Apple and Blackberry Crumble

When I need a recipe that is fuss-free and easy, yet guaranteed to be delicious, Nigel Slater is who I generally turn to. He’s an ace at puddings. This is mainly, I think, because he uses lots of what makes them lovely. That makes sense, you don’t eat the dessert course if you are on a diet so why take half-measures when you are allowed?

As I put this into the oven, my wife came up behind me and asked if I had followed the recipe exactly. I had indeed. “You used all the butter? And all the sugar?” Again, I had indeed. I don’t see the point in denying the pleasure of eating something as wickedly rich as this, especially when it’s cold and miserable and you just know that this will make you happy. This made all of us happy, so happy that I’m making another later today…

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RECIPE 

450g cooking apples

a little caster sugar

450g blackberries (fresh picked are always best)

100g plain flour

175g fridge-cold unsalted butter

50g rolled oats

100g demerara sugar


METHOD

Heat your oven to 200C/ 180C fan/ gas 6.

Peel, core and cut the apples into eighths. Put them into a large pan with a good pinch of caster sugar and a tablespoon of water, then cook over a medium heat for around 5 minutes until they start to soften. Add the blackberries and mix thoroughly, then transfer everything to a suitably-sized pie dish.

Chop the cold butter into small cubes and put into a food processor with the flour. Pulse the processor until the butter and flour resembles breadcrumbs, taking care not to go too far – we are making crumble after all, not dough. Stir in the oats and sugar and scatter the crumble topping over the apple and blackberry mixture.

Bake for around 30 minutes until the jammy interior is bubbling through a crisp, golden topping. It’s wonderful hot, or warm, with ice cream or cream – and definitely not for anyone on a diet.

You can vary this almost infinitely, changing the fruit, and incorporating slivered pistachios or chopped pecans into the crumble, or using granola instead of rolled oats. Whatever you try, I’m sure you’ll love it.

Linguine with Salmon and Samphire

We are not hardened foragers in our house, though we do gather spring nettles for soup and beer, mushrooms (when we are 100% sure what we are faced with – we did a course and I highly recommend it if you want to pick and eat wild mushrooms and survive the experience), blackberries (of course) and many spring and summer greens such as wild garlic and wild leeks. There is still real abundance to be found, if you know what you are looking for.

Rule number one for a successful forager is: never tell anyone where you gather. If you do, then the chances are, when you visit next, the word will have got around and your spot will have been stripped bare.

The other day we were strolling along a fairly popular but rocky beach, when we spotted a small bunch of rock samphire. We were overjoyed and took only a couple of good handfuls. A little further along we were astonished to find another, bigger bunch, and beyond that it was growing in abundance – so much for leaving some behind for nature, we could have filled a carrier bag and still have left 95% of what was growing there. I still won’t tell you where we found it though…

Samphire comes in two main types: marsh samphire, which is like eating the sea and can be found on fish counters in supermarkets now, and rock samphire which is less salty but more citrussy. Either will do for this recipe, though the results will be quite different depending on which you use. The marsh samphire is more vibrant, whereas the rock samphire has an exquisite, delicate fragrance.

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RECIPE serves 4

approx 250g marsh or rock samphire

400g linguine or spaghetti

olive oil

a good knob of unsalted butter

4 salmon fillets

the zest and juice of a lemon


METHOD

Pick over and wash the samphire, roughly chop any large pieces, then set aside.

Pat the salmon fillets dry, season lightly and set aside for now.

In a large pan of lightly salted boiling water, cook the linguine or spaghetti per packet instructions until al dente, this will take around nine or ten minutes.

Meanwhile, heat a skillet or frying pan over a high-medium flame until hot (but not smoking), drizzle the pan with a little oil, pop half of the the knob of butter in the pan as well, add the salmon skin-side down and fry for around two minutes until the skin is crispy, basting all the while with the melted butter and oil. Don’t be tempted to try and move the fish around in the pan, this is the most common mistake when frying fish. Just leave it to sit in place, the skin will release from the pan when it is ready. Flip over and sear the other side for around 30 seconds, then remove from the pan and rest over kitchen paper until the pasta is ready.

Drain the pasta, leaving it wet with a good slick of the cooking water. Return it to the cooking pan and add the samphire and remaining butter with a generous grinding of black pepper. Toss well and then add the lemon zest and juice. Check the seasoning now, it makes a huge difference to the finished dish and you may need more salt than you think.

From here I like to serve the pasta in bowls with the whole salmon fillet on top – my wife likes the crispy skin. You can however remove the cooked skin and flake the salmon while the pasta is finishing (leave the flakes large) and toss through the pasta with the samphire if you prefer.

Served alongside a large bowl of rocket leaves, lightly dressed with  fresh lemon juice.

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.

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.