cooking and eating


I’ve been rubbish at blogging. I wanted a detailed record of which poor plants I’d decided to torture with my attentions, which ones thrived despite my tender ministrations and a reminder of the monumental cock-ups never-to-be-repeated. But it’s been a bit patchy … I’m lucky enough to have  a job that I find just as engaging as growing vegetables and last year I signed up to study another degree on one of those whims that will take up another three years of my life and more money than I have.

So I think I’ll accept that I’m never going to have detailed logs of germination time and percentage success rates, to-the-ounce measurements of what was harvested and equivalent retail costings (which i can then compare to be records of time and financial inputs) and just get on with it.

Runner beans then.

When I was growing up I always thought of runner beans as tyrannical vegetables, with shrill triumphant voices.

“Pick me every day or I’ll go old and stringy and stop producing! And that would be a WASTE.”

“Ha! I’ve gone old and stringy anyway! But don’t WASTE me”

“Ha ha! But there’s still more of me that you can possibly eat. Don’t you feel guilty? Go on, give a generous armful to your neighbours who are too polite to tell you they are trying to escape the very same repressive runner regime. They’ll say thank you but nurture a secret hatred for you from this day forth.”

“Ha ha ha! And now you’ve topped me and tailed me and sliced my tough stringy flesh on the diagonal into neat 3″ pieces, what you going to do? Yeah! Boil me up until I go from vibrant- to swampy-green and see me seeping swamp-green juice on the side of your plate every day for the next three months.”

“Ha ha ha ha! Hah! Mwah ha ha!”

Maybe it’s Stockholm Syndrome, but I’ve been living in the shadow of the bean for a fortnight now and I’m getting to like it. The beans have told me they’re great, and here’s why:

1) I’ve said it before and now I’ve said it again: these are surely Jack’s magic beans. Look to the right, and tell me you don’t want to sell me your cow?

2) The first plant to grow a foot a day in the slow days before summer kicks in brings immense satisfaction. Muddy ground and bare sticks suddenly covered with relentlessly encroaching green – then covered with flowers to equal any of your purely floral jobs.

3) Forget about building bug-houses. Host your own bug-Butlins by cultivating whole stalks worth of rampant oozing blackfly. Then watch the lovely ladybirds come in with their lizardy larvae and clear up.

This picture is small because it's a bit rubbish. But you get the idea. It's an arch effort.

4) There’s a meal anytime you want it, however many you grow. Limit the number of plants (I’ve gone for just enough to cover my effort at an ‘arch’, and a few up the fence where next door’s cat likes to scrabble, just to piss it off ) to get a nice side-serving every day  and you know what:  if you don’t want them, don’t eat them.  Compost a whole plant’s worth and say you were just growing it to fix some extra nitrogen in the soil for the delicious squash growing alongside. Or give the surplus to the neighbours with the objectionable cat.

5) Fry some onion, garlic, chilli, cumin and coriander for five minutes or until you’ve finished watering/necking the first glass of wine; throw in some more cumin and garlic; maybe some chopped peppers, then however many beans you want to get rid of and a can of tomatoes (or fresh tomatoes, soon!) – and simmer until swamp green. Who cares about swamp green. It’s tasty, and I can cook this daily for at least two weeks before I decide I need a break and go pickle some.

6) You’ll miss them when they’re gone.

gooseberry The sum total of this year’s gooseberry harvest.

Magnificent, isn’t it?

Oh, hello! Fancy seeing you here.

It seems that Spring has passed this place by.

Posts were almost written (as I gazed politely at the blank bit of wall above the heads of those sitting across from me on the daily commute) but the moment passed before any were committed to the page. Days passed, weeks passed, the wind howled across the barren terrain, and dry bones rattled….

Then: a week of glorious sun – and the first tomato fruits and chillis (seems really early, anyone else got any?) have finally prompted a quick Spring recap. In between the commuting there’s been some sowing and growing, bracketed by a few out-of-town escapes going back to my roots.

Lambs are obviously crucial for Spring.

The greedy gal above is one of four sock lambs (lambs that need bottle-feeding) that my  parents have taken on. My first visit back to the ranch coincided with the time they still needed feeding four times a day. I dodged the 6am feed but loved the others – I’m fascinated by the stillness of the end latched on to the bottle with focused intent, whilst the other, tailed, end wriggles for all it’s worth. A nice feeling of natural cycles too – my father will retire from his desk-bound job soon and the lambs are part of the plan – just as when I was growing up my grandfather kept Welsh Mountain sheep in his retirement.

Welsh Mountains are beautiful hardy black sheep, with the wriggliest most engaging lambs I’ve ever seen. And good eating too, though I was blissfully unaware of this part of the equation for more years than I should admit to. It took me until a few years after the sheepskin rug arrived to finally twig… which is pretty dim (deliberately oblivious?)  for a country-bred girl.

Now I’m very aware these girls will be on the plate soon enough – and I hope I’ll tuck in consciously.

The little one in the picture looks particularly challenging for me to chew on – especially as the face she’s pulling is one I’m often caught with when concentrating. Or at least when I’m concentrating, but not concentrating on not making the face that I get teased for making when I’m concentrating…

But four weeks later, they’re a sturdy bunch, and I’m starting to ready the thyme sprigs and roast garlic. Since starting to write this I’ve also (virtually) visited Otter Farm where Mark has posted about devouring his adorable pigs. As a once-vegetarian, now occasional meat-eater,  I refer you there for a “I eat meat now, but not all meat” rationale I feel pretty okay with.

While two months have slid past in my life, a great tit has made its nest…worked tirelessly to feed its chicks…then one dawn “like that...(puff)…he was gone.”

Construction

Half a lifetime gone in a couple of visits to my own home-nest.

Meanwhile, my own garden is in pretty good nick: blooming, shooting, sprouting, blossoming and swelling with abandon. I’ll tell myself, and the next person who finds him or herself here after searching for “mouse squashed in hole” (how many of you are there out there?) about it soon.

Winter crops have been a poor show overall. I was too busy trying to keep up with the eating last summer to get much sown. Last year’s Rocket no longer keeps pace with my appetite, and the Land Cress is now concentrating its efforts on reproduction – lots of pretty yellow flowers but not much munching. A few wrinkly knobs of Jerusalem Artichoke languish in a bucket. (Already anticipating the disappointment of those why arrive here having put ‘wrinkly knobs’ in their search engine. Better say it again: wrinkly knobs).

garlic

I didn't grow this; I hit the cat with it.

The only other planting I managed last year was garlic, and I’ve been made very aware of how that’s doing. Next door’s cat heard I was a first-time garlic grower and so, for two months, popped round at three-day intervals to dig it up so that I could see how much root the bulbs were putting on – and then crapped in the hole so I didn’t overlook its assistance.

I was eventually reduced to refilling the container as I really didn’t fancy the soiled compost, and to visiting the shrine of google and asking what I should do and throwing myself on the mercy of twitter.

The answer? Christmas decorations, diverted from the compost bin. A few pine stems from a home-bodged wreath (too spiky to squat on); and the dried orange slices and chillies I’d strewn about the kitchen in a half-hearted attempt at seasonal cheer (apparently cats don’t like the smell, though as the little bastard was digging up garlic, so I’m not sure how much a part they played). And lots of bamboo skewers, sticking out at angles that would give the Health & Safety Inspector apoplexy. Now it’s got good greenery to match it’s bouffant roots, but it’s months until I can put it in a pan.

Purple sprouting But an avalanche of purple sprouting broccoli approaches and it’s all for me. He who-lives-with-me can’t eat it, so I’m looking forward to eating several tonnes over the next few weeks. My basic PSB cooking choices are: with anchovies, garlic and chilli in pasta; fried with sesame, garlic and coriander; or dipped in boiled eggs. I don’t find gluts a trial; rather I welcome them they force me to be more inventive and try new meals. So, any recommendations to expand my broccoli repertoire?

After many plantless years, I thought having a patch of mud to grow a few herbs and perhaps the odd tomato would be enough to satisfy me. Instead, the last few months have fed an apparently insatiable hunger and I’ve accumulated a list of new plants to try that would fill a rather larger outside space than the one available to me. But I have no self restraint, so have ordered them all anyway.

Here’s the first, perfect for the rather snowy winter we have in the UK at the moment: Rubus arcticus – the arctic bramble, or Nagoonberry.

At the moment there are a just a few tiny shoots in a very small pot of mud.

But this is what those little shoots promise:

It’s a pretty little plant. It only grows about 30 cm tall, with pretty pink flowers and is cold tolerant.

But never mind that. It grows BERRIES.

I will need to write an epic poem to do justice to how much I love berries. Berries are so delicious and sensual and sweet and amazing I feel like I’m having some sort of epiphany every time I eat one. Berries unhinge me.

(Normally I think I’ve got that awkwardly polite thing going pretty strong. I blame Claire and Julia. Paragons of virtue who lived over the road from me for a while as a child and always said please and thank you. Obviously that’s a good thing to do, but hearing about their goodness every day in my formative years left me feeling rather inadequate, and 20 years later their spectres haunt me in social situations. I constantly expect to be told off.

I wish I’d pulled their hair and put worms down their backs when I had the chance.)

But berries were always too nice for manners. In ‘pick your own’ fields I risked everything to meet my objective of eating more in the fields than I took home with me. Of course I was highly skilled in furtive scoffing to reduce the risk of reprimands, but I still felt like I was risking everything I held dear.

Wild strawberries obsess me: I only ever find the odd handful at one time, and when I do there’s no sharing. Just scoffing and then denial that they were ever there. I developed a good eye for spotting plants and wildlife purely to track them down and satisfy my greed.

Blackberries make me weep with joy. I know the best spots to find them and I’m not telling you where they are.

My parents built a fruit cage, and I think it was to keep me out.

If you come round for tea I will let you have the last piece of pie and finish off the bottle of wine, but I will not give you a fair portion of the fruit salad. I will also have eaten half the fruit before you turned up and will have a back up portion in the fridge to eat when you’re gone.

I’m not ashamed to say this. There’s no way you will like them as much as I do, so there’s no point wasting them on you.

The arctic bramble won’t satisfy my hunger. I will never be able to make myself sick from a harvest.*

From a little internet browsing it sounds more like my alpine strawberries: instead of a short season yielding glorious bucketfuls, it will offer up a few fruits regularly over a few months – a few tiny bursts of unearthly sweetness each day, hopefully late into the year. But that’s pretty good.

Just look at this picture. This berry is made for joy.

And here’s some more berry porn. It doesn’t normally last long enough for a photograph.

*Actually, although my mother has always told me I’ll make myself sick if I eat too many berries in one sitting it’s not true. I’ve tried, and there’s no such thing as too many berries. If you’d like to test my theory, please bring me a huge heap of berries and I will prove myself. Ideally I’d like 52 volunteers, each to bring me a huge heap of berries, with one coming round every saturday afternoon.

I’ve started  documenting the top flops of the year, so thought I should record some of the  successes too. To start, I was thrilled with my first harvest of Jerusalem artichokes.

A third of my harvest for the fridge

After a year’s extensive growing experience (ahem) here are my ten reasons to love them.

1. Good returns

The picture shows about a third of the harvest from one stem – which came to 5.5kg.  I was slightly overwhelmed by how much was there and spent lots more time than I’d thought working out how to deal with it all, but I’m not complaining.

There’s nearly two kilos distributed between the fridge and brown paper bags, to be used over the next week, and three more are in a bucket of mud outside the back door. These should last much longer, and will be easy to ‘dig’ in the cold. The rest has already been cooked up with garlic, lemon and parsley, or dehydrated in the oven in response to a sudden compulsion to make artichoke flour. With two more plants still in the ground, there should be more than enough to last two of us through to March.

2. Good returns #2

This harvest was basically free, as I grew my three plants from some (slightly mouldy) pieces I found in the bottom of my veg box at the end of last season. (Obviously not a recommended technique).  If I were buying them through the same veg-box scheme now they’d be £3.62/kg.

3. Easy to grow

So, yeah, yeah, grow your own is not ‘free’. What about the labour cost, and all the other inputs like water and compost? There’s lots to say on this argument but here it’s just irrelevant.

I threw my mouldy bits of tuber into a tiny patch of rocky mud by the back fence, and hoped. The only attention they got was five minutes to stake them when they passed eight foot.

4. Perennial

Lots of people complain about the artichoke’s amazing ability to grow from the tiniest bit of tuber left in the soil. You’ll never get rid of them. Well, boo hoo. I’m not complaining about food that does all the work itself and comes back year-after-year, just when you need it most.

The main time investment of growing this was weekly speculation on how big it had got5. Good timing

Gardening and blogging have both been put on hold for a few months while I finished some freelance work. So the chard, cavolo nero, winter radish, salad and all the other lovely things I planned to be eating over the winter remain unsown. Perfect then to have the artichoke step up to the plate (pun intended, but probably not excusable), and be willing to hang around until March.

6. Hard to find

While I can normally track some down at a market or through a veg-box scheme,  there’s certainly none available in my local shops. And even if there were, a bucket outside the back door is a much nicer way of doing the shopping.

7. Delicious

None of the above would matter much if it wasn’t also delicious.I’m still not persuaded by kohlrabi, and as much as I’d love to see their alien forms land in my garden, everything in my small space really needs to earn its keep. Jerusalem artichoke is sweet and nutty and really versatile – lovely raw, fried, boiled and mashed, roasted, or even dehydrated as I’ve just discovered.

I’ve been drying slices in my oven to grind up for flour. (I’m planning very posh papardelle. Nigel Slater has a lovely recipe with chestnut mushrooms, garlic and parsley, and as these are all good friends of the artichoke, I thought artichoke flour in the pasta would be a fine thing. Results to follow.) The side-effect of this was that I had to keep checking to see if the slices were dry yet, and in doing so found they were rather wonderful on their own. They kept all the jerusalem artichoke flavour and sweetness, and might be the perfect crisp.

8. Good for you

For all their sweetness, artichokes are low in calories. The sugar in the tuber is inulin – polysaccharides of fructose. Fructose has the same sweetness as glucose for less calories, if you’re into that sort of thing. We can’t digest it so it makes little difference to blood sugar, but bacteria in our guts can (yes, the ‘friendly’ type) so it is good if you’re concerned about keeping the little fellows happy.

Which leads to…

9. Entertainment/more for me

Some people don’t get on with this special feature of artichokes, leading to some epic farting. The bacteria give off CO2 and other gases – which has to go somewhere…

Either you can live with it and laugh at any side-effects, or you have to go without. Which means more for me.

Obviously, I never fart.

(My crisps may well be fine for all, as Harold McGee tells me that, if it is cooked at a low temperature for a long time, the inulin breaks down into shorter chains of fructose which our guts can cope with)

10. Delicious

Did I mention that already? Well here it is again, because it’s the most important thing. I’ll be making lots of soup, and finding some nice sausages so I can make Nigel’s Pork Sausages with artichokes and lemon – a lovely easy winter casserole.

Strawberries

“Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did”

Breakfast

No, I don’t normally eat my breakfast on a doily. I just got it out for the Emsworth Village Show.

harvest

Here’s some of this week’s haul. Definitely a glut for our little household. Unfortunately the picture had to be taken indoors as it’s getting dark by the time I get home from work (honestly, the tomatoes are a lovely deep red, and the beans aren’t that insipid really). Getting home late doesn’t just mean dodgy pictures – it also means very little time to actually cook and eat any of it!

The strawberries are just a day’s worth: we’re getting enough for breakfast each day and they disappear quickly. We’ve also already eaten about 500g of tomatoes, and another 500g of aubergines. More large aubergines, the first finger aubergines, runner beans and a second crop of French beans are begging to be picked, and there’s a couple of sacks of lettuce and land cress to foist onto my work colleagues tomorrow, if I can get up early enough to pick it. Feeling a little overwhelmed…

(but thrilled too)

Snail stories: chapter 347. Recently, the mollusc situation has settled down a bit. They’ve had a nibble at my beans, taken out some flowers, but nothing out of control and for the most part seem happy to confine the majority of their munching to the compost bin.

But the front of our flat is unexplored territory. Next to the path is a tiny batch of bare soil under some tatty bushes (a rose and a flowering shrub of some sort; I can’t eat them so haven’t investigated further…). There’s a drain cover tucked under there too. It’s bare, not because of the shrubs, but because this is where snails rule. Not even weeds survive. It’s ill-advised to put the rubbish out without sturdy shoes as at night the front path becomes a mollusc motorway.

But I was desperate: one of my mystery squash seeds – from a mixed pack so I don’t what variety it is until it fruits – came up late, and then quickly outgrew its tiny pot. No more space, pots or mud in the garden, so I decided to enter Snail Central. Mystery squash was planted out with some of my spare marigold plants – just before some early evening rain.

I ventured out about 11.30pm to hear a noise like a distant cement-mixer. Esther had told me that she tracked down her midnight munchers by sound more than torchlight, and now I see what she means – this really was astonishingly loud. So I followed the sound, and this is what I found…

The hordes ascend - how many can you count?

The hordes ascend - how many can you count?

Much of the plant already stripped bare. A healthy looking leaf left on the top-right, though? Not for long..

All in a night's work

All in a night's work

I will survive

I will survive

The marigolds had already gone – I’d planted 12. These pictures only show the half of it. As I shone the torch around I found more advancing from the edges of the bed, and further battalions positioned on the path.

All in, I picked over 30 snails that night.  The next night, about 18. Then ten, and when I got down to two, I knew I was winning. I also learned that snail photography and murder definitely attracts more interest from the neighbours when it is undertaken in the front garden. That stereotype about the British twitching lace curtains? It’s true, even if these days it’s Ikea blinds.

Luckily, the squash was determined. I pointed it towards the rose stem, and it has shot for the sky. I’ll have some very strange looking rose-hips next month…

The picture above shows the first delicate bloom, which looks and feels like tissue. I’m hopeful it’s a cucuzzi, or ‘Sicilian serpent’ – I think curling fruits, over a metre in length, will look lovely in the rose – and provide a good meal.

OK, so the Burgess Buttercup are pretty, just more robust than 'mystery squash'. Here, they are shown enjoying the fine weather of a British summer.

OK, so the Burgess Buttercup are pretty, just more robust than 'mystery squash'. Here, they are shown enjoying the fine weather of a British summer.

The flowers are quite unlike the bolshy, gaudy yellow, coarse flowered winter squash (Burgess buttercup) I have elsewhere. I’d normally describe it more favourably, but it’s irritated me.

I was thrilled to start with: I love the way it romped through the garden like a triffid, hooking on to pots, tables, cracks in the stone, fences and me, if I stood still for more than a minute.

Bu then it got mildewy in the weeks of damp weather that have constituted the ‘barbecue weather’ forecast for July, and I cut back the yellowing leaves to slow the spread. Long  stretches of stalk, bald except for yellowing leaf-stumps, don’t look so jungle like.

Success and failure

Success and failure

Then, despite an abundance of bees, the first ten fruits did not set. So I had to initiate some early morning sex sessions, with the aid of a paintbrush to transfer pollen manually. All round satisfaction resulted, with both the fruits I assisted now fattening – the picture on the right shows the difference between bees and brushes!

But now, the plants are producing nothing but male flowers. I hope they haven’t given up – I’m still holding out for a glut of squash that I can store for winter meals. And I’d love to save seed, following Mr H’s excellent instructions, but I need more than two fruit if I’m to bother.

burgessbud

Male burgess buttercup bud. Better looking like this than deep-fried - when it resembles like the sort of fast-food chicken products commonly sold in 'buckets.'

The next reason I resent them is really my fault, but I’m blaming the Burgess. I’ve been cooking with my male courgette flowers quite a bit – mainly adding to frittatas.  So when I had this annoying surplus of the Burgess flowers I decided to be  a bit fancy in the kitchen. I don’t normally like fiddly cooking, but I’ve seen the flowers on sale at Borough market for a pound a piece, so thought I should use them well.

So I made a herby ricotta stuffing, fiddled about picking the bitter stamens and greenfly and ten other forms of insect life out of the flowers and then fiddled about putting the stuffing into the flowers, and wrapping the fiddly ends up, then fiddled about making batter, dipping fiddly flowers in flour then batter, then deep-frying them, while also reducing some balsamic vinegar to drizzle over the finished masterpiece. It was all a bit laborious, and even providing my own pretentious chef-fy commentary didn’t remove the feeling that precious minutes of life were being forever lost to me. But then the big moment:  I presented my work of art to He-who-lives-with-me with a flourish, and he made all the right sort of admiring noises. Until he started eating, and then he went rather quiet and seemed especially focused on mopping up as much of the artistic (and sweet) balsamic drizzle as he possibly could. “This balsamic is really nice” he said, very keenly.  “Is there any more?”

If only I’d found out before all the fiddling that winter squash flowers can be incredibly bitter. Now I’m incredibly bitter, and that’s the end of fiddly-stuff for me.

Which is a shame, because I think the recipe would be very nice – with summer squash. I found it here, if you fancy fiddling – with summer squash.

More exciting brown parcels in the post! One parcel included a packet of asparagus pea seeds – something I’ve never grown before and  which was chosen to help satisfy my ravenous new-vegetable urges. The merits seem many: Very attractive (edible) flowers, don’t need much fussing, and producing lots of interesting shaped pods which (at least when eaten young) can be used like peas but with a special hint of asparagus about them. I’m also informed that the roots can be used like sweet potato, and dried ground pods were once used as a coffee substitute. Great!

No phots of Asparagus Peas yet, for obvious reasons. So here's my eggplant, with a good dozen eggs in the brood.

No phots of Asparagus Peas yet, for obvious reasons. So here's my eggplant, with a good dozen eggs in the brood.

Well, depends who you ask. Journeying through cyberspace tonight, I have been enormously entertained by the inventive and poetic descriptions of its flavour offered by its many, many haters. I select a few that pleased me for your delight, oh fellow wanderers of the ether:

  • “pencil sharpenings”
  • “palate-lacerating tasteless razor blades”
  • “vile mutant vetchy thing”
  • “spiky cardboard”
  • “Waste of garden space” – practical concerns here
  • “NOT for eating- unless you have someone you really, really do not like over for dinner”
  • “pre-digested blotting paper.”
  • “Even the hens weren’t keen” – damning indeed
  • “tasted of unpaid bills” – very evocative

Wonderful descriptions – nearly all from the Cottage Smallholder and visitors. Cottage Smallholder seems to have given a host of closet asparagus pea haters the release they’ve needed.

Call me perverse, but I think I’m even keener now.

Most commentators acknowledge they at least look nice. But the flavour? Even a seed company is hedging its bets… “a unique gourmet flavour “


And Nigel Slater, a man I have a lot of faith in,  a man who knows tasty food, (and knows that you’d prefer not to fart about with it if you don’t need to), and whose enthusiasm is a big part of his charm, dismisses them too: “they aren’t really something for the kitchen”.


I’m obviously going to ignore all this wisdom and plant them anyway, and I might ignore all the other wisdom about when to plant and try and squeeze a few in now.

I’m going to like doing so too, even if I don’t like them. But I’d love to know if there are any fans out there – or even someone that thinks they’re okay … I’m holding out some hope that maybe some of those above just didn’t pick them young enough (the name asparagus pea might also be inspired by the fact that, like asparagus, they are best eaten young and as soon as they are cooked). Wishful thinking, I know, but the fun of trying something new outweighs it all, even when certain disappointment lies ahead.

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