Eat / Gift / Grow

Eat me #1: First harvest of the season

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Carrots and radishes at 4-6 weeks

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Sorrel, rocket and mixed leaf (from bottom to top of image) at 4-6 weeks
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Strawberries grown in a windowbox at 4-6 weeks
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Swede, carrots and spring onions (from bottom to top of image) at 4-6 weeks

 OK, I may be a little over-excited and proud-motherly about my first crop of the season, but lunchtime brought with it the first meal enhanced by the garden’s delights (herbs aside). As the year progresses, meals will become increasingly sourced from the garden, with bought ingredients purely to supplement the home-grown produce. Now, it’s more a case of adding things to dishes as garnishes – but you still get the lovely feeling of eating something you’ve grown yourself.

 Yield to date has been:
  • Two strawberries (grown in a windowbox indoors which was originally my Pimms planter but the cucumber got killed off by the frost* and the mint has gone on the offensive soI’m waiting until I have more developed plants to play with, and am going to create a Pimms raised bed instead, with lots of space for the mint. I’d forgotten how greedy cucumbers are, and how much love and attention they need. I may even make a water-bottle greenhouse to contain the Pimms garden: the cucumbers seem to need greenhouse love, strawberries thrive in the heat (and will be protected from slugs, snails and birds without the faff and ugliness of nets – though I am toying with the idea of glittery netting to make it less offensive on the eye – or more offensive on the eye, depending on your attitude towards kitsch and girliness) and the mint is so forgiving that it’ll thrive anywhere.
  • 12 baby radishes (only nine pictured because they’re so tasty that we couldn’t resist snaffling a few straight from the garden).
  • Two baby carrots. OK, technically these are too small to really count as produce and I could have just re-planted them to let them grow bigger, but they tasted delicious, and the carrots needed thinning out (of which more at a later date) so it wasn’t a waste.
  • Generous amounts of baby spinach and mixed leaf, plus microherb sized sorrel, which is utterly delicious (though so delicious I’m determined not to eat it all at this stage as it makes a great salad ingredient in quantity). I photographed it in its beds as the only way to eat home-grown leaves is picked then put on the plate as soon after picking as you can. I’ve often headed out into the garden with a torch just before serving food to friends so that they get the produce at its very freshest and sweetest.

One of the strawberries was promptly cut in half and shared with a friend. While it was tasty, a bit more sun would have made it sweeter so I’m leaving the other one on the plant for a few more days, conducting the ‘sniff test’ to establish when it’s reached perfection. Once it smells like the sweetest strawberry jam in the world, but with added freshness, it’ll go the way of its strawberry sibling. While strawberries are great for cooking, at this time of year when there are onlyone or two around, simplicity is best.

The carrots were dispatched in a similar manner to the strawberries. The radishes and leaves, however, were abundant enough to make a lovely light lunch. The lemon tang of sorrel teamed with the peppery rocket and baby radishes (which packed an impressive punch despite their size) provide the perfect counterpoint to chicken, folded with mayonnaise and spread over Real Patisserie bread. Here’s the recipe (OK, it’s only a posh sandwich but dishes will get more complicated as I have more fruit and veg to play with.)

Smoked chicken with sorrel and rocket mayonnaise

Ingredients

Smoked chicken (if you can’t get amazing smoked chicken** and can only get slimy mass-produced stuff, opt for hunks of fresh chicken pulled from the remnants of the Sunday roast carcas instead.)
Egg yolk(s)
Lemon juice to taste (remember the sorrel is lemony so don’t go mad)
Sunflower oil (don’t use extra-virgin olive oil as it will make your eventual mayonaisse bitter and overly-peppery so it’s a waste. If you like the taste of olive oil, use the mildest one you can find instead.)
20-30 baby sorrel leaves (cut them from the garden once you’ve made the mayonnaise base to preserve maximum flavour)
10-20 rocket leaves (ditto)
Baby radishes (to garnish)
Bread (see below)

Method

Put the egg yolk and lemon juice in a bowl and beat them together. If you’ve previously had mayonnaise-curdling issues, you can always cheat by putting half a teaspoon of shop bought mayonnaise in with the egg yolks and lemon juice and beating it into the mixture before you start slowly adding the oil. This will help it emulsify and save your wrist a bit of effort.

There are no specific amounts to this recipe as it depends on the size of your egg yolk, how many you’re using, how much mayonnaise you want to make and how thick you want your mayo (the more oil you use the thicker it’ll be). The only rule is to add the oil a drop at a time until it starts emulsifying properly and beat it in thoroughly before adding the next drop of oil (as the mayo starts thickening, you can pour the oil in a steady drizzle but take it slow to start with.) Obviously, a hand blender makes this much easier so don’t feel bad about saving your wrists.

Rip the rocket and sorrel (don’t cut it as you’ll bruise the leaves) and fold into to the mayonnaise. Stir thoroughly to allow the sorrel and rocket to transfer their flavour to the mayonnaise (ideally leave it to sit, covered, in a fridge for half an hour or so to really allow the flavours to leach out). If you’re into foraging, Jack-by-the-Hedge (also known as Garlic Mustard) and Wild Garlic (also known as Ramsons) are both in season so you could throw in a few leaves of either too (thoroughly washing them first) to a delicious garlicky edge to your mayonnaise.

To serve, you have various options.

You can spread the mayonnaise onto a piece of baguette or rye bread then layer your smoked chicken over the top and use the baby radishes to garnish  the open sandwich (don’t mix radishes into the mayo unless you want it to turn an unappealing pink colour – though if you have a small child going through the ‘pink’ phase, this can be a good way to get them to eat some veg as long as you use shop bought mayonnaise so there’s no risk from the raw egg).

You can add the roughly ripped roast chicken into the mayo mix, then slather the whole lot thickly between two slices of granary bread with any fresh salad leaves you have in the garden.

You can make melba toast (get floppy white bread from the shops, toast it, split along the middle of the bread so you have two very thin square/rectangular pieces of bread, then cut off the crusts, cut it into triangles and put under the grill, non-toasted side up, until the edges curl. Watch it every second as I’ve lost count of the amount of Melba toast that’s been binned as a result of an ill-timed phone call or wandering mind.) Serve the Melba toast alongside your chicken mixture in a ramekin (again, garnished with baby radishes) so that guests can pile it onto Melba toast themselves (cut the chicken into smaller pieces if you’re planning on this option – it’s a lovely seasonal starter).

Or you can serve the mayonnaise with smoked salmon instead as the lemon/pepper flavours will make an equally lovely match. Either way, make sure you only season the mayonnaise with salt and pepper once you’ve combined all the ingredients, including the chicken or salmon, as otherwise the salt in the smoked meat/fish and pepper in the rocket might throw your seasoning off.

Other options for the mayo include serving it in a home-made chicken burger; using it to dress a potato salad and serving with smoked trout (though nasturtim leaves, caper and baby spring onion becomes my favourite dressing for potato salad once they come into season, and goes amazingly with smoked trout and quails eggs); or using as an alternative to Hollandaise sauce with fresh asparagus. Enjoy!

* The cucumber died from frost even though it was on a windowsill indoors! Don’t assume just because something is inside it’s safe from frost unless you have double glazing – and be aware things can get overheated too, so pay as much attention to the seedlings indoors as to the fruit and veg outside, if you have both.

**If you don’t smoke your own fish and chicken (I haven’t yet but am planning on it later in the year, once I’ve got a smoker to play with) buy it from a decent source. Inarawe has long been my preferred supplier for all things smoked – their gift hampers are particularly wonderful, teaming delicious food with classy packaging at a very reasonable price. I’m currently pining after the Celebration Basket which includes smoked salmon, smoked chicken, smoked trout pate, smoked cheese and oatcakes, with chocolates for dessert (throw in a bottle of fizz and some salad, and you’ve got the perfect classy picnic – good enough for an alternative wedding feast if you’re planning an outdoor wedding, as one basket will easily serve two people, if not more, in style, making it £20 per head). Their Gourmet Box contains smoked Brie which sounds intriguing, and comes in a basket that could double as a gardener’s trug; and their Picnic Basket comes with two bottles of wine plus smoked mussels and caviar, so is high on the ‘impressive’ factor too.

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