It is grey and damp. I scan the shelves in the hope of putting dinner together without making a trip to the shops. There are cans of plain, homely beans; spices, of course, and some powdered vegetable stock.
Vegetables are few, onions, a couple of sweet potatoes and a plume of cavolo nero. There are a few mushrooms that have seen better days. This is good news. I can knock together a bean casserole – cheap, sustaining and as comforting as a pair of sheepskin mittens. I will stir the greens into the mushroomy depths, lay a ring of sweet potatoes on top. My casserole will glow.
On the shelf below the beans are jars of dried fruits: sticky prunes as black as night, dried mulberries and cherries, medjool dates, a pot of golden sultanas from Lebanon and two sorts of apricots – the jewel bright unsulphured kind and some dark rust-brown untreated fruits. There seem rather too many apricots, so they are commandeered to add sweetness to a fruit bread to go with cheese. The bread – what Granny used to call a “brack” – is made without butter, and flavoured with tea, walnuts, oats and apricots. Despite the addition of honey, it is not an especially sweet loaf. Something to slice thickly for tea and have with a ripe and runny cheese. The sun will shine after all.
Honey and apricot loaf
The loaf is firm and will slice neatly, and should keep in good condition for a day or two in an airtight plastic box.
Makes 1 medium loaf
thick honey 150g
light muscovado sugar 100g
plain flour 250g
baking powder 1 tsp
salt a pinch
rolled oats 50g
dried apricots 150g
black tea 125ml
golden sultanas 150g
cheese to serve
You will need a deep, rectangular cake tin measuring 20cm x 9cm, lined with baking paper.
Preheat the oven to 160C/gas mark 3. Gently warm the honey and muscovado sugar in a small saucepan, without stirring, until the sugar has dissolved. Combine the flour, baking powder, salt and oats in a large mixing bowl. Cut the apricots into small pieces and stir them in. Make the tea. Break the eggs into a small bowl, beat lightly with a fork.
Pour the warm honey and sugar mixture into the flour together with the tea and the beaten eggs. Then fold the golden sultanas and walnuts into the batter. Scoop the mixture, which will be soft and runny, like a gingerbread batter, into the lined cake tin.
Bake for 60-75 minutes until risen and lightly springy. Remove from the oven and leave to cool in the tin before slicing and serving with cheese.
Cannellini bean and sweet potato pie
You can use any beans you may have – cannellini, haricot or butter beans – for the filling and you can include the silky canning liquor, too. This is one of those recipes that seems even better the following day, so you could make it the day before and reheat it in the oven for 30-40 minutes. (Take it out of the fridge for an hour before you bake it.) Serves 6
onions 2, medium
olive oil 2 tbsp
carrots 2, medium
celery 1 stick
garlic 3 cloves
thyme leaves 1 tbsp
rosemary leaves 1 tbsp
bay leaves 3
button or small chestnut mushrooms 400g
cannellini or haricot beans 2 x 400g tins
vegetable stock 400ml, hot
cavolo nero or spinach leaves 200g
For the potato crust:
sweet potatoes 650g
olive oil (or a little melted butter) for the top
Peel and finely dice the onion, then finely dice the carrot and celery. Warm the olive oil in a deep sided casserole over a low to moderate heat, then add the vegetables and cook for about 15 minutes until the onion is translucent. Don’t let them brown.
Peel and thinly slice the garlic, then stir into the softening aromatics. Finely chop the thyme and rosemary leaves and with the bay leaves add to the pan. Cut the mushrooms into quarters and add. Once the mushrooms have been cooking for 5 minutes stir in the cannellini beans and their canning cooking liquid and the vegetables stock and bring to the boil. Season with salt and black pepper, it will need plenty of both, then lower the heat and leave to simmer for a good 20-25 minutes. If there seems too much liquid – you should have good thick sauce rather than soup – turn up the heat and let it reduce a little.
Wash and roughly chop the cavolo nero or spinach leaves. Put them and a couple of tablespoons of water into a pan with a tightly fitting lid, then leave over a high heat for a couple of minutes, until the leaves have brightened and relaxed. Drain them, then stir into the beans and set aside.
Peel the sweet potatoes, cut them into large pieces and cook them in a steamer basket or colander over boiling water for about 15-20 minutes until soft enough to crush. Remove and cut them into thick slices (about 1cm thick).
Set the oven at 200C/gas mark 6. Transfer the bean filling to a baking dish – I use a deep casserole about 22cm in diameter, but a roasting tin will work, too. Place the slices of sweet potato on top of the stew, then brush with olive oil and season with a little black pepper.
Bake for 30 minutes to an hour, until the edges are bubbling.
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