I am feeling spring-like at the moment, catapulted forward by several months having just completed my seed order for the veg garden this year.
As usual I have been well and truly seduced by all the glossy pictures of impossibly perfect vegetables in the catalogues, as is their intention, and ordered things that probably have no hope of cropping in North Northumberland or under my care.
I’m never hugely successful with carrots but plough on every year regardless; radishes are usually over the top by the time I’ve realised they’ve swollen into edible fruits ready for eating, which happens almost overnight, and frustratingly I cannot seem to get fennel right, no matter how hard I try. Previous attempts are all ferny atop with no bottom, or bulb.
This year I will be growing a multi-coloured selection of beetroot again, which as well as tasting delicious, look very pretty especially when served together, either cooked or raw and very thinly sliced.
Burpees Golden is as the name suggests yellow, Chiogga or Candy Stripe is pink-and-white striped and Boltardy is the usual deep red beetroot colour. It is slower to bolt than many varieties, which in my view makes it an excellent choice to grow.
Being enthusiastic eaters of salad all year round I have succumbed to more varieties than we probably need. Many of these, such as rocket and mizuna are better grown later on in the year as they bolt in hot weather but last well through the winter, withstanding even the hardest frosts.
In fact, I picked some beautiful red mustard salad leaf this morning, still looking perky after being smothered in snow.
Having grown some surprisingly good carrots (Purple Haze) last year I was flirting with the idea of purple sprouts this time but resisted the temptation. I bet they’re not purple by the time they’re cooked, so what’s the point? ... I could be wrong of course.
Turks Cap Gourds are my showiest new addition this year. Highly decorative members of the squash family, these are brightly coloured and shaped like a Turk’s turban.
I am planning to grow a few scrambling up and over tepees, from which I’m hoping they are going to hang in an attractive, striking fashion, and others, trailing along the ground to act as weed stifling ground-cover. Some we will eat and some I will varnish and use for decoration piled up in a bowl.
Of course, this all depends on whether they do what they’re meant to and we don’t get another wet summer. The purchase of these seeds is the perfect example and direct result of catalogue photograph seduction!
I would like to be able to tell you that the butternut squash in today’s recipe was plucked from the garden last autumn and stored overwinter, but that would not be true.
In other years when we enjoyed better summers, yes, but not this last one. These days you can buy butternut squash just about anywhere ... they’re almost as ubiquitous as onions, possibly because of their very long shelf-life.
They make very satisfying, velvety, filling and warming soup in the nicest deep orange colour and colourful food at this time of year is an added bonus as there isn’t much of it about.
RECIPE OF THE WEEK: Butternut squash and mascarpone soup (Serves 8 – 10)
A level teaspoon of garam masala can be added to this soup at the same time as the garlic, giving it a lovely deep spicy flavour.
It freezes beautifully and will last in the fridge for several days. Leave out the mascarpone if you would like a healthier soup – it will be just as good.
1 large onion, chopped
A large knob of butter or a little olive oil
2 medium-sized butternut squash
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
1.4l (2½ pts) chicken stock (or 3 stock cubes)
1 scant tsp salt & freshly ground black pepper
1 x 250g (8oz) tub of mascarpone
Heat the butter in a large saucepan and add the onion. Cook until soft but not coloured.
Cut the 'trunk' off the butternut squash, stand it on the cut surface and cut off the skin with a knife. Cut the bulb in half, scoop out the seeds, and cut into quarters.
Cut all the flesh into smallish, even-sized chunks. Add the squash and garlic to the onion. Stir and cook for a few minutes before adding the stock or stock cubes and water.
Bring up to the boil, check the seasoning and simmer for 30-35 minutes or until the squash is very soft and tender.
Liquidise in batches, adding a few spoonfuls of mascarpone with each batch. You may not need it all ... keep tasting and add accordingly.
If the soup is a bit grainy pass it through a sieve. It should be very smooth and velvety. Thin with a little water if necessary. Check the seasoning and serve.
You might like to add one of the suggestions below as a final flourish:
Fried Parma ham, pancetta or bacon
Puree of parsley or coriander and olive oil
Parsley or coriander leaves
A swirl of cream or dollop of creme frâiche.