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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An easy Easter menu for the whole family

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Rhubarb and ginger crumble – the last spoonful for Easter lunch

As the building work on my cottage finally comes to a long-anticipated conclusion and I start to feel that my home may once more be my own, the desire to cook in my new kitchen and write about doing so is starting to return. Here is my March piece for Kent Farmers Market Association edited to help you plan Easter eating for the coming weekend. I’ll be cooking the chicken recipe for the family on Sunday – with mixed weather on the cards, I’ve chosen comforting classics to warm and cheer us up after a long and muddy dog walk on the Ashdown Forest.

March at the Farmers’ market

Hurray for longer lighter days! As March progresses the daylight increases by a wonderful two hours so that, by the end of the month, we are once again enjoying days that are longer than nights. Once the clocks go forward on 29th March, it really feels like spring is properly underway and we can hope for a summer of sunshine to make up a bit for the wet of the winter now past.

For market visitors this month, what’s on offer can seem rather restricted as we wait for kinder weather conditions for animals and crops, which will respond to the increasing light and warmth with bounty to come. That’s why March is traditionally known as the hunger gap or famine month. But it’s really a great opportunity to make most of the last of the winter and enjoy all those wonderful comfort foods and warming treats before they disappear again till the last quarter of the year.

 Meat and game

For meat eaters, pork is an excellent choice this month and it’s still ideal weather to enjoy a hearty roast on Sunday with all the family, after a (probably muddy) walk enjoying the spring flowers and increasing bird song as mating and nest building gets under way. Try a shoulder joint for the best combination of flavour and texture. The cheaper cuts are worth trying in slow cooked stews – pig’s cheeks and pork belly, breast of lamb, shin of beef – all great value and superb eating when the weather is still holding onto winter. Or what about that eternal family favourite – a roast chicken? A slow grown locally reared bird has more flavour and better texture than its intensively raised cousins and goes really well with wedges of par-boiled sweet potato tossed in cold pressed rapeseed oil and a sprinkling of ground ginger before roasting until golden in cold pressed rapeseed oil. Serve with purple sprouting broccoli.

Simple cooking methods work best with a really good bird, as the flavour is enhanced rather than masked. And don’t waste the carcase once you eaten the meat off the bones. It will make great stock for using in soups, sauces and risottos. Put it in a large pan with an onion, carrot, celery stick, bay leaf and bunch of herbs. Cover with cold water, bring to the boil and simmer very gently for an hour. Strain, pour into freezer bags sat in a bowl or jug then freeze. Remove the frozen stock from the bowl, tie up, lable and return to the freezer.

Rough shooting takes over as the end of the season has arrived for many game birds so rabbit and wood pigeon are both good eating now. And if you haven’t had venison this winter, try some now maybe in burgers or sausages, served with steamed kale and mashed root veg, or make the most of the game mixes that many dealers sell to use up the season’s bits and pieces for pie, braises and stews. Look out for locally made excellent game pies and pasties (and other meat or veggie fillings) on sale at many markets – made with local produce, they take the hard work out of enjoying a really good pie. Put a few in the freezer to enjoy later in the year at picnics.

Fish and seafood

For fish lovers, sea bass is a good choice this month or try a wonderful warming fish stew as a superb way of enjoying superb local fish and seafood. Use a combination of cod, mussels and clams in a risotto or soup. Or spoil yourself a little with wonderful local lobsters and native oysters, clams, cockles and mussels. Storms permitting, Kent and Sussex scallops are at their finest now so enjoy one of the great pleasures of the season. Sardines are also good now with the cold waters around the coast producing sparkling fresh fish with bright eyes and firm flesh. Salmon is also an excellent choice for Easter, and many markets offer good local smoked and cures that make a lovely light lunch dish or starter for a special meal.

Fruit and veg

As days lengthen Cabbages, cauliflower, purple sprouting broccoli, leeks and kale are all good. They need little cooking and are really at their best simply shredded and steamed. Or try quickly stir-fried with garlic, ginger and chilli for an accompaniment to good local sausages. Cauliflower goes really well with curry spices so try it in vegetable curries, soups and fritters or in a puree as a base for scallops grilled with cubes of black pudding. And make the most of leeks, carrots, swede and Jerusalem artichokes before they disappear.

Beautiful pink forced rhubarb is really the only locally grown fruit around now but the season for the fine ‘champagne’ season is short so make the most of it. Use in fools, ice creams and sauces – it goes particularly well with a large pinch or two of ginger. Or make up batches of rhubarb compote and freeze in pots for later in the year. And don’t forget it makes wonderful cakes – crumble topped, or upside down, with almonds or ginger. Serve as a pud with ice cream or keep for the tea tray. Don’t forget that local apples are still good as the storing varieties go on delivering flavour and texture until April.

And don’t forget….to stock up on the jams, jellies and chutneys made using this winter’s produce to keep you going over the next few months – you will find old favourite flavours such as rhubarb and ginger and quince, with many hedgerow jams and jellies and many more unusual offerings to tempt you into buying. Why not try a locally baked cake or sweet tart this month when the range of seasonal fruit is limited? Cold weather, the arriving spring, the first daffodil – they all make a great excuse to celebrate with local produce, if you really need one!

Braised chicken with saffron and garlic mayo

This chicken cooks in its own juices in a sealed pot so remains moist and full of flavour. The rich sauce is thickened at the end of cooking with the addition of garlicy mayonnaise – homemade for the best flavour. Serve with plenty of mashed potato to soak up the lovely sauce. Follow it with your favourite crumble recipe with some chopped stem ginger added to the rhubarb – I always use Rick Stein’s recipe from his classic Food Heroes cookbook

Serves 6/Prep 20 minutes/Cook 2 hours

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Pot braised chicken with saffron

1.5kg free-range chicken
1 small lemon, halved
300ml white wine
1 medium onion, peeled and halved
3 large leeks, thickly sliced
4 medium carrots, cut into chunks
a bouquet garni of bay leaf, sprigs of fresh thyme, celery leaves,
¼ tsp saffron strands
salt and freshly ground black pepper
To finish
4 tbsp fresh egg mayonnaise, bought or home made
3 – 4 cloves garlic, crushed
3 – 4 tbsp chopped flat leaf parsley

1 Preheat the oven to 180C gas mark 4. Push the lemon halves into the caity of the chicken and place the bird so it fits tightly in a flameproof casserole with the wine, onion, one carrot, one leek, bouquet garni, saffron, seasoning and add 300ml cold water. Bring to the boil on the hob then cover tightly and cook in the oven for about 1¼ hours.

2 Add the rest of the vegetables to the pan and return to the oven for a further 30 minutes until the vegetables are tender. While the chicken is cooking mix the mayonnaise, garlic and parsley together. Remove the casserole from the oven and lift the chicken out. Carve the chicken meat into thick slices and place on a warm platter with the vegetables.

3 Add a couple of tablespoons of the cooking liquor to the mayonnaise to let it down then stir it back into the vegetables and broth and heat very gently. Don’t allow to boil. Check the seasoning and spoon some over the chicken and vegetables to moisten. Serve the rest of the cooking juices in a jug. Serve with lots of creamy mashed potato to sop up the juices.

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Make the leap to shop your farmer’s market this February..

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The best seasonal veg at the market this month…

I’m slowly emerging from a long winter of building works on my cottage and starting to believe that mud, dust and depression might not be taking over after all. The newly built extension with my wonderful new kitchen is settling down, a garden is starting to emerge from a sea of mud and weeds ready for new planting with kitchen garden and cooking area, the 16th century bones of the original Wealden hall house are being revealed from beneath layers of carpet and chipboard, and I know I have a very beautiful dwelling that seems to be appreciating the care and attention that is being lavished on it.

I have to admit that cooking and food shopping have slipped way down my list while I’ve been living in what one friend has termed a ‘squat’. But shopping at the market is always a pleasure and I have turned to items that I would normally pass by, and enjoyed the experience. What talented producers and cooks we have on our doorsteps! I’ve eaten some marvellous ready-made dishes, everything from pies and cured meats to great bread and the superb cheeses that are increasingly on offer locally. Though it has sometimes felt that I’ve been living on toast, it’s not really the case but I must say I am looking forward to getting in my kitchen and starting work on new projects. And I hope to be writing about them here…

February

The weather this winter seems to have given us a taste of almost everything so far with floods, frosts and gales but local producers have to get their products to market whatever the conditions so it’s up to us to support them and make that extra effort even of the weather tempts us to stay an extra hour in bed. You know you’ll feel better if you get out and about, and come home with some special goodies to enjoy at their best.

If it’s February then it really should be fish on the menu. Buying produce when it’s in season means you get the best quality at the best price and for fish that means when they are also at their most abundant. Stormy seas make for challenging conditions for the fishermen but bring some species closer to shore. Choosing to shop at a farmers market also allows you the chance to check with the fishmonger from where his catch has originated. For more information before you visit check the Marine Stewardship Council’s web site at http://www.msc.org. The MSC is the world’s leading certification and eco-labelling programme for sustainable seafood with a global programme for fisheries that assesses wild catches of seafood.

Lemon sole, halibut, skate (more properly called ray), monkfish and sardines are all good now, and for it’s a great month for shellfisher lovers with clams, mussels, oysters and cockles all good. Local Kent and Sussex coast scallops come in this month – and have their very own festival to celebrate the season (check out Rye Bay Scallop Festival which this year kicks off on Saturday 20st February at http://scallop.org.uk) so make sure you don’t miss one of the region’s most enjoyable treasures. Try them wrapped in local streaky bacon and baked or with cooked on a griddle with slices of black pudding or chorizo. Make in a risotto or just cook with chilli, garlic and plenty of chopped parsley and toss with spaghetti.

For meat eaters looking for comfort eating, try mutton for its rich flavour or a lovely piece of rare breed pork – stuff a shoulder joint with rosemary, garlic and slices of lemon and slow cook for 12 – 14 hours (find a recipe on the internet) for a Sunday celebration. Rich beef stews and braises are also wonderful now so make up a large batch with meat from the market and freeze some for future meals. A freezer is the market shopper’s best friend. Locally caught game makes an excellent choice for healthy eating. Venison, guinea fowl, wood pigeon, partridge and hare are all good in February. Most modern game is lean and full of flavour so cook steaks or breasts simply on the griddle or quickly stir-fried, or braise tougher cuts or older birds with wine and bacon and serve with pureed celeriac.

Serve your meat with steamed kale or Brussels sprouts, both at their best this month. Savoy cabbage and purple sprouting broccoli work perfectly in stir fries and curries, and go well with rich meats such as duck and pork. Main crop potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, parsnips and turnips provide the starch that keeps us going in the cold so mash them together to go with your game dishes. Or try a mix of roots  roasted in rapeseed oil or lard for really good flavour and scattered with sea salt and rosemary.

Local fruit is sparse this month but there are still apples to be enjoyed – the storing varieties keep well until April so make sure to go on buying local when you see them. The flavour is still sweet and fragrant for many crops. Early forced rhubarb is the cook’s friend now – wonderful in traditional crumbles, compotes and pies. Make into chutneys and jams or cook with Chinese spice to go it also goes well with rich flavoured meat and fish such as grilled mackerel.

Stuffed slow roast pork belly with prunes and apple cider gravy

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Slow roast belly pork with prunes

A lovely piece of locally reared belly pork, cooked long and slow to melting goodness is a real treat this month to cheer us up through the dark days before spring arrives. Apples, prunes and cider are classic partners for pork as the acidity and sweetness balance the rich meat. Serve with mashed roots and spring greens for a seasonal plate to cheer the soul!

Serves 8/Time to prepare: 15 minutes/Time to cook: 4  – 5 hours (or longer – see recipe)

2 kg piece boned free range belly pork
250g soft prunes
123 fresh sage leaves
1 lemon, sliced
4 eating apples, peeled, cored and sliced
1 tbsp flour
300ml local cider
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
300 – 400 ml chicken stock
1- 2 tbsp really good local cider vinegar
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 Preheat the oven to 200C/fan oven180C/ Gas 6. Pierce the skin of the pork all over with a skewer then pour boiling water over it and then pat dry with kitchen paper. Push the sage leaves into the centre of the prunes with a slice of lemon. Make slits all along the side of the belly pork where the flesh meets the fat and push the stuffed prunes in as far as possible.
2 Place the pork in a sturdy roasting tin that fits it snugly. Roast for 20 minutes. Lower the temperature to 150C Gas 3. Cook the pork for a further 3 – 5 hours until the skin is tender and golden. (The pork can go on cooking for up to 12 hours or even longer and will get richer and more meltingly tender). Two  hours before you remove the pork from the oven add the apple slices around the pork and baste with the juices.
3 Remove the pork from the oven and leave to rest in a warm place for at least half an hour for the juices to settle. Add the flour to the pan juices and cook for a minute then add the cider and mustard to the pan, place over the heat and scrape up all the juices, mashing the apples into the sauce. Boil until thickened then check the seasoning and add the vinegar. Slice the pork and serve with the pan juices.

 

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