Breaking Out

Breaking out

Everyone is eager to be outdoors in this lovely weather to feel the energising warmth of the sun. It is a joy to see the blossoms and ferns unfurl, like ourselves, with thanks to the heat and light. Young plants of runner beans and brassicas have moved out from their propagating nests to the open air ridges. Potatoes, carrots, broad beans and parsnip have also been sown out while seedlings of beetroot, cucumber, courgette and basil are still establishing themselves under cover. Carrots have been sown between rows of already established garlic to hopefully repel the dreaded carrot fly. Prepared beds are filling up nicely with these thriving but still vulnerable plants; attention is needed to defend them from slugs and snails (not to mention rogue donkeys or errant ducks!). Tomatoes, early potatoes, peas, asparagus and some promising strawberries are well on their way in the large tunnels.

Garlic

The shift outdoors which comes with the change of weather brings a welcome change of routine as the days stretch. It is a good time to break old habits, shift gear and move the furniture. I am reminded of the childhood thrill of eating outside as soon as the forecast promised a few warm days. My mother had an early summer ritual of taking the pine kitchen table outside to be scrubbed down in the sun. When it was dried we ate around it and were animated by the simple novelty of dining en plein air. The same table was inevitably returned inside but to a new position; adjacent to the window instead of the range, with a refreshing new perspective. It probably sticks in my memory because it was a rare enough event. It is a delightful treat to bring the indoors out to enjoy the change of habit and habitat.

Last Sundays brunch of poached duck egg and asparagus tasted all the better for being eaten in the warmth of the morning sun with a soundtrack of birdsong instead of my droning radio. Asparagus is growing in a corner of the tunnel but you can also use asparagus kale or the flowering tips of brassicas just before the flowers open. This is a cheap asparagus substitute. The generous ducks who produce the delicious eggs are also basking in their new found release after a spell of restriction imposed by an avian flu scare. If they are let out too early in the morning, before they have laid (and they are very impatient) there is a danger they will lay ‘out’ under a tempting canopy of nettles or blackberry bushes.

Poached Duck Egg with Asparagus and Spelt Soda Bread

This is a super easy bread recipe. The addition of some seeds to the dough will provide extra texture and nutrition and you can vary the proportion of wholemeal/white flour according to your preference. Preheat the oven to 220 centigrade and line a loaf tin with baking paper.

225 g organic  wholemeal spelt flour

225g organic white spelt flour

1 tsp. baking soda

½ tsp.baking powder

½ tsp. salt

500ml buttermilk (approx..)

Sieve and mix the dry ingredients in a large bowl (make sure there are no lumps in the baking soda) and make a well in the centre. Add the buttermilk gradually but briskly while stirring with a large spoon. This is quite a wet mixture so add a little more buttermilk if it is too dry. Ensure all the flour has been mixed in as you gently stir the dough. Tip the mix into the prepared tin and sprinkle with sunflower, pumpkin or sesame seeds. Bake at 220 centigrade for about 10 mins and reduce to 180 centigrade for a further 20 minutes or so. Ovens vary but you can test by tapping the base of the bread; a hollow sound denotes it is ready. Tip onto a cooling rack, cover with a clean tea towel and leave to rest.

Serve the bread toasted with a poached egg and asparagus which has been steamed or lightly sautéed in butter and oil with some garlic. The asparagus needs just enough cooking to retain its bite. When poaching the egg, crack it into swirling boiled water with a pinch of salt and a splash of vinegar. Reduce the heat and allow it to cook gently for a few minutes until the white has set.

Poached egg and asparagus

So I won’t delay with too much rambling and share some of the glorious images of May flowers around the farm and the high hedged tracks flush with frilly ferns. If it gets too hot a stroll beneath the trees gives a cooling flash of bluebell and wild leek. Staying out is a pleasure when the flowers are out; demanding the attention of birds, bees and busy bodies.

tree blossoms

Ferns

Ita.

 

 

 

 

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April Daze

April Daze
This is the month sprinkled with blossom, sprouting vigorously across the landscape. The fiery gorse is particularly striking at the moment, daring the sun to shine with its abundant yellow flowers. If you are a home brewer now is the time to harness these delicate petals to make gorse wine; their subtle scent of coconut and vanilla will reward you for your patience. It will require some time on your advisedly – gloved hands but is well worth the effort. My earliest memories of Easter was using gorse flowers (called ‘whin’ in the north) to dye the shells of eggs by strewing the petals into the water as they were being hard- boiled. The chocolate varieties were less ubiquitous then! If you are a fan of Dr. Bach you will also know that he prescribes gorse as a remedy for ‘uncertainty’ which is perhaps pertinent this month if you are facing the surge of spring chores; there are so many jobs lined up it is a challenge to know where to begin.
gorseweb

Young seedlings under cover are establishing their roots and stretching their first leaves upwards and out, some are ready to be hardened off but these can be anxious weeks while young delicate plants are still at risk from fluctuating temperatures and there is a constant need for diligence. While they are being nursed their eventual destination beds must be prepared and dressed; not just to fertilise them but to supress the growth of weeds which are also very eager to display their spring vigour.
aprilseedlingsweb
Weeds aren’t all bad of course and the transition period between winter crops and new season growth is when we can relish the tonic of young nettle tops (gloves on again), dandelion, wild garlic and three-cornered leek. April is a forager’s delight. These wild greens are perfect for using in soups, salads and pesto to bridge the last weeks of the ‘hungry gap’. If you are bent on pulling weeds don’t waste them. They can be mixed or matched with juicy spring onions, broccoli tops, spinach and kales to fill a pie, pack a pancake or served as a side dish; simply sautéed with a good olive or sesame oil, spiced with chilli and fresh ginger or just plain in a quick breakfast omelette. It’s all tasty goodness.
aprilnettlesweb
A batch of wild garlic pesto has inspired me to make some Gnocci which are an Italian dumpling, designed to be dressed with any fresh herby sauce. It is a relatively easy process to make Gnocchi but it is worth taking care with proportions and details to avoid heavy, stodgy results. The basic mix of cooked potato, flour and egg should form plump but light pillows of dough that quickly cook and float in a pan of boiling water. The potatoes can be boiled, steamed or roasted as long as they are dry. I prefer to roast them whole, skin on, with a generous handful of course sea salt. The crisp skin is removed when they are still as hot as you can handle them and then pressed through a potato ricer. Some recipes use a 50:50 proportion of flour to potato but I used 200g flour with 600g cooked, peeled potatoes and it worked well.
They are classically served pan-seared with browned butter and sage, topped with shears of Parmesan.
Ingredients
3 or 4 medium sized potatoes, roasted and peeled
1/3 quantity organic pasta flour (oo grade)
1 egg, lightly beaten
Sea salt for roasting
½ tsp. fine sea salt for seasoning
Method
Wash and dry the potatoes before placing them on an oven-proof tray with the salt. Roast in a medium hot oven for about 45 minutes, depending on the size. They should be light and fluffy inside with a crispy skin.
Remove the skins while the potatoes are still hot and pass them through a potato ricer. This will incorporate air to the mix but you can also use a mouli or course grater if you don’t have a ricer gadget. Do this over a large wide bowl. When the potato has cooled, tip it into a mound on a clean worktop. Add the measured sieved flour and salt. Make a well in the centre and crack in the egg. Whisk the egg with a fork and gradually work in the surrounding mixture with your fingers. Work gently to form soft dough and stop kneading as soon as it can form a ball. Cut the dough with a pastry cutter or blunt knife into manageable portions to roll into ropes. Use extra flour to dust the board as you work but avoid using too much or it will make the texture heavy. Cut the ropes into even pieces, about 1 inch, roll them against the tines of a fork to leave ridges and line them up on a floured tray or plate. The ridges will help to ‘carry’ the sauce but don’t worry if they aren’t consistent first time; it may take some practice. My first lot are quite free form!
Drop the gnocci into a pan of gently boiling water and remove them with a slotted spoon as soon as they are all floating. This will take about 4 minutes, depending on the size of the pieces. Cook in small batches, drain and serve immediately with the sauce of your choice. If you want to serve them later it is best to cook them and dress with some olive oil to store in the fridge.
gnocciweb They can be reheated in a sauce, under foil in the oven or pan fried in butter and herbs. They are very versatile little pockets of starchy but light bites that are the perfect vehicle for any number of punchy sauces.
So if you are having a bout of ‘uncertainty’ perhaps a warm cup of gorse tea might help you grasp the nettle.
Ita

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Signs of the Times

While it seems as if everything in the garden is dormant, there is of course no beginning or end to the alchemy of horticulture; the ground is always at some stage of a cycle and the soil never really stops being active. The beds outside may look inactive but they are being dressed with seaweed and manure mulches which will provide them with vital nutrients, simultaneously discouraging the growth of weeds, in readiness for new season planting.

Natural mulches and compost are the essential basics of an organic vegetable garden. The compost, made from the decaying vegetable waste, is packed with trace elements that will set the young seeds up for germination under cover in the propagating tunnel where it is being sifted and sorted into trays and modules. Our boots may be in danger of being sucked from our feet in the mud outside but it is good to know that inside, this crumbly, humus-rich compost, will provide the optimum fertility for the new plants and complete the link in the year’s cycle.

The elements in March are typically varied. The view through my window has been etched with rain, horizontal sleet, diagonal hail, soft descending snowflakes and shards of intermittent sunlight. All within one day! Not to be daunted by such conditions, Ian continues to add stones to the steps being built under the new canopy at the pond. This canopy, made from recycled yacht canvas, has withstood the high winds of recent nights, (though I had fears of it being transported to sail in the nearby Atlantic).

man and stone steps

There are however encouraging signs of spring; in particular is the rampant frog activity in the tunnel pond.

frogs in pond

There are splashes of red rhubarb, purple broccoli florets and the yellow flutes of daffodils defiantly swaying in the wind. (Nearby the ducks are displaying a more mysterious defiance by refusing to lay their golden eggs!)

Comfort food  is very much on the menu in this chilling month and the vegetables that are currently vigorous are very appropriate; their sturdiness against the harshness of winter offer us the same armour; providing the needed defence and comfort for our ‘hungry gap’ diet. The purple florets of broccoli, the frilly leafage of Ragged Jack kale, the perky stems of leeks and the homely roots of parsnip are all delicious and accessible candidates for a hearty meal if they aren’t boiled away to oblivion. Cooking vegetables is always about harnessing maximum flavour and nutrition; they can be slow (roasted or braised) or fast (steamed or tossed in hot oil or butter). They can also be laced with invigorating wild garlic, nettle tops or fresh herbs to add flavour and vital vitamins to soups or oven bakes.

Most of us have nostalgia for the warm winter pies and puddings of our childhood and rhubarb is a particular delight now for the purpose of pampering.  Their sturdy stems have survived a flurry of snow last week, protected by their broad, inverted umbrella tops and are the perfect contenders for a homely crumble.

rhubarb under snow

rhubarb

I like to add a twist to this traditional dessert by spicing it up a little with some cardamom and fresh ginger but you can also use cinnamon, orange zest or honey for variation. The trick is not to make the topping too deep; make a quantity of the crumb and if there is too much for the dish, just freeze any excess for another time. Judge the amount of rhubarb by the size of the dish to be used; there should be enough to fill two thirds of it.

Rhubarb Crumble with Cardamom, Ground Almonds and Ginger

Ingredients

4 or 5 rhubarb stalks, cut into even lengths (about 4 cm)

150 g sugar

100 g plain flour

100 g ground almonds

100 g butter

Seeds from 2 or 3 cardamom pods, crushed

1 tsp. Grated fresh ginger root

Prepare the base by melting 2 tablespoons of the sugar with 50 g of the butter in a wide pan on a medium heat.  Add the rhubarb and crushed cardamom seeds and toss them around as they cook gently for a few minutes until they are completely coated but still firm. Remove from the heat, transfer to a pie dish and leave to cool.

Make the crumble by mixing the chilled and cubed butter, flour and almonds with your fingertips. It should resemble course breadcrumbs. Add the remaining sugar (use more or less depending on taste. The tartness of the rhubarb should prevail).

Grate the ginger over the rhubarb mix and sprinkle the crumble over the top. Don’t press the crumble; just distribute it evenly with your fingers. Bake in a moderate oven for about 30 mins or until it has an even colour and the edges are bubbling, pink and sticky. Serve with yoghurt, cream or vanilla custard. Enjoy.

The rain has stopped and my daydreaming gaze through the window is interrupted by a twig landing on the veranda. This was not debris from the wind but the accidental deposit from a busy starling en route to its’ work in progress’ nest. What promising cargo.

Ita.

 

 

 

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Moveable Feasts

Moveable feasts

If January was a time to stoke ourselves with food to fight the winter blues, February is the long month of yearning before we feel any palpable sense of spring. This is the time known to vegetable growers as the ‘hungry gap’, so called because it was the period between the last winter crops and the first greens of spring. Of course this dearth is less evident these days when it is possible to find just about any fruit or vegetable all year round and the notion of seasonality has little meaning. The recent panic in the supermarkets over the lack of lettuces, spinach and courgettes is a sad reflection of just how far removed we have become from the natural rhythm of the seasons. This is the benefit of growing in polytunnels to extend the growing season without the need to import plane loads of produce from abroad. Here on the farm there are salad greens and spinach available to enjoy during these colder months, while we look forward to the arrival of spring vegetables in March and April.

This ‘hungry gap’ also coincides with the month when many cultures have historically practiced some form of fasting or abstinence, for religious or spiritual reasons. Pre- Lenten festivals are an intriguing fusion of Christian and pagan ritual which are further modified by regional variations. The well-known Mardi Gras translates as Fat Tuesday. The term ‘Carnival’ is attributed to the Latin translation, Carne vale, farewell to meat…or indeed anything to do with the flesh! In the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, which is based on the cycle of the moon, Ramadan is practised by fasting between first light and sunset.

Nowadays it’s the modern detox that follows the binge that was Christmas. There are endless diets recommended to ‘cleanse’ the body and launch us into a new year of culinary virtue. One of the latest notions trending on line, suggested to be conducive to weight loss and gaining the physique of a Greek deity, is the extension of our normal period of fasting; i.e., the period between supper and breakfast while we sleep! This so called 16:8 diet recommends breaking our fast later and having our last meal earlier; eating only within the 8 hour window.

There are many traditional foods associated with Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday and the period of abstinence before Easter; typically made from the richer fatty foods that are forbidden during Lent.  Here, Pancake Tuesday is heard more often than not and my own childhood memories of stacked towers of pancakes, doused with nothing more than sugar and lemon juice, will be very familiar. Many European countries have recipes for doughnuts and cakes based on some combination of flour, eggs and butter.

While browsing these regional variations on the theme of seasonal fasting, I was reminded of a time I spent in Switzerland teaching English. My housemates invited me to pile into a car and drive through the night to Basel (we lived in Bern) to join in with the famous ‘Fastnacht’ which curiously started at 4 a.m. on the Monday after Ash Wednesday and lasted for three days. It was a pageant of Fife and Drum that meandered through the streets of the city with a periodic stop off in a hostelry which served a rich dark steaming bowl of onion soup (Basler Mehlsuppe), topped with melting local cheese. Stamina would dictate how many streets were explored, but to this day the soup is ranked as a good foil for a hangover!

onion soup

Here is my interpretation of this soup; a brew of onion and roasted flour, spiked with medieval spices (allspice, nutmeg or cloves) and based on a beef broth; historically made from the last remaining bones of winter. If it grates on your vegetarian sensibilities, just make an equivalent meat free stock; mushroom would provide the required ‘umami’ taste. I’ve used Thyme in this one but Marjoram is listed in many versions. The addition of toasted flour is what distinguishes it from its more famous neighbour, French Onion Soup, though this one is also popular in Alsace.

 

 

 

Carnival Onion Soup

Ingredients

50g Plain flour

50g Butter

450g onions

2 or 3 garlic cloves, chopped or sliced

1 litre (approx.) beef broth

1 glass dry red wine (optional)

2 tsp. fresh thyme (or 1 dried)

½ tsp. grated nutmeg

1 tsp. ground allspice

Salt & Black pepper to taste

Grated Gruyere or Parmesan cheese

Chopped chives to garnish

Method

To roast the flour you will need a heavy, shallow pan. Place the flour in the pan over a low to medium heat and allow it to slowly darken. Keep moving the flour around the pan with a spatula and be very careful not to rush this stage; it should never get too hot or it will burn and become unpleasantly bitter. Once the flour becomes evenly coloured (deep tan rather than brown) remove it from the pan and leave it to cool on a plate.

roasted flour

Melt the butter in a large soup pan and add the chopped onions. Sauté for a few minutes on a medium heat before adding the chopped garlic, thyme and spices. Continue to stir and cook until the onions are translucent and blended with the spices. Add the roasted flour and stir it through the mixture until all the flour has been incorporated. Gradually add the stock and wine (if using), stirring as you go, and leave the soup to simmer for at least 30 minutes. Stir regularly to ensure it doesn’t stick to the base of the pan. The soup can be passed through a mouli or sieve to make it smooth.

Serve the soup with some grated Gruyere or Parmesan, crusty bread or croutons.

This is a hearty treat to sign off the chills of winter and beckon the green shoots of spring.

Ita.

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Out of The Blue

Out of the Blue

As the Christmas flotsam has been swept up and the baubles packed away for another year let’s not rush ourselves to put away all the lights just yet; there are many long evenings of winter ahead and we should allow some of the festive warmth to linger and comfort us through the cold weather.

The Christmas commercial season started back in November with’ Black Friday’; an American construct, designed to catch the market immediately after Thanksgiving Day. This day launched the beginning of the shopping binge that we now associate with Christmas and which continues on through December and into the following weeks of the January sales.  Now I hear ‘Blue Monday’ is nigh, to punctuate this festive spree, and guaranteed to make us feel ever more glum. Cliff Arnall is an academic who has construed a date, Jan 16th, to be the day that places us furthest from anything remotely comfortable. It is a day when we are most likely to be ‘in the red’ (after all our seasonal indulgence) with just about everything; funds, fitness and family! It remains to be seen what colour America will attribute to January 20th!

Yes I’m sure we all have gaps between the ends that need to meet at this time of year but there is no need to beat ourselves  ‘black’ and ‘Blue’ with admonishments.  Winter is a time to change gear, slow down and recharge our batteries and if we can manage to hibernate a little there is no cause to feel guilty. If we understand that food is the best medicine we can be even more nourished by the knowledge that anthocyanins (the compounds that give food the deep colours of purple, red and blue) occur in many of the vegetables and fruits that appear at this time of year. Anthocyanins, found in red cabbage, elderberries, cranberries, figs, plums, grapes and bilberries, to name but a few, are reputed to be beneficial in the fight against cancer, inflammation and ageing. The darker the colour of food, the higher they are in nutrients and antioxidants. These natural pigments are a powerful boost to the immune system and their consumption is a very pleasing way to embrace the darkness of January.

redcabbage

Red cabbage, which is traditionally eaten in most northern countries, ticks all the boxes for comfort, nutrition and economy; one head of red cabbage goes a long way and this recipe will freeze very successfully. The essential sweet and sour balance can be adjusted to suit your own preferences. Balsamic can be used instead of apple cider vinegar, fresh or frozen cranberries or redcurrants can be added, with or without a little sugar. Alternatively a few spoonfuls of blackcurrant jam or dried fruit may be used as a sweetener. Allspice, cinnamon or cloves will complete the equation to provide a consoling fragrance which helps to extend the cosiness we still need.

Ingredients

1 medium red cabbage

1 red onion

1 large Bramley apple

100ml organic apple cider vinegar

Oil or butter to sauté

2 tsp. allspice or cinnamon

1 ½ tbsp. brown sugar

Method

Peel and slice the onion. Peel, core and chop the apple. Shred or roughly chop the cabbage; discarding the outer leaves and core. Sweat the onions in a large heavy based pan for a few minutes in a little oil or butter over a medium heat. Add the prepared cabbage and stir with the onions for a few minutes before adding the spice and chopped apple. Add the vinegar and sugar cover with a lid and cook gently on a medium to low heat for about an hour. Stir occasionally and check the texture. The cabbage should not turn to mush but retain its structure and vibrant colour.

redcabbage/apple

This can be served as a warm side dish, traditionally with game or ham, but is also delicious cold or warm as an accompaniment to cheese or as a topping for bruschetta.

Enjoy! Ita.

redcabbage/cottagepie

 

 

 

 

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