Hedgerow rummaging again!

Spring is wonderful and, as I’ve said before, my favourite time of year! All the obvious things like baby birds, lambs and flowers bursting into life are lovely… but one of the most gorgeous things to me is the emergence of beech leaves. I know, a bit weird, but there we are!

One day, the hedge seems dull and uninteresting, speckled with narrow brown pointed buds – the next, it is smothered in delicate lime green tissue paper fluttering in the breeze. Beech leaves are so delicate and so fine and tissue-thin when they emerge, they are just breathtaking.

Goodness knows what my neighbours think as the arrival of beech leaves is yet another reason for me to be spotted rummaging around in the hedgerow, but rummage I must!

Fresh from the tree, beech leaves are a fine salad vegetable, as sweet as a mild cabbage, though much softer in texture.

My friend, Julia Horton-Powdrill – she of the food foraging in Pembrokeshire, uses beech leaves to make a potent liqueur called Beech Leaf Noyau.

Julia says: “Pack a glass jar about nine tenths full of the very young, delicate, clean leaves. Pour gin into the jar, pressing the leaves down all the time, until they are just covered. Leave it to steep for about two weeks.

Strain off the gin which should now be green in colour (although mine is quite often more brown!). To every 500ml of gin add 300g sugar dissolved in 250ml of boiling water. You can add an optional splash of brandy if you fancy it! Mix the warm syrup with the gin and bottle when cold.”

Sounds great to me – cheers!

Joanna

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Dandelion – weed or wonderful plant?

What do most of us think when we see a dandelion? WEED!!! But wait – this is such a negative view of what is actually a very versatile and edible plant. If we can train ourselves to see it as such, just think how much more relaxed we will be as gardeners!

As we all know, dandelions grow very well in the UK for pretty much most of the year. The dandelion is used by the French and Italians in their cuisine and is even cultivated. Did you know almost all of the plant can be eaten?

The leaves: The leaves of the dandelion plant are best eaten young. The dandelion has a bitter taste similar to chicory that grows stronger with age and leaf colour. Pick the young and tender leaves and you can include them in salads. You can mix them in with other greens such as spinach or cabbage or even use them in a stir-fry.

The roots: The roots are also edible and can be washed (not peeled) roasted and ground to make a caffeine-free coffee alternative. Large roots can also be roasted like small thin parsnips – delicious, but you will need a lot to make it worthwhile. They cook very quickly, so keep your eye on them!

The flower: The flower is really very attractive – I know, hard to see it in this way – but it is! Pull off the petals and scatter them in salad – it looks lovely. Or, you can use the whole flower head as a garnish or dip it in a light batter and deep-fry the flower heads as a snack or starter – they go really well with a hot chilli sauce.

If picking now, make sure you go for the smallest, newest plants. Do be careful not to pick ones have been chemically sprayed. Also avoid picking dandelions by the roadside as they will have absorbed petrol fumes. But if, like me, you have a garden full of them – pick away!

Here’s a simple little dandelion idea for you to try:

Dandelion tea

Most warm herbal teas have a comforting effect. Dandelions are a diuretic and can help to reduce water retention and bloated feelings. Many people find this tea a useful treatment for rheumatism too. The tea also acts as a mild laxative, so don’t drink too much at once!

You will need:

  • 5-6 dandelion leaves
  • Boiling water
  • 1 tsp honey (optional)
  1. Remove any stems from the leaves. Break them into strips and put in the bottom of a mug. Pour on enough boiling water to fill the mug and leave to stand for 5-10 minutes.
  2. Strain, discard most of the dandelion leaves and drink. If you prefer a sweeter brew, add a small teaspoonful of honey.

PS. And don’t forget, guinea pigs and rabbits adore dandelion leaves too!!

Smiles, Joanna

 

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Herbs for colour…

I always have to restrain myself at this time of year – unlike me I know! Yes, it’s spring and everything is bursting into life, but no, it is not *quite* time to start rushing outside and planting things as we are not safely free of frost yet.

Some of my veg growing friends have got their beds prepared and have planted their early potatoes but generally, it’s best to hang on just a week or so longer…

Luckily, one of my favourite pastimes is buying packets of seeds and looking through seed catalogues or, more likely nowadays, browsing websites full of beautiful photos of plants and herbs.

Although I don’t have time to grow veg, I do like to cultivate herbs. Herbs are so wonderful – they look gorgeous, they smell wonderful and they are delicious too.

If you intend to grow some herbs this year, now is the time to start planning and, if you can, sowing seeds indoors or in the greenhouse.

I made a list of some of the prettiest herbs I could think of and thought I’d share that with you as you might like to try something new. 

Borage
Rich blue, for salads and summer drinks, it grows like wildfire in this part of the world!

Lavender
That lovely soft purple, for scent, pot-pourri and also cooking

Nasturtiums
Vivid reds and yellows, easy to grow and lovely to add pepperiness and beauty to a salad or garnish

Violets
Purple, for medicines and crystalised decorations

Elderflowers
White and fragrant for wines, cordials and favouring fruit dishes. Again, grow freely everywhere! 

Pot marigolds or calendulas
Vivid orange for salads, pot-pourri and food colouring

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Country Christmas Celebrations

As Christmas is one of the happiest and busiest times of year for me, I thought now would be the ideal time to start my new blog – no pressure then!

Christmas is always a real family occasion, and we are lucky enough to be a happy family that thoroughly enjoys a large get-together where the ages range from nine to 90.

Although Christmas is often more focussed on children it doesn’t take much effort to make it a happy time for adults too. Quite apart from the food and drink, seeing friends and phoning people you’ve not seen for ages can make the festive season very special!

I’ve come up with a few ideas for you, which I hope you’ll find fun to make in the run up to the big day.

Mulled Wine – Victoria Farm style

Serves 8 non-drivers

The aroma of this mulled wine sums up Christmas for me. It is quite strong, so ideal for prim and proper relatives or friends who need to relax a bit before they can join in the fun – oops, did I really write that?

You will need:

  • 75cl (1 bottle) claret
  • 150ml (1/4 pint) unsweetened orange juice
  • 150ml (1/4 pint) water
  • 150ml (1/4 pint) port
  • 50g (2oz) brown sugar
  • 7g (1 heaped tsp) mixed spice
  • 2 large juicy oranges, each cut into 8 pieces.
  • 8 cinnamon sticks

Put all the ingredients, except the cinnamon sticks, in a saucepan and place on a very low heat. Gently warm or ‘mull’ the mixture for an hour or so. If you want to prepare it in advance, warm it for an hour, leave it to cool and then reheat it when needed.

Serve in chunky glasses or mugs, with the cinnamon sticks as stirrers. Don’t include any of the orange pieces as they have an embarrassing habit of falling onto your nose as you drink the wine – not a good look!

Filo waterlilies with figgy mincemeat

Serves about 8

If you fancy a change from the traditional mince pie, why not try these pretty, tasty and light alternatives? I personally prefer filo to shortcrust pasty – try them and let me know what you think!

You will need:

For the mincemeat

  • 225g (8oz) dried figs
  • 75g (3oz) pecan nuts
  • 350g (12oz) cooking apples (preferably Bramleys)
  • 75ml (3fl oz) Calvados
  • 50g (2oz) stem ginger in syrup
  • 675g (11/2lb) mixed dried fruit
  • 25g (1oz) unsalted butter
  • 5g (1 tsp) ground allspice
  • 2g (1/2 tsp) ground nutmeg
  • 2g (1/2 tsp) ground cinnamon

For the pastry waterlillies

  • Approx 20n sheets of filo pastry
  • 225g (8oz) melted butter

To make the mincemeat, pour the mixed dried fruit in a bowl and pour over the Calvados, then leave to soak in a warm place for several hours. Peel, core and chop the apples, and mince or process them together with the stem ginger, pecan nuts and figs. If using a food processor you may need to add more Calvados to moisten the mixture.

Add the remaining ingredients and stir really well to make sure they are well combined. Put into clear jars and seal. Do not keep too long (chance would be a fine thing in this house!). I expect you’ll use it all before Christmas but if not, don’t exceed 6-8 weeks in the refrigerator.

Using good kitchen scissors, cut the filo pastry into 5 – 5.75cm (2-21/2 inch) squares. Cut a stack at once, don’t do them one at a time or you really will be there until Christmas! Keep the pastry covered with a clean damp cloth as much as possible to avoid it drying out. Butter a nine-hole bun tin and place a square of pastry over the hole. Brush the top of the pastry with melted butter and cover with another square of pastry, placing the second square at an angle. Continue to layer about 5 sheets of pastry, buttering in between and rotating each square a little each time to give a petalled edge effect – see diagram. Fill each pastry case with between 10 – 15g (1dsp to 1tbs) of mincemeat and bake in a pre-heated oven at 160ºC (325ºF), gas mark 3 for 45 minutes.

And for your table…

Can’t resist passing on one of my favourite and easiest Christmas table decorations! Have a rummage in your garden, or keep your eyes peeled on a winter stroll and see if you can find some Old Man’s Beard (Clematis Vitalba). These pale silky fronds make a stunning and effective table decoration especially if you add some glitter spray, or sparkle, or interweave some spangled gold threads. Magical!

Next week:

Herbs on the Christmas tree!

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