Tag Archives: allotment

Scaling the rhubarb mountain…

Alliums and tulips

It’s at this time of year that the rhubarb goes into overdrive: sunshine one minute, heavy showers the next – perfect growing weather! Despite cutting back my rhubarb bed when I downsized from a full allotment to three-quarters, the two smaller beds I created seemed to have expanded beyond all expectations. Every time I go up, I cut armfuls of strong stems, but it still looks just as abundant the next time I arrive. I give lots away, of course: I sent my son and his fiancée home with loads this weekend, and thrust yet more at my mum when we called in for lunch on Sunday. I even took some up to a friend in Cheshire when I went to my goddaughter’s wedding over the beautiful May Day holiday weekend.

Needless to say my menus feature rhubarb pretty intensively at the moment: roasted rhubarb & orange compote with homemade granola and natural yogurt is my breakfast of choice. You can’t beat a good old-fashioned rhubarb crumble or a traditional rhubarb pie with its mandatory (and delicious) soggy bottom either. Sometimes, however, you fancy a change, and I recently revisited a recipe from one of my first ever cookbooks, Jocasta Innes “Pauper’s Cookbook” from my student days, still my original dog-eared, much bespattered paperback version from the 1970s. The original recipe calls itself a rhubarb pie, but to my mind a pie has to have a top, whereas this is more of a tart with just a pastry base. It’s delicious, whatever you call it, and reminded me almost of the delicious Rhabarberwähen I sampled in Basel during my year abroad – heaven on a plate! I must track down a Swiss recipe for one of those too…. In the meantime, here’s my take on an open rhubarb tart. I often make enough pastry to make a spare case; they keep for a good couple of weeks in a tin in a cool place.

Rhubarb & Cinnamon Tart – serves 6

Rhubarb tart

1 part-baked 24cm shortcrust pastry case (see this recipe or use your own)
750g rhubarb, chopped
1 lemon, grated rind and juice
150g brown sugar
1 heaped tbsp cornflour
1 tsp cinnamon

Mix the sugar, grated lemon rind and juice, cinnamon and cornflour in a bowl and sprinkle half this mixture over the bottom of the tart case, top with the chopped rhubarb, then sprinkle the rest of the sugar mixture on top. Bake at 200°C, Gas 6 for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until the rhubarb is tender. Cover with foil if it starts to get too brown at the edges. Serve just warm or cold with whipped cream or crème fraiche.

A chance conversation on Facebook led to my next rhubarb solution: rhubarb & ginger gin. I’ve yet to taste the results, of course, as it will have to steep for a month before it’s ready, but I can’t see why it shouldn’t taste divine: rhubarb, ginger, gin & tonic – what’s not to like? I’ll let you know in a month’s time whether it’s as good as it sounds – fingers crossed! Sarah Raven’s recipe for rhubarb & ginger vodka appealed most after my online searches, adapted for gin and tweaked to fit my 2 litre Kilner jar. I used Aldi’s Oliver Cromwell London Gin, which gets excellent reviews and won a gold medal in the International Wine and Spirits Competition earlier this year.

Rhubarb & Ginger Gin

Rhubarb and ginger gin

800g rhubarb, chopped into small chunks
1 litre gin
400g granulated sugar
5cm piece root ginger, peeled and sliced
thin strips of orange peel from 1 orange
1 vanilla pod

Put the rhubarb, sugar, ginger, orange peel and vanilla pod into a 2-litre Kilner jar and pour over the gin to cover completely. You probably won’t need it all; I reckon I used about 900 ml. Shake vigorously, then put in a cool place for 1 month, shaking every day to dissolve the sugar.

After 1 month, strain into a jug and decant into bottles. Serve with tonic and ice for a perfectly pink long drink for the summer months. Roll on June!

Garden flowers with alliums and tulips
Tulips and alliums from the garden
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Another weekend, more progress…

Allotment evening sun

Another weekend comes around, very different from the soaring temperatures of last weekend, but dry at least today, so I’ve finally ventured out into the allotment to do something other than harvesting. My gardening helper came in again on Thursday and did the heavy weeding and lawn mowing, which meant it was a much easier proposition to go up today and get started with the interesting bits! As it was, I still spent over two hours up there, preparing beds and soil – all very enjoyable, but I can certainly feel it in my knee now…

Carrots, parsnips and beetroot are duly sown, along with salad crops: spinach, Swiss chard, rocket, lettuce, oriental mustard, parsley, coriander, dill and chives. I also planted red onion sets around the outside of the bed where the leeks are due to go: currently still containing healthy-looking parsley and chard/spinach that’s about to go to flower, but should be good for a few more pickings. I had intended to plant my peas too, sweet and mangetout, but common sense prevailed and I’ll save that until tomorrow – weather permitting!

I returned home with vast amounts of rhubarb – clearly loving the typical April weather of sunshine and showers – and yet more purple-sprouting broccoli. Most of my meals this week have featured broccoli one way or another, not that I’m complaining. It’s a real delight to have something so fresh and tasty at this time of year, before the asparagus and the broad beans come into their own in a few weeks’ time.

Tonight I simply had it steamed served with salmon fillet, a cream and herb sauce, paprika-dusted chunky chips and a garlic mushroom. So good. Other uses during the week were my standby broccoli and anchovy pasta, a tuna, leek and broccoli pasta bake, and a broccoli and feta frittata. Nothing very taxing, but nice to ring the changes by cooking the broccoli in different ways. And just think of all those vitamins! A and C for starters, but it also contains calcium, iron and folic acid, to name but a few of its nutritional goodies. Let’s hope it goes straight to the knee….

Broccoli & Feta Frittata – serves 2

Broccoli frittata with sorrel mint salad

1 onion, chopped
1 medium potato, diced and parboiled for 5 minutes
1 handful of purple-sprouting broccoli, steamed or microwaved for 2-3 minutes
8-10 cherry tomatoes, halved
a glug of olive oil
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
100g feta cheese, cubed
4 eggs
Salt and pepper

Cook the chopped onion gently in the oil for 10 minutes until starting to soften. Stir in the cooked potato, cherry tomatoes and thyme, and cook for a few more minutes.

Meanwhile beat the eggs, add salt and pepper, then stir in the cubed feta. Tip in the onion, potato and tomato mixture and finally add the drained, cooked broccoli. Pour the mixture into a greased 7″ square roasting dish and make sure everything is evenly distributed. Cook for 12-15 minutes in a pre-heated oven (200°C / Gas 6) until just set to the touch.

Leave to cool for a few minutes and then cut into quarters to serve, preferably with a fresh green salad: mine was fresh red sorrel and mint, as they are both plentiful in the garden at home at the moment, with a handful of red grapes. The frittata re-heats beautifully the next day for lunch if you have any left over.

This next recipe isn’t a looker (are pasta bakes ever?), but it is a really tasty and comforting way of serving broccoli when you have it coming out of your ears… It also contains leeks, another vegetable I’m trying to use up at this time of year, before they flower, and to free up the beds for next month’s courgette and sweetcorn plants. You can still eat them when they go to flower, but they start to develop a hard central tube, so best to use them before if at all possible.

Broccoli & Pasta Bake – serves 2

1 x 160g tin tuna, drained
60g pasta (I used penne, but use whatever you have)
1 generous handful purple-sprouting broccoli
1 large or 2 small leeks, sliced into rings
25g butter
1 heaped tbsp plain flour
250ml milk
1 tbsp parsley, chopped
Freshly grated nutmeg
100g Cheddar cheese, grated
2 tbsp breadcrumbs (I keep a bag in the freezer and use from frozen)
Salt and pepper

Cook the pasta in boiling salted water for 10 minutes, then drain and set aside. Steam the broccoli over the pasta for the last 3-4 minutes.

Meanwhile, gently cook the leeks in the butter until starting to soften. Stir in the flour and cook for a few minutes, then gradually add the milk. You may need to add more milk if the consistency is too thick – this is a matter of personal taste, so use your discretion! Grate in some fresh nutmeg, and stir in the chopped parsley and half of the grated cheese. Then stir in the flaked tuna and season to taste.

When the pasta is cooked, stir the pasta through the sauce, add the cooked broccoli, and turn into a greased ovenproof dish. I use a 20 cm round Pyrex dish. Mix the reserved grated cheese with the breadcrumbs and sprinkle on top. Bake at 200°C / Gas 6 for 25 – 30 minutes until golden brown. Serve with peas or a green salad.

Finally, to use up the feta left over from the frittata, I turned to yet another pasta dish, featuring one of my favourite pasta sauces and one my boys took away to university as easy student fare. I find it’s only too easy to forget about half a packet of feta in the fridge once you’ve opened it, so this is a delicious way of using it up before it goes off. I think the original recipe came from renowned Italian food writer Anna del Conte, but I’ve tweaked it over the years as usual. You can add sweet peppers, or omit the onion: it’s always good.

Spicy Sausage Pasta – serves 2-3

Sausage pasta_rotated

1 x 400g pack good sausages (I like to use Sainsbury’s Sicilian sausages, but any will do)
200g pasta (penne or rigatoni)
1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 red chilli, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 tin chopped tomatoes
2 tbsp tomato purée
2 tbsp capers, drained
12 black olives
120ml white wine
2 tbsp parsley, chopped (or basil in season)
100g feta cheese, crumbled
salt & pepper

Cook the chopped onion gently in the oil in a frying pan. Use scissors to cut the skin off the sausages and discard. Chop the sausage meat into chunks and add to the frying pan after 5-10 minutes, then add the chopped garlic and chilli. Cook until the sausage is no longer pink, then add the tomato purée and the wine. Let it sizzle and die down, then add the tinned tomatoes, capers and olives. Season to taste. Simmer uncovered for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile cook the pasta in boiling salted water for 10 minutes, then drain and set aside, reserving a few tbsp of cooking water to add to the tomato mixture if it looks to be getting dry. Alternatively add more wine!

After 15 minutes, add the pasta to the sauce, toss thoroughly and serve topped with the crumbled feta cheese and the chopped parsley.

Poppy in bluebells 2018

Getting stronger…

Cherry blossom front garden

Me, and growth in the garden, that is! An unexpectedly warm and sunny week in mid-April is just what the doctor ordered, encouraging me out to ever longer dog walks (dry and less treacherous underfoot, thank goodness) and also spurring the gardens into heavenly spring growth: tulips, daffodils, camellias, magnolias, epimediums, bluebells – all flowering at once…. Stunning!

I took the opportunity of a trip over to my son’s near Sevenoaks at the weekend to visit a garden I’ve always meant to visit: Riverhill Himalayan Gardens, perched on a fabulous vantage point above the A21, overlooking the Kent and Sussex Weald. It didn’t disappoint with intoxicating bluebell walks, stately rhododendrons, magnificent magnolias and fantastic views everywhere you looked. Dogs were allowed (on leads), a rare treat in these days where dogs seemed to be banned outright in many of the classic National Trust gardens. A sorry tale of the few cavalier dog owners spoiling it for the many who do pick up after their dogs and keep them under control in public places. For the odd child who veered away from our three (on their leads, good as gold). there were lots of others who were keen to come and coo and stroke them, especially my daughter-in-law’s working cocker spaniel, Ollie, who basks in all the attention, true therapy dog that he is.

Ollie in coat

Part of the reason I was able to have such a relaxed weekend was that I’d taken the plunge to get a cleaner back in to clean my house, partly because of my accident, but also to free up precious leisure time. I’d also, for the first time ever, paid for help in the garden, to do the heavy jobs I’d struggle to do with a weak, though recovering knee. A very good move: my overgrown lawn is now neatly mown, hard-to-access areas under trees and shrubs weeded, garden compost distributed around the hungry beds and my potatoes (Ulster Sceptre, Colleen and Bonnie) duly planted at the allotment. Such a relief!

On a side note, Ulster Sceptre is a variety I trialled from T&M some years ago and absolutely loved. I haven’t been able to find them since, but tracked them down to a grower in Yorkshire this year, only to see them described as the variety often grown as early Cheshires – no wonder I loved them, if they are the new potato taste of my childhood!

This left me free to spend a lovely afternoon just pottering on Sunday. I sowed more seeds in the propagator as others germinate and are moved out onto the conservatory windowsill: sweetcorn Ambrosia, courgette Defender and squash Crown Prince (from my own seeds saved from last year) and Early Butternut. Oh, and I’ve tried more celeriac this year (Monarch), having enjoyed it so much in cooking last year: so good with venison. It’s always been a martyr to slug damage whenever I’ve tried it before, but we’ll see…

I also got around to potting up my dahlia tubers, to get them going in the protected environment of my growframe before they go out in the open. Somehow or other I must have gone crazy at dahlia ordering time and have ended up with 10 new varieties! Six from Sarah Raven: purple Ripples, Shooting Star (cream tinged with mauve), Genova (mauve), Snowstorm (white of  course), Wizard of Oz (baby pink) and Daisy Duke (copper). The cream and purple shades are admittedly geared to my younger son’s July wedding, when it would be nice to have at least some blooms to accompany their lavender theme – weather permitting! I have bought a new raised bed kit to be dedicated to cutting flowers, but need help to install it: one for my gardener’s list, I think.

I had also succumbed to a Gardener’s World/Thompson & Morgan dahlia offer: four tubers for the cost of postage; who could resist?! These included Arabian Night, a deep red black cactus variety I’ve had before and loved – and since my favourite dark dahlia Rip City finally disappeared last year, this was an ideal chance to re-introduce that burgundy shade. The others were My Love (cream), Orfeo (another deep red) and Mingus Toni (speckled rose). I’m sure I’ll manage to shoehorn them all in somewhere… It may even be that some of last year’s, all left in the ground to overwinter as usual, haven’t survived the very cold temperatures we had earlier this year. Time will tell.

TM dahlia offer

Most of the tuberous begonias I’d overwintered in the shed had perished in the extremely cold temperatures, but two of my monster tubers still feel quite solid and have been duly potted up. I’ve had them all for a good couple of years, so they owe me nothing; we’ll see if they shoot, and if not, I’ll start again with fresh plants and new varieties. Such is the joy of gardening 🙂

My final task of the weekend, still from a gentle sitting position with my potting tray moved to my garden table, involved pricking out the fibrous begonia seedlings my parents had brought over the previous weekend from Dove’s Barn, a nursery near them in East Grinstead, always very reasonably-priced for a wide range of seedlings and young plants. These are very tricky to grow from seed yourself unless you have a heated greenhouse, so I usually buy them at the tiny seedling stage and prick them out myself. These were one stage further on as mini plug plants, but it’s still a lot cheaper to buy them like this than to buy trays of garden-ready plants in a month or so’s time. And while it may seem unadventurous to always have begonias in my garden tubs, I know from experience that these are such good doers: come sun or rain, slug epidemic or drought, these do well whatever the season throws at them.

Bluebells at Tapsells April 2018

 

 

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

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

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.

It’s that time again…

Marjorie plum tree

Yes, it’s official, autumn has arrived with a vengeance here in sunny (or not-so-sunny at the moment) Sussex. The children have gone back to school, the nights are drawing in and there’s definitely a nip in the air. It would be nice to have an Indian summer, extending the season just that little bit longer, especially after a dampish August, but it’s not looking likely on this week’s showing. Still, harvest time continues and I’ve got apples and plums coming out of my ears. Time to get the preserving pan out again…

Plum jam isn’t usually one of my favourites, as I find the skins, when cooked long and slow in the preserving process, can be quite obtrusive. Jelly is an option, of course, but never quite as satisfying as jam and certainly not right slathered in a traditional Victoria sponge or topped off with clotted cream on a scone. I scoured the internet for recipes that didn’t involve the skins, but didn’t find anything that took my fancy. I also had an urge to use cardamom pods and/or citrus to make a spiced jam, inspired perhaps by my current take on plum compote. This involves halving the plums and removing the stones (you can leave a few in if you like for their extra almondy flavour, but not too much as the kernels actually do contain cyanide!). Place in a rectangular ovenproof dish, sprinkle with a couple of tablespoons of Demerara sugar, the juice and rind of one large orange, and add a star anise. Then roast for 30 minutes or so at 180°C/Gas 5 for a delectable, Spiced Roasted Plum Compote.

Diana Henry’s plum, cardamom and orange jam came close to what I had in mind, but included the orange rind, like a marmalade, and wasn’t strained to remove the plum skins. Finally, I decided to adapt one of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s fridge jam recipes from “Fruit Every Day”. I’ve used this technique for a divine Morello cherry jam before now, and while you have to keep it in the fridge once opened, it stores perfectly in a cool larder before opening – and uses half the sugar of traditional jams, which has to be a good thing. I was pretty happy with the results, but see for yourselves:

Spiced Plum Jam with Cardamom, Orange & Cinnamon – makes 3 jars

Plum and chilli jam

1.5kg plums, stoned (I used my late-season Marjories)
750g granulated sugar
2 oranges, grated rind and juice
300ml water
8 cardamom pods, husks removed and seeds roughly crushed
1/2 cinnamon stick

Halve and stone the plums and put in a preserving pan with 300ml of water and the juice and rind of the oranges, cinnamon stick and cardamom pods. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook for 20-30 minutes until very soft and pulpy. Add the sugar, stirring until fully dissolved and bring back to the boil. Cook for 5-8 minutes until the right consistency is reached – drips should run together when you hold up the wooden spoon over the pan. Carefully pass the mixture through a large sieve into a clean jug or bowl and push through the pulp to extract all the jam. Then pour into sterilised jars and seal as usual (see here for method). Deliciously tangy and no chewy skins!

Chillis and tomatoes are also in abundance at this time of year, and whilst you can dry chillis for use in the winter, it’s also nice to make your own chilli preserves too – so much less sweet than shop-bought offerings and often with more of a kick too. I’ve shared Sarah Raven’s sweet chilli dipping sauce here before, but I also like her chilli jam recipe for a thicker preserve. I usually double the quantities Sarah suggests, but still find it only makes 3-4 small jars – you don’t need much, though, so it’s well worth experimenting. My son thinks the jam could be even hotter, but I like it just as it is. Of course, much depends on the heat of your chillis, and your tastebuds, so do apply caution if using unknown chillis. You could literally be playing with fire! I didn’t have enough Thai fish sauce either for the doubled quantities – why does it come in such small bottles? – so made up the difference with Worcester sauce. It does contain anchovies after all…

Chilli Jam – makes 3-4 small jars

1kg ripe tomatoes
6-8 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
8 large red chillis, seeds left in if you like your preserves hot
large piece of root ginger, chopped
600g granulated sugar
4 tbsp Thai fish sauce or Worcester sauce
200ml red wine vinegar

Roughly chop half the tomatoes and blitz in a food processor with the garlic, chillis and ginger. Pour into a heavy saucepan. Add the sugar, fish (or Worcester) sauce and vinegar and bring to the boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Reduce to a simmer. Dice the remaining tomatoes finely and add to the pan, then simmer for 40-45 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the mixture thickens and turns slightly darker and sticky. Pour into sterilised jars as above and seal while still warm. Keep in the fridge once opened.

Now, what to do with the next batch of plums, I wonder?! Happy harvesting!

Leo near the plunge pool