duck, greens, and beans

duck and beans

I seem destined not to be able to get free time in the kitchen at the moment. All very frustrating when we’ve just had it all refurbished and it’s such a lovely space to be in now.

Life continues to get in the way, and so all the cooking I’m doing is purely functional – I don’t have sufficient spare time, it seems, to have a play and to try out some new recipes. Other things simply continue to take priority.

So I find myself falling back on the kind of meals that I can cook without thinking about them, and which can either be made quickly, or be left on the hob or in the oven for hours without needing any attention.

One such meal is duck… which invariably gets put together with whatever I have in the store cupboard and fridge. Beans and pulses make good partners, and with the addition of some vegetable matter, it can all add up to make a tasty, limited-effort dinner.

Here’s an example I made the other day, for two people. The picture’s not pretty – hastily taken, and a last-minute decision, so not prettified for blogging! – but it was delicious, and the perfect sustenance for what was a rather chilly evening. I used:

2 duck legs
mild olive oil
1 can or so cannellini beans, drained
1 large onion
1 carrot
1 bunch spring greens, de-stalked and shredded
handful of lardons
1 bay leaf
about 300ml chicken stock
2 cloves garlic
seasoning, to taste

First, heat the oven to 170C. Lightly salt the duck legs, then fry in a large heavy-based pan, over a medium/high heat until golden brown all over – this should take about ten minutes. Remove from the pan, and put in a roasting tin. Cover the tin with foil, and put the duck in the oven for 1hr 30mins.

In the meantime, chop and dice the onion, carrots, and finely chop one of the garlic cloves. If you’ve got a stick of celery, use that in the same way, too. Sauté in a couple of tablespoons of the olive oil until the onions are translucent and they and the other vegetables have turned soft.

Add the lardons, and continue cooking for a few minutes. Then add the hot chicken stock, bay leaf, and beans, and leave to simmer gently for up to half an hour.

When the liquid has reduced but there is still some left, add the spring greens. Continue cooking until the greens have wilted. Season.

Finally, crush the remaining garlic clove, and chop finely. Add it to the beans. Have a taste of everything, and adjust the seasoning if need be. You might want to add a little squeeze of lemon to give it some zest.

Serve immediately with the roasted duck leg atop. If you have any wild garlic, make a pesto and use that instead of the final garlic clove for an extra seasonal flourish.

times are a-changin’

Well, the kitchen work was finally finished about two weeks ago – but the process of moving all our things back in there, and finding some new items of furniture to complete the new look, is taking just that little bit longer than we anticipated.

Couple that with a few major life events going on, plus a seemingly endless stream of visitors, and I’m really not getting more than our usual day-to-day meal cooking done.

Still, I’m sure there will be clearer waters ahead. I just have to be patient. And, in the meantime, I’ll simply enjoy the new kitchen! For the first time in five years, I now have a decent amount of storage space, and all the worktop surface I could possibly need (I hope, anyway!).

All it needs now is for me to get cooking…

waiting for a kitchen…

The kitchen’s being given a major overhaul at the moment, so I can’t get in there to cook. Getting back to blogging will therefore have to wait a little while longer… But not too long – just a couple more weeks before I’m back at the stove, I hope!

the new year awaits

As we come to the end of the calendar year and look forward to the next, I won’t be making any resolutions. I never have.

But I would like to return to writing more on here again. The past few months, especially the last 3 or 4, have been immensely challenging. Things are a little calmer now, but it remains the case that my time will be largely occupied by others for the foreseeable future.

Still, my love for food is undiminished, and I’ve been particularly reminded this year of its potential to bring people together and to make precious memories. That’s something I’ll be bearing in mind.

For now, though, I’d just like to wish anyone still reading this blog a very Happy New Year.

See you soon.

Kentish huffkins

huffkin 1

While Kent is famed for its produce (think orchard fruits, soft fruits, hops, seafood), it is probably fair to say that our county isn’t readily associated with a great number of dishes. We don’t have something like, for example, Lancashire hotpot, which is well known throughout the country.

Perhaps Kent folk have kept the best Kentish recipes close to their chests, rather like the Italians don’t export their best Frascati. I would happily argue that Kentish Well pudding and Lenten pie, for instance, are as good as any puddings and pies you’ll find anywhere.

And then there’s the huffkin, a barely sweetened yeasted bread roll of sorts, enriched with lard (or butter, though I favour lard), with a soft ‘crust’ and texture and open crumb. Its shape (oval-ish) and thumbprint in the middle makes it visually distinctive. It’s a real trencherman’s bread, hearty and filling, and definitely not for the timorous of appetite.

There’s no consensus as to how the huffkin should be eaten, although some would say that its central hole lends itself to a generous spoonful of jam. I prefer to eat them split and filled with something savoury, preferably something simple and robust. For me, ham and cheese does the trick.

You’ll find numerous versions of huffkin recipes, but this is the one I use, by the venerable Jane Grigson:

15g fresh yeast/1.5 tsp dried and mixed with a pinch of sugar
225ml warm fresh milk mixed with water
450g plain flour
1 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar
50g lard

Heat the oven to 220C/425F/Gas mark 7.

1. Blend the fresh yeast with the milk and water, or, if using dried yeast, sprinkle into the milk and water with the sugar and leave for 15 minutes and/or until frothy.

2. Put the flour, salt and sugar into a bowl and rub in the lard. Make a well in the centre, then pour in the yeast liquid. Beat well together to form a dough that leaves the sides of the bowl clean.

3. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead well for about 10 minutes until the dough becomes smooth and elastic. Place in a clean bowl and cover with a clean tea towel. Leave to rise for about an hour, or until the dough has doubled in size.

4. Divide the dough in 12, then roll into oval ‘cakes’ about 1cm thick. Place on 2 greased baking sheets, cover and leave for about half an hour until doubled in size.

5. Just before putting in the oven, make a deep thumbprint in each ‘cake’. Bake for 15-20 minutes, until the crust is a deep golden brown. Wrap in a warm clean tea towel (this helps keep the crust soft) and leave to cool.



talking about traditional Kentish food…

I’m always pleased to be able to talk about Kent’s rich heritage of food production. But Kent also has a number of delicious historic dishes which have arguably fallen out of fashion in more recent years. Now, however, they appear to be back ‘on trend’, and are re-appearing on menus all over the county and in some top London restaurants. Let’s hope that they’re here to stay this time.

You can read my tuppence worth about them in the current edition of Kent Life, here.

spiced pear and wine jam

Comice pears

I must admit – I’m not entirely ready for the hallowed Keatsian season. As I write, we’re just about clinging onto August, and as a resolute lover of the sun, I still hold out hopes of an Indian summer.

But Nature tells a different story. Most vegetable and fruit crops have been early this year, thanks to the optimal growing combination of warmth, sunshine, and occasional showers following our long, wet winter. And so it’s proving again with pears and other traditionally Autumnal fruits in this part of Kent. The blackberries are already finished, and I’ve just been out to gather in what is probably the penultimate picking of pears from our community orchard.

Three pear trees were planted on a bitingly cold winter’s day nearly four years ago. Happily, they’ve all survived, and this year, for the first time, they’ve borne a significant quantity of fruits. The Comice have thrived best of all, and it’s from them that I’ve made a few jars of lightly spiced jam.

Married with spices, pears really come to life. In this recipe, tweaked from one of Marguerite Patten’s, I’ve added a special wine, too – Chapel Down’s gorgeous dessert wine, the appropriately-named Nectar (2009 vintage).

900g peeled and cored slightly underripe pears
6 tbsps dessert wine (avoid those with strident citrussy notes)
0.25 tsp ground cinnamon or cardamom
900g granulated sugar
4 tbsps fresh lemon juice

Dice the pears (Patten suggests 1.5cm). Put into your pan along with the wine. Simmer over a low heat until the pears become soft. Add the sugar and lemon juice, keeping the heat low, and stir until the sugar has fully dissolved. Then turn the heat up very high and boil the jam rapidly – don’t stir! – until it reaches setting point (approx. 104.5C, but check with the wrinkle test). Turn the heat off, and leave to cool very briefly. At this point, I also add a generous knob of cold butter – it helps disperse any lingering scum and gives the jam additional richness. Spoon into hot, sterilised jars and seal tightly. This quantity should give you about 6 x 8oz jars.

spiced pear jam

summer three-bean pesto

three beans




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.