‘Rosehips on a kitchen table’

With every passing day now, the signs of Spring grow bolder. Around me, the fields and hedgerows are rapidly greening, and the first of the year’s flowers are out.

On my walk this morning, I couldn’t fail to notice the blackthorn blossom finally in full bloom, promising its sour fruits in the months ahead. At the kerbside, wild chervil, nettles, and even some wild garlic are all thriving. Dandelions are in abundance everywhere. And my favourite brambling spots are lush with green-purple leaves. Nature’s larder is coming to life again.

Given my admittedly greedy nature, I can’t help but start to think of foraging some of these goodies and combining them with the seasonal harvests from my own garden. I’m not usually stuck for ideas as to what to cook with them, but I’m always on the lookout for fresh inspiration – and to that end, my cookbook library continues to grow every year.

A short while ago, I was sent Rosehips on a Kitchen Table: Seasonal Recipes for Foragers and Foodies by Carolyn Caldicott. It’s an unassuming book compared to many recipe books out there these days – small format, and only 128 pages, probably half of which are (good) photographs. It’s not ground-breaking in any sense – you’ll find the kind of recipes you’ve no doubt seen elsewhere, such as wild garlic pesto, nettle soup, rosehip syrup, gooseberry and elderflower fool, and so on. Nonetheless, there are some more original ideas, too – chilli and lime ice cream caught my eye, as did broad bean and cumin purée with chicory (a touch of Ottolenghi, perhaps), courgette and banana cake, and parsnip gnocchi. Only one recipe made my toes curl, but I really shouldn’t knock it before I’ve tried it – so if anyone wants to have a go at strawberry, rhubarb, and spinach salad and report back, please let me know.

In short, it’s a solid, homely little book, with lots of tasty-looking, one-page, straightforward recipes. It won’t set the culinary world on fire, but if you’re new to seasonal cooking and foraging, you could do an awful lot worse than to make this your first purchase.

I am grateful to Aurum Publishing for a review copy. Rosehips on a Kitchen Table is published by Frances Lincoln Limited, RRP £9.99.

the joy of… kefir

It’s been a strange and rather downbeat past couple of months: unrelenting rain causing us to be surrounded with water in every direction…

… plus serious family illness, and the death of a much-loved pet. It’s not been the cheeriest of winters.

And yet, amidst the gloom, there have been rays of brightness. Signs of hope, energy, and life. Reasons to look forward.

Thanks to the ever generous @CarlLegge, I recently acquired a small pot of kefir grains. Until that day, most of what I knew about kefir stemmed from my far-off days as an historian. But I had followed Carl and others (@Zeb_Bakes) and wanted to get more familiar with this strange fermenting-type entity, to use it for myself, and to see what the culinary possibilities might be.

To be honest, I’ve only just started. I haven’t become a kefir expert overnight. But already I think I’ve found a new love, and one to nurture (quite literally since, as it’s a living organism, kefir needs feeding and looking after in order to keep it active and productive) and cherish.

So far, that love has provided drink (think buttermilk/yogurt, i.e. kefir milk), cheese (a sharp, tangy cream cheese), bread (using whey, from kefir curds), and cake (using kefir milk again).

But most of all, it’s fun. I race to check its progress every morning, to see it gently separating, multiplying, and producing the tiniest of fizz. New life, in fact. And that, right now, when everything seems a little bleak, is the most wonderful tonic.

back soon…

But in the meantime, you can get an idea of what I’ve been/I’m getting up to by following me on Twitter, @akentishkitchen. Do say hallo!

braised chicory with orange and juniper

I meant to post this a week or so ago, but isn’t it always amazing how the run-up to Christmas just gets totally out of hand? Here I am, on the eve of Christmas Eve, and I haven’t yet made our pudding, collected our bird, or wrapped any presents… Instead, I’m still busy baking for friends and neighbours and, er, blogging!

I know many people profess to loathe sprouts (I’m not one of them, as it happens), so I thought it might help if I dug out a recipe for a festive alternative. What follows is a zesty, fresh-tasting take on chicory that makes a great accompaniment to richer meats, especially the more fatty birds such as duck and goose.

The recipe comes from the rather brilliant ‘Today’s Special’, by Anthony Demetre – chef of the critically acclaimed Arbutus restaurant and its siblings. If you’re looking for a last-minute Christmas or New Year present for a food lover, I heartily recommend it.

Anyway, to business… You’ll need:
75g butter (I used salted)
Splash of olive oil
4 heads of chicory, split lengthways
zest and juice of 2 oranges
10 juniper berries, crushed
sprig of thyme
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Preheat the oven to 130C/Gas 1.

In a heavy-based gratin or deep roasting pan, heat 50g of the butter and the olive oil, and colour the chicory all over until it’s nicely golden brown – this will take about 5 minutes or so. Add 100ml water and all the remaining ingredients (except the butter), and bring the lot to the boil. Bake in the oven for about 35-40 minutes, or until the chicory is soft and tender.

Remove from the oven, and take the chicory out of the pan and set aside in a warm (not hot) place. Boil the leftover juices until syrupy, add the remaining butter (this will make the sauce glossy), and add the chicory back.

Check seasoning, and adjust according to taste. You may also find that you want to add a teaspoon or two of light muscovado sugar to the sauce just to take the edge off any bitterness.

Serve and enjoy, and have a wonderful Christmas!

chestnut, mushroom, and bean ‘cassoulet’

Since the weather is beginning to get distinctly nippy now, and I’m delving into my wardrobe for properly warm jumpers, it seems that it’s also time to start pulling out some suitably wintry recipes from my archives.

At this time of year, a combination of meat and root vegetables – in a stew or casserole – is a fine way to fend off the cold. But, more and more frequently these days, I’m asked for a vegetarian alternative. The following reworking of a French cassoulet is a wonderful meal for non-meat eaters and carnivores alike. I’ve been making it for twenty-odd years now, and on every occasion I’ve made it, the meat lovers have lapped it up just as quickly as the vegetarians!

It’s full of robust earthy and slightly sweet (from the chestnuts) flavours and needs nothing more to go with it than a green or bitter-leaf salad and some fresh bread to mop up any leftover juices.

450g tinned cannellini or flageolet beans (or a mix of both), drained
150ml olive oil (NOT extra virgin)
4tbsp tomato purée
1 medium onion, studded with cloves
1 garlic clove, crushed
large pinch dried oregano
large pinch dried thyme
2 bay leaves
100g vac-packed chestnuts (I use Merchant Gourmet, available from most supermarkets)
half a head of fennel, or 3 celery sticks, chopped
225g button mushrooms
1 large beefsteak tomato, chopped
1 tbsp soft dark brown sugar
1.5 tbsp salt
freshly ground black pepper

Tip the beans into a large pan or flameproof casserole. Add the oil, tomato purée, onion, garlic, herbs, and bay leaves, and enough cold water to cover the whole lot completely.

Bring to the boil on a hob for 15 minutes, then cover and turn the heat down, and simmer away over a very low heat for 2 to 2.5 hours.

Remove from the heat. Take out and discard the onion. Add the chestnuts to the pan with the fennel (or celery), mushrooms, tomato, sugar, salt and pepper. Continue to cook for another hour or so until the juices have thickened nicely, but the cassoulet has not turned dry. Serve with bread and salad.

hake, white pudding, beans

We may be heading into winter good and proper now, but while it’s still reasonably mild outside and particularly when the sun is shining, I’m not yet in the mood for the hearty, warming fodder that fills the long, cold months. There’s plenty of time for all that and I, for one, am in no rush for it.

So fish and lighter meats are my foods of choice at the moment, and bringing them together on one plate is even better still. If you’re not convinced of the idea, think southern European (notably Spanish and Portuguese) combinations, such as pork and clams, or the old favourite ‘Surf ‘n’ Turf’ idea.

Hake and white pudding is just another variation on the theme. Give it a try: beautiful pan-fried hake fillet, together with crisp-edged slices of white pudding, served atop white beans (these were cannellini) simmered gently with shallots and garlic in chicken stock and saffron, with greens (I used rocket) added at the last moment and cooked until wilted.

It all makes for a light and delicious umami-packed meal that’ll have you pondering other fish and meat experiments to try…

a ‘receipt’ for damson wine

Two years ago, shortly after I moved back to Kent, we were enjoying a late summer and early autumn rich with hedgerow fruit. I picked so much, it was hard to imagine that I would ever witness a more abundant season. And yet this year has surpassed even 2011. And I know it’s not just Kent – from reading Twitter and other blogs, it seems that the strange mixture of weather that we had earlier in the year has resulted in superb harvests almost countrywide.

As many fat, luscious blackberries as we’ve had this time around, it’s the plump and regal-purple damsons that I’ve particularly treasured. For me, they make arguably the best jam and ‘cheese’, as well as darn fine gin.

What I haven’t made before, though, is damson wine. For one thing, I don’t have the kit. For another, I’m not sure I have the patience to wait for it to be ready to drink! But I was lucky enough a few days ago to lay my hands on a batch of about seventy or so recipes, all dating from the 1830s to about 1900. Amongst them is a receipt (olden speak for ‘recipe’) for damson wine.

And now, of course, I’ve got the itch to try it for myself. In the meantime, I’m posting a more legible version here, in case anyone else would like to have a go. If you do, please let me know how you get on.

“To make Damson Wine

Weigh your damsons and bruise them. To every eight pounds of fruit put a gallon of water. Boil it and pour it boiling on the fruit, let it stand two days, then draw off the liquor and put two pounds and a half of sugar to every gallon of liquor. File up the vessel and let it stand until it has done working, then stop it up, let it stand twelve months then bottle it.”

Start now, and it’ll be ready in time for next Christmas…

If you’re a modern-day damson winemaker, perhaps you would care to share your recipe in the comments box below? I’m sure others would be interested. So many of us with damson gluts to make use of this year!

blackberry and almond ‘torte’

While we may still be basking in wonderfully warm and sunny late August days, Autumn is nevertheless slowly a-creeping up on us. The nights are noticeably cooler, and the morning air is distinctly fresher. Dew has started to appear on the lawns, and the hedgerows are delicately decorated with gossamer-fine spiders’ webs.

Around my village, the local farmers have been busy with their combines, baling up, ready for the winter months ahead. At home, in my garden, I’ve been clearing away the last of the summer crops, and sowing seeds for autumn and winter harvesting. There’s certainly plenty to do.

But one of the most pleasing sights of all for me at this time of year is blackberry-dotted brambles. And this year, the berries are bigger and more plentiful than I can ever remember – Nature’s pay-off for the last couple of years of particularly difficult weather conditions we’ve had, perhaps.

There’s plenty for jam, ketchup, crumbles, pies, and flavoured vodka and gin. But it seems a little early for those yet. I wanted to make something a bit lighter, and more in keeping with the prolonged sunshine that we’re still enjoying. And I found just what I was after with this recipe, adapting it to make a light and fragrant blackberry and almond torte-like cake.

The only thing I would change further next time would be to add more blackberries. When the blackberries are as good as they are this year, a more luxurious fruit layer is most definitely called for. Serve warm or cold, with lots of cream.

a late summer gooseberry tart

We’ve had such wonderful weather over the past couple of months that I’ve spent as much of my time as possible outside, and my cooking and baking has been limited mainly to necessity and to friends’ summer parties. Writing and blogging have, I must admit, been rather low on my list of priorites. For me, it’s been about making hay as the sun shines, as the saying goes.

But now Autumn (and all its fruits) is creeping in, I thought I’d better quickly blog a recipe for any late summer gooseberries you might have. Our single bush did us proud this year – its first full fruiting summer – by producing about 4kgs or so of plump berries. Some I’ve frozen, some I’ve turned into fools, crumbles, and the like, but my favourite use for them is in a tart.

This recipe (a blend of Diana Henry and Edd Kimber, with some further adaptation) will give you an elegant and delicious tart. With sugar-poached gooseberries coddled in a rich custard filling, all encased within a crisp sweet shortcrust pastry shell, it makes a joyous finish to any meal. Quite frankly, it’s perfect on its own, but if you feel the need, then pour over some cool cream.

For the pastry:
375g plain flour
25g ground almonds
50g icing sugar
1/4 tsp salt
seeds from half a vanilla pod
175g butter
1 egg yolk
1 tbsp cold water

Combine the flour, almonds, icing sugar, and salt in a food processor. Add the vanilla pod seeds and pulse again. Add the butter, and pulse repeatedly until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs.

Mix the yolk and water and add it to the flour mixture, and pulse again until it all just starts to come together. Tip the dough onto the work surface, and knead briefly, lightly, and quickly until it becomes uniform. Flatten slightly into a rough disc shape and chill until needed (at least 30 mins).

When you’re ready to bake, pre-heat the oven to 190C/375F/gas mark 5. Let the pastry come to room temperature, and then roll it out to fit a 20-23cm tart tin. Trim off any excess, and prick the base with a fork.

Once the oven is hot, line the pastry case with baking paper and beans, and bake blind for 10 minutes. Remove the paper and beans, and return to the oven for another 5 minutes, until lightly golden brown. Set aside while you make the filling.

For the filling:
Heat 100g caster sugar with 150ml water (or replace the sugar with elderflower cordial, and reduce the quantity of water accordingly) in a saucepan over a gentle heat until the sugar has dissolved. Simmer 350g topped and tailed gooseberries in the liquid for 3 minutes until they are just softening (they will soften further during baking). Scoop the berries out with a slotted spoon, and set aside.

Beat together 2 egg yolks with 50g caster sugar for about 10 minutes, until the mixture has turned pale and the volume has more or less tripled. Stir in 75ml double cream and the finely grated zest of half a lemon. Mix well.

Spoon the gooseberries into the tart case, and pour over the filling. Bake in the oven for about 25 to 30 minutes. Remove, and leave to cool before serving. To finish, dust with icing sugar.

Slice, eat, enjoy!

a summer’s supperclub: @emwilco in Ickham

Take a 100-year old village hall, in the heart of the Kentish countryside, at the end of a June day. Add some tables, chairs, crisp white linen, and freshly cut garden flowers.

Chill a few bottles of gently sparkling rosé from north Kent’s Throwley vineyard, and wait for people to arrive.

And that was the simple but enticing scene set, on a mid-June evening, for Emma Wilcox’s (@emwilco) first supperclub outside of her usual venue, Macknade’s in Faversham.

With everyone gathered, and with our welcoming fizz duly downed, it was time to take a seat and to take a look at the menu…

Oohs and aahs reverberated happily around the table. We’d been promised the best of local, seasonal produce, and it was hard to imagine a bill of fare to tick that box any better. And all of this to be accompanied by Emma’s own homemade sourdough bread, huge plates of which started appearing in front of us. Breadmaking is an art, and sourdough even more so, needing as it does a worthy starter, lots of kneading and time to prove. And then there’s the knack to slashing the loaf, and getting the bake just right. Emma has evidently long since mastered these hallowed skills – each bread (she made 3 varieties) had a perfect crumb, a sturdy crust, and superb flavour. If I could buy bread locally even half as good as this, I’d be happy.

While we contentedly munched away, Emma got busy in the kitchen, single-handedly plating up 30 portions of our opener, wild rabbit terrine.

I rarely order terrine when I’m eating out – so often they’re a bland slab of disappointment. Needless to say, not this one. The gamey wild rabbit was a meaty delight, its rich savouriness tempered beautifully by the sweet/sour tang of the pickled walnuts and the tender young pea shoots. A great start.

Next, asparagus with egg and rye crumbs…

Everyone has their favourite way of cooking asparagus. But it’s reasonable to assume most won’t have ever eaten it like prepared like this. It doesn’t look or sound like much, but that soft-boiled egg and rye crumb combination provided an amazing umami hit to go with the chargrilled earthy asparagus. Judging by the reaction around the table, I wasn’t the only one to find it a revelation. Definitely one ‘to try at home’.

And then, the main course – rack of lamb, with baby new potatoes, courgettes, and shallot purée, artfully and most appealingly heaped onto big platters…

… and then shared out around the table…

I’ve eaten an awful lot of lamb in my time, and it’s no exaggeration to say that this ranked right up there with the very best (and I wasn’t the only one to say so). I take my hat off again to Emma for pitch-perfect cooking – the lamb was absolutely spot on, a beautiful blush pink throughout, lip-smackingly savoury, moist, and succulent, and just a complete joy to eat. All the accompaniments were terrific, too – the smooth, creamy shallot purée and the glossy jus being great foils to the lamb, with the potatoes and courgettes giving the whole thing a summery lift. Once again, the hubbub of approval was plainly audible, and many went back for seconds. Or was that thirds?

By the time we’d finished tucking into the main event, you’d think that even the keenest appetites might have been sated by this point. And yet, somehow, noone came remotely close to declining our final course. By candlelight, the dessert – rhubarb fool, elderflower granita, and langues du chat…

The photograph doesn’t do it the slightest justice – and, of course, doesn’t convey the flavours. The fool, like the lamb, was a shining example of what can be done with ostensibly simple dishes. Creamy and tending to sweetness, but balanced brilliantly with the acidic rhubarb. With that, another surprise – how good can elderflower granita be? Very good, as it turns out, with all that floral fragrance distilled right there into smooth sorbet-like form. Intense, heady, wonderful stuff.

And that, folks, is exactly how a supperclub should be – full of fantastic, immaculately-sourced local and seasonal ingredients, cooked carefully with evident love and pride by someone who genuinely knows what she’s doing, and thoughtfully presented in a lovely venue to a crowd of appreciative diners. It was a real treat in every way.

Please come back soon, Emma!

(You can follow Emma on Twitter at https://twitter.com/emwilco, and find out more about her supperclubs – including upcoming dates and menus at http://emwilco.wordpress.com/)