The trick is to pick

New year is bad for vege patches. Summer heat and late rains are ideal growing conditions, but the holidays mean less time for the garden. Weeds run rampant, and tomatoes grow too fast to “pinch out”, more like jungle bushes than productive vines.

As a resolution, “beating the weeds” is unrealistic. Growing more traditional veges also seems unlikely, when they only cost cents in the shops.

Before you despair, and decide growing your own is only for the really dedicated. Think again! Granted many crops are more trouble than they’re worth, or more work than the family pet, there are still opportunities for delicious low maintenance crops. The trick is to pick, craftily. Choose crops for return on investment.

Here’s my current list of high ROI crops:

  • Cooking apples require pruning once a year, and fertiliser when you remember, but you can’t buy them, and they make delicious deserts impressing your guests!
  • Heritage varieties of other fruits also offer a high ROI, if you have not inherited a productive plum tree planting a couple (chosen to pollinate each other) is easy fruit.
  • Jerusalem Artichokes are a thistle, so of course they grow well! Big impressive plants look great, and a thick layer of straw keeps them weed free (almost). Earn “foodie points” with a vege that’s unusual, delicious and easy to grow and cook (copy the online videos).
  • Lettuce require some weeding and lots of watering, but repay with a salad you grew yourself (almost) and far less pain than tomatoes or cucumbers. Buying “Mesclun” seed gives plants of different varieties from one packet, all year round. The straw trick works for lettuce, but grow the seedlings quite big before planting them.
  • Rocket and other herbs grow like weeds, and can be used either as a flavouring or in salad.

What are your tips for picking for high ROI crops?

Recipe for socca – or farinata

Socca is the French word for it, it is a specialty around Nice, across the border in Italy too, but there it is called farinata. As a tasty snack or starter it’s simple, quick, and nutritious. It’s also completely gluten free. Simple and made from simple things it is an ideal quick meal after Christmas when one needs no more rich food, but wants something tasty and special. 

Socca is a breadless ‘flatbread’ of chickpea flour (gram flour from an Indian shop works nicely) and water with a little oil cooked in a cast iron pan. (You could use another ovenproof pan, but cast iron is great because of its heat retention.) Socca has many variants, two I love add: rosemary and onions (chopped fine and mixed into the batter prior to cooking), or some chopped fennel seeds.

Mix equal parts (one cup of each will feed two for a light lunch) chickpea flour (gram flour) and water for a not too thin or too stiff batter, add two tablespoons of oil, a little salt and lots of freshly ground black pepper. (At least as much pepper as salt, but probably more. Be brave and you will find even pepper-shy people like it! Be brave, socca is a simple dish for culinary extremists as I’ll explain again below.) 

When the batter is mixed, let it rest. Half an hour is great, but at least while you warm the oven and pan. Heat the oven to at least 230⁰C on grill setting and put the pan on the hob to get it smoking. This is another place to be extremist, get the pan and the grill as hot as you can, the extra crispness of the crust will repay your extremism!

Place two tablespoons of oil in the pan and tip to coat.  Pour in the batter and place in the oven (probably 4-5 mins depending on the thickness of the bread and just how hot your pan and grill will go).

You could eat it with olives and small tomatoes for a healthy snack or starter. Ideal when chatting with friends.

Actually socca, like soccer, is not immune to national rivalry. The Italians call it ‘farinata’. But the name doesn’t change the taste. So, I’m content to credit both the nice people from Nice and the generous people from Genoa!

Recipe for socca

One frying pan size, serves two as a light lunch or four as a snack.

  • 1 cup chickpea/gram flour
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 tsp fresh ground pepper
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • diced onions or rosemary if you want more flavours

Mix and leave to stand. Pour into a frying pan as hot as you can, with a little oil round the base. Place under the grill, again as hot as you can. Ready when the top is nicely browning.

Pure Butchery or a Winter’s Tale

In winter I do my food growing in the barn, with nothing growing in the garden and only pruning in the orchard. I’m making bacon, salami and prosciutto (Italian style ham) with parts of our homekilled pigs. Though not this year as we had no pigs. After a hectic start we soon had bacon brining in a barrel and hams dry-curing in the spare fridge. Home-cured bacon is a simple and fun way to make or grow more of what you eat. Our chef son adds coffee to the cure, which is basically sugar and spice.

Prosciutto is another matter. Several weeks salting, then each ham takes months to age and air-dry. The meat is hung in a cool dry airy place (the barn). Examined for unwelcome mould (anything that isn’t white and powdery) any appearing is wiped off with vinegar-soaked cloths. Like the guru at River Cottage I rub them with acidophilous powder (the probiotic in yogurt) before they’re hung. This creates a slightly acid environment, helping proper ageing. At Christmas we discover if this care has produced the expensive delight we anticipate.

Salami gives quicker results. Four weeks after stuffing the skins, the beer sticks are already delicious. Full size ones take a little longer. They are less simple than hams though, soon after we hung them suspicious moulds appeared. Vinegar removed them for a while, but they returned. Then we spotted that Hugh F-W doesn’t cover salami. He is less afraid of flies and infection, but we realised that winter temperatures (keeping our garden from growing) also keep flies away. Uncovered they dried faster with no bad moulds. We’ve tried the “plain” beersticks, delicious, next the various flavours of pure pork ones…

When to plant broad beans

When should you plant broad beans? In winter few insects pollinate the flowers, yet we hope for early beans. Too early or late and the crop is small. Dates are different in different places.

John & Jenny are sure that later planting is the best approach, giving bigger, more certain crops. But I love broad beans (Barbara doesn’t, as a child she was given leathery old beans, see below for a secret weapon for permission to plant lots 🙂 so I risked some early planting, so long ago that despite frost in May they have flowers already… now to see if they’ll set… of course I plan to have my cake and eat it too, I’ve two thirds of a packet to plant later as well!

Other over-wintering veges have similar issues. Cabbages put in too late won’t be ready till late spring. Beetroot too soon will be past their best before the winter shortage. Timing is crucial, but up Pyes Pa Rd we know the difference a few Kms makes (or rather a few tens of meters higher above sea level). In spring, we watch the blossom spread slowly up the road. So experiment to gauge what works at your place, and talk to others to work out the best strategy. None of us have it right, but we can help each other by sharing experiences, as well as seedings (last month meeting, as well as veges, Mark & Esme offered us young peach trees 🙂

The secret to convert non-broad-bean-lovers? Just cook them and zap them up into a sort of hummus with lemon, oil and herbs. Broad bean dip is really delicious 🙂

Chocolate Chantilly

The simplest (just two ingredients), most sophisticated (think Michelin Starred Restaurants), dessert possible, Chocolate Chantilly is a contradiction in terms.

This ‘chantilly’ is like a soft, glossy, smooth chocolate mousse. It’s called a ‘chantilly’ though no cream is used, and the flavour can be changed according to the liquid added, or by adding flavourings. I have used orange juice and coffee but other liquids/flavours that go with dark chocolate should work just as well.

It is the simplest and most sophisticated chocolate dessert imaginable, just chocolate and water (or some other aqueous liquid).

Being a foam the flavour is enhanced and magnified, so for me Whittaker’s Dark Ghana is too sweet, and needs to be cut, or better perhaps I need to find a source of better quality chocolate. Why do Kiwis like their sweets so sickly sweet?

The ratio of water to chocolate may vary with different chocolates, liquids, or even the weather, but the mix can always be rescued by reheating (see below) and the ratio adjusted.

Ingredients (serves two or three)

  • 100g dark (bittersweet) chocolate, with a minimum 50 percent cocoa chopped
  • 33 to 100g water (or other liquid, fruit juice, coffee…)
  • decoration e.g. whipped cream, passion fruit seeds, violet flower…


Combine the chocolate and liquid in a bowl place in a saucepan water bath, have another bowl with ice and water handy.

Heat and stir until the chocolate has melted and mixes with the liquid (it will be glossy and smooth like a ganash made with water instead of cream).

The video is cut in several places but gives an idea of when the whipping is ‘done’.

Put in the ice water bath and whisk after a couple of minutes, often quite quickly, the chocolate will start to firm up like whipped-cream. Keep whisking until fairly stiff peaks form.

If grains form reheat and start again, if it is too thin add chocolate, if too firm add liquid.

Storing Pumpkins (and other produce)

When talking about storing produce. We face several enemies, and they need different tactics:

Temperature: too hot and ripening will turn to rot, yet if we live high enough frost can also be a problem. A garage or shed, that does not get too much sun on a hot day is good. My granddad used his roofspace, but in the Bay that probably gets too hot even in winter. Remember airflow is needed, so don’t use unventilated plastic.

Fungi and mildew: damp brings these on, so keep things dry, but keeping the produce from touching helps slow the spread. Traditionally straw was used to separate and keep dry, though some swear by newspaper.

Possums, rats and mice: These pests love pumpkin, and absolutely adore apples. Yet, since still air encourages rot, keeping them out may conflict with the need for airflow. So hanging a sack from rafters is good, and mesh or netting cages also stop pests but allow air.

One of our group suggested washing pumpkins in water with a little Janola (1.5tsp/bucket) to kill spores that may cause problems (the stalk of pumpkins is especially vulnerable to such attacks).

Asking around more widely about storing potatoes, somebody suggested a variant of the British “clamp” or earth covered pile, ideal for lazy gardeners like me. Leave the potatoes in the ground till you need them, but cover the soil with straw and tarpaulin or old roofing sheets. The straw keeps the soil cool, the tarpaulin or whatever keeps it dry, and until they are cooked potatoes are indigestible to four-legged pests. As a bonus the ground will be in perfect shape for some manure and a spring planting.

Teaching my grandmothers how to peel eggs

There are lots of ‘old wives tales’ about how to peel eggs. Preparing a boiled egg seems like one of those tasks that is so simple anyone can do it. Yet there are a couple of complications.

The easiest to resolve is how long to boil, less than about 5 minutes (depending on egg size) and the yolk is too soft, more than about 8 minutes and the yolk gets an unsightly black coating (sulphur from the white reacts with iron from the yolk to give ferrous sulphite). 1 NB. Americans see colour differently and the coating is called ‘green’ there — I have no idea if this is related to Green Eggs and Ham.

The most complex is how to peel. Getting the shell off the egg sounds easy, yet the membrane seems to stick to both shell and egg, resulting over the years in hundreds of mangled and so manky-looking eggs. My grandmothers’ methods of making this easier involved shocking the eggs in icy water once they are boiled, and for one of them also by putting the cold egg direct into vigorously boiling water at the start (a double shock). This shocking system works (a bit). It seems t work best if the eggs are peeled under the cold water as soon as possible after shocking them — but it is by no means always successful (cue dozens more manky hard boiled disasters).

Enter molecular gastronomy. Or at least the science of cooking. On a website that I failed to bookmark, and so can no longer find, while looking for something completely different, I found a discussion of how to cook eggs to be easy to peel. This involves making the membrane less ‘sticky’. The answer (after appropriate scientific theory and experiment) 2 Theirs not mine. is to knock a dint in the round end of the egg before putting it in the water to cook. This allows water to reach and moisten the membrane.

The dint is made by hitting the egg (surprisingly hard, it took me several goes each harder than the previous attempt at first) on a hard rounded surface — the top of a rolling pin or the back of a spoon (held firmly onto the edge of the bench). The dint on the right in the photo is too vigorous and risks tearing the membrane, the one on the left is as slight as will work, but risks being invisible! 3 Both eggs worked fine.

After adding this to my grandmothers’ shocking approach I have yet to suffer a peeling fail!

Notes   [ + ]

1. NB. Americans see colour differently and the coating is called ‘green’ there — I have no idea if this is related to Green Eggs and Ham.
2. Theirs not mine.
3. Both eggs worked fine.

Strange fruits and varied veges

TV chefs and food columnists use veges I can’t find in the shops. Shops can only sell what growers grow. And growers grow what they are sure will sell…

Growing your own gives you a choice. As well as tried and true varieties, most vege plots or home orchards have a few fruits that are strangers to the supermarket, and veges more varied than the shop stocks.

There are several benefits to growing these “unusual” crops:

Cost: when you find fresh figs they’re expensive, I envy the people with flourishing fig trees, hopefully ours will start to crop next year…

Taste: our Bramley apple tree is also small, but we got a couple of apple pies from this old cooking variety. Their taste (with plenty of sugar, as they’re “tart”) is richer and deeper than pies made with Granny Smiths.

More productive: Esme mentioned a long necked courgette that produced big crops. I wonder if she’s saved some seed?

Being trendy: Cavolo Nero, a sort of bluish Italian kale was food columns a couple of years ago, as tasting better than ordinary kale. Barbara didn’t like kale, but loves these tasty fresh leaves steamed and salted then drizzled with olive oil or butter.

Looking good: Artichokes could fit any of the categories above, expensive, delicious (if you like them, not everyone does), perennially trendy, but often grown for the impressive giant grey-green thistle leaves.

All the examples I’ve mentioned are easy to grow, and flourish round here. What strange fruits or varied veges would you add to the list? We are now planting some Radicchio (Italian chicory) seedlings that Jenny gave us, I wonder how you eat Radicchio?

Troll Cream

If you make mayonnaise or other yolk-based sauces you will always have a pot (or more) of egg whites languishing in the fridge. Yet egg whites are a fascinating and fun ingredient.

More than meringues

Of course they can make meringues and meringues are versatile accompaniments to many desert dishes. Yet a few basic properties of egg whites make them much more versatile.

When whipped they form quite stable foams. The more they are whipped the more stable (since the air bubbles get smaller). The more water is added (within reason) 1 Reason here being defined as: if you get greedy eventually you reach a limit case and the whole thing collapses. the greater the volume of the foam.

Sugar (by increasing the viscosity of the water) helps stabilise the foam.

When heated the proteins in egg white coagulate, firming the foam.

Troll Cream

This Scandinavian dessert uses some of these properties. It is dead simple, just whip egg white, add fruit juice or syrup and whip some more. Add sugar as needed for taste (and to stabilise) et voilà, Troll Cream!

Enter the Vauquelin

Martin Lersch, Norewegian molecular gastronome, uses the last of these characteristics to produce a variant of the Scandinavian ‘Troll Cream” that is like a cross between a Kiwi pavlova and a mousse. He names it in honour of French chemist Louis Nicolas Vauquelin.

Just make a Troll Cream, spoon the mix onto greaseproof paper and heat in a microwave for about 8-10 seconds. The timing is crucial as can be seen from the photo above. In our microwave the Vauquelin on the left had 10 seconds and is nicely done while the one on the right had 20 and has collapsed.

I used Blackcurrant syrup for the fruit, but the taste is (of course) only as good as the fruit, next time I will try something more sophisticated.

Baked Vauquelin

Vauquelin can naturally be baked (like meringues) but if the temperature is too high they will lose their colour as the sugar caramelises. One needs a temperature only a little above 100⁰C to dry them without caramelising the sugar. This is hardly worth the effort.


Notes   [ + ]

1. Reason here being defined as: if you get greedy eventually you reach a limit case and the whole thing collapses.

65⁰ for the perfect egg?

Can you cook a perfect egg?

Can you cook an egg? It is harder than one thinks to cook a (near) perfect egg. The film Julie and Julia that we are currently enjoying makes the point firmly, to learn cookery one starts at the beginning, cooking eggs.

This eggs / 65⁰ eggs

For some reason, although we have had the sous vide circulator for a while now, and use it frequently when cooking meat, I have not before tried the famous 65⁰ egg. It should probably be called the ‘This Egg’, or «Œufs This» since this temperature is the result of work by French molecular gastronome Hervé This.

So for today’s experiment I am making myself a couple of 65⁰ eggs. The sous vide is the ideal way to do this, avoiding the terrible error of 64⁰ eggs.

During lunch at a local bistro, I notice a 65-degree-Celsius egg on the menu, served on a fricassée de girolles. As the plate is set down, This says: “That’s not a 65-degree egg. It’s a 64-degree egg.” The yolk is soft, and the egg white, while completely opaque, is so delicately jelled and fragile that it breaks apart slightly when it is plated. “Eh, oui,” the chef sighs; he is having des ennuis regulating the heat of his stove.  (Quoted from Discovery)

According to This’ research at 65⁰ one gets soft creamy yet set whites and a soft not quite runny yolk, pretty much how I like my eggs. For Barbara I may have to do some 67⁰ eggs, but today is about me 🙂

As the featured image shows, my 65⁰ egg is as described, the whites are opaque (though only just) and are indeed creamy, and as promised a ‘revelation’. The yolks, however, are almost set, and so for me less than exciting.

The quest for my ‘perfect egg’ continues…

This only cooks his eggs a short while, that might be the answer, but the Chef Steps egg calculator suggests that the perfect egg for me with a pretty firm white and yet pretty runny yolk would use 75⁰ for 15 mins or, after 12 mins ice and reheat… I may try that next week.


PS, these This Eggs were topped with a lemmony mustard mayonnaise, but does anyone know a quick easy foolproof way to make hollandaise?