Thursday 22 July 2010

Summer Chicken Stew

So this is the amazing stew I made on Monday out of our haul from the allotment. I make this every year with the first of our broad beans, potatoes, carrots and onions; it's becoming a bit of a tradition - although it is later this year than usual. The recipe is by Tamasin Day Lewis, seen on Market Kitchen, and I have mentioned it before, but this time I will share the recipe - though I'll leave quantities up to you as really you can just use however much you've got. It's the lovage and mint that makes it really special!

Summer Chicken Stew
  • Roughly chop an onion and saute in a little oil until just translucent.
  • Add chicken pieces (bone in, skin on) to the pan, skin side down, and brown. Turn them over and briefly brown the flesh side too, then remove from the pan.
  • Add new potatoes to the pan (washed, skins on) and coat in the chicken fat. Then place the chicken pieces back in, on top of the potatoes, and add chicken stock to cover.
  • Add baby carrots.
  • Bring to the boil, then reduce to a bare simmer.
  • Boil or steam the broad beans, and pop them from their skins if you like (I don't bother).
  • After the stew has been simmering for 50 minutes, add peas and a few chopped lovage leaves.
  • After 10 more minutes, add the cooked broad beans.
  • Check the potatoes are cooked through, check seasoning, add chopped mint off the heat, and serve.

Tuesday 20 July 2010

Broad Beans

I have never had any problems with broad beans, apart from the inevitable and temporary blackfly on the foliage.

This year, I have broad beans that look like this...

...and broad beans that look like this...

...and broad beans that look like this...

...and broad beans that look like this, with little maggoty things crawling round them.

In fact, this is my entire edible broad bean harvest for the year.

Oh well.

Monday 19 July 2010

Allotment Update

We spent some time at the allotment today, for the first time in a good week and a half, and we were dismayed to find it looking rather sorry for itself. The hot dry weather has left everything looking a bit droopy...

...the pond terribly dry (spot the frog - I don't think he minds!)...

...and most of the lettuces and some beetroots threatening to bolt. The potato plants are rather small and pathetic, and the strawberry patch looks like this:

Do strawberries just attract weeds or what?

The brassicas - despite their cage - have managed to develop a serious aphid infestation...

...although there are plenty of ladybirds doing their best to deal with the problem, and we relocated more while we weeded and watered.

The runner beans, too, are suffering from the dry atmosphere - thanks Matron for clueing me up to what's going on here!

The flowers don't set beans when the air is too dry - misting with water regularly can solve the problem. I won't get the chance to do that, what with the plot a bus ride away, but I watered the foliage and flowers generously today in an attempt to help a little.

Of course, it's never all bad news. Here are some young squashes which are doing well despite the dryness:

We also managed at last to plant our 'everlasting' cauliflowers, protected by a cage of strings and canes, although this won't keep the butterflies off and I'll have to keep a close eye on them. We won't expect anything from these until next spring, but I can't wait to see how they do!

We got our first harvest of potatoes too - though they were just bite-size - a few little carrots, some broad beans and some diminutive onions which looked like they had given up for the year.

Ooooh, I feel a stew coming on...

Saturday 17 July 2010

Nome Makes Pickle!

Yes, I have had my first go at some proper preserving. Well, semi-proper preserving - I mean, this isn't going to make it to winter or anything. Must buy some decent bottling jars...

Having picked a huge armload of courgettes before moving, I've been doing all I can to make sure that none go to waste this year. And this courgette pickle seemed a good way to do it.

There are dozens of variations of this recipe on the internet, so I don't really know who to credit it to, and my variation is slightly different to all the others anyway. It's really simple so there's no excuse not to give it a go!

Courgette Pickle
(makes about 1 litre)
  • Finely dice 500g courgettes and a small onion. Place in a bowl with 2 tbsps sea salt and just enough cold water to cover. Keep chilled for one hour.
  • Put 500ml cider vinegar in a pan with 120g sugar, 2 or 3 cloves of crushed garlic, 2 tsps mustard seeds, 1 tsp mustard powder and 1 tsp turmeric. Simmer for a few minutes, then remove from the heat and leave to cool.
  • Drain and dry the courgettes (in a towel in batches), then mix into the pickling liquid and pour into jars.
  • Leave for a couple of days before eating, for the flavours to combine and the veg to soften.

When I started looking for a pickle recipe, I guess I was really looking for a chutney recipe - more of a spreadable condiment - whereas what I got was courgettes floating in vinegar: pickled courgettes. I had not thought about the difference - after all, you buy sweet 'pickle', Branston's 'pickle' and ploughman's 'pickle' in the supermarket and they are all chunky spreads, not things in vinegar!

Still, the pickle is delicious and went down well with the whole family. We've been eating it mostly in ham sandwiches, and with cheese. I expect it will last a good few weeks in the fridge. Next time I will make more and give some away!

Thursday 15 July 2010

Garden Update. With Cucumbers!

While we have moved to a much smaller home this week, the garden pots and tubs have moved to a much bigger one! Not that there's much spare room - Mum is a keen gardener too and prefers a wild, woodlandy look (in a good way!) - but we have squeezed them in for now and will tidy them up later. Our shady little concrete yard was never ideal for growing... well, very much at all, really... but my parents' garden is pretty big and gets sun for most of the day. And the plants certainly seem to have enjoyed the change...

The cucumbers, which seemed to have all been stuck at an inch long for ages, have multiplied many times in size (four or five times in length) since the weekend. I can't wait to pick these babies!

The chilli buds have bloomed. Although I'm concerned to see there are no signs of flowers whatsoever on one plant (out of two). At the same time, something has started eating little holes in the leaves. There are no bugs to be seen, at any time of day. What eats chilli plants?

And the bergamot, which was getting weak and spindly in the shade of the old garden, has flowered too. The bees love it! The bergamot on the allotment is far behind this one - I wonder why.

The rocket, mustard, mizuna and cress has not fared so well; what with the incredible heat over the weekend, little watering (to avoid making the pots too heavy to lift) and the move itself, they have all gone to flower. No more of them until the autumn, I think.

Two or three weeks ago, I planted six tomato plants in growbags on Mum's patio - so that I wouldn't have to try moving growbags without disturbing the plants. I hadn't seen them since then, but now I am pleased to find they have formed their first little green tomatoes. Woo!

Wednesday 14 July 2010

Tuna Nicoise Salad

We have been picking the first of the beans! French beans are the number one veg to grow at home, in my opinion; they're easy, prolific, versatile and scrumptious! I love Delinel - they're a teeny bit hairy on the outside but the flavour is just delightful. I am only growing a few this year; neglect of the plot last year meant they got completely drowned by weeds and the beans mostly went to waste, so this year it's an easy-to-manage trough in the home garden, and I'm kicking myself for growing too few...

One of the plants keeps growing beans like this! How funny!

The night before our move, we enjoyed the first of our beans in a tuna nicoise salad - with the first of our crisphead lettuces too, which was sweet and crunchy and delicious.

I love this salad - so many glorious complementary flavours. Just dress some salad leaves with a little oil and vinegar and a touch of garlic and mustard, and add some sliced onion, plenty of cooked green beans, boiled new potatoes, black olives and a hard boiled egg or two. Top with tuna - grilled steak would be perfect but we used canned. It's a fab summer supper!

Tuesday 13 July 2010


We are moved. And not too far off unpacked too. I have relearned the bus routes to and from work. (I got on the wrong bus home today but the driver took pity on me and kindly explained which number buses go in which directions at what times. I'm sure it doesn't really have to be so complicated!) Even Samson seems fairly settled, and has been eyeing the other local cats through the windows...

Moving in to a new place is fine - it's moving out I really hate. After a long Saturday toing and froing in my brother's van, and a long Sunday removing the leftovers destined for car boot sales and the tip, Mum and I still spent seven hours on Monday cleaning the old place and packing up the last of the crap - stuff I'd forgotten about in corners and cupboards and sheds, some of it for years.

It's amazing, and a little depressing, how much stuff we end up having to throw away, even though we try so hard not to. However, I'm always so impressed by our local tip. Ahem. Sorry. Household Waste Recycling Centre. It's open 7 days a week until 6pm; waste is sorted into dozens of types; it's always well manned so that if in doubt you can ask where to put something (and if you haven't sorted your waste properly, someone will make sure that you do!); and even after dumping, your waste will be sorted even more carefully into different materials before sending off for recycling. I actually wished I had taken my camera so I could show you better!

Anyway, enough of this rubbish. Normal blogging service will be resumed tomorrow (or Thursday at the latest) with tuna nicoise salad, mutant beans, and an update from the garden (because Lord only knows what's happening at the allotment this week...)

Friday 9 July 2010

Tomorrow, we move house.

This blog post should really have come before the one about my little walk along the River Ver, because this is my usual walk home from the allotment, and it is by no means less picturesque!

St Albans is a green place, and I find most walks round here a real pleasure.

It's historic too, and the town centre is dominated by our cathedral - I love the way it pops up over rooftops and between buildings everywhere you go:

Our walk takes us past the old Ryder seed nursery - a beautiful art deco style glass building, now a Cafe Rouge. The packing plant for Ryder's seeds was the brick building next door (on the left) - now a Comfort Hotel!

Samuel Ryder was a big figure in St Albans' history - he was not only a major businessman here, but he was a councillor, Mayor, and he was instrumental in the building of one of our biggest churches. And of course, he was captain of the local golf club and sponsored the international 'Ryder Cup', donating the gold trophy.

Then we walk right by the cathedral itself on Holywell Hill. (Legend has it that Saint Alban was beheaded on the site of the cathedral, his head rolled all the way down the hill, and a well sprang up where it stopped, hence the name!)

I don't really know as much as I should about the cathedral's history, but I do know how I feel when I stand in its shadow. It's timeless and permanent and just so... present. Like the great foot of God planted in the earth and stretching up to heaven!

Just beyond the cathedral, we pass the Abbey Gateway and St Albans School - previously a prison, previously a printing press, previously a monastery. Apparently a lot of notable people were schooled here, including Nicholas Breakspear (AKA Pope Adrian IV) in the 12th Century, Stephen Hawking more recently, and many others.

Oh, and I must mention my favourite tree, in the Abbey grounds. It's so huge and perfectly formed!

We live very close to all this - virtually in its shadow - and there's more history every way you look.

But there's a reason I've been getting all soppy over my lovely hometown recently. Tomorrow, we move house. We're not actually leaving St Albans - just going a few miles out to the edge of town - but I have come to really enjoy living in the town centre and I'm sad that it won't be on my doorstep any more. I won't be doing this walk any more. I won't be able to tell the time by the abbey bells any more. I won't be able to walk round the lake whenever I feel like it any more. I won't be able to nip to the shops at the drop of a hat any more. Instead of history and intrigue everywhere I look, there will be 1960s semis and neatly trimmed lawns.

We are moving back in with my parents; the 'granny annexe' adjoining their house is now vacant, and we're taking the opportunity to live there for cheap and save up some money. We will have even less space than we do now, and the allotment will be a 15 minute drive rather than a 15 minute walk (or a 50 minute walk, but I'm not doing that laden with bags of vegetables too often!). Of course, we don't drive yet - we have always been rather pleased about not having to pay car insurance or road tax or petrol or parking or repairs - but now we are learning.

Don't get me wrong - I'm fond of the area we're moving back to as well - it's where I spent most of my teens - and it will be lovely to be closer to the family again. And it's a total no-brainer in terms of the money we will save. But change is scary and emotional, and, well, I just can't wait 'til it's all over and we're settled down in the new place!

Thursday 8 July 2010

Easy Courgette Risotto

Nah, this isn't a 'real' risotto, where you have to buy special rice and watch it for ages and never stop stirring. I can't be bothered with all that stuff. It's a variation on something my Mum used to make, and feels fabulously healthy with loads of vegetabley goodness. But what really makes this dish is the sprinkling of good cheddar cheese on top, and the crunch of the toasted sunflower seeds. Next time you need yet another courgette recipe, you have to try it.

Easy Courgette Risotto
  • Put rice on to boil - 50g per person - with a veg or chicken stock cube in the water.
  • Dice onion, courgette and mushrooms, and pan-fry in a little oil for 5 minutes, then cover, lower the heat, and let the veg steam in their own juices. You don't need to add anything - the stock will provide all the seasoning you need.
  • When the rice is just cooked, drain well and stir into the vegetables. Remove from the heat and let it soak up the vegetable juices.
  • Toast a handful of sunflower seeds in a dry pan until just turning golden-brown. (Cashews are good with this too.)
  • Serve the risotto with toasted seeds on top and a generous sprinkling of grated cheddar.

Wednesday 7 July 2010


I have grown my first crisphead lettuces!

For one reason or another I have always failed with these before - they never heart up for me. But now I have six or seven lovely crisp heads getting bigger. Hurrah!

Meanwhile though, my lollo rossa has gone brown and crispy. Why? Too dry maybe? The middles are still green so maybe there's still hope. It's difficult to make time to water everything as often as I probably should in this hot dry weather. I'm doing my best!

Tuesday 6 July 2010


Allotments have one major disadvantage, I think. With so many yummy veg growing in one place for such a long time, and with so many gardeners trundling along the same footpaths and dipping their watering cans in the same water tanks, they can be a haven for pests and diseases. If I had grown these scrummy sugarsnap peas on the allotment, they'd be rife with pea-moth caterpillars. But growing them at home, not a single one is damaged. Hurrah!

Of course, there is still one major pest to contend with; I evicted a whole family of snails from under my plants while I was harvesting these.

I have perhaps let them get a bit over-developed before picking; life is hectic at the moment and I can't keep up! But despite a few stringy bits they were delicious, and we ate them in this; another lovely summery couscous recipe.

Herb-crusted Salmon on Vegetable Couscous
(serves two)
  • Whizz together two slices of bread, lemon zest and a little juice, fresh parsley, chives and tarragon, and seasoning.
  • Spread this crumbly topping generously over two salmon fillets, and bake at 180C for around 20 minutes.
  • Pan-fry diced courgette and sugarsnap peas in a little oil with a glug of lemon juice. When softening round the edges but still al dente, add 100g couscous, some more lemon juice, a knob of butter, and boiling water. Cover and let the couscous do its thing.
  • Serve the salmon on top of the vegetable couscous. Garnish with finely chopped sugarsnaps!

Thursday 1 July 2010

Fight Against Blight

My allotment association has just alerted me to Blightwatch - a free service from the Potato Council that sends you an email or SMS whenever 'Smith Period' (the humid conditions which encourage blight spores to germinate) hits your postcode area, so that you can take the necessary precautions. Sounds like a great idea to me! Now I shall have a milk spray ready whenever conditions are right. I'm getting some Nome-grown tomatoes this year, dammit!

June is St Albans Festival time, when there's a big focus on community events, theatre, music, outdoor concerts and all kinds of stuff; and my favourite festival event was last night in St Michael's village, just a few minutes walk from our house. They close the road for the evening, the pubs (there are lots of pubs) spill out into the street, there are several barbecues to choose from, folk dance groups perform in the street until dark, local bands play in the pubs until closing time, and a lot of ale and cider - and fun - is had by all.

We enjoyed such silliness as this:

and this:

and lots and lots of this:

It wasn't all English traditional stuff though; the local Flamenco group got a look in too:

And this Cuban-style covers band pulled the biggest crowd!

It's a bit of a local secret, but I'm glad it's not more popular - I don't think the tiny street could take many more people!

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