Monday, 24 May 2010

So two weeks ago I was shivering in the wind and rain whilst potting on strawberry plants and this weekend I was roasting in a May heatwave - no wonder us Brits are always talking about the weather! Now I'm suffering from Gardener's Sunburn. This is along similar lines to the Builder's Bum, except it is sunburn along that line of skin that becomes exposed between top of trousers and bottom of t-shirt when bent over.

I started my weekend with a hunt for the sunblock, shorts, hats and sunglasses for the girls. Somehow summer had snuck up on me and left me completely unprepared. Suitably attired and protected from the sun we went out to the allotment before it got too hot. First I helped my eldest plant a couple of rows of Mini Pop sweetcorn at the edge of her plot. It has been about 5 years since I last tried growing these as my attempts in the past have failed to produce the desired crop. It is all too easy to wait too long before picking by which time they have turned from mini corn into a not particularly great variety of corn on the cob. Still, I have decided to try them again and work a bit harder to pick them small. Maybe having impatient young children nagging to harvest them will help. We'll see.
At the other end of the plot we planted 12 conventional corn on the cob sweetcorn plants. I've been struggling with low germination rates on the sweetcorn this year so after planting the ones that had germinated I investigated the others to see if they had in fact germinated but were yet to emerge. This was the case for 2 apparently empty ones but in two more I found tiny maggots in the sweetcorn seed. Not sure what they were but it certainly explained the problem.

After that the girls each sowed 12 beans. My youngest went first, sowing a yellow climbing French bean to fit in with her all yellow vegetable plot this year. My eldest is trying bollotti beans, mainly because they are speckled red when mature and that fits nicely into her red and purple colour scheme. By the time we had done that it was nearly midday so I picked 5 more rhubarb stems and a big bunch of mint from our little pond before heading home again.

Whilst mad dogs and Englishmen had there turn in the garden, I retreated inside and made mint choc chip ice-cream from the bundle of fresh mint. If you're a fan of the bright green stuff that tastes like toothpaste then you'd probably not like my version. It is still surprisingly green but the taste is of fresh mint, not mint essence. I think it's yummy... my youngest thinks it takes like leaves! Oh well, more for me.
Mint Choc Chip Ice-cream
A big bundle of fresh mint leaves
10 ml milk
3 oz icing sugar
284ml double cream
2-3 oz dark chocolate chips
Strip the mint leaves from the stems and coarsly chop. Put the milk and the leaves in a pan and heat gently, without boiling, for about 5 minutes. Pour the leaves and milk into a blender and blend until smooth. Add the sugar and stir until dissolved. Add the cream and stir. Pour into a suitable container then add the chocolate chips. Freeze for about 3 hours then remove from the freezer and whip up to break any ice crystals and to distribute the chocolate chips. Return to the freezer but repeat this after another hour.

Having chopped up the rhubarb, ready to make a second batch of rhubarb and ginger jam we went out to B&Q to replenish our supplies of potting compost and to buy some new canes. That morning whilst erectly a wigwam for the bollotti beans I had almost impaled myself boob first on a garden cane as it snapped under my pressure. They really do get quite brittle and dangerous after a few years and it was definitely time for some new ones. On our way home we popped into Dobbies and bought a few vegetable plants too. I know it's not best value for money but it is handy to have this facility when germination rates are poor or slugs have nibbled your seedlings. We bought carrot and beetroot seedlings (having failed to get any seeds to germinate so far this year), swede and red cabbage (having had snails eat all my seedlings), and sweetcorn (to make up for the poor germination rates).

That afternoon my girls went off to a party and Steve and I went back to the allotment. Steve cleared the last two beds whilst I planted my new carrot and beetroot seedlings and picked the asparagus. By then it was time to pick the girls up again before making tea.

On Sunday morning I made the rhubarb and ginger jam and in the afternoon we slapped on more sunblock and went back to the allotment. I started by erecting the new canes to support the French beans that Steve had sown the weekend before, whilst Steve rotovated the two beds he had cleared the day before. I soon filled these new beds with our freshly bought sweetcorn and brassicas. In the meantime, Steve sorted out the old strawberry bed ready to home our 48 new strawberry plants. By the end of Sunday things were really starting to look good - just the remaining brassicas, tomatoes and cucurbits to plant out now.

Back home, after a refreshing shower I decided to extend the feeling of a hot, sunny day by digging 8 oz of blackcurrants out of the freezer and making a blackcurrant trifle for pudding. The question is, will the trifle last longer than the heatwave?
Blackcurrant Trifle
Plain sponge or maderia cake
Apple juice or Creme de Cassis
1 sachet gelatine
3 tablespoons water
8 oz blackcurrants
5 oz granulated sugar
Whipped cream
Place the spong cake in the bottom of the trifle dish and soak with apple juice or creme de cassis. Place the gelatine in a small pan and sprinkle 3 tablespoons of water over it and leave to one side to swell. Place the blackcurrants, sugar and water in a pan and bring to the boil then simmer for 20 minutes until soft. Drain through a sieve, pressing the berries to extract the remaining juice. Gently heat the gelatine until melted then pour into the blackcurrant mix. Leave to cool then pour the blackcurrant liquid over the sponge and refrigerate for a few hours to set. Next, pour the custard over the jelly and return to the fridge. Add the cream before serving.
15 fl oz water

Saturday, 15 May 2010

What a difference between today's weather and last Saturday's. Sunny, warm... cheerful even and just the right weather to really get on with things. So, after hanging the washing out in the lovely sunshine that's just what I did.

I started with potting on the brassica seedlings. I had sown loads of brassica seeds two or three weeks ago and they had germinated with enthusiasm. Unfortunately, snails had crept into the coldframe and munched quite a few of them, preferentially the Brussel sprouts it would seem. I put out slug pellets mid-week which seems to have helped but in the meantime the seedlings towards the back of the cold frame have grown leggy. So I rummaged around for a collection of small flower pots, some plant labels and compost and potted the seedlings up, burying their long stems deeply. I returned them to the cold frame with fresh slug pellets and a dose of hope.

After lunch we all headed around to the allotment. Here I started by running my hoe between the rows of onions, shallots, garlic, peas and broad beans, all coming along nicely. Next I moved some self-sown leek seedlings to a more convenient place and added my deliberately sown leek seedlings to the same rows. Then I resowed carrots and beetroot. I had sown them originally the weekend before Easter but apart from one very small patch of carrots nothing had germinated. They are notoriously difficult to get started and there is lots of conflicting advice out there on how best to get them started. I have heard it said that watering them every day for 14 days after sowing is the answer but I have also been told you should never water carrots but only let the rain do the job. Who knows! Anyway, this afternoon I used up a whole bag of sharp sand, lining the bottom of each drill before sowing the seeds. Maybe this finer medium will help. Time will tell.

Whilst we were there a man from the parish council turned up with a map of the site in his hand. He told me he was checking to see if any of the plots were not being worked at the moment since our tenancies are due for renewal right now. We had received the renewal notices in the post this week. I don't know whether our parish council is typical but I found the whole thing very unfriendly and a little stressful. The notice went on about things which were against policy and the checks that would be made. There was a deadline for returning the payment by, after which time your plot would be offered to the next person on the waiting list, and to top it all they had increased the annual fee from £12 to £25 without a word of warning. Not that that is expensive but it is still more than double what it was and no mention it was going to happen. Allotment gardening is a great deal of fun and other plot holders are a friendly bunch so why can't the parish council be a bit friendlier too? You know, thanks for being a tenant every year for the past 13 years, always paying on time, keeping your plot tidy... and so on... and is there anything we can do for you... cut the grass more often, trim the over hanging surrounding trees maybe? So when this man in his bright red jumper appeared with a clipboard and map this afternoon I found myself feeling nervous, wondering who would pass the grade. Is May really the best time to work out which plots are being properly worked? Lots of bare ground and the sudden growth of grass and weeds at this time of year is hardly catching us at our best. The man in the red jumper didn't look like he knew much about gardening and I suspect he didn't have the imagination to work out what the plots would look like in a month or two when the seeds have germinated, when the things in pots growing at home had been planted and the weeds were a bit more under control. Not that I need to worry but some of the other plot holders might need to, and they are my friends and they have lives too which can at time get in the way of perfect plots for a short while.

Anyway, shortly after the man in the red jumper left I did too. The girls were keen to go home and I had some rhubarb prepared and ready to turn into jam too. Usually I bottle my jams in cute little 4 oz jars, and a few 2 oz jars too, which I label and sell at craft fayres around Christmas. However, this batch of jam is already earmarked for one of the school run mums who bought my entire stock of the stuff last year. She's impatient for her new supply and not at all bothered about cute little jars and pretty labels so I ladled this panful into three 8 oz jars, slapped a simple name label on it and emailed her to arrange delivery. Job done. What a satisfying start to the preserve making season. £25 a year... worth every penny!

Rhubarb and Ginger Jam

4-5 stems, weighing roughly 1 lb (454g)
The same weight of sugar as rhubarb
1 small lemon, rind and juice
1/2 oz (15g) root ginger, bruised
1/2 oz (15g) stem ginger, finely chopped
1 tablespoon syrup from stem ginger jar

Wash the rhubarb and cut it into pieces roughly 1 inch (2.5cm) long. Layer the rhubarb in a non metallic bowl with the lemon rind and sugar then pour in the lemon juice. Cover the bowl and stand overnight. Tip the contents of the bowl into a preserving pan and add the root ginger, wrapped in a piece of muslin. Bring to the boil then simmer for a few minutes until the rhubarb is soft, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar. Bring to a vigorous boil and boil for 5 to 10 minutes until the setting point is reached. Remove from the heat and discard the root ginger. Stir in the stem ginger and syrup. Ladle into warmed jars and seal immediately.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Cold, wet and miserable... and not just the weather

This weekend the annual Stoke Goldington Steam Rally and Country Fair was on, something I have enjoyed attending since I was a child. Having watched the weather forecast on Friday evening it seemed that Sunday was going to be the better day so we decided to earmark that as the day we would go. Having set aside Sunday for this family outing it meant that everything else that needed doing had to be crammed into Saturday. As we went up to bed on Friday night Steve asked, "What are you going to do tomorrow?" I replied, "The washing, clean the bathroom, make you some more flapjacks, pot on the tomatoes and strawberries... oh and make a model fire engine." Steve smiled and said, "And what about after lunch?

At half past nine the next morning the postman rang the bell and delivered a large envelope containing 36 bare-rooted strawberry runners. So that shifted my to do list around a bit.

After putting the washing on the airer and cleaning the bathroom, I put on my raincoat and wellies and went out into garden to construct a temporary potting shed under our shelter. It was raining steadily and a cold wind was blowing but I had to get the strawberries into pots. In fact, when I went around to the allotment to retrieve some pots and troughs I was surprised to find 3 our people there, gardening in the rain. "Well," one lady said, "it's May and these jobs need doing." How true.

That morning I potted up the 36 new strawberry runners, and potted on the 12 strawberries that I'd bought a fortnight previously. Then I potted on my 5 indoor tomato plants plus about 20 tiny tomato seedlings, 8 cucumber seedlings and 4 lettuce plants. By the time I came back inside I was cold, wet, stiff and miserable. As much as I love gardening, sometimes things can be a bit of chore. Still, on the plus side, whilst changing out of my gardening clothes I decided to climb back into bed for a few minutes to warm up under the covered and Steve came to my rescue and snuggled up with me!

Sunday was a much nicer day but no time for gardening. We went of to the country fayre and had a pleasant afternoon there. We even bought a few gardening bits whilst we were there. When we came home it was time to get the Sunday dinner in the oven. Earlier in the week I had been browsing the reduced section in the supermarket as I often do and had picked up a big block of meat labelled as "pork fillet". In my head the word "fillet" had equated with "best bit", such as in "fillet steak" but having got it home I began to have second thoughts. After all, in my opinion, the tastiest pork is the stuff with a bit of fat running through it. I imagined that a bit of roast pork fillet could come out of the oven with all the charm of the sole of a shoe. So instead I thought I might try a pot roast, not something I had done before. Still, I browsed the internet for a few ideas and quickly got the hang of it. And what a delicious result... tasty and moist roast pork and lovely gravy too. And as an added bonus it used up 8 homegrown shallots and some sprigs of fresh oregano from the garden. A lovely warming meal in May when the weather was still stuck in March.

Pork Pot Roast (serves 4)

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 piece of pork fillet (about 750g)
150g pancetta cubes
Several sprigs of fresh oregano
8 shallots
2 sticks of celery
1 pint chicken stock
1 oz flour

Preheat the oven to 180°C, gas 4 and spoon the olive oil into the bottom of a suitable casserole dish. Brown the pork all over in a frying pan then place in the casserole dish. Fry the pieces of pancetta for 2 to 3 minutes then add to the dish. Put the oregano in the casserole dish too. Peel the shallots but leave whole and chop the celery into a few large pieces. Fry the shallots and celery for a few minutes until beginning to brown then add to the dish. Pour any excess oil from the frying pan before tipping in the chicken stock. Heat the chicken stock in the frying pan, scrapping the bottom of the pan to deglaze. Pour the stock into the casserole dish too so that the vegetables are covered. Put on the lid or cover with foil then place in the oven for 1 hour 30 minutes, removing the lid or foil for the last 20 minutes. Once cooked, place the pork in a warm place to rest, drain the stock into a clean pan and set the vegetables to one side. Mix the flour with a little cold water then pour into the stock and stir, bring to the boil to make a gravy. Carve the pork and serve with the shallots and celery and gravy along with some roast potatoes, purple sprouting broccoli and asparagus.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Plots and Polls

Well today the nation has gone to the polls to elect a new prime minister. The allotment, one might argue, would be a good place to go to avoid all the media hype about it but other than that what has politics got to do with kitchen gardening? Ordinarily I wouldn't think there was much in common but it effects my household because Steve is a presiding officer today, in charge of a polling station. This requires him to be at the polling station from 6am to 10pm - a long day. As such, I wanted to make sure he went out well loaded up with food for the day. So on Wednesday I spent a good deal of the day in the kitchen making him snacks and something tasty for his dinner.

Fortunately, the polling station spends the rest of its time being a community centre and is furnished with a kitchen, including an oven but no microwave. On previous election days I have simply bought him a ready made hotpot or Cumberland pie but I found myself wondering why I did this when I'm more than capable of creating "ready meals" myself. So on Tuesday I bought 750g of minced beef and on Wednesday I cooked it up following my bolognese recipe, using homegrown onions and a batch of pureed tomatoes retrieved from the safety of Sue's freezer. Half of it went nicely into 2 aluminium trays for Cumberland pie and the remainder went into a dish with sheets of lasagne and bechemel sauce for me and the girls to have whilst Steve was away. To finish the Cumberland Pie I boiled up one of my last parsnips with 2 potatoes and mashed them together with a knob of butter and a dash of olive oil. This went on top with a sprinkling of Parmesan just to help the browning effect. One went in the freezer and the other in the fridge for Steve to take with him on his long day. I also packed him up two rounds of sandwiches and a batch of my yummy honey and vanilla flapjacks. That should keep him going!

Often in the mornings I'm up and out on the school run before Steve is out of bathroom and I rush home again in time to see him off to work with a kiss. But this morning he was gone before 6am so there was no need to rush back from school. Instead I stood and chatted with 3 of the other mums. I was a little surprised that in addition to the school gate gossip we had kitchen gardening in common, each of us talking about which seeds had germinated and what to do with the seedlings we had. One of the mums even had half a dozen courgette plants with her to give out to anyone interested. It is pleasing that so many people are giving kitchen gardening a go, even if it is just in a few containers or wherever they can find space.

Back home I couldn't help but take a peek in my coldframe to see how I was doing compared to the other ladies. I had sown cucurbits, tomatoes, brassicas and sweet corn in pots about a fortnight ago and, although I knew the brassicas had germinated, I wasn't sure about anything else. It is always difficult to know when to worry. The lady with the courgette plants is impatient when it comes to these things and has even dug things up just to see if they have germinated - not to be recommended! It can be hard to have faith that things will grow, particularly when you are new to it, but you do have to believe... well, for about 3 weeks anyway and then it's time to give up hope and re-sow. So you can imagine I was relieved when I spotted my first cucurbit seedings, a spike of a sweet corn and even a tomato. Inside on the front window sill my chilli peppers had suddenly sprung up from no where... do you think they knew I had been taking about them behind their backs? And do you think they care that they have arrived just in time for a new political stage?

No, I don't either!