And more salad…

Poppy in wild flowers June 2017

The hot weather may have come to an abrupt end and the water butts are now replenished, but the salad season continues here. It fits with the burgeoning cut-and-come-again lettuce that reshoots virtually as soon as you’ve picked it – I’ve given bags away to friends and family and still have plenty – with another row coming ready soon. Even so, now, when the heat is off temporarily, is the perfect time to do some more succession sowing of salad crops. Most seeds don’t germinate well in extreme heat and dry conditions, so now’s the time to take advantage of the respite and resow lettuce, rocket, carrots, beetroot, annual herbs and other salad leaves. My parsnip seeds have failed completely this year, both sowings, so I’ll use the space for more carrots and beetroot, both quicker to germinate and grow than parsnips, which need a long growing season. I usually find parsnips incredibly trouble-free, but every five years or so they refuse to cooperate, for whatever reason – growing conditions, the seeds themselves, who knows? Other plotholders have struggled too, so I know it’s not just me.

The tomatoes aren’t quite ready yet, although they are looking phenomenally healthy this year – another couple of weeks, I reckon. I’m growing just two varieties this year, the ever-delicious Sungold and old-fashioned favourite Ailsa Craig. In the meantime, I’ll just have to use bought tomatoes for this recipe, one of my go-to summer salads. I’m not sure where it came from in the first place, as it’s now a much-used page in my recipe scrapbook. I suspect it may have been a Good Housekeeping recipe, tweaked down the line, but basically anything goes.

Warm Mediterranean Chicken Salad (serves 6)

Med chicken salad

200g couscous
300g cherry tomatoes, halved
1 red pepper, chopped
50g black olives, pitted and chopped
1 garlic clove, crushed
1 tbsp capers, drained
2 tbsp pesto ( I use homemade broad bean pesto, or Delia’s basil pesto, but bought works well too)
9 tbsp virgin olive oil
1 small, hot cooked chicken (or use 3 chicken breasts, fried in strips for 5-10 minutes)
100g feta cheese, chopped (or use goat’s cheese)
Handful fresh basil leaves
Seasoning
Lettuce or salad leaves to serve

Put the couscous in a bowl, then add 225ml boiling water. Cover and leave to one side for 10 minutes or so.
Mix together the chopped tomatoes, pepper, olives, garlic, capers, pesto and 8 tbsp olive oil in a large bowl. If using a whole chicken, strip the meat from the bones and cut into bitesize pieces, then add to the bowl containing the tomato mixture. Toss gently together and season.
Add the remaining 1 tbsp olive oil to the couscous and mix lightly with a fork. Combine with the tomato mixture, and finally add the chopped feta or goat’s cheese. Sprinkle basil leaves on top. Arrange in a large salad bowl lined with salad leaves and serve so the chicken is still slightly warm, although it tastes good cold too the following day.

Another favourite salad for summer days is a Roasted Vegetable Salad, again served with couscous, although you could use rice instead. Simply chop courgettes, peppers, tomatoes, onions and garlic into chunky pieces (aubergines work well too), sprinkle with fresh basil leaves (or rosemary works well too), drizzle with olive oil and season, then place in a roasting tin and roast at 180°C fan/Gas 5 for 45 minutes or until just starting to brown. Meanwhile steam the couscous as above (100ml of boiling water per 60g couscous per person is my rule of thumb), leaving to stand for 10 minutes or so. Stir in 1 tbsp pesto, then spoon into a serving dish. Top with the roast vegetables, still warm if you like, and sprinkle over some feta or goat’s cheese. Delicious 🙂

Roast veg salad in bowl

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Salad Days

Allotment harvest mid-June

We’ve been experiencing an unexpected heatwave here in the South of England for the past week or so, with temperatures over 30°C at their peak. Nothing unusual for many parts of Europe, to be sure, but pretty exceptional in the UK! My house has a north-south axis which works very well in these conditions, especially as my office and bedroom are on the cooler north side of the house, so working and sleeping aren’t too much of an issue.

Watering becomes of paramount importance to a gardener, though. I’m resisting watering twice a day, but trying to water pots and containers at home in the morning, and the raised beds at the allotment in the evening – to spread the load. It’s actually a very enjoyable process, as you can commune with Nature as you water and see what’s newly flowering/germinating/doing well. I’ve managed with water from my water butts so far, but two out of the three at home have now run dry and the allotment butt has been empty for a while – although fortunately water at the allotment comes from a trough and standpipe at the corner of my plot – very convenient! Our yearly subscription covers water costs too, so while it’s not metered to us (although hosepipes aren’t allowed), any huge uptake in usage could theoretically lead to a rise in subs for us all next year, as it is metered to the allotment association.

Allotment poppy June 2017

I love summer evenings up at the allotments: there are always a few people pottering around their plots, it’s incredibly peaceful (apart from my noisy dogs if people dare to walk past “their” plot – sorry, folks) and the sunsets are spectacular. A lesson in mindfulness at the end of a busy day…. This week I’ve managed to mow the grass (trying to keep on top of it so it doesn’t reach jungle proportions again!), get rid of some perennial weeds (docks, blackberries, the dreaded convolvulus) that were encroaching on the paths, do some weeding around newly planted beds and keep up with the harvesting: strawberries, raspberries and redcurrants have suddenly started to ripen at a tremendous pace, and the broad beans and lettuce are still going strong. Such a lovely time of year.

I’ve even made some comfrey tea for use as a fertiliser in three weeks’ time when it has steeped sufficiently. Having lost my comfrey patch a few years back, a healthy-loooking clump has sprung up near the communal bonfire site, so I swapped a wheelbarrow full of weeds for a barrow overflowing with comfrey leaves, stuffed them in an old chicken pellet container (with a lid to contain the stench!), covered with water and will leave to brew. It smells vile but the plants love it – and it’s free!

The strawberries have been epic this year – I’ve had enough for breakfast every day and to make strawberry ice cream, strawberry cheesecake, pavlova and Strawberry Coulis for the freezer (just blitzed in a blender with the juice of an orange and 1 tbsp of icing sugar). Yesterday there were even enough for the quintessential summer jam: strawberry & redcurrant to be precise, as the currants add pectin and make for a better set.

Strawberry & Redcurrant Jam – makes 5 standard jars

Strawberry and redcurrent jam

1.2kg strawberries
300g redcurrants (or gooseberries would work too), removed from stalks
1.5kg granulated sugar
Juice of 1 lemon

Hull the strawberries, chopping up any particularly large fruit and put in a preserving pan with the strigged redcurrants. Add the lemon juice and simmer over a low heat for 20-30 minutes or until very soft.

Strawberry jam making

Weigh out the sugar and add, stirring until it dissolves, then turn up the heat to a rollicking boil, stirring as you go. Add a small knob of butter to reduce any froth! Test after 5-10 minutes to see if it has set – I find the best test is to hold your wooden spoon over the pan and when the drips run together to form a bigger drop that breaks off sharply, the jam will be done. Otherwise, have a saucer in the freezer and place a little of the jam on the saucer, cool slightly, then push with your finger: the surface should wrinkle. You will need to take the jam off the heat while you do this test to stop the jam overcooking. Strawberry jam is notoriously fiddly to set, so test little and often. Mine was ready after just 5-6 minutes in yesterday’s heat.

When set, pour the jam into prepared jars (washed and sterilised in the oven on a low heat), cover with waxed circles and lids, then label when cool. Set aside for the perfect accompaniment for traditional Victoria sponges and scones with jam & clotted cream over the coming summer months…

When the weather is this hot, though, salads are the way to go. Quite apart from the fact that I’ve been getting back from the allotment so late that cooking isn’t an option, it’s really too hot to contemplate cooking. I love experimenting with whatever I have in the fridge or bring back from the plot, resulting in some delicious combinations. Lunch today was a refreshing Melon, Strawberry & Feta Salad served on a bed of mizuna with dill and mint to garnish – sublime! With Galia melon (not my own!), two kinds of strawberries (the large allotment variety and tiny alpine strawberries that run with gay abandon in one border at home), drizzled with a splash of extra virgin olive oil and a hint of balsamic vinegar, this really hit the spot for a cooling, yet tasty lunch. The salty chalkiness of the feta and the slight bitterness of the mizuna were a perfect foil for the sweet and juicy fruit.

Strawberry and melon salad

Other salad combinations have included Baby Broad Beans & Griddled Halloumi with toasted pine kernels and rocket, with a chilli, mint and lemon dressing, and my perennial favourite, Bauernsalat (farmer’s salad), inspired by one of our best-loved holiday hotels, the Tennis Hotel in St. Wolfgang, Austria, which simply consists of crispy fried bacon and potatoes scattered on a bed of fresh salad, with a herby yogurt dressing to accompany. So good – worth cooking extra new potatoes especially to make this! Anything goes – experimenting is half the fun. If something doesn’t work particularly well, just leave it out next time – but with fresh and homegrown produce, chances are it will all taste sublime.

Allotment sunset

Pasticcio – perfect ways with roast lamb

Storm damage June 2017

I was fully intending to go to dance this evening, but a trickily formatted text took longer than I expected and by the time I’d walked the dogs, I was already late. Instead, I decided to make the most of the sun that had finally appeared on this wet and windy June day – much needed rain for the gardens, I should add. It was just a bit of a shock after all the lovely sunny days of late!

Rather than leaping about to funky dance routines, I repaired the damage I’d wreaked at the weekend when dashing outside in the dark to pick some mint for a mint tea and clumsily knocking over one of the trays of leeks I’d carefully pricked out only the previous weekend. Typical! Then I salvaged some of the day’s storm damage by tying in madly waving clematis and climbing roses and harvested a top-heavy allium and some floppy rose stems that had been flattened by the wind. The upside of storm damage is a vase of beautiful flowers for the house. This particular rose, David Austin’s Generous Gardener, is a beautiful shell pink, but very vigorous in its growth habits, despite being cut down very low each spring.

I usually have an omelette or a meal from the freezer (made earlier by my own fair hands, of course!) when I go to dance, so today was an ideal opportunity to cook from scratch instead and use up the leftover meat from Sunday’s roast lamb. This evening’s dish is based on a recipe in a Milk Marketing Board leaflet I’ve had since the early 80s. A friend gave it to me then, so it may even date back to the late 70s, but I do still refer to it from time to time. Called “Clever with Cream”, it extols the virtues of cooking with cream and every page has a heading beginning with ‘C’ – tonight’s was Cashwise with Cream, for a supposedly economical recipe. Cooking with leftover roast meat is very thrifty, of course, but delicious too.

Pasticcio (or Pastitsio) is a Greek-inspired dish, although I don’t claim this to be in any way authentic. I’ve had it in Greece, certainly, but this is my take on the original recipe, tweaked and adapted over the years, to suit whatever I have available in the fridge. I usually make a large dish and freeze what I don’t use immediately, but it’s great for a crowd as you can prepare it earlier, then cook as you need it. You can use fresh meat, rather than roast lamb, and the original recipe suggests using a mixture of pork and beef mince – anything goes!

Pasticcio – serves 6-8

Pasticcio

2 onions, finely chopped
2-3 sticks celery, finely chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 large carrot, diced
2 tbsp olive oil
2 bay leaves
1 tsp cinnamon
fresh herbs, finely chopped, to taste (I used rosemary, thyme and parsley, but the original recipe suggests dried oregano – very 70s!)
300-450g roast lamb (entirely flexible; use what you have! Or use fresh lamb mince if you prefer, but cook for longer initially)
1 large tin chopped tomatoes
red wine (to taste)
1 tbsp pesto (optional – I had some of last week’s broad bean pesto in the fridge, that’s all!)
2 tbsp tomato purée
250ml vegetable stock – as required
seasoning
225g macaroni (or penne/fusilli pasta)
60g butter
450ml milk
40g plain flour
freshly grated nutmeg
150g Cheddar cheese, grated
100ml single cream
1 egg

Fry the chopped onion, celery, carrots and garlic gently in a glug of olive oil until nicely softened and golden. Meanwhile, chop the roast lamb roughly in a food processor, then stir into the sautéed vegetables. Cook for another two minutes, then add the tinned tomatoes and tomato purée (and pesto if using). Stir in the cinnamon, bay leaves and herbs, then add a glug of red wine and some stock. Roast meat tends to absorb the liquid as it cooks, so you may need to top up as it simmers – with either wine or stock, as you prefer! Season and leave to simmer for 10-20 minutes while you get on with the rest.

Cook the macaroni or other pasta in a large pan of boiling, salted water for 10 minutes. Drain, then return to the pan with 20g of the butter and freshly ground pepper and leave to one side, covered.

Meanwhile, prepare the Béchamel sauce: I have to confess I don’t measure out the ingredients for a traditional white sauce, just do it by eye, but I have noted the quantities from the original recipe if you’re less familiar with the process. Melt the remaining 40g butter in a saucepan, then stir in 40g plain flour and cook for a minute or so. Gradually stir in the milk, using a small wire whisk to prevent lumps, then add grated nutmeg and 50g grated cheese and season well. Turn off the heat and stir 1-2 tbsp of sauce into the meat mixture.

Place half the cooked pasta in the bottom of a greased rectangular lasagne dish and sprinkle with 1 tbsp grated cheese. Top with the meat mixture, then spoon the remaining macaroni on top. Finally, stir the cream into the white sauce (can be omitted for a less creamy result – or use yogurt instead) and then the beaten egg. Pour the sauce over the contents of the dish, covering all the pasta, and top with any remaining grated cheese.

Cook in a pre-heated oven at 180°C (fan) / Gas 5 for 25-30 minutes until nicely browned on top and piping hot. Leave to stand for a minute or so to allow it to set a little for slicing into portions, then serve in squares with a green salad. Enjoy! Freezes beautifully too.

Pasticcio serving with salad

The worse part of this recipe is the washing up, as it uses so many pans, but no more than a traditional lasagne and very much worth the effort. I usually try and wash up while it’s in the oven, rather than leaving it all until afterwards. Unless you have a willing sous-chef, of course – cooking with my mother around is always a delight as she constantly washes and dries up :-). This is cooking with leftovers at its best. So good.

Germination Blues

Alliums

It’s been a funny start to the growing season – but then don’t we gardeners say that every year, no matter what the conditions?! This year feels to have been trickier than most, however, not helped by my having been away or otherwise engaged (son’s wedding plans gathering pace…) for the last three weekends. The second half of May is always the busiest in a gardener’s calendar, so things down at the plot had really run away with me.

Then there was the unseasonably warm weather over Easter, followed by an unexpectedly sharp frost at the end of April which decimated all my shooting dahlias at the allotment and seems to have had a disastrous effect on germination, both on the ground and in the propagator at home. No sign of carrots or parsnips, sown under fleece at the end of April, and those beetroot that did germinate have been chomped by slugs – unprecedented as beetroot are normally impervious to mollusc attack! In the conservatory, aubergines and tomatoes germinated as usual, as did my sweet peppers, but chillis have been a disaster, with one weedy looking plant, despite a second sowing. Peas and sweet peas too have been very poor, although I suspect the mangetouts sown in the open ground have been the target of mice, rather than solely germination problems. Courgettes and squash have fared little better, resulting in a meagre three courgette plants and four squashes in total, again despite a second sowing. I’m beginning to wonder whether there was something wrong with the seed compost!

Ah well, having returned from my various travels this week, I’ve managed to spend a couple of sessions down at the allotment on the balmy evenings we’ve been having and am finally feeling that order has nearly been restored. I’ve sown more root crops and peas, planted out the sweet peas I bought on offer in Homebase to make up for my poor showing and sown more mangetouts. I’ve weeded the salad crops which were being taken over by chick weed, horrible stuff that it is, and taken out the spent brassicas, flowering spinach and overblown winter rocket to make space for the courgettes, sweetcorn and French beans – this weekend’s job. Oh, and I’ve planted the new dahlias bought from Sarah Raven as tubers earlier in the season and all now making sturdy plants, alongside last year’s in the ground which have recovered, albeit slowly, from their premature frosting. Looking good…. I’m hoping to have some ready for the wedding flowers at the end of July, so fingers crossed.

Basil

On the plus side, the asparagus has been excellent this year and the broad beans are as good as ever. Tonight’s dinner saw me making the first broad bean pesto of the season, but with half mint, half basil, as the basil in the conservatory hasn’t quite reached jungle proportions yet. Delicious in a simple pasta dish with onions, bacon and a few extra broad beans. If you’ve never eaten freshly picked broad beans, there’s just no comparison with the shop-bought or frozen variety – I urge you to give them a go!

This weekend’s first task will be to sow my French beans straight into the ground (no runners this year; now there’s just me, I really prefer the finer taste of the French variety and I certainly don’t need the gluts that invariably accompany runner beans!). I also need to plant up my summer containers at home and mow the allotment grass, always last on my agenda, although it makes such a difference when it’s all neat and tidy. Here’s hoping the weather holds up – happy gardening!

Poppy in the wheat field