Hail king cauliflower!

Cauliflower is one of those vegetables that seem to be back in vogue all of a sudden due, in part, to some bad publicity. It recently hit the headlines when a supermarket received criticism for selling ‘cauliflower steaks’ (thick slices to you and me!) for more than the cost of buying a whole cauliflower! A case of ‘clever’ marketing – and the need for the consumer to shop sensibly, if ever there was one.

In these days of trying to eat more healthily and to consume less meat, the cauliflower has got quite a lot to offer. In my youth, I was not a fan. It was usually served soggy and grey having been overcooked or slathered in a tasteless cheese sauce. It’s only recently that the dear old cauli has been recognised as having a lot more potential.

I think its texture has much to do with its resurgence – it is substantial and can stand up to pickling, pan frying, roasting and even barbecuing. You can marinade it whole and roast it for a rather impressive looking vegetarian meal, or go completely the other way and break up the florets into a food processor and pulse until the mixture resembles couscous to create cauliflower ‘rice’. This is a really clever option as it creates a low calorie, healthy, low-carb meal or side dish and has only about a quarter of the carbohydrates of traditional rice.

While cauliflower has a distinctive taste, it also takes up other flavours well. I particularly like it in a curry as the florets stay firm and it tastes great with curry spices. The idea of steaks is a clever one – cutting big slabs of cauliflower and then cooking them in oil and herbs creates a lovely main course. Cauliflower cheese, when made properly – pre-cooked cauli mixed into a rich cheese sauce and then sprinkled with extra cheese and browned under the grill – is a super comfort food.

Cauliflowers are available pretty much all year round, which makes it extra useful when so many other veg have given up for the winter. Predictably, supermarkets demand their cauliflowers white and pristine but look out for cheaper creamier coloured ones from a greengrocer or farmers’ market. As long as they are clean and firm, they are perfectly fine. Of course, cauliflowers don’t only come in white… there are purple and orange varieties and the stunning looking Romanesco with its lime green pointy florets that look like some clever architectural design. It’s not strictly a cauliflower but is closely related.

Sadly, growing them yourself is not that easy and you need to be a pretty dedicated veg grower to succeed. They need plenty of space, a rich soil and then a cage or netting to try and keep cabbage white butterflies and greedy pigeons away! It’s one of those veg, like sweet corn and asparagus, that I find it easier to just buy when I fancy them. But if you want to have a go at growing them, you’ve still got a few weeks to get them planted. You’ll find lots of advice on how to grow them online, as ever the RHS website has it covered.

 

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“Rhubarb rhubarb!”

I do enjoy Gardener’s World – an hour of delightful diversion, relaxing and thoroughly good for you. Whenever Monty Don so much as mentions a plant that I have in my garden I instantly feel as if this makes me a Proper Gardener. So, imagine my excitement last Friday when he was talking about picking your first rhubarb of the year and went on to say how a breakfast of stewed rhubarb and yoghurt was one of the most delicious breakfasts you could eat… that was just what I had tucked into myself earlier in the day! The combination is so yummy (a top culinary term!) the creamy yoghurt and tart rhubarb – and what’s more, it makes you feel virtuous as a healthy breakfast choice.

I think rhubarb is a bit like beetroot or avocado, a very distinct taste and you either love it or hate it. I love it, and it is so easy to grow! Our rhubarb is only about three years old (you shouldn’t harvest from it in the first year), but it is huge! Wrestling the stalks off the plant can be quite hard work (you have to carefully pull and not cut) and the enormous leaves need to be cut off and put straight in the compost bin, as they are poisonous. Unfortunately, people have been poisoned after eating the leaves. This was a particular problem during the First World War when the leaves were mistakenly recommended as a food source!

Rhubarb is such an easy thing to grow and you get so much back from it and I, for one, like its rather exuberant appearance. Botanically, rhubarb is a vegetable but it is treated as a fruit, despite its tart flavour, you really can’t eat it raw and must add sugar. It goes well with ginger and strawberries… as well as custard and cream! And let’s be honest – is there anything more wonderful than a rhubarb crumble? Do you like rhubarb? If so, what do you make with it? Do share!

Rhubarb grows in two crops, the first arrives early in the year and is ‘forced’, or grown under pots, or those lovely tall terracotta forcers made especially for the job. The ‘rhubarb triangle’ around Leeds, Wakefield and Bradford is renowned for its production of delicate forced rhubarb, grown by candlelight inside sheds… I saw a TV programme on it once – fascinating!  You can read more about it here.

Forced rhubarb is a lovely pale pink, with lime green leaves, and it is the more tender and delicately flavoured of the two crops. The second, called main crop rhubarb, arrives in the spring and is grown outdoors and is what most of us have sprouting in our gardens. Its stalks are a deeper red, tinged with green, and its leaves a brighter green. It has a more intense flavour and a more robust texture than the forced crop.

Rhubarb is a fruit (or vegetable!) that has many health claims attributed to it. As ever, I think we have to take some of these with a pinch of salt – or spoonful of sugar in this case! Rhubarb is packed with minerals, vitamins, organic compounds, and other nutrients that make it a good healthy option. Some of these components include dietary fibre, protein, vitamin C, vitamin K, B complex vitamins, calcium, potassium, manganese, and magnesium. Every serving of rhubarb provides 45% of the daily value in vitamin K, which supports healthy bone growth and can limit neuronal damage in the brain.

And if you’ve ever wondered why we use the term ‘Rhubarb rhubarb’… it goes back to 1852, when the theatre company of English actor Charles at the Princess’s Theatre, London would say the word rhubarb repetitively to mimic the sound of indistinct conversation in any crowd scenes, the word having been chosen because it does not have harsh-sounding consonants or clear vowels. So there you have it!

 

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Milking it…

Lovely local milk in glass bottles in the village shop!

Sometimes, you just have to give a wry smile and resist saying anything… this was my reaction when I overheard some earnest 20-somethings discussing the environmental benefits of buying milk in a glass bottle from our local shop and what a brilliant development this was. It IS an excellent development and the aim of reducing plastic use is long overdue… but it’s hardly new!

As a child, I used to listen out for the hum of the milk float – a battery-driven vehicle (gosh, how very ‘green’!) and the clink of our pints of milk being delivered to the porch. There was always the rush to get to the bottles before the blue tits had pecked through the lids and got at the cream on the top! Amazingly… we even used to recycle back in the dark ages of the 1950s too! Every housewife would wash out her ‘empties’ and put them back on the step for them to be replaced with new bottles of fresh milk the next day.

We collected the silver foil caps and recycled them (care of Blue Peter appeals) and the trusty milkman provided an excellent neighbourhood watch facility, spotting when anything was amiss if a householder didn’t take in their milk. He also sold eggs, bread and tinned goods, amongst other things, and must have been an absolute lifeline for elderly customers. Fancy that – home grocery deliveries! Now, where have I seen that recently?

It is lovely to see milk in bottles back in my local shop although the realisation that the bottles were one litre rather than one pint took me a moment – I couldn’t understand why they seemed so large! The milk is from a local dairy so there’s no problem with ‘food miles’ and the cows that produced the milk would have been grazing in fields quite nearby. Who knows where the milk in our supermarkets comes from? And it seems sometimes we can’t even believe the cheery information on the label as some supermarket ‘farms’ are completely fictitious.

It sometimes seems to me that we rush headlong into new ideas and don’t think about the possible side effects, as with the dominance of the supermarkets and the loss of milk rounds and many of our high street shops. But most developments are, of course, huge improvements and we must be open to change. However, I for one will be very pleased if the milkman and his humming milk float make a return to our streets, perhaps other much-missed aspects of earlier decades will come back too…

 

 

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Grace goes gardening!

We have a sad little 4-year old here that has been so poorly with scarlet fever, but I am happy to say she is recovering well. I rather thought scarlet fever had disappeared and was an illness from my childhood era, but it seems not and several of her friends at the nursery have had it as well.

So despite being definitely on the mend, she is still fragile and not up for the usual high jinks with Grandpa down by the swing or any rough and tumble. So one of the things Richard organised with her was some gardening and the early planting of vegetable seeds ready for summer.

It only took a few demonstrations for her to catch on how to plant them and as she explained to me later, it was a bit like putting the seeds to bed! So we now have runner beans (Scarlet Emperor and Guinness Record), radishes and cos lettuce. Several varieties of tomato, including one that promises faithfully to be blight resistant – the jury is still out on that one – and Grace’s favourite… Nasturtiums using last year’s seeds from the plants which she had kept in an envelope over the winter.

I love the fact that she understands where vegetables come from, as she and I stood in the conservatory and watched Grandpa plant out the first early potatoes, she chattered away about how she hoped the rabbits wouldn’t steal our crops this year – too many episodes of Peter Rabbit and Mr McGregor on the TV there I think!

It is such a privilege to be able to spend time with a little mind, we heard today which primary school she has been allocated (her parents first choice – yay!) and I just have to wonder where the past few years have gone – but a lovely time to share with my family.

 

 

 

 

 

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Egged on!

Whenever I am thinking about writing a blog, certain topics leap into my mind because they interest me (new craft ideas, gardens, cakes etc.) while others occur just because I’ve written about them before and found them so interesting I have to revisit them! Tea is one such topic, as are chickens and eggs.

Whenever I write about chickens or eggs, the blogs are always popular. Sadly, since she moved house, my partner in crime writing Julia no longer keeps hens, but I do love eggs and manage to buy lovely free range eggs locally. We eat more than 12 billion eggs a year in this country (amazing!), but when you look at how versatile eggs are, I suppose it’s not that surprising.

An egg is just such a wonderful thing – nature at her most clever it seems to me. The design of an egg is so perfect – their asymmetric tapered oval shape means that if you nudge them, they’ll come back to you. They’ll sweep out in a circle around the pointed end, and come to a stop with the pointed end facing uphill – pretty essential if you nest on a cliff edge! In fact, the eggs of birds that have their nests in precarious places are more oval than the eggs of birds that nest on the ground.

Another reason for eggs to be egg-shaped is that they fit together snugly in the nest, with only small air spaces between them so they help keep each other warm. And let’s not forget another reason that eggs are tapered – so that they can get pushed out of the hen more easily – ouch!

An egg contains every vitamin, except C, as well as calcium, magnesium, zinc and selenium, plus lots of other micronutrients. As you may know, all of the fat is in the yolk, but so is most of the goodness. Some terribly serious diet gurus want us to feast(!) on whipped egg white omelettes and, while I’m sure that’s terribly healthy… it’s also rather dull to my mind.

Eggs are so versatile, just think of all the things you can make with them… cakes (now why did that come into my mind first?!), omelettes, meringues and mayonnaise. They can be boiled and used in sandwiches, on picnics and for soldiers at breakfast. Great for glazing baked items and for thickening and lovely when scrambled and served with smoked salmon as a treat! And then, of course, the shells themselves – lovely to decorate, perfect for growing seedlings in and the best packaging ever for a ‘ready meal’!

However, the poor old egg has been through some crises in this country. There was the big salmonella scare in the late 1980s when everyone seemed terrified of eating them. Then we were told their cholesterol content is bad for your heart – it’s not. The egg is also often stated as a cause of constipation but that again, isn’t true, it’s just that they have absolutely no dietary fibre, so you shouldn’t fill up on eggs instead of high-fibre foods. How different from my childhood when I can remember those funny TV adverts with comedians Tony Hancock and Patricia Hayes telling us to ‘Go to work on an egg’ as they were supposed to be so good for you!

 

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