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!