Saturday, 28 August 2010

Unstuffed leaves

My plan last night for dinner was to stuff some cabbage leaves with paella rice. What had stimulated me to do this was an attack on our cabbage crop. A pincer movement of rabbits and slugs had declared war on bed 2 and had plundered our otherwise beautiful cabbages. So we can't leave the cabbages for too long in the ground. We need to pick them and use them. Cabbage strikes me as something notoriously difficult to make interesting. Nevertheless, I'm going to give it a go.

I steamed some cabbage leaves to soften them. Into the paella I added from the allotment onions, a shallot and tomatoes. From the supermarket came a bit of chorizo sausage. The cabbage leaves however turned out to be a bit too small for stuffing. The experiment didn't quite work. So, I simply laid them on the plate to make a bed for the rest of the meal (which included some new potatoes - the first of our crop - and home made nasturtium pesto).

How to make nasturtium pesto

Last year we grew nasturtiums on the allotment as a food crop. They have a habit of spreading and smothering everything in sight. This year we didn't plant any but we still have plenty of them! So we have been harvesting nasturtium leaves for use in salads and soups. However, I had been planning to make nasturtium pesto so in this video I have a go at making it.

It turned out to be rather tasty. Our plan had been to use it on some pasta but we decided instead to put it on some boiled new potatoes from the allotment. Very nice!


I mentioned the other day that we went on a beekeeping course last week at Bill Quay Community Farm in Gateshead. The course tutors were Mark and Kym Pritchard who keep bees out in the Tyne Valley near Hexham.

During the course, a swarm of bees appeared so we trooped out to watch Mark and Kym capture it.

We also checked out the bee hives.

We hope to start keeping bees next year. Watch this space!

Friday, 27 August 2010

How to make strawberry and gooseberry jam

Plenty of strawberries on the allotment this year so we decided one way to use them up was to make strawberry jam. Strawberries however are very low in pectin so to get the jam to set, you need to add fruit that is high in pectin. That normally means adding lemon. This time however we opted for gooseberries. These are high in pectin and are a great complement to strawberries. See the video to see how I got on.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Watch out for cauliflower recipes

The glut of cauliflowers on the allotment has forced us to test out lots of recipes. So far I've made aloo gobi, stir fry, cauliflower and greenleaf soup and cauliflower and stilton soup. Shortly I'll be making picalilli and then cauliflower cheese. Any further suggestions and recipes are welcome.

Watch out for the forthcoming video on using the cauliflower glut I have been filming. It's not finished yet but I hope to have it on YouTube soon.

How to bottle fruit

Bottling was a common way to preserve fruit before freezers were widespread and in an attempt to keep the skill alive, I taught myself bottling last year. This year we are doing more bottling. Our freezer is full so we have to bottle fruit if we are to stand any chance of preserving it for use over the coming months.

In this video I bottle gooseberries and cherries.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Thinning and cropping

We spent a good part of the day on the allotment yesterday thinning leaks and parsnips and cropping cucumbers, gherkins, onions, garlic and tomatoes. I had feared that both the onion and garlic crops were going to be poor. Neither was as good as we have had in the past but my worst fears were not realised. We got modest crops from both though the red onions were poor (the white onions were much better).

The leaks should have been thinned some time ago but hopefully they will now have space to grow, as will the parsnips. We kept the thinnings. I used the leak leaves and the stems of the onions that had bolted to make vegetable stock. This was then used to make a cauliflower and green leaf summer soup. That's the rather fancy name I have conjured up for this recipe. The idea behind it is that I wanted to use cauliflower leaves rather than throw them away. I'm rather proud of the final result as it was a great soup yet most ingredients would otherwise have been thrown straight onto the compost heap.

I'll post up the recipe shortly.

On a beekeeping course

Today David and I have been on a beekeeping course at Bill Quay Community Farm in Gateshead. The course is provided by Mark and Kym Pritchard. Their website is: It's been an interesting and enjoyable day and we are going back tomorrow for the 2nd part of the course.

Our plan is to get bees soon (though probably next year) but we want to learn the ropes before going ahead. Reducing our intake of commercially produced sugar by producing our own honey is a key step towards becoming self-sufficient.

By an amazing coincidence, a swarm of bees was found on the farm this afternoon so we all got kitted up and rushed out to watch it captured and placed in a box to be taken to Northumberland where the Pritchards live and keep their hives.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Jam tarts, apple pies and aloo gobi

After a frustrating day trying to deal with an email system that rejected every attempt to send a group email, and having spent quite some time writing an article for a publication I edit, I decided to abandon my office for the kitchen this evening to make jam tarts and an apple pie.

We still have some jam left from last year and we want to use it up as soon as possible as we need the storage space for this year's preserves. 24 jam tarts barely scratched the surface but they did taste fantastic! I also made an apple pie from the apples I bottled last year. I've not tried it yet so can't comment on its quality. The apples were a bit of a mush as it was not my most successful attempt at bottling fruit (it was also my first attempt so I was learning the hard way!)

I also had a go at making my first aloo gobi today. We still have a load of cauliflowers growing on the allotment so cauliflower recipes are popular reading with us at the moment. If you are interested, our cooking with cauliflowers will be on a YouTube video soon. We've filmed (today) how to make aloo gobi but we will also be filming how to make cauliflower and stilton soup, green leaf soup (using cauliflower leaves) cauliflower cheese and deep fried cauliflower with a dip. There may also be a cauliflower curry coming up soon as well.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Something has been eating our broad beans

We think mice are the culprits but nearly all our broad beans pods have been nibbled from our bean plants and are left in piles around bed 2 where they are growing. The sides of the pods have been knawed away. This is rather disappointing as broad beans are an important crop for us. They go with most meals and I also use them in making bean loaves and veggie burgers. Last year was an excellent crop. This year the success looked to be repeated until those little critters got to them.

Anyone any recipes for mice? I think I will refer to my ancient Roman cookbooks!

Monday, 16 August 2010

Bottling, rhubarb, cherries and gooseberries

bottled fruit Aug 10

If like me your freezer is full and you want to try a more traditional way to preserve produce, try bottling it. I first tried bottling fruit last year, learnt from my mistakes and now find it quite straightforward. In the past month I have bottled gooseberries, cherries and rhubarb (admittedly not a fruit but regarded as such by most people).

My mistake last year was to use kilner jars that were too large. Get some kilner jars that are small enough to be completely emmersed in your deepest pan.

Top and tail gooseberries before bottling but don't stone the cherries. Rhubarb should be cut into lengths of less that 2cm. Pack the fruit as tightly as possible into the jars.

Sugar syrup should contain 200-250g of sugar per 600ml of water. Pour the sugar into warm water in a pan and bring to the boil. Leave to boil for a minute then allow to cool slightly (only slightly) before pouring into the fruit filled jars. Seal the jars. If you are using screw top jars do not fully tighten the lid. This is because you will now add the jars to a pan of warm water. Make sure there is a table cloth or a wooden pan stand in the bottom of the pan as the jars could crack or break if they are in contact with the base of the pan when being boiled. Apply heat to the pan. The water should completely cover the jars. The rubber ring in the kilner jars should allow out the pressure during heating. Not fully closing the lids on screw top jars will also allow out the pressure.

Heat the pan to close to boiling point and allow to simmer for a couple of minutes. At that point, they are done.

If you want to use honey instead of sugar, recipes I have seen suggest that is quite workable. As an historian, I guess that using honey has a much longer history for bottling fruit than sugar. So far I haven't used honey as we don't have our hives yet. However, we are going on a beekeeping course soon!

We are planning to use the bottled fruit in pies and desserts later this year.

Break in at the allotment

Over the weekend there was an attempted break in on our allotment. We have a little shed, not one you can stand up in, but more like a cupboard with the roof being the door. Someone had tried to force it open but nothing was taken.

Then on the allotment this evening our neighbour called round to tell us he had had a break in over the weekend and equipment had been stolen. Alas the route the thieves had used was through our allotment. The hedgerows with the derelict allotment next to ours was cut back by the owner recently with the result that gaps have opened up. So tomorrow we are going to fence off the whole length of if, all 12 metres.
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A good crop of cauliflowers and cabbages

cabbage cauliflower Aug 10

This photo was taken a week ago. The cabbage and cauliflower crops are coming along very well. We are having to pick some of the caulis now before the florettes open out and grow separately. So far we have had cauliflower cheese and caulifloer and stilton soup. I want to have a go at aloo gobi, one of my favourite Indian dishes. I've never made it before but I have eaten it many times. I'm also planning some spices fried cauliflower dipped in a sauce. I'm still hunting recipes for this.

We didn't grow cauliflowers last year and the year before that when we did manage to grow was more an excuse for a crop than the real thing. So we are very pleased with this year's produce.

How to make raspberry and rhubarb jam

raspberry and rhubarb jam Aug 10

I made this jam last night. It is very easy to make and tastes lovely. The raspberries were picked wild though we are very much at the end of the season (though we have some late summer raspberries growing on the allotment). The rhubarb we grew on the allotment.

What to do:

The ration of raspberries to rhubarb varies according to taste but I used slightly more by weight of raspberries to rhubarb simply because of the quantities I picked (900g of raspberries to 800g of rhubarb).

Chop the rhubarb into lengths of less than 1cm. Add raspberries and rhubarb to the jam pan. Add the juice of two medium lemons for every kg of raspberries and rhubarb. Apply heat. When it boils, leave it simmering until everything has pulped. Then add sugar - same weight of sugar as total of raspberries and rhubarb.

Bring back to the boil and keep boiling until it reaches the setting point. The add to warmed jars.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Watch out for those wild fruit and nut crops

For me, the wild fruit season starts in late June when the cherries are ripening. We are now towards the end of the wild cherry crop and having just been to my house in London, it is clear that the crop there has now all but gone. Any fruit that was left on the trees there would have been gobbled up by the wood pigeons weeks ago. Further north at my house in the North East of England, the cherries ripen later but even now, in mid August, there won't be many left. However there will be plenty of other fruits now ready for picking.

I am on the train from Crystal Palace to Victoria in London at the moment and can see a great crop of blackberries and elderberries along the railway embankments. It is still a couple of weeks to go before we can start picking elderberries back in the North East but the blackberries are beginning to ripen there as well. So be ready with jam and wine making recipes - and pies as well! Try bottling the fruit as well for later use. One of my videos still waiting to be edited is about bottling cherries. Use the same techniques with blackberries. The video should be posted up soon (I may even try to edit on the train to Newcastle this afternoon).

Rowan, or mountain ash, are ripening as well. They are very common though rowan jelly, which is easy to make, is a bit of an acquired taste though it goes well with cold meats.

Apples are also beginning to ripen as well. Check along country lanes in particular. The bad habit of some drivers of irresponsibly tossing their litter from their cars does sometimes result in seeds in discarded apple cores growing into trees. The apples are free for the picking so go get them. Watch out for crab apples as well. They will be ready soon. These are best used in making jellies as they have a good level of pectin. I've never used them for anything else but have set myself the task of finding other uses for them.

Raspberries are still in abundance and you can't beat raspberry jam. Pick them by the bucketload.

Check out old orchards and road verges for pear trees. You will be surprised how many you find. Further south they will be ripening soon. Up north give them a few weeks.

Rosehips are now ready for picking. They can be used in jam making. We are going to dig out wartime recipes for rosehip syrup. Rosehips are very high is vitamin C.

The gooseberry season is probably at an end now but keep your eyes peeled in hedgerows. There may be an odd bush that hasn't given up its bounty yet.

Sloes are just starting to ripen in London. They still need a couple of weeks but get the sloe gin recipes ready. They can also be used in jams and jellies. It will be a bit longer before they ripen up North.

And so on to nuts! Food foragers and those trying to become self-sufficient love hazel nuts. They are the wonder food of the community. They are packed full of protein and oils. Lotties Wood, next to our village of Sunniside in Gateshead, has hazel in abundance. They aren't ready yet but further south they are starting to ripen. Do not hang around before picking them. You will be in an intensive competition with grey squirrels for hazel.

Beechnuts will be ready soon though they tend to elude me. Whenever I pick them they are little more than dried out skins inside the husks. However I am not prepared to give up on them yet.

Acorns will need about another 4 weeks. We use them for making flour. Admittedly you have to be heavily into food foraging and self-sufficiency to do this. I am keen however to look at other ways to use acorns. When I was in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco last year, I heardof people there collecting acorns and cooking them. But I did not witness it first hand and since then my attempts to find anything on the internet has drawn a blank. If anyone can help me on this, I would be eternally grateful.

And finally sweet chestnuts. They aren't ready yet. They probably need at least another month. When they are ready you will need heavy gardening gloves to pick them. As well as roasting them they can be used to make flour for cakes. We've not tried it before as we didn't have enough but we did use them with hazel to make nut roasts. If we get a big enough supply, we will definitely be making flour. We have an eye on a woodland near David's sister's house. I found loads of sweet chestnut trees there at Christmas last year. Too late for picking at the time but this year we are planning an expedition there.

So happy foraging!
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Friday, 13 August 2010

How to make cherry vodka

We've been making fruit licquers recently. In this video we make cherry vodka but you can also see our sloe gin and raspberry gin at the end. Before you ask, we used Sainsbury's Basics Vodka. Don't use any expensive brands.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

How to pickle gherkins

Gherkins in abundance from the allotment and in this video we pickle some in a sweet pickling vinegar.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Coming up

I came down to London last night and will be here for a week. I have a meeting coming up with a DVD producer who is interested in some of my video work. My London home is in Upper Norwood so I will also be using the time here to make a short video about wild food growing in Crystal Palace Park. The point of it is that even in urban areas, there is plenty of free wild food waiting to be picked. Hopefully it will be filmed, edited and uploaded before the end of the week.

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Disappointing garlic crop

Our winter garlic has proved to be somewhat disappointing. Planted in November and harvested yesterday, some of it had gone rotten. None of it was of the good size we got last year. We do have our spring planted garlic to pick but I fear that is not up to much either.

If you are expecting a good garlic crop, one thing we found over the last year was that good storage is important. We hung all our garlic in our garage (nice and cool, little direct light and we don't keep the car in it.) But by the start of this year, we found it was drying out. So, I suggest splitting a good crop. Half to be hung up; the other half stored in olive or cooking oil.

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How to pickle gherkins

gherkins Aug 10

The summer glut of gherkins is in full flood so I have put together this recipe for a sweet pickling vinegar to pickle gherkins. I went for sweetness as 2 years ago when we last had a successful gherkin crop we pickled them in ordinary pickling vinegar and found the end result disappointingly sharp.

So here's the recipe for sweet pickling vinegar and how to pickle gherkins.

The first job to do is sprinkle salt on the gherkins and leave them to stand for 24 hours. Then rinse them.

Pack pickling jars or large jam jars with whole gherkins. Slice longways those too large to fit in or where whole gherkins won't fit the space left.

To make one litre of sweet pickling vinegar you will need:

One litre of white wine vinegar
400g sugar
1 tablespoon of mustard seeds
2 teaspoons of celery salt
2 teaspoons of turmeric
one teaspoon ground mace
2 cinammon sticks
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 tablespoon of coriander seeds

Put the vinegar into a pan and begin to heat it. Add and stir in the sugar and then add all the spices and seeds. Bring to the boil and simmer for about 10 minutes. (Actually, I say this makes one litre but in reality a bit of the liquid is lost to evaporation.)

Let the vinegar cool but when it is still hot pour onto the gherkins, filling each jar to the brim. Seal and leave for about 6 weeks before starting to use.

Pickles gherkins can keep for quite some time. The ones we pickled 2 years ago are still being used by us, even though we were disappointed at how sharp was the taste. The ones we have pickeld this year however are likely to be used up more quickly.

Below: me with 2 of the 8 jars made in the first batch of pickled gherkins.

gherkins pickled AUg 10

We'll soon be doing some pickling recipes with chopped gherkins and cucumbers. Watch this space.

Explosive elderflower champagne

On Saturday it was Dad's 80th birthday party held at my sister Esther's house in Newcastle. I supplied the homemade elderflower champagne. Two bottled are from last year, one from this year. All had a good fizz to them but when I opened the bottle made this year, the cork shot out. Fortunately, I was in the back garden. Nevertheless, the cork followed quite an impressive trajectory over the garden shed and landed some distance down the street!

And then overnight 4 of the 30 bottles I made in June decided to fire off their corks in the garage where they are brewing. Most of the bottles have corks rising from the nozzle and are only held in place by the wire cages put on them when they wwere first bottled. I fear however that we will lose more of them before the year is out.

Meanwhile, watch out for forthcoming posts on making red champagne. I first came across red champagne when I was in the Crimea five years ago. I haven't made it before but I guess I can ferment blackberry and elderberry juice in champagne bottles. The later blackberries will be better as they tend to be more juicy but setting it away in October should mean we can be drinking it in time for Christmas.

Christmas potatoes are growing

A couple of weeks ago we reported that we had received some potato tubers for summer planting and cropping in time for Christmas. We have planted out three potato bags, each with 4 tubers and I am now pleased to report that they are sprouting and shoots are just breaking the surface of the compost.

The potato bags were a good investment. We grow plenty of potatoes on the allotment so the bags are an addition for us. However, for people with no allotment and only a small garden - or indeed no garden at all - potato bags are very useful. They can be used on patios, balconies and flat rooves.

Our greenhouse is too small

greehnhouse Aug 10

I took this photo a couple of weeks ago and since then, the plants inside have grown further. Inside the greenhouse we have 7 varieties of tomatoe as well as aubergines, peppers, chilies, basil and cucumbers. At the moment the cucumbers are cropping prolifically. We are testing recipes this week for relishes and pickles for cucumbers and gherkins so watch this space for forthcoming posts and videos.

The big problem we have is that the greenhouse is simply too small (it's a 6 X 8). We are thinking of using the plots behind the greenhouse for a polly tunnel. We will make a decision on that shortly.

Meanwhile, we are about to be met by a tidalwave of tomatoes. This year for the first time we are also growing beef tomatoes. They are all green at the moment but are already a good size.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Some of our recent pickings

Here are some of the crops picked recently.

strawberries Aug 10
These strawberries will be used in jam making. The plan is to make gooseberry and strawberry jam. Strawberries have very little pectin but gooseberries have more and using them together means we have a jam that sets rather than runs.

Soft fruit by the bucket Aug 10
Cherries and gooseberries. I've been picking plenty of cherries recently. The red/yellow cherries are very sweet so tomorrow I'll be bottling them. The black cherries have been made into jam. More about that soon. The gooseberries came from our neighbour Vic's garden. There were too many for him to use so we swapped him some jam for the chance to pick his fantastic crop of gooseberries. A pie will also be on his way to Vic shortly (and yes we will be making a video on how to make a gooseberry pie!)

gherkins Aug 10
We have gherkins by the bucket load. These ones have now been pickled in sweet spiced vinegar. In the photo you can see they are sprinkled with salt - the start of the pickling process. As will have a video about pickling gherkins coming up shortly. It's already filmed but we haven't edited it yet.

Shallots Aug 10
A pile of shallots. This is the first time we have grown them and we had a good crop.

Cherry Vodka

More cherry vodka was bottled yesterday. This batch was started last year and I have to confess, we forgot about it. Over the weekend I rediscovered the kilner jar containing the vodka and cherries. I bottled the licquer and we are keeping the vodka pickled cherries for use as ice cream toppings or in trifles and pies. I have picked a large quantity of cherries in the past few weeks from trees in local parkland so yesterday I also set away another batch of cherry vodka. Watch out for the video coming up shortly also filmed yesterday on making this rather pleasant fruit licquer.

cherry vodka Aug 10

Above: the recently bottled vodka. Below, the pickled cherries which will be used as toppings or in pies and trifles.

cherries preserves in vodka Aug 10

Sunday, 1 August 2010

July allotment update

This is the latest video on how we are getting on on the allotment.

An update on bed 1

bed one jul 10

This is bed 1, taken last week. This is the oldest bed on the allotment - so this is the 3rd year we have had crops from it. Top left to bottom right: potatoes, leeks, parsnipsa and celeriac.

The leeks will need thinning, a job I've lined myself up for over the coming few days. The thinnings will be eaten as baby leeks.

Notice the nasturtiums in the bottom right of the picture? We keep having to strip them away from the path. Almost as quickly as we chop them back, they have grown to fill the space. We tolerate them on bed 2 where they grow between the broad beans and don't cause too many problems. If they get onto bed 1, they will smother everything.

Cabbage patch

cabbage patch Jul 10

It's sad but yes, we are getting very excited about our cabbage patch. After the disaster of our winter cabbages (eaten by both the rabbits and slugs), the cabbages we sowed in the spring as in pristine condition. We are going to get a heck of a crop.

cabbage Jul 10


sweetcorn Jul 10

The sweetcorn we planted on bed 3 is coming along very well. We have 26 plants growing and we have now found corn cobbs beginning to develop. We grew sweetcorn last year but the results were at best modest. Hopefully this year we are heading for something more substantial.

bed three jul 10
This is bed 3 where the sweetcorn is growing (towards the left of the picture). It shares the bed with garlic, Jerusalem artichokes, courgettes, a blackcurrant bush and shallots, though the latter have now been harvested.

Summer fruit jam

The current abundance of strawberries and raspberries from the allotment was added to last week when we gathered in our crop of red currants. I decided to make a summer fruit jam of all three together. Using the red currants in this way meant there was a good supply of pectin and I did not have to add lemon. This is what I did:

900g strawberries
400g raspberries
400g red currants

All the fruit was added to the jam pan and heat was applied. When it has all pulped down, add in 1.7kg of sugar (ie the same weight of sugar as fruit) and then bring back to the boil. Keep boiling for a few minutes until it has reached the setting point (to test it has, put a spoonful on a plate and leave it to stand for a couple of minutes. If it develops a skin, it has reached setting point.)

This jam is a lovely mix and has a fantastic red colour.

summer fruit jam Jul 10 1
At this point the fruit is beginning to pulp down.

summer fruit jam Jul 10 2
(At this point the fruit has turned to a lovely red coloured mixture.)

Enjoying a sloe gin

As I write this post, I am sipping a lovely sloe gin. It was bottled about a month ago, have been set away in a kilner jar last autumn. I've had a look at the sloes growing near our house and they are coming on well. You can use them for more than just gin. There are jams and jellies to make this autumn as well.

One wild crop that has been very successful this year is cherries. Councils love to plant cherry trees because they look pretty in the spring when covered by blossom. My interest is the fruit that starts to ripen in June. Last year, the crop was largely gone by the start of July. I had been in Iceland in the last week of June 2009 filming geysers and waterfalls. My plan had been to pick cherries on my return. And on my return, I found all the cherries had gone. This year they just keep on coming. Bucket loads of them. I was out again this afternoon picking cherries. I have already made cherry jam. More jam will be made tomorrow and I'm planning some cherry fruit leathers. Watch this space (the cherry jam video will be filmed tomorrow).

Today I also picked a bucketful of gooseberries. Our neighbour Vic told us there were too many for his own use so invited us to pick the fruit in his back garden. One of the jams I will make is strawberry and gooseberry. The advantage with this mix is that gooseberries have pectin, strawberries don't. The combination will set. And we have plenty of strawberries on the allotment. Watch out as well for some of the gooseberry pies we will be making soon.

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