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Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Snowdrops, Beetroot and Abandoned Parsnips

The snowdrops in my garden are a cheerful reminder that warmer weather is on the way. Actually, we’re currently having freakily warm weather, it’s already 22°C warmer than last week. The plants don’t know whether they’re coming or going. I had planned to sow the first succession of parsnips two days ago but the ground was frozen so hard that the seed bed I’d previously prepared was like concrete. Sowing abandoned! Now that it’s warmed up to 15°C I’ll risk sowing a few tomorrow. I'll keep sowing a few seeds every two weeks so that they're ready at different times. As much as I love parsnips, recipes to use 15 of them at once might be challenging!

My chitted first early potatoes are looking very healthy and just about ready to go. I used the abandoned parsnip sowing time to pre-dig a trench for the potatoes and I covered it with horticultural fleece to warm the soil up a little. I’ll plant the potatoes later this week. I’m certain we’ll have many more frosts, but they should be fine if I earth them up properly. Earthing up is when you draw a ridge of earth up over the emerging shoots of the potatoes. This should protect them until the risk of frost has passed. Last year we did have a freaky late frost that turned some of the potato leaves black, but by then they were pretty sturdy and they all bounced back.

I’m also sowing some biodegradable pots with some beetroot seeds this week. I’ll keep these indoors in a warm light room (my photographic studio starts to resemble a greenhouse about this time of year). When they’re big enough I’ll transfer them to my new cold frame, which is still in the box it was delivered in 2 months ago. I’m hoping that having seedlings that need to go in there will force me to get to grips with assembling the flat packed cold frame. Flat pack assembly is one of my least favourite jobs in the world. The last cold frame I assembled a few years ago was so wobbly on completion that you could only open the door if you pushed the lid at the same time. I’d like to blame the manufacturers but I’m fairly certain it’s me that’s the problem!

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Cupcakes and Winter Disasters

The continuing unusually cold winter weather and our creaky old house have conspired together this week to elevate my stress levels. Frozen diesel in the car and a burst water pipe have been expensive, messy and time consuming. At times like these, I comfort bake. Nothing relaxes me more than baking cakes and cookies. Perhaps it’s all the methodical weighing and measuring that helps soothe the worried mind. This has resulted in a flurry of sweet creations in my kitchen this week.

Raspberry and Pomegranite Cupcakes

For the cupcakes:

325g plain flour

1 tbsp. baking powder

3/4 tsp. fine salt

300g caster sugar

125ml rapeseed oil

2 eggs

375ml whole milk

2 tbsp. mashed fresh raspberries

For the icing:

120g unsalted butter, softened

300g mascarpone cheese

160g icing sugar

1 vanilla pod

A few fresh raspberries and pomegranate seeds for decoration

Preheat the oven to 160 degrees C/Gas mark 3. Line a cupcake tin with 18 cupcake liners (or 2 and a bit tins if, like me, your tins have 12 holes)

Sift together the flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar. Add these sifted dry ingredients to the bowl of a an electric mixer (hooray for my KichenAid Artisan!) Using a paddle attachment mix on low speed for 30 seconds. Slowly add the oil to the mixture until the mixture looks like fine crumbs. Add the eggs, milk, and squashed raspberries and mix on low speed for 1 minute. Scrape the sides of the bowl to ensure everything is getting evenly mixed, then turn up to a medium speed and mix for another 2 minutes.

Fill the cupcake liners three-quarters full with the mixture and bake until cooked through (about 15-20 minutes) Cool on a wire rack before icing. They must be completely cool before you ice them.

Scrape the seeds from the vanilla pod and add to the soft butter. Cream the butter until light and fluffy in an electric mixer using a paddle attachment. Add the mascarpone and mix. Don’t over work the mascarpone mixture otherwise it may separate. Sift the icing sugar over the mascarpone mixture and gently fold it in. Put the mixture in the fridge for 30 minutes to set, then spread on top of each cupcake and add the fresh raspberries and pomegranate seeds on top. These need to be refrigerated and eaten fairly quickly because of the marscapone icing.

Fill the cupcake liners three-quarters full with the mixture and bake until cooked through (about 15-20 minutes) Cool on a wire rack before icing. They must be completely cool before you ice them.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Chitting Potatoes and Lots of Snow

This week has been unusually cold here, the temperature hasn’t risen above 0°C and has been down to -6°C. The big dump of snow we had at the weekend is hanging around looking dirty and there are bare patches of grass on the hills where kids (ok, and us) have tobogganed the snow into oblivion. The image above shows the fields near my house, a favourite place for tobogganing.

Preparing the seed bed for the parsnips is on hold. But I’m still itching to get started for this year, so I began the process of chitting my first early potatoes. The terminology involved in potato growing put me off growing them for years. First earlies, second earlies, maincrop? The terms seems unnecesarily confusing and daunting. Really, all the terms mean are how fast the potatoes are ready to harvest once you’ve planted the seed potatoes. First earlies (most people’s idea of “new potatoes”) are usually ready in about ten weeks, second earlies in about thirteen weeks and maincrop are ready about twenty weeks after planting.  The variety of potoato you chose will tell you whether it’s first, second or maincrop. 

 These are my first earlies for this year, at the start of the chitting process. I’ve chosen Arran Pilot this year. It is said to have reistaance to common scab, which was a problem with some of the varieties I grew last year.

 I save egg boxes all year to use for this job. One end of the seed potato will have little eyes or buds, this is called the rose end. Stand it in the egg box with this rose end upwards.

You can see that mine had started chitting on their own in their delivery box and had these little white shoots when they were delivered from the seed company (  They’re white because the potatoes had been kept in the dark in a box. That’s not the sort of sprouting you want at the end of this process, you want short fat green and pink shoots. You can rub out (pick off) some of the shoots to leave just three fat ones on each potato so the plant can concentrate on producing fewer but bigger potatoes. If you have lots of shoots you get lot of tiny potatoes (and you’ll probably miss the really tiny ones when harvesting which is a real pain as the rotting potatoes encourage slugs)

Then you should leave the potatoes sitting in their egg boxes somewhere cool and light – but not in direct sunlight. Mine are spread out on my studio floor in the attic which is unheated due to our super inefficient heating system!  They are ready to plant when the shoots are about an inch long. I’m hoping this freakily cold snap will be long gone by then!

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

The Last of the Carrots

I’m lucky enough to still be pulling carrots from our vegetable patch on a daily basis. Despite a few hard frosts they’ve lasted really well. They haven’t grown in size since the cold weather set in, but they seem to be perfectly happy to sit in the soil all winter. However, I’m itching to get a seed bed prepared in that area for the parsnips that need to be sown soon. So, as much as I’ve enjoyed my winter supply of carrots,  I’m pulling what’s left of them today and making a big batch of carrot and coriander soup.  I usually spend a few hours each month making soup and freezing it in single serving sizes. It’s the perfect lunch to eat while I’m working and I have mastered the art of image editing with one hand while slurping soup from a spoon from the other.

Carrot and Coriander Soup
Serves 6

1 tablespoon of olive oil
4 large carrots, scrubbed  and cut into chunks
1/2 large onion, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon of dried chilli flakes
900ml (1 1/2 pints) vegetable or chicken stock
A handful of fresh coriander, roughly chopped

Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat.  Add the carrots and onion and cook for five minutes or so until the onion has softened a little. Add the chilli flakes and pour in the stock, bring the soup to the boil and cook for 10-15 minutes until the carrots are tender. Add most of the coriander, save a little for the garnish. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly. Blitz the soup with a hand blender until smooth.  Re-heat to serve, add the reserved coriander and enjoy with crusty bread.