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Bean Feast

Bean feast

I can’t quite believe that I haven’t included any French (or runner) bean recipes on my blog in the nearly five years I’ve been writing. What an oversight! It’s not as if I don’t grow enough of them: every year I usually have more beans than I know what to do with, although I often start off with slow germination, or growth setbacks of one sort or another, and worry that I won’t have enough. They always come good in the end, leaving me overrun – and this year is no exception.

I stopped growing the coarser runner beans a few years back, when my sons had left home and I was essentially just cooking for one. I’ve always preferred the finer, tastier French beans, and the fact that they are less hardy than the runners really isn’t a problem now I’m living in the milder South East of England. In Scotland we used to start them off in the unheated greenhouse in late spring, but down here I’ve found they do better planted direct in the soil in early to late June, even as late as early July if the first sowing doesn’t come to anything like this year. Planted so late, they follow on neatly from the broad beans and peas, and don’t compete with the heady courgette rush in mid-summer. By late July/early August, when they start to form those long, elegant pods, we’re just about ready for a new summer crop – perfect timing. And they keep on going well into September, or even October in a good year.

This year I had a mixed pack of bean seeds, containing three different varieties: yellow (Monte Gusto), purple (Carminat) and green (Monte Cristo). I’m favourably impressed so far, although the yellow seem to be by far the most prolific (and easiest to see and harvest).

So how come I haven’t written any recipes for them before? I have no idea! I can only think it’s because this is such a busy time of year in the garden that I’m too busy cooking, harvesting and freezing to write. Definitely time to put that right and jot down a few of my favourite ways of using all those beautiful beans….

My first suggestion is a recipe I’ve been cooking for over 30 years, originally from my home economist friend Bridget in Cheshire. It makes an extremely flavourful vegetarian lasagne, or you can use the bean filling as a pasta sauce without layering and oven-baking if you prefer. I used to make this with runner beans, but French work just as well, if not better.

French Bean & Nut Lasagne – serves 4-6

Bean and nut lasagne

1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 red (or green) pepper, chopped
3 sticks celery, chopped
250g French or runner beans, chopped into 2cm long pieces
1 large can chopped tomatoes (or 450g fresh, peeled and chopped if you have them)
2 tbsp tomato purée
Handful of basil or oregano
2 tbsp pesto
150ml red wine
50g walnuts, chopped
Seasoning

45g butter
45g plain flour
500ml milk
125g Cheddar cheese
1 tsp mustard
Grated fresh nutmeg

175-200g dried lasagne

For the bean sauce, cook the onion and garlic in the olive oil for 4-5 mins until starting to soften. Add the pepper, celery and beans, stir well and cook for a further 5 mins. Stir in the tomatoes, tomato purée, basil or oregano, pesto, wine and walnuts, season well and simmer uncovered for 30-40 mins.

Make the cheese sauce as usual by melting the butter, stirring in the flour, cooking for 1 minute then gradually adding the milk, stirring until it thickens and is smooth. Season, add half the cheese and the grated nutmeg and set aside.

Soften the lasagne sheets in a bowl of boiling water, or follow the instructions on your packet (this is a very old recipe!). Assemble the layers in a lasagne dish, starting with the bean sauce, then lasagne, then cheese sauce, ending with cheese sauce. Sprinkle with remaining cheese and cook at 180°C / Gas 4 for 25-30 mins. Serve with a mixed salad.

Next up is another recipe adapted from my old favourite Dairy Cookbook from the early 1980s. Patched, chewed (puppy!) and bespattered it may be, but I still have certain recipes that I turn to now and again, and this is one of them: a comforting pancake dish with a delectable bean, apple and ham filling, finished off with a hint of wholegrain mustard and a velvety cheese sauce. True comfort food for those early autumn days… You can use chopped bacon in this dish, but I usually make it with chopped cooked ham from a weekend gammon joint, which marries perfectly with the melting tenderness of the apples and onions. It’s not unlike an English take on cannelloni, but using pancakes rather than pasta.

Bean, Ham & Apple Pancakes – serves 4

French bean, ham and apple pancakes

Pancakes:
125g plain flour
pinch of salt
1 egg
300ml milk
Butter for frying

Filling:
25g butter (or 1 tbsp olive oil if you prefer)
2 medium onions, chopped (or leeks if you prefer)
175g chopped bacon or home-cooked gammon or ham if you have it
225g apple (cooking or eating), peeled, cored and chopped
225g French or runner beans, chopped into 2cm lengths
1 tbsp French mustard
Chopped parsley or thyme leaves

Sauce:
25g butter
2 level tbsp plain flour
300ml milk
125g Cheddar cheese, grated
Seasoning
Freshly grated nutmeg

First make the pancakes in the usual way by sifting the flout and salt into a roomy bowl. Break the egg into the centre, then gradually beat in the milk and incorporate the flout until all mixed and little bubbles start to form on the surface. Leave to stand for 30 minutes or so if you can, but it’s not critical if you can’t! This mixture should make at least 8 pancakes in an 18cm frying pan. Stack the finished pancakes on a plate as you make them and set aside until you’ve made the filling.

For the filling, melt the butter in a large frying pan, then fry the onion until softened. Steam or microwave the beans for 4 -5 minutes until just tender, then drain off any liquid. Stir the ham, apple and beans into the pan and cook for a further 4-5 minutes (if using uncooked bacon, you might need to add it with the onion at the start). Stir in the mustard, seasoning and chopped parsley or thyme leaves. Set aside to cool slightly while you make the cheese sauce.

Melt the butter in a saucepan, then stir in the flour and cook gently for 1 minute, stirring. Gradually stir in the milk, then bring to the boil and cook until it thickens, stirring constantly. Add grated nutmeg and seasoning, then finally 75g grated cheese.

To assemble, fill each pancake with a generous spoonful of the bean and apple mixture, and either roll up or fold carefully into quarters. Place side by side in a rectangular ovenproof dish, sprinkle over the remaining cheese and bake at 180°C / Gas 5 for 25 – 30 minutes. Serve with a green salad.

Both of these recipes are rather heavy on the washing-up, with several stages and pans, but well worth the effort – and the cooking time in the oven means you have enough time to wash up while the dish is cooking if you don’t have a willing sous-chef on hand to clear up as you go along 🙂

One last recipe, which only uses one pan and makes a super-tasty side dish for sausages, chops, or even a roast, was inspired by a recipe in an Italian cookbook I’ve long since lost. I think it originally went under the name of Fagiolini di Sant’Anna, but I’ve tweaked it over the years, as usual. Although the beans are cooked for much longer than if you steamed or boiled them, they remain deliciously tender and take up all the flavours of the cooking liquid. Try it and see. Just don’t drop the salt grinder in it as happened to me this weekend……

Italian French Beans with Tomatoes – serves 2

French beans in tomato sauce

Glug of olive oil
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
200g French beans, chopped
2-3 tomatoes, peeled and roughly chopped
Chopped basil
Dash of white wine
Boiling water
Seasoning

Heat the oil in a small frying pan, then add the garlic and cook gently for 1 minute. Add the chopped tomatoes and cook for a further 3-4 minutes, then add the beans and toss in the sauce for a minute or so. Add a dash of white wine and the chopped basil, then just cover the beans with boiling water. Bring back to the boil, then simmer gently, without a lid, for 25 – 30 minutes, or until the liquid has reduced. You may need to turn up the heat or cover the pan depending on your hob. Season to taste and serve with the meat of your choice.

Basket of produce

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Diary of a Wedding Cake

The finished cake - in the fridge_cropped

I know, I know, it’s been a long time since I last posted: just the small matter of my younger son’s wedding at the end of July, and the accompanying cake to make for what turned out to be one of the hottest days of the year! I have to confess there were times as the day approached and the weather got hotter and hotter, that I wondered what on earth I’d let myself in for. The venue, Grove House, an old manor house, now part of Roehampton University, was precisely that, an old house with a lot of glass, no air conditioning, and no proper kitchen facilities. The caterers bring in their own kitchen equipment and use a (south-facing) converted lecture theatre as their kitchen for the day. Ho hum.

Let me rewind to the initial idea, though. Having made the top tier (a coffee sponge) and provided the flowers for my elder son’s wedding last July, I’d been persuaded that it would be a mere hop, skip and a jump from there to make the whole cake, with my other daughter-in-law’s help. Gulp. We’d had two trial runs, or even three if you count the top tier last year, although one of the bride’s friends, who’s an experienced celebration cake maker, had assembled the structure then, so making the cake itself really was a piece of …. cake. It rained cats and dogs all day long, so temperature wasn’t an issue – and the beautiful country house school hosting the wedding celebrations had an extensive kitchen and refrigeration facilities for the coffee mascarpone filling.

Wedding cake

Back in February, I’d made a sticky toffee cake (at my son’s request – it’s his favourite pudding!) in two tiers for a family 21st birthday; no problem with assembling the tiers, but we decided that sticky toffee, delicious though it was, would be too heavy for a summer wedding and that we preferred the effect (and not too sickly taste) of a naked cake.

Sticky toffee wedding cake

Roll on to April and we had another go, this time making a two-tier Victoria sponge, each tier having three layers, to celebrate a clutch of family birthdays. For an added challenge, I’d ruptured my ACL a couple of weeks before and was still wearing a leg brace, and the entire cake structure had to be transported down to my friends’ smallholding where we were having an impromptu outdoor barbecue feast! Despite all the constraints, it worked beautifully, and tasted delicious, so we decided to work on similar lines for the wedding cake proper.

Spring celebration cake

As the big day approached, I started to make lists of all the equipment I’d need and worked out quantities of ingredients based on the amounts I’d used last time, multiplied up for a bigger bottom tier. Quite a military operation, but it didn’t all go exactly to plan, needless to say. Fortunately I’d taken the week before the wedding off to allow myself plenty of time for cake-making and other preparations, so I had time to adapt – just as well!

The first obstacle came in the shape of cake tins: my existing 8″ sandwich cake tins have sloping sides and I only have two of them, so I’d decided to order more online. Likewise last time I’d used two deep 10″ cake tins and halved each cake, but had decided to order three proper 10″ sandwich tins this time. I already had one 12″ tin, but ordered two more. What amazed me was that some of the tins that arrived, allegedly the size I’d ordered, or their equivalent in cm, were not actually the right size! Either the dimensions had been taken from the outside of the tin, which had a lip, so the internal diameter was wrong, or they quite simply didn’t measure what they said! Motto: always double-check the tin dimensions before you bake! Fortunately I did, and was able to return the offending items and order all the same make (more expensive, but excellent quality): Silverwood. Sometimes, it doesn’t do to cut corners.

Check that you have the dowelling for the cake too – I used 4 pieces per lower tier, but took extra just in case. Having had issues cutting the wooden dowelling when we experimented in February, I’d had the brainwave of asking my father, a former joiner, if I could borrow his junior hacksaw. It may sound a bit extreme, but scissors or a carving knife won’t cut the mustard (let alone the dowels), and you really don’t want to be panicking on the day! I’d bought plastic dowelling this time, probably thinking it might cut more easily, but actually found it quite slippery in the heat of the day and ended up returning to the tried and tested wooden dowels – which fortunately I’d also taken with me – glad I’d prepared for every eventuality! Even with a sharp saw, they take quite a lot of effort to cut, so allow enough time. Thin round cake boards 1″ smaller than each tier of cake are also essential; again we learnt from our first experiment that the boards show if you don’t have them slightly smaller than the cake.

Then there’s the ingredients: 30 eggs, 6lb icing sugar…. – there’s nothing half-hearted about these quantities! I didn’t use gluten-free flour this time, but the cake worked perfectly well last time with Dove’s Farm gluten-free SR flour, so feel free to swap if you prefer. My daughter-in-law made a separate cake for the few gluten-free guests on this occasion – a much easier solution 🙂

Eggs

My cake had to be transported from home to the wedding venue near Clapham, so I had to make sure I had everything I needed – cue more lists! Other things to take included spatulas for spreading icing/jam, a cake lifter – invaluable piece of kit; we really couldn’t have managed without it! Palette knives for additional support, spoons, extra knives, flower scissors, large plastic box for transporting everything, and boxes for transporting the cakes, of course. I left mine in their individual cake tins for transport purposes, and took the jam (at least 8 jars of homemade raspberry jam!) and vast quantities of buttercream separately too.

This is the recipe I used for the cakes – I made them on the Wednesday for the wedding on the Friday, travelling up to London on the Thursday with my precious cargo:

8″ sponge (3 layers):
6 large eggs
12oz caster sugar
12oz self-raising flour (GF works well)
12oz spreadable butter
2 heaped tsp baking powder
2 tsp vanilla extract

10″ sponge (3 layers):
9 large eggs
1lb 2oz caster sugar
1lb 2oz self-raising flour
1lb 2oz spreadable butter
3 heaped tsp baking powder
3 tsp vanilla extract

12″ sponge (3 layers):
13 large eggs
1lb 12oz caster sugar
1lb 12oz self-raising flour
1lb 12oz spreadable butter
4 heaped tsp baking powder
4 tsp vanilla extract

Cakes

8 large jars homemade raspberry jam. I didn’t use it all, but always better to have too much rather than too little, especially if you’re assembling far from home!

Vanilla buttercream:
3lb spreadable butter
6lb icing sugar, sifted
4.5 tsp vanilla extract
(2-3 tbsp cornflour if very hot, to stabilise – optional!)

Buttercream

Dowelling
1 x thin 7″ cake board, 1 x 9″ cake board and 1 x 11″ cake board
Garden flowers to decorate – I used dahlias, lavender, cornflowers, eucalyptus leaves
Iglu florist’s foam (again if hot!)

First make the cakes separately, preferably using a KitchenAid or freestanding mixer.

Weigh out and place all the ingredients for each cake in the mixer and blend until light and fluffy. Make sure you go round the sides with a spatula and scrape right down to the bottom several times in this process to ensure all the dry materials are incorporated properly. Then divide the mixture between three greased and base-lined cake tins. You can do this by eye, or for perfect results weigh the mixture and divide by three. Cook in a pre-heated oven at 160°C/Gas 4 for 25 to 30 minutes, then allow to cool in the tins.

Repeat for the second and third tiers. I wasn’t sure what the KitchenAid’s maximum capacity was, so for the final large tier I made one 10-egg mix and did a 3-egg mix by hand, then combined the two – I really didn’t want to overload my trusty machine at that juncture! These will take longer in the oven, but not that much longer, maybe 40 – 45 minutes, so keep checking and testing to see that the sponge springs back when a finger is pressed gently onto the cake.

Make the buttercream in 3 batches for this large quantity. Again I used my KitchenAid, blending the butter first, then adding the sifted icing sugar and vanilla separately. Add more icing sugar if necessary to adjust taste or consistency, but these quantities should work as they are. I added a couple of tbsp of sifted cornflour in a bid to stabilise the mixture because of the extreme heat; it was still quite soft once out of the fridge for any length of time, but I wouldn’t have wanted to add more as it would affect the taste.

When the cakes are cool, sandwich them with buttercream and jam. I applied the buttercream first to avoid the jam seeping into the cake on such a hot day.

Once you’ve assembled each individual three-layer sponge, cut pieces of dowelling to size so they are just smaller than the overall height of the bottom cake and insert 4 pieces into the cake in a square pattern around the centre. Carefully assemble the middle tier on the cake board and position on top of the larger cake. Repeat with the top tier.

This, of course, is a counsel of perfection. It’s what we intended to do, but I started to worry about the temperature when making the buttercream on the Wednesday. Frantic googling brought the not very comforting news that buttercream should stand happily up to 25°C, but after that, there’s no knowing… With temperatures that week already in the early 30s and forecast to go up to 37/38 on Thursday/Friday, it was all rather worrying…

Yet another concern was the flowers: I had hoped to just add the flowers around and on top of the cake as we did last year and in April, but with much cooler temperatures. I decided that I’d have to use oasis on top of the cake to give the flowers at least some water and stop them wilting in the heat. Between the tiers I could use lavender and eucalyptus, which were already dried, or wouldn’t mind the lack of water. After picking the flowers from the allotment on Thursday morning and immersing them in deep buckets of water for their journey, I nipped into the village and sought the advice of the florist who did the wedding flowers last year. I knew I only had a 5″ plastic saucer for oasis, which was rather on the large side for what I had in mind, but she hadn’t anything smaller, so that would have to do. I also double-checked with the other florist in the village, who suggested an Iglu, a marshmallow-shaped piece of florist’s foam with an integral plastic base. At first glance, this looked far too small, but I decided to take one in any event, just to be on the safe side – I’m so glad I did! I’m by no means an expert flower arranger and had forgotten how heavy it goes after you soak it in water for a couple of hours. Even after cutting the small piece I had in half, the oasis itself would have been far too heavy for such a delicate cake, already fragile in the heat, whereas the Iglu, just 2″ tall and across, was perfect. It just meant I had no second chances when arranging my flowers for the top of the cake, as you can’t reposition once you make holes in something that’s already so small! No pressure then….

Back to the cake itself… When I arrived at the venue on Thursday afternoon to meet Ellie, my daughter-in-law and partner-in-crime in this crazy cake venture, she was cock-a-hoop because the caterer’s equipment had arrived and included two huge fridges, currently completely empty. At least that meant we could assemble the cakes that afternoon (before going on to the church rehearsal and dinner) and leave them to chill overnight, rather than worrying about them slowly melting…. I had thought we might have to postpone the assembly process until the crack of dawn the next morning if we hadn’t had access to refrigeration – thank goodness for technology!

I was concerned that refrigerating the sponge might affect the texture, but my worries were thankfully unfounded – not that we had a choice! Do be careful, though, if you’re making gluten-free cakes; they tend to have a drier texture and to go even drier after refrigerating. In any event, faced with that or melting, there’s no contest :-).

As the sun streamed through the windows into the already-roasting temporary kitchen, it was soon apparent that this was going to be no easy task. The buttercream was very soft, which meant that as soon as we tried to assemble the three layers of each cake, and then the tiers, the whole thing started to ooze and lean. Disaster! The jam and cream were also running into each other, so in the end we decided to assemble each tier separately, apply a thin crumb layer of buttercream to each one and chill in the fridge overnight. At this stage, I have to admit I was panicking; Ellie remained very calm throughout (must be her psychologist’s training!). As we left for the evening, taking all our equipment to wash up back at the AirBnB as we didn’t even have a sink in our makeshift kitchen, I had visions of the cake having to be left as three separate cakes, without stacking…. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep much that night, although that was doubtless partly due to the unaccustomed London airlessness and sub-tropical temperatures…

Things looked much more optimistic the next morning when we got there bright and early, with the cake having chilled nicely in the fridge overnight. Still no sign of the caterers, thank goodness, so we had the kitchen to ourselves to finally assemble the tiers. It was obvious by now that we’d have to ice the whole cake – good thing I’d made industrial quantities of buttercream on the off-chance! Ellie, clearly a plasterer in a former life, got on with doing that while I recut the dowelling after the sinkage the previous afternoon. I then addressed myself to the flowers for the top, which turned out to be quite easy in the end – once I’d decided I had to be positive and just go for it! Fortunately, I’d picked way more flowers than I needed, both from my allotment and a neighbour’s, so I was able to choose some truly choice blooms. That done, we assembled the tiers in the fridge (to avoid any more melting!), and then Ellie arranged the eucalyptus leaves and lavender around each tier to finish it off. Phew! We left it on the cake lifter in the fridge for the caterers to transfer to the cake stand as late in the day as possible. Not perfect, by any means, but I was so happy that it was still standing and tiered as we dashed off to have our hair and make-up done – possibly not the most relaxing morning for the mother of the groom and bridesmaid, but what can you do?!

I’m pleased to report that it did survive being manhandled by the caterers onto the cake stand, although they did take it out of the fridge rather sooner than we’d have liked. Once the day was underway, there was nothing we could do in any event – nor any time to worry really! It was leaning slightly for the cutting ceremony, but still looked good – and most importantly of all, tasted delicious. No official photos yet, hence the photo of the cake in the fridge still at the top of this post – I wanted to record it for posterity in case it all came tumbling down! As you can see from the picture below from one of the guests, I (far right) was praying that it didn’t fall over as they cut it….

Cutting the cake_cropped

One last postscript in this diary of a wedding cake: when we came to collect all our stuff the following day, lots of my equipment, mostly what had been in the fridge with the cake, was missing and still hasn’t come to light, although the caterers have said they definitely have some items which were swept up with their stuff by mistake. They are based in North London, so we’ve had to arrange a mutually convenient time and place to hand over. I’d tried to tidy up as we went along, but it’s not easy on someone else’s premises, especially when there’s another function the following day. In hindsight, I should have double-checked before leaving the reception, but it really isn’t at the top of your agenda after such a lovely and full-on day.

Two sons married, two wedding cakes made (or contributed to) – I think that’s me done with tiered cakes for a while!

A & L under arbour

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

 

It’s a chill wind…

Kale

It’s been bitterly cold outside today, so apart from the requisite two daily dog walks, and a brief visit to the allotment to reinstate my brassica frame and harvest some leeks, parsley, calabrese and Cavolo Nero, it’s been a day for hibernating inside in front of a roaring log fire. The frame had blown down again in last week’s strong winds, along with several front panels of my allotment shed, so it was a good thing I was accompanied by my younger son, who took it upon himself to screw them back into place. Otherwise, I might very well have discovered the whole shed missing next time I go up! As it was, there was a large piece of wood lying at the shed door, which definitely wasn’t mine and must have blown from someone else’s plot. The joys of an exposed site… but a small price to pay for tranquillity and spectacular country views, I suppose.

I did manage to do my annual New Year’s Day plant survey earlier in the week, but the wet weather meant that there were only 11 plants in flower this year: a couple of primroses, hellebores foetidus and Party Frock, chaenomeles Crimson & Gold, viburnum bodnantense Charles Lamont and daphnes aureomarginata, mezereum alba and bholua Jacqueline Postill, rose Frilly Cuff (a new addition last autumn) and a deep pink heather. However, the snowdrops are growing by the day with all the rain and their first buds should soon be out. A decidedly cheering thought.

Other than cutting back last year’s hellebore foliage, most of which has now started to fan out from the centre to better show off the emerging flower buds, as if reminding me that it’s time for the chop, there really isn’t much to tempt me out into the garden at this time of year. Even the compost bins, still stocked by a weekly bag of vegetable waste from the kitchen, decay at a slower rate at this time of year. The hellebore leaves don’t go into the garden compost, of course, as some of them show signs of hellebore leaf spot, a fungal disease I definitely don’t want to perpetuate from one year to the next. I did cut down last year’s dead and strawlike flower spikes on my vigorous valerian (centranthus ruber) plants too, though, revealing the lovely new growth waiting beneath.

Seeds Jan 2018

One thing I did do yesterday was visit my local garden centre, where I snapped up some real bargains, not only in half-price seeds – always worth looking at this time of year – but half-price organic slug pellets and tomato food too. A substantial saving when you add it all up, and these are all things I will definitely get through when the gardening year gets going in earnest.

Back in the warmth, this was an evening for an old-fashioned Beef & Guinness casserole with herby dumplings, followed by that old favourite, pineapple upside-down pudding & custard. Comfort food par excellence.

Pineapple Upside-Down Pudding – serves 6

 

Pineapple upsidedown_cropped

1 large tin pineapple slices in juice, drained
50g glacé cherries, halved
2-3 tbsp golden syrup
125g caster sugar
125g butter
125g self-raising flour, sifted
1 tsp baking powder
2 eggs, beaten
1 tsp vanilla extract

Pre-heat the oven to 160ºC, Gas 4. Grease a 20cm cake tin – I like to use a tarte tatin tin for this, but any deep cake tin will do. Spoon the golden syrup into the bottom of the tin and spread out to cover completely. Arrange the pineapple slices on the bottom of the dish; you may not need them all, but fit in what you can. Arrange the cherries decoratively around the pineapple slices.

Place the remaining ingredients in a medium bowl and whisk until light and fluffy. Spoon onto the pineapple and spread out evenly to cover. Bake at 160ºC, Gas 4 for 45 minutes until golden brown and firm to the touch. Serve warm with fresh custard or pouring cream.

December comforts

Crown Prince open

It may be cold out there and there’s certainly not much doing in the garden or down at the allotment, but it’s a lovely excuse to turn to good old proper comfort food to warm you from the inside out. I love old-fashioned hotpots and casseroles to warm the cockles of your heart, but rice dishes often fit the bill too. Last night, after a brief foray to the plot to finally cut down my frosted dahlia stems and harvest calabrese side shoots, parsley, rocket and the ubiquitous (and no less welcome!) leeks, I turned to an old favourite, baked leek and butternut squash risotto. To me, this is the epitome of comfort eating – oven-baked, creamy and with a delicious combination of fresh seasonal vegetables, white wine, stock and the unctuous addition of Parmesan cheese. Perfection.

Another rice dish that I’ve been meaning to jot down here is equally warming and just as acceptable on a cold winter’s day. I always make it after I’ve cooked a gammon joint, as it’s best made with the lovely chunky stock. I should perhaps apologise to purists of Italian food before I proceed any further, as this bears minimal resemblance to a true risotto, but bear with me – it’s still extremely good.

The original idea for my ham & vegetable risotto came from an ancient cookery book of my ex-husband’s. I suspect he may even have had it at university in the late 1970s/early 80s, and I think it was by Marguerite Patten – but as I no longer have it, I can’t be sure! In any event, I no longer use a recipe, just throw together what I have to hand, but good stock, good chunky ham (cut from a gammon joint, not the sliced, processed stuff) and plenty of vegetables are a must.

I usually cook my gammon joint in my slow cooker by soaking overnight (if necessary – some are saltier than others. I find Sainsbury’s joints need a lot of soaking, whereas with Waitrose joints you can get away without). You can make this recipe with good vegetable (or chicken) stock but you won’t have the richness of using the real thing. I’ll share my gammon recipe here too, though again it’s barely a recipe as such. It makes for a lovely moist ham and plenty of that delicious stock – with the added bonus that you can put it in the slow cooker in the morning and go out for the rest of the day knowing your main meal is done. I usually make the risotto with the leftover ham and stock over the next few days – using up leftover food is always extremely satisfying and especially so in this case. (See Waste Not, Want Not for more ideas for using up leftovers.)

Slow-cooked Gammon Joint

1 gammon joint (size depends how many you’re feeding!)
1 tbsp oil
1 onion, chopped
2 sticks celery, sliced
1 large cooking apple, peeled, cored and chopped
Apple juice or cider, 500 ml
Generous tbsp fresh sage, finely chopped
Black pepper

Soak the gammon joint in a large pan of cold water overnight if necessary (if you’re not sure, always best to soak!). Bring the gammon joint to the boil in a pan of fresh water, drain, pat dry with kitchen towel, then brown in a glug of oil a frying pan and transfer to the slow cooker. Add chopped onion, celery and apple to the frying pan and brown slightly, then stir in chopped fresh sage and black pepper (no salt as the ham may still be salty). When starting to soften and turn golden brown, add the apple juice or cider (you can even use white wine if that’s what you have!) and bring to the boil. Then pour over the gammon in the slow cooker, cover and cook on Low for at least 8 hours. Remove the gammon from the cooking juices 20 minutes before serving, and save the stock for the risotto. You can add the cooking water from any vegetables you may have cooked to accompany the gammon to the stock too.

Ham & Vegetable Risotto – serves 2-3

Ham risotto

Ham stock (I leave the cooked onion, apple and celery in as these add to the overall dish) – about 500 ml
Chopped ham (as little or as much as you have! – I’d use a handful for 2-3)
1 onion, chopped
1 red pepper, chopped
1 leek, sliced
2 carrots, peeled and grated
125g risotto rice (I use Arborio)
250g fresh tomatoes, peeled and chopped (or 1/2 thin chopped tomatoes)
50g frozen peas
125g Cheddar cheese, grated
Fresh parsley, chopped
Black pepper

Begin by gently frying the onion and red pepper until softened and golden brown. Add the leek and cook for a few minutes, then stir in the risotto rice and the grated carrot. Stir in the chopped tomatoes and stir constantly until the liquid has evaporated off, then start adding the stock, stirring all the time, adding the next ladleful as the previous one gets absorbed. It’s impossible to say how much you’ll need, but you can always top up with water if you finish the stock before the rice is ready. I would expect the stirring process to take at least 20 minutes, but keep checking the rice until it reaches the right consistency for you – just tender, in my case. Add the frozen peas and shredded ham about halfway through. You should end up with a lovely creamy risotto mixture. At this stage, stir in the Cheddar cheese (I did say it wasn’t authentic, but the Cheddar goes beautifully with the ham and the earthiness of the carrots! You an use Parmesan if you prefer…). Sprinkle with chopped fresh parsley and serve in generous bowlfuls. This isn’t the prettiest dish, but the taste more than makes up for it 🙂

If, by any chance, you’ve still got stock left over – say if you’ve added lots of vegetable cooking water – another winter-warming way of using it up (assuming it’s not too salty of course), is to turn it into ham and lentil soup. This was inspired originally by one of my favourite soup cookbooks, from the Covent Garden Soup Company (where it appears as Mrs Kendall’s Lentil Soup), but I’ve added to it over the years, use a completely different method and just throw in what I have available! It’s very forgiving and oh so tasty, nonetheless. I don’t actually add ham pieces to the soup, but it does taste very hammy with all that stock, hence the title – you wouldn’t want to forget and serve it to vegetarians by mistake…

Ham & Lentil Soup – serves 6-8

1.5 litres ham stock
(or use whatever ham stock you have left and add vegetable cooking water/stock)
2 tbsp olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped
2-3 carrots, diced
2 sticks celery, sliced
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 medium potato, peeled and diced
125g red lentils
1 tbsp tomato purée
1 bay leaf
Few sprigs fresh thyme, leaves only
Black pepper
Fresh parsley to serve

Heat the oil and gently fry the chopped onions, carrots, celery and garlic until starting to soften and turn golden-brown. Stir in the diced potato and cook for another few minutes. Stir in the red lentils, tomato purée, thyme leaves and bay leaf, then add the stock (you can leave in the vegetable chunks if you’re using the stock from the gammon joint). Bring to the boil and cook for 30-40 minutes until the vegetables are tender. Turn off the heat and leave to cool for 15 minutes or so, then remove the bay leaf and blend in a liquidizer in batches (or use a stick blender if you don’t mind a more chunky texture). Return to the pan to reheat and serve with finely chopped fresh parsley. If the consistency is too thick at this stage, you can always add milk (or water) to adjust. Enjoy!

Quizzical Leo II

Still catching up

Poppy in the shade Aug 2017_cropped

An extra day off this Bank Holiday weekend has meant that I finally feel I’m catching up with myself down at the allotment – and in the garden at home for that matter! What a difference an extra day makes, especially when the weather was kind to us for a change, and the sun shone throughout. Lawns duly mowed, fruit trees summer-pruned – well, what I can reach at any rate. Even with extendible loppers I couldn’t reach the topmost branches of one of the crab apple trees at home, and I restricted myself to just trimming the branches I could reach with secateurs in the allotment orchard. Pruning all five apple/plums in one go is too much otherwise. As it was, I took 3-4 barrowloads up to the allotment bonfire site, and there will no doubt be the same again when I finish the job with the long loppers next weekend. So satisfying 🙂

Apple juice with lunch

The harvest is coming in thick and fast now with courgettes multiplying in size overnight and windfall apples aplenty. Fresh apple juice with the red-skinned Katy apples is a must at this time of year, especially as they don’t keep. I even resorted to putting a basket on the road outside the house this morning for people to help themselves to overgrown courgettes and apples – virtually all gone this evening, thank goodness, especially as I came back from the plot with yet more apples, windfall Bramleys this time, and spare French beans.

New basket

Beetroot is another veg in plentiful supply this year. Much as I love having a bowl of cooked beetroot (baked in their skins, after which the skin peels off beautifully, and served sprinkled with balsamic vinegar) in the fridge to accompany my lunchtime cheese and crackers, I’ve been wondering how else to extend my beetroot repertoire. I’ve already made my favourite spiced beetroot & orange chutney, but wondered about a cake. I’ve made Nigel Slater’s beetroot & chocolate cake before (Tender Book I) and liked it, but my beetroot-averse daughter-in-law cold still detect its presence. This time, I thought I’d try some brownies. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recipe appealed, but contained normal flour, no good for gluten intolerance. Searching for a gluten-free version, I came across this Riverford recipe, which sounded perfect – and was! Delightfully chocolatey, fudgy and moist, I can’t detect the beetroot at all – it remains to be seen whether it will pass my daughter-in-law’s test….

Chocolate & Beetroot Brownies – makes 18

Chocolate and beetroot brownies

250g dark chocolate, chopped
200g unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1 tbsp Tia Maria or other liqueur (optional – I forgot and it still tasted divine!)
250g raw beetroot
3 eggs
A drop of vanilla extract
200g caster sugar
50g cocoa powder
50g rice flour
1 tsp gluten-free baking powder
100g ground almonds

Preheat oven to 180°C/Gas 5. Use baking parchment to line a rectangular tin, roughly 28x18cm.

Wash the raw beetroot, remove leaves and surplus roots, then wrap individually in foil  and place on a baking tray. Bake in the oven for 1 hour – or longer depending on the size of your beetroots! Leave to cool in the foil, after which the skins should peel off easily. Turn oven down to 160°C/Gas 4.

Put the chocolate and butter in a large bowl and place it over a pan of simmering water, making sure the water doesn’t touch the base of the bowl. Leave to melt, then remove from the heat and stir in the Tia Maria, if using.

Purée the cooked beetroot in a food processor. Add the eggs one at a time, followed by the vanilla and sugar, and mix until smooth.

Sift the cocoa powder, rice flour and baking powder into a bowl and stir in the ground almonds. Stir the beetroot mixture into the melted chocolate and then fold in the dry ingredients.

Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and bake in the oven for 30–35 minutes, until just firm to the touch. It’s important not to overcook brownies; a skewer inserted in the centre should come out slightly sticky. Leave to cool in the tin and then cut into squares.

Delicious with coffee, but would also be good as a dessert with whipped cream 🙂

An Abundance of Aubergines

Leo over the fence Aug 2017

Apologies for the long absence: as some of you may know, it was my son’s wedding at the end of July and life was rather put on hold in the run-up. After a fabulous weekend of celebrations, it’s taken me quite some time to come back down to Earth and catch up with myself…

Needless to say, the garden and allotment have continued apace throughout, but I’m gradually starting to restore order, even if the grass isn’t as neatly mowed as it could be. Cropwise, it’s been a fantastic summer so far, with even my carrots putting on a good show and the pumpkins looking promising for autumn. In the conservatory, my aubergines are flourishing, as ever, and maturing faster than I can cook them. Such a satisfying problem to have! Last night I made the walnut-stuffed aubergine dish from my Spanish yoga holiday at Las Chimeneas – still delicious, and equally good heated up for lunch today. Earlier in the week I made Nigel Slater’s scrumptious baba ganoush, a heavenly, yet oh-so-simple take on an aubergine dip, and tonight I’ve made an old favourite from my ancient Sainsbury’s wholefood cookbook, lentil moussaka. Meat really does fade into insignificance in my summer diet.

Baba ganoush – serves 2

Baba ganoush

I large aubergine
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 tbsp tahini paste
1 – 1 1/2 tbsp olive oil
Seasoning

Prick the aubergine with a fork, then bake in the oven at 200°C/Gas 6 until the skin is charred and the insides are soft – about 40-45 minutes. Leave to cool, then scrape out the flesh with a spoon into a bowl. Mash with a potato masher, then beat in the lemon juice, crushed garlic, tahini, and olive oil until you get the right consistency. Season and serve with good bread (I used courgette, lemon and sultana bread, lightly toasted, which went beautifully) for a middle-Eastern-inspired lunch or as a decadent starter.

As for the moussaka, well, this is a delicious vegetarian twist on a classic Greek dish that I first tried in a Greek restaurant in Bolton, of all places, in the late 70s, way before I ever travelled to Greece and sampled the real thing. I seem to remember it was pretty good then too, and my mum, never a particularly adventurous cook, even included it in her repertoire: very avant garde in those days! These days, I grill the aubergine slices rather than frying them beforehand, as the original recipe suggests, but which uses up gallons of olive oil. In fact, my mum says she now cooks her oil-drizzled aubergine slices in the oven, as suggested by Mary Berry, for 20-25 minutes at 180°C/Gas 5. Now that’s definitely worth a try as the grilling method still requires you to stand over them, getting hot and bothered, even if they don’t take up anywhere near as much oil as frying.

Lentil Moussaka – serves 4-6

Lentil moussaka

2 large aubergines, sliced crosswise (you can salt them beforehand if you like, but I don’t think it’s necessary these days)
Olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
4 celery sticks, chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 can chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato purée
250g green lentils
Fresh thyme (or basil), finely chopped (optional)
2 tbsp soy sauce
Black pepper
900ml water
2 eggs, beaten
150ml fromage frais
100g Cheddar cheese, grated (or use Parmesan if you prefer)

Heat a glug of olive oil in a large pan and cook the chopped onion until softened, then add the garlic and celery. Cook for a further 5 minutes, then add the tomatoes and their liquid, tomato purée, green lentils, soy sauce, herbs if using, black pepper to taste and water. Bring to the boil and simmer, covered, for 50 minutes, removing the lid towards the end if it still looks very liquid.

Meanwhile, arrange the aubergine slices on a grill pan (or baking trays if you’re trying the oven method), brush with olive oil and either grill on both sides until starting to brown and soften, or bake in the oven at 180°C for 20-25 minutes. (You may need to do this in two stages if using the grill, whereas you can cook two trays at once in the oven – I must try it!) Either way, you will need to turn them halfway through. When cooked, drain on kitchen paper.

When the lentil mixture is ready, spoon half into a rectangular ovenproof dish and arrange a layer of aubergines on top. Repeat with the other half of the lentils and the rest of the aubergines. Mix the eggs and fromage frais for the topping, season and pour on top of the aubergines. Sprinkle with cheese and cook in a hot oven at 200°C/Gas 6 for about 30 minutes.

Serve with a green salad and be instantly transported to the Mediterranean…

This also freezes beautifully – sometimes I think the flavours meld together even better once it has stood for a while, which chimes with the way such dishes are served in Greece: cooked in the morning to be served just warm at lunchtime. Yum!

Oh and the wedding? It was amazing, such a joyful day. I can’t resist leaving you with a picture of the happy couple. Have a fabulous bank holiday weekend!

Happy couple