The Musette: green asparagus with poached egg and vinaigrette

I adore asparagus and can happily eat it most days once it first appears in spring. Green or white? I adore both. Typically, it is served with melted butter or hollandaise sauce. Sadly, both of these options are forbidden and, consequently, I’ll serve my portion with either lemon juice or a vinaigrette dressing while my beloved enjoys his served with a poached egg. Sometimes, I’ll add boiled new potatoes and a slice of cooked ham or veal to turn his portion into a more substantial course. However, this recipe is my starter version.

Ingredients (serves 4)

The poached egg

  • 1ltr (4 cups) boiling water
  • 2 tsp white wine vinegar
  • 4 medium-sized eggs, fresh organic

The asparagus and spinach

  • 1ltr (4 cups) boiling water, salted
  • 20 medium-sized asparagus spears, trimmed to approx. same length
  • 1 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 150g (2/3 cup) baby spinach leaves, washed
  • sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

To dress

  • 1 tbsp Dijon mustard
  • 1 tbsp freshley squeezed organic lemon juice
  • 2 tbsp water
  • 3 tbsp non-scented vegetable oil
  • 1 pinch sea salt
  • 1 pinch freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 tbsp hazelnuts, toasted and lightly chopped

Method

1. Start by making the dressing. Mix all the ingredients together, taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Set aside.

The Musette: Tuscan feast Part II

Here’s part two of my Tuscan feast for you to enjoy with your family and friends. You can find part one here.

Starter: Selection of salads

We’re back from our morning ride and I need something quick, simple and tasty to put on the table while I finish the main course. Big platters of crowd-pleasing salads are ideal. My all-time favourite is made from sun-ripened juicy tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella (or even better burrata), fresh basil leaves, olive oil, fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Chop, scatter and serve – who needs a recipe? But what you do need is great, fresh ingredients. Feel free to turn it into tricolore salad with the addition of a perfectly ripe avocado.

Here’s another salad which relies on perfectly ripe ingredients chopped and scattered on a plate. This time it’s a richly scented, ripe orange fleshed melon, served with thin slices of slightly salty Parma ham on a bed of rocket with a dusting of freshly ground black pepper. This works equally well with fresh black or white figs.

Lastly, a salad which takes advantage of fresh seasonal produce and a good artisan salami. No need to skin the peaches. I’ve used flat white vine peaches here but the usual yellow ones or even nectarines will be just fine – so long as they’re ripe and juicy. I’ve chopped the salami into bite-sized pieces, placed everything on some rocket and, only because I had it in the fridge, added some radish sprouts and seasoned with a dusting of fine sea salt and freshly ground pepper.

Ecco – three delicious fresh salads to ward off the hunger pains. Typically, I would serve these with my home-made focaccia.

You might be thinking “Salads, are you mad, it’s the depths of winter!” In which case can I suggest a warming soup.

Dessert: apricot and almond crostata

Crostata sounds so much more exciting and foreign than a pie or tart, doesn’t it? I love its rustic appearance, versatility and the ease with which you can make it. People get stressed about making pastry but this is really simple as you don’t have to roll it out or blind-bake it. The crust is very forgiving.

Ingredients (serves four hungry cyclists)

  • ½kg (1lb) fresh, ripe apricots
  • 2 tbsp caster or raw cane sugar
  • 2-3 tbsp liqueur or water
  • 1 small jar (1 cup) apricot jam
  • 180g (1½ cups) plain (all-purpose) flour
  • 75g (¾ cup) finely ground almonds
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 50g (½ cup) coarsely chopped toasted almonds
  • 125g (9 tbsp) soft unsalted butter
  • 75g (½ cup) caster or raw cane sugar
  • 1 large organic egg, approx. 45g (1⅔oz) without shell
  • 1 large organic egg yolk
  • ¼ tsp fine sea salt

Method

1. Start by making the filling. Cut the apricots in half, remove the stone and place in a saucepan with 2 tbsp of sugar, the liqueur (or water) of choice and the apricot jam for about 5-7 minutes until the fruit has softened. Leave to cool.

2. Make the crust by creaming together the butter and sugar – preferably with a mixer – until light and creamy.

3. Add the egg and egg yolk and continue to mix until combined and the batter is smooth.

4. In a separate bowl, mix together the sifted flour, ground almonds, salt and baking powder.

5. Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture and mix just until the dough comes together. Cover with cling-film (plastic wrap) and place in the fridge for at least half an hour.

6. Preheat oven to 190°C/170°C fan/gas mark 5 (375°F/350°F fan).

7. Once the filling has cooled and the dough has chilled, split the dough in half. Using your hands, press half of the dough into the bottom and up the sides of a 23cm (9″ ) tart pan with a removable bottom. Ensure that it’s evenly distributed in the pan.

8. Spoon the apricot mixture into the crust. Mix the coarsely chopped and toasted almonds into the remaining dough and, using your fingers, break up the remaining crust mixture into small pea-sized pieces and drop it across the top of the tart. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t cover completely the filling – it looks more rustic.

9. Bake the tart in the preheated oven for about 25 minutes or until it is lightly browned. Remove from the oven and allow to cool before serving at room temperature with a dollop of mascarpone cream, fresh cream, crème fraiche or a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. All ingredients should be at room temperature.

2. When I’m baking I always use a timer as it’s so easy to lose track of time. Once you’ve put the crostata in the oven, put the timer on for 3-5 minutes less than it should take to cook and then check regularly.

3. If you think the crostata is browning too quickly, particularly at the edges, cover it with an aluminium-foil tent.

4. I like to use my own home-made jam in the filling but, if you don’t have any home-made, a quality bought one will be just fine.

5. You can use an almond liqueur such as Amaretto or maybe even an apricot grappa – think about flavours that go well with your fruit. I used a couple of spoons of my home-made peach and vanilla vodka.

6. Just in case you’re wondering whether I have an illicit still in the flat, I should clarify. In order to use up the large amount of alcohol my husband receives as gifts from clients, I took some fresh white peaches, skinned them and put them in sterile kilner jars, added a vanilla pod and covered them with vodka. I then left the jars in a cool, dark place for at least six months. The fruit is delicious and then I use the leftover liqueur on all sorts of desserts from pancakes to ice cream. I’ve successfully done this with a variety of fruits but my favourites are peaches and raspberries.

7. I now apricots aren’t in season in France in February so use bottled or another fruit which is readily available. I’ve successfully made this tart with rhubarb and ginger, plums, peaches and figs.

The Musette: beignets de fleurs de courgettes

Went down to my local market this morning and all the vegetable stall holders had beautiful golden courgette flowers. I first ate these stuffed many, many years ago at a Father’s Day Luncheon at Le Manoir aux Quatre Saisons – such a delight. Since moving to France this is one of my favourite summer treats, despite them being deep fried! I bought some and rushed home to prepare them for lunch.

 

Ingredients (12 pieces, starter for 4 hungry cyclists or main course for 2)

  • 20g (3/4 oz) aquafaba or 1 large egg yolk
  • 125g (1/2 cup) self-raising flour
  • 175ml (3/4 cup) ice-cold sparkling water
  • 1/2 tsp ground tumeric
  • pinch sea salt and freshly ground white pepper
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 12 courgette (zucchini) flowers

Method

1. Firstly, if necessary, separate the flowers from each courgette and check them for insects, remove the stamens, cut any large ones in two, and set them all aside. Save the courgettes (zucchini) for another dish, another day.

2. Heat a 10cm/1 litre (4 cups) depth of oil in a suitable deep, heavy-based saucepan until it registers 140°C (285°F) on a frying thermometer.

3. In the meantime, make the batter: sift the flour and  turmeric together and add the salt and pepper into a large mixing bowl, then whisk in the aquafaba, olive oil and sparkling water. The batter should be quite light.

4. Cook 2–4 courgette flowers at a time, depending on their size and the diameter of your pan: dip the flowers into the batter to coat, then carefully lower them into the hot oil. Deep-fry for 1– 2 minutes, until puffed up, crisp and golden. Drain on kitchen paper. Serve with lemon wedges and, if you like, a spicy sauce. I love Sriracha mayonnaise (vegan mayonnaise mixed with Sriracha sauce)!

The Musette: honey baked feta cheese

This is the third and last of Marcus Waring’s recipes which I’m trying from his New Classics cookery book this month. Of course, it won’t be the last recipe of his that I try. I have all of his cookery books and they’re big favourites of mine.

This is a very versatile vegetarian dish. You could serve this as a starter, lunch-time main course or before dessert – we are in France – for a different take on the cheese course. However you decide to serve it, this simple dish of creamy, tangy feta grilled until melting and slightly crisp is transformed thanks to heady, fragrant lavender and fresh thyme. The homemade rye crisps served alongside are great for dipping and scooping into the melted cheese, and are incredibly simple to make – all you need is half a loaf of rye bread and a garlic clove!

Ingredients (serves 2 as a main course, or 4 as a cheese course or starter)

  • 200g (7oz) feta cheese
  • 1/2 loaf rye bread
  • 4 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 fat garlic clove, halved
  • 2 tbsp runny lavender honey
  • 4 sprigs fresh thyme, take off leaves
  • 2 lavender sprigs, or 1/2 tsp dried lavender
  • sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 200°C/180°C fan/(400°F)/gas mark 6.

2. Cover the feta with kitchen paper and leave at room temperature for at least an hour to absorb all the excess moisture.

3. Cut the bread into very thin slices. Place them in a single layer on 2 baking trays. Brush with the olive oil and rub each slice with a halved garlic clove.

4. Bake the bread in the oven for 5 – 7 minutes until lightly golden and crisp.

5. Remove the bread, keeping it warm, and turn the oven to its grill setting.

6. Remove the kitchen paper from the cheese and place the feta in an ovenproof dish just large enough for it to fit snugly. Drizzle the honey on top, then add the thyme and lavender. Season well with salt and pepper and grill for 5–10 minutes until golden and bubbling.

7. Remove the cheese from the grill. Serve the feta immediately with the bread crisps.

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. The feta is the star of the show. Buy it from a cheese shop rather than packaged from a supermarket. I’ve tried both and it does make a difference.

2. Marcus’s recipe calls for rye bread and I understand why; it’s got a closed tight texture. I’ve tried it with spelt and sour dough, both were fine though it does help if the bread’s not fresh. Or you could use store-bought rye crackers.

3. Marcus’s recipe uses 4 tbsp of honey which we found to be too much and I’ve reduced it to 2 tbsp.

4. Don’t overdo the lavender or the cheese will taste soapy – not ideal!

5. You do need to use fresh thyme, dried won’t cut it here.