In praise of salsify and sunshine

After a month in which I was beginning to think that I might never get out into the garden again, let alone do any gardening, and that the only option was to build an ark, the sun is finally out.   Where there once was a lawn of sorts, now there’s something more resembling the jungle in Borneo.   Slugs have munched their way through the runner bean plants that I rashly planted a couple of weeks ago leaving only stumps.   But the salsify is spectacular.

Salsify beautiful and tasty too…

I planted the salsify seeds nearly a year ago and have been enjoying cooking with the roots.  Sometimes known as oyster plant because the roots are supposed to taste slightly of oysters.  I can’t see it myself although they are delicious – slightly sweet with a silky texture.   The roots look a bit like thin parsnips and they can be used interchangeably in recipes with the very similar scorzonera.   Once they’ve been peeled they go brown incredibly quickly so putting them in acidulated water while you’re preparing the other ingredients is probably a good idea.   The first thing I ever cooked with them was a recipe from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall which has become a real staple in my repertoire  and which is utterly delicious.   So this is his recipe not mine:

Salsify Fritters

300g salsify
45g unsalted butter
1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
1 small red chilli, finely chopped
3 tablespoons of fresh coriander, finely chopped
1 egg
1 tablespoon flour
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

Peel and coarsely grate the salsify.  Saute the salsify in half the butter over a medium heat until softened.   Mix with garlic, chilli, coriander, egg and flour in a bowl.  Season and shape into six fritters. Heat the remaining butter and olive oil in a frying pan over a medium heat and cook until golden brown.   About 4 mins on either side.  Serves 2 for a light lunch.

Bud of the salsify flower, utterly delicious

But its not just the root you can eat, if you leave them in the ground over winter you get beautiful purple flowers in the spring, and the flower buds are utterly delicious too.    It’s too simple to write down as a recipe, but if you cut the tightly furled bud (see above) along with about about 10cm of the stalk below and steam them for about 4 minutes, they are utterly delicious eaten whole like asparagus with maybe a little melted butter.   I ate a plateful last night and actually think I prefer them to asparagus.   They’ve got the added bonus of no unpleasant and smelly side effects when you go to the loo later!

My slightly delusional aspiration is for my garden to be a potager, with as many of the plants as possible earning their keep by being both delicious and beautiful.   And for me salsify certainly ticks both boxes.

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Spring at last

Peas sprouting

A very brief post with no recipes because I’ve been snowed under at work.  But so excited that things are starting to grow again.    Purple sprouting broccoli delicious – had some in a risotto last night, and the rhubarb is beginning to look promising.    More soon…

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Brussel Sprout soup

I was possibly over enthusiastic when I planted out 12 brussel sprout plants last year.   I love sprouts, but each stalk has a surprisingly large number of sprouts on it, so I’ve still got a lot left.  I have two default ways of cooking sprouts – one is that old chestnut: pancetta, sprouts and chestnuts, the other is Brussel Sprouts in a cheesy sauce.   Both delicious, but as I’ve still got a bit of a glut I thought I’d see if I could come up with any alternatives.

Today for lunch I did Brussel Sprout Soup.  It might sound a bit weird but it was surprisingly good.  The idea for the soup really came from wandering around the garden and pulling up whatever I could find – a slightly dishevelled leek and some potatoes which are stored in my shed.  I used a chicken stock I’d made after jointing an organic chicken for a tray bake had left me with a carcass and plenty of bones that just couldn’t be wasted.

Brussel Sprout Soup

750ml chicken stock
1/2 – 1 leek shredded
2-3 waxy potatoes
200g brussel sprouts – finely shredded
olive oil
salt & pepper

Melt a knob of butter with about a tablespoon of olive oil in a heavy saucepan.  Sweat the leeks in the butter and oil.    Peel and chop the potatoes into 2cm cubes.   Add to the leeks and then add chicken stock.    After about 8-10 minutes when the potatoes are soft crush them with the back of a fork so that they mainly crumble/dissolve in the soup but leave some little chunks for texture.   While the potatoes are cooking peel the outer leaves off the brussel sprouts – I used the big old battered about ones that I couldn’t have used in anything else.  Shred them really finely and then add to the pan.  Simmer for about 5 minutes.

Of course if you don’t have brussel sprouts sitting around attracting slugs in your garden this soup could be made with kale or cabbage.    A grating of parmesan on the top would be nice too.

Battered and a bit sluggy, but still tasty...


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First harvest of 2012

As soon as I saw the first signs of purple on my Purple Sprouting Broccoli earlier in the week I knew that I wouldn’t be able to resist harvesting it for long.  I should probably call myself The Impatient Gardener.

I spent three hours weeding in the garden today and after I’d trundled the wheelie bin (which was full of the sort of weeds you can’t compost unless you want to spread weeds all over your garden) down the alley ready for collection tomorrow, I decided that I deserved a reward for all my hard work.

So I made myself tea in a lovely new mug that my son had given me for my birthday, and went harvesting.    I do sometimes do fancy things with PSB but as it was the first lot I’ve tasted in nearly a year I wanted to taste it properly, so I did something too simple to be a recipe, but delicious nevertheless.

Steamed Purple Sprouting Broccoli with Lemony Anchovy Butter

Steam purple sprouting broccoli lightly in a steamer until just tender.   Overcooking is sacrilege, so its vital to keep an eye on it and not wander off to do something else while its steaming.   I think I steamed mine for 2-3 minutes maximum.

While it’s steaming take a couple of anchovy fillets from a tin or jar and chop finely.   Melt a generous knob of butter in a small saucepan and add the anchovy.  Grate in the zest of about a quarter to half a lemon.  Heat on a medium-low heat mashing a bit with the back of a spoon or fork so that it disintegrates into the butter.   This shouldn’t take more than a minute so you can do it while the PSB is steaming.   Turn off the heat and add a squeeze of lemon to the buttery sauce.

Take the purple sprouting off the heat and put on a plate.   Pour over the lemony anchovy butter.   Eat with fingers and mop up the juices at the bottom with a chunk of crusty bread.

Beyond simple but utterly delicious

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A Happy New Gardening Year

Christmas is now offically over...

It’s January the 6th, Christmas is over, the decorations are down and all that’s left is to hoover up the pine needles – which I’ll probably still be finding under the sofa for months.     Normally this is the gloomiest time of the year but the weather is glorious at the moment, clear blue skies and a sun that is almost warm.   My garden has really taken a battering over the past week with some of the strongest winds I’ve seen in years.   The Cavolo Nero in particular is looking very sorry for itself.

Cavolo Nero after the storm

The unseasonally bright weather is confusing the plants.   There are a few leaves still clinging to my apricot tree which really should be bare by now, and some green shoots coming up already.   The garlic I planted in November is looking very encouraging.

Garlic already looking promising

With a few days off work in the next couple of weeks I am looking forward to a few hours of Veg Gardener Porn, in other words, sitting in front of the fire with a cup of tea and a pile of seed catalogues planning the year to come.  This year I’m intrigued by the idea of Calypso, a leaf coriander which is apparently slow to bolt ( and as a huge fan of winter squash am keen to try the Squashkin which is apparently a combination of two of my favourites Crown Prince and Butternut squash (

Marshall Seed's "Squashkin"

But even more exciting is my purple sprouting broccoli.   I planted a number of different varieties last year which, in theory, will give me a steady supply of PSB throughout the spring.   The earliest variety “Rudolph” was supposed to be ready for Christmas but wasn’t.   Today however, as I lugged the Christmas tree out of the house I saw that one of the plants was looking distinctly promising.   Not quite ready for harvesting but not far off.    As I’ve got eight PSB plants in the garden I think that there’s likely to be a fair amount of kitchen experimentation to expand my repertoire going on in the next couple of months, you have been warned!

Purple Sprouting Broccoli "Rudolph" on 6th Jan 2012

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Banana, Apple, Almond and Polenta cake

The cake I made so the Christmas cake actually made it to Christmas unmolested.

So this is the cake I made to stop the kids from eating the Christmas cake before it even cooled enough to come out of the tin.    They wanted banana bread and I wanted to make an almond and polenta cake so in the end I decided to combine both of them together and it actually turned out far better than I expected.   It got eaten so quickly that I barely managed to take a photo – this was taken when it was barely cool but already 75% eaten.

It’s another absurdly easy to make cake.  It was made on a Sunday after all the shops were shut with the remnants found in various packets and in the fruit bowl.  As well as brown bananas we quite often end up with wrinkly apples at the bottom of the fruit bowl that nobody wants to eat.   I often use them in baking (apple and walnut cake made with olive oil or walnut oil is nice) or grate onto muesli.   Like the Christmas cake, unfortunately nothing in this cake came from the garden, but I did eat the last slice of it in the garden the following morning so maybe that counts.

Banana, apple, almond and polenta cake

110g butter
100g ground almonds
100g polenta
150g soft brown sugar
2 bananas
1 apple
Zest of 1 lemon
Zest of 1 orange
Juice of 1/2 lemon
2 eggs

Put the soft brown sugar and butter in a large saucepan.  Melt the butter and stir to incorporate the sugar.   Turn off the heat.  Add the polenta, ground almonds, zest of lemon and orange.  Mash the bananas and add.   Grate the apple and add (I didn’t bother to peel off the skin but did take out the core).  Add the lemon juice.   Beat the eggs together and add.

I actually added a few tablespoons of self-raising flour at the end because the mixture was a bit too runny and I only had 90g of polenta in the cupboard.   So I suppose it might be an idea to add half a teaspoon of baking powder, but this isn’t the sort of cake that’s going to rise much either way – its dense, moist and a bit slab like.

Grease and line a large loaf tin.  Pour in the mixture.

I actually can’t quite remember how long or what heat I baked it at, but I think it was 170C in a fan oven for 45 minutes until a skewer came out clean.   I’d advise you keep an eye on it just in case that’s wrong.

It doesn’t look that glamorous but no one complained.   If you were being fancy you could do some sort of butter icing or lemon or orange drizzle type of icing on the top.

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Very Easy Christmas Cake

Stir up Sunday came and went at the end of November, I thought about making a Christmas cake, but I couldn’t really face it.    In the past when I’ve made a proper dried fruit Christmas cake my daughter has picked the icing and marzipan off and tried to disguise the fact that she’s eaten barely any of the cake, I’ve picked off the icing and eaten the cake and marzipan, and then in mid-January at least a third of a cake has gone in the compost bin.  Some years we’ve gone for a totally different style of cake, like a German Bundt cake style.   So I didn’t really think that anyone would mind if I gave it a miss.

I was wrong.  A few days ago the kids both asked when I was making a Christmas cake and said how much they loved the spicy fruity smell in the kitchen while it was cooking.   Unable, as ever, to resist flattery when it comes to cooking, I decided to go for it, but to make it as easy as possible.    There are lots of ingredients in this but absolutely nothing fancy at all in the way you make it.   And of course you could reduce the variety of dried fruits – if I’m honest I just used up all the dregs of packets that were sitting in my cupboard and getting perilously close to their used by date.  Who am I kidding?  Some of them were past their sell by date, but they’re dried fruits, they looked okay, they smelled okay, they tasted okay.   If I don’t do another blog, you’ll know they weren’t okay.

Very Easy Christmas Cake

150g sultanas
250g raisins
50g dried cranberries
75g chopped dried figs
100g chopped dried prunes
100g chopped dried apricots
75g chopped dates
1/2 jar Apricot jam
3 Tablespoons Marmalade
140ml dark rum (substitute orange juice if you want to make it alcohol free)
Zest and juice of one large orange
250g dark brown sugar
3 large eggs
250g plain flour
1/2 t ground cinnamon
1/4 t ground cloves
1/4 t ground nutmeg

20 or 22cm springform cake tin

Put the butter, brown sugar, rum, orange juice, jam, marmalade and orange zest into a large saucepan.   Add the dried fruits and heat gradually to melt the butter, stirring as it melts, then bring to a gentle boil.   Simmer for 10 minutes then turn off the heat.  Leave to stand for around 30 minutes while you do the next bit.

Put the oven on to 150 C.   Grease and line the cake tin with a double layer of greaseproof paper.  A springform tin is a good idea if you have one.  The greaseproof paper at the side should stick up above the top of the tin as in the picture.

Add the flour, baking powder, spices and beaten egg to the mixture after the half hour.  Pour carefully into the prepared cake tin.  I found that this quantity was quite a lot for my 20cm cake tin but the next size up I have is huge, so you might find that if you have a 22cm tin that it would be the perfect amount for that.

Wrapping an additional layer or two of brown paper around the outside of the tin can be helpful to prevent the sides and top of a christmas cake burning but I didn’t bother and it turned out fine.

Put in the oven and cook for 100-120 minutes until the top is brown (but not black!) and a skewer poked into the middle comes out very slightly damp but not claggy.  Leave to cool in the tin.   Then wrap in greaseproof paper and aluminium foil until you’re ready to decorate it.

Obviously I haven’t tasted it yet but it did make the whole kitchen smell delicious, so much so, in fact that the children threatened to eat it then and there, and it was only when I promised to make another cake for immediate consumption that they relented.   The other cake, which was a complete fabrication – a sort of banana, apple, almond and polenta cake – turned out rather well and lasted less than 24 hours, so I will write that one up when I get a chance.

Iced and ready to eat

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The trouble with brussel sprouts

I’m a big fan of the brussel sprout, but in the last few weeks my love of them has been sorely tested.    When I planted them back in the spring they grew magnificently and healthily.   I staked them in the autumn and waited to start harvesting my crop.   A couple of weeks ago I picked the first batch and decided to invent a delicious winter salad of shredded brussel sprout, puy lentils and bacon.    It looked delicious…

Not my finest hour...

but frankly it tasted like hamster droppings.    I thought I should share the fact, aware that if I only talk about my successes I probably come across as insufferably smug.   But I won’t share the recipe, that would be cruel.

Wounded but not beaten I decided to re-enter the fray again today, but the sprouts were ready for battle.  I’m pretty strong, in spite of my teenage son regularly calling me an haggard old crone, but it took me nearly twenty minutes to pull up a single stick of brussel sprouts out of the garden.   I’ve grown them in the past, but have no recollection of it being so difficult to harvest them.   Any tips?   If things don’t improve before Christmas we won’t be eating our Christmas lunch until New Year’s Day.

Anyway rather than another hamster dropping venture, today I decided to go with an old favourite.

Brussel sprouts with a cheesy sauce

Brussel sprouts
Creme fraiche
Whole grain or Dijon mustard
Plain flour

Boil water and add brussel sprouts and boil for just about 3-4 minutes, drain and put in a gratin type dish.   Make a white sauce (a knob of butter melted in a pan + tablespoon or so of flour, cook until it looks a bit like scrambled egg, add milk and bubble) then add a teaspoon of  mustard and a couple of tablespoons of creme fraiche.   Then add a couple of handfuls of strong cheese.   Today I used a mixture of Gruyere and Cheddar but you could also add little chunks of blue cheese like Roquefort.    Pour over the top of the brussel sprouts.  Grate parmesan on top and put in the oven at 180 until brown on top and bubbling.

The picture doesn’t really do it justice but it is very tasty.  Today we had it as a side dish with roast chicken but sometimes on winter’s evenings I like to eat this by itself with a hunk of french bread to mop up the cheesy sauce.   Very unhealthy, but delicious.

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Squash, leek and marscapone risotto

Uchiki Kuri Squash

I’ve been slightly frazzled today, although my father, who was a farmer all his working life, would laugh at the idea that sitting in front of a computer for ten hours could be tiring.  I’ve been wrestling with writing something that needed lots of research and which had to be completed to a deadline.  So my desk has been strewn with books and articles and my browser must have had about twenty tabs open concurrently.   When it got to 7 o’clock I had no idea what to cook and little imagination.   In situations like this I invariably make a risotto, so that’s what I did.

I only got three squash to properly ripen this year, I think that the dodgy August weather wasn’t ideal for them, but the idea of training them up and over an arch in the garden worked really well.   I think I’ll definitely try it again next year.   Of course, you couldn’t do it with huge great Halloween style pumpkins but the Uchiki Kuri squash that are my favourite were an ideal size as well as being delicious.   I cut them about three weeks ago with a good few inches of stalk, and left them in the sun for a day to allow the skin to harden off.   I’d roasted half of one a few days ago with roast chicken and potatoes and so had some left in the fridge.   So all I had to do was to stumble outside in the dark and grope around for a leek.

Squash, leek & marscapone risotto

1 leek
1/3 uchiki kuri squash (butternut squash would work well too)
500ml chicken stock
small wine glass of dry white wine (100ml maybe)
200g carnaroli or arborio risotto rice
knob of butter
2 Tablespoons olive oil
pinch of cumin
1 T(ablespoon) marscapone
1 T grated parmesan
salt & pepper

Slice the squash into chunks, drizzle with a little olive oil and a pinch of cumin.   Roast in the oven for about 30 minutes at 180C.    If you’re using uchiki kuri you don’t need to peel off the skin because it goes soft and is fine to eat when its roasted but if you’re using butternut squash you’ll need to peel it.  Take out of the oven and put to one side.  You could do this immediately before you’ll need it or even cook more roast squash with, for example, Sunday lunch, and save some in the fridge.

Put the stock in a saucepan and bring to a gentle simmer.   Add a knob of butter and the remaining tablespoon of olive oil to a pan.   Slice the leeks and saute in the butter and olive oil over a medium heat until soft.   Then add the risotto rice and stir around for a few minutes.   Add the wine and bubble until it has almost all been absorbed.   Then gradually add the stock ladle by ladle, stirring continually.     Wait until the liquid from each ladle of stock has been absorbed before adding the next.   The whole process will take around 20 minutes, by which time the stock should all be absorbed and the rice should be soft but still with a tiny bit of bite (al dente) and not soggy.   You may need to add slightly less or more stock.    Dice the cooled squash and add into the risotto together with the heaped tablespoons of marscapone and grated parmesan.   Stir very gently so that the squash doesn’t all break up and turn into a puree.

The squash makes the risotto look very autumnal.  Stir for a minute or two on a low heat until the squash is heated through and the marscapone is well combined.    Season to taste.  Although I try to be healthy and avoid adding too much salt to things, I do find that this needs a little bit of salt otherwise it can be too bland and creamy.   Just a pinch of salt and a grind of pepper and the flavours really lift.

Would be nice with a green salad with some peppery cut and come again salad leaves that are still just about hanging on in the garden.

Serves 2.

I’ve said it before, but as a fan of recycling I’ll say it again.   I find the process of making risotto incredibly therapeutic, you need to concentrate just enough to allow you to block everything else out, but its not exactly rocket science.   With a glass of wine in my hand and some music playing in the background thoughts of the day’s work vanish.

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Pickling spices, cucumbers and nostalgia

As a small child I spent many weekends staying with my grandmother and some of my earliest memories are helping her to bottle fruit and vegetables at the end of the summer, ready for the winter.   The shelves of her larder groaned with the jewelled colours of fruit in kilner jars.   For decades I’d look back on it and think how distant and archaic it seemed, now whether through nostalgia or the practicality of wanting to make the most of my produce and preserve the flavours of summer, I find myself doing the same.

I’d never grown cucumbers until this year, and after the disappointment of a few rather bitter specimens earlier in the summer I’d left many of them hanging on the frame they were growing up.   Today I decided to tackle them to see if they were worth eating or needed to be thrown away.  They were rather a motley selection but none of them was bitter in the slightest.

The Indian Summer having given way to distinctly autumnal weather I decided to try a recipe that my brother-in-law had made nearly a decade previously, which had been a favourite in his family, called Bread and Butter Pickles.   Being a thoroughly modern family the brother-in-law is now an ex and lives in another part of the country, but I remembered the key ingredients as being cucumber and onion so I trawled the internet and came up with something that sounded familiar, which I adapted.

Bread and Butter Pickles

1kg cucumber
400g shallots
1/4 cup (4 Tbsp) of sea salt
600ml cider vinegar
2 cups of sugar
8 cloves
1 tsp ground allspice
2 star anise
2 tsp black mustard seeds
3 cm stick of cinnamon
Quarter tsp of ground turmeric

Peel the cucumber and slice into rounds about 0.5cm thick.   If they’re really big cucumbers cut each round into half-moons.   Finely slice shallots.  Of course you could use onions, I just like the size and colour of the shallots, as well as the flavour.

Put into a bowl with the cucumber.   Scatter the salt on top and mix together.

Put a tea towel over the top and cover with a layer of ice cubes.  Put into the fridge if you’ve got space.  I didn’t so I sat the bowl on a couple of ice packs.   Leave for 4 hours.

Thoroughly rinse and drain the cucumber and shallot mix at least twice if not three times to get rid of the salt.

Put the vinegar in the bottom of a large preserving pan with the sugar (not sure what the weight was as I measured the sugar out American style in cups).   I used preserving sugar, but only because I had some left over from making damson jam a couple of weeks ago, granulated or caster would be fine.   Add all the spices and heat gently until all the sugar is dissolved.

Meanwhile sterilise your preserving jars – I put mine in a cold oven and heated it to 180/200C for about 20 mins, but you could do it in a water bath or even in the dishwasher on hot.  Put the lids, rubber seals etc into a saucepan of water and bring to the boil then turn off the heat.   Leave them until you’re ready to use.

When the sugar is totally dissolved add the cucumbers and shallots and bring to the boil.

Boil very briefly – say 1-2 mins – you don’t want the cucumber to go soggy and disintegrate.  Using tongs or good oven gloves take the preserving jars out of the oven/water bath  and fill with the cucumber/shallot mix.   Leave 1-2 cm gap at the top of the jar.   Fill with the vinegar syrup so the pickle is covered.   Put on lids.

My grandmother would have used things like this in sandwiches with cheese or with plates of cold ham, but I think they’d be good with burgers too.   My three jars aren’t exactly an industrial quantity of preserves to keep us in fruit and veg through the winter, but with the pungent smell pervading the kitchen and The Archers on in the background, I could almost have been back in my grandma’s kitchen.


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