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Gardening is supposed to keep you in touch with the seasons – marking the passing of the year from the first leaves appearing in spring, through an abundance of summer flowers and autumn fruit harvests, to the ice on the pond in winter.  But the mild (so far) winter has left the garden not really knowing where it’s at.  Last summer’s cutting garden still has a few rudbeckia hanging on in there – dots of yellow against the sea of mud that is the bottom of the garden just now.  Nearer the house though, the garden is gearing itself up for spring.  The snowdrops are pushing up fresh leaves and small white buds…

Snowdrops

There are catkins hanging from the bare branches of cobnut trees.

Catkins

A single, and very bedraggled, primrose flower, looking a bit sorry for itself.

Primrose

And then there’s this –

Hellebore

The first hellebore flower of the year.

In between the seasonal extremes of summer cut flowers and Lenten roses, are the herbs – and they’re looking pretty good for the time of year.  Despite all the rain, the rosemary is still healthy and green, with lots of buds promising flowers for early bees.  And the parsley is doing just fine too – new leaves are growing and I’ve been able to pick plenty for the kitchen.  There’s coriander in the greenhouse too, and small green shoots starting to appear in the herb garden – yes, the chives are growing again already.

Rosemary

Although there haven’t been many cold and frosty mornings this winter, there are days when the clouds and damp make it feel pretty cold.  It was on one of these days, with a pan of squash and carrot simmering gently on the hob, all ready to be turned into a warming soup that the blender packed up.  We tried using the food processor, but this just chops up the vegetables to make a bowl of small pieces of carrot and squash in stock rather than blending everything to make a smooth soup.  It was an edible meal, just about, and a memorable one… but not for the right reasons.  More successful was a soup that was never meant to be blended in the first place – an onion soup made with locally produced cider.

Onion soup 2

Now, as you will know, a good bowl of onion soup needs some good chunky croutons to turn it into a meal… and those croutons are usually topped with melted cheese.  And very good they are too, but I was on a roll with vegan recipes and wanted to come up with some equally tasty, but dairy free, croutons.  These, I think, fit the bill very nicely.  Thick slices of crusty baguette, topped with a creamy mixture of tahini, parsley and lemon.

Onion & cider soup

(serves 4)

3 tbsp olive oil

3 large onions, finely sliced

2 tsp caster sugar

a pinch of salt

200ml dry cider

1 bay leaf

3-4 sprigs fresh thyme

650ml vegetable stock

salt & freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oil in a large, heavy based saucepan over a medium heat.  Add the onions, sugar and salt, stir and turn the heat down to low.  Leave the onions to cook very gently, stirring occasionally, for about 30 minutes.  You want them to soften, sweeten and brown slightly.

Add the cider, herbs and stock to the pan and simmer for 10-15 minutes.  Remove from the heat and season to taste.  You can serve the soup straight away (remove the herbs first), but it’s even better if you leave it to sit for a while – the flavours seem to develop more.

Tahini spread for croutons

1 tbsp tahini

1 tsp finely chopped preserved lemons

1 tbsp finely chopped fresh parsley leaves

1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Just mix all the ingredients together to get a paste.  If the mood takes you, season with some salt and freshly ground black pepper… although the preserved lemons bring a good bit of saltiness with them, so be sure to taste before you add seasoning.

Spread this tasty mix over a toasted slice of baguette and sit the whole lot on top of a freshly ladled out bowl of warm soup.

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