Time for Peas

I’ve been a little slack in getting the allotment back online after its winter break, so as the weather warms up and there are glimpses of spring-like weather its about time I got something in the ground. One of the pleasures of having an allotment is the fact that you can grow your own beans and peas. There is little in life better than shelling a basket of home grown peas (perhaps eating them pod as you pick them I suppose), and with this thought in mind I have set about preparing ground for this year’s peas, as well as sowing some in trays in the greenhouse.Pea Pods shelled of peasPeas sing of freshness and, as mentioned, there is nothing better than eating them super fresh from the pod on the allotment. However, this is not possible all year, and here we can rely on frozen peas. Frozen peas are frozen within a few hours of picking, so will almost always be sweeter than those bought in the grocers, as the sugars in the peas start to turn to starch as soon as they have been picked.

With a longing for the freshness of peas, and a reminder of why I was planting out the shrivelled peas on a cold day at the allotment, a pea soup was required. Pea soup on its own is a lovely thing, but for me pea and ham is a superior combination.

pea and ham soup title

You will need
knob of butter
2 spring onions, finely chopped
500g frozen peas
1 litre stock (I used vegetable, but for the best pea and ham soup, ham or pork stock is best)
Small handful of fresh mint
300g ham, sliced and diced

Melt the butter in a thick bottomed saucepan and as it starts to froth add the spring onions. Slowly cook the onions until they turn translucent and release their sweet allium flavour, before adding the frozen peas. Stir, and cook for a few minutes, before pouring in the stock and bringing to the boil. Simmer for a few minutes, then add the mint and blitz until smooth. To achieve a truly silken soup, I like to sieve the pureed soup once it is a little cooler. Once you’ve achieved the texture you want, add the ham and season accordingly.

March at Plot 4

So much for the fresh hope for better weather, it seems to have been particularly wet over the last few weeks, culminating in the wettest day ever for the last 24 hours of February. The allotment is as a result undiggable and pretty much untouched in the a couple of weeks. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve had decent days, but now I have work commitments again they have nearly always coincided in a meeting or a need to bake some loaves. Oh well, these things happen, and at least I spent the first morning of March at the allotment, with the kids, tidying the shed (oh, and having hot chocolate made on the woodfired stove).

I think March is perhaps the worst of the ‘Hungry Gap’ months, as the overwintered crops dwindle and there is little to harvest. There’s still Swiss Chard going, and the Jerusalem artichokes are lying in the ground awaiting harvesting. I find that they’re best kept safe in the soil, only digging what I need. Although, in the next few weeks they will begin to sprout and it will be time to harvest the remaining tubers before they start growing into hundreds of plants!

It’s definitely time to start sowing. I’ve been a little slow in getting going on this, but with a bit of spring sunshine around its time to really start. The seed catalogue has been studied and varieties ordered. Over the next few weeks I’ll get sowing more celeriac, cucumbers, the first tomatoes, and some salad leaves in the greenhouse, to take advantage of the spring sunlight. Outside it will be time to sow some broad beans and peas (which I missed sowing in the autumn). I’ve also got some carrot seeds ready to go into a large container. The soil at the allotment is not favourable to carrots, using containers with a sandy, free draining soil, enables us to have fresh (well shaped) carrots.

The jobs on the plot start to really add up this month with cleaning out of sheds, greenhouses and other areas of the allotment. Hopefully the soil will dry out a bit, enabling a good amount of diggning to be done and potatoes to be planted.

Garden share collective badge
This post is contributing to The Garden Share Collective; an international group of bloggers who share their vegetable patches, container gardens and the herbs they grow on their window sills.

How to Make Baked Eggs with Swiss Chard

Baked EggsUnlike some of my fellow Garden Share Collective bloggers like Dusty Country Road, Our Wee Farm and Strayed from the Table, we don’t have chickens on the allotment. I wish we could, as I love the idea of being able to go and collect fresh eggs each day, but one of the rules of the allotment site is no livestock. So, when I want to have eggs I need to get them from the shops and our local free range supplier.

I do however have a good supply of Swiss Chard, and enjoy using it in many different dishes, such as chard pilaf and chard and blue cheese tarts. This little light lunch is inspired by the desire for my own fresh eggs and my favourite allotment veg, the silken runny yolk perfectly compliments the iron rich earthy flavours of the chard.

You will need (serves 2)

2 eggs
150g Swiss Chard
A few knobs of butter
Salt & pepper
Nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 200°C. Wash the chard and trim off the thicker bits of the stems. Place them in a large hot pan and cook until wilted. Stir in a small knob of butter and a grating of nutmeg, before dividing the chard between two buttered ramekins. Crack an egg into each ramekin, season with salt and pepper, and add another small knob of butter to each of the ramekins. Bake for a 10-12mins until the egg is just set. Serve with toasted sourdough or similar bread. If you’re pining for eggs and soldiers, as I do sometimes, why not serve toast soldiers to dip into the runny yolk.

February at Plot 4

The year has well and truly started now, and for me it has meant a lot of aborted trips to the allotment. My new role as project lead for Stoneham Bakehouse community bakery has meant that I have had less time to spend at the allotment. What time I have had, has often been thwarted by the rain and generally inclement weather. At least, at this time of year, a few weeks of little inactivity is manageable; although with the mild start to the year Jack Frost hasn’t been able to help me keep the perennial weeds under control, or break up the soil I’ve managed to clear. Still, a new month, brings fresh hope for drier, colder weather.

Although the plot is very much in a dormant phase, there are still vegetables to harvest. The brassicas which are overwintering under the protection of netting, are providing us with iron rich green leaves to accompany stews, go in soups or top pizzas. Yesterday’s evening meal was a delicious pizza bianca topped with an unctuous  combination of onions, garlic and kale. Jerusalem artichokes are at their best at the moment, especially pureed and accompanying fish. The onion supply from this year is dwindling, but I have plans for the production of a version of French Onion soup, using the shallots, red onions, and our last garlic (an English Allium soup if you will).

Last year I completely forgot about sowing any sweet peas, relying on a few bought plants later in the year to provide the allotment with these fragrant and colourful legumes. So this year I’m determined to get sowing soon, doing so in the protected cool of the greenhouse. Given the relative mild winter so far, I suspect the dahlias I neglected to protect and dig up in the autumn are probably fine. That said, I’m looking to pot up a few dahlia tubers in some compost, ensuring they are kept somewhere warm (well 10 degrees or above). As for vegetables (we haven’t eaten dahlia tubers in this country since they arrived in this country in the 1700s), I hope to start the early sowings under glass of cauliflower, celeriac and leeks.

The main jobs on the plot this month are ones of maintenance. The various beds need edging, weeding in some cases, manuring, and generally tidied up. Before the new sowings in the greenhouse I need to give that a good clean and sort out; the stormy winds of a week or so ago have loosened a few panels of the polycarbonate, so they need securing and sealing.  The raspberries also could use a bit of work; the autumn ones need to be chopped down to ground level, and the summer-fruiting varieties need last year’s canes removed too. The blueberries in pots will also benefit from a top-dressing of pine needles to improve the pH of the soil. The other main job is to secure the tool shed. As in every winter so far, the local rodent population have managed to nibble their way in and have been sheltering from the colder weather, whilst nibbing away at various pieces of kit. It’s time to reclaim the shed!

Garden share collective badge
This post is contributing to The Garden Share Collective; an international group of bloggers who share their vegetable patches, container gardens and the herbs they grow on their window sills.

Spicy Parsnip Soup

With the cold weather finally arriving in the South-East this week, the draw of a steaming bowl of soup is a strong one. Added to this is the fact that two TV programmes I watched last week extolled the virtues of soup in a healthy diet; citing evidence that soup fills you up more successfully than a conventional meal with the same ingredients.

Spicy Parsnip SoupSo, unsurprisingly, I’ve rekindled my love of soup this week. The cold weather is also good for the key ingredient in this particular soup. Parsnips; sown months ago, and slowly growing over the summer and autumn, taste infinitely sweeter once they have experienced Jack Frost’s icy touch. They bring an earthy sweetness to this comforting spicy dish. The addition of the North African nut and spice mix, Dukkah, sprinkled on top adds a crunch to contrast with the velvety soup.

You will need (serves 4)

1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 large clove of garlic, peeled and chopped
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp garam masala
4 good sized parsnips (roughly 800g), peeled and chopped
A couple of knobs of butter
700ml boiling water
salt and pepper to season
Dukkah and yoghurt to serve

spicy parsnip soup

Heat the oil in a large pan and saute the onion and garlic until softened, before adding the spices and stirring through. Add the parsnips and the butter, and gently cook for five or so minutes to slightly soften the parsnips. Add the water and bring to the boil. Simmer the parsnips for a further 20 minutes until cooked through, adding a little seasoning if necessary. Allow to cool slightly before whizzing in the food processor and adjusting the consistency of the soup by adding extra water (or cream if you’re feeling particularly indulgent). Warm through in a pan and serve topped with a spoonful of yoghurt and a sprinkling of dukkah.

January at Plot 4

 

There are still vegetables to harvest, the Chard, Cabbage and Broccoli are still looking good and will no doubt make their way into a few soups, or onto the plate with a winter stew. This year I have grown cauliflower for the first time, the Romanesco variety. Cauliflower has become the vegetable of the season, its been like finding an old friend, whether served with a cheese sauce in a gratin, or in a curry, it has become ever present in our diet. The Jerusalem artichokes are also waiting patiently in the ground and will come into their own as the cold sets in, providing an alternative to the ubiquitous potato.

After the festive month, January is time for a new start, a fresh approach. The seed catalogues have started to drop through the door and I’ve started to form a list of potential seeds to grow next year. By the end of the month I hope to have ordered and started chitting my seed potatoes, finalised the seed purchases for the new year, and I think I might start to sow a few peas and broad beans in the relative warmth of the greenhouse.

The cold and wet weather ahead, means the jobs at the allotment will probably be limited to sorting and tidying. Both the shed and the greenhouse need a good sort out, and the whole plot has developed a bit of a scruffy look as the weather and different commitments have conspired to limit my time at the allotment. Still, a new start in January means a chance to rework my time to ensure the plot is shipshape for the anticipation of the growing season.

Garden share collective badge
This post is contributing to The Garden Share Collective; an international group of bloggers who share their vegetable patches, container gardens and the herbs they grow on their window sills.

 

Roasted Carrot and Cumin Soup with Labneh

With weather a little colder in the last few days, and certainly as a way of warming up after yet another drenching, soup is firmly back on the menu. Our carrots at the allotment have been pretty good this year, but due to the clay soil I only every grow small varieties like Chantenay  and Paris Market. Although this means I have a good amount of carrots, their small size also results in their being eaten up speedily. All this means we don’t have any carrots in storage. However, the other day I was given a load of carrots by a friend, with the mission of turning them into something yummy. My go-to use for a carrot glut is carrot and coriander soup, but we’d had that last week, so an alternative was needed. Roasting the carrots was needed to get the best of their (slightly past their best) flavour, so I added some cumin, onions and garlic when they went in the oven. The resulting spiced carrots made the perfect base for a sweet, spiced warming soup. Topped with cool slightly sharp Labneh it was just what was needed.

You will need

700g carrots, peeled and roughly chopped (larger chunks take longer to roast, so vary times accordingly)
3 cloves of garlic
1 onion (chopped into eighths)
Salt & Pepper
2 tsp of cumin seeds (slightly crushed)
drizzle of olive oil
1l good chicken stock
Labneh, freshcoriander and zaatar to serve – I made my own labneh, by straining 450g of yoghurt with a pinch of salt overnight.

Preheat the oven to 200˚C. Add the chopped carrots, garlic and onions to an oven tray, sprinkle with the cumin, salt and pepper and olive oil. Toss the vegetables to ensure they are all covered in the oil and seasoning. Roast for 30 mins or until partly browned. Once the carrots have started to caramelise, pour them into a saucepan and add 1l stock. Bring to the boil and simmer until the vegetables are soft and tender. Whizz in the food processor and adjust seasoning as necessary.

Serve the hot soup with a spoonful of the labneh (or Greek yoghurt if you want) and a sprinkling of zaatar and fresh chopped coriander.

December at Plot 4

What a wet month! It’s been weeks of random downpours and wind fuelled rain. The allotment has a real windswept and weather beaten look to it, and our visits to the plot have often been cut short by inclement weather.

November , despite the weather, has given us some crops to harvest. In this period of the year a few plants come to the fore, with chard and beetroot being highlights. The chard has gone into a number of dishes including a warming chard pilaf. I love the way this beet brightens up the allotment with its rainbow coloured stems punctuating the slightly drab look of the plot in November. The last of the beetroot has been eaten too (I must plant more next year), going into a roasted vegetable salad with goats cheese. I’ve still got some squash stored in the greenhouse and they’ve gone into soups, pasta dishes and a great version of Leon’s Dalston Sweet Potato Curry (replacing the sweet tubers with roasted squash). Cabbage and Jerusalem Artichokes are also making their way onto our dinner plates, allowing us to enjoy their earthy flavours.

At this time of year there is not much to be sowing until the spring. The last few bulbs will go in (tulips) in the next day or so, but even then its possibly a bit too late and we’ll have to see what comes up in the new year. Instead of sowing, its time to sit down with a cup of tea and the seed catalogues; allowing myself time to dream about next year.

With the promise from the forecasters of more rain and wind this month, the chance to get on the soil has gone. Instead, the jobs are more about tidying up from the year past. Tools will need a clean and the shed could do with a tidy too. I’ll continue to put food out for the birds, and make sure that crops that need it are protected from the frost and wet. It’s also time to spruce up the shed, finishing the job of lining it with insulation and internal cladding and giving it lick of paint. All of which can be done with copious cups of tea made on the wood burner.

Garden share collective badge
This post is contributing to The Garden Share Collective; an international group of bloggers who share their vegetable patches, container gardens and the herbs they grow on their window sills.

Feed the Birds Tuppence a Bag

The last few days have seen a return of the wet weather, but before that the autumnal cold showed itself and reminded me that the birds at the allotment, and garden, needed a bit of extra help with food. Our allotment, squeezed in between houses, shops and schools like an urban oases, has a pretty varied bird life. In recent months I’ve seen everything from blue-tits and sparrows, to goldfinches and spotted woodpeckers. We usually put out some food at this point, to supplement the natural sources and the drying seedheads of the sunflowers and other flowers.

Last year I made seed cakes which, hung from the apple tree, were very popular with the feathered visitors to the plot. As was the peanut wreath which we hung on the shed door. Our own homemade food sources were always supplemented by bought bird feeders filled with seeds and nuts. However, the winds of early autumn have destroyed or completely removed these feeders, sending them across the allotment and into mangled heaps or oblivion. Despite the fact that I can buy a new one from a supermarket for a few quid I decided to make my own replacement. I may not be able to buy seed for tuppence a bag, but its pretty cheap from discount stores, so a homemade feeder cost me very little really.

You will need

A juice bottle or similar
Stick or twig of suitable size
Drill with drill bit matching diameter of stick
Needle
Seeds
String or thin wire
Craft knife

Wash and dry the bottle, as its important to ensure that its as free of moisture to start with (too much moisture will promote seed growth which birds aren’t keen). Use the needle to pierce a few holes in the base; this allows any water to drain out too. About 1/3 of the way up from the base, drill 2 holes the diameter of your chosen stick, and then thread the stick across so it forms a perch on both sides. On either side of the bottle, use a craft knife to cut out an opening just above the perch. Tie the wire or string around the neck of the bottle to form a hanger, before using the opening by the perch to fill the feeder with seeds. The seeds should reach the level of the perch, so that initially the birds don’t need to reach too far into the feeder. Hang on a branch with easy access for yourself (to refill) and the birds (easy to land etc.).

bird feeder