Sunday, 26 February 2012

Feeling like a novice again!

I first grew vegetables on a fairly small scale in the back garden of my first house, way back in 1996. Shortly after that I took on my first allotment and the following year I took on a second one. Since then I have grown probably tons of fruit and vegetables and written several books on the subject. However, never in that time have I had the use of a greenhouse.

At the end of last summer Steve bought us our first greenhouse - a beautiful wooden octagonal thing. We only have a small garden so we figured if we were going to be looking out of our kitchen window at the greenhouse, it ought to be attractive. Now spring is fast approaching and it is time to start sowing... and using the greenhouse for the first time.

I went out into the garden with enthusiasm (and two children) this afternoon, armed with a bag of seeds and some potting compost and ready to get growing. My eldest helped me sow our usual handful of peanuts (for the fun of it!), and my youngest sowed some leek seeds. But then I stopped and found myself staring into the bag of seeds wondering exactly what should I be sowing at the tail end of February now I have access to a splendid greenhouse.

I really didn't know what to sow. Could I sow anything or should I wait until the nights are warmer? Should I still germinate things inside on my windowsills and move them out to the greenhouse as seedlings? Was it worth starting off broad beans or beetroot in pots in the greenhouse now my internal space wasn't restricted to a windowsill and tiny cold frame. 16 years of successful kitchen gardening in the bag and suddenly I find myself feeling like a novice again.

In the end, I sowed peanuts, peppers and tomatoes and put them inside on my windowsill. And I sowed broad beans, leeks and beetroot and put them inside the greenhouse. Then I retreated to the safety of a warm bath to mull things over, ready for more sowing next weekend. I guess I shall make a few mistakes this year as I learn how to make the best of this useful new facility but hopefully I will soon get the hang of it. Every year when I sow seeds there is a nagging doubt in the back of my mind that they will never germinate yet every year I'm rewarded with a wonderful bounty. I suspect this year will be the same. Still, if you're an old greenhouse buff and would like to offer my words of wisdom I will be willing to learn!

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

National Chip Week

I don't know who sits on the committee that comes up with these "National" weeks or days but the people who decided to hold "National Chip Week" in February were clearly clueless. Don't get me wrong, I love chips - probably more than I should! And a tummy full of stodge in the depths of miserable winter has its appeal. But, come on, potatoes are not at their best in February!

Take a potato out of a bag at this time of year and what have you got? Something big, possibly a little bit springy to the feel and probably with a few sprouts growing out of it. This thing came out of the ground half a year ago. It has lost water and a good deal of the starch inside it has been converted into sugars and neither of these things make for a good chip. Try deep frying that and it will brown too quickly and never crisp up. Just don't even bother. Unless the potatoes were previously chipped and frozen months ago I'd say don't waste your time.

The perfect chip is a fantastic food. Take large a potato, straight from the ground, scrub it, peel it you must, then cut it into long chips. Rinse the excess starch from the cut edges and pat them dry on kitchen towel. Now for deep frying, although I prefer to use a Tefal Actifry which works remarkably well with only a drop of oil. Twenty minutes later you will have golden, crisp on the outside, soft in the middle chips. And just writing that makes me fancy a plateful. Alas, this moment is 4 months away because those gorgeous fresh, maincrop potatoes won't be ready to harvest unless then.

Chips in February... well yes, I shall probably have some but they won't be chips deserving of their own special week. That's a treat for the summer.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Book Review - Preserves by Jill Nice

Book review – Preserves: A Beginner’s Guide to making jams & jellies, chutney & pickles, sauces & ketchups, syrups and alcoholic sips – by Jill Nice

Despite the number of books I have read (and indeed, written) on the subject of preserves, I was nonetheless excited to come across this book by Jill Nice. I’m always on the look out for new recipes and tips for jam and chutney making and this book looked like it was bursting with ideas.

Many recipe books these days are stuffed full of glossy photos, sometimes at the expense of information. This one, in contrast, has no photos at all but instead the occasional monochrome line drawing. When I say, monochrome, I don’t mean black on white, for the text and illustrations throughout this book are green and purple. It is a simple design that works well, giving colour but also a feeling of authority, like an old-fashioned reference book.

There are 47 pages of information about various aspects of different preserving technique before the recipes even begin. This offers in depth explanation as to why all the various parts of the preserving technique are required and I have to admit I learnt a thing or two from reading this section. The recipes themselves include serving suggestions as well as advice on how to adapt the recipe and when it should be followed without fiddling. There is also extra information within the recipes about the main ingredient and these paragraphs are both informative and very readable. There are a few recipes included that have non-British ingredients such as bananas, pineapples and mangoes but most recipes are made with British ingredients and give a nod towards dealing with gluts and using the freezer to bring together non-seasonal ingredients.

The back cover boasts that the book contains an impressive 140 recipes. Many of them are the basic recipes that every preserving book needs to contains, such as raspberry jam and piccalilli , but there are also recipes in there that I have not seen in any other book. I have to admit that I’m quite excited about the prospect of trying to make my own Worchester Sauce or Mushroom Ketchup, but I may not bother with Pickled Broad Beans!

Having read this book I’m left with a feeling that Jill knows her onions. She has clearly been making preserves for a long time and has had her share of successes and failures. In this book she attempts to impart this experience to her readers. For someone like me, it is a useful reference that has provided a few insights and given me some new ideas to try in the summer. As for it being a guide for beginners, well, it certainly is thorough and does provide the beginner with everything they need to know. However, I think in some ways there is perhaps a little bit too much information and anyone considering preserving for the first time might decide to jack in the idea before they get to the recipes.

When I pick up any book on preserves I want to see if it ticks certain boxes. Does it deal with realistic seasonal British ingredients? Does it explain why you should do the different parts of the method? Does it suggest ways to eat the preserve once you have made it? And does it allow for recipes to be adapted? I’m pleased to say that this one does tick all those boxes.