April at Plot 4

This month generally starts with a few days of beautiful weather. My wedding anniversary on the 2nd is almost always beautifully sunny. This year the greyness of March has carried on to the start of April, and my mood has only lifted now that the sun is shining (and I’ve managed to get the plot on two consecuetive days).

Having harvested the last of the overwintering crops last month, there is littlt to harvest at the moment. The Swiss Chard is still hanging on, so they will be used in fritattas, bruschetta and in soups. Supplementing this are the emerging nettles, mint and rocket. The fresh flavours of these new leaves are super in risottos.

The sowing has really started, with peas and broad beans about to be sown outside. The greenhouse will no doubt be groaning by the end of the month as more and more is sown (tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, pumpkins, chard and courgettes will all be starting their life in modules during the next few weeks). The last of the potatoes will need to be planted, with the spaces between the rows being utilised to sow radishes and herbs like parsley.

As for jobs, there are so many. The gooseberries, and red and white currants, need to be pruned to prevent disease and encourage new growth. You need to remove the dead wood, then prune all the sideshoots back to a few buds from the base. You’re looking to shorten the branches by about 1/4. All the pathways also need clearing and covering with a new layer of woodchip, and on a theme of tidying the sheds need a good sort. And of course, the battle with the allotmenteers nemesis, the slug, starts afresh.

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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 Pizza Bianca Brassica

how to make pizza bianca brassicaPizza is undoubtedly one of my favourite foods and a sure fire winner with the kids too. There are so many possible things to top it with, but almost always they include the addition of a tomato sauce on the base. I do love this classic pizza, but I’ve recently discovered the pizza bianca; a pizza with no tomato. Somehow the lack of the tomato allows you to really appreciate the flavours of the pizza topping fully.

Brassicas are not the first port of call for the home pizza chef, but they offer a great alternative to the usual topping fayre. Cooked down with onions and garlic they create an unctiuous sweet and iron rich base on which to place your chosen cheese.

You will need (makes 6 small pizzas)

For the pizza base

3g dried yeast
150ml warm water
500g strong white flour
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp olive oil

For the topping

A glug of olive oil
2 onions, halved and thinly sliced
1 large clove of garlic, finely chopped
350g of spring greens, kale, cavolo nero or other brassica leaves (stalks removed)
75g mature cheddar, grated
75g mozarella
Salt and black pepper

Mix all the pizza ingredients together to form a dough. Continue to knead until the dough becomes more silken and springy. It’s impossble to say how long this could take, but after six or seven minutes you should be pretty much there. Place the dough in an oiled bowl and cover with clingfilm or a damp teatowel.  Leave to prove for an hour or so, or until the dough has doubled in size.

Whilst the dough proves, finely slice a couple of onions and a large clove of garlic, and slowly cook in a little oil until it is wonderfuly soft and transulcent. When the onions are done, add the finely shredded greens, allowing them to soften and combine with the sweet allium mix. Take the dough, divide it into 6, shape into balls, then roll out on a floured surface to about the thickness of a pound coin.

I find that pizzas in a home oven benefit from being placed onto a hot baking sheet. I use a piece of floured plywood to peel the pizza in to the oven and onto a preheated baking tray (set your oven to hot, as hot as it goes). The additional heat from below helps to ensure the crisp bottom required of a decent pizza, and aids the speedy baking of the dough. So, spread each pizza with the onion, garlic, brassica mix, then top with the two cheeses. Bake for 7-8 minutes until they are crisp and golden.

Happier Living at the Plot

The allotment has become a place of calm and happiness for me over the last few years. It’s separation from life at home and work, offers the chance to look at things differently with a new pair of eyes. The people at Action for Happiness have ten keys to happier living and I reckon the allotment fulfills them all in some way. great dream

One of the great things about allotment sites is the way people support each other. Fellow allotment holders talked to me when I was feeling down, and relating to these people helped me to not feel isolated in my depression. From receiving gifts of seedlings from my neighbour, to returning the favour by giving her some spare cucumbers, contact with other members of the community was really helpful in helping me to accept how I was feeling and manage my emotions. Visiting the allotment, with out doing anything other than being there, offers therapy in itself. Just looking, appreciating, taking notice of the minute beauty of the plants growing (whether weeds or crops) allows one to find meaning in life; enables you to dispel thoughts of uselessness and pointlessness. When I had left work and my mood meant my confidence was low, the allotment also gave me direction. I needed to be there to weed, to tend the seedlings, to pick the strawberries; and so I had to go. As my confidence grew I could try new things, unlock my creative side which had been supressed. My reslience was also improved as I saw that a slug attack was not the end of the world; that I could sow more seeds; that the greenhouse could be rebuilt after the storm. Now that I’m more on an even keel, with more of a positive mindset, the allotment still offers me a place to go for peace and solitude. It also gives me a chance for physical work. An afternoon digging and weeding is as good a excercise as any gym. The Allotment Gym if you like. A gym for your body and your mind.

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.

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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.

Mushrooms on Toast

I’m not entirely sure if mushrooms on toast counts as a recipe really, but I love it and want others to enjoy it too, so I decided to write a quick post about this quick lunch. Mushrooms on toast may be simple, but as with many simple dishes there are things you can do to ensure the very best. First of all good quality ingredients; the best, freshest mushrooms, will provide the best flavour. I recently used the mushrooms I cropped from an Espresso Mushroom Company kit I had, which meant I could cook them at there perfect cropping point. The bread, for me as an aspiring community baker, is also crucial. To me, the flavour and texture of a good sourdough loaf is necessary to really show off the flavour of the fungi. Sourdough bread also toasts really well, resulting in a consistently crisp base for the mushrooms. The sauteed mushrooms alone would be fine, but I like to add a little thyme and garlic when frying them, and a little parsley just before placing them on the toast.

mushrooms on toast

You will need
A large handful of chopped mushrooms
A knob of butter
1/4 garlic clove, crushed
1tsp. thyme leaves
Salt and pepper to season
A dash of cream and a small handful of chopped parsley (leave out either if you wish)
2 slices of sourdough bread

Put the bread in the toaster or under the grill (whichever is your chosen method of toasting) and lightly toast. Meanwhile, add the butter to a hot frying pan and saute the mushrooms until browned. Add the crushed garlic and thyme leaves and cook for a further minute or so. Stir in a small handful of chopped parsley and a dash of cream, before topping the sourdough toast with the mushroom mix.

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.

Time To Talk

Today is Time To Talk day, and I although its only a few days since I last posted, I feel compelled to post something about the power of talking about our wellbeing.

Although this blog is about my allotment, my kitchen, and the food we eat, it was born out of a desire to document my mental health and the journey I am on to recover from depression and anxiety. As a teacher I was stressed, over worked and reached burn out; suffering from low mood, anxiety and weight loss. The turning point for me was when I opened up to a colleague, and rather than shying away from it, they listened, gave me a hug and told me to visit my doctor. Just talking was the first step to getting it under control, and talking about my feelings has become something which has consistently helped me; whether to my super supportive wife, to a counsellor, to friends and family, even to people who ask me why I’m now a baker. It’s a hard thing to do sometimes, but in my experience the vast majority of people are supportive and often talk about their own mental health difficulties.TTC_TimeToTalk_FacebookCover_0

Talking about mental health issues, and doing something which helps my wellbeing, has led me to completely change my career. From a teacher in a primary school, to the project lead of a social enterprise, Stoneham Bakehouse, which is using breadmaking to support the community’s wellbeing. One of the projects we have started is a baking for wellbeing project with the local junior school. Based on the NEF’s 5 Ways to Wellbeing, it focusses on using working with dough to facilitate mindfulness and talking about feelings.

So, on Time To Talk Day, I encourage you to talk to friends, family, people at the allotment. Just talk to them. Check in with them. See how they are. Talking can really help.