rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb

If you visited my garden at the moment, a glimpse of the rhubarb patch would reveal that my weeding is as shoddy as ever. It’s on my long mental ‘to-do’ list, honestly, but as always my priority has been to eat it.

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Whether scoffed with vanilla yoghurt and home-made muesli for breakfast, served up in a fool for pud or in a very pink drink, rhubarb is never far away at present.

I recently spent a few lovely hours up a wildly wonderful hill near to Abergavenny and came home with a jar of sweet rose dukkah. A fragrant blend of dried rose petals, roasted Herefordshire cobnuts, pistachios, vanilla, cardamom and saffron, it pairs wonderfully with rhubarb. And adds a subtle sweetness that means you can avoid excess sugar in rhubarb puds such as crumble or rhubarb clafoutis.

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Concocted by Liz Knight whose creative resourcefulness (she was tapping nearby birch trees for sap when I visited) I admire and wrote about here, sweet rose dukkah seems both exotic and redolent of her wonderful Welsh borders hillside. As Liz explained, its rugged beauty isn’t suited for any sort of farming other than sheep, so Merlin’s hill is never sprayed with pesticides. Leaving an abundance of wild ingredients for the picking.

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Sweet rose dukkah can be sprinkled onto cakes or rolled into lamb to create a crust too. But for the moment, thanks to an abundance of the slender pink stemmed stuff, it’s partnering rhubarb in my kitchen.

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My regular starting point with rhubarb is to make a sort of easy, bung it in the oven, compote:

Baked Rhubarb Compote

Chop 1 kg rhubarb into 5 cm-ish lengths, place in a baking tray or dish, squeeze over the juice of an orange and about 125g caster sugar (if you’ve got hold of sweet rose dukkah, you can reduce this according to taste) cover with foil and bake in a medium oven for 30 minutes or so until tender.

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The beauty of making compote in the oven rather than in a pan for me is that it’s far easier to end up with rhubarb that still has some shape and colour, even if you forget about it. Whereas if you cook it in a pan, multi-task/let yourself be distracted for a few minutes and you have a shapeless mush.

Delicious simply with Greek yoghurt (add muesli or granola and you have a fab breakfast) this rhubarb can now be a starting point for many puds. Lovely in rhubarb custard, I also make a very easy rhubarb fool.

Rhubarb Fool

Take 4 heaped tablespoons of the rhubarb compote above and mash with a fork (I like some texture, but you can aim for more of a puree if preferred) then fold into 2 tablespoons vanilla yoghurt or Greek yoghurt and 1 tablespoon double cream.

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Sweet rose dukkah is lovely sprinkled over rhubarb fool. You should also be left with some gloriously pink/amber syrup from the rhubarb compote dish.

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Mine is reserved in the fridge, and may well be destined for fruity, rustic weekend cocktails.

The chunkier stems of rhubarb have been cooked slowly with a little water, heading for cordial:

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I used the Jamie Oliver recipe here for cordial. It’s pleasingly simple but results in a pink tipple that’s as lovely with sparkling water as it is with Prosecco.

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Angelica and Sweet Cicely are next on the list to be partnered with rhubarb (another way to reduce sugar) particularly as I can see their fresh new growth emerging amongst the herbs close to the kitchen door. And yes, they need weeding too…..

Thanks lots to Cristina Colli, who took the photos of Liz Knight foraging and who I spent a great day talking about food with – you can see more of her lovely photography and styling here.

And despite a meander up a wild hillside, as this post is mainly about my rhubarby kitchen, would love to share my kitchen (and hence have the excuse for some nosy peeps in other kitchens around the world) by joining in with Celia of Fig Jam & Lime Cordial’s April In My Kitchen.

wild greens pie

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Spending so much time outside over the last few sunny weekends has totally renewed  my passion for eating from the garden. As has the plentiful supply of purple sprouting broccoli.

A couple of months ago my PSB was looking so healthy, I was already anticipating a March glut. Planning bruschetta heaped with PSB and drizzled with chilli oil, PSB with pasta, anchovies, pine nuts and garlic, piles of lemony PSB alongside simply cooked fish. Then it snowed and was cold. And snowed and was cold some more.

I love the wildlife in and around our garden and this year it seems as if a dearth of easy food has made lots of creatures more daring in daylight hours. We have an almost daily visit by a barn owl very early in the evening, which is lovely. When the greedy pigeons and muntjac start nibbling my PSB it isn’t quite as lovely. I netted it carefully, then it snowed and the weight of the snow played havoc with the nets. The PSB was looking decidedly sorry for itself.

Which is why coming back to the kitchen with baskets of the stuff is making me quite so happy at the moment. I’m loving spotting parsley that seems to have self-seeded itself from last year; chives are starting to really flourish, sorrel is being picked for salads and the lovage and angelica seem to be growing by the minute. In my head I hardly need to go to the shops.

The reality of course is that it’ll be a while until there’s a plentiful supply of cultivated veggies from the garden.  Much as I loved cooking the Anchovy, Parmesan and PSB tart from Louisa at Chez Foti and am still not bored of PSB pasta, we can’t really eat PSB for EVERY meal.

Thank goodness then for weeds. The nettles and ground elder are growing twice as rapidly as anything I’ve planted of course. So how great that they’re both so nutritious. Full of iron, vitamins and natural histamine, stingers are perfect for cooking with at the moment, still young and tender.

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I’ve added them to ricotta for a cannelloni filling and, inspired by Italian uses for wild greens, made torta verde. You need to wear long sleeves and gloves for picking nettles of course, but you’ll find that once cooked they lose their sting. And for anyone who’s suffered lots of nettle stings in the past, eating your enemy isn’t exactly sweet revenge, but very tasty.

Anne from  Life in Mud Spattered Boots has a great recipe for nettle soup and I love Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s ideas for making nettle tea as a Spring tonic (sweetening it with honey and adding a squeeze of lemon) or just adding a knob of butter, a pinch of nutmeg and seasoning to cooked nettles to serve simply as a green vegetable.

This time though, I made wild greens pie. I used a mix of nettles, parsley, spinach, beetroot tops and sorrel but if I’d been able to venture further than the garden yesterday, I would’ve added wild garlic too. Must have a walk in the garlic woods soon, especially as Liz Knight of Forage Fine Foods has inspired me to be more inventive in cooking with it. I used cultivated garlic and Egyptian walking onions for my allium fix here, but again, this is a recipe that you can adapt according to what’s good in the garden or hedgerow.

I would use this ricotta and greens mix to fill ravioli too, in fact I think it’s inspired by Italian recipes, as well as by a Greek Courgette Pie in Sarah Raven’s brilliant Garden Cookbook.

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Wild Greens Pie

Ingredients

A colander full of wild greens/greens from the garden (can include nettle tops, spinach, chard, sorrel, wild garlic leaves, parsley, ground elder)

Egyptian walking onions or a few spring onions or young leeks, chopped

A garlic clove chopped, or wild garlic

150ml olive oil

1 pack of filo pastry

1 tub of ricotta

2 eggs, beaten

Preheat oven to 200C. Fry the garlic and onions in a little of the olive oil for a few minutes. Wash the greens well, then add to the pan with the garlic and sweat gently until wilted. If you have large leaves/clumps of greens you can snip with scissors.

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When cool, mix the greens with the ricotta, eggs and season with salt and pepper. Separate out 6 filo sheets and brush them with oil. Place 3 of the sheets in the base of an oven tray, one oiled sheet placed on top of the next (I’m very clumsy at this sort of thing, but a few torn sheets honestly don’t interfere with this pie looking and tasting lovely).

Place the ricotta/greens mixture in an oblong in the middle of the sheets, then fold the sheets around it, brusing with oil as you go. Place another filo sheet on top and brush with oil, and repeat with 2 more sheets. Brush with oil, and scatter with sesame seeds if you like. Put the pie in the preheated oven and cook for about 1/2 hour until the pastry is golden.

Great with a tomato salad – although faced with my normal reluctance to get in the car, rather than spend more time in the garden, we ate this with a salad of herbs yesterday.

After planting potatoes, making paths, weeding and planting seeds we were very hungry. Which is my excuse for totally forgetting to take a photo of the finished pie, before there was only one slice left!

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dandelion buds and chocolate cobnuts

FORRAGING_034When I visited Liz Knight at her cottage in the hills near Abergavenny, I was immediately tempted by the smell of chocolate and chestnut cake baking. Then I noticed the preserving pan of haw berry ketchup on the hob and couldn’t help being drawn to the russet jars of amber coloured medlar and heather jelly and the bottles of rose syrup. It was a grey, bitterly cold morning and on my drive up the hill it seemed as if Spring had yet to arrive. Yet as Liz poured us coffee she talked about the abundance of salad ingredients outside her door; mustard flavoured chickweed, wood sorrel or pennywort to add crunch and texture. Pennywort grows in cracks in walls and is excellent in a green sauce too.

I’d left my own garden looking pretty bare and with the typical Spring ‘hungry gap’ dearth of tasty edibles, but talking to Liz gave me the impression that there were rich pickings all around us. She recalled helping friends clear an allotment ready for Spring/summer planting : “Everyone was busy weeding up things that they could eat.”

Liz says that she “grew up interested in picking things and in plants, I was always blackberrying on local commons,” and set up her business Forage Fine Foods following her redundancy from a successful career in IT sales. When she described how “every time I put a suit on, I knew it wasn’t me” I felt I’d me a kindred spirit! Very similar to my days in financial recruitment when, after a week of commuting I couldn’t wait to get on my bike at the weekends or make a batch of chutney.

Liz now forages for wild foods in the wonderful Herefordshire countryside and creates amazing concoctions in her remote cottage kitchen. She sells her syrups, preserves and spice mixes at farmers markets and to local food shops. Clearly very capable, Liz is often foraging, cooking and delivering her produce with a child at her hip. A mum of three children under the age of five, she has some enthusiastic tasters.

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Both unusual but traditional, Forage goodies include violet syrup and a wild herb rub which is inspired by the amazing pasture outside Liz’s kitchen window. Pontack is a spiced elderberry and cider vinegar sauce based on an ancient recipe, but adapted to suit contemporary tastes. I can’t wait to try it with venison.

By the fire, while we scattered Liz’s home-made sweet rose Dukkah (made with rose petals dried by Liz) over our chocolate cake and drizzled some of her rose syrup over it, Liz talked to me about the salads and sauces that could be made with the dandelion roots and buds and wild greens in plentiful supply.

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 I love foraging but was in awe of the abundance of unusual ideas that Liz has for using wild ingredients. While I make elderflower cordial each year and had felt adventurous making pickles and tipples with elderberries last year, Liz goes one step further. She mentions lots of lovely ideas for using elderflower buds before the flowers make an appearance; apparently they have a smoked thyme flavour and are wonderful with trout.
In between talking knowledgeably about wonderful recipes using honeysuckle shoots, Liz manages to casually cook a stew for her girls with some mountain lamb which has grazed the wild pasture below her cottage. She often serves a wild herb rub or whimberry and heather conserve with lamb; both are inspired by the same wild pasture.
Liz is getting so many members of her rural community involved in wild harvests too, young and old – she uses proper old-fashioned piece work to produce the concoctions which she sells to delis and at farmers markets. Other Mums visit (often with their children), pick up a basket of wild herbs or a box of local cob nuts to crack and take them home to jar up, or join Liz in a group making session in her kitchen.
Local schoolchildren have been shown by Liz how to tap sap from Birch trees, collect rosehips from the hedgerows and make dandelion bud sweets and chocolate cobnuts.

I was totally inspired to be more adventurous in my wild harvests.

Some of my favourite Liz Knight tips for foraging:

– Try making pesto with wild garlic and English cobnuts

–  When weeding, keep the roots of dandelions and the buds (just before flowers appear) then pick dandelion petals and use in a cake. Blanch the roots for 30 seconds, slice and fry in oil with garlic, add a handful of buds. Make a sweet balsamic dressing and dress young dandelion leaves, toss with cooked roots and buds and sprinkle over crisp bacon or cobnuts for a lovely salad with nutty, sweet and slightly bitter flavours.

–  Honeysuckle flower tips are great to make into summery syrups and heavenly with tarragon. Pick just the flower tips, removing the green part, which is bitter. See this great recipe on Liz’s website for Honeysuckle and Tarragon sorbet.

– Try picking dandelion leaves, that pesky perennial weed ground elder, sorrel and wild garlic for a Wild Spring Salsa Verde.

– Elderflowers are great for cordials, but before the flowers come out, the buds have a wonderful smoked thyme flavour and are great sprinkled on salads or with freshwater fish. Later, try using the flowers in savoury dishes, maybe adding sparingly to stuff a trout before cooking.

harira and italian bean soup

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Slowly simmering soups on the woodburner has become a regular evening pastime in our house lately. Harira and Italian bean soup, my two latest concoctions are very rustic, hearty affairs – the sort of soups that verge on a stew, can make a satisfying meal and change each time I make them. It all depends what leftovers I have in the fridge, what veggies the pigeons and pheasants have left me in the garden and what sort of mood I’m in for extra spice or more robust herbs.

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With cold, grey days and lots of germs and flu bugs still lingering (some brought home from school for half term) both soups have felt comforting and warming. Packed with veggies and pulses, and making use of leftover meat bones, they feel both frugal and healthy too. I hadn’t realised quite how nutritious both soups might be until I read Alex’s great piece on her Cold Comfort Soup in Dale cottage diaries however. Apparently, slow cooking of bones in stocks and soups helps release lots of health-giving minerals. Alex’s chicken soup looks wonderful too.

My harira, a Moroccan style soup with lots of lentils made an extra meal out of a cheap but excellent cut of lamb which had already provided us with two tasty stews. I’d visited Liz Knight of Forage Fine Foods at her lovely, remote hillside cottage on the borders of Herefordshire and Wales and enjoyed the simple but delicious stew she made with lamb that had grazed the wild, herb covered pastures around her home. Inspired by the flavour of the meat and by Liz’s homemade rose el hanout (made with dried rose petals) which was wonderful scattered on the lamb, I couldn’t resist buying some lamb from her local shop to take home.

Wanting to do justice to this very free-roaming lamb, we enjoyed lots of it in a simple stew with root veg (which provided 2 family meals) then added the bone and some leftovers to a Harira cooked slowly on the woodburner that evening. The Harira recipe is adapted from a recipe in Casa Moro by Samuel and Samantha Clark, one of my favourite cookery books. The flatbread recipes in here go wonderfully with this soup too. As I was vegetarian for years, I used to make variations of this with veggie stock (obviously without the lamb) and with a few more lentils and it was very tasty. But this is the version I made this week:

Harira

2.75 litres cold water

Leftover lamb/bones (I had neck of lamb leftovers)

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 onion, finely chopped

3 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 red chilli, de-seeded and chopped

a pinch of dried chilli flakes

1/2 teaspoon each of ground cinnamon, turmeric and ginger, cumin and coriander (vary according to personal preference)

1 large bunch fresh coriander, stalks and leaves separated, washed and chopped

100g green or brown lentils

120g red lentils

1 400g tin of tomatoes

200g chard/spinach/kale/cavolo nero (depending what available/in season)

a squeeze of lemon

sea salt and black pepper

Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan, cook the onions slowly for 5 mins, then add garlic and spices and the coriander stalks, cook for another couple of minutes. Add the water and lamb, bring to simmer and cook slowly for 1/2 hour (if the lamb is raw, cook for another 1/2 hour). Add the lentils and simmer for another 1/2 hour. Add the tomatoes, cook for another 10 minutes then add the chopped chard and simmer for another 5 minutes. Season with salt, pepper, coriander leaves and lemon juice and continue to cook for another 10 minutes until the pulses are soft. Remove lamb bone, flaking off any meat into the soup, check seasoning and serve.

In between making the Harira and Italian Bean soup, I read some really interesting, thought provoking pieces about our consumption of meat. After the (surely not too surprising) recent discoveries of what some of the mass-produced processed meat products on sale actually contain, there are some really good points being made.

In her great post on ‘Meat Choices’ on her blog, Sally Prosser says:

” The industrialisation of farming in agriculture and animals (including the failed promises and potential catastrophe of GM crops) and the pervasive spread of increasingly processed foods in the hands of fewer and more powerful corporations and retailers is one of the most sinister threats of our age. So what can we do?”

In my opinion, one of the things that we can do, is go back to using well-reared meat sparingly, something that to pre-war generations was a way of life. Cheap cuts of well-reared meat can be easily (and deliciously) padded out with pulses to make so many tasty, healthy and frugal meals. And I agree with Trine Hahnemann’s ideas in The Nordic Diet about eating wild or free-range meat a couple of times a week then eating several fish and veggie meals. Surely this is good for our health as well as our environment?

Alex Stevenson in her Notes on a Scandal piece on her blog, says:

“To me, and many other smallholders, food is the key reason for taking up such a lifestyle, to know what we are eating, what’s in it and how it is produced. This is an aspect of food consumption which as a society, we are getting further and further away from.”

Similarly, I know that I’m lucky to live in a rural area where it’s easy to buy good meat – and to have raised our own rare breed pigs last year. I feel fortunate to have the space to enjoy growing veggies too. And I know that our society has complex problems to resolve associated with food production, to which there aren’t easy answers.

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Making soup may not be the answer to all our meat issues, but slow cooking a handful of beans or pulses with vegetables and good stock is a satisfying activity for a cold February evening! I had a ham bone in the freezer from a home-cured joint I cooked last time my family came to visit. This is the Italian peasant style soup I made from it. It makes enough for several suppers.

Italian Bean Soup

450g dried borlotti beans (you could use 2 tins of cannellini or borlotti beans instead) soaked overnight, then boiled for 15 mins and washed

7 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

5 garlic cloves

2 onions, finely chopped

2 carrots, finely chopped

1 leek, chopped

2 sticks celery, finely chopped

1/2 tin tomatoes

1 ham bone (if you don’t have a ham bone, I’ve made a veggie version with leftover parnesan rinds added for extra savoury flavour)

1.5 litres water

300g cabbage leaves (cavolo nero is perfect, but I used January King cabbage this time)

1 sprig rosemary and a few sprigs of thyme

slices of bread to serve, ideally sourdough or ciabatta style

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Heat 3 tablespoons oil, chop two of garlic cloves and cook with onions and leeks slowly for 5 minutes, without colouring. Add the remaining vegetables, sweat for a few minutes then add the ham bone, beans and water. Cover, bring to boil and simmer for about 1 hour until beans are tender. Remove the ham bone and puree some of the soup with a handheld blender. I like some texture, so remove half the beans/veg and puree what’s left in the pan – but you can liquidise more if you want a thick soup. Add beans/veg back to liquidised soup along with cabbage and simmer gently 10 minutes until cabbage tender.

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While the cabbage is cooking, pour remaining oil into a small saucepan and heat it gently with the rosemary, thyme and 2 of the remaining garlic cloves (brusised but unpeeled). After about 10 minutes, strain the now flavoured oil into the soup and heat it through for a few minutes, stirring and season with salt and pepper to taste. Toast bread and rub with remaining garlic clove, placing in the bottom of soup bowl before ladling over the soup – it will soak up all the lovely flavours. Great with parmesan too.

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The soup will keep well for a few days in the fridge, in fact its flavour improves the day after it’s made.

And sorry, we ate all the harira before I remembered that I hadn’t taken any pics!

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