Tag Archives: allotment

The rainy season

Cotinus Grace on a grey day
Cotinus Grace in all its autumn glory – despite the grey skies

Oh dear, nearly 6 weeks since I last wrote here – how on earth has that happened?! I can only blame dreadful weather, pressures of work and another trip abroad, this time to Split, in Croatia, for a translation conference and one last opportunity to top up on sunshine for the year. Since getting back at the beginning of October, we’ve hardly seen the sun here in this south-eastern corner of the country. Inevitably, that means I’ve barely had chance to go down to the allotment, or do anything in the garden at home. I did manage to mow the lawn (or should that be meadow?!) one day this week after a couple of dry, but mainly grey days, having not touched it since before I went away at the end of September. My summer containers are still flowering away, as it has been fairly mild apart from one sharp frost which put paid to the courgette plants – begonias are clearly tough specimens. Just as well, as I really haven’t had the time or the weather to plant my bulbs yet for the winter/spring display. Surely we’ll get a dry weekend some time soon?

Leo Oct 2019 in the ferns

Today it’s been so vile, with heavy rain and gale-force winds, that even the annual village fireworks display has been called off – first time I’ve known that happen since I moved to the village 14 years ago. At least the time feels right to start cooking winter stews and warming casseroles, hence tonight’s comforting venison shank dish. I’d forgotten I had the joint in the freezer, but unearthed it today when deciding what to cook this evening. Perfect for a miserable November day when all you want to do is snuggle in front of the fire with your knitting or a good book. I adapted a Mary Berry lamb shank recipe, but this is basically a straightforward casserole, browning the meat, then the veg, adding liquid of your choice and leaving to simmer in the oven until the meat falls off the bone – delicious. I just used one shank and will definitely have plenty of stew left over to freeze, but it’s easy to scale up as you require, allowing one venison shank per 2/3 people.

Venison Shanks with Rosemary & Redcurrant Jelly – serves 2-3

Glug of olive oil
1 venison shank
1 red onion, sliced
1 garlic clove, chopped
1 large carrot, chopped
1 stick celery, chopped
1/4 swede, diced
1 generous sprig of rosemary, leaves finely chopped
1 bay leaf
1 tbsp plain flour
1 generous tbsp redcurrant jelly (preferably homemade)
400 ml chicken or vegetable stock
200 ml red wine
salt and pepper
chopped parsley to garnish

Brown the venison shank all over in the olive oil in a large casserole, then set to one side. Add the prepared onion, celery, carrot and swede to the oil and cook gently for 10 minutes or so, or until starting to soften. Add the chopped rosemary and sprinkle over the flour. Mix in and cook for a minute or so, then add the stock and red wine. Season and stir in the redcurrant jelly and the bay leaf. Bring to the boil, then transfer to the oven, pre-heated to 150°C fan/Gas 3, and cook for 2 to 2 1/2 hours, or until the meat falls off the bone. You might want to turn the venison shank(s) every hour to make sure all sides are exposed to the liquid, and you may need to add more liquid towards the end, depending how hot your oven is. Serve with creamy mashed potatoes and vegetables of your choice. (I tossed roasted beetroot in butter with finely chopped baby leeks, adding a touch of allspice and cream at the end.) Winter-warming wonderfood.

Venison shank casserole

I’ve not even been able to bring much produce back from the allotment recently, although I have harvested my apples in dribs and drabs, picking what I could when the worst of the weather held off. The calabrese, which had been infested by whitefly under its mesh pigeon and butterfly protection in September, seems to have come to a halt and the kale I would normally expect to be harvesting now has been stopped in its tracks by caterpillars (even through netting!) in the mild, wet weather. Sigh. I dusted them with organic pyrethrum powder, and they do look happier, as do the flower sprouts (kalettes), so fingers crossed they recover soon. Fortunately, I have been able to harvest leeks, rocket, spinach and chard on damp, late afternoon dog walks to the plot, and last year’s parsley is doing amazingly well, so there’s no shortage of herbs. I’m still picking dahlias and chrysanthemums (bought as bargain cuttings from the village open gardens plant stall back in June), but they are so sodden that they don’t last long in the house. I’m just enjoying them while I can, as they will soon be curtailed by the inevitable frosts.

Chysanths late Oct 2019

 

From plums to peaches

Perfect plums

This season’s bounties just keep on giving. My early Opal plum, which tends to be a biennial bearer, producing a good harvest every other year, surpassed itself this year with an amazing crop of sweet reddish-purple plums for a couple of weeks at the end of July/early August. Sadly, they often coincide with the arrival of the first wasps and once the striped devils discover the plums, I know their days are numbered… Even hanging a glass beehive trap filled with lemonade only delays the effect, but is definitely worth doing to distract them from their juicy targets.

Wasp trap

I still managed to harvest plenty of perfect plums – not a maggot in sight this year, thank goodness. The grease bands I put around the trees last autumn and the pheromone trap I hung in the orchard in May seem to have done the trick in deterring the dreaded plum moth. Extremely successfully, judging by the number of moths caught in the trap! Here’s hoping the later Marjorie plums, which were virtually inedible last year as every last one contained a maggot, are as good.

Plums are always a delight in the kitchen and many of my standby plum recipes came out again: sticky upside-down plum & almond cake, a heavenly plum frangipane tart and roasted plum compote, to say nothing of plums eaten straight from the fruit bowl, or sliced on my breakfast granola. Needless to say, I gave loads away too. Every year I try and experiment with at least one new recipe when I have glut situations: this year, I adapted my gooseberry flapjack recipe to make a plum & almond flapjack, which was good, but perhaps missed the tanginess of the gooseberries despite using much less sugar. Try it and see – but be careful, as bakes made with fresh fruit go off very quickly at this warm and humid time of year: freeze half if you know it’s not all going to be eaten within a few days!

Plum & Almond Flapjack – makes 16 bars

plum flapjack

200g butter
450g plums, stoned
125g light soft brown sugar
200g wholemeal spelt flour
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp almond extract
150g oats
100g whole almonds, chopped (or hazelnuts if you prefer)
pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 180°C fan (Gas 5) and grease and line a rectangular baking tin – mine measures 28cm x 18cm x 3.5cm.

Stone and halve the plums, then place in a pan with 25g of the sugar and cook over a low heat until the sugar melts and the juice starts to flow. Turn up the heat and continue cooking, stirring regularly, for 15-20 minutes until you have a thickish, jam-like mixture. Take off the heat and set aside.

Mix the flour, cinnamon, oats, salt and chopped almonds in a large bowl. In another pan, melt the butter and remaining 100g sugar, then pour over the flour mixture. Add the almond extract. Mix together until you have a rough dough.

Press half of the dough over the bottom of the baking tin, then spread the plum mixture on top. Sprinkle the remaining dough on top – I found it easier to crumble it with my fingers, so it didn’t cover the jam layer entirely and was still quite chunky.

Place in the pre-heated oven and cook for 25-30 minutes until nicely browned. Cool in the tin, then cut into 16 bars.

I also experimented with plum ice cream, although I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the results and will tweak further before I share my recipe here. I’d tried Jamie Oliver’s quick plum sorbet before (from Jamie at Home), where he just freezes the stoned plums, skins and all, then blitzes them in a food processor with orange and sugar before serving, but found the skins far too obtrusive, if not downright unpleasant! This time I found a recipe for Plum Ripple Ice Cream, but again it wasn’t quite right: it takes far too long to reach a scoopable consistency, although if you can wait an hour, the taste is delicious! Watch this space…

Unfortunately, the plums are no more, but just as I’d resigned myself to the end of the Opals this year, friends brought around some delicious English peaches from their glasshouse – just superb! The skins are suprisingly fuzzy and are in fact better peeled – perhaps shop-bought specimens have had the fuzziness bred out of them?! Suffice to say that these peel easily and the stone pops out with ease too, making them ideal for serving on crackers and cream cheese for a light lunch, in salads with feta or halloumi, and lightly roasted with maple syrup and thyme or lavender (and a dash of Amaretto if you’re that way inclined – which I usually am!) to create a fragrant compote.

Peaches

This week’s treat to take to an open-air theatre production of Ikarus Inc. (by the excellent Rude Mechanicals) on the village school playing fields was a cobbled-together invention to make the most of my unexpected bounty. Based on my rhubarb shortbread recipe, this peach and marzipan shortbread tray bake is quick to make and simply divine – peaches and almonds are a match made in heaven.

Peach & Marzipan Shortbread Bites – makes 16 small squares

Peach and marzipan shortbread

Shortbread:
125g butter, softened
125g plain flour
25g cornflour
2 level tbsp icing sugar, sieved
1/2 tsp almond extract

 Topping:
3-4 peaches, stoned, peeled and roughly sliced
Juice of half a lemon
2 tbsp Amaretto
125g marzipan, preferably homemade
Few sprigs of lavender flowers (optional – to taste)
Icing sugar to dust

 18cm square tin, 4cm deep, lined with foil or baking parchment

 Preheat the oven to 180°C, gas 5.

 To make the shortbread, mix the butter, flour, cornflour, icing sugar and almond extract together in a food processor or by hand if you prefer. If the mixture seems very soft and sticky, you can add 1 or 2 tbsp ground almonds at this stage. When it comes together to form a dough, press evenly into the tin, prick with a fork and cook for 20 mins until starting to look pale golden brown.

 Combine all the topping ingredients in a bowl and tip onto base. Return to oven and cook for 35-40 mins until the topping is set and golden brown. Allow to cool, then cut into 16 small squares and dust with icing sugar just before serving. These are very rich, which is why I serve them as bitesize squares – you can opt for bigger bars if you prefer though!

Finally, the arrival of another crate of peaches had me reaching for the ice cream maker to concoct a peach sorbet – just peaches, sugar, lemon juice and Grand Marnier – what’s not to like?

Peach Sorbet

Peach sorbet

4-6 ripe peaches, peeled and stoned
125ml water
3 tbsp granulated sugar
Juice of one lemon (or lime)
1-2 tbsps Grand Marnier (optional)

Put the water, sugar and lemon juice in a small pan and simmer gently for 5 minutes or so until the sugar has dissolved. Leave to cool.

Roughly chop the peeled and stoned peaches, then put in a blender with the cooled sugar syrup and blend until well mixed. Add the Grand Marnier if using – this helps make the sorbet easier to scoop when frozen. Pour into an ice cream maker and churn until starting to freeze, then place in the freezer to complete the process. Of course, you can also make this the old-fashioned way by freezing for an hour or so, then whisking in the ice crystals and repeating until softly frozen.

Apricot begonias

The Rampant Raspberry

Achillea and artichoke

This has to have been one of the best years for soft fruit I’ve known in a long while – and probably explains why my blog posts have slipped by the wayside. Keeping up with the fruit harvest has been rather a mission in the evenings and weekends of late. Starting with an early strawberry harvest from mid-June, the raspberries kicked in towards the end of the month and I’ve only just stopped picking them this last week or so – crazy! I’ve frozen them, jammed them, made raspberry juice and coulis, given lots away and turned them into divine puddings like raspberry cheesecake, or just eaten them as they are with granola for breakfast, or with ice cream for a quick and delicious dessert.

Despite the dry weather, and the fact that I never water any of my soft fruit, the harvest has been incredible! I’ve allowed the raspberries to sucker underneath the apple and plum trees in my allotment orchard and those bushes produce excellent quality fruit, despite competing with grass, a lack of sunlight and presumably battling with the apples for water. Permaculture in essence, quite unintentionally I should add! The currants weren’t quite as productive, mainly because I was slightly too late to net them, so the pigeons had a fair few before I got there, but the gooseberries have also been excellent. My plot neighbour also has a huge jostaberry bush (and when I say huge, it must easily be 12 feet across, if not more) so I’ve had pickings of those too – always good for a tangy compote on a cheesecake or to replace blackcurrants in a jostaberry & liquorice sorbet.

Each summer I try, as a point of principle, to make at least a couple of new recipes with my produce. Where’s the fun otherwise if you always make the same things, delicious though they are? This year’s new offerings were a divine raspberry sorbet and a melt-in-the-mouth raspberry and whitecurrant roulade. Try them and see!

The raspberry sorbet is a variation on a Nigel Slater recipe I found online, but I used Chambord raspberry liqueur rather than the Crème de Cassis he suggests. I also sieve the raspberry mixture after blending to remove the seeds; I don’t know whether it’s my variety (name unknown, lost in the mists of time as my original summer raspberry plants came from my uncle and have suckered/been transplanted around the plot ever since), but I find the seeds rather obtrusive if you leave them in, but you can by all means try it.

Raspberry Sorbet

Raspberry sorbet

500g raspberries
75-100g caster sugar
100ml water
6 tbsp Chambord raspberry liqueur (or Crème de Cassis)

Put the sugar and water in a saucepan and simmer gently until the sugar dissolves. This will probably take about 5 minutes or so, but do not stir. Leave the syrup to cool, then refrigerate until cold.

Place the raspberries, sugar syrup and liqueur into a blender and whizz until smooth, then sieve to remove the seeds. Spoon into an ice cream maker and churn until set, then transfer to the freezer to chill properly. Eat with little sighs of joy – the very essence of raspberryness.

My last raspberry creation is based on a recipe in my tattered recipe scrapbook, torn out of a magazine from way back. Roulades are one of my favourite quick and easy desserts, but it’s good to ring the changes every now and again and try a different take. I often serve raspberries with a chocolate roulade, or a meringue roulade can be the perfect summer treat, but this one is an almond version, nutty and gooey all at the same time. All my roulade recipes are wheat-free, so ideal for gluten-intolerant guests too. You can, of course, omit the whitecurrants if you can’t find them, or use a different soft fruit instead. They add a nice tangy touch and look pretty as decoration, but are definitely not essential.

Raspberry & Whitecurrant Roulade – serves 8

raspberry and whitecurrant roulade

5 eggs, separated
125g caster sugar
50g ground almonds
Few drops almond extract
Red food colouring (optional)
300ml double cream
100ml natural yogurt
I small jar raspberry jam (preferably homemade)
250g fresh raspberries
100g whitecurrants
Icing sugar to dust

Grease and line a 20 x 30cm Swiss roll tin with baking parchment. Pre-heat the oven to 180°C/gas 5.

Whisk egg yolks and sugar until thick and mousse-like, then fold in the ground amonds and almond extract. Whisk the egg whites until stiff and fold into the mixture.

The original recipe suggested dividing the mixture and colouring one half pink, then piping alternate stripes into the tin at this point. I didn’t pipe, but did colour half the mix, then put spoonfuls into the tin and marbled them together with a skewer, but to be honest you couldn’t tell the difference when it was cut, so unless you have a very strong red food colouring, I wouldn’t bother! The end result is perfectly pretty enough.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes in the preheated oven until risen and just firm to the touch. Immediately cover with a damp tea towel and leave to cool.

Whip the double cream until the soft swirl stage, then gently whisk in the natural yogurt until you have a good spreading consistency.

Sprinkle another piece of baking parchment with caster sugar, then turn out the sponge onto the paper and remove the lining paper from the top. Spread the raspberry jam generously over the surface. Then spread the cream mixture over the surface, going right up to the edges, and finally sprinkle with most of the raspberries and whitecurrants, setting aside some choice berries and strigs of whitecurrants to garnish. Get hold of the paper at the far (short) end of the roulade and use it as a guide to gently but firmly roll the roulade towards you until you have a fat roll. Use the paper to gently help you lift the roll to a serving plate, then remove the paper. Chill in the fridge until ready to serve.

To serve, decorate with reserved raspberries and whitecurrant strigs, then dust with icing sugar just before serving. Cut into generous slices and enjoy the gasps of delight!

rasp roulade inside

Yet more rhubarb….

Shed under clematis

Another holiday weekend, and while the weather hasn’t been as glorious as the Easter weekend, it has at least been dry and sunny in parts, if cold for the time of the year, so limited gardening has been on the agenda. Having mown the lawn – and neatened the edges with a half-moon spade – last week, and paid someone to cut the over-long grass and edges at the allotment, I’ve been able to concentrate on weeding the raised beds and potting on my chilli and aubergine seedlings at home. For some reason, my sweet pepper and basil seeds have failed to germinate in the propagator this year. While I can sow more basil (from a new packet), it’s too late to sow pepper seeds in May. I’ll either have to do without, or buy a couple of plants. Strange how the chilli and peppers seem to germinate better in alternate years… I also dead-headed my hellebore flowers to give other plants more room and stop the plants putting energy into producing seed. I have quite enough self-sown hellebores around the garden after all!

At the allotment, I spent a good hour yesterday painstakingly prising the dreaded couch grass out of my existing strawberry bed, where it has really taken hold. I’ve already planted up a new bed earlier this year, so if I can just keep this one going this season, I can empty the whole bed over winter and really blitz this pernicious weed. I also cleared my sprouting broccoli beds: most of the plants have gone to flower by this stage and I need the tunnel structure to protect my peas, sown last weekend, from the pigeons. The sprouting broccoli has done amazingly well this year, so the individual plants took some removing – four-feet tall triffids with yellow flowers everywhere! The stalks are too chunky for the compost heap, so up to the communal bonfire pile they went. I still have a couple of plants with edible shoots, but I suspect they won’t last more than a couple of days. Just in time for the asparagus to come on stream 🙂

Needless to say, the rhubarb is still going strong and more experimentation has been in order to keep up with the flow. I hosted another four-generational lunch this weekend with my parents, my elder son and his wife, plus my granddaughter of course, and inevitably rhubarb had to feature on the menu, this time in the guise of a rhubarb & ginger trifle, perfect for my gluten-intolerant daughter-in-law. You could also make it with plain sponge if you felt so inclined, or, if you are catering for coeliacs, make sure you check that the Amaretti really are gluten-free – homemade macaroons would fit the bill in that case too.

Rhubarb & Ginger Trifle – serves 8

Rhubarb and ginger trifle

500-600g rhubarb, trimmed and chopped into 1cm slices
3-4 tbsp demerara sugar
Juice and rind of 1 large orange (or 2 small)
2 tbsp syrup from a jar pf preserved stem ginger
2 pieces preserved stem ginger, finely chopped
2 tbsp rhubarb gin (or Grand Marnier / liqueur of your choice)

4 egg yolks
2 tbsp caster (or vanilla) sugar
2 heaped tsp cornflour
300ml milk
few drops orange blossom water
Rind of 1 orange

15 or so Amaretti biscuits, plus extra to garnish
300ml double cream (or mix whipped cream and mascarpone)

First, trim and cut the rhubarb (unpeeled unless really thick and woody – shouldn’t be necessary with early-season produce) into 1cm pieces, halving the stems first if really chunky. Place in a shallow, rectangular baking dish and sprinkle with the brown sugar (to taste), orange rind and juice, plus the chopped preserved ginger and 2 tbsp syrup from the ginger jar. Roast in a pre-heated oven at 180°C (Gas 5) until tender, but still whole, for about 30-40 minutes. Leave to cool, then add the rhubarb gin (or alcohol of your choice)

Combine the egg yolks, 2 tbsp caster sugar and cornflour in a small bowl. Stir in the cold milk, then strain into a small pan. Cook gently until the mixture starts to thicken, stirring constantly. Add the grated orange rind and orange blossom water to the custard. Allow to cool slightly.

Place the cooked rhubarb into a trifle bowl and place the Amaretti biscuits on top to cover, pushing partly into the liquid to allow them to take up the juice. Pour over the cooled orange custard and place in the fridge to set for a couple of hours.

Whip the double cream and spread carefully over the custard, making generous swirls with a large spoon. Crumble a few extra Amaretti and sprinkle on top, adding pansies or other spring flowers to garnish if the mood takes you! Trifle fans will be in seventh heaven…

You’ll have four egg whites left over from this recipe, so you can either make macaroons or, as I did, lemon & almond ricciarelli, which conveniently use precisely 4 egg whites and are also ideal for gluten-free guests. In actual fact, I adapted the recipe to make lime & almond ricciarelli and they were equally good.

lime and almond ricciarelli_landscape

Then again, if you decide to turn the egg whites into meringues, either one large pavlova, or smaller rounds or individual cases (using 225g caster sugar to 4 egg whites) to keep for another day, you could consider combining crushed meringue and rhubarb to make a wonderful Rhubarb Eton Mess.

Rhubarb Eton Mess – serves 2-3

300g rhubarb, chopped
Juice and rind of 1 orange
2-3 tbsp demerara sugar
150ml double cream, softly whipped
2-3 tbsp natural yogurt
2-3 meringues, roughly crushed

Place the rhubarb in a shallow ovenproof dish and add the grated rind and juice of the oranges, then sprinkle with the demerara sugar. Roast in the oven at 180°C (Gas 5) for 30-40 minutes or until tender. Leave to cool.

Whip the double cream until soft peak stage, then fold in the natural yogurt, followed by the roughly crumbled meringues – aim to leave some big chunks for texture.

Spoon into 2-3 glass dishes and swirl the top, decorating with toasted flaked almonds or crushed biscuits depending what you have at hand.

A variation on this theme when you haven’t any rhubarb is a Blueberry Mess: Sainsbury’s had large punnets of blueberries on offer recently, so I stirred a large handful, washed but uncooked, into the cream and yogurt mixture above along with 1 tbsp Chambord raspberry liqueur and crushed Amaretti rather than meringue. Grated white chocolate and blueberries to decorate – to die for…

Blueberry mess_cropped

Easter Glory

Easter tree 2019

The beauty of the Easter weekend is that we have four whole days to relax, see family and friends, go out and about AND catch up on the garden/allotment. Bliss. With a new granddaughter in the family, no surprise that Sunday was spent with family, on Saturday I visited the Standen Tulip Festival near East Grinstead with my parents, and on Monday I had a long lunch out with friends. However, that still left me time to get on in the garden at home and at the allotment too – perfect! The fabulous weather really was the icing on the cake – most unusual for a bank holiday weekend in the UK!

Standen technicolour tulips 2019

 

Standen tulips

I made a start on the allotment last weekend, but am having to be very strict and pace myself so as not to overdo it with my slowly recovering knee. Three hours up there the previous Sunday felt quite strenuous, so I’ve been trying to go down in the evenings as part of my late dog walk and just do half an hour’s weeding: the joys of raised beds is that it’s quite possible to weed and prepare a whole bed in half an hour, instantly making a huge difference. The upshot of this week’s half-hours here and there was that, when I went up yesterday, I was already in a position to sow seeds in my salad and root crop beds: carrot St Valéry, parsnip Countess and beetroot Cylindra, and turnip Oasis (a new extra-sweet variety I’m trialling for the first time this year. On the salad front, I planted perpetual spinach, rhubarb chard, rocket, oak-leaved lettuce, dill, coriander, agretti (let’s see if I can manage to grow it without the slugs devouring every last fibre this time!), Watermelon radish, Florence fennel, and Welsh onions. I also dug my potato trenches and planted out two rows of potatoes: Arran Pilot and salad variety Nicola. Flower seeds also went in for my new extended cutting garden: Cosmos Purity, sunflower Autumn Beauty, Achillea Summer Berries, Poppy Ladybird and Calendula Pink Surprise. I’d already lifted some strawberry runners from my existing (and couch grass-infested) strawberry patch last Sunday to start a new bed at the reclaimed end of the plot: very satisfying.

The tulips have been fabulous this year, both the cutting specimens at the allotment and the container-grown specimens at home. I reverted to planting mixtures of tulips this year, rather than single varieties in each container, and by and large they have all flowered together and looked stunning, set off beautifully by the seed-grown wallflowers (Giant Pink and Sunset Purple). The container below has red Escape and red-and-white striped Rio de Janeiro: beautiful with the dappled sunlight in the back garden.

Red and white tulips

This container has Lemon and White Flag tulips with Sunset Purple wallflowers – just exquisite and a long season of interest to boot.

White tulips amd wallflower

The blossom is heavenly this year too, presumably having benefited from last year’s summer heat. It remains to be seen whether the fruit crops will be equally good. Anyway, back to the grindstone – still heaps to do! I had intended to plant out my autumn-sown sweet peas and sow some mange-touts and sugarsnap peas, but ran out of time. There’s always next weekend… In the meantime, I think I’ll seek some help to mow the allotment grass and do some of the heavier weeding – there’s only so much you can (or should!) do with a recovering knee 🙂

 

 

 

Return to gardening: long awaited start to a new season

White and yellow flag tulips

Last weekend saw my long-awaited return to gardening proper after my ACL operation at Christmas. I’ve done the odd bit of harvesting and snipping back of leaves in recent weeks, but two trips to Austria and family gatherings have precluded me doing anything more extensive. Probably just as well: I’d intended to spend both days in the garden last weekend, but the weather and circumstances conspired against me and my knee was still quite sore after just one day’s concentrated gardening! Still, the ice pack I applied yesterday seems to have done its stuff, and I feel very virtuous (and relieved!) that I’ve finally taken the plunge.

I finished off the winter cutting-down of any remaining perennials such as asters and penstemons, and dead-headed my hydrangeas now the new growth is well underway; always looks so much better once you’ve done that. I even managed to tackle, or at least make a start on tackling, the spreading of the compost heap. Last year, I sought paid help to do this particular job, as I’d only just had my accident and was definitely in no fit state to do any heavy gardening work. This time, though, I was very good and paced myself: one barrowload on Sunday, and then I left the rest (another two barrowloads in all – isn’t it incredible how much a whole year of lawn clippings, garden and kitchen waste rots down to over time?!) until Friday, when I finished spreading it around greedy shrubs like roses, clematis and hydrangeas.

Front garden April

Over the winter, I’d persuaded the management committee that manages the communal land around our local close to take out two ugly privet bushes that have always stuck out like sore thumbs on the bank opposite my house. We’d paid our usual ongoing maintenance gardener to cut the shrubs down last autumn, but he seemed rather reluctant to finish the job and remove the stumps. When pressed, he and his sidekick came out, messed around in a desultory fashion (the benefits of an office overlooking the front garden!), then disappeared, apparently reporting that they were too deeply entrenched and a stump grinder would be necessary at vast expense. I duly got a couple of quotes, from the reasonable to the sublimely ridiculous – from said gardener, what a surprise! -, went with the cheapest (and most competent, I hasten to add!) and lo and behold, he managed to move the stumps with a bit of elbow grease and no stump grinder in the space of an hour or so. Sigh. Anyway, mission accomplished – which meant that I was able to plant some roses I had in pots and can now look forward to an even better and more colourful display this summer, without the depressing and boring privets.

Island bed new planting

Sowing seeds for the propagator in the conservatory was another priority: one week later than last year, but still in the right timeframe as they soon catch up once they’re up and running: tomatoes (my favourite Sungold and stripey Tigerella, Sunchocola from last year and new Black Cherry from Chiltern Seeds), sweet pepper Corno di Toro and chillis (Anaheim and Padron – here’s hoping for better germination than last year!), aubergine Long Purple, leeks Bandit, Tornado and Musselburgh, basil, parsley and celeriac.

I also planted lots of flower seeds with a view to making a bigger cutting garden at the allotment. I’ve reclaimed the top part of my plot this year as the current tenants have moved out of the parish to a house with a bigger garden and it seemed a shame to waste the beds they’d prepared now they’ve done the hard work of clearing all the brambles the previous tenant had left! Sadly, they dismantled the wooden beds themselves, but I’m going to see if I can manage without edgings initially. The middle bit has all been lined and covered with wood chippings, so it looks a far more manageable proposition than the bramble and couch grass-infested jungle it was before… Good excuse for more dahlias, duly ordered from Sarah Raven as usual: Penhill Dark Monarch, Emory Paul (I saw these two at a Perch Hill open day last September and they were simply fabulous, huge blowsy blooms, so definitely had to go on the list), Perch Hill, Rip City and Café au Lait Royal. I also sowed seeds of Echinacea Pallida, Cosomos Versailles Tetra, Callistephus chinensis King Size Apricot (Chinese asters!), Achillea Cassis, Antirrhinum Royal Bride and finally Lobelia Crystal palace for my containers at home. All in all, rather a tight squeeze in the propagator!

My parents have given me an apothecary’s peony (Paeonia officinalis) with deep red double flowers, so that’s gone in the new beds, where, in time, it will hopefully give me enough peonies to pick – such decadence! Also three sturdy delphinium plants that a fellow plotholder kindly gave me last year and I really didn’t have room for; they were heeled in at the end of the asparagus bed, but would undoubtedly have been swamped by the asparagus in season. I’ve lots more annual seeds to sow in situ in the next few weeks, plus some deep burgundy gladioli bulbs (Black Star). Very exciting to have a new project – although I may not have quite as much time as usual at the allotment this year, as my son and daughter-in-law have just given birth to a beautiful baby girl and grandmotherly duties may take precedence over gardening….

Purple rain tulips

 

 

In praise of the humble chickpea – and goodbye to a very special dog

It’s been a strange and sad few weeks: I returned from a much-needed post-op holiday in the Austrian mountains at the end of February to unprecedented high temperatures in the South-East of England and a very sick dog. I’ve written her story on my other blog, so I won’t go into it again here; suffice it to say that I had to say my farewells to her soon after arriving back from the airport and the house has been indescribably sad and quiet without her ever since. RIP, Poppy – we’ll miss you enormously… and Leo will miss his partner in crime.

Poppy and Leo something's up

Inevitably, life must go on, and although I’ve managed to immerse myself in piles of work since getting home, I hadn’t had time to go to the allotment. I’m still not supposed to walk on rough ground after my ACL operation at Christmas, and am restricted to pavement walking. However, I figured that, since it’s been dry recently, and if I was very careful, I could walk Leo down to the allotment on Sunday afternoon and just see what was growing. Imagine my surprise to see everything doing very well indeed: purple-sprouting broccoli busting out all over, the first spindly pink sticks of rhubarb already up to a foot tall, and fresh spinach and kale in abundance, plus the usual late winter / early spring suspects of leeks and parsley.

Allotment haul Mid-March 2019

After the excesses of Austria – far too much Kaffee und Kuchen in the afternoon and a five-course dinner every evening – I’ve been yearning for salads since I arrived home. Not doing my usual quota of exercise and activities, and a relatively sedentary lifestyle since Christmas, have also meant I’m having to be much more conscious of what I eat for the first time ever. Ho hum – I’m definitely cutting down on cake and desserts for the time being, although I did experiment with a healthy banana & date flapjack at the start of the week as an alternative snack. I tweaked the recipe (see link above) with maple syrup instead of honey and added 75g dates, but although they were tasty the first day, the flavour seems to diminish on subsequent days and they just taste rather worthy! This recipe for fridge fruit & nut bars is a tasty sugar-free treat in the meantime – and I’ll report back when I eventually find a healthy flapjack that really hits the spot. A friend also posted a recipe for vegan tiffin, which sounds worth a try, but certainly isn’t low-calorie or sugar-free if that’s what you’re after.

Salads, on the other hand, are easier to get right. I wrote about delicious winter salads a few weeks ago, and another I’ve made a couple of times recently is a Sarah Raven recipe from the Christmas issue of Good Housekeeping. It was intended as a vegetarian alternative for the Christmas feast, but I’ve tweaked and experimented with it a couple of times since and found it to be a fantastic and filling main course salad for any time of the year. Chickpeas and lentils are such comforting ingredients, and mixed with a spicy dressing, nuts, dried fruit and peppers, they really fit the brief. The original recipe served 6, and I’ve cut it down considerably for one, but still find it makes about three meals – always a bonus to have leftovers for lunch!

Warm Puy Lentil & Chickpea Salad

Chickpea & lentil salad
2 tbsp sultanas, soaked in 2 tbsp dry sherry or white wine
50g Puy lentils
1 bay leaf
1 clove garlic
1/2 can chick peas, drained
Olive oil
1/2 butternut squash, peeled and cut into bitesize chunks
1 large red onion, peeled and cut into eighths
1 sprig rosemary, woody stem removed, chopped
1 red pepper, cut into chunks
Handful of cherry tomatoes
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1″ piece of root ginger, grated
1 red chilli, finely chopped
2 tbsp dried cranberries
50g cashews, toasted
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tsp wholegrain mustard
1/2 tsp sugar
Handful of kale or cavolo nero leaves, thick stems removed, shredded (young calabrese or purple-sprouting broccoli leaves work just as well)
50g feta cheese, diced
Seasoning
Handful of fresh coriander or parsley to serve

Pre-heat oven to 180°C (fan)/gas 5. Put the squash, onions and garlic in a roasting tray with the rosemary leaves, drizzle with olive oil, season and cook in the oven for about 20 minutes. Then add the chunks of red pepper, chillis, root ginger and cherry tomatoes, toss everything together, and cook for a further 20-30 minutes until nicely soft and roasted.

Meanwhile cook the Puy lentils, bay leaf and 1 clove garlic in just enough water to cover for about 20-25 minutes. Drain off any excess water and remove the bay leaf and garlic. Place in a large salad bowl with the drained chickpeas and season.

Stir in the sultanas and sherry, add the contents of the roasting tin and the toasted cashews and dried cranberries. Make a dressing to taste using three parts olive oil to lemon juice, plus 1 tsp sugar, 1 tsp wholegrain mustard and seasoning. Stir into the salad. Finally add the chopped kale or cavolo nero leaves and sprinkle with diced feta, then garnish with chopped coriander.

Good served warm, but equally delicious served cold the next day. You can also add cooked chicken for extra protein if you feel so inclined, or throw some chorizo into the roasting tin for the last 20 minutes or so – it’s an extremely flexible dish.

Of course, this recipe leaves you with half a tin of chickpeas, not that this is in any way a hardship! I like to use them in a tomato & chickpea pasta sauce with or without spicy chorizo and paprika, but last Tuesday, which just happened to be Pancake Day, I used a variation on the sauce as a tasty filling for pancakes. Extremely good it was too. If you’re only making enough pancakes for one or two, keep back half the sauce to serve with pasta for another day, with added feta and coriander, or just with the traditional Parmesan.

Tomato and chickpea pasta

Tomato, Chickpea & Fennel Pancakes – serves 4

Pancakes:
125g plain flour
pinch of salt
1 egg
300ml milk
Butter for frying

Sauce:
I onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
Glug of olive oil
1 fennel bulb, chopped
1 red pepper, chopped
1 red chilli, finely chopped
1 tsp fennel seeds, crushed
1 can chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato purée
1 tbsp paprika
1/2 can chickpeas, drained
75g chorizo or bacon lardons (optional)
Red wine (to taste – or use water if you prefer)

To assemble:
200ml natural yogurt
1 egg, beaten
Seasoning
Cheddar cheese (or Parmesan) grated

Chickpea, tomato and fennel pancakes

First make the pancakes in the usual way by sifting the flour and salt into a roomy bowl. Break the egg into the centre, then gradually beat in the milk and incorporate the flout until all mixed and little bubbles start to form on the surface. Leave to stand for 30 minutes or so if you can, but it’s not critical if you can’t. This mixture should make at least 8 pancakes in an 18cm frying pan. Stack the finished pancakes on a plate as you make them and set aside until you’ve made the sauce.

Cook the chopped onion, garlic and chilli in olive oil in a frying pan until starting to soften and turn golden, than add the chopped fennel, red pepper and chorizo (or bacon), if using, and cook for another 5-10 mins. Stir in the tomato purée, canned tomatoes, fennel seeds, chickpeas and seasoning and simmer for 30-45 minutes until nicely reduced. If it starts to reduce too much, you can add some red wine or water to stop it drying out.

Assemble the pancakes by putting a generous spoonful of the sauce on one edge of each, rolling up and placing in a rectangular ovenproof dish. Then mix the natural yogurt and the beaten egg and spoon over the top of the pancakes. Sprinkle over grated cheese and cook in a hot oven 200°C (fan)/gas 6 for about 25 minutes until nicely browned.

Serve with a green salad and enjoy!

Poppy sad