Return to gardening: long awaited start to a new season

White and yellow flag tulips

Last weekend saw my long-awaited return to gardening proper after my ACL operation at Christmas. I’ve done the odd bit of harvesting and snipping back of leaves in recent weeks, but two trips to Austria and family gatherings have precluded me doing anything more extensive. Probably just as well: I’d intended to spend both days in the garden last weekend, but the weather and circumstances conspired against me and my knee was still quite sore after just one day’s concentrated gardening! Still, the ice pack I applied yesterday seems to have done its stuff, and I feel very virtuous (and relieved!) that I’ve finally taken the plunge.

I finished off the winter cutting-down of any remaining perennials such as asters and penstemons, and dead-headed my hydrangeas now the new growth is well underway; always looks so much better once you’ve done that. I even managed to tackle, or at least make a start on tackling, the spreading of the compost heap. Last year, I sought paid help to do this particular job, as I’d only just had my accident and was definitely in no fit state to do any heavy gardening work. This time, though, I was very good and paced myself: one barrowload on Sunday, and then I left the rest (another two barrowloads in all – isn’t it incredible how much a whole year of lawn clippings, garden and kitchen waste rots down to over time?!) until Friday, when I finished spreading it around greedy shrubs like roses, clematis and hydrangeas.

Front garden April

Over the winter, I’d persuaded the management committee that manages the communal land around our local close to take out two ugly privet bushes that have always stuck out like sore thumbs on the bank opposite my house. We’d paid our usual ongoing maintenance gardener to cut the shrubs down last autumn, but he seemed rather reluctant to finish the job and remove the stumps. When pressed, he and his sidekick came out, messed around in a desultory fashion (the benefits of an office overlooking the front garden!), then disappeared, apparently reporting that they were too deeply entrenched and a stump grinder would be necessary at vast expense. I duly got a couple of quotes, from the reasonable to the sublimely ridiculous – from said gardener, what a surprise! -, went with the cheapest (and most competent, I hasten to add!) and lo and behold, he managed to move the stumps with a bit of elbow grease and no stump grinder in the space of an hour or so. Sigh. Anyway, mission accomplished – which meant that I was able to plant some roses I had in pots and can now look forward to an even better and more colourful display this summer, without the depressing and boring privets.

Island bed new planting

Sowing seeds for the propagator in the conservatory was another priority: one week later than last year, but still in the right timeframe as they soon catch up once they’re up and running: tomatoes (my favourite Sungold and stripey Tigerella, Sunchocola from last year and new Black Cherry from Chiltern Seeds), sweet pepper Corno di Toro and chillis (Anaheim and Padron – here’s hoping for better germination than last year!), aubergine Long Purple, leeks Bandit, Tornado and Musselburgh, basil, parsley and celeriac.

I also planted lots of flower seeds with a view to making a bigger cutting garden at the allotment. I’ve reclaimed the top part of my plot this year as the current tenants have moved out of the parish to a house with a bigger garden and it seemed a shame to waste the beds they’d prepared now they’ve done the hard work of clearing all the brambles the previous tenant had left! Sadly, they dismantled the wooden beds themselves, but I’m going to see if I can manage without edgings initially. The middle bit has all been lined and covered with wood chippings, so it looks a far more manageable proposition than the bramble and couch grass-infested jungle it was before… Good excuse for more dahlias, duly ordered from Sarah Raven as usual: Penhill Dark Monarch, Emory Paul (I saw these two at a Perch Hill open day last September and they were simply fabulous, huge blowsy blooms, so definitely had to go on the list), Perch Hill, Rip City and Café au Lait Royal. I also sowed seeds of Echinacea Pallida, Cosomos Versailles Tetra, Callistephus chinensis King Size Apricot (Chinese asters!), Achillea Cassis, Antirrhinum Royal Bride and finally Lobelia Crystal palace for my containers at home. All in all, rather a tight squeeze in the propagator!

My parents have given me an apothecary’s peony (Paeonia officinalis) with deep red double flowers, so that’s gone in the new beds, where, in time, it will hopefully give me enough peonies to pick – such decadence! Also three sturdy delphinium plants that a fellow plotholder kindly gave me last year and I really didn’t have room for; they were heeled in at the end of the asparagus bed, but would undoubtedly have been swamped by the asparagus in season. I’ve lots more annual seeds to sow in situ in the next few weeks, plus some deep burgundy gladioli bulbs (Black Star). Very exciting to have a new project – although I may not have quite as much time as usual at the allotment this year, as my son and daughter-in-law have just given birth to a beautiful baby girl and grandmotherly duties may take precedence over gardening….

Purple rain tulips

 

 

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In praise of the humble chickpea – and goodbye to a very special dog

It’s been a strange and sad few weeks: I returned from a much-needed post-op holiday in the Austrian mountains at the end of February to unprecedented high temperatures in the South-East of England and a very sick dog. I’ve written her story on my other blog, so I won’t go into it again here; suffice it to say that I had to say my farewells to her soon after arriving back from the airport and the house has been indescribably sad and quiet without her ever since. RIP, Poppy – we’ll miss you enormously… and Leo will miss his partner in crime.

Poppy and Leo something's up

Inevitably, life must go on, and although I’ve managed to immerse myself in piles of work since getting home, I hadn’t had time to go to the allotment. I’m still not supposed to walk on rough ground after my ACL operation at Christmas, and am restricted to pavement walking. However, I figured that, since it’s been dry recently, and if I was very careful, I could walk Leo down to the allotment on Sunday afternoon and just see what was growing. Imagine my surprise to see everything doing very well indeed: purple-sprouting broccoli busting out all over, the first spindly pink sticks of rhubarb already up to a foot tall, and fresh spinach and kale in abundance, plus the usual late winter / early spring suspects of leeks and parsley.

Allotment haul Mid-March 2019

After the excesses of Austria – far too much Kaffee und Kuchen in the afternoon and a five-course dinner every evening – I’ve been yearning for salads since I arrived home. Not doing my usual quota of exercise and activities, and a relatively sedentary lifestyle since Christmas, have also meant I’m having to be much more conscious of what I eat for the first time ever. Ho hum – I’m definitely cutting down on cake and desserts for the time being, although I did experiment with a healthy banana & date flapjack at the start of the week as an alternative snack. I tweaked the recipe (see link above) with maple syrup instead of honey and added 75g dates, but although they were tasty the first day, the flavour seems to diminish on subsequent days and they just taste rather worthy! This recipe for fridge fruit & nut bars is a tasty sugar-free treat in the meantime – and I’ll report back when I eventually find a healthy flapjack that really hits the spot. A friend also posted a recipe for vegan tiffin, which sounds worth a try, but certainly isn’t low-calorie or sugar-free if that’s what you’re after.

Salads, on the other hand, are easier to get right. I wrote about delicious winter salads a few weeks ago, and another I’ve made a couple of times recently is a Sarah Raven recipe from the Christmas issue of Good Housekeeping. It was intended as a vegetarian alternative for the Christmas feast, but I’ve tweaked and experimented with it a couple of times since and found it to be a fantastic and filling main course salad for any time of the year. Chickpeas and lentils are such comforting ingredients, and mixed with a spicy dressing, nuts, dried fruit and peppers, they really fit the brief. The original recipe served 6, and I’ve cut it down considerably for one, but still find it makes about three meals – always a bonus to have leftovers for lunch!

Warm Puy Lentil & Chickpea Salad

Chickpea & lentil salad
2 tbsp sultanas, soaked in 2 tbsp dry sherry or white wine
50g Puy lentils
1 bay leaf
1 clove garlic
1/2 can chick peas, drained
Olive oil
1/2 butternut squash, peeled and cut into bitesize chunks
1 large red onion, peeled and cut into eighths
1 sprig rosemary, woody stem removed, chopped
1 red pepper, cut into chunks
Handful of cherry tomatoes
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1″ piece of root ginger, grated
1 red chilli, finely chopped
2 tbsp dried cranberries
50g cashews, toasted
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tsp wholegrain mustard
1/2 tsp sugar
Handful of kale or cavolo nero leaves, thick stems removed, shredded (young calabrese or purple-sprouting broccoli leaves work just as well)
50g feta cheese, diced
Seasoning
Handful of fresh coriander or parsley to serve

Pre-heat oven to 180°C (fan)/gas 5. Put the squash, onions and garlic in a roasting tray with the rosemary leaves, drizzle with olive oil, season and cook in the oven for about 20 minutes. Then add the chunks of red pepper, chillis, root ginger and cherry tomatoes, toss everything together, and cook for a further 20-30 minutes until nicely soft and roasted.

Meanwhile cook the Puy lentils, bay leaf and 1 clove garlic in just enough water to cover for about 20-25 minutes. Drain off any excess water and remove the bay leaf and garlic. Place in a large salad bowl with the drained chickpeas and season.

Stir in the sultanas and sherry, add the contents of the roasting tin and the toasted cashews and dried cranberries. Make a dressing to taste using three parts olive oil to lemon juice, plus 1 tsp sugar, 1 tsp wholegrain mustard and seasoning. Stir into the salad. Finally add the chopped kale or cavolo nero leaves and sprinkle with diced feta, then garnish with chopped coriander.

Good served warm, but equally delicious served cold the next day. You can also add cooked chicken for extra protein if you feel so inclined, or throw some chorizo into the roasting tin for the last 20 minutes or so – it’s an extremely flexible dish.

Of course, this recipe leaves you with half a tin of chickpeas, not that this is in any way a hardship! I like to use them in a tomato & chickpea pasta sauce with or without spicy chorizo and paprika, but last Tuesday, which just happened to be Pancake Day, I used a variation on the sauce as a tasty filling for pancakes. Extremely good it was too. If you’re only making enough pancakes for one or two, keep back half the sauce to serve with pasta for another day, with added feta and coriander, or just with the traditional Parmesan.

Tomato and chickpea pasta

Tomato, Chickpea & Fennel Pancakes – serves 4

Pancakes:
125g plain flour
pinch of salt
1 egg
300ml milk
Butter for frying

Sauce:
I onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
Glug of olive oil
1 fennel bulb, chopped
1 red pepper, chopped
1 red chilli, finely chopped
1 tsp fennel seeds, crushed
1 can chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato purée
1 tbsp paprika
1/2 can chickpeas, drained
75g chorizo or bacon lardons (optional)
Red wine (to taste – or use water if you prefer)

To assemble:
200ml natural yogurt
1 egg, beaten
Seasoning
Cheddar cheese (or Parmesan) grated

Chickpea, tomato and fennel pancakes

First make the pancakes in the usual way by sifting the flour and salt into a roomy bowl. Break the egg into the centre, then gradually beat in the milk and incorporate the flout until all mixed and little bubbles start to form on the surface. Leave to stand for 30 minutes or so if you can, but it’s not critical if you can’t. This mixture should make at least 8 pancakes in an 18cm frying pan. Stack the finished pancakes on a plate as you make them and set aside until you’ve made the sauce.

Cook the chopped onion, garlic and chilli in olive oil in a frying pan until starting to soften and turn golden, than add the chopped fennel, red pepper and chorizo (or bacon), if using, and cook for another 5-10 mins. Stir in the tomato purée, canned tomatoes, fennel seeds, chickpeas and seasoning and simmer for 30-45 minutes until nicely reduced. If it starts to reduce too much, you can add some red wine or water to stop it drying out.

Assemble the pancakes by putting a generous spoonful of the sauce on one edge of each, rolling up and placing in a rectangular ovenproof dish. Then mix the natural yogurt and the beaten egg and spoon over the top of the pancakes. Sprinkle over grated cheese and cook in a hot oven 200°C (fan)/gas 6 for about 25 minutes until nicely browned.

Serve with a green salad and enjoy!

Poppy sad

The Big Chop

Iris K Hodgson

It’s that time again: Valentine’s Day, or just after, when I usually try and chop down my late-flowering clematis to encourage new growth and a splendid crop of flowers later in the summer. The clematis were superb last year, loving the intense heat, and not seeming to mind the prolonged draught, even though they had minimal or no extra watering. It was a lovely sunny day too today, with the heady scent of Daphnes aureomarginata and bholua (Jacqueline Postill) filling the air as I worked – just heavenly! And a few sunny days this week means the early bulbs have started to flower: Iris Katherine Holdgson (above) was nowhere to be seen last weekend, but flowering away when I spotted it on Friday morning.

Daphne aureomarginata
Daphne aureomarginata nestling snugly beneath the apple tree

Today was the first time since my ACL reconstruction op on Christmas Eve that I’ve ventured out into the garden to do any real gardening – so nice to get some fresh air and get my hands dirty again :-). I was mindful that I needed to be careful: 8 weeks in is still relatively soon after the op and there’s considerable potential for damage if I overdo things or twist my knee. As it was, I’d already overstretched the boundaries the day before when pushing a shopping trolley in the sloping car park of my local Waitrose. Who knew that shopping could be counted as a dangerous pursuit?! Lots of ice, ibuprofen, a hot bath and healing cream, plus an evening of rest helped, but I was ultra-careful today, needless to say.

 

After chopping the clematis to within a foot or so from the ground – amazing how much old top growth there is! – I turned to my roses and gave them all a severe haircut as well. They had all reached triffid-like proportions at the end of last year, even the climbing roses I’d cut really hard when replacing the arch in the front garden last March. They suffered no harm at all from being butchered last year, although they did flower a little later. I’m looking forward to an excellent performance from them again this year now they’re restored to their normal size and vigour.

It’s too early to cut down any perennial growth I’d left on over winter to protect new shoots; we could still have a repeat of last year’s Beast from the East, which brought snow and freezing temperatures well into March. However, I did cut Hydrangea Annabelle down to 6″ or so from the ground. It’s a paniculata species and they can happily take being chopped back hard to encourage huge flower heads later in the year. This one also spreads (in the nicest possible way), so I managed to divide a piece for my son’s newish garden now they’ve started to make new beds and take out the existing (boring) shrubs they don’t like. The remaining hydrangeas (mop head and lace cap) I’ll leave until after the danger of frost, as last year’s flowers protect the emerging shoots – as I found out to my cost one year in Scotland, when I trimmed them early, only to have a very late frost in early May, losing all that year’s flowers…..

All in all, a very satisfying couple of hours. And I was definitely ready for a slice of date & walnut cake with my cup of tea when I came back indoors…. This is based on a very simple recipe from my old Be-Ro leaflet. I wonder how many homes have one of these knocking around somewhere, and how many are still in use?!

Date & Walnut Cake

Date and walnut loaf

8oz chopped dates
pinch of bicarbonate of soda
1/4 pt boiling water
3oz butter
3oz light brown muscovado sugar
1 large egg, beaten
8oz self-raising flour
2-3oz walnuts, chopped

Heat oven to 160°C fan/Gas 4 and grease and base-line a 2lb loaf tin.

Place the chopped dates in a bowl with the bicarbonate of soda and add the boiling water. Stir well and leave to stand while you prepare everything else.

Cream the butter and sugar, then mix in the beaten egg. Fold in the flour and walnuts, then finally mix in the date mixture. Transfer to the lined loaf tin, level the surface, and bake for 45 mins – 1 hour, or until nicely risen and no mixture adheres to a skewer when inserted in the middle. Leave to cool and enjoy slathered with butter and accompanied by a piping hot mug of tea.

 

Winter salads – definitely not a contradiction in terms

Salmon en croute and salads

Salads in winter? As the snow begins to fall outside, you might be forgiven for thinking that a salad is the last thing you’d want on a cold winter’s day, but I beg to differ. Grain or pulse-based salads can be surprisingly good in dreary weather – and of course they’re packed full of goodness too, with plenty of potential vegetable variations and tasty dressings. I often serve them just warm too, which makes them even more tempting – although, like most things, they’re usually even better left overnight in the fridge for the flavours to mature. Inspired by the ‘salades tièdes’ you find in France, you can add cooked chicken or duck, or any meat of your choice, but vegetarian options are excellent too. Mediterranean Chicken salad is one of my all-time favourites, although definitely better in summer when the tomatoes and basil are at their peak.

This weekend I hosted another family gathering as a belated Welcome Home party for my younger son and daughter-in-law, and a chance for some of the wider family to say their farewells before they disappear off to the States in February. We’ve been eating a lot of meat recently, so I opted for a Salmon en Croute (with kale pesto) as our main dish, but prepared a couple of substantial salads to accompany it: one with Puy lentil and squash, and the other based on quinoa, with nuts, seeds and herbs. Both delicious and very well received, especially by my student niece who said it was just what she fancied for student lunches on campus rather than the boring sandwiches usually on offer. As my son commented, also great to make ahead at the weekend and take for packed lunches to work, saving a fortune on equivalent bought offerings on the high street – and twice as nice!

Leo in snow garden Jan 2019

Puy Lentil & Roast Butternut Squash Salad – serves 8-10

250g Puy lentils
1 bay leaf
1 clove garlic
sprig of parsley
sprigs of thyme
1 tsp wholegrain mustard
1 tsp sugar
juice of half a lemon
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 butternut squash
1 yellow pepper
2 red onions
2 cloves garlic
sprigs of thyme
sage leaves
seasoning
handful pumpkin seeds, lightly toasted in the oven or in a pan
100g feta cheese, diced

Peel the butternut squash, remove the seeds (if you have time, you can wash and dry the seeds, coat in oil, season, then put them on a tray in the oven at 200°C/gas 6 for 5 minutes until they start popping, then add to the finished salad below), cut the flesh into large chunks and place in a roasting tin with the quartered onions, 2 roughly chopped garlic cloves and chunky slices of yellow pepper, plus a handful of sage leaves and the leaves from the sprigs of thyme, then add a generous glug of olive oil and turn to coat thoroughly. Season well. Roast for 45 minutes – 1 hour or until the vegetables are soft and starting to brown at the edges. Remove from the oven.

Meanwhile put the lentils in a pan, cover with plenty of water, bring to the boil, simmer for just one minute, then drain. Return to the pan and just cover with more water or vegetable stock if you have it. Add the bay leaf, sprigs of thyme, garlic and parsley. Bring back to a simmer and cook gently for about 20 minutes, until just tender. Drain the lentils, and discard the herbs and garlic. Make a dressing with 5 tbsp olive oil and the juice of half a lemon juice, then add 1 tsp wholegrain mustard, 1 clove garlic (crushed) and 1 tsp sugar, whisk (or shake if using a jar) and season. Taste to check acidity and adjust if necessary. Pour over the warm lentils and place in a large bowl.

Add the roasted vegetables to the lentils, draining off any excess oil, and stir gently to mix. Stir in the pumpkin seeds (your own, prepared as above, or bought seeds) and finally sprinkle with the diced feta cheese. Good served warm or chilled.

Herby Tomato, Rocket & Quinoa Salad – serves 8-10

300g quinoa (I used red and white quinoa with added bulgar wheat from Waitrose)
Vegetable stock (or water)
Olive oil
Juice of half a lemon
Seasoning
1 tsp wholegrain mustard
1 tsp sugar
1 clove garlic, crushed
200g cherry tomatoes, halved
Good handful of cavolo nero leaves, stems removed and finely sliced
Bunch of spring onions, finely chopped (or lightly cook some sliced leeks, if you prefer)
Bunch of coriander, roughly chopped
Handful of cashew nuts, toasted
Handful of pine kernels, toasted
100g dried cranberries
1 small bag of fresh rocket

Cook the quinoa according to the packet instructions: mine suggested rinsing first, then cooking in boiling water or vegetable stock for 12 minutes and draining. Place in a large bowl.

Make a dressing with 5 tbsp olive oil and the juice of half a lemon juice, then add 1 tsp wholegrain mustard, 1 clove garlic (crushed) and 1 tsp sugar, whisk (or shake if using a jar) and season. Taste to check acidity and adjust if necessary. This is exactly the same dressing as the previous recipe, so if making both salads, it’s much easier to double the quantities and make it all at once. I find the jar method the easiest: simply add all the ingredients to a large jar and shake to mix. Any left over can be left in the fridge for a week or so.

Add the chopped tomatoes, finely sliced kale, coriander, rocket, dried cranberries, chopped spring onions (or leeks) and toasted cashews and pine kernels to the quinoa and mix well. Season to taste, pour over the dressing and mix well. As before, serve warm or chilled.

Poppy and Leo snow Jan 2019

Guilty secrets – or super-easy puddings…

poppy and me recuperating after knee op

Sorry for the huge amount of time that’s elapsed since I last posted – I can only blame pressures of work, frantic Christmas preparations and finally getting a date for my knee operation on Christmas Eve of all days! Despite my fears about the operation being cancelled, it went ahead like clockwork – very impressed with the staff in the orthopaedic unit at Maidstone Hospital. I was back at my son’s house in time for Stollen and tea the same day and able to enjoy a very small portion of Christmas lunch the next day with my family. I’m so grateful that I can now look forward to the year ahead with the prospect of my knee improving at long last – and I should have recovered sufficiently by the start of the gardening year in late March/April to do most of the jobs I want to do.

Christmas has been a time of sitting with my knee raised, ice pack in place, religiously doing my physio exercises, while everyone else cooked, walked the dogs and waited on me hand and foot – a very novel experience! Slowly but surely I’ve been feeling stronger, returning home on New Year’s Day. Today I had the clips removed from my various (very neat) wounds, and last Friday the physio gave me the go-ahead to walk with one crutch or even none if I felt strong enough. So much better than when I ruptured the ligament in the first place and had my knee in a brace for the first couple of weeks, causing my muscles to atrophy in the meantime… This consultant doesn’t believe in leg braces, preferring to allow people to gradually move the joint as they are able, aided by judicious use of physio – so far, so good.

New Year’s Day also marked the return of my younger son and daughter-in-law from their world travels: so good to be reunited with them. Perfect timing as they are now on dog-walking and cooking duties until I’m back in action fully 🙂

Yesterday we had a houseful of guests for a welcome home party, with my son cooking a delicious roast dinner – rib of beef, roast potatoes and parsnips, mashed carrot & swede, sesame-fried kale and Yorkshire pudding: delicious! They even had to go down to the allotment first to harvest the parsnips and kale. In return, I felt strong enough to make a pudding or two – very easy, minimal-effort puddings I should add! My son had opened a can of condensed milk the day before to make Vietnamese coffee, brought back from his travels, so I turned to one of my stand-by storecupboard sweets, based on a recipe from an M&S Family Cookbook from the 1980s. Called simply lemon flan, it tastes for all the world like a lemon cheesecake, yet contains no cheese – and always goes down well, especially with fresh fruit. Oh, and I used the rest of the tin of condensed milk in this equally easy traybake, one of my boys’ all-time favourites: Marbled Energy Bars. Waste not, want not…

Lemon Flan – serves 6

lemon flan

60g butter
120g digestive biscuits
200ml condensed milk (1/2 standard tin)
150ml double cream
2 lemons, grated rind and juice

Fresh fruit of your choice to serve

Melt the butter in a small pan and crush the digestive biscuits at the same time – either in a food processor or put them in a plastic bag and crush with a rolling pin. Tip the crushed biscuits into the melted butter and mix well, then use to line the base of a greased 20 cm deep flan tin (preferably with a removable base) and slightly up the sides. Press down firmly all over, then place in the fridge to chill while you make the filling.

Lightly whip the cream, then stir in the lemon rind, juice and condensed milk. Whip again until starting to thicken. Transfer to the flan case, smooth the surface and leave to chill in the fridge for a couple of hours.

Turn out onto a decorative plate to serve (leaving on the base) and serve decorated with fresh fruit – I like it with kiwi fruit, blueberries or in this instance last year’s summer raspberries from the freezer. Or you could decorate with a rim of crushed digestive biscuits and crystallised lemon slices if you fancy going old school 😉

My next super-easy pudding is very much a guilty secret. My foodie credentials are in danger of being withdrawn, as this recipes uses (shock,horror!) that 70s favourite, Butterscotch Angel Delight. Before you recoil in shock, do give it a go: I’ve never yet served this to anything other than rapturous delight; and it still gets requested by family members and friends alike at regular intervals.

Rum & Raisin Flan – serves 8

rum and raisin flan

60g butter
120g digestive biscuits
125g raisins
2 tbsp dark rum
1 packet Butterscotch Angel Delight
275ml milk (semi-skimmed works fine)
300ml double cream
Grated dark chocolate to decorate

Place the raisins in a pan with some boiling water to cover and boil for a few minutes. Set aside in the water to cool.

As in the previous recipe, melt the butter in a small pan and crush the digestive biscuits at the same time – either in a food processor or put them in a plastic bag and crush with a rolling pin. Tip the crushed biscuits into the melted butter and mix well, then use to line the base of a greased 20 cm deep flan tin (preferably with a removable base) and slightly up the sides. Press down firmly all over, then place in the fridge to chill while you make the filling.

Meanwhile, make up the Angel Delight by whisking the powder into the cold milk until it thickens. Stir in the cooled raisins and the rum and mix well. Transfer to the chilled flan base and smooth evenly over the base. Return to the fridge to chill for a couple of hours.

Before serving, whip the double cream until soft peaks form and spread over the rum and raisin base. Make soft swirls with your knife, then decorate with grated chocolate. Serve to an appreciative silence……

reserved for the dog poppy

 

 

 

 

Bananas about bananas

Colours
Magnificent Sheffield Park in Sussex

As the winter months get underway, bananas are one fruit I always have in the fruit bowl. Perfect for quick puddings when you suddenly realise you’ve nothing else planned – see my recipes for Banana cream and Brazilian rum banana cream for simple ideas, or for Toffee Bananas simply cut into chunky pieces, fry in butter until starting to brown, then add brown sugar and orange juice (desiccated coconut works well too if you’re a coconut fan), and continue cooking until you have a toffee-like sauce. Delicious with cream or ice cream. Then again, bananas simply grilled (or barbecued) in their skins, then opened up, sprinkled with sugar and a dash of rum, are pretty much food of the gods too…

Another so-simple dish if you find yourself with a surfeit of overripe bananas is to whizz them into a divinely good ice cream. This is an especially useful recipe to bear in mind over the festive period, when you suddenly realise you’ve got far too much cream nearing its sell-by date.

Easy Banana Ice Cream

4 bananas, peeled and mashed
Juice of 1 lemon (or lime)
400ml double cream
75g caster sugar

Simply put all the ingredients in a blender and whizz until smooth. Then pour into an ice cream maker and churn, or pour into a freezer container and freeze for a couple of hours, then whisk again, and keep doing that every hour until it forms ice cream. The flavour has to be tasted to be believed….

Then again, baking with bananas is another tempting option. One of my go-to recipes is the cherry and banana buns I’ve been making since time immemorial, but the other day I was fresh out of glacé cherries, so decided to experiment (very successfully) with chocolate and banana buns using the same method – a hit! The beauty of these buns is that the flavour continues to mellow over a few days – if you can keep them that long! – but they are also excellent eaten warm from the oven.

Chocolate & Banana Buns – makes 24

175g butter, softened
150g caster sugar
150g self-raising flour, sieved
25g cocoa powder, sieved
2 eggs, beaten
1 ripe banana
Lemon juice
50g dark chocolate, roughly chopped

Preheat oven to 180°C fan, Gas 5. Place 24 bun cases in bun tins. Mix butter, sugar, flour, cocoa powder and eggs together using a hand-held mixer until the mixture is light and creamy. Mash the banana in a small bowl, adding lemon juice to stop it browning. Fold the banana and chopped chocolate into the cake mix. Spoon into the cases and cook in the preheated oven for 15-20 minutes until springy to the touch. You could ice these with melted chocolate if you felt so inclined, but they really don’t need it.

This week I once again found myself with three large bananas in the fruit bowl, blacker than I like to eat them, and coincidentally I found this new recipe for a banana & cinnamon loaf in the Waitrose Weekend newspaper that I sometimes pick up when I’m shopping. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I decided to give it a go and was very impressed with the outcome – different to my other banana cakes, but also extremely good in its own sweetly spiced way.

Banana & Cinnamon Loaf

Banana loaf_whole

125g butter, softened
125g caster sugar
2 large eggs, beaten
125g self-raising flour, sifted
1 tsp baking powder
2 ripe bananas
Juice of half a lemon

For cinnamon sugar:
25g granulated sugar
25g soft dark brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
generous pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

To top (optional):
1 ripe banana, sliced lengthwise, brushed with lemon juice

Preheat oven to 160°C fan, Gas 4. Place the butter, caster sugar, beaten eggs, sifted flour and baking powder in a large bowl and beat until light and fluffy. Peel and mash two of the bananas with the lemon juice until nice and soft, then fold into the cake mixture.

Mix the ingredients for the cinnamon sugar in a small bowl and set aside.

Put half of the mixture into a greased and base-lined loaf tin, then sprinkle half the cinnamon sugar evenly over the surface. Top with the remaining cake mix and sprinkle over the remaining cinnamon sugar.

If you wish you can divide the remaining banana in half lengthwise and gently place on top of the cake at this stage. Don’t press too hard – I found mine sank to the bottom of the cake, so didn’t look as pretty as I’d hoped – and the cake would still have been delicious without!

Place the tin into the oven and bake for 60-65 minutes or until golden and a skewer inserted in the cake mix (try and avoid the whole banana if using!) comes out clean. Cool in the tin before removing the cake to a wire rack. Delicious warm with cream and crème fraiche as a dessert, or equally good cold with a cup of tea – and like the previous recipe, the banana flavour just gets better and better as it matures….

Banana loaf

Let me finish with a few more pictures of this weekend’s glorious walk at Sheffield Park, a National Trust garden not far from here. I always try and go at this time of year as the autumn colours are so fabulous. My own garden can’t compete with the grandeur and magnificence of this landscaped park, but it’s good to take time out and go and enjoy other people’s creations for a change. Just stunning…

LakeAutumn walk

Lake and trees

 

 

Guinness in the kitchen

Faded asparagus

There’s something rather nice about when the clocks have gone back and you can start thinking about comforting casseroles and sticky cakes on those dark afternoons and evenings. This weekend was no exception: I managed to get out in the garden both days, planting the last of my tulip bulbs and cutting down my yellowing asparagus stems, despite torrential rain overnight, but it’s definitely winter-warming weather now. My lunch of choice is soup, more often than not, and a rich casserole really hits the spot after dark.

One of my favourites is a Beef and Guinness casserole inspired by a Good Housekeeping recipe leaflet years ago. I don’t particularly enjoy Guinness as a drink, but its flavour transforms when cooked long and slow in the oven with delicious shin of beef from my local farm shop and seasonal vegetables. This particular recipe is served with herby dumplings as a change from potatoes, but I like to make very light, cheesy wholemeal dumplings (originally intended to accompany a vegetarian aduki bean casserole – I really must revisit that recipe too!) rather than the heavier and more traditional variety mentioned in the original recipe. Here’s my version:

Beef and Guinness Casserole with Cheese & Herb Dumplings – serves 3-4

Beef and Guinness casserole

2 tbsp olive oil
450g beef shin, trimmed and chopped into small chunks (or stewing steak)
2 medium onions, finely sliced
2-3 sticks celery, chopped
2 carrots, sliced
300g swede, peeled and diced
2 tbsp plain flour
250ml Guinness
300ml hot beef stock
2 tsp dark brown sugar
1 tbsp Worcester sauce
1 bay leaf
leaves from a few sprigs of fresh thyme
Dumplings:
125g wholemeal self-raising flour
pinch of salt
30g butter,diced
60g Cheddar cheese, grated
Chopped herbs – (parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme – or your choice!)
50-75ml milk

Preheat the oven to 140ºC, Gas 2. Put 1 tbsp olive oil in a large pan and brown the chunks of beef, then set aside. Add the remaining oil, and brown the onions, carrot, celery and swede until starting to soften – about 10 minutes. Stir in the flour and cook for a minute or so, then add the Guinness and the stock, stirring as you go. Add the sugar, Worcester sauce, bay leaf and thyme, then bring to the boil.

Cover and cook in the oven for 3 hours, stirring every hour or so. Add more liquid (stock, Guinness or just hot water from the kettle if that’s all you have) if you think it’s drying out. Ovens vary so much that it’s hard to predict.

A few minutes before the end of the 3 hours, make the dumpling mix: put the flour and salt into a bowl. Rub in the butter until it resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Stir in the herbs and grated cheese. Add the milk gradually until you have a firm dough. Divide into 8 pieces and place onto the surface of the casserole after 3 hours. Replace the lid and cook for a further 20 -25 minutes until the dumplings are cooked.

Serve with green vegetables of your choice (I used pan-fried cavolo nero with sesame seeds) and enjoy!

Freezes beautifully (without the dumplings – but you won’t have any of those left anyway!)

Having used half the bottle of Guinness in this recipe, I was left wondering what to do with the rest. I can’t stand waste and I don’t drink the stuff, as I said, or any beer really – the only exception is an ice-cold shandy (or Radler in Austria – the cyclist’s drink!) when walking in the heat of the summer. When I was in hospital having my first son nearly 30 years ago, lunch one day was a ploughman’s lunch with a bottle of Guinness – for the iron presumably! I gave mine away, much to my then husband’s disgust when I told him later….

This time, I vaguely remembered a recipe for Chocolate and Guinness Cake, so had a little search online and was directed to one of my favourite Nigella books: Feast. Result! I made it in a 20cm x 30cm deep rectangular tin rather than the 23cm round tin Nigella recommends, mainly because I knew there was no way that I would eat a whole round cake that size! With a rectangular tin, I could freeze half and just make half the quantity of frosting for the rest. As it was, I ended up taking the iced half to my parents when I called in for lunch last week, then got the other half out of the freezer and iced it for this week, so I could probably have made the whole thing anyway! But this worked extremely well. I ended up using yogurt rather than sour cream as my local Coop was fresh out of the latter on a Sunday afternoon. I adapted the frosting too, as Nigella’s uses double cream, which I thought might be a problem if it wasn’t stored in the fridge – and the weather is still quite mild, so not ideal for a creamy topping to be sitting at room temperature. Here’s what I did:

Chocolate & Guinness Cake – serves 12
Chocolate Guinness Cake

250ml Guinness
250g butter
75g cocoa powder
400g caster sugar
150ml natural full-fat yogurt (or sour cream)
2 large eggs, beaten
1 tsp vanilla extract
275g plain flour
2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

Cream cheese frosting:

100g butter, softened
100g icing sugar
grated rind 1 orange
1 tbsp orange juice
200g full-fat cream cheese

 

Preheat the oven to 160°C Fan/Gas 4, then grease and base-line a 20cm x 30 cm deep rectangular cake tin.

Pour the Guinness into a large wide saucepan, add the butter and heat until the butter has melted, then remove from the heat and whisk in the cocoa and sugar. Beat the yogurt (or sour cream) with the eggs and vanilla and then pour into the Guinness mixture in the pan. Finally whisk in the flour and bicarbonate of soda.

Pour the cake batter into the greased and lined tin and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour. Leave to cool completely in the tin before icing.

Make the frosting by whisking the soft butter and sugar with a hand mixer, or in a stand mixer if you prefer. Add the orange rind and juice and mix again, then whisk in the cream cheese until smooth. Chill in the fridge, then use to ice the cake.

Delicious 🙂

 

 

 

Thoughts from a gardener/cook…

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