My new life in this antiquated Hampshire village has taken on its own rhythm. At 6am the rays strike my bedroom window, urging me out of bed to enjoy the pleasures of a dog walk at dawn. The sunny morning means I can have coffee and toast on the timeworn bench in the front garden. It’s a Wednesday, so I hastily finish my breakfast, before trotting up to the village high street on the hunt for treasures at the weekly market. Satisfied with my pickings, I smugly join the queue at the bakery with armfuls of spinach and rose-pink rhubarb. Today the line lingers out onto the street as people wait for their daily bread, some commenting enthusiastically on the fine weather. At last my turn arrives and I panic, adding two decadent almond croissants and a feisty looking sourdough to my usual order. Next stop is the butcher to pick up some of their speciality sausages. A treat for tomorrow’s breakfast. And as it’s right next door, I mischievously pop into the wine shop for a recommended bottle of chianti, coming out with two bottles of 2013 Poggerino. With all the errands run, I squirrel away my riches and return home to put the kettle on and get to work.
Spinach and Gruyere Tart
Inspired by a Sarah Raven recipe, I decide to put the spinach I found at the market into a tasty spring tart. It’s always said that spinach is very good for you. Rich in iron and easily absorbed, no wonder Popeye’s muscles seemed to grow before our eyes. I suppose any goodness might be negated when it’s combined with cheese, cream and rich shortcrust pastry; but spinach and gruyere proves to be such a delicious flavour combination, it’s worth it.
Ingredients (Serves 4 -6):
For the filling:
200g gruyere cheese (grated), 300ml double cream, 3 eggs, 1 tsp dijon mustard, 400g Spinach, freshly grated nutmeg, generous handful of pine nuts, salt and pepper
For the Pastry:
170g plain flour, 100g butter, 1 egg yolk, very cold water, pinch of salt
To make the pastry, sift the flour with the salt, then rub in the butter until the mixtures resembles breadcrumbs. Mix the egg yolk with two tablespoons of the very cold water and add to the mixture. Using a knife to begin with, mix to a firm dough, eventually using one hand to bring it together. You may need to add more water, but remember that the dough shouldn’t be too damp. Crumbly pastry is harder to handle, but produces a ‘shorter’ result. Shape the dough into a ball, wrap in cling film and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
A note on shortcrust pastry: Keep everything as cool as possible. If the butter is allowed to melt, the pastry may be too tough.
Preheat the oven to 200c/gas mark 6. Remove the pastry from the fridge and roll out to line a 26cm tart tin. Prick the bottom of the tart with a fork, cover with greaseproof paper, weighing it down with baking beans, and bake blind for about 15-20 minutes. Take it out of the oven and turn the temperature down to 180c/gas mark 4. Let the pastry shell cool slightly, and then remove the baking bean and paper. Remove any tough bits from the spinach and then cook until tender, drain thoroughly and squeeze out the leaves with your hand. Mix the cream and eggs together. Add the mustard, gruyere and grated nutmeg. Season with salt and pepper. Roughly chop the spinach leaves and spread out on the base of the tart shell. sprinkle over the pine nuts and then pour over the cream mixture.
Cook the tart for 30-35 minutes. Its best served warm.
Rhubarb Crumble Tart
At the moment I always seem to come away from the market with bundles of rhubarb. I just can’t seem to get enough of these tantalising, pink stems and their sweet tartness. Growing up in South Africa, we had an abundance of delicious fresh fruit, but rhubarb wasn’t really one of them. If we did manage to find it at the supermarket, it was ridiculously expensive. It’s an absence I’m making up for now! This recipe is adapted from the Flourishing Foodie.
Ingredients (Serves 6)
For the Pastry:
170g Plain flour, 55g butter, 1 egg yolk, Pinch of salt, 1 tbsp caster sugar, very cold water
For the Rhubarb:
100g granulated sugar, 50g plain flour, 1 tbsp lemons juice, 6 stalks of fresh rhubarb (chopped)
For the Crumble:
50g oats, 50g plain flour, 50g unsalted butter
To make the pastry (same recipe as above, with the addition of caster sugar), sift the flour with the salt and sugar, then rub in the butter until the mixtures resembles breadcrumbs. Mix the egg yolk with two tablespoons of the very cold water and add to the mixture. Using a knife to begin with, mix to a firm dough, eventually using one hand to bring it together. You may need to add more water, but remember that the dough shouldn’t be too damp. Crumbly pastry is harder to handle, but produces a ‘shorter’ result. Shape the dough into a ball, wrap in cling film and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 180C/gas mark 4. Roll the dough t to fit a 23cm tart tin, keeping it about half a centimetre thick. Press the dough into the tin and prick the base with a fork a few times. Freeze the pastry shell for 15 minutes to prevent it from shrinking, then cover with grease proof paper, fill with baking beans and bake blind for 15 minutes, removing the paper and beans for the last 5 minutes.
Meanwhile make the rhubarb filling by combining the sugar and flour. Toss in the chopped rhubarb and add the lemon juice. Mix it all together, make sure the rhubarb is nicely coated. To make the topping, crumble the butter, oats and flour together in a small bowl. Remove the pastry shell from the over, fill with the rhubarb mixture and sprinkle over the crumble. Bake for 35 minutes, until the shell is golden brown and the rhubarb is bubbling.
It’s delicious served slightly warm with a generous dollop of creme fraiche.
I lived in South Africa for fifteen years and it goes without saying that there were many privileges to living in a country that has been described as one of the most beautiful in the world. The vibrant landscapes and incomparable climate capture the soul like no other place. On the Highveld, April is often regarded as the perfect time of year. It marks the change of season, as the long summer rolls lazily into autumn. Dramatic thunderstorms are replaced by months of unblemished blue skies. Living in Johannesburg, I loved this time of year. Yet a small part of me hankered for the rambling simplicity of the English countryside. Robert Browning’s famous poem “Home Thoughts from Abroad” would reel around in my head and I’d ungratefully yearn “to be in England, now that April’s there”.
Now that I’m in England and April’s here, I’m not taking it for granted. The bliss of daylight saving is still a novelty. Every evening we walk up to the heath, letting the puppy run free, while we scout for the first of the bluebells. Then just as the sun is setting we amble home to a simple supper of spring luxuries, like watercress and wild garlic.
The menu below is my ode to April in England, with some of my favourite Spring ingredients to blow away the post-winter chill.
Palmiers (or French Hearts)
This is a savoury version of the classic french heart. It’s the perfect pre-dinner nibble and even better when served with a glass of champagne. I sometimes like to make a double batch, freezing half of the log, which can then be sliced and baked when unexpected visitors arrive.
Ingredients (makes about 35)
300g Puff Pastry, 2 tablespoons of of grainy mustard, 3 handfuls of gruyere (or a similar strong hard cheese)
Roll the pastry into a rectangle about half a centimetre in thickness. Spread the mustard over the pastry, making sure to reach all the corners. sprinkle over the cheese. Take one side of the rectangle and roll into the centre and do the same with the other side. Wrap the log tightly in cling film and place in the fridge to chill for half an hour or so. When its ready, slice the log into roughly 35 one centimetre slices, and place on a baking tray.
Bake the Palmiers for 10 minutes, until golden brown. They are best served slightly warm.
I managed to pick up armfuls of watercress at my village market last week and turned it into a fresh and peppery soup, perfect for a starter.
Ingredients (serves 4)
1 tablespoon olive oil, knob of butter, 1 large potato (peeled and chopped), 1 white onion (peeled and chopped), 400g watercress, 350ml vegetable or chicken stock, 300ml full cream milk, lemon juice, dollop of creme fraiche
Heat the olive oil and butter and sweat the onion until translucent, Add the potato and cook for 4 minutes, without allowing it to brown. Add the stock and simmer until the potato is tender. Roughly chop the watercress and add to the pan. Take off the heat and allow to cool slightly, before transferring to a food processor to blend until smooth.
Transfer back to the saucepan and add the milk to create a creamy consistency. Bring to simmering point and then remove from the heat. Add a little lemon juice and season to taste.
Serve with a dollop of creme fraiche and some leftover sprigs of watercress.
Duck Breast with Baked New Potatoes, Sprouting Broccoli and Red Wine Jus
Sprouting broccoli appears when the field harvest is sparse. One of the earliest types is “White Eye”, a tasty, greeny-white variety less abundant than its purple cousins. Jersey Royal New Potatoes are a seasonal gem. The early season potatoes are smaller, but have bags of flavour. To make a change from the usual roast potatoes doused in goose fat, I like to bake new potatoes in a little olive oil, leaving the skins on, as much of the goodness lies just beneath the surface.
Ingredients (serves 4)
For the duck:
4 large Gressingham Duck Breasts with skin on, Salt and Pepper
For the Potatoes:
15 – 20 new potatoes (I used Jersey Royal), drizzle of Olive Oil, Salt and Pepper
For the Brocolli
3 big handfuls of sprouting broccoli, A handful of Chopped Hazelnuts, The juice of one lemon
For the Red Wine Jus
Two large glasses of full-bodied red wine, 3 garlic cloves (peeled), 1 bay leaf, 1 onion (chopped in half), 200ml chicken or vegetable stock
Heat the oven to 190C. Place the new potatoes in a baking tray. Drizzle over a generous glug of olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes until the potatoes are golden brown and slightly crispy.
Place the wine, stock, bay leaf, garlic and onion into a saucepan over low heat and reduce gently for 30 minutes until slightly thickened.
Score the duck skin and rub salt and pepper on both sides of the breast. Heat a frying pan over a high heat, when the pan is very hot (that you can’t even hold your hand above it) place the duck breasts in the pan, skin side down, and turn the heat down slightly. Fry the breast for 4-5 minutes on both sides, until golden brown and cooked to your liking. Once the duck breast are cooked, remove from the pan, wrap loosely in foil and allow to rest for about 5-10 minutes.
Meanwhile steam the broccoli for about 4 minutes, until tender, but not too soft. Transfer the cooked broccoli to a serving plate, squeeze over the lemon and sprinkle with the chopped hazelnuts.
Sieve the red wine jus and transfer to a jug.
Poached Rhubarb with Grand Marnier Cream
Apparently forced rhubarb grows so quickly that you can actually hear it. It’s available early in the year and usually comes from the rhubarb triangle in west Yorkshire. The forced variety, grown in the dark with heat, tends to be the sweetest and most tender. With exposure to light, the stems become tougher and tarter.
Ingredients (Serves 4)
For the Rhubarb:
Juice and Zest of 3 oranges, 5 rhubarb stems, 3cm piece of stem ginger (thinly sliced), 2 tablespoons of muscovado sugar
For the Cream:
300ml double cream, 3 tablespoons of Grand Marnier (or white wine), 100g caster sugar
Preheat the oven to 190C. Warm the orange juice in a pan and melt the sugar. Cut the rhubarb stems into 4cm long chunks and arrange in a shallow oven-proof dish. Pour the warm liquid over the the rhubarb and scatter over the orange zest and ginger. Cover and bake in the preheated oven for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, Beat the cream, caster sugar and Grand Marnier in a bowl until thick and creamy.
Serve the cream with the rhubarb, a drizzle of the juice and a sprinkle of toasted almonds.
A few years ago I was lucky enough to stay at an enchanting agriturismo near the medieval town of Radda in Tuscany. As one might expect, the proprietor had a partiality to Italian classical music. He especially loved playing it at full volume while the guests enjoyed their breakfast on the terrace. I have colourful memories of Vivaldi’s “Summer 1” thundering across the valley while we ate our prosciutto and delicious crusty bread. Now anytime I even think of cooking something Italian it has to be accompanied by “The Four Seasons”. Listening to the cogent violins while sipping on Chianti Classsico is enough to transport me to a magical world of Etruscan vineyards and Cypress trees.
Instead, I’m making gnocchi in my English cottage, which I guess could be considered equally as romantic. It’s a glorious March day, which is rare. The windows are flung open and the obligatory Vivaldi playlist is on repeat. I’m getting ready for a weekend visit from some of my favourite London friends.
When cooking for crowds, I’m always drawn to recipes that involve only a few quality ingredients, where the freshness and flavours speak for themselves. It’s one of the many things I love about simple Italian food. Some of Italy’s most loved dishes involve only three or four components, yet it’s enough to create something splendid.
A lot of people describe themselves as foodies, but I would argue that for most of these people it goes far beyond the food. For me, it’s the people I’m cooking for or the person cooking for me. The kitchen I’m cooking in and the music I’m listening to. It’s the memories of homemade coffee cake during long summer holidays. The old scrapbook filled with my mother’s recipes. It’s my wedding day or a simple Thursday morning breakfast. It’s where you bought your ingredients and who grew them. It’s the story…and the people telling that story.
With the insurmountable number of food blogs out there, it’s a wonder anyone has the guts to start one in the first place. In this highly visual world there’s a pressure to produce perfect recipe after perfect recipe. I’m guilty of it too. There’s a certain thrill to a faultless piecrust and nothing worse than a soggy bottom. Obviously the recipes are crucial, but it’s the imperfect stories behind them that I fall in love with.
I’ve two-stepped around the idea of starting a food blog for years now and I’ve just decided to bite the bullet. This is my first post, so now there’s no going back. I’m not a professional, but I definitely describe myself as a foodie. I make a lot of mistakes, but I also have the odd roaring success. I tread a fine line between mishap and perfection. I guess what I’m trying to say is that now I’ve finally joined the huge chorus of food bloggers, I may not always sing in tune. But what’s a soggy bottom between friends? It’s all part of my story. Welcome to the feast and turn up the Vivaldi.
Gnocchi with Tomato, Mozzarella and Basil
For the sauce:
1 Large sweet white onion
2 X 400g Tinned chopped tomatoes
A handful of fresh basil leaves
2 Buffalo Mozzarella balls (drained and torn into pieces)
A handful of freshly grated parmesan
Salt and Pepper
For the gnocchi:
600g floury potatoes
2 eggs, beaten
1 egg yolk
200g plain flour
It’s possible to buy delicious readymade gnocchi from your local deli or supermarket, but it’s also easy enough to roll up your sleeves and make your own.
To make the gnocchi, cook the potatoes (unpeeled) in a large saucepan of boiling water for 25 minutes. When they’re tender, drain well and cool slightly. Peel the potatoes and press them through a potato ricer into a bowl. While they’re still slightly warm, add a couple of pinches of salt, the eggs and flour. Mix the ingredients together and then turn them out onto a floured surface. Knead lightly until it becomes a sticky dough. It’s important not to over-knead, as this may cause the gnocchi to be tough.
Cut the dough in half and roll each piece into a long sausage. Cut into 2 or 3 cm pieces, pressing each piece with a fork. Then lay them out on a floured tea towel.
Heat a big glug of olive oil in a saucepan and fry the chopped onion at medium heat, until soft and translucent. Add the basil and chopped tomatoes, bring to a simmer and cook gently for 10 minutes or so, remembering to stir the sauce every few minutes.
Cook the gnocchi in a large pan of boiling water for just two minutes. When they float to the surface they’re ready. Using a slotted spoon, transfer them to the pan of tomato sauce. Add the torn pieces of mozzarella and gently stir the mixture over a medium heat for around 30 seconds, until the mozzarella has melted slightly. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Serve immediately, with a sprinkle of Parmesan and fresh basil leaves to garnish.