Tag Archives: spring tasks

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

Advertisements

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

A mixed bag for February

A mixed bag of a weekend, and one in which I’ve been up to London to a delicious wedding food tasting, bought part of my wedding outfit (hurrah!), had a frustrating time on the ‘phone to Apple to try to resolve my quick-draining phone battery, squeezed in some shopping (20% off at the local garden centre!) and household chores, and finally managed to catch up in the garden before next week’s forecast big freeze.

Seed potatoes

Part of my garden shopping haul included some seed potatoes for chitting: I’ve been looking for a few weeks, but most of the local garden centres only seemed to have the same old varieties, and as I now only grow one bed with 10 plants of 2 varieties, I do like to trial different ones each year. These were Colleen, a first early, and Bonnie. a second early, both with good disease/pest resistance and sounding promising. I’ve also discovered one of the nicest potato varieties I’ve ever grown down here in the South-East at an online nursery in Doncaster, so intend to order those too to see if they are as good as I remember. The variety is Ulster Sceptre and I haven’t been able to find them since trialling them from T&M some years ago. It transpires that these used to be widely grown in Cheshire, which probably explains why I liked them so much – they reminded me of the potatoes of my childhood. My mum always said you couldn’t beat new Cheshire potatoes (sorry, Jersey!), although I suspect the good loamy soil has a lot to do with it too. Not entirely sure where I’ll put them, but they come in 5s, so too good to miss….

It’s been a particularly beautiful, cold but sunny weekend, so all the more galling that I wasn’t able to do quite as much gardening today as I’d anticipated. Still, it would have been even more annoying if I’d tried to sort my ‘phone out on a work day, I suppose. No matter, I eventually (by dint of eking out the very last hours of daylight until the sun finally disappeared beyond the horizon and the final rose-orange rays of the stunning sunset faded away), did what I’d set out to achieve: cutting down the autumn raspberries at the allotment, and pruning the late-flowering clematis to a foot above the ground, plus finishing cutting back the perennial grasses and Michaelmas daisies at home. All of which took a surprisingly long time, probably because I allowed myself to become rather side-tracked pruning roses (intermingled with the clematis) and pyracantha (likewise).

Wonky arch

Mission accomplished in the end, though – and another task set up for next weekend: I’ve been aware for a while that my rose arch near the front gate has been leaning at an increasingly drunken angle. Closer inspection as I clipped the roses yesterday showed that the wood has simply rotted in the ground and the whole thing will have to come down. It’s been in situ some 10 or 11 years, so I suppose I can’t complain – and if it’s going to go, far better to happen now, rather than later in the season when everything is in full bloom. New metal arch duly ordered, but the task of unravelling the existing climbing roses and removing the old arch will have to wait until another time – here’s hoping this week’s predicted snow doesn’t do the job for me!

After a busy and successful day in London on Saturday, and lots of delicious food to sample at lunchtime, I only fancied a light meal when I got back home. I hadn’t anything planned, but a small Harlequin squash in the storage basket in the conservatory was just asking to be used. Cue one of my favourite simple suppers: an oven-baked frittata with squash, leeks, feta and sultanas, served with cherry tomatoes quickly roasted in the oven with rosemary, garlic and thyme at the same time. So tasty.

Squash, Leek & Feta Frittata – serves 2

Squash and leek frittata_cropped

1 small round or butternut squash, peeled and deseeded
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 leek, washed and sliced
olive oil
knob of butter
salt and black pepper
few sprigs fresh thyme
1 tbsp sultanas
1 tbsp pine nuts, toasted
50g feta cheese, crumbled
4 eggs, beaten

Pre-heat the oven to 180°C/Gas 5. Chop the squash into chunks and place in a small baking dish. Sprinkle over the thyme leaves and chopped garlic, then season with salt and black pepper. Roast in the hot oven until golden – about 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, sauté the sliced leeks gently in the butter until softened. Stir in the sultanas and toasted pine nuts. Beat the eggs in a separate bowl and season. Stir in the leek mixture and crumbled feta. When the squash is cooked, drain off any excess oil, and combine the squash with the egg mixture. Return to the roasting dish, distribute everything evenly and return to the oven for 10-12 minutes or until set and golden-brown. Cut into squares or triangles to serve warm with a green salad or with roast tomatoes. Also excellent cold (or reheated) the next day for lunch.

I’d made a similar dish, although probably more akin to a Spanish tortilla, last weekend, this time with potatoes, caramelised onions, thyme and cheddar. Served just warm, at a barn dance at the local school where we’d all been invited to bring a dish, it went down a treat. And proves that simple vegetarian food often hits the spot too.

Potato, Onion, Mushroom and Thyme Tortilla – serves 4-6

3-4 potatoes, peeled and roughly chopped
2-3 large onions, peeled and sliced
150g mushrooms, sliced
pinch of sugar
large knob of butter
seasoning
few sprigs of thyme
6 eggs (or to taste!)
100g mature Cheddar cheese, grated

Sauté the sliced onions gently in a frying pan until very soft and tender – about 10-30 minutes. The longer you cook them, the more caramelised they become. Add the mushrooms for the last 10 minutes and a pinch of sugar towards the end.

Meanwhile, place the potatoes in boiling salted water and cook for 10-15 minutes, or until just tender. Drain and leave to cool slightly.

Pre-heat the oven to 200180°C/Gas 5. Whisk the eggs in a separate large bowl, season and stir in the grated cheese, thyme leaves, caramelised onions and mushrooms, and the cooked potatoes. Mix well to combine and pour the mixture into a greased 24cm round ovenproof dish (or you can use a rectangular dish if you prefer). Add more beaten eggs at this stage if you’re using a bigger dish or it doesn’t look enough! Make sure that everything is distributed evenly, then cook in the oven for 15-20 minutes.

Best eaten lukewarm, but you can eat it immediately or leave until cold. The Spanish often take their tortilla on picnics, cold, where the flavours really shine through. I hasten to add that this is by no means a traditional Spanish recipe, merely my take on a combination I adore 🙂

Poppy at Tapsells in frost

 

 

When life gives you shreddings, top up your paths!

Where has the time gone since I last wrote a post?! Lots of work, wedding preparations and family birthdays, I suspect… Fortunately, there’s still nothing much doing on the gardening front, but this weekend’s lovely sunny weather – for a change! – suggests that spring might be round the corner.

At this time of year, with mud everywhere and dank, wet days still far outnumbering the fine ones, you have to take your opportunities where you can. I was sitting at the computer in my study a couple of weeks ago, beavering away on my latest translation, when I realised that a couple of vans, one towing one of those heavy-duty shredders had pulled up outside. I watched them disgorge men and chainsaws, who duly went into my neighbours’ back garden, clearly intent on taking down the only large tree, a nondescript specimen that had grown far too close to the boundary and had been casting increasingly large shadows over both our gardens in recent summers. Thrilled at the thought of it being removed, it then occurred to me that this might be a great opportunity to top up the paths at my allotment. Well, if you don’t ask, you don’t get! Out I trotted and asked if they wanted the wood chippings themselves or whether I could have them. Bingo! Tree surgeons are often delighted if you ask them for shreddings, as they have to pay to dispose of them at the dump, and my neighbour certainly didn’t want them. He was removing the tree to make room for a shed cum playroom for his daughters, and tree residues were not foremost in his mind. A few hours later, I had a rather large pile of shredded bark and branches in my spare car parking space, and just the small matter of how to transport it down to the allotment…

Shredding pile

Roll on a few weeks and I’d managed to borrow a large skip bag from a friend, my son and his fiancée were home at the weekend, the sun was shining, and between the three of us and five round trips to the allotment, we managed to transfer the pile of shreddings down to the plot and spread it over the paths between the raised beds and in the utility area between the shed and my compost bins. It must be four or five years since I last replenished the bark and inevitably, as organic matter, it rots down over time and weeds start to germinate and grow. I do try to garden organically as a rule, but figured that pernicious couch grass and buttercups in the paths (on top of weedproof membrane!) were fair game for weedkiller, so sprayed a very targeted jet of weedkiller (which allegedly biodegrades quickly once it’s been absorbed by the weedy green matter) on the paths first, then covered with a very generous layer of my woody haul. So much better – and an excellent workout for us all too. No need to go for a run or the gym when you have an allotment! To say nothing of the savings over buying vast amounts of bark; even those big bales went nowhere last time I did it!

Lauren and Alastair with the barrow

Of course, after all that hard work, it was only fair that we had a reward when we collapsed in front of the fire on arriving home. Lemon & coconut bars were this week’s home-baking treat, and very good they were too. I had extra lemon cheese left over from making a trial run of two tiers of my son’s wedding cake last weekend (of which more soon!), and really didn’t want it to go to waste. A brief hunt online brought up this recipe for lemon curd squares, which sounded promising, and so it proved. Duly adapted, here it is:

Lemon & Coconut Bars – makes 8 large bars or 16 small squares

125g butter
125g plain flour
1 heaped tbsp semolina (or polenta)
100g caster sugar
Grated rind of 1/2 lemon
1/2 jar lemon cheese – use homemade if you can, so much nicer!
25g desiccated coconut
25g flaked almonds
15g coconut flakes (or use more almonds if you can’t find the coconut flakes)

Preheat the oven to 180°C/Gas 5. Whizz the butter, flour, semolina, sugar and lemon rind in a food processor until they resemble coarse breadcrumbs. Press 2/3 of the mixture into a 7″ (18cm) shallow, square cake tin with your fingertips, then bake in the oven for 10-15 minutes or until pale golden brown. Leave to cool for 10 minutes, then spread the lemon cheese on top to cover with a nice thick layer. Add the desiccated coconut, almonds and coconut flakes, if using, to the remaining crumbs, mix lightly and sprinkle over the lemon cheese, pressing down lightly. Lower the oven temperature to 160°C/Gas 4 and bake for 25-30 minutes or until golden brown.

Leave to cool into the tin, but cut into 8 large rectangles or 16 small squares before completely cold. Enjoy with a cup of Earl Grey tea and a very smug grin.

Lemon bars

Just in case you want to try a different lemon curd recipe, or only have egg yolks, as happened to me after the Christmas baking marathon, I recently discovered this Mary Berry recipe, which is, if anything, even simpler than my standard recipe (see link above). This one is possibly slighter richer, but good to know in case you end up with a lot of egg yolks to use up after a pavlova or meringue-making session! Mary’s recipe makes a huge quantity of curd, so I’ve adapted it to make a more manageable amount, which should still leave you some left over after you’ve made the lemon bars. Like my original recipe, it doesn’t need to be cooked over a water bath, so really is easy to make. Even if you’ve been put off the idea of making curd before, do give it a go! Sieving it at the end makes it pretty foolproof.

Mary Berry’s Easy Lemon Curd

4 large egg yolks
160g granulated sugar
Juice and grated rind of 2 large lemons
70g butter, cubed

Mix the egg yolks, sugar, lemon juice and lemon zest together in a medium-sized pan. Cook over a low heat, stirring with a wooden spoon, making sure it doesn’t stick. Cook for 5-7 minutes, or until the mixture coats the back of a spoon. Remove from the heat and stir in the butter until it melts. Pass through a sieve into a large jug. Pour into a sterilised glass jar and seal with a lid when cool. Refrigerate until needed: this will keep for several weeks in the fridge.

Shreddings on paths

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

 

Chasing my tail

Broad beans and rapeseed

Here I am again, chasing my tail trying to get my garden ship-shape and ready for summer, despite the fact that we’re less than a week away from the longest day. Whatever happened to those, long, balmy evenings and sun-blessed days? It’s hardly June-like here, with torrential rain one day and dismal murk the next. My tomato plants, planted in their final positions outdoors a few weeks ago, have sulked since moving outside and it’s hard to believe they’ll be healthy, fruiting plants in a few short months… I delayed planting my French and runner beans at the start of the month due to the high winds and cold temperatures, but they’ve gone in now and will have to fend for themselves, along with the courgettes, squashes and sweetcorn.

Broad beans and basil

On the plus side, my broad beans are fantastic this year, now starting to reach harvesting size (typically just before I go on holiday!). I picked my first crop of tender baby beans this week to steam with asparagus and mint as an accompaniment to my friend’s delicious Shetland lamb chops. So good. I picked so many that I was able to give half away and still have enough to toss in the first pesto sauce of the season with pasta, caramelised onions and toasted pine nuts the following night.

Broad bean pasta

Strawberries too are coming thick and fast – little sign of slug damage yet, so perhaps those nematodes are getting to work at last. A shame that they aren’t having the same effect on my salad bed, where I’m still struggling to get lettuce past the germination stage before they’re munched off in their prime! In desperation, I’ve resorted to sowing some in a seed tray at home for planting out when they are a little more established….

I finally managed to finish planting up my new oak barrels at home this week – must be an all-time record for me to fill my summer containers so late in June! The old and disintegrating barrels in situ were well past their sell-by date – but as they made the move down from Scotland with us some 13 years ago and we’d had them in the Scottish garden for a good few years beforehand, I don’t suppose they owe me anything! It was quite a job emptying and refilling five full-sized half-barrels, so hardly surprising that it took me so long. Now filled with my giant tuberous begonias, fibrous begonias, lobelia and double petunias, I’m hoping for a spectacular display once they get going – slugs and snails permitting!

New barrel near gate

One final job I’ve been keen to do before the holiday season is upon us is to make my elderflower cordial. There’s an elder bush just down the road from where I live that’s absolutely laden with blossom this year – but I’d rather pick my elderflowers from a hedgerow away from road fumes if at all possible, so I’ve been holding on and dodging the showers, waiting for the perfect moment to harvest. Success at last one day this week, on a blustery dog walk down near my local reservoir: steeped overnight in their sugar and lemon solution, they are now bottled as the quintessential elderflower cordial, perfect for Hugo cocktails with Prosecco and lemon, as a refreshing long drink with sparkling water, or added to panna cotta or gooseberry compote for a certain je ne sais quoi… I wouldn’t be without it.

Elderflower Cordial – makes 2-3 (750ml) bottles

Elderflower cordial
20 or so heads of elderflower
2 pints boiling water
3lb granulated sugar
juice and grated zest of 2 lemons
1 tbsp citric acid

Pour the boiling water onto the sugar in a large preserving pan and stir over a medium heat until dissolved. Add the lemon juice, grated zest, citric acid and elderflowers (stripped of any chunky green stems, but left as heads). Cover with a tea towel and leave for 24 hours. Strain through a sieve lined with muslin into a large jug and pour through a funnel into sterilised bottles.
Keeps for several months in a dark place – refrigerate once opened.