Asparagus risotto 1 small onion, chopped

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

50g butter

75ml dry white wine

170g risotto rice

500ml home-made vegetable stock (plus extra just in case)

Handful fresh mint leaves, chopped (save some to garnish)

Handful fresh parsley, chopped

10-12 spears asparagus

100g smoked salmon, chopped

75g grated Parmesan cheese

Olive oil

Seasoning

Pre-heat the oven to 200°C, Gas 6. Cook the onion and garlic in the butter until soft and golden – 5-7 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare the asparagus by breaking off any woody stems (they should break easily at a joint). Place in a roasting dish, drizzle with olive oil, season and roast for 10-12 minutes or until just tender. Remove from the oven and set to one side, then turn the oven down to 160°C, Gas 4.

Place a 9” square baking dish (2” deep) into the oven to warm up. Add the rice to the onions in the pan and stir through to get a good coating of butter. (It will look as though there’s not nearly enough rice at this stage, but it swells during cooking.) Add the wine and the stock, season and bring to boiling point. Transfer the contents of the pan into the warmed dish, stir and bake, uncovered, for 20 minutes. Then stir in the cooked asparagus, cut into bite-size pieces, smoked salmon and chopped mint and parsley, plus 2 tbsp Parmesan and add more stock if it’s all absorbed – I find it always needs more, so make sure you allow extra. Return to oven and cook for a further 15 minutes, before serving with extra cheese and more chopped mint to garnish – or parsley if you prefer.

Rhubarb & Amaretto Syllabub – serves 6

Rhubarb & Amaretto Syllabub500g rhubarb, chopped

Juice and rind of 2 small oranges

5-6 tbsp demerara sugar

 300ml double cream

3 tbsp caster sugar

125ml dry white wine

2 tbsp Amaretto liqueur

10-12 Amaretto biscuits, roughly crushed

Place the rhubarb in a shallow ovenproof dish and add the grated rind and juice of the oranges, then sprinkle with the demerara sugar. Roast in the oven for 30-40 minutes or until tender. Leave to cool.

Whip the double cream, caster sugar, Amaretto liqueur and white wine until it holds its shape in loose swirls. Spoon the cooled rhubarb into the bottom of 6 stemmed sundae dishes (or wine glasses). Sprinkle the crushed Amaretti biscuits over each glass, then top with the syllabub. Top with any leftover biscuit crumbs, or a reserved piece of rhubarb, if you have any left.

Chill before serving and enjoy!

 

Perpetual allotment (and Popeye’s) favourites

Raised beds April 2015May is always the busiest month in the year in the garden and this year is no exception – busier if anything as I was away the last weekend of April, so have been catching up ever since! After two sunny weekends, however, I at last feel as though I’m getting on top of things. My new raised beds finally went in over the Easter break and I’m now feeling the benefit of planting them up.

It’s been a pretty cold start to the year down in this South-Eastern corner of the UK, despite some sunny days, and our heavy clay soil has taken an age to warm up. At last, though, I’ve been able to plant my potatoes, both first and second earlies (Rocket and Charlotte), spaced three weeks apart, both much later than I’d normally expect. The one benefit of planting so late was that last year’s salad bed, where the Charlottes were due to go, still had a flourishing crop of spinach, Swiss chard, rocket and parsley, all having overwintered beautifully. Eventually I had to take the plunge and remove them all to free up the bed: such a shame to pull out strong plants with many more meals left on them, but I brought home several bags full and distributed more amongst friends too. I know they would have gone to seed soon enough, but it still seems harsh. The last remaining leeks also had to be lifted to make room for my mangetout and sugarsnap peas, although they had started to develop flowering shoots in their centre so were on borrowed time in any event.

Both spinach and leeks are key players in my allotment plans. Leeks in particular take up space for a good part of the year, but are invaluable for winter cropping and so much nicer than bought offerings. I tend to sow the seeds in my propagator in the conservatory in March, prick them out six weeks later into seed trays and then plant them out in the allotment when they are pencil-sized, usually in mid-June. I grow three varieties, an early autumn crop (Nipper) from September onwards, for baby leeks, than a mid-season variety (Pandora) and finally a late winter crop, the blue-green Bandit.

Having lifted the spinach, I’m going to be without my allotment stalwart for a few weeks as I only sowed the new season’s crop a week or so ago. I usually grow Perpetual Spinach as it’s much less prone to bolting than the other types of spinach and tastes just as good in my opinion. I grow a couple of crops a year, one now and one in late summer and usually have spinach leaves most of the year, even in hard winters – such great value from a tiny packet of seeds!

Faced with an abundance of both recently, I’ve had to revert to tried-and-trusted recipes for converting the produce for use now and later. One of my favourite spring soups is a Spinach & Pea Soup, an oh-so-easy adaptation of a Nigel Slater recipe that tastes as fresh as it looks. I tend to use both spinach and chard interchangeably, so any of the chard recipes here will work perfectly, but I also experimented this weekend with a homespun version of the delicious Greek Spanakopita, a spinach & feta pie encased in light filo pastry.

Spinach & Pea Soup

Spinach & pea soup in pan

350g frozen peas

500g spinach, washed and chunky stems removed (or whatever you have – not an exact science!)

2 tbsp olive oil

1 leek, chopped (or 1 onion if you prefer)

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

2 sticks celery (or fennel), chopped

1 medium potato, diced small

Bunch of fresh mint, chopped

1.5 litres fresh vegetable stock

Salt and pepper to season

Cook the leek or onion, garlic, potato and celery in a large soup pan (I always use my trusted Le Creuset casserole dishes for soup) until soft for 10-15 minutes or so. Tip the frozen peas into the leek mix, then add the stock and bring to the boil. Season to taste. As the mixture starts to bubble, add the chopped spinach and mint, pushing down below the surface of the liquid. Continue cooking until the leaves have wilted, but are still a bright emerald green colour (about 10 minutes).

Allow to cool slightly, then liquidize until smooth. Reheat to serve.  The beauty of using frozen peas is that this soup doesn’t need sieving: one of my favourite summer soups in the height of pea season is a deliciously delicate Mangetout Soup, but that invariably has to be sieved due to all the fine fibres. Not a problem, just more washing up!

This is quite a light soup, but perfect for springtime, or as a dinner party starter – and it freezes beautifully too.

I only realised too late that I’d run out of bread on cooking this, so whizzed up some parsnip & carrot scones based on the cheese & apple scone recipe from March, but with a small grated parsnip and carrot instead of the apple and rosemary instead of thyme. Pretty good if I say so myself!

Spanakopita

Spankopita1 pack filo pastry sheets

Plenty of butter – at least 50-100g

500g spinach (I don’t actually weigh it, I must admit, but a large colanderful!)

2 tbsp olive oil

1 leek, chopped (or I onion)

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

Grated lemon zest

Generous handful of chopped fresh mint, fennel and parsley

100g feta cheese, chopped

100g ricotta cheese

Grated fresh nutmeg

Salt and pepper

Sesame seeds

Prepare the filling by cooking the leek and garlic gently in the olive oil until soft (about 10 minutes). Add the chopped spinach, after washing and removing any tough stems. (I actually used a mixture of Swiss chard and spinach as that’s what I had, but either or both will be fine.) Allow to wilt gently, adding the chopped herbs, lemon zest, nutmeg and seasoning as you go. When it has reduced and is just tender, remove from the heat and stir in the chopped feta and ricotta. Allow to cool while preparing the pastry.

Open the pack of filo pastry carefully, placing on a damp tea towel as you work to stop it drying out. It often tears as you lift it since it’s extremely delicate, but it really doesn’t matter – just patch it in position! Place the first sheet on a piece of greaseproof paper and brush with melted butter. I usually melt 50g or so in the microwave and see how I go, but I can guarantee you’ll need more than you think! Place the next sheet on top and continue layering and buttering until you have a large oblong of pastry. Spread the spinach mix onto the pastry, leaving a good inch or so around the edges and fold these over to contain the mixture. Then, using the paper as a support, gently roll the pastry into a long roll from one of the long edges. Transfer very carefully to a greased baking sheet, either as one long roll (if your baking sheet is big enough!), or, as in my case in a horseshoe, or even a spiral, depending on the initial shape of your filo pastry. As you can probably see, mine split during the transfer operation – it’s quite heavy and fragile! Again, it didn’t seem to be a problem though; the mixture is firm enough not to leak out. Brush with more butter to finish and sprinkle with sesame seeds.

Cook at 200°C, Gas 6 for at 30-35 minutes, then serve warm, cut into generous slices.

I served mine with a tossed green salad, using overwintered lettuce and rocket, plus some divine asparagus, picked fresh from the plot only hours earlier and simply roasted for 10-15 minutes with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Heaven….

Shed with Clematis May 2015Allotment shed in all its clematis-festooned glory…