Widgets Blog - Emma the Gardener

In alphabetical order

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The Alternative Kitchen Garden: An A to Z

When I first became a freelance writer, I had no thoughts of writing a book. It wasn’t that it was daunting, but rather that there were a lot of gardening books on the market and I couldn’t see how there needed to be any more. My garden had been slowly growing for a few years, the grow dome was just about finished and in use, and I had started to become interested in unusual edibles, but I wasn’t a gardening expert – just an enthusiastic amateur. I knew that I didn’t want to add to the army of books that tell you exactly what you need to do in your vegetable patch every month in the year.

I was in the bath, not thinking about much at all, when then idea for The Alternative Kitchen Garden: An A to Z came to me. I thought that an alphabetical structure would allow me to cover a lot of disparate topics that I had been learning about, trying out, and writing about, over my first few years of being a gardener.

Contents page 1

I had already had a couple of articles published in Permaculture Magazine (they pay in kind, not in cash), and knew that they also published books. So I sent a book synopsis to the editor, who rapidly replied to say that she liked the idea and would like some time to discuss it with the rest of the team, and politely asked me not to offer it to anyone else in the meantime.

I remember there being a bit of a lag before my proposal was formally accepted and I was signed on as a Permanent Publications author. It can’t have been too long, however, since by September of 2008 I had finished the first draft of the book – 90,000 words! I had to do some serious trimming in places…. Writing it was a remarkably smooth process, the only challenges being presented by the self-imposed alphabetical format. The sections for Q, X, Y and Z involved some creative thinking!

Contents page 1

With the bookazine, the process was quick – from signing a contract in December it was on shelves the following March. Getting my first book published was more drawn out.

In the end it was ‘rushed’ out in time for the Big Green Gathering in July 2009. I was going to attend, complete with a hundred or so copies of the book, and do some workshops. If I remember correctly, we had to buy a tent. But the gathering was cancelled at the last minute, and so my triumphant book launch didn’t happen.

Contents page 1

The feedback I got for the book was that people enjoyed the honesty with which I portrayed being a gardener – talking about failures as well as successes! The Alternative Kitchen Garden: An A to Z is the story of how my garden grew, and how I developed as a gardener in the early years. It’s about being embedded in the online gardening community, and in his foreword Mark Diacono wrote “as you’d expect if you’re familiar with Emma’s work, it’s a generous book, linking people, organisations and the reader throughout, joining the dots as it goes.” It’s also about growing edible and useful plants in an environmentally-friendly way, which is its elevator pitch :)

There’s a lot in the book that I will be revisiting now that I have a new garden to play with.

Earlier this year, the publisher confirmed that they had sold all of their copies of The Alternative Kitchen Garden: An A to Z and were letting it go out of print. The rights have reverted to me, and in the future I may well do a second, updated edition. In the meantime, I have a few copies left, so give me a shout if you’d like a brand new copy, signed by the author! (If you’re not in the UK, the postage tends to me more than the price of the book, so you may want to look elsewhere for a copy.)

Posted in Blog on Aug 19, 2015 ·

Last modified on Aug 19, 2015

Tags: writing & books.

Review: 100 Skills You'll Need for the End of the World

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Every civilization appears to have had an obsession with its own end. Ours is no exception, with apocalypse movies of every ilk being made. If you think about the End of the World as We Know It then World War Z may come to mind, or American preppers hiding out in their well-stocked bunkers. Either way, it comes with a ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ mentality – the new reality won’t be a safe and comfortable place.

In the pithily-titled 100 Skills You’ll Need for the End of the World (as we know it), Ana Maria Spagna puts forth a different philosophy. We may be reduced to a simpler way of life, but cooperation will be the key here. As well as including some obvious survival skills in her list, Spagna includes social skills such as bartering and negotiation, story telling and plain old conversation. The implication is that no one person will embody all of the skills – we will need to rely on each other, and security comes from being part of a community. There’s nothing included about defence or weaponry beyond that useful for hunting.

Readers won’t necessarily agree with her choices and omissions. I could personally live without ‘cloud reading’, and ‘latrine digging’ is something I think you could learn on the fly, and wouldn’t need to practice in advance (although it would certainly be an essential task if the sewer system broke down, I’m not sure I’d call it a skill). And I don’t see why – amid growing, foraging and preserving food – cooking didn’t get a mention. A decent meal would make even the end of the world seem less onerous.

100 skills is a thickish, but small book. It’s not a manual, it won’t help you survive the end of the world. Very few entries contain instructions (‘ink making’ says “Find a recipe, wear old clothes, and make your mark”). And the book (published by Storey) is very American, including bird calls for American species and an assertion of the current American orthodoxy that planting native plants is a much better idea that going for something non-native. (I tend towards a more balanced view.)

Serious preppers wouldn’t give it more than a moment’s consideration, but if you’re pondering a different end-of-the-world scenario, then you may find it gives you food for thought. At the very least, it may suggest a few new fun things to try.

Posted in Blog on Aug 3, 2015 ·

Last modified on Jul 31, 2015

Tag: books

Out now in paperback - Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs

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Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs, by Emma Cooper
The cover of Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs, out now in paperback

All of you who said you prefer ‘proper’ books to ebooks can now vote with your feet – Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs is out now in paperback :) All that bright pink should liven up your bookshelf a treat….

For those of you who haven’t heard of it before, Jade Pearls (my latest book) is a guide book to the world of unusual edible plants, whether they are old or new, rarely grown or from somewhere far flung. It looks at the history of plant hunters moving these plants around the world, and tells the stories of modern day enthusiasts, showcasing some of the unusual plants you may encounter as you begin your own journey into this intriguing world.

Beyond our familiar fruits, vegetables and herbs, edible plants can be exotic, old-fashioned, wild or just plain weird. Think of the things you consider to be unusual – things you’ve seen in the produce section, or the latest ‘superfruit’ to be mentioned in the media. Perhaps you encountered something new on holiday, and wished you could bring it home with you. A list of plants you consider to be unusual would be different from my list, which would be different from everyone else’s, because what counts as unusual depends on both your past experiences, where you live and when you live – there are trends and fashions in food and gardening, as in anything else.

An unusual plant may have been commonly grown in the past, or it may have been bred only recently and be something truly new. Or it may come from far away. It may be a plant that is very commonly grown and known in agriculture, but not often cultivated at home – or the reverse, a plant that is common in gardens and on allotments but rarely commercially available.

Writing and publishing Jade Pearls has been a real labour of love for me, and I still enjoy reading the stories it contains of people who are similarly obsessed with slightly offbeat plants. It’s a thoroughly good book, but you don’t need to take my word for it! When the ebook version was published last year I embarked on a virtual book tour, and you can find all kinds of goodies – interviews, reviews and guest blogs – about Jade Pearls here:

I published the paperback via Createspace, so it is available from Amazon (in all territories). Should you prefer the ebook version, head over to the Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs homepage to find out more about stockists.

Get your copy now, and embark on an adventure where you meet the nicest people and fill your garden with truly wondrous plants!

Posted in Blog on Apr 29, 2015 ·

Last modified on Apr 29, 2015

Tags: books & unusual.

Book review: Steeped

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Steeped, by Annalies Zijderveld

I have been a tea drinker for as much of my life as I can remember, but for most of that time tea has been a part of the background of my life – ever present, but not something I took much notice of. In the last few months that has changed, and I have been exploring new blends and flavours of tea, and I am looking forward to growing some of my own tea plants in my new garden this summer.

It may seem to be a logical next step to include tea in food recipes, but it is not an idea that had occurred to me until I encountered matcha – the green tea powder that makes it makes its way into everything from smoothies and muffins to porridge and tiramisu.

In Steeped: recipes infused with tea, Annalies Zijderveld explores much further the idea of cooking with tea, exploring the potential of tea to be used more as a herb or spice (a source of flavour) than as a drink.

The beginning of the book looks at some of the ways in which tea is drunk around the world. Apparently, 85% of tea drunk in the United States is served iced. Brrrr. Regular blog readers will recall my recent experiments with Tibetan Butter tea; in Russia, we’re told, smoky black tea is likely to be sweetened with a spoonful of jam – which does lead to delightful flights of fancy in which you mix and match tea blends and jam flavours.

With so many different flavours of tea on offer, the recipe possibilities must be nearly endless. Steeped limits itself to recipes using 10 ‘classic’ teas – 4 black, 4 green and 2 herbal brews. Once you’ve stocked your cupboard, it walks you through the basics of cooking with tea, including the different methods for brewing used in the recipes later.

The recipes themselves are arranged chronologically, under ‘Morning tea’, ‘Midday tea’, ‘Afternoon tea’, ‘High tea’ and ‘Sweet tea’. Each one is clearly laid out and easy to read; only some are accompanied by colour photos of the finished dish.

Some of the ones that caught my eye are:

Blueberry scones with Rooibos honey butter, Green tea vinegar, Tea crackers with herbed labneh, and Mint pea soup, but there’s plenty more here that I think I might try – I like the way that Steeped zooms between different cuisines and has been put together with thoughts of flavour, rather than simply trying to insert tea into everyday recipes that are fine without it.

You could use Steeped as the kind of recipe book that you pull off the shelf, choose one thing to make and then put it back until next time. But I think it’s also the kind of book that could pull you in, and encourage you to stock up on a few more teas and really get in to using tea as a source of flavour. With the Green tea vinegar, for example, you’re making something that’s not intended for immediate use, but which improves with age. And there’s even a recipe that makes use of the tea leaves once you’ve got to the bottom of the bottle.

So… using tea as a herb is an intriguing concept, and Steeped is an intriguing book. And now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for tea. I have my eye on the Green tea coconut rice :)

Steeped: recipes infused with tea
By Annalies Zijderveld
Hardback, 126 pages, RRP £12.00
ISBN 9781449464974
Publisher: Andrews McMeel Publishing

Also available on Kindle.

Release date is 9th April 2015.

Disclosure: I was provided with a preview ebook by the publisher. The review is my own, and the hard copy is on my wishlist :)

Posted in Blog on Apr 3, 2015 ·

Last modified on Mar 29, 2015

Tags: books & tea.

Book review: One Magic Square

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One Magic Square, by Lolo Houbein
One Magic Square, by Lolo Houbein

Sometimes I’m offered a book for review that I might overlook if I passed it on the gardening shelf of the local bookshop. One Magic Square by Lolo Houbein is such a book – it’s a basics guide to growing your own food, starting with one square metre (and, if you have the space and the time) building up a larger garden gradually. It’s an expansion of the Square Foot gardening method, and as such perhaps not an instant draw to those of us who already have vegetable gardens.

But I was intrigued by Houbein’s bio. She was born in the Netherlands, and was a child there during the Second World War. She studied at the Universities of Adelaide and Papua New Guinea, and One Magic Square was originally written for Australian gardeners. It has been ‘revised for the UK climate’, and is being published b Green Books at the beginning of February in hardcover.

The book begins with an explanation of how to use it, and moves on to giving planting ‘recipes’ – designs for food plots that are one square metre. Unlike the Square Foot concept, a Magic Square is usually a mixed planting, meaning that the problems of monocropping don’t arise, even if you have just the one square. First up are the salad plots. I take issue with Houbein’s statement that “everyone likes salads”, as I am still trying to reach that state of nirvana myself; she also says that having two magic salad squares will keep you in salads all year round – which I’m sure is true, but I didn’t find any references to the size of the household that would work for.

There are some recipes included for salad dressings, and then we’re off into bean plot territory, as they are used for crop rotation and fertility building (as well as dinner). Each plot design includes instructions on how to ensure it crops year-round, so you can pick one and stick with it for as long as you want. For those of us who aren’t salad fiends, or who want something cookable, there are stir-fry plots, pasta/pizza plots, a soup plot and even curry plots.

Curry plot from One Magic Square
A curry plot, from One Magic Square

The great advantage of this book over the original Square Foot concept is that it moves beyond basic and traditional vegetables and tackles some of the more exciting vegetables that have become increasingly popular with modern audiences.

I was particularly interested in the ‘Horta plot’, which draws on the traditional Greek practice of harvesting a collection of wild greens for cooking. Houbein draws on an unusual source for seeds for her horta, as well as adding in a good selection of leafy green vegetables, and the end result is a magic square full of greens that you can harvest for most of the year, and very rapidly after it is first sown. If one of each variety of plant is allowed to self-seed, then the horta plot is self-sustaining, or it can easily be picked clean and replanted with beans for a crop rotation.

The ‘Aztec plot’ is a reimagining of the native American Three Sisters planting, with sweetcorn, beans and squash. It would be interesting to see how well it works in the UK climate, as it’s quite difficult to get the timing right, and the original technique was used to grow corn and beans for drying and storing, rather than eating fresh as we would normally choose to do. The ‘Melon plot’ may also be an experiment for the more adventurous gardener.

Fruit isn’t forgotten, but the section on ‘berry plots and hedges’ made me laugh. Talking about blackberries, it says:

“If you have a stand of blackberries on your land, and you can keep a goat, let her prune it after fruiting. Goats know what’s good for them…. The main reason for the spread of blackberry seedlings is neglect of unattended land, of which there is still some in the UK.”

I don’t know why people with the space to keep a goat wouldn’t have a vegetable garden already, and why they would feel the need to confine themselves to gardening in square metre plots. And that second sentence is one of a few indications that the book was written by someone who is not overly familiar with life and land in the UK. (For those of you elsewhere in the world, blackberries (or brambles) are pretty ubiquitous, even in urban areas – there aren’t many Brits who don’t have a memory of picking them as a kid, and they’re still the most commonly foraged fruit.)

Parts two and three cover the basics of gardening, water and soil and things like that, as well as the reasons why you might choose to garden (and to do it organically). My favourite part of this section was Houbein’s description of the lunch club she has with her friends, where they explore the different food cultures of the world, cooking exotic dishes with homegrown or local ingredients. That’s something I’d love to do; I just need to find some local foodie friends!

And part four contains lists of edible plants that you might like to grow, including herbs and how they can be used, and fruit trees and bushes that are easy to grow, should you wish to expand beyond your magic square. That’s followed by references, further reading and useful contacts for seeds, etc,.

One Magic Square is a thick book, and it would work as a complete gardening manual for those who are just starting out and who would like to grow their own food. It takes a sensible approach, with manageable squares and small tasks, so that food gardening can fit into the busiest lifestyle and you can keep on top of your plot. But despite its focus on the basics, there are some interesting ideas here that would appeal to more seasoned gardeners and those that are thinking about trying something different this year. And it’s a year-round book, so it won’t languish on the shelf during the winter.

One Magic Square
by Lolo Houbein

Hardback, 368 pages, RRP £19.99, published 5 Feb 2015.
ISBN 9780857842800
Publisher: Green Books

Disclosure: I was provided with a review copy of the ebook by the publisher, but these words are my own.

Posted in Blog on Jan 23, 2015 ·

Last modified on Jan 22, 2015

Tags: books & reviews.

Book review: Grow a little fruit tree

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In my last garden I had a little orchard of four fruit trees, which lived in the chicken run. There was an apple, a pear, a cherry and a plum. They were all grown on dwarfing rootstocks, sold as ideal for small gardens, naturally small trees. They came with the instructions I would need to follow to keep them pruned, which I dutifully tried to follow.

I largely failed. The birds ate any cherries before they were even ripe. The plum tree became infested with wasps (even though it had no fruit). The apple tree, Saturn, was lovely – it produced a good crop and the apples were lovely, but there were so many that they had to be stored, and I had nowhere to store them. The pear tree grew like topsy, I was forever trying to take the top out of it. It grew hard pears; no one ate them.

Now I have a smaller garden, and although I would like to include some fruit I would like it to be more manageable and suitably productive. I may have found the answer in “Grow a little fruit tree”, a book written by Ann Ralph that extolls the virtues of small trees.

Rather controversially, Ralph doesn’t believe in growing trees on dwarfing or semi-dwarfing rootstocks – she is convinced that a larger rootstock leads to a healthier and more stable tree, and that any fruit tree can be kept small simply by pruning it twice a year. There is a key step early on, which I won’t reveal here, but her focus is on summer pruning, which reduces the vigour of the tree and keeps it manageable. Combined with ruthless fruit thinning, you’ll have small, healthy trees that produce a suitable quantity of fresh fruit for much of the year. By keeping your fruit trees smaller, you’ll have space for more varieties, to spread your harvests, or try new things.

And because the trees are kept manageably small, pruning them remains a simple and manageable task that you can complete with your feet firmly on the ground. There’s no need for ladders or unwieldy long loppers.

But you do have to prune the tree twice a year – fruit trees are domesticated species, and they can’t thrive without human intervention. Let them go feral and they’ll give you poor crops, suffers from pests and diseases and rapidly spread out of control.

“One sure way to disenchantment with fruit growing specifically or gardening generally”, she writes, “is to relinquish attentive participation”. But the benefit of regular interaction with your tree is that you get to know it well, and can appreciate and enjoy its seasonal rhythms.

“Grow a little fruit tree” is partly a manifesto for a small tree mentality, and the simple pruning methods Ralph promotes, but it’s also a manual for looking after your trees. It discusses soil and compost, pests and diseases, rootstocks and the importance of selecting the right varieties for your tastes and climate. As Ralph points out, if you stop looking simply for varieties that will be the right size for your garden and instead look for varieties that meet your personal requirements, you’ll be on route for a much tastier harvest.

And it’s a technique that fits in well with my GlutBusters idea – “Home gardeners typically do better with reasonable amounts of fruit”, Ralph says. Rather than a glut of apples or other fruits that fall to the ground and rot because you can’t harvest them or eat them, you could have a garden of edible delights in manageable quantities – whether you have a big family and enjoy preserving, or are in a household of one with no storage space.

The book has a brief glossary, and there are colour photos throughout, together with some lovely botanical illustrations. It is written in a friendly, conversational style, and is never patronising or confusing. So if you’re thinking of adding a fruit tree or two to your garden, and would be interested in knowing more about keeping them small and productive, this could well be the book for you. Small is beautiful, they say :)

Grow a little fruit tree
by Ann Ralph

Kindle edition, £9.86, published 10 Jan 2015.
Paperback, 168 pages, £10.38, published 1 Feb 2015.
ISBN 9781612120546
Publisher: Storey Publishing

(In the US, the paperback edition will be published on 30th December 2014, and the Kindle edition on January 10th 2015.)

Disclosure: I was provided with a review copy of the ebook by the publisher, but these words are my own.

Posted in Blog on Dec 4, 2014 ·

Last modified on Dec 7, 2014

Tags: books & GlutBusters.

Book Review: Qaqamiigux

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Shortly before I moved, I came across references to a new book with an unpronounceable title – Qaqamiiĝux̂: Traditional Foods and Recipes from the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands. I was intrigued, especially since I had to look up where the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands are. It turns out that they’re off the south western coast of Alaska, with a cool, wet and stormy climate. The region is volcanically active.

Qaqamiigux (if you’ll forgive the ongoing lack of accents, I can’t quite get them to display correctly in HTML!) is the word for subsistence in the local language – hunting and gathering. The book arose out of anthropological work in the region, and aims at improving the diet of local people by ensuring that they still have the knowledge and expertise needed to harvest and process local foods. A lot of the information included was gathered through interviews with elders; some of whom have since died.

The diet in the islands has changed considerably in the last few centuries. The population was once entirely dependent on the local environment for sustenance, but new foods were introduced by the Russians when they arrived in the islands in the 1700s. From an anthropological perspective, it’s interesting to note how they were not immediately accepted by the locals – for one thing, they were too expensive. But the Russians did successfully introduce vegetable gardening.

The Americans brought more new foods, and livestock, when they bought Alaska – but again, they were not initially accepted by the local population. Even in times of hardship (and famine seasons are a feature of the environment), the islanders clung to their traditional fare. Only social changes, and being made to feel that their traditional foods were ‘inferior’, led to their wider adoption. [It’s interesting to juxtapose this BBC article on which meats are considered ‘normal’ and why – which looks at this scenario from the opposite direction.]

The Russians brought food such as flour, sugar, tea and salt. Whilst they were useful additions to the diet, and allowed new methods of food preservation that are still in use today, you can see that they may also have been the start of a problem. When the Americans brought their packaged and processed foods, which are widely available today, the islanders began to adopt the Western diet that is making so many of us overweight and leading to chronic diseases such as diabetes.

Qaqamiigux is an attempt to reverse that trend, by bringing the younger islanders back in touch with their local foods and a healthier diet. It is a mixture of traditional stories and wisdom, practical knowledge on harvesting and processing local foods, and recipes to add them into a modern diet. There’s information on safe canning, nutritional information for all of the ingredients covered, a pronunciation guide and a full set of references in the back of the book.

I feel I have to offer a warning at this point – do not buy this book if you are vegetarian, and are offended by images of dead animals. They abound in the book, and the animals featured are ones that we would not normally see on the dinner table. Marine mammals loom large, with the traditional diet including seals and sealions. Whales and sea otters were once (but are no longer) on the menu.

Fish and bird eggs are included, as are reindeer and caribou (although these were introduced into the islands). For each species there is hunting/harvesting information, details of butchery and preservation, recipes and traditional stories and the values they encompass. Coming from a culture that wouldn’t dream of catching and eating animals like seals, it makes for fascinating reading.

There’s also a section on edible plants, some of which sound very interesting. The Chocolate lily (Fritillaria camschatcensis) is also known as wild rice, as its bulbs look like tightly-packed rice grains when they are harvested in summer and early autumn. They’re a starchy staple, as are the bulbs of the bog orchids (Platanthera convallariaefolia and Platanthera dilatata). The roots of the blue lupine (Lupinus noot-katensis) are mentioned as ‘Aleut potatoes’, which I found interesting as unusual edibles have been marketed to the UK population as ‘like potatoes’ ;)

The local berries we would now doubt find familiar (if not immediately palatable), but you would have a harder time convincing people from outside the region to eat Cow parsnip (Heracleum lanatum), which is called Putchki. Toxic chemicals in the ‘skin’ of the plant can cause burns on human skin in conjunction with sunlight (parnsips can do the same, for reference – same plant family). The book notes that harvesting on a cloudy day is preferable, and that the plant has to be peeled before being eaten, but is used much like celery.

There are sections on tidal foods harvested from the beaches, and seaweeds, and one on ‘other foods’ – the ones that were introduced by the Russians, and are part of the culture now.

So… Qaqamiigux offers an interesting insight into the food culture of the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands for those of us who live elsewhere. However, it is important to bear in mind that this is a cookbook aimed at the modern inhabitants of the region. Its recipes are not entirely traditional; many of them call for packaged ingredients, or canned soup – like most American recipes. If you buy this book wanting to recreate ‘authentic’ recipes in your home kitchen then you may well feel disappointed (although most people would struggle to get hold of sealion intestines anyway).

If you live in the US, you can buy a hardcover copy of the book direct from the publisher, or via Amazon. The RRP is $55.

To avoid a wait, and overseas shipping, I bought the Kindle version instead, which is £6.33 or $10.19. Remember that you can get a free Kindle app for most devices now, you don’t have to own a Kindle to read the books.

Qaqamiiĝux̂: Traditional Foods and Recipes from the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands
by Suanne Unger

Kindle edition, £6.33
Hardback, 381 pages, $55, published 15 November 2014
ISBN 9780991459100
Publisher: Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association,Inc

Posted in Blog on Oct 26, 2014 ·

Tags: books & food.

Book Review: Taste of Beirut

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One of my all-time favourite restaurants (which sadly closed, after the smoking ban came into being) was a Lebanese restaurant in Oxford. (There are two more, but they can’t match the quality of the food, or the jovial atmosphere.) It was a wonderful place to go in a large group, as they would just keep bringing out plates of mezze until everyone was stuffed. I found two of the dishes particularly moreish – small triangular pastries (sanbousek) filled with feta cheese, and a salad of garlicky broad beans. When dining in a smaller party I tended simply to order those, along with some grilled chicken and rice with vermicelli.

I have never managed to recreate any of them successfully (although I came close with the rice), and once we’ve moved and I’m settled into my new kitchen, it will be time to try again. This time I will have more of a clue, because I have been reading Taste of Beirut: 150+ Delicious Lebanese Recipes from Classics to Contemporary to Mezzes and More, which is written by Joumana Accad, the blogger behind the Taste of Beirut blog. I have been following the blog for some time (I can’t remember how long!), and it has an interesting flow of new and traditional Lebanese recipes, along with snippets about Lebanese life and plants. I am glad that it has solidified into book form (I have the ebook version; a paperback is being released on 10th October).

Accad was born and raised in Beirut, but has spent thirty years living in the United States, giving her a unique insight into the difficulties of cooking a cuisine from within a different culture. Her philosophy is to reach the highest level of flavour with the smallest number of basic ingredients – for her Lebanese food is about conviviality rather than complexity. Perhaps that’s why I like it ;)

Accad walks you through the basics of Lebanese cuisine, including her shortcuts for busy modern cooks. The Introduction explains some basic do’s and don’t’s, and Chapter 1 explores the crucial ingredients you would find in a Lebanese larder. Here you will learn about freekeh, mahlab, mastic and the elusive Sahlab (a starch extracted from Turkish orchids that I know as sahlep).

In Chapter 2 there are recipes and instructions for staples such as a basic bulgur pilaf, flatbread dough, the rice and vermicelli pilaf I’m so fond of and various sauces and condiments (including toom, the garlic paste). Many are quick and easy, or can be made in advance and stored in the freezer.

Chapter 3 introduces the hearty Lebanese breakfast, centered around flatbreads (which would traditionally be made in the local bakery). Chapter 4 moves on to lunch, and a variety of ‘sandwiches’ that are really wraps with traditional Lebanese fillings.

It’s party time in chapter 5, with a selection of mezze recipes for when you’re feeding a crowd. Although we tend to think of mezze (or Spanish tapas) as an entirely foreign way of eating, as I was reading through this book I remembered the British love of buffets. Our finger foods might not be quite as exotic, however….

Accad’s recipe for pumpkin fries will draw the attention of Americans, and gardeners will love her use of Swiss chard. She offers a dip recipe that makes use of the troublesome stalks, as well as stuffed chard leaves in place of vine leaves. If you tend towards lazy gardening then the dandelion leaf salad might be more up your street!

Chapter 6 looks at main courses, concentrating on the stews that are a home cooking mainstay, and the kibbeh (a mixture of minced meat and bulghur wheat) that is Lebanon’s national dish. Vegetarian options are available, known as ‘sad’ or ‘tricky’ kibbeh, as they were traditionally served during times of fasting… or hardship.

And chapter 7 rounds out the book with desserts, including an easy way to make baklava, and some other recipes that look (to my eye) more modern than traditional. There is a glossary of Lebanese words at the back.

I would have expected some recipes for drinks, but none are included. Arak gets a mention, as does ayran (a yoghurt drink), and there’s mention of the use of sahlab to thicken drinks. Perhaps there are none – I don’t know. But if it is an omission then it’s a minor one. There is plenty here for the adventurous cook to get their teeth into, everything is explained clearly enough for anyone less experienced, and there’s a good photo of each finished dish so that you know what you’re aiming for.

I am thoroughly looking forward to trying a number of these recipes over the coming months, although I will have to look elsewhere for clues on how to recreate my beloved broad bean salad. In the meantime, I need to find those Swiss chard seeds….

Taste of Beirut: 150+ Delicious Lebanese Recipes from Classics to Contemporary to Mezzes and More
by Joumana Accad

Kindle edition, £10.93
Paperback, 320 pages, £11.51, published 10 October 2014
ISBN 9780757317705
Publisher: Health Communications

Disclosure: I was provided with a review copy of the ebook by the publisher, but these words are my own.

Posted in Blog on Sep 20, 2014 ·

Last modified on Sep 19, 2014

Tags: books & food.

Greens in Gaza

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Colourful chard

I’m not a politician. I’m not a diplomat. I’m not an expert on foreign policy. It’s hard to watch what’s happening in Gaza and the West Bank with any equanimity; over 1300 Palestinians have been killed so far, including 315 children and and 166 women.

I believe that more unites us and divides us, and that’s certainly true of the people in Gaza. They are farmers, gardeners and foragers.

In 2008, a team of ethnobotanists from Palestine published a research paper entitled “Traditional knowledge of wild edible plants used in Palestine (Northern West Bank): a comparative study“. Traditional knowledge is a hot topic in ethnobotany, as our changing lifestyles mean that less and less of it is passed on to each generation. In most places in the world, the traditional uses of plants are being forgotten, and we are becoming more and more reliant on cultivated plants and agriculture.

The team found that, across 15 local communities in Palestine, locals were collecting 100 wild edible plant species, 76 of which were mentioned by 3 or more people. Those plants were distributed across 70 genera and 26 families. The most significant species were:

Majorana syriaca
Foeniculum vulgare
Malva sylvestris
Salvia fruticosa
Cyclamen persicum
Micromeria fruticosa
Arum palaestinum
Trigonella foenum-graecum
Gundelia toumefortii
Matricaria aurea

Some of those won’t be familiar to people outside of the Middle Eastern/ Mediterranean region. Others are. Fenugreek is on that list, as is wild mallow. Of the 100 wild species listed, some require very specific processing to remove toxins. I certainly wouldn’t rush to consume any members of the Arum family, and I’d be wary of consuming Cyclamen bulbs as well. This is where the traditional knowledge, and the Palestinian culture, combine. There are plenty of edible plants of the region that aren’t on the list, and no doubt some that are wouldn’t be considered edible in other places.

The Middle East is one of my areas of interest, because I enjoy the foods of those cultures. The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey has been on my wish list for some time; I bought a copy yesterday when I read that 8 members of author Laila El-Haddad’s family had been killed in one night.

Flipping through it this afternoon, a recipe for chard and lentil stew caught my eye. The book says that “chard is used extensively in southern Palestinian cuisine.” Chard and leaf beet are two of my favourite plants – easy to grow and generous, endlessly versatile in the kitchen. Chard is also an attractive plant, that could just as easily fit in the flower border, with its colourful stems.


Khobeiza or mallow grows wild all over Palestine”, the books says above a recipe for greens with dumplings. Or there’s purslane stew – known as rilja or baqla, purslane is a “succulent plant found growing through sidewalls and in abandoned lots all around the Mediterranean.”

There are recipes for broad beans, cauliflower, spinach and okra. The gardener in me wants to find a source of the short, stout, red carrots that are a “Middle Eastern variety with a long history”; substituting stumpy orange carrots just wouldn’t be the same.

I’m still waiting to hear when I can move into my new house (and the garden), but I already know there will be Palestinian plants in the garden next year, and Palestinian meals on the table. The Gaza Kitchen looks like a comprehensive guide to Palestinian cuisine, beginning by explaining the spice mixes and condiments, and moving on through salads and mezze, pulses and grains, vegetable stews, meats and seafood, preserves and conserves. Photos throughout give a taste of life in Gaza before the current crisis, as well as sections about farming and foraging there, with profiles of residents and explanations of ingredients and the cuisine itself. I am looking forward to reading it properly, and trying the recipes, but I can already recommend it if you’d like to know the region better through its food. You can also look out for Zaytoun‘s fair trade ingredients from Gaza, including olives and olive oil, za’atar, almonds and dates and cous cous.

There are farmers, gardeners and foragers in Israel, too. Of course there are – there is more that unites us, than divides us.

Almond tree

Posted in Blog on Aug 5, 2014 ·

Last modified on Aug 10, 2015

Tags: books & ethnobotany.

Book classification system

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We still don’t have a date for moving into the house, and nothing is certain, but I am looking forward to the day when I can be reunited with my books. For two years now, many of them have been stored in my parents’ garage; some travelled with me to Kent and although I briefly lived in the same place as some of them, they’re now in a storage locker.

Although I have missed some of my fiction favourites, it’s the distance from my reference library that has pained me the most. Now that it appears the end of the separation is in sight, I have been giving some thought so how I will organise them in their new home.

I used to have an ad hoc system whereby books on a similar topic were clumped together, although it was complicated by the fact that I liked to keep books by one author together as well. I found it hard to keep track of which books I had, and where they were. When I was looking for a book on a shelf it was mostly by the memory of what it looked like – and, when I finally found one, it wasn’t unusual to find out that it looked nothing like I thought.

Keeping track of books in multiple locations has been trickier still. There are a few volumes that have slipped through the net, and are currently… somewhere, but I kept a list of the contents of each box I packed, and stored it in an Evernote database. Over the last few months this has morphed into a Library notebook, in which each book has a record based on a template. It lists the title, author, source details and current location. For non-fiction books it has a space for notes, and for a citation if I think I will want to make use of my research. New books are added as I acquire them, and as long as I keep the locations updated, everything is hunky dory. It’s nice to be able to refer to the database and know that, yes, I do have a copy of that book somewhere. (And it can keep track of ebooks in different formats, which I otherwise tend to forget I have.)

But unless I label my shelves with very specific location data, my Evernote catalogue isn’t going to help me find the book on the shelf. So over the weekend I decided to become a complete and utter library nerd and develop a personal classification system, so that I could label my books and shelve them in a way that makes some sort of sense.

I’m reasonably familiar with the Dewey Decimal System (DDS) from a user’s perspective, since it’s quite popular in libraries. The basic idea is that it is a ‘tree’ system, with ten umbrella subject categories at the top, each one of which is broken down into ten divisions, each one of which has ten sections. You end up with a classification for a book that looks like “629.786 FRE”, which includes the first three letters of the author’s surname, and means you can shelve books alphabetically within each section.

The problem with the standard DDS for me is that a) I wouldn’t use a lot of the classes, and b) I own so many different kinds of gardening/plant books that I keep running out of sections to put them in. So I looked at the topics of the books I do have, and tried to work out my own, personal classification system. I won’t really know whether it works or not until I have tried to shelve all my books, but I reckon they should all be covered by this:

Class 000: Plants and gardening

000 General gardening
000 General gardening
001 Horticulture
002 Wildlife gardening
003 Composting and soil
004 Permaculture
005 Community gardening
006 Weeds
007 Plant diseases
008 Garden pests
009 Garden history

010 Edible gardening
010 Edible gardening
011 Fruit
012 Vegetables
013 Herbs
014 Unusual crops
015 Edible flowers
016 Perennials and forest gardening
017 Foraging
018 Heritage varieties
019 Wartime gardening

020 Ethnobotany and anthropology
020 Ethnobotany and anthropology
021 General ethnobotany/ anthropology
022 Plant use
023 Food culture
024 Drugs
025 Aphrodisiacs
026 Off-grid living

030 Botany and plant science
030 Botany/ plant science
031 General botany reference
032 Plant identification
033 Botanical Latin
034 Botanical history
035 Propagation

040 Fungi and microbes
040 General fungi
041 Fungi cultivation
042 Microbes

050 Garden animals
050 General animal reference
051 Chickens
052 Bees
053 Insects and minibeasts

Class 100: Food

100 General food
100 Food
101 Food memoir
102 Food history
103 Spices & seasonings
104 Tea and coffee
105 Other drinks
106 Seaweed and algae

110 Recipes
110 General recipe books
111 Garden to table
112 Asian
113 Middle Eastern
114 Spanish
115 Nordic
116 Baking
117 Vegetarian
118 Ices
119 Slow-cooking

Class 200: Science

200 General science
200 General science reference
201 Popular science
202 Chemistry
203 Physics
204 Space
205 Environment

Class 300: Humanities

300 General humanities

310 Writing
310 General writing
311 Freelance
312 Science
313 Home & garden writing
314 Publishing

320 Languages
320 Languages
321 Spanish

330 History
330 History

340 Crafts and hobbies
340 General crafts/ hobbies
341 Photography
342 Papermaking
343 Drawing and illustration
344 Travel

It clearly has plenty of room for expansion. You may be thinking that it’s overkill for a personal library. It might be – but I have over 300 titles in my non-fiction collection and, having had the experience of wanting to pick up a book I once read but no longer own, I am loathe to have any more clear outs. Plus, it may be nerdy, but putting it together made me happy :)

I should be able to use my Brother garden labeller to label my books – the labels don’t fade, they’re removable and don’t leave behind a sticky residue (I know from using them for pretty much everything for a few years!). They may have to go vertically on the spine, rather than conventionally horizontal, but I can live with that.

Even once you have a classification system, what number to give a particular book is a bit of a judgement call. I have a copy of The Complete Yurt Handbook, which stumped me for a little while. I nearly put it in with the food books, because it’s the details of Mongolian food culture in it that I really enjoy (I’m never likely to build my own yurt!). Having put it to one side for a little while though, I found some other titles it naturally falls with – hence the “Off-grid living” section. In some ways it doesn’t matter, as long as you can find the book, but I like the serendipity of going to look for a particular book in the library, and finding something even better close by on the shelf.

Ryan bought me a Personal Library Kit, so I can be a proper librarian – it has a date stamp, and sticky wallets you can put in the books to mark in the date books are returned, and removable cards so you can keep track of which books are on loan, and who has them. Not that I intend to lend my books to many people – that’s a very quick way to lose friends!

Anyway, labelling and shelving my books should be a fun rainy day project once we’ve moved into the house. How do you keep track of yours?

Posted in Blog on Jul 10, 2014 ·

Last modified on Aug 10, 2015

Tag: books

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