Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Weeds




January slugs by and the rains continue. Mme Hen Harrier is ensconced in the twisted branches of the liquid amber waiting to pounce on another chicken but fortunately the rest of my brood have beady eyes and no gaudy head-dresses. Brainless, male hunters wander the forests and fields dressed as lollipop ladies, yawping into their mobile phones as they stalk the last deer and boar. Peach trees have buds. The mimosa is ready to bloom. Golden crocus's and narcisse already are.  With no real winter holding it back, I think Spring is already in the air!
Next week I really hope for a few dry days to to begin the winter cleanup of the garden. Right now the soil is rather sodden and liquid-like and even to attempt sticking a fork like tool, 20cm in the soil, would cause havoc. Along with all my stick-like rotting plants that I have been lazy about removing (as winter is about resting tired bones, doing bloody nothing, gathering strength for a new season and reading books and keeping warm), I have a thousand types of weeds which have found a niche in the straw mulch or are happily hiding behind my mustard and phacelia cover crops and due to our mild winter, are growing sturdy and strong.
Apart from rocket and mustard greens which I planted myself and are by this time of the year running thin, buttery lambs lettuce/mâche is everywhere. I grew it about four years ago as a winter cover crop and couldn't eat it all so it seeded and returns for an annual visit when I most need it.




Vitamin flush, chickweed grows freely in mats where there is space and shade and is my favourite of all weeds because its so easy to remove when needs be, in one sharp tug.




Baby borage are still popping up where they can, fuzz free and brimming with oily goodness.


Golden calendula flowers, although never a weed, are surviving where the sun hits a south facing wall and despite being one of the few flowers left in the garden, their petals are being devoured before being visually appreciated.


Peppery persian land cress is not exactly what one would call a  weed but keeps returning no matter how much I cut it back and as my definition of a weed is often a plant I can safely eat without having to care for it, in drowsy january, it falls right into that category. This has to be my favourite of all green things and its all I need to go with a thick slice of Jean-Michel's foie gras and a minerally bottle of Jaquesson champagne to celebrate something rather confidential later this evening.


Cathartic ground ivy seems to be far too content in our garden as it has taken over from grass as our lawn coverage. On sunny days, there is a new growth of small tender leaves that can be offered to the daily green bowl but I just can't eat enough to help the grass to renew itself.


Red arroche has germinated, wildish fennel and spotty lettuce are growing independently,  dandelion leaves and petals are tender, cucumber flavoured salad burnet is in full array, cleavers are holding on...







Of course, there are plenty of other leaves waiting to be eaten but their gustative qualities leave a lot to be desired and I don't really eat things just because they "could be good for me". Food is more than just fuel and theres a lot more than fuel around to appreciate now...


Borage


Friday, 20 January 2012

Leeks





Leeks are my bona fida winter vegetable. Now that the rest of the garden has collapsed into a brown, rotting mess of stems and root after those first frosts, my hardy leeks are still upright and hanging on, proud and green against the dullness of winter. 
Right now I need an industrial crane to extract them from the rock-hard soil. Armed with the right tools and covered from head to toe in pillowed plastic to protect myself against the rain torrents, I spent a good hour this morning pulling five leeks, one by one just to get the lunchtime soup on the table.






They were delicious with potatoes, cream and chives as we huddled before the fire. 
On our return from Ireland yesterday evening, Mailhos was bathed in rain outside and less than 12°C inside. By late evening, after the stove was lit and fireplace raging, temperatures had risen to 13° and we were forced to early bed, wearing woollen bonnets and scarves. I'm the kind of girl who dislikes heated sleeping spaces but last night was beyond cold. I was woken by my nose actually freezing or so cold that there was no more blood circulating within.  Temperatures can vary from room to room in Mailhos but I suppose no matter how hard I try, I will never make a good Inuit - I neither have the blubber beneath the skin nor the wish to endure. This morning we woke to a warmer living space and leek soup has animated our bones and muscles. Temperatures are now reaching a decent 16° and we are both content.
... so back to leeks!
I love them in soup but also just gently cooked with a little butter and  never burnt before serving with almost anything. I add them to fish pie with some cod or pollack or soak them in a traditional wine vinaigrette after steaming. They can also replace onions in any dish that calls for the red ones as they possess the same sweetness but most importantly they don't make you cry.
My frittata below is marbled green and gold when sliced. The leeks are sweet, the borage is oily and minerally while the eggs are just divine...


Frittata of Leek and Borage

4 people

4 small Leeks 
A small bunch of Borage leaves (Spinach is of course optional)
30g Butter
Olive Oil
8 lightly beaten Eggs
2 cloves of Garlic
1tbsp chopped Parsley
1tbsp chopped Mint
30g grated Sheeps' Cheese
20g Breadcrumbs
Sea Salt and Pepper

Preheat a grill or an oven to 200°/6.
Cut off the green tops of the leeks and slice the white parts into thin rounds. Soak in a little water to remove any soil or sand. Trim the thick stalks from the borage leaves and chop coarsely. 
Boil a small frying pan of water with a pinch of salt and add the borage leave. Cook for one minute or until slightly wilted. Drain and shake out the excess moisture.
In a thick-bottomed saute pan, heat the butter and a tablespoon of olive oil. Add the leeks and cook for about 8 minutes or until transparent and tender. Add the borage leaves and mix well together. Cook gently for another minute. Remove from the heat and leave to cool in a separate bowl.
When the vegetable have cooled down, add the eggs, garlic, herbs, cheese, breadcrumbs and season well. Mix well together.
Add another 2 tablespoons of olive oil to the saute pan and place on the heat. Add the egg mixture and cook over a gentle heat, stirring the mixture as the curds form. Stop mixing and leave to cook slowly until all but the top is cooked. 
Place under the hot grill or in the oven and leave just until the top starts to turn golden brown. Remove from the heat. Leave to rest 1 minute and then place a plate over the pan and turn the frittata into the plate. Cut into wedges and serve warmish.






Rest in Peace dear Caty the chicken who was swooped up by a hen harrier in our absence. As she was blinded by her dutch designed feather headdress, she probably saw nothing of the impending disaster. May her next life be visible and calm!






Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Cavola Nero






Kale has an image problem. Most people think of caterpillars, starvation soups and school-kitchen smells of rotting leaves but it is in fact the oldest and most venerable cabbage, closest cousin to the wild cabbagy plants that grow on the adriatic and mediterranean. The wild one was domesticated sometime in the BC era and has given rise to plants as varied as the kohlrabi, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts and of the course the kale. Kale was the most popular green vegetable on the continents until cabbage arrived on the scene and today, in the Bearn, because of its association with rations and war wounds has been forgotten and left to decorate the roundabouts between Salies and Sauveterre de Bearn or the borders of municipal gardens. A sad history for this heartless yet generous cabbage leaf, teeming with vitamins and minerals, bloated with antioxidants and deliciousness. 





Kale has helped us Europeans survive the coldest of winters since the earliest of times, as they are not only resistant to frost, but like the parsnip, their taste improves with a sharp burst of cold as the starch is reduced to sugar. I remember after a hard winter in our family garden, it was the only vegetable still standing when everything else was rotting and black. It is the true survivor of all vegetables.





Over the years, I've tried growing them all; the frizzy leafed westlandse, the purple napini, the lacinato rainbow and even a red ursa but the only kale that I can love with a frenzy is the Cavola Nero or black palm kale with its rippling pillows of dark green and dusky blue leaves growing almost as high as myself. The plumes of heavily fringed leaves are so lovely, I believe I would grow them even if their taste was not so singular. 
The young leaves are soft and tender like spring greens while the older are tougher but stronger flavoured and need cooking to remove their slight bitterness.  While a savoy cabbage is harvested as a whole head, kale leaves can be picked individually on an "as-you-need-it" basis and its commendable to pick them as such, as a harvested leaf loses its distinctive flavour with time.



Kale is most intrepid member of the cabbage family with a well-deserved reputation for being able to grow almost anywhere. I plant them between the rose bushes or beds of cosmos, spread out among the garden beds as I would a ornamental plant. 
And now when the morning frosts are heaviest, the cavola nero stands elegant against the frost, white garden as its character sweetens in the cold. The garden has a lot left to harvest with jerusalem artichokes, brussels sprouts, parsnips, broccoli, turnips, cress, carrots, beetroot, lambs lettuce, sorrel, coriander, chervil, chard, leeks, mustard, parsnips, red cabbage, cauliflower, kohlrabi, celeriac and borage. Very soon we will have seeds germinating in the greenhouse and the season starting again. As they say in France "le boucle est bouclé" or we will have made another full circle...
Cavola Nero, once cooked, takes on the most vivid colour and is pureed with garlic and pine nuts to accompany a lamb chop or served on pasta. Steamed and tossed in butter, fried with ventreche or fennels seeds and garlic and scattered with a mildish dried chilli, or added to a puree of creamy potatioes with butter, salt and pepper, irish style...



Della’s (my mother) Kale Colcannon

4 people

500g fresh Kale
150g Butter
2 slices or salted Ventreche, cut into cubes
6 Spring Onions, thinly sliced
4 large floury Potatoes
Sea salt and Pepper


Cook the kale in a large pan of salted, boiling water for 5 minutes. Drain well and chop finely. Keep warm.
Put the 3tbsp of butter in a frying pag over a moderate heat and add the bacon. Cook until golden. Add the spring onions and cook for a further 2 minutes. Stir in the kale to absorb the flavours and remove the pan from the heat.
Peel the potatoes and chop into evenly-sized pieces. Put the potatoes in a large saucepan and cover with cold water and a add a pinch of salt. Bring to the boil and cook for 20 minutes or until soft. Drain well and return to the saucepan. Add the rest of the butter and mash well then beat with a wooden sppon until smooth.
Add the kalé mixture to the potatoes and stir well. Serve with grilled pork, sausages or just alone with even more butter on the side...
Off to Ireland tomorrow and will return the photo...!









Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Parsnip





There is an expression in English, “kind words butter no parsnips” and in these times of crisis, when kind words are pretty much all that we have left, a parsnip should have a greater part of our diet. The French jilted them once the potato arrived on the scene and the Italians don’t even acknowledge their existence (excepting the pigs bred for Parma ham who are often fed on a diet of such nourishing roots). Quite laughable when you think that it was the Romans who were partial to their taste and imported them from Gaul or central France.
And they were quite right too. The parsnip is a wonderful, versatile and rustic vegetable; broad shouldered, well-rounded and pointy at the tip. As a child, this winter, sweet vegetable was as important in our diet as the potato and was a regular evening meal; boiled and mashed with carrots, butter, salt and pepper.
They have been cultivated, by us humans for over 2000 years and over the centuries were seen as a nutritious and staple food and before sugar was widely available, a parsnip was used to sweeten jam and cakes. They lost their popularity once the potato came on the scene and sugar became more attainable so its now rare to find a parsnip outside northern Europe.
Little by little the parsnip is becoming more popular within the french organic movement and from time to time they can be found on market stalls, in the organic, delivered boxes of the AMAP or the local veg box scheme and the seeds are now easier to find. I once heard that industrial farmers hate the root because the seeds take forever to germinate and then langor for months before producing a decent vegetable - modern farming demands speed and productivity  which the old parsnip is just not up to.




When I first arrived in Mailhos, I had such a hard time finding seeds that would survive the dryer, warmer summers of southern France. Once found, it took a couple of years to get the soil just right so their long, dangling roots could spread and look like a parsnip when harvested. For a few seasons, I was pulling up gnarled, stubby, split roots held back in their development by the lumpy, clay soil of the Bearn. This is my first winter of success! 





The roots are creamy with a single, long root and ready to eat after a night or two of christmas frost which intensifies the sweetness and flavour by breaking down the starch. The flesh is now sugar-sweet and juicy and waiting to be roasted. 
I have enough in the ground to get us through January and February and by March, I will be craving green leaves, red fruit and beans and root season will be over for a while.
Parsnips need to be roasted in butter, mashed to a puree with fresh cream and served with roasted meats and sausages and a spicy, buttery soup will brace us for the cold and damp winters days that lie ahead.






Ginger and Parsnip Soup

6 people

2 large Parsnips
1 medium chopped Onion 
2 crushed cloves of Garlic
100g Butter
1tsp ground Cumin
1tsp ground Coriander
15g grated fresh Ginger
A pinch of dried Chilli
1.5 litres of Chicken Stock
150ml Cream (optional)
A small bunch of chopped Chives
Sea Salt and Pepper

Peel and slice the parsnip roughly. Melt the butter in a thick-bottomed saucepan and fry the onion and garlic until transparent and soft. Add the parsnip, ginger and spices and coat well in the buttery onions. Incorporate the chicken stock gradually and simmer until the parsnip is cooked. Liquidise or push through a mouli legumes.
Return to the pan and season with salt and pepper, then add the cream, sprinkle with the chopped chives and serve.


Happy New Year from the Mailhos family...