Fact of the Week

Forced rhubarb in season now. Don't miss out!

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Summer love

May is but a distant memory.  The summer sun has been replaced by incessant rain, heavy during the week, torrential at the weekend. 

The weather has battered the garden.  First, weeks of no rain.  The ground dried, then parched.  My tender vegetable seedlings: stunted, wilted or bolted.
Next, weeks of pounding rain.  The strawberries, which were on the cusp of ripeness, are spoilt, rotten, their soft skins pummelled by the rain's heavy drops.  The roses, delphiniums, poppies, lupins, stocks and sweet williams have been stripped of their blossom and their petals, browned by the rain, are strewn, like Miss Haversham's confetti, over the garden.  The, at best, tepid temperatures are insufficient to fuel the garden's usual heady summer growth.

It is raining as I write, after a soggy cycle home.  The outlook for Wimbledon is bleak, the first day has been a wash out.  (Murray is still in but for how long?)  I am awaiting the outrage, the national shame, as Wimbledon strawberry sales run dry: are British stocks too low (the early crops accelerated by the May sun and now exhausted, the later crops waterlogged) to support Wimbledon's heavy demand for this quintessentially English fruit?

I took the opportunity, in a rare dry moment at 6.30 this morning, to sow the first of the winter seeds: cavolo nero, purple and white sprouting broccoli and curly kale.  I will bring them on in pots and plant them out in September, once the summer crops are over and space has been vacated in the vegetable beds.  Although I know that the plants need time to develop and grow strong before the winter cold sets in, I feel forlorn to be preparing for winter when it is not yet midsummer and summer's stay seems to have been altogether too short. 

The silver lining (to the threateningly dark, sometimes black, clouds that appear to have appropriated the English summer) are the peas.  Sowed improbably early (even in the greenhouse) at the end of February and planted out in April, the peas were well established before the May drought, their pods ready to swell in time with the June rains.  The plants are now weighed down with pods, ready for picking, each pod offering a taste of a long lost summer. 

I am not the only one to have enjoyed the peas.  One morning last week, whilst doing my usual early morning inspection, I was delighted to find the garden dancing with bluetits, flashes of emerald blue darting through the taller plants and trees.  My delight was however short-lived when I realised that the tits were in fact feasting on my peas, their mood as jubilant as mine after a snack on the tasty sweet green Lilliputian globes of goodness.  Dressed for the office rather than the garden, I scrambled, in my suit, for some netting with which to protect my precious crop.  A struggle ensued and lawyer, peas and sense of humour became quickly entangled, whilst the tits looked on quizzically, bemused by the gardener's new and not entirely suitable attire and confused as to why having been encouraged into the garden, they were suddenly unwelcome.  With the peas protected, my train missed, I made my late way to work, pea-ce of mind restored.

From a gardening perspective, June has had little to commend it.  My peas have provided a ray of sweet, green sunshine in this otherwise soggy summer.  They offer a burst of summer even if eaten holed up in the kitchen, the hatches battened down against against the inclement weather raging outside.

(I have used fresh peas for all the recipes below.  If you are using frozen peas, cook the peas first.) 

Snacking Peas
(These are so good that I have been serving them in individual portions in ramekins, to be eaten with a teaspoon, as part of a selection of starters or simply to whet the appetite.  They are always gobbled up before anything else.  Otherwise, simply serve as a side dish).
Fresh peas, podded
Olive oil
Basil, finely chopped
Parmesan shavings

Put the peas in a colander and pour over a kettle of boiling water (This is all the cooking they need and will ensure that the peas retain their crisp bite).
Whilst hot, drizzle over the olive oil and basil and stir through. 
Seaso with salt and pepper and scatter the parmesan shavings on top.

Pea and broad bean crostini
(courtesy of Jamie Oliver)

150g fresh peas (i.e. 150g once podded)
250g broad beans (ditto) (cook first if you are using frozen broad beans)
Salt and pepper
Olive oil
50g parmesan, finely grated
Juice of 1 lemon
1 clove of garlic
Sourdough bread

Bash up the peas, broad beans and mint in a pestle and mortar (or in a saucepan with a potato masher).  You may need to do this in batches unless you have a very large pestle and mortar!  Season with salt and pepper.  Stir in the parmesan and enough olive oil to bind all the ingredients together.  Add half the lemon juice and taste.  You may need to adjust the lemon juice, olive oil or salt and pepper to taste. 

Toast slices of sourdough.  Whilst still hot, rub each slice with the garlic (just lightly, maybe two stripes on each piece, any more and the garlic will be overpowering) and spread the peas and broad beans on top.  Top with torn pieces of mozzarella.  Drizzle with olive oil and a few more mint leaves.

Pea and herb salad
(borrowed and adapted from Yottam Ottolenghi writing for The Guardian)
50g pearl barley
300g peas (or a mix of peas and broad beans)
1 crisp green lettuce, finely chopped
Mint, roughly chopped
Basil, roughly chopped
1 tbsp lemon juice
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
Goat's cheese

Cook the pearl barley (30-35 minutes in a saucepan of boiling water or 15 minutes in a pressure cooker).  Refresh in cold water and drain.
If you are using fresh peas/broad beans, place in a colander and pour over a kettle of boiling water.  If you are using frozen peas/broad beans, cook in boiling water.
Put the peas, broad beans, lettuce, pearl barley, herbs, lemon juice and olive in a bowl and stir.  Season and adjust the lemon juice and olive oil to taste. 
Crumble the goat's cheese over the top.

Strawberry clouds
(I have snuck one strawberry recipe in here.  If you have any strawberries left in the garden or can get hold of some, this recipe is sure to make you smile).

300g strawberries
Mint leaves
50g caster sugar
3 egg whites
140ml double cream

Blitz the strawberries in a food processor.  Add a few mint leaves and blitz again.  Sweeten to taste. (Sugar will bring out the flavour of the strawberries.  Add it gradually, tasting as you go along.  You should be able to taste the mint but it should be subtle.  Add more mint leaves if desired and blitz again but be careful not to overpower the strawberries).  Pass the strawberry mixture through a sieve and discard the pips etc. 
Whisk the egg whites until they form stiff peaks.  Then whisk in the sugar until the mixture has a glossy sheen.
In a separate bowl, whisk the cream until thickened but not stiff. 
Fold the cream, egg whites and strawberries together (using a metal spoon).  Spoon into glasses and chill.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Maltby Street: far from the madding crowd

Muddy beets and carrots
Last Saturday I made the short journey north to Borough Market.  When I first moved to London, only six years ago, Borough Market was a favourite Saturday activity but, disillusioned by the hordes of people, the need to be there at the top or tail of the day, the congestion making it impossible to shop (and preferring to spend my Saturday mornings cultivating my own produce rather then buying other peoples'), I had not been for some time.

My ulterior motive in going to Borough Market was to compare and contrast it to stop number 2 on my Saturday food-centric agenda: Maltby Street.  I was aware of the reported tensions between the two, the rumours of rent rises forcing traders to relocate from the former to the latter and Borough Market's governance's disgruntlement at the prospect of close competition, and I was intrigued to know which traders had chosen to sell at Maltby Street, either as an alternative to or in addition to Borough Market. 

Anticipating the crowds, I arrived early.  I was immediately struck by the gentrified aspect of the market's green arches.  However, the gentrification was not purely cosmetic.  Brazenly flaunting their wares behind flash signs and flashier price tags, there was an endless array of hot and prepared food, paella, steak sandwiches, hog roast, burgers, veggie burgers, pork pies, a juice bar, tableware and Borough Market emblazoned bags.  The hardworking growers and sellers for the most part gone, and with them the atmosphere, the buzz of market trade, and the exciting culinary possibility of British seasonal produce, replaced with the smell of frying. 

The Market's demise, in my eyes, was confirmed by my attempt to buy gooseberries from Turnips, the large and long established wholeseller of fruit and vegetables.  None of the three servers who tried to sell me the small, slightly furry, little green and so very British fruits that I had picked up off Turnips' showy display knew what they were.  They could not therefore tell me the price and had to go and ask at Head Office, loftily located in a glass office box above the market in the space shared with Roast (where the average cost of a main course is a £23). 

The answer was an astronomically expensive £8 per kilo, the price no doubt commensurate with the fact that Turnips' second and only other store is in Selfridges. 

Gooseberry fool
I made to leave and exiting through the eastern triangle of the Market (the Green Market), came across a ray of real market hope amongst the otherwise tourist trade:  John from Lincolnshire selling his own grown Lincolnshire produce.  Beautifully muddy carrots and beets, cabbages, radishes, peas and broad beans, onions, chard, fennel, tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes new and old and lots more besides.  A chat revealed that he also sells at Peckham Farmers' Market on Sundays.  I came away with a smile and a kilo of gooseberries for £5.50.

On the short walk to Maltby Street, I popped in to José Pizarro's recently opened tapas and sherry bar on Bermondsey Street.  The chef and his team were prepping but José stopped to proudly show me the beautiful wood and tiled interior of his eponymous new London seat and run through the day's specials.  The smells from the kitchen were teasingly good even though it was only 9.30am.  I made a mental note to return at the first available opportunity during opening hours. 

Maltby Street is nestled under the old brick railway arches in Bermondsey.  The arches have become home to a collection of traders with a long relationship with food.  Some are aficionados of the London food scene: Neal's Yard Dairy, Monmouth Coffee, St John Bread.  Others are smaller or less well-known but no less gem like: Fern Verrow's biodynamically grown vegetables, Kitty Travers's homemade ice creams (with taste tingling flavours such as elderflower and amalfi lemon, strawberry and tarragon, pea pod and caramel and sea salt), the Gergovie Wines warehouse selling wine at the bar, to sample, to drink or to take away and Tony Booth's, a veritable Aladdin's cave of fruit, vegetables and salad.  Then there are some surprises, like Lassco who's reclaimed treasures are a trove of nostalgia, objets d'art and functionality (rows of theatre seats, school benches, a selection of steel buckets and a gym horse were just some of the finds worthy of a perusal last Saturday). 

Macerating strawberries
The arches are big enough for serious activity and alongside the more frivolous shopping and tasting to which they have become home, Monmouth roast their beans on site, St John's bakery is housed in Arch 72 on Druid Street, and Neal's Yard have their main office and wholesale business. 

I sat in the sunshine outside Monmouth on chairs strewn liberally over the pavement for the purpose and enjoyed a coffee and brioche.  The atmosphere was quietly smug: everyone else enjoying their coffee and knowing that they, like me, were onto a good thing. 

I did my weekly shop in Booths and had to exercise considerable self-restraint not to buy more than I could possibly eat in a week.  I skipped out with 7 kilos of strawberries for £10, strawberries from out the back, slightly past their pristine best but perfect for the afternoon's plans for jam.

As I was leaving I bumped into José Pizarro in his chef's whites come to collect that day's supplies and talk shop with Tony Booth.  With his beautiful restaurant and a wide range of wonderful produce just around the corner, I am sure that he too knows that he is onto a good thing. 

Strawberries on a rolling boil

Strawberry jam

Sunday, 5 June 2011

A mind of its own

The garden is suffering from neglect.  The summer season has arrived (think Chelsea, Ascot, Wimbledon; the reality is wedding, hen weekend, wedding, hen weekend, wedding) and I am spending glorious weekend after glorious weekend sipping champagne in other peoples' gardens, gardens which have been spruced, pruned, weeded and manicured within an inch of their lives for the Big Day.  The result is that my own garden has run amok.

Audrey II of the lettuce world?
The lettuce, spinach and chard are bolting.  The rocket and basil are in flower.  The wigwams of peas are dripping with swollen pods which I have not had time to pick.  And the strawberry plants are coloured red by their cheery cargo, now overripening in every additional day's sun .  And I do not have the time to harvest the garden's (un)seasonal bounty or provide it with the love and attention to which it has grown accustomed.    As the current plants exhaust themselves ahead of schedule, I am gripped with panic and a urgent need to re-sow in order to ensure a steady supply the whole summer long.

Peas ready for picking
This unprecedented behaviour (for June) has, I think, been caused by the warm weather.  Yet, the weather was not warm enough to ensure that the nuptial sweet peas were ready for Paul's and Ellie's nuptials on 21 May 2011.  Covered in buds, their development was halted by the cooler temperatures of the preceding ten days and the buds taunted me but refused to open.  In desperation, I considered a number of options (kindly proffered by friends and family who had been eagerly following the sweet peas' progress) including heat lamps and the suggestion made (by the bride) that I bring all eight of the enormous pots of sweet peas inside, turned my heating onto maximum and left the lights on overnight in order to create hothouse conditions.  After some discussion it was reluctantly agreed that these options were prohibitive, primarily on the grounds of cost and environmental impact but also concern that the use of heat lamps in my corner of south-east London might prompt suspicion from the authorities as to the legality of what I was growing.  So instead I (and the bride) came to terms with the disappointment of my failure and I prepared myself for the knowing comments from the smug grannies on the ensuing Saturday (http://tastebuds-kitchengarden.blogspot.com/2011/02/sweet-peas-and-moonwalkers.html). 

The sweet peas are a useful reminder that the garden's joyful development is, in most respects, out of my control (the lettuce, a reminder that it is in fact out of control?).  Although I am sometimes forced to quash the rising sense of alarm caused by the realisation that I have not done everything on my horticultural 'to do' list, the garden provides a healthy opposition to the orderliness of my full time job.  Whilst I can happily while away hours 'working' in the garden, removing offending weeds and evicting gluttonous slugs and snails (and ticking items off that list), all of which risk threatening the working order of my garden, I do not really want to tame it. 

I want the beds to be thick with flowers, not standing neatly to attention but cavorting wildly through the beds.  I want the vegetables to grow in an unbridled fashion, unfettered by the boundaries laid down by a strict planting plan (for I will only benefit from their unruly abundance).  I admired the free-spirited strawberry who last year made a bid for freedom from the confines of the strawberries' raised bed and sent a runner over the top and into the grass.  I applauded the strawberry's tenancy and joie de vivre (although I obviously could not allow him to stay there and trans-planted him to a more apt location back in the strawberries' bed).

The recipes this week are in recognition of the garden's hearty abundance. The first, pearl barley, pea and lettuce risotto, offers a refreshing and alternative use for lettuce, so often thought of in relation only to salad, its cooked qualities largely unsung (the just wilted lettuce provides the perfect complement to the crisp sweetness of the peas and the fresh bite of the lemony pearl barley). 

The second is a strawberry cheesecake cake (the original recipe is borrowed from the Hummingbird Bakery's strawberry cheesecake cupcake) which I made at the weekend for my local Big Lunch and which seemed to go down quite well. 

Pearl barley, pea and lettuce risotto
(I ate this just as it is but it would also be delicious with white fish or roast chicken)

60g pearl barley
1 clove of garlic, crushed
Olive oil
Frozen peas
1 courgette, diced
Vegetable stock
1 lemon
Lettuce, roughly chopped

Cook the pearl barley according to the instructions (or approximately 15 minutes in a pressure cooker).  Rinse in cold water.
Heat the olive oil gently in a frying pan and add the peas, courgette and garlic.  Fry gently until the vegetables are just beginning to colour.  Add the pearl barley and a couple of ladles of stock.  Simmer and as the stock evaporates, add another ladle of stock making sure that it does not dry out. 
Once the vegetables are cooked al dente, add a squeeze of lemon and stir through the chopped lettuce.  Season with salt and pepper. 

Strawberry cheesecake cake

240g plain flour
280g caster sugar
3 tsp baking powder
a pinch of salt
80g unsalted butter (at room temperature)
240ml whole milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 eggs
Strawberries, chopped into small pieces

For the icing

150g icing sugar
25g unsalted butter (at room temperature)
75g cream cheese
4 digestive biscuits

Preheat the oven to 170 degrees C.
Beat the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and butter until combined.  Pour in the milk and vanilla extract and beat until smooth.  Add the egg and beat until combined. 
Line the cake tin with baking parchment (I used a 25cm square tin) and grease the sides with butter.  Cover the base of the tin with the strawberry pieces.  Spoon the cake mixture over the top.  Bake in the pre-heated oven for 30-40 minutes until light golden and a skewer comes out clean. 
Leave the cake to cool in the tin for 10 minutes and then turn out onto a wire rack (sponge side down).  Gently peel off the baking parchment and allow to cool.

To make the icing, beat the icing sugar and butter until well mixed.  Add the cream cheese and beat until combined (be careful not to overbeat or the mixture will become runny).  Blitz the digestive biscuits in food processor (or in a sandwich bag with a rolling pin) until finely ground.

Once cool, place the cake on a plate, sponge side up.  Spoon the icing over the top of the cake and spread to cover the cake.  Arrange extra pieces of strawberry on top.  Finish with a sprinkling of crushed digestive biscuits. 

Enjoy x

The sweet peas burst into pastel scented flower on the Wednesday following the wedding and are now liberally adorned around my garden and my house...