While it seems as if everything in the garden is dormant, there is of course no beginning or end to the alchemy of horticulture; the ground is always at some stage of a cycle and the soil never really stops being active. The beds outside may look inactive but they are being dressed with seaweed and manure mulches which will provide them with vital nutrients, simultaneously discouraging the growth of weeds, in readiness for new season planting.
Natural mulches and compost are the essential basics of an organic vegetable garden. The compost, made from the decaying vegetable waste, is packed with trace elements that will set the young seeds up for germination under cover in the propagating tunnel where it is being sifted and sorted into trays and modules. Our boots may be in danger of being sucked from our feet in the mud outside but it is good to know that inside, this crumbly, humus-rich compost, will provide the optimum fertility for the new plants and complete the link in the year’s cycle.
The elements in March are typically varied. The view through my window has been etched with rain, horizontal sleet, diagonal hail, soft descending snowflakes and shards of intermittent sunlight. All within one day! Not to be daunted by such conditions, Ian continues to add stones to the steps being built under the new canopy at the pond. This canopy, made from recycled yacht canvas, has withstood the high winds of recent nights, (though I had fears of it being transported to sail in the nearby Atlantic).
There are however encouraging signs of spring; in particular is the rampant frog activity in the tunnel pond.
There are splashes of red rhubarb, purple broccoli florets and the yellow flutes of daffodils defiantly swaying in the wind. (Nearby the ducks are displaying a more mysterious defiance by refusing to lay their golden eggs!)
Comfort food is very much on the menu in this chilling month and the vegetables that are currently vigorous are very appropriate; their sturdiness against the harshness of winter offer us the same armour; providing the needed defence and comfort for our ‘hungry gap’ diet. The purple florets of broccoli, the frilly leafage of Ragged Jack kale, the perky stems of leeks and the homely roots of parsnip are all delicious and accessible candidates for a hearty meal if they aren’t boiled away to oblivion. Cooking vegetables is always about harnessing maximum flavour and nutrition; they can be slow (roasted or braised) or fast (steamed or tossed in hot oil or butter). They can also be laced with invigorating wild garlic, nettle tops or fresh herbs to add flavour and vital vitamins to soups or oven bakes.
Most of us have nostalgia for the warm winter pies and puddings of our childhood and rhubarb is a particular delight now for the purpose of pampering. Their sturdy stems have survived a flurry of snow last week, protected by their broad, inverted umbrella tops and are the perfect contenders for a homely crumble.
I like to add a twist to this traditional dessert by spicing it up a little with some cardamom and fresh ginger but you can also use cinnamon, orange zest or honey for variation. The trick is not to make the topping too deep; make a quantity of the crumb and if there is too much for the dish, just freeze any excess for another time. Judge the amount of rhubarb by the size of the dish to be used; there should be enough to fill two thirds of it.
Rhubarb Crumble with Cardamom, Ground Almonds and Ginger
4 or 5 rhubarb stalks, cut into even lengths (about 4 cm)
150 g sugar
100 g plain flour
100 g ground almonds
100 g butter
Seeds from 2 or 3 cardamom pods, crushed
1 tsp. Grated fresh ginger root
Prepare the base by melting 2 tablespoons of the sugar with 50 g of the butter in a wide pan on a medium heat. Add the rhubarb and crushed cardamom seeds and toss them around as they cook gently for a few minutes until they are completely coated but still firm. Remove from the heat, transfer to a pie dish and leave to cool.
Make the crumble by mixing the chilled and cubed butter, flour and almonds with your fingertips. It should resemble course breadcrumbs. Add the remaining sugar (use more or less depending on taste. The tartness of the rhubarb should prevail).
Grate the ginger over the rhubarb mix and sprinkle the crumble over the top. Don’t press the crumble; just distribute it evenly with your fingers. Bake in a moderate oven for about 30 mins or until it has an even colour and the edges are bubbling, pink and sticky. Serve with yoghurt, cream or vanilla custard. Enjoy.
The rain has stopped and my daydreaming gaze through the window is interrupted by a twig landing on the veranda. This was not debris from the wind but the accidental deposit from a busy starling en route to its’ work in progress’ nest. What promising cargo.