Rain stopped play – again…

Llama

After a hectic few weekends of socialising, I’d been looking forward to a weekend of catching up in the garden, tidying up the windswept perennial foliage and distributing the spent compost from last year’s containers to lighten my heavy and sodden clay soil. It wasn’t to be – rain stopped play again, non-stop on both days. Even more frustrating after the couple of glorious winter days we’ve had this week, when, of course, I was tied to deadlines at my computer screen. ‘Twas ever thus… Still at least the hellebores and snowdrops are coming on apace with all this rain, even if we can’t get outside much to enjoy them.

In actual fact, it has turned out to be quite a productive weekend, allowing me to get down to some long overdue household chores, as well as the usual house cleaning and shopping. My son and daughter-in-law had given me some expanding drawer dividers as part of my Christmas present, so I took the plunge and sorted out the black hole that is my utensil drawer. It had reached the stage where I struggled to find lesser-used equipment whenever I opened the drawer – hopeless when you’re frantically searching for something as you cook. Now everything is neatly ordered – let’s see if I can keep it that way!

Drawer dividers

Next up was my full-height fridge: I’ve been meaning to give this a thorough clean for ages, but inevitably life gets in the way and it just had a quick wipe-down. Yesterday was the day – everything out, all the drawers and shelves cleaned to within an inch of their lives, and returned pristine. So satisfying!

The ubiquitous dog walks had to continue, rain or no rain, hence the encounter with the local llamas (above). I don’t know who was more shocked, the llama or the dogs, when we came face to face over the corner of the fence!

Llama sign

A brief foray to an extremely muddy and waterlogged allotment was also required to harvest leeks and parsley. I’d been up on a lovely sunny morning earlier in the week to show a prospective new sub-tenant the untended top quarter of my plot. The previous tenant had clearly found it too demanding, and the brambles and weeds have taken their toll over the course of the past year, so I shall be heartily relieved to have someone else take it off my hands! I had been thinking I’d have to blitz the lot, spray with glyphosate (which I really don’t like doing) and then cover with weedproof membrane to keep it under control, as I really don’t have time, inclination or need to have that extra growing space with only me at home now. Fingers crossed she takes to it….

Despite having no parsnips of my own this year, I want to share a delicious recipe for a Parsnip and Leek Dauphinoise that I cooked on Friday evening with roast salmon when my son and daughter-in-law came for dinner en route for skiing (him) and dog-sitting for her parents’ dogs (her). Relatively simple (especially if you have a mandoline), but extremely tasty – and always good to use at least some of your own produce even in the depths of winter. No picture, I’m afraid – we ate it far too quickly!

Parsnip & Leek Dauphinois – serves 3-4

150ml milk (semi-skimmed works fine)
150ml double cream
1 bay leaf
Fresh nutmeg, grated
Seasoning
500g parsnips, peeled and thinly sliced (preferably with a mandoline for ease)
1 large leek, sliced
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
knob of butter, diced (optional)
1 tsp wholegrain mustard
25g Parmesan, finely grated

Pour the milk and cream into a pan, grate over the nutmeg and add the bay leaf and seasoning. Bring slowly to the boil, watching carefully to make sure it doesn’t boil over, than switch off the heat and leave to infuse for 10 minutes or so.

Meanwhile slice the parsnips and leek, and chop the garlic. Pre-heat the oven to 180ÂșC / Gas 5. Grease a gratin dish – mine measures 20cm by 22cm or thereabouts, then layer up the parsnips, leeks and garlic, finishing with a layer of similar-sized parsnip slices. I always try and put the smaller rings from the lower ends of the parsnips on the bottom, where they won’t be seen. Dot the diced butter across the top. Stir the mustard into the cream mixture and remove the bay leaf. Pour the cream mixture over the vegetables and sprinkle with the grated Parmesan cheese.

Cover the gratin dish with foil and cook for 55 minutes. Remove the foil and return to the oven for another 10-15 minutes to brown nicely. Serve with meat or fish to general acclaim 🙂

None left for dogs, even when they put that adorable face on, but they did get the salmon skin…

Leo looking quizzical

 

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It’s a chill wind…

Kale

It’s been bitterly cold outside today, so apart from the requisite two daily dog walks, and a brief visit to the allotment to reinstate my brassica frame and harvest some leeks, parsley, calabrese and Cavolo Nero, it’s been a day for hibernating inside in front of a roaring log fire. The frame had blown down again in last week’s strong winds, along with several front panels of my allotment shed, so it was a good thing I was accompanied by my younger son, who took it upon himself to screw them back into place. Otherwise, I might very well have discovered the whole shed missing next time I go up! As it was, there was a large piece of wood lying at the shed door, which definitely wasn’t mine and must have blown from someone else’s plot. The joys of an exposed site… but a small price to pay for tranquillity and spectacular country views, I suppose.

I did manage to do my annual New Year’s Day plant survey earlier in the week, but the wet weather meant that there were only 11 plants in flower this year: a couple of primroses, hellebores foetidus and Party Frock, chaenomeles Crimson & Gold, viburnum bodnantense Charles Lamont and daphnes aureomarginata, mezereum alba and bholua Jacqueline Postill, rose Frilly Cuff (a new addition last autumn) and a deep pink heather. However, the snowdrops are growing by the day with all the rain and their first buds should soon be out. A decidedly cheering thought.

Other than cutting back last year’s hellebore foliage, most of which has now started to fan out from the centre to better show off the emerging flower buds, as if reminding me that it’s time for the chop, there really isn’t much to tempt me out into the garden at this time of year. Even the compost bins, still stocked by a weekly bag of vegetable waste from the kitchen, decay at a slower rate at this time of year. The hellebore leaves don’t go into the garden compost, of course, as some of them show signs of hellebore leaf spot, a fungal disease I definitely don’t want to perpetuate from one year to the next. I did cut down last year’s dead and strawlike flower spikes on my vigorous valerian (centranthus ruber) plants too, though, revealing the lovely new growth waiting beneath.

Seeds Jan 2018

One thing I did do yesterday was visit my local garden centre, where I snapped up some real bargains, not only in half-price seeds – always worth looking at this time of year – but half-price organic slug pellets and tomato food too. A substantial saving when you add it all up, and these are all things I will definitely get through when the gardening year gets going in earnest.

Back in the warmth, this was an evening for an old-fashioned Beef & Guinness casserole with herby dumplings, followed by that old favourite, pineapple upside-down pudding & custard. Comfort food par excellence.

Pineapple Upside-Down Pudding – serves 6

 

Pineapple upsidedown_cropped

1 large tin pineapple slices in juice, drained
50g glacé cherries, halved
2-3 tbsp golden syrup
125g caster sugar
125g butter
125g self-raising flour, sifted
1 tsp baking powder
2 eggs, beaten
1 tsp vanilla extract

Pre-heat the oven to 160ÂșC, Gas 4. Grease a 20cm cake tin – I like to use a tarte tatin tin for this, but any deep cake tin will do. Spoon the golden syrup into the bottom of the tin and spread out to cover completely. Arrange the pineapple slices on the bottom of the dish; you may not need them all, but fit in what you can. Arrange the cherries decoratively around the pineapple slices.

Place the remaining ingredients in a medium bowl and whisk until light and fluffy. Spoon onto the pineapple and spread out evenly to cover. Bake at 160ÂșC, Gas 4 for 45 minutes until golden brown and firm to the touch. Serve warm with fresh custard or pouring cream.

In my Soup Kitchen

Happy New Year!

Dogs on haybales Boxing Day 2017

I’ve been making soup for years, ever since I first got married in the early 1980s in fact. It’s so simple and delicious, I can’t imagine why anyone would ever go to the trouble (and expense) of buying it, especially when you inevitably make far more than you need in one sitting, so can freeze the rest for another day – and of course freezing soups and casseroles always allows the flavours to mature and taste even better next time around.

Christmas is invariably an opportunity to make one of the best meat stocks from the turkey carcass – a big bird means oodles of flavour, and if you’ve been able to make giblet stock from the giblets and neck of the bird, so much the better. Supermarkets don’t seem to supply the giblets these days, but if you can buy poultry from a farm shop or butcher, it should come with the giblets. It’s a simple matter to throw them in a large pan with an onion, carrot, a few sticks of celery, couple of bay leaves, thyme, rosemary and parsley, seasoning, all topped up with water. Just bring to the boil and simmer for two hours – for me, this is the first real smell of Christmas cooking. This year I was at my son and daughter-in-law’s house, but had joined forces with my daughter-in-law’s parents to contribute the turkey to the feast, and ended up preparing the stock for the Christmas Day gravy on Christmas Eve when I arrived. The dogs enjoy their annual treat of cooked turkey liver, heart, etc on Christmas morning too, although this year it had to be shared between 5!

I usually save every last drop of vegetable cooking water to add to the stock pan when it’s time to make the stock from the turkey carcass after carving and removing all the meat from the bones, but you can use fresh water if that’s all you have. Turkey stock uses the same ingredients as giblet and chicken stock (onions, carrot, celery, bay leaves, thyme, rosemary, parsley, seasoning; I sometimes add a lemon or a whole fresh chilli too, as the mood takes me), but needs a very large pan. I use a huge stainless steel stockpot, whereas I often use my slowcooker to make chicken stock overnight from a cooked chicken carcass. As before, bring to the boil, then simmer for a good two hours, allow to cool and strain off the deliciously scented liquid – ambrosia! Oh and the dogs usually enjoy the surprising quantities of meat that fall off the bones after long, slow cooking, although you could probably add them to the resulting soup if you haven’t got waiting canine assistants on hand.

This year my daughter-in-law kindly let me take the turkey carcass home to make my stock, so I was still able to make my annual favourite: turkey broth. I’m sure it has health-giving superproperties: it certainly warms the cockles of your heart and has become such a tradition in our house. It’s always a sad day when the last pot of turkey broth is taken out of the freezer… Quantities in this recipe are entirely variable – much depends on the size of your pan and what you have lying around, but you won’t go far wrong as long as the basics are there, and you can always add more liquid or boil off any extra at the end – one of the joys of soup-making. I used to make this, or its chicken equivalent, when my boys were babies, purĂ©eing it at first (without seasoning, of course) and then as a chunky hotpot by adjusting the amount of liquid. Perfect.

Turkey Broth

1.5 – 2 litres of turkey stock
50g butter
2 onions
2-3 carrots
2-3 sticks celery
1 large potato
1 large parsnip (or swede)
1 handful pearl barley
2-3 bay leaves
2-3 sprigs thyme
2 sprigs rosemary
Handful parsley, chopped
Salt & pepper
100-200g chopped cooked turkey meat, to taste (depending what you have left)
100g frozen peas

Chop the onions and soften in the butter in a large pan. Peel and chop the carrots, celery, potato and parsnip (or swede), then add to the pan and continue to cook until all the vegetables have softened – about 10 minutes. Stir in the pearl barley, herbs and seasoning, then add the stock and bring to the boil. Finally add the turkey meat, then turn down the heat, cover with a lid and simmer for a good 2 hours. Add the frozen peas about 5 minutes before serving in homely bowls with lots of good homemade bread.

Enjoy! Freezes beautifully.

Highland Cow Boxing Day 2017

With a house full of people over the holiday period, my soup stocks tend to go down, but not working for 10 days also allowed me to make more. Broccoli & Stilton soup was yesterday’s effort to use up the leftover Stilton from the festive cheeseboard and a head of broccoli in the bottom of the fridge that had seen better days. At the weekend I fancied a spicy golden soup to use one of my lovely Crown Prince squashes, still going strong in storage in the cool conservatory. They are so large that I only needed half for the soup, giving the other half to my son to take back to London. Browsing through my cookery books, I came across this recipe on a tiny newspaper cutting. I’m not sure where it came from originally, but it was just what I had in mind. You could, of course, use butternut squash too; in fact that’s what the original recipe specifies.

Squash & Coconut Soup – serves 6-8

Squash and coconut soup

1 large squash (butternut or Crown Prince) – you need 900g – 1kg peeled and seeded flesh
2-3 tbsp olive (or vegetable) oil
2 onions, chopped
2 sticks celery, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
generous knob of root ginger, peeled and chopped
2 red or green chillis, chopped (to taste)
zest and juice of 1-2 limes
2 bay leaves (or Kaffir lime leaves if you have them!)
1 tbsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp coriander seeds
1 tsp ground turmeric
Seasoning
1 litre stock (turkey, chicken or vegetable)
400ml can coconut milk
Chopped coriander to garnish

Prepare the squash by peeling (I use a Y-shaped vegetable peeler), removing the seeds and chopping into rough chunks. Soften in the oil in a large pan. Add the chopped onions, celery, garlic, ginger and chillis and continue cooking gently for 10 minutes or so. Crush the cumin and coriander seeds with a pestle and mortar, then add to the vegetables with the turmeric and lime zest. Add the bay leaves (or chopped lime leaves if using) and seasoning. Add the stock, bring to the boil and cook for 20-30 minutes. Allow to cool slightly, then purée in a liquidizer and return to the pan. Add the coconut milk and reheat. Adjust the consistency by adding more stock if necessary. Garnish with coriander leaves to serve.

Eynsford walk Boxing Day 2017
Boxing Day walk around Eynsford – photo courtesy of James Cox

Thanks to my son for the beautiful photos of the dogs perched on their hay bales and our crisp and sunny Boxing Day walk around Eynsford. The weather may not have been brilliant over the Christmas break, but at least we got a couple of nice walks in – and perfect weather for soup when we got back!