This article is dedicated to Susan Sheehan, a longstanding American client of Dan’s, who writes the most wonderful emails that frequently have us doubled up in tears. One of these sent last year started (all Susan’s capitals), “I always read DIG DELVE…naturally, it is my absolute fantasy life blog. I imagine myself calm and RELAXED looking at the row of trees you have on the horizon, at your enchanting house and garden, and whipping up a batch of ELDERFLOWER AND ROSE cordial and a RHUBARB GALETTE…all sounds so romantic, and utterly doable. Then I just have to slap myself in the face and out of the TRANCE your blog, Instagram posts and new website induce…it is all just lovely. I want to be just like you when I grow up.”
So Susan, here is a picture of my RELAXED life this week. Dan has been away for 10 days. I am working on the picture edit of the book he has written about the Tokachi Millennium Forest. There have been, and I kid you not, around 40,000 images to go through, which has required an insane amount of focus, concentration and organisation. At around 4pm each day I Facetime Julie, our American friend who is designing the book. She lives in Portland, Oregon. It is usually around 8pm before we finish looking at layouts, discussing the design and swapping images around. Then a walk for the long-suffering dog, dinner (or more likely cheese and biscuits) and then bed. Then repeat. Yesterday, I had the florist Flora Starkey here, squeezing in a winter photoshoot en route to Bristol airport, while an old university friend also arrived to stay for the weekend. Fortunately Sophie is an excellent cook since, on Saturday, I have also invited good friends and godchildren for lunch.
Trying to shoehorn cooking, writing and photographing a recipe for Dig Delve into that schedule is, unfortunately Susan, the very opposite of RELAXING and, although not every week is this extreme, it is closer to the usual state of affairs than the idyll you describe. It doesn’t always feel very doable or very grown up. Sometimes we have to cut corners and speed things up to fit everything in, so this extremely easy recipe was directly inspired by a starter we were served at our Waterloo local, The Anchor & Hope, just last week.
I used to love the crispy ‘seaweed’ that my dad would order from our local Chinese restaurant when I was a kid. I thought I was eating something very exotic, of course, when the mundane truth was that it was just shredded, deep-fried cabbage. When this plate was brought to our table last week it took me straight back to those foil takeaway containers, with the same crisp texture and delicious savoury taste. The bright and smoky harissa was the perfect foil to the dark leaves, while the cool contrast of crème fraiche, made the whole plate sing. I immediately knew that I wanted to reproduce it at home.
We have 5 beds of brassicas that keep us going through the winter, and are now close to having only two still producing. Many of the red cabbages, which were our most successful germinator last year, are still standing, as are the second sowing of curly kale. The Cavolo nero are producing less leaf, but have started to send out flower spikes in step with the Early Purple Sprouting broccoli. A new winter crop for us, which I will definitely be sowing a lot more of next September, is the turnip green Rapa Senza Testa from Real Seeds, which has stood fresh and green all winter. From one row we have only had a handful of servings of the delicious buttery greens, but they are still producing and now also going to flower.
Two weekends ago in the woods I was a little perturbed to see the tiny emergent leaves of the wild garlic, which seemed far too early and too young and few to harvest. However, already they are here in number, and so yesterday I picked a handful to flavour the harissa. I made the harissa with a variety of smoky, medium and hot dried chilies from the pantry together with some fresh red chilies from the greengrocer. Unless you like it very hot avoid the bird’s eye and scotch bonnet types. The recipe below makes more than you require. It keeps well in the fridge covered with olive oil.
To make this into more of meal it is delicious topped with a poached or fried egg.
200g mixed brassica flower sprouts, tender stems only
2 litres rapeseed oil
25g mixed dried chilies
25g fresh red chilies
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon coriander seed
1 tablespoon fennel seed
A small handful of young wild garlic leaves
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 tablespoon tomato puree
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
100ml olive oil
Crème fraiche, to serve
First make the harissa.
Put the dried chilies in a heatproof bowl and pour over enough freshly boiled water to cover. Leave to soak for 30 minutes.
Toast the seeds in a small dry frying pan over a high heat until they become fragrant. Tip into a mortar and grind to a fine powder.
Remove the seeds and stalks from the fresh chilies and do the same with the soaked dried chilies. Put them all into a small blender with the other ingredients. Blend until a fairly rough paste is achieved.
Transfer to a small Kilner type jar.
Heat the oil in a large deep pan until smoking. Fry the flower sprouts in batches for a minute or two at the most. Be very careful as you put them into the oil as they will splutter. Keep a close eye on them, as they can take differing lengths of time to cook. When done, lift them from the oil with a slotted spoon and put into an ovenproof dish lined with kitchen paper. Put the dish in a low oven while you cook the remaining flower sprouts, transferring them each time to the oven to keep warm.
When the sprouts are all done transfer them to a hot serving plate. Toss over a couple of pinches of sea salt. Spoon over some of the harissa. Put some crème fraiche on the side of the plate. Eat immediately.
Recipe & photographs: Huw Morgan
22 February 2020