Tag Archives: Leeks

A citrussy sort of week…

Shed and clematis

Citrus fruit have featured heavily in my cooking this week; I’m not quite sure why. They seem to go with the delicious produce I’m bringing home from the allotment at the moment: fresh spears of asparagus in particular. It’s still extremely dry everywhere, worryingly so for early springtime, so the asparagus harvest isn’t huge yet, but quite enough for a solo diner to feast every couple of days – decadence indeed.

I brought a handful of spears home on Wednesday and just fancied something really simple to accompany them. From out of the blue, I had a notion to make hollandaise sauce, although I’ve never made it before. Could you make it for one, though – I only had one egg, so I very much hoped so! Cue a quick online search, which brought up the recipe below, from a blog called And Here We Are – worked a treat, and definitely child’s play to make. I was lucky enough to have organic eggs from my friend’s hens – hence the lovely, golden colour. I served it with roast asparagus, linguine and chopped flat leaf parsley – just divine.

Linguine with Roast Asparagus & Hollandaise Sauce – for one
(but multiply upwards to feed more!)

For the hollandaise sauce:

1 egg yolk
1 tbsp hot water
salt
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
1 tbsp butter
freshly ground pepper

Put the egg yolk in a small bowl and whisk with a small hand whisk – I like these, but you could use a small balloon whisk too. Then whisk in 1 tbsp hot water and a pinch of salt. Finally add 1 tsp fresh lemon juice and 1 tbsp or thereabouts of butter.

Place the bowl in a steamer insert over a pan of gently simmering water and keep on whisking until it thickens to a lovely creamy consistency.

Hollandaise sauce

Remove from the heat, but you can leave the sauce standing over the hot water to keep warm while you prepare whatever you’re serving it with.

In my case, I’d been roasting asparagus in olive oil (10 minutes in a hot oven at 200°C fan, Gas 6), and had the linguine on to cook at the same time. I simply served the drained pasta with the roast asparagus, topped with hollandaise and garnished with chopped parsley. Absolute heaven….

Roast asparagus with pasta and hollandaise

More lemons came into play this weekend when I was pondering what sweet treats I could make relatively quickly before my parents came over for an early lunch on Saturday. My mother and I were heading out shopping for wedding outfits for my son’s July wedding, leaving my father at home, dog-sitting and sports viewing. A quick lunch of homemade granary bread, Delia’s leek & potato soup (puréed, rather than the chunky version I usually make) and Italian lemon & almond cookies fitted the bill perfectly. We may not have found an outfit, but lunch was delicious 🙂

No lemons in the soup, of course, but the leeks at the allotment are fast pushing up their statuesque seed heads, which means I’m trying to use them up. I also need to free up the bed for the next rotation, although courgettes and sweetcorn/squash are next in line and I’ve only just planted the seeds in the propagator, so I do have a few weeks yet….

Velvety Leek & Potato Soup – serves 6

4-5 leeks, finely chopped and well rinsed
2 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 sticks celery, chopped
50g butter
1 litre chicken stock (or use vegetable stock if you prefer)
275ml milk
1 bay leaf
Salt & pepper

Melt the butter in a large pan and add the chopped onions, potatoes, leeks and celery. stir well to mix, add the bay leaf and then leave the vegetables to sweat over a low heat, covered, for about 15 minutes. Add the stock and milk. bring to the boil, cover and cook for 20 minutes until the vegetables are soft. Leave to cool, then whizz in batches in a liquidiser until smooth. Reheat to serve with good bread.

Back to the lemons, and specifically these ricciarelli, soft lemon & almond cookies. I had four egg whites in the fridge, left over from last weekend’s tiramisu, and though I toyed with the idea of macaroons, I didn’t have time to make them, leave them to stand and allow to cool before filling. This recipe had caught my eye in Sainsbury’s April magazine, so I doubled the quantities (it uses just two egg whites) and gave it a go – impressively light and citrussy, oh and gluten-free, of course, which is always good to know. I shall be making these again….

Soft Lemon & Almond Ricciarelli – makes 20-24

Lemon and almond cookies

250g caster sugar
Grated zest of 2 large lemons
250g ground almonds
2 tbsp flaked almonds (plus a few more to sprinkle – optional)
4 large egg whites
150g icing sugar, sifted
4 tsp lemon juice

Line 3 baking trays with baking parchment.

Place the caster sugar in a food processor with the grated lemon zest and pulse until well mixed. Tip into a large mixing bowl and add the ground almonds.

In another bowl, whisk the egg whites with 50g icing sugar until they form stiff peaks. Fold the sugar and almond mixture gradually into the egg whites, adding the lemon juice as you go, until evenly combined, then finally fold in the flaked almonds.

Place the remaining 100g icing sugar on a large plate and drop heaped tablespoons of the mixture onto the sugar, one by one, rolling them around with your fingertips until coated all over. Be warned: this is a messy process, but it does work – you may need to add more icing sugar towards the end if you run out of dry powder.

Transfer them to the lined baking trays with a spatula and space well apart; the original recipe suggested 6 on each, but they didn’t spread as much as I thought, so you could definitely get away with 8 or 9 on each tray. Sprinkle with more flaked almonds if you like. (These weren’t in the Sainsbury’s version, but I like the added crunch.) Sprinkle with any remaining icing sugar, then bake at 140°C fan, Gas 3 for 15-20 minutes until a very light golden brown, with a slightly cracked surface. Leave to cool on the tray, then enjoy with a cup of tea and a happy smile.

Tulip Sapporo and philadelphus
Tulip Sapporo against the gorgeous Philadelphus coronarius aureus (golden mock orange)

Another wet weekend…

Poppy in the forest
Poppy in Ashdown Forest

Another weekend in February creeps damply past – no chance of venturing out in the garden, yet again: when will we feel the tide has turned? Fortunately, I’ve been far too busy the past few weeks to have any time to spend outside, even had the weather been more forthcoming – probably just as well!

Roast tomatoes_cropped

I set up the Foodie Translators Facebook page just a few short weeks ago, and have seen it grow from a tentative idea to a group with over 570 members – amazing! Lots of fabulous foodie photographs, delicious recipes and food-inspired tales later – and a not inconsiderable time spent drooling over them – and it’s hardly any wonder that I haven’t had chance to either garden or update my blog lately! The inception of the group has led in turn to another new initiative with Translators Without Borders, creating a translator cookbook as a fund-raiser for the ongoing refugee crisis. Amazing how little seeds grow into fully-fledged fruit-bearing projects….

I’ve also been out in Barcelona, attending a conference, but finding time to sight-see and explore the city too – a mecca for foodies and Gaudi aficionados alike. The fabulous La Boqueria market was a feast for the eyes and there were stunning pastelerias on every corner – I shall definitely be back!

Boqueria market

Returning to the UK after the delights of a sunny Mediterranean city has come as bit of a shock – and arriving back on a Sunday meant that my fridge was rather bare too. As a result, this week’s meals have centred on the contents of my well-stocked freezer, supplemented with staples from the allotment: parsnips, leeks and the ever-faithful apples in storage in the garage. Where would I be without them?!

A delicious Parsnip Gratin one night was simplicity itself: thinly-sliced parsnip placed in a buttered gratin dish, topped with cream brought to the boil with seasoning, nutmeg and thyme and Cheddar cheese grated on top, cooked in a bain marie in the oven at 180 degrees C for an hour or so – mmmmm….

Leeks roasted thanks to a tip from a colleague in Foodie Translators with chunky slices of pear, drizzled in olive oil, thyme and seasoning and sprinkled with crumbled Feta (or goat’s) cheese were sublime and only took 20-30 minutes in a medium-hot oven.

And then a variation on a trusty Apple Crumble: roughly chop 2-3 cooking apples, add a sprinkling of brown sugar (my stored apples are quite sweet this late into their storage time) and a dash of water and microwave for 4-5 minutes until starting to soften. Crush 5oz Amaretti biscuits, then add 2oz melted butter, 1 tbsp Demerera sugar and mix before sprinkling over the semi-cooked fruit. Cook in the oven at 180 degrees C for about 10-15 minutes until golden brown and crispy – serve with crème fraiche or cream for a heavenly and extremely easy winter pud.

Tonight’s classic roast chicken will be served with my favourite Oven-Roast Veg using my own potatoes, parsnips, rosemary and bought (sadly) carrots, celery, garlic and onion – I parboil the potatoes, carrots and parsnips, cut into 2-3 cm chunks, mix in the remaining vegetables and herbs, drizzle with olive oil, then roast in a hot oven for 35-40 minutes. Sometimes, the simplest recipes are the best – and after a busy (non-gardening) few weeks, that’s just what I need.

Oven-roast veg

Still hoping spring will soon be round the corner and I can get out in the garden again….

 

 

Season for Soup

The wet weather continues into the New Year: hail, constant rain, thunder, gloom…. it’s enough to make you not want to venture out at all. Thank goodness for dogs, or I probably wouldn’t! Definitely not the time for gardening, or for the allotment for that matter – my sole forays down there are to harvest the few crops that can withstand the onslaught: cavolo nero, leeks, parsnips, rocket and herbs. Even the raised beds are waterlogged, if that’s not a contradiction in terms, and taking cars into the entrance turning circle is a definite no-no because of the inevitable mud bath that would result. I did manage to pick my first purple-sprouting broccoli, though, this weekend, so the mild weather does have some benefits; delicious it was too, with a beautiful piece of baked cod from the fish van in the village, topped with homemade tartare sauce.

This is the weather for comfort food, and soup has to be right up there with the best. The first long week back at work after the Christmas holidays is notorious for colds and sniffles, as well as a marked disinclination to revert to normality. A warming bowl of soup is often just what you fancy to soothe scratchy throats, clear aching heads and generally warm the cockles of your heart. At this time of year, I’ve often finished the stocks of frozen soup I squirrelled away in the summer and autumn months of plentiful produce, so any soup I can conjure up with my own vegetables is a bonus. Leek and potato soup is one stalwart, using the leeks that always do so well for me and my potatoes stored in hessian sacks in the garage. Minestrone is another favourite, using leeks, fresh winter herbs and cavolo nero to top up store cupboard staples. The final winter standby is yet another variation on tomato soup, but this time using tinned tomatoes. As long as you use good stock, the lack of fresh produce needn’t be a problem; a few minutes chopping and hey presto, you can bring instant cheer to a dull day!

Leek & Potato Soup – serves 4-6

Leek & Potato Soup

1 tbsp butter

1 tbsp olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

3 large leeks, washed and chopped

350g potatoes, peeled and diced into 5mm cubes

1 litre homemade stock ( I use chicken, but vegetable is fine too)

Salt and pepper

1 bay leaf

2 tbsp parsley, finely chopped

Heat the oil and butter in a large pan and gently fry the onion for 5 minutes. Add the chopped leeks and potatoes and cook for a few minutes until well coated in the oil and butter. Pour in the stock, season to taste and add the bay leaf. Bring to the boil, cover and simmer for about 20 minutes until the vegetables are tender. Finally stir in the parsley and serve piping hot with fresh bread or cheese scones. Freezes well too.

Cheese scones

You can liquidize this if you prefer, but I prefer the chunky, broth-like texture. There’s such a high potato content in this soup that it can go a little glutinous if blended.

Minestrone Soup – serves 6

Good glug of olive oil

2-3 rashers streaky bacon, snipped into small pieces (or omit for vegetarian soup)

1 large onion, finely chopped

1 clove garlic, chopped

2-3 celery stalks, chopped

3 carrots, diced

1 small red pepper, diced

1 small red chilli, seeds and all, finely chopped

1 tin chopped tomatoes

2 leeks, chopped

150g cavolo nero (or cabbage), hard stems removed and shredded

1 bay leaf

1 tsp dried oregano (or use fresh rosemary or thyme, or even basil in the autumn)

1.5 litre good homemade chicken stock (or vegetable if you prefer)

50g dried macaroni

1 tbsp tomato purée

Seasoning

2 tbsp parsley, chopped

Heat the oil, then gently cook the bacon, onion, celery and garlic for a few minutes until starting to soften. Add the diced carrots, pepper, chilli and leeks and cook for another 5 minutes or so. Add the tinned tomatoes, swilling out the can with a little water to extract all the juice. Add the tomato purée, bay leaf, oregano (or herbs of your choice), season and cook gently for another 5-10 minutes. Add the stock, bring back to the boil, then cover and simmer gently for an hour or so. Then add the cavolo nero (or cabbage) and the macaroni and cook for a further 30 minutes. Stir in the chopped parsley just before serving.

Good served with chunky fresh bread or toast and cheese. A real meal in a bowl! All these winter soups really seem to intensify in flavour after freezing, so making these large quantities is a real bonus, even if you’re just cooking for one or two.

Tomato & Lentil Soup – serves 4-5

4 rashers streaky bacon, snipped into pieces

Glug of olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

2 sticks celery, chopped

1 red chilli, finely chopped (optional)

125g red lentils

1 tin chopped tomatoes

1 tbsp tomato purée

Few sprigs fresh thyme, leaves removed

Salt and pepper

1 bay leaf

1 litre chicken or beef stock (or vegetable if you prefer)

Gently fry the bacon, onion, celery and garlic in the oil until golden. Add lentils and cook for a few minutes, then add the tinned tomatoes, tomato purée, thyme leaves, bay leaf, red chilli (if using) and seasoning. Bring back to the boil and cook for 30-45 minutes until vegetables are tender and lentils are cooked. Allow to cool slightly, then liquidize. Adjust consistency by adding more stock, milk or water if necessary and reheat to serve.

I should perhaps issue a disclaimer here: once you’ve started making your own soup and realised how easy it is and how much tastier (and cheaper!) than bought soup, it’s really hard to go back. You have been warned! I started making soup when I first got married, over 30 years ago and haven’t looked back since. The freezer is usually well-stocked with soup and stock and that’s just how I like it!

Clivia miniata - a welcome shot of colour in the conservatory
Clivia miniata – a welcome shot of colour in the conservatory

Waste Not, Want Not

Sheffield Park pools

Inspired by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s excellent programme, Hugh’s War on Waste, on television recently, I thought I’d share some of my favourite recipes for using up leftovers. It’s always been a theme of mine, ever since I first had a house of my own and a beginner’s vegetable garden – having gone to all the trouble of growing your own, it always seems criminal to waste it! Plus, money was tight in the early days, so wasting food was doubly questionable. Delia Smith’s Leftovers section at the back of her “Complete Cookery Course” was my bible, along with Jocasta Innes’ “The Pauper’s Cookbook”, dating back to my student cooking days. Delia’s cottage pie and rissoles were stalwarts of my early forays into cooking and Jocasta’s chapter on programmed eating, based on cooking a joint or a casserole and then using the leftovers over the following days, seemed to make perfect sense. It still does! I often think the leftovers from a joint can be almost as good (if not nicer!) then the joint itself; think roast chicken followed by a chicken & ham pie or a chicken risotto, with plenty of stock to make soups over the coming weeks…. Or a gammon joint, followed up by ham and tomato pasta, a delicious quiche or as a pizza topping, plus ham and lentil soup for the freezer…. I pride myself on being able to stretch a joint for at least two, if not three meals after the main event and not including the essential stock. Definitely no scope for waste!

Halloween pumpkins

A couple of weeks ago my son and his American girlfriend came home for the Halloween weekend, bearing not one but four pumpkins! The intention was for them to decorate them for the Halloween festivities, and for my elder son and his girlfriend to do their own too. Unfortunately they didn’t get home in time, so I had two rather large pumpkins going spare. My own squashes down at the allotment have been a miserable washout this year, with only two smallish pumpkins to show for a whole season of growth – I blame the late start and not enough days of sunlight. Anyway, although the large orange pumpkins you buy at Halloween don’t have quite the depth of flavour of the home-grown squashes, I had no intention of letting them go to waste!

Cue several roast pumpkin risottos (see Butternut Squash, Leek & Bacon Risotto for the basic recipe), a delicious oven-baked pumpkin, tomato & feta frittata and the following soup recipe, adapted from October’s Waitrose Food magazine.

Roast Pumpkin, Apple & Stilton Soup – serves 6-8

½ large pumpkin, peeled and chopped into 5 cm chunks

4 Cox-type apples, peeled, cored and quartered

1 tbsp chopped sage leaves

1 tsp ground cinnamon

4 carrots, peeled and cut into 2 cm lengths

2 sticks celery, cut into 2 cm chunks

2 leeks, sliced

1 onion, chopped

1 clove garlic, finely chopped,

2 red chillis, finely chopped

Olive oil

25g butter

1 l vegetable or chicken stock

125 g Blue Stilton, crumbled

Milk or extra stock or white wine to taste

Pre-heat oven to 200°C / Gas 4. Toss the pumpkin and apple on a large roasting tray with the cinnamon, chopped sage and olive oil to coat. Roast for 35 minutes until tender and golden.

Meanwhile, melt the butter and a dash of olive oil in a large pan. Add the onion, garlic, leeks, celery, carrots and chilli and cook over a gentle heat for 8-10 minutes until softened.

Add the roast pumpkin and apple to the pan with the stock, bring to the boil and simmer for 20-30 minutes or until tender. Allow to cool slightly, then liquidise until smooth (in batches). Add milk or extra stock (or a dash of white wine!) until the desired consistency is reached. Add the crumbled Stilton and reheat to serve.

Still on the waste avoidance theme, I often end up with brown, spotty bananas in my fruit bowl and have a number of delicious ways of using them up, so I really have no excuse for them ending up on the compost heap. One such recipe is Banana Cream, simplicity itself and also delicious with perfect yellow bananas if you can’t bear to wait. Banana & Cherry Buns are another delicious use for past-their-best bananas – cooking bananas somehow transforms them into another taste dimension. One thing I don’t advise is following the advice of a certain TV chef and freezing brown bananas whole, then whizzing in a blender for instant ice-cream; I tried this the other day, admittedly with bananas that I’d put in the freezer and forgotten about for quite some time, but the resulting mix tasted revolting – like cold banana mush, just as you’d expect really!

These recipes I can vouch for, however: a perfect use of over-ripe fruit!

Banana Cream – serves 2-3

Banana cream

2-3 ripe bananas

Juice 1 lemon

125 ml double cream

125 ml natural yogurt

1 tbsp caster sugar

Chopped walnuts, grated dark chocolate or blueberries to garnish

Chop the bananas into a bowl with the squeezed lemon juice and 1 tbsp caster sugar. Mash roughly with a potato masher. Stir in the yogurt until blended. Whip the double cream until the soft peak stage and fold into the banana mixture. Spoon into 2-3 sundae dishes and top with a garnish of your choice.

Banana & Cherry Buns

175g butter, softened

150g caster sugar

175g self-raising flour

2 eggs, beaten

1 ripe banana

Lemon juice

125g glacé cherries, finely chopped

Preheat oven to 180°C fan, Gas 5. Place 24 bun cases in bun tins. Mix butter, sugar, flour and eggs together using a hand-held mixer until the mixture is light and creamy. Mash the banana in a small bowl, adding lemon juice to stop it browning. Fold in the banana and cherries. Spoon into the cases and cook in the preheated oven for 15-20 minutes until golden brown and springy to the touch. Absolutely delicious warm from the oven with a cup of tea – although the banana flavour intensifies the longer you leave them – allegedly! They certainly don’t last long in my house…

Now I just need to find homes for all the windfall apples under my allotment trees – I’ve picked loads, given lots away, advertised them on Facebook and e-mailed my fellow plotholders to help themselves, but there are still lots on the ground. Sorry, Hugh….

Midsummer Madness

Allotment June 2015 looking down towards gateYou can tell the holiday season is almost upon us when you’re rushing frantically to get everything done before you go away. Gardeners should really probably take their holiday out of season, as spring/summer is such a busy time of year in the garden!

Ho, hum! Needs must. And I am getting there, honest! The allotment is now fully planted, despite complete germination failure of my beans, both runner and French. I’ve taken to planting them directly in the ground at the end of May/beginning of June in recent years, rather than in pots inside (due to lack of greenhouse/conservatory space!). Unfortunately, we had a sharp frost and very heavy hailstorms a week or so after I planted the seeds and the few brown and frazzled stems I can see suggest they germinated, but were frosted almost immediately. Never mind, I’ve planted more, albeit rather late, and I’ll have to hope they germinate without any issues. Late plantings usually catch up anyway and at least they won’t overlap with the peas.

Last weekend I also planted out my leeks, which were approaching pencil thickness in their seed trays. It’s a fiddly, but satisfying job, and I can now look forward to leeks from September right through to next Spring.

Allotment June 2015 leeks plantedStrawberries, gooseberries and broad beans are now in full flow, as is the basil back home in the conservatory, leading to the natural conclusion: broad bean pesto! This is one of my favourite combinations and one I try to make every year in season. Beware, as podding broad beans always makes your fingernails black – the gardener’s curse, I’m afraid!

Broad Bean Pesto

Broad beans June 20156oz broad beans (after podding – you’ll probably need at least 1lb unpodded weight!)

2oz Parmesan cheese, finely grated

3 cloves garlic, crushed

3-4oz fresh basil

4fl.oz virgin olive oil

Seasoning

Steam or microwave the broad beans for 2-3 minutes then blanch under cold water.

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

Add the olive oil in a slow and steady stream until you have a thickish consistency.

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

Serve with pasta – I added it to softly fried onions, pancetta and a cream sauce tonight, with a handful of fresh broad beans thrown in to cook with the pasta for the last few minutes – sublime!

Basil for pesto Broad bean pesto

Perpetual allotment (and Popeye’s) favourites

Raised beds April 2015May is always the busiest month in the year in the garden and this year is no exception – busier if anything as I was away the last weekend of April, so have been catching up ever since! After two sunny weekends, however, I at last feel as though I’m getting on top of things. My new raised beds finally went in over the Easter break and I’m now feeling the benefit of planting them up.

It’s been a pretty cold start to the year down in this South-Eastern corner of the UK, despite some sunny days, and our heavy clay soil has taken an age to warm up. At last, though, I’ve been able to plant my potatoes, both first and second earlies (Rocket and Charlotte), spaced three weeks apart, both much later than I’d normally expect. The one benefit of planting so late was that last year’s salad bed, where the Charlottes were due to go, still had a flourishing crop of spinach, Swiss chard, rocket and parsley, all having overwintered beautifully. Eventually I had to take the plunge and remove them all to free up the bed: such a shame to pull out strong plants with many more meals left on them, but I brought home several bags full and distributed more amongst friends too. I know they would have gone to seed soon enough, but it still seems harsh. The last remaining leeks also had to be lifted to make room for my mangetout and sugarsnap peas, although they had started to develop flowering shoots in their centre so were on borrowed time in any event.

Both spinach and leeks are key players in my allotment plans. Leeks in particular take up space for a good part of the year, but are invaluable for winter cropping and so much nicer than bought offerings. I tend to sow the seeds in my propagator in the conservatory in March, prick them out six weeks later into seed trays and then plant them out in the allotment when they are pencil-sized, usually in mid-June. I grow three varieties, an early autumn crop (Nipper) from September onwards, for baby leeks, than a mid-season variety (Pandora) and finally a late winter crop, the blue-green Bandit.

Having lifted the spinach, I’m going to be without my allotment stalwart for a few weeks as I only sowed the new season’s crop a week or so ago. I usually grow Perpetual Spinach as it’s much less prone to bolting than the other types of spinach and tastes just as good in my opinion. I grow a couple of crops a year, one now and one in late summer and usually have spinach leaves most of the year, even in hard winters – such great value from a tiny packet of seeds!

Faced with an abundance of both recently, I’ve had to revert to tried-and-trusted recipes for converting the produce for use now and later. One of my favourite spring soups is a Spinach & Pea Soup, an oh-so-easy adaptation of a Nigel Slater recipe that tastes as fresh as it looks. I tend to use both spinach and chard interchangeably, so any of the chard recipes here will work perfectly, but I also experimented this weekend with a homespun version of the delicious Greek Spanakopita, a spinach & feta pie encased in light filo pastry.

Spinach & Pea Soup

Spinach & pea soup in pan

350g frozen peas

500g spinach, washed and chunky stems removed (or whatever you have – not an exact science!)

2 tbsp olive oil

1 leek, chopped (or 1 onion if you prefer)

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

2 sticks celery (or fennel), chopped

1 medium potato, diced small

Bunch of fresh mint, chopped

1.5 litres fresh vegetable stock

Salt and pepper to season

Cook the leek or onion, garlic, potato and celery in a large soup pan (I always use my trusted Le Creuset casserole dishes for soup) until soft for 10-15 minutes or so. Tip the frozen peas into the leek mix, then add the stock and bring to the boil. Season to taste. As the mixture starts to bubble, add the chopped spinach and mint, pushing down below the surface of the liquid. Continue cooking until the leaves have wilted, but are still a bright emerald green colour (about 10 minutes).

Allow to cool slightly, then liquidize until smooth. Reheat to serve.  The beauty of using frozen peas is that this soup doesn’t need sieving: one of my favourite summer soups in the height of pea season is a deliciously delicate Mangetout Soup, but that invariably has to be sieved due to all the fine fibres. Not a problem, just more washing up!

This is quite a light soup, but perfect for springtime, or as a dinner party starter – and it freezes beautifully too.

I only realised too late that I’d run out of bread on cooking this, so whizzed up some parsnip & carrot scones based on the cheese & apple scone recipe from March, but with a small grated parsnip and carrot instead of the apple and rosemary instead of thyme. Pretty good if I say so myself!

Spanakopita

Spankopita1 pack filo pastry sheets

Plenty of butter – at least 50-100g

500g spinach (I don’t actually weigh it, I must admit, but a large colanderful!)

2 tbsp olive oil

1 leek, chopped (or I onion)

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

Grated lemon zest

Generous handful of chopped fresh mint, fennel and parsley

100g feta cheese, chopped

100g ricotta cheese

Grated fresh nutmeg

Salt and pepper

Sesame seeds

Prepare the filling by cooking the leek and garlic gently in the olive oil until soft (about 10 minutes). Add the chopped spinach, after washing and removing any tough stems. (I actually used a mixture of Swiss chard and spinach as that’s what I had, but either or both will be fine.) Allow to wilt gently, adding the chopped herbs, lemon zest, nutmeg and seasoning as you go. When it has reduced and is just tender, remove from the heat and stir in the chopped feta and ricotta. Allow to cool while preparing the pastry.

Open the pack of filo pastry carefully, placing on a damp tea towel as you work to stop it drying out. It often tears as you lift it since it’s extremely delicate, but it really doesn’t matter – just patch it in position! Place the first sheet on a piece of greaseproof paper and brush with melted butter. I usually melt 50g or so in the microwave and see how I go, but I can guarantee you’ll need more than you think! Place the next sheet on top and continue layering and buttering until you have a large oblong of pastry. Spread the spinach mix onto the pastry, leaving a good inch or so around the edges and fold these over to contain the mixture. Then, using the paper as a support, gently roll the pastry into a long roll from one of the long edges. Transfer very carefully to a greased baking sheet, either as one long roll (if your baking sheet is big enough!), or, as in my case in a horseshoe, or even a spiral, depending on the initial shape of your filo pastry. As you can probably see, mine split during the transfer operation – it’s quite heavy and fragile! Again, it didn’t seem to be a problem though; the mixture is firm enough not to leak out. Brush with more butter to finish and sprinkle with sesame seeds.

Cook at 200°C, Gas 6 for at 30-35 minutes, then serve warm, cut into generous slices.

I served mine with a tossed green salad, using overwintered lettuce and rocket, plus some divine asparagus, picked fresh from the plot only hours earlier and simply roasted for 10-15 minutes with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Heaven….

Shed with Clematis May 2015Allotment shed in all its clematis-festooned glory…

 

 

 

 

 

Variations on a (rice) theme

Snowdrops

Spring may have seemed just round the corner today, but it’s still that time of year when comfort food is the order of the day. Snow or icy rain stopped play in the allotment yet again at the weekend, and although the snowdrops are brazening it out, and the scent of the daphnes pervades the garden when the sun deigns to shine, there’s very little evidence of spring growth yet.

Still far too tempting to hunker down inside and turn to comfort food like risottos and stews…. For me, rice dishes are just what you fancy after a cold winter’s walk or an afternoon beavering away on the keyboard. Recently, I’ve been experimenting with various examples of the genre and thought I’d note down my favourites, if only so I too can find them again and remember the little tweaks I’ve made!

My first revelation was Tom Kerridge’s beef risotto, as featured on the current BBC Food & Drink programme – a very good watch if you haven’t seen it. I’d never thought of making a risotto with beef, but this sounded so good, I just had to try it. The original recipe calls for beef shin on the bone, but my local farm shop only had boneless pieces when I called in, so gave me a piece of small marrowbone to cook with it. As I paid, I joked that the dogs would be mortified not to have any bones for themselves – so she duly presented me with the rest of the bone – two huge pieces! One was so enormous that I decided to cook it up for stock (which I subsequently used in the risotto instead of Tom’s recommended chicken stock), but the dogs have really enjoyed gnawing on the rest.

Here’s the recipe, duly tweaked as above:

Beef Risotto – serves 2

Beef risotto

8oz beef shin (on the bone) or with a separate piece of marrowbone)

½ pt red wine

Seasoning

1 carrot

1 celery stick

2 small onions, chopped

1 star anise

1 bay leaf

Good pint home-made beef stock (see link above – or you can use chicken!)

Olive oil

1oz butter

1 garlic clove

6oz risotto rice

Fresh thyme leaves

Cheese to serve (I used Fontina, but Tom’s original recipe used blue cheese)

Marinade the beef overnight in the wine and seasoning. Remove from marinade, reserving the wine. Brown the beef in a splash of olive oil, then remove from pan, brown half the onion, chopped carrot and celery until softened, add the star anise and bay leaf. Season and add the small piece of marrowbone (if using), reserved red wine and 1 pt beef stock, bring back to the boil and cook in a low oven (150°C, Gas 3), covered, for 3.5 – 4 hours. Add more stock if necessary (depends on the heat of your oven!).

Remove meat from casserole and chop/flake – it will probably fall apart by this stage! Extract the marrow from the bone and leave to one side to add later. Strain the stock through a sieve and keep to one side.

 Heat another splash of oil and the butter in a pan, add the remaining chopped onion and garlic and cook gently until soft. Add risotto rice and stir for a couple of minutes until well coated with the buttery juices. Add beef stock a ladleful at a time and stir as you go until absorbed, then add more as with a normal risotto. Continue until the rice is just tender – I usually reckon between 30-40 minutes for this stage.

Stir in the flaked meat, chopped marrowbone, thyme and finally the cheese of your choice, preferably one which will melt beautifully.

 Serve and enjoy the delicious, unctuous taste of comfort food at its best…..

A few days after luxuriating in my warming beef risotto, I decided to try another variation on the rice theme, this time very loosely based on a rice salad on the January page of this year’s Sainsbury magazine. It was intended to be a take on Coronation chicken, but using leftover turkey. I had neither cooked turkey nor chicken, but I did have a fresh chicken breast AND a ripe mango in my fruit bowl, so I decided to adapt! I wasn’t in the mood for salad (far too cold!), so I cooked brown rice and served the whole dish warm – a sort of Coronation chicken/biryani fusion…. See what you think:

Chicken and Mango Rice (serves 2)

Chicken & mango rice

6oz brown basmati rice

½ tsp turmeric

1 onion

1 garlic clove, chopped

1 yellow pepper (optional)

1 tbsp olive or sunflower oil

1 red chilli, finely chopped

1 tsp each garam masala, coriander, cumin

Salt and pepper

1 tsp freshly grated ginger (I use straight from the freezer)

1 ripe mango

2 chicken breasts

1oz flaked almonds, toasted under a grill (or in a hot oven for 4-5 mins)

2 tbsp sultanas

Handful fresh coriander, chopped

 Cook the brown basmati with 1 tsp turmeric in boiling water as usual for 25-30 minutes, then leave to one side.

 Cook the chopped onion, garlic, chilli and pepper in the oil, then add the spices, ginger and seasoning and continue cooking for another 10 minutes or so. Add the chicken, cut into thin strips and cook until tender and cooked through. Add the toasted almonds and sultanas and stir in the cooked brown rice until heated through. Finally add the chopped mango (diced using the hedgehog method of cutting each half lengthwise from the flat stone, scoring the flesh in a criss-cross pattern without piercing the skin, then turning each piece inside-out and cutting away from the skin) and fresh coriander and stir gently to mix.

Serve with mango chutney and Naan bread.

My final variation on the theme isn’t actually a rice dish at all, but it feels very much like one and certainly has the same supremely comforting effect. It’s a speltotto, borrowed from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Veg Every Day cookbook. It’s based on two of my staple allotment veg, kale and leek, that I always have even in the depths of winter and the tricky days of March when there’s not much else available on the plot. I’ve adapted it ever so slightly, but otherwise it’s more or less the original recipe – and wonderful with it! Kale is very much a superfood at the moment, popular with celebrities and nutritionists alike as a source of nutrient-rich goodness. The first time I made this, I made the mistake of using wholegrain spelt, the only spelt I could find at the time in my excellent local wholefood shop, Wealden Wholefoods. Unfortunately the whole grains took hours to cook, and although the recipe was still delicious, it ended up being rather later than I’d planned to eat…. Pearled spelt is the way to go: I tracked it down in Waitrose in the end, but I should think it’s more widely available now.

Kale and Leek Speltotto (serves 4)

Kale and leek speltotto

1 litre home-made vegetable stock (or chicken if you’re not cooking for vegetarians!)

50g butter

2 tbsp olive oil

1 onion, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

Few sprigs fresh thyme

2-3 leeks, well washed and chopped

150g kale (I use the beautiful dark green Nero di Toscana)

300g pearled spelt

125ml dry white wine

50g cheese (Hugh uses goat’s cheese, but I’ve used whatever I had at hand: Taleggio is superb, as is Fontina, and I can imagine blue cheese being good too…)

Salt and pepper

 Cook the onion, garlic and thyme leaves gently in the oil and butter for about 10 minutes until soft. Stir in the leeks, followed a few minutes later by the pearled spelt and stir until coated in butter. Add the wine and bubble until all the liquid has been absorbed. Now add the stock little by little as you would with a risotto, testing after 30 minutes or so to see when the spelt is tender. Meanwhile, strip the dark green kale leaves from the tough stems and shred finely, disposing of the stems. When you think the spelt is almost ready, stir in the kale leaves and cook for another few minutes until they wilt and are just cooked. Season to taste and stir in your chosen cheese. Mmmmm…