A little slice of River Cottage, wherever you are

Paul West wants us all to think about where we might set up our own little piece of paradise. Best known for spending a couple of seasons on the River Cottage farm in Central Tilba, West is now living in Bermagui with his wife Alicia and two young sons Otto and Bowie (and, yes, the scene-stealing border collie Digger is still part of the family).

Paul West, and Digger, with some backyard produce. Picture: Chris Middleton.

Paul West, and Digger, with some backyard produce. Picture: Chris Middleton.

After River Cottage Australia wrapped up in 2016 the family moved back to Newcastle for a while, to be closer to family, and then to Melbourne while West dabbled in a few television and radio jobs.

They've been in Bermagui, population 1500 or so, for a while now and it feels like home.

"For a long time I had that dream to live on a rural property and live that River Cottage lifestyle," says West.

"Now, in hindsight, I've come to the realisation I want something in between.

"I don't want to live on a rural property, I'm not a full time farmer. I don't want to live in the city either. For my family the happy medium was finding a small village where we can have a classic 800 square metre backyard, surrounded by bush and farmland, somewhere I can still have a close relationship with the people that produce the things I can't in a backyard.

"River Cottage is more a state of mind than a physical location."

The Edible Garden Cookbook & Growing Guide, by Paul West. Plum. $39.99.

The Edible Garden Cookbook & Growing Guide, by Paul West. Plum. $39.99.

His new book The Edible Garden is about just that, part practical guide, part cookbook, part inspiration, helping even the most novice of gardeners find that little piece of River Cottage life, whether it be River Windowsill, River Balcony or River Courtyard.

"After River Cottage I had a lot of time to think about why the program was so successful," says West, adding that it's popularity took him something by surprise.

"It was when I started to travel around afterwards I realised how much it resonated with people, how much it meant to people.

"So many people I met would be like, Paul, we love the show, we love the whole farm thing and raising your own livestock and veges, one day we'll go and do it on a farm like you, but one day.

"I started to realise that people had a little bit of a mental barrier around food production, that, through programs like River Cottage, they felt like they needed to be in the country, on a farm, to be able to grow food when really that's not the case.

"So I thought I'd like to write a book that embodies the principles of River Cottage that people have enjoyed so much but put it in the context of where people actually live, which is in the urban, suburban environment.

"We've got a great affinity with regional living in Australia, we still fancy ourselves as a bit of a bush nation, but the reality is we're one of the most urbanised societies on the planet."

He says you don't have to start by ripping up your lawn and going crazy, it can be something as simple as herbs in a pot.

"I'm not here to tell everyone that it's realistic to live in suburbia and grow 100 per cent of your own food, that's not what this is about. This is about growing a little bit and then hopefully growing some more, the idea of starting small is something we've lost the appreciation for in our contemporary society."

The Edible Garden Cookbook & Growing Guide, by Paul West. Plum. $39.99.

The Edible Garden Cookbook & Growing Guide, by Paul West. Plum. $39.99.

If you do have more space West has four go-to plants he suggests you start with:

Zucchini: they're such an easy win for a gardener, they're so robust and quite happy to grow abundantly and they grow so much fruit, you'll be trying to give them away but everyone else is growing them too.

Pumpkin: especially if you don't have a lot of pre-made vegetable beds, as long as you've got a bit of bare ground the pumpkin can be planted into, with a bit of rain and some summer warmth, pumpkins are like triffids, they will take over everything.

Cherry tomatoes: just let them go, if it's your first time growing or you're not a confident grower, don't worry about pinching out the growth tips or staking, things like that, just let it go, they'll go gangbusters, cherry tomatoes grow and ripen so quickly, it's an easy win.

Silverbeet: it's the plant that loves to be hated, the plant that if you go away for two weeks over Christmas you come back and no one has watered the garden everything is dead except for the silverbeet, it's looking at you with its long luscious green leaves going, yep I'm glad you were gone, I'm better without you, it's such a nutritionally dense food as well, it's a good one to have in your garden, it will just keep growing as long as you don't rip out the whole plant and just cut off leaves as you need them.

There are more than 50 of West's favourite family recipes in the book as well.

"Food is the ultimate mechanism for bringing people together, it has been that way since the dawn of our species," he says.

"We're living in a time where people are more individualistic, socially isolated, despite social media connecting us around the world, people are lonelier than ever before ... growing and cooking food is this wonderful low-entry, accessible thing that we can use to connect with other people because there's a real vulnerability to sitting down and sharing a meal with someone."

The Edible Garden Cookbook & Growing Guide, by Paul West. Plum. $39.99.

Events

Paul West will be In Conversation with Ryan Lungu, executive director of the Canberra Environment Centre, about Paul's new book The Edible Garden at Harry Hartog ANU, 6pm, October 17. Free. harryhartog.com.au

Other dates include: October 24, The Machinery Shed, Logan Brae Orchards, Balckheath; November 2, Garden of St Erth, Blackwood, VIC; November 6, Nest Cinema Cafe Books, Tumbarumba, NSW; November 9, Maitland Regional Art Gallery, Maitland, NSW.

Recipes

Broad bean falafel with pickled red onion and yoghurt-cucumber sauce

The Edible Garden Cookbook & Growing Guide, by Paul West. Plum. $39.99.

The Edible Garden Cookbook & Growing Guide, by Paul West. Plum. $39.99.

A bit of a variant on the usual chickpea-based falafel, I much prefer these broad bean ones, with their vibrant colour and delicate sweetness. This delicious meal is so moreish that it repays the effort of podding all those broad beans tenfold!

Ingredients

155g pickled red onion

2 large handfuls of green leaves

8 small pita breads

Broad bean falafel:

salt

1kg broad beans in the pod (about 350g podded)

3 garlic cloves, peeled

1/2 bunch of mint, leaves picked

1/2 bunch of flat-leaf parsley, leaves picked

1 tsp ground cumin

grated zest and juice of 1 lemon

1 tbsp plain flour, plus extra if needed

black pepper

sunflower oil, for deep frying

Yoghurt-cucumber sauce:

1 Lebanese cucumber, halved lengthways and seeds removed, finely diced

250g natural Greek-style yoghurt

grated zest and juice of 1/2 lemon

1/2 bunch of mint, leaves picked and roughly chopped

1/2 tsp salt

Method

1. To make the falafel, fill a large saucepan with water and bring it to a rolling boil over high heat. Season the water generously with salt, enough to make it as salty as the sea.

2. Fill a large bowl with ice and water. Remove the broad beans from their pods and pop them in the boiling water for 10 seconds or so, then use a slotted spoon to transfer them to the ice bath. Pinch the end off the tough outer skin and give the shell a squeeze from the opposite end so the bright green bean inside pops out.

3. Place the shelled broad beans in the bowl of a food processor. Add the garlic, herbs, cumin and lemon zest and juice, and pulse until the mixture starts to resemble breadcrumbs. Add the flour and a little salt and pepper and pulse briefly to combine. Take a tablespoon of the mixture and try to roll it into a ball - if it won't bind, add a little more flour and pulse again until it does. Roll tablespoons of the mixture into falafels, then place them on a tray and refrigerate for about 15 minutes.

4. Pour the deep-frying oil into a large saucepan to a depth of 10cm and heat over high heat to 180C. If you don't have a thermometer, place the handle of a wooden spoon in the oil - it should bubble constantly but not vigorously.

5. While the oil is heating up, make the yoghurt-cucumber sauce. Place all the ingredients in a mixing bowl and stir to combine, then transfer to a serving bowl.

6. Once the oil is hot, add the falafel in batches and cook for about three minutes or until golden and cooked through. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towel.

7. To serve, arrange the falafel, yoghurt-cucumber sauce, pickled onion, green leaves and pita on a big serving platter. Get everyone to load up the pita breads and dig in.

Serves 4

Pea and feta fritters with labneh

The Edible Garden Cookbook & Growing Guide, by Paul West. Plum. $39.99.

The Edible Garden Cookbook & Growing Guide, by Paul West. Plum. $39.99.

These sweet, salty fritters are an explosion of flavour, so I like to serve them simply with a few delicate leaves and some labneh. For those who haven't heard of it, labneh is yoghurt that has been drained to form a thick, tangy and almost cheese-like product. If you can't find any in the shops, you can easily make your own: line a sieve with a clean tea towel or piece of muslin and place it over a bowl, then spoon in some yoghurt and a pinch of salt. Let it drain in the fridge overnight then, hey presto! Homemade labneh.

Ingredients

400g shelled peas (fresh is best but you could use frozen too)

salt

2 spring onions, green and white parts finely chopped

3 eggs, lightly beaten

100g feta, finely crumbled

1 tbsp plain flour

2 tbsp roughly chopped mint leaves

2 tbsp roughly chopped fl at-leaf parsley leaves

black pepper

olive oil, for cooking and dressing

2 handfuls of sprouts or microgreens

200g labneh

lemon wedges, to serve

Method

1. Fill a medium saucepan with water, add a good pinch of salt and bring it to the boil over high heat. Plunge the peas into the boiling water and cook for three minutes or until tender, then drain well and place them in a large mixing bowl. Roughly mash the peas with a fork (I like to do mine about halfway between whole and pureed), then add the spring onion, egg, feta, flour, mint and parsley. Season with a little salt and pepper and mix gently to bring it all together.

2. Heat a large frying pan over medium heat and add a generous splash of olive oil. Plop a heaped tablespoon of the fritter mixture into the pan, then use the back of the spoon to flatten it into a 1cm thick disc.

3. Repeat until the pan is full but not overcrowded (you will probably need to cook the fritters in a couple of batches). Cook the fritters for four minutes on each side or until golden and cooked through, then pop them on a tray and cover to keep warm while you cook the rest. You should have about 20 fritters in all.

4. Lightly dress the sprouts or greens with olive oil. Divide the fritters among serving plates and serve with the labneh, sprouts or greens and lemon wedges for squeezing over.

Serves 4

Slow-cooked lamb shanks with spiced chickpeas

The Edible Garden Cookbook & Growing Guide, by Paul West. Plum. $39.99.

The Edible Garden Cookbook & Growing Guide, by Paul West. Plum. $39.99.

Good ol' lamb shanks. As far as secondary cuts go, this is one of the most familiar. Unfortunately, that familiarity has forced the price up a bit over the years, but it is still an affordable cut that is easy to cook and big on flavour. Paired here with Middle Eastern spices and chickpeas, this is a dish that will fill your house with exotic aromas and fill your belly with delicious hearty fare.

Ingredients

olive oil, for cooking

4 lamb shanks

salt and black pepper

2 red onions, finely sliced

2 tbsp garam masala

500ml chicken stock

400g can crushed tomatoes

400g can chickpeas, drained and rinsed

1/2 bunch of thyme, separated into sprigs

2 bay leaves

125 g natural Greek-style yoghurt

2 handfuls of rocket leaves

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 160C.

2. Heat a large flameproof casserole dish over medium heat and add a good splash of olive oil. Season the lamb shanks liberally with salt and pepper, then add them to the pan and cook for five minutes or until they are browned all over. Remove and set aside.

3. Add a little more olive oil to the dish and cook the onion for 5 minutes, then sprinkle in the garam masala and cook for another 2 minutes. Add the stock, crushed tomatoes, chickpeas, thyme and bay leaves. Nestle the lamb shanks into the chickpea mixture, then bring the whole lot to a simmer. Cover with a tight-fitting lid and pop it all in the oven for two to three hours or until the meat is so tender it falls easily off the bone.

4. To serve, spoon the chickpea mixture into four bowls and carefully place the shanks on top. Spoon some yoghurt over the top and finish with the rocket leaves.

Serves 4

This story A little slice of River Cottage, wherever you are first appeared on The Canberra Times.