Urban Harvesting


Alf with the pigs

Me with the pigs in Somerset

Growing up on the rural Devon-Somerset border I have always been aware of the crops the other side of the hedgerows and the animals grazing the fields. In our back garden we grew our own vegetables and had chickens scratching around, laying eggs in all the wrong places and getting in the way of our football games. I’ve missed this while living in the city, but you can’t take the Westcountry out of the boy and I’ve found a surprising number of ways to harvest produce in an urban environment.

1) Foraging;

In Norwich in the summer there is an abundance of elderflowers to be made into cordial; if you know where to look there are sloe berries to flavour gin and blackberries for pies. The Rosemary used in the Anchovy and Rosemary Butter came from a bush just down the road.

2) Allotments;

Norwich is a green city, it is home to more than 1,619 allotment plots on 18 sites. The average rent is £40 per year for a 250 square meter plot; plenty of space to keep you in vegetables throughout the growing months. The only problem is the waiting list, which was three years when I last checked; clearly a popular option!

3) Roof gardens;

Edible roof gardens absorb water, clean the city air and promote green living in an urban environment. In the past growing food in London has been a pipe dream for many, but developing roof space into gardens is opening up acres of previously unused space. Urban gardens have been endorsed by Boris Johnson as part of the capital’s Climate Change Adaptation Plan.

4) Guerilla gardens;

In the city of Los Angeles there is 26 square miles of arable land, enough space to grow 724,838,400 tomato plants. Guerilla gardening is Ron Finley’s way of reclaiming the streets and providing an alternative to fast food; projects for the mental and physical health of the community. His team of volunteers dig up vacant lots across the city and plant fruits and vegetables; “we’ve got to flip the script on what a gangster is; if you aint’ a gardener, you aint’ gangster, get gangster with your shovel, ok? and let that be your weapon of choice”.

5) Aquaponics;

Dan Barber is a chef and researcher. His research into aquaponics led him to Veta La Palma in South West Spain where he discovered “A farm that doesn’t feed it’s fish; a farm that measures its success by the success of its predators; a farm that is literally a water purification plant… farming extensively, not intensively”. Aquaponics relies on creating a self-sustainable ecosystem, which is why the farmers at Veta La Palma don’t scare away the birds who eat 20% of the farm’s fish. The pinker the flamingos’ feathers, the healthier the system is and therefore the tastier the fish will be. Companies like FARM:shop in London use aquaponics on a smaller scale to inspire the local community to grow and eat their own food.

The act of harvesting fruit and vegetables, whether they are foraged from the wild or cultivated in a garden, is the best possible incentive to eat a healthy diet free from processed foods. Gardening is a therapeutic process that sustains the body at the same time as satisfying the mind. There is nothing like the feeling of planting a crop, tending it, and cooking straight from the garden; as fresh as fresh can be.

Eating Organic Fruit and Veg for my Health, my Local Economy and my Genes

DSCF4577

Contents of my organic fruit and veg box (there was another apple and another orange but I ate them already). It comes to £12.30.

When the omnivore’s dilemma strikes there’s no shortage of conflicting advice on what we should and shouldn’t be eating. Yet in the supermarkets the decision often boils down to “do I eat healthily, or do I eat cheaply?” The abundance of processed ready meals in our supermarkets is a testament to our habit of choosing the latter. We are forgetting  how to prepare food from scratch and as a result we are getting fatter; “61.3% of adults and 30% of children aged between 2 and 15” are overweight (Gov.uk).  

Food decisions boil down to trust – whether you are trusting money-hungry corporations like Premier Foods to process your food or whether you process it yourself, trusting a local supplier and your own hands. For me a weekly organic veg box is invaluable to achieving this end; providing me with a variety of produce grown in local fields and polytunnels that changes week by week and season by season. I see this as a weekly investment in my health because once I have the produce, I want to use it all up. Furthermore I don’t have to trudge around the supermarket after work because it is delivered to my door. The soil association’s Organic Market Report shows that I am not the only one feeling this way; “Organic box scheme sales grew by 4.4% last year, while supermarket own-label (organic) sales dropped by 11.2%”. I like to know that these fruits and vegetables are free from artificial fertilisers and pesticides and its reassuring that my grandmother would recognise them, and her grandmother and so on.

In her book Deep Nutrition, Catherine Shanahan explores the benefits of eating the same foods as our ancestors. The diets of tribes like the San, Maasai, Himba, Kombai and Mongolian Nomad “still connect them to a healthy living environment whose beauty, in a very real sense, expresses itself through their bodies”. Shanahan’s research indicates that  we can ameliorate our genes within our lifetime by eating a healthy diet. I’m under no illusion that my diet will stop my hair migrating from my head to my toes (and everywhere in-between), but I know that I feel better in my skin for eating healthily.

It seems obvious that we should be eating the same roots, grains, fruits and vegetables that our ancestors ate, but its taken a geezer from Essex to remind us to pay more respect to our food and consequently to our bodies. Unlike the Massai and the Himba we are loosing the habit of respecting our elders and learning their skills and knowledge. Even now most extended families have parents and grandparents who remember the days before ready meals and the fast food boom; for whom cooking from scratch was the only option. 

You don’t have to be a hippy to make a connection with the land you inhabit. Why not give an organic veg box a go? The first two of these companies give money off your first box for an added incentive!

http://www.arthursorganics.co.uk/ (The company I use).

http://www.broadlandvegboxes.co.uk/

http://www.riverford.co.uk/

Spinach Saffron Pearl Barley with Roasted Vegetables

Spinach saffron pearl barley with roasted vegetables

Spinach saffron pearl barley with roasted vegetables

When its cold, wet and dark outside, the oven-side is the best place to be. From the moment the dial is turned to the rush of hot air exploding into the room when the door is opened and the dish removed, the prospect of a delicious meal in a cozy kitchen banishes winter doom and gloom. Through the oven door the Butternut squash gradually softens as the edges of the onions begin to crisp. The shells of the garlic cloves split and the skin on the bell pepper shrivels. In the yellow glow of the oven light the olive oil bubbles and spits in the tray while the whole kitchen fills with the roasting smell of natural sugars caramelizing.

Roasted vegetables

                                                     Roasted vegetables
On the stove top the pearl barley gently simmers away. I like pearl barley because It is rich in fiber and has a wholesome chewiness. Adults need 21 to 38 g of fiber a day; I have found that eating high fiber foods makes me feel healthier, gives me more energy and makes me happier. 
Saffron seeped in warm water

Saffron steeped in warm water

For the vegetables;

  • 1 red pepper
  • I courgette
  • 1 onion
  • 1/2 a butternut squash
  • 6 big cloves of garlic
  • A few sprigs of fresh thyme
  • 2 tbsp olive oil, or enough to coat all the veg
  • sea salt and black pepper

For the pearl barley;

  • 200g pearl barley
  • enough boiling water to cover
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 3 cloves crushed garlic
  • a few big handfuls of spinach
  • a pinch of saffron strands
  • 2 tbsp chopped parsley
  • a splash of olive oil

Instructions;

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees, roughly chop all of the veg, toss them in a bowl with the oil, thyme and seasoning then distribute on a tray in the oven.
  2. Steep a pinch of saffron strands in a little warm water and set aside. Bring the pearl barley to the boil in the salted water and simmer for 35 minutes or until nearly cooked.
  3. Drain the barley and dry the pan. Put the pan back on the heat and gently fry the garlic. Add the barley back in along with the saffron water and the spinach and stir for a few minutes until the spinach is cooked. By this time the Vegetables should be done; either mix the two dishes in a big bowl or serve side by side. Garnish with chopped parsley.

It is delicious as is (and totally vegan), or even better with a slice of warmed sourdough spread with pesto. This meal has the healthiness of a fiber-rich grain, the sweetness of roasted vegetables and an exotic saffron touch. An impressive meal that is very easy to assemble!

Stargazy Pie

Stargazy Pie

Stargazy Pie

I accredit my particular liking of oily fish to two childhood memories: The first is of a fisherman at Branscome beach on the Dorset coast who takes groups mackerel fishing in the summer. We would spend an hour racing to see who could catch the most and then barbecue the lot on the beach that evening. The second memory is from one of my favourite children’s books, The Mousehole Cat. Based on true events, the story tells of Cornish fisherman Tom Bawcock and his trusty cat Mowzer who brave the winter storm in their fishing boat to save the starving people of Mousehole.

Mousehole Cat

Mowzer soothing the raging sea-cat

In the book the storm is personified as a raging storm-cat who is soothed by Mowzer’s purring. When the intrepid duo return they bake their catch into an enormous Stargazy Pie to feed the villagers. Traditionally this pie uses whole sardines whose heads poke through the pastry crust to gaze at the stars. Baked in this way the oil released from the fish during cooking is contained within the pie. Folk lore tells that Stargazy Pie, along with other unusual Cornish pies, prevented the Devil from crossing the Tamar into Cornwall. He reasoned that the Cornish seem to put anything and everything into a pie and decided to return to Devon before they take a fancy to ‘Devilly Pie’.

In Dorothy Hartley’s book Food in England she claims that ‘the vegetable or herb that the beast feeds upon is the best condiment to it when cooked… thus, Thyme for mountain grayling, watercress for brook trout’. Now, I’m not claiming that pilchards feed upon the following, but I think that bacon lardons, mushrooms, leeks and a mustard sauce compliment their flavoursome oily meat in my Stargazy Pie.

Instructions

First of all make 350g of pastry an hour or so in advance and let it sit in the fridge.  Crisp up bacon lardons in an oiled saucepan and add the vegetables to soften with a lid on. In a separate pan boil two or three hard boiled eggs.

Meanwhile roll out enough pastry to cover the bottom of your greased pie dish and par-bake. When it comes out of the oven, lay six gutted, deboned sardines on top of the pastry with their tails meeting in the middle and their heads poking out of the side of the dish.

Spoon over the fish the sliced eggs, vegetables and a sauce made from flour, butter, milk and mustard. Then cover with another layer of pastry so that the heads are poking out like the handles of a ship’s wheel. Crimp the edges and brush over with an egg glaze.

Bake at 220 celcius for 15 minutes, then turn down to 180 for a further 25-30 minutes. Serve with boiled potatoes and steamed broccoli.

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Pie vegetables

Vegetables

20130305_192248The fish laid in the par-baked pastry.

Valentines’ recipes

The sous-chef and I have got together and decided on some recipes for Thursday, so with no more gilding of the lily, and absolutely no further ado, here is what we went for:

Artichoke Starter

This green and purple thistle is one of Annabel’s favourite things. In Rome they eat them cooked in butter, garlic and wild mint, but seeing as they are not in season I’ll pick up some preserved artichoke hearts from Amaretto, Norwich’s best delicatessen. We are going to combine them with prosciutto and griddled sourdough bread to make a simple bruschetta starter. This will go well with a glass of cold bubbly!

Tunisian fish Stew

I promised Annabel no fish heads this time, so we are compromising with a few shell-on prawns. I’m basically going to use a Boulliabase recipe that I’ve made before and integrate Tunisian spices; coriander, cumin and saffron. I’ll fry coriander, cumin and fennel seeds in hot oil, then add an onion, a finely chopped bulb of fennel, garlic, and fresh tomatoes; added just in time for their juice to prevent the spices from burning on the bottom of the pan. Into this fragrant bubbling concoction I’ll add fish stock and a good pinch of saffron – making sure the soup doesn’t heat beyond a simmer. As soon as the fennel starts to become tender I’ll add a tot of Pernod, then in go the mussels, shell-on prawns, a big handful of white fish chunks and salt and pepper to season.

Each bowl of soup will get a handful of crunchy sourdough croutons, some fresh parsley and a dollop of char-grilled red pepper and chilli rouille made with plenty of garlic and extra virgin olive oil.

Panpepato

I know this is a bit of a cheat, but I’m going to follow a recipe seeing as I have never done it before. The benefit of this dessert is that it can be made the day before to take the pressure off. Here it is, lifted off the Waitrose website;

Ingredients

  • Rice paper
  • 100g walnut pieces
  • 100g whole blanched hazelnuts
  • 100g blanched almonds
  • 200g mixed peel or candied citrus peel, chopped
  • 50g plain flour
  • 4 tbsp cocoa powder
  • ½ tsp ground nutmeg
  • ½ tsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • ¼ tsp ground cloves
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 225g runny honey
  • 25g unsalted butter
  • Icing sugar, for dredging

Method

  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C, gas mark 4. Lightly butter an 18cm-square loose-bottomed tin and line the base and sides with rice paper. Bake the nuts on a tray for 12-15 minutes till golden brown. Cool, then roughly chop and transfer into a bowl with the peel and sift in the flour, cocoa and spices. Turn the oven down to 150°C, gas mark 2.
  2. Put the sugar, honey, and butter in a saucepan and gently heat, stirring till dissolved. Bring to the boil and boil until it reaches the ‘soft ball’ stage (113°C-118°C on a sugar thermometer). To test this, you can also scoop some out on a spoon and drop into a jug of water: it should go into a soft ball. Stir in the nut mixture, pour into the tin and smooth the surface with an oiled potato masher. Bake for 35-40 minutes. Remove from the oven and leave to firm up in the tin on a cooling rack. Remove the tin, trim the paper, sieve over some icing sugar and cut into slices or cubes.

Annabel has promised to combine the roles of Sous-chef and photographer on thursday, so expect some cracking photos this time next week!

Pickled Dill Cucumbers

Sliced cucumbers

Sliced cucumbers

I had the good fortune to come across a glut of reduced cucumbers today and I immediately thought of making a big batch of pickled dill cucumbers. The recipe comes from Diana Henry’s book Roast Figs Sugar Snow, where they are partnered with juniper infused pickled prunes and roast belly pork. In the past I have sliced them by hand, meticulously shaving millimetre wafers in a process that has me gradually stooping closer to my chopping board in the

attempt to achieve the perfect slice. But to save time and reduce back ache I’m using the slicing attachment on the food processor this time. The following recipe is plenty for four people; I am multiplying the quantities by five.

Ingredients

  • 1 cucumber
  • 3 tsp sea salt
  • 1 1/2 tbsp caster sugar
  • 1 tbsp rice wine vinegar
  • 1 tbsp chopped fresh dill

Instructions

  1. Slice the cucumbers very finely and layer them in a colander, sprinkling salt between each layer. Leave for five to ten hours over a drip catcher.
  2. Rinse under cold running water, then gently squeeze the remaining moisture out of the fruit.
  3.  In a bowl or kilner jar, mix the sugar and vinegar until the sugar has dissolved; then add the cucumbers and dill and stir. Store in the fridge and eat within ten days.

A wafer thin sliceA wafer thin slice

Sea salt drawing out the liquid

Sea salt drawing out the liquid

Finished pickles

The finished pickles

No Mere Mushroom Risotto

Dried porcini mushrooms

Dried porcini mushrooms

Rice first arrived in Italy and Spain in the Middle Ages from the Arab states. The humidity of the Mediterranean climate best facilitated the growing of short grain, starchy rice; perfect for making a dish with a luscious sauce. The first ever risotto was made in Milan, containing locally grown rice and saffron. Milan was ruled by the Spanish at the time, which is why short grain rice and saffron pop up in the Spanish paella as well.

In order to make a mushroom risotto that stands out from the crowd I went for the sweetness of forestière and the intensity of dried porcini.

Ingredients

  • 20g dried porcini mushrooms
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • Half an onion
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 250g arborio risotto rice
  • 200ml white wine
  • 250g forestière mushrooms
  • 500ml stock (home-made is best, Marigold Bouillon otherwise)
  • Sea salt and black pepper
  • 3 tbsp grated parmesan

Instructions

  1. Pour boiling water into a mug containing the porcini mushrooms. Slice the forestière mushrooms and set aside
  2. Warm the oil on a medium heat, dice the onion, crush the garlic and toss them into the pan until soft
  3. Make up your stock and keep hot in a pan on another burner
  4. Add the rice and stir to coat each and every grain with oil. From this moment the risotto needs to be continuously stirred. Set the timer for 10 minutes
  5. Strain the porcini; add the liquid to the stock pan and the mushrooms to the risotto pan
  6. When the rice has absorbed the wine, ladle in the stock, only adding more as the last ladleful has been absorbed
  7. When your timer goes off, add the forestière shrooms. Keep stirring and adding stock. After 10 minutes test the firmness of the rice. It should be slightly al dente. Season with salt and pepper to taste
  8. Take off the heat, add 2 tablespoons of the parmesan and stir; keep 1 tablespoon to sprinkle on top.

Don't stop stirring!

Don’t stop stirring!

Rehydrated porciniRehydrated porcini

Mushroom risotto

Mushroom risotto

The end result was a powerfully shroomy flavour and a deliciously creamy texture; this is a food that is high up on my list of comfort eats!

Minestrone made with punchy tomato and anchovy paste

Minestrone

I have always loved pasta in all of its forms and I think that putting little bits of it in a vegetable soup is a brilliant idea. A glance at Elizabeth David‘s Italian Food reveals the importance of fresh parsley and green vegetables in minestrone; spinach and beans work well, alongside whatever other vegetables are in season. Regional variations of this classic dish might include salted pork rind, ham or bacon and the Genovese add pesto. A handful of freshly grated parmesan, sprinkled on top to serve is also widely recommended.

I made this soup on the cheap and therefore left out the pig, parmesan and parsley. The following made enough for two portions;

Ingredients

  • 1 onion
  • 2 carrots
  • 1 small parsnip
  • 3 cauliflower florets
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 2 tbs tomato and anchovy paste* / regular tomato paste
  • 1 tsp mixed dried herbs
  • 500mls Marigold Boullion
  • 1/2 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1 handful of minestrone pasta
  • Sea salt and black pepper to taste

*We made pizzas on the weekend and I cooked onion, garlic, mixed herbs and a tin of anchovies into passata to make the sauce. Reduced down, this makes the best tomato paste I have ever tasted!

Instructions

  1. Dice the first four ingredients into 7mm chunks and sweat them in a pan with the lid on. This should be on a medium heat with a good swig of olive oil
  2. Crush and add the garlic
  3. After a few minutes, add the paste and the herbs and stir in.
  4. Add the stock and paprika and bring to a simmer (not a rolling boil)
  5. Now stir in the pasta and cook for another three minutes. Test the pasta to know when the soup is done.

Those Italians really know how to make food that is both deeply satisfying and healthy. The pasta soaks up the wholesomeness of the vegetables and the salty flavour of the tomato and anchovy paste. Hot, savoury and filling, minestrone is one of my favourite comfort foods.

My recent experimentations with canning have revolutionised my cooking world. I wonder if it is possible to can a big batch of tomato and anchovy paste?

Shop locally for good craic

You may as well have the craic with the self-service check out for all the banter you get out of supermarket employees. Unlike your Tesco Express worker, who has never met the CEO Philip Clarke and has no relationship with the suppliers, the shop-keepers that I spoke to today have an intimate relationship with where their food comes from.

Today I cycled around Norwich and had a poke around in five of the city’s best small food shops. I shop regularly in three of them and two of them I visited for the first time today after many recommendations. In all five the shop-keepers were happy to chat about their businesses, their customers, their suppliers and their work.

In no particular order, here are five shops that I highly recommend you visit…

St Benedicts Food Store

St Benedicts Food Store shopfront

Initially I was drawn to this shop for a fortnightly fix of Linghams chili sauce, but I soon realised that the herbs and most of the vegetables are far cheaper than the supermarkets. I recently stopped by and picked up a large courgette, an aubergine, a butternut squash, an onion the size of a football and two bunches of fresh herbs all for £3! The owner, Tom, runs a wholesale business as well, delivering to many of Norwich’s restaurants. This means that, unlike both the greengrocers on the market, you can have as much or as little fresh parsley, thyme or coriander as you like. The shop has an extensive Asian Foods section and there are rumours  that a new Mediterranean section might appear soon.

Fresh fruit and vegetables

Fresh produce in the shop window

Herbs

Tom (owner)

Quinton’s Butcher

Quinton’s is my favourite butcher in Norwich, run by two of the finest gentlemen in the city. In My second and third years of University I was lucky enough to live three doors down. I frequented it for bacon, sausages, black pudding and duck eggs and Mike even let me borrow his allen keys and his wheelbarrow. As well as knowing all of the neighbours, Mike has never told me the same joke twice which is incredible seeing that he tells me two every time I go in there.

Shopfront

Mike (left) and Chris (right)

Dozen Artisan Baker

Dozen Artisan Baker is an award winning bakery that bakes simple, traditional bread using flour, water, yeast (or sourdough starter) and salt. Their bread and cakes are made using organic flour over a long period of time in order to craft a product that is not only tasty, but also much easier for your body to digest. This is the kind of bread that we should be eating. Bread should not return to dough when squeezed.  Bread should have character, crust and a wholesome flavour, none of which are achievable in factory made bread that is produced very quickly and pumped full of artificial additives and flour improvers. Real bread should start to go stale after three or four days and we should find this reassuring; bread that is as soft on day one as it is on day seven is against the laws of nature! If we pay an extra 40p for a loaf in an artisan bakery now and keep demanding real bread, then as the production of real bread increases, the prices will surely come down.

Bread on display behind the counter

Cakes

Baguettes

Yeasted rolls

Amaretto Deli

Amaretto is a deli selling specialist Italian, Spanish and British produce. The shop is popular with the students at Norwich University College of the Arts and when you walk by the big shop windows you can see why; on display are home-made sandwiches, stone baked pizzas, delicious cakes and pastries and a selection of hot lasagnes, cottage pies, stuffed peppers and other savoury delights. The inside of the shop is tastefully decorated, the service impeccable, and when you can get any double-shot coffee for just £1.60 you are on to a winner.

Amaretto shopfront

Olives

Cured meats

Salame

Lunch options in the shop window

Chef Asa (left) and chef/owner Henry (right)

Italian christmas cakes

Ford-Yarham Greengrocer-Fishmonger

Steve and Pam pride themselves on their locally sourced fresh produce and the quality of their service and today both of these were spot on. They gets as much of their produce as possible directly from the farmers, which means that their fruit and vegetables have spent as little time out of the ground as possible. If you want to order rare products like monkfish or purple cauliflower, Steve is your man.

Shopfront

Fresh produce

Local fish and Shellfish.

Shopping locally is not just a transaction involving money and food. Shopping locally is an interaction with the community; it is an engagement in a product made or sourced by someone who more than likely appreciates your custom; and it is an investment in your health.

I truly believe that engaging with where our food comes from is vital to good health and happiness. In the UK we are fortunate to have so many good small shops on our doorsteps and supporting these local businesses is a must.