Beautiful broad beans

Just back from a fabulous week of yoga in the Spanish Alpujarras, I’m not even going to attempt to recreate the amazing vegetarian feasts we enjoyed on a daily basis in Las Chimeneas, not least because my tomatoes, peppers, courgettes and aubergines are still several weeks from being anywhere near fruition! To say nothing of cherries plucked straight from the tree, fresh peaches and apricots, and divinely buttery new potatoes….

Las Chimeneas salad lunch

What I do have, however, is a glut of broad beans, despite inviting friends to help themselves in my absence, and a plentiful supply of delectable English strawberries – perfect with my breakfast yogurt and muesli, as well as with meringue and whipped cream for the quintessential English pud. A week of heavy rain while I soaked up the Spanish sunshine has led to tremendous growth in the garden and at the allotment, so some of my broad beans have filled out rather more than I’d have liked: the ideal excuse to transform them into broad bean pesto! Having stripped my basil plants for Delia’s Pesto just before going away, I didn’t have quite enough fresh growth to harvest the 50g I needed for my standard Broad Bean Pesto, so a bit of adaptation was in order. Instead of basil, I chopped a generous fistful of fresh mint (Moroccan mint in my case, but ordinary garden mint would be fine too) and parsley, then filleted the broad beans after microwaving so that the end result was suitably emerald green and zingy.

Broad Bean, Mint & Parsley Pesto

Broad bean, mint & parsley pesto

12oz broad beans (after podding – you’ll probably need at least 2lb unpodded weight!)
1-2oz Parmesan cheese, finely grated
2 cloves garlic, crushed
Large handful garden mint, thick stalks removed
Large handful parsley, thick stalks removed
2-3fl.oz virgin olive oil
Seasoning

Steam or microwave the broad beans for 2-3 minutes then blanch under cold water. Unless your beans are very tiny, fillet the beans by removing the outer grey shells – a little bit fiddly, but worth it for the end result and bright green colour.

Place all remaining ingredients apart from olive oil in a food processor with the filleted beans and whizz until smooth, pushing down the sides as required.

Add the olive oil in a slow and steady stream until you have a thickish consistency. You may not need it all, so keep checking.

Will keep for a couple of weeks, covered, in the fridge, or you can freeze.

Having made this heavenly green concoction, dinner for the past two nights has been child’s play: linguine with baby broad beans, smoked salmon, onions and a creamy pesto sauce last night, then a seriously good oven-baked risotto with broad bean pesto and king prawns tonight – heaven on a plate! As usual, this is an adaptation of Delia’s standard oven risotto, but none the worse for all that:

Broad Bean & Prawn Risotto – serves 2-3

Broad bean risotto

1 small onion, chopped
1/2 red pepper, chopped
Generous glug of olive oil
75ml dry white wine
160g risotto rice
500ml home-made fish or vegetable stock (plus extra just in case)
2-3 tbsp broad bean, mint and parsley pesto (see above)
100g shelled baby broad beans (or use frozen peas if you’ve used up all your beans in the pesto, as I did, and can’t be bothered to trek down to the allotment for more!)
Handful fresh mint leaves, chopped (save some to garnish)
100g raw king prawns, defrosted if frozen
75g grated Parmesan cheese
Seasoning

Pre-heat the oven to 160°C, Gas 6. Cook the onion and red pepper in the oil until soft and golden – 5-7 minutes.

Place a 9” square baking dish (2” deep) into the oven to warm up. Add the rice to the onions and peppers 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, pesto and the stock, season and bring to boiling point. Add the shelled baby broad beans or frozen peas, if using.

Transfer the contents of the pan into the warmed dish, stir and bake, uncovered, for 20 minutes. Then stir in the raw prawns, 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.

You could, of course, use the standard basil-based broad bean pesto and use pancetta or bacon instead of prawns – anything goes!

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Chasing my tail

Broad beans and rapeseed

Here I am again, chasing my tail trying to get my garden ship-shape and ready for summer, despite the fact that we’re less than a week away from the longest day. Whatever happened to those, long, balmy evenings and sun-blessed days? It’s hardly June-like here, with torrential rain one day and dismal murk the next. My tomato plants, planted in their final positions outdoors a few weeks ago, have sulked since moving outside and it’s hard to believe they’ll be healthy, fruiting plants in a few short months… I delayed planting my French and runner beans at the start of the month due to the high winds and cold temperatures, but they’ve gone in now and will have to fend for themselves, along with the courgettes, squashes and sweetcorn.

Broad beans and basil

On the plus side, my broad beans are fantastic this year, now starting to reach harvesting size (typically just before I go on holiday!). I picked my first crop of tender baby beans this week to steam with asparagus and mint as an accompaniment to my friend’s delicious Shetland lamb chops. So good. I picked so many that I was able to give half away and still have enough to toss in the first pesto sauce of the season with pasta, caramelised onions and toasted pine nuts the following night.

Broad bean pasta

Strawberries too are coming thick and fast – little sign of slug damage yet, so perhaps those nematodes are getting to work at last. A shame that they aren’t having the same effect on my salad bed, where I’m still struggling to get lettuce past the germination stage before they’re munched off in their prime! In desperation, I’ve resorted to sowing some in a seed tray at home for planting out when they are a little more established….

I finally managed to finish planting up my new oak barrels at home this week – must be an all-time record for me to fill my summer containers so late in June! The old and disintegrating barrels in situ were well past their sell-by date – but as they made the move down from Scotland with us some 13 years ago and we’d had them in the Scottish garden for a good few years beforehand, I don’t suppose they owe me anything! It was quite a job emptying and refilling five full-sized half-barrels, so hardly surprising that it took me so long. Now filled with my giant tuberous begonias, fibrous begonias, lobelia and double petunias, I’m hoping for a spectacular display once they get going – slugs and snails permitting!

New barrel near gate

One final job I’ve been keen to do before the holiday season is upon us is to make my elderflower cordial. There’s an elder bush just down the road from where I live that’s absolutely laden with blossom this year – but I’d rather pick my elderflowers from a hedgerow away from road fumes if at all possible, so I’ve been holding on and dodging the showers, waiting for the perfect moment to harvest. Success at last one day this week, on a blustery dog walk down near my local reservoir: steeped overnight in their sugar and lemon solution, they are now bottled as the quintessential elderflower cordial, perfect for Hugo cocktails with Prosecco and lemon, as a refreshing long drink with sparkling water, or added to panna cotta or gooseberry compote for a certain je ne sais quoi… I wouldn’t be without it.

Elderflower Cordial – makes 2-3 (750ml) bottles

Elderflower cordial
20 or so heads of elderflower
2 pints boiling water
3lb granulated sugar
juice and grated zest of 2 lemons
1 tbsp citric acid

Pour the boiling water onto the sugar in a large preserving pan and stir over a medium heat until dissolved. Add the lemon juice, grated zest, citric acid and elderflowers (stripped of any chunky green stems, but left as heads). Cover with a tea towel and leave for 24 hours. Strain through a sieve lined with muslin into a large jug and pour through a funnel into sterilised bottles.
Keeps for several months in a dark place – refrigerate once opened.

What to do with black bananas?!

I don’t know how it is that I always seem to end up with blackened bananas in my fruit basket. I suppose at this time of year there are so many other fruits coming into season and being transformed into pudding (rhubarb, gooseberries, even strawberries) that poor old bananas, that winter standby, get forgotten. When eating them raw, I like my bananas bright yellow, just after the first tinges of green have vanished. Yes, yes, I know that they are easier to digest the riper they are, but once they start to develop brown spots, eating them as is just isn’t an option for me. Puddings and cakes are the way to go then. I’ve given recipes for my unctuous Banana cream before, but if you’re faced with REALLY black bananas, what then? Banana & cherry cupcakes are one option, but only use one banana. What if you’ve managed to overlook four bananas and can’t bear the thought of wasting them?

I was in this situation at the weekend and couldn’t find quite the recipe I had in mind, so ended up combining a couple of ideas, as is often the case. Nigel Slater’s chocolate muscovado banana cake was my starting point, but I had envisaged a dark chocolate cake, rather than chocolate chips. Here’s what I did:

Chocolate Banana Loaf
Chocolate and banana loaf

250g self-raising flour, sifted
1 tsp baking powder
125g butter
235g dark muscovado sugar
2 eggs, beaten
4 overripe bananas, peeled and roughly mashed (add a squeeze of lemon juice to prevent oxidation)
1 tsp vanilla extract
100g dark chocolate

Grease and line two loaf tins (you can make one large cake using one tin, but I split the mixture between two and freeze one). Heat the oven to 160°C fan, Gas 4.
Cream the softened butter and sugar together until light and fluffy.
Beat in the beaten egg and vanilla extract, then fold in the mashed banana.
Melt the chocolate over a pan of hot water, or in the microwave, if you prefer, and allow to cool slightly before folding into the mixture.
Fold in the flour and baking powder.
Transfer to the prepared loaf tins (or tin if you’re going for the jumbo option!).
Bake for 35 – 40 mins (or 50 mins if you’re baking the larger cake), testing with a skewer that there is no sign of uncooked cake mix.
Leave to cool in the tins, then serve and enjoy with the virtuous feeling of having transformed unprepossessing beginnings into the most delicious chocolatey cake!

Another favourite of mine is simplicity itself to prepare and happily converts the blackest of bananas into an amazingly sophisticated dessert. The recipe came originally from John Tovey’s Wicked Puddings book. You can tell how much I’ve used it by the splattered pages and the lack of spine – although that is partly due to one particular labrador in his puppy years… The joys of a full-length bookcase in the kitchen cum dogs’ bedroom!

Leo at the hunt
Brazilian Rum Banana Cream – serves 4

300ml double cream
2 tbsp caster sugar
1 tbsp coffee essence
2 tbsp dark rum
2 ripe bananas (works well with yellow ones too if that’s all you have!)
Crumbled meringue shells or amaretti biscuits to taste
Grated dark chocolate to serve

Whip the cream with the caster sugar, coffee essence, then fold in the rum.
Roughly chop the bananas and fold into the cream mixture.
For added texture, fold in crumbled meringues or crushed amaretti biscuits.
Transfer to four sundae dishes and grate dark chocolate over.
Chill before serving – and wait for compliments!

Gardening Crescendo

Back garden 2016 June

May/June is the time of year when a gardener’s activity levels reach a crescendo: tender plants to be transplanted outside, frames and supports to be constructed, late summer veg seeds to be sown, containers to be emptied of their faded bulbs and tired spring foliage, then rejuvenated with bright new summer bedding colour…. Inevitably there just aren’t enough hours in the day, especially when you’ve been delayed (again!) by a cold, late spring, and only have the weekend to get on in the garden.

And yet, somehow, it all gets done. Not quite yet, here at least, but it’s getting there. Last weekend I potted on my tomatoes and put up the bamboo frame that supports them against the sunny back of the house. Aubergines, peppers, chillis were all potted into bigger pots and returned to the conservatory. I sowed brassicas: calabrese, cavolo nero and purple-sprouting broccoli, plus a new one for me, cauliflower (Snowball). Last year’s Romanesco experiment was disappointing – very small heads and not much taste, so I thought I’d try the more traditional cauliflowers instead. Wallflower and sweet william also went in for early flowers next spring.

I had intended to plant out my tender courgettes, squash and sweetcorn up at the allotment, but a combination of a bank holiday, family around and other things going on meant I didn’t get chance – and just as well! Temperatures plummeted on Monday and we’ve had the most horrendous cold, wet and windy weather this week, most untypical for June. Judging by the state of my allotment neighbour’s young bean plants, any plants I had dared to plant out would have been whipped to shreds! Instead, they’ve been hardening off in the cold frame and went out in the more seasonal 20°C of this weekend. Second sowings of peas and finally time to erect the bean frame and sow French, runner and borlotti beans direct in the ground.

Germination has been sketchy on salad crops like lettuce and rocket – or more likely the slugs have been feasting yet again, despite frequent applications of organic slug pellets. In desperation I’ve ordered and applied (in the pouring rain, as recommended!) a nematode solution, both at the allotments and at home. Last time I tried, I found it singularly ineffective, but I suspect the soil temperature wasn’t warm enough. This time, that shouldn’t be an issue, but of course these biological pest controls take time to infest the host pests and can’t be expected to work overnight. Cue more slug pellets in the interim…

So what’s left to do? Just the mere task of emptying my old oak barrels of their spring planting schemes and replacing them with new barrels, bought earlier this year, drainage holes drilled and raring to go. The existing ones have been rotting gently for a couple of years now, so about time too – and hopefully getting rid of the decaying wood should eliminate some of the slugs and vine weevil grubs undoubtedly skulking in their depths. That’s next weekend’s job, though – or perhaps one a night in the evenings next week, work and weather permitting? We’ll see…

Strawberry

In the meantime, the first strawberry of the year was a welcome treat yesterday – as was the delightful open gardens tour in my village today: all the best gardeners deserve time off for inspiration! Weather, views and gardens to die for – and delicious tea and cake in the village church too. A gardener can but dream….

Wadhurst open gardens June 2016