Rainy Bank Holiday Blues

Image

I suppose it was inevitable that one of the recent run of bank holidays would revert to form and be wet and miserable – unfortunate that it was this particular day when I had great plans for getting down to the allotment and planting out a whole host of young vegetables. Hey ho! Such is life.. and though a day at the computer wasn’t quite what I’d planned, I can at least be relieved that I mowed the lawn at home yesterday and trimmed the edges, plus finished off planting up all my pots with summer bedding. I also managed to plant out my tomato seedlings – old favourites Sungold and Gardener’s Delight for the tastiest cherry tomatoes and Tigerella, a stripy medium-sized fruit which is new to me this year – in their final resting places, six in tall pots lined up against the sunny back wall of the house and three in the growframe for added protection. So it’s been quite a fruitful weekend really.

This is such a busy time of year, with all the young plants brought on in the conservatory or growframe at home desperate to get out in the big wide world of the allotment. I’ve got squash (Sprinter) and sweetcorn (Lark) with their roots escaping from their pots in their eagerness to expand their horizons. There are a couple of courgettes and cucumbers in the same boat, although germination was patchy for both of these this year. Two cucumbers is ample, in any event, but I’d rather have four courgettes than two – especially when I planted 8 seeds! A friend has come to the rescue with a couple of round courgette seedlings – and no doubt I shall look back and smile when faced with the inevitable glut later in the year…

I’d hoped to finally plant my runner bean and climbing French bean seeds too; I used to start these off inside, but several years of having them whipped to shreds by strong winds or decimated by slugs soon after planting out in early June made me realise it was better to sow the seeds straight out in the open at this time of year. More salad/herb seeds are also due to go in – the coriander I planted earlier has been munched to non-existence by those dratted slugs, despite the nematodes, although the dill and lettuce are fine.

As the rain beats a refrain on the conservatory roof, I certainly won’t be getting anything of note done outside today! I will, however, walk my long-suffering hounds down to the allotment and bring back yet more asparagus for dinner, and possibly some baby broad beans too. I picked my first beans the other day, just the size of a fingernail when podded – delicious in a prawn, asparagus, mint and fennel cream sauce with pasta. And despite the arrival of asparagus beetle, a pest I’ve never come across before in the 6 or so years I’ve had the asparagus bed, the asparagus has been ridiculously prolific this year. I’ve taken to scrutinising the plants at close quarters when I go down and gleefully crushing any beetles I find: they look at first glance like little harlequin ladybirds in Burberry overcoats, but when you look closer you realise they’re longer and thinner, not unlike a lily beetle – and with the same irritating habit of landing (invisibly) upside down if you knock them off inadvertently. The eggs are like little dark thorns sticking out of the foliage, and I’ve been squishing those too. As an organic gardener, I’m loath to spray, but this method, while laborious, does seem to be controlling the problem – if it’s not one thing, it’s something else! Image

Beetles, slugs and weather notwithstanding, here’s a suggestion for using up some asparagus – should you be lucky enough to have a glut!

 Asparagus, Yellow Pepper & Onion Tart

1 sheet of ready-rolled puff pastry

Bunch of asparagus

I onion

1 yellow pepper

Bunch of mint

Bunch of fennel

1 egg

2 tbsp crème fraiche

Seasoning

Olive oil to drizzle

Roll out the pastry to the size of your baking tray. I used half one of those frozen packs of pastry (375g, I think) and rolled out to double the size, so it was nice and thin. Cut a fine line, not quite going through to the base about 1 cm in all around the edge.

Caramelise your onion until soft and golden, then add the yellow pepper, sliced. Mix the beaten egg and 2 tbsp crème fraiche in a small bowl, then spread over the pastry base. Scatter the cooked onion and pepper mixture over the base and carefully place the trimmed asparagus stems on top. Season and scatter with chopped herbs. Drizzle with olive oil and cook in a hot oven, 200°C fan or Gas 6 for about 20-25 mins or until the pastry is golden brown.

Serve with salad.

Heavenly!

Image

Advertisements

Bluebells, tulips and wild garlic – a bounty of bulbs!

What a fabulous season it’s been for bulbs! The bluebells on my daily dog walks have been absolutely heavenly this year, obviously relishing the heavy rains of winter. That scent as you walk through them is just knockout – making you inclined to linger and not return to the desk at all!

Image

As for the tulips, well, they’ve been brilliant too. I’m lucky to have (at least) two beautiful tulip events to visit round here, with the deservedly renowned Pashley Manor Tulip Festival (http://www.pashleymanorgardens.com/) last weekend for stunning drifts of tulips in an immaculately maintained country garden setting and the backdrop of a wisteria-clad manor house. Bliss….

Image

The weekend before I’d made time to go to the tulip open day at Sarah Raven’s Cutting Garden (https://www.sarahraven.com/perch-hill), just south of Burwash and not very far from here either. I always look forward to Sarah’s open days, especially the tulip one, as she grows her tulips in amongst the vegetable and flower beds and I always come away inspired.

Image

This year I’d ordered the Brandy Snap mix shown in the image above for my own tubs, but mine didn’t all flower at the same time for some reason, so whilst they were gorgeous, they didn’t look quite as spectacular as Sarah’s. This mix contained tulips Ronaldo, Bruine Wimpel, Belle Epoque and Cairo and was a really sensational smoky blend of colours. I think in future I might revert to having one colour per tub, though, as I’ve done in previous years, just for the sheer massed effect of one colour. Sarah offers both tulip mixes where you get a mixed bag of 4 different tulips, and collections, where each tulip variety is bagged separately and I think that’s the way to go – for me at least.

Image

I adore bulb-planting time in the autumn and am like a child in a sweetshop when it comes to choosing new bulbs each year. I always buy new tulips for my five large oak barrels, and then, when it’s time to empty the barrels of their winter offering ready for the summer planting, I look at the bulbs to decide whether to keep them. If they have split into lots of tiny bulbs, it’s not worth saving them as they’re unlikely to flower again, and I just compost them. If, however, the bulb is still a good size, I plant them out in the garden and enjoy them for years to come. The bulb growers never give any guidance about which ones are perennial and which ones aren’t – and indeed it varies according to your soil and the position they’re planted in! I have colonised the communal island opposite my house (as viewed from my study window!) as the perfect spot for tulips and Mediterranean-style plants. The soil is pretty poor – I suspect it was the builders’ soil repository when they built the three new houses next door to my plot back in 2000 – but it is south-facing and banked and the tulips love it! The varieties I have found to be reliably perennial include Purissima (early white – always the first tulip to flower here), Doll’s Minuet (as shown in the foreground above, a delightful fuchsia-pink lily-flowered tulip which has really bulked up in the ground) and red Oxford, which has a striking yellow base, visible as it opens fully. There’s also a beautiful pink variety, tipped with silver, but the problem with planting them out and seeing what comes up is that I’m not sure which variety it is! I suspect it’s Pink Impression, although I’ve also had Menton, which is similar, and Judith Leyster, another potential contender. Motto: keep better records of where you’ve planted what! Either way, it’s a fabulous tulip and comes reliably year on year. There’s also a deep burgundy tulip, but mysteriously I’ve no records as to what that might be! It’s always worth a try, in any event – as long as the bulbs are a reasonable size. I’m due to start emptying my spring pots next weekend and am hoping that at least some of this year’s beauties are suitable for planting out…

Image

I’ve actually run out of space on the front beds, unless I dig up yet more lawn (!), so my thought this year is to plant some (fingers crossed!) down at the allotment, between my asparagus rows. That bed is pretty empty at this time of year, apart from the burgeoning asparagus shoots which are cut down as soon as they reach 8” tall – mmm! I thought it might be a nice idea to have some tulips there as a cutting crop – especially as I can never bring myself to cut the ones at home, even though they make a prolific show nowadays. I’ll report back on how I get on!

Image

Final bulb of the season has to be the wild garlic, which has also had a good year. It seems to arrive all of a sudden, and I find myself heading back from my bluebell walks with a rucksack full of wild garlic leaves (prompting the postmistress to ask what the smell was one day last week! Oops…). Wild garlic pesto is delicious and allows you to steal a march whilst you’re waiting for this year’s basil seedlings to grow. Thanks again to Sarah Raven for the recipe, from her Garden Cookbook, one of my favourites:

Wild Garlic Pesto

  • 2 handfuls (about 100g) of wild garlic leaves with flowers
  • 200ml extra virgin olive oil, plus a bit more for sealing
  • 50g pine nuts
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 50g Parmesan cheese, grated
  • salt and black pepper

Blanch the wild garlic leaves in boiling water for about 10 seconds. Refresh in cold water and pat dry on kitchen paper. Put the wild garlic, olive oil, pine nuts or walnuts, together with the garlic cloves, into a food processor and blend to a puree. Transfer to a bowl and mix in the grated Parmesan. Season carefully and put into a sterilised jar. Pour over a little extra virgin olive oil to seal and cover tightly.

I must admit, I don’t think you need to add the extra garlic cloves as it packs quite a punch anyway! Certainly don’t add them if you’re freezing it. I found it kept in the fridge for a good week, ideal for use in pasta sauces and, sublimely, in risotto.

I often adapt Delia’s oven-baked risotto these days, just so I can get on with other things as it cooks and don’t need to stand by the stove, stirring away. You can use any other vegetables you like, of course, but here’s my suggestion for a delicious wild garlic, leek and bacon risotto:

Wild Garlic, Leek and Bacon Risotto

100g smoked bacon, chopped

225g leeks, trimmed and sliced

150g arborio risotto rice

50g butter

1 small onion, chopped

75 ml dry white wine

approx. 500 ml homemade stock (vegetable, chicken or ham)

1 dspn chopped fresh thyme

2 tbsp wild garlic pesto (see above)

2 tbsp Parmesan or Pecorino cheese, grated

salt & pepper

To serve:

50g Parmesan or Pecorino cheese, grated

Chopped parsley or toasted pine nuts to garnish.

Pre-heat the oven to 160°C, Gas 4. Cook the bacon and the onion in the butter until soft and golden – 5-7 mins. Place a 9” square baking dish (2” deep) into the oven to warm up. Add the leeks and the rice to the pan and stir through to get a good coating of butter. (It will look as though there’s not nearly enough rice at this stage but it swells during cooking.) Add the wine and the stock, then the thyme, a couple of good spoonfuls of pesto and seasoning and bring to boiling point. Transfer the contents of the pan into the warmed dish, stir and bake, uncovered, for 20 mins.Then stir in 2 tbsp Parmesan and add more liquid if it’s all absorbed – I find it always needs more, so make sure you allow extra. Return to oven and cook for a further 15 mins, before serving with extra cheese and toasted pine nuts as a garnish – or parsley if you prefer.

Enjoy!

I find this makes enough for two (hungry) people and enough left for arancini (risotto balls) for lunch the next day – just roll the leftover risotto into balls and put a cube of cheese – Taleggio or Gorgonzola are ideal – in the middle of each one). Either cook in a preheated oven at 180°C as they are, or, if you want to do it properly (as when my perfectionist and budding Masterchef student son is home!) dip alternately in flour, beaten egg and breadcrumbs, fry off briefly, then finish in oven. Either way, they are delicious, served with homemade tomato sauce if you have any (or passata with appropriate seasoning and herbs will do otherwise).