Monday, 28 September 2009

The changing seasons

I have known about the 4 seasons at least since I was five years old. Certainly at that age I could have drawn a picture to represent the different seasons. Yet every year autumn takes me by surprise. With the warmth and light of summer it feels as if things can keep growing forever. But slowly the mornings start to feel colder and the evenings get darker and you realise that plants really aren't going to grow for much longer. In July I could fill a punnet with raspberries every 3 days, in August I could fill a carrier bag with courgettes once a week and in early September I could fill a bag with French beans every week. But at the end of September the raspberries are tiny and few, the courgettes are mere blimps behind the flowers and the French beans are tired and tough.

That's not to say that there isn't still plenty to eat and things to pick but the type of food has changed. I love to eat with the seasons (just as well really!) and summer eating has given way to autumn now. The soft summer fruit is all frozen or turned into preserves so now is the time to eat plums, apples and blackberries before they too come to an end. The summer cucurbits of courgettes and cucumbers are exhausted but the glorious pumpkins and squash are golden and ready for picking. The tomatoes are still just about managing to ripen in the shorter sunny days and maybe, just maybe, the chilli peppers will turn before the frosts.

With possible frosts forecasts for the beginning of October, we decided this weekend to bring the pumpkins in for safe keeping. This year we grew 3 Jack O'Lantern pumpkin plants, supposed to yield large fruit ideal for carving, 2 Little Bear pumpkin plants, supposed to give mini pumpkins, and 2 butternut squash plants. Pumpkin plants are fantastic the way from a tiny seed they romp away into enormous plants, produce huge or abundant fruit and then, exhausted, shrivel away to dust with just the fruit remaining. From our plants we have managed to grow (with more effort on the part of the plant than ourselves) 8 large pumpkins, 11 mini pumpkins and 7 butternut squash.

The pumpkin harvest day is something my girls have been looking forward to and nagged about for a month so it was with great excitement that my eldest took hold of the knife. And like the opening of a new building, she cut the first stem. Then we sweated in the glorious autumn sunshine as we heaved the fruit to the wheelbarrow and back home again.

Soon I'll be making things from pumpkins but for now they will keep and I'm still using up the stored courgettes and cucumbers. Later in the week I think I shall nip out and pick some more tomatoes just in case frost does arrive. Whatever is left unripe I can use to make green tomato chutney. In the meantime I shall use up the autumn bounty in mixed chutneys and relishes.

I'm sure winter will creep up on me as sneakily as the autumn did but when I'm tucking into a hot pot stuffed full of leeks and root vegetables I shall know for sure that winter is here.

This attractive relish is suitable for use as a condiment with cold meat and cheese and is ideal on hot sandwiches and burgers. The combination of vegetables is not essential as long as a good variety of colour is included so it is a good way to use up vegetables at the end of the summer season.

Ingredients (makes 3 to 5 jars)
1 lb (450 g) green tomatoes
8 oz (225 g) red tomatoes
2 red peppers
2 green peppers
2 sticks celery
2 onions
½ cucumber (peeled)
½ small red cabbage
1 cob’s worth of sweetcorn
8 oz (225 g) light brown sugar
25 fl oz (710 ml) white wine vinegar


Chop all the ingredients into small chunks and layer in the bowl with the salt. Place a small plate over the vegetables and weight down. Leave it for several hours or overnight. Drain and thoroughly rinse and dry the vegetables. Add the vegetables to the preserving pan with the sugar and vinegar. Bring to the boil and simmer for about an hour, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender and the liquid has reduced considerably. Transfer into warmed jars and seal immediately.

Sweet Sandwich Pickle

Suitable in all types of sandwiches but particularly good with hamburgers and hot dogs.

Ingredients (makes 3-4 jars)

3 lb (1350g) peeled and chopped marrow
1 large onion
12 oz (225g) apples
1 pint (600 ml) malt vinegar
8 oz (225g) tomato puree
8 oz (225g) stoned dates, chopped
1lb (450g) soft dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon mustard seeds
2 tablespoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons of ground all spice
A dash of freshly grated nutmeg

Place the peeled and chopped marrow in a bowl layered with salt and leave to stand overnight. Rinse and dry the marrow then tip it into a preserving pan. Grate the apple and onion and add this to the preserving pan. Add the tomato puree and the vinegar and bring to the boil. Cook for about 30 minutes until the vegetables are soft. Add the dates, sugar and spices and stir well until the sugar is dissolved. Bring back to the boil then simmer until thick. Ladle into warm jars and seal immediately.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Planning ahead some more

Having spent some time at the weekend making sure that things will continue to grow into the autumn I decided to use the idea of forward planning in my school gardening club this week. Forward planning isn't really something that six year olds have to do very often - they tend to leave that to their parents but when it comes to Christmas lists or birthday party then they like to have some input. Still, they understood the basic idea and they understood the need to plan ahead when dealing with things as slow plants.

I find myself cursing when I walk into supermarkets at this time of year to find them selling Christmas cake and mince pies. I think they should hold off at least until after Halloween but a bit of me understands why this happens. It's forward planning - both on the part of the supermarket and on the part of the customers (some of whom presumably buy these things at this time of year). I can hardly criticise as I have already made mincemeat and the preserves I make will be sold to customers at Christmas fares.

So back at gardening club, what were we doing this week? Planting hyacinths for flowering at Christmas! Eek! 2nd week into the new term and we're making Christmas presents! Still, it has to be done now or it just won't work. They need to spend from now until mid December in a cool, dark place such as a cupboard in a garage to be fooled into thinking it's winter then when they come into the warm living room just before Christmas they think spring has sprung and burst into bloom. It works too. This is the 3rd year I've done it.

So, remind me, how many shopping days are there until Christmas...? I don't know either but I'm sure I still have plenty of time to buy my Christmas cake! Actually, once all the jam and chutney are made I'll probably still have time to make a Christmas cake.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Planning ahead

When fruit and vegetables are cropping abundantly, as they do at this time of the year, it is easy to find yourself living in the here and now, dealing with the gluts as quickly as possible to process it before harvesting yet more. Planning ahead under these circumstances can mean simply deciding which order to make the preserves in in order to use the fruit and vegetables before they go over.

This week I had both apples and plums vying for my immediate attention as the fruit ripened to the point of falling off the trees. Any picked fruit rapidly went mouldy in the late summer warmth. So on Tuesday I made hot and spicy plum chutney, on Wednesday apple and ginger jam, Thursday confetti relish and Friday brown sauce.

With so much time spent in the kitchen it is hard to find time for the garden but time must be found or the last of the growing season will be wasted. It amazes me every year how quickly the weather changes. Very quickly, with the shortening of the day length, the temperatures drop sharply at night and gradually fail to warm much during the day. Still, the soil is warm and anything sown will germinate quickly so there is the chance of a few weeks of growth before the frosts.

So today I took a break from the kitchen and sowed some quick growing peas and beans in small troughs and put them on my conservatory windowsill. I also sowed a tray of salad leaves for the windowsill too. The conservatory is north facing so doesn't get a lot of light but hopefully they will grow just a bit beyond the frosts when the other beans and peas have succumbed. I've not tried it before so we'll just have to wait and see but my conservatory tomatoes did extremely well in the spring so I'm hopeful.

Tomorrow will be time to get in some autumn onion sets and a few winter leaves such as corn salad, spinach, hardy lettuce, land cress and leaf beet. And hopefully when the current glut is bottled, frozen and eaten I will be grateful for my forward planning and will be able to continue to harvest fresh vegetables.

Hot and Spicy Plum Chutney

2 lb (900g) plums
1½ pints (1 litre) white wine vinegar
1½ lb (675g) granulated sugar
1 dessert spoon of Lazy Chilli (prepared chilli in a jar)
2 oz (55g) garlic (crushed)
2 teaspoons mustard powder
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 oz (25g) salt

De-stone and chop the plums. Cook the plums in vinegar until soft. Add all the other ingredients and cook for about one and a half hours until thick. Ladle into warmed jars and seal immediately.

Apple and Ginger Jam

3 lb (1400 g) apples
16½ fl oz (450 ml) water
3 lb 6 oz (1570 g) sugar
6 oz (170 g) stem ginger
3 tbsp stem ginger syrup
NB: Every pound of apples requires 1 lb 2 oz sugar, 5½ fl oz water, 2 oz stem ginger and 1 tbsp ginger syrup.

Peel, cut the apples into quarters and core. Place in a preserving pan with the water and bring slowly to the boil. Simmer the apples for about 10 minutes until they are soft and pulpy. In the meantime warm the sugar and cut the stem ginger into small pieces. Once the fruit is cooked add the sugar, ginger and the syrup to the fruit and stir over a low heat until all the sugar is dissolved. Boil rapidly for 5 to 8 minutes until the setting point in reached. Ladle into warmed jars and seal immediately.

Confetti Relish

2 lb (900g) courgette
1 large onion
2 oz (55g) red cabbage
1 red pepper
1 orange pepper
1 handful of loose sweetcorn
2 teaspoons of celery seeds
2 teaspoons of ground turmeric
2 teaspoons of mustard powder
1 lb (450g) light brown sugar
15 fl oz (425ml) white wine vinegar
2-3 tablespoons cornflour
Ground black pepper

Use a food processor to finely chop the courgettes, onion and red cabbage. Place the chopped vegetables in a bowl, layered with salt and stand over night. Drain the water and rinse the vegetables. Pat dry with kitchen paper then place in a preserving pan. Chop the peppers and add these and all of the other ingredients to the preserving pan. Place jars in a cool oven. Heat the mixture and stir constantly until thick then transfer into warmed jars and seal immediately.

Brown Sauce

4 lb ( 1815g) apples
1 lb (454g) plums
2 large onions
2 pints (1300ml) water
3 pints (2000 ml) malt vinegar
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 oz (55g) salt
2 lb (900g) light brown sugar

Peel and core the apples and cut into pieces. Halve and remove the stones from the plums and cut into pieces. Peel the onion and finely chop. Put the fruit and vegetables into a preserving pan and pour in the water. Bring to the boil then simmer for 10-20 minutes until the fruit is soft and pulpy. Blend in batches until smooth in a blender then return the puree to the preserving pan. Add all the other ingredients and bring back to the boil then simmer until thick. Remove from the heat and transfer into warmed bottles and seal immediately.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

On my soap box

I watched Countryfile on Sunday evening as we ate our roast chicken with all homegrown vegetables... ah... gives you a warm feeling of righteousness, doesn't it?! Anyway, one article was about British apples. Apparently as recently as the 1970s sixty percent of the apples sold in this country were grown in the UK. Now that percentage is a mere 10. That's a bit shocking. British apples are in season between September and April so at this time of year there should be no excuse. My own apple tree is heavily laden with ripening fruit. Being an early cropper the apples don't store well so I have to process them in some way to preserve them. Bad timing really given the simultaneous cropping of my plums, not to mention all those cucurbits! Still, I'll not grumble and I'll not be beaten either. It is food and it will be eaten!

This week also saw the first gardening club of the year at my daughters' primary school. After 7 weeks of complete neglect the garden was looking surprisingly good and we even have a small pumpkin growing. Anyway, with the apple issue still nagging away in my head I saw an opportunity to educate a handful of children on the importance of eating seasonally and locally. It's not on the national curriculum but it is important and in an after school club I don't have to worry too much about what I'm teaching them.

So I took to school a bagful of fruit and vegetables from my allotment and showed them just what could be grown in Britain at this time of year. A few of them had never tasted plums or beetroot before and some were surprised that cucumber could be grown in your garden. I took in a Union Jack too and Sue provided a bag of British apples with its Union Jack labelling and we talked about seasons, seasonal and food miles. OK, the children are only 6 years old but hopefully they will go home and nag their parents the next time they are in the shops. Let's hope that next time they choose a bag of apples it is because they are attracted to the Union Jack on the label and not the Disney character!

Monday, 7 September 2009

Big and small harvests

We returned from our short break on Friday evening and went out to the allotment to harvest some fresh veg for dinner and to see if our sweetcorn had survived the week. I'm pleased to say that they had. I don't know what had eaten my fellow plot holders corn but whatever it is it has so far not found mine. We picked four cobs and cooked them immediately upon returning to the house. I'm a huge fan of sweetcorn and eat it almost every day of the year but usually from a tin and heated in the microwave. I have to confess that part of its appeal is its ease of preparation! Steve in contrast rarely eats sweetcorn at any other time of the year but we both wait eagerly for this time of year when our cobs are ready. There really is no other way to experience what corn on the cob can taste like at its best than by growing it yourself and eating it within minutes of picking. Frozen, tinned or "fresh" from the shops just isn't the same. My husband summed it up tonight when he said, "this is the reason we have an allotment" as he munched on his cob. And another thing... you can't buy cobs in the shops that are 12 inches long.

Other plants survived our week away remarkably well. We had a punnet of ripe red tomatoes, a carrier bag of French beans and... you guessed it... a bag each of cucumber and courgette. No surprises there really. What was a surprise, and a delight, was my small crop of peanuts. It wouldn't amount to an airline pack of nuts but I grew them! And on the theme of nuts, after about seven years my hazelnut tree has finally borne about 30 nuts. Last year it only had 3 nuts and when we cracked them they were hollow. It is funny how sometimes you don't need more than a handful of something to consider it a successful harvest!