Friday, 2 October 2015

Leave of absence

As most readers will know, I generally post to this blog every day. For the next few days I expect to be a bit low-profile though. We have a lot of commitments coming up and I will probably not have much time for blogging, so don't be surprised it you don't see anything new from me.

One of the commitments is a visit to the Challock Chilli Fest, hosted by Stephen and Serena Shirley, at Victoriana Nursery Gardens, in Kent. I'm sure their display of chillis will be a lot more impressive than mine, but some of mine are not too shabby you know!

This funny little Siamese twin is a "Calico".

While I was away from home earlier this week (on business), Jane made herself a meal of Stir-fried Chilli Prawns which included one of these "Hungarian Hot Wax" chillis.

This variety is very mild for a chilli. Jane described it as "like a sweet pepper but with a warm afterglow".

In the photo above are Hungarian Hot Wax (centre), Ring of Fire (right), Indian Chilli Bullet (bottom), Caribbean Antillais (top right) and some of the unidentified Turkish ones (top left).

Hoping to be able to post some photos of Stephen's chillis next week...

Thursday, 1 October 2015

A herbal remedy

No, I don't mean that I have a herbal remedy to offer. I mean that some of my herbs need a remedy!

I have some pots of Thyme that are looking very sorry for themselves. They have lost their fresh colour and now look grey and desiccated.

The upper surfaces of their leaves are scarred and full of little white patches. Something has definitely been nibbling them

I don't know what has caused this, and close inspection has not revealed any bugs, but I have a suspicion that the culprits may be Capsid Bugs - the same ones that made all those holes in my cucumber and chilli plants. Has anyone else got any theories on this? Please tell me if you know of any suitable remedies.

Fortunately some of the other herbs are in much better condition! A couple of weeks ago I cut back the tired old growth of some of my potted Mint, which has prompted the production of some lovely fresh green leaves:

Some of the Lemon Balm has had the same treatment. This plant is closely related to Mint, and responds in the same way to severe pruning. This mature clump of Lemon Balm, no longer looks attractive:

That's better. A clump of re-sprouting Lemon Balm a week or so after pruning:

Last year I got a collection of herb plants from Rocket Gardens. One of them was a Flat-leaved Parsley. In fact it was a whole bunch of rather thin and straggly plants, and I was dubious about whether they would do anything much. However, they did survive and we did crop them a bit, but now they have come to the end of their lives (Parsley is a biennial, as you probably know). Here you can see the clump of Parsley tied loosely to a bamboo cane for support.

Even with support, the tall stems droop sinuously over the container of Sweet Potatoes behind them, and wave about in the wind.

Where the flowers once were there is now a multitude of little seeds forming.

Rather than cut off these seed-heads I am leaving them in place, in the hope that they will eventually mature and fall to the ground, and maybe go on to produce another generation of Parsley plants.

Nearby lives this Oregano, one of the most prolific self propagators known to man!

As you can see, the flowers of this plant are (were) purple, which gives the lie to the assertion that it is Greek Oregano (which has white flowers), as the seed-supplier would have me believe. I have written previously about my disappointment with this plant, which looks nice enough and is very popular with bees, but has very little culinary value since it is practically tasteless. I have already taken steps to remedy the situation, in that I have bought a packet of "true" Greek Oregano seeds to sow next Spring. They are "Greek Oregano. Origanum vulgare, subsp. hirtum", described as an "Aromatic culinary herb. White flowers, produced in Summer". Sounds hopeful...

In the garage at present I have a couple of pots of herb cuttings (covered with clear plastic bags to help maintain humidity).

That's one each of Variegated Sage and Rosemary.

Woody herbs like these two go very straggly after a few years, so I take cuttings from them every so often, to make sure I have always got some new ones coming along. This next photo shows some Sage grown from cuttings taken this time last year. A bit yellow at this time of year, but looking strong nonetheless.

Well, there you are then. Apart from the Thyme, the herbs look OK. It's just a bit of a shame that Thyme is probably our most frequently used herb. I think I shall have to look out for some more of those £1.25 pots of Living Herbs from Morrisons.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Ticking over...

At present my garden is "ticking over quite nicely" as the saying goes. (If you don't understand this, it means something like "idling"  - the way a car engine is when the vehicle is stationary).

I have done all the planting for Winter. The Brussels Sprouts are coming along well. Nothing needs doing to them at present, except perhaps removing any of the lower leaves that turn yellow. Getting rid of those promptly helps to reduce the risk of fungal infections, which are a definite risk at this time of year.

Likewise the Purple Sprouting Broccoli is quite happily doing its own thing. The plants are huge this year. You can see how they are pushing up against the netting now.

Size is determined by many factors, but amongst them is density of planting. This year I have only three PSB plants, whereas I usually have six. Sometimes Less is More!

The plants around the edges of that raised bed are Brokali and Savoy Cabbage. I recently removed some of the leaves of the PSB to allow the smaller plants to get more light.

When I planted-up that bed I had two Cabbage plants left over, so I kept them just in case of casualties. A few weeks later I put them into containers that had until recently held potatoes. They seem to be doing OK. A lot smaller than their siblings of course, but that's a good thing because it just means they will develop later, thus extending the harvest period.

The Leeks are still very small, which is worrying. I was hoping that by now they would be much bigger than this, but they are only about an inch in diameter.

OK, I'm not in any hurry to dig up those Leeks. It's not as if I need the space for another crop just yet, so they can stay there for another 4 or 5 months if they really want.

The beans will need to come down some time, but again I'm not in a hurry to do this, because there are still some pods developing. The "Jed's" plants have just about finished producing now, but the "Enorma" ones are still going strong.

The purple-and-green pods of the mystery French bean are big and fat now. Although since there is only one plant of this type there won't be much of a crop, I'm looking forward to it because I think I will save some seeds and grow them "properly" next year.

I have left a few pods on the "Kew Blue" for the same reason. I have been very impressed with this variety. It has been very prolific. Definitely worth growing again.

I very much doubt whether I will be growing any yellow beans - ever. My opinion has been confirmed: they produce a much smaller yield than either green or purple-podded varieties.

Next year I expect I will return to growing my old favourite "Cobra". I have missed it this year!

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Chicken casserole with fresh tomatoes

This dish of mine is loosely based on what in our family we used to call "Chicken Marengo". Having looked up Chicken Marengo I see that it is supposed to include crayfish and fried eggs, as well as wine, none of which our dish ever had, so I think it is safer to refer to it as just "Chicken casserole with fresh tomatoes".

We have plenty of fresh tomatoes available at present, and we are using lots of them in our cooking. For this dish I rather appropriately used some of the "Possena del Vesuvio" tomatoes. [Get it? Marengo = a place in Italy. "Possena del Vesuvio" = an Italian tomato variety.]

The reason why the photo shows the tomatoes in a bowl in the kitchen sink is that I put them there in order to skin them, which I did by pouring boiling water over them.

Chicken Casserole with Tomatoes
2 chicken breasts, skinned and cut into large chunks
500g fresh tomatoes, skinned and halved
200g chestnut mushrooms (or similar), sliced
1 onion, peeled and sliced
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
750 mils good chicken stock
1 tsp dried Oregano
1 tsp dried Herbes de Provence
1 dessertspoon cornflour or other thickening agent
Approx 2 tbsp vegetable oil, for frying
Salt and pepper to taste

Using about 1 tbsp oil, soften the onions in a casserole dish over a low heat until translucent but not brown
In a frying-pan, use the other 1 tbsp oil to lightly cook the chicken over a medium heat until just beginning to turn golden
Tip the chicken (with its juices) into the casserole dish
Add tomatoes, mushrooms, garlic, stock, dried herbs and seasoning
Bring to the boil (on top of the cooker).

Cover and transfer to the oven
Cook in the oven at 160C for about 90 minutes
About 15 minutes before serving time, add the slaked cornflour or other thickening agent and stir in well
If the sauce is too thin (e.g. if tomatoes were very juicy, or if the mushrooms gave off a lot of liquid), take the dish out of the oven, remove lid, and boil hard for a few minutes to reduce the liquid.

I served my dish with lots of home-grown vegetables - roast potatoes, buttered carrots with chopped parsley, and Runner beans - but I think it would go just as well with pasta or with rice.

OK, that's half a kilo of tomatoes used. Only another 10 kilos to go then...  I'm not complaining though. I love tomatoes, especially home-grown ones!

Monday, 28 September 2015

Harvest Monday - 28th Sept 2015

I'm almost (almost, I said) embarrassed to report the harvest of more tomatoes...

This batch weighed over 3.9kgs.

Yes, they are mostly green, but I am confident that most of them will ripen OK indoors.

We have made loads of tomato sauce for the freezer, but we have also made lots of dishes with fresh tomatoes. My little garden seldom produces a glut of anything, so it is quite nice to have "more than enough" of something for a change. I have even grieved only slightly over the fact that I have had to throw away a few blight-infected tomatoes.

I picked two more cucumbers. Again, not much to look at, but very nice when peeled.

The Spring Onions have done surprisingly well, and I pulled another dozen or so this week:

Those ones went into a Chinese meal that Jane made, along with some fabulous fresh young walnuts that she brought back from France. She watched them being shelled on the market in Ferney Voltaire (France). They were lovely and juicy, quite unlike the dry old things we normally have to put up with.

I have finally picked a significant quantity of ripe chillis this week. Bringing the plants indoors certainly turned out to be the right decision. The ones seen in this next photo were from the outdoor plants though.

These are mostly ones from the indoor plants. The bright yellow ones are "Aji Limon" and the pale greenish-yellow ones are "Blondie", while the black ones are "Calico". The red ones are a mix of "Cayenne", "Ring of Fire", "Indian Chilli Bullet" and "Caribbean Antillais".

Another small batch of Raspberries, and even one or two late-maturing Blueberries...

This is my contribution to Harvest Monday, hosted by Daphne's Dandelions. Please visit her blog to see what other people have been harvesting this week.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Pears in brandy

Recently a friend gave us a huge bag of pears - probably about 10 or 12 kilos of them - so guess what we've been cooking these last few days? Jane made some pear chutney, but I'm not a great fan of chutney, so when it was my turn I made some Pears in Brandy. We still have some pears left, so maybe I'll do a batch of pickled pears, like I have done once or twice before. We'll see...

Not having made Pears in Brandy before I looked on the internet for some recipes. I wasn't even sure whether you are supposed to cook them or just use them raw. Very soon I found just what I was looking for, a blog post about this subject with nice clear instructions, and some good relevant photos. The blog is called Our New Life in the Country, written by a lady called Sue, who describes herself as "...a 50 something townie turned country girl called Sue, who lost her heart to a sailor and started a new life in the country." Thank You, Sue, I followed your instructions almost exactly!

I peeled a large number of pears, estimating how many would fit into a large Kilner jar which I had available. As I peeled them I dropped them into a big bowl of salty water to keep them from going brown.

Then I quartered the pears, removed the cores and sliced each quarter into two pieces. After that they went into a large pan of water with a couple of tablespoons of sugar. I brought the pan to the boil and simmered the pears for a couple of minutes until they were tender.

Using a slotted spoon I packed them into the afore-mentioned Kilner jar, and one other smaller jar, before covering them with brandy. I used basic "value-style" brandy, though I suppose a purist would probably have used a decent Armagnac!

The small jar is to be given to the donor of the pears, as a way of saying Thank You. I'll have to urge her to leave them to mature for a while before eating them. I would think they would probably be OK in a month or so, but at their best at Christmas. I hope they are good, because I now have a LOT of them!

I plan to use mine as an accompaniment to desserts like ice cream, though I will also try them on their own, because I am quite partial to a drop of brandy...

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

Regular readers know that I am exceptionally fond of growing chillis and tomatoes. To me, a ripe tomato or a ripe chilli is an object of beauty. Not only do I love to look at it, but I also love to feel it, because these things have a certain sensuous allure! ("Now he's really flipped" you're thinking...). Seriously though, don't you think this is a glorious sight?

More often than not the chillis we use in cooking are the "ordinary" red ones (like the Cayenne and Ring of Fire ones seen below), but I just like growing the other types for the range of shapes and colours they provide. We probably won't eat any of those black Calico chillis, but it was fun growing them.

Now what about this?

It's a fruit of the beefsteak tomato variety "Larisa", grown from seeds kindly given to me by Eddy Ceyssens in Belgium. It weighed about 250g. Not a perfect specimen I know, but very satisfying nonetheless. The colour is actually much more pink than red, though this doesn't show up so well in my photos.

Here is a view of the underside. Beefsteak tomatoes often have a rough patch at the blossom end.

This is also a "Larisa", but one of a much less regular shape:

Look underneath this one...

Right, so which would you rather have - perfectly round (boring and bland) tomatoes from the supermarket, or tasty tomatoes with character, from the garden?

Here's a photo of tomatoes (albeit under-ripe ones) and chillis together. Salsa, anyone?