The amazing avocado!

Well, where do you start with something as amazing as the avocado? They look exotic, have a totally unique taste and texture and are incredibly good for you too! Yes, I know they are high in calories but, if you are sensible and don’t gorge on them, they are packed full of good things that far outweigh their ‘bad’ reputation.

Glance at the fruit bowl on my kitchen table any day of the year and you’ll see avocados in among the apples and bananas as I absolutely adore them. I use them in vegetable smoothies, slice them in a salad and, if you follow some of my beauty blogs, will know I sometimes even slap them on my face as they make a terrific moisturising mask!

It’s one of those foodstuffs – rather like the butternut squash – that I can’t imagine how we ever managed without it. Avocados first arrived in the UK in the 1960s and I can well remember them being regarded as highly exotic, rather decadent and ever so slightly odd! How could it be a pear and yet not be sweet?

Avocados have a much higher fat content than most other fruit, and it’s mostly monounsaturated fat… which means it’s fatty but in a really good way! This makes them  really popular with vegetarians who can sometimes struggle to get enough good fats in their diet.

Generally, avocado is served raw but you can cook with it. I used to serve a dinner party dish where the flesh had been scooped out and mixed with prawns and cheese and then put back in the avocado shell and grilled but, to be quite honest, it’s a rather rich dish and, as avocado so lovely on its own, why bother?

And, of course, they are terribly good for you too. Not wishing to bore you with too many statistics, but here are a few of the more impressive ones:

  • About 75% of an avocado’s energy comes from fat, most of which is monounsaturated fat
  • On a weight basis, avocados have 35% more potassium than bananas.
  • They are rich in folic acid and vitamin K, and are good dietary sources of vitamin B6, vitamin C and vitamin E
  • Avocados have a high fibre content of 75% insoluble and 25% soluble fibre.
  • High avocado intake has been shown to lower blood cholesterol levels.
  • Extracts of avocado have been studied to assess potential for lowering risk of diabetes
  • The avocado is also being researched for potential anti-cancer activity
  • The ability of avocado to help prevent unwanted inflammation is widely accepted and many arthritis sufferers swear by it.

And if that weren’t enough… it’s also great fun to grown an avocado plant from the stone, or pit. It won’t fruit but it does grow into an attractive houseplant!

What more could you possibly want from one fruit? If you want to find out more, there’s lots of information online… but do be wary of crank sites!

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Blooming good ideas – floral top tips from the trade!

Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time working with flowers. As some of you may know, in a ‘previous’ life I worked exclusively with pressed and dried flowers. I’ve also trained with Constance Spry (many years ago!) so I’ve picked up all sorts of tricks of the trade for fresh flowers, so I thought I’d share a few of them with you…

  • Florists use the juvenile foliage of eucalyptus which is more rounded and attractive than that found on mature plants. Grow your eucalyptus as a coppiced plant, pruning hard each year to encourage a constant supply of immature stems for cutting.
  • Although they may come into flower at the same time, never be tempted to mix tulips in a vase with daffodils. Narcissus species exude a substance that prevents your tulips (and other cut flowers) from taking up water.
  • It’s important to cut sweet peas regularly to encourage more blooms. Cut the flowers just as the lowest bloom is opening and put them in water immediately for a longer vase life. 
  • To avoid problematic pollen stains on clothes and furniture, try gently removing the stamens from lilies as they open. When cutting lily stems from the garden it’s important to leave a third of the stem intact in order to feed the bulb for the following year.
  • When growing gladiolus specifically for cutting, plant them in rows in the vegetable patch. This makes them much easier to harvest. 
  • When growing roses as cut flowers, be ruthless and remove any poorly placed flower buds that are unlikely to make good cut flowers to direct energy into the best blooms.
  • Avoid standing carnation arrangements in direct light as they will quickly fade.
  • Sunflowers are best cut with sharp secateurs early in the morning or late in the evening while temperatures are cool.
  • Gladiolus flowers will generally all reach maturity at about the same time, but if you want to prolong the cutting season then try to stagger planting at two-week intervals so that they mature at different times.
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How to keep your house full of flowers!

Stocks – pretty, long lasting and with a glorious scent!Home made or home grown is so much nicer in so many ways, and growing your own flowers is a really rewarding thing to do. I always feel shop-bought flowers are a bit of an indulgence and tend to think of them just for special occasions, but I love having flowers in the house… so what to do? Grow your own flowers specifically for cutting!

A dedicated spot
You could dot your cut-flower plants throughout your garden so they form part of an overall planting scheme but, if you have the space, it’s best to having a dedicated patch, however small. It is much easier to organise than to slot your cut-flower plants in among existing shrubs and perennials, and many annuals need some support, which is easier in a special patch.

Pretty much all cut flowers need a good amount of sunshine, so there’s no point in planning your patch in a shady spot. Shelter is also important as strong, gusty winds can do a lot of damage and they also dry everything out.

CosmosSmall is beautiful too!
Don’t be put off if you have limited space. You can still grown wonderful flowers for cutting in a few pots. Sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus) climbing on a wigwam are a perfect example – beautiful blooms with stunning scent! Cut them regularly and they’ll keep going for ages.

Let’s get shopping…
Here’s a suggested shopping list that would be ideal for a flowerbed about 8ft (2.5m) x 4ft (1.25m). These flowers are easy to germinate from seedand you can buy some as plug plants from garden centres or by mail order. This mix of plants will give you, from late spring to mid-autumn, enough flowers to make posies and fill small vases. Doesn’t that sound wonderful? 

I have suggested the number of plants you would ideally have, but you don’t need to stick rigidly to this, it’s only a guide. Any new planting will look a bit ‘regimented’ to start with, but as the plants develop they will fill out, creating a patchwork of glorious colour.

  • Sweetpeas – a heavenly scent and easy to grow in tubs for anyone with limited space.Dahlia ‘Karma Choc’ x 1
  • Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Candy Stripe’ x 2
  • Ammi visnaga x 2
  • Biennial stocks (Matthiola) x 6 – replace with dahlias in early summer.
  • Sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus) x 12
  • Daucus carota ‘Black Knight’ x 2
  • Dianthus barbatus x 4
  • Scabiosa atropurpurea ‘Black Cat’ x 2
  • Narcissus ‘Tête-à-tête’ x 30 – plant these around the edge of the bed

 

 

 

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An ancient ‘fast food’!

Think of Devon, and you probably think of cream teas. Think of Cornwall and it’s pretty likely you’ll think of a Cornish pasty. Gosh, didn’t we enjoy tucking into them as children on the beach – sadly, my memory is always of pasty with added sand! But this immensely popular dish is a great example of an early packed lunch or convenience food.

There’s lots of historical evidence confirming the existence of the Cornish pasty, the earliest as far back as the 13th century during the reign of Henry III. The pasty became commonplace in the 16th and 17th centuries and, by the 18th century, it was established as a Cornish food eaten by poorer working families who could only afford cheap ingredients such as potatoes, swede and onion. Meat was added later. 

By the end of the 18th century it was the staple diet of working men across Cornwall. Miners and farm workers took this portable and easy to eat convenience food with them to work because it was perfect for their needs. Its size and shape made it easy to carry – its pastry case insulated the contents and was durable, while its wholesome ingredients provided enough sustenance to see the workers through their long, hard working days. 

There are hundreds of stories about the evolution of the pasty’s shape, with the most popular being that the D-shape enabled tin miners to eat them safely. The crust (the crimped edge) was used as a handle which was then thrown away due to the high levels of arsenic in many of the tin mines – ugh! 

The Cornish pasty recipes were handed down from generation to generation, often by word of mouth and rarely written down because they were made almost every day. Young girls were often made to practice crimping techniques using plasticine before being allowed to work with pastry!

You’ll find lots of different recipes online, but here’s a nice simple one to try. I personally think the addition of white pepper helps give it that lovely peppery kick that I remember so clearly from my childhood. Enjoy!

To make 4 Cornish pasties

Ingredients 

  • For the pastry
  • 125g chilled and diced butter
  • 125g lard
  • 500g plain flour, plus extra
  • 1 egg, beaten 

For the filling 

  • 350g beef skirt or chuck steak, chopped
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 2 medium potatoes, peeled, thinly sliced
  • 175g swedes, peeled, finely diced
  • 1/2 tbsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tbsp ground white pepper 

Method

 

  1. Rub the butter and lard into the flour with a pinch of salt using your fingertips or a food processor, then blend in 6 tbsp cold water to make a firm dough. Cut equally into 4, then chill for 20 mins. 
  2. Heat oven to 220C/fan 200C/gas 7. Mix together the filling ingredients with 1 tsp salt. Roll out each piece of dough on a lightly floured surface until large enough to make a round about 23cm across – use a plate to trim it to shape. Firmly pack a quarter of the filling into one half of each round, leaving a margin round the edge. Brush the pastry all the way round the edge with beaten egg then carefully fold the empty half of the pastry across to form a semi-circle, or ‘D’ shape, and pinch the edges together to seal. Lift onto a non-stick baking tray and brush with the remaining egg to glaze.
  3. Bake for 10 mins, then lower oven to 180C/fan 160C/gas 4 and cook for 45 mins more until golden. Great served warm for lunch, in a picnic… or on the beach!

 

 

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The Forager’s Kitchen

Hedgerows are always a source of fascination, they are so full of flora and fauna. At the moment, they are dotted with glossy blackberries, and I can never resist picking them as I pass. My mother, the queen of preserves in our family, is already making jam and there has been talk of a blackberry and apple crumble coming our way too…!

My level of hedgerow foraging is fairly basic, but there is lots of ‘free’ food out there if you only know what to look for. My friend Julia Horton-Powdrill is a great forager and it was through her excellent Facebook page that I came across ‘The Forager’s Kitchen’ a truly fascinating cookery book that contains over 100 easy recipes from savoury to sweet, written by a Scots lady called Fiona Bird.

Don’t be put off by the title – this book is absolutely fascinating just to sit and read even if you have no intention of going and collecting any of the ingredients yourself. Not only does Fiona provide lovely (and easy) recipes, she gives lots of additional information about wildflowers, herbs, fruits and berries and more. Should you feel inspired, she also tells you how to forage, essential ground rules (how to avoid misidentification!) and a range of lovely little ‘wild notes’ with really useful hints and tips.

The book is divided up into sections – Flowers & Blossom, Woodland & Hedgerow, Fruits & Berries, Herbs and Sea & Shore. There’s a huge range of recipes – from Christmas Tree Cookies (using Douglas fir needs) through Carrot & Clover Cake to the most gorgeous looking Violet Macarons with Primrose Cream. Fiona writes very well and, whether you live in a city, the countryside or by the coast, if you follow her advice, you will find more ingredients growing in the wild than you could imagine!

Our ancestors knew what to pick and I do think it’s a shame that most people today are so ‘disconnected’ from the countryside and, indeed, wary of it. There is so much beauty in nature and such bounty out there if we only know what to do with it.

Fiona Bird is a mother of six children. She is a self-taught cook and past Masterchef finalist who has always had a passion for cooking and her approach to food is based on her knowledge of tight budgets and limited time. You can follow Fiona on her Facebook page. 

 

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