Category Archives: Preserves

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

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Chasing my tail

Broad beans and rapeseed

Here I am again, chasing my tail trying to get my garden ship-shape and ready for summer, despite the fact that we’re less than a week away from the longest day. Whatever happened to those, long, balmy evenings and sun-blessed days? It’s hardly June-like here, with torrential rain one day and dismal murk the next. My tomato plants, planted in their final positions outdoors a few weeks ago, have sulked since moving outside and it’s hard to believe they’ll be healthy, fruiting plants in a few short months… I delayed planting my French and runner beans at the start of the month due to the high winds and cold temperatures, but they’ve gone in now and will have to fend for themselves, along with the courgettes, squashes and sweetcorn.

Broad beans and basil

On the plus side, my broad beans are fantastic this year, now starting to reach harvesting size (typically just before I go on holiday!). I picked my first crop of tender baby beans this week to steam with asparagus and mint as an accompaniment to my friend’s delicious Shetland lamb chops. So good. I picked so many that I was able to give half away and still have enough to toss in the first pesto sauce of the season with pasta, caramelised onions and toasted pine nuts the following night.

Broad bean pasta

Strawberries too are coming thick and fast – little sign of slug damage yet, so perhaps those nematodes are getting to work at last. A shame that they aren’t having the same effect on my salad bed, where I’m still struggling to get lettuce past the germination stage before they’re munched off in their prime! In desperation, I’ve resorted to sowing some in a seed tray at home for planting out when they are a little more established….

I finally managed to finish planting up my new oak barrels at home this week – must be an all-time record for me to fill my summer containers so late in June! The old and disintegrating barrels in situ were well past their sell-by date – but as they made the move down from Scotland with us some 13 years ago and we’d had them in the Scottish garden for a good few years beforehand, I don’t suppose they owe me anything! It was quite a job emptying and refilling five full-sized half-barrels, so hardly surprising that it took me so long. Now filled with my giant tuberous begonias, fibrous begonias, lobelia and double petunias, I’m hoping for a spectacular display once they get going – slugs and snails permitting!

New barrel near gate

One final job I’ve been keen to do before the holiday season is upon us is to make my elderflower cordial. There’s an elder bush just down the road from where I live that’s absolutely laden with blossom this year – but I’d rather pick my elderflowers from a hedgerow away from road fumes if at all possible, so I’ve been holding on and dodging the showers, waiting for the perfect moment to harvest. Success at last one day this week, on a blustery dog walk down near my local reservoir: steeped overnight in their sugar and lemon solution, they are now bottled as the quintessential elderflower cordial, perfect for Hugo cocktails with Prosecco and lemon, as a refreshing long drink with sparkling water, or added to panna cotta or gooseberry compote for a certain je ne sais quoi… I wouldn’t be without it.

Elderflower Cordial – makes 2-3 (750ml) bottles

Elderflower cordial
20 or so heads of elderflower
2 pints boiling water
3lb granulated sugar
juice and grated zest of 2 lemons
1 tbsp citric acid

Pour the boiling water onto the sugar in a large preserving pan and stir over a medium heat until dissolved. Add the lemon juice, grated zest, citric acid and elderflowers (stripped of any chunky green stems, but left as heads). Cover with a tea towel and leave for 24 hours. Strain through a sieve lined with muslin into a large jug and pour through a funnel into sterilised bottles.
Keeps for several months in a dark place – refrigerate once opened.

More Alchemy in the Kitchen

Fruit glut July 2015

I’ve said before that I love the alchemy of converting piles of fresh fruit and vegetables into jams and chutneys. There’s something very special about a well-stocked store cupboard, harvesting nature’s bounty for the cold winter months ahead. If the produce in question is free from your own garden or allotment (or a neighbour’s, as in the case of my jostaberries), or better still from the hedgerow, that’s even better. I always try to make at least one batch of elderflower cordial a year, as it’s so much better than shop-bought, and this year I was tempted to experiment with my own blackcurrant cordial too, when the blackcurrants reached glut proportions during my week away! Redcurrant jelly is another favourite as it makes the most sublime sauce to accompany lamb, and recently I’ve tried jostaberry jam for the first time, using up the surplus from my neighbour’s monster bush. This hybrid of blackcurrants and gooseberries is deliciously tangy, but a devil to top and tail. Gooseberries are at least large and dry, so can be topped and tailed quite easily in front of the television, blackcurrants usually only need to be destalked as the flower “tails” are quite unobtrusive, but these berries have noticeable tops and tails – you can only really leave them on if you intend to sieve the jam. It took me 40 minutes to top and tail 3lb of fruit for this jam – not ideal, but hopefully the results will be worth it! I find it best to top and tail them in a bowl of water as they are also very juicy so you need to do it with your fingertips, rather than a knife as you would with gooseberries. Tempted? It’s really very simple. Here’s how:

 Jostaberry Jam

Jostaberries3lb jostaberries

3lb granulated sugar

1 pint water

Top and tail the jostaberries as described above, then cook with 1 pint water in a large preserving pan for about half an hour or until soft. Add the sugar over a gentle heat and stir until dissolved. Bring to the boil and cook vigorously for about 5 to 7 minutes until setting point is reached.

I find the best test is to hold your wooden spoon over the pan and when the drips run together to form a bigger drop that breaks off sharply, the jam will be done. Otherwise, have a saucer in the freezer and place a little of the jam on the saucer, cool slightly, then push with your finger: the surface should wrinkle. You will need to take the jam off the heat while you do this test to stop the jam overcooking.

When set, pour the jam into prepared jars (washed and sterilised in the oven on a low heat), cover with waxed circles and lids, then label when cool.

Jelly is slightly more fiddly than jam, but probably requires less hands-on time and is just as satisfying. You will need a jelly bag and stand, but the resulting jelly will be so much better than anything you can buy in the shops. I love to use it in a ridiculously simple Redcurrant, Orange & Mint Sauce from Delia’s original Complete Cookery Course: just mix a couple of tablespoons of home-made jelly with the grated rind of one orange and a handful of finely chopped mint. Allow to stand and serve with roast lamb – sublime! Also goes well with curry made from any leftover lamb the next day, rather than the more traditional mango chutney.

 Red & Whitecurrant Jelly

Red and whitecurrants in preserving pan3lb red and whitecurrants (or just use all redcurrants)

1 pint water

Sugar (see recipe)

Put the fruit, stalks and all, into a large preserving pan with the water and cook for ½ to ¾ hour until really soft. Strain overnight through the jelly bag attached to a jelly stand into a large jug placed beneath. Do not be tempted to squeeze or poke the fruit as otherwise the jelly will be cloudy.

Measure the extract the next morning and allow 1lb sugar to every 1 pint of extract. Return to the preserving pan and stir over a gentle heat until the sugar has dissolved. Then boil rapidly for 8-10 minutes until a set is achieved (see above). Skim off any froth, then pour into jars, seal and label as above.

Jelly bag Bubbling jam panRed and whitecurrant jellyThe third in my trio of midsummer preserves is blackcurrant cordial. Having put numerous bags in the freezer, made a divine sorbet, a summer pudding and countless other desserts, I thought I’d give this a go. What a revelation! Pure, fresh-tasting cordial, so much nicer than the branded varieties, and of course, you merely need a splash with fizzy water (or sparkling wine!) for a delicious long summer drink or Kir Royal. I tried this last year without the citric acid, but it didn’t keep very long, even in the fridge. This year, I’ve added citric acid, and whilst I’m sure it won’t hang around for long, I think it will keep as long as I need it.

Blackcurrant Cordial

500g blackcurrants
275g sugar
250ml water
½ tsp citric acid

In a heavy-based pan, simmer the sugar, blackcurrants and water gently for 5 minutes. Using a potato masher, break up the fruit to release as much juice as possible. Add the citric acid and simmer for another 2 minutes. Strain the mix through a jelly bag overnight, without squeezing and pour the resulting liquid into a sterilised bottle and keep in the fridge.

If, like me, you have so many blackcurrants that you decide to increase the proportions, please make sure that your jelly bag can take the weight…. Mine was so overloaded that it slipped off the stand, splashing cordial around the kitchen! Fortunately, not too much was lost as it landed in the bowl beneath, but I was very glad I’d had the forethought to cover the kitchen table with newspaper before starting!

Blackcurrant cordial