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.