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Friday, 17 August 2012

Perfect Pickled Shallots

This week's project has been to pickle the shallots that we grew. We seem to have grown an awful lot of them this year, despite a whole row of my autum planted ones going rotten in the relentless rain in May. At the time I was miffed to have to pull them out and compost them, but now I see it as a blessing. There are only so many shallots I can peel and pickle (and I think I reached my limit this week!)

You can buy (well, you can here in the UK) pre-done pickling vinegar. It comes in large bottles and is ready spiced for you to use. Booooooring. What's the fun in that? I like making my own spiced vinegar, you can put the spices that you like in, not what Mr Sarson thinks you like. Ideally you should make the vinegar about a week before you're going to use it, to give the spices a chance to really infuse the vinegar. Or, if you're in a rush you can just make it on the day you're pickling, it's not the end of the world.

Spiced Vinegar

Half a stick of cinnamon
1 teaspoon cloves
2 teaspoons allspice berries
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon juniper berries
3 bay leves
170g (6oz) light muscovado sugar
1.1 litlres (2 pints) white wine vinegar

plus -
250g (9oz) rock salt
2 litres (3 1/2 pints) of water
1.4 kg (3lbs) peeled and trimmed shallots

Tie the spices into a muslin bag (actually, I think buying bags is a waste of money. I buy a big piece of muslin and cut small sqaures out of it, plus a strip to tie it). Place the vinegar in a large pan and add the spices bag. Add the lid to the pan so all the flavours stay in your vinegar instead of wafting around your house. Bring it to the boil  and then remove from the heat. Leave it to infuse as long as you can.

The day before you want to pickle, put the salt into a large pan and add the salt and heat gently until the salt has dissolved. Allow the liquid to cool, add your prepared shallots and weigh them down in the liquid with a plate or a bowl (anything to keep them from bobbing about on the surface)

When they've been in the liquid for 24 hours, drain the shallots and pack them into sterilised pickling jars. Add a bayleaf to each jar. Warm your infused vinegar a little, you don't want it boiling but I find that warming it a little just softens the shallots a little. Strain the vinegar & discard the spices, then pour into the jars with the shallots filling each to the top before sealing. Do try to leave them for at least a month before eating.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Unbeatable Beetroot

This has been pickling week in my kitchen. There's something very satisfying about seeing rows of jars of home pickled vegetables in my kitchen cupboards.  Every year I try to set some aside to give as Yule gifts but I always eat them myself!

If you're thinking, bleugh, I hate pickled beetroot, I suspect that you were forced to eat the really acidic shop bought stuff. Forget that horrible, proper pickled beetroot is just the most delicious thing. 

The flavour of beetroot is quite delicate, earthy and sweet. It’s one of my favourite vegetables because it’s easy to grow and you can use every last bit of it, including the leaves. You don’t even have to cook it, it’s lovely grated raw in salads. Just cut the tops off  (but don’t throw them away, use them just like spinach!) peel with a potato peeler and grate.  The pigment in beetroot turns brown fairly quickly when exposed to light, so make it one of the last ingredients you add to a salad before serving. I think the sweetness of raw beetroot has an affinity with raw carrot, they work very well together in a salad.

How to Grow Beetroot

You can sow beetroot seeds directly into the soil from April to July (in the UK) . It’s a good idea to sow a few rows a 3 weeks apart. That way you won’t end up with a pile of beetroots all ready to eat on one day and none for the rest of the summer

Dig the soil, remove weeds and large stones. Rake the soil after digging to leave a fine finish.  Take a bamboo cane and drag it though the prepared soil to make a trench that’s 2cm deep (0.75 in). Pop one seed into the trench every 10cm (4 in). When you get to the end of the row, cover the trench with soil and water well.  Put a marker at the end of the row to remind you that you’ve planted something there, and what it is. Keep the seed packet for future reference.

When the seedlings are about 2cm (0.75 in) tall, it’s time to be cruel to be kind. Even though you spaced the seeds out, inevitably some will have moved and will be annoying their neighbours. Carefully pull out any anti-social ones so that there is one seedling every 10cm (4in). It might seem harsh, but when they’re all crowded together no one gets enough water, light or space.

That’s all you need to do. Water them when the weather is dry, and remove any weeds. Depending on the variety you bought (check the seed packet) they’re usually ready in about 3 months from sowing. I like to pick mine when they’re still quite small, about half way between the size of a golf and tennis ball.


Here's the recipe I've used for ages for pickling beets. Don't be put off by the olive oil. I know it sounds odd to have it in a pickling recipe, but it really takes the flavours to another dimension. I usually double this recipe.

500g whole beetroot
Tap water

For the pickling vinegar
180g cider vinegar (or malt vinegar, or wine vinegar, whatever you fancy)
50g balsamic vinegar
180g unrefined caster sugar
3 whole star anise
30g extra virgin olive oil + extra to top up the jars
1 whole cinnamon stick
4 cloves
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon sea salt

Twist off the leaves (the colour bleeds if you cut them) and wash the beets in cold water. Leave the little roots on, if you cut them off the colour leeches out.  Place the beets in a large saucepan of water with 1 tablespoon of salt.  Bring the water to the boil and cook the beets until they are tender (usually about 20 minutes but it depends how big your beets are)  Remove the beets from the pan and set them aside to cool.  Once cooled, pick each one up with a piece of absorbant kitchen paper & gently rub the skin to remove it. Cut them into wedges or slices, whichever you like.

Put all the pickling vinegar ingredients into a small saucepan and bring the mixture to the boil.  Reduce the heat and let the liquid simmer for 5 minutes. Leave to cool a little and then strain.

Fill sterilised jars with the cooked beets and top up with the pickling liquid. That's it, done!

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Steaming and Eating Artichokes, a Beginners Guide!

The current glut in my vegetable garden is artichokes. A very nice glut to have. I'd never eaten a fresh artichoke until last year, I liked the little artichoke hearts you can buy in tins and jars and thought I'd give growing them a go. I hadn't realised how much more there is to eat from an artichoke than you get in the jar & bottles. The "petals" are delicious, if a bit fiddly to eat. It's like a reverse tardis vegetable, there's so much more of it left when you've finished eating than when you started. Saturday artichoke lunches have become our July ritual, so we can devote the required amount of time to eat and enjoy them.

I'm almost embarrassed to share my favourite artichoke dip recipe, because it hardly counts as a recipe. It's as delicious as it is simple, although I suppose if you want to be really good you could make your own mayonnaise.

For the dip :
2 cups of mayonnaise
2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar

Mix together.

Really, that's it - delicious dip, done.

The artichokes themselves aren't much more complicated but it'll make me feel like this blog entry is more of a cooking based one if I share how to do it for those who haven't yet tried.

Au-naturelle, straight from the garden the petals of the artichokes have pointy thorned ends. Snip these pointy end bits off with scissors for the larger petals (see photo on left). If you're buying them fresh the seller may have done this bit for you. Cut off the stem so that it's almost flush with the base so it can sit upright during cooking. Add a little squeeze of lemon juice and a couple of bay leaves to the pan and steam until you can pull a petal off easily (usually somewhere between 25 - 45 minutes depending on how big they are). So, now you have perfectly cooked artichokes, how to eat them? Pull off the petals one at a time, dip the fat fleshy end into your dip, put it in your mouth and pull it through your teeth to extract the pulpy flesh inside. When you've eaten all the petals, you're left with the inside. Use a spoon or a knife to remove the fibrous fuzzy part called the choke. That bit isn't edible. Add it to your pile of detritus from the petals! What you're left with underneath all that fibre is the heart, which you can then cut up and use to scoop up the last of the dip.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

A Spatula in a Gun Fight

I've been looking after my Mother (who lives with us) since she was recently diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which is a type of blood cancer. We've launched ourselves into a new world of chemotherapy and even just two months in we've learnt so much and met some amazing people. Most people think of hair loss as the main side effect of chemotherapy. It's an aggressive therapy, and as much as she loved her hair, weight loss and loss of appetite are our main issues. For some people undergoing chemotherapy, or even just as a symptom of their cancer, lack of appetite and rapid weight loss are serious problems. Chemotherapy can also give you a sore, ulcerated mouth, which makes you even less inclined to eat. It can also change the way you taste food, things you loved before you might hate, or you might find everything seems bland and tasteless to you.

As my Mother's weight loss is so severe, finding something she will eat has become my all-consuming mission! Strawberries have been the hero of the menu in the last two weeks. Our garden is full to bursting with ripe strawberries now, and they're soft enough not to hurt her sore mouth, and sweet enough for her to taste. But, filling up on strawberries isn't helping me in the fight to put back some of the 56 lbs (26 kgs) she has lost in the last few months. So, I've been making jam like crazy. I'd love to get her to eat something with iron, and protein but currently even just a strawberry is a small victory. I feel like I've got a spatula in a gun fight. So, Sunday was spent jam making, which I now hope to use to tempt her into eating things like creamy rice puddings with swirls of jam. Even just scooping jam from the jar.

While we were at her last chemotherapy session a medical photographer from the hospital asked if she could take some photos of my Mother having chemotherapy for their fund raising literature. We talked about how much more equipment they need, and their hopes for moving to a larger unit next year. I've decided to have a bake sale to raise funds for the chemotherapy unit. I'm planning to do it in September, but already it's giving me sleepless nights! I've never frozen cakes before, I can't believe how conflicting the advice is about de-frosting them (wrapping on or off? ). I can't hope to make enough the day before the bake sale, so most will need to be made in advance and frozen. I think I'm going to have to bake some trial cakes to freeze & defrost just to see which of the advice on the interwebs is correct. My husband pointed out that by the time I've done all this I'd have been better off just donating the cost of all the ingredients! I'm hoping to prove him wrong, home-made cakes have extra love in them that people will pay for, right?

Strawberry Jam


I've made this strawberry jam recipe from Silver Spoon for years. It's a never fail, no worry jam recipe that tastes like a burst of sunshine in every spoonful. It does taste extra special if you pick the strawberries when they are warm from the sun and make the jam straight away.

 800g hulled strawberries (that's about 900g of unprepared fruit)
1kg jam sugar (this is sugar with added apple pectin for fruits like strawberries that are low in pectin, I always use Silver Spoon jam sugar)
a knob of butter

Mash the fruit with a potato masher and put them in a large saucepan.  Add the jam sugar and heat gently stirring all the time until the sugar dissolves. Make sure it doesn't boil yet. Add the butter when the sugar has dissolved and then turn up the heat. Keep stirring, bring it all to a full roiling boil (so that it bubbles and rises in the pan and cannot be stirred down). Then either insert a food thermometer (I love my digital one) and keep boiling and stirring until it reaches 105 degrees C, or if you don't have a food thermometer, start timing when it reaches a real full rolling boil and keep it going for 4 minutes (no more, no less!). Remove from the heat and pour (I have a great metal funnel that sits inside my jam jars to help this proess) into steralised jam jars (about 4 normal sized ones) and put the lids on tight while the jam is still hot. Feel free to pat yourself on the back whenever you open a jar for your breakfast.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Asparagus, Finally


Last year I planted some asparagus tubers that were three years old. Asparagus is a lesson in gardening patience, you can't pick them until they're at least three years old. Until they're old enough all they give you is spindly frondy ferns that take up lots of space and nothing else. This photo shows one of my asparagus plants this morning. They're fascintaing, once through the soil the spears grow so quickly that I'm sure you'd be able to see them move if you sat and watched for an hour. If all my patience hadn't been used up on getting them to this pickable state I'd set up my camera to capture a spear growing in a day.

When you pick them this fresh you can just eat them raw, they're really sweet because the sugar in the spears starts to turn to starch the minute you cut them. If you can eat it within a few hours of picking you'll be amazed by the difference in the taste from imported shop bought spears which taste bland and are woody by the time they've been flown around the planet to your supermarket. Obviously not everyone has the space or the patience to grow their own, but if you can find a local grower I urge you to try some from them. The season for British asparagus is so short., just May and a little of June and then it's all over for another year.

Asparagus Soup

Serves 4-6

500g asparagus
50g unsalted butter
1 shallot, finely chopped
700ml chicken stock
70ml creme fraiche
2 free range egg yolks
2 tablespoons fino sherry (a nice chilled glass or two of this while you're cooking helps too!)

Chop off the tips of each asparagus spear and set aside. Chop the stalks into 1cm pieces, discarding any woody end bits. Melt the butter in a pan and saute the shallot gently for about 5 minutes until it's translucent. Add the chopped stalks (not the tips!) and sweat them very gently for another 5 minutes, taking care that the shallot doesn't brown
Pour in the stock and simmer until the stalks are tender (probably about 30 minutes) and then give it all a whizz in the pan with a hand held blender.  Bring the soup back to a simmer and add the asparagus tips. Cook gently for about 4 minutes, until the tips are just cooked. Take the pan off the heat and in a small bowl mix the sherry, creme fraiche and the egg yolks. Stir this mixture into the soup and keep stirring until it has thickened and then serve. Yum!

Thursday, 29 March 2012

A Free Lunch

I know that the crazily warm weather we've been having this week can't last and I'm struggling to stop myself sowing all sorts of seeds that normally I wouldn't plant until the end of next month. It's so hard to think of frosty weather while I'm in shorts and t-shirt and watering the parched cracked earth. So I'm hedging my bets and have bean and winter squash seedlings that have germinated and are currently in the cold frame. If they survive in there for a few more weeks until the after the usual last frost date then I'll be very happy.

The warm weather has brought out one of my favourite free foods a little earlier than usual too. Stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) are fantastic to eat when young. They have lots of iron and vitamins, taste great and best of all they're free. It's best to pick them in the spring, before they get too big and tough and before they flower. I usually pick them up to about May, and I only pick the nice little top leaves. Obviously, you need gloves, a pair of scissors and a bag to pick and take them home to avoid getting stung. But as soon as they're cooked they lose their sting. You can use them in any recipe in place of spinach, I like making nettle lasagne, but here's a recipe for my favourite way of cooking with nettels, a frittata.

Serves 2 as a main course with a green salad

500g potatoes
1 onion
olive oil
6 medium sized free range eggs
handful of peas
large handful of nettle leaves (thoroughly washed)
kitchen tongs!

Peel the potatoes and cut in half if they are large. Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil & cook the potatoes until they are soft, but not falling apart (this will probably take about 10 minutes depending on the size of your potatoes). Meanwhile, finely slice the onion and fry in a frying pan in a table spoon of olive oil until softened but not brown. Transfer the cooked onion to a large bowl. Drain and slice the par-boiled potatoes as thinly as you can. If you don't have asbestos fingers like me you can leave them to cool before you do this. Add another tablespoon of olive oil to the frying pan and gently fry the potato slices in batches so that they're always cooking in one layer. Turn them before they brown, you're looking for cooked but not browned. Add a little more oil between batches if you need to. As each batch is done, add it to the bowl with the onions. Now for the nettles. Make sure you washed them well (aphids love nettles) and don't forget to keep your rubber gloves on while you're doing it. Still wearing gloves, remove the leaves from the stalks. Add a touch more olive oil to the frying pan and use the tongs to put the nettles in and then then cook them down for about 4 minutes. Once cooked they no longer sting and you can discard your gloves & tongs! Add the cooked nettles to the onion and potato. If you're using fresh peas, cook them in boiling water for a few minutes (if you're using frozen you can just pour some boiling water over them & leave for a few minutes). Add the peas to the bowl with the potato & onion. In a separate bowl, whisk up the eggs with a fork season with salt and lots of black pepper and tip the eggs into the bowl with the vegetables and mix well. Add a little more oil to your frying pan and when it's hot tip in the egg/vegetable mixture. Cook gently until the liquid has solidified. Then, if you're brave place a large plate over the frying pan, turn it over and then slide the frittata back into the pan to cook the other side for a couple of minutes. If you're a coward, put the frying pan under the grill to cook the top. Both methods work fine!

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Focaccia Bread for Rainy Weekends

It's about this time of year that I get really impatient to start harvesting. The weather has been so warm this week, it felt like summer, but summer without the vegetable harvest. Most of the seeds are either still underground or in their packets waiting until all chance of frost has passed. The only things ready to eat in the garden at the moment are spinach and good old rosemary. 

It's been raining all day today, good for the peas and parsnips seeds I planted this week, but not much good for anything else that needs to be done in the garden (like picking the spinach) Luckily I can lean out of the back door and pick rosemary while still keeping in the dry, so I made rosemary focaccia today. I am definitely a fair weather gardener.

Makes one focaccia
500g strong white bread flour
5g powdered dry yeast
10g fine salt
325ml warm water
1 tablespoon of olive oil plus a little more for coating.
A few chopped rosemary leaves
flaky sea salt
Fit the dough hook into a food mixer and add the flour, yeast, salt and water into the mixer bowl. Mix until combined then add the oil and knead for 10 minutes until the dough is smooth and silky.  Tip out from the mixer bowl and shape into a round on a floured surface. Put it in an oiled bowl and cover (I have a plastic bin bag I use for this job, plastic bags seem to create the perfect conditions for the yeast to rise) Leave to rise somewhere warm for about an hour or however long it takes to double in size (the time will depend on the warmth of your room). When it's twice the size take it out of the bowl and place on a lightly oiled baking sheet. Press the dough into a flat rectangle. Press the dough lightly with your fingers all over. Cover it, and leave it to rise again for about an hour. Pre-heat your oven as high as it will go (about 250° C/Gas mark 10 usually) When the dough is ready it will have puffed up again. Poke your fingers (gently) into the dough, almost to the bottom, to make the characteristic dimples all over the bread. Drizzle the top with a little more olive oil, and sprinkle with a little sea salt and the chopped rosemary.

Bake for 10 minutes at the high temperature you'd set the oven to, then turn it down to 200° C/Gas mark 6 and cook for another 8-10 minutes. Leave to cool on a wire rack.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Calendulas and Companion Planting

I grew lots of calendulas from seed last year as companion plants for my tomatoes. The photo on the right shows my tomato plant row with their pals the calendulars last July.
Companion planting involves growing specific plants next to each other so they assist each other in nutrient uptake, pest control, pollination, and other factors necessary to increase crop yield. Calendula is a good plant to use with tomato plants as a positive host (attracting beneficial insects that control pests like hover flies) and as a trap host because it attracts pests from the tomato crop. I also love them because they  make great cut flowers, the petals are delicious in salads and they seed themselves readily. 

When we had the mad cold snap a few weeks ago I thought I’d lost the all self seeded ones that had sprung up on the paths of my allotment garden. When the snow melted all the leaves were black and several stems had shrivelled to nothing (a fate that also befell my autumn planted broad beans)  I checked them today and there are new leaves at the base of most of the plants. Hoorah!  The original plants from the seed packet were a wonderful mixture of colours from pale yellow through to hot orange. I’m very interested to see what colours the self seeded ones produce. I hope my broad bean plants will take note and resurrect themselves in a similar fashion!

As well as adding the petals to salads (you can eat the centre of the flower but it's bitter) you can also use them as a cheap alternative to saffron.  The petals have a peppery taste, but not as strong as nasturtiums.  I think the taste and the colour of the petals goes really well with orange salad.  Peel and remove the membrane from each segment of an orange. Thinly slice a red onion, and mix the orange and onion with some mixed salad greens, any type you like. Toast some sliced almonds and toss into the salad, add some washed calendular petals and dress with some olive oil and red wine vinegar. Delicious, colourful and very healthy!

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Rosemary Shortbread

When the lavender in the garden was in full bloom last year I made some lavender & lemon shortbread. I loved its delicate floral taste. It wasn't to my husband's taste however, who declared it to be like eating soap. I suppose it's hard to break the mental link between the scent of lavender and bath products. Anyway, all the more shortbread for me!  There's not much growing in my garden at this time of year that I can use to make our usual plain shortbread a little more exciting. Nothing, that is, except the valiant rosemary which has looked healthy all winter. So I decided on a twist from the lavender and lemon and made rosemary and lemon shortbread which turned out to be entirely delicious (even if my husband still only wants the taste of butter in his shortbread). If you'd like to try the lavender version, just substitute it for the rosemary in the recipe below (and put all thoughts of your great aunt Maude's soap out of your head)

The shortbread recipe I use isn't like the traditional thick Scottish shortbread. I much prefer this version which is light and delicate and melts in your mouth.

Makes about 24

175g softened unsalted butter
90g caster sugar (and a little to sprinkle on top)
pinch of salt
2 medium sized egg yolks
200g plain white flour
1 tablespoon very finely chopped rosemary
grated zest of one lemon

In a food mixer (with the paddle beater attachment on) cream the butter and sugar together until very pale. Add the egg yolks, salt, lemon zest and rosemary. Beat for another minute then fold in the flour to make a soft dough. Flour a work surface and shape the dough into a wide flat disk. Wrap it in clingfilm and put in the fridge to firm up for about an hour. You can't cheat & skip this bit or it'll just fall apart.

Pre-heat the oven to 180°C/GM4. Unwrap and roll out the dough on a floured surface until it's about 3mm thick. Use a 6mm pastry cutter & stamp out as many as you can (should be about 24). Carefully transfer them using a wide knife to a non-stick baking sheet, or one that you've lined with baking parchment.

Bake for just 7-10 minutes until the edges are just starting to go golden but the middles are still pale. They will still be soft - don't panic...they firm up! Sprinkle a little more sugar on top of the still hot shortbread. Leave on the baking sheet for a couple of minutes and then transfer to a cooling rack. 

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Snowdrops, Beetroot and Abandoned Parsnips

The snowdrops in my garden are a cheerful reminder that warmer weather is on the way. Actually, we’re currently having freakily warm weather, it’s already 22°C warmer than last week. The plants don’t know whether they’re coming or going. I had planned to sow the first succession of parsnips two days ago but the ground was frozen so hard that the seed bed I’d previously prepared was like concrete. Sowing abandoned! Now that it’s warmed up to 15°C I’ll risk sowing a few tomorrow. I'll keep sowing a few seeds every two weeks so that they're ready at different times. As much as I love parsnips, recipes to use 15 of them at once might be challenging!

My chitted first early potatoes are looking very healthy and just about ready to go. I used the abandoned parsnip sowing time to pre-dig a trench for the potatoes and I covered it with horticultural fleece to warm the soil up a little. I’ll plant the potatoes later this week. I’m certain we’ll have many more frosts, but they should be fine if I earth them up properly. Earthing up is when you draw a ridge of earth up over the emerging shoots of the potatoes. This should protect them until the risk of frost has passed. Last year we did have a freaky late frost that turned some of the potato leaves black, but by then they were pretty sturdy and they all bounced back.

I’m also sowing some biodegradable pots with some beetroot seeds this week. I’ll keep these indoors in a warm light room (my photographic studio starts to resemble a greenhouse about this time of year). When they’re big enough I’ll transfer them to my new cold frame, which is still in the box it was delivered in 2 months ago. I’m hoping that having seedlings that need to go in there will force me to get to grips with assembling the flat packed cold frame. Flat pack assembly is one of my least favourite jobs in the world. The last cold frame I assembled a few years ago was so wobbly on completion that you could only open the door if you pushed the lid at the same time. I’d like to blame the manufacturers but I’m fairly certain it’s me that’s the problem!

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Cupcakes and Winter Disasters

The continuing unusually cold winter weather and our creaky old house have conspired together this week to elevate my stress levels. Frozen diesel in the car and a burst water pipe have been expensive, messy and time consuming. At times like these, I comfort bake. Nothing relaxes me more than baking cakes and cookies. Perhaps it’s all the methodical weighing and measuring that helps soothe the worried mind. This has resulted in a flurry of sweet creations in my kitchen this week.

Raspberry and Pomegranite Cupcakes

For the cupcakes:

325g plain flour

1 tbsp. baking powder

3/4 tsp. fine salt

300g caster sugar

125ml rapeseed oil

2 eggs

375ml whole milk

2 tbsp. mashed fresh raspberries

For the icing:

120g unsalted butter, softened

300g mascarpone cheese

160g icing sugar

1 vanilla pod

A few fresh raspberries and pomegranate seeds for decoration

Preheat the oven to 160 degrees C/Gas mark 3. Line a cupcake tin with 18 cupcake liners (or 2 and a bit tins if, like me, your tins have 12 holes)

Sift together the flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar. Add these sifted dry ingredients to the bowl of a an electric mixer (hooray for my KichenAid Artisan!) Using a paddle attachment mix on low speed for 30 seconds. Slowly add the oil to the mixture until the mixture looks like fine crumbs. Add the eggs, milk, and squashed raspberries and mix on low speed for 1 minute. Scrape the sides of the bowl to ensure everything is getting evenly mixed, then turn up to a medium speed and mix for another 2 minutes.

Fill the cupcake liners three-quarters full with the mixture and bake until cooked through (about 15-20 minutes) Cool on a wire rack before icing. They must be completely cool before you ice them.

Scrape the seeds from the vanilla pod and add to the soft butter. Cream the butter until light and fluffy in an electric mixer using a paddle attachment. Add the mascarpone and mix. Don’t over work the mascarpone mixture otherwise it may separate. Sift the icing sugar over the mascarpone mixture and gently fold it in. Put the mixture in the fridge for 30 minutes to set, then spread on top of each cupcake and add the fresh raspberries and pomegranate seeds on top. These need to be refrigerated and eaten fairly quickly because of the marscapone icing.

Fill the cupcake liners three-quarters full with the mixture and bake until cooked through (about 15-20 minutes) Cool on a wire rack before icing. They must be completely cool before you ice them.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Chitting Potatoes and Lots of Snow

This week has been unusually cold here, the temperature hasn’t risen above 0°C and has been down to -6°C. The big dump of snow we had at the weekend is hanging around looking dirty and there are bare patches of grass on the hills where kids (ok, and us) have tobogganed the snow into oblivion. The image above shows the fields near my house, a favourite place for tobogganing.

Preparing the seed bed for the parsnips is on hold. But I’m still itching to get started for this year, so I began the process of chitting my first early potatoes. The terminology involved in potato growing put me off growing them for years. First earlies, second earlies, maincrop? The terms seems unnecesarily confusing and daunting. Really, all the terms mean are how fast the potatoes are ready to harvest once you’ve planted the seed potatoes. First earlies (most people’s idea of “new potatoes”) are usually ready in about ten weeks, second earlies in about thirteen weeks and maincrop are ready about twenty weeks after planting.  The variety of potoato you chose will tell you whether it’s first, second or maincrop. 

 These are my first earlies for this year, at the start of the chitting process. I’ve chosen Arran Pilot this year. It is said to have reistaance to common scab, which was a problem with some of the varieties I grew last year.

 I save egg boxes all year to use for this job. One end of the seed potato will have little eyes or buds, this is called the rose end. Stand it in the egg box with this rose end upwards.

You can see that mine had started chitting on their own in their delivery box and had these little white shoots when they were delivered from the seed company (  They’re white because the potatoes had been kept in the dark in a box. That’s not the sort of sprouting you want at the end of this process, you want short fat green and pink shoots. You can rub out (pick off) some of the shoots to leave just three fat ones on each potato so the plant can concentrate on producing fewer but bigger potatoes. If you have lots of shoots you get lot of tiny potatoes (and you’ll probably miss the really tiny ones when harvesting which is a real pain as the rotting potatoes encourage slugs)

Then you should leave the potatoes sitting in their egg boxes somewhere cool and light – but not in direct sunlight. Mine are spread out on my studio floor in the attic which is unheated due to our super inefficient heating system!  They are ready to plant when the shoots are about an inch long. I’m hoping this freakily cold snap will be long gone by then!

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

The Last of the Carrots

I’m lucky enough to still be pulling carrots from our vegetable patch on a daily basis. Despite a few hard frosts they’ve lasted really well. They haven’t grown in size since the cold weather set in, but they seem to be perfectly happy to sit in the soil all winter. However, I’m itching to get a seed bed prepared in that area for the parsnips that need to be sown soon. So, as much as I’ve enjoyed my winter supply of carrots,  I’m pulling what’s left of them today and making a big batch of carrot and coriander soup.  I usually spend a few hours each month making soup and freezing it in single serving sizes. It’s the perfect lunch to eat while I’m working and I have mastered the art of image editing with one hand while slurping soup from a spoon from the other.

Carrot and Coriander Soup
Serves 6

1 tablespoon of olive oil
4 large carrots, scrubbed  and cut into chunks
1/2 large onion, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon of dried chilli flakes
900ml (1 1/2 pints) vegetable or chicken stock
A handful of fresh coriander, roughly chopped

Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat.  Add the carrots and onion and cook for five minutes or so until the onion has softened a little. Add the chilli flakes and pour in the stock, bring the soup to the boil and cook for 10-15 minutes until the carrots are tender. Add most of the coriander, save a little for the garnish. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly. Blitz the soup with a hand blender until smooth.  Re-heat to serve, add the reserved coriander and enjoy with crusty bread. 

Friday, 27 January 2012

Bread Making and Sourdough Wild Yeast Starters

When the weather is frosty, as it was this morning, I like to make bread.  Bread is one of my favourite foods, but I have an ulterior motive for baking bread when it’s cold outside.  Our house is old, draughty and the heating system barely takes the ice off the rooms.  So I like to supplement our heating with warmth from the oven as I bake.

As you can see from the photo above, I use a cane banetton to proof my dough. It’s  a great way to support the dough and it also gives your loaf a nice swirled design.   I started a wild yeast starter (or sourdough starter)  last summer. Even if I’m not making sourdough I always include a ladle full of my wild yeast starter in my dough with the “normal” yeast.  I think it’s nice to personalise your bread with your own yeast that you’ve “captured” from the wild.  A wild yeast starter sounds daunting, but it’s really simple to make and simple to keep alive. Here’s how I made mine, and what I do with it to keep it happy.

Sourdough / Wild Yeast Starter
Yeast needs sugar, warmth and moisture to reproduce, so here’s how to grow your own little yeast pot.

To start :
150g of flour and 250ml of warm water.  I use spelt flour, you can use any sort, but spelt or wholemeal is best because white flour is a bit slow to get going. Whichever you use, it doesn’t make a difference to your final loaf. You’ll need a non-metallic container with a lid, I use a Tupperware pot. Make sure there’s enough room for it to grow & bubble up. So go for something four times bigger than your initial batter. Mix the flour and water together and then whisk for as long as you can stand!. If you’ve got an electric whisk use this, the idea is to get as much air into the mixture as possible (because the yeast is in the air). Put the lid on, then leave somewhere fairly warm. Keep checking it, at some point you’ll get bubbles or holes on the surface. How long this takes depends on how much air you whisked in, how much wild yeast was hanging about in the air and the temperature.

First Feeding
When you see nice big bubbles or holes on the surface, feed your starter by adding another 150g of flour and another 250ml of warm water. Put the lid back on and leave it somewhere warm again.  The next day, check to see if you have more bubbles/holes on the surface. When you do, you can start the maintenance feeding.

Maintenance Feedings
Tip out half the starter and replace it with 150g of flour and 250ml of cold water (note it’s cold now). Put the lid back on and leave somewhere coolish. Repeat this step every day for a week, then  you can put the starter in the fridge and do this step once a week. I sometimes leave mine for two weeks. You can tell when it’s getting desperate for another feed because the smell changes from nice yeasty smells to something that has a little tinge of acetone to it. Remember though, to take it out of the fridge the day before you want to use it so it’s active and bubbling again.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Borlotti Beans

Last year we grew borlotti beans for the first time. I’d previously believed all the advice that it wasn’t possible to grow them in England. Perhaps it was beginner’s luck, but they did really well for us (even though they were in quite a shady area of the veg plot).  I loved the huge scarlet-flecked pods that adorned the plants all summer, growing veg is all the nicer when they're pretty.  

 This is how they looked as seedlings in the garden back in May last year.

We dried the beans, still in the pods, indoors for a few weeks and then stored them in airtight jars. I was hoping that they’d see us through the winter but I’m using the last of them today so I need to grow far more this year. This is my usual excuse for going over-board on seed buying and scavenging.  This is my seed tin. It’s organised by planting month but I have so many seed packets crammed in there that I can’t close the lid and some packets occasionally spring out and make a break for it. I gave lots away at our allotment society lunch in December, but I still have far more seeds than I have growing room.

As these are the last of our borlottis I’m making my favourite recipe with them. Slightly adapted from a Delia Smith recipe, I love it. It’s also a compromise, The Husband would eat nothing but sausage, chips and tinned Heinz baked beans if given the chance. So I meet him half way with this recipe, much healthier and I don’t think he misses the chips and tinned beans too much.

 Borlotti and Sausage Cassoulet  (serves 2)

1 tablespoon olive oil

4 good quality sausages

8oz (225g) dried borlotti beans (soaked overnight in cold water, boiled rapidly for 10 minutes and then drained)

4oz (125g) diced smoked pancetta

1 onion, diced

1 stick of celery, diced

1 medium sized carrot, diced

1 clove of garlic, very thinly sliced

10 fl oz (275ml) of dry white wine

10fl oz (275ml) water

1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary

1 teaspoon chopped fresh sage

Salt & black pepper

Pre-heat the oven to gas mark 1, 275°F (140°C).

Heat the oil in a large pan or casserole dish (one that you can use both on the hob and in the oven & one that you have a lid for) over a medium heat and brown the sausages. Turn them every few minutes to make sure they’re brown on all sides. There’s nothing less appetising than anaemic sausages. Take them out the pan and put to one side. Increase the heat and fry the pancetta, until it’s golden brown at the edges. Remove it using a slotted spoon (to leave the delicious bacony oil behind). Turn the heat down again and cook the onion, celery and carrot, stirring occasionally for about 10 minutes (until soft). Add the garlic and remove from the heat (the garlic only needs about a minute in the residual heat if you've sliced it thin enough & you don’t want it to burn or it’ll be bitter) add the beans and then nestle the sausages into the pan. Then add the chopped sage, the wine and the water. Season with salt and black pepper and bring it up to a gentle simmer. Put the lid on and put in the oven for 3 hours. Your kitchen will be warm and smell delicious. I like to make wholemeal bread to serve with this; a couple of crusty chunks are just the job to soak up the lovely unctuous juices.


Sunday, 15 January 2012

About Me, Let's Get This One Over With

This is my first blog post, so I’m going to use it to get the introductions done and dusted.  This bit feels a bit awkward as it’s not about anything other than me.  I’ll be glad to get it over with so I can start properly.

I’m a free-lance photographer and  I licence my images through and I mostly photograph my obsession – growing and cooking food . I grow my own fruit and vegetables and spend a ridiculous amount of time cooking or thinking and reading about cooking. And, of course, eating.  I’m always in search of really good restaurants. In our house every Friday is No Cook Friday, so I’ll also be sharing the good the bad and the ugly of our finds.

Let’s also get out the fact that I'm a pagan out of the way, because my beliefs affect how I grow food (organically) and what I eat (organic food, and if it’s meat it needs to have been compassionately farmed – or better still, not farmed at all) and my general outlook on life. I mention this not because I will be blogging particularly about religion, just because if you’re bigoted then I’m not sure we’ll be getting along.  Don’t let my broomstick hit you on the way out.