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).

Tune’s carrot salad

On Sunday we awoke to find a young fox sprawled on the back lawn, enjoying a morning kip. To begin with I thought it was dead but then it’s ears twitched, annoyed at the bug that was hovering around its head. Matt tapped on the window and the fox sprang to its feet and stared directly at us with crystal clear eyes before hopping over the back fence with nonchalant ease. It was a majestic, mesmerising creature.

The city is full of wildlife and some encounters make me catch my breath in joy. Others, alas, make me stamp my feet in irritation. Something low-slung and snuffly has been at the strawberries – they’ve already been infested with woodlouse but this week’s visitor was significantly larger, squashing some plants, chowing down the red berries and tossing unripe fruit around the bed.

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Evidence of a snuffling strawberry thief

The slugs and bugs are still rampant. This week has seen the first dahlia, calendula and even crysanthemum come into bloom – and every single one of these has been nibbled. But let’s look on the bright side: blooms this early bode well for a summer-long harvest.

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First dahlia of the year – and it’s already been nibbled

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The calendula have flowered with tones of peach, orange and red

Last week I wrote about the failed carrot sowings and it is then with some masochism that I give you today’s recipe – an Indian carrot salad that at first glance sounds dull as anything but is in fact AMAZING.

My friend Tune taught me with this dish a few years ago and now, everytime I make Indian food, it’s a given that this salad will form part of the feast. Tune was raised in Calcutta and is the best cook I know: when she gives you a recipe, you take note. To make her carrot salad, you temper whole spices in ghee before piling in grated carrot, coconut and cashew nuts, stir-fry them for a scant few minutes – and that’s it. Easy as anything. The carrots absorb the spiced oil and somehow manage to both toast and soften at the same time, whilst the coconut and cashews lend some texture. It’s light, so it’s a great accompaniment to steaming bowl of rich rogan josh, but packs a punch of flavour and is also cheap as chips. Or perhaps cheap as carrots.

This is best made with fresh curry leaves, which you can buy from Indian food shops or online (try spicesofindia.co.uk), but dried will do if that’s all you have. If you don’t like the heat then leave the chilli out.

Tune’s Carrot Salad 

Serves two as part of a meal, with leftovers

Oil or ghee, for frying

1 tsp black mustard seeds

Pinch of dried Kashmiri chilli flakes or whole dried chilli (optional)

Pinch of curry leaves

2 or 3 good sized carrots, peeled and grated

Heaped tablespoon of desiccated or shaved coconut

Heaped tablespoon of cashew nuts

Heat an Indian karahi (cooking pan) or a frying pan over a medium heat. Add the oil or ghee, then add the mustard seeds, chilli and curry leaves. Fry until the mustard seeds start to pop, then pile in the grated carrot. Stir fry for a minute or so until the carrot begins to soften, then add the coconut and cashews. Continue to stir and cook for two more minutes – you could add a splash of water if it looks like it might catch. When the carrots are softened but by no means mushy, remove from the heat. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve warm as part of an Indian meal with curry, rice or flatbreads.