Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A Veg Bag A Week

I have very recently signed up for a weekly bag of vegetables from Local Greens, a south London group who work with organic farmers to provide a selection of good quality vegetables to as many people as want it around Brixton, Herne Hill, Dulwich and Camberwell. A list of what will be in each bag goes up on the site on Monday and the veg is dropped off at numerous locations around the borough on Thursday afternoons to be collected by late Friday. It is a simple, and simply great, enterprise run largely by volunteers that benefits both the consumer with good tasty vegetables at a reasonable price and the farmers who get a guaranteed market for their produce at a  reasonable price. Win Win.

I was a bit over enthusiastic with my choice of bag - I opted for the standard bag with potatoes thinking it would keep us in food for the whole week so long as I made a reasonable plan. What surprised me is that it's the potatoes I find most challenging - we don't tend to eat potatoes every week, indeed I am usually fairly specific about what potatoes I might want and now there's more than plenty to be eaten each week. Last week I roasted them all with some chicken, shallots and garlic - ate some of that hot and put the rest in the fridge for the next day. I'll change to the small bag without potatoes next month but in the meantime using the whole bag in interesting ways each week is my ambition.

This week the bag contatined over a kilo of Valor potatoes, 2 large beetroot, a swede, 3 large carrots, some pak choy, a good sized bunch of wild garlic, a butterhead lettuce, a couple of leeks and a bunch of spring onions. Good value! I hadn't been home an hour and I'd put the beetroot on to steam for salad and I'd turned the wild garlic into pesto with the addition of some toasted pine nuts, walnuts, Parmesan and oil.

Thursday night I roughly chopped yesterday's cooked potatoes and put them into a small frying pan, added beaten eggs and cooked a frittata that was a delightfully chickeny flavour-wise and a proper dinner with a side of steamed beetroots dressed with fig vinegar and a grated carrot salad.

Friday I made a veg heavy lamb and barley soup with stock from the freezer and a sort of recipe from Mark Hix as a starting point. I served it topped with a serious dollop of the wild garlic pesto and lots of crusty bread, a glass of red and a nibble of cheese it was a good dinner.

Saturday I wanted to use the bok choy and the spring onions - those ingredients say STIRFRY most immediately and I didn't want to venture further. I had some thick slices of belly pork in the freezer with no plan attached. Checked through some Fuchsia Dunlop recipes and settled on Qing Qing's Back-in-the-Pot Pork - yes it was the great title. The pork is twice cooked - first it's simmered in water until tender then later stir fried with lots of aromatics - ginger, loads of garlic, the salty tang of black beans, chilli of course and, in my case, chopped pak choy then finished with a couple of the spring onions and sesame oil. I'd done the first cooking in the morning so come Saturday night it was quick and easy to stir fry everything and serve the deeply fragrant result over mountains of steamed basmati rice.

Sunday I had a plan. My friend Catherine told me once that she occasionally makes mashed potato pie for supper. I was nonplussed - I have never come across the idea let alone tasted one and I couldn't imagine what the texture would be like - weirdly smooth with lumps of stuff, perhaps, or crunchy shell with a claggy middle? It also seemed possible that it would be the kind of deeply rich comfort dish that the man would love on first bite and remain smitten forever. I thought no more about it until I came across Anna del Conte's recipe for tortino di puré di patate - translates as baked potato purée with salame and mozzarella - surely nothing if not an Italian mashed potato pie? Given the surfeit of potato for the month and a mozzarella that needed using I could not resist. And so it came about that I served up a smooth rich, surprisingly dense potato purée studded with chunks of toscano salami and a top crisp with golden breadcrumbs alongside a very good salad of basil dressed asparagus and peas, finished with another of the spring onions, very finely chopped.

Monday I defrosted a litre of chicken stock - yes I am still on my Sisyphusian mission to clear the freezer! - to make a vaguely minestrone style soup with lots of vegetables and a handful of tiny pasta, topped with some of the wild garlic pesto. In my mind it was a hearty dish, so thick with vegetables it was practically stew and all of it richly rounded up with the pesto. What it ended up as was an oddly sweetish dish - I think from the combination of swede and carrot and the addition of a tin of tomatoes. The pesto helped but it was a disappointing meal, the more so as I had planned to finish it Tuesday for dinner but it wasn't good enough to do twice so it landed in the compost. I hated wasting those lovely vegetables.

Tuesday then had to be better! I still had lots of beetroot salad, plenty of carrots and the lettuce so I went with something I know well and make in almost never ending iterations - stuffed pita (had some in the freezer). I bought some lamb mince and made little balls with garlic, bhaharat spice mix and the last spring onion finely chopped. I turned a tin of chickpeas into cumin scented hummous, grated a carrot and mixed it with chopped dill and a splash of oil, and shredded the lettuce added a handful of sprouts and dressed it with a spoonful of yoghurt lightened with a dash of olive oil. Fried the balls, warmed the pita and consumed it all with the kind of intense delight you get from great food that was so much better than the last meal.

Wednesday used the last of the beetroot, carrots, lettuce and hummous with warm falafel and the last couple of slices of pita. At the end of the week we the vegetable bag is empty, I've been loving the wild garlic pesto as a new thing, been converted to mash potato pie and generally eaten very well.

Next week the bag contains the first of the salad potatoes which I'm delighted about. Also carrots, spring onions, celeriac, mixed salad, spring greens, a cucumber and white mushrooms - a challenge to use it all and use it well and find something new to make too.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Torta Pasqualina

Easter Egg Pie

Easter is all about celebrating spring and new life and the return of light and colour to the world after the bleakness and chill of a long dark winter. With four days off it's celebrated in a proper way, with time to make plans and do stuff and eat well. And eggs, of course. Easter is definitely about the eggs.

I had been vaguely thinking of roasting some lamb for the weekend, gently spiced perhaps with lots of roasted veg with plenty of meat leftover to add to butter bean mash and roasted peppers all the better to stuff wraps for easy eating. Not very eggy, tis true but definitely spring like. Then I read about this Italian Easter Pie and it stirred a vague memory of wanting to try it once and never getting round to it. I am a big fan of eggs whichever way you serve them and I was really taken with the idea of  the richish leafy cheese base studded with whole eggs before baking. I have signed up for a weekly veg box and this week there was spinach and spring onions amongst the treasure as well as radish and carrots for a crunchy salad. Perhaps the time had come.

In its original form it is a slightly complex construction with a lot of recipes assuming you will make the filo pastry. Seriously! They sell it ready made - rolled, boxed, frozen - in all good supermarkets and specialist food shops. For the true afficionado there should be 33 sheets of it, one for each year of Christ's life, plus a dozen eggs inserted, one for each of the apostles. I decided to simplify that bit of it too, but I definitely kept to the spirit of the pie and I'm glad to say it turned out beautifully.

In Italy it is made and served at the Easter Monday picnic - love the assumption that of course you will picnic on your day off. With all the eggs and greens and herby freshness this is a good dish for the whole of spring, I think, not just an Easter treat.

Torta Pasqualina

I used tarragon in the mix because I had some that needed using and it worked a treat though most recipes suggest marjoram and/or parsley,

25g dried mushrooms
1kg fresh spinach, big stalks discarded
50 butter
1 bunch spring onions, green and white parts chopped into small rings
1 tablespoon chopped tarragon - or marjoram or parsley
250g fresh ricotta
100g Parmesan, finely grated
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, freshly grated
8 eggs
Generous quantities of salt and pepper
250g packet filo pastry
2 tablespoons olive oil

Soak the dried mushrooms in boiling water for 20 minutes or so until they have softened. Drain and discard the soaking water.

Wash the spinach in plenty of cold water numerous times until all the dirt is gone. Melt half the butter in a large pan and add the still wet spinach, cover with a lid and turn the heat down. After a couple of minutes give it a stir to help it wilt and collapse then drain in a colander and allow to cool. Working with one small handful at a time, squeeze the excess liquid from the spinach then chop roughly. Put all the chopped spinach into a big bowl.

Melt the rest of the butter in the pan and add the mushrooms, frying for a few minutes till they take on the richness of the butter. Allow to cool a bit then chop the mushrooms finely and add them to the chopped spinach along with the spring onions, tarragon, ricotta, two thirds of the grated Parmesan, the nutmeg and 2 eggs and mix the lot into a rich green creamy slurry. Season generously.

Grease a 30cm spring form cake tin with a little olive oil then start to layer with a couple of sheets of filo, brushing each sheet with olive oil as you go. After 4 layers of pastry spoon in the spinach mixture then make six deep indentations with the back of a spoon. Carefully crack an egg and drop it into the first hole without breaking the yolk then do it five more times with the rest of the eggs till all the indentations are filled. Sprinkle the rest of the Parmesan over the yolks.

Gently cover the pie with the next sheet of filo, brush it with oil and continue till all the pastry is used, brushing the top with a good quantity of oil so that the pie will crisp up while it cooks.

Heat the oven to 180C and cook the pie for about an hour, till the filling is richly fragrant and the pastry is golden. Take it out of the oven and put it onto a wire rack, then carefully undo the catch on the spring form and take the outer circle off. Let the pie cool a bit - or completely - and serve with salad.