Tag Archives: basil

Germination Blues

Alliums

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

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

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

Basil

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

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

Poppy in the wheat field

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 heart 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!

Goodbye to courgettes….

zucchini-537001_640The recent sunny days, yet cold nights of this lovely spell of early autumn weather have more or less put an end to the courgettes. Mine are hanging on in there, but I really don’t think I’m going to get much more fruit now. In any event, I’ve earmarked their current position for next year’s broad beans, which I like to sow in late October/November for an early and hopefully problem-free crop next May/June. I plant the variety ‘Aquadulce Claudia’, one of the best autumn-sowing varieties, and find they make a good start before the worst of the winter, regrowing all the more strongly next spring. In contrast, my neighbouring plotholder’s spring-sown plants never really came to anything in this late, cold and dry spring, so I felt doubly glad I’d opted for autumn sowing – plus it’s one less thing to sow next spring!

The courgettes haven’t been wonderful this year either, I must admit. I had seven plants: four green ‘Defender’ and three golden ‘Soleil’, but the yellow ones, in particular, were dreadful: the fruit set, but never grew to full size. The Defenders were fine, just not quite as bountiful as usual, which was fine, but meant I wasn’t giving them away left, right and centre as usual! Time to try some new varieties next year, I think… I still have three or four in the fridge, and have been meaning to note down my favourite courgette recipes, so here goes: better late than never!

Courgette Fritters – serves 2-3

I first tasted these many years ago in a trendy little restaurant (Randalls) in the back streets of Bollington, on the Cheshire fringes of the Peak District – divine! They are quite a last-minute thing to cook, so probably best not attempted for a dinner party, but if you’re cooking a family meal or informal supper where you can stand and cook/talk at the same time, these are a delicious way of using up a glut of courgettes!

250g medium courgettes

Handful dill (optional)

2 egg whites

2 level tbsp plain flour (can use rice flour for a gluten-free alternative)

Salt

Rapeseed or sunflower oil

Cut the courgettes into 5-6cm lengths, than half and quarter each length, so you have 4 batons. Place in a colander, sprinkle with salt and leave to draw out excess juice over the sink.

Rinse and dry well in an old tea towel to remove salt.

Heat the oil in a large pan; I use a wok with a semi-circular tempura rack attached to the side and fill the wok until the oil is about 5 cm in depth. (You could, of course, use a deep-fat fryer, but I deep-fry so rarely that this method works equally well.)

When a cube of bread added to the pan sizzles and turns golden, the oil is hot enough to start the fritters.

In the meantime, whisk the egg whites until stiff, then gradually fold in the flour and chopped dill if using. Toss the dried courgette batons in the egg and flour mixture and add to the hot oil in the pan one at a time, using kitchen tongs. Don’t add too many to the pan in one go, as otherwise the oil will lose its heat and the fritters won’t cook sufficiently quickly.

When golden brown and crispy, lift the fritters out individually with tongs and leave to drain on the tempura rack (or on kitchen roll) while you cook the rest, using as many batches as you need to avoid overfilling the wok.

Serve hot as a side dish and enjoy!

Courgette and Feta Pancakes – serves 4

Courgete and feta pancakesThis is one of those favourite recipes scribbled on a bit of paper in my trusty recipe scrapbook and one I turn to several times each year. I think it first appeared in my organic vegetable box when I was tragically between vegetable plots. We’d moved house, but not had chance to grow any veg or take on the allotment, and I discovered a lovely local box scheme in the next village. They didn’t deliver and you had to drive down a very rutted track to reach the farm, but it was worth it for the fantastic smell of fresh basil when you walked in! They always added a recipe sheet in the box and this, I think, was based on one of theirs.

4 cups coarsely grated courgettes

4 eggs, separated

1 cup crumbled feta cheese

Handful dill (optional)

½ cup onion, spring onion or leek, grated or finely chopped

3-4 tbsp plain flour (gram flour works well for a gluten-free alternative)

Salt & pepper

Butter and olive oil for frying

Sour cream or crème fraiche to serve

Place grated courgette in a colander and sprinkle with salt. Leave to stand over the sink for about 15 minutes. Rinse well to remove salt and dry extremely thoroughly in an old tea towel, squeezing to remove surplus water.

Mix courgettes with egg yolks, feta, onions, dill (if using) and flour, then season to taste.

Beat egg whites in a separate bowl until stiff, then fold into the courgette mixture.

Heat the butter and olive oil in a large frying pan and add spoonfuls of the mixture to cook over a medium-heat. The mix is quite soft, but you should be able to turn the pancakes with a fish slice and palette knife when one side is cooked. Cook on the other side until golden and serve straightaway with sour cream or crème fraiche on the side.

In the height of summer, I serve these with a green salad and chopped cherry tomatoes, sprinkled with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, basil, garlic, a hint of sugar and seasoning – delicious!

My final recipe is another old favourite from the Sainsbury’s Sarah Brown Vegetarian Cookbook back in the 1980s. It’s a filling, yet delicious vegetarian main course and tastes good both hot and cold, so ideal for picnics or leftover working lunches the next day.

Courgette & Lentil Gratin – serves 4-6

4oz red lentils

1 tbsp olive oil

1 onion, chopped

1 clove garlic, crushed

1 tbsp tomato purée

2oz oats

1 tbsp lemon juice

2 tsp chopped mixed herbs (basil, thyme, parsley or oregano all work well)

8oz courgettes, diced

2 eggs, beaten

1 tbsp wholemeal flour (or use rice or gram flour for gluten-free diners)

2 fl. oz milk

Salt and pepper

Handful basil, chopped

2oz Cheddar cheese, grated

Cook the lentils in twice their volume of water for about 10 mins or until soft. Beat with a wooden spoon, then drain off any excess liquid.

Heat the oil in a frying pan, then cook the onion and garlic for about 4-5 minutes until starting to soften. Remove from the heat, then add the cooked lentils, tomato purée, oats, lemon juice, herbs and seasoning. The mixture should be thick enough to hold together. If too wet, either return to the heat to dry off a little more, or add some more oats.

Press the mixture around the sides and base of a greased 8” flan dish.

Meanwhile, either steam the courgettes for a couple of minutes or cook them with a knob of butter in the microwave for 2-3 minutes. Drain off excess liquid if microwaving. Blend the eggs with the flour, then add the milk. Stir in the cooked and drained courgettes, chopped basil and seasoning.

Spoon the filling into the flan case, top with grated cheese and cook for 180°C (fan), Gas 5 for about 25-30 minutes or until set.

Serve warm or cold with a salad.

Tomato Soup, Three Ways

Tomato soup has to be my all-time favourite. I think it goes back to the Heinz cans of tomato soup of my childhood, delicious on a cold winter’s day, even out of a Thermos flask. We never had home-made soup when I was a child, yet I’ve always prepared my own ever since I first started cooking in earnest and there really is no comparison! It’s so easy too, just a case of browning off your vegetables, adding (good) stock and away you go.

I love to stock up the freezer with tomato soup, as the tomato season here in Britain is so short, especially when you’re growing them without a greenhouse. I confess I do cheat and make tomato and lentil soup or minestrone with tinned tomatoes in the winter months, but for me the best tomato soups are those made in the fleeting months of August and September, when fresh, juicy tomatoes come straight off the vine. I don’t have a huge crop of tomatoes these days, and I do favour the cherry varieties like Sungold and Gardener’s Delight which I love to eat just as they are for their incomparable, sweet taste. This year, like last, I’ve also grown the stripy Tigerella, a small standard tomato, which is delicious cooked in soups and sauces, and lends itself to growing outside too. However, I don’t grow nearly enough for full-scale soup production and I’m very lucky this year to have been given bags full of huge, ripe tomatoes by friends with a smallholding and a very large and productive glasshouse!

I can never decide on my favourite tomato soup recipe and have three in contention – so I usually make all three at some point and fill the freezer accordingly for the darker days ahead. They are Delia’s Roasted Tomato Soup, which has a divinely rich and concentrated flavour, but uses a lot of tomatoes for a relatively small end quantity; Tomato, Apple & Celery Soup, another of Delia’s recipes, which originally came from the legendary John Tovey of the famous Miller Howe restaurant in the Lake District; and a simple Tomato Soup made in the slow cooker, originally taken from my very old Tower Slow Cook book. I’ve adapted them slightly, as ever. See which you prefer!

Delia’s Roasted Tomato Soup – serves 6

Roast tomatoes for soup1.5 kg ripe tomatoes

1 large onion

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

Handful of fresh basil leaves

200 – 250g potato, peeled and chopped

1 litre boiling water or vegetable stock

1 tsp balsamic vinegar

Olive oil

2 tbsp tomato purée

Seasoning

Cut the tomatoes in half and place cut side uppermost in a large roasting tray with the onion cut into chunky wedges. Sprinkle the roughly chopped basil leaves and chopped garlic on top, season and drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

Roast at 180°C fan (Gas 5) for 50 minutes to 1 hour until starting to brown at the edges. In the meantime, place the chopped potato in a pan with the boiling water or stock and tomato purée, and simmer until the potato is cooked – about 20 minutes.

When the tomatoes are ready, scrape the contents of the roasting tray into the potato pan and purée the lot in a liquidiser in several batches. I’ve doubled Delia’s recipe here, as I found the original only ever made enough for three – perhaps I’m just greedy or maybe we have bigger appetites these days?

You can now sieve the soup if you wish, or leave it as it is if you don’t mind the slightly chunky texture. It will be even chunkier if you use a hand blender or food processor rather than a liquidiser, but none the worse for that.

Serve with good bread and savour the deep, rich taste – mmmmmm.

The next soup is ideal if you don’t have huge amounts of tomatoes to play with, as it uses equal quantities of apple and celery and gives a really fresh and vibrant flavour as a result. I always have plenty of windfall apples lying around at home and at the allotment this time of year, so it’s definitely on my must-cook list. Once again, I’ve doubled the original quantities – it’s really no effort to make more, fills my trusty Le Creuset casserole and makes plenty for the freezer. This soup is a much lighter colour than the other two, probably because of the apple and celery content.

Tomato, Apple & Celery Soup – serves 6-8

Tomato, apple and celery soup250g onions, finely chopped

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

4-500g tomatoes, quartered (leave on the skins and stalks)

350g apples, dessert or cooking, quartered (remove any damaged parts if using windfalls, but otherwise leave stalks and cores)

350g celery, including leaves, chopped into 3cm lengths

60g butter

120 ml dry sherry

Freshly grated nutmeg

1/2 tsp ground ginger

1 tsp chopped fresh thyme

1 tbsp tomato purée

1 litre home-made chicken stock

Seasoning

Melt the butter in a large pan, then add the chopped onions and garlic and cook gently until golden – about 10 minutes. Add the prepared fruit and vegetables, sherry, spices, thyme, tomato purée and seasoning, then place a double thickness of greaseproof paper, dampened with cold water, over the contents, cover with a lid and simmer gently for 1 hour. This method of cooking keeps in the flavours and allows the vegetables to cook really slowly; I’ve never found that it sticks, but you might like to check from time to time in case your heat source is particularly fierce!

After 1 hour, add the stock to the contents of the pan (removing the paper first, of course!) and stir thoroughly. Bring back to the boil for a few minutes, then allow to cool. Liquidise the soup in batches and then you will need to sieve this soup, as it contains all the stalks, pips, etc! Return to a clean pan and reheat.

Serve with good bread or cheese & apple scones. So fresh!

My final tomato soup recipe is made in the slow cooker for convenience, but you could equally well cook it on the hob for 45 minutes – 1 hour after the initial preparation. I often make it overnight, then it has time to cool before being liquidised for lunch. In my original recipe book I’ve noted down to add flour – how times have changed! I wouldn’t dream of adding flour to a soup recipe these days, but tastes were obviously different back in the early 80’s. Another sign of the times was the addition of dried mixed herbs – I really can’t remember the last time I didn’t use fresh herbs in a recipe, but they just weren’t as available in the shops 30 years ago… It works perfectly well with dried herbs if that’s all you’ve got to hand, of course, but fresh are definitely better. This recipe also includes bacon, which I think gives it a nice savoury flavour, but you could always leave it out and use vegetable stock if you’re cooking for vegetarians. It makes quite a thin, but delicious soup, since most of the vegetable content is rather watery; if you’d prefer a thicker soup (and trust me, flour is not the way to go!), just add a medium potato, peeled and diced, with the rest of the vegetables. Alternatively, you could add cream at the end for a cream of tomato soup.

Traditional Tomato Soup

Tomato soup50g butter or olive oil

2 medium onions, finely chopped

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

1 large carrot, chopped

3 sticks celery, chopped

(1 medium potato, peeled and diced if you prefer a thicker soup – optional)

4 rashers streaky bacon, chopped

1.4kg tomatoes, quartered

1 tbsp tomato purée

1 bay leaf

1 sprig rosemary, chopped (or herbs of your choice – basil, parsley and/or thyme are also good)

1 litre home-made chicken (or vegetable) stock

1 tsp sugar

Seasoning

If using a slow-cooker, pre-heat on high if necessary.

Heat the butter or olive oil in a large pan and cook the onion, garlic, carrot, celery and bacon gently for 5 minutes until starting to soften. Stir in the remaining ingredients apart from the stock and cook for a further 5 minutes, then add the stock and bring to the boil.

Transfer to the slow cooker if using and cook for 8 – 10 hours on Low – or overnight. Otherwise, turn the pan down to a simmer and cook for 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Remove the bay leaf, allow to cool, then liquidise in several batches. (I say this advisedly – I once asked my teenage son to liquidise some soup for me, but he didn’t read the instructions, didn’t allow it to cool and poured it all into the liquidiser in one go. Result: one extremely messy kitchen – not a pretty sight!) Again, you can sieve if you feel it necessary, but I don’t usually for this one.

Once again, serve with good bread and enjoy the taste of summer!

Midsummer Madness

Allotment June 2015 looking down towards gateYou can tell the holiday season is almost upon us when you’re rushing frantically to get everything done before you go away. Gardeners should really probably take their holiday out of season, as spring/summer is such a busy time of year in the garden!

Ho, hum! Needs must. And I am getting there, honest! The allotment is now fully planted, despite complete germination failure of my beans, both runner and French. I’ve taken to planting them directly in the ground at the end of May/beginning of June in recent years, rather than in pots inside (due to lack of greenhouse/conservatory space!). Unfortunately, we had a sharp frost and very heavy hailstorms a week or so after I planted the seeds and the few brown and frazzled stems I can see suggest they germinated, but were frosted almost immediately. Never mind, I’ve planted more, albeit rather late, and I’ll have to hope they germinate without any issues. Late plantings usually catch up anyway and at least they won’t overlap with the peas.

Last weekend I also planted out my leeks, which were approaching pencil thickness in their seed trays. It’s a fiddly, but satisfying job, and I can now look forward to leeks from September right through to next Spring.

Allotment June 2015 leeks plantedStrawberries, gooseberries and broad beans are now in full flow, as is the basil back home in the conservatory, leading to the natural conclusion: broad bean pesto! This is one of my favourite combinations and one I try to make every year in season. Beware, as podding broad beans always makes your fingernails black – the gardener’s curse, I’m afraid!

Broad Bean Pesto

Broad beans June 20156oz broad beans (after podding – you’ll probably need at least 1lb unpodded weight!)

2oz Parmesan cheese, finely grated

3 cloves garlic, crushed

3-4oz fresh basil

4fl.oz virgin olive oil

Seasoning

Steam or microwave the broad beans for 2-3 minutes then blanch under cold water.

Place all remaining ingredients apart from olive oil in a food processor and whizz until smooth, pushing down the sides as required.

Add the olive oil in a slow and steady stream until you have a thickish consistency.

Will keep for a couple of weeks, covered, in the fridge, or you can freeze.

Serve with pasta – I added it to softly fried onions, pancetta and a cream sauce tonight, with a handful of fresh broad beans thrown in to cook with the pasta for the last few minutes – sublime!

Basil for pesto Broad bean pesto

Arise, Sir Basil

I don’t know whether it’s just me, but the mere mention of the herb Basil always makes me think fondly back to the 60’s children’s TV programme of my childhood, The Herbs, featuring who else but Sir Basil and Lady Rosemary – alongside Parsley the Lion and Dill the Dog, of course! Basil is rightly known as the King of the Herbs and I certainly can’t imagine my summer cooking without it.

Herbs TVI grow it from seed each year, starting it off in late March in my propagator. It usually germinates quickly, but it’s important to let it grow on in the seed pot until it is large and sturdy enough to handle – pricking the seedlings out too soon inevitably results in failure. I pot the sturdy seedlings on into their final terracotta pots, about 4 plants to a 6-8” diameter pot, using a mix of John Innes soil-based compost (preferably not peaty) and horticultural grit, then top-dress with more grit to ensure good drainage. I leave my basil plants growing in the conservatory, but I imagine they would be happy in a sheltered spot outside in a good summer or in a greenhouse of course, where they also make perfect companion plants for tomato, the distinctive smell allegedly deterring whitefly. I have to confess that the proximity of basil didn’t deter whitefly on my aubergine plants last year in the conservatory, but I’ve grown my aubergines from seed this year, so we shall see!

If you haven’t got your own propagation facilities, you can also grow your own basil either by pricking out the growing plants you can buy in supermarkets, or, even easier, placing a few stems of basil in a jar of water, where they will quickly form roots, then you can pot them up and keep your supply growing – running out of basil doesn’t bear thinking about!

BasilLast week came the moment I’d been waiting for – the first pesto of the year. Often it coincides with the first broad beans from the allotment, but the cold spring has delayed their arrival in sufficient quantities for Broad Bean Pesto, so I resorted to my favourite standard pesto recipe, from Delia Smith’s original Summer Collection. It’s simplicity itself and sooo much nicer than bought pesto.

Delia’s Pesto

Pesto2oz fresh basil leaves

1 large clove garlic, crushed

1 tbsp pine kernels

6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1oz Pecorino or Parmesan cheese, finely grated

Salt & black pepper to taste

Put the basil, crushed garlic, pine kernels and olive oil in a food processor with the seasoning and process until you have a smooth purée. You may need to stop and push it down the sides every so often. Then add the cheese and whizz again until blended. Transfer to a jar (if not intending to use it all straightaway) or a serving bowl. It should keep for a week or so in the jar if kept covered in the fridge – great with pasta or in a rice salad.

Last week I served it with bacon, onions, asparagus and linguine and added the pesto to a cream sauce. Tonight I simply added the pesto to softened onions, bacon and mushrooms, then tossed in the linguine – delicious!

Pesto pastaI also love basil simply chopped with quartered cherry tomatoes, preferably home-grown, a clove of garlic, crushed, seasoning, a pinch of sugar, splash of olive oil and a dash of balsamic vinegar. Allow to infuse for a while at room temperature then serve on toasted, garlic-rubbed sourdough or ciabatta bread, possibly with a smear of soft, mild goat’s cheese (our local Stonegate Dairy goat’s cheese is sublime here) between the bread and the tomato mix, for the perfect Tomato Bruschetta. The tomatoes aren’t ready yet, although they have finally gone outside, but a girl can dream….

Summer has finally arrived!

Sowing the seeds of summer

Gerrie Hoek

Despite the chill winds of mid-March, now is the time to start off those early seeds for summer crops. I sowed my chillis (Apache), aubergines (Bonica) and sweet peas and lobelia just over a week ago before escaping to the Alps for a sunny ski break. The lobelia (dark blue Crystal Palace) are up already, but no sign of the chillis and aubergines – not that I expected there to be! They can take up to 3 weeks, even in a heated propagator, so all the more reason to get them in early. You can, of course, buy young plants later on, but that’s much more expensive and I find they are more prone to disease and aphids if you buy them in, presumably because they are hot-housed in great numbers…. The sweet peas (Singing the Blues) are sitting 5 to a pot on the sunny conservatory windowsill and usually take around a fortnight to germinate. I soaked the seeds in warm water overnight this time before sowing; this used to be recommended practice, but advice seems to have changed in recent years, resulting in much worse germination in my experience – so back to the old tried and trusted methods! I usually sow another batch of seed straight out in the open in April too, and they invariably catch up by mid-summer, and extend the picking season too.

Today I’ve planted parsley (Champion) and basil (British Basil), both in small pots in the propagator, and also three kinds of leeks : Nipper for early baby leeks from September onwards, Pandora for mid-season leeks and the blue-green Bandit for late winter leeks. Last year’s plantings are still going strong; in fact, I’m probably going to have to lift and store them in the next couple of weeks to make room for the new-season crops! Yes, they are in the ground a long time, but such a good-value crop for very little outlay and effort…. I would hate to be without my leeks! Each packet of seed usually contains plenty for two years of sowing – watch out for parsley, though, as fresh seed usually gives best results.

I’ve also potted up some new dahlias from Sarah Raven, ordered a few weeks ago: I love browsing through her catalogue (www.sarahraven.com) and try and experiment with new ones each year, if I can find room! I jettisoned some single yellow dahlias I’d grown from seed last year, which didn’t go with my deep red, white and pink colour scheme down on the allotment, so just room to shoe-horn in a couple more! I’ve gone for a white and purple bicolour collection: Edge of Joy and Alauna Clair Obscur, as well as two pinks: a spikey cactus type, Sugar Diamond, and Gerrie Hoek, a pale salmon pink waterlily type – can’t wait! I find it’s best to start them in pots in my grow rack, allowing them to get going away from the harmful effects of slugs, then transfer them out when the shoots are growing well. Once they’re established, I usually leave them out to overwinter as they’re planted deep enough in the raised beds to withstand the worst of the winter weather, even when we had sustained periods of ice and snow a few years back.

Alauna Clair Obscur dahlia Sugar Diamond Edge of Joy

My final task of the day was to pot up the tuberous begonia corms I bought last year and had overwintered, well-wrapped in brown paper bags, in the shed. The corms had tripled in size since last spring and seem firm enough, so I’ve potted them up in large pots and put them in the grow rack with the dahlias – just hope we don’t get any severe cold spells now!

Just time after all that for a brisk walk down to the allotment with the dogs to bring back some leeks and purple sprouting broccoli to accompany my duck breast and parsnip purée for dinner. Sublime…