Thursday, 10 November 2011


I was dismayed last week, when I popped out to check on things in the garden, to find this:

The stem has been chewed through, right at the base, and just under the soil I found a little maggoty grub curled up where it had been. (Sorry, no photo; I was in too much of a hurry to squish the little bugger.)

This is the work of a cutworm - a brutally destructive pest I had not come up against until now. Cutworms are the larvae of several species of moth. They lay their eggs in the soil, and when the grub hatches it wraps itself around the first plant matter it comes across - usually a stem of a young plant - and tucks in. Seems a remarkably inefficient way to feed, killing off the whole plant in one bite, but these things are sent to try us... From the look of the grub I found, and the fact this is a brassica plant, I'm guessing the turnip moth is a pretty likely culprit - it's also one of the most prevalent types of cutworm.

Where cutworms are a problem, young plants can be protected with collars around their stems at soil level and sticking just below the soil. A few layers of newspaper can be used, or paper cups or toilet rolls, foil pie trays, 1" diameter plastic pipe, or short pieces of drinking straw, slit lengthways so that the stem can expand and the collar be removed later. (Once the stems are about the thickness of a pencil, cutworms are no longer a danger.) I've seen cornmeal around the base of the plant recommended too - apparently the larvae gladly eat it but cannot digest it, and die - and another method is to stick toothpicks or cocktail sticks in the soil round the plant, in the hope the grubs will wrap round those instead (though it seems to me you'd have to check them for grubs regularly, or they'll just move on to the next stem...) Winter soil cultivation can also help, by exposing overwintering larvae.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Chestnut Ravioli

For years I've been a bit put off by chestnuts - when I was a kid and Dad roasted them in the fire at Christmas time, I always thought they smelled weirdly of methylated spirits. (Maybe Dad just wasn't telling us something about how he got the fire going...) But yet, Mum makes a wicked chestnut stuffing every Christmas, while my mother-in-law serves them roasted with sprouts and shallots - lovely. And they add a gorgeous richness to cakes and desserts too - the chestnut chocolate torte we sampled last Wild Food Night was awesome. Chestnuts are a huge British winter tradition, and quite rightly so - they're indigenous, freely and widely available, tasty, and their high starch content (twice that of potatoes!) makes them massively versatile - in fact, (though they taste great in themselves) they'll happily soak up other flavours and you can use them in many ways you'd use potatoes; adding them to stews and soups, using them as a flour, as a puree, as a side dish... They're low fat and high fibre, and full of complex carbs and high quality proteins, with as much vitamin C as lemons by weight, and lots of vitamins E and B6, thiamin, potassium, folate and magnesium. So I've made it my aim - nay, my duty - this year, to use them in my own cooking...

Sadly, my attempts at foraging for chestnuts have so far all failed - it turns out they drop around here much earlier than all the books say - so all the chestnuts you'll be seeing here are bought from markets or supermarkets (probably ready-roasted and vacuum-packed). But it's not going to stop me making the best of this great British ingredient.

The first thing that sprang to mind, especially when I was given a large patty-pan-type squash last week and asked to do something fun with it, was Monica Shaw's mouthwatering picture of chestnut pasta ravioli which I'd seen on Twitter a few weeks back, and she kindly linked me to the chestnut pasta recipe here and the pumpkin ravioli recipe here. Granted, I've never tried my hand at any kind of pasta before, but I'm not one to be put off by mere cluelessness...

Actually, I've made this twice in the last few days. The first attempt, while perfectly edible, was not really what I aspired to...

 ...but I learnt a lot of lessons from the process:

Lesson No. 1: Chestnut flour (required for the pasta dough) is not widely available. I've checked all my local supermarkets and health food shops and there's none of this stuff in the whole city. But a couple of websites said I could make my own by milling roasted chestnuts, so that's what I did. It's moister than flour should be (though it could - and probably should - be dried out in a low oven or dehydrator) and gives a more wholemealy look and texture. (Lesson No. 1a: Use less egg in the dough to make up for this extra moisture!)

Lesson No. 2: Lock the cat out when chestnuts are around. From the moment I opened the packet he was miaowing round my feet and trying to get on the table. I couldn't understand it - you'd have thought we were making some kind of sushi-meets-catnip treat! Then he dived in the bin, dragged the chestnut packet out and started licking the crumbs out like a mad thing! Bad kitty! He doesn't normally go for non-meat/dairy foods - I wonder what on earth it is about chestnuts he likes so much! Does anyone else's cat go crazy for them?

Lesson No. 3: Rest the dough half an hour before rolling out. I realised we'd forgotten to do this the first time, and when I did it the second time it made the whole process much easier.

Lesson No. 4: The pasta must be THIN. Reeeeally thin. Like, nearly-see-through thin. Resting helps this, as the dough is much more willing to stretch, but it's a rather sticky dough and too often it stuck to the table or fell apart as I tried to roll it out as thin as I possibly could! It paid off in the end; my first batch of ravioli were way too thick, tricky to fill well, took ages to cook, and the pasta/filling ratio was all wrong. The second batch were much more delicate and allowed for more filling. Of course, none of this would have been an issue if I had a pasta machine...

Lesson No. 5: Patty-pan squash isn't the ideal squash for a recipe like this. Its flavour is very mild and sadly just got a bit lost. Pumpkin, butternut or onion squash are more robust flavourwise and far more suitable. (The other half of that patty-pan will go great in a stew or a curry later this week.)

I experimented a bit with fillings too on the first attempt, and made spiced squash (good, but could have done without the cream which diluted the flavour), squash with rosemary, cheese and tomato (good, but could have done with more cheese), squash with chopped chestnuts (good, but ground or pureed chestnuts would have been better), squash with truffle oil (good, but it's punchy stuff and I made it a touch too strong!) and mushroom, with shallot, fresh parsley and a splash of brandy (delicious! must make again!). The second time I kept it simple and used just roasted pumpkin with a knob of butter, seasoning and a touch of sage and nutmeg.

Here's my second attempt at ravioli:


Not too bad, huh? I suspect the pasta could still be thinner, but I'm pretty pleased. The chestnut adds a rich new dimension to the pasta, the pumpkin is fragrant and delicious, and the crispy shallot and sage butter topping (from the recipe above) is the perfect accompaniment (I replaced the pine nut garnish in the recipe with toasted almonds to keep in the spirit of all things local and homegrown).

I think, though, that my next chestnut recipe will have to be something a bit more simple. Ravioli takes aaaages!

EDIT: See Carl Legge's lovely chestnut pasta post and recipe here too!

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Using Up Potatoes: Giant Rostis!

Every potato harvest inevitably comes with a few specimens damaged by sunlight, slugs, the fork that dug them up, or even by couchgrass roots, which burrowed a few holes through mine!

These should be separated from the undamaged potatoes and used first, as they're bound to go off sooner.

In an effort to use up our damaged spuds, of which we had really quite a few (and getting a little bored with mash) I thought I'd try to recreate a dish Eddie sampled in the fabulous veggie restaurant Terre a Terre recently:

(Disclaimer: My rosti may not be the same as/as good as Terre a Terre's, and certainly didn't look as good (theirs is pictured)... But it's still delish!) I altered it a bit to use up some watercress I had left over from something else, and it packs in even more flavour. Actually it's a really good dish to use up large amounts of spinach, watercress or any other similar leaf, as well as potatoes. You'll want at least 100g leaves per person and you could use much more if you wanted, so it's a good one for those bags/bunches of leaves the supermarkets and market stalls reduce at the end of the day too... It's a great, simple dish for one (though a bit of a juggling act if you're feeding a whole family) and a really tasty supper.

Giant Rostis with Watercress Sauce

  • Finely chop an onion and fry gently until really soft and golden, but not browned.
  • Grate around 200g potato per person, put it in a sieve or a clean tea towel and squeeze as much water out as you can.
  • Throw a couple of chopped garlic cloves in with the onion to soften.
  • Preheat your oven to 180C. 
  • Put the grated potato into a large bowl and season well. Add the chopped onion and garlic and gently combine (try not to break up or mash the potato too much!).
  • Divide the potato mixture into bowls - one per person. The shape of the bowls will shape the rostis.
  • Heat some oil in a non-stick frying pan, tip the first rosti in, and fry on a medium-high heat.
  • Once it is golden brown underneath, flip it over and do the other side. When that side is golden-brown too, put it on a large baking tray and do the next rosti...
  • When all your rostis are nicely browned, pop them in the oven to finish cooking in the middle while you make the sauce. (Maybe a more skilled or patient chef than I could cook them entirely in the frying pan, but because they're so big it seems to me they'd need this extra oven-time to cook right through.)
  • Meanwhile, wilt your leaves (100g-200g per person) down in a large saucepan with a knob of butter, salt and pepper, a splash of lemon juice and a little nutmeg. I used 2/3 watercress, 1/3 spinach, but you could use spinach only, or any combination really. I'm willing to bet chard, young kale, beetroot leaves, sorrel and any other similar leaf would work too (although sorrel really loses its colour when cooked so you might prefer to add it raw when pureeing).
  • When the leaves are cooked down, keep a couple of spoonsful aside for the garnish, and puree the rest (a wand-type blender is good for this). Add a spoonful or two of cream cheese (or a splash of cream and a little parmesan) and taste. Add more seasoning, cream/cheese or lemon juice if you so desire.
  • Poach (or soft-boil) your eggs.
  • When the rostis are done in the middle (ooh, about 15-25 minutes, depending how long you fried them for!), spread the sauce on each plate, top with a rosti, then a spoonful of wilted leaves, then a poached egg, and finally a generous handful of grated cheese!

To me this is great just as it is, but hardcore carnivores could be appeased with a sprinkling of crispy bacon bits or chopped ham. A nice piece of fish - especially smoked fish - would complement it very well too.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Winter Seedings and Buried Treasure!

I feel all springy - what a strange time of year to be bringing seedlings into the world. The seeds I've been sowing last week and the week before are all popping up into the autumn sunshine.

Nero di Toscana kale:


And radishes:

The turnips on the allotment are all coming up fast too, and will need thinning soon. I just hope I wasn't too late and these all put some good growth on before the temperatures drop too low.

Yesterday we planted out our autumn onions (Radar), shallots (Yellow Moon) and garlic (Provence Wight) too. I bought this collection from Marshalls and was very pleased - they came quickly and seem to be very healthy and high quality (and they were one of the few places that hadn't already sold out - phew!) After years of weak and tiny onions, I finally also bought some special onion feed to try to boost their growth. We simply scattered it on the soil and raked it in before planting. Fingers crossed we'll get a bigger harvest and it'll strengthen them somewhat against the white rot and snails that always kill a few!

And look what we dug up while we were preparing the soil for our alliums. I wonder what it was for... I can't believe after nearly six years on this plot we're still finding buried treasure!

Tuesday, 1 November 2011


I've had another tentative go at pickling this year; first, sliced beetroots from the allotment, and then some of the more diminutive specimens from my onion and shallot harvests.

Pickling beetroot is really easy - just cook the beets in their skins, peel, and cover with vinegar. It's important not to cut or pierce the beets in any way before cooking - cut the stalks to a couple of centimetres and wash them gently, then boil or roast until just soft. (I boiled mine, but I think I'll roast them next time as a lot of colour and aroma seemed to escape into the water even with their skins intact.) Allow them to cool enough to handle comfortably, then rub the soft skins away. Have plenty of paper towel at hand - this is a messy job! Slice the beetroots (or you could leave them whole if they're small) and pack into sterilised jars. Bring the vinegar to the boil with a few spoonfuls of sugar and some pickling spices (mustard seeds, allspice berries, peppercorns, mace, coriander, cloves, etc. to taste) and then pour into the jars, to cover the beets, and seal. I won't share my recipe here because I'm not quite happy with it - less spice, more sugar next time, for me. But I'm enjoying my beetroots all the same, usually in sandwiches with ham, mayo and lettuce. Yum!

Pickling onions and shallots takes a bit longer - they must be marinated in a handful or three of sea salt (or a strong salt solution) overnight first. They'll smell just like pickled onions after marinating! Then they are packed into sterilised jars and covered with vinegar in just the same way. Again, these are a bit punchy for my taste, and I'll use more sugar next time, but Dad loves them so they're still going to good use!

I'm rather sad I didn't get to pickle some courgettes too - I really enjoyed these last year - but the courgettes haven't been up to much this year and the usual glut never happened. Ah well, maybe I can get some more beetroot chutney made with the winter crop soon...
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