Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Gardener Migrates from the House to the Garden . . .

Les Grues (Cranes) flew over chez nous the other day as they returned from overwintering in Spain. The melodious honking told me of their presence which inspired my doing an imitation, no matter how pathetic, of these beautiful birds as I craned my neck to count seven sedges. These fantastic creatures flying in undulating, V-shaped formations are some of the 130,000 using the western European route on the way to their breeding grounds in Scandinavia. Once they are sighted in Angoulême, spring gets sprung in about two weeks. Therefore I am back to being a full-time gardener and some. The first task was spraying the dormant peach tree to protect it from developing leaf curl.

Treatment is best done on dry, windless days

The plump, pink rhubarb buds are starting to do their wondrous unfurling thereby letting me know that their bed needed weeding and fertilising.

Bearded irises outgrow their space in three to five years depending on how closely they were planted. Big knobs of dead rhizomes are bunched throughout the four beds which will lessen flowering.

Dividing those gnarled lumps and discarding the defunct sections will constitute The Great Iris Transplant which will be happening the next several weeks as the two central beds will be dug up. The glorious floral display flanking one side of the long central garden path will be lessened this April as only the first and last beds will be flowering as their division will be delayed until late summer so as to allow some blooming this season.

Less crowded irises in all their glory from some years back

It's time to check to see if tools and seeds are in shape and in stock for the soon-to-be frenzied planting. That's not a drawing implement. It's a clever little device that sharpens tools from spades to grass clippers. Before an inventory of what seeds I have and what will need to be bought can be taken, a rough drawing of the thirteen potager beds has to be done, annotated with what veggies/fruits go where, honouring of course the principle of rotation.

Most of the winter mustard crop has been chopped down and incorporated into the soil. Any chunky bits will be raked off and reserved as mulch or put on the compost.

The paths between the veggie beds have gotten their first cut of the season via the string trimmer.

The lawn is sparkling with small flowers as sunlight bounces off sweet violets, English daisies, and forget-me-nots.

A single blue forget-me-not easing between two, burgundy, wandering tips of stonecrop

As the heather fades, the daffodils pop.

Looking towards the garden from the sous-sol's door

When the garden is more barren than not, seasonal object constancy is challenged as remembering the inevitable transformation of brave but sparse colour to lush and enveloping seems to have become rusty. This photo from a past May gives a shine to those memories.

Looking towards the sous-sol's door from the garden

À la prochaine!


How to divide Irises

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Simple Pleasures

When a wintry weekend afternoon reveals gloom not only on the news, but also in the damp and forlorn garden, the way to boost my fast-deflating spirits via a warming snack is as uncomplicated as baking a potato, the largest one in our cellier, roasted till its skin is crusty, slashed with a double cross so its fluffy insides can be puffed-out to be saturated with butter, crème fraîche, and chives, making that steaming, fragrant bundle look like it is puckering for a kiss. Though I am tempted to return the gesture, I am bien élevé enough to use a fork.

Preheat oven to 230 degrees C/450 degrees F. The chosen potato measures about 13 cm/5 inches long by about 7 cm/3 inches wide and is a floury type (low-moisture content) well-suited for baking. If you can't find baking potatoes then go with all-purpose. Scrub well and dry.

To let out steam as the potato bakes, prior to oven-time, pierce it all over with the tines of a fork. For a potato this size, ten stabs will be in order.

Roast for 50 to 60 minutes right on the centre rack till the skin is crackly and flesh is tender which can be tested by inserting a sharp knife in the centre. Place the baked beauty on a paper towel, potholder, or tea towel. Slash through the skin lengthwise and then make two perpendiculars near the ends of the initial cut.

Protecting your hands with the tea towel, press on both ends simultaneously towards the centre.

Fresh chives of course are the highest quality choice, but the second best are freeze-dried ones. They rehydrate quickly, retaining flavour and texture closer to the fresh version. You may have to hunt a bit for these as the less-expensive, air-dried herbs are way more common.

Put a noix (knob) of butter and a heaping teaspoon of crème fraîche (or sour cream) along with several mega-pinches of chives. A good sprinkling of salt is the final touch.

Carefully mash and mix with a fork, till all the ingredients are nicely distributed.

As you eat, don't be shy. Add more butter, crème fraîche, and chives.

And what's waiting at the bottom? The glorious skin!

A large potato with skin has about 1000 mg of potassium! 

À la prochaine!


Health benefits, food sources, and recommended daily allowance of potassium

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Savoury Parmesan Green Bean Potato Pie

At this time of the year, I make a thorough investigation of our freezer, checking to see what produce remains from the fall harvest. Ah, lots of green beans! Rachel Roddy, a Rome-based food writer and cookbook author, offers an enticing collection of homey, delicious, inexpensive, and uncomplicated recipes. The sundry produce from our potager found on the larder shelves/potted-herb window sill and in the root cellar/freezer often wind up in her recipes. Her inspirational approach to get you cooking includes wonderful stories of people enjoying precious moments and her encouraging to relish the process of cooking while experimenting to see what suits your individual taste which is exactly what I have done with this pie as I have included lemon zest (The Calm One serendipitously brought home a batch of untreated lemons), dried tomatoes from our garden, and parsley (the only herb on the sill). Think of what you have on hand to make this accommodating dish.

A hearty & easy-to-make breadcrumb crust presents a contrasting crunch

makes 6 ample servings

  • Potatoes, boiled in their skins, peeled, riced, 500g/18 dry oz
  • Green beans, cooked, roughly chopped, 450g/16 dry oz
  • Parmesan, freshly grated, 100g/3.5 dry oz
  • Eggs, 3
  • Tomatoes, sun-dried, rehydrated, finely chopped, 1 T
  • Parsley, flat-leaf, fresh, minced, 1 tsp and extra for garnishing
  • Lemon zest, finely grated from an untreated lemon (reserve some strips for garnishing), 1 tsp
  • Olive oil
  • Breadcrumbs, fine, about 16 T
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 177 degrees C/350 degrees F. Get cracking those eggs!

Lightly whisk eggs in a bowl big enough to hold the finished mixture.

Add the potatoes, chopped beans, lemon zest, sun-dried tomatoes, Parmesan, parsley. Mix well and season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Lightly oil the sides and bottom of the pan (20 cm/8 inch round) and remember to grease where the sides and bottom meet.

Want to make your own breadcrumbs? Instructions are in this post

Spoon the mixture into the crumbed pan. Level and press down the filling with the back of a spoon/spatula.

Top with a thickish layer of crumbs and sprinkle well with olive oil. I sprinkled less than well, using just a tablespoon of oil. Next time I will be more generous with the sprinkling since it will not only add richness and flavour, but also will tame the crumbly nature of a breadcrumb crust. Another method would be to mix oil and crumbs in a bowl till well-moistened before placing them onto the filling.

Bake 50-60 minutes till lightly puffed and browned. Let cool for twenty minutes. Garnish with lemon peel and parsley. Either slice right in the pan or if the pan has a removable bottom, loosen edges of the pie with a narrow, flexible spatula/knife and gingerly push up from the bottom with a hand, lifting it out on its own platter. An astuce: aim for upwardly slanting a part of the pan's bottom onto the rim which will serve as support over which the entire pie can slide onto the other hand, palm-side-up of course.

This pie with its cheesy, eggy taste and creaminess (thanks to the potatoes) is both satisfying and comforting. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Having enjoyed the tasty simplicity of this dish so much, I am devising a list of ingredients for another one: chopped, roasted sweet red pepper (there's an ample amount from the fall harvest in the freezer) instead of the green beans along with swapping the herb fennel (now rising from wintry muck) for the parsley, and adding garlic. How even nicer it would be made with potatoes from our potager!

À la prochaine!

RELATED POSTS (other Rachel Roddy recipes that I have made)

Roasted Sweet Red Peppers and Tomatoes
Italian Pasta and Beans
Pasta and Potatoes Minestra

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Crème Anglaise

Many a year ago, when we lived in Yorkshire, I made my first custard sauce. Though I love eating this British classic anywhere, its pleasant taste, cheerful colour, and velvety texture is particularly comforting if the eater is gazing through a rain-drenched window overlooking windswept moors. Adorning many a dessert from fruit crumbles to sponge cake to parfaits and fools to just the simplicity of its flavoursome richness swirled through some plain yogurt or serving as a base for making ice cream, this sauce with its flaxen colour and a whiff of vanilla is versatile. Easy to make, any surplus will last about a week in the fridge and will present no difficulty to being gobbled-up.

Custard sauce topping rhubarb crumble in a pool of coulis (recipe)

makes approximately 1/2 litre

  • Cream, heavy, 295 ml/10 fluid oz
  • Egg yolks, 3
  • Sugar, vanilla, 2 T (add more to taste if a sweeter sauce is desired). A whole vanilla bean could instead be put in the cream to be warmed, in that case use plain sugar. Remove, clean, dry the bean, and store it in a jar of sugar, to make vanilla sugar!

Beating yolks and sugar until thick and lemon-coloured is . . .

. . . something I never tire of doing. Just yolks thickened with sugar in itself is adaptable by lending its deliciousness to eggnog and zabaglione with which The Calm One would take a shower if he only could figure out how to get it to flow through the plumbing.

Whisking takes about five minutes; note how the mixture coats the whisk and bowl

Gently warm up the cream in a saucepan. Take it off the burner and let sit for a few minutes. If using a vanilla bean, remove it now. Stir a few tablespoons into the yolks and sugar. Stir in a few more. Stir in the final amount. Then pour the tempered yolk/sugar mixture in the pan, stirring all the time over low heat until when swiping a coated wooden spoon with a finger, the remaining sauce stays put. It can be strained for an even more silky finish.

Sauce takes about five minutes to get to this stage

Fill a suitable storage tub with the sauce.

Refrigerate for at least an hour to firm it up.

To assemble the rhubarb fool we had for dessert following our holiday dinner this past December, for two ample servings, fold in gently and completely 118 ml/4 fluid oz of custard into 118 ml/4 fluid oz of whipped cream.

Then incompletely fold in 118 ml/4 fluid oz of rhubarb puree. Use more if you want it to be very fruity. Instructions for roasting rhubarb which retains most of its pinkness (of course forced pink rhubarb will be the pinkest) and also provides copious juice for coulis are here.

I took a stick mixer to the roasted rhubarb to make puree

Aim for threads of rhubarb throughout.

Pile into dessert glasses, make a depression in the fool, and fill with rhubarb coulis. Though custard sauce can be made with milk or a fool just with whipped cream, using a cream-based custard to be folded into whipped cream makes it closer to unfrozen ice cream and oh so good.

À la prochaine!

Monday, January 23, 2017

Flour, Water, Fire, and Polly Jane

Today I have the pleasure of introducing to Souped-up Garden's readership, Botany Bakehouse, whose twitter stream has inspired and comforted me for many a month. Her joyous interface with life, food, and words is contagious. If that was not enough, she also pairs chilli jam with sourdough pumpkin bagels.

How do you do, this is Botany Bakehouse. Michelle has kindly asked me to write a piece for this lovely blog. I’m honoured! I run a tiny, tiny bakery in a small village deep in the mountains that are in the background of all those tourist photos of Alhambra. My business constitutes three staff. Me, the baker, the bread slinger, and Polly Jane.
Before Polly came into my life, a bake off took all night. The electric wiring in our house is too capricious (not to mention the danger of taking the whole village out) which meant that getting a commercial oven with a massive appetite was too impractical. Gas is very expensive here too.  The maximum I could fit in a domestic oven was two 500g loaves at a given time. I was exhausted! I even contemplated becoming a cookie business, or a novelty cake maker. I drew the line at cup cakes. But I love baking bread.

Spelt and rye boule tied in raffia

And luckily for me, many villagers on this mountain and the next accepted my bread with open arms. One day my bread slinger decided enough is enough and contacted a local stonemason. Painstakingly, layer after layer of brick, concrete, insulation, and more concrete was formed into a vaulted arch oven perfect for making bread. Polly Jane was born.

First food!

But she was a feeble child. The bread slinger and I would feed her log after log of the best olive wood we could find but she remained cold. Then suddenly she became an angry, young woman. Burning everything inside. I would shed tears over the charred loaves while the bread slinger conducted desperate searches online for answers on how to control temperature on new, wood-fired ovens. That was all last month. She is more than fine now. We have an understanding. Her teenage years aremostlybehind her.
  1. I heat Polly Jane the night before to the point of inferno.
  2. The bread slinger gets pizza for supper.
  3. Before sunrise Polly Jane starts baking boule.
  4. Then she bakes Viennoiseries. 
  5. The bread slinger sets off. 
After washing up, I pop some simple ingredients in a clay pot and leave it to slowly cook in Polly Jane so that when my bread slinger gets back we can have a slow and lazy lunch after all the excitement.

Rabbit and butterbean stew

Even as the heat dies off the following day, you’ll find me and Polly Jane experimenting with slow infusions of herbs in the olive oil we have produced, drying herbs, or just making sure the logs for the next bake are bone dry.

I love Polly Jane to bits. When I was working for a busy café bakery in a big, big city I took the heat generated and used up for granted. Too many other matters to worry about. Energy is precious here, and Polly Jane channels it beautifully.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Flu, Not Flew . . . and the budding relationship between Dirac the Cat & Eli the Kitten

My customary zipping about while doing several things at once comes close to flying. But not when the flu visits. While The Calm One keeps going even if he shouldn't, I am not given that choice because my limbs have changed to lead. However, my mind ignores the physical heaviness and keeps churning away, planning way more things than I can do in my flu-ridden state, for example, writing about how I made Rhubarb Fool with a cream-based custard sauce for our holiday dinner this past December. Those instructions will have to wait until next week's post. We hope you don't have the flu, and if you do, that you get well soon.

Let's instead glory in the unfolding of the relationship between the confident, bordering-on-smug, nativist feline, Dirac the Cat and the scrappy newcomer, Eli the Kitten. Eli, upon entering his new domain, has retained white, ankle boots on three paws along with the thigh-high one on the front, right leg.

He quickly located various sources of heat including stretching out on my laptop. He has trained me to close it when leaving my office because if I don't, I could come back to a computer which verbally describes my click-by-click activity. It took The Calm One some time to figure out how to get it back to a non-crazy-making interface.

Eli adores watching videos of birds and fish. However his favourite which he highly recommends is a mouse hunt game created for cats.

But those vids can't beat the real thing which is a paws-on play session with Dirac which starts innocently enough with Dirac up high on the wall unit and Eli on the coffee table directly below.

It progresses when Dirac notices Eli has jumped off the table onto the floor. Such action is countered by Dirac stepping down to the first shelf below.

By that time, Eli is waiting for him, with just one shelf separating them.

They bat paws for about ten minutes. The endgame happens when Dirac jumps onto the floor and meows to be let out leaving Eli who is still confined indoors, without a partner. Eli then searches out my computer . . .

À la prochaine!


Rhubarb fool made with custard and cream