Monday 17 October 2011

Foraging, time, and lack thereof

In yesterday's Observer, Nigel Slater talks about making his own sloe or damson gin. An excellent idea for this time of year - I myself found a very well stocked blackthorn tree this weekend, near the Pitshanger allotments, and spent a few minutes stripping it of sloes, aided by a couple of women who stopped to enquire as to what I was doing - one of them was from Montenegro and we had a nice chat about all the things you can do with different fruits and spirits.

When I lived Norfolk, I had to drive pretty much everywhere, and always kept a bag or two in the car in case foraging opportunities arose, which they did, frequently. In London, I never know when I'm going to come across something, and am very rarely prepared - yesterday I was bagless, so ended up stuffing my haul of sloes into a pocket at the back of Adam's pushchair. A certain degree of athleticism was needed too - the sloes were quite high, so I had to do that whole thing of jumping to grab a branch, before yanking it down and holding fast whilst one handedly stripping as many sloes off as I could. No mean feat if you don't want to drop them all or impale yourself on their fiendishly long thorns. Matters weren't helped by the fact that I had to keep letting go to drop the sloes into the pushchair. I only managed to collect around half a kilo before Adam got sick of watching Mummy leap around and let it be known that he'd Had Enough and would quite like to go to the playground NOW please.

I digress. The first thing I did when I got home was stick the lot in the freezer. Why? Because we haven't yet had a first frost yet, useful if you going to make sloe gin or vodka as it helps the skins of the sloes burst and their flesh to bleed into all that sugar and alcohol. This is where Nigel comes in again:

Appreciation, too, for those who suggested freezing my damsons and sloes before macerating them in the alcohol rather than pricking them by hand. I did some that way and was impressed by the speed at which the fruit leaked its juices into the gin, but (and this is a big thing for me) the instant method rather took away from the pleasures of an autumn afternoon pricking my damsons with a pin. I suppose it is down to whether you cook purely for the end product or for the sheer joy and pleasure of the cooking process. Either way will get you your gin.
I too have spent afternoons pricking sloes with a pin. It's a light, mindless task, one which can be done whilst listening to the radio, watching TV or taken outside on a sunny, Indian Summer day. There are a few kitchen jobs like this which can be similarly enjoyed - forking through fronds of redcurrants, squelching through soft walnut flesh to get to the shell within (wear rubber gloves for this one), podding peas and beans. When I worked in the Caribbean I used to love sitting outside, always with a sea view, often with one of the kitchen helpers, podding and destringing huge piles of tamarind (or tambrin as they called them in Dominica), or cutting the large, acorn-like seed from the centre of sorrel flowers. In this way we would emulate the women who spent entire days at market doing just this in large,noisy and companionable groups. One of my favourite memories is giggling with Anise whilst we shredded and deboned a quantity of smoked herring - a fiddly, tedious job when undertaken alone.

Some such jobs are not strictly necessary, or are slightly experimental. I recently spent a very long hour removing skins from cooked chick peas because I wanted to see whether deskinned, they would make a better textured hummus. To my utter disgust and chagrin, they did, which means that in future if I skip this step I will always be annoyed with myself. If anyone knows where I can get skinned chickpeas (available in Greece, but as yet unseen here), I will be eternally grateful.

I agree with Nigel Slater that such jobs can sometimes as rewarding as the end product, but I can't see myself ever spending an afternoon pricking sloes with pins again. If the freezer does the job just as well (even, perhaps, better?) I simply can't justify the time. Reading people such as Nigel Slater these days reminds me of my childless days when food was more of a hobby - endless hours, just pottering around garden and kitchen; entire days spent on preserving or patisserie, often without a thought for proper mealtimes. Those days are long gone - now every task is interrupted with endless rounds of mealtimes and snack times and play times in between.

I'm hoping that I will eventually fire the children with enthusiasm for foraging (Adam already loves picking up acorns and will spend most of his time in the playground rolling crab apples down the slide if I let him) and that they will get as much pleasure out of some of the more agreeable kitchen tasks as I do. I'm looking forward to teaching them to enjoy pricking sloes with pins and will hope that the thrill of watching indigo sloes covered in sugar snow, give way to a deep burgundy will be enough of a reward - they certainly won't be drinking the fruits of our labours any time soon.
For a good guide to foraging and what to do with anything you might find, Richard Mabey's Food for Free is the classic, but I also really like John Wright's book Hedgerow, which is one of the River Cottage handbooks.
Recipes for sloe gin or vodka vary, but I always do 1 part sugar, 2 parts sloes and 4 parts alcohol. Leave to steep for a few months, decant into bottles and leave for as long as possible. I haven't touched last year's yet, and have some from 2009.

Once you have removed the sloes, there's not much that's worth doing with them. However, you can make a good savoury jelly which is excellent with game, particularly venison. I threw some in the pressure cooker with a large Bramley cooking apple, some water and a generous teaspoon of juniper berries. Cook at high pressure for 2 minutes, let it release pressure naturally, then strain through a jelly bag. Add equal quantities of sugar and 1 tablespoon of cider vinegar or verjuice. Bring to the boil and once setting point has been reached, ladle into sterilised jars. A quick and low maintenance way of recycling your sloes once more before consigning them to the bin or compost heap.

Wednesday 13 April 2011

Chicory gratin

Ever think that some books are just too big? Too heavy to hold, too many recipes - to the extent that the good recipes don't stand out? I initially had that reaction to all those Phaidon books - Silver Spoon, I Know How To Cook, Vefa's Kitchen - and 1080 Recipes, the Spanish book by Simone and Ines Ortega.

I've had a bit of a rethink though. I was having a browse through the other day (looking for octopus recipes) and realised that actually, 1080 Recipes is a very good book indeed. Georgous design (that goes without saying as it's Phaidon) as well as strong, squiggly illustrations from Javier Mariscal, but the recipes are also much, much better than I originally thought.

This makes me happy, as Amazon tells me I bought it back in 2007 (it's now selling for a minimum price of £50 on that site. Wow.)  and I've finally got round to using it. Reading it properly now, there are just so many things that I want to cook. The book is fearless in its inclusion of delightfully retro dishes including lots of ways with aspic (yes, deeply unpopular for years, but now becoming very chic again thanks, in part I think to Bob Bob Ricard), savoury eclairs, such as one stuffed with asparagus and mayonnaise, and infinite uses for bechamel - from jambon croquettes (my preference is for the brown shrimp variety, but that's a small point), to chicory gratin, an excellent section on vegetables with everything given due consideration - eight recipes for the lowly cauliflower and plenty for some of my favourites, including broad beans (broad beans with black pudding. Yes!) and swiss chard. Also, how often do you see ingredients like borage cropping up in your cookery books? It does here -there's a recipe for potatoes cooked with borage, garlic and paprika (you have to scrape the hairs from the stalks first).

Of course, I'm not sure I want to make *everything* - beetroot stuffed with rice is probably not high on my list of must cooks, neither is the cold rice with canned tuna and mayonnaise, but generally it's a book which I am very impressed with. I particularly like the egg and fish sections (the latter not just merely an homage to salt cod). and the over all thoroughness. It is one of the few books which bothers to give the odd pressure cooker instruction where relevent (such as for octopus). I also like the few recipes from Spanish chefs, including our own Jose Pizarro and Sam and Sam Clark (Moro).

Anyway, back to the chicory, which starts with an amazing tip: if you put chicory into a pan with salted water, bring it to the boil, and as soon as the water is boiling, transfer the chicory to another pan of boiling, salted water, it will help prevent bitterness. I wish I'd known this 2 weeks ago when I made a chicory soup which was just over the edge for me in terms of bitterness.

So - allow 2 heads per person. Cook whole, as described above, just simmer until tender (the recipe says 20 minutes - no way! More like 10). Meanwhile, make a bechamel. I do not need to tell you how to do this - I always heat up the milk first and infuse with bay, a clove studded onion, mace, peppercorns. Rub butter over an oven friendly gratin dish. Wrap the chicory heads in ham (I like to spread mustard over the ham first) and arrange in the gratin dish. Smother the whole in the bechamel, sprinkle with cheese (I usually stick to cheddar, the recipe recommends gruyere) and cook under a grill until brown and bubbling.

One of my most favourite things ever - and it could be my imagination, but I do think the chicory was slightly less bitter....

Friday 8 April 2011

Soda Bread

This will sound sacriligious to some people, but I have never really liked soda bread. I've made it in an emergency when I've realised I am out of the regular or sourdough sort, but usually I avoid it. I never managed to make one which, presumably due to the bicarbonate of soda and lack of strong/sweet flavours to counter it, always tasted bitter, particularly in the crust.

Anyway, a couple of days ago, I decided to try again.  I was out of bread, the kids needed some for breakfast (my step-daughter is refusing to eat porridge at the moment) and it was too late for me to want to start baking bread. Soda bread it was.

A week ago I had talked to a couple of Irish friends about it, and they both said - try treacle soda bread instead. I turned again to Darina Allen's Forgotten Skills of Cooking - a wonderful book, especially for people like me who prefer to do everything from first principles and like the whole Good Life way with food.

I had already tried her brown soda bread, which unfortunately was too bitter for my tastes. The treacle version was perfect. I followed Darina's instructions for making an approximation of sour milk first (add 2 tbsp lemon juice or white wine vinegar to milk, it will start to thicken immediately), then made what is probably the quickest, easiest soda bread ever. The ingredients are minimal - a bonus actually, as most soda bread recipes have egg in, and my son is currently allergic to them (major vomiting and horrible lumpy rash. Not nice and very inconvenient).

Preheat the oven to 230C. Mix 450g plain white flour, 1 tsp salt & 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda together in a bowl. Whisk 2 tbsp treacle into 400ml sour milk/buttermilk*. Add most of this to the flour and mix. The dough should be soft, but not too sticky. If it's a bit dry, gradually add a bit more of the treacle/milk mixture.

 Shape the dough into a round of about 2.5cm deep and cut a deep cross into it. Bake in the oven for 15 minutes, then turn the oven down to 200C for around 30 minutes or until nicely browned and hollow sounding when tapped on the bottom.

This bread has been a great success in our family. The sweetness is slight enough that it still works with savoury (I like it with strong cheese), but is enough to offset the bicarb. It also keeps well (still has a good texture after a couple of days and toasts very well). I am going to experiment by using different flours and adding malt extract next time.

*the one thing I would suggest about the method is that the treacle should be mixed into just half of the milk, just in case you don't need to use all the milk - that way all the treacle will be incorporated.

Thursday 24 March 2011


I am returning again to Nigella Lawson and make no apology for it. Yes, I am being lazy. Since my last blog post, I have started several about more interesting books and not finished them. This, I can bash out in a few minutes before I have to cook the thing. The prep is done, I just need to grill some meat.

How to Eat was a book which really excited me when it first came out. It's the kind of book I hope I end up writing eventually, it seamlessly unites food writing with recipe writing in a similar way to Nigel Slater's Kitchen Diaries. I love its informality, the chattiness and, of course, the food. I've already talked about Nigella's inauthenticity and will no doubt return to the subject again in a more general way. There was probably a time when I was too precious to cook her "Cambodian Beef Salad", preferring to find a proper Cambodian recipe, but that was silly of me. Most of our best food writers write about cuisines other than their own and the roll call is impressive - think Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson on France, David Thompson on Thai Food, Fuchsia Dunlop on Sechzuan Cookery, Colman Andrews on the Riviera and Spain. Do we dismiss these people out of hand? Of course not. We as a nation are magpies, hoarders of other people's recipes - my specialist cusine is the Caribbean and because I've been collecting recipes from all the islands, I feel as though my knowledge base is probably much wider than many Caribbean chefs, as I am not hampered by island and family custom, but can learn wherever I go.

I digress. What I meant to say is that I am sure that if Nigella Lawson decided to focus on one particular cuisine (I imagine it would be those states in the Deep South USA, judging by her books to date), she would do it just as well as those mentioned above. As it is, she prefers to generalise, and there's nothing wrong with that. I have made this particular salad countless times, because it is very quick, exceedingly tasty and also very adaptable. Here's my adapted version, which, simply due to the fact I always have scotch bonnets in the house, always ends up a bit of a Cambodian/Caribbean hybrid:

Cambodian Hot and Sour Beef Salad

lettuce leaves (I ususally use little gem)
225g tender steak (I usually use a big piece of sirloin or rump)
2 tbsp fish sauce
2 tbsp lime juice
1 tsp sugar
1 shallot, finely sliced (I subsitute spring onions)
1-2 red chillies, deseeded & chopped finely (I use between 1/2 - 1 scotch bonnet)
handful mint (I will also add coriander leaf and sometimes basil too)

Tear the lettuce onto a serving dish. Grill the steak - I make sure mine is bloody in the middle. Mix together the fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, shallot and chillies. Cut the steak into long, slender slices and add these to your sauce, along with any juices. Add the herbs and turn out onto the lettuce.

I have been known to combine allspice and anise (a very Caribbean combination) and rub it over the steak before grilling it, but generally, I prefer without - the flavours are much, much cleaner that way.

Tuesday 1 March 2011


There's been a bit of a jelly/blancmange thing going on in my house recently. We keep coming down with lurgies and it occurred to me that jelly was perfect food for a baby with a sore throat. It's also ridiculously easy. All I've been doing is soak 4 gelatine leaves in water until soft, wring out, then stir over a low heat into 500ml of whatever juice I have handy - grape, orange, cherry, then strain them through a sieve into a mould. Easy peasy. Sometimes I suspend fruit in the jelly too (blueberries work well, or I copy my granny and use tinned clementine segments). What I haven't yet done is try to make a lime jelly. My granny used to give me lime jelly, which we used to break up and cover with evaporated milk. Lovely. I wonder how it would taste to me now?

Seeing Adam experience jelly for the first time was hilarious - his face cracked into a wide grin at the wobble factor, only to be replaced by consternation when he tried to pick it up and get it to his mouth. He soon got to grips with it (literally) and learned a technique for slurping it into his mouth from loosely clenched fist.

Then Kerstin (MsMarmiteLover) decided to make blancmange for the Fire and Knives Mixed Grill lunch. I didn't manage to try any (too busy scoffing meringue swans and truffled cheeses from the deli station) and it reminded me of the one time I made blancmange as a child. It wasn't nice - it was from a packet and I think it was peach flavoured. We had old friends of my parents staying with us, who ate some and complimented, but my mother, quite honestly, told me that they were being polite.

Looking at the recipe in Bompass and Parr's jelly book, I now wonder why I used a packet as it is as easy to make as jelly (and now I think about it we always had packets of Rowntree's jelly in the larder too - I used to steal cubes of it to suck when there was nothing else sweet available - a favourite, illicit treat). I didn't do a very good job of it though. The Bompass and Parr recipe called for infusing the milk with cardamon. I knew that my step daughter won't eat anything with cardamon in but that she and Adam both like almonds, so I decided to flavour it with honey and almond extract. Big mistake - I used too much extract and not only was the almond flavour too strong, but I could still taste the milk and the honey was barely discernable.

See, that's the main problem with blancmange - it tastes of milk, which is fine for the children (they liked it), but not fine for me. I am going to try blancmange again - this time with cardamon, rose water and honey, but I don't hold out much hope. However, there are other seriously adult recipes in the Bompass and Parr book which have to be done. I am going to be making bacon vodka to make a fizzy bacon and cola jelly very soon. Watch this space.

Saturday 26 February 2011

Mother-in-law's Madeira Cake

This is a mother-in-law's cake in more ways than one. It's the cake I always make for mine - she only likes fairly plain cakes, and she isn't supposed to have much in the way of sugar anyway, as she's diabetic. I only make it for her occasionally - any more and I feel as though I'm feeding a habit.

The recipe I usually use is in Nigella's Domestic Goddess, and is her own mother-in-law's cake. I am not one of Nigella Lawson's detractors. I think for the most part, her books are excellent - I loved How to Eat when it came out, have baked my way through Domestic Goddess and have recently raved about Kitchen - I couldn't watch the TV programme but the book - I loved it from all the advice on kitting out a kitchen (especially the her Kitchen Hall of Shame) to the totally inauthentic dishes she makes (I have no problem with this, being someone who can take pot luck with a label-less something from the freezer and consequently end up eating mutton curry with pasta and cheddar cheese). I was not so keen about the premise behind Forever Summer (strawberries in winter, natch) or her silly comments about "saving your sanity or the environment" which she fortunately readdressed in Feast.

Anyway, back to the recipe, which is an absolute cinch to make.

Cream together 240g butter, 200g caster sugar and the zest of one lemon. Gradually beat in 3 eggs along with 300g self raising flour. Add the juice from the lemon - you should have a fairly stiff dropping consistency. Put into a lined loaf tin, sprinkle with a couple of tbsp caster sugar, and bake in an oven, pre-heated to 170C for approximately one hour. Simple. 

You can of course change the flavourings. Caraway or poppy seed work very well - I recently made an orange and rosemary version which was lovely and will definitely be made again.

The only issue with the Nigella recipe, is that she specifies using a 450g loaf tin which is too small - I use a 900g/2lb tin.

Sunday 20 February 2011

West Ealing Farmers' Market

A rare non cookery book post - sometimes the ingredients are so good, you don't need to do anything to them.                                                               

The other thing which made this cold-filled weekend bearable was a two hour double bill of The Killing (to which S & I are both addicted), served up with an array of produce from our farmers' market, which is a 5 minute walk away every Saturday.

I always go, whatever the weather - I always feel that if they've made the effort and are going to stand in the rain and cold, then I should at least go and see what they're selling. I always buy from Angela Malik (her Thai pesto and an assortment of samosas, usually), who have been loyal to the market since it started - this despite the fact the demographic of WEFM is quite elderly and generally pass over a stall selling Indian food. Shame. Yesterday I bought some sourdough, feeling too lazy and ill to make any,some lovely, sweet, fresh tomatoes from the tomato stall (organic certified from the Isle of Wight - I don't usually buy tomatoes out of season at elevated prices, but yesterday I just couldn't resist) and cheese from the Bath Soft Cheese Co - inspired combination of West Country organic dairy and an Italian cheesemaker, for a lovely creamy blue cheese (much more reminiscent of a dolcelate torta than anything I've before tasted from the UK) and a delicious soft cheese which oozed its way across the plate in minutes.

So, toasted sourdough with butter melted through it, a tomato and onion salad, and the cheese, along with a bottle of wine, and for me, a couple of rum hot toddies for afters. Just what I needed.

My only other purchase at the farmers market was a pot of hyacinths for a mere £2. So I'm looking forward to their scent filling my kitchen in the next few weeks.

I hear rumblings from the stallholders at West Ealing that the market isn't doing well in terms of footfall. I'd hate for any of them to give up - it may be a small market, but it's much better value than most of them (eg., Marylebone, which is lovely, but expensive)  if you are on a budget. I regularly buy chicken carcasses/backs for stock and soup, odd cuts like rolled lamb breasts, very cheap game (one supplier even has rook and squirrel) as well as all the regular deals with the fruit and vegetable stalls. It's an important part of my weekly shop.