Autumn 2014

Wow, this year’s seasons were a bit all over the place weren’t they? Firstly spring arrived very early and immediately turned into summer, then summer itself decided to go on holidays and the temperatures remained rather low, then late summer washed out into autumn, and since the beginning of September, summer reared its head again and it’s been gloriously warm and dry with temperatures in the low to mid 20s. This week, it is definitely feels like autumn with the lower temperatures, especially the chilly mornings and evenings.

The last tomatoes

All this meant that this year’s produce arrived about a month early. And, the inter-seasonal marriages resulted in some super tasty crossovers: mushrooms appeared in mid summer (the early rain did have its advantages) and I just harvested strawberries last week! Strawberries in October! So this is a great time to take advantage of the crossover between very late summer harvests and autumn offerings. Think berries with orchard fruit, nightshade vegetables with the squash family and mushrooms with salad. Ottolenghi’s ratatouille pretty much sums up my summer/autumn kitchen right now. Make a huge batch and enjoy for a couple of days (it tastes even better the next day).

Of course, now is also the time to preserve (or just freeze) tomatoes using the end-of-season glut. Last year I made a lot of tomato chutney, but this year, ketchup took over my kitchen. For a sugar free version, try substituting dates or honey, both work perfectly. I always use Jamie Oliver’s ketchup recipe, and I don’t add extra water as the tomatoes are juicy enough in themselves and more liquid just means extra boiling time. Just think, when you’re in the deep dark depths of winter, this flavourful ketchup will transport you back to the wonderful sunny days we’ve had this year…..

Some tasty things to enjoy right now:
Fruit: new harvest apples, pears, quinces
Nuts: walnuts and hazelnuts
Vegetables: cauliflower, broccoli, romanesco, all cabbages, pumpkin, leeks and very late seasons green beans, zucchinis and tomatoes
All wild mushrooms!

beans

Photos: tomatoes ripening in the autumn sun on my terrace, and early autumn beans from De Oude Boerderij

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Rhubarb

Rhubarb

Rhubarb

This year in the Netherlands, spring came rather early. We’ve had already many warm sunny days in March and April which I hope don’t run out later in the summer. What a huge change from 2013 where at this time last year, we were still cocooned in winter jackets and it was snowing at Easter. Winter seemed as if it would never leave.

The gardens have been loving this early warm weather, although a little more rain would have been ideal. As I mentioned in my last post, spring is always a difficult season in terms of fresh harvest but the first radishes and lettuces have already made it to the kitchen and the seedlings for the summer vegetables are growing fast.

In the last few weeks, I’ve been enjoying one of my two favourite Dutch spring ingredients: rhubarb! (white asparagus is the other one) Indulge in rhubarb now until early summer. Lucky for us, rhubarb loves to grow in colder climates – I will remember to be grateful for this next time I’m complaining about the cold. I always look forward to spotting the exquisite pink and red stalks at the market and I just can’t resist buying rhubarb because it looks so beautiful. We tend to see more pink and red rhubarb for sale because it’s more popular with consumers but green rhubarb is equally tasty and the colour makes no difference to the taste – well it can’t get any more sour! Choose firm unblemished stalks and discard the leaves.

I discovered rhubarb only a few years ago but now I’m making up for lost time and look for any opportunity to include its sour explosion in my spring dishes. Traditionally rhubarb was used in sweet dishes but it works equally well as an accompaniment for savoury dishes – think smoked mackerel or roast pork. Rhubarb loves to be paired with orange and spices like cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cardamom, and vanilla, and when the first strawberries are ready, you know what to make – strawberry and rhubarb pie and jam! It’s lovely as a compote or poached whole in the oven with a sprinkling of sugar – use the leftover juice in a gorgeous sparkling drink or cocktail. Spring just got better!

PS I love Nigel Slater’s rhubarb recipes: see herehere and here.

Kale

Boerenkool

Make friends with kale.

You’re probably wondering why I’m writing a post about kale on the warmest day of the year so far in the Netherlands. Winter seems far behind us and spring is already in the air. After all, kale is a vegetable eaten during the cold, dark hours of winter. Well, if you look outside in the fields and allotments right now, you’ll notice there’s not a whole lot growing in the ground. Perhaps a handful of vegetables of which the trusty kale is one.

This time of year was traditionally known as the ‘Hungry Gap’, a time when last summer/autumn’s stored harvest were dwindling or fast deteriorating and the first spring vegetables would not appear until May. While greenhouses and all-year food at supermarkets have pretty much bridged the 21st century hungry gap, it’s still a tricky time for seasonal locally-grown food – yes the daffodils and blossoms are now in bloom but many vegetable plants aren’t ready to plant yet and the berries and fruits aren’t quite ready to wake up. As the weather warms, we automatically start to crave lighter foods like vibrant greens, tomatoes and the like and sweet summer fruits – we’ll have to wait a few more months for these real seasonal foods to arrive.

Boerenkool_2

In the meantime while the evenings are still cold enough, why not indulge in kale? It’s still growing happily outside, is abundant in the Netherlands and is available to buy everywhere. Buy whole leaves and shred them at home or try pre-shredded packets. Look for dark green leaves without any yellow blemishes. Stamppot is the country’s favourite way of cooking kale – boiled and mashed with potatoes and other veges or perhaps with bacon. Today, there are many other delicious recipes for cooking kale. Tuscan Ribollita soup is one of my favourites as is a simple stir fry with garlic, chili, soy, and lime – blanch the kale quickly first before frying so the leaves cook faster and don’t dry out. Kale loves to be paired with something sour like a citrus fruit or vinegar or something super salty like anchovy or bacon. Try this pasta with chili, lemon and anchovy for a quick tasty weeknight dinner. Just don’t overcook kale, otherwise your kitchen will smell like rotten egg for days…..

Some early spring ingredients (grown outside) to enjoy:
Forced rhubarb – grown indoors in the dark – is available now, while regular rhubarb is available from april/ may onwards.
Green asparagus should be ready to eat sometime in late April.
Wild garlic can be foraged in April.
Winter postelein is good now.

Chestnuts

chestnutsIf there’s one ingredient I’d love to see more of on our dining plates, it’s chestnuts. Few ingredients celebrate the cold weather and its accompanying comfort food like chestnuts. Just a whiff of roasted chestnuts – even better from a streetside stall – is enough to get anyone’s mouth watering. These earthy, fragrant, sweet, melt-in-your-mouth delights pair equally well with sweet and savoury dishes in Western and Eastern cuisines. 

The late autumn months are when chestnuts are harvested but they’re sold well into the deep winter. You’re probably come across the large, fallen round chestnuts in your local park. These horse-chestnuts aren’t edible – but do look gorgeous as seasonal decoration. The edible varieties look smaller and flatter. While foraging for chestnuts in the park or forest, protective head gear is recommended: the falling spiky pods launched from a height of more than 10 metres are likely to cause some serious damage!

Raw chestnuts are available to buy at the markets, fruit & veg shops and some supermarkets. Look for shiny, hard chestnuts with smooth skin and no sign of any hollowness or softness. Score and either boil or roast them and eat whole immediately. Besides the outer shell, the very thin, astringent inner skin needs to be removed before eating. One down side is that preparing raw chestnuts is quite laborious. Thankfully pre-cooked (and peeled!) chestnuts are available in vacuum packs at your local deli or specialty store or in purée form.

The winter kitchen is the perfect celebration of chestnuts: roast pheasant with chestnut filling, chestnut and parsnip soup, chestnut stuffed mushroom, sprouts and chestnuts,  chestnut risotto or chestnut and chocolate torte. So if one of your new year’s resolutions is to be more adventurous with your cooking, then chestnuts could be a good starting point. Time to start cooking…

Wishing you all a wonderful 2014, full of delicious, beautiful, seasonal food.

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READY THIS WINTER

Yes winter is here. Yes the shortest day of the year is almost upon us. But thankfully after that, things can only get better…or that’s what I like to think.

As it’s too cold for most fruit and vegetables to grow outdoors in winter, winter food used to consist mostly of what you managed to store and preserve from the summer and autumn harvests. These days, greenhouses and food freight means that fresh food from all seasons is available right into the depths of winter, which has its advantages and disadvantages. Eating fresh strawberries in winter seems on par with eating braised red cabbage or a heavy stew in summer.

Now is the time to indulge in hearty, comfort-food that makes the most of the beautiful winter produce that is in season now, and explore every variation of cooking with these ingredients – likely with some form of cheese. And enjoy that second helping of stew while it’s still cold enough.

Plentiful: Indulge in root vegetables of all kinds! Potatoes, carrots, onions, parsnips, celeriac, beetroot, swedes, turnips. Perfect for roasting and mashing, soups, stews and other heart warming dishes. Leeks are always a winner in winter as is cauliflower, and don’t let the look or reputation of Jerusalem artichokes deter you yet again!

Cabbages are part of the exclusive club of vegetables that cope wonderfully well outside in the cold. All those cabbage dishes you were waiting to try? Now is the time. Look for beautiful, shiny, squeaky cabbages: white, red, savoy, and pointed are the most common.

Have a nut feast and buy nuts whole in their shell: hazelnuts, walnuts or chestnuts for example.

Winter is the time for stewed, baked or poached fruit: pears, apples or quinces are perfect for the job, stewed with spices and a dash of something boozy. And better still, blanketed with a layer of crunchy, buttery crumble.

Plums


plums

If in doubt: never eat an unripe plum. My test for ripeness is to check for softness and to peel the skin. If the whole skin peels off effortlessly, then your plum is perfect. It must feel not too hard and not too squishy. Even if it seems just a tad on the hard side, leave it an extra day.

And what what do with all those gorgeous Dutch plums? Plums are the perfect companions for any sort of buttery cake or pastry, even better in a warm crumble with custard on the side or a clafoutis. Plums love hearty spices like cinnamon, vanilla, ginger, and cloves and find a best friend in toasted almonds or hazelnuts. In short, the perfect feel-good fruit to get you through the first chilly autumn days.

But my latest discovery for using plums is not sweet: from the 6 kilos that I bought from the orchard (what was I thinking..?) a big chunk went into making plum chutney and plum sauce. Stewed for 3 hours until almost jam-like, with spices, and tons of fresh ginger, the chutney is a party in your mouth: it’s sweet, sour, salty and spicy all at once. Perfect accompaniments for aged cheese or meat. And forget about the sickly sweet manufactured Chinese plum sauce: make your own. Perfect with Peking-style duck pancakes or roast pork belly. So who wants to come over for dinner?

 

READY THIS WEEK

The autumn rain and winds have most definitely arrived and the trees have switched on the ‘change colour’ button. But we’re having some beautiful crisp, sunny days which I’m going to enjoy while they last. Don’t forget your scarf!

Don’t miss out: The green beans are almost finished so don’t miss out on buying the last harvests for freezing. The zucchini and tomato plants are getting low on energy now so enjoy the very last of these summer veges. There are still decent fresh berries available – no complaints there!

Just arrived: Celeriac and kale! (I can hear the enthusiasm) And take this opportunity to take your first bite into this season’s juicy new apples: crunching into freshly picked apples is one of life’s little pleasures. And there’s a LOT of apples in Holland to crunch through! Perfectly paired with (wild) hazelnuts.

Plentiful: The gorgeous autumn vegetables are YUM at the moment. There’s lots of sweet corn to keep munching away on. The greens are still going strong: spinach, silverbeet, cabbages, broccoli. More potatoes are on the way and the carrots are super fresh now too. Get stuck into cauliflower and all colours of beetroot.  And there seems to be no end to the pumpkins.

Autumn fruit doesn’t get any better than blackberries and plums. Together with the arrival of new harvest apples and pears, there’s more than enough for celebration!

Coming soon: The first pears have just appeared but most of the popular Conference pears should be ready in the coming weeks, along with the stewing pears. The mushrooms are taking their time this year….

Green Beans

green beans
Green Beans are not the sexiest of vegetables, I know, but they’re so tasty once you know how to make them sing. A usual suspect on a meat and three veg plate, green beans got their terrible reputation from being over cooked to a brown pulp: they’re called green beans for a good reason.

This vegetable grows beautifully in the Netherlands – try the dwarf versions that remain as low bushy shrubs instead of becoming pole-climbing vines. And not only are they green, there’s also purple, red, streaked, and pale pale green types too. When buying, pick crisp, green beans without any blemishes. If they’re getting bendy, eat them pretty quickly. Excess beans from bumper harvests can be easily preserved for later: just blanch them first and store in airtight bags in the freezer.

Blanch them in hot water or pan fry with garlic, lemon and butter. Try shallow frying them until slightly crinkled (in a good amount of olive oil) and dress with LOTS of rough sea salt. Jazz them up with fried pancetta, hazelnuts or olives or make your own version of a Salade Niçoise. Once you learn to love your green beans, they will love you right back.

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READY THIS WEEK

The Dutch summer arrived late which meant that it finished late too – which is fine by me! August ended and September started with a string of gorgeous sunny days and balmy nights. And this weekend, the autumn may have finally arrived. The cooler weather means that our palates will probably crave more heartier foods. Luckily mother nature already took this into consideration as the autumn produce is ready on the shelves.

Don’t miss out: use the remaining late summer produce in combination with new autumn ingredients to create a beautiful seasonal fusion. What about tomato with pumpkin, beetroot with raspberry or blueberry and potato?

 Just arrived: pumpkins of all shapes and sizes have made their appearance. Some pumpkins are purely grown for decoration so don’t get these confused in your kitchen! (they’re not poisonous, just bland) The first autumn baby spinach has also been spotted and baby carrots are good to just ready too.

Plentiful: keep the sunshine going with late summer tomatoes and zucchini. With coming of the cooler weather it’s time to embrace the earthiness of cabbage and beetroot – look out for yellow and chioggia (striped) beets too which are super tasty. Stock up on silverbeet, broccoli, cauliflower and green beans. Different sorts of plums will be coming and going in the next few weeks and enjoy the autumn blackberries while they last. And I’m still enjoying the new harvest potatoes. So good.

Maybe to come: Wild mushrooms! There is a lot of rain forecast for this week. Despite complaining often about the rain in the Netherlands, I try to see the bright side of it when I can: lots of autumn rain+ sunshine = wild mushrooms! Hope to share a wild harvest with you soon……

Blackberries

blackberries
I am always in two minds about the coming of blackberry season. On one hand, I look forward to picking the plentiful, plump, black berries by the side of the road especially for making jam. On the other hand, blackberries fruit at the very end of summer and that can mean only one thing: that winter is coming.

While picking blackberries, I find it is very handy to bring a tall person with you and luckily, we’re in the right country for that. The biggest, juiciest, and most perfect blackberries tend to hang from the top of the bush, highly out of reach for someone vertically challenged like myself. I love returning to our favourite picking spots or stumbling across blackberry brambles unexpectedly during a walk or cycle somewhere. During these times, we usually pack some containers just in case and expect that our outings will take twice as long as we intended.

Brambles like to grow along the side of the road, path or railway track, on the edges of parks and often in disused places. Watch out for traffic if picking near the road! Don’t wear anything that you’ll be afraid to get stained with blackberry juice or ripped up by the thorns that cover the bush. Your fingers and hands will likely be covered in scratches by the end of your harvest fest but the beautiful, dark-coloured jam will be more than worth it! Other yummy uses for blackberries include blackberry cheesecake, jam tartlets, blackberry wine, and blackberry crumble. They also freeze well – frozen berries are perfect to use in cakes and smoothies. It’s only the beginning of blackberry season so there’s plenty more to come. Happy picking!

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