French (Green) beans – tips and serving suggestions

Freshly_picked_homegrown_French_beans
My first French beans of the season. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

I haven’t grown French beans for a few years. I like the vegetable very much but have preferred to grow runner beans instead. This year I fancied a change. I decided to make holes in the bottom of an old wheelbarrow, fill it with compost and raised a few plants from seed. Much to my delight, my first harvest was ready to pick this week, and there are plenty more to come. I had my doubts about the barrow; we have had so much rain on and off over the past few weeks, I was convinced it would become water-logged and the beans would drown. In fact,  I have been fussing around them like an old mother hen for weeks. But all to the good, the plants seem very healthy and my efforts have paid off.

French_beans_growing_in_a_wheelbarrow
My barrowful of beans. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

I grew a dwarf variety, which doesn’t usually require support. However, I did tie each plant to a thin cane as the barrow is quite shallow and the plants were beginning to sway around in the wind. Ideally, French beans thrive at their best in a sheltered spot; they love the sunshine, plenty of feeding, and whilst they like a lot of water, they need a free-draining soil – hence my worry over the barrow becoming water-logged.

French_bean_flowers_and_beans_on_the_vine
French bean plant in flower and in bean! Images: Kathryn Hawkins

Once the dainty, cream-white flowers have formed, the young beans develop quite quickly, and the full-grown beans are ready for picking in 4 to 6 weeks – the perfect bean for the impatient gardener! Pick the beans young to enjoy the super-tender texture, and also to encourage the other beans on the plant to grow. In spite of their name, it appears the beans originated in South America, although they have long been associated with the cooking of France. If you leave the bean pods on the plants, they will form beans inside the pods which can be picked, shelled and eaten as flageolet beans (another French delicacy and favourite of mine). Leave them longer still, and you’ll have your own haricot beans for drying and storing. Sadly, I don’t have the climate for haricots, or for that matter, the ability to resist picking the pods!

French_bean_preparation
Preparing French beans. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

Preparation is simple, just nip off the stalk end and cook the beans whole, either steaming them for 6-8 minutes, or cooking in a little boiling water for 4-5 minutes. They freeze well: just blanch them in boiling water for barely a minute and then refresh, dry and pack as for any other freezer-destined vegetable.

Serving suggestions:

  • All beans are best picked, cooked and served as fresh as possible. Dress with a knob of butter or a drizzle of olive oil, a pinch of salt and pepper and a few freshly chopped, soft-leaved herbs sprinkled over the top – basil, mint, parsley, coriander, tarragon and chives are great flavours for all beans.
  • Once cooked, chop French beans into short lengths and mix with lightly cooked and mashed butter beans. Season and mix in lots of chopped parsley, then dress with a lemon and honey vinaigrette. Perfect served on freshly toasted bread.
  • Add chopped, cooked French beans to a frittata, omelette or scrambled egg, and flavour with chopped chives.
  • Dress a plate of freshly cooked warm beans with a few shakes of balsamic vinegar and a light dusting of brown sugar.
  • This is one of my favourite French bean recipes: heat 2 tbsp. olive oil with a finely chopped garlic clove for 1 minute over a low heat. Add a chopped ripe tomato and a few chopped, pitted dry-pack black olives. Season with a pinch of salt and a pinch of sugar. Heat through gently for 2-3 minutes. Pour over freshly cooked warm French beans, and serve sprinkled with freshly ground black pepper and a few tarragon leaves. Bon appétit!
    Plate_of_freshly_cooked_warm_French_beans_with_garlic_and_tomato_ressing
    A favourite warm French bean salad. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

    Freshly_picked_homegrown_French_beans_still-life
    Home-grown French beans. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

Cucumber conundrums and recipe ideas

 

Jar_of_freshly_picked_homegrown_cucumbers
Freshly picked cucumbers. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

I think it’s safe to say that growing cucumbers is one of my fortes. Every year I raise a bumper crop from seed, without really trying very hard. As with any watery vegetable (or fruit) that doesn’t freeze well, you have to get creative in order to make the most from your harvest when it’s fresh. Over the years, I have accumulated a few recipe ideas which I am happy to share with you and anyone else in a similar “glut” situation.

Homegrown_cucumber_flower_and_fruit Original
Home-grown grow-bag cucumbers in my unheated greenhouse. Images: Kathryn Hawkins

Originally, the cucumber was a wild plant with origins in India. Now it is cultivated and grown the world over, and  few salads are complete without it. If left to their own devices, cucumbers will grow to enormous proportions. Just a couple of weeks ago, I discovered one hiding at the back of a plant, behind a very large leaf; it looked more like a marrow than a cucumber, and I have no idea how the plant was supporting it! In general, the bigger they grow, the less flavour they have. As with all watery produce, cucumbers are best cut and used immediately. For slightly longer storage, wipe them dry and then wrap individually and tightly in cling-film, and this way they will keep in the fridge for 3-4 days without losing texture.

Preparing_a_fresh_cucumber
Cucumber preparation. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

To eat raw, all you need to do is rinse, dry, and then trim away either end, and that’s it, you’re ready to slice, dice or grate. Peeling is unnecessary unless the skin is tough – some varieties have rough, knobbly skins (ridged varieties) which can get tough on larger fruit – you can just whip off the skin with a vegtable peeler. If the seeds are a problem, cut the cucumber in half and scoop out the centre using a teaspoon before slicing.

For cooking, the skin can become bitter. You can temper it by blanching the cucumber in boiling water for a few seconds, or simply peel the cucumber before cooking.  Prepared chunks of cucumber will cook in lightly salted water for 2-3 minutes, or steam in 5 minutes, depending on thickness. Strips or ribbons of cucumber (pared using a vegetable peeler), make a delicious and healthy bed or wrapping when steaming fish.

Because cucumber has such a delicate, mild flavour, it can easily be overpowered by strong flavours. Some of the soft-leaved fresh herbs go very well with the crisp texture and fresh flavour of cucumber. As well as the herbs below, dill and fennel also make tasty choices. The herb salad burnet (below) does have a mild cucumber flavour and is the ideal herb for flavour enhancement.

Selection_of_herbs_that_add_flavour_to_fresh_cucumber
Cucumber-loving herbs: tarragon, salad burnet, chives flowers and stems, parsley, and mint. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

Cucumber recipe suggestions

  • Peel and chop cucumber, then blitz in a blender with chopped green melon or kiwi fruit, yogurt, mint and a little unsweetened apple juice. Pour over ice and enjoy as a cooling smoothie.
  • Add a few slices of cucumber to a glass of iced water or a spritzer for a refreshing taste. A few slices also make a good addition to a gin and tonic!
  • Finely dice peeled cucumber and simmer gently in a little stock and white wine. Stir in cream and chopped tarragon to finish. Makes a great sauce to serve with fish, chicken or over roasted vegetables or pasta.
  • Bake peeled cucumber in thick slices in a baking dish, drizzled with olive oil (or dotted with butter). Season lightly and add some fresh dill or fennel. Cover with foil and bake at 190°C (170°C fan oven, gas mark 5) for 25-30 minutes.
  • Add slices or small chunks to a prawn stir fry for the last minute of cooking.
  • Grate fresh cucumber and mix with a little grated root ginger. Sprinkle with rice vinegar, a little sugar and light soy sauce. A tasty, instant relish to accompany sushi.
  • Replace grated courgette in a cake, bread or muffin recipe with grated cucumber, just reduce the quantity by a quarter as cucumber is much more watery. I have  a cucumber-enriched cake recipe to share in a later post – Lemon-soaked cucumber cake (gluten-free; dairy-free; vegan option).
  • For a tangy salad to accompany smoked or barbecued food, try this recipe for gremolata-style cucumber salad: mix 150g finely chopped cucumber with a little crushed garlic. Stir in 40g chopped pickled cucumber or gherkins, 25g pickled capers, 40g chopped, pitted green olives along with 2 tbsp. each freshly chopped parsley and chives. Mix in a little white balsamic vinegar and serve. Delicious as a sandwich filler too!
    Cucumber_gremolata_salad
    Cucumber gremolata salad served sprinkled with chive flowers and leaves of salad burnet. Images: Kathryn Hawkins

    To make your own cucumber pickle, see my post from last year In a bit of a pickle

Savoury courgette and corn cakes (gluten-free with dairy-free and vegan alternatives)

Yellow_courgette_and_corn_muffins
Courgette and corn cakes. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

My supply of courgettes is coming to an end now. For several weeks, I’ve had a plentiful supply of produce from the four plants in grow-bags, in my greenhouse. Not only do home-grown courgettes taste delicious, I love the large, bright yellow, star-shaped flowers that the plants produce; they are a very cheery sight even on the dullest of days.

Courgette_flower_and_fruit
Homegrown courgette flower and yellow, globe-shaped fruit Images: Kathryn Hawkins

These muffins are full of golden coloured ingredients and are based on a classic American cornbread recipe. Easy to make, delicious served warm, and perfect for freezing – they will only keep fresh for a couple of days, so freezing is the best option for longer storing.  The chives add a mild oniony flavour, and you could try adding a pinch of chilli flakes or some hot smoked paprika for a bit of a kick. They make a good accompaniment to a bowl of soup or stew, or just as a tasty snack on their own.

Ingredients_for_sunshine_muffins
The main ingredients. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

Makes: 10

Ingredients

  • 115g gluten-free plain flour (such as Dove’s Farm)
  • 2 level teasp gluten-free baking powder (such as Dr Oetker)
  • 150g polenta or fine cornmeal
  • 1 medium egg, beaten, or 50g soft tofu, mashed
  • 225ml dairy-free milk (I used soya)
  • 50g butter or vegan margarine, melted
  • 100g cooked sweetcorn kernels
  • 150g grated courgette (yellow or green)
  • 4 tbsp. freshly chopped chives
  • 50g grated Parmesan cheese or vegan alternative, optional
  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (160°C fan oven, gas 4). Line a 10-cup muffin tin with paper cases. Sieve the flour and baking powder into a bowl and stir in the polenta or cornmeal. Make a well in the centre.
  2. Put the egg or tofu in the centre and pour in the milk and melted butter or margarine. Gradually mix the ingredients together until well blended, then stir in the remaining ingredients.
  3. Divide between the cases, smooth the tops and bake for 25-30 minutes until lightly golden and firm to the touch. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Best served warm.
    Warm_sunshine_muffins_on_a_cooling_rack
    Freshly baked courgette and corn cakes. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

    Single_serving_of_freshly_baked_sunshine_muffin
    Ready to serve, sprinkled with fresh chive flowers. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

 

 

August in a Scottish garden

Ox-eye_daisies_in_an_August_flower_border
August flower border with Ox-eye daisies. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

Since the end of last month, it has felt like summer has left us here in central Scotland. There have even been a couple of chilly nights when it’s felt like Autumn is on the way. Whilst there has been some warm sunshine, the blue sky days have been peppered with heavy rain showers, and the poor plants, flowers and shrubs have been taking a battering.

Pink_astilbe_in_flower
Soft pink Astilbe. Images: Kathryn Hawkins

This baby pink-coloured Astilbe reminds me of candy-floss. The tiny, soft flowers bunch together to give a fluffy-looking display which seems to bounce back even after the heaviest of showers. Just as pink and delicate-looking (and able to withstand the rain!) are the Japanese anemones which grow in a cluster at the base of one of the trees in the back garden. I also have a white variety but this year, the pinks are well ahead of the whites.

A_cluster_of_pink_Japanese_anemones
Pale pink Japanese anemones. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

On the opposite flowerbed to the anemones is where the wispy Scabious grow. I tie the wiry floral stems in loose bunches, supported with canes, to keep them from falling over and splaying all over the place. The blooms form small white globes, tinged with pale blue-lilac petals; they are so pretty, and the bees love them!

Scabious
Wispy Scabious blooms. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

There are lots of flamboyant red and mauve poppies growing alongside the fruit bushes at the moment, but sadly, each one is only surviving no longer than a single day. These beauties are just too fragile to withstand the heavy rain drops. I managed to enjoy this one for a few hours this week, but sadly the next morning, all the petals had fallen.

Mauve_poppy_after_a_rain_shower
Rain splattered mauve poppy. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

I’m glad of some longer lasting colour in the garden from my ever-faithful Hydrangeas. All the bushes are in flower now and they will continue to bloom for several weeks, subtly changing colour as time goes on. At the moment, the colours are soft and muted, but as Autumn draws nearer, the petals will deepen in colour and become more intense.

Pink_pale_blue_lilac_and_white_hydrangeas
Fresh in bloom, assorted Hydrangeas. Images: Kathryn Hawkins

To finish my garden round-up for this month, the greenhouse is pretty colourful at the moment as well. I’ve been picking cucumbers and tomatoes for a few days now, and it looks like I am going to have plenty of produce for the weeks to come. So, until next month, I bid you: happy gardening!

Cucumber_and_tomatoes_on_the_vine
In the greenhouse, cucumber and Tigerella tomatoes. Images: Kathryn Hawkins