Kill all aphids. A garden project.

London has recently enjoyed a spate of gloriously warm weather, rapidly bringing the garden to life. The grass is growing, birds are whistling, and next door have started yelling out in the garden as well as in the house. New seedlings have begun to push their heads through the earth like the xenomorphic Alien through John Hurt’s chest. It’s a terribly proud moment after the work and attention I’ve put in, but a plant tended and cared for will repay you bountifully. However, there is a blight with the sole purpose of eradicating (plant)life as we know it. Unscrupulous deviants with a penchant for anarchy. Bloody aphids.

FACT! Aphids reproduce asexually in the spring. Nearly all aphids you see will be female.

Aphids are little garden vampires that go around sucking the life out of young plants. They are a huge annoyance for gardeners. I have done a little research into aphids in an effort to understand their homicidal tendencies and have found hundreds of web pages with differing ideas of how to get rid of them – organically, of course. There are so many theories on the best way to eradicate an aphid infestation – squishing with your fingers, soapy water, boiled rhubarb leaf juice – but, as with everything in life, this seems too hard and I can’t be bothered to do it. I reckon the best and most hassle-free way, therefore, is to try and create an environment that encourages the aphids’ natural predators into the garden. And there is one predator more powerful, more terrifying, more slaughterous than all the rest. Yes, of course, the ladybird.

FACT! Ladybirds were sometimes (inexplicably) known as lady’s cocks. 

The mighty ladybird, the garden Buffy, destined to save the entire garden from the grip of demons, vampires and aphids. Ladybird larvae like to eat aphids, hence, ladybirds are a fine addition to your cultivated oasis. Hoverfly too (they can be Willow or Xander or someone).

“But Brooke, I beseech thee, how do you entice them in?” I hear you bleat.

Well, you can actually buy them but, apparently, bought ones will just fly away. Fair enough really. I wouldn’t want to keep them if it’s a violation of their free will and civil liberties. Therefore you need to attract them with plants. This is where I’m struggling a bit. So many sources say so many different things, different varieties of flower that ladybirds like. I’ve gone for a carpet-planting strategy, sowing a few different flowers and hoping some are right. Of course, aphids will attract the ladybirds too.

“Oh, but I’m afraid they will rise up and desert me the moment I have my back turned”.

Are you asking how you would keep them in the garden?  By constructing a ladybird hotel, obviously.

FACT! Steven Seagal has his own energy drink. He is also a reserve sheriff in Louisiana. (This appears to be common knowledge but I just found out. Very exciting.)

Ladybird house

You will need:

A drill, a hammer, a saw, some wire, some branches or sticks, a few garden canes (hollow), an off cut of ply (or similar), some nails and screws.

1. Make a triangular frame from the branches by screwing them together and tethering them with wire if needs be. I used an old cricket stump here.

2. Cut the ply (or whatever you’re using) roughly the same shape as your frame and nail to the back.

3. cut the canes into lengths comparable to the depth of your frame. This is where your lady’s cocks will live.

4. Pack the frame with the lengths of cane and also offcuts of your branches with a few holes drilled into them. Pack them very tight so they don’t fall out.

5. Use a screw and piece of wire to create a hanging loop. Hang your new, scrap-built ladybird house on a wall or fence that gets plenty of morning sunshine. They like that apparently. I’ve hung it over a veg patch that is going to be bordered by flowers.

6. Stand back and admire your ladybird house. Nurture and cling to the feeling that you’ve done something crafty and practical which is probably akin to, and as important as, Wren’s accomplishments with Saint Paul’s or Barry’s achievements on Westminster Palace. Whatever your level of pride, it’s definitely worth a cup of tea.


Pilau stuffed courgette with red lentil dahl

I love dahl. I love it I love it I love it. It’s the most comforting of all South Asian dishes. It has the ability to warm you on a cold evening and cool you after an abundance of chilli. It can be a robust main, a complimentary side or a spiced, thick soup. Heck, it can do anything it wants. It could be the school cricket captain and play lead guitar better than anyone else around. I even saw it get off with a girl I fancied after a disco once. And it will grow up to be an astronaut. I can’t find room in my heart for jealousy though, it’s just too charming.

Dāl (or dahl) is a derivative of the Sanskrit verbal root dal, which means ‘to split’ (*pushes glasses back up nose*). It basically means it is a dish made from pulses which have been husked and split so, theoretically, you can make it with pretty much any pulse you like (as opposed to what Christopher Woodhead told me). For me though (and to avoid an overnight soaking and hefty cooking time), I prefer red lentils. They have such a great texture and tend to look after themselves when cooking. I do find that they take on a fair amount of salt though, so be warned.

I was trying to think of something to serve with the dahl and decided I would like to try Pilau rice. I’d never cooked it before but had a reasonable idea what spices to use to get a good result. I did a small amount of research online and, needless to say, there seems to be around 100,000 different ways to go about it. Taking advice from Fleetwood Mac, I decided to go my own way with the rice and so, recipe drawn in my head, I headed home to make my spicy feast. Then I passed a market stall and I saw my first ever Globe Courgette.

Have you seen one? They’re hilarious! Small, perfectly spherical little squashes crying out to be stuffed and roasted. A beautifully testicular member of the courgette family. Indeed, if you were to sit two alongside a normal courgette it would probably be enough to tip me over the brink of gaiety into a useless, tearful collapse. Me and all the other ten-year old boys. Anyway, with all thoughts of testicles aside, I sliced them open and stuffed them.

This serves 4. Easily.


Pilau stuffed courgette with red lentil dahl

For the stuffed courgette:

4 globe courgettes, tops removed and centre scooped out (keep this!)

300g basmati rice, well washed

1 onion, finely chopped

5 cloves

2 bay leaves

3 tsp cumin, toasted and crushed

3 cardamom pods

2 tsp turmeric

For the dahl:

200g red lentils, well washed

1 onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 thumb sized piece of ginger, finely chopped

1 tsp cumin, toasted and crushed

1 tsp coriander seed, toasted and crushed

4 cardamom pods

1/2 tsp cinnamon

1/2 red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped

1 tblsp tomato puree

650ml water

2 tomatoes, roughly chopped (optional)

Handful spinach, roughly chopped (optional)

Handful coriander leaves, roughly chopped (optional)

Preheat the oven to 190C. Make the rice first. Fry the onion in a little oil until softened. Add the cumin, cardamom, turmeric and cloves and mix well. Add the rice and mix so the rice is coated in the spices. Add the bay leaves and then around 600ml boiling water. Bring it to the boil then turn it down very low and cover with a lid. Simmer until cooked – around 15-20 mins or so. In the meantime roughly chop and then fry the leftover courgette with a pinch of salt until cooked through. When the rice is cooked remove from the heat, take of the lid and leave for a minute or two to let any excess moisture steam away. Mix in the courgette and then spoon into the prepared squashes. Put the lids back on and place on a baking tray in the centre of the oven. They’ll take about 35 – 40 mins.

For the dahl, fry the onion, garlic, chilli and ginger until softened then add all the spices at once. Mix in the tomato puree and then the lentils and mix to coat. Pour in the water, bring to the boil then turn down to a simmer. Stir occasionally so it doesn’t stick and cook until the lentils are tender and the dahl is thick and oozy – you may need to add a splash more water. At this point check for seasoning (can take salt!) and mix in the tomato, spinach and coriander leaves if using.

Your baked courgettes should be just about ready (test with the tip of a sharp knife or a skewer) so put a healthy portion of dahl on a plate, drizzle with yoghurt and top with a juicy squash! I want it again.


Operation ‘Brockley Market Garden’

The vision

Actuality

Right, that time of year is upon us. Time to polish of the old trowel and get digging. Time to create life! When Laurel and I moved into our house the garden was a forest of weeds, rubble and general detritus. It took me ages to sort out. Every time I dug the garden over and removed the weeds they would grow back and I’d have to do it all over again. It was infuriating and endlessly boring but, finally, with the garden as ready as it would ever be, I bit the bullet and ordered turf, topsoil and fertilizer off the internet and waited for delivery.

Unfortunately I forgot which day it was all arriving and accidentally went out the night before on an epic, friend’s birthday mash-up.  My lawn arrived at 8am in a gigantic lorry and I was awakened by a gruff, rotund weeble violating my doorbell. He made a couple of indistinguishable noises and gestured to two huge pallets of turf and soil which he had parked in the middle of the road. My groggy mind was still trying to grasp what was happening when he thrust a sheet of paper into my hands, barked twice and drove off into the distance. I can’t remember exactly what happened next but I think I wept.

Lavender

That was two years ago and now, after all that hardship, disaster has struck. I have managed to seriously damage my lawn. I let it grow so long that it started to die and then left it that way over winter. Needless to say it requires a good deal of care now if I’m to pull off a miraculous resurrection. I am not, though, the main protagonist in the calculated murder of my lawn – I am merely an accomplice. The guilty party, M’lud, is Mr Flymo Mow n Vac. 

Rosemary

The term ‘Lawnmower’ indicates that you have a tool with the ability to cut, scythe, shear or trim an area of grass. Not so with a Mow n Vac. It has the ability to do nothing. Does Mow n Vac mean it will be as easy as hoovering the lawn? Again, no. It neither rolls nor hovers so is impossible to push and if you leave it in one spot too long it bores a spiral into the ground. It would be more productive had I crawled around and nibbled at the grass with my teeth. It cost around £50. I would have been better off spending the money on roller blades or a vaulting pole or something else with which I lack the ability to use.

With all this in mind, I have launched ‘Operation Brockley Market Garden’, a nod to the keen and inspiring growers at my local food market and a cheap pun on a military mission in 1944. It focusses on bringing life to the garden in time for summer and supplying homegrown produce for my cooking. I have been treating my lawn and nurturing  it back to life. I’ve sowed (sown?) beetroot, peas, broad beans and onions. I have even planted 3 raspberry canes, a gooseberry bush and an apple tree! I’m feeling positive about the garden’s chances this year and, with a new mower, reckon I can have a lovely sunbathing spot which is perfect for barbecues and growing my own ingredients for future blog posts.

I’ll keep you posted.

(Good gardener? Any tips? Please tell me. Please.)

Chitting potatoes


Squash and goat’s cheese pancakes

I was recently watching Saturday Kitchen and had to question myself. Why do I keep watching this program? I can’t for the life in me figure out why I like it. Yes, the cooking is great but there are so many things I can’t get my head round. The interviews are completely nonsensical, crowbarred in around hectic cooking and constantly interrupted by bedraggled cooks trying to tiptoe around James Martin’s luxurious form. The Omelette challenge is easily the least exciting segment of any show on television, anywhere in the world, ever. Except for when Ken Hom does it with chopsticks. That’s quite good. And who are those two random people each week who just sit quietly for an hour before fighting for scraps with a minor celebrity? Are they prize winners? Did they compete for this honour?

Malton's finest.

There are probably many reasons (which escape me at this moment) why I watch it, but the big one has to be the enigma that is James Martin. Scruffy haired, dead-eyed, cyclist hating, housewives’ favourite James Martin. Let us admit straight away, he is not a natural presenter. He is stiff and awkward at times and there is always that addictive and dangerous feeling that something is about to go horrendously, irreparably wrong. He does, however, normally keep it together and if something does go awry he shrugs it off with charm and enviable nonchalance.

Plus, he really can cook. He cooks in a way that makes me think he would be a forceful albeit tender lover. When I mentioned this surprising observation to Laurel she agreed that it was an eerily accurate description of her view on James as well. I think there is a problem here.

Anyway, I recently had a look through his 1373 recipes on the BBC website and stumbled upon a host of brilliant meal ideas. I was inspired by one and decided it would be a perfect Pancake Day treat. Ah, well, better late than never…

Squash and goat’s cheese pancakes

300g squash, cut into small dice

100g crumbly goat’s cheese

1 sprig thyme, leaves picked and chopped

3 or 4 sage leaves, finely chopped

200g self raising flour

1 tsp baking powder

300ml milk

1 egg

A good pinch of salt and pepper

Mix the flour, baking powder, herbs, salt and pepper together in a big bowl and make a well in the centre. Mix together the egg and milk and pour into the bowl. Whisk well to create a smooth batter. Put in the fridge for a bit.

Fry the squash in a little olive oil for about ten minutes until tender. Add to the batter and then crumble in the goat’s cheese. Mix well.

Heat a bit of oil in a nonstick frying pan and fry the pancakes for about 3 minutes on each side. You want them to be crisp and golden, although I like them on the verge of burning so the edges are satisfyingly crunchy. I ate them with some cooked potato left over from the day before mixed with a drizzle of oil, scoop of mayo and dollop of mustard.


German pea soup

It’s been a while since my last post. I haven’t been away or anything – I’ve barely even left my sofa – I just work strange hours which limits the amount of cooking I do. Saying that, it has been an eventful couple of weeks. We’ve had snow. Not much but enough to make it feel like a proper year. I have given up drinking for the month of February. I feel good and I’ve got much more money! Charlie broke my pasta machine so I’m eagerly awaiting a brand new one and a gnocchi board to go with it.

Ok, maybe ‘eventful’ was slightly over the top (a lie) but it has felt very busy. Add to that the ongoing cold weather and endless tedium of the East London line and I found myself hankering after something warming and comforting to eat in front of ‘Arrested Development’ wearing my idiotic slippers. Also, there is nothing more reassuring than food which has the ability to invoke good memories.

Between the ages of 6 and 14 I lived in Germany. I have lots of great memories of living abroad but one of my favourite things was the Germans’ love of winter markets. Wandering the wood-shack stalls to browse handmade toys, giant gingerbread houses, nutcrackers and the like (incidentally, these are all items which, viewed out of context, can be terrifying) was an annual family event and we all happily braved the cold to go. There were two ways of warming up. For the adults you could get a cup of Gluhwein – a heavily spiced and sweetened wine served hot – or, if underage for booze, you could get hot pea soup.

This wonderfully sweet and heartily mushy concoction warmed you to the very marrow of your bones. It seemed to change texture as you ate, from a broth to a puree with a hint of mint and sometimes a kick of chilli or lemon. And the joy when you found the sliced frankfurter floating around somewhere near the middle! Glorious. I decided to try and make a veggie version using meatfree frankfurters and it proved successful. The main reason being that veggie frankfurters taste exactly like meaty ones. Better actually because you know they aren’t filled with pigeon or shoe leather or dog trotters or something.

Pea soup

400g peas (I use frozen garden peas)

200g veggie frankfurters, cut into chunks (I use Tivall frozen ones)

1 carrot, finely chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

1 onion, finely chopped

1 litre stock

A good pinch of mint or basil, finely chopped

Salt and pepper

Fry the onion, garlic and carrot in a little olive oil until softened. Add 300g of the peas and stir well. Add around 3/4 of the stock and simmer for 10 mins. Blend well. Return to the heat in a clean pan and add the cut up frankfurter and the remaining peas. Check the seasoning and consistency; if it’s thick add a bit more stock. Heat until the sausage is cooked and then stir in your herb of choice. Serve with a dollop of yoghurt or cream and, if you fancy, a pinch of chilli or lemon zest. Or both. And croutons.


Sweet corn fritters

Just around the corner from my house is a very nice Thai restaurant called Smiles. I would recommend it to anyone; It’s a quaint, friendly place to eat, they do great tofu dishes and, if requested, they will walk my order straight to my door. The problem they have is that everything tastes like liquorice. The majority of their main dishes have a distinct aniseed flavour. They are still delicious but, once you’ve tasted one dish, the rest taste a bit similar; tofu with basil, chilli and liquorice, red curry with bamboo shoots, lime leaves and liquorice. (The menu doesn’t actually say that, by the way. Nobody would order.) It means I don’t eat there as often as I would if they just held back a bit on the anise. They also appear to be shut a lot on days I want to order. Turns out they’re just closed on Mondays.

They do, however, have a starter which (literally) blew my mind. Tod Mun Kao Pode or Sweet corn cakes to those of you not in the know. They are thin, crunchy, sweet and spicy little fritters which come with a little pot of homemade sweet chilli. I love them and had not had them in ages, so I decided to reproduce them at home. I failed horribly but, in the process, made really good fritters anyway. Mine were kind of airy and light, a bit scotch pancake-like in texture. I had them twice, both with different accompaniments. The second days batch were not as fluffy as the previous day. they were crunchier and denser. I think maybe it was something to do with baking powder not being active or something. I don’t really know. I’m not a scientist.

Sweet corn fritters

200g fresh or frozen sweet corn

6 spring onions, thinly sliced

1 red chilli, finely chopped

75g plain flour

3 eggs

40g sesame seeds

2 tbsp soy sauce

1 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp turmeric

1 tsp ground cumin

A handful of chopped coriander

Mix the dry ingredients together in a large bowl. Whisk in the soy sauce and then the eggs. Stir in the corn, spring onion and chilli. The mixture should be quite thick and sticky. My Mum would call it ‘clarty’. Don’t ask. Fry in small batches in a little oil in a non-stick pan until fluffy and golden. That’s it.

It makes a decent amount of mixture so I had fritters twice. The first time was as a side dish to a tofu stir fry. I served it with a dip made by combining 2 tbsp honey, juice of 1 lime, 1 tbsp soy, 1/2 a sliced chilli and a handful of finely chopped coriander. Worked nicely. For lunch the next day I had it with some leftover cous-cous salad and fresh salsa.  


Homemade pasta with rocket, creme fraiche, basil and lemon

About once a month I get an obsessive impulse to clean out my food cupboard. It’s not the same as cleaning out your fridge; there’s no hygiene factor or risk of contamination, no mangy carrots or courgettes lurking at the back. It’s purely an exhibition of ‘anality’. I like it compartmentalised – tins and jars lower left, flours and sugars lower right, chocolate and treats upper left, etc, etc. Every time I embark on this fanatical cleaning venture, I always find a little something hidden away and forgotten about. Last time it was a bar of orange dark chocolate which I scoffed sitting on the kitchen counter, listening to the cricket on the radio. This time it was a bag of type ’00’ flour I had bought a couple of weeks ago with the intention of making pasta. So that’s what I did.

It’s been grey and rainy recently and I’ve been cooking a lot of hearty, ‘wintery’ meals designed to warm and soothe. The kinds of meals that are stuffed full of root vegetables, lentils and barley. Those dinners that sit on the hob long enough to steam up all the windows and make everyone unconsciously gravitate to the kitchen. Well, I’m sick of it. I wanted a taste of summer, something to trick myself into thinking of sun, sea and holidays, something fresh and relaxing. I wanted lemon and basil, basically.

I saw a vintage cookery show the other week. It was rubbish. Two old ladies cooking very old fashioned food in derelict houses in France. They did, however, make one thing that I liked the look of. They blended olive oil, double cream and wild rocket together to create a bright green sauce for pasta. I didn’t see any reason why lemon, basil and a bit of chilli wouldn’t work in there too…

Rocket and creme fraiche pasta with basil and lemon

400g type ’00’ pasta flour

4 large eggs

70g bag wild rocket, roughly chopped

300ml creme fraiche

Zest and juice of half a lemon

Good handful of basil leaves, roughly chopped

Pinch of dried chilli

1 onion, finely chopped

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

Salt and Pepper

Olive oil

I just made a very simple pasta dough. Put the flour in a large mixing bowl, make a well in the centre and add the eggs. Whisk with a fork, slowly going from the centre outward until fully combined. Once you have a sticky dough, flour your hands and knead until a bit firmer. Add more flour if it’s still too sticky. Turn out onto a floured surface and flatten it with your hands. Set your pasta machine on the lowest setting (1) and run the pasta through. Move up to 2 and run it through again. Keep running it through at these settings (1 then 2, 1 then 2…) until the dough becomes springy and elastic – about 5 or 6 times. At this point you can start moving up through the settings. I was making linguine so I stopped at setting ‘8’ because I didn’t want it too thin. I have a linguine and tagliatelle attachment for my pasta machine, so I ran it through the thinner of the two. Voila.

The sauce was easy. Put 3/4 of the rocket, the basil, creme fraiche, lemon zest and lemon juice in a food processor or blender. Turn on at a low setting and drizzle in some of the olive oil until the mixture loosens and then stop. Fry the onion and garlic in a pan until cooked and translucent. Add the chilli and then the sauce, check the seasoning and allow to heat through. Cook the pasta in boiling, salted water for 2 or 3 minutes and drain. Wilt the remaining rocket in the sauce and serve together with the pasta.

I served it with some roasted cherry tomatoes and a dusting of Parmesan, which went with it very well.


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