Saturday, 27 March 2010

Life is like... an episode of Sesame Street

I sometimes think my life is like a series of Sesame Street. You know how at the end of each episode they say something like, "today's programme was brought to you by the letters A and P, the number 7 and the colour red". For me I find that each week is brought to me by a particular vegetable (or fruit in the summer and autumn). Last week was brought to me by the onion and this week it has been the parsnip.

With my onions gradually deteriorating with each week that they remain in storage I have been making a determined effort to use them up. It is easy to use onions up as they are so versatile. They are great fried with some mushrooms and plonked on top of a chop, or in a casserole or stir fry. My onion week culminated with a spectacular onion tart, followed by a couple of hours on the allotment planting the onion sets for this year's harvest. It is a good job I like onions because when I ordered my spring sets I had completely forgotten that I had already planted onions in the autumn. And just for once my autumn sets survived the winter well. What's more, I got a free bag of onion sets with something I ordered! As much as I love onions, I'm not sure I have the space for so many sets. I could find space now, of course, but then discover I don't have room for other crops later such as sweet corn and pumpkins.

Onion Tart

For the pastry
4 oz (110g) plain flour
4 oz (110g) wholemeal flour
4 oz (110g) margarine
½ teaspoon mustard powder
A little bit of grated cheese

For the filling
1lb (450g) onions (or shallots)
Oil/butter for frying
9 fl oz (250ml) single cream
2 eggs
Cheddar cheese
Salt & pepper

Sift the flours into a bowl and work into a breadcrumb consistency with the margarine using fingertips. Add the mustard powder and cheese then enough water to bind it into a soft dough. Wrap in Clingfilm and refrigerate for half an hour. In the meantime, peel and finely chop the onions then fry with the oil/butter for 20 minutes until golden. Preheat the oven to 190°C and grease a suitable tin. Roll out the pastry and place in the tin then trim the edges. Place greaseproof paper over the pastry and weight it down with baking beans/dried rice etc. Blind bake the pastry for 15 minutes. Tip the cooked onions into the pastry case. Beat the eggs and stir into the cream then pour this mix over the onions. Season then grate cheese over the top to cover the tart. Bake the tart at 200°C for 30 minutes until golden.

I did a similar thing with rhubarb this year too. Having made rhubarb jam for the first time last year from a friend's plant I became a bit of a fan of rhubarb after years of misunderstanding the poor plant. So this year I thought it might be worth getting my own plant. I thought this again a couple of weeks ago whilst stood in Wilkinsons so I forked out a whopping £1.98 for a crown and the following weekend Steve found a spot for it under one of the apple trees. Then later this week to my surprise a packet arrived from Thompson & Morgan containing two rhubarb crowns! Hmm... I'd obviously had the same brilliant idea back in December when I placed my seed order and completely forgotten about it. This morning I dug two more holes on the allotment and got them planted. It is a good job that my rhubarb and ginger jam is popular as in a year's time I could well be making a lot of it!

Last week after planting the onion sets I dug up another row of parsnips. I don't know what is it about this plant. Read any textbook and you will learn that parsnips are difficult to grow - mainly because they are poor to germinate. Well, not on my allotment. Last year I had so many I had to thin them out. Now I have about 6 rows left of enormous roots. One row filled a whole carrier bag. I have it in my mind that if I dig up a row a week for the next 6 weeks I may just about be able to deal with them all before they become inedible as they regrow. However, that does mean that I have to do something with a carrier bag of parsnips every week for the next 6 weeks.

So on Sunday evening, after scrubbing the roots clean, I par boiled twice as many as I needed for the roast dinner. Half of them I put under the lamb to roast and the other half I sauted in goose fat for a few minutes until beginning to brown then placed on a tray. Once cooled I froze them to be cooked from frozen as roast parsnips later in the year. On Monday, I grated them with some potato and a bit of shallot to make rostis. On Tuesday, I added them to a casserole. On Wednesday I mashed them with a little butter. On Thursday I made parsnip cake... well, why not, after all carrot cake works well. On Friday I realised I was over doing it on the parsnip front when Steve came home from work and instead of asking what was for dinner he said, "How are we having the parsnips tonight, Dear?"

Deeply Spicy Parsnip Cake

2 oz grated parsnip

8 oz plain flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

4 oz margarine

4 oz dark muscovado sugar

2 oz raisins

Pinch of salt

2 teaspoons ground ginger

2 teaspoons mixed spice

230 ml water

2 eggs

Preheat an oven to 170°C, gas 3 and line a cake tin. Put the sugar, raisins, parsnip, margarine and water in a saucepan. Place over medium heat and heat gently until the margarine has melted. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool. In a bowl, sift together the flour, spices, salt and the raising agents. Pour the wet mixture into the flour mixture, add the eggs and stir until combined; do not overmix. Pour the batter into the prepared cake tin. Bake for an hour until a skewer inserted comes away clean. Remove from the oven and let cool in the tin.

I didn't quite get to the bottom of the carrier bag and this morning I stood on the allotment wondering whether I really should dig up another row.

Now I am wondering what theme next week will bring. I don't think I can stand another parsnip week. This afternoon I made Easter chocolate orange cakes with my girls then helped them stick bits and pieces all over some straw hats for an Easter bonnet parade later in the week. I'm hoping that next week will be brought to me by the theme of Easter... a lot more fun than parsnips!

Chocolate Orange Easter Cakes (makes 12)

4 oz butter
4 oz light brown sugar
2 eggs
Zest and juice of 1 orange
3 oz self-raising flour
1 oz cocoa powder

For the decoration
2 oz butter
2 oz icing sugar
2 oz orange flavoured dark chocolate, melted
A tube of Cadbury Mini Eggs

Preheat oven to 180°C, gas 4 and line a 12 hole cake tin with paper fairy cake cases. Put the butter and sugar in a bowl and cream together. Add the eggs and the orange zest and juice. Sift in the flour and cocoa powder and mix until well combined. Spoon the mixture into the cake cases and bake for 15-20 minutes. Cool on a wire rack. In the meantime, cream together the butter, icing sugar and melted chocolate to form icing. Spoon a little of the icing over each cooled cake then top with 2-3 Mini Eggs.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Leeks, parsnips and leeks again

I guess I could be self-sufficient in vegetables all year round but I don't think I could stand the lack of variety at this time of year. I do still take pride in putting homegrown veg on the table but I'm glad I'm not limited to just leeks, cabbage and parsnips every night. Still, with spring now definitely in the air it is a bit of a race to eat up the winter vegetables before they start growing again and become inedible.

You know, there are certain food combinations that are so perfect they just trip off the tongue - like apple and blackberry, or strawberries and cream. One such combination has got to be leek and potato. Leek and potato soup is my husband's favourite but last Saturday, with a little piece of puff pastry left in the fridge, I fancied making a leek and potato pastie for my lunch. So I nipped out to the allotment shortly after breakfast and harvested 4 or so leeks then made the pastie in time for lunch. Yummy!

After lunch Steve decided to go to the allotment to dig over a few beds ready for planting. I asked him whether he could dig up some parsnips whilst he was there. He returned shortly before dinner time. "Did you remember the parsnips?" I asked. "Parsnips," he said, "I thought you wanted leeks." He proudly held up a fine bunch of leeks. Oh well, I only wanted the parsnips from Sunday's dinner so there was still time. Instead I decided we could eat the leeks for dinner and what could be more perfect than leek and potato... er... potato? A leek filling in a twice baked potato.

Twice baked leek and potato (per serving)

1 baking sized potato
A little oil
A pinch of salt
Half a medium leek
Grated Cheddar

Preheat oven to 200 °C, gas 6. Prick the skin of the potato then rub with a little oil and some salt. Place the potato directly on the oven shelf and bake for 1 hour. Chop the leek into short lengths then cut each length into quarters. Fry the leek in a little oil until soft. Take the potato out of the oven and cut it in half. Carefully scoop out the flesh of the potato, leaving the skins intact, and place it in a bowl. Add the leek and some grated cheese and mix well. Then return the mixture into the skins of the potato and put the potato back in the oven for 10 minutes. Serve hot.

So on Sunday when Steve set off for the allotment again I reminded him it was parsnips and not leeks that I needed to go with the roast dinner. He remembered this time but unfortunately he got himself so engrossed in the drastic pruning of overhanging hedgerow that he didn't return home until half an hour before the roast was due out of the oven. So instead of roast parsnips we had boiled leek!

Later in the week I decided use the parsnips to make some potato and parsnip rostis. These were made simply by grating together some potato and parsnip, adding seasoning and a bit of fresh thyme then frying for 10 or so minutes on each side until brown.

We continued to use up the leeks all week by adding them to stir fries and stuffed mushrooms. Then this morning I used up the last of Steve's leeks in a delicious leek and bacon quiche.

Leek and Bacon Quiche

4 oz butter
4 oz plain flour
4 oz wholemeal flour

1 leek
2 rashers smoked bacon
3 eggs
300 ml single cream
Grated Cheddar cheese
Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 190 °C, gas 5 and grease a 20cm circular tin. Put the butter in a bowl and sift over the flour. Use finger tips to rub the flour and butter together until it has the consistency of breadcrumbs. Use a little cold water to bind it into a pastry. Roll out the pastry and line the tin with it. Blind bake the pastry for 15 minutes. In the meantime, finely chop the leek and bacon and fry together until just cooked. Once cooked, put the leek and bacon into the bottom of the pastry case. Beat together the eggs and the cream and pour it over the leek and bacon. Grate over some cheese and grind on some black pepper. Bake for 30-40 minutes until the filling is set. Eat hot or cold.

Steve needs to go out to the allotment tomorrow to plant the new asparagus crowns that arrived in the post yesterday. Maybe whilst he's there he could harvest a leek or two!

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Ahh... Bisto!

I admit it, I'm a huge gravy fan! Actually, I come from a long line of gravy fans. My dad is known to eat anything as long as it is swimming in gravy (or custard in the case of dessert). On one occasion, at a formal dinner, so the story goes, in the absence of gravy my dad tipped his glass of wine on his dinner.

Whilst I'm in the mood for confessing I have to admit that I'm quite happy to make gravy using an OXO cube. I was brought up on a combination of OXO and Bisto gravy. In fact, when I was a child I was a Bisto Kid. This, as I remember, entitled me (and my brother) to a quarterly activity magazine as well as gifts such as T-shirts and a badge. I remember the Bisto Kids logo well, the cartoon children with their eyes closes, noses in the air, sniffing in the waffs of delicious gravy smells. Ahh... Bisto!

Shall I go on with my gravy confessions? Despite being an upstanding member of the community, with excellent table manners I have been known on occasion to dip my finger into the remaining gravy at the end of a meal and lick it until my plate is clean.

So you can imagine that it was quite a leap when on Sunday I thought I might serve the rack of lamb with Shrewsbury sauce rather than gravy. As much as I love my homemade gravy it does have a tendency to make the meal taste the same as ever other gravy meal. I'm not complaining about that but I thought trying a different sauce might give the meal more of a restaurant feel. I was also keen to make the sauce as it required redcurrant jelly - of which I have a few jars left. I did, of course, still have to make some OXO gravy for the girls to pour all over their Yorkshire puddings.

Rack of Lamb with Shrewsbury Sauce (serves 2)

1 rack of lamb
1 sprig of rosemary
1 clove of garlic
2 teaspoon mustard powder
Oil for frying
1 teaspoon plain flour
200ml fresh chicken stock
3 tablespoons port
2 tablespoons redcurrant jelly
2 teaspoons lemon juice

Preheat oven to 220°C, gas 7. Season the rack of lamb with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Finely chop the rosemary and garlic. Mix the mustard powder with just enough water to make a thick paste then stir in the rosemary and garlic. Heat the oil in a frying pan then brown the rack on all sides. Place on a rack in a roasting tin and smear the mustard over the underside of the lamb. Turn the lamb fat side up and roast in the oven for 30-35 minutes then remove from the oven and wrap loosely in foil for 10 minutes to rest. In the meantime, heat the flour in the residue oil in the frying pan then gradually stir in the stock. Leave it to simmer and reduce for a few minutes then add the port and redcurrant jelly. Simmer again until the sauce has reduced. Stir in the lemon juice. Cut the lamb into cutlets then pour over the Shrewsbury sauce. Serve with roast potatoes and vegetables.

So how did this compare to pouring OXO gravy over the meat? It didn't compare, it was delicious! But (last confession), I did pour gravy over my roast potatoes!