Sunday, 30 August 2009

Courgettes and house guests

At this time of year my cupboards begin to groan until the weight of jars I have stacked in them so it was a relief on Saturday to offload some of them to one of my buyers. She had agreed to buy all of my strawberry, raspberry and blackcurrant jams, a batch of piccalilli and my salad and sandwich pickle. It is a useful arrangement that we have as she takes the jars unlabelled and puts her own branded label on them. I just email her all the required labelling information. I don’t mind this as she credits me in her marketing material and it means I don’t have to worry about labelling these jars – they can go straight out of the door.

Last year she asked me if I could make her some tomato ketchup but I had terrible problems with blight and had to tell her I didn’t have enough tomatoes for the job. Not to worry, she said, she could source some locally grown tomatoes if I could make the ketchup. So in the end I made two batches of ketchup for her and she had sold the lot before Christmas. So popular was it that she was keen for me to do the same again this year. I can’t say I enjoy doing it much because she has paid for the tomatoes and I feel a bit tense that I really cannot mess up and burn it or something! Still, it’s guaranteed sales so I can hardly say no. When she emailed me this year to ask if I could make the ketchup again I was just about to go on holiday so I agreed to do it but asked her to contact me about it again when I got home. As it happened our emails in the pass week had only involved arranging for collection for the jams and chutneys. Nobody mentioned ketchup.

So it was something of a surprise when she turned up on Saturday with 24 pounds of tomatoes and asked me if now was a good time to make ketchup! The first thing that went through my head was the bags of courgettes and cucumbers in my kitchen, the plums dropping off my tree and the apples ripening on the allotment. The second thing to enter my head was the impending arrival of my mother-in-law for her annual week’s summer stay. She was due to arrive in two hours. But being the sort of person I am I smiled and nodded and took the two crates of tomatoes.

In the next hour I roped in the help of my 5 and 6 year old daughters. My five year old pulled the green stalks off each tomato and 6 year old chopped each one into quarters then together we fed them into my hand cranked pureeing machine until we ran out of containers to store the puree in. Still, we managed to process and freeze 12 pounds of tomatoes before all of us ran out of energy and enthusiasm. I stacked the puree in the freezer for another day.

So my first task on Monday morning was to puree the other 12 pounds of tomatoes, then I got the tomato ketchup cooking whilst a friend popped over and took up the invitation to pick her own plums from my tree. It was 9.30am when I started the ketchup and 4.30 by the time it was thick enough to bottle. I’m not sure what my mother-in-law thought to being pretty much banished from the kitchen for the day but she didn’t say anything.

Tomato and Basil Ketchup
12 lb (5.5kg) tomatoes
1 lb (454g) onion
2 to 4 garlic cloves
1 lb (454g) caster sugar
1 pt (660ml) cider vinegar
2 oz (55g) salt
2 tablespoons tomato puree
2 to 3 teaspoons soy sauce
Freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon ground all spice
½ teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon ground ginger
3 to 4 sprigs of basil

Wash the tomatoes and put them in a preserving pan. Gently heat, stir and begin to break up the tomatoes. Once the tomatoes have begun to break up, finely chop the onions and add them to the pan. Crush the garlic and add it to the pan then cook the vegetables slowly for about half an hour. In batches, pour the mixture into a blender, liquidise and sieve into a clean bowl. Wash out the pan and return the liquid to it. Add all the other ingredients except the basil, bring to the boil and simmer for several hours until it has reduced to the thickness of ketchup. Add the finely chopped basil, remove from the heat and transfer into warmed bottles and seal immediately.

With that chore out of the way it was time to return my attention back to my own glut. I started with the cucumbers so made a batch of sweet cucumber pickle. This is a nice quick one to make because it isn’t strictly speaking a chutney so it requires very little cooking. Another pulse point is that my mum loves the stuff so I can mentally put a jar or two in a Christmas hamper with the pickled gherkins for my dad. I asked my mum the other day what she liked to eat the pickle with and she said cold meat, cheese, sausages, chops, egg and bacon… really any meal that didn’t have gravy with it!

Sweet Cucumber Pickle
2lb (900g) cucumbers
2 large onions
2-3 sticks of celery
1 oz (25g) salt
1 pint (660ml) cider vinegar
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 lb (454g) light brown sugar
½ teaspoon turmeric
¼ teaspoon ground cloves

Peel the onions but not the cucumber. Finely chop the vegetables and place in a non-metallic bowl with the salt. Cover and leave overnight. Rinse the vegetables and drain well. Transfer the vegetables to a preserving pan and pour in the vinegar. Bring to the boil and simmer for about 15 minutes. Add the sugar and spices and stir thoroughly until the sugar is dissolved. Return to the boil then remove from the heat and ladle into warmed jars and seal immediately.

Next I used 3 pounds of cucumbers and some of the allotment apples to make cucumber and apple chutney.

Cucumber and Apple Chutney
For every 1 lb cucumbers:
8 oz (225g) apples
1 large onion (8 oz; 225 g)
1 to 2 sticks of celery (depending on size)
½ pint (300ml) white wine vinegar
8 oz (225g) light brown sugar
1 tablespoon salt
¼ teaspoon turmeric
Pinch of ground allspice (Jamaican pepper)
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

Cube but don’t peel the cucumber then finely chop it in a food processor. Peel the onion and core, but don’t peel, the apples. Use the food processor to finely chop the celery sticks, apple and the onion. Place the vegetables in the bowl and place a small plate on top. Press down on the plate to squeeze the water out of the vegetables, and discard. Place the vegetables in the preserving pan and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring to avoid sticking. Pour in the vinegar, sugar and other flavourings and bring to the boil. Simmer, stirring occasionally until the liquid has almost gone. Ladle into a warmed jar and seal immediately.

By now the kitchen really stunk of vinegar and spices despite having the back door and all the windows open. Mother-in-law still didn’t comment. Nonetheless, to improve the smell and to appease my house guest I made a batch of chocolate courgette muffins. My girls are huge fans of these and mother-in-law quickly began to appreciate their light, moist texture.

Chocolate and Courgette Muffins

7 oz (200g) plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
Pinch of salt
4½ oz (125g) caster sugar
2 eggs
6 fl oz (170g) sunflower oil
8 oz (225g) peeled weight courgette
6½ oz (180g) good plain chocolate
2 oz (55g) raisins/walnuts/chocolate chips (your preference)

Preheat oven to 180°C (gas 4). Sift all the dry ingredients into a bowl. Beat the eggs into the oil and stir it into the dry mix. Finely grate the courgettes and stir this in. Melt the chocolate in a bowl over a pan of boiling water and add this to the cake mix. Finally, add the raisins, nuts or chocolate chips. Combine well then spoon into muffin cases. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes until a skewer inserted comes out clean. Cool in the muffin tin for 5 minutes then transfer onto a wire rack to cool completely.

These muffins freeze well so you could make a few batches to use up courgettes whilst you have them. Someone suggested freezing grated courgettes for use in cakes so I processed a few more courgettes and frozen 3 lots of 8 oz of grated courgettes. I hope it works as this takes up less space than the muffins in the freezer.

Then mid week I made another batch of piccalilli to use up the last of the cucumbers. I really wanted to make another batch of salad and sandwich pickle but it takes quite a while to reduce down and couldn’t really find the time what with taking my girls and mother-in-law out each day for various little trips.

The plan at the end of the week was to take mother-in-law home then go on to a caravan for the last 5 days of the summer holiday so with another few days away looming it was important to preserve as much possible before Friday. On Thursday I had to tackle the dropping plums. In a week’s time they will probably be either on the ground or so ripe that the pectin levels will to wrecked and useless for getting jam to set. Thursday afternoon I sat down at the kitchen table with a big box full of plums and invited my mother-in-law to help me chop them up so I could get them frozen. However, Victoria plums are surprisingly orange and an hour later we both had the hands of an 80 a day chain smoker! Mother-in-law was unimpressed by this and the broken fingernail is sustained. She left me to it and disappeared to scrub and file until she was feeling herself again. Still, between us we had chopped 9 pounds of plums. I froze 6 of these straight away and turned the other 3 into plum and orange mincemeat.

Plum and Orange Mincemeat

3 lb (1350g) plums
2 large oranges
8 oz (225g) sultanas
8 oz (225g) raisins
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon mixed spice
1½ lb (680g) granulated sugar
2 tablespoons brandy

Wash, stone and finely chop the plums and place in a non-metallic bowl. Grate the rind off the oranges then peel the orange and chop the flesh. Add the dried fruit, spices, sugar and brandy to the bowl. Stir well, cover and refrigerate overnight. Tip the mix into a preserving pan and heat gentle, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Bring to the boil and simmer for about half an hour until thick. Pour into warmed jars and seal.

So on Friday morning I banished the vinegary chutney smells from the kitchen and replaced them with the delicious and altogether more pleasing aromas of Christmas. Later that day I picked and chopped other 7 pounds of plum but this time I decided not to ask my mother-in-law to help. I think she had had her fill for at least another year!

Friday afternoon we all went for a trip to the allotment and whilst mother-in-law sat in her deck chair and watched the girls playing I set about bringing in the harvest. More French beans, the first ripe sweetcorn, a fair amount of tomatoes and… another bagful of courgettes and cucumbers. Sigh! Sometimes I feel as if I have created a monster!

We ate the sweetcorn for dinner… yum yum! I packed the beans and smallest courgettes to take on holiday with us and froze the tomatoes. I laid the courgettes and cucumbers in open boxes and placed them under a shelter in the back garden. I used to try to wrap all the surplus courgettes and cucumbers up in plastic bags and keep them in the fridge but I simply don’t have the fridge space for them all. I have since discovered that leaving them out in the air like this causes them to develop a harder skin but they keep well – unless they are damaged, where instead they quickly turn into a bag of goo!

Saturday morning whilst Steve loaded the suitcases into the car I walked round to the allotment to water the tomatoes and to empty the kitchen compost bin. A fellow allotment plot holder came up to show me a sweetcorn cob – completely eaten down to the hard core as thoroughly as a human would have done. He wondered if it had been birds or mice but he had never seen anything like it. All his sweetcorn had gone the same way. I said I thought only badgers did that but we’ve never had badgers before. I returned home and told Steve. He agreed it must be badgers and now we are wondering if any of our sweetcorn will still be standing in a week’s time when we return from holiday. I imagine there will be plenty of courgettes and cucumbers to harvest though!

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Drowning!

I can safely declare it mid-chutney season. When I returned from holiday I immediately began dealing with the glut of courgettes, cucumbers and gherkins. Gherkins are thankfully easy to deal with. The small ones can be pickled whole and the large ones can be sliced and pickled either plain or with extra flavourings as dill pickle. I had left instructions for Sue for making pickled gherkins whilst we were away and she handed me a jar of "science experiment gone wrong" when I saw her in the week. She's clearly not a fan of pickled gherkins. I have to admit they do look a bit ugly in the jar but I know a man with a seemlessly endless appetite for them... guess what my dad will be getting for Christmas... well, it's better than socks!

Pickled Gherkins

Gherkins
Salt
Water
Malt or pickling vinegar

Wash the gherkins to remove any residual soil and the spines. If small enough, keep the gherkins whole; if larger then slice into discs. Pack into a suitable sized jar, sprinkling on salt as you go. Be generous with the salt and don’t worry about the taste, as it will be washed off. Pour in the water and seal the jar overnight. Drain the gherkins, rinse well under running water and dry on kitchen paper. Also rinse and dry the lid and jar. Pack the gherkins back into the jar and fill to the top with vinegar. Place a ball of greaseproof paper in the neck of the jar to keep the gherkins submerged then seal and label the jar.

Dill Pickle

6 small cucumbers or large gherkins or 12 small gherkins
16 fl oz (475 ml) water
1¾ pints (1 litre) white wine vinegar
4 oz (115 g) salt
3 bay leaves
3 tablespoons dill seed
2 garlic cloves, sliced

Wash the cucumbers to remove soil and spines. Cut the cucumbers into slices or leave small gherkins whole. In a saucepan, heat the water, vinegar and salt to boiling then immediately remove from the heat. In suitable jars, layer the sliced cucumbers with the garlic, dill and bay until the jar is well packed. Pour the warm liquid into the jars and seal immediately.

When faced with large quantities of courgettes and cucumber my mind automatically thinks picalilli. Then a quick flick through the recipe confirms that now is the ideal time for making picalilli because I'm also on the verge of a glut of calebrese and French bean - both of which can be added to picalilli. One of the great things about making it is that it is predictably quick. When a chutney needs to simmer to reduce until thick it is difficult to know how long you might end up tied to the kitchen. It can be a bit like waiting for the gas man to turn up and it's certainly not the sort of thing you should start an hour before the school run. With picalilli you know that once you start cooking it the whole lot will be neatly lined up in jars within half an hour. The time consuming bit is all the chopping at the beginning but even this can be lessened with the use of a food processor. Did I mention I have just bought a new food processor? It cost me £172 and it came in 38 separate bits. It took half a day to unpack and repack into the designated cupboard shelf. Still, at least I shouldn't find random pieces of plastic in my chutney like I used to as the old food processor gradually fell to bits.

Picalilli

3 lb (1350g) of vegetables – roughly: 1 lb 12 oz (790g) courgette and/or marrow, 14 oz (400g) cucumber, 3 oz (85g) calabrese (or cauliflower) florets, 2 oz (55g) climbing beans, 2 oz (55g) very small onions or shallots.
Salt
1 oz (25g) mustard powder
1 oz (25g) ground ginger
1 small piece root ginger
3 oz (85g) caster sugar
1 pint (660 ml) malt vinegar
1 dessert spoon cornflour
1 dessert spoon turmeric

Wash and chop the vegetables to the size you would like them to be in the final chutney then place them in a bowl, layered with salt. Peel, top and tail the small onions/shallots leaving them whole then add them to the bowl with salt. Place a small plate over the top and weight it down so that it is pressing on the vegetables. Leave for several hours or overnight. Drain off any water, rinse the vegetables under cold running water and dry thoroughly. Add most of the vinegar to the preserving pan, reserving about 3 fl oz (85ml). Add the mustard, both gingers and the sugar. Heat gently, stirring to dissolve the sugar. When the vinegar begins to steam, start adding the vegetables. Bring to the boil and simmer for about 5 minutes. Combine the cornflour and turmeric with the reserved vinegar then add it to the pan. Boil for another 2 to 3 minutes, stirring to thicken. Remove from the heat and ladle into warmed jars and seal immediately.

It's such a brilliantly easy chutney to make and uses such a perfect combination of ingredients just right for this time of year that after a trip to the supermarket to stock up on vinegar, ground ginger and turmeric I made another batch.

Another good chutney for this time of year is my salad and sandwich pickle. This is a homemade version of a rather famous brown pickle. Again it requires a set of vegetables that just happen to be available on the plot at this time of year. In fact, my desire to make this pickle is the main reason I grow swede. Unlike many chutneys this one does not require the vegetables to be left overnight in salt. This can be handy because it can be started and finished on the same day. Mind you, I often find the break between preparing the vegetables and making the chutney useful as it means I'm not spending hours on any particular day involved in chutney making.

Salad and Sandwich Pickle

1 medium swede, peeled and diced
9 oz (255g) carrots, peeled and diced
2 medium onions, peeled and finely chopped
4-6 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
5 oz (145g) dates, finely chopped
2 medium apples, peeled and finely chopped
1 large courgette, peeled and finely chopped
1 cucumber, peeled and finely chopped
10 oz (285g) dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons (60ml) lemon juice
1½ pints (1 litre) malt vinegar
2 dashes of balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons mustard seeds
2 teaspoons ground allspice
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Combine all the ingredients in a preserving pan and bring to the boil. Simmer for one and half to two hours until thick. Ladle into warmed jars and seal immediately.

Having spent so much time in the kitchen this week I had somewhat neglected the allotment. I was pleased, however, that by Friday I had purged my kitchen of courgettes and cucumbers and had only a sensible quantity of calebrese and French beans in the fridge. Then at 5 o'clock on Friday I decided it was time for some fresh air and I went for a stroll round to the allotment. I came back with a carrier bag of courgettes, a bag of cucumbers, half a bag of beans and a punnet of ripe tomatoes. So now the plums are beginning to fall of the tree, the apples are very nearly ripe and tomato season is here. Oh... and did I mention the three beautiful heads of cabbage? Can you guess what I'll be doing next week?

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Returning from holiday

If you have ever thawed out frozen soft fruit you will know that liquid seeps out of the bag, like helium from a balloon, no matter how well sealed the bag appears to be. I had 5 pounds of jostaberries in my freezer before going on holiday and they thawed out whilst the freezer was turned off and the juices seeped out, down between the gaps of food below, and into the bottom of the freezer. Then, when the freezer was switched on again, the whole lot froze again and become entombed in a purple glacier that looks like it should be mounted in the Tate Modern. So on the first day back from my holiday I had to switch off the chest freezer again and thaw it all out in order to remove the food items one by one from the glacier and throw it in the bin. As it happened I decided to risk the jostberries and made them into jostaberry jam the same day, figuring that the vigorous boiling for several minutes would see off any harmful bacteria. So when other people at the end of their holiday might have been unpacking their bags, catching up on some washing and flicking through their post, I was tackling a freezer of damaged food and making an emergency batch of jam!

Monday, 10 August 2009

Allotment news from home

It’s been two weeks since we started the holiday now and finally emails from my parents and Sue. I had been waiting for news but didn’t like to email them and seem too needy… you know… Hi, hope you are well and how’s the allotment doing? It was good timing because I’d watched Gardener’s World last night and had felt some deep pangs whilst they talked about the vegetable garden. Usually I like to say things like "Oh, ours are bigger than that!" or "we did that last week," but yesterday I just sat there wondering whether my tomato plants had fruit on yet and wishing I could step outside and sow some autumn crops. I’d missed the garden so much I’d even picked some wild raspberries from the hedgerow earlier in the week!

Anyway, Sue informed me that she had dispatched caterpillar eggs from the brassicas and that blight had struck the potatoes. She also told me she was overrun with courgettes. No surprises there. My mum said they had picked loads… of what, she didn’t say. But she also told me that somehow in our shutting the house down routine we had managed to accidentally switch off our chest freezer! What a blow! My chest freezer was full of homegrown produce, now thawed out and refrozen. What a pickle that will be to sort out when I get home and totally irreplaceable. At times like this I wish my freezer had been full of frozen pizza, chips and ready meals and I could just ring up my insurance company for compensation. Still, on the bright side, I did put 37 pounds of frozen fruit into Sue’s chest freezer last month and for that I’m thankful!

Thursday, 6 August 2009

When fresh veg isn't fresh

It’s 10 days since we started our holiday now and the homegrown veg is beginning to run out. It has lasted amazingly well, and better than the “fresh” veg we bought in the supermarket to supplement it. We have enjoyed fried courgette with shallot, mushroom and garlic almost every day and there is one courgette left in the fridge, along with 2 cloves of garlic and a few more shallots. We cooked and ate the beetroot almost straight away so that has all gone now. There is even the heart of our lettuce left looking green and perky. When I picked the peas and mangetout I picked everything I could find including some which had gone papery to encourage a continued crop but these older peas started to go mouldy a few days ago. Clearly I should have discarded these straight away but even so we finished up the peas yesterday and the last mangetout today.

Obviously with homegrown veg almost finished I had to buy some more fresh veg today whilst in the supermarket. Some broccoli and carrots, fresh salad leaves and some more mangetout. It wasn’t until I got the shopping back to the cottage that I spotted that the mangetout were from Zambia. Zambia!! Good grief! Why are we importing mangetout from Zambie in July for goodness sake?! Great big, dark green, perfectly flat things there were and (when I unwrapped them from their cellophane) floppy too. Not like the homegrown ones – bright green, small, bumpy in places but crisp. I de-stringed them before cooking them but then choked on another layer of string with my first mouthful. They were too big when they were picked and too long off the plant before they reached the supermarket. Fresh veg… don’t make me laugh!

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Goingt on holiday

Sometimes I really fancy keeping chickens but at this time of year I realise what a problem this would be… for now it is time for our summer holiday. We have a little cottage right on the north coast of Scotland so to make good use of the council taxes we pay all year and the 625 mile journey we like to go away for a full 3 weeks. My husband loves the place and achieves a level of relaxation up there that alludes him at home. I have mixed feelings. Although I enjoy the holiday I’m always reluctant to leave the allotment when it is at its most productive. I’d be quite content to spend 3 weeks at home tending the plants, harvesting the fruit and veg and pottering about in the kitchen making jam and chutney.

Whilst we are away we leave the allotment in the hands of my parents who live a half-hour drive away. Usually they come twice a week to water a few things and to pick whatever is ready. I’m grateful to them and they do a good job but they are not vegetable growers themselves and do not necessarily spot when problems strike or pick things before they get too big. They never complain about it but I don’t know how much like hard work they find it. Anyway, this year I have made an arrangement with a local friend who will come once a week, leaving my parents to come once a week too, reducing their burden but still rewarding them with some fresh produce.

So now you can see why I couldn’t keep chickens. They would need tending every day, not just twice a week, and I find it hard enough to hand over responsibility for my plants as it is!

I find the Growveg.com website garden planning tool useful throughout the year but it becomes really handy at this time of year. I use the planning tool to keep a map of my allotment plot as I go along so when it comes to handing over the allotment keys I can also hand over a map detailing what is planted where. Of course, I can’t help but augment the map with numerous notes such as “will need watering” or “pick regularly”.

For the past few years we have gone away in mid August and both my parents and I have become used to what to expect on the allotment whilst we are away. We usually take as much fresh produce away as possible so set off with bags of potatoes, carrots, beetroot, onions, cucumbers and French beans, all of which keep remarkably fresh. For my parents, there are abundant ripe plums, tomatoes, cucumbers, courgettes and French beans. My parents fill their freezer with produce and we usually come home to a fridge bulging with cucumbers and corn on the cob picked a few days before we return.

This year we are going away in mid July so things have been a little different. A few days before setting off, I walked around the plot trying to imagine what would occur within the coming 3 weeks. This is always harder than your think. After all, usually when I don’t get down to the plot for a few days I’m surprised by what has grown in the meantime. I can equally be surprised by what stops cropping too. This is particularly true for soft fruit when three days before may have filled several punnets only to discover that the strawberries, raspberries, tayberries or whatever have become small and sparse all of a sudden.

Already the gherkins, courgettes and French beans have started cropping so they are definitely going to be abundant. The peas and mangetout are winding down so I don’t expect them to be cropping when I get back. The raspberries continue to be abundant but I have no idea for how much longer. There may be cucumbers and calebrese before we return and I have run out of time and energy to pick any more blackcurrants now so they are there for the taking. The plums will only just be ripening when we get home. My main concern, however, is that the brassicas will become overrun with caterpillars and the tomatoes and potatoes will succumb to blight.

In preparation to going away I picked all the mangetout, peas, French beans and courgettes and filled a couple of bags with potatoes. I even picked a lettuce that otherwise would bolt. I nipped out all the side shoots on the tomatoes and tied them again to their canes. As an added precaution, I sprayed the tomatoes with Diathane and left a made up sprayer and note for my dad to spray again in 10 days time. Hopefully this preventative fungicide will keep blight at bay. I also carefully inspected the brassicas and squashed any eggs or caterpillars that I spotted.

So on the first day of our holiday along with our suitcases, I put out a sack of spuds and bags of courgettes, peas, mangetout, beetroot, and shallots, a bulb of garlic and a lettuce. There is, after all, nothing worst than having to buy from a shop vegetables that you know you have grown at home.
When fresh veg isn’t fresh