Growing our own – Summer 2015

Summer is not my favourite season because I am in no way a fan of heat. But I do love our kitchen garden 🙂

My 2015 experiment was to grow edible flowers. I started simply and chose to grow Lavender, Chamomile and Borage; none of which had I grown before.

The chamomile is beautiful and exactly what I wanted. We finally made some fresh chamomile tea from the fresh flowers, and now I need to read up how to dry the flowers so they can be stored over the winter. I also found chamomile growing of its own accord on one of my walks. Such a beautiful and practical flower.

UPDATE 14.7.15: As with all foraging I have since discovered Pineappleweed and Scentless Mayweed look remarkably similar to chamomile and each other. So the wild chamomile I discovered on one of my walks may not actually be chamomile. I’ve still got a lot to learn when it comes to foraging!

The borage also grew exactly as I had hoped, once I decided to cover the baby leaves with some grass cuttings so that the slugs, snails and other bugs stopped munching on them. Apparently you can eat the young leaves, though I did not try them as I did not know this at the time. I have however eaten the flowers which I am excited to say do taste a little like cucumber. They definitely make a meal look much prettier and more colourful.

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The Lavender on the other hand isn’t doing so great, but at least it is growing… slowly…

We also have peas growing beautifully.

The flowers that grow before the peas (not to be confused with sweet pea flowers which are toxic) are also apparently edible, along with radish flowers and basil flowers – all of which are in our garden! I haven’t looked in to the best way to harvest and eat those yet though.

The radishes bolted quicker than I was expecting and I have since discovered that after the edible flowers, radishes produce edible seed pods that taste a bit like snap peas! What an amazing plant to be edible in so many forms.

Sunflower petals, and of course the seeds are also edible, but we are still waiting for those to open.

And last but not least, chive flowers are also edible,

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As it happened, we only got one chive flower from ours, so we left it to turn white so that we could save the seeds for next year instead. Hopefully we’ll get more flowers next time?

And this is the best of the rest-

Above you will see spring onions; runner beans that came as an activity in our toucan box; potatoes (planted in bags as well as numerous plants from our compost trench); our baby apple trees; salad leaves; baby tomatoes; carrots; a poppy plant that planted itself in our compost trench as well as another intriguing little plant that looks a bit like a bulb of some sort which has looked the same for months now. No idea what it is but it can be seen in the photos above next to the compost trench potato plants. We’ll wait and see…

So I’m really enjoying eating our garden produce. Now we are turning our attention to harvesting seeds.

UPDATE 14.7.15: Turns out the intriguing little plant in our compost trench is an onion plant that has gone to seed! Makes perfect sense as we are always throwing onion peelings in the compost. Onion flowers are actually also edible, so we have another edible flower! Wonderful 🙂

What I’ve Learnt in our First Year Growing our Own

This Spring and Summer we tried our hand at growing Courgettes, Basil, Parsley, Tomatoes (San Marzano), Potatoes (Maris Peer and Rooster), Peas (Hurst Greenshaft), Carrots (Flyaway F1), a surprise Butternut Squash plant, and Jolokia Naga Chillies kindly donated to us from our local Bakers!

COURGETTE

  • The courgette plant produces male and female flowers
  • The first flowers are generally male and when the flower falls off, this is no problem, it’s meant to happen!
  • Female flowers have a mini courgette behind them which will continue to grow if fertilsed. If not, they will simply rot with the flower.
  • In moist conditions, if the flower remains on the fertilised courgette, sometimes the courgette may rot along with the courgette. This happened to two of our courgettes so I made sure to knock the flower off when it was ready on future ones.
  • Rather than pull up the plant on harvest moon I left the courgette plant until it either stops producing fruit, or until frost kills it off.
  • Courgettes can be eaten before they are fully grown.
  • Cut the courgette off with a sharp knife.

BASIL AND PARSLEY

  • Relatively easy to look after, plant in an adequately sized pot in good compost and on a sunny window sill, water regularly, and harvest frequently. I learnt that growing a plant from seed was a lot easier to look after than buying a grown plant as you can pick when young. They can also be grown all year.

TOMATOES

  • At first I did not prune the plant, I planted all the seeds (40) in one tiny pot, nearly killed them with lack of space and then by frost in the garden. And I did not provide any support. I now understand this advice is there for a reason or you will not get any or much fruit or will be late and not as tasty.
  • Should take a month from appearance of tomato to fully ripe. Mine however did not ripen.

POTATOES

  • As with tomatoes I thought had been hit by potato blight but may have been magnesium deficiency due to insufficient nutrients in compost, or simply damp weather conditions. I learnt not to water on the leaves but just the roots to avoid this.
  • Not all potato plants need to flower before producing potatoes.
  • To cure harvest, put out in dry sun to cure for a few hours then store in dark bag such as brown sack.

PEAS

  • I planted mine in a ridiculously small pot
  • Peas do not like SALT!
  • Pick regularly to encourage more from.
  • Once flowers arrive it shouldn’t be long before the first peas grow.

CARROTS

  • My carrot growing was quite successful. Next time I will put them in deeper compost
  • Carrots do not need a great deal of water or they will concentrate on growing foliage (but too little water and the carrot will crack).
  • Carrots are biennials and so the seeds and flowers will produce in the second year. F1 varieties like mine will not produce seeds.
  • If the carrot does flower, the carrot will be woody and inedible.

BUTTERNUT SQUASH

  • These are related to courgettes and other squashes and grow in a similar way with similar flowers. The baby squash can be seen behind the female flower.
  • They are pollinated by nectar gathering insects, or if necessary they can be hand pollinate with a finger or brush.
  • They require a lot of space to grow.
  • It takes around 3 months from a fertilisation of flower to maturity.
  • Unlike courgettes, butternut squash can not be eaten until fully ripe.
  • The seeds from supermarket Butternut Squash, even if they do germinate, may not produce any fruit because you cannot be sure of the heritage of the plant.

NAGA CHILLI PLANT

  • Chillies are self pollinating, but jolokia naga chillies actually need a little help. I did this with a brush dipped in warm water and then I brushed it on the flower heads
  • Naga chillies can take 190 days to ripen
  • Jolokia naga chilli plant grows up rather than out.

COMPOST TRENCH

  • We are making our own compost the very old fashioned (and probably least efficient) way of digging a trench, adding our veg and fruit peelings (uncooked only so not to attract vermin – plants that may have fallen to the ground anyway), covering it with more soil and then layering in this fashion and turning over from time to time. Time will tell if the compost is ready for next summer.

I have also learnt that although we aimed to be as economical as possible with our vegetable growing, it can be a very expensive business! If you buy new pots (some needing to be very large), compost, fertiliser, tools and seeds, that lot can set you back a lot, and then you do not have a guarantee that you will grow any good food! At the supermarket you at least can see what you are getting for your money.

The trick, I think, is to do as much as you can in preparation. Make your own compost as early as possible so you don’t need to buy any, re-use old pots or use anything to hand (eg. use old wellingtons to grow carrots), research online for recipes to make homemade organic fertiliser. It takes a more effort to begin with, but can save a packet if budgeting is the reason you are growing your own.

Our mind frame is to treat it all as a fun experiment, then if our plants do fail all is not lost.The entertainment and learning Ana and I gained from it completely overshadowed the fact that I killed our peas and that our tomatoes were late fruiting and rotted before they turned red or that the butternut squash will not ripen before the frost. And our successes in terms of courgettes, carrots, parsley, basil and potatoes were happy bonuses!

Next year I want to grow chamomile so I can grow my own tea (I drink a lot of chamomile), and I’d like to try growing garlic from a garlic bulb.

Impromptu Learning in the Supermarket

On a trip to our local Sainsburys to buy ingredients to make a Christmas cake (Christmas is fast approaching!), the perfect opportunity arose for us to browse the fruit and veg aisles and talk about what we had learnt from our kitchen garden experiences this summer.

First we passed the winter squash. We looked at the many varieties noting that they are all types of squash but different from each other. We talked about how they grow, and we talked about the baby butternut squash growing in our garden, comparing it with the fully grown squash in the store.

Baby Butternut Squash on plant

The baby butternut squash growing in our garden, sown too late to fully ripen.

We then looked at the courgettes and talked about their similarities to the winter squash, especially in regards to how they grow. We noted the end that was cut from the plant, and the end that had a flower before it was brought to the market to be sold.

Growing Courgette

A growing courgette plant.

We passed many varieties of potatoes and looked to see if we could find the varieties we grew. On finding Albert Bartlett Rooster potatoes, we wondered if ours tasted better, because fresher kitchen garden produce should taste better.

Curing Homegrown Potatoes

Fresh Rooster Potatoes straight from the kitchen garden.

And finally we took a look at the lovely red and juicy tomatoes, and commented that unfortunately ours are still green. We discussed that although tomatoes can come in many colours, shapes and sizes, the variety we grew (San Marzano) is not ready to eat until they are juicy and red.

unripe san marzano tomato

Unripe San Marzano tomato, still on the plant.

But that is not all! We also found some new fruit and veg to explore – a fresh coconut, and an ear of sweetcorn that still had its leaves on. Both these were opportunities to learn about other natural foods we had not grown.

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Ear of corn straight from the supermarket, happily still wrapped up in its leaves.

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I looked online for a good article about how to shuck corn, but as I was reading I noticed Adriana had already pulled the leaves off herself, without any help from external sources. Just toddler curiosity!

And the coconut we enjoyed as a refreshing drink. Adriana really enjoyed the coconut milk, but she wasn’t as interested in the coconut flesh. I will have to think of a recipe to use it in.

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In conclusion, the ordinarily mundane trip to the supermarket turned in to an impromptu opportunity for education and exploration, enjoyed by us both. We are very lucky in the UK that we can experience exotic fruits like coconut even though they do not grow here, and I think it’s important that Adriana realises that. I was also excited to find the corn kernel still wrapped in its leaves because it is a rare sight in a British supermarket. Although I’m no stranger to corn on the cob, I’d never bought sweetcorn quite so fresh looking before, so the new experience was a treat for me too. I guess it just proves that the opportunity for learning is everywhere, and needn’t be expensive.

Crunchy Oat Breakfast

As a huge fan of everything oats, it’s fun for me to experiment with the many ways they can be transformed into a tasty breakfast or dessert. Particularly fond of the topping on my Apple & Strawberry Oat Crumble, I thought why not cook the topping on it’s own to eat as a crunchy oat cereal (much cheaper and healthier than shop bought), or use as a topping for yoghurt or ice cream.

Crunchy Oat Breakfast

I ate a bowlful this morning with fresh blueberries and milk. Here is the recipe –

Crunchy Oat Breakfast

Recipe Serves: 4 bowlfuls (smaller than photo above)

INGREDIENTS
• 1 cup jumbo oats
• 1 cup rolled oats
• 1/4 cup olive oil
• 2 Tbsps honey
• 1 – 2 Tbsps mixed spice
• 1/3 cup raisins
• 1/3 cup sunflower seeds

METHOD
• Pre-heat the oven to 180C.
• In a large bowl add the oats, oil and honey and stir well. Then add the mixed spice, raisins and sunflower seeds, and stir until evenly combined.
• Transfer to a baking tray lined with a sheet of baking paper, and cook in the centre of the oven for 20 minutes, stirring half way through.
• When the 20 minutes are complete, turn off the heat, but leave the oats to cool in the oven to crisp up.
• Store in an air tight container until ready to eat.

 

Carrot & Potato Soup

With the carrots and potatoes from our homegrown kitchen garden I decided to make a soup. It already feels like winter is here, and this warming recipe is exactly what the doctor ordered.

Spicy Carrot and Potato Soup

Recipe Serves: 3

INGREDIENTS
• 1 Tbsp olive oil
• 1 onion, chopped
• 2 large carrots, peeled and roughly chopped into chunks
• 2 large potatoes, peeled and roughly chopped into chunks
• 1 tsp ground cumin
• 1 tsp ground corriander
• 1 tsp hot chilli powder
• 800ml veg stock (I used 2 knorr veg stock cubes)
• 1 tsp celery salt

METHOD
• Heat oil in a large saucepan and fry the onion for 5 mins or until softened. Stir frequently.
• Add the raw chopped veg and fry with the onion for another 3 minutes.
• Add the cumin, coriander and chilli powder and stir until evenly coated.
• Pour the vegetable stock on top, stir, bring to the boil, then add the lid and reduce to a simmer for 20 minutes until the veg is tender.
• Blend the mixture to desired consistency (I used a hand blender and left a few vegetables whole).
• Season with celery salt. Stir, and serve.

The original recipe can be found at BBCgoodfood.com.

Growing our Own – Update September 2013

When I last wrote about a month ago, the growing season was in full swing and we had eaten some tasty carrots, courgettes and peas from the garden (even if I had killed the peas by mistake). Now at this point in September the garden looks quite different.

Next Sunday is Harvest day – the closest Sunday to full Harvest moon (which this year falls on Thursday 19th). With harvest traditionally being the day to gather fresh produce ready to store over winter, and as we had a nice and relatively warm day, we decided to gather our food a week early so that our potatoes could dry and cure in the sun for a few hours to give them a better chance of not spoiling.

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As you can see, Adriana was very helpful. First we tipped out the potato plant and compost onto a plastic sheet on the lawn, and then we dug for treasure in the shape of potatoes. Then, when we pulled up the remainder of the carrots (mostly small ones left), Adriana pulled off the carrot tops so that I could wash and dry them, and then store them in an air tight bag in the fridge so that they might stay firm for as long as possible. We also ate a carrot or two on the way…

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This is the first potato we peeled, sliced and made into tasty chips. Yummy.

I now realise it is unlikely that we will get a butternut squash from our surprise plant as they take so long to mature and must be fully ripe before harvesting. I am no less excited about the plant, however, as it has grown wonderfully large and healthy with zero help from me, and even if we don’t get a fully grown butternut squash from it, we do have a baby one.

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A perfectly formed, but tiny baby butternut squash.

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The Butternut Squash Plant as it looks in September.

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Two male butternut squash flowers.

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And an even smaller butternut squash (female flower), never given time to ripen, or even flower, when it was accidentally removed from the plant.

The courgette and tomato plant have been left in their pot and we will see what will become of them. There are 5 tomatoes currently growing, one of which I have been waiting to turn red for almost a month, so if they do not ripen by Sunday I may bring it indoors to give it more chance as it is getting progressively cold. As the seeds I used weren’t even in date, and I thought the cold spring had killed them off back in April, to have anything growing from these plants has been a pleasant surprise. Next year I will actually follow the guidelines of ruthless pruning as I noticed a huge difference in growth once I finally did. First I wanted to see how the plants behaved naturally though.

tomato

Now I look forward to the carrot and potato soup I made with our garden produce, and to hopefully growing again next year.

naga chillies

EDIT: Our local independent Baker gave my husband a baby Naga Chilli plant (they grow their own chillies to use in spicy sausage rolls etc.) and we had a lovely crop of these also. They seemed to take forever to grow on our windowsill (it was too cold outside), but they did. We kept the seeds, but haven’t planted those yet.

Growing Our Own – Summer 2013

My last update on growing our own vegetables was back in the end of April, and much exciting activity has happened in our garden since then!

You may remember we were attempting to grow Courgettes, Tomatoes, a Blueberry plant, Carrots, Peas, and two varieties of Potatoes; along with Basil and Parsley in the kitchen.

Photo from April 2013 as our veg looked at the time

The Basil and Parsley grew wonderfully on our kitchen window sill and have accompanied many of our meals since.

Our Parsley and Basil as they were in April

Our Parsley and Basil as they were in April

 

The blueberry plant (bought from Poundland so I didn’t expect much!) failed to do anything at all.

The Failed Blueberry Plant that stayed dormant despite regular watering and beautiful weather.

The Failed Blueberry Plant that stayed dormant despite regular watering and beautiful weather.

I accidentally killed the peas by over crowding them in a tiny pot, and by killing them with salt!

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Exciting times when the peas began to flower and then pea pods formed!

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Note to self – Learn from your mistakes! Poor shriveled up peas 🙁

We did however manage to eat a few pods, though the peas were small, before I killed them all. Even better, my Mum and Dad were growing peas at the same time and we’ve had a bumper harvest from their crop, so we in no way feel like we have missed out.

The potatoes don’t look much different to be honest. No flowers yet, just a few dieing leaves… so we are yet to see if they will be a success at all.

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Our Carrots have been a great success and we’ve enjoyed picking them out of the compost to eat as and when needed. They have grown in a variety of sizes, and it’s fun to guess which are the big ones before we pull them out.

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One of the first Carrots we pulled up

But possibly my biggest excitement were the Courgettes that I thought were long dead as we had a frost just after I put them outside; transferred from the warmth and comfort of the kitchen window sill. With the help of molasses as fertiliser, slowly but surely they carried on growing until we had our first beautiful yellow flowers.

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Notice the stem – female courgette flower to the right, male courgette flower to the left.

 

The first flowers shriveled up and fell off, which I later learnt is what is meant to happen because these are the male flowers.

Male Courgette Flower

Male Courgette Flower

It’s only later that the female courgette flowers grow, and if fertilised, swell into a courgette.

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Female Courgette Flower

We actually enjoyed our first home grown courgette today, roasted with root veg, chicken and gravy. It tasted all the better knowing we grew it ourselves.

And last but not least, I have noticed two buds on our tomato plant at long last, so we may be enjoying some tasty tomatoes some time soon.

Tomato Buds

As a surprise to our gardening experiment, on making a compost trench to throw vegetable peelings into, I noticed seedlings growing one day. I left them alone to see what they would do and in no time at all the spot looked like this –

Our surprise vegetables

Our surprise vegetables

With a little researching it looks very likely that seeds from a Butternut Squash that I threw on the compost with the peelings, have germinated and produced the leaves above. Time will only tell if they provide us with any winter squash. I look forward to finding out!

The whole process, through trial and error, has been educational to me and certainly educational and great entertainment for my toddler! She may only be 2 years old, but she relishes and appreciates food she can watch grow and pick herself, and growing our own can do nothing but good things for her understanding of healthy and sustainable food choices. She can name plants just by looking at the leaves, and most importantly, she just really enjoys it.

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Homemade Cardboard Kitchen Sink

Having finished the Homemade Cardboard Box Toy Oven, my next plan was to make a kitchen sink to go with it.

Step one: I didn’t have a cardboard box to match the dimensions of the oven, but I did have one bigger, so I turned it on its side and cut along the front to decrease the depth, until it more or less matched that of the oven.

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I added some new cupboard doors, and a side compartment with shelves (both fixed with brown packing tape), cut an old tube from wrapping paper to make a drain pipe, and cut a circle on the top in which to house the ‘sink’.

Step two: I then painted the cupboard a matching shade of red, left it to dry overnight, then added the finishing touches.

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The handles and towel rail were made with finger knitted string, the doors are kept closed with cardboard painted white ( though I am trying to think of something sturdier to use than this) fixed with a nut and bolt, and the bowl fits neatly into the hole cut out for the sink.

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Step Three: The finished product! The taps are made from the tops of liquid hand wash bottles which have simply been inserted into a hole I made in the cardboard with a metal skewer. The drain pipe has been painted white and sits neatly at the back. I didn’t even fix it with glue as it holds in place pretty well on its own.

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We have some sponges, fabric food, plastic bowls, a spare salt shaker, funnel, rolling-pin, wooden spoons and other kitchen accessories for Ana to play with inside.

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The sink and cooker now live next to each other in our hall and our daughter loves them! All we need now are some pots and pans to go with it. A fun, inexpensive kitchen that’s already had many hours of play 🙂

 

Homemade Flour or Polenta Play-doh

Yesterday I made something I have been planning to for ages – Play-doh.Homemade Play-doh

I first tried it with some polenta flour that was out of date and needed using up.

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It worked alright, but wasn’t real play-doh texture or consistency, though I was able to model a duck with it.

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I next tried the recipe with plain flour, but made it too sticky.

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To fix this I just added more flour and kneaded it in well.

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We used it to pretend bake, rolling out the dough with our mini rolling pin and cutting it into shapes with our cookie cutters. Ana was much more interested in that than modelling with it.

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This is the recipe, modified from one found in Birth to Five – the NHS booklet given out to new mums.

Homemade Play-doh Recipe

INGREDIENTS
• 1 cup flour
• 1 cup water
• 1 Tbsp oil
• 1/3 cup salt
• 1/4 cup cream of tartar
• (optional – food colouring)

METHOD
• Mix all of the ingredients together in a saucepan over a low heat until the excess moisture has dried up and the required texture is achieved. Add more flour if too sticky, or a little more oil if too dry.
• Allow to cool before playing.
• Afterwards store in a large container or freezer bag.

Optional – Separate into three batches and knead in yellow, blue and red food colouring to make coloured play-doh, if required.

 

NOTE – I found when storing my play-doh it became sticky again quite quickly. This may be because it’s summer and hot outside; because I made my play-doh too sticky to begin with (I used the original recipe as a rough guide rather than an exact copy); or because that’s what happens to homemade play-doh – I don’t know as this is the first time I have attempted to make it. Whatever the reason, I found that storing it covered in a layer of extra flour, and then adding yet more flour when playing with it, helps to keep it going longer. It also apparently keeps longer stored in an air tight container in the fridge, but I have not tried this myself.

Quinoa (better than pancakes) Cakes

Today, to use up some vegetable stock from a homemade soup, I thought it would be a good idea to cook some quinoa; which would also go nice with some sausages we had no other plans for.

Like the numpty I am, I left them cooking too long and all the water had gone – It was seconds from the bottom burning black. I added more water to avoid this, and surprise, surprise, we then ended up with quinoa mush. I ate it for dinner anyway, but my husband had his sausages with a roll instead.

As I don’t like waste, the next challenge was to find a way to save the rest of this mushy quinoa…

My husband suggested quinoa cake. I googled it, found a recipe ( at the organicatoz.com), I made some, and they are deelish!

Quinoa Cake

I’ve called these ‘better than pancakes’ because you cook them the same way once you have your batter, but they are so much easier! They stay together much better when you flip them, they work with any flour, they don’t require milk, and I’m sure the quinoa makes them healthier too. But like pancakes, they taste great and are versatile enough to easily customise into a dessert or savoury dish. Or, as I did; eat as they are.

Quinoa (better than pancakes) Cakes

INGREDIENTS
• 3 cups (over)cooked quinoa (mine was already flavoured with vegetable stock)
• 2 large eggs
• 2/3 cup flour (I used spelt whole-grain)
• 1 tsp oil (I used stir fry oil)
• (optional – agave syrup to serve)

METHOD
• Combine the first 3 ingredients in a bowl and stir until they form a mixed batter.
• Heat the oil in a pan on a medium heat, then add a heaped Tbsp off batter. Allow to brown and cook on one side for 4 minutes.
• Flip the cake over and cook on this side for another 4 minutes.
• Repeat with any remaining mixture until it’s all used, then eat warm. I ate mine as they were, but with a drizzle of agave syrup.

 

There is still a lot of mixture left, so I am thinking about cooking the rest as a cake in the oven as an experiment… I may attempt this tomorrow. Or I may just make more of these!