Monday, 29 October 2012

How to make the perfect hash brownies

hash brownies

Just back from Amsterdam where I thought I'd do the touristy thing and have some space cake in a 'coffee shop' where, as most people know, it's perfectly legal. On the border with Belgium however, only locals are allowed to go to coffee shops, to deter the drug traffickers and tourists from nearby countries.
I had the most god awful period pains and a couple of puffs of a joint can be wonderfully relaxing. Cannabis can be helpful in a medical sense, but like everything, it should be used in moderation. What is worrying is skunk. One mental health nurse told me that the majority of admissions to a psychiatric ward from young people were due to skunk addiction. It really messes with your mood regulators.
However on the table next to me, at Stix coffee shop, I saw a group of young men. One of them was very pale, in fact his lips were turning blue. He stood up, then collapsed. It was difficult to wake him and the bored looking coffee shop worker, slapped the kid around the face until he came to.
I got this recipe from a young man of my daughter's connaissance. He would sell them in the playground at school, at the Lycée Francais in London. What if a teacher bought one? I asked. Oh he had a system, said my daughter, he would have a normal brownie on top and offer them that.
Anyway this young man is generally a superb baker and I asked him for his recipe. Do be careful. Only eat a bite then wait 45 minutes. You don't want a ride that you cannot get off.

Triple Chocolate Special Brownies

Hash Brownies

200g of good quality dark chocolate, 70% cocoa or more
150g milk chocolate
75g white chocolate
150g unsalted butter
1/8th Jah's green medecine, finely ground (Silver haze not skunk or cheese)
50g chocolate powder
100g self-raising flour
200g light brown soft sugar
3 eggs
Vanilla essence
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
Pinch of ground nutmeg

Preheat oven to 170-180C and line a cake tin (s) with baking paper.
Break up the dark chocolate and half the milk chocolate, into rough chunks and cut the butter into pieces (set aside a few chunks of dark chocolate for the chocolate chips). Place the butter into a bowl with your weed and bain-marie it until the butter has melted. Mix in your weed properly.
If the THC doesn't bind to the fat in the butter, your brownies wont get you high.
Add the dark and milk chocolate chunks and bain-marie it all, mixing until it's uniform. Take the bowl off the heat and leave it to cool.
Chop the remaining dark and milk chocolate and the white chocolate into small chunks and set aside.
Sieve the chocolate powder, flour, cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg into a bowl and set aside.
Cream together the eggs, sugar and a few drops of vanilla essence until light and fluffy. This will take a while, the resulting mixture should be thick and nearly twice the volume of what you started with. Use an electric mixer.
Fold in the butter, chocolate mixture gently to avoid losing the air you've creamed in. Better yet, add the  creamed mixture to the chocolate bowl to minimise chocolate and drugs loss. You'll end up with a swirly beige and brown mixture.
Fold in the flour, chocolate powder and spices bit by bit. Mix until uniform.
Mix in the chocolate chips and pour into the prepared cake rin, or pour into the rin and sprinkle the chips on top.
Place in the oven and cook for 20-30 minutes. The centre of the brownie should no longer wobble when you gently shake the cake tin. If it does, it needs a few more minutes. Cool for about 20 minutes.
Effects can take between 20minutes and 1.30 to kick in.
Cool in the fridge for the last few minutes to get that extra fudgy texture.

Avoid using large quantities of weed without raising proportions of other ingredients, as it changes the behaviour of the brownies in cooking. They tend to become too soft, fudgy and greasy. If using more than £25 to £30 worth, double the batch size. Do NOT use 'cheese'. Silver haze works well.

Recipe by R. Coleman
hash muffins Amsterdam
hash muffins Amsterdam
hash muffins and joint, Amsterdam coffee shop

Next week: how to cook the perfect crystal meth from Breaking Bad. Only kidding!

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Dutch treat

Chocolate sprinkles on bread, a typical breakfast or teatime snack. Children are often allowed one sweet, one savoury (mostly Edam or Gouda cheese) sandwich. 
Holland contains the worlds tallest people. In my hotel, the shower was fixed so high, the water had virtually evaporated to a mere sprinkle by the time it got to me, a little English/Italian hobbit.  On my arrival, looking for somewhere to hang my clothes, I concluded that, strangely, there was nowhere. Later that night in bed, gazing upwards, I noted a lofty clothes rail with hangers, only inches from the ceiling. I would have needed a small stepladder to use it. The bathroom mirrors, the usual culprit of irritations to the vertically challenged, were at a normal height, I could actually see my face reflected back at me, rather than just the top of my head. "Ah yes" said the hotel's events manager "we lowered those, but now our Dutch customers are complaining they have to stoop to look in the mirror".
Fabled as a land of giants wearing clogs, the lowlands were bathed in a opalescent Vermeer light so thick that my flight was delayed. I was invited to the Dutch cookbook awards, now in it's sixth year, organised by Fusina Verloop, to talk about my book Supper Club; recipes and notes from the Underground Restaurant to be published in Dutch on November 16th.
The event took place in Eindhoven, a couple of hours away from Amsterdam at the stunning location of an old Phillips factory, where there is now a fashionable restaurant called Radio Royaal. This building has been beautifully converted, retaining machinery and architectural details, furnished with vintage bric-a-brac and a chessboard tiled floor, like a large scale Dutch interior.

I was joined by Terry Hope Romero, vegan cookbook author of many titles, one of the best known is 'Vegan cupcakes take over the world' who gave a demonstration of how to make vegan pumpkin cheesecake. Also a Swiss Italian chef, Pietro Leeman who must be the only Hare Krishna Michelin-starred chef in the world,  talked about his vegetarian cookbook. Vegan and Vegetarian food are still fairly new in Holland so there was an emphasis on authors that specialise in this type of cuisine. We were interviewed by a Dutch chef and illustrator, Yvette Van Boven, author of gorgeous cook book series 'Home Made', now available in English, but as there was only one mike, it ended up in a comic struggle of who could grab the mike longest. I think I won.
Top Left: Terry Hope Romero, standing next to manga graffiti that looked just like her! Top Right: Kookkaravaantje, one of the winners of the Dutch Cookbook of the year; Bottom Right: Pietro Leeman, in classic Hare Krishna colours; Bottom Left: winner of the Gourmand Illustrated book of the year 
Top Left: This young lady made a fascinating cookbook not only about vegetables but from vegetables, the paper was vegetable and fruit based. She's only made two copies. Bottom Left: I went to North Amsterdam, an up and coming area, the Williamsburg of Amsterdam, where we ate apple cake at Neef Louis cafe, part of a second hand furniture warehouse. Bottom Right: Journalist and food trend analyst, Marjan Ippel of @Talkinfood, who showed me around
Views of Radio Royaal restaurant in Eindhoven
Radio Royaal restaurant
Radio Royaal restaurant: Top Right: flammkuchen, a thin crispy pizza; Bottom Right: Potato croquettes, another typically Dutch dish. 

Slicing cheese thinly is very important to the Dutch.
Top left: how to drink genever, or Dutch gin, a juniper based spirit that is very smooth. The glass is filled right to the top and you have to bend down to sip it. Top Right: a salted herring brodtje from a stall on a bridge; Bottom Right: liquorice, both salty and sweet are popular; Bottom Left: chips with mayonnaise in a cone.
Cafe scene; canal house boats, a DAF car, bicycles. 

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Mushrooms and UFOs in Suffolk

Jews Ears grow under Elder trees
It's a little late now but hurry if you can. Go to a forest, a wood or a heath, a couple of days after it has rained. Get up early, arrive just before dawn, take a wide flat basket, a walking stick, boots, a flask of hot tea and a little guide book to mushrooms. This is the season to go on a mushroom hunt.
The first time I would recommend going with a guide, picking mushrooms isn't something you want to get wrong. In London I recommend fungitobewith, who is a ranger at Kenwood and knows Hampstead Heath, Epping Forest and Wimbledon common well.
If you venture outside London, you will thrill to the variety and quantity of mushrooms. Last weekend I spent in Suffolk with @foodsafariUK, the brainchild of Polly Robinson. She organises regular food related forays: tours of local producers (smokehouses, breweries, bakeries), pop up dinners, cookery day courses and mushroom picking. She also works closely with the nearby Aldeburgh (pronounced Aldebrugh) food festival.
Top left: Amethyst deceivers, you can eat these but not the pink ones. Bottom right: mushrooms spread out in circles, fairy rings. The larger the ring, the older it is. Sometimes they are vast.
Polly Robinson, founder of Food Safari, bottom left, cracked red boletus. 
Rude mushrooms: Shaggy cap and Jelly ear. 
Shaggy Cap and Puffball. The Puffball was particularly delicious. If you can get a giant one, and it's still firm, then slice it into 'steaks' and fry in butter. 

Purple deceivers, spiced pears with blue cheese by chef Tim Wood (delicious) and yuk, squirrel. Tim tried to say it was like rabbit, but really it's like a rat. Gross.
As I drove to the meeting point near the wonderfully named village of Snape, a fuzzy brown shadow was moving on the left hand side, next I knew, an enormous stag dashed in front of my van and galloped to the other side of the road, disappearing into the bronze and green woodland. I gasped with shock.
Suffolk's autumn colours vibrate with coppery intensity, it's worth going just to see the leaves. The mushroom walk lasted a couple of hours but I could have spent all day there, after my encounter with the stag I felt there was something enchanted, reminiscent of the forest scenes in ET. I discovered later that this is near to Rendlesham Forest, where there was a curious UFO incident in 1980, where Margaret Thatcher was said to have acknowledged that it happened but said "we can't let the people know".
Oeufs en cocotte; fresh pasta with wild mushrooms, a simple mushroom omelette, local cider by Aspals. 
As part of the day, we had a cooking demonstration and lunch by chef Tim Wood. He gave us some tips on how to cook mushrooms:

  • Brush mushrooms, or dab lightly with a damp cloth rather than wash them. The enemy is moisture.
  • Don't peel mushrooms.
  • Don't over-handle. Cook lightly, it's all about the texture.
  • To avoid maggots, cook them as soon as you get home
  • If they are leathery such as chestnut mushrooms, cook stems first then the caps. Otherwise the outside of the mushroom hardens. You can cook the stems then lift them out. Reduce the stock and then cook the caps. E
  • Each type of mushroom should be cooked differently: enoki mushrooms are better in soup. Some mushrooms such as blewets are better in stews. Chanterelles, porcini and puffballs are great fried. Others are better raw in salads.
  • Don't overcrowd the pan.
  • Season at each stage of cooking. If the mushrooms contain a lot of moisture, salt towards the end of the cooking as salt will make them more watery.
  • Mushrooms have an affinity with butter, thyme and garlic.
  • You can also try drying them. Either with an Aga, a dehydrator or in an airing cupboard. Then to rehydrate them, soak them in hot water for 20 minutes. They have flavour but poor texture. So better to use them in casseroles or sauces.
  • Store mushrooms in a paper bag in the fridge, but better to have them at larder temperature.
  • Do not drink alcohol with common ink cap mushrooms. They naturally contain antabuse which reacts badly to alcohol. 

 I stayed as a guest of The Crown at Woodbridge, run by chef-patron Steven David, who transformed the pub into a stylish boutique hotel and restaurant four years ago. It was recently named as one of Britains best gastropubs in The Independent and the rooms are large and well designed. The food served by the restaurant regularly has local foragers bringing in produce, they only use the freshest ingredients. Woodbridge itself is an ancient village with a well-stocked cookware shop. I got there just as it was closing and spent £35 in as many seconds.

Food Safari mushroom day: £160 per person
Room at The Crown at Woodbridge: £125
Food is available from stylish bar snacks to dinner with an interesting Kiwi wine list (3 course set menu plus wine approximately £70 for two)

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Elevenses and high tea: eat like a Hobbit

"regular meals, plenty and often"

"Don't be a fool, Bilbo Baggins!" he said to himself, "thinking of dragons and all that outlandish nonsense at your age!". So he put on an apron, lit fires, boiled water, and washed up. Then he had a nice little breakfast in the kitchen before turning out the dining-room. By that time the sun was shining; and the front door was open, letting in a warm spring breeze. Bilbo began to whistle loudly and to gorget about the night before. In fact he was just sitting down to a nice little second breakfast in the dining-room by the open window, when in walked Gandalf"
The Hobbit by JRR Tolkein 1937

Bilbo Baggins could have been a caterer. Only he could rustle up a home-baked tea (seed cake and beer) for 12 dwarves and a wizard at short notice for the 'unexpected party'. In the Lord of the Rings, Bilbo's eleventy eleventh birthday was an incredible feast, starting at elevenses and going on all day until six thirty when Gandalfs' fireworks started.
I grew up on The Hobbit and LOTR. My dad read the books to me every night while I was in my mother's womb and later, he reread them, with all the voices, around the fireside on holiday.
I'm celebrating the film of The Hobbit which will come out in December by hosting two meals: elevenses and High Tea. Away with that American invention brunch, we will feast on something very British, elevenses. It will take place in the shire of Highgate in a cosy wood fired yurt where you can warm your furry feet. Feel free to dress up, blow smoke rings from your pipes and enjoy a hearty Middle Earth inspired feast.
We will be eating lembas, the elven bread, honey cake, mince pies, apple pie, pickles, cheeses, scones, home-made raspberry jam; we will be drinking coffee, tea, mead, ale, cider and Ent draughts.

Tickets available here, places are limited to 12:
Elevenses £30
Supper £40

Drink will be available to buy. 

Monday, 15 October 2012

How to make Taiyaki cakes

Taiyaki cakes are fish shaped pancakes, usually filled with sweet bean paste, that are popular as a street food in Korea and Japan. I bought a Taikyaki pan for Bestival, thinking the shape would go with the shipboard theme, but unfortunately it arrived too late from Korea.
I'm not a huge fan of sweet bean paste, and it occurred to me that creme de marrons is not dissimilar in texture and taste, is more palatable for European palates, and could be a replacement.
I tried it this morning and it worked very well. So well that I've left a plate in the hallway for the residents of the other flats in my house. I don't have the teen as a guinea pig anymore, I can't eat them all so it's nice to share isn't it?
They can be heated up wrapped in tin foil in the oven or briefly in the microwave, if you don't want to eat them straight away.
Taiyaki Cakes

Makes 6

60ml warmed whole milk
2 eggs
50g sugar
100g of wheat flour
1/2 tspn (2g) of baking powder,
3/4 tspn (3.5g) salt
Small tin of creme de marron (this will be enough for double or even triple this recipe)
A small amount of unsalted butter

Pour the warm milk into a bowl
Add the eggs, mix together
Add the rest of the ingredients and whisk.
Grease the pan with the butter
Stand the pan on the gas stove or Aga hot plate, making sure the deeper side is on the bottom, the shallower side is on the top.
Pour the batter into the deep side of the pan, covering the entire fish
Add the creme de marron. I put a dollop in the middle and then a little more for the tail.
Add some more batter on top to cover the paste.
Leave for a minute then turn the pan over, clamping together both sides firmly.
Using a sharp knife, cutting away any excess batter, retaining the shape of the fish, edge the fish out of the pan onto a plate.

Eat! Maybe with some green tea?
You can make these with any waffle maker and try filling them with chocolate or choux cream or for a savoury option, don't add the sugar to the batter and fill them with cheese.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Faviken and Frieze Art Fair

Magnus Nilsson and the Swedish ambassador Nicola Clase.
So she's gone. The teen is now living in at university in York and I'm alone. The house creaks, dust smotes swirl slo-mo in the still air, there is no music or Dr Who or any of her other interests, humming in the background.  I have no one to kick out of bed in the morning. No one to huddle around the Aga with over a cup of tea. Nobody to tell me I'm old, out of date, sexist, racist, living in the Victorian times.
I won't dwell on it, I promise myself, I will get out and about. Fortunately this week I've been to a couple of intriguing food related events.
Faviken is the restaurant of Swedish chef Magnus Nilsson, which I've been wanting to visit for a while. Isolated in the sparsely populated area of Northern Sweden, nestled within some pine woods, is his tiny 12 person restaurant which, like that other distinguished Scandinavian trend setting restaurant Noma, relies on local produce and game.
On Tuesday night, myself and seemingly all of the food world, were invited to the Swedish embassy (who are making a huge effort to reach out to foodies) to meet Magnus for the publication of his book 'Faviken'. The charming retro cover resembles a children's story book, cloth-bound stamped with little silhouetted illustrations. I was slightly disappointed that Magnus didn't stride in, clad in bearskin, armed with a large knife, as befits his Iron John in the woods image. I asked him if his restaurant could feed me, a pescatarian, and he said no problem. "You are not vegan are you?" he asked "because I advise vegans to come in December"
It was a sparkling gathering, the only downside being the lack of and minute size of, the canapés. It verges on cruelty to invite foodies and not feed them. People were getting bad tempered through hunger. Ravenous, I tried to go to nearby MEATliquor afterwards but the queues were ridiculous, even at 9pm on a mid week night. My friend and I ended up at Macdonalds where at least we had a hot meal and a seat within five minutes of arrival.

Faviken the book is a good read for someone such as myself. It's quite a wordy cookbook as Magnus chats through his history, his approach to food, his training, meeting his wife, starting at Faviken and working out how to run a restaurant. His writing style is descriptive and detailed as if he was talking to a fellow chef. I love this. I'm not sure if everyone would. There are no strict recipes, quantities and temperatures are not specified always. He talks to the reader as an equal as if they are as interested in the problems of becoming a chef as he is. This is not a book for amateur cooks unless they just want to get a feel for the direction that Magnus is heading towards.
I love the photographs, the style of the book. My only question mark is the food. It looks spare and raw, reminding me of one of the most disgusting meals I have ever had in my life at The Loft. We were served a grey prawn beached limply on a plate, as if it were a great treat. This soft slimy uncooked meat slithered down my throat. It was all I could do not to gag.
Too many young chefs are trying to do minimalist abstract plating: half a potato, a scattering of something that looks inedible but turns out to be 'interesting', a couple of petals and a droplet of a 'fermented' sauce. It's all a bit too clever, too intellectual. Good food is not intellectual, it's about the gut instinct. The appetite wants umami flavours, fat for mouthfeel, carbs for seratonin uplift and comfort. Listen to your gut.
Frieze. Painters outside.
Plates; pressed glass (I've got something like this in my living room); sushi from moshi moshi, walnuts installation

On Thursday I visited Frieze the annual art fair in Regents Park invited by the Marine Stewardship Council who are working with MoshiMoshi sushi (who had a pop up there) to make sure that their fish is sustainable and their sourcing always identifiable. A valuable aim I agree, however the vegetarian sushi that I asked for was frozen in the middle. Caroline Bennett who started Moshi Moshi, the first conveyor belt sushi, in the UK, way before we'd even heard of Yo sushi, explained that this was because sushi restaurants are obliged to keep all their sushi refrigerated, even though sushi is always served at room temperature in Japan. You know those horrible little boxes of sushi you buy in supermarkets? How the rice is always hard and flavourless, due to being kept in the chiller? It's not how it's supposed to be, refrigeration is death to sushi flavour.
Caroline agreed with me that the future is vegetarian but, she said, chefs were resistant to making vegetarian sushi. "It's hard to get all the flavour into the small sushi, so much easier with fish and meat". 
You have to up the umami with vegetarian food, over-season rather than under, go for big flavours. I'd like to experiment with fusion sushi, introducing intense Mexican ingredients such as huitlacoche and rajas into nori nori.
I wandered around Frieze and saw that many exhibits were inspired by food and kitchen equipment. If food is a cutting edge, avant garde and zietgeisty subject right now, clearly artists will be exploring it. Which is no doubt why Guardian writer Steven Poole has just published a book 'You aren't what you eat (fed up with gastroculture)' criticising the trendiness of food. Unfortunately he is not knowledgeable enough to authoritatively critique the food world. For instance, his first chapter starts with a visit to my Underground Farmers Market although he doesn't have the grace to credit me or even talk/interview  me at my home-grown event in my house. He derides the customers who attend. According to Steven, we are all pretentious twats. He doesn't recognise or appreciate the sheer good will, community feeling, trust and genuine curiosity about food that takes place at my Underground Farmers Market. No, he conflates the hard work and enthusiasm of DIY foodies and hands-on food geeks with the snobbery of those who only go to Michelin starred restaurants or the fakery of TV celebrity chefs. There is a book to be written about this but Steven Poole hasn't written it.
The chef Simon Rogan of L'enclume in the Lake District, hosted a pop up restaurant at Frieze, overlooked by a wooden viewing platform: the restaurant as spectacle. This series of cheffy installations was at the behest of the Lake District organisation, the Grizedale Arts Project 'Colosseum of the Consumed'. Simon's performance was a quiet affair, more ingredients than glitz. I'd love to do some performance art, cook for the crowds, an iphone in one hand, a ladle in the other, spooning up my own show, a gourmet gladiator of gluttony!
Colisseum of the Consumed
Food Art from the Grizedale Centre for Arts

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Rice n Peas

I'm all about sistas doing it for themselves. My upstairs neighbour Karen, also a single mum, who comes from a Jamaican background, has started a sideline in selling proper Jamaican food to other mums outside the school gate. Parents are flocking to buy tubs of her rice n peas, callalloo (a Caribbean spinach) and Jerk chicken. I can't blame them, it's delicious, healthy and whilst a seemingly simple dish, it's time consuming to make properly. Contact Karen for Caribbean catering here at her facebook group MsRicenPeas.
The future lies in kitchen table entrepreneurs!
Rice and peas is the mainstay food of Jamaican cuisine. Peas is beans: the further south, the darker the legume. Caribbean islands near to the southern states of America, will often use the black eyed pea as I have. Jamaicans use the pinto bean. Islands closer to South America will use the small black turtle bean.
Caribbean and food from the South in the US, is hugely influenced by African food, foodways brought by the slave trade who tried to reproduce their home food using local ingredients. Most African countries have a stew and a starch as a main dish. 
Karen kindly gave me her recipe. A few pointers:

  • One of the things that surprised me was that she soaked the peas with garlic and onion "to soften them". Softening those peas is important.
  • Pimento is 'All Spice'. I'd love to get hold of the leaves, they taste like bay leaves.
  • Scotch Bonnets: make sure you get the real thing, not habaneros. Genuine Scotch Bonnets have a fruity flavour, not just heat. If you are really hard-core you can put the entire Scotch Bonnet in your beans when cooking but you risk it bursting, spilling the seeds and making the dish too hot.
  • My tweak: I had some fresh coconut so I cooked my peas with a few large slices. It lent a rich depth to the flavour. And the fresh coconut tasted amazing just eaten by the slice.

Rice and Peas
Rinse beans
1 cup beans = 2 (or 3) cups of basmati rice depending on your taste.
Soak Beans in filtered water or cooled water from the kettle, overnight if possible add a tiny piece of garlic ½ ways through (yes I have woken up in the middle of the night to put garlic in my beans)
1 clove of garlic
2 spring onions
½ onion
½ red bell pepper
2 slices scotch bonnet pepper no seeds
Pimento seeds (4 minimum) 
Optional 1 carrot
2 small slices of fresh ginger

Put garlic, onion and pimento seeds on to boil using water from the kettle, cover beans and then some.
Simmer for one hour.
Then add the rest of the ingredients and simmer till cooked. Don’t let beans cook too soft, they should smell sweet and creamy.
Melt coconut cream in hot water (just to dissolve the block) for 2 cups of rice I would use ¼ of a packet (200g size) of coconut cream. You can add more or less if you prefer, it’s a matter of personal taste. I find too much coconut cream makes the rice greasy. Add thyme about 2 – 3 stalks or a tablespoon of dried. I put at least one table spoon of soy sauce in at this stage. You can add any seasoning you like i.e. Season All,  Reggae Reggae sauce etc.
Simmer the peas on low and wash your rice. Season well.
Once your rice is free of starch add it to the peas and stir with a fork. Taste liquid. Usual rules for cooking rice apply; you may need ½ cup more liquid than normal. I use the knuckle test and stick my finger in but otherwise its 2 cups of water to 1 cup of rice. I add a generous knob of butter and check seasoning. Cook rice on stove or in oven on a low heat, till its cooked. Check the water and don’t stir with a spoon.
Alternatively if not cooking rice till next day, drain peas and reserve liquid. Mix peas into rice and stir (heated) liquid back in.
Rice should be soft and fluffy. Serve with anything!
Ms Rice and Peas x

Caribbean supper club hosts Tan Rosie have brought out a cookbook so if you want to know about Grenada and Carriacou cuisine buy it here. 

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Tomatillos - Mexican fruits in a London garden

One of our most successful crops this year in the Secret Garden was the tomatillos. We grew them last year specifically for MsMarmiteLover's Frida Kahlo dinner and we liked them so much that we planted again this year.

These are tomatillos: tall spreading plants that need support, and these are the fruits themselves, looking like green tomatoes in a papery husk. If they remind you of physalis (Cape Gooseberries) that's because they are closely related. Tomatillos are also cousins of potatoes, tomatoes and so also of aubergines - all members of Solanaceae. (If you grow potatoes you may have noticed that the potato plants sometimes produce small green berries that look similar to a tomatillo. Don't be tempted to try them: potato berries are poisonous - as indeed is the entire plant, apart from the tubers).

We're particularly pleased that the tomatillos have done well this year because it was such a poor year in general for them. Tomatillos like warmth and sunshine - they are really a subtropical plant and the fruit is typically used in Mexican cooking. Our climate in north London is far from Mexican. If you read the books or online, many people say that they should really be raised in a greenhouse, and maybe they would be more prolific if so. But they have done well here.

This is another plant which needs to be sown indoors, then planted out once all danger of frost is over. They like a well-drained soil, a sheltered spot and plenty of sun, so choose your planting spot carefully. Don't just plant them straight into our clay, but dig in some organic matter before you transplant. We mulched the whole of the garden with horse manure last winter and it has paid off in terms of soil quality this year. You also need to give each plant plenty of space. It's hard to imagine when you transplant your tiny seedling but they will grow quickly into this 1.6m high, spreading plants. 

The stems are quite slim and green as well, so you will need to give them a cane support as they grow - another reason for not putting them in too exposed a place. But make sure you plant at least two reasonably close together -these plants do not self-pollinate and need another tomatillo nearby to ensure pollination, Without pollination, there will be no fruit.

Protect the seedlings from slugs when you first plant them out - once they're established and bigger the slugs find them less tasty. Once you have ensured the plants have support you can pretty much leave them to their own devices. They don't need huge amounts of regular water like tomatoes - in fact they don't like sitting in the wet at all and here in London with our clay soil we probably don't have soil as well-drained as the tomatillo would like.

The flowers should come in June and July and then in August you'll see the first husks forming. If you pinch the young husks you'll feel the developing fruit, about the size of a pea at first, but swelling quickly into the size of a big gobstopper, or eyeball. Once the husk starts to turn pale and split, the fruit is ready to pick. Leave them too long and they'll start falling off the plant.

Tomatillos aren't eaten raw but lightly cooked - either simmered or roasted - to form the basis of a Mexican salsa or green sauce. They're also superb in chutneys. The tase is one of zingy freshness - halfway, say, between a tomato and a cucumber.
Saving seeds: we'll be saving seeds from the tomatillos this year, so that we can sow our own seeds again next spring. This is a fairly simple process - and remember if it's just for you, you don't need so very many seeds.

Choose two to three good-sized, healthy-looking fruits to save and leave them on the plant after you've harvested the rest. Don't let them get frosted - if there is frost forecast, cut the fruit at the stem, leaving a length of stem and bring into the house to finish maturing.

After about a week, the fruit may look past its eating best, but the seeds should be ripe. Break open the tomatillo - you can cut it with the knife, the seeds are tiny and hard and quite tough. Put the tomatillo pieces in a bowl with some cold water, then mash up the fruit. Either use the handle of a knife as though you were crushing a clove of garlic, or rub the tomatillo pieces with your fingers until the seeds start to separate from the flesh, keeping the fruit underwater. You can also put the resulting mush in a fine sieve - not a colander or you'll lose all your seeds. Rinse well with cold water, again rubbing the flesh with your fingers to loosen the fibres and flush out the seeds. 

Repeat until the seeds are well separated from the fruit. Put the remaining flesh and seeds back into the bowl and cover with water again. The heavy seeds -the good seeds - will sink to the bottom. The light seeds - which are not viable - and fibres will rise to the top. Leave the bowl alone while the seeds settle, then pour off the surface flesh and seeds, leaving you with just the good ones.

You may find the seeds come away nice and easily just mashing with your hands, or you may have to repeat the process above once or twice to get the seeds really clean and free of fibrous material. Once you have clean wet seeds, lay them on a tea towel to get the excess water off, then finish drying them on a flat glass or stone surface. Don't be tempted to try kitchen paper, or leave them on tea towel, or even a porous material like wood. The seeds are very sticky and will glue themselves to anything remotely absorbent. Also, let them dry at room temperature - don't be tempted to try to speed up the process in an oven, or in the sun.

Once the seeds are completely dry, tip them into a sealable paper bag or envelope and label them clearly with the name of the vegetable and the date. This last is very important! Keep them in the dark, somewhere cool and dry. They should keep for up to three years.

PS: should you not have a garden, this year Riverford Organics have been growing tomatillos and you can request to add them to your box. 

Monday, 1 October 2012

The vine and the choke

Globe artichokes are basically big thistles. They're not related to the Jerusalem artichoke, which is a type of sunflower. They are, however, related to cardoons, another big thistle which is grown for its leaves. Globe artichokes contain the active ingredient cynara – this promotes liver and kidney function, which is the main reason why the globe artichoke has a reputation for being good for hangovers.
It also has taste inhibitors which will make everything you eat for a while after eating an artichoke seem sweeter. This is the reason why artichokes are difficult to pair with wine.

The part of the artichoke that we eat is actually the flowerbud. Once the bud has opened and is in flower the bloom is spectacular, but now inedible. You want to cut your artichoke when the bud is plump and firm, and the leaf scales are still packed tightly around the heart. You can pick them when small and cook as baby artichokes - when the choke is soft and undeveloped and can be eaten whole - or leave them to grow bigger so you can eat them in traditional style, pulling off each fleshy leaf before lifting off the hairy part of the choke and dipping the rest in dressing.

Globe artichokes are notoriously hard to overwinter. Seed-raised plants are particularly prone to dying in winter, while some varieties simply aren’t hardy and since you can’t bring them indoors you will need to protect them, usually with straw which will also keep off a lot of the wet. The last couple of winters when we’ve had lots of frost and snow in London have been hard on artichokes.

Even the hardier varieties may give up the ghost over winter – not necessarily because of the cold but because globe artichokes don’t like sitting in waterlogged soil.

Many if not most of the world’s globe artichoke plants are in California or France – lots of them in Brittany, but also further south, in a climate warmer and drier than ours in the UK. It’s worth protecting the plants to keep them going because they don’t always flower in their first year and  winter survivors flower more prolifically in year two than they may have done in year one.

Assuming you’ve covered the plants with straw or fleece and they’ve bounced back up green in spring, the good news is that established plants are tough customers. They’ll grow big, look spectacular and give you lots of flowerbuds which are delicious to the point of being addictive.

Starting off, though, you can either grow from seed, buy young plants, or divide up older plants to produce smaller new ones.
Seeds need more cosseting and are less reliable. Young plants are convenient but an expensive way to grow. Division is great, but requires you to know someone who is preparing to perform surgery on their plants – and you’ll get no choice over the variety.

If growing from seed, start by sowing indoors in March, then plant out after the last frost. In London you should be safe in April, but keep an eye on the weather forecast and some fleece handy. But if you get warm weather in April, as we quite often do, they’ll get off to a good start. This last season (2012) the winter survivors got off to a great start in March when we had two weeks of weather that was almost like summer. The new seedlings, however, which went out in April, all had a terrible time when it turned cold and we had the wettest April on record – followed, I think, by the wettest June (remember they don’t like sitting in the wet).

If you buy young plants, they will come in small plugs. Plant out again in April and look out for late frosts.

Artichokes are hungry plants so before you transplant them, get lots of good rotted organic matter into the soil. Really well rotted horse manure is good. Really well rotted kitchen compost is good. If you’re at all worried your soil isn’t quite up to scratch buy some liquid seaweed extract and give the ground a good soaking with that. This is also brilliant stuff for foliar feeds – basically you dilute the seaweed extract and drench the plants with it.

With young plants, you will also need to protect against slugs and snails. Once these spiky prickly leaves have developed they’ll stop being a problem, but the soft succulent new leaves are exactly what slugs and snails like. I use copper rings, placed around each plant. They can be removed once the plant is established and the mature leaves appear. Copper rings are effective because the copper reacts with the mucus on the underside of the slug/snail body and they dislike travelling across it. Make sure you don’t trap any beasties inside the copper ring – or they won’t be able to get out.

If you’re lucky, you should see your first flowerbud form, at the top of the main stem, in late May or June. Pick this as soon as it reaches a manageable size, because, 1) it’s delicious, and 2) cutting the main flowerbud will encourage side buds to form – which means you get more artichokes to eat.

Generally I find that I’ll get a batch of artichokes in June/July and then they’ll go quiet before producing another batch in September/October. Your plant may flower differently.

Once established, artichoke plants can be left alone to get on with it once you’ve successfully nursed them beyond the seedling stage, but there are a couple of things to look out for:

1. Watering. I try not to water established artichoke plants. Here in London the soil tends towards heavy clay even with organic matter dug in and drainage can be variable. Now what artichoke plants will do is send down long roots and eventually a long-lived healthy plant will have roots deep enough to find moisture in the soil.

But if the weather is very dry, better to mulch around the plants rather than water. I have also successfully grown artichoke plants through plastic, which of course retains moisture in the ground by preventing evaporation and also keeps the rain off, so the soil doesn’t get waterlogged.

2. Aphids and ants. Once the slugs stop finding the plants attractive, the blackfly moves in. How badly your artichokes are affected really depends on how prevalent blackfly is in your area. On an allotment site, you can probably count on an infestation, although on my allotment I have blackfly on some artichokes and others which are quite free of it. Here in the Secret Garden we have none at all.

You don’t want to be spraying your flowerbuds, but one quite effective way to get rid of them is to get your garden hose and nozzle, turn it to 'jet', or it smost powerful setting and blast the blackfly off. You may have to do this more than once, but you will eliminate them eventually.

If you get a bad attack, you may also find your plants become riddled with ants. This is not coincidence, although the ants aren’t preying on the blackfly, they’re farming them. Aphids suck in the sugars in the plants cells and then secrete a sticky sweet substance called honeydew – you can see it and feel it on an affected plant. Ants are always attracted to sugar and they come to eat the honeydew. They will protect their aphids from predators, indeed they will even ‘milk’ them by stroking the aphids to stimulate them into excreting more honeydew. They have been known to move the aphids from one plant to another if the first plant becomes sickly.

None of this does the artichoke plant any good. It looks unattractive, it loses sugars to the aphids and the honeydew blocks up the plant pores. If you can identify where the ants are coming from you can try destroying the nest; otherwise persevere with the jet-blasting. If you get rid of the aphids and their sweet secretions, the ants will lose the motivation to invade your artichoke plants. 

Growing grapevines
Some vines are meant to be grown indoors, some are happy outdoors. When grown outdoors here in London, a south or west-facing aspect is best and against a wall rather than a fence – the wall will be slightly warmer – is even better. Take time to determine the best planting position: grapevines can live for up to 100 years. Before you plant your vine, try to imagine which part of your garden is most like France!

If you are planning to make your own wine from your own home-grown grapes, go and buy a vineyard. Or accept that you will get a few bottles at most. Better, really, in a domestic garden, to grow for dessert grapes from which you can get a good crop.

The key is to spend some time on soil preparation before planting. The soil should be dug as far down as you can get, and lots of well-rotted farmyard manure incorporated into it. In the wild, vines were historically forest plants: their roots planted in the cool of the woodland floor, and the stems climbing through and around the branches to reach sunlight. So as well as manure, try mulching your newly-planted vine with leaf mould to remind it of the forests of long ago - leaf mould is always good for your soil structure too.

Alternatively you can help to keep the roots cool by surrounding the bottom of the stem with large stones or rocks, as you do with clematis, another climbing woodland plant, if you think the planting site is too exposed.

You can just buy a grapevine and leave it. In the right place it will grow vigorously and provide lots of foliage, wall/fence/pergola cover, and leaves for making homemade dolmades. But in order to maximise its fruit production you will need to train it.

Vine training
Buy your vine in either autumn or spring. It will look like a rather unpromising stick. Before you plant it, drive in a sturdy stake that will form the support for your growing vine in its first year. Then plant the vine in the prepared planting hole, refill, and firm.

In the first year, the main stem of the vine will grow. Keep this on the straight and narrow by loosely tying it to the stake. Use a soft tie rather than plastic wire.

In autumn, you can start training. You are aiming for a cordon effect, where strong lateral branches grow horizontally at  right angles and at regular intervals, like a espalier apple tree. Once trained the vine will be balanced on either side, with the  lateral branches receiving maximum available sunlight to encourage the plant to produce plenty of fruit.

Remove all the existing lateral stems, and cut the main stem back down to the healthy wood. Tie it in again using a soft tie.
Be ruthless about pruning out weaker stems – you will not kill the vine.

There are lots of grapevine pruning guides on the web but the basic method is the same. This is one of the clearest and easiest to follow.  

The next year, you’ll have many more side-shoots. Prune the main stem back but as before but also choose two lateral shoots to train horizontally and along a fruiting wire, pegged into the back fence or wall. The next year, you can let shoots from the laterals grow on. Prune away everything else.

After three years you’ll have a hardy grapevine and should get grapes which get plenty of light and sun to ripen.

Harvesting vine leaves 
As well as growing vines for grapes, don't forget that the leaves can also be eaten, wrapped around a rice filling as in dolmades, for example.

  • Pick leaves in spring when the leaves are young, tender and pale green.
  • Pick reasonably sized leaves, big enough to wrap around a filling.
  • Pick whole leaves, nothing damaged or with holes in them.
  • Be 100% sure that they have not been sprayed with any pesticide/fungicide/pesticide.
  • Be 100% sure that they are grapevine leaves and not the next plant along.
They need to be blanched before you can use them. Rinse under the tap to make sure you get rid of dust, dirt or even any little creepy crawlies.

Lay the leaves in a bowl or a wide shallow dish like a lasagne dish. Pour boiling water over them and leave them for three minutes, a bit longer if they weren’t quite so young and tender after all. They can now be used but you can also freeze them for use later in the year.

To freeze grape leaves they must be dry. You can dry them very carefully after the first rinse, then lay them one on top of another and slide them into a plastic bag. Seal and freeze. They’ll keep for six months and after three months may not need to be blanched before use.

Or dry them thoroughly after blanching, then freeze as before. Use within a couple of months.

For more on preparing and using vine leaves, see MsMarmiteLover's comprehensive blog post here.