Saturday, April 28, 2012

Wild Side

Despite living up to the moniker 'concrete jungle', most large cities have much to offer to the urban forager and foodie. In fact, urban planners, scientists and any other person with an opinion on the matter are increasingly eyeing cities as the larder of the future. The urban environment is already home to more species of plants and insects than the modern countryside: wild honeybees have become extinct in many rural areas, however, have been appearing in cities all over the world. The city where you live can also provide you with food. Today.

You just need to know where to look. Nettles are poking out their heads at this time of the year. I've always known that they were a prickly bunch, but only realised how much so when I accidentally walked through a patch bare-legged and in sandal foot... An experience I am not going forget anytime soon! Like most wild greens, nettles are highly nutritious (a great source of iron) and have potent tonic properties. I don't have a nice picture because the weather has been absolutely horrendous in London, but there is a very healthy patch of nettles in a neighbour's yard not a block away from where I live. And there is also that vast field of nettles I walked through last year, a 5 minute bus ride away. All this to say that nettles are abundant in most cities, usually free for the taking (though I would ask a neighbour's permission before helping myself to their weeds.)

However, the wild greens I want to talk about are ramps, also known as wild garlic. There are wild garlic growing in my garden in Montreal, and I know of patches all over that city, but the only place I've seen them in London was at Kew gardens. Luckily wild garlic can be bought at the market. Ramps have a pungent, yet much less persistent garlicky punch. They can be eaten raw as a toothsome garnish, or cooked like greens and served on their own. One way to enjoy it is in a spring tzatziki or raita: it'll pack a vicious wallop, but it'll be delicious.

Tzatziti is usually made with garlic and cucumber, whereas raita often omits the garlic: both sauces rely on a thick-set yoghurt to provide cooling refreshment to accompanying foods. Neither requires a recipe, but here is one to use as a guideline. I've omitted the cucumber, as the flavour would detract from the wild garlic.

Spring Tzatziki
Yields about 250mL/1 cup

250mL/1cup plain Greek-style yoghurt
5-7 leaves wild garlic
salt and pepper

Wash, and remove stalk ends from the garlic leaves. 
Chop into thin slivers crosswise.
Mix into the yoghurt, adjust seasoning.
Set aside for about 30 minutes to let flavours meld.
Serve as a dip for chips, a dressing for fish or lamb, or with nettle bajis.

Bon app'!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Green Thumbs and All

Hope springs eternal, and Spring is nothing if not about Hope. 

London being the fast-paced urban mecca that it is, real estate is at a premium, and I have to make do with a tiny balcony -well, tiny by Montreal standards, because it is positively spacious for a London flat... If it were only up to me, I'd devote the entire 4,5m² to my garden, but I have my Sweetheart to contend with (oh, and I suppose the cats want to get their two cents worth in there too...) And as much as my Honey adores my soil-mucking enthusiasm, he also likes basking in the sun from time to time. He always has the most puzzled look on his ace when he sees me returning from the flower market with yet another haul of plants.

I try to be reasonable about the plants, but any die-hard gardener will tell you: it is really difficult to think straight when there are so many plants beckoning to you. I'd like to think that I am showing an enormous amount of restraint. Not that I really have a choice: like I mentioned above, I only have a small balcony -I am still debating whether or not I should try for an allotment in a nearby community garden- so it's not like I can tear out a patch of lawn when I run out of digging space (though I would so LOVE to rip up the ugly commons ground...). I am only keeping four tomato seedlings from the dozen that I started from seed (FOUR! A DOZEN! Last year, I kept 18, and gave away at least twenty seedlings!). I've severely limited the amount of ornamentals that I can keep, allocating most of the space to pretty edibles. 

I have written regularly about my garden in the past, and I don't see why I would stop now. In an attempt to prove that anyone can grow a few bites to eat, no matter how small the space, I will be chronicling on the progress (and foibles) I am making within 4,5m² (48sq ft).

Now, if only I can figure out where to put in the strawberries I got on Sunday; the in-laws' ratte potatoes that sprouted in the cupboard; a few salad leaves; that zucchini plant... Oh, and I'll need some room for a worm composter. I wonder if I could squeeze in a rhubarb plant...

Happy gardening, and bon' app'!

Saturday, April 7, 2012

April's Fool

Ah April! You know that Spring is finally here when April comes round. No matter that the latest weather reports announce snow and sleet, April is when definite signs of springs are unmistakable: the crocuses are up; the constant hammering of rain washes away the dusty grime left behind by the melting snow; and green buds are sprouting in trees, on the ground and every other nook and cranny.

Spring has had a definite foothold in Southern England for over a month now, but I can feel it in my bones that she is also making her presence known in the rest of the Northern hemisphere. Despite April being at the tail end of the 'hunger gap', there are a few things to look forward to, even if the fields and gardens are not yet in production mode.

For those of you who have caught the sprouting bug, sprouting in a jar might be old hat -and frankly, a little blah come April- but there is an alternate way of growing sprouts at home that not only produces tastier and healthier tidbits, but will satisfy the urge to dig of any land-less gardener: sprouting in soil opens up a whole new world, as certain seeds -basil, roquette, and sunflower- do not grow well in jars. Also, while more expensive seeds, such brassicas, tend to develop little flavour in jars, soil-grown sprouts take completely new dimensions when given a few extra days of growth and sun. Peas and beans are reliable jar-sprouters, yet when grown in a pot and allowed to reach the leaf-stage, they become a welcome addition to salads as they can be eaten raw. 

Wild Things
Get out of the house! If the ground is dry enough to trample on, there will be things growing that can be picked for eating. Depending on where you live, April can have a bounty on offer to the forager: dandelion greens or flowers; nettles; wild garlic and leeks; mint and other aromatic herbs. 
You will need a guide to find what you are looking for, or a knowledgeable person to point out the edibles. In any case, you should get out of the house, air yourself out, and get a new perspective on the world around you.

Peas and Broad Beans
No, I haven't become delusional: I am very much aware that it is much too early for peas and fava beans for most of Canada, but April does conjure up images of fresh peas and favas to shell. In North America, April's peas and beans are in season in California, Texas and the Virginias; in Europe peas and broad beans travel from field in Sicily and Spain.
Keep an eye open for fresh chick peas: they are a completely different experience from the dried stuff, and are only available for a short period of time. The Canadian crop will only make a short appearance in late-August.

April is full of promises, though it often does not pan out. However, one reliable crop in April is rhubarb. Although I am an ocean away from my old garden, I know that my rhubarb plants have broken ground, and will offer up their brilliant stalks by month's end. For these alone, I would fall head over heels for April: I dream of rhubarb fools, jams, compotes, and so much more...

Bon app'!

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