Another weekend, more progress…

Allotment evening sun

Another weekend comes around, very different from the soaring temperatures of last weekend, but dry at least today, so I’ve finally ventured out into the allotment to do something other than harvesting. My gardening helper came in again on Thursday and did the heavy weeding and lawn mowing, which meant it was a much easier proposition to go up today and get started with the interesting bits! As it was, I still spent over two hours up there, preparing beds and soil – all very enjoyable, but I can certainly feel it in my knee now…

Carrots, parsnips and beetroot are duly sown, along with salad crops: spinach, Swiss chard, rocket, lettuce, oriental mustard, parsley, coriander, dill and chives. I also planted red onion sets around the outside of the bed where the leeks are due to go: currently still containing healthy-looking parsley and chard/spinach that’s about to go to flower, but should be good for a few more pickings. I had intended to plant my peas too, sweet and mangetout, but common sense prevailed and I’ll save that until tomorrow – weather permitting!

I returned home with vast amounts of rhubarb – clearly loving the typical April weather of sunshine and showers – and yet more purple-sprouting broccoli. Most of my meals this week have featured broccoli one way or another, not that I’m complaining. It’s a real delight to have something so fresh and tasty at this time of year, before the asparagus and the broad beans come into their own in a few weeks’ time.

Tonight I simply had it steamed served with salmon fillet, a cream and herb sauce, paprika-dusted chunky chips and a garlic mushroom. So good. Other uses during the week were my standby broccoli and anchovy pasta, a tuna, leek and broccoli pasta bake, and a broccoli and feta frittata. Nothing very taxing, but nice to ring the changes by cooking the broccoli in different ways. And just think of all those vitamins! A and C for starters, but it also contains calcium, iron and folic acid, to name but a few of its nutritional goodies. Let’s hope it goes straight to the knee….

Broccoli & Feta Frittata – serves 2

Broccoli frittata with sorrel mint salad

1 onion, chopped
1 medium potato, diced and parboiled for 5 minutes
1 handful of purple-sprouting broccoli, steamed or microwaved for 2-3 minutes
8-10 cherry tomatoes, halved
a glug of olive oil
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
100g feta cheese, cubed
4 eggs
Salt and pepper

Cook the chopped onion gently in the oil for 10 minutes until starting to soften. Stir in the cooked potato, cherry tomatoes and thyme, and cook for a few more minutes.

Meanwhile beat the eggs, add salt and pepper, then stir in the cubed feta. Tip in the onion, potato and tomato mixture and finally add the drained, cooked broccoli. Pour the mixture into a greased 7″ square roasting dish and make sure everything is evenly distributed. Cook for 12-15 minutes in a pre-heated oven (200°C / Gas 6) until just set to the touch.

Leave to cool for a few minutes and then cut into quarters to serve, preferably with a fresh green salad: mine was fresh red sorrel and mint, as they are both plentiful in the garden at home at the moment, with a handful of red grapes. The frittata re-heats beautifully the next day for lunch if you have any left over.

This next recipe isn’t a looker (are pasta bakes ever?), but it is a really tasty and comforting way of serving broccoli when you have it coming out of your ears… It also contains leeks, another vegetable I’m trying to use up at this time of year, before they flower, and to free up the beds for next month’s courgette and sweetcorn plants. You can still eat them when they go to flower, but they start to develop a hard central tube, so best to use them before if at all possible.

Broccoli & Pasta Bake – serves 2

1 x 160g tin tuna, drained
60g pasta (I used penne, but use whatever you have)
1 generous handful purple-sprouting broccoli
1 large or 2 small leeks, sliced into rings
25g butter
1 heaped tbsp plain flour
250ml milk
1 tbsp parsley, chopped
Freshly grated nutmeg
100g Cheddar cheese, grated
2 tbsp breadcrumbs (I keep a bag in the freezer and use from frozen)
Salt and pepper

Cook the pasta in boiling salted water for 10 minutes, then drain and set aside. Steam the broccoli over the pasta for the last 3-4 minutes.

Meanwhile, gently cook the leeks in the butter until starting to soften. Stir in the flour and cook for a few minutes, then gradually add the milk. You may need to add more milk if the consistency is too thick – this is a matter of personal taste, so use your discretion! Grate in some fresh nutmeg, and stir in the chopped parsley and half of the grated cheese. Then stir in the flaked tuna and season to taste.

When the pasta is cooked, stir the pasta through the sauce, add the cooked broccoli, and turn into a greased ovenproof dish. I use a 20 cm round Pyrex dish. Mix the reserved grated cheese with the breadcrumbs and sprinkle on top. Bake at 200°C / Gas 6 for 25 – 30 minutes until golden brown. Serve with peas or a green salad.

Finally, to use up the feta left over from the frittata, I turned to yet another pasta dish, featuring one of my favourite pasta sauces and one my boys took away to university as easy student fare. I find it’s only too easy to forget about half a packet of feta in the fridge once you’ve opened it, so this is a delicious way of using it up before it goes off. I think the original recipe came from renowned Italian food writer Anna del Conte, but I’ve tweaked it over the years as usual. You can add sweet peppers, or omit the onion: it’s always good.

Spicy Sausage Pasta – serves 2-3

Sausage pasta_rotated

1 x 400g pack good sausages (I like to use Sainsbury’s Sicilian sausages, but any will do)
200g pasta (penne or rigatoni)
1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 red chilli, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 tin chopped tomatoes
2 tbsp tomato purée
2 tbsp capers, drained
12 black olives
120ml white wine
2 tbsp parsley, chopped (or basil in season)
100g feta cheese, crumbled
salt & pepper

Cook the chopped onion gently in the oil in a frying pan. Use scissors to cut the skin off the sausages and discard. Chop the sausage meat into chunks and add to the frying pan after 5-10 minutes, then add the chopped garlic and chilli. Cook until the sausage is no longer pink, then add the tomato purée and the wine. Let it sizzle and die down, then add the tinned tomatoes, capers and olives. Season to taste. Simmer uncovered for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile cook the pasta in boiling salted water for 10 minutes, then drain and set aside, reserving a few tbsp of cooking water to add to the tomato mixture if it looks to be getting dry. Alternatively add more wine!

After 15 minutes, add the pasta to the sauce, toss thoroughly and serve topped with the crumbled feta cheese and the chopped parsley.

Poppy in bluebells 2018

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Getting stronger…

Cherry blossom front garden

Me, and growth in the garden, that is! An unexpectedly warm and sunny week in mid-April is just what the doctor ordered, encouraging me out to ever longer dog walks (dry and less treacherous underfoot, thank goodness) and also spurring the gardens into heavenly spring growth: tulips, daffodils, camellias, magnolias, epimediums, bluebells – all flowering at once…. Stunning!

I took the opportunity of a trip over to my son’s near Sevenoaks at the weekend to visit a garden I’ve always meant to visit: Riverhill Himalayan Gardens, perched on a fabulous vantage point above the A21, overlooking the Kent and Sussex Weald. It didn’t disappoint with intoxicating bluebell walks, stately rhododendrons, magnificent magnolias and fantastic views everywhere you looked. Dogs were allowed (on leads), a rare treat in these days where dogs seemed to be banned outright in many of the classic National Trust gardens. A sorry tale of the few cavalier dog owners spoiling it for the many who do pick up after their dogs and keep them under control in public places. For the odd child who veered away from our three (on their leads, good as gold). there were lots of others who were keen to come and coo and stroke them, especially my daughter-in-law’s working cocker spaniel, Ollie, who basks in all the attention, true therapy dog that he is.

Ollie in coat

Part of the reason I was able to have such a relaxed weekend was that I’d taken the plunge to get a cleaner back in to clean my house, partly because of my accident, but also to free up precious leisure time. I’d also, for the first time ever, paid for help in the garden, to do the heavy jobs I’d struggle to do with a weak, though recovering knee. A very good move: my overgrown lawn is now neatly mown, hard-to-access areas under trees and shrubs weeded, garden compost distributed around the hungry beds and my potatoes (Ulster Sceptre, Colleen and Bonnie) duly planted at the allotment. Such a relief!

On a side note, Ulster Sceptre is a variety I trialled from T&M some years ago and absolutely loved. I haven’t been able to find them since, but tracked them down to a grower in Yorkshire this year, only to see them described as the variety often grown as early Cheshires – no wonder I loved them, if they are the new potato taste of my childhood!

This left me free to spend a lovely afternoon just pottering on Sunday. I sowed more seeds in the propagator as others germinate and are moved out onto the conservatory windowsill: sweetcorn Ambrosia, courgette Defender and squash Crown Prince (from my own seeds saved from last year) and Early Butternut. Oh, and I’ve tried more celeriac this year (Monarch), having enjoyed it so much in cooking last year: so good with venison. It’s always been a martyr to slug damage whenever I’ve tried it before, but we’ll see…

I also got around to potting up my dahlia tubers, to get them going in the protected environment of my growframe before they go out in the open. Somehow or other I must have gone crazy at dahlia ordering time and have ended up with 10 new varieties! Six from Sarah Raven: purple Ripples, Shooting Star (cream tinged with mauve), Genova (mauve), Snowstorm (white of  course), Wizard of Oz (baby pink) and Daisy Duke (copper). The cream and purple shades are admittedly geared to my younger son’s July wedding, when it would be nice to have at least some blooms to accompany their lavender theme – weather permitting! I have bought a new raised bed kit to be dedicated to cutting flowers, but need help to install it: one for my gardener’s list, I think.

I had also succumbed to a Gardener’s World/Thompson & Morgan dahlia offer: four tubers for the cost of postage; who could resist?! These included Arabian Night, a deep red black cactus variety I’ve had before and loved – and since my favourite dark dahlia Rip City finally disappeared last year, this was an ideal chance to re-introduce that burgundy shade. The others were My Love (cream), Orfeo (another deep red) and Mingus Toni (speckled rose). I’m sure I’ll manage to shoehorn them all in somewhere… It may even be that some of last year’s, all left in the ground to overwinter as usual, haven’t survived the very cold temperatures we had earlier this year. Time will tell.

TM dahlia offer

Most of the tuberous begonias I’d overwintered in the shed had perished in the extremely cold temperatures, but two of my monster tubers still feel quite solid and have been duly potted up. I’ve had them all for a good couple of years, so they owe me nothing; we’ll see if they shoot, and if not, I’ll start again with fresh plants and new varieties. Such is the joy of gardening 🙂

My final task of the weekend, still from a gentle sitting position with my potting tray moved to my garden table, involved pricking out the fibrous begonia seedlings my parents had brought over the previous weekend from Dove’s Barn, a nursery near them in East Grinstead, always very reasonably-priced for a wide range of seedlings and young plants. These are very tricky to grow from seed yourself unless you have a heated greenhouse, so I usually buy them at the tiny seedling stage and prick them out myself. These were one stage further on as mini plug plants, but it’s still a lot cheaper to buy them like this than to buy trays of garden-ready plants in a month or so’s time. And while it may seem unadventurous to always have begonias in my garden tubs, I know from experience that these are such good doers: come sun or rain, slug epidemic or drought, these do well whatever the season throws at them.

Bluebells at Tapsells April 2018

 

 

Spring celebrations

Spring celebration cake

One thing I am still able to do now I’m a little more mobile is bake – and, as it happened, we’d planned to do some more wedding cake experimentation last weekend by way of a joint birthday cake to celebrate three family birthdays at a picnic down at my friends’ smallholding on Saturday. We’d discussed making another two-tier cake even before I had my accident, but I didn’t see why I shouldn’t be able to go ahead with the bottom tier, especially with the assistance of my trusty KitchenAid. My daughter-in-law took control of the 8″ top layer, as she will for the wedding in July. This time we opted for a simple Victoria sponge with vanilla buttercream and homemade black & redcurrant jam. We had intended to cover the whole thing with buttercream as last time, but we ran out of time on the Saturday morning and opted for a very simple naked cake instead – actually really pretty!

After much research into increasing the quantities of cake mix to fit larger tins, I resorted to calculating the area of a 10″ tin compared to my usual 7″ sponge and multiplying by half as much again to get a three-layer cake rather than the standard 2-layer Victoria cake. Good old πr² – those maths lessons do have their uses after all! My standard 2-layer cake uses 3 large eggs and 6oz of self-raising flour, caster sugar and butter (I use the spreadable kind as it whisks up better in an all-in-one cake), plus one teaspoon of vanilla extract and one teaspoon of baking powder. I used Dove’s Farm gluten-free self-raising flour to great effect this time – no-one could believe it was actually gluten-free! For a larger 10″ cake with three layers, I used 9 eggs, and scaled up the other ingredients accordingly, while my daughter-in-law used 5 eggs and 10oz each of the other ingredients for her 8″ cake.

Spring Celebration Cake

8″ sponge (3 layers):
5 large eggs
10oz caster sugar
10oz self-raising flour (GF works well)
10oz spreadable butter
1.5 heaped tsp baking powder
1.5 tsp vanilla extract

10″ sponge (3 layers):
9 large eggs
1lb 2oz caster sugar
1lb 2oz self-raising flour (GF works well)
1lb 2oz spreadable butter
3 heaped tsp baking powder
3 tsp vanilla extract

I large jar (at least 1lb) red jam – homemade or good quality jam of your choice. Mine was a very large jar, so make sure you have more in reserve just in case!

Vanilla buttercream:
1lb spreadable butter
2lb icing sugar, sifted
1.5 tsp vanilla extract

Dowelling
1x thin 7″ cake board
Garden flowers to decorate

First make the cakes separately. If you have a KitchenAid or freestanding mixer, this makes the whole process a lot easier! I resisted for years, but can’t imagine baking without it now – and for these large celebration cakes they are a real boon.

Weigh out and place all the ingredients for each cake in the mixer and blend until light and fluffy. Make sure you go round the sides with a spatula and scrape right down to the bottom several times in this process to make sure all the dry materials are incorporated properly. Then divide the mixture between three greased and base-lined cake tins. You can do this by eye or for perfect results weigh the mixture and divide by three. Cook in a pre-heated oven at 160°C for 25 to 30 minutes, then allow to cool in the tins before removing to a wire rack.

Repeat for the second cake. I had two deep 10″ tins as opposed to three sandwich tins so ended up dividing the mixture into two, cooking the deeper cakes for 45 minutes  and then halving the resulting cakes with my clever cake slicer. This made a 4-layer cake for the bottom (which of course would have been covered by icing had we proceeded as planned!). It really didn’t matter in the event. but I will get another tin and make three separate layers for the wedding cake proper.

When the cakes are cool, sandwich them with jam and buttercream. I did alternating jam and buttercream layers, but you could equally well use thinner layers of jam and buttercream between each cake layer. Bear in mind that you might need more jam and buttercream if you’re doing this though!

Once you’ve assembled each individual three-layer sponge, cut pieces of dowelling to size so they are just smaller than the overall height of the bottom cake and insert 4 pieces into the cake in a square pattern around the centre. Carefully place the top cake onto the cake board (or assemble on the cake board in the first place) and position on top of the larger cake.

Finally, decorate with garden flowers of your choice. I put more buttercream on the top and placed camellias and primroses in that as a centrepiece, dotting more primroses in the layers around, but the choice is yours – any flowers would work, depending on the seasons. Dust with sifted icing sugar to finish.

I had lots of buttercream left over too, so ended up making old-school butterfly cakes the next day: same basic proportions for a 3-egg sponge, cooked in bun cases, then filled with jam and buttercream – delicious! And actually so much nicer than the ubiquitous and sickly cupcakes…

Butterfly cakes

We had to transport our celebration cake down winding country lanes to the party venue, which really wasn’t ideal, but it survived more or less intact and was very well received: the nicest Victoria sponge ever according to one enthusiastic guest! People really couldn’t believe that it was gluten-free either. We liked the naked cake effect so much that we may well keep to that idea for the wedding – it will certainly be less stressful preparing it on the day! Watch this space…

Spring cake from the top

 

Spring highs and lows

Hyacinths

Well, Easter has been and gone, and with it some lovely springlike weather last week. Unfortunately, I’m not quite as excited about the fact that spring has finally arrived as I would usually be. I managed to rupture my anterior cruciate ligament on a recent skiing trip in the French Alps and heavy gardening is going to be off the agenda for some while, I suspect. Not a good time of year for a gardener to be out of action!

Fortunately, two and a half weeks in, I now have my leg brace off and have started intensive physiotherapy to strengthen the muscles around my damaged knee. Gentle walking is also allowed, but I’m pretty sure this doesn’t cover long dog walks or heavy-duty gardening jobs like digging the allotment beds, creating new beds or spreading the compost around the garden at home. This last job was something I’d intended to do before going away, but the snow and constant wet prevailed against me, and it just didn’t get done. I’m definitely going to have to bring someone in to do all of that.

On the bright side, I did manage to sow some seeds in the propagator the night before we left (!): aubergines, leeks, chillis, sweet peppers and parsley, so at least they’ve had a head start. All bar the sweet peppers are showing already, and I’ve now sown some tomatoes (my favourite Sungold, Ailsa Craig and a new dark bronze cherry variety called Sunchocola from Mr Fothergill’s seeds), basil, delphiniums and hollyhocks. No problem putting my potting tray on the garden table so I can work sitting down!

I’ve also pottered around the garden dead-heading the hydrangeas now that the risk of frost should be less. I did have to restrain myself from leaping up to the back of the raised beds to the more inaccessible stems, but otherwise all quite doable – and the garden looks so much tidier as a result, plus I can now see the beautiful camellia blooms much better. Next job, also feasible as long as I’m careful, is to cut back my huge lavatera in the bed next to the garage. They need to go down to a foot or so at this time of year to encourage strong new growth and an abundance of flowers in the summer. Another job I should be able to do with a dodgy knee is potting up the dahlia tubers I ordered earlier this spring. I usually start them off in pots in the growframe, then plant them out at the allotment when they are showing strong growth and are less susceptible to slug attack. On the list for the weekend, weather permitting.

I persuaded my sons to take me down to the allotment on Sunday, not to do any work, I hasten to add – and actually things don’t look too bad due to the cold start to the year. Thursday and Friday last week had been particularly sunny, so I was thrilled to find a bumper crop of purple-sprouting broccoli ready for picking – and the first rhubarb of the year too, always a notable event! Parsley and leeks were still growing strong and completed my spring harvest, shared with my son due to the huge quantities! I’ll turn a blind eye to the rest for now, but may need to seek some help planting my potatoes in the not-too-distant future.

Spring harvest

In the meantime, a good old rhubarb crumble was just what the doctor ordered with the first crop of the season – heaven! I’ve given a recipe for a rhubarb & almond crumble elsewhere, but this is just my straightforward, basic crumble recipe, courtesy of my mum and her mum before her. I find it doesn’t work with gluten-free flour, as you lose the crispness. I usually make double the amount of crumble mix and freeze half, uncooked, for a quick pudding when I’m short of time. It can be added straight from the freezer to cooked or uncooked fruit – perfect for busy days.

Rhubarb Crumble – serves 4-6

Rhubarb

500g rhubarb, trimmed and sliced – no need to peel if fresh
3 tbsp Demerara sugar
125g self-raising flour
25g caster sugar
60g butter
1 tbsp Demerara sugar to sprinkle

Place the sliced rhubarb in a covered glass dish in the microwave with the sugar and cook for 4 minutes until starting to soften and produce juice.
Rub the butter into the SR flour and sugar until it resembles fine breadcrumbs and sprinkle over the just-cooked rhubarb to cover completely. Sprinkle over the remaining tbsp sugar and cook in a pre-heated oven at 180-200°C (Gas 5/6) for 30 minutes. Serve warm with custard or a mixture of lightly whipped cream and yogurt. Bliss….

Rhubarb crumble

In the meantime, patience is required in spades – and I’m enjoying the camellias, hellebores and spring bulbs from the window. My garden will have to wait this year…

Tete a tete daffs