Food Recipes

My idea of growing stuff to eat involves bringing only luxurious things to the table. There's nothing wrong with maincrop potatoes... it's just that I'd rather buy them than grow them. Here are some things I make with my home-grown morsels.

A gooseberry salsa…(sort-of)

 

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Blogging food recipes has become a bit of a mind-game of late, and I’m fully blaming radio 4′s brilliant comedy ‘In and Out of the Kitchen’, about a food writer, Damien Trench, who lives in Queen’s Park with his partner Anthony, and who basically wants to BE Nigel Slater. His voice, when reciting his recipes is a  completely and perfectly crafted amalgam of all the food writers whose cook-books we started taking to bed and reading for pleasure way back when; that nonchalant ‘just toss it in a large, shallow pan and anoint liberally with very best olive oil’, peppered with sentences like ‘You can, (and should) add lashings of best butter’ etc. etc…

It is only when confronted with stuff like this that I realise how derivative my writing really is, and I look back and laugh, not at what I wrote, but the way in which I wrote it…not cringing exactly, just metaphorically patting my younger self on the head, telling her she was sweet to try, but look, you have your own voice you know.

Mark Diacono is one writer who doesn’t suffer from copy-cat tendencies. His new book could only be crafted by him, and I am greedily gobbling it up. Quite apart from all the recipes, it is a treat to get inside Otter Farm, and really understand how it is laid out (there is a beautifully illustrated, useful map to show you where everything grows), and the story of how it all began.

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Once again, I have gooseberries galore, from a bush, coincidentally bought from Otter Farm a couple of years ago. We like them raw in this family – even the small baby seems to relish the tartness, but there are always loads. Last year I did this relish, which was truly scrumptious, and I recommend it to anyone, but to celebrate this year’s harvest, I made Mark’s salsa…a recipe of which he claims he is ‘indecently proud’.

Being me, I rushed the whole thing and read the ingredients of the salsa recipe and the method for the ensuing one, (for Gooseberry Sauce), directly underneath it, which begins with the always welcome words ‘Put all the ingredients into a large pan’….this I did, getting rather excited about photographing the thing in its raw state, in the pan (i.e. thinking about the BLOG, rather than the actual recipe).

 

It did look very pretty indeed, but then I realised that half the ingredients are of course, supposed to be raw (it being a salsa and all). Hey ho.

So the result is NOT Mark’s salsa at all, but a sort of half-cooked relish of sorts. The shallot is translucent rather than crisp and opaque. The lovage, mint and spring chives are a rather sludgy green rather than the emerald that they should be. The gooseberries are rather too squishy but my goodness it is bloody delicious. I’m having a hard time leaving it be until it can be paired with some smoked mackerel and a salad, like wot it tells me in the book…sorry Hunk.

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Summer relish

 Another rather late post, because your gooseberries will be gone by now, but I wanted to share the gooseberry love, and also the glory of my garden to which I have done precisely NOTHING, and which nevertheless was styling it out beauteously in June and July (see pics below)… As Maria sang, I must’ve done something good.

 

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When I was little we used to go for sunday lunch with my grandparents. I don’t remember much about these lunches, but I do recall the fact that they often merged into teatime. My grandmother had proper china tea in very thin cups that needed a silver spoon placed inside them before the tea was poured, lest the china should crack under the heat. I don’t remember milk being an option (though I’m sure it was there)…everyone, including children had weak lapsang with a slice of lemon and that was that. And then there was also something called ‘sticky bread’, a treacly, molasses-laden confection which came from the supermarket, and which we spread with butter. Memories.

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This only relates to gooseberries because I was an eater of lemons, pilfering the delicious sunshine coloured semi-circles and scoffing the juicy flesh without so much as a squint. Sour is one of my greatest pleasures, so no surprise then, that I’m a gooseberry lover. I take them and eat them neat, even early in the season. I love the hairy skin, and the fact that they burst in your mouth. I love that other people aren’t interested in them – less competition…all the more for moi.

I got my bush from Mark Diacono at Otter Farm, who sells a lovely selection of good, bare-root plants. Mine is Invicta, and it gave me an absolute bumper crop this year…too much to demolish in passing (even for me). I don’t give it any special treatment. You could grow it in a pot if you wanted, but mine is in a raised bed with a redcurrant, some roses and a bit of lavender. Picking is a prickly business that needs to be done slowly and with some care if you want to emerge unscathed. Take care…it’s worth it.

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The advice from Twitter was to make relish, from a recipe by the utterly brilliant Pam Corbin in her River Cottage Handbook ‘Preserves’. It couldn’t be simpler and, well, there’s none left.

Just heat 500g sugar with 100ml cider vinegar and 100ml water, along with some spices (Pam suggests mustard seeds, fennel, cumin, nigella and fenugreek seeds). Dissolve the sugar and set aside for a while to infuse. Then add the fruit (1kg), along with some raisins and cook gently for 20 mins until you can pop the gooseberries and the thing is thick and gloopy. Pour into sterilised jars and use within a year.

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Lavender dayzzz…

The lavender is a-buzzing.

 

This is one of life’s good things.

I have lavender in pots, but my main lavender event comes in the form of twelve L. angustifolia ‘Hidcote’ plants that edge the ends of my flower beds.

… That fuzzy softness…it needs off-setting with a tidy lawn (or better still, stone or brick).

L. angustifolia is fully hardy, and covered in deep purple, two-lipped flowers (which you can see are not out yet). The is the perfect time to harvest some stems for drying, (although do leave some for the bees – lavender being ultra-rich in nectar). To dry, just gather a handful, and tie the ends of the stems with a rubber band. Hang it in a cool dry place, upside down for a couple of weeks, and then you can make lavender bags, or get creative in the kitchen.

Here’s my lavender sugar (same concept as vanilla sugar) for which I plucked about a tablespoon of lavender buds and added them to a jar of caster sugar. I’ll leave that to infuse for a couple of weeks and then make biscuits or ice-cream, or something.

If you want to grow lavender in a container (and look how delicious it is with terracotta), choose a large pot, because you want to allow your plant to grow into a great big wafty hummock, and make it a beautiful one too, because lavender is no flash-in-the-pan plant, and then just mix up some peat-free multi-purpose with John Innes no 2 and keep it watered (though not fed).

Of course, angustifolia is not the only lavender – there is L. x intermedia (often known as English lavender), which is rather smaller, and with rather more rounded leaves, and then there is L. stoechas (or French lavender) which has those funny bunny-eared bracts, – deeply chic, but do watch out, because it is only borderline hardy, and a hard wet winter will nuke it good and proper.

 

It’s nice to sprinkle dried lavender on the floor, or on a table near a lighted candle for scented winter evenings, although with the extended winter we have just endured, I have been using Charlotte and Co’s exquisite scented candle from their collection of lovely lavender things, which took me straight to summer whenever I used it. I also have their pillow spray, to which I have become rather addicted, because I am convinced it helps me get to sleep faster, and dream about good things.

I rather long to be a person who wafts around in a silken dressing gown….perhaps this is my little piece of that…silken..ness.

But back to reality…I can’t post on lavender without sharing how I prune. This is pretty much the only plant in my garden (bar box) that I am fiercely strict with when it comes to chopping. The problem is that if you don’t do it, then you lose that gorgeous mound-thing and you pretty much have to start again with a new plant.

So…when the flowers are over  and the bees have had their fill, I cut them all off, (down to the top of the leafy bit of the bush).

Then, at the end of September I chop the whole thing down brutally to about one-third it’s original size:

…just like this. You will hate yourself, and it will feel terribly wrong, but it’s not wrong, it’s right. This way your plant will never get leggy or woody. It will always be like a soft, purple pouffe.

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Enough with the rain already!

Here are some edible flowers … eye food as much as tummy food, and an antidote to this chilly rain…

Lilac is one of my favourite velvety petal foods. Fling it in salads or on top of a cake.

…but there is also sweet cicely

 

…and forgetmenots (of which I have an embarrassment) … and if this is just too cutesy for you, then have a look at my myosotis strawberry pot over here

 

Cakes are a good way of dealing with a rainy day. These ones are from a recipe in this book. If you can cope with the fact that the lady who wrote it looks a bit scary, then it’s really rather good. These cakes are proper delicious…better than victoria sponge ones, in my humble opinion, and really easy to make. I use tiny paper cases instead of big ones, and they produce the loveliest mouthfuls ever. Reduce cooking time a bit if you’re going miniature.

 

 

 

Sweet violets for a heady concoction

The lovely thing about mothers is that they love you … whatever.

This year, mine will get this:

I used to grow all my sweet violets in pots when I only had a balcony to play with, and one of the first things I ever did when I got to my new garden was to plant them all in the ground near my apple tree.  They have thanked me for freeing them and are flowering now as if the world were about to end (I hope it’s not, because my new book is launching tomorrow)…

If you want to buy violets then go to a specialist nursery and pick your favourites. I’d suggest sticking with Viola odorata, (I love V. ‘The Czar’) because although Parma violets look oh so tempting, they don’t like frost, so need special treatment.

Violets do this funny thing to your nose: After that sensational initial hit, the scent sort of overwhelms the olfactory senses, and you can’t smell anything any more. It’s quite a feat for such a tiny little thing…and knowing you’ve only got a limited time to experience the sublime smell is all part of the charm methinks.

Anyway, I have enough now to make violet syrup, which was one of the first floral concoctions I ever tried. I used to drink it with champagne (those were the days) – as a sort of violet kir royal. Now I just lick it off a spoon with my daughter….smiling.

You need:

15-20 sweet violet blooms, stalks removed

150ml water

Granulated sugar

Method

Boil the water and add the flowers. Remove from the heat and leave to infuse for 24 hours or so. The next day, weigh your liquid and add twice that weight of sugar, heating slowly to dissolve it. Put a lid on the pan and leave it to infuse again for three days. Put it back on the heat and reduce it to a syrupy consistency. Strain and devour.

You can get a taster of my new book in You Magazine on Sunday. Very much hoping you like it…

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