February 2013

posted 20 Feb 2013, 03:34 by Hastoe Admin   [ updated 21 Feb 2013, 03:15 by Bob Brace ]
In the household of the organic gardener February is a thin month with a fair amount of tedium on the vegetable front. Mr O.G. still trudges up the garden daily with his trug of offerings for the kitchen but it contains only leeks. The slugs, pigeons, and various blights have made a disaster of most of the other things and the celeriacs have simply drowned. However the leeks abound. They still stand in serried ranks in several areas of the vegetable garden, and have even been planted in rows over my spinach patch (Mr O G dislikes spinach and affects not to notice my labels.) The leeks are excellent ones and the reason for their proliferation is simple – slugs do not eat leeks.

So, over to the cook. There are several good recipes for leeks but a great deal of imagination and originality is required to serve them in so many different guises that no-one notices they are eating leeks again. My favourite is leek and bacon hotpot – just thinly slice up the leeks and potatoes and layer into a shallow dish interspersed with thin rashers of smoked bacon. Finish with a layer of potatoes, neatly arranged in chevrons if you can be bothered, otherwise just bundled in. Cover the whole thing with a white sauce and bake in a slow oven, 150 degrees C for about two and a half hours. If you are fearful of calories or cholesterol you can make an excellent white sauce by boiling some chunks of celeriac in a minimal amount of water and liquidising the lot. You then have a smooth sauce, delicately flavoured with hints of celery, and not a calorie anywhere. Provided your celeriacs have not drowned of course.

The vegetables which really come into their own this month are the butternut squashes. Amazingly easy to grow – in the spring, sow a couple of seeds into a large trough of compost, place on a shelf in the greenhouse, water regularly and leave to get on with it,. Allow plenty of space because the plants spread everywhere, but the squashes will form behind showy yellow flowers and all you have to do is pick them when they are about the size of a large mug. Don’t wait for them to turn yellow – that happens in storage. Their great virtue is that, provided you pick them without damaging their skin, they will sit on a rack in the larder quietly turning a beautiful golden colour, and will keep perfectly until February when they are really welcome as a change from leeks. You can serve them in many ways. Peel and cut into little oblongs, shallow fry in a splash of olive oil for about 15 minutes and you have wonderful golden chips. Or you can roast them. Cut a squash in half, scoop out the seeds (do not throw them away – lightly toasted for a few minutes in the oven, they make tasty nibbles with none of the guilt), then smear a little butter or olive oil onto the cut surface of the squash and bake in its skin for about 30 minutes. Here’s the clever bit – you then have two attractive and edible bowls in which you can serve portions of tiny Brussels sprouts. It looks so beautiful your reputation is made at a stroke. Of course if you have forgotten to net your sprouts against the pigeons, and then to support the nets with sticks to stop the snow weighing them down, you will have to use the peas or broad beans you stuffed into your freezer last summer.

Squash can also be served as a sweet – peel, chop and boil briefly with some brown sugar, cinnamon or mixed spice if you like it, then liquidise, beat in an egg or two, depending on the size of your squash, and bake in a pastry case for 20-30 minutes – hey presto, pumpkin pie! Serve with cream, or you can make healthy ‘cream’ by blitzing some cashew nuts which of course you will not have grown, but there, we cannot achieve perfection.

You will no doubt have noticed that about the middle of February there will happen a day when the sun will shine, the birds will sing and the bitter temperatures we have been suffering will moderate, if only slightly. It is like having heavy chains lifted off your shoulders and we blossom accordingly. There is a subtle difference in the air, barely perceptible, but it is there. The sap is rising. It is life itself to the sons of the soil and Mr O G perks up accordingly. The snow heaving and wood chopping are temporarily suspended, and instead Mr O G proceeds to assemble a myriad flower pots and starts to scrub them clean of all the winter detritus. There he is, whistling in the sunshine, up to his elbows in a bucket of water with fairy liquid and bleach, and the rows of sparkling pots are soon filled with compost, watered and set out on the long thin trays which allow them to be arranged on the south facing window seat in our sitting room, to ‘warm up’. A tense event this, because we have neither of us forgotten the time when we had the misfortune to drop the trays and cascade the wet compost all over a pale green carpet. We will draw a veil over this scene.

The next task is to gloat over the seed packets. These were purchased with great glee last autumn at the garden centre’s 50p seed sale. It was such a joy – all the seed packets were spread out in a grand muddle on a low shelf and labelled 50p each. There were many oldies happily sitting on the floor sifting through the bargains and swapping hints about what to grow. Everyone got carried away and staggered out with great bags full of seeds. We discovered we had bought all sorts of things we hadn’t even heard of! Many of the items which looked most fascinating were labelled ‘heritage’ I fear that this probably means they are susceptible to every modern blight and disease, but for a gardener, hope springs eternal. Despite 50 years of experience teaching him to the contrary, Mr O G always believes that ‘next year will be better’. And anyway, who could resist a packet of heritage tomato seeds entitled ‘Giant Striped Stuffer’

During the last week of February the selections will be made about what to grow and the seeds will be ceremoniously inserted into their pots.

Winter sloth is being cast off. The glorious game, the wonderful, frustrating, infuriating, and utterly compelling game is starting all over again. Can’t wait.

All images and text copyright © Sandra Freeman 2013