Friday, 25 June 2010

Gradually getting there

On Monday we had homegrown mangetout with our dinner.
On Tuesday we had homegrown mangetout and broad beans with our dinner.
On Wednesday we had homegrown mangetout and broad beans with our dinner and strawberry cheesecake for afters.
On Thursday we had homegrown mangetout, broad beans and new potatoes with our dinner, strawberry cheesecake for afters and elderflower cordial to drink...

It sounds a bit like a game like "I packed my bag", doesn't it? But what a satisfying meal we had on Thursday night.

I started the week by picking a small sandwich bag of mangetout and a few strawberries. Well, it was my daughters who picked the strawberries. Off they went in their enthusiastic way with their plastic mushroom trays to put their harvests in whilst in the meantime I picked the mangetout. They appeared at my side a few minutes later and as I raised my eyes from the plants I caught sight of my eldest's tray, half full of lovely ripe strawberries already. "Oh, well done," I said, raising my eyes further to see how my youngest had done. Her tray was empty and her mouth stained red. "I was peckish," she said with a grin.

On returning home I asked my daughters what I should do with the strawberries that had made it as far as the kitchen. As it happened a few weeks ago there had been a deal in Tescos where you could buy a meal for 4 people consisting of a main course, side and dessert for £5 so I gave it a go, choosing a raspberry swirl cheesecake as the dessert. My eldest had always been suspicious of cheesecake (as I had been at her age) so had never felt adventurous enough to try it before but this one was so pretty she decided to brave it. And she loved it so when I asked about the strawberries she asked if I could make a strawberry swirl cheesecake. Well, I'm always up for a challenge but I needed to buy some ingredients first.

I went to the supermarket on Tuesday and along with the cheesecake ingredients I also went in search of some potatoes to tide us over until our own were ready to harvest. As I have said many times before I hate old potatoes and supermarket potatoes at this time of year are rubbish. They were harvested sometime in 2009 and stored for months so when you get them home they immediately start sprouting and when you fry them they are so full of sugar that they burn and taste sweet. So I spent several minutes in the vegetable department scrutinizing the potatoes looking for something that was harvested in 2010. Eventually I found a bag labelled "Organic new potatoes" so I went for those. At dinner time I chopped them into chips and fried them and then it became obvious that these potatoes weren't new at all. They browned and turned soggy and were completely horrible. Surely, they meant "boiling" rather than "new" potatoes. Isn't there some kind of rule about the use of such a word?

On Wednesday, as I tackled the strawberry swirl cheesecake challenge I sent Steve out to the allotment to investigate our own potatoes. He returned with a little pot of small potatoes just as I was removing the cheesecake from the oven. Success on two accounts.

Strawberry Swirl Cheesecake

6 oz crushed digestive biscuits
2 oz melted butter

7 oz soft cheese
3 oz caster sugar
1 egg
4 fl oz whipping cream
4 oz strawberries
2 tablespoons icing sugar
1-2 tsp lemon juice

To make the base: Put the biscuits in a bag and crush them with the end of a rolling pin until finely crushed. Melt the butter and mix it with the biscuit crumbs. Press the mix firmly into the bottom of a flan dish and chill for about 1 hour.

To make the filling: Preheat oven to 180 °C, gas mark 4. Cream together the cheese and the sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg and cream and whisk until thick. Place the strawberries in a blender with the icing sugar and lemon juice and blend until smooth then sieve to remove the seeds. Dollop the creamy filling onto the biscuit base and spread out evenly. Drop teaspoonfuls of the strawberry puree onto the cream mixture then use a chopstick or skewer to carefully swirl the strawberry puree through the cream mixture. Place in the oven and bake for 20 minutes then turn out the oven and leave it in the oven for another 10 minutes. After that open the oven door and leave the cheesecake inside to continue its slow cooling so that it doesn't crack. Serve chilled.

By Thursday my little bag of mangetout had all been eaten so I went back to the allotment to see if there were any more. I was amazed that in those few days everything had shot up several inches. The potato plants seemed to have put on about a foot of growth and the peas had not only grown upwards but had grown numerous pods. The mangetout plants had been busy too so once again I set to work picking them as my daughters went on their strawberry hunt. We came home with 1lb of mangetout, a bag of broad beans, a punnet to strawberries and a lettuce. A pound of mangetout!! In the shops that would have cost £4. And so to cook the tastiest meal of the year so far. Forget gravy and put away the ketchup... time to taste fresh vegetables at their absolute best.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Reasons to be cheerful!

One of the major drawbacks of having an allotment is the amount of time and effort it takes to do it well. I happen to love every minute of it and would probably dedicate more time to it if I could but life has other obligations. Some people say to me things like, "I don't know how you manage to do so much, where do you find the time." Well, come to my house and I'll tell you, or rather my house will tell you. I do try to keep things clean and tidy but when there is always so much going on it is difficult to keep on top of it. My kitchen, particularly, as the hub of everything I do, is always a little choatic. It would be unusual, for example, to find the draining board clear rather than stacked with the last batch of washing up or a few jars of cooling jam. And in the corner you may find a bowlful of something steeping for a few hours before being transformed into something amazing.

But every now and then I just have to stop, take a deep breath and do a proper tidy up. Not the sort of tidy up that happens the day before visitors arrive where things get put into cupboards out of sight and then forgotten. No, a proper, throwing things out, organising and rearranging sort of tidy up. It is six weeks until the beginning of the summer holidays and this is how long I have given myself to sort the house out. So at the weekend the allotment was given just 2 hours of attention on Saturday afternoon and the rest of the time was spent indoors sorting. Well, actually, I did take off about an hour on Sunday to make a batch of rhubarb and elderflower jam...

Rhubarb & Elder Flower Jam

Makes 1 jar
1lb (454g) rhubarb
1 oz (25g) elder flowers
1 lemon, rind and juice
1lb sugar

NB: Every pound of rhubarb requires 1 lb (454g) sugar, 1 lemon and 1 oz (25g) elder flowers.

Chop the rhubarb into inch long sections. Mix all the ingredients together in an non-metallic bowl, cover and leave to stand overnight. Decant the mixture into a preserving pan and bring to the boil. Simmer for a few minutes, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar, and cook until the rhubarb is pulpy. Bring to a vigorous boil until the setting point is reached. Ladle into warmed jars and seal immediately.

Whilst I was picking elderflowers for the jam I picked a few more and put them in my freezer. For the last two years I have wanted to make gooseberry and elderflower jam but have failed to manage it. The first year I somehow missed the elderflowers and the second year the elderflowers I froze for the job were still in my freezer when I stupidly accidentally turned my freezer off before going on holiday! This year I am determined.

Although there is a certain satisfaction to be gained from cleaning and tidying it generally makes me grumpy. I do like the smell of a freshly cleaned bathroom and there is something pleasing about a dust-free surface but I would rather be doing something else. So come Monday I was feeling a little cheesed off. By Tuesday afternoon I was desperate to get out into the garden again so after school I took the girls round to the allotment with me. There is something special about this time of year - the strawberry and mangetout season I call it. As the girls raced around looking for ripe strawberries I picked a bagful of mangetout. When the girls had had their fill there were still enough strawberries to bring a handful home to start a collection in the freezer. Eventually I'll gather enough in this way to make some jam. We had half the mangetout with dinner. I just love being able to cook a large portion of mangetout without forking out £1 on them and knowing that there will be the same amount ready to pick again in 3 days.

As always when we came in from the allotment I checked my answering phone for messages and was more than somewhat surprised to hear a message from a lady from the British Writers Awards 2010 telling me I needed to ring her urgently. That got my heart fluttering as I had only read the day before that this was to be the day they announced the finalists in the non-fiction category, to which I had entered 4 of my books. You can imagine my excitement when later that evening I read an email telling me that I was indeed one of the 6 finalists for the non-fiction award for my "Preserves" book. It was one of those emails you read over and over again just to check there hasn't been some sort of mistake. So now I have been invited to attend the gala black-tie awards evening at the O2 in London on 15th July! How exciting is that? But how pleasing too to have a book that is considered so good that it should be short-listed for such a thing!

So I started the week feeling a little grumpy and ended it feeling elated and to top it all the cherries are ripening too!

Saturday, 5 June 2010

The Glory of Strawberries

I went away last weekend for the Bank holiday to visit relatives. It was only for 3 nights but I was anxious to get as many of the seedlings in pots out of their pots and into the ground as possible before going away. With a bit of time/task juggling I managed to get everything except the pumpkin and tomato plants in the ground before I left. It was, therefore, something of a relief that it rained on the Saturday and gave everything a good watering.

On return from the relatives on Monday afternoon I went round to check everything had survived their unsupervised transplantation. I was pleased to see that the brassicas had settled in well, that the sweetcorn was thickening up nicely and the cucumbers were still intact. I was surprised, however, that the asparagus had grown so much in the meantime. The stems were so long that I hated the idea of cutting them back so I decided it was time to let it grow on. Usually asparagus can be cut until mid June so it was a bit early and it did mean that for once we had no veg to harvest from the allotment. At times like that I'm glad there are shops to fall back on.

One of the things I really hate about buying fruit and vegetables from the shops is the way you can buy anything at anytime regardless of whether or not it is in season. Not only are there issues about food miles and so forth but it takes away some of the variety and excitement associated with eating with the seasons. I have a rule never to buy strawberries so that when they are in season and growing on the allotment they are really a very exciting treat. My girls, particularly, look forward to June when the first strawberries ripen.

Well, I broke my rule this week and bought 2 punnets of strawberries - they were at least new season British strawberries, so fairly close to being homegrown. The reason being I needed to trial a strawberry knickerbocker glory recipe before the World Cup starts next week. The recipe, "Knickbocker World Cup Glory" uses the classic combo of strawberries and cream to create a red and white recipe to represent the England flag. As I'll be making the recipe next week with six seven year olds in after school cooking club, I decided it would make sense on many levels to try it out when my youngest had her best friend over for the day. I'm pleased to say it worked well - the 3 girls had a great time making it and an even better time eating it!

Knickerbocker World Cup Glory

(Serves 2 to 4)

1 tin of strawberries in juice
1 sachet of gelatine
400g strawberries
125ml apple juice
80g icing sugar
50ml whipping cream
50ml Greek yoghurt
Glace cherries

Open the tin of strawberries and pour the contents into a pan. Bring to the boil and simmer gently for 2-3 minutes. In the meantime, put 2 tablespoons of water into a small pan and sprinkle the gelatine over then set aside. Drain the strawberries over a bowl then push through a sieve into the bowl. Gently heat the gelatine until melted then pour into the strawberry liquid. Leave to cool for a while then pour into a rectangular container and refrigerate for at least 2 hours until set.

Weigh out 200g of fresh strawberries and place in a blender with the apple juice and blend until smooth. Add the icing sugar and mix thoroughly until dissolved. Pour the strawberry sauce into a jug. Place the cream into a small bowl and whisk until it forms soft peaks then gently fold in the Greek yoghurt. Finally cut the jelly into small cubes. Now assemble the kickerbocker glory by layering together the remaining strawberries with the jelly, cream and strawberry sauce in tall glasses. Finish with a cherry on top.

When I did this I gave the girls plastic tumblers with an England flag on the side and then made mini England flags from pieces of paper and cocktail sticks. Great fun!

After walking my daughter's friend back home we stopped off at the local hedgerow and picked some lovely elderflower heads then later that afternoon I put them into a bowl to steep with the sugar water and citrus fruit. The kitchen was soon filled with the unmistakable summery smell of elderflower and lemons. The next evening I strained and bottled it and Steve had the first try, making it up with fizzy water and a good dash of gin. He declared it a definite hit!

Elderflower Cordial

2lb 4 oz (1kg) sugar
1½ pints (900ml) boiling water
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon lime juice
about 15 large elder flower heads
1 lemon, sliced
1 lime, sliced

Put the sugar in a non-metallic bowl with the boiling water and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Add the lemon and lime juices. Wash and flick dry the elder flower heads then snip off the flowers into the bowl. Add the sliced lemon and lime. Stir then cover the bowl with Clingfilm and leave to stand for 24 hours. Scald a jelly bag and drain the mixture through it into a clean bowl. Funnel into sterile bottles then refrigerate.
Dilute to taste.

This weekend when we went out to the allotment what did we find? The first 3 ripe strawberries! Despite their Knickerbocker Glories earlier in the week the girls were still very excited about this and pulled each strawberry in half to share before running off to see if they could find anymore... a fruitless search (ho ho)!

Whilst they amused themselves in their strawberry hunt I pulled the autumn planted onions out of the ground. They have all bolted now so they aren't going to be particularly great onions and the ground can be better used for something else. I had just tossed the last of last year's stored onions in the compost bin so these new onions will at least fill the gap before the main crop ones are ready.

During the hunt for strawberries, the girls discovered the radishes were ready to pick. Not quite the juicy delights of strawberries but a useful crop nonetheless. So there I was thinking it was going to be a second week without fresh food from the allotment but instead we had 3 new things plus elderflowers from the hedgerow. And with the mangetout, peas and broad beans all flowering their socks off hopefully it is just the beginning of many weeks of homegrown food to come.