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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Carrot Cake with Geranium Cheese

At a pinch, you can justify carrot cake as being good for you – at least this is an excuse for taking a good many calories on board! But the flavour is worth it.

You will need:

To make one cake

  • 2-3 scented geranium leaves (preferably with a lemon scent
  • 225g/8oz cups icing sugar
  • 115g/4oz self-raising flour
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • ½ tsp ground cinnamon
  • ½ tsp ground cloves
  • 200g/7oz soft brown sugar
  • 225g/8oz grated carrot
  • 150g/5oz sultanas
  • 150g/5oz finely shopped preserved stem ginger
  • 150g/5oz pecan nuts
  • 150g/5oz sunflower oil
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • Butter to grease tin

Cream cheese topping

  • 30g/1/4 oz softened butter
  • 1 tsp grated lemon rind
  1. Put the geraniums leaves, torn into small to medium-sized pieces, in a small bowl and mix with the icing sugar. Leave in a warm place overnight for the sugar to take up the scent of the leaves.
  2. Sift the flour, soda and spices together. Add the soft brown sugar, carrots, sultanas, ginger and pecans. Stir well then add the oil and beaten eggs. Mix with an electric beater for about 5 minutes, or 10-15 minutes longer by hand.
  3. Preheat the oven to 180ºC/350ºF/gas 4. Grease a 13 x 23cm/5 x 9 in loaf tin, line the base with greaseproof paper, and then grease the paper. Pour the mixture into the pan and bake for about 1 hour. Remove the cake from the oven, leave to stand for a few minutes, and then turn it out on to a wire rack to cool.
  4. While the cake is cooling, make the cream cheese topping. Remove the pieces of geranium leaf from the icing sugar and discard them. Place the cream cheese, butter and lemon rind in a bowl. Using an electric beater or a wire whisk, gradually add the icing sugar, beating well until smooth
  5. Once the cake has cooled, cover the top with the cream cheese mixture…. And enjoy!

 

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An egg-citing post…?

Did you know chickens lay blue eggs? No, neither did I until my Hen Pal presented me with a lovely eggy selection last summer which included a blue one.

I love hens, but don’t have time to keep them myself. Hen Pal currently has eight chickens and we are lucky in that we get a regular supply of gorgeous, totally free-range eggs. The yolks are a rich orange, not like anything you can buy, and they taste amazing.

The blue egg layer is a pretty chicken called Hetty and, just to confuse things further, she is a Cream Leg Bar! The blue eggs taste no different to the other eggs, but they just look so lovely…

Eggs are wonderful things – delicious to eat of course, but also fun to be creative with. Blowing eggs is not that difficult and you can still eat the egg so it’s not at all wasteful.

As a child, I loved blowing eggs and decorating them, why not have a go this Easter, it’s great fun!

How to blow an egg:

You need to ‘get the feel’ of your egg, grip it firmly enough, but not too hard so it breaks. If you always work over a bowl even if you break one you can still use the contents once you’ve picked any shell out!

First, grasp your egg! Insert a long needle into the large end of the egg to make a small hole. Work the needle around a bit to enlarge the hole slightly.

Then, do the same on the other end, but this time wiggle the needle more to make a bigger hole – this is the end the egg will come out from.

Push the needle into the centre of the egg and move it around to break up the yolk.

Now, place your mouth over the end with the smaller hole, the other end over a bowl and gently blow into the egg. It might take a few puffs before it starts to come out, but once going it will all come out with a few blows. If any of the egg gets stuck, shake the egg and give it a few more prods with the needle.

Rinse out the egg by running a thin stream of water into the larger hole, then blow out the water the same way that you blew out the egg. Leave to dry and then they’re ready to decorate.

And now – it’s up to you! Paint them, stick on sequins, draw on them with Promarkers or any other alcohol-based ink like the Spectrum Noir range. Great Easter gifts for old and young alike.

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Bread – the stuff of life

What could be more wonderful than the smell of freshly baked bread? It seems to be an aroma that automatically makes us feel good. The kneading process is very therapeutic and then there’s the eating… well it’s the perfect comfort food all ways round!

As you’ve probably gathered I am very keen on herbs in all forms – and this recipe is so delicious! Rosemary is an evergreen perennial so it’s hard to kill off. Even in the depths of winter, I can scurry outside and snip off an aromatic sprig to use in lots of different dishes. Just bruise the leaves slightly and that wonderful scent fills the air…

Rosemary Bread

Sliced thinly, this herb bread is delicious with cheese or soup for a light meal.

Makes one loaf

You will need:

1 packet (7g/¼ oz) dried fast action yeast

170g/6oz wholemeal flour

170g/6oz self-raising flour

2 tbsp butter, plus more to grease bowl and tin

60ml/2fl oz warm water (45ºC/110ºF)

250ml/8fl oz milk (room temperature)

1 tbsp sugar

1tsp salt

1 tbsp sesame seeds

1 tbsp dried chopped onion

1 tbsp fresh rosemary leaves, plus more to decorate

115g/4oz cubed Cheddar cheese

Coarse salt to decorate

 1. Mix the fast-action yeast with the flours in a large mixing bowl. Melt the butter. Stir in the warm water, milk, sugar, butter, salt, sesame seeds, onion and rosemary. Knead thoroughly until quite smooth.

2. Flatten the dough, then add the cheese cubes. Quickly knead them in until they have been well combined.

3. Place the dough in a clean bowl, greased with a little butter, turning it so that it becomes greased on all sides. Cover with a clean, dry cloth. Put the greased bowl and dough in a warm place for about 1½ hours, or until the dough has risen and doubled in size.

4. Grease a 23 x 13cm (9 x 5 in) loaf tin with the remaining butter. Knock down the dough to remove some of the air and shape it into a loaf. Put the loaf into the tin, cover with the clean cloth used earlier and leave for about 1 hour until doubled in size onece again. Preheat the oven to 190ºC/375ºF/gas 5.

5. Bake for 30 minutes. During the last 5-10 minutes of baking, cover the loaf with silver foil to prevent it from becoming too dark. Remove from the loaf tin and leave to cool on a wire rack. Decorate with rosemary leaves and coarse salt scattered on top.

PS. Rosemary is another one of my ‘essential’ herbs that I’d put alongside bay, parsley and mint, as already mentioned. I’m plan to be blogging quite a bit about growing herbs over the coming months…

 

 

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Hearty meals for winter warmth

I must confess, this isn’t my favourite time of year. The days are short and the garden is looking very sorry for itself. So for me, the best thing to do is to get in the kitchen and cook up some really comforting and delicious food! I love pies and this one has a twist to give it extra oomph! I would recommend that everyone has parsley and a bay tree, or bush, growing in their garden, or in pots on a balcony, they are both such useful herbs. I know a lot of you are vegetarian, so I’ve also included an easy but scrummy veggie dish too. Enjoy!

Steak and Kidney Pie, with Mustard and Bay Gravy

This is a sharpened-up, bay-flavoured version of a traditional favourite. The fragrant mustard, bay and parsley perfectly complement the flavour of the beef.

Serves 4

You will need: 

  • 450g/1lb puff pastry
  • 2.5 tbsp flour
  • Salt and pepper
  • 750g/1.5lb rump steak, cubed
  • 170g/6oz pig’s or lamb’s kidney
  • 25g/1oz/scant 2 tbsp butter
  • I medium onion chopped
  • 1 tbsp made English mustard
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tbsp chopped parsley
  • 150ml/5fl oz beef stock
  • 1 egg, beaten
  1. Roll out two-thirds of the pastry on a floured surface to about 3mm/ 1/8in thick. Line a 1.5 litre/2.5 pint/1.5 US quart pie dish. Place a pie funnel in the middle.
  2. Put the flour, salt and pepper in a bowl and toss the cubes of steak in the mixture. Remove all fat and skin from the kidneys and slice thickly. Add to the steak cubes and toss well. Melt the butter in a pan and fry the onion until soft, then add the mustard, bay leaves, parsley and stock and stir well.
  3. Preheat the oven to 190ºC/375ºF/gas 5. Place the steak and kidney in the pie and add the stock mixture. Roll out the remaining pastry to the thickness of 3mm/ 1/8 in. Brush the edges of the pastry forming the lower half of the pie with beaten egg and cover with the second piece of pastry. Press the pieces of pastry together to seal the edge, then trim. Use the trimmings to decorate the top in a leaf pattern.
  4. Brush the whole pie with beaten egg and make a small hole over the top of the funnel. Bake for about 1 hour until the pastry is golden brown.

Stuffed Parsleyed Onions

This is a very tasty, easy to prepare vegetarian main course, great served with salad and crusty bread. These onions also make a wonderful accompaniment to meat dishes.

Serves 4 people

You will need:

  • 4 large onions
  • 4 tbsp cooked rice
  • 4 tsp finely shopped fresh parsley, plus extra to garnish
  • 4 tbsp strong Cheddar cheese, finely grated
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tbsp white wine, to moisten
  1. Cut a slice from the top of each onion and scoop out the centre to leave a fairly thick shell. Combine all the remaining ingredients, moistening with enough wine to mix well. Preheat the oven to 180ºC/350ºƒ/gas 4
  2. Fill the onions and bake in the oven for 45 minutes. Serve garnished with the extra parsley.

 

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