Sunday, 29 August 2010

Feeding a house guest

My mother-in-law was staying with us for a week this last week. It is slightly different having a house guest for a prolonged period compared to guests over for the evening. For a start, you have to tidy up properly rather than just pushing things into cupboards out of sight otherwise you're stuck for a whole week not able to open that cupboard! But also, you can't eat like a dinner party for 7 nights in a row. No one has the stamina to cook like that night after night and no one has the stomach for it either. Having said that, you know you can't just boil some pasta, grate some cheese over it and fork it into your mouth whilst watching TV... it just won't do!

So for the past 7 nights I have been cooking a variety of "nice" meals. Not overblown, show-off cookery nor reheated make-do meals. Instead, a few good quality ingredients, simply cooked. What makes that a good deal more achievable is access to the very freshest, organic fruit and vegetables, something top chefs not only prefer but often insist upon. Seasonal vegetables, picked within hours of being eaten, fruit hand picked and handled with care. Something that is worth paying a premium for and yet readily available from my allotment plot just on the other side of my garden fence.

On the menu this week, chops, gammon, fish and sausages, served with chips, mash, santed potatoes, new potatoes, baked potatoes, French beans, carrots, broccoli, sweetcorn, beetroot, tomatoes, lettuce, cucumber, courgettes, onions and fresh herbs. Perhaps the finest meal was Wednesday's when everything in the salad was homegrown.

And for dessert...? Strawberry swirl cheesecake, raspberry trifle, chocolate courgette muffins and apple & cinnamon crumble.

With a menu like that who needs to eat out?

Apple Crumble

Apple crumble is a classic bake but some versions can be overly sweet with a sickly, sticky crumble topping. This recipe retains its fruity flavours and the crumble topping is reminiscent of flapjacks.

2 lb (900 g) apples – peeled and sliced
1 oz (25g) soft light brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3 oz (85g) sultanas
2 tablespoons water
4 oz (110g) wholemeal flour
4 oz (110g) oats
4 oz (110g) light brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
3 oz (85g) butter

Place the apples, sugar, cinnamon, sultanas and water in a large pan and cook with the lid on for twenty minutes until fluffy – stir occasionally. In the meantime, preheat oven to 180°C (gas 4). In a bowl, add the flour, oats, sugar, baking powder and butter and use finger tips to rub into crumbs. Spoon the apple mix into a suitable ovenproof dish and layer the crumble mix on top. Level it off then bake in the oven for 30 minutes until golden brown. Serve with custard.

Replace the apples with fruit such as plums or rhubarb. Also try reducing the weight of apples and replacing it with blackberries.

Friday, 20 August 2010

A picking perspective

When you grow your own food there is never anything tastier than the first picking of a particular crop... the first strawberry in June, the freshest first pea, the tastiest new potato. This seems to be a combination between the build up of anticipation as we watch a crop mature, the fact that we have not tasted a homegrown version of it for almost a year and some physical reality that the first is always the freshest and juiciest of the bunch.

This is certainly the case with peas and mangetout where the first ones are truly delicious and the last ones are... well... full of fibre and definitely good for you... but somewhat lacking on the enjoyment front! Then there are other crops, such as courgettes, where the first ones, fried simply with a bit of garlic and ginger are delicious but three months later we are so sick of the sight of courgettes we quite frankly need a nine month break before tasting another one.

There is another similar phenomenon that comes with the quantity of a crop that is available. The first few raspberries are picked with care and each one enjoyed. But a few weeks later when you have been picking punnets of raspberries once every three days you find that if you accidentally drop one whilst picking you don't even bother to bend down to pick it up. Not so the few blueberries from my blueberry bush where each one was carefully placed in a bag and retrieved when dropped if necessary.

We have just been away on holiday for three weeks and we took with us some freshly picked peas and mangetout, a few French beans and 4 courgettes. These ran out during the first week away so then we had to buy vegetables. On our return, whilst my parents and Sue had become sick of the sight of courgettes and fairly fed up with French beans, we were back to first picking perspective and once again enjoying our crops as if they were the first of the year. My mum was telling me about all the raspberries they had picked whilst we were away and how many ways they had been eating them. "Oh, do you like raspberries?" asked Steve. "Used to," my dad replied, which sums it up really!

Friday, 6 August 2010

Gardening Club Party

After another successful year of running a gardening club at my daughters’ school, it was time to celebrate our successes by holding an end of year party. Once again I sent out an invitation to all 34 children who had done gardening club at some point during the year and of those about 22 were able to attend the party. The week before, my current gardeners came inside for the afternoon and we made strawberry ice-cream lollies and raspberry jellies with the fruit we had grown in the little school garden. They also sowed some cress onto cotton wool to make a quick catch crop for sandwiches, and printed garden designs onto paper party bags.

A few days before the party, I made vegetable samosas with our homegrown potatoes, shallots, broad beans and peas. And then some onion bhajis with our onions. This was something of a challenge as I don’t own a deep fat frier but I managed to do an oven baked version that turned out well, providing 12 bite sized bhajis, just perfect as a taster. Children are never big fans of onions so it was a challenge to find a way of making onions appeal to children. With the mild spices and no added chilli powder these morsels proved to be a tasty sweet and savoury snack that the child
ren enjoyed.

On the day of the party itself, I boiled some eggs and grated some cheese to go with the cress in sandwiches. I crushed some garlic, mixed it with butter and chopped parsley and spread it in between slices in two part baked baguettes to make garlic bread. We had grown some Yukon Gold, Rooster and Blue Danube potatoes in a stack of 3 old tyres. To preserve the beauty of the yellow, red and blue skins on the potatoes I simply washed them and sliced them into chunky wedges. They just needed a quick mix with some sunflower oil, salt and pepper before going into the oven for half an hour. The remaining potatoes (Rocket and Vales Emerret varieties) I boiled and served with melted butter. Finally, for anyone feeling unadventurous, I also brought along a pot of homemade raspberry jam.

So for half an hour, whilst I cooked and prepared the food with a couple of helpful parents, the children went outside with Sue and built up an appetite running around playing games in the garden. Then they came inside to tuck into their feast. I invited the headteacher down to join us and she too was impressed by the spread of food. “Isn’t it amazing what you were able to grow in the school garden,” she said as she tucked into a samosa.

“Isn’t it amazing what you can make with potatoes and onions,” I quipped back.

But let’s face it, if you are able to grow potatoes and onions you’ll never starve!

Vegetable Samosas (makes 32)

1 large potato
1 medium carrot
1 handful peas
6-8 broad bean pods
2 shallots
½ teaspoon mustard seeds
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground coriander
¼ teaspoon garam masala
250g pack filo pastry
Sunflower oil

Peel the potato and cut into small chunks. Peel the carrot and cut into small pieces. Boil the potatoes and carrots until soft. Remove broad beans from their pods then boil for about 10 minutes. Drain and cool then remove the outer skin from each bean. Peel and finely chop the shallot and fry until softened. Remove the shallots from the frying pan then add the mustard seeds and fry until they start to pop. In a bowl, combine the vegetables with the spices and salt to taste (add more spices if you prefer a stronger flavour). Preheat oven to 200°C, gas 6 and grease a large baking tray. Open the pack of filo pastry and keep it covered with Clingfilm and a tea towel to stop it drying out whilst you work.

To make a samosa, cut a sheet of filo pastry in half and brush it all over with some sunflower oil. Fold it into thirds along its longest length to make a long, thin rectangle. Place a spoonful of the filling at one end of the pastry strip then fold the end of the pastry diagonally over the filling to make a triangle shape. Then fold this over and over in a triangle shape until it reaches the other end of the pastry. Brush both sides of the parcel with sunflower oil and place on the baking tray. Cover with Clingfilm to stop it drying out whilst you make the other samosas. Cook the samosas for 15-20 minutes until lightly brown. Either serve immediately or store in an airtight container until needed then reheat for 10 minutes at 200°C, gas 6 to crisp up the pastry before serving.

Onion Bhaji-Bites (makes 12)

5 oz onions
Sunflower oil
¼ teaspoon turmeric
¼ teaspoon ground coriander
Pinch ground cumin
Pinch ground ginger

2½ oz Gram flour
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground coriander
1 generous teaspoon tomato puree
2 tablespoons water

Preheat oven to 180°C, gas 4 and grease a baking tray. Peel the onions and top and tail. Cut the onions in half then slice thinly. Fry the onions in a pan with a little oil until softened, stirring constantly. Add the turmeric, cumin, ginger and coriander to the onions and stir well before removing from the heat. Place the flour, salt, cumin and coriander in a bowl and mix well. Add the onions to the bowl and mix well until the onions are well coated. In a small cup, mix together the tomato puree and water. Add the tomato puree mixture to the flour and stir in to make a sticky mixture. Take teaspoonfuls of the mixture and form into small balls then place on the baking tray. Bake for 10-15 minutes until golden. Serve immediately or allow to cool. To reheat, place in an oven at 180°C,