Eat your greens

You know it’s peak asparagus season when it’s all you can see as you thumb your way  through Instagram.

We’ve reached the end of what farmers call the hungry gap, when, in early spring, there is little fresh produce available. That period is well and truly over, with greens lining up on the shelves of our greengrocers: watercress, cucumber, leeks, spring greens, and my favourite, asparagus. They’re often regarded as a delicacy, but these stubborn little spears are a hardy lot and will generally stick around in the salad drawer for a good week or so.

Spring is definitely here (how can it be mid-May already?) and as the days get longer and temperatures rise, I want to cook easy meals with fresh flavours.

Asparagus season comes but once a year, so I’m making the most of these green shoots while I can. Instead of boiling, I prefer to pan fry them in a little olive oil with salt and pepper and a generous squeeze of lemon juice.

Asparagus works well in most dishes, from pasta to pastry, and because of its robust flavour and texture, it will often take the starring role alongside other ingredients.

This simple risotto takes under half an hour to cook and uses buckwheat (which contains 13.25g of protein per 100g – that’s more than eggs) instead of rice. The wild garlic adds a sweetly mellow flavour, but it’ll be gone in the next few weeks, so two cloves of garlic will also do the trick.

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Buckwheat risotto with asparagus, spinach and wild garlic. Captured hanging out of our kitchen window for optimal daylight (we don’t have a garden).

 Buckwheat risotto with asparagus, spinach and wild garlic

 

Serves 2

Ingredients

150g buckwheat, rinsed and drained

8-10 asparagus spears, ends removed and roughly chopped

500ml vegetable stock

Half a leek, diced (or use half an onion, peeled and diced)

3-4 wild garlic leaves, roughly chopped (keep the edible flowers for a garnish)

3-4 large handfuls spinach

The juice of 1 lemon

A pinch of chilli flakes (optional)

1 tbsp olive oil

Salt and pepper

A few leaves of fresh mint, roughly chopped

 

Heat the oil in a large pan, then add the leek and sauté for 3 minutes. Add the wild garlic and the chilli flakes and cook on a medium heat for a further 2 minutes. In a separate pan, fry the asparagus in a little oil; do this over a medium heat for around 10 minutes.

Add the buckwheat to the pan and mix well, coating each grain in oil – add a little extra if necessary. Add a ladleful of the hot stock to the pearl barley and stir well. Bring to a simmer as the liquid is absorbed by the rice.  Continue adding more stock, a ladleful at a time, letting the buckwheat absorb it gradually; do this for about 15 minutes, until soft.

Add the cooked asparagus to the pan with the spinach, lemon juice and salt and pepper and stir until the spinach has wilted. Turn off the heat and stir through the chopped mint. Squeeze over some more lemon juice and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, if you like, and decorate with the wild garlic flowers. Add a smattering of sunflower seeds for extra bite.

 

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Spring fever

We’re slowly inching away from the cold, dark months of winter, but I’m not quite full of the joys of spring. That could be because it’s been rainy and windy for the last three days or because I’ve been feeling rundown and unwell, but I don’t think that’s it.

Maybe I just need some pie. It’s British Pie Week, another week for another foodstuff, but if there was ever a time for comfort food, this is it. While Brexit rages on, climate change is more apparent than ever (hello, February heatwave) and the number of students in the UK learning a foreign language has nearly halved. Personally, I think our governments need a generous slice of humble pie.

Over the past few months, freelancing has started to chip away at my general wellbeing and I’m starting to wonder whether it’s all it’s cracked up to be. It’s great to have freedom, but that’s not much compensation when you’re chasing yet another outstanding invoice and trying to keep your many ‘bosses’ sweet. If you like structure, this isn’t the life for you.

I thought self-employment would mean endless coffee dates but most of my friends live in Cardiff and I just don’t have the time most weeks. When I do meet a pal during the day, it’s almost guaranteed that an ‘urgent’ email will come through, and when any work is money, it’s hard to say no.  If I do take a break for a few hours to catch up with a friend or go to the gym or for a walk, it feels like I’m mitching from school, and I’m constantly checking my phone to make sure that I haven’t missed anything. It’s difficult to enjoy yourself when you feel that you should be working.

So, work is busy but life is pretty quiet when you don’t go have a 9-5 office job. Some days, my only interactions are with Bobbie, our kitten, the staff at the Starbucks across the road (haters gonna hate, but there isn’t an independent coffee shop nearby and sometimes I need to get out of the flat to work) or the occasional work-related phone call.

Happily, I’m working on a few food-related projects, but they don’t pay the bills, so I don’t always have that much time (or money) to cook fancy meals or eat out. And as I’ve mentioned before, I live with a pair of fussy eaters, who don’t like anything out of the ordinary, which is why I like to have friends over for dinner!

Sure, I get asked to try vegan food at restaurants in return for a blog or Instagram post (and I realise that’s a pretty jammy situation to be in), but I turn down as many invitations as I accept because I can’t justify taking time out my working day to travel to Cardiff just for a meal.

Anyway, it’s British Pie Week (not an ad), and by sheer coincidence I baked a pie using up leftovers from the fridge just last week. This one’s really simple to make, especially as it uses ready-made pastry. All you need to do is prepare the filling cover with pastry and pop it in the oven. Mine came out looking a little less than perfect (all my food looks rustic when it’s unfiltered) but it was very tasty. Food for the soul indeed.

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Celeriac, kale and chickpea pie. Rustic cooking (and photography) at its finest.

Celeriac, kale and chickpea pie

Serves 4

 

Ingredients

1 medium sized celeriac (about 200g), peeled and diced

100g kale, rinsed and roughly chopped or torn

1 x 400g can chickpeas, rinsed and drained (keep the water!)

½ an apple, cored and diced

2 cloves garlic, peeled and grated or finely chopped

A couple of sprigs of  fresh rosemary, chopped (or use dry)

2 tsp wholegrain mustard

The juice of ½ a lemon

200ml plant milk (oat milk works particularly well)

2 tsp nutritional yeast (optional)

Salt and pepper

2 tbsp rapeseed, coconut or vegetable oil

1 sheet (320g) Jus-Rol or supermarket own brand shortcrust pastry sheet (take out of the fridge 45 minutes before making the pie)

 

Preheat your oven to 200C. In a large pan, heat the oil over a medium temperature and fry the celeriac for 5 minutes. Add the rosemary and garlic and fry for another 2-3 minutes, until golden. Add the apple and kale and pour over the lemon juice. Cook for 2-3 minutes, then pour over the milk and stir through the mustard and nutritional yeast, if using. Add the chickpeas (pour the water from the can into a mug or bowl and set aside) and season, then cover with a lid and cook on a low temperature for another 5-10 minutes.

Take the pastry out of its packet and gently unroll and drape over a medium-sized ovenproof dish or pie dish. Make sure to press down the pastry and cover the sides of the dish, then spoon in the pie filling. Take the loose ends of the pastry to form a ‘lid’ and press down together. Now, using a pastry brush, ‘paint’ over some of the chickpea water across the pastry lid.

Place the dish on the middle shelf of the oven and bake for 30-35 minutes. Serve with mashed potato or swede and lots of veggies, or enjoy cold with salad.

 

 

 

 

Time out

It’s almost the end of April, described by T. S. Eliot as the cruellest month, and perhaps he had a point. In The Waste Land, Eliot’s talking mainly about lost love, but he’s also describing the weather. April’s a big tease. She’s cold and frosty one minute and beaming sunnily down on us the next. She coaxes us out of our coats with the warmest spring day in 60 years, and then puts a dampener on things, literally. Talk about blowing hot and cold. I know it happens every spring and I should be used to it by now but I’m always slightly disappointed by April.

Still, despite the forecast of yet another cold snap, there are lighter and brighter days ahead. This makes me happy and I feel so much freer when darkness doesn’t set in at 4pm on the dot. And after taking a little break from cooking after writing The Occasional Vegan, I’m back in the kitchen testing out recipes. Last weekend, I baked my first lemon drizzle cake, and  never one to stick to the rules, I threw in a bit of thyme to temper all that zesty citrus. A few years ago, during my short stint as a baking blogger, I made a very nice lemon and thyme cake using a Nigel Slater recipe. This time (thyme?), it needed to be vegan so I did some experimenting and ended up with a pretty sweet treat.

It turns out that thyme is relatively high in iron, something I learned when I took part in a radio programme about food trends. In the same discussion, another gardening ‘expert’ (I won’t name him but he’s a presenter on S4C) told me that mushrooms aren’t vegan because they’re half animal.  Right you are, mate. At least the other guy spoke some sense: there are 6.1mg of iron in 5g of thyme, which when you consider that the recommended daily allowance for adult women is 14.8g (it’s 8.7mg for men and women over 50, fact fans), is a pretty sizeable portion.

I had to be a bit sly with this one as my little darlings can be fussy at times (I love them, really), and as I predicted, they enjoyed the cake until they discovered the ‘green bits’.  Needless to say, they didn’t eat any more of it once I’d been caught out. If you’re not a fan of putting herbs in sweet things (and I guess that plenty of people aren’t), you can leave out the thyme and make a lovely lemony cake all the same.

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Lemon and thyme loaf

Lemon and thyme loaf

Ingredients

For the loaf

275g self-raising flour

200g caster sugar

1 tsp baking powder

50ml olive, rapeseed or vegetable oil, plus extra for greasing the tin

100ml plant milk

150ml cold water

The juice of 2 lemons

4–5 sprigs (or 2 tsps) of thyme, leaves only

 

For the icing

150g icing sugar

The juice of 1 lemon

Heat the oven to 200C/180C fan/gas mark 6. Sieve the flour and baking powder into a mixing bowl and then mix together with the sugar, lemon juice and thyme. Add the oil, milk and cold water, then mix until smooth.

Grease a 9×5-inch loaf and pour the mixture into the tin. Bake for 35-40 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean. Cool in the tin for 10 minutes, then remove the cake and transfer it to a wire rack to cool.

For the icing, sieve the icing sugar into a bowl. Mix in the lemon juice to make an icing thick enough to pour over the loaf. This will keep in an airtight container for a couple of days.