Somerton Allotments Opening – Community Harvest Cook-in 10/9/11

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An eye on the weather was uppermost in our minds to begin with for the opening day.

At home, I’d cooked the salad potatoes that Sabine had dropped round on Friday night, made a Balsamic & Honey Salad dressing as well as a Basil Vinaigrette which had a vivid green colour. The bags of equipment were packed up with chopping boards, knives, graters, large saucepans, cutlery, the dhal ingredients such as spices and red lentils. The 2 ring camping gas stove and gas bottle were also put in the car. I haven’t made the Dhal for a while, and so I looked up the recipe to remind myself of the processes needed. The salads were going to be very easy as I’d done them before.

I went up to the plots at 10:30, where the wind was very gusty and there was a light rain. The committee members were busy putting up a gazebo, ready for the start time of 1pm. On finding Johannes, I asked him for the produce we needed for the cooking event. Sabine had left their beetroots, onions and garlic for us and we went into their plot to pick the chard and carrots. Their chard crop was looking excellent with v tall leaves on resonant yellow stems; the leaves were approx. 40cm long. The carrots were well spaced, with purple tops, Johannes gently forked around them, whilst I pulled up a good bunch. These were impressive looking carrots, fairly straight and with a good girth. It would be interesting to try their flavour.

Jean came over with an armful of produce with salad leaves, chard, french beans, 2 lovely looking fennel bulbs, rocket leaves with some fennel fronds too. I looked at the array of veg, thinking about what we were growing, checking we had the right produce and the right quantities. Johannes was adamant that his purple french beans took about 60 mins to cook and so wouldn’t work in the dhal. I have the same bean, but a dwarf variety and find them easy to cook. However, it is a busy, full-on day and decided to use Jeans beans instead.

We talked about washing the veg and I decided to take them home to do this as I felt it would be easier than doing at the plots in such difficult weather. It took half an hour to wash all the veg, my sink became lined with mud from the carrots and beetroot, the kitchen table again had mud crumbs across it. The Chard and salad leaves were fairly clean, however, the responsibility of feeding the public kept me vigilant in washing it all thoroughly. I loaded the veg into a crate and returned to the plots at 12:30, together with my son Bodhi who is going to do some video filming of the event.

The weather was now brighter, but still v windy. The gazebo was up, with a large, solid wooden table underneath and several plastic tables alongside. The committee members were busy putting up a table with cakes and tea equipment as well as a table with raffle prizes. Meanwhile lots of cars were arriving, parking up. I unloaded my equipment, gas stove etc., arranged the wooden chopping boards etc.

By this time, some Lytes Cary plot-holders also arrived, who I spoke to and soon enough David Heath (MP) arrived, as well as many members of Somerton Town Council. At 1pm John Watts, the allotment chair, addressed the crowd, on a small pallet, platform. He thanked everyone including the landowner,Brian Perry, plot-holders and others. Then David Heath spoke, talking about how such growing-your-own activities were once common. He talked  about how growing-your-own provides an opportunity to access good food sustainably. Once he finished, Brian Perry, asked us all to thank the work John Watts had performed to get the allotments up and running. David H then presented the allotment plot prizes – Elaine won a shield, with Dave Vaughan  being runner up.

At this point visiting the plots was a popular activity. I began the salad preparation with Jean who quickly created a good looking green salad. I said that I’d been hoping to put some nasturtium flowers in it and Jean, went off to her plot to pick some. It was quiet for awhile whilst the plots were visited, however, soon enough several plot-holders began to get involved with the salad making including Sabine, Keith and a plot-holder I didn’t know. Keith asked what to do and I asked him to chop up the potatoes for the salad, Sabine took to grating the beetroot, whilst the other plot-holder chopped up the chard. I began to chop the onions ready for beginning the dhal. I had concerns about cooking this on a gas stove in such gusty wind. However, once lighting it, the chopped onions, spices and bay leaves, were soon sizzling; when it had sauteed for a few minutes, I added the chopped chard. As this was going on, I asked them about what they’ve been cooking and how their harvest has gone. Keith said he was very pleased with the season, with the main issue now being one of storage. He said that he’s thinking of building a potato clamp, which would involve giving some of the garden over to it. Sabine agreed that storage was an issue for them too. Keith said that he isn’t an inventive cook and just gets the produce cooked for eating. Sabine was grating her own carrots and we paused to sample them. They were very good- a full, sweet flavour.

Meanwhile, several of the town councillors came to chat including Judith, who Liz introduced me to. She was very keen to get stuck in chopping, being keen to chat too. She says that she isn’t much of a gardener but enjoys eating fresh produce, but again feels she doesn’t have broad cookery skills. She enjoyed helping by chopping the french beans for me. By now, the salads were all about done. The green leaves and nasturtium salad looked very colourful and inviting. The grated carrot and beetroot salad looked very juicy and I asked Bodhi to chop some rocket to add another colour in it. I also asked Jean to chop some fennel fronds to add to the potato salad.

It was now time to add the dressings. I used the basil vinaigrette, which was a thick, green dressing onto the beetroot and carrot salad as well as the potato salad. Then I added some Balsamic and Honey dressing to the green salad. This caused much interest and comment and I ran through what was in the dressings with several people:

Honey & Balsamic Dressing:

Ingredients:

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar

1 tsp. dijon-style mustard

1 tsp. honey

1 clove garlic, minced (optional)

1 shallot, minced

1/4 tsp. salt

1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

Preparation:

In a small bowl whisk all ingredients to combine or put all ingredients in a jar and shake to combine. Use immediately or keep, covered and chilled, up to one week.

Makes 2/3 cup dressing.

Basil Vinaigrette:

Ingredients:

2 cups basil leaves (about 1 large bunch)

1/2 cup good-quality olive oil

1/4 cup white wine or champagne vinegar

1 small clove garlic

Salt and pepper to taste

Preparation:

In a blender or food processor, whirl basil, oil, vinegar, and garlic until smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Makes about 1 cup

At this time people began to taste the salads. I continued getting the dhal cooking by adding the water, red lentils, french beans and a little stock. Within 5-10 minutes, this was soon simmering; I placed on the saucepan lid and let it cook.

A crowd had now developed to taste the salads and I talked to many of the people tasting, including Pauline Clarke, who is a town councillor and was for many years the County Councillor for the area. She enjoyed the salads very much and we talked about growing, cooking and good food. She grows a little at home and has a big interest in food matters. I was also talking at length to Alison from Keeper’s Cottage, which neighbour the plot site. She was very interested in my research and asked to talk to me another time. She said that they’ve tried to be self-sufficient which means they’ve: ‘had to get inventive with what we eat.’ Both Alison and Pauline were very keen to talk again.

Pat (plot 35),  expressed alot of interest in the salads. She was especially interested in the dhal saying that she often didn’t know what to do with french beans and just blanched and froze them. She hadn’t thought that you could just cook them into a dish. Other people expressed interest in the grated salad, saying that they didn’t know that you could eat beetroot raw. I talked about this to Sabine, who is German; she is surprised about the limited range of British vegetable cooking and the reliance on pickling. By this time, the dhal was ready. Within half an hour the dhal had all gone, the eating of it generating much interest and comment. Many people asked me what had gone in it, what spices I’d used and what vegetables I used? John Watts jokingly asked: ‘Where’s the meat?’, but then came back for seconds and thirds. It was a popular dish creating much comment about the smells, the flavour, the use of veg and how quickly it’d cooked.

By this time, the event was drawing to a close and I had a chat with Elaine, who’d won the plot prize. (She had also given me swede plants for my plot about 2 months ago). Elaine is passionate about growing and loves being up at the plots. She has been known to put in a 14 hour day there. She has a broad selection of veg growing including asparagus, fennel, beetroots, etc. She told me that recently they’ve been living off roast-style dinners, especially using roasted beetroots. She’s been busy making damson jams and jellies, including damson and marrow jam, beetroot and ginger relish and damson jelly. She is going to do a pre-christmas, christmas dinner with a large group of friends where all the produce, apart from the turkey, will be coming from her plot.

Liz (my ex-neighbour and plot official leasee), was inspired by the food on the day. She said that its made her think about what she’ll grow on her garden beds next year, including beetroot, fennel and chard. She’d eaten chard before but hadn’t realised how good it is, with its slightly more robust texture and is now keen to grow some. Sabine, who had been running the cake and tea stall, told me that several people had told her that they’d been inspired by the food prepared, as it had given them new ideas on what to grow and how to cook the produce.

I took a lot of satisfaction from the day, being aware that on this occasion, the ‘kitchen’ had been brought to the growing space, the space of production, with 95% of what we’d been cooking and eating having been grown approx. 5 metres away from where we’d cooked and eaten it. Additionally, during the growing season, I had picked up many different growing tips from other people on the plots, directly or indirectly for preparing the soil and growing my veg. Today, I felt that I was giving something back, by sharing my cooking and meal preparation knowledge with the community. From what I was told, this sharing would change some of their food habits and choices. It had been a successful day for all; the cooking event had given the whole day a space of intimacy where knowledge was shared through the pleasure of food, as well as sharing the everyday act of cooking and eating.


		
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Harvest 6th September 2011

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It may have taken awhile, but in the last few weeks, we’ve been having some regular harvests from the plots. Regular crops of potatoes, carrots, shallots, purple french beans, lettuce and peas. The peas were sweet, delicious and quickly devoured.

Due to time pressures, previous harvests have been simply steamed or lightly boiled and served with maybe a peanut butter sauce or some vege sausages. These cooking choices also stemmed from a desire to taste the veg naked, to judge how good it was. The carrots earthy, sweetness was apparent right from pulling them from the ground, making me want to eat them there and then. I managed to get them home, though, ready to scrub the lumps of clay off them. Once chopped, I did sample and the full, rich but juicy taste was thrillingly perfect. The shallots have the sharp, spicy tang that was hoped for too.

The only disappointment is the potatoes. They have a great texture and look beautiful, however, I find them slightly bland tasting. I more of a Pink Fir Apple girl, or prefer Charlotte salad flavours. But, I was given these to plant by another plot-holder, at a time I was chasing myself coming backwards, trying to get something planted in this first season. So another dish of boiled potatoes didn’t excite; therefore, something more exciting had to be achieved here. Being a lucky parent of two growing boys, I decided to ask them what they’d like. The suggestion from the 14 year old was chips, from the 10 year old was french fries. I explained that I couldn’t do french fries easily, but the idea of chips made me think of the pan cooked wedges my mum used to make (not frequently enough in her children’s opinion.)

I had The Soil Association’s Grown in Britain cookbook which is arranged around seasonally grown produce. On looking up potatoes they had a double spread with short recipes offering suggestions ranging from baked gratins to oven wedges. These wedges, were exactly what I was looking for. The recipe was a short paragraph long and looked so easy- it involved halving the potatoes, then quartering the halves, roasting them in a hot oven for 30 mins with olive oil, salt, cumin, curry powder and oregano. I also added chopped shallot. Turning them once half way, ensured both sides crisp up.

I decided to make a simple tomato sauce with onion,french bean, carrot and (bought) carvolo nero, and serve it with ripped lettuce leaves.

It was easy, quick enough and exceedingly good. Having two growing boys, used to rissottos, pasta sauces, stir fries with rice etc., they were excited to have a roasted potato dinner. They both enjoyed it thoroughly, with the older son asking for more wedges. I would definitely do this again and will forget any thoughts of frozen oven chips in future.