JOANNA'S FOOD: family cooking, from scratch, every day

Thursday, May 31, 2007

A truly innocent smoothie

Those funny folk at Innocent smoothie are craftier than they let on. This morning, for breakfast, I followed their recipe for strawberry and banana smoothie ... it was delicious, but not quite as delicious as the stuff that comes out of the box - more apple-y, pippier, a lighter shade of red. It just happened that Alfred had cunningly sneaked an Innocent carton into my shopping trolley yesterday without my noticing, so we looked up the ingredients - not a hint of apple, 76 pressed grapes instead. Red ones, at a guess.

Strawberry and banana smoothie for two or three

One banana
14 strawberries (well, all right, a small punnet of strawberries)
the juice of an orange (mine came out of a carton)
enough apple juice to get to the thickness (or rather, thinness) you want

Whizz all this in your blender.

As you can see from the photograph, I used apple juice from a bottle. It comes from Waterperry Gardens, one of my favourite places in Oxfordshire. I buy our apple juice there to give me a regular excuse to visit. It's as close as you can get to drinking an apple, as it comes from named varieties of apple, which means you can choose exactly how your juice tastes. Today's was Winter King, which is a little on the sweet side for my taste - I like the really sharp juices.

The smoothie was delicious, but the children said that Innocent's version was better, and I'm inclined to agree with them. Somehow, in their processing, they scrunch up the strawberry seeds. As you know, I'm not the biggest fan of industrially processed food, but I think that I'm prepared to make an (occasional) exception for Innocent. Or does that mean I've been "had" by their extremely slick marketing men?

Wednesday, May 30, 2007


Look, I know you all know how to make pesto, but when I began this blog, it was so that I could easily find the recipes I use all the time - so this post is for me. Except there's one thing - can those of you that have been making pesto longer than I have tell me whether it freezes well?

I ordered a 200g bag of basil from my organic box this week, and it came yesterday - a huge bag of fragrant leaves. The recipe was on the bag ... only what blogger do you know follows a recipe exactly? This is not quite what was on the bag - quick, delicious, and in my fridge, because I don't want to waste it if it doesn't freeze well.

6 cloves garlic
200g pine kernels
200g freshly grated parmesan
200g basil
olive oil - a good lot
salt and pepper (at the end)

Whizz everything except the salt, adding the oil in a drizzle until you get a smooth creamy liquid. Add the salt and pepper when you've got the consistency you want.

You could do this in a mortar, if you wanted to spend a little time pounding ... a job for sitting in the sun, I think.

Mine's in a lovely jar, and I covered it with a little oil to stop it discolouring.

PS We ate some for supper, the little bit I couldn't fit into the jar, neat, to accompany our vegetables. Alfred thought it was slightly too cheesy, Lucius and Lettice said it was perfect. I thought it was a beautiful shade of green, and that made Alfred laugh.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Cakes for cricket tea

Harpsden Cricket Club have a fixture tomorrow - yes, that's right, tomorrow, Tuesday afternoon. It's against a touring club, and most of our players will be schoolboys (it's half term). Alfred was asked to play, but he ducked out of it, as he's pulled a thigh muscle, and he wants to be in peak condition for a game of house cricket at school next Monday. So, instead, he and I are making and serving cricket teas. I've made a mountain of cakes, and, as my freezer is already full, I'll be stuck if this game is rained off.

General instructions for cricket teas at Harpsden are to be found on our club blog, and they could well be useful for anyone having to do the teas for their club. We take it in turns to produce teas, and so there are huge variations in what's on offer - although we all stick to the format of sandwiches and cakes.

So far, I've never gone out and bought cakes - I like baking, and don't get the chance to make cake very often, for fairly obvious reasons: all that butter, all those eggs. Not the sort of thing we eat often any more in this house, although we certainly do on high days and holidays.

I always make Nigella's dense chocolate loaf cake, it's delicious, easy, and someone always asks for the recipe. Today I've also made a banana cake, because we seem to have quite a few that no-one's eating, and because it's Alfred's favourite. It's another Nigella recipe, from How to be a Domestic Goddess, the first time I've tried it. It's not so quick as my normal recipe, and I'll report back on whether it was worth the extra trouble.

Banana cake

Soak 100g sultanas in a little hot water. Melt 125g Flora and mix in 150g soft brown sugar. Put this in a big bowl (I used my Kenwood, but it would be easy to mix by hand), and beat in two eggs, then 300g banana (ie 4 small or 3 medium bananas). Once this is all mushed together, add 175g plain flour, 2 tsp baking powder and 1/2 tsp bicarb. (You can mix this up beforehand, OR you can put the flour in a heap on your mix, add the BP and bicarb and mix it in with the flour before beating the whole contents of the bowl. If you see what I mean.)

Pour into one lined 2lb loaf tin or two lined 1lb loaf tins (which is what I used), and bake at 170C for 1 1/4hr or 40 minutes, depending on size.

Cool in the tin. Mine looks just as good as the one in the book - but it's easy if you use that sort of liner.

The crab apple tree

This is the sad view from the kitchen this morning. It's been raining steadily and hard for at least 24 hours, there was quite a wind last night - and this morning, the crab apple was down. Twice before, when it was young, it was blown over by the wind, even though it's in quite a sheltered part of the garden. Then it was younger, and we pulled it back up. This time, it's too heavy to move, although the four of us tried. This spring it was particularly beautiful, its lovely single white blossom scenting the air a surprising distance. I shall miss it, probably more than any other tree in the garden.

My mother-in-law planted the crab 25 years ago, to provide shade for the garden table. We've eaten hundreds of meals under its branches, drunk numerous cups of coffee, glasses of wine. I once tried to grow a Mme Alfred Carriere rose up it, but it got cut by the mower and didn't thrive. The first photograph I ever had of Lucius shows him standing in front of it in his socks, ice bucket in hand. I feel pretty sentimental about that tree.

Now, Lucius, who dug the hole and put the tree in it, who pulled it up when it blew down, is cutting it up with a chainsaw and Alfred is taking away all the pieces. I hope that a little log of it can be saved to turn a little piece of treen to use as a paperweight.

So, no crab apple jelly this year. Time for change. And we'll have the pleasure of choosing another tree to shade our summers.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Pizza for lunch

Ultimate do-it-yourself convenience food: mix the dough whilst clearing up breakfast, put the tomato sauce on while making a mid-morning cup of coffee, get your son to roll out the dough whilst fishing toppings out of the fridge. Each task took between two and five minutes. This is something we'll be eating again over half term.

We used Doves Farm pasta flour. I thought it was delicious, but Alfred said it had a strong taste, and would prefer it if it didn't. I didn't use much salt, which was fine for me and Lucius, because we had anchovy, but I suspect less good for Lettice and Alfred.

We used virtually all the dough for four pizzas, which was slightly too much. Next time, with that amount of dough for four, I'd pull off a chunk to make dough balls ... we'll be doing that in a day or two, so watch out for the post.

Pizza dough

Mix 600g flour with two teaspoons of dried yeast (out of a tin), a little salt, a slurp of olive oil, and just over 300ml of warm water. Knead, either by hand, or in a machine (I used the Kenwood this morning). Leave in a warm place until you're ready. The minimum would be half an hour, if you were really in a hurry. I left ours for a couple of hours. If I was making it in the morning for an evening meal, then I'd have put it in the fridge until an hour or so before I wanted to use it. In other words, this is a moveable feast, and bread dough is very forgiving. Convenient.

When you're ready, cut the dough into five or six portions, shape into balls, and then roll them out flat on a floured surface. You can use a rolling pin if you like, but the pizza chef at Pizzeria Mama Mia in South Parade, Oxford (the acme of pizza parlours) uses the magic of his fingers, flying through the air.

Pizza toppings

You don't need me to give you a lecture on this subject. But I would like to say that I think less is more with a pizza, definitely better than huge quantities, especially when it comes to tomato sauce. I made a sauce out of five or six fresh tomatoes flavoured with a little red wine vinegar, some salt and sugar, and a pinch of dried herbes de Provence, cooked down for half an hour or so. Everyone added their own favourites:

Lucius had anchovies, a few mushrooms, mozzarella (the unappetising-looking sort that comes in a block, which is fine for cooking), an egg added for the last three minutes of cooking.

Alfred had salami, mushroom and cheese.

Lettice had mushroom and cheese.

I had sultanas (soak them for a couple of minutes in boiling water), capers and pine-nuts, plus the last of the cheese (I don't normally, but I have - alas - that mother's tendency to eat up the leftovers).

These need to go in the hottest oven you can manage. If yours will go as high as 250C, then they'll take five minutes. Mine doesn't (whatever it says), so they take six. This summer Alfred and I are going to build a pizza oven, so that we can have the pleasure of added wood ash.

Abby at eat the right stuff is organising an event called vegetables, beautiful vegetables, to celebrate National Vegetarian Week (ends today) - and this is the closest I can get to vegetarian in this house of keen meat and fish eaters. But at least we tried!

Saturday, May 26, 2007

A seasonal dinner

Half term started yesterday, so Lettice and I went to the supermarket to buy something good for dinner. Alfred was out, so it was easy to choose fish and chips (Alfred is not too keen on fish, although he's very fond of chips). Lettice wanted monkfish, but there wasn't any, and the only other fish on the counter that didn't look tired was sea trout. That reminded me that Julia at A Slice of Cherry Pie is running a seasonal food event called In the Bag, this month using asparagus, sea trout, and spring onions. Well, we don't need much excuse to eat English asparagus in this house, and there were a few really big spring onions in this week's Riverford veg box.

I don't know about you, but I'm pretty hazy about the seasonality of fish and meat. Veg, I can manage, if it's European. But fish? It's become a year-round commodity in our supermarkets, like avocados. And as I have no hope of growing an avo, I have no idea when they ripen around the world - although I have noticed that there are times of the year when it's impossible to buy a decent one, which, I suppose, means that they are out of season. Can anyone from outside Europe give me some information on this?

Simple seasonal supper

I boiled the asparagus, and we dipped it into oil - much nicer than melted butter, also less trouble for the cook. I bought some hazelnut oil at the Henley Food Fair, delicious but very strong, so we diluted it 50/50 with olive oil, leaving a hint of hazel.

I always cooked fillet of oily fish in the same way - smother it in grated lemon zest and coarsely ground pepper, drizzle it with oil, and cook it in a hot oven until it's just done, then leave it to rest for a few minutes before serving. Chips - well, I think it's hard to beat McCains oven chips with less than 5% sunflower oil. It's almost the only processed food I buy these days: partly idleness, partly the feeling that the cook deserves a few breaks here and there, and partly the certainty that I couldn't make them palatable without using a great deal more oil. And a green salad. Oh, and I forgot to put in the spring onions.

Then raspberries. From Sussex. I know - the whole English countryside is being covered in plastic. But they don't need heat, they're not flown in, nor are they trucked in from Spain. Pushing the limits of seasonality, but better than many other alternatives. Eaten, one at a time, from a communal bowl, so much flavour that there was no need for anything on them.

As I said, it hardly merits a post. And yet this simple supper was about as delicious as it gets.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Citric v tartaric acid in elderflower ..

My sister-in-law Kirsty says you can use tartaric acid as well as citric acid when you are making elderflower drinks, and I began to wonder what is the difference between them. It seems very feeble to be aiming at a healthy diet, and then not knowing anything about additives you choose to put in your food.

Tartaric acid (E334), like citric acid (E330), stops bacteria in its tracks, and they both also give a tart flavour to the finished drink.

I'm not any kind of scientist, so anything much deeper than this goes right over my head ... so much so that, after reading through the various links, I'm making a decision that would probably disgrace a primary school child - I am going to use tartaric acid rather than citric acid, because it seems to be used exclusively as a food and drink additive (it's used in bread- and wine-making), whereas citric acid finds its way into cleaning materials and shampoo, and is apparently the ingredient that does the damage to hair in Sun-in (have your children ever turned their hair green with the Sun-in / swimming combination? you haven't lived!)

The Food Additives and Ingredients Association website says it is produced in collaboration with York University, so I feel inclined to trust it as a starting point. The British Soft Drinks Association (yes, really) gives an overview explanation of the differences. But I'm not sure how much I trust it, because the funding for such a beautiful website probably comes direct from the soft drink giants, so here's Wikipedia on citric acid and tartaric acid.

They are both obviously tried and tested additives, so I suppose in the end, the best guide is taste, with ease of availability coming a pretty close second!

Elderflower syrup

This is the one you dilute with water. It keeps for ages in the fridge - I've still got a little of the last jar from last year, and it's as good as it was on day one. Some people put it into plastic bottles and freeze them, but my friend Vivien says that the nasties in the plastic leach into the liquid, so perhaps it's not such a good idea.

Whatever, this is simple to do, the sort of thing that makes you feel tremendously clever and together, when actually you haven't done very much at all. The effect has been slightly lessened by the sort you can buy in the supermarket, which really does taste like home-made, because it is home-made, but on a much much larger scale. But it's still worth doing, if only to save money (it's amazing what they charge for a bit of flavoured sugar water!).

I've been making it for years, using a recipe that's been in my manuscript recipe book for as long as I can remember, so it's in imperial measures, rather than metric. The exact quantities don't much matter, because all that sugar and the citric acid keep it all sweet (in both senses) for years.

But when you've made it, don't just limit yourself to diluting it with water to drink on a hot day ... you can use the syrup to flavour gooseberries (just coming in to season), or apricots (the first from Sicily are just appearing in the shops now), or to make a sorbet.

Elderflower syrup

25 elderflowers, stalks removed
1kg sugar
2 lemons, grated, squeezed, and cut up
50g citric acid
1 litre cold, previously boiled, water

Put all the ingredients into a bowl in a cool place for two days. Stir occasionally. Or not. Strain and bottle. Dilute to drink. Keep in the fridge.

If you're impatient (and who isn't?), there's an alternative way to do this:

Quick elderflower syrup

Stir 500g sugar into a litre of water, with the juice of two lemons. Boil for about a minute, then add 10 elderflower heads. Remove from the heat, cover the pan, and leave to cool. When it's completely cold, bottle and strain.

The only reason I don't use this recipe (although I have made it in the past) is because it's a little more of a palaver.

Just make sure that the flowers are completely white - any brown and the whole batch will taste filthy (Sarah Raven says it makes it taste like cat's pee ... I wouldn't know!).

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Elderflower champagne

No, it's not champagne, and it's not alcoholic, but I don't know what else to call it, because elderflower champagne is its traditional name. And if there's a cross French wine grower reading this, well, think of it as a homage from England - remembering that more than half the fizz grown in Champagne is drunk in England.

Elderflower champagne is completely different to the elderflower cordial which you can make - or, these days, buy in a supermarket. It's cloudy, naturally fizzy (perhaps there are natural yeasts at work, I'm not sure), and not unlike the ginger beer we used to make as children with a starter that quickly got out of hand as it doubled every time you made it (only without the ginger!).

My mother-in-law used to make this delicious drink every summer, in an explosion of sticky bottles. I make it once in a blue moon - I don't know why I don't make it more often, because it's very little trouble, and very delicious. I suppose it's all that collecting bottles for weeks beforehand.

Anyway, I'm giving you the recipe now, even though I haven't started on it, because the elderflower are coming into bloom all over the place. I'll dig out the recipe for elderflower cordial and post it before the season is over - although as you can see from the photograph, it's only just getting under way here.

Elderflower champagne

3 large heads of elderflower
1 lemon
750g white sugar
2 tbsp white wine vinegar
4.8 litres cold water

1 large plastic bucket

Pick three large heads of flower in full bloom. Make sure they're not going over (you can tell by the browning of the petals), otherwise the finished result will taste nasty and not at all flowery. Peel a lemon, making sure not to include any pith. Squeeze the juice. Put the flowers, the lemon peel and juice into a large clean plastic bucket, together with the sugar, wine vinegar, and water. Stir vigorously.

Leave for about 24 hours, then strain and pour into strong screw-topped bottles - fizzy water bottles are ideal. Don't fill them to the top. Leave in a cool place for two weeks. You may find one or two of the bottles explode; there doesn't seem to be much rhyme or reason to it, but it means you need to put them somewhere that the resulting sticky mess is easy to clear up. I think they're less likely to explode the cooler they are, and you can take preventive measures by just slightly opening the bottles from time to time to let off the gas - it's easier to see if this is necessary when you're using plastic bottles.

Drink cold. Great for a party on a hot summer's day. Oh, and by the way, it doesn't keep long - although it tends to disappear pretty fast.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Where did all that oatmeal go?

The everyday alchemy of baking ... you start with huge flakes of rolled oats ...

... and end up, with no real effort on your part, with a delicious close-textured loaf, not a sign of the porridge ...

... and delicious toasted!

Thank you Tanna ... thank you so much

PS Have a look at the Old Foodie's post about how we all fell for horrible mass-produced plastic bread ... how did we do it to ourselves? Why are we still doing it? Is it so very hard to bake a loaf?

Monday, May 21, 2007

Oatmeal bread

I think oatmeal bread must be more of a staple for Americans than it is here in the south of England. I'd vaguely heard of it, but never tasted it, and everyone I mentioned it to was intrigued. Yet when you read American blogs, they make it sound like an everyday event - indeed Tanna at My Kitchen in Half Cups even called hers ordinary everyday oatmeal bread extraordinary. She's right about the extraordinary: it's not like making any other loaf I've ever cooked! And it's good, too ... although, in truth, I'm not sure it's going to get everyday status in this kitchen. But it's good enough to make again (which I'm doing right now), it makes great toast, and the last crumbs were really good in my stuffed butternut the other night.

Tanna's recipe is here, but, as usual, I've changed it a bit, partly to simplify it, but mainly because I'm too impatient to do all that waiting until things cool completely, or are rested for the full afternoon nap. Also, I began to make it before I realised I didn't have the right kind of flour, so my first batch was made with spelt flour, all five cups. Very good, although the oats somehow made the spelt taste speltier (and it's strong-tasting to start with, I think you can probably have too much of a good thing). This time, I'm using Italian 00 pasta flour and wholemeal, 50/50, in the hope that we'll get more of an oaty flavour.

Unusually, I haven't translated the American cups into weights; instead, I used an ordinary sized mug, which is very slightly larger than an American cup measure, which is 250ml.

The most amazing thing is that there's no sign of the oatmeal in the finished result, which is a close-crumbed loaf. You soak the oats, and, after a while, they look just like porridge, the lumpy sort we used to get at my convent boarding school in the 60s. But there's no sign of an oat or even a lump in the finished result - the alchemy of yeast and heat, an everyday kitchen miracle.

Oatmeal bread
, 2 loaves

* In a large bowl, measure out one cup of rolled oats. Pour on two cups of boiling water. Cover and leave to cool. It doesn't much matter if it's still a bit warm when you move on to the next step, although it is supposed to be completely cold.

* Add two tablespoons of olive oil and one tablespoon of dried yeast (Tanna rightly says it doesn't much matter what sort you use - I used the sort that comes in a tin, which is more normally mixed with warm water before being added to the flour). Stir thoroughly.

* Stir in two mugs of white flour. The mix will be very dry. Cover the bowl with a plate, and leave in a warm place for half an hour or more to rest.

* Mix half a mug of warm water, a little honey, some salt, and stir this into the bowl. Then add two mugs of wholemeal flour. The mix will be very sticky. (At this point Tanna also puts in flax seeds, and I put sesame and sunflower seeds the first time, none at all in today's batch.)

* Measure out another mug of flour, either white or wholemeal, and knead it into the bread. Tanna says to knead for 15-20 minutes, but I found five was enough. I think this would be a good dough to try the technique of repeatedly giving the dough a couple of turns then leaving it for 10 minutes (if you've never done that, do try, because it's amazing how the dough seems to knead itself, given time).

* When the dough is springy, cover it (you could put it in the bowl with the plate, or you could leave it in a ball on the worktop covered with a floured teacloth). Leave it for an hour or so - more or less, this is forgiving dough - partly, I think, because there's a lot of yeast in it.

* Heat your oven to 220C

* Divide the dough in two, shape the loaves and put them into two 2lb loaf tins. Tanna says to slash them, but, first time, I did this and watched the dough collapse like a souffle, so I'm not about to make the same mistake. This time, I've put them in the tins, slashed one immediately, before leaving them to rise, and left the other whole.

* Leave to rise - hard to give a time, it depends on how warm or cool your kitchen is (and you could slow this part right down by putting the dough into the fridge, although you'd need to bring it back up to room temperature before putting into the oven).

* Bake for 35-40 minutes.

* I'm intrigued by Tanna's comment that the bread ready when it measures 200-211F on a thermometer - but I think she uses the "hollow thump" method that breadmakers all over the world find perfectly reliable.

Tanna posted this recipe as homage to her mother; for me, it's homage to the web ... I would never have tried making bread with rolled oats if I'd found it in a book - this recipe is part of the wonderful on-going interactive conversation with like-minded cooks across the world that is my daily experience of food-blogging.

The scent of these sweet peas is almost overpowering

These lovely sweet peas were planted last year, and seeded themselves. They were in flower before I had planted out any of the seedlings I raised this year ... now they are in full flower. Matucana, aka Cupani's original, the mother of all sweet peas - and obviously tough as old boots, as well as being the most beguiling and sweetly scented of them all!

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Stuffed butternut

This is that moment of the year that kitchen gardeners call the hungry gap - winter crops are just about over, but the summer crops haven't yet come through. And it's the moment of the year when subscribers to veg box schemes are most tempted to bunk off and buy something airfreighted from the supermarket.

Here, we've still got quite a few squashes to get through, so yesterday's supper was stuffed butternut. This sort of cooking is easy if you're free with the cheese, slightly harder when you're cutting right down on saturated fat. Regular readers of this blog will know that I often use anchovy instead of cheese, because it imparts the right savoury note without any hint of fishiness (and if you've never tried it, or think you don't like anchovy, I urge you to give it one go ... it's unlikely to be the last). The salty herby stuffing here contrasts with the sweetness of the baked butternut.

Stuffed butternut for 2

Halve the butternut, clean out the seeds and strings, brush with a little olive oil and bake in a hot oven for half an hour, until cooked through but not browned.

Meanwhile, peel and chop two onions, and sweat them slowly in some olive oil. Towards the end of the cooking time, add a little chopped thyme, and three anchovies. When the anchovies have melted, take the mix off the heat.

Meanwhile blitz some bread into soft crumbs. You will need to end up with roughly the same volume as the onion mix, so 3-5 slices (cut off the crusts), depending on the size of your loaf. Use whatever bread you've got (I'm assuming it's not a Mother's Pride type sliced loaf) - I used a homemade oatmeal loaf I will blog about next week, the first bread I've made for weeks. Mix the crumbs into the onion.

At this point, you need to make the stuffing all stick together. You could use lightly beaten egg white, if you were being very strict about the saturated fat in your diet. Or a whole egg. Or you could add a little cheese - unusually, I had some in the fridge, so that's what I used. It was the end of a box of Philadelphia extra light, something I don't normally buy (I'm not very keen on "slimming" products - would you keep locust bean gum or carrageenan in your kitchen? That's what was in the Philly). I wasn't sure if it would cook okay, but it did. If it hadn't been there, the plan was to use 0% yoghurt, stabilised with cornflour (at the rate of 1 tablespoon cornflour to one cup of yog).

Mix it all up, put the stuffing in the cavities, drizzle with a little olive oil, and bake in a hot oven for half an hour. Supper sorted. You could bake the pumpkin ahead; you could even prepare the whole dish ahead. Easy, delicious, heart-healthy food.

As we were eating it, it occurred to me that you could use oatmeal instead of breadcrumbs ... if you wanted to do that, you'd need to soak some in boiling water until they were cold (around an hour). Oats are particularly heart-healthy food, with the advantage of being a great deal cheaper than more fashionable, faddier superfoods.

This is my entry for Waiter there's something in my .. hosted this month by Jeanne at Cook Sister!

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Mushroom and tarragon sauce for pasta

Lunch today was pasta with a mushroom and tarragon sauce. I wasn't quite sure about using tarragon, it's more usually paired with fish and chicken, and other people put it in bearnaise sauce (I keep meaning to experiment with a no-saturates tarragon sauce, but somehow never get round to it). I used it anyway, because the tarragon plants will run to seed if I don't pinch them out pretty thoroughly - at least, I suppose they will.

I'm not sure if our plants are French or Russian tarragon - the French are supposed to be more desirable from a taste point of view, the Russian is tougher and more likely to survive cold winters or neglect by gardener. As both cold and neglect are likely here, I rather hope that ours are Russian.

I went out to pick some, a great big handful, and then started wondering about which plants we have. I looked them up ... no help at all. But I did find a story that said Henry VIII divorced Katherine of Aragon because she was too free with the tarragon in her cooking ... so I chopped only about a quarter of the leaves I'd brought in. Then common sense reasserted itself - Henry VIII divorced poor K of A because after 24 years she hadn't produced him a male heir (& now forensic historians have found that it was all his fault). All the same, I didn't take any chances.

There was one useful thing I did glean from the books - tarragon is quite short-lived, and needs replacing every two or three years. Dividing in the spring is probably the easiest, but I'm likely to forget since it's 10 months away. In the summer, you can take cuttings of the growing tips, which sounds not too difficult.

Quick mushroom pasta

Chop an onion, and sweat it in olive oil. When it's soft, add chopped mushrooms (I used a small box - sorry, I don't know the weight). Keep stirring these until they are soft. They'll exude their own liquid, which will evaporate, so that the end result is fairly dry. If you want to leave them to their own devices for the five or so minutes they will take to cook, then add a tiny bit of stock or water or wine, which will stop the whole thing burning before the mushrooms start to weep. Once they are cooked, add some chopped herbs - perhaps thyme, or oregano, or parsley, or chives, whatever you've got, really - and some finely grated lemon zest. Serve with pasta and a dollop of 0% Greek yoghurt.

This is an entry for Heart of the Matter 3 - heart-healthy pasta dishes, hosted this month by Ilva at Lucullian Delights, send her your entries by Tuesday.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Nettle tea and other stories

Believe it or not, it's Be Nice to Nettles Week this week ... which means not pulling them up whenever you see them. They're a good habitat for butterflies - peacocks, small tortoiseshells and red admirals all lay their eggs in nettles (also cabbage whites, which I'm less keen on). It's a good trade-off for all the nettle patches in our garden, because my heart always lifts when I see a butterfly - and, over the past few years, we've seen fewer and fewer here.

A couple of months ago, I posted a recipe for nettle soup, and there's been a lot of interest in it. It's delicious, a little like spinach or watercress soup, and I should think that you could substitute nettles in any favourite recipe you have for spinach or watercress soup. Nutmeg is a good addition to all three of these soups.

I was just going to make a cup of nettle tea, but I got side-tracked while looking up how to do this (dur ... you just get some leaves, put them in a pot, and pour on boiling water!). So now, I'm going to be very nice to nettles and tell you what I've discovered:

* they make a good spray for blackfly and other aphids (I've lost count of the number of veg gardeners I've heard this spring talking about the blackfly on their broad beans). Soak a bucketful of nettles in water for a week. Strain and spray.

* they make your hair shiny and soft, and maybe even get rid of dandruff. This time, you pick a big bunch of nettles, wash them, put them in a big saucepan with a pint of water and boil them for 15 minutes. Strain the liquid into a bottle, and keep it in the fridge.

* pick young leaves, because if you pick old leaves you have to cook them hard or risk kidney damage.

* one of my books says - and they don't seem to be joking - that stinging nettles rarely suffer from pests or diseases, and that they are easy to propagate by dividing established roots in the spring.

* and, for the feint-hearted, I would like to emphasise that they DO NOT STING ONCE THEY ARE COOKED - but you do need to wear a pair of gloves while picking them.

* Clarissa Dickson Wright (one of the Two Fat Ladies) says that her old gardener used to cure his rheumatism with nettle beer. I'll happily supply anyone with the recipe if they want it, but I'm not going to make it this year, because pretty soon I'm going to make elderflower champagne, which will take up all my energy for that sort of thing, not to mention all my spare bottles. I think the nettle beer is only very slightly alcoholic, just like the elderflower champagne.

* in the winter nettle beer is a good source of minerals (and in the summer, they're a good source of Vitamin C).

How to make nettle tea: fill the pot full of young nettle leaves. Pour on boiling water. Leave for five minutes.

I did all that, and it tastes like essence of green, as if it's doing you good - more good than spinach. Eat your heart out Popeye. I managed a couple of tepid mouthfuls, but I'm giving the rest to the broad beans. Or perhaps I'll rinse my hair in it, we're going out tonight, and I'd like to at least aim at the soft and shiny haired look!

And if that's not enough nettle information for you, here's the link to Be Nice to Nettles Week

Blogs worth visiting: the great big vegetable challenge

This is an idea I have shamelessly pinched from Fiona at the Cottage Smallholder - also a great blog, one I've discovered recently. It's an interesting mix of gardening, cooking, and beekeeping, just up my street.

I'm not sure how I discovered the Great Big Vegetable Challenge, even though it was only yestereday ... Charlotte's son Freddie doesn't like vegetables, and so she is working her way through the alphabet, from A to Z, three recipes for each and every veg. Yes, that's right, not just one veg per letter, all the veg for each letter ... as Charlotte says: so far Fred has tried asparagus, aubergine, artichoke, broccoli, beetroot, butternut squash, brussel sprouts, beans, cauliflour, courgette, celeriac, carrot, cabbage, corn,celery, cucumber,chard, chicory, cress ... and now they're at D, and she's stuck - until she discovered DAIKON. No, me neither ... but any mother who's prepared to go to those lengths to give her son a healthy diet has got to be worth reading!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Good news if you hate exercise ...

This is for all those people who hate gyms and exercise ... a mere 10 minutes' exercise a day has been found to benefit your heart.

I heart artichokes

For me, artichokes are the quintessential taste of summer. My father grew them in his kitchen garden when I was growing up in the 1960s, and they were a great treat, something not many other people seemed to eat, something exotic and redolent of "abroad". The whole business of heating up the butter, or making the vinaigrette, of making sure there was a huge bowl for the discarded leaves, of cutting out every last fibre of the choke before eating the heart - all of it excitingly unlike any other food. Later, we introduced our children to them every summer on holiday in Brittany; and, finally, huge globes pitched up in Waitrose, at vast prices, only to be eaten once a year because of the expense. Easy to cook - just put them into the largest saucepan in the house, and boil until soft (about 40 minutes).

And yet, all the while, I puzzled over artichoke recipes I occasionally stumbled on, which talked about quartering them and braising them and eating them whole - what, choke and all??? I have never, ever, seen in a shop or market an artichoke small enough to eat whole. So the obvious answer was to grow them myself. And I do.

As you can see, they are beautiful. Thistles, actually - and therefore spectacularly easy to grow, because they're close to being weeds. They take up a lot of room, but they'd look wonderful in a small space, because of their beautiful silvery leaves, cut into dramatic shapes, and their emerging thistles, which really do flower purple if you leave them long enough. I am lucky enough to have lots of space for them, but I think I'd grow them even if all I had was a square foot.

I grow the French variety Gros de Laon, which will turn into huge big-hearted globes in moments if you're not watchful, and - much prettier - the Italian purple-budded variety Violetta. They both make good eating.

This is what you do:

Cut (or buy if you can find them) small artichoke buds. Strip off some of the tougher outer leaves. Ignore any recipe that tells you to cut the top third off the outer leaves, because it's impossible, and rather suggests that the author is copying someone else's recipe without actually bothering to cook it first. Cut the artichoke into quarters, and poach in equal quantities of wine vinegar and olive oil - you need quite a lot, but it doesn't need to cover them. Just keep turning the quarters until they're tender - probably not longer than 10 minutes. Spoon the juices over them, and eat hot, cold, or tepid, with herbs chopped into them. You could flavour the cooking liquid with some whole peppercorns, or some strongly-scented herb such as thyme or oregano.

There are a couple of things you should know about artichokes: when you cut them, they discolour almost immediately, so you should be ready to cook them immediately, or else sprinkle them with lemon juice. Also, if you're cooking the older, bigger ones, do not, under any circumstances, eat the choke. It is well named. Even the smallest fibre will catch in your craw, so it's worth taking trouble. If they're well cooked, you can generally ease it off in one or two pieces by pulling gently.

Gordon Ramsay cooked artichokes this week on the F Word. It looked like a good method, although fiddlier than mine. He trimmed down baby artichokes - I thought unnecessarily hard, there were virtually no leaves left. Then he quartered and boiled them (he didn't say for how long, just that irritating thing he does: "Trim. Boil. Grill." with stirring music playing in the background). He drained them, and then grilled them on a griddle pan, which made them look lovely.

I hope that I've inspired you to grow them. In which case, now is a good moment to sow seeds in individual pots. You can plant them out in late August or early September (anyway, before the soil starts to cool down), and they should be producing buds this time next year. Not all of the plants will come true and be good producers, but you'll easily be able to tell, so just pull them up. That's why gardening books always tell you to take slips from existing plants in March (sliver bits of root and stem off with a very sharp knife), so that you know exactly what you're getting. I'm not very good at that counsel of perfection stuff - I forgot to take slips this spring until it was too late, so I'm about to sow seed, which I did last year, too, for exactly the same reason.

All this gardening advice is aimed at British gardeners, so, because this is my entry for Weekend Herb Blogging, hosted this weekend by Rinku at Cooking in Westchester, I'm adding a little more detail, which I have gleaned from a marvellous book called Vegetables by Roger Phillips and Martyn Rix.

Artichokes (cynara cardunculus L compositae) are easily grown in warm, light soils in northern Europe, but often die in winter in heavy soils and cold localities. In hot areas they will tolerate heavier soils and some midday shade. The great artichoke-growing areas of France (in Brittany, near Treguier, where it has been grown since 1508) and Italy (on the coastal plain near Brindisi) have light soils and a very mild winter climate. The plants grow best in a warm, sheltered bed, in rich well-drained soil. Young plants or cuttings made of side shoots are planted in spring, around 1m apart and in a double row. They grow quickly, and should be given a dose of nitrogen-rich fertiliser when they are growing well. Some will have small flowers in their first autumn, but these should be picked young to encourage the plants to form side shoots. Established plants should be protected from hard frost by putting a good layer of dry straw round them and their root area. They should then be mulched with good soil and fertiliser in early spring. The old plants may need replacing after about three years, with young, more vigorous ones.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

PS improved superquick noodles

Just to update on the noodles ... we've eaten them a lot this month, and the recipe is better now than it was when I first posted - and still just as quick.

Cook the noodles (the quantities given here are enough for 3-4 little bundles of dried noodles). Toss them in olive oil. Then make a dressing with 1 tbsp peanut butter, 1 tbsp soya sauce, 1 tbsp chilli jam, and 3 tbsp olive oil. This makes a lighter dressing than before. Toss the noodles thoroughly in the dressing. Leave to cool. Then add salad veg: matchsticks of cucumber, shavings of carrot, shards of spring onion, peas, cooked mushrooms, a little leftover asparagus, if you have such a thing - whatever comes to hand. It's fabulous, it's easy, it's quick.

This week alone, I've eaten a version of it at home for lunch on my own; with my friend Rosemary in the foyer of the theatre during the first interval of Tosca; and, from a communal bowl with my friend Rosie, godson Edmond, and my daughter Lettice, at an open-air concert celebrating 1,000 years since the founding of Oxfordshire (in which my husband was singing Balshazzar's Feast by Walton, wonderful rousing music, 700 musicians). Better by far than sandwiches, quicker to make too.

Live Strong

Lance Armstrong is a hero for our times, someone my children look up to, someone who has shown us the meaning of courage. His message - LIVE STRONG - is aimed at those suffering from cancer, but applies equally to us all.

It's Livestrong Day today. Barbara, at Winos and Foodies, organised A Taste of Yellow to raise awareness of Livestrong Day, and of cancer issues. She's certainly succeeded: 143 people contributed stories and recipes. I only discovered this event a couple of days ago, after the deadline ... so this is my contribution, just in case you missed it, too.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Pyramid plan for healthy eating

Until recently, health departments displayed a healthy eating plan using a pyramid: the base showed complex carbs - bread, pasta, cereals, pulses, rice; next, fruit and veg; then protein, divided into meat/fish, and dairy products; the tip - meaning only tiny daily amounts - represented fats and oils.

The pyramid was largely aimed at reducing consumption of fats, and it was influential in achieving a reduction. But since it was introduced in 1992, our understanding of the role of fats in the diet has hugely increased - we now know that there are two types of cholesterol, and that just cutting out fat and replacing them with carbs doesn't really cut the mustard, your diet needs to include some types of oils which boost "good" cholesterol - olive oil, oily fish.

And so the pyramid has been revised. It doesn't have quite the same graphic simplicity, so instead, the US department of agriculture has a website - Steps to a healthier you - which will help you to find the healthiest diet for you, depending on your own circumstances. Once you've got your healthy diet guidelines, there are tips to help you achieve it ("inside the pyramid").

Definitely worth visiting.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Cooking pulses: earthenware or metal?

In the Observer today, Simon Hopkinson the chef/food writer says that you should cook pulses only in earthenware, never metal "unless you have absolutely nothing else". He doesn't say why, which makes me wonder if it's just a tradition or superstition.

If I'm not using tinned, I always soak beans in a glass bowl, then cook them in a stainless steel pan. They taste fine. Would they taste better if I cooked them in earthenware? I'd really like to know what you think, and what you do - and whether you think it makes any difference?

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Be a better cook in your own time, in your own home: Cordon Bleu Cookery Course revisited

Do you Freecycle? Changing the world one gift at a time - local email groups, you give away stuff, and pick stuff up, no money changing hands. It's a REALLY good idea. I've been doing it for ages, and have got rid of lots of not-quite-complete-junk, and also acquired one or two things I wanted but didn't want to spend money on - a windsurfer for a group of teenagers to learn on while on their first solo holiday together. And, yesterday, ALL 72 of the 60s cookery part-work that was de rigeur in every middle class home: Cordon Bleu Cookery Course.

Everything about the cookery course takes me back to my teenage years: the photographs of women in beehive hairdos and brightly coloured clothing, the patterned crockery, and, above all, the sense of discovering anew that food could be enjoyable to cook and to eat, that it wasn't just fuel. My stepmother - a very good cook - subscribed to it, and I suppose it taught her to cook. She was certainly one of the people who taught me to cook; and leafing through it, much is familiar, so that, although I don't remember reading it, I think I must have done. Proof at last: I'm a lifelong foodie, a foodie before the word even existed!

The course covers every aspect of cooking: how to make stock, puff pastry, British regional specialities (lots of rather stodgy pies and puddings), a little Italian or Chinese, weekly menus. I'm almost tempted to have my own Julie/Julia moment, and cook my way through the whole lot, but there doesn't seem to be much thought for cholesterol levels or superfoods.

Thanks Jill in Woodcote ...

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

the interview

Well I've brought this on myself. Some little demon in me e-mailed Ilva and asked her to interview me ... it's an interesting meme doing the rounds at the moment, where you answer five questions about yourself. I've got the usual blogger's showing-off gene, but I'm also quite reticent / private / a hermit / happy in my own company. But I really enjoyed reading Ilva's interview, and so, here I am, pushing my boundaries. Besides, later on, I get to ask YOU the questions (it's all explained at the end).

1. When you had to change the eating habits because of your husband's heart attack, how difficult was it to involve the rest of the family?

The children were interested in theory - they know that their genes are likely to give them the same problem, so they couldn't help but take it all in. On the other hand, they weren't even slightly interested in giving up crisps or milk chocolate, or in eating more fish or five-a-day. On the basis that we didn't want to get neurotic about food, I didn't force the pace. I explained what we were doing and why; I also said that I didn't think they should worry about it too much while they were still growing and playing sport most days. I offered them fish and veg whenever we ate it (we always eat as a family); we're eating more of it, so they are too, partly because I expect them to try a little of everything, even things they think they don't like, at every meal ("your tastebuds change" is the family mealtime mantra). Some of the junkier food got healthier (more veg in the mince, for example). And gradually, over a couple of years, they all eat more fish, more fruit and vegetables, less saturated fat and less sugar. Now, when it's fish for supper, we all eat it. They all eat five a day. They all eat less sweets. They all know that butter and cheese should be thought of as treats rather than everyday items. They all cook better, because they - kindly - didn't see why I should cook for them what I wasn't going to eat myself. Alfred even said the other day that he quite likes kippers (which Lucius and I always have for breakfast on Saturday or Sunday) - result!

Some of these changes would have happened anyway, but I think that they are all aware of the need to balance their diet without making a fuss about it. And they all enjoy cooking and eating. Also Coke and crisps, and something very nasty called Tunnock's teacakes - but then I used to eat them when I was a child, and I don't now, so I'm not too worried.

2. I'm always very curious about what people really would like to be or work with so I have to ask you that as well!

I used to be a news reporter, but that's not a job for a proper grown up. I sometimes miss that buzz, though, and I'm very deadline driven (which drives Lucius NUTS). Now, I am happy tending my family, my blog, and my garden, and doing a little teaching. I am hoping to write a book, history / memoir, later this year, if I can find a publisher.

3. I know that your mother died when you were very little but I also know that your father remarried (I saw the photo), what I would like to know is how or if that loss has influenced your own parenting?

Of course all mothers think that their relationship with their children is precious and special. I have always been especially conscious of it, because, with Eleanor, it's the first time I've had that mother-daughter relationship, so I'm always treading new ground, we both are. I was a pretty vile adolescent, partly because I was missing the mother I never knew, and resenting my stepmother. But as time goes on, I realise that, in fact, I did have a special relationship with my stepmother, who has been a rock in my life. One of the interesting things, for me, about motherhood, is how it has made me re-evaluate my own childhood, and it has given me much more sympathy for the decisions made by adults doing the best they could.

Mainly, it made it easy for me to decide to be a full-time mother - in fact, for me, it wasn't really a decision. Now, when it's hard to find meaningful paid work, I sometimes wonder whether it was such a good decision, but at the time I couldn't have done otherwise ... and I'm glad that I chose to put the children unequivocally at the centre of the whole of my life. (Please do NOT think I am criticising anyone for choosing to carry on working, this is always a personal decision, and what's best for one doesn't necessarily work for another.) It's possible that my children would have preferred a mother out at work and less in their faces!

4. What's your favourite radio program?

It used to be Desert Island Discs, an interview programme with music. The interviewee chooses what s/he'd like to be marooned with on a desert island: eight pieces of music, a book (Bible and Shakespeare already there), and a luxury - nothing practical. You get a good insight into a person. But it's not as good as it used to be (how old does that make me sound??), and so I have now started listening to a similar but much more in-depth musical programme called Private Passions. It's more about the music than the person, although you get flashes of illumination. And there's more music.

5. Give us the menu of the meal of your dreams

This is really hard. Unless we're going to spend all day eating dish after dish - and we're not - then so many favourites have to be excluded. Even so, this is a procession of dishes, because the dream would be to share this meal with my favourite people, and have time to talk. This is today's dream menu. Tomorrow, it would be different.

* Smoked salmon with pepper, lemon zest and juice, on sticks, accompanied by a glass of Prosecco
* Prawn paste on a bed of watercress
* Beetroot salad - this one would be good, although there's another one I haven't blogged, involving redcurrant jelly
* Fish with vegetables. I don't really mind what the fish is, so long as it is very fresh; and I'd like lots of different veg, plainly cooked, with a side dish of roasted onion slices
* Mixed green salad, lots of different shapes and tastes
* Cheese: one tiny cube each of Cheddar, Gorgonzola, and Crema del Piave, which I discovered this weekend and which is delicious, creamy but sharp and with a Camembert-y tang
* Fruit salad of melon and raspberries
* Espresso and chilli chocolate (black chocolate is good for you, the blacker the better)

Thanks, Ilva, for a really interesting set of questions ... challenging but enjoyable to think about and answer.


1. Leave a comment saying, "Interview me."
2. I will respond by emailing you five questions. Beware, I'm not shy of asking personal questions! Please make sure I have your email address.
3. You will update your blog with the answers to the questions.
4. You will include this explanation and offer to interview someone else in the same post.
5. When others comment asking to be interviewed, you will ask them five questions.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The first posy from my garden

This is the first bunch of summer flowers of the season ... sweet peas, lavender (not yet in flower, picked for the scent), cerinthe major purpurescens and - purple sprouting broccoli! They're on my desk now, and the smell is overwhelming ... cheering ... better than anything you can buy.

Cerinthe grows like a weed in my garden, and is a lovely plant, with its extraordinary drooping navy blue flowers and bluey-green leaves. The seed is horribly expensive, and I really don't understand why, because it's so easy to collect - in a couple of days, there will be three or four (at least) huge brown seeds on my desk, lying beside the mug.

The mug, incidentally, the beautiful mug was made by my sister-in-law Kate Scott, the ceramicist - just look at the delicacy of the beautiful handle, as well as the lovely J. She exhibits in London sometimes, and her work was recently highlighted in Country Living.

Dense chocolate loaf cake

Another treat - it seems to have been that kind of weekend. Also, I've got fed up with looking out sticky pieces of paper for the recipes that "don't go" on the blog - of course they go on the blog, it's what we eat. I make this for birthdays, cricket teas (it always disappears faster than anything else on offer), and occasionally for pudding (a very rare event in this house). It's Nigella (probably from the Domestic Goddess, although I can't be sure) - but with one crucial difference: I cook and serve it in much smaller portions. Two crucial differences - I'm not going to give you a food-porn photo, you'll just have to imagine the dense, almost toffee-ish, stickiness of this delicious cake.

The original is made in a large high-sided pan of the sort I don't possess, and of the sort I am not going out to buy on the off-chance that I'll be cooking this again. So the first time I made it, cooking for a crowd, as ever, I doubled the mixture & put it into two 2-lb loaf tins, and it rose up and made a mighty mess. What was left was good enough to make again, so next time I tried three 2lb loaf tins. Perfect. Great cakes, and some for the freezer. Yesterday, for the first time, I made the "normal" amount (outlined below), and cooked it in three one-pound loaf tins. Result.

Just one thing. It is REALLY important that you line the tins, otherwise you will never get this loaf out. It really is that sticky. I use pre-formed greaseproof liners, no bother at all. Except to remember to buy - that's why I made the smaller cakes this time: I'd run out of 2-lb liners!

Dense chocolate loaf cake

225g soft butter
375g dark muscovado sugar
2 large eggs
vanilla extract
100g dark chocolate
200g plain flour
1 tsp bicarb
250 ml boiling water

Oven Gas mark 5, 190C

Cream the butter and sugar, then add the eggs and some vanilla essence. Melt the chocolate, and fold it into the mixture. Mix the bicarb with the flour, then add it to your mix, spoon by spoon, alternating with the boiling water. The result should be a smooth batter. Pour it into three 1-lb loaf tins, and bake for 30 minutes at 190C. The cake should be squidgy in the middle, so you can’t test it with a skewer.

As it cools it will sink in the middle, sometimes to the point of total collapse. It improves with keeping.

8-10 slices.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Ginger biscuits

This is not the kind of post you'd expect to find on an earnest healthy food blog. But when I set up this blog, it was with the intention of writing about what we actually eat, so that I don't lose the recipes in the chaos of family life.

Once we took the decision to change our diet, I found pretty quickly that the best thing to do is to cook from scratch whenever possible, as the food industry does not care about the best interests of the individual, and is therefore apt to slip in something that you shouldn't be eating, or wouldn't dream of putting into anything you cooked yourself. This has the additional advantage that you then know exactly how much fat there is in a biscuit, how much sugar there is in the squash, etc etc - because you put it there yourself. And so it is easier to eat less of the things you know you shouldn't be eating.

Lucius and I don't eat these biscuits (we never really did), but the children all like them for a treat, comfort food for when life gets tough. Lettice is about to start her AS exams ... no need for further explanation. 45 minutes, start to finish.

Once, when I was pushed for time and Alfred wanted some, he said he would make them himself, and got out the recipe - a torn sheet of paper with the following notes:

12oz sr
8oz sug

4oz butter
3oz syrup

1 tsp bicarb
1 tsp ginger
1 egg


He gave up, mystified.

It's quite simple, really, except that I've never translated this recipe from imperial into metric measures - it's now the only thing I cook in imperial.

Here's a fuller explanation:

In a large bowl, mix together 12 ounces of self-raising flour with 8 oz of caster sugar. Add 1 teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda and one teaspoon of ground ginger. In a pan, melt 4 oz* of butter with 3 oz of golden syrup. When the butter is melted, pour it into the bowl, and break an egg over the mess. Mix it up until the flour is all absorped. Shape the mix into balls the size of conkers and arrange them on a baking sheet with plenty of space between each one, because they spread out to become flat. Bake for 10-12 minutes in a moderate oven (170C).

Take them out of the oven when they look cooked (and be aware that they go from deliciously golden to burnt in moments). Leave them on the sheet for about a minute, and then put them on a wire cooler (they'll be easier to handle if you leave them). I use a fish slice with a completely flat bottom, but this is something which is increasingly hard to buy; a flexible spatchelor would probably do just as well. The first batch is more or less cooled by the time the next batch is ready to pull off the baking sheet.

This makes around 30 big biscuits.

* 4oz is 125g, could you please do the maths if necessary!