French (Green) beans – tips and serving suggestions

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!
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    A favourite warm French bean salad. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

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    Home-grown French beans. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

Cucumber conundrums and recipe ideas

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!
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    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)

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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.

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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.

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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.
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    Freshly baked courgette and corn cakes. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

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

 

 

Morello cherries – cherry compote and chocolate blancmange (gluten-free; dairy-free; vegan)

 

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Morello cherries, ripe and ready for picking. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

Picking the cherries from my espalier Morello cherry tree is one of the highlights of my fruit growing calendar. Having had such a mild Scottish spring this year, all the fruit in the garden seems to be ripening a bit earlier than in other years. The cherries are no exception. Usually I pick them in the middle of August, but this week, they were ripe and ready.  The harvest was pretty good too: from one small tree, I picked ¾kg.

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This year’s Morello cherry harvest. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

I’m not that adventurous when it comes to cooking with cherries. I suppose it’s because I never have that many to play with, therefore, I want to make sure I enjoy what I cook. Morellos are a sour cherry and are too tart to eat as a fresh fruit. This year I made a large pot of jam and, my favourite, a compote flavoured with vanilla and lemon – recipe below.

I use a cherry stoner to remove the pits; I’ve had it for years, and it does the job perfectly. This years cherries were so ripe, the pit just plopped out without any effort. Wash the cherries first and then prepare them over a bowl to catch the stones and the juice that falls; you can then easily drain off the stones, keeping the juice. If you don’t have a specialist stoner, a small knife with a pointed blade should enable you to prise out the stones with ease. After preparation, the final weight of the cherries I picked this year, along with the juice from the bowl, was around 650g.

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Vital piece of kit: my cherry stoner. Image: Kathryn Hawkins
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Pitting cherries. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

Flavours that go well with cherries are: almond (especially marzipan); citrus fruit; vanilla; cinnamon (just a pinch); coconut, and chocolate. I often make something chocolatey to go along side the compote, and this year, it was a nostalgic chocolate blancmange, deliciously velvety and thick. A perfect combination. So here are my recipes for both compote and blancmange. By the way, if you are using sweet cherries for the compote, you’ll need to reduce the quantity of sugar you add to the compote by at least half.

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Fresh Morello cherry compote. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

Serves: 4

For the compote:

  • 300g prepared ripe Morello cherries (about 350g with stones)
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 2 level teasp cornflour
  • ½ vanilla pod, split
  • Juice of ½ small lemon or half a lime

For the blancmange:

  • 50g cornflour
  • 25g cocoa powder
  • 50g vanilla sugar (use plain caster if preferred)
  • 500ml non-dairy milk (I used soya milk)

1. To make the compote, put the cherries in a saucepan and gently mix in the caster sugar and 3 tbsp. water. Heat gently, stirring until the sugar dissolves, then bring to the boil, reduce to a gentle simmer, and cook for about 3 minutes until just tender – take care not to over-cook, ripe cherries need very little cooking.

2. Blend the cornflour with 2 tbsp. water to make a paste, then stir into the cherries. Bring back to the boil, stirring, and cook for a further 1 minute until slightly thickened. Remove from the heat, push in the vanilla pod and leave to cool completely. Remove the pod and stir in the lemon juice. Chill lightly before serving – about 30 minutes.

3. For the blancmange, mix the cornflour, cocoa and sugar in a saucepan, and gradually stir in the milk, making sure it is thoroughly blended – I find a balloon whisk is good for mixing powders into liquids.

4. Keep stirring the mixture over the heat, until it reaches boiling point and becomes very thick. Continue to cook for 1 minute to make sure the cornflour is completely cooked then spoon into small individual heat-proof dishes – there is enough to fill 6 x pot au chocolat dishes (it is quite rich, so these little dishes are the perfect size for me). Leave to cool completely, then chill for an hour until ready to serve.

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Chocolate blancmange and Morello cherry compote. Images: Kathryn Hawkins
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My espalier Morello cherry tree with spring blossom, and in fruit earlier this week.             Images: Kathryn Hawkins

 

Raspberry jam – 3 methods (dairy-free, gluten-free, vegan)

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Homemade raspberry jam x 3. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

Raspberries love the Scottish climate (lots of rain!). The plump, juicy berries carry on ripening even on the most dreary of summer days. I have been picking my raspberries since the end of last month. Sadly, it looks like the end is nearly nigh; the supply is dwindling, but there are still enough to bag up for the freezer for later in the year, and then I will leave the rest for the blackbirds!

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Freshly picked Scottish home-grown raspberries. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

The bushes in the garden are now in their twelfth year, and have given me a good harvest every season. However, I think this autumn, it will be the time to plant some new canes. The variety I chose to grow is Glen Ample; selected for the large-sized fruit, and as the label said at the time, “perfect for cooking and jam-making”. And, they have certainly proven to be.

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Glen Ample raspberries. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

If you’ve never made jam before, raspberry jam is the easiest to make. It practically sets as soon as the fruit and sugar boils. Frozen raspberries work equally as well for jam-making; whilst other fruit loses pectin (the natural setting agent found in many fruits) after freezing, I have found little difference in setting jam made with the frozen berries.

I have 3 methods for making my raspberry jam, depending on how much fruit I have picked, and how much time is available. The first method, is the traditional saucepan method, great if you have a large amount of fruit and a bit of time. This method works well with frozen berries – just let them thaw out in the saucepan you’re going to use to cook them in so that none of the juices are wasted.

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Traditional homemade Scottish raspberry jam. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

Traditional raspberry jam – use equal amounts of prepared fresh (or frozen) raspberries to granulated sugar. The yield is approximately the same as the weight of the 2 ingredients combined, so 500g raspberries and 500g sugar should give you 1kg of jam.

Heat the fruit by itself in a clean, large saucepan, stirring, until it steams and starts to break down. Mash it a little with a wooden spoon, reduce the heat and stir in the sugar. Heat, gently, stirring, until the sugar is completely dissolved, then raise the heat, bring the jam to a rapid boil, and stop stirring. Cook for 2 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the jam settle for about 5 minutes. Stir, and then transfer to clean, sterilised jars whilst still very hot. Seal immediately. Cool and label. In a cool, dark, dry cupboard, this jam will keep unopened for up to 12 months. Store in the fridge once opened, and eat within a month.

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Microwave raspberry jam. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

Microwave raspberry jam – super-speedy; hassle free; the perfect jam method for smaller amounts of fresh berries (I haven’t tried this with frozen berries but I can’t see why it wouldn’t work). Use finer, caster sugar for this jam as it heats and dissolves more quickly. The jam has a good set, and I find the colour is brighter than the traditional method; the flavour is much the same. My microwave is 900W so you may need to adjust timings accordingly.

Wash and pat dry 250g prepared fresh raspberries and mash with a fork in a large, perfectly clean microwave-proof bowl ( the mixture needs room to boil in the microwave, so choose a good size to prevent the mixture boiling over).

Put 250g caster sugar in a microwave-proof bowl and cook on Medium for 10 minutes, stirring every 2 minutes. The temperature of the sugar should be around 80°C (I use a food probe to check). Carefully pour the sugar over the mashed raspberries and stir well – the mixture will be very sloppy at this stage.

Put back in the microwave, and cook on High for 3 minutes to reach boiling point, then boil for 2 minutes. The jam is now ready to put in jars and seal as above. The jam has the same keeping qualities as with the traditionally made jam above.

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Steps to making microwave raspberry jam. Images: Kathryn Hawkins

My third method for making jam is probably the most delicious and it involves no cooking of the raspberries at all. You do need to select the perfect, unblemished, fresh specimens for best results, and wash the berries well before using. Use caster sugar for speedier heating and dissolving.

This fresh jam has a much softer texture than the other 2. You need to store it in the fridge – I find it keeps well for 4 to 6 weeks. It also freezes so you can keep it for longer  and then take out small portions as and when you fancy. If you haven’t got a microwave, you can heat the sugar in a saucepan – just keep the heat very low and keep stirring the sugar so that it doesn’t melt or burn.

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Fresh raspberry jam Image: Kathryn Hawkins

Fresh (uncooked) raspberry jam – wash and pat dry 250g prepared, unblemished, very fresh raspberries and mash with a fork in a large, perfectly clean, heat-proof bowl. Sit the bowl on a clean tea-towel.

Put 250g caster sugar in a microwave-proof bowl and cook on Medium for 15 minutes, stirring every 2 minutes. The temperature of the sugar should be around 120°C (I use a food probe to check). Carefully pour the hot sugar over the mashed raspberries and stir well – it will hiss and steam. Cover loosely and leave to cool completely, then spoon into clean, sterilised jars or containers. Seal and label, and store in the fridge or freezer.

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Fresh raspberry jam preparation. Images: Kathryn Hawkins

For more recipes using fresh raspberries, see my posts Rhubarb, raspberry and custard crump (gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan) and Rose and raspberry vodka (gluten-free, dairy-free)

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Up close and personal: freshly picked Glen Ample raspberries. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

 

 

New season courgettes + recipe for courgette and thyme fritters (gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan)

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My first vegetable harvest of 2017: home-grown courgettes. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

The mild spring weather and fine, early summer days has brought on my greenhouse vegetables a treat this year. It looks like I’m in for another bumper crop of courgettes. I thought I’d try to grow a new variety, and decided on this round, globe courgette called Tricolour. I only raised 4 plants from seed, so it is completely by chance that I’ve ended up with 2 yellow and 2 dark green vegetable plants. The third colour is pale green, and, I guess, is to be saved for next year.

Providing you give them plenty of water, I think growing courgette plants offers little challenge to the gardener, and for a modicum of effort, you are usually rewarded with plenty of produce. I have mine growing in grow-bags; the roots don’t stretch very deep so it is an ideal way to grow them if space is limited.

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My grow-bag courgettes. Images: Kathryn Hawkins

Here’s an easy recipe for a courgette starter or vegetable accompaniment. Chives or rosemary work well in the batter instead of thyme, if you prefer. If you’re not dairy-free, add a couple of tablespoons of freshly grated Parmesan cheese to the batter for extra flavour. The batter goes with any vegetable that’s suitable for deep-frying such as rings of onion, baby leeks, spring onions, sliced mushrooms, strips of pepper and carrot, sliced aubergine, etc.

Courgette and thyme fritters – serves: 4

Ingredients

  • 400g courgettes
  • 65g self-raising gluten-free flour blend (such as Dove’s Farm)
  • 40g cornflour
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teasp freshly chopped thyme leaves + extra for serving
  • 90ml soda water
  • Vegetable oil for deep-frying
  1. Wash and pat dry the courgettes. Trim away the ends and cut into thin slices, approx. ½ cm thick. Arrange in layers in a wide, shallow dish, sprinkling lightly with 25g of the flour as you go. Make sure both sides of each slice have a light coating of flour.
  2. For the batter, mix the rest of the flour with the cornflour in  bowl and season. Stir in the chopped thyme leaves. Using a small whisk, gradually blend in the soda water. Heat the oil for deep-frying to 180°C.
  3. Carefully pour the batter over the courgette slices, lifting them up so that the batter seeps right through to the bottom of the dish – the slices don’t have to be completely covered in batter (this is a very light, crispy batter that cooks better when used sparingly) but make sure there is a little on each slice. Tongs are useful for lifting individual slices.
  4. Cook the slices in the hot oil, in  4 batches, for 4-5 minutes, turning occasionally, until crisp and lightly golden. Drain well and keep warm whilst cooking the remaining slices. Serve as soon after cooking as possible, sprinkled with more fresh thyme and some crushed sea salt flakes.
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    Courgette and thyme fritters. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

    For more recipes using courgettes see my previous posts Home-grown courgettes with chive butter (gluten-free) and Yellow courgette and lemon cake (gluten-free, dairy-free)

 

Homegrown strawberries – tips and recipe ideas

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Homegrown Scottish strawberries Images: Kathryn Hawkins

It feels like summer is here now that my strawberries are ripening. The aroma of sweet berries fills the air every time I open the greenhouse door. I have been growing strawberries in my unheated greenhouse for several years. The soil is free draining and the plants have plenty of room to spread.  Apart from an occasional feed, and plenty of water, I leave them alone to get on with the business of berry production.

Strawberries are best eaten fresh. They don’t freeze well as a fruit by themselves, but you can purée them and then serve as a sauce. The fresh purée makes excellent ice cream and sorbet too. I sometimes pop a few in with a fruit compote with other berries, but on the whole, I don’t cook them other than to make jam.

One of the best ways I’ve found to preserve them, is to dry slices in a dehydrator; this way you can enjoy them once the season is over. The perfume of drying strawberries is divine. If you have a dehydrator, slice the berries and brush them with a little lemon juice to help preserve the colour. 500g prepared strawberries, spread over 3 tiers in a dehydrator, will take between 3 ½ to 4 ½ hours at 70°C/158F. This amount yields about 65g. Sealed completely in an air-tight jar, and stored in a dark, dry cupboard, they will keep for several months. The dried slices add a splash of colour and a fragrant, fruity flavour to any bowl of cereal – especially good with Coconut granola (gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan) – and they make a pretty, natural cake decoration too.

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Drying fresh strawberry slices. Images: Kathryn Hawkins
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Granola with home-dried strawberry slices. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

All round the garden borders, the wild strawberries are also beginning to turn colour. Whilst they are much more time-consuming to pick, they have a more perfumed flavour and make a lovely addition to a fruit salad. Leave them to ripen fully for the sweetest flavour, and eat them as soon after picking as possible – they really don’t keep well. I have a battle with the birds every year to get to them before they do! The plants are prolific spreaders, but give good ground cover and make a pretty display when in flower.

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Alpine strawberries. Images: Kathryn Hawkins

Strawberry serving suggestions

  • Fresh strawberries go well with smoked salmon, Parma or Serrano ham, and peppery leaves like rocket or watercress. They are also delicious with slices of ripe avocado.
  • Spread almond nut butter over warm toasted bread and top with lightly mashed strawberries and a little sugar for an indulgent toast topper.
  • Add finely chopped tarragon, lavender syrup, rosewater or passion fruit juice to a bowl of strawberries to enhance the floral flavour of the fresh berries.
  • For very sweet strawberries, halve and sprinkle with fruit or balsamic vinegar and freshly ground black pepper. Serve with goat’s cheese as a starter with salad ingredients.

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    Strawberry and goat’s cheese salad with sweet berry vinegar. Image: Kathryn Hawkins
  • If you have sufficient wild strawberries, fold them into whipped cream with a little dessert wine and strawberry jam for a topping or filling for meringues.
  • For a special fruit salad, mix halved strawberries with chopped mint and sugar, then toss in some lime juice, dry white wine or crème de cassis.
  • Mash strawberries with vanilla sugar and fold into soft cheese to spread over pancakes.
  • Pop a handful of wild strawberries into white balsamic vinegar to make a sweetly scented berry dressing for fruit or leaf salads later on in the year.

 

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Last year’s wild strawberry vinegar. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

 

Rhubarb ruminations and recipe ideas

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Spring rhubarb. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

At last, my forced rhubarb was ready to pick this week! Now I feel the season of Spring has begun. Long before all other fruits in the garden are even formed,  forced rhubarb gives us a flavour of all the sweet delights yet to come.

To me, rhubarb is associated with fond memories of my childhood. My grandparents used to grow “forests” of the thick, leafy stems in the summer – no summer holiday was complete without one of Grannie’s rhubarb crumbles.

If you fancy having a go at growing your own, now is the best time of year to buy yourself a  rhubarb plant (or “crown”) and get it in the ground ready for next year.

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My first rhubarb harvest of 2017. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

Rhubarb grows best in an open site, ideally in the sun, but it will grow anywhere. It likes a good mulching and needs plenty of soil depth as the roots, once established, run deep. Give it a good feed once in a while and it will do well. It is very easy to grow and a single plant will provide a good yield for a small family. Rhubarb is really a vegetable, but most of us regard it as a fruit because we serve it mostly for pudding. Only the stalks are edible – the leaves are high in oxalic acid and are, subsequently, very toxic.

Hold yourself back and avoid picking any stems in the first year of planting a new crown. In the second year, pull a few stems, leaving about half of the plant untouched. Once a plant is established – after 3 years – you can pick as many stems as you want. A rhubarb plant can be “forced” at this age, ready for an early crop in spring. You can buy special rhubarb forcers – very tall, slim, terracotta pots – which go over the crown in late winter. These are very expensive; I use the tallest pot I have and this works fine – as you can see in the image above. Although the pot covering doesn’t produce really long stems, they are good enough for me. I’ve put the pot back over the crown again, ready for the next batch of stems to grow – usually the plant produces four good batches of stems before I leave it to recover and rejuvenate for next year.

I have 3 rhubarb plants in the garden now. Each year, I rotate a plant for forcing, and the other 2 are left for summer eating rhubarb, and for freezing. Here are a few tips and ideas for cooking and serving rhubarb:

  • High in acidity, there are a few flavours that help temper the tartness of rhubarb: ginger, cinnamon, orange rind and juice, coconut, banana, angelica and liquorice.
  • Trim the leaves from spring rhubarb and discard, then rinse the stems well and slice off the base. Cut into 3cm pieces for really quick cooking, but leave in longer pieces for gentle poaching and using to top tarts or desserts. Spring rhubarb takes barely 4-5 minutes to cook. I usually place the pieces in a frying pan and sprinkle with sugar and add 1 – 2 tablespoons of water. Once it begins to steam, cover with a lid and cook gently.

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    Preparing spring rhubarb. Image: Kathryn Hawkins
  • For a tangy sweet and sour sauce, cook rhubarb in a little water with sufficient sugar to make it edible, then add a dash of raspberry or balsamic vinegar. Served cold, it goes well with roast duck, smoked mackerel or pan-fried herring.
  • A favourite simple dessert of mine is to mix mashed banana, coconut (non-dairy) yogurt and vanilla extract together and layer in glasses with poached, vanilla sugar-sweetened rhubarb. It is absolute deliciousness guaranteed!

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    Rhubarb, banana and coconut pots. Images: Kathryn Hawkins
  • For an easy pastry, bake-off a sheet of (gluten-free) puff pastry and allow to cool, then top with thick (dairy-free) custard and lightly poached stems of sweetened rhubarb. Always a winning combination…..rhubarb and custard.
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    Rhubarb and custard tart. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

    I have posted a couple of other rhubarb recipes in my blog over the months, here are the links Rhubarb, raspberry and custard crump (gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan) and Rhubarb and custard ice lollies (gluten-free)

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    Tender pink stems of forced rhubarb. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

Rhubarb, raspberry and custard crump (gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan)

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Rhubarb, raspberry and custard crump. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

For me, one of the signs that Spring is on its way is the first harvest of my forced rhubarb. I love the rich colour of the stalks, their tenderness when cooked and the mild astringent, tartness of flavour that really packs a punch on the palate. Sadly, my rhubarb is not ready for picking just yet as you can see below, but I couldn’t resist the fresh stalks I saw in the local farm shop this week.

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My homegrown forced rhubarb in late February. Image: Kathryn Hawkins
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Spring rhubarb. Images: Kathryn Hawkins

One of my favourite pairings with rhubarb is raspberry. Whilst it seems like a long time ago I had raspberries ripening in the garden, I have a few packs in the freezer, and this recipe is the perfect opportunity to delve into my supplies.

I love the name of this dish. I assume it comes from the hybridisation of the pudding called “slump” and the one called “crumble”. The recipe works fine with any cooked fruit baked underneath the glorious, melt-in-the-mouth topping. The custard is a recent addition to my recipe and brings an extra spoonful of comfort at this time of the year.

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Last years homegrown raspberries. Images: Kathryn Hawkins

Serves: 6

  • 350g fresh rhubarb, trimmed
  • 50g vanilla sugar (or you can use plain caster if you prefer)
  • 175g frozen raspberries
  • 115g dairy free margarine (or butter if you eat it), very soft
  • 75g caster sugar
  • 175g gluten-free plain flour blend (I use Doves Farm)
  • 5ml good quality vanilla extract
  • 500ml gluten-free, dairy-free custard
  1. Trim the rhubarb and cut into 5cm lengths. If you have thin and wider stalks, cut the stalks down so that they are all roughly the same width – this helps the rhubarb cook more evenly.
  2. Arrange neatly in a large, lidded shallow pan. Spoon over 2 tbsp water and sprinkle with the vanilla sugar. Heat until steaming, then cover with the lid and simmer gently for 5-6 minutes until just tender but still holding shape.
  3. Remove from the heat, sprinkle the frozen raspberries on top and leave to cool completely. Transfer to an ovenproof baking dish, about 1.2l capacity. If the fruit is very juicy, drain off a few spoonfuls and keep as a separate serving syrup.

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    Rhubarb and raspberries, a winning combination. Images: Kathryn Hawkins
  4. For the topping, put the margarine (or butter) in a bowl and beat in the caster sugar until smooth and creamy. Mix in the flour and vanilla to make a lumpy, sticky mixture, resembling a soft cookie dough. Cover and chill for 30 minutes until firm.
  5. Preheat the oven to 200°C (180°C fan oven, gas mark 6). Spoon over about half of the custard in small dollops. Break up the chilled topping into clumps and scatter over the top, covering the fruit and custard as much as possible. Stand the dish on a baking tray and bake for about 35 minutes until lightly golden, bubbling and the topping has merged together. Serve hot or warm with the remaining custard and the fruit syrup.
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    With custard; with topping, and the freshly baked crump. Images: Kathryn Hawkins

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    A spoonful of comfort: hot crump pudding. Images: Kathryn Hawkins

Brussels sprouts

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Home-grown Brussels sprouts. Images: Kathryn Hawkins

Love them or loathe them, you can’t get away from Brussels sprouts at this time of year. Believed to be a descendent of the wild cabbage, we have been eating these tasty and nutritious winter greens since the 18th century.

I planted several seedlings (variety Brodie F1) back in early June, but sadly most succumbed to pests and the plants have been dwindling as the months have gone by. However, I managed to keep a few plants unscathed, ready for the Christmas table and a couple more meals on top of that. Some of the stems have lovely tops which have developed into small cabbages with pretty pink veining, so I have them to cook as well.

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A fine stem of “fairy cabbages”. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

I was told a story a few years ago by a lady who had been struggling to get her little daughter to try a Brussels sprout. There was something about the humble sprout that her daughter wouldn’t entertain even though she would eat every other green vegetable without hesitation. Her mother, in exasperation, said that they were simply tiny cabbages grown by the fairies, and from then on, her daughter ate them with gusto!

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Still life of Brussels sprout stems and tops. Images: Kathryn Hawkins

Pick sprouts when they are small and firm as larger sprouts have less flavour. Smaller sprouts will be crisper in texture and have a sweeter, nuttier taste. Don’t forget the tops – these can be cooked just liked cabbage. Ideally pick sprouts just before cooking, trim away any loose leaves and leave whole if small, or halve if bigger. Rinse in cold water, and then cook in a little lightly salted, boiling, water for a few minutes until just tender – they should have some texture when cooked, and not be slime-green coloured, full of water and soggy like the ones I remember from my school dinners – yuk!

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Picked sprouts ready for cooking. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

Here are a few of my favourite ways to serve fresh Brussels sprouts:

  • Brussels sprouts go well with blue cheese, goat’s cheese, chopped nuts and seeds, crisp bacon, chorizo, chilli, sage, thyme, garlic, onion, orange, wholegrain mustard, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce and balsamic vinegar.
  • Serve small cooked sprouts on a bed of crushed, seasoned peas in Yorkshire puddings and flood with gravy or a tasty cheese sauce.
  • Shred or roughly chop sprouts and stir fry with shredded leeks and very finely sliced white cabbage. Finish with a few dashes of Worcestershire sauce and some melted redcurrant jelly.
  • Stir fry chopped sprouts with finely chopped garlic and add sultanas, a pinch of chilli, cinnamon and cumin, and a drizzle of honey or maple syrup.
  • Blanch 300g prepared larger sprouts in boiling water for 1 minute and cool quickly in cold running water. Drain well, cut in half or quarter, and mix with wedges of eating apple, fresh sage leaves and finely chopped onion. Toss in 1 tbsp each of olive oil, balsamic vinegar and honey or maple syrup. Spread across a lined baking tray, season well and cover with foil. Bake at 200°C (180°C fan oven, gas mark 6) for 15 minutes, then remove the foil and cook for a further 10 minutes until tender.

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    Ready to bake, sprouts with apple, sage and onion. Image: Kathryn Hawkins