Sunday, 13 May 2012

Are carrots hard to grow?

Back in 1997 when I first took over my allotment plot I sowed some carrot seeds which duly grew into carrots. It was only after that that I read how difficult carrots are to grow and ever since then I have struggled to grow carrots. Not withstanding the blasted carrot root fly that can turn perfectly decent carrots into riddled sticks of infestation, the biggest problem seems to be getting the seeds to germinate. I have tried all sorts of things to coax them into life, including pampering them with a soft sand lined drill to sow them into. I was also once advised by someone on the kitchen gardens group that carrot seeds need to be watered every day for a fortnight after sowing. Ha! Who has got the time to pander to plants like that?
Now, let me see, it has been 3 weeks since I sowed my carrot seeds. And since then it has rained every day. Oh what joy to behold on the allotment this Saturday - neat rows of lush green vegetation... Oh, I wish!! No, instead, bare soil where the carrots should have been. So what happened? Did they germinate in the lovely rain only to be eaten by the few slugs that hadn't succumbed to the deathly lines of slug pellets? Or maybe they germinated but got stuck beneath the hard packed crust of clay soil that seems to have developed due to the rain and sun combo. Or maybe they just failed to germinate altogether. Ho hum. I have now resown the carrot seeds in the same place and hope that whatever caused the problem first time is no longer an issue. I notice that the few I sowed on my girls veg plots have germinated just fine so at least I know the seeds aren't duds. And I can, of course, comfort myself with knowing that you can in fact buy carrots from the supermarket so if all else fails we won't go carrotless this year but by God I'm determined to get a few to grow!

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Happy New Year!

The other day I was listening to the radio when they reported that that day was the new year for some part of the world (I forget where, but it's not important). I smiled and thought what a weird day to choose for the new year. But then I thought a bit more about it and realised that there is no particular set way to work out when one year should end and another begin. It is after all a complete cycle with no end or beginning and that as long as your year has 365.25 days in it (in one way or another) then it is fine. So why, indeed, do we change our year on 31st December? What's the significance of that day? It's not even as if it is the shortest day. It is surprising really that with the ancient people were so reliant on the changing seasons that we don't have some historically set new years day that is linked more with the seasons.

This weekend I went around to the allotment for a spot of light weeding. With the sun shining and the first signs of spring all around, quite a few other allotment holders had come out that day too. I stopped to chat with one fellow allotment holder and she said, "Here we are then about to begin again." And then it struck me that now is the new year. Back home, the first tomato seedling had germinated on my window sill. See, nature knows best. So, I would just like to wish everyone a happy new year and hope that you have a productive and fruitful one.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Feeling like a novice again!

I first grew vegetables on a fairly small scale in the back garden of my first house, way back in 1996. Shortly after that I took on my first allotment and the following year I took on a second one. Since then I have grown probably tons of fruit and vegetables and written several books on the subject. However, never in that time have I had the use of a greenhouse.

At the end of last summer Steve bought us our first greenhouse - a beautiful wooden octagonal thing. We only have a small garden so we figured if we were going to be looking out of our kitchen window at the greenhouse, it ought to be attractive. Now spring is fast approaching and it is time to start sowing... and using the greenhouse for the first time.

I went out into the garden with enthusiasm (and two children) this afternoon, armed with a bag of seeds and some potting compost and ready to get growing. My eldest helped me sow our usual handful of peanuts (for the fun of it!), and my youngest sowed some leek seeds. But then I stopped and found myself staring into the bag of seeds wondering exactly what should I be sowing at the tail end of February now I have access to a splendid greenhouse.

I really didn't know what to sow. Could I sow anything or should I wait until the nights are warmer? Should I still germinate things inside on my windowsills and move them out to the greenhouse as seedlings? Was it worth starting off broad beans or beetroot in pots in the greenhouse now my internal space wasn't restricted to a windowsill and tiny cold frame. 16 years of successful kitchen gardening in the bag and suddenly I find myself feeling like a novice again.

In the end, I sowed peanuts, peppers and tomatoes and put them inside on my windowsill. And I sowed broad beans, leeks and beetroot and put them inside the greenhouse. Then I retreated to the safety of a warm bath to mull things over, ready for more sowing next weekend. I guess I shall make a few mistakes this year as I learn how to make the best of this useful new facility but hopefully I will soon get the hang of it. Every year when I sow seeds there is a nagging doubt in the back of my mind that they will never germinate yet every year I'm rewarded with a wonderful bounty. I suspect this year will be the same. Still, if you're an old greenhouse buff and would like to offer my words of wisdom I will be willing to learn!

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

National Chip Week

I don't know who sits on the committee that comes up with these "National" weeks or days but the people who decided to hold "National Chip Week" in February were clearly clueless. Don't get me wrong, I love chips - probably more than I should! And a tummy full of stodge in the depths of miserable winter has its appeal. But, come on, potatoes are not at their best in February!

Take a potato out of a bag at this time of year and what have you got? Something big, possibly a little bit springy to the feel and probably with a few sprouts growing out of it. This thing came out of the ground half a year ago. It has lost water and a good deal of the starch inside it has been converted into sugars and neither of these things make for a good chip. Try deep frying that and it will brown too quickly and never crisp up. Just don't even bother. Unless the potatoes were previously chipped and frozen months ago I'd say don't waste your time.

The perfect chip is a fantastic food. Take large a potato, straight from the ground, scrub it, peel it you must, then cut it into long chips. Rinse the excess starch from the cut edges and pat them dry on kitchen towel. Now for deep frying, although I prefer to use a Tefal Actifry which works remarkably well with only a drop of oil. Twenty minutes later you will have golden, crisp on the outside, soft in the middle chips. And just writing that makes me fancy a plateful. Alas, this moment is 4 months away because those gorgeous fresh, maincrop potatoes won't be ready to harvest unless then.

Chips in February... well yes, I shall probably have some but they won't be chips deserving of their own special week. That's a treat for the summer.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Book Review - Preserves by Jill Nice

Book review – Preserves: A Beginner’s Guide to making jams & jellies, chutney & pickles, sauces & ketchups, syrups and alcoholic sips – by Jill Nice

Despite the number of books I have read (and indeed, written) on the subject of preserves, I was nonetheless excited to come across this book by Jill Nice. I’m always on the look out for new recipes and tips for jam and chutney making and this book looked like it was bursting with ideas.

Many recipe books these days are stuffed full of glossy photos, sometimes at the expense of information. This one, in contrast, has no photos at all but instead the occasional monochrome line drawing. When I say, monochrome, I don’t mean black on white, for the text and illustrations throughout this book are green and purple. It is a simple design that works well, giving colour but also a feeling of authority, like an old-fashioned reference book.

There are 47 pages of information about various aspects of different preserving technique before the recipes even begin. This offers in depth explanation as to why all the various parts of the preserving technique are required and I have to admit I learnt a thing or two from reading this section. The recipes themselves include serving suggestions as well as advice on how to adapt the recipe and when it should be followed without fiddling. There is also extra information within the recipes about the main ingredient and these paragraphs are both informative and very readable. There are a few recipes included that have non-British ingredients such as bananas, pineapples and mangoes but most recipes are made with British ingredients and give a nod towards dealing with gluts and using the freezer to bring together non-seasonal ingredients.

The back cover boasts that the book contains an impressive 140 recipes. Many of them are the basic recipes that every preserving book needs to contains, such as raspberry jam and piccalilli , but there are also recipes in there that I have not seen in any other book. I have to admit that I’m quite excited about the prospect of trying to make my own Worchester Sauce or Mushroom Ketchup, but I may not bother with Pickled Broad Beans!

Having read this book I’m left with a feeling that Jill knows her onions. She has clearly been making preserves for a long time and has had her share of successes and failures. In this book she attempts to impart this experience to her readers. For someone like me, it is a useful reference that has provided a few insights and given me some new ideas to try in the summer. As for it being a guide for beginners, well, it certainly is thorough and does provide the beginner with everything they need to know. However, I think in some ways there is perhaps a little bit too much information and anyone considering preserving for the first time might decide to jack in the idea before they get to the recipes.

When I pick up any book on preserves I want to see if it ticks certain boxes. Does it deal with realistic seasonal British ingredients? Does it explain why you should do the different parts of the method? Does it suggest ways to eat the preserve once you have made it? And does it allow for recipes to be adapted? I’m pleased to say that this one does tick all those boxes.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

20 meals from one chicken

Is it really possible to get 20 meals out of a medium chicken? And are those meal worthwhile and filling? I think so.

When Steve was growing up his mother would put a couple of ounces of corned beef into a mound of mashed potato and call it corned beef hash. He said it was mash potato with the occasional pink fleck. But that was one way to feed the family with not much. I would like to point out that we're not poor and don't need to eek out our food in this way (thank goodness), but I do feel a moral duty to make the most of what we have. So when I bought a chicken to roast last week I knew it would make more than one meal and I planned for this in my shopping and cooking.

On Sunday I roasted the chicken but at the same time I planned for the leftovers. This started by making the chicken tasty with the use of two different types of stuffing. The first type of stuffing is for the cavity to infuse flavour into the chicken but not to be eaten. To make this you need do little more than roughly chop up an onion, some fresh sage from the garden and a limp piece of celery that is no good for putting in salads anymore. Just drop this inside the bird. The second type of stuffing is for eating so needs more care. One small onion, some fresh sage, salt and pepper and either breadcrumbs or sausagemeat for this one. Finely chop the onion and then the sage in a food processor then mix together with the breadcrumbs (and a little water) or the sausagemeat. I tend to make a large batch of this in one go then divide it into portions and freeze it until required. This stuffing needs to be stuffed into the crop.

The next flavour consideration is the gravy and for this reason I also boiled a leek from the allotment to have with the dinner. When it was almost time to dish up, I made some gravy to go with the meal. This was just the usual Bisto granules but I put in enough to make half a pint of gravy more than we needed for the meal. Rather than just pouring water from the kettle for the gravy, I drained the leek water into the jug and then the water from the carrots too. It is a good idea to use vegetable water to make the gravy as some of the nutrients from the vegetables get leached out into the water so using it returns those nutrients to your meal. In the case of the leeks, it also adds flavour to the meal. Unless everyone in your family likes cabbage, I would avoid doing this with brassica water as it does tend to make the gravy taste like cabbage water! For further flavour, after the chicken was carved, I pour the juices from the meat into the gravy too. A very tasty gravy for the meal and for the leftovers.

That meal we ate both legs and slightly more than half of one breast between us. I do love meat myself but it is worth remembering that a portion of meat for an adult should be roughly the size of a pack of cards and the rest of the meal should be bulked out with vegetables.

On Monday afternoon I took a block of ready made puff pastry out of the fridge to come to room temperature and later that evening I made chicken pies. I make these pies for my girls because, although they like pies, they are a bit fussy about them and there are only certain ones they like. Buying a pie is a bit hit and miss but they always love my homemade pies. They are really easy to make too and I make 12 at a time so they last for weeks before I have to do them again.

Chicken Pies (makes 12)

The meat from a breast of roast chicken
1/2 pint of gravy
1 block of ready made pastry
Egg or milk to glaze

Take the meat from the breast of the roast chicken (or use the leg meat if you prefer to eat the breast for your dinner) and break it into small pieces with your fingers. Put this in a bowl and mix it with the cold gravy (left over from the roast). Cut the pastry block in half and roll it out into a rectangle. Cut the pastry into 6 roughly equal squares. Dollop a tablespoon of the chicken mixture into one half of each piece of pastry. Brush the egg or milk around half of the edge of the pastry then fold the pastry over the top of the filling to completely it. Brush the top edge of the pastry then turn over the edges of the pastry to seal the pie into a pastie shape (about the size of a Findus Crispie Pancake but sooooo much tastier!). Make a couple of vent holes with a knife and brush all over with egg or milk to glaze. Repeat for the second half of the block of pastry and until all the filling is used. Place the pasties on a tray and freeze then remove from the tray and put into labelled bags. Can be cooked from frozen for 20-25 minutes at 200°C, gas 6.

Having fed 4 people with a Sunday roast and made 12 pies, that was 16 meals from one chicken. Just another 4 to go then. There are so many possibilities - chicken soup maybe? I do on occasions boil up the chicken carcass, complete with its tasty cavity stuffy to make chicken stock which would be a good basis of soup or even a casserole so a meal or two from that. But I also picked the chicken over to remove the remaining meat to make chicken spud pies for dinner on Tuesday. This recipe is for 2 but I had just enough meat left to stretch it out to 2 smaller spuds for the girls but for them I mixed a little chicken with a bit of ham and pasta sauce and grated some cheese on top to call it a pizza potato pie instead.

Spud Pies (serves 2)

2 large baked potatoes
About one breast of roasted chicken
A slurp of milk
6-8 mushrooms, quartered
1 small leek, sliced
5 fl oz chicken stock
2 teaspoons of cornflour
Oil for frying
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Bake the potatoes using your preferred method. Turn the oven to 220°C, gas 7. Cut the potatoes in half and scoop out the potato from the skins. Place the potato in a bowl and mash with the butter, milk and seasoning. Mix the cornflour with a little cold water in a glass. Fry the mushrooms and leeks then pour in the chicken stock and the cornflour. Add the chicken and seasoning and stir until heated through and the sauce thickens. Spoon the chicken mix into the potato skins then top with the mashed potato then place in the oven for 10 minutes until the top of the potato is just beginning to brown. Serve immediately with a salad or hot vegetables.

It was £6 for that particular chicken. I think I got value for money.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Stuff the rush

Thursday night I had a meeting at my daughters' school that started at 6.30pm. I could have gone down the easy option of having a ready meal for dinner but that's not my style. Instead, I opted to just start making dinner extra early. Just before 5 I put a couple of spuds in the oven to bake then set about preparing stuffed mushrooms whilst my eldest got on with making a scone-based pizza for her and her sister.

Stuffed Mushrooms (serves 2)

4 large flat mushrooms
1 leek
2 rashers of bacon

Preheat oven to 180°C, gas 4. Pull the stalks out of the mushrooms and finely chop. Slice the leeks finely and snip the bacon into small pieces. Next, fry the mushrooms stalks, leeks and bacon together for about 5 minutes, adding a little pepper for seasoning. Divide this mixture between the 4 mushrooms then sprinkle breadcrumbs on top. Bake for 20-25 minutes and serve hot.

Scone based pizza is a really handy recipe to have up your sleeve because it means you can make a pizza from scratch with basic food cupboard ingredients - no need for strong flour and yeast. You just need self-raising flour, butter and milk to make the base and then some pasta sauce or passata, cheese and toppings.

Anyway, despite my best efforts and estimates, it took slightly longer to prepare and cook all this than I had anticipated and I ended up sitting down to eat at 6.10. I don't know about you, but I hate eating in a rush but that was what I had to do. I managed to cram most of it in ten minutes flat but decided to admit defeat on half my baked potato.

Half a baked potato is a good starting point for a left-overs lunch. You could put all sorts of things on that a make a complete meal. Baked beans maybe - only that would leave a part open tin as left overs for another day. Instead, I decided to make pizza-style baked potato for my lunch, using some left over pasta sauce from the girls' pizza and left over cheese from the Christmas cheeseboard. There seems something luxurious about a 3 cheese topping!

So for this I heated the half potato in the microwave for a minute then spooned on some pasta sauce and grated over plenty of cheese before returning it to the microwave for another minute to heat the sauce and melt the cheese. Two minute lunch from left-overs - yum!