What to put in your festive basket this December at the farmers’ market…

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Wreaths and the rest at your local market….

Quite a year 2016 has turned out to be! Whatever it has meant for you, what with Brexit and the extraordinary pantomime that has been the US election, it’s now time to celebrate that we have made it through one way or another. There are sure to be some heated debates during the festivities over that last glass of port or mulled wine but sharing good food and drink around a table is one of the best ways to enjoy being together and a little debate is healthy, as long as it remains good-natured!  Plan accordingly so that everyone, including the cook and bottle washer, can participate in relaxed style.

Just like stir-up Sunday and opening the first door on the advent calendar, a visit to your local Farmers’ market is the perfect way to get into the true spirit of Christmas. The sights, scents and sounds of the season are all around you so whether you are there with a lengthy list of favourite goodies to hunt down or simply want to soak up the atmosphere, browse and pick up some presents and special treats, you’ll have a better chance of success with a little preparation. Whether it’s shopping for tried and trusted old favourites, getting advice on the best way to cook your carefully selected produce from those most qualified to offer it, or maybe trying something new for the first time – it’s all a world away from pushing an overloaded trolley round an overcrowded supermarket.

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Cold and clear at Penshurst – the perfect way to shop!

This coming Saturday 3rd December I’ll be at Penshurst Farmers Market as usual signing copies of my books in the company of all our regular stall holders plus some special guests but also other talented local authors, carol singers, goose and turkey tastings, Wild at Heart’s wonderful seasonal canapes to try, and for even more Christmas shopping ideas, the Penshurst Place Gift Shop (my favourite place to buy really good cards!) and in the village hall, the annual Christmas Craft and Gift Market. So come prepared…..

Plan ahead to get the most from your trip

To make sure you get the best from your visit and spend your budget wisely, be sure to plan ahead and do a bit of research. Sit down a few days before your market and make lists of the essentials plus a few treats and surprises to help take the hard work out of all the cooking. Check on line at the Kent Farmers Market Association website www.kfma.org.uk/ for advice on individual markets, which suppliers you will find where, and what’s at its best to buy. If you’ve forgotten to order items ahead such as the turkey or maybe a goose, phone or email individual suppliers to see if they can fulfill your order ready to pick up at the market.

The big day…

Whatever you are planning for the big event – maybe a succulent goose or magnificent roast of rare breed beef or pork, or just going with tradition and sticking with turkey check what size you will need. You might be catering for smaller numbers so a pheasant or wild duck could be the best choice. And wonderful sea-fresh turbot or halibut are both very special for all kinds of celebrations. Whichever you choose, buying locally makes sense on every level. Smaller producers can select the best breeds for flavour and respond to local conditions to ensure the very finest results. You’ll also be supporting vital regional industry and have the satisfaction of caring for the environment too.

Once you’ve made your list of what you intend to buy at the market (and don’t forget it’s also the ideal place to pick up all kinds of special foodie gifts too), it’s a good idea to make a few simple preparations for your trip. If you haven’t ordered ahead and there is something you can’t manage without then aim to get there early so you don’t miss that special purchase. Make a trip to the cash machine ahead of your visit. Some producers do accept cards but many smaller ones don’t have the facilities so be prepared. It’s intensely frustrating to run out of money before you’ve bought all your essentials. Come with plenty of bags to carry away your goodies, and a freezer bag is always a good idea if you want to leave perishable goods in the car (unless we have a repeat of the arctic weather of some recent winters!) And before you leave home it’s a great idea to check you have enough fridge and freezer space for your purchases – storing them properly is vital to maintain flavour and quality.

What to choose this month…

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If you don’t want to make your own….

The wet June, followed by a warm late summer sunny autumn have been good for many growers and producers which means there is a wealth of great produce out there from which to choose. And we’ve had some sharp frosts to add flavour to winter vegetables, and sharpen the appetite for warming dishes full of spice and rich tastes. Celebrating the winter solstice with feasts, frolics and fun goes back way beyond Christian traditions. With the harvest all safely gathered in and a long dark winter to face, country folk have always turned to celebrating the short days with fire and feasting, and many of the foods we associate with the season have been featuring on menus for centuries. Cranberries, turkey and pumpkins may have come to us from the new world but we can more than match these imports with chestnuts, celeriac, parsnips, Brussels sprouts, goose, pheasant, partridge, venison, wild duck, oyster, mussels and sea bass. Plan your menu around these and you won’t go far wrong.

Don’t forget the extras such as sausagemeat and bacon for the trimmings, maybe a chicken liver pate or local hot smoked salmon to serve as a starter, and to round up, traditional Christmas pudding served with thick cream or ice cream, warmed mince pies and a platter of carefully selected local cheeses.

As well as all the traditional festive produce, there are plenty of speciality foods and dishes at the market to help save time and feed crowds over the holiday. A cooked gammon or ham, pates and terrines, soups and curries, all are worth finding a space for in the fridge or freezer to bring out for unexpected guests or when you are just too overwhelmed to prepare yet another meal. Also don’t forget to stock up on chutneys, preserves and relishes to go with your cold cuts. And a few extra loaves of good bread tucked in the freezer for turkey sandwiches or to go with a bowl of soup will always come in handy.

When it comes Christmas presents it’s a great idea to stock up on local produce as gifts for families and friends. A hamper of goodies is a wonderful way to say thank you to a special friend for help during the year, and an over-worked host or hostess will welcome a carefully selected basket of treats, if you are going to others for the big day. Offer to bring the Christmas pud, put together a locally sourced cheese board or choose a beautiful savoury pie with pickles for Boxing Day. The changing climate and fashion for micro-production has seen a growth in local wines, spirits and beers, many of them award winning.  And they make a great talking point so why not match your food gifts with a special chosen tipple.

 Spiced pumpkin and sweet potato gratin

(from The Busy Mum’s Vegetarian Cookbook by Mary Gwynn published by Simon & Schuster)

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Photograph by David Merewether

I often make this satisfying bake several times over the festive period! It goes perfectly with the Christmas turkey or goose, so much so that I find all the non-veggies want it too so make a huge one for the table. And a large dish makes a great Christmas Eve supper – either with a cooked glazed gammon joint and spiced red cabbage or simply served with a salad for when everyone gets in from carol services, as it sits happily in a low oven once cooked.

Serves 4 – 6/ Prepare 15 minutes/Cook 1 hour

500g  pumpkin, peeled, deseeded and cubed

500g sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed

2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped

2 tbsp chopped fresh sage

1 tsp ground ginger

1 tsp ground cumin

150ml  vegetable stock (or white wine)

150ml  single cream

25g  seed mix

25g white breadcrumbs

50g hard goat’s cheese, grated

salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 Preheat the oven to 180C/fan oven 170C/ gas mark 4. Place the pumpkin and sweet potato in a shallow 2litre (3pint) ovenproof dish or roasting tin. Scatter over the garlic, sage, ginger, cumin and seasoning. Pour over the stock, cover loosely with foil and bake in the oven for 40 – 45 minutes until the squash is almost tender.

2 Increase the oven temperature to 200C/fan oven 190C/ Gas Mark 6. Pour the cream over the vegetables and scatter with the seed mix, breadcrumbs and goat’s cheese. Return to the oven for a further 12 – 15 minutes until the top is bubbling and golden. Serve with bread and a green salad.

 

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Remember, remember… what to buy at your farmers’ market in November

Where has the year gone? This weekend I’m back at Penshurst Farmers Market for our annual Game Day with wonderful Kieron and Lucy of Kieron’s Game, cooking up the very best of locally sourced birds and beasts on my portable hob for visitors to try. Last year was so blowy we had to call it a day after an hour or so when the gazebo under which I was cooking threatened to take off but, as the glorious autumn colours in my garden testify, this autumn hasn’t yet seen many gales and, as I write, the forecast for Saturday is cold but clear.

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The very best game, and as local as it gets..

I’m always so pleased at the enthusiastic response from many who come up to our stall as I cook up different dishes, many vowing they really don’t like game but once they try it, are persuaded otherwise. I’ve said it before – the modern version is a world away from the strong, overly ‘gamey’ tough meat that many remember having tried and not enjoyed in the past.

Make local game the meat of choice this month as the season is well under way for birds such as pheasant, partridge and wild duck. Venison is available both farmed and wild in many markets, and makes a healthy choice as most wild game has 5% to 7% fat, compared to red meat such as lamb with 25% or more, depending on the cut. The lower fat content means careful cooking to avoid letting the meat dry out, so the old traditional slow cooking methods in stews and casseroles should be reserved for older game birds. Today’s meat has been very carefully selected and prepared by your game dealer; it’s no longer hung to quite the same stage of ‘gameyness’. Less strong and much more tender, it calls for more modern, time-friendly techniques such as flash-frying, grilling or even home smoking are better suited to lean, tender cuts.  Look online for ideas as plenty of chefs are discovering the joys of cooking with game. Amongst the dishes I’ll be preparing will be my own favourite pheasant breast recipe, marinated in thyme, lemon and red chilli then griddled. I’ve just put it into writing as part of a menu for Waitrose Weekend newspaper so pick up a copy next weekend (it may be the one after that?).

What else to look out for this month….

We’ve had a glorious autumn with golden days and enough rain to keep the garden growing but now the clocks have gone back and it’s that time of year again when short days and cold nights mean we all crave a little comfort from the kitchen. Slow-cooked casseroles, homely dishes such as the mashed topped game pie recipe below, rich flavoured roasts and warming puds all fit the bill perfectly. So wrap up, put on some sensible shoes and head out for a trip to your local market for inspiration.

This is the month to get organized and place your orders for Christmas treats to pick up at the December markets so go prepared with your shopping list to ensure you get just what you want. Spread the shopping load in the run up to the festivities next month and stock up on chutneys, mincemeat, jams and jellies along with goodies for the freezer to keep you going during the party season. Pates, Scotch eggs, pies, breads and cakes are made with locally sourced ingredients and will all freeze well, perfect for feeding unexpected guests.

If you want to slow cook for great comfort eating, look out for the cheaper cuts of venison and pair with some fattier pork to keep the dish moist, or choose beef, lamb and pork – shin of beef, belly pork, or lamb neck all cook down to meltingly wonderful mouthfuls of flavour, perfect for colder days. Remember that most stews, pies and casseroles actually improve in flavour from being cooked and stored for a day or two in the fridge before serving. I double up and put some in the freezer to make the most of this keeping benefit!

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Join the queue for great fish from Paul @ArcadeFisheries, one of the most popular stalls at Penshurst every month

Colder coastal waters at this time of year make for the highest quality fish and seafood, and as the temperature drops the range available just gets better. At the luxury end of the scale, treat yourself to the very best crab, lobster and oysters. For fish, Dover sole, turbot and halibut are rightly considered the very finest eating by cooks and chefs. But also this month why not try some of the lower cost alternatives as many are at their best. Brill is a real discovery if you haven’t tried it before – a firm white flesh full of clean flavour that only needs simple cooking. Or opt for healthy mackerel and herring, full of valuable Omega 3 fish oils. Shellfish including oysters, scallops and mussels are also all good this month.

Root vegetables are at their tastiest now and perfect for mashes, gratins and roasts – they improve with the cold and you will notice a marked difference in flavour from locally sourced varieties compared to supermarket specimens. Look out for parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes, swede and turnips. Try cooking peeled, cubed celeriac with a couple of cloves of garlic in the cooking water then mash with a big dollop of locally produced butter to go with venison or roast beef (or use in the recipe shown here). Main crop potatoes are full of texture and flavour and the varieties available in your own area are worth exploring. Ask the stallholder for advice on which potato to buy – the right one, floury or waxy, will make all the difference to the finished dish. The brassicas really come into their own this month too – kale, spring greens, Brussels sprouts and all kinds of cabbages are wonderful in stir-fries, soups, and hashes or just steamed with grated nutmeg and more butter! And red cabbage cooked with apple, spices and red wine is another seasonal treat to go with rich pork, or maybe a roasted wild duck.

 Apples, pears and plums have been in abundance this year, all benefiting from the cool wet spring so try as many local varieties as possible – Bramleys are perfect for using in mincemeat and Christmas pudding so buy them ready for stir-up Sunday at the end of the month. Carry on making chutneys and pickles and remember the eating varieties can also be used in tarts, puddings and cakes.

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 An everyday favourite, shepherd’s pie, transforms into something even more satisfying than usual when made with local game such as venison – perfect comfort food! And we are all lucky enough to have easy access to the best quality game here in Kent by simply visiting the local farmers’ market. I’ve made it with venison mince here with some pork to stop the mixture being too dry but you can use wild boar, rabbit or pigeon or a mixture. You can also make it with leftovers from a roast venison joint but just cook the base for 10 – 15 minutes

Serves 4 – 6/Prep 20 minutes/Cook 1 hour

2 tbsp olive or rapeseed oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 large carrot, finely chopped
500g venison mince
250g minced pork
1 – 2 tsp Ras al Hanout spice
1 – 2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
2 tbsp redcurrant jelly
4 tbsp chopped flat-leafed parsley
500ml good beef or game stock
500g floury potatoes such as King Edward, peeled and cubed
1 large swede, peeled and cubed
2 parsnips, peeled and sliced
30 – 50g butter (I like my mash buttery so add to your taste)
50g strong cheddar-style cheese (I like to use Winterdale Shaw), grated
salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 Preheat the oven to 200C/fan oven 180C/Gas mark 6. Heat the oil in a large non-stick frying pan or sauté pan and cook the onion and carrot for 3 minutes until softened. Add the minced venison and pork and break up with a fork. Sprinkle with the Ras al Hanout and fry for a few minutes until lightly browned.

2 Stir in the Worcestershire sauce, redcurrant jelly and chopped parsley. Add the stock and seasoning and bring to the boil. Simmer half covered for 25 – 30 minutes, stirring occasionally until the liquid is reduced.

3 While the mince is cooking, place the potatoes, swede and parsnip in a pan with enough cold water to just cover. Bring to the boil and simmer for 15 – 20 minutes until tender. Drain the vegetables thoroughly, return to the pan and mash until smooth. Add the milk and the butter to the pan and beat into the mash. Season well and spoon over the top of the mince mixture. Rough up the surface with a fork then scatter with the cheese. Bake for 25 – 30 minutes until the top is golden and bubbling. Serve with peas or steamed broccoli.


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A basket of delights – July at the market

P8040141These are a few of my favourite things – cherries and broad beans, crab and English lamb…..

What a difference a month makes! Just four short weeks ago when I wrote the copy below for the Kent Farmers’ Market Association web site for July, the sun had just started to shine and I was beginning to believe the forecasters might have got it right for a change and we were in for a lovely summer. But here I am on the 1st July and it’s officially been one of the wettest Junes on record. In eight days time my eldest daughter marries her wonderful partner of nine years with a Sussex country wedding in the garden (at his parents’ glorious setting on the edge of the Ashdown Forest). Then the following day I host lunch here in my newly designed and planted garden (created from what was essentially a pile of mud just four months ago by my talented sister, Jane King). Well, at least I have been spared the watering and everything has grown like gangbusters. But the fat new rose buds are rotting on the bushes, the slugs are partying amongst my delphiniums and my new Big Green Egg in its bespoke oak housing has yet to be christened…

Whatever the weather, July has ways of making up for the wet. The wedding meal/s (which, thank goodness, I am not cooking) will be showcasing the best of seasonal local produce, and I will be proudly serving local sparkling wine from Plumpton Estate to my guests. Add a really great band, lovely setting, the best friends and lots of family on both sides, of course the most beautiful bride, and the day will be special whatever the weather. I was lucky enough to meet the team from Plumpton College who run their Wine Production courses when I judged the Food Village stalls last month at the South of England Show; their enthusiasm, knowledge and of course the wines themselves, won them second place (just pipped by the folk at Flavit Seaweed Seasoning, whose product I have been using ever since in my cooking with great success). I am currently making the wedding cake (the lemon layer is baking as I write this!), honing my rusty cake-decorating skills on a four-tier, four-flavoured buttercream cake to be decorated with fresh herbs and garden flowers that provides something of a challenge to one who used to make a lot of wedding cakes but of the dried fruit, marzipan, fondant and sugar flower variety. If it all goes well there may be pictures so look out…

In the gaps between baking and icing, tomorrow morning I’m off to Penshurst to buy food to keep us all going in the run-up to the wedding next week. Here’s what I’ll be putting in my basket

Don’t miss this month….

As I write this, the countryside is finally basking in the sunshine of high summer after the long cold spring, which means that now is the perfect time to indulge in some wonderful locally-grown produce, especially outside (well fingers crossed that might be the case this month, unlike in June!). There really is no better way to enjoy any precious warm days than with a feast of wonderful summer foods, grown and produced close to home. At this time of year, everything is so good, you can follow the less is more precept and keep preparation and cooking to the minimum.

Grass-fed summer LAMB is now at its very finest and, as a more fatty meat than some (the fat gives the meat flavour and keeps it from drying out), it’s ideal for the BBQ. A boned-out leg or shoulder can be marinated overnight and cooks perfectly in under an hour. I like to make up a paste of ground spices, lime juice and yogurt or try the Moroccan spice Ras al Hanout rubbed over the skin before cooking (try on cubed lamb for kebabs). On the fish front CORNISH SARDINES are all the rage now – as they should be as another wonderful barbecue choice.

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Sparklingly fresh fish from Paul at Arcade Fisheries

And look out for MACKAREL – bought silvery fresh from the market and cooked the same day to enjoy at its very best. Serve with a pickled cucumber and dill salad. Midsummer is a great time to enjoy CRAB – all you need to make a feast is to serve dressed crab with simply buttered new potatoes and good mayonnaise, home made if possible. Serve with a chilled glass of one of the excellent English white wines that are now coming onto the market, such as the award winning Ortega from Biddenden Vineyards.

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Broad beans – perfect in a risotto or salad with feta and mint

Amongst an abundance of produce at this month’s market, you’ll find tender BROAD BEANS (freshly picked little pods can be enjoyed whole), fresh GREEN PEAS, radishes, beetroot, spring onions, spinach, and of course, new potatoes. Cucumbers, beans, both French and runner, and courgettes should be there alongside all kinds of salad leaves and great bunches of fresh herbs.

The slow cooler start to the season has been good for STRAWBERRIES, especially now that the weather is warming up to ripen the fruit – so indulge yourself with the best of the British summer fruit all at its peak this month. You’ll discover a completely different experience from the pale imitations that can be found all year round in supermarkets, varieties grown for flavour rather than ease of transport and keeping qualities. Serve with rich golden pouring cream from cattle fed on the lush summer grass and a sprinkling of sugar – add a grounding of black pepper to really enhance the flavour. And don’t miss out on CHERRIES with the season now in full swing (Kentish cherries are justifiably world famous), gooseberries, black and REDCURRANTS, and wonderful raspberries. This is the month for jam makers and you don’t have to make huge vats of the stuff – just a few jars are incredibly satisfying to produce in your home kitchen, taste marvellous and make wonderful gifts.

 

Black forest chocolate cherry cheesecake

Black forest cheesecake

Black forest cheesecake – definitely one of my best recipes ever…

This may just be the best cheesecake recipe ever! I created it for a menu for Waitrose last year to fund raise for Marie Curie so it has appeared here before. But with English cherries in season it seems the ideal time to bring it out again. It’s perfect for summer parties and celebrations (such as weddings!) as it can be made ahead

Serves 8/Prepare 25 minutes/Cook 35 – 40 minutes plus overnight cooling and chilling

175g dark chocolate digestives, crushed
50g unsalted butter, melted
400g fresh cherries, stoned
400g full fat soft fresh cheese
100g caster sugar
2 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
100g good quality dark chocolate, broken into chunks
150ml double cream
1 tbsp cocoa
100ml soured cream
dark chocolate curls to decorate

1 Preheat the oven to 170C Gas mark 3. Mix the crushed biscuits with the melted butter and press into the base of a 20cm greased and base lined spring-release tin. Arrange two thirds of the stoned cherries over the base.
2 In a large mixing bowl, beat together the soft cheese and sugar until smooth, then gradually beat in the eggs and egg yolks. Melt the chocolate with the cream and cocoa in a small pan over a very low heat and stir until smooth. Cool then fold into the cheese ingredients. Spoon into the tin and level the surface then bake for 35 – 40 minutes until only just set. The top should still wobble a bit when you shake the tin. Turn off the oven and leave the cheesecake to cool in the oven for a couple of hours then remove from the oven and chill for at least 2 hours, preferably overnight.
3 To serve, carefully remove the cheesecake from the tin and place on a serving plate. Spread the soured cream over the surface and top with the reserved cherries. Scatter with dark chocolate curls.

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Joyful June at your farmer’s market

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Make the most of wonderful local asparagus before it disappears until next year

The end of the asparagus and new season’s strawberries from Michael Bourne of New Park Farm and the Groombridge farm shop, superb lemon sole and tiny little courgettes – I made it to sunny Penshurst market on Saturday and came away happy with a full basket. Family were staying ready for a wonderful ‘family’ hen party for my daughter at St John Maltby  that night – it made a wonderful setting for a very special evening with all the amazing women from both families. We feasted on pig’s cheeks and dandelion salad, baked white fish, braised lamb with broad beans and aoilli, followed by a sumptuous rhubarb pavlova – total heaven. To get them in training for the evening,  I fed us a perfect post-market lunch of Naked and Ready‘s wonderful Gloucester Old Spot pork pie, Thai sate Scotch egg and crab pate, chilli jelly from Sugar and Spice, rhubarb and cobnut chutney from Potash Farm, new potatoes and salad, followed by strawberries and cream. Oh, and slices of the best Battenburg cake from Debra’s Cake and Bake for tea – I turn to her amazing cakes and tarts when I’m too busy to cook myself – something that seems to have happened far too much since my build started a year ago. And my blog for June is only a week late!

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A truly great pork pie is a joy forever!

Better late than never however, as with building work on my cottage nearly complete bar the shouting (and there will be some of that, I’m sure), I can finally start thinking about daughter’s wedding in a month, and hopefully get back to work properly at last. I’ve a new book project on the go and plan to get the first chapter written over the summer…

What to buy this month…

After a slow start from the cool spring, growers and producers are now at full stretch as we lead up to the summer solstice in the latter half of June. June is Kent Farmers Market Month and many of the county’s local markets will be holding special events – tastings, cookery demonstrations, local craft displays and much more – so that you can sample the very best that the Garden of England produces. As regulars know well, the county’s markets have far more to offer than just traditional fruit, vegetables and meat. Many sell everything from fresh fish and game to a wide range of ready prepared dishes and ingredients such as pasta sauces, handmade chocolates, vegetarian dishes and wonderful cakes and breads.

And the benefits of buying locally at a market are wide ranging. Not only will you get the chance to taste before you buy so you know exactly what you are getting but by going directly to the source, you can find out at first hand how the produce was grown or made. Most producers will also be able to give you storing and cooking tips so you can really make the most of your purchase. Remember that because you are buying locally and seasonally, pricing is likely to be competitive with the supermarkets and often cheaper so don’t fall for the idea that markets are an expensive luxury. For details of special events plus locations and opening times visit www.kentfarmersmarkets.org.uk or follow @KentFarmers on Twitter.

The vagaries of the weather are nowhere more in evidence than with the asparagus crop at this time of year. A cold start meant the season didn’t get going till mid May and growers will be stopping the picking before the end of the month to allow the plants to generate growth for next year, so make the most of the green spears while they are around now. Eat your local asparagus traditionally, steamed and served with melted butter or Hollandaise, or brush with olive oil and griddle the spears on the barbecue until tender then scattered with shavings of a sharp hard cheese such as Lord of the Hundreds, or maybe Kentish Bluebell or tart fresh goat’s cheese crumbled over.

Try the spears in soups, vegetable gratins or make into a perfect risotto paired with the first tender broad beans (freshly picked little pods can be enjoyed whole) and fresh green peas. I like to stir in a herb butter at the end of cooking once the grains are tender (just whiz butter up in a blender with a handful of mint, parsley, basil and chives). Other veg to look out for are crisp radishes, spring onions, spinach, and of course new potatoes. There are also early cucumbers, runner beans, spinach and courgettes, alongside all kinds of salad leaves now in season. It’s also the ideal time to plant out ‘ready to plant’ herbs and summer bedding plants.

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Don’t miss out on local cherries this month

The long days and the warmth also herald the start of the great English soft fruit season with strawberries now appearing as the month progresses – one of the great advantages of local markets is the chance to try some of the finer flavoured varieties, rather than the more robust berries grown to withstand the rigours of the supermarket supply chain that may not have the same flavour. A cool start to the year has meant early strawberries might be slower to appear than last year but they will have benefited from a slower growing period for flavour. Ditto the finest local cherries (Kentish cherries are justifiably world famous), gooseberries and early raspberries.  A favourite way to serve raspberries, cherries and strawberries is to crush them slightly, sprinkle with a little Kentish cherry brandy or Italian vin Santo and sugar then leave to macerate for an hour. Serve spooned over vanilla ice cream.

Spring lamb is now at its very finest now and a boned-out shoulder or leg is perfect on the barbecue or simply roasted and served with baby new potatoes and minted broad beans and peas. Look out for salt marsh lamb this month – perfect with buttered samphire. On the fish front it’s really has to be mackerel – bought silvery fresh from the market and cooked the same day to enjoy at its very best. Try it the traditional way for the month – grilled and served with a tart gooseberry sauce. Also good this month are lobster, plaice, sardines and clams.

If your visit to the market coincides with a sunny weekend, plan the perfect picnic. Fill your basket with locally made cheeses, pates, maybe a raised pie or Scotch egg. Then just add a loaf of artisan bread baked that day, some chutney or relish, a bag of cherries and maybe a punnet of strawberries and you are all set. A bottle or two of a local beer, cider or chilled white wine and you have all the makings of a feast….

Green summer risotto

(taken from The Busy Mum’s Vegetarian Cookbook by Mary Gwynn Simon & Schuster)

Risottos are my (and my family’s) idea of the perfect comfort food and so convenient as there is always the makings of one in the cupboard or veg drawer. I make risottos in all the colours of the rainbow, just by following the basic method and adding a vegetable. Pumpkin, aubergine and courgette are all favourites but this one is a particular favourite

 

Green summer risotto

Prepare: 15 mins/Cook: 25 mins/Serves 4 – 6

500g prepared seasonal vegetables (such as small courgettes, podded peas, green beans, broad beans and asparagus tips)
2 tbsp olive oil
2 shallots, finely chopped
1- 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
350g Arborio risotto rice
about 1.5 litres simmering vegetable stock
100ml dry white wine
50g butter
50g fresh mixed herbs, such as flat-leaf parsley, basil, chives, tarragon, dill or chervil, finely chopped
50g freshly grated Parmesan or Lord of the Hundreds
salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 Cook the vegetables in simmering water for 2 – 3 minutes until almost tender then drain and plunge into iced water to cool. Drain thoroughly and set aside. Heat the oil in a heavy-based saucepan. Add the shallot and garlic and cook for about 3 minutes until softened. Add the rice and stir to coat in the oil.

2 Add a ladleful of stock and the white wine and simmer over a medium-low heat until the liquid is absorbed, stirring constantly. Continue adding stock, a few tablespoons at a time, stirring frequently, until all the stock is absorbed and the rice is tender and creamy but still with a slight bite. This should take about 20 minutes

3 While the rice is cooking, place the butter in a blender or food processor with the herbs and seasoning and process until well blended together. When the rice is tender, add the reserved vegetables and cook for another minute or two to heat through. Stir in the herb butter and Parmesan cheese and adjust the seasoning. Serve immediately.

Busy mum’s lifesaver: To get ahead, use the chef’s tip for risotto and cook up to the stage of adding the rice and first amount of liquid. Then just remove from the heat and set aside. Then when you are ready to serve the risotto reheat the base and complete as directed.

 

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There’s something fishy down at Penshurst….

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We’re cooking great fish at Penshurst Market…

The spring sun has finally started to shine, that biting arctic wind has at last stopped blowing, and this weekend – Saturday May 7th between 9.30 and 12 – I’ll be celebrating the arrival of spring eating by cooking up some of the best fish from the seas around the south coast, with my partner in crime, Paul ‘the Fish’ Saxby of Arcade Fisheries, all in the glorious setting of Penshurst Farmers’ Market. And the weather forecast is looking promising as I write…

Good fish needs very simple cooking. The aim for the cook should be to preserve and enhance the flavour, which should never be overly ‘fishy’ but clean, fragrant and pleasing, whilst keeping the texture of the flesh by not overcooking. And the best way to keep both the flavour and texture at their peak is to cook fish on the bone.

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However many of us have an understandable fear of both handling and eating fish in its whole state. With their heads, innards and fins, they seem hard to manage, and then of course there are worries about bones and choking. Learning the basics about the anatomy of different fish, flat or round, is easy, so we can prepare, cook and eat them all with confidence. To show just how easy it should be, on Saturday Paul will be talking about the different types of fish and how to prepare them to cook whole, and I will be cooking some of them on the bone, both whole and as pieces, to show just how easy it can be, and how delicious…

We’ll also be showcasing some of the wonderful ingredients on offer from other stalls at the market that make the perfect partners for the fish we are using, so come along with any questions you might have about cooking fish and try (and buy!) some truly great British produce at its very best…

 

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Hurray! It’s May at the Farmer’s Market

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Longer days and some warmer spring sunshine bring a sense of anticipation as May progresses and we say goodbye to the long winter. After a chilly, stormy and wet spring the first signs of the bounty that will be with us in the coming months are starting to appear as the countryside springs into life. A real harbinger of summer is wonderful English asparagus, one of the great treats of the season. The cool March and early April has kept the spears waiting in the ground but they will be pushing through the earth now, ready for harvesting. Asparagus is at its best when picked and cooked within hours, something easily achievable when bought locally at the market. Make the most of the delicate flavour by serving simply steamed with melted butter or hollandaise, or toss with crumbled local goat’s cheese, some toasted pine nuts and a simple olive oil and lemon vinaigrette. As the season progresses use in risottos, tarts, salads and soups.

Wild sea trout is one of the season’s great treats – smaller fish make a lovely meal for one. Lemon sole, cod, halibut and sea bass are all good at this time of year and shellfish fans should keep an eye out for razor clams and cockles. For meat eaters spring lamb will start to appear during the month – lambs are sold the year of their birth and the early season lamb is tender and fine flavoured. Look out for salt marsh lamb coming in at the end of May with its juicy meat and distinctive flavour. Roast and serve simply with new potatoes cooked in their skins with a sprig or two of fresh mint, and maybe some steamed samphire to enhance the salty tang to the flesh. To cook samphire just rinse and boil in water briefly – don’t add any more salt – then toss in a little local butter. The texture should be still crisp. Local reared beef and pork will be at their most succulent as the grazing starts to green up. Now is the time to splash out on steaks, chops and fillets and use them simply cooked – grilled, stir fried or griddle cooked for lighter meals.

Alongside asparagus other spring vegetables are also starting to appear after the cold of the winter. Look out for tender little early English new potatoes, giving the Jerseys a run for their money. Leaves such as spinach, watercress, rocket and lettuces can now be found sitting alongside the last of this year’s main vegetable crop of purple sprouting broccoli, spring cabbage, cauliflower, spring greens and spring onions. Radishes, spring onions and samphire mean that lighter eating is now an easy choice for the cook. And by the end of the month the first broad beans should be available and at their tender best.

The wealth of summer berries is still ahead of us but you can make the most of green outdoor rhubarb this month in desserts such as homemade ice creams and fools. Or try making your own rhubarb jams and chutneys – the tart flavour of the fruit makes a lovely preserve to spread on scones, fill sponge cakes and enjoy simply on buttered toast, particularly if you add ginger as a flavouring.

By the end of the month the earliest gooseberries should be available, ready to pair up with their perfect partner – delicate fragrant elderflowers. Just add a head or two of creamy white flowers (pick away from roads or sprayed fields and shake to remove bugs) to the gooseberries for a few minutes as they cook then lift out and discard. The distinctive flavour will remain for crumbles, cakes, fools or creamy desserts such as crème brulees and panna cotta.

Gooseberry and elderflower crumble

This is one of my favourite versions of one of my favourite puds! Its secret lies in its simplicity – wonderful seasonal ingredients that work in perfect harmony, cooked to enhance their flavour with no fuss. Serve the crumble hot or cold with really good vanilla ice cream – there really is no better way to round off a May meal, especially if the main course is an asparagus risotto with seared scallops . Pick the elderflowers on a dry day away from roadsides while the flowers are just coming out and creamy white. Shake out the sprigs to get rid of any bugs then rinse under cold water and lay on kitchen paper to dry.

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Serves 4/Prepare 10 minutes/Cook 30 minutes

500g fresh gooseberries, topped and tailed
3 -4 sprigs elderflowers
150g caster sugar
125g plain flour
85g butter, cubed
50g ground almonds
25g flaked almonds to finish

1 Preheat the oven to 190C/fan oven170C/ Gas mark 5. Arrange the gooseberries in a 1.5 litre shallow ovenproof dish. Sprinkle with half the sugar.

2 Sift the flour into a mixing bowl and rub in the butter until the mixture looks like coarse breadcrumbs. Stir in the remaining sugar and ground almonds. Scatter over the fruit and top with the flaked almonds.

3 Cook in the oven for 40 – 45 minutes until the top is golden and the fruit tender. Serve warm or chilled with ice cream, custard or pouring cream.

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Fill your basket! It’s spring at the Farmers’ market

Penhurst Place on a spring morning

Spring arrives at Penshurst Place – the most glorious setting for a farmers’ market..

Another month, another market blog post and, unbelievably, eleven months since they arrived for a six month project, the builders are still turning  at my cottage at 7 in the morning, and I am beginning to forget what normal life feels like. But the end is finally in sight, I’ve glimpsed the light at the end of the tunnel, and maybe it will all be finished before my daughter’s wedding in three months after all.

The best thing is that I am now beginning to get back into cooking in my new kitchen, and feel excited about it too. After what feels like months of living on toast and takeaways, this Saturday (2nd) I will be off to Penshurst to stock up and refill my freezer for the month ahead. Here’s my ideas for what I might be putting in my basket.

What to buy this month….

The arrival of April after what feels like a long winter sees spring really starting to get into gear as longer days with more light stimulate growth and make us all feel better after a long winter. Lambs are gamboling in the fields, the hedgerows are greening up and wild garlic is sprouting near streams and rivers. For food lovers although the month still comes with a rather restricted selection of fresh seasonal produce to choose from, it’s the perfect time to try some of the wonderful array of prepared and preserved products from talented producers across Kent and the south east.

The Taste of Kent Awards for 2016 were awarded last month, as increasing numbers of local food enthusiasts cast their votes in over 13 categories, and everything from butchers, fishmongers, restaurants, pubs and, of course, farmers’ markets gain well-earned recognition. These awards celebrate and reward the committed hard-working producers, chefs, retailers and growers who do so much to promote the county and the quality of its ingredients. You will find many of the award winning products at your local markets, with everything from fine cheeses, pies and pastries, local beers and wines, handmade chocolates, artisan bread and wonderful preserves all recognized. Visit http://www.tasteofkentawards.co.uk for more details of award winners before your trip to your local market and then you will know what to look out for.

I’m going to be searching out one of this year’s  award winners – pies from the Paramour Pie Club based down in Deal. Their Mr Mcgregor’s Pie was a little parcel of rabbity heaven – a scrumptious filling encased in perfect short pastry that had absorbed the flavours of the  local Stour Valley Game rabbit (who won best Butcher/Meat producer) and Little Stour Orchard cider used in the recipe. I’m off down to Deal to try out some of their other pies as soon as possible (tomorrow afternoon in fact for a pop-up pie session!) and I recommend trying a bottle or two of Little Stour Orchard cider to wash them down. Perfect for a spring picnic in between the hail showers!

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I’ll also be putting a loaf or two of Phil Hemming’s fabulous Hemmings Bakehouse sour dough bread in my basket at Penshurst, along with a wodge of his foccaccia, fragrant with good olive oil and a crunch of sea salt. A few weeks ago I paid a visit to Phil at his bakery on Claire and Guy Eckley’s farm at Staplehurst where they produce their Pure Kent  rapeseed oil, and grind their own wheat for their range of flours.

 

 

 

 

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Wooden wonder – Claire Eckley’s flour mill

All the flour is milled to order by Claire in small batches so Phil gets to use a freshly milled product in his breads, grain grown locally and milled just a stone’s throw from where he mixes up the dough, shapes and bakes his loaves. Not many bakers can make that claim!

So what else should you be buying and eating this April? Fish and seafood lovers will find sea bass, cod, halibut, cockles, mussels and scallops all at their finest now. A whole salmon is a good choice for a spring celebration, as wild salmon and sea trout from Scotland are both in season, and well worth the extra expense for a special occasion. Their firmer flesh and finer flavour come from swimming freely and feeding on a diet of crustacea. Bake whole wrapped in foil with butter and herbs and serve simply with a homemade Hollandaise sauce. I’ll be buying wonderfully meaty smoked haddock fillets from Paul Saxby of Arcade Fisheries to make the fishcakes below. It’s one of my favourite fish, and I use it in so many recipes, such as the chowder or creamy potato gratin from my Busy Mum’s Cookbook, both perfect for this time of year when the weather can be a bit iffy but I yearn for lighter dishes. And next month on May 7th I’ll be cooking at Penshurst with Paul for the market’s Fish Day, showing how to cook some of the less well-known fish he sells, such as gurnard and brill, and offering tips on storing and cooking the finest freshest fish you will find in the whole of the south of England.

For meat eaters, the earliest spring lamb will be just starting to make an appearance as the month advances although it’s really May before this season’s lamb appears on most menus. If it’s still too early for your local lambs, then enjoy a wonderful joint of fine rare-breed beef or pork for a family Sunday roast.

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Try a joint of Gloucester Old Spot pork – perfect for a spring Sunday lunch with a spiced rhubarb sauce instead of apple

For poultry look out for guinea fowl, whilst game dealers are selling venison, hare, rabbit and wood pigeon. You might want to try a fine game pie, either hot with plenty of savoury gravy, or in a magnificent raised pie perfect for an bank holiday weekend picnic at the end of the month. If you don’t want to make your own, there are plenty of beautiful ready-made versions on offer.

As the palate craves lighter foods with the longer days, lettuces, spinach, watercress, cucumber and spring onions are starting to arrive, taking over from the brassicas such as cauliflower, purple sprouting broccoli, cabbages and kale, for those yearning for salads. Foragers are out after wild garlic (and nettle tops) so buy a bunch of wild garlic if you see it or go out and pick it yourself. It grows in damp places so beside streams – the white flowers should still be in bud for the best flavour. Wrap the leaves around fish before baking, or shred the leaves and use in soups, pasta dishes and risottos.

Keep on cooking with rhubarb, now moving from the bright pink early forced variety marketed as champagne rhubarb into the darker and more sour outdoor grown version. It’s such a versatile fruit that works in both sweet and savoury dishes but do make sure you add the right amount of sugar to balances the sour. A really good rhubarb fool is a seasonal pleasure, especially when made with local cream as the new grass is starting to add richness to dairy produce, maybe flavoured with a little ginger. And local apples are still good as the storing varieties keep well into this month.

Here’s my must-cook recipe this month…

Smoked haddock fishcakes with wild garlic butter sauce

I often make these fishcakes as they are a family favourite – I buy a large fillet of smoked haddock at the market and pop it in the freezer so I can make up a batch when it suits me. At this time of year when I’m out with the dogs walking along the banks of the river Medway, I’ll pick a handful of wild garlic to use in this simple sauce. If you can’t get wild garlic, use a mix of fresh herbs – basil, dill, chives and parsley – and add a crushed clove of garlic

Serves 4/Prep 25 minutes/Cook 30 minutes

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Smoked haddock goes well with a simple wild garlic sauce

600g old potatoes, peeled and cut into small cubes
2 medium eggs
30g butter
450g undyed smoked haddock fillet
2 small leeks, finely sliced
juice of ½ lemon
1 tbsp capers, finely chopped
2 tbsp seasoned flour
2 tbsp cold pressed rapeseed oil
For the sauce:
50g butter
2 shallots, finely chopped
100ml white wine
75ml double cream
3 – 4 tbsp shredded wild garlic leaves

1 Cook the potatoes in boiling water for 15 – 18 minutes until tender then drain thoroughly, return to the pan and allow to dry for a minute or two then mash. Put the eggs in a pan of cold water, bring to the boil and simmer for 8 minutes then run under cold water till cool, peel and chop. While the potatoes and eggs are cooking place the smoked haddock in a shallow pan, just cover with cold water, bring to the boil and poach for 8 – 10 minutes until just cooked through – the flesh will be opaque. Drain off the liquid and flake the flesh.

2 Cook the leeks in the butter in a medium frying pan for 4 – 5 minutes until soft but not brown then stir into the potato mixture with the lemon juice. Fold through the flaked fish, eggs and chopped capers. Season to taste. Shape the mixture into eight patties. Place the flour in a shallow bowl and dip the fishcakes in it to coat lightly. Chill until needed.

3 Make the sauce. Melt a small piece of the butter in a pan and add the shallots. Cook gently until soft but not golden then add the white wine and boil until reduced by half. Add the cream and bring to simmering point. Gradually whisk in the butter in small pieces to give a smooth sauce. Check seasoning and add the wild garlic. Keep warm while you cook the fish cakes but don’t allow to boil.

4 Heat the oil in a shallow non-stick frying pan and fry the fishcakes for 6-8 minutes until golden brown and cooked through, turning occasionally. Drain on kitchen paper and serve with the garlic sauce and steamed shredded spring cabbage.

 

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