Friday, 22 January 2016

What have we got food and Chunky Soup recipe

Yesterday afternoon we lost one of the chickens, not that we couldn't find her, Mr J found her around the back of the piggeries in her favourite scratching about place. She had died and we don't know why, there were no signs of attack, no flurry of feathers, no nasty wounds. She hasn't been poorly and was bright and cheerful when we saw her shortly before she died. We have come to the conclusion that she had a heart attack and died quickly, and when one's time comes, quickly and doing your favourite thing is not such a bad way to go.

Bluebelle's demise does however move forward our timescale for having some other girls to provide eggs. I was very keen to have hens that lay blue or olive coloured eggs, because I thought that they tasted nicer, but I have learnt that the taste of the eggs is also determined by the hens diet. Our girls had the treat of some sweetcorn one afternoon and the next day the yolks were the deepest yellow I've ever seen and they were very rich and creamy. I'm not sure what impact their diet of layers pellets (their go-to if it's raining very hard), worms, grubs, beetles and the occasional scampering thing has, but their eggs have been delicious for the last month or so since they arrived here.

I rarely plan too far ahead for our meals and we often eat 'what have we got' food. Mr J and I like these unplanned meals as it means we can have what we fancy at the time. I stand in front of the fridge and pantry and have a look at what's inside, grab a few ingredients and take it from there.

Later in the year, when the kitchen garden has been created and fruit, vegetables and herbs are growing I will spend less time looking in the fridge and more time wandering around beds selecting what is ready to harvest. Until then I have to make do with imagining that a wander around the local food shop is the equivalent, although I am already gathering herbs from the potted plants that we brought with us when we moved.

We still have so much to do to get the garden ready for the spring planting frenzy, but like everyone else we have been hampered by the rainy weather. We've been fortunate in comparison to so many who have been flooded, their livestock lost and land ruined. Our garden is sodden, the soil is saturated and struggles to drain with each new rain shower but it does drain and once we have built raised beds and set out the pathways properly, the soil should be just fine for growing a lot of our own food.

The chickens have been providing us with huge fresh eggs most days and we are looking forward to selecting more egg-providing girls to join us on our smallholding and we have been discussing whether to get some table birds too. I'm quite keen to look at having a couple of piglets, they could live with us for the summer and autumn and then fill our freezer in the winter, but that idea may have to wait until the kitchen garden is sorted out and some serious fencing is installed.

One of my favourite dishes is a one-pot soup with chunky vegetables in a rich liquid. Every time I make this it is different because I use the 'what have we got' method of cooking, but almost without fail I use some homemade chicken stock to provide the base liquid and rich flavour.

I make some stock from the carcass of any roast chicken that we have, I've almost stopped buying chicken portions as a whole chicken provides us with several meals and stock, so works out to be much better value.  For the stock I chop a few onions, carrots and herbs and put them into a large pot with the roast chicken carcass and cover with boiling water. I boil it for about 20 minutes then turn down the heat and simmer for about another 45 minutes. Then I strain it through a colander, keeping the liquid (recycling the bones and vegetables into the local council recycle bag) and once cooled a bit I pour it into used butter or yoghurt containers. When completely cool I label it (including the date that it was cooked and frozen) and freeze for use in soups, stews and gravies.

Chunky Soup 

Selection of root vegetables (and green leafy vegetables if available)
Onions or Shallots
1 stick Celery
Fresh Herbs like rosemary, thyme and sage
Chicken Stock
Sea Salt and Coarsely Ground Black Pepper

Put frozen or fresh stock into a large saucepan and put on high heat.

Chop onions or shallots, add to pan.
Cube hard root vegetables into small cubes and add to pan.
Add one or two cloves of crushed garlic and a pinch of finely grated fresh ginger (not too much or the soup will become fiery!)
For softer vegetables like squashes and pumpkins, chop into larger chunks (but still small enough to be bite-size) and add to pan.
Add any combination of vegetables that you have to hand. I prefer not to have too much of any one vegetable so allow the flavour of each to shine.
Add a spring of rosemary, thyme, sage or any other fresh herb that you fancy.

Add enough boiling water to almost cover the vegetables and bring to the boil.

Boil hard for about 10 minutes, check taste and add salt and pepper to taste and then add any chopped leafy green vegetables.
Turn the heat to medium low and simmer with the lid on for a further 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Turn off heat and leave to stand for 5 to 10 minutes to allow all the flavours to mature.

Serve with chunks of bread and butter or a piece of strong Cheddar cheese.
When I make this soup, all the vegetable peelings then get chopped up as finely as I have the energy for and added to the kitchen compost bag ready to go out to the compost heap. I aim to waste as little as possible.


Thursday, 21 January 2016

Overheating on a frosty day and Gluten Free Vanilla Biscones


I've been feeling decidedly under par for the last few days and yesterday I felt particularly horrid. Despite it being sub zero outside for the whole day, inside I was hot (and not in an attractive 'come-to-bed' way). I spent much of the day wandering around the house in nothing but my undies, a t-shirt and slippers, while Mr J had at least three layers on and two pairs of socks. My temperature swung from tropical beach to Norwegian fjord and back again in a flash, it didn't make for a very interesting (or interested) day so I resigned myself to staring at the telly and dozing.

During a spell of feeling up to doing something gentle, I headed for the kitchen and rummaged in the fridge for something to make for lunch.  We ended up with a rustic cottage pie with celeriac infused mash topping and some vanilla biscones. I made a huge rectangular dish full of cottage pie so that I could portion and freeze most of it for use on another day. This helps us have homemade food on days when I am not feeling up to cooking as we can just pop a couple of portions into a microwave to defrost and heat up. 
I couldn't find my usual brand of finely ground corn meal when we went shopping last week, so I bought some Gram Flour (made from chick peas) and have been experimenting with some success. I made some scones which didn't rise as much as I would have liked them to, but in the end they made a wonderful half way point between biscuits and scones, so I'm calling them Biscones.

Gluten Free Vanilla Biscones

2 ozs Salted Butter
2 ozs Gluten Free Self Raising Flour
3 ozs Gram Flour
2 ozs Golden Caster Sugar
1/2 pinch salt
1/2 tspn Gluten Free Baking Powder
1/2 tspn Gluten Free Xanthan Gum
1 tspn Vanilla Extract
Cold Water

Pre-heat oven to 190C, 170Fan, 350F, gas mark 5.

Wash your hands thoroughly. Place butter into a large bowl, add all the dry ingredients and rub together to form a fine crumb.

Add vanilla extract and a little water and mix to form a soft but not soggy consistency. If it's too wet, add a little more flour.
Turn onto a very lightly floured board and pat down until about 1/2 inch thick. Using a cutter, cut into rounds and place on a baking sheet.

Cook in the centre of the oven for 10 - 15 minutes or until just golden. Keep checking that they aren't over done as they can catch on the base quite easily. Turn onto a cooling rack to cool.

We enjoyed them while still warm with butter and strawberry conserve until we realised how nice they were just on their own!

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Positive Outlook

After so much rain and wind in the last few weeks, I've enjoyed the sunshine today. I particularly like it when it's cold but sunny and took advantage of the sunshine to take a few photos. This cheerful little crocus is one of several that are in a flower manger hanging on the wall at the front of the house. I hadn't noticed them in bud, but they certainly stand out now.
The view of the sun rising over South Gloucestershire and Bristol was beautiful again this morning. Mr J is becoming skilled in taking very atmospheric photos.

Mr J also took this lovely photo looking across part of the yard toward the paddock while I sat on the patio outside the house (and out of view) enjoying the unexpected warmth.

We placed and secured the next section of weed supressing membrane in the paddock that will become the fruit and vegetable garden. It's a very slow process at the moment as I want to be involved in all the garden creating work but I get tired quickly. These sections will become pathways with raised beds to the sides.

The girls came to join in our activities, they are so nosey and can't bear to be missing out (on a potential meal!). They are great entertainment and are also supplying us with eggs that have the richest, deep yellow yolks and that taste better than almost any egg we've had before.

Just a few hours of bright sunshine have lifted our spirits again. There are parts of the garden where the sun didn't get to at all today and in those places the frost hasn't melted all day, but where the sun has reached it has been warm and bright and uplifting. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that there will be plenty more days like this ahead.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Planning the herbaceous border

As the weather warms a little and the ground dries up a bit I'll start planting the herbaceous border, which will be sited on the other side of the fence at the back of the shrubbery. My plan is to have perennial flowers and bulbs to enjoy in situ and for cutting for vases in the house. There are so many plants to choose from but here are some of my favourites that I grew in my last garden. Above are some Scilla that I had in numerous clumps growing through lots of different varieties of Geranium and Woodruff.
Peonies and Oriental Poppies in a variety of shades add blousy, if fleeting, splendour to a border. I like the rich deep green foliage and texture that they bring and the way that the buds offer promise of colour for days before they open.

The perennial Geraniums flowers that hover above fresh green mounds of leaves that spread so eagerly come in a huge variety of colours and my favourites include white and this deep rich purple variety.
I also like to include spreading ground cover plants like Aubrietia so that as time goes on I can do less weeding and more enjoying. My father loved Aubrietia in all its varieties for their early colour in the garden, he had it scrambling along the tops of walls and cascading down the sides like little floral waterfalls.

 Aquilegia that self-seed all over the place and hold their flowers high above the foliage always make me smile. I saved some seed of a very deep dark purple flowered one that grew in my mother's garden but I know that the colours aren't terribly reliable from saved seed, so it will be interesting to see what colour comes up.

Roses have always had a place in my garden, wherever I have lived and I particularly like ones that climb and scramble and look like they are misbehaving.

In addition to these flowering lovelies, I already have some young plants ready to put into the border including Foxgloves, Delphinium, Verbascum and Lysimachia punctata (Yellow Loosestrife) to give height.

I've bought lots of bulbs and corms to go in too, they probably won't give me much of a display this year, but next year they should provide a host of cheery, colourful flowers.
Today I am going to continue looking online and browse through books and take a look at the notes that I kept about how well plants grew in my previous gardens to see what else I might like to go in this border. I will also appeal to friends and family to see what they have in their gardens that can be divided later in the year so that perhaps a portion could end up in our perennial border.
It will of course be an on-going project, but I'd like to think that I could get the bulk of the planting done this spring and then spend the next few years tinkering with the design and display.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Family, weekend and willows

On Friday morning I spent a gentle hour continuing to clear the stable to make the chicken condo, the girls had other ideas. The contents of the stable floor are being piled up in the garden to rot down over the next few years. I am not keen to put too much into the main compost heap in case the hay is full of grass seeds and I unintentionally fill the beds with grass. The large pile of hay and wood shavings, once rotted down, will be spread under the new hedge as it won't matter if grass grows there.

Saturday morning was a family filled affair, with visits from my sister and my daughter and her family. Grandson number one is such a delight to spend time with, at four years old he is bright and cheerful, inquisitive and soaks up new knowledge like a sponge. He ran off to get his wellies and anorak that he keeps here so that he and his father could go and inspect the little trees that we planted in the paddock on his last visit. Grandson number two is now nine weeks old and has learnt to smile and even giggle, I am totally smitten.

After lunch I brought the unplanted hedging plants inside to the boot room to ensure that they don't get frosted before I manage to get them in the ground and I took the opportunity to take a few cuttings.

Cutting lengths of about 18 inches off the top of the willow stems, I then put them in a tall bottle filled with water and placed it on the kitchen windowsill. Hopefully in a couple of months they will have sprouted some healthy roots and I can add the new plants to our yet-to-be-planted hedge that will go around the fruit and vegetable garden.
By early afternoon I was exhausted and spent the remainder of the day on the sofa and headed off to bed by 8.30pm. Long gone are the days of partying on a Saturday night and funnily enough, I don't miss it at all.

Today we went to view a second hand hen house which, after a short discussion, we decided not to buy. I am itching to get a second housing area sorted so that we can get some more hens to join Bluebelle, Jack and Diesel, but we want to ensure that any new hens are integrated gently onto the smallholding so a second house in the short term is a must.

It was back to the sofa again this afternoon, frustrated that I can't do more in a day than a short trip out and pottering around at home. I have another GP appointment in a couple of weeks to discuss increasing the dose of thyroxin that I am taking, I am sure that once my dose is correct my metabolism will function nearer the rate that it should and my energy levels will increase allowing me to do more each day.