SNP - Tom Wills

Four Seasons / Four Seasons – Winter 2013

Some leek fresh from the garden - all photos: Rosa Steppanova/Lea Garden

Preparation time: 15 minutes. Cooking time: 25-30 minutes. Doesn’t that sound great?

Just quarter of an hour spent in the kitchen and, hey presto, tonight’s dinner’s in the oven – a mixed vegetable tart – leeks, carrots and calabrese in a creamy, nutmeg-flavoured egg custard, sprinkled with parmesan and encased in crispy pastry, served with a side salad.

The recipe uses bought short-crust pastry, a product I tend to avoid, as it is extremely inferior to my own, made with wholemeal flour, olive oil, and a free-range egg.

Furthermore, this recipe, in all likelihood, refers to what I would term an urban tart. Rural tarts of this kind take a little longer to prepare, and here are my detailed instructions:

Start process by donning a pair of wellies and putting on water-proof clothing (a somewhat damp south-westerly, force 5-6 is blowing). Fetch bucket, two bowls, knife and trowel from the potting shed. Venture into garden. Spot clutch of lily bulbs washed out of their bed during recent downpour. Fetch spade from potting shed. Re-bed lilies. Fetch wheelbarrow and fork. Load wheelbarrow with well-rotted leaf mould. Thickly mulch lily bulbs.

Calabrese Arcadia.

Squelch to vegetable rig. Dig up leeks and carrots and place in bucket. Notice patches of groundsel hell-bent on setting seed. Thwart groundsel by pulling it up and leaving it in large heaps. Fetch wheelbarrow. Cart groundsel to compost heap.

Wash mud-caked hands in pond. Get side-tracked into replacing heron netting blown on-shore by recent gales. Fetch short stake, mallet and pair of old tights to re-anchor willow all but blown out of the ground by recent gales.

Return to vegetable rig and fill bowl with freshly-cut calabrese spears – place bowl in porch sink. Proceed to salad garden with second bowl. Remove cloches from lamb’s lettuce, mixed leaves and coriander. Pick salads, remove carpets of bittercress in full flower and take to compost heap. Replace cloches. Try to remember where you left bucket with root vegetables.

Retrieve root veg bucket from newly-staked willow near pond. Wash leeks and carrots under outside tap. “Beat da scarf” to restore circulation to frozen hands. Proceed to compost heap. Return to porch to retrieve knife from calabrese bowl. Top and tail carrots. Tail leeks and strip off outer slimy, yellowing leaves.

Wash and return tools to potting shed – encounter Blanche, tame blackbird with hungry accusatory look in her eye. Fetch bird bucket from feed shed. Find bird bucket empty.

Remove wellies and waterproofs, proceed to larder. Prepare nutritious vegetable oil and porridge oat mix. Put on wellies and waterproofs, feed Blanche and her friends as darkness starts to fall.

Return to house with bucket of washed and trimmed root veg. Remove wellies and waterproofs. Feel virtuous and reward yourself with a nice cup of tea. Vigorously scrub carrots in sink. Remove blemishes such as carrot root fly channels.

By now 1 hour and 50 minutes has passed and you have finally arrived at the 15 minutes preparation time stage. Slice leeks thinly and place in colander. Wash leeks three times under running water to remove every trace of soil and plant debris such as orange-brown Japanese larch needles. Cut carrots into julienne strips. Wash calabrese spears.

This has taken 29 minutes.

January carrots.

Start making pastry. Search for eggs in outdoor meat store. Find empty egg cartons. Curse volunteers and/or family members for failing to write “eggs” on kitchen shopping board while recalling having used up last eggs yourself two days earlier.

Put on boots and water-proof jacket. Drive to local shop. Purchase eggs. Return home. Make pastry. Chill pastry. Beat cream, yoghurt and eggs, delicately season with salt, nutmeg, and a pinch of cinnamon. Sautée leeks in oil. Stir leeks into custard. Roll out pastry and line baking dish. Pour on egg and leek mix and top with artistically arranged calabrese and carrot strips. Grate parmesan and sprinkle over tart. Place in hot oven. You will find that from taking the flour and rolling pin out of the cupboard to hot oven stage has taken you about 40 minutes.

You now realise you’ve forgotten to pre-heat the oven and attempt to do so now. Don wellies and waterproofs. Proceed to fuel shed and fill a peat bag with blue clods. To the uninitiated, “blue clods” are the hard peat found at the lower depth of your peat bank. They give off a fierce heat and are ideal for cooking and baking.

While the oven warms up return to porch to fetch your salad greens. They are not there. You recall leaving them by the outside tap. By now it is not only pitch-dark outside but bucketing with rain.

You search for your torch before remembering you left it in your car. Put on wellies, waterproof jacket and retrieve torch. Salads not near outdoor tap. Search for bowl of salad greens in salad garden, vegetable rig, around pond and under newly-staked willow before finding it near compost heap.

Return to house, remove boots, jacket and soaking wet trousers. Change into dry trousers. Find cat on kitchen surface crouching over tart, whiskers dripping with cream and parmesan. This calls for a quick decision and you have two options:

1. Ditch tart and ask husband, who works in town to get a take-away.

2.  Remove cat. Tidy up tart. Grate a little more parmesan and sprinkle over top. As your tart is to be cooked at a high temperature, there is no health risk.

Feed hungry cat and its companions. Place tart in hottish oven. Thoroughly wash salad. Make dressing. Sit back and relax with a glass of wine.

I recommend the 2nd option.

Cooking time was about 40 minutes and as to preparation time, you can make your own calculations, but please don’t let this put you off growing and cooking your own. What I’ve described above is a worst case scenario.

Gardeners better organised than myself have long since frozen their calabrese, have bedded their carrots into boxes of damp sand where they stay crisp, and keep their leeks heeled into soil-filled tubs, both kept close to hand in an outhouse.

Gardeners better focused than myself concentrate on the task in hand rather than getting side-tracked into weeding, staking, re-bedding, as well as pond and wildlife maintenance.

The salad, fresh and crisp, was a treat, the tart was delicious, the leeks sweet and melting, the carrots tasted like carrots, and the calabrese, slightly charred underneath the parmesan, was heavenly. I’m sure this supper tasted even better due to the extra effort put into it, and because healthy outdoor exercise gives one a healthy appetite.

Rosa Steppanova(www.leagardens.co.uk)

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