Muck spreading

Last week, with the concrete skies and the poorly-but-not-that-poorly baby, I fell into a fug of dis-inspiration. When Matt is working all hours and in contrast my work is quiet, I end up spending long days at home, alone, with little stimulus. The days drag and the evening are long. The radio predicts the end of world (well, Brexit) on an hourly basis. No point doing a nice dinner – who’s going to eat it? No point having a tipple in front of the fire – I’ll just get a bad head and then will be stuck with an entire bottle to get through. No point having my long-planned day off in London. No point doing anything really. So the days lull together into an endless tedium of cleaning and tea and afternoon telly and Instagram and feeling broke and singing chug-a-chug-a-choo-choo.

The thing is, these days of Fug are actually rare, and tend to only last for a week or so until a new creative project comes along. I am so, SO, acutely aware that for women in previous generations, and women in different circumstances today, this was/is their life. The endless drudge of housewifery, with no option of a professional life or a creative life or whatever it is that keeps a person inspired and alive. Don’t misunderstand me – I love my family, of course I do, but the weeks where I am home all the time are hard. So I think of those women who went before me, and pushed for the changes that mean that I have at least got the option of having a different kind of life, and I offer them a little prayer of thanks.

In the meantime, there is muck spreading to be done. 25 sacks of manure have been piled up by the compost bins since February, waiting to have their contents piled up onto the ground where the sunflowers used to be.

25 x 50-litre sacks of manure still do not cover an entire bed

It’s phenomenal just how far these heavy bags of manure don’t go. All that heavy lifting, and there’s still several square metres of land that didn’t get mulched today – just not enough to go around. As I worked, the inquisitive robin hopped around the plot, taking advantage of the feast of snails, slugs and woodlouse that emerged from underneath the plastic sacks. The weather was dry today after days of wet, and the sun was low in the sky but surprisingly warm…enough to thaw out fingers that had grown numb inside sodden gloves.

Both veg beds are now covered in plastic as best I can, to keep the weeds down

If there’s any doubt about the efficacy of covering ground – this patch has been hidden under manure sacks since February and all greenery has gone, leaving a feast of slugs and worms for the robin

I have now covered both of the main vegetable beds in plastic to keep the weeds down, weighed down with more bricks and stones that have been uncovered now that the wilderness area is being cleared. A bit of graft now is much preferable to hours and hours of weeding in the early spring – and sometimes, getting mucky and soggy can be an effective way of removing The Fug.

On Thursday I was drenched…

…but today merely covered in poo

Also this week:

Cooking and eating: Matt’s amazing curry dinner (tandoori chicken, chicken curry, spinach flatbread, Tune’s carrot salad & aloo jeera), profiteroles, Jean’s cider loaf. I have rashly pre-ordered a goose from Mrs Goodman for Christmas, which will live in the freezer at Grove House for a month, and thereby saved myself about £30 by buying early.

Illness update: Harry is now fine but has passed his mouth disease to Matt.

Reading and watching: Winter by Ali Smith; the return of Escape to the Chateau on C4 (once again coveting all things Dick & Angel, including the berets and kimonos).

First frosts and whiskey cake

Our house needs a big red cross on the front door: once again we are diseased. Well actually it’s not that dramatic – potentially a bit of hand, foot and mouth, except Harry’s spots are on his bum, knees and mouth. I haven’t googled “bum, knees and mouth childhood illness” as I’m pretty certain it’s new to science. Whilst Harry’s potentially infectious and therefore off nursery, I’ve been mentally bouncing off the walls at being nearly-housebound. The worst is over so today we even went to Ikea out of desperation.

In the meantime, autumn has taken hold and Birmingham is bathed in golden colour. It’s good to pay attention to these things…the changing light roots me into the passing of the seasons. We’ve had a few frosts now which have finally meant the end of the cosmos – the Cosmos Purity and Dazzler gave me blooms from June to November, which is pretty impressive.

My allotment visits look like this now, meaning it’s almost impossible to get anything done

Cosmos have finally been zapped by the frosts

A week or so back I managed to take out the remaining plants from the one veg bed and get some black plastic down, to protect the soil from the worst of the winter weather and limit the weeds. Keeping the plastic in place is always a feat of “that’ll do” – pegs and staples are useless here, so I use any bits of heavy material I can find including, this year, the hopolisk, some discarded fencing and (my favourite) a marrow.

The one veg plot has been covered in plastic, though the brassicas are still going strong

Without really meaning to, I have become the proud owner of a gazillion dahlias – none of which are in the right place. The ones at home have now been dug up so that I can over-winter them indoors and replant in the spring. The allotment ones also need to come up (just need to find the time) and they will get the same treatment.

First crate of dahlia tubers for over-wintering

All this is diversion from what Harry and I spend most of our poorly time doing, which is cooking. Every morning I plonk him in the high chair so he can watch me concoct something – today it was a lentil and vegetable stew, which he later scoffed very happily, and yesterday it was a parsnip and cheddar soda bread. I know that he’s very young to be indoctrinated into Stallard cookery but I like to think that he will learn by osmosis.

One of his favourite treats of recent weeks has been an Irish Whiskey Cake that was leftover from the cake table at our wedding. He (and I) liked it so much that I pumped my friend Felicity for the recipe, which she in turn had to get from Mrs Audrey Flint from Smethwick Old Church. Audrey very kindly came up with the goods, and I discovered that my naive assumption that the whiskey would have been baked into the cake was wrong wrong wrong. It’s actually a tea bread, and the key ingredient is drizzled on after cooking to increase the moisture content…which means that my son has started his boozy life extremely young.

Here is Audrey’s fine typed-up version, which I see no reason to re-type as I can not improve on this excellent piece of food culture. Thank you Mrs Flint for carrying on the fine tradition of simple yet richly fruited, boozy loaves that keep forever.

Irish Whiskey Cake courtesy of Mrs Audrey Flint of Smethwick Old Church

Also this week:

On the allotment: Covered one vegetable bed with plastic. All the cut flowers are now finished, but still harvesting chard, beet spinach and cavolo nero.

Cooking and eating: Chocolate Eve’s pudding, parsnip & cheddar soda bread, banana muffins, lentil and vegetable stew.

Matt’s rabbit rillettes

The temperature in our house has plummeted in recent days from long-sleeve-t-shirt-with-thick-cardigan temperature, to proper-jumper-plus-thick-cardigan-and-socks-but-still-really-cold temperature. The windows are permanently hazed with condensation and I find it inconceivable that I ever used to wander around in shorts with nothing on my feet. What madness was that?!

This means that we have arrived firmly in autumn. Actually we might be fast-forwarding through autumn in a rush towards winter, given this weekend’s chill wind. Aside from these nonsense low temperatures, autumn brings with it a great many pleasures, most of them culinary. It’s quince season for one. You can buy the fuzzy aromatic pear-shaped fruits in the halal shop on Bearwood High Street for £1 each, or I found this basket of 50p fruits in Moreton-on-Marsh the other day.

Quinces a bargain 50p each in Moreton-on-Marsh

Pumpkins and squash abound, of course, in the run-up to halloween. My local Aldi is selling ‘decorative’ turks turban and blue prince squash for 39p each – presumably they think people will use them as table decorations but I’d rather cook with these than a butternut squash anyday. In Ludlow on Saturday, the pumpkin prices were higher but the colours just as fun.

Gorgeous colours on Ludlow market

We were in Ludlow for our annual freezer-filling visit. I have come to the conclusion that there is nowhere better in the UK to stock up on game, meat, cheese and proper veg (i.e. field-fresh, knobbly and ideally still crusted in mud). Add to that the independent shops, the cosy pub that serves really good pies AND has an open fire, the Ludlow Brewing Company, the castle and the glorious country drive and you have the perfect escape from the city. It’s also surprisingly good value. We came home with (VEGETARIANS PLEASE LOOK AWAY NOW) 2 pheasants, 2 rabbits, stewing venison, stewing mutton, oxtail, 1kg beef mince, 1kg braising steak, Italian sausages, pork pie, a round of cheese, amazing pain de levain and purple sprouting broccoli for less than £55. We’re not talking rubbish meat here, we’re talking meat that someone has taken care over, but without the pretension that you find in the posh urban butchers.

The Ludlow visit always precedes the start of Proper Cooking Season. Yesterday was a happy day of concocting rabbit rillettes, beef bourguignon and orange & cinnamon creme caramel and this morning I interspersed press release writing with making a massive vat of deeply flavoured bolognese sauce. My Things to Cook list has gone subtly wintry….cranberry breakfast bread, pumpkin pie, smoked mackerel pate with beetroot and horseradish.

The rillettes are a particularly welcome addition to the autumn kitchen. The rabbit is slow-cooked with pork belly, thyme and garlic until shreddable, then packed together with their cooking liquor (which is essentially lard, let’s face it) to make a subtly-flavoured pate. Keep a tub of these in the fridge for topping warm buttery toast: lard and butter, working together to keep out the autumn chill.

Rabbit Rillettes
Adapted from this recipe by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Makes two shallow 10cm tubs.

First, joint a rabbit (or get the butcher to do it for you). Remove the rind from 500g fatty pork belly and dice into chunky cubes. Place the meat in an oven-proof dish with sprig of fresh thyme, 3 bay leaves, a bulb of garlic sliced in half through the centre and 250ml water. The meat should be in a single layer so that it cooks evenly. Cover tightly with foil and bake at 220c for 30 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 140c and cook for 2-and-a-half hours more, until the rabbit and pork can be shredded with a fork. Give the dish a prod every now and then during the cooking to ensure that it’s not drying out (top with a little water if you need to).

Allow the rabbit and pork to bubble together in a gentle oven for several hours

Remove the meat from the liquor and leave until cool enough to handle. Shred the meat from the bones and place in a large bowl, making sure all the fat from the pork is included.

Strip the meat from the bones and save the liquor

Thoroughly mix the two meats together and season well with salt and pepper (you could also add some nutmeg or mace now). Add a good splash of the cooking liquor and stir until you achieve a loose pate texture, adding more of the liquor as needed. Transfer your rillettes to tubs or jars, and refrigerate until firm.

Pack the meat into your container and chill

Serve on hot toast, preferably with something slightly acidic to counter all the lard. A cornichon or pickled onion is just the ticket. The rillettes will keep for several days in the fridge, or you could make a few jars and freeze what you don’t need for a later day.

Serve on good toast, ideally with something pickled

Also this week:

Cooking & Eating: German bienenstich (bee sting) cake, spiced squash soup, pies at The Crown Inn in Ludlow, hake from the Birmingham fish market with chorizo. Stollen-watch has begun: Aldi has its mini stollens in, which means the proper ones won’t be too far away.

Reading & Watching: The Apple Orchard by Pete Brown, a love story to the English apple tradition with plenty of references to Herefordshire. The Prawn on the Lawn cookbook by Rick and Katie Toogood.

Visiting: Batsford Arboretum to make the most of the autumn colour. Ludlow for freezer-filling. The new BOM cafe, near the Bullring markets – a cosy cafe that has been designed to be friendly to autistic people.

On the allotment: Still harvesting cosmos, chrysanthemums, chard and cavolo nero. It’s time to clear: Matt has started to remove the thicket of brambles at the back of the greenhouse, I’ve pulled up most of the annuals and veg, and have put black plastic on the one plot to protect the soil and keep weeds down. It’s nearly time for a bonfire.

Golden days on windswept beaches

No words this week, just Cornwall honeymooning lovely-ness.

Actually I will add some words, as follows:

Eating and Cooking: An array of small plates at Prawn on the Lawn in Padstow including deep-fried oysters with garlic creme fraiche, and a lovely glass of Prosecco (am not normally keen). Plus over the course of the week also worked our way through two crabs, a steak and oyster pie (home-made), Buttermilk fudge, mussels at The Beach Hut at Watergate Bay, crab sandwiches and a pasty at the National Trust Cafe at Bedruthan, and a return visit for a cream tea, plus chips, more pasties, really good bread and a memorable viennese finger from the bakery in Polperro.

Reading: The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim, a favourite holiday read, plus Inviting Silence by Grunella Norris. Ordered a load of cookbooks to reinvigorate my home cooking, including PoTL Fish and Shellfish to Share, River Cottage Family Cookbook and Jamie Oliver’s Superfood Family Classics. Also ordered Real Gardens by Adam Frost, for some outdoorsing inspiration.

Wedding flowers and wedding cake(s)

September began with parties and ended with a wedding! After a summer of growing, my cut flowers were OK (nothing special) but thankfully, I had a squad of growers watching my back. Step forward my Mum and Cousin Sue, who between them grew an entire FARM of blooms for our wedding displays. When I asked Sue to help out, back in April, I thought we’d have some pretty flowers that would be just fine, but what we ended up with was better than some professional florestry I’ve seen. I love that our wedding gave an opportunity for creative friends and family to shine.

Sue’s flowers, picked and conditioned, ready for transport

My offerings – not as impressive but still some colour and variety

Together with my Mum, Sue made up some incredible displays for tables and plinths, all using home-grown stems. Plus she made beautiful bouquets for myself and my two nieces, and some seriously impressive buttonhole work. Note the use of hops and clematis seed heads for a bit of country chic.

Sue fashioned the botton holes and bouquets

These exquisite displays were put together by Sue and my Mum

More table decorations

After the wedding the vases made a welcome addition to my back garden

If someone is thinking of doing their own wedding flowers I would say do it…but only if you have a talented team to do all the work. If I was arranging flowers at the same time as making sure the bar was in order and the caterers were OK and having my hair and make-up done, I would have collapsed in a heap. So all respect to Sue and my Mum for their extraordinary skills – I don’t use those words lightly; I couldn’t have asked for more on the floral front.

As someone who has never wanted a big wedding, let alone a bit formal wedding (ugh), it was important to me that we included as much of our normal life into the day as possible. Normal life in Bearwood means regular trips to Chandigarh sweet centre for samosa – THE best samosa in the region – and it gave us great joy to pile 300 onto MDF boards for after-ceremony snacks. 

The best samosa this side of the Punjab

My favourite picture of the day

Normal life also meant Matt messing about with massive bits of wood – this time by sticking our heads onto temporary exhibition walls – and me organising this event like any other work event that I’ve ever been involved in (cue production schedule, production budget, and various bits of tech).

Tres amusement

I digress. The other noteworthy creative skills were from our bakers, and in particular Helen Annetts (my work sister) with her epic allotment cake. I didn’t want a regular wedding cake so Helen “volunteered” to have a go at making a novelty cake – as it turned out, a brilliant centre piece to our table of cakes, generously brought along by our guests for the best pot-luck dessert table I’ve ever seen.

A room devoted to cake

Helen Annett’s allotment cake

Why have one cake when you can have 30?

So now we’re holed up in a farmhouse in Cornwall, looking forward to life getting back to normal and introducing Harry to the joy of October beaches and cream teas.

Lemon ricotta hotcakes

It’s been a fortnight of partying, working and gales. Harry had yet another birthday party, complete with chocolate fingers and more cake; I had my third (THIRD!) hen party ahead of this weekend’s nuptials, then I got busy working on Festival of Imagineers in Coventry. In the meantime, the weather gods decided to do their best to destroy the wedding flowers.

My Mum’s birthday cake, complete with chocolate fingers

Oh, and scones

A hen do with my Birmingham pals, aka the Supperagettes. I was forced to wear that tiara.

Last week’s gales mean that the sunflowers have been battered and the cosmos now lie essentially flat on the ground. After much debate, I am leaving them where they are – it will take at least two people to stake them again (which is logistically impossible) and actually the cosmos can be trimmed to go into pint-sized jars and still look pretty. What drama is involved in growing wedding flowers, and mine are just the back up! Every season I find new respect for the people who grow for a living.

Then the winds blew. The sunflowers held up pretty well, all things considered…

…but the thick, big stems were the least resistant.

After a few days of heads-down work – and after the rain eased – I indulged in a little light foraging. There’s a secret place in Broadway where you can find the best sloes. I could tell you where it is…but I won’t.

Today’s recipe has become a Harry favourite. These lemon ricotta hotcakes are from my favourite Bill Granger Sydney Food cookbook – or at least, I thought they were from there, but on closer examination he uses ricotta NO WHERE in any of his pancake recipes. I had made it up entirely. So I used his recipe for a souffle-style pancake, subbed in some ricotta, and came up with something new. On the one hand, they’re a good way of getting extra calcium into the baby whilst having a supply of easy snacks in the fridge. On the other, they taste of summer whilst being comfortingly warm and cosy.

Lemon Ricotta hotcakes

A knob of butter (about 25g)
150g ricotta
2 eggs, separated
squeeze of lemon juice
zest of 1 lemon
1 tsp vanilla extract
120g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
2 tblsp caster sugar
milk

Melt the butter in a heavy-based frying pan (the one that you’ll cook your hotcakes in) then remove from the heat to cool.

In a bowl, mix together the ricotta, egg yolks, lemon zest, juice, and vanilla. In a larger bowl, sift together the flour, baking power and sugar. In yet another bowl, whisk the egg whites until stiff.

Whisk the ricotta mixture into the flour until well mixed. Add the egg whites in batches, folding through with a large metal spoon, until combined. Loosen with a little milk if it needs it. Finally, gently stir through the melted butter.

Heat the frying pan over a medium heat and drop in a dollop of batter to make one pancake – flip when the underside is golden brown. Repeat until all the hotcakes are cooked. Serve with soft fruit.

Harry likes to watch me cook

Also this week:

Cooking and Eating: Apple cake and babka from the Polish deli in Coventry, T-bone steak from Gloucester services, trio of roasts at The Swan in Broadway

Harvesting: Not so much now. The tomatoes and beans have finished but chard and cavolo nero still going strong. Haven’t harvested any flowers for a week due to work.

Reading and watching: The Saffron Tales by Yasmin Khan, Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. Watching The Bodyguard, like everyone else in Britain.

Experiencing: Hupla, the 20m tall sculpture made of hula-hoops, and remembering the joy of freestyle stitching at Festival of Imagineers

Birthday cake

I am slowly getting used to the fact that summer has gone. I know we were all whinging about the heat but when the weather broke at end of July, I presumed it would be just a short break before normal 30c service resumed. It was not to be and now we’re in mid-September, wearing long trousers and socks (SOCKS!) and the heating has even been on for a few hours. Both the allotment and the back garden have got a bit shaggy and could do with a back-to-school tidy up. This may have to wait until October.

Sunflowers are nearing being out of my reach

The hops tower over everything

They’ve even infiltrated the sweet pea poles

The season’s shift means that new produce sits alongside the summer hangers-on. I stocked up with pears and apples at Clives the other week, and the freezer is now re-filled with my Mum’s excellent corn on the cob. The autumn raspberries have been brilliantly productive this year – got two big freezer bags of those – and the fridge is stuffed with beets, peppers, cavolo nero, courgettes (still) and beans (still). And the tomatoes! So many tomatoes – despite the fact that 50% of the plants totally failed.

Apple and pear season is here

Dad’s [smug] basket of produce

But onto more pressing matters. Harry is 1! 1! We have kept a human alive for a year with sanity (just about) intact, bank account (just about) intact and relationship intact (getting hitched so looks OK).

Harry is 1!

Birthday balloons

I made a rib roast as a special treat

Everyone knows the crazy lengths people go to now to make their children’s birthday cake. Google ‘1st birthday cake’ and you will see thousands of glorious bakes, each one suspiciously perfect and indicating to me that a nervous breakdown took place behind the scenes. And they’re all covered with sugar paste, which is (in my opinion) so disgusting and stupid expensive. Bugger that. So Harry’s birthday cake involved four things:

  1. Cake
  2. Buttercream
  3. Sweets
  4. Candles

The birthday cake

I went for a tray bake, as it’s easier to decorate and actually is also easier to cut up for a crowd. This one is surprisingly dense and chocolatey, so it keeps adults happy as well as the kids. I upped the quantities from the original recipe so that I could bake the cake in our massive roasting dish; use whichever quantities are right for your baking tray.

Easy to make, easy to bake, easy to slice. Sorted.

Birthday Cake
From Signe Johansen’s Scandilicious Baking

The first quantities are for a 20x30cm tray. Quantities in (brackets) are suitable for a 35x25cm tray.

5 (8) eggs (I always use large)
250g (375g) light brown muscavado sugar
75g (115g) dark chocolate
150g (225g) unsalted butter, melted
50g (75g) cocoa powder
60ml (90ml) strong coffee
100g (150g) creme fraiche (full fat)
3tbsp (5tbsp) milk
200g (300g) self-raising flour
tiny pinch fine salt

Icing:
150g (225g) unsalted butter
3tbsp (6 tbsp) cocoa powder
150g (225g) icing sugar
Squirt of vanilla paste or splash of vanilla extract
Milk to loosen
Sweets, chocolate and candles, to decorate

Preheat the oven to 170c and line your tin with baking parchment.

Melt the chocolate and butter together in a bowl set over simmering water, then leave to cool.

Sift the cocoa into a bowl, add the coffee and mix to a paste. Stir in the creme fruit and milk, to make a smooth mixture (it may need a quick whisk to get rid of lumps).

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs and sugar until you reach the ribbon stage – this may take in excess of 10 minutes. Use a hand-held mixer or table-top mixer.

Pour the chocolate mix into the side of the eggs, and whisk to combine. Do the same with the cocoa mixture. Finally, sift the flour in top with a tiny pinch of salt and fold in, using large metal spoon – you may want to do this in batches. Mix carefully until fully combined, keeping as much air in the batter as you can. Pour into the tray and bake for 25-30 minutes, until firm. Leave to cool completely before decorating.

To make the icing, soften the butter in the microwave for 10 seconds or until beatable. Using a hand-held whisk, beat the butter then sift in the icing sugar and cocoa – it will make a massive mess alas – and continue to whisk the hell out of it until smooth and fluffy. Add a splash of milk at this stage to make the icing softer (but don’t add it any earlier as you risk the lot splitting).

When ready, use a palette knife to spread the icing over the cake, then decorate as you see fit!

Notes for next year

I’ve been spending too much time working (sound familiar?), baby-caring (unavoidable) and wedding organising (least said about that the better) and not enough time sorting out the allotment. I usually spend about an hour there every other day, but this time is completely taken up with harvesting, picking, watering. In my absence, a sea of thistles has grown up, and the disaster zone at the back of the compost bins has reached a whole new level of jungle. So today I bunked off for a few hours and really grafted, trying to get things in order. And whilst I hoed and chopped and strimmed, I made a few mental notes for next year. Think of it as a gift of wisdom from present self to future self. Namely:

Cosmos: Ditch Antiquity, it always grows short and stunted. Purity, Double click cranberry and Dazzler are the ONES. Take care when propagating to do it properly, one plant per pot, with none of my normal slapdash-ness.

Crappy cosmos grown by me at the front, good cosmos grown by my mother at the back. They are late – we’re hoping for a September harvest – and look promising.

Cornflower: Work out why they are always so short and stumpy, and then try to do better. Definitely worth persevering.

Tomatoes: Stick to Costoluto Fiorentino as it’s pretty reliable, but ditch all the other varieties, including Noire de Crimee and Golden boy. Find an eating type (rather than a cooking type) that has bullet-proof resistance to blossom-end rot.

Beans: Find a different runner bean, perhaps one that is less stringy. Plant purple and yellow French climbing beans alongside the usual green ones. Blue Lake was OK but perhaps prefer Cobra.

Kale and greens: The Sarah Raven Nero di Toscana has performed really well. I miss the other types of kale though – can I track down Fills of hex again? Chard luculuss and Spinach Perpetual are unbeatable.

Love love love the chard and the spinach

Sweetpeas: SHOCK HORROR but it may not be worth the bother? Unless I can find ones that are reliably long-stemmed and greenfly-proof.

Parsnips and leeks: Remember to grow some.

Rocket: As above.

Cleome: Fun plant even though it stinks of cannabis. Definitely grow again.

Cleome: definitely related to dope and makes a totally jazzy cut flower

Rudbeckia: Not a great cut flower but will look fab in the back garden for late summer dark colour. Buy as seedlings as I never get them to grow well from seed.

Sunflowers: All the sunflowers have done really well. Get a new packet of the Seeds of Italy sunflower mix, and re-plant the Sarah Raven Magic Roundabout and Valentine.

Sunflowers are late starting this year because of the draught, but coming good now

Blackcurrants and blueberries: Need some attention. Do blackcurrants come to an end of a working life? Perhaps they need some food? Do a bit of research.

Broadbeans: Grow four times as many as you think you need. There are never ever enough.

Strawberries: Maybe time to dig them up and start again with tastier varieties.

The Wilderness: For God’s sake, sort it out over the winter. No excuses.

The wilderness. It’s the garden equivalent of a junk room.

Also this week:

Harvesting: Raspberries, raspberries, more raspberries. Chard, cavolo nero, tomatoes – only the Fiorentino though, the others have all had it. Runner beans, sunflowers, first chrysanthemums, cosmos, cleome.
Not harvesting: Courgettes. I just can’t take it anymore.
Sowing: Red devil kale, rocket, mustard salad mix.
Cooking: Raspberry meringues, chicken and bacon pie, a vat of chicken stock
Reading: According to Yes by Dawn French. Never read any of her novels before as I don’t think of her as a novelist, but my misplaced snobbery needs shaming. It’s brilliant. Plus she has great hair. Nothing not to love.

Moussaka

Welcome to the courgette plank of shame. These don’t look that big in the picture, but trust me, they’re massive. Although I’ve noticed that the courgettes for sale in the supermarkets are sometimes bigger, which is clearly madness. According to Ruth Rogers of River Cafe fame, the best courgette for picking is the size of a large thumb – the problem being that it stays that size for, ooh, around thirty seconds before transforming into a monster. I’ve given up picking them now, so overladen are we with the glut.

The courgette-marrow plank of shame

Meanwhile the drop in temperature and damp weather has brought on the hops, which are now covered in these prickly little flowers. I’m on the allotment three times a week to pick the raspberries and gather the sunflowers, dodging showers (not always successfully) and noticing all the jobs that need doing that I don’t have capacity for.

The hops are beginning to flower

Harry and I got caught in a downpour so had to hang out in the ramshackle greenhouse for half an hour

Dad’s monster aubergine demanded some proper attention. These days I prefer recipes that take ten minutes here and there, leaving me free to run the business / remove Harry from the fireplace (his latest favourite place) / organise the wedding etc etc. Moussaka fits the bill perfectly.

Dad with his aubergine

Lots of recipes demand that aubergines are fried first but I dislike this approach for two reasons: 1, you use a shed load of oil, which is both too fatty and too expensive, and 2, it takes forever and is very dull. The best thing to do is thickly slice the aubergines, add a wee bit of oil, then roast in the oven until soft. I’ve added some summer squash to the mix because GLUT.

Roast the sliced aubergines and courgettes

Whilst the veg is roasting away, make a braised lamb sauce. You could use leftover roast lamb here – I think this would probably be better actually – but I only had lamb mince to hand. Simply cook together with onions, tomato puree, cinnamon and red wine until reduced and unctuous. The cinnamon is important, giving background warmth and the whisper of distant sunkissed shores. After an hour of gentle puttering it should be thick and delicious, at which point you can use it straight away or leave for a few hours until you’re ready to finish the moussaka.

The braised lamb sauce

Finally, make a simple béchamel sauce, generously flavoured with nutmeg. Once it’s done leave it to cool for a while, then stir in two eggs for that classic custardy finish.

The béchamel is mixed with eggs and nutmeg

To make the moussaka, layer up your dish in this order: aubergines, meat, aubergines, meat, béchamel. Bake at 180c for about 45 minutes, until the top is blistered and golden. Now – this is VERY important – leave it untouched for at least thirty minutes to calm down and firm up. Hot moussaka is a sloppy horrible mess, but warm moussaka holds its shape and the flavours shine through. Serve with a simple side salad.

Let the moussaka stand for half an hour after baking to allow it to firm up

Moussaka
Inspired by Felicity Cloake’s Guardian recipe. Serves 6 (I made two dishes and froze one)

Olive oil
1 monster aubergine and 1 summer squash / courgette, or 2 large aubergines
1 large onion, finely chopped
4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1.5 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp dried oregano
500g minced lamb or leftover roast lamb. Use good quality if you can.
2 tbsp tomato puree
splash of water
150ml red wine
Parsley, chopped

For the béchamel: 
500ml milk
60g butter
60g plain flour
50g parmesan, grated (you could use pecorino or kefalotryi if you have it)
2 eggs
Nutmeg, to grate

Preheat the oven to 180c. Cut the aubergines and squash into thick slices, and place on a roasting tray. Drizzle with oil and season. Bake until soft and golden, about 20 minutes.

Now the lamb. Warm a lidded frying pan or casserole dish on a gentle heat. Cook the onion in a shake of olive oil and a pinch of salt until soft. Stir in the garlic, cinnamon and oregano, then add the lamb. Cook over a high-ish heat until the lamb is well browned and the mixture is quite dry – about 10 minutes. Stir in the tomato puree and cook for another few minutes to get rid of the raw taste, then add in the wine and a splash of water to cover the meat. Turn the heat right down and braise for about 45 minutes until the liquid has evaporated. Stir in the parsley and season to taste. Leave to cool and spoon off any excess oil.

Make the béchamel. Melt the butter in a saucepan, stir in the flour and cook for a minute or two, then gradually add the milk. (Recipes always tell you to use hot milk but who actually does this? I use it cold and stir like mad between each addition to remove the lumps.) Cook until you have a thick sauce and then simmer gently for five minutes to cook through. Stir in the cheese. Remove from the heat and cool slightly, then add the nutmeg and eggs.

Finish the moussaka. In a suitably size dish (or two dishes) layer up aubergine, meat, aubergine, meat and finish with the sauce. Bake for about 40 minutes until well browned. Leave to cool for 30 minutes before serving.

Also this week:

Cooking: Roast leg of lamb with garlic, rosemary and anchovy; roasted vegetable pasta (allotment veg); caramel almond sponge; runner beans braised with tomatoes.

Eating: Pizza at Baked in Brick, Cronut from Medicine bar, Chandigarh veggie samosa and curries

Harvesting: Sunflowers, cleome, dahlia, sweetpeas, cosmos, rudbeckia, last runner beans, loads and loads of raspberries, last blueberries, courgette, squash, cavolo nero, chard, spinach beet. The tomatoes that we’re getting are great and gnarly and red and delicious.

Also: Trying to balance work projects (festival organising, website writing) with baby care with organising a wedding with general life stuff. Re-reading The Summer Book by Tove Jansson and disturbingly obsessed with Say yes to the dress on Quest Red.

Blackberry (baby) muffins

Plague has visited the household. Harry brought home – simultaneously – a vomiting bug, a chest infection and a general got-no-energy malaise. The vomit, dear God, the vomit! He’s now fine of course, but I am in day 10 of being decidedly below par. It’s also the time of year when the biting insects reach peak-feasting mode and I succumb to wearing jungle formula to bed. I know we should appreciate the warm but frankly, I am now ready for drizzle, anoraks and things-wrapped-in-pastry.

Meanwhile the harvest continues. Beans…so many beans, and courgettes, so many courgettes. And great-looking chard, cavolo nero, perpetual spinach, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, and rather less-great-looking knobbly tomatoes. Plus, whilst not armfuls of flowers, enough for a few pretty vases a week. I also am gratefully receiving the fruit of other people’s labour: just look at this whopper of an aubergine!

My Dad has grown a massive aubergine

Getting two or three baskets like this a week

The sweetpeas, sunflowers, cleome, rudbeckia and cosmos are providing several vases a week

What to do with all these beans!

There’s been a good deal of batch cooking this week. Given that I’m still working and am losing about an hour a day to massive coughing fits, I’m not entirely sure how that’s happened, but there it is. Cooking on auto-pilot. I like to keep a good amount of baby food in the freezer, ready to go, to prevent meltdowns at teatime. Fruity muffins are useful and I’ve been using this River Cottage recipe from their Baby and Toddler cookbook which, in truth, taste way too much like health food to me, but Harry likes them. The purple juice stains, so you must either strip your child before they dig in, or else surrender your power to the washing machine. I choose the latter.

Substitute the blackberries with raspberries, redcurrants, blueberries or apples as the mood takes you. Cooked muffins can be frozen. Defrost at room temperature and maybe given them 20 seconds in the microwave before eating to refresh. Grown-ups may prefer these higher-sugar tayberry muffins instead.

Blackberry muffins
From the River Cottage Baby and Toddler Cookbook

125g wholemeal flour
125 plain flour
3 level tsp baking powder
75g caster sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
75g unsalted butter
1 egg
125g plain full-fat yoghurt
125ml whole milk
100-200g blackberries

Preheat the oven to 180c. Sift together the dry ingredients into a mixing bowl. In a pyrex jug, melt the butter in the microwave until just melted. Using a fork, whisk the egg, milk and yoghurt into the butter. Add the milky mixture to the dry ingredients and stir to combine (I use a wooden spoon for this). Stir in the blackberries. Dollop the mixture into muffin cases and bake for about 20mins or until golden.

Blackberry baby muffins

Also this week:

Harvesting: last French beans, runner beans, chard, perpetual spinach, cavolo nero, courgette, tomatoes, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, cleome, sunflowers, cosmos, rudbeckia, dahlia, sweetpeas. Gratefully receiving beetroots, tomatoes, peppers and aubergine from my folks.

Taking up: bolted lettuce and rocket, lots of annoying thistle weeds

Cooking and eating: Red beans and ham hock, hidden-veg pasta sauce for Harry, Peach cinnamon buns, beetroot salad, mixed veg couscous. A 15% Manzanilla, the first time I’ve enjoyed a sherry since before pregnancy and sign that my liver is improving. Cough mixture.

Reading: The legacy of Elizabeth Pringle by Kirsty Wark, a brilliant portrait of both a Scottish island (drizzle!) and the secret lives of women

Visiting: Tenbury show. Lots of trips to Coventry for work.