Tag Archives: Allotments

Ready, Steady, Grow!

Elderflower blossom

A wet week and a busy social weekend over Father’s Day saw me dodging the showers and downpours in a desperate bid to finish planting out my summer veg and flowers at the allotment, later than I’ve ever done it before. It seems to be one of those rules that when work is on the quiet side, the weather refuses to play ball, so you can’t get outside and make the most of the extra free time. I did, however, manage to find a dry (and blustery) day to pick some elderflowers at last for my annual cordial making ritual. I even picked more than enough for a change, so decided to experiment with some of the week’s crop of gooseberries and make gooseberry & elderflower gin. I enjoyed last year’s rhubarb gin so much – my favourite drink of last summer – that if the gooseberry & elderflower is half as nice, it will still be eminently drinkable*. Like last year, I used Aldi’s Oliver Cromwell London Gin, which gets excellent reviews.

Gooseberry & Elderflower Gin*

Gooseberry and elderflower gin

1 litre gin
500g gooseberries
strips of orange rind, peeled thinly from 1 orange using a vegetable peeler
250g granulated sugar
6-8 elderflower heads

Top and tail the gooseberries, then cut in half and place in a large 2 litre Kilner jar. Add the granulated sugar, orange rind and elderflower heads. Put on the lid and shake the jar well. Leave to stand in a cool, dark place for at least 6 weeks, then strain into another bottle. Serve with ice, tonic and lime for a refreshing take on the ubiquitous G&T.
(SEE NOTE BELOW*)

But back to my allotment: after working in my garden at home last weekend, I was determined to finish sowing my French beans and planting out my squash this weekend. Sunday was dedicated to a family lunch for Father’s Day, so that left Saturday afternoon. It had looked promising weatherwise, but the skies were looking very ominous when I headed up there after lunch. The rain held off for the first couple of hours, giving me time to prepare the beds (more bags of manure!), erect the wigwam bean structure, sow the beans (Cosse Violette and Neckarkönigin this year), and plant out the Crown Prince squash. I also took out the last remaining purple-sprouting broccoli plants, long since gone to seed, and did some essential weeding. So far, so good.

Netting the soft fruit was my next priority: the fattest pigeons in the village have already made inroads into my redcurrants, despite them still being green, so I was keen to net them before I lost the lot! Having unearthed last year’s net from the darkest corner of the shed, I managed to cover the bed, gooseberries and blackcurrants included, without too much ado and only needed one peg to seal the inevitable hole. Fingers crossed that this keeps the birds out and the fruit in…

My final job of the afternoon was potentially the most time-consuming and typically the rainclouds were gathering by this stage. No matter, I was determined to complete my list! Bit firmly between my teeth, I set about the task of removing the weedproof membrane from the final stretch of the newly reclaimed flower beds at the top end of the plot, and digging over the soil to remove any stubborn traces of perennial roots, and especially couch grass and the dreaded bindweed. Inevitably, that took longer than I’d have liked, so by the time I was ready to apply another two sacks of farmyard manure, the drizzle was coming down quite steadily.

Undeterred, I carried on, planting my six new dahlias: Penhill Dark Monarch, Emory Paul, Perch Hill, Rip City and Café au Lait Royal, all from Sarah Raven, and Marble Ball, a purple-speckled variety I picked up for 50p at my local garden centre a few weeks ago – who could resist?! The same garden centre’s discount bin also had some striking purple and cream gladioli Dynamite – they were clearly selling off all their bulbs and tubers at the end of the planting season, but definitely not too late to plant out! In too went another dwarf mulberry tree (Charlotte Russe) to match its twin planted a few weeks ago, a large helianthus Lemon Queen picked up at a plant stall near my parents’ house in Copthorne, and a peony I’d moved from the garden at home where it steadfastly refuses to flower and clearly doesn’t get enough sun. A couple of chrysanthemums I’d ensnared at the village Open Gardens day also went in; the pink variety I acquired from the same source last year had come through the winter, somewhat to my surprise, and had been great for later autumn flowers, even after the dahlias had stopped.  I also planted out some seed-sown Antirrhinum Royal Bride to accompany the Callistephus chinensis King Size Apricot (Chinese aster) I planted a few weeks ago and the zinnias I sowed direct one evening (Mazurkia, Purple Prince and Envy). They could do with some more warmth to take off properly, but fingers crossed the slugs don’t get them first…

Allotment top end, Leo and the new beds

A couple of spare squashes and an unknown cucurbit seedling that had appeared in the garden compost distributed around my roses completed my afternoon’s work. This will be a bonus plant – could be a melon, cucumber, squash or courgette – who knows?! If it survives, I’ll be sure to let you know :-). By this time the rain was coming down in stair rods and I resembled a drowned (but satisfied) rat.

New bed unknown curcurbit on frame

Just some harvesting to do before I could escape from the rain – my parents were coming for dinner to stay the night before we drove together to my son’s the next day. Asparagus, broad beans, dill, lettuce, strawberries and another kilo of gooseberries later, I was done. Four hours of very hard and soggy work, but at least I’d accomplished what I’d set out to achieve.

My parents had already arrived and let themselves in when I finally got home, dripping, exhausted, but happy. And my mother’s voice as I opened the kitchen door, saying “I’ve just made a pot of tea”, was balm to my gardener’s soul and just what I wanted to hear. You can’t beat a nice cup of tea after a long session at the plot…

New bed delphiniums

* Sadly, I’ve just tried the gooseberry & elderflower gin and am very disappointed. I’d read that gooseberries need longer to infuse than rhubarb, so left it 3 months, but, after straining, the resulting gin tastes very harsh and metallic, not at all gooseberryish. Perhaps dessert gooseberries might work better? You live and learn…. I’ll stick to the ambrosial rhubarb & ginger gin next time.

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Gooseberries Galore

Gooseberries bumper crop

I couldn’t finish this megaseason for the humble gooseberry without sharing a few of the recipes I’ve tried this year – as well as the usual pies, crumbles, fools and shortbreads, of course, and stowing far too many in the freezer, to say nothing of giving lots away. I have two gooseberry bushes at the allotment, one green variety, Invicta, a highly prolific and viciously prickly, mildew-resistant form, which never fails to produce excellent crops, and a red dessert variety, Pax, less prickly, but not as prolific. Despite netting, it’s always a race to get to the berries when they turn red before the birds do! This year, though, I was onto them and have picked the berries red, rather than waiting for them to turn black – result! They made a divine cloud-like fool, with just puréed gooseberries (500g), cooked with a dash of elderflower cordial and 75g sugar, cooled, sieved to remove the seeds and skins, then folded into 150ml softly whipped cream. Heavenly.

Pink gooseberry and elederflower fool

The Invictas, on the other hand, are so prolific that I didn’t know what to do with them all. Picking them is a challenge (especially with a wedding coming up, and trying to keep my hands and arms scratch-free!), so I decided to be brutal and prune the bush drastically in the process. This had the added advantage of allowing me to sit in the shade of my established apple tree, out of the scorching sun, to take the individual berries off the branches – much less risky!

Gooseberry branches picking

So what to do with all this fruit? Online research suggested a gooseberry chutney courtesy of Nigel Slater, not cooked to death as with many chutney recipes, but a lighter preserve, perfect for spicing up cold meats and cheese – definitely worth a try.

Gooseberry Chutney

Gooseberry chutney

 250g granulated sugar
2 large onions
300g tomatoes
1 kg gooseberries
200g raisins
150ml cider vinegar
150ml white wine vinegar
15 cardamom pods
12 black peppercorns
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp salt

Peel and chop the onions, then put in a large pan. Add the chopped tomatoes, raisin and vinegar ( I used all cider vinegar as that’s what I had). Open the cardamom pods and crush the seeds with the black peppercorns, then add to the pan with the coriander seeds. Simmer gently while you top and tail the gooseberries.

Add 750g gooseberries to the pan and 1 tsp salt, then cook over a gentle heat for 30 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent sticking. After 30 minutes, stir in the sugar until it dissolves , then cook for a further 10 minutes. Stir in the remaining gooseberries and cook for another 2-3 minutes until the added gooseberries are just cooked. Pour into sterilised jars, cover and seal. Set aside for at least a week before serving with cold meats and/or cheese.

My final gooseberry suggestion for this season is a delicious gooseberry & elderflower yogurt ice cream. I suppose it’s not unlike a frozen fool, but this time with yogurt to cut through the richness – mmmmm…. don’t mind if I do.

Gooseberry & Elderflower Yogurt Ice Cream

500g gooseberries, topped and tailed
75g elderflower cordial
125g granulated sugar
150 ml natural yogurt (full-fat)
150ml double cream

Cook the gooseberries over a gentle heat with the elderflower cordial and the sugar until softened – about 5-10 minutes. Allow to cool completely, then purée in a blender and sieve to remove the seeds.

Stir in the cream and natural yogurt and mix well. Transfer to an ice cream maker and churn until it resembles soft ice cream. Transfer to the freezer to finish.

Serve with gooseberry pies or crumbles, or just as it is, in a bowl, with a big grin on your face. This is so good….

Soft fruit harvest

 

 

 

 

Super breakfasts

It’s at this time of year that breakfasts become a real treat with all the soft fruit from the garden. Such bliss to have a constant supply of strawberries, raspberries and currants of all hues to perk up my breakfast bowl of muesli and yogurt. This year, I’ve even had masses of alpine strawberries some days too. This week it’s the turn of raspberries to take the abundance top spot. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them so plentiful: the canes are weighed down with fruit, hiding under the leaves, dripping with crimson loveliness. I’ve been picking pounds at a time, with plenty for jam (one of my absolute favourites and ideal for beginners, as it is cooked for a very short and defined time, so no worries about getting the set right), desserts of all kinds and ample left over for breakfast.

This jam recipe is adapted from my ancient – and falling-to-pieces – Good Housekeeping cookery book. I still refer to it for staple things like jam-making and this must be one of the first jams I ever made when I started preserving soon after I got married in 1983. I’d like to say I still have the same preserving pan I bought as a set from Good Housekeeping, but I managed to burn the base irredeemably with a particularly sticky chutney some years ago, so now use my mother’s identical model. Now in her 80’s, she hasn’t felt the urge to make jam for quite some time, and is happy to have my frequent contributions to her larder! I do still have the jam funnel, jelly bag and stand, and long wooden spoon though – not bad after 34 years’ service!

Easy Raspberry Jam – makes 6-7 jars

Raspberry jam cooking

3lb raspberries
3.5lb granulated sugar

Simmer the fruit very gently in a large preserving pan until the juice runs – this has to be one of the most tantalising aromas ever! Then bring to the boil and cook for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, warm the sugar for a few minutes – I use the microwave. Add to the fruit and stir until dissolved, then bring back to a rollicking boil and cook for precisely 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and pour into sterilised jars (see here for method), then cover with waxed circles/cellophane as usual. Another perfect filling for a traditional Victoria sponge, or served with hot buttered crumpets for breakfast…

Raspberry jam jar

I usually buy Dorset Cereals muesli (Simply Nutty variety), but it seems to have been getting increasingly expensive lately, along with a lot of other food (gee thanks, Brexit 😦 ), so I’ve been thinking for a while about making my own granola. A quiet spell this week gave me the impetus to give it a go. Many of the recipes I found had honey in, a real no-no for me, so I ended up cobbling together my own recipe based on various sources: Nigella Lawson, BBC Good Food and various other websites. The result is scrumptious, not too sweet, but nutty and crunchy at the same time – and I’m sure it has a lot less sugar than the oversweet and ridiculously expensive bought varieties.

Granola

Granola

2 tbsp olive oil
125ml maple syrup
2 tbsp agave nectar (or honey if you’re that way inclined)
1 tsp vanilla extract
300g oats
50g golden linseeds (or milled chia seeds)
50g pumpkin seeds (or sunflower seeds)
4 tbsp sesame seeds
100g flaked almonds
1 tsp cinnamon
100g dried cranberries (or dried fruit of your choice; chopped apricots also work well)
50g coconut flakes

Put the olive oil, maple syrup, agave nectar and vanilla extract in a large bowl. Stir in the oats, seeds, nuts and cinnamon (but not the coconut and fruit) and mix well. Spread out on two greased baking trays and bake at 150°C/gas 3 for 15 minutes. Scrape back into the bowl, stir in the coconut flakes, then return to the baking sheets and bake for a further 10-15 minutes until starting to colour. Remove from the oven and tip back into the bowl, then stir in the fruit. Transfer to a large airtight storage container when cool.

Serve with natural yogurt (or milk if you prefer) and lashings of fresh fruit of your choice!

Granola with raspberries

I’ve written before about the redcurrant & raspberry pancakes I make for breakfast in season, but a revelation last weekend, when my younger son was home and in crêpe-making mood, was how delicious normal pancakes are served with just-warmed fresh raspberries and a sprinkling of sugar – divine! We tried them with nutella and raspberries too, but the nutella detracted from the raspberries in my view; now a drizzling of melted dark chocolate might have been a completely different story….

 

 

Baking with courgettes…

The recent unexpected late summer heat has meant that the courgettes are still going great guns. Blink, or miss a day or two of harvesting, and you have marrows to contend with! Fortunately, I love courgettes, so courgette pasta, courgette & feta pancakes and grated courgette & beetroot salad have all been on the menu this week – hardly any wonder that I turn virtually vegetarian in the summer months.

Another way of using up courgette gluts is to use them in baking. Bread and cakes with added courgette seem incredibly light and airy – and decidedly virtuous: green AND making inroads into the courgette mountain!

I first made courgette bread  a few years ago when I stumbled across a delicious-sounding recipe on Jack Monroe’s website, then called “A Girl called Jack”. The website has now been rebranded “Cooking on a bootstrap“, but the recipe remains the same – along with the intention of providing tasty food on a shoestring. I’ve adapted it slightly for use in a breadmaker, but it is fundamentally based on Jack’s original idea – and a really nice way of using up some of those courgettes. (See the original website if you want to make it the old-fashioned way.)

Courgette, Lemon & Sultana Bread

courgette, lemon and sultana bread

1 medium courgette
300g strong bread flour, plus extra to knead the dough
1 tsp dried yeast (I like Dove’s Farm)
1 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
50g sultanas
zest and juice of 1⁄2 a lemon
1 tsp caraway seeds (optional)
Water
Poppy seeds to sprinkle

Grate the courgette finely into a large mixing bowl and set aside with a sprinkling of salt in a colander to allow some of the liquid to drain off – especially important if using juicy homegrown courgettes! Put 1 tsp dried yeast, 300g strong bread flour, salt and sugar into the breadmaker, then add the drained courgette, sultanas, lemon zest and caraway seeds if using. Add the water to the lemon juice and make up to 100-120 ml – I would tend to add the lesser amount if using homegrown veg. as they are very juicy. Set the breadmaker to dough mode – this takes 2 hrs 20 minutes in my Panasonic machine, but every machine will be different.

When the dough is ready, turn out onto a floured surface and knock down. You may need to add quite a lot of extra flour at this stage, depending on the juiciness of the courgettes. When the dough is soft, but able to be moulded without sticky fingers, pat out an oval on a greased baking sheet and leave in a warm place to prove for 30 mins – 1 hour. Sprinkle with poppy seeds if using.

Set oven to 180°C/gas 4 to preheat, then cook the proved loaf for 30 minutes. It should be golden and crisp on top, feel lightweight and sound hollow on the bottom when tapped. Leave to cool on a wire rack, then serve with butter and hunks of cheese – this is also surprisingly good toasted with jam!

My second bread recipe came about when I realised I hadn’t left myself enough time to make a yeasted dough and had people coming for lunch. A quick internet search (I find myself doing this more and more nowadays despite my many recipe books!) brought up this BBC recipe, which is amazingly good considering how quick it is – and yes, it uses up yet more courgettes! I adapted it to what I had in the fridge, as ever, but honey aficionados might like to check out the original recipe.

Courgette & Cheddar Soda Bread

Courgette and Cheddar soda bread

400g self-raising flour, plus extra for dusting
2 medium courgettes
50g rolled oats
1 tsp salt
1½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
75g mature cheddar, grated
few sprigs fresh thyme, leaves only
285ml natural yogurt
1 tbsp maple syrup
1 egg, beaten or milk, to glaze

Heat oven to 180°C fan/gas 6 and grease, then dust a baking sheet with a little flour. Coarsely grate the courgettes, then place in a clean tea towel and  squeeze out as much liquid as you can. Put the flour, oats, bicarb and 1 tsp salt in a large bowl. Add most of the cheddar (save a little for the top), thyme leaves and grated courgettes. Mix the yogurt and maple syrup, then pour into the flour mixture. Stir with a wooden spoon until the dough starts to clump together, then tip onto a work surface and knead briefly to bring all the loose bits together – try not to overwork the dough or the bread will be heavy.

Shape into a round loaf and place on the baking sheet. Brush with egg or milk and sprinkle with the remaining cheese. Use a sharp knife to score a deep cross on top of the loaf, then bake for 30-40 mins until deep golden brown. Best served warm, but leftovers will keep for 1-2 days. Delicious with soup, cheese or hummus – and makes delicious toast!

My final baking suggestion is a courgette cake. Inspired by Bake Off’s drizzle challenge this week, I fancied a courgette drizzle cake – and sure enough, my internet searches brought up a few promising candidates. I plumped for a gluten-free option (always worth experimenting before you’re expecting guests) from the Waitrose recipe site, and was amazed by the results: you would never guess this was a GF cake – sublime!

Courgette Lemon Drizzle Cake

Courgette drizzle cake

250g courgettes, coarsely grated
175g butter, softened
175g caster sugar
3 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
100g ricotta
125g Doves Farm self-raising flour
85g polenta
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
Finely grated juice and zest 2 lemons
Handful thyme sprigs
6-8 tbsp icing sugar

Preheat the oven to 180°C/gas 4. Grease and base-line 2 loaf tins (or one if you prefer a larger cake for a crowd – bear in mind that cakes made with fresh vegetables don’t keep as long, especially in the warm summer months. I made one to eat and one to freeze.). Put the grated courgettes into a clean tea towel and squeeze out excess juice.

Cream the butter and sugar together in a large bowl until creamy. Gradually beat in the eggs, adding a spoonful of flour if it looks as though it is starting to curdle, followed by the vanilla and ricotta. Fold in the flour, polenta, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda. Finally fold in the lemon zest, grated courgettes and thyme leaves, reserving some for decoration.

Spoon the mixture into the loaf tin/s and bake for 1 hour (large tin) or 35 mins (two tins) until risen, golden and a skewer inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. Leave to cool in the tin, then turn out onto a wire rack.

Mix the lemon juice with the icing sugar and a sprinkling of thyme leaves. Spoon the drizzle over the cooled cake and leave to set. Slice and serve with a cup of tea for a delectable afternoon treat.

Courgette drizzle cake_closeup

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.

 

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 at 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….