Tag Archives: Leeks

Another weekend, more progress…

Allotment evening sun

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

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

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

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

Broccoli & Feta Frittata – serves 2

Broccoli frittata with sorrel mint salad

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

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

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

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

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

Broccoli & Pasta Bake – serves 2

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

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

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

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

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

Spicy Sausage Pasta – serves 2-3

Sausage pasta_rotated

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

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

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

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

Poppy in bluebells 2018

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A mixed bag for February

A mixed bag of a weekend, and one in which I’ve been up to London to a delicious wedding food tasting, bought part of my wedding outfit (hurrah!), had a frustrating time on the ‘phone to Apple to try to resolve my quick-draining phone battery, squeezed in some shopping (20% off at the local garden centre!) and household chores, and finally managed to catch up in the garden before next week’s forecast big freeze.

Seed potatoes

Part of my garden shopping haul included some seed potatoes for chitting: I’ve been looking for a few weeks, but most of the local garden centres only seemed to have the same old varieties, and as I now only grow one bed with 10 plants of 2 varieties, I do like to trial different ones each year. These were Colleen, a first early, and Bonnie. a second early, both with good disease/pest resistance and sounding promising. I’ve also discovered one of the nicest potato varieties I’ve ever grown down here in the South-East at an online nursery in Doncaster, so intend to order those too to see if they are as good as I remember. The variety is Ulster Sceptre and I haven’t been able to find them since trialling them from T&M some years ago. It transpires that these used to be widely grown in Cheshire, which probably explains why I liked them so much – they reminded me of the potatoes of my childhood. My mum always said you couldn’t beat new Cheshire potatoes (sorry, Jersey!), although I suspect the good loamy soil has a lot to do with it too. Not entirely sure where I’ll put them, but they come in 5s, so too good to miss….

It’s been a particularly beautiful, cold but sunny weekend, so all the more galling that I wasn’t able to do quite as much gardening today as I’d anticipated. Still, it would have been even more annoying if I’d tried to sort my ‘phone out on a work day, I suppose. No matter, I eventually (by dint of eking out the very last hours of daylight until the sun finally disappeared beyond the horizon and the final rose-orange rays of the stunning sunset faded away), did what I’d set out to achieve: cutting down the autumn raspberries at the allotment, and pruning the late-flowering clematis to a foot above the ground, plus finishing cutting back the perennial grasses and Michaelmas daisies at home. All of which took a surprisingly long time, probably because I allowed myself to become rather side-tracked pruning roses (intermingled with the clematis) and pyracantha (likewise).

Wonky arch

Mission accomplished in the end, though – and another task set up for next weekend: I’ve been aware for a while that my rose arch near the front gate has been leaning at an increasingly drunken angle. Closer inspection as I clipped the roses yesterday showed that the wood has simply rotted in the ground and the whole thing will have to come down. It’s been in situ some 10 or 11 years, so I suppose I can’t complain – and if it’s going to go, far better to happen now, rather than later in the season when everything is in full bloom. New metal arch duly ordered, but the task of unravelling the existing climbing roses and removing the old arch will have to wait until another time – here’s hoping this week’s predicted snow doesn’t do the job for me!

After a busy and successful day in London on Saturday, and lots of delicious food to sample at lunchtime, I only fancied a light meal when I got back home. I hadn’t anything planned, but a small Harlequin squash in the storage basket in the conservatory was just asking to be used. Cue one of my favourite simple suppers: an oven-baked frittata with squash, leeks, feta and sultanas, served with cherry tomatoes quickly roasted in the oven with rosemary, garlic and thyme at the same time. So tasty.

Squash, Leek & Feta Frittata – serves 2

Squash and leek frittata_cropped

1 small round or butternut squash, peeled and deseeded
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 leek, washed and sliced
olive oil
knob of butter
salt and black pepper
few sprigs fresh thyme
1 tbsp sultanas
1 tbsp pine nuts, toasted
50g feta cheese, crumbled
4 eggs, beaten

Pre-heat the oven to 180°C/Gas 5. Chop the squash into chunks and place in a small baking dish. Sprinkle over the thyme leaves and chopped garlic, then season with salt and black pepper. Roast in the hot oven until golden – about 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, sauté the sliced leeks gently in the butter until softened. Stir in the sultanas and toasted pine nuts. Beat the eggs in a separate bowl and season. Stir in the leek mixture and crumbled feta. When the squash is cooked, drain off any excess oil, and combine the squash with the egg mixture. Return to the roasting dish, distribute everything evenly and return to the oven for 10-12 minutes or until set and golden-brown. Cut into squares or triangles to serve warm with a green salad or with roast tomatoes. Also excellent cold (or reheated) the next day for lunch.

I’d made a similar dish, although probably more akin to a Spanish tortilla, last weekend, this time with potatoes, caramelised onions, thyme and cheddar. Served just warm, at a barn dance at the local school where we’d all been invited to bring a dish, it went down a treat. And proves that simple vegetarian food often hits the spot too.

Potato, Onion, Mushroom and Thyme Tortilla – serves 4-6

3-4 potatoes, peeled and roughly chopped
2-3 large onions, peeled and sliced
150g mushrooms, sliced
pinch of sugar
large knob of butter
seasoning
few sprigs of thyme
6 eggs (or to taste!)
100g mature Cheddar cheese, grated

Sauté the sliced onions gently in a frying pan until very soft and tender – about 10-30 minutes. The longer you cook them, the more caramelised they become. Add the mushrooms for the last 10 minutes and a pinch of sugar towards the end.

Meanwhile, place the potatoes in boiling salted water and cook for 10-15 minutes, or until just tender. Drain and leave to cool slightly.

Pre-heat the oven to 200180°C/Gas 5. Whisk the eggs in a separate large bowl, season and stir in the grated cheese, thyme leaves, caramelised onions and mushrooms, and the cooked potatoes. Mix well to combine and pour the mixture into a greased 24cm round ovenproof dish (or you can use a rectangular dish if you prefer). Add more beaten eggs at this stage if you’re using a bigger dish or it doesn’t look enough! Make sure that everything is distributed evenly, then cook in the oven for 15-20 minutes.

Best eaten lukewarm, but you can eat it immediately or leave until cold. The Spanish often take their tortilla on picnics, cold, where the flavours really shine through. I hasten to add that this is by no means a traditional Spanish recipe, merely my take on a combination I adore 🙂

Poppy at Tapsells in frost

 

 

Rain stopped play – again…

Llama

After a hectic few weekends of socialising, I’d been looking forward to a weekend of catching up in the garden, tidying up the windswept perennial foliage and distributing the spent compost from last year’s containers to lighten my heavy and sodden clay soil. It wasn’t to be – rain stopped play again, non-stop on both days. Even more frustrating after the couple of glorious winter days we’ve had this week, when, of course, I was tied to deadlines at my computer screen. ‘Twas ever thus… Still at least the hellebores and snowdrops are coming on apace with all this rain, even if we can’t get outside much to enjoy them.

In actual fact, it has turned out to be quite a productive weekend, allowing me to get down to some long overdue household chores, as well as the usual house cleaning and shopping. My son and daughter-in-law had given me some expanding drawer dividers as part of my Christmas present, so I took the plunge and sorted out the black hole that is my utensil drawer. It had reached the stage where I struggled to find lesser-used equipment whenever I opened the drawer – hopeless when you’re frantically searching for something as you cook. Now everything is neatly ordered – let’s see if I can keep it that way!

Drawer dividers

Next up was my full-height fridge: I’ve been meaning to give this a thorough clean for ages, but inevitably life gets in the way and it just had a quick wipe-down. Yesterday was the day – everything out, all the drawers and shelves cleaned to within an inch of their lives, and returned pristine. So satisfying!

The ubiquitous dog walks had to continue, rain or no rain, hence the encounter with the local llamas (above). I don’t know who was more shocked, the llama or the dogs, when we came face to face over the corner of the fence!

Llama sign

A brief foray to an extremely muddy and waterlogged allotment was also required to harvest leeks and parsley. I’d been up on a lovely sunny morning earlier in the week to show a prospective new sub-tenant the untended top quarter of my plot. The previous tenant had clearly found it too demanding, and the brambles and weeds have taken their toll over the course of the past year, so I shall be heartily relieved to have someone else take it off my hands! I had been thinking I’d have to blitz the lot, spray with glyphosate (which I really don’t like doing) and then cover with weedproof membrane to keep it under control, as I really don’t have time, inclination or need to have that extra growing space with only me at home now. Fingers crossed she takes to it….

Despite having no parsnips of my own this year, I want to share a delicious recipe for a Parsnip and Leek Dauphinoise that I cooked on Friday evening with roast salmon when my son and daughter-in-law came for dinner en route for skiing (him) and dog-sitting for her parents’ dogs (her). Relatively simple (especially if you have a mandoline), but extremely tasty – and always good to use at least some of your own produce even in the depths of winter. No picture, I’m afraid – we ate it far too quickly!

Parsnip & Leek Dauphinois – serves 3-4

150ml milk (semi-skimmed works fine)
150ml double cream
1 bay leaf
Fresh nutmeg, grated
Seasoning
500g parsnips, peeled and thinly sliced (preferably with a mandoline for ease)
1 large leek, sliced
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
knob of butter, diced (optional)
1 tsp wholegrain mustard
25g Parmesan, finely grated

Pour the milk and cream into a pan, grate over the nutmeg and add the bay leaf and seasoning. Bring slowly to the boil, watching carefully to make sure it doesn’t boil over, than switch off the heat and leave to infuse for 10 minutes or so.

Meanwhile slice the parsnips and leek, and chop the garlic. Pre-heat the oven to 180ºC / Gas 5. Grease a gratin dish – mine measures 20cm by 22cm or thereabouts, then layer up the parsnips, leeks and garlic, finishing with a layer of similar-sized parsnip slices. I always try and put the smaller rings from the lower ends of the parsnips on the bottom, where they won’t be seen. Dot the diced butter across the top. Stir the mustard into the cream mixture and remove the bay leaf. Pour the cream mixture over the vegetables and sprinkle with the grated Parmesan cheese.

Cover the gratin dish with foil and cook for 55 minutes. Remove the foil and return to the oven for another 10-15 minutes to brown nicely. Serve with meat or fish to general acclaim 🙂

None left for dogs, even when they put that adorable face on, but they did get the salmon skin…

Leo looking quizzical

 

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….