Friday, 26 June 2009

Strawberry Day

On this week's River Cottage, Hugh and his mates were preparing for a Strawberry Day - a day to celebrate the delights of the humble strawberry. Now, I'm used to Hugh doing strange things with food (and I shan't be rushing off to try strawberries and peanut butter) but I have never seen anyone make strawberry jam in such a strange way as his friend Pam the Jam. Firstly she used a potato masher to break up the strawberries. Strawberries are a delicate fruit and do not need attacking with a metal implement, and strawberry jam with whole strawberries in is surely a better thing. Then she cooked the strawberries for a briefest of moments - so brief in fact that she then had to add pectin to the jam in order to get it to set. I can only guess that she likes her jam to have the taste of fresh strawberries but she seems to have somehow learnt to make jam without understanding how it should work. Treat strawberries gently and they will release enough pectin to set the jam and still have a yummy summery flavour.

Well, today I had my own personal strawberry day - not a public event but a day processing strawberries into lovely preserves. I started with my version of strawberry jam and later, when the girls came home from school, we made strawberry and marshmallow ice-cream, and finally, following the success of my raspberry cordial, I made strawberry cordial. I'm looking forward to experimenting with the cordial but I have already tried it with milk to make strawberry milkshake and that proved tasty. It was a good way to spend a dull, thundery day.

Strawberry Jam

Makes 3-4 jars
3 lb (1350g) strawberries
2 lb 10 oz (1200g) sugar
2 large lemons providing about 3½ fl oz (100 ml) of juice

NB: Every pound of strawberries requires 14 oz (400g) sugar and 2 tablespoons (30 ml) of lemon juice.

For this recipe any strawberries, whether whole, damaged, squashed, fresh or frozen can be used. Pick the strawberries over, removing any green stalks but don’t bother to chop them up. Place the strawberries in the preserving pan with the lemon juice and heat very gently, stirring continuously with a wooden spoon until they begin to break up. Simmer for 20 minutes until the fruit is soft. In the meantime, weigh out the sugar and preheat an oven to 100 °C, 200 °F; gas mark ¼. Place the sugar in an ovenproof dish and warm in the oven. Once the fruit is soft, add the sugar to the pan and stir in, over a low heat until all the sugar is completely dissolved. Boil vigorously until the setting point is reached. Pour into warmed jars and seal immediately.

Strawberry & Marshmallow Ice-cream

1½ lb (700 g) strawberries
5 oz (140 g) icing sugar
1½ tsp lemon juice
8 oz (225 g) mini marshmallows
7½ fl oz (210 ml) milk
½ pint (300 ml) double cream

Puree the strawberries so that you are left with a seedless liquid. Add the sugar and lemon juice and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Put half the marshmallows and the milk into a suitable bowl and heat in the microwave for 2 minutes to melt them. Stir this mixture, add the cream and whisk lightly so that it thickens slightly. Combine with the strawberry puree, mixing until the mixture is evenly pink. Add the remaining marshmallows, pour into suitable containers and place in the freezer for 3 hours. Remove from the freezer and beat the ice cream to introduce air, to break any ice crystals and to distribute the marshmallows throughout the ice cream.

Strawberry Cordial

1 lb 8 oz (680g) strawberries
15 fl oz (425ml) apple juice
12 oz (275g) granulated sugar

Place the strawberries in a blender and blend until smooth then press the liquid through a sieve to remove the seeds. Put the strawberry puree, juice and sugar in a large pan and bring to the boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Remove from the boil and pour into warmed bottles and seal. Refrigerate once cooled. Shake well before using and dilute to taste.

Monday, 22 June 2009

The Flavour of the Month

I used to think of June as the strawberry and mangetout month. Certainly they are two crops that are ready first in early June. But that was before my raspberry canes became established. Now the flavour of June is definitely raspberry! So far this month I have made raspberry jelly, raspberry lollies, raspberry ripple ice-cream and raspberry trifle. I have also put 3 lb of raspberries in the freezer to make jam. And with new raspberries becoming ripe every two days there is no let up in sight. And let's not forget that I still have raspberry cordial in the fridge from using up the last of last year's frozen raspberries a few weeks back.

Raspberry Jelly

3 tablespoons cold water
1 tablespoon or 1 sachet powdered gelatin
8 oz (225 g) raspberries
4 oz (110 g) granulated sugar
15 fl oz (425 g) cold water

Put 3 tablespoons of cold water into a small pan and sprinkle over the gelatin, then stir and set aside for 5 minutes. Put the raspberries, sugar and 15 fl oz of water into a large pan and bring to the boil. Leave the fruit to simmer for 5 minutes until soft then press through a sieve to make a puree. Heat the gelatin over a low heat for a minute or two until clear then stir this into the raspberry puree. Pour into suitable containers/moulds and chill for 2-4 hours until set.

Raspberry Trifle

1 pint (600 ml) of raspberry jelly (see recipes above)
4 trifle sponges

Raspberry cordial
1 pack of ready to make custard powder
Whipped cream or squirting cream

Make raspberry jelly as shown in the recipes above. Place trifle sponges into the bottom of suitable containers and pour over enough raspberry cordial to cover (you may also like to add a splash of sherry). Allow the sponges to soak up the liquid and become mushy. You could also add a layer of fresh raspberries too at this point. Pour the jelly over the sponges and refrigerate for 2-3 hours until set. In the meantime, make up the custard as instructed on the packet and allow to cool completely at room temperature. Once the jelly has set, pour the custard over the top and level off. Return to the refrigerator for at least another hour. Add the cream and the decorations just before serving.

Raspberry Ripple Ice-cream

4 oz (110 g) raspberries
1 oz (25 g) icing sugar
1 teaspoon lemon juice
8 fl oz (225 ml) semi-skimmed milk
2½ oz (70 g) icing sugar
10 fl oz (284 ml) double cream
2 cm vanilla pod

Blend the raspberries and push through a sieve to remove the seeds. Stir the icing sugar and lemon juice into the raspberry puree until smooth. Pour the milk into a pan then split the vanilla pod in half length ways and scrape the seeds into the milk. Put the pod pieces in too then gently heat (but don’t boil) the milk for 3-5 minutes to infuse the vanilla flavour. Stir in the icing sugar and remove from the heat to cool. Once cool, add the cream and stir well. Pour the raspberry sauce into the bottom of a suitable container(s) then gently pour the cream mix on top. Freeze the mixture for 2 hours until beginning to freeze then stir with a fork to break up the ice-crystals. Return to the freezer for another 2 hours then stir again, making sure to stir the raspberry sauce unevenly through the ice cream. Repeat again 2 hours later than return to the freezer until solid.

Raspberry Lollies
8 oz (225 g) raspberries
2oz (55 g) icing sugar
2 teaspoons lemon juice
4 fl oz (110 ml) water

Put the raspberries in a pan with a splash of water and heat gently, stirring to break them up. Blend the raspberries and push through a sieve to remove the seeds. Stir the icing sugar and lemon juice into the raspberry puree until smooth. Add the water and stir then pour into lolly moulds and freeze.

Despite netting my strawberries, pests still manage to get in and eat them!

New potatoes on Fathers Day

What could be better on Fathers Day than spending a day with your family and enjoying a good meal. Yesterday, we all went to the allotment, fork in hand, with excited anticipation of digging up the first new potatoes. As Steve stuck his fork into the ground the girls were right there ready to grab the potatoes as they fell out of the soil. "There's one!" they shouted and grabbed the spud like a golden egg from under a goose.

What a delightful thing the first new potato is. At this time of year the ground is crumbly dry and falls off the potato with ease. In the kitchen they need little more than a gentle rub under a running tap for the skin to fall away. Then simply boiled and served with butter. I served ours with lamb shanks cooked with homegrown swede, carrot and leek from the freezer and freshly picked broad beans with a sprig of savory. The lamb was dusted in seasoned flour, browned in a frying pan with a bit of fresh shallot then sat in a casserole in homemade lamb stock, topped up with a bit of water. The leeks, swede and carrot were also cooked in the stock, with a sprig of rosemary for good measure. It required two and half hours at 150°C to come out at the point that the meat was falling off the bone.

This morning when I dropped my girls off at school I was stopped by my South African friend who excitedly told me about her bucketful of new potatoes harvest this weekend. They enjoyed their, eaten with their fingers Al Fresco as they waited for the rest of their meal to cook on the BBQ. Divine was the word she used to describe them and I couldn't agree more.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Everything planted!

I think this week will be the week with the most amount of soil under cultivation. Today I planted up the last free space on the allotment with pumpkin and squash plants and next week I shall start digging up new potatoes so for this week only every bit of land has something growing in it!

I started the morning by making rhubarb lollies as inspired by Wednesday's episode of River Cottage. I love that programme - a whole hour dedicated to the hobby I feel passionate about, growing and cooking my own food. The lollies turned out well too, tasting like honey and lemon on a stick.

As Steve had worked until 4am, he was still sleeping and to help him get some peace I took the girls out with me to B&Q to buy some essential gardening supplies. If you intend to grow pumpkins you need some manure and as I don't have a free supply of the stuff I have to buy it. Still, in some ways it is worth it. There is a lady on the allotment who owns a horse and for a while she brought bag after bag of fresh horse poo down to the allotment and said we could help ourselves. Well, I would have done if I'd had the chance but one of the other plot holders always snaffled the lot before I could get a bag. He spread it on every bed, filled his compost bins with it and stacked it up still in bags on his plot. I'm sure it will be a good investment but in the short term it has done him no good. The horse in question had clearly enjoyed eating Good King Henry because within a week or two every bed on his plot was thick with a mono-culture of the stuff, swamping everything that he had deliberately planted there. Then, last week with Good King Henry standing 2 feet tall, he announced he was going to Canada for 3 weeks. I commented that the weeds would be high by the time he got back. But I walked passed his plot repeatedly in the last fortnight and yesterday I could stand it no longer and I attacked one bed with my bare hands, pulling out the Good King Henry and rediscovering the cucurbits and brassicas beneath! Another plot holder thought I was mad to weed someone else's plot and she certainly wasn't willing to lend a hand but it seemed such a shame to see vegetable plants being strangled to death and in the end a well cultivated allotment benefits everyone. Whether he will work out what happened when he returns I don't know!

Anyway, back to B&Q. I also had 9 tomato plants left to plant out and with no soil left available to put them in I was on the hunt for 3 grow bags but believe it or not they didn't have any and I was told the whole company is experiencing a grow bag supply problem. A missed opportunity I feel. Who care if they resupply in a few weeks time, people need their grow bags now! So instead I bought 3 troughs and 3 bags of multipurpose compost for £10. It worked out more expensive in the short term but I shall still have the troughs next year and I can refill them. Beside, they have more depth then a grow bag.

As I wheeled my trolley back to my car a man nearby asked me if I would be OK loading 1 bag of manure and 3 bags of compost into my car. I had loaded them onto the trolley OK and they weighed considerably less than my children, whom I carry upstairs on occasion, but I decided to keep these thoughts to myself and accepted his offer of help. It was a nice offer and I suspect it made him feel as warm inside as it did me. Then I drove the car to the allotment and unloaded my purchases there - unaided, I might add!

Later in the day, when Steve was awake and willing, we went around to the allotment as a family. Steve spread the manure, some growmore and some lime onto the last remaining bed and then I planted it up with squash and pumpkin plants, digging out and infilling with multipurpose compost for each plant. I like to create a "crater" around each plant so that I can properly puddle water around them when watering and so that the rain runs towards the plant, not away. This year I had two willing helpers who enjoyed sculpting little circular mud walls around each plant.

As planned I also filled 3 troughs with multipurpose compost and 5 scoops of water retaining gel and planted 3 tomato plants into each. I erected canes at the same time and popped an empty yoghurt drink bottle over the end of each to stop us poking our eyes out.

That left 3 cucumber plants to plant so I put one each on the girls plots and found a space near our pond for the last. Training them up a stake means they won't take up much space.

All this time the girls busied themselves with picking the strawberries and the ever increasing quantities of raspberries. At first my eldest would pick the fruit, pass it to her younger sister who would pop it straight into her mouth but gradually as her belly filled, we began to accumulate fruit to take home. It was quite a harvest, especially considering the time of year and I'm thinking I'm going to have to become very inventive with my use of raspberries this year as it looks like it will be a bumper crop.

We also took home another bag of mangetout, a few tiny and delicious broad beans, a catch crop of radishes and a few shallots that had offended Steve's eye for perfection by growing over the straight edge of his path. So tonight we ate pork chops for dinner accompanied by mangetout, broad beans and a mushroom/shallot medley. Tomorrow I shall figure out what to do with a couple of pounds of raspberries!

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Leeks for dinner again!

Having had a good rummage into the depths of my chest freezer to see what needs eating up before the soft fruit ripens, I decided to launch a serious frozen leek eating campaign!

On Monday we had leek frittata served with garlic bread made with part-baked baguettes and some of last year's garlic (still in surprisingly good condition).

On Tuesday we had spud pies made with some of Sunday's roast chicken and served with vegetables including a portion of last year's broad beans also found lurking in the bottom of the freezer and still surprisingly good.

On Wednesday we had stuffed mushrooms served with mashed potato and gravy and a portion of freshly picked mangetout.

Tonight I think we might have something else, delicious as the leek as proved to be!

Leek Frittata (serves 2)

Frozen leek - the equivalent of one large leek - cut into rounds
4-6 mushrooms
2 medium waxy potatoes, such as Jersey Royals
4 eggs
A slurp of milk
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Oil for frying

In a jug, beat the egg with the milk. Place the potatoes whole, washed and scrubbed in a pan of boiling water and cook for about 5 minutes until par boiled. Remove from the pan and run under cold water to cool then slice into rounds. Fry the leek and mushroom until the mushroom is just beginning to brown then remove from the pan and set aside. Saute the potatoes until browned on both sides then return the leek and mushroom to the pan. Pour the egg into the pan and shake to ensure it finds its way through. Season and cook over a medium heat for 5 minutes until just beginning to set. In the meantime preheat the grill. Remove the frying pan from the heat and place it under the grill for a further 5 minutes to cook the top of the frittata. Cut in half and serve immediately.

Spud Pies (serves 2)

2 large baked potatoes
About one breast of roasted chicken
A slurp of milk
6-8 mushrooms, quartered
Frozen leek, equivalent to half a 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. In the meantime pick the chicken off the remains of a roast chicken, reserving about one breast of chicken for use in this recipe. Put some of the bones and skin in a pan of boiling water and simmer with the lid on for half an hour. Drain the water into a jug to use as chicken stock in this recipe. 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.

Stuffed Mushrooms (serves 2)

Frozen leek - the equivalent to one large leek, sliced
1 garlic clove, chopped
4 flat mushrooms
Grated Cheddar cheese
Oil for frying
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 200°C, gas 6. In a frying pan, cook the leek until just beginning to brown then add the garlic and fry for another minute. Place the mushroom in a suitable shallow ovenproof tin or dish. Spoon the leek evenly onto all the mushrooms. Season and sprinkle over the grated cheese. Cook in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes then serve immediately.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Eccles cakes

I was pretty surprised last week to harvest the first ripe strawberries of the season but I was more surprised today when I discovered a few ripe raspberries! I've also eaten 2 portions of mangetout already and the broad beans are about a week away from being ready. I'm thinking I'm very close to not having to buy veg from the supermarket. So with impending gluts it is time to really step up the using up of last years' preserves and frozen stuff. The frozen stuff is pretty much gone now anyway but there are still quite a lot of jars cluttering up my cupboards.

So, how do I use up mincemeat at the beginning of June? It's not as bad as it seems actually as it can be used to add flavour to flapjacks and cakes but in a moment of inspiration I decided to make Eccles Cakes. This came about because I had made a stack of sausage rolls and had a bit of ready made puff pastry left over. What is an Eccles Cake anyway if not a combination of dried fruit and pastry? Well, I'm sure there is a bit more to it than that but this recipe is a close approximation and a great use of mincemeat in June!

Eccles Cakes

Puff pastry
Granulated sugar

Preheat oven to 220°C, gas 7 and grease a baking tray. Use a plain 10cm cutter to cut out circles of pastry. Spoon a teaspoon of mincemeat into the centre of each circle of pastry. Use a pastry brush to brush the edge of the pastry circle with water then fold the pastry over to wrap the mincement inside. Turn the pastry bundle over and gently flatten the parcel with a rolling pin. Place the parcel on a baking tray and gash it 3 times with a sharp knife. Brush with water and sprinkle over with granulated sugar. Bake for 15 minutes until risen and golden. Cool on a wire rack and eat up within two days.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Instant progress

It was the half term holiday last week and my husband took the week off from work too so we spent a week visiting local attactions with the children. So there wasn't much time for gardening but every morning I trooped the plants out of the cold frame and off the windowsills and into the garden, and every night I trooped the plants back in again. So you can imagine that by the end of the week I was keen to get some of the plants planted out on the allotment.

The great thing about this time of year is that you have (or should have) lots of plants ready and waiting to be planted out so you can transform a patch of ground in an afternoon, unlike when seeds are sown and there is no instant evidence of the work done. On Saturday I transformed one bed by planting row after row of brassica plants. I love variety so I put in spring cabbages, red cabbages, calebrese, two types of sprouting broccoli, romanesco cauliflower, asparagus kale and brussel sprouts. The first of these will be ready to harvest in July and the last will be harvestede sometime next March so they are important plants for a long season. To give them a good start, I buried their stems deeply and firmed around them with my foot (using a rake for balance!). Then I scattered around some slug pellets and netted the whole bed against pigeons. It's not a particularly fine net so it'll be useless against butterflies so I'll have to remove it when the plants are big enough to allow me and the birds in to remove the caterpillars.

On Sunday I planted up half a bed with sweetcorn. I have now discovered why my sweetcorn have been dying - I have loved them to death! Overwatering! Mind you, I'm not entirely to blame, it's that rubbish peat-free compost. It dries out rapidly on the surface but traps the moisture underneath so it looks dessicated from above but is swampy underneath. It's impossible to judge so I shalln't be using it again next year for seedlings. I've planted out what I have and have stuck a few more seeds directly into the soil to boost numbers.

In the meantime, Steve dug out a trench and infilled it with compost from our compost bin then planted French beans into this. I like it when the bean support goes up as it adds structure to the plot. Then he planted out a few dwarf French bean plants and I stuck in some extra seed.

With the addition of tomato, pepper, aubergine, beans, calebrese and cabbage plants to my girls' plots they are now fully planted up apart from a space for a cucumber plant. I've finally got my cucumbers to germinate but they are too small to put out this week because if a slug was to munch them they wouldn't survive.

I'm also pleased to say that the plants from school have enjoyed their holiday with me. We now have 6 healthy French bean plants, 3 tomatoes seedlings and a cucumber.

This week also saw the first of the strawberries ready to eat - the earliest I have ever known. We also ate our first new potatoes from volunteers, and I have harvest about 12 mangetout. And we have tadpoles in a new pond. Yes, it's been a good week.