Bottle Fed

Bottle Fed

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A gentle skiff of soft silent snow is a reprieve from the teeming hail that has been rattling the windows and roofs on the farm this weekend. The winter landscape has come alive with the changing light; skeletal trees and hedgerows parade their branches against the white and a curtain of inky grey sky opens to let flood a pool of sun. When it breaks through between the loaded clouds there is a sparkle to the day with the promise of new growth from below. Snowdrops know how to fit in. Daffodils form their guards of honour to the spring.

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Today, Pancake Tuesday, we are reminded of the onset of Lent when it was traditional to use up the butter and eggs before a stint of fasting. Like many historical feast days it has a focus on a particular type of food, depending on what part of the world we are in. Like the hot cross bun or the Easter egg, the pancake symbolised an aspect of religious faith which has survived into the more secular world we live in now. Often the food has a seasonal reference and the pancake might well reflect the scarcity of fresh vegetables during the ‘Hungry Gap’. Whatever cultural or religious heritage prevails, it can be enlightening to examine the relationship we have with our food and its preparation. Observing the shelves of the supermarkets  over the past few days in the run up to pancake Tuesday it is clear just how disconnected we have become from the basic act of making a batter to cook on a skillet or pan. Pancakes are possibly one of the most elemental foods to prepare and are present in practically every culture around the world.

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In the run up to this Shrove Tuesday the displays in the aisles of the best known super stores make my heart sink. Lightweight non-stick pans join the ranks of‘disposable’ kitchen ware; these thinly coated pans will not survive the rigours of random metal utensils or scouring pad in the sink. As soon as their surface is broken the coating becomes a potential ingredient of your gourmet crepe.  More alarming is the rank of plastic bottled pancake batter mix which stands beside these pans. SERIOUSLY.  What an absurdity to think we are saving time or energy buying a plastic bottle of pancake mix? How long does it take to mix a cupful of flour with a pinch of seasoning, crack a fresh egg and pour in a splash of milk? As we are currently being reminded of the disastrous effects of plastic waste is it not a bit mad that a batter mix should be packaged in a plastic bottle? Just shake and pour!

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Pancakes are the quickest and easiest way to throw together a meal or snack, sweet or savoury, any time of the day and any time of the year.  They come in many variations according to your own preference or geographical influence. The different proportions of flour, egg and milk will distinguish the drop scone from the crepe. The addition of baking powder and whisked egg white will create the popular American style. Gram flour makes a unique pancake called ‘socca’ which would rather be finished in the oven than flipped over on the hob. The classic Russian blini uses buckwheat flour and  yeast to make a light bubbly batter. Whatever your preference, it is a quick and easy way to create a meal with very limited ingredients and can be as elaborate as your fridge or larder suggests when it comes to fillings or toppings. Whatever your preference, try not have more to dispose of than egg shells or paper packaging!

Ita

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Signs of the Times

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).

man and stone steps

There are however encouraging signs of spring; in particular is the rampant frog activity in the tunnel pond.

frogs in 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.

rhubarb under snow

rhubarb

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

Ingredients

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.

Ita.

 

 

 

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