A mixed bag for February

A mixed bag of a weekend, and one in which I’ve been up to London to a delicious wedding food tasting, bought part of my wedding outfit (hurrah!), had a frustrating time on the ‘phone to Apple to try to resolve my quick-draining phone battery, squeezed in some shopping (20% off at the local garden centre!) and household chores, and finally managed to catch up in the garden before next week’s forecast big freeze.

Seed potatoes

Part of my garden shopping haul included some seed potatoes for chitting: I’ve been looking for a few weeks, but most of the local garden centres only seemed to have the same old varieties, and as I now only grow one bed with 10 plants of 2 varieties, I do like to trial different ones each year. These were Colleen, a first early, and Bonnie. a second early, both with good disease/pest resistance and sounding promising. I’ve also discovered one of the nicest potato varieties I’ve ever grown down here in the South-East at an online nursery in Doncaster, so intend to order those too to see if they are as good as I remember. The variety is Ulster Sceptre and I haven’t been able to find them since trialling them from T&M some years ago. It transpires that these used to be widely grown in Cheshire, which probably explains why I liked them so much – they reminded me of the potatoes of my childhood. My mum always said you couldn’t beat new Cheshire potatoes (sorry, Jersey!), although I suspect the good loamy soil has a lot to do with it too. Not entirely sure where I’ll put them, but they come in 5s, so too good to miss….

It’s been a particularly beautiful, cold but sunny weekend, so all the more galling that I wasn’t able to do quite as much gardening today as I’d anticipated. Still, it would have been even more annoying if I’d tried to sort my ‘phone out on a work day, I suppose. No matter, I eventually (by dint of eking out the very last hours of daylight until the sun finally disappeared beyond the horizon and the final rose-orange rays of the stunning sunset faded away), did what I’d set out to achieve: cutting down the autumn raspberries at the allotment, and pruning the late-flowering clematis to a foot above the ground, plus finishing cutting back the perennial grasses and Michaelmas daisies at home. All of which took a surprisingly long time, probably because I allowed myself to become rather side-tracked pruning roses (intermingled with the clematis) and pyracantha (likewise).

Wonky arch

Mission accomplished in the end, though – and another task set up for next weekend: I’ve been aware for a while that my rose arch near the front gate has been leaning at an increasingly drunken angle. Closer inspection as I clipped the roses yesterday showed that the wood has simply rotted in the ground and the whole thing will have to come down. It’s been in situ some 10 or 11 years, so I suppose I can’t complain – and if it’s going to go, far better to happen now, rather than later in the season when everything is in full bloom. New metal arch duly ordered, but the task of unravelling the existing climbing roses and removing the old arch will have to wait until another time – here’s hoping this week’s predicted snow doesn’t do the job for me!

After a busy and successful day in London on Saturday, and lots of delicious food to sample at lunchtime, I only fancied a light meal when I got back home. I hadn’t anything planned, but a small Harlequin squash in the storage basket in the conservatory was just asking to be used. Cue one of my favourite simple suppers: an oven-baked frittata with squash, leeks, feta and sultanas, served with cherry tomatoes quickly roasted in the oven with rosemary, garlic and thyme at the same time. So tasty.

Squash, Leek & Feta Frittata – serves 2

Squash and leek frittata_cropped

1 small round or butternut squash, peeled and deseeded
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 leek, washed and sliced
olive oil
knob of butter
salt and black pepper
few sprigs fresh thyme
1 tbsp sultanas
1 tbsp pine nuts, toasted
50g feta cheese, crumbled
4 eggs, beaten

Pre-heat the oven to 180°C/Gas 5. Chop the squash into chunks and place in a small baking dish. Sprinkle over the thyme leaves and chopped garlic, then season with salt and black pepper. Roast in the hot oven until golden – about 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, sauté the sliced leeks gently in the butter until softened. Stir in the sultanas and toasted pine nuts. Beat the eggs in a separate bowl and season. Stir in the leek mixture and crumbled feta. When the squash is cooked, drain off any excess oil, and combine the squash with the egg mixture. Return to the roasting dish, distribute everything evenly and return to the oven for 10-12 minutes or until set and golden-brown. Cut into squares or triangles to serve warm with a green salad or with roast tomatoes. Also excellent cold (or reheated) the next day for lunch.

I’d made a similar dish, although probably more akin to a Spanish tortilla, last weekend, this time with potatoes, caramelised onions, thyme and cheddar. Served just warm, at a barn dance at the local school where we’d all been invited to bring a dish, it went down a treat. And proves that simple vegetarian food often hits the spot too.

Potato, Onion, Mushroom and Thyme Tortilla – serves 4-6

3-4 potatoes, peeled and roughly chopped
2-3 large onions, peeled and sliced
150g mushrooms, sliced
pinch of sugar
large knob of butter
seasoning
few sprigs of thyme
6 eggs (or to taste!)
100g mature Cheddar cheese, grated

Sauté the sliced onions gently in a frying pan until very soft and tender – about 10-30 minutes. The longer you cook them, the more caramelised they become. Add the mushrooms for the last 10 minutes and a pinch of sugar towards the end.

Meanwhile, place the potatoes in boiling salted water and cook for 10-15 minutes, or until just tender. Drain and leave to cool slightly.

Pre-heat the oven to 200180°C/Gas 5. Whisk the eggs in a separate large bowl, season and stir in the grated cheese, thyme leaves, caramelised onions and mushrooms, and the cooked potatoes. Mix well to combine and pour the mixture into a greased 24cm round ovenproof dish (or you can use a rectangular dish if you prefer). Add more beaten eggs at this stage if you’re using a bigger dish or it doesn’t look enough! Make sure that everything is distributed evenly, then cook in the oven for 15-20 minutes.

Best eaten lukewarm, but you can eat it immediately or leave until cold. The Spanish often take their tortilla on picnics, cold, where the flavours really shine through. I hasten to add that this is by no means a traditional Spanish recipe, merely my take on a combination I adore 🙂

Poppy at Tapsells in frost

 

 

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When life gives you shreddings, top up your paths!

Where has the time gone since I last wrote a post?! Lots of work, wedding preparations and family birthdays, I suspect… Fortunately, there’s still nothing much doing on the gardening front, but this weekend’s lovely sunny weather – for a change! – suggests that spring might be round the corner.

At this time of year, with mud everywhere and dank, wet days still far outnumbering the fine ones, you have to take your opportunities where you can. I was sitting at the computer in my study a couple of weeks ago, beavering away on my latest translation, when I realised that a couple of vans, one towing one of those heavy-duty shredders had pulled up outside. I watched them disgorge men and chainsaws, who duly went into my neighbours’ back garden, clearly intent on taking down the only large tree, a nondescript specimen that had grown far too close to the boundary and had been casting increasingly large shadows over both our gardens in recent summers. Thrilled at the thought of it being removed, it then occurred to me that this might be a great opportunity to top up the paths at my allotment. Well, if you don’t ask, you don’t get! Out I trotted and asked if they wanted the wood chippings themselves or whether I could have them. Bingo! Tree surgeons are often delighted if you ask them for shreddings, as they have to pay to dispose of them at the dump, and my neighbour certainly didn’t want them. He was removing the tree to make room for a shed cum playroom for his daughters, and tree residues were not foremost in his mind. A few hours later, I had a rather large pile of shredded bark and branches in my spare car parking space, and just the small matter of how to transport it down to the allotment…

Shredding pile

Roll on a few weeks and I’d managed to borrow a large skip bag from a friend, my son and his fiancée were home at the weekend, the sun was shining, and between the three of us and five round trips to the allotment, we managed to transfer the pile of shreddings down to the plot and spread it over the paths between the raised beds and in the utility area between the shed and my compost bins. It must be four or five years since I last replenished the bark and inevitably, as organic matter, it rots down over time and weeds start to germinate and grow. I do try to garden organically as a rule, but figured that pernicious couch grass and buttercups in the paths (on top of weedproof membrane!) were fair game for weedkiller, so sprayed a very targeted jet of weedkiller (which allegedly biodegrades quickly once it’s been absorbed by the weedy green matter) on the paths first, then covered with a very generous layer of my woody haul. So much better – and an excellent workout for us all too. No need to go for a run or the gym when you have an allotment! To say nothing of the savings over buying vast amounts of bark; even those big bales went nowhere last time I did it!

Lauren and Alastair with the barrow

Of course, after all that hard work, it was only fair that we had a reward when we collapsed in front of the fire on arriving home. Lemon & coconut bars were this week’s home-baking treat, and very good they were too. I had extra lemon cheese left over from making a trial run of two tiers of my son’s wedding cake last weekend (of which more soon!), and really didn’t want it to go to waste. A brief hunt online brought up this recipe for lemon curd squares, which sounded promising, and so it proved. Duly adapted, here it is:

Lemon & Coconut Bars – makes 8 large bars or 16 small squares

125g butter
125g plain flour
1 heaped tbsp semolina (or polenta)
100g caster sugar
Grated rind of 1/2 lemon
1/2 jar lemon cheese – use homemade if you can, so much nicer!
25g desiccated coconut
25g flaked almonds
15g coconut flakes (or use more almonds if you can’t find the coconut flakes)

Preheat the oven to 180°C/Gas 5. Whizz the butter, flour, semolina, sugar and lemon rind in a food processor until they resemble coarse breadcrumbs. Press 2/3 of the mixture into a 7″ (18cm) shallow, square cake tin with your fingertips, then bake in the oven for 10-15 minutes or until pale golden brown. Leave to cool for 10 minutes, then spread the lemon cheese on top to cover with a nice thick layer. Add the desiccated coconut, almonds and coconut flakes, if using, to the remaining crumbs, mix lightly and sprinkle over the lemon cheese, pressing down lightly. Lower the oven temperature to 160°C/Gas 4 and bake for 25-30 minutes or until golden brown.

Leave to cool into the tin, but cut into 8 large rectangles or 16 small squares before completely cold. Enjoy with a cup of Earl Grey tea and a very smug grin.

Lemon bars

Just in case you want to try a different lemon curd recipe, or only have egg yolks, as happened to me after the Christmas baking marathon, I recently discovered this Mary Berry recipe, which is, if anything, even simpler than my standard recipe (see link above). This one is possibly slighter richer, but good to know in case you end up with a lot of egg yolks to use up after a pavlova or meringue-making session! Mary’s recipe makes a huge quantity of curd, so I’ve adapted it to make a more manageable amount, which should still leave you some left over after you’ve made the lemon bars. Like my original recipe, it doesn’t need to be cooked over a water bath, so really is easy to make. Even if you’ve been put off the idea of making curd before, do give it a go! Sieving it at the end makes it pretty foolproof.

Mary Berry’s Easy Lemon Curd

4 large egg yolks
160g granulated sugar
Juice and grated rind of 2 large lemons
70g butter, cubed

Mix the egg yolks, sugar, lemon juice and lemon zest together in a medium-sized pan. Cook over a low heat, stirring with a wooden spoon, making sure it doesn’t stick. Cook for 5-7 minutes, or until the mixture coats the back of a spoon. Remove from the heat and stir in the butter until it melts. Pass through a sieve into a large jug. Pour into a sterilised glass jar and seal with a lid when cool. Refrigerate until needed: this will keep for several weeks in the fridge.

Shreddings on paths