Archive for herbs

Chive vinegar update – one week on

chive vinegar bottled This is how the chive vinegar looks after a week – I wanted a fairly mild infusion for salad dressings so I decanted it and bottled it. Isn’t it beautiful?


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Floral salads – stunning ways to use allotment crops

chives 1I was going to post this yesterday, but I had to rewrite the recipe and the post – I’d made several references to it being a ‘Nigella’ type recipe, which is the shorthand I use to describe something home-made but also rather voluptuous and impressive. Today I don’t choose to talk about Nigella at all – her privacy, her personal life and her relationship with her husband are entirely her business.

So instead, let’s take another well known chef and shove this recipe into his ballpark. I think it would work well to describe this as a ‘Heston’ type recipe too, for quite different reasons: namely, it’s an alchemical recipe and it’s stunningly spectacular.

It’s also incredibly easy.

chives 2Ingredients

• As many chive heads as you can gather. My recommendation is to get a blend of the wide open, pale lilac ones, which contain the highest concentration of the volatile oil that gives the chive its flavour, and a goodly number of the less open, darker pink heads, which contain less oil but more colour. Mixed together about 70% pale to 30% dark, you get the best flavour and the best colour too.
• Wine vinegar – the lighter in colour the better. I find Italian wine vinegar tends to be a little more golden than French, don’t know why, different grapes perhaps? For this I’d use the French.


chives 31. Cut the heads with just enough stem to hold the florets in place. Cut too short and they will fall apart, too long and the flavour won’t be as delicate.
2. Wash the flowers, but don’t leave them in soak as that will wash away a lot of the flavour. Rinse well to remove any insects and either spin in a salad spinner or dry gently in an old tea towel.
3. Put the flower heads in a jar, packing them quite tightly. Pour over the vinegar. Seal. Put in a cool dark place. That’s it. This is a cold infusion vinegar – simple, isn’t it?

After just 48 hours you will see the colour form in the vinegar and if you open the jar now, it will already have a lovely oniony redolence. Leave for between two and six weeks, depending on the depth of flavour you like, and then strain and rebottle in a sterilised container.

The final vinegar will fall somewhere between blush pink and neon fuchsia, and have a quite pronounced garlic odour but a more subtle onion flavour. Keep in the fridge and use up within three months.

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June allotment recipe

soldier bean flower saladIf you grew drying beans last year, this is the month to use them up, so that you can enjoy fresh beans in salads and other dishes. Home-dried beans are at their best if eaten before they reach a year of storage, so this is a good time to try out some hearty summer salads, as the hungry gap still has a big grip on most allotments and there isn’t too much fresh produce to be harvested yet.

We grow soldier beans for salads and because they are bush beans that only need a single stake to support them, and borlotti beans for baking and pasta, but in previous years we’ve grown Cherokee Trail of Tears, navy beans, and limas. It’s a great way to have protein-rich winter store cupboard food. Remember that allotment grown beans may cook quicker than shop-bought dried ones as they probably haven’t been stored for as long or desiccated so much.


200 grams dried beans
Large handful of spinach, washed and torn
Large handful of rocket, washed and torn
Optional: celery leaves, lovage leaves, fennel fronds or seeds (all of which are said to reduce the flatulence caused by eating beans!)

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar or home-made tarragon vinegar
1 tablespoon walnut oil
Pinch salt
Pinch pepper
Fresh thyme, minced


• Cook your beans gently until tender (usually 25-35 minutes for soldier, navy, lima and Cherokee Trail of Tears beans, longer for Borlotti beans) and refresh under cold running water.
• In a large bowl, combine the two kinds of greens. In a smaller bowl, mix the beans and any chosen flatulence-reducing herb.
• Whisk together the dressing ingredients and pour over the salad. Chill if not eating immediately.

In the photo I’ve added rosemary and rocket flowers to the salad, along with some oriental leaves and a couple of sliced radishes – we throw in whatever we have around!

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Allotment harvest 12 May 2013

103 allotment haul 12 may 13What a haul for a windy Sunday! We’ve got:

• one immense leek, the very last of the year – it will be a bit woody in the core but with that cut out it’ll make a great soup or pasta sauce
• at least a kilo of purple sprouting broccoli – which we love as much as asparagus (and a good thing too, as we’ve got plenty of the former and none of the latter for at least a year)
• rhubarb
• a nice big bunch of sage (for sage butter, and also fried sage leaves over pork – delish!)
• the first of the rainbow radishes

Not bad, not bad at all.

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Endless basil … for the price of one supermarket pot

Here’s how to do it.

Buy a packet of red basil seed and a packet of green basil seed.

Split your packets of seed with an allotment neighbour so they pay half (and get half the seeds).

Winter starters

Start around eight red basil seed in a 10 to 12 cm pot. Ensure there is some gravel in the bottom of the pot to provide drainage and you may like to mix some sand or a bit of gritty John Innes into standard potting compost as basil hates having wet feet. Red basil seems to tolerate the occasional wintry blast more comfortably than green basil, so if you’re starting in winter, start with the red.



You probably need to cover basil seeds in winter, unless you have a heated greenhouse or heated propagator. I have neither, just a windowsill near the back door (hence my experience with seedlings that don’t survive a bit of outdoor weather each time the door is opened for Rebus, the Cairn Terrierist, who goes out at least 20 times a day, just because he can!)

I either cover with an old bit of glass (the clear lids of small Pyrex dishes are brilliant for this and you can pick them up for pennies in charity shops) or lay some clingfilm over the top and poke about six holes in it with a darning needle. The covering needs to be lifted every day and wiped/shaken free of condensation. Ensure your compost is damp, but not sodden, sprinkle the seeds on, and cover with the merest layer of compost (half a centimetre is ample, I’d say aim for a quarter of a centimetre in winter) before spraying with a standard mister to dampen. Don’t firm the compost.

It can take 21 days to germinate in winter, because of low daylight levels, and is likely to be a bit spindly. As soon as the first seedling shows, remove the covering. You may have to mist the surface every other day or so but probably you won’t need to water more than every week or ten days, depending on your growing location – push your finger into the pot and if the soil is dry 2cm down, its time to water from the base. Stand the pot in a deepish container to water (we use an old bowl) give it a good drink and then remove – that ensures your basil gets to drain at the roots which hate being waterlogged.

red basil

Seedling red basil

If you’ve spaced your seeds reasonably well, you may not have to thin – the picture shows a pot that should have been thinned, but what I will do in a few days is pinch out a couple of the congested seedlings to let the others have space to grow on.

When the basil has four true leaves, start off your next pot the same way. Ours live indoors all year around as we like a lot of basil!

Summer starters

Same system, but with green basil, and about half a centimetre of compost over the seeds. Once there’s good daylight the seeds will germinate quicker, around 7-10 days and once there’s both good daylight and adequate heat (from June) you don’t have to cover the seeds with a lid and they can appear as rapidly as four days from sowing. You’ll need to water more often though.

green basil

Green basil grown on the kitchen windowsill

For summer basil, start your next pot whenever the first is in full growth, like this one. We alternate a red basil and a green one, that way we’ve always got a pot of both on the go. Pinch out any flower heads that form – once the plants start to flower the leaves become tough and bitter.

If your plants are producing more basil than you can use, simply open freeze the leaves and then pop them in a resealable bag. They are good to make pesto in the winter. As for those wintry blasts, you can see a desiccated basil stem in the middle of these healthy plants, it was the biggest strongest plant, standing proud above the others, then we opened the kitchen window to let out some steam and it was just tall enough to get caught by the cold air. End result – death!

From June, lift a couple of seedlings from your pot each time you sow – plant them outside in your warmest, most sheltered location. A big well drained container is good enough, just tuck them in with something else. Ideally, if you want to save seed from each variety, plant them far apart to avoid cross pollination. Basil doesn’t seem to cross that easily, but it does do it. We deal with this by having the red basil on the plot and the green at home, but we’re in a privileged position.

Don’t harvest the outdoor plants, just let them … run up to seed! As they do so, the flowers will begin to turn brown – get down below the flowers and see if any of the seeds inside the flowers are black – usually they start green and turn black when ripe. Basil is a bit of a pig to harvest, as you will always get some unripe seed in with the ripe which feels like a waste, but each flower head that ripens should provide around 8 viable seed. That’s your next entire pot …

To save the seed, cut the flower head off when around half the seeds appear to be black. Put the whole flower head in a brown envelope and leave it somewhere cool and dry. The seed will eventually fall out, and you can increase the speed of this process by giving the envelope a good rattle every few days. Just keep saving flower heads in old envelopes (with the week you saved the seed and which variety of basil it is written on it). We end up with about eight envelopes from July to September, each of which has between four a seven flower heads in it.

As we need new seed to sow, we just take the oldest envelope, tip out some seed, and sow it. I can’t remember the last time we bought basil seed and it does go right through the winter, although it’s a weaker, leggier and less flavoursome plant in November, December and January than in the summer months.

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Allotment update: compost, greenhouse growing and the last of the leeks

103 compost sieving kitSunday was compost sorting day. This is my compost sieving kit – a big yellow bucket, a sieve and a stool. The good, fine, friable compost goes on the potato bed and the twiggy dry matter and un-composted material goes back into the second compost bin to be ‘re-cooked’.

I always sit, because sieving is back-breaking work. Because this is the first year we’ve had compost bins on #103, it looks as if the compost didn’t get hot enough to really cook, so it’s probably full of weed seeds. As a result, we won’t risk using it in a seed bed. On the potato bed we can hoe down any germinating seed easily, and we’ll redesign the bins to get a bit more heat by giving less ventilation on the side facing the prevailing wind and possibly insulating better through the autumn months. While I was doing this, OH was putting down the paths for the peas and beans. In between working on the mature compost bin, I dipped in and out of the greenhouse for a bit of warmth and comfort.

103 french tarragon 3 mar 13The French tarragon is shooting out of its pot very nicely – although it won’t be planted out until mid May, we can start harvesting the shoots from mid March, as it keeps the plants bushy. Lifting this perennial every year in October, dividing it in two and planting both in the unheated greenhouse until May gives us ever more plants and the growth remains green and succulent rather than developing woody stems. The old plant will just be cut out of the middle of the pot in the next couple of weeks,

103 spinach 3 mar 13The spinach is doing well too. Next week we’ll sow another crop, possibly outdoors but under cover, as this morning we had an extremely heavy frost – it happens regularly in March and we’ll hedge our bets by planting spinach outside and also another tub will get sown in the unheated greenhouse as it can always be moved outside in a couple of weeks – usually with spinach, after mid March, the risk is more of bolting in too much heat than getting shrivelled in a frost.

103 leeks 3 mar 13Finally I harvested a couple of mammoth leeks – they are late season and really are past their best now, and I’m not thrilled with them anyway – I found the fanning leaves less successful that the more columnar varieties and they’ve taken a lot more cleaning, which means this is a variety we won’t be growing again. I’ve learned to factor processing time into allotment growing, and pernickety plants or ones that have an unduly long processing period (like leeks that get mud between the leaves) don’t get a second chance on our plot!

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Today’s germination!

103 red basil 19 feb 13This is red basil – it’s not in the greenhouse because even before the current cold weather, and even in a heated greenhouse, basil won’t germinate in February, and definitely not when it’s snowy and there are low light levels.

103 red basilInstead it’s on the kitchen windowsill, alongside the overwintering chillies and now, the edible dahlias, which I moved indoors as soon as the weather forecast suggested sub-zero temperatures were on their way. It’s difficult to believe these tiny seedlings will grow up to be robust annual plants like this.

Why red basil? Two reasons:

1. the flavour is slightly preferable, to my mind, to green basil, for certain purposes
2. the colour.

Red basil is slightly more warm in flavour than green – it has a more woody and less liquorice aftertaste which makes it great for Thai cuisine. The colour is great for pesto, and used about 1/3 red to 2/3 green basil you get a stunning pesto with an even more developed flavour than with green basil leaves alone.

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