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.