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Currant Favourites

Currants galore

There’s a time of year when everything seems to come ready at once – everything in the soft fruit department, that is. Just as the raspberries were coming fast and furious, all the currants – red, white and black – AND the gooseberries suddenly reached peak ripeness and demanded to be picked and eaten. Cue many hours of harvesting and bowls of fruit borne home for freezing/processing, eating just as they are. A boon, really, but it is also a bit daunting to have so much in one go! Then , just as quickly as they come, you go away for a weekend (my future daughter-in-law’s hen weekend no less!) and come back to bushes stripped clean. I don’t know how the blackbirds do it, but they seem to find a way under the nets every year. Fortunately, I’d picked the majority by then, so I don’t mind sharing some of my bounty with the allotment wildlife.

What to do with all this produce? The usual suspects of jam and freezer, of course, but I also experimented this year with a couple of recipes I’ve been meaning to try for a long time. My younger son and his girlfriend are staying this month, between lets, so a great excuse to cook more elaborate dishes than I’d normally do for myself.

Blackcurrants are one of my favourite soft fruits and rather than stick to the standard pies, crumbles and fools, I had a couple of interesting recipes on my list: Nigel Slater’s blackcurrant trifle and a delicious-sounding blackcurrant & liquorice sorbet that took me right back to the sweet shops of my childhood.

Blackcurrant Trifle – serves 8

Blackcurrant trifle

500g blackcurrants
3 tbsp caster sugar
4 tbsp water

250g sponge cake (I used half a Victoria sponge I happened to have in the freezer, but you could use trifle sponges or bought cake)
100g amaretti biscuits
2 tbsp caster sugar
1 large egg, separated
vanilla extract, 1/2 tsp
300ml double cream
2-3 amaretti biscuits, crumbled, to garnish

Strig the currants and put in a pan with 3 tbsp caster sugar (or to taste) and the water. Cook gently for 7-10 minutes until soft and juicy. Remove from the heat.

Break the sponge into pieces and put into a trifle dish with the amaretti biscuits. Spoon the hot blackcurrants over the base and leave to cool.

Put the egg yolk and sugar into a bowl and mix, then stir in the mascarpone and vanilla. In a separate bowl, whisk the cream until it forms soft swirls, then fold lightly into the mascarpone mix. Finally whisk the egg white until it forms stiff peaks and fold that into the cream mixture.

Spoon the mascarpone custard over the cool blackcurrant base and refrigerate for a few hours before serving. Decorate with crumbled amaretti biscuits for added crunch.

Blackcurrant & Liquorice Sorbet

Blackcurrant and liquorice sorbet

200g granulated sugar
200g water
450g blackcurrants
Juice of 1 lemon
25ml aniseed liqueur (I used Marie Brizard, but ouzo or pastis would work too – or leave it out if you prefer)
1 tbsp liquorice powder (I ordered this online, but specialist Asian shops might stock it too)
1 egg white

Dissolve the granulated sugar in the water over a low heat and cook for 5 minutes or so. Leave to cool and form a sugar syrup.

Strig the blackcurrants (no need to remove all the stalks as they will be sieved afterwards) and put in a small pan with the lemon juice. Cook gently for 5 -10 minutes until soft. Add the aniseed liqueur. Purée the fruit mixture in a liquidiser, then press through a sieve.

Transfer to an ice cream maker and churn for 20 minutes, then fold in the stiffly whipped egg white for the last 20 minutes. (Alternatively, fold in the egg white straightaway and freeze in a container for 1-2 hours, whizz again in a food processor and return to the freezer until set.) The alcohol gives the sorbet a lovely texture and means it can be served virtually straight from the freezer. Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

 

Emerald Treasure

April harvest

My haul from the allotment on Sunday was a veritable treasure trove of seasonal delights: pink rhubarb, slate green and white leeks, rich purple-sprouting broccoli, the sapphire glints of rosemary flowers and of course the emerald green of perpetual spinach and flat-leaf parsley. It certainly makes for interesting meal planning in the week ahead!

The broccoli was a delicious accompaniment to my one-pot roast chicken and roasted roots on Sunday evening, with the rest going in a delectable Italian anchovy and pine nut sauce for linguine on Monday. Rhubarb found its way into my favourite rhubarb shortbread, a cake/pudding combined with a vanilla-infused, buttery custard topping. Plenty left over for a rhubarb and orange compote later in the week too.

I couldn’t decide what to do with the spinach initially; I pondered the idea of a spinach & pea soup, but the current warm weather hardly lends itself to soup. Then I remembered a recipe I’ve cooked many a time, a spinach & mushroom korma from Nigel Slater’s Real Food: just what I fancied, light, vegetarian, yet packed full of flavour and goodness. Plus it freezes well, so I can use all the spinach I’d picked. Given that it will probably go to seed very soon – and I’ll need the bed to plant this year’s pea crops – it’s no hardship to use as much as I can! As ever, I’ve tweaked the recipe to suit the contents of my fridge, but the principle is the same.

Spinach & Mushroom Korma – serves 2-3

Spinach and mushroom korma

25g butter
1 tbsp olive oil
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 tbsp fresh (or frozen) root ginger, grated
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 green chilli, finely chopped (or to taste)
8 cardamom pods, seeds scraped out and crushed
1 cinnamon stick
1 bay leaf
250-300g large mushrooms
25-50g hazelnuts, toasted and chopped (or you can use toasted cashews)
200g spinach, thick stalks removed
Handful wild garlic leaves (if in season – optional!)
2 tbsp sultanas
100ml sour cream
2 tbsp crème fraiche or natural yogurt
Seasoning
Fresh coriander (or parsley) to serve

Melt the butter and oil in a pan and cook the sliced onions, chopped garlic, grated ginger and finely chopped chilli for about 5 minutes until softened. Stir in the spices and bay leaf and cook for a further 2-3 minutes. Chop the mushrooms into chunks and add to the onion mixture, then cook for another couple of minutes. Then add the chopped hazelnuts (or cashews), sultanas and 150ml water, bring to the boil, cover with a lid and simmer for 15 minutes over a low heat.

Wash the spinach and wild garlic thoroughly, removing any thick stalks, drain, then chop roughly – it will look a huge mound! When the 15 minutes are up, add the chopped spinach and garlic – you may need to do this in several stages, but it will quickly reduce in volume as it wilts. Cook down for a few minutes, then season well and stir in the sour cream and crème fraiche/yogurt, warming gently without boiling to prevent curdling. Remove the bay leaf and cinnamon stick before plating.

Finally, garnish with fresh coriander or parsley, depending what you have to hand, and serve with rice. The flavours seem to meld even more after freezing, as is often the case.

Poppy and Leo in the garlic at Snape
Perfect day for picking wild garlic

 

Spring has sprung!

What a glorious spell of early spring weather we’re having – it probably won’t last, but I for one am making the most of it while it does. I even went down to the tennis courts for my first game of the season this afternoon – unheard of before Easter usually! The warm sunshine is bringing on the bulbs and the spring blossom fast and furious: I did opt for early-flowering tulips this year, but still, to see them in full bloom in early April is quite something. These are Vanilla Cream and Design Impression, both from Sarah Raven – if I’d known they would flower at exactly the same time, I might have risked mixing them together in their planters, but I’ve done that before, even with collections intended to flower together, and had them blooming out of sync. As it is, they provide a fabulous shot of colour either side of the arch at the entrance to the garden – gorgeous!

Tulip Design Impression

Tulip Vanilla Cream

Last weekend, after my vegan guests had gone on their way, I managed to fit in a couple of hours down at the allotment. Eminently satisfying. The purple-sprouting broccoli, and even last year’s calabrese are still going strong, as is the spinach and parsley. I dug up the rest of the parsnips so I could plant my seed potatoes in their designated rotation: like last year, I’ve just gone for two varieties, ten of each: Jazzy, a highly recommended new T&M variety for white, waxy early potatoes, and Anya, a nutty salad potato related to Pink Fir Apple that I’ve grown before and does well on my soil.

This month’s Garden magazine included an interesting article maintaining that the notion of “terroir” applies to humble vegetables just as much to grapes and I quite agree: the potatoes I grew in Scotland or in my native Cheshire seemed to have much more taste than the ones I grow down here in my Sussex clay, but some certainly do better than others. If you can find the ones that do grow well in your soil, it pays to stick with them. Unfortunately, the first early I really liked when grown down here, Ulster Sceptre, has proved rather elusive ever since, so I’m still searching – maybe Jazzy will be the one?

The sweet peas I sowed on the conservatory windowsill are germinating slowly and look to be as erratic as the others I’ve tried inside in previous years. I used to be able to start sweet peas off indoors with no problems, so I really don’t understand what’s changed in recent years. I’ll plant more straight outside in the next week or so and no doubt they’ll romp away – but hopefully not be quite as late as last year!

I added parsley and basil seeds to the propagator this week and I finally got round to distributing the contents of the compost around the garden at home – always a nice feeling.

Just two recipes today, both to use up leftovers from the previous weekend. The first was the soup I made to use up the chick peas after last week’s chick pea liquid meringues. I first had this, or an approximation of this, at the Eden Project in Cornwall over 12 years ago, and have been on the hunt for a similar recipe ever since. This, adapted from an ancient Sainsbury’s vegetarian cookbook by Sarah Brown, comes pretty close.

Spiced Chick Pea & Tomato Soup – serves 5-6

Chick pea & tomato soup_cropped

2 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 sticks celery, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 red or green chilli, finely chopped
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp garam masala
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp fresh root ginger, grated
1 tbsp tomato purée
1 tin tomatoes, chopped
1 tin chick peas, drained
1 litre vegetable stock
1 tbsp ground almonds
Seasoning
Fresh parsley, chopped

Heat the oil in a large soup pan and gently fry the onion, garlic and celery until soft – about 10 minutes. Add the chopped chilli and cook for another minute or so, then stir in all the spices and the ground almonds. Then add the tomatoes, chick peas and stock – you might want to just add 3/4 of the stock to start with and add more later depending on the consistency. Bring to the boil and cook for 45 minutes. Season to taste and sprinkle with chopped fresh parsley.

Mine was actually quite hot, because my stock of dried chillis from last autumn had gone mouldy and I used a bought chilli – always an unknown quantity! I like it hot, but you can always use less to start with if you’re not sure.

My final recipe was to use up the excess milk I had in the fridge after my vegan visitors. They had almond milk with their breakfast, but dairy-free cooking on my part meant the milk stocks didn’t go down as much as usual! What better, or easier dessert to make in a busy week than a crème caramel au café – simplicity itself to make and delicious to eat.

Crème Caramel au Café – serves 5

Creme caramel au café

100g granulated sugar
150ml water
450ml milk
3 eggs
25g vanilla sugar (or caster sugar if that’s what you have)
1 tbsp espresso coffee powder (or 25g coffee beans if you prefer)
2 tbsp dark rum

Make a caramel using the granulated sugar and water, cooking gently until the sugar has dissolved, then turning the heat up (and NOT stirring at all) until a deep golden brown colour. Remove from the heat and pour quickly into 5 greased ramekin dishes, which should be standing in a roasting tin.

Warm the milk and add 1 tbsp instant espresso powder. Stir until dissolved (you can also warm the milk with 25g roast coffee beans and leave to stand for 1 hour if you prefer, then strain). Whisk the  eggs with the vanilla sugar and 2 tbsp dark rum, then slowly whisk in the hot milk. Strain into a jug and pour gently over the caramel in the ramekin dishes. Pour hot water into the roasting tin until it comes 2.5 cm up the sides of the ramekins, cover the lot with foil and bake at 150°C (fan), gas 3 until just set. Leave to cool and chill well before turning out. Et voilà!

Spring in front window bed

Vegan Challenge

Having just got to grips with cooking gluten-free food for my elder son’s fiancée and her mum over the past year or so, my younger son set me a new challenge this weekend when he announced he was coming home, en route to France, and bringing with him some vegan friends. Could they stay the night and have dinner?

Now, cooking vegetarian poses no problems for me; in fact, I virtually become vegetarian in the summer months when the allotment is in full production. I still enjoy meat and fish, but if someone said I had to do without from now on, I think I’d cope. Doing without eggs and dairy products is an entirely different ball game, however….

Wellington uncooked

I do a range of vegetarian curries and casseroles, but knew my son had cooked my standby lentil curry for these friends when he entertained them to dinner recently. Then I remembered the Squash, Beetroot & Puy Lentil Wellington I’d cooked for the family over New Year. In its original incarnation in the BBC Good Food magazine, this had been a vegan recipe, so this was an ideal time to revert to the initial ingredients, missing out the goat’s cheese I’d added to the Kale pesto, and remembering to brush the finished Wellington with almond milk rather than beaten egg. I nearly made a rookie error in using a butter paper to grease the tray, but remembered just in time and used olive oil! I also added a handful of wild garlic to the Kale pesto as it’s just coming into season – made for a delicious dairy-free pesto that’s definitely worth serving with pasta just as it is.

Squash wellington - cooked

Not quite as brown as when brushed with egg or milk, perhaps, but delicious nonetheless – and the non-vegans amongst us loved it too. Plenty of flavour and texture, served with homegrown purple-sprouting broccoli (still in abundance!) and oven-roasted Vivaldi potatoes with garlic and rosemary. Make sure the puff pastry is vegan-friendly – I used Jus-rol and it was perfectly tasty, even though not quite as good as the all-butter pastry I’d favour if suiting myself.

Dessert posed more of a challenge as most puddings in my repertoire use eggs and/or butter and I didn’t want to serve fruit on its own, although I had a fresh pineapple on standby just in case… I remembered reading over Christmas about so-called vegan meringues, made from the liquid from a can of chick peas. Whatever next? Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained. I found a promising-sounding recipe online and had a go. Much to my surprise, they worked – and tasted pretty good too, if I say so myself. Don’t ask me how the chemistry works (just protein, according to a chemist friend!), but to all intents and purposes these looked and tasted like meringues, if perhaps slightly less stiff.

Vegan meringues in bowl
Vegan Meringues with Coconut Cream and Rhubarb & Orange Compote

Liquid drained from 1 x 400g can of chick peas (in water NOT brine)
1/2 tsp cream of tartar
125 g icing sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract

1 tin of full-fat coconut milk, chilled overnight in the fridge
3 tsp agave nectar

750g rhubarb, chopped
Juice and rind of 2 oranges
4-6 tbsp demerara sugar

Preheat the oven to 100°C (Gas 2) and line a baking tray with baking parchment.

Pour the water drained from the can of chickpeas into a large bowl and use an electric hand-held or stand mixer to whisk for approximately 5 minutes until it’s more than doubled in size, white and frothy. Add the cream of tartar all at once and whisk again for another minute. Slowly and gently start adding in the sifted sugar, whisking until the mixture forms stiff, glossy peaks. Stir in some vanilla, if using. (I found the mixture didn’t hold its stiff peaks for quite as long as egg whites, but this didn’t affect the end result.)

Pipe the meringue mix into nests on the baking tray.  Mine made nine, but if you can manage to work quicker than I did and keep the mixture stiffer, you could probably make 10 – and neater than me too! Next time… Alternatively, just use a spoon to create mounds and use the back of the spoon to hollow out the centre.

Vegan meringues on tray

Bake for 2 hours. Do NOT open the oven! After 2 hours, turn the oven off and leave them to cool in the oven for at least another hour.

Meanwhile, cut the rhubarb (unpeeled unless really thick and woody – shouldn’t be necessary with early-season produce) into small dice, halving the stems first if really chunky. Place in a shallow, rectangular baking dish and sprinkle with the brown sugar (to taste), orange rind and juice. (You can add chopped preserved ginger and a few tbsp of ginger syrup as well as or instead of the orange if you like; Amaretto is also a good addition!) When the meringues are out of the oven, cook the rhubarb at 160°C (Gas 4) until tender, but still in distinct pieces, for about 30-40 minutes. Leave to cool.

Whip the pre-chilled coconut milk with 3 tsp agave nectar (or to taste) to create a thick double cream consistency – incredible as it may seem, it really does whisk up quite thick!

To serve, place the meringue nests on dessert plates, add a dollop of coconut cream and then a spoonful of rhubarb compote. Garnish with an edible flower if you have any – I used a primrose from the garden.

Vegan meringue

Eat and wonder! I wouldn’t cook these rather than traditional egg white meringues and double cream if I wasn’t catering for vegans, but they were a pretty good approximation to the real thing. And my guests said that desserts are one of the most difficult things for vegans, as so often they are just offered fruit.

We finished with the fridge fruit & nut bars I made this time last year, using coconut oil, seeds, fruit, nuts and cacao powder. It’s amazing what you can do if you set your mind to it….

Rhubarb March 2017

 

Spring is in the air…

Aquilegia and hellebore foliage

I can’t believe it’s over a month since I last wrote – so much for my good intentions! What with pressures of work, a skiing holiday, decorators in painting the kitchen /utility room after having a new oak floor fitted at the end of last year, a wedding food tasting and lots of family visits, blog-writing has definitely taken a back seat of late. This weekend was Mother’s Day, with one son and his fiancée home, then a trip over to my parents’ to see all the family on Sunday – and beautiful spring weather for once too!

The recent springlike weather has tempted me out into the garden to mow my lawn (just the once!), cut back my buddleias and the giant lavatera, prune the roses, dead-head last year’s hydrangea flowers and chop back any remaining perennials that I’d left through the winter to provide shelter and food for birds and insects. There was still a cold wind when I ventured out on Saturday afternoon, but I was determined to pot up my new dahlia tubers from Sarah Raven and the overwintered monster begonias. I also sowed the first batch of seeds, always an exciting moment: sweet peas in pots on the conservatory windowsill (I’ve reverted to trying some inside this year after such a late crop last year, but I will plant more straight into the ground later too, when the soil warms up). Tomatoes (my favourite Sungold and the old-fashioned Ailsa Craig), chillis (Summer Heat and Padron), Romano sweet peppers, aubergine Bonica, lobelia Crystal Palace, and the three leek varieties Bandit, Pandora and Nipper for a succession of leeks all through the autumn/winter – all now tucked up in the propagator. Let the season commence!

Back side bed

I’ve still to distribute last year’s compost around the garden, but there’s always next weekend… In the meantime, let me finish with a springtime lemon & ricotta cake I adapted from a River Café recipe. I had some ricotta in the fridge and fancied a light, lemony and gluten-free cake. This was the result – exactly what I was looking for. The original quantities make a huge cake – I didn’t have a tin big enough and there were only five of us for dinner, so I cut the quantities back by a third – perfect. I found the original recipe here if you’re catering for a crowd!

River Café Lemon, Ricotta, Almond & Polenta Cake – serves 10

Lemon ricotta cake

150g butter, softened
170g ground almonds (you could also use almond flour)
65g fine polenta (whizz in the food processor if you can’t buy fine)
finely grated zest of 4 lemons
170g caster sugar
4 large eggs, separated
200g ricotta
juice of 2 lemons
icing sugar, for dusting

Pre-heat the oven to 150°C.  Grease a 24cm round springform cake tin and line the base with greaseproof paper.

Combine the almonds and polenta (whizzed in the food processor for extra fineness if necessary) and add the lemon zest. Beat the butter and sugar together using an electric mixer until pale and light.  Add the egg yolks one by one, then add the almond mixture and fold together. Put the ricotta into a bowl and beat lightly with a fork, then add the lemon juice. Stir the ricotta into the cake mixture. Whisk the egg whites in a clean bowl until they form soft peaks.  Finally fold the egg whites into the almond mixture.

Transfer the mixture into the prepared tin and bake in the oven for 40 – 50 minutes, until set.  Test by inserting a skewer, which should come out clean.  Leave in the tin to cool for at least 10 minutes before turning out. Dust liberally with sifted icing sugar before serving, and garnish with fine strips of lemon rind if desired.

I served it with a jostaberry purée from the freezer, but any red fruit coulis would be good – and it was delicious on its own too. Enjoy!

Standen March 2017
Beautiful Standen near East Grinstead – perfect Mother’s Day outing

 

A trio of apple puds to go…

It’s that time of year again, when I’ve little time for blogging, vast amounts of urgent work (why does everything suddenly need doing before Christmas?!) and actually there’s not much doing in the garden anyway – probably just as well! It’s also the time for networking get-togethers, along with the usual festive social gatherings and this year the emphasis has been on bring-your-own affairs – a refreshing change from the overpriced and noisy Christmas lunches if you go to restaurants in the run-up to Christmas.

My default option, when asked to bring something to a party, is always a dessert, for obvious sweet-toothed reasons – and apples are often my first choice as I invariably have lots hanging from the garage rafters, just crying out to be eaten. I haven’t many dessert apples left by this stage, just a few mellow Cox types, but still plenty of Bramleys. So what to take?

My first contribution was a Toffee Apple pie, based on a Sarah Raven recipe from her lovely “Food from Family & Friends”, a great book when cooking for the masses. I’ve tweaked here and there, as ever, but it’s basically an appley take on that old favourite, the banoffee pie – and who doesn’t like that?!

Toffee Apple Pie – serves 8-12

toffee-apple-pie

150g digestive biscuits, crushed in a plastic bag with a rolling pin
75g butter, melted
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tin Caramel condensed milk
5-6 large Cox apples, peeled and sliced
75g butter
1 tbsp vanilla sugar
Juice and grated zest of 1 lemon
300ml double cream (or mix of cream and natural yogurt)
Grated zest of 1 orange
Toasted flaked almonds, to garnish

Stir the crushed biscuits into the melted butter, add the cinnamon, mix well, then press the crumbs into a greased 24cm loose-bottomed tart tin (mine is about 4cm deep). Chill in the fridge while you prepare the apples.

Melt the second batch of butter in a frying pan and add the sliced apples and 1 tbsp vanilla sugar. Cook until golden brown and tender. My apples are so mellow by this time of year that they fall, but if you can find apples that keep their shape, so much the better – it tastes delicious either way! Stir in the lemon juice and zest. Set to one side to cool.

Gently spread the Caramel condensed milk over the flan base, taking care not to disturb the crumbs – if you’ve left it to chill sufficiently, it should be fine. Arrange the pan-fried apples evenly over the top.

Whip the cream in a large bowl with the grated orange zest (you can use a combination of cream and yogurt for a lighter topping), then spread over the apples, covering completely. Sprinkle with the toasted flaked almonds and remove the outer ring of the tin to serve.

My second pudding choice was a trusty Tarte aux Pommes from one of my first ever cookery books, an M&S paperback by Jeni Wright called Just Desserts, dating back to the early 80s – and yes, it still comes out nearly 40 years down the line! It’s also the source of another family favourite, my profiteroles…. Forgive the Imperial measurements in this recipe – as I said, it goes back a long way (and I still think primarily in Imperial when baking!).

Tarte aux Pommes – serves 8

tarte-aux-pommes

10oz plain flour
pinch of salt
2oz vanilla sugar
1 beaten egg
3-4 tsp milk
5oz butter, diced

2-3 large cooking apples, peeled and sliced
2oz butter
4oz granulated sugar (or to taste)
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
4 large dessert apples
Juice and zest of 2 lemons
6 tbsp light-coloured jam (I use gooseberry, but apricot or rhubarb would work well too)
1 tbsp icing sugar

Sift the flour and salt into a large mixing bowl and add the sugar, beaten egg and milk, then rub in the diced butter (you can use grated frozen butter too if preferred). Knead to form a dough, then chill for 20 minutes.

Meanwhile peel and slice the apples, then place in a large pan with the butter, granulated sugar, cinnamon and lemon zest. Cook over a gentle heat until the apples are reduced to a thick purée, stirring every so often to prevent sticking. Beat with a wooden spoon to remove any lumps. Set aside to cool.

When the pastry has chilled, roll out carefully on a floured surface to make a big enough circle to line  a greased 24cm loose-bottomed flan tin (as above). (I find I only need 2/3 of the mixture for a tart of this size, so use the remaining pastry to make a batch of mince pies.) Line the pastry case with baking parchment and baking beans and bake blind in a pre-heated oven (180-200°C) for 10 minutes. Remove the paper and beans and put it back in for another 3-4 minutes to set the base.

Reduce the oven temperature to 160°C, then spread the apple purée over the baked tart case. Peel the dessert apples, and slice into thin, even slices, sprinkling with lemon juice as you go to stop browning. Arrange the sliced dessert apples in an overlapping ring around the edge of the tart case and then either another ring in the opposite direction or fill the gap with rows of overlapping apples if, like mine, your apples are too large to achieve two rings even in a tin of this size!

Warm the jam in a bowl in the microwave or in a small pan with the juice of a lemon and one tbsp of water. Press through a sieve into another pan, add the icing sugar and cook until reduced and a glossy glaze has formed. Gently pour the glaze over the apples, covering completely.

Return to the oven for 30-35 minutes, covering the pastry edges with foil if they show signs of burning. Remove the outer tin to serve with whipped cream or crème fraiche.

My final to-go dessert was for an impromptu meal with friends last week, so basically involved throwing together a pudding with very little time and storecupboard ingredients. Hence my tried-and-tested Apple & almond pudding, a Delia stalwart from over the years, but one which never fails to please, especially if you’re cooking for gluten-free guests.

Enjoy!

fireside

 

Spring Rush

Green roof_cropped

It’s at this time of year, after the clocks have gone forward, the sun finally shows its face and the soil gradually starts to warm up, that the rush is on to get everything going in the garden. It’s often a case of dodging the showers and making use of the limited time you have available to sow seeds here, prepare ground there and generally tick off all those spring jobs.

I sowed my first seeds two weeks ago, but most are now up and can be removed from the propagator to make room for the next batch: tomatoes (two old favourites, Sungold and Gardener’s Delight, and a new variety to me, Black Russian, a medium beefsteak heritage tomato, supposedly with an outstanding, rich flavour – we shall see!) and cucumber. I’m reverting back to Marketmore this year, a variety I used to grow with great success in my big greenhouse in Scotland, but I’m hoping it will like the conditions on the open allotment too, as I haven’t had a lot of success with other varieties I’ve tried outside to date.

Other jobs include planting up my new dahlias. I leave my existing dahlia tubers in the ground over the winter, well-mulched, and they seem to thrive, but as I’m cutting down on potatoes and adding another cutting flower bed at the allotment this year, it seemed an ideal opportunity to treat myself to a couple more! I ordered Café au Lait (from Crocus) plus Labyrinth and Wizard of Oz (from Sarah Raven), all in pastel shades that will extend my existing range of colours beautifully – and with half an eye to my son’s wedding next year, I must admit! These are started off in pots in my grow frame at home, then will go into the open ground when they are established and better able to cope with slug attacks. I’ve also started off my tuberous begonias, now huge tubers after two seasons’ worth of growing. I may have to ask friends for the loan of some space in their large glasshouse when I run out of room in the grow frame/conservatory windowsill for these monsters!

I also like to use fibrous-rooted begonias in my summer tubs as they don’t mind rain or shine and are also pretty slug-resistant. I buy the tiny plug plants from my local garden centre, sold in 24s for pricking out at home. In actual fact, each plug often contains two tiny plants and I invariably manage to get at least 60 plantlets once I’ve prised them apart. A very economical way of buying bedding plants, especially as these are notoriously tricky to grow from seed without specialist conditions.

Other jobs included dead-heading last year’s hydrangea flowers, another way of instantly tidying up the garden. These crispy flowerheads have done a great job of protecting the new foliage from late frosts, but we should be safe now to snip them off – although I once did this in late March when we lived in Scotland, only to have a very severe frost a couple of nights later, ending up with frosted new shoots and far fewer flowers than usual – you have been warned!

New rasp bed 2

Down at the allotment, I finally managed to finish digging over my new raspberry bed and have planted up the new autumn canes, Polka, ordered from Thompson & Morgan. Having lost all my autumn raspberries last year due to some unknown virus, I thought I’d try a different variety: Polka is bred from the classic Autumn Bliss, but it supposed to have double the yield. I’ll report back in due course! I also dug up some summer raspberry suckers from where they are thriving underneath the Bramley apple tree and made a new row of summer fruit too – you can never have enough raspberries! I’ve finally found a taker for the top part of my allotment, so won’t have my original fruit bed any more – but I don’t think I’m going to go short any time soon….

Raspberry Polka

All in all, a very satisfying weekend’s gardening.

After a meat-filled few days over Easter, with family and guests, I fancied something simple and vegetarian this weekend. There’s very little left on the allotment at this time of year (a few remaining leeks, parsnips, purple-sprouting broccoli and spinach), so I opted for an old favourite, based on spinach, originally from my friend Bridget up in Cheshire. This is so quick and easy, but delicious – life’s definitely NOT too short to stuff a mushroom!

Garlicky Stuffed Mushrooms – serves 2

Garlicky mushroom

4 large flat mushrooms (Portobello), wiped and stalks removed

Knob of butter

1 medium onion, chopped

1 clove garlic

2 generous handfuls of young spinach, washed, large stems removed and chopped

Seasoning

1 Boursin cheese

 Melt the butter in a frying pan and add the chopped onions and garlic. Cook until translucent, then add the chopped spinach and continue cooking for 5 mins or so until nicely wilted, then season to taste.

Divide the spinach and onion mixture between the flat mushrooms in a roasting tin and add 3-4 tbsp water to the base of the tin. Top each mushroom with a generous slice of Boursin (blue cheese or even goat’s cheese also work well). Cover the tin with foil.

Cook in a hot oven (180°C, Gas 5) for about 20 minutes, then remove the foil and cook for a further couple of minutes to brown the cheese slightly.

You can serve these with crusty bread to mop up the garlicky juices, but I like them just as they are – who needs meat with flavours as good as these?!