magnolia, you sweet thing

When Ruby looked out of our bedroom window this morning (while using the bed as a trampoline) she said, “Wow, those flowers are SO beautiful.” For me, it’s J.J.Cale time:

“Magnolia, you sweet thing

You’re driving me mad”

I love J.J.Cale’s ‘Naturally’ album almost as much as those creamily showy flowers with their citronella fragrance and pink tinged petals. With Magnolia though, it’s not just the showy flowers, they seem to signal the start of so many things in the garden.

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There’s far too much bare earth for my liking, but suddenly the garden also seems teeming with life; I keep spotting fat bumblebees heading for the comfrey flowers and there’s a constant humming noise amongst the branches of Ruby’s tree-house. Tall chives now line the path leading into the veg/flower beds, the plum trees are covered in pretty white blossom and there are more daylight hours to enjoy being outside. The hammock has had more than a couple of airings and I’m looking forward to enjoying meals outside.

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While ‘Naturally’ always puts me in relaxed, laid-back mode, the garden is giving me more mixed messages though. All this new life is so exciting and I always get carried away with enthusiasm planning what I’m going to grow and eat, but there’s so much to do.

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The strawberry patch may have been weeded (with my mind firmly fixed on a good harvest of those sweet berries) there are a few neat rows of onions and garlic, inter-planted with salad leaves that are just starting to peep through, but elsewhere there’s an abundance of dandelions and ground elder to keep up with.

While J.J.Cale’s Magnolia lyrics are sultry, southern and sexy, many areas of my garden are downright shoddy, scruffy and shambolic. With a bit of a grey backdrop currently.

At long last I’ve just started to sort out my main herb patch. Although there are chives, rosemary and sage in other areas of the garden and lemon balm beginning to look so utterly fresh beneath the raspberry canes, this is the main patch that’s handily just outside the kitchen and is edged by thymes and alpine strawberries, with majestic lovage and angelica soon to tower at the back.

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With rhubarb and gooseberry recipes in mind I was keen to prevent the angelica and sweet cicely from being completely engulfed by weeds, also the view of a weed infestated herb bed from the kitchen window was beginning to offend even my eyes. And we have a visit to herb guru Jekka McVicar’s herb farm coming up in May. I can’t wait, have wanted to visit for ages (my mother in law, a keen gardener, is providing us with an excuse by having  birthday) and it’s a definite motivator in clearing space for coveted herbs. Blue hyssop is definitely on my wish-list.

I have a weekend of swimming lessons, tree-felling, children’s parties and a walk with friends. Oh and Ruby is keen to make a French apple tart. The following list of garden tasks may be a tad optimistic:

- Plant more new potatoes (just first earlies and pink fir apples for me this year, had enough of blight.

- Plant more red onions.

- Sow some heritage carrot seeds between my rows of onions.

- Complete weeding the herb bed.

- Make a start on weeding the rhubarb and raspberry patch.

- Tackle the much-neglected vegetable patch in our front garden (the first we planted here, but apart from the asparagus bed, sadly ignored in favour of the pig-cleared area lately) i.e. more weeding.

- Clear the winter brassica patch.

- Sow more seeds in the cold-frame and kitchen windowsill including purslane, cosmos, squash, and dark purple cornflowers.

I’m not sure quite how many of the following will get done. Very much a fan of lazy gardening, I still sometimes can’t help feeling a little panicky about the number of things I should be doing. Have to remind myself that surely that’s not what gardening’ s all about.  Maybe I should make sure I harvest lots of the purple sprouting broccoli, potter over a few of those jobs (okay, maybe one) and listen to J.J.Cale.

Would love to join in again with Lizzie Moult of Strayed Table’s fab Garden Share Collective.

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rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb

If you visited my garden at the moment, a glimpse of the rhubarb patch would reveal that my weeding is as shoddy as ever. It’s on my long mental ‘to-do’ list, honestly, but as always my priority has been to eat it.

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Whether scoffed with vanilla yoghurt and home-made muesli for breakfast, served up in a fool for pud or in a very pink drink, rhubarb is never far away at present.

I recently spent a few lovely hours up a wildly wonderful hill near to Abergavenny and came home with a jar of sweet rose dukkah. A fragrant blend of dried rose petals, roasted Herefordshire cobnuts, pistachios, vanilla, cardamom and saffron, it pairs wonderfully with rhubarb. And adds a subtle sweetness that means you can avoid excess sugar in rhubarb puds such as crumble or rhubarb clafoutis.

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Concocted by Liz Knight whose creative resourcefulness (she was tapping nearby birch trees for sap when I visited) I admire and wrote about here, sweet rose dukkah seems both exotic and redolent of her wonderful Welsh borders hillside. As Liz explained, its rugged beauty isn’t suited for any sort of farming other than sheep, so Merlin’s hill is never sprayed with pesticides. Leaving an abundance of wild ingredients for the picking.

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Sweet rose dukkah can be sprinkled onto cakes or rolled into lamb to create a crust too. But for the moment, thanks to an abundance of the slender pink stemmed stuff, it’s partnering rhubarb in my kitchen.

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My regular starting point with rhubarb is to make a sort of easy, bung it in the oven, compote:

Baked Rhubarb Compote

Chop 1 kg rhubarb into 5 cm-ish lengths, place in a baking tray or dish, squeeze over the juice of an orange and about 125g caster sugar (if you’ve got hold of sweet rose dukkah, you can reduce this according to taste) cover with foil and bake in a medium oven for 30 minutes or so until tender.

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The beauty of making compote in the oven rather than in a pan for me is that it’s far easier to end up with rhubarb that still has some shape and colour, even if you forget about it. Whereas if you cook it in a pan, multi-task/let yourself be distracted for a few minutes and you have a shapeless mush.

Delicious simply with Greek yoghurt (add muesli or granola and you have a fab breakfast) this rhubarb can now be a starting point for many puds. Lovely in rhubarb custard, I also make a very easy rhubarb fool.

Rhubarb Fool

Take 4 heaped tablespoons of the rhubarb compote above and mash with a fork (I like some texture, but you can aim for more of a puree if preferred) then fold into 2 tablespoons vanilla yoghurt or Greek yoghurt and 1 tablespoon double cream.

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Sweet rose dukkah is lovely sprinkled over rhubarb fool. You should also be left with some gloriously pink/amber syrup from the rhubarb compote dish.

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Mine is reserved in the fridge, and may well be destined for fruity, rustic weekend cocktails.

The chunkier stems of rhubarb have been cooked slowly with a little water, heading for cordial:

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I used the Jamie Oliver recipe here for cordial. It’s pleasingly simple but results in a pink tipple that’s as lovely with sparkling water as it is with Prosecco.

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Angelica and Sweet Cicely are next on the list to be partnered with rhubarb (another way to reduce sugar) particularly as I can see their fresh new growth emerging amongst the herbs close to the kitchen door. And yes, they need weeding too…..

Thanks lots to Cristina Colli, who took the photos of Liz Knight foraging and who I spent a great day talking about food with – you can see more of her lovely photography and styling here.

And despite a meander up a wild hillside, as this post is mainly about my rhubarby kitchen, would love to share my kitchen (and hence have the excuse for some nosy peeps in other kitchens around the world) by joining in with Celia of Fig Jam & Lime Cordial’s April In My Kitchen.

primrose, wood-stores & wild cherry buds

“After the sugar snow had gone, spring came. Birds sang in the leafing hazel bushes along the crooked rail fence. The grass grew again and the woods were full of wild flowers. Buttercups and violets, thimble flowers and tiny starry grassflowers were everywhere. As soon as the days were warm, Laura and May begged to be allowed to run barefoot. At first they might only run out around the woodpile and back, in their bare feet. Next day they could run farther, and soon their shoes were oiled and put away and they ran barefoot all day long.”

I’ve been reading ‘Little House in the Big Woods’ by Laura Ingalls Wilder with Ruby, loving this simply but beautifully told tale of family life interwoven so closely with the seasons in a log house in Wisconsin. While I relish the descriptions of preserving food, collecting maple sap and dancing to celebrate sugar snow, Ruby loves the exciting stories (there are wolves and bears and huge wild cats in the Big Woods and the family travel by sleigh) that always end cosily.

Now that our own days are suddenly warm, pale yellow primroses have made a pretty appearance next to the slender pink rhubarb in the garden and the kitchen table is full of cheery blooms.

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The hammock has made its first appearance this year. We may not be exactly barefoot, but abandoning thick socks and boots in favour of easily slipped on crocs and shoes and having the kitchen doors wide open for most of the weekend has given me a similar feeling of freedom. The very welcome sunshine also seems to have urged us into lots of activity. Guy has been chopping a large oak tree that was a casualty of the recent gales. Unfortunate (and we’re keen to plant more trees) but it’s adding considerably to the wood-pile and will keep us very warm next winter. The recent sun means it’s been possible to get the trailer into the water-logged field to bring the wood home ready for splitting and stacking.

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A large extension to the very full wood-store is planned too. Funny how just as we’re welcoming Spring we’re thinking of future winters. The Oak tree has also supplied some splendid, rustic chairs for the tree-house, which has been the scene of much al fresco eating over the last week. It also became a washing house yesterday. Ruby turned into Dame Washalot (from Enid Blyton’s ‘Magic Faraway Tree’) once more, and enlisted the help of a friend in her tree-house laundry.

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Old rags that we use for cleaning were ‘washed’ in buckets of luke-warm water. Yes, I need to gather them and stick them in the washing machine asap as they MAY not be scrupulously clean, but the girls were happy dangling them over the tree and pegging them out for ages.   Ruby was also busy making a rabbit bike-helmet out of a shell and some old ribbon - well, someone has to be safety conscious as that bunny is partial to speed.

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Meanwhile, the Spring sunshine had me enthusiastically tackling the garden, weeding and digging and planting seeds. In between making rhubarb custards to follow slow-cooked pulled pork (one of the last of the joints from our Berkshire pigs, marinated over-night in smoked paprika, garlic, beer, brown sugar) which I could forget about while I gardened. I dug parsnips from the garden to roast, picked purple sprouting and we shared it with friends, washed  down with our own cider, now really quite palatable and with a very pleasing sparkle.

Amidst all our Spring activity, I had a very indulgent start to Sunday morning. Knowing that this is the only morning of the week (now that swimming lessons mean an early start to Saturdays) that there’s any chance of a lie-in I nonetheless woke to chattering birds and a promising sun and was eager to start the day. So was Ruby. While I got tea and milk, she suggested we go outside. We headed out in our PJs through the dewy, still cool garden. I strung up the hammock and we snuggled under a blanket, gazing up at the blue sky. The wild cherry tree that the hammock hangs beneath was full of buds that I hadn’t noticed before. A visiting bee obviously had though, heading purposefully on a foraging trip. The more we looked, the more life we spotted in fact. Then we sipped our tea and milk and savoured the last chapter of ‘Little House in the Big Woods.’

“…Laura lay awake a little while, listening to Pa’s fiddle softly playing and to the lonely sound of the wind in the Big Woods. She looked at Pa sitting on the bench by the hearth, the firelight gleaming on his brown hair and beard and glistening on the honey-brown fiddle. She looked at Ma, gently rocking and knitting. She thought to herself, ‘This is now.’ ”

It seemed so apt reading this while enjoying the unexpected delight of a cuddle with my daughter and a part of the day outside that we normally miss. Even though I could spy tender little nettles destined either for a Wild Greens Pie or the compost heap, I decided that all the Spring activity and planning for future seasons could wait a little while.

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Very grateful to Diana Henry by the way, for leading me to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books through her very well-chosen quotations in the wonderful Roast Figs, Sugar Snow: Food to Warm the Soul.

brussels flowers, dame washalot & bald pipe-cleaners

DSC07021 DSC07029Brussel flowers are nearly at an end and I have Ruby-picked narcissi. Spring has taken my kitchen by surprise and it’s very lovely. I can hear the lambs from the window (which has been flung open for most of the weekend) and I’m totally relishing the sunshine.

Driving over the hill on our way to Ruby’s swimming lesson yesterday, it was one of those mistily beautiful mornings, with the slightly greening countryside looking so atmospheric. Beautiful in a different way to an Autumn or winter misty morning, with the Spring sun bringing such hope for a fabulous weekend as it burst through.

Hopeful though the sunshine was, swimming lessons have changed to a very unkind hour for a Saturday morning, so this was definitely necessary when we got back home:

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Gorgeous coffee that is sourced by a couple from Blockley, a village near to us. They source and roast the coffee beans themselves, visiting the producers and so ensuring that their coffee is the best sort of fair-trade. Totally delicious too.

As it has very definitely been a weekend to enjoy being outside, most of the food has been as a result of previous efforts. I’m finally eating a semi-hard cheese that doesn’t have a suspicious sheen, unlike my glittery cheese of a few months ago. It goes well with the quince membrillo style jelly that is proving to store well.

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Of course the days may be unexpectedly balmy, but the evenings are still chilly – I’m not unhappy with that, always glad of an excuse for a wood-burner. Last night I cooked a tagine on it with the very tasty hogget chops I mentioned here. Broad beans from the freezer (keen to use them all as I’ve just planted more crimson flowered broad beans for this year) cumin, garlic and preserved lemon went very well with the wonderful meat.

Chilly evenings are a great excuse for creamy rice pudding with the last of the rhubarb and rose petal jam too that you may remember as below.

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Mornings are definitely not too warm for porridge yet either. I experimented with the banana porridge as recommended by Rachel of the fabulous Well Worn Whisk. It went down very well with Dame Washalot, aka Ruby Martha as you can see:

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It was World Book Day and she was in need of sustenance for a school day dressed as one of the characters from her current favourite book, The Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton.

In my March kitchen there are also many bald pipe-cleaners. Ruby has been as keen on making things with pipe cleaners as I have been in curdling milk lately. She’s now taken to de-fluffing them – can’t remember why exactly bald pipe cleaners were needed but they were vital for some sort of making project. Unsurprisingly my hoarder of a daughter couldn’t throw away the by product and one day asked for a bowl of water. She made a potion with the fluff.

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I know, yummy.

Meanwhile though, as I simmered the leftover chicken carcass for stock (used in risotto & soup) & wondered what I could use the latest batch of whey (leftover from cheese experimenting) in, I realised that I wasn’t exactly in a position to criticise one thing leading to another in potion making.

One last thing from my March kitchen (joining in Celia of Fig Jam & Lime Cordial’s fab IMK once again) on the subject of Brussels flowers. I’ve been supplementing the home-grown veg with a few extras from our wonderful local veg growers and greengrocers, Drinkwaters. One of their freshly picked veggies that we’ve been loving as a change from our own root veggies and chard are these beautiful, purple-tinged flowers/buds:

DSC07021Now, we grow Brussels Sprouts ourselves and enjoy the sprout tops but these are something different, both in looks and taste. Do any gardeners know, are Brussels flowers a different vegetable altogether or if left long enough, do regular Brussels Sprouts ever flower? Would love to grow them. And if your local veg shop stocks them, would definitely recommend.

 

 

 

slow-cooked hogget

Although we’ve had several glorious days of uplifting Spring sunshine lately and I’ve enjoyed some great gardening time with Ruby, there are still days when only slow-cooked comfort food will do. The hogget from Windrush Farm that I cooked for 6 hours with rosemary, garlic and our home-made cider was definitely food to warm the soul as well as body.

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Locally farmed in a traditional way and cooked slowly on our wood-burning stove, the hogget was full of flavour, tender and still succulent due to the liquid.

Windrush Farm isn’t far from home, near Cold Aston in the Cotswolds and some great old breeds of sheep are farmed there – pedigree Windrush Berrichons, Dorsets and Whitefaced Woodlands. All naturally reared on pasture, resulting in great flavour and nutrition.

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Even better, they sell hogget and mutton. I’ve been wanting to try mutton for ages – partly because I look at the new lambs at this time of year and like the idea of them living longer. Also I was curious about the difference in flavour from animals that have grown slowly and naturally to those that are barely weaned.

I have to admit that I didn’t know what hogget was until I spoke to Peter from Windrush Farm; it’s in between lamb and mutton, meat from sheep between 12 and 24 months. Very tasty it is too, and so suited to slow cooking.

Living as I do amidst gorgeous honey coloured towns and villages that were mostly built from the wool trade, I was really interested to hear that hogget was common back when there was a market for wool. Now that their fleeces have so little value, it rarely makes economic sense for farmers to keep sheep, other than ewes and rams for breeding, beyond 12 months. Great then to hear of a local farm that’s keeping this tradition going.

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I cooked a shoulder of hogget very simply – this is hardly a recipe, more about great produce. But this is how I went about slow-roasting this delicious meat:

First strip a couple of sprigs of rosemary of leaves and bash them in a pestle and mortar with 2 cloves garlic, Maldon sea salt and some olive oil. I rubbed this garlicky paste all over the hogget and left it for a few hours. Then I cooked a couple of sliced onions slowly in more olive oil and placed them in a large casserole pot. The hogget was then browned for about 10 minutes in the frying pan I’d cooked the onions. I placed the hogget on the onions, added a couple more whole cloves of garlic and a glass of cider, then cooled covered at 110C for about 6 hours. I removed the hogget and covered it in foil while I added a tin of cannellini beans to the onions and stirred through.

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We ate our hogget and beans with lots of purple sprouting and garlicky potatoes. Leftovers went down very well too with flatbread, labneh, houmous and salads.

We still have a few hogget chops that I’m planning to try in a tagine and my thoughts are turning to mutton already. Thanks lots to Windrush Farm for such tasty meat.

 

 

 

 

buffalo and kidney pie

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Lately I’ve developed a pie fixation. Damp, grey February days are surely meant for slow-cooked food and unctuous pie fillings. Babies have also given me a convenient excuse.

First, I visited a friend with a gorgeous new baby boy and thought a large roast chicken and mushroom pie seemed the right thing to take for a sleep deprived Mum who had lots of other mouths to feed. I politely kept her company in scoffing of course. Ruby and I were also both keen to visit her newest (and very cuddly) cousin, Teddy during half term. When we first met Teddy, I took a steak and kidney pie and it turned out to be just what my sister needed. Again it would’ve been rude not to accompany her in eating pie. A few weeks of breast-feeding and sleep deprivation later, I decided that she’d be in even more need of iron in pie form. I had some stewing steak in the freezer that I was keen to try from the wonderful Buffalo farm that I visited recently and my sister is a big fan of offal. So buffalo and kidney it was.

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Buffalo and kidney with lots of tasty chestnut mushrooms actually, all cooked slowly for a few hours on the wood-burning stove the evening before our visit. I simmered everything except the buffalo for a while before adding the chunks of lean meat, aiming at an unctuous pie filling full of flavour but with some texture from the buffalo. I’d been warned not to overcook buffalo meat as it’s incredibly tender and, knowing how much taste there is in this well-reared, natural meat, I didn’t want to reduce it down to nothing.

I cheated with bought puff pastry – well, with a nephew to cuddle, I didn’t want to waste time on the morning of our visit. It was a good pie though, and yes, I obviously had to join my sister in tucking into lots of it.

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Buffalo and Kidney Pie

1 large onion, finely chopped

1 carrot, finely chopped

400g chestnut mushrooms, cut in quarters

4 tablespoons olive oil

small handful parsley leaves

2 tablespoons butter

4 tablespoons flour

500g stewing steak (I used Buffalo)

250g kidneys, chopped

200ml stock (I used chicken as I had some to hand from the roast chicken pie, but beef would be good)

200ml red wine

1 packet puff pastry

1 egg, beaten

Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a pan, add the carrot and onion and cook for 5 minutes or so then add to a large casserole. Add the butter to the pan, cook the mushrooms for a few minutes, add the parsley, then add to the vegetables in the casserole. Season half the flour in a bowl or plate and turn the kidneys in it then heat some oil in the pan and brown the kidney. Add to the casserole along with the stock and red wine, season, cover and cook on a gentle heat for 1 1/2 hours. Toss the buffalo meat in the remaining flour, brown and add to the casserole. Continue to simmer for another 1 to 1 1/2 hours until you have a wonderfully tender mixture that still has some texture. If you are using less tender meat than buffalo, add at the beginning with the kidney.

Heat the oven to 190C. Pour the filling into a pie dish (I made a couple with this mixture) but it depends on the size of your pie dish). Roll out the pastry, cover the pie, crimping the edges in a rustic fashion, and use a pastry brush to brush with a beaten egg. Cook for 30 minutes or until nicely golden.

Lovely with mash and a mound of purple sprouting broccoli.

 

 

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