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Friday, 23 May 2014

A lazy person's guide to growing leeks

It stands to reason that whenever anyone starts growing vegetables for the first time, they don't know much about what they are doing and need to seek advice and guidance. This may be from experienced gardening friends or books or even the internet. When I first started vegetable gardening, the internet had only just been invented and isn't what it is today. Instead I read books by sages on the subject such as Peter Seabrook, Dr D.G. Hessayon and Monty Don. There is no denying that between them they have a lot of experience and wisdom to pass on. However, with experience, you soon learn that some of what is written in books is just an ideal to be attained in some fantasy garden of perfection, tended lovingly by a dedicated team of passionate gardeners and not by someone for whom gardening is a hobby that has to fit in around the realistic demands of family life and who's soil is rubbish heavy clay.

Read any gardening book about how to grow any vegetable and it will say something like, "Prefers a well dug soil with a high organic content." Well, yes, don't we all! If only! But no, I have heavy clay which spends all winter sticky, has a brief window of actually not being too bad in the spring, before setting to something similar to concrete in the dry conditions of the summer. As if to prove my point, my girls have even fashioned pots out of it for their own amusement! Nonetheless, I do manage to grow masses of vegetables in it every year which just goes to prove that some things are possible even without ideal conditions.

One of my favourite vegetables to grow is the humble leek. They are an essential kitchen ingredient as far as I'm concerned, particularly through the winter months when they form the backbone of flavour in warming dishes such as casseroles and soup. They are a very hardy plant and will stand, without damage, in the ground throughout the winter regardless of the weather conditions.

Like every other vegetable, leeks claim to prefer the sort of beautiful soil Monty Don lovingly caresses every week on Gardeners' World. If you follow the instructions in the textbook for growing leeks then you will sow them inside in late winter and grow them on until the summer, by which time they should be the thickness of a pencil. Next you take every leek seedling, chop off some of its roots and most of its leaves, make a hole in the ground, drop it into it and water it, without back-filling the hole with soil. This seemingly brutal treatment is something that leeks apparently like. I have tried it and it does indeed work.

Despite sowing leek seeds inside every year during the February half-term, by summer my leek seedlings are never fatter than a large nail, let along a pencil. And, instead of this brutal planting treatment, I pull out a drill in the soil with a hoe and then neatly line the leek seedlings up along the edge of the soil. Next I use the hoe to gently push soil onto the leeks to cover them up. Then I pull the soil on the other side of the leeks to gently pull the leeks upright. This is followed by a thorough watering of the row of newly planted leeks. It is a good deal quicker and, you know what, the seedlings go on to form healthy, thick leek plants for harvesting during the winter.

Leeks that have overwintered and not been eaten have a biological drive to produce flowers in their second season. This does somewhat tend to render them useless in the kitchen because they turn bitter and develop a hard core once the flower stalk forms. However, the flowers that they produce are an absolute joy - big light purple pom poms that send bees into a frenzy of delight. Should you ever see a flower stalk developing on your leeks then I urge you to leave them be and enjoy the flowers and the insect activity they attract. Once they have flowered they then produce seeds which scatter nearby and soon form into little clumps of leeklets. It is now that you realise that they haven't read the bit in the textbooks about preferring a good soil as they are also quite capable of growing in a crack in tarmac should an opportunistic seed land in one.

So rather than faffing around mollycoddling leeks into life, it is perfectly possible to take a clump of these self-sown leeklets and just replant them into the nice, ordered straight rows that us gardeners delight in. You may not go onto to produce leeks fit for the show bench but they will certainly be fit for the pot and ultimately that is all that matters.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Quick & Easy Garlic Bread

Do you like garlic bread? Are you the sort of person who is always likely to have a stick of garlic bread in the freezer, ready to heat up and serve on the side of your dinner plate? But what happens when you fancy some garlic bread but you don't have a handy one to whip out of the freezer?

Those of you who have been following my recent exploits will know that I have recently had a glut of green garlic. One of the things I did with that was chopped some up and mixed it in with a block of butter. This I froze in an ice-cube tray to make convenient cubes of garlic butter. This is easy done too with crushed cloves of garlic if you prefer.

Should you suddenly find yourself with an urge for garlic bread, take 2 or 3 of the cubes of garlic butter out of the freezer and soften them in the microwave for 10 seconds or so. Then grab 4 slices of white bread and butter them all with some ordinary butter. Now rummage around in the back of your cupboard until you find your Breville (or similar) toasted sandwich maker and put this on to heat up. Next, turn two slices of the buttered bread over and spread the other side liberally with the garlic butter then sprinkle on a little mature Cheddar cheese. Complete the sandwich with the remaining slices of bread, making sure the ordinary butter is on the outside. Place the sandwiches in the toasted sandwich maker and cook until golden brown. Remove, and cut the triangles into smaller triangles to serve.

Job done. Enjoy.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Chicken Provencal in Milton Keynes

Chicken Provencal is one of those things I have seen on menus and in shops for many years without it occurring to me that I might actually want to eat it. It wasn't a dish I was brought up on and, to be honest, I was never sure what it was. It certainly sounds exotic, doesn't it?

Then, last year, my eldest daughter was set a project at school to produce something with a French theme. Being a food-orientated (or should that be, obsessed?) person I instantly suggested she produced a recipe book on French food. Take a few stereo-typical French dishes, find out a bit about them, make them, taste them and share the recipes in a book. She liked the idea, so over the next fortnight we tried out all sorts of things. One of these, of course, had to be Chicken Provencal, which turned out to be a chicken stew, cooked in a tomato and herb sauce rather than stock. Not as exotic as I had imagined but tasty nonetheless!

The key thing that really makes the Chicken Provencal is the blend of "Herbes de Provence" used. Since the 1970s it has been possible to buy various blends of dried herbs under this name. They vary slightly but essentially include dried savory, majoram, rosemary, thyme and oregano. These happen to all grow in my front garden and with herbs at their very best at this time of year it seems obvious to make use of them and make Chicken Provencal for dinner. It really is a very simple, yet tasty dish and a lovely chance to showcase fresh herbs at their best - or failing that, can be made with a couple of teaspoons of dried herbs from a jar. Hmmm... I think now would be a good time to pick some of those fresh herbs, dry them and make my own herbes de Provence too.

Chicken Proven├žal (serves 3-4)

8 chicken thighs
2 tbsp plain flour
Salt and pepper
Dried herb de provence or springs of fresh savory, majoram, rosemary, thyme and oregano, finely chopped
Finely chopped onions 
Finely chopped mushrooms (optional)
1 large jar of plain tomato sauce for pasta or passata

Preheat the oven to 180°C, gas 4. Remove any skin and bones from the chicken if necessary. Put the flour on a plate and season with the salt and pepper and dried herbs. Toss each piece of chicken in the flour until coated then fry the chicken in a frying pan until browned all over. Place the chicken in a casserole dish and pour the tomato sauce over the top. Lightly fry the onions and mushrooms and then add these to the casserole dish too, along with the finely chopped herbs. Put the lid on the casserole dish and cook for 1 hour. To serve, remove the chicken from the dish and pour several large spoonfuls of the sauce over the top. Serve with potatoes and vegetables.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

What to do with green garlic

If asked, "What shall I do with all this green garlic," some of you may be wondering what green garlic is, let alone what to do with it. It is sometimes also known as wet garlic and it simply the ordinary garlic plant, harvested before it is fully mature. Normally, when growing garlic you would take a whole garlic bulb and split it into the individual cloves and then plant each clove in the ground, showing at the surface and with about 6 inches or so between each clove. Each clove will then put down roots and grow 3 long green leaves from it. Over time, the clove will develop into a full bulb of garlic, made up of 10 or so garlic cloves. Usually, sometime in July, the foliage will die back and the white or purple outer skin of the bulb will dry out and become papery. On a nice dry day, the bulbs can be lifted and put into open trays or boxes for storage through the winter, or plaited and hung up if you prefer.

The summer of 2012, you may recall, was a wet one. I can't remember properly now, but I guess the normal harvesting days in July were too soggy to try to lift and store our garlic harvest and then, somewhere during the following dreary days, we forgot that we hadn't harvested our garlic and they remained hidden, just below the surface of the soil until the following spring when they sprung back into life. Keen to get growing, every one of the individual cloves shot out green leaves, making each bulb of garlic into a little clump of greenery, too cramped to grow new bulbs. We decided that these rows of tightly packed garlic, rather than making a good crop, would do very nicely as a smelly deterrent for black fly on our broad bean plants so we planted rows of broad beans between our rows of garlic.

After the broad beans had been harvested, we left the garlic to once again stand in the ground through the winter. You may think that garlic is something from hot countries and that it would be killed off by the British winter but instead garlic grows best if it gets cold. Ideally, if you are going to grow garlic from cloves then they are best planted in the autumn and left to get cold during the winter. Failing that, pop your garlic in the fridge for a few days before you plant them out in the spring.

This spring, once again the rows of cramped garlic cloves sprung back into life but this year I decided it was time to take some action. The plants were growing away very strongly and it seemed a shame to leave them with too little space to be able to form full bulbs. Thinning was required - a ruthless job that many gardens find difficult to do as it seems so mean. For me, this meant digging up each row of garlic and selecting from it the 6 biggest and best looking plants from it for replanting. The remaining plants were surplus to requirements in terms of growing but still perfectly edible.

When you think "green garlic", think of it as the spring onion version of the garlic. It has a much milder flavour and all of it can be eaten from the bulb to wherever the leaves start to get a bit tough. Like spring onions, it is a fresh vegetable and needs to be eaten up within a week or so. Where only the hardened garlic lover might add normal garlic to a salad, green garlic can be snipped up and eaten raw, or even added to mayonnaise or yoghurts to make a dip. It has more flavours to it then the in your face one that dry garlic has so it nicer to eat as a vegetable so it is pleasant snipped up and added to stirfry or even a fish dish.

With 6 rows of green garlic all dug up in one go, I ended up with quite a lot of the stuff to deal with. I have been adding it to any dish that I might otherwise have used garlic for, remembering to add more than I think I need to compensate for its mild flavour. I have also used it where I might otherwise have used spring onion. Even so, I still had masses to hand so decided to find ways of adding it to preserves. The first I tried was a chutney based on the ingredients list on a jar of Roasted Garlic Chutney I found on sale. I worked out a recipe for it and decided to roast the onions too that were required. It filled the house up with very appetising aromas whilst that was cooking. The end result was delicious but much more an onion flavour than a garlic one and, with a much higher proportion of onion to garlic used in the recipe, I decided it ought to be called "Roasted Onion Chutney" instead. It is gorgeous though, so I shall definitely be making a few more batches of that before my green garlic runs out and maybe some later in the year with my normal garlic.

Another recipe I tried was my usual herb mustard one. This is a handy way to use any fresh herb of your choice and I have made sage mustard and rosemary mustard in the past. In this recipe, I added 3 times as much green garlic to the amount of fresh herb I would usually use in order to make up for the mild flavour. When people eat "Garlic Mustard", they are expecting a strong garlic flavour so it is important to give it some wellie! Whereas crushed garlic would become hidden amongst the yellow mustard, green garlic can be seen as attractive flecks throughout the jar. Once made, it is best left to mature for a few weeks before using and then it is particularly good used for smearing over raw meat, such as lamb, before grilling, roasting or barbecuing.

Herb Mustard

15g fresh herbs (or 45g green garlic)
50g plain flour
75g mustard powder
25g caster sugar
1 tbsp salt
100ml white wine vinegar

Finely chop the herbs. Sift the flour and mustard powder into a bowl and add the sugar and salt and stir well. Add the herbs and vinegar to the bowl and stir until a smooth paste forms. Spoon into sterilised jars and seal. Store for in a cool, dark place for a week (or more) for the flavours to develop. Refrigerate after opening.

Another favourite of mine is "Wild Garlic Pesto" and green garlic has a very similar flavour to the naturally growing woodland cousin. So instead of using foraged ransoms, I blitz a load of green garlic in the food processor to make green garlic pesto. I have since used this to add to all sorts of recipes such as stirfries and stuffed mushrooms. At first I would put in just a teaspoon of the stuff but the flavour was lost so I have been more brave and added several spoonfuls. At the same time, I chopped up 100g and added it to a 250g block of softened butter to make some garlic butter, ideal for making garlic bread.

Green Garlic Pesto

200g green garlic
50g onion or shallot
50g pine nuts
150ml olive oil
Half tsp salt
Half tsp sugar

Blitz the garlic in the food processor until chopped then add all the other ingredients and blitz again until well chopped and combined. Pack into a large jar and top up with olive oil to cover. Store in the fridge and keep topping up the covering of olive oil whenever any pesto is used.

Stuffed Mushrooms

4 large flat mushrooms
1 large leek
1 pack of pancetta or 4 rashers of streaky bacon
1 tbsp green garlic pesto (just just green garlic or even just 1 garlic clove)
Salt & pepper
1 slice of brown bread turned into breadcrumbs
A grating of fresh Parmesan cheese.

Preheat oven to 180°C, gas 4. Carefully remove the stalks from the mushrooms and place the mushrooms into a suitable ovenproof dish. Chop up the stalks and the leeks. Heat some olive oil in a frying pan and fry the mushrooms, leeks and pancetta until just beginning to brown. Add the salt and pepper and green garlic pesto and cook for 1 more minute. Spoon this mixture equally onto the mushrooms then sprinkle on the breadcrumbs and cheese. Roast in the oven for 20 minutes until the breadcrumbs are golden.

I have to say that I have really enjoyed both the challenge of using up a glut in May (not the normal time of year for glut challenges), and the array of delightful food I have created from it. I'm tempted now to leave some of this year's garlic yield in the ground this summer so that next spring I will have another crop of this tasty ingredient.