Peas, courgettes and beetroot…

Peas

This has been a week of hefty pickings from the allotment – and with only me here to eat it all, my cooking has been very much variations on a theme! Hard to believe that just six weeks ago, I was worried whether the plants would survive the cold/slugs/pigeon attacks. I needn’t have fretted; the peas, mangetout and sugarsnap, have been amazing, outgrowing their net protection frame so much that I had to put in extension poles to raise the height (and stop those plump allotment pigeons pecking out the tips). The courgettes, sown and brought on in the warmth of the conservatory, have loved the freshly-manured bed and plentiful rain followed by sun, and almost growing before my eyes. I sowed two varieties this year, my old stalwart, the dark green Defender, and a pale green Italian variety from seed producers Franchi Sementi, called simply Genovese – which is delicious and very prolific. I wasn’t sure that seed from a hot country would do as well here, but so far I’m very impressed.

I try and walk down to the allotment every other evening in the harvesting season – or every evening if it’s very hot, especially if I have new plantings I need to keep watered. Even with such a short time interval between harvests, I am still returning with four or five courgettes and a punnet full of peas, to say nothing of soft fruit. I’ve given some away to friends and neighbours, of course, and my son and his fiancée visited briefly this weekend and went back after dinner with a vegetable box worth of fruit and veg from me and my son’s future in-laws. With tomatoes, lettuce and round courgettes from their smallholding, and sugarsnaps, straight courgettes, dill, jostaberries and dahlias from me, they can cancel this week’s Abel&Cole box without any qualms at all!

Baba ghanoush for lunch

It’s been surprisingly easy to come up with different combinations each night for dinner. I love eating the sugarsnaps raw with my simple lunch, but I’ve also had them in pasta sauce with fresh pesto and courgettes, as a quick & easy stir-fry with mushrooms and a hint of bacon, in a cream sauce with dill and smoked salmon to top linguine, and in a delicious pea orzotto inspired by Bake Off’s John Whaite via Twitter. I suspect this would also work with pearled spelt, although I haven’t tried it yet – or of course you could use rice, but cooking for a much shorter time as for a standard risotto.

Sugarsnap Orzotto with Tangy Feta & Mint – serves 2

Sugarsnap orzotto

1 litre vegetable stock, preferably homemade
300g sugarsnaps and/or mangetout peas
1 lemon, grated zest and juice
3 cloves garlic, crushed
Olive oil
1 onion, chopped
125 – 150g pearl barley, rinsed and drained
Small glass white wine
Handful fresh dill, roughly chopped
Handful fresh mint, roughly chopped
100g feta cheese
Salt and pepper

Put the vegetable stock, 200g peas, half the lemon zest and the crushed garlic into a pan and bring to a boil. Simmer for 5-10 minutes until the sugarsnaps are tender (mangetouts will need less time), then allow to cool. Blitz in a blender to a smooth liquid and sieve to remove strings – essential, even with fresh-picked sugarsnaps!
In a large, shallow casserole, heat a generous amount of olive oil over a medium heat, and add the chopped onions. Cook for 5 minutes or until transparent, then add the pearl barley and white wine. Bubble for a few minutes, than add some of the blended pea stock, half the lemon juice, seasoning and half the chopped dill and mint. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer and cook for 1 hour – 1 hour 15 minutes, topping up with more stock as it is absorbed by the barley. Chop the remaining sugarsnaps/mangetouts into bite-sized pieces and add after half an hour. You may not need all the stock, so keep an eye on it, and keep testing the barley for tenderness. Meanwhile, chop the feta cheese into small chunks and add the remaining lemon zest and juice, chopped mint and dill and a splash of olive oil, then season with salt and pepper. Leave to marinate while the risotto cooks. Once the pearl barley is tender, it is ready. Serve topped with the minty feta cheese, and garnish with extra raw sugarsnaps if you have any!

Earlier in the week, I also served both peas and courgettes raw in a sublime beetroot “rice” and feta salad adapted from a recipe suggestion in Olive magazine. I’ve grown two varieties this year, my favourite Cylindra for deliciously sweet, cylindrical beets that peel easily after roasting, and Chioggia, an usual and very pretty pink and white-striped beetroot. So far, I’ve found the taste of the Chioggia a little insipid when cooked, and the stripes/colour tend to fade to a muddy pink, which is disappointing – but grated raw in this salad, they were a revelation!

Beetroot “Rice” Salad with Feta, Sugarsnaps & Courgettes
– serves 2

Beetroot rice salad

4 raw beetroot (I used Chioggia), peeled and roughly chopped
Handful of dill, chopped
100g feta, chopped
100g sugarsnap peas, trimmed and roughly chopped
100g fresh courgettes, sliced very thinly into discs
2 tbsp sunflower seeds, toasted
1 heaped tsp cumin seeds, roasted
Lettuce to serve

Tangy lemon dressing
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
6 tbsp olive oil
1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp wholegrain mustard
Handful dill, chopped (and/or mint)
Salt and pepper

Put the chopped beetroot into a food processor and process until it resembles grains of rice. Tip into a serving bowl. Make the dressing by blending all the ingredients together in a jar and shaking until emulsified. Pour half the dressing over the beetroot – you won’t need it all, but see how you go. Any left over will keep well in the fridge for a week. Mix in the toasted sunflower and cumin seeds, sugarsnaps and courgettes and finally sprinkle over the feta. Serve on a bed of lettuce and enjoy! It’s hard to believe something so healthy and raw can taste so good.

 

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Decadence is Growing Your Own…

Whitecurrants

Strange though it may seem, there are times when growing your own fruit and vegetables can seem like the height of decadence. When else would you feel inclined to have fresh raspberries on your breakfast every day for a month, or feast on asparagus ’til it comes out of your ears?! At shop prices, or even farmer’s market prices, these luxury items tend to be perceived as special treats – yet, if you grow your own, you can indulge, in season, whenever you like – or freeze for later, of course. That’s one of the reasons why it’s always worth growing the kind of things that tend to command luxury prices in the shops, if you can find them at all, that is – asparagus, soft fruit, mangetout and sugarsnap peas, broad beans…. the list is endless. And that’s to say nothing of the environmental benefits of homegrown produce in terms of organic cultivation, food miles saved – and the taste of crops grown and eaten within hours of picking – bliss!

This week saw me with so many mangetout and sugarsnap peas that I made some into soup – sacrilege to many, I’m sure, but when you have plenty, why not?! It’s a recipe I’ve been cooking for years, all the years I’ve been growing peas, in fact, originally from an old Cranks recipe book, but tweaked slightly, as is my wont. It suggests serving it chilled, but unless you live in a very hot climate, I prefer serving it hot – and freezing for an instant taste of summer on cooler days.

Mangetout Soup – serves 6-8

2 medium onions
450g mangetout or sugarsnap peas
2 small potatoes
50g butter
1 litre vegetable stock
200ml milk (or adjust to taste)
Handful of fresh mint leaves
Seasoning

Chop the onions and sauté in butter until transparent. Trim the peas, removing any strings if using sugarsnaps or older mangetouts, chop roughly and dice the potatoes, then add to the pan with the chopped mint. Sauté for a few minutes, add the stock, season and bring to the boil, then cover and simmer for 20 minutes.
Allow to cool slightly, then purée in a blender in batches. Sieve into a clean pan – this is one soup that really does need to be sieved. I’ve tried it without and you can’t get rid of the stringiness of the pods, no matter how carefully you trim them beforehand.
Add milk until the desired consistency is reached. Much depends on the size and consistency of your potatoes and how thin you like your soup!
Reheat to serve – also freezes well.

Another favourite way of cooking mangetout or sugarsnaps straight from the garden – other than deliciously raw in salads! – is with a tangy lemon dressing. This was inspired by Delia Smith’s summer vegetables in her Summer Cookbook and uses any summer vegetables you happen to have lying around, lightly steamed or microwaved and tossed in a lemon dressing with fresh herbs to serve.

Summer Vegetables in Tangy Lemon & Dill Dressing

Summer veg with lemon dressing

Mangetout peas
Sugarsnap peas
Courgettes
Baby carrots
Shallots or bulbous spring onions
Broad beans
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
6 tbsp olive oil
1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp wholegrain mustard
Handful dill, chopped (and/or mint)
Salt and pepper

You can use any young summer vegetables you have to hand for this recipe, which is why I haven’t specified quantities – it’s entirely up to you. Prepare the veg as usual, then steam or microwave for 4-6 minutes. If using carrot or onions, start them off first, then add the rest for the last 3-4 minutes. You want them just tender, definitely not cooked through.
Meanwhile, prepare the dressing by placing the juice and zest of the lemon in a jar, then adding the olive oil, sugar, crushed garlic, mustard and seasoning. Shake to emulsify, then taste: if too sharp, add more oil.
Turn the vegetables into a serving bowl, add enough of the dressing to coat and toss while still warm. Sprinkle over chopped dill and/or mint and serve lukewarm or cold the next day.

Summer veg salad with prosciutto

If you have any leftover new potatoes, this is delicious served for a lunchtime Summer Vegetable Salad, mixed with the potatoes and some chopped prosciutto crudo, adding extra dressing if required. I even threw in a handful of whitecurrants for an extra fruity je ne sais quoi when I made this last week.
The perfect summer lunch, just right for the current unexpected spell of hot weather….

Poppy in the meadow 2016

Blackcurrants – not just for Ribena!

Blackcurrant fool individual

Berries and currants of all hues, shapes and sizes are coming thick and fast in the fruit garden in this unexpected July heatwave. The raspberries are fantastic this year – must be all that winter rainfall – and the gooseberries and currants aren’t far behind. All apart from the redcurrants, that is; they’ve been stripped (by birds/mice?!) despite being comprehensively netted! Raspberries and strawberries I eat as they come, but most of the currant family tend to need cooking before eating. Whitecurrants are the honourable exception, being delicious raw like mini grapes, added to salads or as elegant decorative touches. I do hope to make some jelly when I get a spare minute or two, but may have to add some blackcurrants to give a hint of colour in the absence of the usual redcurrants.

I’ve already got a number of blackcurrants in the freezer from last year’s bountiful crop, so I’ve been experimenting with this year’s pickings. Having my younger son and his ice cream-loving girlfriend to stay for a few weeks while they were between flats was a great incentive to try a blackcurrant ripple ice cream, a variation on a recipe I found in the June edition of Sainsbury’s magazine. The original used cherries, but I figured blackcurrants could work as well, if not better.

Blackcurrant Ripple Ice Cream

Blackcurrant ripple ice cream

250-300g blackcurrants
300g caster sugar
2 large egg whites
1 kg full-fat Greek yogurt

Stew the blackcurrants and 50g sugar gently in a small pan, stirring until the juice runs, until the currants soften and form a compote. Allow to cool.
Mix the egg whites with the remaining sugar in  heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water. Stir constantly until the mixture is hot, but not boiling – 2-3 minutes.
Transfer to a large, cold bowl and whisk with an electric mixer for 5 minutes until you have  a cool, stiff and fluffy texture.
Whisk in the yogurt, then transfer to an ice cream maker and churn until frozen. Of course, you can make it the old-fashioned way by freezing for an hour or so, then whisking in the ice crystals and repeating until softly frozen.
Fold through the blackcurrant compote for a rippled effect and return to the freezer for at least 4 hours to set.
This makes an extremely light, yet creamy and tangy ice cream., good served with fruit or on its own, with lots of contented lip-licking.

Having made the ice cream, I was left with two egg yolks skulking in the fridge. I normally make Chocolate Custard Creams or add them to quiche, but this week, in sweltering heat, I was tempted by the idea of a blackcurrant fool, using freshly made custard with the egg yolks as the base – satisfying use of leftovers too! I’d made double the quantity of blackcurrant compote in the first place, so enough for the ice cream and the fool – making assembling this even easier. You can add fresh raspberries and the food processing stage to replace some of the compote if you prefer. You could equally well use ready-made custard or custard made with custard powder if you don’t fancy making fresh custard.

Blackcurrant Fool – serves 2-3

Blackcurrant fool duo

2 egg yolks
1 tbsp caster (or vanilla) sugar
1 heaped tsp cornflour
150ml milk
few drops vanilla extract
250-300g blackcurrants
50g caster sugar (or to taste)
100ml double cream, whipped

Combine the egg yolks, 1 tbsp caster sugar and cornflour in a small bowl. Stir in the cold milk, then strain into a small pan. Cook gently until the mixture starts to thicken, stirring constantly. Add the vanilla extract to the custard. Allow to cool.
Stew the blackcurrants and 50g sugar gently in a small pan, stirring until the juice runs, until the currants soften and form a compote. Allow to cool.
Blend the custard and compote in a food processor, then push through a sieve to remove any seeds/skin.
Whip the cream and fold into the fruit mixture. You can use a balloon whisk to combine if the cream is too thick to fold readily!
Spoon into sundae dishes and chill, then decorate with fruit of your choice, or mint leaves/toasted  almond flakes to garnish.

Incidentally, if it’s not soft fruit season, the Chocolate Custard Creams I mentioned earlier follow the same method for the custard, but stir 60g chopped plain chocolate into the custard immediately after it thickens. Continue stirring until the chocolate melts completely, then transfer to ramekin dishes and decorate with chopped walnuts or grated chocolate. Tastes amazingly decadent for such a simple pud….

Queen of the Crops

Soft fruit has to be one of the most rewarding crops a home gardener can grow; it does its own thing for most of the year and then suddenly, come June/July, you have more fruit than you know what to do with – not really a hardship, I’m sure you’ll agree! Given the price of fruit in the supermarket, where tiny punnets of raspberries cost a small fortune and often go off disappointingly quickly, this is somewhere you can save pounds. It’s also very hard to even find the currant family, or even gooseberries, in the shops these days, unless you have acess to a farmer’s market or pick-your-own farm.

Admittedly, it’s a good idea to net most of the soft fruit family; redcurrants are particularly prone to bird attack (even when netted!) and I’ve known gooseberries and blackcurrants disappear too, though whether due to birds or passing humans, I’ve never been quite sure… My raspberries seem to thrive without netting and I have a bonus crop this year from raspberry runners that have decided to take up residence underneath my Bramley apple tree – permaculture in essence!

The strawberries are usually first to arrive and have given me a good month of generous pickings: from strawberries on my breakfast muesli (such decadence!), to Strawberry Cheesecake, strawberry meringue and strawberry ice cream. Another old favourite, simplicity itself to make, is a Summer Fruit Crème Brûlée, a recipe I picked up on a Sainsbury’s recipe card many moons ago. The ice cream, another dead-easy recipe, is adapted from Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook and puts shop-bought impostors well and truly in their place – you’ll never want to taste bought ice cream again!

Strawberry Ice Cream

Strawberry ice cream

500g fresh strawberries, washed and hulled if necessary
Juice of one orange
Juice of one lemon
300ml double cream
150g caster (or vanilla) sugar

Blitz the strawberries, orange and lemon juice in a blender. Add the cream and sugar until well mixed. Churn in an ice cream maker, or make the old-fashioned way by freezing for an hour or so, then whisking in the ice crystals and repeating until softly frozen.
Serve as is or with more fresh strawberries – divine!

Strawberry ice cream serving

Summer Fruit Crème Brûlée – serves 4-6

Creme brulee portion

250g fresh strawberries, washed and hulled
1 nectarine or peach
125g grapes
14-16 Amaretti biscuits
2 x 200ml tubs crème fraiche (I like the half-fat organic one from Yeo Valley, but full-fat is good too)
150g soft brown sugar

Arrange the strawberries, nectarine and grapes in a round 20cm soufflé dish. You can add a tablespoon of Amaretto at this stage if you wish, but I find the fruit makes its own juice as it chills. Place the Amaretti biscuits on top, evenly spaced. Spoon on the crème fraiche to completely seal the fruit and chill in the fridge for a good couple of hours.
Sprinkle over the sugar, completely covering the cream, then grill for 1-2 minutes (or use a blow torch if you have one!) until the sugar caramelises.
Allow to cool slightly, then serve to general acclaim.
You can of course, use any soft fruit of your choice in this recipe – raspberries are good too, or just strawberries.

My final recipe is an adaptation of my standard strawberry cheesecake instructions to accommodate the current raspberry glut. I ended up picking over a 1kg raspberries in torrential rain yesterday, so a cheesecake and delectable accompanying coulis seemed the way to go.

Raspberry Cheesecake – serves 8-10

Raspberry cheesecake

75g butter
250g Speculoos biscuits (I used Lotus)
150ml double cream
200g full-fat cream cheese
200g crème fraiche
Juice and zest of 1 lime
75g caster sugar
Few drops vanilla essence
Fruit to top: 500g raspberries

I make this in a shallow 30cm x 20cm rectangular tart tin with a loose bottom, but you can use an equivalent round tart tin if you prefer. Grease the tin with butter.

Melt the butter in a small pan and add the crushed biscuits (the old-fashioned way using a plastic bag and a rolling pin, or food-processor if you prefer). Mix and turn into the base of the tin. Spread out and refrigerate while you make the filling.

Whip the cream lightly with the sugar, then add the lime zest and juice, cream cheese, crème fraiche and vanilla essence, continuing to whip until the mixture makes soft swirls. Turn into the base and refrigerate for at least 6 hours, preferably overnight for the best set.

Top with fresh raspberries and serve with raspberry coulis if liked.

Raspberry Coulis

250g raspberries
Juice of 1 orange
1 tbsp icing sugar, sifted

Blitz the raspberries (I used the squishy ones from the bottom of my punnet after picking in pouring rain!) in a blender with the sifted icing sugar and add the sieved orange juice. Strain through a sieve to remove the seeds and serve with the cheesecake or with ice cream. You can add more orange juice if too thick, of course.