Courgette humble-pie

My life has been consumed with creating the brochure for Birmingham Weekender. At this point in time I genuinely ask myself which is harder: delivering a major festival, or delivering a baby. I suspect the baby will win but at least labour is over within a day or two…. Brochure creation for festivals goes on for WEEKS, requires significant skills in diplomacy and organisation (there’s A LOT of people involved with festivals), and a level of attention to detail that provokes 3am wakefulness and a several-day-long headache (though this might all be good practice for the life-changes ahead). Every summer, without fail, I ask myself why on earth I work on festivals…and then the event happens, everyone has a great time, and the pain is forgotten. Incidentally, anyone spotting the typo on this sample page gets a proofing high-five from me.

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This has taken over my life but the end is in sight

Brochure is booked onto the presses Monday morning, after which I fully intend to get a bit more balance in my life. In the last week or two there’s been some rain (hurray!) and the allotment is actually perking up! The cornflowers and borage are beautiful, attracting a hum of bees, and we have the first zinnia and sunflowers.

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The cornflowers and borage attract a constant hum of bees

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Sunflowers are finally perking up

It’s the start of the courgette glut season so there’s several of these every visit, plus tubs of blueberries and enough greens now to keep us going.

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Despite my winging there are pickings!

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This is what happens when you plant courgettes too close together

I do need to eat some humble pie however. Every year my parents manage to grow some insane courgettes, at least a foot long, and every year I mock: “How do you let this happen?!”. Well. Work is preventing me from doing a daily courgette check and the result is this: veg as long as my foot, and pattypan bigger than my hand. This is not ideal: courgettes need to be small, in my view, about the length of my palm (and I have small hands). The big ones quickly turn mushy and are nowhere near as good.

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Courgettes on the left are a perfect size; courgettes in the middle are what happens when you ignore them for 48 hours! Plus a few patty-pan with the same issue

Thankfully the Greeks have a solution to the insane-courgette-glut: PIE. When I mentioned to Matt that I planned to make a courgette-based pastry he screwed up his nose and winged that he didn’t want to eat anything vegan. Fear not. This pie involves eggs, cream, cheese, butter…all the greats. It’s a bit like spanakopita, but made with slow-cooked courgettes rather than spinach, and it manages to be fresh and rich all at the same time. Eat is warm for dinner with a tomato salad and then have the leftovers cold during the week. They’re clever, the Greeks.

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Greek courgette pie

Greek Courgette Pie

From Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook

First, take a kilo of courgettes, grate them into a big bowl, add a good pinch of salt and leave them to sit for an hour or so. This helps get rid of excess moisture. Tip the courgettes into a colander and give them a good squeeze until they’re as dry as you can get them.

Meanwhile, chop an onion and fry gently in a little olive oil until soft. Tip the courgettes into a pan and cook for about 15 minutes until soft and the excess liquid has evaporated. Tip the veg into a bowl and leave to cool slightly.

Meanwhile, chop a small bunch of parsley, a small bunch of dill, a small handful of mint leaves and 3 spring onions, and add to the courgettes. In a separate bowl, whisk 3 eggs with 100ml double cream, and add to the courgettes. Crumble in 200g feta cheese. Season with pepper and a little salt, and stir gently to combine.

Now it’s time to make the pie! Melt about 100g butter and have ready a pack of filo pastry. Preheat the oven to 190c, and line a small roasting tray with foil and baking parchment, to make the pie easy to remove when it’s cooked.

To assemble the pie, lay a sheet of filo into the lined roasting tray, brush with butter, then top with another sheet of filo. Keep going until you have 4 layers of filo.

Gently tip the courgette mixture into the middle of the pastry and spread out slightly, leaving a good margin of pastry around the edges. Fold the edges of the pastry up over the courgettes.

Now top the courgettes with another 3 or 4 layers of filo, brushing each layer with butter as you go. Top the pie with another layer of butter and sprinkle with sesame seeds.

Bake for about 25 minutes – it may need longer. It’s done with the pie feels firm and is golden brown. Leave to cool for about 30 minutes before eating.

Also:

Harvesting: Courgettes, pattypan, lettuce, chard, oregano, sweetpeas, cornflowers, lavender, borage, blackcurrants, blueberries

Also cooking: Nectarine & blueberry muffins

Gooseberry, strawberry & almond crumble

The oppressive heat, horrible things in the news, and long, intense work hours have got the better of me this week. I received a work email on Friday lunchtime that, in ordinary circumstances, would have made me raise an eyebrow and swear. Except on this occasion I read it, took an in-breath, and burst into tears. Note: I very rarely do this. I’ve studied yoga for twelve years in an effort to NOT do this! (I am willing to grant that pregnancy hormone might also be at play.) So I decided to be my own HR department, slapped the laptop shut, then headed to the allotment for an hour of pottering and seed sowing. I’ve learned that a very important part of being your own boss is learning the art of self-care: I can’t hope to work effectively if I am working to exhaustion. Plus I don’t get paid enough to put up with excess levels of BS.

At the start of the week, the greenhouse thermometer was reading a whopping 50c – now that is HOT. I thought that would spell disaster for all things green but actually, the tomatoes and squash are thriving and the sweetpeas are doing well. It’s a different story for the beans, greens and cosmos, which remain stunted. I’ve decided to cut my losses so pulled up the bolted summer rocket, forked over the ground and started again: Friday’s melt-down resulted in a productive and satisfying hour sowing neat lines of lettuce, chard, parsnips, rocket, kale (for salads) and green beans. A positive outcome….if they grow!

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Scorchio!

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The courgettes and squash are thriving, and in a week we’ll be inundated

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But beans are a different story – the plants are just a few inches tall, my hand here for scale

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The ‘wild’ flowers I started from seed have come true, great for bees, but the cosmos plants are small and unpromising. I’m really saddened by this, it seems that cosmos are a vital part of my allotment happiness.

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Getting several posies of sweetpeas a week, though only one single cosmos bloom so far!

It’s soft-fruit-glut-stress season. We were in Tamworth yesterday and Matt’s mum passed us a few bags of rhubarb and gooseberries from their allotment – she’d texted earlier to ask if I wanted any and I of course said yes but, and I quote, ‘not lots’. There are only two of us after all. But soft-fruit-glut-stress is a universal experience and so I quite understood when we were handed a few kilos of goosegogs and more rhubarb than I’d get through in a year. No-one likes waste. I’ve been plotting to alleviate my own soft-fruit-glut-stress by inviting my friend’s kids over to pick blackcurrants as an after-school activity (hopefully Helen won’t swear too much when she realises that this activity could lead to hours topping and tailing fruit before sweating over boiling vats of jam).

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Tamworth goosegogs and rhubarb

The Tamworth gooseberries are fab: plump and fat and firm. I also had a few strawberries kicking around from the allotment that needed using up and, inspired by last weekend’s forays into redcurrant and strawberry jam, wondered if the sweet strawbs would be a good foil to the sharp green gooseberries. Only one way to find out: gooseberry & strawberry crumble it is.

I don’t have any quantities for this, just a method that can be adapted according to whatever fruit is in season. It’s how my Mum makes crumble, and it’s probably what her Mum did before her. First, get enough berries to fill your crumble dish to the brim (they’ll cook down lots). Make sure the berries are hulled / topped-and-tailed, and pop them into a mixing bowl.

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For a summer crumble, prep the fruit and place in a mixing bowl

Add cornflour (to thicken the juices) and sugar to the fruit. For this quantity (feeds 4) I added 5 dessertspoons of caster sugar and two of cornflour, but if you like it sweeter then just add more sugar; I like my crumble on the sharp side. If I’d had any oranges lying around then I would have scrapped in some zest here too.

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Toss in sugar and cornflour, and perhaps orange zest if you’ve got some lying around

Pile the fruit into your oven-proof crumble dish, then make the crumble. Rub 150g unsalted butter into 300g plain flour until the mixture looks like fine breadcrumbs, then add 150g caster sugar and a handful of flaked almonds for crunch. Cover the fruit with a thick layer of crumble, pressing the topping down fairly firmly. There will likely be leftover crumble mix, in which case it can go into the freezer for another day. Bake the crumble at 170c for about an hour, or until the fruit is bubbling up the sides and the crumble is browned. The cooking time depends on the surface area of your crumble dish – the wider the dish, the quicker the crumble will cook.

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Top the fruit with almondy crumble mix and bake for about an hour

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Pink and bubbling!

I think this is better at room temperature than boiling hot, but each to their own. Cold runny cream is definitely a must. Gooseberries and strawberries…the essence of mid-summer.

Gooseberry, strawberry & almond crumble

Enough strawberries and gooseberries to fill your crumble dish

Caster sugar

Cornflour

Orange zest

for the crumble:

300g plain flour

150g cold unsalted butter

150g caster sugar

Handful flaked almonds

Prep the fruit: top and tail the gooseberries, and hull the strawberries. Put them in a mixing bowl and mix with cornflour and caster sugar. Quantities will depend on how much fruit you’ve got but for four people, I’d use 2 heaped dessertspoons of cornflour and 5 dessertspoons sugar.

Make the crumble: rub the butter into the flour until it resembles fine breadcrumbs, then stir in the sugar and almonds. Top the fruit with the crumble and press down fairly firmly. Any leftover crumble mixture can be frozen for another day.

Bake at 170c for about an hour until the fruit is bubbling and the topping is golden. Cool slightly before eating.

Also this week:

Sowed: Chard, lettuce, Tuscan kale, Frills of Hex kale, parsnips, summer rocket, green beans, sweetcorn, basil, parsley
Harvesting: Sweetpeas, strawberries, winter rocket, baby spinach, last broadbeans (Note to self: grow at least 30 broadbean plants next year, we’ve had far too few this year)
Reading: A little history of British gardening by Jenny Uglow; The first forty days: The essential art of nourishing the new mother by Heng Ou – a book which draws on traditional wisdom to nourish the new family (physically and emotionally) in the first days postpartum. I love this book, which was a birthday present from my friend Claire, but Heng’s recipe for placenta-cacao smoothie is not one that I’ll be making anytime soon.
Also: A lot of work (brochure writing, budgets, print jobs etc etc). Birthday gathering at Claire’s complete with Colin the Caterpillar and beauty tips from Joan Collins. Tentative foray into researching baby equipment (am totally shocked at how expensive buggies are). Matt’s been working 15 hour+ days for several weeks.

Strawberry & redcurrant jam

The first harvests of the year are coming, and it’s a mixed bag. The sweetpeas and soft fruit are abundant – redcurrants and strawberries, with the promise of blackcurrants and blueberries to come – but the greens and cut flowers are far from promising. Instead of the armfuls of greens that I’ve gathered in previous years, this summer the spinach has bolted before it’s reached 6 inches high, most of the lettuce has failed and the rocket is already in flower. The cosmos is tiny and the sunflowers leggy!

I raised our seedlings in the ‘sun room’ this year to make my life easier, but perhaps they would have been better off beginning life in the greenhouse….or perhaps it’s the lack of proper horse poo from Chappers’ field that’s the problem (we didn’t get any this year, partly because I was laid low with morning sickness from January to March, partly because it’s such a huge effort). But I’ve learnt that, when allotmenting, I have to put my expectations to one side: we both work (more than) full-time, I’m with child, we can’t use hosepipes, it gets cold then hot then windy. I can fuss and preen over a plant and it can fail, and the things that I ignore can yield extraordinary amounts. Plus not all is lost: the allotment can chuck up surprises and it may still all come good.

In the meantime, the first sweetpeas of the year are vivid and fragrant.

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First pick of sweetpeas

A few weeks ago I picked my first two strawberries, sweet and juicy, and I’m now collecting several punnets a week. They’re better macerated or turned into compote than eaten raw – on their own they have a curiously bitter aftertaste and don’t last longer than a day – but I can’t complain about the quantities.

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From a tiny start we now have a crescendo of strawberries!

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Yesterday’s picking of broadbeans, strawberries and redcurrants

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90 minutes later, beans are podded and fruit is prepped

In Cornwall last week I had a brilliant redcurrant and raspberry jam with my scone and cream. I’m not a massive jam lover, but this one was memorable – the sharp redcurrants cut through the insanely sweet raspberries and balanced it all out. I presume that the same effect could be had by matching redcurrants with other sweet berries and so, with all these strawberries, there was one obvious bit of summer cooking to be done: Strawberry & redcurrant jam it is!

First, place 700g granulated or preserving sugar into a bowl and pop into a low oven (160c) for ten minutes to heat up.

Next, warm 500g halved (or quartered if they’re massive) strawberries and 225g redcurrants into a preserving pan, and bring to a simmer over a medium heat. Lots of liquid will come out of the fruit and the berries will soften.

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Place strawberries and redcurrants in a preserving pan and bring to a simmer

When you’ve got a soft liquidy mass, add the juice of one lemon, another 375g strawberries, 125g redcurrants and the sugar. Adding the fruit in two parts means you get nice chunky lumps in the finished jam. Stir over a low heat until the sugar has totally dissolved, and then bring to a boil. Have a jam thermometer ready!

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Add lemon juice, sugar and the remaining fruit – heat gently to dissolve the sugar

As the jam boils, spoon off any foamy scum that comes to the top. Be careful at this stage as the jam is hot hot hot, and will bubble up alarmingly in the pan.

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Bring to the boil and be sure to spoon off any foam that rise to the surface

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Cook until the jam reaches about 110c

Once the jam has reached 110c turn off the heat and leave the jam to stand for ten minutes or so. At this point prepare the jam jars: wash in soapy water, rinse, then heat in a hot oven (200c) until dry. Always put hot jam into hot jars, else the glass may crack. I use a jam funnel to transfer the jam to the jars, but you could use a spoon (if so expect it to be messy). Cover the jars with wax discs and cellophane tops, then leave to cool completely.

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Transfer the jam into warm sterilised jam jars, cover then leave to cool

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Strawberry & redcurrant jam!

And behold, you have strawberry and redcurrant jam! A taste of June on the allotment.

Strawberry & redcurrant jam
Recipe adapted from Good Housekeeping

700g granulated or preserving sugar

875g strawberries, hulled and halved

350g redcurrants, stripped from their stalks

Juice of 1 lemon

You’ll also need a preserving pan or big stock pot, jam thermometer, a funnel, four jam jars and lids.

Warm the sugar in the oven (160c) for about ten minutes. Place 500g strawberries and 225g redcurrants in the preserving pan over a low heat and cook until the juice runs and the berries soften.

Add the remaining strawberries and redcurrants, lemon juice and sugar to the pan. Stir and cook over a low heat until the sugar is totally dissolved. Bring to the boil and cook until the mixture reaches 110c, about 20 minutes. Spoon off any foamy scum that comes to the top. Once the jam has come to temperature, turn off the heat and leave to cool slightly.

Whilst the jam is cooling prepare the jars: wash in hot soapy water, rinse, then dry in a hot oven (200c). Using a jam funnel, spoon the jam into the warmed jars, cover with waxed discs and cellophane tops, then leave to cool completely before eating.

Elderflower cordial

Anyone with half an eye can’t fail to miss the abundance of elderflowers that are in bloom right now. This is a brilliant year for elderflowers! I’m seeing masses of white froth in both the city and the country, including on an irritatingly-out-of-reach tree on the allotments.

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Elderflowers are in abundance right now

I think there’s another fortnight of elderflower foraging to be had before the flowers turn, and of course the best thing to make is cordial. I usually find my flowers from Evendine Lane on the Malvern Halls and then make this in bulk, storing bottles in the freezer to last me through the summer. Obviously it’s a great summer drink but I also use this cordial to flavour sorbet and ice-cream, and to marinate berries for a summer dessert.

Make sure your elderflowers are in full bloom (else the cordial will taste ‘green’) but not going over (else it will taste of cat wee – unpleasant but true). It’s best to pick the flowers on a sunny day when the pollen is at its most fragrant.

The only equipment required is a saucepan, sieve and muslin (or you could use a clean jaycloth). The citric acid is a preservative but also gives a lovely citrussy-tang to the cordial.

Elderflower cordial
Makes 1 litre

600g granulated sugar

600ml water (I use Malvern water, obviously)

10 elderflower heads

2 lemons, thinly sliced

1 lime, thinly sliced

15g citric acid

Over a gentle heat, melt the sugar into the water until fully dissolved, and then bring to the boil. Tip the elderflowers, lemons, lime and citric acid into the syrup and remove from the heat immediately. Cover and leave to steep for at least 24 hours. Place a muslin cloth into a sieve over a large jug and strain the cordial, then transfer to clean bottles and store in the fridge (or freezer). It will last a few months.

Chocolate crispy cakes

After last weekend’s August-like temperatures, we’ve dipped back to the more-normal low teens. It’s not a bad thing – too much heat and all the delicate spring flowers go over in a heartbeat. As it is the daffodils are now nearing their finish point, the forget-me-nots are dusting beds with delicate blue, and bluebells are nearly out. This wild garlic will flower within a week, which means that it’s past its peak. Yesterday I picked a load to be chopped into butter as flavouring for my Easter turkey.

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Wild garlic, just coming into flower

There’s a lot going on at the moment – why is it that intense work periods seems to coincide with holidays? It means that even when you’re off, you’re not really off, because something is either needed urgently or the down-time is being used for a bit of workplace problem solving. The other day I came home after a particularly difficult meeting, dumped the laptop, and right there-and-then whisked up a batch of Easter chocolate crispy cakes. Cooking doesn’t make the crap go away but it does release a pressure valve.

There must be no-one on the planet who doesn’t enjoy a crispy cake, no matter how grown up and sophisticated you are. They fall into that litany of Easter cooking which in my house will also include one or more of the following: a gooey chocolate cake covered with ganache and chocolate eggs; Easter biscuits; a roast dinner of some persuasion; spanakopita (there’s a close connection in my mind between Easter and Greek religion/tradition), a proper cream-based dessert (e.g. pavlova) and of course hot cross buns.

Like most people I don’t follow a Lenten fast, but I do think of Easter as a time for feasting. It’s better than Christmas – no stress over presents, it’s warmer and lighter and you can cook without all that pressure to do it all ‘perfectly’. I’ve been theming my yoga classes around Easter, seasonal change and fertility all week (lots of Tree and Goddess poses); all part of noticing and honouring the change of the seasons.

So, for – I quote – “the best chocolate crispy cake I’ve ever eaten” (says Matt) you need to melt together in a large saucepan 2oz unsalted butter, 2oz sieved icing sugar, 2 tablespoons golden syrup, 2 tablespoons sieved cocoa (I use Bournville) and a tiny pinch of salt. Give it a good stir until it’s smooth and combined.

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Melt together butter, golden syrup, cocoa and icing sugar

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Make sure it’s smooth and runny

Whilst your coating is melting, place 12 paper cases into their appropriate baking tray (I make muffin-size cakes). Measure 4oz cornflakes or rice crispies. Incidentally I have seen loads of recipes that call for shredded wheats here, as they look more like birds-nests when finished and are healthier. I can only ask that you don’t go down this route, because they taste horrible. It’s Easter, let’s indulge a little.

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Have ready your cornflakes

Tip the cornflakes or rice crispies into the chocolate mix, give it a thorough mixture, and that’s it – child’s play.

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Mix it all together

Obviously it’s not Easter without a few mini eggs!

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You’ll need some of these…

You need to work fairly quickly to spoon the mixture into paper cases, as it does set rapidly. Make a well in the centre and press down your eggs and then pop into the fridge to set.

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Et voila, chocolate crispy cakes for Easter

I’m not sure if it’s the whack of cocoa in these cakes or the gooey syrup, but they are epic. Not just for the kids!

Also this week:
Allotment: Matt began tidying up the grass edges, emptied the compost bins and more digging, digging, digging.
Sowing: Sweetcorn, rocket, lettuce mixes and I will start the sunflowers this week
Harvesting: Lots of tulips!

Baked rhubarb with orange & honey

I spent the weekend at one of my favourite places in Britain: Rivendell retreat centre in Sussex. Rivendell – yes, it’s named after the Lord of the Rings, but we’ll overlook that – is a place of perfect peace. It’s a grand old Victorian rectory set in a few acres of garden and woodland, run as a Buddhist retreat centre. There are no phones, no email, no telly, no radio. The daily schedule can be condensed thus: early to rise, meditation/yoga, food, free time, more meditation/yoga, food, early to bed. Which to some may sound like new-fangled purgatory but after feeling so poorly since Christmas, I have come back from my few days on the South Downs feeling as if the world has gone from black-and-white into Technicolor.

It helps that the spring weather has finally decided to join us. Rivendell’s woodland was carpeted with daffodils and primroses, dotting the ground with patches of vivid yellow amidst the buff leafless trees.

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A host of golden daffodils

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Unusual pink primroses amidst the yellow

The joy of slowing down, if only for a few days, is that you begin to notice those things that could so easily be missed. Wandering round the grounds at 7.30am (Reader: 7.30am is not a time that normally exists for me) I watched a blackbird having an energetic bath in a stone trough. Later a bright yellow butterfly meandered across the path, resting on a nearby roof to bask in the sun. Small fleeting moments.

Speaking of fleeting moments, and of spring colour, now is the time to be buying up forced rhubarb. It’s been in the shops for the last few weeks, all pretty in shades of pastel pink, but its season is short. Forced rhubarb is totally different from the thick stringy stuff that emerges later in the summer: it’s delicate and less sour. Along with the zesty citrus fruits that I talked about last week, rhubarb is there to put some colour and zing into the early spring kitchen.

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First spring sticks of forced rhubarb

You can of course use rhubarb for many things – pies, crumbles – but I like to bake a load with orange and honey and then keep it in the fridge for impromptu desserts and breakfasts. To bake rhubarb, simply slice the stems into a shallow dish and drizzle with honey and the zest and juice of an orange. The quantities will depend on the amount of rhubarb you have and the level of sweetness that you prefer, but for these seven stems I used one orange and two dessertspoons of honey.

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Slice the rhubarb into decent-sized chunks

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Drizzle with honey and the zest and juice of an orange

Rhubarb does not need a lot of liquid within which to bake, so don’t feel that you need to add any more than a few tablespoons. Once all your stems have been anointed with honey and juice, bake at 180c for twenty minutes, until just tender but not falling apart. You’ll see that it will have produced its own syrup. Leave to cool and then place in the fridge.

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Baked rhubarb, still holding its shape and with plenty of syrup on the side

So what to do with your baked creation? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Instant rhubarb & ginger trifle: Layer dollops of ready-made thick custard into glasses with rhubarb and crushed ginger biscuits, finishing with a spoonful of cream if you’re feeling decadent.
  • Rhubarb yoghurt: Mix thick Greek yoghurt with rhubarb and honey, perhaps topping with granola. Great for a quick breakfast.
  • Rhubarb bellini: Place a spoonful of rhubarb syrup in the bottom of a champagne flute, adding a slice or two of rhubarb if liked. Top up slowly with champagne or sparking wine. Utterly delicious.
  • Quick crumble: If, like me, you have raw crumble mix in the freezer, then make up a quick crumble. Place the rhubarb in a suitable oven-proof dish, spoon crumble mix on top and bake at 180c until crisp and golden.
  • Cakes and muffins: Add a few slices of rhubarb to your favourite plain sponge or muffin mix for a pretty-pink bake. If you’ve got any blush oranges lying around, you could then make a pink icing to decorate.

Blush orange jelly

There are definite signs of life beginning to emerge. In our back garden, the first yellow daffodils are about to break, and the leaves of the blueberry bush are uncrinkling like a butterfly from its chrysalis, purple and green. I visited a garden in Warwickshire on Saturday and, whilst the borders are mostly still bleak, there are shots of colour if you’re willing to look.

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Dusty-purple hellebores

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A carpet of blue scilla

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A clump of snowdrops, now beginning to fade

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Bobbing yellow narcissi are beginning to make themselves noticed

Speaking of colour, now is the perfect time to pep up the fruit bowl with citrus. It seems incongruous that these sunshine fruits should be at their best between January and March; nature’s way of taking the edge off winter, perhaps. Now’s the time to snap up oranges in all their beauty, not to mention gorgeous fat lemons and limes.

My discovery this year has been the blush orange – lighter in colour to the classic blood orange, and marbled with pink and claret, like a Mediterranean sunset. You can currently pick them up at Waitrose (who, incidentally, are also selling bergamots, those rare oranges used to scent perfumes) for less than £3 a bag. Snap them up whilst you can!

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New Favourite: blush oranges

I have been having these raw, but the vivid colour of the blush orange makes them great for cooking. Last week I mixed the juice of one blush orange with a few tablespoons of icing sugar to make a candy-pink icing for a carrot cake – pretty as a picture.

But my real favourite is a wibbly-wobbly blush orange jelly, made from fresh juice. This knocks that nasty packet stuff out of the water and is incredibly easy.

To make two servings, simply squeeze five blush oranges and one lemon into a jug through a sieve (to remove any pips), then measure the juice. We need about 300ml, so if it’s short, top it up with water. Meanwhile take 1 and a half (or two if you like a firm set) sheets of gelatine and leave them to soak in cold water for a few minutes, to soften.

Heat the orange juice in a small pan with a tablespoon of sugar, or more to taste – I like mine on the sharp side – and when it’s hot but not boiling, add the gelatine and stir until it is completely dissolved. Then pour your jellies into a glass, pop in the fridge, and leave to set.

I like to serve my jelly with a trickle of cream on top, but they’re great eaten just as they are. You can of course make this with regular oranges, but the blush variety give this gorgeous deep red colour. A beautifully light, zesty dessert…and it’s good for you!

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A glass of shimmering red jelly

Palak paneer

I found the courage on Sunday to head into the chill and take a look at the mid-winter allotment. I’m aware that it doesn’t sound remotely brave to go look at one’s land, but MY GOD that padlock gets cold in January. One touch and you are in fear of frostbite. Well, it’s all still there: the so-called ‘hardy’ chicories have not survived the frosts, and all of the remaining over-wintering chard and greens have been gnawed to their ribs by the pigeons. The raspberries are ready for their winter chop-back but that can wait for another day, when it’s a little warmer. As long as the waterbutts are frozen over, it’s too cold for any serious grafting.

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January on the allotment

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Frozen waterbutt

Last week we had friends for dinner and – we being 21st century metropolitans – this included 1 vegetarian, 1 nut allergy, 1 pregnant woman, 1 person-on-a-diet and 2 ‘normals’. There’s only one option in situations such as this: curry (the best vegetarian food on earth, in my view) & buffet (so everyone can help themselves). That may read like two options so I’ll write it again: CURRY BUFFET.

I whisked up a sizeable portion of Bengali egg curry, a batch of tandoori-style chicken, carrot salad and a pile of palak paneer. Add a few bags of samosa, pakora and chapati from the wonderful Chandigarh’s on Bearwood Road, and we had a good feed.

The palak paneer recipe is yet another that comes from my friend Tune, and is a great staple for curry nights. It’s a simple dish of spiced spinach cooked down with chunks of paneer (fresh cheese) and finished with cream or yoghurt. Incidentally, I always thought that saag paneer referred to the spinach-with-cheese combo but Tune put me right on that front: palak means spinach, whilst saag refers to general greens. Excellent knowledge from my Indian kitchen guru.

In summer I would use fresh spinach from the allotment for this but it’s January, so frozen will do just fine. To feed 6 as part of a buffet, take 8 ‘lumps’ of frozen spinach and leave at room temperature to defrost for an hour or two. If using fresh, take a large colander-full of leaves, blanch in boiling water and drain incredibly well.

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Frozen spinach is fine for this dish

To make the curry base, whizz up ginger and garlic in a mini food processor, then soften it over a low heat in ghee or vegetable oil with a large teaspoon of ground cumin. Once it’s fragrant, tip in the spinach – it doesn’t matter if it’s still a little frozen. Pop the lid on and cook down for ten minutes or so, until the spinach turns a shade darker in colour.

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Fry garlic, ginger and cumin

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Add the spinach and cook down for ten minutes

After ten minutes, tip in half a tin of chopped tomatoes (or three large, fresh tomatoes, chopped) with a good pinch of salt, pop the lid back on and cook for another ten minutes.

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Add half a tin of chopped tomatoes and cook for 10 more minutes

When it’s all cooked down, add a dollop of cream or yoghurt and stir through. The spinach can be kept like this (i.e. chunky) or for a more traditional finish, take your hand blender and blitz it to a puree.

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Then add a dollop of cream or yoghurt

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If you prefer a smooth texture, blitz with a hand blender

Meanwhile, take a block of paneer, cube it, then brown in a little oil for a few seconds until golden. Add the paneer to the spinach with a sprinkle of garam masala and ta da – palak paneer is yours.

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Add browned paneer to the spinach, heat through then serve

Eagle-eyed readers will note that there is no chilli in this, and no gluten for that matter, so it’s light and easy on the digestive system. I also suspect that it might be disturbingly good for you! Serve with rice and yoghurt for a weekday veggie dinner, or as a side as part of a more generous curry feast.

Tune’s Palak Paneer
Serves 6 as part of a substantial buffet

8 ‘cubes’ of frozen spinach, or large colander of fresh spinach

Ghee or vegetable oil

1 heaped teaspoon ground cumin

2 large cloves garlic (or more, to taste)

1 thumb-sized piece of ginger (or more, to taste)

Salt

Half tin chopped tomatoes, or 3 large fresh tomatoes, diced

Cream or yoghurt, to finish

1 block paneer

Scant half-teaspoon garam masala

If using fresh spinach, blanch it in boiling water, drain then squeeze until it is really, really dry. If using frozen, leave to defrost at room temperature for a few hours.

Blitz the ginger and garlic in a food processor, or grate it on a fine-grater, to make a paste.

In a lidded frying pan, warm the ghee or oil and fry the ginger-garlic paste over a low heat for a minute until softened. Add the cumin and cook for a further 30 seconds. Tip in the spinach with a pinch of salt, pop the lid on and cook down gently for ten minutes. Stir in the tomatoes and cook for another ten minutes. Taste for seasoning and add a dollop of cream or yoghurt to taste. Use a stick blender to blitz the vegetables to a thick puree.

Whilst the spinach is cooking, cut the paneer into cubes and brown in a little ghee in a non-stick pan until golden. Tip the paneer into the spinach with a scant half-teaspoon of garam masala. Heat through and adjust seasoning to taste. Serve.

Coconut bread

The holidays are a distant memory now aren’t they? Those few precious days of still, thoughtful calm have been replaced with To Do lists (and they are long), emails and the general drudgery of January. Our festive season ended with a birthday dinner for my Mum, who has hit her 70th year with style. And I mean that: I’ve been looking at pictures from a decade ago and the men in the family now look, well, ten years older. The girls, on the other hand, are wearing pretty well, all told. Happy birthday Mum!

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Happy birthday Mum!

I am struggling with the lack of light. It’s not so much that the days are grey, it’s just that we live in a really, really dark house. No wonder the Victorian period is remembered as being a big grim: living in brick terraced houses like this, with no electric light and no heating, they must have been depressed for half the year. If Charles Dickens had had the LED bulb, what a difference it might have made to our perceptions of 19th century living…

Don’t misunderstand me: I love our house. But it is undeniably nicer in summer. My remedy for this is to get on with some home repair (the living room got repainted this weekend) and to cook, cook, cook.

So I turned to that personification of sunshine, Bill Granger, for a breakfast bake that he recommends “for days when you’d rather be in the Caribbean”. I’ve been making this coconut bread for a few years but it’s only now that I’ve tried it with fresh coconut. What a difference it makes! So get yourself a ripe fresh ‘nut, prepare and blitz it as described in my beef rendang recipe, and then you’re good to go. This bread is in the American style of quick, baking-powder-raised sweet loaves. I serve it in thick slices, toasted, with a slick of butter, ricotta or – brace yourself – Nutella.

Bill Granger’s Coconut Bread
from Sydney Food

Preheat the oven to 180c and grease and line a large loaf tin.

Sift together 375g plain flour, 2 teaspoons baking powder and 2 teaspoons cinnamon into a large bowl. Stir in 200g caster sugar and 150g fresh shredded coconut.

In a jug, melt together 75g unsalted butter and 300ml milk. Leave to cool slightly, then whisk in 2 large eggs and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract. Gradually stir the liquid into the dry ingredients, until the mixture is just smooth. It is quick a stiff mixture. Don’t overmix, else you’ll have a tough loaf.

Pour the batter into the tin and bake for 1 hour, until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. I like to check the bake after 30 minutes and move it around in the oven, to prevent it catching in my oven’s hot spots. It is appears to be browning too quickly, cover with foil during baking.

Cool in the tin for five minutes then remove to a wire rack to cool completely. Keeps pleasingly well in a tin for a week or so, or it can also be frozen.

Beef pudding

It’s the time of year when I want (need) to pour syrup, lard and gravy down my throat. I have never understood how people can go onto healthy eating stints in January; in this cold, dark month, buckwheat noodles and chia seeds are not going to provide the rib-sticking nourishment needed to get me through to spring. To underline the point: this week I’ve been at my desk wearing thermal vest, wool jumper, alpaca-wool cardigan and thick wool scarf on top. This is no time for messing around. This is the time for suet.

So it is timely that a wonderful book has come into my life. Pride and Pudding charts the history of the British pudding tradition (savoury and sweet) from its earliest medieval incarnations to the sticky toffee desserts promoted by a million 1990s gastropubs. Its author, Regula Ysewijn, is a photographer and blogger and – intriguingly – Belgian. I think the Brits have a tendency to laugh at their own cuisine, but here is someone from the Continent with a personal passion about British puddings so great that she’s devoted several years of her life researching the subject.

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Pride and Pudding by Regula Ysewijn

Pride and Pudding is a beautiful book and impressively well-researched: the bibliography runs to 7 pages, and I was spitting in envy looking at this weight of scholarly endeavour. The author is (I presume) bi-lingual and some of the writing is perhaps a little clunky – a good Editor could easily tighten this up – but frankly, if someone is going to give me a recipe for making clotted cream from scratch, then I love her instantly. And that’s before we get onto quaking pudding, poor knights of Windsor, apple tansy and sack posset.

Regula’s introduction is a recognition of the knowledge of our forebears and reflects so deeply how I feel about the cooks of yore that I repeat it in full: This book is a tribute to the cookery writers of the past: the master chefs to kings and queens; the female cookbook writers – of whom there are surprisingly plenty; the confectioners; the physicians; the poets; the cookery teachers; and those writers – usually ladies again – who were driven by a profound passion for British food. Thank you for writing everything down.

Inspired by my new-found literary friend, I’ll soon be having a go at jam roly-poly and spotted dick, but this week it was that classic suet-based rib-sticker: the steamed beef pudding.

Pride and Pudding informs me that beef pudding has been a favourite British meal for centuries and is an adaptation from the tradition of boiling meat puddings in cloth. Regula’s version uses the traditional method of placing raw meat, onions, herbs and beer into the suet crust, then steaming for several hours. I did have a go at making such a pudding several years ago, but upon turning it out, found the meat to still be raw. I’ve therefore chosen the slightly more reliable method of making my stew first, straining off and reserving the gravy, and then stuffing the cooked meat and vegetables into the pudding before steaming. This way you can be sure that the beef is seasoned to your liking, plus there is a  separate jug of gravy with which to moisten the plate.

The beef stew is straightforward and can be made a day ahead. Take around 500g of stewing steak chopped into bite-sized chunks, and brown in a hot, heavy-based frying pan until the pieces take on a deep colour (i.e. are not just ‘greyed’ with heat). Transfer the meat to a lidded casserole dish. In the same frying pan but on a cooler heat, soften a diced onion, throw in some thyme leaves and a bay leaf, then add 5 sliced mushrooms and colour slightly. Stir in 1 tablespoon plain flour, pour in around 200ml red wine (or a dark beer) and stir until thickened. Transfer the sauce to the beef, season well and top up with hot water to just cover the meat. Cook either on the lowest heat on the hob, or in the oven at 160c, for about two hours or until the meat is tender. When cooked, pour the stew onto a sieve or colander placed over a bowl, and save the gravy for later.

Now we get onto the pudding creation. As well as the strained stew, have ready plain flour, baking powder, suet, salt (not pictured), lemon juice and water. You’ll also need a 17cm pudding basin and a large lidded saucepan or steamer within which the basin fits neatly. I use a plastic basin with lid, but if using ceramic or glass basin, you’ll also need string, baking parchment and foil. I like to grease the inside of my basin with a little oil to ensure the pudding turns out easily.

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You need beef stew, plain flour, baking powder, suet and lemon juice

To make the suet pastry, place 300g plain flour in a bowl with 1 teaspoon baking powder, 1 teaspoon of salt and 130g shredded suet, then mix thoroughly.

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Combine the dry ingredients with the suet

Mix together 200ml water with the juice of half a lemon, then add the liquid to your dry ingredients. I think it’s best to do this in stages as you may not need it all. Work the liquid into the flour using a bread scraper or table knife until the pastry comes together into a ball. It should be firm and pliable but not sticky.

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Add water and lemon juice and work to a firm but not sticky dough

Work the dough gently on a lightly floured surface until smooth – we’re not kneading it, just bringing it together – and then remove a third to make the lid. Roll the remaining pastry into a circle and use to line the inside of your pudding basin, leaving an overhang of around 2cm around the top. If there are any holes just squidge them together with your fingers; suet makes for a wonderfully forgiving pastry.

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Remove a third of the dough for your lid

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Roll the larger piece into a circle and press into your pudding mould

Spoon the cooled beef stew into the mould and moisten the pastry ends with water. Roll the remaining pastry into a circle and use it to cover the beef, pressing the pastry ends together well so they are truly stuck. I like to ‘double-crimp’ – pressing the edges together, then folding the pastry in on itself to make a double seal.

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Fill the pudding mould with stew and then top with the remaining piece of dough

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Crimp the edges together, turn them over on themselves for a double-seal, cover and steam for 60-90 minutes

Place the lid on your pudding basin – or, if using paper and foil, you can follow the instructions here: www.bbcgoodfood.com/videos/techniques/how-steam-pudding.

Place your pudding into the saucepan or steamer (I use a pasta steamer for this). If using a regular saucepan, it’s wise to raise the basin from the base of a pan with a jam-jar lid. Pour in boiling water to reach half-way up the side of the basin, and set over a low heat to steam for 60-90 minutes. Check the pan a few times during steaming to ensure that it hasn’t boiled dry. All that’s needed is a gentle simmer; a rolling boil is too hot.

Once the pudding is done, remove the coverings and – with great trepidation – turn your creation out onto a pretty plate.

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Turn out onto a pretty plate and serve.

Re-heat the gravy and season to your liking (I like to thin mine with a little water) and serve alongside the pudding. I also think that a bowl of steamed greens, ideally savoy cabbage, is a must here.

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Slurp the gravy, relish the suet, eat up your greens: this is winter cooking at its best

The steamed beef pudding is real British winter cooking at its best. Suet: how I have missed thee.

The beef stew recipe is mine. Pastry recipe is from Pride and Pudding by Regula Ysewijn. The technique for steaming a pudding is how my mother taught me, and is all the more precious for that. Once again I apologise for the strange light on my photographs, the result of blogging in a dark Victorian house in January.