Tag Archives: Strawberries

Salad Days

Allotment harvest mid-June

We’ve been experiencing an unexpected heatwave here in the South of England for the past week or so, with temperatures over 30°C at their peak. Nothing unusual for many parts of Europe, to be sure, but pretty exceptional in the UK! My house has a north-south axis which works very well in these conditions, especially as my office and bedroom are on the cooler north side of the house, so working and sleeping aren’t too much of an issue.

Watering becomes of paramount importance to a gardener, though. I’m resisting watering twice a day, but trying to water pots and containers at home in the morning, and the raised beds at the allotment in the evening – to spread the load. It’s actually a very enjoyable process, as you can commune with Nature as you water and see what’s newly flowering/germinating/doing well. I’ve managed with water from my water butts so far, but two out of the three at home have now run dry and the allotment butt has been empty for a while – although fortunately water at the allotment comes from a trough and standpipe at the corner of my plot – very convenient! Our yearly subscription covers water costs too, so while it’s not metered to us (although hosepipes aren’t allowed), any huge uptake in usage could theoretically lead to a rise in subs for us all next year, as it is metered to the allotment association.

Allotment poppy June 2017

I love summer evenings up at the allotments: there are always a few people pottering around their plots, it’s incredibly peaceful (apart from my noisy dogs if people dare to walk past “their” plot – sorry, folks) and the sunsets are spectacular. A lesson in mindfulness at the end of a busy day…. This week I’ve managed to mow the grass (trying to keep on top of it so it doesn’t reach jungle proportions again!), get rid of some perennial weeds (docks, blackberries, the dreaded convolvulus) that were encroaching on the paths, do some weeding around newly planted beds and keep up with the harvesting: strawberries, raspberries and redcurrants have suddenly started to ripen at a tremendous pace, and the broad beans and lettuce are still going strong. Such a lovely time of year.

I’ve even made some comfrey tea for use as a fertiliser in three weeks’ time when it has steeped sufficiently. Having lost my comfrey patch a few years back, a healthy-loooking clump has sprung up near the communal bonfire site, so I swapped a wheelbarrow full of weeds for a barrow overflowing with comfrey leaves, stuffed them in an old chicken pellet container (with a lid to contain the stench!), covered with water and will leave to brew. It smells vile but the plants love it – and it’s free!

The strawberries have been epic this year – I’ve had enough for breakfast every day and to make strawberry ice cream, strawberry cheesecake, pavlova and Strawberry Coulis for the freezer (just blitzed in a blender with the juice of an orange and 1 tbsp of icing sugar). Yesterday there were even enough for the quintessential summer jam: strawberry & redcurrant to be precise, as the currants add pectin and make for a better set.

Strawberry & Redcurrant Jam – makes 5 standard jars

Strawberry and redcurrent jam

1.2kg strawberries
300g redcurrants (or gooseberries would work too), removed from stalks
1.5kg granulated sugar
Juice of 1 lemon

Hull the strawberries, chopping up any particularly large fruit and put in a preserving pan with the strigged redcurrants. Add the lemon juice and simmer over a low heat for 20-30 minutes or until very soft.

Strawberry jam making

Weigh out the sugar and add, stirring until it dissolves, then turn up the heat to a rollicking boil, stirring as you go. Add a small knob of butter to reduce any froth! Test after 5-10 minutes to see if it has set – I find the best test is to hold your wooden spoon over the pan and when the drips run together to form a bigger drop that breaks off sharply, the jam will be done. Otherwise, have a saucer in the freezer and place a little of the jam on the saucer, cool slightly, then push with your finger: the surface should wrinkle. You will need to take the jam off the heat while you do this test to stop the jam overcooking. Strawberry jam is notoriously fiddly to set, so test little and often. Mine was ready after just 5-6 minutes in yesterday’s heat.

When set, pour the jam into prepared jars (washed and sterilised in the oven on a low heat), cover with waxed circles and lids, then label when cool. Set aside for the perfect accompaniment for traditional Victoria sponges and scones with jam & clotted cream over the coming summer months…

When the weather is this hot, though, salads are the way to go. Quite apart from the fact that I’ve been getting back from the allotment so late that cooking isn’t an option, it’s really too hot to contemplate cooking. I love experimenting with whatever I have in the fridge or bring back from the plot, resulting in some delicious combinations. Lunch today was a refreshing Melon, Strawberry & Feta Salad served on a bed of mizuna with dill and mint to garnish – sublime! With Galia melon (not my own!), two kinds of strawberries (the large allotment variety and tiny alpine strawberries that run with gay abandon in one border at home), drizzled with a splash of extra virgin olive oil and a hint of balsamic vinegar, this really hit the spot for a cooling, yet tasty lunch. The salty chalkiness of the feta and the slight bitterness of the mizuna were a perfect foil for the sweet and juicy fruit.

Strawberry and melon salad

Other salad combinations have included Baby Broad Beans & Griddled Halloumi with toasted pine kernels and rocket, with a chilli, mint and lemon dressing, and my perennial favourite, Bauernsalat (farmer’s salad), inspired by one of our best-loved holiday hotels, the Tennis Hotel in St. Wolfgang, Austria, which simply consists of crispy fried bacon and potatoes scattered on a bed of fresh salad, with a herby yogurt dressing to accompany. So good – worth cooking extra new potatoes especially to make this! Anything goes – experimenting is half the fun. If something doesn’t work particularly well, just leave it out next time – but with fresh and homegrown produce, chances are it will all taste sublime.

Allotment sunset

Queen of the Crops

Soft fruit has to be one of the most rewarding crops a home gardener can grow; it does its own thing for most of the year and then suddenly, come June/July, you have more fruit than you know what to do with – not really a hardship, I’m sure you’ll agree! Given the price of fruit in the supermarket, where tiny punnets of raspberries cost a small fortune and often go off disappointingly quickly, this is somewhere you can save pounds. It’s also very hard to even find the currant family, or even gooseberries, in the shops these days, unless you have acess to a farmer’s market or pick-your-own farm.

Admittedly, it’s a good idea to net most of the soft fruit family; redcurrants are particularly prone to bird attack (even when netted!) and I’ve known gooseberries and blackcurrants disappear too, though whether due to birds or passing humans, I’ve never been quite sure… My raspberries seem to thrive without netting and I have a bonus crop this year from raspberry runners that have decided to take up residence underneath my Bramley apple tree – permaculture in essence!

The strawberries are usually first to arrive and have given me a good month of generous pickings: from strawberries on my breakfast muesli (such decadence!), to Strawberry Cheesecake, strawberry meringue and strawberry ice cream. Another old favourite, simplicity itself to make, is a Summer Fruit Crème Brûlée, a recipe I picked up on a Sainsbury’s recipe card many moons ago. The ice cream, another dead-easy recipe, is adapted from Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook and puts shop-bought impostors well and truly in their place – you’ll never want to taste bought ice cream again!

Strawberry Ice Cream

Strawberry ice cream

500g fresh strawberries, washed and hulled if necessary
Juice of one orange
Juice of one lemon
300ml double cream
150g caster (or vanilla) sugar

Blitz the strawberries, orange and lemon juice in a blender. Add the cream and sugar until well mixed. Churn in an ice cream maker, or make the old-fashioned way by freezing for an hour or so, then whisking in the ice crystals and repeating until softly frozen.
Serve as is or with more fresh strawberries – divine!

Strawberry ice cream serving

Summer Fruit Crème Brûlée – serves 4-6

Creme brulee portion

250g fresh strawberries, washed and hulled
1 nectarine or peach
125g grapes
14-16 Amaretti biscuits
2 x 200ml tubs crème fraiche (I like the half-fat organic one from Yeo Valley, but full-fat is good too)
150g soft brown sugar

Arrange the strawberries, nectarine and grapes in a round 20cm soufflé dish. You can add a tablespoon of Amaretto at this stage if you wish, but I find the fruit makes its own juice as it chills. Place the Amaretti biscuits on top, evenly spaced. Spoon on the crème fraiche to completely seal the fruit and chill in the fridge for a good couple of hours.
Sprinkle over the sugar, completely covering the cream, then grill for 1-2 minutes (or use a blow torch if you have one!) until the sugar caramelises.
Allow to cool slightly, then serve to general acclaim.
You can of course, use any soft fruit of your choice in this recipe – raspberries are good too, or just strawberries.

My final recipe is an adaptation of my standard strawberry cheesecake instructions to accommodate the current raspberry glut. I ended up picking over a 1kg raspberries in torrential rain yesterday, so a cheesecake and delectable accompanying coulis seemed the way to go.

Raspberry Cheesecake – serves 8-10

Raspberry cheesecake

75g butter
250g Speculoos biscuits (I used Lotus)
150ml double cream
200g full-fat cream cheese
200g crème fraiche
Juice and zest of 1 lime
75g caster sugar
Few drops vanilla essence
Fruit to top: 500g raspberries

I make this in a shallow 30cm x 20cm rectangular tart tin with a loose bottom, but you can use an equivalent round tart tin if you prefer. Grease the tin with butter.

Melt the butter in a small pan and add the crushed biscuits (the old-fashioned way using a plastic bag and a rolling pin, or food-processor if you prefer). Mix and turn into the base of the tin. Spread out and refrigerate while you make the filling.

Whip the cream lightly with the sugar, then add the lime zest and juice, cream cheese, crème fraiche and vanilla essence, continuing to whip until the mixture makes soft swirls. Turn into the base and refrigerate for at least 6 hours, preferably overnight for the best set.

Top with fresh raspberries and serve with raspberry coulis if liked.

Raspberry Coulis

250g raspberries
Juice of 1 orange
1 tbsp icing sugar, sifted

Blitz the raspberries (I used the squishy ones from the bottom of my punnet after picking in pouring rain!) in a blender with the sifted icing sugar and add the sieved orange juice. Strain through a sieve to remove the seeds and serve with the cheesecake or with ice cream. You can add more orange juice if too thick, of course.

Berry Bonanza

allotment haul July 2015Summer in the allotment is a fabulous time for soft fruit and this year is no exception. From the end of June through to the end of July, there’s a constant stream of delicious berries to harvest, starting with strawberries, closely followed by currants, white, red and black, and on to raspberries. This week I’m also looking after my neighbour’s allotment whilst she’s on holiday and she has jostaberries too: a German hybrid of blackcurrants and gooseberries (hence the name: Jo-hannisbeeren (blackcurrants) and Sta-chelbeeren (gooseberries)). This makes a huge bush – my neighbour’s must be at least 8-10 feet across and this year, secure in its fruit cage, is absolutely dripping with fruit. I’m under instructions to help myself, and so have jam in my sights, but for now have just picked enough for a delicious compote to top a cheesecake – tangy and delightful, tasting of both its parents, but unique too – definitely one to try again! I usually make this recipe with fresh strawberries (as shown in the photo) or raspberries, but it was equally good with jostaberries and would work beautifully with blackcurrants too.

Strawberry (or Jostaberry) Cheesecake – serves 6-8

Strawberry cheesecake 75g butter

250g HobNob or digestive biscuits

150ml double cream

200g full-fat cream cheese

200g crème fraiche

Juice and zest of 1 lime

75g caster sugar

Few drops vanilla essence

Fruit to top: 500g strawberries (sliced) or raspberries

or 500g jostaberries or blackcurrants

50-75g sugar (to taste)

1 tsp arrowroot

I make this in a shallow 30cm x 20cm rectangular tart tin with a loose bottom, but you can use an equivalent round tart tin if you prefer. Grease the tin with butter.

Melt the butter in a small pan and add the crushed biscuits (the old-fashioned way using a plastic bag and a rolling pin, or food-processor if you prefer, but don’t overprocess: a chunky mix is good). Mix and turn into the base of the tin. Spread out and refrigerate while you make the filling.

Whip the cream lightly with the sugar, then add the lime zest and juice, cream cheese, crème fraiche and vanilla essence, continuing to whip until the mixture makes soft swirls. Turn into the base and refrigerate for at least 6 hours, preferably overnight for the best set.

Top with fresh berries if using, garnishing with borage flowers if you have any.

If serving with compote, cook the jostaberries or blackcurrants gently with the sugar until just cooked. Don’t be tempted to add water as the fruit will produce plenty of juice as the berries burst. Pour some of the juice into a small bowl and mix in the teaspoon of arrowroot, then stir the resulting mixture into the cooked berries over a gentle heat, until the mixture thickens slightly. Do not allow to boil, otherwise the mixture will turn runny again! Cool overnight and use to top the cheesecake just before serving.

My summer raspberries are just about coming to an end, and my autumn raspberries (along with many others on the allotment) have succumbed to a mystery virus this year, so I won’t be enjoying my autumn breakfasts of muesli, yogurt and fresh raspberries this year, sadly. It’s been a great season, though, and I’ve used raspberries in so many ways, including the following delicious summer pudding, great for a dinner party. This recipe originally came from the Beechgrove Garden TV show when we lived in Scotland, but I’ve adapted it slightly and it has been part of my summer repertoire ever since:

Meringue Roulade – serves 8

Meringue Roulade4 egg whites

225g caster sugar

25g flaked almonds

1 dsp cornflour

1 tsp lemon juice

150ml double cream

150ml natural yogurt

Fresh raspberries or strawberries (at least 250g)

Line a Swiss roll tin with baking parchment. Set oven to 160°C (fan) / Gas 4.

Whisk egg whites until firm and gradually whisk in the sugar until glossy and stiff peaks have formed.

Fold in the cornflour and lemon juice using a metal spoon, then transfer to the prepared tin using a spatula and gently level the surface. Sprinkle with the flaked almonds, then bake for about 20 minutes until just starting to turn golden. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.

Cut a piece of greaseproof paper a little bigger than the roulade, place on a large chopping board and gently place over the roulade. Invert the whole board gently so that the roulade is upside down on the paper. Carefully peel off the baking parchment.

Whip the cream until the soft swirl stage, then whisk in the yogurt. Gently spread over the meringue and top with the fruit of your choice. The more fruit you add, the more challenging it will be to roll, but the more delicious it will taste! You can always add more fruit on the side if you’re not sure…

Finally roll up firmly, using the paper as a guide. Think positive! Transfer onto a serving platter and serve to much acclaim!

The original recipe suggests serving this with raspberry sauce, but I don’t think this is necessary if you add enough fruit to cover in the first place….

The starting point for my final berry recipe was a recent Waitrose recipe leaflet that coincided with a glut of raspberries in the kitchen. I misread the recipe when I first tried it (more haste, less speed!) and forgot to separate the eggs. I also used gluten-free self-raising flour (Dove’s Farm) and halved the mixture – they were delicious! This morning I experimented again for my weekend house guests, separating the eggs, and using the full quantity and standard self-raising flour: they were even better! I also changed the proportions of yogurt and ricotta as I only had half a pot of ricotta left after the first time. Just goes to show that you can sometimes deviate from the recipe with great success….

Raspberry and Redcurrant Ricotta Pancakes – serves 4 hungry people!

125g self-raising flour (gluten-free works fine)

50g caster sugar

100ml natural yogurt

250g ricotta

1 tbsp milk

3 large eggs, separated

Zest of 1 lemon (or lime)

½ tsp vanilla extract

100g raspberries or redcurrants (or a mix of both)

Sieve the flour into a large mixing bowl and stir in the sugar. In a separate bowl, beat together the egg yolks, yogurt, ricotta, milk, lemon or lime zest and vanilla extract until well mixed. Whisk the egg whites until stiff. Gradually beat the wet yolk mixture into the flour, then fold in the egg whites, followed by the fruit.

Heat a knob of butter and a splash of oil in a large frying pan, pour off excess and place small ladlefuls of the mixture into the pan, in batches. I cooked four at a time in my large pan. Fry on a medium heat for a couple of minutes each side, turning with a spatula or fish slice when golden brown on each side. Keep warm (or serve to impatient breakfasters!) while you continue with the rest. Serve on their own, or with butter or maple syrup. Any leftover (ha!) are delicious toasted the following day….

Juice is the best medicine…

Autumn walk, into the sun

It’s that time of year when everyone starts to get colds and sniffles, it’s wet outside more than it’s dry, daylight hours are limited and the gardens have started to take on their drab late autumn/winter coats as the last of the brilliant leaf colour fades. I’ve had a persistent tickly cough since returning from Crete with a heavy cold in mid-October, although my fruit and vegetable-intensive diet normally means I miss the worst of the bugs. I blame the Italian tourist sniffing and sneezing next to me on the bus down to the South coast of Crete….

When you are feeling under the weather, there are certain foods you seem to crave. I love hot blackcurrant with a squeeze of fresh lemon to soothe my throat and if you have a juicer, fresh juice goes down a treat: you can feel it doing you good and fighting all the germs as it slips down! Another dark red superfood is beetroot, which always grows brilliantly, whatever the vagaries of the season, on my allotment. I have it roasted, often with a dash of balsamic vinegar, throughout the summer, served as a side dish with salads or most meat dishes. At this time of year, when I only have a few little roots left in the ground, I throw a couple in the juicer with some home-grown dessert apples, the juice of one orange and a thumb-sized piece of root ginger – divine! The beetroot imparts a pleasant, slightly earthy tone and jewel-like colour, but otherwise it’s a delicious pick-you-up. And herbalist friends of mine rate beetroot extremely highly in terms of its infection-fighting, immune-system-building properties… It is so good for you! Juicers aren’t cheap, but if you grow a lot of your own produce, they are an amazing way of making vitamin-rich, goodness-packed juices for next-to-nothing. Yes, there are lots of pieces to wash up, but I would never make just one glass at a time, so it’s worth the little extra washing-up effort. I like to strain the resulting juice through a sieve lined with a muslin cloth too, for a completely clear juice – but that’s just my personal preference. If you don’t mind the juice cloudy, just serve it straight from the juicer.

Beetroot, apple, orange and ginger juice

I also have a simple electric citrus press that I bought for less than £10 in the January sales one year, and it’s great for juicing oranges for breakfast. You can put whole oranges through the juicer, but if you leave the skin and pith on (other than on the odd slice of lemon or lime), it can leave a bitter aftertaste and make the juice excessively (and unpleasantly) frothy. Easier by far to juice citrus fruit separately and add to other juice as you require. I do it by hand for the odd one or two, of course, but an electric press is handy for a houseful…

My last piece of juicing equipment is a blender: this comes into its own in the summer when I have a glut of strawberries. The taste of liquidised strawberries with just a hint of sifted icing sugar and maybe the juice of an orange, served over ice, is sublime – and the ultimate luxury for those of us who grow our own! Pineapples, too, are delicious liquidised with orange juice and ice in the winter, when they’re at their cheapest in the shops. Funnily enough, if you put them through the juicer, you lose the texture and with it the taste, but unsieved, just whizzed in the blender, they make a fantastic smoothie with a real zing of the Tropics.

The shops are full of the latest wonder juices combining weird and wonderful ingredients like kale and chard. The beauty of growing your own is that you can experiment and see what you like. I find apples always make a good base (and I always have plenty), as does the odd spritz of lemon juice or cucumber, but thereafter just add whatever you crave, or is lying around in the fridge. It’s a great way of using up fruit and vegetables you don’t know what else to do with too – and if you don’t particularly like the results, well, you can always add other ingredients until you do – or at a pinch, feed the compost heap (which is where it would have gone anyway!).

Enjoy! Juice is definitely one of nature’s best medicines…

Autumn walk