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!

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Hugh would be pleased!

Steve bought a Mothers Day meal for 4 last week. Of the available options he selected the roast beef, some vegetables for roasting, a strawberry trifle and a bottle of red wine. Considering that the meat was worth £10, the whole meal for £15 is a definite good buy.

Of all the roasting meats I do find beef the trickiest. Get it wrong and it is like chewing on flavoured shoe leather. The piece was top rump but I was still a bit nervous that it might end up tough. So I decided to slow roast it in stock for a few hours. As it happens, the selection of vegetables for roasting were perfect for this as they were chunks of red onion, carrot, parsnips and swede - very tasty.

At half past 3 on Sunday I set the oven to 140°C and browned the beef all over in a hot frying pan. Then I set it in the centre of the roasting tin and chucked the prepared vegetables around it. To add flavour I also chopped up a stick of celery, 3 cloves of garlic and a few springs of rosemary and threw these in too. Finally I poured in a pint of beef stock and covered the whole thing with foil.

I let the meat cook at this temperature until about 5 o'clock when I turned the temperature up to 190°C so that I could cook some roast potatoes too. I moved the meat to the very bottom of the oven at this point and cooked the roasts in their own tin above it.

At quarter to 7 I took the meat out to rest. Carefully I poured the stock off the vegetables and returned these to the oven to keep warm. Then I thickened the stock in a pan with a mixture of flour in cold water.

It was a lovely tasty dinner and the meat was suitably tender. It was, however, more than we could eat. Clearly M&S's idea of a meal for 4 would be for a family that included 2 teenage boys rather than two small girls!

Having watched a repeat of River Cottage Everyday, which had focused on lunch only the day before, I decided that the remains of this meal would make prefect Cornish pasties. So as I cleared the plates I chopped the leftover vegetables up into small chucks and put them into a box in the fridge. I saved a container of gravy too. Then on Tuesday when I went shopping I picked up a pack of puff pastry.

Tuesday afternoon I made the pasties. Firstly, I rolled out the pastry then used a saucer to cut out a total of 6 circles. I made the filling by combining small pieces of the cold beef, the chopped vegetables, some chopped up cooked potatoes and a few spoonfuls of gravy to moisten in all. This I spooned onto half of a circle of pastry then used milk to help seal it as I folded the pastry over and crimped it shut. Finally I glazed each pastie with milk and put a couple of steam vents into each before placing on a tray for the freezer.

There is something satisfying about looking down on 6 neatly made home made pasties, made even more so by virtue of making good use of leftovers. Let's hope that I am equally as satisfied when it comes to eating them!

Saturday, 2 April 2011

I opened my daughter's bedroom curtains this morning to be greeted with the view of spring below. In the right corner our plum tree in full blossom, to the left our cherry tree with buds close to bursting then just over the fence on the allotment a greengage tree in glorious white and an ornamental cherry in full pink. What a beautiful sight and with so much promise of things to come. It made me itch to get out onto the allotment.

It was after lunch when we finally headed off. Having weeded the strawberry bed last weekend my first job of the day was to plant the 6 strawberry plants I had bought from Lidl's last week into the few spaces that had appeared over the winter. Do you remember the cardboard packaging that came with my jam jar deliveries that we thought we might use as strawberry matting? Well, my next job of the day was to lay that out around the strawberry plants. It went down very easily and seemed quite secure despite the strong winds today so so far so good. I'm hoping it will help to retain moisture, suppress weeds and keep the fruit clean but we will see.

By the time I had finished that task, Steve had finished rotavating the bed I'd dug over last weekend. During the week I had bought a tray of growing salad from Lidl's for 89p. 89p! What a ridiculously cheap price! It's supposed to be used as a windowsill supply of fresh salad but last year I tried dividing it up and planting it out and it was superb - a cheap & easy way to grow instant salad. I'm not sure if it's a little early to plant it out but for 89p it's worth a try so I found a space for it.

In the meantime, the girls were busying themselves in their imaginative worlds. My youngest skipped around the plots picking dandelions and fashioned them into dandelion chains and wove them into her hair to transform herself into a bridesmaid. None of the other plot holders are in the least bit bothered about her picking dandelion flowers from their plots and all in all she offers a useful service.

My eldest, the more serious one, busied herself with a fossil hunt in the pile of gravel that someone had had delivered. It may sound unlikely but in fact she has managed to find quite a hoard of Jurassic sea-creature fossils. She spent half and hour with her father in the week examining the specimens from last weekend's hunt under a hand lens. Who enjoyed it more? The enthusiastic 8 year old or the ex-Geology lecturer? A close run thing.

With the salad in, my next job was to sow the peas. I had 8 varieties of peas to sow including mangetout, sugar snap peas, petit pois and purple flowered. This year I'm experimenting with different supports for peas. As well as the traditional twiggy pea-sticks, I'm growing the tallest plants over a metal rose arch and I'm using posts with horizontal wires between for some of the others. This is the method my grandad used and in fact they are the same posts, which he gave me shortly before he died but which are still going strong.

The final job of the afternoon was to pick the asparagus - the first of the season and just enough for a couple of meals. Back home I steamed the asparagus and served it with lamb chops, boiled potatoes, leeks from the plot and leek-gravy. The 2nd day of April and we already have two homegrown vegetables on our plates - love it!