Tag Archives: allotment

Salad Days

Allotment harvest mid-June

We’ve been experiencing an unexpected heatwave here in the South of England for the past week or so, with temperatures over 30°C at their peak. Nothing unusual for many parts of Europe, to be sure, but pretty exceptional in the UK! My house has a north-south axis which works very well in these conditions, especially as my office and bedroom are on the cooler north side of the house, so working and sleeping aren’t too much of an issue.

Watering becomes of paramount importance to a gardener, though. I’m resisting watering twice a day, but trying to water pots and containers at home in the morning, and the raised beds at the allotment in the evening – to spread the load. It’s actually a very enjoyable process, as you can commune with Nature as you water and see what’s newly flowering/germinating/doing well. I’ve managed with water from my water butts so far, but two out of the three at home have now run dry and the allotment butt has been empty for a while – although fortunately water at the allotment comes from a trough and standpipe at the corner of my plot – very convenient! Our yearly subscription covers water costs too, so while it’s not metered to us (although hosepipes aren’t allowed), any huge uptake in usage could theoretically lead to a rise in subs for us all next year, as it is metered to the allotment association.

Allotment poppy June 2017

I love summer evenings up at the allotments: there are always a few people pottering around their plots, it’s incredibly peaceful (apart from my noisy dogs if people dare to walk past “their” plot – sorry, folks) and the sunsets are spectacular. A lesson in mindfulness at the end of a busy day…. This week I’ve managed to mow the grass (trying to keep on top of it so it doesn’t reach jungle proportions again!), get rid of some perennial weeds (docks, blackberries, the dreaded convolvulus) that were encroaching on the paths, do some weeding around newly planted beds and keep up with the harvesting: strawberries, raspberries and redcurrants have suddenly started to ripen at a tremendous pace, and the broad beans and lettuce are still going strong. Such a lovely time of year.

I’ve even made some comfrey tea for use as a fertiliser in three weeks’ time when it has steeped sufficiently. Having lost my comfrey patch a few years back, a healthy-loooking clump has sprung up near the communal bonfire site, so I swapped a wheelbarrow full of weeds for a barrow overflowing with comfrey leaves, stuffed them in an old chicken pellet container (with a lid to contain the stench!), covered with water and will leave to brew. It smells vile but the plants love it – and it’s free!

The strawberries have been epic this year – I’ve had enough for breakfast every day and to make strawberry ice cream, strawberry cheesecake, pavlova and Strawberry Coulis for the freezer (just blitzed in a blender with the juice of an orange and 1 tbsp of icing sugar). Yesterday there were even enough for the quintessential summer jam: strawberry & redcurrant to be precise, as the currants add pectin and make for a better set.

Strawberry & Redcurrant Jam – makes 5 standard jars

Strawberry and redcurrent jam

1.2kg strawberries
300g redcurrants (or gooseberries would work too), removed from stalks
1.5kg granulated sugar
Juice of 1 lemon

Hull the strawberries, chopping up any particularly large fruit and put in a preserving pan with the strigged redcurrants. Add the lemon juice and simmer over a low heat for 20-30 minutes or until very soft.

Strawberry jam making

Weigh out the sugar and add, stirring until it dissolves, then turn up the heat to a rollicking boil, stirring as you go. Add a small knob of butter to reduce any froth! Test after 5-10 minutes to see if it has set – 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. Strawberry jam is notoriously fiddly to set, so test little and often. Mine was ready after just 5-6 minutes in yesterday’s heat.

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. Set aside for the perfect accompaniment for traditional Victoria sponges and scones with jam & clotted cream over the coming summer months…

When the weather is this hot, though, salads are the way to go. Quite apart from the fact that I’ve been getting back from the allotment so late that cooking isn’t an option, it’s really too hot to contemplate cooking. I love experimenting with whatever I have in the fridge or bring back from the plot, resulting in some delicious combinations. Lunch today was a refreshing Melon, Strawberry & Feta Salad served on a bed of mizuna with dill and mint to garnish – sublime! With Galia melon (not my own!), two kinds of strawberries (the large allotment variety and tiny alpine strawberries that run with gay abandon in one border at home), drizzled with a splash of extra virgin olive oil and a hint of balsamic vinegar, this really hit the spot for a cooling, yet tasty lunch. The salty chalkiness of the feta and the slight bitterness of the mizuna were a perfect foil for the sweet and juicy fruit.

Strawberry and melon salad

Other salad combinations have included Baby Broad Beans & Griddled Halloumi with toasted pine kernels and rocket, with a chilli, mint and lemon dressing, and my perennial favourite, Bauernsalat (farmer’s salad), inspired by one of our best-loved holiday hotels, the Tennis Hotel in St. Wolfgang, Austria, which simply consists of crispy fried bacon and potatoes scattered on a bed of fresh salad, with a herby yogurt dressing to accompany. So good – worth cooking extra new potatoes especially to make this! Anything goes – experimenting is half the fun. If something doesn’t work particularly well, just leave it out next time – but with fresh and homegrown produce, chances are it will all taste sublime.

Allotment sunset

Germination Blues

Alliums

It’s been a funny start to the growing season – but then don’t we gardeners say that every year, no matter what the conditions?! This year feels to have been trickier than most, however, not helped by my having been away or otherwise engaged (son’s wedding plans gathering pace…) for the last three weekends. The second half of May is always the busiest in a gardener’s calendar, so things down at the plot had really run away with me.

Then there was the unseasonably warm weather over Easter, followed by an unexpectedly sharp frost at the end of April which decimated all my shooting dahlias at the allotment and seems to have had a disastrous effect on germination, both on the ground and in the propagator at home. No sign of carrots or parsnips, sown under fleece at the end of April, and those beetroot that did germinate have been chomped by slugs – unprecedented as beetroot are normally impervious to mollusc attack! In the conservatory, aubergines and tomatoes germinated as usual, as did my sweet peppers, but chillis have been a disaster, with one weedy looking plant, despite a second sowing. Peas and sweet peas too have been very poor, although I suspect the mangetouts sown in the open ground have been the target of mice, rather than solely germination problems. Courgettes and squash have fared little better, resulting in a meagre three courgette plants and four squashes in total, again despite a second sowing. I’m beginning to wonder whether there was something wrong with the seed compost!

Ah well, having returned from my various travels this week, I’ve managed to spend a couple of sessions down at the allotment on the balmy evenings we’ve been having and am finally feeling that order has nearly been restored. I’ve sown more root crops and peas, planted out the sweet peas I bought on offer in Homebase to make up for my poor showing and sown more mangetouts. I’ve weeded the salad crops which were being taken over by chick weed, horrible stuff that it is, and taken out the spent brassicas, flowering spinach and overblown winter rocket to make space for the courgettes, sweetcorn and French beans – this weekend’s job. Oh, and I’ve planted the new dahlias bought from Sarah Raven as tubers earlier in the season and all now making sturdy plants, alongside last year’s in the ground which have recovered, albeit slowly, from their premature frosting. Looking good…. I’m hoping to have some ready for the wedding flowers at the end of July, so fingers crossed.

Basil

On the plus side, the asparagus has been excellent this year and the broad beans are as good as ever. Tonight’s dinner saw me making the first broad bean pesto of the season, but with half mint, half basil, as the basil in the conservatory hasn’t quite reached jungle proportions yet. Delicious in a simple pasta dish with onions, bacon and a few extra broad beans. If you’ve never eaten freshly picked broad beans, there’s just no comparison with the shop-bought or frozen variety – I urge you to give them a go!

This weekend’s first task will be to sow my French beans straight into the ground (no runners this year; now there’s just me, I really prefer the finer taste of the French variety and I certainly don’t need the gluts that invariably accompany runner beans!). I also need to plant up my summer containers at home and mow the allotment grass, always last on my agenda, although it makes such a difference when it’s all neat and tidy. Here’s hoping the weather holds up – happy gardening!

Poppy in the wheat field

Sowing crazy

Primrose pot

I’m so grateful for four-day weekends at this time of year, especially when they happen to coincide with good weather for once! Despite having family and friends around for Easter, with the associated cooking and entertaining – any excuse! – it’s good to still have time to get out in the garden/allotment and feel you’ve made progress at this busy time in the growing calendar.

A fellow plotholder had a huge delivery of spent mushroom compost a few weeks ago, and when she’d taken what she needed, offered it to other allotmenteers for the princely sum of £1.80 a barrowload. I hadn’t intended to get any this year, having added lots of stable manure last year, but this was too good an opportunity to miss. Plus it’s so dry at the moment that moving it was far less effort than it has been some years. I duly shifted 6 barrowfuls on Good Friday, focussing on mulching round my fruit bushes and dahlias, but the beds looked so good afterwards that I ended up doing another 6 barrowloads today, ready to plant peas, courgettes and beans – all heavy feeders that will definitely appreciate the extra goodness. No wonder my FitBit tells me I’ve done 21,000 steps today – who needs a gym when you have a garden?!

Mushroom compost in barrow

To put the mushroom compost where I wanted it entailed taking out some overwintered plants like the calabrese, which has done amazingly well to keep shooting for so long, but is starting to flower now. The spinach and chard in last year’s salad bed are also putting up flowering stems, which means they’ll go bitter if not used soon. A good excuse for a spinach, pea & mint soup when my parents came over for Easter Sunday lunch. Followed, of course, by a broccoli, caramelised onion & goat’s cheese tart – divine! I also discovered a row of rocket and winter salad I’d planted under cloches last autumn and forgotten all about – wonderful to pick your own salad at this time of year.

The first asparagus was ready on Good Friday too – incredibly early thanks to all this early sunshine. No hardship to pick that and serve it simply roasted with a sublime, oaky, buttery white rioja from the Wine Sociey (Navajas Blanco Crianza 2014) – a match made in heaven.

Broccoli quiche with asparagus and salad_cropped

Soil prepared, it was a relatively simple matter to sow the first peas of the year: purple mangetout Shiraz and old-favourite sugar snap Sugar Bon, along with my first sowing of root crops: parsnips Tender & True, carrot Torchon and beetroot Cylindra and Renova. I’ve covered these with fleece to keep the soil warm as they germinate and to prevent carrot root fly in the early stages of growth. I also mixed horticultural sand with the soil where the carrots are to go thanks to a tip-off from my experienced allotment neighbour and former farmer. He always manages to get fabulous long rows of carrots, whereas I’m lucky to get half-a-dozen to survive the inevitable slug grazing. Watch this space 🙂

Asparagus bed with tulips

I returned from the allotment late this afternoon, tired but happy, with a basket of purple-sprouting broccoli, parsley, leeks, more asparagus and a bunch of gorgeous tulips from my cutting bed – so pleased that they’ve done well enough to pick for the house this year. These particular ones are Bruine Wimpel and Ronaldo – a gorgeous mix.

Tulips Bruine Wimpel and Ronaldo April 2017_cropped

All in all, a very satisfying few days’ work – if only every weekend was four days long!

Broccoli, Caramelised Onion & Goat’s Cheese Tart – serves 6-8

Broccoli and goats cheese tart

20cm shortcrust pastry case, baked blind
3 eggs
300ml double cream (or single if you prefer)
3 large onions, sliced
25g butter
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp granulated sugar
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
4-5 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves removed
Handful purple-sprouting broccoli
100g mild goat’s cheese, crumbled
Fresh nutmeg, grated
Seasoning

Melt the oil and butter over a low hat in a large frying pan, add the sliced onions and garlic and cook on low for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until soft and caramelised. Stir in the sugar 5 minutes or so before the end, then add the balsamic vinegar and remove from the heat.

Cook the broccoli in the microwave in a little water for 2-3 minutes until just tender, then drain. Whisk the eggs with the cream, and add the thyme leaves, seasoning and crumbled goat’s cheese. Gently stir in the caramelised onions and cooked broccoli, then turn into the baked tart case. Cook at 180°C fan, Gas 5 for 25-30 minutes until golden brown. Serve warm with salad.

To finish, I have to share one of our favourite family desserts for special gatherings, tiramisu. This is one of my younger son’s signature desserts; I’ve forgotten now how it was that he came to make this, but he did such a good job that the task usually falls to him! He was away this Easter though, so I had to dig out the recipe and make it myself – I’m pleased to report it still worked.

Tiramisu – serves 8-10

Tiramisu

450ml strong black coffee (I make mine in a cafetière)
1 vanilla pod (optional – you could also use 1 tsp vanilla extract or paste)
200g tub mascarpone
4 egg yolks
75g caster sugar (or vanilla sugar if you have it)
300ml double cream, whipped
100ml brandy (or grappa)
1-2 packets sponge fingers (one packet is never enough, but I suppose it depends on the size of your dish!)
1 level tbsp cocoa powder to dust

Pour the coffee into a shallow bowl, add the brandy (or grappa if you want to be authentic!) and vanilla pod if using. Leave to infuse while you prepare the custard mix.

Whisk the egg yolks and sugar until pale and thick, then whisk in the mascarpone until smooth. Add the vanilla extract or paste if you’re not using a vanilla pod. Fold the softly whipped cream into the mascarpone mix.

Remove the vanilla pod from the coffee (wash, dry and add to sugar to make vanilla sugar if you like). Dip the sponge fingers into the coffee mixture, then place in rows on the base of a rectangular serving dish – mine measures 20cm x 30cm. Don’t lrsve them in the coffee too ,long as they are liable to disintegrate! Spread half the mascarpone mixture gently over the soaked sponge fingers, then dip the remaining sponge fingers in the coffee and place on top. Finish with a final layer of mascarpone mixture, spreading right to the edges to cover the fingers completely.

Chill in the fridge for at least 6 hours before serving; tastes even better the next day! Dust with the sifted cocoa powder to serve.

globe artichoke
Globe artichokes have survived the winter at last!

 

 

 

 

Emerald Treasure

April harvest

My haul from the allotment on Sunday was a veritable treasure trove of seasonal delights: pink rhubarb, slate green and white leeks, rich purple-sprouting broccoli, the sapphire glints of rosemary flowers and of course the emerald green of perpetual spinach and flat-leaf parsley. It certainly makes for interesting meal planning in the week ahead!

The broccoli was a delicious accompaniment to my one-pot roast chicken and roasted roots on Sunday evening, with the rest going in a delectable Italian anchovy and pine nut sauce for linguine on Monday. Rhubarb found its way into my favourite rhubarb shortbread, a cake/pudding combined with a vanilla-infused, buttery custard topping. Plenty left over for a rhubarb and orange compote later in the week too.

I couldn’t decide what to do with the spinach initially; I pondered the idea of a spinach & pea soup, but the current warm weather hardly lends itself to soup. Then I remembered a recipe I’ve cooked many a time, a spinach & mushroom korma from Nigel Slater’s Real Food: just what I fancied, light, vegetarian, yet packed full of flavour and goodness. Plus it freezes well, so I can use all the spinach I’d picked. Given that it will probably go to seed very soon – and I’ll need the bed to plant this year’s pea crops – it’s no hardship to use as much as I can! As ever, I’ve tweaked the recipe to suit the contents of my fridge, but the principle is the same.

Spinach & Mushroom Korma – serves 2-3

Spinach and mushroom korma

25g butter
1 tbsp olive oil
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 tbsp fresh (or frozen) root ginger, grated
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 green chilli, finely chopped (or to taste)
8 cardamom pods, seeds scraped out and crushed
1 cinnamon stick
1 bay leaf
250-300g large mushrooms
25-50g hazelnuts, toasted and chopped (or you can use toasted cashews)
200g spinach, thick stalks removed
Handful wild garlic leaves (if in season – optional!)
2 tbsp sultanas
100ml sour cream
2 tbsp crème fraiche or natural yogurt
Seasoning
Fresh coriander (or parsley) to serve

Melt the butter and oil in a pan and cook the sliced onions, chopped garlic, grated ginger and finely chopped chilli for about 5 minutes until softened. Stir in the spices and bay leaf and cook for a further 2-3 minutes. Chop the mushrooms into chunks and add to the onion mixture, then cook for another couple of minutes. Then add the chopped hazelnuts (or cashews), sultanas and 150ml water, bring to the boil, cover with a lid and simmer for 15 minutes over a low heat.

Wash the spinach and wild garlic thoroughly, removing any thick stalks, drain, then chop roughly – it will look a huge mound! When the 15 minutes are up, add the chopped spinach and garlic – you may need to do this in several stages, but it will quickly reduce in volume as it wilts. Cook down for a few minutes, then season well and stir in the sour cream and crème fraiche/yogurt, warming gently without boiling to prevent curdling. Remove the bay leaf and cinnamon stick before plating.

Finally, garnish with fresh coriander or parsley, depending what you have to hand, and serve with rice. The flavours seem to meld even more after freezing, as is often the case.

Poppy and Leo in the garlic at Snape
Perfect day for picking wild garlic

 

The Humble Cauliflower

allotment-harvest

Before this year, I’d never grown a cauliflower. It’s one of those vegetables that, rumour has it, is very tricky to grow – and consequently I’ve never tried! After my abortive attempt at Romanesco last year, though, I thought I’d give cauliflower a whirl – not least because I’d received a free packet of Cauliflower Snowball seeds with my pack of goodies accompanying the bumper Gardener’s World edition that comes out with the 2-for-1 garden visit card each spring. I sowed them at the end of May, as I do all the brassica tribe: a late May sowing gives them time to germinate in seed trays, before pricking out a month or so later, then planting in their final positions down at the allotment at the end of July/early August at the latest, when the broad beans/early potatoes come out of the ground and free up some beds.

This year, my brassicas included old stalwarts purple-sprouting broccoli and cavolo nero (kale), plus calabrese and the new kid on the block (to me at any rate), cauliflower. I always net my brassicas to protect them from the dastardly pigeons at the allotment – and if I can I use Enviromesh too in a bid to thwart the even more pervasive cabbage white butterflies. Inevitably some get through, so you always have to be on the lookout for caterpillars when you harvest homegrown calabrese and cauliflowers – added protein!

brassicas

After the failure of the Romanesco last year, I was amazed when I lifted a corner of the Enviromesh tunnel a few weeks ago to check on the plants and found sizeable heads of cauliflower and calabrese. Success! Unfortunately, as is often the way, they are all ready at once, so I’ve been giving them away to family and friends – and using them in my own kitchen, of course.

I’d heard of the cauliflower crust pizza in the wake of the gluten-free and healthy eating craze, but probably wouldn’t have been tempted to experiment had my foodie son not tried and enthused about it. With a couple of plump cauliflower heads in the fridge, now seemed like the ideal opportunity. I hunted around online for suitable recipes, as you do, and the BBC Good Food version seemed like a contender, so here it is, tweaked to the ingredients at hand as ever:

Cauliflower Crust Pizza – serves 2-3

cauliflower-crust-pizza_cropped

1 medium cauliflower
50g ground almonds
1 egg
1 tsp oregano
Seasoning

1 tin chopped tomatoes
1 large onion, finely chopped
Olive oil
1 handful fresh basil
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 tsp sugar
1 tbsp tomato purée
Seasoning
1 large aubergine
125g grated Cheddar cheese

Blitz the cauliflower in a food processor until rice-like (you may need to do this in two batches) and microwave for 4 minutes, then tip onto a clean tea towel, cool slightly, then squeeze out all the water (I save the juice for stock – or for the soup below!). Mix with the ground almonds, 1 egg and the oregano and pat out on a greased baking tray. Cook for 15 minutes at 200°C.
Meanwhile make a tomato sauce by gently frying the onions and garlic until softened, add the tomatoes, sugar, tomato purée and basil and cook down for 15-30 minutes until a nice, thick consistency.
Slice the aubergine thinly and grill the slices in batches under a hot grill, brushed with olive oil, turning as the first side browns. Spoon the tomato sauce onto the cooked pizza base, add the grilled aubergine slices and top with grated Cheddar cheese and a drizzle of olive oil. Return to the oven for a further 10-12 minutes.
Eat hot – and marvel at how the crust mimics a standard pizza base and really doesn’t taste like cauliflower – amazing! And delicious, needless to say!

The discovery of my cache of cauliflowers happened to coincide with a few chillier days, so making soup seemed like a good idea. I’d made Broccoli & Stilton Soup before, with great success, but never cauliflower, and my usual scouring of the recipe books and various online sources didn’t yield quite what I had in mind. The end result was a cobbled-together mix of various recipes, mainly Jamie Oliver and Nigel Slater. It certainly hits the spot.

Cauliflower Cheese Soup – serves 6-8
cauliflower-cheese-soup_cropped

1 large cauliflower, broken into florets
2 onions, chopped
2 sticks celery, chopped
1 large carrot, diced
1 small potato, diced
1 clove garlic, chopped
50g butter (or olive oil if you prefer)
1 litre vegetable stock
Milk to taste
Grated nutmeg
2 bay leaves
1 generous tsp wholegrain mustard
Seasoning
100g Cheddar cheese, grated

Cook the chopped onion, celery, carrot, potato and garlic in butter for about 10 minutes until softened. Add the cauliflower and continue to cook gently for a further 15 minutes or so. Add the vegetable stock, bay leaves, seasoning and grated nutmeg, bring to the boil and simmer for 20-30 minutes until the vegetables are soft. Stir in the mustard.
Allow to cool slightly, then whizz in a blender, in batches, until smooth, and transfer to a clean pan. At this stage you can add milk if the consistency is thicker than you’d like. Stir in the grated cheese and warm gently before serving with fresh bread.
Freezes beautifully, like most soups – if anything, the flavour is often even better after a spell in the freezer!

allotment-cloches

Perpetual allotment (and Popeye’s) favourites

Raised beds April 2015May is always the busiest month in the year in the garden and this year is no exception – busier if anything as I was away the last weekend of April, so have been catching up ever since! After two sunny weekends, however, I at last feel as though I’m getting on top of things. My new raised beds finally went in over the Easter break and I’m now feeling the benefit of planting them up.

It’s been a pretty cold start to the year down in this South-Eastern corner of the UK, despite some sunny days, and our heavy clay soil has taken an age to warm up. At last, though, I’ve been able to plant my potatoes, both first and second earlies (Rocket and Charlotte), spaced three weeks apart, both much later than I’d normally expect. The one benefit of planting so late was that last year’s salad bed, where the Charlottes were due to go, still had a flourishing crop of spinach, Swiss chard, rocket and parsley, all having overwintered beautifully. Eventually I had to take the plunge and remove them all to free up the bed: such a shame to pull out strong plants with many more meals left on them, but I brought home several bags full and distributed more amongst friends too. I know they would have gone to seed soon enough, but it still seems harsh. The last remaining leeks also had to be lifted to make room for my mangetout and sugarsnap peas, although they had started to develop flowering shoots in their centre so were on borrowed time in any event.

Both spinach and leeks are key players in my allotment plans. Leeks in particular take up space for a good part of the year, but are invaluable for winter cropping and so much nicer than bought offerings. I tend to sow the seeds in my propagator in the conservatory in March, prick them out six weeks later into seed trays and then plant them out in the allotment when they are pencil-sized, usually in mid-June. I grow three varieties, an early autumn crop (Nipper) from September onwards, for baby leeks, than a mid-season variety (Pandora) and finally a late winter crop, the blue-green Bandit.

Having lifted the spinach, I’m going to be without my allotment stalwart for a few weeks as I only sowed the new season’s crop a week or so ago. I usually grow Perpetual Spinach as it’s much less prone to bolting than the other types of spinach and tastes just as good in my opinion. I grow a couple of crops a year, one now and one in late summer and usually have spinach leaves most of the year, even in hard winters – such great value from a tiny packet of seeds!

Faced with an abundance of both recently, I’ve had to revert to tried-and-trusted recipes for converting the produce for use now and later. One of my favourite spring soups is a Spinach & Pea Soup, an oh-so-easy adaptation of a Nigel Slater recipe that tastes as fresh as it looks. I tend to use both spinach and chard interchangeably, so any of the chard recipes here will work perfectly, but I also experimented this weekend with a homespun version of the delicious Greek Spanakopita, a spinach & feta pie encased in light filo pastry.

Spinach & Pea Soup

Spinach & pea soup in pan

350g frozen peas

500g spinach, washed and chunky stems removed (or whatever you have – not an exact science!)

2 tbsp olive oil

1 leek, chopped (or 1 onion if you prefer)

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

2 sticks celery (or fennel), chopped

1 medium potato, diced small

Bunch of fresh mint, chopped

1.5 litres fresh vegetable stock

Salt and pepper to season

Cook the leek or onion, garlic, potato and celery in a large soup pan (I always use my trusted Le Creuset casserole dishes for soup) until soft for 10-15 minutes or so. Tip the frozen peas into the leek mix, then add the stock and bring to the boil. Season to taste. As the mixture starts to bubble, add the chopped spinach and mint, pushing down below the surface of the liquid. Continue cooking until the leaves have wilted, but are still a bright emerald green colour (about 10 minutes).

Allow to cool slightly, then liquidize until smooth. Reheat to serve.  The beauty of using frozen peas is that this soup doesn’t need sieving: one of my favourite summer soups in the height of pea season is a deliciously delicate Mangetout Soup, but that invariably has to be sieved due to all the fine fibres. Not a problem, just more washing up!

This is quite a light soup, but perfect for springtime, or as a dinner party starter – and it freezes beautifully too.

I only realised too late that I’d run out of bread on cooking this, so whizzed up some parsnip & carrot scones based on the cheese & apple scone recipe from March, but with a small grated parsnip and carrot instead of the apple and rosemary instead of thyme. Pretty good if I say so myself!

Spanakopita

Spankopita1 pack filo pastry sheets

Plenty of butter – at least 50-100g

500g spinach (I don’t actually weigh it, I must admit, but a large colanderful!)

2 tbsp olive oil

1 leek, chopped (or I onion)

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

Grated lemon zest

Generous handful of chopped fresh mint, fennel and parsley

100g feta cheese, chopped

100g ricotta cheese

Grated fresh nutmeg

Salt and pepper

Sesame seeds

Prepare the filling by cooking the leek and garlic gently in the olive oil until soft (about 10 minutes). Add the chopped spinach, after washing and removing any tough stems. (I actually used a mixture of Swiss chard and spinach as that’s what I had, but either or both will be fine.) Allow to wilt gently, adding the chopped herbs, lemon zest, nutmeg and seasoning as you go. When it has reduced and is just tender, remove from the heat and stir in the chopped feta and ricotta. Allow to cool while preparing the pastry.

Open the pack of filo pastry carefully, placing on a damp tea towel as you work to stop it drying out. It often tears as you lift it since it’s extremely delicate, but it really doesn’t matter – just patch it in position! Place the first sheet on a piece of greaseproof paper and brush with melted butter. I usually melt 50g or so in the microwave and see how I go, but I can guarantee you’ll need more than you think! Place the next sheet on top and continue layering and buttering until you have a large oblong of pastry. Spread the spinach mix onto the pastry, leaving a good inch or so around the edges and fold these over to contain the mixture. Then, using the paper as a support, gently roll the pastry into a long roll from one of the long edges. Transfer very carefully to a greased baking sheet, either as one long roll (if your baking sheet is big enough!), or, as in my case in a horseshoe, or even a spiral, depending on the initial shape of your filo pastry. As you can probably see, mine split during the transfer operation – it’s quite heavy and fragile! Again, it didn’t seem to be a problem though; the mixture is firm enough not to leak out. Brush with more butter to finish and sprinkle with sesame seeds.

Cook at 200°C, Gas 6 for at 30-35 minutes, then serve warm, cut into generous slices.

I served mine with a tossed green salad, using overwintered lettuce and rocket, plus some divine asparagus, picked fresh from the plot only hours earlier and simply roasted for 10-15 minutes with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Heaven….

Shed with Clematis May 2015Allotment shed in all its clematis-festooned glory…

 

 

 

 

 

The Great Garden Tidy-Up

Despite the bitter wind and icy temperatures, I ventured out in the garden on Saturday afternoon to do battle with my perennial borders. The chilly Northern winds of the past week had wreaked havoc with my overwintering grasses: a statuesque Miscanthus zebrinus, burnished Miscanthus Sioux, the smaller, but no less fabulous Miscanthus yakushima and a stately Calamagrostis Karl Foerster. I love the way they stand tall through the worst of the winter weather and shimmer enticingly in the frost and snow (when we get any!), but just lately I’ve noticed the dry stems have been torn asunder by the wind and are blowing round the garden. It’s also the ideal time to cut them back while it’s still so cold, before the new shoots start to form for this year’s growth.

Helen Yemm, garden columnist for the Daily Telegraph and local gardening guru (a plotholder at our local allotments no less!), recommends tying up the grass before you start, to stop the stems blowing around as you work, but I find it easy enough to take handfuls at a time and snip about 6-9” from the base with my secateurs. I suppose with larger clumps and the tying-up method, you could go in with shears, or even a hedge-trimmer, but for my small garden, even with established clumps (the Miscanthus in particular are easily 2-3’ in diameter!), I find the secateurs method quite manageable. The trick then is getting the wheelbarrow to the compost pile before the wind blows it all around the garden (or Poppy the dog buries her ball at the bottom of the barrow, then uproots the lot looking for it….).

A bit of weeding underneath (the dreaded woodrush (Luzula) that’s taken up residence in my mixed hedge (and is impossible to get rid of!) and the equally annoying Geum urbanum) and I felt I’d done a good couple of hours’ work! Certainly too cold to stay outside for much longer…

Autumn colours

The grasses  in their autumn glory…

Garden trimmed in Feb… and duly shorn in their winter guise

Definitely the kind of day for a bowl of homemade soup when you come back indoors, and one of my favourites is Carrot and Coriander, again originally based on my much-loved Covent Garden Soup recipe book, but adapted over the years. Not my own carrots, unfortunately – my heavy clay soil isn’t ideal for carrots, especially the main crop. I can usually manage summer pickings, enough for salads and steamed veg, but the slugs and carrot root fly (despite the fleece protection) go to town if I leave them in the ground too long.

 Carrot and Coriander Soup

1oz butter

2 medium onions, chopped

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

2 sticks celery, chopped

1lb carrots, diced

1 tspn crushed coriander seeds

1 ¾ pts homemade chicken (or vegetable) stock

Freshly grated nutmeg

¼ pt milk (or single cream) – optional

1 tbspn fresh coriander, chopped

Salt and pepper

Crème fraîche and more fresh coriander to garnish

Melt the butter and gently cook onions, garlic and celery until soft – about 10 minutes. Meanwhile chop the carrots, then add with the crushed coriander seeds and cook for a further 5-10 minutes. Add the stock, nutmeg and seasoning, bring to the boil, cover and simmer for 20-30 mins or until the vegetables are tender. Leave to cool, then whizz in a blender until smooth. Return to a clean pan, stir in the chopped coriander (don’t add before you blend, or your beautiful orange soup will turn a murky brown colour…) and add milk (or cream if feeling luxurious!) depending on the consistency of the soup. I don’t like this soup too thin, but much depends on personal preference.

Garnish with more coriander and a swirl of crème fraîche if you’re feeling posh! Otherwise enjoy as it is, served with fresh bread or sourdough toast.

This should make enough for 6 generous helpings – and it freezes beautifully, of course.

Working lunch

The perfect working lunch…

P.S. Today, by contrast, has been a crisp and sunny winter’s day, much better for the soul! I was able to get on with some digging down at the allotment to make a new bed and transfer in one of my old gooseberry plants (Pax – a deep red dessert variety that is spine-free and mildew-resistant, also very late, so the perfect follow-on plant to my stalwart Invictas). I’m nearly at the stage where I can wave goodbye to the top end of my plot and concentrate on the raised beds and orchard – just the last of the rhubarb to move now, as soon as it starts to show…

Hellebore Party Frock close-up

My favourite hellebore ‘Party Frock’ – a real harbinger of spring today