Allotment Glut – Strawberry Time

My first strawberry of the summer.

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It’s never long before I have more strawberries than I can easily cope with. In the last week I have picked about 6kg from our badly overgrown strawberry patch. They grow despite me, not because of me.

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I have no idea what variety they are but they don’t keep very well and actually, they don’t have the best flavour when eaten ‘raw’. They make good jam though and I have some steeping in sugar ready to make strawberry conserve later today.

Last week while the country was enjoying a 30C heatwave was NOT the time for making jam. Instead I decided to go back to a recipe I haven’t made for a very long time – Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s strawberry granita. Since I bought a mouli attachment for my Kenwood mixer this recipe has become even easier – no more pressing all the fruit through a sieve. Last time I made this I did as the recipe suggested and froze it all together, serving it by scraping it into piles of red crystals with a fork. That got a bit tedious after a while though so this time I froze the mixture into ice lolly moulds and the first batch has disappeared already.

Here is what to do. Mash and sieve (or put in your mouli) 1kg of hulled strawberries. Mix in 200g of icing sugar and the juice of a lemon. That’s it. Just freeze the mixture in whichever way you prefer.

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Of course, you then have the challenge of getting the lollies OUT of the moulds. I’ve been dipping mine, briefly, into a cup of boiling water and then squashing them gently. That seems to have worked.

Today I made a second batch of this mixture. Despite buying a second set of lolly moulds I still had a bit of strawberry juice left over.

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It made an awesome milkshake. Just what the doctor ordered for my littlest person who is at home with a raging temperature. Since strawberries are very high in vitamin C it might just help to fight off whatever virus is bugging him.

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What to do with pumpkins – chutney

pumpkins glowing in autumn lightI don’t really want to harvest all my pumpkins too soon, I want to have a few left for Halloween but they are ripening up thick and fast in this warm, early autumn weather. I roasted most of the last one and made some soup (based on this one but with added lentils) but quite a lot of that is still in the freezer.

inside a pumpkin

The second of our eight fruits came home at the weekend and it was about the same size as the first – 7kg! Time to make some chutney.

It’s two years since we had a major chutney making session. I don’t know how many jars we made but we’ve been eating my favourite dark, sticky rhubarb chutney ever since. I’ve adapted the recipe to use up some of my pumpkin. It seems to have worked well but I can’t promise that it is perfect because you can’t really test a chutney until it’s matured for  month or two.

The most time consuming part of making chutney is the chopping up. It can’t really be avoided though and unless you particularly want chunky chutney, you have to spend the time finely dicing your fruit and vegetables. The pumpkin seems to hold it’s shape surprisingly well, considering how easy it is to mash when it is steamed. The picture below is the ‘before’.

pumpkin chutney before

Ingredients

450g Dark Brown Sugar

1kg of finely diced pumpkin. This is the weight after it has been peeled and chopped

450g chopped cooking apples

450g sultanas

450g finely diced onion

2 lemons – remove the zest and chop, remove the pips then finely chop the rest of the lemon

25g ground ginger

25g salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

700ml white wine or cider vinegar.

Put all the ingredients into a large preserving pan and heat gently. Continue to cook, allowing the mixture to bubble gently until the liquid has reduced significantly. This will take a couple of hours but you shouldn’t need to give it a lot of attention, just the occasional stir to make sure that nothing is sticking.

To test whether the chutney is done, draw a wooden spoon across the bottom of the pan. If the mixture stays parted for a few seconds and you can see the base, it has probably reduced enough. The picture below is the ‘after’ picture. It’s not particularly attractive but it does taste good.

When the chutney is almost done, prepare your jars. I always use recycled glass jars which I wash well, stand upright in a roasting tin and put in the oven for about 15 minutes at just over 100C to sterilise them. I also wash the lids, checking that none of them are damaged and then stand them in a pan of boiling water.

Fill the hot jars with the warm chutney using a jam funnel, taking care not to get burned!

bottling chutney with funnel

And if you’ve still got lots of pumpkin left, roast some more and make spiced coconut and pumpkin stew.

pumpkin stew

Autumn time begins in the allotment

My allotment is a disgrace. You can’t really tell from these photos because I’ve been very selective. You may note the lack of wide angle shots…IMG_1885

However, parts of it are thriving. The courgettes continue to grow at a fantastic pace. I can’t make them into cakes fast enough, even though I quadruple the recipe and make four loaves at a time. I’m on the lookout for the perfect chocolate courgette cake so if you’ve got any ideas about where I can find it, let me know.

sunny pumpkin patch and sunflowers

We’ve been really successful with pumpkins over the last two years. They are the ideal plant for me because they suddenly put on a lot of growth in late July and August, just at a time when I don’t get much opportunity for gardening. They are so big and prolific that their leaves seem to suppress a lot of weeds. Except for the ever present nasturtiums, of course.

IMG_1847 In my opinion, we have a nasturtium problem in our patch. Just like the pumpkins, they also have a tendency to take over in July and August when I take my eye off the ball. At this time of year, before any frosts, they are at their height. The Husband insists that there are worse weeds we could have and I suppose he is right. They are not particularly difficult to rip out, unlike the creeping buttercup and bindweed I’m currently wrestling with as I clear the onion patch. They are just very, very good at self seeding.

But, they are pretty. The bees love them and we can harvest them too.pale yellow nasturtiumnasturtium pesto

The leeks are one area that I have managed to weed. Don’t look at the edges of the picture though. In hindsight, I wish I’d grown more leeks to see us through winter. Maybe next year. So far they seem to be pretty low maintenance plants, which is a priority for me.

IMG_2148This is the chard patch. Another easy to grow, low maintenance vegetable that I have been adding to curries instead of spinach. I think I am more in love with how it looks than how it tastes, to be honest, but, I just keep thinking about how healthy it must be. It should stand all winter, being resistant to frost. A perfect cut and come again crop.

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climbing french beans I have managed a few meals from my climbing french beans. I think I will need to start these off earlier next year. It seems that they are just beginning to grow well. This is the most success I’ve ever had with climbing french beans so I’m pretty happy.

plug plants I succumbed to buying some plug plants from the local garden centre a week or two ago. I never got around to raising any purple sprouting broccoli or kale earlier in the summer but I really want to eat some in spring. I don’t normally like buying these kind of plants, it feels like cheating. However, I’ve got clear ground and I want it to be filled. I’ll just have to do better next time.

IMG_2142 Some of the cabbages I sowed in the spring have survived my lack of attention and the surplus of attention from the slugs and cabbage white butterflies. They are now growing well. I’d better start planning how I’m going to encourage the children to eat them. I’m hoping my mulch works. It is made up of dead grass that I pulled up from elsewhere in the plot. Using waste as a mulch? Will it work? Time will tell.

IMG_1891 The autumn raspberries are starting to ripen up but they are few and far between. I think they are still getting established in their new position and they are also a bit swamped by a vast carpet of nasturtiums. There are usually just enough for a little treat after a hard afternoon of weeding.

The start of September was very sunny, as it often is just as the summer holidays come to an end. As the children returned to school and nursery I returned to my routine of trying to get to the allotment more regularly. Having that little bit of space to dig and weed and plant and just sit in the sun is a real pleasure.

One day as I sat I was aware of lots of buzzing. The enormous flowering weed plant next to me was full of hoverflies busy sucking up all the nectar it had to offer. If I was a real gardener I wouldn’t have let this plant get so big, never mind flower. But, after spending time watching and trying to photograph all the insects I didn’t have the heart to chop it down.

IMG_1859IMG_1914Our sunflowers seem to be reaching their peak now, the tallest one is over 7ft.

IMG_2262These too attract the insects. There is something very appealing about watching a big, fluffy, bumble bee work it’s way across a sunflower head, probing each tiny flower for nectar.

IMG_2190I’m so glad I managed to plant some sunflowers. They are such happy plants. When the bees have had all the food they can get and the flowers have faded, the birds can take over and enjoy the seeds.

Autumn is slowly starting to make it’s presence felt. The autumn equinox was a day or two ago and my last few visits to the allotment have been in cooler weather. The mornings I have visited have been still and slightly misty with the damp air highlighting numerous, silky spiders webs.

The elderberries I could reach have been harvested and the birds are stripping the rest of the tree. Rose hips and other berries are brightening up the hedges as the leaves slowly begin to change and fall.

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IMG_1792The garden is fading from green to brown.

IMG_1789Autumn begins.IMG_1803

 

Starting to spring

The weather is starting to improve and the days are lengthening. It’s time to get into the garden (or allotment in my case) and do some work. Our allotment really is neglected. It’s a good job it’s on it’s own little plot because if we had neighbours, they’d be complaining. Can you see all the beds, full of weeds and dead plants? The majority of the plot looks like that.

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But now that Babykins is at nursery, my weeks are starting to take on a new shape. I have more time to devote to gardening, something that has been low on my priority list for ooh, about eight years. Although I loved the idea of taking the children to the allotment, the reality of it probably robbed me of a lot of my enthusiasm for gardening. It just wasn’t worth the effort. Not at the preparing and planting stage anyway. They are more distractible when there is a yummy crop to harvest.

Working on our allotment brings me a mixture of feelings. When I arrive, I generally feel dismayed by the amount of work there is to do. I really don’t like looking at the whole plot and thinking about all the tasks that should be done, about how wonderful it could look. There are so many basic things that need sorting out. I am choosing to try and focus on small, achievable targets.

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A couple of weeks ago, on a fabulously sunny, still day, I dug out all the remaining potatoes and cleared the bed that they were in. They are not great potatoes but I’ve been doing my best to be thrifty and use them up, despite the amount of slug damage they’ve got. Babykins actually helped me out on this occasion. He is actually quite happy helping out on our plot. In fact, I should really get him a few new tools, his spade is falling apart. It was such a glorious day that once Babykins was at nursery, I decided to go back for a couple more hours.

IMG_9162The sky really did look like this. Perfect. On days like this, the joy of gardening is easy to find.

IMG_9187I had a clear growing area so I planted a row of broad beans and a row of peas and covered them with horticultural fleece. Who knows if they will grow. The ground is probably too cold and wet and the fleece practically blew away shortly after but it made me feel that I was ahead of the game.

This week, I managed another short spell at my plot. Just an hour in the sunshine with no need for a coat as I dug and weeded. Digging and weeding, satisfying things to do. Tasks that give instant gratification. In a short space of time you can transform a messy looking area into a patch of neat, dark earth.

IMG_9308And no matter how many times I get out my fork and do some digging and weeding, I still enjoy seeing what turns up.

IMG_9306 A parsnip that must have self seeded…

IMG_9300 An extremely bright caterpillar (or grub – I don’t know)…

IMG_9305and earthworms. I never get bored of digging up earthworms, especially the big, fat juicy ones. They should be a reflection of the health of the soil so finding them gives me hope for a good crop later in the year.

There are other things to appreciate on the allotment at the moment.

IMG_9328 Drifts of snowdrops.

IMG_9317A solitary rose.

IMG_9314Rhubarb shooting up, getting bigger by the day.

So although looking at my plot as a whole can make my heart sink, looking at tiny parts of it makes my heart sing. At this time of year, when not much is growing, I can even enjoy the flowering weeds for a short time.

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What to do with courgettes

I love courgettes but they do have a tendency to appear as a glut. Especially when you have seven plants.

IMG_7709This was my haul last Friday.

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We have almost managed to eat up this batch. They have been sliced and fried in butter; griddled, layered with tomatoes and cheese and cooked in the oven like an aubergine parmigiana;

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IMG_7755 baked with a topping of smoked cheese and parmesan;

IMG_7757and grated into a chocolate cake.

IMG_7752When the courgette glut really gets going I like to preserve some of them in lemon juice and olive oil. We managed to make a batch of these last week when the weather was still at it’s warmest. The photos below show the process, the recipe is at the bottom. It takes quite a long time to complete the whole process but it can also be broken down into chunks of activity and as you may be able to see from the photos, the whole family can get involved. Even Babykins likes to brush the sliced courgettes with oil, though it is Son Number One who is in the picture.

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Courgettes Preserved in Lemon Juice and Oil

Juice and rind of 3 lemons. 

Up to 2.5kg of courgettes (big or small)

1 large onion, finely diced or 300g shallots

about 6 cloves of garlic (or up to a whole bulb if you are brave)

salt

fresh or dried herbs such as thyme, bay, oregano and perhaps a tablespoon of peppercorns

Approximately 500ml of olive oil, plus more for brushing over the courgettes before cooking

1. Slice the courgettes into long-ish pieces, 1/2 a cm thick and layer them in a bowl, sprinkled with salt. Rest them for about an hour then rinse and dry them.

2. While the courgettes are salting, finely slice the onion and garlic and sweat over a gently heat until translucent. Remove from the heat and set to one side.

3. Mix the lemon juice and rind with a tablespoon of salt in a large bowl. Add the cool onions and garlic and plenty of herbs.

4. Wash your jars in the hottest soapy water you can find. Rinse and place on a baking tray, the right way up. Put them in the oven and turn it on to 100 degrees C for at least 5 minutes. Ideally you want the jars to be hot when you pack them with the courgettes. You can use any recycled jars if the lids are clean and fresh. Personally, I find the golden syrup jars that Tesco sell their value golden syrup in are an ideal size. They are the round ones on the right in the picture below.

5. Before you cook the courgettes, brush them on both sides with oil. Heat up your griddle pan or fire up the barbecue. Cook the courgettes on both sides, covering them in nice, black, criss-crossing lines.

6. When the courgettes are cooked, place them in the lemon/onion/garlic/herb mixture. When they are cool enough, toss them all together, with your hands if necessary and then strain the courgettes, retaining the lemony juice in a measuring jug.

7. Begin to pack the courgettes into the jars. Use the end of a wooden spoon and some tongs to do this. Try to pack them in as tightly as possible. Fill the jars but not completely to the top. Leave a space so that they will be completely covered in oil.

8. Add olive oil to the lemon juice until you have 500ml of liquid. Place it into a pan and heat it to 80 degrees C (the oil will begin to boil) mixing it thoroughly, ideally with a whisk. Pour the hot oil/lemon mixture over the courgettes, sharing it out as equally as possible.

9. Make sure that the courgettes are completely covered with oil. Top up the jars with more if necessary.

10. These jars should store well right into the winter and make a quick and easy meal when mixed with pasta. They are also good on their own as a sort of antipasti.

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Elderflower time again

IMG_7390You know it’s June when the elderflowers bloom!

I love making elderflower cordial. It’s a little bit of summer in a bottle. It’s also well worth it because the store bought version is relatively expensive.

I love picking it too: no thorns or stings and the smell is divine. We are lucky to have an elderflower tree growing over the corner of our allotment, behind the greenhouse. I harvest both the flowers and the berries each year but only from the lower branches. There is always plenty of fruit for the birds in the autumn.

IMG_7512I have been thinking all week about when I could do some foraging and preserving and today was the day. While Babykins raked and watered I snipped away at the big, creamy, flat flower heads, dusting the yellow pollen all around me as I went. Babykins and I also harvested the first courgette of the season.

IMG_7518Which, as you can see in the photo above didn’t last long.

Tonight I have started the process of making cordial. The flowers are steeping in a bath of sugar syrup and lemon slices. After my experiments last year, I have decided I prefer the sharper version of elderflower cordial (a bit like this). It’s a miracle that there’s any sharpness left in it at all when you realise just how much sugar goes into cordial.

IMG_2563Each pint of water requires 750g of sugar. I thought I would measure this by volume too. 750g of sugar is almost equivalent to a PINT and A HALF!!!!!!! No wonder it tastes good!

IMG_2559 For previous elderflower posts, click here

September Food

Food has been on my mind. September should be a busy month for the home preserve maker. I bought some hard goats cheese ages ago with the intention of making nasturtium pesto. It really is tasty, I made some a few years ago but I still haven’t made the time to do it this year.

We seem to have nasturtiums growing in great quantities in the allotment so they should be put to good use.

Our allotment is so neglected. We have some little saplings in pots that we meant to plant out about two years ago. We still haven’t cleared the area that they are supposed to go in. They are bearing fruit this year, despite their roots being crammed into a small space with limited nutrients. I hope this means that when they finally do get planted they will crop heavily. I am longing to turn these crab apples into something tasty but I can hardly reach them, the area is so overgrown. Come to think of it, I’m not sure how I got the photo!

The hedgerows can be full of beautiful berries at this time of year (and I seem to get carried away trying to photograph them).

Some berries seem more sparse than usual this year. I haven’t seen any sloes near here but the elderberries have been as abundant as ever.

I managed to grab the few apples from my Mum’s tree and made a big batch of apple and elderberry jelly.

I really enjoy making this. You don’t have to peel or core the apples because you only want the strained, cooked juice from them. The cooking process is so visually satisfying. I was taking photos of it every five minutes as the colours in the pan changed. This blogging lark can do funny things like that to you.

It’s a bit of a drawn out affair as you have to let the cooked fruit drip through a muslin cloth over night. I know it’s strange/pathetic/not very rock and roll, but there’s something about that that I like too. I can’t really put my finger on why I enjoy doing it so much. I’ve tried to explain my love of making preserves in this post. There’s definitely something comforting about the routine of it.

The other preserve that I have managed to make this autumn is rhubarb chutney. The Husband noticed that our rhubarb was starting to go past it’s best. There was plenty of it, but it was a bit tough for using in desserts. That, and the fact that we recently used up our last jar meant a chutney session was in order. We have been making this rhubarb chutney recipe for quite a few years now and it is absolutely my favourite. It’s dark, soft and treacly. There are no chunky bits in it but it does have texture. We had enough rhubarb to triple the recipe and plenty of home grown onions too. One night while I was chopping and cooking the apples and elderberries the husband did all the chopping and mixing of the rhubarb chutney ingredients.

The next morning at about 6am I tipped it into our maslin pan, hoping it would all fit. It did, just. The house smelled of vinegar fumes all day while it simmered away. I could have bottled it sooner if I didn’t have three children to contend with but I just had to keep putting it off until they were in bed. I don’t suppose that’s good practice and I hope it doesn’t affect it’s keeping qualities. I couldn’t follow the usual instructions for the cooking time either. My preserve book suggests that it’s done when you draw a wooden spoon across the bottom of the pan and it leaves a clear trail for a few seconds. There was so much in the pan, there was no way you would be able to see the bottom. I think when the wooden spoon stands upright like this:

it’s probably done. It tastes ok, which is just as well because I’ve now got about 15 jars of it. My next mission is to create some apple and bramble treats – flavoured gin, anyone?