Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas everyone!

This will be my last post of 2009 as from hereonin it's a whirlwind of packing followed by the whole of tomorrow being taken up with sitting around on the M6.

Look forward to more Kitchen adventures in 2010!

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Christmas Present series Part 5 - damson gin truffles

One of the joyous side effects of making lots of fruit liqueurs is the mound of booze soaked fruit you're left with at the end. I find sloes a bit tricky to deal with as they're too tart to eat with ice cream of something similar and it's really tricky to get the flesh off the stones.

This year I made damson gin for the first time and the ginny damsons are much easier to work with so I made a double batch of damson gin truffles. The children enjoyed mucking in to help (I didn't much enjoy the cleaning afterwards though, chocolate handprints all through the house) but they didn't enjoy eating them, these are properly grown up chocolates, dark, bitter and boozy. Small children explode if they eat them. Honest. At least that's what I've told my two.

Here's the recipe I lifted from the website:
Damson Gin Truffles

50g/2oz unsalted butter
150ml/6fl oz double cream
450g/16oz good quality dark chocolate
150g gin soaked damsons (stoned weight)
4 tbsp damson gin
Something like cocoa powder or ground nuts (hazlenuts work well if you get hold of them) to coat

First whizz the damsons to a paste in a food processor. Next melt the butter and cream together in a pan and bring to the boil. Break up the chocolate and add it to the pan, stir til it melts. Mix in the processed damsons and damson gin. Pour the mixture into a shallowish container and refrigerate for an hour or two 'til set.

Once set scoop out small balls of the mixture (I use a melon baller) roughly shape into a ball and roll in your chosen coating. Return to the fridge to set.

V popular Christmas gift this one!

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Tangerine Jelly photos

Tangerines in the raw .....

..... and the finished product.

Tonight we finished off the last of Jamie's tangerine jelly. We love the intensely orangey, light and refreshing taste. It was delicious with a splodge of yoghurt and a drizzle of maple syrup. I'd be interested to hear from anyone else who's tried this recipe though as ours came out as a really soft set. Probably not a bad thing in itself as I enjoyed the slurpy aspect but I find myself glaring enviously at Heston's wildly boinging gelatin phallus. (In the culinary sense I mean, back off Freud)

Friday, 18 December 2009

Oh the weather outside is frightful ....

.... but the fire is so delightful, and since we've no place to go - Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

Well, we knew last night that today was going to be a doozy and, sure enough, we woke to a thick, thick blanket of snow. The morning started with a phone call which was literally: "Hellothisistheschoolwe'reclosedtoday.Byeee!" click, brrrrrr. "um, ok" so the Christmas holidays started a day early in Norfolk. Willow was surprisingly glum about it as she missed her end of term party and didn't get to take in her home made cards and presents for the teachers. It was a sensible decision though, as the roads are treacherous. Last night's school disco taxi run was terrifying as the brakes on the car became frighteningly temperamental.

I wish I'd had the foresight to harvest the remainder of my mizuna crop as it the snow has given it an odd, almost translucent look I recognise from the frosty bit at the back of the salad drawer in the fridge. Still, my 'winter salad mix' I'm growing in the mini greenhouse turns out to be quite heavy on the mizuna so all is not lost. The snow has also seen off the last of the radish crop but only the tiny ones remained anyway. Feathers seems remarkably unphased by the white stuff though I do feel sorry for her out there (her snowy coop is pictured) and have been giving her extra rations of mealworms and sunflower seeds to build her up a bit.

To occupy ourselves at home today we made Jamie's Tangerine Jelly from 'Jamie's Family Christmas' on tv last night. Willow had fun squeezing all the tangerines, I've never made jelly from scratch before but the whole thing was remarkably easy. The jellies are quite lovely, very intensely flavoured and grown up, my thoughts are turning to Cointreau, I'm sure a shot or two could be squeezed in somewhere .....

The recipe doesn't seem to be on the Channel 4 website so I've transcribed it from the tv:
Jamie's Wibbly Wobbly Jelly.
600ml tangerine juice (approx 20 tangerines)
5 sheets gelatin
Small lump fresh ginger
Sugar to taste

Soak the gelatin in warm water to soften. Put half the juice in a pan. Grate the ginger and squeeze out the juice and add to the pan. Add the gelatin and gently heat, stirring til it melts. Add in the rest of the tangerine juice, taste and sweeten if desired. Strain into glasses and chill for a couple of hours.

Jamie served his with vanilla flavoured live yoghurt and chocolate curls but we didn't bother, was still yummy.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

You can't turn your back for a minute in this house.

Or "Christmas Present Series Part 4".

Festive cookery continues apace in The Kitchen this week as the decanting marathon commences. You may remember over the past few months we've been steeping purple bullace gin, sloe gin, damson gin and the experimental damson and elderberry gin. Everything except the sloe gin is ready for the fruit to be removed and to decant into pretty bottles, the liqueurs can be drunk straight away if you're desperate but they will benefit hugely from having a month or three to mature in the bottle.

So today I strained 2 demi johns of bullace gin and 2 more of damson gin which means I'm left with a whole load of boozy fruit to make use of. The damsons I have set aside for now and will make damson gin truffles with them next week (alcohol and chocolate, what's not to like?) and I turned my attention to the ginny purple bullace.

Adam and I opened a bottle of English 'Malt Spirit'. This is from the English Whisky company, it's whisky which hasn't yet matured enough in the oak casks to officially be called Whisky so is still a clear, white spirit. Adam and I weren't terribly impressed with it so I tipped the remainder over some of the used sloes (philistine, I know). I'll leave it a month or so, cross my fingers and hope it tastes ok.

The bulk of the leftover sloes I used to make Sloe Gin Jelly. It's just my original sloe jelly recipe but with alcoholic sloes instead of raw. I also had a small amount (approx a 'shot') of sloe gin left over so I chucked that in there too. It tastes much sweeter than the raw sloe jelly, more akin to the Sloe Jelly with Port I made.

I know the recipe was a success as this evening, Adam, Willow and I were engrossed in a game in the living room. Xanthe scampered in and announced "I like that jam!" - cue general panic about the jars of Sloe Gin Jelly quietly setting in the kitchen. My 2 year old tot had dragged a chair across the kitchen and stood on it to gleefully raid one pot of gently quaking jewel bright jelly. I couldn't exactly be cross, it is a great, fat seal of approval after all.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

And so the festive baking begins!

Back in the summer I feared my tomatoes weren't going to ripen so I picked a whole load green and made Green Tomato Mincemeat. It does sound odd but really the green tomato just replaces the green apple which is rather more conventionally used in mincemeat recipes. It produces a fairly light tasting mincemeat which suits my palate, there is no discernible 'tomatoey' taste whatsoever. To be honest though, just about anything smothered in suet, brandy, mixed spice and nutmeg would taste like mincemeat!

So, what to do with 6lbs of homemade mincemeat? Mince Pies? Check. I took some to my first jam sale last weekend to give away as samples of the mincemeat, however, I was forbidden from using them as the organisers of the fete were selling their own mince pies so I brought them home again. They are now nestling safely in the freezer awaiting a festive defrost in a couple of weeks.

Today we are on day 3 of house arrest with poorly children so to stave off cabin fever I've abandoned them to Cbeebies and locked myself in the kitchen to make Mincemeat Muffins. I used this recipe on Recipe Zaar but adapted it slightly to use what I have in my cupboards, plus I've anglicised the weights and measures. I also decided to leave out the sugar on the original recipe (there's plenty of sweetness in the icing) and use wholemeal flour. It gives the muffins a taste which is vaguely reminiscent of carrot cake and also shares that sense that if you sort of half close your eyes and squint a bit you can convince yourself that they're actually healthy.

Mincemeat Muffins.
50g chopped walnuts
1 pear, bottled in spiced cider, chopped (or chopped apple)
1 large egg
175ml apple juice
75ml vegetable oil
350g mincemeat
225g self raising wholemeal flour
1tbsp baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon

100g Icing sugar
1/4 tsp cinnamon
3 or 4 tsp apple juice

In a large bowl mix together the egg, apple juice and oil. Stir in the mincemeat and chopped walnuts and pear/apple. In a separate bowl mix together flour, baking powder and cinnamon. Add to the egg mixture and mix til just combined.

Fill a muffin tray lined with paper muffin cases about 2/3 full and bake at gm6 for 20 minutes.

To make the icing mix the cinnamon into the icing sugar and stir in enough apple juice to make a thickish icing (don't spill the apple juice in a cackhanded fashion and thin the icing beyond salvage. That's a bad idea. And I didn't do it. Honest). Spread the icing on the warm muffins.

If these cakes survive long enough I'll lob in the freezer alongside the mince pies but they're so warm and spicy and yummy they may not see tomorrow to be honest ....

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Well they do say you reap what you sow ....

I'm beginning to think that the highlight of the foraging year may just be the deep mid-winter. OK, so there isn't any fruit around (other than the last few crab apples clinging perilously to the trees) but now is the time to plunder the goodies we worked so hard to lay down over the summer.

Today we're having Hugh's Artichoke and Goat's cheese salad with our Sunday roast made with winter salad and Jerusalem artichokes from the garden with foraged hazlenuts. We're following it up with Mulled Quince and Pear crumble, assembled from quinces from the freezer (kindly donated by a friend), pears bottled in spiced cider (foraged) and some more hazlenuts (foraged).

The spice in the bottled pears is actually very strong and 3 small, chopped pears are enough to flavour the whole dish. I poured a little of the cider syrup over the fruit prior to cooking. As the warm, buttery smell of cloves and cinnamon wafts through the house there can be no doubt that Christmas is upon us. (Especially after our visit to Father Christmas this afternoon)

One of the joys of living in a small Norfolk market town is the impossibility of buying alcohol on a Sunday evening. Until recently we had 2 off licenses which meant we had until 8pm to buy wine but as the credit crunch has forced them to close we now have to rely on the supermarkets which close at 4pm. It's a pretty safe bet that about 4.05pm one of us will say "Did we pick up any wine to go with dinner?" - Doh. However, our foraging ways step in and save the day once more. Our store of fruit liqueurs and Quince cider will be pressed into service this evening, a tad unconventional perhaps but needs must.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

RIP Sir Digby Chicken Ceasar (a girl, despite the name)

Well, we are now down to one chook as poor old Digby turned up her toes yesterday. I came outside on Thursday and noticed her comb had turned a dramatic shade of purple and was flopping over to one side but she was still hopping around the garden reasonably well. I gave her a handful of mealworms and hoped for the best. In the meantime I looked up a variety of chicken diseases on the internet but I was somewhat puzzled as she didn't seem match any of the listed symptoms. The only plausible suggestion I found was that a purple comb can be a sign of heart problems. Digby has always had a wheezy chest and I think that heart and respiratory problems can be linked so that was my best guess.

When I went out to the coop on Friday morning she had taken a dramatic turn for the worst and, to be frank, it was obvious she wasn't going to last much longer. I made her as comfortable as possible, shut Feathers out of the run to give her some peace and went indoors to break the news to the children.

Willow was surprisingly upset for a child who claims to be scared of chickens but she seemed to come to terms with the situation quite quickly. She came up with the rather sweet idea of making a memorial of some kind to Digby to put in our fairy garden.

Sure enough, by tea time, Digby was no more. Feathers seems to be fine, though she's still rather pale faced followed her moult and she's still not laying but she looks energetic and healthy and her feathers are beginning to re-grow. Just to be on the safe side we'll leave it til after Christmas to get a replacement chicken in case my diagnosis is wrong and Digby had an infectious disease of some sort.

She's pictured with Feathers in happier times this summer, staring through the catflap in that gimlet eyed way she had. She used to peer through the murky plastic til she saw human feet walk past then she'd peck furiously on the catflap, making it flap and bang in an alarming fashion, in the hope of alerting us to her presence and persuading us to feed her marmite toast.

RIP Digby - fondly remembered chook and marmite lover.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

1st December 2009

1st December, how did that happen? Had to scrape ice off the windscreen for the first time today. I finally got around to 'closing down' the garden for the winter, not sure why I procrastinated about it for so long, it only took about 20 minutes in the end. All the old/dead plants have been dug up and one border dug over, I've left the other as it's still full of Jerusalem Artichokes. I pulled up the radishes that were of any size in case the frost damages them and I've brought the fairy houses in from the fairy garden for the same reason.

As I dug I reflected on the successes and disappointments of the season and started to ponder my plan for next year. I've decided my main goal is to maximise yield in relation to space utilised. My peas and beans were nice this year but the crop was disappointingly small. I sowed petit pois, broad beans, runner beans and borlotti beans. Each crop only produced enough for one or two family meals each which wasn't really worth the effort if I'm honest. I might give runner beans a go next year, around the bean frame in the front garden, would it be too optimistic to hope I'll have enough to give salted beans a go??

My main tomato crop was smaller this year than in previous years which was a tad disappointing but thems the breaks I suppose. I'm wondering if there's something else I can grow in the mini greenhouse next summer as a bit of a change though I'm not sure what. The strawberries were also somewhat thin on the ground, they provided a snack every now and then for the children but not enough to sit down to a bowlful each. I think next year I'll give the strawberry hanging baskets over to tumbling tom tomatoes which were a good crop again this year.

Rainbow Chard, Jerusalem Artichokes and Carrots were all great successes which I'll grow again. Crop rotation is a problem in a small garden though, the carrots will need to move but I don't know where to, the only alternative place is the sunny spot I'm keeping for next year's courgettes (which I'll grow in pots and bags to avoid the moasic virus I acquired this season).

Think I need to send off for some seed catalogues and peruse them from under a snuggly blanket armed with some sloe gin. The joys of winter gardening.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Composting in a small garden.

I'm the kind of person who goes all out to try and be green. You name it, we do it, energy saving lightbulbs, water butt, recycling, freecycle etc etc The one thing we don't do which I feel incredibly guilty about is composting - but we did have washable nappies for Xanthe so that's got to off set somewhere along the line hasn't it?

I've struggled to find a composting solution for our small garden. I genuinely haven't got space for the traditional kind of compost bin which needs to be in direct contact with the ground. I'm also a bit worried about the smell as we'd be barbecuing/playing/drinking summer evening wine all around it. We tried a wormery in the garage once but fairly rapidly killed all the occupants - no idea how - we felt appallingly guilty and didn't feel confident having another go and risking another massacre until we knew where we went wrong.

The other problem is what to do with the compost once you have it. My tiny yard is about 5m x 6m. The shady side where nothing grows is occupied by a chicken coop. In addition I have 2 borders making an 'L' shape which are crammed with veggies, a mini greenhouse (pictured with it's winter seedlings a few weeks ago), several hanging baskets, a handful of pots and my radish skyscraper. My only real opportunity to dig in compost is around January/February before the main planting season begins and I actually don't need a huge amount of compost for my borders and pots - so what to do with it the rest of the year?

I currently assuage my guilt by using the local council's garden waste collection scheme. They very kindly take away our garden waste and take it to some sort of community composting arrangement. Kitchen scraps are dealt with by the combined forces of our cat, the chickens, the African Land Snails and Adam. But this still leaves me with the problem of how to re-vitalise our hard working soil over the winter period.

Last year I planted green maure (field beans) which seemed like the ideal solution. The only problem with this is that they're really hard to dig in properly, the pesky seedlings kept re-sprouting from the soil like tiny green phoenixes which played havoc with my legitimate broad bean crop though I suppose I could get around that problem with some sort of toilet roll tube arrangement.

My latest idea is the Bokashi Bran system. It's speedy composting, aided by a 'bran' mix which contains friendly bacteria and it can compost stuff that a traditional heap can't, like small bones and cooked food. The mixture is then dug into the soil and allowed to break down for another 6 weeks before crops can be planted on it. My theory is we could just collect kitchen scraps in the Autumn and turn them into compost for early spring. The only trouble is timing is a bit tight at the moment, I believe the box we have takes about 6 weeks to fill with scraps so we'd have to fill the box up really quickly which is fairly unlikely given the troop of scavengers that inhabit this house.

Still, I've sent off for my bran in the hope we can make it work, maybe I'll fall back on the green manure if we don't have enough leftovers to make it work. Or maybe Adam can stop having seconds for a little while - who knows ....

Monday, 23 November 2009

Christening the Medlars

Today I cooked Medlars for the first time, christened the Medlar you might say. I've been keen to try them for ages but they're difficult to get hold of these days. They were popular in this country in the Victorian era but have fallen out of favour in recent times, I don't think they are grown commercially anymore so you have to either find one growing wild or grow them yourself. Fortunately for me, someone with a Medlar tree in their garden was giving some away on our local Freecycle. I was lucky enough to be the chosen recipient and got my hands on a large boxful.

One thing I can say for certain, they are NOT a thing of beauty. Pictured are the raw fruit, looking squat, spiky and sullen and, believe me, the appearance does not improve on cooking. As you may already know, Medlars aren't fit to be eaten raw, you have to wait til they're rancid. Properly rancid - completely brown, soft and squidgy (more correctly known as 'bletted'). I bravely ate one raw which was, ummm, tolerable. It had an unusual sweet/sour taste which wasn't awful but I struggled to silence the voice in my head screaming "WHAT ARE YOU DOING? IT'S ROTTEN!"

Medlars are reasonably well known for making good jams, jellies and chutneys but seeing as we have huge quantities of all of those I decided to try Medlar 'fudge' (scroll down a bit for the recipe). I'm not sure the term 'fudge' is entirely appropriate as it's not a fudge by any stretch of the imagination but is much closer to a fruit butter. It's kind of like a smooth, thickish jam but not as thick or grainy as something like Membrillo which leads to another kind of Medlar christening - what should this recipe be called? Medlar curd? Medlar cream?.

The final product has a complex flavour. I can taste elements of quince, apple and pear in there, underlined with a rich, spicy, caramel, vaguely reminiscent of Christmas. It's indescribably delicious served as suggested in the recipe I linked to, that is, mixed with cream, crushed macaroon biscuits and drizzled with maple syrup. All in all a resounding success, I may even plant a Medlar on our mythical allotment - if it ever materialises.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Fresh November veggies.

This post now seems to be mocking me! Last Hurrah? Back in September? Pah! A quick 15 mins in the garden today produced more than enough veggies for tonight's dinner, which seems amazing to me as a novice winter gardener.

I harvested a large pile of Swiss Chard which has perked up immensely since September. I seem to remember at the time we had a prolonged dry spell which caused the powdery mildew to attack everything in sight. The near constant rain ever since has produced lots of lovely, strikingly verdant new leaves. I also dug up a large bowl of Jerusalem artichokes - the first of the crop and just a tiny fraction of what remains in the ground (the photo is of wizened artichoke stems against a winter sky). The Chard I'll steam and serve buttered with garlic and the artichokes will be tossed in seasoned flour and shallow fried til gorgeously, crispy, nutty brown.

The November radishes and salad are also vying for harvesting attention and the pak choi/tatsoi could do with thinning a bit. (Thinning! In November!) I do have to admit defeat with the butternut squash though, it's a huge plant, stretching halfway down the front garden and it made lots of flowers but none pollinated and we didn't get any fruit.

I'm quite proud of the amount of produce we get from our tiny garden. When planning next year's crops I'm going to give serious thought to maximising yields in relation to space used, more of which anon. Now I just need the pesky chickens to start laying again ......

Friday, 20 November 2009

A Glut Squared

Is how Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall describes a surfeit of preserves. You preserve your glut then have a glut of preserves, which is what I am currently in possession of. I've come to view my jams and chutneys more as ingredients than as products in themselves, after all there's only so much jam and toast or pork pie and pickle any non-obese person can eat. I won't re-hash old ground but will instead refer you to Hugh's original article here which gives a few ideas.

This winter I'm experimenting with the preserve store in an attempt to add to his suggestions with a few of my own. I have previously given a brief mention to yellow bullace jam as a sticky glaze for chicken legs. I cook the chicken in the oven then brush it with warmed jam before putting it under the grill to caramelise and sprinkle with dried lavender flowers before serving. More recently I made Delia's Cumberland Sauce using sloe jelly in place of redcurrant jelly. It made a deliciously tangy sauce which I served poured over thin frying steak as this was before I learned it is more correctly served with white meat but, hey, we enjoyed it.

As I type I have a fragrant mutton tagine in the slow cooker. Thanks to Hugh's article, no stew in this house is complete without a dollop of chutney and today is no exception as alongside the mutton, chick peas, tomatoes and spices is a generous half jar of gooseberry chutney. I've also experimented with my Spiced Pear Chutney, as I mentioned before I was somewhat disappointed with it as a chutney as it tastes too much like cold curry but stirred into a slow cooked stew and served fresh flat bread and raita, it really comes into it's own. The mutton I have stockpiled in the freezer is the perfect foil as the sharp, sweet chutney flavours cut through the fatty meat.

Today is Adam's birthday so for dinner tonight, alongside the tagine we're having sesame bread and possibly a few jerusalem artichokes if I can be bothered to dig some up! But we're definitely having River Cottage pear cake for dessert - it's all done for Adam's benefit obviously, it's not like I'd use his birthday as an excuse or anything, oh no, perish the thought .....

Monday, 16 November 2009

Wild mushrooms and leftover chicken

Yesterday was a lovely day. We broke our mushroom hunting duck with a little help from some friends (well, an awful lot of help if the truth be told) Adam and I have shied away from mushroom collecting in the past mainly down to our inherent reluctance to poison the family. If you flick through a mushroom identification book almost every edible mushroom seems to carry the caveat "Not to be confused with the deadly poisonous (but almost identical) Stinking Hornbeam of Death!" - or similar (though, ironically the black Trumpet of Death fungus is actually edible). But some friends who have a history of wild mushroom gathering and subsequently clinging to life invited us along on their forage so we decided to give it a go.

It was, apparently, ideal mushroom gathering weather, bright and warm after a period of rain. You'll be relieved to hear we didn't eat the Fly Agaric pictured but what we did find were a large patch of Boletus something-or-other, closely related to ceps but not quite ceps. It was a hugely rewarding and rather exciting experience. It's totally different to gathering wild fruit as once you know where a fruit tree is you can reliably go back year after year and be sure that, weather conditions permitting, you'll have a crop of fruit. Mushrooms are way more random in that, you can identify a likely environment, you may know there's a history of mushrooms in that area, but you still can't be sure where the damn things are! You need to rummage around in the leaf litter (where they're very well camouflaged) and it's down to sheer luck whether you find what you're looking for or not.

We adults got rather over excited and raced around the bracken patch like loons once we found our Boletus. Even the children got quite carried away, screeching "Mushroom!" every time they found one though they were under strict instructions not to touch any themselves.

I think the main benefit for Adam and I was the confidence building. We've ordered ourselves a field guide to mushrooms and will happily have another go at mushroom foraging under our own steam. Here's how I used some of our box of mushrooms:

Leftover chicken and wild mushroom pie.
200g chopped mushrooms
2 cloves garlic
300g leftover cooked chicken
75g butter
25g flour
200ml chicken stock
Thyme (fresh or dried)
1 medium potato

Melt 50g of the butter, add the mushrooms and garlic and a pinch of salt. Cook over a medium heat until all their liquid is released, then turn the heat up to boil the liquid off. Add the cooked chicken.

In a separate pan, melt the rest of the butter then add the flour to make a roux. Pour in the chicken stock and whisk to form a smooth sauce. Pour over the chicken and mushroom mixture, add the thyme and some seasoning and mix. Put into an ovenproof dish. Slice the potato thinly and layer over the top in a hotpot fashion and dot with butter.

Bake at Gas Mark 6 for about 30 mins or until the potato is golden on top and the filling heated through.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Sloe Jelly with Port.

Oh good Lord, what a day. The weather out there is just foul, earlier on we ducked out into town to buy some football boots for Willow. The walk from the car to the sports shop was about 3 minutes and in that 3 minutes all 4 of us got soaked to the skin. It's cold, it's windy, it's wet. Ugh.

On the bright side, it's perfect weather for locking myself in a warm, steamy kitchen with a bubbling jam pan for an hour or two. I'm experiencing that familiar end of season "Quick! What can I make!" panic, when I frantically scour the hedgerows for the last remnants of wild fruit before retiring til summer. My last minute forage turned up the last few wilding apples still clinging stubbornly to the trees plus a wealth of sloes (not purple bullace). I'm not sure what made me think of adding port, I'd never even tasted it before I bought a bottle last weekend with this recipe in mind, it just kind of sounded right and, luckily, it tastes right too.

Sloe Jelly with Port.
700g sharp, wild apples
300g sloes
sugar and port (see method for quantity)

Roughly chop the apples and throw them into a pan with the sloes. Add enough water to almost cover the fruit. Bring to the boil and them simmer til soft. Strain in a jelly bag (or colander lined with muslin) for several hours. Measure the strained juice and add 1lb sugar and 2tbsp port per pint. Boil til setting point is reached and pot in the usual way. The yield is about 2.5lbs per pint of juice.

I'm very pleased with the final product and judging by the squabbles over who gets to lick the pan, it's going to be popular. The port gives the jelly a delicious sweetness and depth, though I think if I make it again I'd increase the amount of port as it's quite subtle. I'm now vaguely disappointed that I got a chicken out of the freezer for tomorrow's roast rather than mutton as I'm sure it would make an ideal partner for my sloe and port jelly.

Next task - Medlars!

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Chutney Bread and other adventures.

Hmmm. Undecided. I experimented with chutney bread today. I found a recipe for piccalilli bread but it's obviously a heinous crime in this house to be caught with shop bought preserves so I decided to make it with my gooseberry chutney instead. I made it in the breadmaker, standard 2lb loaf with with half and half stoneground, wholemeal flour and normal strong, white bread flour plus 4tbsp chutney. The resulting bread is nice but not obviously chutney bread, if you see what I mean. It has a dark, sweet, chewy flavour vaguely similar to a wholemeal loaf I used to buy made with treacle. I think I'll try it with a stilton ploughman's and a glass of port before passing my final verdict. (by the way, I only recently discovered port, why did no-one tell me it's not like sherry at all?)

Elsewhere in the kitchen I've been teaching Willow and Xanthe to make crumble (pictured) I was sent a bag of quinces by a very kind friend and we made spiced quince crumble (chucked a couple of cloves into the water when simmering the quinces and added ground cinnamon and allspice to the cooked fruit) which was delicious. Since the arrival of half a dead sheep at our house I have the luxury of a chest freezer so as we are already stuffed to the gunnels with preserved quince in numerous forms I decided to just plain old freeze the remainder.

It struck me that I'm actually quite fortunate to have got by with only a small freezer until now. What with necessity being the mother of invention and all that, it's forced me to get creative on the preserve front. If I'd started out with a chest freezer, it would have been very easy to just throw bagfuls of wild fruit in there and just use them as they are but as it is I now have an array of 'new' products like ketchups, cordials and bottled frui to use. Next time I make quince crumble I'm going to add in some of my pears bottled in mulled cider, much more interesting than just plain old poached pear.

Saturday, 7 November 2009


What is it with recession and home brew? Back in the 90's Adam was, apparently, quite prolific on the home brew front. Having not brewed anything for over a decade, this year he decided to use up our supply of wilding apples by making cider and his home brew renaissance seems to have co-incided with another economic downturn. Happily, the increased popularity of home brew at the moment means it's much easier to get hold of supplies. Even our sleepy little Norfolk town now boasts it's own home brew shop.

Apologies for the vagueness of some quantities, this has really been an experimental process!

We started with about 20lbs of apples which was made up of about 80% sharp tasting wildings and 20% full on crab apples. They were sliced roughly and put into a fermenting bin with 5 gallons of water. Adam pounded them with the end of a rolling pin to release as much juice as possible and added 1lb sugar per gallon of liquid. After about 3 weeks in the fermenting bin, when the cider had cleared, the apples were scooped out and the juice strained into an air tight container with an air lock.

At this stage, it's advisable to monitor the frequency of the bubble-flobble through the airlock to make sure the cider is fermenting correctly. A rate of one flobble every 20 seconds to start with is about right, if it's slower than this try adding a bit more sugar or yeast. When the flobble rate slows down to one a minute, it's time to bottle up.

We poured the cider into bottles (plastic is probably wise!) and put some sugar in each to create bubbles - 4 tsps for a 1 litre bottle, double for 2 litre. After around 5 weeks it should be ready to drink. Ours looks impressively clear in the bottle but it does have quite a lot of sediment at the bottom which is impossible to avoid mixing into the poured drink - thanks to the lovely bubbles - but it doesn't affect the taste or mouth feel.

The final product is really very good - to my palate at any rate. It's quite dry but also light and refreshing and troublingly easy to drink. I think the key is finding apples which are sharp and not over sweet. If, like us, you have a number of wild apples trees to choose from, it's worth taking the time to get to know the characteristics of the different fruit. A good cider apple needs to be quite tannic, if you cut/bite a chunk out and it browns quickly, you're onto a winner. We've also made a 2nd batch, replacing the crab apples with japonica quince but that's not ready yet so goodness knows how that one will turn out.

I have no idea how strong the finished cider is but I'm finishing off that glass in the photo and let's just say the spell check is working overtime!

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Winter in the Veg Patch

This is the first year I've attempted to grow winter crops and, so far, it's not going too badly. Pictured are my winter radishes growing in their freecycle skyscraper. Their progress is much slower than their summer brethren but they're still trundling along in a persistent manner. Also pictured is my mizuna, the original sowing went the same way as the first crop of radishes - chomped by Very Hungry Caterpillars while we were on holiday in August. I've decided I'm a huge mizuna fan. This is the first time I've tried it, it's very reminiscent of rocket both in taste and texture but it's slightly softer and milder so I find it more acceptable as a salad or stir fry leaf on it's own.

The Jerusalem artichokes look just about ready to harvest so I'll be chopping down the withered stems and leaves at the weekend but leaving the chokes in the ground where I'll pull them up as needed. Last year I saved a few to re-plant in spring but I've since realised there's no need as there are always loads in the ground that get missed and sprout up again. (even the neighbours have 'benefitted' from an accidental crop)

The mini greenhouse is looking good too, planted up with Pak Choi, Tatsoi and winter salad. Something is chomping in there though and I'm not sure what, the damage isn't devastating enough for slugs but surely it's too cold for caterpillars in November?

Next project is to initiate the Bokashi composting system. I'm hoping this works out as conventional composting can be tricky in a small garden so fingers crossed.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Charity Shop Foraging and Eschewing the matchy matchy.

I can't believe it's been over a week since I last posted, that's utterly disgraceful. It's mostly explained by the fact that Adam and I have been celebrating our wedding anniversary with a short break in Cambridge. Adam studied at Emmanuel College and as an alumni he is entitled to stay at college when he's in town so that's what we did.

At the ripe old age of 37 the full on under graduate experience was, erm, wearying. The public areas of college were lovely but the accommodation was a bit like bunking up in a young offenders' institute and please don't get me started on the stench in the Union bar toilets - I'm trying to expunge it from my sensory memory.

The highlight of our trip (for me anyway!) was the plunder of Oxfam - my beautiful, bubbly wine goblet and butter dish are pictured. I just love the rich pickings of charity shops in wealthy towns, added to this is my recent discovery that the kind of stoneware crockery I like appears to be hugely unfashionable at the moment and - therefore - abundant and cheap in charity shops. It is, however, impossible to find a whole matching set of anything. I had a blinding revelation after seeing the Roughluxe Hotel on Hotel Inspector the other week and realised that pieces don't have to match, just be from toning colour palettes.

I feel I've been set free - no longer do I have to reluctantly leave lovely plates behind because there are only 3 of them. Now I can buy them and look forward to even more charity shop foraging to find a few more in a complimentary shade. I get to go shopping, I get Lovely Things at a bargain price, charities get some money, I get to congratulate myself on not falling into the consumerist trap (much!) and I get to give new life to stuff that could have been dumped in landfill. Everyone's a winner.

Monday, 26 October 2009

I kissed a frog and I didn't like it.

I've been making an effort to balance my preserves store of late. I have oodles of jams and jellies but was feeling a bit chutney lite. I'm always looking for something new to try so have been experimenting with a number of recipes that caught my eye. This approach is something of a double edged sword as, yes, there are previously untapped gems out there but to get to them you have to kiss a few frogs (and mix a few metaphors). Unfortunately, 'kissing a frog' in chutney terms is hard work as it involves a few hours chopping and simmering and a whole heap of washing up.

So to help you tread a little more sure footedly on the chutney path, here's a brief review of my recent chutney frogs:

Sloe Chutney - Avoid, avoid, avoid. Excessively tannic to the point of unpleasantness.
Spiced Pear Chutney - Sounded lovely, I imagined something sweet yet chilli hot. Unfortunately the spice blend was far too 'currified', it's like eating cold curry. Avoid unless you're Dave Lister.
Lavender Chutney - Probably unfair to include this as an out and out frog. If it was called Lemon Chutney it would be fine, it tastes lovely, very lemony but the lavender taste seems to have been completely destroyed in the cooking process though. Plus the recipe only made one jar. And the onions made me cry. Huff.
Date and Walnut Chutney - This one should be nice and it very nearly is, the spice blend is far too heavy on the cumin though and the it overwhelms the walnuts completely.

The Spiced Pear Chutney I'm hoping to use up as actual curry sauce, I've got half a sheep being delivered next week so I'm thinking some sort of slow cooked mutton curry may be in order. To be fair, the Lavender and Date and Walnut could be salvaged with some tweaking of the recipe next time round so I have a bit of a dilemma. It seems daft to make another batch now that I have about 10 jars of chutney in the cupboard but it also seems daft to chomp my way through 10 jars of not quite up to scratch chutney.

For the time being I'm keeping hold of them in the hope that the taste improves as they mature. I have had one success though:

Hedgerow Chutney
1lb onions
2lb cooking apples (peeled and cored weight)
2lbs blackberries
2 tsp grated lemon rind
3/4 pint cider vinegar
12oz sugar
3tbsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp mustard powder
1/2 tsp chilli flakes
1/2 tsp ground ginger.

Put everything except the sugar into a pan and simmer until the onions and apples are soft. Then add the sugar and heat gently til it has dissolved. Boil steadily until it becomes thick and jammy, spoon into sterilised jars and seal with vinegar proof lids.

Why the picture of the baldy chicken? Just because her little baldy head is making me laugh quite a lot at the moment!

Friday, 23 October 2009

Right, that's IT - the moulis goes in the bin!

Flippin' thing. For one, it's massive and takes up more room in the cupboard than a baby elephant would. For two it's a pain in the rear to dismantle and wash, impossible to do without smearing pureed food all over my hands and top. But most importantly, for three, the holes are too big (even the smallest ones), they allow 'debris' through into the puree, discolouring it.

I suspected this was the cause of my rather orangey membrillo but yesterday I made my second batch of hawthorn ketchup and my suspicions were confirmed. I made the first batch using the moulis but decided to stick to the sieve and spoon method for batch two and just look at the colour difference. Batch two (at the rear) is bright, zingy, clear scarlet while batch one (infront) is a listless speckled orange. Not only that but the sieve and spoon were actually quicker and didn't wrench my shoulder like the moulis did first time round. So that's it, the moulis is confined to the kitchen appliance graveyard a.k.a the garage.

While I'm on the subject of home made ketchups, last night's dinner was a huge success. I decided to try a version of Hunter's Chicken using the cherry plum ketchup I made. I wrapped chicken breasts in bacon, parcelled them up in foil and baked at GM 4 for half an hour, then I opened up the foil, sprinkled over crumbled stilton and put them back in the oven for another 15 minutes. Once safely on the plate I poured a generous amount of plum ketchup over them. Simple and tasty, even the children enjoyed it.

I'm surprised to discover I didn't blog the plum ketchup recipe so here it is, just on the off chance anyone's got plums in the freezer to use up:

Plum Ketchup
by Angela Nilsen

1.25kg plums, stoned and quartered
1 small onion finely chopped
2tbsp finely chopped root ginger
2 garlic cloves finely chopped
200g light muscavado sugar
275ml white wine or cider vinegar
2 star anise
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp dried chillis
1/4 tsp allspice
5 tbsp light soy sauce

Put everything except the soy sauce into a pan and simmer for about 30 mins til the plums have broken down. Remove the star anise. Puree until smooth and then pass through a sieve into a large pan. Add the soy sauce and simmer until reduced and thick. Pour into sterilised bottles.

Allow to mellow for a couple of days before using, will last 2 or 3 months unopened in a cool, dark place. Once opened, keep in the fridge.

And finally .......

My Radio Norfolk debut! My bit starts at 1hr 3mins.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Winter Preparations for the Garden.

Ugh, it's definitely winter. Poor old chooks are feeling very disgruntled. Digby is pictured listing her demands for winter which, judging by her expression, I'm guessing include a wood burner in the coop and some cosy slippers. Feathers has responded in a slightly more despondent fashion and has commenced moulting once more. I don't think this is the smartest move at the onset of winter but I'm not sure there's much I can do about it. I do feel sorry for her though, with her little baldy head getting all wet.

I have taken pity of them to a certain extent and bought 2m of clear polythene from the garden centre and pinned it over the run to shelter them from the worst of the weather. Sadly, the hemcore on the floor of the run has been well and truely soaked with today's persistent rain so that will need to be cleared out for maximum avian comfort (woodburners aside).

The borlotti beans are more than ready to harvest so once the rain stops I'll get that done which just leaves the Jerusalem artichokes in the ground. My plan is to chop the artichoke stems down as they seem to be dieing back but I'll leave the chokes in the ground and just dig them up as needed. Last year I seem to remember scraping snow of the ground in my efforts to get at them.

I'm enjoying my mizuna crop which tastes something akin to rocket. I've planted the mini greenhouse with winter salad, pak choi and tatsoi, all of which seem to be flourishing for the time being. I've also replanted the Grand Radish Project of 2009. Older readers may remember my initial radish crop was decimated by caterpillars while we were on holiday in August. The winter radishes have sprouted and need thinning, I'm not sure how long they'll survive, they were sown in a fit of optimism when we were having a warm September so fingers crossed.

Next on the list is getting to grips with the bokashi compost system and rejuvenating the soil over winter.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Have my knees stopped knocking yet?

I'm just back from the BBC in Norwich having completed my slot on Radio Norfolk about sloe gin. I was quite nervous, in hindsight, having a strong coffee in the coffee shop downstairs before and then accepting a second coffee when I was in the studio was probably not a great idea. Certainly did nothing to calm my hammering heart at any rate.

It's all a bit of a blur thinking back and the download isn't yet available so I haven't heard it back. I can vaguely remember blurting out the odd sentence which I think were relevant to the topic. I didn't fart, belch, sneeze or swear so think I managed to skirt 'arse of self' territory reasonably successfully. They've asked me to go back "Once we get hold of you, you can't get away!" said Graham Barnard in what I hope was a jocular fashion, so it can't have been all bad.

Adam's task for the afternoon is to figure out how to download the show and link to the blog without stomping all over copyright laws.

I visited the Forum shop while I was there and purchased some Ginger Beer made by my twitter friend Breckland Orchard. I also noticed Lavender Jelly on sale at £4 (yes folks, that's four of your English pounds) for a small jar. I think I've stumbled upon the method by which I made my first million .....

Friday, 16 October 2009

Things I have Learned this Week.

Things I have learned this week:

Weirdy chestnuts are indeed confined to that one tree. I now have a bowlful of nice fat chestnuts from a tree I spotted while out running.

Yellow bullace jam makes a delicious sticky glaze for chicken drumsticks.

Norfolk Kitchen will appear on Radio Norfolk on Tuesday 20th October at 11.10am to talk about sloe gin - v excited about that one!

Making Hawthorn Ketchup (pictured) can't have been that bad as I've picked a second batch of haws.

The Pickled Plums taste amazing on potted cheese but are still too sharp to eat with something sweet like ice cream.

Sloes do not make a good chutney.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Christmas Present Series Part 3 - Hyacinth Pots

This particular present is made 100% by the children and, if I'm honest, is one strictly for doting Grannies and school teachers!

Every year I buy a pack of Hyacinth bulbs (£2.50 for 5) and some small terracotta pots (55p each). The children are then let lose with white paint, snowmen stickers and glitter to decorate the pots. Once they're dry we plant up the bulbs and leave them in a cool dark place, in our case the garage, to sprout. If we do it at this time of year, by Christmas they are usually an inch or two tall and ready to be brought indoors to flower. I find the main problem is remembering to water them, out of sight out of mind etc. To finish them off I tie a festive ribbon around the pot and attach a luggage label with care instructions written on it.

The main bonus, however, is that for at least 5 minutes you can enjoy the self satisfied, smug glow of knowing that you are an alpha Mummy whose offspring are not prone on the sofa gazing slack jawed at Cbeebies, but are outside doing a worthwhile and educational activity. Or at least you can until the 2 year old decides that a flower pot full of earth is not the correct place for a hyacinth bulb and throws herself, screaming and flailing to the floor every time the twain do meet. At that point she's enticed indoors with the promise of Cbeebies while Mummy finishes the project in peace and faces up to reality. Hooray for 5 year olds is what I say.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Lovely Quince Tree: A Valediction

I've written about the perilous state of our local Japonica Quince previously. I had been clinging to the hope that it might survive but Adam and I are increasingly pessimistic. It still looks green and healthy, just rather, ummm, broken. I fear over zealous local authority bureaucracy is it's greatest threat at the moment as it's lying on the floor in an untidy fashion and the official grass cutter men can't get underneath it anymore. My widow's weeds are on order.

The tree has a special place in our family history of foraging as Willow spotted it about a year ago when she was 4. Adam and I had seen it but dismissed it as a crab apple due to it's tiny fruit, it was Willow who frogmarched us over and made us begin our Google odyssey to eventual identification (and she hasn't let us forget it). The fruit tastes and cooks exactly like the full sized quince but has the added inconvenience of it's size (roughly golfball) which makes peeling time consuming and fiddly.

I can freely admit we're in a slight panic at the prospect of no more free quinces so we have methodically stripped as much fruit as we can handle and I've been trying to keep a pile of slowing bletting quince under control. At least the kitchen smells good. So far I've made 2 batches of membrillo, 2 of quince jelly, 3 jars bottled quince, 2 batches crystalised quince and Adam has embarked on quince cider (if it's any good I'll blog the recipe).

In my previous Membrillo post I was pondering the cause of it's dark orange colour, I'm now reasonably confident my theory about small bits of skin passing through the moulis holds water. Take a look at the jewel bright colour of the bottled quince which are peeled prior to processing. I'm very tempted to make a 3rd batch of membrillo using peeled quince to see if I can get the colour right but that feels excessive even to me and the peeling feels like a faff too far.

Here's the recipe I use for bottling quince, don't be alarmed by the vinegar, you can't taste it in the final product, it just gives an almost alcoholic depth to the flavour. This is excellent warm over good vanilla ice cream.

Bottled Quince
2.5kg quince (peeled weight)
625g sugar
190 ml white wine or cider vinegar

Put the sugar and vinegar into a pan and heat til the sugar has dissolves. Add the quince, cover and simmer until the fruit turns bright red, this will probably take 2 or 3 hours and doesn't work in a slow cooker by the way.

It can be eaten at this stage and will keep in the fridge for some time. To give it a longer shelf life it can be bottled. I use 1l mason jars. Pack the quince into sterilised jars, bring the syrup in the pan to the boil and pour over leaving about an inch head room at the top of the jar. Screw the lids on and loosen a quarter turn. Put into the oven at gm 2 for an hour. Take out of the oven one at a time and tighten the lid. Leave to cool for 24hrs then test the seal (in my jars this means the lid becomes convex and won't flex when pushed)

Makes 2 1l jars.

Anyway, *sniff* Farewell lovely Quince tree (dabs eyes with black edged hanky), I dread the day my blue cheese will go unadorned. (draws black veil over face)

Friday, 9 October 2009

Weirdy Chestnuts

Last year was our first chestnut forage, and quite a successful one it was too. We found plenty of sweet chestnut tress growing locally but we had that age old nut gathering problem - squirrels. The first tree we tried was actually being raided by the furry critters as we approached, they scattered when they heard us, leaving half eaten chestnuts in their wake. Unsurprisingly we didn't find any in that location. After another couple of false starts we finally found one the squirrels had left alone and we got a nice big bagful of chestnuts (top tip: big boots and thick gloves), in fact, I think there are still a handful in the freezer.

I wasn't expecting the 2009 season to start just yet, if memory serves, I think it was November last year when we collected them, so it was a bit of a shock to the system when a few days ago we drove past a sweet chestnut with huge piles of fallen nuts all around it. Obviously I was keen not to miss out this year and yesterday I took myself off to the scene of our 2008 triumph - only to be bitterly disappointed.

Last year we noticed that most of the spiky outer husks contained 2 nuts, one big and fat, the other tiny and shrivelled. This year I was dismayed to discover each husk contained 3 tiny shrivelled nuts, none of them big or developed enough to be worth eating. A few weeks ago I ran past the squirrel infested tree of 2008 and paused to skive, I mean check on the progress of the chestnuts, at that point I noticed the husks were looking smaller than I remembered but thought it was my memory playing tricks on me. I'm now wondering if that location is similarly affected though it'll be a few days before I can get over there to check.

I'd be interested to hear from anyone else with more chestnut experience than me, I'd love to know what may have caused the multiple, underdeveloped nuts, is it just my tree? Has anyone else had this experience this year? Is it the weather we've had?? All opinions gratefully received.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Christmas Present Series Part 2 - Figgy Mostardo

This is another recipe from Pam Corbin's 'Preserves' book. I chose this to put into my Christmas Hampers as it struck me as being quite a masculine preserve which would be a good partner with the delicately feminine Lavender Jelly as a present for a couple. Plus the name is irresistible, how could I bypass the chance to write out 'Figgy Mostardo' labels?

Figgy Mostardo
500g dried figs
zest and juice of 2 grapefruit
1 tbsp yellow mustard seed
200g sugar or honey
25g mustard powder
100ml cider or white wine vinegar

Using scissors, snip the figs into 4 or 6 pieces. Put in a bowl with the mustard seeds and grapefruit zest. Measure the grapefruit juice and top up to 500ml with water, add to the bowl. Cover and leave overnight.

Put the figs in a pan with the sugar, heat gently til the sugar dissolves. Blend the mustard powder with the vinegar and add to the pan. Simmer, uncovered, for 20 mins til thickened.

Spoon into sterilised jars and seal with vinegar proof lids, mature for 4 weeks before opening. Should keep for about 12 months. Makes 4 225g jars.

Mine have been maturing for a couple of weeks now and have nice hot and fruity taste with an unexpectedly crunchy texture, perfect for a Boxing Day cold meat buffet.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Spiced Crystalised Quince

Christmas Present series Part 1. (Anyone who receives Christmas presents from me, please look away now)

I'm pleased to finally be in a position to blog my crystalised quince recipe. It's been weeks in the making but I'm thrilled with the final version. It looks daunting as it takes at least a week but the time input per day is minimal. They keep for ages, one recipe book confidently claims they keep 'indefinitely' but more modern recipe books are a bit more cautious. Either way, they're ideal to make now and will happily sit in the cupboard in an air tight container til Christmas. There's also plenty of time to browse Ebay and get some pretty sweetie wrappers and cello bags to put them in.

Spiced Crystalised Quince.

1lb quince, peeled and cored weight.
White sugar
Brown sugar
1tsp ground ginger
half tsp ground cinnamon

I used Japonica quince for this recipe which are tiny so it was sufficient to just peel and quarter them. If you're using the larger quince, they'll need to be cut into bite sized pieces.

Put the pieces into a pan, cover with cold water and bring to the boil. Simmer for 5 minutes and then refresh under cold, running water. Make a hot syrup with half a pint of water and 6oz white sugar, pour over the quince slices and leave for 24 hrs. (I left mine in a lidded pan)

Next day, add a further 2oz white sugar to the pan, heat to dissolve the sugar then leave for another 24hrs. Repeat for a total of 7 days.

On the 7th day, spread the quince onto a baking sheet in a single layer and put into the oven on it's lowest setting for an hour or two. The aim is to dry the pieces leaving them with a crisp sugar coating. Allow to cool and then place the fruit in a jar with about 6 tbsp of brown sugar and the spices (or to taste) and give it a good shake to coat. If you find the fruit too sticky, leave it a week or so then dry them out in the oven again, at this stage they should be totally dry.

Maybe it's because I used freshly opened ground ginger rather than the old jar that had been sitting around for years but, heavens to betsy, these spiced quince are gorgeous. And that's saying something coming from someone who's not that fond of ginger unless it's in Grasmere Gingerbread!

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Culinary Heritage

Here are my two daughters, busy making elderflower cordial back in May. I hope that one day (once that teenage thing is out of the way) they'll look back fondly on their days in the kitchen with me and maybe even make cordial with their children too.

I've often wondered where I get my interest in food culture from. I'd love to be able to say that I learned how to make chutney at my Grandmother's knee or that my Grandad taught me how to manage a veg patch ... but I really can't. My family food history is one of astonishingly peculiar quirks of the palate.

My Mum's Mum was wildy eccentric in her cooking, baked beans were fried in lard and pork pies were served plonked in a bowl of Heinz soup. My Mum inherited many of her culinary tricks, my childhood favourite was 'chips wi' soup over' which was a plate of chips with Heinz vegetable soup poured over them - beef soup would have made more sense, more akin to gravy I guess, but vegetable is bewilderingly leftfield.

Dad's side of the family weren't much better. His Grandad used to drink his tea with (brace yourself) a raw egg whisked into it. To be fair to Dad's Mum, she did teach me a few things, like making gravy from scratch. That sounds terribly promising but believe me it's all in the execution, yes it had scrapings from the roasting tin, yes it had vegetable cooking water but it also contained a staggering amount of gravy browning and so much cornflour that the final product could be considered a non Newtonian liquid - you wouldn't have to fill a swimming pool with it to know it could be walked on.

She did teach me how to rub flour and fat together and how to make Potato Cakes but then she went on to teach me how to make a Sunday roast, including reducing the veg to mush (if you want to know, you boil them for half a day then take a potato masher to them to beat out any remaining texture. This is a versatile technique which works for any vegetable), how to reduce the beef to matchsticks of charcoal and how to finish the roasties in the chip pan. And did anyone else's grandparents insist on putting sliced cucumber in a small dish of malt vinegar all morning before adding it to salad?

The funny thing is, as a child I loved all this food, soggy cabbage with salty gravy and crispy potatoes - mmmmm. I still love Potato Cakes smothered in butter and the smell of them cooking under the grill takes me right back to my Nan's kitchen and writing this is making wonder if I have any soup in the cupboard.

There have been successive 'Nan Bennett's, it's not a mere name but a title passed down from matriarch to matriarch. I'm not sure I'll ever adopt it, they are rather daunting shoes to fill. I never met the original Nan Bennett (My Great Grandmother on my Dad's side) but I've heard she was an amazing cook, a great one for high tea and a prolific baker. I wish I knew more about her and had been able to spend time in her kitchen or read her notebooks but I never have. Maybe the cooking gene is recessive, skips the odd generation but remains lurking in the background, waiting to make it's presence felt once more.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Chocolate and Aubergine Cake

I don't know if anyone else has noticed but cakes incorporating vegetables seem to be in vogue all of a sudden, even Matthew Wright ate a courgette cup cake on The Wright Stuff the other day. We're all familiar with carrot cake and even beetroot and chocolate cake, but Harry Eastwood's book 'Red Velvet and Chocolate Heartache' takes the vegetable cake to a new level.

She uses a huge range of veg, aubergine, parsnip even potato and turnip. I've only tried 2 recipes so far but what I'm quite impressed with the subtly and sophistication of her cakes. I was expecting endless variations of carrot cake, ie fairly chunky crumbed, wholemeal, spicy doorstops but her Chocolate Chip Cupcakes and Heartache Chocolate cake couldn't be more different. Dense, squidgy and intensely chocolaty, you'd never guess the moist texture was down to microwaved aubergine.

My only slight complaint is her rather irritating habit of personifying her recipes, for example Heartache Chocolate Cake (the aubergine one) is "...sad. It's dark and drizzling down the window panes. She puffs her chest in hope when she goes into the oven; she then breaks, like a chest heaving a sob" Am I the only one rolling my eyes and muttering "it's a cake for God's sake"? Maybe that makes me an old curmudgeon with a soul as bitter as a kumquat. Who knows?

Heartache Chocolate Cake
400g aubergine
300g good dark chocolate
50g cocoa powder
60 ground almonds
3 medium eggs
200g clear honey
1/4 tsp salt
1 tbsp brandy

Pre-heat the oven to gm4/180C/350F. Line a 23cm, 7cm deep, cake tin with baking parchment and oil lightly. Stab the aubergine a few times, put in a covered bowl and microwave for 8 minutes. When it's cool enough to handle, slip the skin off and blend to a puree. Mix the chocolate into the aubergine and leave while the heat melts the chocolate.

Meanwhile whisk all the other ingredients together, then mix in the chocolate and aubergine. The recipe says bake for 30 mins but this seems to be quite variable. Rachel said hers was over cooked after 30 mins but mine was still squidgy after 50 mins so keep checking and take it out when it still quakes a little in the middle.

Leave to cool in the tin for 15 mins or so and then turn out and enjoy, enjoy, enjoy!

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Aldeburgh Food Festival

This photo makes me smile because it totally encapsulates my experience of the Aldburgh Food Festival this year. In the foreground, Willow and Xanthe are pretending to be statues while squabbling about who gets to be in the photo, in the background, you can just about see a blue shirt inside the marquee. That's Tom Aikens, Michelin starred chef who is holding a book signing, shortly after coming off the main stage.

Because Adam and I are the parents of small children, we are not inside queueing to shake Tom's hand, or nodding sagely in the Sheila Dillon discussion forum, we are not even making the most of sampling all the wonderful food, instead we are sitting on the grass outside, eating ice cream while covered in the sick of a 2 year old who ate too much chocolate cake.

But the day was not lost by any means. It's true we weren't able to concentrate fully on the speakers but on the plus side when we sat on the grass outside the Marquee we had unwittingly plonked ourselves right by the 'stage door', the effect being magnified even more when the sides of the Marquee were opened and we were suddenly mere inches away from the book signing table and the main stage.

While we sat in the sun Fergus Henderson tottered past, straining under the weight of an enormous cool bag (whose corners just skimmed my head) and Tom Aikens signed books over our heads while we pretended to be invisible, so we felt we were in the thick of things, well, clinging to the periphery anyway.

The children had a wonderful time both in the childrens' corner and in the main tent. Willow was uncharacteristically adventurous in her tastings, preferring smoked cheese to chocolate biscuits, unfortunately, Xanthe didn't feel very well so didn't want to try anything and eventually meant we had to leave early, though you'll be relieved to learn that I did manage to eat a pork pie and have a pint of Aspall's before we left.

I've still got a few fringe events to check out so hopefully my Aldeburgh Food Festival experience for 2009 isn't over yet.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Cheese, Paste or Membrillo?

I dunno, Quince Paste, Quince Cheese, neither sounds particularly appetising to me but then 'Membrillo' it's a bit foreign and poncy isn't it? Still, a rose by any other name etc. Personally, I love Membrillo with blue cheese, it's also good as a cake filling as it's thick so doesn't soak into the sponge and stands up quite well.

We're lucky enough to have a Japonica Quince growing wild nearby, we discovered it last year so this is our second season of membrillo and bottled quince though, sadly, it may be our last. The tree grew at a 45 degree angle and this year it's been a victim of it's own success. I described it as 'groaning' with fruit without realising that was literally true, I had a shock last week when I discovered it had fallen flat to the floor. The trunk isn't snapped all the way through so maybe it can survive but my main worry is that it grows on council owned open ground and I have a feeling that elf and safety or tidy mindedness may strike and it'll be chopped right down.

As a result I've gone on a mad quince picking session so I can make the most of (probably) the last season. I'm on my second batch of membrillo. I experimented with the first by adding some allspice, cinnamon and whisky it tastes like Christmas but unfortunately the colour has changed and it looks, quite literally, like jarred mud! My plan is to use it to make some festive jam tarts closer to Christmas with a star shaped lid to disguise the colour and palm them off *cough* I mean generously donate them to the school Fayre.

I then made a second batch in the usual way. For me that means simmering the quince for aaaages until they're pink and soft, then roughly mashing with a potato masher before passing them through a moulis to remove the skins and pips (sick of the sight of that flippin' moulis to tell the truth) I do it this way because the Japonicas are tiny and fiddly to peel and chop, unlike the larger varieties. I put the pulp in my conveniently calibrated jam pan and add an equal volume of sugar. I then boil it til it's very thick and pot up in the usual sterilised jars.

I have to admit though, my Membrillo isn't the most professional you'll ever see. It's a kind of burnt orange colour rather than the glowing, jewel red it should really be. I'm not quite sure why this is, maybe it's the Japonicas or maybe my moulis method.

A true Membrillo should also be capable of being turned out of it's pot and sliced, whereas mine is more of a spoonable consistency, I guess a fruit butter rather than an actual cheese, but this bit is a deliberate decision. Cooking the quince/sugar mixture to the correct thickness is a hazardous, traumatic event involving hot, spitting, boiling sugar flying wildly all around the kitchen, followed by weeks of slowly chipping rock hard splodges of cold Membrillo off floors, walls, cooker tops and ceilings. I decided I could live with spoonable!

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Sloe Jelly and eating underground.

It's been an exciting time of late in The Kitchen. One of the hottest new food trends at the moment is the underground restaurant. (I missed Jamie last night but apparently he went to one in New York) I'm pleased to report that for once, Norfolk is actually up to speed with the rest of the known world! I visited my new friend Clarissa yesterday and she is starting a Supper Club in Norwich which is wildly exciting. Judging by the amazing Malaysian lunch I was treated to, the food should be superb, especially the chutney. Why yes, gentle reader, the Unthank Supper Club will exclusively offer Norfolk Kitchen jams, jellies and chutneys.

Making a list of the preserves I have available in my larder for Clarissa made me realise that I've leaned quite heavily to the jam/jelly rather than chutney side of things. So obviously I'm keen to put that right and am now buzzing with chutney ideas, sloe and crab apple coming up, possibly quince, probably pear, need more jars - how many days ago did I say I'd finished with the preserve pan?

I seem to have re-discovered my puritan work ethic this last week. As well as busting a gut on the hawthorn ketchup, I finished my candied quince but want to try another batch and experiment a little more before I post a final recipe, it's frustrating when I've been working away in the kitchen but can't blog about it!

Also under my belt (quite literally!) is the 2009 sloe jelly. Here's the recipe, I have posted it in my comments elsewhere but thought I'd write it up properly.

Sloe Jelly.
2.1kg crab apples
900g sloes

Put crab apples and sloes in a pan with 1.3 litres water, cook til apples have softened then strain in a jelly bag. I would suggest re-boiling the pulp to increase the final yield, use half the original amount of water and repeat the process.

Measure the juice and use 1lb sugar to each pint (sorry to mix metric and imperial measures!) and boil til setting point is reached, pot in the usual way. Makes about 5lbs.

Rachel - I've not forgotton, I'll be round with a jar (plus that yarn) very soon!

Monday, 21 September 2009

Hawthorn Ketchup

This ketchup has seen me run the full gamut of emotion, from eager anticipation through boredom and frustration to eventual triumph. The recipe comes from Pam Corbin's book River Cottage Handbook No2, Preserves. I was keen to try it as haws are so abundant it seems a shame not to make use of them somehow and I'm always keen to try out a new taste.

In all honesty I found the preparation a royal pain in the arse. Picking the berries takes forever as they're so tiny then they have to be painstakingly snipped, one by one, from their stalks with scissors. Cooking is quite time consuming as they take ages to soften and then putting them through a moulis to separate the skins and stones from the flesh has given me a dodgy shoulder and a stack of washing up a mile high. I was quite disappointed with the yield as after all that effort I only had one bottle.

However, all is not lost, the resulting ketchup is fantastic, rich, fruity and spicy. It also keeps for 12 months without any additional canning process which is an improvement on the plum ketchup I made from the Gardener's World magazine which only keeps for 4 months unopened. For that reason alone I'd make it again to keep in the cupboard and cheer us up in the new year.

Hawthorn Ketchup
500g haws
300ml white wine or cider vinegar
170g sugar
1/4 tsp salt

Snip the haws from the stalks and rinse in cold water. Place in a pan with the vinegar and 300ml water, simmer until the skins have turned brown and split to reveal the flesh inside. Remove from the heat and rub through a sieve or pass through a moulis.

Return the puree to the pan with the sugar, heat gently til it dissolves then bring to the boil and cook for 5 mins. Season with salt and pepper, pour into sterilised bottle and seal with a vinegar proof lid.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Last Hurrah of the Veg Patch.

*Sigh* it's that time of year again, using up the drips and dregs from the various harvests. Today I picked the last of the Bens as well as the green tomatoes from the mini greenhouse. (As I type the chickens are running amok in there, hoovering up the baby tomatoes I left behind). The last of the carrots finally came up yesterday and the Swiss Chard is looking sorry for itself under it's coat of silvery mildew.

Tonight we're having our annual Last Resort Supper. That's all the raggle taggle veggies stir fried with chicken and the remnants of last year's plum sauce. At the weekend I'm going to persuade Adam to wrestle that giant spider who's been guarding the run-to-seed basil so that we can dig it up and make pesto.

Still going strong are (of course) the Jerusalem artichokes and the borlotti beans. For some bizarre reason one borlotti bean pod came out all on it's own before all the others and that has ripened, also alone. So I am now the proud owner of 3 borlotti beans. Nature's bounty is a wonderful thing.

I'm going to plant a few winter crops, I've already re-planted the Mizuna after it was decimated by caterpillars and for the first time this year I'm going to plant up the mini greenhouse with salad or stir fry leaves. I'm slightly wary of planting winter crops in the main borders for fear of exhausting the soil. Last year I grew green manure (field beans) after Christmas but found it hard to dig in and rogue beans sprang up among legitimate bean crops causing much confusion, so this year I'm going to try the bokashi system. As I understand it I fill a bin with kitchen scraps and bokashi bran then after a few weeks I can dig the resulting fermenting veg into the soil where it should rot down quickly, ready for spring.

Fingers crossed for an allotment sometime soon, I've been told it's immanent since March so I really hope it's not too much longer - otherwise I'm not sure what I'm going to write about from January to May 2010!

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Ankle Deep in Jam.

I've been working hard over the last few days but haven't produced anything worth blogging about due to the infamous membrillo disaster, the dodgy Quince jelly and the fact that I won't know the outcome of the green tomato mincemeat experiment until it's matured for a few weeks.

I think I'm finally staggering wearily to the end of my marathon jam making season. I've raised my head from the preserving pan and surveyed the wreckage of my household. The cooker top is covered in red wine syrup splashes and I'm sure they're membrillo splodges I've spotted on the ceiling. The living room has disappeared under a drift of empty jam jar boxes which the children have turned into a train and a small heap of jam jar lids still sit in the hallway where I deposited them soon after delivery.

On the plus side the children have become feral *cough* I mean remarkably self sufficient, Xanthe appears to have learned how to use scissors while my back was turned and Willow seems to be reading all of a sudden.

The big question is what am I going to do with it all? Of course I haven't just got jam, there's also chutneys, bottled fruit, ketchups, cordials and stocks of fruit in the freezer. I've been careful to make sure I have a good supply of fairly sharp, 'dry' flavoured jam which can also be used in savoury sauces. A simple one is to mix about a quarter of a jar of sharp jam with minced garlic, ginger and chillis and a generous splosh of white wine or cider vinegar. It makes a sweet chilli style sauce which is lovely poured over tuna steak, pork or chicken.

This article by Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall in the Guardian changed the way I think about using preserves. I now can't make a stew or casserole without adding half a jar of something homemade, his tagine idea in particular is genius, I can heartily recommend chicken with apricot chutney.

So, just a few loose ends to tie up before I can call time on the 2009 season. On my to do list is sloe jelly (fab in gravy) membrillo #2, rowan jelly and hawthorn ketchup .... did I say I was nearly done??