It turns out that the roast vegetables left over from the Imagined Roast VegetableTart make an excellent lunch for two when stirred into four ounces of cooked tagliatelle, having been reheated in a small pan in which a couple of ounces of diced chorizo sausage has first been fried. Courgette and pasta is a known and much-liked combo in this house but I shall clearly have to experiment with squash and pasta a little more!
It stopped raining long enough to fire up the main barbecue grill last night, for the first time this year. I didn’t clean it out at the end of last season so the grill was a bit revolting when I first lifted the lid on it. However, once I got the coals going it took about five minutes with the wire grill brush to burn off the mouldy bits and pieces. The whole thing went really well; I managed to start the charcoal without causing too much smoke (my neighbour suddenly decided at 4.30 p.m. that now was the perfect moment to hang out his washing; and I was trying not to leave it stinking of charcoal) and once I got the coals laid out on the grill (I use a chimney starter) and got the lid in place you would hardly know I was grilling at all.
So, the inaugural meal of the season was spatchcocked poussin with baked sweet potatoes, and a piquant salad on the side. The poussins were coated with Steven Raichlen’s basic barbecue rub (most of what I know about grilling comes from his How To Grill and The Barbecue Bible, both of which I recommend) and for once I grilled with the lid on the Weber kettle (why I don’t do this more, I don’t know, given it’s how the Weber is supposed to be used, but go figure). Fifty minutes later, done to several turns, and delicious. The salad, a mixture of chopped cucumber, chopped tomato, finely diced onion, spring onions, mint and parsley, dressed with lime juice and olive oil, salt and pepper, went very well with this.
And the annual hunt for lumpwood charcoal can begin. B&Q have some, I notice, so I can stock up. Most places only sell charcoal briquettes; these are a pig to light and leave a really unpleasant residue in the bottom of the kettle. I have no idea what the binding agent is, and I’m not sure I want to. On the plus side, briquettes do last longer but I remain not convinced. And if truth be known, I enjoy the uncertainty of using charcoal.
But for my bucket barbecue I generally use the little easy-light charcoal bags as they’re simpler to deal with, though they initially make a dreadful mess with bits of paper fluttering everywhere if one isn’t careful (although maybe I will change my mind about that this year). I’ve been surprised at how well the bucket barbie does. I bought one at the end of the season a couple of years ago, watching for several weeks as the price was marked down and down, finally getting myself a real bargain. It is a well-made galvanised affair and it is ideal for chicken drumsticks, sausages and so on, though it would be less successful for most of my more elaborate efforts. Mostly, I bought it because I wanted to do minced-meat kebabs, which are easily lost on the bigger grill and it’s good for that.
This year, and I said this last year too, I want to do more smoking. I have a small smoker I was gifted several years ago but I’ve not got around to using it fully as yet. Given there’s a nice four-day weekend coming up it might be time to try that turkey pastrami I keep thinking about.
Now it has stopped raining for long periods of time and the allotment has had time to dry out I’ve been able to get down to the plot and lay waste to the perennial weeds on a more regular basis. They are now lying in large piles, waiting to go into the compost bin, which is still the abode of slow worms, though I think that so long as I don’t turn the thing over, the slow worms are unlikely to mind me tipping more weeds in on top. The ground is now sufficiently dry that today I didn’t have to spend five minutes declagging my boots before I left. This is a vast improvement even since yesterday.
It was also noticeable that the track through my section of the allotment no longer squelches quite as much, though there is one allotment at the bottom of the slope (not even a huge slope) which has still got standing water in the trenches, 3-4 inches of it. I’ve noted before that the soil is extremely clayey – I think the area may have started life as a clay pit judging from the way that it is considerably lower than the buildings around it – and it is at times like this that the disadvantages of the area become obvious. These are not actually the worst conditions I’ve ever seen – there was once a stream running down the track during the winter – but they’re as bad as anything I’ve seen at this time of year.
However, on the up side, the ground is proving less difficult to dig this year, thanks to much digging and adding of organic matter last year, and I’m hopeful of catching up with my sowing plans very soon. It’s all been a bit of a rush to see what can be sown right now thanks to such a late start but I had been thinking already about trying swedes and parsnips this year and the timing suits them. It’s a tiddly bit late for broad beans but given the delay I don’t suppose it matters, so they can go in this week, along with some dwarf French beans. I’ve also got a small sweetcorn forest doing its thing in the home greenhouse and that can go in later. I sowed cabbage and cauliflowers this week in the greenhouse, as well as courgettes and a compact variety of butternut squash. I’m not sure how well those will work but I’m determined to give them a try.. Other than that I shall fill in with chard and silver beet, perpetual spinach and salad stuff, the usual leaves.
P finished cleaning out the blackberry hedge bottom this morning and we are now going to mark out its territory with boards and mulch its roots. This won’t especially stop the grass growing, and the grass is anyway a good place for creatures to hide, in moderation at least, but it will at least make it clearer where I can hack the stuff up when digging, and stop the hedge encroaching over the entire top end of the plot. Once we have that sorted out I will put down some small boards and bits of flowerpot for frogs and slow worms to hide under. No sign of the monster frog of doom today, though he was there yesterday, but P encountered two slow worms, one teeny bronze beauty and a much bigger, paler one with dark stripes down the sides. A similar sized one, neatly coiled like a Cumberland sausage, slid out of the landscape fabric I was moving later, and eyed me with disapproval. I don’t think I’ll ever quite get over the shock of suddenly finding them slithering around the place when I move things but I do enjoy having them around as pest control.
Annoyingly, it is clear that I am going to have to pot up my raspberry plants after moving them from their current site rather than shifting them straight to the fruit garden, as that still needs a lot of work. There is couch grass everywhere and it’s going to take a lot of digging out. On the other hand, once the raspberries are moved I should be able to deal with the Middle Third very quickly and get that planted up. Likewise, if we get the work done on the blackberry hedge this coming weekend, that can be sown and I can then go back to focusing my energies on Bottom Third.
In the back garden I need to dig over the final plots and get the salad stuff sown, though this first requires a little work with some duct tape and some polycarbonate sheeting, to build cloches. Or rather, these are not cloches in the classic sense so much as protective barriers which will be netted over in order to stop Rosa the cat from doing what Rosa loves doing best of all in the world, which is digging up my seedlings. We lost an entire crop of salad leaves to her last year and I have no intention of the same happening this year. Rosa is already in bad odour with my neighbours for going into their garden to use it as a bijou open-air latrine. The problem was finally solved when I bought them a deluxe sonic cat repeller, which has surprisingly worked rather well. The cats aren’t visiting the garden any longer but are still able to teeter along the garden fences and sit on their favourite observation perches so neighbourly harmony has been restored and everyone is happy (except possibly Rosa when she sees what I have in store for her).
Errol, meanwhile, is enjoying his first spring of gardening with the humans. He is a young, enthusiatic and deeply earnest ginger Maine Coon, who loves nothing better than helping. He helps with cooking (and in fairness with the washing-up but not, oddly enough, with the eating) and has now extended his range to helping with gardening as well. He and Rosa are half-siblings and it turns out he shares Rosa’s deep interest in trying to get his head up close and personal with a sharp-edged digging implement. Also, floofy tail, compost and seeds – a catastrophe in waiting. He likes sharpening his claws on the greenhouse covering and I am so glad I invested in the reinforced covering this year. It’s not pretty but there is more chance of it surviving to the end of the season. (After carefully constructing a solid roof for each greenhouse because Rosa would insist on sleeping on the roofs, causing them to sag, she has shown absolutely no interest in them whatsoever this year). He adores helping me put things in the compost bin, and like Rosa and his late half-brother, Nicodemus, not to mention Pickle, he has a horrid fascination for the strawberry bed. My plan to build ridges he could hide behind has not worked as he just digs through the ridges instead, but I keep replanting the strawberries and sooner or later he will get bored.
And the final news today is that I noticed that the basil in the propagator has started sprouting little shoots! Once the plants are big enough to pot on, I’m thinking of trying a purple basil, just for the hell of it. The resulting pesto would surely look amazing!
I am not quite sure why I decided to make a roast vegetable tart, other than because I had a butternut squash knocking around, and half a pack of puff pastry I wanted to use up rather than freeze. The roast vegetable tart recipe I was going to use turned out to be a roast vegetable flan recipe when I looked at it more closely, so time to improvise.
The base of the tart comes from a recipe by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall for a tomato, red pepper and feta tart, which I’ve already doctored somewhat (as I seem invariably to do with HFW recipes – if it’s not the quantities it’s just general weirdness about methods).
Some advance prep is needed as the tomato sauce is made by roasting three punnets of tomatoes, halved, in the oven at about 140°C until they are semi-dried. I use supermarket basic toms for this as the process intensifies the flavour. I usually dribble olive oil over them and grind salt and pepper to taste. When they’re cold I puree them in the liquidiser with another good slug of olive oil so the resulting mixture is spreadable.
Roasting the vegetables is straightforward. Set oven to 230°C. I had a red pepper so cut that into pieces, put it in a dish, dribbled olive oil over it and put it in the top of the oven.
I peeled the squash, diced it up fairly small, tossed it in olive oil and seasoned it and put the pieces on a baking tray in the oven for 12 minutes. Then I added some courgettes similarly treated and cooked everything for another 15 minutes or so. (This makes far too much for the tart but the leftover veg can be incorporated into something else I shall be figuring out later. 20/05/2012 See Things To Do With Leftover Roast Vegetables)
The red pepper comes out last, is covered with foil and left to steam the skin off.
Oh, and because the tomato puree is a trifle sharp I decided to caramelise some onions to stir through it so they’d been quietly doing their thing on the stove-top for 15-20 minutes.
Roll out half a pack of puff pastry to fit a baking tray. You should make a foil-covered cardboard form to go in the middle and weight down the pastry while it’s being blind-baked, having scored a margin all the way round. You should, but if you’re lazy, it’s a week day, etc. it’s not vital and the tart works just as well.
(And yes, I can make my own puff pastry but it’s time-consuming and supermarket puff pastry is perfectly adequate. I still make my own shortcrust pastry but puff pastry is more a question of proving I can do it and then not doing it again.)
Bake at 200°C for 12-15 minutes.
Assembly then goes like this.
Smear tomato paste across pastry base. Scatter onions on top and then drag around with a fork to spread them out.
Scatter sufficiency of butternut squash/courgettes on top without overloading it.
Dice red pepper and scatter over butternut squash/courgettes.
Dice about half a pack of feta cheese and scatter small fragments across tart.
Put back in oven for 15 minutes.
Serve hot, lukewarm or cold. I served this with a few green leaves as that was what I had handy.
This tart was pretty much about using up what I’d got in the veg box or had lurking in the veg basket. The original recipe asked for a sweet potato but squash works very well. The tomato base could be replaced with a more onion-heavy base. It seems infinitely adaptable. So far the only things that have been consistent are the pastry and the feta. <
P is taking a slice of the tart in his lunchbox today. Wrapped in foil it is very robust and travels well.
1 cauliflower, broken into florets
2 tbs oil
4 tbs flour
350 ml millk
325g sweetcorn (tinned or frozen)
2 tbs chopped parsley (optional)
125g mature Cheddar cheese, grated (or any other decent-tasting cheese)
25g rolled oats
25g chopped almonds
Heat oven to 190°C
Cook the cauliflower in boiling water for 5 minues, Drain, reserving cooking water.
Heat oil in same pan, stir in flour. Remove from heat, add milk, stir until blended. Add 150 ml cooking liquid, bring to boil, cook gently for 3 minutes, until thickened.
Stir in sweetcorn, parsley and half the cheese. Season to taste ( a little nutmeg is rather nice as well).Gently fold in cauliflower and turn into a 1.5 litre dish.
For topping, place flour in bowl, rub in butter until mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Add oats, almonds and cheese. Sprinkle over vegetable mixture and bake in oven for 30 minutes.
Leftover cauliflower cooking water is a great base for making stock or very delicately flavoured soup. I usually freeze it in pints.
Cashews are a good substitute for almonds though I’ve used pretty much whatever I had handy at various times.
If I’m using a broad, shallow dish, I usually double the topping quantities (though not the cheese). I like a decent layer of topping.
Does reheat quite well in a microwave if needed.
Original recipe from Mridula Baljekar’s The Complete Indian Cookbook which replicates the taste of UK Indian restaurant cooking like no other cookbook I’ve encountered. However, I suspect she would probably not recognise my version of her dish.
6 tbsps cooking oil
½ tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
8-10 fenugreek seeds (optional but I always include them)
1 tbsp curry leaves (optional, at least in my version they are)
2-3 cloves garlic, peeled, finely chopped
2-4 dried chillies, coarsely chopped (or several pinches of chilli flakes, and then another one for luck)
450g fresh leaf spinach, or 225 frozen leaf spinach, finely chopped
1 tbsp ghee or unsalted butter
1 large potato peeled and diced
1 large onion, finely sliced
½ tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp ground cumin
½ tsp garam masala
¼-½tsp chilli powder
2-3 ripe tomatoes, skinned and chopped (or half of 400g tin chopped toms)
1 tsp salt or to taste<
Heat 2 tbsps oil and fry mustard seeds until they pop.
Add cumin seeds, fenugreek seeds and curry leaves (if used) and immediately follow with the garlic and red chillies. Allow garlic to turn slightly brown.
Add the spinach, stir and mix thoroughly. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Melt the ghee or butter over medium heat and brown the diced potatoes. Remove from heat and keep aside.
Heat the remaining oil over medium heat and fry onions until well browned (about 10 minutes). Avoid burning onions as burnt onions are bitter.
Adjust heat to minimum, add turmeric, cumin, garam masala, chilli powder, stir and fry for 2-3 minutes.
Add the spinach, potatoes, tomatoes, and salt, cover and simmer for 10 minutes until the potatoes are tender, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat.
The above is the original recipe but it is pretty flexible and I have frequently abused it mightily, as comments in the ingredients list will already indicate.
In fact, I most often make it with a 225g pack of baby spinach leaves as that is generally what’s available at the supermarket, and I rarely get around to chopping them up. I have done the full whack of spinach but I find the recipe then tastes a bit slimy, so I suppose I’m really making potato and spinach bhaji. Either way, use a big pan. 225g spinach is a lot. I have a large saute pan that works really well for this.
I am also a lazy cook and the plongeur gets a bit fractious if I use too many pans so I have taken to cooking the onions first and then slinging in the diced potatoes with them. Seems to work. Also, if I'm using real tomatoes, I've stopped skinning them first. Life is short and I am hungry. Tastes good too if you added some chopped coriander at the end.
Leftovers are amazingly good with poached or scrambled eggs too.<
Also, protip for this recipe: chop the garlic before you start cooking, not when you suddenly realise you need it now and the mustard seeds are threatening to incinerate themselves.
I tend to be a bit generous with the chilli pepper flakes at the beginning so I have accidentally produced some quite incendiary versions of this. This I will say: if you do the 225g fresh spinach version and are generous with the pepper flakes, this dish will wake the dead and it is a stonkingly good flush-out for blocked nasal cavities when you have a cold.
This recipe is one of my party pieces. It’s quick, easy and tastes ridiculously delicious.
200g self-raising flour
75g cocoa powder
225 caster sugar
200 ml vegetable oil
250 blended cooked beetroot
Preheat the oven to 190°C
Sift together flour and cocoa powder, add sugar, and mix together well.
In a second bowl, whisk the eggs and oil together, add the pureed beetroot and mix well.
Add to dry ingredients, mix together lightly, then spoon the mixture into 12 muffin cases and bake for 20-25 minutes until brown and risen. Leave in tray until cool.
The original recipe calls for the addition of 75g raisins to the dry ingredients. I like raisins, Paul Kincaid likes raisins, but after the first time I made this recipe we agreed that raisins have no place in chocolate beetroot muffins and I now leave them out.
Cooked beetroot is available in most supermarkets. Make sure to buy the vacuum-packed version that hasn’t been dressed with vinegar. However, this is also a good way of using up the wizened beetroots lurking at the bottom of the veg box that you otherwise don’t really know what to do with. Just simmer in water until soft, then top, tail, skin and puree.
However unlikely this recipe sounds, it works well. Beetroot is sweet but with a faint edge of earthiness that enhances the chocolate flavour. Even my mother, the arch-conservative cake baker, who makes a truly magnificent chocolate victoria sponge, was impressed when she tasted these muffins. My father was too busy having second helpings.
When I’m not gardening, or writing about gardening, I cook. Various people have been on at me to give them recipes so it seems simplest to put them here on Fragrant Zodiack. First up is the pizza dough recipe my friends all want.
‘Magic’ Pizza Dough
This is a recipe for pizza dough that seems to work for everyone who tries it. Certainly, I’ve used it for years and it’s never failed me. Also, it freezes incredibly well. The name comes from my friend RJ Barker, who thinks it’s the best recipe he’s ever used. Recipe originally comes from The Sunday Times Cook’s Companion. Serves 6. This recipe makes two rectangular pizzas the size of a standard 30 x 23cm (12 x 9in) baking sheet.
250 ml (8fl oz) milk
1 tsp dried yeast or 1 tsp easy-blend dried yeast
Scant ¼ tsp sugar (if required)
450g (1lb) strong plain white flour (i.e. bread flour)
1 tsp salt
1 large egg
6 tbs olive oil
Heat the milk to boiling point, then set it aside until lukewarm.
Using granular yeast
Use about 4 tbs of the milk to activate the yeast. Add sugar. Sift the flour and salt into a bowl. Mix the remaining warm milk with the egg and oil and stir lightly together. Make a well in the centre of the flour and pour in the yeast and egg mixtures all at once. Mix to a dough.
Using easy blend yeast.
In a bowl, sift together the flour, yeast and salt. Mix the egg with the oil and milk and stir lightly together. Add the egg mixture to the flour all at once and mix to a dough.
Turn out the dough, which will be very sticky, onto a well-floured surface and knead for about five minutes or until it is springy and elastic. Form the dough into a ball, put it in a bowl, cover and leave to rise until it has doubled in volume.
[The recipe says this will take 1-2 hours; either I live in a very cold place or it seems to take 3-4 hours, even on warm days. Be patient.]
As there are only two of us here I don’t make baking-sheet pizza but instead divide the dough into six balls, four of which I then freeze individually. I roll the remaining balls out thinly, to dinner-plate size, do the pizza stuff and then cook on baking sheets in a very hot oven (240°C/475°F) for about 20 minutes.
This dough survives the freezing process very well; I take it out in the morning to defrost and by evening it is ready to roll and cover with topping.
There will, I hope, be more posts in the next few days but this is a memorandum of the weekend’s work.
On Saturday P and I went down to the allotment, which had been left to its own devices for a few days. P trimmed the long grass round the edges of the beds while I weeded out the potato ridges and around the courgettes. I’d done Middle Third a few days earlier and it was still looking clean and tidy. Back on Top Third I also trimmed back the leaders on the blackberry bush as they were threatening to swamp everything, while P turned over the compost heap and watered it.
I always feel slightly guilty about the blackberry hedge as I inherited it and have really done nothing to it except hack it down brutally at intervals, treatment it apparently relishes. We had blackberry and apple crumble on Saturday evening, and it was delicious.
Fired with enthusiasm, P also laid out the new stepping stones in the front garden for me on Saturday (there will be photos later) and it is now ready for me to start planting once I’ve worked the ground over a bit, cleared out the latest crop of stones and dealt with the weeds that are already returning. I’m planning to order some bulbs to put in during September, though I am still trying to decide what to get. I think at this stage I shall settle for a brave show.
Yesterday we went back to the allotment and attacked Bottom Third. P put in the last of the three slabs to make the path in front of the compost bins, after which we pulled up as much bindweed as we could, got rid of the huge thistley weeds, the name of which I don’t know, and cut back the long grass. This means that the tiny path between Bottom Third and the next plot down the slope is now visible, and I can see the bottom edge of my allotment again. Putting in the third slab emphasises how sharp a drop there is at the bottom of the allotment, and I will have to think about terracing of some sort to stop the soil slipping away.
We have also, finally, figured out a way of dealing with Rosa the Cat’s nocturnal gardening adventures, something else I’ll post about in more detail later. Basically, I have built some little cloche bunkers out of chunks of polycarbonate roofing panel, and we have stretched crop netting over them. It’s taken a bit of experimentation and a few harsh words between the humans, but we now have the logistics sorted out. They don’t look very pretty but neither do beautiful rows of salad greens scratched out by the cat. I may try to buy another sheet or two of polycarbonate and build a few more cloches; we’ll see how it goes. The idea is supposed to be that they are temporary but Rosa is a remarkably intelligent and persistent cat. This is why we love her.
Today, so far, I’ve been tidying up the back garden again, and tomorrow I shall be down at the allotment starting something I never thought would happen, namely digging Bottom Third. So, finally, the entirety of my vegetable empire is under cultivation, mostly weed-free and growing what it should be growing.
The allotment and the back garden are now mostly tidy, and mostly growing things, so finally I have been able to turn my attention to the front garden. It has been covered in oriental poppies this year, and I left them alone on the basis that at least there was something flowering in the garden. Having said that, their serried ranks were more than a little overpowering and I was relieved when they finally died back and I could pull them up. They arrived of their own volition and have merrily self-seeded all over the place for the last few years. I’m glad to have them there but next year I think I will be rather more proactive about pulling them out if they’re in the wrong place as this year’s display was … excessive.
I’ve never really been quite sure what to do with the front garden. It’s a plot about twelve feet by twelve, with a chunk taken out of it by a bay window. It is accessible only from one side and the far end becomes quickly overgrown because it can be difficult to get at. At various times I’ve put in stepping stones but they’ve never really worked as well as I’d like, and often got lost under plantings. The ground is like a bog in the winter, despite a considerable amount of work on my part to open it up, and yet like dust in the summer, despite having had a lot of organic matter worked into it; it’s in full sun for much of the day in the summer and conditions are brutal, somewhere around USDA zone 10 (by contrast with the back garden and the allotment, which are about zone 8). Some plants do very well, for example hardy geraniums, but they then take over. So do weeds, particularly annual mercury, which is all-pervasive, and green alkanet, which is top of my list of hated weeds, mainly because its leaves have little hairs that stick in my skin and bring me out in a rash. Its little blue flowers are so pretty, but it is a thug. On top of this, the garden suffered somewhat at the beginning of the year when I had to unblock the main drain through the rodding eye in the front garden. I’ve leave the mess to your imagination but suffice to say that the garden got turned over and trampled down a lot as a result.
The new plan is to make a couple of little brick paths across it, using the various bricks and terracotta slabs that have emerged from behind the compost bin, and divide the garden into beds. This is P’s department, though this year he will not be all but burying the stepping stones and then wondering why they almost immediately disappeared in the soft soil!
My part of the plan involves choosing the plants, and I currently have long lists of known drought-tolerant plants to consider, plus offers of many, many seedlings from my father. I am hoping for a cottage garden-y effect, with plants self-seeding (though without poppies everywhere next time). Today, though, I had to dig the garden and clean it up. I cut back the pyracantha yesterday, and tied in various branches to encourage it to grow round the bay window. I would really like to dig it up but the birds like the berries, and I like the birds, so I just try to keep it under control. And the berries do look lovely in the winter. So today was a session of turning earth, clearing out weeds, potting up some sidalcea seedlings to give to my father at some point. I already have some I potted up for my own use last week. And more digging. It took me an hour or so to clear and rough-dig the ground but it now looks so much nicer, a blank canvas. I need to work over the ground with a hoe and get out the rest of the weeds but I’ll wait until P has made the paths for me as I am sure there is much ground-trampling to come.
I probably should have taken ‘before’ photos but I was so ashamed of the mess I really couldn’t bring myself to do it. But I will start taking photographs from here on in, just to show you what it looks like, and to chart my progress. Today, though, I just wanted to record that finally, all three of my little plots of land are under cultivation.
(Things are going well at the allotment. We are now into courgette and accidental marrow season, and the courgettes are delicious. Things are going less well in the growing salad in the garden department, thanks to Rosa, but she is worth a post of her own at a later point. )