Monthly Archives: June 2010

First signs of edible life in the garden

BFF: Pumpkin and potatoes

Its been a while since I posted a garden update, but fear not – the plants live! In fact, my poor little serrano peppers were the only casualties. My fault completely. Their seeds had only just sprouted in a small pot indoors when I over-ambitiously thrust them outside to scorch in the bright sun (who could have seen that coming in England?). Lesson learned: be patient.

Fortunately, my fondness for hot peppers means I didn’t restrict my chilli crop to serranos alone. All of my jalapenos are alive and well and last weekend, I glimpsed my first sign of an actual chilli. I can taste the salsa now!

There will be peppers!

The jalapenos weren’t the only plant to make an appearance. It seems like all around the garden, things are finally taking off.

The tomato plant in the raised bed has fruited. There are just a few little bundle-balls of joy so far, but I know there are more to come.

First tomatoes of the polytunnel

I even harvested my first potato yesterday. I’m growing the spuds in a big pot, and I now understand why ready-made potato growing pots have access points at the bottom: I really had to DIG to find that potato! In theory, there’s more where that came from, but I’m kind of tempted to wait a bit and let them develop more. These are Queen Royal earlies (I think – though I don’t trust my memory on the name and may very well be word associating). Potato growers of the world – when do you know that they’re ready?

First potato

I’m also growing pumpkins in a very large pot next to the potatoes. Sweet pumpkins, so when Thanksgiving and Christmas arrive, I can pay homage to the fam back home with a good old fashioned pumpkin pie just like mom used to (and still does) make. The pumpkins are VERY happy, except for when they are sad, usually because they are thirsty. And man do they drink a lot of water.

Pumpkin in progress

Now this really excites me: cucumbers! My first gherkin is hanging tenderly by the seat of its pants, anxious to grow into a full-grown pickle, ripe for pickling. If you know me at all, then you know I’m obsessed with pickles, and forever disappointed by the pickles I’ve found in UK supermarkets. Most are overly sweet, and not at all crispy. The baby gherkins are sometimes a fair compromise, but sometimes a girl needs a big, juicy, crisp dill pickle. If the UK pickle-makers ever had a Chicago-style veggie dog (or a battered and fried dill pickle), they’d understand.

First cucumber sighting

Beyond the garden, in the orchard that our cottage is named after, the apples and pears have appeared, and I’m so excited to see them. We are going to have a TON of apples this year, and I’m already thinking about what to do with them. I’m trying to look beyond an infinity of crumbles, shortcakes, pies and sauces and am somewhat inspired by our current elderflower champagne experiment. Watching, listening and smelling our bucket of bubbly brewing away makes me ambitious to try other home brews. So I’m thinking… cider? Why not?

First pear sighting

First apple sighting


Ratatouille Minestrone Hybrid

Ratatouille Minestrone Hybrid

It must be summer because the zucchinis (aka courgettes) have started to arrive en masse in the organic box. As anyone who gardens can attest to, where there is one zucchini, there are many many more. And I guess with all these zucchini around, I’ve been thinking about what to do with them. Two things struck my craving: Ratatouille and Minestrone Soup.

Given the UK’s typically cold and damp weather, I’m almost always in the mood for soup. But strangely, it’s been all sunshine and blue skies for the past week or two. What is going on? I’m walking around in shorts and a t-shirt like I’m back in Austin, Texas again. I’m not complaining. But I’m also not in the mood for a hot bowl of steaming liquid.

So I decided to create a hybrid of ratatouille and minestrone by taking the ingredients from minestrone and cooking them as you would a ratatouille. And how is that, you might ask?

Coincidentally, Nigel Slater published a recipe in last Sunday’s Guardian for classic ratatouille. He reckons that the secret to delicious ratatouille is to cook the vegetables separately, then combine and roast them together.

One reason ratatouille may have lost favour is because it is too often cooked like a stew, with all the ingredients lumped in together. It takes longer to cook them separately, but the individual attention allows each ingredient to keep its own character. You end up with layers of flavour rather than a casserole. Like quiche, this is better served warm than hot.

So I decided to try this approach with my minestrone ingredients: onion, garlic, zucchini, red pepper, celery, carrot, tomatoes and white butter beans. I fried each ingredient separately (except the beans) then combined and roasted them together for 40 minutes, then let it cool before serving.

This ratatouille minestrone hybrid is seriously one of the most delicious things I’ve cooked ever.

The only thing missing was the eggplant, a staple of ratatouille and one of my favourite foods, but alas, I didn’t have any that evening. Nigel may be on to something – the flavours of all the veggies really did come through, and I was surprised by how well the celery worked in the mix.

Grilled PolentaGrilled Polenta

What I love about ratatouille is that its a great vehicle for other foods. Put it in an omelet, bake it into bread as Rachel Demuth does, have it on a sandwich, or do as I did and eat it with some grilled polenta. Add a sprinkle of parmesan if you’d like, or leave it off for a totally delicious vegan experience.

Nigel cuts his veggies large, but I like mine a bit more finely chopped. I think they’re more versatile that way, but feel free to do as you wish.

I’m not the only one thinking about zucchini lately. Check out Tinned Tomatoes round-up of zucchini-related recipes from around the web, and Allotment2Kitchen’s fabulous courgette potato cakes.

Ratatouille Minestrone Hybrid

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 onion, sliced
  • 2 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
  • 1 carrot, diced
  • 1 zucchini, diced
  • 1 red pepper, diced
  • 2 celery stalks, diced
  • 1 400g tin chopped plum tomatoes, drained
  • 1-2 cups butter beans or other white bean, cooked
  • a few sprigs of thyme (or a sprinkle of dried)
  • a handful of fresh basil leaves
  • salt and pepper
  1. Sweat the onions in olive oil until they are soft, add the garlic and cook until soft. Remove to a deep roasting tin or baking dish.
  2. Fry each of the other vegetables separately, adding more oil as necessary, until each is pale gold. Remove as each one is ready and add to the tin or dish, followed by the tomatoes and butter beans, seasoning with salt, black pepper and thyme. Give everything a good mix around.
  3. Bake at 180C/gas mark 4 for about 40 minutes until soft and tender. If you have time, let it cool down a bit. Stir gently with a handful of torn basil leaves and serve.

Related links and posts

Roasted ratatouille

Ratatouille-stuffed fougasse

Nigel Slater’s Classic Ratatouille [Guardian]

Courgette Potato Cakes [allotment2kitchen]

Zucchini Round Up [Tinned Tomatoes]

“Fat equals flavour. Live with it.”

Pear, feta and pine nut salad

“Fat equals flavour. Live with it.”

Such is the tagline of Y Polen, a restaurant in south Wales where Tim and I had lunch last Thursday. We were on a short break to Brecon Beacons National Park, hoping to enjoy a few good meals out and a nice sleep at a B&B.

Our first stop was Y Polen, AA restaurant of the Year for Wales in 2009-2010. I already had high hopes for the food, but when I spied their “fat equals flavour” catch phrase on the back of a waitress’ t-shirt, I instantly liked the place just a little bit more.

Y Polyn from the car park

I spent a few years of my life believing that eating fat would make me fat, so I avoided the stuff altogether. Ironically, in this effort to be healthier, I was actually doing something completely the opposite of healthy, both in mind and body. The body needs fat. And food needs it to. What better way to feel satisfied after a meal and less likely to eat more than by cooking food that is satisfying to eat? One of the ways to make a meal satisfying is to use fat. Avocado, nuts, olive oil, and even butter and cream all have their merits in a healthy diet. It’s all about balance.

It took me a while to come around to fat, and I admit I still have my issues with it, soI felt like Y Polen’s t-shirt was speaking directly to me. Alright then.  I’ll live with it.  But would Y Polen live up to its end the bargain?  Does fat really equal flavour?

I decided to test the theory by ordering the peach, feta and pine nut salad to start and a vegetable tagine with creme fraiche for my main.  I was expecting the salad to be drenched in dressing and the tagine to be oozing with creme, but both dishes were surprisingly light on the fatty stuff.  The salad (shown above) was very lightly dressed, gaining most of its moisture from the peaches, allowing the flavours of the sweet pine nuts and salty feta to really shine through.  I loved it, and it’s something I can see myself trying to make at home.

Vegetable Tagine with Creme Fraiche

The tagine was nice, though a little too hearty for a hot summer’s day.  But as with the salad, Y Polen used fat to augment the dish, not overwhelm it.  And it didn’t take much.  Just a spoonful of creme fraiche turned a pile of veggies and chickpeas into something special.

Special.  But worthy of restaurant of the year?  I’m not certain. I’ll probably remember the t-shirts more than the food, and the chicken pen out back, which makes me think it’d be really easy to have chickens of my own back at orchard cottage.

My chicken coop will be better

If any place deserves restaurant of the year it’s Felin Fach Griffin near Brecon, where we had lunch on Friday. It was certainly Restaurant of the Trip.  Everything about the place made me want to stay there forever, or at least for a night in one of their rooms.  The place had a great garden outside and a nice country pub feel inside.  Everyone who worked there was relaxed, friendly and seemed to really care about the food.

Felin Fach Griffin


I kept things light with a fresh goat’s curd salad, a meal that made me want to learn how to make my own goat’s curd at home (how hard can it be?). I also had some delicious bread and a garden salad, the leaves of which (I’m pretty sure) were picked from their garden that afternoon.


Fresh goats curd

I also had a delicious glass of white wine whose name I couldn’t remember, so I emailed the Felin Fach to ask about it.  Julie, the head of their “wine crew”, got back to me straight away:

The wine you had was called Wein 1, Pfaffl 2008. It was a blend of Riesling, Gruner Veltliner and Pinot Blanc and one of my favourite wines, Pfaffl in Austria. In fact its often in my fridge at home as one of my reach to wines for a glass! They also do Wein 2 which is a red blend of St Laurent and Zweigelt, again yummy but had to fight against our Zweigelt Umathum for a position and very narrowly lost its place in the listings but will be sure to make a comeback!

This is someone who is seriously excited about wine.  I love it.  And I like her philosophy on three-person parties: Three is all it needs to open that extra bottle and not feel bad!”

So in the end, our short trip to the Brecon Beacons was just a little too short. We spent more time eating and not enough time getting out into the hills, which we discovered are beautiful while driving up and down the small lanes of the National Park.  This place was made for camping in.  Next time I go back, I’m bringing a tent.  I can think of nothing better than roughing it in Wales for a few nights, then rewarding myself by returning to Felin Fach for a good meal and a sleep in a proper bed.

But until then, I’m off to plan my chicken coop.

Monica in Wales


Related links:

Eat Fat to Lose Fat [Wired]

Felin Fach Griffin

The Daily Griffin

Y Polyn Restaurant

Brecon Beacons National Park

Back from vacation – so what have I missed?

Truth be told: I’ve been back from vacation for about two weeks now. But it’s taken me this long to catch up on life and get my mind back into blogging again. It’s been a manic return with lots of good things to show for it:

We have a clay oven… and it works!

Firing the oven is harder than it looks

We had a summer bbq with about 20 people and five tents on our lawn to inaugurate the clay oven and celebrate the summer. It was as if my dream of running a vegetarian campground and cooking retreat had finally come true.

Breaking down camp

As part of the BBQ menu, I made way too much of this delicious Red Rice and Quinoa Salad from Ottolenghi’s cookbook (we lived on the leftovers for days):

Red Rice and Quinoa Salad

My indoor cherry tomatoes are already harvestable. Alas, I am a slacker and have no pictures to show for it.

The elderflower champagne is in progress.

Elderflower champagne in progress

And I’ve just about uploaded all of my pictures from my trip to Chicago and beyond. Here are a couple favorites.

Me and dad after a trip to the Art Institute:

Me and Dad

Me, Stephanie, Matt and Abby on the morning after Matt and Abby’s wedding (I was best man!):

Brunch crew

A tent-side snap from Steph’s and my camping trip on the Mississippi:

Cheers to camping

Truth is, there’s just so much to catch up on, I don’t really know where to start. Most likely in the garden – it’s amazing what can happen in a few weeks time. So stay tuned for some updates on the plants, pots and polytunnel. There will be peppers here!

Welcome readers from ThatsFit!

I usually spend so much time writing about food that many of you may not realise that a few years back my food habits were even more out of control. You can read about it today in my interview on, part of their “Success Stories” series about “bloggers who share their weight-loss journeys and hefty doses of inspiration with their readers.”

Of course, there’s so much more to the “weight-loss journey” than weight loss itself. Sometimes it’s even about GAINING weight. That’s where I’m currently at – trying to build muscle through strength training. But I’ve been steering clear of posts about deadlifts and dumbbells. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy the strength training, but it’s not really what fitness is about to me.

In Biology, fitness is defined as “an organism’s ability to survive and reproduce in a particular environment.” I like this definition because it raises the importance of THE WORLD AROUND ME. My fitness is dependent on my environment, and for me, discovering my environment is the most rewarding part about getting fit, and the most rewarding thing to write about.

Still, it was nice to change things up and write about the “journey” – nothing like a little reflection to put things in perspective! So many thanks to ThatsFit and welcome to all my new readers. I’m so humbled that you include me among the “inspirational bloggers” of the world.

And if you haven’t seen it, head on over to ThatsFit to check out the interview, aptly titled: Monica Traded Beer For Blogging and Lost 40 Pounds.

Roughing it on the Mississippi

Where it all began

My sis and I are headed to Mississippi Palisades State Park this morning. It’s on the Illinois-Iowa border, high up in the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. Never been there before but am quite excited. People think the midwest is just endless seas of flat plains and cornfields, but there’s some texture to these landscapes, especially near the rivers.

I’m also psyched to be adding another campout to my sister’s and my growing list of adventures. Our last trip was in California, 2009, and we’re long overdo for another. We’ve been camping together for years. The picture above MIGHT be from our first campout ever, taken on a trip with our aunt Sandy, who I have to thank for getting us started on this camping kick, which only gets stronger as the years go by. And more ambitious, especially in the food department.

After we’ve thoroughly saturated our clothes in sweat and campfire smells, we’re heading a little further north to Dubuque, IA for a wedding. Then it’s back to England on Tuesday. But until thin, I’m going to live it up stateside as much as possible. Rain be damned! Mississippi Palisades or bust!

Marseilles, IL, USA to Palisades State Park - Google Maps.jpg

On Vacation… sort of

Huckleberry Hideaway
Every time I visit Chicago, I think I’ll have all sorts of time to relax with my writing. But once I get here, I realize all the things I have to catch up on with my family and friends, that I don’t get much time to hunker down with my laptop for hours on end. So I’m declaring myself on vacation. Which reminds me…
I say I’m visiting Chicago, but that’s somewhat misleading. Usually I spend very little time in the City itself but instead head to my mom’s hideaway at Woodsmoke in Illinois’ equivalent of “countryside” (i.e. cornfields galore and flat as far as the eye can see). That’s where I was last weekend, and tomorrow I’m heading further afield towards Iowa for some camping before going to a friend’s wedding in Dubuque.
Now, before I start obsessing over checklists and campfire recipes, here’s a few snaps from a recent trip to the stables where my mom keeps her horses. This is “Aurthur”, a gentle giant who used to be a carriage horse. He wanted to groom me.
Arthur wanted to groom me
Arthur wanted to groom me
Arthur wanted to groom me
Arthur wanted to groom me