Tuesday 29 March 2011

Forcing rhubarb

The rhubarb at the allotment thrives on neglect. I inherited the rhubarb patch from the previous plotholder so I have no idea how old it is, must be 15 years at least. I know that I should have divided it by now, but I never know where I would put the divided plants, or who might want them.

So as well as never dividing it, fertilising it, watering it or anything else, I’ve never tried forcing it either, although I notice a lot of other plotholders do this.

Last year, I hardly used any rhubarb: I quite like the stuff poached in syrup and we use up spare syrup by making rhubarb ice lollies which my son likes. But that’s about it. Forced rhubarb comes at a time when there is little else going on at the allotment so I thought I might make more use of it when it’s not competing for attention with asparagus, spinach, peas, strawberries and raspberries.

To force rhubarb, all you need to do is to exclude light from the plants around January time. An upturned flowerpot or bucket will do this nicely. I fixed two large square pots over the rhubarb – or rather over the ground where I knew the rhubarb was, as it dies down overwinter. I packed straw around the rim of the pots at soil level to ensure no light could get in and used netpegs to fix the pots to the ground. A paving slab on top of each pot covered the drainage holes and also ensured the pots wouldn’t blow away in high winds.

Since about mid-February, I’ve been sneakily checking under the pots for signs of life. Each time, I’ve been gratified to see that there have been potential shoots forming. Finally, last weekend, I found enough long slim pale stems for a portion of rhubarb, our first of the year

Poached rhubarb
500g rhubarb stems, trimmed
250ml apple juice (I have also used orange juice successfully. It’s always tempting to pour in some wine to help the syrup along, but the juice will be no good for making ice lollies with afterwards – they won’t freeze hard enough)
½ a vanilla pod or 1 teasp vanilla extract at a pinch
100g sugar

Clean the rhubarb and slice into finger-lengths. Put the apple juice, vanilla pod and sugar in a pan and heat gently to dissolve the sugar, stirring. Add the rhubarb and bring to a simmer. This slim forced rhubarb seems to only take around five minutes before it’s silky-soft, and you don’t want it mushy. Lift the rhubarb pieces out of the pan and eat with crème fraiche, or scattered with (not very seasonal) blueberries, or just on its own. Keep the syrup for making ice lollies.

Rhubarb ice lollies
300ml rhubarb syrup – see above

Remove the vanilla pod (keep it for another day) and boil the liquid for another five minutes or so to reduce it slightly. Pour the liquor through a fine sieve, such as a tea strainer, into a jug, then carefully fill your ice lolly moulds. Leave to cool, then freeze. The lollies have a lovely astringent sweetness, plus the aromatic vanilla makes it taste light and creamy all at the same time too.

Later in the season, when the rhubarb stalks are as thick as a butcher’s arm and nearly as tough, I’ll use the same basic ingredients but add some darker spices instead of the vanilla: a couple of cloves and a star anise, or some cardamom pods. Brown sugar gives it a richer, more caramel flavour as well. 

Thursday 24 March 2011

Hungry gap suppers

We have nearly run out of food at the allotment – and a good thing too. The last of the winter veg have more or less been eaten up and we need the space for this year’s crops. In the case of the leeks, the last four or five left standing are pretty spindly and look more like spring onions. With the purple sprouting broccoli maturing nicely and first pink asparagus bud just breaking the surface, I want to look forward to fresh and dainty spring meals, not hark back to winter sustenance.

With a view to finishing off the last of the crop, I picked as many viable cavolo nero leaves as possible and the last January King, so that I can now dig out the winter brassicas with a clear conscience. Back in the kitchen, I dug out the jar of dried borlotti beans to find only around 200g left. Now, these will store perfectly well until this year’s borlotti beans are picked, but they do go so well with the cavolo nero I couldn’t resist, and put the whole lot in to soak.

The beans were cooked very simply then dressed with a little olive oil. The cavolo nero was washed and simmered briefly, then mixed with a little sautéed garlic and the beans stirred in. The beans are beautifully plump – is that because they are still comparatively fresh? - and  have the best texture of all dried beans, really quite dense and mealy. The cavolo nero in contrast is dark and silky. I ate this topped with a fat and juicy gammon steak – great comfort food.

Tuscan kale and borlotti beans
2-3 good fistfuls of cavolo nero
200g borlotti beans
2 cloves garlic
1 teasp smoked paprika
Olive oil

Rinse the beans and soak them in cold water for at least four hours. Drain, and put them in a large pan of cold water. Bring to the boil, and simmer, semi-covered, until the beans are just tender. Drain, return the beans to the pan and pour over about a tablespoonful of good olive oil. Toss the beans in the oil, cover and leave while you prepare the cavolo nero.

Put a large pan of water on to boil, adding a good thick pinch of salt. Wash the leaves well, stripping out any tough central stalks – you don’t have to be obsessive about this. Slice the greens thickly widthways. Add to the pan when the water is boiling and bring it back to the boil as quickly as possible. Boil for 2-3 minutes, then drain well, pressing out any liquid with the back of a wooden spoon.

In the cavolo nero pan, pour a dessertspoon of olive oil and heat gently. Chop the garlic cloves very finely and add to the oil. As soon as the garlic starts to sizzle, throw in the cavolo nero and toss well to distribute the garlic. Stir in the beans, and add the smoked paprika (or ordinary paprika if no smoked is available). Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper if you think it needs it. Make sure it’s all piping hot and serve.

Tuesday 22 March 2011

First, smoke your tomatoes

I’ve been leafing through my Christmas present copy of Movida Rustica, a cookbook dealing with regional Spanish recipes given a modern twist by chef/restaurateur Frank Camorra. As a premise this is irresistible to me: 1) Spanish, therefore 2) rustic, whole-hearted food, but 3) with some innovative additions as well.

It doesn’t disappoint. There are recognisably authentic recipes for chickpeas with spinach and salt cod, and rice with crayfish. There is a gazpacho with broad beans which I will surely get around to trying one day. But I couldn’t flick past anchovy with smoked tomato sorbet.

In Movida Rustica, smoked tomato sorbet is deceptively simple: 250g smoked tomatoes and 75g liquid glucose; blend and freeze in an ice cream maker. However, I don’t have an ice cream maker, I finished the jar of Terre a Terre smoked tomatoes shortly after Christmas and I don’t think my local Waitrose stocks liquid glucose*. The only thing to do was to start from scratch – first, smoke your tomatoes.

After a bit of experimentation and two separate goes, one with raw tomatoes and one with slow-roasted tomatoes, this is my smoked tomato sorbet using easily sourced ingredients. If it can taste this good made with out of season supermarket tomatoes, think how good it would be in August/September with freshly-picked homegrown fruits.

Tea-smoked tomato sorbet
250g tomatoes, about 6-7 medium-sized fruits
¼ cup tea leaves
½ cup raw rice
¼ cup soft brown sugar
100ml cold water
150g caster sugar
Pinch of salt
Pinch of white sugar

First, smoke the tomatoes. Put the tea leaves, rice and brown sugar in a jar or Tupperware container and shake to mix. Take a piece of silver foil, fold it into a square and turn up the corners about 2cm so that you have created a makeshift dish. Place this in the bottom of a pan which will take a steamer basket. Pour the smoke mixture into the foil dish.

Peel the tomatoes: nick a small cross at the stalk end of each tomato with a sharp knife, then drop the tomatos into boiling water – simmer for around 30 seconds then remove them with a slotted spoon and slip off the skins. Halve the tomatoes, and place, cut side up, in a single layer in a bowl that will fit into the steamer basket. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt and a pinch of sugar.

Place the pan with the smoke mixture over a medium heat. Once heated, insert the steamer basket with the bowl of tomatoes and a tight-fitting lid. Turn the heat down slightly, and turn the extractor fan on. Open doors and windows too as the smell of smoke will be pervasive.

Once you can see smoke swirling around the bowl of tomatoes, continue the smoking process for five minutes for lightly smoked tomatoes, 10 minutes for a stronger flavour. Once done, remove from the heat, and discard the foil dish with the smoke mix. Let the tomatoes cool.

Make the sugar syrup by pouring 100ml water into a pan and add 150g sugar. Set over a medium-low heat and stir to dissolve the sugar. Then bring to the boil and bubble until the liquid is clear. Let it cool slightly. This will almost certainly make too much sugar syrup for this recipe, but you can store it happily in an airtight container in the fridge.

Once the tomatoes have cooled down, place in a blender, including any juice that has leached out into the bowl, and whizz to a puree. Pour through a fine sieve into a clean bowl or measuring jug to remove the pips.

Stir the tomato liquor to mix and measure it. You need half this volume in sugar syrup. So, if you have 150ml smoked tomato puree, pour in 75ml of sugar syrup. Return the tomato puree and sugar syrup mixture to the blender to whizz again. Taste it to see if it might need another pinch of salt.

Pour the sorbet mixture into a bowl, cover with tight-fitting lid and place in the freezer. After two hours, remove from the freezer, scoop the sorbet into the blender and blend again. Replace the sorbet in the lidded bowl and return it to the freezer to carry on freezing.

Take the sorbet out of the freezer about 10 minutes before serving. Scoop again into a blender (or food processor, this time, as it will be frozen solid) and process for about a minute. Serve.

Smoked slow-roasted tomatoes
250g tomatoes, about 6-7 medium-sized fruits
Half a teasp salt
Half a teasp sugar
A  pinch of freshly ground pepper
Tea-smoking mixture, as above

Preheat the oven to 120 degrees C. Halve the tomatoes and place, cut-side up, on  a baking tray in a  single layer. Sprinkle with the salt, sugar and pepper, making sure each tomato gets its fair share. 

Place in the oven for about two hours. The tomatoes shouldn't burn but they will shrivel a little at the edges. Remove and let them cool a little. Set up the pan and steamer for smoking as above and transfer the roasted tomatoes carefully to a bowl that will fit into the steamer basket. Smoke, as above, for about five minutes.

These tomatoes are fantastic in a salad with mozzarella and avocado (or just with mozzarella, frankly), or chopped roughly on top of pasta as a garnish.  

*Actually, as it turns out, it does. But I didn't discover this until after I had used the sugar syrup instead.

Tuesday 1 March 2011

Chilli Sunday

If it’s the end of February half-term then it must be Sowing Sunday. This is the day which marks the start of the growing year for me, when the first chillies, aubergines, tomatoes and lemon grass are sown indoors. The chillies need to get off to an early start for what will hopefully be a nice long growing season this year. I’ve sown these in modules – two seeds per modules – and the trays are in a heated propagator right next to a bay window. The window is north-facing but gets lots of light. It’s a method that has always worked well although I always worry that this year nothing will germinate until I see the tiny green loops peep above the surface.

From left to right: Caldero, Cayenne chillies drying out, Black Hungarian

The chillies are a) Cayenne, because the plants are heavy croppers, and the fruit are not too hot. They dry well and can be used to pep up so many dishes; b) Hot Lemon, because the combination of citrus+fire is irresistible. These are amazing sliced wafer-thin in salads, or stirred into Asian style soups at the last-minute, or made into a hot and slippery chilli jelly; c) Fish Pepper, because they are such attractive plants, producing multi-coloured, very pungent fruit (and because I had to pick most of them green last year – I want to see what they will be like in a  good year); d) Black Hungarian for their gorgeous deep aubergine-purple colour and fruity flavour; e) Caldero, because they are mild and juicy and a beautiful eau-de-nil colour that slowly ripens to red like a tequila sunrise; f) Pimientos de Padron because I can fry them up and pretend I’m in a backstreet bar somewhere in Galicia; and g) Roberto’s, a Cuban chilli I’ve never grown before, but again, is meant to be flavoursome rather than merely fiery.

Some early tomatoes (Black Russian, Marmande, Razzleberry) went in at the same time and they are up already. Also just beginning to show are a few aubergines, the last remaining seeds from a batch bought two years ago, which I sowed into the spare modules once the tomatoes were done. Both tomatoes and aubergines have been moved, still under cover, but unheated, to a south-facing window to grow on. From now until May, every windowsill in the house will be commandeered by seed trays and pots until I can trust the night temperatures and start moving seedlings out into the patio greenhouse.

Next weekend I’ll start off a couple of pots of Genovese basil – too early really. I think basil needs stronger light levels. But in a month’s time, they will take off and I should be able to start picking by the end of April.