Clock-changing time again…

Chrysanths and dahlias autumn 2018

This is always a busy time in the garden, tidying away the faded (or not so faded in some cases!) summer flowers and planting out my containers for winter and spring colour. The begonias and New Guinea impatiens have done brilliantly this year and are still looking colourful, but with the weather having turned decidedly chiller and frost forecast any time, the moment has come to take the plunge. Into the compost they went, and in their place I planted spring bulbs, pansies and wallflowers grown from seed in nursery beds down at the allotment.

This year I bought my tulips on a 20% off day at our local garden centre in Mark Cross: they had an excellent selection and worked out considerably cheaper than the Sarah Raven tulips I usually buy. In the large half-barrels in the back garden, I went for Creme Flag and White Flag in one, and a red and white selection of Carnival de Rio and Escape in the other, both offset with Sunset Purple wallflowers and pansies in berry shades. These were Taylor’s bulbs, marketed as Sherbet Lemons, and Strawberries and Cream respectively: I particularly liked the fact that the packets gave detailed information for each variety and they were packed in separate bags inside the pack.

In the front barrels either side of my rose arch, I went for a purple theme with a tulip mix, again from Taylor’s, called Purple Rain Fusion on one side, and Dancing Dolls (the ever-reliable Doll’s Minuet and its purple namesake, Purple Doll) on the other side. These were planted with pansies in shades of blue and purple, and Giant Pink wallflowers. In the last barrel, near the front door, I planted a tulip mix called Fondant Fancy (Infiniti and Mistress – here’s hoping the individual varieties all flower at the same time, as they are supposed to… Crocuses and daffodils were recycled from last year’s pot, so a literal case of pot luck – I’m sure they’ll be fine!

Having weeded some of the allotment beds so that I could plant my broad bean seeds last weekend, and taken down the tatty sweet pea tripod and gone-to-seed spinach and chard stems, this weekend was the turn of the garden at home for a change. A long to-do list (headed by finishing the containers) included sowing sweet pea seeds – I’ve never tried sowing sweet peas in autumn before, but after miserable spring germination performance in recent years, I figured I had nothing to lose! I’m starting them off indoors on the heated conservatory floor, but once they’ve germinated, they should be able to go out into a cold frame. I also potted on the cuttings I took in late summer: penstemon, cistus, anthemis, salvia, osteospermum and hydrangea. Most (with the exception of the cistus) had good little root systems, so should make nice little plants by spring. I also experimented with taking cuttings from my huge Daphne bholua Jacqueline Postill, after chatting to a local nursery owner last weekend, who had said she couldn’t find one anywhere. Mine grows like a triffid, needing pruning twice a year, so worth a shot. It may well be too late this year, but we shall see…

With the onset of frost around the corner after a bitterly cold and showery day on Sunday, I brought my tender geraniums and tibouchina into the conservatory and put other tender specimens in my grow frame. This in turn meant finally harvesting my chillis from the fading chilli plants in the conservatory to free up space. The chilli plants have been yellowing and dropping their leaves for a few weeks anyway, so now was the time.

Chillis

It may have been too wet and cold to do everything on my list, but a good weekend, all things considered. The clocks may have gone back and there’s an hour less light for gardening in the afternoons, but the hatches are battened: let the weather do its worst!

 

 

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Apples aplenty – and cavalcades of kale

Cox apples_landscape

‘Tis definitely apple season in all its joyous abundance – the ground beneath my orchard trees is covered with windfalls, some just slightly peck-marked, others victim to brown rot or insect damage from within. The plums were a martyr to moth damage earlier this year too, with a poor harvest in any case, but very few that were actually edible, as most had maggots in – yuk! Now’s the time to put greasebands round the trees to stop the moths sheltering overwinter – and next spring I’ll try and remember to hang pheromone traps to catch the other kinds of moths that cause so much damage to plums.

In the meantime, what to do with all these apples? The obligatory and delicious apple pies and crumbles, of course, plus apple juices and compotes for the freezer or to eat with my breakfast muesli. I like to use them in soup too, not only my favourite tomato, apple & celery, but with other strong-tasting vegetables to add an undernote of sweetness and some body. I’ve currently got an excellent crop of spinach and Swiss chard from both my spring and September sowings, so spinach soup was calling to me. I usually make spinach & pea soup with frozen peas, but had no peas in the freezer as I tend to use fresh veg through the summer months. Inspiration descended with the notion of combining spinach and apples in a soup, with a smattering of bulb fennel for good luck, since I’ve managed to grow it successfully for the first time – very good it was too!

Spinach, Apple & Fennel Soup – serves 6

Spinach, apple and fennel soup

500g spinach, washed, thick stalks removed, and roughly chopped
2 large eating apples, peeled, cored and diced – I used a Cox type
50g butter (or olive oil if you prefer)
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 sticks celery, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 bulb fennel, chopped, plus a handful of the feathery fronds to add at the end
Few sprigs of thyme, leaves removed
Grated rind of 1 lemon
1 bay leaf
1 litre chicken (or vegetable) stock
Handful of red lentils (optional)
Seasoning

Melt the butter or olive oil in large pan and gently fry the diced onion, fennel, celery and garlic until soft and golden – about 10 minutes. Then add the diced apple, thyme leaves and bay leaf and stir for a couple of minutes. Add the chopped spinach leaves – it will look like a huge pile, but they soon wilt down. Finally, add the stock, a handful of red lentils (to thicken – leave out if you prefer) and seasoning, bring to the boil and cook for 20-25 minutes until nicely tender. Leave to cool, then blend in a liquidizer.

Serve with a swirl of cream or crème fraiche and homemade rolls straight from the oven.

Another revelation in the apple stakes was that apple juice with kale and fennel isn’t bitter at all, but rather delicious. Kale is another crop that just keeps on giving this year – strictly speaking, I grow cavolo nero for its beautiful dark green, crinkly leaves. It is so good for us, it’s a shame not to use it in as many ways as possible. I don’t get my juicer out as often as I should, but having experienced a sublime Green Goddess juice on my recent trip to the States, I thought I’d experiment. Cue 4 or 5 Cox-type apples, chopped kale (stalks removed), a quarter of a lime, a quarter of a fennel bulb and a knob of ginger. I say Cox-type as I sadly have no idea which variety mine is – it was in the allotment when I took it over, resembles a Cox (but without the scab problems that can afflict Cox apples proper), and is always extremely prolific, juicy and tasty. It stores quite well in the garage too. And the juice? – Divine! Do try it and see.

Apple and kale juice

Another apple creation was inspired by a recipe I read in the Waitrose Kitchen magazine on my flight to Chicago. Conveniently, I knew I’d be able to track the recipe down online when I got home, but rather more impressively, I actually remembered to do so after a couple of weeks away! I’m always on the lookout for new ice cream recipes, so this one was extra-tempting: who could resist the prospect of toffee apple ice cream?! The original recipe used bought ice cream (the horror!), but I made my own and swirled it all together rather than layering – truly reminiscent of those brittle toffee apples of our childhood, but without the associated dental challenges!

Toffee Apple Ice Cream

Toffee apple ice cream

125g granulated sugar
5 tbsp water
600ml whipping cream
1 tsp vanilla extract

50g light brown soft sugar
50g wholemeal flour (I used self-raising as that’s what I had, but plain would be fine)
½ tsp ground cinnamon
70g butter, cubed
Salt to taste
100g caster sugar
70ml double cream
3 eating apples, peeled, cored and diced
juice of half lemon

First, make the vanilla ice cream by placing 125g granulated sugar and 4 tbsp water in a small pan, allow the sugar to melt, then continue to cook over a gentle heat for 5 mins until syrupy. Allow to cool completely. Whip 600ml whipping cream with the cold syrup and vanilla extract until it thickens and just begins to hold its shape. Pour into an ice-cream maker (mine is a basic Magimix Glacier model where you have to freeze the bowl in the freezer overnight beforehand: simple but effective). It should take about 30-40 minutes to churn, and while that’s doing you can get on with the rest.

Preheat the oven to 150˚C, gas 3. Line a medium baking tray with baking parchment. For the crumble, put the brown sugar, flour and cinnamon in a bowl, then rub in 30g cubed butter and a pinch of salt, until the mixture resembles fine, gritty sand. Spread out on the tray and bake for 10 minutes, stirring halfway through, until pale golden and crisp. Set aside to cool.

Put the caster sugar in a large frying pan with 2 tbsp water. Heat gently, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Then without stirring, bring to the boil over a medium-high heat and simmer briskly for about 4 minutes, until a dark golden caramel forms. If it colours unevenly, swirl the pan. Remove the pan from the heat; stir in the cream and a pinch more salt. Add the remaining 40g butter and stir until a smooth caramel forms. Pour into a heatproof bowl. Return the unwashed pan to the heat and add the diced apples (sprinkled with lemon juice to prevent browning). Cook, stirring, for 10 minutes, until softened and golden. Add to the caramel bowl and allow to cool.

If the ice cream is ready before the remaining ingredients are cool, just transfer it to a large freezer container and freeze until everything is cool. When you’re ready, gently fold in the crumble chunks and caramel apples until just mixed and return to the freezer to finish freezing. Remove from the freezer 20-30 minutes before serving – and enjoy!

My final offering today is hardly a recipe, more an assembly of garden produce that, combined, make a wonderfully refreshing autumn kale salad. It was inspired by a delicious cabbage and kale salad I had at one of my daughter-in-law’s friend’s houses in Ohio. She’d used a bagged salad from Costco (costing in excess of $5!), which even included raw Brussels sprouts (and I, a confirmed sprout hater, liked them – perhaps raw is the way to go!). I used vegetables from the allotment, with finely chopped raw kale, calabrese leaves, red lettuce, sliced fennel, toasted sunflower, pumpkin seeds and peanuts, dried cranberries, served with herb-roasted carrots, beetroot, red onion and potatoes, topped with a smattering of griddled halloumi (you could use feta or goat’s cheese too), and dressed with a lime, olive oil and pomegranate molasses dressing – so good! (And all the better for mostly being home-grown 😊).

Kale and roasted root salad

Autumn – decadence and decay

Dahlias

Autumn can be a time of abundance, decadent overgrowth and plentiful harvests, but it’s also a time when plants start to decay and die back as the first frosts of autumn hit or the winds come howling in. I came back from nearly two weeks in the US celebrating my son and daughter-in-law’s wedding with her American friends and family to find my allotment full of weeds, dahlias still flowering in gay abandon and my bean frame horizontal – I’m guessing we’ve had some strong winds in my absence! The calabrese plants appear to be flowering, despite not showing any signs of heads before I went away, and there are lots of windfall apples on the floor. On the plus side, the spinach and chard I’d sown in early September are looking really good, as is the kale and purple-sprouting broccoli, and even the bulb fennel hasn’t gone to seed – a first! The courgette plants are looking very sorry for themselves, not quite frosted, but definitely browning, although I still managed to harvest a few decent courgettes – I’d picked all incipient fruit before I left to avoid coming back to marrow armageddon….

That reminds me of a couple of new courgette recipes I experimented with this year, but haven’t had time to jot down with all the wedding goings-on this summer. I’m always on the lookout for new ways with courgettes, especially in such a hot year when new courgettes were forming on a daily basis at the height of the season.

The first recipe was inspired by a recipe in the July edition of the Sainsbury’s magazine, tweaked as ever to suit what I had available. It’s gluten-free and even low carb, if that’s what you’re looking for, although not particularly why I made it – it just sounded good! The original recipe used turkey, whereas I used pork mince, but use whatever you have/fancy. Sorry, no photo – I did have one, but it’s taken me so long to write up the recipe that I must have deleted it by mistake…

Moroccan Courgette & Pork Bake – serves 4

2-3 large courgettes (about 750g)
1 tbsp olive oil
1 large red onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
500g pork mince
1 tin chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato purée
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tbsp ground cumin
1 tbsp harissa
handful of chopped coriander or parsley
250g natural yogurt
1 large egg
50g freshly grated Parmesan (or use Cheddar if that’s what you have!)
Seasoning

Heat the oven to 200°C / Gas 6. Top and tail the courgettes, then slice lengthwise into thin slices about 5 mm thick. Place on a foil-lined baking tray, brush with olive oil and roast in the hot oven for 15-20 minutes or until just golden and soft, but not mushy.

In the meantime, fry the onion and garlic in olive oil until soft, then add the minced pork (or turkey) and cook for a further 5 minutes until browned. Add the spices and harissa and cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly, then add the tomato purée and the chopped tomatoes with their juice. Stir in the chopped herbs and season to taste.

Place a layer of sauce in the bottom of a rectangular dish (20 x 25 cm), then a layer of courgettes and continue until all used up, ending with a courgette layer. Blend the yogurt, beaten egg and seasoning in a small bowl, then pour over the courgettes and top with grated cheese.

Bake for 25-30 minutes or until golden brown. Serve hot with a green salad. Freezes beautifully too.

Another courgette recipe I’ve trialled recently, based on how delicious courgette is in bread and cakes, is courgette & cheese scones. Perfect if you haven’t time to bake bread, but need something urgently to accompany your latest soup creation! Served here with roasted tomato soup with the last of the season’s homegrown tomatoes…

Cheesy Courgette Scones – makes 10-12

Courgette scones

450g self-raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
350g grated courgettes
salt
125g butter
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
approx. 150ml milk
125g grated Cheddar cheese
seasoning

Pre-heat the oven to 200°C / Gas 6.

Put the grated courgettes in a colander over the sink and sprinkle with salt. Allow to drain to remove excess liquid for about 15 minutes. Then rinse with cold water, tip the courgettes into a clean tea towel and squeeze out as much juice as possible

In another bowl rub the butter into the flour, baking powder and a pinch of salt until it looks like breadcrumbs. Stir in the fresh thyme leaves. Add most of the grated cheese and courgette and mix thoroughly. Add enough milk to make a soft dough that’s not too sticky (add more flour if necessary). Gently roll out the dough to 2cm thick and cut into rounds with a pastry cutter. Place the scones on a greased baking tray and bake for 10-15 minutes.  They should be a nice golden brown and well risen.

Serve with butter and a bowl of steaming homemade soup. Once again, these freeze well and are ideal to have in the freezer for emergency lunches or unexpected visitors.

Still on the baking theme, I also found a delicious recipe for chocolate & courgette brownies  a great way of getting rid of excess courgettes AND adding extra vegetables to boost the 5-a-day count of unwilling veg eaters! I found it here, but have adapted it slightly and record my version here for reference. Once again, these freeze well, which is great if you live alone and don’t want to eat them all at once! The problem with vegetable-based cakes in warm weather is that they can go off within a matter of days in the tin, so freezing is definitely the way to go.

Chocolate & Courgette Brownies – makes 16

Chocolate and courgette brownies

300g courgettes / zucchini
salt
200g dark chocolate, chopped
150g butter
3 eggs, beaten
200g caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
150g self-raising flour
2 tsp espresso powder
100 g chopped hazelnuts (or walnuts or pecans if you prefer), toasted on a baking tray in the oven for 5 minutes

Pre-heat oven to 160℃ fan / Gas 4.

Grate the courgettes and place in a colander over the sink, then sprinkle with salt. Leave to drain for 15 minutes or so, while you get on with the brownies.

Place the chocolate and butter in a microwaveable bowl and microwave on high for 1 to 2 minutes in 30-second bursts until melted. Stir until chocolate is nice and smooth and leave to cool. Alternatively melt the old-fashioned way in a glass bowl over a small pan of simmering water. Leave to cool.

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs and sugar together using an electric mixer until doubled in volume (about 5 to 8 minutes depending on your mixer). Add the vanilla extract. Carefully pour the cooled chocolate into your egg mix and gently fold together with a metal spoon.

Rinse the courgettes to wash off the salt, then transfer to a clean tea towel and squeeze firmly to remove excess liquid. Fold the courgettes and toasted chopped nuts into the brownie mix. Sieve the dry ingredients into the mixture and fold in carefully.

Pour mixture into the prepared tin and cook for 30 minutes. Check to see if there is a paper-like crust on top – there should still be some movement in the centre of the tin. Bake for another 5 minutes if you don’t think it’s cooked enough, then take out and leave to cool. They will firm up on cooling. Cut into 16 individual portions when cool.

My final suggestion is barely a recipe, more a reminder of my favourite and simplest way of serving courgettes as a side dish. Again no photo – I’m getting lax! I cleaned up my photos before going to the US so I’d have space to take lots of new pictures, and have clearly been overzealous.

Courgette & Tomato Bake – serves 3-4

1 large onion, chopped
450g courgettes, thickly sliced
glug of olive oil
4 large tomatoes, peeled and roughly chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
Handful fresh herbs (I use basil, parsley and thyme)
seasoning
100g mature Cheddar cheese, grated
50g white breadcrumbs

Cook the onions and garlic in a frying pan with the olive oil for about 5-10 minutes until starting to soften. Add the courgettes and cook for a further 5 minutes, then add the chopped tomatoes, herbs and seasoning and cook until a thickish mixture forms.

Transfer to an ovenproof dish, mix the grated cheese and breadcrumbs together and sprinkle over the courgette mixture. Cook in a hot oven at 180°C/gas 5 until the cheese is starting to brown.

Serve with sausages, chops or on its own as a delicious vegetarian main.

Front garden