This is the lettuce patch in our greenhouse. Where? What do you mean, “where”? There, under all that Fat Hen. You can just see a lollo rosso straining to reach a crack of light that makes it through the forest canopy of thick, lush Fat Hen leaves.
Fortunately, I’ve got into meditation lately. Relevant? You may ask. Well, yes. My new found serenity has made me reappraise my long held vendetta against Fat Hen. I have decided to embrace the weeds. No longer will I let them trouble me. No more will I rip them out and feed them to Peggy the Pig with a sick relish at their gruesome end. In my zenlike state, I shall pluck them tenderly from the ground and, grateful for their bounty, make a feast out of them. For I am learning all about the uses for weeds like Fat Hen that plague, sorry adorn, the allotment.
My tutelage came from Thyme Cookery School, where I’ve been assisting in the kitchen garden, picking and planting crops for the school. An odd order arrived last week: 2kg of weeds. The resulting Weed Pie (I think we need to workshop the name a bit) was a stunning reinvention of Spanakopita and introduced me to the loveliness of Fat Hen.
Yes, loveliness. It’s like a zingy spinach and has none of the slightly-peculiar-somehow-not-quite-right-I’m-clearly-eating-a-weed taste of, say, nettles. You could genuinely bag it and sell it in Waitrose at outrageously inflated prices.
And it turns out that’s exactly what we used to do. (Well, not Waitrose, obviously, the Neolithic equivalent.) It was used until Tudor times when spinach took its place and I can really see spinach being shunned in favour of this abundant and prolific pest, sorry, crop.
I’ve featured it in a soufflé this week, but you could happily use it to replace spinach in any dish. I rather like John Wright’s idea of stuffing a chicken breast with wilted Fat Hen to create Fat Hen Hen. My soufflé benefits from no such puns, but is tasty nonetheless:
- 300ml milk
- 300ml double cream
- 2 shallots, halved
- 4 cloves
- a few peppercorns
- 3 fresh bay leaves
- 100g butter
- 40g plain flour
- 500g (ish) fat hen leaves
- 230g cheddar, grated
- 5 eggs
(A grateful nod to Delicious Magazine for the basic proportions with which I have glibly tinkered.)
Heat the milk, cream, shallots, cloves, peppercorns and bay leaves until it boils, then remove from the heat and leave to infuse for a bit (15 minutes ish).
Meanwhile, pick the leaves from the Fat Hen (if they’re young – ie: haven’t got a flower forming – you can use the whole thing) and wash thoroughly. Wilt in the water that clings to the leaves after washing and squeeze out as much water as possible from the cooked tangle. Chop finely.
Bring the milk back to the boil and, whilst that’s heating up, melt the butter in a large pan, add the flour and cook gently for 1 minute to make a thick paste before removing from the heat. Strain the hot milk and gradually stir it into the paste to make a thick sauce. Return to the heat and simmer the roux for 10 minutes, stirring to prevent it catching. Pour into a large bowl and leave to cool.
Lightly butter 8 small ramekins and shake over a little cheese to coat the sides and base of each. Put them all on a tray ready for the oven.
Now to assemble the whole thing. Separate the eggs. Stir the yolks, cheese and Fat Hen into the roux and season. Whisk the egg whites to a soft peak and, with the calmness of a meditating monk, fold them into the mixture. Fill your ramekins and cook at 190 degrees for 15 minutes.
Eat quickly before they sink. Heaven.
So come everyone, altogether now with my new mantra, “I embrace the weeds. I cherish the weeds. I embrace the weeds. I cherish…”