Sunday, 17 July 2011

I am on holiday.

This is the view from my window:

This is the view from the end of the road:

This is 'the gang':

And to keep things growing-related, here's some of the sea kale growing all over the cliffs here:


Wednesday, 13 July 2011

White Asparagus

You may recall I bought some white asparagus a couple of weeks back on our trip to Borough Market. White asparagus is a bit of a delicacy, and a new one to me that I'd wanted to try for ages. It's exactly the same stuff as green asparagus but grown in the dark, which produces a sweeter, milder, nuttier flavour and a rather different texture; crisp to the bite but smooth. It also tends to be thicker, and usually needs peeling to remove the woody outer skin.

White asparagus requires a much longer cooking time than green - some 10-15 minutes - but is prone to absorbing much too much water if overcooked, so you have to be careful! Some chefs recommend boiling it in water with salt and sugar and a splash of lemon juice, to concentrate the sweetness and prevent discolouration.

Some quick internet research showed that it pairs best with salty or nutty flavours. Hams or strong hard cheeses such as parmesan are common accompaniments, as are nuts, mushrooms and truffles. Handy then that I'd just invested in some truffle-infused olive oil too...

White truffles are said to go best with mushrooms, eggs and beans, so after a bit of thought I decided on a carbonara-inspired dish of spaghetti, mushrooms and the asparagus, with a seasoned cream and egg mixture stirred in at the last minute so that it cooks onto the other ingredients. Sadly it's not exactly the best-looking dish in the world, what with white asparagus, white spaghetti, white mushrooms, white parmesan and white bread...

White Asparagus Spaghetti
(serves two)
  • Cut 6-8 spears white asparagus on the diagonal into 1" lengths and boil with a little salt, a little sugar and a tablespoon of lemon juice for 10-13 minutes, until al dente but not soggy.
  • Boil 150g spaghetti in salted water.
  • Saute sliced mushrooms and a couple of crushed cloves of garlic in a generous knob of butter. 
  • Break one large egg into a cup or bowl and beat very well. Beat in an equal amount of double cream and a glug of truffle oil (optional). Season.
  • Stir cooked asparagus pieces, spaghetti and mushrooms together on the heat.
  • Remove from heat and quickly stir in the egg mixture until it is cooked.
  • Check seasoning, and serve with crusty bread.

Mmmmmm. An indulgent meal for an indulgent evening. It's rich but the flavours are delicate, and the salty parmesan certainly sets it off well. Of course, this dish would work fine with green asparagus too.

Will I be going out of my way to eat white asparagus again? Well, it's good, it's different, but I love the green stuff and I don't think this is necessarily better. Although I might be tempted to splash out again for a special occasion, at nearly twice the price I certainly won't make it a habit!

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Nome Makes Sourdough

Yep, it had to happen. It's weeks now since I stopped buying supermarket bread in favour of homemade no-knead loaves, and with all this reading about bread and experimentation (and particularly inspired by this programme on BBC4 not long ago) it was only a matter of time before I tried my hand at that so-called king of breads, sourdough.

You won't find yeast in a sourdough recipe. Instead it calls for a few tablespoons of 'starter' - a boozy-smelling home-brew of flour and water which breeds wild yeasts present in the air and the flour. This creates a bread with more complex flavour. Caring for a starter is a little like caring for a pet: you have to clean it out and feed it once a day, by transferring half the concoction to a clean bowl or jar (discarding the rest, otherwise it'll just keep getting bigger!) and adding fresh flour and water to feed the yeasty microorganisms and keep it going. Luckily it's more forgiving than most pets; if you forget to feed it once in a while it won't really mind, and you can slow it right down by keeping it in the fridge, where you won't have to feed it very often at all.

You can buy dehydrated starter and wake it up by rehydrating or you can beg some from another sourdough baker, but I decided to make my own from scratch, and followed Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's instructions here to do so. It's basically a case of whisking flour and water together, leaving it until it begins to ferment, and then feeding it regularly until it builds up its strength.

Here is my starter after the first 24 hours. I used wholemeal flour, which is why it's so dark, and if you look closely you can see lots of little bubbles have risen to the top to show that fermentation has begun. Appetising, huh?

I got into the routine after a few days, but I was a bit worried about my starter. Looking at pictures of other starters online (like this one), most seemed to be a lot bubblier than mine. Mine also kept getting a layer of liquid through the middle, with a frothy layer which sort of dried out and went crusty on top:

Apparently the liquid is called hooch and is perfectly normal - an indicator that the microorganisms have finished their meal, thank you very much - and the crust can just be stirred back in, so I had nothing to worry about. But still, my starter didn't look like others - the bubbles are tiny and few, while others look like swiss cheese right through!

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall says that the starter's consistency should be like 'thick paint', but I started to notice that in a lot of the pictures I was looking at, the starters appeared thicker than mine. So I began using a little less water each feed to thicken mine up.

Lo and behold, the bubbles got bigger and the top frothed more...


I kept thickening, just a little each day, until the spoon left a trail when I stirred, and the layers disappeared altogether so there's no hooch, and bubbles throughout. Hurrah!


Now I had much more confidence in my starter, it was time to put this baby to work!

I followed Hugh's recipe as in the link above for my first attempt. He's pretty vague on timings, but that's probably a good thing as my dough was very slow to rise.

First you make a 'sponge', by mixing a portion of the starter with some more flour and water - this basically just makes it bigger and thicker. I left this gloopy mixture overnight to rise.

Then this is mixed with more flour and a little salt, and kneaded for ten minutes until 'silky and elastic'. I don't think I've kneaded anything since home economics lessons in school... It was tricky and I reckon I added far too much extra flour as I went along to try to stop it sticking. If you put it down and leave it in the same place for more than a couple of seconds it sticks! In the end I resorted to kneading it mid-air, without the board - just stretching and folding it between my hands! Not sure it'll catch on but it seemed to work! When it was really stretchy I shaped it into a ball, oiled it all over, and left it in a bowl - covered with clingfilm to stop it drying out - to rise.

Eight hours later...

Well, I wasn't that impressed by its rising-power, but I wanted to get this loaf baked before bedtime so I pressed on.

The next stage is to 'punch down' the dough - squash it and knock it about a bit to knock the air out. Easy enough. Then I shaped the loaf into a round again, floured a bowl, and put the dough in for a second rising period, called proving. What I didn't do, and should have done, was to line the bowl with a floured cloth instead of just putting the dough straight in. Having preheated and floured my baking sheet and put a tray of boiling water in the bottom of the oven to increase humidity, I then had to wrestle the dough out of its bowl at the last minute. Not good at all for all the precious air bubbles it had been forming all afternoon - you're supposed to be gentle with it once proved!

At this stage, I pretty much thought all was lost. It hadn't doubled in size like the recipe said, it wasn't holding its shape like it should (it pretty much just oozed all over the baking tray as soon as I tipped it out of the bowl), and to make matters worse I'd noticed a bad smell in the rapeseed oil I'd used to oil it... I didn't bother slashing it and I didn't bother taking photos. In fact I was feeling pretty grumpy about it all.

But before my very eyes, it started rising in the oven... It rose and it rose and it rose! And forty minutes later...

Wow. The crust is crunchy but thin, and beautifully golden-brown. The crumb is bubbly and moist and springy. A triumph! There is just one little problem though...

I don't like the taste! I can't quite think whether I've ever eaten sourdough before, so I have little to compare it to, but it has a really vinegary hit right at the back of my mouth which I can't bear. It's not so bad toasted, but cold it's just inedible for me! (Luckily Mum likes it, so she's helping eat it.)

I got straight back online, of course, searched for 'sourdough too sour', and quickly found that it's a common problem for beginners and can be combatted. Phew! This very useful article explains that the sourness comes from a build-up of acid, which can be lowered by (a) feeding the starter more frequently (b) letting the dough rise for a shorter time - this will mean using more starter in the dough to provide more yeast (c) using a flour with a low ash content and (d) thinning the starter.


So the adventure continues...

I'm going to feed the starter three times a day for a couple of days and then try Carl Legge's sourdough method here, which involves folding the dough instead of kneading it (sounds much more my cup of tea). I might also try a higher proportion of starter in the sponge (or a higher proportion of sponge to additional flour)... can any seasoned bakers comment on the best way to do that?

In the meantime, I found myself breadless yesterday since I couldn't eat the sourdough loaf, so I had a crack at Mark Bittman's 'speedy no-knead bread' here. It uses six times the yeast but only needs to rise for four hours and prove for one, so we had bread by dinnertime after all. And what a lovely loaf! It has perhaps a little less flavour than ordinary no-knead bread, but it's so delightfully soft and light and moist and lovely that it was a struggle not to munch the whole thing down fresh from the oven.

I'll certainly be calling on this recipe again next time I need bread within an afternoon, rather than within a day.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Folk Festival Fun

We saw St Albans Festival out last week with a folk night in St Michael's village - one of the oldest parts of town. I'd tell you all about it, but it would just be a rehash of this post from last year, with less sunshine and more rain. Actually this isn't officially part of the festival - it's organised by a different group and has been an annual event since the eighties, apparently!

Let me also share with you these festival pictures taken a couple of weekends back. The Old Town Hall hosted an all-day folk event, with craft stalls and workshop sessions upstairs...

...crime-and-punishment themed folk songs in the old courtroom...

 ...and even an atmospheric singalong in the cells under the building! I'd never seen down here, so I shunned the singing to go exploring instead...


These cells - and the courtroom - were in use until 1966, and the cells have just recently been cleaned up and repaired and made safe for viewing. The courtroom is sometimes used for lectures and theatre.

There were folk performances on the streets too, and we paid a visit to the clock tower at the end of the high street just in time to watch some of them from above!

This is the view from the top, looking right along the high street to St Peter's Church:

And in the opposite direction, here's St Albans Cathedral:

Look at that view! You wouldn't believe we're just 20 minutes by train from central London, would you?

Anyway, back to gardening, and I'm pleased to report that we're now eating our outdoor tomatoes, and enjoyed the first in this improvised mackerel-on-toast lunch yesterday. I remembered to take a photo just before I scoffed the lot!

I halved the tomatoes and warmed them quickly in a pan with some chopped spring onions, a tiny bit of crushed garlic and plenty of seasoning. Then I piled spinach and watercress onto my toast, added the tomatoes, and topped with the mackerel fillets. Yum!

Friday, 8 July 2011

Taking Foraging to a Whole New Level

What's this I spied coming up through a hole in the pavement outside our local off-license? Is it...? No, it couldn't be... It is!

It looks like a pumpkin plant. It grows like a pumpkin plant. It even smells like a pumpkin plant.

The only thing not quite right are the flower buds - they look sort of spidery... Perhaps some other sort of squash.

But how... HOW???... did such a tender and nutrient-hungry plant end up growing here of all places? A spot of guerilla gardening perhaps? Someone's being very optimistic if they think it's going to last that long! However, I shall be keeping an eye on it just in case...

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Strawberry Milkshake

Strawberry Milkshake
(serves one)
  • Strawberries: 100g
  • Milk: 100ml
  • Any old vanilla ice-cream: 50g (about two scoops)
  • Whiz in a blender.

It's a really good way to use up any strawberries starting to get a bit past their best (a smoothie with elderflower cordial is great too). You can throw other fruit in there too if you want, of course. And the best news of all? It's one of your five a day!

Wednesday, 6 July 2011


This year I thought I'd have a go at growing some catmint, a type of catnip. Though other toys lose Samson's interest rather quickly these days (and he's a devil when he's bored...) he'll come back to a catnip-filled one again and again. He loves the stuff.

What I didn't really anticipate was the interest from other local felines. This pestilent moggy ate most of the plants just as they were getting to a decent size! You're not supposed to eat it, moggy! You're just supposed to rub against it!

Apparently if they eat it, it is to bruise the leaves and release the essential oils. Eating it has a sedative effect though, while smelling it has a stimulating effect.

I moved the pot to the bikeshed roof but he found it there too...

So I quickly picked the stems that remained and hung them up to dry in an airy spot out of direct sunlight. (The buds are more potent than the leaves and I'd have liked to wait for them, but if things carry on like this the plants will never get that far!) It only took about a week before they were dry enough to crumble between my fingers.

Samson has not shown any interest in the live plant - in fact when I showed it to him he just looked confused and then bit me. However, dried, crumbled, and tied into an old sock, it's a whole different matter...


I think it's safe to say that Samson agrees homegrown is best!

Of course, catnip has uses for humans as well - being a member of the mint family, it makes a slightly sedative and stomach-calming tea, and it can be used as a culinary herb (though it should be avoided by pregnant women). Some say it has great healing powers and can help when applied to cuts. It's also supposed to be a pretty good deterrent of biting insects and rodents. I must grow more! Just as soon as I figure out how to protect it from unwanted attention...

Tuesday, 5 July 2011


It's nearly time to pick our first outdoor tomatoes... Exciting!

There are still lots of discolouring leaves on the plants. Yellow ones, and ones with brown or black spots. It stopped for a bit in the very hot weather, but now it's spreading again. I have no idea what it is - I still don't think it looks like blight - so I can only cross my fingers and hope for the best...

The Hundreds and Thousands tomato plant has soooo many flowers and green fruits on it. I've counted up to eighty on a single branch!

If they all ripen at once I don't know what I'll do!

Monday, 4 July 2011


We picked our first French beans at the weekend! Beans are one of my favourite crops; they're easy to grow, productive, delicious and versatile. I especially like pairing them with tuna, and we enjoyed this lovely lot in an easy pasta dish of tuna, tinned tomates, garlic, basil, a little double cream, a sprinkle of parmesan and lots of black pepper. Lovely!

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