Saturday 31 December 2011

Sunset Boulevard

Well, not exactly... This post shows some sunset pictures taken in our road in Fleet at about 4 p.m. on one of the last days of 2011.

In the first photo the sun is just dipping below the horizon, like a splash of molten gold...

A few minutes later the sky begins to turn a subtle shade of pink...

The pink colour gets darker by the minute. There's a bright circular hole in the clouds which adds more drama to the scene... "Red sky at night, shepherd's delight" - so it should be a brilliant day tomorrow, then.

As the best colours disappear behind the house at the other side of the street, I rush indoors and dangle out of the bedroom window to get a better view. In the foreground are the nearly bare branches of my Crab Apple tree. Just a few shrivelled-up fruits remain...

An hour later, looking down the road in the opposite direction...

'Night 'Night, Fleet...

So, as the sun sets for the last time in 2011, I would like to take this opportunity to wish all my readers a Happy New Year. As a gardener, I can only hope that 2012 is a more "normal" year than 2011, and as a member of the Human Race I hope that we can all soon get our act together in terms of saving our precious environment from the rapacious depredations of "Economic Progress" !

Friday 30 December 2011

Turkey Curry

As I suspect was the case in many households this last week, we had lots of leftover turkey after Christmas Day. Actually, I'm not sure that "leftover" is really the right term, since it would be unreasonable to expect five people to devour a 5.2Kg turkey in one meal. We had always planned for there to be "leftovers", to allow us to make some other dishes using turkey meat. This post is about one such offering that I put together...

This was the starting point: we just happened to have a good quantity of brown (leg / thigh) meat from the turkey; some turkey stock; and one Cavolo Nero plant harvested from the garden earlier in the day. (Oh, and a home-grown chilli...)

Having had turkey breast in cheese sauce earlier in the week, I wanted to do something completely different. The Cavolo Nero suggested to me a dish along the lines of "Aloo Saag" (curried potato with spinach), and the rest followed from there.

I used the stock, an onion, the chilli, the turkey meat and some ready-made curry powder to make this dish:

It hardly needed any real cooking - just fry the chopped onion gently for about five minutes, add the rest of the ingredients and simmer gently for about half an hour, or until the onion is fully cooked. During this time the cooked meat will soften a lot, so be careful not to over-do it.

To accompany my turkey curry I made a Tarka Dhal, using Urad (or Urid, or Urd) lentils cooked slowly until tender (approx an hour?), to which I added a Tarka made of fried onion and a "crackled" mix of whole spices. I used Cumin, Coriander, Fenugreek, Kalonji, White Mustard and Black Mustard, with a few flakes of dried chilli. To crackle spices you heat them dry in a small frying pan until they start to jump about. You will also hear them split open with a crack. At this point, remove the pan from the heat quickly otherwise the spices will burn. Tip the spices immediately into the Dhal and stir well. Then cook for a further half hour or so to ensure the flavours are fully infused. Add salt only towards the end of the cooking time or else the lentils will never soften completely. The texture I like for my Dhal is similar to a porridge - quite thick. If the lentils are properly cooked the Dhal will be almost creamy. If your dietary regime will allow this, you can add ghee (clarified butter) to enhance this effect.

Finally, the dish that started me along the curry route: Potatoes cooked in coconut milk with Cavolo Nero.
I par-boiled the potatoes in some water to which I had added about half a teaspoon of Turmeric powder. This gave the potatoes a subltle tint of yellow (I didn't want grey potatoes, as can sometimes happen when you boil old potatoes). About half an hour before serving time I put a tin of coconut milk into a saucepan, added the potatoes and brought the pan to a gentle simmer. About 5 minutes before serving I added the Cavolo Nero leaves (from which the tough central veins had been removed). The leaves only need a minute or two to cook - rather like spinach. The finished dish looked like this:

I think the key to this dish is cooking the potatoes to just the right stage. The potatoes should be of a floury variety, rather than a waxy one, so that they go "fluffy at the edges" when boiled. They should be soft enough to mash without too much difficulty - you'll definitely want to mash them into that lovely tasty coconut milk! and the greens should only be added at the last minute. If you cook them for too long they may go slimy and bitter.

So there we are: not "authentic"; didn't follow any recipe - but we liked it. Easy to make, full of flavour and concocted primarily from whatever was available...That has to be a winner.

Thursday 29 December 2011

Christmas harvests

There is not much for me to harvest from the garden just now, but I do try hard to ensure that there is always something available.

On Christmas Eve I harvested a batch of Parsnips, which were duly roasted and served with our turkey on Christmas Day. It was much easier digging them up than it was doing the same task last year. In December 2010 we had a very cold spell and the soil was frozen hard. This year I was able to pull up the parsnips easily by hand, without even having to use the garden fork.

In the basket with the parsnips here is a bunch of leaves from the Hamburg Parsley. Jane used these in the stuffing for the turkey.

Apart from a few salad greens, my only other harvest during the week was this rather pathetic red cabbage.

It had been growing at a snail's pace for months, and I didn't think it would get significantly bigger. Just in case you are under any illusions about HOW small it was, let me show it to you placed next to a Walnut!

See? Small!

This year I only found room to plant three red cabbages. One was OK (harvested 13th Oct), then there was the one I've just described, but the third one (next photo) has steadfastly refused to produce any heart at all and will probably be discarded soon.

Raggedy old leaves and no discernible heart at all.

This variety is "Marner Langerrot", and I'm not impressed with it. Last year it was also disappointing, if not quite so poor. Next year I will be trying a different variety.

Anyway, even a small Red Cabbage gives you an opportunity for an interesting and colourful salad. Here it is shredded (raw) and combined with grated raw carrots and some toasted Pecan nuts. This salad scores well on colour, texture and taste. We served it as an accompaniment to Turkey and Leek risotto, with a dressing made with Walnut oil and Cassis (blackcurrant) vinegar.

In close-up the colour contrasts are even more striking!

Wednesday 28 December 2011

My first seed order of the year... or is it my last?

Last of the calendar year, but first of the gardening year. Whichever it is, I placed an order for some seeds on 23 December. As you can well imagine, there is no way they are going to arrive until the New Year now, and I wouldn't want to sow them just yet anyway, but ordering seeds is just one of those things I do during the Christmas holiday. I took holiday on Thursday 22 and Friday 23 December, so I have had plenty of time for such things.

I generally like to order seeds from several different suppliers. This is because I can never get everything I want from just one place. I find that almost every catalogue I browse through has something in it that the others don't, and I am always on the lookout for something new to grow. And in any case I like to give my custom to several different companies.

My first order for the 2012 season went to Plants of Distinction. This company offers lots of old favourites, but it also has many rather more unusual products. For instance they have a much wider range of Tomatoes, Chillis and Peppers than most companies, and many of their seeds are for the less well-known varieties. I have been buying from this company for several years now, and I have no hesitation in recommending them.

My plans for 2012 include a "Three Sisters" bed - that's to say, Squash, Corn and Beans, so I have been looking round for suitable candidates. I haven't finally decided but I think the beans will be Cherokee Trail of Tears, simply because I like the heritage aspect of them. Last year I found seeds for them to be in short supply, but I was eventually able to get some from Pennard Plants.

Cherokee Trail of Tears

The Squash will probably be Butterbush, available from Dobies and elsewhere. It's a variety of Butternut bred to be specially compact. My raised beds are too small to accommodate a trailing variety! As for the Corn: well, there are so many varieties available that it's hard to decide. Maybe Sunrise from Marshalls? This one is advertised as 'compact' and 'suitable for smaller gardens' so it meets at least some of the criteria...

Another thing that I am planning to grow next year is Aubergines. I don't normally grow these because we usually find them rather bitter, often with soft spongy flesh and tough skins. However, I remember that years ago when we lived in the Far East we used to enjoy the "Brinjal" type, which is quite different to the big fat glossy Mediterranean type of Aubergine. They are longer and thinner and firmer. I reason that if I am ever going to like Aubergines, it will be if I grow them myself, so when I saw Pingtung Long in the Plants of Distinction catalogue, I added it to my list. Will it be as good-looking as this type I photographed on our holiday in Turkey, I wonder?

How about this for a curiosity? The Climbing Mushy Pea Bean. A climbing bean that allegedly performs like a Marrowfat pea. Couldn't resist that one! (Even though I am determined to have enough Runner Beans next year to be able to freeze some of them - they really are my favourite.)

Several of the big seed suppliers are offering discounts for orders placed before 31st December (e.g. Dobies are offering 15% discount on telephone and internet orders over £35, and Mr.Fothergills are offering 10% off all Web orders.), so I shall certainly be having a look at their websites in the next few days.

The pathetically-small Physalis fruits
There are some things that I will definitely NOT be growing next year, for instance Tomatillos and Physalis. I also don't see myself repeating the Flower Sprout experiment. My Red Cabbage (Marner Langerrot) put in another poor performance this year (that's two in a row), so this time I'll try a different variety. I have also decided not to grow any Oriental Brassicas (Jane doesn't like them), or Spinach (which always bolts before I get a worthwhile crop). The Mooli / Daikon that I grew this year was successful in that it produced some sizeable roots, but they all came on at the same time, and we didn't like them very much anyway, so they are off the list. Sounds like a long tale of woe, doesn't it? However there are literally dozens more things I do want to grow, so I shan't be short of ideas - just space. So the big challenge for me is in exercising restraint and being realistic about what I can fit in.   Dream on!

Tuesday 27 December 2011

Fleet is the best!

The town in which I live is called Fleet. It is in the district of Hart, in North-East Hampshire. The Council's logo features a hart - this word being an old English one meaning a mature male deer.

 In a recent survey Hart District emerged as the most desirable place to live in Britain! The survey looked at the factors of health, crime, jobs, schools, weather and housing. On Christmas Eve many of the national newspapers ran a story about the survey, and most of them used it to emphasise the so-called North-South Divide, since none of the places in the top 50 list were in the North of England (do you reckon that the survey was perhaps conducted by a Londoner??)

Emma, please note that Wokingham is only in the No.3 spot... So there!

It was good to see that The Guardian gave a mention to one of my favourite shops - W.C.Baker and Sons, the ironmonger's shop. This old-fashioned shop is a real treasure. In it you can literally buy just one nail if you want to, and it is very seldom that they don't have what you want. The Guardian describes it as "Tardis-like" in that from the outside it looks tiny, but inside it seems to have EVERYTHING you might need.

Fiona; if you happen to read this during your time with the Folks in Panama, you just show them this picture of the Basingstoke Canal, and remind them that sometimes "Less is More"!

From my point of view, Yes this is true. Hart is a good place to live. For me one of the main attractions is its physical location. On the railway you can be in London in 50 minutes (sometimes less); it's 25 miles from Heathrow airport, London's biggest; 50 from Gatwick; it's right on the M3 motorway, and only 12 miles from the M4. In my job I have to travel around a fair bit, and these convenient transport links count for a lot. Despite this, Fleet is far enough "out of town" to have a rural rather than a suburban feel to it, and in just a few minutes' drive you can be genuinely away from it all in the depths of the beautiful Hampshire countryside.[e.g. The New Forest, less than 50 miles, approx 1 hour travelling time.]

OK, so now I'm just off to verify the assertion that "Hart residents enjoy incomes 40% above the UK average."...

Monday 26 December 2011

More of my favourite Christmas-time things

Christmas-time is a time to enjoy all those special things that often get overlooked in our busy lives at other times of the year.

The first thing I want to show you today is this beautiful glass decanter, given to me by my "consuelo"  (daughter's Father-in-Law), Percy Núñez, from Panama. Here it holds some lovely Barbados rum - not as good as the vintage Honduras rum that Percy will be more familiar with, but good nonetheless:

My British readers will, I'm sure, be familiar with Christmas cake. Traditionally this is a very rich fruit cake, made well in advance and "fed" from time to time with a little Brandy. Usually it is covered in marzipan and a thick layer of royal icing. In the past Jane would have made us a Christmas cake, but this year because of her diabetes diagnosis she can't really eat cake and we decided that it wasn't worthwhile to make a one-person cake. Fortunately for me our good friend Rosemary was making cakes as normal and used some of the mixture to make an extra (tiny) cake just for me. Aren't I lucky to have such a kind friend?  My favourite way of eating Christmas cake is with cheese. You may think this a wierd combination, but it is really good (ask a Yorkshireman...). To be really authentic, the cheese ought to be a nice sharp, crumbly Wensleydale, but we haven't got any Wensleydale, so I am using Cheddar. Not just any old Cheddar, but probably the best one you can get - extra-mature Montgomery's Cheddar.

Here's one of my Christmas presents, bought for me by Jane. I think you'll agree that with their chilli pattern they are very appropriately chosen, and likely to become one of my most cherished possessions!

They are officially "Shed shoes", the sort of thing you just slip on when you want to nip out and fetch something from the shed, or simply pick a bunch of herbs for with your dinner.

Here's a "first" for me - a Mince Pie made for me by my gorgeous granddaughter Lara (with some help from her Mum, of course). It's in the form of a "Twinkle 'tar"... Thanks, Lara. I'm sure you will be a great cook one day, just like your Mum and your Grandma.

The things I have shown you are all lovely in their own way, but today I also want to show you a photo of my greatest treasure of all  - my wife Jane. As a reader commented the other day "a very special person".

We've been married more than 34 years now, and I know she will be embarrassed when I say this, but I think our love for each other is stronger than ever. And you know, one of our greatest bonds is our mutual love of food and drink and cooking. Long may it stay that way!

Sunday 25 December 2011

Christmas Fare - Fleet style

Here are some of the goodies we traditionally eat / drink in the Willis household at Christmas time:

Sloe Gin. This is my own home-made one. I love it! Probably the best I have ever made. Really fruity, and not too sweet. Here it is being served with a little bowl of savoury Macadamia nuts as a pre-dinner apéritif - a wonderful pairing.

The carved wooden tray is one with significance for us too - it came from Shimla, in India. We bought it during a culinary tour of India that Jane won some years ago (you can read about how she did it on her blog The Competition Grapevine)

Mince Pies. Since Jane was diagnosed earlier this year as having diabetes she can't eat much in the way of sweets, desserts, cakes etc, but she made some Mince Pies just for me anyway. Isn't that generous?
Her style of Mince Pie has a lid that is not crimped tightly to the base but is easily removable. This facilitates the addition of a large dollop of Brandy Butter... She knows me well!

Christmas Pudding. Jane also got me this personalised Christmas pudding. Need I add that she won this as a prize in a competition? Just look at the poignant message she chose!

Chocolate "Gold Coins" and Satsumas. We have a family tradition that everyone's Christmas Stocking should include a bag of chocolate coins and a satsuma / clementine or equivalent. The Satsuma part of this goes back at least to my Grandmother's time. I think in those days (very early 20th century), citrus fruits were not available in the UK all year round as they are now, but used to come into the shops round about Christmas time, so it was a special treat to get one as a gift. People used to be content with simpler pleasures in those days I think!

Port wine and Stilton cheese. You can't get more quintessentially English than that! Stilton is probably the best-known English cheese after Cheddar. It could hardly be more different though. The perfect way to end a special meal.

Saturday 24 December 2011

Happy Christmas!

I don't expect many people will read this post (well, at least not on the day it's published, anyway), but I just wanted to take the opportunity to formally wish my readers a Happy Christmas, and thank them for their support and interest in my blog this past year. So: "Thanks everyone; and I hope you are at home, happy, warm, comfortable, well-fed and surrounded by the people you love. Have a great time!"

We've had a chilly chilli few days here just recently, which is normal for us at Christmas-time.

I know you expect me to show you some pictures, even in a Christmas post, so what could be more appropriate than a few photos of our Christmas tree, which sits neatly in a corner of our Living Room:

Red and gold is evidently our chosen colour scheme this year, but take a closer look. What sort of decorations have we used? Not the traditional ones, that's for sure...

The lights are in the form of my beloved chilli peppers

Any many of the "baubles" are real chillis from my own garden

In my humble opinion, a magical combination, which imparts a real warm (hot??) glow!

Up at the top of the tree is this little "Angel" - a fluffy Teddy-bear with golden wings!

While behind him, hanging from the curtain rail, is this piece of painted glassware, featuring Poinsettias and Holly. When the sun shines through it this is really lovely. We've had it for many years, and these days it always hangs in the same place each Christmas.

Finally, here's a photo of the tree done in 1960s style...


Friday 23 December 2011

Christmas Chillis

This week I have harvested what will probably be the last chilli fruits of the year:

This is a mixture of three types - the long "Pinocchio's Nose", the short fat ones that I nicknamed "Medium Long", and just one of the round "Cherry Bomb" (top left).

The Pinocchio's Nose plant is in the garage now, and the fruits had been ripening very slowly, so I cut them and brought them inside. Within 48 hours they went almost completely red, and the tips have now begun to shrivel.

The biggest of this batch is probably the longest chilli I have ever grown. With the ruler against it you can see that it is approximately 7" / 18cm, if you don't count the stalk. On the seed packet it said "...may grow up to 25cm in length", so I think 18cm is a fairly good result.

The only other thing I have harvested this week is some Curly Endive. We ate this with a shallot vinaigrette as an accompaniment to roast Rack of Lamb with Gratin Dauphinoise  - which is an old favourite combination of ours

The intricate shape of the Endive leaves lends itself to a bit of creative photo-editing. This one has had a red tint applied, along with the "Neon" effect. I think it makes a very dramatic composition. I'd love to have a 6-foot square copy of this on my wall, wouldn't you?