Monday, 28 May 2012

Asparagus Festival 2012

A sunny Sunday afternoon was upon us and we decided to set off for a drive with a picnic bag in the boot for an alfresco lunch in the country.  As we drove heading ever nearer to the Cotswolds, we decided to take a pit stop first at a pub that comes highly recommended by our friends - The Fleece Inn in Bretforton near Evesham (www.thefleeceinn.co.uk).


Upon arrival, we saw that the Asparagus Festival was taking place, celebrating all that is good about these lovely green speared vegetables.  (Other events are scheduled - see the website - www.britishasparagusfestival.org ).

Other than it being a delicious veggie and it being at its peak this time of year, I didn't realised what a wealth of history comes with it.

Three square miles of Worcestershire is dedicated to the crop and combined with the crop fields in the West Midlands, it provides the majority of the UK's yield with none of it being exported outside of the UK - all consumed by us Brits!

The Vale of Evesham is renown for the production of asparagus or 'Gras' as it's known locally and hence the festivities are centred here.  Tradition states that the Asparagus Season commences on St George's Day (23rd April) and ends on Midsummer's Day (21st June) adhering to the old saying "never cut beyond the midsummer bud".

The Festival was marked by the pub's menu boasting asparagus biased dishes, and there were stalls selling asparagus inspired goodies as well as bundles of the vegetable itself, fresh from the nearby Vale of Evesham.  One of the specialities was Asparagus ice cream, created especially for the season by Bretforton's very own  'Spot Loggins' organic ice cream company (www.spotloggins.com).  Deliciously creamy and tasty, it was a unique opportunity to try it, a great alternative to standard vanilla!  Check out their website for stockists and also for a list of other flavours including another seasonal treat - Lavender.

Providing recipe inspirations for your asparagus bundle, was the 'Wot's Cooking' demo stage with award winning Worcestershire restaurant owner and chef Felice Toccini (www.fusionbrasserie.com) offering great menu suggestions such as chickpea flour pancakes with goats cheese & asparagus! (www.wotscooking.co.uk)


Bretforton is quintessentially English, a Cotswold gem, with The Fleece Inn providing that ye olde English charm beckoning you to stay for more lashings of ginger beer - which is exactly what we did!  What was initially a pit stop became our picnic spot and we stayed for the whole afternoon. 

However, we missed the Festival's highlight of the Asparagus Auction, where local growers donate large amounts of asparagus which are auctioned off for charity.  Afterall, I couldn't stay, I had my asparagus to cook!


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Saturday, 26 May 2012

A Star is Prawn! (Fish Free of course...)

Whilst soya versions of meat have been available for many, many years now (chicken, sausage etc), it has only been recently that alternatives to fish have come onto the marketplace.  Having gone old-school and made a mock fish-finger sandwich with red sauce recently (and loving every mouthful), I was eager to see what else in that vain would grace my supermarket shelves, so I was elated when Linda McCartney Foods (LMF) http://www.lindamccartneyfoods.co.uk/ added Fish Free King Prawns to their range.  Taking advantage of the special Buy One Get One Free offer of LMF products this weekend at Tesco, I bought 2 packs and decided to get all chefy! 

As much as I love a good rice dish and paella being the most obvious option for a prawn recipe, I wanted to steer away from that and taking inspiration from the recent good weather and memories of Mediterranean holidays, I took to scanning my recipe books where I came across 'Spaghetti Con Gameretti e Rucola' from Jamie Oliver's 'Jamie's Italy' book.  Or Spaghetti with Prawns and Rocket if your Italian is a bit rusty :).

As much as my husband champions my veggie lifestyle choice and enjoys the food I make, he does like his meat so I made his portion using a seafood medley (including prawns).   Adapting Jamie's recipe slightly, here's what I did.... 

Spaghetti With Fish-Free King Prawns & Rocket

Serves 2

200g Spaghetti
3 Cloves of Garlic
1 large onion
200g Fish-Free King Prawns (or 100g Fish-Free King Prawns and 100g Seafood Medley/Prawns)
100ml White Wine
6 Sundried Tomatoes
½ Lemon
½ bag of Rocket
Oil and salt for cooking
Optional:  Red chillies.

  • Cook the spaghetti in salted water as per packet instructions.
  • Fry the garlic and onion together and red chillies if you are using them.
  • In a food processor, whizz up the sundried tomatoes until you have a paste.
  •  (NB: at this point, if you're making a seafood portion in addition to the Fish-free one, get a spare saucepan, put half of the garlic, onion and chilli mixture into it and add the seafood.  This will ensure that the two portions remain separate.  Following on from here, start dividing up the remainder of the ingredients between the two saucepans).
  • Add the fish-free king prawns to the garlic and onions mixture.
  • Add the white wine, sundried tomato paste and mix together.
  • Gently heat but ensure that the mixture(s) don't burn.  Add a little more wine or some tomato puree if you see it becoming too dry.
  • Drain the spaghetti and divide into two bowls.
  • Add the fish-free king prawn mixture on top (or fish-free king prawn to one bowl and the seafood mix to the other bowl).
  • Sprinkle the rocket leaves on top.
  • Squeeze lemon juice on top.
  • Ready to serve with garlic bread or whatever you fancy!

This dish falls nicely into my philosophy of not having to make separate menus if you're in a meat + veggie household as you can both enjoy virtually the same dish, with only one extra saucepan needed.  (Think of the washing up you'll save)! 

So whilst these hot, early summer days last, enjoy a little bit of the Med in your own back garden and eat this with a glass of wine and maybe a cheeky little 'gelato' for afters!



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Note:  This recipe is based on, but has been adapted from Jamie Oliver's book 'Jamie's Italy'.

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Thursday, 17 May 2012

Shopping from Kings Norton Farmers Market to the Kosher Deli

Like most people, at some point in the weekend I drive down to my local supermarket and pick up my groceries for the week, pretty much the same items go into my trolley each time - my receipts read like Groundhog Day.  So when I get the chance to explore some new food outlets, I'm all for it!





As Spring begins to blossom (despite the rain), more markets pop up, but one stalwart (rain or shine, every season) is Kings Norton Farmer's Market in south Birmingham.    Held every second Saturday of the month, the stalls spread across one section of The Green and offer a fabulous array of goodies.

For me, I'm always drawn to cheese stands.  As much as I love the cheeses in the supermarket, I find that farmers markets and the like, always have a unique offering when it comes to all matters fromage.  Lightwood Cheese, based in Worcester and recommended in Rick Stein's Guidebook,  had a rather delicious ewe's (sheeps) milk cheese called 'Little Urn' which worked beautifully when eaten with the olive studded bread rolls from Italian food emporium Squisito Deli. This Warwickshire-based Italian inspired deli and Supper Club, make their food from locally sourced goods with some good veggie choices such as home-made mac&cheese, marinated olives and of course olive bread rolls (as well as their yummy rosemary flavoured ones too).









Driving past Gee's Kosher Deli & Bakery in Edgbaston near to Birmingham City Centre I decided to pop in.  As is observant of the Jewish Sabbath  (Friday/Saturday), the shop closes and so as this was Sunday, I took advantage of its opening.  Culturally, Jewish food and Polish/Ukrainian food have so many parallels with the types of food eaten (beetroot, gherkins, cabbage, halva etc) that shop's stock reminds me of my family's pantry.  







As well as stockists of all these delicious foods, Gee's are a kosher butcher and bakery and also have a great stock of Tivall products.  Tivall are manufacturers of great veggie soya products which include slicing sausage and schnitzels.  

Also, I saw some pre-made, pre-packed potato latkes (like potato dumplings) which I bought with much delight after trying to make some from scratch a while ago and them not turning out how I had hoped!  These latkes worked well heated-up with some grilled asparagus on the side or can be served with whatever side dish suits. 


So whatever your faith/cultural background or retail habits are, break your shopping routine and try somewhere different - whether it be an open air food market or the little shop on the High Street that you see each day but never go into.  Often, shop owners will be happy to recommend goods to you or help to acquaint you with new products.  So feed your curiosity and Happy Shopping!!

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Kings Heath (B'ham) - A Destination for All Foodies

Like most towns or cities, each one has a district or two that are renown for their food attractions - Rue de Bouchers in Brussels, Lygone Street in Melbourne and Birmingham is no different.  Being a former Brummie, but yet still living close by, it's great to see how the city is evolving, culinary wise.  Birmingham is known worldwide as having the 'Balti Triangle' - a cluster of restaurants in/around the Sparkhill/Balsall Heath areas that specialise in the balti curry and Asian cuisine.  Also Birmingham has one of the country's largest Chinese Quarters focusing on Oriental food and which celebrates Chinese New Year with gusto.  But once you get further out of the city into the suburban districts, you come across Kings Heath, next door neighbour of Moseley (a district with an eclectic mix of bars, independent restaurants and a famous Folk Festival).  Kings Heath, still with its traditional High Street offerings, has a number of culinary hidden gems within its side streets.  York Road alone boasts Capeling & Co (Fine Cheeses & Delicatessen), Byzantium Tapas and also Kitchen Garden Cafe. 


Kitchen Garden Cafe is a lovely little retreat and provides that perfect haven for some 'you time'.  You can decide upon which coffee or tea flavour you want whilst perusing the Book Exchange area where you can pick up a book for free to enjoy whilst you're there and to take with you afterwards.  Some of the books are labelled as being part of http://www.bookcrossing.com/ which enables you to track the book you've picked up, see where its been and you can add details as to where it's going next - a kind of book relay, a great way of encouraging everyone to read whilst witnessing the book's journey.  In addition, there is an on-site deli and a courtyard selling plants and garden accessories.  But Kitchen Garden Cafe in the evening, transforms into a restaurant that holds various events ranging from comedy to music and poetry to craft fairs.  The menu boasts a wealth of veggie options including a very tempting Sage Gnocchi with Jerusalem Artichoke & Chestnut Butter (on my list to try when I visit next).  One of the forthcoming events is a 'pop up vegetarian restaurant' hosted by BBC MasterChef The Professionals 2011 finalist, Claire Hutchings.  She has a fabulous menu organised with courses such as Hay Smoked Celeriac with Artichoke, Asparagus, Onion & Vanilla and White Chocolate with Sorrel & Black Olive.   Tickets are selling fast with only a few left for dates in May.  Contact Kitchen Garden Cafe on 0121 443 4725 for details or http://www.kitchengardencafe.co.uk/


My early morning visit meant I missed their opening hours and therefore couldn't sample the goods from Capeling & Co (http://www.capelingandco.wordpress.com/) although the extensive selection of cheeses and continental goods means a return visit is on the cards - same for Byzantium Tapas (http://www.byzantiumtapas.co.uk/).  I was too early for their brunch-time - but their vast veggie selection incorporating Italian, Spanish, Greek and North African influences has tempted me to head there very soon.


The first Saturday of each month sees Kings Heath Farmer's Market (http://www.kingsheathfarmersmarket.org/) set up stalls outside All Saints Church on the High Street with a mix of food & beverage traders.  I met Wobbly Bottom Farm (info@wobblybottomfarm.co.uk) there, who provide a range of goats cheeses.  I purchased a really nice creamy goats cheese with nettles.  It works beautifully scattered on a salad or for cheese on toast and it can also be bought online as well as at the market.

So next time you travel down Kings Heath High Street, remember to look down the side streets as you will find purveyors of fantastic food that you won't find anywhere else!