Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Fair Trade Fortnight

We're already a couple of days into the Fair Trade Fortnight which runs from 26 February - 11 March. There's an online calendar of events including a talks by fair trade farmers, a banana race, and lots of coffee mornings, wine tastings, concerts and loads of other things. Find out what's going on near you.

Fair trade is a brilliant idea. A heck of a lot better than the alternative. I used to "hum" and "hah" about the extra cost which is usually a few tens of pence. But then I thought "If a Bolivian coffee farmer was standing here in the supermarket aisle asking for 30p to help feed his family, I'd give it to him without hesitation". So now I always choose the fair trade option.

Having said that, fair trade products come from developing countries by definition, which means they have travelled a lot of food miles. I generally try to avoid products which have come so far, preferring local alternatives. But I wouldn't want to give up coffee and tea, or chocolate, and I pick up the odd banana and citrus fruit, so these are where I look for fair trade options.

Here's my favourite fair trade recipe.

Banana-Choc Ice Lollies
A banana makes two lollies, so decide how many lollies you want and get half that number of fair trade bananas. Peel the bananas and cut them in half so that you have two short stubby halves (not two long skinny halves, if you see what I mean). Shove lolly sticks up the flat end of each banana-half to make a banana lolly, then dip the banana in melted fair trade chocolate. I use milk chocolate when I'm making these for the kids, but plain chocolate would make a more grown-up lolly. Then roll the lolly in roughly grated or chopped fair trade white chocolate. You could also use chopped nuts, multicoloured sugar strands, chocolate strands, cocoa powder- use your imagination. Now freeze for a few hours until they're solid and enjoy.

If you've never had frozen banana, you must try it. The banana flavour is intensified, and the flesh takes the consistency of ice-cream.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Home-Made Pan Scrubbers

It's nearly the end of February. Hurrah! How are you getting on with the Ditch the Disposables challenge? I've been saving the plastic net bags that things like onions and mini cheeses come in (don't look at me - the kids like mini cheeses, I think the wax coating on them has more flavour). When I had enough I made them into home-made pan scrubbers.

You need a few net bags, then you cut off the metal ends. This is important otherwise they'll scratch your pans. Gather them together and fold them over double, as shown.

Wrap some twine around them and make a neat finish. Leave plenty of "tail". You can trim it neat later, but you don't want any of the bags to come free because they weren't fastened securely. To make it extra secure, I melt all the ends together by holding them over a candle briefly. DISCLAIMER: fire is dangerous, boys and girls. If you set fire to your house or yourself it is not my fault. When I have done this the bags just sizzle a bit and melt nicely, but if your bags are made of something which bursts into flames or explodes or whatever, don't come crying to me. Be sensible.

I made a few of them because I had plenty of little bags and they're really quick and easy to do. They're very effective at cleaning mucky pans, and they're safe for non-stick.

It's not too late to join in the Ditch the Disposables challenge. Just pick one disposable product you can do without or replace with a reusable alternative, like pan scrubbers. See the original post for more ideas, or the post about real cloth hankies that started it all, or the one about washable menstrual pads. Or find out what's so bad about disposables anyway? Then vote in the poll in the right-hand sidebar.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Margarine Musings

When I was growing up, my family used margarine, never butter. When as an adult I bought my first block of butter I treated it as if it were margarine. I stored it in the fridge until I needed it. Then I stuck a table knife in it and tried to scoop out a lump. No joy. I levered and waggled and eventually managed to excavate a lump of cold hard butter, which I dropped onto a slice of bread. Then I tried to spread it. As I contemplated my ruined slice of bread (now just a crust with a big hole in the middle) I thought "It's rubbish, butter. No wonder my parents always used the superior, easy-to use modern margarine instead!"

Of course, I learned over time. Now I know that butter is just as easy to use as margarine as long as you know how. You can't use it straight from the fridge, it has to be room temperature first. You can't just scoop out a lump, you need to scrape off a portion softening it as you do. And you don't really spread it on sliced bread, you have to dab little bits of it here and there and smoosh them out slightly, but it's much better on thick slices of home-made crusty bread, still warm from the oven. In the self-sufficiency blogosphere we talk a lot about the skills our ancestors had, and we try to learn some of them, for example cheese-making, beekeeping, or building with cob. But there are many much more humble skills we have also lost. My parents knew how to use butter, but they never passed the skill on to me and I had to learn the hard way. I am lousy at laying a fire in a hearth but my husband has the knack. When I watch my 5-year-old son try to sweep up some crumbs with a hand brush, I marvel at all the different ways he manages to get such a simple task wrong. These things are simple, but they still need to be learned. Or if the knowledge has skipped a generation, re-learned.

It's tempting to think that modern objects and ways are better than those which have gone before. When we try to do things the "old" way, we often find them difficult and unsatisfactory. But we shouldn't assume our forebears found them so. Maybe we just lack the skills to do it properly, like my first fumbling attempts to spread butter. On the other hand we should avoid the temptation to romanticise the past - there was plenty of gruelling labour and hardship, and we have certainly made progress in some areas which I would not want to give up. My tendencies may be Luddite, but you'll have to prise my wireless internet enabled laptop from my cold dead fingers, for example.

If this admittedly rambling article has a point, it's that knowledge and skills are precious. Every bit as precious as objects and artefacts from the past. Even very menial skills, once lost, are difficult or sometimes impossible to recover. There is a lot of pleasure to be had from mastering a new skill, and even more from passing it on to the next generation.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Neighbourhood Recycling

Ed, my husband, is naturally reserved. He wouldn't dream of asking the neighbours if we could scavenge through their rubbish. My sister, Steph, on the other hand is blessed with no reservations whatever. So it was she who knocked next door and asked if we could have their old paving slabs when she saw theywere laying new paving in their garden. So now we have a heap of used paving slabs which we can either use in our garden to create new stepping stones in the lawn, or use on the allotment to define permanent paths between the cultivated beds.

I'm glad she did, because very soon afterwards the same neighbour knocked here to ask if we also wanted their old picnic table instead of throwing it on the skip. We have a couple of small-scale construction projects in mind and the table is made of good seasoned planks which would be great for the purpose.

In future I'll be more bold about asking for things I need which others are throwing away. As well as sometimes being told "Yes, help yourself", you also sometimes get offered other things you didn't know about.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Vandal-Proof Edible Hedge

My sister Steph and I moved most of a huge pile of couch grass roots on the allotment to a heap where we can cover them in light-proof sheets whilst they rot down for a year or two. We also planted three gooseberry bushes she brought us as a present.

Our plot runs along part of the fence which surrounds the allotments, so we are especially vulnerable to vandals. What is worse, the fence at this point is lower than elsewhere, so it is a favourite point for access. I have begun to plant a hedge of thorny bushes alongside the fence - blackberries, hawthorn, loganberries, and gooseberries. I'd like to add holly, roses and blackthorn. When mature this should be a vandal-proof barrier, and also provide food for us and habitat for native birds (who will in turn reduce the population of slugs, snails and caterpillars). If it gets thick enough it will stop passers-by on the footpath from even seeing into the allotments. I like chatting to the friendly people who go past and it would be a shame to cut ourselves off from them, but I think if the local toe-rags can't see what's on the other side of the hedge it will remove the temptation to break in and set fire to the sheds etc.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Smallholding Dreams

I think my favourite Christmas present of 2006 was this painting by my sister, Stephanie. It's a stylised representation of the smallholding I dream of. The layout is based on the traditional quilting block known as log cabin.

The figure at the door in the centre is me. Ed is reaping corn in the distance. Eleanor is watering flowers in front of the house whilst Sam feeds the chickens nearby. Tom is sitting in the very foreground playing a hand-held computer game. The fingerpost points to our favourite places (Aberystwyth, Ballaugh, Cropredy) and there are many more details if you look closely.

Ed made the frame for me and now it hangs in the kitchen where I spend most of my time when I'm home, so I can look at it and dream of the future.

Steph has recently started her own blog about her art. She admires Giacometti and Lowry, but I'm very proud to have an original Stephanie Smith hanging in my home.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Save Money, Save the Planet

Sometimes saving the planet seems like a middle-class fad. It's so expensive, isn't it? Organic food costs more than conventional food, eco-friendly cleaning products cost more than the standard alternatives, low-energy light bulbs cost more than regular ones, and as for solar panels, wind turbines, hybrid cars? Forget it.

It's true that many canny marketers have jumped onto the green bandwagon as an excuse to peddle expensive products, but that's not the essence of an environmental lifestyle. A simple maxim that will get you far is "if it saves money, it's probably saving the planet". If you can't afford low energy light bulbs (actually they'll save you around £100 over their lifetime) just turn off as many lights as you can. There's nothing magic about LE light bulbs that's good for the planet. They just use less electricity. You can use less electricity with a regular light bulb too, by turning it off.

If you can't afford organic food, can you grow some of your own? I once grew cherry tomatoes on the kitchen windowsill of a 3rd-floor flat, and the plant grew so big no light got into the kitchen. We had delicious organic tomatoes every day all summer for the cost of a packet of seeds.

"Eco" cleaning products cost more, but bicarbonate of soda, vinegar and soda crystals are cheap as chips. Hot water and lots of elbow grease is cheaper still. I've got an "A" rated tumble dryer that cost more than a less efficient one, but I make my biggest savings in energy by drying on a line as often as I can. Anyone can do this. Washing at 30-degrees and leaving out the detergent altogether saves money without forking out for "eco" washing powder (I tested this a few months ago and now I don't use any detergents, but find my clothes still get clean without them). Or try using just half the amount of your regular detergent - keep reducing the amount until you find the minimum that gets the clothes clean.

Forget about solar panels and wind turbines. The first thing we all need to do is to reduce the amount of energy we use in the first place, and that means saving money. Drawing curtains after dark, stopping draughts (with home-made draught excluders perhaps), lowering your thermostat, insulating your hot water tank (an old duvet does a great job at this), turning off lights and so on all save money and save the planet as well. Once you are as energy efficient as possible you might want to think about generating your own power, but it makes no sense at all to cover your roof with photovoltaic panels generating electricity that is promptly wasted.

People who are really hard up struggle to run a car, and minimise their journeys because they know how much it costs in petrol. They don't dream of flying all over the place, but maybe save up all year for one holiday with a budget airline or holiday in their home country. It's the well-to do who have the largest carbon footprints, and paying out some of their expendable income on a great big wind turbine for the side of their house may look green but it really isn't making much of an impact. So if you feel you can't afford to be green, you probably already are.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Pancake Day

Yesterday was Shrove Tuesday, also known as Pancake Day. This is the last day before Lent begins, on Ash Wednesday. In the UK it is traditional to eat pancakes, thus using up all the rich ingredients such as eggs and flour which are forbidden during the 40 days of Lent.

It's the same thing as Mardi Gras, but typically for Britain, we observe it in a relatively low-key way compared to places where they have a massive party before Lent begins.

We won't be avoiding eggs and flour during Lent, but we still kept the tradition by making a big heap of pancakes which the children in particular enjoyed. The pancakes eaten in the UK are usually are the thin type the French call crepes, and they are often eaten with a sprinkling of sugar and a little lemon juice. The kids insisted that I tossed some pancakes, and in some places pancake races are held on Pancake Day, in which competitors have to toss pancakes continuously as they run. Tossing pancakes is tricky, but capturing the deed on camera is even trickier and sadly we were defeated.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Top 10 Ways to Fight the February Blues

1. Curl up with a seed catalogue and dream about all the produce you'll be growing when the warmer weather comes

2. Dig the allotment over. The weak winter sunlight, fresh air, exercise and feeling of accomplishment will improve your mood

3. Plan for the coming year, whether it's where you're going to plant your pea and bean break, or where you want to go on summer holiday. Planning is an act of faith in the future, and gives you something to look forward to

4. Eat preserved summer produce from last year. Cherry jam and frozen peas are as good as Prozac

5. Eat comforting winter food. I've been enjoying duck soup and pheasant casserole, mashed root vegetables and about a hundred different ways of serving cabbage, sponge puddings and home made custard and hot bread straight out of the oven

6. Wrap up warm and go for long walks. Like tip 2, the sunlight and exercise boost your serotonin levels, but I mainly like doing this for the nice feeling of getting back indoors afterwards and warming up again!

7. Turn off the TV, radio or Internet, curl up by the fire and listen to the weather howling and pouring outside and just enjoy the fact you're not out in it

8. Make something. I like making quilts or knitted blankets this time of year

9. Relax, sleep, unwind. Take advantage of the fact that the days are short and there's not so much to do at this time of year (in the garden at any rate). There'll be plenty to do in the summer, and if you're like me you'll feel guilty about being indoors and idle when there's still hours of daylight. This is the natural time to slow down the pace and recharge your batteries. Enjoy it

10. What can we do during the long dark winter nights to pass the time, get warm, and feel good? Hmm, I just can't think....

Monday, February 19, 2007

Happy Birthday Tom

It was Tom's 9th birthday on Saturday. He got a hand-held games console, mainly to keep him occupied when we're at the allotment or doing other things Tom doesn't enjoy. Although by the time we went to the allotment on Sunday he had used up all the battery charge and had to leave it at home. He also got a chemistry set, a Dr Who book, Dr Who pyjamas and a set of Star Trek: The Next Generation DVDs.

We took a couple of his friends out to play LaserQuest, watch a movie and eat pizza, and a good time was had by all. Granddad, Aunty Ninin and Uncle Andrew joined us which Tom really appreciated. I asked him what he thought of being nine, and he answered "Brilliant!"

Ed made good his promise to dig the potato patch. He did a fabulous job and dug the whole area over. I planted the fruit trees he gave me on Valentine's Day and put up the wild bee shelter he gave me for Christmas (he gives the best presents). Wild bees and other predator insects can shelter there, and hopefully give the plant-eating insects on the plot a hard time.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Making Dolls House Accessories

When my sisters and I were children, our granddad (my dad's dad) made us doll houses. Dad also was a fantastic model-maker, and he made detailed sturdy models for his model railway club, and for the school where he taught. My favourite was a model of Shakespeare's Globe theatre, and I also remember a model of a Roman mile castle on Hadrian's wall, and some houses in the style of those in the Holy Land at the time of Christ.

When we girls grew out of our doll houses they were passed on to some other children, as our family has always done. Presumably they then passed to other children again, because eventually we lost track of them altogether. I'd like to think they're still treasured possessions of somebody somewhere. By the time my daughter, Eleanor, was old enough to enjoy a doll's house of her own, though, my dad's eyes were no longer as sharp nor his hands as steady as they once were, and he couldn't build her one, although I know he'd love to.

So instead he bought her a doll house, and a very fine one indeed. We went on a special trip to the shop and she was incredibly excited, peering into all the little houses and opening the doors, trying to choose which one she liked the best. Grandad also bought her all the little people and accessories she wanted. I am proud to say she was very restrained and chose an elegant sufficiency of furniture and dolls, even though she and I both knew grandad would have bought the entire shop had she asked for it.

I found my imagination gripped by all the tiny furniture and accessories. I could immediately see that it is possible to create unique items for your doll's house, and this could be a lot of fun as well as a way of saving money (you should see the prices they ask!) and of recycling. I vetoed an early attempt to buy bedclothes because I knew could make them very easily from fabric I already had, and as soon as we got home, I did. Back at home I also found a tiny plastic box which had housed a mobile phone SIM card, which I turned into a laptop computer with a couple of black and silver marker pens. The pens also came in handy when I made a set of kitchen pans and baking tins from the plastic bubble strips you press tablets out of. Fortunately, grandad is on an impressive range of prescription medication, which provided a wide selection of shapes and sizes of kitchen equipment!

I can't see doll houses becoming my consuming hobby, but it's fun to make a few things. And when I see Eleanor incorporate them into her games happily alongside the shop-bought items I know that I am passing on my family's values to another generation. Maybe one day she will make hand-made toys for her children, too.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

New Potatoes

Our organic veg box delivery each week is very exciting, but at this time of the year some repetition is inevitable. Spuds - check. Swede - check. Savoy cabbage - check. Leeks - check. etc.

This week I was thrilled to find new potatoes in the box! New potatoes! My mind went into overdrive thinking of all the different ways I could prepare them. Steamed and served with sea salt, butter and parsley, or in a salad with home-made mayonnaise and spring onions, or cut into circles and sauteed in olive oil then tossed in sesame seeds and seasoned before serving...

Of course I could have bought new potatoes any time I wanted during the last six months. They've been available in all the supermarkets and at the greengrocer in the village. I could have had strawberries for that matter, or asparagus, or pineapples, or breadfruit. But those things haven't been available locally during the winter (of course some of them never are) and so they haven't been in my veg box. It's more fun this way. Cooking creatively to keep the same winter vegetables each week exciting. The thrill when a new variety comes into season. Sure, I could have bought new potatoes from the supermarket. I could also eat nothing but chocolate for breakfast lunch and dinner. It's more enjoyable when it's kept for a treat, though.

If I've convinced you that organic veg boxes are a great way to put the fun back into fruit and vegetables, as well as helping to save the planet and support local producers, why not click on the picture to find your own local veg box scheme?

Friday, February 16, 2007

Hand Made Card

I was the 12,000th visitor (near enough) to Mrs Nesbitt's blog and she sent me this beautiful hand-made card as a prize. It made my day to recieve something so lovely and personal in the post.

Thanks, Mrs N. Here's to the next 12,000.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Beekeeping Books

The meeting of the local beekeepers association last night was very interesting. It's an active group with lots going on - regular talks, shows, competitions, courses etc. They're a friendly bunch. I was immediately taken under the wing of the first member I met, who signed me in as his guest, answered all my stupid questions and introduced me to other people. The next meeting is in March and I'm looking forward to it already.

These two books are recommended pre-course reading for the beekeeping course I'm going on in May. I ordered them and they arrived today, so I'll be getting stuck in.

I've also been reading "Honey Bee's Hive", one of the children's series "Minibeast Worlds". The whole series is very good, full of accurate information presented in an interesting way and with amazing close-up photography.

I thought this book was fantastic because it was about bees and I liked the queen bee. She's the one who lays all the eggs. The beekeeper paints a dot on her. I liked all the pictures and I liked the waggle dance. There's a picture of a lady in beekeeping clothes and she looks like mum.

(Sam, aged 5)

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Romance Is Not Dead

I like Valentine's Day. If I read about an ancient culture who had a special day each year celebrating romantic love, I'd think they sounded like a culture with good values. Of course it's too commercialised, everything is, but you can easily opt out of all that without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Ed gave me a 30 gallon waterbutt, 2 blackcurrant bushes and a promise to dig the potato patch for Valentine's Day (I wonder if he remembered to claim his 10% discount at the garden centre for being an allotment-holder?) He knows that if he gave me 3' high teddy bear and a satin-covered card from Clinton's I'd laugh at him. When he gives me a gift he gives me something I want, and he knows me well enough to know what I want (also I'm not shy about dropping hints)

Later on I'll cook him his favourite meal and try to time it so it's on the table when he gets home from work. We usually eat all together as a family, but sometimes we wait until the children are in bed to have a romantic meal with just the two of us. But tonight is the local beekeeping association AGM so I have to go out. That they would hold their AGM on 14th February tells you everything you need to know about the love lives of beekeepers.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Review: Home Preservation of Fruit and Vegetables

I cannot for the life of me think why Her Majesty's Stationery Office would bother to produce (with the aid of the Women's Institute) a book about jam making. It's one of those quirky little things that makes me glad to be British. But they did - in several editions from the 1930s onwards, and an excellent book it is too.

Mine is the 1989 edition which covers jams, jellies, marmalades, fruit cheeses and butters, mincemeat, bottling, canning and pickling amongst other methods of preservation. The many recipes are excellent, but the outstanding thing about this book is the detailed instructions. Everything is explained - the different ways food can spoil and how preservation techniques foil this, which technique works best with different varieties of fruits and vegetables, how to choose the best produce for preserving rather than eating fresh, exact storage conditions, how to present preserves for competitions, and so on.
Don't expect sumptuous photographs a la Nigella or other modern gastro-porn. Home Preservation of Fruit and Vegetables contains only a very few black and white pencil sketches, demonstrating how to use an upturned kitchen stool as an improvised jelly strainer, for example. This is a practical how-to which has already stood the test of time. Although it is now sadly out of print you can often find used copies on eBay or Amazon marketplace, or if you're lucky in charity shops or second-hand bookshops.
I have other books which include instructions and recipes for jam making - Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's books, for example or Food From Your Garden - but this is the only book I have specifically about preserving, and it is the only one I need.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Manor Gardens Allotments Safe (For Now)

Here at bean-sprouts we have been following closely the story about Manor Gardens Allotments in London. The 100-year-old allotments are due to be bulldozed in just a few weeks to create a footpath serving the Olympic site, which will be used for just 4 weeks.

There is good news today - planning permission has been rejected. However the development agency is expected to appeal against the decision, so the allotments are not out of the woods yet.

If you haven't yet done so, please sign the petition to save Manor Gardens Allotments. And keep watching this space.

Via Hugg

Sunday, February 11, 2007

More Ways With Cabbage

I wasn't kidding when I said that smallholders, allotment gardeners and die-hard local food devotees can end up eating a lot of cabbage through a British winter. You may have thought I presented loads of cabbage recipes last time, but I'd still be eating each of them a couple of times a week for several months of the year unless I had some other cabbage ideas up my sleeve. Thanks to everyone for providing your own favourite cabbage recipes, too.

The trouble with cabbage is it's tricky to disguise. You can hide away some swede or parsnip or leek in a soup or casserole, a curry or chili or vegetable pasta sauce or all kinds of things. But as soon as you put cabbage into any of those dishes to my mind it sticks out like a sore thumb.

Bubble and Squeak (or Ca'ad Waarmed Up as it's known in the North East) is a good way of successfully mixing cabbage with other ingredients. It's traditionally made with leftover vegetables but you could cook some veggies specifically for the purpose. Mash up your leftover veggies (which ideally include potatoes and cabbage and other things - if there are any leftover bits of sausage or roast lamb or gravy etc. included, so much the better) and season generously. Heat some butter in a large heavy frying pan and add the veggies. Press them down with the back of a wooden spoon and fry until you sense they are beginning to brown. Stir it all up, mixing the brown bits back in with the cool bits on top, press down again and repeat. Keep doing this until it is hot all through and your mouth is beginning to water from the delicious smell. Let the bottom get good and brown, then carefully invert the pan over a warmed plate. With luck it will come out as one lovely golden cake, but more often it will break up and require scraping out of the pan. Either way it is uncommonly delicious.

Another use for cabbage is to make parcels with the whole leaves, as Steph suggested, a bit like dolmades but less exotic. The trick is to remove the inflexible central ribs, use only the largest green leaves, not the titchy ones from the heart, and place the parcel on the oven tray with the opening underneath to stop it unfolding again. I like to use fairly firm fillings bound with beaten egg. For example a tasty risotto could be mixed with beaten egg, stuffed into parboiled cabbage leaves and then baked in the oven with some cooking liquid in the bottom of the dish to stop it burning. Flavoured mince can also be used this way. My dad used to make a fabulous dish with mince and onions, mushrooms and largeish pieces of black pudding all mixed together in gravy. That would be good stuffed into cabbage leaves. It's even better just served with plenty of mashed potato and no cabbage at all, but we're trying to think of ways to make cabbage exciting here.

If you don't want to stuff your mince and onions into cabbage leaves, you could serve it with colcannon, as Linz suggested - mashed potatoes mixed with cooked cabbage, onions or leeks, shedloads of salt and pepper and something rich and tasty such as butter or dripping or cheese or whatever you've got. Olive oil definitely doesn't count. (I've still got a little duck fat in the fridge. Hmmm, that gives me an idea).

Coleslaw is nice, especially at this time of year when other salad ingredients are not in season locally. With home-grown cabbage and carrots and home-made mayonnaise from our own eggs, it's a real treat (I'd like to produce our own olive oil, but I'm afraid we're going to be dependent on Mr Bertolli for the foreseeable future). It really is essential to cut the cabbage into fine, short pieces otherwise your appealing winter salad becomes just a tedious exercise in chewing. The Vietnamese coleslaw recipe Tracy suggested sounds like a really different approach to coleslaw and I've bookmarked it to try sometime.

I couldn't find Lesley's cabbage curry called Hai Li Lim. Could you provide the recipe, Lesley? John's suggestion to flavour cabbage with crushed juniper berries sounds good. I often throw flavourings into the cooking water with my vegetables - with boiled or steamed cabbage I like star anise or fennel seeds, and with stir-fried cabbage black pepper or toasted cumin seeds are very good. Andy emailed me to say he tried my recipe for baked cabbage with nuts and cheese, but with his own additions of sliced onions and chopped palm hearts. That sounds delicious - I'm sure you could add all kinds of things, such as chicory or fennel perhaps, or really go to town with lots of different veg and turn it into a cheesey peanut and mixed vegetable bake. Stonehead's brose is very different to anything I've ever seen before, but I can't see how I can adapt it for my mostly vegetarian family. With the bacon it sounds very tasty, but leave the bacon out and all you're left with is cabbage porridge, which I can tell you now will never go over with my lot (or perhaps anybody at all). I'll keep that one on the back burner for now.

But to my mind the best thing to do with cabbage is cook it with so many rich and fattening ingredients it becomes a delicious treat rather than an obligation. Simmer shredded cabbage in water then strain into an ovenproof dish. Add double cream, salt and pepper, and something pigg-y - bacon, prosciutto, Parma ham or cubes of chorizo sausage, anything like that. Then bake in a low oven for however long you've got. Nobody will say "Oh, not cabbage again!"

Don't forget to keep the cabbage water. My granny used to swear if you washed your face with cabbage water it would make you more beautiful.

Red cabbage gives you a whole different set of possibilities. You still need to remove the tough central ribs and shred it finely just like white or green cabbage. But then you can put it in a sealable ovenproof dish with either:
  • a shredded red onion, the juice and rind of an orange, some butter, salt and pepper. Cook in a low oven for a long time, then stir in a tablespoon of marmalade before serving, or
  • a shredded red onion, a chopped red apple and some apple juice, butter, salt and pepper. Cook in a low oven for a long time, and stir in a tablespoon of redcurrant jelly before serving

If you've got any cloves, star anise or sticks of cinnamon, do bung them in as well. Don't wash your face in the cooking water from red cabbages, though.

You can make an unusual red coleslaw with red onions and purple carrots if you can get them. It's a bit gimmicky but it tastes good. And of course if you can't think of anything else to do with red cabbage you can always pickle the stuff.

I can't honestly say I look forward to the first winter cabbage with anything like the same eagerness as the asparagus season or the first new potatoes, but I've found lots of ways of cooking them that are really enjoyable.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

What's So Bad About Disposables?

My sister, Stephanie, asked "What's so bad about disposables anyway?" Great question.

  1. Disposables cost more over time than reusing the same thing again and again. How much do you spend each week on nappies, sanitary products, kitchen towels, cleaning wipes, baby wipes etc
  2. Disposables add more to landfill than reusing things. Disposable nappies, for example, make up 4% of the UK's household rubbish, and 50% of all the rubbish in a one-baby family
  3. Disposables require more resources to make, simply because we use more. For example, a typical woman uses 10-15,000 sanitary towels , tampons and applicators in her lifetime, but they could all be replaced by a few dozen washable pads
  4. Some disposable products contain non-biodegradable substances (such as plastic) which aren't in their reusable alternative. For example the plastic layer in sanitary towels and pantyliners, or the absorbent gel in disposable nappies
  5. Reusable products are a great opportunity for recycling. Old clothes can become dusters, old bedding can become hankies, face flannels that are too threadbare or stained for use can become cleaning cloths and so on
  6. Disposables create more packaging waste - imagine the plastic wrapping you throw away each week from your kitchen roll, nappies, sanitary products, baby wipes etc. Especially things like baby wipes and cleaning wipes that come in plastic dispensing boxes
  7. Disposable products such as tissues, nappies, sanitary products etc. are bleached using a process which releases dioxins, one of the most toxic substances known
These are the major reasons, but I can think of many other benefits of using reusable products:
  • Fewer toilet blockages. Say no more
  • Kitchen towels are advertised as being "strong", well they're not nearly as strong as a woven cloth
  • Baby wipes and cleaning wipes contain cleaning chemicals which you have no control over. You can use a washable cloth with plain water or any other cleaning liquid you choose
  • No need to dash out to the shops when you realise you have run out of nappies or sanitary products (although you do need instead a laundry schedule that ensures you don't run out of clean ones)

Friday, February 09, 2007

Chilly Chickens

The chickens are coping very well with the snow and ice. I check that their water is ice-free a few times a day, and I've added some extra dry bedding to the henhouse to help them stay cosy. You can tell they're healthy and happy. They moulted in the late autumn but now they're in full plumage again and looking very handsome. They're also back to laying a daily egg each, after the midwinter lay-off. We got out of the habit of eating them so we're now awash with eggs. The situation is made worse because I bought half a dozen duck eggs at the farm shop as a treat for my dad, who is staying with us for a few weeks. And he brought us a gift of (you've guessed it) a dozen duck eggs.

Never mind. I'll just plan plenty of eggy meals for the next week or two. Quiche, eggy bread, pancakes, hammy-eggy-cheesey-topside, clafoutis, it'll be a trial (sigh!) but we'll use them all up somehow.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Washable Menstrual Pads

As I promised when I issued the "Ditch The Disposables" challenge, I ordered some washable menstrual pads from the PlushPants website. It used to be owned by a friend of mine, but now is run by a very nice lady from Oxfordshire.

PlushPants' main business is selling reusable nappies, of which it has an impressive array. Things have really moved on from terry squares and huge punk safety pins. If you use nappies you might want to have a look.

But they also sell washable menstrual pads, which I was delighted to find come in a range of funky colours and patterns including leopard-print, tartan (no Black Watch, sadly), and coy little moons (geddit?). Just like the disposable type they come in a choice of sizes and absorbency, but in case you're feeling a bit bewildered there is a handy guide to help you figure out what you need. I also got a nifty little bag to store them in inside your handbag.

When it all got added up they weren't cheap, but they still come to less than I typically spend on sanitary products in a year. These should last a lot longer than that so they'll be a financial saving eventually. But they'll be saving the earth's resources from the get go.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Home-made soup

I have home-made soup for lunch almost every day. A different soup everyday.
"Ah," I hear you say, "That's because you're super woman. You are somehow endowed with more hours in the day, or more talents, or it's because you don't work full time like I do, or some other reason". No, it's because I cheat.

Home-Made Vegetable Soup

I hate recipes that start "Begin the day before you want to cook the soup", but in this case it's a blessing, not a pain. In the evening, save the leftover cooked vegetables your children won't eat. Instead of scraping them into the rubbish bin or compost bucket (or pig swill bucket if you live in a more enlightened country than Britain), scrape them into a container to be stored in the fridge. If you don't have children, or if you have strange mutant children who actually eat all their vegetables, you will have to make extra vegetables on purpose. Whilst you're at it, save the water you cooked the veg in.

The next day put the vegetables in a pan (or you could do this in the microwave) with milk and stock made with the veg cooking water, to just cover the vegetables. Heat up, then whizz it all to a puree with a hand blender. Add more milk or stock if it is too thick, add seasoning and a dollop of cream, yogurt or creme fraiche if you have it.

I've had some wonderful soup this way. I think my favourite was cauliflower cheese and mashed sweet potato soup. You wouldn't make cauliflower cheese and mashed sweet potatoes just to turn them into soup, but they were a delicious accompaniment to our evening meal, and then a delicious soup for lunch the next day. Roasted red peppers and sweetcorn also worked really well. But even pretty humble veg make wonderful soup. Yesterday I had cabbage, leek and runner bean soup and it beat the hell out of anything that comes in a tin.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Energy-efficient cooking

I wrote a while ago about our Braun food processor, and dad mentioned how it helped him and mum economise when they were students by making mince out of cheap cuts of meat. That got me thinking about the ways Ed and I economised when we were students. A big part of it was being energy efficient whilst cooking, so I made a list of things we did:
  • Put lids on pans. Food cooks quicker and often you can turn the ring down
  • Use the smallest ring possible, and turn the heat as low as possible. Gas flickering up around the sides of your pan is wasteful (and liable to set your handles on fire)
  • Put steamers on top of pans so your veggies and rice are all cooking on just one ring
  • Turn off the heat under the pan a few minutes before end of cooking time. For example we learned how to cook rice using 2/3 of the electricity by boiling it (in twice its own volume of water) with a lid on for 10 minutes, then turning off the ring and just leave it sitting for a further 10 minutes. It cooks perfectly
  • You can also often turn the oven off before the end of the cooking time and leave the door closed. This can be disastrous with sponge cakes or souffles, though, which may collapse
  • Mum bought us a pressure cooker, which meant we could cook dried beans (a staple for us then and now) in a fraction of the time
  • One student flat we rented had a split oven. We found we hardly ever needed to use the larger oven, most things could be done in the small oven, saving energy. When we replaced our own cooker recently I made sure to get one with a split oven
  • We also tried to cook more than one thing in the oven, for example whilst our roast stuffed butternut squash was cooking for dinner, a pie or sponge pudding was also baking for dessert
  • Microwave ovens use less energy than conventional cooking but the end result isn't always exactly the same. We learned a few tricks such as pre-cooking things in the microwave then finishing them off in the oven. Baked potatoes for example are just as delicious if you microwave them until they are 3/4 done, then stick them in a maximum heat oven for the last 15-20 minutes to crisp up the skin
  • One-pot meals obviously save energy. We liked casseroles with beans and vegetables and dumplings, and we also ate a lot of pasta dishes cooked this way
  • I've read that slow cookers are very efficient, but they seem more suited to meat-based meals than the vegetarian food our family usually eats, so I don't have one
I still do some of those things, but now we're not so hard-up I have got out of the habit of doing them all the time. I'll try to use our steamer and pressure cookers more often, and also make sure the oven is full whenever possible.

Monday, February 05, 2007

The Spice of Life

At the supermarket you don't get much choice of fruit and vegetables. Oh, I know you can buy lots of different fruits - pineapples, oranges, apples, pears, bananas, guavas, passionfruits etc. Vegetables too. But you don't get much choice of varieties of each different type. You might get a choice between Granny Smith, Gala and Golden Delicious [yuk!] apples, and you'll probably get a few choices of spuds as well. But you don't get to choose your own variety of tomatoes, say, or celery, or swede.

It came as a surprise to me that every kind of fruit and vegetable comes in a huge range of varieties to the gardener. The humblest of vegetables - turnips, say - requires you to choose from dozens of cultivars, each with their own qualities of taste, texture, time of ripening, resistance to pests and diseases, preferred soil and climate etc. You get no clue of this shopping at Sainsbury's.

That's because the supermarkets pick their varieties based on qualities that might surprise you. They want produce that is tough enough to survive packing, chilling, transportation and storage, and still look cosmetically blemish-free at the end of a few weeks. Did you ever see tomatoes in the supermarket labelled "grown for flavour" and think "Aren't they all"? The answer is "No". The properties prized by supermarkets are of no interest to the gardener at all, for whom flavour is likely to be paramount, although suitability to our own local conditions is also of interest (and few of us can resist the promise of a "heavy cropper").

If you suspect that those who claim home-grown food tastes better are kidding you, or themselves - you're wrong. It really does taste better, not because it is grown organically (although that's true), not because it's fresher or has travelled fewer food miles (although that's true too), not because knowing you grew it yourself adds self-satisfaction to the culinary experience (although that's certainly true) but because even before the seed was in the ground, it was chosen for its taste.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Chitting Potatoes

I bought some Desiree, Pink Fir Apple, Kestrel and Red Duke of York seed potatoes. They're currently chitting (that means being exposed to the light so they start to sprout) in some apple trays I scavenged from the greengrocer. I'll plant them in the spring.

I'm also chitting some random potatoes of mixed and unknown varieties which I excavated from the bottom of the spud bag because they were starting to sprout already. They might as well go in the ground, but there's no knowing what they'll do. That's all part of the fun.

By the way, my choir, St George's Singers, are singing the Daily Service live on Radio 4 on Monday. If you tune in to Radio 4 (198 LW) at 9:45 am you'll hear me (and a few dozen other people) singing two hymns and a spiritual. Don't worry if you miss it because you can listen again on the Radio 4 website afterwards. I'll post the link once it's up.

Update: You can listen at

Updated Update: The previous link no longer points to the St George's Singers' daily service, but whoever sang the service last Monday. However we have been invited back sometime so you'll have a chance hear us again. Watch this space.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Roast Pheasant

I plucked, gutted and roast the two pheasants I bought the other day. Dad and I enjoyed them, but to be honest they were pretty tough and not all that much tastier than a really good corn-fed organic chicken. The flavour was different from chicken, but not as different as I was expecting. Maybe I overcooked them, or maybe that's just what pheasant is like.

The gravy was fabulous though (made from the thickened meat juices with a slosh of Weston's organic cider), and the vegetables we roasted along with the birds were delicious. I had a lot of fun preparing the birds, and seeing them turn from feathery creatures with heads and wings, into roast meat on a plate entirely through my own doing. I've never done that before and it was very interesting.

And now for something completely different: I've been asked by Friends of the Earth to include the following announcement, and I'm happy to do so.
Friends of the Earth would like to hear from you. They've recently launched a new online bookshop and would like feedback from the green community. All you need to do is answer 10 short questions for your chance to win over £150 worth of environmental books. Click here
I wasn't offered any inducement to include that (more's the pity). You need to browse the bookshop before you answer the questions, which are about how easy the site is to use and things like that. Good luck, and if you win the £150 of books, please send me one.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Ditch the Disposables

February's challenge is to Ditch the Disposables. Since my sister Stephanie sent me some real cloth hankies I've been thinking about how many disposable products there are:

  • Disposable hankies instead of cloth hankies
  • Disposable kitchen towels instead of washable cloths
  • Disposable nappies instead of terry nappies
  • Disposable baby wipes instead of wet cloths
  • Bath sponges that go really nasty after a while and need to be replaced instead of flannels that can be reused indefinitely
  • Dishwashing sponges and sponge cloths that have a short life compared to washable dishrags
  • Disposable tampons and sanitary towels instead of washable pads
  • Disposable kitchen wipes (and bathroom wipes and furniture wipes etc) instead of reusable cloths
  • Disposable dusters instead of reusable cloth dusters

You can probably think of more. The interesting thing about many of these is that they're great opportunities for recycling - I use old tea towels as washable cleaning cloths and old tshirts as dusters. You can potentially save a lot of money as well as conserving the planet's resources if you ditch the disposables.

I'm challenging readers to give up one disposable product and try the reusable version instead. I'm going to switch our bath sponges for flannels. I'm also going to investigate washable menstrual pads, and perhaps even make some myself. Let me know how you get on with this challenge, and also let me know the most ridiculous disposable product you can find. I've already found webites selling disposable underwear, a disposable dress, and a disposable wedding dress. Can you beat that?

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Clean and Green Challenge Poll Results

The results of the "Clean and Green" January challenge poll were as follows:

Will you accept the challenge to try a green cleaning product or make your own?

  • I've gone green! I have tried a green cleaning product! 15.63% (5 votes)
  • I've gone green! I made my own cleaning product! 18.75% (6 votes)
  • I was already green! I only use green or home-made cleaning products! 50% (16 votes)
  • I don't accept your argument! I have shares in Cillit Bang! 3.13% (1 vote)
  • I'm greener than thou! My house is a finely-balanced ecosystem, I don't clean it! 12.5% (4 votes)

It was an interesting challenge and as usual I learned a lot from doing it. For example:

  • Eco laundry balls don't seem to work any better than plain water (for my laundry - the results might be different if you have more stains or dirt than I typically do)
  • Neither does laundry detergent
  • Dryer balls can significantly cut the electricity needed to dry your clothes (but line drying cuts it to zero)
  • They don't seem to make your clothes any softer though
  • Cola doesn't clean your toilet pan, but white vinegar does

There will be a new February challenge coming soon.