Friday, 31 July 2009

Holiday Time!

Well tomorrow we're off on holiday, back home to Warrington to re-discover my urban roots. Not sure how much blogging I'll be able to do given that the urban activities I'll be indulging in won't sit comfortably with the philosophy of this blog .

I am looking forward to experiencing the hustle and bustle again but I'm equally glad that it's only for 2 weeks!

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Top Foraging Day.

We're loving the cherry plums so much we couldn't resist going out and picking another haul before our holiday on Saturday. Adam's off work so he came too and the four of us trundled off to a new hedgerow I'd spotted when out running the other day. The only problem was the plums were growing really high up as the hedge is regularly trimmed to a height of about 6' to maintain visibility for passing traffic. Luckily we had brought one of these (mine was much cheaper) known to us by it's technical name 'the grabby thing'. So Adam poked around with it, showered us with earwigs, and managed to successfully dislodge the plums in the upper reaches of the branches.

We hadn't been there long when the heavens opened, luckily we'd all brought waterproofs and the kids were in their wellies so they occupied themselves with puddle jumping while Adam and I toiled. We piqued the interest of a herd of cows in the next field who ambled over and lined up along the hedge to watch us in bemusement.

We got a satisfyingly bulgy bag of cherry plums and then spotted a yellow bullace a bit further along. In total I think we've got another 5 kilos of fruit. As much as I love foraging, it is a bit depressing as the resulting glut of fruit dwarfs the puny harvest from my veg garden. The handful of tumbling toms sitting in the fridge I was so proud of this morning is looking rather paltry now! Roll on allotment time.

Cherry Plum Chutney

I love making chutney. I find the rhythmic chopping theraputic, generally put Radio 4 on and have a sloe gin to keep going. The bubbling pot steams up the kitchen keeping it nice and cosy against the chilly Autumn weather outside .... oh, hang on, we are still in July aren't we?

Plum and Ginger Chutney from Xanthe Clay's book 'It's Raining Plums'

900g plums
2 medium onions
700g mixed sultana and raisins
600ml spiced malt vinegar (or normal malt vinegar but add an extra pinch of allspice)
500g brown sugar
15g ground ginger
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
45g salt.

Chuck everything into a big pan (de-stone the plums first), let it simmer for 40 mins til thick and jammy. Spoon into hot jars and seal with non reactive lids.

Xanthe Clay (didn't name my Xanthe after her, rather it's vice versa, I bought the book because of she had my daughter's name) describes it as not for everyone "with it's salty sweet sour flavour ... it brings to mind HP sauce." It does have a very strong, unusual flavour but I like it. Apparently it's good stirred into curry.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Courgette Frustration

Right, so you know the story, sorry, I mean saga of my courgettes this summer? I bought the seeds, planted them, cared for them diligently and they develop mosiac virus. So I ditch my precious seedlings and Rachel kindly steps into the breach with her transplaneted courgette. Said courgette seems to be doing fine, then waivers a little, and finally rallies.

So at the moment, all in the garden is well, the courgettes are growing nicely, in fact will be ready to harvest in the next few days. "Great!" you say "Fab! Bet you can't wait!" Indeed I can't. But there's one small spanner in the works. We're going on holiday for two weeks on Saturday. So will I get to eat my harvest after my Herculean efforts? No. They can't wait til we get back as they'd be huge fluffy marrows by then so instead they'll go to my lovely neighbour who is kindly watering the veg and feeding the chickens for us.

Please understand I don't begrudge her a few courgettes/eggs/tomatoes for her kindness but for the love of God, am I to have no courgettes this year???

Excuse me while I go and swear to myself in a corner.

Monday, 27 July 2009

I Spy Plum Pie!

The much vaunted Plum Pie finally came to life at tea time today. In the end it was a bit of a damp squib to be honest, but then no plum pie could live up to the expectations of a 2 year old waiting for her favourite story book to be brought to life.

After reading Each Peach Pear Plum to Xanthe last night she asked if we could have plum pie today (for those who don't know the book finishes with a host of nursery rhyme characters eating plum pie in the sun) but when I presented her with the finished article, she promptly burst into tears and refused to even try it!

I used a recipe I got from the net which, unfortunately, just didn't work. The recipe was essentially a pastry crust filled with fruit and baked custard. The quantities given wouldn't fit into the specified size of baking tin which meant the proportions of fruit to custard were wrong. I have a jug full of leftover raw custard sitting in the fridge and the large quantity of fruit in the pie crust meant too much juice came out, leaving the pastry soggy. Still, a generous splodge of cream and it was fine, as ever, the plums themselves were delicious. If I made it a second time the quantities could easily be amended and the pie hugely improved.

Ho hum, onward and upward, plum and ginger chutney next!

Cherry Plum Cordial

First Cherry Plum recipe! This one is for Willow, as the fastest way to a 5 year old girl's heart is (apparently) a pink drink.

I weighed out 2 kilos of cherry plums, added 600ml of water and simmered gently til they were falling apart. The smell of the hot fruit at this stage was divine, delicate, sweet and fragrant. I helped them on their way by bashing up the fruit with a wooden spoon and a potato masher. I then strained the cooked plums in a jelly bag for several hours.

The resulting juice was measured and for every litre, 700g of sugar added (though this is variable to personal taste) I warmed the juice til the sugar dissolved and then used a scalded funnel to pour the cordial into warmed bottles.

Willow is currently very enthusiastically licking a variety of cordial covered cooking utensils, I think it's safe to say Cherry Plum Cordial is a hit! The taste is sharper than I anticipated, making it adult friendly too, add sparkling water and crushed ice for a sophisticated summer soft drink. Now all I need is some summer to go with it (sigh)

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Parmesan Rind Soup

Sounds odd but is in fact a really useful culinary trick to know.

Once my block of fresh Parmesan has been grated down to the rind I squirrel it away in a bag at the back of the fridge. Whenever I next make soup I just chuck one in and let it simmer away. It doesn't appear in the finished dish, you fish it out before serving as it has already done it's job. Parmesan is rich in natural MSG which gives it that big umami hit, the MSG leeches out of the rind and into the soup to give it deep, rich, savoury taste.

It's so simple even a husband can manage it! Last night Adam made ham and lentil soup for us. He fried chopped onion, garlic and a red pepper til softened, added a tin of chopped tomatoes, a large handful of lentils and a generous splosh of gammon stock (basically just the water I'd boiled a gammon joint in the day before). He threw in two Parmesan rinds and let it simmer til the lentils were soft, adding more stock if it looked like drying out. He then took out the Parmesan and pureed the soup before adding diced gammon and re-heating it.

We ate it with crusty bread and it was lovely with big, deep, robust flavours. It didn't need seasoning at all as both the stock and cheese rinds are quite salty anyway. Next time I may add in some chilli or smoked paprika just to lift it a little.

Adam's getting quite good at this cookery lark, maybe I can let him loose in the kitchen a bit more often ....

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Plum Job

Another lovely day today. We took a picnic to Wortham Ling, I made a salad from the garden (lollo rosso, pea shoots, radishes, tomatoes and carrot) along with Nice Ham, Nice Cheese and Nice Bread. Wild apples and plums grow on the Ling which frequently add to our picnics there but they're not ready to eat just yet. Once we'd eaten we went for a walk with the intention of spotting new foraging grounds. We had mixed results. I found a damson shrub, damsons are really common and I'm told they're easy to find but I've not actually come across any as yet so I was delighted to finally find one. The delight was short lived though as it was extraordinarily low in fruit, I'd guess there were only about 20 damsons on the whole shrub, goodness knows why but a bit of a shame nonetheless.

I also thought I found a service tree and some puffball mushrooms but I was wrong on both counts so it's a good job we didn't pick any!

The big success of the day were the cherry plums I spotted on Thursday. Adam was duly dispatched this afternoon to pick some. He came home triumphant with, I'd guess, about 3 or 4 kilos of fruit. This is the first time we've picked cherry plums and I'm hugely impressed with them. First thing I noticed was the smell, sweet and honeyed like peaches or apricots, divine. They're sweet enough to eat as they are which is unusual for a wild plum and makes me wonder whether they're a cross breed or garden escapee. If anyone has any experience of cherry plums I'd be interested to hear how sweet you found them.

Next thing is figuring out what to do with them! Plum Cordial for Willow is on the cards, probably jam, maybe chutney. I'm pondering the possibility of preserving some in alcohol, this method is recommended for fruit like peaches and apricots so I imagine it would work with cherry plums too. Whatever I decide I'll post the recipe, can't wait to get experimenting!

Thursday, 23 July 2009

One for Carol

Who was dubious that tomatoes would ripen without a greenhouse. Here are my ripe Tumbling Toms, there would have been more red ones if I'd remembered to take the photo before I picked enough for the children's tea! All the large tomatoes in my mini greenhouse are still green, showing no sign whatsoever of ripening yet.

Much excitement on the foraging front, today I discovered some cherry plums and what I think are yellow bullace in a hedge near school. Trouble is, they're not very accessible being on a narrow, high bank alongside a busy road and they're quite high up. Over to Adam for that one I think.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

And was Jerusalem Builded Here?

Well, I may not have a bow of burning gold or a chariot of fire but yes, I have built a kind of Jerusalem in my Green and Pleasant garden (I'd like to say I'm showing off my knowledge of the lyrics of Jerusalem but I had to Google them and got a bit carried away)

Jerusalem artichokes are the most abundant crop in my garden. I grew them for the first time last year, during the thick snow last January I was out in the garden, hacking through the frozen soil to get to the dozens and dozens of artichokes down there. Over the season they were my only really true glut, I harvested about 3 bulging carrier bags full of tubers, which is an enormous amount from a patch of ground about 1.5m Square.

Opinion is divided on the culinary value of Jerusalem artichokes, apparently the French are particularly disparaging of them. Personally I love them and have 2 favourite recipes. The simplest way is to saute them gently in a single layer in a covered pan with a small amount of olive oil, salt and pepper. For a slightly faffier version, cut them into chips shapes, coat with seasoned flour and shallow fry. They have a lovely nutty flavour, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.

They are rich in insulin which is a mixed blessing as it's indigestible. This means the body doesn't absorb much in the way of calories from them so they're a great potato replacement if you're on a diet but it has the rather (cough) antisocial side effect of making a lot of wind in the gut. People do respond differently to the insulin though, some being more affected by wind than others.

They're difficult to get hold of in the shops which is why I decided to grow them. I bought some tubers last year then saved some of my harvest to re-plant this year. I needn't have bothered though as it's nigh on impossible to dig out each and every tuber and off spring of overlooked tubers are popping up unbidden all over the shop, one or two have emerged in a neighbour's garden - oops.

They're related to the sunflower, in some parts of the world they're known as the sun choke, and you can absolutely see that in the plant. They grow vertiginously tall, in the photo the fence behind them is about 6' tall and they're towering over it. The flowers, when they eventually appear, also look a bit like a stunted sunflower. They are somewhat over dominant in a small garden though, if our allotment goes through in the Autumn I'll be very glad to transplant them over there. Apparently they make an effective wind block on exposed ground so would suit the plot which is surrounded by open countryside.

Monday, 20 July 2009

The Menace lurking in the veg patch .....

.... The strawberry stranglers! Quite a David and Goliath story really. The strawberry plant is probably 6 inches high, has sent out one small runner and somehow managed to lasso and strangle a Jerusalem Artichoke about 5 feet tall. I'm not sure I should be sending the children out into the garden alone, might not see them again!

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Run it up the Beanpole and see who salutes it.

My two little projects are coming on well. The front garden project is mainly flourishing, as you can see the Borlotti beans have finally got the bit between their teeth and raced up the beanpole. In fact 2 delicate shoots are wobbling precariously several inches above the beanframe, clinging to each other like acrophobic maidens. The Butternut squash is thundering along too in a heavy weight kind of way, however, the petit pois seem have given up the ghost and fainted clean away.

The Grand Radish Project goes from strength to strength, not only are the plants loving it, I am too. Thinning out, watering and generally keeping an eye on what's going on with them is so much easier at a higher level.

My Aunty Carol is a fan of Starbucks and has been collecting their 'grounds for your garden' for me. These are the used coffee grounds which they bag up and give away for free. I've done a little research and, apparently, coffee grounds are best used as a 'side dressing' (for the plants, not your salad) which means they are heaped on the ground about 2" away from the plants. So that's what I've spent this afternoon doing, carefully piling the coffee grounds around the base of any veggies with a reasonable amount of space around them. I'll report back on how effective it is.

I've also got my eye on the local Rowan berries as I'm going to try my hand at Rowan jelly for the first time this year. The berries look ripe although it's a bit early, in fact Richard Mabey's book recommends harvesting in October! I would prefer to wait a little longer til the apples are ripe as I need those for the jelly too, although I wonder how many berries will be left in a month's time given how greedy my arch nemesis, those pesky local sparrows, are.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Transplaneted Courgette

Transplaneted? That's a typo I made on Twitter some time ago when talking about transplaneted basil seedlings. It tickled me and now I can't say transplanted in the normal fashion.

Rachel's transplaneted courgette has been behaving in an interesting but slightly odd way. At first I thought it was doing fine as it was putting up flowers and one courgette grew although it was a funny shape which I put down to transplant shock. However, the other baby courgettes and flowers didn't develop, they died and fell off the plant. I was worried at this stage but what seems to have happened is that the original 'crown' (no idea if that's the correct horticultural term by the way!) where the courgettes develop has died back but the plant has gradually put out two new crowns. Baby courgettes and flowers appear to now be growing normally from both.

I'm desperately hoping they continue to grow and I'll finally get a courgette crop as I've only had one this year which is a blow not only to my appetite for courgettes but to my gardener's pride. Oh the shame of not being able to produce a glut of the simplest, most novice friendly veggie in the patch, where's that dunce's hat?

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Busker's Cupcakes

Today was Busker's Day at Willow's school. Parents are invited to come into to school and the children put on a variety of impromptu performances around the school grounds, after which they come around with a hat and relieve the parents of all their spare change, with money raised being donated to charity.

As Willow's in reception her class went in for a closely directed, reasonably formal whole class performance, heavy on the 'ahhh' factor. The older children devise their own performances, which results in a rather eclectic mix of acts including a handful of boys leaping around on a crash mat playing air guitar to the Clash and a surreal installation involving 3 boys lieing on the floor while a 4th reclined on top of his friends reading a magazine. I donated quite heavily to that one for sheer inventiveness.

In lieu of a hot dinner, families picnic together on the school field and it was while I was preparing our picnic that I realised I didn't have any little treats to go with the school approved wholemeal bread and hummus. I only had storecupboard basics to hand so decided to make strawberry cupcakes. I knocked up a basic 2 egg/4oz sponge mixture, put a spoonful of mixture at the bottom of a cupcake case followed by a teaspoon of my homemade strawberry jam and topped with more sponge mixture. I made strawberry icing by mixing icing sugar with another tablespoon of jam and enough water to make it a spoonable consistency.

I can't say it's the most sophisticated recipe I've ever devised but it's summery, quick, simple and very child friendly. Ideal for today in fact. I can recommend this cupcake recipe for something rather more refined, they certainly went down well at Proms in the Park 2008.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Samphire Open Day

Those of you following me on Facebook or Twitter will know I tweeted about some Samphire we bought at the Farmer's Market in Diss yesterday. It was being sold by a company called Samphire (funnily enough!) who also sell rare breed pork. Today we visited their smallholding for the annual open day.

It's a beautiful place, so idyllic it's ridiculous, like Big Barn Farm made flesh (apart from the goats). Chickens ambled around the car park, lambs gambolled, geese honked and the pigs skittered around their field in a charming fashion. I am beside myself with envy that someone has managed to create an uber veg patch which actually looks pretty. The raised beds are neat and orderly, the grass between neatly clipped and devoid of shallow dustbaths. The scarecrow is rustic in a slightly tumbledown manner which avoids slipping into downright scruffy. There are no strings of milk bottle tops fluttering in the breeze, no plant trays nailed to any fences and no windmills in the strawberries. All the veg looks healthy and seems to be cropping bountifully. No trace of mosaic virus here.

Oh yes, and they make the most divine pork pies. They're at our farmers market every month so I think they'll become a regular treat. Not sure that samphire and pork pies are supposed to be eaten together but I'm going to carry on regardless.

When we got home I surveyed our little garden. The grass needs cutting, Feathers is moulting and the cat had pooed in the middle of the lawn. (Sigh)

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Honesty Tables

Shortly after I first moved to Norfolk I went for a run along the lanes around our house. I was amazed at the number of honesty tables dotted along my route, had I chosen to I could have returned home with a carrier bag full of apples, freshly laid free range eggs, a pot of home made jam and an 8" sponge cake. As an urbanite I'd never come across this idea before, you stick a table outside your house and arrange any spare produce you have to hand on it, cobble together a sign with the price on (and sometimes a heartfelt plea like "Do not steal eggs!") and provide a dish for the coinage which will soon be rolling in.

My first reaction was incredulous disbelief that there weren't urchins lurking around every corner waiting to make off with the cash and/or goods. Although that clearly does happen occasionally, hence pleas like the one above, it doesn't seem to happen often enough to discourage people from having honesty tables in the first place.

The sheer range of goods available to buy in this way never ceases to bring a smile to face as I trundle the highways and byways of south Norfolk. Today for example, on my way to Lidl in Attleborough there were 3 opportunities to buy eggs plus courgettes, firewood, manure, tomato plants, potatoes, numerous herbs, a baby goods stall, toddler garden toys, an assortment of hand turned brooms and a two foot high scale model of a traditional Norfolk windmill. I also know that at other times of year goose eggs, apples, pears, walnuts and pumpkins are available. The majority of these are obviously overflow from allotments or windfalls but some are fully fledged businesses in their own right.

My favourite honestly table is one I spotted on that first run. It's a fairly tumbledown affair, largely hidden in an overgrown hedge. It cheerfully advertises "Eggs for sale!" a smaller, handwritten sign has been tacked up over it saying "No eggs today". In the nine years I've lived in Norfolk there have never been eggs today. Adam has suggested we start a rival enterprise selling Unicorn horns (no horns today).

I'd love to have an honestly table of our own but our little garden and hard working hens don't produce a surplus so I'd be looking at making cakes/jam/chutney etc which is actually quite hard work, plus I'm not sure where we stand with food hygiene regulations so my lazy streak wins out again.

I'm becoming quite obsessed with these little things. I love buying produce from them (when I've got the correct change, it's infuriating if I pass one and haven't got any small change) it's about as fresh, local and seasonal as you can get. Their individuality and and eccentricity is something to be cherished in this world of homogeneous retail chains, I adore their stubborn optimism and belief that ultimately people will do the decent thing, pay the correct amount of money and take the right amount of produce. Most of all, I love the fact that people generally do do the decent thing.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

I won the battle, bring on the war!

Since I beefed up the anti-sparrow measures in the front garden the sparrow family seem to have disappeared (fingers crossed) I'm still a bit concerned though as the Borlotti beans have gone crazy and are now towering above the netting stretched around the bottom of the bean frame. The largest bean whose main growth shoot was broken off has surprised me by sending up another shoot which has taken over where the other one left off. All this means that there are now lots of tender, tasty shoots looking all naked and vulnerable around the bean frame. I'm just hoping the sparrows don't make an opportunistic raid and spot them, I'm sure they'd move back in like a shot if the food supply resumed.

The butternut squash is also doing well. I've done a little research on how I can expect the plant to grow and I'm reasonably confident that it can trail across the lawn where it will plenty of room. My plan is to feed it diligently as I'm a tad concerned about the small amount of ground it's growing in.

I've spent this morning thinning out my radish and coriander seedlings. I feel horribly guilty about ripping these tiny lives out of the ground and condemning them to a premature death (not sure I'm emotionally robust enough for this gardening lark) so I do my best to make use of them. The radish seedlings were donated to the chickens who wolfed them down in seconds (no tussling with finer feelings there) and the coriander seedlings have been saved to be used in the same way as grown up coriander.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Radish Project Update

I can't believe how quickly the radishes are springing up! I can almost watch them growing. I thinned them out last night which was far easier at waist/shoulder height in the guttering than in the ground. The slight disadvantage of the guttering is that the small amount of soil seems to dry out quickly, especially in this warm weather, so they need a close eye and frequent watering. Oh yes, the other disadvantage is next door's conservatory window which is about a metre behind the fence and is now covered in water marks where spray from the hose has drifted over. Oops. I'm now using the watering can.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Cat Fight in the Carrots!

Much drama at the Kitchen today, Willow shot into our bedroom at 6am full of a tale of a cat fight she heard in the garden during the night. Apparently our cat lost her collar and there was "blood and everything!" I went out to see if there was any evidence of the nocturnal goings on but all that remained was a flattened patch in the carrots. On closer inspection quite a number of carrot tops had been broken so I pulled them up and got a satisfying crop of 'honeysnack'.

We chose this variety for a couple of reasons. Carrots are really cheap to buy in the shops so growing them ourselves doesn't make sense economically but where it does make sense is in the ability to sample rare or unusual varieties. This variety was described in the seed catalogue as very sweet and particularly suitable for eating raw, as raw carrots are more popular than cooked in our house it seemed a sensible choice. We pulled up one or two carrots as a test a few weeks ago when they were really small but I wasn't very keen on them at that point, they were stringy and had quite a parsnipy taste. Now they're fatter and fully grown they're far nicer.

The broad bean plants were looking very tatty after being attacked by caterpillars, I think the chickens managed a few sneaky pecks through the fence too, they were also wilting and yellowing so I picked off the last of the bean pods and then pulled up the plants. In their place I planted the remaining 'bens' seedlings. This is the first year I've grown broad beans and I've really enjoyed it, they're delicious simply steamed and buttered, I just wish I had more space to grow a larger crop.

Oh yes, we've seen the cat this morning, she seems fine. Evidently the interloper came off worse!

Friday, 3 July 2009

Courgettes? What Courgettes?

Yesterday I realised the major flaw in my Grand Radish Project. The guttering is positioned very conveniently at beak height for any chicken who chooses to perch on the gate nearby. I've hurriedly nailed up an old plant tray and some windmills by the top of the gate in the hope of discouraging the chooks from perching on top of it. The appearance of my garden once again lurches wildly into 'eccentric'.

Also pictured is my new 'Bens bed', created in the patch previously inhabited by the diseased courgettes. Rachel's courgette is in view in the distance looking chipper in it's blue pot. The borlotti and french beans are leaping skyward and I've sprinkled radish seeds between them as a catch crop. So thankfully it looks like I'm not going to have a huge wasted space in the garden after all.

Now, my next problem is the butternut squash, it's burgeoning fast in this weather so I need to give some thought to what to do with it before it reaches out into the road and starts lassoing passing traffic.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

The Grand Radish Project of 2009 is Go!!

Ta Daaa!! The much anticipated radish skyscraper is finally functional! After a small amount of public shaming yesterday Adam built the infrastructure last night. He drilled drainage holes in the guttering and then attached it to the fence using normal guttering brackets. The guttering itself came from Freecycle and a friend donated a few brackets from his shed (thanks Mark) which left me with just 1 to buy so the whole thing cost me £1.79.

This morning I've filled the gutters with compost and radish seeds. As you can see we chose the spot where the sun hits the fence during the morning. Also in the photo is an old cat litter tray (Unused I hasten to add, the cat turned her nose up at it. The top half is currently being used by the chickens as a dust bath when they're not scratching up the lawn.) which we've drilled drainage holes in and I've planted with mixed salad leaves. You can also just see the tops of the Jerusalem artichokes poking over the fence, they're taller than me now.

I still have one length of guttering left, I had intended to use it and just balance it on top of the salad trays but I ran out of compost and it seems a bit unnecessary to buy a whole big sack just to gain a handful of radishes. I've got some radish seeds left over and I plan to plant them as a 'catch crop' around the rapidly expanding bean seedlings which I'll plant up this afternoon. How many weeks ago was it I said I'd finished potting up???