What I’m going to grow in 2015

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I had a pretty successful growing year last year, but made a few mistakes with what I grew. My theme for 2014 was ‘grow stuff which is expensive in the shops’, which was a nice idea on paper.

For the sixth year running, I used an entire raised bed (50% of my growing space) to attempt pumpkins, which (for the sixth year running) grew to the size of an egg then withered away. I love pumpkins, but 2014 confirmed that we’ll never be mother and child. As a result of this, I lost an enormous amount of growing space, given that each pumpkin takes up a minimum of 1m squared.

I grew globe artichokes, which looked magnificent and tasted immense, but they look a tremendous amount of effort, for a very small return (I grew four).

Celeriac grew, and survived winter, but the resulting vegetables were tiny. This was a big shame. I did all I could for those boys, but they just didn’t deliver.

I am 99.9% sure that I am at fault for these failures, due to not watering enough/watering too much/not feeding enough/not feeding appropriately etc etc. Therefore, as the sort of gardener who stubbornly prefers to experiment, wing it and find my own way, I’ve absolutely no right to complain. I have to take what comes.

2015 has been officially named the year of frugality in our house. We’re having an extension built and are planning a trip to New York, so we’re squirrelling away, staying in and basically being incredibly boring for the next six months. With this in mind, I’ve decided that growing this year will be all about going back to basics. I’m going to grow the stuff we need and use on a daily basis. I’m going to sow monthly, to ensure an ongoing supplies of the staples. I’m going to grow in bulk, store things away in my shed and hope the mice don’t catch wind of my secret supplies.

One of the raised beds is going to be my salad bed – full of a readily replenished supply of radishes, lettuces, pakchoi and onions. In pots I’m going to have potatoes, cucumbers and tomatoes. In the other bed, I’m going to for hardy staples which can hack the colder months and keep us supplied through winter – kale, chard, leeks, broad beans and beets. This year I’m going to beat the squirrels to the hazelnuts on our hazel tree, freeze the surplus raspberries instead of leaving them to wither on the plant, and dry as many of the herbs as I can. All sounds very optimistic doesn’t it? I’m looking forward to blogging about how it all pans out.

Ready and waiting

Primed with compost and ready for good times ahead.

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Battening Down the Hatches

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It’s now dark before I leave work, which means it’s late in the year, which means it’s time to hibernate.

I’m pretty good at autumn and even better at winter. Thick jumpers, clompy boots, hiding behind scarves, pumpkins, cinnamon, cloves, everything in a pot, everything piping hot. GOOD GOD, I’m in heaven right now.

I started to embrace winter when I realised that dark evenings were making me gloomy. I knew I had to start making the evenings productive. I needed to see staying indoors as a good opportunity to get stuff in order and do something creative, as opposed to feeling constrained and claustrophobic (which I used to).

A few winters ago I used the time to bake. A lot. Every night I’d be whipping up puddings, breads and cakes, to the point where I ran out of people to feed. Last year I bought a slow cooker, so I spent every evening chopping things into tiny pieces to put in the cooker the next morning. This year, I’m learning how to make chutneys, jams and homemade booze. I have no experience at all in this department, but I’m not letting that put me off. I’ve asked for a jam pan for Christmas and I’ve bought some sterilising tablets for my jars and bottles, so it’s getting serious.

Sloe news day

I’ve recently liberated a cluttered cupboard, which I plan to fill with things I’ve made for the future. At the moment I have some sloe gin and rosehip vodka in there, which have been steeping for about 6 weeks following an awesome forage I went on in the North York Moors with my mum. We spent the morning poking about in prickly hedgerows, clambering up banks and meditatively plucking berries from their stems. We were lucky enough to come across the holy grail of foraging – a laden sloe bush. Bloody awesome.

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Fruits of our labour

I think the forage was the beginning of my seasonal fascination with squirrelling away food for the future. I love the idea of picking fresh things to preserve and store away for brighter times. I just hope I do them justice.

Next week I’m going to have a go at making elderberry wine. The berries are currently in my freezer, something which has already divided opinion. One person has told it was the worst thing I could have done, another person has said its the best. I’ve never been one to worry about strict rules and the way I see it, it may work, it may not. I’m just excited to try it.

Homage to… the buffet.

Who can resist the unmistakable flavours of mince pie and salsa?

Who can resist the unmistakable flavours of mince pie and salsa?

This year, we had family over on Boxing Day for lunch. It’s always hard to know what to make for people the day after Christmas Day, as they’re either still bulging and nauseous from the previous day’s feasting, or their bodies have become accustomed to seasonal gluttony and as such, they require a triple portion of everything. I took the sensible option: buffet.

It was a fancy buffet and I did quite a lot of cooking and faffing for it. I’ll write about what exactly I made tomorrow. But before then, I thought I would do my first ‘homage to…’. There are lots of things in the world of food that we take for granted/ignore/under analyse. And I would like to highlight and celebrate those things. The buffet is to be the first of these homages. Undervalued yet overused, I give you: the buffet.

Who doesn’t like a buffet? The answer is no-one. No-one doesn’t like a buffet, which is a double negative. That means it’s a positive. That means EVERYONE likes a buffet. I think the true beauty of buffets lies in that nearly all conventional eating rules are out of the window.

They’re great for the host (if there is one)

If you’re hosting a buffet, you can spend time being a host, rather than sweating by the cooker. You can do all your prep well in advance and once it is laid out, your work is pretty much done.

The only time when this isn’t applicable is when you have collaborative workplace buffets, which for some reason are called ‘fuddles’ where I live. You know the kind of thing: it’s Christmas/Jim from IT’s birthday/Sarah’s last day before she goes on maternity… and so someone organised has asked everyone to bring something in for the buffet. More often than not, these buffets consist of;

  • 6 GIANT tupperware bowls of pasta salad, which clearly took people hours to prepare, but no-one even makes a dent in. They fester, untouched, for the rest of the week until the cleaner gets frustrated and bins the lot. The bowls then mysteriously go missing and Jane from reception (whose bowl was one of the casualties) tells Sue from accounts that making the pasta salad was a waste of bloody time and next time she’s bringing crisps, as that’s all that Steve brought and everyone seemed to appreciate them. The bowls turn up 6 months later behind a filing cabinet. Mark from HR is blamed.
  • Lots of bags of crisps, like the ones Steve brought. Always go down well. Usually purchased a petrol station in state of mild panic at 8:55am.
  • Something in a small, square tupperware that looks like couscous, which Anna from reception brought in. No-one is sure if it’s something especially for her (as she’s gluten intolerant) or whether it’s for the collective. Mark from HR decides to try some and declares that it’s ‘actually really nice’, and so everyone digs in. Anna turns up late to the party; it was for her. Anna doesn’t eat and has to go to Pret a Manger at 2pm to buy something, complaining as she leaves of feeling faint from hunger. Mark from HR is blamed. Irene the admin says that he should have offered to pay for her replacement lunch. Mark says Anna should have done more to keep it separate. Jane from reception blames Sue from accounts for mixing it in with all the rest of the food. Sue says Anna should have told her it was special. The incident is brought up on a 6 monthly basis for the next 4 years. Everyone has an opinion (I’m on Mark’s side – he always gets blamed for things).
  • A tiny victoria sponge from the co-op, 79p. No-one knows who brought it, but everyone judges them. It still gets eaten.

There is a fascinating etiquette to it all

Everyone knows that there is always someone keeping covert tabs on how many times you’ve gone to the table.  This is usually your great auntie or Irene the admin. Your performance will be commended (‘so THAT’s how she keeps her figure’) or criticised (‘did you SEE how many plates of food she had?’) in private, later that afternoon. You will never know how you fared. You can respond in one of two ways to this:

1) Take one triangle of sandwich and three grapes, whilst congratulating the creator of the buffet on ‘an amazing spread’. If you’re British, you are more likely to be this person. By 3 o’clock, you’re shoving Dairy Milks into any orifice which will take them.

2) On your seventh proud stride to the table, whilst coming up on your sugar induced high, congratulate the the creator of the buffet: ‘Well, I won’t be needing any dinner this evening! I LOVE this potato salad – how did you make it? Oh, I couldn’t possibly… well, if there’s some going spare? I’d LOVE to take the rest home! Thank you SO much!’

Both of these attitudes seem to stem from the very public nature of buffets and our subsequent self-awareness. You’re on display; your eating habits are being laid bare.  Whether or not you care about what people think, determines whether or not you pass the test.

Will you pass? What actually IS the test? And why does Irene the admin get to be judge, jury and executioner?

10 years ago I taught abroad in Vanuatu, South Pacific, which has since been voted the happiest country on earth (I don’t know how this was judged, but it is what it is). One weekend, I went on a day trip with some of my students. I’d brought along a picnic, part of which was a very esteemed and rare bag of crisps that I’d brought with me from Australia. With only having two shops on the island and crisps being prohibitively expensive (£5 for a large bag – I kid you not), both myself and the children were VERY excited by the crisps. At lunch, I opened the bag and gave it to one of the students, asking him to pass it on to the others when he’d taken some. He took the bag from me, dug both his hands in, took out about 9/10ths of the bag and plonked the crisps on his lap, beaming with delight. He then passed the bag on to the next kid, who emptied the rest of the bag onto his lap. The second kid then announced to the rest of the class that there were no more crisps left. To my astonishment, the rest of the students just shrugged their shoulders and carried on eating what they had, despite the fact that only 5 minutes previously we had all been excitedly discussing the impending treat. There was a little pause and then everyone burst into screaming laughter and we were rolling around on the floor in hysterics for the next 10 minutes. Happiest place on earth, see?  This isn’t meant to be some sort of fable… but the incident really highlighted to me just how many conventions and hang ups we have about food in the West. The attitude of the first kid was ‘nice one, crisps!’ and he took as many as he could. The other kids didn’t even bat an eyelid, instead just eating what they had. Not for one minute did they feel any sense of injustice. No-one cared! It was brilliant!

If the same thing had happened here in the UK, internal and external outrage would swell the room. In food sharing situations we should apparently be reserved, diplomatic, humble. We absorb these subconscious ways of working from a very young age, and I find them absolutely fascinating. Buffets are heaving with them – it’s great to just sit back and watch the psychology textbooks write themselves.

You can mix things in ungodly ways

One of my favourite things about buffets… it is perfectly normal to have a pork pie and some chicken satay on a plate together. Does it mean they complement one another? No, of course not, but the choice is in your hands. You are the master of your own buffet-based destiny. It’s up to you to create your own taste combinations and sensations. The provider of the buffet simply presents the options.

I’m not a massive fan of fusion food, but sometimes, just sometimes, magic can happen at buffets. Here are some of my favourite flavour combos that you’ll only ever encounter at a buffet:

  • Mango chutney and (insert anything you wish here). Buffets have taught me that the indestructible flavour of mango chutney can pretty much withstand anything. It’s so strong, that you could spread it on a bird’s eye chilli and have no reaction whatsoever. Awful buffet with bland, soggy, quiche lorraines? Look for the mango chutney and spread it over everything you’ve got. It’ll obliterate the most offensive of flavours. If I come to your buffet and there’s mango chutney all over my plate, I’m sorry, but I’m in gastronomic pain.
  • Milk chocolate in any form, followed by salt and vinegar Kettle Chips (obtained when you thought you were full and had had your final mini chocolate brownie, but it turns out you weren’t and went up for fourths). It’s wrong, it shouldn’t work, but it really does. Sugar meets salt. Sugar meets grease. Arteries meet saturated fat.
  • Salted peanuts and sour cream dip. You’re perched on the arm of the sofa, your side plate at a diagonal on your lap. Your paper hat slips over your eyes, forming a limp, hazy shield to the frivolities. You glance downwards forlornly. Eight peanuts roll slowly across your plate and rest in a glut of sour cream dip. In a normal world, nuts and cream shouldn’t generally mix in a savoury sense. In buffet land, provided you have a pringle to scoop it all up with, it actually works. So much so, that you’ll actively seek the pairing when you go up for seconds.

Leftover Food

Everyone (that’s everyone, not no-one) knows that two-day-old buffet food is king. If you play it right, you’ll be dining on the remnants for days to come. Baked ham will become the basis of lunchtime sandwiches that you actually look forward to. A late night hunger-run to the fridge will reward you with a quarter of pork pie, smothered with tangy pickle. A pinch of mildly stale, yet still salty crisps will comfort you, as you wait for the kettle to boil. Dinner the following evening will be half a scotch egg, some stilton on hovis crackers and a spoonful of potato salad. Again, defying conventions. Continuing the party.

If you like food, being at home in the wake of a buffet is akin to nirvana.

Pickled Onions

When else do you eat them? And when you do eat them, how happy do you feel? Very, that’s what. I feel a future homage coming on…

 

And this was my homage to the humble buffet. We’ve all been there, as both host and guest. We’ve all loved them, we’ve all despised them. They never age, they never  evolve. A glistening reflection of society and what it is to be a human, I give you: the buffet.

There will be things I have overlooked. Of course there will. Buffets mean lots of different things to lots of different people. I’d love to hear about your favourite things to do with buffets. Any funny stories? Or do you despise them? Tell me why!

It’s cheeeeeesssseeeemaaaaaaaaaaas!

Is this love?
Is this love?

**** Caution: this blog post contains small elements of Scrooginess and me being a bit of a Scrooge. It doesn’t last though. ****

Well, despite the fact that it isn’t actually very cold outside and I’ve not yet watched Elf, it’s crept up on us, once again.

I always spend a few days in the build up to Christmas over-analysing it, trying to understand what it’s all about. Why do I have to do it? And how did all the component parts actually come together? What does a fir tee have to do with a rich fruit pudding and why do we need them in order to celebrate the birth of a man who apparently wasn’t even born in December? I always tie myself in knots about it. This utter ridiculousness has afflicted me from quite a young age, as I was brought up to question everything. Then last year my husband said something along the lines of; ‘just chill out and enjoy it, it’s a tradition. Like giving presents on someone’s birthday or toasting people’s health. No-one knows exactly why we do these things, we just do them because they’re nice things to do.’ And he was right. SO, as from last year, I chilled out. I dropped the Scrooge act and instead begun a one-woman mission to usurp Mrs Claus as Queen of Christmas. This year, I actually bought a tree. It’s small, but I have one and it’s lovely. I am ABSOLUTELY FINE with the fact that I have a living tree covered in plastic trinkets in my sitting room for no reason other than ‘that’s what you do in December.’ I’m fine with it. Totally. Trees in the living room. It’s all good. It’s the new me. I LOVE CHRISTMAS.

I love the cinnamon, the collective glow and the wooly scarves. I love the guilt free gin and tonics at 12pm. I love using ‘but it’s Christmas!’ as a quasi-legitimate excuse for my (year-round) inability to say ‘no’ to ANYTHING. But, rather predictably, the most important and loved part of Christmas in our home, is food.

This year, with the exception of Christmas Day, we’ll be holing up in our house until January 2nd. I have stocked up accordingly. We’re all set. Food will dictate our days. New meals will be invented, such as ‘third lunch’ and ‘pre-breakfast’. Our daily pattern of movement will be this: bedroom, kitchen, living room, kitchen, living room, kitchen, living room, kitchen, living room, bedroom. This will repeat for 11 days. And then we’ll go back to work; fatter, no wiser, but bloody happy. And fatter. And less wise. And most likely with breathing difficulties (me) or gout (husband.)

To me, the most important thing about Christmas food is cheese. That’s why I called this post ‘It’s Cheesemas’, but I put lots of extra ‘e’s’ and ‘a’s’ in it, so it sounded like Noddy Holder was shouting it at you. It was meant to be funny. Won’t be good for the SEO.

Yes. Cheese. It’s important to me. Every 6 months or so, me and my husband moot the idea of moving abroad for a few years, while we’re still childless and selfish. But then we always shudder to a halt at the inevitable show stopper: ‘what about the cheese?’ Could we find a rich, tangy, wincingly sour cheddar in Jakarta? If I had only $5 and 20 minutes, could I find goats cheese in Denver? We will never move. We are so, so lucky to live in a part of the world where excellent cheese is cheap and freely available. And as such, it pretty much rules my life.

As with many things foodie, there is some sort of pointless etiquette one is supposed to follow when it comes to having a cheeseboard. I recall some of the rules:

  • No more than 5 cheeses
  • Only include one blue
  • Don’t cut the ends off the cheese

There are other rules as well, but they’re not important. The only thing important right now is that we have the cheese and that no-one can take it from us. We only do this once a year, and so we should do it properly.

Here’s our cheeseboard:

  • Montgomery cheddar (I still haven’t tried this, but several people have recommended it)
  • Wensleydale with cranberries (it’s illegal to live in Yorkshire and not have this in your Christmas fridge. ILLEGAL. You still have time.)
  • Roule (wrong, wrong, wrong. But right, right, right. Spread on Hovis crackers. Jesus.)
  • Taleggio (a bit of Mediterranean sunshine from the amazing Abel and Cole)
  • Yorkshire Blue and Harrogate Blue (from the miraculous and fabulously local Shepherd’s Purse dairy. Two of the greatest blue cheeses on earth.)
  • Cotswold herb brie (another Abel and Cole treat. Looking forward to this on its own with some fresh tomato and watercress.)
  • Stilton (did I mention it’s Christmas? This one’s a no-brainer.)

These cheeses shall sustain us through the days ahead. There will be crackers, there will be salads, there will be tarts (of the puff pastry, not saucy lady variety.) I’ll tweet or blog about some of the upcoming cheesey combinations, if it lasts long enough. When there is lots of cheese in the house, I am prone to doing late night Nigella-runs to the fridge. I’ll observe NO etiquette, as I snap off and inhale corners of crumbly stilton. I can be there for up to 10 minutes, leaning against the humming fridge door, moaning with dairy-induced delight. It’s once a year. It’s how it should be.

I will doubtless talk more about cheese in the coming weeks. However, tomorrow, I’m having a bake and booze fest. We’re having family over on Boxing Day and so I’m making:

  • Stilton and cranberry bread
  • Chorizo and sunblushed tomato bread
  • Chestnut and chocolate cake
  • Limoncello (I’ve found a recipe which doesn’t require you to steep it for months)
  • Probably something else.

As such, I’ll be blogging about the results – whatever they may be. And I’ll share the recipes, if they work!

Merry Cheesemas, one and all!

Peace and love x