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Monday, 31 March 2014

Lamb for Easter?

Roast lamb has long been a traditional food served up at Easter, thought to represent Christ as the lamb of God. Ironically, British lamb is far from being at its best at this time of year. Indeed, Easter often falls within the lambing season when lambs are just being born, rather than being big enough for slaughter. As a result, much of what is on offer in the shops is New Zealand lamb instead, their season being 6 months ahead of (or behind?) ours. These lambs are grass fed, slaughtered then shipped over in chilled containers, taking 2 to 3 weeks to arrive. By this time the meat has developed its full flavour and has nicely tenderised. Despite the food miles, it is relatively environmentally friendly due to the animals being grass fed and not transported by plane. If you buy British lamb for Easter then chances are the lambs were born in January and had been reared indoors and fed on animal feed rather than grass. A consequence of this life and young age at slaughter is the meat is very tender but less flavoursome compared to longer-lived, grass-fed British lamb available later in the year.

April generally is a difficult month for seasonal British ingredients. Generally, gardeners are busy sowing seeds and enjoying the first flushes of spring and there is relatively little ready to harvest. Instead, the last of the stored produce is being used up and a few key fresh ingredients take centre stage as a welcome sign of the new season. These key players include fresh herbs, just starting to put out new growth after a dormant winter; wild garlic, asparagus and rhubarb. So my Easter roast lamb meal would celebrate these lovely flavours.

You can't really beat the combination of lamb, rosemary and garlic. I insert slices of a garlic clove into stabbed cuts in the meat and poke rosemary leaves into the hole too. Wild garlic (or ransoms) can be foraged in March and April in certain woodlands (although they are very scarce in Milton Keynes due to suitable underlying geology).

If you can't find wild garlic and are growing your own garlic in the garden then the fresh new leafy growth on the new garlic plants makes an excellent substitute. You need to harvest only 4 or 5 of these leaves. Garlic chives are another alternative that works well. Back in the kitchen, finely chop the leaves then mix them into mustard powder and add a little water to form a thick paste. Smear this green garlic mustard over the surface of the raw meat. Season with salt and pepper then roast at 180°C, gas 4 for the appropriate amount of time depending on the size of your piece of meat.

Stored potatoes can be used to make lovely roast potatoes or you can seek out the first of the Jersey Royal new potatoes in the shops. Leeks, purple sprouting broccoli, parsnips and possibly the first of the asparagus are available from the veg patch in April so any or all of these would make a tasty side dish to this roast. And for dessert, something with rhubarb... crumble or fool maybe. A finishing touch of a pot or vase spring flowers on the table and you're all set of a spectacular celebration of British springtime.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Chicken & Leek Spud Pie

Leeks are a tasty and very versatile vegetable so I never mind having plenty of them growing. Indeed, we often leave a few leeks to flower during the summer, partly because the bees absolutely love them and partly so that they will set seed and self sow themselves all over the place. With no effort at all we end up with lots of baby leeks. Some of them grow in places that are less than ideal but this matters little - we simply "weed" them out and eat them whilst still tiny. So, on Saturday, whilst the weather gave us a brief glimpse of spring, we went out to do some tidying and sorting of the plot and one of my jobs was to remove the leeks that were growing in the wrong place. A bit of therapeutic weeding resulted in a bucket full of tasty, tiny leeks to take home.

Saturday night we chopped some up and added them to our stirfry. Sunday we made roasted whole baby leeks with our roast chicken (5 minutes boiling followed by 10 minutes on a baking tray in the oven at 180°C, gas 4 covered in olive oil and a sprinkling of salt). And tonight I used more leeks and leftover chicken to make Chicken & Leek Spud Pies.

Chicken & Leek Spud Pies (serves 4).

4 baking potatoes
Left over chicken
Left over gravy
Salt & Pepper
Grated cheese

Preheat the oven to 200°C, gas 6. Scrub the potatoes then pat dry and rub over with a little sunflower oil and salt then microwave for 10 minutes. In the meantime, break up the cooked chicken into small pieces and mix with the left over gravy (or make some fresh and allow it to cool down before adding to the cold chicken. Cut the leeks into small pieces and boil for 5 minutes until tender then drain, reserving the cooking water, and allow to cool before adding to the chicken. When the potatoes have finished microwaving, cut each one in half and spoon out the potato into a large bowl. Mash the potato, adding a splash or the reserved leek cooking water, some butter and salt and pepper to taste. Spoon the chicken mix into the empty potato skins then top with a layer of the mashed potato and finish with some grated cheese. Bake in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes until hot through and the cheese has browned nicely. Serve hot with vegetables.