Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Teaching an old dog

Well, not that old, but I have learnt some new culinary and craft tricks this month and it's only the 6th December!

Over the last week I've attended not one, but two courses in my ongoing bid to become a green domestic goddess. The first was part of the Carluccio's event programme and focused on edible Italian gifts for Christmas - I did 'traditional' hampers last year and am doing another edible-themed gift for friends and family this year (no hints yet, it's a surprise which is still in testing, eek, did I say it was the 6th of December...!) However, I've always got my eye on ideas for future years and this seemed like the perfect course (and the perfect excuse to leave WH on babysitting duty for the evening and drink some early festive prosecco).

The course was held in the main restaurant at the Reading branch of Carluccio's - they clear a large area of the floor and set up individual stations (ah MasterChef, Celebrity MasterChef and MasterChef Professionals, you have taught me well!) in a broken square so that the tutor has a place to stand and demonstrate when necessary. The course focused on making three traditional Italian recipes: baci di dama (those little sweet biscuits with a chocolate filling), tartufi di cioccolato (chocolate truffles) and mostarda di frutta (fruit preserved with mustard and vinegar). We were all supplied with our weighed and measured ingredients, a one-ring burner to boil water, pans, chopping board, knives, etc and quickly got stuck in making the dough for our baci di dama. The instructions were easy to follow and our tutor interspersed the practical information with some anecdotes about how they'd chosen which recipes to include (along with some failed variations - apparently chocolate truffles covered in salt flakes did look just like snowballs but tasted revolting!) or the history of the food itself. The evening was finished off with a session on nicely packaging our gifts and then munching through a mountain of bread, san daniele ham, parmesan cheese and some mostarda di frutta that had been made the previous week, in true Blue Peter style. And, of course, forcing down some prosecco...

My second course was something I'd requested as a birthday gift and was titled 'Make me a Domestic Sewing Goddess'. The course title might lead you to think you'd be covering how to mend clothes, but the emphasis was much more on how to embellish second-hand clothes or worn-out favourites to give them a new lease of life. I do think that the skills covered (hemming, invisible stitches, using a sewing machine, bias binding, and creating ruffles, buttons, corsages and bows) were all things that you could easily transfer to making more 'normal' alterations and repairs (moving hemlines, taking in skirts, altering necklines, etc). The course was offered by The Papered Parlour, who are based in Clapham, and are an interesting outfit in their own right (excuse the pun!) - two visual artists who set up a studio to encourage artists working in a range of media to work collaboratively, along with a workshop space offering a range of art and craft events and courses. It was a very enjoyable and productive 4.5 hours and I came away with a t-shirt which I had re-hemmed, altered the neckline and added a ruffle and bias binding, and made some covered buttons to add as a further decorative detail. The t-shirt is meant to act as a 'living record' for when I want to repeat any of these skills, which is pretty handy. We've also been promised a range of hand-outs to follow by email covering step-by-step guides to alterations and making decorative features. Still not sure I'm ready to take the plunge and buy a sewing machine yet, so isn't it lucky that a new shop has just opened in Caversham where you can hire machines by the hour? Oh, and they run more courses... watch this space!

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Whatever the weather

The garden last weekend, in the November sun
One of the things I've noticed since 'becoming' a gardener is that I'm much more aware of the seasons. In the spring, it's being aware of the first tiny buds on plants in the hedgerow, or seeing shoots emerge from the soil. In the autumn, it's noticing the first leaves turning and the gradual slowing down for winter. The crazy weather this year has made for even more noticeable changes, from the 'autumn-fruiting' raspberries appearing in about July, to our strawberries re-cropping in late October after that blast of Indian summer at the beginning of the month. In the garden, autumn has been slow to come - yes, I've been busy, but everything was still pretty green and lush until a couple of weeks ago when leaves finally started to drop from the neighbour's tree onto our gravel and plants in our garden finally started to droop.

Which explains why it was the weekend before last, on a particularly dingy, dank and damp Sunday, before I got round to cutting down the raspberry canes (we stopped picking in October as there's only so much raspberry jam a girl can make, but even the birds seem to have gotten fed up with the taste as there were still berries on the canes when I chopped them!) I also attacked our roses: I know that roses are one of those plants where you could simply spend all of your time pruning, training, feeding, maintaining and spraying for pests and diseases, but I'm afraid I just go for a 'treat 'em mean, keep 'em keen' approach and chop them down almost to the ground on an annual basis, then ignore them for the rest of the year (apart from to admire the blooms, obviously!) The runner beans were cut down and the a-frames removed too, and finally I emptied the greenhouse of the last of the tomato and pepper plants, ready to clean (I'll probably get around to this by Christmas, at this rate).

As a result, standing at the kitchen window you can suddenly see all the way down to the bottom of the garden again. Greens have given way to browns and yellows - I can see more bare earth and the outlines of plants now devoid of their leaves, which are instead providing some natural insulation for the roots on our grapevines, and a natural mulch under the fruit trees. Our winter crops are coming along - we've leeks, kale, cabbage, brussels, broccoli and parsnips to enjoy over the coming months (as well as, hopefully, some Christmas potatoes) but most of these plants are only visible once you get down into the garden - little oases of green which suddenly appear as we trudge down to empty the compost crock, or venture into the garden shed for a misplaced tool. There's still some more tidying to do before winter really kicks in, and some essential maintenance too, but at least the time-poor gardener isn't quite so overwhelmed at this time of year - thank goodness the weeds slow down too!

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Neighbours, everybody needs good neighbours...

Having a neighbour who is also a keen gardener must be a little bit like having an allotment - there's always someone there to chat to (rather than doing any actual gardening), you swap tips and discuss ideas, but most importantly, you can swap plants and produce. The most important thing to remember is to pay attention to the sorts of things that your neighbour grows that produce a glut and make sure not to grow these yourself but grow something else for an exchange.

I shall certainly be applying this principle next year as we've had quite a few plants and a very nice pumpkin from our neighbour since she moved in last October. For a brief, halcyon period, we even had fresh eggs from her hen-keeping enterprise, until she sent them back after six weeks as she felt they weren't able to roam freely enough in her garden (and they required more work than she'd thought they would!). In return I've baked her a few cakes (making good use of those free eggs) and gifted a tomato and a sage plant, but I think we've benefited more this year. I promise to try to make amends next year!

I've never cooked with pumpkin before (obviously I've cooked with other squash, I've just never had an actual pumpkin!) so I was quite excited and determined not to waste any. I've made pumpkin soup (some to eat this week and some to freeze), a pumpkin and sage dough from which we've had some breadsticks, some rolls and some to freeze, and I'll be using up the last of the pumpkin flesh next week in a pumpkin tagliatelle recipe we have in our kitchen calendar, of all places!

I'm quite pleased with the dough, which I created by referring to two recipes and a bit of luck, so here's the recipe:

250g plain flour
250g strong white bread flour
1 tsp yeast
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp olive oil
400g pumpkin, cut into small cubes
a good handful of sage leaves, chopped

1. Put the pumpkin in a pan of water and cook until tender. Drain it, taking care to reserve the cooking liquid, and then puree in a food processor or by rubbing through a sieve.

2. Mix your flours, salt and yeast in a large bowl. Add the puree, chopped sage and the oil then start to slowly add the reserved cooking water until you get quite a wet dough - I used about 300ml.

3. Tip out your dough onto a well-floured surface and knead until it becomes less sticky and more elastic - you might need some extra flour, but try not to add too much.

4. Put your dough in a clean bowl into which you've added a splash of olive oil. Coat the dough in the oil, cover the bowl with a clean, damp cloth and leave to rise until doubled in size - about 2 hours.

5. Tip your raised dough onto a floured surface and knock it back. Now shape into rolls, a loaf, breadsticks or any other type of bread, leave to rise again and bake as appropriate. For rolls, you'll need to leave them for an hour to double in size and then bake at 200 C for 15 minutes until golden.

Very, very good straight from the oven....

Oops - BLW Sept: Days 26 - 30

I realise it's been October for a few days, but I got a bit behind with my BLW September blogging - here we go with the last 5 days of the month!

Day 26
Breakfast: Toast with Lurpak unsalted spreadable butter and homemade marmalade.

Snack: Homemade fruit scone with Lurpak unsalted spreadable butter.

Lunch: Apple and rice cakes.

Snack: Grapes.

Dinner: Eggs florentine with bacon and salad.
A very easy and quick dinner, involving steaming some spinach, toasting muffins, poaching a couple of eggs and making a 'hollandaise' sauce by adding lemon juice and hot water to mayonnaise! Topped off with some Waitrose Duchy Originals unsmoked bacon done under the grill and a bagged salad of seasonal leaves (Waitrose again). The baby enjoyed most of it and even had a bit of bacon.

Day 27
Breakfast: Porridge with homemade apple butter.

Snack: Wrigglies.
[See Day 25]

Lunch: Left-over North African squash and chickpea stew.
Enjoyed just as much the second time around!

Snack: bread sticks.

Dinner: Fusilli pasta in a homemade tomato sauce, with tuna fish and runner beans.
The beans came from the garden and were getting a bit tough, so only the inner beans were really eaten.

Day 28
Breakfast: Toast with Lurpak unsalted spreadable butter.

Snack: Organix biscuits.
We ate these at our baby signing class and made a huge mess because they'd gone a bit soggy in the tin... oops!

Lunch: The last of the North African squash and chickpea stew.

Snack: Grapes.
I've given in now and just prepare a lot of grapes and let her eat until she stops making her 'more' noise...

Dinner: Chilli with rice and creme fraiche.
This was from the BLW cookbook and has been a hit before. I usually make it with chunks of meat, but tonight we had it with mince and this seemed to slip past her 'meat radar' more effectively!

Day 29
Breakfast: Fruit scones with Lurpak unsalted spreadable butter.
I made the scones the night before with sultanas and raisins.

Snack: Ella's Kitchen pear puree.
The snack today was scheduled to be some homemade fruit muffins, but I didn't have any eggs in the house the night before and we had our swimming lesson this morning, so just had to grab something out of the cupboard. We got this Ella's Kitchen pouch free with an Ocado delivery and actually, she quite enjoyed it, so I might look at some more of their things to have in the house as 'stand-by' food.

Lunch: Left-over chilli.
Just eaten as it was, without rice but a nice warm, filling lunch after swimming.

Snack: Grapes.
We keep getting these in our organic box, which is great as she loves them, but they're British-grown so are quite small and seeded so are a pain to prepare (cut in half, scoop out 1 small seed, repeat ad infinitum).

Dinner: Pancakes with herbs and cheese.

Day 30
Breakfast: Toast with Lurpak unsalted spreadable butter and homemade marmalade.

Snack: Organix gingerbread man.
The first time we've had these and although they're small it was apparently quite a good snack as it took her ages to eat (head, arm, leg 1, leg 2...)

Lunch: Savoury flapjacks with cheese and red pepper.
From the BLW cookbook - I made some cheese and courgette ones earlier in the month for snacks, but actually, they're quite filling and even making half the recipe makes a lot of flapjack so I thought we could have them for lunches this week.

Snack: More grapes.

Dinner: Roast pork, roast potatoes, carrots and runner beans.
This is the first time she'd had pork and she did have quite a good suck at the meat, but still preferred her vegetables.

And that's it for BLW September - hope you've enjoyed it and I'm sure there'll be future posts covering our Baby-led weaning journey.

Friday, 30 September 2011

BLW Sept: Days 23, 24 & 25

Ooh, plodding on towards the end of the month - the menu planning is getting easier, but the baby has completely thrown me by dropping another milk feed so that we're now only on two a day (first thing and last thing), so now I'm a bit paranoid about her having a more filling lunch and also getting enough water down her to counter the loss of the milk, particularly in this Indian summer we're having!

Day 23
Breakfast: Porridge with homemade apple butter.
She eats so much of this now - it's amazing!

Snack: Sweetcorn rings (Organix).

Lunch: Cucumber and bread sticks. 
An easy, light lunch for Sunday as we were having a roast dinner later on. The breadsticks are Waitrose own-brand mini breadsticks.

Snack: Dates.
Not enjoyed as much as the first time we had dates, but still ate a few.

Dinner: Roast chicken, roast potatoes, carrots and braised cabbage.
Although the baby is still 'off' meat, she did eventually succumb to a bit of chicken at this meal - seems to depend on her mood!

Day 24
Breakfast: Scrambled egg in pitta bread.
The last time we had scrambled egg on toast, she wouldn't eat the egg. This morning, she let the egg drop out of the pitta bread and then ate it separately...

Snack: Sultana scones.
I made these at the weekend, to a recipe from the BLW cookbook. Spread with Lurpak unsalted they were very well received and make a good snack. Particularly good for if we're out and about, as they don't tend to fall apart too much!

Lunch: Apple slices and yoghurt.
Does what it says on the tin.

Snack: Grapes.
We had an actual mini tantrum when we got to the end of the bowl today - grapes are LOVED!

Dinner: Chicken sandwich with chips and roasted tomatoes.
Using the leftover chicken from the night before, cold, served in homemade bread buns. Although we had roasted tomatoes, the baby ate hers raw (she prefers them that way and they're easier to pick up). Chips were on the menu, but I completely forgot about them so the adults had some potato waffles from the freezer...!

Day 25
Breakfast: Porridge with homemade apple butter.
[See Day 23]

Snack: Wrigglies.
Bit of an odd name - I found them in the supermarket last week when I was looking for snacks that weren't biscuits! They're basically just very thin pieces of dried fruit - today's variety were apple-flavoured.

Lunch: Tuna paste on oat cakes.
The menu plan was for hummous, but I got the wrong pot out of the freezer to defrost...

Snack: Grapes and apple.
The apple was there to minimise the trauma at the grapes being finished - it didn't work!

Dinner: North African squash and chickpea stew with couscous.
First full recipe from my Hugh Every Day Veg book - it was yummy, but I did tinker a bit with the recipe to match what we had in the house. Still a very healthy vegetarian meal, featuring lentils, chickpeas and in this case, butternut squash. The baby loved it and we had so much that she was able to have it for lunch on a couple of days too!

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

BLW Sept: Days 20, 21 & 22

Day 20
Breakfast: Fruit bread.
[See Day 16]

Lunch: Oat cakes with mushroom pate.
[See Day 17]

Dinner: Beetroot and courgette risotto.
This was just to use up some of the last of the beetroot from our garden, and is a fairly basic risotto recipe using garlic, onions, beetroot, courgette and some carrot. To make it less salty, I used a 'baby vegetable stock cube and creme fraiche instead of cheese. Baby ate hers with a spoon, but we did keep finding little pieces of rice around the place for days afterwards ...

Day 21
Breakfast: Muffin with homemade marmalade.
A very tasty breakfast: what it says on the tin, really.

Lunch: Apple and yoghurt.
One of the baby's favourites and eaten with relish, as usual.

Dinner: Pizza with tomatoes, tuna, cheese and mushrooms.
I'd normally make pizza dough in the breadmaker, but I recently treated myself to the new River Cottage Every Day: Veg cookbook, and thought I'd try out Hugh's recipe for handmade dough instead. It was very, very tasty - particularly if you like a thin-crust pizza. Now all I need is a pizza stone...

Day 22
Breakfast: Muffins with homemade strawberry jam.

Snack: Breadsticks and organix biscuits.
We've just changed to three milk feeds a day, so we're filling the morning and afternoon gaps with a small snack. This was a carb-heavy snack after we'd had a swimming lesson.

Lunch: Cheese and basil pancakes.
Easy to make, with some of the fresh basil from the kitchen and grated cheddar. Baby loves these!

Snack: Grapes.
Halved and deseeded - these were a massive hit!

Dinner: Roasted vegetables.
Roasted carrots, courgette and potatoes, tossed in olive oil with some fresh rosemary.

Friday, 23 September 2011

BLW Sept: Days 18 & 19

It's a funny old week, this one, as the grandparents are here and the baby has been out for two mornings at the childminders for some settling in. That means breakfast the last two days has been a bit rushed to get her out the door with all her stuff for 8am, and we've not been having lunch either. I've therefore been trying to pack food that she enjoys to make it as easy as possible for the childminder to get her to eat it (and I'm also a bit paranoid about the mess she makes, so I've started off with some 'neater' food too!)

Day 18
Breakfast: Fruit bread with spreadable unsalted Lurpak.
[See Day 16]

Lunch: Apple and cheese slices (plus a mid-morning Organix biscuit).
The childminder was amazed that she picked the apple slices up and nibbled them, but also confessed she'd cut them smaller than I had as she was afraid the pieces were too big and also that she'd worried she'd not eaten enough (she still won't eat cheese sticks at the minute) so had snuck in three spoonfuls of an Ella's Kitchen fruit puree before Isobel had a tizz about being spoonfed. Oh well - we're all learning together...

Dinner: Salmon and broccoli bake.
A very well-received recipe from the BLW cookbook. I added some more of the purple carrots to this, made my own cheese sauce and left out the breadcrumbs. She hoovered it up!

Day 19
Breakfast: Dates with yoghurt.
This was her first time with dates and they went down quite well. Unfortunately she was a bit slow to start today, so she only managed two spoonfuls of yoghurt before we had to stop to get ready to go to the childminder's.

Lunch: Crumpets with mushroom pate.
[See Day 17 re the mushroom pate]

Dinner: Spinach gnocchi with spicy tomato salsa.
The gnocchi recipe was from an old cookbook of mine, and the salsa was from the BLW cookbook. It was quite a fiddly recipe and, although it was nice, I don't know if I'd bother making it again! It was, however, very much enjoyed by the baby who ate her whole portion!

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

BLW Sept: Days 15, 16 & 17

The baby is really getting into food now - there's definite bite-chew-swallow action going on, which is very exciting to watch. She's currently working on getting her top teeth and it will be interesting to see what effect this will have on her eating.

Day 15
Breakfast: Apple slices.
Apple slices are always a big favourite and tend to be quite quick to eat, which was important today as we had a baby swimming lesson and needed to leave the house on time....

Lunch: Crumpets with cheese.
A nice filling lunch after a busy morning.

Dinner: Roasted vegetables: courgette, potatoes and purple carrots.
The strange colour of the carrots didn't slow her down at all, in fact, if anything she ate them with even more enthusiasm. When she'd munched through all the finger shapes, she started picking up handfuls of the bits of end and skin and eating them too!

Day 16
Breakfast: Fruit bread with Lurpak spreadable butter.
This is a homemade loaf, using the breadmaker and includes mixed fruit and also some spices. It's lovely toasted and baby always enjoys it.

Lunch: Pear slices.
Another firm favourite, trotted out because I was meant to have made a mushroom pate for lunch today but hadn't quite gotten around to it....

Dinner: Meatballs in a tomato sauce with couscous.
This is from the BLW cookbook and is another nice recipe (although again, one where I'd quibble about the quantities). Baby was even persuaded to try some of the meat once it was dipped in the tomato sauce, although she did just prefer spoonfuls of couscous and sauce!

Day 17
Breakfast: Toast with Lurpak spreadable butter and scrambled eggs.
We tried this a few weeks ago and she wasn't too interested in the egg, and the same thing happened today. Still, she munched through the toast so she didn't go hungry!

Lunch: Mushroom pate on oat cakes.
This was meant to have been made for yesterday, but I hadn't had time to make the pate so I switched it to today.

Mushroom pate
Handful of mushrooms - I used 6 small organic white caps
Handful of herbs - I used chives and tarragon
Knob of butter
1 tbsp creme fraiche
3 or 4 spring onions
Lemon juice (optional)

Chop the onions and mushrooms roughly, then fry gently until tender. Chop and add the herbs for a minute, then take off the heat and allow to cool. Put into a foodmixer with the creme fraiche and whizz to a paste - you can leave some chunks or make it smooth to taste. Add a splash of lemon juice at the end if you want!

Dinner: Jacket potatoes with a red bean filling and salad.
I cooked the jackets in the oven for an hour and a half, then cut them in half, scooped out the insides and mashed them, before mixing with my filling (red kidney beans, cream cheese, mild chilli powder and ground cumin). The fillings were put back into the skins and served with a green salad. The baby ate all of her portion, including a little bit of the potato skin - result!

Friday, 16 September 2011

BLW Sept: Days 11 - 14

Day 11
Breakfast: Porridge with apple butter.
I make my porridge using jumbo oats (50g) and semi-skimmed milk (300ml) - it's just as easy as doing 'instant' porridge from a box, but doesn't contain any extras. Today we added some of the apple butter I made last weekend - this is basically a low-sugar fruit preserve, and the apple version I made included cinnamon and cloves - it is delicious in porridge and was gobbled up by both of us.

Lunch: Homity pie and cucumber.
We had a friend round for lunch, so we had some of the chard and tomato pie that will be Dinner on Day 12, whilst Baby finished the last of the Homity pie from Day 7. The cucumber was a big hit today as she's teething.

Dinner: Macaroni cheese with spinach and chard.
This was mainly planned in to use up the last of the spinach and chard that came with this week's organic box. It's a tasty way to use up any extra veg you have lying around - any veg works when it's covered in cheese sauce!

Day 12
Breakfast: Drop scones.
[See Day 10]

Lunch: Tuna spread on toast.
[See Day 10]

Dinner: Chard and tomato pie, potato wedges and salad.
I made this from a recipe on the Abel and Cole website and it was very, very tasty. The potato wedges I made to my own recipe:

Spicy potato wedges
Potatoes, peeled and cut into wedges - we find red-skinned varieties of potato are particularly good for this.
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp garlic powder/2 cloves, crushed
2 tsp rosemary
2tbsp olive oil

Parboil the potatoes for 4 minutes, drain and rest. Mix all of the other ingredients in a roasting tin, add the potatoes and bake in a pre-heated oven at 220C for 30-40 minutes.

Day 13
Breakfast: Porridge with apple butter.
[See Day 11]

Lunch: Pear and cucumber.
Pear is always a favourite and cucumber has been popular recently too - lunch today was the first one with the childminder (we're currently 'settling in'). Sadly, even with 'safe' foods, it didn't go to well, so we ended up trying again at home where she ate it all ...

Dinner: Dahl with pitta bread.
Another recipe from the BLW cookbook. Tasty, and with a pleasant bite from the fresh ginger (I might have got carried away). Baby loved it! I would definitely add some vegetables to it, if making it again - runner beans would have been good (and we've got plenty in the garden), but probably also kale, broccoli, cauliflower, and even carrot would be good too, added at the end so they've still got some bite.

Day 14
Breakfast: Crumpets with homemade plum and raspberry jelly.
A firm Friday favourite.

Lunch: Apple and cheese.
We were having lunch out today with some friends, so I took some pre-cut apple and cheese in case I wasn't able to make a menu choice that she could share. We ended up in a pretty ropey pub in Tilehurst, where the only food on offer was toasted sandwiches and chips, so I was pretty glad I'd prepared something else for her!

Dinner: Beef burgers and tomatoes.
Burgers made to the BLW cookbook recipe, although with significantly less mince than the recipe stated (I have found some of the quantities used in the recipes a bit odd, and am often changing them based on my own experience of cooking for 2). The recipe stated 500g lean beef mince, which I amended to 300g - this made 4 adult and 2 baby burgers. It also called for Dijon mustard, but I added some of the homemade mustard I made earlier in the summer (lemon and dill flavoured) and they were really very tasty. Buns were homemade too and the tomatoes were from the garden: we had ours roasted (with salt - yum yum).

Monday, 12 September 2011

BLW Sept: Days 6 - 10

Oops! Sorry - the days got away from me a bit there! Here is day 6 through 10 of the menu planner and I promise to post more regularly this week!

Day 6
Breakfast: Yoghurt and plum puree.
[See Day 2]

Lunch: Pear and cheese.
The lunch planned for today was the last of the savoury flapjacks, but we were scheduled to go out on Friday morning [Day 7] and I thought the flapjacks would be better for eating in transit, so we had the planned Friday lunch instead. The pear just vanished, but the cheese (emmental) wasn't such a hit.

Dinner: Beef and broccoli stir fry.
This was from the BLW cookbook and I added Chinese 5 spice and soy sauce to the adult portions to give it a bit more flavour (both are no-go for the baby, as they're too salty). She's going through a bit of a phase at the minute where she doesn't really like meat (apart from sausages), but she did at least try the beef before getting stuck in to the broccoli. She was a bit puzzled by the noodles, and most of them ended up on the floor...

Day 7
Breakfast: Crumpet with marmalade. 
Shop-bought crumpet with a smidgen of home-made orange marmalade. Delicious!

Lunch: Rice cakes and apple.
If you've been paying attention you'll wonder why we didn't have the flapjacks - this is because they'd gone a bit mouldy in the container! I won't try to keep them so long next time - they were made on Day 1 - and I might also use a more air-tight container.

Dinner: Homity pie with carrots and peas.
Another BLW cookbook find - delicious, although the baby was mainly interested in the carrots....

Day 8
Breakfast: Crumpet with jam.
Using up the crumpets with a thin smear of homemade strawberry jam.

Lunch: Pear and rice cakes.
Once again the pear was the favourite. The rice cakes were Organix apple flavoured ones, and although she's enjoyed them in the past, she preferred the real fruit today.

Dinner: Jacket potato with cheese and spring onions.
Cooked in the oven to give it a lovely crispy skin (I can't be doing with microwaved jacket potatoes!), we then scooped out the innards and mashed them all up with the cheese and spring onions. Thoroughly enjoyed by all!

Day 9
Breakfast: Porridge with plum puree.
I made up another batch of plum puree for this week and this time didn't add sugar. She's getting so good with the spoon now so quite a lot of the porridge made it into her mouth and stayed there.

Lunch: Homity pie and cucumber slices.
Cold left-overs from Day 7 - she actually ate far more of the pie this time. I think it was because cold, it stuck together better and was therefore easier for her to eat.

Dinner: Lemon and tarragon chicken, runner beans and sweetcorn.
A very tasty, simple recipe from the BLW cookbook, although I do have a version of my own that we might use next time as it doesn't have any added salt. This was her first go with sweetcorn - fresh from the garden, we just chopped her cob up into rings and she absolutely loved it!

Day 10 
Breakfast: Drop scones.
I made these the evening before with the blueberries left over from last week's organic box and they were very tasty. There were enough to keep (in an air-tight container) for breakfast on Day 12 too. NB, if your baby is still prone to being sick after milk-feeds, do watch out for the colour after eating blueberries....

Lunch: Toast with fishpaste.
Again, I made the fishpaste the night before to a recipe from the BLW cookbook, using tinned tuna. Very easy to make and pretty tasty too. We had this on some (home-made) granary bread.

Dinner: Saag paneer with rice.
BLW cookbook again, although I don't think I'd bother with this recipe very often as it was fairly bland.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

BLW Sept: Days 3, 4 and 5

Here's your second installment of our baby-led weaning meals!

Day 3
Breakfast: Fruit scones with unsalted, spreadable butter (Lurpak) and homemade plum and raspberry jam.
You'll start to notice a bit of a pattern now with the breakfast's and lunches, but it's good to have the same foods for a few days to check for any reactions, as well as reducing the number of things you have to prepare each week!

Lunch: Bean spread on oat cakes (Nairns).
I made the bean spread from the BLW cookbook, using a tin of organic mixed beans from Waitrose. The recipe makes enough spread for 2 meals this week with some to freeze for a couple of weeks until we have it again. It was meant to be on the last of the pitta breads from the end of last week, but they'd gone mouldy, so we just had it on oat cakes. Very tasty and quite filling.

Dinner: Ratatouille with rice. 
Just a basic ratatouille, but without the aubergine as I don't like it! Very easy to prepare, using lots of fresh veggies and it was yummy!

Day 4
Breakfast: Yoghurt with plum puree.
[See Day 2]
Lunch: Savoury flapjacks.
[See Day 2]. Still very much enjoyed!
Dinner: Grilled fish with grapefruit and salad.
This was from the Abel and Cole website as I'm always at a bit of a loss what to do with grapefruit, beyond just eating it plain for breakfast. I bought two pollack fillets from Waitrose, marinated them as per the recipe (with oil, juice from the grapefruit, pepper and ground coriander) and then grilled them - it was one of the most disappointing meals I've ever had. This is my second 'fail' with pollack and given the price of this fish, I don't think I'll be bothering again.

Day 5
Breakfast: Fruit scone with jam.
[See Day 3]
Lunch: Bean spread on oat cakes.
[See Day 3]
Dinner: Spinach bake with bread and butter.
This is one of my own recipes that I've developed over the years, which is made up of layers of spinach and cottage cheese, held together with an egg mix, into which I throw whatever takes my fancy at the time (tonight it was tomato puree and fresh basil). I do them in individual dishes (2 medium and 1 in a ramekin for the baby). They're delicious, easy to prepare and take about 25 mins to cook at 200 C. Also very nice as an accompaniment to sausages.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

BLW September: Days 1 and 2

So here is the first installment in a month of posts detailing our baby-led weaning menus.

Day 1
Breakfast: Fruit scones, with unsalted spreadable butter (Lurpak). 
The fruit scones were made on Friday evening to a basic recipe from the BLW cookbook which doesn't use eggs or sugar (just flour, butter, milk and baking powder). I added some of the blueberries we'd had in this week's organic box to make a sweet, breakfast scone. It made enough for 1 adult and 1 baby for 3 breakfasts (plus a couple of sample ones for Daddy!) They were scoffed!

Lunch: Houmous on pitta bread. 
The houmous was made for last week's lunches, but the recipe in the BLW cookbook makes a fair amount so there was some left over for Saturday. However, the baby wasn't remotely interested, so after about 10 minutes and most of the pitta on the floor we gave up and just had some apple from Daddy's sandwich instead.

Dinner: Pancakes.
Made to a standard recipe, with some more apple slices rolled inside.

Day 2
Breakfast: Yoghurt with pureed plum.
The yoghurt was Yeo Valley organic natural yoghurt and the plum puree was left over from the mincemeat I was making last night (plums with a little bit of orange juice). The puree was warmed slightly with some caster sugar added (our garden plums are quite tart). This provided great spoon practice and at least some of it went in her mouth and was swallowed, although an awful lot went down her chin too!

Lunch: Savoury flapjack. 
Made the day before, based on a BLW cookbook recipe, there are enough for 1 baby and 1 adult for 3 generous lunches. I did tinker with the recipe quantities and the cooking time and if making again, I'd make an effort to remove some of the excess water from the grated courgette by squeezing it in a tea towel before adding it to the mixture. The flapjacks were particularly yummy, so here's the recipe:

Cheese, carrot and courgette flapjack
300g porridge oats (not instant or jumbo oats)
100g carrot, grated
100g courgette, grated
250g mature cheddar
100g butter
2 eggs, beaten

Melt the butter in a large pan over a low heat. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix thoroughly. Spread out in a baking tin - a Swiss roll tin would be ideal, but I just used a standard baking tray - so that the mixture is about 1 or 2cm thick. Press down with the back of a spoon. Put in an oven, preheated to 180 C. The recipe said to allow 20 minutes for the flapjack to become golden brown, but because of the excess water from my vegetables, mine took more like 40 minutes to be cooked.

Dinner: Toad-in-the-hole, braised cabbage and runner beans. 
The cabbage is from the organic box and the runner beans are from the garden. The sausages for the Toad-in-the-hole come from our village butcher and are a Cumberland variety. We had our adult portions with some Bisto gravy. All of it was sampled, but the sausage and batter went down particularly well. Baby also had fun trying to pick up the tiny beans from inside the runner bean pod - she finally got one to her mouth, but then it stuck to her finger and she couldn't get it in, so she went back to the sausages!

Friday, 2 September 2011

Food for thought

home-grown beetroot, carrots, tomatoes and rosemary
I don't know when I first became aware of food as something more than fuel. My mother has always been relatively uninterested in food, and despite some pretty impressive culinary talents (like the ability to make absolutely fantastic shortcrust pastry) most of the food I remember growing up came from a tin or from the depths of the freezer (apologies, Mum, if this is mainly apocryphal). It wasn't until my second year of University, living out in a scummy student house with a basement kitchen that smelled of damp, that I actually had to cook for myself and began to discover a world without tins. However, I think the cooking bug really took hold when I left home (for an equally scummy rented house in Oxford, but with a kitchen that actually had natural light) and started to really 'cook', by which I mean using fresh ingredients to create meals from scratch, rather than resorting to those slightly spurious 'cook' ranges offered by the high-end supermarkets where they prepare all the elements of a meal for you and then you simply assemble them on a tray to put in the oven and pat yourself on the back for 'cooking from scratch'.

I quickly discovered the Oxford Covered Market and over weeks and months gradually began to buy more and more of my fresh produce there, starting with fruit and veg but gradually moving up to meat and fish. For someone who had never set foot in a butcher's shop until they were in their twenties, and didn't know their shin from their topside, it was a daunting self-education. But with advice from the various experts on the stalls, and a couple of good books, I gradually came to acquire a basic understanding of fresh produce. Then, when we started our grow-your-own adventure, I became even more aware of seasonality along with the related excitement of eating meals with practically zero food miles, getting to stretch my creativity in the kitchen (hmm, another courgette) and being introduced to the joys of preserving.

Although this blog is mainly about how we try to live in a greener, more environmentally-aware fashion, food is one area where I didn't really need any encouragement to be more sustainable - food does just taste better if you cook it yourself. And once you get used to cooking from scratch, you find that food that is fresh (i.e. has been produced locally) tastes much, much, better than food that has been harvested unripe, packed, frozen, defrosted, sprayed, manipulated, refridgerated and shipped up and down the country at the mercy of the supermarket supply chains. Now, if I can't get it from my own garden, I get it from an organic box scheme (most of whom make every effort to give you local, seasonal produce wherever possible - we use Abel and Cole). If I can't get it from them, I go to the supermarket, where I try to buy locally-produced first, followed by British, followed by organic, wherever possible.

Of course, the downside to all this new-found culinary expertise is that I also came to acquire a bit of extra padding, which came as a shock to someone who'd always considered themselves 'thin' (I'm not talking 'thin' by the current standards of the emaciated size zero, just what we used to call 'slim', in that there weren't really any wobbly bits where there shouldn't be or extra rolls when I sat down, ahem).

This, of course, led to a bit of a quandary. My new-found love of cooking and food, and a concern for living sustainably, versus my vanity. I went on my very first 'diet' (nothing fancy, just basic calorie-counting) in order to lose weight for my wedding, and now, post-baby, I'm trying to shift the pounds again (although at least I've got a slightly better excuse this time!) In some ways I feel incredibly lucky that I was able to get all the way to my twenties without ever really having to think about what or how much I was eating, but as my daughter begins her food journey, I realise how important it is to make sure that she grows up with a balanced approach to food and to eating.

I think this is why I was drawn to the idea of baby-led weaning, as it introduces babies to 'real' food much earlier on and does away with the usual conventions about having to give young children bland tastes and textures. I've never felt more proud than those times when I get to sit and eat with my baby, particularly when the food we're enjoying has been grown, harvested and cooked by me. Yes, it requires more effort, yes it requires planning (all 21 meals for the week are planned in advance) and yes, my goodness, it means I think about food ALL THE TIME (what are we eating next, what do I need to prepare now, argh, there's food all over the floor!!) but the fun of family mealtimes, of watching her skills grow every day (look, she can pick up that half a cherry tomato!) and of being totally confident that what we're all eating as a family is nutritious as well as delicious, far outweighs any negatives for me.

And plus, when every meal you eat has some removed for the baby, you get free portion control too!

Of course, every month is a baby-led weaning month in our house, but this month I'll be relating our daily menus on this very blog. I'll probably post every couple of days rather than daily, with a basic menu plan for each day, along with some of the recipes I'm following. At the end of the month, I'll also post the full 4-week menu planner.

I know September officially started on Thursday, but our shopping week from Saturday to Saturday, so I'm starting tomorrow.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

New-look blog and a give-away!

My Green Wellies has been under development for a few weeks and here it is with a brand new look, some new features and some reorganisation! Do you like it? Many thanks to A Thrifty Mrs and her very useful how-to on doing blog headers using picnik.

To celebrate this, and because I've got too many jars in the cupboard, I'm giving away a fantastic hedgerow prize of a jar of my bramble jelly and a bottle of elderberry liqueur - oo er! To win, just leave a comment below and if there's more than one I'll pick someone at random.

This month it is also the Soil Association's Organic September (Twitter users see #organicseptember). I have always tried to garden organically, I prefer to buy organic food wherever possible and I'm increasingly only buying organic cotton clothing. Much as I'd love to go to the Organic Food Festival in Bristol this weekend (3rd and 4th September), our current baby-related circumstances make this a little difficult. Instead I'll have to settle for cooking up some lovely food at home - made from organic produce, of course!

If you don't already garden/eat/shop organically, why not think about trying it this month?

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Plum and raspberry jelly: quick tutorial

Well, a little off timetable, but I finally finished my Bank Holiday mini preserving marathon - what do you think?

Plum and raspberry jelly, bramble jelly, plum chutney and elderberry liqueur

I promised to post a tutorial for my plum and raspberry jelly, so please find this below. I find jellies much easier to make than jams, in terms of set, although of course there is the additional stage required initially for making your juice.

You will need:
1kg plums
1kg raspberries
900g golden caster sugar
1 large cinnamon stick

1 preserving pan or very large, heavy-bottomed pan and a long-handled spoon
A jelly bag stand and bag, or, as I do, a stool, muslin square and string
Large bowl
Clean, sterilised jam jars and lids - probably three or four large jars or an assortment of smaller ones. You can sterilise jars by putting them through a hot dishwasher cycle and using them whilst still hot, or wash in warm soapy water and then put in a warm oven to dry completely, and again use whilst still hot.
  1. Harvest your fruit and discard any that is over ripe, or bad. Halve and de-stone your plums. Put all of your fruit in your pan and add 1 litre of water.

  2. Bring very slowly to the boil, then simmer for about forty-five minutes. Don't let the mixture simmer too quickly or you'll lose to much liquid.

  3. Either get out your jelly bag stand, or prepare your homemade version. Tip the hot fruit and liquid into the muslin/jelly bag and allow to stand over night. Don't forget to put your bowl underneath to catch the juice!

  4. Put a clean plate in the fridge - you're going to need this to test for setting point.

  5. Discard your fruit mush and measure the resulting liquid. When I made it I ended up with 1200ml. Put your juice back in the clean pan and slowly bring to the boil. For every 600ml of juice, add 450g sugar (so I added 900g). Stir until dissolved.

  6. Bring back to the boil and wait for setting point. You can do this the scientific way with a jam thermometer (you need to get to 104.5 C), or the arty way and look at the colour/consistency and test on a cold plate. Although I used to use a thermometer, I actually find I get more reliable results from the latter approach! As the mixture boils you will notice that the bubbles will gradually change and become more glossy in appearance - this can take as little as five minutes, or as much as fifteen. From about five minutes onwards, I start taking out a teaspoon and putting it on the cold plate. Allow to cool for a few seconds, then push with the tip of your finger. If the mixture appears to ripple slightly, you've reached setting point and need to take the pan off the heat straight away. Keep testing for fifteen minutes - if you still don't think you've reached setting point at this stage, take your pan off the heat anyway and allow the mixture to cool slightly. If it really isn't setting, add a little more sugar, bring back to the boil and keep checking. Repeat until set.

  7. Skim off the frothy scum and pour into your jars (which ideally should still be warm).

  8. Label and store in a cool, dark place. Or get out some bread and butter for a quick quality control check!

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Foraging tip #2

If you see it, pick it - it might not be there tomorrow!

I've been admiring the heavily-laden blackberry bushes in our area for a few weeks now, but what with the weather and looking after the baby, have only managed two forages this month: last week for elderberries and this week, for blackberries. I had this idea of making a Bank Holiday Bramble jelly, using blackberries and our windfall apples, but unfortunately when I went out yesterday I found sodden bushes (we've had a lot of rain) either completely divested of fruit or with lots of rotting berries. It took me two excursions around a number of the best sites to scrape up a mere 500g.

Still combined with a kilo of apples from the garden it made one litre of juice, so it wasn't all bad news! It's going to be another preserving weekend (with an extra day to do it all in, thank goodness), as our plums are almost all ripe, the raspberries are prolific this year and we've a lot of apples too. I'm planning to make my bramble jelly, a second batch of plum and raspberry jelly (for which I'll post a quick tutorial), some plum chutney (to be squirreled away until Christmas), plum and apple mincemeat (ditto), and the elderberry liqueur I mentioned last week. Phew! Better get started! 

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Baby-led weaning: a day

Crumpets for breakfast
I'm not sure what it's like in other areas, but the support for mothers wanting to use the baby-led weaning  (BLW) approach where I live is practically non-existent - I've twice been advised by health visitors to consider using a more 'traditional' method, despite the official 'weaning class' we were given including a video explaining the BLW precepts! Some of the forums I've found are also very full of people doing BLW whilst still breastfeeding - which the Gill Rapley book also seems to favour slightly - I stopped breastfeeding at three months for a variety of reasons, but haven't found that it's been a problem combining bottle feeding and BLW. And finally, we have the hyper-sensitive skin issue to contend with too, meaning we have to very slowly and carefully introduce acidic fruits and vegetables to allow her skin to get used to it...

I thought, therefore, it might be useful to start recording my own experiences with baby-led weaning, in case it is of interest, or of help, to other mothers. Here's a sample day to start off, and I'll try and do a whole month of entries in September so you get the full flavour!

  • 7.00am Milk feed
  • 7.30am Breakfast. Crumpet (shop-bought) (first time food) (no reactions), spread with unsalted spreadable lurpak and the merest hint of some homemade plum and raspberry jelly for baby. I had more than a hint on mine!
  • 11am Milk feed
  • 1pm Lunch. Apple slices (braeburn) and Yeo Valley natural yogurt for some spoon-holding practice. She's getting quite good at this, but when she starts to tire, the spoon takes a long time to get to her mouth, by which time most of the yogurt is down her front ...

  • 2pm Whilst the baby has her nap, I prepare the food for dinner. We like to eat at 6pm and WH  doesn't get home until 5.45pm, so I need to have all the fiddly stuff out of the way whilst the baby is asleep. We're having the salmon pesto parcels recipe from the Baby-led Weaning Cookbook tonight, which will cook in 20 minutes once prepared and just needs to go into the oven so is nice and simple, and will be accompanied by some veg. Prep today involves digging up some carrots, harvesting the last of our broad beans and also cutting the first of our kale. First I make the pesto, which shouldn't be store-bought for babies as ready-made brands contain too much salt - I don't follow a recipe particularly, just chuck in a heap of basil, a small heap of Parmesan, a handful of toasted pinenuts, a crushed garlic clove and a few glugs of oil. I find that adding broad beans gives it some additional depth and in the winter you can substitute the basil for kale, which makes a surprisingly tasty pesto for pasta. Because I'm using the pesto as a coating for the salmon, I don't add as much oil as I usually would, to stop it being too runny. Then the rest of the veg needs washing and chopping, remembering to cut some veg to baby-friendly shapes.

  • 4.30pm Milk feed

  • 6pm Dinner. We started sitting down to family 'dinner' when the baby was just over five months old, to get her used to the highchair and the food 'game'. Now it's a really enjoyable part of our day - it's amazing to watch her discover new foods, and how to pick things up that are different textures. She can be really very dexterous when it's a food she's particularly enjoying. Dinner is finished off half an hour sitting listening to some of her music (we do a Kindermusik class which has an 'At Home' CD), before getting ready for bed.

  • 7.30pm Milk feed

  • NB. We give her water at the end of every 'meal' in a sippy cup, which she didn't like initially but now seems to enjoy. 

    And that's a day in relation to food, at the moment - phew!

    Monday, 22 August 2011

    Late summer herb garden

    Calendula (pot marigold) flower-heads ready for drying
    I last wrote about my new herb garden in June, when the bed was just newly finished and most of the plants didn't have a lot of growth. Here are some pics of the garden as it looks now in late August. I managed to miss harvesting the chamomile, but I've already picked a lot of the calendula for drying and I'll be harvesting the seeds on the dill and the coriander shortly too, once they've dried on the plant a little more. As you can see from the pictures, the plants really took off and I'm planning to add a lot more supports next year to keep things in check. I may also rethink some of the annual herbs I plant - as the medicinal/household/craft herb wheel in particular has become very overgrown and I haven't used some of these herbs at all this year.

    The herb garden in late summer

    The culinary wheel - the mint and tarragon have both had to be cut back at times to stop them taking over.

    The medicinal/household/craft wheel - the borage has pretty much fallen over and I don't think I'll bother with it next year.

    Here's the corner with the dill, sage, parsley and rosemary - the sage plants were so small when I put them in!

    Sunday, 21 August 2011

    My first elderberry cordial

    Well, the preserving season is upon us once again, and to keep things exciting I like to add a few new preserves to my repertoire every year. I went on my first forage as an adult yesterday and returned with a bag, full of elderberries. (I was also taken for some sort of foraging 'expert' by a family picking blackberries - must have been my air of confidence and the fact that I'd thought to wear wellies and bring scissors!)

    I used the elderberries in another first - a recipe from the A year with James Wong (of Grow your own drugs fame) that I bought ages ago but haven't made anything from as, when you look at the recipes in detail, they almost always include something random I don't have to hand, like eucalyptus or herb robert (although that one's sorted now as I'm growing it in the herb garden!). It's a very simple elderberry cordial recipe, using 1kg of fruit to make about 600ml of juice to turn into the cordial. My berries made quite a lot more juice, so if I hadn't been a muppet and spilt lots of it on the floor when trying to remove my jelly bag, I could have had some juice to make an interesting 'hedgerow-style' jelly next weekend with some of our windfall apples and some foraged blackberries. Still, my cordial looks great and a small taste from the bottom of the pan promises good things; it should last up to 6 months kept in cool, dry conditions.

    Elderberry cordial has traditionally been used to alleviate the symptoms of colds and flu and there seems to be some recent studies which show it can assist patients to recover faster, particularly from Type A influenza. I'm a bit partial to a hot toddy when I've got a cold, so I'll be replacing my lemon juice with 1 tbsp of my elderberry cordial this autumn/winter.

    If you watched any of James' TV programme, you'll know he's a man who likes the booze, and only after I'd started my cordial did I discover his recipe for elderberry liqueur, which again can be used as a medicinal hot toddy when you're feeling under the weather - looks like I'll be out foraging again next weekend!

    Saturday, 20 August 2011

    Foraging tip #1

    Don't wait until the clouds are at their most threatening to go foraging - odds are you'll get a bit wet! Not a bad haul, nevertheless.

    Tuesday, 9 August 2011

    Kitchen garden days

    Today has been a kitchen garden day - in that I have been mostly working on garden tasks and on cooking/preparing food.

    The garlic I harvested last month has been drying nicely in the mini greenhouse and needed prepping for winter storage - well I say 'winter storage' but we use so much garlic in our cooking that even with this year's improved haul we'll be lucky if it lasts far into the autumn. We've 1.243kg of garlic or 19 bulbs - pretty good as this would cost about £6 from the supermarket!

    Every time I turn around at the moment there seems to be something new ripening in the garden. We finished the last of the broadbeans at the weekend in a very nice pesto (spread on chicken breasts and baked in the oven). This afternoon I collected a bowl of raspberries and a handful of tomatoes, as well as digging up some of our beetroot for this evening's meal: chickpea patties with beetroot tzatziki (courtesy of Nigel Slater's Tender).

    Served with cherry tomatoes from the greenhouse and some cucumber

    I also spent some time preparing the main dish for tomorrow's dinner. I'm so pleased that I bought the Baby-led Weaning Cookbook, as it really is chock-full of useful ideas for catering to and for baby for three meals a day. However, we have found some of the recipes are a little bland for us, particularly at the moment when she isn't really eating a huge amount, so I've already started tinkering (as my lovely husband knows, I'm almost completely incapable of following a recipe all the way through anyway!) In case you're interested, here's my take on the Tuna Croquettes.

    You will need:
    1 large potato, peeled and chopped
    1 tin of tuna in spring water, drained
    1 large spring onion, finely chopped
    1 tbsp lime juice
    50g plain flour
    50g polenta flour
    1 egg, beaten
    25g butter
    1 tsp paprika
    olive oil

    1. Boil the potato for about 15 minutes, drain and then add the butter. Mash. Stir in the flaked tuna fish, spring onion and lime juice.

    2. Mix the flours with the paprika in a shallow dish.
    3. Shape handfuls of the potato mixture into croquettes. Dip them into the beaten egg, then coat with the flour mixture. I find it helpful to have a bowl of water on hand to wash my fingers between coating each croquette to stop the mixture sticking to me instead of the croquettes.

    4. Leave to rest for five minutes, then dip and coat once more.
    5. Fry the croquettes in some olive oil until golden brown on each side.

    Either eat straight away or refridgerate for later and warm in the oven (c.15 minutes at 160 Fan).

    Sunday, 24 July 2011

    Spuds I like

    2.5kg of Rooster potatoes, harvested yesterday
    Well, we've harvested four out of our six potato varieties now: Charlotte, Rocket, Kestrel and Rooster. The Arran Pilot and Pink Fir Apple will be coming up fairly soon, but there is still some life in the foliage, particularly for the PFA.

    In all we've had just over eight kilos of potatoes so far - which feels like a pretty good haul and is certainly up on last year. This is mainly down to using both the potato bags and one of the beds to grow all of the varieties, so that we could compare quality and quantity of crop.

    Although the yields were fairly similar, Charlotte did better in the bags, where they produced a more uniform-sized crop. Rocket, Kestrel and Rooster all did better in the bed - but then they were all more new potatoes rather than salad potatoes like the Charlotte.

    Once again we've um-ed and ah-ed about whether to bother with potatoes again next year, particularly in the sacks as they use such a lot of compost and our returns haven't been too good. I do like Charlotte potatoes though, so the answer might be to do a couple of sacks of these and maybe a first early and a maincrop in the beds. By far the best potato so far, in terms of quality and yield has been the Rooster so we'll probably go with these again next year, not least because we've found that red-skinned varieties roast and chip the best and we don't often get them in our organic box (whereas we get week after week of white new potatoes and salad potatoes).

    We're also planning to order some second cropping varieties to have potatoes for Christmas, although we will plant these in the sacks so that they can be moved into the greenhouse if necessary.

    I wasn't very organised about continuous cropping last year, so once the potatoes came out of their bed, it lay empty for the rest of the season (apart from the weeds). This year, I've dug it over, forked in some leafmould and, once that's settled a bit, will be using it as an overspill for the brassica bed. This has been completely overrun by our cabbages this year, in spite of us already harvesting some of the outer leaves on a number of occasions. This second brassica bed will have the later crop of brussels sprouts and, a new venture for us, calabrese. I had awful trouble getting this to germinate, and then many of the seedlings died off as I potted them on in hot weather. The survivors should get a good start in this bed though, as the soil has been broken up nicely by the potatoes.

    Friday, 22 July 2011

    Green, green pesto

    We planted about four varieties of broad bean this year and today I'm using the first of the crop to make a pesto.

    All you need is one cup broad beans, blanched in boiling water for 3 mins and the bigger ones popped out of their skins; one cup chopped basil; one cup grated parmesan; one cup toasted pine nuts; the zest and juice of one lemon, a glug of oil and salt and black pepper to taste. Tip into a food processor and blitz to a paste, adding more oil if necessary.

    I've made some changes, as our baby will be trying some too - she can't have too much salt so you aren't meant to add it in cooking, but also her skin is reacting to acidic fruits at the moment. In order to get the lemon flavour without the acid I substituted 1 tbsp of lemon balm.

    We'll be enjoying this pesto spread on homemade burgers (minced beef, chopped parsley, chopped red onion, a beaten egg and 2 tsp mustard). The burgers will hopefully be consumed from a toasted English muffin, but I've never made these before and I thought I'd cheat and do the dough in the breadmaker.... will let you know how they turn out!

    Broad beans picked from the garden an hour ago - at least two varieties

    The finished pesto

    Homemade burgers ready to chill in the fridge

    Tuesday, 21 June 2011

    A host of new recipes - yum!

    Strawberry cheesecake muffins
    It's been a busy couple of weeks in the kitchen, with a number of firsts in the baking and preserving department.

    Strained juice and sugar for the jelly
    Thanks to our prolific strawberry crop, I've made my first batch of strawberry cheesecake muffins (see above) for the year as well as my first ever strawberry preserve - a strawberry and apple jelly. I made this using four granny smiths apples and 500g of our strawberries. I simmered the fruit in two different pans with the required amounts of water (just cover the apples, 150ml for the strawberries) for about an hour. This was then drained through a muslin overnight to produce 250ml of combined juice. I then boiled this up with 180g of sugar (half caster sugar and half jam sugar) to achieve my shiny, red jelly.

    Blackcurrant jam and the (already half-used) strawberry jelly
    We've had the first crop from our blackcurrant bush, planted last year. It netted us 275g of blackcurrants, which is pretty good on a two-year-old plant, so I made two jars of blackcurrant jam. Because I was making such a small quantity, the set is a bit firm, but I'll adjust this for next year. Hopefully, I'll be taking some hard cuttings from our bush in the autumn in order to propagate a couple more blackcurrants so that we can look forward to bumper crops in future years!

    Flavouring the vodka for limoncello
    I've also developed a bit of an addiction to craft and homestyle magazines at the moment. There's a host of new titles on the market this year, suggesting I'm not alone in rediscovering my love of making things - from cookery to craft. My current favourites are Making, Mollie Makes and Simply Homemade (although I gave Handmade Living a try too!). A recent issue of Simply Homemade had some great recipes using lemons which caught my eye. The first was for homemade limoncello, the well-known Italian liqueur which is a fantastic digestif served ice-cold and is my secret added ingredient when making Nigel Slater's lemon icecream tart with gingernut crust from the Kitchen Diaries. You can see the recipe at the jamjar shop website but it's a very similar process to making flavoured gins, like the raspberry gin we make in the autumn.

    The second recipe attracted me because it made use of dill. Having decided to include dill in my herb garden, I confess to being a little at sea for exactly what to do with it, and so have been looking out for some interesting recipes. This one is for a  summery lemon and dill mustard; it was fantastically easy to make and would go well with fish dishes, as an alternative to mint in potato salad, or to english mustard in a ploughmans.

    Half were drizzled with lemon icing and half with mint icing.
    Finally, I've been planning to make some lemon and mint biscuits for ages, to take advantage of the applemint growing in the herb garden. It basically adapts a simple lemon biscuit recipe to include chopped mint and I used the lemon juice leftover from stage one of the limoncello to make some homemade lemon curd (thanks, Delia) which I then used as the lemon base. They've actually turned out surprisingly minty, so I think next time I'll add some lemon zest as well just to sharpen them up.

    Lemon and mint biscuits
    350g plain flour
    1/2 tsp baking powder
    1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
    140g butter, cut into small cubes
    175g caster sugar
    125g lemon curd
    2 eggs, beaten
    x2 large sprigs of mint, chopped into small pieces
    *the zest of 1 lemon

    1. Preheat the oven to 180 fan/200 C. Sift the flour, baking powder and bicarb into a large bowl.
    2. Add the butter and rub to fine breadcrumbs.
    3. Stir in the sugar, mint, lemoncurd and eggs (*and lemon zest). Shape the resulting dough into small balls and press them gently onto a greased baking sheet.
    4. Bake for 12-15 minutes until light golden in colour.

    You can then choose to ice your biscuits. I made up some mint-flavoured icing and some lemon-flavoured icing and did half-and-half.

    Wednesday, 15 June 2011

    I love herbs!

    The completed garden
    I love herbs! I've always had a yen to try out my own herbal tonics and creams, etc and, of course, I love using them in cooking - both fresh and dry - and for years have had a pot of two on the windowsill. Unfortunately, these never seem to last too long (I'm not very good with indoor plants!) and so ever since we moved here I've been itching to develop my very own herb garden.

    Well, having finally cleared the large brick-built raised beds near the house, I decided that the largest area would make a fantastic space for a herb garden. We already have an enormous lavender bush which we inherited with the house and the pergola area has been underplanted with some herbs in pots for a year now, but I wanted an area dedicated completely to herbs too. I did quite a lot of research into what herbs to grow - I wanted to have a good range of those I use regularly in cooking (basil, mint, rosemary, oregano), along with those that I tend to leave out because we don't need them very often and therefore never get round to buying (parsley, coriander and dill), some I don't use enough (chives, thyme and sage) and some new ones just to experiment with (summer savoury and tarragon). I also looked at various layouts for traditional gardens, but due to the nature of the space, have ended up with a version all my own.

    preparing the space
    1. Planning the space and preparing the ground. I'm not much of a one for detailed, to-scale plans (even though I have the graph paper, I just get too excited and impatient!) so I sketched out my idea in a notebook. I wanted to take the idea of a herb wheel and apply it to the rectangular space, with the main planting in the wheel bordered by some of the bushier herb varieties. I wanted an actual cartwheel to plant into (it's amazing what you can find on ebay), but when it came to it, couldn't find any big enough for the space, so had to adapt my design based on using two smaller wheels instead - one for herbs with a mainly culinary use and the other for medicinal/home/craft use. The main preparation once the bed was cleared of the old shrubs, involved digging it over, covering it with weed-proof membrane and then placing the wheels.

    2. The new layout has three planting areas: the wheels, the curved corner areas and some terracotta pots. Once I'd worked out what herbs I wanted, I ordered some as plants and some as seeds (to keep costs down). We bought two terracotta pots from the garden centre and we inherited a third which came with the garden.

    3. Planting up the wheels. Each wheel has twelve spaces between the spokes, so I decided to plant six herbs per wheel, with each herb allotted two spaces. The only exception to this are my chives, where I have one space for common chives and one space for garlic chives. The wheels are planted up as:

    Wheel 1: Culinary

    • Chives (common and garlic)
    • Summer savoury
    • French tarragon
    • Coriander
    • Apple mint
    • Oregano

    Wheel 2: Medicinal/Household/Craft
    • Chamomile
    • Borage
    • Calendula
    • Feverfew
    • Hyssop
    • Herb robert

    One of my corner borders is a selection of thymes (common, lemon and creeping) and the other is made up from taller herbs (dill, rosemary (two varieties), sage and flat-leaved parsley). Finally, two of the three pots hold goji berry bushes and the third is a sweet bay. Elsewhere in the garden we've lemon balm, lavender (as mentioned), black peppermint and more rosemary, hyssop, tarragon and thyme.

    tall herbs in the left corner
    thymes in the right corner
    4. Finishing touches. The finishing touches included covering the weed-proof membrane with gravel and placing the terracotta pots.

    It's so exciting to be able to nip out and pick my own fresh herbs to add to dishes, even at this stage when some of my plants aren't quite ready. We've had mint in a potato salad and with strawberries; coriander in a number of curry dishes, tarragon in a chicken dish and rosemary. I'm in the process of developing a recipe for mint and lemon biscuits (watch this space) and I'm sure the other herbs will come into their own over the next few weeks and months too.

    Monday, 6 June 2011

    Feed me!

    I've been particularly excited recently as our high chair and feeding set have arrived for Izzy. She's four-and-a-half months old already and we'll soon be using them - doesn't time fly?!

    Last week we attended a weaning class, run by our area Health Visitors in a local surgery. Babies at the class ranged in age from four to five-and-a-half months. The practice nurse started off the discussion by asking if anyone knew the government-recommended age for weaning babies. 'Six months' piped up someone from the other side of the room. 'Yes, it's really changed from my day, when people started weaning as young as three months. So, how many of you are weaning?' It turned out about two thirds of the people at the class have already given their baby solid foods, mostly baby rice or pureed fruit - even though they were fully aware of the government advice.

    Now, I'm not one for believing everything the government tells me and I also firmly believe that as a parent I should be able to choose what feels right for myself and my child, without being made to feel guilty by the state, the health service or friends and family. Yet, I'm afraid I've got to ask: 'What is the rush?' Although many of these babies had good head and neck control none of them could sit unsupported. None of the mothers had been advised to wean for medical reasons. They'd just felt it was 'time', either based on conversations with friends and family, or the fact that their baby had started to show an interest in what they were eating, or had started waking in the night. It can be argued that none of these are truly 'signs' that a baby is ready to eat. He may just be showing an interest in you eating, because he learns all his social and physical cues from you. He may be waking in the night because something else is bothering him, or for no real reason at all. And just because someone else's baby is eating solids, or 'you were eating two meals a day when you were his age' doesn't mean that you should rush to catch up! Apparently the best sign that your baby is ready for solids is if his weight gain tails off for at least a couple of weeks (just one week could be the result of a cold, a growth spurt or some other factor).

    After this somewhat leading opening, the class was then shown a DVD of the baby-led weaning method popularised by former midwife and health visitor, Gill Rapley. I'd already heard of this approach and as a result have actually read her book, but the DVD was a good summary of what I'd consider to be the main points:
    • don't offer any food until at least six months, when a baby's gross motor skills and digestion are better developed;
    • to start, offer baby food cut into easy-to-hold shapes;
    • initially they won't eat it at all - it's just a new game to them - but one that is developing their sense of taste, their chewing action and their ability to move food around their mouths;
    • be prepared for a mess and you won't be taken by surprise;
    • always eat with your baby, let them eat the 'meal' at their own pace and avoid trying to help them by picking food up and giving it to them or putting it in their mouths;
    • when they're starting to 'eat' more purposefully, give them a baby-sized portion of your meals (assuming you eat a healthy, balanced diet, the only thing you might need to change is the amount of salt you use in cooking).
    Admittedly, both the DVD and the book I've read aim to 'sell' you the concept of baby-led weaning, and perhaps overstate the negatives of other weaning methods. (I'm sure most parents don't really shovel the pureed food into their babies' mouths but let them eat at their own pace). However, the principles seem to be fairly sensible, and the advice about starting out is definitely something we're planning to follow. Again, in brief:
    • once your baby is able to sit in his highchair, allow him to sit with you for family meals (or alternatively, sit him on your knee). At this stage, you might want to give him a spoon or plate to play with too;
    • if he seems interested, start offering him food from your plate;
    • when this interest becomes regular, give him his own food, cut into appropriate shapes with a 'handle' for him to grasp.
    You can find out more about the full process via Gill Rapley's website.

    The class were then given some information relating to more 'traditional' methods as well as a brief discussion of the DVD we'd just watched. It was really quite surprising to hear people ask questions about 'how long' babies should feed for when weaning, 'how many' meals to give them and 'how much' should they eat. The vast majority of these mothers have breastfed and are still breastfeeding, so surely they should be used to the idea that their baby will eat when and if he is hungry, and will take as much as he needs to satisfy himself? Trying to control how much your baby/toddler eats is surely a straight road to eating problems later on?

    Personally, although I'm excited about her reaching this next stage, I'm prepared to wait until Izzy's ready. This is helped, somewhat, by the fact that I'd love her to mainly eat things that we've grown ourselves, and for that we need to wait until August/September for the bulk of our crops anyway. With little hands, mouths and stomachs in mind I'm hoping to get good crops from our runner beans, baby carrots, apples, raspberries, plums, brocolli, sweetcorn and globe courgettes in particular, for the finger food phase, before she moves on to joining in fully with our meals.