Plant-based inspiration

Three words that strike fear into the hearts of most working mothers must be “What’s for dinner?” I love to cook but masterminding the family dinner every evening after work seems to suck the joy from what ought to be one of the best parts of the day. I used to dream of us all chatting together in the kitchen whilst prepping something tasty, sipping wine, mulling over the business of the day. It never quite turned out like that. I’d barely set foot through the door when someone wanted to eat. Tell me, I’m not alone in that? More recently however we got remarkably near to the utopian existence. One of the benefits of lockdown and working from home, I suspect. Take the half hour commute out of the equation and the ability to munch on an apple or pop on a round of toast whenever you’re peckish and the whole ordeal becomes much more relaxed and joyful.

I’ve been a life-long veggie and although I’ve always catered for the meateaters in the family it’s the veggie dishes that I love to cook. We’re not short of veggie inspiration but this new book from Anna Jones is special. It’s veggie but making every recipe fully vegan is so easy too Since lockdown I have struggled to control my psoriasis ‘issue’ and a plant-based diet seems to alleviate some of the worst symptoms so that appeals too. There’s tons of lovely recipes which are super-easy to make in one pan, pot or tray – always a boon if you don’t have to spend the rest of the evening tackling the washing-up – and there’s a helping hand too on sustainability. Using up leftovers, shopping more thoughtfully and ethically and cooking with the seasons all get more than a nod. I particularly love the ‘ten simple ideas’ for a variety of vegetables – great if you have a veg box and tend to get stuck in a rut making the same old recipes. Baked potatoes with leeks in cheese sauce is a storecupboard favourite here but leeks and shredded greens with mustard, thyme and grated cheese is even better. I have a celeriac in the fridge and have just spotted celeriac and red wine stew with cheddar dumplings. Yum! Sunday lunch this week sorted already.

Mistletoe and no wine

I’ve given up wine for Lent but to compmensate one of my Christmas presents arrived in the post yesterday. It’s an exercise in patience. I’ve wanted to try growing mistletoe for years – what with it being sacred to the Celts – and now I have the chance. I have plenty of mature host apple trees (including one called Celt)nbut it will take a few years, some patience and a fair amount of luck before I’m harvesting for Christmas.

There’s a lot of hocus-pocus surrounding the growing of mistletoe. In essence the reason why most attempts fail from Christmas boughs is that the berries dry out or are stored in the dark or are sown at the wrong time in December or January. For best results well-stored juicy berries need to be squidged onto the branches of a mature apple tree in February or March. Some will be eaten by birds or slugs at any time before they are established and you’ll need at least one male and one female plant to ensure a supply of berried mistletoe in the future.

The seed needs to be squeezed out of the berry – you’ll find they stick onto you rather well. Then remove as much of the jelly-like substance as possible, as the seeds seem to germinate better when fairly ‘clean’. They’ll stick on perfectly well with only a little of the ‘glue’ remaining. Young branches, from 2 to 6 cm diameter well away from the centre of the tree are best. Stick 6 or so seeds onto the branch. Label them with a plant label tied to the branch (I know I’ll forget which branch I used and initial growth is tiny. Try to plant as many as possible, at least 20 berries at once, divided between 4 or so branches.

Germination is easy apparently. Whether or not they survive is in the lap of the gods.

Dreaming of a purple patch

February into March is all about snowdrops and daffodils in the garden but I’m ready for that purple patch that follows. Perhaps it’s the need to move on after months of the limbo of online and in-school teaching. Usually I savour the here and now but the thought of Spring sunshine, more time spent outdoors and a bit of colour in all our lives is a strong fillip right now.

In fact, the tulips I planted during the Christmas holidays are beginning to poke through the top of the pots where I stowed them. In this cottage garden, tulips are planted in trenches to be harvested for indoors or in pots to be enjoyed whilst sitting on the terrace with a cup of coffee. In borders they tend to flop and look somewhat unkempt. Not unlike me after weeks of teaching and no visit to the hairdresser.

Pink primulas and garden planning on a rainy day

A rainy walk today and not really a day to be doing more than taking a quick jaunt around the garden. These primulas are loving the rain and there is plenty of plantlife burgeoning. There is some frost-damage to prune away on some of the shrubs which had started putting on new growth and a general tidy up and weed to do. I’ve made a start and hope to get that finished before the end of Half Term.

I’m going to hold off on sowing seeds in earnest until April but I might get a few sweet peas underway before then. The ground is too wet to work so I’m getting my garden fix from planning and ordering a few snowdrops in the green to pop in ready for next year. It’s a great time to do it now when you can easily see the gaps where they should go.Another few weeks and there will be too much growth. Planting them in the green also builds stronger plants. Whatever the season or the weather, there’s always something to do in the garden.

A bit of self-care on Valentine’s Day

We’ve never subscribed to an uber-commercialised Valentine’s Day and this year is no different. Lockdown Valentine’s is business as usual – a bunch of daffs in the kitchen, a couple of non-specific “not Valentine’s Day” cards, the offer to make a coffee or rub tired feet.

After six weeks of busy online and in-school teaching I decided to treat myself to a bit of self-care today. Solitude, a takeaway coffee and a quiet stroll in the rain round one of my favourite local places and the promise of an hour in the garden when the weather improves, tidying up in time for spring sowing. I have some more hellebores to pop in the ground along with some grasses and three Patty’s Plum poppies – one for each child.

Later today a catch up with said children, a log fire, a good book, a slice of home-baked blood orange drizzle cake and a rugby match on the TV is also on the cards.

Bliss.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Half Term

Six weeks of online and in-school teaching and I am SO ready for a few days of walking, gardening, reading and cooking. School life is full-on, especially now. It’s important to switch off and recharge from time to time.

Tree pruning, winter sunshine and a full log store

Yesterday I ran around doing errands in snow flurries; today the winter sunshine is streaming through the kitchen window as I teach my classes. We had a visit from the tree surgeon this morning to give our trees a bit of a Winter prune.

The laburnum at the front is beautifully shaped after a year of being nothing short of bedraggled. And the hazel has afforded a few extra logs for the fire and some bean poles.

Its the kind of day which provides food for the soul. Sunshine, stores to plunder in the future and everything neat and tidy.

Snowdrop walks, woodpiles and bee berets.

I’m missing my visits to National Trust properties to wander among the snowdrops so this beaut picture from The Courts gardens in Holt, where I have spent many a happy hour was a boon when it popped up in my timeline. The snowdrops in my own garden are nodding their heads vigorously in today’s strong winds. Yesterday in Wiltshire was positively barmy,when I did a spot of weeding and planted two new daphnes in shady parts. I’ve never known a year when annual weeds were so prolific in February. The urge to sow seeds is strong but with no greenhouse I’m holding off outside until April, though I may start a few on the kitchen windowsill before then. In the meantime the garden jobs include some tree pruning to reshape the laburnum, quince, apple and greengage trees and to coppice the hazel. I’m also marking spots where I want to sow more bulbs in the autumn. If I don’t mark them now, by midsummer, when the borders are romping away I will have forgotten. I’ve ordered some Patty’s Plum poppies for a neglected spot and some more hellebores.I can never have enough of these in the shadier parts of the garden.

There is a definite whiff of spring in the air. My friend’s chickens have started laying; I drove home from school in daylight for the first time in months and even sat outside with a coffee on Friday in between online lessons. But it’s still good to light the fire of an evening. We replenished our woodstore for the second time this winter. A full logstore is a thing of beauty and a log fire is the perfect accompaniment to Six Nations rugby and the mountain of GCSE and A Level marking that is currently occupying my Google Classroom.

This term has flown by despite one day being pretty much like another in the world of online teaching. This week was enlivened by the COVID Russian roulette of being on the in-school teaching rota and my good friend Helen popping round en route to the supermarket to drop off a beautiful handknitted red beret embellished with bee and flower. Looking at the forecast for this week, her timing couldn’t have been better.

Imbolc, St Brigit and new beginnings

pic from Naturescape, who supplied my snowdrops

“Born from winter dreaming, life stirs and the first tender shoots emerge from the earth. As the wheel turns, we feel the promise of spring and the dawning of a new beginning”

There’s a smattering of snow on the garden, the snowdrops have been out for weeks and we have come to the end of what feels like the longest January ever. I had an emotional wobble on Thursday, having spent all day at an online moderation meeting for sixth form EPQ projects when the rest of the school were off timetable, encouraged to take time away from online study. It couldn’t be helped but nearly broke me. But everything happens for a reason and it has forced me to realise how little time I have spent since Christmas socialising, reading, walking, gardening, cooking and doing all those activities that make me feel like me. I need to recalibrate and fill the pot from which I pour to others during the week.

Today is the feast of St Brigit and the ancient festival of Imbolc, a fire festival. Traditionally it was a time when stores would be running low. No change there as we have just exhausted our supply of fire wood and have another booked to arrive tomorrow. Fire rituals at Imbolc ensured a good growing season and celebrated having successfully survived the darkest days of another winter. Ritual fire was kindled to ensure a good growing season and to increase the power of the returning sun. Families would celebrate having successfully survived the darkest days of another winter.

That seems especially poignant this year as we begin to emerge from the effects of the pandemic. We’re not there yet but there are signs that, if managed carefully, we should not slip back into the dark days of winter. To celebrate quietly we had a catch up with the boys who are in lockdown at university, lit the fire last night and watched ‘The Dig’ on Netflix, a beautiful bittersweet film with some lovely understated performances. Life affirming but not shying away from the fact that living has its fair share of personal difficulties.

Imbolc blessings to you all. May the sunshine return to your homes and gardens over the coming months.

A present from Seville

If white is the colour of the first half of January, then by the end of the month it’s given way to orange. I love a bit of purity and minimalism after the richness of Christmas. Early January is a time for snowdrops in tiny vases, nutritious green juices and snow. But after a few weeks I’m ready for a bit of sunshine – even if that is in a jar.

I bagged a bargain box of Seville oranges from a local farm shop to make marmalade but couldn’t resist putting a few aside to make bitter orange pud for our supper. It’s a twist on Nigella’s bitter orange tart. I had a packet of Dorset ginger biscuits left over from Christmas so crunched them up with melted butter to form the base, divided the mix between 5 ramekins, popped the orange curd on top and chilled.

Once I find those muslin squares I put away for a rainy day and today’s snow has lost its virgin sparkle, I’ll be making a few jars of marmalade with spiced rum. Jars of sunshine in the depths of winter. It’s what I crave right now.

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