Sunday, 31 May 2015

A Girl And Her Greens

I was recently sent a copy of April Bloomfield's new book "A Girl And Her Greens" for review. The book is published by Canongate, and is priced at £25. Although the book was provided free of charge, all thoughts expressed in this post are my own.

April Bloomfield, although born in Birmingham, UK, is not well known here, because she lives and works in the USA. She is co-owner and executive chef at a string of upmarket restaurants in New York. For a book seemingly aimed at the American market, she writes in a very homely, down-to-earth style, only occasionally requiring some conscious translation. For instance, Bloomfield uses the name "Ramps" for what we here know as "Ramsons" (Wild Garlic), but at least she doesn't call Beetroot "Beets" or Spring Onions "Scallions"! It is also comforting to see measurements I can understand - for example in grams or teaspoons, not cups or sticks (I have never understood how you can measure butter in cups!)
As its title suggests, this book is primarily one in whose recipes the vegetables figure most prominently. The recipes are not vegetarian, still less vegan (e.g. some include bacon or anchovies, and many include eggs), but the vegetables are definitely the stars. The book is lavishly illustrated with photos and drawings which certainly enhance my ability to envisage the finished dishes. Like this for instance, a dish of Cannelloni with Swiss Chard:
Of course if you are interested in the vegetables for their own sake, there are also lots of illustrations of the main ingredients:
The book has recipes of many different natures, some quite complex, but mainly simple enough for the home cook to follow and not too "cheffy". As well as vegetable-based Main Courses and side dishes, there are some very interesting sections on making "basic" things like chicken stock, tomato sauce, and Salad Cream, plus lots of pickles such as the very Italian-American Giardiniera, Korean-style Kimchi and the archetypical British Piccalilli. Even a very trendy Kale puree and a Carrot-top pesto. If you like vegetables at all you cannot fail to find a recipe to inspire you!
April Bloomfield's way of introducing the recipes is also nice. She often includes an anecdote from her past (for instance telling us that her school dinners were "rubbish except for the buttery boiled potatoes"!), followed by a few sentences to help you appreciate the flavour / texture / look of the dish you are going to prepare. Leafing through the book deciding what to make first I lit upon this: (read the text under the title...)

I could certainly envisage this one!

I made this soup as a lunch-time meal on a cold, wet miserable day, and it really did help to warm me and cheer me up. For obvious reasons I'll not give the recipe here, but I'll just show you the ingredients - mainly potatoes, onions and lots of garlic, with some fresh Parsley to tone it down a bit. April's recipe calls for a big handful of Parsley, but my garden is full of the stuff at present, so I used perhaps a little more than a handful...

I halved all the other ingredients (the one in the book serves 6 - 8) and followed the recipe, which worked really well in terms of texture -  smooth and velvety - but it was far too salty for our liking. The recipe calls for 3 tablespoons of sea salt to 1.5kg of potatoes (both of which I halved of course), but I can't help thinking that perhaps it should say 3 teaspoons. The Garlic and Parsley garnish added at the end was a stroke of genius though, working in the same way as adding a tarka to a dish of otherwise fairly bland dhal. Delicious! 
This books suits my style perfectly. My claim is to be "bridging the gap between Foodies and Gardeners", and this book fits the concept exactly. I can see it being used frequently as a source of inspiration, but I shall scrutinise the recipes very closely before I follow them!

Buckwheat pancakes with curried cauliflower

It's a while since I did a food post, because at this time of year the gardening stuff takes top priority. However, I am still cooking occasionally, so see what you make of this recipe. If I had been confident enough to do so, I would have made Dosas instead of Buckwheat Pancakes, but on this occasion I took the easy option!

Buckwheat pancakes with curried cauliflower, potato, peas and mint, served with yellow dhal.

Ingredients (serves 2)

Pancakes (makes 4)
60g Buckwheat flour
30g plain flour
120ml milk
120ml water
1 egg
Approx 25g butter
Pinch of salt

Curried veg
2 medium potatoes, skin on, diced
1/4 cauliflower, cut into small florets)
200g fresh peas, shelled
Handful of fresh Mint leaves, chopped
Two large Spring Onions, sliced
1 Tsp curry powder (Adjust to taste. I used Jane's home-made one)
1 Tsp Garam Masala (Again, adjust to taste. I used Jane's home-made one)
1 Tbsp vegetable oil

100g lentils (preferably Toor, or yellow urad), washed and soaked for 8 hours
500ml water
1 Tbsp vegetable oil
Half an onion, thinly sliced
Spices to taste -I used home-made curry powder, Garam Masala, Fenugreek, Black Poppyseed, and Cumin
1 large dried red chilli
Salt to taste

Cook the Dhal first. This can be done in advance, cooled and then reheated.
Put the lentils into a pan with the water and the chilli, bring to the boil and simmer until very tender - approx. 40 minutes. The water should all be absorbed. Add more water if required, to achieve a very creamy consistency.
Remove and discard the chilli.
Stir in the powdered spices while the dhal is still hot, to allow them to infuse.
Meanwhile, fry the onion very slowly until dark brown, but not burnt.
Add the onions to the dhal and stir well.
Briefly fry the whole spices in the pan in which the onions were cooked, at a high heat, until they "crackle", then stir them into the dhal.
Add salt to taste.
Set aside to cool, and reheat later when required.

Make the pancake batter.
Put the flours into a bowl, with the salt.
Put the milk, water and egg into a jug and whisk until emulsified.
Add the liquid to the bowl and use a wooden spoon to mix it with the flour. The aim is to get a smooth liquid with no lumps. It is supposed to have the consistency of Single (pouring) Cream.
Cover and set aside until required. [Allow it to rest for at least 30 minutes.]

Cook the Curried vegetables.
Boil the potato and cauliflower in some salted water, until just tender. Drain and set aside.
Rinse out the saucepan and refill with water. Bring it to the boil, add the peas and cook them briefly until tender - just a couple of minutes. Drain and set aside.
About 15 mins before you plan to make the pancakes...
Heat the oil in a frying-pan, and add the curry powder and Garam Masala to make a paste.
Add the cooked vegetables and the sliced Spring Onions, stirring gently but thoroughly to coat everything with the paste.
Cook until the potatoes are just going brown at the edges.
Stir in the chopped Mint right at the end of the cooking time.

Cook the pancakes
[Reheat the dhal gently now, and make sure the curried veg is nearly ready.]
Melt about half of the butter in the pan in which you are going to cook the pancakes. Pour it into the pancake batter, and stir it in.
Use a small knob of butter each time, melted in the pan, before adding the batter mix.
Heat the buttered pan again, and add about a quarter of the batter, swirling it around the pan to make a thin even layer.
Cook for about two minutes, until the edges are turning brown
Use a spatula to flip the pancake and cook the other side
When done, place the pancake on a plate and keep it warm, while you make the other pancakes.

To serve
Place two pancakes per person on dinner plates, and fill each of them with a suitable quantity of the curried veg, placing the veg on half of the pancake only.

Fold over the other half of the pancake and spoon some dhal over it. Repeat until all four are done.

Eat immediately!

Saturday, 30 May 2015

Chilli update

So far this has been my worst year in about a decade for growing chillis. My plants have suffered big problems with aphid infestations, and the prolonged dull, cold and windy weather has held them back a lot. Recently, since going out into the plastic greenhouses, they have also been the subject of slug attacks, and I have had to deploy the blue slug-pellets. Even the two plants that successfully made it through the Winter have now dropped the majority of their leaves. The best I can say is that (mostly) they are just about hanging on. Surviving, Yes; thriving, No.

Over the Bank Holiday weekend I moved some of the bigger ones out into the open. I thought that a bit of buffeting by the wind might persuade them to toughen-up. I know that lots of people who grow chillis indoors use electric fans for the same purpose.

As you can see, none of them are impressive specimens - and these are the best ones!

At least one or two of them are finally producing a few flowers. This one is "Bolivian Rainbow".

This spindly affair is "Cayenne", which currently looks like being the first one to set fruit this year.

Although many of the plants have lost a lot of their first flush of leaves, it is comforting to see that more little shoots have appeared along the stems, at the places where the leaves formerly were. This one is "Caribbean Antillais". You can see that I have still not managed to eliminate the aphids!

The only grain of consolation in all this is that many of my correspondents on Twitter / Facebook / Blogger, etc report similar problems. Last weekend at the Fleet Food Festival there was a stall selling chilli plants, and to be honest they were little better than my ones - and in most cases a lot smaller too. What we need is a period of warmth and sunshine. That would sort things out...

Friday, 29 May 2015

Fleet Food Festival

The second-ever Fleet Food Festival took place on Sunday 24th May. Since it was billed as "The biggest food festival in North-East Hampshire" (just how many food festivals ARE there in NE Hants??) our expectations were not high! But you know we are Foodies, and we just HAD to go and have a look. I'm glad we did, because our expectations were surpassed by a long way.

The Festival was held on The Views, which is a piece of public land next to the Council offices, which is used for things like hosting the travelling funfair and the November 5th fireworks. Admission was a very modest £1.

Here we are, look: that's our Council offices in the background, and a general view of The Views.

Since we live pretty close to the centre of town we went early, and it's a good job we did. Half an hour later and all the car-parks would have been full. There were thousands of people there! [Attendance was about 8000, I understand]. It was particularly gratifying to see how many families with young children were there. In my opinion, kids should be educated about real food, from the earliest age.

The festival is a mixture of several different food-related things. There were (free) talks and demonstrations, stalls selling food and drink to consume there and then; stalls selling food and drink to take away; even a band to keep the punters entertained. Some of the visitors looked as if they meant to stay all day, having brought folding seats, picnic rugs, cold-boxes etc. And why not? The weather, although not great, was much better than had been forecast.

At the end of the day, this is what a festival like this is all about - putting people in touch with good food and drink, and traders making money (see photo below).

I read recently that consumption of the British sliced white loaf is in serious decline (e.g. Greggs the bakers stopping selling loaves!). This is because Brits have finally realised that it is rubbish and are turning in droves to the so-called "artisan" bread. In other words, bread that sells for £3.50 a loaf, not 89p. Like this...

The continental breads were well represented. This is Focaccia. Looks nice too!

 These are slices of Tomato pastry tart (foreground) and a type of Pissaladiere [onion tart with olive and anchovy] (background).

There were lots of stalls like this (yawn!). This one is selling fruit jams and conserves etc. I'm sure many of the products are very nice, but I'm aware that things like this often seem delicious when you try a mouthful at a show, but less attractive when you get them home.

This one is selling chutneys and pickles. Ditto. The packaging on this product line is a bit too minimalist, I think.

This stall was one that particularly attracted out attention. The Cold Pressed Oil Company, based in Crondall, about 5 miles from Fleet. Their products are mostly based on Rapeseed oil, and very delicious and healthy they are too.

We tried their new products - oil flavoured with Chilli, with Rosemary and Garlic; and Lemongrass and Thyme. We thought them all nice, but the Lemongrass and Thyme one was sensational. A couple of bottles of it came home with us.

This is the stall of Pepperpot Herbs, based in Tilford, near Farnham - again just a few miles from Fleet. I sometimes correspond with the proprietor(s) on Twitter, but this was the first time I had seen their products for real. I was very impressed with the quality of their plants - so much better than what you find in most Garden Centres! As well as herbs, they also sell flowering plants that have herbal / medicinal properties. I was seriously tempted, but my garden is already packed with herbs.

Representing the "Food to consume immediately" category, how about this magnificent Paella?

I didn't take any photos of the numerous stalls selling buns filled with burgers, steaks, sausages etc (I'm sure you know what a burger looks like), although I will admit that they were a cut above the average (venison burgers, for instance). I wish now that I had taken a picture of the stall selling traditional Nepalese curry ("Bhat"), just for old times' sake - and in current circumstances to show solidarity with the people of Nepal who suffered so much at the hands of those earthquakes a couple of weeks ago. It would also have demonstrated quite nicely how long the queues for food were!

We were actually in the market for some meat, and eventually settled on some diced beef, with which to make a curry. We bought 3 of these 1lb packs for £10. For good quality pasture-fed beef, that is a darned good price. It's what you would pay for "ordinary" beef at a supermarket, whose provenance is unknown - and the less said about the ethics of its rearing and slaughter, the better! Ours came from The Traditional Beef Company, based in Farley, near Salisbury, Wiltshire.

This is another product that persuaded us to fork out some cash - a beautiful and very tasty salami made at Parsonage Farm, part of the Hampshire Charcuterie alliance. The one we bought is flavoured with Garlic and Fennel (it has a very Italian flavour!), but they make several others too. Actually it reminded us very much of the preserved meats we have bought in Ferney market, France, when visiting out daughter Fiona.

The "Star of the Show" award however goes to Twisted Nose, makers of small-batch premium Gin, Vodka and Vermouth. One of their products is Watercress-infused Gin - a VERY Hampshire product! The business is based in Old Alresford, a village about 20 miles from Fleet, which got a mention in a post I wrote the other day about a trip to Old Winchester Hill. On their stand they had the most amazing (and covetable!) portable Cocktail Cabinet, holding all the paraphernalia you would need to make a very special G-and-T...(except perhaps the Butler).

Regrettably, their Gin, whilst being very lovely, is also very expensive, so a bottle of it did NOT come home with us.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Caring for your bulbs

Some people buy new bulbs every year, but if you look after them properly, bulbs can last for many years. I have some bulbs which I would particularly like to last for a long time. They are the "Soleil d'Or" Daffodils which I bought in the Isles of Scilly two years ago. They remind me of my family roots - my father was born in Hughtown, St.Mary's.

The first year I grew them, the Soleils d'Or put on a great display, but this year one or two of them did not flower. They produced plenty of leaves but no flowers, a condition known as "blindness". Researching this I found that I had not been treating the bulbs properly after flowering.
When bulbs have finished flowering, there is always that temptation to just cut them down and move onto something else. In my case, the pot in which they have been grown would just get hidden away down the side of the house, where I keep my bags of compost and any stuff that is awaiting disposal. Once this happens, I would forget about the pot altogether and never give it any further care. Is it any wonder that the bulbs did not repay me with another year of good flowers?

THIS, however is Best Practice:-
1. Remove the old flower-heads, and do not let them set seed. Setting seed reduces the vigour of the parent plant.
2. Do not cut off or (worse) tie in knots, the leaves. Let them die down naturally, returning their energy to the bulb.
3. Feed the bulbs a couple of times with a general-purpose fertiliser.
4. Keep the bulbs moist (i.e. water the pots) until the foliage has died down.
5. When the foliage has all gone dry and brown, lift the bulbs, clean them off, and store them somewhere dry, cool and dark until ready to plant them again. (Protect from mice!)

I shall be following this advice myself this year, so I look forward to seeing the results next Spring.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Some colour for a change

I usually write mostly about vegetables, many of which are not particularly colourful (Yes, I know there are some exceptions!), but today I want to show off some flowers.

This is Tulip "Ronaldo", one of the three types in that "Perfect for Pots" collection from Sarah Raven.

As it has matured the colour has become darker. It is now a really deep shade of purple.

I was determined to get a photo of the inside of this flower, even though the breeze made it difficult. I used a tripod for the camera, and held the stem of the Tulip with one hand while I clicked the shutter with the other!

Did you spot the aphid?

This is Geum "Mrs Bradshaw":

I had never had a Geum before, so I wasn't really sure what to expect. Its stems have grown really tall, and it looks as if each one is going to have several blooms on it.

In its shady corner, the Wild Garlic is flowering now. Such delicate flowers, considering how powerful is the taste of the leaves!

This is an Aquilegia, grown from seeds given to me by blogging friend David Ford.

This Aquilegia is a particularly nice one, not only because of the fabulous colour, but also because the flowers point upwards rather than the usual downwards, so you can see them much better.

This is Libertia. Not so many flowers this year, for some reason, but individually nice nonetheless.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Growth time!

I think May counts as Late Spring, and Late Spring is when perennial plants put on lots of new growth. In this post I want to show you how this is happening in my garden.

This is the first thing I want to show off - Rhubarb. Last Autumn I moved my Rhubarb crowns into a big tub, which I filled with lots of rich composted stable manure. The plants have loved this, and have responded by putting up some enormous leaves:

I'm almost regretting my decision to refrain from picking any Rhubarb this year (letting the plants settle-in and regain their strength). They just keep putting up new leaves:

The Dogwoods which I pruned so severely a few weeks ago are responding well too - lots of fresh young shoots on all the plants, such as this Cornus Alba "Aureum".

And on this  Cornus Sericea "Cardinal"

Last year my Clematis produced a grand total of three flowers. I didn't prune it, and this year it has done much better. I know that you need to treat the various types of Clematis differently, but I don't know what type this one is (it was an un-named "freebie" from a magazine). Presumably it is one that doesn't like pruning!

My Blueberry bushes got a hard pruning last year, having become very straggly. They too are now putting on lots of new growth - which is of course what you expect when you prune hard. I don't think I will get much fruit this year, and the beneficial effects will only be felt next year. However, there will definitely be some berries:

My little patch of ferns is looking good too. I have five plants now. Every Autumn I cut off all the dead fronds, and every Spring a new lot grows back.

This one has made a circular "crown of fronds":

Look at the difference in this Purple Sage plant. This is it on March 7th (after severe pruning, you'll notice)

And this is the same plant on 20th May:

A big difference, I think you'll agree!  With June beginning next week, I'm hopeful that we will soon see the advent of some proper "Summer" weather, and then the plants should really take off.