Staying at home over the holidays has meant more time to experiment in the kitchen with seasonal, festive flavours. Not being a meat eater, I have been thinking of ways to bring Christmas flavours to the table without being constrained by the traditional meat-centred dishes. Even Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has been making veg the star of the show this year, so we must be making progress beyond the days of nut roasts and Tofurkey, correct?
Though the hues of orange, umber, mustard and rust seem to have disappeared from the trees, you can always turn to some late autumn and winter squash to bring back the warmth when it’s turning cold and grey outside. This year we picked up pumpkins from our local Emmett’s Farm and had a mixed squash box delivered from Riverford Organic.
The season started with 5th of November Pumpkin Soup, and this year the Englishman played his hand at recreating our favourite dish. I must admit, it was far tastier than the one I made last year and I think I’ll be leaving it to him in the future. Blending both pumpkin and butternut squash with lots of browned onions for depth, he garnished the soup with crushed hazelnuts, a drizzle of cream and chilli oil – delicious!
One of the truest forms of local food, and one that supports the creation of a local economy and sense of community, is a Crop Swap. Perhaps it’s a throw-back to the day when we, as a society, bartered for goods rather than using conceptual currency. And perhaps, in a post-oil society (and post-financial chaos), we will have to transition back to this way of doing trade. While complete self-sufficiency (where one grows and produces all the food they need for their household) misses out on creating a sense of community, a Crop Swap marries the notion of growing or producing your own food with an appreciation of the network of people around you.
And so, I started a Crop Swap at Plant & Harvest this year. I did initially worry that we may not get a lot of variety and everyone would try to offload their glut of courgettes at once, but thankfully this didn’t occur! Instead, we’ve had over a dozen different crops brought in between July and October and have been surprised by what came in baskets, trugs and pails through our doors. In addition to courgettes, runner and French beans, cooking apples and rhubarb, we had cucumber, beetroot, cobnut squash, Mirabelle plums (so lovely) and quince (hooray for heritage varieties!). As the seasons changed, so did the colourful harvest that came in.
It’s best to keep the nuts & bolts of the operation quite simple. We asked each Crop Swapper to fill out and sign a form acknowledging that they don’t use chemical feed or artificial fertilisers on their crops. We then purchased crops at ₤1.00/kg and sold them on to our customers at ₤2.00/kg (for larger items such as cucumber and squash we bought at 50p each and sold at ₤1.00 each). Instead of cash, Crop Swappers received credit in the shop that they could use that same day, or for future visits. Some people swapped for other fruit & veg, some for local bread and eggs, and some for natural plant feed to help nourish their crops for the next season. This created a true win-win scenario where customers get fair value for their goods, other customers get to purchase locally grown crops at better prices than market, and the shop gets return visits from those redeeming their vouchers and a stronger customer base.
Why not find a local Crop Swap in your area, or even start your own! Here are some of the benefits of participating in a local swap…
5 Reasons why you should join a Crop Swap:
- Motivate yourself and others in your community to ‘Grow Your Own’, knowing that you’ll get more variety by swapping with others.
- Reduce wastage from crops for which you have a surplus – your extra courgettes and apples can be turned into delicious meals by others.
- Love knobbly veg – your crops don’t have to (and shouldn’t) look like their supermarket versions – appreciate the true size, shape, and colours of naturally grown fruit & veg.
- Embrace the spirit of ‘pot luck’ and see what you get – it’s not always predictable and you never know what someone might bring in to swap.
- Catalyse a more local economy by trading goods directly with independent shops or with your neighbours and try bartering as an alternative to dependence on currency.
Based on the feedback I’ve had so far, I think there are many other ‘swapping’ opportunities waiting to be fulfilled. Whether it’s a food swap (for preserves or chutneys made with surplus fruit & veg?) or even a skills swap (where people can barter for time and services), it reminds us that every single person can (and should have the right to) be a producer, a creator, a provider of something of value to another person.
Though I previously wrote about being an impatient gardener, it wasn’t my lack of patience that brought me down in the end. I had a romanticised vision of my novice Grow Your Own summer: watching wistfully as green shoots peek out of the soil, bright leaves unfolding and tiny fruits and vegetables taking shape…My vision was quickly and mercilessly devoured, as were my plants, resulted in me pulling out both my hair and my potatoes (prematurely). Slugs.
Yes, they are to be expected in a garden, but not to the extent that I have experienced. The picture above shows what we pick out of our patio planters in one round – they are massive! The Englishman and I would have to be on a twice-a-day Slug Watch to keep on top of them. One of the first crops to go was my potato plants. After all, they were the tallest leafiest thing on my patio. Remaining optimistic, I cut down the bits of bare stems that were left, and continue to keep the potato bag watered in the hopes of nurturing the baby potatoes in the soil. There is indeed a small but colourful happy ending to this story: some lovely purple Arran Victory potatoes!
These blue-skinned heritage variety potatoes were bred on the Isle of Arran and named in 1918 to celebrate the end of the war. They were delicious simply roasted in the oven with rapeseed oil and some sprigs of rosemary. Sadly they lose most of their colour during cooking, but looking at these photos reminds me of how vividly purple they were.
The main growing season has now passed, though the slugs are still here. The fact that my colleagues gave me a box of organic slug pellets as part of my wedding present says it all. Everyone has heard me lament about my slug-ridden garden. I have now replanted most of my herbs and greens into pots with copper slug tape. It’s expensive stuff, though it does work. It may be too late, however, for my plants to recover from their slimy slaughter. My humble harvest of a handful of heritage potatoes and some sprigs of thyme, rosemary and parsley will have to do for now.
Read my earlier post, ‘The impatient gardener’, here.
It is known by several names: Romanesco cauliflower, Romanesco broccoli, Roman cauliflower, even “broccoflower”. An older Italian variety of cauliflower, it is one of the most strikingly beautiful vegetables around. Though my engineering schooling didn’t teach me how to become a greengrocer, it did teach me about fractals and logarithms and allows me to appreciate such patterns as the one present in this brightly coloured vegetable.
My first experience with Romanesco was to find it in my veg box from Riverford Organic around this time last year. It made my list of Top 10 Food Moments of 2010 and I was eagerly awaiting its arrival in this year’s harvest. In the shop last week, our fruit & veg wholesaler surprised us by bringing some in from the main London market. I didn’t realize that they would be available there, and, though I would purchase it for myself, I was fairly uncertain whether our customers would be so adventurous as to try one. So I wrote up a sign saying ‘Try something different’ and, at a reasonable price of ₤1.49, hoped that they would give it a go.
Some say that it tastes like a cross between cauliflower and broccoli. I find that it’s more tender and has a nuttier and more interesting taste than either. To bring out the flavour of Romanesco cauliflower without overpowering it, I make a really simple roasted dish tossed with pasta – no more than four readily available ingredients. To honour its Mediterranean roots, you could go with olive oil, Parmiggiano cheese, durum wheat spaghetti and parsley. Or, in the spirit of British Food Fortnight, you could use local rapeseed oil, tangy cave-aged Somerset cheddar, home grown parsley and even home-made pasta using local flour.
Though cauliflower and pasta can sound rather bland, the trick is to let the cauliflower roast well enough that the tips get almost a fried or burnt flavour to them. This applies generally to the brassica family of vegetables (think cauliflower, broccoli, sprouts, cabbage): they taste much better when roasted or seared rather than boiled. For the uninitiated, this unusual vegetable is much simpler to cook than it appears, so go on and be adventurous!
If I had to pick a favourite herb, it would be thyme – I’ll have it year-round and pair it with anything from slow-roasted tomatoes to pan-fried fish to stuffed mushrooms and yes, courgettes. I’ve planted a few different varieties of thyme on my patio this year, all sourced from a local farm in Oxfordshire called Manor Farm Herbs. When we were getting trolleys chock-full of herbs delivered to the garden centre at the start of the season, it was hard to refrain from taking one of everything home (and there were several dozen varieties brought in – everything from purple sage to wild rocket). So I picked a few variations on my trusted favourite: common thyme, broad-leafed thyme and lemon-variegated thyme. The latter two have been happily flowering for a couple of months.
Courgettes, too, offer variations on the traditional: from young ones to marrows, green to yellow, slender or patti-pan shaped, and let’s not forget that the flowers are edible too. I’ve always wanted to try cooking the flowers. Every time I walked across our café patio to clear tables or take food orders to customers, I couldn’t help but notice the huge orangey-yellow blooms and tried to think of a suitable dish. I’ve seen recipes for stuffing and deep-frying them, but I wanted to do something different.
For something summery and tasting of the Mediterranean, the combination of courgettes, thyme, garlic and goats cheese would be just the thing. And the flowers, chopped up and sautéed along with the courgettes, would hopefully add a bit of colour and texture as well.
With such a simple set of ingredients, quality is key: young courgettes (organically-grown), freshly-picked thyme, an artisan dried pasta (such as Bay Tree’s free-range egg pappardelle), and soft and flavourful cheese (I tried the Pant-Ys-Gawn goats cheese from Monmouthshire).
After sautéeing courgette ribbons with garlic and fresh thyme (a mix of all three of my home-grown varieties!), I stirred in the courgette flowers in the last minute of cooking. A splash of cream was added, and then a quick toss with the cooked pasta and a liberal sprinkling of freshly ground black pepper. The nest of pappardelle was plated and topped with a round of goats cheese that was pan-fried in a breadcrumb crust.
Swirls of courgette ribbons, fragrant with thyme, and specks of orange flowers? A perfect patio dish…if maybe one of my last for the season.
A quick post to say that, after an incredible trans-Atlantic wedding celebration, I am back. Back to the shop, back to an English summer, and back to seasonal cooking! I couldn’t resist sharing this little piece of the huge amount of love, well wishes and blessings that have come to the Englishman and I as we became married: a card from my team at the shop. It’s no ordinary card, I assure you, and I have never received anything else like it…it even inspired me to re-create a favourite dish from my childhood.
A colourful drawing by RC, catering to my well-known love for veg – it couldn’t have been more appropriate. The best part is that a few weeks prior, whilst I was checking in on the her working in the kitchen, I was casually asked “If you were a vegetable, what would you be?”. A strange question, and one to which most people wouldn’t have an answer, but then again, most people don’t obsess over fruit & veg like I do. It turns out that I had had this conversation previously with my other half and, not knowing how the information would be used, I divulged in detail.
I’m not normally one to delay gratification, though certain seasonal veg require that I do and are well worth the wait. One of these ranks high on my list of favourites (and accordingly has a spot on my blog’s photo header), especially since I can source it from a farm just a few minutes from both my home and shop: asparagus!
Mine comes from Emmetts Farm in Little Marlow, who are well known locally for their freshly picked, pesticide-free asparagus among other home-grown veg. The ladies in the shop will tell you that what you see in the shop has just been picked in the fields, and because the spears are harvested frequently, the stalks don’t get a chance to toughen, thereby giving us much more tender (and tasty) asparagus.
On my next day off I decided to take a little time to enjoy my very own vegetarian breakfast of champions – locally-sourced too – including soft-boiled organic eggs, steamed asparagus and hot buttered multi-seed ‘low GI’ toast (a speciality from Cornfield Bakery). Keeping it healthy, I didn’t feel the need to smother the asparagus in hollandaise or any other sauce – just lashings of black pepper. If only I could make time to start every day with a meal like that.
For something a bit more Mediterranean, I used asparagus as a side to a fish dish: seared Mediterranean sea bass over a potato puree and topped with slow-roasted baby tomatoes. A tangy shallot, rosemary and white wine sauce drizzled over both the fish and the steamed asparagus spears balanced all the flavours. To any fellow foodies reading this, the combination of asparagus, tomatoes and fish provides a major umami hit – delicious!
Paired with a chilled glass of viognier and the evening sun pouring through the window, this dish was a lovely way to ring in an early summer crop and, well, an early summer itself.
Yes, that’s me. There’s a sizable space behind the house that one could call a ‘garden’ if it was tidied, cultivated, levelled out and rid of massive weeds. Not by me, mind you…I just don’t have the patience. My mum has always been a gardener extraordinaire and though I was surrounded by it throughout my childhood, those genes somehow didn’t get passed on to me.
Container gardening, however, appeals to me greatly. That’s especially true if it involves growing something that I can eat. I’ve timed this just right as we seem to be in a period where both container gardening and ‘Grow Your Own’ are reaching a tipping point, which means there are lots of supplies and resources around. Perfect for those with a lack of space, patience, gardening know-how or a combination of all of the above, planting in containers seems like a low-risk and low-maintenance way to get into it. The rewards can be almost instant too, as in the case of herbs and edible leaves which, when bought as small plants, are ready to use and replenish themselves fairly quickly. I like that I can plant things up pot by pot (and in many cases, they don’t even have to be pots – planter bags, old tins, recycled trugs – options are plenty) and after crops are harvested, I can stash away the containers to re-use next year.
I feel I’d be letting myself off too easy if all I did was re-pot some store-bought herb plants, so this year I’m going to try growing potatoes. Though it just might be so.
The other day a new customer walked into our shop and was rather miffed at our sparse selection of fruit & veg (well, actually, none of the former and only some of the latter as things are just coming into season). I politely explained that we’re focusing on British and seasonal produce and while the selection at this time of year won’t be as plentiful as the summer and autumn harvest, there are still some spring specialities to be enjoyed. “Jersey Royal potatoes, purple sprouting broccoli…”, I motioned to a few things that specifically belong to the spring season. ”But what about normal broccoli?” she asked.
I realized that the seasonal approach to produce doesn’t always translate for a customer that’s likely accustomed to the abundant supermarket shelves that have all varieties on offer all the time. Granted, there are some supermarkets that bring in seasonal specialities and on the other hand, there are some independent produce shops that import veg year-round, so it can get a bit muddled. All that to say that I’ve realized how difficult it is to only do seasonal, British produce when your customers expect otherwise. Unless you educate them.
One of the essential yet fun things that I’m learning about independent retail is that you have to keep things fresh and seasonal. It can be very time-consuming working on displays and signage, though the effort does pay off. Not only does it show that you understand your produce well, it also inspires customers to think seasonally and lets them know that your offering is continually changing and so they should pop in more often!
With a business name like ‘Plant & Harvest’ I didn’t have to look far to come up with a spring theme. It’s all about linking ‘planting’ and ‘harvesting’ to help people make the connection with where their food comes from – whether it’s learning more about the producers or growing your own food. So with the opportunity to re-launch a fresh fruit & veg offering after the winter gap, it made sense to cross-merchandise herb plants, veg plants and seed potatoes. The ‘Get Ready to Grow’ theme gets people thinking about starting their growing season at home while showing what the fruits of their labour could be. All those leafy greens make for a nice welcome into the shop!
I love that the National Trust and Delicious magazine are doing a We Love Knobbly Veg campaign in 2011. For those who forage, grow their own or buy produce at farmers’ markets, you know that your veg is a far cry from its shiny, uniformly shaped and sized cousins found in supermarkets. As for the uglies, they may not even make it onto the pristine shelves for fear that people won’t know what to do with them! It’s time to show some love for ugly veg.
Don’t get me wrong – I do love the beautiful specimens like globe artichokes and romanesco cauliflowers when they’re in season, but these days it’s the roots and tubers that have wintered the harsh weather. I reckon that the ugliest among them are celeriac and jerusalem artichokes. If you’re willing to experiment with some flavour pairings or even substitute them for staple veg in traditional recipes, you just might find them a tasty reward for scrubbling and peeling all that knobbly flesh. Here are some ideas… Continue reading