Sunday 31 January 2016

Free seeds giveaway - Winner announced

The winner of my Free Seeds Giveaway, drawn at random today is:

Matt - whose blog is Garden59

Matt, just in case you see this before the Tweet I sent you just now, please give me your address so that I can send the seeds to you.

Thank you to everyone else who entered. I'm sorry you couldn't all be winners!


"Iranian" Lamb

I have put the word "Iranian" in inverted commas in the title of my post, because I want to make it quite clear that I have no claim whatever to any expertise in relation to Iranian cooking! I have read a few recipes and seen some stuff about Iranian cooking on TV and the social media, but I don't think I have ever had or prepared any authentic Iranian food. Still, a little matter like that is not going to put me off making something that I perceive as Iranian in style!

I made this meal that I am going to describe on the day when Jane was attending a Middle Eastern cookery course at the Waitrose Cookery School in London - asking for trouble, I suppose!

Well, this is where I started. I had a rummage in the kitchen cupboards and fridge to see what ingredients we had that might be thought of as Iranian - or at least vaguely Middle Eastern. I found quite a lot:

Bulgur wheat, dried apricots, raisins and currants, Za'atar, Turkish Urfa chilli flakes, Cardamom pods, Pine-nuts, Sumac powder, Cloves, Cumin and Cinnamon, a piece of Feta cheese, and (pièce de résistance!) a packet of dried Limes. I should also mention that I had a 300g pack of diced Lamb Shoulder waiting in the fridge, and some fresh Parsley available in the garden.

I have never cooked with dried Limes before, and never knowingly eaten them, but my culinary hero Yotam Ottolenghi is a big fan of them, so they must be OK. If you are unfamiliar with this ingredient, have a look at this LINK.

The dish I made was in effect a "Lamb Casserole" with Middle Eastern spicing. I deliberately chose what I consider to be sweet spices (Cloves, Cinnamon etc) and I didn't use any of the West Indian ones like Nutmeg, Mace and Allspice. I used about a quarter teaspoon each of Cumin, Cinnamon and Cloves, a half teaspoon of Chilli flakes and Za'atar, plus about a teaspoon of Sumac.

The Sumac is the red spice (top right in that bowl). I think it has a sort of lemony flavour. Certainly not hot like chilli.

After browning the meat and softening a chopped onion I added-in the spice mix and the dried fruit, along with a tablespoon of concentrated beef stock and about 500ml of water. It was at this stage too that I added the dried Limes. I only used two because I had read that they are quite strong and I didn't want to overdo it. Opinions vary about whether you should pre-soak them, but I didn't. I did however pierce them a few times with the point of a knife, both to let the flavour come out and also to help them sink into the gravy!

I brought the liquid up to the boil on the hob, then covered the casserole-dish and put it into a low oven (140C) for 3 hours or so. This long slow method of cooking is perfect for this type of dish because it gives plenty of opportunity for the spices to permeate the meat. This is what it looked like after the three hours:

To accompany the lamb I cooked about 120g of bulgur in 400ml of home-made chicken stock, simmering it gently for about 20 minutes and then turning off the heat to let the grain fully absorb the stock without going dry. I also toasted some pine-nuts which were eventually added to the bulgur to give it a bit of crunch. The final touch for this dish was some chopped Mint and Parsley, stirred in at the last minute to maximise its flavour.

The Feta cheese was crumbled on top of the lamb:

A "Little Gem" lettuce salad:

Here is the complete dish, all assembled:

The lamb element doesn't look very special, but it certainly tasted special. To be honest, I don't think I could specifically detect the presence of the dried Lime, or indeed the Sumac or any other individual spice. The whole thing had a pleasantly sweet, spicy, almost oriental, note to it. Bearing in mind that this type of dish originates in the Middle East, I can see how with the addition of a load more chillis this could evolve into what we now call an Indian curry. I'm guessing that before the advent of the chilli (imported from South America in the 16th century, if I'm not mistaken), some of the food of Western parts of India might have been somewhat akin to this....

My thanks to friends on Twitter for advice on the use of dried Limes!

Saturday 30 January 2016

Making the most of your PSB

The big central head of a Purple Sprouting Broccoli plant, and the "primary" sideshoots just below it are the most desirable part of the plant, but my message today is "Don't overlook the rest of it."

Main head and primary sideshoots on PSB "Early Purple Sprouting"

When the primary sideshoots have gone, smaller secondary ones will appear, so don't be in too much of a hurry to clear the plants away. Growing PSB takes about 9 - 10 months, so another week or two surely won't hurt!

PSB plant ("Red Spear") showing secondary sideshoots

Even when the secondary sideshoots have been used you may well get a small crop of tertiary shoots. Here you can see some sprouting from the stump of a secondary shoot.

Evidently, these later shoots are smaller, as you would expect, so you need more of them to make a meal, but they are still definitely worth having! Here is the same shoot after cutting:

To prepare it for cooking, I cut off and kept the three flowering shoots but discarded the thick (probably tough) stem.

I don't normally do this, but you can also use the leaves of PSB as general-purpose "Greens". The big leaves are tough and stringy, so you need to use only the very small ones.

If you can afford to leave the plants in the ground they will eventually produce a mass of tiny yellow flowers which are very attractive to bees.

Growing PSB requires a lot of patience, but in my opinion the rewards justify the wait!

Friday 29 January 2016

Too early for Spring

The end of January really is too early for Spring to start, but the Winter has been unusually mild so the plants don't know what to do. There are masses of Daffodils flowering already.

The Rhubarb definitely thinks it's time to start putting up new leaves.

This shy and nervous Song Thrush is perching on the container in which the Rhubarb is growing.

Crocuses are usually among the first flowers to appear in the Spring, so I'm not surprised to see these.

This is a Salvia Cardinalis, already producing some beautiful deep red leaves.

This is another sign of how mild and wet the Winter has been - moss growing around the base of one of my Bay trees.

On a completely different note - have you noticed what Google has been doing about Followers of blogs? Anyone who follows a blog via software other than Google Friend Connect can no longer be counted as a Follower on a blog hosted by Blogger. My numbers have gone down by about 30. Rumour has it that before long you won't even be able to leave a comment on a Blogger blog if you are not a Google subscriber. Why are they doing this? What is the point of such protectionism? I thought the Social Media were supposed to promote socialising.... :(

Thursday 28 January 2016

SEER Rockdust

Well, my Rockdust arrived. This stuff is pretty dense, because the 25kg sack was quite small:

The recommended rate of application for it is a minimum of 500g per square metre, so I weighed some to see what 500g looked like. Not a lot!

So, I then measured out for each of my raised beds 3 generous "portions" of 500g (more like 600g in many cases, I suspect). Each bed is 1 metre x 2.4 metres - let's call it 2.5 square metres.

Then I mixed the Rockdust into the soil with a hand fork.

Having done this I thought "That doesn't look like enough", and I did the same thing all over again! The manufacturer's instructions say that you can apply as much as 5kg per square metre, but then they are trying to SELL the stuff, so I reckon they probably want you to use more than is strictly necessary. 3kgs per 2.5 metres sounds like enough for me. Hopefully enough to be able to judge whether it makes any difference. We shall see...

Wednesday 27 January 2016

Tidying the Strawberries

This is a good time of year to start preparing your Strawberry plants for the new season. Over the Winter lots of the previous year's foliage will have died down and may be harbouring pest and moulds, and it's best to give the plants a good tidy-up before they spring into new growth.

Due to lack of space elsewhere, I grow my Strawberry plants in some black plastic crates. This works out well for me, because it means that I can move them around the garden as necessary. During their fruiting period I can easily put them under a netted structure to stop the birds stealing the berries, and during the Winter I can tuck them away somewhere unobtrusive. Having spent the last few months at the bottom of the garden, under my Maple tree, the crates were full of fallen leaves, pine-needles and similar debris.

Most of the bigger leaves of the Strawberry plants had died down and were drooping sadly over the edges of the crates.

After removing all the loose Maple leaves and suchlike I set-to with a sharp pair of secateurs and removed from each plant all but two or three small healthy leaves:

Doing this exposes the emerging buds to more light, helping them to develop strongly from the start without having to push up through old foliage towards the light.

So now I have four crates of apparently strong and healthy plants.

It's odd how they move around. They were all evenly-spaced when I planted them!

For one set of plants though, their days are numbered. After a few years a Strawberry plant begins to lose its vigour, so I have promised myself that each year one of the four crates will be emptied and begun again from new plants, thereby hopefully maintaining the vigour of my crop. In the Autumn I potted-up some runners from the parent plants, and it is these that I will use for this purpose.

The potted-up runners have also lost most of their leaves, just like their parents, but fresh new growth is now beginning to appear, so I think all or most of them have rooted OK. I'll not put them into their new home just yet though - I'll wait until they are a big stronger.

By the way, another advantage of growing Strawberries in containers is that you can put them under cover - e.g. in a mini-greenhouse - if you want to bring them on quicker, for an early crop.

Tuesday 26 January 2016

Nothing in particular

Not much is happening in my garden at present. Several of the raised beds have been cleared, and are standing empty ready for the new season.

I recently added some pelleted chicken manure and some Growmore general-purpose fertiliser to the vacant beds, in order to give them a boost for later on. Now is a good time to do this, because the fertilizer will have some time to permeate the soil before anything gets planted. I didn't add any fertiliser to the bed in which the carrots will go, because I was worried that too much nitrogen would encourage forking.

The 2015 / 16 season was poor for several vegetables - at least in my garden. Leeks were thin and lanky; Parsnips were diseased and pathetically small; Radicchio is growing at a snail's pace, etc. I know that some things did well too (Carrots, Runner Beans, Lettuce), but I'm wondering whether my soil has become "tired". I know I always add a fair bit of home-made compost, and the occasional sprinkling of Growmore and Pelleted Chicken Manure, but is it enough? The last two years I have had problems with the commercial compost I used for Tomatoes, Chillis etc, and I have had to dispose of it rather than adding it to the raised beds at the end of the season like I normally do. I'm certainly going to make a big effort in relation to the new raised beds. About 50% of their content will be that Topsoil I bought the other day, and I have two bins of compost that need emptying, so they will make a significant contribution.

I have also just ordered some SEER Rockdust which sounds like good stuff for re-invigorating intensively-cultivated beds. It is basically pulverised rock, containing masses of minerals. Have any of my readers used this product? And if so, is it as good as the vendors claim? By the way, if you are planning to buy any of it my advice is to shop around carefully because the price varies a lot! I saw it at £17.99 for a 25kg bag, but I have bought mine for £8 a bag from Tuckers Country Stores, based in Devon. (Now I expect someone will tell me they got it even cheaper than that...)

As many of you know, my Purple Sprouting Broccoli is way ahead of its normal schedule this year, and at the rate it's going I'll be able to dig up the spent plants by about the middle of February. This will be a boon when it comes to getting the beds ready for Summer crops. In my garden, PSB is normally followed by climbing beans, which can't be planted out until fear of frost has passed.

PSB "Early Purple Sprouting"

The Brokali plants, growing underneath the PSB, have been OK but unremarkable. I think they would have done a lot better if they hadn't been so over-shadowed. This is the first time I have grown Brokali and as they say "The jury is still out". I might give it another try, but then I might not. In terms of volume, it can't compete with the PSB, and the little spears seem to develop exceptionally slowly.

Brokali "Endeavour"

To finish today's post, here's a photo of the Dogwood bushes shining in the weak Winter sunlight a couple of days ago.

It's actually quite hard to take a photo that does them justice. (Believe me, I have tried frequently!). It will soon be time to prune them again. I do this each year, in February. Over the years I have experimented with several techniques and I have now settled on a good way to get plenty of stems from each plant, like this one:-

Monday 25 January 2016

Harvest Monday - 25th January 2016

Fresh vegetables from the garden are in short supply at present. Winter paid us a brief visit for a few days, bringing temperatures as low as minus 7 Celsius in our neighbourhood, though unlike many parts of the country, only a brief dusting of wet snow that didn't linger. The severe frost put paid to most of my Endives, but one or two of those under cloches are still hanging on. This one was really too small for harvesting, but I reasoned that I might as well pick it before it succumbed to the weather:

Along with a few leaves picked from the remaining Lettuces, and some bought-in Cress and Watercress, it made quite an acceptable salad.

Another Celeriac met its end in the kitchen too:

This one went into that "Pasticcio"-like dish I made on Saturday, along with some of my final batch of Carrots, which are still going strong.

The size of my Celeriac is still disappointing, but I am pleased that they are slightly bigger than anything I have previously produced (This is a figure of speech called "damning with faint praise"!) The taste is good though -very strong. I kept the leaves too, for use at a later date as flavouring for stock.

This is my contribution to Harvest Monday, hosted once more by Michelle at From Seed To Table, so please visit her site to see some more harvests.

Sunday 24 January 2016

Pasticcio, Pastitsio

This is a version of the Mediterranean dish variously called Pasticcio, Pastitsio, Pastizzio etc. The origin of this dish is obscure, and various nations lay claim to its invention, but it seems to be universally popular in the Northern Mediterranean - Italy, Greece and Turkey in particular.

The significant elements of the dish are minced meat (lamb, beef, or pork), pasta (usually a tubular type like macaroni), and a creamy white sauce (Béchamel). The exact ingredients vary according to taste, so you can ring the changes a bit - particularly in relation to adding spices. Some versions have Oregano, some have Cinnamon, Allspice and Nutmeg, some have Mint and/or Parsley. Opinions also vary about whether you should add tomatoes. As you can see, this is a very flexible recipe! My version has loads of vegetables in it too. I'm deliberately not giving measurements and quantities here - you just have to "play it by ear".

Everyone who reads this blog knows that  Jane and I eat meat, but we are also very keen to include as many vegetables as possible in our food. How about this? Do you think that's enough?

That is Onion, Swede turnip, Carrot, Celeriac and Garlic. The Carrots and Celeriac were home-grown.

Having prepped the veg, I sweated it in a little vegetable oil, over a low heat, until it had gone soft but had not browned.

Meanwhile I browned my mince in a separate pan. I used Beef, but Lamb or Pork would do just as well.

Then I added the meat into the pan containing the vegetables, along with a tin of chopped tomatoes and my flavourings. I used a generous amount of dried Oregano, some Fennel seeds and just a little ground Allspice (Jamaican Pepper). Also included were a tablespoon of concentrated beef stock and some salt and pepper.

Covering the pan with its lid, I left it to slowly simmer for about an hour and a half, after which it was removed from the heat and allowed to cool.

Later I cooked my pasta. I used Penne, because that is my favourite, but I suppose Macaroni would have been more traditional. Something "tubular" is best.

When the pasta had reached the "al dente" stage I drained it and put it to one side while I made my Béchamel sauce. I used the Roux method, cooking the flour and butter together first, before adding the milk little by little, stirring constantly. When the sauce was nice and smooth I added some grated Extra Mature Cheddar cheese and again stirred the sauce until the cheese was fully incorporated.

Next step was to mix the meat sauce with about two-thirds of the pasta and arrange it in a deep Pyrex dish.

 Then the remaining pasta is added as an upper layer.

The Béchamel sauce is then poured over the top of everything. A final sprinkle of grated cheese and a few grinds of black pepper adds the finishing touch.

Finally it goes into the oven for about 20 - 25 minutes at 180C until the sauce is golden and bubbling.

This is the ultimate Comfort Food dish. Creamy, savoury, unctuous, satisfying!

It is also a comprehensive meal in its own right - containing meat, dairy, carbohydrate and vegetables.

I served the dish with a green salad comprising Lettuce, Endive, Watercress and ordinary Cress, along with a nice sharp French Dressing.

 A glass of Italian red wine would of course be entirely appropriate to accompany this meal!