Tuesday 30 August 2011

Wild Food Night - a guest post!

It was August's Wild Food Night last Wednesday, but Eddie and I were busy, errr, walking llamas!

But that's another story...

My friend and cooking buddy Dave - the one who introduced me to wild food nights in the first place and lets me drag him round woodlands picking berries and stuff - has stepped in to let you know what we missed! Here he is:

With Nome and Eddie indisposed for Wild Food Night this month, I have stepped in as a guest writer (and photographer) for the sake of the blog. So with parents in tow, celebrating a birthday, we sat down to a surprise meal, as the chef had not had time to write the menu!

For canapes we had elderberry 'hot shot' (which helped inspire our elderberry picking the next day! - Nome), crabapple and plum sorbet and a cube of hawberry jelly.  The warm elderberry was lovely - similar to a mulled wine but with a lighter, sweeter taste. The very pleasant smooth sorbet was almost mousse in texture. The hawberry jelly, as the chef put it, 'didn't quite work', and we agreed it was lacking in flavour.

Following this came a warm pigeon salad with crispy onions and a elberberry jus which was lovely.  All good size pieces and worked well together, just leave coriander out of salads please!

Spicy venison meatballs on spaghetti was the main course; not my mother's favourite as I now discover she doesn't like the texture of pasta, but we all agreed the spicy tomato sauce was a good strength - not too chilli hot, but just warm spices.

To finish, the bramble tartlet was good on my part but vanished in seconds with my parents so I think they must have enjoyed it.

All in all a good birthday dinner and we all left happy and well fed. Nome will be back next time and I will return to my blog at Dating World of Dave to continue ranting.

Thank you Dave! I'd have really liked to try the pigeon salad and the meatballs - ah well. Can't wait for next time!

Sunday 28 August 2011

Elderberry Ice Cream!

When I was a small kid, elderberry season meant accompanying my dad through a local woodland, collecting buckets of the purple berries for him to turn into wine. Of course, I never got to taste any... I haven't yet ventured into winemaking, and I don't have the kit to try now, but being in 'wild food' mode this year, and with the local elder trees heavy with berries now, I had to do something with them... And when I found this elderberry ice cream recipe online I knew it was the one!

Elderberries (click for pictures) are somewhat comparable to grapes in nutrition, but contain much more vitamin A, B and C and twice the protein, and have been used as a miracle cure for flu! However, the pips, stems and unripe berries contain a cyanide-producing chemical and should be avoided in any quantity.

We started by collecting about half a carrier bag full of bunches of berries. They're ripe when they turn purple and the bunches hang upside down. We tried not to take too many from any one tree, but took a few bunches from a lot of trees - a good guidleline is to never take more than 10% of what you find in any one place.

Washing and de-stalking the berries was a pretty tedious task. I must have found a dozen earwigs hiding in them, not to mention several spiders. A fork or clean wide-toothed comb is good for popping the berries off their bunches, but it was hard to get rid of every single bit of stalk. We decided that this didn't matter since we were going to be putting the whole lot through a seive later, but considering the cyanide thing it's probably not a good idea to cook too many into the mixture!

We simmered the berries with a little water, a tablespoon of lemon juice and a tablespoon of sugar for 45 minutes until they softened and broke down, then seived them well to get the dark, syrupy juice.

You see those marks where I've got the juice on the worktop? Yeah, they're still there, though much fainter. This stuff STAINS, people!

I tasted the syrup and added three more tablespoons of sugar until I was happy with the sweetness (although it's quite hard to make this judgement about the unfinished product, and I later wished I'd added more) and then folded it together with whipped cream and whisked egg whites. Another warning here: I had a really hard time mixing the syrup, cream and egg whites together - so much so that by the time I was done, I was sure all the air had been knocked out of the egg whites, and the resulting ice cream is much harder than it should be. I reckon it'd be a lot easier to mix the syrup and cream together first, then fold in the egg whites.

The recipe says to just chuck it in the freezer, but with my egg whites deflated that didn't sound like a good idea. I did my best to stir it vigorously every half hour (I didn't always remember...) during the first few hours of freezing to break up the ice crystals.

What a fabulous colour! The ice cream is quite tart - and quite solid - but it's pretty good for a first attempt and went down well at a barbecue last night (and we all had a good laugh at each others' purple tongues and teeth!) The flavour's somewhere between grapes and blackberries, with an unusual dark-chocolatey note that makes me want to pair it with a rich chocolate cake... Next time I'll be sure to add more sugar, and even perhaps a few drops of vanilla to combat the tartness.

Friday 26 August 2011

Loving my Lovage!

I often cite lovage as one of my favourite herbs - though I'm ashamed to admit I only use it in a very small handful of recipes, I adore the smell and it's such a pleasure to grow. But it seems to have a rather short season - before you know it it's flowering and the leaves are getting tough and stringy (probably something I could delay with some pruning, but we all know I'm not the best at keeping up with these things...)

However, as I was cutting the 8ft flower stalks down earlier this week, and lamenting the passing of the lovage until next spring, I was struck by how deliciously fragrant even the dried-out stems were, and noticed what an abundance of seeds I was just discarding into the compost...

Home they came, and now they're spread out to dry a bit more before going into a jar and onto the spice rack. A bit of internet research shows they can be used much like celery seeds (apparently, celery salt is actually made with lovage seeds, not celery!) and go well with bacon, game, pork, lamb, smoked fish and chicken, with egg dishes, cheese dishes, lentils and a whole range of veggies.

I crushed some seeds and added them to (homegrown) onion and red wine gravy last night, which we had with sausages, (homegrown) mash and (homegrown) runner beans with (homegrown!) garlic, and it was lovely!

I'm gonna have to find me some more lovage recipes...

Wednesday 24 August 2011

Summer Harvests

We've harvested our onions recently, and they're spread out to dry at home. A disappointing result, as usual, despite the fact I bought a 'giant' variety this year! There's definitely something lacking in our soil, despite the generous dressing of manure we gave it in the spring; next year I'll have to invest in some onion fertiliser.

I was also surprised that several onions suffered white rot as usual, despite the Armillatox fiasco... (On which note, I'm pleased to report that there is indeed no trace of the Armillatox in the soil now, and no smell or taste of it in the onions! However, I won't be bothering again since it doesn't stop the problem...) Perhaps I'm wrong and it's not white rot but just a few weak plants going bad, but they do seem to have all the right signs; yellowed leaves, white mould underneath, and weak or rotten roots.

Our shallots (on the right above) and garlic are harvested now too - it's a pretty good garlic crop, and there are more to come, although a few bulbs seem to have disappeared!

We've dug up our first few potatoes, and boy, was I surprised! I was pretty concerned about them because when we returned from our holiday the foliage had all died down and I hadn't seen a single flower! I guess I just wasn't paying attention...

These are Kestrel - a 'second early' variety that's particularly good for roasting, baking and mashing. They've got some pretty bad scab in places, but it's only cosmetic. We scattered some potato fertiliser from the Organic Garden Catalogue over the bed before planting and it looks like it did its job! These babies weigh up to 360g each!

Fat hen swallowed our French bean bed while we were away, but as we weeded we found a great crop of beans hiding in the jungle. We also found a surprise late handful of broad beans when we cleared the plants - I thought they were finished ages ago! I pureed them with some lemon juice and a spoonful of fat hen pesto, spread them on toast and topped them with cheese for lunch one day. Mmmmmmm.

And we're now harvesting our runner beans. The beans are setting well in this damp weather and there are hundreds of them! But somehow I don't think we'll be winning any shows with these crazy shapes...

Monday 22 August 2011

Courgette Loaf

Courgette Loaf
(makes one large loaf, or two small ones)
  • Grate 400g courgettes, unpeeled, and place on a clean towel to drain a little. You can use courgettes that are slightly past it - just don't include any overdeveloped seeds!
  • Whisk 200ml vegetable oil with 3 eggs until smooth and custardy-looking. 
  • Add 225g sugar and 2 tsps good vanilla extract and beat.
  • Mix in the courgette.
  • In a separate bowl, mix 400g flour, 2 tsps baking powder, 1 tsp allspice, 1 tsp cinnamon, 1/2 tsp nutmeg, and 1/2 tsp salt. (If you wish, add up to 100g mixed chopped nuts and/or dried fruit too.)
  • Combine the wet and dry ingredients and fold together thoroughly.
  • Pour into a greased 1kg loaf tin and bake for 95 minutes (or until a skewer or knife comes out dry) at 160C, covering the top with foil after an hour if it looks like it might get too brown. (Alternatively, divide between two smaller loaf tins and bake 60 minutes.)

A tasty, mildly spiced teatime treat which looks rather curious flecked with green! This freezes very well - a good way perhaps to store some of the courgette glut until a time of year when courgettes are long forgotten!

Friday 19 August 2011

How not to grow mangetout

The mangetout has served us well but has just about finished now and the plants are drying out and yellowing. We grew two varieties: Golden Sweet and giant Bijou, both from Real Seeds.

Though the Bijou were impressive, and beautifully sweet, they were not nearly so productive as the vigorous Golden Sweet, which also tasted great.

I allocated them a large tub to share, erected a tall, narrow wire fence held up with canes for them to climb, and sowed one variety each side. It all started well...

But as they got taller the plants on each side of the support really started competing for the light - even in full sun. They all wanted to be growing on the same side of the fence, and despite attempts to rotate them regularly, retrain them and tie them back onto their own sides, the whole thing ended up leaning over so far I had to tie it to the summer house to keep it all from falling over!

What a mess! Next time I use a narrow support like this, I will grow mangetout on the sunward side and lettuces or something on the other!

Tuesday 16 August 2011

Eight Reasons I Love My Angelle Tomatoes

1. The seeds were free, saved from supermarket tomatoes last year. Saving tomato seeds is easy - give it a try!

2. They're the number one absolute tastiest tomatoes I've ever, ever eaten.

3. They're SO productive. Check out the size of these incredible multi-branched trusses!


4. They don't mind that I'm growing them six-to-a-growbag instead of the recommended three.

5. Despite having spent two months right next to a tomato plant struggling with blight, they're staunchly resisting the disease.

6. Five metres from plant to plate. Yeah, baby.

7. Eating produce within a short time after picking means more nutritional content, and packed with vitamin C, vitamin A, calcium and the powerful antioxidant lycopene, tomatoes are great for my bones, kidneys, skin, hair, eyes, immune system, and can help defend against cancer, high cholesterol and heart disease.

8. These go for £1.99 for 250g in the shops!!

In other tomato news, I've had the first fruit from my Sub-Arctic Plenty plant. Like last year, the plant doesn't look happy at all, with curled, bluish leaves, but the fruit is fabulous and there are plenty more where it came from.

There is one small problem I'm having with the Angelle - a few are starting to split.

This is my fault - caused by irregular watering. I have to remember that I need to water them even when it pours with rain, since the rain can't get into the growbags! This is an issue with the cucumbers too, which can get bitter with uneven watering. I was heartbroken when I tasted the first two weeks ago and couldn't eat it for bitterness, but with a bit more care the bitterness is fading and I can now enjoy them!

Thursday 11 August 2011

Fat Hen Pesto

After sampling fat hen pesto at a wild food night recently, and having seen my beans and squashes completely swamped by fat hen while I was away on holiday, I thought it was time to give this a try.

Fat hen (aka goosefoot and a dozen other things) is cultivated as a crop in many countries, and is a common ingredient in a lot of Indian dishes. I think they've got the right idea - it grows fast and vigorously, is rarely bothered by pests or drought, and self-sows prolifically. It can be picked for food at any stage of its life, and the whole plant is edible. The raw leaves are slightly coarser eating than our modern tastes are used to but pleasant and mildly flavoured, and contain more iron and protein than domesticated spinach or cabbage, and more vitamin B1 and calcium than raw cabbage. Like spinach-family leaf crops and sorrel, it contains oxalic acid which shouldn't be eaten too much, but this is destroyed by cooking. If you let the seeds ripen you can get a substantial grain crop from it too - in fact fat hen is very closely related to quinoa. The fatty seeds are high in protein, vitamin A, calcium, phosphorus and potassium, apparently taste similar to buckwheat, and can be eaten whole or ground into flour.

Really makes you think about the benefits of eating natural, native foods versus the carefully bred cultivars and hybrids we buy each year and put so much blood, sweat and tears into caring for, dunnit?

Anyway... Here's the recipe. I looked at several pesto recipes then kinda made it up as I went along, and as far as I could I used good old British ingredients, instead of foreign pine nuts and olive oil, but you can easily make substitutions as you see fit. I brought home a bunch of whole fat hen plants and picked off the leaves and shoots - it doesn't hurt to use some stalk and some seeds in this, as long as the majority is leaves. It also pays to pick plants which already appear clean, as the slightly hairy leaf surface isn't very easy to wash!

Fat Hen Pesto
(approx eight servings)

Place into a food processor:
- 2 packed cups (70g) fat hen leaves
- 1/4 cup (30g) almonds
- 1/3 cup (25g) freshly grated parmesan cheese or equivalent
- 150ml rapeseed oil
- 4 cloves garlic
- 1/2 tsp coarsely ground black pepper
- 1/2 tsp sea salt.
Blend until desired consistency is reached.
Taste, and add more garlic, cheese, oil or seasoning as desired.

It's delicious - a really fresh green flavour that's as versatile as traditional basil pesto - perhaps even more so.

Store leftovers in the fridge for up to a week, with a little extra oil on the top to prevent oxidisation. If you wish to store it longer, freeze it in single portions - use an ice cube tray or dollop spoonfuls onto greaseproof paper.

We used the first of the pesto stirred into some gnocchi (use a generous tablespoon per person), with a sprinkling of chopped bacon and some extra parmesan to finish it off. What a colourful dish! And it tasted amazing.

And today for lunch I made this pesto potato salad with French beans and tomatoes - all Nome-grown! I just cooked the diced potato and chopped beans, then stirred in the pesto, halved tomatoes and a squeeze of lemon juice while the potatoes were still hot. And topped with a little parmesan and black pepper, of course. Summery (unlike the weather), healthy and delicious.

Wednesday 10 August 2011

Wild Food Night - July

Late again! July's Wild Food Night was... well, back in July - two weeks ago now. But it's time to catch up.

Canape thingies: Blackberry cordial, light and crunchy crayfish tempura with a syrupy chilli jam, and sweet and creamy fat hen pesto. Interesting... Fat hen is THE most troublesome weed on our allotment. I feel our relationship could be about to change...

Starter: Hare pate - rich and delicious - and crayfish cocktail. With some freshly picked summer leaves, of course.

Main course: Pigeon en-croute (wrapped in pastry), with horseradish potatoes, cauliflower puree and a 'ratatouille' made with yellow courgettes. I gotta say, I wasn't too keen on the pigeon, although I did like the 'woodpigeon mousse' canape a month back. It was rather tough and had an unusual flavour - my friends informed me it had some similarities to liver, which I remember hating as a child and haven't touched since. However, the vegetable sides with this dish were lovely! The horseradish potatoes were creamy with good horseradish flavour and not too much heat, and the ratatouille was bursting with the flavours of summer!

Dessert: Wild plum crumble, and matching ice cream! I'm afraid I'm not a big crumble fan - sorry, Mr Bumpkin - but I did enjoy the yogurty plum ice cream. I don't think I knew there were edible wild plums - I'll have to look them up, and check the local hedgerows!

Sadly I don't think we can attend August's wild food night - I'll have to get someone else to let me know what was on offer. Perhaps a guest post is in order...

Monday 8 August 2011

Third time lucky!

After two failed attempts last year and the year before, I have grown my first sweet peas! They are 'Cupani', supposedly the original sweet pea, brought to England in 1699 by Sicilan monk Francisco Cupani. The colours are gorgeous and they smell divine. Most importantly, the bees think so too. It's often I'll go the trouble of growing something I can't eat later, so it's nice to see my efforts have paid off this time!


I can't blog today and not point you to this article in the Guardian about a play showing at the Edinburgh Festival this month called 'Allotment', set and performed... on a real allotment! Take a look.

Saturday 6 August 2011


About a month ago Eddie and I were very happy to get a long-overdue job done: we laid a weedproof membrane over the grassy ground in our sitting area, and covered it with a couple of inches of shredded pine (which is regularly donated by the council to our site). Getting the grass down here should really help to stop it spreading to surrounding beds, and it looked so neat and tidy. And the weedproof membrane was a freebie, which made the feel-good factor even better! Weren't we proud of ourselves...


Weedproof? WEEDPROOF??

Thursday 4 August 2011

Garden Update

Okay, okay, here I am. I've been back from our holiday in Whitby a week and a half, but very busy focusing on a writing deadline, so here's a belated update on what's been going on in the garden.

I was delighted when we got home from Whitby to find the cucumbers finally appearing. After a few disastrous cucumber-growing attempts, I sought out some 'Moneta' seeds - my favourite variety, but hard to find (I finally got them from Germany!) - and they're doing me proud. I'm watering hard to try to avoid any bitterness in this hot weather, and will be picking later today...

The tomatoes are doing fabulously well and are sooo delicious. We're getting at least a good handful most days now. The leaves of the 'Hundreds and Thousands' have been yellowing and showing black spots since mid-June now. I've pruned, I've sprayed milk, I've sprayed chamomile, but now the tell-tale black patches are appearing on the stems it's clear they've got blight. I'm just glad it's taken so long to progress!

There's still no sign of damage to the fruits so I'm just gonna keep harvesting for now, hope for the best, and try to prevent it spreading to the 'Angelle' tomatoes which are looking much healthier. Last year I raved about how easy-to-keep the Angelle plants were, because they didn't put out any suckers. Well, turns out they do when they're planted at the proper time in the proper amount of properly-nutritious soil... They're growing like crazy and I can hardly keep on top of pruning! The whole lot fell over the other day, the plants got so heavy, and I had to restake them. However, despite their luxuriance, they haven't minded one bit being planted six-to-a-bag.

I'm also pleased to see the first green peppers swelling. We've got a bit of a pepper experiment going on this year, with a few different varieties, so I can't wait to see how they all do... I think this one is 'King of the North' - the same as we grew last year.

Sadly our French beans, which started off so well, are having some trouble. They're empty!

The pods are just flat and sort of limp - and going purple, which this variety does not usually do. They're still edible, but not nearly so good to eat. I can only imagine the problem is poor pollination, but I don't understand - they're only a few feet from the tomatoes, and they're obviously getting plenty of attention. Our garden is buzzing with bees and hoverflies! So what's gone wrong? Perhaps they're planted too close together and the insects just aren't finding the flowers. I wonder if there's time for a second sowing...
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