Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Allotment Sheds

While photographing the plants in our allotment the other night, I noticed what an amazing variety of sheds there are on the site: they range from smart shop-bought ones to ramshackle hybrids of old doors and windows and serve as anything from functional toolsheds to rustic little hideaways for snatching a few moments of peace and tranquility. All of them charming in their own idiosyncratic way! I got to thinking about  how these sheds could reflect parts of their owners' personalities/ approaches to life: you can probably tell a lot about a gardener from his/ her shed... (we don't have one, btw :( our tools get stored in the polytunnel or taken home for use in the garden.)

Used to support climbing roses

Windowless, but still  useful...

Chalet style- I'd love to see what';s inside this one

Rainwater collection system

One of my favourites stands in the long grass, unused and forgotten, but sturdily made from salvaged windows and doors, almost a greenhouse

Now what's in here?!

Functional but still quite attractive

A real retreat from the world...

...Hard to believe this is the city

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Ingredient of the month 10: Agave Nectar

This natural sweetener is really good for baking with...

As promised when I wrote about food trends for this year, here is another natural sweetener, and one I've been using for well over a year now. I find that in baking, if I substitute 200ml of agave nectar for the 200g sugar in my basic eggless cake recipe and add it to the wet ingredients I get a really soft and fluffy textured cake that is still sweet but without the harsh qualities of sugar, if you know what I mean.
Most agave nectar comes from Mexico or south Africa, and is made by heating the juice from the leaves of agave plants, to produce light, amber or dark agave nectar. (You can also get raw agave nectar, produced by using enzymes rather than heat.) The darker the agave nectar, the more strongly caramel-like the taste.
Why is agave nectar better for you than sugar? -Well, it contains mainly fructose rather than sucrose, which is assimilated less rapidly by the body, so you don't get a sugar " high" (followed by a "low"). It has a far lower glycaemic index than sugar. Also, agave nectar is about 1.4 times sweeter than sugar, so in theory you don't need as much (thereby saving calories, as agave nectar has a similar calorie count to sugar).
Having said this, though, I often use agave nectar as as straight swap for sugar in baking, which seems to work very well. It dissolves easily, even in cold liquids, so it's a good addition to cheesecakes, flapjacks, iced desserts and drinks. The amber and dark agave nectars are great on porridge or pancakes, too. Many vegans use them in place of honey.
What about nutritional benefits? Well, being a refined food, any minerals and suchlike that agave might contain are destroyed in the processing. But at least it's not bad for you. (One caution though:  foods like agave which are high in fructose should not be taken in excess as fructose can only be broken down by the liver, so too much will put a strain on that organ.)