Flowers in October

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It was time for the autumn tidy-up this weekend as I’ll be busy for the next few weekends. Despite mixed weather – sunshine and showers – I managed to tick practically everything off my to-do list and can turn my back on the allotment with a relatively clear conscience now!

Despite it being mid October, the dahlias and the sweet peas are still going strong, and will no doubt carry on until the first frosts. Admittedly, the sweet peas were extremely slow to get going this year, but I don’t think I’ve ever picked such healthy bouquets this late in the year! There’s no doubt that having a cutting garden at the allotment makes for one of the most cost-effective – and delightful – crops, from May right through ’til November. Bliss. I’d extended my flower production to two raised beds this year and it’s worked better than I could have hoped: more dahlias, armfuls of ammi majus and a surprising star in the form of Achillea Summer Berries, sown from seed earlier this year and excellent for picking in a range of soft pinks and creams. The plants I planted out in the garden at home were devoured by slugs the minute they went in, but the allotment ones escaped unscathed and I’m hoping for an even better display next year. The bupleurum and euphorbia were disappointing, but more than compensated by the self-sown dill flowers (and alchemilla mollis from home) which provide that yellow or green zing for arrangements. I currently have no less than 11 vases of blooms dotted around the house, some admittedly just single stem posies, but for mid-autumn that really isn’t bad going…

As well as harvesting yet more glorious flowers, courgettes (also still coming aplenty!), leeks and the last of the main stems of calabrese, I also picked all my apples on Sunday to pre-empt the frosts. I thought there wouldn’t be as many this year, but as I filled bag after bag, I see I was mistaken! All now safely hanging in the garage, but I suspect I’ll have to give some away – far too many for one. As it was, I left two bags of windfalls on the allotment sharing table and there are quite a number of prime specimens still on the trees, out of reach without a long ladder. I may leave those for the birds…. Oh, and this is where I’m glad I pay 40p for the privilege of having my fortnightly online shopping delivered in bags! I’m all for saving on plastic bag use (and re-use canvas bags/bags for life wherever I can), but short of investing in an old-fashioned apple store, I’m not sure how I’d store apples without my good, old, sturdy Waitrose bags.

red-apples-2016

Other tasks crossed off my list included taking out the spent sweetcorn haulms and shrivelled squash plants for the compost. The squash have been a complete write-off this year, one of the few crops that haven’t done well. I can only assume it was the late, cold spring and not a long enough growing season. In their place I sowed next year’s broad bean seeds, Aquadulce as usual. Such a lovely thought that they will start growing now, while the soil is still warm, hibernate through the winter, and then produce their delicious bounty as one of the first crops of next spring/summer, with very little interference from me. I also planted some Oriental salad leaves under an Enviromesh tunnel, more as an experiment than anything else. I had intended to plant them at the end of September along with the rocket and hardy lettuce, but time ran away with me. We’ll see. When I’ve tried planting salad crops under fleece at this time of year before, I had a great crop of early salad leaves the following spring – definitely worth a go!

 

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I’d ordered my new-season tulips from Sarah Raven (my annual treat!) a few weeks ago and most of the varieties bar one have arrived, so I finished planting up my spring barrels, taking out the old tuberous begonias (far too top-heavy this late in the year) and storing the dinner plate-sized tubers in brown paper bags in the shed for next year. I’ve tried to opt for earlier varieties in this year’s selection, so that I get more of a splash of colour at the same time: Vanilla Cream and soft pink Design Impression for my pair of tubs by the front arch, pale lemon lily-flowered Sapporo near the front door and Spring Green and Exotic Emperor, both white with green, in the back garden. I can hardly wait!

tulip-sapporo

I also lifted some of the wallflowers (peachy-pink Aurora) I’d sown from seed in May and planted some of the sturdy little plants in the barrels too – hoping for an impressive display next April/May. Blue pansies bought en masse (and on offer) from my local garden centre, Tête-à-Tête daffodils and Cream Beauty crocus complete the mix. Now to stop the dog digging up the pansies in search of the deliciously-scented (to him at any rate) chicken pellet fertiliser I’ve obviously used far too liberally!

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The Humble Cauliflower

allotment-harvest

Before this year, I’d never grown a cauliflower. It’s one of those vegetables that, rumour has it, is very tricky to grow – and consequently I’ve never tried! After my abortive attempt at Romanesco last year, though, I thought I’d give cauliflower a whirl – not least because I’d received a free packet of Cauliflower Snowball seeds with my pack of goodies accompanying the bumper Gardener’s World edition that comes out with the 2-for-1 garden visit card each spring. I sowed them at the end of May, as I do all the brassica tribe: a late May sowing gives them time to germinate in seed trays, before pricking out a month or so later, then planting in their final positions down at the allotment at the end of July/early August at the latest, when the broad beans/early potatoes come out of the ground and free up some beds.

This year, my brassicas included old stalwarts purple-sprouting broccoli and cavolo nero (kale), plus calabrese and the new kid on the block (to me at any rate), cauliflower. I always net my brassicas to protect them from the dastardly pigeons at the allotment – and if I can I use Enviromesh too in a bid to thwart the even more pervasive cabbage white butterflies. Inevitably some get through, so you always have to be on the lookout for caterpillars when you harvest homegrown calabrese and cauliflowers – added protein!

brassicas

After the failure of the Romanesco last year, I was amazed when I lifted a corner of the Enviromesh tunnel a few weeks ago to check on the plants and found sizeable heads of cauliflower and calabrese. Success! Unfortunately, as is often the way, they are all ready at once, so I’ve been giving them away to family and friends – and using them in my own kitchen, of course.

I’d heard of the cauliflower crust pizza in the wake of the gluten-free and healthy eating craze, but probably wouldn’t have been tempted to experiment had my foodie son not tried and enthused about it. With a couple of plump cauliflower heads in the fridge, now seemed like the ideal opportunity. I hunted around online for suitable recipes, as you do, and the BBC Good Food version seemed like a contender, so here it is, tweaked to the ingredients at hand as ever:

Cauliflower Crust Pizza – serves 2-3

cauliflower-crust-pizza_cropped

1 medium cauliflower
50g ground almonds
1 egg
1 tsp oregano
Seasoning

1 tin chopped tomatoes
1 large onion, finely chopped
Olive oil
1 handful fresh basil
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 tsp sugar
1 tbsp tomato purée
Seasoning
1 large aubergine
125g grated Cheddar cheese

Blitz the cauliflower in a food processor until rice-like (you may need to do this in two batches) and microwave for 4 minutes, then tip onto a clean tea towel, cool slightly, then squeeze out all the water (I save the juice for stock – or for the soup below!). Mix with the ground almonds, 1 egg and the oregano and pat out on a greased baking tray. Cook for 15 minutes at 200°C.
Meanwhile make a tomato sauce by gently frying the onions and garlic until softened, add the tomatoes, sugar, tomato purée and basil and cook down for 15-30 minutes until a nice, thick consistency.
Slice the aubergine thinly and grill the slices in batches under a hot grill, brushed with olive oil, turning as the first side browns. Spoon the tomato sauce onto the cooked pizza base, add the grilled aubergine slices and top with grated Cheddar cheese and a drizzle of olive oil. Return to the oven for a further 10-12 minutes.
Eat hot – and marvel at how the crust mimics a standard pizza base and really doesn’t taste like cauliflower – amazing! And delicious, needless to say!

The discovery of my cache of cauliflowers happened to coincide with a few chillier days, so making soup seemed like a good idea. I’d made Broccoli & Stilton Soup before, with great success, but never cauliflower, and my usual scouring of the recipe books and various online sources didn’t yield quite what I had in mind. The end result was a cobbled-together mix of various recipes, mainly Jamie Oliver and Nigel Slater. It certainly hits the spot.

Cauliflower Cheese Soup – serves 6-8
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1 large cauliflower, broken into florets
2 onions, chopped
2 sticks celery, chopped
1 large carrot, diced
1 small potato, diced
1 clove garlic, chopped
50g butter (or olive oil if you prefer)
1 litre vegetable stock
Milk to taste
Grated nutmeg
2 bay leaves
1 generous tsp wholegrain mustard
Seasoning
100g Cheddar cheese, grated

Cook the chopped onion, celery, carrot, potato and garlic in butter for about 10 minutes until softened. Add the cauliflower and continue to cook gently for a further 15 minutes or so. Add the vegetable stock, bay leaves, seasoning and grated nutmeg, bring to the boil and simmer for 20-30 minutes until the vegetables are soft. Stir in the mustard.
Allow to cool slightly, then whizz in a blender, in batches, until smooth, and transfer to a clean pan. At this stage you can add milk if the consistency is thicker than you’d like. Stir in the grated cheese and warm gently before serving with fresh bread.
Freezes beautifully, like most soups – if anything, the flavour is often even better after a spell in the freezer!

allotment-cloches

Autumn Glory

ratatouille-ingredients

I can barely believe that September has flown past and here we are in October, summer definitely over, yet the gardens are still overflowing with beautiful produce. The weather is still being kind to us, at least down here in the South-East, so my (late) sweet peas are still going strong, as are the dahlias, and the courgettes are still producing chunky fruit every couple of days! There’s definitely a chill in the air, though, certainly in the morning and evening, and the leaves on my scarlet Euonymus alatus are just starting to turn – a sure sign that autumn has arrived.

euonymus-alatus

The late start to the growing season this year has meant that some crops haven’t done as well as usual: my squashes are very small, for instance, and the runner beans have been sketchy, although the French beans have been magnificent! My two plum trees were cut back hard last year and tend to be biennial in any event, so I haven’t had vast amounts of fruit, but the later Marjorie variety has come up trumps with a few bowls’ worth of sweet and juicy plums.

With all the ingredients for ratatouille to hand, it seemed sacrilege not to make some for the freezer – something you really appreciate in the dank. dark days of winter. In recent years I’ve been oven-roasting the standard veg for a baked ratatouille, but this time I’ve reverted to the traditional method of cooking slowly on the hob – delightfully simple, yet delicious. I used courgettes, aubergine (two types), tomatoes, basil, red and green pepper, red onions and garlic, but the specific vegetables are not set in stone. In fact, I actually used a couple of tins of tomatoes, and a squirt of tomato purée, as my own tomatoes are not particularly prolific this year – that late Spring again! The Sungold and Gardener’s Delight have done well, as usual, but you never get enough to cook with on a large scale as they are cherry tomatoes, after all. The Black Russian, though extremely tasty and fleshy, have fruited very sparsely and I won’t be growing those outside again. Back to the drawing board next year for a larger outdoor tomato…

ratatouille_prep

Starting with the sliced onions, garlic and pepper, I gradually add the remaining veg as I prepare them by chopping roughly, then simmer for an hour or so. The taste of summer… Freezes beautifully, of course.

ratatouille

After the last couple of chillier nights, I removed all the remaining tomatoes from my outdoor plants this morning and have left them in baskets to ripen on the conservatory windowsill. I’ve done the same with some of my triffid-like chilli plants too. This year’s variety, the jalapeno-like Summer Heat, has been very tasty (if pretty hot!), but with very large fruit and leggy plants – not necessarily ideal on the conservatory window ledge!

Fortunately, the allotment is still full of veg for the coming months: leeks, brassicas, beetroot and parsnips are all yet to come – the joys of growing your own! My new autumn raspberries have taken well in their new bed and I’m picking a handful every couple of days – perfect with my breakfast muesli and yogurt. Apples are looking plentiful too and one of this weekend’s tasks should certainly be to harvest as many as I can for storage in the garage before the first frosts. Such a lovely time of year….

Oh, and those plums? Delicious eaten straight from the tree, of course, but this is one of my favourite recipes for a plum-based dessert/cake:

Plum and Almond Cake

plum-and-almond-cake

9 1/2oz caster sugar
7oz butter
10-12 plums, halved, stones removed
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
4 fl oz milk

Grease an 8″ solid-bottomed cake tin – 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 heart and add 2oz butter, stirring well. Pour into the prepared cake tin and place the plum halves on top, cut side down.
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, alternating with the milk.
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. If any plums stick to the tin, just gently transfer them to their position on the cake.
Sprinkle with toasted flaked almonds if you like.
Serve warm with cream or crème fraiche for a delicious dessert or cold as cake – delicious either way!

Incidentally, I’ve also made this with gluten-free self-raising flour (Dove’s Farm) and it worked a treat – worth remembering!