Friday 23 December 2011

Notes from the Secret Garden Club

 I've posted the notes from this month's Secret Garden Club session on The Allium Family on the Club's blog here.
Fortified by MsMarmiteLover's warming glöggWe discussed varieties from garlic, onions, shallots and leeks - how and when to plant, how to look after them and how to harvest and store so that you always have them to hand. 
After the garden session, we enjoyed an allium-themed tea prepared by MsMarmiteLover and some lively discussion about alliums, and kitchen gardening in general.

Attendees took home a pot of chives, a 'lucky dip' of onion sets and garlic cloves ready for planting out, and a packet of authentic Walla Walla sweet onion seeds.

French onion soup
Garlic bread
Warm salad of leeks

Chocolate chip and garlic cookies 
Home-made mince pies

Next month, the Secret Garden Club meets on Sunday January 29th, when we'll be looking at herbs and medicinal plants and talking about how to plan and plant your own herb garden, no matter how small your space. Click here for details and how to book tickets.

Thursday 15 December 2011

A seasonal feast

This week I spent a hugely enjoyable evening at Anna Colquhoun’s Cooking Club, sampling some very moreish Swedish Glögg (or was it Danish Gløgg?) and looking at some creative ways to cook seasonal veg, supplied by Riverford, the organic box people. It was comforting to hear that Riverford have the exact same problem purple sprouting broccoli issue as i do – that the PSB is mature and ready for eating NOW rather than in March/April as normal. I loved the purple sprouting briefly blanched with dollops of Hollandaise sauce, but the standout dish for me was Anna’s butternut squash and sage risotto.

The risotto was a revelation, very sweet with onions cooked very slowly to melting tenderness and the squash roasted first in the oven. It has made me realise that although I think I make risotto in the classical manner, I actually rush it. I will definitely take my time with risottos in the future. Anna also used industrial quantities of butter, which I may only emulate for special treats rather than everyday suppers. I’ll certainly adopt her finishing touch though: a drizzle of sage leaves and squash seeds fried in brown butter.

The Cooking Club takes place on the second Tuesday or Wednesday of each month. Apart from the delicious food and drink, it also seems to be attended exclusively by friendly and engaging people. I’ll be back.

All about alliums - next week's Secret Garden Club

I’m getting ready for my second Secret Garden Club workshop next week. I’ll be talking about alliums – garlic, onions, shallots, leeks, and a few other more unusual specimens – with some practical planting and harvesting advice and lots of tips for successful growing. As with last month’s successful session on smoking, MsMarmiteLover will create a delicious feast from the alliums we talk about – there’ll be some unexpected treats in there, I expect.

I'm afraid I’m rather predictably calling the session ‘Know Your Onions’ – if I can think of a better name between now and Wednesday December 21, I’ll change it. We don’t normally run the Secret Garden Club in midweek, but we chose December 21 deliberately, as the old saw has it that you should plant your garlic on the shortest day of the year ... come along next week (book here) and find out if there’s any truth in that.

Thursday 17 November 2011

Secret Garden Club

This Sunday, November 20, I’ll be taking a Secret Garden Club smoking workshop – food-smoking that is. I’ll be demonstrating techniques for tea-smoking, and hot-smoking a variety of food and vegetables and then I’ll show how to build a simple cold-smoker using everyday materials for a minimal outlay.

This is the first in a series of Secret Garden Club food and gardening workshops and a joint venture with MsMarmiteLover of the Underground Restaurant Supper Club fame. While I’ll be providing the gardening tips and info, MsMarmite will be showing how to turn garden produce into delicious food for attendees to sample. Click here for more details and booking information.

Smoking might not have too much to do with horticulture, although we’ll be using homegrown foodstuffs as far as possible, but we’ll return in December with an alliums masterclass – a discussion of the onion family from chives and garlic to onions and leeks and taking in exotica such as Egyptian walking onions and Walla Walla sweets along the way. We’ll plant out some garlic and harvest some leeks.

In January we have a workshop on herbs and medicinal plants. This session will also look at growing produce in a restricted space – you don't even need a garden to grow herbs – a pot or windowbox will do nicely.

Beating the limitations of a small or non-existent garden will be addressed again in February when we investigate at some ingenious ways to raise potatoes and also in March when we’ll show how to have homegrown salad leave son your doorstep all year round.

The sessions will be informative but informal – there’ll be lots of interaction and lots of time for questions and to discuss your own particular gardening issues. The food and drink will be stellar and there will be goodie bags to take away and inspire you to successfully grow your own however big or small your plot.

Interested? Go to for details of timings and prices. You can also keep in touch with our Secret Garden Club blog which details the sessions as they happen and where you can comment and ask questions.

Wednesday 9 November 2011

Not the biggest pumpkin harvest ever – a labelling mix-up meant I ended up with three more courgettes and three fewer squashes than I thought I had – but some good eaters here. The grey-green fruit are Berrettina Piacentina, from Seeds Of Italy, whose flesh is bright orange in colour with a dense sweet flavour somewhere between sweet potato and chestnut. Similarly, Marina di Chioggia, which has knobbled skin and that distinctive ‘Turk’s turban’ bubble at the bottom. For some reason, my Marina di Chioggias are always smoother-skinned than most, but again, fine eating. Only one Butternut this year: they started fruiting very late, and had the warm start to October continued, ooh, for another six weeks, I might have had a much more substantial crop.

A sunny end to the summer helps to ripen pumpkins and squash here in the UK, but they must be lifted before the first frost – freezing temperatures will turn them to mush. Once harvested, they need to be ‘cured’, left in a dry well-ventilated sunny place to further mature. If you eat a squash straight form the plant, it will taste very raw and green. Left for a couple of months the flavour develops and deepens. As with any stored fruit, they need to be inspected regularly for signs of rot, but most will last happily into the New Year and I find are at their best around Christmas-time. I have stored squash successfully right through until the next year’s harvest, but they are usually all eaten up by February-March.

Wednesday 2 November 2011

Proper Northern leeks

They grow fantastic leeks up north. You see them in greengrocers and supermarkets: long fat sturdy stems, fresh green splayed tops and sometimes a little mud still clinging to the frill of roots at the base. Obviously grown locally, these always seem to me to be proper Northern leeks. With a white stem like a small tree trunk, these leeks were made to be sliced thickly into casseroles or simmered whole and served in white sauce.

'Southern' leeks from 2008
I, on the other hand, grow Southern leeks. Slender, pale green stalks that could be mistaken for an overgrown spring onion, they have an elusive, sweet, almost nutty flavour. They would be lost in a casserole: better steamed and dressed with a vinaigrette when warm, or hidden in a tart with blue cheese. It's not that I'm growing a dwarf variety, both the Musselburghs (a pretty standard leek) and Gigante d'Inverno (even without speaking Italian, I can tell that's not supposed to produce baby-sized crops) have turned out this way.

I enjoy growing them for the taste, but am always slightly embarrassed about their fragile skinniness, especially when the relatives make the journey down the M1 to stay, and on the customary allotment visit, end up staring at them, puzzled. Have I only just put them in the ground? Are they meant to be baby leeks? Or are they, indeed, spring onions after all?

This year's leeks
I do think that the presence of leek moth at our allotment has had an effect in previous years. These days, I cover the crop with Environmesh from July, when I plant out the pencil-thin seedlings, until now, when the leek moth caterpillars will have done their damage and settled down into their pupae.

Leeks eaten by leek moth can be saved by cutting the plant right down to the ground and waiting for it to grow again, hopefully unravaged. But they are never going to grow back to gargantuan proportions.

So I was beyond delighted last week when I removed the Environmesh to find the majority of the plants this year are indeed, if not actually Winter Giants, then definitely Proper Northern Leeks. It may just be a one-off, a happy combination of weather and well-nourished soil in that particular bed, but at least I now know that I don't have to settle for spindly leeks.   

Sunday 30 October 2011

Tomatoes on the turn

Having lost the bulk of the outdoor tomatoes to blight, it was left to the Sungold plants and a single potted Marmande in the patio greenhouse to provide us a with a crop this year. The Sungolds didn't last much longer before the leaves started looking sooty and black blotches appeared on the stems. Stripping the plants of their leaves meant we managed to salvage a small crop, but by the beginning of October the plant was fit only for the incinerator.

Strangely, the Marmande plant, not hitherto known for its blight resistance, soldiered on unaffected. I almost forgot about it. Then, in the last week, just as I was beginning to think I should dig out my stand-by green tomato chutney recipe, I noticed two of the fruit just beginning to ripen. The weather has helped: sunny days and cold but dry nights.

I doubt these Marmandes will be bursting with sweet sun-warmed juice as they might have been in August, or in the south of France, but a few ripe tomatoes - in November - will be a welcome end to what has been a pretty poor tomato season this year.

Wednesday 26 October 2011

Here today, corn tomorrow

Much as I enjoy seeing the first corncobs swell and arch away from the main stem of the plant, ready for picking, in just a few days I always feel as though I am inundated with ripe cobs. They need to be harvested and eaten quickly as well, if they are to enjoyed at the peak of sweetness and tenderness.

This year, the sweetcorn seemed to ripen and then go 'over' with astonishing speed. Just two weeks after collecting the first cobs, I noticed that the smaller ones were looking dry, the kernels shrunken under the yellowing wrappers. All the more reason to seize the moment and deal with the glut as it happens.

Spiky sweetcorn soup
(serves 2)

2 sweetcorn cobs
1pt vegetable stock, eg made with Marigold bouillon
1 or more small fresh red chillis
6 spring onions                          
A pinch of turmeric
Freshly ground pepper
Crème fraiche

Put the vegetable stock in a large pan on medium heat. Slice the spring onions finely. Deseed the chilli and slice it very finely, keeping a few slices back for garnish. Scrape the kernels from the corn cobs with a sharp knife. Add the corn kernels, sliced chilli, spring onion and the turmeric to the stock.

Bring to the boil and simmer for about 10-15 minutes, until the corn kernels are soft. Take off the heat and leave to cool slightly, then pour the soup mixture into a blender and whizz until smooth. You could even then strain the soup through a sieve if you want it really smooth.

Return to the pan and reheat through. Serve with a dollop of crème fraiche per bowl, the reserved spring onion and chilli and some freshly ground pepper. 

Sweetcorn fritters
Sweetcorn fritters seems to be an Antipodean thing. I have recipes for them in Stephanie Alexander's Kitchen Garden Companion, Cook At Home with Peter Gordon and in the (Australian) Marie Claire Cookbook.

Stephanie Alexander’s flour, milk and corn fritters were easy but frankly a bit bland and a bit stodgy. Michele Cranston’s used very similar ingredients but pepped them up with the addition of smoked paprika, spring onions and some red pepper strips. This helped a lot – I used green pepper, as I had one handy, which added a bit of crunch and the paprika cut the sweetness of the corn. Peter Gordon's recipe looked more promising: eggs and sweetcorn bound with cornflour and polenta (cornmeal) instead of plain flour, and sour cream (I used crème fraiche), The batter was very liquid compared to the others and made a less tidy-shaped fritter in the pan. The flavour and texture were much more interesting – the polenta made it slightly granular and the crème fraiche added lightness to both texture and taste.

We ate them, just as Gordon suggests, with bacon and maple syrup. Very satisfying.

Corn cobs with chive and paprika butter
I always think there's something quite classy about flavoured butters. They look neat and attractive on the plate and can add all sorts of extra tastes to a dish without overpowering it. A knob of parsley butter in a halved baked potato works well for in lieu of a more substantial filling if I'm in a hurry.

Smoked paprika seems like an obvious partner for sweetcorn. There's a sweet/smoky contrast in flavours and the red speckles of the paprika look enticing against the bright yellow corncob. The chives bring yet more colour and flavour to the dish.

For every 25g unsalted butter, add a heaped teaspoon of finely snipped chives, half a teaspoon of smoked paprika and mash together well. Add a turn or two of salt from the grinder, taste and see if it needs any more. Reshape the butter into a cube and chill in the fridge until firm, when you can cut into dice or shapes to serve with cooked corn on the cob.

Thursday 1 September 2011

Back to Blighty

So August is over. While we never quite the blazing skies one hopes for in August, this year has apparently been the coldest in 14 years. Add to that the considerable rainfall - so good for the allotment in many ways - and it's no surprise that the tomato blight has arrived, streaking the stems of the tomato plants with dark blotches. On a verdant, untrimmed plant, the telltale black stems can be hard to spot at first, but when the leaves take on that characteristically sooty look at the edges, it's time for drastic surgery.

Every year is the same: I do know that nothing will stop the march of the spores, and that all I can do is to delay the blight's spread, hopefully until some fruit have ripened, but I always find myself unwilling to do what I really should do - remove EVERY SCRAP of diseased material, even if that means uprooting whole plants.
Some people advocate removing all the leaves, so that just stems (blotchy or not) and the immature fruit remain. This seems to hold up the spread of the blight so that the fruit has a fair chance to ripen. I prefer to cut out everything that looks unhealthy, removing fruit to the kitchen to ripen on a windowsill. Last year, the blight hit in mid-September, but the fruits were all very green. I picked them off and laid them out indoors, where they stayed green until the middle of October and then slowly ripened. Indoor-ripened tomatoes are never as good as those which mature on the plant, but home-grown tomatoes in November are a bonus. 
So far, I've dug up the three Razzleberry plants and disposed of them (not in the compost), as the more I cut off the more blackened stems and leaves I found. I've saved the best of the fruit which will hopefully ripen before they rot. The Black Russian plants - which always seem to be the first to succumb to blight - have been pruned back almost to stem and fruit only. The outdoor Sungolds - the one variety that has yielded anything like a crop so far - have had a major trim, and while the greenhouse Sungolds and the Pink Brandywine (miraculously - another variety that is often a blight magnet) show no signs of infection so far, I will be inspecting all tomato plants daily from now on. 
This is the horticultural equivalent of shutting the door after the horse has bolted, of course. There is some excellent advice on preventing tomato blight from taking hold on the Garden Action site, here, which boils down to good garden hygiene, ie, don't unwittingly spread the infection from plant to plant yourself, and also explains why it's a good idea to find a way of watering tomato plants that doesn't involve getting the leaves wet.

Monday 22 August 2011

Floral treats

I’ve always know that courgette flowers were edible but never been quite sure what to do with them. However, following the success of the artichoke fritters (link), and an allotment full of flowering squash, I thought it was high time to make more use of more of the plants. Sifting through various recipe sources, a few golden rules became clear. A stuffing for the flowers shouldn’t be overpowering in flavour, and also needs to cook through quickly – the flowers themselves will deep-fry in one to two minutes. The flowers shouldn’t be overstuffed – they’re fragile and you don’t want them bursting open in the pan. In the end I decided on a herby ricotta mixture and added lemon zest for fragrance. With a delicate combination for the flowers themselves I thought the dish could take a more punchy accompaniment and chopped up a fresh salsa with mint leaves added.

The batter used to coat the stuffed flowers varied quite a bit but all of them leaned towards a tempura-style batter so I decided to use my default tempura batter mix.

The resulting dish was pronounced delicious by everyone. It’s particularly pleasing for the cook as it has that indefinable air of showiness about it, as though you’ve done something very clever. Yet it’s simplicity itself and also given that the flowers are picked more as a by-product of the courgette plants, I get the satisfying feeling that somehow it is food for free.

Deep-fried courgette flowers with fresh minty salsa
Serves 4

8 courgette or squash flowers
Vegetable oil for deep frying

For the stuffing:
250g ricotta
Zest of two lemons
1 tbsp marjoram leaves
2 teasps thyme leaves

For the batter:
125g self-raising flour
100g cornflour
1 teasp vegetable oil
Chilled (ie, from the fridge) sparkling mineral water

For the salsa:
2 large tomatoes
1 sweet Spanish onion
½ teasp salt
Handful mint leaves, chopped fine
Lime juice to taste

Pick flowers that have fully opened and are in perfect condition. You also want to use them as fresh as possible, ideally straight after picking, but they can be stored in the fridge in a sealed container for a day or so.
Carefully clip out the stamens in the centre of the flower (I use a pair of manicure scissors with slightly curved blades) and trim the stalk to about an inch or so.
To make the salsa, chop the tomatoes into evenly sized dice. Chop the onion finely. Toss in a bowl with the sweet onion, and mint add the salt and lime juice to taste. Leave for half an hour for the flavours to mingle.
To make the stuffing, finely grate the zest from two lemons and add to the ricotta in a bowl. Strip the thyme leaves from their stalks. Chop the marjoram leaves finely and add both herbs to the ricotta. Mash the ricotta, lemon and herb until it’s smooth and creamy and add a little salt and pepper to taste.
Spoon about a dessertspoon of stuffing into each courgette flower. The amount will vary according to the size of each flower, but you don’t want to overstuff them or they will burst. Gently close the petals over the ricotta mix to make a little parcel out of each one.
To make the batter, put the flour into a large bowl, add a generous pinch of  salt and the vegetable oil, then pour a little sparkling water in a whisk lightly with a fork. Keep pouring and whisking until the batter has the consistency of double cream (not the extra thick kind). At a guess it’s about 200ml of sparkling water. It doesn’t matter if there are a few floury lumps in the mixture.
Pour the vegetable oil into a deep-sided pan and heat to 180 degrees Celsius – ideally using a thermometer. When the right temperature is reached, turn the heat down, and holding the courgette flowers by the stalk, dip and twirl them in the batter one at a time. Then drop into the pan and deep fry each one for about 2-3 minutes until the batter begins to turn golden at the edges. Lift out of the oil with tongs or a slotted spoon and rest on kitchen paper to drain off any excess oil. It’s easiest to fry on batches.
Serve two deep-fried courgette flowers per person, along with the salsa.

Sunday 14 August 2011

Beans, blue cheese and cider

Home from Asturias, that enclave of Spain known, improbably enough, for beans, blue cheese and cider, all to be eaten and drunk to a backdrop of mountains and forests of fig, eucalyptus and sweet chestnut. This is Spain's north-facing coast, the Costa Verde, named for its lush vegetation, since it rains pretty consistently between October and April. In between times, the locals hope the sun shines, because when it does, this is heaven on earth.

It has over 200 beaches nearly all of which are either spectacular and/or delightful. With clear water, pretty little coves nestle under cliffs alternate with long sands over which the surf rolls relentlessly in. It’s reminiscent of Cornwall, until you turn your gaze inland to the mighty backdrop of the 6,000ft Picos de Europa. Even the foothills are dramatic enough.
The Picos, which straddle Asturias, Cantabria to the east and the northern edge of Castilla y Leon, are the reason the Moors never made it into Asturias: the principality is Celtic in heritage and tradition.

So while you can enjoy a glass or two of wine from nearby Rioja, or neighbouring Galicia (the flowery white Alborino in particular slips down beautifully at sundown after a day on the beach), the locals drink cider. Sidrerias – cider houses – are everywhere, serving the local sidra by the bottle, and usually complete with a special machine for pouring it. This cider is flat, like scrumpy, and your glass should only be filled with about an inch of sidra   at a time, poured from a great height in order to aerate the drink and give it a bit of a fizz. Pouring can be done by a skilled waiter – to tell just how skilled, see if he is looking at the target glass while he pours (beginner), or whether he is carrying on his conversation over one shoulder while looking the other way (expert). In many establishments you’ll be treated to this high-pouring floorshow for your first taste and then left with your bottle of cider attached to a little machine which will aerate the drink for you.

Sidrerias tend to be good places to eat too, and to go with your cider, Spanish bread is always good. Rick Stein was spot on about that when he visited the area for his TV show. The seafood is always superb, sparkling fresh from the day’s catch. Particularly worth looking for on the menu are plain steamed mussels (mejillones), grilled razor clams (navajas), large juicy prawns (gambas), and anything to do with crab (centollos, or the little blue crabs called necoras, or the magnificently named buey del mar - the ox of the sea). If you like calamares, try smalled squid grilled whole (chipirones), or the larger cuttlefish (sepia). If you’re keen on whitebait, there are a wealth of small fish available to eat whole such as parrochas – which are more sardine sized) or boquerones (anchovies, often marinated).

Away from seafood, every establishment serving food will offer fabada Asturiana. For Asturians, this is a thrifty stew of the local beans (fabes, often denoted with the town of origin), flavoured with morcilla (a herby, aromatic half-sibling of black pudding), and ham hock or salted pork belly. The fabada is itself a distant cousin of the cassoulet of south-west France. However, no two fabadas are ever quite the same. Some will contain hunks of breads soaked in the broth, some are distinctly soupy, others more oily. Whichever way, the beans and the liquor should be intensely savoury from the slow-cooked meats and usually from saffron and smoked paprika. Crush the meat pieces into the stew if the dish hasn’t already been served this way and enjoy.

The fabes turn up in other dishes too, such as beans and clams (fabes con almejas), a dish which can be sublimely creamy, flavoursome and delicately aromatic ... or as dull as ditchwater and much the same colour.

Other regional specialities include kid stew (cabrito guisado), and escalopines al Cabrales, where veal is flattened into an escalope, coated in breadcrumbs and served with a sauce made from another great regional speciality, the incredibly stinky Cabrales cheese. Matured in caves, Cabrales should be moist, creamy and very strong-tasting. You will also be able to find it offered dotted on to crisp corn tortillas and drizzled with honey, a powerhouse combo of sweet, and intensely savoury. 

Many dishes can be sampled as tapas: look out for chorizo cooked in cider, which is meltingly soft and tangy. Also pulpo - octopus tentacles cooked, sprinkled with paprika and always, always, served with a boiled potato in the middle of the dish to mop up the juices. From neighbouring Galicia come pimientos de Padron, the nuttily bitter little peppers fried in olive oil and sprinkled in salt. Eating Padron peppers is a sort of gastronomic Russian roulette - although generally mild, around one in ten peppers will pack a chilli-hot punch, although on our visit this year, we were regularly assured that all the peppers would be mild. 

At the more expensive end of the scale is the jamon Iberico, a plate of which will set you back about €12-€15 depending on the establishment (several places will cure their own meats and they are well worth seeking out), but which should be sampled at least once during a visit. Thinly sliced and arranged on a large platter with no further adornment, the wafer-fine slices of cured ham will melt in your mouth, sweet and nutty at the same time.
This isn't haute cuisine: it's hearty, rustic cooking. It's always unapologetically full of flavour, simply cooked and accompanied and it's designed to fill you up. After a bottle of sidra, some jamon, followed by seafood and maybe an Asturian rice pudding to finish, I always feel as though I won't need to eat again for days. 

Tuesday 19 July 2011

Courgettes and cake

Incorporating vegetables such as courgettes, carrots, beetroot and squash into cakes can be seen as a gimmick, a way to use up a glut, or a way to get children to eat vegetables. But it also does wonders for the cake, helping to keep it moist. Cakes made with veg definitely keep for longer in my experience and also have a satisfying fudgy texture rather than being dry and crumby.

Your choice of veg will make a difference. I’ve made Nigel Slater’s beetroot chocolate cake a few times and the beetroot adds richness and an earthy tang (as well as making the cake a glorious oxblood colour). The flesh of a pumpkin or squash will give it a fruity sweetness. Courgette is the one that will add little in the way of flavour of its own. A single cake will happily absorb a large courgette, indeed one that has passed the point of being a true courgette and is well on its way to being a marrow.

This is my chocolate courgette recipe. In writing it out, I’ve surprised myself slightly with just how long the ingredients list is, but I do put it together as simply as possible: mix the dry ingredients, mix the wet ingredients, blend the two, and bake. The white chocolate icing is very quick and easy to make – which is necessary because the hordes will be clamouring to eat the cake from the minute it comes out of the oven. You want an icing that can be whipped up and slapped on as soon as the cake is cool enough.

Courgette chocolate cake
The dry ingredients:
375g self-raising flour
1 teasp baking powder
50g cocoa powder
A pinch of salt

The wet ingredients:
One large courgette (about 500g)
3 eggs
380g caster sugar
1 teasp vanilla extract
150ml sunflower oil
1 tbsp coffee

Other ingredients:
50g ground almonds (optional)

Pre-heat the oven to 160 degrees. Grease a 24cm cake tin.

Sieve the dry ingredients into a large bowl. Top and tail and peel the courgette, then grate it into the bowl of a food processor. I get good results by using the processor's fine grating disc, which pulps the courgette into a wet slurry. Add the eggs, sugar, oil and coffee to the grated courgette in the processor bowl and whizz up until blended and smooth – it will be a very unappetising greeny-grey colour and soupy.

Pour the courgette slurry into the bowl with the dry ingredients and mix quickly and roughly with a metal spoon. Add the almonds at this point, if using – they will add to the fudgy texture of the cake, but I've made the cake successfully without them.

Spoon the mix into the cake tin and bake in the centre of the oven for 40 minutes. Test if the cake is ready by plunging a skewer into the centre: if it comes out clean or without liquid clinging to it, it’s done.

Let the cake settle for 10 minutes or so, then turn out of the tin and cool on a rack. 

Make the icing by melting a 200g bar of white chocolate either in the microwave or in a bowl suspended over boiling water. Add 50g unsalted butter, remove from the heat, and beat until melted and smooth. Now add icing sugar, a little at a time, to bulk and firm the mixture up. Once you have a mix that is spreadable but not sloppy, smooth it over the top of the cake with a palette knife. Sieve a little icing sugar over the top, like snow, to disguise any lumps and bumps.

Tuesday 5 July 2011

Rotten tomatoes

What is happening with my tomatoes? Brown patches on the leaves, wilted tops that don't revive with watering. Only half the plants are affected: those in pots outside. A look through Dr D G Hessayon's Vegetable & Herb Expert suggests it's a root rot, caused by poor drainage, which could fit in with the massive deluges of rain we got last month after the dry spell. There doesn't seem to be a cure, apart from mulching around the stems to encourage new root growth. Any ideas? Hope fully the plants won't keel over completely and we'll get a crop of some kind.

Friday 24 June 2011

Rubies in the green

The raspberries are fantastic this year: Chanel red, glossy and juicy, and I’ll swear they are twice the size they were  last year. I’m relieved because in the mini-drought during April, I didn’t water them concentrating instead on spot-watering the seedlings and plants I know to be thirsty like the early lettuces. So I did wonder if I might get some rather wizened little fruits (and maybe I would have done if it hadn’t started raining in earnest this month).
So we are having a bumper harvest and may even get to store some in the freezer. Usually they get eaten en passant – I leave a bowl of raspberries out in the kitchen and they’ll be gone within a couple of hours.
However, confined to the house by a particularly squally rain shower and thinking that the current batch of raspberries might need eating up really quite soon, I thought a spot of baking might be appropriate. These are raspberry muffins, adapted from Nigella’s Blueberry Muffin recipe (How To Be A Domestic Goddess), which can also be found here, by substituting 200g raspberries for the blueberries and adding half a teaspoonful of vanilla extract.

200g plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
Pinch of salt
75g caster sugar

75g butter, melted
1 egg
200ml buttermilk (Nigella also says you can mix half and half yogurt and semi-skimmed milk instead)

200g raspberries
½ tsp vanilla extract

Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees. 
Mix together the dry ingredients. Beat together butter, egg and buttermilk in a separate bowl. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and mix lightly with a wooden spoon – a few lumps don’t matter. Fold in the raspberries and vanilla extract.
Scoop (N’s suggestion of an ice-cream scoop turns out to be just the thing) into muffin cases and bake in a suitable tin for 20 minutes.

Thursday 23 June 2011

A glut of gooseberries

I am – barely – managing a glut of gooseberries at the moment. Last year my three gooseberry Pax bushes managed a grand total of eight fruits, each devoured in situ, and in a single morning, I think. This year, each bush is groaning with beautiful, crimson-blushed fruit and with the recent downpours after the drought, some of the fruits are beginning to split.

I’ve found myself at a bit of a loss to know what to do with them. A crop that gives you enough for some fruit salads and maybe a couple of fools is one thing, but this year’s harvest requires something more in the way of mass production. Perhaps a chutney? We have been missing a good chutney over the last winter and spring: usually I make a green tomato chutney in October to use up the last of the fruits that haven’t yet turned red. Last year, I was still waiting for any ripe tomatoes in October and I really couldn’t face making chutney out of the whole crop. So a gooseberry will usefully fill a gap in the store cupboard; the sharp-sweet flavour of gooseberries seems well-suited to a chutney as well.

Gooseberry chutney with cranberries and fennel

Made with sweet amber gooseberries, this cooks to a glorious deep maroon colour. The cranberries were included as an alternative to the more usual raisins and actually may help more with the colour than anything else. The fennel notes, which cut the sharpness of the gooseberries, are quite subtle even with the addition of a whole star anise. I did consider using fennel seeds in the spice mix and would normally do so, but on this occasion thought it might just overload the chutney with aniseed.

1.2kg gooseberries
300ml cider vinegar
500g light brown sugar
1 onion, chopped
1 fat fennel bulb, chopped
100g dried cranberries
2cm cinnamon stick, ground
1 star anise
2 tspcrushed black peppercorns
1 tsp Szechuan pepper
3 cloves
1 cardamom pod, crushed
½ tsp turmeric

Rinse the gooseberries, then top and tail them. In a large pan, bring the gooseberries and vinegar to the boil and simmer until the gooseberries are disintegrating – about 10-20 minutes depending on how ripe the gooseberries are.

Add the onion, fennel, cranberries and sugar and stir well to dissolve the sugar. Bring to a simmer. Lightly pound the spices, apart from the star, together to a coarse powder and add to the pan. Simmer gently for about 2 hours, until the mixture has cooked right down and is sticky rather than soupy.

While it’s cooking, sterilise your jars so that the chutney can be potted up and sealed as soon as it’s ready.

Friday 17 June 2011

Nut cutlets, fake bacon and other horrors

Some of my favourite meals don't involve meat or fish: a Spanish tortilla, a Greek salad, cauliflower cheese made with gruyere and cream, a vegetable curry - perhaps an aloo gobi or a Thai style dish with coconut and snow white rice, a wonderful artichoke casserole with tomatoes and preserved lemons picked up from Skye Gyngell, aubergines stuffed with tomatoes and mozzarella ... the list goes on. 

Every so often I’ll consciously cut down my meat intake and stick to vegetables. What I won’t have is fake meat. I simply don't get the point of vegetarian sausages, fake bacon, or a pretend roast such as Linda McCartney’s Vegetarian Roast, which describes itself as  a "chicken style roast with sage and onion stuffing". It’s probably unfair to single out the Linda McCartney range: there are plenty of other vegetarian roasts that parade their ‘meat-like’ credentials. Why?

I don't mean dishes like vegetable lasagne where lentils, or mushrooms, or squash are used instead of meat, sometimes these are preferable to a heavy meaty version. Or maybe even a nut cutlet, although what is that word ‘cutlet’ trying to imply in this context? I mean food that pretends to be meat but isn't. Why is that remotely attractive? Why is it remotely attractive, especially, to a vegetarian, who has rejected meat?

As a non-vegetarian, I probably shouldn’t make presumptions about why people don’t eat meat, but I’ll have a go anyway. Perhaps …
  • They don’t like the taste of meat;
  • They believe that a vegetarian diet is healthier;
  • They believe they can eat more cheaply on a vegetarian diet;
  • They believe that a vegetarian diet is more environmentally sustainable;
  • They believe that a vegetarian diet is more economically sustainable for food producers;
  • They believe that eating meat is inevitably cruel to animals;
  • They believe that killing animals for food is morally unjustifiable (the humaneness of treatment and death being immaterial).
I’m sure there are more. They all seem valid to me and most lead me periodically to try to eat more meat-free meals. But what I don’t understand is why if you have rejected meat for whatever reason, you would then want to eat something that tries to emulate the look, taste and /or texture of meat. Doesn’t this in some way contradict the reason you stopped eating meat in the first place? At the very least it must generate some degree of cognitive dissonance.

Most veggie sausages, veggie burgers, veggie rissoles are highly processed, so hardly healthier. Or cheaper (Linda McCartney’s Sausages are £4.07 per kg at Waitrose when on special offer; their Essential pork sausages are £2.14 per kg, though admittedly organic versions cost more than Linda’s). If you are a vegetarian on moral grounds, then eating something that makes itself resemble meat as closely as possible is hardly a good look. If you are veggie on economic or environmental grounds, then eating a Deli Bacon Flavour Rasher makes you look a bit wistful, as you are admitting that it’s a sacrifice, that you didn't choose to stop eating meat, but felt you had to give it up.

The last time I tried vegetarian sausages was at a barbecue. “The children love them,” I was told by my host, himself a vegetarian. So I tackled one. It tasted mainly of monosodium glutamate with a bit of yeast extract and had the texture of sage and onion stuffing. Why on earth would you want to eat that at a barbecue when you could have, say, corn cobs marinaded in soy and honey and five-spice, or kebabs with green peppers and halloumi, or aubergines seasoned, wrapped in foil and cooked in the embers until they are all soft and smoky?

My final argument is, quite simply, quorn. I don't think any more needs to be said.

Friday 10 June 2011

Cold comfrey farm

I’m making comfrey tea for the first time this year. Not a tea to drink – although in my extensive Google-based research, I found this somewhat cautionary tale about drinking comfrey herbal tea in large quantities – but a liquid fertiliser for the allotment crops.

Comfrey plants have very long taproots which reach right down into the subsoil, enabling the plant to absorb many trace elements as well as a high concentration of all three of the main plant nutrients: nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus (NPK). I inherited a comfrey patch in the corner of my plot and have used the cut leaves both as a compost starter (chucking the leaves liberally on the heap in between layers of other material) and also to line the trenches when planting potatoes. But until now I haven’t got round to making comfrey tea partly because I haven’t had a spare container and mainly because everyone tells me that it will smell awful.

However with the help of and the acquisition of a spare water butt, I have made a start at making my own liquid fertiliser. The water butt has its tap intact and secure, so is leak-proof, and as for the smell, well, we’re out in the open and can it really be any worse than manure? Lurking in the back of the shed was an ancient hessian potato sack, so I have stuffed this with fistfuls of comfrey leaves, tied up the open end with twine and placed the sack in the water butt. Containing the leaves like this will hopefully stop them from clogging up the tap and will make disposing of them once the tea has brewed a bit easier and less slimy.

Next, I filled the butt with water so that the sack is completely submerged and I have clamped a lid on it – actually a spare water butt stand up-ended and pushed into the top of the butt like a bung. Now the tea is stewing away and should be ready in about a month. There is –as yet – no smell.

If you don't have an off-the-peg comfrey patch to plunder, the plants are readily available in garden centres or you can take root cuttings from friends. If buying, make sure you get Bocking 14 – other varieties are invasive and will self-sow everywhere. Even Bocking 14 is pretty vigorous and you’ll be glad of a reason to cut it down regularly. It also attracts lots of bees when in flower – another bonus.

Thursday 2 June 2011

Washing vegetables

When I rinse fruits and vegetables under the tap before eating them – whether they’re homegrown or not, I often wonder if I’m really doing any thing effective. If it has visible dirt on it, then fair enough. If not, am I really going to make any difference with a quick rinse and a rub? The recent e.coli outbreak in northern Germany has certainly made me think twice about the thoroughness with which I clean fruit and veg prior to eating.

According to this article in The Guardian, it’s a miracle I haven’t offed the entire family with salmonella poisoning on a regular basis. It is one of those articles that in one paragraph quotes an expert saying, don't worry, salad is safe, and in the next, explains how the rates of e.coli, salmomella, campylobacter et al are going through the roof.

Then, at the end, there is this astonishing (well, astonishing for me, anyway) assertion, quoting Stephen Vaughan who owns a food company called All Food Hygiene and who runs food hygiene courses:
"The most sensible way to wash vegetables at home is to use Milton Sterilising Fluid. You need to use a double sink method – one bowl with Milton diluted in water (as per the instructions), then put your fruit and vegetables in there for 20 minutes. Fill the other sink with tap water to wash off the chlorine. It leaves no taste and kills the bacteria."
I have never done this, or indeed anything close to this. I think I don’t know anyone who has ever done this. What would a soft-leaved lettuce look like after 20 mins submerged in the Milton, anyway?

Tuesday 31 May 2011

Simple pleasures

We have a glut of lettuces at the moment. Sweet Little Gems and crimson-tinged Quattro Stagione, that were frilly and loose-centred just a few days ago, have suddenly plumped up and are demanding to be picked. The best thing about a lettuce glut is that you can be brutal and discard all but the pale tender hearts - the neighbour's rabbit is quite happy with the leftovers as well.

This evening I made a salad with just the hearts from five lettuces, some pork belly lardons and some oversize croutons I made with the remains of a walnut loaf I found in the bread bin. With a simple white wine vinegar and mustard vinaigrette, it made a simple and exquisite supper.  

Saturday 28 May 2011

Stephanie Alexander and the Kitchen Garden Foundation

To Petersham Nurseries and a talk by acclaimed Australian chef and writer Stephanie Alexander to mark the launch of the northern hemisphere localised edition of her Kitchen Garden Companion. This book details growing fruit and vegetables, all listed in alphabetical order and each with 4-5 dedicated recipes. Produce and recipes are chosen with a view to getting the whole family – especially children – involved in growing, maintaining, harvesting, preparing, cooking and eating. This is because the book was written following Stephanie’s pioneering scheme in Australia to get children growing and cooking vegetables in primary schools.

When concern was first raised in Australia about its children’s diet and their fondness for fast food, and processed food, Stephanie says the reaction of the government was to “write pamphlets, make pyramids and shake their fingers at children, saying don't do this and don't do that”.

“It seemed to me to be as plain as the nose on your face,” she went on, “That we should get children engaged in growing fresh food. And I mean cooking real food – not just cupcakes.”

Hear, hear. As someone who has ‘done’ gardening sessions at my son's school, I am always amused/amazed/heartened to see children who declared that they didn't potatoes that weren’t chips (“or crisps!”) or that they didn't like tomatoes, tucking in enthusiastically when they had had a hand in growing them. They feel they have invested in them.

Stephanie started with a kitchen garden programme in one school, digging up part of the playground and refurbishing a derelict kitchen, and involving children aged between 8 and 11. Hugely successful, she brought government ministers down to the school to eat fennel risotto and beet salad produced by the children and to secure government support for expanding the scheme (she also says she’s been talking to Jamie Oliver about this very aspect of the scheme while she’s in the UK), and now the Kitchen Garden Foundation is operational in 191 primary schools across Australia.

The book, she says, was written to spread the word even further. Now launched in the UK, it has thankfully been edited to reflect the seasons here rather than in Australia, although I notice there are other Antipodeanisms left intact (silverbeet for Swiss chard, eggplant for aubergine, for example).

Stephanie was an engaging speaker and of course the surroundings at Petersham were idyllic, made even more so by the fresh jugs of limeade on the tables and the baskets of crudités and freshly-made mayonnaise brought round halfway through the session. Although Stephanie did say, eyeing her audience, which included a fair few Aussie ex-pats and several people who had visited her Richmond Hill Cafe in Melbourne, that she suspected she was preaching to the converted.

Could something like the Kitchen Garden Foundation happen in the UK? The Sunday supplements carry stories of ‘urban children discovering beans don't grow in cans’ fairly regularly, but the schemes are all run by volunteers. The RHS has its Campaign For School Gardening, which aims to get children involved with creating and maintaining school gardens - less so on cooking and eating produce - and relies heavily on volunteer help. I spent two years showing pupils in my son's school how to grow and then cook fruit and vegetables in years one and two – even by year three it’s difficult for teachers to find the time and for many schools there is an issue of space.

The trick is to find a teacher - preferably a head – who buys into the scheme from the off. Stephanie Alexander says her first school was run by an Italian headteacher, “so she didn’t need to be convinced about the benefits of learning about fresh food”.

Deep-fried artichokes

This is deep-fried artichokes and lemon with mint and anchovy dressing. It's made from a recipe in My Favourite Ingredients by Skye Gyngell and I've long wanted to try it - The combination of nutty creamy artichoke and sharp lemon is enticing and while I've had deep-fried artichokes in Rome, where they are a standard restaurant dish, I've never tried it myself. With three little artichokes just the right size on the plot today, I seized the moment and cut all three of them for the dish. For once, I made myself stick strictly to the recipe instructions - no going off piste and deciding to have mayonnaise instead of the mint and anchovy dressing

The results were stunning. Lots of contrasts: between the crispy batter shell and soft artichoke, the sharpness of the lemon softened by the fast cooking, the coolness of the mint with the pungency of the anchovy, and all brought together beautifully.

In truth, it's time-consuming to prepare. The batter requires the inclusion of an egg white whisked to firm peaks (and it does make an incredibly light, crunchy batter), the dressing needs the slow addition of olive oil to create an emulsion and of course artichokes can be fiddly to prepare, although actually the smaller baby 'chokes are easier to trim than fully mature ones - they're less tough.

Wednesday 11 May 2011

A squash and a squeeze

I’ve gone mad with the squash and pumpkins again. Every year, I get tempted by new varieties and end up trying to grow around 20 squash plants in a  bed  whose dimensions are better suited to a dozen plants at most. I have my regulars: the green-skinned organge fleshed Berrettina Piacentina and Marina di Chioggia, both of which have dense flesh and a taste definitely reminiscent of sweet potato. They make wonderfully silky mash, roast to a lovely brown savouriness, and keep their shape well  when baked. They don't exude water either. Completely differently textured are the spaghetti squash, which can be baked then forked into strands and tossed in a pasta-style sauce – spaghetti squash carbonara and spaghetti squash arrabiatta are both delicious. Then there are the butternuts which tend to be smaller and so are useful as a sort of everyday squash: often cut into wedges and tucked beneath a Sunday roast.

They should be enough but my head has been turned this year by Black Futsu, the seeds for which I bought from Plants Of Distinction. This has knobbly skin like the Marina di Chioggia but is – supposedly – more compact in its habit than other varieties. Next up is the Connecticut squash from Pennard Plants, a heritage variety which is billed on the website as the ‘perfect Halloween pumpkin’and also the variety which greeted the Pilgrims when they arrived in north America from England. This year I’m also trying Crown Prince for the first time – I know everyone raves about the flavour so I thought it was time to see what the fuss was about – and an Atlantic Giant so that I can hold my own on the allotment next to all the other monster pumpkin growers. Quite often in the past my plot neighbours have peered at my pumpkin patch and said, “Yes, but they’re not very big, are they?”.

Wednesday 4 May 2011

It might as well rain until September

So, we had no rain at all in April. I don't keep daily records, but I'm quite sure we haven't gone a whole month without rain before. As both the garden and the plot are on heavy clay soil, which retains water so well, it takes some time before a lack of rainfall has much effect, especially in spring when the ground is throughly wet after the winter - and this winter, we had significant snowmelt.

By the third week, however, the ground was beginning to feel - and look - more like concrete, with big cracks and I took to watering the alliums, blueberries, asparagus and the seedlings (kailans, beetroot, lettuce, radishes, spinach and chard) every other day. The strawberries are under plastic so I took a chance with them and left them be.

Curiously, this drought which threatened to wilt my early crops and dry up my asparagus spears seemed to have no effect whatsoever on the weeds, which sprang up green and lush as soon as the soil warmed up, just as they always do.  

Wednesday 20 April 2011

Festival of the asparagus

The asparagus came early this year, the first heads peeping out from the soil at the end of March and the first spears ready to pick a week later. We seem to have a head-start on the local supermarkets as well – their asparagus is still coming in from Peru. From now until the beginning of June we will be enjoying a Festival Of The Asparagus. This starts with lots of suppers of simply steamed or simmered spears, sometimes with melted butter, more often with a vinaigrette or mayonnaise-based dressing.

Steamed asparagus with balsamic dressed salad
I don’t have a special asparagus pan – a tall thin pan in which the stalks simmer in water while the tips cook in the rising steam. But I do have two frying pans, one small, one large. Short chunky asparagus stems cook in the small frying pan, long slender stems are laid in the larger one. Either way, the spears are simmered for around 3-5 minutes: I find just-picked, homegrown asparagus cooks in about half the time you would cook shop-bought spears for.

Asparagus spears are usually ready to pick just as the first of my salad leaves – usually the mustard and oriental leaves, and maybe some chervil – are big enough to constitute a salad, so the asparagus is served on a bed of mixed leaves. The dressing is just olive oil with a splash of balsamic vinegar and a very small pinch of salt and pepper.

Roast asparagus with saffron mayonnaise
I would love to write lyrically about the pleasure and the labour of love that is hand-making mayonnaise. Occasionally I will stir myself to make mayonnaise from scratch but only when I have thought of uses for about a pint of the stuff as inevitably my first batch will curdle and I will have to add the curdled mixture to a new starter to get it all to emulsify again. (Incidentally, why is it that the second batch of mayonnaise never curdles when the first batch so often does?)

Most of the time, however, this saffron mayonnaise involves two good tablespoonfuls of Hellman’s (the real stuff, mind, not reduced fat, or the sunflower oil version), with a crushed (small) clove of garlic, and a pinch of saffron strands warmed in a tablespoon of the best olive oil in the house whisked in. If possible, it helps to leave this in the fridge for an hour or so before you eat it.

Roast asparagus – get the oven on at 200 degrees, and put a little olive oil in a shallow pan or roasting tin – something that will go over a flame on the hob and then into the oven. Heat the oil gently on the hob and add a shallot, skinned and very finely sliced.  Leave to stew quietly until the shallot slices are soft but not browned. Then lay the asparagus spears in a single layer on top, drizzle with a little more olive oil and sprinkle a few sea salt flakes over. Transfer to the oven and roast for around 15 minutes. Stir carefully before the serving: the sweetness of the shallots seems to accentuate the asparagus flavour.

After a couple of weeks, I begin to wonder if there isn’t something else I could be doing with the asparagus and start thinking about incorporating them with other ingredients.

Asparagus omelette
A conventional two-egg omelette filled with diced cooked asparagus and a dusting of Parmesan inside and on top to serve is beautifully savoury but I also like a Chinese style omelette. Here a teaspoonful of soy sauce and a slug of mirin, or rice wine is added to the beaten egg, and the omelette is cooked in oil (ideally a relatively tasteless oil,not olive oil) rather than butter. I’ll also add a handful of beansprouts or sugar snap peas to the filling as well as the blanched and diced asparagus spears) to give it a crunchy flavour. Prawns are good too and make it a properly substantial dish.

Asparagus slurry, sorry, stock, made from the stalky bits you would otherwise discard
Rather than throwing away the fibrous ends of the asparagus stems which don’t pass the snap test, you can make a sort of sloppy puree with them which can then be used as an asparagus base for risotto, pasta or soup dishes.

Scrub the discarded stalks well and peel away any obviously fibrous bits. Don’t obsess too much about this or the job will become far too fiddly. Chop the stalks into 1cm long pieces. Put them in a pan, cover – just – with water and bring to the boil. Simmer briskly for around 12-15 minutes: once the green parts start to lose their brightness remove from the heat. Add a pinch of Marigold bouillon and stir in. Pour the whole lot into the liquidiser goblet and whizz up well, or, pass the softened chunks through the coarse disc of a mouli. Whichever one you choose, push the resulting pulp through a sieve. You will end up with a very loose, jade green slurry. It will taste better than it looks or sounds – let’s call it a puree.

Loosened with a couple of spoonfuls of cream – or crème fraiche – and maybe a little water or a mild vegetable bouillon, this makes a great-tasting asparagus soup. It can be served either hot or chilled – if the latter, I’ll add a bit more seasoning. The soup is a beautiful pale green, like eau-de-nil, and a garnish of mint sprigs or a swirl of basil oil (lemon basil, olive oil and a pinch of salt, blitzed quickly together) makes a striking contrast.

The slurry also makes a great base for asparagus risotto, in addition to the hot stock, and gives the risotto a punchy, intense asparagus flavour.