So about 2 weeks ago I put on my thick gloves and lifted my basket and went nettle picking. My recipe was for 1 litre of nettle cordial but being a cautious soul I halved the quantities just in case I didn’t like it. Out I went to gather the required 100g of nettle tops. I knew it would be a lot more than you would expect ( just like spinach) but my first ‘weigh in’ was a measly 75g so back out I went.
I washed and dried the nettles, placed them in a bowl and added the solution of water, citric acid and sugar – it’s quite an unusual smell! After a week it was time to filter and sample the result.
The perfect pink liquid was delicious diluted with sparkling water – a definite success!
I had a bit of fun a few days later when I put the members of a local gardening club to the test – not one person guessed what it was. Many thought it was gooseberry.
I am so pleased with the result that it will be gloves on for a mass harvest. I plan to make a couple of litres and freeze it in containers so we can enjoy nettle cordial throughout the summer.
I have growing lemon verbena for years, have read numerous recipes but never quite got round to using it until by chance I came across Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recipe for Verbena Lemonade made with crushed leaves of lemon verbena infused in hot water with a couple of tablespoons of sugar. I gave it a go and it has quickly become a favourite – really quick and easy to make and delicious to drink. Once made it can be stored in the fridge for about a week or you could freeze it to bring a taste of summer to mid winter.
To drink squeeze lemon or lime juice and add to lemon verbena infusion – I find 2 lemons or limes add the right level of zing for a litre. Not being contented with drinking it I have also used it to make lovely light summery jellies served with a skim of pouring cream on the top, a few berries on the side and some shortbread. If you are feeling really organised adding lemon or lime zest to the shortbread complements the jellies.
And the final use of this easy to make drink is to add a dash of gin for a summer evening tipple or for a sparkling version pour a little lemon verbena infusion (without the lemon or lime juice) into a glass and top up with prosecco – enjoy!
We’ve had some rain and it’s a beautiful evening so I have been outside planting out leeks, kale and sprouts in whatever gaps I can find in the vegetable garden. On my way back to the house I checked out the polytunnel – tomatoes are doing well , the cucumber glut is progressing with alarming speed and the climbing french beans just needed to be picked.
As I was picking the beans my thoughts turned to Jerry, a dear friend who sadly is no longer with us. He used to amuse the boys when they were little with the question – ‘how many beans make five?’
The answer which must be said at high speed is
‘two beans, a bean, a bean and a half and half a bean’
after years of repeating it I can say it quickly, without hesitation and without even thinking. How I wish I had asked Jerry the origin of the saying.
So as the french and runner beans in the vegetable garden struggle to get established due to wind, cold weather especially at nights and anything else you can think of to blame- I am delighted with the results in the tunnel. I had never tried growing broad beans and climbing french beans in the polytunnel before so I gave it a whirl this year. We have been eating broad beans for about 6 weeks now and have moved seamlessly from the tunnel to the outdoor crop. But even better the climbing beans are prolific and tonight’s harvest went straight into the freezer.
As a result of the early bean crop I have been experimenting with some new recipes. All year I have been enjoying following the months in Hugh Fearnley-Whiitingstall’s book The River Cottage Year and one of July’s recipes is french beans with tapenade and chicken. I liked the basic idea of the recipe but not too sure about anchovies and thought what about using a mixture of fresh summer vegetables – french and broad beans and tiny baby courgettes. The experiment worked and served with freshly dug potatoes it is a really tasty meal.
It’s uncanny that it’s exactly a year and two days since I picked last year’s crop of gooseberries.( In search of Elderflowers.) The glorious sunshine that we had over the weekend has fully ripened the fruit on the first bush. So tonight was the night to venture into the fruit cage, armed with a trug, wondering what this year’s crop would weigh in at.
My helpful husband pruned the bushes last autumn and the grass is a bit wet after heavy rainfall so I had to bend to pick the fruit and not cheat by kneeling. After a few minutes I wished I hadn’t eaten before setting forth on my gathering. Then I suddenly thought of yoga and the squat position malasana or garland pose that we had been practising in last week’s class. Problem solved – not quite the perfect yogi’s version as my feet were hip width apart and my hands were busy picking rather than in the prayer position. But what had seemed like a back breakin, dinner squashing job turned into a relaxing deep breathing moment of calming yoga and with the added bonus of a full trug of gooseberries.
It is quite a relief that the first bush has only yielded a mere 8lb of gooseberries compared with last year’s 11lb but what is even better is that there are none of last year’s gooseberries lurking in the freezer. So tonight as I sit topping and tailing them, sadly not outside on a glorious sunny evening like last year but inside with a fleece on , I will think about what to make. First off will be my favourite gooseberry fool but I wonder what different recipes can I find to try this year?
And of course due to repairs to the fruit cage it is unlikely that the second bush will suffer from the squirrel attack of last year so there will be pounds more of fruit to pick and another yoga moment.
Is there such a thing a as strawberry joy? Well if there is we are experiencing it this year. After years of disappointment due to wildlife attacks despite trying all sorts of cunning ways of beating them- nets, cages, hanging planters …
This year we are enjoying a bumper crop and have a clear conscience as we have not harmed a single mouse, bird, snail, slug or squirrel. The solution is growing the plants in large pots, filled with beech leaf mould, and placing them high on old trestle tables in the polytunnel.
We have enjoyed and shared the strawberries and following this year’s success plans are afoot to increase the number of pots and to try and have a big enough crop to make jam next year.
And our second moment of pride is that the swallows have checked out the new open sided barn and have built a nest – the first we have ever had. So let’s hope next year we will have a gulp of swallows as well as a glut of strawberries.
This morning as I watched the hens free ranging in the field enjoying the fresh grass and scratching in the damp marshy patch I was reminded of the inspiration behind this blog – the amazing cook I met in Langtang in Nepal. Read about him here
Since the first news of the earthquake l have been thinking about the people we met and wondering how they are coping with losing loved ones, losing homes, losing so many beautiful historic buildings.
The recent shocking reports from Langtang show a landslide and devastation where this photograph was taken. This natural disaster has affected those people who already had so little.
I have heard that our guides and their families and all involved with the trekking company we travelled with are safe. They are trying to cope with the immediate problems – lack of shelter, water, food and the unknown.
Here the fresh green leaves on the trees, the pear and apple blossom, the shoots of vegetable emerging from the soil are all reminders of spring and new life – I just wonder how the people of Nepal can rebuild their lives.
Easter is one of my favourite times of year and this year has been no exception. It is a time of hope – hope of winter really being over, hope for new beginnings, hope for a good growing season with more progress towards self sufficiency, a garden flowering with plants which are a pleasure not only for us but for the wildlife that they attract and support and the ever eternal optimism of longer days giving more time for exercise and physical fitness.
I had high hopes for this Easter break – I had intentionally started sowing seeds in March to get ahead making the most of the greenhouse which is about to celebrate its first birthday. The broad beans under cloches in the polytunnel are now a good 10cm tall and I hope we will get an early crop before the tomatoes go in. So the plan was to get to grips with the herbaceous beds which have not been tended all winter cutting back all the dead stems which have been protecting new growth from late frosts and weeding and mulching and planting out overwintered potted plants.
Well I had not bargained for a completely debilitating bout of flu followed by a chest infection which has left me as limp as a frosted lettuce leaf and all hopes dashed. I have sat in the sunshine in the greenhouse and dozed, I have sat outside when it got warmer and dozed and I managed to pot on the tomatoes and make a simnel cake but that is it.
I was feeling really sorry for myself this afternoon, feeling like my Easter holiday had been totally wasted and annoyed that I cannot shake this bug off and get going. As I sat in the sunshine I caught a glimpse of a brimstone butterfly, my first of the year, and then watched as it returned to hover around the holly hedge. About half an hour later a peacock butterfly skipped up and down the border which the man of the house had tended this morning it looked like it was inspecting the compost that he had used to mulch around the rosa mundi and lavender plants. I sat and watched the butterflies, I listened to the chiffchaff calling and then I sat for about an hour watching Mr Wren preening and strutting and singing to Mrs Wren as they flitted in and out of the Irish Juniper which is a favourite nesting site for them. So I may not have ticked off the gardening to do list this Easter but I took time to listen, watch and enjoy the beauty of the natural world and to be grateful for living in such a special spot.
And hope – yes I hope by next weekend I will be back to my usual self and the borders will be sorted and more vegetables planted and the hope of a lovely spring and summer remains strong in my heart.
Shirley Conran thought life was too short to stuff a mushroom but when the Seville oranges appear in the shops I have a bit of crisis – to buy or not to buy? There is no doubt that making marmalade is a time consuming and messy job and at the time of maximum mess the thought ‘why not buy it? the shops have so much they sell it’ is very much at the front of my mind.
This year, as in most years, I bought even though I knew that life was far too busy to make marmalade in the near future. But one of the good things about Seville oranges is that they can be frozen until there is sufficient time to make marmalade so in previous years I have popped the whole lot in the freezer for a month or so. I didn’t freeze them this year but put them in our new cold food store and the weather has been so icy recently they probably have been frozen. When I got them out to make the marmalade they seemed perfect.
Part of the fun of cooking is reading round the subject and I spent some time enjoying a coffee and reading different recipes to decide whether to hand cut all the rind as I did last year or whether to try the liquidiser attachment on my ancient Kenwood chef. Next decision soak over night and then boil the pulp, rind and water or try the slow cooker. I decided to live life on the edge and if I was trying a new method of fruit preparation I should try a new method of cooking so Kenwood and slow cooker out and off I set.
Roughly chopping the oranges (once juiced and then pips and pith were removed) and popping it in the Kenwood was easy. Next I loaded the prepared rind,juice, pips and pith tied up firmly in butter muslin, and water into the slow cooker put it on and went outside to finish cutting the willow.
Four hours later when I came back into the house there was a beautiful, tangy citrus aroma filling the kitchen. Next the easy bit remove the jelly bag and squeezing out all the lovely pectin laden juice. Important next step (which I often forget) is to weigh the empty preserving pan before adding the fruit so when you add the boiled fruit and weigh you can calculate how much sugar is needed. Rule of thumb is add 1lb of sugar for every 1lb of fruit.
The marmalade has been boiled and bottled in clean warm jars so it’s just a matter of patience waiting for it to cool ready for breakfast tomorrow, Having had a few tastes during the ‘test for setting’ process I know that life is not too short to make marmalade and it is certainly not too short to eat it,
I caught a snippet of The One Show last night and was fascinated to find out about Mapson’s Farm who grow fields and fields of horseradish. I don’t grow fields and fields of horseradish but I do have quite a big patch and as the feature made me realise I haven’t harvested any yet this season. Like parsnip horseradish improves with the onset of winter and hard frost but the danger is that procrastination can end up with no horseradish – just when you decide to dig it up there peeping through the soil is the first sign of the new season’s growth.
I would love to think that the plant got its name from looking like a giant radish that has a pungent flavour that gives a ‘kick’ to food. However it is more likely that the name comes from the prefix horse meaning large and it is a large root. Horseradish (Cochlearia armoracia or Armoracia rusticana) has been cultivated since the earliest times and has many medicinal as well as culinary uses. The young leaves can be used in salads but it is the knobbly root that is most commonly used.
Horseradish is always grown from root cuttings and in fact when you dig up the root to harvest it is virtually impossible to dig it all up so be warned if you introduce horseradish to your garden plant it somewhere where you don’t mind it taking up a fairly permanent residence.
I think it is sad that most people’s encounter with horseradish is via a jar of commercially produced horseradish sauce as it is a wonderfully pungent and versatile herb. But it’s not for the faint hearted – peeling and grating the root can bring a tear to the eye of just about everyone and it’s pretty good at clearing the sinuses too! My solution is to dig up the roots once a year and prepare myself for a few tears.
One of the simplest things and most useful things to make is horseradish butter – simply peel the root and either grate it or using a food processor mix it into butter. Pat the butter into a narrow sausage shape and wrap it in foil (or the butter wrapper) and then pop it in a bag and freeze. The butter can be used straight from the frozen block whenever you want it – cutting a few slices and returning the rest to the freezer for use another day. Horseradish butter is a wonderful addition to mashed or boiled root vegetables especially carrots and parsnips, melted into mashed potatoes or even topping a succulent piece of beef, chicken or fish.
Horseradish loses its flavour if it dries out so if you don’t use all your harvest in one go either store the complete roots in damp sand in a cool place or peel and store the root immersed in white wine vinegar. Then grate a little whenever needed. I usually resort to the sand method and then I don’t use it all by late spring I can pop it a pot to grow and give to friend or even sell for charity.
Horseradish helps with the digestion of rich and oily food so that’s why horseradish sauce is the traditional accompaniment to roast beef. It’s quick and easy to make by adding the finely grated root to whipped cream and adding a dash of white vinegar and even a little dry mustard if you fancy it But one of my favourite uses is as the ‘secret’ ingredient in smoked mackerel pate to give it a bit of a kick.
So thanks to the timely reminder on The One Show the job of digging up and ‘processing’ the horseradish has moved up the ‘to do’ list and I look forward to horseradish butter and mackerel pate even if the tears will flow in the process. Maybe this year I will remember to try the leaves when they are young and tender too.
I may not have finished buying all the Christmas presents but I have made the second batch of Christmas ginger biscuits. The first batch disappeared with mulled wine following the carol service so batch two has been made tonight.
I started making these biscuits, in a variety of festive shapes, to occupy small children (and adults) after lengthy festive meals. I would make batches of the biscuits and serve accompanied by tubes of icing, and glittery bits and so that each person could decorate their chosen shape to their delight. The Christmas cutters have been around a long time too and they include an angel, a snowman, star, Christmas tree and Father Christmas who really looks like a burglar as the top row of the picture proves!
The little children are all pretty big now but I still have to make the biscuits and buy the icing. And despite wanting to concentrate on pretty stars and trees the festive burglar still is in demand.