The Big Chop

Iris K Hodgson

It’s that time again: Valentine’s Day, or just after, when I usually try and chop down my late-flowering clematis to encourage new growth and a splendid crop of flowers later in the summer. The clematis were superb last year, loving the intense heat, and not seeming to mind the prolonged draught, even though they had minimal or no extra watering. It was a lovely sunny day too today, with the heady scent of Daphnes aureomarginata and bholua (Jacqueline Postill) filling the air as I worked – just heavenly! And a few sunny days this week means the early bulbs have started to flower: Iris Katherine Holdgson (above) was nowhere to be seen last weekend, but flowering away when I spotted it on Friday morning.

Daphne aureomarginata
Daphne aureomarginata nestling snugly beneath the apple tree

Today was the first time since my ACL reconstruction op on Christmas Eve that I’ve ventured out into the garden to do any real gardening – so nice to get some fresh air and get my hands dirty again :-). I was mindful that I needed to be careful: 8 weeks in is still relatively soon after the op and there’s considerable potential for damage if I overdo things or twist my knee. As it was, I’d already overstretched the boundaries the day before when pushing a shopping trolley in the sloping car park of my local Waitrose. Who knew that shopping could be counted as a dangerous pursuit?! Lots of ice, ibuprofen, a hot bath and healing cream, plus an evening of rest helped, but I was ultra-careful today, needless to say.

 

After chopping the clematis to within a foot or so from the ground – amazing how much old top growth there is! – I turned to my roses and gave them all a severe haircut as well. They had all reached triffid-like proportions at the end of last year, even the climbing roses I’d cut really hard when replacing the arch in the front garden last March. They suffered no harm at all from being butchered last year, although they did flower a little later. I’m looking forward to an excellent performance from them again this year now they’re restored to their normal size and vigour.

It’s too early to cut down any perennial growth I’d left on over winter to protect new shoots; we could still have a repeat of last year’s Beast from the East, which brought snow and freezing temperatures well into March. However, I did cut Hydrangea Annabelle down to 6″ or so from the ground. It’s a paniculata species and they can happily take being chopped back hard to encourage huge flower heads later in the year. This one also spreads (in the nicest possible way), so I managed to divide a piece for my son’s newish garden now they’ve started to make new beds and take out the existing (boring) shrubs they don’t like. The remaining hydrangeas (mop head and lace cap) I’ll leave until after the danger of frost, as last year’s flowers protect the emerging shoots – as I found out to my cost one year in Scotland, when I trimmed them early, only to have a very late frost in early May, losing all that year’s flowers…..

All in all, a very satisfying couple of hours. And I was definitely ready for a slice of date & walnut cake with my cup of tea when I came back indoors…. This is based on a very simple recipe from my old Be-Ro leaflet. I wonder how many homes have one of these knocking around somewhere, and how many are still in use?!

Date & Walnut Cake

Date and walnut loaf

8oz chopped dates
pinch of bicarbonate of soda
1/4 pt boiling water
3oz butter
3oz light brown muscovado sugar
1 large egg, beaten
8oz self-raising flour
2-3oz walnuts, chopped

Heat oven to 160°C fan/Gas 4 and grease and base-line a 2lb loaf tin.

Place the chopped dates in a bowl with the bicarbonate of soda and add the boiling water. Stir well and leave to stand while you prepare everything else.

Cream the butter and sugar, then mix in the beaten egg. Fold in the flour and walnuts, then finally mix in the date mixture. Transfer to the lined loaf tin, level the surface, and bake for 45 mins – 1 hour, or until nicely risen and no mixture adheres to a skewer when inserted in the middle. Leave to cool and enjoy slathered with butter and accompanied by a piping hot mug of tea.

 

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Winter salads – definitely not a contradiction in terms

Salmon en croute and salads

Salads in winter? As the snow begins to fall outside, you might be forgiven for thinking that a salad is the last thing you’d want on a cold winter’s day, but I beg to differ. Grain or pulse-based salads can be surprisingly good in dreary weather – and of course they’re packed full of goodness too, with plenty of potential vegetable variations and tasty dressings. I often serve them just warm too, which makes them even more tempting – although, like most things, they’re usually even better left overnight in the fridge for the flavours to mature. Inspired by the ‘salades tièdes’ you find in France, you can add cooked chicken or duck, or any meat of your choice, but vegetarian options are excellent too. Mediterranean Chicken salad is one of my all-time favourites, although definitely better in summer when the tomatoes and basil are at their peak.

This weekend I hosted another family gathering as a belated Welcome Home party for my younger son and daughter-in-law, and a chance for some of the wider family to say their farewells before they disappear off to the States in February. We’ve been eating a lot of meat recently, so I opted for a Salmon en Croute (with kale pesto) as our main dish, but prepared a couple of substantial salads to accompany it: one with Puy lentil and squash, and the other based on quinoa, with nuts, seeds and herbs. Both delicious and very well received, especially by my student niece who said it was just what she fancied for student lunches on campus rather than the boring sandwiches usually on offer. As my son commented, also great to make ahead at the weekend and take for packed lunches to work, saving a fortune on equivalent bought offerings on the high street – and twice as nice!

Leo in snow garden Jan 2019

Puy Lentil & Roast Butternut Squash Salad – serves 8-10

250g Puy lentils
1 bay leaf
1 clove garlic
sprig of parsley
sprigs of thyme
1 tsp wholegrain mustard
1 tsp sugar
juice of half a lemon
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 butternut squash
1 yellow pepper
2 red onions
2 cloves garlic
sprigs of thyme
sage leaves
seasoning
handful pumpkin seeds, lightly toasted in the oven or in a pan
100g feta cheese, diced

Peel the butternut squash, remove the seeds (if you have time, you can wash and dry the seeds, coat in oil, season, then put them on a tray in the oven at 200°C/gas 6 for 5 minutes until they start popping, then add to the finished salad below), cut the flesh into large chunks and place in a roasting tin with the quartered onions, 2 roughly chopped garlic cloves and chunky slices of yellow pepper, plus a handful of sage leaves and the leaves from the sprigs of thyme, then add a generous glug of olive oil and turn to coat thoroughly. Season well. Roast for 45 minutes – 1 hour or until the vegetables are soft and starting to brown at the edges. Remove from the oven.

Meanwhile put the lentils in a pan, cover with plenty of water, bring to the boil, simmer for just one minute, then drain. Return to the pan and just cover with more water or vegetable stock if you have it. Add the bay leaf, sprigs of thyme, garlic and parsley. Bring back to a simmer and cook gently for about 20 minutes, until just tender. Drain the lentils, and discard the herbs and garlic. Make a dressing with 5 tbsp olive oil and the juice of half a lemon juice, then add 1 tsp wholegrain mustard, 1 clove garlic (crushed) and 1 tsp sugar, whisk (or shake if using a jar) and season. Taste to check acidity and adjust if necessary. Pour over the warm lentils and place in a large bowl.

Add the roasted vegetables to the lentils, draining off any excess oil, and stir gently to mix. Stir in the pumpkin seeds (your own, prepared as above, or bought seeds) and finally sprinkle with the diced feta cheese. Good served warm or chilled.

Herby Tomato, Rocket & Quinoa Salad – serves 8-10

300g quinoa (I used red and white quinoa with added bulgar wheat from Waitrose)
Vegetable stock (or water)
Olive oil
Juice of half a lemon
Seasoning
1 tsp wholegrain mustard
1 tsp sugar
1 clove garlic, crushed
200g cherry tomatoes, halved
Good handful of cavolo nero leaves, stems removed and finely sliced
Bunch of spring onions, finely chopped (or lightly cook some sliced leeks, if you prefer)
Bunch of coriander, roughly chopped
Handful of cashew nuts, toasted
Handful of pine kernels, toasted
100g dried cranberries
1 small bag of fresh rocket

Cook the quinoa according to the packet instructions: mine suggested rinsing first, then cooking in boiling water or vegetable stock for 12 minutes and draining. Place in a large bowl.

Make a dressing with 5 tbsp olive oil and the juice of half a lemon juice, then add 1 tsp wholegrain mustard, 1 clove garlic (crushed) and 1 tsp sugar, whisk (or shake if using a jar) and season. Taste to check acidity and adjust if necessary. This is exactly the same dressing as the previous recipe, so if making both salads, it’s much easier to double the quantities and make it all at once. I find the jar method the easiest: simply add all the ingredients to a large jar and shake to mix. Any left over can be left in the fridge for a week or so.

Add the chopped tomatoes, finely sliced kale, coriander, rocket, dried cranberries, chopped spring onions (or leeks) and toasted cashews and pine kernels to the quinoa and mix well. Season to taste, pour over the dressing and mix well. As before, serve warm or chilled.

Poppy and Leo snow Jan 2019