As I am writing this I am also keeping an amused eye on the antics at my bird feeders. The gnarly, old apple tree on which the feeders hang is suddenly alive with over a dozen balls of downy cerulean fluff, cheeping and and chasing as if battery powered. The extra life in the tree is due to a second set of blue tits having just today fledged and joined their older, bolder siblings. I would love to show you a picture of these hyperactive blue bullets but they are too darn fast, flitting from limb to limb with the ease of practised trapeze artists.
Because we have two cats it is with a certain amount of guilt that we hang and maintain bird feeders. One cat is too rotund to prove much of a risk to the visiting bird population, and is taunted by raucous crows who occasionally swoop low and rocket off, cawing loudly. The other cat, a slinky tabby, is another story altogether. Let’s just say that at this time of year it is not a complete surprise to be given a ‘present’. He watches and waits with infinite patience for any clumsy, or distracted, chick upon which to pounce. A large recently fallen oak tree branch is proving a perfect eyrie to espy little ground-based birds as they scavenge for anything knocked from the overhanging feeders. Our cats are well-fed and of relatively advanced years (somewhat like myself) so are not as active in this respect as once they were, but it is still a source of guilt at this time of year. But right now, with the deft acrobatics I am witnessing before me, it’s all good. And both cats are doing as cats do and sleeping. On the master bed of course.
What in the world does this have to do with minestrone? Well, not much (my ramblings rarely dovetail with the accompanying recipe) except they are both delights of late spring. Root-based soups are sustaining and warming in winter, but a fresh-tasting, pesto-infused minestrone makes a wonderful light lunch as spring eases into summer. And even better if accompanied by a pillowy hunk of green stratified focaccia.Focaccia, like all yeasted breads, is not a quick option. But it is ever-so satisfying turning a few simple ingredients into something you pay an arm and a leg for in a shop. Much fresher and yummier too, what with the mineral hit of kale and the piquant savouriness of the goats’ cheese and homemade pesto. Homemade bread is one of those rare beasts that is much more than the sum of its parts – kind of like children!
And, as an added bonus, if your tum is upset by shop-bought bread you may find that the slower rising of this type of bread magically eliminates digestive discomfort. Many people who think themselves a bit sensitive to wheat may in fact be sensitive to crap bread – pappy, longer-life quickly produced stuff that masquerades itself with added seeds or – Heaven’s above – Omega 3. The Chorleywood method, with its lower quality/lower protein flour and hard fats, has a lot to answer for. Happily more and more people are discovering the delights of making their own bread and buying artisan loaves from specialist bakers. Unless I have literally just eaten I am almost never able to pass a decent baker’s without walking away with the familiar brown paper parcel tucked under my arm. I hope you have a great baker near you too.
Although I love making yeasted bread I don’t do it every day, not even every week. But I do know that it is worth the seeming effort to get something different. And this recipe is nothing if not different. And that’s the great thing about making your own bread: once you master the basics you can really set about being creative with the add-ins. It’s a great family activity too. With this recipe you could divide it into four and make tiny personal focaccias: little Johnny might want to knead some crushed garlic into his; Sally might fancy gorgonzola instead of goats’ cheese. Well, she might.
As for the minestrone it is what it is, an all-in kitchen sink-type effort. Well, hardly effort, seeing as it’s a bit of chopping and stirring. If you decide on other vegetables, keep it seasonal and respect the approximate cooking times of what you are using. Do try the homemade pesto as you can use it in this recipe and the focaccia, but a good quality fresh one from a deli will be fine. Please don’t use the jarred stuff as the real thing does make a huge difference. Otherwise I won’t be responsible if you take a a slurp/bite and say, ‘meh’.
Because this is such a long post I will eschew the usual nutrition natter and just say it’s darn healthy and tasty, with lots of nice green stuff. What are you waiting for?
Spring Kitchen Sink Minestrone Soup
I hope that the list of ingredients for this soup does not put you off making it. Sure, there’s a bit of chopping, but it is very easy and is so flaming healthy it should be on prescription. Because of the beans this soup is a meal in itself. Beans are great sources of starchy carbohydrates, protein and dietary fibre as well as having iron, potassium, selenium, zinc and B vitamins.
1 tbsp olive oil
1 bunch spring onions/scallions OR onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
10g lovage leaves, chopped OR 2 sticks celery, finely diced
4 small young carrots, chopped
a good handful of green beans, trimmed and sliced in 2 cm lengths
2 litres good vegetable stock (I use Swiss Marigold Vegetable Bouillon powder)
4 plum tomatoes, chopped
200g courgette/zucchini, trimmed and chopped in 1 cm dice
50g chestnut/brown mushrooms, wiped and sliced
50 gms wholewheat spaghetti, broken into 4 cm (or so) strands
450g tin borlotti beans, drained and rinsed – or equivalent ‘home cooked’ beans (you may of course just use one type of bean)
250g petit pois (baby peas) OR broad beans, podded and skinned
200g broccoli florets
best stock powder ever
Fresh pesto: 100g fresh basil leaves OR rocket/arugula, 1 small clove garlic, 50g pumpkin seeds OR pine nuts, 50ml extra virgin olive oil, juice of ½ small lemon
1 small bunch of basil (optional), torn just before serving
Heat the oil gently in a large pan over a low heat. Add the onion, garlic, lovage or celery, and the carrots – allow to sauté slowly for five minutes, stirring frequently. Next add the green beans, stock and tomatoes, bring to the boil and then simmer, covered, for 10 minutes.
Finally add the courgettes, mushrooms and borlotti beans or broad beans and cook for a further five minutes before adding the peas and broccoli. Turn off the heat and allow the soup to sit and cool slightly before stirring through the torn basil and pesto (see below).
To make the pesto, either use a food processor or large pestle and mortar to blitz/smash all but the oil. Drizzle in the oil for the last few seconds/bashes before mixing in the lemon juice.
More protein: This has plenty of protein.
Add calories: Sprinkle over some freshly grated parmesan or cheddar cheese; drizzle over some olive oil when serving
Less calories: Skip the sautéing stage and just add the ingredients (as listed) into boiling stock. Leave out the pesto step and add in more fresh torn basil when serving, and a spritz of fresh lemon juice.
Spring Green, Pesto and Goats’ Cheese-stuffed Focaccia
I must confess that I use a lot of spring greens and kale to feed my lovely flock-ette of hens. But my family love these spicy, earthy greens nearly as much as the chickens do, so beginning in February I start whacking them in any likely recipe. This is one of our favourites. Since I took the photos the local kale season has given way to more generically named spring greens, but use any of the bitter greens available to upgrade your focaccia. Depending on how tough or stalky your greens are you may like to strip out the centre rib and just use the softer leaves. No need to pre-cook the greens as they will steam in their doughy jacket. Although the focaccia makes about 12 slices we are always hard pressed to make it last more than 2 days. It also makes a lovely appetizer alongside some antipasti bits and pieces. Theoretically you can freeze the leftovers and reheat later for a nutritious snack or meal accompaniment. Never had to do that.
11g dried yeast (not the bread machine/easy blend kind)
12g sugar or honey
300ml hand hot water
500g strong/bread flour (warmed if possible)
2 tbsp olive oil
extra flour for dusting
polenta/cornmeal for the tray
a few handsful of young kale or spring greens, chopped
a few tablespoons of fresh pesto (see the above recipe or use a good quality bought fresh pesto)
100g goats’ cheese – hard or soft to your preference
Pecorino or grana padano cheese, grated – optional
Freshly ground black pepper
crunchy sea salt
fresh thyme leaves, optional
Dissolve the yeast and sugar/honey in the water. In a separate large wide bowl add flour and salt; mix well and make a well in the centre. Pour in the yeasty water and mix with one hand (I form a loose claw shape – works for me!) until you get a soft, craggy doughy. Work in the oil before scraping the dough onto a clean, lightly floured and clutter-free work surface. With floured hands (I keep a bowl of flour handy) knead the dough until it is quite smooth and silky. It may take a bit of work because it’s a bit of a sticky dough at first– anywhere between 5 and 15 minutes. You can do all of this in a food processor or free-standing mixer with dough hook attachment. The kneading is a good workout though!
Anyway, when the dough is soft, shape it into a ball and pop it into a large oiled bowl, slash it with a knife (it should rise more quickly by doing this) and cover with a tea towel or cling film. Leave the bowl in a warm place and allow the dough to double in size. This stage depends on the warmth of your room, but it should take between 40 minutes and 1 ½ hours. Gently press your fingers into the now inflated dough, then roll it into a rough rectangle about 1 cm/1/2 inch thick. Lay it onto a polenta scattered baking tray, with half hanging over the edge.
Spread enough pesto to cover half of the dough, before sprinkling over the chopped greens, goats’ cheese and pecorino cheese (if using). Drizzle over some more olive oil (about 2 tbsp) and season with black pepper. Fold over the other half of the dough seal the join by pushing and pinching it together. I usually tuck the pinched edges underneath so it looks like a doughy pillow. Rub over some more oil and sprinkle with sea salt and thyme leaves.
ready for baking
Now, leave the bread to double again in size – no need to cover. While it’s rising preheat your oven to 180C/350F. When the dough is well-risen slide the tray into the oven and bake for 25-30 minutes, until golden all over. If you can stand it let the focaccia sit for 15 minutes before tearing into it – I mean, cutting it into neat squares. Many focaccia recipes ask for a much higher temperature but this lower temperature works better for this particular recipe.
ready for devouring
N.B. Although we love it with the cheese, feel free to leave it out if you are vegan or lactose-intolerant. Perhaps add lemon zest if you don’t use the cheese.