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.

The Frugality Challenge

I am setting myself a frugality challenge for December: can I cook and eat well through the month without buying loads of new stuff? My grocery spend has crept up this year and I’m horrified to work out that since the summer, an average of £331 a month goes on trips to Waitrose, Aldi, farm shops and butchers. This does include things like nappies, cat food, washing liquid and so on but it’s still higher than it needs to be.

Living in a city encourages the spending of cash so much more than a rural existence. The message of BUY BUY DO MORE ACHIEVE MORE BUY BUY BUY is ubiquitous and it patterns our daily behaviour. The iPhone is full of messages to buy, I receive loads and loads of marketing emails daily wanting me to buy, the buses that trundle down my road carry adverts that I can see from my living room telling me to buy. When I’m getting cabin fever, it’s easy to drive to the supermarket in order to get out of the house and before I know it, that’s another £30 gone. (Note: this is a genuine thing. A friend who shall remain nameless spent thousands in her local supermarket when her two children were tiny.)

I am not a bad housekeeper – I cook from scratch most days, batch cook for the freezer, buy certain things in bulk and I prefer to make breads, stews and cakes for Harry rather than buying ready-made. I don’t buy much booze since pregnancy buggered up my liver. We don’t eat out much. I grow fruit and veg and flowers. I don’t like fast fashion. We’ve not been abroad for nearly two years. I rarely use a credit card and there’s no debt.

But the truth is that we need to rein it in. Here are some simple truths about parenthood, freelancing and finances:

  1. We are not entitled to the same amount of maternity pay as people on PAYE (despite the fact we work as hard if not harder)
  2. Self-employed men have no right at all to paid paternity leave
  3. There’s a gap of 27 months from when maternity pay ends to when free child nursery places start. During that time, we earn significantly less (because we’re looking after the babies) but our expenses go up (because babies cost money)*.
  4. Even if your babies are in nursery or at school, regular working hours just don’t fit with nursery or school hours. Something has to give and it’s usually the mother’s career – and therefore earnings – that is sacrificed**.

Obviously paying the mortgage is the priority and it’s the peripheries that need to be cut down. I relish this challenge – I love a bit of frugality and a sticking two fingers up to consumer culture. I was going to write that December is a crap time to do the Frugality Challenge but actually, perhaps this is the BEST time to do it. A Christmas that isn’t tainted by buying loads of tat and then being stressed by all the spending?  YES PLEASE.

The Frugality Challenge rules:

  1. Daily to ask, do I really need to buy this new thing or can I make up a great dish with something already in the fridge, freezer or cupboards?
  2. We’re still cooking proper food, not relying on cheap ready meals
  3. When I do buy I’m buying well – to paraphrase the Brexit nonsense, no bread is better than bad bread
  4. Rule 1 is repeated for all Christmas purchases – do I really need/want it or can I do better by thinking creatively?

So it begins.

Home-made Christmas pudding (though I would have made these anyway). A reminder to grow my own leaves instead of buying bags of rocket and watercress. A trip outside with the secateurs to bring the outside inside, instead of relying on hot-housed cut flowers from the shops. The frugal option so much nicer than the shop-bought.

Stir-up Sunday resulted in two puds – we’ll have one and Helen Annetts will have the other

Those bags of salad are rubbish so let’s get on with sowing windowsill leaves

Cut flowers are out, aromatic viburnum from the garden is in

Also this week:

Allotment: Matt tried and failed to have a bonfire, the pile having got too damp. Still harvesting cavolo nero and chard.
Cooking and Eating: Potato and savoy cabbage curry with daal, sprout linguine, soda bread (Harry’s new favourite), Tuscan bean soup.
Life: Headed out to Woolhope (Herefordshire) for a visit to their brilliant pub and to get some country air. Everyone’s had a stomach upset so there’s been a few 3am baby-sick calamities (days lived on 5 hours sleep are hideous). Planning and plotting a new product line for Plane Structure.

 

*This is the time when many people face genuine financial issues. I am deeply thankful that I was able to put savings aside before I got pregnant but still, I worry about money. Spare a thought for all those who are not as fortunate.

**Yes this makes me angry. It’s not the Dads’ fault though.  Working practices in the UK simply do not support the parents of young children, both men and women. I think Matt and I are actually two of the lucky ones as at least we can work flexibly.

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

Runner beans with tomatoes

Autumn is in the air. It’s not yet 7am but I’ve been awake for hours, it being impossible to sleep with a child kicking against the lungs as if pushing off from the edge of a swimming pool. Outside is that light mist of early autumn; warm, damp, grey. (Although some of the greyness might be related to our filthy windows.)

Every year I note that autumn really begins in August, and every year it still come as a surprise. For several seasons we’ve had a wet, disappointing late summer, then come September things perk up with weeks of warm sunshine. I don’t mind this in the slightest, for it means GREAT things for my pumpkins. This year I’ve managed, with no effort on my part, to grow at least five whoppers that will hopefully ripen into jazzy stripes of orange and green.

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We’ve about 5 of these, as big as a basketball. Hopefully they’ll turn into jazzy orange and green stripes.

Late summer is marked with shades of red and orange. The nasturtiums are rampant, climbing up the sweet pea netting better than the sweet peas ever did. They give welcome colour to salads but are also covered in the happy hum of pollinating insects. Over in the raspberry patch, the gentle beginning has given way to abundance – and the fruit is delicious, sweet and tart and floral and luscious. At this rate, we’re going to need a bigger freezer.

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Nasturtiums add welcome hot colour to salads

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The raspberry harvest has started in earnest…we’re going to need a bigger freezer.

Joy of joy, the sunflower harvest has begun! This year we have mainly bright yellow and dark brown heads, jolly as ever. I always think it is a miracle that a seed so small can produce plants as epic as this.

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And lo! The sunflowers beat the 7-foot mark!

But the stalwart of the moment is the runner bean. I’ve blogged before that our beans have not done well this year; they had a good sulk at being parched during May and June. But the runners are doing OK and on balance, I’d rather have a small crop that lasts a long time than be inundated with foot-long beans that are as tough as shoe leather. I pick them young, maybe 15cm long, and many of them have been munched raw, straight from the plant, whilst I wander up to the water butt. (Incidentally raw runner beans are delicious, as written about far more eloquently than I could manage in this article by Stephen Harris in the Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/food-and-drink/recipes/transform-runner-beans-summer-just-slice-add-salt-lime/)

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Runner bean flowers

This week has seen the first of our, admittedly modest, tomato harvest. I try hard with my toms and they never do brilliantly, but I will always persevere because homegrown tomatoes are The Best Thing Ever. Put some freshly picked runners with some home-grown tomatoes, and you have the makings of a perfect late summer supper.

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First (modest) haul of tomatoes including the ugly but wonderful Fiorentina

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Mid-August pickings

Runner beans with tomatoes

I first came across this idea in one of the River Cottage books and, interest piqued, did a bit of research. Turns out that the fresh-green-beans-braised-with-fresh-tomatoes theme can be found in most of my French cookbooks and is a classic dish. This is a great way of serving up runner or stick beans; use fresh, ripe tomatoes if you can and do not stint with either the olive oil or the garlic. The beans lose their vivid green colour, but so be it.

Extra virgin olive oil

1 onion, finely diced

At least two fat cloves of garlic, more if you like it garlicky

About 500g runner beans, topped, tailed and sliced

About 1kg fresh tomatoes, chopped. I leave the skins on but you can remove them if you prefer. You could also use a can of tomatoes if the fresh ones are no good.

Small cup of water

Salt and pepper

Put a good glug of oil into a deep frying pan or casserole, and soften the onion over a medium heat. Add the garlic and fry for a scant few seconds, until the aroma rises, then quickly add the beans and tomatoes. If you have watery tomatoes you may not need to add any liquid, but if the mixture looks dry then add a few tablespoons of water. Season well with salt and pepper, pop the lid on, and leave to putter on a medium heat for 30 minutes. Stir every now and then and add a drop more water if it looks dry. Serve when the beans are tender.

This is great on its own with hunks of bread but can also be an accompaniment to sausages, chops and fish.

Harvesting: Rocket, chard, beet spinach, frills of hex, baby cavolo nero, runner beans, aubergine, first tomatoes, courgette, patty pan, raspberries, sunflowers, nasturtiums, zinnia, cosmos, cornflower, marigolds.
Cooking: Plum, peach and blueberry crumble. Roast beef-rib with yorkshires and creamy chard. Raspberries served with fridge-cold thick cream, honey and amaretti biscuits.
Visited: Ludlow, to stock up with good meat and cheese. Ate a brilliant ham hock and leek pie at the Church Inn.

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

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.

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.