Sunday, 10 May 2015

Leek Planting and Water Butt Dipping

 Such a glorious day for shrimping and planting!

A chance discovery of Pond Shrimps, in the communal water supply at the allotment, provided an afternoon of enthusiastic water butt dipping for the girls. As we have refused to purchase fish for the pond they have been creating the shrimps provided them with alternative pond occupants.

Hopefully the rather bumpy ride, from butt to pond, in a wheelbarrow won't have been too traumatic for the troupe of shrimp and they will thrive in their new habitat.
It would be an awful shame if the "lobsters" that we have acquired, were to die of shock before they were big enough to eat!

While the girls busied themselves with their pond project Marcus and I planted out the leeks. We employed the same technique that we used last weekend for the shallots.
The seedlings are so tightly packed together (like a clump of grass) that they need to be completely saturated with water to separate the dense network of fragile roots. 

First we popped the seed pot into a shallow tub and filled it with water. After allowing it to soak for few minutes we gently agitated the water around the roots so that the compost came away without snapping them.
Next we used a dibber (pointy tree stake) to make holes about 5 inches apart and 3 inches deep and popped a leek seedling into each. 
Each hole was then filled with water; this makes the hole fill itself in and wraps the leek in lovely wet soil. 
Hey presto, the leeks are planted! 

It's great to see our crops beginning to take hold. The beetroot, parsnips, broad beans and chard are all looking good as are the onions and garlic. The shallots still look like straggly blades of lying, limp on the mud but Marcus assures me that they will stand up soon. 
We have masses of red and white currants and gooseberries so definitely need to get them netted before the blackbirds spot them!  

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Many Hands make light scones!

Having successfully reduced our sugar consumption during the week our weekend consumption has started to gain an almost ceremonial status. We look forward to Saturday's and Sunday's with a sense of family camaraderie; planning the bakes and puddings that we might indulge ourselves in and setting time aside to enjoy them. This has resulted in a rather pleasing and well received family pact:

We, the family of Cross-Broome, will endeavour to sit down together for a cup of tea and cake on Sunday afternoons.

The girls completely embraced this new addition to our family agenda and threw themselves into scone and jam production with huge enthusiasm. The saying, "too many cooks spoil the broth", initially sprang to mind but turned out to be unfounded.

We used my Mum's scone recipe that requires sour milk, of which we had none, so had to make! 
Souring the milk provided a bit of intrigue and some exclamations of "yuuuuck, that's gross" as the curdled liquid came into being.  

The many hands, well the six hands, worked together like one big baking machine to produce some yummy scones, whipped cream, jam,

lots of laughter and a big, floury, smiley mess! 

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Foraging in our Garden

As we carefully nurture our seedlings and tend our allotment; guarding against late frosts, regularly potting on, watering and weeding, it always amuses me how bountifully our weeds grow! Left to fend for themselves they are already lush, green and prolific. A few weeks ago I was rejoicing in the availability of nettles, well now it is the turn of Ground Elder.

On the whole, this is considered a pervasive and troublesome garden weed that aggressively out competes most other plants. It is pretty tricky to get rid of once it has established itself and will spread either by seed or by its rhizomes (long, horizontal underground stems). These can spread by as much as a metre a year and are rather brittle. If broken they will easily regrow and generate an even wider spread of ground cover. As it is so tricky to get rid of I reckon that the best solution is to embrace its abundance and eat it!

Flavour wise ground elder is rather tasty and nutritious ( a good source of iron, manganese and vitamin C). Like so much 'wild' vegetation, it works well when used as a spinach substitute, the youngest leaves are also good eaten raw in salad. It has a slight tang and a more aromatic flavour than spinach. Our Monday evening meal this week was 'pie'. We had a fair amount of leftover chicken and plenty of gravy from our roast as well as a couple of pork burgers left from a barbecue on Saturday. With just a couple of leeks and a few handfuls of ground elder these ingredients became a mighty fine pie.

Rough puff pastry is a big favourite with the girls so I tend to opt for this as my pastry of choice for pies. I can usually smuggle all manner of ingredients under the pie lid without too many complaints!

Having lined the pie dish with pastry I use the scraps to make an extra rim around the edge of the dish. This helps to raise the pie lid and gives the pastry more of a puff.

Chicken and Ground Elder pie 

(Clean Plates 4/5 - two of the tasters were hesitant about 

the ground elder but only when I brought attention to it!)

Leftover Cooked Chicken (we usually have a leg and some breast)
2 pork burgers/any uneaten stuffing (a sausage meat one would be ideal)
2 Leeks
25g Butter
1 Tbsp Fresh Tarragon
400ml – 500ml Gravy (or chicken stock)
1 Tbsp Flour (only if using stock rather than gravy)
150ml White wine
50ml Double Cream
Salt and Pepper
2 Handfuls of Ground Elder

Rough puff pastry
300g Plain Flour
150g Cold Butter
150ml – 180ml Cold water

Chop the butter into cubes around 6 mm squared.
Add the cubed butter to the bowl of flour and toss until all the pieces are coated with flour.
Gradually add the water to bring the mixture together into a firm dough.
Tip onto a well floured work surface, shape into a rectangle and roll in one direction until you have a rectangle about 2 cm thick.
Fold the far third towards you and the nearest third over that to create three layers.
Give the pastry a quarter turn and then repeat the rolling, folding and turning process 5 more times.
Wrap the pastry in cling film and chill in the fridge for at least half an hour.

Finely chop the leeks and tarragon and then melt the butter in a saucepan. Keeping the heat low, gently sweat the leeks until soft.
Strip the meat from the chicken carcass and break the stuffing into bite size pieces. Add to the pan with the leeks and a grating of nutmeg.
If you are using stock rather than leftover gravy add a tablespoon of flour to the leeks and meat and cook for 2 minutes.
Pour in the wine and gravy or stock and allow to simmer for 15 – 20 minutes.
Add the cream, boil for another couple of minutes then taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper and maybe a bit more nutmeg.
Remove from the heat and roughly chop the spinach or seasonal greens. Stir them into the pie mix and set aside while you roll out the pastry.
Pre-heat the oven to 200C. Divide and roll out the pastry in 2/3 and 1/3 sized pieces to line and top a pie dish. Fill the lined dish with the filling, top with pastry and crimp the edges all round. Brush with beaten egg, make three knife slashes in the pastry top to allow the steam to escape.
Bake for 35 – 40 minutes until golden brown on top.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

A Week of Grubby Knees

It has been a glorious week of sun, see....dlings and pollinating!

On Monday afternoon we received the call to say that our neighbours' pear tree's were in blossom.
This is a call that we await every year and immediate action is called for. Marcus rounded up the troops and took the girls over the road so that they could gather the necessary blossom samples. As is probably apparent from the photograph, we have one small espalier pear tree in our garden. This was given to us five years ago when our friends moved to France. For the first three years it flowered but didn't produce a single fruit. Ideally pear trees should be planted in pairs!
Two years ago Marcus had the bright idea that we should attempt to pollinate the flowers manually. We asked around to find out if there were any pear trees local to us and found a match. The first year produced 6, the second 12 and, if we are going to follow a pattern here, this year, we are hoping for 18 fabulous comice pears!
The girls wafted their blossom samples under the flowers on our tree; flitting backwards and forwards like bees or butterflies (buzzing was optional!) and now we wait.

With all the warmth and sunshine that we have been enjoying our Garden Room (just a posh name for the Lean To) is beginning to look like a tropical rain forest. We desperately  need to pot things up or get them into the ground at the allotment.

Our tomato sowing in early March resulted in just the one cherry tomato plant (we are still waiting for the rest to pop up in the lawn!) and about a hundred beef steak tomato plants. We have already potted up and given away some of these. Yet, still we have a seed tray, a good three quarters full, with a dense forest of tomato seedlings that we need to find homes for.

A family trip to the allotment this weekend offered up the opportunity to test  the new drain pipe and water butt system on our shed. It works (at least it does if you carry a watering can of water from the water trough and pour it into the drain pipe!). Unfortunately a design flaw, that was not spotted in the original plans, meant that the water butt could not be raised off the ground to enable tap access in the usual manner. Instead, we have had to dig down and now have a 2 ft deep hole, directly in front of the tap! It works though!

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Date with Chocolate!

So here we are, several days into our new reduced sugar plan and it is going pretty well. I would like to stress the "reduced" at this point. As a mother of 3 girls, now aged 8 and 11 years old (yikes!), it would be near impossible and (dare I agree?) "unfair" for me to believe that we could eradicate sugar completely. Instead, we are aiming for a 5:2 ratio of good to bad.
For my part, I am busily creating healthy, low sugar treats for weekday snacks and deserts to fulfil the '5' bit. They then contribute to the '2' bit, by tucking into chocolate, cake and ice cream at the weekend!

Despite the controversy surrounding the use of fructose (largely instigated by the findings of Dr Robert Lustig and the food industries use of high fructose corn syrup) I  favour the use of  whole, blended fruit (both fresh and dried) as my alternative sweetener. Unlike fructose syrup, the fibre and vitamins in fruit are definitely beneficial to the body and I like the extra flavour that they impart.

My Chocolate Date Squares were created with Marcus in mind and were a resounding success. To date (nice play on words there!) he has been pretty tricky to win over to the low sugar camp but these were consumed with surprising enthusiasm and earned an easy  5/5 Clean Plates score 

They have a rich chocolate flavour and a satisfyingly soft, dense texture. I hesitate to call them brownies as that creates an expectation that they may not meet but as a chocolate square they certainly stand proud.

I ended up making these twice this week and they were even well received by all the children that came round to play after school.

Chocolate Date Squares (Clean Plates 5/5 - they even pass the Marcus Test!)

2 Apples
60g Dates
2 Tbsp Olive Oil
1 Tsp Vanilla extract
1 Tsp Espresso Coffee
1/4 Tsp Salt
5 Tsp Agave Nectar
120g Plain Flour
40g Ground Almonds
1 Tsp Baking Powder
50g Cocoa Powder
2 Eggs

Pre-heat the oven to 170C/Gas 3 and line small baking tin (20cm x 20cm) with parchment.
Pop the dates into a cup or small bowl and cover with boiling water to soften. 
Peel, core and slice the apples. Place in a small sauce pan, cover with water, bring to a gentle simmer and stew until soft.
In a food processor blend together the dates and apple with 6 teaspoons of the water that the dates have been soaking in.
Once smooth add the vanilla extract, coffee, olive oil, salt and Agave Nectar and continue to blend until you have a fairly loose puree. If the puree seems rather thick add a little more of the date water.
In a mixing bowl whisk the eggs before adding the apple and date puree. Stir until everything is well combined.
Fold in the flour, almonds, cocoa and baking powder until you have a thick, chocolatey paste.
Scrape it into the tin and bake for 15 - 20 minutes until firm.
Cut into squares and enjoy!  

Friday, 17 April 2015

Naked Wine Drinking!

It is official - I am an Angel!  

A few weeks ago; just as we were embarking on our £80 feeds 5 Challenge, my friend Abby introduced me to a rather fabulous excuse to drink wine. Not that I really needed another one but "safety in numbers" as the saying goes!
She invited me to try a case of wine from the Norwich based company Naked Wines and to become a Wine Angel.
What can I say?
Firstly and of vital importance, the wines were delicious and of a much higher quality than I am usually drawn towards or able to afford. I have, in the past, tended more towards quantity rather than quality! Except of course with our Home Brew (quality all the away there folks!)
Secondly, by investing £20 a month into my wine account, I am contributing to what can best be described as, crowd funding, for independent wine producers. Just brilliant! Every glass of wine that I now drink is helping someone! Below is a lovely little flow diagram from the Naked Wines website showing how it works.

Naked Wines is a customer-funded wine business

Our customers, called Angels, fund talented, independent winemakers and get rewarded with delicious wines at wholesale prices in return.

What better way to spend the money that I have saved reducing our weekly food budget, than to invest it in wine? It may not be quite as commendable a spend as my friend Katherine, who donated the savings that she made to Comic Relief but it is still, ever so slightly, angelic.

Looking forward to that Friday feeling tonight when I can select a bottle from my well stocked wine rack - I believe a certain maturity has finally been achieved!

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Easter Aftermath ..........Sugar Reduction!

more wholesome brown than chocolate
It is astounding how resilient children can be to chocolate induced sickness. Despite a restless Monday night in the Cross-Broome household and late night vows to not eat any more for a few days; my hardcore chocoholics bounced back within hours.
As early as 9.30 the next morning I had a request to "try a little bit of the posh ones" (apparently, the Harrods Chocolate Chicken and Bear that they had received for their birthday were calling to them from the sideboard).
Fortunately for the Chicken and Bear (they are currently still in possession of their heads and other limbs). I spent much of the night plotting a sugar reducing plan for the whole family. Brown week will now herald the start of, once again (we have been here before, last year!), reducing our refined sugar intake.

I created this recipe last year, it is a big favourite with the girls, particularly for breakfast, as the bars are both filling and tasty. Fab grab and run fuel for busy mornings. Like the Banana Ice lollies this is a great way of using up brown/black bananas.

A majority of the sweetness comes from the dates and bananas but the cinnamon and vanilla extract lend themselves to being useful sweetness enhancers, as well as being complimentary flavours.

I think that this actually tastes pretty good raw so a bit of bowl licking might be in order! You do need to be careful not to over cook it as dry edges and crispy top bits are not so tasty. I always smooth the top off so that it colours more evenly and try not to cook it for too long so that it remains moist.

Banana Bar Recipe (Clean Plates 4.5/5 - Still can't completely convince Marcus!)

2 Ripe Bananas
180g Dates
80ml Olive Oil
0.25 Tsp salt
0.5 Tsp Ground Cinnamon
1 Tsp Vanilla Extract
50g Dessicated Coconut
50g Ground Almonds
180g Oats
50g Chopped Apricots

Pre-heat the oven to 180C/Gas 4 and line an 8 inch square cake tin.
In a food processor blend together bananas, dates, salt, cinnamon, vanilla and olive oil until smooth.
Add the coconut, almonds and oats to the mixture and blitz for a couple more minutes.
Stir in the chopped apricots and then scrape the mixture into the lined cake tin, smooth over the top and bake for 25 – 30 minutes until just browning on the top and edges.
Use a sharp knife to cut into 18 bars whilst still warm.

These are best eaten cold so we keep ours in the fridge.

With Easter well and truly out of the way I will be concentrating my efforts on reducing our refined sugar intake. I suspect that this will not fit very well with our £80 a week budget as both fresh and dried fruit is more expensive than sugar. With this in mind I am keeping my budget a little more open ended for next week and will reassess at the end of the week.