Wild Garlic Pesto

There is a large patch of wild garlic near where I live, about the size of a volleyball court. It is slightly hidden by a bush, but it isn’t tucked away, being just a few feet off a country path and yet nobody else seems to have discovered it. Or maybe they have, and just don’t know what it is…

More fool them, wild garlic is a highlight of spring for me, if only because it gives me the chance to make up a huge batch of wild garlic pesto.  I have made absolutely loads this year, which I have frozen in small quantities of a couple of tablespoonfuls each. It is absolutely divine mixed in with pasta with a little extra-virgin olive oil and a scraping of Parmesan, but it is also excellent for adding a mysterious, bright tang to soups and sauces, or just dilute it with extra-virgin olive oil and use as a dressing for salad.

It is so quick and easy to make there is absolutely no excuse for you not to try it, and it is one of those things that, once tasted, make you wonder why you ever bought pesto in a jar. The quantities given in the recipe make a large jar, if you want more just scale everything up in proportion.

Feel free to experiment with the nuts that you use, almost any nut will do the job – just make sure they are fresh otherwise their oils may be rancid, and make sure that the nuts that you use haven’t been coated or treated in any way, salty dry-roasted peanuts are delicious with a pint of beer but not so good in pesto.

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RECIPE – Makes a large jar

100g wild garlic

50g Parmesan, finely grated

50g hazelnuts, skinned & toasted

extra-virgin olive oil

lemon juice, to taste

sea salt & freshly ground black pepper


METHOD

Wash the wild garlic thoroughly and pick out any foliage (and insects) that don’t belong. Place in a food processor and blitz until fairly well chopped. If you don’t have a food processor then you can do the job using a knife, and make the final paste using a mortar and pestle.

Add the Parmesan and blitz again, then add the hazelnuts. When the nuts are added you will need to have your olive oil handy; turn the machine back on, and add the olive oil while blitzing to your desired consistency.

Add salt, pepper and lemon juice to taste.

This will keep for a couple of weeks in the fridge, and several months frozen.

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Wild Garlic and Spinach Soup

Spring is here in all but name, and with it comes one of the first delights of the year: wild garlic. Easily identifiable and quite prolific, it smells and tastes like a mild version of the more familiar garlic bulb. For hints and tips on how to find and identify it, see here.

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The season is short, just a few weeks, and it is already out there so now is the time to gather a few bagfuls, search out as many recipes as you can and wow your tastebuds. It makes a marvellous pesto, just substitute wild garlic for the basil leaves, and I also blitz it up with a little olive oil to make a paste, which I then freeze in an ice cube tray to make handy drop-in condiments to enliven soups and light sauces.

Here is a quick and easy – and deeply delicious – soup recipe to get you started. It comes out a vivid emerald green and if it isn’t the freshest soup you will ever taste then I’ll eat my own arm.

To make it vegan just substitute 3 tbsp olive oil for the butter.


RECIPE – Serves 4

2 leeks, trimmed, washed and finely sliced

1 medium potato, peeled and diced

50g unsalted butter

a splash of olive oil

300g fresh baby-leaf spinach

200g wild garlic leaves

1 litre pale vegetable stock


METHOD

Melt the butter with a splash of olive oil in a large saucepan, add the leeks and potato and soften gently for 5 minutes or so. Add the vegetable stock, then simmer for 15 minutes until the potato is soft.

Add the spinach and wild garlic, put a lid on the pan and leave it for a couple of minutes to wilt down; you will probably need to do this a couple of handfuls at a time. When all the leaves are wilted, transfer it to a blender (or use a stick blender) to blitz it to a smooth soup. Check and adjust the seasoning, then serve. It’s as easy as that.

You can serve this soup with a poached egg on top, which adds a deliciousness creamy unctuousness and makes it suitable for a light lunch, or just with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and some toasted sourdough. You can also dress it with the flowers, which are edible and also delicious.

Apple and Sweet Chestnut Crifle

Sweet chestnuts are everywhere at this time of year. Walk in any park, anywhere in England, and you are likely to find yourself amid a carpet of spiky green chestnut cases. Crack them open (with your foot – it’s impossible to open them with your hands without getting spiked) and you will find… well, not exactly a bounty. The vast majority of sweet chestnuts that grow wild here just aren’t big enough to bother with. By the time you have roasted them, peeled them and removed the inner husk you are left with a few grams of nothing much.

To my delight, the other day we were walking the dog and happened upon a feast of good-sized sweet chestnuts. They were as fat as conkers so we filled our pockets – but what to do with them? Digging through the books I found a recipe for sweet chestnut and apple puree (thanks, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall) which was delicious, but needed something else alongside it to make a proper dessert. My solution was to stew some more apples, get some creme fraiche to cut through the sweetness, and a handful of ready-made granola to add some crunch and create a store-cupboard delight that I’m sure Nigella would be happy with. It’s not quite a trifle, not quite a fool, and a bit like a trifle, so Crifle it is. You will probably need to buy some cooked whole chestnuts, but they are easily obtainable from supermarkets.

We love it, it didn’t last long.

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RECIPE – serves 8 as a dessert

For the chestnut and apple puree:

200g cooked chestnuts

300g eating apples, peeled, cored and sliced

25g unsalted butter

150ml apple juice

25g caster sugar

For the stewed apples:

3 medium eating apples, peeled, cored and sliced

1 cooking apple, peeled, cored and sliced

1 tbsp caster sugar

50ml apple juice

For the crifle:

200g creme fraiche

1 good handful of ready-made granola


METHOD 

If preparing your own chestnuts: heat the oven to 180C/ gas 4. Cut a cross in each chestnut (otherwise they will explode in the oven), place on a roasting tray and roast for 20 minutes. Upon removal from the oven, brace yourself and peel off the tough outer skins and lighter furry husks inside. Why do you have to brace yourself? Because it is impossible to peel them when they have cooled so you have to peel them hot, and it’s a bit painful! It is worth it though…

To make the chestnut and apple puree: put the chestnuts, apples, butter, apple juice and caster sugar into a saucepan, melt together and bring to a gentle simmer, stirring often, for about 20 minutes until the apples are soft. Allow to cool slightly then blitz to a puree using either a stick blender or a freestanding blender. Set aside to cool completely.

Now make the stewed apples: put all the apples, sugar and apple juice in a saucepan and bring to a gentle simmer for 15-20 minutes. The eating apples should be just soft, and the cooking apple should have reduced itself to a mush. Tip into the bottom of a glass trifle bowl, or similar, and allow to cool completely.

When the stewed apples and the puree are cool, spread the puree over the stewed apples in an even layer. Now spread the creme fraiche over the puree in another thin, even layer. Top with a good handful of granola, scattered all over the top.

Nettle Soup

My wife and I have developed a keen interest in foraging over the past couple of years, driven by our curiosity about all the plants we saw while out walking our dog. We knew that some were edible, but apart from the obvious – nettles, wild fennel, elderflower, cherries – we didn’t have a clue which would taste great and which might kill us. We now know that there are a fair few that will kill you, and wherever you live you are very likely within half a mile of a common poisonous plant.

Foraging is a huge subject, endlessly interesting and a great way of filling anything from an hour up to a whole weekend (or more), but well beyond the scope of anything I can write. The potential dangers are such that I recommend that you book onto a half- or one-day foraging course where under expert guidance you will learn to find, identify and cook a huge variety of wild food. If you live anywhere near Hampshire, Dorset or Wiltshire, or you are willing to travel, I can unreservedly recommend James Feaver of Hedgerow Harvest who runs excellent courses in seashore, hedgerow and fungus foraging. You can find him here: www.hedgerow-harvest.com

One plant we can all safely identify is the common stinging nettle, and if you want to discover just how good wild food can be then this simple and delicious dish is the place to start.

To gather stinging nettles all you will need is a carrier bag, a pair of scissors, a pair of stout gloves and clothing offering enough protection to ward off the stings. The nettles you are looking for are the young leaves and the tops of the plants, in other words the leaves shooting off thin stems which you will most likely find in the spring – though if you live in an area where hedgerows get cut back then you will probably find new growth throughout the summer. Avoid thick stems and old tough leaves, they are not good to eat. Also avoid nettles that directly border paths where dogs are walked – though it is a brave dog who will cock a leg on a nettle I am sure it happens. Instead, push back a couple of feet where the nettles will be undisturbed by canine activity – that is why you need stout gloves and heavy clothing.

Passers-by may well think you’re mad, but once you’ve gathered your nettles and made this soup you will very probably ignore what others think and go nettle foraging again and again.


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RECIPE – to feed 6

 

1/2 a carrier bag of young nettle leaves and tops

50g unsalted butter

1 tbsp olive oil

1 large onion, roughly chopped

1 large carrot, roughly chopped

2 fat garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

1 litre vegetable stock

1 large potato, diced into 1cm cubes

1/2 nutmeg, finely grated

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


METHOD

The standard unit of measurement for nettles is the carrier bag; you don’t need to be accurate, but the more you gather the more flavour you will get. When you get them home, wash them thoroughly, pick out anything that doesn’t belong and leave to drain. As long as the stems are thin then you don’t need to strip the leaves off, it will all blitz up and every part of the plant gives you flavour.

Gently sweat the onion, carrot and garlic in the oil and butter, in a large heavy-bottomed pan, with the lid on. After 10-15 minutes the onion should be soft but not coloured, and the carrot should be softening. And the stock and the potato, then pile the nettles on top and carefully push them down; they will wilt and lose volume, and as soon as they start to cook they will lost their sting. Bring to the boil, then simmer for around 20 minutes, until the potatoes are cooked.

Leave to cool for a few minutes, just so it is a little safer to handle, then add the nutmeg and blitz until it is perfectly smooth using a stick blender, or pour into a jug blender – you will need to do it in several batches if using a jug blender.

Season to taste with salt and pepper and garnish with a little creme fraiche or double cream, some chopped chives (wild if you can get them) or similar foraged plants such as crow garlic or wild leeks (see, you’ll need to get onto a foraging course now!)

You can also make this using wild garlic in place of the garlic cloves, though the season is very short – just a few weeks in early spring. If you do manage to gather some wild garlic then add a dozen or so leaves to the nettles and use the wild garlic flowers as a garnish – they are quite crunchy and taste like delicate garlic, quite delicious.

To make it vegan just use olive oil and omit the butter.