I just love mushrooms. I’m fascinated by their beauty and miraculous appearance not to mention their deliciousness. Nonetheless my passion for eating them and being haunted, as I am, by their potential to do serious harm, I have never been tempted to forage for them myself.
As autumn draws near, many others are looking forward to the thrill of the mushroom hunt, poking and peering into dark corners and shady recesses using their noses as well as their eyes to forage among the wet underwood in search of ceps, morels, chanterelles, shaggy ink cap (sounds poisonous from its name, but they are not) and common field mushrooms but there is still danger out there as someone recently said “All mushrooms are edible, but some you’ll eat only once”.
The only mushroom I would feel confident plucking from the ground, is the giant puffball. These are huge, white and loosely spherical with no stalk, reminiscent of overgrown marshmallows. Puffballs with their delicate flavour are perfect for soups, as they are easy to blend down nicely. They are a little like the pumpkins of the mushroom world, extremely profligate, with their spores, found in meadows and pastures often near hedges. When I walked my dog at Rushmore I would see them dotted all over the place; however, they were mostly covered in brown blemishes and should be avoided. When I first moved to Ludwell nearly sixteen years ago, my neighbour brought home a giant puffball, giving me a large slice the size of my hand. I cooked it slowly in a frying pan with butter and a little salt and served it on crunchy ciabatta toast. Recalling this delicious meal makes my mouth water and makes me want to get out there and find one of my own.
I have planted two Kentish cob trees in my garden which have been impregnated with truffle spores – summer truffle (Tuber aestivum), I presume, as it is the only truffle that grows in this country. According to the experts you need a trained animal to hunt for the hidden treasure. Fortunately, I know where I have planted mine and so won’t be buying a pig anytime soon. Fresh white truffle which is grown in north-western Italy, and is three times the cost of the more common black truffle from France, has flavour so intense that it is used very sparingly, shaved onto risotto or added to ravioli with cheese in minute amounts. There really is something truly seductive about truffles.
I plan to cultivate my own mushrooms this autumn. I learnt the simple method whilst on a course a few years ago. You need a supply of freshly cut hardwood logs and spore-impregnated dowels which you insert into the logs then leave them in a damp shady area for many months, then you ‘shock’ them by banging them very hard on the ground and, in a couple of weeks, out pop the mushrooms. Sounds straightforward. We will see, I shall be sure to update you via these pages. Happy hunting if you know what you are doing!
Mushroom, Spinach and Goats Cheese Lasagne
Approx. £8.95 when all ingredients bought at Ludwell Stores.
This delicious lasagne will work with almost any mushroom you care to mention. Fresh ceps would be my first choice mixed with field or chestnut mushrooms, but use whatever is around. Dried mushrooms, shiitake for example, may be a little too strong for this dish.
800 ml Béchamel sauce, made with 750 ml milk and 175 ml cream
100 g Parmesan plus a little for sprinkling
½ tsp grated nutmeg
300 g spinach, washed, de-stalked, dunked in boiling water for 1 minute
2 cloves garlic, chopped
250 g goats cheese (mild, creamy) or use Ricotta
150 g shallots – finely diced
75 ml olive oil
500 g mushrooms – sliced
1 tbs fresh tarragon – chopped
Handful parsley – chopped
200 ml crème fraiche
Good glug Marsala or sherry
300 g fresh lasagne or 250 g dried and cooked (don’t use lasagne that claims you don’t need to pre-cook)
Preheat oven to 200°C / Gas mark 6 AGA top oven – middle shelf
1. Having made the béchamel, add the nutmeg, Parmesan and seasoning to taste. Whisk hard until smooth and put aside placing greaseproof paper on the top to avoid a skin forming.
2. Dunk the washed spinach leaves into boiling water for 30 seconds until wilted, refresh with cold water, dry and chop roughly, not too finely.
3. Add the goat’s cheese in lumps or teaspoons to the spinach, keeping it rough and loose, you want the cheese to be identifiable on the plate, so mix gently.
4. To make the mushroom mix, sauté the shallots and garlic in a large pan, using the olive oil. Add the sliced mushrooms and stir to coat the mushrooms in the shallots and oil. Cook for around 10 minutes until the mushroom liquid has evaporated.
5. Add a glug of Marsala or sherry and cook hard until the liquid has been absorbed and breathe in the wonderful sweet aroma. Add the crème fraiche and stir well.
6. Now add the tarragon and parsley together with seasoning to taste (you can afford a good grinding of black pepper here).
7. To put the dish together, begin by spreading a little béchamel on the base of a rectangular dish.
8. Place a sheet of cooked lasagne on the top covering the base of the dish.
9. Spoon a thin layer of the spinach mix on the lasagne and add the mushrooms mix, building up all the components of the dish ending with a layer of béchamel. Sprinkle the top with Parmesan.
10. Cook for 45 minutes until golden. Serve with a crisp green salad.
A truly, truly scrumptious supper dish or for entertaining.
Jo from Ludwell Stores has been lamenting the fact that they are unable to stock local watercress, grown in the chalk fed spring waters a matter of yards from their door. It seems that Ludwell watercress is only sold to large supermarkets in pumped up air-tight bags and shipped nationwide. Many of us may have purchased Ludwell watercress without realising we were bringing it back to its home.
Traditionally grown watercress is lush dark green and noted for its distinctive peppery, mustard-like flavour much like its relative the garden flower, nasturtium. Recognised as a food with high nutritional value, it is packed full of nutrients and vitamins some of which include vitamin C, folic acid, iron, vitamin A and calcuim. It is probably best known as a classic ingredient for soup but also goes well with beef, used as a garnish for game and makes a great addition to a mixed green salad. I have read too that the Romans and Anglo-Saxons believed it to be a cure for baldness and Elizabethans thought it had aphrodisiac properties, particularly for women of a certain age!
I have been somewhat fascinated by the farming of watercress since living so close to its production. Many walkers who pass the Ludwell watercress beds, like me, may watch the men working the beds, sowing the small clumps of seedlings into the gravel, throwing them down with precision and care and then adjusting the water level through the sluices, so it is fed gently through the seedlings until fully grown, in just over four weeks. A little word of caution, however, please don't go foraging for wild watercress in the Donhead streams until you've read up on liver flukes.
Watercress will, contrary to popular belief, grow anywhere that is moist, although a clean source of running water is argued to produce better crops. There are a number of websites dedicated to growing watercress from seed in the garden although I have never given it a try. Most watercress beds are situated next to a natural spring, as in Ludwell. Now (April and May) is believed to be the best time to harvest watercress, although it can be gathered at any time when the ground is not frozen. Watercress is highly perishable as many of us will be aware. Keeping the leaves of watercress in water more than a couple of days turns it to a nasty slimy mess.
Many years ago when working in a restaurant in Hampshire, close to the watercress beds at Alresford (considered the World centre of watercress growing), we served watercress with a sprinkle of salt only, sandwiched between crusty white bread. Thinking about this now, I might add some lemon mayonnaise (see this month’s recipe) or slices of ripe pear. Yum. So give a bunch a try. You might just find that you feel healthier, more vital, and less bald into the bargain.
Watercress and Onion Bhaji with lemon, chilli and watercress mayonnaise
(With a nod to Sophie Grigson and Bobby Flay)
Makes approx 12 bhajis.
Approx.£5.80 when all ingredients bought at Ludwell Stores. You could make your own mayonnaise, however, this recipe uses ready-made ‘Great Taste’ awarded Delouis mayonnaise from Ludwell Stores.
For the Bhajis
30g green lentils
1 large onion, very thinly sliced
40g watercress, roughly chopped
½ tsp salt
75g gram flour
¼ tsp baking powder
½ tsp ground turmeric
½ tsp ground coriander
1 tsp cumin
1 small potato, peeled and grated
1½ tbs chopped coriander
20g flaked almonds
Sunflower or rapeseed oil for frying
For the Mayonnaise mix
1 tsp grated lemon zest
juice of 2 lemons
½ green chili (or to taste)
250g good quality mayo (I used Delouis mayonnaise)
1 small red onion, diced
1 stick celery finely chopped
2 tbs chopped, flat leaf parsley
seeds bunch/bag fresh watercress
salt and ground black pepper
For the bhajis
1. Soak the lentils for up-to 4 hours (you do not need to cook them)
2. Spread the onion out in a colander and sprinkle with salt, leaving for 30 minutes then squeeze out excess moisture
3. Drain lentils and dry on kitchen paper then mix in a large bowl with the sifted flour, baking powder, ground and whole spices. Mix well, adding the chopped watercress, grated potato, coriander and flaked almonds. Meanwhile make the mayonnaise mix
4. Place lemon juice in a small saucepan and bring to boil. Reduce to half the volume and allow to cool.
5. Place lemon syrup, chilli, lemon zest, watercress (leaves only) and mayonnaise in a blender and blend until smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and transfer to bowl. Add the onions, celery, and parsley and set aside, or refrigerate.
6. Heat a frying pan with 1cm depth of oil, to approx 175°C (or test with a cube of bread – it’s hot enough if the bread fizzes gently)
7. Scoop a dessertspoonful of the bhaji mixture, roll into balls, flatten slightly and lay in the hot oil.
8. Cook gently, turning occasionally until richly browned on both sides
9. Drain briefly on kitchen paper and serve, ideally immediately, with a dollop of lemon, chili and watercress mayonnaise.
A delicious starter or snack or even a picnic item for a burst of spice.
A truly, truly scrumptious more-ish treat
There are three ‘triffid’ type plants growing in my vegetable bed this month, taller than me and certainly wider. A plant I had discounted as a crop, has taken me by surprise. I am growing three very tall, wide and beautiful angelica plants. The flower heads are enormous and the hollow stems as thick as a mature tree branch.
Perhaps angelica is best known as ‘crystallised candy’, but its seeds are also one of the principal flavouring agents in vermouth, Chartreuse and gin, and thought to be the ‘secret ingredient’ in certain Rhine wines. The leaves can be used as a salad leaf or a substitute for parsley – or so I was led to believe, however I don’t recommend them – horrid, horrid, horrid! They can however be used to flavour fish, poultry, cooked fruits, soups or stews. Its stems, cut and prepared like asparagus, can be chopped and stewed with rhubarb and apples, or crystallised to serve as decoration on cakes and deserts, which is no doubt the angelica form most of us will be familiar with.
Ever an explorer of new things to prepare and eat, I felt I should explore how to prepare crystallised angelica. You are required to cut your stems into strips, soak them for eight hours, boil them with baking soda, drain then remove the stringy bits, cook in a syrup then soak in the syrup for 24 hours, dry, cook, soak, dry, cook, soak, dry and then, after four or five days of this repetitive process, roll in caster sugar and leave until completely dry and glossy. Now, that is what I call a palaver, but I intend to try it!
One thing that could never be called a palaver, is the 4 Villages Spring Fête, which we have successfully held at the Remembrance Field for another year. I write this the day after this great event. Still exhausted with feet throbbing, I realised I needed to feed two happy helpers at lunchtime today, who had volunteered to move car boot loads of stone to line my pond and to dig a few holes. I raided the freezer and came up with a rather delicious tart, that I give you this month. We enjoyed the tart with Buttlings sausages and partridges cooked on the BBQ (strange what you find in the freezer). We enjoyed this eclectic mix of food with a leaf salad, beer won on the bottle stall and rhubarb cake from the cake stall – an impromptu, welcome and tasty lunch eaten in the drizzle. Summer is here. Enjoy what it brings.
Spinach and Cheese Tart
Approx. £5.50 when all ingredients bought at Ludwell Stores.
Ingredients 1 tbs oil
1 large red onion
400g fresh spinach (substitute part with purple sprouting, chard etc)
500g ready made all-butter shortcrust pastry
2 large free range/organic eggs, beaten plus extra for brushing
400g cheese – a mix is good – I used parmesan, cheddar and Kings Favourite – feta would be good here too
2 tbs fresh herbs, thyme, rosemary, tarragon or dill
Seasoning lots of black pepper, but ease up on the salt depending on your cheese choices.
Preheat the oven to 200°C / gas mark 6. (AGA roasting oven, bottom shelf with cooling shelf above)
1. Heat the oil in a large frying pan and gently fry the onion for 5 minutes until soft and translucent.
2. Add the spinach leaves or chard, if using, and cook until wilted, and set aside.
3. Roll out the shortcrust pastry on a floured surface and use to line a greased and floured 20cm loose bottomed round tin, leaving a generous 3–4 cm hanging over the edge.
4. Transfer the spinach and onions to a bowl and fold together with the grated or crumbled cheese, the herbs, seasoning and the beaten eggs.
5. Spoon into the pastry case and fold the excess pastry in towards the centre – this gives it a rustic look yet you still see the spinach and cheese in the centre.
6. Brush with beaten egg and bake for 30–35 minutes until golden and set.
7. Serve warm with salad and new potatoes, or chill, wrap in foil and pop into a lunch box.
A truly, truly scrumptious lunch, picnic or lunch box treat
I have a dear friend of many years called Bhavna. Bhavna is a foodie of the Asian vegetarian variety and keeping her happy when out for a bite to eat, can be tricky. I would bet my entire cookery book collection on the fact that she will ask for the pepper mill at the same time as placing her order. Rarely does she get it, which probably says more about where we eat than anything else.
Bhavna’s fiftieth birthday party was an evening full of fantasy, colour and memorable aromas. We were greeted by fire dancers on the lawn and served champagne by masked men on stilts. There was a room set up like an Indian market where we could fill little tin boxes of fresh spices; ‘pick and mix’ style Indian sweets and many delicacies I have never seen before or since. Ladies, beautifully dressed in traditional costumes, draped the men with silk shawls and the women with colourful bangles. I didn’t think I had particularly fat wrists, but clearly I do, as I had to wear my bangles around my ears to join in the spirit of the evening. We had our palms (and any other bare flesh) painted with Hindu symbols of the sun, using Mehndi or Henna paste, mixed with turmeric. There was also a lady with snakes around her neck and arms – that was a little creepy so I kept well away. The meal was amazing and went on for what seemed like hours, course after course of large dishes of spicy or sweet vegetables and meat for us carnivores, salads, nuts and fruits. It was altogether a remarkable and delectable occasion. Another world.
Bhavna has been very unwell. She was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumour last autumn and is enduring frequent visits to, and stays in, hospital. Eighteen months ago I saw a beautiful pepper mill in an antique shop in Honiton. It was small enough to fit in the palm of your hand and slip into your handbag. I thought of Bhavna at the time so went back in November in the hope it was unsold. It was so I used my honed negotiation skills to see what they could do about the price and – mission accomplished – it was mine. Bhavna can now spice up her hospital food, and hopefully take it with her when we eat out and avoid her constant call for the pepper mill.
Of course, you can’t give someone a pepper mill without some pepper. I was sent a link to an amazing spice shop called ‘the spicery’ (www.thespicery.com) where you can order spices, blends and recipe kits in very small quantities. I ordered two of their gift-boxes (one for me and one for Bhavna) which consist of six 5g packs of very fresh pepper. Enclosed was Cuber Pepper;,Grains of Paradise, the weird looking Long Pepper, Sichuan Pepper, Kampot Pepper and Green Peppercorns. I have mixed three of them in my own pepper mill.
So, with Bhavna in mind, this month I give you the wonderful dish, Mejadra, from Arabia. All spices are available at Ludwell Stores, which has a good selection, so why not have a clear out of your spice cupboard (cumin dated April 2007 will taste of dust) and buy some fresh spices for 2014 and make yourself this warming, comfort food dish to serve as a supper on its own or as a side dish. Enjoy eating with friends and savouring time together. All the best for a happy, healthy 2014.
Mejadra – Spiced rice and lentils with crispy fried onions
Serves 6 as a main course
Approx. £4.80 when all ingredients bought at Ludwell Stores
The crunch of nuts or seeds, sweet oiliness of the onion and perfect balance of the spices makes Mejadra a ‘master’ dish. It really is a star, and something I think would be great for a picnic in summer with finely sliced fennel and cucumber, dried cranberries and a dollop of natural yoghurt. My hero Ottolenghi describes this dish as the very ‘best comfort food’. I have to agree.
200 g basmati rice
4 brown onions, sliced thinly
250 g brown or green lentils
350 ml water
2 tsp cumin seeds
1½ tsp coriander seeds
1½ tsp ground turmeric
1½ tsp ground allspice
1½ cinnamon stick
1 tsp sugar olive oil
75 g cashews (pine nuts or peanuts will do)
Handful of coriander leaves and natural yogurt for serving (see below)
1. Prepare your lentils by rinsing well first, then cook in a pan of boiling water for 12–15 minutes. They need to still have a ‘bite’ as you will be cooking them further with the rice mix.
2. Meanwhile, on high heat, in a large frying pan, brown off your sliced onions in olive oil in three or four separate batches. They must not sweat but rather fry until crispy. (Ottolenghi deep fries his with a coating of flour, but that uses a lot of oil). This can take 20 minutes and make your hair and clothes smell!
3. Wipe clean the frying pan then dry roast your cumin, coriander seeds and cinnamon. Remove from the heat when fragrant, then grind in a spice grinder or with a pestle and mortar (or bash them with a rolling pin).
4. Rinse your rice (to remove excess starch), then place in a pan on medium heat with your fresh ground spices, turmeric, allspice, sugar and cooked strained lentils. Add a generous glug of olive oil and stir.
5. Add the water, bring to the boil, place on a lid, then reduce to a simmer. Within 10 minutes, your rice should be ready. Allow to stand with the lid on for a further 10 minutes before seasoning to taste.
6. Fork half of the onions through the rice and lentil mix, then pile into a shallow dish and garnish with the remaining crispy onions and cashew nuts.
You can serve with coriander leaves, natural yogurt, cucumber and lemon wedges.
A truly, truly scrumptious and thrifty dish for a comforting winter evening.
I’ve just returned from the Donhead Village Hall, where entries to the summer show have been arriving for the last few hours. It’s a hive of competitive activity and tension. Magnificent Victoria sponges, shortbread, jams and chutneys. The vegetables and soft fruits look mouth watering, and the perennial flower class, better than ever. As a complete contrast to 2012, when we were all under water and very little in the way of flowers and vegetables for the show – how different this year is! Never satisfied, I would give anything for a little rain just now – my cabbages and chard are starting to crisp up round the edges.
This wonderful weather makes me want to eat outside, be it a quick sandwich, a picnic or a full-blown dinner party. Food and drink just tastes better in the fresh air.
I recently bought a small barbecue from that ‘big supermarket’ in town. It’s orange and tiny (still took over an hour to put it together with more washers, screws and nuts than I needed – always worrying when you have some left over), but its size means you can pop it in the car and take it to the beach or carry to the top of a hill. Having turned the AGA off I am left with a single induction ring to cook on, and I was craving something crispy without having to fry it. I have it alight in the garden as I write. I will have boned chicken thighs with a spicy rub mix and grilled courgettes (the misshapen ones that were not good enough for my summer show entry). I have ‘pick and come again’ salad leaves, young spinach and beetroot and the first of my new potatoes, all drizzled with a homemade dressing. I will eat my supper whilst sitting on the bridge with my feet dangling over the cool river and wash it all down with a chilled glass of white wine. Perfect.
Over-complicating a barbie, can be your downfall. However great the sauce or marinade you serve with it, you really don’t need a plate full of pink chicken legs, sausages and the obligatory beef burger. My heart sinks when I am presented with this unimaginative fodder, especially when accompanied by a ‘wappy’ lettuce salad. I believe that the best barbecues for entertaining are simple, with one headline dish – Moroccan spiced shoulder of lamb, a spatchcock chicken with preserved lemon or sea bream stuffed with herbs, served with something equally simple without too much choice and conflicting flavours. A moist homemade burger is also delicious – just don’t complicate it.
Chilled soup sits well as part of a picnic and of course, barbecues or when eating outside on relaxed occasions with or without company. This is a simple recipe and a true taste of summer for those with a glut of tomatoes and a few herbs in the garden. I know you will enjoy this one.
Chilled Tomato and Pesto Couscous Soup
Approx. £3.70 when all ingredients bought in Ludwell
Two ingredients that have a natural affinity combine to create a refreshing cold soup that has heaps of flavour and a positive, almost dramatic look to it. This is a filling soup that could be served as a main course on its own. Its quick to make and truly scrumptious when eaten with the sun on your back.
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
2 tsp sugar
4 large ripe tomatoes
1 litre passata
20 fresh basil leaves
300ml plain natural yoghurt
For the pesto couscous
½ red onion
2 peppers (different colours, red and yellow will be perfect)
1 red chilli
small bunch flat leaf parsley
8 mint leaves
1 mug measure of instant couscous
3 tsp (heaped) green pesto
150ml good virgin olive oil
1. Peel and dice the onion and finely chop the peppers.
2. Deseed the chilli and chop finely.
3. Chop the parsley leaves, discarding the stalks reserving a few whole leaves for garnishing. Shred the mint leaves.
4. Measure a mug of couscous and place in a bowl with the pesto.
5. Using the same measure of boiling water, add to the couscous and pesto. Stir until well mixed and leave for several minutes before fluffing up.
6. Juice the lemons and stir in to the couscous together with the prepared vegetables and herbs. Stir in the olive oil and season before chilling.
7. Heat the vinegar in a small pan with the sugar. Allow to cool.
8. Blanch the tomatoes briefly in boiling water, then refresh in cold water before peeling, deseeding and dicing them.
9. Mix the passata and fresh tomato. Shred two thirds of the basil and stir it in.
10. Season, then drip the vinegar mix in carefully, tasting all the time until you find the right balance for your taste. Chill until very cold.
11. Put a heaped tablespoon of cold couscous in the centre of each soup bowl, ladle the soup around this, then pour irregular splashes of yoghurt and olive oil around the edges
12. Tear the remaining basil leaves and reserved parsley and scatter over all.
A truly, truly refreshing and scrumptious dish for this summer
These musings and recipes are gleaned from The Donhead Digest with the permission of AIF, their author.