Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Recipe: Union Jack Cake

This cake uses a technique called 'biscuit joconde'. It's not as hard as it looks, and I hope I've explained it adequately. Here is a step by step how to make it:

Ingredients for sponge:
85g ground almonds 
75g icing sugar
25g plain flour 
3 large eggs 
3 large egg whites
10g caster sugar
30g unsalted butter, melted

Ingredients for piping:
200g unsalted butter, softened
200g icing sugar
7 egg whites 
220g plain flour
Food coloring in blue and red

Ingredients for the tricolour, raspberry, blackberry and vanilla bavarois for the interior:
1 barquette of raspberries
1 barquette of blackberries
500ml double cream
100ml water
12g of gelatin sheets (silver)
250g caster sugar
Pinch of salt
A few drops of vanilla

Method for sponge:
Whisk the egg whites and white granulated sugar to firm, glossy peeks. Reserve in a separate clean bowl for later use. 
Sieve ground almonds, icing sugar, plain flour together.
On medium speed, add the eggs a little at a time to the dry mixture until well combined.
Fold in one third whisked egg whites to your mixture to lighten the batter. 

Then fold in the remaining whisked egg whites until just combined.
Add the melted butter.
Cover with cling film and keep the batter, we will use it later.

Method for the piping decoration:
Beat butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. 
Gradually add egg whites. Beat continuously.
Fold in sieved flour.
Divide batter into two bowls.

They will be red and blue.
Add the coloring until you get your desired shade.
Put the red and blue into separate piping bags.
Then, using a silpat (this is one of the things you really should buy, along with a digital thermometer and a decent peeler) placed on a flat baking tray (or turn it upside down) pipe out your Union Jack. I googled one and followed it.
Once you have done your design, place the silpat in the freezer for half an hour.
I did this twice, in order to have enough length of pattern to circumnavigate the cake. 

Method for the cake:
Preheat your oven to 250c (or use the baking oven of the Aga).
Once your design is frozen, gently spread, using a spatula, the sponge batter over the frozen design in a long rectangular shape. It should be about 3mm thick.
Then bake it. Really quickly. In a normal oven it should take about 15 minutes, but in mine it took five! So... keep checking. 
Prepare a rectangle (bigger than the cake) of greaseproof paper dusted with icing sugar.
After 5-10 minutes of cooling, no longer, flip over your sponge onto the icing sugar dusted paper. You will now see the pattern. Yay!
Using a ruler or a straight metal edge, cut, with a sharp knife, the sponge strip to the height of your bottomless cake mould. Straighten the edges too.
I used a springform ring from Lakeland. 
Place the cake ring on top of a flat sheet of greaseproof paper and on top of that put a flat sheet of clingfilm.
Pull the clingfilm up tightly outside the cake ring.
Cut a length of greaseproof paper to fit the inside of the cake ring. It should be a centimeter taller than the cake ring.
Carefully, taking your strip of patterned sponge, line the inside of your cake ring.
The pattern should be facing outwards, so when you remove the ring, you can see it. Use the second strip of patterned sponge, pressing the sides together, if one isn't big enough.
I cut strips of leftover sponge to fit the bottom.

Method for the tri-colour bavarois:
First rub the raspberries into a sieve. This is a bit of a pain and you could use raspberry jam but really the lovely acidity of fresh is worth the effort. Keep pushing it through the sieve over a bowl. You'll end up with a lovely seed-free purée.
In a separate bowl, do the same with the blackberries.
Leave both bowls of fruit purée to the side.
Soak the gelatin sheets in cold water.
Combine the sugar and the water in a pan and heat until dissolved. Let it cool.
Squeeze out gelatin sheets, add to the sugar syrup.
Mix one third into the raspberry purée, one third into the blackberry purée.
Whisk the cream to soft peaks.
Mix one third of the cream into the raspberry purée and fold gently until combined.
Mix one third of the cream into the blackberry purée and fold gently until combined.
Into the last third of cream, add a few drops of vanilla. Into this also add the last third of gelatiney sugar syrup. Combine, gently.
Into your cake mould, pour the raspberry mixture.
Put it in the freezer for 15 minutes.
Then pour in the blackberry mixture.
Freeze for 15 minutes.
Cut the greaseproof paper inside the cake ring level with the top.
Lastly, pour in the vanilla mixture. Smooth it out nicely with a spatula.
Put the whole cake in the fridge. Allow to set for a few hours.

When you come to serve it, peel away the cake ring carefully. You should see your beautifully patterned Union Jack bavarois cake.
Decorate on top with a mix of raspberries and blackberries. You could also use cherries, strawberries and blueberries.
Serve cool with a glass of sweet champagne. Toast the Queen even if you disagree with the monarchy. She's done a good job hasn't she?

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

The Three Sisters and other companion planting ideas

At the Secret Garden Club last Sunday we looked at different types of companion planting – putting plants together that will help each other in some way - and how these can benefit your garden.

You can grow certain plants in close proximity to each other for various reasons:
  • Some plants will ward off pests, either by their smell, or secretions from their roots, or simply because they have sharp thorns. You can grow these plants close to those that are vulnerable from such pests in order to give them protection. 
  • Conversely you might use plants that are particularly susceptible to a pest as a 'decoy', to draw them away from another more valuable or delicate plant.
  • Some plants will attract beneficial insects, such as lacewings, hoverflies or ladybirds, to the garden. Place these close to plants which need pollinators to set fruit.
  • Some plants, notably legumes (peas and beans), will enrich the soil for other plants.
  • Tall sturdy plants can be used to provide support for other plants, such as climbers.
  • Trailing plants might act as ground cover, suppressing weeds and acting as a mulch, reducing water evaporation from the soil surface.

We discussed in some detail one very traditional companion planting method from the Americas, widely known as the Three Sisters and practised across North America from the midwest plains to Mexico from pre-Columbian times.
The Three Sisters themselves are the staple ingredients of the traditional Native American diet: corn, beans and squash. In America, the three are sown together and provide sustenance and support for each other.
The corn provides a strong upright stake for the beans to climb up, winding their stems around the main trunk of the sweetcorn. These bean plants also act as 'guy ropes' for the corn, keeping it stable in the wind.The squash plants are trained to trail around the foot of each corn/bean combo, their broad leaves shading the soil, keeping it moist and suppressing the weeds.
A further benefit of the Three Sisters scheme is the ability of the beans to nourish the soil. Peas and beans are all able to fix nitrogen from the air through their roots in the soil. As nitrogen is one of the main nutrients required by plants, especially leafy plants, this means that the soil is left enriched after the Three Sisters crops have been harvested, ready for the next year's planting. It's a highly sustainable planting scheme.

Three London Sisters
The UK climate is not the same as the American plains or the semi-tropical climate of Mexico. It’s more unpredictable, and so the Three Sisters method has to be adapted. We can’t sow each seed at the same time, as the beans will grow much faster than the corn and will overwhelm it.
So we need to start when the corn is already about 4-6 inches high.
Sweetcorn is very easy to grow from seed, or you can readily buy seedlings from garden centres. Beware sweetcorn sold with a number of plants in each pot. They dislike having their roots disturbed too much and if you are having to tease seedlings apart to separate them when you transplant them you are liable to damage the roots. Better to buy those which have a single plant in a plastic or polystyrene module, or to grow your own from seed in coir pots, one seed per pot. With coir pots, you don't have to turn the seedling out when you transplant it, you just dig a hole the same size and shape as the coir pot, drop the pot in, and firm the soil around it. No root disturbance at all.

The best beans to use for Three British Sisters are ones which you leave to dry on the plant, not runners or French beans which need regular picking. These should be sown when you plant the corn seedlings, when the soil has warmed up and all danger of frost has passed. We used the climbing borlotti beans Borlotto Lamon from Seeds of Italy at the Secret Garden Club - borlotti beans are easy to grow in the UK and are flamboyantly beautiful: bright crimson seed pods flecked with cream, which you shell to reveal creamy-pink beans flecked with crimson. With a dense floury texture and good flavour, they're a delicious and versatile bean in the kitchen too.
For the squash Sister, any squash with a trailing habit will work well. So don't use a courgette, which grows as a bush. Butternuts, spaghetti squash, Crown Prince, or a Halloween pumpkin - all these will do very well. We planted specimens of all these at the Secret Garden Club, plus a Japanese variety, Futsu Black (from The Organic Gardening Catalogue) and a sweet, dense-fleshed Italian variety, Marina di Chioggia (Seeds of Italy, again).
Squash seedlings after planting
Start squash off in small pots, either indoors or in a greenhouse. Sow two seeds to a pot and keep the pots covered until they germinate, which should only take 5-7 days. Snip out the weaker seedling before transplanting.
Once the squash plants start to spread, try to train them in a circle around the foot of the corn/bean plants. I say 'try' because squash seem to have a wanderlust and will grow three feet in the wrong direction as soon as your back is turned. Many times I have returned from two weeks holiday in August to find that the squash have run rampant in my absence.

Planting out
The Native Americans built up mounds in the soil about 45cm across and 10cm high and planted the Three Sisters in the mounds. Creating similarly-sized square or circular mounds using a mix of manure, kitchen compost and commercial compost makes sense in the UK too: all three of the Sisters are hungry plants and need lots of nutrients to get going. Giving them a specially enriched mound should get them off to a good start.
In dry areas, the Americans would traditionally make a shallow depression in the centre of each mound to hold water. We could do well to copy this in our drought-ridden, hosepipe-banned times.
The minimum viable size for a Three Sisters plot is 3.5m x 3.5m. It's a considerable space commitment, but remember you are growing three crops in the area. Less than this and the corn may not pollinate properly. Corn is wind-pollinated, which is why you should always plant corn in blocks - plant in a row and the wind may not blow in the right direction to ensure pollination.  

Plant corn in blocks to help
ensure pollination
Each circle above represents one 45cm diameter mound. The corn and bean plants will grow together on a mound; alternate mounds are left to squash which will need more space.
In the mounds shown here as yellow circles, plant four corn seedlings in a square shape. There should be at least 15cm between the plants. Then, plant four bean seeds, one between each corn seedling - you should be able to simply push the bean seed into the ground with your thumb or forefinger. Close the soil above it and firm the surface.
In the mounds shown here as orange circles, plant two squash, as far apart as possible on the mound.
Water all the seedlings well.

The beans should germinate within two weeks, by which time the corn should be about 30cm high. As the beans grow, they may need to be tied in initially to encourage them to grow up and around the corn. The squash plants may take a while to get going, but will grow rapidly when they do. They will need training to keep them to the Three Sisters growing area. 
When squash fruit begin to form, place a clean tile underneath the fruit for them to rest on to protect it from the dirt and creepy-crawlies. Once a single plant has produced three fruit, stop the growing tip - this will help the plant concentrate on growing really good-sized fruit.

Depending on the variety, the sweetcorn should be ready to harvest from late August or September. Borlotti beans and squash can be left to mature on the plant. Make sure you lift them before the first frost.
The harvested squash should be taken indoors and leave to finish ripening in dry warmth and light. During this process they may well change colour from green to orange or yellow. Stored properly, they can be stored for 4-8 months.
There’s no reason why you shouldn’t pick borlotti bean pods to cook and eat fresh. They’re delicious, especially served with a squeeze of lemon, some salt and a drizzle of olive oil. 
But leave at least some on the plants to keep for use in winter. As summer wears on into autumn, the pods will change from bright pink flecked with cream, to a brown papery husk. Pick the pods as late as possible, but before the first frost, usually in the middle of October.
Thread the pods together and hang them up somewhere airy until all the pods are completely dried out, about 2-3 weeks. Then shell the beans. They should be dry already and rattle when shaken together and clatter when dropped on the work surface. If they land with a soft thud instead, they need more drying.
Finally, put the shelled beans in a freezer bag and seal. Place in the freezer for about 48 hours. This quick freeze just ensures that if the beans were harbouring any bugs, mites or insect eggs, that they are killed off. Once out of the freezer, spread the beans out briefly on kitchen paper just to check they’re dry again, then pour into a jar with a tightly fitting lid.
Keep in a dark cool place and they will last for months – until your next bean harvest, in fact, if you haven’t eaten them all by then.

More on nitrogen fixing
Because legumes (peas and beans) fix nitrogen from the air through their roots, they nourish the soil. This means that the soil maintains its own fertility without you having to add large amounts of fertiliser.
However, they fix nitrogen for the next crop. So if you are planning to plant your legumes with a view to feeding the soil for another crop, choose something that will carry on growing after the peas or beans have finished. 
It’s also good to follow peas with something that likes nitrogen, some thing leafy, eg, brassicas, squash.
At the Secret Garden Club, we've planted cavolo nero, or black kale (or Tuscan kale) in the middle of the sugar pea wigwams. Cavolo nero is a slim-leaved version of kale, more tender than curly kale and very flavoursome. (It also makes great 'seaweed', of the type you get in Chinese restaurants!)
Once the peas have died down in July-August, we’ll leave the plants in the ground to fix nitrogen through their roots for the benefit of the cavolo nero which will carry on growing throughout the winter. 
At Sunday's workshop, guests created a smaller version of this wigwam with cavolo nero seedlings and young runner bean plants. These were planted up into 15cm pots which can be transferred into the open ground in a couple of weeks or so when the beans get too big for the pot.

Insect repellents
Carrots and onions make excellent companions in the vegetable bed. Many gardeners find that they need to protect the carrot crop from carrot fly, a dull-looking brown fly which flies low to the ground and can detect the smell of carrots from half a mile away. The female will lay her eggs in the soil close to the carrot roots, and when the larvae hatch, they start to feed on the growing carrots in the ground. When you dig up the crop, you'll find tell-tale brown streaks and tunnels boring into the carrot itself.
Grow garlic or onions around the
edge of beds to repel aphids.
However, you can protect your carrots to a certain extent by sowing them in-between alliums (garlic and onions, mainly, although you could try leeks as well for a late-growing carrot crop - leeks don't really get going until late summer). The smell of the onions is said to mask the scent of the carrots, so that the fly doesn't realise the carrots are there.
In return, the carrots are said to mask the allium scent for the onion fly, which preys on onions and also garlic and shallots.
Garlic and onions are good for repelling many different insects, including aphids. The sulphur accumulated in their roots may also act as a natural pesticide. Some people plant alliums all around the edge of their plot or patch for this reason. Of course, you need to be sure that you don’t have any of these pests inside the plot already or else you will trap them in instead of keeping them out.
Specifically, however, garlic and onions can be sown around roses or in the rose bed to help deter greenfly and blackfly. Chives are also excellent for this: their low bushy habit and mauve pom-pom flower look attractive among the roses.
Garlic can also be used directly on plants to deter aphids. Jekka McVicar of Jekka's Herb Farm recommends crushing 3-4 cloves of garlic and bringing to the boil in a litre of water. Let the garlic cool in the water and strain. This spray can be used on the leaves of the plant. I find it works best as a preventative rather than a cure.

The magic of marigolds
Marigolds are well-known for their insect repelling properties. They are especially associated with brassicas: plant marigolds around your cabbage and cauliflowers to ward off the whitefly. Furthermore, the roots exude a substance which are toxic to nematodes, including those which attack tomatoes. So plant marigolds around the tomatoes as well. 
It can be confusing to buy marigolds and to know which is which. French marigolds are actually Mexican. African marigolds are also American in origin. Pot marigolds are a different thing again.
This is where the Latin or botanical names come in handy. Tagetes is the name to look for. French marigolds are usually varieties of Tagetes patula. African marigolds are usually varieties of Tagetes erecta – and often used as food colouring.
The botanical name for pot marigold is Calendula. Extracts from Calendula are used a lot in cosmetics, and also useful for repelling insects but they don’t have the same root secretions.

Insect attractants
Having talked at length about insect-repelling plants, we also looked at growing plants for their insect-attracting qualities. Not all insects are pests - far from it. Some, such as ladybirds, hoverflies and lacewings are known as beneficial insects. 
We think of bees as being the main pollinators of plants, but hoverflies also feed on nectar and are excellent pollinators. Plants which need a pollinator, such as squash and courgettes, and fruit trees will benefit.
Hoverflies are doubly welcome in the garden because their larvae will chomp their way through massive numbers of aphids. Ladybird and lacewing larvae are also enthusiastic consumers of aphids - a very good reason to attract them to the garden. 
Plants such as achillea (yarrow), as well as borage, the poached egg plant and comfrey are good examples of plants which will attract beneficial insects, while lavender and roses are well-known for buzzing with bees during the summer.

The beauty of companion planting
Companion planting will help your garden to look attractive. It encourages you to consider a greater variety of planting, which is always good for biodiversity, and different layouts and arrangements of plants within the plot.
It helps your garden to sustain itself – with well-selected companion plants, your garden should be humming with life, not sterile and formal. 
Adopting companion planting methods should mean you can greatly reduce or eliminate any use of pesticides. It should help you to raise better crops and improve the sustainability of your soil. At the Secret Garden Club, we're aiming to create a harmonious combination of edible and ornamental plants and companion planting has found its way into the heart of that plan.

Useful links
For more about companion plants and specific plants which work well together, there is plenty of information on the following sites:
Golden Harvest Organics - plant lists and benefits of growing together.
Victoriana Nursery Gardens - the Three Sisters - growing the Three Sisters in the UK climate. We followed many of the suggestions here for the Secret Garden Club's Three Sisters plot.
Renee's Garden - US site with the story behind the Three Sisters tradition, plus Three Sisters planting diagrams.
National Vegetable Society - Good overview of companion planting principles plus plant lists.
Laura's Organics - page on attracting beneficial insects to the garden.

Happy guests at the Secret Garden Club
To find out about the Native Indian inspired food that MsMarmite served go here.

Travel: supper club and tapas from Seville

I ate so well in Seville. A succession of tapas, each formed as a work of art in miniature, discovered with the aid of Shawn, of @sevillatapas, in backstreet shops, cafés, bars, restaurants. We dribbled over dollhouse platters while roosting on stools tucked under shelves, over crates, next to zinc or marble bars. In each place, no matter how cutting edge or trendy, you'd see old couples disembarked from the countryside, dressed in their town best - hair set, lipstick on, suit and waistcoat brushed, perched along counters, eyes narrowed knowledgeably, lips pursed, little nods of acknowledgement - shrewdly tasting. Food isn't a class, wealth or hipster trend  in the same way it is here in Britain. It's good... or it's bad. Simple as that.
 My favourite tapa was the cumin infused spinach.
 I love Spanish packaging; I saw the pink crisps at the Waitrose christmas fair and thought they were superb, unfortunately they didn't stock them. Baby clams and garlicky mini artichoke hearts, washed down with La Gitana, Manzanilla and sherry. 

On our gastro tour Shawn and I discussed men, children, food, illness, the internet. A couple of years ago, Shawn got cancer. Living in Spain without family or husband, this was tough: she survived with the help of friends on the internet who provided emotional support and even donated money while she couldn't work. Now recovered, or NED (no evidence of disease), she lives in an up and coming quarter in Seville, near the mushroom architecture of the Plaza de la Encarnacion.

We visited an exquisite hat shop, while I resisted the persistent yearning to buy yet another flamenco dress complete with lacy fan and clickety heels. Everyone should possess a flamenco dress.
Scenes from Seville: teenage lovers, kids in the street, an ancient cookbook, babies dressed expensively and identically.
Weirdy wooden architecture in La Plaza de la Encarnacion. The last mayor had a big spend up, wanted to leave his mark.
Fourat's supper club 'Lebanicious'
On the Saturday night I went to a Seville supper club, hosted by warm and fragrant Fourat El Achkar or @lebanicious. Of Lebanese origin, she and her family now live in a beautiful loft apartment in the centre of Seville. We sat on the roof terrace at first, drinking some great local wines and munching on freshly baked palmiers of z'atar and cheese.
We had an authentic Lebanese meal on this occasion as Fourat's mum was there to help; silken Baba Ghanoush (her mum's trick is always to leave a little of the charred aubergine skin to boost the smokiness), addictive hummus and made-from-scratch flat breads. In fact, I pigged out so much on the first course it left me unable to properly appreciate the rest of the elaborate meal.
I came to again when Fourat served a lovely 'tea': hot water with a little orange flower water and some sprigs of orange blossom. Southern Spanish streets are heaving with scented orange trees in spring and this refreshing drink acted as a cleansing digestive.
Fourat's charming French-speaking daughter (lycée educated, reminded me so much of my own daughter as a child) danced flamenco for us with the intensity and expression 'seriosa' of a professional. Every child learns 'Sevillanas', the bastardised flamenco dance, full of exuberant parts, turns and swirls. Even if they cannot dance, everybody learns to clap 'palmas': complex rhythms, influenced by Moorish music and gypsy origins.
It was the weekend before the feria when prices double and Southern Spain hitches a ride on a horse-drawn wagon, accompanied by trussied up unmarried daughters and hidalgo sons, rattling with cases of manzanilla and fino sherry, through ochre dusty trails to the brightest, fanciest most musical fête on the planet. It's a hierarchical affair nowadays; the richest families hold court in casetas or private marquees. You can only attend if invited. The feria in Jerez de la Frontera, on the other hand, held on a different week, is more democratic, open to the public.
Contact Shawn @sevillatapas for tapas tours.
Contact Fourat @lebanicious for supper clubs and cooking lessons (she also does typical Spanish food).
This clip is the moment when the creator of the dance blends the original opera by Bizet with Flamenco. This has to be one of the best films about dance ever created.
More clips from this marvellous film. Love the guitarist's comb-over (sooo Spanish), the fact that the dancers smoke, the syncopated cacophony of castanets and heels, the proud stance, chin up/chest out, of the dancers, the bitter, sad, angry music. This clip is in French, it's when the choreographer discovers his 'Carmen' in a flamenco class. 

Monday, 28 May 2012

Recipe: Cherokee blueberry honey cake

I always played the Indian in the game of Cowboys and Indians; in movies, I wanted those underdogs to win. I learnt the evocative names of the tribes: Cherokee, Apache, Comanche, Navajo, Cheyenne, are just a few. They represented romance, rebellion, resistance, dignity, tradition, purity of culture. I used to see a Western every week at Saturday Morning Pictures. Do kids still play Cowboys and Indians?
One summer I backpacked around New Mexico, hitching a ride to visit the Acoma pueblo 'mesa', a 365 foot flat-topped mountain arising from the dessert. A few Native Indians live there all year round but thousands of tourists visit each year. We looked around the traditional buildings, the people and the craft shops. In one shop a large friendly red-faced American tourist naively asked a tiny shrivelled Native Indian lady how old she was. Her reply was scathing "How dare you ask me how old I am. How dare you come here and insult me like this. You are talking down to me, this is typical of the white man, patronising us". The hapless tourist gabbled apologies. It was embarrassing and awkward. Her anger punctured our cheerful curiosity about their mesa village. We suddenly became aware that we were interlopers, that they didn't like us, that we were there on sufferance, so that they could make money to survive.
I'm still fascinated by Native Indian life; I'd love to spend some time in a teepee, naff though that might be nowadays. The architecture of the teepee is particularly feminine; many Native Indian tribes are matrilineal. The teepee field at Glastonbury always inspires me and I often go there during the festival to have some chai, listen to guitar by the fireside as dawn breaks.
For this Secret Garden Club I researched Native Indian food, starting with the planting trio 'Three sisters': corn, beans and squash. Foods they ate were mainly corn-based but also included tomatillos (husk tomatoes), berries (Sumac made 'Indian lemonade'), acorn flour and oil, game and fish, wild potato, Yucca, Squash and zuccini, watermelon, turkeys, maple syrup and pinon nuts.
To find out more about companion planting such as the Three Sisters go here.
Corn whisky (Jim Beam with coke)
Cornmeal tacos with marinated salmon, fresh and smoked
Cornbread in a skillet
Tomato and spring onion salsa
Succotash using @zia_mays home-grown borlotti beans
Roast squash with maple syrup and sumac
Cherokee blueberry honey cake
Here is the recipe for the Cherokee Blueberry Honey cake (sounds like the name of a pop stars progeny), it worked very well. The original recipe was with 'huckleberries' but those being thin on the ground in North-West London, I replaced them with blueberries. I was told by a guest that huckleberries* aren't actually very nice! 

120g butter, room temperature
120g caster sugar
200g honey
3 eggs, beaten
125ml whole milk
140g white flour
70g wholewheat flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon of salt
380g. fresh blueberries 

Preheat your oven to 175c or bake in the Aga baking oven, bottom shelf.
Cream the butter, sugar and honey together.
Beat in the eggs and milk.
Once well combined, sift in the white flour, wholewheat flour, baking powder and salt. Mix well.
Dust the fresh blueberries with a tablespoon of flour then fold them in gently with the batter. I reserved a cupful and sprinkled them on top.
I tipped the mixture into a lined loaf tin and baked for 45 minutes. In a conventional oven it may take an hour. 
Keep an eye to make sure the top isn't burning, if it is, cover it with foil. 
It's done when you test with a metal skewer and it comes out clean.
This cake was beautifully moist and not too sweet. 
Dust with icing sugar (I use a tea strainer as a mini sieve).

*Don't make the mistake I once did in an American cafe and order a 'dingleberry' pie. 

The next Secret Garden Club (workshop, supper and bouquet) is on the subject on edible flowers: how to grow them and which ones can you eat. Book here: £45

Friday, 25 May 2012

Recipe: picnic: salad in a jar

I love picnics and salads and jars. Combine all three with this portable layered salad idea. I was trying to make a Jubilee salad (red white and blue) but frustratingly discovered that are there are no genuinely blue foods. Blue foods are purple. So I gave up and used whatever goodies I could find in my fridge.
The layers from the bottom:
Pickled plums recipe from Nigella Lawson
Mini mozzarella 'pearls' (available at Tesco)
Tiny cherry tomatoes from Riverford Organics.
Curley parsley from my garden.
Shaved purple carrots
Shaved orange carrots
Sunflower sprouts from Riverford Organics.
Dressing of your choice

Tip: put the dressing in the bottom then turn the jar upside down once you've set up your picnic.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Recipe: hot smoked mackerel salad with cornflower petals

First smoke your mackerel. Only kidding! But smoking is easier than you think, especially hot smoking. Just buy a little kit or come to one of the Secret Garden Club's smoking courses. (By the way, this Sunday we are running a Cherokee themed gardening workshop and dinner, 'cooking the three sisters', still some tickets left).
This recipe works equally well with smoked mackerel bought from your local fishmonger or supermarket. It's a good starter for this weather and full of flavour, especially with the fresh horseradish vinaigrette. I keep a horseradish root in the freezer and just grate some with a microplane whenever I need it.
I love to use edible flowers including cornflowers. It adds just the right touch of originality and prettiness. Right now I'm using the perennial cornflower which grows wild in my garden, although from June you can use the annual cornflower. I'm cooking an edible flower banquet at the gorgeous Clifton Nurseries in Maida Vale on Midsummer night's eve. Book here:

Serves four.

100ml good olive oil
2 large heaped tablespoons of Dijon mustard
Juice of 1/2 a lemon
Fresh horseradish, grated 

Black pepper

200g mixed lettuce leaves, washed and dried carefully
Cornflower petals
1 pack or 2 fillets of smoked mackerel, skinless, sliced thickly
More black pepper

Make your dressing:
Put the Dijon mustard into the olive oil and whisk.
Add the lemon juice, continue to whisk until it is emulsified.
Grate fresh horseradish straight into the dressing, as much or as little as you like.
Season with salt and black pepper.
Divide the mixed leaves between the plates.
Pluck the petals from the cornflowers and distribute artfully around the leaves.
Then place three or four thick slices of the smoked mackerel fillets on top of the salad, overlapping slightly.
Dot the horseradishy dressing over the salad.
Grind on more black pepper and rub a pinchful of Malden salt between your fingers on top of the salad for a little bit of texture.
Serve with cold white wine and sourdough bread. 

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Recipe: pesto alla genovese with new potatoes and green beans

In my house we joke about 'red dinner' and 'green dinner', the words my daughter used when growing up, to describe our most regular meals. 'Green dinner' is, of course, pasta with basil sauce. Pesto sauce in jars grew in popularity during the late 1980s and became a convenient 15 minute 'just got in from work' supper. It is probably one of the few ways kids can be persuaded to eat anything green. But there exists a lesser known Genovese (from the Northern Italian town of Genoa, the pesto capital) version of the dish which transforms it into a more complete meal with the addition of new potatoes and green beans.
Serves 2 greedy people or 4 light eaters.

50g of fresh basil leaves
100ml of extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, minced
45g of parmesan or pecorino, grated. I prefer pecorino and actually, it's more authentic for pesto from Liguria.
1/2 to 1 tablespoon of sea salt
1 tablespoon of pine nuts. Don't toast them, it ruins the flavour. You want them soft and buttery.
New potatoes 50-60g per person, boiled in salt water until tender and sliced. I used Jersey Royals.
20g green beans, topped, tailed, blanched (boiled briefly) in salted water
100-150g uncooked pasta per person: good quality spaghetti*, although trofie or trenette shapes are more traditional

Method: in a food mixer or pestle, grind the basil leaves, olive oil, garlic, parmesan and sea salt together until it forms a paste. Then add the pine nuts.
In the meantime, cook the potatoes by putting them in boiling salted water.
Five minutes later start to cook the pasta by pushing it into some salted boiling water. To save energy, you could steam the green beans in a colander on top of the pasta or potatoes.
Drain the potatoes, the pasta and the beans. All of these will, with careful planning, be ready at the same instant!
Mix the potatoes and beans with some of the pesto sauce, mix the rest of the pesto with the pasta.
Serve the potatoes and beans on top of the hot cooked pasta.
Add black pepper and more parmesan to taste.

Note: if you are pushed for time, use bottled pesto, some brands are pretty good. It's also a great way of using up left-over boiled new potatoes.

*Please spend money on good pasta, not 'quick cook'. Seriously, it doesn't cost much more but tastes and cooks so much better. The cheap stuff goes fudgy and won't cook 'al dente', retaining its bite. I buy De Cecco, Barilla or organic pasta which takes at least 11 minutes to cook.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Supper Club: Jersey Royals

Buttered Jersey Royal potatoes

After my visit to Jersey a few weeks ago I was excited to try out the produce for a supper club dinner at The Underground Restaurant: kidney-shaped firm nutty potatoes, sunshine yellow butter and cream, caramel crumbly fudge, dark gooey liquorice 'black butter' and cabbage loaves. Here is my menu:

Jersey Cider with spiced rum cocktail
Mini Jersey Royal baked potatoes with chilli roe

Spaghetti pesto alla genovese (recipe in next post)
Lemon sole en papillote with seaweed butter
Buttered Jersey Royal potatoes with mint
Cheeses from Jersey (Brie, Camembert, Blue) with Jersey Black Butter and cabbage loaves.
Jersey fudge icecream with Jersey butter shortbread

Tiny baked Jersey Royal potatoes, filled with creme fraiche and chilli flavoured roe.

To cook fish 'en papillote' (in parchment)

Cut out a large circle using a plate as a template

Brush the greaseproof paper with butter or oil

Lay out the fish on one half of the paper

Season: I used thin slices of lemon and butter mixed with a seaweed spice from @seaspicegirls

Then close by overlapping and folding the edge tightly

Bake in a hot oven for ten minutes or until fish reaches 70 degrees centigrade.

Again, please buy a digital thermometer. You can stab it through the paper.

This technique makes your fish look pretty, prevents you from overcooking it. It remains moist.Cabbage loaves: I used this slightly dodgy recipe in ounces from a BBC website.

Welcoming in the guests... using a secret password.

Smiley pretty waitresses

The difference in colour between Jersey cream and the norm. The cream went into making delicious Jersey fudge icecream.

Shortbread: these were a pain in the butt to cut out, but worth it eventually.
Jersey fudge ice cream with black fudge, chocolate sauce, shortbread spoon.
Cor, don't you just want to bury your face in that?

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Spring at last

It's been a cold start to the year at the Secret Garden Club. Although we had some glorious spring days in March, the nights were chilly with the threat of frost never far away, so tender plants were kept tucked up indoors.

Once the hosepipe ban came into effect, the heavens opened and April turned out cool and wet. With March's sunny head start, growth turned lush and very green, as we wait for the milder temperatures of May to warm the soil up and heat up the suntraps.

Courgettes, peppers, and tomatoes will all be planted out soon - they are already bursting out of their indoor pots.

We'll also have sweetcorn, climbing beans and squash ready for the Secret Garden Club workshop on companion planting on Sunday May 27th, where we'll be explaining how the Native Americans grew these three plants, the Three Sisters, together so that they could support and nourish each other. We'll have other companion planting ideas to share as well, followed by a Cherokee-themed tea created by MsMarmiteLover. Click here for details and to book tickets.

A young Gunnera manicata covered in blossom from the tree above.

Daffodils in the front drive surround a new bay tree

Rosmarinus officinalis 'prostratus' - rosemary in the herb garden.

Pansies in the window boxes.

The camellia tree started flowering in January and was still going strong at the end of April.

Transplanting sugar snap peas to climb up a willow wigwam.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Organic Banquet

Laverstoke Farm burrata, which unfortunately I didn't get to taste, they made it specially for me, but I hope my guests liked it. Pic by Bellaphon

Toynbee Hall. Pic by Bellaphon.

On May Day I was asked to create an organic banquet to be held after a debate about organic food at Toynbee Hall in East London. Named after Arnold Toynbee (the political writer Polly Toynbee is a descendant), an economic historian who coined the term 'industrial revolution', Toynbee Hall was originally a place where scholars who were interested in improving the lives of the working classes could reside. Samuel and Henrietta Barnett (she also started her eponymous school in North London and Hampstead Garden suburb) founded it in the poor East End of London, as a place to attract educated people, to encourage the different social classes to mix. Social inclusion continues to be promoted. The Citizens Advice Bureau and one of my favourite organisations, Child Poverty Action* were started at Toynbee Hall.

Therefore Toynbee Hall was an interesting and relevant pick of location to host this debate because organic food is often viewed as something poncy for posh families to waste their money on. Unless you grow your own, organically grown or reared food appears to be almost the opposite of socially inclusive. The recession has hit 'luxuries' and organic food has been pushed out of the family budget: sales of organic food have fallen over the last three years.
I couldn't attend the debate, hosted by John Craven, given that I was cooking. The 'againsts' were performed by Oliver Thring and James Ramsden, (although how can anybody be against organics?) while the 'fors' were represented by Speech Debelle and Craig Sams of Green and Blacks organic chocolate amongst others.

I try to use organic food whenever I can. For home use, I get a weekly box from Riverford Organics which makes it more economic. How can we afford to eat organically? Actually the question is how can we afford not to? If you spend a large percentage of your income on what you eat, this might be one of the choices you make. The British spend less of their income on food than the Europeans (France spends double what we do). But our children are going blind, getting fat, losing their teeth, getting ADHD and leukaemia from pesticides, because they are eating and drinking crap. We need to get out of the house, get off the damn computer, the magic box of light and tricks, and do some exercise, get some daylight. Ultimately, though, the most important thing is to make sure we eat the boring old '5 a day', organic or not.

Here is my menu:
Salmagundi: a 17th century salad dish, featuring vegetables, herbs, flowers and dips.
Hand made Burrata from Laverstoke farm with tarragon salad and pomegranate seeds.
Asparagus mimosa with pansies
Dover Sole en papillote with kumquats from my garden and samphire.
Tricolour tofu (smoked, basil and beetroot marinated) en papillote (v)
Ginger and mint new potatoes
British cheese selection with biscuits, organic walnuts and almonds, chutneys.
British iced 'fancies':
Chocolate and beetroot cake topped with candied beetroot
Courgette and poppy seed cake topped with candied courgette
Carrot cake topped with candied carrot.
All the organic wines, beers and soft drinks were provided by Vintage Roots. The wines were mostly British.
Most ingredients were provided by Abel and Cole organics.
The vegan salmagundi. Pic by Bellaphon
Salmagundi pic by Bellaphon
The freshest Dover Sole with lemon grass, samphire and kumquats from my garden. I encased the fish in parchment and baked it.
Tricolor tofu: beetroot marinated, basil, and smoked. Again baked in parchment.
Hard to take great pix when you are getting the food out! The dover sole parcels with beautifully fresh and not too salty samphire. Have you tried samphire? It's a sea vegetable, a succulent, that grows near marshes and the coast. It can be used pickled, in salads or lightly steamed with butter. Every fishmonger in France sells it and you should be able to obtain it from a reputable fishmonger in the UK.
British iced fancies. These were a bugger to ice and cocked up my whole prepping schedule.
*Child Poverty Action write the manuals on the rules for welfare and tax credits claimants, what you are entitled to or not, which can be ordered here, only £10 for people on benefits.