Sunday, 22 February 2009

Holding back

One of the main reasons we bought the house we live in is because the allotments are on the other side of the back garden fence. Compared to many urban views it is not at all bad but mainly it is extremely convenient having an allotment plot that close to the house - like growing the stuff in your own back garden. However, there are occasional drawbacks to such close proximity to the allotment.

Yesterday was a beautiful spring day and I really had the feeling that I wanted to be outside and getting on with things. However, I had been out on the plot earlier in the week and knew the state of the soil. Besides I had things to do in the house. I went into the girls' bedroom to put away the clean laundry and found myself drawn to the window and the view over the allotments. Clearly the weather had had a similar affect on other plot holders and I could see several people out there hard at work. For a moment I had the feeling you get when in an exam hall when everyone around you has heads down, scribbling hard and you are wondering what you're missing.

I studied the busy gardeners. Hmmm... digging up spuds, done that already. Spreading mulch or manure, don't have any of that right now. Digging over a patch of soil, did that in the week and decided the soil was too wet. Sigh of relief. Nonetheless later that day I sowed 72 broad bean seeds in trays and placed them in the cold frame. If the soil had been better I would have been out there like a shot and got them straight in the ground but at least this way I don't feel like I'm only biding time. I just hope that in a fortnight the soil under my cloches will have warmed up and dried out enough that I can transplant the seedlings.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

The smell of summer

One of the things I love about growing my own food is eating with the seasons. It really feels as if it is good for me but more than that, the food seems to suit my mood somehow. At this time of year a good vegetable soup or a warm casserole are just the job but in the heat of the summer a light, fresh salad is just perfect. There are, however, times of the year when preserving messes with this harmony. In August I find myself making plum and cinnamon jam and plum and orange mincemeat. There is no question that the spice smells that fill the kitchen on those days are out of season, suited more to a cosy December day close to Christmas. But, of course, these are preserves that will be enjoyed at Christmas and when the jar is opened in winter the smells are again appropriately seasonal.

Now, I'm not a great one for doing housework, although I pride myself on my ability to keep the laundry under control. And with all the cooking I do, my kitchen is usually pretty clean too! However, twice this week I have been driven to spring cleaning by my passion for gardening. Firstly, my drastically leaning salad seedlings clearly needed moving to a brighter windowsill so I was compelled to remove the clutter, dead moths and dust from the windowsill in my conservatory for the sake of my plants. But it does look a good deal better for it! Then today the need to find space for yet more home grown produce drove me to sort out the contents of my chest freezer.

So what has all that got to do with smells and seasons? Well, lurking at the bottom of my chest freezer (not forgotten but previously out of reach) were two pounds of blackcurrants. With the need to make room for some of my winter crops before the spring causes regrowth it was time finally to do something with those blackcurrants (the raspberries will have to wait for another day). So this evening I boiled the blackcurrants up with some sugar, smashed them up and strained them in order to turn them into blackcurrant cordial. A smell strongly associated with July filled my kitchen so for a couple of hours this February evening the smell of summer wafted through my house. Eating with the seasons is great but a tangy shot of vitamin C is welcome at anytime of year.

Blackcurrant Cordial

1 kg blackcurrants
600 ml water
375g Demerara sugar

Put all the ingredients in a preserving pan and bring to the boil. Boil for about 5 minutes, using a potato masher to crush the berries to release the juices. Strain the liquid through a nylon (not metal) sieve. Bottle and refrigerate. Dilute as you would normally for blackcurrant squash. The cordial should be OK for about 3 weeks but if you wish to increase the shelf life, heat up the sealed bottles in a pan of water to roughly 75°C for about half an hour. Note, however, this will slightly alter the flavour of the cordial.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Letting of steam on the plot.

I found myself unexpectedly on the allotment this afternoon. It was a beautiful spring like day today and the girls were bored with playing indoors. So after lunch I suggested we went round to the allotment to let off some steam. I wasn't sure what I would do but there is always something that needs doing but after the recent snow and then rain the ground was so soggy it was difficult to do anything. The girls were disappointed too because when they asked (water cans in hand) if there was anything that needed watering I replied with a rather an alarmed "No!".

Still, it didn't take long for me to find some old plants that needed tidying away and the girls came to inform me they were making pies. Later as I wrestled another enormous parsnip out of the sticky clay they told me they were planting trees. Then as I moved some cloches the girls were busing themselves making a magic potion. After about an hour later I felt I had had enough of struggling with the cold, wet clay soil conditions. The girls were throwing things at the witch in the hedge when I suggested we went home.

Back home the girls' energy levels had reduced sufficiently that they were content to do some quiet, calm colouring, whilst I flicked through last year's dairy. It reminded me that this time last year I had been out on the plot every weekend digging over the soil in bright, dry weather. I'd sown some broad bean seeds too before the end of February. That would clearly be a mistake this year so maybe I'll get some started in pots in my cold frame at the weekend.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Chicken & Leek Pie

Phew! I've had a busy morning making chicken and leek pies. It took hours, but most of that time I was able to get on with other stuff as I waited for things to cook or cool.

I usually find myself making chicken and leek pies sometime in February. Pies are a good winter food, I think, but it also makes good use of the leeks. It won't be long now before the leeks start to bolt (send up flower stems) and when this happens the centre of the leek becomes very, very tough and the leek becomes bitter. In fact, when I sliced the leeks today I noticed the very beginning changes to the centre of the leek that suggests the process has just started. Not to worry, I've not got that many leeks left now and I can always freeze some.

Mind you, the main reason I made the pies today was because I had some roast chicken left over from the Sunday roast. It is so easy to eat up cold chicken - served with salad and chips is always good, or in a sandwich with some mayonnaise - but I can do that another day when the leeks are finished.

Whole chickens are really good value for money if you use the chicken fully. Steve and I both prefer the leg meat so we'd eaten that for our Sunday roast, and our daughters had had most of a breast between them. So that left the other breast and the wings for the pies and then the skin and carcass went into the stock pot, along with the sage and shallots I'd stuffed into the body cavity. I boiled that lot up with two kettle fulls of water for about an hour and made a good supply of chicken stock - some for the pies and some of other recipes on another day.

When making pies like this it is easier to go with the ingredients you have and chuck things in until you are happy with the end result rather than follow a recipe religiously. However, it is really important not to cook the chicken more than twice, not to heat things up by adding warm ingredients to cold, and to not refreeze ingredients. So, make sure the cooked chicken remains cold throughout until the pie is cooked ready for eating. Make sure that all hot ingredients cool completely before mixing them with cold ones. And use pastry that has not been frozen before if you intend to freeze the pies.

Chicken and Leek Pies (makes 4 individual)

Left over roast chicken
2 large leeks, giving 6-7 oz prepared leek
1 pint chicken stock
1 oz plain flour
Salt & pepper
1 block ready made puff pastry
Egg or milk to glaze

Pick over the chicken. Slice the leek and boil for about 10 minutes until soft. Drain the cooking water from the leeks and add to the chicken stock either when both are hot or both are cold. Mix the flour with just enough cold water to form a thick liquid then pour it into the hot stock, stirring continuously to avoid lumps. Continue to stir and bring to the boil. Simmer for 2 to 3 minutes to thicken the gravy. Add salt and pepper to the gravy to taste. Remove from the heat and allow to cool completely (this can take quite a while!). When the leeks have cooled, mix them into the cold chicken and when the gravy is cold stir this into the leek/chicken mix. Spoon this mixture into suitable pie dishes. Roll out the pastry on a floured surface and cut out pastry lids to fit over your pie dishes. Drape the pastry lids over the pies, glaze with egg or milk and make a couple of steam vents in the top with a knife. Freeze the pies at this point or if you are ready to eat them go ahead and cook them for 25 to 30 minutes at 190°C until the pastry is risen and golden. Serve hot with potatoes and vegetables.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Finally getting started

I'm a big fan of the Kitchen Garden magazine and I have a subscription to it but it does annoy me that it is always a month ahead of itself. The March edition arrived right at the beginning of February and just as fresh snow was falling. I tried reading it but when it was busy telling me that it was time to get sowing as the soil was warming up, my soil was covered in 4 inches of snow. The "big freeze" lasted for 2 weeks and for the whole of that time I couldn't bring myself to pick up the magazine.

But, good news, the freeze is over (for the time being anyway!) and I have now got myself stuck into the Kitchen Garden magazine. And I now feel more in the mood to get things under way. At the weekend I got all my seeds out and sorted them out, putting the old seeds left over from last year together with the new seeds I bought for this year and various ones that I'd been given. It really got me in the mood for getting out on the plot. But I'm not that hasty - there were still patches of snow in places and where it had thawed there were puddles of standing water. It'll be a while yet before anything will successfully grow out there.

Still, when the bug bits you have to do something. It's the perfect time of year to sow some leek seeds inside so that was my starting point. I also sowed a few mixed salad leaves in a small tray on the window sill so we can have a few fresh leaves in a couple of weeks. I'm also giving peanuts another go this year. I tried them for the first time last year and they did really well until they got mealy bug and then the wash out of a summer finally saw them off. It was a learning experience. Of course, every day I peer at my freshly sown seeds looking for signs of germination!

Then today the seed potatoes arrived in the post so it's time to get them chitting. Yes, slowly, very slowly, things are beginning again.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Home grown dinner

One of the most satisfying moment in the world of kitchen gardening is the day you sit down for dinner and realise that all the vegetables on your plate are home grown. I wouldn't want to take anything away from anyone who has ever achieved this but it is easier to manage this in the summer than it is in the winter. Therefore, I was proud of myself last night when in mid February we sat down to a Sunday roast with all home grown vegetables. There were roast potatoes, baked carrots, roast parsnips and boiled leeks and the chicken was stuffed with sage and shallots.

The parsnips and leeks were fresh from the plot and the sage, although tatty, was straight from the front garden. The shallots were from store and the carrots and potatoes were from the freezer. Back in the autumn I had dug up the last of the carrots, peeled, chopped and blanched them before laying them on a tray and freezing them. Although carrots can stand in the ground all winter, we have so many slugs that as time passes the harvest becomes more and more depressingly damaged and preparation becomes more complicated. Once frozen they can be used easily in casseroles or baked. Just place them frozen on a piece of foil, drizzle over some olive oil and add a pinch of five spice powder. Then seal the foil around them as a parcel and place them in the oven with the roast for the whole of the roasting time.

As for the potatoes, months ago I peeled them and cut them into suitable pieces for roasting then par boiled them for between 5 and 10 minutes. Once drained, I fried them in some duck fat until they were well coated and just beginning to brown then I cooled them and froze them on a tray. Last night I tossed them under the roast and cooked them from frozen for 45-50 minutes.

It's a great achievement but I'm glad that there is fresh veg in the shops to back us up when things don't quite go to plan! It certainly take the stress out of it.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Feeding the birds

With all the recent snow, it must be pretty hard for the birds to find enough food. I like to feed the birds but unfortunately every time I put food out it attracts rats into the garden. I blame all the decking in my neighbours' gardens, as this provides perfect rat runs.

Yesterday afternoon as I tucked into my lunchtime sandwich, a couple of birds came down to the patio right outside my back door and looked at me as if to say "well, where's the food." How could I resist? So for starters I threw out my crusts then later I cleared the snow off the picnic table and put out some stale crackers and refilled the bird feeder with sunflower seeds.

Less than two hours later the rat arrived and remained a persistant visitor for the rest of the day, despite my attempts to scare it with shouts, claps and snowballs.

So today I have resigned myself to the fact that I can't put food on any low surface, which is a great pity for the ground feeding birds such as the blackbirds and robins. But not totally defeated, I decided to make a bird cake to hang in the tree for the tits. They are so easy to make and are a good use of left over food that would definitely be rat food if put on the ground or table.

Bird cake

Bird seed mix
Kitchen scraps such as bread, cheese, bacon
Solid animal fat such as duck, goose or lard

Put the seeds and kitchen scraps into an old yoghurt pot then melt the solid fat over a low heat. Pour the fat into the yoghurt pot and mix well. Place the pot in the fridge until the fat has set again. Once set, attach a string to the yoghurt pot and hang from a tree.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

An allotment snowman

It snowed again last night and we woke up to a refreshed winter wonderland. The girls' school closed for the day so straight after breakfast we headed out to trample footprints into the fresh snow. It didn't take long before we had walked on all the snow in the garden so I suggested we went to the allotments instead. We are fortunate that the allotments are on the other side of our garden fence and it is only a matter of 100m to get to the main gate. The gate is locked and all the plot holders have a key but on a day like this there were no other plot holders around so we had all this virgin snow to ourselves!

Fortunately, the girls know the allotments well enough to know which bits are paths and which bits are plots even when covered in snow so they stayed on the paths, running through the snow and thoroughly enjoying themselves.

The great thing about allotments is that there are always plenty of tools and bits and pieces on hand and these proved useful a few minutes later when we set about making a snowman. Firstly, the gardening "helping hands" (usually used for scooping up leaves) were ideal for scrapping the snow into a bit heap for the snowman's body. Then we found a couple of pea sticks for arms, a few stones for eyes and buttons, a flower pot for a hat and bay leaves for ears. I even managed to scramble about under the snow to find a tatty old carrot to use for a nose.

I'm glad my girls enjoy going to the allotment and today was particularly special.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

SOS - save our shallots day 3

So today was the third day of my quest to make use of my shallots before they begin to sprout. Today I thought I'd try making onion marmalade. This recipe is most commonly made with red onions because of their sweet flavour. As shallots are also sweet I figured they would make a fine substitution. Quite why it should be called marmalade is beyond me as it bears no resemblance to what is traditionally called marmalade and should perhaps rather be called onion chutney. I do not recommend spreading it on your toast in the morning whilst supping tea but rather I suggest eating it with a strong cheese and a fine red wine.

Onion Marmalade (make about 3/4 of a pound)

3 large red onions (or 12-16 shallots)
1 tablespoon olive oil
5 fl oz (150ml) red wine
4 fl oz (110ml) red wine vinegar
2 fl oz (55ml) balsamic vinegar
3 oz (85g) dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon sweet chilli sauce
Salt & pepper

Peel and finely chop the onions then fry them in a large saucepan in the oil for 10 minutes until golden. Add all the other ingredients and bring to the boil then simmer for half an hour until the liquid has evaporated, stirring occasionally. Ladle into warmed jars and seal immediately.

Job done and now I have just enough shallots left to use in my everyday cooking between now and the end of March.

SOS - save our shallots day 2

Yesterday I made an onion tart, using a pound of shallots! The great thing about growing your own vegetables is you can be extravagant like that. There is no way I would have used shallots like that if I'd bought them from the supermarket.

Onion Tart

For the pastry
4 oz (110g) plain flour
4 oz (110g) wholemeal flour
4 oz (110g) margarine
1/2 teaspoon mustard powder
A little bit of grated cheese

For the filling
1lb (450g) onions (or shallots!)
Oil/butter for frying
9 fl oz (250ml) single cream
2 eggs
Cheddar cheese
Salt & pepper

Sift the flours into a bowl and work into a breadcrumb consistency with the maragine using fingertips. Add the mustard powder and cheese then enough water to bind it into a soft dough. Wrap in clingfilm and refrigerate for half an hour. In the meantime, peel and finely chop the onions then fry with the oil/butter for 20 minutes until golden. Preheat the oven to 190°C and grease a suitable tin. Roll out the pastry and place in the tin then trim the edges to neaten. Place greaseproof paper over the pastry and weight it down with baking beans/dried rice etc. Blind bake the pastry for 15 minutes. Tip the cooked onions into the pastry case. Beat the eggs and stir into the cream then pour this mix over the onions. Season with salt and pepper then grate cheese over the top to cover the tart. Bake the tart at 200°C for 30 minutes until golden and set. Serve immediately or allow to cool, cut into portions and freeze.

I have a dairy intolerance which means that, although I can eat some dairy every day eating, too much causes my digestive system problems. In this recipe I used Pure sunflower margarine and Alpro single cream soya alternative. This allowed me to use real cheese (for which there is no decent substitute) and to enjoy the tart without incurring problems later.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Cheap daffodils

In the last gardening club I ran before Christmas the children planted up 2 hyacinth bulbs into medium sized black flower pots and decorated them with self-adhesive foam flowers ( They made attractive gifts for their parents and we had been organised enough to force the hyacinths so that they would flower for Christmas. As both my girls do gardening club and I made one to show the children what to do, we ended up with 3 pots of hyacinths. And on Boxing Day they started to flower, making a beautiful display. Of course, they went over after about a fortnight and I keep looking at them thinking it was time I emptied them out. Steve suggested I should replace them with something else, such as daffodils but I pointed out that they needed to have been planted months ago.

Then on Sunday we went to Lidl's for our fortnightly restocking of fruit juice and I spotted a man heading to the check out with a box full of growing bulbs. We tracked down the shelf and there we found small pots containing 4 Tete A Tete daffodil bulbs cramed into them being sold for 75p per pot. Perfect! So we grabbed ourselves 3 pots and headed home. When I checked my till receipt later I discovered that the pots had been discounted to 43p each! That afternoon I repotted the daffodils into our flower decorated pots and I'm pleased to report they are showing encouraging signs of grow. So what do you reckon, 10p per bulb and 3p for the compost and pot? Whatever, it was a definite bargain and I'm looking forward to some early spring flowers in my living room in a few days time, whilst snow covers the ground outside.