Wednesday, 10 November 2010


This is what my backyard veggie garden looked like, a month or so ago: green beans still fiercely climbing up the bean frame, romanesco cauliflower and brussels sprouts happily growing away in the near bed, and lots of chinese greens, lettuce and spinach dotted around. Sunflowers and flowers in the pot.

This is what my veggie garden looked like when I got home from a week-long business trip yesterday.

Mr G had been kind enough to pull down the netting frame he'd done such a good job of building. He described it as one of the saddest jobs he's needed to do. But there's an excellent reason: we're moving out of our lovely little rented house.

I removed all the veggie plants yesterday and raked the compost out over the lawn to act as a top-dressing. It will do it a lot of good.

The reason we're moving is because I've just accepted a job in Australia and will be moving there at the end of the month. Then the search will begin for some land on which to build a new garden!

Monday, 27 September 2010

What do we really want from our food?

It was a wet, windy, drizzly day yesterday, and Mr G and I were feeling somewhat lazy. In a rare event, we had a nice long sleep-in, a prolonged brunch, and sometime in the mid-afternoon wandered down to our local pub for a friendly pint. It's such a wonderful luxury to have an excellent pub at the end of your street. We don't avail ourselves of it anywhere near as much as we fell we ought but we enjoy going and want to patronise it so it keeps going. This pub has an endlessly changing list of two guest ales. The one we chose was hoppy, crisp and refreshing.

While we were enjoying our pints, a man came around offering everyone a lovely, steaming hot roast potato - it was Sunday afternoon, after all! The potatoes were delicious - crispy and golden on the outside and fluffy on the inside - and went really well with the ale, but something troubled me about them. Then it hit me.

All of the potatoes were exactly the same size. They came from potatoes that had been mercilessly graded, then cut in half and prepared. This was how I knew that they'd come out of a packet, rather than straight out of someone's field. Nothing like my roasties, which are made with whatever potatoes are in the top of the sack and can involve sizes from giant to quite small. I cut them to an even size, which leaves them a variety of interesting shapes.

It's yet another example of how people have been educated to believe that what they want is consistency, when really we'd all be much happier if we chose our produce with the primary concern being taste.

As an addendum, I'd like to say that we did get some stuff done with the rest of our day! It was a bread baking day, and there was quite a bit of sorting, cleaning and cooking achieved with the rest of the afternoon.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Seasonal eating: zucchini and parmesan soup with garlic ciabatta

We've been on holiday lately and came home to 10 kilograms of zucchini in the allotment. I've managed to give a lot away, but wanted to use some fresh for some wholesome soup. Mr. G isn't really a soup fan, but I think I won him over with this. This is delicious, tasty, wholesome and satisfying, and if you choose your chilli right it's spicy too. I ought to make vegetable stock but I rarely think of it in time, so happily use a good quality vegetable stock cube.

No photos, because it all got gobbled up in short order, so you'll have to believe me it's pretty.

Zucchini and parmesan soup
Serves two. Easily expands to serve more, or have some for freezing.

1 tbsp olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic and one chilli, finely chopped together
15 leaves basil, torn
2 small-medium zucchini, or two large ones (about 200g), chopped into 1/2-inch dice
1 vegetable stock cube
2-3 cups water
1 tsp soya sauce
1/4 cup (about 30g) finely grated fresh parmesan, reserving a little for the garlic bread (if you have a parmesan rind use it in the soup too)
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 tbsp finely chopped parsley

Heat the oil in a saucepan and fry the onion for 2-3 minutes. Then add the basil, garlic, chilli and zucchini and fry for 10 minutes over medium heat, stirring to ensure they don't stick, until the zucchini start to brown. Add the water, stock cube, parmesan rind if using and soya sauce, bring to the boil and boil for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and remove parmesan rind. Blend either in the pot with a stick blender or use a normal blender. Return pot to the heat, add parmesan and cook for 5 minutes more, or until required consistency. Taste and adjust for seasoning. Serve in bowls with a grinding of black pepper and the parsley scattered over, with the garlic bread on the side.

Garlic ciabatta
Makes two. Make this while the soup is boiling.

1/2 small ciabatta, cut in half horizontally as though for a sandwich
2-3 cloves garlic
1 pinch coarse salt
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp parmesan (optional)

Pound the garlic and salt together in a mortar and pestle, or alternatively chop the garlic finely and crush the garlic and salt together on the chopping board with the flat of a knife. Add the olive oil and stir to blend. Let these sit for a few minutes so the flavours can permeate. Spread this garlic oil over the cut surface of the ciabatta: I use a pastry brush for this. Sprinkle the parmesan over if using. Bake in a 180C oven for 10 minutes or under a grill for 5 minutes, until the bread is toasty and the garlic and cheese are golden.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Sustainability Mondays: the summer squash edition!

Above, clockwise, from front centre: a giant white patty pan squash which hadn't been there a few days before, smaller patty pan squash with flower, spaghetti squash, "Zucchini" zucchini, "Striata" zucchini, half a "Trombocino" zucchini, a small golden zucchini, the back end of a trombocino (flower visible in the background), and (bottom) a "Black beauty" zucchini. All harvested on one day!

1. Plant Something -
  • Planted out some very advanced tomato seedlings from pots and potted on some chillies.
2. Harvest something -
  • spinach
  • lettuce and salad greens
  • herbs
  • courgettes and other summer squash
  • 3 spaghetti squash
  • chillies
  • French beans
  • cherry tomatoes
  • Moneymaker tomatoes
A selection of tomatoes and chillies with the odd pea pod and broad bean pod thrown in for good measure

3. Preserve something -
  • Nothing this week
4. Waste Not (reducing wastage in all areas)
  • The usual things
5. Want Not (preparing for shortage situations)
  • Hardened some spaghetti squash for storage by putting them in the sun for a few days to cure. Although I'm not sure they're going to last long enough to need that.
  • Bought a kilo of hard winter wheat berries to try out with the flour grinder, to use for baking soon. Probably this coming weekend.
6. Build Community Food Systems
  • The usual
7. Eat the Food
  • Baked a spaghetti squash, cut into two halves, seeds hollowed out and filled with a red kidney bean chilli. Delicious. Will do again very soon.
  • lots of green bean and tofu dishes
  • Made more of the intensely courgetty pasta sauce. I'd intended to freeze some, but it made it to our bellies before it made it to the freezer.
  • Lots of salad with greens, baby carrots, radish and beetroot
  • It may not count, but I had some of yarninmypocket's fabulous home-brewed beer. Hey, I enjoyed it, surely I can count it as "eating the food"!
The squash row. It was well prepared with horse manure before planting.

8. What I bought:
A pound of red kidney beans and a kilo of wheat beans.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

This is why you don't let your onions set flower heads

I'm always careful to pinch out onion flower stems (not least because they're so yummy), but what I've never seen is what happens if you let them grow. Many of my onions this year are in a remote plot in a friend's back yard this year, and I tend to only go to visit them once a fortnight to control the weeds. The onions there were planted as sets last autumn, so come the spring some of them flowered quite early. It took enough time for me to find them that the onion stems were quite large and stiff. But I snapped them down and let them grow to see what would happen to them. I harvested and cut one open, this weekend, and the end result was what you see in the picture below.
This is the bottom of the onion. You can see the very thick base of the flower stem in the middle of the onion, with a wrinkled layer of 'normal' onion layers around it.

I chopped up the wrinkled bits at the outside of the onion and cooked them normally. They're absolutely fine to eat, even if they look a bit strange. Onions that have set flower stems need to be eaten quickly however, as they will not keep. I don't think this one would have lasted another month.

The onion flower stem itself is very hard and woody. If you click the picture above for the larger image you'll be able to see the cellulose cells which have formed to support the thickness of the stem and the size of the flower head. Not even I would eat this, I think it would be too woody to be pleasant. It was put out in the compost heap instead.

As it was so far along, I could have left this onion to flower and set seed, but if you think about it, that was the last thing I'd want to do. This was the first onion to set seed, and keeping and using its seed would propagate early-flowering onions. That's the last thing you want if you're planning to store them. Great if you're after pretty allium flowers of course, which is how the ornamentals came about. If you want to save seed, always let two or three of your best-producing plants go to seed. In this case, it would be the last to flower.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Sustainbility Monday: the not-much-done edition

For Leigh: my special little olive tree that lives todis prove the belief that you can't grow olives in the UK.

It's been the kind of week in which things other than the garden get done, although significant time was spent at the allotment removing all the deep-rooted weeds that had set in there while the ground was like concrete. We've had two good lots of rain lately so I wanted to get that job out of the way while the soil was still soft.

1. Plant Something -
  • Nothing this week although I did catch up on all the weeding.
2. Harvest something -
  • spinach
  • onions
  • potatoes
  • lettuce and salad greens
  • baby carrots
  • herbs
  • courgettes
  • beetroot
  • chillies
  • egg (singular)
  • runner beans
  • French beans
  • orange cherry tomatoes
3. Preserve something -
  • Soaked several pounds of morello cherries in vodka, to turn into cherry liquer and later glace cherries
4. Waste Not (reducing wastage in all areas)
  • The usual things
  • Turned the compost
  • Checked through the store cupboard to make sure nothing was nearing its use-by date and needed using. I'm pleased to report that nothing is.
5. Want Not (preparing for shortage situations)
  • Did my tri-weekly baking as well as making ciabatta and pizza bases
  • Bought a mini-BBQ to save pulling out the big one every time I'd like to char-grill a few veg.
6. Build Community Food Systems
  • The usual
7. Eat the Food
  • Peppers and courgettes grilled on the BBQ, as well as BBQ tofu as a pre-preparation for tonight's dinner.
  • lots of green bean and tofu dishes: Mexican mole and Malaysian stir-fries
  • Potato and green bean curry
  • Lots of salad with greens, baby carrots, radish and beetroot
  • New potato, caper and lemon-thyme pizza

The olive tree is covered in hundreds of tiny olives at the moment.
8. What I bought:
Antipasto-type stuff to put on pizzas.

Friday, 30 July 2010

Broad bean trials: results from 2010

This was the broad bean patch a couple of weeks ago. I planted four varieties of broad beans this year. I planted two patches of Super Aquadulce in the autumn, one on the allotment and one in the garden at home. The allotment beans were comprehensively nibbled by rabbits or deer when they sprouted, so only a few survived. In the spring I planted Sutton Dwarf beans (in the left hand bed in the photo above) and in my main broad bean bed, one row each of, from left to right, Super Aquadulce, Witkiem Manita and Bunyards Exhibition varieties of broad bean. I wanted to see how each dealt with the conditions of the allotment.

I got Super Aquadulce beans from the autumn-sown seeds as early as May. I was delighted with that. The rest of the beans started to be ready in (I think?) June, with the Witkiem Manita being the first to be of a useable size. There was a notable difference in the size of the pods, as well: Super Aquadulce had a smaller pod than the other two standard varieties, with Witkiem Manita having very thick pods and large meaty beans and Bunyards Exhibition having long pods with more beans. Sutton dwarf were of course, the smallest of all. All varieties were very tasty and produced on average 6-8 pods per plant, which isn't bad for unfertilised soil and a very dry spring.

Super aquadulce in the foreground, Witkiem Manita behind.

One thing that I noticed was that as the long, dry summer went on, some of the taller bean plants lodged. I'm not sure whether that was due to the plant falling down because of lack of water or whether they were trampled by a dog. The super aquadulce were the first to go down, followed by the Witkiem Manita. Bunyards Exhibition were the longest lasting of the standard varieties, with Sutton dwarf being the longest-standing of the lot. In the image below, the dwarf varieties are still standing, but just to the right of the shot the taller plants have been slashed and laid on the bed to be turned in. I've left the roots in the ground to rot.
When I harvested, I selected a few pods that were ready when they were still young, and picked just enough for a meal when I fancied them. Then I got 3 kg of pods from the 25-each plants of Super aquadulce and Witkiem Manita plants (with perhaps a few of the Bunyard Exhibition thrown in) and another 2.5 kg of pods from the Bunyards Exhibition and Sutton Dwarf. In all, I'd say I got 6.5 kg of pods from 120 plants. 3 kg of those are now in the freezer. We love broad beans, so I plant to plant even more next year.

This year we've had fresh broad beans from mid-May to mid-July. I'd like to achieve that again next year, but splitting the varieties. Reading I've done suggests that Sutton dwarf are weather-hardy and so like Super aquadulce, they're suitable for autumn planting for an early summer harvest. I'll plant some of them this autumn as they're fabulous for early summer recipes calling for small, tender, shelled broad beans. My crop rotation calls for this year's onion bed in a friend's back yard to become a bean bed next year, so I'll fill that with autumn-sown broad beans when the onions come out, and plant only Witkiem Manita and Bunyards Exhibition in the spring, as I think they make a better showing than the other two varieties from a spring sowing.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Seasonal eating: very courgetty pasta sauce

This is one of my solutions to too many courgettes. You slowly seethe lots of courgettes with a few other ingreditns in olive oil until they are a mush, then toss through pasta for a delicious and very wholesome meal. Although I call this very courgetty pasta sauce, the puree takes on a rich flavour unlike that of fresh courgettes. The dish focuses more on the vegetables than the pasta. The sauce takes a while to cook, but requires minimal supervision. I think I'll make some of this to preserve, to remind me of summer flavours in the depths of winter. Don't be afraid of the large amount of garlic in this dish, as the slow method of cooking mellows the flavour in the same way as roasting.

Very courgetty pasta sauce
(for four, takes up to an hour to cook)

2-3 tbsp olive oil
6-8 medium to large courgettes
1 tsp small capers packed in salt (don't bother to rinse them)
6 cloves garlic
1 large or 2 small chillies
200g baby plum or cherry tomatoes, cut into quarters
1/2 cup black olives, pitted and halved
1/2 cup white wine
1 handful basil leaves, torn
200g long wholewheat pasta, such as spaghetti or fettucine: fresh or dried both work well

Cut the courgettes lengthways and then thinly across into half-circle slices. Heat 2 tbsp of the olive oil in a large frypan over a medium-high heat and add all but one of the courgettes. Fry, stirring occasionaly, until the courgettes brown, soften and start to break up into a mush. This will take 20-30 minutes, depending on your heat. Be careful not to let the courgettes burn, and add more oil if they start to look dry. When the courgettes are starting to soften and break up, add the remaining courgette, garlic and chilli and fry for 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, olives and white wine and continue to cook until the mixture resembles a thick paste (see picture below). Meanwhile, cook the pasta according to directions. When cooked, toss the pasta through the sauce with 1/2 to 1 cup of the pasta cooking water. Toss the basil leaves through and serve immedaitely.

A thick sauce, ready for the pasta.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Sustainability Mondays: yeah, I know it's Tuesday

Thinnings from the onion patch, complete with volunteer potatoes, curing in the sun for a day

I took Monday off to enjoy a day in the garden! There were a number of jobs that I felt I needed to catch up on, and hadn't been getting around to while surrounded by people. I had a whole pile of time on my flexi-time at work, and decided to put it to good use. I even had a happy hour's weaving for the first time all year, when it was too hot to work outside in the middle of the day.

1. Plant Something -
  • Sowed spring onion seeds.
  • Repotted all of the tomato, chilli and okra plants that needed to go into bigger pots or growbags
  • Repotted several of the other potted plants
  • Turned in the barley chaff and manured that bed, in preparation for it to become a permanent artichoke bed.
2. Harvest something -
  • spinach
  • broad beans (4 kg)
  • onions (see picture above)
  • potatoes
  • lettuce and salad greens
  • baby carrots
  • lots and lots and lots of herbs
  • lots of courgettes
  • beetroot
  • chillies
  • turnips
  • eggs
  • the very last of the garlic
  • runner beans
  • French beans
  • cucumbers from a neighbour
  • orange cherry tomatoes
  • the first red sweet pepper
  • small yellow wild plums
  • the very first blackberries, as a mid-morning snack
3. Preserve something -
  • Cured onions and potatoes for storage
  • Froze several kilograms of broad beans
4. Waste Not (reducing wastage in all areas)
  • The usual things
5. Want Not (preparing for shortage situations)
  • Nothing this week
6. Build Community Food Systems
  • The usual
7. Eat the Food
  • Broad beans in a rich tomato sauce for a light supper and later for a mezze supper
  • Caramelised courgette salad: delicious!
  • Intensely courgettey pasta sauce (recipe to come)
  • Smashed and roasted new potatoes
  • Lots of salad with greens, baby carrots, radish and beetroot
  • Used the preserved mini olives from last year's crop on our tree (and I do mean mini in some cases, see below) to make an olive bread with chopped fresh garlic, chopped herbs and a wonderful oak-smoked, malted wholewheat flour. We ate it two evenings in a row: the first, with stuffed portobello mushrooms and several salads; the second night as part of a mezze supper. It got rave reviews.

8. What I bought:
Avocadoes, stone fruit and portobello mushrooms.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Taking the steps towards self sufficiency

A delicious weekend brunch, almost all from the garden.

Although this blog is called "Steps Towards Self Sufficiency", I don't always talk enough about how I go about doing it, in my passion for the food I grow and eat. But I think about ways to take further steps in my own life towards self sufficiency every day. So that's what I'd like to write about today.

I loosely follow a permaculture-based approach to the way I organise my life. While permaculture is often viewed as a way to grow food, the movement created by David Holmgren and Bill Mollinson in the 70s is more than that. It's about looking at your lifestyle and environment and trying to arrange things in a way that is effective. About reducing stress, and effort. About working with nature and your surroundings, not against them. About making problems solutions. You can do this, regardless of where you live, regardless of your lifestyle circumstances.

First, pay attention to what you do in your life. Observe the things you normally take for granted. What are the important things to you? What items in your house do you use the most? What do you buy the most of? Now, how can you make those things rather than buy them? This can cover food, clothing, utensils. When I first started my UK veggie garden, I thought that I would like to have a wicker basket with which to place harvested vegetables in. I couldn't find one in the local shops. That was when I realised that I had a willow tree in my backyard and two hands that worked. So I looked up instructions on basket making on the internet and made a basket. Total cost to me, three hours of enjoyable time. We were looking at garden edgings yesterday and decided we'd weave some out of willow rather than buy anything.

Second: keep a diary of your observations. Do you know how many potatoes you eat in a year? How often do you buy garlic? When were your first/last frost dates? It's important to understand the size of the problem before you try to make big changes to your life. I can tell you just how much we eat of most vegetables in a year, because I try to plant to cover that consumption. But remember that your eating habits will change when faced with fresh veg and you're more likely to eat what's available.

What are your time constraints? Do you work full-time? Are you willing to dedicate one hour each day to self-sufficiency? Do you find you have some social obligation in early May every year, which may prevent you from finishing the spring planting? Do you always take a holiday in the summer school holidays, the prime summer vegetable picking time? Will you come home to giant beans and marrows? Plan your planting accordingly.

Third: make changes slowly. I can't emphasize this enough. It's all very well to plant out 200 runner bean seedlings in May, but come the height of summer when all you're doing is weeding, watering, picking and giving away a glut of beans you'll wish you hadn't. Start growing a few veg in pots, or grow one small garden bed of vegetables in the first year. Next year, or later in the summer, when that garden bed is working well, expand it. Add a few more vegetables, try new varieties. That's the fun. Although I grow a variety of vegetables always, I try to make us completely self-sufficient in one new vegetable each year, and then I maintain that self-sufficiency. Last year it was potatoes. This year it's garlic and we'll have a decent number of onions (although not enough to get us through the year). Next year we'll have more artichokes, enough onions to eat year-round, we'll be growing more grain crops and we want to grow peanuts, for fun. Think about the fertility of your soil. Compost. Mulch. Look after the soil and it will look after you.

Don't try to do too much too fast. If it becomes a chore you're not going to enjoy the experience and are less likely to be effective. How much money are you really spending on those home-grown veg? If it's not value for money, it's not sustainable. But on the other hand, don't be afraid to invest. A few hundred pounds or dollars, spent now on fruit trees and other permanant crops, will yield dividends for years and possibly decades to come.

Think about what you eat year-round. Anyone can grow most of their own veg at the height of summer. The real challenge is to have enough of a variety of vegetables year-round to keep you interested, able to eat seasonally, and not tempted to resort to the shops. Conversely, remember that there's something to be said for keeping the local economy going. There are an increasing number of people in my village who sell their gluts sporadically on tables at the end of their driveway, and I make an effort to buy from them whenever I can. If I buy enough, I may put some up to store for winter. I'll be buying cherries from a neighbour this week for just that, because I ate all of mine fresh.

This is a big one: try to plant something, harvest something and eat something out of your garden, at least once a week, every week of the year. I now try to do this every day, and manage to plant/harvest 4-5 days each week. It takes about 1/2 an hour each time.

If you don't own your property, don't let that stop you. I keep most of my fruit trees and shrubs in pots. I've had crops of cherries, blueberries, artichokes, currants, strawberries and soon plums from pot-grown plants this year: many from trees bought last year. I've grown potatoes, tomatoes, lettuce, grapes, kiwifruit, even a passionfruit in pots. Growing in pots can be a great way to start slowly, work in restricted space, and they can be moved around the garden to suit.

If you do have restricted space, think vertically. Grow climbers up walls, grow veg in hanging baskets. Plant low-growing plants around the edge of beds with taller veg. But if you take this approach, be mindful of how much sunlight your plants are getting.

Forget about the idea of wasting food. Wasting food only counts if you've bought it from a supermarket. There is no waste in a proper self-sufficient system. Are all those radishes too woody and going to seed? Feed them to the chickens, or put them in the compost. They'll increase the fertility of your soil. Or let some go to seed, and save the seed or let them self-seed. I have self-sown parsnips, parsley, amaranth and kale all over my garden. The only way waste counts is if you're throwing food away in the summer when you could be preserving it for winter and are resorting to buying your food in in winter.

Think about your consumption. Each time you want to buy something, stop to think whether you can make it for yourself. If there is a reason you can't, is this something that can be fixed? Will a little time/patience/training allow you to be able to make your own linens, baskets, garden fencing, what have you? If you can't make it right now, is there some way you can work towards being able to? Do you really need eight different types of cleaning chemicals, when you can do most cleaning with soap, bicarbonate of soda and vinegar? Do you need a plastic bag? Are you buying things for the sake of having them? I barely ever walk into a shop these days, mostly because they offer so few things I want.

There's no one answer to how to move more towards a self-sufficient lifestyle, because everyone's life is different. The best thing you can do is to pay attention to your own rates of consumption and use that as a guide to where gradual changes can be made painlessly. Little changes, made often and maintained, are what build habits and a lifestyle. It's so much more rewarding to use items you've provided for yourself.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Sustainability Mondays: the lazy edition

It was more of a social than a sustainable weekend this weekend, with a house full of people. So there's not a lot to report this week.

1. Plant Something -
  • Sowed swedes, turnips and white beetroot seeds.
  • Planted out sweet pepper plants
2. Harvest something -
  • spinach
  • broad beans
  • peas
  • onions and onion thinnings
  • garlic scapes (found a few more)
  • lettuce and salad greens
  • pak choi
  • baby carrots
  • lots and lots and lots of herbs
  • strawberries
  • the last few morello cherries
  • zucchinis
  • beetroot
  • chillies
  • eggs! I always forget to mention them. Lavender gives us roughly four each week, which is enough for the two of us.
3. Preserve something -
  • Plaited up the garlic
4. Waste Not (reducing wastage in all areas)
  • The usual things
5. Want Not (preparing for shortage situations)
  • Bought 20 more kilner jars to have them on hand when needed
  • Bought a deeply discounted hand-cranked flour mill
  • Did my tri-weekly bread baking (not with the new flour mill, which hasn't arrived yet)
  • Mr. G. filled and rotated our "emergency" jerrycan of diesel (we live some drive away from the nearest services)
6. Build Community Food Systems
  • The usual: blogging about it and talking about it obsessively to anyone who'll listen
  • Provided lots of veg gardening advice (possibly whether wanted or not) to two veggie gardening newbies
7. Eat the Food
  • Made pad thai with everything from the garden except for the rice noodles and sauces
  • made fresh salsa and poached eggs in it for brunch
  • Used some of the preserved apples from last season, and Grand-Marnier soaked dried fruit and nuts from the "to make fruit cake" stash, to make an apple and minced fruit tart. Absolutely delicious and very popular with said guests.
8. What I bought:
  • Nothing. I've bought no food at all in the past week.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

St Swithin's Day

It's something I'd never heard of before moving to the UK, but today is St Swithin's Day. Historically, the weather on St Swithin's Day will dictate what the weather will do for the following 40 days:

‘St. Swithin’s day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St. Swithin’s day if thou be fair
For forty days ‘twill rain nae mair.’

It seems there is some scientific basis to this tale: often in mid-July a weather front will sweep in and settle over the island for the following six weeks. You may remember that I was begging for rain on Monday because we've had a month of hot, dry weather. I got it yesterday. Today? It's windy and showery with long sunny spells. I've had a phone call from my village to say that it's been bucketing it down. If we get that for 40 days, colour me delighted! I've dug out all of the crops that would be affected by a wet soil already, and have a lot of plants in the ground that will be happy with low-mid-20C temps and showery weather.

My mad sowing jake has paid off hopefully, we might even see bean seedlings next week. I went down to the land last night and sowed a pile of pak choi, turnip and swede seeds and the last of the soya bean seeds as well, for autumn and winter eating. I harvested thinned baby carrots, the last of the peas, some turnips and a couple of courgettes. There are lots more coming on.

With this rain, I'd better brace myself for a courgette glut.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Sustainability Mondays: dryly

The elephant garlic was truly impressive

It's been drought-dry here lately, and we were supposed to have a big thunderstorm in the wee hours of this morning. So our whole weekend was planned around trying to take full advantage of the rain that was to come.

1. Plant Something -
  • Lots. Lots and lots.
  • Sowed the last of the bean seeds - runner beans, purple teepee, dwarf cannelini, Eva and Blauhilde climbing French beans. Sowed more kohl rabi turnips, swedes and radishes. Sowed spinach, radish and pak choi seeds in the home garden.
  • planted out soya bean seedlings and some bell peppers in the allotment and potted on purple sprouting broccoli, white cprouting broccoli and chilli plants.
  • Planted out the next lot of flower and herb seedlings into the mixed bed.
2. Harvest something -
  • spinach
  • new potatoes
  • broad beans
  • lots and lots and lots and lots! of garlic
  • shallots
  • onions and onion thinnings
  • garlic scapes (probably the last now)
  • lettuce and salad greens
  • pak choi
  • baby carrots
  • lots and lots and lots of herbs
  • strawberries
  • morello cherries (almost the last
  • zucchinis
  • artichoke
3. Preserve something -
  • Drying garlic to plait and store
  • Preserved some more lemons
4. Waste Not (reducing wastage in all areas)
  • The usual things
  • Trucked water to the allotment to keep the greenhouse plants alive
  • Prioritising eating the tofu before it hits its use-by date
  • Used the end bits of various cheeses on pizza
  • Keeping the brassicas in pots until the ground is more amenable for their reception
  • Sorted the seeds, filing the ones I've done with for the year back in the month-by-month sowing box, and pulled out the ones for sowing now. Started to think about my autumn seed order.
5. Want Not (preparing for shortage situations)
  • Started to lay in garlic and shallots for winter
  • Priced more kilner jars with intent to buy soon
  • Laid in 2 kg of wholewheat pasta while it was on special
  • Froze the left-overs of last week's curry for a future meal
  • I'm not buying much food for the store cupboard at the moment because we're not really eating much out of it.
6. Build Community Food Systems
  • The usual: blogging about it and talking about it obsessively to anyone who'll listen
7. Eat the Food
  • We were going to have broad bean and pesto pasta for dinner on Saturday night but after I'd made the pesto and shelled the beans we decided it was too late and we weren't really hungry. So I snacked on fresh broad beans dipped into fresh pesto - yum!
  • lots and lots (and lots!) of garlic: in everything.
  • pesto and the last of the garlic scapes on pizza
  • Lots of green leaves in lots of salads and on rolls
  • pak choi and other chinese greens with tofu in stir fries
  • our fruit fresh as fruit salad or with yoghurt on muesli
8. What I bought:
  • lots of fruit: pineapples, melons and grapes because they were on special and I love fruit. I've tried not to buy imported fruit but I end up buying a fruit salad in a plastic cup if I don't take some to work.
  • avocado and lemons
  • peppers because mine are still small and green
The rain? It didn't come. It's hit many parts of our region but not us. I'm really disappointed. :(

I've just looked through the list of jobs I set for myself for the weekend though, and I'm pleased that the only jobs on it I didn't do are the ones I've tactically chosen to put off so they can be done better.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Around the garden: sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.

The broadbeans standing proud.

It's officially the dryest start to the year in the UK since 1929. And I live in the dryest part of the country, so while many areas have had some rain, things are starting to get dire where we are. We put in a 1,000- litre water tank in the spring but it's not had a chance to fill past 6 inches or so. Despite being frugal I emptied the last of it last night, so we'll be tanking water down to the allotment from today on. It's going to be a very hot weekend and the tomatoes need water. I don't water the allotment garden itself, but the plants are surviving. The clay soil of the allotment has turned into concrete and I've put off all of the mid-summer sowing and planting out until I know we'll get some rain to support it.

There's a thunderstorm and a couple of inches of rain predicted for Sunday night/ Monday morning, and I'm planning to have a sowing and seedling planting frenzy over the weekend, then cross my fingers firmly for rain.

The wheat, which showed such promise all the way through winter and spring, has had several setbacks. This should have been a stirling year for wheat but we've suffered predation. The image above shows the wheat two weeks ago. It had already had some predation before that photo was taken, when one of the horses from the neighbouring field jumped the fence and had a lovely day nibbling on the tips and pulling plants out.

Last weekend, the wheat looked like this:
You can see where it's been flattened in the middle of the bed and crushed to the ground. When I looked more closely at it, I realised that the grains had been eaten individually off the stalk, in some cases leaving the chaff behind, so I suspect pigeons. Even though it wasn't quite ready I harvested what was left, to try to salvage some of the harvest. Lesson learned: we'll sow wheat again in September, and I'll net the wheat after it's flowered next spring.

It's not all bad news though. Some of the comfrey roots we planted around the edges of the allotment have come up and are doing well. There are enough. We'll divide them a bit further next spring. The plan is to have a wall of comfrey around the edge of the allotment, to keep the weeds from encroaching.

The runner beans are flowering and the french beans are coming away nicely despite the lack of water. In the foreground is a mix of borlotto, venezia and brown rice beans. The netting is to cover my green leafy veg and protect them from pigeons and rabbits.

The onions/carrots/parsnips/shallots/radishes (left-hand bed) are thriving despite the pack of water. We sowed onions, carrots and radishes together in each row as they have different lengths of growing time. I've pulled out almost all of the radish now and have started to thin the carrots where they're sown thickly and are large enough. By the time the onions are bulbing and need the space the carrots will be mostly out - and the smell of the carrots and onions confuse the respective pests of each. The right-hand bed is the potatoes, which I hilled up for the final time last weekend. I sowed those with the early spuds at the front of the bed and the later maincrops at the back. I've started to harvest the first earlies at the front of the bed. The garlic, at the back of the onion/carrot bed (where you can see the fork handle) has been the big success story of the year. I intend writing more about the garlic and the broadbean trials next week.

This weekend, I shall be:
  • Harvesting some more new potatoes
  • Sowing the leek seedlings in the space left by the harvested potatoes
  • Hoeing the autumn-sown onion bed at the "far allotment" (in a friend's backyard)
  • Bending over the onion tops so they concentrate on making bulbs rather than making flower heads
  • Picking the flower heads out of the pak choi to increase its lifespan
  • Digging out the last of the garlic at the allotment before the ground gets too moist - the garlic in the back-yard veg garden can stand to wait another week or so
  • Plaiting the garlic harvested last week and hanging to finish its drying (post to come)
  • Planting brussel sprout and cabbage seedlings in the space left by the garlic
  • Watering! Lots of watering. And giving the tomatoes their weekly feed.
  • Sowing more french, borlotti and venezia beans, as well as more spinach, chinese greens, swedes, turnips and other root veg for autumn cropping and planting out some soya bean seedlings
  • Planting some advanced aubergine, tomato and okra seedlings into grow bags
  • potting up chilli plants
  • Painting a room at the flat (Sunday afternoon when it's too hot to work outside)
  • Hopefully mowing the tall weeds on the land (job potentially delegated to Mr. G)
  • Sitting back in a deckchair in the garden at some stage with a book and a cold drink, to just enjoy it
And despite how long that list of jobs looks, I intend spending most of Saturday enjoying attending my local spinning group's meeting!

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Seasonal eating: chilli tofu, pak choi, onion flower stems and garlic scape

Do not adjust your screen, there are two plates in the above image. I'm pleased to say that all of the veg for this dinner last night came from the garden. Stir-frying is a great way to enjoy garlic scapes and onion flower stems. This is a variation on a Chinese-Singaporean dish, and serves 2-4, depending on how hungry they are!

Chilli tofu, pak choi and garlic scape

300g tofu, cut into small squares
2 tbsp groundnut oil
8 cloves garlic, finely chopped
4 thai chillies, (or 8 larger cayenne types), filely chopped
4-6 garlic scapes and/or onion flower stems, sliced on the diagonal to about 1/2"
2-3 pak choi, sliced across about 1/2" thick
the tops of 2-3 shallots (or green onions), sliced on the diagonal to about 1/2"
juice of 1 lime
1 tsp rice wine vinegar
fish sauce to taste (optional)
1 egg
2 coriander plants, roots and all, finely chopped

1 cup jasmine rice, to serve.

For the sauce:
1 cup water
5 tbsp tomato puree (or 2 pureed tomatoes)
1 tbsp hoisin sauce or black bean sauce
1 tsp dark soya sauce
1/2 tsp flour
1/2 tsp palm sugar
1/2 tsp salt

Heat the oil in a wok over a high heat and add the tofu. Fry, stirring occasionally, until the tofu crisps and browns evenly - this will take up to 20 minutes. Add a splash more oil as you go if required. Add the garlic and stir fry for 1 minute, then add the chilli, garlic ramps and onion flower stems and stir fry for 1 minute more. Add the sauce, reduce the heat to medium and simmer for 5 minutes until thickened slightly. Add the pak choi and cook for 1-2 minutes more, until wilted. Add the lime juice and rice wine vinegar, then taste for seasoning. You can add some fish sauce to add salt and savouriness at this stage if you think it is required. Crack the egg into the sauce and stir in so that it creates little strands of egg in the sauce. Remove from the heat, stir in the coriander and shallot tops, and serve with jasmine rice (see note below) and a coriander garnish.

Jasmine rice: I like to microwave my rice in a microwave rice cooker. You get great steamed rice with little mess. Put the cup of rice and 2-and-a-bit cups of water in the cooker, and put in the microwave for 10 minutes just as the tofu is crispy and you're ready to get on with the rest of the recipe. This gives it a couple of minutes to rest. The slight stickyness of the jasmine rice makes it perfect for pressing into a mould such as a coffee cup, to make a pretty rice cake to go with your meal.

An unexpected visitor

While watering the plants in the greenhouse the other night, I found this very sleepy little fellow on the ground by the water butt.

It was very sleepy indeed. I gently nudged it with a stick (obviously I didn't want my scent on it) to ensure it was alive, and all it did was shake me off and tuck its beak back under its wing. It's a juvenile green woodpecker, obviously just out of the nest.

Just look at the strength in that tail.

A quick google revealed that green woodpeckers leave the nest at about 3 weeks, and this fellow was definitely mature enough, being almost adult size. I could hear the parents being vocal (not at me, but encouraging the youngster) as I was working in the allotment, so I left it to its nap and went on my way.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Even Sustainability Mondays are getting late!

But I do have an excuse, as I spent all day yesterday in a meeting. So, without further ado as it's been a quieter week for me, this week's summary:

1. Plant Something -

  • spinach
  • transplanted some gifted sweet corn and planted out the walking stick kale, assorted chinese greens, Romanesco broccoli and the last of the winter pumpkins
  • potted on sprouting broccoli and pak choi seedlings.
2. Harvest something -
  • spinach
  • white radish
  • red breakfast radish
  • turnips (Rapa de bianca)
  • new potatoes
  • broad beans
  • peas
  • lots and lots and lots of garlic
  • shallots
  • the first onions, albeit a little early
  • onion flower stalks
  • garlic scapes
  • sorrel
  • lettuce and salad greens
  • the first thinnings of carrots
  • lots and lots and lots of herbs
  • strawberries
  • morello cherries
  • Almost - almost! the first zucchini, but decided to leave them another couple of days
3. Preserve something -
  • Nothing this week aside from drying garlic to plait and store
4. Waste Not (reducing wastage in all areas)
  • Composting kitchen waste
  • Feeding all green leaves from used veg plants to chickens
5. Want Not (preparing for shortage situations)
  • Started to lay in garlic and shallots for winter
6. Build Community Food Systems
  • Blogging about it
7. Eat the Food
  • Gently wilted spinach, onion, garlic, tomato and chilli in Huevos Motulenos for brunch on the weekend (home-grown eggs, of course)
  • broad beans, peas, new potatoes, garlic, sorrel and lots of herbs and salad greens in salad
  • Lots of green leaves in lots of salads and on rolls
  • Radish and turnips in chickpea, radish and turnip vindaloo
  • Onions in a Sri Lankan sambal
  • Caramelised garlic tart
  • pak choi and other chinese greens in stir fry and a Thai soup
Eating seasonally from the garden really makes you think about what you cook. I've always been a pretty creative cook, but you have to be even more creative when what you have for dinner involves tofu, garlic, radish and turnips! Consequently from now on, I'm going to add another category. This one will be "What I bought", and will be an admission of failure of sorts. It will include groceries that I should have grown myself, but have given in and bought, whether I haven't enough or am buying out of season. I'm hoping it will shame prompt me to think more carefully about how I plan my planting and purchasing.

8. What I bought:
  • 6 eggs from the man at the end of the street, because Lavender hasn't been laying them fast enough in the hot weather
  • figs, mushrooms, lemons and tomatoes
  • onions because I'd like to caramelise a big pile

Friday, 2 July 2010

Lavender and rosewater liqueur, part 2

After less than a week, I decided that the flowers had steeped enough, so last night I drained the liquor. What I'm left with is some very bland-looking petals (compare to previous post!) and this lovely red-brown-slightly purple tincture. The smell is wonderful. I've left the petals in the jar for now as there's still more liquor to drain out of them, and I didn't want to press them in the strainer.

So far it's a success. At worst, I have a multi-year supply of lavender-rosewater for cooking!

I really want to try a pure lavender version now. I'll have to buy another bottle of vodka.

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Steps towards lavender and rosewater liquer

A few weeks ago, while working in Cardiff for a weekend, I was tempted by a delightful-sounding cocktail which included, among other things, a lavender and rosewater liquer. I love lavender and thought it sounded like something I had to try. I did. And then had a second. The perfume of the lavender was palpable and haunting, and stayed with me for ages. So I got to thinking. I have a wall of lavender at my house. There's an entire bed of dwarf lavender lining the north side of the house and the driveway.

I also have lots of old rosebushes, courtesy of the original owner of the house. I even had a full bottle of vodka. Clearly experimentation was required.

So I cut a pile of lavender heads and popped them in a colander. Then I collected rose petals and washed the lot, checking each petal for unwanted passengers.

I put all of these into a large clip-top jar and topped with vodka. The result was stunningly pretty.

This was duly put on my sunny, west-facing kitchen window sill to sit in the sun and cure, beside its cousin with a few lemons preserving (there will be more lemons added).

Then I went to the allotment for a couple of hours. By the time I got back, the beautiful pink and purple colours of the petals had gone brown and the vodka was a deep pink colour. The alvender had fared better than the rose petals but had definitely leached colour. The pinky colour of the liquer was not the delicate purple the liquer had been (although I'm sure it was made with extracts and dyes). I let it sit for another couple of days and then opened the lid to take a sniff. And immediately reeled back!!! The scent of essential oils was overpowering. But amazing. I think this is more of a perfume at the moment, rather than something to drink. I'll probably end up diluting this in drinks or with more vodka. And I'll also probably try a pure lavender version, using significantly fewer flowers. But I'm happy with the result so far. It will be a little bit of summer, kept in my pantry.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Sustainability Sundays: the Monday edition

For a while now, Leigh has been blogging about "Independence Day Challenge", based on a concept discussed by Sharon Astyk. It's purpose is to motivate folks to start doing more for themselves and for personal independence from the commercial agribiz system to meet one's food needs. Yarninmypocket has been at it too, with her "Sustainability Sundays", and let's face it: removing myself from a reliance on multinationals for my food is what my life is all about. So I thought I ought to give it a go too. I'm far too busy enjoying living a sustainable life on Sundays to consider looking at a computer, so Monday lunchtime has to be the next best thing. There are seven areas to report in, and I think it's a great way to keep track of where I'm at. So, with no further ado, here's what I've been up to in the past week:

1. Plant Something -

  • nowhere near as much as I should have but I did get a big chunk of the weeding done.
  • spinach
  • runner beans
  • black and pinto beans
  • transplanted walking stick kale
2. Harvest something -
  • spinach
  • white radish
  • new potatoes
  • broad beans
  • peas
  • artichoke
  • clearing all the volunteer garlic out of the garden before it got too much rust
  • the first of the early garlic: early purple wight
  • shallots
  • the first onions, albeit a little early
  • onion flower stalks
  • garlic scapes
  • lettuce and salad greens
  • lots and lots and lots of herbs
  • the first of the Sungold cherry tomatoes (evidence above)
  • Note the lask of asparagus on this list. I stopped harvesting that this week, to give the crown a chance to develop leaves and regenerate. And there are plenty of other things to eat now.
3. Preserve something -
  • Made a brinjal sambal (from bought aubergines)
  • Made lavender and rose petal liquer (post to come)
  • Preserved lemons in salt
4. Waste Not (reducing wastage in all areas)
  • Composting kitchen waste
  • Feeding all green leaves from used veg plants to chickens
  • FINALLY tied up the tomato plants, thus decreasing water needs for them and improving the harvest
  • Mr. G. finished netting the veggie garden, which allowed us to move the cherry tree in there, removing losses to blackbirds.
  • Rescued some lovely old terracotta pots that were to be thrown out
  • Have been keeping the chickens at close quarters to prevent losing them to the fox
5. Want Not (preparing for shortage situations)
  • The size of land available to me for the allotment was increased
  • Laid in 3 kg of dried pinto beans which were on special
  • Bought 10 kg of various flours for breadmaking
  • Tied garlic thinnings into plaits to let them dry for winter
  • Froze some chili for later use
  • Bought some more veggie seeds to plant soon
6. Build Community Food Systems
  • Blogging about it
  • Shared some of my produce with friends
  • Gave advice on veggie gardening to allotment newbies
7. Eat the Food
  • Black bean and radish burgers (and fat-free, too!)
  • Pinto bean and radish chili
  • Fresh hummous with home-grown garlic and herbs and home-made rosemary flatbread
  • Gently wilted spinach with Huevos Rancheros for brunch on the weekend
  • artichoke and garlic scapes on pizza
  • broad beans in salad
  • Lots of green leaves in lots of salads and on rolls
  • potatoes, onions and onion flower stems in Spanish potato tortilla
  • The first peas and cherry tomatoes, straight into my mouth as I'm gardening!
  • Did my tri-weekly baking day to make bread

The summary: at the moment, we have no need to buy onions, garlic, potatoes or any green veg. The only veg we're buying now are tomatoes, avocadoes, lemons, mushrooms and peppers, and I have plans to fix that too.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Seasonal eating: linguine with garlic scape pesto, and spring greens

Garlic scapes are one of the true luxuries of early summer. They're the curly flower heads that form on hardneck garlic, and should be removed to encourage the plant to pour its goodness into the bulb rather than the flower head. They look a bit like the aliens are about to invade, but they're really pretty. They're edible, flower head and all. And they're delicious, with a spicy, peppery kick.

While wandering the garden yesterday, I also harvested the last of the asparagus heads I'll take from the crown (making I think about 8 meals we've had from that crown), and wanted to make a meal with the scapes, asparagus, mushrooms from the strawberry barrel and some early baby broad beans from the garden. The stereotypical thing to make from garlic scapes is pesto, and that seemed a great way to go.

A note on the pesto recipe: this makes enough for two meals. I used half in dinner last night, and froze the other half to savour another day.

Linguine with garlic scape pesto and spring green veg
(Serves four, takes about 20 minutes to cook)

For the pesto:
1 handful (about 100g) garlic scapes
5 tbsp pine nuts, lightly toasted
zest and juice of 1/2 lemon
5 tbsp olive oil
1 healthy pinch salt
5 tbsp (not quite 1/4 cup) grated parmesan - a great way to use the dried-out end of the cheese

For the pasta:
250 g linguine
1 tbsp olive oil
8 spears asparagus, cut into thin rounds leaving the tips uncut
1/2 cup sliced white mushrooms
1/2 cup shelled baby broad beans
12 baby plum tomatoes
1/4 cup white wine
1/4 - 1/2 cup grated parmesan

Put a large saucepan of water on to boil and make the pesto. Add the garlic scapes, pine nuts, lemon zest and juice, salt and olive oil to a blender and blend, adding water as required to allow the mixture to move. Add the parmesan and quickly blend again. Divide mixture in half and set half aside to use in another dish.

Cook the linguine according to the directions on the packet. Heat the olive oil in a large saute pan and add the asparagus, mushrooms and broad beans. Saute for 1-2 minutes then add the wine and reduce for 1-2 minutes. When the pasta is almost cooked, add the pesto and taste to adjust seasoning. Add a grinding of black pepper. Drain the pasta and toss through with 1/4 cup parmesan, stirring to coat the pasta well with the sauce. Serve with remaining parmesan on the side.

If you're pairing this with wine, make it something robust. I tried pairing it with a Voigner, which did the poor wine no favours at all.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Seasonal eating: cauliflower pakoras

This is a wonderful way to eat cauliflower, and makes a great starter for a curry meal.

1/2 large or 1 small head cauliflower, broken into bite-sized florets
1/2 cup gram (chickpea) flour
1 cup plain white flower or cassava flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking power (or 1/2 tsp each bicarbonate of soda and cream of tartar)
high-temp oil for frying, such as peanut oil

Combine the dry ingredients with 1 cup of water, and dilute to a thickish batter. Heat the oil over a medium-high heat in a wok. Test the temperature of the oil by dropping in a small amount of batter: if it cooks and turns golden within a minute, it's the right temperature. Toss the cauliflower in the batter in batches of a half-dozen or so florets at a time and add to the oil, turning when the batter turns golden. Drain on kitchen paper and serve hot.

This is also a great way to cook okra, plaintains, and purple sprouting broccoli.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

It was probably only a matter of time

It's always the one time you let something slip your mind.

We went for a walk around dusk last night, and the chickens had put themselves to bed by the time we got home. I didn't do the head count properly when I shut them in. This morning, I found a few scatterings of black feathers around the yard. I presumed a hawk had got a blackbird, and it took a few minutes for the implications to set in and for me to check the chicken run for three chickens.

Forensics indicate that the black chicken took herself to bed roosting in the hedge last night (something she tried to do from time to time) and I failed to notice. She must have been having a lovely time, wandering around having the back yard to herself this morning, when the fox passed through. Poor old girl.

I'm pragmatic about it all because the chickens are livestock rather than pets. I'm annoyed with myself for having let this happen and sad for the poor girl, but it's a lesson I already knew learned again: do a full and thorough head count to make sure the chickens are locked in, every night. It's a pity the fox had to learn that there are tasty treats in my backyard for me to do so.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Seasonal eating: tagliatelle with lemon, mushroom and herb sauce

This is a lovely fresh sauce that's a real favourite in my household in summer. Because we have the mushrooms coming out of the strawberry barrel at the moment and always have lots of fresh herbs near the kitchen door, it's an almost completely out-of-the-garden affair. Serves four generously with a side salad (in this case, of fresh baby salad leaves from the garden, carrots, radish and broad beans sauted in a little olive oil with green garlic stems). This is also fabulous with fresh pasta, but last night I was in need of a quick meal to feed some surprise guests.

Tagliatelle with lemon, mushroom and herb sauce

300 g tagliatelle or any other long pasta
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced (or use two whole baby green garlic heads, stems and all)
100 g mixed mushrooms (in this case, St George's, but try a mixture of shitake, oyster and enoki)
2 tbsp capers, preferably packed in salt
1/2 cup white wine
juice of 1 lemon (approx. 1/4-1/3 cup)
10 baby plum tomatoes, halved (this is the cheat ingredient)
30 sage leaves
30 sprigs chervil (approx) - or substitute fresh tarragon
1 small handful lemon thyme
1 small handful Italian parsley
1/4 cup parmesan shavings

Bring water to boil in a large pot and cook the tagliatelle as per directions on the packet, until almost al dente but still a little firm on the tooth. Meanwhile, pick over the herbs so that they are reduced to individual but whole leaves. Heat the olive oil in a large saute pan and add the garlic. Cook 1-2 minutes to soften and add the mushrooms. Fry for 1 minute more until they start to release their juices and add the capers, wine and lemon juice. Add the tomatoes and cook until the liquid has reduced by roughly half. Taste and adjust the seasonings - remember there will have been salt from the capers. Toss the drained pasta through the sauce until coated throughly, sprinkle the herbs and parmesan over the pasta and toss lightly to combine. Remove from the heat immediately. Garnish with a little more parmesan and a sprig or two of parsley.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Seasonal eating: onion flower stem mallung

When I went to weed the bed in shich I put my autumn-sown onion sets, I noticed that many of them had started to set flower heads. This is undesirable as it creates a rough layer in the middle of the onion and reduces their storage capacity, so they should be removed. Of course, although they're tougher than spring onions they're perfectly edible and tasty, so I decided they were the perfect candidate to turn into a mallung to accompany a curry feast.

Mallung is a Sri Lankan dish, which is used as a way for people to get their vitamin intake from green vegetables. Basically it's a well-steamed curry of any green vegetable you can think of: leeks, cabbage, broccoli, broccoli leaves, kang kung leaves, Ceylon name it. It can look a bit like slime but it tastes delicious beside curry and rice. There are often several varieties of mallung on the dinner table in Sri Lankan households. It's a method use by housewives everywhere to disguise the flavour of vegetables their children don't like (we regularly enjoy mallungs of vegetables we'd never dream of eating on their own). Recipes often include coconut milk, which I do not use. The recipe I use is quite simple, but does call for an ingredient unique to Sri Lanka called Maldive fish. This is a dried, pounded tuna-type fish which adds a savouriness. You can sometimes find it in spice stores which specialise in Sri Lankan foods. You can substitute dried shrimp for it, try adding a little splash of fish sauce or for a totally vegetarian version, just omit it altogether.

Onion flower stem mallung

1 large bunch onion flower stems, sliced finely (or any other green vegetable) - aim for about 2 cups of green matter
2 tbsp neutral-flavoured oil
1 tsp salt, or to taste
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp chilli powder
1 tsp maldive fish (optional)

Heat the oil in a large saucepan and add the sliced onion stems. Fry for 5 minutes until slightly softened, stirring occasionally. Add the spices, stir to combine, reduce the heat to low and cover to steam for 10-20 minutes, depending on how tough your vegetable is (about 10 minutes for onion flower stalks). Remove lid and stir. If there's a lot of liquid in the pot, increase heat and cook this off, stirring.

Friday, 4 June 2010

I see some light building in my future...

We were woken at 5:30 this morning to the sound of chickens flapping and shrieking in a panic. I got up and looked out the bedroom window, to spot a dog fox which had just given up trying to get into the hen house and was trotting along the back of the garden, disappearing through the hedge to the neighbour's place.

We've always known it was only a matter of time. We have some fences, but like that our boundaries look solid but are permeable: this allows us to enjoy the visitations of hedgehogs and the odd pheasant. We've always known that foxes are around but had not seen one as far into the village as we are. But we've also always locked the chickens away, telling ourselves on the nights we think we're too tired that that would be the one night the fox would visit. That was reinforced a couple of months ago, when a neighbour told us he'd seen one on the street in front of our house.

But still. Cheeky bugger. 5:30 is a good hour after sunrise at this time of year. The new henhouse has been built for a week or two now, and I suspect it's installment on concrete slabs in its final location will be brought to the top of the jobs list...probably tonight.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

The Life is Good award

We survived the mushrooms! Last night's dinner was yet another lovely spring-veg and feta tart, involving some puff pastry, two onions and a head each of green and old smoked garlic, slowly caramelised in a little olive oil with assorted herbs, asparagus from the garden, what is probably the last of the purple sprouting broccoli from the garden, leeks, and the mushrooms. I simmered all of that slowly in the caramelised onion/oil mix on the weekend, and last night I added the mushrooms to that blend, spreading it all over puff pastry rolled out to line a sandwich tray. This was topped with crumbled feta cheese, salt-cured black olives and enough beaten egg to combine it all, a sprinkle of smoked Spanish paprika, and put in a hot oven for 10 minutes to cook and set. Absolutely delicious, although it would do well with the addition of walnuts, I think.

ps: we're completely out of shop-bought garlic now, and relying entirely on what's coming out of the garden. While the early stuff still isn't quite ready, there's enough of it that we can just pull a whole immature bulb out of the ground and cut it up for dinner.

But that's not what I'm here to talk about today. This was presented to me by Yarninmypocket.

Because, is good!

Part of accepting this award is answering a few questions:

1. What would your perfect day consist of?
There are so many answers to this. At the moment we're spending so much time working in the garden or renovating that I consider a nice day spent working in the allotment followed by a nice meal to be a good day. But I'd have to say, one in which I could pursue what I were interested in. Rising when I'm ready, rather than to an alarm, a nice leisurely breakfast with an espresso on the back patio and a morning weaving, followed by an afternoon in the garden, time to cook a nice meal and relax with that, a glass of good wine and some good company. If I can throw in some nice (not too hot) weather, some form of fire (be it a BBQ, chiminea, fireplace, whatever), all the better. I'm fond of a day spent cycling and visiting pubs, too!

2. How would you describe yourself if you were an item of clothing?
Two items: jeans and a fine knit top. Relaxed, practical, comfortable, versatile, dress up or down, can be elegant or grub in, will go anywhere and do anything at a moment's notice.

3. What hobbies are you currently working on?
Growing my own food, and renovating a flat. Also knitting in the evenings. Normally I'd say something about spinning and weaving, but I've not had the leisure to touch either for months. Even cooking has become something of a matter of convenience, rather than an extravagant, gloriously time-consuming luxury!

4. Walking in the woods in wellies or barefoot on the beach?
Either are perfectly fine, so long as I'm walking. They're both outdoors!

5. Have you ever hugged or sang to a tree?
I can't say I have. I've stroked a few in my time, though.

6. Growing your own veggies or nipping to the supermarket.
Nothing can beat fresh produce straight from the ground! Supermarket offerings are a poor, poor second resort.

7. Have you found anyone exciting in your family tree?
No, nothing other than the usual family stuff. We're pretty modest types.

8. Slap up meal in a posh restaurant or fish ‘n’ chips from the wrapper?
Fish and chips would kill me, so I'll go for a good meal. I find that 'posh' restaurants tend to be overhyped though.

9. Which element do you most resonate with, Earth, Wind, Fire or Water?

10. Do you believe in fairies?

Passing it on!

Er....I tag Meg.

Of strawberry barrels and mushrooms

Last year, I purchased a replica Victorian strawberry barrel. While you can grow strawberries any number of ways and can make your own barrel, I wanted to place this beside the patio we live on in the summer months, so wanted to experiment with this one. It was a bit of a punt, because I could find few people online who had used one, and the reviews I read were mixed: a lot of people had had limited success with them. It looks quite flimsy when you assemble it, but it's robust enough when full of soil and plants (Of which it holds 36). And it's certainly pretty. I got a bit of a strawberry crop from it last year, enough to be pleased and persist. This year, the strawberry plants are happily growing away.

...but wait. What's that white thing in the bottom planter cup?

It's a mushroom! Some dedicated research shows that we may have St George's mushrooms in the planter. These are supposed to be edible and tasty, if a bit floury. I ate a tiny experimental portion of one last night, and it was tasty. And I'm still alive, so I think we'll try the bowlful I've cut from the various bits of the planter tonight.

The strawberries are coming along nicely as well. We'll have a nice decent crop from them this year. About half the strawberry crowns are Cambridge Favourite, which crop in July; the others are a random mix of patio strawberry plants and crowns from the neighbours' patch, which should extend the season nicely. On the whole, I think the planter was a good purchase in terms of space-saving. It's even better value this year, as I note that everyone is selling them for half what I paid last year. The one challenge is keeping the birds off them. The planter comes with a vertical cane to suspend a net from, but last year I discovered that the birds would just press against the net and eat the strawberries through it. So what we did was to insert short bamboo canes into the cups in the side of the planter and put tennis balls on the end of those, to hold the net away from the fruit. You can just see one of the canes and the top of a tennis ball in the top image (I've removed them to use to net another bed of bedding plants to temporarily protect it from chickens scratching). It looks a bit space-age-ish, but it works!

I also ignore the instructions that come with the planter, which tell you to only water through the central pipe. I find that it's hard to overwater these plants, so I water with a hose from the top until water runs through the bottom of the planter. Because the planter is slightly raised, the chickens love this and come running to partake of the fresh running water while it's on offer.

Speaking of chickens and keeping birds off plants, Mr. G. finished much of the chicken-proofing of the kitchen garden this past weekend, with a chicken-wire baffle around the base of the netting frame.

So now we have chicken wire around the base and thin black plastic bird netting as far as the suspended bamboo canes, to keep the blackbirds out. There's just a couple of panels of bird netting to go. I think it looks great, and don't mind stepping over the chicken wire to get into the garden at all.

This garden is currently full of a LOT of garlic and shallots (this is the time of year when you find all the plants you missed last year), broad beans and the last of the purple sprouting broccoli. Three plants of purple sprouting broccoli have supplied us with a bowlful of small heads each week: a good amount for two people. I planted out a lot of Chinese greens, spinach and salad veg a couple of weeks ago, so we'll have plenty of greens if I keep up the successional planting.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Seasonal eating: purple sprouting broccoli and feta tart

This is a nice quick meal. We were eating it within 20 minutes of walking in the door. And for two people who aren't particularly fond of broccoli, we found this delicious and very moreish.

Purple sprouting broccoli and feta tart
(For two)

1 tbsp olive oil, plus a little for greasing
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1/2 a habanero or 1 birds eye chilli, finely chopped
1 small leek (white part only), sliced
1 green garlic top (white part only), sliced
a large handful purple sprouting broccoli, head pulled off stalks (roughly 100g or 1.5 cups broccoli heads)
1/2 a tomato, roughly chopped (optional, but add whatever leftover veg you have)
1 small glug (about 3 tbsp) white wine, or water
1 large flour tortilla, or whatever else you have on hand to line a flan tin (shortcrust or puff pastry, a pastry shell, etc)
30 g Applewood smoked cheddar (optional, or just use all feta)
70 g feta cheese
4 small or 3 medium eggs
salt and pepper to taste
Spanish smoked paprika

Preheat the oven to 180C. Heat the oil over medium heat in a frypan and add the shallots, garlic and chilli, saute for a minute or two until soft. Add the rest of the vegetables and cook for another minute or two, then add the wine or water, cover and cook for two minutes until the veg are lightly steamed and the wine has cooked off. Season with a little salt and remove from the heat.

Lightly grease a flan tin with olive oil and line with the tortilla, or whatever pastry you have on hand. Turn the veggie mixture into the tortilla shell and spread around. Crumble the cheese over the veg. Beat the eggs with a little salt and pepper and pour over the filling. Sprinkle a healthy pinch of smoked paprika over and bake in the oven for 10-12 minutes, until the eggs are golden and cooked.

As it was a nice summer's evening we ate this as a light supper in the garden, with a mixed salad of leaf greens tossed with a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar. With a glass of that lovely white wine, as we'd opened the bottle!