Widgets Blog - Emma the Gardener

Review: Urban Orchard cider

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Urban Orchard cider
Urban Orchard cider, made with apples from urban fruit trees

On Friday evening we nipped out to buy some paint for the garden. When we got home we found we had no water – a burst water main in the village was the source of the problem. Fortunately I’d planned a meal that involved very little water, and we settled down to a chicken curry with onion flatbreads. It seemed like the perfect moment to open the two bottles of cider I’d been sent to review!

Food waste is high profile at the moment, and there’s nothing worse than watching heavy crops of fruit from urban trees go to waste – but for their owners the glut can be more of a problem than an opportunity. London-based drinks maker Hawkes has developed an innovative solution to the issue; Urban Orchard is a craft cider made from a mixture of culinary apples and apples sourced from urban orchards and apple donors, and champagne yeast.

The end result is a “beautiful medium dry cider, smooth and harmonious in body, complex and rich in texture with a crisp wine-like finish”. Each batch will be unique, depending on the source of its urban apples. The apple varieties they’re currently using are Bramley, Braeburn, Cox, Jonagold, Ida Red, Gala, Golden Delicious and those ‘various unknown varieties’, and Hawkes are hoping to increase the percentage of urban apples in the mix, year on year.

Apple donors get a personalised bottle; community groups can receive apple trees to plant, in exchange for their crop. Hawkes also aim to donate 10% of their profits to community groups and projects. The company is rooted in the Victorian London tradition of ‘costermongers’, or greengrocers, who hawked their wares from carts around the city. The word comes from ‘costard’, which is a now-extinct Medieval variety of large, ribbed (!) apple, and ‘monger’, or seller. This is their first cider; they already sell an alcoholic ginger beer.

I found Urban Orchard to be a nice, smooth and highly drinkable cider. My first thought was that it’s similar to Aspalls. It doesn’t have even the slightest hint of the ‘smokey’ flavour that I know some cider aficionados love (but I really don’t like). I’ll be keeping an eye out for it when its distribution widens later in the year – at the moment it’s only available from independent pubs and bars in London.

With an RRP of £4.50 for a 330 ml bottle, Urban Orchard weighs in at 4.5% per volume, and is suitable for vegans and coeliacs. You can find out more (and sign up to be an apple donor) via the Hawkes website. They’re also on Twitter as @wearehawkes, and are using the hashtag #urbanorchardcider to talk about their brew.

Posted in Blog on Mar 10, 2015 ·

Last modified on Mar 9, 2015

Tags: reviews & food.

Review: Truvia

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Stevia, Stevia rebaudiana

Over the summer, I just about gave up sugar for a while. I swapped sugar on my porridge for sliced banana, and my afternoon snack for a banana. After trying to get used to drinking filtered tap water all day for a while, I went back to squash (cordial) and tried the sugar-free versions. I’ve never been a big fan of artificial sweeteners, but it was bearable.I allowed myself a spoonful of sugar in my morning tea, and then I was done for the day.

The results were interesting – after the first few days I would be hit with unpredictable sugar cravings that were unbearable and had to be fed (but only in tiny amounts). Eventually those receded, but I didn’t feel any noticeable health improvements – I just felt deprived. I don’t really like bananas, and after I found some unidentified webbing in one bunch, I couldn’t bring myself to buy any more. There have been too many horror stories of deadly poisonous spiders in bananas this year for my liking!

So I gradually reintroduced sugar back into my life (although I have replaced my sweet afternoon snack with something healthier from Graze). The swap that lasted longest was using Truvia in my tea at work, rather than sugar. I drink green tea at work (my current drink of choice is Pukka Serene Jasmine Green, which includes lavender and chamomile) so I don’t have to take any milk in. I bought two boxes of Truvia sachets over the summer, and the second has just run out.

Truvia, made from Stevia
Truvia sweetener sachets

I chose Truvia because it isn’t an artificial sweetener – it’s a natural product (although it has to be processed into a sugar substitute) made from the Stevia plant (Stevia rebaudiana), and with a long history of use in Asia. It has only been certified for use as a sweetener in the UK in the last couple of years. I have grown Stevia myself, buying both plants and seeds from Suttons. It’s weird to bite into a leaf, because they do have a uniquely sweet flavour. My plants have been the victims of the upheavals of recent years, but it’s definitely a plant I will be growing again soon.

So… after several months, how do I feel about Truvia? Well, it’s definitely better than artificial sweeteners, but it does have a slight taste (a bit like licorice, I think) that affects the flavour of your tea, and it doesn’t have the same mouth feel as sugar. I haven’t bought another box, I have gone back to sugar for the time being, but I would definitely go for Truvia if I wanted to reduce my sugar intake again.

How about you – have you tried Truvia?

Posted in Blog on Dec 20, 2014 ·

Last modified on Dec 23, 2014

Tags: reviews & food.

Review: Burford Garden Company

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Over the past few months, Ryan and I have been undertaking a tour of some of the local farm shops. The best are treasure troves of unusual foods, many of which have been sourced from local producers. The worst… well, lets just say that one popular shop very close by has fallen from favour, after I discovered that I needed a high-powered microscope to find the lamb in their ‘lamb samosas’. They would have been more accurately named ‘onion samosas’.

We had a more enjoyable experience when we went to the Burford Garden Company, which is a bit of a way away, but well worth a visit. I had been once before, years ago, and remembered it having a farm shop, so we thought we’d take the plunge.

Firstly, it has a nice garden centre. They had a wide range of edible plants on offer. At that point we hadn’t moved, and didn’t have a date for moving, or I might have been tempted to splash out on a few! Indoors they have a wide range of gardening sundries, including some very nice ones, and have expanded their stock into some interesting home and garden lines. Nothing is cheap, but it’s fascinating to wander round and look at all the pretty things on offer – from books and wrapping paper, to furniture and ornaments, to clothes and shoes.

Having wandered round most of what was on offer (there’s another shop, more on that in a bit) we found the farm shop, and I was stopped in my tracks by a delightful array of spices. But it was getting a bit late, and we were hungry, so we thought we’d better eat first. And this is when we discovered that the canteen-style restaurant is something a bit special. Award-winning special, including some ingredients that are grown on the new onsite kitchen garden.

Hake with fennel
Hake with fennel

Now it’s a little while since we went, so you’ll have to forgive me that I can’t remember exactly what my meal entailed, but it was a little complicated. I chose hake with fennel, and as I stood at the counter the server assembled it onto the plate with the careful attention you would expect from a chef in a good restaurant. She was calm, she did not hurry (but nor was she slow) and I was fascinated by the process. She seemed quite pleased when I proclaimed it the prettiest lunch I’d ever been served!

Sausage and mash
Sausage and mash

Whilst queuing, Ryan had decided on burger and chips, but the guy in front of me had the last one. Ryan’s second choice was sausage and mash – and as you can see, it was a masterpiece in its own right. He proclaimed it to be delicious, and wolfed it down.

As the day out was a bit of a pre-move treat, we’d also selected dessert – great slabs of cake. Ryan had tiffin, and it suffered the same fate as his lunch. Mine was hazelnut shortbread, and it was divine, but it was so large I saved half and brought it home to eat later.

So whether it’s lunch time or tea time, if you find yourself at the Burford Garden Company, I thoroughly recommend you stop for a bite to eat! We’re looking forward to a second visit in the near future.

Spice rack
Spice science in the kitchen

But… back to the farm shop, which was where we headed once we were fed. It’s not really a farm shop – it’s an impressive deli with a huge range of products. There was intriguing charcuterie that I really couldn’t identify. I was tempted by the spices and bought myself a lovely set of test-tube spice racks (my kitchen is developing a bit of a ‘scientist at work’ theme).

And it was here that I was introduced to the delights of M’hencha, a Moroccan desert involving thin layers of pastry, rosewater, pistachios and citrus – Burford is a stockist for the M’hencha company. We brought home a M’hencha cake, and ate it warmed up (as suggested) and it is heavenly. Not as rich or as strongly flavoured as baklava, but a similar kind of thing. You can’t eat too much in one go.

As we exited the building, we were well fed and had been on a little bit of a shopping spree, and we felt as though we’d had a grand day out. But it wasn’t over….

Not only was there the kitchen garden to ooh and aah over (sadly the gate was closed and I had to look from the path – there was a lot of rosemary), but there’s an upmarket toy shop as well. We loved the cuddly animal heads for wall mounting; I wish we had space for the elephant! There were also lovely, high quality toys in wood and metal. Old-fashioned things, I suppose, many of which would delight the young at heart as well and the genuinely little.

If you wanted to, you could combine a trip with a visit to the town centre of Burford, which is a picturesque Cotswold village. Not only does it have an old-fashioned sweet shop (Ryan’s favourite destination), but there’s a bookshop that also sells hats. It’s well worth a mooch, if you’re in the mood for something a little different from the usual high street fare.

Posted in Blog on Nov 26, 2014 ·

Tags: reviews & food.

Review: Graze (with discount code!)

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Gone Graze
This one was too tasty to photograph uneaten ;)

Whilst I was at university doing my Masters degree, my food options were a bit limited. The shared kitchen was quite often monopolized by two of my flatmates – two Chinese guys who loved to cook, and fill the kitchen with their friends, for hours. If you were very lucky, they also filled the kitchen with chilli fumes, an experience which I think must equate to being tear-gassed. They also monopolized the shared freezers with an amazing array of ingredients, some of which I even recognised! My slow cooker was well-used, as I set it up whilst the kitchen was quiet and came home to something I could just quickly scoop into a bowl. But with a limited budget, and any decent food shops a bus ride away, my diet was reduced to a handful of dishes, and I rapidly lost weight.

To relieve the monotony and give myself an affordable treat, I signed up for a weekly Graze box. Their tagline is ‘healthy snacks by post’, and I thought they might make a nice change from my daily packet of crisps and a Twix finger (and yes, I was still losing weight!). They have a large (and expanding) range of options, of which four are packed into each box they mail out. You build up a set of personal preferences by rating each snack – ‘bin’, ‘like’ or ‘love’. They’re all listed on the website with their ingredients, so if you have special dietary requirements you can eliminate any that contain things you can’t eat when you start.

Part of the draw was that their selection contains a lot of things I wouldn’t normally choose for myself. I don’t spend a lot of time in the snack aisle of the supermarket, and I don’t tend to like dried fruit, or nuts. I thought by trying some more exciting things I could expand my foodie repertoire.

And it worked, really well. It was lovely getting a little ‘gift’ each week, even if I was paying for it myself. The little snacks are eminently portable, and I could take them with me onto campus. I arranged them on my desk in order of ‘eat by’ date, and worked my way through them. And some of the things I liked/ loved surprised me, although there were some I couldn’t stand. They generally send a mix of sweet and savoury snacks, so you can choose something that suits your mood.

Graze box
One of my early Graze boxes, mostly intact

But then my Graze boxes started disappearing from the communal post area. It’s obvious what they are, they have very distinctive packaging. And apparently one or more of my fellow students thought that stealing a Graze box was an acceptable way to get ‘free food’. With no other options, I cancelled my order rather than pay for someone else’s snacks.

When I started work last year, I considered restarting it – but I was living in a flat with a tiny post box, and it didn’t seem right to have them delivered to work, where the post room people do a sterling job of delivering the mail but shouldn’t be overburdened with personal stuff. But now that I live in a proper house with a proper post box, I have restarted my Graze deliveries, and am thrilled by the service once again (as is Ryan, as I’m nice and I share!).

My first box contained lemon curd flapjacks, which Ryan put on his ‘love’ list for the future, Thai crackers with sweet chilli sauce (a favourite from before), a mixture of chocolate buttons with brazil nuts (which is yummy, although not one I would have selected for myself) and a ‘herby bread basket’ selection of tasty little crackers.

The second had honeycomb flapjack, which is divine. I have yet to eat the ‘mango chutney with black pepper dippers’ and the ‘natural vanilla seeds’, but they’re old friends and I know they’re good. As you can see, I’ve just eaten the ‘olive and rosemary bruschetta’, and that has been given a ‘like’ as well.

Waiting for us when we get home is one with toffee apples (love!), apple and cinnamon flapjack (love! They’ve got me sussed…) and two new ones. I’m not convinced I’ll like the ‘super kale and edamame’, but the ethnobotanist in my will give it a go. ‘Pomodoro rustichella’ is earmarked for Ryan, as it contains cheese croutons I shouldn’t eat; if he likes it then it can stay on the menu. Ryan said to me yesterday that he’d never before seen a Graze box in which there wasn’t a single snack he didn’t think he’d like – but that’s the beauty of the ‘rate or slate’ system, you can tailor your subscription to your taste.

This isn’t a glorified advertorial for Graze, I genuinely do think this is a wonderful service, and it’s really brightening my afternoons to see what I’ve got to nibble on with my cup of tea. I would class it as an affordable treat – the current price is £3.99 for a box with four different snacks, including delivery. They send you a little leaflet with the ingredients and the use-by date for each snack, and they have little symbols that show you which ones count as a vegetable portion, are ‘lite’ bites or sources of protein, etc. If my review has inspired you to try your own Graze subscription then you can get your first, fifth and tenth boxes free if you sign up using my reward code (EMMAC663U). They’ll also give me a £1 off my next box, so it’s a win-win situation.

Once you’ve set up your account you can order a regular box, or one-offs (you can even send them as gifts, I sent Ryan a special Valentine one last year!).

Mmmm… snacks :)

Posted in Blog on Nov 23, 2014 ·

Tags: reviews & food.

Feed round-up

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Sparkling dew
Dew baubles

Today, for a change, I thought you might like a glimpse of the things that have appeared in my feed reader (Feedly) that have caught my eye and been saved to read later….

  • Nature’s Poisons has been pondering how people come to eat poisonous plants, and advises you not to eat anything with death in its name. A perennially-useful reminder that not all plants are benign (but that taking reasonable precautions mean we don’t need to fear them).

  • I follow From the Kitchen Of Olivia because she blogs recipes involving tea (my current obsession, in case you hadn’t noticed). Being from the UK, rather than the US, I’ve never had campfire S’mores, so I find this indoor recipe intriguing.

  • Another foodie one, and a recipe that might come in handy for Christmas – DIY Cranberry Gin from the Telegraph.

  • The Odd Pantry has been making chutney from sorrel leaves – a common name that really needs clarification as it is used for different plants in different parts of the world. In this case, Hibiscus sabdariffa, aka Roselle.

  • Ethnobotanical Pursuits, based in America I believe, has been investigating Cinnamon vine or air potato, although naughtily the scientific name is not mentioned (it’s Dioscorea oppositifolia, or Dioscorea batatas). You can buy your own from Real Seeds if you want to give it a go.

  • And Alys Fowler explains how to grow Mediterranean myrtle in our less than Mediterranean climate.

That should give you plenty to read and chew over :) What’s the most interesting article you’ve come across this week?

Posted in Blog on Nov 19, 2014 ·

Tags: food & ethnobotany.

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.


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Ethiopia is in the news today, remembering the famine of 30 years ago. Rather than dwell on the past, I thought I would share this upbeat video from Perennial Plate – celebrating Ethiopia’s food culture:

Ethiopia! from The Perennial Plate on Vimeo.

The description of the video on Vimeo says “We travelled to Ethiopia for two weeks and filmed the making of injera, false banana and coffee as well as everything else we saw. Please watch, enjoy and visit this amazing country!”

For those of you who are intrigued by the ‘false banana’, it’s Ensete ventricosum, also known as the Ethiopian banana, Abyssinian banana, or simply ensete. I found a nice article that explains how this multipurpose plant is turned into different foods – ensete doesn’t produce fruit, but has edible pseudostems (the ‘trunk’ is formed from tightly-packed, overlapping leaf sheaths).

Posted in Blog on Oct 23, 2014 ·

Tags: food & ethnobotany.

Simple Suppers: Dairy-free creamy pasta

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I don’t have photos of these recipes because… well, they were tasty and we ate them. So feast your eyes on my new route to work instead :)

One of the great challenges, during our summer of waiting to move, has been feeding ourselves. We packed away a lot of the ‘unnecessary’ cooking equipment for a few weeks, only to find it was out of action for a few months. With numerous false starts, I kept running down the cupboards and the freezer, in anticipation of a move date that never came. Stress levels rose, cooking mojo vanished and we ate far more oven chips than you can imagine.

So I am looking forward to settling in to my new kitchen, having everything to hand, and beginning my culinary explorations once more.

One of the things that I struggle with is Italian food, due to its fondness for dairy products, and the fact that I don’t love tomato-based sauces. But I had half a carton of Oatly oat cream to use up, so last week I invented a dairy-free spaghetti recipe that turned out nicely – it’s a good, quick, store cupboard meal:

Ingredients (to serve 2)
1 onion, chopped (roughly or finely, it’s your choice!)
2 large cloves of onion garlic, crushed and sliced
1 packet (about 2 handfuls) of chopped, smoked cooking bacon
1/2 carton Oatly* oat cream
2 servings of pasta (we only had spaghetti….)
1 large sweet pepper, or a handful of smaller peppers, chopped
A little oil for frying


  1. Cook the pasta according to the packet instructions.

  2. Meanwhile, fry the onion and garlic together over a low heat, until they start to turn translucent. (I like my onions soft, not crunchy.)

  3. Turn up to a medium heat and add the peppers and cook for a couple of minutes.

  4. Add the chopped bacon, and stir for a couple of minutes, until the bacon is cooked through.

  5. Drain the cooked pasta, combine with the bacon and onion mixture and stir in the Oatly cream. Gently heat through; your supper is ready to serve when it’s hot enough for your tastes! There’s no need for the sauce to boil….

*You could use soy cream if you like it (I think it tastes like cardboard), or regular cream if you don’t have issues with dairy.

Yesterday was a cold day in the office, and when I got home I had a hankering for something involving hot, bubbling cheese. And so the final carton of Oatly cream in the cupboard came out for another pasta extravaganza – this time a pasta bake.

Pasta bake is an awesome way of turning leftover pasta into a new meal – simply pop it into a suitably-sized casserole dish, sprinkle with grated cheese and pop into a medium oven for about half an hour, until the cheese is golden and starting to bubble. The trick is not to overdo the cheese – it seems like more would be better, but when you cross the line you get a gooey, greasy mess…. A generous sprinkling, but not a complete layer, is what you’re aiming for. This one isn’t dairy-free, unless you forgo the cheese :(

Anyway, digging through the last remnants in the freezer, it was the chicken breast’s turn to take a bow. With its more subtle flavour, it was going to need a bit more attention to seasoning….

Ingredients (to serve 2)
1 onion, chopped (roughly or finely, it’s your choice!)
2 large cloves of garlic, crushed and sliced
1-2 chicken breasts, cut into small pieces
1 carton Oatly oat cream
2 carrots, peeled and cut into small chunks
2 handfuls of sweetcorn kernels
2 servings of pasta
Small chunk of hard cheese, grated (mine was goat)
A little oil for frying
Teaspoon of dried mixed herbs


  1. Cook the pasta according to the packet instructions, and preheat the oven on a medium setting.
  2. Meanwhile, fry the onion and garlic together over a low heat, with a sprinkling of mixed herbs, until they start to turn translucent.

  3. Turn up to a medium heat and add the carrot chunks and the chicken, frying for several minutes until it is browned on all sides and well on the way to being cooked.

  4. Chuck the sweetcorn in with the pasta for a couple of minutes to defrost (if frozen) or cook a little bit (if fresh), and then drain when the pasta is cooked.

  5. Combine the pasta with the chicken mixture, add the carton of Oatly and mix well. Pour into a casserole dish and sprinkle with the grated cheese.

  6. Bake in the middle of a medium oven for about half an hour, until everything is hot and bubbling and the cheese is melted to your liking.

The dried mixed herbs added a lovely note of sage to the proceedings, so you could use fresh sage leaves instead if you have some handy.

You’ll notice that in neither recipe have I mentioned seasoning – in the first the smoked bacon took care of any salt requirements, and I didn’t feel pepper would add anything. In the second recipe I mostly forgot, but in actual fact it didn’t taste as though anything was missing – the cheese adds a salty note. You should, of course, feel free to season to taste :)

So… not gourmet standard, perhaps, but tasty and filling and a nice change from heating up some form of convenience food, and created from what we had on hand.

How do you like to dress up your pasta?

Posted in Blog on Oct 7, 2014 ·

Last modified on Oct 8, 2014

Tag: food

Write Club: Lavender and Oregano Salt: A recipe (of sorts)

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Today’s Write Club 2014 entry is a recipe from Beth Tilston of the seed blog. You can also find her on Twitter.

You can vote for this post by using the social media buttons in the sidebar to like it, and by leaving a comment.

The other day I noticed that the pots of herbs which sit outside our back door were giving me clear signs that they were about to give up the ghost for the year – and the lavender, which a month ago was humming with bees, was now beeless and gone to seed. Time for the final, and biggest, herb harvest of the year. I cut them all back and put them on trays on a high shelf to dry out, ready for use in the winter.

With some of the herbs, oregano and lavender, I made what has become known in our house as ‘special salt.’ Now I’ll admit that the idea of herbed salts might seem a first to be a little, well, unnecessary. After all, what is wrong with straight up, common or garden normal salt? Isn’t lavender and oregano salt a little bit aspirational? A little bit… Pinterest? It may very well be, but the fact of the matter is that this salt is magic. By magic I mean it takes food from, “These potatoes are nice, Beth” to “Wow, these potatoes are amazing! Wait, is that… lavender?”


3 teaspoons dried lavender
9 teaspoons dried oregano
9 teaspoons peppercorns
1 teaspoon coriander seed
250g quality salt

The process of making ‘special salt’ is so easy it can barely be called a recipe. First, cut your herbs a few days (or more) in advance and let them dry out in your preferred manner. I had good results with just putting them on some paper on a tray. Next, put all of the ingredients except for the salt in your pestle and mortar (actually, put them in your mortar, the pestle is the club bit – thanks Wikipedia!) and grind until the peppercorns and coriander are broken up and the oregano is in small flakes. Because of the lavender, your kitchen should be smelling like a perfumiers by this point. You must be ready to remove any scoffers and naysayers from the vicinity – they’ll change their minds. Now add your salt and mix it all together. If the salt is in particularly big chunks, you might need to grind the whole concoction a bit more. Spoon into a receptacle with a lid and allow to infuse for a week. I’ve never done that because I am weak-willed and can’t stop myself from using it, but you might do better…

Posted in Blog on Sep 22, 2014 ·

Tags: competitions & 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.

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