Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Crusty Life: 30th September 2014

I enjoy writing up my gardening diary but I didn't mean for this blog to be solely about gardening so I'm going to give a go making a record of the significant jobs I do in the day. Today was a particularly productive day, and I am not at work, so I am starting on a good foot. I am sure later posts will be much sparser.

1. I baked Queen Cakes

I use a very simple recipe that results in sweet, moist cakes.

Makes 12

150g softened butter
150g caster sugar
175g self raising white flour
3 eggs (preferably at room temperature)
1 tsp vanilla flavouring (optional, for taste)


Preheat your oven to Gas 4/180C/350F

If you have a food processor/mixer, just tip all the ingredients into the bowl and wizz to combine for a minute or two. Otherwise, combine by hand until the mix is smooth.

Divide among twelve bun cases (I use silicon reusable cases)

Bake for 20 minutes - only brown very gently so the cakes stay moist.

They will keep very well in an airtight container for a few days.

2. I made Tomato and Chili Relish using the same recipe as always but with my own homegrown tomatoes for the first time. Oh my lord, what a difference. The relish reduced to a much darker, thicker sauce. The sweet was sweeter, the spice was spicier and the tomatoes were tomatoier! Next year I need a bigger and better tomato crop and resist the temptation to eat any of them fresh (would that be a shame though?)

3. I tidied a patch of the garden

I cleared a large patch of weedy ground (so many thistles) and moved the heaps of dead ivy that was torn from the house wall earlier this year. Spider city, glad I had wellies on. On this patch originally stood an overgrown, huge shrub that we cleared out (it has since regrown from a stump into a lovely little bush and I plan to keep it that way). I left the dead leaves for ground cover. Many thoughts passed through my head including planting green manure in the patch over winter, should I later plant flowers or vegetables or herbs or all three? Then I went inside and had a cup of tea.

4. I made our family favourite Pasta Salad

The name doesn't give too much away but it's a combination of pasta (normally fusilli), chopped boiled egg, sweetcorn, halved cherry tomatoes, diced spring onion, mayonnaise and a dash of french dressing. The baby eats his with natural yogurt instead of the salad dressings. It keeps for a few days in the fridge and is a life saver when time is short and hunger strikes. We all had a helping today with enough left over for all our lunches tomorrow.

5. Dinner was leftovers from yesterday

Yesterday I made a fish casserole (old photo but you get the gist):

It is very simple. 

Ingredients (serve 4)

4 large/6 small fillets of white fish (I used cod, haddock and whiting)
200g smoked fish (I used mackerel)
1 onion peeled and diced
2 carrots peeled and diced
Olive oil for frying
250ml cream (I have also used coconut milk in the past)
Handful grated cheese
Cup of frozen peas and sweetcorn
250g cherry tomatoes


Preheat the oven to Gas 4/180C/350F

Heat the olive oil in a pan and fry the onion and carrots gently until softened.

Add the cream, and when hot, stir in the grated cheese until melted.

Lay your fillets in a casserole dish and shred in the smoked fish.

Sprinkle the peas, sweetcorn and cherry tomatoes over.

Pour over the cheesy cream and veg mix and gently mix to ensure everything is coated.

Bake for 50 minutes.

I served with boiled rice.

And that was my day. I also had time for a lovely walk along the Monkstown wall. I am reading Just Vegetating by Joy Larkcom. I daydreamed about one day being able to design and grow a garden that I could open to the public. Back to work tomorrow, different story.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Three Fruit Marmalade

As a child I always thought marmalade to be the grown up version of jam, and I still feel the same way! It is only in recent years that I have begun to appreciate this preserve. Here is a beautiful recipe using three fruits - grapefruit, orange and lemon. It is slightly messy and time consuming to prepare the fruit but it is an easy recipe and a great way to pass some time should you wish to stay indoors. It is a soft set but not runny.


1 grapefruit
1 orange
2 lemons
3lbs granulated sugar
3 pints water


Place a saucer in the fridge - this will be used later to test if the marmalade has set

Half all fruits and squeeze into a large saucepan, adding some of the soft flesh.

Scoop out everything (membrane, pith and seeds) from the skins of the fruit and place in a piece of muslin and tie into a bag. I used a piece of clean net curtain in the absence of muslin and it worked perfectly. If removing the flesh is difficult, try cutting it from the skin.

Blitz the skins in a food processor (or chop finely by hand) and add to the saucepan of juice.

Place the muslin bag into the saucepan and add the three pints of water.

Bring to the boil and reduce to a simmer for 1.5 hours and until the peel is soft.

Squeeze as much juice as possible from the muslin bag.

Add the sugar gradually until dissolved and then boil rapidly for 15 minutes, stirring often to prevent sticking.

To test if the marmalade will set, put a blob of the mix on the chilled saucer and push with your finger. If the top wrinkles, the marmalade is ready to pot. If not, boil for a further five minutes and check again.

Fill your sterilised jars and seal.

The photo below is a double batch, middle jars being your standard sized jam jars:

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Beetroot Chutney

I have these to use up:

Beetroot, cooking apples and onions make up a holy trinity of ingredients that taste wonderful together. This week I've already made up a batch of soup and today I am trying out a Darin's Allen recipe for chutney.

There's a good bit of a peelin' and a choppin' to be done. I waited until my small man was napping and sat on the floor by the open back door listening to music and peacefully getting to work. It was quite therapeutic.


900g raw beetroot peeled and diced
450g cooking apples peeled and chopped
450g onions peeled and chopped
25g ginger grated
1tsp salt
600ml cider vinegar
350g granulated sugar

Sterilised jars and lids


Put all the chopped fruit and vegetables in a big pot, add the ginger and salt and pour over the vinegar.

Stir to mix, cover and bring to a simmer. Cook for 1-1.5 hours until the beetroot is soft.

Add the sugar, mix and cook for a further 15 minutes until the chutney is thick. I removed the lid, turned up the heat and gave it a good bubbling for the last 5 minutes.

Pour into sterilised jars and seal.

The mix filled these jars almost exactly (about 1200g jar space - nutmeg for scale):

It looks great and tastes gorgeous, rich and sweet but not overly:

I'll definitely make this again.

My Garden: 17th September 2014

It's only September but my mind is in Spring. Thoughts of the prime planting season reminds me of the garden jobs that cannot be left too late - digging in manures and soil improvers, planting spring bulbs, onions, garlic, broad beans... Vegetable gardening is always about looking ahead and preparing.

Next year I want to make more of an effort with decorative flowers. My front garden has always been reserved for the flowers but its northern aspect, complete lack of privacy and perfect location for the trampling feet of neighbouring children means I am rethinking it altogether. Maybe next year, I'll just plant some vegetables with attractive foliage - beetroot, carrots and some broad leafed green plants perhaps - and make a valiant attempt to bring some colour and pollen to my sun soaked back garden. Right now some deep pink sweet peas survive among the dying, drying mange tout:


I am envious and awed and the lavish flower gardens some people have. Is it money or time spent? It has to be one or the other. I don't think I'll ever have the attention to detail required. Maybe in my retirement years when neither work nor children shall command my time...hopefully!

On the subject of time, the next little crop has commanded a lot of it. I've posted photos of my jalapeno pepper plants that I have growing in pots outside next to a south facing wall. I had flower buds on all three plants and on acquiring a small plastic covered frame, I decided to transfer them inside in the hope of giving them an extra bit of heat to help the fruiting process. In the calm balmy weather, the greenhouse was simply standing by the house wall but disaster struck when a sneaky gale blew the whole thing over decapitating two of my precious plants. In a way I suppose I knew this would probably happen. I only have myself to blame. The headless plants have started to grow little buds again so if the mild weather continues they might have something to say for themselves:

Back to my third undamaged plant, say hello to my first jalapeno:

And her younger shyer sibling in the background, wearing a lovely brown skirt:

I am planning a batch of tomato and chili relish with my tomato crop:

The green stink bug I saw wandering around the plants is probably responsible for the patches of scab on this tomato:

We are eating broccoli. I was wondering why the plant wasn't producing many heads when it dawned on me that I wasn't really watering it and there has been no rain in a long time. Ah the obvious stuff that I ignore. We really need to get an outside tap so watering isn't such a pain.

I have some nice borlotti bean pods. My last batch were being attacked by slugs so I harvested them but the beans were tiny inside so this time I have carefully twisted the pods up on to the plant to keep them off the ground. The beans feel a good size but I am going to wait a little longer:

Leeks earthed up with leafmould:

And that's all I have to report!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Leafmould: Making Fallen Leaves Useful

The serene orange and yellow hues of leaves on lazy mild evenings is what earns Autumn its place as my most-loved season. The low sun searing through the curtain of illuminated foliage is blinding and beautiful. Too bad the wind usually picks up and strips the trees bare in a matter of days. And with the rain, soon what once crunched deliciously underfoot now sticks to your boot like sludge threatening to slip you up.

Instead of sweeping up the leaves and adding them to the compost heap, you can isolate them to make your own soil conditioner called leaf mould. By digging the finished product into your soil, you will improve it. For an acidic mix, use pine needles instead of leaves (they are shed all year around but particularly in the Spring). The leaf mould can also be used as a mulch or soil coverer.

The easiest process is pack the leaves into a black refuse bag. If the leaves are dry, add some water to accelerate the decomposition process and tie. Leave for at least one year, preferably two. Indeed it is not quick gratification but the effort required is minimal.

The photo below is of a bag I ripped open today, which had been sitting there for one year. The leaves have broken down into papery sheets. Some larger leaves could break down further but it is certainly useable. 

Leaf mould is not particularly nutritious but it's crumbly texture will help loosen your soil to move it closer to that illusive "friable" state. It also provides a perfect habitat for beneficial soil life like earthworms and fungi. It is extremely moisture retentive, making a great mulch. If added to the compost heap, it brings good levels of carbon helping achieve that perfect carbon:nitrogen ratio which can be difficult to perfect with the usual high levels of nitrogen in most plant life.

Make it. You've no excuse.

Friday, September 5, 2014

My Garden: 5th September 2014

Things have slowed down in the garden and progress is slow and steady. Things are happening quietly under the thick canopy of foliage. This cauliflower head is hidden away under the expansive leaves of the neighbouring broccoli, only revealed during a caterpillar hunt. I had forgotten it was planted there! For a vegetable that doesn't inspire a second glance from me in the supermarket, this small head is filling me with culinary ideas that can only be borne from your own garden:

In other dark and shady places, tiny brussel sprouts are forming like pimples on a teenager:

Out in the open we have the light and pretty flowers of the borlotti bean plant. I have only two plants, it being my first year growing them, and so far it is all style without substance. The beautiful large red pods were being devoured by slugs so I harvested them, only to realise that the pods were too big to be eaten and the beans were too small! Hopefully it's not too late for a second harvest.

One by one my tomatoes are ripening. I have masses of fruit on my plants and we are experiencing another flush of good weather which seems to be turning these green cuties into red beauties:

Red hues can be seen appearing on all five plants:

Some more leeks have been transplanted into the ground and as you can see, I have not covered them completely with soil but will do so gradually, letting the rain naturally wash earth around them thus helping them to blanche white. I have only five leeks in the ground and really wish I had more. The plant has such a long growing season that it took ages for them to transform from an grass like stalk to a possible plant. It doesn't really inspire you to plant many of them but this is my first year and I'll be more positive next year. I do love the sight of a big patch of leeks growing. They are hardy and can withstand frost so I hope to have twenty or thirty plants this time next year.

I have been fighting with slugs and caterpillars for so long that I am amazed to see that my cabbages have actually managed to develop good thick hearts. I am almost afraid to harvest them for fear of revealing an army of grubs hiding inside.

Finally, I am delighted to say that my outdoor grown jalapenos have flowered so I am really hopeful of a late pepper. Just one is all I ask for.

Friday, August 22, 2014

My Garden: 11th August 2014

If I ever forget the beautiful weather of 2014, this blog will be a sure reminder. And I ask myself, why haven't we installed an outdoor tap yet? The only good thing about relying on a watering can is that I make sure to empty all my waste water into it. Still though, my plants are definitely under-watered. I don't currently mulch for fear of creating a haven for slugs but talented gardeners would insist it is essential. Next year will be my year for mulching - and it'll probably be a wash out!

My tomatoes came on in leaps and bounds from the scraggly beginnings:

That first blush of red is exciting:

I am growing borlotti beans this year. It's a venture into the unknown, however timid:

It's not the best photo of the borlotti flowers. I wish I had captured them at their best because the delicate pink and white blooms are beautiful:

My remaining beets are big!

New generation of carrots and beetroot that were planted in July. I hope it's not too late in the season.

One of my carrots is sitting too high up and has gone a funny colour. Happy to say I ate it and it tasted lovely.

I was too cocky and uncovered my brassicas weeks back to make it easier to weed and because it looked better. Well I under estimated the prowess of the white butterfly because I've been inundated with caterpillars. I re-covered them and rid myself of the green pests many times a day.

Sweet peas peak out among the mangetout:

My leeks are gaining girth but they still have a long growing season ahead of them. And I need to weed that patch!

I ate the first cut of my broccoli, which was divine, but was sorely disappointed by the speed of regrowth. A closer look and I found horrible black aphids on it, plus some hungry caterpillars. I've sprayed it with a mix of water, garlic and ginger and also spotted a ladybird (predator of the aphid) on the plant so hopefully I'll see progress.

I am growing jalapeƱo peppers outdoors as an experiment. They have received plenty of warm sunshine in a south facing position so hopefully we might get a few little peppers!