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!

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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.

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.

Time for some Headspace

As the new year starts, people all over the place will be coming up with resolutions. We always look to start the new year afresh, trying to have a new sense of optimism.apple tree

Over the last year my life has changed quite a bit. At this time in 2013 I was floundering; I’d left teaching, after suffering from stress and depression, and I was trying (sometimes pretty unsuccessfully) to get myself feeling better. Many things have helped me on my journey. Without my family’s love and support I’d still be stumbling about; their continuing encouragement helps me to keep on the level, their enthusiasm for the new ventures in my life keeps me focused on making it a success for the whole family.

I’ve blogged previously about finding time to myself, time to think, to just be. The allotment has been a physical location where I can get that headspace, and remains a place to go for calm and a bit of solitude. As my life becomes busier it’s been increasingly trickier to find the time and space for this kind of break. I’ve begun to use an app recommended by a friend, Headspace, which enables me to take a few minutes out of the day to refresh my mind and focus on me. The app itself allows you to have a free 10 day sequence of 10 minute meditations, which you can revisit over and over again if you want. Alternatively, there is a subscription service, which I believe (I’ve yet to sign up, but are seriously considering doing so) takes you on a longer journey, allowing you to find headspace whenever you require it. The company behind this say that the subscription should be thought of as a “gym membership for the mind”; and when you think of it the mind is our most important body part, our mental fitness is key to a healthy life full stop. 

Still, a subscription for something is not for everyone and the ten minute programme has been really helpful to me, allowing me to take time out to concentrate on my breathing, body, and free my mind of clutter. In this season of cold, wet and dark days, being able to find time to have some meditation time without the need to have that locked in to being at the allotment (or any specific place) is of great benefit to me. I always finish my ten minutes with a rested mind, a little less cluttered, and with headspace for the challenges ahead.

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.

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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.

 

Favourite Five Chestnut Recipes

Across Europe and the US, people have been out and about on the streets, frantically shopping for presents and visiting the sales. Many will be fuelled with piping hot chestnuts, roasted in barrels and sold by street vendors. The piping hot nuts are a Christmas tradition across the northern Europe and beyond. Chestnuts are a great ingredient for our home cooking too; whether in sweet or savoury dishes, they are a seasonal highlight.

Chestnut & Sage Soup – Sauté half an onion in a little oil and butter until soft and translucent. Add a few chopped sage leaves and a finely chopped clove of garlic, before 100g cooked chestnuts, a couple of chopped large potatoes and 1/2 litre of vegetable stock. After 30 minutes of simmering, whizz with the blender, then add 25ml of milk, reheat and serve topped with a few sliced chestnuts and crispy sage leaves.

Sweet Chestnut Purée – In a saucepan, combine 300g nuts, 220g sugar and 250ml water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 25-35 minutes until the majority of the liquid is evaporated. Remove from heat, add a little vanilla paste, then strain the nuts (reserving the liquid). Whizz the nuts in the food processor until smooth, before adding the syrup slowly to get the right consistency. Chill and use to fill your next sponge cake.

Chestnut, leek, apple and Stilton crumble – This is based on a great recipe from Leiths Vegetarian Bible. Sauté an onion and a couple of leeks, stir a little flour into the mix, cook for a minute, before adding 300ml of stock. Add a 225g pack of chestnuts, a little thyme, and bring to the boil, simmering for a 15 minutes until the chestnuts are tender. Peel, core and quarter a couple of apples and add them and the chestnut mix to an ovenproof dish. Make a crumble from 110g flour and 55g butter, adding some Stilton into the crumble once made. Top the chestnut mix with the crumble and bake for half an hour at 190°C.

Chestnut Stuffing – A simple traditional stuffing for the festive bird (or just to have on its own). Mix a good sausage-meat with chopped chestnuts, an egg, some breadcrumbs, a little fresh sage, salt and pepper. Cook in the roast, or in a dish separately for half an hour.

Quince & Chestnut Frangipane Tart – Although a version of this tart was included in the Favourite Five Pear recipes; this chestnut version is great. Swapping the usual ground almonds for ground chestnuts gives it a lovely nuttiness and the perfumed quince is perfect for a cold winter’s evening.

Quick and Easy Christmas Pudding Ice-Cream with Poached Pears

After Christmas there is always food leftover. If I’m honest, I prefer the days after Christmas with the cold turkey and leftover bits of this and that, to the main event on Christmas Day. In our house there is organisation of meals before and during the 25th, but once we’ve had the turkey and trimmings hot all meal planning goes a bit by the way side. We eat leftovers for the next few days, with different accompaniments perhaps, but essentially the same for the next few meals. And, as I mentioned, I love it.

Christmas pudding is one of those things that is traditionally on the list of leftovers. It is after all a really heavy pudding, served after a massive roast dinner. Subsequently, only a small portion is consumed by everyone and there is a decent amount left over. It’s all right the next day reheated, and I know some people fry a slice in butter to give it a quick twist, but in ice-cream it’s a revelation. A cold pudding, on its own, or accompanying a poached pear like below, is what is needed sometimes.

There is little spare time at Christmas, so this is a super easy recipe. So easy in fact that it doesn’t warrant a recipe section on this post. Very basically its, get some vanilla ice cream, whizz it in the food processor to make it a little smoother, mix in some leftover Christmas pudding, and refreeze. Remember to get the ice cream out of the freezer with enough time for it to soften, and enjoy with anything or on its own. To make the poached pear below, see my previous pear inspired Favourite Five.

5-A-Day For Your Mind

The government is always telling us we have to eat five fruit or veg a day to help improve the nations’ health, but what about the nations’ mental health? Fruit and veg have obvious physical benefits for our bodies, from reducing the risk of heart disease and diabetes to possibly protecting your body against some kind of cancers. However, a good amount of fruit and vegetables in your diet has also been found to have positive effects on your mental health.

Although food often feels like it is my life (an in many ways it is), there is more to food; and therefore other things which can help my wellbeing. I’ve discovered that certain activities are of real benefit to me. In a way, they are the equivalent of the 5-a-day fruit and veg. If I manage to do some or all of these things, my days go well. It is widely understood that taking part in activities is really beneficial to one’s mental health, and the organisation Mindapples has taken this concept, asking people to name their 5-a-day for your mind. They call these beneficial activities ‘mindapples’; the mental equivalent of an apple a day to keep the doctor away I suppose. Whatever their name, my mindapples are crucial to me. They help me to have time to think, to enjoy a moment, to be active, to connect with others…They just help me.

So, what are my 5-a-day for the mind? Well.

  • Time at the allotment
  • Baking bread
  • A coffee with someone in a busy café
  • A walk on the Downs
  • Helping people

Mindapples, or just 5-a-day for your mind; doing things, can be of just as much help to your health as fruit or veg. What are your 5-a-day?