Saturday, 21 April 2012

Food For Free

Today I met up with my cousin Laura and her friends.

They are down from their home in Aberdeen to start their very exciting adventure. They will be cycling around Britain, visiting permaculture centres and throwing seed bombs. All part of Operation Seed Bomb Britain By Bicycle . I had made some shortbread crunch bars (my own creation and recipe to follow) to sustain the three of them on their journey (for a few days anyway) and, packing them up with a card and piece of reflective gear, I set out to meet them in Finsbury Park.

We were meeting a group of people who had gathered to do a foraging walk along the Parkland Walk. The walk was organised by Urban Harvest  and with the weather failing to produce rain, the conditions were great for finding lots of greens that could be gathered for free. Living in the economic slump that we are, I find the idea of getting some edible greenery from nature very appealing, and at this time of year there is a bounty of fresh Spring greens that can be harvested. I took notes and photos as the leaders stopped and showed us various plants so here is my take on the urban harvest.

Please note, eating wild plants without someone who knows which plant is which or training is not advised. This post is merely a collection of my experiences today and is not intended to be a field guide.

Common Hogweed Heracleum sphondylium
Not to be confused with giant hogweed which is incredibly toxic and easy to identify as it is generally, well, giant. 

You can reach into the heart of the plant and pluck out the fresh, unfurled, stems. Steam them like you would asparagus and dress with a drizzle of olive oil and they offer a delicious vegetable. I think you could easily replace broccoli with this vegetable. The use of the hogweed doesn't end there though. When the umbels of flowers have been pollinate, the seed head develops. If you get them young enough, whilst they are green, you can eat them raw or even better put them into pickling vinegar to a delicious citrus tang. The older seeds can be ground and included in a herb rub for meats etc. 

The young leaves can be chopped up and incorporated into a stir fry if you like.

Dandelions Taraxacum officinale
The old wives tale of bed wetting when you pick these isn't strictly true, their diuretic properties isn't that strong.

You can eat the leaves but unless you cover them when they are young to keep them white and pale, they will have a very bitter flavour. I've not tasted dandelion sap since I was a child, but it isn't nice. The petals however can be sprinkled into a salad for colour. Dandelion roots are best harvested in the Autumn, to then be used for root beer.

More common in Cornwall.

I'd never heard of this before but apparently it was, like many things, brought over by the Romans. It's flavour when eaten raw is like a mild celery. I really liked it and would consider growing it at my allotment, edible wild flowers are much more fun to grow in my opinion. 

I didn't try the leaves but you can eat them apparently. I'd imagine that they are best when really young and before the tannins have built up in them as with other tree leaves. Other than that, they were a nice white bloom to look at when we walked along the path.

Not only a delicious black berry to eat in late summer, you can pick and dry the leaves to make bramble tea.
Pick the tips as they have not only the best flavour but also the thorns on those parts of the plant are soft. Pop them into a paper bag and hang it in a window which gets sunshine. Shake the bag every now and then to aerate the leaves. When they are dry, crumble them up and brew them in the same way you would make tea. 

This is one that I'm a bit unsure of, it was edible and had a soft texture (like a marshmallow ironically), but it didn't have that much flavour. Add it to salads perhaps?

I didn't know this plant existed and was surprised to learn it is considered to be a pest of a plant. The flavour is stronger than wild garlic and has lingered with me all day, very delicious!
As you can see, the leaf is like a triangular prism, thus its name. I have a mighty bunch of this and will no doubt be stinking all week when I take it into work as a soup.

Along the route we saw this happy chap leaning out of a railroad arch, 
Say hello to the Green Man, smiling down on us gathering his bounty.

This plant grows prolifically around the UK and is another one that is regarded as a weed by many. It had a peppery/citrus flavour. I can imagine it being quite tasty with fish, or in savoury scones. 

Finally the end of our walk had a monster of a plant, revered and hated by many gardeners.

This plant is incredibly invasive and huge effort is needed to eradicate it. The problem is the structural damage the rhizome does to buildings and the rhizome is very large it takes a lot to kill it off.
It is edible apparently and tastes like rhubarb.
The issue with harvesting it, we were told, is that if it has been identified and is being killed off then it would be very toxic to eat due to the chemicals being used. Were you able to find a patch that hadn't been then perhaps it would be okay to eat. I'm not saying go and find it and certainly don't grow it, but I was very surprised that it was a plant that could be eaten.

We got to the end and went to the home of the sister of one of the guides for treats and tastings. 

Forage topped bread, now that was a tasty slice!
It was washed down with,

Fennel seed infused vodka, it tasted like Pernod! I will be making this from the fennel I have growing in my herb bed at the allotment I think. 

Finally we had some sweet treats,
Transition tarts, mini tarts made with vegan pastry, using British flour and oil and so called because they are made from the last apples from last Autumn and rhubarb from this Spring, so a transition of fruits (not that rhubarb is a fruit!).

Overall I had a great time and would recommend anyone to join them on their next forage. Check out their website for more information.

Good luck and much love to my cousin on her journey, be safe Laura and bike defensively.

Friday, 20 April 2012

April Showers and Heartburn Brownies

Well we have been warned of a drought that could last until Christmas by some, had a hose pipe ban set upon us by the government and the day it comes into force the heavens open. This week has been very wet, a week of staying indoors and watching all that lovely rain falling to fill up the aquifers. I haven't been to the allotment since the Easter holidays, during which I planted all those lovely beans and peas. I paid one more visit after that and discovered the beans, marigolds and my new potato shoots all dead. Apparently a very hard frost came and it killed them all. The alliums are okay and randomly the peas are fine too, makes me wonder about how hard peas are to kill! It did make me feel that I wanted to give it all up, but having then received my formal letter asking me to become a permanent plot holder those feeling melted away.

So I'm planning to get down this weekend to have a look and see what weeds have grown with this rain. I did do some weeding amongst the raspberries which is looking tidier at least, more is needed but it's little and often I think that will win the day, 120 square metres is a lot to keep.

As you know this blog serves to marry my two previous blogs, so here is a baking recipe that I tried last week.

Bacon Brownies
I can't claim to have invented these, in fact it was Nigella Lawson tweeting her recipe to her followers that made me sit up and think, "hmm, I do enjoy bacon and marmalade, these may work". I took my trusty brownie recipe from Outsider Tart, and went to the supermarket to buy some 'American-style' bacon.
I also bought myself a new knife using up some vouchers that I was given for my birthday. It is Japanese steel so is light and very sharp, it made short work of the bacon which I cut into very small bites.

I basically threw these into a recipe and so adapted the Hepburn Brownie, christening it the Heartburn Brownie.

Heartburn brownie: Adapted from Outsider Tart's Hepburn brownies
Preheat an oven to 170C and grease and line a 30cm x 23cm x 5cm brownie pan.

1) Put 340g of butter into a pan and melt it slowly over a low heat.
2) When melted, add 200g of cocoa powder and 2 tablespoons of instant espresso powder (larger grained instant coffee doesn't work unless dissolved separately) I use Starbucks instant espresso.
It will become glossy and smooth, with that lovely mocha aroma.

Also I use that brand of Vanilla and bog-standard cinnamon :P.

3) Add next 675g of caster sugar, this will cool down the butter mixture enough to allow eggs to be added without them cooking.

It looks a bit like muddy-slushy-snow a few days after it has fallen and the weather has warmed up.

4) Add to this 6 large eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. The batter will now become quite elastic like and smooth again.

5) Now add in 115g plain flour, 1.5 tsp of cinnamon, 3/4 tsp salt. Stir until only just incorporated.

Now this is the point that I added the bacon, however I would refrain from doing it raw as I did. I suggest frying the bacon up first, so it is very crisp, then drying, cooling and blitzing in a food processor to make little bacon shards (my Aunty Lynne's idea). Then mix this into the batter, pour into the pan and cook for 30 minutes.

When you take the brownies out of the oven they should have a solid wobble in the middle (as opposed to a sloppy wobble). Let them cool in the tin, and when cool enough put them into the fridge to set overnight. Fudgey brownies are essentially a very thick, set, chocolate custard, think of them that way and they will turn out delicious. 
These are very rich, so cut them up small.
Note, these aren't the bacon brownies, but just plain Hepburn's, which if you omit the bacon are what you will make.

I didn't think the bacon brownies were that great to be honest, but then again I didn't try them with pre-cooked and blitzed bacon, if you try them that way let me know. Otherwise, enjoy a tray of the best plain brownies.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Finally some rain!

Well the allotment got a decent shower of rain this past Tuesday, which was much needed, my water butt didn't benefit though due to my predecessor putting no guttering up to catch the rain, a bit of a waste of time really if it's not filling up. So another job to complete, and soon too if we're looking at a low amount of rain fall in the next few months.

I arrived to the site on Thursday to plant some things I had bought from Keston Garden Centre and found this wonderful sight.

Potatoes! At last I can see where the rows are that I planted, it was a bit of a guessing game before hand when it came to watering. It's a good sign though, and I'll soon be enjoying some delicious early potatoes. 

I decided to clear a bit by my shed and in moving a few more paving slabs I found some great mini-beasts.

A big fat spotty slug, which I read online eats most things dead and alive, so my young seedlings are not safe from it! Also some very odd, red woodlice. A bit of googling later and I can identify it as Androniscus dentiger or the rosy woodlouse. Apparently it's quite common in the UK but in all my years of mini-beast hunting and gardening I have never seen it before, so it was quite a find for me. I do enjoy feeling a like an intrepid explorer!

The area that I cleared I decided to edge with some more slate tiles and then plant up with some dog rose, which should cover my shed in a few years, and provide the bee hives with a bounty of flowers to visit. 
I planted a bleeding heart in my allium bed, to add some height and colour to the corner, it will be a nice plant to walk past when I come to visit and others also will get to appreciate it too.
The flowers look like bleeding hearts, thus the name, I didn't sacrifice a pigeon and plant it in the bed. Though I'm sure *Unproven-Tom-Fact-Alert* some people in the olden days did that in some kind of ritual to bring on fertility and health to their gardens.

My bean and pea bed is now full as I set up my pea and bean canes and planted some seedlings into it. I decided to throw out the classic wide-drill, zigzag approach to pea planting and went for a more haphazard method, covered by 4 wigwams with some twine strewn between to provide a climbing frame to the peas. 

As you can see it's a bit of a eye catching lay out, as in you may loose an eye if you fell on to it. I put some runner beans in the other end, transplanting a broad bean which was growing on it's lonesome, out of the 6 I had sewn it was the only one in that drill that had grown, I'm not too upset really as I don't particularly enjoy broad beans.

Finally the only crop I am able to harvest is still rhubarb, 
which is getting quite prolific.

So lots of stewed rhubarb is heading my way, I think I've seen a rhubarb cake recipe in a book somewhere too. A friend even suggested serving it unsweetened with mackerel which may be quite tasty, a bit like lemon and cod. 
Anyway, that's all for now.