summer 2014 & why I bother

I’ve just been picking damsons as the sun rapidly fades and bats start to swoop around the garden. It’s been such a gloriously sunny day, happily spent in woodland having fun with friends but the cool of the evening is a reminder that Autumn is around the corner. The PE kit scattered around the house and the name labels that still need to be sewn on school dresses are a reminder that the school holidays are nearly at an end.

And I’m feeling nostalgic already for those hot first weeks of the summer holiday when Ruby and friends played in the paddling pool and I picked blackcurrants to make Cassis. When we still had the week in Brittany with our family lying ahead, our bellies not yet fattened by copious crepes and far too many croissants. I don’t want to forget about any of it, not the camping by a river in Herefordshire, kayaking down the Wye, or the rainy days at home when we made a huge chocolate cake and went swimming. Even the day we were all forced to sit on the pew because every available chair was being used in the construction of a huge den.

Amidst all this, my garden has been getting wilder by the day, providing a great setting for lots of play while providing the ingredients for plenty of meals, so many of them scoffed outside.

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They may not be to everyone’s aesthetic taste but I’ve even savoured the sheer good looks of a variety of vegetable flowers this summer - partly from curiosity (I’ll keep quiet about the laziness) I’ve had flowering carrots, leeks, swede and a parsnip forest this year and found them all rather beautiful.

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Which brings me to why I bother. Writing, that is. A lot earlier in the summer, Sarah of the lovely gardening/cooking blog The Garden Deli invited me to join in a blog hop started by Elizabeth of Dig In about why we write. I have to apologise for being so tardy in joining in, but thinking about the whole process of blog writing has set me thinking. Especially as I’ve just taken an unplanned blogging break over the last month or so.

I’ve had a lot of work to do, and like many working Mums, in my efforts to savour as much time as possible with my daughter (she’s nearly 7 and I’m conscious that these carefree, innocent days of summer holidays are so fleeting and so precious) much of this has been squeezed into evenings. So blogging time seems to have vanished.

Yet I look back at some of my blog posts about last summer, and I’m so glad that I kept a record of our time rock-pooling and making potions on the beaches of the Lyn peninsula.

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The crab linguine was delicious too. And it’s lovely to glance back at my crazily wild garden through the seasons and years.

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So here’s my first answer:

Why do I write what I do?

I was already writing on a freelance basis for a number of magazines but looking to generate more work when I started blogging and initially I thought it made sense to have somewhere to refer make to when generating new work. Gradually though I began to discover many fascinating blogs, became interested in the virtual communities and loved ‘meeting’ people who seemed as passionate about growing and cooking food as myself. I gleaned all sorts of bits of info, from new healthy recipes to cook with my daughter to how to attract more bees and butterflies into my garden.

Increasingly my blog became both an indulgent pleasure and something of a diary. While I love writing about things I’m interested in – from cheese-making to medieval bread – for magazines, when writing my blog I can choose to focus even more on whatever I’m particularly enthusiastic about that day. Whether it’s making lip-balm, meeting buffalo or reviewing lovely books.

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Often my passions are bizarrely linked of course, which brings me to:

How does my writing process work?

My ideas for magazine article can often pop into my mind at random times; booking swimming lessons for my daughter combined with enjoying reading about the criminal activities of Mr Toad in the Wind in the Willows to her led to my Take a Dip on the Wild Side piece for GreenParent. So obviously my blog posts may be triggered by even more bizarre bits and pieces. Being amused by post-it notes in my daughter’s book led to Bread and Jam for Ruby and while cycling or walking I’m always spotting edible goodies in hedgerows that lead to much cooking and writing activity.

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As for the actual writing, I agree with Sarah of the Garden Deli that writing the first paragraph of anything is always the hardest. I may have progressed ( a teeny bit) from my student days of scoffing a whole packet of hobnobs while struggling to churn out an essay but I still reward myself with a mid morning espresso pot or a potter around outside to pick some raspberries when I’ve got past the tricky bit.

What am I working on?

Well, I have lots of lovely unhomogenised full-fat milk in the fridge which I really need to turn into brie in order to write an article very soon. Then there’s the sloe gin piece. While I’m looking forward to finishing reading an inspiring book about living off the land, A Little Piece of England, ready for a review. Lots more ideas rattling round in my befuddled head too.

All of which will happily distract me from those school labels and collecting the PE kit …

And now I’ll pass the blog-hopping baton onto Chava, a great photographer who’s taken the best of the pics in this post (including the veggie flowers/seedheads) and who writes a beautiful vegan food blog at Flavour Photos. Chava’s cooking and recipes are wonderful, equally tempting whether you’re vegetarian, vegan or carnivorous. Delicious too I can confirm, having enjoyed several bring and share vegetarian suppers with her.

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Wild strawberries, redcurrants and raspberries are all plentiful in our garden at the moment. Tempting me to grab a handful as I walk past on my way to plant purple beans or to pop outside with a bowl before eating my breakfast granola. And Ruby is telling me she’s ‘fed up’ of the regular strawberries that have been our dessert most evenings for the last two weeks.

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While I’m definitely not fed up of red berries, it’s perhaps time to do a little more with them than pour on the cream. Redcurrant cordial beckons (how lovely to drizzle on to vanilla ice-cream or use in salad dressings as well as for a summery drink) but first I’ve made something even easier.

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We’ve had such amazing summery weather lately, it’s seemed more important to savour it, whether it’s pottering around the garden, sneaking into the hammock on a lazy weekend afternoon or eating outside.

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Or making sure that warm evenings are not all about dusk gardening; remembering to sit with a drink and enjoy the golden glow of the hay field next door and the changing look of the garden as the sun sinks and a bat starts to circle the house.

You may think I’ve spent a little too much time doing the above if you saw the parsnip forest (I’ve left them to go to seed, enjoying the flowers until my squash are ready to plant in their place) or the wild growth around the redcurrants. But the parsnip flowers are very pretty and there’s a definite hum about them suggesting the honeybees are appreciative of my tardy ways. While my wild growth is doing a good job of protecting the redcurrants from greedy birds, keeping them hidden like little jewels in an unkempt forest.

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Shaken berries (or currants) seem to be popular in Scandinavia, and it’s a wonderfully simple way of drawing attention to their jewel-like beauty. Trine Hahnemann inspired me to try them when I read the Nordic diet and Diana Henry reminded me in her wonderful recent book, a change of appetite.

You can use any sort of berries/currants - I used a mix of wild strawberries (cultivated strawberries don’t work brilliantly in this) redcurrants and raspberries but will be trying blackcurrants too when they’re ripe.

These berries are meant to be shaken, not stirred, so I’d recommend using a deep sided baking tray. My first attempt was in a container with shallow sides which encouraged me to do the opposite.

300g berries/currants

75g raw cane sugar

Rinse the fruit but don’t dry. Spread them out on a large tray and sprinkle with the sugar.

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Leave for a couple of hours until the sugar has dissolved, shaking from time to time.

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Pour into a sterilised jar (I used one straight from the dishwasher) and they’ll keep for about 3 weeks in the fridge. Great with mascarpone for a summery dessert – the juice makes a lovely, easy syrup to sweeten the mascarpone – these make a tasty breakfast too with thick, Greek yoghurt or labneh.

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Would love to join in Four Seasons Food, co-hosted by Louisa of Eat Your Veg and Anneli of Delicieux, with this month’s theme of The Colour Red hosted by The Spicy Pear and to Ren Behan’s Simple and in Season.

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salald, edible flowers & higgidy pies

I have to admit that the words pie and salad are not often paired in this house. Pie and mash, yes regularly. Pie and steamed veggies even. Salad, flowers and pies, not really. But thanks to some totally delicious and very summery pies that I was sent recently by Higgidy and a selection of salad seedlings from Sarah Raven we’ve been turned.

Imaginative fillings such as Sweet Potato & Feta with pumpkin seeds, Chicken & Smoky Spanish Chorizo Pie had something to do with it. Then there’s the fact that the side dish was very handily growing just by the back door.

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The mizuna, red mustard, rocket and red & green lettuce seedlings were sent to me by Sarah Raven back in April, with fab seed markers and a feed to encourage healthy growth. The idea was that I would grow my own side salads to accompany the pies that would follow in June.

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Some of the seedlings were planted in a little area next to my strawberry bed, but I have to admit that the ones that fared best were planted in a pot right next to the back door. Sheltered, against a sunny wall and very handy for watering they also provided handy leaves for lunchtime sandwiches before the arrival of pies.

I don’t normally buy pies, although I’m very partial to a home-made chicken and mushroom, buffalo and kidney or wild greens and ricotta version. As these turned up when we were just back from holiday and I had lots of work to catch up on, they were particularly welcome.

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Pies that taste like properly handmade pies too, but with lovely fillings I hadn’t thought of. As well as including classics such as the Little Smoked Bacon & Cheddar Quiche (Ruby’s favourite).

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There are some great, imaginative ideas for side dishes both on the pie boxes (Warm White Bean Salad to go with the Chicken & Spanish Chorizo Pie, Moroccan spiced Carrot & Orange for the Sweet Potato & Feta) and on the Higgidy web-site. Because I was looking forward to an easy supper, and I returned from holiday to a garden full of edible flowers, I popped outside and then tossed the following ingredients together for this salad to enjoy with my pies:

Garden Salad with Edible Flowers

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A few handfuls of mizuna, rocket, red mustard, lettuce (grown from my Sarah Raven seedlings)

Purple & red radish sliced

A handful of flat leaf parsley tips

A few fennel fronds & pea-tips

Salad Burnet (for a cucumber-ish flavour)

A handful of edible flowers – borage, violets, chop suey green flowers, chive flowers, calendula)

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1 tablespoon cider vinegar

4 tablespoons local rapeseed oil

A little sea-salt

 

Very glad I have a few pies still in the freezer – the first new potatoes are nearly ready and I’m thinking already of tossing a few with sorrel & butter to scoff with a Chicken & Chorizo pie.

With thanks to Higgidy and Sarah Raven for providing me with delicious pies and salad seedlings.

 

 

accidental colour & slug-fests in my june garden

We spent the first part of half term in Wales and my morning walk down to the village bakery took me past hedgerows bursting with purple foxgloves, ferns, red campion and sunny yellow buttercups. I was guilty of overusing the word ‘lush.’

Now we’re home, there may be fewer ferns and foxgloves (and glorious glimpses of sea), but lush is still the word that keeps springing to mind. Along with slug-fest that is.

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I’ve been hardening off lots of seedlings in and alongside my cold-frame and before we went away I was in a rush to plant them out. Some have fared better than others during the rainy days we were away; courgettes are doing fine, whilst French beans have been munched away so only their stalks remain.

I’ve been loving wandering in the garden and across the fields in the gentle after-rain warmth, enjoying the feeling of freshness and the shimmering droplets of water caught by ladies mantle:

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Slugs and snails have been similarly enjoying a wander around my garden. Salad leaves are being munched and the peas are nibbled as fast as they appear:

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Blackcurrant, redcurrant, gooseberry and raspberry bushes are heavy with fruit, inspiring me to dream of summery puds to come over the next few months. The rain is plumping up the strawberries well too.

Weeds from the field next door are also enjoying the great growing conditions but the comfrey I’ve planted along the field edge and around fruit trees is giving the weeds some fierce competition. And adding lots of nutritious layers to the compost heap.

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Even with all this growth, there are still some bare batches. Namely, around Ruby’s tree-house. We’ve cleared quite an area of nettles and docks and, inspired by our Welsh hols I’m thinking of encouraging more comfrey, ferns and red campion to spread wildly in the area behind the tree-house and around the pear tree.

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In the meantime, I’m loving the colour elsewhere, and very grateful as much of it is accidental – from self-seeded calendula to splashes of orange poppies (that have kindly picked a spot next to nicely clashing purple aliums), chop suey greens that were meant to flower last Autumn and walking onions that choose their own places to roam.

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Joining in once again, with Lizzie Moult’s fab Garden Share Collective.

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griddled asparagus with halloumi & myrtle berry oil

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The sun is shining, the kitchen doors are flung open all day and it’s definitely the weather for griddled asparagus. I may live up a Cotswolds hill but all this glorious sunshine and simple meals enjoyed outdoors is making me crave Mediterranean flavours too.

I still have a long wait for home-grown asparagus – in fact I was starting to worry that the asparagus I grew from seed last year had disappeared during the winter. Happily thin little spears have started to appear, but I need to wait a couple of years until I can harvest from these plants.

Living not far from the Vale of Evesham, there’s a plentiful supply around here of locally grown asparagus though.

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My favourite is from a farm in the next village that I love cycling to for extra veg (especially at the moment when the garden is so lush but there’s still a wait for lots of Summer crops). The asparagus is freshly pulled, in large crates that I choose from – excellent value too as it isn’t yet graded or washed.

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I love it simply steamed with olive oil or butter but today it seemed like the weather for griddling. While the griddle pan was hot I couldn’t resist adding slices of halloumi too; with a drizzle of olive oil and some good bread it made a quick but delicious lunch.

The olive oil was sent to me from Marina Colonna, a Masseria (farm) in Italy that looks lovely – I had a peak at the film here. The extra virgin olive oil is fruity and full of flavour in its own right but I’ve also become very inspired by their flavoured oils. I love the fact that they’re flavoured with fruit and herbs grown on the family farm and they’re also more unusual than any flavoured oils I’ve come across before.

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Extra Virgin Olive Oil with Natural Zest of Organic Oranges or Lemons is going to be delicious drizzled over simple, summery grilled fish but how about olive oil with natural zest of organic citrus Bergamia or cardamom flavoured oil? The olive oil with natural rose essence is earmarked for a Middle Eastern inspired cake with ground almonds, while the truffle oil is heading for pasta and risotto. I’m definitely going to try some of Marina Colonna’s own recipes here too – really fancy the octopus with mandarin oil and when my broad beans are ready some will be heading into the broad bean puree with chicory and toasted bread.

Anyway, back to my lunch. Hardly a recipe, I simply heated the griddle pan, brushed it with olive oil and griddled thin spears of asparagus for a few minutes. Next into the griddle pan went slices of halloumi for 30 seconds or so each side. The myrtle (I’m thinking I must grow some!) oil was drizzled over both and I added a few basil leaves. As I had some leftover bread, this went into the griddle pan too. Delicious.

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And nicely quick to cook, so it didn’t keep me too long from this:

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Would love to link up with the fab Simple and In Season hosted by Ren Behan and Louisa of Eat Your Veg’s Spring Four Season’s Food (great for healthy, family friendly recipe ideas) which she co-hosts with Anneli of the lovely Delicieux.

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chicken with marigold petals & rampant herbs – may in my kitchen

My chicken with red peppers & marigold peppers was inspired both by Sophie Grigson and a visit to herb guru Jekka McVicar’s herb farm. I loved the open day at Jekka’s fabulous Herbetum and came away with some enticing new herbs to plant and enthusiastic plans for cooking with the herbs already to hand outside my kitchen. DSC07308 DSC07316 DSC07322 I reached for a copy of Sophie Grigson’s herbs, which I bought a few years ago from a second-hand bookshop and adapted her recipe for ‘Chicken Red Pepper and Marigold Fajitas’ to use up some of the leftover cooked cockerel I had in the freezer from Easter lunch: Chicken with Marigold Petals & Red Peppers 1 tablespoon cumin seeds 1 tablespoon coriander seeds 1 teaspoon dried oregano 2 tablespoons olive oil 2 red peppers, deseeded and cut into strips 1 onion sliced 2 garlic cloves sliced 1 chilli, sliced A handful of cooked, leftover chicken A teaspoon of chopped fresh lovage juice of 1/2 lime petals of 3 marigold flowers A handful of chopped fresh parsley Dry fry the cumin and coriander seeds in a frying pan until they give off a heady aroma. Grind them in a pestle and mortar with the oregano. Heat the oil in a wide frying pan over a moderate heat and cook the peppers, lovage, onion, garlic and chilli for a couple of minutes. Sprinkle over the spices, season with salt and pepper, stir, cover and reduce heat to low then leave to sweat for 10 minutes or until tender. Raise the heat and add the chicken, stir fry until heated through then stir in the lime juice and serve strewn with parsley and marigold petals. This would be fabulous with fajitas as Sophie suggests, or with rice. I’d been baking focaccia with rosemary (Ruby’s fingers are still perfect for those indents where all the lovely olive oil, rosemary and sea salt gather) that morning – we had a weekend away around the Jekka McVicar herb farm visit and much as I enjoy the treat of a couple of meals out, I’m always crazily keen to cook when we return home. So we happily scoffed a tasty mismatch of food at lunchtime. DSC07323DSC07324 Skipping away from my kitchen for a minute and back to that wonderful herb farm, it was brilliant to see such an amazing selection of unusual herbs. The brilliant thing about Jekka’s Herbetum is that you can also see well established versions of the herbs that are on sale growing in lovely raised beds, with great labels that suggest ways to use them, often culinary. For instance I couldn’t resist buying a ‘Jekka’ thyme after seeing this lovely profusion of flowers and being very taken with the suggestion of using the thyme flowers in salads. DSC07267 And when we felt how soft this low-growing thyme ‘Minimalist’ was, both Ruby and I Ioved the idea of planting it somewhere where we could walk over it. DSC07268 I hadn’t seen mace growing before and couldn’t resist buying some to cook with at home. DSC07273 So many lovely herbs to choose from: DSC07283 Ruby decided she wanted to buy a herb too and found it as hard to choose as her Mum: DSC07262 My enthusiasm for planting seems to have rubbed off too. In a dubious way. For Ruby, it’s not herbs in pots; my daughter decided she’d love to grow dandelions in her hair: I’ll spare you the pics of the shower cap propagation method she used later. DSC07302 Back home, the rampant herbs that I spy from my kitchen window are tempting me to experiment more in the kitchen: DSC07307 I’m hoping the bergamot seeds I bought will germinate as I enjoyed a wonderfully fragrant tea made simply with dried bergamot flowers at Jekka’s herb farm and am hoping to replicate it at home. While I wait for bergamot to grow, I’ve been enjoying some lovely tea samples kindly sent by Teavivre. Sipping some freshly brewed Ripened Tangerine tea while watering my seedlings or savouring the organic fragrant black tea has made me realise how much of a rut I’ve got into with my mid morning coffee. Will definitely be varying it now, especially as I’m finding a morning cup of green or black tea very refreshing in the lovely sunshine we’re having. These teas are much more interesting than reaching for a tea-bag:

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I do like what Teavivre told me about their visits to the Tea Plantations in China too: “Our regular trips allow us to not just find the best teas, but also visit our supplier’s farms to personally verify their growing and production methods.” They tell me that they use organically farmed tea wherever possible. Will write more about my herby experiments soon, wondering about making tea-bread while I have these interesting teas too. In the meantime I’m off to have a peep at some other kitchens around the world in Celia of  Fig Jam & Lime Cordial’s fab In My Kitchen. Although I seem to have meandered away from my kitchen in this post, growing and planting are so intertwined with what I cook, so would love to join in. And as this is a very herby post, would love to join in this month’s herbs on Saturday which Karen of Lavender and Lovage hosts. If you like growing and cooking with herbs too, it’s a great place for recipe ideas. lavenderandlovage_cooking2

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