Tag Archives: autumn

A peck of peppers, anyone?

Pepper and chilli harvest

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

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

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

Roasted Red Pepper & Tomato Soup – served 5-6

Roast pepper and tomato soup

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

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

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

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

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

Piedmont peppers

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

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

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

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

How time flies….

bewl-sunshine-nov-2016

Oh dear, how on earth has it been over a month since I last wrote here?! A fortnight in San Francisco, stealing a march on the descent from autumn into winter, probably didn’t help, but I certainly feel as though winter has arrived with a vengeance now I’m back in the wet and windy UK. From temperatures of 22°C to just above freezing was quite some shock!

On the positive side, at least there’s not much to be done in the garden at this blustery, damp and dank time of year. I planted most of my spring bulbs and planters before I left and just had a late arrival, a bag of Orange Emperor tulips from Sarah Raven, to go in on my return. I also managed to squeeze in half an hour at the allotment on Sunday afternoon to plant out last year’s saved tulip bulbs along the front of one of my raspberry beds. I’m hoping they’ll give me a nice show of colour before the raspberries get going in earnest – but I won’t hold out any hope that I’ll be able to bring myself to cut them for the house as intended originally! They always look far too lovely in situ!

tulip-orange-emperor

The courgettes and dahlias have finally succumbed to frost, although I still managed to pick a couple of bunches of sweet peas in my first week home – unheard-of in November! Now we can look forward to the first parsnips and the leeks will come into their own, plus I can see some of the calabrese have sideshoots forming where the main stems were cut. With kale and beetroot, spinach, chard and parsley bringing up the rear, there’s plenty of green stuff to keep me going for the foreseeable future.

This weekend saw two sides of the weather divide: glorious chilly sunshine on the Saturday, followed by torrential rain and gales overnight and into Sunday morning. Cue two very different walks on the Ashdown Forest en route to my parents’ house to escape the newly laid and treated oak floor throughout the ground floor of my house as it dried.

nutley-windmill

Having had the upheaval of the new flooring all week, I hadn’t had time to bake and had made a plea to my mum for a homemade cake to take home. I hadn’t baked since my return from the US and the cupboards were looking decidedly bare! Good thing I had a freezer full of soups/casseroles, although with the microwave out of action in the conservatory, I had to be sufficiently organised to get them out in advance. Mum came up trumps (are we allowed to say that nowadays?!) with a delicious rich pineapple cake, one of my recipes from my friend Moira from way back when, in my early days as an in-house translator. It still tastes as good as it ever did – just what you fancy with a cup of Earl Grey on these cold and dark winter afternoons…

Rich Pineapple Cake

2oz chopped glacé cherries
7oz self-raising flour
8oz can crushed pineapple, drained
5oz butter
4 ½oz dark brown soft sugar
2 large eggs, beaten
12oz mixed fruit
1 tsp mixed spice
1 tbsp marmalade
Brandy to taste!

Cream butter and sugar, beat in eggs, add flour, then marmalade, mixed spice, cherries, drained pineapple and dried fruit. Stir until blended, add brandy if using, then transfer to a greased, lined loaf tin.  Cook at 150°C for 1 to 1 ¼ hrs, covering after 1 hour if it looks to be turning too brown.

Double up the mixture using a large tin of pineapple if making two cakes at once. Freezes well. Can be marzipanned and iced as a light Christmas cake.

I did manage to scramble together an easy traditional pudding for Sunday dinner when I got home to a beautifully dry oak floor. Still no furniture in the kitchen as yet, but at least I could access the basics. All-in-one sponges are a godsend when you haven’t much time and you really can’t beat a good, old-fashioned Eve’s pudding, especially when you still have a surplus of fluffy, tangy Bramley apples to use up.

Eve’s Pudding – serves 4-6

evess-pudding

40z butter, softened
4oz caster sugar
2 eggs, beaten
4oz self-raising flour, sifted
1 tsp vanilla extract

2 Bramley apples, peeled, chopped and stewed with a little water, a modicum of sugar to taste and a squeeze of lemon juice

Peel the apples, chop into a pan with a few dsp of sugar – to taste: I like it quite tangy – and a squeeze of lemon juice to prevent browning. Cook until fluffy, beat until smooth and set aside to cool. Transfer to a greased 8″ round Pyrex dish.

Place the butter, sugar, flour, beaten eggs and vanilla extract into a bowl and whisk until light and fluffy. Spoon carefully over the cool apple purée to cover.

Bake at 180°C for 1/2 hour – 40 minutes until golden brown and well-risen. Serve warm with homemade custard – or Bird’s if you must!

I use an adaptation of Delia’s “proper” custard and very good it is too. It really isn’t much trouble to make and tastes incomparably better than the powdered stuff; try it and see!

Homemade custard

150ml double cream
150ml semi-skimmed milk
3 egg yolks
1 tsp cornflour
1 1/2 tbsp vanilla sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract

Warm the milk and cream in a small pan until it just comes to the boil. Meanwhile mix together the egg yolks, cornflour, vanilla sugar and vanilla extract in a small bowl. Add the hot milk, stir well and return to the pan over a gentle heat, stirring constantly. Continue to stir until the mixture thickens, taking care that it doesn’t curdle – the addition of the cornflour should help to stabilise it.

custard

 

Flowers in October

flowers-in-oct_cropped

It was time for the autumn tidy-up this weekend as I’ll be busy for the next few weekends. Despite mixed weather – sunshine and showers – I managed to tick practically everything off my to-do list and can turn my back on the allotment with a relatively clear conscience now!

Despite it being mid October, the dahlias and the sweet peas are still going strong, and will no doubt carry on until the first frosts. Admittedly, the sweet peas were extremely slow to get going this year, but I don’t think I’ve ever picked such healthy bouquets this late in the year! There’s no doubt that having a cutting garden at the allotment makes for one of the most cost-effective – and delightful – crops, from May right through ’til November. Bliss. I’d extended my flower production to two raised beds this year and it’s worked better than I could have hoped: more dahlias, armfuls of ammi majus and a surprising star in the form of Achillea Summer Berries, sown from seed earlier this year and excellent for picking in a range of soft pinks and creams. The plants I planted out in the garden at home were devoured by slugs the minute they went in, but the allotment ones escaped unscathed and I’m hoping for an even better display next year. The bupleurum and euphorbia were disappointing, but more than compensated by the self-sown dill flowers (and alchemilla mollis from home) which provide that yellow or green zing for arrangements. I currently have no less than 11 vases of blooms dotted around the house, some admittedly just single stem posies, but for mid-autumn that really isn’t bad going…

As well as harvesting yet more glorious flowers, courgettes (also still coming aplenty!), leeks and the last of the main stems of calabrese, I also picked all my apples on Sunday to pre-empt the frosts. I thought there wouldn’t be as many this year, but as I filled bag after bag, I see I was mistaken! All now safely hanging in the garage, but I suspect I’ll have to give some away – far too many for one. As it was, I left two bags of windfalls on the allotment sharing table and there are quite a number of prime specimens still on the trees, out of reach without a long ladder. I may leave those for the birds…. Oh, and this is where I’m glad I pay 40p for the privilege of having my fortnightly online shopping delivered in bags! I’m all for saving on plastic bag use (and re-use canvas bags/bags for life wherever I can), but short of investing in an old-fashioned apple store, I’m not sure how I’d store apples without my good, old, sturdy Waitrose bags.

red-apples-2016

Other tasks crossed off my list included taking out the spent sweetcorn haulms and shrivelled squash plants for the compost. The squash have been a complete write-off this year, one of the few crops that haven’t done well. I can only assume it was the late, cold spring and not a long enough growing season. In their place I sowed next year’s broad bean seeds, Aquadulce as usual. Such a lovely thought that they will start growing now, while the soil is still warm, hibernate through the winter, and then produce their delicious bounty as one of the first crops of next spring/summer, with very little interference from me. I also planted some Oriental salad leaves under an Enviromesh tunnel, more as an experiment than anything else. I had intended to plant them at the end of September along with the rocket and hardy lettuce, but time ran away with me. We’ll see. When I’ve tried planting salad crops under fleece at this time of year before, I had a great crop of early salad leaves the following spring – definitely worth a go!

 

exotic-emperor-tulip

I’d ordered my new-season tulips from Sarah Raven (my annual treat!) a few weeks ago and most of the varieties bar one have arrived, so I finished planting up my spring barrels, taking out the old tuberous begonias (far too top-heavy this late in the year) and storing the dinner plate-sized tubers in brown paper bags in the shed for next year. I’ve tried to opt for earlier varieties in this year’s selection, so that I get more of a splash of colour at the same time: Vanilla Cream and soft pink Design Impression for my pair of tubs by the front arch, pale lemon lily-flowered Sapporo near the front door and Spring Green and Exotic Emperor, both white with green, in the back garden. I can hardly wait!

tulip-sapporo

I also lifted some of the wallflowers (peachy-pink Aurora) I’d sown from seed in May and planted some of the sturdy little plants in the barrels too – hoping for an impressive display next April/May. Blue pansies bought en masse (and on offer) from my local garden centre, Tête-à-Tête daffodils and Cream Beauty crocus complete the mix. Now to stop the dog digging up the pansies in search of the deliciously-scented (to him at any rate) chicken pellet fertiliser I’ve obviously used far too liberally!

leo-at-richmond

 

 

 

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

Autumn Glory

ratatouille-ingredients

I can barely believe that September has flown past and here we are in October, summer definitely over, yet the gardens are still overflowing with beautiful produce. The weather is still being kind to us, at least down here in the South-East, so my (late) sweet peas are still going strong, as are the dahlias, and the courgettes are still producing chunky fruit every couple of days! There’s definitely a chill in the air, though, certainly in the morning and evening, and the leaves on my scarlet Euonymus alatus are just starting to turn – a sure sign that autumn has arrived.

euonymus-alatus

The late start to the growing season this year has meant that some crops haven’t done as well as usual: my squashes are very small, for instance, and the runner beans have been sketchy, although the French beans have been magnificent! My two plum trees were cut back hard last year and tend to be biennial in any event, so I haven’t had vast amounts of fruit, but the later Marjorie variety has come up trumps with a few bowls’ worth of sweet and juicy plums.

With all the ingredients for ratatouille to hand, it seemed sacrilege not to make some for the freezer – something you really appreciate in the dank. dark days of winter. In recent years I’ve been oven-roasting the standard veg for a baked ratatouille, but this time I’ve reverted to the traditional method of cooking slowly on the hob – delightfully simple, yet delicious. I used courgettes, aubergine (two types), tomatoes, basil, red and green pepper, red onions and garlic, but the specific vegetables are not set in stone. In fact, I actually used a couple of tins of tomatoes, and a squirt of tomato purée, as my own tomatoes are not particularly prolific this year – that late Spring again! The Sungold and Gardener’s Delight have done well, as usual, but you never get enough to cook with on a large scale as they are cherry tomatoes, after all. The Black Russian, though extremely tasty and fleshy, have fruited very sparsely and I won’t be growing those outside again. Back to the drawing board next year for a larger outdoor tomato…

ratatouille_prep

Starting with the sliced onions, garlic and pepper, I gradually add the remaining veg as I prepare them by chopping roughly, then simmer for an hour or so. The taste of summer… Freezes beautifully, of course.

ratatouille

After the last couple of chillier nights, I removed all the remaining tomatoes from my outdoor plants this morning and have left them in baskets to ripen on the conservatory windowsill. I’ve done the same with some of my triffid-like chilli plants too. This year’s variety, the jalapeno-like Summer Heat, has been very tasty (if pretty hot!), but with very large fruit and leggy plants – not necessarily ideal on the conservatory window ledge!

Fortunately, the allotment is still full of veg for the coming months: leeks, brassicas, beetroot and parsnips are all yet to come – the joys of growing your own! My new autumn raspberries have taken well in their new bed and I’m picking a handful every couple of days – perfect with my breakfast muesli and yogurt. Apples are looking plentiful too and one of this weekend’s tasks should certainly be to harvest as many as I can for storage in the garage before the first frosts. Such a lovely time of year….

Oh, and those plums? Delicious eaten straight from the tree, of course, but this is one of my favourite recipes for a plum-based dessert/cake:

Plum and Almond Cake

plum-and-almond-cake

9 1/2oz caster sugar
7oz butter
10-12 plums, halved, stones removed
2 large eggs, beaten
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 1/2oz self-raising flour, sifted
1 tsp baking powder
3 1/2 oz ground almonds
4 fl oz milk

Grease an 8″ solid-bottomed cake tin – I use a heavy tarte tatin tin.
Put 4 1/2oz sugar and 3fl oz water in a small pan and simmer gently until the sugar dissolves. Increase the heat and cook to a golden caramel colour, watching like a hawk so that it doesn’t burn! Remove from the heat and add 2oz butter, stirring well. Pour into the prepared cake tin and place the plum halves on top, cut side down.
Beat the remaining butter and sugar in a large bowl until light and fluffy, then gradually mix in the beaten eggs and vanilla extract. Add 1-2 tbsp flour if it shows signs of curdling. Then fold in the dry ingredients, alternating with the milk.
Spoon the mixture onto the plums and bake for 45-50 minutes at 160°C / Gas 4 until golden brown, spongy to the touch and a skewer comes out clean.
Cool for a few minutes, then, while still warm, run a knife round the edge of the cake, place a large plate on top of the tin and firmly but gently turn the whole plate and tin upside down. Shake a little and the cake should just turn out of the tin onto the plate. If any plums stick to the tin, just gently transfer them to their position on the cake.
Sprinkle with toasted flaked almonds if you like.
Serve warm with cream or crème fraiche for a delicious dessert or cold as cake – delicious either way!

Incidentally, I’ve also made this with gluten-free self-raising flour (Dove’s Farm) and it worked a treat – worth remembering!

The Sweet Scents of Autumn

Autumn is a surprisingly scented time of year, from the assorted woodland smells of foliage in various stages of decay to the tiny but sweetly fragrant flowers on eleagnus shrubs. Walking down by our local reservoir in the sunshine the other morning, I was blown away by the fabulous fresh scent of the newly fallen larch needles as I crushed them underfoot. Yet another of my favourites is the Katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum), with its bronze-pink tinted autumn leaves and their amazing aroma of candy floss and burnt sugar – an absolute delight for the senses on a crisp autumn day. Viburnums and mahonias are other shrubs that come into flower in November, although we’ll probably have to wait until January for the heavily-scented daphnes to outmanoeuvre the opposition.

We had our first frost just a couple of weekends ago and fortunately I’d brought my last few tender plants inside the night before: the tuberous begonias had been lifted, wrapped in newspaper and put to hibernate in the shed, fuchsias are undercover in the cold frame, but the South American tibouchina and rose geraniums have to take shelter in the conservatory over winter. My rose geranium is “Attar of Roses”, a pelargonium really, with beautiful pale pink flowers and deliciously scented, crinkled, silvery-green leaves. It will survive quite happily in the conservatory, but it often spreads to cover a wide area over the summer, so I like to trim it back when bringing it inside. You can then prune it even more ruthlessly in the spring, using any promising cuttings to start off new plants, and allowing the parent plant to reshoot.

Rose geranium Attar of Roses

This year, I decided that I would put those leaf offcuts to good use and experimented with Rose Geranium Cordial on Sarah Raven’s recommendation. What a revelation: delightfully light and fragrant – an autumn variation on the elderflower cordial theme and equally good with sparkling water. I suspect it would also be delicious with Prosecco for a very unusual cocktail with a twist! This is based on Sarah’s recipe – do try it and see!

Rose Geranium and Lemon Cordial – makes 2.5 litres

Rose geranium cordial

2kg granulated sugar

1 litre water

large handful of rose-scented geranium leaves

juice of 6 lemons

finely grated zest of 2 lemons

30g citric acid

Heat the sugar, water, lemon juice and zest, plus the geranium leaves until the sugar has dissolved, then simmer for 10-15 minutes. Allow to cool and infuse. Strain through a sieve lined with muslin to remove the geranium leaves and add the citric acid. (You can omit it, but I’ve found with other cordials that they really don’t keep long at all without the preserving effects of the citric acid.) Pour through a funnel into sterilised bottles. Keep in the fridge once open.

Dilute to taste with sparkling water or soda.

Another good use of rose geranium leaves is to make scented Rose Geranium Sugar, along the lines of vanilla sugar, for sprinkling on biscuits and lemon drizzle cake to add an extra dimension. I just layer up caster sugar in a pretty glass Kilner jar, adding a few rose geranium leaves every so often. The only thing to watch here is that the moisture in the leaves can make the sugar stick together, so be prepared to crush it with a spoon when you come to use it!

My final idea for making the most of this heavenly resource is to make rose geranium shortbread biscuits – beautiful and unusual served with mousses or ice cream, or delicious with morning coffee or afternoon tea.

Rose Geranium Shortbread Biscuits

Rose geranium biscuits

125g caster sugar, plus extra for sprinkling (or use rose geranium sugar if you have it!)

225g butter, softened

300g plain flour, plus extra for dusting

50g ground rice (or rice flour or semolina work just as well)

3-4 rose geranium leaves, very finely chopped

Zest of 1 lime (or lemon)

Line two baking trays with baking parchment. Cream the sugar and butter together in a large bowl. Sift the flour and ground rice (or rice flour/semolina) into the mixture, add the finely chopped rose geranium leaves and lime zest and mix together. Using floured hands, work the mixture together to form a smooth dough. Tip onto a lightly floured work surface and knead gently until the dough is smooth. Chill in the fridge for 15 minutes.

Roll the dough out until 5mm thick and cut out biscuits using a round or heart-shaped cutter. Place the biscuits onto the baking trays, and sprinkle with a little extra rose geranium sugar. Leave to chill for a further 30 minutes in the fridge. Bake at 160°C/Gas 4 for 15-20 minutes, or until pale golden-brown. Cool on a rack, sprinkling with extra sugar if necessary.

Waste Not, Want Not

Sheffield Park pools

Inspired by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s excellent programme, Hugh’s War on Waste, on television recently, I thought I’d share some of my favourite recipes for using up leftovers. It’s always been a theme of mine, ever since I first had a house of my own and a beginner’s vegetable garden – having gone to all the trouble of growing your own, it always seems criminal to waste it! Plus, money was tight in the early days, so wasting food was doubly questionable. Delia Smith’s Leftovers section at the back of her “Complete Cookery Course” was my bible, along with Jocasta Innes’ “The Pauper’s Cookbook”, dating back to my student cooking days. Delia’s cottage pie and rissoles were stalwarts of my early forays into cooking and Jocasta’s chapter on programmed eating, based on cooking a joint or a casserole and then using the leftovers over the following days, seemed to make perfect sense. It still does! I often think the leftovers from a joint can be almost as good (if not nicer!) then the joint itself; think roast chicken followed by a chicken & ham pie or a chicken risotto, with plenty of stock to make soups over the coming weeks…. Or a gammon joint, followed up by ham and tomato pasta, a delicious quiche or as a pizza topping, plus ham and lentil soup for the freezer…. I pride myself on being able to stretch a joint for at least two, if not three meals after the main event and not including the essential stock. Definitely no scope for waste!

Halloween pumpkins

A couple of weeks ago my son and his American girlfriend came home for the Halloween weekend, bearing not one but four pumpkins! The intention was for them to decorate them for the Halloween festivities, and for my elder son and his girlfriend to do their own too. Unfortunately they didn’t get home in time, so I had two rather large pumpkins going spare. My own squashes down at the allotment have been a miserable washout this year, with only two smallish pumpkins to show for a whole season of growth – I blame the late start and not enough days of sunlight. Anyway, although the large orange pumpkins you buy at Halloween don’t have quite the depth of flavour of the home-grown squashes, I had no intention of letting them go to waste!

Cue several roast pumpkin risottos (see Butternut Squash, Leek & Bacon Risotto for the basic recipe), a delicious oven-baked pumpkin, tomato & feta frittata and the following soup recipe, adapted from October’s Waitrose Food magazine.

Roast Pumpkin, Apple & Stilton Soup – serves 6-8

½ large pumpkin, peeled and chopped into 5 cm chunks

4 Cox-type apples, peeled, cored and quartered

1 tbsp chopped sage leaves

1 tsp ground cinnamon

4 carrots, peeled and cut into 2 cm lengths

2 sticks celery, cut into 2 cm chunks

2 leeks, sliced

1 onion, chopped

1 clove garlic, finely chopped,

2 red chillis, finely chopped

Olive oil

25g butter

1 l vegetable or chicken stock

125 g Blue Stilton, crumbled

Milk or extra stock or white wine to taste

Pre-heat oven to 200°C / Gas 4. Toss the pumpkin and apple on a large roasting tray with the cinnamon, chopped sage and olive oil to coat. Roast for 35 minutes until tender and golden.

Meanwhile, melt the butter and a dash of olive oil in a large pan. Add the onion, garlic, leeks, celery, carrots and chilli and cook over a gentle heat for 8-10 minutes until softened.

Add the roast pumpkin and apple to the pan with the stock, bring to the boil and simmer for 20-30 minutes or until tender. Allow to cool slightly, then liquidise until smooth (in batches). Add milk or extra stock (or a dash of white wine!) until the desired consistency is reached. Add the crumbled Stilton and reheat to serve.

Still on the waste avoidance theme, I often end up with brown, spotty bananas in my fruit bowl and have a number of delicious ways of using them up, so I really have no excuse for them ending up on the compost heap. One such recipe is Banana Cream, simplicity itself and also delicious with perfect yellow bananas if you can’t bear to wait. Banana & Cherry Buns are another delicious use for past-their-best bananas – cooking bananas somehow transforms them into another taste dimension. One thing I don’t advise is following the advice of a certain TV chef and freezing brown bananas whole, then whizzing in a blender for instant ice-cream; I tried this the other day, admittedly with bananas that I’d put in the freezer and forgotten about for quite some time, but the resulting mix tasted revolting – like cold banana mush, just as you’d expect really!

These recipes I can vouch for, however: a perfect use of over-ripe fruit!

Banana Cream – serves 2-3

Banana cream

2-3 ripe bananas

Juice 1 lemon

125 ml double cream

125 ml natural yogurt

1 tbsp caster sugar (optional – I find I don’t need this these days)

Chopped walnuts, grated dark chocolate or blueberries to garnish

Chop the bananas into a bowl with the squeezed lemon juice and 1 tbsp caster sugar, if using. Mash roughly with a potato masher. Stir in the yogurt until blended. Whip the double cream until the soft peak stage and fold into the banana mixture. Spoon into 2-3 sundae dishes and top with a garnish of your choice.

Banana & Cherry Buns

175g butter, softened

150g caster sugar

175g self-raising flour

2 eggs, beaten

1 ripe banana

Lemon juice

125g glacé cherries, finely chopped

Preheat oven to 180°C fan, Gas 5. Place 24 bun cases in bun tins. Mix butter, sugar, flour and eggs together using a hand-held mixer until the mixture is light and creamy. Mash the banana in a small bowl, adding lemon juice to stop it browning. Fold in the banana and cherries. Spoon into the cases and cook in the preheated oven for 15-20 minutes until golden brown and springy to the touch. Absolutely delicious warm from the oven with a cup of tea – although the banana flavour intensifies the longer you leave them – allegedly! They certainly don’t last long in my house…

Now I just need to find homes for all the windfall apples under my allotment trees – I’ve picked loads, given lots away, advertised them on Facebook and e-mailed my fellow plotholders to help themselves, but there are still lots on the ground. Sorry, Hugh….

All Change for Autumn

Sheffield Park A's photo - colours

I love autumn, but it’s hard to predict what the weather is going to do from one day to the next! We’ve had a very mild spell recently down here in East Sussex, so the gardens are still full of late bloom and the autumn colours have been spectacular. Last weekend we managed to fit in a trip to nearby Sheffield Park (above), a National Trust property renowned for its fantastic foliage at this time of year and were rewarded with a fine sunny afternoon and plenty of photo opportunities. This weekend, it’s still unseasonably warm, but we’ve had so much rain, so no photo shoots today. Yesterday it poured all day long, just letting up in time for our annual village bonfire and fireworks – we didn’t need gloves or hats to watch the spectacle, but wellingtons were definitely in order to negotiate our way through inches of mud and slurry combined! Pity the poor girl I saw tiptoeing through the quagmire in her Ugg boots…..

Today’s been a typical November day: dank and gloomy, but at least dry enough for me to venture out and finish planting up my winter pots. I started a few weeks ago, but the remainder were full of nasturtiums and fibrous begonias and still flowering merrily away. Tulips, too, don’t mind waiting until November to go in, so I wasn’t unduly worried, but I’m glad to have that job ticked off my list now. This year, I’ve gone for two doubles, Antraciet (dark red) and Chato (a deep magenta-pink paeony-flowered beauty), and singles Jan Reus (deep crimson), Request (a scented deep blood orange) and Atlantis (ivory with purple feathering), all ordered from Sarah Raven as usual. I’d kept my daffodil and crocus bulbs from last year, so just mixed them in too. Next year I really will have to order some new oak barrels, as my faithful bulb planters must be getting on for 20 years old now and are definitely showing signs of wear…. I finished the pots off with violet pansies, still going strong in the mild weather, and primroses divided from the garden. Should be a lovely show in spring!

Autumn walk Nov 2015

There’s very little time for gardening at this end of the year once the clocks have gone back, especially by the time I’ve fitted in two dog walks in the limited daylight hours. Still time, though, to nip down to the allotment and bring back handfuls of fresh rocket, coriander, parsley and dill, a perfect head of calabrese, some giant leeks and yet more windfall apples. The beans have all but finished, after a late start, but we really need a frost before I can make a start on the parsnips!

Time, instead, to head back into the kitchen and make some cake for afternoon tea in the late afternoon – I won’t say in front of the fire, as it’s far too warm! This is one of my sons’ favourite tray bakes, originally from a Delia Smith recipe booklet issued in the early 2000s for Comic Relief’s Red Nose Day. Perfect with a cup of tea…

Marbled Energy Bars

Marbled energy bar

150g dark chocolate, chopped

150g white chocolate, chopped

100g pecan nuts (or nuts of your choice)

125g dried apricots, chopped (or dried cranberries are nice)

150g oats

25g Rice Krispies

25g bran flakes, lightly crushed (or use corn flakes for a wheat-free option*)

75g raisins (or sultanas)

1 tsp maple syrup

½ can (approx. 150 ml) condensed milk

Heat the oven to 160°C / Gas 4. Toast the pecans on a baking tray for 7 minutes, leave to cool, then chop roughly. Mix together the oats, chopped apricots, pecans, Rice Krispies, bran flakes and raisins in a large bowl. Warm the condensed milk and the maple syrup in a small pan and pour over the dry ingredients. Mix together well and turn into a baking tin measuring 30 cm x 20 cm x 5 cm, pressing down firmly. Cook in the pre-heated oven for 20-25 mins until golden. Leave to cool.

Melt the chocolate separately in bowls over simmering water as usual (or use the microwave with great care, heating for minute-long burst each time!). Put spoonfuls of each molten chocolate dotted over the cake, alternating the white and dark chocolate. Make sure there are no gaps, then take a skewer and swirl the two chocolates together using a zigzag motion to create a marbled effect. Chill in the fridge until set, then cut into 16 bars. Scrumptious!

* Note that proprietary corn flakes are not guaranteed wheat-free, so make sure you buy special gluten-free ones (and oats, for that matter) if baking for coeliacs.

Apples galore!

Bramleys on the treeYou know autumn is upon us with a vengeance when the apples start falling from the trees faster than you can pick them! It’s been an excellent year for apples and the trees down at the allotment are laden. I seem to have been picking windfalls forever, but all of a sudden I realised I’d better start taking the good fruit off the tree as it’s all threatening to fall.

Having spent the past three weekends up in London at networking or social events, I just haven’t had time to do much in the way of gardening, so it was bliss today to have a lovely day of autumn sunshine to finally try and get the plot tidy before the onset of the winter weather. I managed to pick 12 bags of apples – carrier bag charge notwithstanding! I use the strong Waitrose online delivery bags, proven to withstand hanging in the garage on strong hooks until the spring. Worth paying a lump sum of 40p for bags with my shopping delivery – I honestly don’t know what I’d do with the apples for storage otherwise! There are still plenty of windfalls on the ground too – think I’d better post offers on Facebook and Freecycle, as it’s a shame to let them go to waste…

Windfalls on the groundAs well as harvesting my apple bounty, I managed to sow my broad beans (Aquadulce) for next spring – always worth doing at this time of year – and cut down my sweetcorn and asparagus plants. The asparagus had made their usual jungle of growth, but tend to get battered by the wind if you leave the spent foliage through the winter. Plus I had no problem with the pesky asparagus flies this year, having read that cutting the foliage down in autumn removes their overwintering habitat – which definitely worked!

Asparagus pre cutting downThe dahlias are still going strong, so I was able to pick armfuls to bring home for the house, and the kale, purple-sprouting broccoli, leeks and parsnips are looking good for the winter too. The runner beans are just about holding on, but not for much longer, I don’t think. Rocket, coriander, dill and parsley are still looking good, too, so another bag of salad for the fridge! Carrots and calabrese made up the rest of my haul this evening – plenty to accompany next week’s dinner menus…

Purple sprouting broccol and kale

Tonight’s dessert is going to be that old stalwart, baked apples – one of my favourite easy puddings. So simple, yet so tasty. I barely need to give a recipe, as with my other apple ideas below; they really are more of a reminder of good combinations of ingredients majoring on apples, just in case you’re tearing your hair out, wondering what to do with them all!

Baked Apples

1 large Bramley apple per person
1 good tbsp mincemeat, preferably home-made
1 tbsp demerara sugar
Knob of butter

Wash the apple and gently pierce the skin all the way round the circumference of the apple with a sharp knife in one continuous line. This stops the apple exploding as it bakes. Core the apple using an apple corer, then place in a small square roasting tin and stuff the cavity with mincemeat. Sprinkle with the sugar and put a knob of butter on top. Add a couple of tbsp of water to the tin to make a sauce as it cooks, then cover the whole thing with foil and cook in a pre-heated oven at 200°C / Gas 6 for 45 mins to 1 hour. Serve with pouring cream.

This also works beautifully with autumn raspberries instead of mincemeat if you have any – unfortunately my autumn canes all died this year, so I can’t treat myself, but it is very, very good…

Another useful apple dessert is one I based loosely on the Scottish cranachan. I’ve been making this for years, but it always goes down well and again is child’s play to prepare:

Apple Oatmeal Cream – serves 4

2-3 Bramley apples, stewed to a purée with sugar to taste – you can add cinnamon and/or sultanas too if you like
150ml double cream
150ml natural yogurt
50g ground oatmeal
1 tbsp demerara sugar
Juice of ½ a lemon

Make the apple purée and leave to cool. Toast the ground oatmeal under the grill or in a hot oven, turning frequently to brown on all sides – but watch it like a hawk as it can catch and burn very easily! Allow this to cool too. Whip the cream until soft peaks form, then fold in the yogurt, sugar and lemon juice, then stir in the oatmeal when cool.

Spoon some apple purée into the bottom of a sundae dish and top with the oatmeal cream. Chill before serving – tastes even better if left overnight for the flavours to meld!

Yet another apple “combination” is one of my favourite lunch dishes at this time of year. It brightens up plain old cheese on toast, good though that is, and is another delicious way of working through that apple surplus…

Apple, Cheese & Walnut Toasties

Cheese, apple and walnut toasties

1 dessert apple (any will do, but this is particularly good with a Cox-type apple)
Chopped walnuts ( no need to be exact, just a sprinkling!)
Grated cheese (Cheddar, Lancashire or Cheshire would be my preference here)
Dash of milk to bind
Granary bread for toast

Just toast the bread on one side under the grill as usual. In the meantime, grate the apple and cheese, add a dash of milk to bind, then stir in the walnuts. Spoon onto the untoasted side of the bread and grill again until melted and golden brown. Take care that the walnuts don’t catch – best to try and submerge them under the cheese!

My final suggestion is actually a recipe “proper”, this time from the National Trust magazine earlier this year. It’s an interesting variation on an apple cake and one I really enjoyed when making it back in September. I’d just returned from Normandy at the time, where I’d tasted delicious French cider, so I made a point of buying good French cider to make this – but I’m sure any would work!

Apple, Raisin & Cider Tea Loaf

9oz self-raising flour
5oz butter
Pinch salt
1 level tsp mixed spice
4oz light Muscovado sugar
4oz raisins, soaked in 2 tbsp cider (or apple juice)
I medium Bramley apple, grated, sprinkled with lemon juice to prevent oxidation
2 eggs, beaten

Glaze:

2oz light Muscovado sugar
2 tbsp cider

Pre-heat the oven to 160°C / Gas 4 and grease and base-line a large loaf tin.

Rub the butter into the flour and stir in the salt, sugar, mixed spice, grated apple and the raisin and cider mixture. Then mix in the beaten eggs.

Transfer to the tin and bake for about 1 hour until golden and cooked through when tested with a skewer.

Boil together the glaze ingredients for 3-4 minutes and brush onto the warm loaf while still in the tin.

Allow to cool, turn out, and serve buttered with a nice cup of tea. Mmmmm….

See also The Last of the Apples from Storage for yet more ideas of what to do with all those apples. Or check out the Ingredients Index for even more suggestions. And enjoy! You know what they say about an apple a day….

Gardening Angel mug