Saturday, 31 January 2009

SOS - save our shallots

The rainy summer last year meant that my onion harvest was somewhat pathetic and most of the onions had to eaten or used in chutneys quickly before they went soft. My shallots, on the other hand, thrived and we had a bumper harvest. I store my shallots in trays in a fairly sterdy, 3 tiered coldframe that is situated in a corner between two house walls and is shaded by a large bay tree. This position is rubbish for growing seedlings but is excellent for storage, being warmed at night by the walls and shaded during the day by the bay. As a result, my shallots have stood well and are still very much usable. However, I know that by March they will start to sprout and will go soft so I'm currently on a mission to save our shallots by finding ways to use and preserve them now.

I'm already contemplating trying to make onion marmalade with them but I need to buy a cheap bottle of wine and some vinegar before I can begin that. In the meantime, I thought I would try French onion soup. What could be more French than onion soup made with shallots? So another weekend and another soup making session. Of course, peeling shallots is somewhat more tedious than peeling onions but once peeled I blitzed them in a food processor to chop so it wasn't that bad.

Every one knows that onions (and shallots) make you cry when you peel and chop them. This is caused by a chemical they release that irriates the lining of the nose so when peeling onions breathe through your mouth to lessen the irritation. Beware too that when you open the lid of the food processor you will get a sudden burst of this chemical. If your eyes do water then wash your hands and your face then blow your nose and that should help.

French onion (or shallot) Soup

serves 2-3
14 oz (400g) onions or shallots
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 clove garlic
2 sprigs of thyme
A dash of Worcestershire sauce
1 pint (660ml) beef stock
1 pint (660ml) water
Freshly ground black pepper

Peel and finely chop the onions. Heat the oil in a large frying pan and frying the onion until lightly browned, stirring often but not continuously. Add the finely chopped garlic and thyme and fry for a further 2 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and transfer the onion to a large saucepan. Pour in the stock, water and Worcestershire sauce. Bring to the boil then simmer with the lid on for half an hour. Finally add the black pepper. Ladle into warmed jars or serve hot. This soup is delicious served with slices of French bread topped with melted cheese.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Balancing calories

I've just eaten the second leek and potato pastie for my lunch and now feel satisfyingly full! At the same time I was reading a magazine that seemed to be full of things about new year's resolutions, getting fit and healthy eating. I wonder how many calories there were in my pastie and I wonder whether I burned more or less digging up the veg, scrubbing it and making the pastie. It also suggested that lunch should contain protein because protein is an appetite suppressant and that you should save carbohydrates for evening meals because they can make you feel sleepy! Hmmm, the pastie was pure carbohydrate so I'd better grab a cushion and make myself comfy...

Monday, 26 January 2009

Homage to the humble potato

I love potatoes. If my children or husband leaves any potato on their plates I will always eat them up! They are amazing things when you think of all the different things you can do with them.

After several years of trying out different varieties we have now settled on 3 that grow well on our plot and suit our culinary uses. Our first earlies are Sharpe's Express, our second earlies are Charlottes and our main crop is Kestrel. All three are surprisingly resistant to slugs, which is a definite essential requirement for us, and each has a degree of versatility in the kitchen. During the wet summer of 2008 all our potatoes and tomatoes were hit by blight. This is not an uncommon occurrence but it was earlier than usual and I was disappointed that I had to cut the haulms down so early on, fearing that they would not have had chance to develop a descent crop of spuds. At this time we had only started eating the first earlies but a few weeks later I was pleased to discover a reasonable crop of both Kestrel and Charlotte potatoes.

I dig up potatoes as and when I need to restock the cupboard, usually once a week, so there are potatoes left in the ground all through the winter. It's not ideal for a lot of reasons. This weekend I was down to the last few potatoes that needed digging up but after exerting a good deal of energy digging up 18 inch parsnips, plus harvesting beetroot for borscht I wasn't sure I could really be bothered to struggle with the sticky clay anymore. Fortunately, I had found a recipe for leek and potato pie that I really fancied trying and I really didn't have enough potatoes left indoors to make it.

So despite the cold and the sticky mud I stuck at it and dug the last of the Charlottes out of the ground. By this time some of the potatoes had been slug damaged to the point of just being an empty shell that crumpled as I dug, and any potatoes close to the surface had been frozen and thawed so many times that they were just a bag of squidgy goo. Nevertheless, despite blight, being left in the ground much too long and repeated bouts of frost, in the 3rd week in January I was still able to get half a bucket of edible potatoes.

The discovery of the pie recipe had been fortuitous timing because I had bought a block of puff pastry to make some sausage rolls with sausage meat I had frozen at Christmas time but I realised that I'd only need half the block for the amount of sausage meat I had. So back indoors I quickly whipped up a batch of sausage rolls then got stuck into modifying the pie recipe to make two large leek and potato pasties. I stuck an uncooked one in the fridge and the other in the freezer.

This lunchtime I cooked the pastie and what a lovely midday meal it made too. So much tastier and appetising than a ham sandwich!

Leek & Potato Pasties (makes 2)

1 large leek
Small knob of butter
2 medium potatoes
2 sprigs of thyme
Salt & pepper
A few chunks of mature Cheddar cheese
Half a block of ready made puff pastry
Beaten egg

Cut the leek into slices then fry with the butter on a low heat in a lidded pan for about 15 minutes until soft. In the meantime cut the potatoes into small chunks and par boil for 5 minutes until just beginning to soften. Drain the potatoes and remove the leeks from the heat then stir together in a bowl with the thyme and seasoning. Leave it to cool then add the chunks of cheese. Next, roll out the pastry into a square and cut it diagonally into two triangles. Divide the filling between the two triangles, brush the edges with the beaten egg and fold the triangle in half over the filling. Pinch the pastry edges together to seal. Brush egg over the top of the pastie to glaze. To cook, preheat an oven to 200°C then cook the pastie in the centre of the oven on a baking sheet for 25 to 30 minutes until golden brown.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Beetroot Soup (Borscht)

My beetroot seeds were sown last spring in the same bed as my carrot and parsnip seeds and because I had gone to quite a lot of effort to get my parsnips and carrots to germinate the beetroot seeds also germinated well. We were pleased about that because we love beetroot. I pickled a few whole baby ones when thinning out the rows and I used some for my beetroot and apple chutney, but mostly we just enjoy them cooked and chilled on the side of our dinner plates. Another favourite recipe is borscht (beetroot soup) but we were eating the beetroot so quickly that I didn't think I could spare 6 for soup.

Then last week I boiled up some beetroot as usual but when it came to peeling and slicing them for dinner they seemed to have a slightly odd texture and that texture was really noticeable when we ate it too. I thought maybe I'd overcooked them or something but the batch this week was the same so I realised that the beetroot had suffered from repeated bouts of frost and several coverings of snow. It seemed a shame because the flavour was still good and I'm sure it still had all the usual healthy properties that this superfood offers. Then Steve suggested that now it was time to make some borscht.

So another weekend and another soup making session - still, it is the perfect time of year for soup. Borscht requires more ingredients than leek and potato soup but surprisingly I had all the vegetables and herbs available on the plot and the other ingredients in the cupboard. Two hours later and some purple fingers to show for my efforts I had 6 portions of beautiful soup. So satisfying to transform vegetables on their last legs into nourishing, warming food.


6 beetroots weighing a total of about 11 to 11½ oz (300 – 330 g)
Oil (for frying)
1 medium onion
2 carrots
2 garlic cloves
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
2 pints (1100 ml) beef stock (or diluted gravy)
1 floury potato (8 oz; 225 g)
2 bay leaves
Salt and pepper
2 sprig thyme

Twist off the beetroot tops and scrub well to remove all grit. Place the beetroot in a large saucepan, cover with 2 pints (1100 ml) of boiling water and simmer for 30 to 40 minutes until cooked. Remove the beetroot and reserve the cooking water. Peel and dice all of the beetroot but keep one beetroot to one side. Heat the oil in the bottom of the preserving pan and chop the onions. Fry the onions for about 5 minutes until soft. Wash, peel and chop the carrots and crush the garlic. Once the onions are soft add the carrots, garlic and beetroot to the pan and fry for 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the vinegar and cook for 1 minute whilst stirring. Pour in the beef stock and 1 pint of the beetroot cooking water. Add the peeled and diced potato, bay leaves and seasoning. Bring to the boil then simmer for 45 minutes. Remove the bay leaves and add the thyme and the reserved beetroot. Blend the soup in batches until smooth, then return it to the cleaned pan and reheat, adding seasoning and more water if necessary. Serve hot or ladle into hot jars and seal immediately.

Excavating parsnips

Parsnips are fairly tricky to grow. The hardest part is getting them to germinate. Firstly, you need very fresh seeds (not left over seeds from last year) but even then germinating is likely to be patchy at best. Still, I put quite a lot of effort into getting my parsnips and carrots to germinate last spring time and I was rewarded with a fair crop of both.

Apparently, some of the starch in parsnips turns to sugar if the roots get frosted and this improves the flavour so I always wait until December before I start harvesting them. What I wasn't expecting was parsnips 18 inches long! And of course you can't tell how long they are when you start digging them out. You just dig and pull and dig and pull some more and wonder why the root isn't coming out. And the clay soil is troublesome. It sticks to everything, the root, the spade/fork, and my boots. Everytime I lift my foot I have to carry twice my boots weight in soil too. And all the time I try desperately not to damage the parsnip.

After a while the whole thing becomes like an archaeological dig, painstakingly removing the soil bit by bit and gradually excavating a trench around the precious object. Every now and then I stop and grab the thing with two gloved hands and heave, my hands slipping on the clay. It reminds me of the Enormous Turnip except there are no farm animals available to lend a hand and the mice are hibernating!

Still, eventually I got the thing out, although the hole I left behind looks like I used dynamite to do it! At home, I scrubbed it, peeled it and cut it into large chunks then par boiled it with some potatoes. Then both the potatoes and the parsnips were drained and tipped into preheated duck fat and roasted for an hour. Yummy and I can definitely taste the sugars.

I didn't mean to grow 18 inch parsnips - they are certainly difficult to get out of sticky clay soil. I mentioned this to some fellow kitchen gardeners the other day and asked the best way to get them out of the ground. They obviously didn't know the answer to this because instead they gave me advice on how to avoid the problem next year. They suggested preparing the ground with lots of sand so that they are easier to pull out. But I figure that this would just encourage the roots to grow even longer!

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Anyone who has every grown their own fruit and vegetables knows the huge satisfaction that comes with eating the stuff. It is funny how somehow the time, money and energy spent on the plot is suddenly forgotton as you tuck into food that you have grown yourself. It feels like free food. This was definitely the case on Sunday when I made a batch of leek and potato soup (Steve's favourite!). The day before I had dug up a bucket full of overgrown Charlotte potatoes, and 3 splendid leeks and even as I was carrying them back to the kitchen I thought, this looks like leek and potato soup in the making! So mid-Sunday morning I took a pound of potatoes and two leeks and got cooking. Better still, I had already made chicken stock by boiling up a chicken carcass and the only ingredients I added from the cupboard were a splash of oil and salt and pepper. And just in time for lunch I had made 5 portions of beautifully smooth hot soup. Non-existant food miles, fresh ingredients, organically grown, fair-trade and substainable and more to the point... delicious!

Leek & Potato Soup
(serves 4-6)
1 tablespoon oil
2 leeks
1 lb (450g) potatoes
2 pints (1.2 litre) vegetable stock
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Wash and chop the leeks into thin rounds. Wash, peel and cube the potatoes. Heat the oil in a large sauce pan and fry the leeks, stirring constantly to avoid sticking until the leeks are soft but not brown. Add the potatoes and continue to fry for another 2 to 3 minutes. Add the stock and bring to the boil. Cover the pan and simmer for 30 minutes until the vegetables are soft and the potatoes are breaking down. Blend in a food processor until smooth and season to taste. Serve immediately or pour into warmed jars and seal immediately.