April usually brings me so many reasons to feel joyful. Not only does it bring us all a long bank holiday weekend, it also brings us an anniversary and a birthday to celebrate. It brings the beginning of the season for lamb (my favourite meat), jersey royals, asparagus, radishes and the first young salad leaves. It's the month when our little veg garden begins to burst into life so vigorously that I feel I can almost see the seedlings growing before my eyes. The weather is usually on the up; the days a longer and warmer.
As April rolls around this year there is a vast, dark cloud which weighs over all of us. At times, it seems so thick that I can see nothing around me at all and cannot imagine how this cloud will ever pass and show me blue skies again. But it will. Nature has taught us that.
I don't want to ruminate on all of the ways in which the current climate has changed the way I will cook in April. I prefer to ruminate on the certainty that cooking and the changing season brings me. In truth, I don't know what I will cook because I don't know what will happen. So here are some things that I do know.
1) April still brings us a long bank holiday, a birthday and an anniversary and I will cook us a feast to celebrate and we will open a bottle of bubbles to toast the occasion.
2) Lambs are still being born; nobody told them that it wasn't a good time.
3) Asparagus continue to thrust its green fingers up through the earth and jersey royals will continue to swell in the ground.
4) It's a privilege to be able to sit every day and watch my garden grow, to tend to it and nurture it.
5) The sun will continue to rise and fall every day, giving us a few minutes more light every day.
6) The cold, grey rain clouds of April will pass, eventually and the sky will be blue again.
So with that said, here are the six things I will try my best to cook this month:
1) Leek, Spinach and Potato Soup
Everyone loves a soup, right? It's comforting, a breeze to make and you can throw in basically any veg you have hanging about - even if it's looking a little worse for wear. I don't see the point in making small batches of soup (if you're going to the effort of getting the blender out you may as well go to town) so this one makes about six portions so there's plenty leftover for the freezer.
1 white onion
2 large leeks
2 sticks celery (optional)
2 large handfuls spinach (approx 125g)
1 ltr stock (or water)
Juice of half a lemon
salt and pepper
Optional garnish: chopped chives/ creme fraiche/ goats cheese/ blue cheese/ garlic croutons
1) Wash the leeks before slicing them roughly. Dice the onion and celery. In a large pan, heat up 2 tbsp olive oil and sweat the vegetables with some salt on a medium heat for at least 10 minutes. You don't want to add any colour.
2) Peel the potatoes and slice them into equal sized rounds or chunks. Add them to the pan and cover them with the stock or water.
3) Season and bring to the boil. Pop the lid on, turn down the heat and simmer until the potatoes are cooked.
4) Once the potatoes are cooked, add the spinach and turn off the heat. Leave to stand for two minutes until the spinach has wilted.
5) Blitz using a hand blender. Season with salt, pepper and the lemon juice.
6) Enjoy with buttery toast.
2) Roast Lamb Dinner
A roast lamb dinner would probably be my death row meal. I like it the way my parents used to cook it: stud a leg of lamb with shards of garlic, rosemary and brown anchovies then roast it gently until it's blushing inside and crisp outside. We'd often have it with roast potatoes, greens and gravy - proper Sunday dinner style - but proper roasties are a bit of a hassle to make for only two people so I think I'll do some simple steamed jerseys, dressed in butter, salt and mint. I'll roast up some purple sprouting and asparagus to have along side it. Then I'll have the leftovers in a sandwich with salad and mayo the next day. My stomach is rumbling at the thought!
Hilariously, I actually spent most of January and February whittling down my dry store supplies. I am the kind of person who collects ingredients and subsequently ends up with 101 types of pasta/ chutney/ chilli sauce/ grain/ vinegar... Whilst I have no intention of giving up that hobby, and indeed times like this prove all the more why it's the best hobby in the world, it is sometimes necessary to have a bit of a cleanse. As such, I've used up all of my reserves of chutney and pickle, leaving me with a vinegary hole in my store cupboard. I'll be perusing my preserving books this month to find something suitable. Suggestions welcome...
4) Braised Peas
The other evening, we flicked on the TV and stumbled across Rick Stein's Secret France programme on repeat on BB2. Rick can be somewhat irritating when travelling Europe so I tend to avoid his shows, but actually I found the whole thing thoroughly enjoyable and made me feel rather nostalgic for holidays past. We cooked the pachades he ate on show - savoury pancakes with cheese and ham- that night for dinner and they were delicious.
On the show, he also ate at a bistro run by an English man who served up a lunch which included braised peas and I was reminded of what a delicious dish that can be. I have a bag of peas in the freezer so I intend to give have my own French bistro lunch someday this month.
5) Green and Blue Tart
A simple dinner or lunch recipe which makes the most of the lovely early greens of the season. Eat it warm or cold with a crisp salad with some mustardy dressing.
1 sheet puff pastry
2 large handfuls spinach (approx 125g)
1 clove garlic, finely sliced
2 handfuls green veg - asparagus, spring onions, peas and/ or sprouting broccoli
50g blue cheese - I like gorgonzola or roquefort but a stilton or danish blue will be great too
1 egg yolk
1) Preheat the oven to 200/ gas 6. Heat a large pan over a medium heat with a splash of olive oil. Add the garlic and cook for a couple of minutes before adding the spinach and cooking until it's wilted, squeezing out the excess liquid. Season and leave to cool.
2) Unroll the pastry and use a butter knife to score around the circumference of the pastry about a fingers width from the edge. This will give a defined edge on your tart. Spread the spinach over the base of the pastry.
3) Scatter the other veg across the top of the spinach and crumble the cheese across the top. Drizzle the veg with a little olive oil.
4) Brush the edges of the pastry with egg yolk. Pop it in the oven for about 25 minutes until the pastry is golden and the cheese is bubbling.
6) Rhubarb and Almond Cake
My favourite cake recipe and one that I return to at about this time every year. I don't know what it is about it that I love so much. Perhaps it's the slightly dense sweetness of the sponge, or the fact that the rhubarb keeps the cake a little on the tart side - something I favour in desserts. I find it soothing to make and bake and it always looks so pretty when it emerges from the oven.
150g caster sugar (+2 dessert spoons)
150g self raising flour
50g ground almonds
1 tsp baking powder
zest of 1 lemon and juice of half a lemon
glug of milk
4/5 sticks rhubarb cut into about 25 finger sized batons
Handful of flaked or whole almonds
1) Preheat the oven to gas 4/ 180c. Cream the butter and sugar then gradually add the eggs.
2) Fold in the flour and ground almonds, lemon zest and juice and enough milk to create a batter which is thick but spoonable.
3) Spoon half the mixture into a lined and greased cake tin. Arrange half the rhubarb in a fan around the tin. Scatter over 1 dessert spoon of caster sugar.
4) Cover with the rest of the cake mixture and arrange the remaining rhubarb on top of the cake. Scatter over another spoonful sugar and the flaked almonds (or chopped whole almonds).
5) Bake the cake for 40 minutes until the cake is golden.