22 Aug 2011

Midday Fox

Fox sunbathing
:: The enemy sleeps ::
This cheeky chap was seen around mid-day in the car parking area next to my block of flats and adjacent to the railway line. I just hope that he's not in need of a siesta after a large lunchtime snack of onions. (I pulled mine up yesterday and left them drying on racks in the garden.)  Although he's probably been chasing pigeons or rabbits.  Best check, anyway.

20 Aug 2011

Saturday Snap: Tangled Web Woven

Spider web copy
Arachnophobia?  Luckily, not something that affects me - and you have my heartfelt sympathies at this time of year if you really don't like spiders.  This past week, the weather has felt more than a little autumnal and the effects of this on the arachnid population have been seen both indoors and out in my home: I've been releasing spiders back into the wild (aka my balcony) and spotting delicate webs appearing overnight. Spiders are seen most often in September or October in Europe; this little lady (the females are bigger than the males) had spun a large beautiful web on my balcony herbs one morning, so perhaps she could feel the summer's end already. (Although, please, let's be wrong about that!)

It was quite hard to see the fine, sticky threads of the web but I wanted to clearly show the spider and her web to a fascinated but very young visitor - without small pointing fingers wreaking havoc.  Here's how I did it:  I fetched my tea-strainer and a tiny spoonful of flour, then gently sprinkled a dust cloud of flour over the web.  This won't harm the spider - in fact, she didn't even move - but the web and its tiny insect-catching threads can then be clearly seen. (If you have a fine spray bottle, a light misting of water would also work.)

This spider, I think, is an Orb-Weaver and very common in the UK garden. The web is spun in the morning; any insects caught in it are either eaten straightaway or devoured when the web is eaten at suppertime. The next day the process starts again - sort of Groundhog Day, spider style.

There and Back Again

~ Chamomile growing in clumps on the pebbly beach ~
Well that's this year's holiday jaunt over (and the reason it's been oddly silent here). I've been to the seaside for a lovely peaceful week which was a world away from the riots both in nearby Camden and Croydon, the route I unwittingly chose on my way there. It's a week I look forward to as 4 generations of my family gather together without putting undue strain on any one household but, as I invest more of my time in the veg garden, I can't pretend that it's not a wrench to leave the garden behind, even for a short time.

As I see it, there are two main issues in a summertime community garden:  ensuring the veg get the right amount of water and to hope that veg and flowers are harvested as appropriate - which, actually, is what we all worry about, isn't it?  I asked neighbours to help themselves to courgettes, carrots, beetroot, onions and please keep picking the sweet peas;  the beans had not yet flowered and the tomatoes were still green so those would wait for my return.  It's best to designate one person to oversee watering so that the plants aren't deluged morning and night - or forgotten entirely - but, apparently, it rained almost every day while I was away so that task was taken care of by kindly Mother Nature. (The copious plants on my Edible Balcony were taken care of by a trusty friend.)

The picking of produce was another matter entirely. It seems that my time in the garden has earmarked the space as being my own and (most) people are loathe to help themselves for fear of being seen to overstep the mark. (On reflection, this is probably good.) Despite cutting several courgettes before I left, and telling folks to help themselves, most were still there when I returned, as were a few handfuls of raspberries still hanging on the canes and other veg untouched.

After a (blustery but dry) week away, my first thoughts after unpacking were to pop down to the garden where I found plenty of weeds, beans covered in purple flowers (hurrah!), radishes ready to eat (3 weeks after sowing), beetroot needing lifting (some about to bolt which I'll leave for seed), recently sown peas clambering half way up the netting - and a 20 inch courgette which made a nice 'baked and stuffed marrow' supper!

The sweet peas, sadly, have all but died off with just a few Cupani left.  As the weather has been chill and overcast in the last week, this somehow seems symbolic of the slow gentle slide down into autumn - although surely mid-August is too early for this?

And where did I go for my fresh sea air?  To Littlehampton, a small harbour town in West Sussex, located between Chichester and Brighton and now plying a fine, but not overwhelming, tourist trade. It's an old fashioned town where, I've since discovered, the tiny cinema is in an old windmill on the seafront. More obviously, the harbour is full of brightly coloured fishing boats and ice cream shops, fresh fish is sold on Rope Walk (the quayside) and you can sit overlooking the Blue Flag beach on the longest bench in the world. This seating continues along the seafront and was installed over the last couple of years at an eye-watering £1 million.

Beach huts at Littlehampton

A week goes so quickly so I missed seeing the Art Deco shelters in the award winning municipal gardens, but I did manage a hike along the seafront towards Rustington where the now-pebbly beach was studded with marine vegetation. What could better?

Sea cabbage
Rustington seafront

5 Aug 2011

Tempura, tempura!

At this time of year, as the tempo of the garden increases, it can feel a bit overwhelming to deal with the sheer volume of produce that is hurled at us after months of hard work.  A glut of produce can turn to repetition in the kitchen and boredom at the supper table.  I was heading in that direction myself with my courgettes - in pasta, or meat sauces, stir fried, roasted, sliced, chopped, grated. Hoping for culinary inspiration, I nipped over to visit my friend who runs our local deli.  Actually, it was his quest for courgette flowers last summer which had motivated me to plant them in the veg patch in the first place.

He took a dozen flowers from me.  A few were returned the following day, stuffed (with ricotta, parmesan, chives and pancetta), ready to be battered and fried but I had to do this myself.  The recipe given to me was so loose it would have given even Jamie Oliver (with his pinch of this, dash of that) cause for alarm.  I googled and I read, then I got on with it.  The batter was simple, the oil not too deep, the results delicious, although slightly rich for my taste.

I had some extra flowers so, fired up with enthusiasm, I made some more, this time with a simpler filling (ricotta and herbs). For me, that was more like it. The result was sensational: the initial crunch gave way to the softness of the filling, the last bite being the sweet, crisp and juicy courgette sepals or flower base. These would be impressive served for a special lunch but why wait?  I think it's worth making them for a summer supper.

The simple batter I made was an amalgamation of two recipes. Some batters use an egg, some use beer or wine instead of cold water. Others don't use an egg, fearing that this makes the batter too heavy but balance is everything and you find your own preference.  For the stuffing, it seems there are endless variations on this particular theme; I've found potato and greens, meat, cheeses and herby rice.  If you have Mark Diacono's Veg Patch (River Cottage Handbook No. 4) you'll find that he stuffs the flowers with the chopped and sautéed courgettes themselves!

I'm quite taken with the idea of battered veg, and I've read of applying this way of cooking to the unstuffed flowers but why stop at courgettes?  I haven't tried it (yet) but I think that the same principle could be applied to pea pods, mange tout, baby carrots and baby corn although courgette flowers visually steal the show.

Fried flowers may not be to everyone's taste but don't let that stop you from making the most of your courgette flowers:  I've found plenty of other ways of using courgette flowers on this Australian website.

However, if you'd like to try fried flowers for yourself, here's the batter recipe I used, found in the Telegraph's 'Jamie Oliver At Home' - it's a light eggless batter and I used white wine because I just happened to have an open bottle sitting nicely chilled in the fridge:

200g self-raising flour
350 ml sparkling water - or use a decent white wine
A good pinch of salt

Put the flour in a bowl and gradually whisk in the liquid until it's the consistency of double cream.  If too thin, add more flour; too thick, add liquid.  It should nicely coat a dipped finger.

Prepare your filling (Jamie Oliver suggests adding grated nutmeg, parmesan, chopped mint, lemon zest and chopped chillies to 200g of ricotta).  Gently prise open the flowers and, using a teaspoon or piping bag, fill the courgette and carefully twist the top of the flower to seal it. Repeat with all flowers.  Pour oil into a pan up to a depth of about 8 cm. Heat the oil (sunflower is best) to around 180 C - if you don't have a sugar thermometer, drop a piece of potato or bread into the oil; when it turns golden, your oil is ready.

Holding each stuffed flower by the stem (or bottom for female flowers), dip it into the batter and carefully transfer to the hot oil. (Don’t fry more than two flowers at a time or the oil temperature will drop.)  Fry for about a minute (you’ll be able to see when it’s done as it will turn golden and crisp). You may need to turn it in the oil to cook both sides.  Remove with a slotted spoon onto kitchen paper. (I used a silicon spoon which works just as well.) Serve as soon as possible, with lemon wedges and a lovely salad.

4 Aug 2011

Tales of York Rise

Rose finial
Thistle finial
I've been thinking for some time about putting up a page on the history of York Rise. Not only are the flats in a conservation area but they were very innovative when built in 1938: a lot of thought went into the planning to ensure that the properties were more than just housing: plenty of outside space for gardening, leisure and playspaces for the children despite proximity to Hampstead Heath. Sheds were provided for pram storage as there were no lifts to the top floors. (Very handy now for garden tools!) Every flat had a balcony so the occupant could open the door and enjoy fresh air and each balcony had a window box for flowers or tomatoes. My personal favourite was the wonderful Gilbert Bayes designed ceramic finials, shown here, sitting atop the drying line posts; they were removed 15 years ago for safekeeping but I'm on mission to get them restored, if only in the shape of replicas. (The rose and thistle were the emblems of the London Midland Railway who funded the initial build.)

Families, friends and neighbours were relocated as one from the Somers Town area behind Euston and were bonded by moving to this new life together. Most of the tenants today were either born here or have lived here for many years; elderly tenants have known some of today's mothers since they were babies; this not only adds to the sense of community (people know each other here) but provides a wealth of history if you have the time to chat, which I do. I enjoy knowing that this is such a safe, and largely peaceful, community that people have wanted to grow old here.

So, the history. Well, I've finally been spurred into action by someone who used to live here, in fact was born here, and contacted me through this blog. She left in 1983, I moved here in 2002 but it's astonishing the number of people here that we both know (of). I've been entertained by email with stories from the past and she's been kind enough to provide me with a few photos from her personal archives.

So the history page at the top of this blog is about York Rise beginnings and how that ties in with our veg growing today. I hope that other readers will enjoy it, even if it may be a bit long - and on Friday I'll be back with the veg news!

The Wonderful Wyvern, who used to sit in the centre.
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