Tag Archives: allotment

Return to gardening: long awaited start to a new season

White and yellow flag tulips

Last weekend saw my long-awaited return to gardening proper after my ACL operation at Christmas. I’ve done the odd bit of harvesting and snipping back of leaves in recent weeks, but two trips to Austria and family gatherings have precluded me doing anything more extensive. Probably just as well: I’d intended to spend both days in the garden last weekend, but the weather and circumstances conspired against me and my knee was still quite sore after just one day’s concentrated gardening! Still, the ice pack I applied yesterday seems to have done its stuff, and I feel very virtuous (and relieved!) that I’ve finally taken the plunge.

I finished off the winter cutting-down of any remaining perennials such as asters and penstemons, and dead-headed my hydrangeas now the new growth is well underway; always looks so much better once you’ve done that. I even managed to tackle, or at least make a start on tackling, the spreading of the compost heap. Last year, I sought paid help to do this particular job, as I’d only just had my accident and was definitely in no fit state to do any heavy gardening work. This time, though, I was very good and paced myself: one barrowload on Sunday, and then I left the rest (another two barrowloads in all – isn’t it incredible how much a whole year of lawn clippings, garden and kitchen waste rots down to over time?!) until Friday, when I finished spreading it around greedy shrubs like roses, clematis and hydrangeas.

Front garden April

Over the winter, I’d persuaded the management committee that manages the communal land around our local close to take out two ugly privet bushes that have always stuck out like sore thumbs on the bank opposite my house. We’d paid our usual ongoing maintenance gardener to cut the shrubs down last autumn, but he seemed rather reluctant to finish the job and remove the stumps. When pressed, he and his sidekick came out, messed around in a desultory fashion (the benefits of an office overlooking the front garden!), then disappeared, apparently reporting that they were too deeply entrenched and a stump grinder would be necessary at vast expense. I duly got a couple of quotes, from the reasonable to the sublimely ridiculous – from said gardener, what a surprise! -, went with the cheapest (and most competent, I hasten to add!) and lo and behold, he managed to move the stumps with a bit of elbow grease and no stump grinder in the space of an hour or so. Sigh. Anyway, mission accomplished – which meant that I was able to plant some roses I had in pots and can now look forward to an even better and more colourful display this summer, without the depressing and boring privets.

Island bed new planting

Sowing seeds for the propagator in the conservatory was another priority: one week later than last year, but still in the right timeframe as they soon catch up once they’re up and running: tomatoes (my favourite Sungold and stripey Tigerella, Sunchocola from last year and new Black Cherry from Chiltern Seeds), sweet pepper Corno di Toro and chillis (Anaheim and Padron – here’s hoping for better germination than last year!), aubergine Long Purple, leeks Bandit, Tornado and Musselburgh, basil, parsley and celeriac.

I also planted lots of flower seeds with a view to making a bigger cutting garden at the allotment. I’ve reclaimed the top part of my plot this year as the current tenants have moved out of the parish to a house with a bigger garden and it seemed a shame to waste the beds they’d prepared now they’ve done the hard work of clearing all the brambles the previous tenant had left! Sadly, they dismantled the wooden beds themselves, but I’m going to see if I can manage without edgings initially. The middle bit has all been lined and covered with wood chippings, so it looks a far more manageable proposition than the bramble and couch grass-infested jungle it was before… Good excuse for more dahlias, duly ordered from Sarah Raven as usual: Penhill Dark Monarch, Emory Paul (I saw these two at a Perch Hill open day last September and they were simply fabulous, huge blowsy blooms, so definitely had to go on the list), Perch Hill, Rip City and Café au Lait Royal. I also sowed seeds of Echinacea Pallida, Cosomos Versailles Tetra, Callistephus chinensis King Size Apricot (Chinese asters!), Achillea Cassis, Antirrhinum Royal Bride and finally Lobelia Crystal palace for my containers at home. All in all, rather a tight squeeze in the propagator!

My parents have given me an apothecary’s peony (Paeonia officinalis) with deep red double flowers, so that’s gone in the new beds, where, in time, it will hopefully give me enough peonies to pick – such decadence! Also three sturdy delphinium plants that a fellow plotholder kindly gave me last year and I really didn’t have room for; they were heeled in at the end of the asparagus bed, but would undoubtedly have been swamped by the asparagus in season. I’ve lots more annual seeds to sow in situ in the next few weeks, plus some deep burgundy gladioli bulbs (Black Star). Very exciting to have a new project – although I may not have quite as much time as usual at the allotment this year, as my son and daughter-in-law have just given birth to a beautiful baby girl and grandmotherly duties may take precedence over gardening….

Purple rain tulips

 

 

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In praise of the humble chickpea – and goodbye to a very special dog

It’s been a strange and sad few weeks: I returned from a much-needed post-op holiday in the Austrian mountains at the end of February to unprecedented high temperatures in the South-East of England and a very sick dog. I’ve written her story on my other blog, so I won’t go into it again here; suffice it to say that I had to say my farewells to her soon after arriving back from the airport and the house has been indescribably sad and quiet without her ever since. RIP, Poppy – we’ll miss you enormously… and Leo will miss his partner in crime.

Poppy and Leo something's up

Inevitably, life must go on, and although I’ve managed to immerse myself in piles of work since getting home, I hadn’t had time to go to the allotment. I’m still not supposed to walk on rough ground after my ACL operation at Christmas, and am restricted to pavement walking. However, I figured that, since it’s been dry recently, and if I was very careful, I could walk Leo down to the allotment on Sunday afternoon and just see what was growing. Imagine my surprise to see everything doing very well indeed: purple-sprouting broccoli busting out all over, the first spindly pink sticks of rhubarb already up to a foot tall, and fresh spinach and kale in abundance, plus the usual late winter / early spring suspects of leeks and parsley.

Allotment haul Mid-March 2019

After the excesses of Austria – far too much Kaffee und Kuchen in the afternoon and a five-course dinner every evening – I’ve been yearning for salads since I arrived home. Not doing my usual quota of exercise and activities, and a relatively sedentary lifestyle since Christmas, have also meant I’m having to be much more conscious of what I eat for the first time ever. Ho hum – I’m definitely cutting down on cake and desserts for the time being, although I did experiment with a healthy banana & date flapjack at the start of the week as an alternative snack. I tweaked the recipe (see link above) with maple syrup instead of honey and added 75g dates, but although they were tasty the first day, the flavour seems to diminish on subsequent days and they just taste rather worthy! This recipe for fridge fruit & nut bars is a tasty sugar-free treat in the meantime – and I’ll report back when I eventually find a healthy flapjack that really hits the spot. A friend also posted a recipe for vegan tiffin, which sounds worth a try, but certainly isn’t low-calorie or sugar-free if that’s what you’re after.

Salads, on the other hand, are easier to get right. I wrote about delicious winter salads a few weeks ago, and another I’ve made a couple of times recently is a Sarah Raven recipe from the Christmas issue of Good Housekeeping. It was intended as a vegetarian alternative for the Christmas feast, but I’ve tweaked and experimented with it a couple of times since and found it to be a fantastic and filling main course salad for any time of the year. Chickpeas and lentils are such comforting ingredients, and mixed with a spicy dressing, nuts, dried fruit and peppers, they really fit the brief. The original recipe served 6, and I’ve cut it down considerably for one, but still find it makes about three meals – always a bonus to have leftovers for lunch!

Warm Puy Lentil & Chickpea Salad

Chickpea & lentil salad
2 tbsp sultanas, soaked in 2 tbsp dry sherry or white wine
50g Puy lentils
1 bay leaf
1 clove garlic
1/2 can chick peas, drained
Olive oil
1/2 butternut squash, peeled and cut into bitesize chunks
1 large red onion, peeled and cut into eighths
1 sprig rosemary, woody stem removed, chopped
1 red pepper, cut into chunks
Handful of cherry tomatoes
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1″ piece of root ginger, grated
1 red chilli, finely chopped
2 tbsp dried cranberries
50g cashews, toasted
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tsp wholegrain mustard
1/2 tsp sugar
Handful of kale or cavolo nero leaves, thick stems removed, shredded (young calabrese or purple-sprouting broccoli leaves work just as well)
50g feta cheese, diced
Seasoning
Handful of fresh coriander or parsley to serve

Pre-heat oven to 180°C (fan)/gas 5. Put the squash, onions and garlic in a roasting tray with the rosemary leaves, drizzle with olive oil, season and cook in the oven for about 20 minutes. Then add the chunks of red pepper, chillis, root ginger and cherry tomatoes, toss everything together, and cook for a further 20-30 minutes until nicely soft and roasted.

Meanwhile cook the Puy lentils, bay leaf and 1 clove garlic in just enough water to cover for about 20-25 minutes. Drain off any excess water and remove the bay leaf and garlic. Place in a large salad bowl with the drained chickpeas and season.

Stir in the sultanas and sherry, add the contents of the roasting tin and the toasted cashews and dried cranberries. Make a dressing to taste using three parts olive oil to lemon juice, plus 1 tsp sugar, 1 tsp wholegrain mustard and seasoning. Stir into the salad. Finally add the chopped kale or cavolo nero leaves and sprinkle with diced feta, then garnish with chopped coriander.

Good served warm, but equally delicious served cold the next day. You can also add cooked chicken for extra protein if you feel so inclined, or throw some chorizo into the roasting tin for the last 20 minutes or so – it’s an extremely flexible dish.

Of course, this recipe leaves you with half a tin of chickpeas, not that this is in any way a hardship! I like to use them in a tomato & chickpea pasta sauce with or without spicy chorizo and paprika, but last Tuesday, which just happened to be Pancake Day, I used a variation on the sauce as a tasty filling for pancakes. Extremely good it was too. If you’re only making enough pancakes for one or two, keep back half the sauce to serve with pasta for another day, with added feta and coriander, or just with the traditional Parmesan.

Tomato and chickpea pasta

Tomato, Chickpea & Fennel Pancakes – serves 4

Pancakes:
125g plain flour
pinch of salt
1 egg
300ml milk
Butter for frying

Sauce:
I onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
Glug of olive oil
1 fennel bulb, chopped
1 red pepper, chopped
1 red chilli, finely chopped
1 tsp fennel seeds, crushed
1 can chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato purée
1 tbsp paprika
1/2 can chickpeas, drained
75g chorizo or bacon lardons (optional)
Red wine (to taste – or use water if you prefer)

To assemble:
200ml natural yogurt
1 egg, beaten
Seasoning
Cheddar cheese (or Parmesan) grated

Chickpea, tomato and fennel pancakes

First make the pancakes in the usual way by sifting the flour and salt into a roomy bowl. Break the egg into the centre, then gradually beat in the milk and incorporate the flout until all mixed and little bubbles start to form on the surface. Leave to stand for 30 minutes or so if you can, but it’s not critical if you can’t. This mixture should make at least 8 pancakes in an 18cm frying pan. Stack the finished pancakes on a plate as you make them and set aside until you’ve made the sauce.

Cook the chopped onion, garlic and chilli in olive oil in a frying pan until starting to soften and turn golden, than add the chopped fennel, red pepper and chorizo (or bacon), if using, and cook for another 5-10 mins. Stir in the tomato purée, canned tomatoes, fennel seeds, chickpeas and seasoning and simmer for 30-45 minutes until nicely reduced. If it starts to reduce too much, you can add some red wine or water to stop it drying out.

Assemble the pancakes by putting a generous spoonful of the sauce on one edge of each, rolling up and placing in a rectangular ovenproof dish. Then mix the natural yogurt and the beaten egg and spoon over the top of the pancakes. Sprinkle over grated cheese and cook in a hot oven 200°C (fan)/gas 6 for about 25 minutes until nicely browned.

Serve with a green salad and enjoy!

Poppy sad

Apples aplenty – and cavalcades of kale

Cox apples_landscape

‘Tis definitely apple season in all its joyous abundance – the ground beneath my orchard trees is covered with windfalls, some just slightly peck-marked, others victim to brown rot or insect damage from within. The plums were a martyr to moth damage earlier this year too, with a poor harvest in any case, but very few that were actually edible, as most had maggots in – yuk! Now’s the time to put greasebands round the trees to stop the moths sheltering overwinter – and next spring I’ll try and remember to hang pheromone traps to catch the other kinds of moths that cause so much damage to plums.

In the meantime, what to do with all these apples? The obligatory and delicious apple pies and crumbles, of course, plus apple juices and compotes for the freezer or to eat with my breakfast muesli. I like to use them in soup too, not only my favourite tomato, apple & celery, but with other strong-tasting vegetables to add an undernote of sweetness and some body. I’ve currently got an excellent crop of spinach and Swiss chard from both my spring and September sowings, so spinach soup was calling to me. I usually make spinach & pea soup with frozen peas, but had no peas in the freezer as I tend to use fresh veg through the summer months. Inspiration descended with the notion of combining spinach and apples in a soup, with a smattering of bulb fennel for good luck, since I’ve managed to grow it successfully for the first time – very good it was too!

Spinach, Apple & Fennel Soup – serves 6

Spinach, apple and fennel soup

500g spinach, washed, thick stalks removed, and roughly chopped
2 large eating apples, peeled, cored and diced – I used a Cox type
50g butter (or olive oil if you prefer)
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 sticks celery, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 bulb fennel, chopped, plus a handful of the feathery fronds to add at the end
Few sprigs of thyme, leaves removed
Grated rind of 1 lemon
1 bay leaf
1 litre chicken (or vegetable) stock
Handful of red lentils (optional)
Seasoning

Melt the butter or olive oil in large pan and gently fry the diced onion, fennel, celery and garlic until soft and golden – about 10 minutes. Then add the diced apple, thyme leaves and bay leaf and stir for a couple of minutes. Add the chopped spinach leaves – it will look like a huge pile, but they soon wilt down. Finally, add the stock, a handful of red lentils (to thicken – leave out if you prefer) and seasoning, bring to the boil and cook for 20-25 minutes until nicely tender. Leave to cool, then blend in a liquidizer.

Serve with a swirl of cream or crème fraiche and homemade rolls straight from the oven.

Another revelation in the apple stakes was that apple juice with kale and fennel isn’t bitter at all, but rather delicious. Kale is another crop that just keeps on giving this year – strictly speaking, I grow cavolo nero for its beautiful dark green, crinkly leaves. It is so good for us, it’s a shame not to use it in as many ways as possible. I don’t get my juicer out as often as I should, but having experienced a sublime Green Goddess juice on my recent trip to the States, I thought I’d experiment. Cue 4 or 5 Cox-type apples, chopped kale (stalks removed), a quarter of a lime, a quarter of a fennel bulb and a knob of ginger. I say Cox-type as I sadly have no idea which variety mine is – it was in the allotment when I took it over, resembles a Cox (but without the scab problems that can afflict Cox apples proper), and is always extremely prolific, juicy and tasty. It stores quite well in the garage too. And the juice? – Divine! Do try it and see.

Apple and kale juice

Another apple creation was inspired by a recipe I read in the Waitrose Kitchen magazine on my flight to Chicago. Conveniently, I knew I’d be able to track the recipe down online when I got home, but rather more impressively, I actually remembered to do so after a couple of weeks away! I’m always on the lookout for new ice cream recipes, so this one was extra-tempting: who could resist the prospect of toffee apple ice cream?! The original recipe used bought ice cream (the horror!), but I made my own and swirled it all together rather than layering – truly reminiscent of those brittle toffee apples of our childhood, but without the associated dental challenges!

Toffee Apple Ice Cream

Toffee apple ice cream

125g granulated sugar
5 tbsp water
600ml whipping cream
1 tsp vanilla extract

50g light brown soft sugar
50g wholemeal flour (I used self-raising as that’s what I had, but plain would be fine)
½ tsp ground cinnamon
70g butter, cubed
Salt to taste
100g caster sugar
70ml double cream
3 eating apples, peeled, cored and diced
juice of half lemon

First, make the vanilla ice cream by placing 125g granulated sugar and 4 tbsp water in a small pan, allow the sugar to melt, then continue to cook over a gentle heat for 5 mins until syrupy. Allow to cool completely. Whip 600ml whipping cream with the cold syrup and vanilla extract until it thickens and just begins to hold its shape. Pour into an ice-cream maker (mine is a basic Magimix Glacier model where you have to freeze the bowl in the freezer overnight beforehand: simple but effective). It should take about 30-40 minutes to churn, and while that’s doing you can get on with the rest.

Preheat the oven to 150˚C, gas 3. Line a medium baking tray with baking parchment. For the crumble, put the brown sugar, flour and cinnamon in a bowl, then rub in 30g cubed butter and a pinch of salt, until the mixture resembles fine, gritty sand. Spread out on the tray and bake for 10 minutes, stirring halfway through, until pale golden and crisp. Set aside to cool.

Put the caster sugar in a large frying pan with 2 tbsp water. Heat gently, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Then without stirring, bring to the boil over a medium-high heat and simmer briskly for about 4 minutes, until a dark golden caramel forms. If it colours unevenly, swirl the pan. Remove the pan from the heat; stir in the cream and a pinch more salt. Add the remaining 40g butter and stir until a smooth caramel forms. Pour into a heatproof bowl. Return the unwashed pan to the heat and add the diced apples (sprinkled with lemon juice to prevent browning). Cook, stirring, for 10 minutes, until softened and golden. Add to the caramel bowl and allow to cool.

If the ice cream is ready before the remaining ingredients are cool, just transfer it to a large freezer container and freeze until everything is cool. When you’re ready, gently fold in the crumble chunks and caramel apples until just mixed and return to the freezer to finish freezing. Remove from the freezer 20-30 minutes before serving – and enjoy!

My final offering today is hardly a recipe, more an assembly of garden produce that, combined, make a wonderfully refreshing autumn kale salad. It was inspired by a delicious cabbage and kale salad I had at one of my daughter-in-law’s friend’s houses in Ohio. She’d used a bagged salad from Costco (costing in excess of $5!), which even included raw Brussels sprouts (and I, a confirmed sprout hater, liked them – perhaps raw is the way to go!). I used vegetables from the allotment, with finely chopped raw kale, calabrese leaves, red lettuce, sliced fennel, toasted sunflower, pumpkin seeds and peanuts, dried cranberries, served with herb-roasted carrots, beetroot, red onion and potatoes, topped with a smattering of griddled halloumi (you could use feta or goat’s cheese too), and dressed with a lime, olive oil and pomegranate molasses dressing – so good! (And all the better for mostly being home-grown 😊).

Kale and roasted root salad

Bean Feast

Bean feast

I can’t quite believe that I haven’t included any French (or runner) bean recipes on my blog in the nearly five years I’ve been writing. What an oversight! It’s not as if I don’t grow enough of them: every year I usually have more beans than I know what to do with, although I often start off with slow germination, or growth setbacks of one sort or another, and worry that I won’t have enough. They always come good in the end, leaving me overrun – and this year is no exception.

I stopped growing the coarser runner beans a few years back, when my sons had left home and I was essentially just cooking for one. I’ve always preferred the finer, tastier French beans, and the fact that they are less hardy than the runners really isn’t a problem now I’m living in the milder South East of England. In Scotland we used to start them off in the unheated greenhouse in late spring, but down here I’ve found they do better planted direct in the soil in early to late June, even as late as early July if the first sowing doesn’t come to anything like this year. Planted so late, they follow on neatly from the broad beans and peas, and don’t compete with the heady courgette rush in mid-summer. By late July/early August, when they start to form those long, elegant pods, we’re just about ready for a new summer crop – perfect timing. And they keep on going well into September, or even October in a good year.

This year I had a mixed pack of bean seeds, containing three different varieties: yellow (Monte Gusto), purple (Carminat) and green (Monte Cristo). I’m favourably impressed so far, although the yellow seem to be by far the most prolific (and easiest to see and harvest).

So how come I haven’t written any recipes for them before? I have no idea! I can only think it’s because this is such a busy time of year in the garden that I’m too busy cooking, harvesting and freezing to write. Definitely time to put that right and jot down a few of my favourite ways of using all those beautiful beans….

My first suggestion is a recipe I’ve been cooking for over 30 years, originally from my home economist friend Bridget in Cheshire. It makes an extremely flavourful vegetarian lasagne, or you can use the bean filling as a pasta sauce without layering and oven-baking if you prefer. I used to make this with runner beans, but French work just as well, if not better.

French Bean & Nut Lasagne – serves 4-6

Bean and nut lasagne

1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 red (or green) pepper, chopped
3 sticks celery, chopped
250g French or runner beans, chopped into 2cm long pieces
1 large can chopped tomatoes (or 450g fresh, peeled and chopped if you have them)
2 tbsp tomato purée
Handful of basil or oregano
2 tbsp pesto
150ml red wine
50g walnuts, chopped
Seasoning

45g butter
45g plain flour
500ml milk
125g Cheddar cheese
1 tsp mustard
Grated fresh nutmeg

175-200g dried lasagne

For the bean sauce, cook the onion and garlic in the olive oil for 4-5 mins until starting to soften. Add the pepper, celery and beans, stir well and cook for a further 5 mins. Stir in the tomatoes, tomato purée, basil or oregano, pesto, wine and walnuts, season well and simmer uncovered for 30-40 mins.

Make the cheese sauce as usual by melting the butter, stirring in the flour, cooking for 1 minute then gradually adding the milk, stirring until it thickens and is smooth. Season, add half the cheese and the grated nutmeg and set aside.

Soften the lasagne sheets in a bowl of boiling water, or follow the instructions on your packet (this is a very old recipe!). Assemble the layers in a lasagne dish, starting with the bean sauce, then lasagne, then cheese sauce, ending with cheese sauce. Sprinkle with remaining cheese and cook at 180°C / Gas 4 for 25-30 mins. Serve with a mixed salad.

Next up is another recipe adapted from my old favourite Dairy Cookbook from the early 1980s. Patched, chewed (puppy!) and bespattered it may be, but I still have certain recipes that I turn to now and again, and this is one of them: a comforting pancake dish with a delectable bean, apple and ham filling, finished off with a hint of wholegrain mustard and a velvety cheese sauce. True comfort food for those early autumn days… You can use chopped bacon in this dish, but I usually make it with chopped cooked ham from a weekend gammon joint, which marries perfectly with the melting tenderness of the apples and onions. It’s not unlike an English take on cannelloni, but using pancakes rather than pasta.

Bean, Ham & Apple Pancakes – serves 4

French bean, ham and apple pancakes

Pancakes:
125g plain flour
pinch of salt
1 egg
300ml milk
Butter for frying

Filling:
25g butter (or 1 tbsp olive oil if you prefer)
2 medium onions, chopped (or leeks if you prefer)
175g chopped bacon or home-cooked gammon or ham if you have it
225g apple (cooking or eating), peeled, cored and chopped
225g French or runner beans, chopped into 2cm lengths
1 tbsp French mustard
Chopped parsley or thyme leaves

Sauce:
25g butter
2 level tbsp plain flour
300ml milk
125g Cheddar cheese, grated
Seasoning
Freshly grated nutmeg

First make the pancakes in the usual way by sifting the flour and salt into a roomy bowl. Break the egg into the centre, then gradually beat in the milk and incorporate the flout until all mixed and little bubbles start to form on the surface. Leave to stand for 30 minutes or so if you can, but it’s not critical if you can’t! This mixture should make at least 8 pancakes in an 18cm frying pan. Stack the finished pancakes on a plate as you make them and set aside until you’ve made the filling.

For the filling, melt the butter in a large frying pan, then fry the onion until softened. Steam or microwave the beans for 4 -5 minutes until just tender, then drain off any liquid. Stir the ham, apple and beans into the pan and cook for a further 4-5 minutes (if using uncooked bacon, you might need to add it with the onion at the start). Stir in the mustard, seasoning and chopped parsley or thyme leaves. Set aside to cool slightly while you make the cheese sauce.

Melt the butter in a saucepan, then stir in the flour and cook gently for 1 minute, stirring. Gradually stir in the milk, then bring to the boil and cook until it thickens, stirring constantly. Add grated nutmeg and seasoning, then finally 75g grated cheese.

To assemble, fill each pancake with a generous spoonful of the bean and apple mixture, and either roll up or fold carefully into quarters. Place side by side in a rectangular ovenproof dish, pour over the cheese sauce, sprinkle over the remaining cheese and bake at 180°C / Gas 5 for 25 – 30 minutes. Serve with a green salad.

Both of these recipes are rather heavy on the washing-up, with several stages and pans, but well worth the effort – and the cooking time in the oven means you have enough time to wash up while the dish is cooking if you don’t have a willing sous-chef on hand to clear up as you go along 🙂

One last recipe, which only uses one pan and makes a super-tasty side dish for sausages, chops, or even a roast, was inspired by a recipe in an Italian cookbook I’ve long since lost. I think it originally went under the name of Fagiolini di Sant’Anna, but I’ve tweaked it over the years, as usual. Although the beans are cooked for much longer than if you steamed or boiled them, they remain deliciously tender and take up all the flavours of the cooking liquid. Try it and see. Just don’t drop the salt grinder in it as happened to me this weekend……

Italian French Beans with Tomatoes – serves 2

French beans in tomato sauce

Glug of olive oil
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
200g French beans, chopped
2-3 tomatoes, peeled and roughly chopped
Chopped basil
Dash of white wine
Boiling water
Seasoning

Heat the oil in a small frying pan, then add the garlic and cook gently for 1 minute. Add the chopped tomatoes and cook for a further 3-4 minutes, then add the beans and toss in the sauce for a minute or so. Add a dash of white wine and the chopped basil, then just cover the beans with boiling water. Bring back to the boil, then simmer gently, without a lid, for 25 – 30 minutes, or until the liquid has reduced. You may need to turn up the heat or cover the pan depending on your hob. Season to taste and serve with the meat of your choice.

Basket of produce

Back to breakfasts

New arch

It really has been an outstanding year for soft fruit: raspberries and gooseberries in particular. Overwhelming at times! I’ve been enjoying fresh raspberries on my breakfast granola for weeks, desserts have been a cinch with fresh berries, panna cotta and red berry compote, and raspberry ice cream (same as my recipe for strawberry ice cream, but with puréed and sieved raspberries – the seeds are quite obtrusive otherwise), and some have gone in the freezer along with pots of raspberry coulis.

Panna cotta with red berry compote

I’ve also made two large batches of raspberry jam with an eye to making my son’s Victoria sponge wedding cake at the end of July – next week in fact! One was my favourite easy raspberry jam, boiled for just 2 minutes after adding the sugar. For the last batch the raspberries were tailing off slightly (I only managed to pick 1kg at a time!), so I added 500g redcurrants and made raspberry & redcurrant – equally delicious and perhaps a firmer set with the extra pectin from the redcurrants.

Raspberry & Redcurrant Jam – makes 6 jars

Raspberry redcurrant jam_cropped

1kg raspberries
500g redcurrants, strigged
500ml water
1.5kg granulated sugar

Put the raspberries, strigged redcurrants and water in a large preserving pan and simmer gently for 15 minutes until the fruit is very soft and the juice is running. Stir in the granulated sugar until it dissolves, bring back to the boil, then boil quickly for 7-10 minutes or until drips run together when you hold up the spoon, or use the chilled saucer test by turning off the heat, adding a blob of hot jam to a saucer straight from the freezer, and leaving for a few minutes to see if the surface wrinkles when you gently push it with your finger. Pot into hot, sterilised jars and cover immediately.

I must share a new granola recipe I’ve tried recently too – I love my coconut granola, but my local wholefood store in the village had run out of one of the essential ingredients, coconut flakes, recently, so I was forced to look around for a different recipe. This one, by Rachel Allen, majors on nuts and makes for a delicious alternative. I’ve replaced the original honey with maple syrup, but feel free to use whichever you prefer:

Nutty Granola

125g butter
150ml maple syrup
1tsp vanilla extract
500g oats
100g cashew nuts
100g flaked almonds
100g desiccated coconut
100g pumpkin seeds
100g sunflower seeds
250g dried fruit (dates, sultanas, apricots, etc.)

Preheat the oven to 150°C / Gas 3. Melt the butter, maple syrup and vanilla extract in a pan over a gentle heat. Add the remaining ingredients apart from the dried fruit to a large mixing bowl and stir in the melted butter mixture. Divide over two large baking trays, and bake for 15 minutes, changing the position of the trays halfway through. Then remove from the oven, tip back into the bowl and mix well. Return to the baking trays and cook for a further 10 minutes to brown and crisp all over. Allow to cool completely before adding the dried fruit, then storing in a large container.

Serve with yogurt and fresh fruit of your choice – raspberries are the perfect accompaniment, of course.

Still a very busy time of year in the garden with the prolonged dry spell and hot weather, making daily watering at the allotment and my pots at home an absolute must. I’ve resorted to doing home in the morning and the allotment in the evening in an attempt to lighten the load – while watering standing on one leg to try and incorporate my ACL physio in the process! Yet everything is coming on in leaps and bounds; I’ve even had to repot my aubergines into supersize pots, so triffid-like was their growth! The brassicas – purple-sprouting broccoli, cavolo nero and calabrese – were planted out last weekend, so I should be able to concentrate on harvesting and watering from now on. Roll on the season of plenty…

Aubergine triffids

Scaling the rhubarb mountain…

Alliums and tulips

It’s at this time of year that the rhubarb goes into overdrive: sunshine one minute, heavy showers the next – perfect growing weather! Despite cutting back my rhubarb bed when I downsized from a full allotment to three-quarters, the two smaller beds I created seemed to have expanded beyond all expectations. Every time I go up, I cut armfuls of strong stems, but it still looks just as abundant the next time I arrive. I give lots away, of course: I sent my son and his fiancée home with loads this weekend, and thrust yet more at my mum when we called in for lunch on Sunday. I even took some up to a friend in Cheshire when I went to my goddaughter’s wedding over the beautiful May Day holiday weekend.

Needless to say my menus feature rhubarb pretty intensively at the moment: roasted rhubarb & orange compote with homemade granola and natural yogurt is my breakfast of choice. You can’t beat a good old-fashioned rhubarb crumble or a traditional rhubarb pie with its mandatory (and delicious) soggy bottom either. Sometimes, however, you fancy a change, and I recently revisited a recipe from one of my first ever cookbooks, Jocasta Innes “Pauper’s Cookbook” from my student days, still my original dog-eared, much bespattered paperback version from the 1970s. The original recipe calls itself a rhubarb pie, but to my mind a pie has to have a top, whereas this is more of a tart with just a pastry base. It’s delicious, whatever you call it, and reminded me almost of the delicious Rhabarberwähen I sampled in Basel during my year abroad – heaven on a plate! I must track down a Swiss recipe for one of those too…. In the meantime, here’s my take on an open rhubarb tart. I often make enough pastry to make a spare case; they keep for a good couple of weeks in a tin in a cool place.

Rhubarb & Cinnamon Tart – serves 6

Rhubarb tart

1 part-baked 24cm shortcrust pastry case (see this recipe or use your own)
750g rhubarb, chopped
1 lemon, grated rind and juice
150g brown sugar
1 heaped tbsp cornflour
1 tsp cinnamon

Mix the sugar, grated lemon rind and juice, cinnamon and cornflour in a bowl and sprinkle half this mixture over the bottom of the tart case, top with the chopped rhubarb, then sprinkle the rest of the sugar mixture on top. Bake at 200°C, Gas 6 for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until the rhubarb is tender. Cover with foil if it starts to get too brown at the edges. Serve just warm or cold with whipped cream or crème fraiche.

A chance conversation on Facebook led to my next rhubarb solution: rhubarb & ginger gin. I’ve yet to taste the results, of course, as it will have to steep for a month before it’s ready, but I can’t see why it shouldn’t taste divine: rhubarb, ginger, gin & tonic – what’s not to like? I’ll let you know in a month’s time whether it’s as good as it sounds – fingers crossed! Sarah Raven’s recipe for rhubarb & ginger vodka appealed most after my online searches, adapted for gin and tweaked to fit my 2 litre Kilner jar. I used Aldi’s Oliver Cromwell London Gin, which gets excellent reviews and won a gold medal in the International Wine and Spirits Competition earlier this year.

Rhubarb & Ginger Gin

Rhubarb and ginger gin

800g rhubarb, chopped into small chunks
1 litre gin
400g granulated sugar
5cm piece root ginger, peeled and sliced
thin strips of orange peel from 1 orange
1 vanilla pod

Put the rhubarb, sugar, ginger, orange peel and vanilla pod into a 2-litre Kilner jar and pour over the gin to cover completely. You probably won’t need it all; I reckon I used about 900 ml. Shake vigorously, then put in a cool place for 1 month, shaking every day to dissolve the sugar.

After 1 month, strain into a jug and decant into bottles. Serve with tonic and ice for a perfectly pink long drink for the summer months. Roll on June!

Garden flowers with alliums and tulips
Tulips and alliums from the garden

Another weekend, more progress…

Allotment evening sun

Another weekend comes around, very different from the soaring temperatures of last weekend, but dry at least today, so I’ve finally ventured out into the allotment to do something other than harvesting. My gardening helper came in again on Thursday and did the heavy weeding and lawn mowing, which meant it was a much easier proposition to go up today and get started with the interesting bits! As it was, I still spent over two hours up there, preparing beds and soil – all very enjoyable, but I can certainly feel it in my knee now…

Carrots, parsnips and beetroot are duly sown, along with salad crops: spinach, Swiss chard, rocket, lettuce, oriental mustard, parsley, coriander, dill and chives. I also planted red onion sets around the outside of the bed where the leeks are due to go: currently still containing healthy-looking parsley and chard/spinach that’s about to go to flower, but should be good for a few more pickings. I had intended to plant my peas too, sweet and mangetout, but common sense prevailed and I’ll save that until tomorrow – weather permitting!

I returned home with vast amounts of rhubarb – clearly loving the typical April weather of sunshine and showers – and yet more purple-sprouting broccoli. Most of my meals this week have featured broccoli one way or another, not that I’m complaining. It’s a real delight to have something so fresh and tasty at this time of year, before the asparagus and the broad beans come into their own in a few weeks’ time.

Tonight I simply had it steamed served with salmon fillet, a cream and herb sauce, paprika-dusted chunky chips and a garlic mushroom. So good. Other uses during the week were my standby broccoli and anchovy pasta, a tuna, leek and broccoli pasta bake, and a broccoli and feta frittata. Nothing very taxing, but nice to ring the changes by cooking the broccoli in different ways. And just think of all those vitamins! A and C for starters, but it also contains calcium, iron and folic acid, to name but a few of its nutritional goodies. Let’s hope it goes straight to the knee….

Broccoli & Feta Frittata – serves 2

Broccoli frittata with sorrel mint salad

1 onion, chopped
1 medium potato, diced and parboiled for 5 minutes
1 handful of purple-sprouting broccoli, steamed or microwaved for 2-3 minutes
8-10 cherry tomatoes, halved
a glug of olive oil
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
100g feta cheese, cubed
4 eggs
Salt and pepper

Cook the chopped onion gently in the oil for 10 minutes until starting to soften. Stir in the cooked potato, cherry tomatoes and thyme, and cook for a few more minutes.

Meanwhile beat the eggs, add salt and pepper, then stir in the cubed feta. Tip in the onion, potato and tomato mixture and finally add the drained, cooked broccoli. Pour the mixture into a greased 7″ square roasting dish and make sure everything is evenly distributed. Cook for 12-15 minutes in a pre-heated oven (200°C / Gas 6) until just set to the touch.

Leave to cool for a few minutes and then cut into quarters to serve, preferably with a fresh green salad: mine was fresh red sorrel and mint, as they are both plentiful in the garden at home at the moment, with a handful of red grapes. The frittata re-heats beautifully the next day for lunch if you have any left over.

This next recipe isn’t a looker (are pasta bakes ever?), but it is a really tasty and comforting way of serving broccoli when you have it coming out of your ears… It also contains leeks, another vegetable I’m trying to use up at this time of year, before they flower, and to free up the beds for next month’s courgette and sweetcorn plants. You can still eat them when they go to flower, but they start to develop a hard central tube, so best to use them before if at all possible.

Broccoli & Pasta Bake – serves 2

1 x 160g tin tuna, drained
60g pasta (I used penne, but use whatever you have)
1 generous handful purple-sprouting broccoli
1 large or 2 small leeks, sliced into rings
25g butter
1 heaped tbsp plain flour
250ml milk
1 tbsp parsley, chopped
Freshly grated nutmeg
100g Cheddar cheese, grated
2 tbsp breadcrumbs (I keep a bag in the freezer and use from frozen)
Salt and pepper

Cook the pasta in boiling salted water for 10 minutes, then drain and set aside. Steam the broccoli over the pasta for the last 3-4 minutes.

Meanwhile, gently cook the leeks in the butter until starting to soften. Stir in the flour and cook for a few minutes, then gradually add the milk. You may need to add more milk if the consistency is too thick – this is a matter of personal taste, so use your discretion! Grate in some fresh nutmeg, and stir in the chopped parsley and half of the grated cheese. Then stir in the flaked tuna and season to taste.

When the pasta is cooked, stir the pasta through the sauce, add the cooked broccoli, and turn into a greased ovenproof dish. I use a 20 cm round Pyrex dish. Mix the reserved grated cheese with the breadcrumbs and sprinkle on top. Bake at 200°C / Gas 6 for 25 – 30 minutes until golden brown. Serve with peas or a green salad.

Finally, to use up the feta left over from the frittata, I turned to yet another pasta dish, featuring one of my favourite pasta sauces and one my boys took away to university as easy student fare. I find it’s only too easy to forget about half a packet of feta in the fridge once you’ve opened it, so this is a delicious way of using it up before it goes off. I think the original recipe came from renowned Italian food writer Anna del Conte, but I’ve tweaked it over the years as usual. You can add sweet peppers, or omit the onion: it’s always good.

Spicy Sausage Pasta – serves 2-3

Sausage pasta_rotated

1 x 400g pack good sausages (I like to use Sainsbury’s Sicilian sausages, but any will do)
200g pasta (penne or rigatoni)
1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 red chilli, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 tin chopped tomatoes
2 tbsp tomato purée
2 tbsp capers, drained
12 black olives
120ml white wine
2 tbsp parsley, chopped (or basil in season)
100g feta cheese, crumbled
salt & pepper

Cook the chopped onion gently in the oil in a frying pan. Use scissors to cut the skin off the sausages and discard. Chop the sausage meat into chunks and add to the frying pan after 5-10 minutes, then add the chopped garlic and chilli. Cook until the sausage is no longer pink, then add the tomato purée and the wine. Let it sizzle and die down, then add the tinned tomatoes, capers and olives. Season to taste. Simmer uncovered for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile cook the pasta in boiling salted water for 10 minutes, then drain and set aside, reserving a few tbsp of cooking water to add to the tomato mixture if it looks to be getting dry. Alternatively add more wine!

After 15 minutes, add the pasta to the sauce, toss thoroughly and serve topped with the crumbled feta cheese and the chopped parsley.

Poppy in bluebells 2018