23 March 2017

Braised mutton shoulder with borlotti beans

Mutton used to be one of the most popular meats in Britain. Due to changing tastes and changing farming practices, it has fallen massively out of fashion since the 1960s. There has been a resurgent interest in mutton in the last few years, but it is still something of a rarity. This is a great shame, as mutton has a fantastic flavour; stronger and more intense than lamb. The fat distribution varies by breed, but mutton usually has more fat marbling than lamb. Because of this, it is well suited to slow cooking. And when it comes to slow cooking mutton, my favourite cut is the shoulder.

Braised mutton shoulder with borlotti beans

6 March 2017

What to do in the vegetable garden in March

With March comes spring, and things start to get underway in the vegetable garden. March can still be pretty cold, even at times even snowy. Hardier crops can be sown outside, and there are various plants that are worth starting off inside. However, it is easy to get carried away and sow too much too early. Because of how varied the weather can be, it is difficult to give hard and fast rules as to when to start sowing. One of the best signs to look for is weed seedlings. If the weeds are germinating, start sowing veg. Here is what I am up to in the garden this month:

26 February 2017

What to do in the vegetable garden in February

February, for me, is the start of the gardening year. The days get longer and the sun stronger. The very first signs of spring appear as the garden starts to shrug off its winter dormancy. February is too early to do much sowing, but is the month to plan and prepare for the gardening year ahead. It is a time to harvest the last of the winter veg, and to start preparing the ground for the first spring sowings. Here's what I am up to in the garden this month.

Preparing beds

Planning


February is the perfect time to plan what you want to grow this year. Curl up on the sofa with a mug of tea and some seed catalogues and think about what you want to grow. If you are new to vegetable growing, have a look at my guide to what veg to grow: http://roomforaradish.blogspot.co.uk/2015/06/what-vegetables-should-i-grow-in-my.html. It is also worth drawing up a rough plan of what you want to grow where so you can make best use of your available ground.

Harvesting winter veg


If you still have winter veg in the ground like swedes, parsnips and celeriac, February is the time to harvest them. If you leave them in the ground into spring, the plants use the energy they have been storing in their roots to put on new growth and flower. As a result their roots get woody and the taste deteriorates. Harvesting the last of the winter veg clears up space for spring planting. Carry on harvesting cavolo nero, cabbages and the first purple sprouting broccoli.

Weeding and pest control


Some weeds continue growing all through winter. While some perennial weeds such as ground elder and lesser celandine start to appear in February. If you keep on top of these as they appear it makes life easier later. Slugs and snails hibernate in colonies under bricks, logs and pots. Have a search for them and dispatch any you find and it should mean you have fewer later in the year. Weed around garlic, onions and over-wintered broad beans. This removes competition from your crops and should improve yields.

Garlic - weeded and mulched

Preparing beds


As beds empty of winter veg, get them ready for spring planting. Remove any stones and weeds. Give them a fork over and break down the clods with a cultivator or a rake. When I have a bed ready, I cover it in mulch or black plastic. This stops nutrients leaching out of the ground in wet weather and (in the case of plastic) starts to warm the ground so you can sow seeds earlier than would otherwise be possible. Many seeds require the soil to be above a certain temperature to germinate, and a degree or two can make all the difference to the success of early sowings.

Sowing


It is a bit early to sow much in February, unless you have a greenhouse in which to bring things on. If the weather is mild, I have had success sowing radishes at the very end of Feb. Varieties like French Breakfast will germinate in soil temperatures of about 5C and above, and if sown now under a cloche will be ready by late April. Hardy salads can be sown in pots in a cold frame. There are a few crops that require a long growing season which benefit from being sown now inside. I sow celeriac and chillies in Feb. I leave tomatoes until March, as otherwise I find they get too large before they can be moved outside. Seedlings can also get leggy if sown now, as light levels are too low.

Mulching


Winter is a good time to mulch around perennial vegetables such as artichokes and asparagus and fruit canes and trees. I also mulch around spring brassicas to feed them and to improve the soil for the crops that will follow them. For mulching I use garden compost, seaweed (which is very nutritious and free at the beach at the end of my street), spent potting compost from last year's tomato plants and well-rotted manure. If mulching round existing plants, go easy on manure and other mulches that are rich in nitrogen as these can encourage too much leggy growth which may get damaged in late frosts.

Pruning fruit trees


If you haven't already, prune apple and pear trees, cut back raspberry canes, currants and gooseberries. Plum and gage trees should be pruned in mid summer. If you prune them now they can easily get diseased.

Watch those pigeons...


Wood pigeons can be a nuisance at any time of year, and do seem partial to a good bit of brassica foliage. I find particularly so in late winter and early spring. They can decimate a crop of spring cabbages or purple sprouting broccoli in a matter of days. This is especially depressing with crops that you have nurtured all through winter and which are almost ready to harvest. If you can, put netting over your brassicas. If they are too large to net, I find an array of bamboo canes, string and CDs tends to scare them away.


High tech pigeon deterrent

15 February 2017

Seville Orange Possets

Citrus fruits are one of the culinary joys of winter. Their bright colours and zingy flavours bring a ray of sunshine to cold days and dark evenings. Seville oranges are a bitter variety of orange, available only for a few short weeks in January and early February. Seville oranges are usually used for making marmalade, but their culinary uses go well beyond preserves. Possets are one of my favourite desserts. They are easy to make, and can be made in advance if you have guests coming round and simply whipped out the fridge for serving. Possets are typically made with lemons, but work equally as well with Seville oranges, which give a nice twist to this classic dessert.

Seville oranges

11 January 2017

Winter salad leaves

I love the hearty stews, roasts and other comfort food we all eat in winter, but sometimes I get the urge for a good salad. Particularly post Christmas, when it is easy to feel one has over-indulged during the festive periods. It is good to get a bit inventive with winter salads, and I like to include things like julienned root veg, citrus fruit and finely sliced sprouts, but a few interesting leaves always help meld a salad together. Many gardeners grow salad leaves in summer, but far fewer grow them in winter. There are in fact many salad leaves that will grow in winter. Here a few to have a go with.

8 December 2016

Pickled herrings

Herrings are a hugely populous fish, and are often landed at Channel fishing ports in winter. They usually swim in large shoals, so when caught are often caught in large numbers. They also deteriorate quickly. As a result, herrings are often preserved. Smoking - either as kippers or less commonly bloaters, salting or pickling are the common methods in the UK. Fermentation is also popular in Scandinavian countries. I love a good pickled herring, but I find the shop-bought ones a bit too sweet and vinegary. Better to do it yourself. If a good catch of herrings has come in at the fishmongers, I often pickle a whole batch of them. They keep well in the fridge, and make an excellent lunch or starter.

Pickled herrings

23 November 2016

Garden foraging - a brief guide to edible weeds

Foraging used to be the preserve of dedicated enthusiasts and hippies seeking an alternative lifestyle. These days it is very much in vogue. Sunday paper supplements feature articles on wild ingredients. Any restaurant worth its salt will have at least a few foraged ingredients on its menu. So much so that professional foragers, usually wild-eyed men in disturbingly dirty boots, can be found lurking in restaurant kitchens as often as the more traditional meat, veg and other delivery guys. Foraged ingredients seem exotic and unusual, and it is easy to think that any foraging trip requires an expedition to the local woods or seashore. However, much like charity, foraging can begin at home. Or to be more accurate in the garden. There are many common weeds that are in fact edible. Weeding isn't my favourite job, but the prospect of free ingredients does make it more enjoyable a task. What follows are all edible weeds that I find growing in my modest urban garden.