Easter-time birthday picnic

My young friend Baby Loves Cake, daughter of Lady Loves Cake turns one over Easter weekend. We celebrated her birthday today, with a lovely picnic in Regent’s Park.

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R and I got their early to set up. Waitrose kindly supplied the decor – there are a lot of Easter-themed decorations and party gear at the moment, all very gorgeous and perfect for a little one’s Easter birthday.

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What a glorious day it was.

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The birthday girl ate far too many raspberries.

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And the guests ate far too many cupcakes. These are strawberry cheesecake cupcakes, from the Hummingbird cookbook. Lady Loves Cake and I got together to make them yesterday – though I must admit she did most of the work! I really liked them. With the cream cheese icing they weren’t over-sweet.

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The birthday girl and her lovely mum.

Compost!

I got back from New Zealand to find that Spring had arrived in the UK. Time to start working on my soil.

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I might be moving at some point in the next few months (the above photo was taken on the way to a viewing), and a vegetable plot feels like a big commitment right now. So this year I’m focusing on the salad veg – quick-growing, money-saving and the salad mixes I make are better than any you can get in the supermarket.

I started digging my plot a couple of weekends ago. Last year I tried the “no-dig” method, covered my plot with cardboard over the winter and covered the cardboard with compost come spring. This worked quite well, but since spring was so late there was a bit more time for the cardboard to break down and the worms to mix everything together. This year spring is here early. I decided to dig again.

I’ve been a bit physically run down lately, so the digging led to a bad back. Two weeks and £90 spent on massages later, the back is better and I’m digging again. This time I got around to getting the compost out of my compost bin.

I have one of those Dalek compost bins that sits at one end of my plot, next to the mint and comfrey patch.

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This is a picture from the first growing season showing the Dalek in situ – the paths are much better than that now!

I don’t turn my compost – this is not really by choice, but more because the compost aerator I bought doesn’t actually fit in the bin. So I layer it up instead. Mostly it is fed with the contents of my bokashi bin, layered up with plenty of corrugated cardboard (I have a steady supply, thanks to my internet shopping habit) and nettles weeded from neighbouring plots.

In case you haven’t heard of a bokashi bin, it is a bin for food waste that you keep in the kitchen. You can put any type of food waste in, cooked or uncooked, including meat. I chose this because I wanted to make it as easy as possible for my flatmates. You need to sprinkle a little special bokashi bran over the food waste, about a handful or so a day, and also keep air out as much as possible. The bran is treated with bacteria, which help to “pickle” the vegetable waste. When the bin is full you leave it for two weeks, and then dig it in or put it in the compost bin, whereupon it breaks down very quickly.

The compost bin has a hatch in the front but the easiest way to get the compost out is to lift the whole thing off the base. There were three distinct layers in the bin:

1. The uncomposted bokashi layer. This bokashi has only been in the bin for two weeks.

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But look at all the worms getting to work! There’s an argument that worms aren’t necessarily a good thing, as they won’t appear in the compost bin running hot enough, but I produce compostable waste as such a slow rate that a hot bin is not the best way for me to go.

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2. A very fibrous middle layer.

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3. And finally, the crumbly dark stuff beneath. I got two wheelbarrows full. I’m really quite proud of my efforts! Now to wait for some things to grow…

For more on compost, I can highly recommend my friend Barbara’s site, Clever Composting. Check it out! My composting setup also includes a wormery – I’ll write about that at some future date.

Postcard from New Zealand

I spent a couple of weeks in New Zealand at the start of the month. It was a sad, special time in a beautiful country. I thought I would share some of the photos with you.

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Black Estate Wines. The wind blew hot through the open dining room.

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Sunbathing seals

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Grapefruit for breakfast

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View from the breakfast table

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View from above the house

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Lemons from the lemon tree were pressed into service for a Shrove Tuesday brunch. Those are wild passionfruit on the left. Also a shiso leaf – I found a plant in the garden.

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Passionfruit for dessert

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Beach at low tide…

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… which happened to be the right time to collect oysters. These are Pacific oysters and were the tastiest I have ever eaten (they taste better if you shuck them yourself)

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Christchurch was a very different place from the last time I saw it. $2 per hour to park your car here.

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The “pallet pavilion”, a temporary event space.

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Some great public art around the place

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Queen Victoria gets a visit from a construction worker

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This is an iced chocolate. London, you need to learn this.

Made in Hackney

I hinted at exciting posts to come after Christmas. Perhaps I tempted fate – the plan had been to go to Barcelona for Christmas and come back with lots of stories to tell. Unfortunately, rain happened, and Gatwick North flooded, and I made it back to Euston M&S just in time to scoop some salmon en croute and roast veg off the shelves. My solo, ready-meal Christmas was surprisingly tasty, but I’m not lining up to repeat the experience! The one good thing was I managed to get three strangers to Kings Cross and Euston in time to catch trains to their Christmas destinations. I’ve been reading lately about how generosity can make us happier, and I can attest to that. I really love that peculiarity of Britishness that means we don’t speak to or even acknowledge each other unless something goes wrong, but then the Blitz spirit kicks in and we pull together.

Roll on the new year then. January was full of good intentions and empty of alcohol. I made it through the month but I’m rather glad to be back off the wagon. Wine has never tasted so good. Food, on the other hand, has been super healthy.

On that note, a few weeks ago I went to a workshop at the Made in Hackney Local Food Kitchen. The kitchen is downstairs from health food shop Food for All in Stoke Newington. I’ll let the video describe the rest:

The workshop I attended was one of the “pay what you want” Sunday workshops, on making packed lunches for work, with Portuguese cook Filipa. Over the course of a couple of hours we made several different recipes, before devouring them all together. We had been asked to bring a lunchbox along for leftovers, but no chance!

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Stirring the pot

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This was my allocated recipe – spicy black bean burgers

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Curried chickpeas – 15 minutes to make. I’ve already made this one for a packed work lunch.

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A great group of people to cook (and eat) with.

When I arrived at the workshop I was feeling a little harried due to a late bus. I left feeling deeply contented. The brilliant thing is I can bottle that feeling – or at least box it up – and carry it to work with me every day. It just takes a little planning and creativity.

Filipa has kindly let me share one of the recipes from the course. I can highly recommend checking out their other courses – and whatever you pay helps subsidise their work with low-income and vulnerable groups.

BLACK BEANS SPICY BURGER

Prep and Cook Time: 60 min
Yields: 8/10 burgers
Good for freezing.

Ingredients

1 small yellow onion, chopped (could use any kind)
2 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil (better if you use coconut oil)
3 cups (or 2 cans) cooked black beans, divided
½ teaspoon cumin powder

½ teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon sea salt
Black pepper or red pepper flakes, to taste
2/3 cups oats
¾ cups fresh, frozen or canned sweet corn

Method

Preheat your oven to 180°C.

In a skillet, sauté onion and garlic in the oil for eight to ten minutes, or until golden, soft, and fragrant. Add 2 cups of the beans, the cumin, the paprika, the chili powder, the sea salt, and pepper to taste. Stir until all is warm.

Add the oats to the bowl of a food processor and pulse them a few times. Add the onion, garlic, and bean mixture. Process everything together, until it’s well combined but still has texture.
If you don’t have a food processor, just add everything to a bowl and mash with a potato masher, that’s what I did, because it’s faster and involves less washing up.

Transfer mixture to a mixing bowl. Add the last cup of black beans and the corn and mix well with your hands. Check for seasoning and season to taste. If the mixture is too mushy to form into patties, add a little more oats. Shape mixture into 8 large or 10 smaller burgers. Transfer burgers to a baking sheet and bake for 30 to 35 minutes (or until golden), flipping once through. Alternately, you can chill them for twenty minutes before transferring them to a grill and cooking through. You can also pan fry them in coconut oil until golden on each side.

This is a great recipe to make ahead and freeze, for those days you have no time to cook. I usually defrost the night before and then just get a side salad from the supermarket to have in my lunch break.

Giving Extra to Someone Special

Giving Extra to Someone Special is a campaign being run at the moment by Halifax.  They asked me to take part by sponsoring a gift for a person close to me.

I chose my friend Penny.  This evening we celebrated a year since she completed treatment for breast cancer. What better occasion for a gift?  Throughout Penny has coped with it so well.  She was just so brave and an absolute inspiration.  It’s not been easy of course, and she still lives with the changes it has brought,  but she is truly amazing.

I bought her a purple felt hat and matching leather gloves.  The hat has a touch of the flapper about it and suits her beautifully:

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We drank celebratory cocktails in the Gilbert Scott.  It was too dim to get any photos unfortunately, but the drinks were fantastic.  I also fell in love with the popcorn they brought with our drinks – in smoky butter flavour, yum!

Thanks Halifax, but most of all thank you Penny, for being amazing.

Christmas food and wine matching

To round off my trio of Waitrose Christmas posts, Waitrose sent me a handy list of wine matching suggestions for all of their Christmas food.

We decided to give the tool a go, and tried a selection of their canapés with the suggested Christmassy twist on a Bellini – adding sloe gin to Prosecco, which I’d never thought of before.  It worked very well.  I made the sloe gin in September 2011.  I made three bottles, and have drunk one each year since.  The flavour has become more complex and mellow over time.  I opened the third bottle to make the Christmas Bellini and oh! It’s heavenly.  I intended to make more every year so I’d have a constant supply of aged sloe gin, but unfortunately it hasn’t happened – I must rectify this in the future.  The canapés were also lovely – I picked a selection from those available at the Finchley Road branch including crostini, filo tartlets, and we particularly liked the mini cheese soufflés.

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There are plenty of other suggestions in the guide, which you can find here.  I really want to try the nut roast Wellington now, they don’t stock it at Finchley Road so I’ll have to track it down.  While browsing the Waitrose website I also found these vegetarian Christmas recipes, which I must try some time.

However, I have a different plan in store for this Christmas – stay tuned!

Stir it up – Mel does pudding

I managed to double-book myself for Stir Up Sunday, so I outsourced my Christmas baking and the write-up to my lovely flatmate Mel.  Thanks to Waitrose for the ingredients, and thank you so much Mel for jumping into the blogging hotseat! You did a great job.

Every year since I can remember, friends or family have always given a Christmas pudding to my family. Every year except one, where my Mother and I set about making one for each of my aunts. Today, with huge thanks to Sarah and a wonderful set of ingredients, I got the chance to partake in all the stirring, wishing and steaming that comes with making a Christmas pudding again. 

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There is something incredibly calming about spending most of a Sunday making a Christmas pudding. I don’t remember it being so calming when I was about 7 and my mother and I had about 5 of them on the go (sisters, sister in law)- a lot of wishing happened that day, mainly involving my not having to do all the washing up.

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I was never much involved in the soaking of the fruits part of the pudding making all those years ago, but today it quickly became my favourite part. The combined smells of orange zest and brandy soaked fruit are better than anything I can think of, to get you in the spirit of the season.

When it got to the point of stirring, a very good friend of mine had dropped in for tea and cake (making pudding is thirsty work). This meant I could share some wishes, and a little of the infectious orange zesty seasonal cheer (read: brandy).

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After the final mixing, my friend and I, managed to get the pudding steaming, and didn’t let the lack of kitchen string keep us down – you may notice some rather fetching Waitrose green ribbon featuring in some of these pictures, keeping everything together.

All in all, after happily keeping an eye on the pudding steaming for the next 6 hours (between bouts of laundry and catching up with family), I think everything worked out well. I have set the finished product aside tonight to cool, and perhaps I might find some willing volunteers to try it out.

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Christmas baking for busy people

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(yes, the cake is sitting on a radiator – at this time of year, it’s the only place I could find enough light!)

Usually I make my Christmas cake in October.  I’ve been very busy this year so unfortunately I haven’t gotten around to it yet.  Luckily Waitrose came to the rescue with one of their Christmas cake kits, available for £10.

The kit is great for busy people like me. Yesterday I had an after work meeting, but managed to put the ingredients together (the fruit is pre-soaked in brandy), get the cake in the oven, do the other things on my list and take the cake out by bedtime.  This morning I managed to get up and ice it in time to make my 8am Pilates class.

I took it to work to gauge my team’s opinions. It rated an average of 4 out of 5. Opinions differed as to whether it had too many cherries, not enough cherries, too much marzipan, or not enough! I find people have very set ideas on how a Christmas cake should be but this cake was a fairly good compromise for everyone.  They all liked how it was presented – I followed the instructions for decorating it, and putting the little silver balls on top was the fussiest part of the whole process!

If you’re like me and haven’t started your Christmas baking yet I can recommend this kit.  I imagine it would be even better with a few weeks to age and maybe fed with a bit more brandy every now and then.

Nasturtium capers and balsamic pickled onions

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Autumn is my favourite time of year. The light is golden, the leaves are rustling, the air is crisp. The sweaters are out of storage. The harvest is in, and it’s time to spend a little more time indoors.

It’s traditional to make the most of the harvest by preserving as much of it as you can for the colder months. Mum says that when she first moved to New Zealand in 1970 every woman had a shelf of home made jams in her pantry. Poky London flats don’t have pantries but you’ll find all manner of jams, pickles and preserves lurking at the back of my kitchen cupboards!

The other day I decided to try making some nasturtium “capers”, which aren’t actually capers at all but can be used in the same way. Capers are the flower buds of the caper bush. Nasturtium “capers” on the other hand are actually made from the seed pods that appear once the plant has flowered. Nasturtiums are one of the only things that have thrived on my little plot this year (next year I won’t take a holiday in the middle of a heat wave) so I had plenty of seed pods to pick. I used this recipe. I’m looking forward to trying them in some recipes now.

A couple of years ago I helped “Culinary Anthropologist” Anna Colquhoun with one of her seasonal preserving classes. One of the things we made was balsamic pickled onions, and luckily there was enough left over for me to take home a jar. I’d actually always turned my nose up at pickled onions, but after I tried them I was a complete convert.

So on Sunday I wandered through Regent’s Park to the Marylebone Farmers’ Market, where I picked through a basket of organic onions to find the smallest ones. I peeled and salted them on Sunday evening and finished making them today.

Here are the finished products:

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Anna has kindly allowed me to share her recipe for the balsamic pickled onions. I halved the recipe to fit my small Le Parfait jar, but I think I’ll be making another batch soon.

Balsamic pickled onions

This recipe is adapted from Pam Corbin’s excellent River Cottage Preserves book. I prefer using balsamic vinegar – the flavour is deeper and sweeter. But don’t use the super expensive, syrupy real one – identified by the words ‘tradizionale’ and ‘di Modena’ or ‘di Reggio Emilia’ on the label – it will cost you a small fortune, be too sweet, and a waste of what is really a condiment to be drizzled. A cheapish one will do, but check it’s made with real grape must and wine vinegar and nothing else. Once it’s made, you must resist eating the onions for a while as their flavour and texture only improves with time. Then no bread ‘n’ cheese lunch will be complete without them.

Makes: one large Le Parfait jar

approx 1kg small pickling onions
50g fine sea salt (pure, without anti-caking agents)
2 bay leaves
300ml balsamic vinegar
300ml malt vinegar (white or brown)
150g sugar (dark and/or light brown and/or honey)
1 thick slice of ginger root, bruised
2 tsps allspice berries
3 mace blades
2 tsps mustard seeds
1 tsp black peppercorns
1 short cinnamon stick
2 dried chillies

  1. Bring a large pan of water to a rolling boil. Add onions and blanch briefly (a minute is more than enough). Drain, refresh in cold water, then carefully peel. Blanching first simply makes peeling easier.
  2. In a wide container, sprinkle salt over onions and leave overnight. This draws out some water and will keep the onions crisp once pickled. Salt also helps keep the pickle clear. Salt with anti-caking agents in it can cause the pickle to go cloudy.
  3. Rinse off the salt and pack onions into a large sterilised jar. Tuck in a couple of bay leaves as you go.
  4. Put vinegars, sugars and spices in a saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Simmer gently 5 mins then leave to infuse 5 mins, or longer if you want a very spicy pickle. Strain vinegars over onions and let cool completely. Close lid and leave somewhere cool for a few months before eating. Use within a year.

The jars were a kind gift from Le Parfait.  Check out Anna’s upcoming preserving classes on 12th and 13th October.

Hot Pink Mushrooms!

Around Christmas time last year I bought my first box of Espresso Mushroom Company (EMC) mushrooms. Basically it is a mushroom growing kit in a box. The mushrooms grow on spent coffee grounds, making for some very clever recycling. Unfortunately I think they’d been sitting in the shop a little too long and they didn’t grow. However when EMC found out they sent me another box in the post – which did really well.

So when they offered to send me a box of their new, hot pink oyster mushrooms I jumped at the chance. The problem is they were top secret until the product launched, so I have been sitting on this post for months! These ones did even better than the ordinary oyster mushrooms – I think I harvested them within 9 days, and got a second harvest a couple of weeks later.

I took regular photos and made them into a rather crappy animated GIF for your viewing pleasure. It’s a bit jumpy because the mushrooms really did grow that quickly – I’d go to work and when I got back they’d have doubled in size.

picasion.com_d6bfa10574f9b84156464593dc7537e2 (Click on the image to see the animation)

Disclaimer: obviously these were a freebie but now they’re available to buy I will definitely be doing so. Oh and I can’t say the pink ones taste any better – and in fact they lose most of their pink hue on cooking – but WHO CARES? They’re pink!