Fact of the Week

Forced rhubarb in season now. Don't miss out!

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Broccoli at last...

In June I sowed white sprouting broccoli.  It was part of my (admittedly ambitious) plan for winter self-sufficiency.  Accompanying the broccoli through the cold winter months was: winter lettuce (in the greenhouse), swede (breaking my own golden rule not to grow anything I can buy cheapily and easily - I should have known better...), radicchio, chard, cavolo nero (by far and away the gold medallist of my Winter Garden), perpetual spinach, rocket and mizuna (also in the greenhouse).

Why white?  Apart from the fact that white sprouting broccoli is sweeter and more tender than its better known cousin, purple sprouting broccoli, white sprouting broccoli is also earlier sprouting and with its growth stemmed by the winter cold, I knew that by January or February my horticultural larder would be bare and I would be desperate to break my involuntary winter fast. 

White sprouting broccoli suffered during our unexpectedly harsh winter and mine was no exception.  Farmers reported severe crop losses due to the long, wet and cold winter and surviving crops were anticipated to be a month behind.  My white sprouting broccoli withstood bravely the winter's heavy snowfall.  It has added presence and vital colour to the garden at a time when most plants have died or been dormant.  It reminded me how productive my small garden can be (in warmer climes).  But for all its leafy greenness, it did not sprout.  3 foot, 4 foot, 5 foot tall, and still it did not sprout.

The other intended mainstays of my winter diet performed little better.  The winter lettuce sat limply in the greenhouse, its leaves adopting a winter palor more akin to jaundice than photosynthesis.  The swedes grew leaves but nothing below the surface of the soil, not even a slight swelling.  The chard and spinach clung, lilliputian, to life but did not start to grow until the first rays of the spring sunshine breathed life into their red and yellow veins.  And the radiccio steadfastly staunched the winter cold, covered in a blanket of snow for several weeks.  They did not all survive and those that did have only just began to heart up and will not be ready to eat for at least a couple of weeks.

My winter diet was supplemented by pumpkin and squash that I had held back during the summer glut for leaner, colder times but it was too much to expect even the summer garden to yield sufficient summer produce to feed me through the dark, winter months.

And suddenly the broccoli sprouted.  8 weeks late but no less the wonderful for its tardiness.  Its breezy yellow heads (white is a misnoma) providing unexpected abundance in my winter garden.  I cooked dinner for friends on Saturday and Sunday, excited at last to have something so fresh and green to offer them.
Breezy, yellow stems...
...of sweet, tender broccoli

Broccoli with pollack and a poached egg
(This recipe will work equally well with any sustainable white fish)

Serves 2
2 fillets of pollack
2 big handfuls of broccoli
2 eggs
1 lemon, zested and juiced
Olive oil

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. 
Season the pollack fillets in the lemon zest and juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. 

Gently heat a splash of olive oil in an oven proof frying pan.  Add the pollack fillets and their juices to the pan and fry the fillets for one minute (on one side only).  Transfer the pan to the preheated oven for 10-12 minutes (depending on the thickness of your fish).

Bring a pan of water to the boil and add a splash of white wine vinegar.  Reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting so the water is calm.  Break an egg into a ladle and then holding the ladle just above the surface of the water tip the egg very gently into the water.  Repeat with the second egg.  Leave the eggs until the white is set.  (I do not want to teach my grandmother to suck eggs, or how to poach them.  However, I had never managed to poach eggs in water until a friend taught me this simple and failsafe method.  The ladle will guarantee you eggs that look like they've come out of a michelin starred kitchen every time).

Steam the broccoli until just tender.

Arrange the broccoli and pollack on the plate with the egg on top (so the yolk runs oozily over the fish and broccoli when broken).

Broccoli, new potato and courgette salad with anchovy, lemon and parsley dressing

2 big handfuls of new potatoes, halved or quarted depending on the size of the potatoes
2 big handfuls of broccoli
1 courgette

3 anchovy fillets
1 garlic clove
Juice of half a lemon
A big handful of parsley
1 teaspoon of dijon mustard
4 tablespoons of olive oil
Salt and pepper

Boil the potatoes until cooked.  Blitz all the dressing ingredients together in a food processor.  Season to taste.  Drain the potatoes and pour over the dressing whilst they're still warm. 

Slice the courgette into thin ribbons (easiest with a peeler) and add to the potatoes.

Steam the broccoli until just tender and add to the bowl.

Enjoy x

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Approaches to pruning

On Sunday I pruned my apricot tree. 

There are two schools of pruning: the precision pruners and the maniacal.  The maniacal pruner goes at her target with her chosen weapon (usually secateurs but in extreme cases shears, loppers or even a saw), no thought for the season or recommended time of year for pruning, determined to take up the gauntlet that the maniacal pruner believes the offending shrub, tree or bush has laid down for her and teach the plant a lesson (the plant is obviously completely unaware of this, an innocent victim in the maniacal pruner's troubled relationship with self, others and the world). 

By way of example, friends of mine recently moved from London to their dream house in Dorset.  After an afternoon's gardening not long after they had moved in, the husband announced that he had 'tidied up' the plant growing up the outside of their picture perfect, chocolate box house.  The husband had in fact reduced the wisteria, which had hitherto lovingly covered the front of the house with its signature cascades of purple flowers, to Bonsai proportions.  (It was undoubtedly the wisteria which had sold the property to his wife, featuring heavily as it had done in the glossy marketing particulars for the property and having been in flower when they had first viewed the property.) 

The second school of pruning is the precision pruners: the precision pruner consults all gardening manuals at her disposal (of which she has a small library), schedules a date for the momentous event according to the recommended advice, conducts several site inspections prior to pruning and has a portfolio of tools available to ensure that having consulted, measured and marked, she has the correct tool in her gloved hands as is appropriate to the diameter of each branch to be cut (essential tools include secateurs, shears, loppers, chain saw, ladder, safety helmet, safety spectacles, gloves, tape measure, sealant and several of the tomes referred to above).

I pruned my roses in February.  When I did this last year, soon after I had moved from the balcony in Battersea to my current idyll and before I had cause to own a single gardening book (I am now the proud owner of an extensive collection of horticultural advice and guidance), I pruned with caution.  The roses grew back with an unexpected strength and bloomed throughout the summer.  Emboldened by last year's success (and with visions of prize blooms dancing tantalisingly before my eyes), I pruned the roses back hard this year.  My roses are shadows of their former selves, little more than a woody stump in the ground and it is difficult to believe that they will ever overcome their harsh treatment at the hands of my secateurs.  I am wracked with remorse and willing my roses to produce just one new shoot as a sign of forgiveness.
Chastened by the roses' fate, I was quick to accept that I needed to adopt a more scientific approach when the time came to prune my apricot tree.  I bought the apricot tree last year and planted it on 11 May 2010, the day the coalition government came into power (the tree planting ceremony on this auspicious date a coincidence rather than a reflection of my political persuasions).  The apricot tree is thriving: it has doubled in size, is covered with buds waiting to become blossom and the lovely people at Blackmoor Fruit Nursery, from whom I bought the tree, have assured me that in a sunny spot it should produce apricots (imagine the endless possibility of a summer of apricots: apricot tartes, apricot ice cream, white chocolate and apricot cheesecake, apricot friands, apricot compote, homemade apricot jam...).

With the horror of the roses' (near?)-death experience still fresh in my mind, I resolved to do things properly this time.  I consulted the books: Blackmoor's Fruit Growers' Handbook, my 1980 edition of the RHS Encyclopaedia of Practical Gardening-Fruit and Monty Don's The Complete Gardener, which confidently informed me that I needed to reduce the leader branch to 25cm and all other branches by half.  Armed with this knowledge, I washed and cleaned my secateurs, cycled to my local garden centre where I bought sealant (to protect the tree's open wounds from disease and insect infestation) and armed myself with a tape measure.  I then did every other conceivable job in the garden to put off the awful moment where I would have to make the first cut to my innocent tree (I felt much like I imagine a surgeon would feel doing their first operation on their own child).

At 4pm, as the last few rays of sunshine lit the afternoon sky, I could procrastinate no longer.  Following the instructions, I measured each branch, reduced it to the recommended length, and applied sealant to each open wound.  I worry that I have cut off so many buds that would have become blossom, blossom which would have become apricots.  The cut branches are in a vase on my kitchen window sill, beautiful, yet whilst they might blossom, they will never fruit.
A summer without roses or apricots will be disappointing in the extreme...

Saturday, 5 March 2011

The perfect weekend breakfast?

Last Sunday, after an early morning sojourn to Columbia Road Flower Market with my friend and supercook Kate, Kate cooked brunch.   It was my first foray of the year to Columbia Road and as my small garden is already bursting with perennials, my windowsills and greenhouse are packed with seedlings and it is too early to succumb to bedding plants, I agreed to venture north of the river simply to keep Kate company (although with secret hopes of treating myself to a clematis).  Columbia Road was reliably piled high with cut flowers, herbs, bulbs, bedding plants, vegetable plugs, larger shrubs, perennials, exotics - a veritable nursery crammed into a short north London street - and having walked its length and breadth, top to bottom, bottom to top and top to bottom again, I became the unwitting but very willing owner of one large rosemary bush (I am cooking my existing plant more quickly than it is growing), two pink hellebores, three purple leafed phlox, a tray of stocks, one cup of coffee, one croissant and two clematis (Vyvyvan Pennell and Daniel Deronda, both double flowering, then single second flowering later in the summer, impossible to resist...).  Kate had a similar sized haul, plus a banana tree.   Does a small garden ever reach capacity? 

Flowers and plants galore

Market Holders at Columbia Road
Supercook Kate had left the dough to prove whilst we were out and by the time we returned, arms sore, tummies rumbling, the dough had rised enticingly to the top of Kate's mixing bowl and was soft and springy and ready to be shaped into rounds.   Below is Kate's recipe for English muffins: we ate them with perfectly poached eggs (lovingly laid that morning by Kate's hens) but they are equally delicious with marmalade, honey or jam, or simply cut in half, toasted and served with a generous lick of butter.

English Muffins
(The recipe actually comes from the River Cottage Bread Handbook by Daniel Stevens, essential reading for the novice or experienced baker.  I have cooked many of the recipes from this wonderful book and they have never failed to rise (which where yeast is involved cannot be taken for granted...) or raise a smile from my breakfast/dinner guests (my naughtly little sister has a particular weakness for the hot cross buns on p.152, actually for any hot cross buns, but these are exceptionally good)).

500g strong white bread flour
5g powdered dried yeast
10g fine salt
325ml warm water
Drizzle of sunflower oil
Handful of semolina flower for coating

Mix the flour, yeast, salt and warm water in a bowl and knead (either by hand or in a food mixer fitted with a dough hook) until combined.  Add the oil and  knead for a further 10 minutes until the dough is silky and smooth.

Shape the dough into a round, coat it with a drizzle of extra oil and place it in a clean bowl.  Cover the bowl with a plastic bag and leave the dough to rise until it has doubled in size (how quickly the dough will rise will depend on the temperature of the room.  For a quick rise, put the dough somewhere warm.  For a slower rise, leave it in a cooler room).   

Once it has doubled in size, tip the dough out onto a work surface and gently press all over to deflate it.  Divide the dough into 9 pieces and shape each one into a round, approximately 1-2cm high.  Dust the rounds all over with semolina flour (this gives the muffins a lovely crust) and leave them to prove for a second time on a wooden board, covered again with a plastic bag, until doubled in size.

Heat a large heavy based frying pan over a medium heat.  Place the muffins gently in the pan (you may have to cook them in batches depending on the size of your pan) and cook for 1-2 minutes.  Gently turn the muffins over and cook slowly for a further 10 minutes, turning every now and again.  

Leave to cool on a wire rack (but eat while still warm). 

Have a good weekend x