Tag Archives: sowing seeds

Another weekend, more progress…

Allotment evening sun

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

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

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

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

Broccoli & Feta Frittata – serves 2

Broccoli frittata with sorrel mint salad

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

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

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

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

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

Broccoli & Pasta Bake – serves 2

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

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

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

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

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

Spicy Sausage Pasta – serves 2-3

Sausage pasta_rotated

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

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

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

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

Poppy in bluebells 2018

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Getting stronger…

Cherry blossom front garden

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

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

Ollie in coat

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

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

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

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

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

TM dahlia offer

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

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

Bluebells at Tapsells April 2018

 

 

Spring highs and lows

Hyacinths

Well, Easter has been and gone, and with it some lovely springlike weather last week. Unfortunately, I’m not quite as excited about the fact that spring has finally arrived as I would usually be. I managed to rupture my anterior cruciate ligament on a recent skiing trip in the French Alps and heavy gardening is going to be off the agenda for some while, I suspect. Not a good time of year for a gardener to be out of action!

Fortunately, two and a half weeks in, I now have my leg brace off and have started intensive physiotherapy to strengthen the muscles around my damaged knee. Gentle walking is also allowed, but I’m pretty sure this doesn’t cover long dog walks or heavy-duty gardening jobs like digging the allotment beds, creating new beds or spreading the compost around the garden at home. This last job was something I’d intended to do before going away, but the snow and constant wet prevailed against me, and it just didn’t get done. I’m definitely going to have to bring someone in to do all of that.

On the bright side, I did manage to sow some seeds in the propagator the night before we left (!): aubergines, leeks, chillis, sweet peppers and parsley, so at least they’ve had a head start. All bar the sweet peppers are showing already, and I’ve now sown some tomatoes (my favourite Sungold, Ailsa Craig and a new dark bronze cherry variety called Sunchocola from Mr Fothergill’s seeds), basil, delphiniums and hollyhocks. No problem putting my potting tray on the garden table so I can work sitting down!

I’ve also pottered around the garden dead-heading the hydrangeas now that the risk of frost should be less. I did have to restrain myself from leaping up to the back of the raised beds to the more inaccessible stems, but otherwise all quite doable – and the garden looks so much tidier as a result, plus I can now see the beautiful camellia blooms much better. Next job, also feasible as long as I’m careful, is to cut back my huge lavatera in the bed next to the garage. They need to go down to a foot or so at this time of year to encourage strong new growth and an abundance of flowers in the summer. Another job I should be able to do with a dodgy knee is potting up the dahlia tubers I ordered earlier this spring. I usually start them off in pots in the growframe, then plant them out at the allotment when they are showing strong growth and are less susceptible to slug attack. On the list for the weekend, weather permitting.

I persuaded my sons to take me down to the allotment on Sunday, not to do any work, I hasten to add – and actually things don’t look too bad due to the cold start to the year. Thursday and Friday last week had been particularly sunny, so I was thrilled to find a bumper crop of purple-sprouting broccoli ready for picking – and the first rhubarb of the year too, always a notable event! Parsley and leeks were still growing strong and completed my spring harvest, shared with my son due to the huge quantities! I’ll turn a blind eye to the rest for now, but may need to seek some help planting my potatoes in the not-too-distant future.

Spring harvest

In the meantime, a good old rhubarb crumble was just what the doctor ordered with the first crop of the season – heaven! I’ve given a recipe for a rhubarb & almond crumble elsewhere, but this is just my straightforward, basic crumble recipe, courtesy of my mum and her mum before her. I find it doesn’t work with gluten-free flour, as you lose the crispness. I usually make double the amount of crumble mix and freeze half, uncooked, for a quick pudding when I’m short of time. It can be added straight from the freezer to cooked or uncooked fruit – perfect for busy days.

Rhubarb Crumble – serves 4-6

Rhubarb

500g rhubarb, trimmed and sliced – no need to peel if fresh
3 tbsp Demerara sugar
125g self-raising flour
25g caster sugar
60g butter
1 tbsp Demerara sugar to sprinkle

Place the sliced rhubarb in a covered glass dish in the microwave with the sugar and cook for 4 minutes until starting to soften and produce juice.
Rub the butter into the SR flour and sugar until it resembles fine breadcrumbs and sprinkle over the just-cooked rhubarb to cover completely. Sprinkle over the remaining tbsp sugar and cook in a pre-heated oven at 180-200°C (Gas 5/6) for 30 minutes. Serve warm with custard or a mixture of lightly whipped cream and yogurt. Bliss….

Rhubarb crumble

In the meantime, patience is required in spades – and I’m enjoying the camellias, hellebores and spring bulbs from the window. My garden will have to wait this year…

Tete a tete daffs

Germination Blues

Alliums

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

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

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

Basil

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

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

Poppy in the wheat field

Sowing crazy

Primrose pot

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

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

Mushroom compost in barrow

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

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

Broccoli quiche with asparagus and salad_cropped

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

Asparagus bed with tulips

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

Tulips Bruine Wimpel and Ronaldo April 2017_cropped

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

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

Broccoli and goats cheese tart

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

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

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

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

Tiramisu – serves 8-10

Tiramisu

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

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

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

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

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

globe artichoke
Globe artichokes have survived the winter at last!

 

 

 

 

Spring has sprung!

What a glorious spell of early spring weather we’re having – it probably won’t last, but I for one am making the most of it while it does. I even went down to the tennis courts for my first game of the season this afternoon – unheard of before Easter usually! The warm sunshine is bringing on the bulbs and the spring blossom fast and furious: I did opt for early-flowering tulips this year, but still, to see them in full bloom in early April is quite something. These are Vanilla Cream and Design Impression, both from Sarah Raven – if I’d known they would flower at exactly the same time, I might have risked mixing them together in their planters, but I’ve done that before, even with collections intended to flower together, and had them blooming out of sync. As it is, they provide a fabulous shot of colour either side of the arch at the entrance to the garden – gorgeous!

Tulip Design Impression

Tulip Vanilla Cream

Last weekend, after my vegan guests had gone on their way, I managed to fit in a couple of hours down at the allotment. Eminently satisfying. The purple-sprouting broccoli, and even last year’s calabrese are still going strong, as is the spinach and parsley. I dug up the rest of the parsnips so I could plant my seed potatoes in their designated rotation: like last year, I’ve just gone for two varieties, ten of each: Jazzy, a highly recommended new T&M variety for white, waxy early potatoes, and Anya, a nutty salad potato related to Pink Fir Apple that I’ve grown before and does well on my soil.

This month’s Garden magazine included an interesting article maintaining that the notion of “terroir” applies to humble vegetables just as much to grapes and I quite agree: the potatoes I grew in Scotland or in my native Cheshire seemed to have much more taste than the ones I grow down here in my Sussex clay, but some certainly do better than others. If you can find the ones that do grow well in your soil, it pays to stick with them. Unfortunately, the first early I really liked when grown down here, Ulster Sceptre, has proved rather elusive ever since, so I’m still searching – maybe Jazzy will be the one?

The sweet peas I sowed on the conservatory windowsill are germinating slowly and look to be as erratic as the others I’ve tried inside in previous years. I used to be able to start sweet peas off indoors with no problems, so I really don’t understand what’s changed in recent years. I’ll plant more straight outside in the next week or so and no doubt they’ll romp away – but hopefully not be quite as late as last year!

I added parsley and basil seeds to the propagator this week and I finally got round to distributing the contents of the compost around the garden at home – always a nice feeling.

Just two recipes today, both to use up leftovers from the previous weekend. The first was the soup I made to use up the chick peas after last week’s chick pea liquid meringues. I first had this, or an approximation of this, at the Eden Project in Cornwall over 12 years ago, and have been on the hunt for a similar recipe ever since. This, adapted from an ancient Sainsbury’s vegetarian cookbook by Sarah Brown, comes pretty close.

Spiced Chick Pea & Tomato Soup – serves 5-6

Chick pea & tomato soup_cropped

2 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 sticks celery, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 red or green chilli, finely chopped
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp garam masala
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp fresh root ginger, grated
1 tbsp tomato purée
1 tin tomatoes, chopped
1 tin chick peas, drained
1 litre vegetable stock
1 tbsp ground almonds
Seasoning
Fresh parsley, chopped

Heat the oil in a large soup pan and gently fry the onion, garlic and celery until soft – about 10 minutes. Add the chopped chilli and cook for another minute or so, then stir in all the spices and the ground almonds. Then add the tomatoes, chick peas and stock – you might want to just add 3/4 of the stock to start with and add more later depending on the consistency. Bring to the boil and cook for 45 minutes. Season to taste and sprinkle with chopped fresh parsley.

Mine was actually quite hot, because my stock of dried chillis from last autumn had gone mouldy and I used a bought chilli – always an unknown quantity! I like it hot, but you can always use less to start with if you’re not sure.

My final recipe was to use up the excess milk I had in the fridge after my vegan visitors. They had almond milk with their breakfast, but dairy-free cooking on my part meant the milk stocks didn’t go down as much as usual! What better, or easier dessert to make in a busy week than a crème caramel au café – simplicity itself to make and delicious to eat.

Crème Caramel au Café – serves 5

Creme caramel au café

100g granulated sugar
150ml water
450ml milk
3 eggs
25g vanilla sugar (or caster sugar if that’s what you have)
1 tbsp espresso coffee powder (or 25g coffee beans if you prefer)
2 tbsp dark rum

Make a caramel using the granulated sugar and water, cooking gently until the sugar has dissolved, then turning the heat up (and NOT stirring at all) until a deep golden brown colour. Remove from the heat and pour quickly into 5 greased ramekin dishes, which should be standing in a roasting tin.

Warm the milk and add 1 tbsp instant espresso powder. Stir until dissolved (you can also warm the milk with 25g roast coffee beans and leave to stand for 1 hour if you prefer, then strain). Whisk the  eggs with the vanilla sugar and 2 tbsp dark rum, then slowly whisk in the hot milk. Strain into a jug and pour gently over the caramel in the ramekin dishes. Pour hot water into the roasting tin until it comes 2.5 cm up the sides of the ramekins, cover the lot with foil and bake at 150°C (fan), gas 3 until just set. Leave to cool and chill well before turning out. Et voilà!

Spring in front window bed

Spring is in the air…

Aquilegia and hellebore foliage

I can’t believe it’s over a month since I last wrote – so much for my good intentions! What with pressures of work, a skiing holiday, decorators in painting the kitchen /utility room after having a new oak floor fitted at the end of last year, a wedding food tasting and lots of family visits, blog-writing has definitely taken a back seat of late. This weekend was Mother’s Day, with one son and his fiancée home, then a trip over to my parents’ to see all the family on Sunday – and beautiful spring weather for once too!

The recent springlike weather has tempted me out into the garden to mow my lawn (just the once!), cut back my buddleias and the giant lavatera, prune the roses, dead-head last year’s hydrangea flowers and chop back any remaining perennials that I’d left through the winter to provide shelter and food for birds and insects. There was still a cold wind when I ventured out on Saturday afternoon, but I was determined to pot up my new dahlia tubers from Sarah Raven and the overwintered monster begonias. I also sowed the first batch of seeds, always an exciting moment: sweet peas in pots on the conservatory windowsill (I’ve reverted to trying some inside this year after such a late crop last year, but I will plant more straight into the ground later too, when the soil warms up). Tomatoes (my favourite Sungold and the old-fashioned Ailsa Craig), chillis (Summer Heat and Padron), Romano sweet peppers, aubergine Bonica, lobelia Crystal Palace, and the three leek varieties Bandit, Pandora and Nipper for a succession of leeks all through the autumn/winter – all now tucked up in the propagator. Let the season commence!

Back side bed

I’ve still to distribute last year’s compost around the garden, but there’s always next weekend… In the meantime, let me finish with a springtime lemon & ricotta cake I adapted from a River Café recipe. I had some ricotta in the fridge and fancied a light, lemony and gluten-free cake. This was the result – exactly what I was looking for. The original quantities make a huge cake – I didn’t have a tin big enough and there were only five of us for dinner, so I cut the quantities back by a third – perfect. I found the original recipe here if you’re catering for a crowd!

River Café Lemon, Ricotta, Almond & Polenta Cake – serves 10

Lemon ricotta cake

150g butter, softened
170g ground almonds (you could also use almond flour)
65g fine polenta (whizz in the food processor if you can’t buy fine)
finely grated zest of 4 lemons
170g caster sugar
4 large eggs, separated
200g ricotta
juice of 2 lemons
icing sugar, for dusting

Pre-heat the oven to 150°C.  Grease a 24cm round springform cake tin and line the base with greaseproof paper.

Combine the almonds and polenta (whizzed in the food processor for extra fineness if necessary) and add the lemon zest. Beat the butter and sugar together using an electric mixer until pale and light.  Add the egg yolks one by one, then add the almond mixture and fold together. Put the ricotta into a bowl and beat lightly with a fork, then add the lemon juice. Stir the ricotta into the cake mixture. Whisk the egg whites in a clean bowl until they form soft peaks.  Finally fold the egg whites into the almond mixture.

Transfer the mixture into the prepared tin and bake in the oven for 40 – 50 minutes, until set.  Test by inserting a skewer, which should come out clean.  Leave in the tin to cool for at least 10 minutes before turning out. Dust liberally with sifted icing sugar before serving, and garnish with fine strips of lemon rind if desired.

I served it with a jostaberry purée from the freezer, but any red fruit coulis would be good – and it was delicious on its own too. Enjoy!

Standen March 2017
Beautiful Standen near East Grinstead – perfect Mother’s Day outing