Saturday, May 25, 2013

They Grow Up So Fast!

It was a slow start, but the seedlings are growing up! They will -finally- be planted out this week.

The tomatoes are now the picture of health.

The ladybirds are out hard at work eating up all the aphids.

And the strawberries are setting fruit beautifully. 

I've gone a little haywire this year, planting far too many strawberries than I actually have room to grow... but how can I resist? Home-grown berries are so much more flavourful than store-bought.

Bon app' little ladies, happy gardening!

Friday, May 24, 2013

Bubbles and Squeaks

If the kale salad has left you feeling a little more virtuous than you're comfortable with, then this is the recipe for you... Bubblde and Squeak is a typically English dish that is near and dear to my heart: my mum often made it on busy weekdays, though back then I doubt we knew the dish's proper name. It's basically a fry-up of mashed potatoes and some greens, most often cabbage or Brussels sprouts: the fat would bubble and the greens would squeak. Tradition would have it that any left-over veg from Sunday dinner would get tossed into the pan, but any veg can join the party. My mum would sometimes mix in some eggs at the end to up the nutrition factor.

While this dish is very much a cold weather comfort food, there is no reason why the emerging spring harvest cannot sneak its way into this old favourite. Spring greens are aptly named, as they are at their best from March until late May. If you've ever been to the Southern States, you would know this vegetable as collard greens. You would also be aware that these lovely greens are actually available throughout the year in those states. Which begs the question, what exactly are spring greens?

Having grown up in Canada, collards -or spring greens were a rather rare sight because the climate does not really allow for their cultivation. They are not technically a separate vegetable: collards are actually immature plants of the cabbage family, which means they can be anything from young cabbages to cauliflowers or broccoli. In more temperate regions, cabbages are planted out early and thickly, so that they can grow long and slow in cool weather; as the weather warms up, plants growing too closely are thinned out to make room, and the thinnings are eaten as collards. In colder climates, cabbages are started in greenhouses and get planted out at ideal spacing. While this method minimizes 'waste', it also means there are no spring greens.

Of course, spring greens are not essential for bubble and squeak, any cabbage or kale will do. In fact, the outer leaves of a large head of cabbage, cauliflower or broccoli are perfect substitutes. You can even give the dish an Asian twist by using a Chinese cabbage, such as kai-lan, and a bit of grated ginger. There is no need for a formal recipe, so here are the basics for a spring version of bubble and squeak: start by crushing boiled new potatoes.

Brown them in some butter, to which a handful of shredded spring greens or baby kale is added. Let the greens wilt for about 5 minutes. Break up the potatoes as you cook down the greens, trying to get as many crispy bits as you can. Season with salt and pepper.

And finish off with a generous sprinkling of green onions. Just scrumptious! You can serve bubble and squeak as a side to a main (it is particularly nice with mackerel -which happens to be in season right now), or if you are too peckish, just tuck in straight from the pan!

Bon app'!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

With All the Best of Intentions

I have been meaning to try kale, raw, in a salad for quite some time now. Ever since I read about it in Tara's blog. But I've hemmed and hawed about it: you see, I am not the biggest fan of kale. There, I've said it out loud. Don't get me wrong, I eat as much kale as I can get, and I actually really enjoy its flavour and texture. It's just that it doesn't always agree with me. Sometimes I think it's because it's so chock full of goodness that my body won't have any of it - I do so like to tuck into a plate of fries every now and then...

So I've pushed the recipes to the back of my mind. And I nearly forgot about the whole idea until this week, when two recipes popped up in the blogosphere: here (Tara, again) and here (a different Tara). It was a sign. I especially like the sound of the second recipe since it called for a miso dressing not unlike the one I posted a few years ago. But I have a few tricks up my sleeve for my first attempt at making a kale salad... Harisa, or at least a tame version of the fiery Moroccan chile paste, is lovely with chick peas (and kale, as it would be.)

Kale and Chickpea Salad with a Hint of Morocco
For four as a side, or two as a main

240g/1 cup cooked chickpeas
1 small bunch kale
½ yellow pepper
½ orange pepper
3 green onions
1 clove of garlic
2 sun-dried tomato halves
2 Tbs white wine vinegar
2 Tbs tomato paste
½ chile 
1 tsp Spanish smoked paprika
1 tsp whole cumin seeds
½ tsp whole fennel seeds
½ tsp whole coriander seeds
3 Tbs olive oil
1 Tbs white sesame seeds
2 Tbs pumpkin seeds
Salt and pepper to taste

Soak the sun-dried tomatoes in the vinegar.
In a dry frying pan, toast the sesame seeds until golden. Pour into a cold bowl, and set aside. 
Toast the pumpkin seeds until they start to pop. Set aside.
Toast the cumin, fennel and coriander seeds until they become fragrant and browned. Mix in with the sun-dried tomatoes.
With a blender, purée the tomatoes, paste, spices, chile, garlic and olive oil until smooth. Stir in the paprika and season to taste. Pour into a salad bowl.
Finely sliver the green onions, and add to the harisa.
Chop the peppers into small dice, about the same size as the chickpeas. Mix into the dressing.
Remove the stalks from the kale, and chop: it can be as fine or as rough as you like. Add to the bowl, along with the chickpeas, the sesame and pumpkin seeds.
Mix until everything is thoroughly coated with the harisa, and taste for seasoning.

You can always substitute the dressing with some ready-made harisa, a generous dollop of sun-dried tomato pesto, and a dash of white wine vinegar. This salad can be served immediately, but kale is sturdy enough to hold for a few hours, or even a day or two, and the flavours will mellow out beautifully. Because the dressing is so thick, you can easily transport the salad with very little mess: it is ideal for packed lunches and picnics. And wouldn't you know it, it turns out that kale is even nicer raw than it is cooked!

Bon app'!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Scratching the Surface

You're probably aware of my love of gardening by now. Like many die-hard gardeners, I fell into it as a child, introduced to the wonders of it all by both my parents and my grandparents. Along with sewing and knitting. While I may have acquired the skills to lead a frugal and self-sustaining lifestyle, my love of these old-timer skills have little to do with becoming self-sufficient, and even less with current fashionable trends: I just like to make things with my own two hands. 

Just as there is an immense sense of pride and self-satisfaction when you take out a loaf of bread from the oven (no matter how wonky the bun), wearing a hand-knit hat and eating a home-grown salad bring just as bright a glow to your soul. If you are a gardener yourself, then you know exactly what I mean. If you are only a dabbler, or have never tried your hand at growing something, then you may be a little wary of such pronouncements. Worry not, I'll make a gardener of you yet!

And by gardener, I do not necessarily mean a person who starts planning their planting beds in mid-January, surrounded by countless seed and plant catalogues. You can join the club even if you only tend to a pot or two of herbs on your windowsill. Despite the fact said pots come from the supermarket. (And we all know how difficult it can be to maintain a pot of supermarket basil!)

You can grow some green onions trimmings, just like Mimi does here! It might not cover all your scallion needs, but you will get enough spring onions for a dish here and there.

I have extolled the virtues of growing your own many times, but I forget that not everyone necessarily has the confidence to actually go out and do it. And yet, developing green thumbs is not that complicated at all. So here are a few tips to steer any novices in the right direction.

To start, you need to assess your space: how much space can you give over to growing plants? Beginners should start small, but there is nothing wrong with dreaming big! Start with the window sill, a corner on the balcony or in the yard. Next, how much sun does this area get? Most food plants and flowers like to get at least 5 hours of sun, but if you get less, there are still quite a few things that will happily grow. At the height of summer, leafy vegetables such as lettuce and radish do enjoy some respite from the blazing sun.

Another thing you need to consider is whether or not you have easy access to water: if you are going to be using a watering can, then you should start with a smaller area, just to make sure that you don't get overwhelmed trying to keep up with the watering. You also need to bear in mind that container gardens still need to be checked daily for water, because you can't rely on the rain to do it for you. When you decide to expand your gardening endeavour, you can install a rain butt: the water is virtually free, and is better for your plants than tap water.

Last but not least, you need to consider your soil quality. Container gardening requires that you use a potting mix, and not garden soil. Any commercial potting mix is fine, so your main concern should be the mix's peat moss content. In North America, peat mining is a huge industry, so any efforts to reduce its use have been half-hearted at best. However, peat bogs are extremely fragile environments and need to be protected. Coir, a waste product from the coconut industry, is a more sustainable alternative to peat, and is becoming easier to find. Whether you are gardening in pots or in the ground, you will eventually need some garden compost -your own or from your city: compost is an all-around miracle salve for plants! It provides nutrients to the plants, improves soil quality, and studies (as well as personal experience) have shown that it makes plants healthier.

I hope all this information will tempt you into growing a plant or two... or more! As for that supermarket basil, it's not you, it's them! Once you get that pot home, take the basil plants out of the tiny pot, split the ball of roots in two or more, and pot them into bigger pots with plenty of good compost. Water them in with room temperature water, and keep them out of the sun for a few days. After three or four days, place the pots on the sunniest window sill you can find. They may need to be propped up by a few barbecue sticks, but they'll be happier to hang out for a few weeks now.

Happy gardening, and bon app'!

Friday, May 10, 2013

Fit for Royalty

It's time for new potatoes... and not just any tatties, but Jersey Royals! Britain's Jersey Royal potatoes are such special spuds that they've obtained Protected Designation of Origin. Like all new potatoes, Jersey royals have a firm, waxy flesh that is ideal for eating boiled or in salads. Their unique flavour is due to the special soil on the Jersey Islands, but any new potato is a welcome sight. 

I finally managed to get my hands on some British asparagus, and wouldn't you know it, both are lovely together in a salad!

Add a few quartered radishes to bunch, and you will have spring in a bowl. As I forgot to pick up a bunch of radishes at the shop, I nosed around my pots to see if any were ready for picking: there was very little by way of roots, but the sprouts were getting a little crowded, so I pulled out a few to throw in the bowl.

Season with salt and pepper, add a dollop of mayonnaise (homemade, you have it), a squeeze of lemon juice, some chopped herbs, slivered green onions, and Bob's your uncle! You can also bulk out the salad with some spicy spring greenery, such as dandelion greens, curly chicory (also known as curly endive or frisée), or peppery water cress.

Bon app'!

Friday, May 3, 2013

Getting to Know You

I miss my old garden. We gardeners tend to be a nostalgic bunch: we can never forget the splendour of gardens past, even if the new one isn't so bad. It cannot be helped, once a garden is past, we remember only the good, and it always seems to be better...

Tomatoes were easier to grow in Montreal, and I had room for at least 20 different varieties. I am a tomato fiend, so even if a tomato-loving couple only requires two or three healthy plants to be satisfied, twenty did not seem excessive back then. In any case, if your seedlings are looking a little peeked like mine, one quick solution is to give them a drink of cold coffee or tea (with or without milk), no need to run to the shop for a liquid fertiliser.

I had two huge compost bins. They were large enough to produce compost for all my pots on the balcony, to top dress the garden, and there would be some left over to give to my mum. Of course, in order to supply those two composters, I needed to collect waste from work (loads of coffee grounds, shellfish scraps, and vegetable off-cuts) and friends. But I didn't mind. In fact, if my friends managed to drag me out to a bar after work, I would often bring along my compost pail! Not that I can really complain about the worm composter; it takes longer than I would like, but it copes with the waste we produce at home, which is the whole point of composting.

I shouldn't winge really... My sweetheart hasn't uttered a single complaint as I gradually took over every inch of the balcony with pots and planters. Last year we had enough strawberries to keep us happy. I had to fight off a wily squirrel for them, so this year I've caged in the planters with some chicken wire.

The tomatoes may be struggling,  but basil, coriander, mint and chives are doing very well. In fact, all the herbs are thriving, and I even have parsley, fava (broad) beans and garlic growing in pots. So really, I have no reason to complain. My London garden is perfect just as it is.

I hope you will try your hand at planting something too, no matter how small your space. 

Happy gardening!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Sighing in Relief

I saw my first bee of the year today. Although I was too slow to catch her in action, I find it fitting that I should see the bees out and about the day after the European Commission passed a ban on neonicotinoid pesticides. I think  the ladies might have been doing a little celebratory dance! Though it is only a partial ban, it binds all European Union members, including the UK (which opposes the ban), to halt the use of these pesticides by the end of the year. So bees and other pollinators stand a better chance of surviving modern agriculture.

The weather has been absolutely gorgeous of late  in London. Chilly, but beautiful nonetheless. As I've been enjoying some time off from work, I've had the luxury of sitting on my balcony to admire the little critters that visit my garden: ladybugs, hover flies and aphids have been puttering about, but no bees. My balcony is so perfectly situated that when the sun is out, it is usually 10°C warmer than the street below. So there are plenty of flowers for hungry bees, but they were a no-show. Until today.

With the bees about, I may just be lucky enough to have a few berries by the end of the month! However, what I am truly looking forward to are asparagus! They've been delayed by the cold beginning to Spring, and though restaurants have been able to grab a few bunches of local spears, the supermarkets have only been stocking imports. I'm crossing my fingers! Other things to look forward to in May are radishes; baby lettuce; field rhubarb; globe artichokes (imported, but from very close by!); morels (if the weather warms up, and... it rains!); and did I mention asparagus?

Bon app'!

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