Tag Archives: Lunch

Decadence is Growing Your Own…

Whitecurrants

Strange though it may seem, there are times when growing your own fruit and vegetables can seem like the height of decadence. When else would you feel inclined to have fresh raspberries on your breakfast every day for a month, or feast on asparagus ’til it comes out of your ears?! At shop prices, or even farmer’s market prices, these luxury items tend to be perceived as special treats – yet, if you grow your own, you can indulge, in season, whenever you like – or freeze for later, of course. That’s one of the reasons why it’s always worth growing the kind of things that tend to command luxury prices in the shops, if you can find them at all, that is – asparagus, soft fruit, mangetout and sugarsnap peas, broad beans…. the list is endless. And that’s to say nothing of the environmental benefits of homegrown produce in terms of organic cultivation, food miles saved – and the taste of crops grown and eaten within hours of picking – bliss!

This week saw me with so many mangetout and sugarsnap peas that I made some into soup – sacrilege to many, I’m sure, but when you have plenty, why not?! It’s a recipe I’ve been cooking for years, all the years I’ve been growing peas, in fact, originally from an old Cranks recipe book, but tweaked slightly, as is my wont. It suggests serving it chilled, but unless you live in a very hot climate, I prefer serving it hot – and freezing for an instant taste of summer on cooler days.

Mangetout Soup – serves 6-8

2 medium onions
450g mangetout or sugarsnap peas
2 small potatoes
50g butter
1 litre vegetable stock
200ml milk (or adjust to taste)
Handful of fresh mint leaves
Seasoning

Chop the onions and sauté in butter until transparent. Trim the peas, removing any strings if using sugarsnaps or older mangetouts, chop roughly and dice the potatoes, then add to the pan with the chopped mint. Sauté for a few minutes, add the stock, season and bring to the boil, then cover and simmer for 20 minutes.
Allow to cool slightly, then purée in a blender in batches. Sieve into a clean pan – this is one soup that really does need to be sieved. I’ve tried it without and you can’t get rid of the stringiness of the pods, no matter how carefully you trim them beforehand.
Add milk until the desired consistency is reached. Much depends on the size and consistency of your potatoes and how thin you like your soup!
Reheat to serve – also freezes well.

Another favourite way of cooking mangetout or sugarsnaps straight from the garden – other than deliciously raw in salads! – is with a tangy lemon dressing. This was inspired by Delia Smith’s summer vegetables in her Summer Cookbook and uses any summer vegetables you happen to have lying around, lightly steamed or microwaved and tossed in a lemon dressing with fresh herbs to serve.

Summer Vegetables in Tangy Lemon & Dill Dressing

Summer veg with lemon dressing

Mangetout peas
Sugarsnap peas
Courgettes
Baby carrots
Shallots or bulbous spring onions
Broad beans
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
6 tbsp olive oil
1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp wholegrain mustard
Handful dill, chopped (and/or mint)
Salt and pepper

You can use any young summer vegetables you have to hand for this recipe, which is why I haven’t specified quantities – it’s entirely up to you. Prepare the veg as usual, then steam or microwave for 4-6 minutes. If using carrot or onions, start them off first, then add the rest for the last 3-4 minutes. You want them just tender, definitely not cooked through.
Meanwhile, prepare the dressing by placing the juice and zest of the lemon in a jar, then adding the olive oil, sugar, crushed garlic, mustard and seasoning. Shake to emulsify, then taste: if too sharp, add more oil.
Turn the vegetables into a serving bowl, add enough of the dressing to coat and toss while still warm. Sprinkle over chopped dill and/or mint and serve lukewarm or cold the next day.

Summer veg salad with prosciutto

If you have any leftover new potatoes, this is delicious served for a lunchtime Summer Vegetable Salad, mixed with the potatoes and some chopped prosciutto crudo, adding extra dressing if required. I even threw in a handful of whitecurrants for an extra fruity je ne sais quoi when I made this last week.
The perfect summer lunch, just right for the current unexpected spell of hot weather….

Poppy in the meadow 2016

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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

Apples galore!

Bramleys on the treeYou know autumn is upon us with a vengeance when the apples start falling from the trees faster than you can pick them! It’s been an excellent year for apples and the trees down at the allotment are laden. I seem to have been picking windfalls forever, but all of a sudden I realised I’d better start taking the good fruit off the tree as it’s all threatening to fall.

Having spent the past three weekends up in London at networking or social events, I just haven’t had time to do much in the way of gardening, so it was bliss today to have a lovely day of autumn sunshine to finally try and get the plot tidy before the onset of the winter weather. I managed to pick 12 bags of apples – carrier bag charge notwithstanding! I use the strong Waitrose online delivery bags, proven to withstand hanging in the garage on strong hooks until the spring. Worth paying a lump sum of 40p for bags with my shopping delivery – I honestly don’t know what I’d do with the apples for storage otherwise! There are still plenty of windfalls on the ground too – think I’d better post offers on Facebook and Freecycle, as it’s a shame to let them go to waste…

Windfalls on the groundAs well as harvesting my apple bounty, I managed to sow my broad beans (Aquadulce) for next spring – always worth doing at this time of year – and cut down my sweetcorn and asparagus plants. The asparagus had made their usual jungle of growth, but tend to get battered by the wind if you leave the spent foliage through the winter. Plus I had no problem with the pesky asparagus flies this year, having read that cutting the foliage down in autumn removes their overwintering habitat – which definitely worked!

Asparagus pre cutting downThe dahlias are still going strong, so I was able to pick armfuls to bring home for the house, and the kale, purple-sprouting broccoli, leeks and parsnips are looking good for the winter too. The runner beans are just about holding on, but not for much longer, I don’t think. Rocket, coriander, dill and parsley are still looking good, too, so another bag of salad for the fridge! Carrots and calabrese made up the rest of my haul this evening – plenty to accompany next week’s dinner menus…

Purple sprouting broccol and kale

Tonight’s dessert is going to be that old stalwart, baked apples – one of my favourite easy puddings. So simple, yet so tasty. I barely need to give a recipe, as with my other apple ideas below; they really are more of a reminder of good combinations of ingredients majoring on apples, just in case you’re tearing your hair out, wondering what to do with them all!

Baked Apples

1 large Bramley apple per person

1 good tbsp mincemeat, preferably home-made

1 tbsp demerara sugar

Knob of butter

Wash the apple and gently pierce the skin all the way round the circumference of the apple with a sharp knife in one continuous line. This stops the apple exploding as it bakes. Core the apple using an apple corer, then place in a small square roasting tin and stuff the cavity with mincemeat. Sprinkle with the sugar and put a knob of butter on top. Add a couple of tbsp of water to the tin to make a sauce as it cooks, then cover the whole thing with foil and cook in a pre-heated oven at 200°C / Gas 6 for 45 mins to 1 hour. Serve with pouring cream.

This also works beautifully with autumn raspberries instead of mincemeat if you have any – unfortunately my autumn canes all died this year, so I can’t treat myself, but it is very, very good…

Another useful apple dessert is one I based loosely on the Scottish cranachan. I’ve been making this for years, but it always goes down well and again is child’s play to prepare:

Apple Oatmeal Cream – serves 4

2-3 Bramley apples, stewed to a purée with sugar to taste – you can add cinnamon and/or sultanas too if you like

150ml double cream

150ml natural yogurt

50g ground oatmeal

1 tbsp demerara sugar

Juice of ½ a lemon

Make the apple purée and leave to cool. Toast the ground oatmeal under the grill or in a hot oven, turning frequently to brown on all sides – but watch it like a hawk as it can catch and burn very easily! Allow this to cool too. Whip the cream until soft peaks form, then fold in the yogurt, sugar and lemon juice, then stir in the oatmeal when cool.

Spoon some apple purée into the bottom of a sundae dish and top with the oatmeal cream. Chill before serving – tastes even better if left overnight for the flavours to meld!

Yet another apple “combination” is one of my favourite lunch dishes at this time of year. It brightens up plain old cheese on toast, good though that is, and is another delicious way of working through that apple surplus…

Apple, Cheese & Walnut Toasties

Cheese, apple and walnut toasties

1 dessert apple (any will do, but this is particularly good with a Cox-type apple)

Chopped walnuts ( no need to be exact, just a sprinkling!)

Grated cheese (Cheddar, Lancashire or Cheshire would be my preference here)

Dash of milk to bind

Granary bread for toast

Just toast the bread on one side under the grill as usual. In the meantime, grate the apple and cheese, add a dash of milk to bind, then stir in the walnuts. Spoon onto the untoasted side of the bread and grill again until melted and golden brown. Take care that the walnuts don’t catch – best to try and submerge them under the cheese!

My final suggestion is actually a recipe “proper”, this time from the National Trust magazine earlier this year. It’s an interesting variation on an apple cake and one I really enjoyed when making it back in September. I’d just returned from Normandy at the time, where I’d tasted delicious French cider, so I made a point of buying good French cider to make this – but I’m sure any would work!

Apple, Raisin & Cider Tea Loaf

9oz self-raising flour

5oz butter

Pinch salt

1 level tsp mixed spice

4oz light Muscovado sugar

4oz raisins, soaked in 2 tbsp cider

I medium Bramley apple, grated, sprinkled with lemon juice to prevent oxidation

2 eggs, beaten

Glaze:

2oz light Muscovado sugar

2 tbsp cider

Pre-heat the oven to 160°C / Gas 4 and grease and base-line a large loaf tin.

Rub the butter into the flour and stir in the salt, sugar, mixed spice, grated apple and the raisin and cider mixture. Then mix in the beaten eggs.

Transfer to the tin and bake for about 1 hour until golden and cooked through when tested with a skewer.

Boil together the glaze ingredients for 3-4 minutes and brush onto the warm loaf while still in the tin.

Allow to cool, turn out, and serve buttered with a nice cup of tea. Mmmmm….

See also The Last of the Apples from Storage for yet more ideas of what to do with all those apples. Or check out the Ingredients Index for even more suggestions. And enjoy! You know what they say about an apple a day….

Gardening Angel mug

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.

Tomato Soup, Three Ways

Tomato soup has to be my all-time favourite. I think it goes back to the Heinz cans of tomato soup of my childhood, delicious on a cold winter’s day, even out of a Thermos flask. We never had home-made soup when I was a child, yet I’ve always prepared my own ever since I first started cooking in earnest and there really is no comparison! It’s so easy too, just a case of browning off your vegetables, adding (good) stock and away you go.

I love to stock up the freezer with tomato soup, as the tomato season here in Britain is so short, especially when you’re growing them without a greenhouse. I confess I do cheat and make tomato and lentil soup or minestrone with tinned tomatoes in the winter months, but for me the best tomato soups are those made in the fleeting months of August and September, when fresh, juicy tomatoes come straight off the vine. I don’t have a huge crop of tomatoes these days, and I do favour the cherry varieties like Sungold and Gardener’s Delight which I love to eat just as they are for their incomparable, sweet taste. This year, like last, I’ve also grown the stripy Tigerella, a small standard tomato, which is delicious cooked in soups and sauces, and lends itself to growing outside too. However, I don’t grow nearly enough for full-scale soup production and I’m very lucky this year to have been given bags full of huge, ripe tomatoes by friends with a smallholding and a very large and productive glasshouse!

I can never decide on my favourite tomato soup recipe and have three in contention – so I usually make all three at some point and fill the freezer accordingly for the darker days ahead. They are Delia’s Roasted Tomato Soup, which has a divinely rich and concentrated flavour, but uses a lot of tomatoes for a relatively small end quantity; Tomato, Apple & Celery Soup, another of Delia’s recipes, which originally came from the legendary John Tovey of the famous Miller Howe restaurant in the Lake District; and a simple Tomato Soup made in the slow cooker, originally taken from my very old Tower Slow Cook book. I’ve adapted them slightly, as ever. See which you prefer!

Delia’s Roasted Tomato Soup – serves 6

Roast tomatoes for soup1.5 kg ripe tomatoes

1 large onion

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

Handful of fresh basil leaves

200 – 250g potato, peeled and chopped

1 litre boiling water or vegetable stock

1 tsp balsamic vinegar

Olive oil

2 tbsp tomato purée

Seasoning

Cut the tomatoes in half and place cut side uppermost in a large roasting tray with the onion cut into chunky wedges. Sprinkle the roughly chopped basil leaves and chopped garlic on top, season and drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

Roast at 180°C fan (Gas 5) for 50 minutes to 1 hour until starting to brown at the edges. In the meantime, place the chopped potato in a pan with the boiling water or stock and tomato purée, and simmer until the potato is cooked – about 20 minutes.

When the tomatoes are ready, scrape the contents of the roasting tray into the potato pan and purée the lot in a liquidiser in several batches. I’ve doubled Delia’s recipe here, as I found the original only ever made enough for three – perhaps I’m just greedy or maybe we have bigger appetites these days?

You can now sieve the soup if you wish, or leave it as it is if you don’t mind the slightly chunky texture. It will be even chunkier if you use a hand blender or food processor rather than a liquidiser, but none the worse for that.

Serve with good bread and savour the deep, rich taste – mmmmmm.

The next soup is ideal if you don’t have huge amounts of tomatoes to play with, as it uses equal quantities of apple and celery and gives a really fresh and vibrant flavour as a result. I always have plenty of windfall apples lying around at home and at the allotment this time of year, so it’s definitely on my must-cook list. Once again, I’ve doubled the original quantities – it’s really no effort to make more, fills my trusty Le Creuset casserole and makes plenty for the freezer. This soup is a much lighter colour than the other two, probably because of the apple and celery content.

Tomato, Apple & Celery Soup – serves 6-8

Tomato, apple and celery soup250g onions, finely chopped

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

4-500g tomatoes, quartered (leave on the skins and stalks)

350g apples, dessert or cooking, quartered (remove any damaged parts if using windfalls, but otherwise leave stalks and cores)

350g celery, including leaves, chopped into 3cm lengths

60g butter

120 ml dry sherry

Freshly grated nutmeg

1/2 tsp ground ginger

1 tsp chopped fresh thyme

1 tbsp tomato purée

1 litre home-made chicken stock

Seasoning

Melt the butter in a large pan, then add the chopped onions and garlic and cook gently until golden – about 10 minutes. Add the prepared fruit and vegetables, sherry, spices, thyme, tomato purée and seasoning, then place a double thickness of greaseproof paper, dampened with cold water, over the contents, cover with a lid and simmer gently for 1 hour. This method of cooking keeps in the flavours and allows the vegetables to cook really slowly; I’ve never found that it sticks, but you might like to check from time to time in case your heat source is particularly fierce!

After 1 hour, add the stock to the contents of the pan (removing the paper first, of course!) and stir thoroughly. Bring back to the boil for a few minutes, then allow to cool. Liquidise the soup in batches and then you will need to sieve this soup, as it contains all the stalks, pips, etc! Return to a clean pan and reheat.

Serve with good bread or cheese & apple scones. So fresh!

My final tomato soup recipe is made in the slow cooker for convenience, but you could equally well cook it on the hob for 45 minutes – 1 hour after the initial preparation. I often make it overnight, then it has time to cool before being liquidised for lunch. In my original recipe book I’ve noted down to add flour – how times have changed! I wouldn’t dream of adding flour to a soup recipe these days, but tastes were obviously different back in the early 80’s. Another sign of the times was the addition of dried mixed herbs – I really can’t remember the last time I didn’t use fresh herbs in a recipe, but they just weren’t as available in the shops 30 years ago… It works perfectly well with dried herbs if that’s all you’ve got to hand, of course, but fresh are definitely better. This recipe also includes bacon, which I think gives it a nice savoury flavour, but you could always leave it out and use vegetable stock if you’re cooking for vegetarians. It makes quite a thin, but delicious soup, since most of the vegetable content is rather watery; if you’d prefer a thicker soup (and trust me, flour is not the way to go!), just add a medium potato, peeled and diced, with the rest of the vegetables. Alternatively, you could add cream at the end for a cream of tomato soup.

Traditional Tomato Soup

Tomato soup50g butter or olive oil

2 medium onions, finely chopped

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

1 large carrot, chopped

3 sticks celery, chopped

(1 medium potato, peeled and diced if you prefer a thicker soup – optional)

4 rashers streaky bacon, chopped

1.4kg tomatoes, quartered

1 tbsp tomato purée

1 bay leaf

1 sprig rosemary, chopped (or herbs of your choice – basil, parsley and/or thyme are also good)

1 litre home-made chicken (or vegetable) stock

1 tsp sugar

Seasoning

If using a slow-cooker, pre-heat on high if necessary.

Heat the butter or olive oil in a large pan and cook the onion, garlic, carrot, celery and bacon gently for 5 minutes until starting to soften. Stir in the remaining ingredients apart from the stock and cook for a further 5 minutes, then add the stock and bring to the boil.

Transfer to the slow cooker if using and cook for 8 – 10 hours on Low – or overnight. Otherwise, turn the pan down to a simmer and cook for 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Remove the bay leaf, allow to cool, then liquidise in several batches. (I say this advisedly – I once asked my teenage son to liquidise some soup for me, but he didn’t read the instructions, didn’t allow it to cool and poured it all into the liquidiser in one go. Result: one extremely messy kitchen – not a pretty sight!) Again, you can sieve if you feel it necessary, but I don’t usually for this one.

Once again, serve with good bread and enjoy the taste of summer!

Rainy Bank Holiday Blues

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I suppose it was inevitable that one of the recent run of bank holidays would revert to form and be wet and miserable – unfortunate that it was this particular day when I had great plans for getting down to the allotment and planting out a whole host of young vegetables. Hey ho! Such is life.. and though a day at the computer wasn’t quite what I’d planned, I can at least be relieved that I mowed the lawn at home yesterday and trimmed the edges, plus finished off planting up all my pots with summer bedding. I also managed to plant out my tomato seedlings – old favourites Sungold and Gardener’s Delight for the tastiest cherry tomatoes and Tigerella, a stripy medium-sized fruit which is new to me this year – in their final resting places, six in tall pots lined up against the sunny back wall of the house and three in the growframe for added protection. So it’s been quite a fruitful weekend really.

This is such a busy time of year, with all the young plants brought on in the conservatory or growframe at home desperate to get out in the big wide world of the allotment. I’ve got squash (Sprinter) and sweetcorn (Lark) with their roots escaping from their pots in their eagerness to expand their horizons. There are a couple of courgettes and cucumbers in the same boat, although germination was patchy for both of these this year. Two cucumbers is ample, in any event, but I’d rather have four courgettes than two – especially when I planted 8 seeds! A friend has come to the rescue with a couple of round courgette seedlings – and no doubt I shall look back and smile when faced with the inevitable glut later in the year…

I’d hoped to finally plant my runner bean and climbing French bean seeds too; I used to start these off inside, but several years of having them whipped to shreds by strong winds or decimated by slugs soon after planting out in early June made me realise it was better to sow the seeds straight out in the open at this time of year. More salad/herb seeds are also due to go in – the coriander I planted earlier has been munched to non-existence by those dratted slugs, despite the nematodes, although the dill and lettuce are fine.

As the rain beats a refrain on the conservatory roof, I certainly won’t be getting anything of note done outside today! I will, however, walk my long-suffering hounds down to the allotment and bring back yet more asparagus for dinner, and possibly some baby broad beans too. I picked my first beans the other day, just the size of a fingernail when podded – delicious in a prawn, asparagus, mint and fennel cream sauce with pasta. And despite the arrival of asparagus beetle, a pest I’ve never come across before in the 6 or so years I’ve had the asparagus bed, the asparagus has been ridiculously prolific this year. I’ve taken to scrutinising the plants at close quarters when I go down and gleefully crushing any beetles I find: they look at first glance like little harlequin ladybirds in Burberry overcoats, but when you look closer you realise they’re longer and thinner, not unlike a lily beetle – and with the same irritating habit of landing (invisibly) upside down if you knock them off inadvertently. The eggs are like little dark thorns sticking out of the foliage, and I’ve been squishing those too. As an organic gardener, I’m loath to spray, but this method, while laborious, does seem to be controlling the problem – if it’s not one thing, it’s something else! Image

Beetles, slugs and weather notwithstanding, here’s a suggestion for using up some asparagus – should you be lucky enough to have a glut!

 Asparagus, Yellow Pepper & Onion Tart

1 sheet of ready-rolled puff pastry

Bunch of asparagus

I onion

1 yellow pepper

Bunch of mint

Bunch of fennel

1 egg

2 tbsp crème fraiche

Seasoning

Olive oil to drizzle

Roll out the pastry to the size of your baking tray. I used half one of those frozen packs of pastry (375g, I think) and rolled out to double the size, so it was nice and thin. Cut a fine line, not quite going through to the base about 1 cm in all around the edge.

Caramelise your onion until soft and golden, then add the yellow pepper, sliced. Mix the beaten egg and 2 tbsp crème fraiche in a small bowl, then spread over the pastry base. Scatter the cooked onion and pepper mixture over the base and carefully place the trimmed asparagus stems on top. Season and scatter with chopped herbs. Drizzle with olive oil and cook in a hot oven, 200°C fan or Gas 6 for about 20-25 mins or until the pastry is golden brown.

Serve with salad.

Heavenly!

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Gulaschsuppe – the perfect lunch for a dreary January day

IMG_4419THE DANK, DREARY days of January linger on. With little inclination to venture out into the garden or allotment in the limited daylight hours, I’m catching up on indoor jobs in my free time: sorting out my ancient cardboard seed boxes, a freebie from Thompson & Morgan many moons ago, ready for the move to my new and ultra-chic tin seed boxes, a lovely Christmas present from my sister. Once I’ve thrown away the inevitable flotsam & jetsam, I’ll be able to get on with ordering my seeds for the coming growing season – one of my very favourite tasks!

In the meantime, here’s a warming recipe for Gulaschsuppe, or goulash soup, a hearty skiing staple, but perfect for these January days of endless rain and minimal light. Mine is loosely based on the version in the Covent Garden Book of Soups, tweaked to adapt to a lack of beef stock in the freezer and my local farm shop’s suggestion that I use a piece of beef shin with the bone in – inspired!

Gulaschsuppe (Goulash soup)

Piece of shin beef on the bone (mine weighed about 1lb)

1 onion, small carrot, stick of celery, bay leaf, sprig of rosemary

Olive oil

2 medium onions, chopped

2 sticks celery, chopped

1 clove garlic, chopped

12 oz potatoes, peeled and diced

1 tin chopped tomatoes

2 tbsp tomato purée

1-2 red chillis (mine are smallish Apache which are hot, but not too hot – you’ll need to make that call yourself!)

¼ pt red wine

2 carrots, diced

½ red pepper, diced

½ green pepper, diced

2 tsp paprika

Seasoning

Start by making the stock: place the beef shin in a large pan with the onion, carrot, celery and herbs, cover with water (my pan holds at least 2 litres), season, bring to the boil and simmer for around 2 hours. Drain, reserving the precious liquid, and take the meat off the bone when cool enough to handle – it should more or less fall off (waiting dogs will no doubt be grateful for the fatty bits). Chop finely and set aside.

Heat a dash of olive oil and cook the onion, garlic and celery gently for about 5 mins. Add the potatoes, finely chopped chilli, carrot, red and green pepper and cook for a few minutes, then add the chopped tomatoes, tomato purée, paprika and seasoning. Stir thoroughly, then add the red wine and at least a litre of your stock. Finally add half the chopped meat and simmer the soup gently for about 40 minutes until all the vegetables are tender. Allow to cool a little, then blend in batches in a liquidizer, half coarsely and half quite smoothly, or as preferred. Return to a pan and add more stock if the soup looks too thick, then stir in the remaining chopped meat, and reheat to serve.

Enjoy with crusty bread and let your first mouthful transport you to the Austrian Alps! Well, anywhere away from the relentless rain of a wet English January….

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Any remaining stock can be frozen, as can any leftover soup. This should make plenty for six, depending on the size of your bowls, and family appetites, of course! When my student son is home, my portions for six strangely only make enough for 3/4…

P.S. I’d initially asked my local farm shop in Mark Cross for beef bones to make my stock, but as it was coming up to Christmas, their freezers were full of meat and there were no bones to be had. Hence the suggestion of the beef shin complete with bone, which I ordered for the following weekend when I collected my Christmas order and froze for a rainy day. However, she did let me have a couple of chicken carcasses for the princely sum of £1, so I could bolster my stock reserves in the meantime: I boiled them up in the same way, ending up with a good 2-3 litres of delicious chicken stock and a surprising amount of chicken, enough for a big pot of chicken broth, a risotto and arancini (little oven-cooked risotto balls the next day), plus a pasta dish – and another litre of stock in the freezer! There’s certainly never any need to go hungry…

Gulaschsuppe
Gulaschsuppe