Think of summer… and think of sunflowers!

Think of summer… and think of sunflowers! Surely the sunniest flower there is, their huge golden faces cannot help but bring cheer.

I think most of us will have grown a sunflower at some time in our lives. Well, this year, we have had the pleasure of watching our granddaughter Grace plant and nurture her own sunflower. She planted the seed herself and waters it every time she comes to visit – and it has now grown to about 7 feet high! Pretty good for a first effort Grace!

The sunflower is actually an important plant in many areas. Grown as a crop for its edible oil and edible fruits – those delicious sunflower seeds – sunflower seeds were brought to Europe from the Americas in the 16th century, where, along with sunflower oil, they became a widespread cooking ingredient.

The tallest sunflower on record achieved an extraordinary 30ft, or over 9 metres! Goodness knows how they kept the thing upright, perhaps it was draped over something?

Sunflower seeds are sold as a snack food, raw or after roasting in ovens, with or without salt and seasonings added. Sunflower seeds can also be processed into a peanut butter alternative, sunflower butter, which sounds pretty yummy to me.

Sunflower oil, extracted from the seeds, is used for cooking, as a carrier oil and to produce margarine and biodiesel, as it is cheaper than olive oil. Sunflowers also produce latex and are the subject of experiments to see if they can be used as an alternative crop for producing non-allergenic rubber.

A common misconception (and one that I thought was true) is that the glorious golden sunflower heads track the sun across the sky. Actually, it’s only the immature flower buds that do this, the mature flowering heads point in a fixed, usually easterly, direction. Ah well, that’s another lovely image shattered!

But these gorgeous plants are useful across so many areas of life – have a look at the list of facts below, I think you’ll be surprised…

Here are a few sunflower facts for you:

  • There are two basic types of sunflower seeds: black and stripe.
  • Young sunflower plants orient their heads toward the sun – a phenomenon known as heliotropism.
  • The sunflower is the national flower of Russia and the state flower of Kansas.
  • Sunflower seeds are a rich source of vitamins of the B group and vitamin E, and minerals such as copper, phosphorus, selenium and magnesium.
  • Black sunflower seeds are a rich source of oil that is used for cooking.
  • Striped seeds are popular as snacks.
  • Seeds of sunflower are an important food source for birds, squirrels and insects.
  • Sunflower seeds are used for the production of biodiesel, an eco-friendly type of diesel, designed to reduce pollution of the atmosphere.
  • The sunflower is able to absorb heavy metals and toxins from the ground and it is often planted in the heavily polluted areas. These plants were used to reduce nuclear pollution after Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. How amazing is that?
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It’s always time for tea!

This beautiful box of teatime goodies was made by Suzanne Saltwell – it is really intended to be an advent calendar, but it occurred to me that it’s always time for tea and it would make the greatest birthday present any time of year!

Many people now are drinking fruit or speciality teas instead of the usual builder’s best cuppa, myself included. I had never been a fan of ordinary tea but nowadays I am often seen with a mug of peppermint tea in hand as I wander round the garden checking on what’s doing what.

There’s a lot to be said for growing a few herbs in the garden so you can make your own fresh teas – some flowers also, I have yet to try chrysanthemum tea or any of the other more exotic ideas, but mint sprigs grabbed from the garden and dunked unceremoniously in boiling water – yummy! I also have dried mint that I harvested last year and stored. The one thing you can be sure of is that mint will flourish and spread – hence advice always to keep it in a pot even when it’s in a flower bed.

So back to the tea box, here you can see the mug, tea bags and coasters that came inside the box, it’s such a lovely idea, perhaps there are some other themes we could create? Does coffee come in little packets? Has anyone got other ideas we could fill boxes with, for advent or any time of year? Do let me know!

Here’s the link to a downloadable PDF file that Suzanne has prepared so you can work out how it is made. Have fun!

 

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Peas, please!

Peas – those round, sweet, green things – even people who don’t much like veggies seem to approve of peas. It’s the perfect instant veg, to be whipped out of the freezer and cooked at a moment’s notice, but let me assure you they are even better when picked and eaten fresh.

Lots of people think growing peas is a bit of a waste of time and space… but they have probably never picked them and eaten them straight from the pod. They are so sweet and so delicious! I pick a few at a time, as they mature on the plant, and steam them for a couple of minutes, then run them under cold water and add to my salad alongside my home-grown leaves and broad beans creating a garden salad ­– delicious.

Peas are one of those things that we think of as essentially ‘British’. Fish, chips and mushy peas, pie and peas, pea soup… but as is so often the case when you look into it, they are a relatively recent arrival on our shores and originate from north-west Asia!

But our climate suits them perfectly and they thrive here. As a nation we certainly love them – we eat far more than any other country in Europe, chomping around 9,000 each per year. That’s a lot of peas! Fortunately, they are good for us combining fibre and protein with vitamins and minerals and must be the most popular of the ‘5-a-day’… or is it ‘10-a-day’ now? I can’t keep up!

They are relatively easy to grow either from seed, or you can buy them as small plants. The only real problem is with pigeons… they love them! Having lost an entire crop in one day a few years ago, I now cover them with netting. Even then, they still get a bit nibbled. But to me, the sweetness, the vivid colour and that pleasing ‘pop’ of the pod makes them all worthwhile

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Elderflower and strawberry jam

Making your own preserves is a very satisfying thing to do. Those pretty rows of little jars full of homemade goodness make me feel very pleased with myself! It’s always good to try and ring the changes and, although strawberry jam is a huge family favourite, I thought the addition of elderflower sounded fun.

Ingredients:

  • 2kg (4lbs) strawberries
  • 2kg (4lbs) preserving sugar
  • Juice from three lemons
  • 8 large elderflower heads

Method:

Prepare some sterilised jam jars, either in the oven, or in a dishwasher, or you can microwave a jar (leave slightly damp) for about 45 seconds. I always buy new lids and greaseproof covers as that way I am sure they are bacteria free. Also, put an ordinary saucer in the freezer so that it’s ready to use for jam testing later in the cooking process.

Prepare some sterilised jam jars, either in the oven, or in a dishwasher, or you can microwave a jar (leave slightly damp) for about 45 seconds. I always buy new lids and greaseproof covers as that way I am sure they are bacteria free. Also, put an ordinary saucer in the freezer so that it’s ready to use for jam testing later in the cooking process.

To intensify the strawberry flavour, prepare the berries and put them in your preserving pan (or large saucepan) add the sugar and lemon juice and leave (covered) overnight.

Now start to heat them slowly and add the elderflowers. This should be done by first shaking the flowers (adding creepy crawlies to jam really isn’t a good thing) and then picking off the flowers and add to the strawberry mix.

Stir well and bring to the boil for about 5 minutes. Skim off the scum that may form on the surface.

If you have a sugar thermometer then boil until it reaches 105ºC and then test a small spoonful on the cold saucer. Place the test spoonful and saucer in the fridge and within 5 minutes it should have formed a skin that wrinkles when you push it. If this doesn’t happen then boil again for another couple of minutes and try again.

Once you are happy that it has reaching the setting point, allow it to cool for about 10 minutes and fill the sterilised jars.

This is particularly nice with scones and Devon clotted cream – me biased, not a chance!

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James Wong – what a great writer!

James Wong – what a great writer! Just occasionally I come across a writer or a new book that really grabs me and this was the case with James.

The first book I bought was ‘How to Eat Better’ which I saw mentioned in Good Food magazine. It’s really fascinating and has masses of facts that made me exclaim out loud as I read through… possibly a little annoying for Richard! Did you know smaller (and therefore cheaper) blueberries are better for you than the big ones – green asparagus is much better for you than white? Lazy people rejoice as apparently the vac packed and cooked beetroot has as many good things going for it than boiling and peeling your own… and so the list went on.

I felt sorry for Richard listening to my reading out paragraphs aloud and so bought him (and his brother) a copy of James Wong’s ‘Grow for Flavour’ which has so many tips and tricks that help in the garden. For example – watering tomatoes with seawater gives them a much better taste – giving hard to germinate seeds like parsley a quick dose of soluble aspirin helps them along – and yes you guessed, Richard is now reading out bits to me from his book!

Finally, having been so interested in his other books I treated both myself and my sister (I love giving books) to ‘Grow your own Drugs‘ – Kate was a little worried as it had to get through the mail and therefore the Jersey Customs department but, so far it all seems to have gone swimmingly! As I have a summer cold at the moment I was very taken with the recipe intended to help colds and flu – Echinacea Ice Lollies. This contains 80ml of vodka and that alone has to cheer things up! But there are plenty of other ingredients that should ease the throat. Disappointingly, the vodka is to soak the Echinacea root and doesn’t actually make an appearance in the finished lolly – hmm, sad.

Just thought I would share these titles with you – I love books with useful hints and tips and James is certainly an author I will look out for him in future programmes – he has shared a TV series with another person I admire – Dr Michael Moseley and has covered the Chelsea Flower show with the BBC team … I will be keeping an eye out!

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