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After I’d come down off the high of our Michelin dinner I thought I’d just look into the humble pea and its origins.

As ever when I want to read about vegetables I tend to turn to Colin Spencer’s brilliant and humbly titled The Vegetable Book. It rates in my top 10 food books of all time, about which I will post one day. I say food books rather than cook books, because it is so much more than a recipe collection. It is, for me at least, the finest kind of food-related writing. A potted history, followed with descriptions of the various varieties of selected vegetables. Interspersed with advice on choosing, nutritional information and original ideas and recipes. It is a superb book.

In amongst the delightful writing Colin likes to drop in a few historical quotes. I particularly like this one is about peas.

According to Colin the French court Louis XIV was besotted by green peas, as Madame de Maintenon wrote in a letter dated 10th May 1696 :  “this subject of peas continues to absorb all others. The anxiety to eat them, the pleasure of having eaten them and the desire to eat them again, are three great matters which have been discussed by our princes for four days past. Some ladies, even after having supped at the Royal table and well supped too, returning to their own homes, at the risk of suffering indigestion will again eat peas before going to bed. It is both a fashion and a madness”

The history of food I think is a fascinating subject. In this day and age of any food, anytime, from anywhere in the world it gives us a glimpe of how things used to be. A time when we couldn’t have anything we wanted, whenever we wanted, and when foods that we take for granted now, like peas, were a novelty.

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More thoughts on Wild Garlic (and garlic madness).

Well, it is still that time of year isn’t it? See my earlier post about Ramsoms here when that time of year had just started. The hedges and shady woods around the country are still absolutely frothing with the stuff. Now, rather beautifully, they have produced their pretty white flowers making the plants more visible to the untrained eye.

I’d like to say that I’ve noticed a change in the flavour as the plants develop, but I can’t. I thought it would be one of those things that might change. They are beginning to look a little tired and past their best at the moment though. About a month ago they were very bright green & juicy, their leaves a little shorter, so I think really there’s only 1 or 2 weeks left in the season before they pack up for another year. It depends slightly where they’re growing. At this time of year in sunnier spots, the leaves will be more wilted, starting to yellow even. So look for shadier and shorter leaves. They get tougher as they grow.

I ate an unopened flower bulb the other day (well, I thought I’d find out, as you do), and if you thought Wild Garlic was mild, think again, the flowers pack a punch! They look fantastic as a garnish as well.

 The brilliant Mark Hix wrote an article last week in The Independent on Lamb with Wild Garlic Sauce, there’s a link here. A great meat if ever there were one to serve with it. I’ve always found garlic & lamb a fine combination. One of my favourite dishes is a leg of lamb, roasted, having tucked ½ garlic cloves & rosemary into little incisions all over the leg, (it looks great when you bring it to the table as well). So it’s no surprise that this fantastic sauce works so well.  It’s quite grassy in flavour and certainly garlicky.

Here’s the pot of sauce I made last week, still tasting great. I made it with olive oil not rapeseed as Mark suggests (we had no other oil).

That's not pesto!

I’ve since tried freezing it as I made a lot and that worked extremely well, a great way of extending the season. I’m going to try it in ice-cube trays, ready to use all year & melt into all sorts of dishes (pasta, new potatoes, asparagus). It seems a shame not to enjoy it more, but that’s part of the joy of seasonal eating isn’t it?

We had the sauce tossed with warm new Cornish potatoes, asparagus & bacon lardons for a quick & simple dinner last night. The potatoes flecked with green looked like mint sauce which was very confusing!

I think the madness refers to my obsession with the stuff (can you get garlic madness?). I tend to eat very seasonal ingredients until I’m truly bored of them and swear blind that I won’t eat them next year. Somehow my boredom doesn’t last for a whole year.

In fact who cares? Well a lot of people don’t really, but I have had a few debates over the years as to which is which (yes I know I need to get out more) , so here goes the debate, and I welcome your comments as to which is which. I touched on this subject in an earlier post, using asparagus again, it must be a seasonal debate of mine! And another post about asparagus here. According to Larousse Gastronomique (and that’s a book that should know) a salad is ” a dish of raw or cold cooked foods, usually dressed and seasoned, served as an hors d’oeuvre, side dish etc”. It then takes various forms:  green, plain or mixed.

According to The Oxford Companion to Food the warm salad is a 20th century invention. The original salad or salata is derived from the Latin sal which gave us the term relating to “salted things”. Brilliant, so chips &  bacon is a salad! Oh no, wait a minute, chips are hot. So if they’re served warm does that make them a salad? I mean it’s composed mainly of vegetables isn’t it? Perhaps not, but we can dream. The scary thing is that there are people in this country that think chips are one of their five a day!

And my favourite description is from a Book of Medieval Food (Maggie Black 1985) the salat is described thus: “Take parsel, sawge, garlec, chibollas, oynons, leek, borage, myntes, porrectes, fenel, and ton tressis, rew, rosemarye, purslane, lave, and waisshe hem clene. Pike hem, pluck hem small with thyn hand and mygn hem wel with rawe oile. Lay on vynegar and salt and serve it forth” That seems a little different from opening a bag of salad from the supermarket doesn’t it?

Okay, so my opinion (such as it is) is that a salad is a cold or warm dish, not hot, composed mainly of cooked vegetables, dressed with some form of oil/vinegar/mayonnaise/lemon/lime juice arrangement. A hot salad isn’t a salad and I don’t know what it is.

So on to dinner. The first asparagus of the year is always pretty expensive (it’s never cheap anyway) but it’s everything that’s exciting about seasonal food. I tend to wait a few weeks after the first stems have hit the shops & the price goes down a little. Asparagus is one of those quintessentially english ingredients that needs to be celebrated once a year. Not served up every week of the year, chargrilled from Peru with fancy butters and confused accompaniments.

The great thing about it is that it’s very versatile, has a strong flavour of its own and thus will take some pretty robust flavours with it. Chargrilled is nice, plain boiled with just unsalted butter, freshly-ground black pepper & flaky salt is classic and amazing or mixed with other interesting ingredients as part of a bigger salad. I chose the latter for dinner.

Asparagus, bacon & potato salad with lemon & mustard dressing (and a poached egg):

1 bunch of asparagus, snapped of woody ends.

Bacon lardons, a small handful (I’ll post pictures and recipes of my home-made bacon at some point)

2 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced.

2 medium potatoes, peeled if old & too muddy (mine were!) diced in 2-3cm cubes

2-3 Courgettes, sliced.

2 fresh, free-range eggs

For the dressing:

  • Finely grated zest & juice of 1/2 a lemon
  • 1-2 tsp grain mustard
  • A pinch of salt
  • Freshly-ground black pepper
  • Good olive oil

Put on big pot of water to boil

In a non-stick frying pan, fry the bacon lardons over a medium heat until they’re starting to take some colour, stirring. Add the garlic & continue to cook for another 2-3 minutes. Take the pan off the heat &…

Drop the potatoes into the water and simmer until tender, about 5 minutes. When they’re done, take them out with a slotted spoon and allow them to steam-dry for a minute or 2.You’re going to use the water again for the asparagus so don’t chuck it out, put it back on to boil.

Place the cooked potato into the bacon pan & put the frying pan back on the heat, medium-hot this time. Stir or toss the bacon, potato & garlic. Ideally the spuds will take on some colour, but don’t worry too much if they don’t. The important thing is that they soak up the bacony-garlic flavour. It may, or may not, look something like this. Eagle-eyed readers will notice my garlic a little browned which you may, or may not enjoy as a flavour, it can be quite strong. Ideally you’ll be doing 2 things at once for efficiency, so..

Needs a bit of colour

For flavour the potatoes need a little browning

When the water has come back to a rolling boil drop in the asparagus for 4 minutes, 5 at a push. Then take them out & drop them in to cold water to stop them cooking & going soft. If you want you can put some ice in, but I find running the cold tap is usually enough.

Put the sliced courgettes in to the bacon/potato pan and stir gently over a medium heat. You can turn up the heat a bit & give the courgettes some more flavour if you like, just remember to keep it moving so they don’t catch on the pan. Probably about another 5 minutes or so. I like my courgettes just cooked with a little bite.

For the dressing combine the lemon zest, juice & mustard in a screw top jar with the salt & pepper. Give it good shake and add double the volume of olive oil (extra virgin for preference) to lemon/mustard. Give it really, really good shake and add 1/2 as much oil again. Taste, it may need more oil, it may not. You can obviuosly adjust the mustard to your taste as well. Sorry to be a bit imprecise with my measurements, but lemons are all different sizes. I find it much easier (and more efficient) to use 1/2 a lemon rather than just squeeze some out & you’re left with a squashed lemon. A good ratio of oil to lemon is 4:1.

Nearly cooked & without dressing

Slice the asparagus on the angle, throw in the pan with the other ingredients & warm through with as much dressing as you like. Probably about 2-3 tablespoons.

Serve with a softly poached egg on top. The egg should ooze on to the salad in a luxurious manner. Mine didn’t, I overcooked them so there’s no photo! Hey, nobody’s perfect.


First one of the season.

An onion squash if I’m not mistaken.

Don’t know what I’ll do with it yet, but one of my favourites is to roast it in wedges in a hot oven with sage, salt & pepper, olive oil & cinnamon sticks. They’re super-versatile. Roasted, mashed, in warm salads with feta, makes a great soup, pickled, chutneyed, even pizza topping and, er, squashed? (sorry)

It came in our veg box from the lovely people at Leigh Court Farm along with a massive red cabbage & various other items. I like a veg box, my weekly dose of culinary challenge (I know, I need to get out more). But having no choice, and being given a selection of vegetables to cook makes me try things I wouldn’t usually, or at the least I have to get creative & try different dishes.

At the moment there’s a beetroot chutney to be made, I’m nearly sick of runner beans (and they’re beginning to get a little stringy), I’ve got loads of lovely red onions (very good on the bbq with yoghurt & zahtar, recipe to follow) and more potatoes than I know what to do with.

As the seasons change so does the produce. Autumn must be one of my favourite times of year for food. Sweetcorn, squashes, apples, beetroot, blackberries, the list goes on. In fact, when I was looking at my seasonal food list the other day September had the biggest number of foods available, across all the meat, fish, fruit & vegetables. Exciting times if you’re a cook.

No doubt in 3 months time, in the depths of winter I’ll be craving the runner beans and I’ll be sick of the squash!

I wrote this a few week’s ago, so asparagus probably isn’t around any more (in fact it’s all gone from our shops, unless you want Peruvian) But I think it’s pretty adaptable to most firm vegetables (beans, peas, artichokes, fennel, cauliflower even)

While I’m at it I’ll start  the debate. Is it a true salad? Some would say no, I think so, even if it is warm:

A quick and easy dinner, a variation on a theme really. There’s a fair bit of asparagus about still (though not for long I think) I’m eating it when I can! I tend to forget how lucky I am living in the UK with this fantastic range of food, and how exciting the ingredients are as they change with the seasons. Late spring/early summer is one of my favourite times. New potatoes, asparagus, the first of the broad beans and peas, fantastic!

This is a salad that dresses itself.  The oil and tomatoes, as you stir them together, break up a bit & coat the warm potatoes. So you don’t need to make a salad dressing, maybe a squirt of lemon juice if you like, to add a bit of tartness.  You get this lovely, earthy, slightly burnt, bbq flavour from the tomatoes that complements the asparagus and potatoes. You don’t need hundreds of ingredients for this dish either. Simple food, making the best of the season. Serves well on its own, or would go well with some grilled fish or chicken, and obviously to make it vegetarian just leave out the bacon.

For 2 :

1 Bunch of asparagus

A couple of handfuls of new potatoes, scrubbed (ideally Jersey’s or local)

3-4 tbsp bacon lardons

4 Large, ripe tomatoes

A small handful of parsley, chives or any nice fresh soft herb, roughly chopped.

Good olive oil

Salt & pepper

  • Turn your grill to “hotter-than-the-sun” setting
  • If the spuds are large cut them in 1/2 and then drop them into a pan of cold water with a little salt. Bring to the boil & simmer until just tender. Drain, & keep to one side.
  • While they are cooking, put a pan of lightly salted water on to boil.
  • In a small frying pan gently fry the bacon lardons until browned. Leave to one side.
  • While the bacon’s cooking, snap off the woody ends of the asparagus. Drop them into the boiling water and cook for 3 minutes. Drain & run cold water over them to stop them cooking & to keep the colour vibrant.
  • Cut the tomatoes in 1/2, lay on a baking tray, dribble with olive oil, salt & pepper & put them under your (hopefully) incredibly hot grill. Roast them like crazy until they start to blacken a little. If the grill’s not hot enough they’ll just turn soft & mushy before they colour, and it’s the colour that really adds the flavour. Take them out before they turn to charcoal, but you want them nicely browned, a little blackened in places.
  • Pop all the ingredients in a suitable salad bowl & stir gently.
  • Check the seasoning & adjust if necessary (now’s the time for your optional lemon juice) serve & enjoy.

Strange things can happen when you’re camping in West Wales. Mostly some random cooking (although that’s not always restricted to camping in West Wales as far as I’m concerned!) Not the best, most amazing Cordon Bleu meal. But, good food cooked, where the atmosphere and location are some of the ingredients.

I like cooking away from home with limited resources. At home I can pick up an onion, meat, garlic, spices, potatoes, whatever I like really. And if I run out, I can pop down the road to Asda which is open 24hrs (don’t get me started on that one) When you’re camping, you either have to take everything with you, or buy it there. We took almost nothing with us.

We had with us: Lemons, limes, apples, oil, salt & pepper, a bbq, some applewood smoking chips (as you do) a gas stove and various cooking pots.

Now me being me, I decided we would only buy ingredients that were local and in season (as if resources weren’t restricted enough!) So for dinner we bought: Chicken thighs (2), beetroot (a very fresh bunch with leaves), potatoes (local, new, medium in size), peas (1st of the new English season) a butternut squash (spot the obvious unseasonal ingredient!) and a cauliflower. These ingredients could have gone many ways. For me it said baked beetroot & potatoes, smoked chicken and a pea & cauliflower salad. The vegetables were incredibly fresh. Leaves and stems on the beetroot standing proudly, and the peas the sweetest and freshest I’ve had in ages.

So I sparked up the bbq. Hot coals kept in the middle, potatoes and beetroot around the edge & lid on. If you haven’t ever tried a BBQ with a lid, I can highly recommend it. It’s changed my cooking life! A great outdoor oven, keeping the heat in and giving a lovely smoky flavour, whilst crisping up the food. Pretty easily controllable, and more versatile than you might imagine.

Camping BBQ’d dinner:

  • If you’ve got them, and I do recommend you give them a try, put a couple of handfuls of smoking chips in a container and cover with water.
  • Important to get the bbq hot and put the beetroot and potatoes on first. The beetroot and spuds will take anything from 45mins to 1 1/2 hrs. Planning is everything if you want to eat before the sun goes down when camping!
  • Put a pot of water on to boil and blanch the peas and cauliflower in batches. I like to use as much of the leaves of the cauli as well if I can. When they’re tender drop them into cold water to refresh, stop cooking and keep their colour. Drain.
  • Zest the lemon (I think I used a paring knife and then shredded it best I could!) and add to the peas and cauliflower. Season with olive oil, salt & pepper.
  • The squash can go on the bbq with the other veg now and a fistful of the smoking chips. As you can see, just 1/4 or 1/2 the squash, and obviously drain the chips!
  • Season the chicken thighs with salt, pepper and olive oil. They’ll probably take 1/2 an hr 45mins ish. So put them on about the same time as the squash. They’ll more or less take the same time.
  • Put the lid on the bbq and turn the chicken, preferably only once. You want to keep in all the heat and smoky flavour.
  • Sit back and enjoy a well-earned glass of something cold, downwind!

Smokin! And why you need to be upwind.

I like it when my wife goes to the shops. She comes home with things I might not have bought myself.

Last night it was asparagus and fresh peas. Both English, both very in season. Pleasingly, as the asparagus season is getting later, its prices are mercifully coming down. The peas are the first we’ve had this year, very lovely and exciting. The psb (purple sprouting broccoli) is coming to the end of its season (sadly). This year I decided I was going to try to make myself sick of it. It’s one of our wonderful seasonal treats, and one I don’t eat enough of. We had some that needed using up, and it felt right to put them all together as a salad enjoyed in the warmth of our early evening garden.

The barbeque was lit and (for me at least) there was much anticipation. But then that’s often the case with me and BBQs generally. Sausages (of course) and a chicken breast (spiced with cumin, coriander & garlic)  that needed using up from the freezer, went on the literally smoking-hot grill.

A fresh, (and simple) early summer salad:

1 Bunch of asparagus

3 big handfuls of fresh peas, shelled

Purple sprouting broccoli, a small handful

Fresh herbs, 1-2 tbsp, chopped. Whatever you have to hand, but soft for preference. I used mint, lemon balm, marjoram & parsley.

Sherry vinegar (or balsamic if you don’t have it) a splash

Extra virgin olive oil, a big lug

  • Put a large pan of lightly salted water on to boil.
  • Snap the asparagus where it wants to, of its woody ends.
  • One by one, blanch each of the vegetables for 3 minutes in the boiling water. Let the water come back to the boil before you put the next in. Refresh them as you take them out, in cold water.
  • Drain and dress with the oil, salt & pepper.
  • If you happen to have a BBQ lit now’s the time to grill the asparagus. It gives a lovely colour and smoky flavour, that lends itself very well to the pointy green spears.
  • Cut the asparagus into 1-2 inch lengths, on the angle looks good.
  • Mix everything together with remaining ingredients & serve.

To be honest I would have liked more mint & parsley in the salad,as they work so well with the peas. And I meant to put some chive flowers in there too, but I forgot.

Other good things to BBQ;

  • Potatoes, cut very thick, boiled until just tender in their skins, drained & dressed with oil, salt & pepper.
  • Onions, red or white, treated the same way as the spuds.

Yum

Aah, the humble savoy cabbage.

Is it that humble, really? Simply steamed until just tender & dressed with salt, pepper & butter, maybe some caraway seeds it’s surely one of the best of the green leaves. It’s dark earthy flavour works with many different dishes. And the cup shape of the leaves is natural for stuffing.

But finely shredded I think it’s also a much under-used salad leaf. It can be a little bitter, but that’s part of the pleasure, and the middle, paler leaves tend to be much milder and slightly nutty. The other day, it was the best-looking thing in the fruit and veg shop. Absolutely spanking fresh, firm, very green, waiting to be eaten.

One of my favourite savoy salads is made with coarsley grated parmesan, anchovies, lemon juice & capers. A bold and gutsy dish. And easily made vegetarian by leaving out the anchovies.

The original inspiration comes from the River Cafe, who have a fantastic knack for making  ingredients quite exciting, and putting them together in truly creative ways. Food with the greatest simplicity where attention to quality is paramount. Rose Gray, one of the founders of this seminal restaurant sadly passed away early this year after a long battle with cancer. Their food and their influential style has done much,  if not more for the way we cook and eat than Elizabeth David in the 60s. Unique, distinctive books with writing and a restaurant that has influenced & started the careers of many fine cooks.

For 2:

1/2 a Medium Savoy Cabbage

50-100g Parmesan in the piece

2 Tbsp Capers, salted, in vinegar or brine

5-7 Anchovies

Juice of 1/2 a lemon

Good Balsamic vinegar

Decent Olive oil

Freshly-ground black pepper

Remove any leaves you don’t like the look of and the tough outer ribs of the cabbage. Shred as finely as you can and wash. A really sharp knife’s pretty necessary here. Leave to dry in a colander or sieve.

Depending on which capers you have, rinse or soak them. If in vinegar/brine a quick wash is usually sufficient. If salted they may need to soak for a few hours. I like the big salted ones. Roughly chop them if they’re big, a bit of texture’s good. The tiny one’s pop pleasingly, so leave them whole.

Roughly chop the anchovies.

Transfer the cabbage to a serving bowl, chuck in the capers, anchovies, lemon juice and a good lug of Olive oil. Give it a good stir.

The original dish was made with Bresaola, delicious cured beef. I haven’t included it because I don’t have any usually! It also had shaved parmesan. But you can coarsely grate it too. The choice is yours, I like it both ways. The shavings adding a layer of savouriness that you can take or leave, and coarsely grated is a bit punchier.

Taste and adjust. More capers, anchovies, oil or lemon as you please. Because of the saltiness of the capers, parmesan and the anchovies it probably won’t need any salt, it will want much black pepper though. Dribble over a little balsamic and serve. If your balsamic vinegar is aged and a little sweet it’ll balance itself quite nicely in the dish.

We ate it with braised lentils and bacon. A warm and soft complement to the crunchy, punchy salad.

Not so eagle-eyed readers will spot a small peppery addition I quite liked.

A really simple light supper. The dressing is so versatile you could serve it with almost any salad, but it really works with peppery rocket.

As with any cheese on toast I like thick bread, toasted on only one side. That way it’s not too dry, it doesn’t burn so easily, but you still get the crunch.

Serves 2 as a starter:

1 Red Pepper

1-2 tbsp Balsamic Vinegar

2-4 tbsp good Olive oil

Salt & pepper

Bread, ideally sourdough, 2 slices

Goats’s cheese, 2-4 thick slices

A handful of rocket leaves

Preheat the grill to really hot.

Brush or smear your pepper with oil & put it under the grill. What you’re looking for is a pepper black in places, really well roasted & soft. So keep an eye on it & turn from time to time.

When the pepper’s soft, transfer it to a bowl & cover for 20 mins or so (use a plate or clingfilm). This generates a bit of steam, allows the pepper to cool & loosens the skin.

When the pepper’s cool enough to handle, peel it, throw away the skin & seeds & drop the flesh into the bowl of a food processor. A few bits of black skin won’t hurt, but don’t be tempted to run it under the tap, cos you’ll wash off all the lovely flavour.

Blitz with the balsamic vinegar & olive oil. Taste. Season with salt & pepper & taste again. Adjust the vinegar & oil as you wish, but remember it’s being served with cheese so you don’t want it too oily, but a good kick of vinegar works a treat.

Toast the bread on one side, flip over & lay the cheese on the bread. Grill, ideally until the cheese is golden, but before the toast is too burnt! I quite like the little burnt corners of toast with my cheese though.

Serve on the rocket leaves, dribbled with the dressing.

Ah yes, the leftovers.

This recipe works really well as a salad in it’s own right, clean & refreshing with or without the chicken. Just the thing after December’s excesses & antidote to the winter stews. You could serve this with some salad leaves (rocket, frisee or radichio) and make it into a more substantial dish. Or even stir in some cooked puy lentils. It’s a versatile dish.

Ridiculously simple, like the best food, and quick too! One of my favourite salads.

Untrimmed, but if you get it like this, shred the feathery leaves & use them too!

Serves 2 as a starter, or light lunch

1 bulb fennel, very thinly sliced, as thin as you can (I used the slicing blade on a box grater, but you can use a very sharp knife or a mandolin if you have one)

1 Orange, peeled, with the worst of the pith removed & segmented or sliced

Juice of 1/4 lemon

A handful of black olives (Moroccan for preference), stones removed

Extra Virgin olive oil

Salt & pepper

Rip as much of the chicken as you want or need into strips & season with the lemon juice, salt & pepper

Mix with the sliced fennel, olives, orange segments & dress with olive oil, salt & pepper.

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