Experimenting with rhubarb…

It’s at this stage in the season that I start to wonder what different dishes I can make with my burgeoning rhubarb crop. Much as I love the old faithfuls – pies, crumbles, fools – it’s good to experiment every now and again. I made a rhubarb streusel cake the other week, but, nice though it was, the crumble topping on top of the rhubarb sponge was all a bit much. A colleague had posted a picture on Facebook of a Rhubarb & Chocolate Gugelhupf with dark chocolate rather than white, but when I’m cooking for one, a cake with rhubarb in the sponge tends to go off faster than I can eat it, especially in muggy weather!

Inspiration struck when I was debating what to cook for dessert this evening: a pudding that would also serve as cake during the week was the answer. I combined ideas from a number of different recipes and the result was this scrumptious Toffee Rhubarb & Ginger Upside-down Cake. Delicious served warm with pouring cream or custard, but also equally good with afternoon tea.

Toffee Rhubarb & Ginger Upside-down Cake

Toffee Rhubarb & Ginger Upside-down Cake

125g golden caster sugar
75ml water
50g butter
3-4 sticks rhubarb, chopped into 1cm cubes

125g butter
125g dark Muscovado sugar
2 eggs, beaten
3 lumps of preserved stem ginger plus 1 tsp of ginger syrup from the jar
125g self-raising flour
1 tsp dried ginger

Pre-heat oven to 160°C, Gas 4.
Put the caster sugar in a small pan with the water and stir over a gentle heat until dissolved. Turn up the heat and boil without stirring until the sugar syrup starts to caramelise. Remove from the heat and stir in the 50g butter. Pour into the base of a solid 20cm round tin – I use a tarte tatin dish.
Chop the trimmed rhubarb into 1cm cubes and arrange on top of the toffee mixture.
Mix the remaining butter and Muscovado sugar together with an electric whisk until light and fluffy. Add the beaten egg with the teaspoon of ginger syrup added. Gently fold in the sifted self-raising flour and the teaspoon of dried ginger. Finally fold in the chopped stem ginger.Put the cake mixture on top of the rhubarb and spread out to the edges to cover as completely as possible. Place in the oven and cook for 30-35 minutes. It should just spring back to the touch when ready. Remove from the oven and immediately place a large plate on top of the tin. Run a knife round the side of the tin, then firmly and confidently turn the plate and dish over, tap all over and gently lift off the tin – with any luck it should turn out perfectly, leaving no fruit or toffee topping left in the tin! If it doesn’t, no worries, just patch as required and leave to cool slightly before serving warm for dessert (or cold as cake – wonderful any which way!).

Rhubarb Upside-down cake slice

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Awesome asparagus!

asparagus

I love this time of year when the asparagus really gets into its stride. Like most things, it’s seemed late this year, but mine has finally started producing its delectable stems in abundance now and I’m picking a good bunch every couple of days – such hardship! Needless to say, my meals are tending to centre around asparagus at the moment.

Having enjoyed the first few helpings simply steamed or roasted earlier in the week, last night’s menu featured oven-roasted asparagus, pancetta & pine nut risotto (sublime!) and tonight’s was an asparagus, smoked salmon & fennel tart, with coleslaw using my first spring cabbage from the allotment and a delicate herby salad with sorrel, spicy salad leaves, mint and lovage from the garden at home. Heavenly!

Asparagus, Smoked Salmon & Fennel Tart

Asparagus and smoked salmon tart

1 sheet of ready-rolled puff pastry

Bunch of asparagus (I used 9 stems as that’s what I had!), woody stems removed

100g smoked salmon

Bunch of fennel

1 egg

3 tbsp double cream

3 tbsp finely grated Parmesan

Seasoning

Olive oil to drizzle

Roll out the pastry to the size of your baking tray. Cut a fine line, not quite going through to the base about 1 cm all around the edge.

Mix the beaten egg and 3 tbsp double cream in a small bowl, season and add the chopped fennel leaves, then spread over the pastry base. Scatter the shredded smoked salmon over the base and carefully place the trimmed asparagus stems on top. Season and scatter with finely grated Parmesan. Drizzle with olive oil and cook in a hot oven, 200°C fan or Gas 6 for about 20-25 mins or until the pastry is golden brown.

Serve warm with fresh coleslaw or salad of your choice. Delicious cold too!

The risotto is simply a variation of Delia’s excellent oven-roast risotto, tweaked to suit the ingredients on offer. As ever, I made more than I needed and had the leftovers for lunch today as arancini, stuffed with garlic & herb cider-infused cow’s cheese (Scrumpy Sussex) from our local Stonegate Dairy. Very good  indeed…

Roast Asparagus, Pancetta & Pine Nut Risotto

Asparagus, pancetta and pine nut risotto

1 small onion, chopped

50g butter

 75ml dry white wine

170g risotto rice

500ml home-made vegetable or asparagus stock (use the woody stems) – plus extra just in case

1 tbsp fresh tarragon leaves, chopped (or 1 tsp dried if that’s what you have)

9-10 spears asparagus

100g pancetta or smoked bacon, chopped

75g grated Parmesan cheese

Handful pine nuts, toasted until just brown

Olive oil

Seasoning

Pre-heat the oven to 200°C, Gas 6. Cook the onion and pancetta (or bacon) 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 – use to make stock if you have time). 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, allow to sizzle for a few minutes, then add 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 herbs, 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 the oven and cook for a further 15 minutes, before serving with extra cheese and toasted pine nuts.

I’m toying with the idea of making the next batch into soup – is that sacrilege?! I’ve already made a stock with the woody stems, so it’s very tempting. It’s certainly not the kind of thing you’d do unless you had lots to play with! I’ll keep you posted…

Tiptoe through the tulips…

Jan Reus tulips-001

Despite the lateness of the season, this has been a splendid year for tulips after all. My last, the delectable cream and lilac Atlantis (below), have just come into bloom and we’re almost at the end of May! The beautiful burgundy shot silk Jan Reus (above) have just gone over, having come out weeks ago, and I’ve had a succession of others in between. Once again, I’ve been glad that I didn’t plant them up in mixtures, as there seems no way of guaranteeing that they’ll all come out together. Far better, in my view, to have a solid block of colour in one pot and know that they will all be out at the same time.

Tulip Atlantis

I had two double varieties this year, Antraciet, a deep blood red, and Chato, a flamboyant magenta pink. Both have been superb, but (note to self!) very top-heavy in rain, especially the huge, paeony-flowered Chato. After an initial dry spell, we had a short, sharp shower one afternoon and I went out afterwards to find half my blooms neatly snapped off about four inches beneath the flower! Fortunately, I strive to have a vase for every occasion, so for once had my own tulips all over the house as cut flowers. They lasted surprisingly well, becoming even more exotic as they faded and you could appreciate them at close quarters. Still, I don’t think I’ll be cutting them deliberately any time soon…

Tulip Chato in tub
Tulip Chato

The glass “caterpillar” vase I was given for Christmas came in particularly handy for displaying a row of decapitated Chato flowerheads, and an antique turquoise jug looked superb too:

The double Antraciet, planted in big wooden barrels like all of my container-grown tulips, were weeks after my friend’s garden-planted bulbs of the same variety – perhaps mine were planted more deeply? Either way, when they finally opened, they were lovely, not quite as blowsy as Chato, but a gorgeous, rich maroon colour, almost deep fuchsia pink in bright sunlight. Not being quite as huge, they seemed to fare better with the rain too, although I did find them covered in slugs and snails as I walked past one showery evening! If it’s not one thing, it’s another….

Tulips Anthraciet
Tulip Antraciet

The earliest of my tulips  to flower were perhaps the most disappointing, the scented bronzy-orange Request. I had planted these in a tub where I knew there were already some feathered yellow early tulips, planted very deep, which come up year on year, and the whole barrel stands in front of a glorious golden philadelphus (the deliciously-scented mock orange or Philadelphus coronariusAureus‘). Colourwise, the combination was stunning, but sadly only 7 of the 15 new tulips I’d planted flowered – the rest were blind. Sarah Raven, good as ever, have credited my account for replacement tulips next season, but it is disappointing not to get quite the show you’d anticipated. I couldn’t detect any particular scent from the tulips either – but hey, you can’t win them all!

Tulip Request & yellow

So, a good year for tulips, all in all, but I think next year I’ll try and remember not to order such late varieties. As it is, I’m now going to have a bit of a scramble to empty this year’s containers and plant up my summer schemes in a relatively short space of time. Fortunately, I’ve finally managed to track down some large oak half-barrels to replace my existing ones, which are falling apart after a good 20 years’ sterling service! They are far too heavy to lift once planted up, so I’m still going to have to empty the old ones before I can remove them and plant up the new models in situ. A good excuse for a complete change of compost (and hopefully get rid of any vine weevil grubs that will inevitably be lurking in the old barrels after all this time).
Brandy Snap tulips allotment

The remaining bulbs can be planted up at the allotment, or on my dry and sunny bed at the front of the house, to see if they come good another year. After an excellent showing of the Brandy Snap collection I transplanted two years ago, I’m hopeful that they will flower again at some point – but I still only transplant decent-sized bulbs. If they’ve split into little bulblets when you dig them up, it’s unlikely they’ll come again and can just be discarded. Thank you, tulips, for a magnificent month of colour!

White Chocolate, Blueberry & Pine Nut Cookies

Garage bed May 2016

Younger son came home unexpectedly this weekend, so my empty cake and biscuit tins (after a week of hectic evening sporting activities following full-on working days) were crying out to be replenished this morning. Having picked armfuls of rhubarb from the allotment yesterday, along with my second decent harvest of asparagus of the season (yum!), my favourite Rhubarb Shortbread was a no-brainer, but I also felt inspired to make White Chocolate, Blueberry & Pine Nut cookies. These were originally from a recipe by Sophie Grigson, adapted as is my wont, but absolutely delicious with a good cup of coffee. Suffice to say that extra helpings of both have headed back to Reading with my son and his girlfriend this evening… (Praise indeed when an American girl approves of your cookies – thanks, Lauren!).

The rest of the rhubarb went into a Rhubarb & Almond Crumble after tonight’s herb-roasted lamb dinner: rhubarb cooked briefly in the microwave for 4-5 minutes, sweetened with Demerara sugar to taste and 2 tbsp Amaretto liqueur, then topped with an almond crumble made with 75g SR flour, 25g ground almonds, 50g butter, 25g caster sugar and a handful of flaked almonds – so simple, yet so good! And absolutely sublime with Amaretto Ice-cream on the side…

White Chocolate, Blueberry & Pine Nut Cookies

150g butter, softened
150g caster sugar
220g self-raising flour
1 egg, beaten
1 tsp vanilla essence
50g pine nuts
100g white chocolate, roughly chopped (I use Waitrose Belgian white)
75g dried blueberries

Heat the oven to 180°C/Gas 5. Grease two large baking trays.
Beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, then add the beaten egg, vanilla essence and sifted flour and mix well.
Stir in the pine nuts, white chocolate (I find a small mezzaluna brilliant for chopping chocolate quickly and easily) and blueberries.
The mixture will be quite wet, but this is fine. Either roll into 24-28 balls with dampened hands and place, spaced apart, on baking trays, or use a spoon to make walnut-sized blobs. Press down with a dampened fork to form rough discs.

Cookies pre cooking
Bake in the pre-heated oven for 10-12 minutes until pale golden-brown, cool for a minute or so on the tray, then transfer to a rack to cool.
Serve with good coffee and a very happy grin!

White choc & blueberry cookies