Tuesday 23 September 2014

A floral feast

Orange blossom waffles with rose petal ice cream. Photo: Kerstin Rodgers.

Using flowers in cooking and preparation of food is something of a lost art. Historically flowers were used extensively to make jellies, candies, desserts, vinegars, syrups and even wine. - think of mentions of cowslip wine in Beatrix Potter and Victorian pastoral novels.

We are happy to use the roots, stems and leaves of a wide range of plants but it's still a novelty to find edible blooms on your plate. Yet flowers can add a wow factor to many different types of food. Their visual impact more than makes up for what is often a subtle, elusive flavour. Using edible flowers can lift an ordinary dish and make it look spectacular for very little outlay.

If you do want to experiment with using flowers in your food you must source them carefully. Flowers which have been sprayed with preservatives or insecticides are no good for eating, which does tend to rule out your local florist. You can now buy little tubs of edible violas from some Waitrose outlets, but the best option in many ways is to grow them yourself. Many edible flowers are very easy to grow and as other parts of the plant can often be used in the kitchen as well, there will be nothing wasted.

If you have ever been foraging for mushrooms you will know the 'rules' for choosing and identifying edible fungi. Similar guidelines work well for finding flowers that are fit to eat as well:

  • Don’t try to eat any flower unless you’re 100% certain what it is. Not all flowers are edible and some are toxic. Many are neither poisonous nor palatable: they just don’t taste very nice or can be indigestibly fibrous.  
  • Don’t assume that if the leaves, or roots, are edible then the flowers will be too. For example, tomato fruits and potato tubers may be good to eat, but the flowers are poisonous. At least with tomatoes and potatoes there is a big clue in that they are both members of the deadly nightshade family Solanum which can lay some claim to be the botanical equivalent of the Borgias.
  • Don’t assume that just because close relatives are edible, then the rest of the family will be too. In the umbellifer family, it's fine to eat all parts of fennel or dill plants - stalks, leaves, flowers and seeds. Cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestrisand carrot (Daucus carota) flowers, members of the same family are also considered edible, but you need to be very cautious because these plants bear more than a passing resemblance to fool's parsley (Aethusa cynapium) and hemlock (Conium maculatum), which are not only inedible, but extremely poisonous. It was hemlock that was used to finish off the Greek philosopher Socrates.

  • Know the provenance of any flowers you plan to eat. Once you've positively identified your flower, you also need to take into consideration where it has grown and how it's been treated. In practice, if you pick flowers from your garden or allotment, you will know exactly how they have been raised. But beware of the following:
  • - Don’t use flowers picked by the roadside - they may well be contaminated with exhaust fumes or animal droppings.
  • - Don't use flowers bought from florists unless they can guarantee that they have been organically raised. They may well be sprayed with preservative or pesticide.
  • Be cautious about eating flowers if you suffer from hay fever. Flowers inevitably contain pollen, which is of course an irritant at best, or an allergen, for hay fever sufferers. If you think this might apply to you, approach edible flowers like a food tester: a little at a time.

The best time to pick flowers for eating is late morning - after the dew has dried off and before the sun gets a chance to start drying flowers out. Choose flowers that are just approaching full bloom. Anything in full flower is in reality past its best in terms of flavour.

Cut flowers cleanly. Don’t cut too close to the flowerhead. You want to be able to hold the flower by the stem so that you handle the petals as little as possible.

If you're not preparing the flowers for a dish immediately, put in a vase of water as for cut flowers and store in the fridge if possible.

Pick over the blooms very carefully for insects - earwigs, ladybirds, aphids, and even bees. Turn the flower upside-down and shake gently. Handle the flowers as little as possible - if you think the petals need washing, do so with as light a touch as you can manage.

For any flower larger than, say, a viola, you will want to remove the stamens - the stalks, often in the middle of the flower which bear the pollen - and the calyx and sepals - the usually green parts at the back of the flower. For smaller flowers, don’t do this: it's too finicky and you are more likely to bruise your petals.

Herb flowers
A cloud of duck-egg blue rosemary flowers in early spring.
Most herb flowers are edible and delicious. Once your herb plant is in the flower the leaves will be less flavoursome but there is still plenty you can do with the flowerheads. A simple potato salad can be transformed into something really special with the addition of fennel flowers (see MsMarmiteLover's recipe here) or chive flowers. Make a rosemary butter with the flowers from the plant rather than the spiky leaves, for example. Oregano flowers can scattered over a Greek salad in place of the dried or basil flowers used in pesto.

Fruit and vegetable flowers
We eat some vegetable flowers without really thinking about it, The globe artichoke is the flower of the Cynara scolymus plant in bud form and really just a giant thistle. The curds of broccoli and cauliflower are flower buds: if you grow broccoli and you don't pick the florets in time, you'll end up with a thicket of small yellow flowers - which are also edible. Indeed brassica flowers generally can be used to decorative effect in many dishes.
Courgette flower with the courgette growing just behind it.
The classic vegetable flowers, however, have to be squash or courgette, which are often stuffed and deep fried, or simply dipped in a tempura-style batter and fried on their own. If you grow courgettes, the most luxurious way to eat them is to pick a flower with a tiny courgette developing behind it and cook them both together. 

Edible ornamental flowers
From the versatile rose, whose petals can be used in jellies, syrups, crystallised to decorate cakes and desserts and whose essence can be distilled to make rosewater, to day lilies (Hemerocallis spp), whose buds are used in Chinese cooking, to tiny viola petals, many ornamental flowers can used to enhance the flavour of dishes and their visual appeal. 

We have a list of edible plants here on the Secret Garden Club website: it's not exhaustive and you should always check you are 100% certain of your flower identification before attempting to eat any plants, but we hope it gives you a good idea of the wide range and diversity of flowers which are both delicious to eat and stunning to look at.

Nasturtium flowers make a colourful, spicy addition to salads.

How to make your own rosewater

Making distilled rosewater is not that difficult and doesn't require specialist equipment. Once made, this beautifully fragrant liquid can be used to add scent and flavour to jellies, meringues, and fruit syrups. There are lots of rose bushes in the Secret Garden, all of which have petals suitable for eating, but for making rosewater we only want the most fragrant of blooms.
The best rose petals are those from a flower which is past the stage of being a bud and is opening out but is not quite in full bloom yet, and certainly not overblown.
How to make rosewater
There are a number of ways to make rosewater. You can simply steep rose petals in water, bring it to the boil and let them cool, before straining the mixture. You'll end up with a coloured liquid that might well be a bit sludgy and won't keep for very long.
Not much more effort is required to make distilled rosewater, which is clear and will keep for much longer.

You will need:
•Several handfuls scented rose petals, separated from the flowerhead and with all bits of stalk, leaf, etc, removed
•A large non-reactive pot with a curved lid
•A bowl which will fit into the pot
•A trivet, half-brick or heatproof weight to go underneath the bowl
•1-2 bags of ice

1. Put the trivet or brick in the middle of a large pot.
2. Pack the rose petals around it up to the level of the top of the trivet or weight. Pour cold water over the rose petals until they are just covered.
3. Set the bowl on the trivet or weight, put the lid on the pan and heat up to boiling point.
4. As soon as the water in the pan starts to boil, put a bag of ice on the inverted lid. Turn the heat down to a simmer.
5. As the steam rises from the rose-infused water, it hits the underside of the lid, which thanks to the bag of ice, will be cold. The steam will then condense and run down the curved lid in rivulets before dripping into the bowl you set inside the pan. After 20-30 minutes, you should have a bowlful full of clear rosewater, which can be lifted out, cooled and decanted into an airtight jar.
Once the water is boiling, it's advisable to check once or twice that your set-up is working and that the rose-infused water is indeed filling the bowl. Carefully lift the lid to check everything is in place, then leave for around 20 minutes before checking again. Once you have the desired amount of water in the bowl, turn off the heat and carefully lift the bowl out of the pan. You should have beautifully scented rosewater.
This rosewater can keep for up to a year, although it’s probably better to make fresh batches for cooking.

How to make hibiscus salt

Salt infused with dried hibiscus flowers adds a citrus note to the seasoning and an attractive pink finish to dishes.

  • 1 cup dried hibiscus flowers (available from health food shops, or online from 
  • Half a cup coarse sea salt

(The American by-volume measurements are useful here as you simply need twice as much dried hibiscus flower as you do salt. If you have no US-style measuring cups, just use 2 parts hibiscus to each one part salt. The quantities above approximate to 25g dried hibiscus flowers and 120g sea salt.)

Grind in a blender or spice grinder. Sieve the mixture if you’d like a finer texture.

Thursday 14 August 2014

Secret Garden Club 'edible flower' lunch 21st September

MsMarmitelover/Kerstin Rodgers showing off her flowery fresh pasta
MsMarmitelover with her flowery pasta

Tickets £40: http://www.wegottickets.com/event/284184
BYO or order from winetrust100.com

Girls, wear your flowery dresses. Boys, wear floral ties and shirts. Hopefully we will be sitting outside if the weather is still good during the autumn equinox. 

We will teach you what flowers are safe to eat and the lunch will be based on edible flower recipes. I will also be returning from a trip to Sicily so I may have some Sicilian treats.

Thursday 24 July 2014

New Secret Garden Club event: 21st September

Secret Garden Club: 
Edible flower lunch on Sunday 21st of September.
Edible Flowers by Kerstin Rodgers

Tickets £40: http://www.wegottickets.com/event/284184
BYO or order from winetrust100.com

Girls, wear your flowery dresses. Hopefully we will be sitting outside if the weather is still good during the autumn equinox. 

We will teach you what flowers are safe to eat and the lunch will be based on edible flower recipes. I will also be returning from a trip to Sicily so I may have some Sicilian treats.

Wednesday 5 March 2014

Growing potatoes in a bin bag

There’s no doubt that growing potatoes in the open ground, whether a garden bed or an allotment, takes up a lot of space. And a lot of space is usually something the urban gardener often doesn’t have. 
However, you don’t have to grow them in the open ground at all. You can grow potatoes in a container, ideally a strong sack … or indeed, a bin liner. And right now in March is a good time to start them off.
You might have seen advertisements in the Sunday magazines for special potato sacks, but you don’t need them. A nice strong black binbag will do. Or a compost bag, so long as it has that black lining inside. The black lining is to keep the light out, so that the potatoes inside don’t go green.
Growing in a container
The best type of potatoes for planting in a container are early varieties - those which reach maturity the quickest and are ready for harvesting around 110 days after planting. We successfully raised Lady Christl, Anya and Charlotte potatoes grown in bin bags at the Secret Garden Club. 

Lady Christl potatoes have beautiful, unblemished yellow skins and creamy white flesh. The potato is firm with a delicate buttery flavour and they make a delicious salad. The Anya variety, originally grown for Sainsburys, is a cross between Desiree and Pink Fir Apple, the Desiree side of the family smoothing out the knobbles and bumps that are characteristic of Pink Fir Apples, leaving Anya relatively smoother skinned and nutty flavoured. Charlottes are a classic salad potato with a waxy texture.

Freshly dug Lady Christl potatoes.
When you buy your seed potatoes, it's a good idea to let them develop little shoots, called 'chits', before you plant them in your bin bag. The potatoes will chit, ie, send out these little shoots, if they are kept in a light cool place. Note, a light cool place. If you want to store potatoes for eating, keep them in the dark. If you want to store them before planting, keep them in the light.
It’s not essential to chit potatoes but it does get them off to a good head start in the ground. It also helps you to plant them the right way up - the shoots should be pointing up towards the sky.
Each compost bag will take three seed potatoes, seed potatoes being the starter spuds which will grow into new potato plants. From each seed potato you should be able to harvest around eight or nine eating potatoes.
While growing potatoes in a container obviously takes up less space than raising them in the open ground, there are other advantages as well:
  • It's less hard work – no digging;
  • Portability 1 – if you get a bad weather warning (eg, frost) when the plants are young and tender, you can move them indoors/under cover;
  • Portability 2 – you can place the bags more or less wherever you like.
  • There is less risk of disease – your purpose-bought compost shouldn’t be harbouring blight spores, eelworms or any other nasties;
  • You don’t need to dig out the potatoes with a fork or spade, so there is little or no chance of damaging the spuds when harvesting;
  • Gardeners often miss very small potatoes and leave them in the ground over the autumn and winter. By growing them in a bag you can ensure you harvest your entire crop.
How to plant potatoes in a bag
1) The first thing to do is to put about three inches of compost in the bottom of the bag, spread evenly. Make it easier for yourself by rolling the sides of the bag down so that your bag is about six inches tall. You’ll want the sides rolled down anyway after you plant the potatoes – if you keep the bags at full height your potatoes will never see the sun and they won’t grow.
2) Next you want to take a sharpened pencil or sharp stick and make some drainage holes in the bottom of your potato bag. This is very important – you do not want waterlogged potatoes.  They will rot, and rotten potatoes stink.
So, make about 5-6 drainage holes at the foot of each bag.
3) Now place three potatoes into the bag. Space them out evenly.
Always use seed potatoes, ie, bought from a nursery or garden centre specifically for growing. Seed potatoes should be guaranteed free from viruses, which culinary potatoes won’t be. Potatoes in the shops may have been sprayed with a shoot suppressant.
Potatoes in the shops may not have been grown in the UK and so may not be well adapted to grow here. Many, if not most, of the seed potatoes grown in the UK come from Scotland and are bred to grow well in our conditions.
4) The potatoes should go into the sack with the chits uppermost.
Yup, see them little roots...they go upwards, those will be the shoots growing above the ground to grab some sunlight for the plant.
You can grow potatoes without chitting them first but they take longer to get going. You can also cut seed potatoes up into divisions each with its own little chit and plant them individually, but you do get bigger plants and more potatoes by planting the whole spud, chits and all.
5) Once the potatoes are in, cover them with more compost: aim to have a layer of compost about 2-3 inches thick over the chits.
6) Finally, water them lightly. They don’t need to be soaked. Check that water is seeping out of the drainage holes.
7) Put the potato bag outside somewhere light and somewhere reasonably sheltered.
You’ll need to bring the bag inside if a frost is forecast. We may have had a very mild winter this year but we could easily still get a cold snap in March in London; much more unusual in April, although we’ve had late frosts in each of the last two years.
8) After about 2-3 weeks you’ll see the dark green leaves poking up through the soil surface. Once the leaves are about 3-4 inches above the surface of the compost, add more compost to the bag, until the green tops are only just visible above the soil surface.
You’ll probably need to starting unroll the sides to accommodate the new compost as well. This is an ongoing process. Every time the plant grows so that you have about 3-4 inches of stem and leaves above the surface, unroll the sides a little more and add more compost.
If it rains a couple of times a week, you probably won’t need to water them. But do check your compost: if it’s very dry, then water it. Make sure any excess water is running out through those drainage holes. If it rains a lot and you put your hand in and the compost is sodden, move the bag under cover for a few days to let it dry out a bit.
The potatoes will take about three and a half months to reach maturity and edible develop tubers.
So, in about mid-June, you can put on a pair of gloves and stick your hand into the compost. If the lumps are still tiny, leave them longer. If you can feel that you have big potatoes, start harvesting.
Other signs are also useful: once the potato plant is flowering you can try digging up some spuds, or your deep green foliage might start turning yellowy and begin to wilt.
The best way to harvest here is simply to up-end the bag on to a surface and pick out the potatoes. Put the rest of the plant on the compost heap and spread the compost on your garden beds.
Charlotte potatoes spilling over the top of their bin bags.

Thursday 30 January 2014

Under the gooseberry bush

Ripe dessert gooseberries (Gooseberry 'Pax') ready for harvest.
We've planted three gooseberry bushes in the Secret Garden this winter, in a sunny sheltered bed down by the summerhouse. With the fig tree establishing itself against the summerhouse walls, it's a good spot for soft fruit: south-west facing, out of the main winds, and not exposed so it won't get the worst of the frosts.

We've planted a cooking variety, Invicta, which will ripen to a bright green and which are superb in tarts and crumbles. Gooseberries also make a remarkably good curd - see here for MsMarmiteLover's gooseberry curd recipe.

Some dessert varieties will ripen to a golden, or maroon colour, are much sweeter when ready to be picked and can be eaten straight from the bush. Cooking gooseberries are much tarter, even when ripe. They generally stay green (but then, so do some sweet varieties).

Gooseberry plants have vicious thorns and Invicta are also known for being particularly thorny - we'll wear gloves when picking, pruning, or hand-weeding them.

Gooseberries are pretty forgiving where soil is concerned - you can plant them in clay, or poor soil, so long as it is reasonably well-drained, but they do like the sun. Often you will buy them as bare-rooted, pruned, plants in winter - the best time to plant them is November/December, or early spring. Don't try to plant out your new gooseberries when the ground is frozen, or waterlogged. If your plants are delivered and the conditions aren't right, just pot them up in a pot big enough to take the roots comfortably and keep the pot somewhere sheltered and frost-free until they can go in the open ground.
Gooseberries potted up to be planted out when the ground is
neither waterlogged nor frosted.

To plant out, soak your bare-rooted plants for about half an hour beforehand in a bucket of water. (If your plants are potted up, water them well before planting out. Dig out a squarish hole where you want the gooseberries to go, and fork in some organic matter. Water thoroughly. Place the gooseberry plant gently in the hole and spread the roots out. The plant should sit comfortably so that the soil surface is just above the roots at the base of the stem - there will be a mark on the stem showing the original planting depth, and you should plant to the same level as this again. Fill the hole again with the displaced soil, firming it lightly as you go and holding the plant steady so that it remains upright. Mulch with some more organic matter and water again.
Gooseberries 'Invicta' planted out, with a little extra organic mulch around the base of each plant. 

If you have finches in your neighbourhood you might consider covering your trees with a net in winter: finches love the embryonic gooseberry buds as they develop. Otherwise, leave your bushes to settle in, watering them regularly until they are established.

Gooseberries fruit on two year old wood, so don't worry too much if you don't get a crop in your first year. The plants will flower in May here in London, although the flowers on many varieties are small and easily missed. The fruit will start to ripen in July, and now you should definitely consider a net unless you want the birds to help themselves to your crop.
Gooseberries ripening under a net to protect them from birds.

In a really good year when it looks as though you're going to have a glut, you can thin the unripe fruits out in May/June, leaving half to two-thirds of the crop to ripen on. If you have a dessert variety, the unripe fruits can be prepared as though they were cooking gooseberries, with the promise of the sweeter ripe fruit still to come. You get the best of both worlds.

Newly planted out in the open ground.

Friday 24 January 2014

Rhubarb - may the force be with us

Following our success with forcing chicory, we’ve turned our attention to our rhubarb crowns. Forcing rhubarb is a notable tradition in the UK, providing bright pink, tender stems to harvest at a time when there is little else to be dug out of the ground.

You may have heard of the ‘rhubarb triangle’ – not a place where rhubarb mysteriously vanishes, but rather an area in West Yorkshire bordered by Wakefield, Rothwell and Morley, where rhubarb is grown in special darkened, warmed sheds and forced to produce early stems between January and March for UK shops. Lit only by candlelight, the sheds house 1000s of rhubarb plants which send out long slender shoots in search of light. You can even take a Yorkshire rhubarb triangle tour, during which you can even hear the fast-growing forced plants popping if you listen closely. Forced rhubarb from this area of Yorkshire has been granted Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status by the European Commission.

With our two young rhubarb plants, we won’t be forcing on quite the same scale, but the same principles apply. As with chicory, the process deprives the growing plants of all light. The resulting stems (rhubarb) or leaves (chicory) are pale and more tender, more delicately flavoured than those grown in the tough outdoors. The darkened plants will also grow faster, desperately hunting for light in order to photosynthesise and convert sunlight to energy.

The best time to start forcing rhubarb is when you can just see the first signs of new growth at the turn of the year. Up-end a large dark-coloured pot, or bucket, one that is big enough to accommodate the growing stems, over the whole rhubarb crown. Pin it down into the soil with pegs, so that a) there’s no danger of the bucket blowing away in a winter storm, or b) no light gets in between the edge of the bucket and the soil. Any drainage holes in the bottom of the pot must be blocked off to stop even those pinpricks of light from getting in. I usually cover them with stones or concrete slabs, which has the dual effect of blocking light and again weighting the pot down so it doesn’t blow away.

Try to do this during a spell of dryish weather so that the embryonic plant isn’t wet when you cover it with the pot. Also don’t cover the rhubarb when the ground is frozen or the covered plant will remain too cold. It’s also a good idea to give the plant a quick onceover for slugs, woodlice and the like.

You can now leave nature to take its course. Check the plant every couple of weeks for growth and in 4-6 weeks you should be cutting your own forced rhubarb. The forced stems are generally less fibrous and slimmer than ‘normal’ rhubarb stalks, and also a bright pink – the colour of Pepto-Bismol rather than the darker crimson of stems grown outside in summer.

The incipient leaves should be removed as these, like their outdoor grown counterparts, are poisonous. Then the forced stems can be used in cooking just as you would for any rhubarb – poached, in a fool, or as a savoury accompaniment to meat or fish. Or treat yourself to a classic rhubarb crumble with MsMarmiteLover's recipe

Wednesday 15 January 2014

Secret Garden Club in winter

It may be the middle of winter but there is plenty of life and colour in the Secret Garden, helped by the relatively mild weather (if not the persistent rain).

Clockwise from top left: the camellia tree is in bud, ready to burst into bright red flowers in February; Clematis sieboldii flowers are determined to continue throughout the winter; the cavolo nero (Tuscan kale) is thriving; winter jasmine provides a welcome splash of yellow against the ivy-clad fence; the oriental salad plant mizuna provides leaves for winter salads; violas brighten up the patio in their pots.

Elsewhere, we have primroses, spring bulbs are pushing spiky leaves above ground in every bed, and seedling lettuces and carrots are ready to put on growth as soon as the weather gets warmer to provide us with early crops.