Category Archives: Allotment

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

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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

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 180ºC / 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

 

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 160ºC, 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 160ºC, Gas 4 for 45 minutes until golden brown and firm to the touch. Serve warm with fresh custard or pouring cream.

Bulb planting time again…

Poppy with ball Nov 2017 Rotherfield Woods

Despite a couple of sharp frosts, it’s still resolutely autumnal here: the trees are still (just about) decked in their golden and orange autumn finery, although I don’t think the colours have been quite as rich as usual this year. After a rainy day yesterday, which stopped play in the garden quite convincingly, today dawned crisp, bright and blustery – an ideal opportunity to get out in the garden and allotment and get on with more of those end-of-season jobs.

I’d managed to finally empty my summer containers and plant up my winter/spring offerings a couple of weeks ago and they’re looking good: blue pansies from the garden centre, with pinky-peach wallflower Aurora (grown from seed in a nursery bed at the allotment), all underplanted with a mixture of crocuses and daffodils from last years’ containers, but new tulips of course, as they don’t come again reliably. As usual, I like to ring the changes and had ordered a new selection from Sarah Raven – if you’re haven’t ordered yours yet and you’re quick, I believe there’s up to 50% off some varieties in the end-of-season sale. Tulips can be planted right up to the end of the year, and it’s actually better to plant them from November onwards to avoid any residual fire blight

This year I went for Sanne, an apricot and pink blend I’d seen and loved at the Chelsea Flower Show this year, two other apricot tulips from the Apricot Sorbet collection: Charming Lady (double) and Apricot Foxx, and Mistress Mystic, a silvery pink. The final variety, bought on impulse from my local garden centre on a 20% off day, is Hemisphere (finally found it by checking my receipt – thank goodness for computerised till receipts!). This is supposed to start off white with pink flecks, then deepen to a dark pink over time – sounds glorious, but we shall see!

This weekend it was time to plant last year’s saved tulip bulbs in the beds at the allotment. They did so well last year that I was finally able to cut some for the house without spoiling the display (precisely the point of planting them there in the first place!). I hadn’t labelled them, so they’ve all gone in together, but with white, cream, soft pink and palest lemon, they’re sure to look good in any event. I don’t expect them all to flower, but quite a few of the bulbs looked extremely fat and hopeful – a sure sign that they will flower again. Less likely for those that split into a number of smaller bulbs.

The rest I planted up at home on the island bed opposite the house, where tulips usually do extremely well in the full sun. This year, they hadn’t done as well as in previous years, but I put it down to the takeover ambitions of Phlomis samia, which seems to have suppressed a lot of other growth in its all-encompassing vigour! I decided to remove a whole swathe of it and have replanted a new rose, Frilly Cuff, a gorgeous neat, deep red shrub rose that I’ve seen a couple of times at Chelsea and coveted each time. I decided to treat myself with some birthday money and ordered online from the breeder, Peter Beales. Here’s hoping it likes this aspect too….

frilly_cuff_-_c_35_1000px

All in all, a very satisfying day in the fresh air, and I really enjoyed my much-needed cup of tea and slice of cake when I finally came indoors after walking the dogs at 5 o’clock – virtually in the dark! This was a whisky tea loaf I like to make in the winter as it keeps really well. If you double the ingredients and prepare two at once (not really any more effort), you can freeze one for when you’re too busy to bake! The original recipe was from Rachel Allen, although it’s not dissimilar to the cold tea cake my mum has made since time immemorial. This one is a fatless loaf – although I have to confess I like to serve it slathered with butter 🙂

Whisky Tea Loaf

Tea loaf

200ml strong warm tea (I use Assam or Early Grey, but any tea will do!)
150g light muscovado sugar
50ml whisky
300g mixed dried fruit (sultanas, raisins and currants are my usual choices)
1 medium egg, beaten
150g self-raising flour, sifted
2 tsp mixed spice
1 tsp baking powder

Pour the tea into a bowl, add the sugar and stir, then add the whisky and dried fruit. Cover with clingfilm and leave to soak for a few hours or even overnight. (Alternatively, if you want to make this in a hurry, you can boil the tea, sugar and dried fruit in a pan for 2 minutes, then add the whisky and allow to cool before using in the cake.)

Pre-heat the oven to 150°C fan, Gas 3 and grease and line a loaf tin (or two if doubling the recipe). Add the beaten egg to the tea and fruit mixture, then fold in the sifted flour, baking powder and spice. Pour into the tin and bake for 1 hour to 1 hour 15 minutes, or until just firm to the touch and a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. Cool in the tin and serve sliced with butter and a lovely cup of tea.

One final recipe that I really want to add here before I forget is one I made last weekend when all the family were home for Bonfire Night. My younger son had requested Sticky Toffee Pudding, but some of the party are gluten-intolerant so I decided to make a Pear & Amaretti Cheesecake as well – which coincidentally also goes extremely well with the sticky toffee sauce! This is another recipe torn out of a magazine in my very ancient recipe scrapbook. I think it was by Gordon Ramsay in the first place, but I’ve adapted it with an Amaretti base, and rewritten the instruction sequence, as chef’s recipes often make rather a lot of assumptions that can prove frustrating for the amateur cook. My son’s fiancée had offered to help prepare this, but found the steps in the original in a very strange order!

Pear & Amaretti Cheesecake – serves 8-10

Pear and Amaretti Cheesecake

250g bag Amaretti biscuits*
100g butter, melted
2 large pears (or 4 small)
50g caster sugar (or vanilla sugar if you have it)
1 tsp lemon juice
Vanilla extract
300g cream cheese
150g caster sugar
150g crème fraiche
1 x 300ml pot double cream
75g Amaretti biscuits

Make the base by crushing the Amaretti biscuits in a food processor (or in a large plastic bag with a rolling pin), then mix in the melted butter until thoroughly blended. Tip into a 24cm round springform cake tin, greased and base-lined with a circle of baking parchment. Chill in the fridge while preparing the filling.

Prepare the poaching syrup for the pears by dissolving the sugar in 100ml boiling water, then add 1 tsp vanilla extract (if not using vanilla sugar) and 1 tsp lemon juice. Prepare the pears by peeling, removing the cores, cutting into quarters and then chopping into 1cm dice, and add to the simmering syrup. Simmer until just tender – 5 -10 minutes or so. Drain and reserve the syrup to use elsewhere. Allow the diced pear to cool.

Whisk the cream cheese with 150g caster sugar and 1 tsp vanilla extract. Add the crème fraiche, then whisk the double cream in a separate bowl until soft peaks form and fold into the cheese mixture. Finally crush the remaining 75g Amaretti biscuits roughly in a plastic bag with a rolling pin. Fold the crushed biscuits into the cheese mix with the cooled, diced pears. Spoon onto the prepared base, level the top and chill in the fridge for a good couple of hours.

Serve with toffee sauce (see Sticky Toffee pudding recipe) or make a bitter caramel sauce by melting 9oz granulated sugar in a small frying pan until dark golden in colour – watch like a hawk, but do NOT stir! Add 2 tsp boiling water (care as it will spit!), then add 1 tsp vanilla extract and single cream until you get the consistency you want – not too thick. You can also add some of the reserved pear syrup to the sauce.

*Note: true Amaretti biscuits (or home-made macaroons) shouldn’t contain any wheat flour, but some of the mainstream brands may. I’ve just checked on the Doria Amaretti I usually use and surprise, surprise they do contain a small amount of wheat flour. Fortunately my guests weren’t coeliac, but PLEASE check if it’s an issue for you.

Leo in Rotherfield Woods

The Great Autumn Clearout

Cotinus Grace

Newly returned from a work trip to Spain, I’ve realised yet again that there are very few good times for a gardener to go away. Poor weather and pressures of work before I left meant that the allotment grass didn’t get cut and I managed very little tidying of the beds other than general harvesting. It was a similar tale at home. Two weeks later, both garden and allotment are looking very sorry for themselves with overlong grass, weeds aplenty and dead foliage everywhere you look. On the up side, there were still dahlias for the picking, but the calabrese and caulifower have gone just too far and will need to be converted to soup pronto! Much as I love homegrown calabrese, it is a problem in that it all comes at once – and there’s a limit to how much one person can eat. I’d already given lots away to family and friends before I went, but the remaining three heads should really have been harvested a week earlier. Never mind, with any luck there will be lots of delicious side shoots from the main stem if the weather remains mild over the next few weeks.

Broccoli and Stilton soup with scones

Broccoli & Stilton soup was the obvious choice, accompanied on this occasion by Stilton & apple scones to use up the rest of the Stilton, which I tend not to eat by itself, although I adore its savoury taste in cooking. I adapted my usual cheese & apple scone recipe by replacing Cheddar with Stilton, and added chopped sage instead of thyme – yum! The cauliflower too will go into Cauliflower cheese soup before the week is out.

Also in the fridge on my return and in need of using up fairly quickly were the peppers I’d harvested before I left, and a bag full of beetroot and carrots, not quite so urgent, as they keep, but still ripe for using. I had a yearning for a mixed vegetable stew of some kind and remembered a favourite Nigella Lawson recipe from her Feast book for a Moroccan vegetable stew with aromatic lamb meatballs. This makes huge quantities of the vegetable stew and is ideal for stocking up the freezer – very useful given that my son was dog-sitting for part of my absence and had worked his way through the contents of the freezer! That’s precisely what it’s there for, but it’s always nice to stock it up again with fresh produce before the winter. Nigella’s original recipe uses swede and parsnip, neither of which I have this year, but I figured that it would work equally well with beetroot, squash and peppers – which I had in abundance.

Moroccan Vegetable Stew with Aromatic Lamb Meatballs – serves 8-10

3 red onions
3 sticks celery
4 carrots
3-4 beetroot
3 cloves garlic
Olive oil
1 butternut squash, peeled and seeds removed
2-3 red peppers
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground ginger
100g dried apricots
2 cans chopped tomatoes
750ml vegetable stock
2 tsp rose harissa (or use normal harissa and add a couple of drops of rose water)
Seasoning
1 fresh pomegranate
Fresh parsley (or coriander) to serve

For the Lamb Meatballs:
500g minced lamb
1 leek
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground allspice
seasoning
3 tbsp semolina
1 egg
Oil to fry

Couscous to serve

For the vegetable stew: peel and roughly chop 2 of the onions, 2 of the carrots and 2 of the beetroot (use gloves unless you want to look as though you’ve been in a massacre!), then put in a food processor with the chopped garlic. Process to a fine mush, making sure you scrape down the sides so nothing is missed. Alternatively, chop finely by hand, but this is quite a large volume!

Grated veg for Moroccan stew

Heat a generous glug of olive oil in a large casserole dish (I use my trusty Le Creuset) and tip in the finely chopped vegetables to soften gently. Meanwhile, peel the remaining carrots, beetroot, squash and peppers and cut into small chunks. (The original recipe uses swede and parsnip here, so you can improvise with whatever you have/like.) Add these to the pan and continue cooking to soften, adding the turmeric, cumin and coriander as you go. Snip the apricots into halves or quarters with scissors and add to the pan. Stir in the chopped tomatoes, stock, seasoning and harissa (plus rose water if using separately), then bring to the boil. Once it comes to the boil, turn down the heat and simmer for an hour or so, stirring occasionally to check that it’s not sticking.

While the stew is simmering, make the meatballs: put the minced lamb into a food processor (you don’t need to wash the bowl after processing the veg, as a bit of beetroot just adds to the effect), add the chopped leek, spices, seasoning, semolina and the egg, then process until thoroughly blended and the leek is finely chopped. Transfer to a bowl, cover and refrigerate for half an hour to firm up. After chilling, line a baking sheet with clingfilm and roll the mixture into small balls (about a teaspoon or so in each, like a large marble) with damp hands. You should end up with 70-75 meatballs.

Raw meatballs

Heat more oil in a frying pan, then add the meat balls in two batches. Fry until golden brown on all sides, then transfer to another baking sheet lined with kitchen towel to absorb any excess oil.

Moroccan stew cooking

When the stew has cooked for an hour, add the meatballs and continue cooking to heat through. Meanwhile, prepare couscous to serve ( I use 60g couscous and 100 ml boiling water per person, with added couscous spice (or use individual spices of your choice) and a dash of olive oil. Add the water to the couscous with the spice and oil, stir, cover and leave for 10-15 minutes, then fluff up with a fork and serve.)

Cut the pomegranate in half and hit firmly with a wooden spoon over the pan to make the jewel-like seeds fall out. You may need to scrape out the last few, but this is usually quite effective – and satisfying! Pick out any white membrane that may have fallen into the dish too. Sprinkle the stew with chopped parsley or coriander and serve.

Freezes beautifully too.

Moroccan veg stew with meatballs

The darkest root

Carrot harvest

I usually grow at least one whole bed of root vegetables at the allotment. Carrots, parsnips and beetroot are my staples, but I have toyed with swedes, celeriac and turnips, although with limited success, so always return to the first three. Carrots haven’t always been good on the heavy local clay, but a fellow plotholder who always has superb rows of huge carrots suggested incorporating some sand in the soil and that appears to have made all the difference! This year’s carrot crop is a great improvement and I’m actually in a position to store some for the winter. Even the slugs have steered clear this season: whether they’re averse to the gritty sand on their slimy skins or have been attracted elsewhere, I’m not sure – but I’m certainly not complaining! Even the dreaded carrot root fly haven’t made an appearance this year. Admittedly, some of the carrots were the resistant Flyaway variety, but by no means all. Homegrown carrots have such a superb taste, it’s so satisfying when they do well.

Parsnips usually do extremely well for me, but this year I’ve had a complete crop failure. They take so long to germinate, that by the time you realise they haven’t appeared, it’s often too late to do anything about it. I used fresh seed, so have no idea what went wrong this time. It happens….

Beetroot on the other hand, always do well – and this year was no exception. I love beetroot simply roasted individually, wrapped in foil, in a hot oven at 200°C / 400°F / Gas 6, then served warm or cold with a salad. I often cook a batch, sprinkle with balsamic vinegar, and store in the fridge for a good week or so. Recently, I was inspired to find a recipe for beetroot risotto, as much for its dark and sultry looks as anything else. After much researching, I couldn’t find exactly what I had in mind, so resorted to adapting a Diana Henry recipe that looked promising. The result was divine – a deep red plateful topped with creamy white cheese. So good.

Beetroot Risotto – serves 1

Beetroot risotto

25ml butter
1 small red onion, chopped
1 leek, finely sliced
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
50g Arborio rice
100g fresh beetroot, grated
450 ml fresh vegetable stock (or use chicken if you prefer), hot
75 ml Martini Rosso (or use red wine)
few sprigs fresh thyme
2 tbsp Pecorino cheese (or Parmesan), grated
50g Lancashire cheese (or Wensleydale, feta or goat’s cheese!)
Dill to garnish

Heat the butter in a frying pan and cook the chopped red onion, leek and garlic gently until tender, but not brown – about 10 minutes. Add the rice and thyme leaves, then stir to coat thoroughly. Add the grated beetroot (use disposable gloves to grate, or peel and use a food processor!) and cook for another few minutes. Pour in the Martini Rosso or red wine and allow it to bubble up and reduce slightly. Then start adding the hot stock, one ladle at a time, waiting for it to be absorbed each time before adding the next. Stir constantly and start testing the rice after 20 minutes or so to see if it is tender, but with a slight bite. Add the grated Pecorino, chopped dill and season to taste. Serve in bowls garnished with crumbled or grated Lancashire cheese (or the cheese of your choice – a chalky white cheese is the best foil for the dark earthiness of the beetroot) and more dill, if you have it. Enjoy!

This serves just one, but you can multiply according to how many you’re serving. You could also add cubes of roasted beetroot to garnish for maximum effect.

Another favourite beetroot concoction involves throwing together a Puy lentil salad with beetroot and feta or goat’s cheese. The sweet earthiness of the beetroot is the ideal complement to the smoky lentils and the chalky cheese sets both off to perfection. Sometimes I add carrots or squash too to provide an orange contrast, and even a few cooked green beans if I have any. I like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s way of cooking the lentils, although I find they don’t take quite as long to cook as he suggests.

Beetroot & Puy Lentil Salad with Feta – serves 4-6

Beetroot and lentil salad

250g Puy lentils
Vegetable stock or water
1 bay leaf
Few sprigs thyme
2 garlic cloves, crushed
Parsley sprigs
Juice of a lemon
Seasoning
4-6 beetroot
4 carrots (optional)
100g butternut squash (optional)
Olive oil
Balsamic vinegar
100g goat’s cheese or feta
Dill to garnish

Wash the beetroots, cutting off the top and tail, then wrap individually in foil, before roasting in a hot oven at 200°C / 400°F / Gas 6. If serving squash and/or carrot as well, cut into chunky cubes or barrel shapes, sprinkle with olive oil, chopped garlic, seasoning and thyme leaves, then roast in an open dish at the same time as the beetroot, although they will probably only need 30-40 minutes. When tender, remove from the oven and cool. The beetroot skins should come off easily when cool, and the beetroot can then be cubed.

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. Dress with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice, then season.

Serve the lentils lukewarm or cold with the roasted vegetables, more olive oil if required and a dash of balsamic vinegar. Garnish with dill and cubes of goat’s cheese or feta. The flavour gets even better as it sits, so don’t worry if you have leftovers for the next day…