May 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
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!
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
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….