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a is for... apples

It's probably quite bad form that one of my first articles for this website is going to be a rant and then some, but never mind. There are parts of the UK whose sole reason for existing is their apples; Hereford, Worcester, other areas around the Malverns, swathes of Kent and the Sussex downs, Parts of Yorkshire and every kitchen garden from Land's End to... well, maybe not John O'Groats, but it isn't far off.

Apple trees grow nearly everywhere, and they have been planted in orchards or just sprung up where apple cores have been left. A perfectly crisp, fresh, fruity apple is one of life's little joys, and yet trying to find one that has been grown in this Scepter'd Isle in anywhere but Farmer's Markets or shops that are run by hippies is close to impossible. At the time of writing we're just entering the local eating apple season and the only varieties I can find in supermarkets that come from UK growers are Royal Galas, Empire and Cox's Orange Pippin. Where are all the Worcesters? Blenheim Oranges? The dense but flavourful Greensleeves and the somewhat odd if not stored for six months Russets? We get Galas all year round from South America and Europe, but it amazes me that people don't rise up in their thousands to protest the insipid examples from overseas when for three months the UK produces such stunning pieces of fruit.

In the meantime, have a recipe for some comforting winter food. In case you were wondering I shall get onto tarte tatin when we get to "T".

potato, cheese and apple layer bake
(or gratin, if you prefer)

Easy, easy stuff...
Preheat your oven to Gas 5 (190C). Take two large baking potatoes, and slice into 5mm - ie, very thin - slices. Take a large Bramley apple, peel and core it, and slice into thin slices. Finely slice two leeks. Grate some gruyere, about 6oz will do, and whisk a small pot of single cream, half a pint of milk, an egg and some salt and pepper together in a jug. In a medium-sized casserole dish layer potatoes, leeks, apples and cheese until you've run out, saving about 2oz of the cheese. Pour over the milk mixture, then top with the remaining cheese, then bake for an hour, or until the potatoes are cooked.

a is for... asparagus

King amongst vegetables, asparagus. Not perhaps to everybody's tastes, but that's probably something to do with how it's been cooked. It can be steamed, boiled, stir fried, and these are all fine ways to cook it, but I'm going to talk about two other methods of preparing it that may be new to you.

Roasting asparagus is something everybody who doesn't like asparagus should try. Get the oven nice and hot, wash and snap the woody ends off the asparagus, put it on a baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt. 20 minutes in the oven, job done. The flavour gets intensified and the fibres in the vegetables cook down beautifully - its like eating asparagus plus.

There's few things finer than perfectly crisp pastry, and whilst I'll be concentrating on pastry when we get to "P" there's a recipe I want to use to whet the pastry appetite, so to speak.

three-cheese asparagus tart

ingredients

225g asparagus (lots of thin stalks are preferable to a few fat ones)

filling

450g onions, finely sliced
2tbsp balsamic vinegar
25g butter
1 small tub mascarpone
100ml milk

1 egg, beaten
salt & pepper
55g interesting strong cheese, grated, to top.

pastry

110g flour
55g butter
25g parmesan
1tbsp iced water

You will need a 20cm loose-bottomed non-stick tart tin.

For the pastry, rub the flour and butter together, then grate the parmesan into the crumbs and mix well. Add ice cold water a teaspoon at a time and mix with a smooth-ended knife until the dough comes together. Pat into a cylinder, wrap in clingfilm and put in the 'fridge for at least half an hour.

In a saucepan, melt the butter and cook the onions over a low heat until very soft and nearly caramelising, then add the balsamic and cook for another five minutes.

Put to one side. Snap the bottoms off the asparagus stalks, and gently boil for five minutes, then drain and put aside.

Preheat the oven to gas 4, and slice thin discs off the cylinder of pastry, pushing them together to form a single surface (see picture above) across the bottom and sides of your tart tin. Prick the base with a fork, brush the surface with milk and bake for 20 minutes or until lightly coloured. Whilst this is cooking, mix the mascarpone, egg, milk and seasoning so it's the consistency of double cream. If it seems a bit thick add a drop more milk.

Spread the onions across the base of the pastry, place the asparagus over the top, then pour the mascarpone mix over the top, and sprinkle the cheese on top of that. I like gruyere for this, but a good quality cheddar will do just as well.

Put back in the oven and bake for 40 minutes, or until the top is golden. Serve hot or cold - I once made this for a picnic halfway up a mountain.

Steamed, boiled or stir fried asparagus should be al dente too, for the record. Soggy asparagus is why kids grow up hating asparagus. 


al dente

Soggy pasta? No thanks. Don't be scared to undercook pasta by a minute or two, especially if it's fresh pasta. But al dente doesn't just apply to pasta; you an apply it to vegetables too. Stir fries are much tastier if the veg has some crunch, and oversteaming broccoli is a crime.

Check back next months for Mike's letter B baking recipes and tips...

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