Asparagus Risotto

Asparagus is a long term” investment” in the vegetable garden.

It’s a good three years before you can begin to harvest the crop.

That’s because the advice is to harvest very few spears at first  so as not to over deplete the new plant’s resources.

The spears of Asparagus were cut five minutes before

When you first lay the one-year-old crowns in their trench ready to be covered by soil they look like a writhing nest of snakes or alien roots.

They lay dormant for half the year before pushing up through the ground as the weather and soil becomes warmer.

It reminds me of the Jason and the Argonauts – the rows of soldiers springing up from dragon’s teeth sowed in the ground.

The season lasts about six weeks to eight weeks and then you leave the spears to grow into feathery ferns that are up to six feet high (185 cm).

Feathery Asparagus
Feathery asparagus ferns

They need staking so they don’t collapse and are left until the winter when they are cut down and composted and the bed is weeded.

Last November Fynn, who was visiting from Germany, helped me empty the contents of a finished compost heap onto the bed – a good and necessary feed for the plants which are now four years old.

Asparagus, parsley and lemonAsparagus, parsley and lemon
Asparagus, parsley and lemon

This first “cut” certainly tasted superb.

I cooked it with shallot, white wine, lemon zest and parsley.

And the obligatory hot vegetable stock.

Ingredients for Asparagus risotto

I used vegan parmesan cheese – which was really good.

I was pleasantly surprised!

Asparagus Risotto

5 from 1 vote
Asparagus Risotto
Servings: 4 people
Author: Cath
  • 12 spears asparagus
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 medium sized shallot, finely chopped
  • 300 g arborio rice
  • 1 glass (125 ml) white wine
  • 750 - 1000 ml boiling vegetable stock
  • 1 lemon zested (and the juice of half the lemon)
  • 1 large handful parsley, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated vegan parmesan cheese
  1. Remove the woody end of the asparagus. To do this find the "breaking point" of the asparagus by gently moving your way up from the bottom of the spear with your fingers until it snaps.

    Keep the tender top parts and cook them in boiling water for a couple of minutes until al dente and not quite tender. 

    Then allow to cool, then chop into 3 cm pieces and set aside.

  2. Heat olive oil in large saucepan on low to medium heat and add finely chopped shallot until softened but not coloured.

  3. Add the rice and fry for a minute or two, stirring frequently, until coated in the oil. Do not allow to brown.

  4. Add the white wine - it will sizzle as it hits the pan. Simmer and stir gently until evaporated and absorbed by the rice. 

  5. Add the hot vegetable stock a ladleful at a time, stirring between each addition to allow the liquid to be completely absorbed, until the rice is cooked and the stock has been absorbed (you may not need all the stock).  

    The heat will probably need to be on about medium now.

    When done it should be al dente and ever so slightly "chalky" and will take about 15 minutes. 

  6. Add the asparagus, finely chopped parsley and minced lemon peel and the juice of half the lemon (make sure no white pith is on the zest when you remove it and before you chop it finely).

    Add parmesan.

    Season, to taste, with salt and freshly ground black pepper and stir well.

  7. The risotto should be served on warm wide soup plates and should be neither too solid or too sloppy. 

    It should be creamy and have a slight wobble to it when you shake the plate.




Hot, hot, cold!


“Hottest April Day since 1949!” shriek the headlines!

OK – so temperatures did nudge 25 or 26 Celsius this past few days but as we all know things can change very fast – and this coming week – values are predicted to halve to 13C!!

herbaceous borderIt makes it difficult to know what seed to sow directly into my small patch of newly spread fine compost (the rest is very rough and needs a month or two to rot down in situ).

Anyway I took the plunge and now have a short row each of Milan purple topped turnip, Reite Rosen 2 carrot, parsnip and Ishikura spring onion.

I watered the drill with very weak seaweed solution (1 small cap per large watering can full) before I shook the seeds in and then trod in lightly the covering of dry soil on the top.

I may cover with fleece in the next couple of days to keep it warm.

I’ve been pricking out lettuce and chicory that was sown about three weeks ago… fiddly but satisfying.

And I’ve sowed some old yellow courgette seed and pumpkin seed.

The latter was saved and given to me by my former yoga teacher Cilla and her partner Julie.

I soaked it in water with a little seaweed solution first to see if that improves germination.

I expect Hokkaido type Uchiki Kuri pumpkins.

Other jobs I have on my list for this week are:

  • planting out small clumps of leek seedlings (I sowed them three or four to a module)
  • putting in supports for my mangetout peas which are already in ground and soon to be joined by some baby brothers and sisters
  • rebuilding a couple of compost heaps
  • sowing some more courgette seeds (variety called Costates Romanesco) – I may put them in the airing cupboard if the weather stays grey and miserable
  • pricking out more lettuce and my magic cauliflower mix of seedlings
  • sowing kale and more beetroot in modules
  • harvesting the amazing heads of perennial nine star cauliflower that have started to come and more chard that has overwintered

I hope you are enjoying being busy and productive in the garden.

Costates Romanesco Courgettes
Costates Romanesco Courgettes growing well last summer




Tarragon vinegar

A delicate herb

Earlier this week they nipped out the tops of  the French Tarragon plants at the Escape project, where I volunteer, to make them less straggly and more bushy.

It’s a delicate herb as it can’t be grown from seed and can really only be propagated from softwood cuttings, root cuttings (which is how I grew mine from a piece of root at the Escape Project in Swaffham) and by division.

When I talked to Norfolk Herbs near Dereham recently – they told me that only 60% of their cutting take – and they’re the professionals!

French Tarragon
French Tarragon which has just been tipped out from a cutting which was only started off in February and kept in the warm

Because of this many nurseries only offer Russian Tarragon for sale – so make sure you know what you’re buying or growing before you start.

It’s easier to grow but a different herb altogether and has little flavour compared to the “real thing”.

Anyway I cadged some of the tips and added the top of my lone little plantling to the total (16 altogether).

Fresh Tarragon leaves
Tarragon leaves are washed and then dried before pouting vinegar on them

Other ideas

I could have dried the leaves in the airing cupboard until they were dessicated but I thought I’d try flavouring some vinegar with it.

I guess you could also flavour olive oil with it – I have done this with great success with fresh small-leaved basil at the end of the growing season.

And Karen – who’s one of the gardeners and team leaders at the Escape allotment project – said she used hers with potatoes.

It’s also got me thinking that I may try and make some raspberry vinegar in a couple of months.

Washed, dried and slightly crushed

Anyway I found a 500ml bottle of white wine vinegar and used  half of it – brought to boiling – to pour onto the washed, dried and slightly crushed tarragon leaves which I put in a Kilner jar.

Any jar will do as long as it’s big enough and you’ve washed it and dried it well (you could sterilise it by putting it through dishwasher or rinsing in boiling water and then leaving to dry upturned).

I added 15 black peppercorns.

I may decant quite soon – 2 weeks was recommended in some of the reading I did before making this – but I might do it after 1 week as I crushed the leaves first and there are quite a few of them.

I love the slightly fizzy taste French tarragon leaves in your mouth after chewing it.





Italian Borlotti Bean Soup

I love borlotti beans

They’re good in an Italian soup with or without pasta.

You can also cook them in stock, garlic and olive oil – reducing the liquid until it becomes an unctuous sauce – then finish it off with loads of chopped fresh parsley.

And Marcella Hazan – one of the doyennes of Italian food writers – uses them to make a fantastic pasta sauce flavoured with rosemary (she calls them cranberry beans).

Fiery red pods

They’re a great thing to grow as they can be cooked straight after being shelled from the fiery red pod – the Italians call them lingua di fuoco or tongue of fire. The fresh beans are a delicate pale green laced with pink markings (the pods are discarded and composted).

They also store well – if you pick them right at the end of the season as the pods are turning crisp and papery on the climbing vine – revealing pink and burgundy beans that look like miniature exotic birds eggs.

Beans drying on a tray
I lay them out on a tray to dry and then store in dry jars to use throughout the winter

When you want to use them you soak them overnight and cook like any other dried bean or pulse. They are a welcome and hearty staple throughout the winter.

Dried and soaked beans
These homegrown dried beans double in size once they’ve been soaked

Save and sow

And as I make this soup with the last of my collected, dried and stored beans I’m saving about to sow thirty or forty of them to sow for this year’s crop. 

They will take a couple of weeks to germinate – I sow in compost in 1 1/2 inch square modules and wait until the last frosts before planting out along a row of bamboo cane supports for them to scramble up.

Like other beans they are a good nitrogen fixer improving your soil for the crop that follows them.

Borlotti Bean Soup

Author: Cath
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 125 g diced onion
  • 125 g diced carrot
  • 125 g diced celery
  • 170 g tomatoes chopped
  • 180 g dried borlotti beans, soaked and cooked until soft or 450 g tinned drained beans
  • 750 ml vegetable stock or more if needed
  • 2 tbsp finely chopped fresh parsley
  1. Saute onion, carrot and celery with a little salt on a gentle heat for about ten minutes in a large saucepan.  Sometimes I add a little crushed garlic or if I have no celery I will use leeks. Stir occasionally.

  2. Add tomatoes (you can use fresh skinned tomatoes or tinned ones with their juice) and cook for a further ten minutes stirring occasionally.

  3. Add cooked borlotti beans and bean cooking liquid topped up with stock (I use Marigold Bouillon powder with water).  I usually make sure there's at least two inches of liquid above the beans and vegetables in the pan.

    You can add fresh uncooked borlotti beans instead at this point if you have them (about 1kg in weight in their pods - then shell and discard pods and compost them). Or add some tinned beans like red kidneys.

  4. Simmer for half an hour with the lid on.

  5. Taste and season with salt and pepper if necessary - you can also take out a few of the beans (a couple of tablespoons and mash them and add back into the pan)

  6. At this point you can add a couple or three handfuls of dried small pasta shapes like orzo or macaroni and cook for a further 10 or 15 minutes making sure there's enough liquid to absorb the extra ingredients. 

    I usually don't bother.

  7. I chop lots of fresh parsley - a couple of tablespoons and add five minutes before I serve.



Make your own compost

Baptised into the Church of Composting!

Two weeks ago I became a member of Norfolk Master Composters.

Thirty of us spent the weekend learning more about turning much of our kitchen and garden waste into gorgeous, crumbly black compost.

Compost bins and signs
We looked at the pros and cons of various methods including a barrel or tumbler composter which speeds up the process

A bin to suit everyone

The Master Composter course, organised by Garden Organic , was held at the Green Britain Centre on the outskirts of the pretty market town of Swaffham.

It seems that when it comes to composting there’s a bin to suit everyone.

Lifting lid off bin
Lifting the lid off the Green Johanna with a black hotbin in foreground

We looked at the pros and cons of most of them including how to make a compact wormery or a Japanese inspired bokashi bin.

And we discussed the efficacy or otherwise of black plastic “dalek” bins (that can often be bought cheaply from the local council) open heaps and everything in between

I’d never heard of some like the Green Johanna which takes cooked food and meat.

Spreading the word

Now we’re expected to spend at least thirty hours over the coming year preaching the good news at plants sales, fetes, at work to colleagues and anywhere else the spirit moves us.

My first attempt last weekend failed miserably.

I picked up all I needed for a outdoor display from the compost co-ordinator, David Hawkyard in Norwich.

But the extreme cold and constant rain meant the Easter Eggstravanza at my local village hall was an indoor affair only.

But writing this blog is one way to encourage others and I hope I can take some information to a nearby plant swap soon.

My own experience

Until a couple of years ago I was a bit half-hearted about composting.

I had a cold heap on my allotment near Norwich which I rarely turned and yet it produced half a cubic metre of reasonable compost each year.

I topped up the veg beds very occasionally with van loads of spent mushroom compost.

And for a time a friend of mine brought me spent hops from his micro brewery to add to the heap.

Making your own compost is much cheaper when you need lots of it for No Dig gardening

But I became almost evangelical about composting three years ago when I moved to a bigger garden where I’ve been trying a No Dig approach.

That’s because it requires lots and lots of new compost every year as a growing medium, soil conditioner and mulch.

I’ve gone from one compost heap to six!

Last spring, Angus, a young Australian visitor helped me reinstate three very rough bays made out of old electricity poles.

We cleared up an area at the bottom of the garden so we could grow more veg.

Veg bed and compost bays
New potato bed and compost bays

And at the end of the summer I managed to make my first “hot” heap from scratch – layering brown and green material with the occasional addition of urine and homemade comfrey liquid.

I was amazed at how quickly it heated up and how it accelerated the composting process.

I pretty much followed this video by Charles Dowding .

You don’t have to go as far as peeing on your compost heap but both the comfrey and the urine are good accelerators along with nettle leaves and horse, cow or pig poo – although I am no longer adding manure as I would like to rely entirely on plant matter.

Seaweed maybe a good alternative but I haven’t tried that yet.