Monday, 31 March 2008

Growing My Own

I've been busy over the weekend, sowing seeds, and before anyone says, "but this is a food/travel blog - why are you talking about gardening?", I have decided to include one of my other passions here too. It is not entirely detached from the food aspect, as the horticulture in question is related to our kitchen garden.

This year, I intend to really throw myself in to the venture - not just the odd herb here and and there, but a wholesome and varied array of fruit and vegetables, to be used in my cooking.
There's nothing better than being able to pick stuff fresh, from just outside the kitchen door and use it straight away – you can't get tastier than that!

For starters, I've lovingly sowed some tomatoes, capsicum peppers, chillies, courgettes and pumpkins into trays and they're now sitting in their propagator boxes on the dining room windowsill. Hopefully this will give them a good start and when the plants are big enough, I'll transplant them into pots outside.
Container growing is best suited to our garden, and it also means that they can be right next to the kitchen and I don't have to trek too far to harvest the produce.

I've even planted potatoes in a large container – one of those flexible plastic trug/bucket things. Hubby punched some drainage holes in the bottom and we put in about six inches of compost and then laid the sprouted potatoes on top and covered them over with just enough compost to cover and exclude light.
This is very much an experiment, as the potatoes were some kitchen casualties that would normally be thrown away. If I can get them to grow rather than spend a lot of money on seed potatoes from the nursery, then that'll be a great bonus.
As the potatoes send up shoots, we're going to keep earthing them up (adding more compost) in stages, until the tub is full. Each leaf joint, when covered with soil, has the potential to produce tubers, so this method should ensure we get a good crop.

Hubby also planted two gooseberry bush plants to supplement the two we already have. They're still quite young and although they produced berries last year, there wasn't really enough to make a pie. They're bigger now, so who knows, along with the new ones, we should have much more fruit.

Over the coming weeks and months there's lots more seed sowing to do, so I'll be back with more posts on the kitchen garden's progress.

Photo: everystockphoto.com

Sunday, 23 March 2008

Easter Cupcakes

I usually like to make something in the form of a cake for Easter, but rather than make a big cake as usual, I opted for some pretty cupcakes instead. To celebrate the joy of Spring (although it has been snowing this weekend!) I chose to decorate them with fragrant crystallised violets.

Makes 12

125g caster sugar
125g unsalted butter, softened
125g self-raising flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 eggs
grated zest of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons milk

For the icing
250g icing sugar, sifted
1-2 tablespoons lemon juice, warmed
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
yellow and pink food colouring
crystallised violets
crystallised angelica

Preheat the oven to 180C Gas 6 and line a 12-hole deep muffin tin with cases.

Beat together all of the cake ingredients for a couple of minutes in a food processor until you have a smooth batter. Divide between the muffin cases and bake for about 15 minutes, until risen and golden brown. Remove from the oven and cool on a rack.

To make the icing, mix the icing sugar with 1-2 tablespoons of the warmed lemon juice (add 1 first and then add the other if it's needed) to make a smooth spreadable paste, mix in the vanilla extract. Put half of the mixture in another bowl. In the first bowl mix in a little of the yellow colouring. In the second bowl mix in a litle of pink colouring. You want your colors to be soft pastel spring shades, the yellow reminiscent of primroses and the pink like cherry blossom. Try to avoid lurid psychedelic colours by adding a drop at a time from a skewer dipped into the dye.

Slice off any peaks from the top of the cupcakes, to give a flattish surface, and then spoon over the icing and smooth to the edges using the back of the spoon. Leave for a couple of minutes and then put some crystallised violets and angelica in the middle of each one. Leave to set completely.

Saturday, 22 March 2008

Chocolate is Good for You!

It's that time of year again, albeit a little earlier, when everyone seems to be stuffing their faces with chocolate, but it's not good chocolate. Easter brings with it an awful influx of overly sweet easter eggs, that seem to be devoid of any real qualities of flavour. They are cloying and sickly and really do make us all very 'fed up'.

We really need some decent chocolate and it has to be unusual - something to savour and for us to enjoy it's uniqueness, and I've found them.

First is a white chocolate with black pepper and lemon, and it is truly wonderful. The chocolate is creamy, not too sweet, full of lively zesty lemon followed by the warm kick of the pepper that pleasingly tickles your throat.
Hungry Hubby and I really loved it and have already bought another bar in readiness for some future indulgence.

The second treat is a smooth rich milk chocolate infused with the heavenly scent of lavender and lime tree blossom. To some, it does sound like a weird combination, but it really works!
The makers of the chocolate bar have developed a range of different flavours using various botanicals with health giving benefits in mind, but we don't need to be told that this chocolate is good for you, to persuade us to eat it!

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Cook them long, cook them slow

I have always made the choice to buy the best eggs possible, but now I've been looking for something just a bit more special. They must be fresh, full of flavour and free range – so that's good for me and for the hens.

A recent shopping expedition introduced me to 'Old Cotswold Legbar' eggs, laid by 'old-breed' poultry. These are fantastic to look at – I was presented with a lovely collection of colours all in one box – cream, blue, green and pink with little speckles.

To enjoy their flavour I decided to serve them scrambled. After lightly beating them, I poured them into some melted butter in a saucepan over a very gentle heat. I stress that the heat must be very low, and don't stir vigorously, just fold over from the outside towards the centre, now and again.
I think we've all been guilty of murdering rather than scrambling – I certainly committed the offence in my younger days. Too hot with too much stirring will result in a horrible bobbly dry mess, with a watery fluid separating out of it. It's not nice and the pan will be so difficult to clean afterwards! Scrambled eggs should be soft and melting, even creamy.

I like to stir in a spoonful of creme fraiche and add a sprinkling of chopped fresh dill along with any seasoning, towards the end. Take the eggs off before they're done – they should be slightly runny – they continue to cook, even after they've left the pan.

You will notice from the picture that they're topped with tomatoes. For these, I sliced a generous number of largish tomatoes in half, placed them in a metal baking tray, sprinkled them with sea salt, a little sugar and a grinding of black pepper, and put them on the middle shelf in a very low oven for a very long time. The aim is to slowly dry them, not cook them – don't allow them to boil and check regularly. The tomatoes will slowly shrink, intensifying and concentrating their flavour into a wonderful super tomatoey, carameley yumminess.

If you would like to find out more about the speciality eggs visit: clarencecourt.co.uk.
Another delicious egg is the 'Burford Brown', which I've tried and can highly recommend.

Product shot and hens photos taken from Clarence Court website
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