Category Archives: Gardening

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.

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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

A peck of peppers, anyone?

Pepper and chilli harvest

The weather has been unremittingly awful this September so far, so much so that it feels as though it’s a good month later! Whereas normally I’d be taking my pepper and chilli plants out of the conservatory in October, I found myself emptying them today as they were covered in whitefly and the atmosphere is so damp, they were starting to cause mould growth on the windowledges and windows – yuk! I experienced this once before when I went away on holiday in late September and forgot to leave the window vents open: damp + plants breathing meant my window ledges were green by the time I got home! Nothing that a spot of bleach couldn’t cure, but still – not very nice.

Time to take out those plants that have finished (aubergines, sadly – although they’ve been super-productive this year, so I can’t complain), harvest any ripe fruit on the chillis and peppers, and spray the rest of the plants with soft soap outdoors. I had intended bringing them back in having washed all the surfaces down, but in the end, they got so wet in today’s torrential rain that I’ve left them out; it’s unlikely to freeze, I think, and I really don’t want the same problem again. This is the issue with using a conservatory for cropping plants: when they’re in full flow, it’s fine, but as they start to go yellow and die back, you really don’t want to look at them any more. Fortunately, the basil plants are still looking good and should continue for another month or so.

So what to do with all those peppers? The chillis will be dried and stored in a basket for autumn/winter use, but the peppers won’t keep for long. In the end, I decided on a roast pepper & tomato soup that I’ve been meaning to try for a while from the Covent Garden Soup Book, an old favourite of mine.

Roasted Red Pepper & Tomato Soup – served 5-6

Roast pepper and tomato soup

6 red peppers, halved and seeds removed
8 tomatoes, skinned and halved
glug of olive oil
handful of basil leaves
1 tsp sugar
1 fat garlic clove, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 litre vegetable stock
seasoning
dash of balsamic vinegar to taste

Pre-heat the oven to 180°C/Gas 5. Place the red peppers skin side up in a large roasting tin. Add the skinned tomatoes (I usually place them in a bowl and add boiling water, leave for a couple of minutes, then drain off the water, after which the skins should peel off easily), cut-side up and sprinkle with sugar, chopped garlic, chopped basil leaves, a glug of olive oil and seasoning. Roast for 50 minutes to 1 hour until nicely charred around the edges.

Meanwhile, cook the onion in a large pan with more olive oil until softened (15 minutes or so). Add the roast vegetables, then the stock and bring to the boil. Cook for 5-20 minutes to allow the flavours to meld, then cool in the pan. Liquidize in two batches and add a dash of balsamic vinegar to taste.

Another absolute classic I try to make every year when I harvest my own fruit is Delia Smith’s classic Piedmont peppers – if you haven’t experienced them, I can only recommend you to try – so good! It turns out that this is originally an Elizabeth David recipe, so has a fine pedigree. When you taste them, you’ll realise why….

Delia’s Piedmont Peppers – serves 4 as a starter
(but scale up or down as you require!)

Piedmont peppers

4 red peppers
4 medium tomatoes
8 tinned anchovy fillets
2 cloves garlic, chopped
handful of basil leaves
black pepper
olive oil

Halve the peppers lengthways, keeping the stalk on. Place skin side down in a large roasting tray. Skin the tomatoes (I don’t always bother, I must admit, but if the skin bothers you, please do!), quarter and place two quarters in each pepper half. Snip the anchovy fillets into small pieces and distribute between the peppers. Add the chopped basil and garlic, season with pepper and drizzle with olive oil (the original recipe suggests 1 dsp per pepper half, but I just pour by eye). Roast in the oven at 160°C/Gas 4 for 50 minutes to 1 hour, until starting to char round the edges.

Serve as a starter or a summer salad, with plenty of good bread to mop up the divine juices.

Spring has sprung!

What a glorious spell of early spring weather we’re having – it probably won’t last, but I for one am making the most of it while it does. I even went down to the tennis courts for my first game of the season this afternoon – unheard of before Easter usually! The warm sunshine is bringing on the bulbs and the spring blossom fast and furious: I did opt for early-flowering tulips this year, but still, to see them in full bloom in early April is quite something. These are Vanilla Cream and Design Impression, both from Sarah Raven – if I’d known they would flower at exactly the same time, I might have risked mixing them together in their planters, but I’ve done that before, even with collections intended to flower together, and had them blooming out of sync. As it is, they provide a fabulous shot of colour either side of the arch at the entrance to the garden – gorgeous!

Tulip Design Impression

Tulip Vanilla Cream

Last weekend, after my vegan guests had gone on their way, I managed to fit in a couple of hours down at the allotment. Eminently satisfying. The purple-sprouting broccoli, and even last year’s calabrese are still going strong, as is the spinach and parsley. I dug up the rest of the parsnips so I could plant my seed potatoes in their designated rotation: like last year, I’ve just gone for two varieties, ten of each: Jazzy, a highly recommended new T&M variety for white, waxy early potatoes, and Anya, a nutty salad potato related to Pink Fir Apple that I’ve grown before and does well on my soil.

This month’s Garden magazine included an interesting article maintaining that the notion of “terroir” applies to humble vegetables just as much to grapes and I quite agree: the potatoes I grew in Scotland or in my native Cheshire seemed to have much more taste than the ones I grow down here in my Sussex clay, but some certainly do better than others. If you can find the ones that do grow well in your soil, it pays to stick with them. Unfortunately, the first early I really liked when grown down here, Ulster Sceptre, has proved rather elusive ever since, so I’m still searching – maybe Jazzy will be the one?

The sweet peas I sowed on the conservatory windowsill are germinating slowly and look to be as erratic as the others I’ve tried inside in previous years. I used to be able to start sweet peas off indoors with no problems, so I really don’t understand what’s changed in recent years. I’ll plant more straight outside in the next week or so and no doubt they’ll romp away – but hopefully not be quite as late as last year!

I added parsley and basil seeds to the propagator this week and I finally got round to distributing the contents of the compost around the garden at home – always a nice feeling.

Just two recipes today, both to use up leftovers from the previous weekend. The first was the soup I made to use up the chick peas after last week’s chick pea liquid meringues. I first had this, or an approximation of this, at the Eden Project in Cornwall over 12 years ago, and have been on the hunt for a similar recipe ever since. This, adapted from an ancient Sainsbury’s vegetarian cookbook by Sarah Brown, comes pretty close.

Spiced Chick Pea & Tomato Soup – serves 5-6

Chick pea & tomato soup_cropped

2 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 sticks celery, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 red or green chilli, finely chopped
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp garam masala
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp fresh root ginger, grated
1 tbsp tomato purée
1 tin tomatoes, chopped
1 tin chick peas, drained
1 litre vegetable stock
1 tbsp ground almonds
Seasoning
Fresh parsley, chopped

Heat the oil in a large soup pan and gently fry the onion, garlic and celery until soft – about 10 minutes. Add the chopped chilli and cook for another minute or so, then stir in all the spices and the ground almonds. Then add the tomatoes, chick peas and stock – you might want to just add 3/4 of the stock to start with and add more later depending on the consistency. Bring to the boil and cook for 45 minutes. Season to taste and sprinkle with chopped fresh parsley.

Mine was actually quite hot, because my stock of dried chillis from last autumn had gone mouldy and I used a bought chilli – always an unknown quantity! I like it hot, but you can always use less to start with if you’re not sure.

My final recipe was to use up the excess milk I had in the fridge after my vegan visitors. They had almond milk with their breakfast, but dairy-free cooking on my part meant the milk stocks didn’t go down as much as usual! What better, or easier dessert to make in a busy week than a crème caramel au café – simplicity itself to make and delicious to eat.

Crème Caramel au Café – serves 5

Creme caramel au café

100g granulated sugar
150ml water
450ml milk
3 eggs
25g vanilla sugar (or caster sugar if that’s what you have)
1 tbsp espresso coffee powder (or 25g coffee beans if you prefer)
2 tbsp dark rum

Make a caramel using the granulated sugar and water, cooking gently until the sugar has dissolved, then turning the heat up (and NOT stirring at all) until a deep golden brown colour. Remove from the heat and pour quickly into 5 greased ramekin dishes, which should be standing in a roasting tin.

Warm the milk and add 1 tbsp instant espresso powder. Stir until dissolved (you can also warm the milk with 25g roast coffee beans and leave to stand for 1 hour if you prefer, then strain). Whisk the  eggs with the vanilla sugar and 2 tbsp dark rum, then slowly whisk in the hot milk. Strain into a jug and pour gently over the caramel in the ramekin dishes. Pour hot water into the roasting tin until it comes 2.5 cm up the sides of the ramekins, cover the lot with foil and bake at 150°C (fan), gas 3 until just set. Leave to cool and chill well before turning out. Et voilà!

Spring in front window bed

Spring is in the air…

Aquilegia and hellebore foliage

I can’t believe it’s over a month since I last wrote – so much for my good intentions! What with pressures of work, a skiing holiday, decorators in painting the kitchen /utility room after having a new oak floor fitted at the end of last year, a wedding food tasting and lots of family visits, blog-writing has definitely taken a back seat of late. This weekend was Mother’s Day, with one son and his fiancée home, then a trip over to my parents’ to see all the family on Sunday – and beautiful spring weather for once too!

The recent springlike weather has tempted me out into the garden to mow my lawn (just the once!), cut back my buddleias and the giant lavatera, prune the roses, dead-head last year’s hydrangea flowers and chop back any remaining perennials that I’d left through the winter to provide shelter and food for birds and insects. There was still a cold wind when I ventured out on Saturday afternoon, but I was determined to pot up my new dahlia tubers from Sarah Raven and the overwintered monster begonias. I also sowed the first batch of seeds, always an exciting moment: sweet peas in pots on the conservatory windowsill (I’ve reverted to trying some inside this year after such a late crop last year, but I will plant more straight into the ground later too, when the soil warms up). Tomatoes (my favourite Sungold and the old-fashioned Ailsa Craig), chillis (Summer Heat and Padron), Romano sweet peppers, aubergine Bonica, lobelia Crystal Palace, and the three leek varieties Bandit, Pandora and Nipper for a succession of leeks all through the autumn/winter – all now tucked up in the propagator. Let the season commence!

Back side bed

I’ve still to distribute last year’s compost around the garden, but there’s always next weekend… In the meantime, let me finish with a springtime lemon & ricotta cake I adapted from a River Café recipe. I had some ricotta in the fridge and fancied a light, lemony and gluten-free cake. This was the result – exactly what I was looking for. The original quantities make a huge cake – I didn’t have a tin big enough and there were only five of us for dinner, so I cut the quantities back by a third – perfect. I found the original recipe here if you’re catering for a crowd!

River Café Lemon, Ricotta, Almond & Polenta Cake – serves 10

Lemon ricotta cake

150g butter, softened
170g ground almonds (you could also use almond flour)
65g fine polenta (whizz in the food processor if you can’t buy fine)
finely grated zest of 4 lemons
170g caster sugar
4 large eggs, separated
200g ricotta
juice of 2 lemons
icing sugar, for dusting

Pre-heat the oven to 150°C.  Grease a 24cm round springform cake tin and line the base with greaseproof paper.

Combine the almonds and polenta (whizzed in the food processor for extra fineness if necessary) and add the lemon zest. Beat the butter and sugar together using an electric mixer until pale and light.  Add the egg yolks one by one, then add the almond mixture and fold together. Put the ricotta into a bowl and beat lightly with a fork, then add the lemon juice. Stir the ricotta into the cake mixture. Whisk the egg whites in a clean bowl until they form soft peaks.  Finally fold the egg whites into the almond mixture.

Transfer the mixture into the prepared tin and bake in the oven for 40 – 50 minutes, until set.  Test by inserting a skewer, which should come out clean.  Leave in the tin to cool for at least 10 minutes before turning out. Dust liberally with sifted icing sugar before serving, and garnish with fine strips of lemon rind if desired.

I served it with a jostaberry purée from the freezer, but any red fruit coulis would be good – and it was delicious on its own too. Enjoy!

Standen March 2017
Beautiful Standen near East Grinstead – perfect Mother’s Day outing

 

Putting the zest back into February

snowy-day-in-the-woods-feb-2017

Well, February hasn’t been much of an improvement on January so far. We even had a smattering of snow yesterday, not enough to transform everywhere into a magical winter wonderland, just leaden skies, bitter wind and uniform greyness. Yuk.

Needless to say, there’s still nothing doing in the garden, although this is the perfect time to get on with ordering/buying seeds, potatoes and dahlias for the summer and indulge in a little wistful poring over the catalogues, online or print, to while away the grey days. I’ve been buying my seeds as I see them on offer in local garden centres, often half-price at this time of year, but still had to order a few specials online, like the Ammi visnaga from Sarah Raven, and squashes Crown Prince and Squashkin (a butternut/ Crown Prince hybrid from Marshall’s that sounded too tempting to miss!). I haven’t been overly impressed with the potato selections on offer in my local gardening emporia this year, so ended up ordering those online too: Jazzy from Thompson & Morgan, and Anya, a lovely waxy, salad variety I’ve had before and enjoyed, again from Marshall’s. They came ultra-quickly and are now chitting away in eggboxes in the conservatory – so I suppose that’s some progress!

I couldn’t resist ordering new dahlias too; not sure where I’m going to put them, but I’m sure I’ll find room – and there’s my son’s wedding to grow flowers for this year, of course! This year’s additions are Indian Summer, a spiky scarlet cactus variety, Labyrinth, a fabulous pastel peach confection (I did try this one last year, but with no success; fingers crossed it comes up this year) and Mel’s Orange Marmalade, another extravagant cactus type, purely because I loved the name and couldn’t resist the marmalade colour and fringed, almost marine-like petals.

Despite the lack of action in the garden, miserable weather is always a good excuse to spend time messing about in the kitchen and what better ingredients to use to add some zing to a grey day than citrus fruit? It’s the peak season for citrus just now, so my morning ruby grapefruits are extra-delicious and lemons and limes are plentiful. A neighbour, who I cat-sit for when they’re on holiday, very kindly brought around a big pot of home-made Seville orange marmalade on Friday and I even managed to buy my absolute favourite citrus fruits, blood oranges, in Lidl yesterday – they only have a very short season, so all the more reason to snap them up when you find them!

blood-oranges

So what did I make on this cold winter Sunday? First, a carrot, orange & ginger soup to add a touch of sunshine to a chilly lunchtime. Then I finally got round to using up some egg yolks that have been sitting in the fridge since last weekend, when I used the whites in a pineapple & coconut meringue roulade for my younger son’s birthday celebrations. Five egg yolks is quite a lot to have hanging around, especially when you’re cooking for one. The usual contenders of custard, or pastry, only use one or two yolks and my standby gooseberry & crème fraiche tart is best made in summer with fresh, not frozen gooseberries (too much liquid) and for a party to boot! A colleague on Foodie Translators had posted a tempting-looking recipe for lemon bars, based on a recipe by the Barefoot Contessa on the Food Network, which sounded interesting, but used whole eggs. Researching further found an article in the Guardian by Ruby Tandoh, in which she makes lemon curd with just the yolks – and thus an idea was born….

First, the soup though. I make several variations on carrot soup, including carrot & coriander and a carrot & lentil from an ancient M&S cookery book. Both excellent, but if you fancy something both citrussy and slightly spicy, this really hits the spot.

Carrot, Orange & Ginger Soup -serves 6-8

carrot-orange-ginger-soup

750g carrots, peeled & chopped
1 large onion, chopped
2 sticks celery, chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 orange, juice and grated zest
1 cooking apple, peeled and chopped
1 2.5cm piece root ginger, grated (I store in the freezer and grate from frozen)
50g butter
Salt and pepper
1.25 l chicken stock (or you can use vegetable stock if you prefer)
Few sprigs thyme, leaves only

Melt the butter in a large pan, then add the onions, garlic and celery. Sweat gently for 5 minutes or so while you prepare the carrots and apple, then add to the pan with the grated ginger and thyme leaves. Continue to cook for a few more minutes, then add the grated orange zest and juice. Pour in the stock, season and bring to the boil. Cover with a lid and cook for 30 minutes, or until the carrots are tender. Leave to cool slightly, then purée in a liquidiser until smooth. You may need to add more stock at this stage, depending how thick you like your soup – or you could add cream or milk if you prefer. Garnish with coriander or parsley if you have any; otherwise eat as it is and enjoy your little bowl of sunshine!

Needless to say, I had to tweak the Barefoot Contessa’s lemon bar recipe to suit the five egg yolks I had lurking in the fridge, so I more or less halved the quantities, cut down the sugar content, and went from there, adjusting as I went. I was delighted with the results, tangy yet buttery at the same time, but you might wish to tweak further!

Lemon Bars – serves 12

lemon-bars

125g butter
50g caster sugar
150g plain flour
pinch salt
Grated rind of 1 lemon

5 egg yolks
200g caster sugar
Grated rind of 3 lemons
Juice of 3/4 lemons (110-120ml juice in total)
50g plain flour, sifted

Put the first five ingredients, for the shortbread base, into a food processor and blend together until mixed and starting to form a ball. Remove, knead together lightly and press into a greased 17.5cm (7″) square tin. Prick with a fork, then bake in the oven at 160°C, Gas 4 for 15-20 minutes until light golden.

Meanwhile, make the filling: blend the egg yolks, sugar, lemon juice and zest and flour with a hand whisk, then pour over the cooked shortbread base. Return to the oven for 25 – 30 minutes, or until set. Leave to cool, then dust with icing sugar and serve with a nice cup of tea. Amazingly good!