Wednesday 28 December 2011

Wild Food Night - Christmas!

Winter may be a hard time for foragers, with few plants producing fresh growth, but there's still plenty to enjoy, and a few days before Christmas we were treated to a Wild Food Night Christmas special, with a clear emphasis on meats and dried fruits. Oh, and a few local-grown veg ; )

Our canapes were a coarse game and cranberry pate, wild goose mousse, and duck confit - all very tasty, and I do especially love duck.

The starter was cream of pheasant soup, and a loin of hare chop with crabapple jelly. I was quite surprised at the size of the chop!

For the main event, we enjoyed duck breast, chestnut stuffing, 'game pigs' in blankets, goose-fat roasted potatoes plus some seasonal veggies. Delicious!

And dessert, too, was quite traditional, with homemade mince pies and Christmas pudding ice cream, filled with fruit. I'm afraid I'm not a fan of dried fruit and these traditional festive puds, but I'm told they were lovely!

Finally, because it's Christmas, we were served an extra course of British cheeses and crackers, and some really good sloe and damson chocolate-covered fondants, similar to those we had in November. I ate them so quick I didn't get a picture, sorry!

We took the family along on this occasion as well and, well, I think they all enjoyed themselves... Some of them might even be back in future...

Hope everyone had a very merry Christmas!

Friday 16 December 2011

Storing Parsnips

I love parsnips - they're one of those few veg I can virtually ignore from the day I sow the seeds to the day I dig them up, and still get a reliable crop every time. We grow 'white gem', sprinkling a few seeds every six inches or so in April, then as long as I remember to thin them to one plant per station at seedling stage, they get along just fine by themselves for the next eight to ten months. A few low-maintenance back-ups like this somehow help make up for the failures and the fussier, tricksier crops I struggle with sometimes!

We usually leave our parsnips in the ground over winter, where they keep just fine, but of course we can't get to them when the ground's frozen hard or covered in several inches of snow, so we usually don't get to eat them until the spring, when we have to catch them before they put on too much new growth and start getting woody. This year I thought it was time to try storing them at home.

Here they are - all six kilos! A variety of sizes but all useful and all healthy. It's important to leave them in the ground until the first few frosts, as it's the cold that makes them take on their sweetness.

Parsnips need humidity and cold to store well - ideally temperatures 0C-4C. I've read that you should be able to store them in the bottom of the fridge for up to six months, but this has never worked for me, and I don't like the idea of blanching and freezing them. So the only other thing to do is store them in soil (or sand, or coir, of leafmould) in a cold place, just as if they were still in the ground. I've packed ours into a box of soil, covered them over and put them in the shed to keep them from freezing - and I must remember to check the mice haven't got in every once in a while!

Here's looking forward to lots of parsnip bread, parsnip soup, and roasted parsnips on Christmas day! And I'll be sending a photo of some choice specimens for Matron's Christmas veggie blog post too.

Wednesday 14 December 2011

Two Lovely Chestnut Recipes

I promised I'd cook more with our native chestnuts this year while they're in season, and in the last week I've made not just one, but two spectacular chestnut dishes.

First up, we enjoyed this beef and chestnut stew as a welcome-home dinner for my parents last week when they returned from their narrowboat for the winter, with roast potatoes, parsnips and sprouts. I confess I read a few chestnut/meat stew recipes and decided it was fair play just to use my signature beef-stew-and-dumplings recipe, which always goes down a storm, and simply throw in chestnuts too - they're a lovely seasonal addition that add rich, earthy nuttiness and succulence. It's great hearty winter food, and a nice alternative to a Sunday roast. The dumplings use oil instead of the traditional suet and are really tasty!

Beef, Guinness and Chestnut Stew with Dumplings
(serves 6)
  • Dice 600g or so beef and sear in hot oil in small batches in an ovenproof pan until sealed and browning on all sides. (I usually use quite a high quality lean steak, but you can use cheaper stewing beef and simmer it for longer if you prefer.)
  • Remove beef from the pan and throw in 6-8 rashers chopped bacon and a handful of whole, peeled shallots. When the bacon's cooked, add the beef back in and stir in 3 tbsps plain flour.
  • Add a bottle and a half of Original Guinness or other stout. That's... let's see... 750ml. You can sip the rest ; )
  • Add a generous sprinkle of mixed herbs, half a teaspoon of mustard powder, a beef stock cube and some white pepper. Stir and simmer a few minutes.
  • Add two or three large carrots and a small swede, diced. Add around 200g roasted chestnuts (optional).
  • Now cover and let that simmer gently for half an hour or so - no need to be precise - while you prep veggies and make the dumplings...
  • In a bowl, mix 250g plain flour, 1 tsp salt and 2 tsps baking powder. (You can also add a pinch of dried thyme or other herb if you like.)
  • Gradually add 150ml milk and 2 tbsps olive or rapeseed oil, bringing the dough together with a fork. You might not quite need all of the milk - stop when the dough comes together (if you add too much your dough will be too sticky to manage and you'll end up with crazy-shaped dumplings like mine above - whoops!) Knead briefly, roll into walnut-sized balls, and arrange on top of your stew.
  • Put the lid back on the stew and place in an oven at 180C for 35-40 minutes. Remove the lid for the last ten minutes of cooking, to let the tops of the dumplings turn golden-brown.
  • Serve with your choice of winter veggies. Yum!

Chestnut Cookies

These are a delicious and wonderfully Christmassy treat, dusted with icing sugar on the outside, moist and buttery in the middle, with a hint of spice. They're perfect with tea - or a tot of something stronger - and certain to please at parties, I reckon.

I used Smitten Kitchen's recipe here so I won't reproduce it, but I will heartily recommend it! The cookies needed a slighter cooler temperature in my oven - I had better results at 200C for 14 minutes. I also experimented (can't help myself) by taking half the dough and adding 2 tbsps cocoa powder and 2 tbsps brandy, and they were really good too (probably even better with rum - and best served cold, while the plain ones are awesome served warm), but you know, I don't think this recipe can really be improved upon - the flavour of the chestnuts shines through and really doesn't need any more help than the touch of cinnamon and nutmeg provided. Delicious.

Monday 12 December 2011

Winter Growings

Well, the temperatures are dropping at last, and I'm glad to say our garlic, onions and shallots have put on some decent growth despite a late start.


I had some pepper plants still going on the patio, hoping the little green fruits would get larger, but now one or two have started to show frost damage so I've finished off all those remaining.

Meanwhile, the chilli plant we brought indoors has decided to make up for its pathetic summer crop by flowering again. We will have Christmas chillies!

The plant seems to have a problem though, with several leaves turning yellow and dropping off, and traces of cobweb around the leaves. Looks like spidermite, methinks. (If anyone knows better, do tell...)


I'm reluctant to spray the plant while it's fruiting, but misting daily with water is supposed to help so I must get myself a new spray bottle (my old one doesn't work anymore) and start this a.s.a.p!

Half of the summer's chilli harvest...

The outdoor sowings I made in early autumn have had mixed results - the spinach has all died, the perpetual spinach has mildew and is being eaten by snails, the Nero di Toscana has been munched, the winter gem lettuce never came up... But the spring onions, radishes and claytonia are doing marvellously, and I've tucked them up in the plastic greenhouse for winter. In fact, the claytonia has self-seeded prolifically and is coming up everywhere... 

I'm not sure exactly what happens from here; will my salad crops keep growing slowly and steadily throughout winter, or do they stop completely and give me an early crop in the spring? I'll soon find out, I suppose... It would have been ideal to start them a month or two earlier so I could pick some during the winter - must try harder next year!

The purple sprouting brocolli and kale are still battling on and, barring any disasters over winter, should be ready to give me a great crop as soon as the weather warms up for spring. Not every plant has put on satisfactory pre-winter growth, but as long as I get them through the winter I'm sure they'll catch up.

Next task, now we've had a few decent frosts, is to get back to the plot and dig the parsnips up to store in a box of soil in a sheltered spot at home, safe from frozen ground, snails and flooding!

Saturday 10 December 2011

My Dream Garden

This is an impromptu post inspired by WellyWoman's challenge to blog about our dream gardens. Those who know me know I tend to dream big - in fact I think I'm going to feel a bit extravagant putting this into words - but extravagance is what dreams are for, right? And if you don't aspire, you don't get.

My dream garden has, of course, a strong emphasis on edibles, from the conservatory packed with hot-climate fruits and exotic spices to the native greens I'd hope to encourage in wilder areas. It uses a few permaculture principles and would aim to support all kinds of wildlife. Social aspects are important too - I love being outside and I love entertaining, and am really into the idea of outdoor living areas - I want indoors to blend into outdoors via an outside kitchen, a seating area around a brazier for chilling out with friends (I'm seeing a big curved strawbale bench, decorated around and about with herbs and alpines), a vine-draped pergola over an outdoor dining table, Italian style, and maybe even a hammock in a shady spot for lazy summer afternoons. A natural swimming pool would be amaaazing, and shelter frogs, dragonflies and more in its borders.

Like WellyWoman, I love the idea of a walled garden, but out of sight is out of mind for me and I know it'd be far more sensible to have the veg garden as close to - and visible from - the kitchen door as possible. Maybe the house could form one wall, so I can have it both ways, but that puts paid to the sprawling countryside views I'd like to enjoy from my garden. Sometimes we have to compromise even in our dreams... I envisage neat square vegetable beds with immaculate paths between them - a far cry from my messy allotment! A permanent herb bed near the kitchen is a must, as is a decent-sized asparagus bed, a large polytunnel (don't mind if I can't see that from the kitchen window), and a soft fruit patch not too far away. I'd like some architectural features too - I'm not sure exactly what - to divide the space, to give height and structure, to lead to new areas. Maybe living willow structures, maybe tactically planted bamboo, maybe rocks or rockeries, maybe arbours and fences draped with climbing plants.

Beyond that, there are plenty more things on the wishlist. An area of forest garden, with nuts and tree-fruits above (a good Victoria plum tree is essential), wild and cultivated greens below, and mushrooms wherever I can get them to grow. Some free-range chickens and ducks scratching around for grubs and leaving fertiliser wherever they go. Space for a few pigs (which I'd move onto the veg patch in autumn to clear plant debris and manure the soil) and maybe some rabbits. A beehive or two in a far corner. A choice of nice places to sit. An open space; no neatly-trimmed lawn but a wilder meadow, and an area - perhaps with pond - left completely untouched for insects and animals to make their homes.

Picture by Graham Burnett, from Wikimedia Commons.

I'm not completely against ornamentals, but I can't bear the thought of a formal flower garden with its high-maintenance borders and constantly changing bedding plants. Bulbs and self-seeders are more my style, not together in beds, but grouped here and there wherever they look good. Common self-sowing companion plants such as marigolds and nasturtiums, borage and limnanthes can grow wherever they please as far as I'm concerned, as can natives like foxgloves, wild pansies, forget-me-nots and primroses, and flowering herbs such as thyme, marjoram, lavender and hyssop. Where I fancy a bit more colour I might choose a few tulips, daffodils or gladioli, or a butterfly-attracting shrub. I'd like to aim for colour all year round, and Mum's low-maintenance garden has taught me how great shrubs can be for this; bright yellow kerria in the spring, brilliant orange and red cotinus in the autumn, Japanese maples and golden brians, and the red winter berries of holly and cotoneaster. I saw a wintry picture once of flame-orange dogwoods underplanted with purple kale and snowdrops - a striking scene worth replicating. And I love the huge blooms of magnolia in early spring, and the different coloured cherry blossoms I see in others' gardens around here.

Incredible 'cotinus coggyria' leaves in Mum's garden.

There's one more special thing; the icing on the cake... I'd like a moonlight garden area, filled with white flowers and pale-leaved shrubs to pick up the light, as well as night-blooming flowers and those that give off their scent after dark. A moondial perhaps (does such a thing exist? It does in my dream) and a very gently trickling water feature, and of course a bench, to take in the peace and enjoy a hot summer night.

Too much? Well, it's fun to dream... What's your dream garden like?

Friday 9 December 2011

Wild Food Night - November

A bit late again, but I can't miss it out - here's what we enjoyed at Wild Food Night a couple of weeks back.

Canapes were a mixed bag; a sloe shot - far too dry for my taste! - a spicy venison kofta bite with black pepper mayo, and a chocolate-dipped 'bramble candy' - a really lovely confection, soft inside like an after-dinner mint, but berry-flavoured of course.

The starter was wild mushroom soup, made with oyster, field and dried penny bun mushrooms, and pheasant and port pate - both delicious, and I could eat that soup again and again. (I've been eyeing the mushrooms popping up all over my lawn all autumn - I think they're edible blewitts but I just can't quite be sure... I'd love to get into mushroom identification but it seems such a tricky business. Maybe one day...)

The main was a venison pie, made with local fallow deer and red wine, topped with shortcrust pastry and served with locally-grown veg; sweet potato, cauliflower puree and buttered cabbage. Tasty and very filling! Venison is such a lovely meat and seems to suit pies, stews and curries really well - we should all use more of it!

Dessert was a triumph. I was a bit apprehensive when I read 'crab apple cheesecake' on the menu, but of course the crab apples were sweetened to a rich syrup and it was a delight, served with more of that lovely wild plum ice cream we've had before. Delicious!

A great meal and a great night!

Tuesday 6 December 2011


Our allotment site is rather prone to flooding - it's on very low ground, in a dip, so whenever the water table gets very high (especially at the end of winter) we're the first to know - and it's on the old course of the local river, the Ver, which occasionally bursts its banks and tries to revert to its old ways. This winter, however, it isn't the water table or the river that's causing a problem. It's a 15" water main three metres below the site, which has burst. Oh dear.

This is just two plots away from ours, but luckily for us our plot is much higher, and not affected.

I have to say I've been most impressed by the rest of the committee and how quickly and effectively they investigated the situation and had the problem traced. Ten heads are certainly better than one - I first thought there would be nothing we could do but warn plot-holders to take precautions against flood damage. It took someone else to point out that the water table can't possibly be this high, another to report that the watercress beds nearby had been positively droughted until a few days ago but the water level had suddenly shot up, another to spot a letter in the local paper wondering why the level of the river had also risen suddenly, another to call in the council, and another to be available to meet with Environment Agency and water board officals... A real team effort! How long it will now take for the water company to fix it (and how much damage is done in the process) remains to be seen...

Meanwhile, there's not a lot else we can do but feel sorry for those affected. But, as newsletter editor, and since this certainly won't be the last time we're affected by flooding, I've been trying to put together a list of pointers to help plot-holders and gardeners deal with flooding, minimise flood damage, and recover from it, in future. Here goes:

All year round:
  • Build up your soil's organic-matter content to promote aeration and drainage.
  • Promote healthy microbiological activity in your soil with plenty of good compost, and consider using a seaweed extract to strengthen your plants and your soil. A healthy soil will stand up better to any problems.
  • Keep your site tidy, keep chemicals sealed and to a minimum, and always remove diseased plant matter.
  • Make the sure the bottoms of sheds, in particular, are waterproofed and protected against rot.
  • Plant trees and shrubs on raised ground where possible.

When flooding threatens:
  • Remove tools and equipment from sheds and greenhouses - or at the very least, raise them off the floor. 
  • It may be possible to protect your shed or greenhouse with sandbags.
  • Ensure all chemicals and treatments are out of reach of floodwaters, to prevent contamination of the water.
  • Remove rubbish and loose items from the site, or secure them so they can't float away.
  • Raise pots and tubs up on bricks, or remove them from the site.
  • Harvest everything you can and store it at home.
  • If you know you're going to lose certain crops but it's not too late to resow, do it right away, so you'll be ready to plant out again as soon as your plot has recovered.
  • Remember that floodwater can sometimes carry dangerous contaminants. Avoid contact with it where possible - wear waterproof gloves and footwear if needed, and shower and wash your clothes after contact. Protect cuts and grazes. If you fall ill after coming into contact with floodwater, see a doctor.

When the water goes down:
  • Carefully check sheds, greenhouses and other structures for any structural damage before using.
  • Try to avoid walking on waterlogged soil until it has dried out. If you need to get across it, lay planks down to spread your weight on the ground.
  • Don't sow/plant in waterlogged soil - wait for it to dry out.
  • Speed drying by aerating the soil with a fork or similar.
  • Remove debris and dead or decayed plant matter as soon as possible. Empty any containers that have collected floodwater.
  • Most plants will recover if they have been flooded for less than a week, but consider taking cuttings of valued perennials, so that you have back-ups in case they don't.
  • Check for any exposed roots, and cover them with soil. Check for plants that may need staking for extra support while they recover.
  • Clean any silt or mud off recovering pants, and feed them. Seaweed extract may help to build disease resistance and promote new root growth.
  • Prune struggling plants right back, to give them an easier time while they recover.
  • Waterlogging can affect the pH of your soil and drain it of nutrients - consider checking the pH and dressing with manure or fertiliser before replanting.
  • Consider growing a green manure before you plant crops, to help to rebuild soil structure and add nutrients. This may also help by indicating if you have any more serious soil problems such as contamination or an unhealthy pH.
  • Once it's dry, check your soil for signs of life, forking through it gently. Worms are very sensitive to contaminants and are a great indicator of the health of your soil.
  • Whether or not it's safe to eat vegetables which have been in floodwater is a controversial matter; health guidelines say don't do it, but if the source of the water is known and localised, if it looks and smells clean, if there is no industrial activity near your site and no chance of the water having come into contact with sewage, and if plotholders have taken steps to avoid local contamination of the water, you may prefer to make up your own mind. Wash all vegetables carefully and cook before eating. But if in doubt, throw it out.
  • Don't be discouraged! Get growing again as soon as you can, even if it means growing in pots or growbags temporarily. Sow some fast-maturing crops such as salads for quick results. Ask for help if you need it.

And if you're unaffected, consider how you might be able to help your fellow gardeners:
  • Keep your plot tidy and free of debris and contaminants too.
  • Lend tools where they are needed - perhaps you even have surplus you could give away.
  • Propogate plants for others to help them get going again.
  • Share surplus crops and compost from your plot.

Thursday 1 December 2011

Chicken Noodle Soup

I am enduring day eleven of intense sore throat, swollen glands, stiff neck and upper body, exhaustion and misery. Apparently antibiotics won't help me, and nothing else is either - rest, plenty of fluids, vitamins, garlic, throat sprays and gargles, high-antioxidant tea... I've been eyeing the fancier immune-sytem-boosting supplements in the health shop too - Manuka honey, bee pollen, elderberry extract, echinacea, special probiotics, beta-glucan, colloidal silver... One person swears by one and another swears by another, and it all seems rather a gamble when each is so expensive (I've been disappointed by echinacea once before - do I really want to spend £15 trying it again, however many people say it works?)

But healthful foods are, happily, easily available to us all here, and there's one flu-busting food which is supposed to boost health and healing more than any other. Chicken noodle soup.

Huh? Which chicken noodle soup? Made by what recipe, with what ingredients? Surely the instant packet stuff can't be that great for you? Are the noodles essential? Can't I just eat chicken? I have long been suspicious of this claim, but in fact, studies have shown that eating chicken noodle soup can cut the duration of flu or similar illness by half, and another study even compared commercial brands to show that Knorr's instant chicken noodle soup was the most healing! So, well, seeing as I've had plenty of time on my hands, I've been thinking and reading about this a lot, and actually it really does make a lot of sense.

The base for most (if not all) chicken noodle soups is, of course, chicken stock, plus onions, garlic, carrots and celery. Onions and, particularly, garlic both contain anti-viral and anti-bacterial compounds, and strengthen the blood and the lungs. Carrots are rich in beta-carotene which assists production of infection-fighting cells in the body. Celery is packed with vitamins, minerals, amino acids and essential fibre and, unusually, stands up well to cooking, keeping most of its goodness when other green vegetables would lose it. Add chicken to the mix for a rich source of protein, which promotes healing, as well as zinc, which supports the immune system by helping the body to make better use of vitamin C, and cysteine, which stimulates the immune system. Noodles serve to fortify the dish, adding extra energy when it's most needed, and egg noodles provide even more protein. Add some chilli - the capsaicin which makes chillies hot is a powerful decongestant which loosens and liquefies mucus - and you have a cocktail of great nutrition ideal for someone fighting illness. Furthermore, making this into a soup means that it's easy to eat and digest, especially for the sick and those with agonising sore throats, and the (largely) liquid delivery makes the nutrients super-accessible, meaning they're fast-tracked into the system. Genius!

Of course, it doesn't stop there, either. It's easy to add extra vegetables, such as tomatoes perhaps for their many antioxidants, red peppers which contain many of the same health-boosting compounds as garlic and chilli, or chopped leafy greens for iron. Many people extol the medicinal properties of certain herbs when fighting colds, and you can, of course add herbs to your heart's content too.

Does an exhausted sick person want to stand in the kitchen cooking up soup for ages? No, of course not. But thankfully this is quite quick to make (about half an hour), and when I sat comfortably at the table to do all the chopping I actually found it quite therapeutic. And luckily a large batch keeps well in the fridge for a good few days, and would freeze well too ;)

Nome's Chicken Noodle Soup (not just for sick people!)
(makes five big bowls, or eight little ones)
  • Bring 1.5 litres chicken stock to the boil. (Beware the high salt level in some stocks - choose low-sodium if possible, dilute with water to lower the salt, or use home-made.)
  • Add one large onion, two large carrots and four or five sticks of celery, all chopped, plus 2 teaspoons mixed herbs and a generous grinding of black pepper.
  • Simmer for 10-15 minutes, until soft.
  • Blend with a stick blender (use your judgement and make it as chunky or smooth as you like).
  • Add a red pepper and a chilli (or less, or more, depending on your taste), finely chopped.
  • Break up two nests of dried egg noodles (to make the noodles shorter and easier to manage) and boil in a separate pan according to the instructions on the pack - usually about 4 minutes. (It's important that they're cooked before you add them to the soup, as they absorb so much liquid.)
  • Add two chicken breasts, chopped up small, to the soup, along with 2-4 chopped cloves of garlic (adding it near the end like this means it is less cooked and its health properties will be stronger, but the taste will be stronger too so watch out!)
  • When the chicken is cooked (only 3-4 minutes if you've chopped it really small), check seasoning, drain the noodles and stir them in, and serve.
I opt sometimes to sprinkle mine with nori - a widely available seaweed - for extra iron-rich goodness too.

Well, I've been eating chicken noodle soup for lunch for several days now, and no, I'm not better. I am improving slightly and slowly, I think. But well, it's delicious, I do feel good eating it, and I know I'm doing the right thing by my body by nourishing it with loads and loads of goodness - it's got to be helping at least a little! Forget the expensive supplements - these basic building blocks of health are accessible to us all and are the very first thing we should turn to when illness looms.
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