End of month recipe: Caramelised Onions

So, you’ve got your overwintered onions, all big and juicy and you want to be able to use them for months – but they don’t keep like summer onions, so how can you ensure you’ve got that wonderful mild sweet flavour on hand?

If you have a slow cooker (and if you grow your own food, a slow cooker is just about the most useful thing you’ll ever invest in) then you can caramelise kilos of onions overnight, freeze them, and use them in handy portion controlled ways, right through the year.
The greatest thing is that these onions are sweet. Something weird happens to the sulphur compounds in onions when you cook them very slowly – they turn to sugar. There’s no added sugar or salt in this recipe but when you taste the results, you won’t believe it: the onions are tangy and sweet just from the cooking process.

Ingredients

Enough onions to fill a 6 litre slow cooker (in our case, that’s two kilos of onions, peeled and sliced)
100 grams butter or 45 ml olive oil (I’ve tried both, they taste equally great).

Method

Put the slow cooker onto low and rub the base and sides with a little olive oil. If you’re using butter, just rub the sides and base of the cooker with a teaspoon of olive oil anyway.

Chuck in the onions. Drizzle the oil over the top or dice the butter and throw it in. Stir well. Put lid on. Set a timer for thirty minutes.

When the timer goes, stir well and replace lid. Set timer for a further 30 minutes. Stir, replace lid, leave for up to 12 hours. You have to experiment with your own cooker. My small one did this recipe in eight hours but with only half the onions, so find out what works best for you.

Usually I set this up overnight and sort it out in the morning. I’m left with a layer of delicious onions in a thick, sweet liquid. I turn off the heat, allow the cooker to cool, then drain the onions in a colander, over a bowl, saving the liquid. The onions I freeze in small containers, about a tablespoon is enough to serve as the base for a savoury dish. The liquid I use as the base for a mushroom risotto or a rich soup.

You can also use the onions to make caramelised onion flan – very tasty!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Friday, June 29, 2012 0 Comments

Fingering onions

We’ve had a great haul from the plot this week, and the Grow and Tell workshoppers got to take home some broad beans, peas and overwintered onions. One of the things we looked at this week was a bit of folklore that actually works. It’s about fingering your onins.

Obscene as that sounds, it’s a really good idea. Onions shouldn’t be planted too deeply as they don’t expand and are more prone to white rot. There’s also a weird relationship between loosening the roots and the size of the onions you get to harvest – having experimented with this over a couple of years, we’ve discovered that if you finger overwintered onions about ten days before you harvest them, they get to be up to a third larger in that short period of time.

So how do you finger an onion? Well, if you have sandy soil you can use your hands, but if your soil is heavy, like ours, a dibber or two pronged weeder is a better idea. Working close to the roots, but not actually in them, you loosen the soil by wiggling your implement to and fro about half an inch to an inch into the soil. It’s really difficult to see the difference, although the weight usually makes clear the good effect of fingering, but the two pictures show the expansion in girth of our bed of red onions which were fingered on 13 June, and then photographed again on 24 June.

And thanks to everybody who shared their wood wasp expertise - it's nice to know that the scary monster is neither scary nor a monster!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Monday, June 25, 2012 0 Comments

Allotment windbreaks

Today we have 28 mph winds on the allotment. The actual temperature (16 degrees) feels like 11 degrees. Plants exposed to such strong winds with low temperatures are likely to desiccate even if they don’t snap.

Our site is windy. There’s no way around that fact. Three of the allotments we’ve worked on over the years have had differing levels of wind exposure and we’ve learned a lot from that range of experience. The first plot was in the middle of the site but had no shielding or windbreaks at all. We found that our Brussels sprouts ended up horizontal and in summer the outdoor tomatoes fruited only on the side of the stem that was in the lee of the wind – while fruits formed on the other side, they never swelled properly, largely, we think, due to stress and desiccation.

The second plot had a brick wall to its west side and low pallet fences. Most of the time the wind issues were manageable, but when the wind came from the west, as it did but rarely, the brick wall created a wind funnel that hit the middle of our plot with devastating effects.

Now, on the voodoo plot, we started by planting as much as possible in north/south rows, so that there is no wind-funnelling by one crop onto another. We’ve put in raised beds so that ground level stems and root systems aren’t whacked by our strong south-easterlies. Broken screening, such as the hedge at the front, disturbs the wind pattern so that it has much less effect on crops: a rough rule of thumb is that a hedge works for approximately 5 times its height so a metre tall hedge reduces windspeed by about 50% for a distance behind it of about 5 metres. Clearly then, one hedge can’t protect a whole plot! Screening works to perturb wind patterns so that wind speed is constantly broken and we have a range of screening from trellis, to fleece, to bamboo sculptures up which we grow nasturtiums, to arches and benches, all of which, laid east to west, provide protection for our plants.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Friday, June 22, 2012 1 Comments

Allotment horror story

I don’t have anything but questions today – the main question being: what is this? Or perhaps WHAT IS THIS?

Because when a creature as big as my thumb is hanging around outside one of my cauliflower cages for a couple of hours, and I’m having to walk backwards and forwards past it, wondering if it should be classed as harmless, dangerous or fatal, a question like this begins to assume horrifying proportions in my mind.

When I was younger I used to watch those old black and white horror films that showed an apparently immense creature (killer bee, rat, amoeba) terrifying a town. The town was always a scale model, of course, and from what I recall the rats were actually dogs dressed up, which was quite cute really. This creature though, wasn’t cute and didn’t need a scale model town to be terrifying. As you can see, it possesses an enormous stinger but I was quite as worried about it flying into me as stinging me – if you’ve been hit by a rapidly moving bee you know just how painful a collision with insect life can be.

So does anybody know what it is and how worried we should be that it seems quite at home on our plot?

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Tuesday, June 19, 2012 7 Comments

Allotment mulches

The strawberries are being munched by both slugs and woodlice. One of our allotment neighbours told us that if we had woodchip paths we would get woodlice – annoyingly he seems to be right. There are lots and lots of strawberries: if it wasn’t for the rain we’d be having a bumper crop, but even though they are mulched with straw they are getting beaten into the ground by the volume of the rain. Without the straw mulch though, they would be resting on mud at best, or in a rivulet of muddy rainwater at worst.

Woodlice are pernicious – the only thing that enjoys them as a snack is slow worms, as far as I can establish, and we have loads of slowworms, but perhaps our hordes of woodlice are too much for them. They are certainly too much for me.

We’ve also mulched the sweetcorn, currently with newspaper and stones with bottle waterers in between them so that once this rain stops we can water them well below the soil surface. This prevents the roots coming up to seek for water which weakens the plant, and stops weed seeds germinating through surface watering so that they don’t get to compete with the sweetcorn for space and nutrients. When they are about 30cm tall we’ll mulch them too with straw which changes the albedo of the soil surface and reflects light back up into the plant – once the corn has set, this encourages the cobs to fill apparently. We’ve had a high degree of success with this in recent years: at least two cobs per plant and sometimes three, so we will continue with it.

Squashes, pumpkins and other cucurbits get mulched with large sheets of cardboard. We cut a hole in the centre and grow the plant through it. This keeps the soil around the plant moist and friable, but stops the plant resting on the soil. Most plants in this family are prone to powdery mildew and one of the ways that this is transmitted asexual spores called conidia which appear to be airborne, but which also need damp to multiply, so we think (no research available on which to base our thinking, so it’s just an opinion) that the cardboard helps to hold the conidia down.

We’re also going to mulch the borlotti beans, but we can’t do that until the rain at least abates because there is no point applying a mulch over ground that’s really sodden as it might even prevent the rain evaporating away from the surface, trapping stagnant water against the plants in a very unhealthy fashion

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Thursday, June 14, 2012 2 Comments

Water, weeds and wintry weather on the allotment

We’re in a strange situation, as is much of the country – drought order in effect and floods everywhere. On the allotment our water butts are running over and our storage tanks are leaking onto the surrounding soil, and there’s no sign of an end to it.

There’s very little that can be done in this weather. Sowing seeds in open ground is a waste of time and even an unheated greenhouse is not a good environment for germination when it’s this humid, as seeds are prone to damp off and heavy rain creates the ideal conditions for rot and fungal spores. Planting out is difficult too, because the ground is chilly and waterlogged and will probably compact around roots, causing them to be constricted and there to be no air circulation in the soil which inhibits plant growth. Harvesting leaves is faffy when your hands are cold and the leaves are slippery and lifting roots is impossible – there’s no sensible way of digging up first early potatoes in a downpour without covering yourself in mud and making a horrible mess of the ground that you’re hoping to plant your brassicas into very soon.

What can be done is the removal of perennial weeds if they are not in the middle of planted areas. This bramble, for example, was growing at the side of our path and I tried tugging it out of the ground – when I felt the snap of the stem I decided I wasn’t letting the plant win and I got my narrow trowel and dug down until I found the entire plant and every filament of its roots – that’s one bramble that isn’t going to trouble us again!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Tuesday, June 12, 2012 0 Comments

June allotment tasks

OH spent a lot of the Bank Holiday weekend planting out borlotti beans while I planted the sweetcorn. This year we are have only dwarf borlottis, after the difficulties we had harvesting the tall ones last year, so it will be interesting to compare the crop yield on the shorter variety compared to the eight foot ones.

We are growing two kinds of sweetcorn this year: both F1 hybrids – Lark and Swift. After a few years of learning how to manage corn on a windy Sussex site, we’ve got our system down to a series of tactics that seem to work well. We raise sweetcorn in the greenhouse, planting it out when it’s about six inches tall in raised beds. The beds are surrounded by a couple of feet of horticultural fleece to keep the strong winds off the plants while they are still small and the soil between the plants is mulched with newspaper to keep down weeds and keep in moisture. In late June we top the newspaper with a layer of straw which changes the albedo of the surface, reflecting light back up into the plant – corn, especially the supersweets, needs a lot of light and some warmth to pollinate, so anything we can do to help it be productive is good.

We came home with a trug full of salad from our agricube, some onion and carrot thinnings, loads of strawberries, the last of the rhubarb, broad beans, peas and some overwintered onions that needed to be lifted. Not bad for June!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Wednesday, June 6, 2012 3 Comments

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