Ceviche – courtesy of North Uist brown trout

I hadn’t realised how long it had been since I last wrote a post.  As anticipated, the return home a couple of weeks ago means we have had to hit the ground running – too much to do, so little time, plus fabulous, though freezing weather.  This, combined with the clocks changing at the weekend means we have almost switched to our outdoor feral lifestyle that longer days bring. Oh, and the ensuing meatfest – continued delivery of greylag geese, requiring plucking and preparation (I have also tried some curing, we will see if it works…). We also took delivery of half an old spot pig from our neighbour, butchery of which commenced this evening. More on that subject another time, soon.

I therefore must apologise, fellow bloggers, for my reduced interactions – I haven’t had as much time to read and comment on your lovely blogs as I would like recently. Also to those vegetarian readers for the meatfest.  There are some vegetarian posts in my log jam of drafts, please bear with me!

Springtime?

I’m not going to go on about the weather, in fact it is really beautifully clear and crisp here and has been for the last two weeks.  It certainly looks like spring more than it feels like it, the vegetation is slow to grow and the lapwings look a bit perplexed about the lack of cover in their favoured nesting areas behind the house.

The arrival of spring was qualified last week by the birth of the first lambs on the croft behind our house.  I had a walk up and watched them gambolling around the temple a few nights ago.  The trio are two twins and a single who were engrossed in a competition of head-butting and leaping off rocks and bucking wildly before I interrupted. The field will soon be full as new born lambs are let out of the barn with their mothers and the cacophony of displaying waders and shrill bleating will reach a crescendo by Mid-April.

lambs

lambs 2

Fishing at last

The brown trout fly fishing season has now started.  We went out last Saturday in conditions that were the most inhospitable I have ever fished in, so cold I couldn’t feel my fingers and hence the line, winds 35 to 40 mph).  Strong winds don’t usually deter us – or the fish, but the biting cold was insufferable and after an hour, we gave up the pointless exercise and went home.

The weather remained pretty static over this week, and it didn’t require a soothsayer to foresee another fishless outing.  With too much to do in the garden, I opted out and left The Man Named Sous to experience the challenging Loch Hosta unaccompanied.  I have fished this bowl-like machair loch 5 or 6 times and despite it’s reputation for good fishing, I have always blanked.

I know, I should take my role as the current Chair of North Uist Angling Club more seriously.  I’m such a lightweight.  At this stage, I think it would be pertinent to point out that I have not been selected as Chair in a bun fight between those with the best angling prowess across the Isles.  No, I happened to be one of the very few present in the room at the time of the AGM who did not already have a committee role and did not raise sufficient objection not to be awarded the accolade.  In fairness, it at least saves the same 3 or 4 people from having to take on the role for a year. In fact, it is our very efficient secretary who keeps the club running smoothly, the only unique role for the Chair being a short speech at the annual dinner at the end of April.

Progressive gardening

I am glad that I stayed in the garden and had a very productive day.  First I checked my seedlings. Thanks to the very stable environment of my new heated propagator, half of my 8 chilli varieties have germinated.  I planted tomatoes, a plethora of herbs and organised my rotation for the raised beds.

Then, with some trepidation, I decided to start excavating the inside of the old inn, the ruined blackhouse in the corner of our garden where I have resolved to grow potatoes in this year, this covered in a previous potato-based post.

A couple of years ago, we covered over the inside of the ruin with weed suppressing fabric and stored wood and other materials on top of it. After a struggle to drag off the heavily vegetated fabric, I began digging and to my delight found no mat of weed roots and an ideal soil texture almost free of stones. Almost. The next day I did have to get help from The Man Named Sous to remove a rock pile from the centre, as a well as a huge stone that had fallen off the building and into the centre.

It took 2 of us about an hour to dig it out and roll it onto the surrounding walls as it must have weighed at least 100kg. As ever, there is always the expectation that you may find some buried treasure.  Well, I did, but it amounted to nothing more than the remains of a long dead sheep and a couple of neat ink bottles. The dogs thought it was an awesome way to spend a Saturday – digging holes, spraying me with soil and eating roots.  What more could a dog want?

Hector posing in the new potato patch.  Gardening rocks! Literally.

Hector posing in the new potato patch. Gardening rocks! Literally.

Brown trout ceviche

trout

I was delighted that The Man Named Sous did bring home a fish, a 1lb 3 oz brown trout, despite the less than perfect fishing conditions – glare and cold. Ceviche is one of our favourite trout dishes and a really great way to enjoy exceptionally fresh wild fish.

Ceviche is invariably the first dish I make at the start of the new season which also signifies the start of longer and (hopefully) warmer days, a dish I associate with summer, barbecues and eating al fresco (usually while wearing a fleece in North Uist). Sadly, when I visited Ecuador, I was still vegetarian so I have not yet had the opportunity to experience the dish other than that of my own concoction.

I have tried a few ceviche recipes and I tend to ring the changes depending on the amount of each citrus fruit I have at the time, these essentially ‘cook’ the fish.  A reliable recipe for anyone making ceviche for the first time is the River Cottage Sea Fishing Handbook which I have used here.

Filleting fish

Filleting fish does take a bit of practice, the secret is a very good quality and exceptionally sharp and slightly flexible filleting knife.  I use Chroma Type 301 Japanese steel knives which I find very balanced and more comfortable to use than Global, for example. The Chroma filleting knife is very long, flexible, and sharp enough to shave with.  I know this because this is how The Man named Sous, a knife sharpening expert, tests the sharpness of blades (on his arm, I should add, he has a beard!).

These knives are very difficult to sharpen as this must be done on a whetstone, with the correct bevel being applied to each edge of the blade, which varies according to if you are right or left-handed – so I am told. The knife makes filleting very easy.  There is no need to scale the fish for this dish as the skin is not used, although you will need to remove the pin bones.

trout fillet

For ceviche, my preference is for delicately thin slices of the translucent flesh.  Provided the ceviche is eaten relatively quickly, they will not go mushy. These are removed along the length of the fillet, each being thin enough to see the blade of the knife through.

trout fillet 2

trout fillet 3

Ingredients

500g fish fillets – brown trout in this case

juice of 3 limes

juice of 2 lemons

juice of 1 orange

1 red chilli, deseeded and chopped

1 clove of garlic, peeled and crushed

1 tsp caster sugar

1 red onion, peeled and sliced

2 celery stalks, finely sliced

salt and pepper

Method

  • Slice the trout or your chosen fish as described – if you proposed to leave the fish in the acidic mixture for longer than a few hours, make the fish slices a bit thicker than I have.
  • Pour over the citrus, add the chopped vegetables, sugar and season with salt and pepper.
  • Mix carefully and leave in the fridge for about an hour, it will go paler as a result of its acidic immersion.
  • Serve with crusty bread – I chose broa bread and enjoy with a refreshing glass of white wine.

ceviche

Addendum – Parasites and fish

Thanks to Ken at The Garum Factory, I was reminded that I forgot to include a fundamental point in my blog, so much so I thought it should add a bit more info to highlight it. That is wild fish, fresh or salt water can contain parasites that have infectious stages capable of infecting humans, because we are mammals, we are potential hosts for some parasites.

Fish lightly ‘pickled’ in citrus juice, such as ceviche is essentially raw and therefore there is an elevated risk that you may eat a fish containing infective stages of parasites.

Parasites – a life less ordinary

The evolution and ecology of parasitism is a subject I would discuss ad nauseam. As a zoologist, I have always been fascinated by the behavioural ecology, life histories, pathological and immunological effects of parasitism. They are very specialised organisms capable of controlling the behaviour of their hosts to ensure their lifecycle is completed e.g. by releasing chemicals that alter the behaviour of an animal to make it more vulnerable to predation – there are many examples out there in the literature.

Parasitology formed a big component of my academic education.  My PhD focussed on parasitoids – not quite the same as parasitism but with the same evolutionary origins.  Parasitoids differ from parasites because they always kill their host to complete their lifecycle whereas a parasite needs to keep its host alive to complete its lifecycle.  Many insects are parasitoids, this being a relatively common insect life history.  To offer an analogy, the ‘Alien’ films illustrate the life history of a typical parasitoid. The alien is a parasitoid and needs to kill her host to successfully produce offspring. She lays her egg in a human host which is somewhat gruesomely killed as the nascent alien emerges  I digress.  Back to parasites of fish.

Looking for evidence of parasites

Parasites occur naturally in wild fish populations and as an angler, I have gained a bit of local knowledge and experience about which lochs contain fish with parasites, or heavier parasite loads.  I am also familiar with what the main species infecting our fish look like at different life stages within the fish and this helps me make a judgement call about whether I can use the fish for ceviche, cook it, or not use it at all.

It is important to examine the fish externally, gut and clean the fish as soon as possible to reduce migration of parasite larvae into the muscle (although sometimes they will already be there anyway). Also, I slice the fillets very finely.  Providing my examination has given the fish the all clear to the filleting stage, the translucent fillets are easy to see through to check for larvae, a bit like the practice in commercial fish preparation where fish are examined over candling tables, the light shining through fillet to reveal and allow removal of parasites from the flesh.

I would not eat a raw thick fillet, just in case. I would not use fish for ceviche  if I found parasites in the muscle or gut and I would not eat fish with parasite cysts in the flesh at all – even cooked.  Sometimes evidence of parasites can be seen on the outside of the fish and there is the option to return it.

Trout and parasites

The brown trout (Salmo trutta) includes both purely freshwater populations and the diadromous (moving between fresh and salt water) form, sea trout.  Sea trout migrate, spending most time in the sea only returning to freshwater to spawn (so technically they are anadromous).

Parasitic worms known generically as helminths to zoologists, fall into 2 broad categories: roundworms (nematodes) and tapeworms (cestodes). Both are found in brown trout.  Roundworms such as Anisakis simplex are marine in origin, the definitive host (host in which they reproduce) being mammalian – dolphins or whales.  Sea trout can be infected with these worms, but not freshwater brown trout as caught in Loch Hosta. This is an entirely freshwater population of trout. The one most common parasites for freshwater populations is the tapeworm Diphyllobothrium latum.

The fascinating lifecycle of a common parasite

Adult tapeworms of Diphyllobothrium latum can reach remarkable lengths – up to 12m and are found in mammal hosts.  So where does the trout come in?  Well, brace yourself.  Like the lifecycle of many parasites, it involves multiple hosts and life stages and is extraordinarily complex. I have simplified it a bit so you might still be awake at the end of the explanation!

The definitive host – mammal

Adult tapeworms live in a range of definitive mammal hosts, including humans. They are long flattened pale worms composed of nothing more than the scolex (head), neck and the lower body. Each side of the scolex has a slit-like groove, which is a bothrium (tentacle) for attachment to the intestine. They have no mouth and feed by absorption.

They are hermaphrodites that self fertilise (which makes evolutionary sense) and many millions of eggs are continually produced and released in segments called proglottids and leave via the digestive tract.  They can survive for up to 3 years once outside the body.

The first intermediate host – copepod

Hosts e.g. otters here excrete the eggs which make their way into freshwater bodies and streams.  This is where the next host comes in – a small aquatic crustacean called a copepod eats the eggs and the tapeworm larvae hatches within the copepod.  Here it lives for a few weeks, changing form again to an infective procercoid phase.

The second intermediate host – trout

The infected copepods are eaten by trout. When inside the trout, the proceroid migrates to the flesh of the fish and further develops into another form called the plerocercoid. This is the infective stage for us mammals and of most interest to the angler. It is a cream coloured worm, those I have seen are in the region of a few mm wide by 2-3 cm long. If the fish is caught and this infective stage is in the flesh and its presence goes unnoticed and the fish is eaten raw, the parasite has successfully completed its lifecycle and it is back in the definitive host – possibly me!.

Ceviche – don’t try this at home?

In the end you have to weight up the risk against experience, but you are not confident about what you are looking for, if in doubt, cook or freeze your trout.

Herbs – cornerstones of cuisine 2013

The weather has remained relentlessly foul for the last 5 days and it has been impossible to get outside to garden, and now I have returned to work.  It doesn’t really matter and I enjoy looking at the sideways squal from my window while I sit at my computer. The first day back always takes some adjustment and I probably bit off more than I could chew.

The Red Queen Again

Following a post-work meeting, I had resolved to kick off my new 10 km running training plan yesterday. As a regular runner, this was not a New Year’s resolution, which I find futile and a bit pointless.  I prefer to run outside but wanted to kick-start my plan with a time trial for 10 km, which meant checking my pace on the treadmill at the gym, and so I was like the Red Queen, quite literally running to stand still.  The shock of an enforced break from running (2 weeks for flu, another for festivities) took its toll on my limbs and although my pace was around what I was aiming for, it was a punishing session…

So many choices, not enough space

The current herb bed with dominating horsradish and a few herbaceous perrenials thrown in.

The current herb bed with dominating horseradish and a few herbaceous perennials and annuals thrown in.

Happily, day two is a rest day from running, and a relief for my quadraceps and this evening was an ideal opportunity to browse seed catalogues and plan what to plant this year. I tend to be systematic and work through groups, e.g. herbs, brassicas, roots, polytunnel crops, herbs and flowers.  I started with herbs and flowers because they cause me less of a quandary.  I don’t grow many flowers at the moment as most of my 3/4 acre plot is mainly unimproved grassland, exposed and browsed by deer.  I concentrate on the smaller areas we have so far brought under cultivation and protection.

I was however somewhat distracted by the arrival of James Wong’s book Homegrown Revolution.  I caught the end of a Radio 4 interview with James back in October, but missed both his name and that of the book and forgot to listen again on iPlayer, so when this book was mentioned on The Garden Deli, I recognised that this was the book referred to in the discussion, so thanks for connecting me with the world of tomatillos and mashua (Tropaeolum tuberosum).  The claims that many of these crops can be grown in the UK will be tested to the limit here on North Uist (discussion for a future post?) but worth trying some new exciting veg and fruit to spice up the garden.

I have only one herb bed at the moment, the overspill being housed in pots in the polytunnel, on windowsills and companion planted in the raised beds with other crops. My herb bed is also becoming dominated by horseradish, which will eventually need to be moved although I currently harvest enough to try to keep its vigorous growth in check.

Last year, I grew about 15 different herbs, all but a few for culinary use, and this year there will be a few more additions.  There are some herbs I simply cannot grow enough of, particularly basil, coriander, rosemary and thyme.  I can overwinter both rosemary and thyme in the polytunnel, but it is my excessive pruning that takes the real toll on the plants.  Conversely, Water Mint, Mentha aquatica is established and invasive in the garden and I can never get it under control, let alone use enough of it for cooking.

Harvesting seed from dried caraway heads

Harvesting seed from dried caraway heads

As ever, it’s good to have a mix of tried and tested and new varieties.  The big successes last year were chervil, a must for fish (I still have some outside now). Last summer was my second caraway harvest.  I leave some of this biennial umbellifer to self seed to ensure a yield each year.  These seeds have a very powerful flavour compared to shop bought seeds and I adore them in bread. Finally, I am slightly smug about my coriander harvest.  I used to buy coriander seeds from catalogues but it bolts very quickly here so repeated successional sowings were expensive.  I decided to try the large bag of seeds I had in the kitchen that I bought for cooking at an Indian supermarket in Glasgow.  Amazingly, germination rate was very high and one packet costing 60p has kept me going all year, so I will stick to the same plan for 2013.

I had one or two new herbs I had not grown before.  Summer savory was a winner and essential in many classic French dishes and bouquet garnis.  I was gifted hyssop by Christine at Croft Garden, a herb aficionado. Although I occasionally used it sparingly in the kitchen for vinaigrettes,salads and boullion, its beautiful blue flowers were a real hit with the bumblebees.

The final shortlist

My final culinary shortlist for growing this year is:

Rosemary, thyme (Summer de Provence and English Winter), sage, chervil, chives, bay, oregano (Greek), basil (Sweet, Red Rubin, Cinnamon, Mrs Burns), fennel, anise, coriander, lavender, French tarragon (plants), marjoram, winter savory, summer savory, caraway, parsley (flat leaf and the hardier curly), dill and rocket.

Nearer 30 than my estimated 15!

I have an additional list grown principally for flowers and hence wildlife:

hyssop, borage, phaecelia

The turf roof of the workshop has been established for a year so I am also planning to sow a ‘bumblebee seed mix’ of native wild flowers to grow on the roof.  The turf and soil were sourced locally from machair grassland and the species compliment is mainly typical of this habitat and includes corn marigold, knapweed, corn poppy, kidney vetch and slender vetch.

North Uist machair turf on the workshop roof awaits bumblebee wildflower seed mix

North Uist machair turf on the workshop roof awaits bumblebee wildflower seed mix

As usual, I will grow copious amounts of nasturtiums for salads, flowers and caper-like berries – also to divert the green-veined white caterpillars away from my brassicas and salads.

Although the garden is decidedly practical at the moment, I hope to design and landscape a courtyard at the front of the house incorporating tiered raised herb beds.  This however, is some way off as this area is likely to be a building site for another year or two.  I can but dream…

Apologies for not including the scientific names, life is too short at the mo and I am focussing on general culinary properties. If there are any startling omissions you think I should try, I would be delighted to have suggestions.  I am sure I could squeeze a few more in!

Intensely Herby recipes

Of course, no post would be complete without sharing a couple of recipes.  Both of these use copious amounts of herbs and are flexible and can be adapted according to what herbs and how much of each you may have or wish to include.

Vegetable boullion

This has become a store cupboard essential for me.  There is nothing wrong with some shop bought powdered boullions, but they do tend to give recipes an underlying generic recognisable flavour. Although I do like to make my own vegetable stocks, I do not always have time or the recipe does not call for stock but a little lift from the addition of a spoonful this boullion. I use it in anything and everything – soups, casseroles, cooking liquid for rice, cous cous, etc.

The boullion stores very well (at least 6 months). There’s a lot of salt in it, acting as a preservative, so I don’t usually season if I add some boullion to a dish. I make a batch in summer and another in winter, by which time the summer batch is finished. I am just coming to the end of my summer batch now. These can vary significantly in character, depending on what veg and herbs are at my disposal at different times of the year, and one has to be careful not to tip the balance too much in favour of particularly strong ingredients – unless that’s what you are aiming for, of course. This is a variation on the recipe in the River Cottage Handbook No 2 Preserves called ‘Souper mix’.

The last jar of my summer boullion

The last jar of my summer boullion

Ingredients – my summer vegetable boullion

250g leek

200g carrot

200g turnip

100g celery

50g sun-dried tomatoes

3 garlic cloves

100g parsley

10g mint

10g rosemary

5g summer savory

5g sage

250g salt

This amount made 3 jars

Method

  • Cram everything into a food processor (there is a large volume of herbs), pulse then blend to form a moist granular paste.
  • Store in sterilised jars and keep in the fridge once open.

Blitzing the herbs and veg for boullion

Blitzing the herbs and veg for boullion

Nasturtium, basil and rocket pesto

Pesto can be made from a wide range of herbs and leaves and I often ring the changes depending on whatever is the current garden glut.  Nasturtium leaves bring an added bit of zing to this pesto. Proportions of the herbs can be altered to taste, or any one exchanged for parsley. Fresh pesto will keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks.  It’s so good, it never lasts that long here.

Ingredients

25g nasturtium leaves

25g basil leaves

25g rocket leaves

50g fresh grated parmesan

50g pine nuts

2 cloves garlic, peeled

200 ml good quality extra virgin olive oil

1 tsp salt

a few turns of pepper

Method

  • Put all ingredients in a food processor, pulse then blitz for a minute or so, until smooth.
  • Store in a jar in the fridge.

Nasturtium, basil and rocket pesto - green and glorious

Nasturtium, basil and rocket pesto – green and glorious

Now all the planning for herbs is in place, time to move on to veg, but not before we deal with two greylag geese a friend has kindly delivered to us.  I know what we will be doing tomorrow evening….

Garlic: A year in the life

Allium sativum – pleased to pleat you…Planting finished, the remaining bulbs were pleated.

I don’t remember a time in my life when garlic was not part of my diet. One of the best cooking aromas must be the pungent scent of garlic gently frying in good quality olive oil. I am very fortunate that my mum cooked with olive oil when I was a child, a time when most mums were still only sticking it in their children’s ears. Similarly, garlic was a culinary delight in our everyday meals and I didn’t give it a second thought until I noticed the lack of it when I had tea (as we called it then) at friend’s houses.

Garlic is my number one favourite ingredient and is one of the big four, one or more of which I invariably use every day (chilli, olive oil, lemons being the other three). From the outset, I have been determined to grow garlic successfully here on North Uist. If you fling it in the ground and hope for the best, you will get results of sorts, but random gardening, as I have found out to my cost with many veggies is a bit foolhardy if you live here. In fact, typical Uist climatic conditions (wind, rain – and persistence of both) mean the weather can be merciless even if you do your green-fingered best.

So, I have been on a strategic programme of growing trials to optimise my garlic growing success. It has taken 4 years of experimenting, but I tentatively consider that I may at last be on the cusp of success. I have tried soft neck versus hardneck, autumn versus spring planting, numerous varieties: Albigensian Wight, Bella Italiano, Solent Wight, Early Purple Wight to name but a few. Comparisons were made in yield and bulb size as well as storage time. I concluded that softneck garlic produces higher yields, produce bigger bulbs and more bulbs that are subject to lower losses in the ground than hardneck varieties. Importantly, the softnecks store for significantly longer, in my experience.

Autumn planting is the only way. I have tried 2 early spring plantings (same varieties and harvest year as the autumn planting). One was a dismal failure, the other less so, but still with a yield well below autumn plantings, regardless of variety. I suspect that our relatively mild winters mean that by the time it gets to planting in early spring, the bulbs do not get the period of cold they require to flourish. The star variety is without a doubt Provence Wight, for size and storage. This is now the only variety I grow. Garlic may not grow as large here as it does further south in the UK, but the cloves are intensely flavoured, which is all that really matters if you are a garlic lover.

Class of 2011 – Garlic crop harvested on 17 July last year

All butchery out of the way (for now) at last (1 deer, 2 geese, then 2 rabbits), I am hoping to get my culinary life back. Hope springs eternal that weather windows will occasionally fall at weekends so I can get on with some outdoor stuff in the garden too. And so it was with fair weather I spent the best part of Sunday getting my favourite Allium into the ground.

If you like to eat garlic, but do not want to read about the minutiae of growing it, skip to my Roast garlic soup with home made pitta bread recipe.

Preparing the bed

I practice a fairly standard organic rotation.  I do not grow entirely organically, but pretty near it.  I have given up using 100% organic seed.  I am not intending to go for Soil Association accreditation and I was finding it restrictive in terms of varieties (and especially ones that work here), and a bit costly. The soil was depleted after a beetroot crop over the summer (pimple-sized beetroots, embarrassingly small).  Hence, the first job was to call one of my neighbours, a local crofter who keeps pigs among other things, to arrange to collect some well-rotted pig manure. Half an hour or so of shovelling and our trailer was full enough to replenish 2-3 raised beds.

After digging a trench in sections along the garlic bed, the manure was dumped at a depth of about 15 cm and the soil raked back over so the garlic can happily dangle their roots into the nutrients as they grow.  This was an easy job in these raised beds.

Adding well-rotted pig manure to add nutrients and texture before planting

I have worked hard to get a fine tilth, sieving and removing stones, essential if root veg, especially carrots are part of your rotation (although I would not manure a bed that carrots are going into).  The soil is very light and free draining and I incorporate a lot of my own compost too for soil conditioning. I also top dress with seaweed over the winter to minimise erosion and  to add more nutrients and minerals.  Some machair soil was also added to lighten the structure and bring the soil to a neutral pH.  Finally, I weed regularly and never stand on the soil surface to avoid compressing it.

Preparing and planting garlic

The 2011 crop was grown from 7 bulbs bought from a commercial grower.  I was a bit disappointed by the number of cloves per bulb, which fell short of that promised in the catalogue (20-25 cloves per bulb.  I got 15 on average).  Some were also very small and this seems to be correlated with small clove development/size.  Nonetheless, with no signs of disease, I got 75 healthy bulbs from the crop, about three-quarters were larger than those you can buy in the supermarkets.

This year, I am using part of the crop from last summer’s harvest – my next trial, I suppose. I prepared them by selecting the biggest bulbs from my stored garlic, then selecting the biggest and healthiest cloves from these bulbs.  Any that were slightly soft or damaged were kept for cooking, but there were very few.  By this time, the light was fading, so being up against it and in trying to be ‘efficient’ I managed to somehow slash the side of my hand with the scalpel while separating the cloves. There was an interlude to deal with the ensuing minor bloodbath and melodrama.  More haste less speed, as the saying goes!

Preparing for the soil

I wanted to fill the entire bed with the crop and it took me 14 bulbs to do this, a total of 144 cloves.  I always compress the soil slightly with a plank of wood which also acts as a planting guide. Some compression helps the garlic stay put in the wind while the roots get established, since they are planted with the tops just under the surface. Each was spaced about 10 cm apart along the row, each row about 20 cm apart.

Garlic cloves in situ in neat rows of compressed soil.

Despite the race against the light on a short winter day, I got the planting finished, although admittedly it was quite dark and I had to finish the job with the help of the workshop lights.

Imagine my consternation when I got up the next morning to admire my work in daylight to find the night crawlers had been in.  There were cat paw prints across the bed, which I can cope with, but there were also about 35 very neat little holes which garlic cloves no longer occupied.  I don’t think it was the cat, but I should have perhaps asked my neighbour to check her cat’s breath…  I had my suspicions about the culprit, especially since most cloves were missing at the end near the dry stone wall.

I have known blackbirds to inquisitively pull at the papery tops of the cloves after the first day of planting but I usually see their tracks and the cloves are rejected and left nearby on the surface. No cloves to be seen, or dead blackbirds lying about having choked on the chunky cloves. Being rather trusting, and indeed sticking my head in the sand, I decided to leave it another night to see if the novelty would wear off for the critter (or it might have a garlic overdose).  Hardly.  Next morning, same again, 15 cloves missing.

I couldn’t sustain losses at this rate and after re-planting 50 cloves – another 4 bulbs, and having a suspicion this was the work of a rodent,  I went for belt and braces, covering the crop with environmesh and setting up a tunnel along the wall with 2 rat traps in it.  Both measures would protect any birds/cats from the traps and would attract rodents to my bait in the tunnel – prime chorizo – 100% irresistable in my experience.  And so it was, my garlic survived intact last night and I found a mouse in one of the traps. These traps are only supposed to spring with the weight of a rat but this was one big mouse (I wonder why?), so it got chorizo, but then its luck ran out.  It is always disappointing to have to take this action, but I want to eat my veg, not supplement the diet of an already burgeoning local rodent population.

Roasted Garlic Soup

Before pleating the remaining intact garlic bulbs, I thought it would be a good idea to use up all the small bulbs and loose cloves in one of my favourite soups, roast garlic.  Roasting the garlic and adding it to the soup makes it wonderfully sweet.  Topping it with dry fried chorizo or cheesy croutons complements the dish with saltiness to balance the sweetness of the roasted garlic. Don’t be put off by the amount of garlic used.  It is quite a different animal when roasted in the oven.

Ingredients

2 large garlic bulbs, left whole

bay leaf

olive oil

onion, chopped

2 carrots, finely chopped

3 large potatoes, diced

sprig of rosemary

1 litre chicken stock or vegetable boullion

500 ml milk

salt and pepper

chorizo, enough for garnish, sliced and dry-fried

parsley

Set the oven to 180oC

Method

Cut the tops off the 2 garlic bulbs to reveal a bit of white flesh in each clove. This will make the soft garlic easy to squeeze out after roasting.  Place them in a foil parcel with a bay leaf and a drizzle of olive oil and bake in the oven for 45 minutes.  Leave aside to cool.

Peel and chop the onion, carrots and potatoes and sweat in a pan on a low heat with a small amount of olive oil for 10-15 minutes.  Add the garlic by taking the cooled bulbs and squeezing each at the base.  The garlic will be soft and should squeeze out like toothpaste.  The aroma is wonderful.

Add the stock and rosemary, season and simmer for about 1 hour.  Let it cool slightly, add the milk, remove the rosemary then blitz in a blender or puree using a hand-held blender. If it too thick (although I like it thick, as in the photo), add a spot more milk or water.  Pass through a sieve or chinois and heat through.

Garnish with parsley and chorizo or cheesy croutons. Serves four.

Home made pitta breads

I served this soup with pitta breads on this occasion. This simple bread regularly features in this house because it is so versatile and easy to make – especially if you have a bread maker. There’s nothing wrong with using a bread maker for dough like pitta or foccacia.  It can be a huge time saver. If you have not made them before, give them a try.  They are astonishingly straightforward to make and are incomparable with the rubbery, slightly stale, vinegary tasting pitta breads you buy in supermarkets.

I am not sure where I got this recipe, I have been using it for so long.

Ingredients

500g strong white flour

2 tsp yeast (easyblend)

25g butter,

1 1/2 tsp salt

310 ml water

Set the oven to 220oC

Method

If you have a breadmaker, fling everything in and set to dough only program. This takes 45 minutes on my Panasonic SD-255 machine – the only breadmaker I would recommend, having had many others that sat on the shelf due to poor performance. I usually let the dough rest for another half hour once the program stops to ensure light and puffy pittas.

Alternatively, you can mix by hand, incorporating all the ingredients then kneading on an oiled surface for 10 minutes.  Allow it to prove for about an hour, covered with cling film in a warm place.

Place the dough on a heavily floured surface and break off golf ball sized pieces of dough with floured hands and roll them into tongue-shaped pittas with a floured rolling pin, to about 3mm thick.  It doesn’t matter if they are a bit misshapen – that’s called rustic, or more current still, artisan. Flour a couple of baking sheets and put the bread in the oven for 8-10 minutes.  I usually turn them half way.  Most will puff up, some won’t but keep an eye on them in case they get too thin and crispy as they puff.

This recipe usually makes 12. I do them in 2 batches of 6, 3 on each baking sheet.  I keep the first batch warm under a tea towel however, we usually start eating them straight away if there is some moutabal or hummous to hand and they are best eaten fresh and still warm from the oven.

They will keep overnight wrapped in a tea towel but need to be re-warmed and get a bit chewy if they are allowed to cool.