Tag Archives: Soup

Winter warmers

Front garden

This week’s unexpected late snowfall brought the deepest snow to the village that we’ve had in 6 or 7 years. Leo the labrador was a puppy last time we had snow on this scale and consequently very overexcited to see all this lovely white stuff last week! Poppy likes it too, but at 12 1/2, she sometimes finds it a bit cold on her paws, and especially dislikes the patches of salt on the roads.

While I’m extremely glad I work from home at times like this, so don’t need to venture out in the car, I do find that snow brings out all my survival instincts. Despite having a freezer full of soup and casseroles, I have the urge to make more! There’s nothing like a big pan full of simmering soup to warm you up when you get back from a snowy dog walk in the winter wonderland… The suspension of my usual evening activities means I have more time to cook in the evening too, so warming hotpots are definitely the order of the day. The freezer casseroles can wait for another day; the aroma of slow-cooked vegetables and meat is just heavenly on those days where the thermometer is well below zero all day long…

Last week’s soups included old favourites such as tomato & lentil (a good store cupboard standby if you have beef stock in the freezer, as it really only needs red lentils, a tin of tomatoes, a chilli, onion and celery – so good!), and Scottish Country Soup, a true winter warmer chock-full of vegetables with barley flakes and milk for extra nutrients.

Scottish Country Soup – serves 6

Scottish country soup

25g butter or 1 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
3-4 carrots, diced
2 sticks celery, sliced
1 leek, sliced
Handful kale or Savoy cabbage, shredded (I use Cavolo Nero from the allotment)
125g frozen peas
50g barley flakes
sprigs fresh thyme, leaves only
1 bay leaf
500ml chicken or vegetable stock
500ml semi-skimmed milk

Melt the butter (or oil) in a pan, then gently fry the onions, celery and carrots for 10 minutes, until golden. Add the leeks, peas and cabbage (or kale) and cook for a further 2-3 minutes. Stir in the thyme, bay leaf, barley flakes, stock and milk, then bring to the boil, turn down to a simmer and cover. Cook for 30 40 minutes until the vegetables are tender. Remove the bay leaf and serve.

Hotpots are proper winter fare, especially to a Northern lass like me. My tried and trusted recipe is my mum’s and she in turn had it from her mum. I suppose it’s a variation on Lancashire hotpot (although without the sliced potato topping, and always with beef not lamb in my book) or even lobscouse, that traditional Liverpool stew. I’ve always known it simply as hotpot, preferably with a delicious flaky crust and made with skirt steak if you can find it. Traditional butchers should have it and it’s well worth hunting down – it has a flavour and texture all of is own, but you can use shin of beef instead if that’s all you can find). The aroma of a hotpot in the oven, slowly building over the afternoon, takes me right back to my childhood and is just what I fancy on a cold winter’s night….

Hotpot – serves 6

350-450g skirt steak (or shin if you can’t find skirt), diced
4 onions, chopped
3-4 carrots, diced
2 sticks celery, sliced
1/2 swede, diced
4 large potatoes, chopped into 2cm chunks
handful of pearl barley (or red lentils)
1-2 shakes of crushed, dried chillis (or omit if you prefer)
1l hot beef stock (using 2 stock cubes is fine)

125g self-raising flour
40g lard

Place the diced meat into a large casserole or traditional ceramic hotpot dish. Add the rest of the vegetables, pearl barley, chilli and seasoning, then pour over the hot stock until everything is covered with liquid. Stir well, and place in the oven at 140-150°C. Cook for 4-5 hours, stirring after one hour, and check towards the end that there is still enough liquid. The idea is for everything to become incredibly tender and to “fall”.

Half an hour or so before you’re ready to eat, turn the oven up to 200°C. Make the crust by rubbing the lard into the flour, then adding water until a soft dough forms. Handle as little as possible, but quickly roll out into a rough circle the size of your pot and place on top of the cooked hotpot. Slash two cuts in the top to allow the steam to escape, then return to the oven for 20 minutes, or until just starting to turn pale golden. Serve in ladlefuls with red cabbage, peas, beetroot or winter relish. The taste of home, for me at any rate 🙂

A variation on the hotpot theme from Jamie Oliver’s “Jamie’s Dinners” uses a more newfangled range of ingredients, including squash and red wine (unheard of for cooking in my grandmother’s day!), but leads to a similar comforting result. Jamie calls this Jools’ Favourite Beef Stew, but I call it posh hotpot. The basic recipe is very similar, and like my family recipe can be cooked without browning the ingredients before cooking, which makes it very simple to prepare once you’ve done all the chopping. I remember my mum dashing home from work in her lunchtime to prepare the ingredients for a hotpot and put it in the oven for later that evening. I don’t suppose we had timers on ovens in those days! You can use any root vegetables you like in this, mixing and matching to suit what you have in the fridge/vegetable rack. Our local Coop’s shelves were bare when I made this last week, so I used carrots, squash, celery, potato and sweet potatoes as that’s what I had – it isn’t a fussy dish. Jamie’s recipe browns the vegetables (but not the meat), but I really don’t think it’s necessary, By all means do if you prefer.

I broached the last of my Crown Prince squashes from last autumn for this, and a veritable monster it was too! I used barely a sixth of it in the hotpot, but it should keep well in the fridge while I work out what to do with the rest..

Jamie’s Posh Hotpot – serves 4-6

4-500g diced stewing steak (I like to use skirt again, but shin or just stewing beef is fine)
2 onions, chopped
3-4 carrots, peeled and diced
2 sticks celery, sliced
250g squash, diced into chunks
2 parsnips, peeled and chopped (or sweet potatoes or swede)
1 potato, peeled and diced
1 leek, chopped
handful sage leaves, chopped
2 bay leaves
800ml – 1l hot beef or vegetable stock (again, use cubes if that’s what you have)
1/2 bottle red wine
1 tbsp tomato purée
salt and pepper
grated zest 1 lemon
few sprigs of rosemary , leaves only
1 clove garlic, crushed

Pre-heat the oven to 140-150°C. Place the diced meat and all the chopped veg in a large casserole or hotpot dish with the bay leaves and chopped sage. Pour over the hot stock, seasoning and tomato purée, then add the red wine and stir well. Place in the oven and cook for 4 hours or until tender. Check the liquid carefully towards the end and top up with more water, stock (or wine!) if necessary.

Just before serving, mix the grated lemon zest, chopped rosemary and crushed garlic together and stir into the hotpot for a hint of je ne sais quoi. Serve with crusty bread, or you could make a pastry crust again (see above) or even herby dumplings.

Jamie's hotpot
The snow has all but gone now, as I write, and we’re coping with the aftermath in the form of no water (or in my case, barely a trickle) as water leaks spring up all over the village as part of the big thaw. Ho hum. It was nice while it lasted.

The next morning


In my Soup Kitchen

Happy New Year!

Dogs on haybales Boxing Day 2017

I’ve been making soup for years, ever since I first got married in the early 1980s in fact. It’s so simple and delicious, I can’t imagine why anyone would ever go to the trouble (and expense) of buying it, especially when you inevitably make far more than you need in one sitting, so can freeze the rest for another day – and of course freezing soups and casseroles always allows the flavours to mature and taste even better next time around.

Christmas is invariably an opportunity to make one of the best meat stocks from the turkey carcass – a big bird means oodles of flavour, and if you’ve been able to make giblet stock from the giblets and neck of the bird, so much the better. Supermarkets don’t seem to supply the giblets these days, but if you can buy poultry from a farm shop or butcher, it should come with the giblets. It’s a simple matter to throw them in a large pan with an onion, carrot, a few sticks of celery, couple of bay leaves, thyme, rosemary and parsley, seasoning, all topped up with water. Just bring to the boil and simmer for two hours – for me, this is the first real smell of Christmas cooking. This year I was at my son and daughter-in-law’s house, but had joined forces with my daughter-in-law’s parents to contribute the turkey to the feast, and ended up preparing the stock for the Christmas Day gravy on Christmas Eve when I arrived. The dogs enjoy their annual treat of cooked turkey liver, heart, etc on Christmas morning too, although this year it had to be shared between 5!

I usually save every last drop of vegetable cooking water to add to the stock pan when it’s time to make the stock from the turkey carcass after carving and removing all the meat from the bones, but you can use fresh water if that’s all you have. Turkey stock uses the same ingredients as giblet and chicken stock (onions, carrot, celery, bay leaves, thyme, rosemary, parsley, seasoning; I sometimes add a lemon or a whole fresh chilli too, as the mood takes me), but needs a very large pan. I use a huge stainless steel stockpot, whereas I often use my slowcooker to make chicken stock overnight from a cooked chicken carcass. As before, bring to the boil, then simmer for a good two hours, allow to cool and strain off the deliciously scented liquid – ambrosia! Oh and the dogs usually enjoy the surprising quantities of meat that fall off the bones after long, slow cooking, although you could probably add them to the resulting soup if you haven’t got waiting canine assistants on hand.

This year my daughter-in-law kindly let me take the turkey carcass home to make my stock, so I was still able to make my annual favourite: turkey broth. I’m sure it has health-giving superproperties: it certainly warms the cockles of your heart and has become such a tradition in our house. It’s always a sad day when the last pot of turkey broth is taken out of the freezer… Quantities in this recipe are entirely variable – much depends on the size of your pan and what you have lying around, but you won’t go far wrong as long as the basics are there, and you can always add more liquid or boil off any extra at the end – one of the joys of soup-making. I used to make this, or its chicken equivalent, when my boys were babies, puréeing it at first (without seasoning, of course) and then as a chunky hotpot by adjusting the amount of liquid. Perfect.

Turkey Broth

1.5 – 2 litres of turkey stock
50g butter
2 onions
2-3 carrots
2-3 sticks celery
1 large potato
1 large parsnip (or swede)
1 handful pearl barley
2-3 bay leaves
2-3 sprigs thyme
2 sprigs rosemary
Handful parsley, chopped
Salt & pepper
100-200g chopped cooked turkey meat, to taste (depending what you have left)
100g frozen peas

Chop the onions and soften in the butter in a large pan. Peel and chop the carrots, celery, potato and parsnip (or swede), then add to the pan and continue to cook until all the vegetables have softened – about 10 minutes. Stir in the pearl barley, herbs and seasoning, then add the stock and bring to the boil. Finally add the turkey meat, then turn down the heat, cover with a lid and simmer for a good 2 hours. Add the frozen peas about 5 minutes before serving in homely bowls with lots of good homemade bread.

Enjoy! Freezes beautifully.

Highland Cow Boxing Day 2017

With a house full of people over the holiday period, my soup stocks tend to go down, but not working for 10 days also allowed me to make more. Broccoli & Stilton soup was yesterday’s effort to use up the leftover Stilton from the festive cheeseboard and a head of broccoli in the bottom of the fridge that had seen better days. At the weekend I fancied a spicy golden soup to use one of my lovely Crown Prince squashes, still going strong in storage in the cool conservatory. They are so large that I only needed half for the soup, giving the other half to my son to take back to London. Browsing through my cookery books, I came across this recipe on a tiny newspaper cutting. I’m not sure where it came from originally, but it was just what I had in mind. You could, of course, use butternut squash too; in fact that’s what the original recipe specifies.

Squash & Coconut Soup – serves 6-8

Squash and coconut soup

1 large squash (butternut or Crown Prince) – you need 900g – 1kg peeled and seeded flesh
2-3 tbsp olive (or vegetable) oil
2 onions, chopped
2 sticks celery, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
generous knob of root ginger, peeled and chopped
2 red or green chillis, chopped (to taste)
zest and juice of 1-2 limes
2 bay leaves (or Kaffir lime leaves if you have them!)
1 tbsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp coriander seeds
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 litre stock (turkey, chicken or vegetable)
400ml can coconut milk
Chopped coriander to garnish

Prepare the squash by peeling (I use a Y-shaped vegetable peeler), removing the seeds and chopping into rough chunks. Soften in the oil in a large pan. Add the chopped onions, celery, garlic, ginger and chillis and continue cooking gently for 10 minutes or so. Crush the cumin and coriander seeds with a pestle and mortar, then add to the vegetables with the turmeric and lime zest. Add the bay leaves (or chopped lime leaves if using) and seasoning. Add the stock, bring to the boil and cook for 20-30 minutes. Allow to cool slightly, then purée in a liquidizer and return to the pan. Add the coconut milk and reheat. Adjust the consistency by adding more stock if necessary. Garnish with coriander leaves to serve.

Eynsford walk Boxing Day 2017
Boxing Day walk around Eynsford – photo courtesy of James Cox

Thanks to my son for the beautiful photos of the dogs perched on their hay bales and our crisp and sunny Boxing Day walk around Eynsford. The weather may not have been brilliant over the Christmas break, but at least we got a couple of nice walks in – and perfect weather for soup when we got back!

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

The Great Autumn Clearout

Cotinus Grace

Newly returned from a work trip to Spain, I’ve realised yet again that there are very few good times for a gardener to go away. Poor weather and pressures of work before I left meant that the allotment grass didn’t get cut and I managed very little tidying of the beds other than general harvesting. It was a similar tale at home. Two weeks later, both garden and allotment are looking very sorry for themselves with overlong grass, weeds aplenty and dead foliage everywhere you look. On the up side, there were still dahlias for the picking, but the calabrese and caulifower have gone just too far and will need to be converted to soup pronto! Much as I love homegrown calabrese, it is a problem in that it all comes at once – and there’s a limit to how much one person can eat. I’d already given lots away to family and friends before I went, but the remaining three heads should really have been harvested a week earlier. Never mind, with any luck there will be lots of delicious side shoots from the main stem if the weather remains mild over the next few weeks.

Broccoli and Stilton soup with scones

Broccoli & Stilton soup was the obvious choice, accompanied on this occasion by Stilton & apple scones to use up the rest of the Stilton, which I tend not to eat by itself, although I adore its savoury taste in cooking. I adapted my usual cheese & apple scone recipe by replacing Cheddar with Stilton, and added chopped sage instead of thyme – yum! The cauliflower too will go into Cauliflower cheese soup before the week is out.

Also in the fridge on my return and in need of using up fairly quickly were the peppers I’d harvested before I left, and a bag full of beetroot and carrots, not quite so urgent, as they keep, but still ripe for using. I had a yearning for a mixed vegetable stew of some kind and remembered a favourite Nigella Lawson recipe from her Feast book for a Moroccan vegetable stew with aromatic lamb meatballs. This makes huge quantities of the vegetable stew and is ideal for stocking up the freezer – very useful given that my son was dog-sitting for part of my absence and had worked his way through the contents of the freezer! That’s precisely what it’s there for, but it’s always nice to stock it up again with fresh produce before the winter. Nigella’s original recipe uses swede and parsnip, neither of which I have this year, but I figured that it would work equally well with beetroot, squash and peppers – which I had in abundance.

Moroccan Vegetable Stew with Aromatic Lamb Meatballs – serves 8-10

3 red onions
3 sticks celery
4 carrots
3-4 beetroot
3 cloves garlic
Olive oil
1 butternut squash, peeled and seeds removed
2-3 red peppers
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground ginger
100g dried apricots
2 cans chopped tomatoes
750ml vegetable stock
2 tsp rose harissa (or use normal harissa and add a couple of drops of rose water)
1 fresh pomegranate
Fresh parsley (or coriander) to serve

For the Lamb Meatballs:
500g minced lamb
1 leek
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground allspice
3 tbsp semolina
1 egg
Oil to fry

Couscous to serve

For the vegetable stew: peel and roughly chop 2 of the onions, 2 of the carrots and 2 of the beetroot (use gloves unless you want to look as though you’ve been in a massacre!), then put in a food processor with the chopped garlic. Process to a fine mush, making sure you scrape down the sides so nothing is missed. Alternatively, chop finely by hand, but this is quite a large volume!

Grated veg for Moroccan stew

Heat a generous glug of olive oil in a large casserole dish (I use my trusty Le Creuset) and tip in the finely chopped vegetables to soften gently. Meanwhile, peel the remaining carrots, beetroot, squash and peppers and cut into small chunks. (The original recipe uses swede and parsnip here, so you can improvise with whatever you have/like.) Add these to the pan and continue cooking to soften, adding the turmeric, cumin and coriander as you go. Snip the apricots into halves or quarters with scissors and add to the pan. Stir in the chopped tomatoes, stock, seasoning and harissa (plus rose water if using separately), then bring to the boil. Once it comes to the boil, turn down the heat and simmer for an hour or so, stirring occasionally to check that it’s not sticking.

While the stew is simmering, make the meatballs: put the minced lamb into a food processor (you don’t need to wash the bowl after processing the veg, as a bit of beetroot just adds to the effect), add the chopped leek, spices, seasoning, semolina and the egg, then process until thoroughly blended and the leek is finely chopped. Transfer to a bowl, cover and refrigerate for half an hour to firm up. After chilling, line a baking sheet with clingfilm and roll the mixture into small balls (about a teaspoon or so in each, like a large marble) with damp hands. You should end up with 70-75 meatballs.

Raw meatballs

Heat more oil in a frying pan, then add the meat balls in two batches. Fry until golden brown on all sides, then transfer to another baking sheet lined with kitchen towel to absorb any excess oil.

Moroccan stew cooking

When the stew has cooked for an hour, add the meatballs and continue cooking to heat through. Meanwhile, prepare couscous to serve ( I use 60g couscous and 100 ml boiling water per person, with added couscous spice (or use individual spices of your choice) and a dash of olive oil. Add the water to the couscous with the spice and oil, stir, cover and leave for 10-15 minutes, then fluff up with a fork and serve.)

Cut the pomegranate in half and hit firmly with a wooden spoon over the pan to make the jewel-like seeds fall out. You may need to scrape out the last few, but this is usually quite effective – and satisfying! Pick out any white membrane that may have fallen into the dish too. Sprinkle the stew with chopped parsley or coriander and serve.

Freezes beautifully too.

Moroccan veg stew with meatballs

A peck of peppers, anyone?

Pepper and chilli harvest

The weather has been unremittingly awful this September so far, so much so that it feels as though it’s a good month later! Whereas normally I’d be taking my pepper and chilli plants out of the conservatory in October, I found myself emptying them today as they were covered in whitefly and the atmosphere is so damp, they were starting to cause mould growth on the windowledges and windows – yuk! I experienced this once before when I went away on holiday in late September and forgot to leave the window vents open: damp + plants breathing meant my window ledges were green by the time I got home! Nothing that a spot of bleach couldn’t cure, but still – not very nice.

Time to take out those plants that have finished (aubergines, sadly – although they’ve been super-productive this year, so I can’t complain), harvest any ripe fruit on the chillis and peppers, and spray the rest of the plants with soft soap outdoors. I had intended bringing them back in having washed all the surfaces down, but in the end, they got so wet in today’s torrential rain that I’ve left them out; it’s unlikely to freeze, I think, and I really don’t want the same problem again. This is the issue with using a conservatory for cropping plants: when they’re in full flow, it’s fine, but as they start to go yellow and die back, you really don’t want to look at them any more. Fortunately, the basil plants are still looking good and should continue for another month or so.

So what to do with all those peppers? The chillis will be dried and stored in a basket for autumn/winter use, but the peppers won’t keep for long. In the end, I decided on a roast pepper & tomato soup that I’ve been meaning to try for a while from the Covent Garden Soup Book, an old favourite of mine.

Roasted Red Pepper & Tomato Soup – served 5-6

Roast pepper and tomato soup

6 red peppers, halved and seeds removed
8 tomatoes, skinned and halved
glug of olive oil
handful of basil leaves
1 tsp sugar
1 fat garlic clove, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 litre vegetable stock
dash of balsamic vinegar to taste

Pre-heat the oven to 180°C/Gas 5. Place the red peppers skin side up in a large roasting tin. Add the skinned tomatoes (I usually place them in a bowl and add boiling water, leave for a couple of minutes, then drain off the water, after which the skins should peel off easily), cut-side up and sprinkle with sugar, chopped garlic, chopped basil leaves, a glug of olive oil and seasoning. Roast for 50 minutes to 1 hour until nicely charred around the edges.

Meanwhile, cook the onion in a large pan with more olive oil until softened (15 minutes or so). Add the roast vegetables, then the stock and bring to the boil. Cook for 5-20 minutes to allow the flavours to meld, then cool in the pan. Liquidize in two batches and add a dash of balsamic vinegar to taste.

Another absolute classic I try to make every year when I harvest my own fruit is Delia Smith’s classic Piedmont peppers – if you haven’t experienced them, I can only recommend you to try – so good! It turns out that this is originally an Elizabeth David recipe, so has a fine pedigree. When you taste them, you’ll realise why….

Delia’s Piedmont Peppers – serves 4 as a starter
(but scale up or down as you require!)

Piedmont peppers

4 red peppers
4 medium tomatoes
8 tinned anchovy fillets
2 cloves garlic, chopped
handful of basil leaves
black pepper
olive oil

Halve the peppers lengthways, keeping the stalk on. Place skin side down in a large roasting tray. Skin the tomatoes (I don’t always bother, I must admit, but if the skin bothers you, please do!), quarter and place two quarters in each pepper half. Snip the anchovy fillets into small pieces and distribute between the peppers. Add the chopped basil and garlic, season with pepper and drizzle with olive oil (the original recipe suggests 1 dsp per pepper half, but I just pour by eye). Roast in the oven at 160°C/Gas 4 for 50 minutes to 1 hour, until starting to char round the edges.

Serve as a starter or a summer salad, with plenty of good bread to mop up the divine juices.

A citrussy sort of week…

Shed and clematis

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

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

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

For the hollandaise sauce:

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

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

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

Hollandaise sauce

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

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

Roast asparagus with pasta and hollandaise

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

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

Velvety Leek & Potato Soup – serves 6

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

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

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

Soft Lemon & Almond Ricciarelli – makes 20-24

Lemon and almond cookies

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

Line 3 baking trays with baking parchment.

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

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

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

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

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

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
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