Southern red beans with ham

It’s still touch and go on the allotment. The brassicas and perennials are doing just fine, but the cut flower annuals are the worst they’ve ever been. Even the sunflowers seem stunted. I am uncertain what the problem is….perhaps the evenings have been too chill, perhaps the weather too dry, perhaps the seedlings were too weak to be planted out. I don’t feel that I’ve done anything differently from previous years though…it’s a mystery.

Most of the cut flowers are far from thriving

In the meantime, I’ve been working on my cinnamon bun recipe. I am sure posts with follow, but with The Nordic Baking Book by my side, and inspired by those amazing Copenhagen bakeries, this was last weekend’s efforts.

Been experimenting with my cinnamon bun recipe

I have got into the habit of keeping a stash of cinnamon buns in the freezer for emergency breakfasts / snacks / comfort. And speaking of freezer food, this Red beans and ham dish is a new addition to the bulk cooking repertoire. The recipe comes from Jamie Oliver’s American cookbook, inspired by the frugal cuisine of Louisiana and the Southern states. Frugal it may be, and simple, and nutritious (all those beans…) but the most important thing is that it’s incredibly delicious. If you think that you don’t like kidney beans, try this and have your perspective changed.

The first thing to do is get hold of a hefty piece (around 2kg) of smoked gammon or a ham hock. The hock will shred more easily plus you’ll get all the bonus flavour from the bone in your stew, but a piece of gammon is easier to find. Either way, it really must be smoked. Then the day before you wish to cook, soak 500g dried kidney beans in fresh water for several hours.

When you’re ready to cook, plonk your hock or gammon in a large stock pot, cover with fresh cold water, bring to a simmer, then drain the water away completely. This helps remove excess salt from the meat. Replace the meat to the pot with the soaked beans2 tins of tomatoes, 4 sticks of diced celery, 2 diced onions, 1 bulb of garlic with its neck sliced off to reveal the flesh within, 1 tablespoon dried oregano, a few bay leaves, a few sprigs of fresh thyme, 1 tablespoon sweet paprika, 1/2 teaspoon cayenne for a subtle kick and a good grind of black pepper. No salt, due to the saltiness of the pork. Top it up with about 1 litre water, so the meat is covered.

Place on the hob and bring to a fast simmer for 5 minutes, then leave to putter on a low heat (lid on) for about two hours, until the beans are soft. Give it a prod every now and then, topping up with water if it looks dry.

Simmer ham and beans with tomato, stock veg and spices for a few hours

Once the beans are cooked, remove from the heat and leave to cool slightly. Fish out the garlic skin and any herb stalks that you find. The meat needs shredding so remove the hock or gammon from the pot, remove the bone and any excess skin and fat, then shred into large chunks and set aside whilst you finish the beans.

Place a few ladles of beans into a bowl and use a potato masher to break them down. This makes a thick, creamy mixture that will help to thicken the beans. Replace to the pot with the ham and give it all a good mix; If the beans are too watery, cook with the lid off for a few minutes to reduce. Season to taste – a little cider vinegar may be just the trick.

Serve with rice, a dollop of sour cream and something fresh and crunchy – lightly dressed salad leaves or a chopped guacamole. This recipe makes 8 generous portions so it’s great for a crowd, but any leftovers will freeze excellently.

A few hours later, pull the pork into the spicy red beans for a frugal but incredibly delicious dinner

Also this week:

Cooking and eating: Cinnamon rolls; Matt’s beignets with cinnamon and chocolate sauce; cream tea at Emma Bridgewater in Stoke.

Harvesting: Sweet William, foxgloves, cow parsley, first homegrown salad leaves.

In praise of horta

As we edge towards midsummer there is a general lightness, in all senses. Light mornings and light evenings. Lighter food. Light, frothy flowers in the back garden. A lightness of spirit (longer, warmer days translate to having more energy, for me anyway). It’s my absolute favourite time of the year, with days filled with discovery and adventure.

The border in our back garden is coming into fullness. This is only its second season – and it’s still rife with gaps and errors – but I love watching for daily micro changes as the roses bloom, delphinium hover on the edge of flowering and foxgloves provide food for hungry bees. The allotment, as usual, is a mixture of disaster and fecundity: the climbing beans have been all but destroyed by the birds, and the cut flower annuals are as tiny now as when they were planted a month ago. The perennials, on the other hand, are thriving, with Sweet William the latest arrival to the June cutting party.

Roses on the edge of bloom

All the flower annuals are now planted out, though most are stumpy and far from thriving

Sweet William now in flower

I added a few stems of wild, self-sown cow parsley and foxgloves to today’s cut flower harvest of allium, sweet rocket, persicaria, flowering sage and the Sweet William; I’m particularly pleased with this pink, purple and pale cream arrangement.

June pickings: allium, sweet william, sweet rocket, foxgloves, flowering sage and cow parsley

Same arrangement in the vase

When it comes to home-grown veg, it’s still a sparse time of year, and it will remain so for ages, given the stumpiness of my seedlings. And this is where the joy of GREENS comes in. I don’t mean the massive, leafy cabbages or lettuces that we’ll get in a few weeks time, but rather the small, palm-sized leaves that thrive in early summer. There is a tradition in parts of the Mediterranean to collect wild greens – called horta – which are then eaten raw, or very slightly cooked, to supplement the lean, home-grown diet. In warmer climates this can go on year round, but here in England we only really start to see lush green growth in late April. Patience Gray discussed horta in great detail in Honey from a Weed, and makes wild claims that a plateful of herbs has an ‘oiliness’ to it that can keep the eater going for hours. Whilst that may be disputable, there is an undeniable vigour to freshly picked young greens that can not be replicated by any supermarket packet.

I do not collect wild greens (though I could – the allotment is FULL of nettles, and they would be grand) but I do look forward to this time of year, when the fridge has a constantly re-filled bag of fresh greens in it. Currently on the go is cima di rapa, which I grew in the veg trug from a sowing about 6 weeks ago, rocket from the allotment, and young spinach, radish tops and beetroot tops that I thieved from mum’s vegetable garden (her pickings always come a month earlier than mine).

Cima di rapa

All these young, gentle greens need is a quick wash, then to be wilted in a hot pan with a lick of butter or olive oil, perhaps a few thin slivers of garlic or chili, and a bit of salt. They take mere seconds to cook. Have them as an accompaniment to something else or – my preference – turn them into the star of the show. Horta on toast with a poached egg is my June brunch of choice, and orecchiette with cima di rapa and fennel sausage is a classic for a reason.

Saute the greens and serve on toast with an egg

Horta need no recipe or any grand instruction. They are the essence of what it means to grow, and cook, your own food. In this age where we are so deeply indoctrinated into supermarket food culture, I find that a plateful of simple greens can root me back to the peasant tradition – born of necessity of course, but none the worse for that – of eating what nature provides, when she provides it.

 

Also this week:

Allotment and garden: Planted out chrysanthemums, marigolds, chard, spinach and bulls blood. Netted the blueberries. Grass is growing at a distressing rate. Annuals are not doing so well – it is so dry – and climbing beans have been eaten by the pigeon. Broad beans have set. Back garden nearing its peak, with roses, foxgloves and delphinium.

Harvesting: Sweet William, last Sweet Rocket, alliums, cow parsley, persicaria, flowering sage, foxgloves. Rocket, spinach, broad beans (from Mum’s garden), chives, oregano, mint.

Cooking & eating: Chicken in white wine with tarragon from garden; gateau with strawberries and raspberries; Lincolnshire plum bread from work visit to Grantham.

Chelsea musings

We’re in recovery from our first ever trip to Chelsea Flower Show. Actually, to be truthful, it’s not Chelsea that needs recovering from, rather the shock of visiting a coffee shop on a Sunday morning in Clapham and being immersed in the culture of expensive-lycra-clad Londoners, shouting into their phones as they fork out £20 on a tiny portion of avocado on toast. (This is not an exaggeration. The bakery also had tiny, tiny little rolls filled with a single slice of boiled egg that would have set you back a fiver. I can only presume that the 20- and 30-somethings of South London are treating prosecco as a major food group and therefore actual food is not required. They should all visit Copenhagen sharpish and learn to live more Danishly).

Back in the scruffier, poorer, and significantly friendlier, surroundings of Bearwood, I can reflect on our visit and draw out some of the design inspirations that I may want to try at home.

The first thing is that Chelsea is bonkers. Absolutely mad. It’s not actually that big, yet it warrants as much prime-time BBC TV coverage as major international sporting events. What does this say about the British? What other nation would see fit to recreate a picture-perfect 1930s allotment IN A TENT, or to craft classic children’s TV characters out of chrysanthemums? It is eccentric, wonderful, madness.

What other country would replicate a full size allotment, in a tent? The British are bonkers.

No summer show is complete without some giant carrots and a croquembouche of cherry tomatoes

‘I know!’, said the chrysanthemum Society. ‘Let’s recreate Zippy out of orange Chrysanths!’

I LOVE the madness and find it heart-warming that so much effort is put into botanical creativity, usually by quite quiet, gentle, unassuming people who run specialist flower societies and nurseries. Because the other thing about Chelsea is that it really matters. Careers are made at this show and millions upon millions of pounds is spent every year on the show gardens and displays. Big investment banks put up six- and seven- figure sponsorship packages in an effort to look more human. There’s an interesting, and quite timely (yes, I am talking Brexit), dichotomy between the culture of London mega-bucks global image-making and the provincial salt-of-the-earth types who actually get the show made. It’s an uneasy relationship at times..but good for these worlds to meet.

On to the plants. The big draw for most visitors are the show gardens but I found the smaller displays far more relatable and interesting. Many designers used what I call a ‘confetti’ effect in their planting, with small, quite delicate flowers in a host of clashing colours, which together give a sense of fullness. This lily also caught my eye – Isabel – with its double flower ranging from white through to a deep pink.

Persicaria amidst a confetti style, colour clash arrangement

Oh and the sheds! Or – as they prefer to be known at Chelsea – the garden rooms! I never thought I would covet a shed but I do now. I am lobbying for a lean-to greenhouse to be attached to mine, as in this picture. These were actually the most ‘normal’ of all the garden furniture on display; the rest of it required a small stately home to carry off.

Shed envy

The most memorable garden for me was the Montessori Children’s Garden – I do have a slight bias as Harry is at a Montessori nursery – as of all the gardens, it seemed to be the most fun / least earnest. This is not just a garden for kids, but for anyone who believes that plants make people happy. It was a riot of colour, filled with that confetti-style planting I love, and with edibles rammed in alongside the delphiniums and poppies. The height of the plants means that the flower heads (and therefore bees and other insects) are at child head height, so they can be truly immersed in the outdoors. Wonderful stuff. And the plant markers were painted wooden spoons, which is such a brilliant idea that I will definitely use it on the allotment; so much better than those stupid little plastic labels that the blackbirds love to peck at.

The Montessori children’s garden

Dahlia ‘Bright Eyes’ amidst rich blues and yellows

Colour pops and height make this so much fun

One idea that I’ll definitely be stealing: wooden spoon plant labels

Elsewhere, the D-Day 75 garden used a drift of sea thrift, found along the shores of Normandy and the British Isles. I found the airy white and pink of this planting incredibly evocative and moving, far more so than any poppy display I’ve seen.

A drift of pink and white sea thrift at the D’Day 75 garden

There was also ALOT of green. I am not great with green; I don’t know enough about foliage plants to know what to get or where to put them, but I think I should try to learn more. It was especially effective on the Finland garden, where it acted as foil to the airy white foxgloves, daisies and peonies.

Shades of green offset the white foxgloves and peonies in the Roots in Finland garden

I thought there would be more contemporary, gardening-as-art, style displays as there has been in previous years but perhaps the old guard aren’t ready for that yet. (I found even the high-end garden sculptures on sale to be of questionable artistic merit.)

But I do leave with plenty of practical inspiration for the summer. And memories of an enjoyable day out that seems to sum-up all the contradictions, eccentricities and polarisations of Brexitland Britain.

Also this week:

Cooking and eating: Harissa lamb kebabs with broad beans dressed in yoghurt and garlic, with Greek chips; lots of strawberries and raspberries, first Spanish cherries, a delicious Provencal rose from Aldi, of all places.

Allotment and garden: Planted out the dahlias and remaining annuals, took delivery of a van load of Mum’s plants including the hanging baskets. Picking sweet rocket, alliums and persicaria. Roses are in bloom. Mum’s first lettuce, broad bean, spinach and radish.

Christianshavn Pie (Danish strawberry cream cake)

Warning: This post contains images of extreme baking

We’re back from a long weekend in Copenhagen, or as I now think of it, heaven on earth. Allow me to set the scene: a city of beautiful people, beautiful design and beautiful living, but not self-consciously so. It is a city seeped in wholesome-ness and good manners. Everyone rides bikes, not wearing lycra or any of that nonsense, but in their normal, beautifully stylish, clothes (jeans, an expensive coat, maybe a scarf, and definitely trainers). All the bikes means that there are few cars, so the air is clear, and there is a noticeable lack of road rage or rage in general, so people are relaxed and happy. The children – all beautifully well-dressed and well-mannered – play in beautifully-maintained playgrounds. The wide boulevards are peppered with naturalistic plants and flowers; nothing looks forced or overly manicured. The buildings, both old and new, are clean and tidy. There is no litter, ANYWHERE. The cafes are full, day and evening, of beautiful, wholesome people enjoying coffee and fika whilst tapping on their laptops.

Who are these people?! How can I live more Danishly?

Our few days of living Danishly, based in a tenement apartment in Vesterbro

How’s this for a playground? This wooden-based area was 10m from our apartment and is full of carefully-controlled danger and opportunities for creative play.

Central Copenhagen has two magnificent free-entry gardens, the Botanical Garden and the King’s Garden. The latter was established in the 1600s as the private garden of the King (hence the name) and is still maintained in that style, with knot garden, rose borders, espaliered apple trees and extensive borders. Note: this is FREE. What an amazing place to while away a lunch hour or take the kids for a picnic. I tell you, Copenhageners have it made.

Incredible long borders in the King’s Garden, the free park right in the centre of the city

Gorgeous avenue of light and shade, King’s Garden

Talking of horticulture, it’s a city awash with florists – this I was not expecting – and they are a lesson in abundance. Plants, shrubs, herbs and flowers spill out onto the pavement in a manner that is not what I expected from the usually pared-back Danes.

Florists were all a lesson in abundance

But of course the real reason to go to Denmark is for the baking. The Danish Pastry is not so-named for nothing. Oh dear God the baking.

On every street, pretty much, is a baker of such skill and brilliance that I wanted to applaud. Copenhagen’s answer to Greggs is Lagkaghuset – they are ubiquitous, albeit far more expensive – with the crucial difference that Lagkaghuset is REALLY GOOD. Their windows are a masterclass of sourdoughs, rye loaves, pastries, gateaux, cookies, muffins and buns. Beyond the chain, there is brilliant baking to be found everywhere.

As well as the dark rye tin loaves, the bakeries had a wide selection of rough, sourdough-style flattish loaves, all with a long prove and an open texture.

Danish pastry selection 1….

…and more….

There are two main types of Danish pastry: the first is an enriched bread-based dough, knotted or swirled, and the second is more pasty-style, with laminations and a crispy, flaky finish. The cinnabun pictured here was in the first style (my preference), and came topped with a cream-cheese icing.

The cinnabun was of note: bread-based cinnamon dough topped with cream cheese icing

This version is in the second style: more pastry-like, flaky and crispy, like a croissant.

This cinnamon-based pastry was more, well, pastry like – higher in butter content with a flakier finish

The Trasestammer is a favourite of Matt’s: an incredibly rich, rum-laced chocolate-nut truffle wrapped in marzipan and dipped in dark chocolate. They translate as ‘tree logs’, which is pleasing.

Special mention also to the ‘tree log’ cakes…

I was a fan of this rhubarb-and-custard filled pastry, topped with flaked hazelnuts and demerara sugar. Even if I practised every day for a decade, I am not sure I could achieve this level of mastery of the pastry-baking art.

…to this rhubarb-and-custard filled pastry…

There is room, though, for the simple sponge. In what we now refer to as ‘Copenhagen Cake’, a new favourite is a simple vanilla sponge topped with pink icing and freeze-dried raspberries. Suitable for gluttons of all ages.

…and to this simple treat: a light vanilla sponge topped with pink (royal?) icing and freeze-dried raspberries

At the airport I spotted these beauties. The Strawberry Pie has a chocolate pastry base, topped with a layer of marzipan and creme patissiere and finished with strawberries. The Christianshavn Pie has a nutty-sponge base, topped with strawberry mousse and finished with fruits.

A mere selection of gateax AT THE AIRPORT!

Well I may not be up to making a rhubarb-and-custard Danish pastry but a Christianshavn Pie I can do. Here’s my version – and dear Reader, if you want to eat amazing baked goods, then book yourself a trip to Copenhagen ASAP.

My attempt at Christianshavn pie, inspired by that incredible display at the airport

Christianshavn Pie (Danish strawberry cream cake)

Makes 1 cake. Recipe adapted from baketotheroots.de

For the topping:
120g strawberries
2 tbsp icing sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla bean paste
1.5 leaves gelatine
300ml double cream

For the sponge:
80g hazelnuts
30g shortbread biscuits
1 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
1 tsp vanilla bean paste
2 egg whites

To finish:
Strawberries
Icing sugar
2 tbsp strawberry jam

First make the mousse. Puree the strawberries in a food processor, then transfer to a small saucepan. Stir the icing sugar into the strawberry puree. Soak the gelatine in cold water until malleable, then add to the strawberries. Warm gently until the gelatine has dissolved – do not boil. Transfer to a bowl and set aside in the fridge to cool completely.

Whip the cream until soft peaks form. Fold the strawberry mixture into the cream, cover with clingfilm and place in the fridge to set (1-2 hours).

To make the sponge, preheat the oven to 190c. Grease and line a sandwich cake tin (mine is 6-inches). Tip the hazelnuts into a dry frying pan and toast on a medium heat until golden – be careful not to let them burn. Tip into a food processor with the shortbread biscuits, and blitz to a crumb. Add the sugar, vanilla, baking powder, salt and egg whites and pulse until combined. Tip into the baking tin and bake for around 20 minutes until firm and golden. Leave to cool.

To make the topping, hull and half your strawberries and place in a bowl with icing sugar (the amount of sugar you use depends on how many strawberries you have – use your instinct). Leave to macerate for at least half an hour, at room temperature.

Meanwhile, heat the jam with any juices from the strawberries until runny, then pass through a sieve to remove any pips.

Finally, assemble the pie. Place your cake on a plate. Pipe (or as I did, dollop) your cream on top and mould into a dome shape with a spatula. Top with strawberries. Finally, brush on your glaze. Refrigerate for an hour or so before serving.

Also this week:

Cooking and eating: Sicilian-style pizza with onions and anchovies; mussels with serrano ham and garlic; Harry has taken to eating mango and gnawing on the mango stone.

Allotment and garden: Planted out the dahlias, cosmos, sunflowers, achillea, nigella, courgette and squash both at home and allotment.

Watching: Absolutely nothing. Our Air B&B in Copenhagen didn’t have a telly or radio and I remembered the sweet joy of silence interrupted by evening bird-song.

Marry a carpenter

One of the many benefits of living in a big, multi-ethnic city are the chance encounters I encounter with food of other cultures. The other day I went for a meeting at my colleague Sophina’s flat to find that she’d been packed back to Brum with a suitcase-full of tropical fruit and veg from her parents in Leicester. Whilst working very, very hard, I had a masterclass in how to chew tamarind flesh from the seed, how to approach a custard apple and the best way to guarantee fragrance and juice from an alphonso mango (the trick is to roll it hard on a flat surface, like you would a lemon).

Trying out alphonso mango, fresh tamarind and custard apple with Sophina

In the meantime, Matt’s been busy on greenhouse renovation. I say renovation – it’s really a full remake. Over Easter he completely removed the dangerously-ramshackle old structure from the allotment, taking each panel apart piece by piece and then rebuilding it in his workshop to make accurate measurements for a replacement. The new greenhouse will be ready in a few weeks (I am promised) and will be made from American white oak. If I have any advice for aspiring young allotmenters, it would be #marryacarpenter.

Reassembled at Plane Structure HQ

I’m also getting a van-full of stakes, which will come in handy for this year’s dahlias and other cut flowers.

Big pile of hardwood stakes to help with the dahlias and other cut flowers

Speaking of which – the great plant out has begun. Last Sunday I snuck away for a few hours with my Mum, and we managed to put in blocks of ammi, cornflower, cleome and strawflower, as well as rocket, lettuce, runner, borlotti, french and dwarf beans. It’s possibly a bit early to be doing this (the weather is still nippy) but one has to take the opportunity when it arises – I have no spare days now for several weeks.

Planting out has begun – this is the cut flower patch with cleome, cornflower, strawflower and ammi

Beans have also gone out

Some plants don’t need to be cosseted, of course, and chief amongst these are the hops. Now galloping their way up the hopolisk, they’ll be reaching the top in a matter of days.

Hops are already thriving (toddler for scale)

Finally, pleasingly, I harvested my first real flower crop of the season. An armful of sweet rocket, which I sowed last summer, is joined in the vase with lilac and persicaria (both essentially growing wild on the allotment, planted by previous tenants).

First armful of the season – last summer’s planting of sweet rocket

Sweet rocket in the vase

Also this week:

Sowed: Leaf and bulb fennel

In the garden: First rose is in bloom, and the alliums are on the cusp of explosion. Matt is making footings for a new garden shed.

Cooking and eating: Hazelnut, oat and raisin cookies, lots of asparagus, bunny pie, tiramisu, fruit salad with first English strawberries in the supermarket.

5 hour Easter lamb

Easter is my favourite of all the bank holidays. There’s none of the excesses of Christmas, the food is great, it’s often a time for a genuine holiday (rather than running around stressed from one family engagement to another) and there’s a sense of optimism in the spring air. What a humdinger of an Easter we’ve just had, with shorts and ice creams being the order of the day.

This year’s geometric Easter cake

I spent a happy half hour on Easter Sunday drawing up this year’s allotment plan. The idea is to separate the two main beds into vegetables and cut flowers, and then attempt to block plant in each, partly for ease of harvest but mostly because I think it will look great. In reality I may have to shift this plan around – there may be just too many plants for either side to contain.

The low-fi allotment plan for 2019. Separate plots for vegetables and cut flowers, with plenty of blocks.

Yesterday was a full day of allotmenting, the first for months and months. And actually, the first with Matt for probably around a year. He got to work raising the hopolisk whilst I removed the black plastic that has been covering our two main beds and tackled the tufts of couch grass that are at constant threat of taking over entirely. Perhaps optimistically, I also sowed a line of parsnip and carrot, knowing that direct sowing rarely works well on our plot…but this year I have a feeling that they’ll come good.

Sowing parsnips next to the sweet rocket and broad beans

Matt has laid plastic near the brook in an attempt to curtail the spread of wilderness as it reaches peak summer growth

The hopolisk is risen, as are the bean sticks.

Removing grass is hard, hard work. Since having Harry I’ve noticed that my general fitness has grown poorer and on the allotment I realised why: full days like these, lugging around trugs of turf and crouching in currant bushes, are the best way to stay strong and flexible and yet I rarely get the chance these days.

But back to Easter food. If it’s Easter then lamb is probably on the menu (as well as chocolate cake adorned with mini eggs, obviously), but – to be controversial – I think that the traditional English roast doesn’t quite hit the spot. What I want is lamb that’s been cooked for so long that it is shreddably tender, full of flavour, and with some chewy gnarly caramelised ends. In the summer I might cook a boned leg of lamb in the kettle barbecue for an hour or two, but this Easter I went for a Middle Eastern-inspired half shoulder, rubbed with spices and then baked – fully encased in foil – for 5 hours. It was sensational. No photos I’m afraid, but here’s the recipe:

5 hour Easter lamb

The day before you wish to eat, take a half shoulder (or a full shoulder if feeding a crowd) of lamb and trim any excess fat. Leave the bone in for good flavour. Place in a bowl with three or four big bashed cloves of garlic, a good pinch of cumin seeds and dried chilli flakes, about a tablespoon of sweet smoked paprika and the same of ras al hanout (I used the blend brought back from Morocco a few weeks back by Claire Fudge). Salt and pepper generously, add a splash of oil and really massage the flavourings into the meat. Cover, and leave to marinate in the fridge overnight.

The following day, preheat the oven to 140c. Place a large sheet of foil in a roasting pan, put your lamb and the marinade on top and squeeze over the juice of one orange. Cover with more foil and bring the edges together to make a tight seal. Place in the oven and leave to putter away for 4 to 5 hours, checking every hour that it’s not drying out – if it is, and this is a vital step, add a splash of water from the kettle to your foil parcel, then re-seal. (The foil is important unless you want to spend hours with a scouring pad.)

As it cooks, the lamb will become more and more tender, and the edges and juices will become more and more caramelised. When the lamb is meltingly tender, remove from the oven and increase the heat to 200c. Remove the top layer of foil and siphon off any juices – if they’ve overly caramelised then you can start again by moving the lamb to a fresh foil base. Blast the meat for another 20 minutes until the top is caramelised and crisp.

To serve, shred the meat into large chunks. We enjoyed ours with tahdig from Claudia Roden’s Book of Middle Eastern Food, a glorious way of cooking rice that makes it as buttery as popcorn, plus a mezze of broad beans, garlic, mint, dill and yoghurt; another of cucumber, onion and yoghurt; chopped tomatoes and masses of new season asparagus.

For leftovers, Matt made Persian burritos. Take a tortilla, then stuff with leftover tahdig rice, refried crispy lamb, yoghurty cucumber and a spot of cheese. Serve with sweet potato chip and salad. Glorious.

Also this week:

Allotment and garden: Sowed leeks and carrots. Removed black plastic from the main beds and placed some over the back wilderness. Heavy weeding of the edges of the main beds and around the currants. Raising of the hopolisk. Building of bean sticks. Matt has started to dig a hole for the foundations of a new shed and is muttering about re-building the greenhouse.

Cooking and eating: 5 hour lamb, tahdig, broad bean and yoghurt mezze, Persian burritos, thousands of chocolate crispy cakes, never-ending Easter chocolate cake, Mum’s salmon with tarragon sauce and asparagus, Mum’s cheesecake, baked chicken with lemon and honey at the farm with the university gang, salad of avocado, edamame and tender stem broccoli at Arco Lounge that was surprisingly good. Harry had his first Calippo (except he didn’t as it was a fake Aldi version) and enjoyed it immensely.

Reading: Fasting and Feasting: The Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray by Adam Federman.

The full sowing list

There’s still chill in the air but the natural world is marching on. Trees are in bud break, the back garden is rich with verdant greens and yellows, and cherry trees are full of ethereal pink blooms. Weather like this sends my asparagus radar twitching so I headed to Hillers on Saturday to track some some of the first English stems of year – this, along with the first (glasshouse grown) tomatoes and strawberries that are always around at the same time, is one of my favourite food shops of the year.

Cherry blossom outside the Wallace Collection, Marylebone

First asparagus is hitting the shops

Compared to previous years, I have so little time for anything these days. So it’s pleasing to see that both allotment and garden are getting on quite nicely with very little intervention from me: snowdrops, primroses, daffodils, alliums, aquilegia, foxgloves…all are blooming or fattening quite happily of their own accord. It’s the gardening equivalent of making bread: a few small interventions now and then, but generally you must leave nature to do its own thing, rise when it’s ready.

Big fat allium heads are swelling

Having said that, I’ve been finding the odd half hour here and there to carry on with seed sowing. The list of plants that I’m growing from seed is impressive but the reality is (despite the lack of space) it’s all pretty easy. A bit of thinning, a bit of turning and watering, a spot of potting on, and in a few weeks we’ll have a productive allotment without spending a fortune.

Sowing runner, climbing, French and borlotti beans

The Sun Room is full to the brim with pots and trays

This is the full list of seeds that I’m trying this year; I’ve now started off all of these with the exception of parsnip and fennel (waiting for the weather/soil to get a little warmer).

Flowers

Sunflower Valentine
Sunflower Ornamental Multicolour mix
Sunflower Magic Roundabout F1
Sunflower Red Sun
Sunflower Giant
Nigella Persian Jewels
Nigella Double White
Achillea Millefolium Cerise Queen
Cosmos Pied Piper Blush White
Cosmos Double Click Cranberries
Cosmos Velouette
Ammi Majus Graceland
Salvia Farinacea Blue Bladder
Delphium Exquisite series, White King
Delphium Exquisite series, Blue Spire
Cornflower Snow Man
Cornflower Double Blue
Limonium Suworowii
Calendula Indian Prince
Helichrysum bracteatum monstrosum (Strawflower) Paper Daisy
Cleome Colour Fountain
Baptisia Australis False Indigo
Mexican Hyssop
Brachyscome Multifida (daisies)

Veg

Courgette Soleil
Courgette Bianca di Trieste
Courgette Costata Romanesco
Summer Squash Custard White
Pumpkin Cinderella
Broad Bean Aquadulce Claudia
Broad Bean Crimson Flowered
Leek Musselburgh
Climbing Bean Cobra
Climbing Bean Cosse Violette
Borlotti Bean Lingua di Fuoco
Dwarf French Bean Tendercrop
Runner Bean Scarlet Empire
Parsnip Gladiator F1
Carrot Nantes 5
Fennel Montebianco
Tomato Costoluto Fiorentino
Tomato Gardener’s Delight

Greens
Chard Bright Lights
Kale Pentland Brig
Kale Russian Red
Kale Cavolo Nero
Spinach Perpetual
Beetroot Leaf Blood Red (also pleasingly known as Bull’s Blood)

Salads & Herbs
Lettuce Catalogna (a type of oak leaf)
Salad rocket
Tuscany salad mix
Viola Heartsease (a flower but I put it in salads)
Basil Thai
Basil Sweet green
Dill
Green Fennel

Finding the space to plant out all these DOES worry me, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: The start of Easter treats, crispy cakes, mini eggs and hot cross buns. Fairy cakes studded with raisins; Meatballs baked with aubergine, tomato, orzo and mozzarella; Baked cod with fennel, capers and blood orange; First asparagus of the year; Beef shin braised with pasatta, rosemary and rose wine; apple crumble.

Rocket and hazelnut pesto

We’ve had a week of outdoorsing it. I took Harry up to Malvern to collect spring water and see how the wild garlic is looking – pleased to report that it’s at its peak right now. We scooped up a few fistfuls (not so much as to cause any damage to the plants, which are innumerable in my secret foraging spot) which Matt then used as the basis for a chimmichurri sauce for steak. Whilst home, we headed to Clive’s to check out the chickens.

Wild garlic is in peak form right now

Toddler living his best life

Then this weekend we headed out to border country, Hay on Wye. I used to spend a lot of time in this part of the world and sometimes have deep, physical yearnings to be amongst the cool, damp air, mountains and green. The green of Herefordshire is something else. On Hay Bluff, sheep grazed amidst the aftermath of a recent snow storm, and as we wound our way down the mountainside to Llanthony Priory, streams broke their banks onto the road.

A view from Llanthony Priory

Which all sounds very romantic until you remember that Harry sees 11th century ruins as a potential playground, and regards country roads as BORING.

The reality of taking a small child to a heritage venue

Back to more practical matters. The allotment rules dictate that bonfires are allowed only in the months of November and March, a fact I had forgotten until a few days before the end of the month. Matt went down there in a brief gap between family commitments (Mother’s day lunches and Grampy’s 99th birthday party) armed with a blow torch (yes really) to destroy some of last year’s detritus.

Managed to sneak in a bonfire before the end of March

Meanwhile I used the brief hour of calm after Harry’s bedtime / before Matt gets home to whip up a vat of leek and potato soup for when I hosted a working lunch the following day. Soup is fine as far as it goes – easy, cheap, nutritious – but it can be dull. A spoonful of this rocket and hazelnut pesto, stirred in on serving, gives the poke that it needs. I turned to rocket as I had some in the fridge – ditto with the hazelnuts, I just happened to have some on hand – and was delighted at the results. I can’t help but think that some of the wild garlic from the previous weekend would have also been a welcome addition.

No quantities with this, you just have to use your eye and trust your tastebuds. In a food processor, blitz together a few handfuls of rocket, a handful of basil or Greek basil, a small clove of garlic, a chunk of parmesan, handful of hazelnuts, small pinch of salt, small squeeze of lemon with a trickle of the best olive oil. Keep blitzing until smooth, taste, then adjust your seasoning as you fancy. Keeps in the fridge for several days.

Rocket and hazelnut pesto

Also this week:

Growing: Started off rocket, dill and violas. The dahlias that I potted up a few weeks back are starting to sprout.

Eating & Cooking: Leek & potato soup with extra chard for vitamins, wild garlic chimmichurri, beautiful canale bought from the market at Hay on Wye

The allotment season begins

For the past few weeks, there’s been a table of green seedlings in the sun room. Then the table of green was joined by several trays of dahlias, then a few more trays of rocket, cosmos and sunflower, and now there’s barely room to breathe.

Taking full advantage of our south-facing sun room

Particularly pleasingly, the false indigo that I started back in February have germinated. This was the tricky one that demanded scouring with sand-paper, piercing with a needle, soaking and heating – obviously I did none of these things, taking the view that if a plant has to be molly-coddled that much, then it’s not going to survive on our plot.

False indigo has germinated

Remembering my notes from last summer, I’ve been fastidious about thinning my seedlings this year. Thus far they’re all looking pretty healthy – but when I visit the allotment (for the first time in weeks) I’m confounded by all the new green life erupting, wild plants crammed in together, battered by floods and winds and all the stronger for it. I have yet to attempt making a stinging nettle risotto from allotment weeds but this spring may be the time to try it.

Speaking of winds, March’s gusts have left the greenhouse in an even sorrier state of affair. Two more panes of glass have slid out, leaving dangerous shards in the wilderness area. I’m pleased that I’m growing only the hardiest of tomatoes this year as what is left of our greenhouse will offer the slightest of protection against the elements; it will be a miracle if the structure lasts another growing season (every time I step in there I wonder if glass is going to rain down on my head).

The wilderness is re-erupting, with tasty-looking stingers.

Another greenhouse pane met a sorry end

The point of today’s visit was to plant out the broad beans, which have grown strong and fat in the cold frame. Two varieties this year – aquadulce claudia, which should flower pretty soon, and the pretty crimson flower. I’m also having a go at direct sowing a few rows, which never seems to go well on our plot but with the soil warming nicely, it’s worth the experiment.

Broad beans planted out

Really healthy plants this year

It’s still sparse out there, of course, but there are a few heartening clumps of green. The sweet rocket is galloping into growth, as is the sorrel, and there’s still pickings to be had from last year’s chard lucullus and beet spinach.

Sweet rocket is galloping into growth

Still pickings of chard and beet spinach to be had

On the To Do list: Start Sowing The Veg.

Also this week:

Sowing: Cosmos, sunflower, cornflower, rocket, brachyscome, achillea millefolium (yarrow)

Cooking and eating: Victoria sandwich with homegrown and homemade jam, rhubarb, apple & amaretti crumble with Jean’s rhubarb, noodles and pork tossed in kecap manis.

Plus: More illness – chest infections, blood tests & x-rays; visited Leicester museum to look at their Arts & Crafts collection.

 

Chicken jalfrezi

The false spring was there to make fools of us, just as I predicted. Since my last post we’ve had two big windy storms, big enough to take down branches, plus yesterday brought the heaviest hail shower that I’ve experienced for several years. But the lighter evenings do bring a sense of relief and the spring equinox is shortly upon us, time for a resurgence of energy and resolution.

Speaking of energy, Harry and I both succumbed to chest infections, which are now on the way out, but point to the importance of nutrition and rest. Last week I experimented with purple pancakes – these are American-style pancakes with blueberry compote stirred into the batter before cooking – which gave us a good dose of protein, calcium, carbs and (most importantly) fun.

Harry loves purple pancakes. Make a regular pancake batter and swirl into a few tablespoons of blueberry compote, then cook as normal.

There was also a trip to Ludlow, home of the world’s greatest butchers and greengrocer, to restock the freezer with proper sausages, bacon, a bunny or two plus a sensational leg of pork.

March in the Marches – the view across the river to Ludlow castle

An abundance of spring flowers at Ludlow market

Back home, the garden is changing from brown to yellow. The forsythia came into bloom last week, with its optimistic bright yellow flowers hanging from branches like fairy skirts. The primulas that we lifted from Granny’s garden before she passed are thriving – a softer yellow than the forsythia, they provide pleasing pops of colour that can be seen from the sun room.

More yellow, this time from the blooming forsythia in the back garden

Granny’s primroses are thriving

Meanwhile I have a space issue. Our Victorian house contains only 1 windowsill and 1 smallish cold-frame, meaning that spring-time seed sowing is an exercise in logistics. It’s a constant juggle of succession sowing and tray-turning to get things started. This year I have unfathomably got about 40 different varieties of flowers, herbs and veg that need sowing over the next month or two, and only a postage-stamp amount of room to keep them in (Matt promises that he will apply his hive-mind to this issue). Meanwhile I have also (equally unfathomably) amassed a collection of nearly 20 dahlias, all of which I potted up yesterday in the hail, and which are now snuggly resting in big trays in the sun room to begin their ascent to full-flowering August glory. My labelling is dubious at the best of times but I particularly enjoyed unwrapping the bag-for-life full of shrivelled tubers and a single pink Post-it noting “jewel colours for garden or allotment”. I have absolutely zero idea where these came from but I look forward to seeing how they progress.

Somehow I have amassed a collection of dahlias, all of which are dubiously labelled, now potted up after their winter snooze.

Cold frame already full with broad beans and delphinium seedlings

On to today’s recipe. Since the Frugality Challenge I have become very aware of using meat to its best potential, so that it lasts for loads of meals. The other week I bought a large whole chicken, took it down to its essential parts (2 breasts, 2 drumsticks, 2 wings, 2 thighs, carcuss) and froze each piece individually. This is far more economical way of shopping than buying lots of individual packs of thighs or breasts, plus the portions tend to be larger – and thus better value – when taken off a whole bird.

The legs were marinated with yoghurt, garlic and spices brought by my friend Claire from her recent trip to Morocco (thanks Claire), before being baked and served with flatbreads and salads.

The breasts were turned into this wonderful jalfrezi, from Jamie Oliver’s Super Food Family Classics book. I love that it’s very simple, very healthy and genuinely delicious, plus there’s no special ingredients needed, as it’s made with store-cupboard and fridge staples. This does involve whizzing up a curry paste but even that isn’t too much bother, and the chicken can be marinated in advance if that makes life easier. We ate it up with rice, home-made tarka dal, a chopped salad of cucumber, tomato, onion, mint and coriander, plus Matt’s vegetable pakora. Highly recommended.

Chicken Jalfrezi
from Jamie Oliver’s Super Food Family Classics. Serves 3-4 with side dishes.

For the paste: Toast 2 teaspoons of cumin seeds with 1 teaspoon each of coriander seeds, fenugreek seeds and black mustard seeds in a dry frying pan until toasted. Tip into the food processor with 2 cloves of garlic, a big knob of ginger, 1 teaspoon turmeric, a pinch of salt, 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, 2 tablespoons tomato puree, 1 fresh red chili and a handful of fresh coriander. Whizz the lot to a puree, adding a splash of water if needed.

Slice 1 large or 2 small chicken breasts into large chunks, then place in a bowl with 2 tablespoons plain yoghurt, the curry paste and a pinch of salt. Massage the paste into the chicken then set aside to marinate.

Dice one red onion and two peppers (red, yellow, green, or a mixture) into large chunks. In a dry frying pan or casserole, stir-fry the vegetables until they start to char – this gives good flavour to the curry. Tip in the chicken and any excess marinade, then cook for 3-4 minutes until the chicken begins to turn opaque.

Tip half a tin of chopped tomatoes into the pan with a good splash of water, stir to combine, then leave to cook on a low heat for 10 minutes until the chicken is cooked through, the veg is softened and the sauce is thickened to your liking. Check the seasoning – add a squeeze of lemon if you like.

Serve with rice, daal, salad and raita.

 

Also this week:

Cooking & eating: Ludlow pie and chips; chocolate muffins; blue pancakes; cherry flapjacks; Moroccan-baked chicken; apple & blackberry galette; hot cross buns; roast pork shoulder with crispy crackling; phenomenal amounts of tea.

Outside: The conifers at the end of the garden were removed this morning, opening up massive amounts of light into the wilderness.

Reading: Mildly obsessed with Up: My lifetime’s journey up Everest, Ben Fogle’s account of climbing Mount Everest. Make mental note that life has become dull and so, whilst I have no desire to climb any mountain whatsoever, we should plan some adventures for 2019.