Beautiful brassicas

You might remember that I used to write a monthly blog for Francoise Murat Design about season British food. Well, Francoise has had the blog redesigned and its now called Rendez-vous Deco & Jardin, it looks lovely and I’m please to say I’m back doing my monthly feature.

My first piece was on how versatile brassicas are in the kitchen are and how useful they can be in in the lean vegetable months before the UK growing season gets into swing.

You can read the article here, its packed with ideas on how to use brassicas from spicy to mild, british to asian cooking, there is sure to be something to suit you.

Fennel harvest (and fennel crackers)

We’ve a huge fennel plant growing in our garden….we didn’t plant it I think it self seeded from next door. Anyway we kind of ignored it but now its time to tidy the garden so I decided to harvest the seeds before we up rooted it and find a few uses for them.

A bit of googling told me that they aren’t really seeds they are teeny fruits, and that instead of taking nice photos of ladybirds clambering over the yellow flowers earlier in the year I should have been harvesting the pollen as this is the most sought after part. I didn’t but I’ll know for next year.

I’m only part way through collected all the ‘seeds’ and I have tons so I’ve been searching for ideas of how to use them so far I’ve got the following to try:

– spelt and fennel bread from Scandilicious cookbook

– meatballs

– beany sausage casserole with some fennel added to the cooking sauce

– fennel shortbread

– fennel (and possibly pear) ice cream or sorbet

– toasted fennel seeds to snack on

– sprinkled on salads especially ones involving cheese

– torta aciete

– crackers for with cheese (I tried these yesterday see recipe at the end)

– scandi style vodka (of course)

– simple fresh cheese with fennel

And I’ve yet to properly explore the section on anise in The Flavour Thesaurus. Still I think it’s going to take rather a long time to use them all so I’ve promised some to Scandilicious (as she loves them an they are big in Scandi cooking) and some to Northcore Brewery so thye can play with how they work in beer.

All further suggestions for how to use them welcome. Many thanks to the following tweeters for the list so far:

@scandilicious @urbanfoodie_net @leafhsetherapy @rentaquill @jamsmithsclub

Fennel biscuits/crackers

I found this recipe for seedy crackers by Hugh FW on the Guardian. I thought it looked good so naturally I read it and erm then fiddled with it. This is what I did:

125g strong white flour

1/4 tsp salt

1/4 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp fennel seeds

20ml EV rapeseed oil

water

I mixed all the dry ingredients together, I added the oil and stirred it in. I added water a tablespoon at a time until I got a softish dough. I reckon it took 60ml water. I kneaded it gently. I rolled it out in one big piece direct onto some non-stick foil and cut about half way through in strips to make rectangular biscuits. Into a pre heated oven at R3.5 (oven runs low) and baked for the supposed 5 minutes, and another and another…and in total it took 25 mins and I still don’t think it was quite cooked. But it tasted good especially with some salty pecorino or robust cheddar. I probably didn’t roll it thin enough and I guess 1 large piece takes longer to cook than lots of neat biscuits.

Verdict: good, no way the cooking time is 5 mins (perhaps in a giant bakery deck oven?!) definitely one to try again and play with flours maybe spelt or some oatmeal next time.

 

Gluts of all types

It’s coming to the end of harvest time but everywhere you look there are gluts of produce to be turned into something delicious. Some to be eaten now, some to be saved for the winter months. Gardens and hedgerows are filled with bounty and will continue to provide opportunities to harvest interesting things until late October. You might have your own fruit trees providing you with an abundance of apples, pears, plums or damsons, too many beans, courgettes or unripe tomatoes. Maybe a neighbour has a surfeit they need to share. There’s sure to be produce by peoples gates either for free or very cheap. And of course you can go foraging in country lanes, in parks and open spaces, on moorland.

Whatever you find there’s plenty of ways to put it to good use: cakes, crumbles, pies and tarts for now, freezing and multiple ways of preserving for later…..compots, jams, chutneys, pickles, curds, vinegars, favoured gins or vodkas, fruit jellies and cheeses, cordials, wines and ales, ketchups and sauces. Almost too may choices.

First of all some rules of foraging:

  1. Be sure you are allowed to forage from the lane/park/open space you choose; land maybe protected or private, foraging isn’t just a free for all.
  2. Don’t strip plants bare, leave fruit for others and for the wildlife.
  3. Make sure you know what you have collected before using it as food.
  4. Only collect from areas where you are happy there won’t be contamination, so right next to a busy road might not be great.
  5. Always be considerate and sensible about where and how you forage.

The are some good books on foraging to help you know what you might find where and when and also for identification. Three that I particularly like are Food for Free by Richard Mabey (it comes is a tiny pocket size so is easy to carry with you); The Foragers Handbook by Miles Irving more a research book for at home, Miles also runs foraging courses (as do others); and the River Cottage Hedgerow Handbook by John Wright.

Most of what you’ll collect over the next two months will be fruits and berries of some description, but there could be end of season vegetables too from the garden. There’s mushrooms to be had of course but that’s a whole other topic. To decide what to do with whatever glut you have think about the following: how ripe is the fruit, how sweet or tart is it, how long is the season (is this the last for this year or might you be able to collect more), how much do you have? All of these things will influence what you might choose to do. If you have a small amount of ripe fruit then if its edible uncooked you’ll probably want to eat it as is with cream or yoghurt or perhaps made into a cake, pudding, tart or crumble. If you’ve a lot of something then you’ll need to preserve some for later use either as a jam, jelly, chutney, pickle or something. I tend to make pickles, chutneys and fruit vodkas because they are what I like but think of what is most likely to get eaten up before next years glut and also what people you know will appreciate as presents. If the fruit is less ripe then pickles and chutneys are a good choice as the sourness is part of the taste and can be balanced by the spices and sugar. Very under ripe fruit can be made into Indian style pickles (a bit like lime pickle), I’ve tried this with plums and green tomatoes and it works well with both.

There really are so many choices it’s hard to single out one recipe (but I’ve included lots of links this month for you). Good resources are River Cottage Preserves Handbook by Pam Corbin and The Jam, Preserves and Chutneys Handbook by Marguerite Patten. Both are excellent on basic techniques with plenty of recipes to try. Do remember that if you are making chutney or pickles then you need a non-reactive pan (i.e. not aluminium) and inevitably the vinegar evaporates so have the extractor on and close the kitchen door, the taste though, is worth it.

One thing I’m determined to try this year is drying fruit. I love the dried berries and apples in granola and muesli so I’m going to make my own. I’ll be following this method from a curious little book called They Can’t Ration These, written during WW2 by Vitcome de Maudit (and republished by Persephone) its fully of quirky ideas for foraging and cooking.

How to Dry Berries

Use only sound, unbruised fruit, wash, clean and drain the berries on wooden or iron sheets and place them in a very moderate oven (110F). Raise the heat gradually to 130F, then when the berries fail to stain the hand when pressed but are not so hard that they will rattle, take them out and store. The length of time for the drying varies with the kind of berries, but it is from 4 to 6 hours.

(Note: The temperatures quoted don’t seem to tally with any conversion charts I can find so I’m assuming that the oven should be on its lowest possible setting. This is part of the joy of old recipes.)

This article was first published as part of the series I write for Francoise Murat & Associates newsletter. If you want to get the article sooner then why not subscribe to the newsletter which also has features on gardening (including kitchen gardens) and interior design.

Spicy sour green pickles

So the tomatoes should have been ripe ages ago but mine still look like this:

Which means I’ll be making batches of green pickles again this year. But that’s okay because I rather like the green pickles. I made them first with under ripe plums that I collected in deepest Suffolk with Vivia of Grethic’s Grethica. She also tracked down some recipes which she posted links to here. Its worth watching the you tube clips because they are a bit bonkers but to make it a bit easier I’ve given the recipe the way I did it here.

You need:

Lots of unripe tomatoes or plums

Sour pickle:

1 quantity (see note) each of fenugreek seeds, mustard seeds, red chilli flakes, cumin seeds, coriander seeds

½ quantity of salt

¼ quantity of tumeric

rapeseed oil

Sweet and sour pickle:

8% salt

4% tumeric

50% sugar

rapeseed oil

In both cases the quantities take a bit of guess work. In the second one I assumed it meant use 8% of the weight of fruit you have etc. In the first one it was harder so I just did what looked like a sensible quantity for the fruit I had the get a good level of spiciness.

This is what you do:

Cut the tomatoes (or plums) into quarters. Discard the stones if you have plums. I usually make one batch of each type so I split the total fruit in half then carry on.

Sour pickle:

Mix the spice and salt together in a bowl. Add the fruit and coat with the mix. Cover with cling film and leave somewhere light and warm for 3-4 days. Pack tightly in sterilised jars and cover with rapeseed oil. Leave it to mature for at least a month. This one is quite like lime pickle so is great with curries. I use any leftover spicy oil for cooking curry as well.

Sweet and sour pickle:

Mix the salt and tumeric together and add the fruit. Coat. Cover with clingfilm and leave in a bright warm place for 2-3 days. Add the sugar and leave for a further 3-5 days. Pack into sterilised jars and cover with oil. As this one is sweeter it also works well with cheeses or cold meats.

Here is what you end up with:

Mostly berries, some cherries and currants

At last the English fruit season has arrived. The gooseberries and strawberries are in full flow and the raspberries, cherries and currants (black, red and white) are all just starting to come into their prime. For all these fruits when the season starts and end is inevitably affected by the weather and where you are in the country, some have much longer natural seasons than others and making the best of each while you can is what its all about.

I like them fresh of course, or cooked in compotes, sauces and pies and some preserved to bring a little summer light into the autumn and winter. All these fruits are native to Britain in some form although the varieties we eat now hail from the experiments of plants-men across Europe and America. Cherries were being cultivated in Britain during the middle ages, gooseberries in the 15th century, black (and other) currants and raspberries in the 1600s. It seems that strawberries are very much the latecomers to the party only really becoming widely grown from the 19th century onwards.

I just can’t resist pinching a few cherries from the bowl each time I pass so they never last long enough to be made into anything, perhaps if I had a cherry tree I might manage to save a few for other things. This year I’m going to see if I can find enough (and not eat them all first) to try pickling some as I think they would be wonderful with a cooked ham in the depths of winter. And red, black or white currants are a tasty counterpoint to other fruits especially in summer pudding.

But truth be told its raspberries I love the most.

Fortunately the different varieties mean the season lasts from late June to Autumn. I have a theory that you are either a raspberry or a strawberry person at heart. Given a choice of both most people I know always plump for the same one, few dither, unsure as to which to have this time. Its not quite on the scale of a marmite love-hate thing but its there, strawberries OR raspberries is the way it seems to go. In Simply British Sybil Kapoor suggests raspberries are regarded with deep affection not adulation; I think she might be right.

Me, I’m a raspberry person through and through. The fresh fruit is better, the jam is better, better in tarts, just better. Faced with delicious, plump, wonderfully fragranced version of each raspberries always win and I’m happy to say no to strawberries even if there is no alternative. Their sweetness seems too saccharine, their texture odd; I like the slight tart edge and depth of flavour that even the sweetest raspberry has.

Although I’m not alone in this love of raspberries the majority seem to prefer strawberries seeing them as the perfect example of a British summer. The Johnny come lately to the table seems to have usurped the more historic fruit, with Bunyard musing in The Anatomy of Dessert why raspberries and cream are so much less popular than strawberries and cream. I suspect it’s that tart edge. He suggests a drop of champagne makes the raspberries more delicious. It might also be the connection raspberries have with use in tonics for the stomach and other ailments, but the old vinegar recipes I’ve found sound really refreshing as a drink and no comparison to the raspberry vinegar madness of nouvelle cuisine. And apparently made with malt vinegar it’s used to dress Yorkshire puddings!

Raspberry Vinegar

I love the wording of this early 1920’s recipe from Kitchen Essays by Agnes Jekyll:

“Take 1 lb. raspberries to every pint of best white vinegar. Let it stand for a fortnight in a covered jar in a cool larder. Then strain without pressure, and to every pint put ¾ lb. white sugar. Boil 10 minutes, let cool, and bottle in nice-shaped medium-sized bottles saved perhaps from some present of foreign liqueurs or scent. A teaspoonful stirred into a tumbler of water with a  lump of ice, or introduced to a very cold siphon, will taste like the elixir of life on a hot day, and will be as pretty as it is pleasant.”

In my case I suspect its memory that holds the key to my love of raspberries….a walk, some French cricket then picking raspberries from my grandad’s raspberry patch and having then at tea with thick golden Jersey cream. It sounds all rather grand and Merchant Ivory but it wasn’t, it was suburban Liverpool in the 1980s, you can grow great raspberries plenty of places if you try. I’m sure we only ever had the raspberries with thick cream, simple and delicious, maybe occasionally my grandad made a flan with them, one of those classic sponge flan bases you could buy and probably a teeny bit of jelly to hold the whole thing together, but there was still always served with Jersey cream. It sounds so retro now, raspberry flan, I’m sure its time for a reinvention…..I’m hoping to perfect one for the blog soon but initial trials are hampered by the raspberries constantly going missing….someone here clearly has a deep affection for them!

This blog post was first published in Francoise Murat & Associates July Newsletter.

In Season: Cheese and Onion

This article was first published in Francoise Murat & Associates newsletter in March 2010.

Mention cheese and onion and most people think of crisps. My quick Twitter survey revealed answers naming the Walkers brand, the colour of their bags (blue apparently) and even Gary Linekar, the face of Walkers crisps for so long he must surely have earned more from promoting crisps than from playing football and being a pundit. A few people were more inventive suggesting pasties and toasties but for most it was all about the crisps. The reason the crisp flavour works well is that the milky sour tang of cheese and the pungency of alliums are happy bedfellows, which means they have lots to offer in the kitchen, and spring is when plenty of both are at their best, real cheeses and real alliums, not Walkers crisps.

Thinking about the combination a whole host of dishes come to mind: leek and cheese sauce for pasta or chicken, onion soup with a lovely melting cheese crouton, cheese with pickled onions, cheese and onion marmalade sandwich, fresh goats cheese with chives, Yarg cheese wrapped in wild garlic, omelettes, frittatas or flans in a variety of allium and cheese combinations. The possibilities are endless.

British grown alliums are at their best now, lovely slim tender delicate leeks, new season spring onions, regular onions, shallots and of course wild garlic. Wild garlic has become an ‘on trend’ ingredient in the last couple of years as foraging has grown in popularity. It’s easy to find (the smell is a giveaway) particularly in woods by streams, you can grow it in your garden in a shady spot (but beware of it taking over) and you might see it at farmers’ markets or farm shops. You can eat the leaves and the flowers but like any allium it can range from mild to blow your head off in strength so always taste a little first before deciding how to use it. If you go foraging make sure you aren’t on private land or ask permission first, don’t collect from close to busy roads and be sure you know what it is you’ve picked. Don’t dig it up, leave enough for others to have some and for the plant to survive next year. The flowers are pretty sprinkled on salads and the leaves make a good substitute for leeks or spring onions.

As for cheese, fresh cheeses are particularly tasty in the spring as herds start to feed on grass again enriching the milk with clean herby flavours. Britain has a wealth of artisan cheeses and you should be able to find at least at one or two fresh cheeses in delis and farm shops. If you can’t then why not do a little experimenting in the kitchen and try making your own curd style cheese. It’s very simple to do and works with all types of fresh milk: cow’s, goat, sheep, even buffalo. Unpasteurised milk is lovely but normal works fine. This method is quick and easy and good as a supervised experiment for children. The yield varies depending on the milk, its highest with buffalo and lower with cow’s milk but whatever you choose you’ll get a lovely fresh delicious cheese. You can use the leftover whey in bread making in place of some of the milk or water.

Fresh cheese

Adapted from a recipe in the Casa Moro Cookbook by Sam & Sam Clark.

Ingredients:

  • 750ml milk
  • 1 tbsp essence of rennet (note that essence of rennet has already been diluted if you use undiluted rennet you must dilute it with water first)

Method:

  • Warm the milk to between 32-37C.
  • Add rennet and stir.
  • Pour into a bowl and cover with cling film.
  • Leave in a warm place for 30-45 minutes.
  • The curds will have set so cut them into about 3cm cubes whilst still in the bowl. Be gentle.
  • Leave for a further hour in a warm place.
  • Strain the curds into a muslin-lined colander.
  • Leave for about 6 hours for the whey to drain.

It’s as simple as that. The cheese will keep for up to a week in the fridge. It’s very mild in flavour and is particularly good rolled in some finely chopped wild garlic leaves or other fresh herbs. It also works well in omelettes, flans, and frittatas and stirred into pasta, with alliums of course and maybe a little mustard.

So next time you think of cheese and onion go beyond the immediate thought of a crisp flavour and branch out a bit in the kitchen.