Courgette crisis

Today I came downstairs to the kitchen to find a note from my husband (we communicate by note during the week!). It read: “Crisis! Courgette and broccoli shortage across Europe. Oh Noooo …!”

Courgette crisis note

A typical love note from my husband

Okay, so I could feel the sarcasm oozing off the page, as he’s not a huge fan of courgettes, or broccoli for that matter, despite my best efforts to force feed him both throughout the year, but it made me curious. Sure enough, those were the headlines. First Brexit, then Trump and now Courgette-gate. Yes, the UK is in the grip of a courgette shortage. Hold the front page!

Apparently, cold wet weather has affected crops in Spain and prices of the lovely veggies are soaring, along with peppers, tomatoes and broccoli. And shoppers appear to be panicking about it.

What a load of tosh

This total over-reaction is indicative of a widespread attitude about the availability of fresh produce, but I suppose it’s not surprising given the supermarkets’ obsession with stocking every possible vegetable in every month of the year. It’s no wonder people have lost track of what’s in season, and what’s not.

Courgette crisis

I had a glut of courgettes last August … because that’s when they were growing!

My rather condescending advice to anyone worrying about their inability to make courgetti right now, is not to stress about it and tuck into some carrots, cabbages or parsnips instead. They’ve probably been grown a little closer to home!

Tuck into your winter cabbages instead

Tuck into your winter cabbages instead

And as for my husband, who is undoubtedly hoping that this dearth of courgettes will last well into 2017, it’s not the good news story he thinks it is. I’m ordering my seeds this month, and I’ll be sure to stock up on courgettes!

 

 

Beat the glut: 2 great beetroot recipes

Beetroot is really easy to grow. No matter how new you are to veg growing, it’s a sure thing. But then what do you do with all those beets?

Fresh from the veg plot: beetroot glut

Fresh from the veg plot: beetroot glut

My personal favourite is roasted beetroot and goat cheese salad, but as the autumn nights start to draw in, here are two easy peasy ways to get creative with your beetroot glut.

Spiced sweet and sour pickled beetroot

Thank you to my neighbour, Alison, for putting me on to this one. This light pickle is sweet and rich, and is the perfect accompaniment to all sorts of foods (fish, cold meats, cheeses, salad …).

Ingredients
1 kg raw beetroot
200g caster sugar
300mL white wine vinegar
200mL cold water
2 star anise
3 cloves
2 bay leaves
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 tbsp olive oil

Heat your oven to 180C/160C fan/gas 4. Trim the leaves and most of the stalks off the beetroot, leaving a stump of stalk on each.

Wash and trim your beetroot before cooking

Wash and trim your beetroot before cooking

Wrap each beetroot in tinfoil and place on a baking tray. Roast for 1 hour 15 minutes or until the point of a sharp knife inserts easily into the beet. Leave to cool.

Peel the beets (and get very stained hands), and chop them into large bite-size pieces. Pack the chunks into sterilized jars.

Chop your oooked beetroot into chunks

Chop your cooked beetroot into chunks

For the pickling juice, tip the sugar, white wine vinegar, water, spices and bay leaves into a large saucepan and bring to the boil. Then simmer gently, stirring until all the sugar has dissolved, for 2 minutes. Turn off the heat and add the balsamic vinegar.

Carefully pour the spiced vinegar over the beetroot in the jars (you might have a bit left over). Leave the pickle to cool uncovered, then pour the olive oil over the top and seal the jars.

Et voila! Pickled beetroot. Simples!

Et voila! Pickled beetroot. Simples!

Officially you are only supposed to keep this in the fridge for up to a month, but mine lasted at least 2 months last year with no problems. And as a bonus, when we’d eaten all the beetroot, I mixed the leftover pickling juice with a little olive oil for a fantastic vinaigrette salad dressing.

Beetroot brownies

Forget carrot cake this autumn, try this instead. You won’t regret it.

Ingredients
500g raw beetroot
100g unsalted butter
200g bar plain chocolate (70% cocoa)
1 tsp vanilla extract
250g caster sugar
3 eggs
100g plain flour
25g cocoa powder

Cook and chop the beetroot as per the recipe above. Chop the chocolate and butter up roughly and blend with the warm chopped beets in a food processor. The chocolate and butter will melt as you blend.

Blend the beets, butter and chocolate until it is smooth red and velvety

Blend the beets, butter and chocolate until it is smooth red and velvety

Beat the sugar and eggs together in a large bowl until thick, pale and foamy. Spoon the beetroot mixture into the bowl (it doesn’t look pretty at this stage, but stay with it!), then use a large metal spoon to fold it in. Try to keep as much air in the mixture as you can.

Gently fold in the sifted flour and cocoa powder next, until you have a smooth batter. Pour the mixture into a pre-lined 20cm x 30cm tray bake or roasting tin and bake for 25 minutes or until it has risen all over with a small quiver under the centre of the crust when you shake the pan.

Cool in the tin, then cut into squares.

Beetroot brownies

Yum!

Let me know what you think, and I’d love to know your favourite beetroot recipes too. I’m sure I’ll have another glut to deal with next year.

Hanging tomatoes

I’m still cramming the vegetables and annuals into the garden. As I haven’t got a greenhouse, and I’m rapidly running out of space – and pots – on the patio, some of the tomatoes have gone into hanging baskets.

There are plenty of bush-type varieties with shallow root systems that do well in hanging baskets. I’m trying Tumbling Tom (yellow) and Tiny Tim (red), one plant per basket, hung south facing at the back of the house.

Yellow Tumbling Tom tomatoes in hanging basket

Yellow Tumbling Tom tomatoes in hanging basket

The baskets are pre-lined so I haven’t had to faff around with liners or moss. I put a small plastic saucer and several used tea bags at the bottom of each basket to help retain water, and firmed each tomato plant in with plenty of all-round garden compost and a few growmore granules.

A small saucer and used tea bags, placed at the bottom of the basket to help retain water

A small saucer and used tea bags, placed at the bottom of the basket to help retain water

I haven’t bothered with water-retaining granules, as there are no holes in the liner so the water shouldn’t drain away too quickly.

Because of the habit of these trailing plants, they require very little maintenance, so I won’t need to do anything else now, other than regular watering, plus weekly feeding when the tomatoes start to develop.

Tumbling Tom tomato planted in hanging basket

Now we wait …

Spud update

Last time I mentioned the potatoes, they were merrily chitting on a bedroom window sill.

Chitted potatoes, ready to plant

Chitted and ready to plant

A lot has happened since then. First, I had to decide where to put them. If, like me, you are pretty limited on space, the perfect solution is to plant in sacks or containers. I’ve just about managed to squeeze mine in behind the raised vegetable beds.

A chorus line of potato sacks

A chorus line of potato sacks

I filled my sacks about a third full of compost, along with some ‘potato fertilizer’, and placed the chitted potatoes on the top (about 5 per sack), then covered them with more compost and watered them well.

Five seed potatoes per sack

Five seed potatoes per sack

Since then, I’ve pretty much left them to their own devices, and they have done their thing extremely quietly and quickly. Before I knew it (and partly because I’d been away) the leaves were poking out of the tops of the sacks.

Potato sacks in leaf

Sackfuls of … leaves

Not what I had intended! The plan had been to gradually earth up soil around the stems as they grew. Instead, I have now had to shovel a load more compost into the bags and hope I haven’t got a potato disaster on my hands.

So now it’s just a waiting game. I shall keep them damp (not wet!) and await the flowers; then we’ll see if there’s anything to harvest.

Seedy decisions

If you haven’t done so already, now is the time to choose and buy your vegetable seeds for the year ahead (flowers too, of course, but I’m focusing on the veggies today). For me, that means dusting down the old biscuit tin in the shed containing the seed packets from last year and checking the sow-by dates, taking stock of what I’ve got left and then making the tricky decision of what to grow this year. I say ‘tricky’ because I tend to want to grow pretty much everything, but I don’t have the room. Having said that, nearly all vegetables can be grown in pots (sweetcorn and Jerusalem artichokes excepted) … and I can always buy another pot!

Vegetable seed packets

My ‘leftover’ vegetable seeds, still within their sow-by dates for 2015

What to grow

(1) Grow what you like to eat! It might sound daft, but you’ll be surprised how many people grow things they don’t really like. I made this mistake with a crop of Swiss Chard a couple of years ago. It grew well (so I ended up with stacks of it), and it looked pretty, but I didn’t really like the taste of it that much and most of the leaves ended up in the compost.

(2) Consider the economics. If you don’t have a massive plot, be money-wise. Some vegetables are simply cheaper to buy and no amount of gardening savvy will produce a cost-saving benefit. So grow high-value vegetables and buy the cheap ones. I’m always amazed at how much a bag of mixed salad leaves costs in the supermarket. It’s such a good feeling to see them growing rampant in pots on my patio for a fraction of the price. French beans are another money saver in our house.

(3) Make some ‘easy-grow’ choices, particularly if you are new to vegetable growing (my ‘sure things’ are baby carrots and beetroot). That way, if your parsnips don’t germinate or the caterpillars eat all your cabbages you’ll still be pulling up some fresh veg with a smug smile and won’t be completely despondent at the end of the season.

(4) Check the growing times. If you don’t want to wait until Christmas to harvest your brussel sprouts, or next year for your purple sprouting broccoli, then choose vegetables that will provide ‘instant’ gratification. Lettuce, radishes, baby carrots and courgettes are all good options.

(5) Match your veg to your garden. Think about where you will be growing the vegetables. For example, if you have heavy clay soil (like me), long-rooted carrots or parsnips will struggle, so choose the stumpier varieties or grow them in pots in lighter compost. If your garden is shady, avoid growing sun lovers like tomatoes and beetroot; grow leafy veg instead. If you don’t have a lot of room, try dwarf varieties (I was over the moon with my dwarf runner beans last year) or ‘mini veg’ that you can grow in closer proximity to each other.

(6) Try something different. It’s quite exciting to grow something that you haven’t eaten before, or that you’re unlikely to find in the shops. Last year I grew some baby squash – and they were delicious!

Get organized

It’s a good idea to make a list of what you’ve got, what you need to buy, and where you’re going to grow it.

Vegetable seed planner

My vegetable seed plan for 2015

Buying seed

There are lots of seed suppliers out there. To avoid getting overwhelmed by it all, my advice is to check out the information from 2 or 3 reputable ones (you don’t want dud seeds!) before making your selection. One of winter’s great pleasures is kicking back with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, perusing your seed catalogues or information online, sending your order off and then fantasizing about how your garden will look in the summer, bursting with your very own supply of fresh healthy veg.

I’d love to hear what you’re planning to grow this year. And all tips welcome! Please leave a comment below.

Green aromatherapy

Given the mild weather at the moment (for December!), the tidying and mulching continues. This weekend’s attention to the herb bed had added benefits, as the uplifting scents that wafted from my small patch of overgrown culinary herbs were nothing short of sensational.

Herb bed

The herb bed before the big clear up

After 15 minutes of chopping and digging I had created a unique energizing fragrance of rosemary, sage and mint, with subtle hints of thyme and fennel, all then blown away by the heady aroma of lavender.

Tidied herb bed

The herb bed: chopped, tidied and mulched

Aromatic plants are incredibly versatile. Inhaling their intoxicating scent is one of life’s simple pleasures – I can rarely resist a ‘scratch and sniff’ as I pass – so why not experiment with some homemade pot pourri? Each also has its place in the kitchen of course: how much better are new potatoes when embellished with a spring of mint, or lamb roasted with rosemary?!

But have you thought what other uses these herbs might have? Here are a few of my suggestions, but I’d love to hear yours so that I can make more of my herb bed next year. Please leave a comment below.

  • Peppermint: pour hot water onto a handful of peppermint leaves, brew for 5 minutes and add brown sugar or honey to taste. Mint tea can aid digestion.
  • Rosemary: add a few sprigs of rosemary to your bath water for a lovely aromatic soak, or strip the leaves and toss the woody stems onto an open fire for a wonderful pine-scented perfume. Rosemary is also a moth repellent, so you could try hanging some sachets of rosemary leaves in the wardrobe (better than the smell of moth balls!).
  • Basil: plant in pots near your doors to help keep flies out of the house. (Flies don’t like lavender or mint either.)
  • Lavender: rub the fresh flowers directly onto your temples or forehead (avoiding the eyes!) to ease a headache, or before you go to bed for a good night’s sleep.

 

 

 

From pot to plate

The vegetable patch is still providing some tasty morsels even in late November.

Given the dreary weather yesterday, a roast lamb dinner was just the thing to lift the spirits.

So, I dug up baby carrots and parsnips from their pots…

November carrots from a potNovember parsnips from a pot… and searched deep into the last of my potato sacks for the remaining main crop potatoes (Cara variety – white skinned, with a creamy flesh and firm texture).

November potatoes, Cara variety, from a sack

… Added some shop-bought cabbage (on the ‘to grow’ list for next year), along with the lamb and gravy … and voila! Delicious!

Sunday dinner

Sunday dinner with veggies from the garden