In the garden
Having been busy for much of last year sowing, planting, cultivating, weeding and harvesting, today we’re going to enjoy the fruits of our labours by turning our produce, fresh or preserved, into delicious food.
Comfort food is nearly always associated with a rapidly expanding waistline, but it doesn’t have to be like that. You can have your fill of warming winter fare without losing your shape, if you make a few small changes to your cooking habits. Cut down on the butter, eggs and cream, use olive oil for making pastries and skimmed milk for savoury custards.
The plentiful supply of home-grown vegetables at the start of the year, with carrots, beetroot, swedes, leeks and brassicas in the field, is waiting to be turned into culinary treats that are hearty and filling but not fattening. And what’s even better, home-made food contains no colouring, preservatives or other nasty additives.
I inherited a wonderful recipe for a velvety carrot soup from a relative, but it calls for half a pint of cream, which is something we can all do without. While planning to cook it for some guests recently, I realised there was no cream in the house.
As cream gives the soup its depth of flavour and delicate pale orange colour, I searched for a replacement and came across a pound of butter beans. It worked a treat, and the new version, if anything, is an improvement on the original.
There are no precise quantities – I can rarely be bothered to weigh or measure things – but carrot and butter bean soup is child’s play to make and freezes very well.
Soak your beans the night before, then boil them in some good vegetable stock until just done, add as many carrots (cut into large chunks) as you like, pour in a generous measure of olive oil and the juice of a lemon, cook until tender, then whiz the whole lot in a blender, adjust the seasoning and add a little more stock if the soup is too thick.
Serve with crusty bread and good sprinkling of chopped parsley. We have a parsley shortage at Lea Gardens, and I’m indebted to my friends Pete and Linda for a generous bag-full.
Good stock is the secret of tasty food, and keeping a stockpot on the boil is something you should get into the habit of, if you don’t do so already. Anything, apart from potatoes and brassicas, goes into ours: carrot and parsnip tops and tails, chard stems, the tattered leaves and outer layers of leeks, bits of onion, cloves of garlic (both unpeeled), celeriac peel and greens, and a bay leaf or two. All can be used as long as it is spotlessly clean and free from rot. The secret is to let your stock simmer for ages, and a Rayburn comes in very handy for that.
The strained liquid keeps in the fridge for about a week, or you can boil it down to a concentrate and then freeze it in ice cube trays for your very own stock cubes. For the carnivores among you, the addition of a few bones adds greatly to the flavour.
The same line-up of vegetables also makes a great base for delicious gravy, coated in oil and roasted, or fried slowly until dark and caramelised. Add some stock, or better, half a bottle of wine – any colour will do, but red gives a deeper flavour – and cook until mushy. When pushed through a sieve, the solids will act as a thickening agent, so there’s no need for flour and butter.
There’s one thing I never understand about British cooking instructions. When it comes to poultry we’re always told to boil the giblets in order to make gravy. Treated in this way, they don’t make gravy; they make chicken, goose, duck, partridge, pheasant, guinea fowl or turkey stock instead. Roast or fry them with some vegetables, then proceed as above for the best gravy on the planet. Once you’ve tasted this, you’ll never buy a jar of Bisto again.
Don’t add the livers, as they will become hard and bitter. Fry them gently in butter until just done but still pink inside, then add a little wine, port or brandy and bubble it up for a minute or two, mash well with a fork, season and serve on hot toast.
My late friend Günther, a talented cook after the French school, once told me that water spells death for a roast, and he was right. Use booze instead: wine is the most common, but cider or beer is also very good, especially with pork, and don’t worry about exceeding the limit for drink driving as the alcohol evaporates in the cooking process.
And once we’re on the subject, a bit of booze comes to the rescue of frozen mackerel at this time of year. I know that some of my readers only eat this fish the day it was caught, but I find it quite acceptable in its frozen state, provided it hasn’t been left hanging around prior to freezing. Soused in white wine or cider with the addition of chopped apples or oranges, and baked until golden, it makes a great cold lunch or starter.
The making of vegetable flans and tarts is an exception when it comes to weighing and measuring, and the quantities given here for two large round flan cases, about 30cm in diameter.
Grease your flan tins with a little oil and turn up your Rayburn. Make a Mediterranean-style pastry out of 1lb of sifted flour, a pinch of salt, 12 tablespoons of olive oil, two beaten eggs, and between eight and 10 tablespoons of cold water. Add the water gradually to make sure the mix doesn’t get too soggy. Knead until it comes cleanly away from the sides of the bowl. Shape into a ball, and allow to rest.
Make savoury custard with a litre of semi-skimmed milk and 60g (three well-rounded tablespoons) of cornflour; stir now and again to prevent a skin from forming. When it has cooled to blood temperature, beat in four large eggs; adjust the seasoning, then stir in the juice of a half a lemon and a good handful of grated Parmesan or Gruyere cheese.
Roll the pastry out thinly and line the flan tins with it. It should be elastic, almost like fresh pasta dough, and very easy to work without the need for flouring your work surface. Brush the base with oil; this will form a waterproof barrier that prevents fillings from soaking through it and does away with the tiresome practise of baking the pastry blind, i.e. before the filling is added.
Pour half the custard into one flan base, and then press as much blanched cauliflower and broccoli into it as you find space for – the more the better. I used some of our frozen supplies, drained in a colander to remove excess liquid. Sprinkle the spears with a little more grated cheese and bake until set and golden brown.
The next flan, my late sister’s legendary lauch torte (leek tart), calls for 225g of lean, smoked bacon, cubed and fried until aromatic. Add three large chopped leeks, green parts included and cook until softened, and all water has evaporated. Mix with the remaining custard and spread onto the flan base. Bake until fully set and crisp on top.
We usually have more Morello cherries than we can eat, and the frozen ones are perfect for cherry, almond and chocolate pudding. Soak a pound of Morello cherries (stoned if you can be bothered) in a few spoons of Amaretto mixed with a little sugar. Cream 125g of butter with 150g caster sugar, then beat in three eggs and 200g of ground almonds. Finally, stir in 125g of dark chocolate, melted and cooled.
Spread half this mixture into a wide, well greased ovenproof dish, spread the cherries over, then top with the remaining mixture. Bake in a moderate oven for about an hour or until firm to the touch – it’ll still be seductively gooey inside. Serve warm with a few flaked, toasted almonds and low fat crème fraiche or Greek yoghurt.
Last year we also had a very satisfactory raspberry harvest, which is going to feature as the final touch to our January menu: an after-dinner dram.
Place 500g of fully ripe and juicy raspberries, or a mixture of raspberries and Tay berries – frozen and thawed ones are fine – in a large glass jar or bottle, add 200g of sugar and a litre of vodka or similar neutral tasting uncoloured spirit.
Leave in a warm, light place for four to six weeks until all the sugar has dissolved and the vodka is a deep garnet red. Strain the liquid through a muslin cloth, making sure you squeeze out every drop.
This is my mother’s recipe, and she also makes this with bilberries, which are rather hard to come by in Shetland. Place two or three frozen raspberries in a small glass and pour the liqueur over it. Cheers!