When life gives you shreddings, top up your paths!

Where has the time gone since I last wrote a post?! Lots of work, wedding preparations and family birthdays, I suspect… Fortunately, there’s still nothing much doing on the gardening front, but this weekend’s lovely sunny weather – for a change! – suggests that spring might be round the corner.

At this time of year, with mud everywhere and dank, wet days still far outnumbering the fine ones, you have to take your opportunities where you can. I was sitting at the computer in my study a couple of weeks ago, beavering away on my latest translation, when I realised that a couple of vans, one towing one of those heavy-duty shredders had pulled up outside. I watched them disgorge men and chainsaws, who duly went into my neighbours’ back garden, clearly intent on taking down the only large tree, a nondescript specimen that had grown far too close to the boundary and had been casting increasingly large shadows over both our gardens in recent summers. Thrilled at the thought of it being removed, it then occurred to me that this might be a great opportunity to top up the paths at my allotment. Well, if you don’t ask, you don’t get! Out I trotted and asked if they wanted the wood chippings themselves or whether I could have them. Bingo! Tree surgeons are often delighted if you ask them for shreddings, as they have to pay to dispose of them at the dump, and my neighbour certainly didn’t want them. He was removing the tree to make room for a shed cum playroom for his daughters, and tree residues were not foremost in his mind. A few hours later, I had a rather large pile of shredded bark and branches in my spare car parking space, and just the small matter of how to transport it down to the allotment…

Shredding pile

Roll on a few weeks and I’d managed to borrow a large skip bag from a friend, my son and his fiancée were home at the weekend, the sun was shining, and between the three of us and five round trips to the allotment, we managed to transfer the pile of shreddings down to the plot and spread it over the paths between the raised beds and in the utility area between the shed and my compost bins. It must be four or five years since I last replenished the bark and inevitably, as organic matter, it rots down over time and weeds start to germinate and grow. I do try to garden organically as a rule, but figured that pernicious couch grass and buttercups in the paths (on top of weedproof membrane!) were fair game for weedkiller, so sprayed a very targeted jet of weedkiller (which allegedly biodegrades quickly once it’s been absorbed by the weedy green matter) on the paths first, then covered with a very generous layer of my woody haul. So much better – and an excellent workout for us all too. No need to go for a run or the gym when you have an allotment! To say nothing of the savings over buying vast amounts of bark; even those big bales went nowhere last time I did it!

Lauren and Alastair with the barrow

Of course, after all that hard work, it was only fair that we had a reward when we collapsed in front of the fire on arriving home. Lemon & coconut bars were this week’s home-baking treat, and very good they were too. I had extra lemon cheese left over from making a trial run of two tiers of my son’s wedding cake last weekend (of which more soon!), and really didn’t want it to go to waste. A brief hunt online brought up this recipe for lemon curd squares, which sounded promising, and so it proved. Duly adapted, here it is:

Lemon & Coconut Bars – makes 8 large bars or 16 small squares

125g butter
125g plain flour
1 heaped tbsp semolina (or polenta)
100g caster sugar
Grated rind of 1/2 lemon
1/2 jar lemon cheese – use homemade if you can, so much nicer!
25g desiccated coconut
25g flaked almonds
15g coconut flakes (or use more almonds if you can’t find the coconut flakes)

Preheat the oven to 180°C/Gas 5. Whizz the butter, flour, semolina, sugar and lemon rind in a food processor until they resemble coarse breadcrumbs. Press 2/3 of the mixture into a 7″ (18cm) shallow, square cake tin with your fingertips, then bake in the oven for 10-15 minutes or until pale golden brown. Leave to cool for 10 minutes, then spread the lemon cheese on top to cover with a nice thick layer. Add the desiccated coconut, almonds and coconut flakes, if using, to the remaining crumbs, mix lightly and sprinkle over the lemon cheese, pressing down lightly. Lower the oven temperature to 160°C/Gas 4 and bake for 25-30 minutes or until golden brown.

Leave to cool into the tin, but cut into 8 large rectangles or 16 small squares before completely cold. Enjoy with a cup of Earl Grey tea and a very smug grin.

Lemon bars

Just in case you want to try a different lemon curd recipe, or only have egg yolks, as happened to me after the Christmas baking marathon, I recently discovered this Mary Berry recipe, which is, if anything, even simpler than my standard recipe (see link above). This one is possibly slighter richer, but good to know in case you end up with a lot of egg yolks to use up after a pavlova or meringue-making session! Mary’s recipe makes a huge quantity of curd, so I’ve adapted it to make a more manageable amount, which should still leave you some left over after you’ve made the lemon bars. Like my original recipe, it doesn’t need to be cooked over a water bath, so really is easy to make. Even if you’ve been put off the idea of making curd before, do give it a go! Sieving it at the end makes it pretty foolproof.

Mary Berry’s Easy Lemon Curd

4 large egg yolks
160g granulated sugar
Juice and grated rind of 2 large lemons
70g butter, cubed

Mix the egg yolks, sugar, lemon juice and lemon zest together in a medium-sized pan. Cook over a low heat, stirring with a wooden spoon, making sure it doesn’t stick. Cook for 5-7 minutes, or until the mixture coats the back of a spoon. Remove from the heat and stir in the butter until it melts. Pass through a sieve into a large jug. Pour into a sterilised glass jar and seal with a lid when cool. Refrigerate until needed: this will keep for several weeks in the fridge.

Shreddings on paths

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Rain stopped play – again…

Llama

After a hectic few weekends of socialising, I’d been looking forward to a weekend of catching up in the garden, tidying up the windswept perennial foliage and distributing the spent compost from last year’s containers to lighten my heavy and sodden clay soil. It wasn’t to be – rain stopped play again, non-stop on both days. Even more frustrating after the couple of glorious winter days we’ve had this week, when, of course, I was tied to deadlines at my computer screen. ‘Twas ever thus… Still at least the hellebores and snowdrops are coming on apace with all this rain, even if we can’t get outside much to enjoy them.

In actual fact, it has turned out to be quite a productive weekend, allowing me to get down to some long overdue household chores, as well as the usual house cleaning and shopping. My son and daughter-in-law had given me some expanding drawer dividers as part of my Christmas present, so I took the plunge and sorted out the black hole that is my utensil drawer. It had reached the stage where I struggled to find lesser-used equipment whenever I opened the drawer – hopeless when you’re frantically searching for something as you cook. Now everything is neatly ordered – let’s see if I can keep it that way!

Drawer dividers

Next up was my full-height fridge: I’ve been meaning to give this a thorough clean for ages, but inevitably life gets in the way and it just had a quick wipe-down. Yesterday was the day – everything out, all the drawers and shelves cleaned to within an inch of their lives, and returned pristine. So satisfying!

The ubiquitous dog walks had to continue, rain or no rain, hence the encounter with the local llamas (above). I don’t know who was more shocked, the llama or the dogs, when we came face to face over the corner of the fence!

Llama sign

A brief foray to an extremely muddy and waterlogged allotment was also required to harvest leeks and parsley. I’d been up on a lovely sunny morning earlier in the week to show a prospective new sub-tenant the untended top quarter of my plot. The previous tenant had clearly found it too demanding, and the brambles and weeds have taken their toll over the course of the past year, so I shall be heartily relieved to have someone else take it off my hands! I had been thinking I’d have to blitz the lot, spray with glyphosate (which I really don’t like doing) and then cover with weedproof membrane to keep it under control, as I really don’t have time, inclination or need to have that extra growing space with only me at home now. Fingers crossed she takes to it….

Despite having no parsnips of my own this year, I want to share a delicious recipe for a Parsnip and Leek Dauphinoise that I cooked on Friday evening with roast salmon when my son and daughter-in-law came for dinner en route for skiing (him) and dog-sitting for her parents’ dogs (her). Relatively simple (especially if you have a mandoline), but extremely tasty – and always good to use at least some of your own produce even in the depths of winter. No picture, I’m afraid – we ate it far too quickly!

Parsnip & Leek Dauphinois – serves 3-4

150ml milk (semi-skimmed works fine)
150ml double cream
1 bay leaf
Fresh nutmeg, grated
Seasoning
500g parsnips, peeled and thinly sliced (preferably with a mandoline for ease)
1 large leek, sliced
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
knob of butter, diced (optional)
1 tsp wholegrain mustard
25g Parmesan, finely grated

Pour the milk and cream into a pan, grate over the nutmeg and add the bay leaf and seasoning. Bring slowly to the boil, watching carefully to make sure it doesn’t boil over, than switch off the heat and leave to infuse for 10 minutes or so.

Meanwhile slice the parsnips and leek, and chop the garlic. Pre-heat the oven to 180ºC / Gas 5. Grease a gratin dish – mine measures 20cm by 22cm or thereabouts, then layer up the parsnips, leeks and garlic, finishing with a layer of similar-sized parsnip slices. I always try and put the smaller rings from the lower ends of the parsnips on the bottom, where they won’t be seen. Dot the diced butter across the top. Stir the mustard into the cream mixture and remove the bay leaf. Pour the cream mixture over the vegetables and sprinkle with the grated Parmesan cheese.

Cover the gratin dish with foil and cook for 55 minutes. Remove the foil and return to the oven for another 10-15 minutes to brown nicely. Serve with meat or fish to general acclaim 🙂

None left for dogs, even when they put that adorable face on, but they did get the salmon skin…

Leo looking quizzical

 

It’s a chill wind…

Kale

It’s been bitterly cold outside today, so apart from the requisite two daily dog walks, and a brief visit to the allotment to reinstate my brassica frame and harvest some leeks, parsley, calabrese and Cavolo Nero, it’s been a day for hibernating inside in front of a roaring log fire. The frame had blown down again in last week’s strong winds, along with several front panels of my allotment shed, so it was a good thing I was accompanied by my younger son, who took it upon himself to screw them back into place. Otherwise, I might very well have discovered the whole shed missing next time I go up! As it was, there was a large piece of wood lying at the shed door, which definitely wasn’t mine and must have blown from someone else’s plot. The joys of an exposed site… but a small price to pay for tranquillity and spectacular country views, I suppose.

I did manage to do my annual New Year’s Day plant survey earlier in the week, but the wet weather meant that there were only 11 plants in flower this year: a couple of primroses, hellebores foetidus and Party Frock, chaenomeles Crimson & Gold, viburnum bodnantense Charles Lamont and daphnes aureomarginata, mezereum alba and bholua Jacqueline Postill, rose Frilly Cuff (a new addition last autumn) and a deep pink heather. However, the snowdrops are growing by the day with all the rain and their first buds should soon be out. A decidedly cheering thought.

Other than cutting back last year’s hellebore foliage, most of which has now started to fan out from the centre to better show off the emerging flower buds, as if reminding me that it’s time for the chop, there really isn’t much to tempt me out into the garden at this time of year. Even the compost bins, still stocked by a weekly bag of vegetable waste from the kitchen, decay at a slower rate at this time of year. The hellebore leaves don’t go into the garden compost, of course, as some of them show signs of hellebore leaf spot, a fungal disease I definitely don’t want to perpetuate from one year to the next. I did cut down last year’s dead and strawlike flower spikes on my vigorous valerian (centranthus ruber) plants too, though, revealing the lovely new growth waiting beneath.

Seeds Jan 2018

One thing I did do yesterday was visit my local garden centre, where I snapped up some real bargains, not only in half-price seeds – always worth looking at this time of year – but half-price organic slug pellets and tomato food too. A substantial saving when you add it all up, and these are all things I will definitely get through when the gardening year gets going in earnest.

Back in the warmth, this was an evening for an old-fashioned Beef & Guinness casserole with herby dumplings, followed by that old favourite, pineapple upside-down pudding & custard. Comfort food par excellence.

Pineapple Upside-Down Pudding – serves 6

 

Pineapple upsidedown_cropped

1 large tin pineapple slices in juice, drained
50g glacé cherries, halved
2-3 tbsp golden syrup
125g caster sugar
125g butter
125g self-raising flour, sifted
1 tsp baking powder
2 eggs, beaten
1 tsp vanilla extract

Pre-heat the oven to 160ºC, Gas 4. Grease a 20cm cake tin – I like to use a tarte tatin tin for this, but any deep cake tin will do. Spoon the golden syrup into the bottom of the tin and spread out to cover completely. Arrange the pineapple slices on the bottom of the dish; you may not need them all, but fit in what you can. Arrange the cherries decoratively around the pineapple slices.

Place the remaining ingredients in a medium bowl and whisk until light and fluffy. Spoon onto the pineapple and spread out evenly to cover. Bake at 160ºC, Gas 4 for 45 minutes until golden brown and firm to the touch. Serve warm with fresh custard or pouring cream.

In my Soup Kitchen

Happy New Year!

Dogs on haybales Boxing Day 2017

I’ve been making soup for years, ever since I first got married in the early 1980s in fact. It’s so simple and delicious, I can’t imagine why anyone would ever go to the trouble (and expense) of buying it, especially when you inevitably make far more than you need in one sitting, so can freeze the rest for another day – and of course freezing soups and casseroles always allows the flavours to mature and taste even better next time around.

Christmas is invariably an opportunity to make one of the best meat stocks from the turkey carcass – a big bird means oodles of flavour, and if you’ve been able to make giblet stock from the giblets and neck of the bird, so much the better. Supermarkets don’t seem to supply the giblets these days, but if you can buy poultry from a farm shop or butcher, it should come with the giblets. It’s a simple matter to throw them in a large pan with an onion, carrot, a few sticks of celery, couple of bay leaves, thyme, rosemary and parsley, seasoning, all topped up with water. Just bring to the boil and simmer for two hours – for me, this is the first real smell of Christmas cooking. This year I was at my son and daughter-in-law’s house, but had joined forces with my daughter-in-law’s parents to contribute the turkey to the feast, and ended up preparing the stock for the Christmas Day gravy on Christmas Eve when I arrived. The dogs enjoy their annual treat of cooked turkey liver, heart, etc on Christmas morning too, although this year it had to be shared between 5!

I usually save every last drop of vegetable cooking water to add to the stock pan when it’s time to make the stock from the turkey carcass after carving and removing all the meat from the bones, but you can use fresh water if that’s all you have. Turkey stock uses the same ingredients as giblet and chicken stock (onions, carrot, celery, bay leaves, thyme, rosemary, parsley, seasoning; I sometimes add a lemon or a whole fresh chilli too, as the mood takes me), but needs a very large pan. I use a huge stainless steel stockpot, whereas I often use my slowcooker to make chicken stock overnight from a cooked chicken carcass. As before, bring to the boil, then simmer for a good two hours, allow to cool and strain off the deliciously scented liquid – ambrosia! Oh and the dogs usually enjoy the surprising quantities of meat that fall off the bones after long, slow cooking, although you could probably add them to the resulting soup if you haven’t got waiting canine assistants on hand.

This year my daughter-in-law kindly let me take the turkey carcass home to make my stock, so I was still able to make my annual favourite: turkey broth. I’m sure it has health-giving superproperties: it certainly warms the cockles of your heart and has become such a tradition in our house. It’s always a sad day when the last pot of turkey broth is taken out of the freezer… Quantities in this recipe are entirely variable – much depends on the size of your pan and what you have lying around, but you won’t go far wrong as long as the basics are there, and you can always add more liquid or boil off any extra at the end – one of the joys of soup-making. I used to make this, or its chicken equivalent, when my boys were babies, puréeing it at first (without seasoning, of course) and then as a chunky hotpot by adjusting the amount of liquid. Perfect.

Turkey Broth

1.5 – 2 litres of turkey stock
50g butter
2 onions
2-3 carrots
2-3 sticks celery
1 large potato
1 large parsnip (or swede)
1 handful pearl barley
2-3 bay leaves
2-3 sprigs thyme
2 sprigs rosemary
Handful parsley, chopped
Salt & pepper
100-200g chopped cooked turkey meat, to taste (depending what you have left)
100g frozen peas

Chop the onions and soften in the butter in a large pan. Peel and chop the carrots, celery, potato and parsnip (or swede), then add to the pan and continue to cook until all the vegetables have softened – about 10 minutes. Stir in the pearl barley, herbs and seasoning, then add the stock and bring to the boil. Finally add the turkey meat, then turn down the heat, cover with a lid and simmer for a good 2 hours. Add the frozen peas about 5 minutes before serving in homely bowls with lots of good homemade bread.

Enjoy! Freezes beautifully.

Highland Cow Boxing Day 2017

With a house full of people over the holiday period, my soup stocks tend to go down, but not working for 10 days also allowed me to make more. Broccoli & Stilton soup was yesterday’s effort to use up the leftover Stilton from the festive cheeseboard and a head of broccoli in the bottom of the fridge that had seen better days. At the weekend I fancied a spicy golden soup to use one of my lovely Crown Prince squashes, still going strong in storage in the cool conservatory. They are so large that I only needed half for the soup, giving the other half to my son to take back to London. Browsing through my cookery books, I came across this recipe on a tiny newspaper cutting. I’m not sure where it came from originally, but it was just what I had in mind. You could, of course, use butternut squash too; in fact that’s what the original recipe specifies.

Squash & Coconut Soup – serves 6-8

Squash and coconut soup

1 large squash (butternut or Crown Prince) – you need 900g – 1kg peeled and seeded flesh
2-3 tbsp olive (or vegetable) oil
2 onions, chopped
2 sticks celery, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
generous knob of root ginger, peeled and chopped
2 red or green chillis, chopped (to taste)
zest and juice of 1-2 limes
2 bay leaves (or Kaffir lime leaves if you have them!)
1 tbsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp coriander seeds
1 tsp ground turmeric
Seasoning
1 litre stock (turkey, chicken or vegetable)
400ml can coconut milk
Chopped coriander to garnish

Prepare the squash by peeling (I use a Y-shaped vegetable peeler), removing the seeds and chopping into rough chunks. Soften in the oil in a large pan. Add the chopped onions, celery, garlic, ginger and chillis and continue cooking gently for 10 minutes or so. Crush the cumin and coriander seeds with a pestle and mortar, then add to the vegetables with the turmeric and lime zest. Add the bay leaves (or chopped lime leaves if using) and seasoning. Add the stock, bring to the boil and cook for 20-30 minutes. Allow to cool slightly, then purée in a liquidizer and return to the pan. Add the coconut milk and reheat. Adjust the consistency by adding more stock if necessary. Garnish with coriander leaves to serve.

Eynsford walk Boxing Day 2017
Boxing Day walk around Eynsford – photo courtesy of James Cox

Thanks to my son for the beautiful photos of the dogs perched on their hay bales and our crisp and sunny Boxing Day walk around Eynsford. The weather may not have been brilliant over the Christmas break, but at least we got a couple of nice walks in – and perfect weather for soup when we got back!

December comforts

Crown Prince open

It may be cold out there and there’s certainly not much doing in the garden or down at the allotment, but it’s a lovely excuse to turn to good old proper comfort food to warm you from the inside out. I love old-fashioned hotpots and casseroles to warm the cockles of your heart, but rice dishes often fit the bill too. Last night, after a brief foray to the plot to finally cut down my frosted dahlia stems and harvest calabrese side shoots, parsley, rocket and the ubiquitous (and no less welcome!) leeks, I turned to an old favourite, baked leek and butternut squash risotto. To me, this is the epitome of comfort eating – oven-baked, creamy and with a delicious combination of fresh seasonal vegetables, white wine, stock and the unctuous addition of Parmesan cheese. Perfection.

Another rice dish that I’ve been meaning to jot down here is equally warming and just as acceptable on a cold winter’s day. I always make it after I’ve cooked a gammon joint, as it’s best made with the lovely chunky stock. I should perhaps apologise to purists of Italian food before I proceed any further, as this bears minimal resemblance to a true risotto, but bear with me – it’s still extremely good.

The original idea for my ham & vegetable risotto came from an ancient cookery book of my ex-husband’s. I suspect he may even have had it at university in the late 1970s/early 80s, and I think it was by Marguerite Patten – but as I no longer have it, I can’t be sure! In any event, I no longer use a recipe, just throw together what I have to hand, but good stock, good chunky ham (cut from a gammon joint, not the sliced, processed stuff) and plenty of vegetables are a must.

I usually cook my gammon joint in my slow cooker by soaking overnight (if necessary – some are saltier than others. I find Sainsbury’s joints need a lot of soaking, whereas with Waitrose joints you can get away without). You can make this recipe with good vegetable (or chicken) stock but you won’t have the richness of using the real thing. I’ll share my gammon recipe here too, though again it’s barely a recipe as such. It makes for a lovely moist ham and plenty of that delicious stock – with the added bonus that you can put it in the slow cooker in the morning and go out for the rest of the day knowing your main meal is done. I usually make the risotto with the leftover ham and stock over the next few days – using up leftover food is always extremely satisfying and especially so in this case. (See Waste Not, Want Not for more ideas for using up leftovers.)

Slow-cooked Gammon Joint

1 gammon joint (size depends how many you’re feeding!)
1 tbsp oil
1 onion, chopped
2 sticks celery, sliced
1 large cooking apple, peeled, cored and chopped
Apple juice or cider, 500 ml
Generous tbsp fresh sage, finely chopped
Black pepper

Soak the gammon joint in a large pan of cold water overnight if necessary (if you’re not sure, always best to soak!). Bring the gammon joint to the boil in a pan of fresh water, drain, pat dry with kitchen towel, then brown in a glug of oil a frying pan and transfer to the slow cooker. Add chopped onion, celery and apple to the frying pan and brown slightly, then stir in chopped fresh sage and black pepper (no salt as the ham may still be salty). When starting to soften and turn golden brown, add the apple juice or cider (you can even use white wine if that’s what you have!) and bring to the boil. Then pour over the gammon in the slow cooker, cover and cook on Low for at least 8 hours. Remove the gammon from the cooking juices 20 minutes before serving, and save the stock for the risotto. You can add the cooking water from any vegetables you may have cooked to accompany the gammon to the stock too.

Ham & Vegetable Risotto – serves 2-3

Ham risotto

Ham stock (I leave the cooked onion, apple and celery in as these add to the overall dish) – about 500 ml
Chopped ham (as little or as much as you have! – I’d use a handful for 2-3)
1 onion, chopped
1 red pepper, chopped
1 leek, sliced
2 carrots, peeled and grated
125g risotto rice (I use Arborio)
250g fresh tomatoes, peeled and chopped (or 1/2 thin chopped tomatoes)
50g frozen peas
125g Cheddar cheese, grated
Fresh parsley, chopped
Black pepper

Begin by gently frying the onion and red pepper until softened and golden brown. Add the leek and cook for a few minutes, then stir in the risotto rice and the grated carrot. Stir in the chopped tomatoes and stir constantly until the liquid has evaporated off, then start adding the stock, stirring all the time, adding the next ladleful as the previous one gets absorbed. It’s impossible to say how much you’ll need, but you can always top up with water if you finish the stock before the rice is ready. I would expect the stirring process to take at least 20 minutes, but keep checking the rice until it reaches the right consistency for you – just tender, in my case. Add the frozen peas and shredded ham about halfway through. You should end up with a lovely creamy risotto mixture. At this stage, stir in the Cheddar cheese (I did say it wasn’t authentic, but the Cheddar goes beautifully with the ham and the earthiness of the carrots! You an use Parmesan if you prefer…). Sprinkle with chopped fresh parsley and serve in generous bowlfuls. This isn’t the prettiest dish, but the taste more than makes up for it 🙂

If, by any chance, you’ve still got stock left over – say if you’ve added lots of vegetable cooking water – another winter-warming way of using it up (assuming it’s not too salty of course), is to turn it into ham and lentil soup. This was inspired originally by one of my favourite soup cookbooks, from the Covent Garden Soup Company (where it appears as Mrs Kendall’s Lentil Soup), but I’ve added to it over the years, use a completely different method and just throw in what I have available! It’s very forgiving and oh so tasty, nonetheless. I don’t actually add ham pieces to the soup, but it does taste very hammy with all that stock, hence the title – you wouldn’t want to forget and serve it to vegetarians by mistake…

Ham & Lentil Soup – serves 6-8

1.5 litres ham stock
(or use whatever ham stock you have left and add vegetable cooking water/stock)
2 tbsp olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped
2-3 carrots, diced
2 sticks celery, sliced
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 medium potato, peeled and diced
125g red lentils
1 tbsp tomato purée
1 bay leaf
Few sprigs fresh thyme, leaves only
Black pepper
Fresh parsley to serve

Heat the oil and gently fry the chopped onions, carrots, celery and garlic until starting to soften and turn golden-brown. Stir in the diced potato and cook for another few minutes. Stir in the red lentils, tomato purée, thyme leaves and bay leaf, then add the stock (you can leave in the vegetable chunks if you’re using the stock from the gammon joint). Bring to the boil and cook for 30-40 minutes until the vegetables are tender. Turn off the heat and leave to cool for 15 minutes or so, then remove the bay leaf and blend in a liquidizer in batches (or use a stick blender if you don’t mind a more chunky texture). Return to the pan to reheat and serve with finely chopped fresh parsley. If the consistency is too thick at this stage, you can always add milk (or water) to adjust. Enjoy!

Quizzical Leo II

Bulb planting time again…

Poppy with ball Nov 2017 Rotherfield Woods

Despite a couple of sharp frosts, it’s still resolutely autumnal here: the trees are still (just about) decked in their golden and orange autumn finery, although I don’t think the colours have been quite as rich as usual this year. After a rainy day yesterday, which stopped play in the garden quite convincingly, today dawned crisp, bright and blustery – an ideal opportunity to get out in the garden and allotment and get on with more of those end-of-season jobs.

I’d managed to finally empty my summer containers and plant up my winter/spring offerings a couple of weeks ago and they’re looking good: blue pansies from the garden centre, with pinky-peach wallflower Aurora (grown from seed in a nursery bed at the allotment), all underplanted with a mixture of crocuses and daffodils from last years’ containers, but new tulips of course, as they don’t come again reliably. As usual, I like to ring the changes and had ordered a new selection from Sarah Raven – if you’re haven’t ordered yours yet and you’re quick, I believe there’s up to 50% off some varieties in the end-of-season sale. Tulips can be planted right up to the end of the year, and it’s actually better to plant them from November onwards to avoid any residual fire blight

This year I went for Sanne, an apricot and pink blend I’d seen and loved at the Chelsea Flower Show this year, two other apricot tulips from the Apricot Sorbet collection: Charming Lady (double) and Apricot Foxx, and Mistress Mystic, a silvery pink. The final variety, bought on impulse from my local garden centre on a 20% off day, is Hemisphere (finally found it by checking my receipt – thank goodness for computerised till receipts!). This is supposed to start off white with pink flecks, then deepen to a dark pink over time – sounds glorious, but we shall see!

This weekend it was time to plant last year’s saved tulip bulbs in the beds at the allotment. They did so well last year that I was finally able to cut some for the house without spoiling the display (precisely the point of planting them there in the first place!). I hadn’t labelled them, so they’ve all gone in together, but with white, cream, soft pink and palest lemon, they’re sure to look good in any event. I don’t expect them all to flower, but quite a few of the bulbs looked extremely fat and hopeful – a sure sign that they will flower again. Less likely for those that split into a number of smaller bulbs.

The rest I planted up at home on the island bed opposite the house, where tulips usually do extremely well in the full sun. This year, they hadn’t done as well as in previous years, but I put it down to the takeover ambitions of Phlomis samia, which seems to have suppressed a lot of other growth in its all-encompassing vigour! I decided to remove a whole swathe of it and have replanted a new rose, Frilly Cuff, a gorgeous neat, deep red shrub rose that I’ve seen a couple of times at Chelsea and coveted each time. I decided to treat myself with some birthday money and ordered online from the breeder, Peter Beales. Here’s hoping it likes this aspect too….

frilly_cuff_-_c_35_1000px

All in all, a very satisfying day in the fresh air, and I really enjoyed my much-needed cup of tea and slice of cake when I finally came indoors after walking the dogs at 5 o’clock – virtually in the dark! This was a whisky tea loaf I like to make in the winter as it keeps really well. If you double the ingredients and prepare two at once (not really any more effort), you can freeze one for when you’re too busy to bake! The original recipe was from Rachel Allen, although it’s not dissimilar to the cold tea cake my mum has made since time immemorial. This one is a fatless loaf – although I have to confess I like to serve it slathered with butter 🙂

Whisky Tea Loaf

Tea loaf

200ml strong warm tea (I use Assam or Early Grey, but any tea will do!)
150g light muscovado sugar
50ml whisky
300g mixed dried fruit (sultanas, raisins and currants are my usual choices)
1 medium egg, beaten
150g self-raising flour, sifted
2 tsp mixed spice
1 tsp baking powder

Pour the tea into a bowl, add the sugar and stir, then add the whisky and dried fruit. Cover with clingfilm and leave to soak for a few hours or even overnight. (Alternatively, if you want to make this in a hurry, you can boil the tea, sugar and dried fruit in a pan for 2 minutes, then add the whisky and allow to cool before using in the cake.)

Pre-heat the oven to 150°C fan, Gas 3 and grease and line a loaf tin (or two if doubling the recipe). Add the beaten egg to the tea and fruit mixture, then fold in the sifted flour, baking powder and spice. Pour into the tin and bake for 1 hour to 1 hour 15 minutes, or until just firm to the touch and a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. Cool in the tin and serve sliced with butter and a lovely cup of tea.

One final recipe that I really want to add here before I forget is one I made last weekend when all the family were home for Bonfire Night. My younger son had requested Sticky Toffee Pudding, but some of the party are gluten-intolerant so I decided to make a Pear & Amaretti Cheesecake as well – which coincidentally also goes extremely well with the sticky toffee sauce! This is another recipe torn out of a magazine in my very ancient recipe scrapbook. I think it was by Gordon Ramsay in the first place, but I’ve adapted it with an Amaretti base, and rewritten the instruction sequence, as chef’s recipes often make rather a lot of assumptions that can prove frustrating for the amateur cook. My son’s fiancée had offered to help prepare this, but found the steps in the original in a very strange order!

Pear & Amaretti Cheesecake – serves 8-10

Pear and Amaretti Cheesecake

250g bag Amaretti biscuits*
100g butter, melted
2 large pears (or 4 small)
50g caster sugar (or vanilla sugar if you have it)
1 tsp lemon juice
Vanilla extract
300g cream cheese
150g caster sugar
150g crème fraiche
1 x 300ml pot double cream
75g Amaretti biscuits

Make the base by crushing the Amaretti biscuits in a food processor (or in a large plastic bag with a rolling pin), then mix in the melted butter until thoroughly blended. Tip into a 24cm round springform cake tin, greased and base-lined with a circle of baking parchment. Chill in the fridge while preparing the filling.

Prepare the poaching syrup for the pears by dissolving the sugar in 100ml boiling water, then add 1 tsp vanilla extract (if not using vanilla sugar) and 1 tsp lemon juice. Prepare the pears by peeling, removing the cores, cutting into quarters and then chopping into 1cm dice, and add to the simmering syrup. Simmer until just tender – 5 -10 minutes or so. Drain and reserve the syrup to use elsewhere. Allow the diced pear to cool.

Whisk the cream cheese with 150g caster sugar and 1 tsp vanilla extract. Add the crème fraiche, then whisk the double cream in a separate bowl until soft peaks form and fold into the cheese mixture. Finally crush the remaining 75g Amaretti biscuits roughly in a plastic bag with a rolling pin. Fold the crushed biscuits into the cheese mix with the cooled, diced pears. Spoon onto the prepared base, level the top and chill in the fridge for a good couple of hours.

Serve with toffee sauce (see Sticky Toffee pudding recipe) or make a bitter caramel sauce by melting 9oz granulated sugar in a small frying pan until dark golden in colour – watch like a hawk, but do NOT stir! Add 2 tsp boiling water (care as it will spit!), then add 1 tsp vanilla extract and single cream until you get the consistency you want – not too thick. You can also add some of the reserved pear syrup to the sauce.

*Note: true Amaretti biscuits (or home-made macaroons) shouldn’t contain any wheat flour, but some of the mainstream brands may. I’ve just checked on the Doria Amaretti I usually use and surprise, surprise they do contain a small amount of wheat flour. Fortunately my guests weren’t coeliac, but PLEASE check if it’s an issue for you.

Leo in Rotherfield Woods

The Great Autumn Clearout

Cotinus Grace

Newly returned from a work trip to Spain, I’ve realised yet again that there are very few good times for a gardener to go away. Poor weather and pressures of work before I left meant that the allotment grass didn’t get cut and I managed very little tidying of the beds other than general harvesting. It was a similar tale at home. Two weeks later, both garden and allotment are looking very sorry for themselves with overlong grass, weeds aplenty and dead foliage everywhere you look. On the up side, there were still dahlias for the picking, but the calabrese and caulifower have gone just too far and will need to be converted to soup pronto! Much as I love homegrown calabrese, it is a problem in that it all comes at once – and there’s a limit to how much one person can eat. I’d already given lots away to family and friends before I went, but the remaining three heads should really have been harvested a week earlier. Never mind, with any luck there will be lots of delicious side shoots from the main stem if the weather remains mild over the next few weeks.

Broccoli and Stilton soup with scones

Broccoli & Stilton soup was the obvious choice, accompanied on this occasion by Stilton & apple scones to use up the rest of the Stilton, which I tend not to eat by itself, although I adore its savoury taste in cooking. I adapted my usual cheese & apple scone recipe by replacing Cheddar with Stilton, and added chopped sage instead of thyme – yum! The cauliflower too will go into Cauliflower cheese soup before the week is out.

Also in the fridge on my return and in need of using up fairly quickly were the peppers I’d harvested before I left, and a bag full of beetroot and carrots, not quite so urgent, as they keep, but still ripe for using. I had a yearning for a mixed vegetable stew of some kind and remembered a favourite Nigella Lawson recipe from her Feast book for a Moroccan vegetable stew with aromatic lamb meatballs. This makes huge quantities of the vegetable stew and is ideal for stocking up the freezer – very useful given that my son was dog-sitting for part of my absence and had worked his way through the contents of the freezer! That’s precisely what it’s there for, but it’s always nice to stock it up again with fresh produce before the winter. Nigella’s original recipe uses swede and parsnip, neither of which I have this year, but I figured that it would work equally well with beetroot, squash and peppers – which I had in abundance.

Moroccan Vegetable Stew with Aromatic Lamb Meatballs – serves 8-10

3 red onions
3 sticks celery
4 carrots
3-4 beetroot
3 cloves garlic
Olive oil
1 butternut squash, peeled and seeds removed
2-3 red peppers
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground ginger
100g dried apricots
2 cans chopped tomatoes
750ml vegetable stock
2 tsp rose harissa (or use normal harissa and add a couple of drops of rose water)
Seasoning
1 fresh pomegranate
Fresh parsley (or coriander) to serve

For the Lamb Meatballs:
500g minced lamb
1 leek
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground allspice
seasoning
3 tbsp semolina
1 egg
Oil to fry

Couscous to serve

For the vegetable stew: peel and roughly chop 2 of the onions, 2 of the carrots and 2 of the beetroot (use gloves unless you want to look as though you’ve been in a massacre!), then put in a food processor with the chopped garlic. Process to a fine mush, making sure you scrape down the sides so nothing is missed. Alternatively, chop finely by hand, but this is quite a large volume!

Grated veg for Moroccan stew

Heat a generous glug of olive oil in a large casserole dish (I use my trusty Le Creuset) and tip in the finely chopped vegetables to soften gently. Meanwhile, peel the remaining carrots, beetroot, squash and peppers and cut into small chunks. (The original recipe uses swede and parsnip here, so you can improvise with whatever you have/like.) Add these to the pan and continue cooking to soften, adding the turmeric, cumin and coriander as you go. Snip the apricots into halves or quarters with scissors and add to the pan. Stir in the chopped tomatoes, stock, seasoning and harissa (plus rose water if using separately), then bring to the boil. Once it comes to the boil, turn down the heat and simmer for an hour or so, stirring occasionally to check that it’s not sticking.

While the stew is simmering, make the meatballs: put the minced lamb into a food processor (you don’t need to wash the bowl after processing the veg, as a bit of beetroot just adds to the effect), add the chopped leek, spices, seasoning, semolina and the egg, then process until thoroughly blended and the leek is finely chopped. Transfer to a bowl, cover and refrigerate for half an hour to firm up. After chilling, line a baking sheet with clingfilm and roll the mixture into small balls (about a teaspoon or so in each, like a large marble) with damp hands. You should end up with 70-75 meatballs.

Raw meatballs

Heat more oil in a frying pan, then add the meat balls in two batches. Fry until golden brown on all sides, then transfer to another baking sheet lined with kitchen towel to absorb any excess oil.

Moroccan stew cooking

When the stew has cooked for an hour, add the meatballs and continue cooking to heat through. Meanwhile, prepare couscous to serve ( I use 60g couscous and 100 ml boiling water per person, with added couscous spice (or use individual spices of your choice) and a dash of olive oil. Add the water to the couscous with the spice and oil, stir, cover and leave for 10-15 minutes, then fluff up with a fork and serve.)

Cut the pomegranate in half and hit firmly with a wooden spoon over the pan to make the jewel-like seeds fall out. You may need to scrape out the last few, but this is usually quite effective – and satisfying! Pick out any white membrane that may have fallen into the dish too. Sprinkle the stew with chopped parsley or coriander and serve.

Freezes beautifully too.

Moroccan veg stew with meatballs

Thoughts from a gardener/cook…

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