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Tender fresh asparagus, with its mild yet distinctive flavour, is one of the great joys of spring, lasting right through into early summer. The green variety is the most common, with stems that can vary in size from fine spears only a few millimetres thick to sticks as sturdy as your thumb.

You will also come across white and purple-tinged asparagus. Usually eaten as an appetizer – served warm with melted butter, vinaigrette or hollandaise sauce – the cooked spears are also a wonderful addition to salads, tarts, layered terrines, risottos, pasta and even scrambled eggs. They make an attractive and delicious topping for canapés, such as bruschetta and crostini, too.
Asparagus is best eaten on the day it is picked, so it is ideal if you can grow your own or buy it locally from somewhere you know it has been freshly picked. Farm shops are often a good source. Imported asparagus can be tough and lacking in flavour. Look for firm green spears with
tightly packed buds, and avoid any that are withered or beginning to brown.

Preparing and Cooking Asparagus
Asparagus spears can be cooked in numerous ways, but the simplest method is to cook them in simmering water until just tender. They can then be eaten with your fingers, accompanied by a dip of melted butter or hollandaise sauce.
Some cooks recommend using an asparagus steamer to cook the spears. This is a tall pan with a basket inside to hold the spears upright, so that when the pan is filled with boiling water, the stalks cook in the water, while the delicate tips steam above it. However, it is just as effective to cook asparagus lying flat in a frying pan containing about 2.5cm/1in of simmering water. Cooking time will depend on the thickness of the spears. If they are thin and delicate, they will become tender in a couple of minutes, while thicker stems may need 6–8 minutes. The best way to test if asparagus is cooked is to lift a spear out with a fish slice and take a bite. It should be tender and juicy, but not soft. To prepare asparagus, rinse lightly under cold running water, then snap off the end of each stem – it should pop and break just where the stem ceases to be woody and becomes tender. Pour about 2.5cm/1in water into a large frying pan and bring to the boil. Arrange the asparagus in the pan in a single layer and cook over a gentle-medium heat until tender. Then carefully lift out of the pan using a fish slice or spatula and pat dry on kitchen paper before serving.

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Susannah Blake
SEASONAL FOOD

This article is an extract from The Best Gluten-Free and Dairy-Free Baking Recipes by Grace Cheetham.

Look around the free-from section of a health-food store or a large supermarket and you’ll find a large variety of gluten-free and dairy-free products. Food manufacturers are continually producing fantastic ingredients – all of which make it easier and easier to cook wonderful free-from food.

Flour Mixes
For baking, it’s a good idea to start with a selection of flours. I’ve created different flour mixes for different types of recipes, depending on the texture and amount of crunchiness or softness needed. In the Basic Recipes chapter, you’ll find different mixes for Flaky Pastry, Shortcrust Pastry, Sweet Shortcrust Pastry, Bread, Cakes and Biscuits. The pastry and bread mixes use sturdy flour combinations, so that they hold together well, whereas the Cake Mix produces a soft, moist texture, and the Biscuit Mix a crunchy one.
I’ve used brown rice flour in all of the mixes as it is a great base flour. It has a lovely taste and holds really well. When the mix needs a stronger flour base, I’ve used a combination of gram (chickpea) flour and maize flour. These are both great in terms of holding together and, while the gram flour has quite a strong taste, when it’s combined with maize flour that has a subtle, slightly sweet taste, it works really well. (For those who had stopped using gram flour because of the taste – trust me!).
It’s important to create a balance of grain flours and starch flours, depending on the type of recipe. The flours I’ve just mentioned are all grain flours. Starch flours work slightly differently, in that they tend to lighten the mix and give rise to the baking. For starches, I’ve generally used cornflour because it’s inexpensive and easy to find, has a very bland taste and gives a fantastic consistency. For bread, though, I’ve added potato flour as it helps create a moist, tender crumb texture, as well as a better rise.
I’ve added ground almonds to the Sweet Shortcrust Pastry – to make it sweeter, and help hold the pastry together – and to the Biscuit Mix, as it gives biscuits the crunchiness when baked.

I find the best thing to do is to make up large batches of the flour mixes and store them in my cupboard. Depending on the size(s) of your containers, you can make up double or triple quantities, if you’re planning to use a lot of the mix. (But bear in mind that the mix won’t keep forever.) Then it’s just a question of measuring out the required amount for the recipe you are about to make – and off you go…

Alternative Flours
I’ve used a couple of alternative flours within the recipes themselves. In the Oat & Molasses Bread, I’ve added gluten-free oats, to add a sweetness and strong texture. Gluten-free oats are a brilliant ingredient, and it’s easy to make them into a flour by blending them in a food processor. For the Corn Tortillas, I’ve used masa harina, as this finely milled version of maize flour is the only one that works for tortillas. And for the Paleo Bread (grain-free bread), I’ve used coconut flour. Coconut flour is incredibly nutritious, is very filling as it is high in fibre, protein and (good) fat, and is grain-free. It works fantastically well as a flour, although you need to use less of it (a third to half of the recipe quantity and possibly more liquid) because it soaks up more liquid than other flours). But it is expensive – which is why I haven’t used it throughout the book.
There are many other flours that you can use as alternatives, but I wanted to keep the list of ingredients as simple and accessible as possible, and because I think these mixes work the best. Other flours commonly used are buckwheat, millet, teff, quinoa and soya. Other starches available are tapioca and white rice flour. Personally, I find the taste of buckwheat flour too strong, and it is a very heavy flour so it doesn’t rise well. Millet tends to be bitter, teff has a strong taste, too, and it is expensive and hard to get hold of. Quinoa flour also has a very strong taste, although if you can mask the flavour, it is extremely nutritious. Soya flour is probably my least favourite flour as it doesn’t hold well or give a good rise, or taste particularly good. I’m also not keen on tapioca starch as I find it gives a metallic aftertaste, and I know many people are intolerant to it.
But all of these options at least give you that – the option to change the ingredients that you’re using if you decide you prefer another one, or if you need to expand your ingredients list (perhaps if you’re following a rotation diet). If you decide to alter any of the mixes, you can simply substitute a similar flour in the same quantities as those in the mix.

The beauty of making gluten-free bread is that you often don’t have to knead, knock back or leave to prove. You can usually mix the ingredients together, whisk in some water – and bake immediately.

Bread Mix
150g/5½oz/heaped ¾ cup brown rice flour; 60g/2¼oz/⅓ cup potato flour; 60g/2¼oz/½ cup cornflour; 50g/1¾oz/scant ½ cup gram (chickpea) flour; 50g/1¾oz/⅓ cup maize flour; 1 tsp xanthan gum

1. Sift the flours and xanthan gum into a large mixing bowl and mix together.

Olive & Rosemary Focaccia1-Olive & Rosemary Focaccia-1

4 tbsp olive oil, plus extra for greasing; 370g/13oz/2¾ cups Bread Mix ; ½ tsp salt; 1 tbsp dried active yeast; 100g/3½oz/heaped ½ cup good-quality black olives, pitted and chopped; 1 handful of rosemary leaves, chopped, plus extra for sprinkling; sea salt, for sprinkling1 tbsp dried active yeast

1. Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/gas 6 and lightly grease a 20cm/8in round cake tin with olive oil.

2. Put the bread mix, salt and yeast in a large mixing bowl and mix together thoroughly. Add the olives, half of the rosemary and
3 tablespoons of the oil and mix in. Pour in 375ml/13fl oz/1½ cups warm water and, using a metal whisk, beat vigorously for 1–2 minutes to aerate the dough. Beat until the dough holds some shape, but is still soft enough to fall from the whisk, adding 1 or 2 extra tablespoons of warm water if it feels too stiff.

3. Spoon the dough into the prepared tin and level the surface with the back of a metal spoon. Wash the spoon clean and dip it in cold water, then smooth the surface of the dough with the back of the wet spoon, repeating to cover the whole area. Drizzle the remaining oil over the top, then sprinkle with rosemary and salt.

4. Bake for 45–50 minutes, or until the bread is golden brown and sounds hollow when turned out of the tin and tapped on the base. Transfer to a wire rack and leave to cool.

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Grace Cheetham
The Best Gluten-Free and Dairy-Free Baking Recipes
Available from Nourish Books

-by Nick Moyle and Richard Hood

Spring, at long last, has started warming up the land, giving us longer days in the sun and set off some vigorous plant growth, meaning we’re able to head out into the garden and wild hedgerows in search of things to turn into booze. There may not be the wide choice of ingredients that summer and autumn provide, but there are still plenty of flavours available to make a varied array of drinks. Here are our five favourite spring harvests.

wineRhubarb
One of the first edible plants to announce itself on the allotment is rhubarb, a veg that tastes like no other and is adept at seeing off the coldest winters, coming back bigger and stronger every year. Rhubarb wine was one of the first drinks we made from a home grown harvest and our easy recipe has inspired many fellow allotmenteers to have their first dabble with a demijohn. Rhubarb is also a great ingredient for infusing in vodka and sweetened with sugar to make a delicious liqueur, either on its own or paired with other flavours such as orange or ginger. We’ve even found room for it in a home brewed beer, adding a slightly sour, fruity tang to a light, malty ale (don’t believe it works? Then try this). Such is our reverence for the rhubarb we’re currently growing six different varieties to see which one makes the best booze.

Nettles
If nettles didn’t have a habit of growing where they’re not wanted and blighting bare flesh with irritating stings, they would be considered a vegetable treasure. Used like spinach the leaves have a superbly healthy flavour making them a great free treat for the kitchen – nettle risotto is one of our favourites. A nettle harvest can also be used for numerous drinks, so it’s well worth stepping out with a pair of rubber gloves to grab a load. Nettle wine is said to be rather good, although we’ve yet to try this ourselves, instead opting to turn it into a light, refreshing beer. Leaves can be used to flavour regular ales as an alternative to hops, but our preference is for a nettle only concoction, quickly fermented along similar lines to traditional ginger beer and low in alcohol. It has a surprisingly zesty flavour, along with some earthier notes, that make it an ice cold treat to accompany the first barbeque of the year.

Dandelions
Anything nettles can do, dandelions would claim to do better. Also used as a hop substitute they provide a distinctive bitterness to ales and can be used solo for a beer Brew It Yourself Single Page Hi Res-69similar to that made by nettles – with leaves, roots and flowers all being plunged into the brewing pot. We like to give this particular brew a fruity overhaul by adding oranges, lemons and grapefruit to the recipe – a zesty delight that makes a spot of weeding all the more worthwhile. The sunny, yellow flowers of the dandelion can also be used to make another of our favourite country wines that, according to tradition, should be started on St George’s day. If you don’t mind getting yellow stained fingers then fill a bag with flowers and follow the simple recipe on our website.

Tree leaves
It may sound strange to the brew-it-yourself novice, but the young leaves of several trees can be used to flavour alcoholic beverages. Leaves tend to bring slightly nutty notes to drinks, enabling us to expand our flavour repertoire in new and unusual directions. So far we’ve had most success with leaves from the mighty oak, the ubiquitous beech and the harder to track down walnut (Nick is lucky enough to have a few ancient walnut trees growing in his neighbouring park). We’ve used both young and old oak leaves for wine – the older the leaf, the nuttier the flavour – and they make for an intoxicatingly quaffable drink. We soak our beech leaves in various spirits for some unique infusions and liqueurs – similar in style to a ‘noyeaux’, they’re great for delivering a nutty punch to cocktails. Walnut leaves are an ingredient in some ancient mead recipes, the heady wine-like tipple made from fermented honey, and give the finished drink a robust, herby flavour. We made a walnut leaf mead two years ago – it’s slow maturation means it should be ready for us to sample any time now.

Rosemary
Although available all year round, rosemary starts to put on rapid growth in spring, making it at its flavoursome best. Besides being an herby foil for roast lamb, it’s also a useful bittering ingredient in booze. It has found its way into many fortified wines, spirit infusions and cocktails but it’s beer we think it suits best. This month we’re crossing the county border from Somerset to Gloucestershire to collaborate with an exciting new brewery on our own rosemary and coriander beer, featuring herbs and hops grown in the garden. We’re hoping to hang on to enough bottles to see us through to summer.

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Nick Moyle and Richard Hood

About the Authors: Nick Moyle and Richard Hood both grew up during the UK home-brew boom of the 1970s and 80s, with parents who regularly made their own drinks from home-grown produce, enlisting their help. This fired up a life-long obsession for the art of brewing and in 2008 they built their own cider press and have been producing cider for local pubs, beer festivals and deserving friends ever since. They started their Two Thirsty Gardeners website in 2012, which inspires thousands of loyal followers.

 

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  Nick Moyle and Richard Hood
  Brew It Yourself
  ISBN: 9781848992276
  Available in July 2015

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Extract from Chocolate  by Jennifer Donovan.

Cocoa beans, from which chocolate is derived, are a product of the cacao tree. This is believed to have originated in the tropical areas of South America, although the exact location is a source of some dispute. A relatively delicate plant, the cacao tree needs protection from wind and a good amount of shade; it usually bears fruit in the fifth year of cultivation in natural conditions. Although there are about 20 different varieties of cacao plant, only three are widely used in the making of chocolate—Forastero, Crillo, and Trinitero.

The fruit of the cacao plant, known as “pods,” contain between 20 and 50 cream-colored beans, and it takes about 400 beans to make just one pound of chocolate. The beans are fermented, dried, cleaned, and roasted. Then the roasted beans are ground to produce a thick cacao liquor, or cacao mass, and finally pressed to extract the fat, known as cocoa butter.Intro_103

Cacao liquor and cocoa butter are the essential ingredients
 in any chocolate product, and the amount included varies from around 25 percent of the product’s weight up to approximately
80 percent, occasionally more. Other ingredients, including sugar, vanilla, and milk, are added to the chocolate before it goes through the final processing stages. Generally, the sweeter the chocolate, the more sugar has been added and the less cacao liquor and cocoa butter it contains. The darker and more bitter the chocolate, the higher the cacao liquor and cocoa butter content; this is widely considered to be a superior chocolate. However, chocolate preferences vary between individuals, so it is best to experiment with what you have available to see which you prefer.

Types of Chocolate
There are a number of basic categories of chocolate. The first
is dark chocolate, sometimes referred to as bittersweet or semi- sweet chocolate, or couverture. This is designed for both eating and cooking. Look for chocolate with a high cocoa content (usually marked as a percentage on the label). Ideally, the percentage should be somewhere between 70 and 85 percent, although it is important to remember what you are ultimately using it for.

The most readily available chocolate tends to range between 60 and 70 percent, which renders good results, though higher percentages do exist.

Milk chocolate, also commonly available, generally contains less than 3 percent cocoa butter and has sugar, milk powder, and vanilla added. It is not as successful in baking and cooking as dark chocolate, but you can use it as a substitute in mousses, fillings, drinks, and cookies, particularly if they are destined for children, who prefer the less bitter flavor. Again, for the tastiest results, look for good-quality milk chocolate—many manufacturers use vegetable oils, artificial flavors, fillers, and milk solids in their products. Organic varieties of chocolate are a good choice here.

White chocolate, another widely available product, is technically not chocolate at all because it does not contain cacao liquor—it is made from cocoa butter, sugar, milk, and vanilla. Although not a pure chocolate, white chocolate is still very popular and gives good results in cooking.

Cocoa powder and chocolate drink mixes are also derived from chocolate. ‘Dutch-processed’ cocoa, where the cocoa is treated with an alkali to give a slightly different flavor and a darker appearance, is considered to have the best taste. Cocoa powder
 is derived from the pressed cake that remains after most of the cocoa butter has been removed. It may have 10 percent or more cocoa butter content. Most commercial chocolate drink mixes (which are designed to be made into hot or cold drinks) are usually made from a mixture of cocoa powder and sugar. Both cocoa powder and chocolate drink mixes have their uses in cooking,
but, as with chocolate, the quality does vary, so experiment with the different brands and buy the best you can afford.

To know more about chocolate and be guided through a range of delicous chocolate recipes, take a look at Chocolate by Jennifer Donovan.

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Jennifer Donovan
Chocolate
Available from Nourish Books
£9.99

 

 

 

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Although it is available for most of the year, spinach is one of the highlights of spring. Then its tender young leaves make such a refreshing change after the sturdy greens and hearty roots of winter. First cultivated in Persia, but now a staple of cuisines worldwide, spinach is a versatile vegetable. The soft baby leaves can be used raw in salads or make a lovely addition to risottos, stir-fries and even mashed potato; larger leaves, sautéed with a little garlic, then seasoned and served with a squeeze of lemon, make a delicious accompaniment to grilled meats and fish.
Spinach has a natural affinity with butter, cheese, cream and eggs, but is also delicious matched with various herbs and spices. In India, a blend of spiced spinach and potato is often served with rice or flatbreads. In Spain, it is cooked with garlic, raisins and pinenuts to make a popular tapas dish, while in the Middle East it is added to stews and used in fillings for pies and pastries.
Choose fresh-looking leaves, and avoid any that are yellowing, wilting or becoming slimy. Cut off tough stems and always wash well in cold water to remove any soil or grit. Then shake off as much water as possible, patting the leaves dry on kitchen paper if necessary, before cooking in a dry, tightly covered pan for a few minutes, until they have wilted. Spinach gives off a lot of liquid while cooking, so always drain well before serving or using in a recipe.

SUPER GREENS
from The Juice Diet by Christine Bailey

Light and refreshing, the burst of chlorophyll and protein in this juice is incredibly nourishing and helps cleanse your body and boost liver function. It’s a wonderful juice to keep you feeling light and vibrant.

Ingredients
1 large handful kale leaves
1 large handful spinach leaves
2 pears
1 lemon, peeled
150ml/5fl oz/scant 2⁄3 cup coconut water ice cubes, to serve

Method
Juice the vegetables and fruits, then stir in the coconut water and serve over ice.

Health Benefits
Coconut water is often called the “Fluid of Life” containing a balanced proportion of the electrolytes potassium, calcium, magnesium and sodium, which help the body achieve correct fluid balance. Wonderfully revitalizing, it is the perfect isotonic drink for rehydration following exercise.

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 Christine Bailey
 The Juice Diet
 ISBN: 9781844839483