25 December 2012

Last-minute white Christmas

It wasn't snowy when we went to bed last night, but we woke to a light blanket of snow this morning. Talk about cutting it fine. Happy Christmas!

21 December 2012

Yule harvest

As forecast, the weather has turned wintry today, with heavy overnight rain turning into snow this morning. I decided I'd better harvest my last remaining outdoor lettuces, parsnips and some of the spinach. It made a good haul, with nearly a pound of lettuce in all:

We'll still be getting carrots, parsley, sage, spinach and kale from the greenhouse during the rest of the winter, but I expect this will be the last harvest from the vegetable garden. Not that I can complain about picking lettuces on the shortest day of the year!

19 December 2012

Solstice surprises

After a week away from home I was pleased to discover that the young lettuce plants in the greenhouse were still going strong.

I think these must have sown themselves earlier in the year. I'm hoping that I'll be able to use them as a welcome bit of green in a Christmas salad, or perhaps just as a garnish. I covered them up with a spare bit of polythene yesterday to improve their chances of survival as the temperature finally looks likely to drop to more normal December levels after a fairly mild beginning to the month (and with no snow to speak of, so far).

In the barnyard, we've got some even more surprising survivals. There's still some lettuce bravely growing.

And the spinach is still hanging on outside, too.

These probably won't last a lot longer, but it's pleasant to still see some green outside when by now the world is usually a bit whiter than this!

02 December 2012

December pickings

After two days which felt like winter, today we're back in November, as far as the weather is concerned: it's mild, windy and very wet. Although this November wasn't at all like that, I will admit. Looking at the report from our nearest official weather station, they've recorded 16mm of rain/snow in November, compared to an average of over 80! Temperatures, on the other hand, have been close to the long-term average.

As it was so mild today, I went out into the garden to restock my supply of vegetables. I collected beets, parsley, broccoli, and carrots from the greenhouse and a Savoy cabbage, some sunchokes and Brussels tops from the barnyard.

This week we also 'harvested' the male chickens we reared this year: this was our first foray into deliberate meat production after having to get to grips with the process of butchering the chickens which had been killed by a weasel last winter (and once you've tasted slow-reared free-range heritage chicken, you realise what you've been missing out on all your life!). We killed ten of the eleven new roosters (keeping the remaining one as an heir to our other rooster).

Heritage breeds like our Buff Orpingtons take a long time to grow, compared to the Cornish Cross chickens which is what you always buy at the supermarket. So where the Cornish X is a non-stop eating machine which is ready to be processed at six or seven weeks (any longer and its legs can't bear the weight of its ballooning breast), the Orpingtons are not fully grown until they are about 20 weeks old. There's a telling photograph on this blog showing the comparative size of the two breeds at five weeks. 'Chickenzilla' is the word that sprang into my mind at the sight of the Cornish X.

The meat is completely different, too. I found an interesting article [PDF] by Gina Bisco yesterday on the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy site about the need for cooking chicken differently when you're using meat from a heritage bird: because they spend longer running around, the leg meat needs longer cooking than the breast and has more texture to it than the meat from a Cornish X (there's also more of it). The leg meat is noticeably darker than the breast meat and responds well to long, slow, relatively low-temperature cooking.

I used two legs and a good selection of garden vegetables to make this chicken noodle and dumpling stew for lunch today. The broth made by the meat and bones of these more mature birds has to be tasted to be believed.

17 November 2012

Chestnuts roasting*

There aren't that many stores that sell chestnuts here, so when I see them I can't resist the temptation. I have fond family memories of Dad roasting chestnuts in an old biscuit tin over an open fire and everyone burning their fingers as they cracked off the outer layers of the nuts to get at the sweet brain-shaped meat within.

 I hadn't tried cooking them on the wood-burning stove before, but it worked fine: it took longer than the directly-over-the-flame method (about 20 minutes, turning the chestnuts occasionally) but there's less chance of burning them, this way.

And in considerably less than 20 minutes, all that was left was the furry, woody debris.

*Apologies if you have Nat King Cole crooning in your head for the rest of the day.

11 November 2012

Early-morning light show

I really didn't feel like taking the dog for a walk this morning, even though the weather was mild and it looked as though the sun was going to put in an appearance (always a bonus in November). But my diligence was rewarded by two lovely views in opposite directions from the same standpoint.

Looking west, there was a rainbow fragment and (barely visible here) a skein of geese high in the sky:

While to the south and east the sun was rising; drawing a light mist from last night's rain.

10 November 2012

Fried wontons

I'm not sure what it is about early November and fiddly Chinese food, but I decided to make wontons again this weekend, just as I did on the same weekend in 2010. Last time I steamed them, but as it wasn't a fasting day today (and as our new way of eating has been going so well), I decided to fry them this time.

The filling was a finely-chopped mixture of some of our winter vegetables: red and white cabbage, a carrot, red onion and two cloves of garlic, with a few mushrooms and some fresh ginger, salt and pepper. I put them all through the food processor which was very quick to do and created a fairly uniform dark purple paste.

A teaspoon of that mixture was put into the centre of each wonton wrapper, then the wrapper is moistened with water and folded in half over the filling:

and the two 'wings' of the hypotenuse are curved inwards to make a sort of dinner-napkin shape:

Child#2 and I got quite a good little production-line going (there were over 50 wrappers to fill) - this kind of fiddly food works really well when there is more than one person and it's easy for kids to do.

We covered the base of a frying pan with sunflower oil to the depth of a millimetre or two, then heated it over a medium heat for five minutes until it was suitably hot. We fried the wontons in batches of eight for a minute or two on each side, until they were golden brown.

The dipping sauce was a mixture of vinegar and soy with a crushed garlic clove in it. If I make these again I'd add a bit more heat to the vegetable mixture itself: these were a bit bland for my taste. They needed a chilli or two in the mix!

05 November 2012

Sandy damage

The hurricane which affected New York and New Jersey so badly last week had an impact here, too. We didn 't lose any trees, as far as we know, but one of the greenhouse panels was blown out by the force of the wind.

It was supposed to drop cold last night, possibly cold enough to kill off the more tender greenhouse plants. In anticipation of that I harvested a lot of the remaining peppers, eggplants, and tomatoes.

Then we got to work to fill the gap in the side wall. We don't have any of the plastic panelling left, so we painted a sheet of plywood with preservative and put that up instead.

Having done all that, the temperature only dropped to 0°C last night and the plants would have been fine anyway. But tonight we are promised -6°C/21°F and I"m glad we are prepared.

04 November 2012

A bit of a rant and some greens

All the family went out for a meal last night to celebrate Mike's birthday. I was looking forward to trying one of the 'Countylicious' menus at local restaurants. This is a month-long celebration of the County's 'culinary community', according to the initiative's website - it's basically designed to tempt people out to local restaurants in the slack season between the end of summer and the Christmas party rush. It's been running for a few years but this is the first time we'd got organised enough to try it.

And I have to say that I was disappointed with the meal I had. The meat was local, but the vegetables were anything but fresh, local, and seasonal: asparagus in November and some carrots and broccoli that looked suspiciously like they'd come from a packet of frozen veg. With farm stands still selling fresh vegetables in the County: root crops, leeks, cabbages, squashes, there's simply no excuse for a restaurant claiming to be celebrating local food to be serving up frozen vegetables at this time of year.

I mentioned in an earlier post that the Brussels sprout plants have been refusing to produce any actual sprouts, despite looking green and healthy. I think the weather conditions this year just haven't been right for the formation of sprouts. I don't like to think that I've grown a vegetable which is producing nothing worth eating, so instead of vainly hoping for some sprouts to appear at this late period of the year, I'm focusing instead on those healthy green leaves and am harvesting those.

I've not picked or cooked Brussel tops before, so this was a bit of an experiment. I cut out the stems, shredded the greens and then lightly braised them with a clove or two of garlic in a little butter and water, finished with some freshly ground pepper and a little salt.

They made a tasty and brightly green side dish to our Sunday lunch of local lamb cooked with  herbs, onions, carrots, potatoes and parsnips, all from our garden. Even those who would refuse to eat sprouts were willing to consume them. If we can eat these seasonal, local crops at our own table, I'm sure that restaurants claiming to support County growers can do the same thing.

01 November 2012

Foraging for fungi

I've been picking Shaggy Ink Caps from the front garden in the last week or two. It's very satisfying to be able to pick some of your breakfast from the lawn!

In the last week I spotted another type of fungus growing in the orchard grass. Well, it wasn't hard to spot, really, being about 10 inches in diameter. But I have no idea what this one is. Have you?

26 October 2012

Late October harvest

We're enjoying an Indian Summer at the moment - with temperatures yesterday in the low 20s/70s. Unfortunately, the forecast for the next week looks unrelentingly grim: much colder, rain every day and the chance of a visit from Hurricane Sandy. Lovely!

I decided to go and dig up some of the outside root crops before they all get drowned. I got a good haul of parsnips, carrots and sunchokes, plus a swede/rutabaga, one of my Savoy cabagges and more broccoli. Since recovering from the dry summer, the broccoli plants have been doing really well and I've been picking it twice a week. I wish I could say the same for the Brussels sprouts, which look fantastic from a distance but which haven't produced a single sprout between them.

A hard frost has brought about a dramatic change in the pumpkin patch at the hayfield. Here's how the bed was looking in early August:

And now it's looking almost as though there was never anything growing in it; just a few last spaghetti squash left to show how productive it has been.

Considering the problems we had with the long dry spells in July and August, I was pleased with the amount of produce this bed delivered. Especially compared to last year, when squash bugs destroyed all of these plants in the vegetable garden by the house. The longer walk also provided me with some good exercise as I carried all the pumpkins, squash and cucumbers back to the house!

20 October 2012

Botanical gardens, Berlin

I've been in Berlin for a few days on a business trip this week, with two days free at the end because of stupid flight pricing. Yesterday I went on a fantastic bike tour of the city centre with a group of other tourists from all over the world. That was great fun (especially the part where we were cycling through the Tiergarten: the park is really beautiful at this time of year).

Today I headed for the botanical gardens. I got there just before they officially opened, but the entrance gate was already manned, so I paid my €6 and set off into the garden, armed with a printed guide to the best parts to visit in the autumn. For about half an hour I didn't see anyone else at all and felt as though I had the whole space to myself. It was a sunny, dewy, morning with just a touch of mist in the air.

I wasn't expecting to see many flowers, so late in the year, but the trees more than made up for that. The season is less advanced here than it is at home and the trees are looking beautiful. The arboretum is full of interesting-looking small paths which beg to be explored: it doesn't feel at all formal, apart from the labels on the plants.

One that caught my attention in the North American part of the arboretum was this witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana). I hadn't realised that this was native to our part of the world. Looking at its range, we're right at the northern edge of it, but it would be great if we could grow this in our woods at home.

Also in flower in the arboretum was this striking plant:

This is Cimicifuga simplex, otherwise known as bugbane. This is native to Asia, but the North American equivalent is Actaea (or Cimicifuga) racemosa, a.k.a. black cohosh, black snakeroot or fairy candle. Another one to look out for at home.

The roses in the garden were mostly showing off their hips. These are from the dog rose:

There were one or two brave roses still flowering. I didn't make a note of the variety, but this one looked lovely with its light spritzing of dew:

The glasshouses and their contents were architecturally impressive:

I narrowly missed taking a photo of a small brown newt which was sitting on this plant the second before I pressed the shutter button:

I've never been wild about cacti, but there's something about this group that's almost cuddly.

And did I mention that the trees were gorgeous?

Having spaces like this almost makes it worth living in a city, although I must admit that I liked it best in that first half-hour when I felt I was only sharing it with the birds. By the time I left there was quite a long queue at the entrance, so the garden is clearly appreciated by the city's inhabitants and visitors.

06 October 2012

Tarte au citron chocolat

We're having our official Thanksgiving meal a week late, as my dad and his wife will be with us next weekend and we thought we'd wait until then for the big feast. But there were small murmurings of discontent from the children at not having a celebratory meal this weekend, so I'm putting a bit more thought and effort than usual into tomorrow's Sunday lunch.

I made my Christmas cake and pudding this week and as a result had a dezested orange and lemon to use up. My original vague thought for a Sunday dessert was to make a lemon tart to use up the juice of the lemon. Google wafted me over to David Lebovitz's site where I got sidetracked by the amazing recipe for the pastry shell of the lemon tart he made. I adapted it slightly by cooking the butter mixture on the stovetop rather than in the oven, but it seemed to come out fine. Then while it was baking I wandered off to look at his other tart recipes and immediately fell in love with his description of his chocolate tart:

A good chocolate tart doesn’t need to be fancy, but it needs to be deep, dark, and yes, somewhat decadent.

The method looked a little scary, involving making caramel and warning about being "sure to avert your face" when you add the liquid to the hot sugar. But it all went smoothly (I love David Lebovitz's reassuring and straightfoward instructions) and I did use up the juice of the orange in the recipe, so at least some of my original intention was achieved!

Here's the finished tart:

Now the main challenge is going to be resisting cutting into it before tomorrow...

05 October 2012

Global success

I thought the globe artichokes I grew from seed this year had been killed by the dry spell in July. But they came back from the dead once we had some decent rainfall and are now looking quite healthy.

My next problem is whether they will survive the winter here. I think I'll cut the leaves back once we get a frost and then pile hay over the plants and see what happens. I grew one in one of the greenhouse beds, too, so that plant might have a better chance of making it through the cold season.

Has anyone else successfully brought globe artichokes through a Great Lakes winter?

22 September 2012

Crumble tart

Mike and I made a bit of a lifestyle change in mid-August when we started following the 5:2 way of eating. This involves eating perfectly normally most of the week, but drastically cutting back calories on two days to 500 for me and 600 for him. It's been going pretty well and I've set up a separate blog about it, with recipes and so on, as it doesn't really fit into the theme of this one.

Today was a not-a-fasting day (hurrah) and I took advantage of it by making this delicious tart. The recipe is from Nigella Lawson's How to be a Domestic Goddess, where it's called German Plum Tart. In my version I used two slightly spongy apples (which were sitting neglected in the fruit bowl and destined to become compost if I didn't do something creative with them) and two peaches instead of the plums called for in the recipe.

The tart consists of three layers. The bottom one is a sweet yeasted dough which is pressed into the bottom of a roasting dish:

Then comes the layer of fruit with three tablespoons of brown sugar, which makes a sweet syrup with the juice from the peaches:

The final layer is a crumble of flour, sugar and butter (I didn't have the walnuts or pecans that the recipe called for). The syrup sinks into the dough and the crumble on top crisps up beautifully.

A perfect treat after a day of abstinence!

20 September 2012


It's that time of year when I think things like 'I'll just pop outside and pick a few tomatoes'. And then I stagger back indoors, an hour later, laden with a little bit more than my planned harvest:

And then there is an hour or two of feverish chopping, trimming, blanching, boiling, labelling, and freezing to get through before I can walk through the kitchen again without a burden of guilt at the sight of all the unprocessed abundance.

Quite a lot of today's haul got turned into supper:

Moussaka is about the only thing I can do with eggplant that is likely to be welcomed by the children.

As problems go, having too much produce is hardly one to complain about. And I do know that the February me will be grateful to the me of today for freezing all this food. I just wish she was here to help me do it!

10 September 2012

Eggs, tomatoes and kale

We've been having a disappointing performance from the chickens in recent months: ever since we merged the new chicks in with the remainder of our original flock we've only been getting one or two eggs a day. In recent weeks this has gone down to just one egg a day and sometimes none. This means that we've been feeding 31 birds and only one of them has been deigning to return the favour.

About 12 of those birds are males, so I'm not expecting any eggs from them, but it would be nice if the remaining 19 could pull their weight a bit. I was therefore very pleased to find two eggs today, one of them quite small. I hope this means that our new flock have started to lay: with any luck we will soon be overrun with eggs again, instead of portioning them out as though they're made of solid gold.

I had a go at making oven-dried tomatoes this weekend, using some of my crop of cherry tomatoes. It takes quite a while, but it's really worth it: they taste amazing - a really concentrated burst of tomatoey sweetness.

I was away at the end of last week and in my absence the cabbage worms have done a good job of eating nearly every leaf on the young Tuscan kale plants which had been doing very well in the greenhouse. I spent half an hour yesterday morning picking the little blighters off.

On a broccoli plant I found that one of the caterpillars had already matured enough to build itself a cocoon. I know there's not much logic to it, but I left the cocoon in place. It may well hatch out and lay another devouring army of eggs on my plants, but there's something so wondrous about the transformation of caterpillar to butterfly that I can't bring myself to interfere with it.

03 September 2012


We lost the top layer of plastic from the greenhouse over the winter and the remaining layer has been looking increasingly battered and torn.

On Friday it was really windy and we had to make some emergency repairs to stop the damage getting much worse. The forecast on Sunday was for a sunny day with little wind, which are ideal conditions for trying to put new layers of polythene over the structure. Four years ago Mike and I did this as a two-person job. This time, the children were old enough to help pull the sheets over the greenhouse. It was still very hard and hot work, but by the end of the day the sheets were in place and secured along three of their edges.

This morning Mike finished securing the fourth edge, along the arch on the eastern side, a job complicated by a phalanx of curious wasps. If you don't like wasps much (and I don't know many people who do), being at the top of a ladder while they are buzzing around your head can be rather stressful. As if being up a ladder, doing a tricky job, in blazing hot sunshine is not stressful enough. My job, as usual, was as ladder ballast. Silently-praying-that-Mike-doesn't-fall-off-the-ladder ballast.

We still have to sort out the 'skirts' of the greenhouse, securing the long edges which roll up below the wooden battens, but at least those can be done with feet on terra firma!