Sweet somethings

It’s that time of year when everything suddenly starts to take off, especially after the torrential rain we’ve had over the last few days. You turn your back for a minute, and tiny shoots one day are full-blown weeds the next. Or gooseberries that were mere dots are suddenly jostling for position in twos or threes, clamouring to be thinned so the smallest of the bunch can swell in their turn. My asparagus bed, weeded meticulously not a couple of weeks ago, is now chock-a-block full of dill and poppy seedlings and any number of thuggish weeds. Today wasn’t a day for weeding, that’s for sure, with non-stop rain, but it’s definitely on my To Do list for the not-too-distant future, along with sowing my French beans (so late this year!), planting out my squash, and finishing off my new cut flower bed.

Where does time go on this cusp of spring to summer? One minute you’re bemoaning the lack of water and muttering about how slow things are to take off, then whoosh – all hell let loose! Added to which I’ve had a hectic workload in recent weeks, a translation conference up in Sheffield, and grandmotherly duties to boot. Yesterday, when I should have been tending to my jobs on the allotment in a break from the rain, was our Open Gardens Day in the village. I couldn’t resist going to visit a couple of new gardens, including a couple with views to die for and the most impeccable kitchen garden you’ve ever seen, along with a fruit cage designed as a bird cage – so beautiful. Gardens of dreams indeed – not for us lesser mortals with a pocket handkerchief garden and no staff to tend that immaculate greensward…

While the rain comes down, I thought I’d take this opportunity to share some recipes, including one I made a few weeks ago to use up the rhubarb glut. In actual fact, the rhubarb has slowed down considerably in recent weeks, although the rain may give it a second boost! Gooseberries are my second port of call, as I picked my first kilo out of nowhere one evening last week. Let’s gloss over the fact that I still have some in the freezer from last year – the new season’s crop are always very welcome and these two new recipes went down very well.

First the rhubarb: I wanted to make a rhubarb cake to take on a family visit and a friend’s mention of the Gugelhupf cake she’d made for her daughter’s birthday inspired me to search the web for a rhubarb Gugelhupf. A colleague on the Foodie Translators’ group had mentioned a rhubarb and chocolate version she’d made the previous year and that’s what I had in mind. I eventually came up with a couple of German offerings, one of which I adapted to fit the ingredients I had. The original recipe is here for those of you who read German.

Rhubarb & White Chocolate Gugelhupf – serves 8-10

Rhubarb Gugelhupf

250g butter
200g caster sugar
50g vanilla sugar (if you have it, otherwise just use all caster sugar)
1 tsp vanilla paste (or extract)
pinch of salt
3 eggs, beaten
300g self-raising flour (I used Dove’s Farm gluten-free)
1 tsp baking powder (GF if necessary)
1 tsp cinnamon
120ml natural yogurt (or buttermilk according to the original recipe)
300g rhubarb, chopped into small pieces, but not peeled (unless really tough!)
150g white chocolate

Grease a deep Gugelhupf or ring mould – I used a silicone mould from Lidl, of all places, and sprayed it lightly with an olive oil spray, then used a pastry brush to make sure every crevice was greased, and sprinkled in some sieved flour for good measure. Much better than the metal ring moulds I’ve used in the past!

Lidl ring mould

Preheat the oven to 160°C fan (Gas 4).

Mix the butter, sugar (both kinds) and vanilla extract in a large bowl (or stand mixer) until light and fluffy. Add the beaten eggs gradually and mix well (adding a tbsp or so of sifted flout if it shows signs of curdling). Sift over the baking powder, cinnamon, pinch of salt and the rest of the flour and fold into the mixture. Finally fold in the chopped rhubarb. Transfer the mixture to the mould and level the top. Bake in the pre-heated oven for about 50 mins to 1 hour, testing with a skewer to check whether it’s done.

Allow to cool completely in the mould before gently inverting and removing the mould, If you try and remove the mould while it’s still hot, you are liable to leave bits of the sponge behind! Melt the white chocolate in 30 minute bursts in the microwave, or over a pan of simmering water if you prefer, then pour artistically over the cooled cake.

Decorate as you wish – I used rosemary, but edible flowers would have been good too.

Rhubarb Gugelhupf slice

My gooseberry recipes were inspired, as my recipes often are, by ideas in the Waitose Kitchen magazine, although this time from a couple of years ago. For some reason, I’d seen the flapjack recipe, but never made it as it looked quite unprepossessing, beige and claggy in the original magazine (here if you want to check it out!). With such delicious ingredients, I decided to give it a go anyway and was extremely happy with the results – beautifully tangy with a jammy gooseberry filling, but oaty and nutty at the same time. Mmmmm. I opted for a larger tin than the recommended size, so that might account for the different texture. I used the tart early-season cooking gooseberries (my variety is Invicta, very prolific – and resistant to gooseberry mildew). If you make it with dessert gooseberries, or later in the season, you might like to reduce the sugar content in the gooseberry filling.

Gooseberry & Pecan Flapjacks – makes 16

Gooseberry flapjack

200g butter
400g gooseberries
175g light soft brown sugar
200g spelt flour
1 tsp ground cinnamon
150g oats
100g pecans, chopped
pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 180°C fan (Gas 5) and grease and line a rectangular baking tin – mine measures 28cm x 18cm x 3.5cm, but the original recipe uses a 20cm square tin.

Top and tail the gooseberries, then place in a pan with 75g of the sugar and cook over a low heat until the sugar melts and the juice starts to flow. Turn up the heat and continue cooking, stirring regularly, for 10-15 minutes until you have a thickish, jam-like mixture. Take off the heat and set aside.

Mix the flour, cinnamon, oats, salt and chopped pecans in a large bowl. In another pan, melt the butter and remaining 100g sugar, then pour over the flour mixture. Mix together until you have a rough dough.

Press half of the dough over the bottom of the baking tin, then spread the gooseberry mixture on top. Sprinkle the remaining dough on top – I found it easier to crumble it with my fingers, so it didn’t cover the jam layer entirely and was quite chunky.

Place in the pre-heated oven and cook for 25-30 minutes until nicely browned. Cool in the tin, then cut into 16 bars and enjoy with a nice cup of tea or coffee. So good.

Gooseberry flapjack slice

My final recipe is a simple lemon posset served with a roast gooseberry & orange compote, which is an adaptation of the roasted rhubarb compote I’ve shared many times before. Possets are so quick and simple to make, I can’t think why we don’t make them more often! The Waitrose recipe that gave me the idea made elderflower creams by adding elderflower cordial to the cream, but I opted for a lemon posset, as I haven’t made any elderflower cordial yet this year: also on my To Do list, but definitely not in wet weather. That’s a sure way to end up with mouldy cordial…

Lemon Posset with Gooseberry & Orange Compote – serves 4

Lemon posset with gooseberry compote

500g gooseberries
Juice and grated zest of one orange
3-4 tbsp brown sugar (or to taste)
300ml double cream
75g caster sugar
Grated zest and juice of 1 large lemon (or 2 small)

First make the compote by topping and tailing the gooseberries and putting in a rectangular shallow baking dish with the juice and zest of the orange and sprinkling over the brown sugar. Cook in a pre-heated oven at 160°C fan (Gas 4) until tender, but still whole, for about 30-40 minutes. Leave to cool. You can add 1 tbsp elderflower cordial at this stage if you feel so inclined – or even elderflower liqueur if you have it!

For the posset, place the double cream, lemon zest and sugar in a small pan and gently bring to the boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Then boil for 3 minutes before removing from the heat. Stir in the lemon juice and sieve the cream mixture to remove any large pieces of lemon zest. Pour into small glass dishes, leaving room at the top for the compote, and put in the fridge to chill for 3-4 hours or overnight. It’s quite rich so don’t be fooled by the relatively small amounts!

To serve, gently spoon some of the compote onto each set dessert. These are also good served on their own, or they’re delicious with sliced strawberries instead of compote. Any fruit would work, in fact – and a dash of elderflower cordial would make a nice addition to the posset too, before the setting stage, if you felt so inclined.

Gooseberries

 

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Yet more rhubarb….

Shed under clematis

Another holiday weekend, and while the weather hasn’t been as glorious as the Easter weekend, it has at least been dry and sunny in parts, if cold for the time of the year, so limited gardening has been on the agenda. Having mown the lawn – and neatened the edges with a half-moon spade – last week, and paid someone to cut the over-long grass and edges at the allotment, I’ve been able to concentrate on weeding the raised beds and potting on my chilli and aubergine seedlings at home. For some reason, my sweet pepper and basil seeds have failed to germinate in the propagator this year. While I can sow more basil (from a new packet), it’s too late to sow pepper seeds in May. I’ll either have to do without, or buy a couple of plants. Strange how the chilli and peppers seem to germinate better in alternate years… I also dead-headed my hellebore flowers to give other plants more room and stop the plants putting energy into producing seed. I have quite enough self-sown hellebores around the garden after all!

At the allotment, I spent a good hour yesterday painstakingly prising the dreaded couch grass out of my existing strawberry bed, where it has really taken hold. I’ve already planted up a new bed earlier this year, so if I can just keep this one going this season, I can empty the whole bed over winter and really blitz this pernicious weed. I also cleared my sprouting broccoli beds: most of the plants have gone to flower by this stage and I need the tunnel structure to protect my peas, sown last weekend, from the pigeons. The sprouting broccoli has done amazingly well this year, so the individual plants took some removing – four-feet tall triffids with yellow flowers everywhere! The stalks are too chunky for the compost heap, so up to the communal bonfire pile they went. I still have a couple of plants with edible shoots, but I suspect they won’t last more than a couple of days. Just in time for the asparagus to come on stream 🙂

Needless to say, the rhubarb is still going strong and more experimentation has been in order to keep up with the flow. I hosted another four-generational lunch this weekend with my parents, my elder son and his wife, plus my granddaughter of course, and inevitably rhubarb had to feature on the menu, this time in the guise of a rhubarb & ginger trifle, perfect for my gluten-intolerant daughter-in-law. You could also make it with plain sponge if you felt so inclined, or, if you are catering for coeliacs, make sure you check that the Amaretti really are gluten-free – homemade macaroons would fit the bill in that case too.

Rhubarb & Ginger Trifle – serves 8

Rhubarb and ginger trifle

500-600g rhubarb, trimmed and chopped into 1cm slices
3-4 tbsp demerara sugar
Juice and rind of 1 large orange (or 2 small)
2 tbsp syrup from a jar pf preserved stem ginger
2 pieces preserved stem ginger, finely chopped
2 tbsp rhubarb gin (or Grand Marnier / liqueur of your choice)

4 egg yolks
2 tbsp caster (or vanilla) sugar
2 heaped tsp cornflour
300ml milk
few drops orange blossom water
Rind of 1 orange

15 or so Amaretti biscuits, plus extra to garnish
300ml double cream (or mix whipped cream and mascarpone)

First, trim and cut the rhubarb (unpeeled unless really thick and woody – shouldn’t be necessary with early-season produce) into 1cm pieces, halving the stems first if really chunky. Place in a shallow, rectangular baking dish and sprinkle with the brown sugar (to taste), orange rind and juice, plus the chopped preserved ginger and 2 tbsp syrup from the ginger jar. Roast in a pre-heated oven at 180°C (Gas 5) until tender, but still whole, for about 30-40 minutes. Leave to cool, then add the rhubarb gin (or alcohol of your choice)

Combine the egg yolks, 2 tbsp caster sugar and cornflour in a small bowl. Stir in the cold milk, then strain into a small pan. Cook gently until the mixture starts to thicken, stirring constantly. Add the grated orange rind and orange blossom water to the custard. Allow to cool slightly.

Place the cooked rhubarb into a trifle bowl and place the Amaretti biscuits on top to cover, pushing partly into the liquid to allow them to take up the juice. Pour over the cooled orange custard and place in the fridge to set for a couple of hours.

Whip the double cream and spread carefully over the custard, making generous swirls with a large spoon. Crumble a few extra Amaretti and sprinkle on top, adding pansies or other spring flowers to garnish if the mood takes you! Trifle fans will be in seventh heaven…

You’ll have four egg whites left over from this recipe, so you can either make macaroons or, as I did, lemon & almond ricciarelli, which conveniently use precisely 4 egg whites and are also ideal for gluten-free guests. In actual fact, I adapted the recipe to make lime & almond ricciarelli and they were equally good.

lime and almond ricciarelli_landscape

Then again, if you decide to turn the egg whites into meringues, either one large pavlova, or smaller rounds or individual cases (using 225g caster sugar to 4 egg whites) to keep for another day, you could consider combining crushed meringue and rhubarb to make a wonderful Rhubarb Eton Mess.

Rhubarb Eton Mess – serves 2-3

300g rhubarb, chopped
Juice and rind of 1 orange
2-3 tbsp demerara sugar
150ml double cream, softly whipped
2-3 tbsp natural yogurt
2-3 meringues, roughly crushed

Place the rhubarb in a shallow ovenproof dish and add the grated rind and juice of the oranges, then sprinkle with the demerara sugar. Roast in the oven at 180°C (Gas 5) for 30-40 minutes or until tender. Leave to cool.

Whip the double cream until soft peak stage, then fold in the natural yogurt, followed by the roughly crumbled meringues – aim to leave some big chunks for texture.

Spoon into 2-3 glass dishes and swirl the top, decorating with toasted flaked almonds or crushed biscuits depending what you have at hand.

A variation on this theme when you haven’t any rhubarb is a Blueberry Mess: Sainsbury’s had large punnets of blueberries on offer recently, so I stirred a large handful, washed but uncooked, into the cream and yogurt mixture above along with 1 tbsp Chambord raspberry liqueur and crushed Amaretti rather than meringue. Grated white chocolate and blueberries to decorate – to die for…

Blueberry mess_cropped

Rhubarb rules – OK?

Blossom

This time of year used to be known as the hungry gap because of the dearth of fresh produce available in the garden. I’ve just lifted the last of my leeks and (now very fibrous) parsnips, and the purple-sprouting broccoli, which has been incredibly prolific this year, is going to flower faster than I can harvest and eat it. The asparagus is just showing, but won’t be ready for a week or so yet – especially if we don’t have any much-needed rain! But there’s one crop you can always rely on in an English garden in the springtime: good old rhubarb.

Both my early and late varieties are now in full swing, giving me ample pickings for pies and other desserts several times a week – and plenty to give away to family and friends too, of course. There are so many ways to ring the changes with rhubarb, other than the ubiquitous compotes, crumbles, pies and fools, and I make it a personal challenge to experiment with new recipes each season. I’ve been trying for some time to recreate the delicious Swiss rhubarb tart, or Rhabarberwähe, I tasted in Basel on my year abroad, so this year I finally tracked down some authentic Swiss recipes and experimented: result! By combining a couple of the recipes I unearthed (see here for the originals: Rhabarberwähe and again here – only in German, I’m afraid, I made a tart that closely resembled my Proustian memories. It’s not dissimilar to my favourite rhubarb shortbread recipe, but creamier, with added double cream, although one of the original recipes I found used quark – if you can lay your hands on the proper full-fat version, rather than its poor relative, the 0% fat offering which is often all that’s available in UK supermarkets. I imagine crème fraîche would work just as well. I used a shortcrust pastry tart case in my experiment as I had one lying around (as you do), but a sweet shortcrust pastry would be even better – and more authentic. I halved the recipe for my trial, but this is the full quantity – just halve everything for a smaller tart.

Swiss Rhubarb Tart – serves 6

Rhabarberwahe

Sweet pastry:
5oz plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1oz caster sugar
pinch salt
2 tsp milk
2 1/2 oz butter
1/2 beaten egg

Filling:
Generous 1lb rhubarb (5 or 6 stalks), trimmed and chopped into 1/2″ chunks
3 tbsp ground almonds
2 tbsp demerara sugar
2 eggs, beaten
150 ml double cream (or quark)
1 tsp vanilla extract
4 tbsp vanilla sugar

First, make your pastry case: sift flour, salt and baking powder into a bowl. Stir in sugar, egg and milk until evenly mixed, then work in butter (I find it easier if you grate it from cold) using fingers. Knead lightly to form a smooth dough, then chill in fridge for 30 mins. Do not leave too long, as it will set really hard and be impossible to roll!

When chilled, roll out on a floured surface (it will be very fragile, but can be patched if necessary!). Line a 9″ tart tin, then bake blind at 200°C/Gas 6 for 10 mins, then remove foil and beans and cook for another 5 mins until just set and golden.

For the filling: sprinkle the ground almonds over the base of the part-baked tart case, then scatter the rhubarb pieces on top and sprinkle with sugar. Return the tart to the oven for 15-20 minutes until the rhubarb starts to soften.

In a separate bowl, combine the beaten eggs, cream (or quark), vanilla sugar (you could just use caster here if that’s all you have) and vanilla extract, then pour over the part-baked rhubarb in the tart. Return the oven and bake for 20-25 mins until just set. Leave to cool and dust with icing sugar to serve – so good.

Another rhubarb-based pudding I discovered this year came originally from the BBC Good Food magazine calendar, often an excellent source of inspiration, if only as the pictures tantalise me every morning as I walk past! This is a posh take on a bread and butter pudding, and very comforting and delicious it is too. Again, I halved the ingredients and it still lasted several meals – warms up beautifully in the microwave too.

Rhubarb & Ricotta Brioche Pudding – serves 8

Rhubarb brioche pudding uncooked

500g rhubarb, trimmed and chopped into 3cm pieces
150g caster sugar
300ml whole milk
300m double cream
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 large eggs, plus 1 egg yolk (I just used 2 eggs when halving the mix)
250g brioche, thickly sliced
35g butter
200g ricotta
25g icing sugar
zest of one lemon
zest of one orange

Heat 100 ml water in a small pan and add 50 g of the caster sugar. Bring to the boil, then add the rhubarb. Simmer for a couple of minutes, then lift out with a slotted spoon and arrange on a single layer on a tray or plate. Set aside to cool.

Put the milk and cream in a large pan and bring to the boil, than add the vanilla. Beat the eggs, extra yolk and remaining sugar in a large bowl, then pour over the warm cream and milk mixture. Set the oven to 160°C fan or Gas 4.

Slice the bread and butter, then spread the ricotta thickly on top of the buttered bread. Cut into triangles. Sprinkle the bread with the citrus zest, then layer the slices with the rhubarb in a large 20 x 30cm baking dish – a lasagne-type dish is perfect. Pour over the egg and cream mix and leave to stand for 30 minutes (this makes the end result lighter).

Place the dish in a large roasting tin and pour boiling water to come halfway up the sides of the baking dish. Bake for 45-50 mins until puffy, set on top and golden. Remove from the oven, but leave to cool in the dish for about 10 minutes before serving.

Dust with icing sugar and serve with pouring cream or crème fraîche for a lusciously lovely spring treat.

rhubarb brioche pud cooked

My final variation on a rhubarb theme is an adaptation of a cake I usually make in September with my plum harvest: plum and almond cake, equally good as a dessert or a cake with tea. I do a different rhubarb upside-down cake, where the fruit is all piled on haphazardly, but this was inspired by a colleague on the Foodie Translators’ group on Facebook, who posted a picture of a rectangular rhubarb tart with the rhubarb immaculately laid out in a chequerbord design. Very smart.

Rhubarb Lattice Cake – serves 8

Rhubarb lattice cake

9 1/2oz caster sugar
7oz butter
400g rhubarb, trimmed and cut into equal 4cm lengths
2 large eggs, beaten
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 1/2oz self-raising flour, sifted
1 tsp baking powder
3 1/2 oz ground almonds
1 tsp cinnamon
Grated rind of one orange
2 tbsp fresh orange juice
2 tbsp milk

Grease and line an 8″ solid-bottomed cake tin with baking parchment – I use a heavy tarte tatin tin.

Put 4 1/2oz sugar and 3fl oz water in a small pan and simmer gently until the sugar dissolves. Increase the heat and cook to a golden caramel colour, watching like a hawk so that it doesn’t burn! Remove from the heat and add 2oz butter, stirring well. Pour into the prepared cake tin and place the rhubarb pieces on top in a neat lattice pattern. If you use a round tin, as I did, you’ll need to trim the outside pieces as you go to fit the tin.

Beat the remaining butter and sugar in a large bowl until light and fluffy, then gradually mix in the beaten eggs and vanilla extract. Add 1-2 tbsp flour if it shows signs of curdling. Then fold in the dry ingredients and orange zest, alternating with the milk and orange juice.

Spoon the mixture onto the plums and bake for 45-50 minutes at 160°C / Gas 4 until golden brown, spongy to the touch and a skewer comes out clean.
Cool for a few minutes, then, while still warm, run a knife round the edge of the cake, place a large plate on top of the tin and firmly but gently turn the whole plate and tin upside down. Shake a little and the cake should just turn out of the tin onto the plate. Remove the parchemnt to serve.

Serve warm with cream or crème fraiche for a delicious dessert or cold as cake – delicious either way! You could also add chopped stem ginger and 1 tsp ground ginger instead of the cinnamon in the sponge, substituting 2 tbsp stem ginger syrup for the orange juice.

Leo watching bluebells Tapsells 2019

 

Easter Glory

Easter tree 2019

The beauty of the Easter weekend is that we have four whole days to relax, see family and friends, go out and about AND catch up on the garden/allotment. Bliss. With a new granddaughter in the family, no surprise that Sunday was spent with family, on Saturday I visited the Standen Tulip Festival near East Grinstead with my parents, and on Monday I had a long lunch out with friends. However, that still left me time to get on in the garden at home and at the allotment too – perfect! The fabulous weather really was the icing on the cake – most unusual for a bank holiday weekend in the UK!

Standen technicolour tulips 2019

 

Standen tulips

I made a start on the allotment last weekend, but am having to be very strict and pace myself so as not to overdo it with my slowly recovering knee. Three hours up there the previous Sunday felt quite strenuous, so I’ve been trying to go down in the evenings as part of my late dog walk and just do half an hour’s weeding: the joys of raised beds is that it’s quite possible to weed and prepare a whole bed in half an hour, instantly making a huge difference. The upshot of this week’s half-hours here and there was that, when I went up yesterday, I was already in a position to sow seeds in my salad and root crop beds: carrot St Valéry, parsnip Countess and beetroot Cylindra, and turnip Oasis (a new extra-sweet variety I’m trialling for the first time this year. On the salad front, I planted perpetual spinach, rhubarb chard, rocket, oak-leaved lettuce, dill, coriander, agretti (let’s see if I can manage to grow it without the slugs devouring every last fibre this time!), Watermelon radish, Florence fennel, and Welsh onions. I also dug my potato trenches and planted out two rows of potatoes: Arran Pilot and salad variety Nicola. Flower seeds also went in for my new extended cutting garden: Cosmos Purity, sunflower Autumn Beauty, Achillea Summer Berries, Poppy Ladybird and Calendula Pink Surprise. I’d already lifted some strawberry runners from my existing (and couch grass-infested) strawberry patch last Sunday to start a new bed at the reclaimed end of the plot: very satisfying.

The tulips have been fabulous this year, both the cutting specimens at the allotment and the container-grown specimens at home. I reverted to planting mixtures of tulips this year, rather than single varieties in each container, and by and large they have all flowered together and looked stunning, set off beautifully by the seed-grown wallflowers (Giant Pink and Sunset Purple). The container below has red Escape and red-and-white striped Rio de Janeiro: beautiful with the dappled sunlight in the back garden.

Red and white tulips

This container has Lemon and White Flag tulips with Sunset Purple wallflowers – just exquisite and a long season of interest to boot.

White tulips amd wallflower

The blossom is heavenly this year too, presumably having benefited from last year’s summer heat. It remains to be seen whether the fruit crops will be equally good. Anyway, back to the grindstone – still heaps to do! I had intended to plant out my autumn-sown sweet peas and sow some mange-touts and sugarsnap peas, but ran out of time. There’s always next weekend… In the meantime, I think I’ll seek some help to mow the allotment grass and do some of the heavier weeding – there’s only so much you can (or should!) do with a recovering knee 🙂

 

 

 

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

 

 

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.

 

Thoughts from a gardener/cook…

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