5 hour Easter lamb

Easter is my favourite of all the bank holidays. There’s none of the excesses of Christmas, the food is great, it’s often a time for a genuine holiday (rather than running around stressed from one family engagement to another) and there’s a sense of optimism in the spring air. What a humdinger of an Easter we’ve just had, with shorts and ice creams being the order of the day.

This year’s geometric Easter cake

I spent a happy half hour on Easter Sunday drawing up this year’s allotment plan. The idea is to separate the two main beds into vegetables and cut flowers, and then attempt to block plant in each, partly for ease of harvest but mostly because I think it will look great. In reality I may have to shift this plan around – there may be just too many plants for either side to contain.

The low-fi allotment plan for 2019. Separate plots for vegetables and cut flowers, with plenty of blocks.

Yesterday was a full day of allotmenting, the first for months and months. And actually, the first with Matt for probably around a year. He got to work raising the hopolisk whilst I removed the black plastic that has been covering our two main beds and tackled the tufts of couch grass that are at constant threat of taking over entirely. Perhaps optimistically, I also sowed a line of parsnip and carrot, knowing that direct sowing rarely works well on our plot…but this year I have a feeling that they’ll come good.

Sowing parsnips next to the sweet rocket and broad beans

Matt has laid plastic near the brook in an attempt to curtail the spread of wilderness as it reaches peak summer growth

The hopolisk is risen, as are the bean sticks.

Removing grass is hard, hard work. Since having Harry I’ve noticed that my general fitness has grown poorer and on the allotment I realised why: full days like these, lugging around trugs of turf and crouching in currant bushes, are the best way to stay strong and flexible and yet I rarely get the chance these days.

But back to Easter food. If it’s Easter then lamb is probably on the menu (as well as chocolate cake adorned with mini eggs, obviously), but – to be controversial – I think that the traditional English roast doesn’t quite hit the spot. What I want is lamb that’s been cooked for so long that it is shreddably tender, full of flavour, and with some chewy gnarly caramelised ends. In the summer I might cook a boned leg of lamb in the kettle barbecue for an hour or two, but this Easter I went for a Middle Eastern-inspired half shoulder, rubbed with spices and then baked – fully encased in foil – for 5 hours. It was sensational. No photos I’m afraid, but here’s the recipe:

5 hour Easter lamb

The day before you wish to eat, take a half shoulder (or a full shoulder if feeding a crowd) of lamb and trim any excess fat. Leave the bone in for good flavour. Place in a bowl with three or four big bashed cloves of garlic, a good pinch of cumin seeds and dried chilli flakes, about a tablespoon of sweet smoked paprika and the same of ras al hanout (I used the blend brought back from Morocco a few weeks back by Claire Fudge). Salt and pepper generously, add a splash of oil and really massage the flavourings into the meat. Cover, and leave to marinate in the fridge overnight.

The following day, preheat the oven to 140c. Place a large sheet of foil in a roasting pan, put your lamb and the marinade on top and squeeze over the juice of one orange. Cover with more foil and bring the edges together to make a tight seal. Place in the oven and leave to putter away for 4 to 5 hours, checking every hour that it’s not drying out – if it is, and this is a vital step, add a splash of water from the kettle to your foil parcel, then re-seal. (The foil is important unless you want to spend hours with a scouring pad.)

As it cooks, the lamb will become more and more tender, and the edges and juices will become more and more caramelised. When the lamb is meltingly tender, remove from the oven and increase the heat to 200c. Remove the top layer of foil and siphon off any juices – if they’ve overly caramelised then you can start again by moving the lamb to a fresh foil base. Blast the meat for another 20 minutes until the top is caramelised and crisp.

To serve, shred the meat into large chunks. We enjoyed ours with tahdig from Claudia Roden’s Book of Middle Eastern Food, a glorious way of cooking rice that makes it as buttery as popcorn, plus a mezze of broad beans, garlic, mint, dill and yoghurt; another of cucumber, onion and yoghurt; chopped tomatoes and masses of new season asparagus.

For leftovers, Matt made Persian burritos. Take a tortilla, then stuff with leftover tahdig rice, refried crispy lamb, yoghurty cucumber and a spot of cheese. Serve with sweet potato chip and salad. Glorious.

Also this week:

Allotment and garden: Sowed leeks and carrots. Removed black plastic from the main beds and placed some over the back wilderness. Heavy weeding of the edges of the main beds and around the currants. Raising of the hopolisk. Building of bean sticks. Matt has started to dig a hole for the foundations of a new shed and is muttering about re-building the greenhouse.

Cooking and eating: 5 hour lamb, tahdig, broad bean and yoghurt mezze, Persian burritos, thousands of chocolate crispy cakes, never-ending Easter chocolate cake, Mum’s salmon with tarragon sauce and asparagus, Mum’s cheesecake, baked chicken with lemon and honey at the farm with the university gang, salad of avocado, edamame and tender stem broccoli at Arco Lounge that was surprisingly good. Harry had his first Calippo (except he didn’t as it was a fake Aldi version) and enjoyed it immensely.

Reading: Fasting and Feasting: The Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray by Adam Federman.

Rocket and hazelnut pesto

We’ve had a week of outdoorsing it. I took Harry up to Malvern to collect spring water and see how the wild garlic is looking – pleased to report that it’s at its peak right now. We scooped up a few fistfuls (not so much as to cause any damage to the plants, which are innumerable in my secret foraging spot) which Matt then used as the basis for a chimmichurri sauce for steak. Whilst home, we headed to Clive’s to check out the chickens.

Wild garlic is in peak form right now

Toddler living his best life

Then this weekend we headed out to border country, Hay on Wye. I used to spend a lot of time in this part of the world and sometimes have deep, physical yearnings to be amongst the cool, damp air, mountains and green. The green of Herefordshire is something else. On Hay Bluff, sheep grazed amidst the aftermath of a recent snow storm, and as we wound our way down the mountainside to Llanthony Priory, streams broke their banks onto the road.

A view from Llanthony Priory

Which all sounds very romantic until you remember that Harry sees 11th century ruins as a potential playground, and regards country roads as BORING.

The reality of taking a small child to a heritage venue

Back to more practical matters. The allotment rules dictate that bonfires are allowed only in the months of November and March, a fact I had forgotten until a few days before the end of the month. Matt went down there in a brief gap between family commitments (Mother’s day lunches and Grampy’s 99th birthday party) armed with a blow torch (yes really) to destroy some of last year’s detritus.

Managed to sneak in a bonfire before the end of March

Meanwhile I used the brief hour of calm after Harry’s bedtime / before Matt gets home to whip up a vat of leek and potato soup for when I hosted a working lunch the following day. Soup is fine as far as it goes – easy, cheap, nutritious – but it can be dull. A spoonful of this rocket and hazelnut pesto, stirred in on serving, gives the poke that it needs. I turned to rocket as I had some in the fridge – ditto with the hazelnuts, I just happened to have some on hand – and was delighted at the results. I can’t help but think that some of the wild garlic from the previous weekend would have also been a welcome addition.

No quantities with this, you just have to use your eye and trust your tastebuds. In a food processor, blitz together a few handfuls of rocket, a handful of basil or Greek basil, a small clove of garlic, a chunk of parmesan, handful of hazelnuts, small pinch of salt, small squeeze of lemon with a trickle of the best olive oil. Keep blitzing until smooth, taste, then adjust your seasoning as you fancy. Keeps in the fridge for several days.

Rocket and hazelnut pesto

Also this week:

Growing: Started off rocket, dill and violas. The dahlias that I potted up a few weeks back are starting to sprout.

Eating & Cooking: Leek & potato soup with extra chard for vitamins, wild garlic chimmichurri, beautiful canale bought from the market at Hay on Wye

Chicken jalfrezi

The false spring was there to make fools of us, just as I predicted. Since my last post we’ve had two big windy storms, big enough to take down branches, plus yesterday brought the heaviest hail shower that I’ve experienced for several years. But the lighter evenings do bring a sense of relief and the spring equinox is shortly upon us, time for a resurgence of energy and resolution.

Speaking of energy, Harry and I both succumbed to chest infections, which are now on the way out, but point to the importance of nutrition and rest. Last week I experimented with purple pancakes – these are American-style pancakes with blueberry compote stirred into the batter before cooking – which gave us a good dose of protein, calcium, carbs and (most importantly) fun.

Harry loves purple pancakes. Make a regular pancake batter and swirl into a few tablespoons of blueberry compote, then cook as normal.

There was also a trip to Ludlow, home of the world’s greatest butchers and greengrocer, to restock the freezer with proper sausages, bacon, a bunny or two plus a sensational leg of pork.

March in the Marches – the view across the river to Ludlow castle

An abundance of spring flowers at Ludlow market

Back home, the garden is changing from brown to yellow. The forsythia came into bloom last week, with its optimistic bright yellow flowers hanging from branches like fairy skirts. The primulas that we lifted from Granny’s garden before she passed are thriving – a softer yellow than the forsythia, they provide pleasing pops of colour that can be seen from the sun room.

More yellow, this time from the blooming forsythia in the back garden

Granny’s primroses are thriving

Meanwhile I have a space issue. Our Victorian house contains only 1 windowsill and 1 smallish cold-frame, meaning that spring-time seed sowing is an exercise in logistics. It’s a constant juggle of succession sowing and tray-turning to get things started. This year I have unfathomably got about 40 different varieties of flowers, herbs and veg that need sowing over the next month or two, and only a postage-stamp amount of room to keep them in (Matt promises that he will apply his hive-mind to this issue). Meanwhile I have also (equally unfathomably) amassed a collection of nearly 20 dahlias, all of which I potted up yesterday in the hail, and which are now snuggly resting in big trays in the sun room to begin their ascent to full-flowering August glory. My labelling is dubious at the best of times but I particularly enjoyed unwrapping the bag-for-life full of shrivelled tubers and a single pink Post-it noting “jewel colours for garden or allotment”. I have absolutely zero idea where these came from but I look forward to seeing how they progress.

Somehow I have amassed a collection of dahlias, all of which are dubiously labelled, now potted up after their winter snooze.

Cold frame already full with broad beans and delphinium seedlings

On to today’s recipe. Since the Frugality Challenge I have become very aware of using meat to its best potential, so that it lasts for loads of meals. The other week I bought a large whole chicken, took it down to its essential parts (2 breasts, 2 drumsticks, 2 wings, 2 thighs, carcuss) and froze each piece individually. This is far more economical way of shopping than buying lots of individual packs of thighs or breasts, plus the portions tend to be larger – and thus better value – when taken off a whole bird.

The legs were marinated with yoghurt, garlic and spices brought by my friend Claire from her recent trip to Morocco (thanks Claire), before being baked and served with flatbreads and salads.

The breasts were turned into this wonderful jalfrezi, from Jamie Oliver’s Super Food Family Classics book. I love that it’s very simple, very healthy and genuinely delicious, plus there’s no special ingredients needed, as it’s made with store-cupboard and fridge staples. This does involve whizzing up a curry paste but even that isn’t too much bother, and the chicken can be marinated in advance if that makes life easier. We ate it up with rice, home-made tarka dal, a chopped salad of cucumber, tomato, onion, mint and coriander, plus Matt’s vegetable pakora. Highly recommended.

Chicken Jalfrezi
from Jamie Oliver’s Super Food Family Classics. Serves 3-4 with side dishes.

For the paste: Toast 2 teaspoons of cumin seeds with 1 teaspoon each of coriander seeds, fenugreek seeds and black mustard seeds in a dry frying pan until toasted. Tip into the food processor with 2 cloves of garlic, a big knob of ginger, 1 teaspoon turmeric, a pinch of salt, 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, 2 tablespoons tomato puree, 1 fresh red chili and a handful of fresh coriander. Whizz the lot to a puree, adding a splash of water if needed.

Slice 1 large or 2 small chicken breasts into large chunks, then place in a bowl with 2 tablespoons plain yoghurt, the curry paste and a pinch of salt. Massage the paste into the chicken then set aside to marinate.

Dice one red onion and two peppers (red, yellow, green, or a mixture) into large chunks. In a dry frying pan or casserole, stir-fry the vegetables until they start to char – this gives good flavour to the curry. Tip in the chicken and any excess marinade, then cook for 3-4 minutes until the chicken begins to turn opaque.

Tip half a tin of chopped tomatoes into the pan with a good splash of water, stir to combine, then leave to cook on a low heat for 10 minutes until the chicken is cooked through, the veg is softened and the sauce is thickened to your liking. Check the seasoning – add a squeeze of lemon if you like.

Serve with rice, daal, salad and raita.

 

Also this week:

Cooking & eating: Ludlow pie and chips; chocolate muffins; blue pancakes; cherry flapjacks; Moroccan-baked chicken; apple & blackberry galette; hot cross buns; roast pork shoulder with crispy crackling; phenomenal amounts of tea.

Outside: The conifers at the end of the garden were removed this morning, opening up massive amounts of light into the wilderness.

Reading: Mildly obsessed with Up: My lifetime’s journey up Everest, Ben Fogle’s account of climbing Mount Everest. Make mental note that life has become dull and so, whilst I have no desire to climb any mountain whatsoever, we should plan some adventures for 2019.

Vietnamese-style dressing

The warm temperatures of the last two weeks have brought the seedlings, bulbs and buds on no end. Let’s not be fooled too much – False Spring is a thing – but there’s definitely a sense of sap rising. We’ve been out for our first ice cream of the year, albeit in thick coats, and the daffodils in the back garden are singing in their bright yellow trumpets.

Never too early in the year for ice cream

Narcissi ‘rip van winkle’

The early seedlings are germinating impressively. This year I am being far more fastidious about thinning, and the tray is being rotated daily to prevent too much legginess. The broad beans that Harry planted back in January took weeks to get going, but once they did then whoooosh, they were off! Now several inches tall, I’ve moved the seedlings to the cold frame to harden off.

Germination going well, rotating the tray daily and using the heat-mat

Harry’s broad beans took AGES to germinate but now are thriving

Matt’s been away all week, therefore living on Pret and McDonalds (not that he’d admit to it), so come Saturday I was determined to get some vitamins into our addled bodies. Vitamins doesn’t need to mean boring though. Alongside stir-fried lemongrass chicken and broccoli I pulled together a crunchy, vibrant, searingly hot Vietnamese salad – it’s the kind of cooking that is so satisfying that you don’t realise that it’s healthy. This would usually have green papaya and Chinese leaf in it but I had neither, so subbed in a firm, not-quite-ripe mango, plus turnip for crunch. Turnip and mango sounds awful, right? Wrong – try it and be surprised. The joy of these salads is that you can use anything crunchy that you have to hand, though I do think that cucumber and shallot are essential.

Vietnamese-style salad

Julienne a bowlful of crunchy vegetables – use what you have to hand, but carrot, shallot, turnip, kohl rabi, Chinese leaf, cucumber, white cabbage, firm mango, yellow pepper and beansprouts all work. Toss in a handful of mint, basil and coriander (again, use what you have to hand) and some chopped, toasted peanuts for crunch, if desired.

The key to this is the dressing. Make it as hot as you dare! Whisk together 1 tbsp fish sauce, a good squeeze of lime, 1/2 tbsp Japanese rice vinegar, 1/2 tbsp caster sugar and very finely minced garlic and red birds eye chili (to taste). Pour onto the vegetables and leave to stand for a few minutes for the flavours to mingle before serving.

Also this week:

Cooking: Cherry brownies, blackcurrant bakewell tart, lemongrass & ginger chicken with broccoli, Welsh cakes, cherry almond loaf cake
Growing: Cleared out the front garden, taking out the fern and an unidentified variegated evergreen (a family joint effort, this).

Nordic baked pancakes

Bit nippy isn’t it? In the last fortnight I think I’ve been outside maybe twice. Once to look at snowdrops…

Snowdrops are peeping in the garden. I planted these in the green last spring so hopefully now they’ll start to spread and establish.

…and the other because Matt wanted to watch the Stourbridge Stagger 10k running race.

This picture gives no indication of how painfully cold it was in Stourbridge yesterday.

The rest of the time I’ve been finding indoor pursuits, including finally planting the broad beans that I meant to sow back in November, and lots and lots of cooking.

Harry planted his first seeds last week – broad bean Aquadulce Claudia

There’s been braised ox cheeks with ancho, a massive chocolate meringue cake, spicy lamb kebabs, tzatziki with flat breads and the first – glorious – rhubarb bellini of the year. Actually, the first for three years, as in 2018 the booze made me feel too poorly and in 2017 I was pregnant. I spent a fortune on the precious pink stems and, for once, I don’t regret a penny of it.

Harry is a fan of tzatziki

First rhubarb bellini in three years!

I know there are some who give up booze and carbs and dairy and joy for January, but I think you need to find whatever sustenance you can to get through these icy-cold days. This recipe for Norwegian baked pancakes is just the ticket. This baked pancake has a greater proportion of egg and milk to flour than our normal pancakes and so it cooks into something more like a custard than a pancake.

Norwegian baked pancake

Bakes to a rich dense custardy mass

I found the recipe in the Nordic Baking Book, which is a dense encyclopaedia of all things to do with Scandi baking. The author, Magnus Nilsson, is EXTREMELY particular about the way things are done (and quite rightly too as this is meant to be a documentary book). However at home we can have more leeway. If you prefer a more cakey pancake, just add a few more spoonfuls of flour. The original has no sugar in it – though you could add some if you like – making it an ideal accompaniment to morning bacon or maple syrup and berries. It will happily keep in the fridge for a few days after baking.

Thick Norwegian oven-baked Pancake – Tjockpankaken
From The Nordic Baking Book by Magnus Nilsson

25g unsalted butter
125g plain flour
2 eggs
pinch of salt
500ml milk

Preheat the oven to 220c. Place a baking dish large enough to hold your mixture into the oven to warm – I used a 8inch round pie dish. Add the butter to the dish and return to the oven to melt.

Combine the flour, eggs, salt and half the milk in a bowl and whisk until no lumps remain. Add the rest of the milk. (This bit is just the same as for making Yorkshire Puddings).

Swirl the melted butter around your dish to coat. Add the batter and return to the oven to bake. Cook for 30 minutes until dark golden and completely set. Leave to stand for 5 minutes before serving.

 

Also this week:

Cooking and eating: Beef cheeks braised with ancho and tomato, golden wholemeal soda bread, golden oat and raisin cookies, rabbit braised with root veg and pearl barley, chocolate dacquoise, chocolate meringue cake, rhubarb bellinis. Harry’s first trip to Original Patty Men.

Reading: Becoming by Michelle Obama – from the library rather than giving Amazon any more ££.

Also: Just trying to keep warm.

Sprout Linguine

In light of the Brexit debacle, I have abandoned Radio 4 for the safety of Classic FM. Listen to the Today programme and you run the risk – as happened this morning – of waking up to the phrase “How will you fare in the post-Brexit world”? Well there’s only so much trauma I can take first thing in the morning, so over to The Home of Christmas Music it is. Though even there it’s not 100% safe, as there is the occasional horror of a classical guitar rendition of Hallelujah.

Actually, listening to a big of Grieg whilst Harry yells with excitement at spotting the squirrels outside is pretty fun. I’ve also taken delivery of a few new books to lift the spirits; the theme of this one fits in nicely with the Frugality Challenge.

How’s the Frugality Challenge been faring? Pretty well actually. Here’s Notes from Week 1:

Day 1: I concoct a sprout linguine for dinner. Matt says that this will confuse the clean eaters for they will think “how the f*** do I spiralise a sprout”? Recipe below. Money spent: £0

Day 2: Today is Harry’s swimming day. He fell off his frog float and went head-first into the pool; I fished him out immediately but he was inconsolable for ages. (I deserve so many gold stars for persevering with swimming). We spent the afternoon cooking, using things from the freezer and storecupboards: smoked mackerel pate; oxtail braised with ancho chili, cinnamon and star anise; spiced carrot cake with lemon icing and baked pumpkin to use up the 39p one I bought from Aldi for halloween. Money spent: £3 on bread from Peel & Stone.

Preparing the oxtail for its 5-hour braise

Day 3: Half fail, half win. We went out for lunch but Matt paid so that doesn’t count. Then I consider what to have for dinner. What I really want is Indian…..so Harry and I head to Waitrose. I resist the allure of the puddings and croissants but I do get some curries, knowing that if I could be arsed I could make them from scratch. Also get a chicken for the weekend, thinking that leftovers will last for days. Money spent: £19

Days 4&5: A weekend of friends and family. Also a trip to the German Market (hideous) offset by a visit to Eastside Projects (sublime). Money spent: £0

Current exhibition at Eastside Projects, Digbeth

Day 6: Monday morning is the only sensible time to risk Christmas shopping. The shops are empty and there is car parking; any other time is madness. I head to the new massive Sainsbury’s in Selly Oak and reflect that the bigger the shop, the least likely I am to spend money there (I can’t be the only person who finds supermarkets totally exhausting). Other people have laden trollies but I leave with just eggs and satsumas. The afternoon is spent at my desk. Money spent (not counting Christmas presents): £4

Day 7: A trip to Lidl for some Christmas items. Panettone, stollen and chocolate biscuits – the German discounters do them better than anyone. Money spent: £16.05

Grand total for week 1: £42.05 A big improvement, and we’ve still eaten really well, but could do better.

Today’s recipe is for Sprout linguine, which you’d be forgiven for thinking is a form of torture but is actually (genuinely) one of my favourite pasta dishes. It’s seasonal and comforting, creamy and garlicky.

Cook some linguine in the normal way. Whilst it’s cooking, shred a handful of sprouts and sweat over a medium heat in olive oil or butter for two or three minutes until softened; don’t let them burn. You could toss in some sliced watercress or other peppery-leaves at this point. Add some crushed garlic to the pan with a squeeze of lemon juice, a glug of cream and a grating of parmesan. Season.

When the pasta is done, drain and add to the pan with a dash of cooking liquor. Cook and toss for a minute or two more, so the sauce and pasta become one. Serve immediately, ideally under a blanket in front of the fire.

Matt’s rabbit rillettes

The temperature in our house has plummeted in recent days from long-sleeve-t-shirt-with-thick-cardigan temperature, to proper-jumper-plus-thick-cardigan-and-socks-but-still-really-cold temperature. The windows are permanently hazed with condensation and I find it inconceivable that I ever used to wander around in shorts with nothing on my feet. What madness was that?!

This means that we have arrived firmly in autumn. Actually we might be fast-forwarding through autumn in a rush towards winter, given this weekend’s chill wind. Aside from these nonsense low temperatures, autumn brings with it a great many pleasures, most of them culinary. It’s quince season for one. You can buy the fuzzy aromatic pear-shaped fruits in the halal shop on Bearwood High Street for £1 each, or I found this basket of 50p fruits in Moreton-on-Marsh the other day.

Quinces a bargain 50p each in Moreton-on-Marsh

Pumpkins and squash abound, of course, in the run-up to halloween. My local Aldi is selling ‘decorative’ turks turban and blue prince squash for 39p each – presumably they think people will use them as table decorations but I’d rather cook with these than a butternut squash anyday. In Ludlow on Saturday, the pumpkin prices were higher but the colours just as fun.

Gorgeous colours on Ludlow market

We were in Ludlow for our annual freezer-filling visit. I have come to the conclusion that there is nowhere better in the UK to stock up on game, meat, cheese and proper veg (i.e. field-fresh, knobbly and ideally still crusted in mud). Add to that the independent shops, the cosy pub that serves really good pies AND has an open fire, the Ludlow Brewing Company, the castle and the glorious country drive and you have the perfect escape from the city. It’s also surprisingly good value. We came home with (VEGETARIANS PLEASE LOOK AWAY NOW) 2 pheasants, 2 rabbits, stewing venison, stewing mutton, oxtail, 1kg beef mince, 1kg braising steak, Italian sausages, pork pie, a round of cheese, amazing pain de levain and purple sprouting broccoli for less than £55. We’re not talking rubbish meat here, we’re talking meat that someone has taken care over, but without the pretension that you find in the posh urban butchers.

The Ludlow visit always precedes the start of Proper Cooking Season. Yesterday was a happy day of concocting rabbit rillettes, beef bourguignon and orange & cinnamon creme caramel and this morning I interspersed press release writing with making a massive vat of deeply flavoured bolognese sauce. My Things to Cook list has gone subtly wintry….cranberry breakfast bread, pumpkin pie, smoked mackerel pate with beetroot and horseradish.

The rillettes are a particularly welcome addition to the autumn kitchen. The rabbit is slow-cooked with pork belly, thyme and garlic until shreddable, then packed together with their cooking liquor (which is essentially lard, let’s face it) to make a subtly-flavoured pate. Keep a tub of these in the fridge for topping warm buttery toast: lard and butter, working together to keep out the autumn chill.

Rabbit Rillettes
Adapted from this recipe by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Makes two shallow 10cm tubs.

First, joint a rabbit (or get the butcher to do it for you). Remove the rind from 500g fatty pork belly and dice into chunky cubes. Place the meat in an oven-proof dish with sprig of fresh thyme, 3 bay leaves, a bulb of garlic sliced in half through the centre and 250ml water. The meat should be in a single layer so that it cooks evenly. Cover tightly with foil and bake at 220c for 30 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 140c and cook for 2-and-a-half hours more, until the rabbit and pork can be shredded with a fork. Give the dish a prod every now and then during the cooking to ensure that it’s not drying out (top with a little water if you need to).

Allow the rabbit and pork to bubble together in a gentle oven for several hours

Remove the meat from the liquor and leave until cool enough to handle. Shred the meat from the bones and place in a large bowl, making sure all the fat from the pork is included.

Strip the meat from the bones and save the liquor

Thoroughly mix the two meats together and season well with salt and pepper (you could also add some nutmeg or mace now). Add a good splash of the cooking liquor and stir until you achieve a loose pate texture, adding more of the liquor as needed. Transfer your rillettes to tubs or jars, and refrigerate until firm.

Pack the meat into your container and chill

Serve on hot toast, preferably with something slightly acidic to counter all the lard. A cornichon or pickled onion is just the ticket. The rillettes will keep for several days in the fridge, or you could make a few jars and freeze what you don’t need for a later day.

Serve on good toast, ideally with something pickled

Also this week:

Cooking & Eating: German bienenstich (bee sting) cake, spiced squash soup, pies at The Crown Inn in Ludlow, hake from the Birmingham fish market with chorizo. Stollen-watch has begun: Aldi has its mini stollens in, which means the proper ones won’t be too far away.

Reading & Watching: The Apple Orchard by Pete Brown, a love story to the English apple tradition with plenty of references to Herefordshire. The Prawn on the Lawn cookbook by Rick and Katie Toogood.

Visiting: Batsford Arboretum to make the most of the autumn colour. Ludlow for freezer-filling. The new BOM cafe, near the Bullring markets – a cosy cafe that has been designed to be friendly to autistic people.

On the allotment: Still harvesting cosmos, chrysanthemums, chard and cavolo nero. It’s time to clear: Matt has started to remove the thicket of brambles at the back of the greenhouse, I’ve pulled up most of the annuals and veg, and have put black plastic on the one plot to protect the soil and keep weeds down. It’s nearly time for a bonfire.

Moussaka

Welcome to the courgette plank of shame. These don’t look that big in the picture, but trust me, they’re massive. Although I’ve noticed that the courgettes for sale in the supermarkets are sometimes bigger, which is clearly madness. According to Ruth Rogers of River Cafe fame, the best courgette for picking is the size of a large thumb – the problem being that it stays that size for, ooh, around thirty seconds before transforming into a monster. I’ve given up picking them now, so overladen are we with the glut.

The courgette-marrow plank of shame

Meanwhile the drop in temperature and damp weather has brought on the hops, which are now covered in these prickly little flowers. I’m on the allotment three times a week to pick the raspberries and gather the sunflowers, dodging showers (not always successfully) and noticing all the jobs that need doing that I don’t have capacity for.

The hops are beginning to flower

Harry and I got caught in a downpour so had to hang out in the ramshackle greenhouse for half an hour

Dad’s monster aubergine demanded some proper attention. These days I prefer recipes that take ten minutes here and there, leaving me free to run the business / remove Harry from the fireplace (his latest favourite place) / organise the wedding etc etc. Moussaka fits the bill perfectly.

Dad with his aubergine

Lots of recipes demand that aubergines are fried first but I dislike this approach for two reasons: 1, you use a shed load of oil, which is both too fatty and too expensive, and 2, it takes forever and is very dull. The best thing to do is thickly slice the aubergines, add a wee bit of oil, then roast in the oven until soft. I’ve added some summer squash to the mix because GLUT.

Roast the sliced aubergines and courgettes

Whilst the veg is roasting away, make a braised lamb sauce. You could use leftover roast lamb here – I think this would probably be better actually – but I only had lamb mince to hand. Simply cook together with onions, tomato puree, cinnamon and red wine until reduced and unctuous. The cinnamon is important, giving background warmth and the whisper of distant sunkissed shores. After an hour of gentle puttering it should be thick and delicious, at which point you can use it straight away or leave for a few hours until you’re ready to finish the moussaka.

The braised lamb sauce

Finally, make a simple béchamel sauce, generously flavoured with nutmeg. Once it’s done leave it to cool for a while, then stir in two eggs for that classic custardy finish.

The béchamel is mixed with eggs and nutmeg

To make the moussaka, layer up your dish in this order: aubergines, meat, aubergines, meat, béchamel. Bake at 180c for about 45 minutes, until the top is blistered and golden. Now – this is VERY important – leave it untouched for at least thirty minutes to calm down and firm up. Hot moussaka is a sloppy horrible mess, but warm moussaka holds its shape and the flavours shine through. Serve with a simple side salad.

Let the moussaka stand for half an hour after baking to allow it to firm up

Moussaka
Inspired by Felicity Cloake’s Guardian recipe. Serves 6 (I made two dishes and froze one)

Olive oil
1 monster aubergine and 1 summer squash / courgette, or 2 large aubergines
1 large onion, finely chopped
4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1.5 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp dried oregano
500g minced lamb or leftover roast lamb. Use good quality if you can.
2 tbsp tomato puree
splash of water
150ml red wine
Parsley, chopped

For the béchamel: 
500ml milk
60g butter
60g plain flour
50g parmesan, grated (you could use pecorino or kefalotryi if you have it)
2 eggs
Nutmeg, to grate

Preheat the oven to 180c. Cut the aubergines and squash into thick slices, and place on a roasting tray. Drizzle with oil and season. Bake until soft and golden, about 20 minutes.

Now the lamb. Warm a lidded frying pan or casserole dish on a gentle heat. Cook the onion in a shake of olive oil and a pinch of salt until soft. Stir in the garlic, cinnamon and oregano, then add the lamb. Cook over a high-ish heat until the lamb is well browned and the mixture is quite dry – about 10 minutes. Stir in the tomato puree and cook for another few minutes to get rid of the raw taste, then add in the wine and a splash of water to cover the meat. Turn the heat right down and braise for about 45 minutes until the liquid has evaporated. Stir in the parsley and season to taste. Leave to cool and spoon off any excess oil.

Make the béchamel. Melt the butter in a saucepan, stir in the flour and cook for a minute or two, then gradually add the milk. (Recipes always tell you to use hot milk but who actually does this? I use it cold and stir like mad between each addition to remove the lumps.) Cook until you have a thick sauce and then simmer gently for five minutes to cook through. Stir in the cheese. Remove from the heat and cool slightly, then add the nutmeg and eggs.

Finish the moussaka. In a suitably size dish (or two dishes) layer up aubergine, meat, aubergine, meat and finish with the sauce. Bake for about 40 minutes until well browned. Leave to cool for 30 minutes before serving.

Also this week:

Cooking: Roast leg of lamb with garlic, rosemary and anchovy; roasted vegetable pasta (allotment veg); caramel almond sponge; runner beans braised with tomatoes.

Eating: Pizza at Baked in Brick, Cronut from Medicine bar, Chandigarh veggie samosa and curries

Harvesting: Sunflowers, cleome, dahlia, sweetpeas, cosmos, rudbeckia, last runner beans, loads and loads of raspberries, last blueberries, courgette, squash, cavolo nero, chard, spinach beet. The tomatoes that we’re getting are great and gnarly and red and delicious.

Also: Trying to balance work projects (festival organising, website writing) with baby care with organising a wedding with general life stuff. Re-reading The Summer Book by Tove Jansson and disturbingly obsessed with Say yes to the dress on Quest Red.

Sweet potato & pumpkin curry

In the two-and-a-bit months since the baby was born, the allotment has gone from high summer productivity to sodden and vaguely overgrown. The so-called compost bin is overflowing with the debris of the season, sunflower stalks, hop vines and mouldy chard. The veg patches are green with weeds and the fruit bushes are bare saved for the buds of new life, already visible on the branches. I pop down when I can for a spot of tidying – the success of this depends entirely on what mood Harry is in, and how much sleep I’ve had (or not had) the night before.

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Harry is not much help when it comes to allotmenting

I’ve covered both of the main beds with black plastic, partly to keep the weeds down over winter but also because I don’t know how much I’ll get around to cultivating next year. Left uncovered this soil becomes a carpet of weeds in a blink of an eye; this is a case of an hour’s work now saving me serious amounts of graft come spring.

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If left to its own devices, the allotment would be this overgrown all over

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I’ve put black plastic over the beds to keep the weeds down

There’s not much to pick now but the cavolo nero is still going strong, as is the kale and chard. What I do have though is a serious pile of pumpkins; having served their time as Halloween decorations, it’s time to transfer them to the pot.

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Cavolo nero still going strong, as is the kale and chard

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Pumpkins form the basis of this easy curry

This is an easy curry that I have shamelessly pinched from Nigella Lawson, though in truth it’s more the kind of dish I’d expect to find on a yoga retreat than from a ‘sleb chef. It’s vegan (shock!) and cheap (horror!), and more to the point I am able to cook up a massive vat of it in the few minutes that the baby is asleep in the afternoon. If you’re not lucky enough to have a pumpkin pile at home, use butternut squash instead.

Sweet potato and pumpkin curry
Recipe adapted from Nigella Lawson. Makes loads, about 8 portions.

1 red onion, cut into chunks
1 red chilli, stalk removed
Thumb of fresh ginger, peeled
3 fat cloves of garlic, peeled
1 tsp turmeric
2 heaped tsp whole coriander seeds, bashed in a pestle and mortar (or 1 tsp ground coriander)
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 vegetable stock cube (I use low salt)
Salt
Sunflower oil
1 x 400ml tin coconut milk
1 x 400g tin tomatoes
Water
1 large sweet potato, trimmed and cut into large chunks
1/2 pumpkin or winter squash, peeled and cut into large chunks
Juice of 1 lime

First, make the curry paste. In the food processor, whizz together the onion, chilli, ginger, garlic, turmeric, coriander, cinnamon  and stock cube, adding a splash of water to help it combine if needed.

In a large casserole or stock pot, warm the oil over a medium heat and add the curry paste with a pinch of salt. Fry for a few minutes until the oil begins to separate from the paste. Add the solid coconut cream from the top of the tin of coconut milk, fry for a few minutes more, the add the rest of the coconut milk and tomatoes. Swill both tins out with water and add to the pan.

Finally slide in the sweet potato and squash, bring to a gentle simmer, and cook until the veggies are soft – about half an hour. Some of the squash will disintegrate into the curry, which helps it to thicken. Season with more salt and lime juice to taste, then serve with brown rice and a dollop of yoghurt.

Favourite fresh tomato pasta

It’s 1st September which means that officially summer is over, but (I think) it’s now that the season reaches its peak. Evidence: the hot yellow of sunflowers and sweetcorn; an abundance of autumn raspberries and gnarly tomatoes; armfuls of garish dahlias and in-your-face chrysanthemums. Plus there’s still warm sunshine, as enjoyed by this new visitor to the back garden.

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We’ve got a new regular foxy visitor to the back garden

The other thing about the tail-end of August and start of September is that the entire world is on holiday, meaning that work calms down. I officially finished for maternity leave yesterday (not that I like it; it’s a difficult thing, passing one’s hard-earned contracts onto other people) and Matt’s finally found time to build a new worktop for the utility room alongside other, more creative, projects.

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Matt’s been making an Arts & Crafts-inspired mirror using a disc of Ruskin pottery

My focus for the next week or two needs to be dialling down Professional Brain and ramping up Home Brain. Time and again I’ve seen my friends go through this as they approach birth – the need to prepare for the shift in identity that comes with motherhood. The allotment might just be a helpful tool to help stay grounded.

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Proof! The sunflowers have finally thrived!

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First in-your-face chrysanthemums

I picked a few kilos of hot-red Fiorentina tomatoes this week, now piled up in an orange wicker basket in the kitchen. Together with the smooth red toms that arrived from my Mum’s greenhouse, it’s (hurray!) tomato glut time! I’ve been cooking up passata for the freezer, but my favourite recipe for these home-grown toms is to enjoy them barely cooked and tossed with pasta, brimming with basil and garlic, a dish so simple that I hesitate to call it a recipe.

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Allotment harvest basket…

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…and the same from my Mum’s veg patch

I only make this when I have really good, fragrant, fresh tomatoes that have never seen the inside of a fridge. It takes 10 minutes from start to finish.

Fresh tomato pasta, to feed one:

Bring a big pot of salted water to the boil and add a fistful of spaghetti. Whilst the pasta is cooking, roughly dice 6 or 7 fat, red, ripe tomatoes, and smash and chop 1 or 2 cloves of garlic.

Warm a decent glug of olive oil in a frying pan and gently warm the garlic through. Once the fragrance rises, slide in the tomatoes and cook over a low heat for a scant five minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

As soon as the spaghetti reaches the al dente stage, use tongs to transfer it directly to the tomatoes and add a ladle or two of cooking water to the pan. Toss together and cook for a further minute, so that the pasta, tomatoes and water emulsify and become one. You’ll know this point when you see it.

Finally, toss through a handful of ripped basil and serve with heaps of parmesan.

Optional extras: fresh red chilli, black olives, fresh hot rocket, baby spinach and king prawns are all good with this.

Harvesting: Tomatoes, chard, rocket, beet spinach, baby cavolo nero, frills of hex, runner beans, green beans, pattypan, courgette, raspberries (loads), sunflowers, first chrysanthemums, cosmos.
Gratefully received from Mum’s veg patch: LOADS of sweetcorn, more tomatoes, carrots, peppers, dahlias
Cooking and freezing: Passata, heaps of raspberries and sweetcorn