Wednesday, 3 April 2013

April in the garden - is spring finally here?

My first 'real' day in the garden of the year, yesterday. I love spring gardening, the greenhouse is a cosy place to work, rather than being roasting hot. Working on the beds is relatively straightforward as there isn't too much growing. And there aren't many weeds yet - a sure sign that Spring is only just beginning to take hold!

Still, as long as they've survived the shock of being moved to the cold frame last night (we've a light frost this morning), we should get a nice crop of early broad beans this year.

There's plenty of seeds and seedlings on their way inside the greenhouse. I also got around to fitting the capillary matting I bought about 6 weeks ago, to see if this helps with the endless watering required at this time of year - I'll keep you posted!

And I took advantage of the sunshine to prepare all the growing beds for the season ahead, and to finally plant the potatoes which have been chitting in the kitchen since late February.

Fingers crossed for a better growing season in 2013 than we had last year!

Monday, 25 March 2013

More things I've made and some toddler-sized sewing first steps

The month of March has mainly been about making. Specifically, I've been sticking to my 2013 goal for generally improving and expanding my needlecrafts and have completed three satisfying projects.

I finished my train project hat just at the point when I thought, 'rats, I won't get much wear out of this at this time of year'. I've since worn it every day to ward off the bitter chill of an English springtime!

Sis-in-law's third baby finally arrived so I got to improve my crochet skills with a pair of bootees, courtesy of a pattern in Simply Crochet mag. They weren't perfect, but hey, the baby won't notice and they should help keep his feet warm at least!

And finally, I completed my first real project using my new sewing machine (I say 'new' - I've had it since November...) I'm not sure why, but I was completely daunted about getting to grips with my sewing machine. I don't remember much about using one from school, other than it seemed to take most of the lesson to get the things threaded, and the only project I really remember completing was to design and create embellishments for a hat - not terribly useful!

So I decided for my first real sewing project in years that, rather than starting with something simple and gradually building up my skills, I'd dive right in and make a dress. At least it was for my toddler, so the cutting out and actual sewing was on a fairly small scale, but I did still need to learn how to:

- cut out from a pattern
- hem
- topstitch
- sew on a curve
- and create buttonholes (really incredibly simple with the buttonhole foot, which is much easier to use than it looks)

The fabrics are an organic needlecord in yellow, and an organic cotton by Cloud9 (Algeria Hearts in Pink), both from Ray Stitch.

And because I never have been able to follow a set of instructions all the way through without adding a couple of extra bits, or tweaks, I decided that instead of the applique design for the skirt I'd add a couple of pockets, which I then designed and made up from scratch.

Here is the finished article:

And here it is being modelled by Isobel!

Lessons learnt?
  1. It always pays to 'seal' the raw edges of fabric - the needlecord I used for the dress constantly frays along the raw edge (inside the hem) - it would have been a good move to run a zigzag stitch along these edges before hemming/joining (but this wasn't included in the pattern instructions and I didn't think of it until I was already finished!)
  2. Keep the big picture in mind - I was so busy trying to make sure that the belt loops were straight and level that I almost made them too tight to get the ribbons through.
  3. I rather wished I'd made the pockets just from the lining fabric, rather than adding the needlecord 'binding' to the top.
I've been rather bitten by the sewing bug now and have a long list of 'next' projects in mind - oh dear, I'm not sure that I'll manage to get out into the garden at all this year!

Monday, 28 January 2013

January in the kitchen (part two): chocolate or coffee marmalade?

No January in the kitchen would be complete without some marmalade. I've made the orange-stuff enough times now that I'm becoming an old hand - dispensing with the cooking thermometers and the recipe book time guides in favour of a certain 'sense' that setting point is upon us.

To keep the thrill alive, I decided to kick off my 2013 marmalade journey with some innovation. Leafing through my copy of The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit, I came upon two obvious flavour combinations for oranges: chocolate and coffee. Perhaps less obvious in the context of marmalade, but with a glut of sweet oranges building up in the fridge, I thought I'd give it a whirl. I couldn't find any recipes online, although there was a bit of chatter about a Sicilian-made coffee and orange marmalade, which you only seem to be able to get in the US. I therefore had to make up my own versions, using a basic marmalade recipe (from my trusty Pam Corbin's River Cottage Preserves) and adding cocoa/coffee at the relevant stage - both recipes make a lovely dark, rich-looking marmalade, with the chocolate one looking particularly decadent! For anyone who wants to give them a go here's what I did:

Orange and coffee marmalade

500g sweet oranges
3 heaped tbsp strong cafetiere coffee
1kg demerara sugar
40ml lemon juice

1. Scrub the oranges, remove the buttons, then cut in half. Squeeze out the juice and reserve, then slice the peel into thin/chunky strips (according to how you like your marmalade).Put the sliced peel into a bowl with the orange juice. Add your 3 heaped tbsp of coffee to your cafetiere and fill with c250ml boiling water. Leave to steep and then pour into your bowl with the peel and orange juice. Add a further 1 litre of cold water and leave overnight/for 24 hours.
2. Transfer everything to a large pan, cover and bring to the boil. Turn down the heat to a low simmer and leave for up to 2 hours until the liquid has reduced by one-third.
3. (If you have one, you may want to transfer everything to a preserving pan at this stage). Stir in the lemon juice and sugar and bring back to the boil, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Boil rapidly until setting point is reached (do the plate test!) - this should take about 20-25 minutes.
4. Stir gently to dispel any scum and pour into warm, sterilised jars and seal immediately. Keeps for 2 years.

Chocolate orange marmalade

500g sweet oranges
4 heaped tbsp of cocoa powder
1kg demerara sugar
40ml lemon juice

1. Scrub the oranges, remove the buttons, then cut in half. Squeeze out the juice and reserve, then slice the peel into thin/chunky strips (according to how you like your marmalade).Put the sliced peel into a bowl with the orange juice. Make up your cocoa in 500ml hot water (my jar instructed me to first make a paste before adding additional water) and then pour into your bowl with the peel and orange juice. Add a further 750ml of cold water and leave overnight/for 24 hours.
2. Transfer everything to a large pan, cover and bring to the boil. Turn down the heat to a low simmer and leave for up to 2 hours until the liquid has reduced by one-third.
3. (If you have one, you may want to transfer everything to a preserving pan at this stage). Stir in the lemon juice and sugar and bring back to the boil, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Boil rapidly until setting point is reached (do the plate test!) - this should take about 20-25 minutes.
4. Stir gently to dispel any scum and pour into warm, sterilised jars and seal immediately. Keeps for 2 years.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

A hat, a cowl and some owl wrist warmers - January's been busy!

Here's my latest train knitting project:

This is the project at week one of being knitted up on the train - I've just finished the hat 'cuff' and will be starting the lace pattern for the crown next week.

It is from Wendy Knits Lace and will be my first ever hat; the only problem with this book is that it is American so a lot of the yarns aren't available over here - I'm using Rowan Lima Alpaca Mix Yarn in Andes. Most excitingly, it is destined for..... me! Counting up for the purposes of this blog post, I've discovered that it has been more than two years since I made something just for me. This is in part due to the fact that I got very excited knitting things for Izzy, even before she arrived (baby knits are just soooooo quick!) but also because for the last two years I've been trying to reduce the number of presents I buy, in favour of something handmade.

Take January as an example - both my mother and my daughter have birthdays two days apart. This meant that I got to create this:

'Elizabeth's Cowl', also from Wendy Knits Lace in the same yarn as my hat. I even did the whole 'blocking' thing to bring out the lace pattern - this year has been chock-a-block full of new skills!
and these:
I adapted these cute owl wrist warmers from a pattern in Mollie Makes magazine. Intended for an adult, I swapped out the chunky yarn for a dk merino one and Voila! a pair of toddler wrist warmers - more practical than traditional mittens (which she won't wear) and so far, she loves them!
both of which have stretched my knitting skills and kept me occupied on my commute to and from work. I've done my first project on double-pointed kneedles, my first and then second project knitted in the round and my first lace project all within about 3 weeks!

But this one's for me and I'm enjoying it without guilt, knowing that next month's going to be all about new-baby gifts (there's four on the way among friends and family).

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Shouldn't we get her some more?

'Essentials' from ELC
Let me begin by saying that for ten twelfths of the year I'm a paragon of ethical consumerist virtue. I think before I buy. I buy organic where I can, and if not I buy local, or British or Fair Trade accordingly. I even buy quite a bit secondhand and I like to think that I entered into parenthood with my eyes wide open to the array of nonsensical 'essentials' that companies tried to flog me from the minute I got my first 'maternity pack' of vouchers from the midwife.

But then we come to occasions. You know - the sort where you get presents. And I like presents - and the more there are the better. There's nothing quite like the pile under the tree at Christmas - I find squishing and prodding irresistible and regularly 'restack' everyones presents for 'aesthetic' and 'organisational' reasons. I also enjoy a good birthday haul - and it doesn't even have to mine. I love giving presents as much as receiving them - particularly if I've spent a lot of time planning and sourcing something, or coming up with a great, or unusual gift or 'experience', or I've made something myself. For adults, this at least translates into one or two thoughtful presents. But for some reason, when it comes to Izzy, I feel an overwhelming urge to splurge on as many things as possible and I really don't know why! I wasn't deprived of 'things' as a child - in fact with no siblings I probably had a lot more bought for me than my contemporaries in larger families. Having said that, I don't think (with two primary school teachers for parents) that I was unduly spoiled when it came to volume of gifts.

But when it comes to Izzy's second birthday next week, it's me who's having to be reined in from buying 'just one more thing'. I think this is probably why it was so funny to read the piece in The Guardian today on 'going cold turkey on kiddie consumerism', as I'm obviously not the only parent out there who, for whatever reason, can't stop buying things for their little ones. At least my mania only hits me for these two months over Christmas and her birthday in January - the rest of the year I tend to get by with 're-purposing' household objects into new toys. 

Oh well - I'm off to redirect this desire for 'one more' birthday gift into the creation of a pair of fingerless mittens, made from wool from my stash rather than anything bought new, and for the prosaic reason that my darling daughter absolutely refuses to wear her normal gloves at the moment.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

January in the garden (part 1): Tidy up time!

'Tidy up time!' - My daughter is fond of saying this once she's spread as many of her toys across the living room as is physically possible, then stands by to supervise as Mummy picks them all up and puts them away.

40 clean pots and 7 soapy propagator units
Sadly for me, there is no one to tidy up the mess I made in the garden and greenhouse last growing season (well, except WH, and he'd only put things away where I couldn't find them!), so this January is going to be all about the cleaning and the clearing, ready for the spring sowing marathon.

Hmm, now what exactly needs doing again?

  1. Wash all the plastic sowing and potting-on paraphernalia, including pots, seed trays and modules, and electric propagator units
  2. Tidy out the greenhouse, including throwing away old plant labels and bits of rubbish, and group items together (watering-related items, nuts and screws, pegs, plant food, tools, etc)
  3. Scrub down the potting table and the greenhouse staging and shelving
  4. Clean the greenhouse, inside and out
  5. Replant some of the overwintering garlic which has 'popped' out of the bed 
  6. Weed and cover last year's beans and peas bed with frame and micromesh
  7. Dig through last year's roots bed - there may well be some beetroot and parsnips to harvest
  8. Dig through the brassica bed - this has been terribly unsuccessful this year as we had a bit of an infestation of caterpillars, which didn't leave us much apart from stalks!
  9. Thin out the teeny tiny leeks (I planted them too late in the season) and hope they grow a bit for spring cooking.
  10. Various other tidying jobs, including raking up leaves, replanting bulbs, etc, and that's without going anywhere near 'the heap' between the greenhouse and the shed where we 'store' (dump) used compost, compost bags, bits of trellis, broken tools, larger containers, etc, etc..
There is really so much to do, that I've had to break it up into lots of little parcels of tasks to stand any chance of not just putting it all off (probably forever - some of these tasks I've never actually gotten around to in the 3.5 years we've lived here!) So this morning I spent a good two hours cleaning the units for the electric propagator and about 1/3rd of the plastic pots, with the rationale that these will be used first for February sowing, so even if I do prevaricate on further cleaning, I'll at least be able to start the 2013 growing season! I also achieved items 2 and 3 on the list, and washed half of the inside of the greenhouse - once I got started, I was actually very productive!

As a reward for today's hard work I'm planning to start looking through my piles of seed and plant catalogues tomorrow to prepare my order for our new season.

(to the tune of Bing Crosby's White Christmas)
I'm... dreaming of a .... full harvest,
not like the one the year before.
Where no snail trails glisten,
or garden birds listen,
for the sound of unprotected berries ripen-ing.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

January in the kitchen (part 1): sugar and spice and a butternut

For many home cooks, January represents a month of paring back after the excesses of December; of a return to comforting foods with simple flavours. The danger in this, for me at least, is that these leanings can result in a month of puddings and pies, of mountains of mash and seriously little innovation.

This year I've decided to sweep away the New Year gloom and warm up with spicy-ness in place of stodge. Lingering in the veg cupboard this week is a pre-Christmas, medium-sized butternut squash (keeping well), a small red onion, some carrots (going a bit slimy) and three or four small leeks (which have seen distinctly better days). As anyone with a veg box, an allotment, or some other means of acquiring large quantities of vegetables will know, you will always have enough of everything to make excessive quantities to eat/freeze or need to make at least two recipes simultaneously to use everything up. As the mother of an almost-two-year-old I can multitask with the best of them, so here's my butternut combo for the first week in January. (Allow me a moment to bask in the glow that comes from having created not one, but two original recipes in one afternoon!)

Butternut, thyme and goats cheese pasties/Spicy orange soup

You will need:
x1 medium butternut squash, peeled and diced
x4-6 cloves of garlic (to taste)
x1 small red onion, chopped finely
x3 small leeks, cut into £1-coin slices
x3 or 4 medium carrots, peeled and diced
x1 litre of water
x200ml veg stock
A mild goat's cheese (one of those small round ones)
puff pastry (about 450g, ready to roll is fine!)
x1 medium orange, zest and juice
x1 medium egg, beaten
chilli flakes (to taste, or real chillies)
rosemary (to taste)
thyme (to taste)
olive oil
(optional) creme fraiche, cream, Thai hot chilli sauce to serve (with soup - it would just be plain weird with a pasty)

1. Chop the onion and add it to a pan with some olive oil to sweat for 5 minutes. Whilst the onion is sweating, chop a couple of cloves of garlic (our garden bulbs were a bit on the small side this year, so I used 3 cloves), and dice half the butternut squash. Add these to the pan with the onion, plus 1 tsp (or however much you fancy) chilli flakes and 2 tsp (again, or as much as you like) of dried thyme, and cook over a medium heat for five minutes to add some colour whilst you make up your 200ml vegetable stock. Add this to the pan, cover with a lid, bring to the boil then simmer gently for 10 minutes.

2. Wash and chop your leeks and add them to a large pan to sweat for 5 minutes in some olive oil. Chop the remaining half of your butternut squash, and add it to the pan along with 1 tsp chilli flakes, 1 tsp dried rosemary and 1 tsp dried thyme (again, amend these quantities as you like). Zest and juice your orange and then add the juice to the pan and heat gently for 1 minute. Give it all a stir and then add 1 litre of boiling water, bring the pan to the boil then cover and simmer for about an hour to an hour and a half.

Butternut and carrots, diced, plus the obligatory half-mug of cold tea
3. The stock in your first pan should now have been reduced to about one third the volume and your butternut should be cooked through.Take the pan off the heat and roughly mash into a lumpy paste. Allow to cool.

4. Take your pastry out of the fridge and on a lightly floured board, chop off about an eighth of your pastry block and roll it into approx a 15cmx15cm sheet. Add a dollop of the butternut mixture to each square, crumble some goat's cheese on top, then brush around the edges of the square with your beaten egg. Fold into a triangle, crimp your pasty edges, then transfer to a greased baking sheet. Repeat until you filling is gone (mine made 6 pasties). Stick your knife in for a steam hole and brush the tops with the rest of your beaten egg, then transfer to a fan oven at 180 C (210 C) for about 25 minutes until the pastry has turned golden brown. Allow to cool slightly before eating.

5. Some time after you've finished your pasty/ies your soup will be finished. Take it off the heat and either leave to cool and then refrigerate or freeze as is, or stick half/all of it in a blender and puree to a thick soup. You can add a dollop of creme fraiche or cream before serving, and I'll be adding some Thai hot chilli sauce to mine for an extra kick (I had to make the base soup relatively mild so that Izzy would eat it too!)

If you've stuck with me thus far, the keen-eyed amongst you might have wondered about where the orange zest went. I used this to whip up a batch of Abel & Cole's Citrus and Spice Shortbread for their January baking recipe photo comp.

So nice, a bit has already disappeared...
The shortbread is better than the picture - doubt I'll be winning any prizes this month!