Sunday, 21 February 2016

Growing a curry (House and Garden magazine)

Read the rest of the piece here in House and Garden magazine...

The Painted Garden: impressionism and horticulture


A London Afternoon in February

After my Calcotada meal near Piccadilly, I visited the Royal Academy exhibition Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse to recap on some much-loved impressionist paintings. I'd seen many of them before but this was a new perspective.
The theme was the role of gardens and gardening in impressionism.  Many of the impressionist painters were keen gardeners; Monet had more books on horticulture than he did on art. The exhibition also showed the Japanese prints with arched bridges that so influenced the water gardens at Giverny, which Monet worked on for forty years. Monet first saw a water garden at the Exhibition of Paris and employed landscape gardeners and botanists to recreate the water lily landscape that became so celebrated. A whole room is dreamily devoted to Monet's Nymphéas.

The French, from Monet, Pissarro, Renoir and the Nabis, Vuillard and Bonnard, had a cool palette, reflecting the blues, greys, pinks and greens of Northern France. They also admired the organic, less structured, wilder English garden rather than the formal 'don't touch the grass' French garden.
Moving further south, the exhibition hung a couple of works from Matisse, scratched out on thin paint with areas absent of detail, revealing warmer tones.
I discovered the oeuvre of Joaquin Sorolla, a Spanish impressionist whose paintings had a golden glow similar to the luminous work of his contemporary Maxfield Parrish. I love his painting of Tiffany, the stained glass artist who created the famous Art Nouveau lamps. Sorolla's paintings had a very different look to those of the French impressionists, reflecting the dusty burnt umber colours, palms and tropical fronds of Spanish gardens.
It's always worth going to see the original paintings: reproductions simply cannot do justice to the subtlety of colours, the strength of brush strokes. It was inspiring, both as a gardener and as a sometimes painter.

You can book to visit this exhibition at the Royal Academy here. It closes April 20th.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Growing basil varieties for flavour

There are few herbs quite as pungent in their aroma as basil: a heady, clove fragrance with notes of liquorice and cinnamon in there as well. In The Flavour Thesaurus, Niki Segnit calls the taste of basil akin to “sucking on a sweet rusty nail”, which is an evocative description though I’d say it’s much more pleasant than that.

Basil is best used fresh. Dried basil is pretty tasteless, frozen can be OK, although much of the flavour is lost and you certainly don’t get that fragrance hit that you get with the fresh growing leaf.

The supermarkets will sell you sweet, or Genovese, basil growing in a pot. If you’re lucky you can keep this growing for several weeks, supplying you with fresh leaves when you need them. Once you get the pot home, unwrap the cellophane wrapping, stand it in a drip tray and water really thoroughly. Then place it in as bright a position as possible – a south-facing windowsill is ideal - and keep the soil moist. When you pick the leaves, don’t denude the stems completely: you can cut the stems to just above the first set of true leaves and it should regrow.

Although Genovese basil, with its punchy aroma, is the classic version for making pesto, it’s only one of many different varieties. Milder in flavour but with large, floppy lettuce-like leaves, is Neapolitan basil – great for wrapping small balls of mozzarella or tearing over a pizza. Purple basil brings dramatic colour to salads. Greek basil has tiny leaves but great fresh taste. Lemon, lime, and pineapple basils bring an astringency to the classic clove fragrance and cinnamon basil adds warmth.
Greek basil leaves are much smaller, with a slightly milder, sweeter flavout. 
There is a greater difference in flavour in the Asian basils: Thai, and holy basils. These give Thai dishes, especially curries, those quintessential anise notes. Basil Ararat, appropriately enough, has a distinctive flavour halfway between the two.

These varieties are all just as easy to grow as Genovese basil but are almost impossible to find in the shops - you may occasionally find Greek basil plants in Sainsburys and Waitrose, and Thai basil leaves in the latter. Luckily you can find the seeds in some major and many specialist catalogues, and now is the time of year to start thinking about sowing them.

After a lot of experimentation I’ve come to the conclusion that in the UK, basil is an indoor plant. Its fleshy leaves don’t stand up well to wind and rain, they fall prey to slugs and snails and act as a magnet for greenfly. Better tend them indoors and cosset them.

Basil needs light and warmth to grow well. Sown in February, the emerging seedlings can take advantage of the increased daylight hours in March to put on strong growth and keep you in basil right through the summer.

All basil varieties can be grown the same way. Fill a medium-sized pot – you need one at least 16cm across to get a decent crop – with multi-purpose compost to 2cm below the brim. Water well. Sprinkle the basil seeds over the surface in a single layer – two pinches should be enough. Similarly, sprinkle more compost over the seeds, just enough to barely cover them. Put a clear polythene bag over the pot and place it somewhere sunny and warm. You should see the seedlings start to emerge in three to six days – you can then remove the plastic bag.

Keep the soil nice and moist and you should have leaves ready to cut in a couple of months’ time. So long as you don’t remove all the leaves from any one stem, harvesting will make the plant grow back more strongly and your pot sown now will keep you in basil for the rest of the summer. 

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Oranges aren't the only fruit

Various citrus


Citrus trees are incredibly rewarding to grow: apart from the edible fruit, many have edible leaves and flowers and are beautifully scented.
They are perhaps not for the low-maintenance gardener, although - like many plants - once given the right conditions they can thrive for years. The right conditions, however, can be quite specific. 
Read the rest here at House and Garden....

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Micro greens: sprouting from legumes and January eating

carrot couscous with sprouted beans

Our latest column in House and Garden magazine on how to sprout from beans and grains is here
My recipe (above) using sprouted beans is here.

What to eat in January. 

This is Veganuary. Every year, we are exhorted to go on a diet just after Christmas, to stop drinking for a month, to join a gym, and now to go vegan - that is, eat no animal products for the month of January.

Even as the author of V is for Vegan, I'm not a fan of self-denial or suffering. I'm a maximalist, my sort of vegan food means you can still enjoy yourself. It is not particularly low calorie or directed towards weight loss. January is the coldest month in the Northern hemisphere and should be filled with soups, stews and alpine foods. The odd warming mulled wine or ruby red glass of port does not go amiss either. We need the calories, the cheer, the solace of hearty grub while we await the thaw.

Those are the arguments against Veganuary. Arguments for thrive on the idea of New Year. A new start for a new you. 
I'm going to up the ante and present you with a recipe that is not only vegan but also raw. What is raw food? As a diet it is all foods that are not cooked, or foods that are heated to under 40 to 49ºC. Rawfoodarians believe that cooked food is 'dead' food. We can learn from every diet, no matter how faddish it may appear, and soaking grains and legumes so that they sprout is an intrinsic part of the raw food diet.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

15 Christmas gifts for gardeners and outdoor cooks

Gardening books

The New Kitchen Garden by Mark Diacono £18.80
I've been an admirer of Mark's work for some time and here is his award winning kitchen garden book. Like us, he wants to make the best use of his garden space (even though he has a great deal more) and grow unusual interesting plants. He thinks like a cook as well as a gardener.

Fern Verrow, a year of recipes from a farm and its kitchen by Jane Scotter and Harry Astley and photographs by Tessa Traegar (Quadrille) £19.99
Fern Verrow is a biodynamic farm near Haye on Wye owned by Scotter and Astley and this book is their story.  Like the Secret Garden Club, the emphasis is equally upon growing and good food, with interesting seasonal recipes throughout structured around the elements. Tessa Traegar's pioneering nature, landscape and food photography is superb. A beautiful gift.

Heirloom Harvest by Amy Goldman and Jerry Spagnoli (Bloomsbury 2015) £26
Shot in stark architectural black and white, these art house daguerrotypes by Spagnoli are reminiscent of the work of photographic pioneer Edward Steichen. The book consists of nude vegetables and fruit, almost sexy. The text by Goldman explores growing heirloom seeds. This book is for lovers of good photography, gardening and vegetables.

RHS Grow for Flavour by James Wong (Mitchell Beazley) £10
A truly fantastic book, reviewed earlier this year by my colleague Zia Mays.

Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way by Lars Matting (MacLeHose Press) £13.60
This book has been a surprise hit in the best seller lists. Did I ever mention that I used to go out with a cross-dressing French lumberjack? He used to smell of bonfire (which I find a big turn on, I have quite basic tastes when it comes to men) and live in a squat in London Fields swimming pool along with myself, my daughter and the street artist Stik. They had no heating there and the only person that could really cope with the condition was my boyfriend who spent all year preparing for winter. Outside his room, which was a changing room, he had months of beautifully stacked and dried wood. He found wood chopping therapeutic and taught myself and my daughter how to use an axe.

The Ladybird Book of the Shed (Ladybird books for grownups) by Hazeley and Morris (Michael Joseph) £5.24
This would make an amusing stocking filler. I love a shed, I've got a she-shed at the bottom of my garden.


Yuzu plant £40
I've had a go at planting citrus before but everything died. I wondered if I kept it in the wrong place. Plants4presents are now stocking yuzu fruit plants at £40 plus delivery which is a gorgeous citrus that has an almost indescribably floral taste. I'm going to try again, this time keeping it in the living room. Fingers crossed.

Kaffir lime plant £25
The great thing about this plant is that even if you don't get any fruit, you can use the gorgeous fresh lime leaves in your cooking. Check out my Thai Green curry recipe here. I also keep lime leaves in the freezer. The kaffir lime plant is available from Plants4Presents.

Plant wasabi £7.50
Genuine wasabi is different to horseradish. You can easily grow it in the UK. Order your plant from The Wasabi Company. 

Plantable wrapping paper £4.99
You can get it with all kinds of vegetables such as broccoli, peppers, onions, tomatoes. Such a fun idea.

Plantable paper shapes £14.99
A similar principle to above but these would be so pretty as tags for presents wouldnt' they? The paper is impregnated with seeds such as herbs or poppy seeds. 25 in the pack.

Copper Gardening Tools £32
Copper is a very special material. When alloyed with tin it becomes bronze. It's antimicrobial, non magnetic and repellent to slugs and snails. This trowel from Alchemade is pricey at almost £100 but much cheaper in the States. A cheaper version in the UK(seen above) is from Implementations at £32.

Sophie Conran Gardener's Gubbins £15.99
A zinc organiser for all the gardener's bits and bobs. Sort of retro French in style, shabby chic gardening.

A Big Green Egg BBQ from £399 up to £4k
The ultimate BBQ, the design means you can build up a long slow burn, meaning your food is succulent and juicy. You can use it as a smoker in the winter.

Local lumpwood charcoal £8 a bag
For that BBQ you want local sustainably sourced charcoal, most of the UK's charcoal is from overseas, isn't as good. My local guy is Iain Loasby of Rivenwood Coppice.  You can also buy biochar from Iain which is a great way to put minerals back into the soil. We will be experimenting with this in the Secret Garden Club. Find out more about biochar here. You can find your local coppicer, firewood supplier and charcoal maker here.

A Secret Garden Club e-voucher £40
Buy a Secret Garden Club workshop and supper, £40 a head, redeemable for any event. Just email me at

Don't forget our Grow Your Own Curry supper club is on this Sunday afternoon. Buy tickets here: £40

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Flower power - the appeal of edible blooms

poppy liqueur

This Sunday's Edible Flower Secret Garden Club went very well. We are also thrilled to now have a monthly column in Our first column was on edible flowers. 
This was the menu:
Coqueliquot liqueur with champagne (pictured above)
Squash flower soup with home grown ancho peppers
Bread with marigold flowers and pumpkin seeds
Mint and borage yoghurt dip
Purple and pink potato salad with herb flowers
Salad with nasturtiums
Fresh floral fettucini with butter and sage

purple pink potato salad with herb flowers
Purple and pink potato salad with herb flowers, made with homegrown Salad Blue and Highland Burgundy heritage potatoes.

Edible flowers will make your dishes look spectacular and add new flavours to your food - and all for very little outlay. Ideally you would be able to step outside into your garden to pick your homegrown edible flowers. But if this isn't possible or your garden or patio doesn't give you enough, you can source flowers for eating by other means:
  • Some supermarkets, notably Waitrose, sell edible flowers in their larger stores. Chegworth valley is also another supplier.
  • Online at sites such as Greens of Devon, and Maddocks Farm Organics. Delivery can often be made the next day.
  • In a florist only if you can guarantee that the flowers are organic. Otherwise they may have been sprayed or otherwise terraced with chemicals.
  • By foraging, for a wildflower feast. 
Selecting edible flowers
Be aware, though, that not all flowers are edible and some are very toxic. So you do need to be discriminating when it comes to picking flowers to eat. If you follow the same guidelines as you would when foraging for mushrooms you should be OK:
  • Be 100% certain that you have identified the flower correctly.
  • Only pick flowers in good condition 
  • Do not take all the flowers from a single location - and do not uproot whole plants
  • Know the provenance of your flowers. This means being sure that the plants have not been sprayed, whether with weed killer, animal urine, or preservatives (in florists, for example). Or knowing that they have not been contaminated, eg, with car exhaust fumes. By the side of a busy road is not a good place to look for edible flowers.
Pick flowers in mid morning if possible: late enough for the dew to have evaporated, early enough that sun has not started to dry out the petals.

Generally speaking, remove green sepals, stems and calyxes. Cut out stamens and therefore the pollen if you tend towards hay fever.

marigold pumpkin seed bread
Bread with marigold flowers and pumpkin seeds.

flower pasta
Adding flowers to the pasta while rolling out the dough.
Using edible flowers
Petals and smaller whole flowers can be scattered in their natural state over a variety of dishes - salads, desserts, over soups or vegetables. However flowers have traditionally been used in a number of other ways as well:
  • Suspended in ice cubes to make stunning addition to cocktails and soft drinks. Fill the compartments of an ice cube tray half full with water. Lay a flower, or petals on the surface of each. Dunk each petal with your finger to ensure they are covered with water - they will yen float to the top again. Freeze. Once frozen, top up each tray with water and freeze again. This ensures that your flowers are suspended in the middle of the ice cube rather than floating to the top. This is a classic way to use borage flowers, also good for violas, pinks, primroses. Instructions to make a floral ice bowl are in Supper Club; recipes and notes from the underground restaurant by Kerstin Rodgers.
  • Floral sugars – take a few handfuls of flowers. Remove stems but you needn't be over fussy about sepals and calyxes. Pick over to ensure they are clean and put into a clean jar. Cover with caster sugar, anywhere from 3x to 10x the weight of the flowers. Leave somewhere cool, and dark for a month and then sieve out the flowers. Recipe for Lilac sugar here.
  • Jellies – floral jellies have a wonderful aromatic flavour. Use a recipe for apple jelly (there are good ones on Cottage Smallholder and David Lebovitz, for example) for the base flavour and to give the jelly enough pectin to set. Add the flowers/petals to the apples when boiling them up for their juice. Some petals can be added to the jelly for decorative effect once it has reached setting point and before it is decanted into jars. Floral jelly recipes are in MsMarmitelover's Secret Tea Party book.
  • Floral butters work beautifully for herb flowers in particular, especially fennel, rosemary or basil. Pick a good handful of the tiny flowers and ensure they are clean. Add to softened butter and mash gently with a fork. Chill in the fridge until the butter is firm enough to be moulded between two boards or rolled into a cylindrical shape. Chill again. To use, slice off a round of the butter from the cylinder. Calendula and tagetes (marigolds) also make a lovely floral butter. Recipes for floral butters are in Supper Club; recipes and notes from the underground restaurant by Kerstin Rodgers
  • Crystallised petals – a classic treatment for rose petals, also good with primroses and violets. You will need a bowl of egg white and caster sugar, either in a bowl or a dredger. Give the egg white a brief whisking just until it's foamy - this is to ensure you don't have any lumps or globules. Take a fine soft paintbrush and gently paint each petal with the egg white. Dredge with the sugar, or dust lightly with the sugar in the bowl. Lay each petal in piece of grease proof paper and dry overnight in the airing cupboard. Use within a couple of days. Instructions on how to do this are in Supper Club; recipes and notes from the underground restaurant by Kerstin Rodgers
  • Floral teas, or tisanes: camomile is the traditional flavour here, but you can make restorative and uplifting tisanes from lavender, bergamot, lemon verbena and many other flowers. Simply take a handful of your chosen flowers and place in a glass jug or teapot. Pour over hot water (not boiling) and leave to steep for 3-6 minutes. Strain into a cup. Recipes for herbal teas are in MsMarmitelover's Secret Tea Party book.
  • Syrups, oils, and vinegars. Floral vinegar is amazing in salad dressing. Herb flowers are especially suitable for both oil and vinegar. Pack flowers into a measuring jug and decant into a clean jar. Pour over the same volume of white wine vinegar (ie, if your flowers reached the 500ml mark in the measuring jug, add 500ml of vinegar) and a little sugar to taste. Cover the jar and leave in a warm sunny place for 2-3 weeks. Then strain into a sterilised jar. Sweeter flowers, such as pinks, roses, lavender (again), lemon verbena or scented leaf pelargonium make beautiful syrups for drizzling over ice cream, over pancakes, over sponge cakes. Dissolve sugar in water (use equivalent amounts, eg for 300g sugar, add 300ml water), bring to the boil and simmer for 2-3 minutes. Remove from the heat and pour into a clean jar when still warm. Add a handful of flowers, and push down into the syrup to make sure they are covered. Put the lid on the jar and leave until cold. Strain into another clean jar or bottle.
  • Floral smoothies: add a few petals from your chosen flowers to the smoothie mix - great in lassis or milkshakes as well. Mint, roses, or bergamot are especially good for these.
  • Fruit jellies can be lifted to a higher plane with the addition of a layer of flowers or even whole blooms set into the middle of the jelly. Visually stunning.
  • Flower waters- see here in our blog post on making rose water.
borage flower and mint flower tzaziki
Mint and borage flower yogurt dip.
For a recipe on how to make fresh floral lasagne or fettucini go to my post on .