Friday, 22 February 2013

Book review: Gifts from the garden

Gifts from the garden is a gorgeous book. It contains a mix of gardening, craft and cooking projects, workshops and recipes, 100 in all. None of the projects are ridiculously difficult, and in tune with our thrifty resourceful economy, show you can make lovely presents using your own ingenuity and creativity even if you don't have much money.
Well known food writer Debora Robertson, (who has ghosted several famous books by well-known chefs, nudge nudge, wink wink) author also of the blog Licked Spoon, has created an inspirational book.  So in this book, you have all the talent without the ego!
If, like me, every birthday and Christmas, you never know what to get for family and friends. When you are older, most of them have everything they need, they don't want more clutter.
In the past I've made hampers and preserves as gifts. Unless you can buy them something proper like a holiday or a car, most people would prefer something handmade and personal. It's perfect for anyone who likes using their hands: crafters, gardeners, cooks and for people who like to find out how to make things.
This book gives tons of ideas: from cuttings charmingly planted up, hand sewn lavender hand warmers, herbal bath fizzies, marigold candles, natural cosmetics, unusual pesto sauce from your garden, even how to wrap the presents using plants and ribbons.
Mother's Day is coming up, the 10th of March: I reckon Gifts from the garden is the perfect present for her.
Beautifully photographed and styled by the talented Yuki Sugiura, it's totally up my street. Not only are the projects visually appealing, but the book itself is wild, carefree, blowsy and feminine, extravagantly pretty. I love the hand painted endpapers.
The Secret Garden Club are big fans!

Friday, 15 February 2013

B-Amazing: extracting essential oils from plants

While many of the plants growing in the Secret Garden are there for their beauty or their edible properties (and preferably both) we also discuss the use of plants and plant extracts for remedial or cosmetic purposes. Last June, we made our own rosewater; in December, we made bath salts using lemon zest.

In our last Secret Garden Club meeting, on herbs and medicinal plants, we were lucky enough to welcome Elke de Wit, creator of the B-Amazing skincare range, to talk about the nature of plant extracts and essential oils and how they are used in cosmetics and in her products.

Elke set up B-Amazing to create all-natural skincare creams based on beeswax and honey. Honey is an excellent humectant and antiseptic and beeswax locks in moisture and protects skin from damaging environmental factors. She is conscious about sourcing her ingredients from reputable suppliers who care about the high quality of their oils and she produces her aromatic creams in small batches in order to minimise the use pf preservatives. When caring for her bees she tries to handle them with care and love, trying to be as little invasive as possible. She is a supporter of the Natural Beekeeping Trust and their methods.

Scent and stress
Smell influences the central nervous system. States of mind such as anxiety, stress, or anger can cause physical change, including increased heart-rate, change in breathing patterns and muscle tone. In fact the stress and mental unrest so prevalent today can and often do lead to degenerative effects or ‘dis-ease’ in the body.

Fragrance can and does have the capacity for reversing this. Smelling something (or someone) you like precipitates pleasant thoughts. The physical reaction also causes deeper breathing and a slowing of the heart rate, similar states that are induced by meditation.

Essential oils, which carry fragrance, can have astonishing effects on a person’s well-being, whether inhaled, or applied to the skin. Recent research has established that certain essential oils can and do stimulate cellular regeneration, oils such as rose, neroli, frankincense, and myrrh, for example, making them even more desirable to the cosmetic industry.

Essential oils can also be used in food, though in MINUTE quantities: two drops to 300 or even 600ml of a pudding, ice-cream, or sauce is already sufficient to infuse a dish with taste.

Essential oils
A single essential oil is made up of hundreds of different chemical components, each one of which may possibly interact with another. There are over 300 different constituents to a rose scent, for example, some of which have not even been identified yet.

This is why it’s so difficult to replicate an essential oil synthetically. ‘Nature identical’ oils are only about 96% accurate, while the remaining 4%, the ‘trace elements’, are often what really defines a fragrance. So just as an artificial plastic rose bloom is only an approximation of the real thing, so a synthetic rose oil can’t truly replicate the real thing. Each component brings its own set of properties to the oil, so that the total result is a very complex substance.

The best way to ensure that you source a high-grade oil is to buy from a supplier with a genuine interest in the therapeutic properties of essential oils and a good reputation. NHR in Brighton is the only company B-Amazing has found where all essential oils are organic.

However, using essential oils from an organically grown plant is only part of the story. In order to extract essential oil from the plant, some form of chemical process may be necessary, or expedient.

Methods of extraction

Steam distillation
Here the plant is placed into a container, and boiling water or steam is passed through the plant matter, then forced into an outlet pipe that carries away the vapours produced. The boiling water/steam softens the tissues of the plant material so that it releases its essential oil content. These then flow through a pipe that passes through a jacket of cold water, which acts as condenser and the resulting liquid then drips into a second vessel.

Oil and water have different densities and so will separate. The oil floats on top of the water and can be skimmed off. Some essential oils (such as rose, lavender, and orange flower waters) are partially soluble in distillation water, so the water can be recovered and also used, in ironing, as a skin tonic, or as an air freshener.

When we made rose water at the Secret Garden Club, we set up a very simple homemade steam distillation kit. Extracting rose oil by distillation is also possible, although yields tend to be very low making the resulting oil highly expensive. Rose oil is particularly good for healing wounds and skin regeneration.

Jasmine oil is too delicate for the steam distillation process – the heat destroys its beautiful scent.

Solvent extraction
The plant material is placed in a container with a volatile solvent, usually a petroleum ether (benzine) or hexane, Blades fitted inside the drum ensure that the solvent can completely penetrate the plant tissue. What remains is plant waxes, essential oils, resinous matter, and chlorophyll which are dissolved out.

Hexanes are a significant constituent of gasoline. They are all colourless liquids with a gasoline-like odour, and widely used as a cheap, relatively safe, largely unreactive and easily evaporated solvent. You’ll find hexanes in screen cleaners, and the automotive industry.

However, companies are moving away from using it in the food industry to extract oil from grains or protein from soya: it’s a known carcinogen and can cause nerve system damage.

Petroleum ether (benzine) is the main ingredient of some label or sticker remover products. You’ll also find benzine in paints and varnishes.

The vessel containing the plant material and solvent is gently heated until the highly volatile solvent is vapourised off leaving
a) concrete residue if the plant material was live, such as bark, flower, leaf, herb or root
b) resinoid residue if it was derived from dead organic material, such as benzoin, amber, frankincense, myrrh

Frankincense and myrrh can be either steam-distilled or become a resin absolute by alcohol extraction directly from the gum resin. Benzoin is insufficiently volatile to produce an essential oil by steam distillation. If found in liquid form it’s simply a benzoin resinoid dissolved in a suitable solvent or plasticising diluent.

Resinoids are used as fixatives to prolong the effects of scent in perfumery.

The final stage of solvent extraction involves the concrete residue being subjected to pure alcohol which separates the absolute from residual wax, a process which can be repeated several times in an attempt to separate all the wax. The alcohol is then recovered and an absolute of essential oil remains. Some absolutes will still retain 2% or more ethyl alcohol even at the end of the extraction process. They should not be used for cosmetics or massage treatments.

This is an ancient form of extraction. Wooden-framed glass plates were spread with fat, and freshly-picked flowers placed on top. The fat was treated with alcohol to produce an absolute. Today solvent extraction has largely replaced this process.

This is most commonly used to produce citrus oils, for example, lemon, sweet orange, bergamot, or grapefruit oils. The entire fruit is crushed or its skin subjected to abrasion by machine (in the olden days, it was done by hand). The oil, in the outer peel of the fruit, will separate from the water and pulp.

Nitrogen/carbon dioxide extraction
Oils extracted in this manner are solvent free and non-volatile matter! This is currently being experimented with but it will take time for producers of oils to switch to this method.

For more about B-Amazing and its products, visit the company's Facebook page and follow @BAmazingNow on Twitter.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Space-saving techniques for herbs

If you have no space to grow anything else, you can surely squeeze a pot of herbs in somewhere – a patio, a balcony, the front doorstep, a windowsill? Growing your own fresh herbs will give you the option to enhance the flavour of dishes and add your own twist to them. Their fragrance is often uplifting, too and frankly, I always enjoy being hedonistically extravagant with them – cutting and chopping loads to stir into a dish or to make a mountain of pesto, safe in the knowledge that they will regrow.

Many of the visitors to the Secret Garden Club grow plants in very little space, so on Sunday we looked at a number of space-saving techniques for herbs.

Most herbs will grow very happily in pots. Some like particular conditions – salad burnet, for example, is happiest in a chalky meadow, while parsley always does well in sandy soil and thyme and oregano will appreciate being treated mean and kept in poor soil. By growing in pots you can give your herbs the soil they like the best.

Some will grow happily from seed: basil, for instance can be sown quite densely on a surface of seed compost in a pot, very thinly covered with more compost and left somewhere sunny to germinate within a few days. Let it grow 2-3 sets of true leaves before you starting cutting and you should be harvesting basil all summer long. The same goes for parsley, both curly-leaved and flat-leaved, although it will take longer to germinate.

Others are better bought as small plants and grown on during spring and summer: rosemary, thyme and sage for example. With care, they last over the winter and on into the following year – and the year after that. Rosemary and thyme are hardier than they look and will withstand some frost and snow – it’s getting wet and waterlogged that they don’t like.

Coriander is another herb which will germinate very readily, but coriander also has a tendency, I find, to bolt. That is, instead of producing lots of lovely lush leaves, it will quickly send up a thick central stalk and flower even while the leaves are still sparse and spindly. The best thing to do with coriander that does this, is to leave it until the flowers are over and they will set seed, which you can collect and use to flavour food and of course as a component in spice mix. Don’t forget also that the stems and roots of coriander are full of flavour and good to use in the kitchen.

Growing microleaves 
But how to ensure a supply of coriander leaf? We grow coriander as microleaves at the Secret Garden Club: these are leaves harvested when the plant is still very young but still full of that distinctive coriander flavour.

To grow microleaf coriander, select a shallow container such as a seed tray or a length of half-guttering, or (a Secret Garden favourite) an old wooden greengrocer’s crate. The reason you want a shallow container is that your plants won’t be around long enough to put down deep roots so you can use much less compost – it’s an economical way to grow as well.

Make sure the container has drainage holes in the bottom (you can get away without drainage holes in half-guttering if you leave the sides free to drain away any excess water), and fill to about 2cm below the rim with seed compost. Firm the surface lightly, and water it well.
Sprinkle coriander seed liberally over the surface. You don’t need to space the seeds out as you’re not trying to rear fully-grown plants. But keep the seeds to a single layer in the tray. The seeds you buy in the Asian supermarket will germinate perfectly readily and will be cheaper than horticultural seeds. (I would however, always recommend buying seeds from a nursery if you’re growing plants to maturity or to save your own seed.)

Cover lightly with compost. A rule of thumb with seeds – and in the absence of any other instructions – is to cover them with a thickness of compost equal to the diameter of the seed itself. So, tiny seeds like basil and parsley can be barely covered – in fact, parsley seed doesn’t really need covering at all – while bigger seeds like peas, beans or squash need to be buried more deeply in the soil.

At this time of year, I would cover the seed tray either with a clear plastic lid which fits over the top, or with a clear – and clean – polythene bag secured to the tray with a rubber band. This will warm up the soil and protect from draughts.

Place the covered seed tray somewhere light and bright, like a windowsill. After April or thereabouts, it could go outside. In winter, it should stay indoors.

You should see seeds beginning to sprout within a week. Once they’ve produced the first leaves, you can remove the cover and water them very gently. Use a mister if possible else you are likely to flatten the seedlings.

Let the seedlings grow until they are an inch or two high by which time they will have a couple of pairs of true leaves. Snip the leaves off with scissors to use in your cooking and don’t expect any regrowth. Once you’re halfway through this first tray it’s time to start the next one.

I’ve gone into such detail about growing coriander as microleaves because the same technique can be applied to many herbs and salad plants: basil, parsley (although parsley is a longer lasting plant when fully grown so the benefits of harvesting very young aren’t so marked), and chervil, for instance.
Microleaves, from top left to right: purple radish, red amaranth, garlic chives
Bottom row, left to right: shiso, rocket, watercress
Microleaves kindly supplied by Wow! Micro Leaf
At the Secret Garden Club on Sunday we also showed samples of red amaranth, purple radish, pea shoots, rocket, garlic chives and shiso (or perilla), all grown as microleaves, and kindly supplied to us by Wow! Micro Leaf. These give salad a distinctive taste and the intensity of flavour, given the size of leaves, is surprising. Well worth trying.

The vertical garden
The ultimate space-saver, though, has got to be the Secret Garden Club’s own take on the vertical garden. Vertical gardens are all the rage at the big flower shows – remember the B&Q sponsored one at the Chelsea Flower show in 2011? They can be very expensive to set up and difficult to maintain.

Not so the Secret Garden Club’s vertical garden, which is easy to assemble on a domestic scale, needs just a little watering and will give you a season’s worth of various herbs.

All you need is:
  • An ‘over-the-door’ storage hanger with pockets – this (pictured) is the one we used, for example.

  • A selection of small potted plants – typically the small herb pots you find in garden centres for 99p, or £1.49. We used rosemary, thyme, basil, parsley, oregano, feverfew and lavender. 
  • At least one larger plant, eg, the lavender, is desirable to give your vertical garden some ballast.
  • Some extra compost.

Hang your storage hanger up using the hooks provided. Start at the bottom with your larger plant. Remove carefully from its pot and site it inside one of the bottom pockets.

This will give your vertical garden some weight at the bottom while your plant it up and stabilise it.

For the narrower deep pockets at the top, fill about a third of the pockets with compost, before adding plants from your pots, else they will sink too deeply into the pockets and disappear from view. Add a plant to each pocket, tucking each one in neatly.

Note: you can also buy similar storage hangers to these which are made of plasticised material. These are fine to use, but take a skewer and stab some drainage holes in each pocket before you water. Otherwise your herbs will get waterlogged.
The hanging garden, planted up. Top row: thyme and oregano
Second row: thyme, feverfew, oregano, parsley
Third row: coriander. Bottom row: rosemary
Throughout the coming season, the plants will grow and overflow the pockets
to create a vertical garden effect.
When your storage hanger is filled, water each plant well and leave to drain before you select the best place to keep your vertical garden. Your plants will need somewhere light, so hanging from a window facing into the room isn’t ideal. If you can hang over the back door facing outside, that might well be ideal.

Your vertical hanging garden should give you a steady supply of herbs for the rest of the season.

Notes on growing and using herbs
  • If your herbs are outside, plant them as close to your back door or kitchen door as possible. You may think you’ll happily go all the way down the garden to pick herbs, but when it’s cold and wet you’ll want them as close at hand as possible.
  • Most herbs like the sun and will do best planted in a sunny site. Notable exceptions are parsley and chervil, which are happy in partial shade.
  • No herbs like the wind, though. Perhaps the most important thing to consider about the planting position is that it should be sheltered. Construct a windbreak if necessary.
  • Don’t water them excessively. More herbs are killed off by waterlogging than drying out. Herbs like thyme and rosemary will appreciate a bit of drought. (Think of those dry Mediterranean hillsides.)
  • If you buy herbs in those very tiny garden centre pot, transplant them to the open ground or a bigger pot of trough once you get them home. They will outgrow the small pots very quickly.
  • Don’t cut all the leaves off a plant in one go. You’ll kill it off. Always leave enough so that the plant can regrow.
  • If your herbs do bolt and flower early, don’t despair. Many herb flowers are edible as well as the leaves – see our post on edible flowers for a checklist.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Herbs, Jackie magazine and hot and sour soup recipe

Starting Vietnamese rice paper rolls
For me, fresh herbs can transform your cooking from dull, slightly dead food to something living, vibrant and fresh. When I was growing up, herbs were dry things in pots that went unused at the back of your cupboard. There are some herbs that are just as good dried, different even, such as mint but the vast majority are better cut straight from the pot.
Have you ever used micro greens? They are mini versions of some of the classic herbs and leaves (parsley, basil, pea shoots, tarragon) but also some unusual ones such as pink stem radish, salad fennel, red chard, borage and bulls blood. These not only taste great but make a fantastic garnish. The top chefs use them. Zia_Mays will tell you how to grow these and full size herbs in the next blog post.
We've had the odd celebrity guest at the Secret Garden Club; this week we had another thrilling guest, a lady who used to model for Jackie magazine!
Wendy Rigg who is now an associate editor at Reveal magazine! Love the afro and the 'fashion shawl'. I remember when everybody had grown out perms and mohair jumpers were big. 

On Sunday, the Secret Garden Club celebrated Chinese New Year as well as herbs. Here is my menu:

Muddled basil in rhubarb vodka from Chase and raspberry fizz cocktail

Tempura sage leaves

Chinese hot and sour soup with mint and coriander 

Vietnamese spring rolls with mint, coriander and basil (I didn't have holy basil so I cheated with mint and basil)

Plum and green tea buckwheat noodles with ponzu, black sesame seeds, toasted sesame oil and fresh herbs such as micro shiso leaves

Herb salad including chervil, tarragon, curly parsley, coriander, basil, mint, and lettuce with a smoked lemon and olive oil dressing.

Rosemary gelato, sour cream gelato and forest berries simmered in fresh thyme.

Lemon grass tea

Herbs were either grown in the Secret Garden or provided by The Fresh Herb Company. Micro herbs by Wow! Micro Leaf.

We handed out seeds and fresh herb pots as goodie bags to our guests at the end, again generously provided by @thefreshherbco

Here is my recipe for hot and sour soup 
which really hit the spot on the chilly rainy day.

This is a bit of a mix between a Thai sour soup and a Chinese one. I found just the black vinegar wasn't sour enough so I added lime. A proper Chinese hot and sour soup has jelly ears and bamboo shoots in it. I didn't have any so this is my bastardised version. Fear not, it was damn good even if not entirely authentic. 
It's also very Chinese if all the vegetables are julienned (cut into fine strips) and the tofu precisely cut into squares.
PS: just discovered that not everyone knows what a punnet is. It's a small container of fruit or vegetables. 

Serves 6
3-4 tablespoons of Groundnut or vegetable oil
3 garlic cloves minced
1 inch fresh ginger, grated ( I keep mine in the freezer and use as and when)
1 punnet (150g) shitake mushrooms
1 punnet (150 - 200g) brown mushrooms
2 red chillis, seeded and thinly sliced
a big glug of rice wine or dry sherry
2 litres of vegetable stock
4 (ideally fresh) lime leaves (grow a kaffir lime plant to always have some around)
40ml of light soy sauce
25 ml of dark soy sauce
50ml of Chinese black vinegar
The juice of 4 limes
 3 tablespoons of cornflour mixed with 6 tablespoons of cold water

At the end add these vegetables:

1 punnet (100g) baby corn on the cobs, sliced in half down the middle
1 punnet (100g) sugar snap peas
A few carrots, finely julienned (optional)
1 punnet (150g) silken tofu, diced into 1.5cm squares. Hold it and cut it up in your palm over the pot before adding it. 
You could also add ramen noodles (but then don't add the cornflour mixture as it will be too starchy)


1 bunch of spring onions, julienned. 
1 handful of well washed beansprouts
Fresh mint leaves
Fresh coriander leaves

Heat the oil and fry the ginger, garlic, mushrooms together.
Then add the chilli and rice wine.
Add the vegetable stock and the rest of the ingredients until the limes. Taste for the required balance of heat (chili) and sour (lime and vinegar) and salt (soy sauces). Adjust.
Then add the cornflour paste and simmer for 30 minutes, unless you are adding noodles.
Next add the baby sweet corn and tofu and the noodles if you wish.
When serving add some spring onions, beansprouts, then the mint and coriander. 

Friday, 8 February 2013

Growing herbs in a restricted space

The Secret Garden Club meets on Sunday to discuss herbs and medicinal plants. We'll look at the ways in which herbs have been used to enhance food over centuries and also how, before the advent of modern medical science, the herb garden was also in effect, a family's medicine cabinet.

We also have a guest speaker: Elke de Wit created B-Amazing, her own natural skincare range centred on the amazing properties of beeswax. She uses herbs extensively in the B-Amazing range and will be explaining how essential oils are extracted from herbs to use in her face creams.

We've also got some ideas up our sleeve (almost literally!) for growing herbs when you don't have much in the way of outdoor space, maybe just a patio, a balcony, or just a windowsill - including the return of the Secret Garden Club's ingenious vertical garden and how to set this up. 

All this and a themed tea created and prepared by MsMarmiteLover - book your tickets for Sunday here.