13 Aug 2012

Lovely Lemon Curd

Lemon curd jars

Lemon curd to me is as Hunny to Winnie-the-Pooh - once there is a jar in the house, one little taste just won't do.  When the Veg Patch was started four years ago, a group of us thought that some lemon trees would be a novelty for the children. Despite the advert's claims, they don't fruit in this country (although, perhaps in a greenhouse?) but the leaves have a lovely citrus scent when crushed. The trees duly arrived, folded into their boxes. Not an auspicious start and the ensuing winters fairly well did them in.  There's one tree left which I brought up to my balcony last winter for shelter. It's now on the stairwell, by a window which acts as a greenhouse; because I pass it every day, it's watered and tended regularly and has slowly recovered. During the last week, my efforts started to pay off as it produced lots of fresh new leaves.  A couple of days ago, I noticed tiny flower buds!  Ah, exciting times.

Lemon flowers

I doubt these will ever make useable lemons but refocussing on the lemon tree reminded me that I hadn't made any lemon curd for a while.  All you need are lemons, eggs, sugar and butter - and a couple of jars. I always have these ingredients to hand so, an hour later, I was tucking into lashings of lemon curd atop a hunk of freshly baked bread... which, of course, was photographed after one bite!

Having honed my recipe from one my Mum makes and Heston Blumenthal's filling for a lemon tart, I've just realised it's very similar to Delia Smith's recipe but without the extra cornflour she uses.  I feel that the curd should set on its own without extra thickeners and I imagine the cornflour would make it unpleasantly thick, like a lemon meringue pie filling.  So here's my combination of the two, for folk who like a good sharp/sweet bite to their lemon curd and fancy making some at home. It's really very easy and much nicer than shop-bought and without the preservatives or thickening agents.

Lemon Curd

6 oz Caster Sugar, 3 medium eggs,
2 unwaxed lemons (yielding about 100 ml juice), 4 oz unsalted butter
3 small or 2 large clean jars.

First wash your jars in hot, soapy water (do I really need to say that?) and put the glass jars upside down on a shelf in the oven at 150C while you make the curd.  Put the lids in the bottom of a saucepan, cover with a couple of inches of water, bring to the boil then turn down to a simmer. This is the simmering water which will be under your cooking lemon curd; may as well use it for sterilising the jar lids. (Take the lids out, with tongs or a fork, after about 5 minutes, by which time their rattling will be very annoying.)

Weigh out the sugar, chop the butter into chunks, beat the eggs well, finely zest the rind of the lemons and squeeze the juice. Add all ingredients together to a heatproof bowl (I use Pyrex glass) and place the bowl over the simmering water. (It should sit above the water, not touching.) Stir gently for about 15 to 20 minutes as it gradually thickens. (If you don't stir, your curd will be lumpy like scrambled eggs and won't set.)

Take the jars out of the oven and get a clean bowl and plastic sieve ready. Pour the curd into the sieve and, with the bottom of a ladle or a wooden spoon, gently stir the curd through the sieve to the bowl below.  This removes any cooked egg whites and pieces of zest (I like my curd smooth).

Ladle the curd into the jars. Put a sprig of lavender (optional) on the surface of the jars being stored and quickly put the lid on while the curd is still hot. As it cools, the air in the jar will contract, giving a nice tight seal to the jar.

Why the lavender?  I've read that it's commonplace in the South of France to place a sprig of lavender on home-made preserves where its anti-bacterial properties will prevent any mould forming on the surface. (Thank you Karen, writing for Garlic and Sapphire blog.) Lemon curd won't be around long enough in my house for this to happen, but it looks pretty - especially if you're giving the jars as a gift.

Make sure that you've put some aside for yourself ...

Bread and curd

10 Aug 2012

Time to throw out the rule book

Cherry tree blossom Aug 2012
~ Cherry blossom in August, with ripe cherries on other branches. Confusing? certainly ~

Every year is a learning curve in the garden and this one is certainly no exception.  I read only yesterday that August is the last chance to trim hedges before the autumn frosts.  I was quite taken aback at this as, for me, the summer has only just got going. Plants such as courgettes, cucumbers, hyacinth beans and squashes that have been quietly waiting for some warmth have suddenly started to shoot away.  The cucumbers are putting on a rapid growth spurt, as are the beans. Canadian wonder beans are producing enough for dinner every day; so delicious as young pods but I had intended to grow these for the red kidney beans inside!

Without dwelling on the weather so far this year, my belief is that the seasons have shifted slightly; I'm optimistically expecting another slow decline into autumn, just as we had last year. Jekka McVicar told me earlier this year that she no longer cuts back her lavender in autumn, preferring to leave it until the air has warmed slightly in the early spring. Cutting it back in a warm autumn promotes new growth and confuses the plant, leaving it vulnerable to winter frosts.  She stated that she no longer relies on the old rules and given wisdom because the seasons have noticeably changed. Coming from someone whose business and reputation relies on interpreting the seasons correctly, hers is an opinion that I take note of.

Global warming is definitely affecting the gardening calendar and we have to make adjustments accordingly. Personally, I'm trying to garden instinctively, being prepared to experiment a bit and remaining stoic about any losses along the way. In this way, I haven't lost plants to water rot or slug damage this year but everything is very behind in it's growth. Except the sunflowers and herbs which are perennial or self-seeded.

If my prediction for the autumn comes true, that would mean 90 or more days of reasonably warm weather before any cold winter snaps visit the garden - bearing in mind that I live in London, in the South East of the UK.  Of course the light levels will diminish as days get shorter, so any planting done now would have to be in the brightest areas of the garden.  I'm fortunate that the veg patch gets a good seven hours of sun/light at this time of year.  The north-east facing walled border gets around 5 hours but the fruit trees planted there partly shade the earth beneath anyway.  (One of my winter jobs is to move a couple more fruit trees, especially as the cherry tree re-established itself so successfully this year.)

I pulled the last of the Little Finger carrots this week - they are by far the tastiest I've grown and I've just received a new bag of seeds to sow a new crop which should be ready by mid-October. The Amsterdam Sprint carrots will keep me going but the taste is not quite as delicious.  I'm also going to put in more dwarf beans (Canadian Wonder and Annabelle french beans), mange tout and salad leaves. It may not work but, on the other hand, my cherry tree thinks it's spring!

Edited to add:  I sowed mangetout, dwarf beans and giant sugar peas 2 days ago on the 8th; this morning, the 11th, they are showing through the soil.  :)

20 Jul 2012

Traybake: Summer Soft-fruit Cake

Blueberry Breakfast Cake 4

Faced with a day off work in order to catch up with paperwork and gardening, what did I do? Make cake, of course. Procrastination is such fun.

A mug of tea and a slice of cake is one of the great rewards after a good potter round the plot and as the veg patch is at least offering up soft fruits at the moment, this recently discovered cake sprang to mind today. I haven't done a recipe on the blog for a long time but, I hope you'll agree, this one is worth sharing, especially as the summer may be on its way finally and tea in the garden can take its rightful place once more.

I found this cake via Pinterest; it's originally baked with just blueberries and called Buttermilk Blueberry Breakfast Cake. While my renaming of the adapted cake is not so alliterative, it tells it like it is. This is a cake that celebrates the soft fruit harvest of the summer kitchen garden. I used mostly blueberries, topped up with raspberries, strawberries (and, this time, sweet cherries); with lemon zest, vanilla and buttermilk, it's full of subtle flavours - I also used some of my lavender sugar* for the top crust.

Baked in a square tin, it looks like a traybake; the crisp sugar crusted top yields to a light, moist crumb with bursts of soft fruit.  Because I've now made it twice, I know that it's also heavenly warmed through and served with cream or custard as a pudding.

The original recipe came from this American blog; I've reworked it to grams rather than cups. Interestingly, I first made it to be shared with someone who is dairy intolerant so it was made with dairy free sunflower spread to replace the butter and soya milk instead of buttermilk. It worked perfectly.

Blueberry Breakfast Cake 3

Blueberry, etc, traybake cake:

100g sunflower spread or butter
200g caster sugar (keep a couple of spoonfuls back for the top)
Finely grated zest of a largish lemon
1 medium egg
1 teaspoon vanilla (extract not flavouring)
300g self raising flour
½ tsp baking powder
300g fresh soft fruit, eg. 200g blueberries plus 100g strawberries/raspberries, etc
140ml Buttermilk (about half a carton)

1. Preheat oven to 350F or 180C. Cream butter, lemon zest and sugar until light and fluffy.
2. Add the egg and vanilla.  Beat well.
3. Take out a couple of spoonfuls of the flour and gently toss the soft fruit in this.
4. Mix the remaining flour, baking powder and salt together; Add to the batter a little at a time, alternating with the buttermilk.
5. Fold in the blueberries/strawberries/other fruit.
6. Line an 8" square tin with baking parchment, spoon the cake mix in and sprinkle a good tablespoon of sugar over the top. Pop into the oven, middle shelf.  I check the cake with a skewer after 20 minutes and it always needs another 5 minutes. Adjust the time in 5 minute increments for your own oven. (The original recipe calls for a 9" pan and 35 minutes; in my oven this would be a disaster so I err on the side of caution.)
7. Allow to cool in the pan for 10 minutes before lifting the cake out onto a cooling rack.

* Lavender sugar is a lovely thing to have for use in the kitchen, it gives a subtle flavour to cakes, biscuits, etc. Karen at Lavender and Lovage has a nice easy post on how to make your own.

18 Jul 2012

Sun, flower


(Sing along now...)
I got sun-shiiiine, on a cloudy day...
When it's cold outside, I got the month of May...
I. guess. you'd. say... what can make me feel this way?

After the gloom of the slug post, I thought sharing a bit of mid-week cheer was in order (even though, for now, it's still raining here in London).

SunflowerTwo whole days of dryness in one week would be reason enough to celebrate this summer; yesterday was one of those days - albeit pretty overcast - and, on Sunday, we actually saw some blue skies in London. Yesterday evening after work, determined that summer will happen eventually, I took a stroll down to the veg patch to plan what needed to be done next.  Everything looked as it did when I left it on Sunday, perhaps the purple podded were a little plumper but the courgettes were no bigger, the climbing beans no taller. Then - whoop-di-doo! - I spotted that the first of my sunflowers had flowered!  Obviously the Sunday sunshine had worked it's magic.  Such a simple thing, but it definitely cheered me up.

I dashed home to get my camera and had to stand on two wobbly bricks and hold it up high, at arm's length, in the gathering dusk, to get this photo.  I confess I have used Photoshop to deepen the colours very slightly in the top photo to bring out the warmth of the petals.  I could almost believe the sun was shining!

According to online forecasts, the jetstream is moving north this weekend and, in the south at least, we will be basking in, err, 66 degrees Fahrenheit (19 celsius).  That'll do me.

Photo, untouched by photoshop.

For more feelgood cheer, try watching (or dancing to) this video by NZ band The Babysitters Circus:

So you say everything's going to be alright now
But how do you really know?
And I know everything's going to be alright now,
Cos that's the seed I sow.

15 Jul 2012

Guess who's coming to dinner?*

The (uninvited) dinner guest
I have the copper trowel, I have the raised beds.  I fondly imagined that, in the veg patch, this would minimise the impact of the plague of slugs being visited on the rest of the nation's gardeners. Not so, as this recent discovery bears witness. I cut a cabbage the other day for my lunch and found this beastie (actually only about 3 cm long) had taken up residence in the not-quite-outer leaves.  I discarded the leaf he inhabited and momentarily mulled over the benefits of pesticides.  The creature was contained in an empty butter tub until he could be safely despatched outside.  I couldn't bring myself to use my best kitchen knife for that purpose, the memory would have lingered long.  I still don't think I'm suffering as badly as others but have noticed that sunflower and cabbage leaves several feet off the ground have been decimated (probably snails) and the strawberries are more like Swiss cheese unless I get the ones high on the stem.

So, what can be done?  I've grown all my peas, beans, courgettes and squash in modules and planted them out as small plants.  They were given the added protection of a litre-sized plastic bottle as a collar and I've also heard that a good smear of Vaseline around the collar is a barrier that slugs won't cross.  The collars were sunk several inches into the ground and seem to have worked although the plants are woefully behind schedule.  I've also recently witnessed a friend stomping on a colony of slugs found under a plank in the veg patch; she was venting her rage at the loss of all her beans and seedlings to the slug buffet but the sludge left by their burst bodies was so revolting as to make me feel a bit ill. (And very glad it wasn't on the soles of my shoes.) There's no denying that this is effective.  Ultimately though I decided to make a Sluginator - it's a wide-necked bottle of very salty water into which I've been dropping slugs as I come across them. I'm not proud of myself but it works. Luckily for me, I live next to a handy railway line where I can dispose of the corpses.

Normally I see two or three slugs in a year.  This year they're out in force, slithering across the paths and pavements in groups and in broad daylight.  I don't care if they do eat rotting veg, I'd like to see less of them.  Not all are harmful to the garden, Defra has a rogues gallery of slugs with info.  On the other hand, anyone who feels kindly enough to know more about them should head over to the Higgledy Garden, or Wellywoman's blog, for a good sluggy read.

Bugs and slugs are accepted as part and parcel of growing your own veg but, yesterday, as I sat through torrential downpour and with rain forecast for the rest of the week, I'm wondering if anyone else is finding this summer a touch apocryphal?  Floods, slugs, snails, blackfly, weeds, no fruit and rotting and/or bolting veg - and, here in London, I've also had fox cubs digging up newly transplanted seedlings and pooing wherever they can get access.  I hope the proper summer comes soon because, frankly, I'm finding it hard to muster my usual delight in the garden.

(*With apologies to Sidney Poitier for using the title of his excellent 1967 film for this post. I've always considered him to be rather gorgeous and in no way does he resemble a slug.)

8 Jul 2012

Not the Hampton Court Flower Show ...

Wildflower meadow in tray
Wildflower meadow in a tray on my balcony!
Today I was supposed to be at Hampton Court for the flower show.  I had my ticket and programme ready and then I overslept.  I never oversleep.  No, seriously, I'm one of those annoying people that leaps cheerfully out of bed at 6.30 a.m. to embrace the day. Today the fates decided otherwise; between yesterday's extended balcony gardening, repotting and moving plants until beyond nightfall, being kept awake throughout the night by workmen laying gravel on the nearby railway tracks and torrential downpours of rain, I was thoroughly befuddled when I eventually awoke around 9.30!  It wasn't too late to go but I just couldn't motivate myself out of my pyjamas.  It was pouring with rain and I thought about the joys of standing in a large crowd getting soaked and decided to save myself the two and half hour return journey and do some more planting at home instead.

As it approached 4 o'clock, the appointed time for the big Sell Off of all plants there, I rather regretted my decision.  The sun was shining, there was no rain to be seen and I'd just read a good review of the Grow Your Own section over at the Physic Blogger that reminded me I really wanted to see Mark Diacono's forest garden display.  *sigh*  (There are just some days when, whatever you do, it won't go right.)

So, to cheer myself up, I thought I'd post about the flowers currently on display in the Veg Patch gardens and have resolved to be a bit more stoic about going next year. I'm sure it will be worth it.

Day Lily buds
Day Lilies about to flower.

Pea flower
Purple Podded pea flower.
Potato flowers
Potato flower from unknown tuber.

Onion flower
White onion. Several appeared this year after an onion was left for seed last year.
Oriental Lily Red
Oriental Lily - I think this is supposed to be edible but probably a bit chewy.

Tom Thumb nasturtium
Tom Thumb nasturtium: edible flowers and leaves. 
Calendula opening
Calendula opening.

Purple pea pod
Purple podded pea pod.
Margeurite Daisies
Marguerites - so fresh and cheerful.

Sage flowers
Sage flowers. Edible slightly milder taste than the leaves.
Violas in June
Violas, still flowering in mid-summer, probably due to the rain!

Empress of India
Nasturtium, Empress of India
Strawbs, lavender, oregano
A corner of my exuberant herb bed: strawberries, lavender, golden oregano.

Borage buds
Borage buds. I've sown seeds to flower at different times to keep bringing the bees in.

Veg Patch Lavender
Lavender, nurtured from a tiny wind-sown 2 cm seedling found in the soil last year. 
Kale flowers
Kale flowers, now eaten.  Yum!

So, less of a veg patch and more of a flower garden on this count! I said last year that I hoped to introduce more flowers into the veg garden; hmm, that seems to be happening okay.  And I haven't even mentioned the sunflowers or red orach or any of the other flowering herbs. I promise, there are plenty of veg in here too!

PS.  As I've typed this post, we've had several heavy showers so I'm now feeling vindicated in my decision (if very wasteful of the ticket. Still good causes and all that ... ).  Needless to say, all photos were taken on previous occasions!

3 Jul 2012

Summer pudding

Summer fruit, Autumn BlissI'm picking a bowl of raspberries and strawberries every day now but have gone off the taste of the strawbs that I'm growing - more often than not, the flavour is insipid. This is my fourth year of food growing in the veg garden and I've found that if you want to get people interested in food growing it has to taste really good. The strawberries were donated to the Veg Patch as runners so I have no emotional attachment to them (unlike plants that I've grown from seed);  think I'll pull them all out and choose a really flavoursome variety for next year.

With a couple of years of strawberry growing behind me, I've come to realise the mistakes I've made and will put that knowledge to good use in rethinking my strawberry growing area.

First, where to put them: Initially I set the plants out in rows, straight into the ground, in the traditional manner although the space was limited. The area gets around 6 hours of sun or good light in clement weather. They grew well and, in no time, were sending out runners.  My careful rows soon disappeared in a mass of plants - a lovely hiding place for slugs! (I almost picked up an e-normous slug the other evening when reaching for a juicy red berry under the leaves.) It's been challenging to get amongst the plants to separate out the runners as the rows were fairly closely planted.  I've recently read that chopping off the runners can send the plant's energy back into producing fruit, a tip worth considering if you don't need to increase your plant stock.   I've now thinned the patch to two rows, front of border with a foot-sized space between.

Second, accessibility: An unforeseen problem I encountered with having a strawberry "patch" was that children would wade in to get at the fruit, regardless of other plants being trampled underfoot. Bending down for an extended picking would also do my back no favours. I've now relocated many of the sturdier plants to a single row at the front edge of a 30 ft long raised brick-walled bed, about 2 ft high and much more attainable. This situation could have been entirely avoided if I wasn't trying to cram too much variety into my tiny space - on an allotment, the rows would (should) be around 30 inches apart, leaving plenty of room for feet both big and small.

Third, finding the fruit: The plants are very leafy with the fruit growing underneath and therefore hard to spot. I like to get to the fruit before the slugs (and birds) do so it's important to be able to see them. Children (and I) don't want to eat fruit that has been previously enjoyed by the animal kingdom. Plants bearing fruit on strong upright stems will be among my top choices for replacement plants - and putting a thick layer of straw under the plants also helps. I've been growing a few Rambling Cascade plants (from Victoriana) and they seem to have large fruit on upright stems so that's heading in the right direction. So far I've picked only one or two berries from these plants as they seem to be later in fruiting - the taste is semi-sweet and slightly floral.  In fairness, the smaller quantities may be due to being in a slightly more shaded area, although they would, in a normal year, get plenty of sun.

As usual, the garden is teaching me a lot this year. I'm amazed at how much I didn't know when I started. I believed it was as easy as it says on the seed packet - a triumph of expectation over experience. This year has, so far, has forced me to learn about bugs, pests, shifting seasons and now soft fruit.

With strawberries, the essentials are: Buy good plants to start with, plant with the crown at soil level, give them space to grow, mulch with straw or plant through black plastic (to retain moisture, keep weeds down and slugs at bay), chop the top leaves down after fruiting (except on perpetual fruiting plants) so that the new leaves on the crown can grow and, finally, replace the plants every 3 years to prevent disease or pests getting a hold.

I owe my rapid learning curve to the RHS website. Good videos, recommended varieties, top tips and recipes are just a click and a link away.

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