When you step off the beaten garden path and into the realms of unusual edibles, you come across a lot that come from China, because parts of it have a temperate climate and the plants that grow well there can grow well here. And so it’s not surprising that I have a ‘professional’ interest in the plants and food of China. But in fact I have been a Sinophile from a young age – I love the art and embroidery, the lacquers and the calligraphy, the architecture and the food. However, I am not an expert, unlike Thomas Höllman, the author of The Land of the Five Flavors: A Cultural History of Chinese Cuisine, soon to be published by Columbia University Press.
This book is a very detailed and scholarly work. It begins, in chapter one (Rice Doesn’t Rain From Heaven) by looking at the historical and archaeological record, to show what we know of Chinese eating habits from ancient times onwards. There’s a careful sifting of the mix of myth, hyperbole, propaganda and truth, to examine the diets of everyone from peasants to royalty and the ethnic minorities.
It’s in chapter two (A Taste of Harmony) that we come to understand the title of the book: “Five basic flavors have been distinguished in China since ancient times: sour, bitter, sweet, pungent and salty”. It talks about agricultural crops, beginning, of course with rice. Although I knew that there are long grain and short grain types of rice, I didn’t know that there are ‘sticky’ (glutinous) varieties of both; the stickiness is due to higher levels of dextrin and amylopectin.
Hemp seeds were classed as a cereal crop in the traditional Chinese system, and as carrots arrived relatively late there, they are known as “barbarian radishes”. Which shows how well radishes became integrated, since they only arrived in China a few centuries earlier.
Chapter three (Fire, Ice and Flavor) mainly covers methods of food storage and preservation. Chapter four (A Culinary Cosmos) shows us the diversity of China. The temperate regions are only one of a number of different climate zones – the coastal zones are different from the continental interior, and China is home to the Gobi desert. it has tropical, subtropical and temperate zones, with a third of the country classified as hill ranges and another third as highlands.
Despite the diversity in the landscape, and the peoples, of China, there are some striking similarities with modern Western life. A book published in the 14th century detailed 414 edible plants that destitute people in the city of Kaifeng could eat – an urban foraging manual, complete with instructions on which parts of the part to consume. Chapter five (Heavenly Dew) begins with a discussion of drinking water, with a note that “people generally regarded a remote place of origin as proof of superior quality”. (Fiji water, anyone?) It then moves on, through tea to alcoholic beverages (and the dangers of drunkenness).
Chapter six (Regulations and Conventions) offers a glimpse of the nitty gritty of Chinese life, covering everything from the laws controlling (or not) the slaughter of animals, through the ideals of healthy eating to the social etiquette of relieving oneself. (The book doesn’t pull any punches on the less savory aspects of life in China; by the time you’ve got this far you will already have read about eating dogs and people.)
Chapter seven (The Tavern of Eternal Happiness) is all about social eating, from family meals and picnics right up to banquets, and table manners. Chapter eight is the Epilogue, discussing the Westernization of food in China, but also the rise of Chinese cuisine in other countries. Then there’s an appendix with tables of plants mentioned in the text, and an extensive bibliography of references and further reading.
There’s a lot of information in this book, and it will only really appeal to those with a keen interest in China, or in food (I haven’t, as yet, read every word). However, it’s not dry. It is illustrated throughout with images and quotes from historical volumes. It also includes some more modern propaganda posters. And, although it is not a cookbook, there are recipes that will appeal to Western tastes – I picked out glazed apples, lemon chicken, lamb skewers and sesame balls (amongst others). I also love the evocative names mentioned in the text. ‘Heavenly Dew’ is a variety (possibly a brand) of tea. If you enjoy reading a book with a good cup of tea, then I suggest brewing up a pot of Liquid Jade, Water Nymph, Fragrant Flake, Dragon Well, Lion’s Peak, Jewel Cloud, or Heavenly Pillar when you open this one :)
The Land of the Five Flavors: A Cultural History of Chinese Cuisine
by Thomas O. Höllman
Hardback, 304 pages, RRP
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Disclosure: I was provided with a digital preview copy by the publisher, but my words are my own.
Posted in Blog on Nov 22, 2013 · ∞
Last modified on Nov 17, 2013
Tags: books & food.
When I went to the launch of James Wong’s Homegrown Revolution seed range last year, I was given a small sample of popcorn ‘Fiesta’ – a multicoloured popcorn to try. It’s taken a while, but we got round to popping it last night :)
Ryan is a popcorn veteran, and has a sure-fire technique for perfect popping. He puts a thin layer of vegetable oil in the bottom of a heavy pan (for which there is a well-fitting lid). He puts the pan over a high heat, with one or two popcorn kernels in the bottom. And the lid on. When the kernels pop, he takes it off the heat for 30 seconds – to allow the oil temperature to even out (he says). Then he throws in the rest of the kernels, puts the lid back on and whacks it back on the heat.
Popping commences. The pan is shaken, at intervals, to move all the unpopped kernels to the bottom. After several shakes, if there haven’t been any pops for a few seconds then it’s time to take it off the heat (not all of the kernels will pop) and let it cool down a bit before you take the lid off. It’s not that flying popcorn kernels will do much damage (although the unpopped ones can get very hot), but they do make a big mess.
You end up with this:
ready for eating au naturel, or slathering with some kind of unhealthy topping. What do you put on yours?
The verdict is that Fiesta makes very nice popcorn, so I will be trying to grow my own on the allotment next year. If you fancy a bit of multicoloured popping too, you can buy seeds online from Suttons, or look out for one of their Homegrown Revolution seed stands at your local garden centre. I’ve also always fancied trying Strawberry popcorn, so that’s still on the cards for the future. Victoriana Nursery Gardens have advice on their website on harvesting, drying and popping sweetcorn.
You may also enjoy:
Photos from James Wong’s garden
Book review: Homegrown Revolution
, on the Alternative Kitchen Garden Show.
Posted in Blog on Nov 14, 2013 · ∞
Last modified on Nov 14, 2013
Tags: food & veg.
When I agreed to review Grow Harvest Cook (by Meredith Kirton and Mandy Sinclair), I got more than I bargained for. I’m not sure it’s obvious from the photo above, so here’s a different perspective:
Yes, it’s as tall as a Lego Minifigure. And it’s not so much a hardback as a hardboardback. The cover is half a centimetre thick. It’s not the easiest book to hold up, let alone to hold open, so is it worth the weight?
Subtitled “280 recipes from the ground up”, Grow Harvest Cook calls itself “the essential companion for anyone wanting to grow, harvest, and cook their own produce – whether you have a tiny urban garden or a sprawling yard.” It works its way through an A to Z of homegrown produce, with instructions on how to grow it, how to harvest it and how to cook or preserve it.
So far… so familiar. But there’s a twist here – Grow Harvest Cook was written for the Australian market, so although it does cover the usual suspects (onions, carrots, potatoes, beans) there’s a lot more here than you’d find on a traditional allotment. It covers plants that we would have to grow indoors (including tea and coffee), and some we won’t be able to grow at all (sadly including avocados and macadamia nuts). Australia is a big place with a range of climates, and some are considerably more tropical than old Blighty’s.
In each case the growing instructions are brief. They’re not going to tell you everything you need to know to grow a plant, especially in the UK climate. The harvesting notes are perfectly adequate, combined with both storage advice and recipes for preserves. Some sections are longer than others, and there’s the odd double-page spread to illustrate particular favourites:
Sue Stubbs’ photography is good throughout, doing justice to both the plants and the dishes. And it’s in the recipes that the book comes into its own. You may have noticed, in the photos above, that I’ve marked one or two pages to come back to later. Shall we have a look at what caught my eye?
The A section starts in seductive fashion, with almonds, apples and apricots. You just know there are going to be desserts in there, and there are. But my first bookmark is in the avocado section. There’s no chance of me being able to grow my own (unless I win the lottery and buy a giant, heated greenhouse), but that’s no reason why I can’t enjoy creamy chocolate mousse. With no cream, and no eggs; nothing at all to make me feel poorly.
There are two little bay trees waiting for me in Malvern, which I grew from seed (Esther’s baycorns), and their new mission in life is to grow big and strong so that I can make bay-infused vodka. Broccoli hummus might come first, as I have PSB planted on the allotment.
Chilli salt. Choc-coated roasted coffee beans (although I think it will be a while before the little coffee plants on my desk at work produce any). Dill and parmesan-crusted fish fingers. Kiwi choc pops. And this is where they really had me – mango ice cream.
Those were just the ones that instantly gripped me, there are plenty more that look and sound delicious. Even so, the book isn’t perfect. The section on grapes and vine leaves offers instructions on harvesting vine leaves, and preserving vine leaves, but no recipes for eating vines leaves. It seems like an odd omission, but even in a book this size there’s never enough space to include everything.
It doesn’t matter that there are plants in here I’ll never be able to grow, because I can buy them and Grow Harvest Cook works perfectly well as a cook book. The recipes reflect the multicultural nature of Australia, and there are interesting snippets about what (and how) people grow on the other side of the world. There are even sections on keeping chickens and bees.
And the A to Z layout means you can easily find a recipe for what you have to hand, which is always useful in the midst of a glut. It also leads to a serendipitous juxtaposition: tea is next to thyme :)
Grow Harvest Cook
by Meredith Kirton and Mandy Sinclair
Hardback, 400 pages, RRP
Publisher: Hardie Grant Books
Disclosure: I was provided with a review copy by the publisher, but my words are my own.
Posted in Blog on Nov 12, 2013 · ∞
Tags: books & food.
The ice cream experiments continue, with a spate of frozen yoghurt trials. I have never been a big fan of chocolate ice cream, but something I read online (and a half-empty jar of Nutella) prompted me to give Nutella frozen yoghurt a go!
As you can see, the base for this one was a sheep’s milk yoghurt. I’ve had it many times, simply served with maple syrup stirred through it. It has a distinctly different mouth feel to cow (or goat) yoghurt, which I enjoy, and it’s nice to be able to have a cow-free dessert now and then.
And so the yoghurt went in to the bowl with 3 dessert spoons of Nutella and 3 of caster sugar, and I blended the whole lot together. Sheep’s milk yoghurt is quite firm when it comes out of the package, but after blending turns pretty runny. After tasting the mixture, I added the rest of the Nutella, which was only about another dessertspoonful. The nice thing about making your own ice cream is that you can make it to your taste, you just have to remember that the mixture needs to be slightly too sweet for you before it gets frozen, as the cold makes it less sugary.
Here it is, all mixed up and ready to go in the ice cream machine. It came out slightly soft (as usual), but nice enough to eat there and then. Once the leftovers have been frozen they set very firm and you have to leave them to warm up for a few minutes to be able to get a scoop into them.
This recipe has an unexpected tang to it, which I’m guessing comes from the sheep’s yoghurt rather than the Nutella. Some people might find it unpleasant, but I didn’t. And that lovely sheep’s milk mouth feel translates very well into ice cream.
I might make this one again, if there was Nutella kicking around, but it’s not something I normally buy and so the experiments will move on to the next flavour. I need to recreate the best one I’ve found so far, which is absolutely divine and the closest I’ve come to ‘real’ ice cream – I forgot to take any photos! Still, I like to leave you guessing :)
Posted in Blog on Jul 12, 2013 · ∞
Tags: food & meh!.
I was out in the garden on Friday with mum, relaxing on my new arbor before pulling some weeds in the herb bed. The golden sage is looking lovely again this year. It was one of the stars of Project: Nosh last year, and one of the plants I will be sad to leave behind. Luckily I think that at least one of my sage cuttings has taken, and there will be a new plant to take down to the allotment later in the year.
In the meantime, I can use a few of its leaves recreating this recipe from Dick Strawbridge and Rayburn:
They’re billing it as a spring recipe, but now that we’re a bit further through the year, there’s the prospect of bean and tomato harvests from your veg patch or allotment, so you might be able to rustle up a more homegrown version!
The video shows you very clearly how to make this dish (it looks very quick and easy), but if you prefer a recipe you can print out and take into the kitchen, it’s written out for you on the Rayburn website.
I don’t currently have a Rayburn, or anywhere I could put one, but I’ll be giving this one a go when I get my hands on some monkfish :)
Sharing video content on the blog in this way is a new thing that I’m trying, so if you have any strong views about it you can leave me a comment or drop me an email
Posted in Blog on Jul 9, 2013 · ∞
When I was at the Eden Project with my classmates in December, I splashed out and bought a few things in the shop. One was a big block of drinking chocolate, 100% cacao with nothing else added. It’s a solid lump of 250g of Columbian chocolate. You know, the good stuff. You have to try these things when you’re an ethnobotanist, it’s compulsory ;)
(That photo is borrowed from the Eden Project shop; I took one, but it disappeared in the hard drive crash. I am working my way through the recovered files gradually….)
The block breaks up into chunks that make one cup of hot chocolate each. You melt it down in your milk, or chosen milk substitute, and add whatever you want. I am still trying to find the perfect recipe. You do need a whisk or a blender – the chocolate melts into small pieces, but they don’t blend into the milk nicely without some help.
I had some Oatly oat milk leftover from the strawberry ice cream experiment, and so I thought I would give Oatly hot chocolate a go. In the end I added some cinnamon, to give it a bit of spice. The recipe I used was:
1 cup* of Oatly
1 chunk of Eden chocolate
1/4 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp sugar
*I measured it in the mug I was going to drink from. You need to use slightly less liquid than fills the mug, because you get a lot of froth if you use a blender.
I didn’t want to overheat the milk, but by the time I’d done blending, my hot chocolate wasn’t quite as steaming hot as I like it. And it was pleasant, but I wouldn’t say it was the perfect recipe. I’m still working on that. I have tried it with goat milk, but when you heat goat milk its ‘goatiness’ becomes much more pronounced, and the chocolate doesn’t entirely hide it. I have a litre of hazelnut soy milk that’s lined up for the next experiment….
What’s your idea of the perfect cup of hot chocolate?
Posted in Blog on Jul 2, 2013 · ∞
Tags: food & meh!.
Desserts are a problem when you can’t digest (or don’t eat) cow’s milk. Restaurants and ready-made versions are all but impossible, and a certain amount of creativity is needed to make them at home. A lot of the time, I don’t bother – I don’t have that much of a sweet tooth.
Ice cream, by its very nature, is a tricky one. I’ve had goat’s milk ice cream, which is only available in vanilla. I don’t like the soy milk versions, and am wary to try any of the other vegan versions as they are expensive and if I don’t like them…. Earlier this year I was thrilled to find a stall selling buffalo milk ice cream at the Edible Garden Show – it was the first ice cream I’d had in over a year.
Recently I have had access to an ice cream maker, and so I have been experimenting with making my own, cow-free ice cream. My first attempt was based on a recipe from the Oatly website, for easy strawberry ice cream. What you end up with is more like a sorbet than a true ice cream, but it’s delicious!
This recipe only has 3 ingredients – 400g strawberries, 1/2 cup sugar (about 100g) and 266 ml Oatly. If the quantities look odd, it’s because the Oatly recipe called for 300g strawberries, and my carton was bigger. It would be even nicer made fresh with homegrown strawberries from the allotment. Maybe next year!
I washed the strawberries, cut the stalks off and then everything gets blended together…
Once it has been through the ice cream maker, it looks like this:
It really smells – and tastes – like strawberries, it’s heavenly. A nice treat for Wimbledon week – a little lighter then strawberries and cream! When it was first made, I found it a little on the soft side, but if you have the time you can pop it in the freezer for a little while to harden up. I’m still getting the hang of the ice cream maker, so that might make a difference. If you freeze it overnight, it sets solid – you’ll need to give it a few minutes to warm up before it’s scoopable again. I suspect it would make nice ice lollies though :)
If you’re reading this post via Google Reader, then you need to find a new way of doing so before the end of the month – Google Reader is being retired on 1st July 2013. I have swapped over to Feedly
, but if you’d like a run-down of more options, Veg Plotting
has a good post on this topic.
Posted in Blog on Jun 26, 2013 · ∞
Tags: food & meh!.
Earlier in the spring I entered the Encyclopedia of Life’s Armchair Taxonomist competition. The idea was to write a brief description for one of the entries in the EOL, which would contain the salient details about a species whilst being interesting enough to capture the imagination of someone who is not that in to science. And it has to be properly referenced, to boot.
It sounded right up my street, and so I had a go – it turned out to be a bit harder than I thought! I picked Zatar (Origanum syriacum) as my species, as for some time I have been fascinated by the zatar spice mix (there are numerous different spellings). I’ve always known that there was a herb referred to as zatar as well (in fact, there are several, it’s a good example of the problem with common names) and so I was quite excited when I finally tracked down this one as being the real deal – at least in Lebanon.
And I won! The judges chose my entry (which you can read in the EOL) as overall winner, ‘for its combination of accurate scientific information, original language, quality sources, and that “something extra” we like to call “readability”’.
My prize is a private, behind-the-scenes tour of the Smithsonian Museum, in Washington DC. I have to make my own way to Washington, which I’m working on (if I can’t make it they’ve got some whizzy way of giving me a virtual tour instead).
To celebrate, I cooked my first meal involving zatar the spice mix. This one, coming from Lebanon, includes thyme, sesame seeds, sumac, salt, coriander and fennel. It wasn’t as overwhelmingly fragrant as I had imagined, but it’s certainly an interesting mix. I need to make some flatbreads and have Manakish, but in the meantime, I give you: Zatar chicken.
2 chicken breasts
2 tbsp olive oil
1 heaped tbsp zatar seasoning
- Preheat the oven to 200 C, gas mark 6.
- Mix the oil and zatar, and then coat the chicken in the mixture. Add salt and pepper to taste.
- Put the chicken breasts on a foil-lined baking try and cook for 20-25 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through and the juices run clear.
It’s an adaptation of a Waitrose recipe; they served theirs with a quinoa and bean salad. I used a little cross-cultural creativity and had mine with patatas a lo pobre, and it was very nice!
Posted in Blog on Jun 19, 2013 · ∞
Tags: science & food.
How do you fancy heading up to London, kicking off your shoes inside the Innocent yurt and listening to Arthur Potts Dawson talk about sustainable food, and Laura Bailey on living a stylish sustainable life? There’s also the opportunity to get your hands dirty doing some guerilla gardening to create an urban wildflower garden, and there’s a picnic to boot. That’s the Innocent Inspires ‘Ethics’ event on Wednesday 19th June 2013, and I have two tickets to giveaway to a lucky blog reader!
The prize also includes a month’s supply of Innocent smoothies, which should keep you going once you come back to every day life. I’ve set up a Rafflecopter for the competition entries, which is all new to me, so it’s very exciting. This competition is open to UK residents only – we’re not shipping you here, or highly perishable smoothies abroad.
The competition is now closed. Thank you for your interest. You may like to head over to the offers and coupons
section, to see what else is available. Or perhaps you’d like the chance to win some cheese
Posted in Blog on Jun 7, 2013 · ∞
Last modified on Jun 14, 2013
Tags: competitions & food.
It started with an idle question in the pub, as so many things do. “Can you make a cheesecake base with Amaretti biscuits?” I pondered. It turns out that you can, and there are some recipes online. I choose this one as a guide, but there’s a slight complication in that I have problems digesting cow dairy, so mine had to be a moo-free version. I had to visit two different supermarkets to put together the ingredients.
That’s nearly everything the original recipe called for, but in the end there were ingredients I didn’t use as they were just for decoration. For the cheesecake itself you need:
- 150g amaretti biscuits
- 75g butter
- 225g cream cheese
- 125ml or 125g double cream, whipped to soft peaks
- 1 lemon, grated rind and juice only
- 50g golden caster sugar
- 2 tsp lemon curd
The recipe starts with the base. It involves crushing Amaretti biscuits (actually easiest done by hand) and mixing in melted butter.
The recipe called for individual metal rings as a mould; I used a big cake tin with a removable bottom. The base is then popped in the fridge to set.
The next bit is fun, because you beat the cheese until it’s soft and smooth, then add the cream, lemon juice, rind and sugar and mix well. This results in a slightly too runny mixture that you won’t believe will ever set. But it tastes divine, so unless you have great restraint it doesn’t last that long anyway. If you can keep yourself from eating the whole bowlful then you spread this mixture on top of the base. And then you decorate the top with lemon curd – something I found very hard to do artistically.
And then it goes back in the fridge to set. The recipe doesn’t give any guidance on how long this takes beyond ‘a few hours’; I can tell you that 3 hours isn’t long enough – the first slice was a little bit on the sloppy side, although I had no problem getting it out of the cake tin cleanly. By the following day the leftovers had set very nicely; I would start in the morning if you want to eat this in the evening.
Having never attempted a cheesecake before, this was a fun (but slightly time-consuming) project. The result might not have looked perfect, but it was really, really tasty. It’s not often I get to have dessert these days (especially cheesecake!), and I will definitely make this one again. Although not too often, as clearly it’s a heart-attack waiting to happen.
I am posting this today as part of VP’s Blogger’s Cut for the Chelsea Fringe 2013. Now that there is cake I am supposed to show you round the garden, but it’s looking a little sorry for itself as the plants are slowly moving out. This morning I took everything out of the Grow Dome, as it is nice enough for them all to live outdoors now. That includes (rather aptly), my lemon plant:
Long-term readers will remember that I grew it from a pip, way back in 2007. Since then I have almost lost it over a couple of winters (it has been in the Grow Dome, not the house), and it has been very hard pruned a couple of times, but still comes back to life in the spring. As yet it hasn’t flowered, so hopefully if I treat it a bit more kindly in future I will be making cheesecake with homegrown lemons in years to come :)
If you’ve enjoyed reading about my cow-free cheesecake, please consider voting for me in the Best Bleats Award
so that I can win some goat cheese and make more lovely stuff with it!
Posted in Blog on Jun 3, 2013 · ∞
Last modified on Jun 5, 2013
Tags: food & meh!.