Tag Archives: Gluten-free

Sugar-free Treats – MUCH nicer than you’d think…

Crocus close-up

After the excesses of the Easter weekend and all that chocolate, cake and family get-togethers, maybe it’s time to think about getting back on the straight and narrow?!

Whilst I’m not specifically seeking to cut down on sugar or lose weight, there’s no way of avoiding the fact that sugar has become public enemy No. 1 in the dietary stakes, far outstripping butter and eggs as previous contenders for the title! It may well change again, but I’m only too well aware that eating too much refined sugar can play havoc with your digestive system, to say nothing of your teeth. Cooking most of my food from scratch, I don’t usually fall prey to the hidden sugars that are in much mass-produced food, but I have to confess that I do have a sweet tooth and I love my cakes and puddings.

With that in mind, I’ve recently been experimenting with a number of sugar-free recipes and have been pleasantly surprised by the results. It would certainly be no hardship to have to forego sugar if the alternative was to exist on these! Many sugar-free recipes are based on honey, which is a bit of a disadvantage for me as I can’t stand the stuff – but with a little adaptation, it’s possible to use agave nectar or maple syrup instead, I find. All three recipes are gluten-free too, which is an added boon if you regularly have gluten-intolerant visitors, as I do.

My food mantra is, as ever, everything in moderation – but if you fancy a change and are looking to cut back on your sugar intake, you might want to experiment with these very tempting treats:

The first is a recipe that appeared in a little healthy eating booklet that came free with the Telegraph in the austere month of January. It’s by the “Medicinal Chef”, Dale Pinnock, although I’ve adapted it slightly to suit what I had available. I guarantee that it not only looks pretty, but tastes divine – and not at all earnestly healthy!

FRIDGE FRUIT & NUT BARS

Fridge fruit & nut bars
8 tbsp mixed seeds (I used golden flax, pumpkin, sunflower, sesame, pine nuts and poppy, but use any combination of whatever you have to hand!)
2 handfuls goji berries
1 handful pitted dates
1 tbsp chopped nuts (cashews, walnuts, brazils – your choice!)
1 tbsp dried fruit (I used dried cranberries or apricots)
4 tbsp cocoa powder (original recipe says cacao powder, but I didn’t have it, so cocoa worked fine)
1 tbsp desiccated coconut
1 tsp ground cinnamon
4 tbsp coconut oil

Topping: 1 tbsp goji berries, 1 tbsp chopped nuts, 1 tbsp dried apricots, chopped

Place the seeds, goji berries, dates, nuts, dried fruit, cocoa/cacao powder, coconut and cinnamon in a food processor and pulse until you create a coarse mixture. Melt the coconut oil in a pan over a gentle heat – this will not take long! Pour over the seed and nut mixture in the food processor and process at full speed until combined to form a thick paste. Add more fruit here if you think it looks too runny – everyone’s hands are a different size! However, it will thicken as it sets…

Line a 7” square cake tin with foil and turn the mixture into the tin, pressing down evenly with a spatula. Sprinkle over the topping ingredients and press down firmly with the spatula.

Place in the fridge to set for at least three hours. Cut into 12 pieces and enjoy!

My second recipe was inspired by a colleague on the Foodie Translators Facebook group and is equally sublime: raspberries, dark chocolate and pistachios: what’s not to like? This one definitely does need to be kept in the fridge if you use frozen raspberries as opposed to freeze-dried, but is no less delicious for that and still keeps a fair time – if given the chance! The original recipe is from Fitter Foods, here: https://www.fitterfood.com/recipe/dark-chocolate-raspberry-pistachio-refrigerator-cake/

DARK CHOCOLATE, RASPBERRY AND PISTACHIO BARS

Chocolate, raspberry and pistachio bars

50g pistachios (shelled)
50g pecans, halved
50g desiccated coconut
300g 50-70% dark chocolate
100g butter
50g maple syrup
2 tbsp cacao nibs
75g frozen raspberries (or to taste – this is far more than the original recipe above says, but I can’t resist raspberries – and it was delicious too!)

Line a baking tray, 10” x 6” with foil.
Pre-heat the oven to 150°C/gas 2.
Place the nuts and coconut on a baking tray in the oven to roast, keeping an eye on them. It should only take 10-15 minutes; remove from the oven when golden and allow to cool.
Place the chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water. Stir until both have melted. Stir in the maple syrup.

Add the frozen raspberries, nuts, coconut and cacao nibs.

Pour into the foil-lined tray and place in the fridge to set for at least 1 hour.
Slice into chunky bars to serve – I found it very crumbly, but this certainly doesn’t detract from the stupendous taste! Keep refrigerated.

My final recipe was based originally on a River Cottage recipe for an uncooked Fruity Fridge Flapjack: https://www.rivercottage.net/recipes/fruity-fridge-flapjacks. I’d fancied the recipe for a while, but when I made it for the first time, I was rather disappointed: it didn’t set, for one thing, even after the specified 23 hours in the fridge (!) and a token spell in the oven, and tasted rather virtuous and bland, even over-sweet (I’d used an equivalent quantity of agave nectar to the honey suggested in the recipe). My younger son, a committed foodie, refused point-blank to eat it, saying he much preferred my normal flapjack and blow the sugar and butter content – which wasn’t quite the point….! However, I thought it had potential and determined to experiment with some added oomph in the form of toasted coconut and cinnamon – and less agave nectar. This is the result – which I really rather enjoyed – see what you think! I’m not saying it can compete with White Chocolate Rocky Road Flapjack in the decadence stakes, but if it’s a healthy treat you’re after, this may well fit the bill.

JENGA FLAPJACK

Flapjack Jenga

    50g pitted dates
50g dried figs
1 banana, peeled (as ripe as you like)
50 ml agave nectar
2 tbsp coconut oil
150g oats
30g desiccated coconut, toasted
50g sultanas
50g dried apricots, finely chopped
1 tbsp hemp seeds
1 tbsp golden flax seeds
1 tbsp sesame seeds
1 tbsp sunflower seeds (or use seeds of your choice)
1 tsp cinnamon

 Line a 7” square shallow baking tin with foil.
Put the dates, figs, banana, agave nectar, cinnamon, coconut oil, (melted in the microwave if necessary) and 1 tablespoon water in a food processor and blitz to a thick purée.
In a large bowl, combine the oats, toasted coconut, sultanas, chopped apricots and seeds.
Stir in the puréed fruit mixture and mix well. The mixture should be quite stiff at this stage.
Tip the fruity oat mixture into the prepared tin and gently press it out as evenly as possible.
Put the tin in the fridge overnight to allow the flapjack to set, then turn out onto a board and slice into 12-14 long bars.

The perfect healthy mid-morning snack!

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After the storm – healthy ways with leftovers

Pre-Christmas walk at Bewl

These early days in January, after the social whirl of Christmas and the New Year festivities, can be a bit of an anticlimax, especially if the weather persists in being wet and miserable, as it has in this little corner of Sussex – and I suspect across the country. I’m full of a cold too, doubtless not helped by the constant walks in sodden clothing through waterlogged fields and woods. At least we haven’t been flooded here, unlike wide swathes of the UK, but it certainly hasn’t been a time for sorting out the allotment, as I’d hoped.

After the torrent of visitors and social activities, it’s actually quite nice to get back to normal. I’ve taken the Christmas tree down today, early, I know, but I wanted to start the first working week of the New Year with cleared decks tomorrow – and the house feels much less cluttered and calmer as a result. The fridge, too, is slowly returning to normal after all the festive richness, lovely as it was. I’ve been enjoying the remains of a beautiful gammon joint the last few days in a spicy tomato and ham pasta sauce, a mellow squash, leek and ham risotto, homemade pizza and a delicious vegetable and ham gratin with a gluten-free Béchamel sauce made with rice flour and with crumbled oatcakes as a crunchy topping. Oh and my son and his fiancée took a chunk of the huge joint (thanks, Mr Waitrose!) home with them too.

Other leftovers clamouring to be used included a bag of cranberries and some smoked salmon. The cranberries have been turned into Bacon and Cranberry Pancakes (yum!) for a late breakfast on New Year’s Day and Cranberry Eton Mess for dessert tonight. The last of the smoked salmon, however, went into a refreshingly different pasta dish for last night’s supper; I didn’t fancy a creamy sauce after the excesses of the previous week, and so concocted this brassica-based dish from the contents of my fridge / allotment as a healthy antidote to all the rich food of the season. See what you think!

Kale, Smoked Salmon & Pine Nut Linguine – serves 1 Kale and salmon pasta

150g cavolo nero or kale

1 red onion, finely sliced

1 clove garlic, chopped

Handful pine nuts

50g smoked salmon, chopped

Olive oil

1 tsp sesame seeds

Sesame oil to finish

50-75g linguine (or pasta of your choice)

Seasoning

Grated Parmesan to garnish

Cook the sliced onion and chopped garlic in a slug of olive oil until starting to soften. Meanwhile, put the linguine on to cook as usual. Remove and discard any hard central stems from the kale or cavolo nero and finely chop the rest. Add to the pan with the pine nuts and cook for a further few minutes. Towards the end of the cooking time, sprinkle in the sesame seeds and chopped smoked salmon, then add a swirl of sesame oil if the mixture looks remotely dry – this will ensure it blends unctuously with the pasta.

Drain the pasta and add to the pan. Serve topped with grated Parmesan and enjoy!

After thoroughly relishing this, I went on to read in two separate articles, one in yesterday’s Times, and the other in the February edition of Good Housekeeping, that kale is one of a number of super “sirtfoods” that contain sirtuins, helping to promote the so-called skinny gene and encourage a healthy diet, encouraging natural weight loss if that’s what takes your fancy. Others include virgin olive oil and red onions, so I had unknowingly created a super-healthy supper – no wonder it tasted so good! Coffee, dark chocolate and red wine are also sirtfoods – fascinating! While it may well turn out to be yet another food fad, anything so delicious has to be worth a try.

Now on to my cranberry extravaganza (not on the list of sirtfoods, unfortunately, but cranberries are up there with blueberries for their antioxidant properties). I love dried cranberries in cookies, tray bakes and in salads, for a different dimension, but I rarely use the fresh variety for anything other than Cranberry Relish. A friend, before Christmas, added them to an apple crumble along with mincemeat, where they gave a lovely zingy tang. These pancakes, from a cutting unearthed in my ancient recipe scrapbook, are quite a revelation too:

Bacon and Cranberry Pancakes – makes 16 Bacon and cranberry pancakes

4 rashers streaky bacon (or chopped ham if you have leftovers!)

175g plain flour

1 heaped tsp baking powder

Pinch of salt

2 large eggs

150ml crème fraiche or soured cream

100ml milk

50-75g cranberries

Rapeseed oil to cook

Maple syrup or icing sugar to serve

Chop the bacon into small pieces (I use scissors) and fry in its own fat until golden and crispy.

Sift the flour, baking powder and salt into a mixing bowl. Whisk the eggs in another bowl with the crème fraiche or sour cream and milk, then stir into the dry ingredients and whisk with an electric whisk until you have a smooth batter. Stir the bacon and cranberries into the batter.

Heat the oil in the same frying pan and add small ladlefuls of the batter, four at a time, cooking for 2-3 mins each side until golden brown.

Keep warm whilst you make the rest.

Serve warm with maple syrup or butter and icing sugar.

Vegetarians can omit the bacon and just make cranberry pancakes, of course.

Any left-over (kept in the fridge if you use bacon or ham) are delicious toasted and served as above.

My final leftover recipe isn’t particularly healthy per se, because of the cream and sugar content, but my motto has always been “everything in moderation” – and this uses up the last of the cranberries nicely.

Cranberry Eton Mess cranberry eton mess

150ml double cream

150ml natural yogurt

200g cranberries

1 orange, zest and juice

3-4 tbsp Demerara sugar

Crumbled meringues

Cook the cranberries gently in the orange juice, zest and sugar until tender – 5-10 minutes. Set aside to cool completely. Whip the double cream until soft peaks form, then fold in the natural yogurt, followed by the roughly broken meringues – I use homemade (left-over from a Christmas Pavlova), so hard to specify a quantity: just until there’s a fair proportion of meringue rubble compared to cream and yogurt! Finally gently fold in the cranberry compote to create a rippled effect. Chill before serving.

All Change for Autumn

Sheffield Park A's photo - colours

I love autumn, but it’s hard to predict what the weather is going to do from one day to the next! We’ve had a very mild spell recently down here in East Sussex, so the gardens are still full of late bloom and the autumn colours have been spectacular. Last weekend we managed to fit in a trip to nearby Sheffield Park (above), a National Trust property renowned for its fantastic foliage at this time of year and were rewarded with a fine sunny afternoon and plenty of photo opportunities. This weekend, it’s still unseasonably warm, but we’ve had so much rain, so no photo shoots today. Yesterday it poured all day long, just letting up in time for our annual village bonfire and fireworks – we didn’t need gloves or hats to watch the spectacle, but wellingtons were definitely in order to negotiate our way through inches of mud and slurry combined! Pity the poor girl I saw tiptoeing through the quagmire in her Ugg boots…..

Today’s been a typical November day: dank and gloomy, but at least dry enough for me to venture out and finish planting up my winter pots. I started a few weeks ago, but the remainder were full of nasturtiums and fibrous begonias and still flowering merrily away. Tulips, too, don’t mind waiting until November to go in, so I wasn’t unduly worried, but I’m glad to have that job ticked off my list now. This year, I’ve gone for two doubles, Antraciet (dark red) and Chato (a deep magenta-pink paeony-flowered beauty), and singles Jan Reus (deep crimson), Request (a scented deep blood orange) and Atlantis (ivory with purple feathering), all ordered from Sarah Raven as usual. I’d kept my daffodil and crocus bulbs from last year, so just mixed them in too. Next year I really will have to order some new oak barrels, as my faithful bulb planters must be getting on for 20 years old now and are definitely showing signs of wear…. I finished the pots off with violet pansies, still going strong in the mild weather, and primroses divided from the garden. Should be a lovely show in spring!

Autumn walk Nov 2015

There’s very little time for gardening at this end of the year once the clocks have gone back, especially by the time I’ve fitted in two dog walks in the limited daylight hours. Still time, though, to nip down to the allotment and bring back handfuls of fresh rocket, coriander, parsley and dill, a perfect head of calabrese, some giant leeks and yet more windfall apples. The beans have all but finished, after a late start, but we really need a frost before I can make a start on the parsnips!

Time, instead, to head back into the kitchen and make some cake for afternoon tea in the late afternoon – I won’t say in front of the fire, as it’s far too warm! This is one of my sons’ favourite tray bakes, originally from a Delia Smith recipe booklet issued in the early 2000s for Comic Relief’s Red Nose Day. Perfect with a cup of tea…

Marbled Energy Bars

Marbled energy bar

150g dark chocolate, chopped

150g white chocolate, chopped

100g pecan nuts (or nuts of your choice)

125g dried apricots, chopped (or dried cranberries are nice)

150g oats

25g Rice Krispies

25g bran flakes, lightly crushed (or use corn flakes for a wheat-free option*)

75g raisins (or sultanas)

1 tsp maple syrup

½ can (approx. 150 ml) condensed milk

Heat the oven to 160°C / Gas 4. Toast the pecans on a baking tray for 7 minutes, leave to cool, then chop roughly. Mix together the oats, chopped apricots, pecans, Rice Krispies, bran flakes and raisins in a large bowl. Warm the condensed milk and the maple syrup in a small pan and pour over the dry ingredients. Mix together well and turn into a baking tin measuring 30 cm x 20 cm x 5 cm, pressing down firmly. Cook in the pre-heated oven for 20-25 mins until golden. Leave to cool.

Melt the chocolate separately in bowls over simmering water as usual (or use the microwave with great care, heating for minute-long burst each time!). Put spoonfuls of each molten chocolate dotted over the cake, alternating the white and dark chocolate. Make sure there are no gaps, then take a skewer and swirl the two chocolates together using a zigzag motion to create a marbled effect. Chill in the fridge until set, then cut into 16 bars. Scrumptious!

* Note that proprietary corn flakes are not guaranteed wheat-free, so make sure you buy special gluten-free ones (and oats, for that matter) if baking for coeliacs.

Moreish Macaroons

KitchenAidcropAll this Bakeoff fever of late has inspired me to treat myself – well, with some birthday money – to a coveted KitchenAid food mixer in shiny candy apple red. Having taken delivery a few weeks ago, I’ve been so busy with work and with going up to London every Saturday for the past three weekends, that I simply haven’t had time to christen it! Until today, that is, when I finally put it through its paces with some luscious lemon macaroons.

I’ve given a recipe for coffee macaroons before, and Nigella’s chocolate macaroons in her Domestic Goddess book are another favourite of mine, but I hadn’t tried lemon ones. It was surprisingly hard to track down a recipe that appealed, i.e. didn’t use an inordinate amount of egg whites, or sound too fiddly, so I ended up adapting a number of recipes I came across online and adding my own previous macaroon-making experience – so far so good! A number of recipes used cream, mascarpone or buttercream to fill, but I wanted the zesty, tangy hit of pure lemon to offset the sweetness of the macaroons themselves, so opted for home-made lemon cheese. Here’s what I did:

Lemon Macaroons – makes 16-18

Lemon macaroons100g icing sugar

75g ground almonds

Finely grated rind 1 lemon

2 large egg whites, at room temperature

75g caster sugar

Home-made lemon cheese to fill

 Spritz a silicone macaroon mat with oil (if you have one! See the coffee macaroon recipe for details otherwise – I really do recommend them for perfectly even-sized macaroons!) or line two baking trays with baking parchment.

Place the icing sugar, ground almonds and lemon rind in a food processor and blitz to a fine dust.
Whisk the egg whites in a large bowl until the mixture forms soft peaks, then gradually whisk in the caster sugar a little at a time until the mixture is stiff and glossy. (You can add a few drops of yellow food colouring at this point if you like, but I prefer my food to be natural, and am happy with beige macaroons!)
Gently fold in the icing sugar and almond mixture with a metal spoon, until well incorporated.
Transfer the mixture to an icing bag with a plain nozzle and pipe the mixture evenly into the macaroon tray or onto the baking parchment-lined trays. It should make about 32-36 small (say 4cm) circles.

Bang the sheets down a few times, to remove any air bubbles and peaks – that’s the theory anyway; I really struggle to make my macaroons completely flat without the little peak where you detach the piping stream – any tips gratefully received! It’s not really a problem, but completely smooth tops would be the ideal. Set aside for 30 minutes to dry out and form a skin.
Pre-heat the oven to 150°C, then bake the macaroons for about 18-20 minutes until the surface is firm and the macaroons lift off the paper or tray when gently eased with a knife or by bending the silicone mat. Leave to cool on the baking tray.

When cool, fill with lemon cheese and serve.

If lemon macaroons don’t appeal, I also experimented with another variation on the theme for my birthday afternoon tea party back in the summer, making coffee and vanilla macaroons (using vanilla extract rather than coffee essence), but sandwiching them together with a rather scrumptious salted caramel filling instead of the usual chocolate ganache. The filling is from a recipe by Eric Lanlard in Sainsbury’s magazine. Try it and see!

Vanilla Macaroons with Salted Caramel Ganache

Birthday afternoon tea_crop4oz ground almonds

4oz icing sugar

2 large egg whites

2oz caster sugar

1 tsp vanilla extract or paste

Mix the ground almonds and sifted icing sugar in a bowl until well blended.

Whisk the egg whites in another large bowl until they reach the soft peak stage, then gradually whisk in the caster sugar. Gradually fold in the almond/icing sugar mixture a third at a time and finally add the vanilla extract or paste until smooth and shiny.

Spoon into a piping bag with a 1cm plain nozzle and pipe 24 -28 small rounds, perhaps 1½” across, onto a parchment-lined baking tray or, even better, one of Lakeland’s macaroon moulds, placed on a baking tray for support and sprayed with a fine oil spray to prevent sticking.

Leave to set for at least 30 minutes so that a skin can form and they don’t spread during cooking.

Bake at 150°C (fan) / 170°C (conventional oven) / Gas Mark 3 for about 15 minutes or until firm and crisp on top. Another test is to see if one can be lifted gently from the tray without sticking or leaving a gooey residue – return to the oven if they do! When you’re happy that they’re done, remove from the oven and leave on the trays until completely cold.

Salted Caramel Ganache

175g salted butter

150g vanilla sugar

150ml double cream

Cut 25g of the butter into small cubes. Heat the sugar in a thick-based pan until it turns a dark caramel colour, stirring from time to time – it will happen! Remove from the heat and add the diced butter. Heat up the cream in a separate pan. Put the caramel back on the heat and gradually add the hot cream, bubbling for a few minutes – stir if lumps of caramel form and these should melt again. Allow to bubble for a few minutes. Pour into a bowl and leave to cool to room temperature. Whisk the remaining butter until pale and fluffy, then gradually whisk into the cooled, salted caramel.

This makes more than enough to sandwich both the coffee and the vanilla macaroons (i.e. a 4-egg white macaroon mixture in total) and still leave extra in the fridge to dip your finger in when passing…

Oh, and the KitchenAid, you might ask? It passed its first test with flying colours: simplicity itself to use, easy to dismantle and wash, and what a treat to be able to wander off to the other side of the kitchen whilst it’s doing its stuff!

Goodbye to courgettes….

zucchini-537001_640The recent sunny days, yet cold nights of this lovely spell of early autumn weather have more or less put an end to the courgettes. Mine are hanging on in there, but I really don’t think I’m going to get much more fruit now. In any event, I’ve earmarked their current position for next year’s broad beans, which I like to sow in late October/November for an early and hopefully problem-free crop next May/June. I plant the variety ‘Aquadulce Claudia’, one of the best autumn-sowing varieties, and find they make a good start before the worst of the winter, regrowing all the more strongly next spring. In contrast, my neighbouring plotholder’s spring-sown plants never really came to anything in this late, cold and dry spring, so I felt doubly glad I’d opted for autumn sowing – plus it’s one less thing to sow next spring!

The courgettes haven’t been wonderful this year either, I must admit. I had seven plants: four green ‘Defender’ and three golden ‘Soleil’, but the yellow ones, in particular, were dreadful: the fruit set, but never grew to full size. The Defenders were fine, just not quite as bountiful as usual, which was fine, but meant I wasn’t giving them away left, right and centre as usual! Time to try some new varieties next year, I think… I still have three or four in the fridge, and have been meaning to note down my favourite courgette recipes, so here goes: better late than never!

Courgette Fritters – serves 2-3

I first tasted these many years ago in a trendy little restaurant (Randalls) in the back streets of Bollington, on the Cheshire fringes of the Peak District – divine! They are quite a last-minute thing to cook, so probably best not attempted for a dinner party, but if you’re cooking a family meal or informal supper where you can stand and cook/talk at the same time, these are a delicious way of using up a glut of courgettes!

250g medium courgettes

Handful dill (optional)

2 egg whites

2 level tbsp plain flour (can use rice flour for a gluten-free alternative)

Salt

Rapeseed or sunflower oil

Cut the courgettes into 5-6cm lengths, than half and quarter each length, so you have 4 batons. Place in a colander, sprinkle with salt and leave to draw out excess juice over the sink.

Rinse and dry well in an old tea towel to remove salt.

Heat the oil in a large pan; I use a wok with a semi-circular tempura rack attached to the side and fill the wok until the oil is about 5 cm in depth. (You could, of course, use a deep-fat fryer, but I deep-fry so rarely that this method works equally well.)

When a cube of bread added to the pan sizzles and turns golden, the oil is hot enough to start the fritters.

In the meantime, whisk the egg whites until stiff, then gradually fold in the flour and chopped dill if using. Toss the dried courgette batons in the egg and flour mixture and add to the hot oil in the pan one at a time, using kitchen tongs. Don’t add too many to the pan in one go, as otherwise the oil will lose its heat and the fritters won’t cook sufficiently quickly.

When golden brown and crispy, lift the fritters out individually with tongs and leave to drain on the tempura rack (or on kitchen roll) while you cook the rest, using as many batches as you need to avoid overfilling the wok.

Serve hot as a side dish and enjoy!

Courgette and Feta Pancakes – serves 4

Courgete and feta pancakesThis is one of those favourite recipes scribbled on a bit of paper in my trusty recipe scrapbook and one I turn to several times each year. I think it first appeared in my organic vegetable box when I was tragically between vegetable plots. We’d moved house, but not had chance to grow any veg or take on the allotment, and I discovered a lovely local box scheme in the next village. They didn’t deliver and you had to drive down a very rutted track to reach the farm, but it was worth it for the fantastic smell of fresh basil when you walked in! They always added a recipe sheet in the box and this, I think, was based on one of theirs.

4 cups coarsely grated courgettes

4 eggs, separated

1 cup crumbled feta cheese

Handful dill (optional)

½ cup onion, spring onion or leek, grated or finely chopped

3-4 tbsp plain flour (gram flour works well for a gluten-free alternative)

Salt & pepper

Butter and olive oil for frying

Sour cream or crème fraiche to serve

Place grated courgette in a colander and sprinkle with salt. Leave to stand over the sink for about 15 minutes. Rinse well to remove salt and dry extremely thoroughly in an old tea towel, squeezing to remove surplus water.

Mix courgettes with egg yolks, feta, onions, dill (if using) and flour, then season to taste.

Beat egg whites in a separate bowl until stiff, then fold into the courgette mixture.

Heat the butter and olive oil in a large frying pan and add spoonfuls of the mixture to cook over a medium-heat. The mix is quite soft, but you should be able to turn the pancakes with a fish slice and palette knife when one side is cooked. Cook on the other side until golden and serve straightaway with sour cream or crème fraiche on the side.

In the height of summer, I serve these with a green salad and chopped cherry tomatoes, sprinkled with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, basil, garlic, a hint of sugar and seasoning – delicious!

My final recipe is another old favourite from the Sainsbury’s Sarah Brown Vegetarian Cookbook back in the 1980s. It’s a filling, yet delicious vegetarian main course and tastes good both hot and cold, so ideal for picnics or leftover working lunches the next day.

Courgette & Lentil Gratin – serves 4-6

Courgette and lentil gratin

4oz red lentils

1 tbsp olive oil

1 onion, chopped

1 clove garlic, crushed

1 tbsp tomato purée

2oz oats

1 tbsp lemon juice

2 tsp chopped mixed herbs (basil, thyme, parsley or oregano all work well)

8oz courgettes, diced

2 eggs, beaten

1 tbsp wholemeal flour (or use rice or gram flour for gluten-free diners)

2 fl. oz milk

Salt and pepper

Handful basil, chopped

2oz Cheddar cheese, grated

Cook the lentils in twice their volume of water for about 10 mins or until soft. Beat with a wooden spoon, then drain off any excess liquid.

Heat the oil in a frying pan, then cook the onion and garlic for about 4-5 minutes until starting to soften. Remove from the heat, then add the cooked lentils, tomato purée, oats, lemon juice, herbs and seasoning. The mixture should be thick enough to hold together. If too wet, either return to the heat to dry off a little more, or add some more oats.

Press the mixture around the sides and base of a greased 8” flan dish.

Meanwhile, either steam the courgettes for a couple of minutes or cook them with a knob of butter in the microwave for 2-3 minutes. Drain off excess liquid if microwaving. Blend the eggs with the flour, then add the milk. Stir in the cooked and drained courgettes, chopped basil and seasoning.

Spoon the filling into the flan case, top with grated cheese and cook for 180°C (fan), Gas 5 for about 25-30 minutes or until set.

Serve warm or cold with a salad.

Foolish pleasures

Flower teapot We might well regard gardening as a foolish pleasure given the awful weather we’ve had today: heavy rain, verging on sleet at times, wicked winds and a general wintry feel to the day. Hardly what you’d expect from the end of May. I’ve been playing yo-yo with my tomato and courgette plants all week, in and out of the conservatory to harden off in the day and then back in for protection from the chilly nights. Today was so dreadful, I brought the tomatoes back in after an hour when they were all knocked over by the wind like so many spindly skittles…. I had hoped to plant them up in their pots outside this weekend, but I think I may have to delay by another week as my mother, the weather oracle, says it’s finally due to warm up NEXT weekend. Instead, I think I’ll be forced to pot them on into their final pots, but squeeze those into the conservatory overnight without their cane frame and keep my fingers crossed that the weather warms up soon! Courgettes, cucumbers and squashes/pumpkins can definitely wait another week before braving the elements down at the allotment, even though my little grow frame is rapidly running out of room.

I don’t think I can recall such a late start to the season for quite some time: last week I had a lovely day up at the Chelsea Flower Show – clad in winter coat, boots, a cardigan over my dress and a pashmina for good measure! And whilst the sun did come out at some points during the day, I really didn’t feel tempted to divest myself of any surplus layers! Fabulous show though: I loved Jo Thompson’s M&G Retreat garden with its natural swimming pond and romantic pastel planting, and Chris’ Beardshaw’s Healthy Cities garden had a glorious colour palette, as did Adam Frost’s immaculate Homebase garden. The slate-filled Brewin Dolphin garden was also breathtaking close-up, much more so than it appeared on television, with a clever juxtaposition of that beautiful slate, water and delicate naturalistic planting. And whilst I admired Dan Pearson’s artistry in recreating a patch of Chatsworth, for me, it wasn’t a garden, more of a landscape – so definitely wouldn’t have been my choice for Best in Show! Each to their own…

Chris Beardshaw's garden M&G garden retreatThis week I was tempted into my sandals on a sunny visit to the Savill Garden near Windsor, where the azaleas and rhododendrons are in full, heavenly-scented bloom. Unfortunately, it’s back to winter today, though – roll on summer!

Rhubarb and asparagus are still going great guns down on the plot, and I managed to plant my runner and French bean seeds and net all my soft fruit against the birds last weekend, so I feel relatively up-to-date. I even sneaked up after work on Wednesday and weeded my root vegetable bed; the protective fleece covering seems to encourage both the vegetable seeds and the weeds, but hopefully weeding at this stage will allow the baby seedlings to get ahead of the game. Flea beetle have targeted both the radish and swede, but with any luck they won’t destroy the plants. Parsnips, carrots and beetroot are looking very promising, though, despite the odd gap in the rows where the slugs have obviously had a munch – soon topped up with fresh seed.

The constant flow of rhubarb calls for more recipes, both old and new favourites. One old faithful is silky-smooth rhubarb fool, served this time round with gluten-free almond tuiles for added crunch.

Rhubarb Fool

¼ pint custard

1lb rhubarb, chopped into 1 cm pieces

Grated rind and juice of 1 orange

4-6 tbsp demerara sugar

¼ pt double cream, softly whipped

Make the custard using 1/2 tbsp custard powder, 1 dsp granulated sugar and ¼ pt milk (or make fresh custard with eggs and sugar if you prefer, although I think the thicker consistency of cornflour-based custard powder works better and stops the fool becoming too runny). Cool slightly whilst cooking the rhubarb.

Cook the chopped rhubarb (no need to peel unless really stringy) in a covered dish in the microwave for 4-5 mins with the grated rind and juice of the orange and the sugar (to taste), until tender. Leave to cool.

Purée the custard and the rhubarb in a food processor until well blended – you may not need all the juice from the rhubarb. Turn into a bowl and fold in the whipped cream. Use a balloon whisk to mix gently together if you can still see bits of cream. Pour into 4-5 sundae dishes and chill.

You could use yogurt instead of custard (or cream), or crème fraîche for that matter, but I love the unctuous mixture of custard and cream. Gooseberries work well too as the rhubarb season comes to an end.

Serve with almond tuiles (or shortbread or amaretti biscuits if you prefer!).

Almond Tuiles

makes about 16

3oz butter

3oz caster sugar

2oz flaked almonds

2oz plain flour (or rice flour for gluten-free)

Pinch salt

Beat together the butter and sugar. Crush the almonds in your hand as you add them to the mixture with the sieved flour and salt. Mix well. Place heaped teaspoonfuls of the mixture, spaced well-apart, on baking trays lined with baking parchment – probably only 4-5 on each tray as they will spread while cooking! Cook at 200°C / Gas 6 for about 5-7 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on the trays and repeat with the rest of the mixture. They will be very soft when you take them out of the oven, but set to a lovely, crisp finish when cold.

The original recipe is with plain flour, but I experimented with rice flour for my gluten-free guest this time and it worked beautifully!

Rhubarb Raptures

Charged with the task of creating a gluten-free dessert for my guests this sunny spring weekend, and with the early rhubarb finally getting into gear down at the allotment, I decided to experiment with a rhubarb and orange cheesecake. Rhubarb and orange are already one of my favourite combinations for a roast rhubarb compote, so it was just one step further to imagine it as a delicious topping for a light cheesecake. The base couldn’t be the usual biscuit crumbs, of course, so I wondered about trying crushed amaretti biscuits for a change. Rhubarb and almonds are another flavour twosome made in heaven, so I thought I’d give it a whirl. I’m delighted to report that it went down a storm – and was even better the following day when the flavours had really married together, although the base wasn’t quite as crisp. Here’s how:

Rhubarb & Orange Amaretti Cheesecake

Rhubarb orange cheesecake

serves 10-12

250g bag of amaretti biscuits*

100g melted butter

500g mascarpone (2 standard tubs)

300ml double cream

Juice and grated rind of 1 orange

100g caster sugar

700g rhubarb

4-6 tbsp light brown sugar

Juice and grated rind of two oranges

2 tbsp amaretto liqueur (optional)

Cut the rhubarb (unpeeled unless really thick and woody – shouldn’t be necessary with early-season produce) into 2” batons, halving the stems first if really chunky. Place in a shallow, rectangular baking dish and sprinkle with the brown sugar (to taste), orange rind and juice. Cook in a pre-heated oven at 160°C (Gas 4) until tender, but still whole, for about 30-40 minutes. Leave to cool, then add the amaretto liqueur if using.

Make the base by crushing the amaretti biscuits in a food processor (or in a large plastic bag with a rolling pin), then mix in the melted butter until thoroughly blended. Tip into a 23cm round springform cake tin, greased and base-lined with a circle of baking parchment. Chill in the fridge while preparing the filling.

Whip the mascarpone lightly in a large bowl with the caster sugar. Stir in the grated rind and juice of 1 orange. Whip the double cream separately until softly stiff, then fold into the mascarpone mix. Scrape the mascarpone/cream mixture onto the prepared base and chill the cheesecake in the fridge for at least 6 hours.

Just before serving, drain the rhubarb batons from the liquid (retain the liquid to serve separately in a jug) and arrange over the cheesecake, removed from the springform tin, as decoratively as you can.

Serve and enjoy!

The rhubarb compote is also delicious served on its own or as a sublime accompaniment to panna cotta. I love Nigel Slater’s slightly lighter recipe from Kitchen Diaries, also ideal for anyone avoiding wheat or gluten for whatever reason:

 Rosewater & Yoghurt Panna Cotta

300ml double cream

100ml milk

1 tsp vanilla bean paste

1.5 sheets leaf gelatine

3-4 tbsp icing sugar, sifted

2 tsp rosewater

150 ml thick, creamy yoghurt

Put the double cream and milk into a small pan, the add the vanilla bean paste. Put the pan over a moderate heat and simmer for 5-6 minutes. The mixture will reduce a little during this time. Meanwhile, soak the gelatine leaves in a small bowl of cold water until soft. Remove the cream from the heat and stir in the sifted icing sugar. When dissolved, add the drained gelatine and the rosewater. Fold in the yoghurt. Pour the mixture through a sieve into a large jug, then pour into six lightly greased moulds placed on a tray – or use small espresso or tea cups if you can’t face turning them out afterwards! When cool, cover the whole tray with clingfilm and refrigerate until set – preferably overnight.

To serve, turn out – you may need to quickly dip the mould in boiling water or run a hot knife around them! Or place the cups on a pretty dessert plate if you’re not upturning, of course. Serve with the rhubarb and orange compote.

In season, I have also served this with a gooseberry and elderflower compote, cooked in the oven the same way as the rhubarb, but with a tablespoon of elderflower cordial rather than the amaretto. In this case, you could also add elderflower cordial to the panna cotta instead of rosewater.

Heavenly….

Sissinghurst hot garden spring 2015Hot garden at Sissinghurst in all its spring glory

*Note: true amaretti biscuits (or home-made macaroons) shouldn’t contain any wheat flour, but some of the mainstream brands may. I’ve just checked on the Doria Amaretti I usually use and surprise, surprise they do contain wheat flour. Fortunately my guests weren’t coeliac, but PLEASE check if it’s an issue for you.