Saturday, 27 February 2010

Signs of spring

Tuesday marked the return on the school gardening club after its winter break. Fortunately, I planned some inside activities for this first session, which was just as well as I set off for school in a snow storm! Unfortunately, my main theme for the afternoon was springtime. My first question was "What season are we in now?" The children raised their gaze towards the window and returned a unanimous "Winter!"

Nonetheless, I talked enthusiastically about snowdrops, catkins and potato chits and they soon got the hang of it. Their theme in class this half term is fairy tales and this week they were concentrating on Jack and the Beanstalk. Linking into this I talked about how all beans (and seeds for that matter) are magic, laying dormant until required then bursting into life and growing a plant that then produces food. It was more than fitting that we went on to sow some broad bean seeds that afternoon.

Back at home, I had brought a small seed tray in from outside at the end of the weekend and now the compost had thawed out so I decided to scatter a few leek seeds into it. Previously I had sown lettuce seeds in it late in the autumn with the hope of getting one last salad crop in before the winter but in the end the poor seedlings had been killed off by the frost before reaching an edible size. Leeks are very slow to germinate and grow, which is why they need to be started so early so I was surprised when I saw green shoots on Thursday this week. I only needed to move a little closer to see that the seedlings were in fact lettuce and not leeks. Ah... the magic of seeds again! Still, maybe I'll be able to harvest a few trendy micro salad leaves before I have to give the leeks more room.

It's not been a particularly busy week in the kitchen but I did make a spectacular lasagne for dinner on Wednesday night. It was dead simple to do as it happens because I used the other half of the bolognese I had made last week. So all it required was a cheese sauce and half an hour in the oven. It looked glorious when it came out of the oven with its bubbling, brown top. I served it simply along side some homemade garlic bread. Yummy!


A portion of bolognese made using about 300g mince
25g butter
25g plain flour
1 teaspoon mustard powder
300 ml milk
60g mature Cheddar cheese, grated
30g grated Parmesan
6 sheets of "non-cook" lasagne

Preheat oven to 22o°C, gas 7. Melt the butter in a small pan then add the flour and mustard, stirring as you go to avoid lumps until it forms a paste. Add the milk 100ml at a time, stirring well to mix and avoid lumps. Cook for a minute or two after the last of the milk is added then stir in the Cheddar cheese. When the cheese is melted, taste and season. Remove from the heat. Pour the bolognese into a pan and bring to the boil. Spoon half the bolognese into the bottom of a suitable ovenproof dish then put a layer of lasagne on top, breaking the sheets to fit the dish without overlapping. Spoon over half the cheese sauce and spread out evenly over the lasagne sheets. Pour the remaining bolognese on top, add more lasagne sheets and the remaining cheese sauce. Sprinkle over the Parmesan. Bake for 25-30 minutes until golden and bubbling. Serve hot with garlic bread.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Every day should be a chocolate Sunday!

With my birthday followed quickly by Valentine's day we had been eating at almost Christmas proportions and there was no let up as Pancake day arrived two days later! I have to admit that Pancake day is one of the highlights of the year as far as I'm concerned. Despite making pumpkin and banana "pancakes" throughout the year, I only ever make "crepe" pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. It is a special treat and a dish to savour.

As it happens I was born on Ash Wednesday, my mother tossing pancakes for my dad and brother whilst deep breathing through labour pains... or so the story goes. Having missed out that particular year I have made a point of not missing a pancake since. I was brought up with lemon and sugar pancakes and, despite tasting other flavours over the years, I would eat nothing else on Shrove Tuesday. My girls, on the other hand, until recently were rather adverse to the taste of lemon so we have tried a variety of different flavours for them. This year we filled their pancakes with fruit salad and chocolate sauce, although I'm pleased to say my eldest tried lemon and sugar too again this year and may now be converted to this particular religion.

Chocolate Sauce

100g milk chocolate
10g butter
2 tablespoons golden syrup
2 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Break the chocolate into pieces and place in a bowl with the rest of the ingredients. Place the bowl over a pan of boiling water and stir until melted. Use immediately or decant into an airtight container and refrigerate to use later. Microwave for a few seconds to soften again before use.

Having made a portion of chocolate sauce we were then in the unfortunate position of having to eat it up! So the next day I bought a fresh pineapple and we had pineapple, vanilla ice-cream and chocolate sauce for dessert two nights in a row. Then we moved on to creating sundaes with a mixture of different fruits, a variety of homemade ice-creams and, of course, chocolate sauce. By thawing out a few raspberries and using up homemade ice-cream I continue to slowly chip away at the contents of my freezer.

Talking of freezing... I spent this morning thinking long and hard about the next 6 weeks of gardening club at school. We take a break from Christmas till February half-term holiday because the weather doesn't really allow much gardening but now we are back and ready for the spring. Having spent the morning day-dreaming about what plants we would grow I sat down to lunch in a very sunny conservatory. It all seemed so lovely that I felt a strong urge to get on and plant something after lunch. Steve had bought several bags of compost from the DIY shop last weekend and they sat there on the patio just asking to be used. I made up my mind to sow a tray of leeks and a few broad beans in pots to go in the coldframe but after cutting open a bag of compost I discovered it wad frozen! When the potting compost is frozen you know it's too cold to start sowing seeds.

I admitted defeat (temporarily I'm sure) and headed round to the allotment just to empty the kitchen compost caddy into the compost bin. But the sun was shining and away from shadows of our north-facing garden it was a beautiful day so I pottered about, tidying away some remains of last year's crops. We always leave a few leeks to flower because they are beautiful purple pom pom flowers and now the dead flower heads stood there full of plump, damp black seeds. I broke a couple of heads off and stuck them upsidesown in an old compost-filled flower pot. If I can't sow leek seeds the proper way I can at least get these going.

All around there are signs of spring - snow drops, the first croci, buds, germinating sycamore keys (arghh!!! A terrible weed!). Everything is just starting to get going... everything except the kitchen gardener that is!

Monday, 15 February 2010

Garlic, garlic and more garlic!

Having sat at my computer for the majority of Saturday I was feeling in desperate need of some fresh air and exercise by about 3 o'clock in the afternoon. My girls were too, not that they knew it, but a mother can tell these things... particularly when two small children are running up and down, screaming and giggling in a house not designed for such things! So I insisted they put their clothes back on (!) and join me in the garden. Steve was already outside, installing a new satellite system with the impending deadlines of fading daylight and football highlights.

Once outside the girls continued to run up and down, screaming and giggling but somehow it didn't seem so bad. I decided I needed to have a proper tidy up in the shed, checking on the stored produce and clearing out the mould blotched pumpkins. I was pleasantly surprised by the good condition of the onions, with only about 4 of them showing green shoots. I only had 3 garlic bulbs left, all showing the first signs of regrowing but I figured I could use them up before they became inedible.

It was about 5 o'clock when I came in again, feeling refreshed. The girls had calmed down too by then so it had definitely been worthwhile. Steve was in too, fiddling with the box inside now. I spotted the packaging from the satellite equipment box - packing pieces like large egg boxes. To me they just looked like perfect boxes for holding chitting seed potatoes so after checking with Steve that they were otherwise unwanted I decanted the seed potatoes into them. We haven't had the main seed potato order delivered yet but these were just perfect for the 10 tubers each of Rooster (red for my eldest), Mayan Gold (yellow for my youngest) and Blue Danube (novelty blue on special offer). The packing pieces were perfect for this job as they will hold the chitting potatoes "rose end" up and should stop them rolling around and breaking the shoots off when transporting them to the plot.

With the 3 garlic cloves in from the shed I decided I might as well make a start on using them up and for dinner I grilled some salmon and served it with a few prawns, fried briefly with garlic and root ginger.

The next day was Sunday and Valentine's day. My eldest asked if we could try out the heart shaped muffin mould I had bought in Lidl's on Monday so I selected my orange and choc chip muffin recipe for this as experience has told me that it takes the shape of moulds well.

Orange and Choc Chip Muffins

4 oz (110g) self-raising flour
1 oz (25g) wholemeal flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 oz (55g) caster sugar
Grated rind of 1 orange
1 egg
5 fl oz (150 ml) milk
2 tablespoons juice from the orange
2 fl oz (60ml) oil
1 oz (25g) chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 200°C. Sift together the flours and baking powder then stir in sugar and orange rind. In a separate bowl, mix together the egg, milk, juice and oil. Combine the dry and wet mixes until just mixed then stir in the chocolate chips. Spoon into fairy or muffin cake cases and bake for 15 to 20 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.

After that we decided to make Daddy some Valentine's biscuits too. For this we used my jam heart biscuits and a jar of Summer Fruit Jam (although strawberry or raspberry jam works well too).

Jam Heart Biscuits (makes 12)

6 oz (175g) plain flour
1 oz (25g) oat bran
4 oz (110g) butter
2 oz (55g) caster sugar
2 tablespoons milk
1 egg, beaten
2-3 oz (55-75g) jam

Mix the flour and oat bran with the butter until it is like breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugar. Add 1 tablespoon of milk then a little at a time until soft dough forms. Preheat the oven to 190°C and grease two baking trays. Roll out pieces of dough and use a heart-shaped cutter to cut out biscuits. Brush each biscuit with egg then cut strips of pastry and form a rim around each biscuit. Brush the biscuit again with egg. Spoon about 1 teaspoon of jam into the centre of each biscuit and roughly spread it to fill the shape. Bake for 15 minutes until golden then cool on a wire rack.

So that was dessert made, ready for later. Planned for later was a lovely piece of lamb and another opportunity to use a garlic clove. I prepared the lamb by stabbing it five or six times with a sharp knife and poking a slice of garlic clove and a sprig of rosemary into each slit. I then coated the ends with mustard before putting it in the oven to roast. I also cooked roast potatoes, roast parsnips, carrots and Brussel sprouts. It made a lovely Valentines meal and left enough meat for two casseroles.

Today was another garlic meal. This time we sauteed some potatoes with the remaining pancetta (bought for the Bolognese) and some onion. This was served next to strips of steak fried with mushrooms, red onion, garlic and ginger in an oyster sauce. So that's 4 days of garlic for dinner - it's just as well we're on holiday at the moment!

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Bolognese and birthday

I was thumbing through the Olive magazine earlier this week and came across a spaghetti bolognese recipe by the excellent Lulu Grimes. It struck me as I read it that it would be another opportunity to use up some of my frozen tomatoes. So on Monday I asked Sue to bring a tub of my frozen tomato puree from her freezer with her on the school run and then I picked up the other missing ingredients from the super market later that day. It was Wednesday before I finally had the opportunity to make it for dinner, it requiring 3 hours of cooking. Of course, I couldn't help but tinker with the recipe so here is my version.
Spaghetti Bolognese
450g low-fat minced beef
450g low-fat minced pork
75g cubed pancetta
1 large red onion
1 carrot
1 stick of celery
6 closed cup mushrooms
2 gloves of garlic
500g homegrown tomato puree
250g passata
100g tomato puree
500g beef stock
A good splash of Worcestershire sauce
Fresh basil
Freshly ground black pepper
Soy sauce
Grated cheese

Peel and finely chop all the vegetables. Heat a large frying pan and brown the beef mince. Pour off any water or fat and put the mince into a stock pot. Brown the pork mince in the same way and add to the pot. Fry the pancetta until just beginning to brown and add this to the mince. Add the onions, carrot and celery to the frying pan and fry for about five minutes then add the mushrooms and garlic and fry for two or three minutes more. Add these to the mince then pour in the tomato ingredients, stock and Worcestershire sauce. Add a handful of chopped basil. Bring to the boil then turn down to a low heat, place the lid on the stock pot and simmer gently for 3 hours, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. Have some hot water handy to top up the liquid if it begins to get too dry. Taste then season with freshly ground black pepper, a tablespoon or two of soy sauce and another handful of fresh basil. Return to the heat for another 10 minutes whilst you boil some spaghetti. This makes enough to serve 8 so serve up as much as required with spaghetti and grated cheese then allow the rest to cool and decant into suitable containers to freeze.
Steve isn't a huge fan of pasta dishes but even he enjoyed this meal. My youngest in contrast loves Italian food, pasta in particular, and ate this with such enthusiasm we had to wipe bolognese out of her eyebrows afterwards!

Having spent slightly more than 3 hours cooking dinner on Wednesday night, Thursday was the total opposite because we went out for dinner for my birthday. I had been to Red Hot World Food Buffet with friends for a Christmas meal and thoroughly enjoyed the food and the company. It had struck me at the time that my daughters would love to eat there because they could choose lots of little bits and pieces for their plates so I booked a table for a birthday treat. I was proved right about them enjoying the different bits and as an extra bonus there was no waiting around between courses for them to get bored. I took my parents with me too and they enjoyed the variety of food, my mum commenting that it would be a good place to bring a large group where everyone's different tastes could be accommodated. My dad just loved being able to go back for seconds... and thirds for that matter!

My birthday was in fact on Friday. In the afternoon my girls helped me make a birthday cake. We chose my good old reliable carrot and orange cake recipe for this. It is a delicious cake with a satisfying texture but more importantly it is a reliable cooker and can be poured into any shape cake tin. Whilst in Lidls on Monday I came across heart shaped cake moulds, it being Valentines Day this weekend. I couldn't decide whether to buy the big single cake mould or the 6 heart shaped muffin mould but as they were only about £2.99 each I splashed out and bought both! My girls asked if they could use the big mould for my birthday cake so I ended up with a heart shaped cake, decorated with pink butter icing and girlie sprinkles. I guess we will use the muffin mould for Valentines day tomorrow.

Carrot and Orange Cake

5 fl oz (140 ml) sunflower oil
41/2 oz (130g) dark brown sugar
2 eggs
11/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Grated rind and juice of 2 oranges
8 oz (225g) carrots
3 oz (85g) sultanas
10 oz (285g) plain flour
1 oz (25g) wheat germ or bran
11/2 teaspoon mixed spice
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

Preheat oven to 160°C (gas 2) and line and/or grease a suitable tin or mould. In a large bowl, beat together the oil, sugar, eggs, vanilla, orange rind and juice. Peel and grate the carrot and stir it into the mix. Add the sultanas. Sift in the flour, spice, raising agents and add the wheat germ/bran. Stir well then spoon the mix into the cake tin. Bake for 60 minutes and text with a skewer. Cool in the tin then decorate as appropriate.

Having had my birthday meal the evening before and with a special Valentines meal planned for only two days away I didn't feel as if Friday's evening meal had to be anything too elaborate so we just had pork chops with mushrooms and red onion, a salad and some homemade garlic bread. I say homemade, the bread was two home-bake baguettes from the supermarket but I showed my eldest how to convert it into garlic bread using two of our homegrown garlic cloves and some butter. I cut the baguettes part way through in slices just a bit more than a centimeter thick and she patiently wiped garlic butter into each cut... well, at least until she lost interest and went back to playing with her sister. At this time of year with all our homegrown potatoes used up we tend to eat more bread with our dinner and garlic bread is a good way to use up our garlic before it starts sprouting again. Talking of potatoes, the first of our seed potatoes arrived in the post yesterday so I have spread them out in trays and put them in the cold frame to chit. Ooh... it almost feels like the growing season is here again!

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

I can't say I care much for February, despite it being the month of my birth and having the highlight of pancake day. It is a cold, bleak month. In fact, it is often the coldest month of the year. Even when it snows, the snow is somehow just inconvenient rather than magical or festive. It is a difficult month for the kitchen gardener. Like the first snowdrops, February brings with it the first itching feeling that it is time to start growing again, yet it is too cold, dim and damp to get much growing. If you pick up a February edition of a gardening magazine they talk enthusiastically about getting started under cover but this merely irritates those among us who don't process a greenhouse. And the windowsills in my house are too gloomy to grow anything at this time of year. Experience has taught me to be patient and wait until March before attempting any serious sowing.

The other thing about February is that the things in store really start to deteriorate too. Onion, garlic and potatoes all decide it is time to start growing again. Other things such as squash and pumpkin decide it is just time to give up and rot sets in. If you have any squash or pumpkins in store then go and check them because they are easier to transport to the compost heap when the first patches of mould appear than when they have turned to a sloppy blob of goo. I don't have any pumpkins left without rot now so it looks like my 101 things to do with pumpkin quest has been scuppered. How many did I manage? Maybe 20.

As it happens, I had put a small portion of pumpkin puree in the freezer and labeled it "pumpkin for Swiss roll". I came across this at the weekend and decided it would be a good time to finally get round to trying the Swiss roll recipe. I had found it on the Internet originally but it was a poor recipe. Firstly the ingredients had been written in the order in which the author had remembered them rather than the order of use. Secondly, it was an American recipe so it was measured in cups and spoons. Why spoons? Why would you measure butter in tablespoons when it comes out of the fridge in hard blocks that don't mould readily around a spoon? And finally, the method seemed bizarre and unlikely to work successfully. Nonetheless, there was just enough information to provide me with the inspiration I needed to try my own version. So on Sunday afternoon when my eldest daughter declared she was bored I suggested she helped me out in the kitchen and we made the pumpkin roll.

Pumpkin Swiss Roll

60g butter, softened

175g caster sugar

3 eggs

100g plain flour

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

180g pumpkin puree

100g cream cheese

100g icing sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

100g plum jam

Grease and line a Swiss roll tin - that's just a baking tray with rim all the way round. Preheat oven to 190°C, gas 5. Cream together the butter and sugar then stir in the eggs. Sift in the flour, spice and bicarbonate of soda then add the pumpkin puree and stir well. Pour this mix into the lined tin and level out. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes until springy to the touch. Remove from the oven and carefully maneuver the cake on its paper backing onto a clean tea towel then use the tea towel to roll it up into the Swiss roll shape. Leave it like this to cool completely. Mix together the cream cheese, icing sugar and vanilla extract. Once cooled, unroll the cake again and spread the cream cheese icing and the jam over it. Remove the baking paper as you roll it up again then sprinkle with caster sugar.

In the same freezer rummage that had uncovered the pumpkin puree, I also reminded myself that I still had about 2 pounds of gooseberries in there too. I took out 12 oz of them on Sunday morning and let them thaw out. Whilst waiting for the Swiss roll to cool down my daughter and I had a go at making gooseberry flapjacks - now that's something you can't buy in the shops!

Gooseberry Flapjacks

12 oz fresh or thawed gooseberries

3 tablespoons water

1 tablespoon lime juice

2 tablespoon granulated sugar

1 oz corn flour

7 oz oats

2-3 oz light brown sugar

4 oz butter

1 tablespoon golden syrup

Preheat over to 190°C, gas 5 and grease a shallow tin or tray. Place the gooseberries in a saucepan with the granulated sugar, water and lime juice and bring to the boil. Simmer for about 20 minutes until soft. Force the gooseberries through a sieve to remove the skin and pips. Return to the pan. Add enough water to the cornflour to make a liquid then pour this into the gooseberry puree. Heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens. Remove from the heat and set aside. In a bowl, mix together the oats, sugar, butter and syrup until sticky. Tip half the oat mixture into the tin and firmly press into an even layer. Spread the gooseberry paste over the oat layer then add the other half of the oat mix, pressing down firmly with wetted finger. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes until golden. Cool in the tin the cut into pieces.

So later that day I cut off slices of pumpkin Swiss roll for my daughters and me and offered Steve a flapjack. The Swiss roll was beautifully moist and the filling gooey and squidgy - yet another pumpkin success. I think next Halloween this might make the perfect centrepiece for a Halloween party. Steve bit into a flapjack and said, "Wow! What flavour is that?" Gooseberry flapjacks turned out a surprise success too.

As the fresh vegetables slowly deteriorate I can at least comfort myself with the contents of my freezer and make a proper attempt to empty out the stored produce before June. On the plus side, February is the shortest month of the year and soon it will be March and time to start the growing cycle all over again.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Hazel's Homegrown versus Heinz

I was brought up on Heinz cream of tomato soup. We didn't have it every weekend but nearly that often. Now the word "soup" in my head is next to a reference picture of that distinctive red and black label. My girls too are fairly unaware that other brands or even other flavours of soup exist.

I do of course make my own soup every now and then, which are undoubtedly tastier and healthier than Heinz tomato soup but somehow it still remains my default soup. Still, I have half a freezer full of homegrown tomatoes and it seems ridiculous in such circumstances to go out and buy a tin of tomato soup. So yesterday I thawed out 1 kg of homemade tomato puree. I had pureed them before freezing, which definitely takes up less freezer space and makes it a million times easier to use them now. I had a recipe too for tomato soup but this recipe used two tins of plum tomatoes and I knew I could not do a direct substitution with my homegrown tomatoes. No matter how good a summer we have in the UK it cannot compete with the sunshine of California or Italy and our tomatoes never develop the same depth of flavour. To compensate I planned to use passata and shop bought tomato puree as well.

Having fetched some sprigs of fresh thyme from the allotment and some garlic and onions from storage it was time to make the soup. As usual with soup, when it was nearly done I asked Steve to taste it for seasoning as it is usually him that eats my homemade soup. He has a broader idea of what "soup" means and is more flexible in his flavours and varieties. None the less, having sipped a spoonful of my soup he said, "Well, it isn't Heinz, is it!"

We fiddled around with the seasoning for a few minutes, trying to counteract the sharpness that our tomatoes have. Despite not tasting like Heinz, it seemed quite nice to me but Steve wasn't convinced. "It just tastes like pasta sauce to me," he said eventually. I spooned some into a small bowl and took it to our household's chief tomato fan - my youngest daughter. She'll eat any kind of tomato, sweet, sharp, under ripe or otherwise. She dipped her finger into it and declared "Yummy!". "Does it taste like soup or pasta sauce?" I asked, "Pasta sauce," she replied positively. So pasta sauce it is then. It's not how I would usually go about making a pasta sauce but the results were certainly tasty.

Tomato & Thyme Pasta Sauce

1 onion
1 carrot
2 garlic cloves
1000g homemade tomato puree
2 tablespoons tomato puree from a tube
250ml passata
650ml chicken stock
2 sprigs of thyme
250ml apple juice
A splash of Worcestershire sauce
Black pepper

Peel and finely chop the onion, carrot and garlic. Heat some oil in the bottom of a stock pot and fry the onion and carrot for about 3 minutes then add one of the cloves of garlic and fry for a further 2 minutes. Add the tomato purees, passata, stock and thyme and bring to the boil before reducing to a simmer. Simmer for 10 minutes then add the second clove of garlic and return to the simmer for another 5 minutes. Allow to cool until safe enough to handle then blend the soup until smooth. Return to a clean pan and add the remaining ingredients and taste. Ladle into warmed jars or suitable containers for freezing. Serve hot with pasta or eat as a soup if preferred.

So now the question is, should I try to make tomato soup again or should I leave that to the professionals?