Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Jelly, jelly & jelly

Jelly is a funny old word with a surprising range of meanings. In my world it usually refers to an amusingly springy fruity dessert stuff, a jam without seeds in it or a soft, fruity, sugar coated sweet. Oh, and I guess it is also that stuff you get inside pork pies that some people love and others fund totally gross.

All of these types of jelly will be featuring at my table this Christmas.

The first will be made from homegrown raspberries from the freezer, pureed and mixed with powdered gelatine to provide the "jelly" set. This will be poured over slices of Swiss roll and topped with custard and cream to make a classic trifle. We all love trifle in this house and you can't beat the lovely fruity flavour you get from a homemade jelly rather than the weird artificial flavour of the stuff you just mix with boiling water.

Raspberry Jelly

3 tablespoons cold water
1 tablespoon or 1 sachet powdered gelatine
8 oz (225 g) raspberries
4 oz (110 g) granulated sugar
12 fl oz (400 ml) cold water

Put 3 tablespoons of cold water into a small pan and sprinkle over the gelatine, then stir and set aside for 5 minutes. Put the raspberries, sugar and 12 fl oz of water into a large pan and bring to the boil. Leave the fruit to simmer for 5 minutes until soft then press through a sieve to make a puree. Heat the gelatine over a low heat for a minute or two until clear then stir this into the raspberry puree.

Raspberry Trifle

1 pint (600 ml) of raspberry jelly (see recipes above)
1 small Swiss roll
Sherry or apple juice
1 pack of ready to make custard powder
150ml double cream
100ml creme fraiche
12g (1/2 oz) icing sugar

Make raspberry jelly as shown in the recipes above. Slice up the Swiss roll and layer it into the bottom of suitable containers and pour over enough sherry or apple juice to cover. Allow the cake to soak up the liquid and become mushy. You could also add a layer of fresh raspberries too at this point. Pour the jelly over the cake and refrigerate for 2-3 hours until set. In the meantime, make up the custard as instructed on the packet and allow to cool completely to room temperature - placing a piece of clingfilm on the surface of the custard will stop it forming a skin. Once the jelly has set, pour the custard over the top and level off. Return to the refrigerator for at least another hour. Combined the cream, creme fraiche and icing sugar together and whip until it forms soft peaks then spoon this on top of the custard layer. Add any decorations just before serving.

The next kind of jelly will be redcurrant jelly, made from our homegrown redcurrants earlier in the year. Some people seem a little confused by the name "jelly" on a jar and it can put them off as they seem unsure how to use a jelly. Well, it really is just a seedless jam, usually strained to produce a beautifully clear end product. If you fancy spreading it on your toast then do so but it can also be eaten as an accompaniment to meat or a flavour added to it when cooking. Undoubtedly, we will use some redcurrant jelly to accompany a nice bit of lamb but I shall also use it for redcurrant cheesecake.

Redcurrant 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 redcurrant jelly

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. Dollop the creamy filling onto the biscuit base and spread out evenly. 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. Once cooled but still slightly warm, carefully heat the redcurrant jelly in the microwave (2 x 20 seconds) or a pan of hot water until it is runny. Pour the warmed jelly evenly over the surface of the cheesecake. When sufficiently cool, refrigerate until ready to serve.

When I was a kid my lovely next door neighbour (Mrs P, we used to call her), used to give my brother and me a large tube of Fruit Pastilles every Christmas. A lovely treat, although back then they were full of artificial colours and flavourings. I'm pleased to say that, as so many food items have, they have vastly improved since then. Even so, they do not taste anywhere near as fruity as the homemade fruit jelly sweets I have made this Christmas. Using little more than fruit and sugar, I have concocted both blackcurrant and raspberry flavoured blocks of fruit jelly. They need to be stored in the fridge and they aren't quite as robust as the ones you get in a tube but, my God, they knock your head off with their lovely ziggy fruity flavour. And as an added advantage, they are a jelly that doesn't contain gelatine so are suitable for my vegan step-daughter. Hmmm... makes me wonder if I could make a vegan trifle... now there's a challenge!

Real Fruit Jelly Sweets

300-350g blackcurrants (or other high pectin fruit - e.g. gooseberries)
300g of apple or crabapple pectin stock
2 tsp lemon juice
250g granulated sugar
2 tbsp glucose syrup
Granulated sugar for rolling

Blitz the blackcurrants in a blender until it forms a thick liquid. Add the apple/crabapple to it then strain through a sieve to remove the seeds and skin. Pour the liquid into a large saucepan and add the lemon juice, sugar and glucose. Gently heat, stirring all the time, until the sugar is dissolved and it no longer feels gritty. Bring to the boil and boil vigorously for 15 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent sticking. Remove from the heat and pour into a greased plastic food container. Leave to cool then refrigerate until set. Use a spatula to loosen the jelly from the container then turn out onto a surface sprinkled with sugar. Cut into stripes then cubes. Roll each on in sugar then place in a container and keep refrigerated until ready to eat. The jellies do not melt if left out of the fridge but they do become softer and harder to pick up.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

May I introduce Herman

I was first introduced to Herman on 6th November by my friend Sue. She popped around with him unannounced that Sunday afternoon. Unfortunately, I was out at the shops at the time so Sue left him with Steve, and an A4 page of care instructions. Despite the unexpected and unannounced way he came into my life, I was nonetheless pleased to take Herman into my care.

Herman, tucked up in his box, was in fact a sour dough starter for something called "A Friendship Cake". I am quite surprised I have never come across him before as he has obviously been around for years but I'm glad I have now made his acquaintance.

The idea is, for 10 days you follow the care instructions, which largely just involves a daily stir with a wooden spoon. On the fourth and nineth days he needs feeding with flour, sugar and milk. This allows the yeast within the mix to keep on reproducing as well as adding to the bulk of the mix. On the 10th day Herman is divided into 5 equal portions. One of these can be used to make a cake, whilst the remaining 4 can be given away to friends to continue the chain. It is, in fact, like a cake chain letter but without the menace.

The whole idea instantly appealed to me. Firstly I was pleased that someone had decided to give a "friendship cake" to me. Secondly, I had never made a cake based on sour dough so I was looking forward to experimenting with this new cake making technique. And finally, I liked the idea that I could pass on "friendship cakes" at the end.

My girls were fascinated with the whole idea too and asked after Herman daily, checking that I was caring for him appropriately. It was like having a pet but with the added advantages of only having to care for it for 10 days and getting to eat it at the end!!

I had always seen the 10th day as the end of Herman but of course I was wrong to think like that. I was merely a link in the chain and Herman was passed on to more people on the 10th day. I was pleased by the response that I got from the friends I passed Herman onto. He does seem to bring delight into people's lives, as long as you choose your friends appropriately! I also decided to keep one of the little Hermans to start off another one. However, the girls decided this one ought to be called Hermione as it made more sense for Hermione to have babies than a Herman!

The recipe I was given ended in a fruit cake, made with a little mixed dried fruit and two grated apples. Perfect for me as I was able to use a couple of apples from my stored harvest. But upon googling Herman I discovered a whole load of different end recipes for Herman, hence why I decided to keep Hermione for myself.

The fruit cake version was lovely. I cooked it in a 2lb loaf tin but obviously slightly overfilled the tin with mixture as Herman managed to have another baby in the oven, producing a blob on the bottom tray of the oven. As it happened, this blob cooked perfectly so that night when the girls got in from school we ate Herman's baby, "The Blob", leaving an untouched loaf of Herman intact for Steve when he got home. We all enjoyed the cake and it was eaten up within 3 days, whilst Hermione continues to grow in her bowl.

Below is the instructions for Herman. Should you not be lucky enough to have a Friendship Cake delivered to you, you can google for a Herman starter and become the start of a whole new chain.


Herman is a friendship cake which you can’t buy, but you can give him away. He grows slowly but surely because of the yeast in him. It is usually 10 days before you can eat him.
Herman doesn’t have to be kept in the fridge and doesn’t require a lid – just covering him with a tea towel is sufficient. Herman grows at room temperature.

If you would like to spread a little friendship follow through instructions below and at end of 10 days you will have a cake to eat and four starter kits to pass on.

If you cannot wait to have your cake and eat it, go straight to day 10, but you will forego the opportunity to pass on some friendship.

Day 1: Today Herman is given to you. Put him in a big bowl (At least 4pt capacity). Cover Herman loosely so he can breathe. A tea towel or loose lid is ideal.

Days 2 & 3: Stir Herman 2-3 times a day with a wooden spoon (do not use metal, and which you can leave in the bowl)

Day 4: Herman is hungry. Give him the following:-
200mls milk
200g self-raising flour
250g sugar

Days 5, 6, 7 & 8: Stir Herman 2-3 times a day.

Day 9: Herman is hungry again. Give him the same ingredients you gave him on Day 4. Stir well then divide him into 5 equal parts. Give 4 baby Hermans away with a copy of this sheet. (or keep one back for yourself to grow and redistribute to other friends) Keep the 5th portion to bake.

Day 10: Herman is absolutely starving. He needs a holiday. He likes to go to a hot resort. The oven is his favourite. Pre-heat oven to 170ºC (150ºC fan-assisted oven) and grease a cake tin generously. Prepare him for his holiday using one of the following:-

1. Fruit cake Recipe:
150g self-raising flour,
100g finely chopped nuts/raisins,
100g light muscovado sugar
150mls oil,
half teaspoon of baking powder,
2 teaspoons cinnamon,
3 eggs, 2 grated apples,
Bake in loaf tin or 9” x 9“ cake tin

2. Chocolate Cranberry Cake Recipe: 150g self raising flour, 250g sugar,100ml oil, 1/2tsp salt, 1 tsp vanilla extract, 1tsp ground cinnamon, 1½ tsp baking powder, 2 eggs, 3 oz melted semi-sweet chocolate, 100g semi-dried cranberries. Bake 30-35 mins in loaf tin or 20-25 mins in two 8-inch sandwich tins, and sandwich together with cream &/ thick cooked cranberries sauce .

3. Double chocolate Cake: ¾ cup butter at room temp,1 cup white sugar, 1 cup brown sugar, 4 eggs, ½ cup unsweetened cocoa, 1½ cup self raising flour, ½ tsp salt, 1 tbsp vanilla extract, ¾ cup semi-sweet chocolate chips, ½ cup chopped nuts. Bake in 9 inch square pan.

4.Ginger Cake :150g self-raising flour,1½ tsp ground ginger, ½ tsp cinnamon, ½ tsp bicarbonate soda, pinch of salt, 125g golden syrup, 60g finely chopped stem ginger, 1 tbsp ginger syrup from stem ginger jar, 2 heaped tbsp sultanas, 75g dark muscavado suger, 2 eggs, 150 ml milk, 75 ml butter at room temp/softened in microwave

Mix everything together and pour into a very well greased cake tin. Bake for 40 mins to one hour, depending on your tin. Cool in tin for 10 mins then turn out.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Hello Autumn

I think autumn has finally arrived. It has been a funny old October, what with the heatwave at the beginning of it. Usually we enjoy a hot, sunny birthday in July for my youngest daughter and a damp, grey birthday for my eldest in October but this year the two were swapped. It confused us and it certainly confused the plants too.

Last week I wandered around to the allotment mainly to empty the compost bin, carrying 4 empty carrier bags just in case there was something to harvest. Much to my surprise, half an hour later each bag contained several different crops. There were still a few ripe tomatoes, amongst the depressing remains of blighted plants. There was one butternut squash, previously hidden but now revealed as the exhausted plant succumbed to mildrew, and some skinny yellow courgettes. There were 4 more cucumbers and half a bag of French beans. There were carrots and beetroot and thought I would just see how the parsnips were doing so I pulled two of those up. In the brassica patch the broccoli, cauliflower and Romanesco were still offering a few heads. A few more pears had fallen from the tree too.

I was pleased with this yield in the middle of October - a mini harvest festival of crops for the kitchen. Somehow these are more rewarding than the bags and bags of fresh veg picked in June, July and August. But what surprised me most was the bowlful of strawberries and raspberries I managed to bring home! That afternoon I treated my girls to a fruit salad more suited to July than October. And what a treat it was - a taste of summer in autumn.

They threatened frosts by the end of this week. It did indeed get colder, forcing us into our winter coats but there wasn't quite a frost. I shall go out tomorrow and see what delights I can harvest before the frosts really do arrive but I don't expect there to be much left and I certainly won't be pinning my hopes on another crop of strawberries! But that is no bad thing. I love what October's seasonal kitchen has to offer. It is all about warming, comfort food, tree fruit, root vegetables, spices, chutneys and things from storage. I still have apples, pears, cucumbers, courgettes, onions, shallots, garlic, butternut squash, pumpkins and even a few tomatoes in boxes in the shed. Last week I made a fantastic pumpkin & ginger cheesecake (yes, really!) and today I whipped up a wonderful batch of butternut squash & cinnamon muffins. With such wonderful autumn fayre on offer who would miss strawberries anyway?!

Pumpkin & Ginger Cheesecake

3 oz crushed digestive biscuits
3 oz crushed gingernut biscuits
2 oz melted butter

7 oz soft cheese
3 oz light muscovado sugar
1 egg
4 fl oz whipping cream
4 oz pumpkin puree
1/2 in root ginger
2 tablespoons icing sugar
1 tsp ground ginger

To make the base: Put the biscuits in a bag and crush them with the end of a rolling pin until finely crushed or blitz them in a food processor. 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: Peel and cube the pumpkin and steam for 10-20 minutes with the piece of root ginger until soft then blend in a food processor with the icing sugar until smooth. Preheat oven to 180 °C, gas mark 4. Cream together the cheese and the sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg, cream, pumpkin puree and ground ginger and whisk until thick. Dollop the creamy filling onto the biscuit base and spread out evenly. 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 with cream.

Butternut Squash & Cinnamon Muffins

6 fl oz (175ml) sunflower oil
6 oz (175g) light muscovado sugar
3 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
8 oz (225g) fresh pumpkin
4 oz (110g) sultanas
1 orange, zest and juice
2 tsp ground cinnamon
8 oz (225g) self-raising flour
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
200g tub of cream cheese
3 oz (85g) icing sugar

Preheat oven to 180°C (gas 4) and place paper cases in a muffin tin. Put the oil, sugar, eggs and vanilla in a bowl and beat together. Grate in the pumpkin and orange zest then add the sultanas and the juice of half the orange. Sieve in the flour, cinnamon and bicarbonate of soda and mix until just combined. Spoon the mixture into the paper cases then bake for 25 minutes. Cool on a wire rack. In the meantime, whisk together the cream cheese, icing sugar and the remaining orange juice until thick. Refrigerate until required. Dollop some of the cream cheese frosting onto each muffin just before serving.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

What use is a conker?

Conkers are funny things, aren't they? What is it that makes them so appealing when they are completely useless? Why do children (big and small) love collecting them with such enthusiasm?

I have pondered these questions this past fortnight as I have sat on my usual spot on the bench in the park whilst my girls have proudly brought me their collected conkers to show me. They are undoubtedly beautiful things, especially when first released from their prickly shells, all shiny and with their grain still showing. They feel lovely in the hand too and if you hold two or three of them you can't help but rotate them round and round in your hands.

There is no question of course that the girls will want to take them home. But what then? What can you do with conkers? With my hazelnut tree producing such a bountiful harvest of edible nuts it strikes me as a shame that conkers are not edible. Indeed, even squirrels don't seem to bother with them. In fact, if it weren't for children collecting them all up, the footpaths would be awash with conkers at this time of year.

So inevitably the conkers accumulate in the corner of the garden, eventually to rot.

But then this week, one of my friends commented on the large numbers of spiders in her house at this time of year. It is the same here, as I imagine it is in everyone else's houses at this time of year - unless you have a cat, as I am told they enjoy these crunching snacks. Generally speaking I'm not that bothered by spiders. Having to remove their cobwebs is a nuisance but their fly catching abilities are useful, particularly in my household where the excessive amount of fruit and veg that passes through my kitchen leads to annoying fruit flies in the kitchen. They really are annoying actually. Within minutes of bringing in a punnet of raspberries from the allotment this afternoon, a cloud of fruit flies were circling above them. Then with the raspberries used up in a crumble, the fruit flies were left circling the kitchen for the rest of the afternoon. I have two sticky fly tapes up (not the most attractive addition to my kitchen, it has to be said) and one of those electric fly traps that kills flies with a satisfying zapping sound, yet still they circle. And right outside my kitchen window lives a big fat garden spider, getting bigger and fatter daily on a feast of flies. So I have a happy relationship with this spider but I'm not so keen on those great, big, enormous black things that suddenly appear from under the bookcase and scuttle across the living room carpet whilst we are watching TV of an evening. Steve has put 4 of them out this week and my eldest was somewhat alarmed to find a shed spider skin on the kitchen floor the other day as she was quick to realise that this merely meant that the spider was now BIGGER!!

So what has all this got to do with conkers? Well... in my friend's discussion about the spiders, I found out that there are quite a few people out there who firmly believe that scattering conkers around your house keeps spiders at bay. Apparently, they don't like the smell. Is this true? I don't know but it sounds like it is worth a try. So one of the jobs on my to-do list this weekend is to dust off the conker pile and scatter them under the book case, on the window sills and under my bed. An end to spiders in my house and a use for the conker - sounds good to me!

Friday, 16 September 2011

Hooray for hazelnuts

During the course of my childhood at various points we had in our garden a rosemary bush (my mum's name), sweet william flowers (my dad's name), and house martins (my brother's name), but we never managed to plant a hazel tree. So when I finally got my own home I planted one. It took it about 10 years before it yielded its first handful of nuts and now, at 13 years old it produces quite a reasonable crop of nuts.

I expect I'm bias, but I do love my hazel tree. I love the way the hazelnuts conveniently drop to the ground when they are ready, without damaging themselves. And how they patiently wait for you to get around to eating them without threatening to go rotten in the meantime. And just a gentle squeeze of the nutcracker lets you through their shell to the nut inside.

Back in 2009 I proudly blogged about using my first handful of hazelnuts; a yield of just a couple of ounces that I turned into hazelnut & sesame florentines. It is a delicious recipe so I started with it this year but it barely made an impression on the nut harvest.

Hazelnut and Sesame Florentines (makes 12-16)

1 1/2 oz (40g) unsalted butter
1 1/2 oz (40g) golden syrup
1/2 oz (15g) plain flour
1 1/2 oz (40g) chopped hazelnuts
1 1/2 oz (40g) sesame seeds
1 oz (25g) glace cherries
1 oz (25g) dried mixed fruit

Preheat oven to 180°C, gas 4 and line a large baking sheet. Melt together the butter and the syrup in a pan over a gentle heat then remove from the heat and add all the other ingredients. Stir well and leave for 2-3 minutes. Dollop teaspoons of the mixture well spaced out on the baking paper then bake for 5-8 minutes until golden. Cool on the sheet for 2-3 minutes then transfer onto a wire rack to cool completely.

After that, I scanned my blog archives to remind me what I did with my hazelnut harvest in 2010. Back in October 2010 I made a harvest fruit cake with hazelnuts, courgettes and an apple. With the same ingredients in abundance this year I decided to do the same. A lovely, substantial fruitcake, which lasted us all week but which too did not use up all the hazelnuts.

Harvest Fruit Cake

2oz (55g) shelled hazelnuts
8oz (225g) unsalted butter
8oz (225g) light muscovado sugar
8oz (225g) self-raising flour
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons mixed spice
1 teaspoon baking powder
6oz (175g) courgette or marrow
1 apple
9oz (250g) mixed dried fruit
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon demerara sugar

Preheat oven to 180°C, gas 4 and grease or line a 20cm round cake tin. Place 1 oz of the hazelnuts in a food processor with a spoonful of sugar and a spoonful of flour and blitz until the nuts are finely ground. Add the butter, sugar, eggs, vanilla, flour and baking powder and process until a smooth batter forms. Remove the blade and grate in the courgette or marrow and the apple then add the dried fruit. Stir thoroughly and spoon the mix into the cake tin. Coarsely chop the remaining hazelnuts and mix these with the cinnamon and demerara sugar. Sprinkle this mixture onto the top of the cake. Bake for 45 minutes then cover with foil and continue to bake for a further 25-30 minutes. Test with a skewer. Cool in the tin for 20 minutes before turning out onto a wire rack.

So, with my eldest daughter's challenge of making a cheesecake recipe book still in my mind, I decided to have a go at making a hazelnut cheesecake.

Chocolate Hazelnut Cheesecake

2 oz shelled hazelnuts
4 oz digestive biscuits
2 oz melted butter

8 oz soft cheese
3 oz caster sugar
1 egg
4 fl oz whipping cream
1 dessert spoon cocoa powder
Few drops vanilla extract

2 oz roasted hazelnut, chopped.

Blitz the hazelnuts, then the biscuits, in a food processor to make crumbs then mix with the melted butter. Press into a suitable ovenproof tin. Refrigerate for 1 hour or more. Preheat an oven to 180°C, gas 4. Cream together the cheese and sugar then mix in the egg and cream. Pour 8 fl oz into a jug and add the cocoa to this portion. Add the vanilla to the remaining portion. Independently whip each portion until thick. Dollop the two portions of cheese mixture onto the biscuit base and gently fold them together to produce a marbled effect. Bake for 20 minutes then switch out the oven and leave for another 10 minutes. Then open the oven door and leave the cheesecake inside to slowly cool to prevent it cracking. Once cool, chill for an hour or so until ready to serve. In the meantime, roast the raw hazelnuts in their shells for 15 minutes at 180°C, gas 4. Leave to cool then whizz in a food processor to chop. When ready to serve the cheesecake, scatter the hazelnuts on top. Serve with cream or ice-cream, if desired.

I'm pleased to report the cheesecake was a success. I'm also pleased to say that I still have enough nuts left to make another one!

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Award winning hand-made ice-cream

Regular readers of my blog will know that I enjoy making ice-cream but I never expected to get an award for it! This changed the other day when I entered the Farr Beach sandcastle competition. Inspired by a beach ice-cream set that I picked up in IKEA for a few pounds, we decided that this year’s entry would be a sand ice-cream van.

First we dug out a large hole and built up walls to make the outline structure of the ice-cream van and then the girls created a series of different ice-creams in cones and ice-cream sundaes to “sell” at the counter. This was the most fun part, trying to find suitable substitutes for yummy ingredients on the beach. Dry sand for vanilla, damp sand for caramel flavours. Green seaweed for mint. Small sticks as chocolate flakes, red pebbles as cherries, seaweed as chocolate sauce.

After an hour of digging, sculpting and creating, the ice-cream van and its stock was finished. Then, the judges walked up and down the beach, assessing each castle. We all gathered together at the end of the beach to hear the announcements – in reverse order of course. 3rd then 2nd places… then finally, 1st place for the ice-cream van! What a lovely surprise and a brilliant way to end an enjoyable, fun, family day out on the beach. Funnily enough, as we left the beach that afternoon we all fancied an ice-cream, sadly though my stock of real home-made ice-creams was in the freezer at home 600 miles away!

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

A Kitchen Gardener on holiday- Part 2

By the time we needed to visit the supermarket again we were running low on homegrown vegetables too. There were still plenty of spuds and alliums, courgettes and French beans but the broad beans, peas and beetroot were eaten. It is somewhat surprising that vegetables such as courgettes and French beans should still be edible after a 600 mile car journey and 6 days out of the ground but compared to the journeys some fruit and vegetables have to arrive in supermarkets its nothing.

When homegrown is not available I like to shop local instead and this is probably easier here than anywhere in the UK. The Scots are very proud of anything Scottish so supermarkets are stocked with Scottish products including everything from haggis to cheese to carrots. And with the different pace of life up here, where Tescos only arrived a couple of years ago, there are still thriving local specialist shops such as butchers and fishmongers. It makes a pleasant change to shop in places like this and the whole family actively enjoys our shopping trips.

So a 40 minute, 30 mile drive to Thurso isn’t the chore it might be if this was something I had to do every week of the year. Instead we look forward to it, made more enjoyable by the ease of parking near to each of the shops we visit. First to MacKay’s the butchers – a large, rotund man with ruddy cheeks who was clearly born to be a butcher. He greeted us in his usual friendly way, recognising us from previous annual visits. All his meat is local, of course, and can be cut to order if necessary. His sausages are the highlight of our trip and my daughter claims they are the only sausages she likes. Here we stocked up on fillet steak, leg of lamb, a chicken and sausages as well as “olives”, pieces of frying steak wrapped round a sage and onion stuffing. I’ve never seen these anywhere else so enjoy having them when I can just because they are a bit different. We also bought half a dozen local free-range eggs and a punnet of Caithness grown strawberries.

A very short drive to the quayside and we parked this time outside the fishmongers. It is also right by our favourite café “The Tempest” and although we were all starving we decided to visit the fishmongers first as this, like the butchers, still have the quirky habit of closing for lunch. Like so many places up here this is also called “MacKay’s” but a different and unrelated MacKay to the butchers (Sutherland is of course Clan MacKay country). Here Steve stocked up on a pot of crabmeat, some enormous fresh scallops and a wedge of Orkney cheese before we headed into the café for lunch. I can’t help marvelling at the car park – a huge expanse of tarmac at the quayside, next to several shops and a popular café and with a seaview, overlooking the Orkney Islands. Firstly, it is remarkable because there are absolutely no road marking in it so you can park wherever you choose. Secondly, it is completely free of charge. And thirdly, it is almost entirely empty. Imagine such a car park in Cornwall, closely packed bay markings, pay and display and full by 9am.

Nicely stocked up with a variety of fresh, local produce we drove back to the cottage in excited anticipation of our next meal.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

A Kitchen Gardener on holiday- Part 1

When you love kitchen gardening as much as I do, it is a bit of a strain to leave it behind for 3 weeks to go on holiday. To lessen the strain, firstly, I have perfected the timing of my summer holiday to slot neatly between the end of broad beans and the beginning of the French beans, and between the end of the soft fruit and the beginning of the tree fruit. Secondly, I make sure there are people back home who can keep an eye on the plot whilst we are away and to keep picking the produce to stop them going over.

Before leaving on holiday I went around the plot picking everything that I could to take away. The peas and mangetout were winding down but I got a small bag of each. The broad beans I thought were over but got a few new pods from re-grown shoots. The first of the French beans were ready so I picked everything I could from these. I pulled up a few beetroots and cut all the courgettes. When freshly picked like this, it is possible to expect these vegetables to last at least until the end of the first week away. I added these last pickings to my previously harvested onions, garlic and 3 different variety of potatoes. Three varieties of potatoes may sound excessive, but when you are away for 3 weeks it is nice to be able to cook potatoes in different ways and each variety is particularly suitable for certain cooking techniques.

Our holiday destination was our little cottage on the north coast of Scotland. It is a very basic affair with a tiny galley kitchen but the kitchen is well stocked with utensils and vessels. It has an old but spacious fridge, with a dodgy door that has to be held shut with a bungy cord. It also has an electric cooker with an oven and 3 working hob rings. Work surface is almost non-existent but it is surprising what you can cook when you put your mind to it. I could, of course, live on ready-meals for a week, simply reheating them in the microwave that’s so old it doesn’t even have a rotating turntable and probably microwaves the kitchen as much as it does the food inside. But I’m a foodie at heart and part of being on holiday is enjoying lovely evening meals. I’m happy to cook as long as Steve does the washing up. And he’s happy to do the washing up as long as he’s well fed!

When on holiday we tend to choose luxury items that we wouldn’t normally eat every day so our first meal was roast duck, roasted Sharpe’s Express potatoes, carrots, tiny broad beans and peas. If cooking duck at home I would have strolled into the front garden and grabbed a bundle of fresh sage then stuffed the cavity with sage and onion. In the absence of fresh sage I decided to concoct a stuffing from the flavours I did have to hand. I finely chopped up a red onion, a clove of garlic, some root ginger, an inch of celery, a small yellow courgette, a mushroom and a rasher of bacon. This I stirfried for a few minutes in some olive oil then put it in a bowl with breadcrumbs made from two slices of wholemeal bread. I squeezed it together before stuffing the crop and the cavity with the mixture before roasting the duck. And very tasty the stuffing proved to be.

The next day we headed west around the coast. It was a beautiful sunny day and as we drove home later that evening I was struck by the picturesque beauty of the Kyle of Tongue in bright sunshine. We pulled off the road to take a photo and to my surprise there was a huge fennel bush growing at the edge of the layby. I guess not everyone would recognise a fennel bush when they see one, but for a kitchen gardener it was an easy identification. As megrin sole was on the menu for that night’s dinner I took the liberty of gathering a few sprigs of the fennel and back at the cottage I grilled the fish on a bed of fresh fennel.

The next day was another epic roast meal but this time it was a beautiful Scottish leg of lamb. Again, at home, a trip to the herb garden would be in order to pick a sprig of rosemary and then I would stab the leg all over, pushing in a slice of garlic and a piece of rosemary into each slit. With no rosemary to hand I sent Steve out to retrieve some of the wild thyme I could see growing outside the kitchen window. As usual I inserted garlic into every slit but this time a piece of thyme went in with it. Then I seasoned it all over with salt and pepper before spreading a good dollop of mustard all over it. This was accompanied by Kestrel roast potatoes, the last of the peas, carrots and some roasted yellow courgette. I had never roasted courgettes before but it was simple to do. Firstly I cut the courgette into chunks then tossed them in a mixture of olive oil, salt, pepper and dried mixed herbs. I then placed them carefully in the roasting tin with the potatoes, skin side down, and cooked them for the last 20 minutes of the roasting time. They were beautifully sweet with a lovely herby flavour.

After that, the next meal was a little simpler. Boiled gammon and baked potatoes. It still took an hour to cook but an hour when I could get on with other things. The potatoes, by the way, were overgrown Charlotte potatoes. Usually known for their boiling ability, I discovered last year that when left in the ground too long and grown too large, they actually make brilliant baked potatoes with lovely crispy skin. The secret to a crispy skin on a baked potato is to rub it with oil and a little salt before baking. Then to finish the meal, a few salad items such as tomatoes, cucumber, celery and some homegrown beetroot, cooked that morning after breakfast.

So for the first week at least, we managed to eat homegrown vegetables and enjoy the lovely flavours of the season.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

The Broad Bean Harvest

We're having a lovely broad bean harvest this year and I plan to make the most of them. I sowed 5 different varieties in the spring and kept them under plastic cloche tunnels until the heatwave in April when the first flowers started to appear. Obviously, the pollinating insects wouldn't be able to do their jobs if the flowers were kept under plastic.

When there were just a few remaining flowers and most of the beans had formed I went round and nipped off the top bunch of leaves from every plant. I don't know how or why but doing this significantly reduces the blackfly infestation. If you leave it too late and blackfly have already arrived by the time you do it then it doesn't work and if you don't do it at all then you can expect blackflies to inundate your broad beans, starting at the top and eventually swamping the bean pods themselves. With the top nipping done at the correct point this year we have a lovely healthy looking crop.

When growing lots of plants, as were are, it is worth eating the beans from the earliest possible point when the beans inside are still tiny. Some people actually eat the bean pods before the beans have begun to form but I'm not a fan of furry food! It seems a bit wasteful at first to split open the large pods to extract tiny beans that in no way attempt to fill their cosy sleeping bag. But, with steady eating from this stage you will still end up having beans on the plants that become old and unpleasant to eat.

Broad beans are nicest to eat when they are young and become increasingly less pleasant the older they get. When young they should pop out of their pods with their little green hats still with them. As they get older the hat begins to turn yellow and eventually the beans come out without their hats, leaving a black scar on the bean. At this point it is best to cook the beans then squeeze the inner bean out of the now tough outer skin. This is another fiddly stage in the preparation so it is obviously easier to avoid this by eating them before they reach this stage. Personally, when they reach this point I usually cook them up and turn them into pate or houmous (see archives for the recipes).

By this weekend the beans had grown quite large but they still had their little green hats and were pleasant to eat. It struck me that now would be the perfect time to freeze some beans for the winter months - rather than leaving it until they go past their best. So I set about harvesting half of what was left on the plants and came home with a bulging carrier bag full. These I podded until I had a huge bowlful of the things. Then I got a big pan of boiling water going and blanched the lot. Then I plunged them into icy water to cool them quickly then dried them roughly and lay them out on trays to freeze. The next morning I rubbed them off the trays and dropped them into freezer bags as handy individually frozen beans. It was very satisfying to put 3 bags of broad beans into the freezer for the winter.

The remaining beans on the plants are continuing to feed us and of course are continuing to mature. We will eat them fresh until they become tough then I shall make & freeze my pate and houmous for Steve's sandwiches throughout the year. What a handy bean the broad bean is.

Friday, 17 June 2011

I feel a cheesecake coming on

Often when I'm baking it is one of my own recipe books that I refer to. I love creating and writing down new recipes. It is lovely to be able to share my kitchen creativity with others through my books but it is also really handy to have them to refer back to myself. Blogging is another useful way to make sure I don't forget my recipes.

Earlier this week I decided to turned the latest harvest of strawberries into a strawberry swirl cheesecake. Regular readers of my blog will know that I created this for the first time last year at the request of my eldest daughter. Having blogged about it back then I knew that now I need only delve into the archives of my blog to find the recipe again this year. This I did and printed it out for reference in the kitchen.

As usual, just as I got started my eldest daughter sprung into the kitchen to see if I required any help. I'm never one to turn down help so she found her apron and washed her hands. Then she spotted the recipe on a piece of paper and asked why it was only on paper and not in one of my recipe books. I pointed out that I'm always coming up with new recipes and the new ones aren't in recipe books yet. "Well," she said, "in that case, you need to write a cheesecake recipe book."

That night as I lay in bed, drifting off to sleep I started thinking about cheesecakes. Well, there are worse things to think about as you fall asleep. By the morning I had decided that a cheesecake mini recipe booklet would make a useful addition to my mini recipe book range but I am going to need more recipes. So what's seasonal, tasty and not something I have already done?

By the time I went to bed again the next night I had come to conclusion that an elderflower cheesecake was a strong possibility. And by the end of the next day I had elderflowers infusing in whipping cream in the fridge. Later, the idea of including gooseberries in the recipe too occurred to me so that night my daughter and I made gooseberry and elderflower cheesecake.

I couldn't wait to try it so had a sneaky slice after my lunch the next day. Straight after school my daughter asked to try it and she quickly gave it her seal of approval and informed me it was good enough to go into my cheesecake recipe book. That's a long term project but here's the gooseberry and elderflower cheesecake recipe in the meantime. By the way, if you have a cheesecake recipe that you think would make a good addition to my recipe book, please get in touch.

Gooseberry & Elderflower Cheesecake

6 oz crushed digestive biscuits
2 oz melted butter

5 fl oz whipping cream
5 elderflower heads
4 oz gooseberries
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
3 oz caster sugar
1 egg
7 oz soft cheese
Snip the flower heads off the stalks and place the flowers into a container with the whipping cream. Place a lid on it then place it in the fridge overnight to infuse.

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 20cm flan dish and chill for about 1 hour.

To make the filling: Preheat oven to 180 °C, gas mark 4. Place the gooseberries in a small saucepan with a couple of tablespoons of water and the granulated sugar then cook for about 10 minutes until the fruit is soft. Set aside to cool. Cream together the cheese and the caster sugar until light and fluffy. Next, strain the cream through a sieve, squeezing the flowers to extract as much cream as possible - you should have approximately 4 fl oz of cream. Discard the elderflowers. Add the egg and cream to the cheese mix and whisk with an electric whisk until thick. Dollop the creamy filling onto the biscuit base and spread out evenly. Place a sieve over a bowl and pour the gooseberries through the sieve, crushing the fruit with a spoon to leave behind just the skin and seeds. Spoon a tablespoon of the gooseberry sauce onto the cream mixture then use a chopstick or skewer to carefully swirl the sauce through the cream mixture. Put the remaining gooseberry sauce into the refrigerator until serving. Place the cheesecake 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. Once cool, refrigerate the cheesecake to chill before serving. Serve each slice of cheesecake with a serving of gooseberry sauce.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Freshly cut herbs

Most of my front garden is dedicated to herbs, which is quite a contrast to my next door neighbour's garden which is mostly dedicated to gravel, dotted sporadically with dandelions and thistles. I like my herb garden so was somewhat surprised the other morning when my neighbour knocked on the door to ask me if I could cut back the herbs that were overhanging her garden. Of course I said I would and later went out to see what she was fussing about. Yes, the herbs were definitely overhanging but in what I would consider an attractive way. Nonetheless, I was obliged to meet her wishes and cut them back.

Funnily enough I had also noticed this week that the postman was now taking a slightly different route to my front door. The reason for this became clear when I stood on my doorstep this afternoon and looked up my normal pathway - now almost completely closed up by herbs on either side - quite pleasant to walk down on a warm day but less so in the wet. Clearly, the herbs were getting out of control. With this in mind, I bought pack of sausagement and a few more onions; if I had to cut them back then I wanted to make use of what I could.

After school I said to my girls that I was going to trim back the herbs in the front garden and I would really appreciate their help and if not help, then company. Then, armed with shears, I nipped around the my neighbour's garden a began snipping. I was soon joined by my girls and my eldest got stuck in to scooping up the cuttings and loading them into the wheelbarrow. My youngest plonked herself down on the gravel and began playing. After several minutes my eldest said to her sister, "Are you going to help?" to which she replied, "I'm company." That made me chuckle.

They continued to help and provide company for the next hour as we trimmed back both the overhang into the neighbour's garden and the footpath. It was quite a heap of herbs in the wheelbarrow by the time we had finished but I also had several bundles for the kitchen. We were just finishing the sweeping up when my husband arrived and as he wheeled the lot around to the compost bins, I took the saved herbs indoors to sort them out.

My first job was to put the lavender flowers into a pot as a lovely centrepiece of the table. It both looked and smelt gorgeous. I didn't add any water to the pot and so over the next few days the flowers will slowly dry out and become preserved dried flowers, retaining most of their lovely colour and fragrance.

Next, I chopped up the sage and mixed it with finely chopped onion, breadcrumbs, sausagement and a bit of salt and pepper to make stuffing. This I placed in the freezer in handy portions. Tomorrow I shall use some of the rosemary to make herb mustard - this is lovely smeared on lamb before grilling or roasting it. Later, a couple of sprigs of savory went into the pan with the freshly picked broad beans we had with dinner.

Herbs are growing rapidly at this time of year so should you find yourself in need of trimming some back, enjoy the cuttings in the kitchen.

Monday, 30 May 2011

Does it get any better?

With the beginning of June fast approaching it is now possible to plant tender seedlings out on the allotment. For us, this the brassicas, French beans, sweetcorn, cucurbits and tomatoes. That is a heck of a lot of planting so Steve and I got cracking straight after lunch on Saturday.

Whilst I started planting the brassica seedlings, Steve dug over the bed in readiness for the French beans. The bed was mostly weed free but was peppered with volunteer potato plants. It doesn't matter how carefully you remove the potatoes when you harvest a crop, it is inevitable that you will leave a few tubers in the ground. It is also inevitable that these forgotten spuds will grow the next spring. This is particularly annoying when they pop up in the middle of your onion sets or carefully sown row of carrots as they represent quite a tricky weed to remove. However, on this occasion they weren't much of a bother as the bed wasn't required until now. As such, we had left them to grow, hoping there might be the beginnings of a few new potatoes when we removed them. And so it was. As I methodically planted out row after row of brassica plants, Steve methodically dug up the potato plants, plopping any new potatoes found into a flower pot as he went.

By the end of the afternoon, I had a bed full of brassica plants (netted against pigeon attacked and slugs & snails protection measures in place), and Steve had a flower pot overflowing with lovely new potatoes. Anyone who reads my blog regularly will know I'm forever banging on about the joy of eating with the seasons and there is no better moment than that when you eat the first of something. They are always at their sweetest and tenderest and the months of waiting make them even more delicious.

Back in the kitchen, I washed the new potatoes, their skins slipping off as easily as... "silk knickers", as Steve says. Then a bit of gentle boiling and a dab of butter. Yes, there are a hundred and one ways to cook a potato but quite honestly, it doesn't get better than that.

Friday, 20 May 2011

It burns... it burns!

I don't know how many jars of preserves I have made in the 12 or so years that I have been making jam and chutney but it must be a fair few. When you think about it, it is quite a hazardous occupation, particularly when it comes to decanting the finished preserve into jars. I do take the precaution of not wearing sandals when I do this, even though it is something I often do at the height of summer. I also use an oven glove when handling the hot jars, a jar funnel and a ladle to lessen spillages and drips . I should perhaps also wear googles but somehow that just seems a bit silly. So far, these precautions have been sufficient to prevent injury.

This week, I made a rather spicy tomato sauce with a good chilli kick. I don't have much tolerance for chilli but I do believe in tasting everything I make so I had tried this one with a tentative dab on the tongue. Several minutes later as I was bottling it my tongue was still gently humming to the chilli tune.

My usual technique for bottling is to ladle the preserve, hot from the pan, into the jar through an jam funnel into jars warmed in the oven. When the jar is full, I remove the funnel, place the lid on the jar and gently twist then pick the whole thing up by the lid into a gloved hand to give the lid a final twist to firmly close. Potentially dangerous maybe but I have never burnt myself doing this...

... until this week when as I picked up the jar by the lid the lid came off and in one graceful movement I dropped the jar the short drop to the work surface and stuck the full length of my thumb into the jar of hot tomato sauce.

Reflexes are undoubtedly a good thing and do on the whole save you from injury and danger. Unfortunately, they occur without wasting time consulting the brain. In this situation I had two reflex reactions. The first was to pull my thumb rapidly out of the hot liquid (sensible). This had the unfortunate side-effect of sending the jar of sauce toppling over, spilling its contents all over the work surface, splashing hot sauce onto my other arm in the process. The second reaction was to stick my thumb in my mouth, complete with its coating of chilli sauce!

For the next few minutes I wasn't quite sure what to do with myself but it did involve copious amounts of cold water.

I'm pleased to say that no serious harm was done. I had a couple of very small burns on my arm and my thumb kind of felt like I'd trapped it in a door for the rest of the day. My tingling tongue stopped buzzing after about an hour too!

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Amazing May

I was so tempted when I was Tescos earlier this week to buy a punnet of strawberries. Usually I have a strict rule about not buying strawberries as I think it is so important to enjoy fruit in season and at its best. But, these were in season British strawberries and it had been MONTHS since we last ate fresh strawberries. We even finished off the last of the strawberry & marshmallow ice-cream last week. Sigh... but with our own plants already bending with green fruit it seemed silly to spoil the moment by having shop bought ones a bit ahead of time.

And how glad I was that I didn't buy them in the end when on Wednesday afternoon a quick visit to the allotment revealed that several strawberries were already beginning to turn red. The girls were very excited by this and rushed round, checking for any signs of redness. Then this afternoon, with the girls slopping around the house lethargically, it was the possibility of ripe strawberries that enticed them out of the house and onto the allotment. They rushed straight to the ones that had been most promising on our last visit and a moment later they reappeared at my side with a beautiful perfect specimen. After months of waiting, I made them wait just a moment longer whilst I photographed it then they tore it in half and shared it. What joy! We have never had ripe strawberries in mid-May before. There is a lot of promise for the soft fruit this year.

Barring the occasional early strawberry, May is probably the leanest month in the kitchen from the kitchen garden but there are a few exceptions. Our asparagus is still going strong, despite the best efforts of the asparagus beetle. Rhubarb is still available, although we don't currently have any growing on our plot. We did, however, manage to do a mutually agreeable swap with an allotment neighbour for his rhubarb in exchange for our asparagus. Herbs, if they are not flowering, are at their best now so it is a good time to cut some for drying or to make herb mustard. Most of our herbs grow in our front garden and right now they on the verge of closing up the footpath. Still, brushing past them on the way to the door is an aromatic delight!

We have a few herbs on the allotment too - though this is less convenient. I noticed that the mint we grow as a marginal at the edge of out teeny pond was in danger of swamping the whole thing so this afternoon I took the secatures to it. Back in the kitchen I chopped the whole lot up and it is currently infusing in 10 fl oz of milk in the fridge. Tomorrow I shall add double cream, sugar and chocolate chips to make mint choc ice-cream - not like the stuff you buy in ice-cream palours, this stuff tastes of "proper" mint.

Mint Choc Chip Ice-cream

A big bunch of mint
10 fl oz (284 ml) milk
2 oz (55 g) icing sugar
10 fl oz (284 ml) double cream
Green food colouring (optional)
4 oz (110 g) chocolate chips

Remove the mint leaves from the stalks and coarsely chop. Pour the milk into a non metallic bowl and tip the mint leaves into it, pressing down so that they are covered. Cover the bowl and place in the refrigerator for several hours or overnight to infuse. Pour the milk through a sieve to remove the mint leaves. Add the sugar to the milk and stir until dissolved. Add the cream (and food colouring if using) and stir. Pour into suitable containers and add the chocolate chips. Freeze the mixture for 2 hours until beginning to freeze then stir with a fork to break up the ice-crystals. Return to the freezer for another 2 hours then stir again, making sure to stir the chocolate chips through the ice cream. Repeat again 2 hours later than return to the freezer until solid.

On the school run earlier in the week I noticed the elderflowers were just beginning to bloom so before leaving the allotment we walked over to where the hedgerow grows over the fence and harvested some. Then we took a slight detour on the way home to harvest some more from the nearby hedgerow. The gorgeous smell alone makes me want to drink thirstily from a glass of sparkling elderflower cordial.

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 with chilled water (sparkling if you prefer).
So our mid-May harvest consisted of rhubarb, elderflowers, herbs and asparagus... and a strawberry.

Tonight I have mint and milk infusing in the fridge, elderflowers and lemons infusing on the counter, and rhubarb and ginger steeping in a bowl. I don't need a fortune-teller to know I shall have a busy day in the kitchen tomorrow but hopefully by the end of it I shall have mint choc chip ice-cream, elderflower cordial and another batch of rhubarb and ginger jam.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Tomberries and profiteroles

There I was standing in Costco the other day contemplating buying a huge bag of Rooster potatoes when I spotted something that looked like a pack of teeny tiny tomatoes. I moved closer to inspect and discovered that that is just what they were. About the size of a fat redcurrant, these tiny tomatoes were called "Tomberries". I knew then and there that I had to buy some as it was bound to appeal to my tomato-loving youngest. Sure enough she loved them. So I have served them up to her on several occasions now - a handful in a small sauce/dip dish to stop them from rolling all over her plate.

It has been a couple of weeks since I bought them now and some of them are getting a bit wrinkly (hardly surprising). I took a wrinkled one the other day and squashed it onto a piece of kitchen towel to extract the seeds. I have never seen "tomberry" seeds available to buy from seed catalogues so I thought I might try growing these. Of course, I don't even know whether "tomberries" are a particular variety or just the very small ones of a cherry tomato of some kind. I also don't know if whatever variety of plant it came from is an F1 or not. If it is, then the seeds of these berries are unlikely to come true and I could end up growing some unexpected tomato plants. Nevertheless, worth a try I reckon.

At about the same time that I bought the tomberries, I also bought a stack of profiteroles. These weren't on my shopping list as it happens but they were reduced and... Well, anyway, the girls and I enjoyed them! Having emptied the stack I couldn't help noticing that the container looked like a mini greenhouse - similar to one of the Eden Project domes. It even had circular indentations on the base that looked perfect for holding flower pots. So I washed it out and put it in the shed.

Having squashed a tomberry I decided now might be the time to try out the profiterole greenhouse. Back into the shed I went and retrieved the dome, plus several tiny flower pots that had once homed small cactus plants. These fitted perfectly into the indentations on the base so I filled them up with potting compost and placed a tomberry seed in each. The dome top didn't fit perfectly back on now that the flowerpots were inside but it slotted over them quite well with a bit of an air vent at the bottom.

A week later I see that 3 or 4 of the seeds have germinated already. But now I'm wondering if I should eat another stack of profiteroles in order to complete the Eden Project look. It really wouldn't be too much of struggle!

Sunday, 1 May 2011

MK's most expensive carrots!

I bought a 1kg bag of carrots from the supermarket the other day for a quid. That's cheap! Unfortunately, supermarket carrots are always a bit dull - lacking flavour mostly but also a bit of character. It's just not the same if you don't have to wash off a bucket of mud before you can start peeling - and of course, the odd fork just makes the peeling process all that more interesting!

It is undeniably easy to take a pre-washed, straight carrot out of a bag, peel it, chop it and boil it but they are pretty much tasteless. And at this time of year they are on the verge of rotting from the moment you buy them. A couple of days in the fridge and one end or the other starts to go squidgy and brown. It is for this reason that I grow my own carrots.

Every year I struggle to get the carrot seeds to germinate in our thick clay, then struggle to keep them alive and fend off the slug attacks. And then in the summer I struggle to break them out of the concrete-clay and in the winter I struggle to heave them out of the sticky clay. Most of them grow with forks, others split and some grow so close together they wind round and round each other and produce twisty carrots. At the same time, we sow a few seeds in wooden planters on my girls plot in a mixture of potting compost and sand. When they want to harvest their carrots they just give a gentle tug and out they pop, all straight and very nearly clean.

So this year I found myself wondering why I don't just grow all out carrots like that. There was no sensible answer to that question so I went out and bought 3 window box troughs and 2 "salad" growing sacks. To fill them, I also bought 3 x 120l multi-purpose compost and 3 bags of sharp sand. I mixed the compost and the sand in fairly equal measures in the wheelbarrow then filled the containers, watered and sowed the seeds. The need for watering did not stop there and I have watered regularly ever since and I even had to go out and buy a replacement rose-end to my watering can so as not to damage the seedlings as they emerged.

Today I have repeated the process to sow parsnips in potato bags. My hope is that they will still grow to their usual 18 inch length but that it will be sooooo much easier to harvest.

Now I'm wondering how much it has cost to grow a few carrots - the cost of the containers. the compost, the sand, the seed, the watering can accessories, not to mention man-hours that have been invested into these carrots. When you think how cheaply you can pick up a bag of carrots from the supermarkets you have to wonder if it is worth it. Purely economically speaking the answer is very likely to be no but when it comes to variety and flavour the answer will be yes!

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Growing peanuts

For the past 3 years I have grown peanut plants on my allotment. The British weather is not really suitable for such a task but I like a challenge. Usually, I buy my peanut seeds from the Plants of Distinction catalogue. Inside the packet there are 3 monkey nuts, providing 6 (although often only 5) peanuts. These I sow in pots in February and germinate on my windowsill. Finally, the seedlings are planted out in June. During the summer the plants produce small yellow flowers very similar in shape to pea flowers. This is not surprising as peas and peanuts are related, both belonging to the legume family. If the flowers are pollinated then a long stem grows out of the dying flower and heads downwards until it finds the soil. There it buries itself and in due course a new monkey nut forms underground - hence the other name: "ground nut".

Germination of the peanut seeds is never 100%, then keeping them alive for several weeks indoors is tricky. They don't like drying out and they are prone to pest attacked. Then once in the garden, they can struggle in the cool British weather. As a result, I have never managed to grow more than a handful of peanuts - scarcely more than I start with! Still, I enjoy the challenge and persevere every year, despite the somewhat high price of the seeds (£1.65 for 6).

This year has been no different. Once again I ordered my 3 monkey nuts from Plants of Distinction. Once shelled, I planted the 5 peanut seeds and waited for a few days for germination. Only 3 germinated this time and when I investigated the others the seeds had rotted to soft mush. Several days later, when I checked them again, I realised the pots had dried out and unfortunately 2 of the plants succumbed to this neglect. So I was left with one plant - not likely to yield a good harvest for that!

Frustrated by this I decided it was time to experiment with supermarket monkey nuts to see if I could get these to grow. I bought a 400g bag of "natural" unroasted (obviously!) peanuts, shelled 3 of them and planted the 6 nuts. Then just one week later when I returned from holiday I was delighted to see 5 of them had germinated and were growing away strongly. Success, I would say! Time will tell if I manage to get a reasonable harvest this year but next year I shall be sourcing my seeds from the supermarket not the seed catalogue - it is a good deal cheaper (£1.50 for maybe 200 seeds) and so far, more successful.

As for the rest of the bag of unroasted monkey nuts, these I roasted as a single layer on a large baking tray in a preheated oven at 180°C, gas 4 for 25 minutes. Steve declared these the freshest and tastiest roasted monkey nuts he'd ever tasted! Well, hopefully only until we harvest our own peanuts in the summer!

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Dandelions - weeds or ingredient?

At this time of year the dandelions on the verges along side the grid roads in Milton Keynes are a spectacular sight - a sea of yellow, easily able to compete with the daffodils from a few weeks previously.
It's funny how we tend not to appreciate the humble dandelion. If it were a rare or exotic plant it would be considered a thing of beauty. But because it is so common we do not seem to notice its head of bright yellow flowers followed by the delicate perfect ball of silver seeds. Indeed, not only do we not appreciate it, but we seek to destroy it when it appears in our lawns, flower beds or amongst our vegetables. I am no different. Many a time I have dug down... deeply... to remove the long tap root of the dandelion plant from my veg patch, or cursed as I brushed past a dandelion clock, sending future weed seeds across my plot. But, in it's place - as a wild flower - it is beautiful, particularly when flowering en mass.

Having ooh-ed and ahh-ed from the car window at the dandelions last week, I found myself paying particular attention to Pam the Jam helping John the Forger to make dandelion jam on River Cottage Every Day - Bread on Saturday evening. I don't know what time of year they filmed it in but between them they struggled to find the necessary hundred flower heads for the recipe. I looked at my girls and said, "Shall we make that?" They nodded with enthusiasm - my youngest loving the thought of picking her favourite flower, my eldest keen to take up the challenge of making something edible from a weed.

That night I searched the internet for Pam's recipe but I couldn't find it. Instead, I found a variety of other recipes and soon learned that finding enough dandelion heads would be tricky, pulling the petals off fiddly, and getting the jam to set time-consuming. I was not deterred.

So on Tuesday afternoon the girls and I set off to pick dandelions. Quite frankly, it was ridiculous. There were literally thousands of the things! I spent most of my time taking photos but still managed to pick several hundred flower heads. My girls filled their baskets to overflowing yet still they didn't want to stop. It was a thoroughly lovely way to spend an hour.

Back home we spent another hour pulling the petals away from the sepals. This proved less interesting and half way through my youngest sloped off to do something else. My eldest was determined to empty her basket but eventually admitted defeat. We had, however, by then accumulated 500g of dandelion petals!

In the absence of a decent recipe, I was kind of making it up as I went along so I put the petals into my preserving pan with 4 oranges & 2 lemons, 1 lb of gooseberries (from the freezer) and a few litres of water. This I heated up and simmered for an hour. I hoped the gooseberries and citrus combination would provide the necessary pectin as well as mild flavour to compliment the dandelions. Whilst it cooked, the kitchen was filled with a smell reminiscent of honey & lemon.

Once boiled, I poured the contents of the pan into a jelly bag and let it drip for a couple of hours. By then it was late so I left the liquid covered for the night and recommenced the next day. In total I had four and three quarters pints of liquid so I decided to add 4 lb of sugar to it. Once dissolved, I brought it to the boil and attempted to get it to reach its setting point. After nearly an hour of boiling I admitted defeat and added a 250ml bottle of Certo pectin. Then with still no obvious set, I boiled it up again for a few minutes before I finally managed to achieve the tell-tale wrinkle on a cold saucer.

Before bottling I added the petals of a few more dandelion heads to the jam for added texture/appearance. It is a beautiful looking jam - a glowing amber colour as sunny as the flowers it came from. The flavour is admittedly subtle but a sort of perfumed honey flavour with a hint of citrus - perfect on hot cross buns.

So what have I learnt about making dandelion jam?

Collecting enough heads is not difficult if you time it correctly.
Pulling the petals off is fiddly.
Getting it to set is difficult and needs a good source of pectin.
Also, dandelions stain - yellow from the pollen and brown from the stems - so wear old clothes when picking them!
The flavour is subtle but it is satisfying to make jam from a weed.

Dandelion Jam

250g dandelion petals (no green parts) + a few extra
2 oranges
1 lemon
225g gooseberries
1.5 litres water
1 kg granulated sugar
225ml Certo bottled pectin

Pull the petals from the green parts of the dandelion heads and place in the preserving pan. Slice oranges & lemons (peel & all) and add to the pan. Add the gooseberries and water then bring to the boil and simmer for an hour. Scald a jelly bag then pour the mix into it and allow it to drip for a few hours. Clean the preserving pan and return the liquid to it. Add the sugar and stir until fully dissolved. Bring to the boil and boil rapidly for about 10 minutes. Add the bottled pectin then return to a rolling boil until the setting point is reached. Remove from the heat, stir in the reserved dandelion petals and ladle into warmed jars and seal immediately.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

When things don't go to plan!

Last weekend with a week of glorious weather fit to continue it was an obvious time to get a lot of seeds sown in pots. My only reservation about this was the state of the garden shed. I knew there were a lot of flower pots and seed trays in there but seeing them or getting to them was not that easy after a winter of shed neglect.

I pottered about in the house during Saturday morning, doing housework whilst Steve ate a leisurely breakfast and drank his coffee. This is a ritual that can go on for hours so I was quite surprised when around lunchtime he went off to change into his work clothes and announced he was going to tackle the mess in the shed. What a stroke of luck - I could find all the flower pots I'd need and not have to tidy the shed myself!

However, after giving the girls their lunch I appeared in the garden to discover a variety of objects from the shed that Steve had put to one side for cleaning. Everything in the shed was covered in mats of spider webs with various pits of dirt clinging to them. A few other things had been nibbled by mice and Steve firstly discovered lots of mice droppings and later the mouse itself! Straight away I could see that my assistance would be required for the great shed sort and that it would take the rest of the day. *Scraps plan to sow seeds today*

Later that day I had cleaned 2 old pushchairs complete with rain covers, several deck chairs, a variety of garden toys, 3 bikes and a rotatory washing line. I'm pleased to say that by Sunday lunchtime the unwanted pushchairs, bikes & washing line had all been rehomed by a successful use of my local Freecycle group.

Late on Saturday afternoon the shed was empty and swept clean and Steve stood looking at the stuff in the garden wondering how to get it all back in. I spotted the walk-in plastic greenhouse that I had bought several years ago on a whim, thinking it was a good idea and a bargain. I had made the mistake of putting it in the shed to deal with later and that had been the last I had seen of it. With enthusiasm I suggested I tried assembling it now and finding a use for it in this current growing season.

The box was a bit battered and the picture on the box had been mostly eaten by snails but the contents still seemed good. On tipping it out it was obvious that the plastic cover was missing - so just the poles for the framework remained. I concluded it must be somewhere so decided to press on with the task. Also missing were the instructions so I took a comfort break, switched on my computer and "googled" to see if I could find instructions for it. It turned out I couldn't but there were adverts for replacement covers to buy should I fail to find mine. My next task was to study the damaged box picture at length to try to work out which pole might go where and how best to tackle the assembly. That done I started by laying out all the poles "B" and poles "C" on the ground to assemble the base before connecting them with the correct connecting pieces.

And so it went on for the next hour until it came to putting the roof poles onto the wall poles. The greenhouse was really rather tall so this job was quite awkward and as I pushed one roof pole into a connecting piece, the incorrect application of force caused the connecting piece to explode into several pieces of useless plastic. Cursing followed. Not to be deterred, I enlisted the help of Steve and a roll of duct tape in order to repair the damage. Then as I came to put on the final roof support pieces I realised they didn't fit. I puzzled over this for a moment before Steve pointed out that I must have mistaken my poles "B" with my poles "C" and by doing so had made the greenhouse narrower yet taller than it should have been! More cursing followed.

I paused briefly to emotionally adjust to the waste of a hour and then I began the complete disassembly if the structure. But unfortunately, as I did so several more of the connecting pieces shattered, clearly having suffered from several years in storage. By the time it was disassembled, the shed had been reduced to a collection of useless poles, missing several vital connecting pieces as well as the plastic cover.

By this point Steve was making progress with getting things back in the shed but wondering whether he should stop and put some shelves up to improve the storage space and accessibility. Brainwave! How about using some of the poles and remaining connecting pieces from the greenhouse to construct a set of freestanding shelves? Brilliant! So that is what I did - something at least savaged from experience.

The next morning, with the sun still shining, it was time to get those seeds sown finally. So I walked into (yes, you heard correctly - walked into) the lovely tidy shed and selected the seed trays I required for the job (instead of just making do with what I could see/reach). By the end of Sunday I had sown a tray of beetroot, all the brassicas, cucurbits, tomatoes & sweetcorn seeds and had them safely stored in the coldframe. It hadn't been how I had imagined I would spend my weekend but it was a useful & productive one nonetheless.

By the way, we never did find the plastic cover for the greenhouse!