Monday, 28 March 2016

Last of this season's swiss chard :-(

This is the last of the current season's swiss chard. It usually continues growing well into spring and early summer but this year the plants have gone to seed very early, probably because of the mild winter.

Pigeon damage

For the first time ever my brassicas have suffered pigeon damage. I caught the plump, feathered s**s in the act of breakfasting on my spring cabbages and cauliflowers. They don't seem to like the cavolo nero, curly kale or the purple sprouting broccoli.

I suspect that they have moved into our gardens because the massive sycamore trees further down the street, where they used to sit and feed, have now gone. 

The cabbages and cauliflowers have now been netted over.

Friday, 18 March 2016

Overwintered onions

It has been a strange year for our overwintered onions. I planted both red and white sets in the autumn in various places around the garden. Last year, most were large onion sized by now, or were getting that way. This year, a few are large, some are small but many have turned into bunches of spring onions. Also, a few look as though they are about to develop a flower stem.

The white and red onions have both behaved in the same way and it is the same wherever I have planted them. Unfortunately, I have not been in the habit of keeping a note of the varieties so I don't know if that has been a contributory factor. I shall try harder this year! It may, though, have more to do with the weather we have had over the winter: relatively mild, torrential rain followed by dry spells followed by more torrential rain, and several stormy winds. I've compared notes with a couple of friends who live in the Reading area and they say that their onions have behaved exactly in the same way, which suggest it's down to the weather pattern.

It isn't really a problem as onions are never a major crop for me and I often prefer to use the smaller ones and their leaves when preparing food. But it is nice to have a few larger bulbs when making stews and vegetable casseroles.

Monday, 14 March 2016

Chitting potatoes

Not a very exciting potato selection this year. I missed out on a trip to a specialist seed merchant and had to make do with what was available in the local corner shop.

I don't have enough room in the garden to plant potatoes in the ground so they have to go into containers wherever I can squeeze them in. That means I only need a few of each variety. The mail order catalogues don't generally offer them in small enough numbers whereas the corner shop will let me pick just half a dozen or so.

I have gone for Ruby Gem, Pentland Javelin, Charlotte and International Kidney.

The shredded paper box: my version of the haybox

Hayboxes were used extensively during the second world war to try and reduce the amount of energy used in cooking, but they had already been in use for a long time before that. The original haybox was essentially a wooden box with a lid and containing hay or straw as the insulating material. The pan containing the food was brought to boiling point and then put into the haybox for several hours or overnight. The food would then cook in the residual heat. It is perfect for stews, soups or anything that benefits from long, slow cooking. A pressure cooker would cook the food just as well and save on energy but I find that the flavours don't develop in the same way as when slow cooked.

I built my first version of the haybox about 4 years ago and based it on materials that we already had in the house and which were by-products of us working from home - cardboard boxes and shredded paper. My first simple construction was a large cardboard box filled with shredded paper. It was OK but not brilliant. I worked on improving the insulation in various ways and now seem to have a design that is energy efficient with components that can be replaced or cleaned as and when needed.

This is how the current shredded paper box is built.

The container is simply a large cardboard box with a second layer of cardboard placed inside. I found it impossible to find a second cardboard box that fitted easily, yet snugly, inside the first so I cut up the cardboard boxes we already had to line the first, and held the pieces in place with parcel tape.

Ideally, the cardboard should be corrugated as this provides an extra layer of insulation. If that is not available an intermediate layer of bubblewrap would do.

The second step is to place a couple of layers of bubblewrap inside the box and, again, keep that in place with parcel tape.

Then fill the box with plenty of shredded paper. As we both work from home and are always having to shred work and confidential documents we have a steady supply of the stuff. After several "cooks" it does start to get a bit manky from the steam that escapes from the pan, but the paper is easy enough to replace. The old paper is added to the compost heap. You could use straw or hay if you want, or even loose packing chips. The latter, though, are sometime not biodegradable, which makes them difficult to recycle and bad news for landfill.

Prepare your food and start off your dish in a pan on the cooker as usual. When it is bubbling away nicely take it off the hob and bury it in the shredded paper.

For the lid I use an old feather pillow. Piling more shredded paper on top is too messy and, even if contained in something, it is not as good an insulated lid as the pillow.I found that it is best to use a waterproof pillow protector to stop the steam and smells from the simmering food getting through to the pillow itself. Otherwise you will be washing the pillow every few weeks to get rid of the pong and keep everything hygienic. Been there, done that!

Leave the casserole for several hours or overnight without peaking. You'll lose a lot of the heat if you do and you might let in undesirable micro-organisms that could thrive in the lowered temperature and contaminate the food.

A bonus with this method of cooking is that there is no need to keep an eye on the pan to make sure it doesn't dry out or start to burn. So, once it is in the box, you can go off and do something else.

Although some steam does escape from the pan most of it stays put. I found that the first few meat stews i made in the box had a lot of liquid left in them, which I either ladled off for soup or thickened with cornflour or chickpea flour. But reduce the amount you initially add to the pan by too much and the food is not completely covered by the liquid and does not cook through properly. With experience you get to know roughly how much liquid, if any, needs to be added.

I use the box for all sorts of meat and vegetarian casseroles, and thick soups and usually make enough for several meals. Once the pan is out of the box I bring it back to the boil and cook the food for a few minutes. I take out what I need for that day and the rest goes into airtight containers for the fridge and consumption later in the week.  Easy to use, re-uses materials lying around the house and office, energy saving and labour saving. A winner all round. 

Sunday, 13 March 2016


We have an abundance of brassicas in the garden at this time of year. The curly kale, purple sprouting broccoli and cavolo nero are all doing well, although it looks as the cavolo may be starting to go to seed.

Not ready yet are the pointed cabbages and overwintering cauliflowers.

No brussel sprouts this year as I was having to rethink the layout of a big chunk of the garden after the sycamore trees had been removed and couldn't quite think where to put the sprouts. I shall definitely be putting them in this year; as well as the sprouts they usually produce a lovely "cabbage" on top and, if left long enough, mini-cabbages or "blown" sprouts from any that have been left behind.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Catch-up March 12th, 2015 I only went in for a bag of flour!

I've just been sorting through some photos from last year and found one batch that I never got around to posting here, although they did go up on Facebook. I was out on my daily walk and happened to be passing the True Food co-op in Emmer Green. I thought I'd just pop in for a bag of rye flour. This is what I ended up with: bag of rye flour (why I went in), romanesco, squash, turnip, chick peas, butter beans, turmeric, Spenwood cheese. I only just managed to avoid buying the various greens and cabbages on offer when I remembered that our garden is overflowing with them. I made the mistake of putting the photo on my Facebook page and a sort of Ready Steady Cook challenge was issued.

This is the first dish I've made using some of the ingredients together with veg from the garden.

Ingredients are the outer leaves of the romanesco, swish chard from the garden, onions, turmeric, chick peas, butter beans and shavings of Spenwood cheese.
My first successful sourdough loaf. Previous efforts had been disasters, probably because I didn't let the starter mature for long enough and it was cold in the kitchen. The starter was from Annie Levy of Kitchen Counter Culture fame ( and I used a mixture of rye and spelt flours to make the dough.

Grilled slices of acorn squash with herbs and garlic; rosti made from grated turnip, shredded stem from the romanesco, and a carrot found lurking in a corner of the garden; steamed romanesco with garlic and shavings of Spenwood cheese; mashed turnip.

Lightly toasted sourdough rye/spelt bread, chickpea and butter bean pate with turmeric and chilli, Spenwood cheese and tomato relish.

Using leftovers from previous meals made from my True Food Co-op shop plus the rest of the squash and romanesco, bubble and squeak, and some veg from the garden.

Alack and alas - the last of our home grown garlic

Alack and alas, we are now on the last of the home grown garlic. It will be a while before we can harvest the next crop but the ramsons are coming up now and we also have chives and garlic chives. 

They may not look very exciting but the leaves and the flowers are delicious. The ramsons seem totally at home in the two patches I found for them and are spreading through self-seeding. 

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Today's lunch

We still have plenty of greens and onions in the garden but all of our root veg have now been consumed. So yesterday it was off to Reading Farmer's Market and D S Paget for supplies.

This week we bought carrots, celeriac, golden beetroot, parsnips and potatoes.

Today's lunch combined ingredients from our garden and those bought at the Reading Farmer's Market (RFM).

Watercress and cheese burger (Mapleleaf Watercress at RFM)

Bean and vegetable chilli: dried beans and tinned tomatoes from the store cupboard; garlic, onions (garden); carrots, celeriac (D S Paget RFM); Swiss chard (garden)

Mixed veg: potato, celeriac, parsnip, carrot, golden beetroot (D S Paget at RFM); spring onions (garden).

Pea shoots (window sill pots of peas).

Friday, 4 March 2016

Willow weaving

My own bespoke willow wigwam in situ
On Saturday, I attended a willow weaving workshop organised by and held at the Five a Day Market Garden in Englefield near Theale. I went to their Wildlife Gardening series of workshops a couple of years ago and fell in love with the place. I've been meaning to go on some of their other courses ever since but clashes with other events had prevented that until now.

We were warned to wrap up warm as most of the work would be out in the open, including harvesting the willow ourselves from the garden's own beds. So, if our creations went wonky because of our poor choice of material it was our own fault! It was interesting, though, how the type of stems - straight, slightly curved, green, yellow, red - affected the structure of our "builds". I was surprised at how much variation there was in the properties and "handleability" of the willow depending on it's colour. And, we were told, that can change from one year to the next. This variability meant that it did not matter one jot what plan we had in our heads at the start because the whole construction would take on a life of its own as soon as we started weaving. Pam Goddard, who led the workshop, very kindly called our efforts "bespoke".

Most of us decided to weave pea/bean wigwams and even with that simple basic design an amazing amount of variation, some of it unintentional, crept into our structures.

My own humble effort is now installed in the garden (see the photo at the top of this posting). It may be slightly askew but I doubt the peas will mind.