Archives for the month of: April, 2014

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Several years ago, when William and Kate got married, someone in our town organised a street party. Now– I love the idea of a street party, the history and tradition of mass celebration of Royal Weddings in Britain, the comradery, the feasting. Yet there’s also a deep ambivalence about the concept and public financial drain of monarchy. I was torn about participating.  But, because Kate and Will were a couple based in love, something truly to celebrate, and because I wanted to support the efforts of the girl so enthusiastically organising the event, I decided to join in.

At that time, I was attempting to make a dandelion preserve, a jelly really, but the whole thing went wrong, because without any pectin — I guess I could have used apples for a mild tasting thickening agent– it didn’t solidify.  What resulted was a thick syrup, known as Dandelion Honey.  I wasn’t fully satisfied though because I knew from the process that there had been a moment of beautiful, delicate fragrance that I’d boiled away in my attempt to make the jelly.  So I resolved to try again in the future to recreate that ephemeral moment of sublime dandelion perfume that I’d experienced.

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Rhubarb– an avatar of springtime, tart, glorious, friendly.

I happened upon this recipe for a wonderful Rhubarb Compote  with it’s suggestion to roast the rhubarb for better shape retention, and the inclusion of a link to a Rhubarb – Rose Petal Jam. Heavenly.

But on my countertop — me whose husband did once affectionately suggest I name this blog Kitchen Counter Clutter for all my space-occupying experiments– sat a jar of Rosehip Syrup, the hips suspended since September in a sugar syrup.   It needed using up.   The syrup had never developed the intensity I’d wished for, and next autumn I will wait until frost softens the hard shells and perhaps do some simmering– the old fashioned way. But, there was a nevertheless a lovely perfume to it, and a slight bite despite its sweetness.

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So I strained out the hips, added a little wild Blackberry Apple Vinegar (I’d read Jamie Oliver somewhere adding a dash of balsamic vinegar to his rhubarb) to dilute the sugar crystals on the bottom, and poured the syrup over the stalks. And into a medium oven it all went, maybe for 20 minutes.

Indeed they did stay stalkier, less mushed. And were wonderful with the homemade, vanilla-flecked custard and crumbled shortbread biscuits.  Really good. And the juice on the bottom of the roasting pan— mmmmm— rhubarb infused rosehip syrup.  Just decadent with the last of the custard clinging to the bottom of the pan.

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In past years I’ve made jams I call Tutti-Frutti for their mix of rhubarb with orange, apple, strawberries (classic), raspberries– whatever is around.  And I love Deborah Madisons use of orange juice and cloves in her stewed rhubarb in Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, and that’s become a fall-back combo for me.  Lots of people love ginger, fresh and powdered, paired with rhubarb (perhaps oddly, I don’t).  Maybe it’s wonderful with all bright and spicy flavours.   Now I’m thinking…. hibiscus tea! Also everyone’s hedgerow jams that linger in the cupboard– maybe my friend’s Crabapple Jelly, maybe black currant preserves…  Would all be wonderful in compotes and tarts.  Want to explore.

A Link for You: The Anarchist's Teapot Mobile Kitchen's Guide to Feeding the Masses

I love this photograph so much, borrowed from the site on Wikipedia for Can Masdeu, an amazing old leprosy hospital squatted as social centre and community gardens just outside Barcelona. I feel priveliged to have stayed there briefly in the early days, my husband taking part in an international youth gathering on Climate Change. I was pretty wrapped up in caring for my young baby.  Yet I remain to this day inspired inspired by the participatory, DIY-style mass catering, based on principles of everyone contributing in beautiful anarchist style.  I also remember such happy, bountiful feasting, mostly on food that had been taken from skips. And I remember a friend  who was just in ecstacy at the skipping possibilities in the markets of Spain, as opposed to those behind  supermarkets in grey Britain: Avocados! Mangoes! Peppers!  He was in his Vegan Heaven and it was a joy to witness his joy.  (Hello Dara if Fate would ever have you read this!)

Anyway, I wanted to share that photo, along with a link to this fantastic resource from The Anarchist Teapot:

The Anarchist Teapot Mobile Kitchen’s Guide to Feeding the Masses if you and yours find yourself in need of a little guidance.

 

Concentration of Agricultural Land

I want to state an intention then find the time to write about the conceptual differences between the phrases “Food Security” and “Food Sovereignty.” I stand with Food Sovereignty, which is: rooting our food closer and closer to people and home and less and less reliant on manufacture and distribution through large economic and financial systems.

If you look at this graphic you might feel a narrowing in your gut.  It goes against the grain of the wisdom proclaimed by Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food.  If you want you can read his report here or read about it in this summary piece on Truth-Out called The Transformative Potential of the Right to Food.   We really need to buck the trends and claim back our power as citizens not consumers, growers not shoppers, participants in ever smaller circles of economy.  The concentration of agricultural land and power in the hands of Big Players is a dangerous game especially in light of climate unpredictability.

This concentration of ownership is a global trend, but here in the UK, so many of us Social Optimists  have placed faith in The Cooperative, which is now in dubious financial trouble and selling off its resources.  Please support, if only with a signature, even better with activism as a member, to halt the fire sale of Co-op Farms, which are a resource that smaller, less financially solvent buyers might want a shot at owning.

https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/sale-of-co-operative-group-farms

Here you can read the green economist  Molly Scott Cato arguing really persuasively for why the farms are the most important part of the Co-op group, more than the shops…

And here’s an article on the outrageous new Tory policy towards small farms in Britain —-arrrghghghghghhrrrrr:

http://www.theecologist.org/blogs_and_comments/commentators/2364508/small_scale_farmers_are_feeding_our_future.html

Sorry, so brief, am in a mad dash…

Gather Ye Nettle Tops While Ye May

Gather Ye Nettles While Ye May, or, if you are a Permaculture person feeling inspired by the Design Principles, “Catch and Store Energy: Make Hay While the Sun Shines.”

When you look around, especially in Britain, nettles grow wild, inspiring a thousand culinary uses as a free vegetable.   March, April, early May are the best months for gathering, before the plants grow too big and minerals crystallise in the leaves, causing potential kidney  issues.  (Of course, you can “manage” a patch to keep the tips young and soft.) There are so many things I want to cook with them, but I also have a love for nettles as a herb, and so forage as much as I can in early spring for use throughout the year.

I just go out with scissors and snip the tops into a bowl or bag.  I might use gloves if I didn’t enjoy the pleasure of the sting.  I put them in a large bowl and toss them around in the open air until they are fully dried, then they go into a jar.  Maybe there are more official ways to dry herbs; for nettles in spring, this seems to work.  (Not so for Nettle Seeds in autumn– one’s i’ve gathered have always gotten mould before being fully dry, maybe because of the moisture content.  On my to-do list to figure out.)

Nettle tea:  Here’s a list of potential health benefits.  I drink a cup of nettle tea every night before bed, because I find it delicious and relaxing.  I throw a few leaves into soup stocks.  And last year, I made some Nettle Salt, and plan more for this year.

The idea occurred to me reading the 101 Cookbooks instruction for Celery Salt .  I’d been given a load of slightly sad celery and decided to use the leaves for this. So easy– basically dry the leaves in a slow oven, crumble, and combine with an equal quantity of sea salt.  I could have added Kale, anything green really.  Vegetable Salts, why not?  The celery stems, fibrous and aged, I fermented, for a kind of soup stock– I will re-enact this for a blog at a future date.  And in fact, one could use these kind of salts in one’s lacto-fermenting; they are pretty much all-purpose, and mineral rich.

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The idea for Nettle Salt just occurred right there and then, and I made it with nettles I’d gathered and dried for tea.

Really nice at the table, but somehow especially simple and poetic on a hard boiled egg.  Or on popcorn.

So under a blue sky on this spring day,  my children happily occupied, with only a million other more important, in fact urgent, work-related tasks to accomplish, off I go to gather my nettle tops while I may, to catch and store (herbal) energy while the sun shines, from untended, abundant edges.

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Nettles: soups, tarts, omelettes, frittatas, filo pastries, ferments, Sag Paneer– a versatile substitute whenever we think spinach, for we who can’t resist the idea of abundance in the byways and neglected patches all around us, in city, suburb and country.  Through the years I’ve enjoyed nettles in my spring time cookery, the nutty perfume, the slightly exciting threat of sting.  I would call it love.

So after making a Tourte de Blette (a sweet Chard tart) from my over-wintered Bed of Chard, I determined to explore uses for greens in desserts, and with the chard still growing profusely, and nettles abounding, my odyssey began.  I’ve been seeking spinach recipes in which to substitute these.

First stop, as so often, was Jane Grigson— her Vegetable Book (1978) a deserving classic of international and historic reference really rooted in Britain but looking outward.  She is impeccable, imaginative, fun.  I love her writing.  And so to find a “Sweet Spinach Tart” (Tarte D’Epinards Au Sucre/ Tarte Aux Epinards Provencale), I felt given a proper send off…  She writes:

“Do not blench at the idea [of sweet spinach].  Take courage from the thought that [it] was a thoroughly English delicacy in the days before modern fruit storage–as one 18th-century writer remarked, ‘This is good among tarts in the winter for variety.’ Tudor recipes might include rosewater as a flavouring,but later we inclined more to the candied orange and lemon peel of this modern recipe from France.”

I gathered a big lot of nettle tips to weigh around 250grams/ 8 oz, as the recipe instructed. The instruction is to lightly steam them in the water that clings to the leaves after washing — really simple and obvious but bears emphasis, because then, if you immediately blanch (ie, cool down as quickly as possible in cold or ice water) you retain the beautiful green. Then I pureed them in the whizzer.

(This I think is a great technique for use with greens in general– especially the ones with chewier texture, like nettles.  This kind of puree would be a great ingredient in many cakes/ breads/ pancakes / shakes etc. and pestos and spreads too.)

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Grigson calls for:

250g (generous 8oz) spinach

125 ml (4 fl oz) each milk and single cream, or 250 ml milk

60g (2oz) sugar (you could use less but I reckon the point of this recipe is that it is sweet– so use honey maybe if you’re concerned about sugar?)

half vanilla pod [for a lovely custard-ness; but I used almond essence actually]

2 small egg yolks

30g (1 oz) flour ….

shortcrust pastry

candied orange and lemon peel [I used a few spoonfuls of marmalade]

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Her method involves ensuring all excess water is drained from the pureed spinach; slowly boiling the milk and cream, stirring the flour into the beaten yolks then adding them to the near-boil so everything thickens, then mixing in the spinach and placing everything into the pastry case (which I next time will bake blind). Grigson suggests serving hot or warm, with cream, which I did.  But hours later the slivers that were cold were much much creamier and nicer, and the flavours settled.

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I would call this Sweet Nettle Tart a success and gave lots of ideas for future desserts and sweet uses for nettles.

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What made me look to Claudia Roden’s epic The Book of Jewish Food I don’t know, but it is compendiously trans-cultural and anthropological, and one of the great cookbooks ever for its breadth.  It’s one to read even if not to use, but use it I find myself often doing….  In it are loads of spinach recipes for a keen substitution of nettles and chard– all now on my to-do list.

Shining most brightly: Torta di Mandorle e Spinaci — a green macaroonish “cake” with few ingredients that Roden discusses as an old Florentine curiosity, possibly with an earlier history in Provence–  and perfect now as my Torta di Mandorle e Ortica, incarnated yesterday as a Passover Dessert.  Basically, it’s pureed steamed nettles (supplemented by some chard), as above, powdered blanched almonds, sugar,  and egg yolks mixed together and folded into, therefore raised  and lightened by, hard whipped egg whites for loft.  Then baked as a cake, but could easily be made into smaller biscuit shaped pieces, perhaps in little paper cases.

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 The longer they’ve sat, the more delicious they’ve become– really quite unusual yet hard to not want to keep tasting for that allusive.. that hard to say…. that je ne sais quoi.

Please stay tuned for more green spring sweets — I have a list of ideas I’m working through.  As of this moment, I think the basic principle  I’ve learned is: lightly  steam and puree the greens then add them to whatever it is that appeals– a plain white cake, a pancake, a custard… with nettles the pureeing mitigates the stringy (ie hempy) texture…

And thanks to my friend Elli for the idea of the Galette aux Orties, an oat and nettle cake cooked in a pan and sounding especially delicious, even if in an ancient Celtic way somehow, in the French.  Could be savoury, could be sweet.  Ah, one could do a crepe, a buckwheat crepe!  The ideas spill forth….

And thanks too to the amazing Sara Stanley for imagining a carrot-nettle cake (wouldn’t it be fun placing orange and green cakes as layers — or not) and the pairing of chard and date, and nettle and chestnut.  Sara is an impressive and professional baker, teacher, forager, recipe-developer, foodie and lovely person– you can take courses with her

OK, ta ta for now.

 

 

The thing about April Fools is, there’s a moment when one’s heart feels open in its gullible desires.  I know this film is a classic for many British people of a certain age.  It’s probably been shown infinitely on telly, but I’d never seen it until a few days ago. With my interest in local food, and eating traditions, there were a brief few seconds when I was wondering, what is this beautiful moss (I thought of it as hanging moss) that grows in Switzerland, and in what way is it edible?

Then I realised it was a joke.  But I’d enjoyed that ephemeral mental space of soft believing.

 

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