Thursday, 16 July 2009

Flowers and fruits

The rainy weather has rescued all the plants from the slightly droopy look they adopted towards the end of the heat wave and things are flowering and fruiting like mad this month.

The beans had been looking very healthy for quite a few weeks and had completely taken over their tub. The masses of green foliage was suddenly broken up by dozens of these delicate, pale pink flowers.

Followed, very swiftly, by the bean pods. As they grow, the pods are getting the typical borlotti mottling. And there are looooooooads of them.....

In fact, we got a bit worried about the asparagus peas, which were planted in the same container as the beans. Although they did grow, they didn't advance anything like as fast as the beans and were quickly swallowed up. Then earlier this week, these startling little, dark red flowers appeared. Can't wait for the pea pods!

We've had lots and lots of flowers on the tomatoes, despite the leaf curl the large tub specimens suffered from early on in the season.

We look set to get plenty of cherry tomatoes (two of the plants I thought were Roma plums have actually turned out to be cherry varieties instead).

Great shape!

We've already harvested and eaten our first courgette - doubtless some recipes will follow soon for this never-ending crop....

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

A little green challenge - June to August 09

I thought it might be interesting to undertake a little green audit, to take stock of what we are doing and to identify areas where we could be doing more. First I did this because it had nifty graphics and actually a quite useful action plan to print out and keep at the end. Then I made a list of the things we do (or don't):

House and home
  • No pets (although WH and I do talk about getting a cat, or a dog, or a cat and a dog....)
  • No dependents (again, currently still under discussion)
  • Dramatically reducing our reliance on toxic chemicals for cleaning, which I've mentioned before. This extends to washing up liquid and washing powders, which are all Ecover
  • We turn off appliances, often at the wall, when they're not in use. Actually, a couple of months ago, WH bought a gadget (like this one) for measuring the energy consumption of all of our appliances (because he's that kind of guy and likes to measure, compare and then formulate a plan of action). We discovered that the computers didn't use as much energy as we'd feared, and that our downstairs hi-fi was actually using a huge amount of energy just being plugged in (it used to lose all its radio stations if you turned it off at the wall). Result - we asked for a radio for Christmas and switched the hi-fi off at the wall. The idea was that we'd use it to play cds, but the result is actually that we just listen to the radio a lot more.
  • As we're in rented accommodation and are in the process of buying a house we've not invested in composting facilities yet, but this will be one of our first purchases after we've moved. In the meantime, our council collects paper, cardboard and a lot of plastics. We take our glass to the nearest recycle centre and old clothes go to Oxfam. We've even begun to explore the joys of freecycle (although so far this has resulted in us obtaining some, albeit useful, garden tools and not in us actually giving anything away).

Food and drink
  • Reducing our reliance on supermarkets. Most of our fresh food comes from other sources, but store cupboard ingredients and household goods (washing powder, toilet roll, etc) come from our local supermarket. We've moved to buying from an organic range wherever there is the option and, where we have to buy fresh produce, opting for the local variety (NB this finally put the nail in the coffin with our Tesco shopping - more than 20 varieties of apple on display, in early spring, and not a single one from the UK)
  • Patronising local shops and suppliers, from the farmers' market to our butcher and still using the Oxford fishmonger (just requires a little planning)
  • Starting to grow our own vegetables and being much better at eating seasonally (apart from the aforementioned apples, we're still buying them but now they're French...). We're completely organic in the garden, with no pesticides, fungicides or chemical fertilizers
  • We only eat meat once or twice a week, and only ever opt for free-range, preferably organic, animals
Transport and holidays
  • No car - our feet, our bicycles (to a lesser extent these days since WH had his front wheel nicked and hasn't quite got round to replacing it) and public transport get us around
  • We don't tend to have more than one main holiday a year and this year we'll be staying in the UK for that one (a trend that is likely to continue for the foreseeable future). Festive and seasonal breaks tend to be spent at home, or with family (to whom we travel by train).
  • I carry my copy of Metro off the train and recycle it at work (I used to use the 'someone else will read it so it's ok to leave it' argument, but now my train terminates at my station, so the abandoned papers just get junked).
  • I've stopped buying quite so many books and have joined the local library instead
  • As my toiletries and cosmetics run out, I'm replacing them with organic products made from natural ingredients (the range is really quite incredible now, but I'm particularly keen on Faith in Nature and Greenpeople)
  • We are increasingly spending our spare time working in the garden, walking, meeting friends and other no/low-cost activities, rather than spending money on entertainments

Having done this exercise, I can see some pretty big gaps. The biggest relates to house and home - once our house sale goes through and we're genuine property tycoons (or, at least, owners) we'll be able to address things like ethical energy suppliers, insulation, alternative power generation, etc, but until that day comes we're not really making any effort to invest in these areas in a property that isn't ours. You can also argue that our current choices are based, to some degree, on things we wanted to do anyway. For example, I don't like driving, WH can't drive and we live in the SE, near to good transport links for getting around. We also aren't blessed/encumbered yet with children and, should this happen, it could put serious strain on our stand of not being car-owners (although there are plenty of people who do manage it, I don't want to set myself up for a fall by declaring I will never have a car). There are also some areas where it feels like we aren't putting in as much effort as we could do. Yes, we switch off electrical equipment when we're done, but both WH and I spend quite a lot of time using computers in our spare time (it's where a lot of my information and inspiration comes from for environmentally-friendly alternatives to cleaners, pesticides and the like, but still). Also, if we go out for a meal (maybe once a fortnight), all we believe about food miles, seasonality and animal welfare goes out of the window.

So I'm setting myself a little green challenge. For the next two months (until 7 September) I will:

  1. not buy any new items of clothes (this includes shoes). This is a tricky one for me, as I often use a little bit of shopping as a pick-me-up at the end of a long week. I don't buy masses and masses of clothes, but I have gotten into the habit of spending in the region of £100-150 a month on average. In order to cushion the shock of this, I have limited my challenge to 'new' clothes/shoes. I don't think I've ever bought second hand clothes, but if I'm jones-ing for a fix, I might allow myself this alternative.
  2. limit computer 'faffing' - those moments when you 'just' go online to check the weather forecast and end up, hours later, browsing odd book titles on Amazon - to ten minutes maximum per day. In fact, I think I'll go further than that. I will not use the internet on my lunch breaks unless I have a specific task to complete (internet banking, etc). I will only use the computer on one night each week (my writing night) and for a maximum of sixty minutes each day at the weekend (to include finding recipes, checking the weather forecast, writing blog entries, etc.)
  3. make an effort to only choose the seasonal/sustainable option for meals out.

I'll record my progress here and, hopefully, you'll trust me not to greenwash you....

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Guests for dinner

We're very much looking forward to having some friends over later today, and in honour of the weather managing to maintain a bit of sun and heat into the weekend, having been heatwave all week when we've been at work, I've made us a scrumptious strawberry tart.

Strawberry mascarpone tart
Nigel Slater, The Kitchen Diaries

1 egg
1 tbsp caster sugar
250g mascarpone cheese
2 drops vanilla extract
250g strawberries

For the base:
75g butter
250g sweet oaten biscuits (we used Nairn's oat digestives)

Rectangular tart tin (34x12cm)

For the crumb base, melt the butter in a saucepan and crush the biscuits to a fine powder (note, I actually did mine quite roughly - hope it turns out ok!). Thoroughly mix the crumbs and melted butter. Spoon this mixture into your tart tin and smooth them into the corners and up the sides. Press firmly but don't compact too much. Allow to set in the fridge.

Make the filling by first separating the egg. Put the yolk in a bowl and beat with the sugar. Beat in the mascarpone and then add the vanilla extract. You should have quite a stuff, light cream. Beat the egg white to stiff peaks then fold into the cream mixture. Spoon onto the base.

Hull the strawberries and slice thinly. Arrange them on top of the mascarpone. Keep cool until ready to serve.