summer three-bean pesto

three beans

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2014_07233107140013This summer has brought with it optimum growing conditions – a combination of warmth, plenty of sunshine, and a reasonable frequency of showers has resulted in a glorious abundance of produce in the fields, hedgerows, and gardens.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been almost overwhelmed with both wild and homegrown fruits – and still they keep coming! My jam store has never looked so bountiful.

But in the past fortnight or so, we’ve started to reap a large harvest of beans, too. After a shaky start following a slug onslaught, plus a couple of worrying days and nights of storms, the runner beans have been doing very well, and the broad beans have now largely caught up with them. Add to those a few peas, and we have the makings of quite a bean fest.

Given the amount of time I’ve spent lately making jam over a hot stove, the last thing I feel like doing in the evenings is expending much effort for dinner. A simple pesto, full of summer flavours, is often just the ticket. But there’s no reason why it should be made just with herbs. Why not try beans for a change?

Here’s how I make mine. You’ll need a small handful each of fresh broad beans, runner beans, and peas. Blanch them by tipping them into a pan of vigorously boiling water for one minute, and then draining and plunging them into ice-cold water. This will perk up their colour and help prevent spoiling.

Then put the beans in food processor, and add half a peeled garlic clove to the cold beans, grated parmesan (or Lord of the Hundreds – a Sussex cheese closely resembling parmesan), chopped walnuts, a generous pour of good quality olive oil (or rapeseed, if you want to stay local), parsley and mint, sea salt and black pepper, and a dash of lemon juice – all to taste. (Don’t be tempted to overdo the garlic – raw garlic is both pungent and rather astringent, and can ruin an otherwise delicious pesto if used overenthusiastically.) Blitz until you have your preferred texture. Taste, and then tweak your ingredients, if necessary, for the balance of flavours you’re after.

As with ‘normal’ pesto, it’s great with pasta, but it’s try it with other foods, too – it’s delicious stirred into new potatoes, for example, or as a dip for flatbreads. Experiment!

a summer salad

I’ve always loved summer. I adore the warm sunshine, and the long, light days stretching deep into the evenings are those I look forward to most.

And, of course, this is the time of year rich with fresh produce – from the garden, fields, and orchards. My refrigerator is currently completely full of soft fruits, cherries, beans, herbs, courgettes, salad leaves, young turnips, beets, summer greens, and edible flowers, and I feel so very fortunate to have such a bounty.

Having said that, there are days when it’s genuinely difficult to know what to do with it all – not that I’m complaining! I have been jamming and fermenting as much as possible, and it looks as though I will be doing that for a good while yet.

But for me, one of the greatest pleasures of having all this food to hand, particularly from the garden, lies in being able to put together a wonderfully tasty salad in no time at all.

The other day I did just that. Using salad (rocket, mizuna, young beet leaves, radishes) and vegetables (slow-fried onions, courgette ribbons) from the garden, together with some Puy lentils and gorgeous burrata, our dinner was soon ready. Finished with an impromptu pesto (rocket, nasturtium leaves and flowers) and generous splash of a lush olive oil, it seemed to me to capture what summer is truly all about.

summer salad 2014

a garden friend

We read so much about the fragility of our ecosystems these days: the decline of our pollinators, falling numbers of what were once common garden birds, the disappearance of flower-carpeted meadows, and so the apocalyptic list goes on.

This year, I’ve noticed that one of our two apple trees – having been a reliable cropper for the past three years – has no forming fruit on it. Not one. Just coincidence, or a direct result of our vanishing bees?

I don’t know. Time will tell. But for now, I am very happy to see a friend back in the garden again.

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lovage salt

In the few weeks that have elapsed since my last post, Spring has most definitely arrived – and with a vengeance. The hedgerows are absolutely packed with flowers, foliage, and edible goodies, while the garden has suddenly woken up and gone straight into overdrive. We were worried that extraordinary quantity of winter rainfall might have a deleterious effect on the flora and fauna around here – how very wrong we’ve been proved.

I try to go for a walk every day, weather permitting. Already, the countryside around me has offered up its first easy pickings – most notably wild garlic, three-cornered leeks, alexanders, wild radish, jack o’ the hedge, cleavers, and the ever-abundant nettles and dandelions.

In the garden, though, there’s a herb whose emergence I await more eagerly than almost anything – lovage. Having flourished all summer and into the autumn, over the winter it disappears back into the ground completely, leaving no trace of its presence. But a couple of weeks ago, it popped its head up above the soil again and, ever since that glorious moment, it’s been flourishing along with everything else in the garden. Already three feet or so high, and with a similar spread, it’s come back bigger and better than ever. All I need to do is to keep up with it…

lovage 2014

I usually end up giving a lot away, and no doubt I will do so again this year, but I’m also looking at more ways of preserving it for use during the cold months. First of all, I’m making lovage salt, and lots of it. Since it has a unique umami quality about it (a little like celeriac), I think it’ll make a cracking seasoning.

I’ve followed Alys Fowler’s blindingly simple method and ratios from her brilliant book, Abundance, for dry salting any herb – 4 parts herb to 1 part salt. Roughly chop the lovage…

chopped lovage

Add in your (sea) salt…

salt for lovage

Mix…

mixed lovage salt

And then cover with a tea towel and leave in a suitably warm place so that the mix can dry out. Stir it occasionally. Then transfer to a sterile container and store at 5-10C. “This will keep for several months”, says Alys.

Not around here, it won’t.

‘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.

Ingredients:
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…