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

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Polyunsaturated herb dumplings for stew

When we were in Edinburgh, I was talking to a Scots nationalist who said, irritatingly, that the English had no sense of their own identity. I thought - think - that he is wrong, but it is undoubtedly true that we are not assiduous cooks of our indiginous cuisine.

So yesterday, to go with an oxtail stew, I made dumplings. Nice, light, polyunsaturated dumplings. With parsley. Delicious. And very English. Better than haggis, no?

4 oz plain flour (it was a very ancient cookery book, this sort of cooking is deeply unfashionable, but that's to say 125g)
2 level tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 oz (30-40g) heart-healthy margerine (I used Flora)
1 egg (next time I'll use only the white)
a handful of chopped parsley
a little skimmed milk

Mix the flour, salt, baking powder, then rub in the marge. I did this in a Magimix. Add the chopped parsley and egg, then a little milk to bind it all into a stiff dough. You won't need much, in fact, the less you use, the lighter the dumplings will be.

Flour your hands, then make little marble-sized balls of dough, and drop them into your piping hot stew 20 minutes before you want to eat. When you take the lid off, they'll be three or four times the size, light and airy.

A lovely old-fashioned treat, and particularly good when there are lots of people wanting to eat not much stew ... which I suppose is why they were invented in the first place. And not a hint of saturated fat (once you've removed the egg yolk, which is only there to add flavour, but you don't need that if there are plenty of herbs, and if your stew is tasty).

Friday, September 28, 2007

Steak with lemon and thyme

Delicious dinner last night for me and Horatio, while Lucius was out singing (Mozart Mass in C) - get the butcher to cut an extra-thick sirloin or rump steak (say, two inches). Grill it for four minutes on each side, then rest it for four minutes a side in a bath of olive oil, thyme, juice and zest of a lemon, salt and plenty of pepper. Cut it across in ribbons. Lovely rare meat, without the is-it? isn't-it? bother we always seem to have with individual steaks.

From Nigella Express. Good, but not that quick, by the time you've made a salad and - in this house - organised the potatoes. But it's easy, providing you've done the shopping well, at a butcher, rather than a supermarket, and would be particularly good to multiply up for a crowd.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Sweet peas in autumn

Yesterday, at dusk, I heard the weather forecast. Cold night. I ran out into the gloom with my flower scissors and cut what I thought would be the last bunch of sweet peas for the year. The smell in my study this morning was overpowering.

A quick check in the garden shows that I was being unnecessarily gloomy; there are still many sweet peas worth picking, all of them this lovely variety with two names, Matucana, or Cupani's Original - a much better name as it hints at the history (it arrived in Britain from Sicily in the 17th century, sent by a monk named Cupani). This is the mother of all sweet peas, the first, the one with the strongest scent, the one with hints of all the colours that have been bred into a cultivated sweet pea. My favourite.

It can't last, we are past the equinox, and sweet peas respond to light. I've been picking them three or four times a week since the beginning of May. Although I grow other sweet peas, Cupani's original is my favourite - the strongest scent, the first to flower, the last to die back, with its beautiful maroon and purple flowers. How could all those nurserymen have thought they could improve on nature's own sweet pea?

PS the dahlia in the corner of this picture is a stunner, David Howard ... the photograph doesn't do it justice, I'll post a better one soon

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Gorgonzola with honey

We don't eat cheese very much, it's on the very-nearly-banned list for anyone who's had a heart attack. If you look at my basic rules post, you'll see that, if possible, it should be only once a week, and no more than a matchbox sized piece at once.

Well, we like cheese in this house, so that was a problem. Not just the end-of-a-meal slice, but the cheese I used to use in my cooking. Slowly I found solutions, often using breadcrumbs flavoured with citrus and rosemary, or anchovies - some of the posts are grouped together under the tag instead of cheese.

But every so often, only a piece of cheese will do. Then it has to be the best I can find: in the winter, a little Vacherin, the ultimate smelly cheese; proper Cheddar from Somerset, wrapped in cloth ... or Gorgonzola, the king of blue cheeses.

At Valvona and Crolla, they serve Gorgonzola drizzled with honey, sprinkled with pine nuts, and with a pile of oatcakes. Heaven ... especially for those of us that like to honour the little cheese that we eat.

Monday, September 24, 2007

How to date a hedge

To get to our house, you go up a single-track lane lined on both sides with a hedge - not, on the face of it, a very remarkable hedge - it's often untidy to look at, the rabbits have damaged its roots, there are no eye-catching exotics. It's a very English hedgerow. And yet, as we discovered a few years ago, it is an important part of our heritage: living history, home to hundreds of species - mainly insects, which in turn support birds and other wildlife. On the lane we regularly see little owls, barn owls, many finches, woodpeckers, partridges.

This post is for Amanda at Little Foodies, and anyone else who is out foraging for blackberries or sloes .... a little bit about dating hedges, which may turn your afternoon into a history project, as well as a kitchen adventure.

Years ago, Eleanor - then aged about 10 or 11 - and I set about trying to find out the age of the Huntswood hedge. It is obviously ancient: the lane itself is sunken, a sure indicator of age, there are fully mature self-sown oak trees, there is a multiplicity of native species (and no exotics). But exactly how ancient?

Hooper's Rule (first published in 1974 in Hedges by Dr Max Hooper) is:

Age = (no of species in a 30 yard stretch) x 110 + 30 years

Or, to put it another way, pace out a thirty-yard stretch, count the individual woody shrubs and trees, multiply by 110 and add 30 .... and you'll get an idea, a best guess. You have to count all the different types of hawthorn as one species, you mustn't count seedlings, you don't get such a good result if there's elm about (I wish - the elms round here all succumbed to Dutch elm disease in the late 70s early 80s). According to Wikipedia, it doesn't work so well in the north of England. Oh, and it doesn't work at all on a planted hedge, however old.

Hooper's Rule is somewhat controversial - we wanted to date the hedge for a public inquiry about whether the lane was a public right of way (new neighbours said not, and spent a great deal of energy trying - fruitlessly, as it turned out - to prevent nice people from walking their dogs there). It's not the kind of evidence that can be accepted on its own, documentary back-up is required (!). It's also better if you do several 30 yard stretches.

But it's fun to do - you may, like us, have to do a bit of work to identify all the different species. The hedge itself, however old it turns out to be, is a piece of living history, the best possible habitat for the widest number of species (better than anything you plant yourself). Once you've completed your survey, the hedge will never be an invisible part of the background for you again. And, of course, you'll know exactly where to go foraging in autumn.

PS, I forgot to say ... we found that this hedge was about 1,000 years old.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Sticky sloe vodka

Earlier this week I picked some sloes - including the ones in the picture - and combined them with vodka and rather a lot of soft brown sugar to make a stickier version of the usual liqueur. At least, I hope that's what will happen. If not, I'll add some more sugar when I bottle it. I don't quite see the point of a tart liqueur, which is what you get with the usual sloe gin recipe (450g sloes / 250g white sugar / one litre gin).

Sticky sloe vodka

450g sloes
450g soft brown sugar
most of a litre of vodka
a 1 1/2 litre Le Parfait bottling jar

I can't say that I'm using vodka to get the "cleaner" flavour some people write about - I've never noticed the all-pervading taste of juniper in sloe gin; it was more a case of - oh good, there's some vodka in the cupboard.

You do have to prick the sloes, but one hole is enough, and if you do it with a fork you can prick two at once. It doesn't take long, and, although your fingers get blue, the dye washes off easily. Put everything into the jar, seal and shake. Keep in a cool dark place, and shake it up fairly regularly.

This will be ready for bottling at the very earliest the week before Christmas. It will be better to wait until the week before next Christmas, but I do see that may not be possible. On the other hand, you may forget all about it, and discover it some years later, in which case it will also be fine. Bottling is easy if you have both a large funnel and a fine plastic sieve.

Really thrifty people use the sloes in baking after they've bottled up the liqueur, but then you really do have to take out the stones, because, in truth, a sloe is more stone than flesh. Flapjacks seem to be the preferred option. Lazy people don't bother to strain this, in which case they often put the sloes straight into a bottle. This is more trouble than using a jar. (I have never done the thrift thing, but I have done the lazy thing. And the forgetting thing.)

This type of seasonal preserving is quick and easy; it's not exactly food for free (all that vodka!), but it's definitely making the most of what's free in the hedges - and it's a lovely winter treat, either to drink, or to use in cooking, or to pour on ice cream. It also has the bonus of making you feel rather clever.

PS: There's a lot of debate about whether or not you should wait until the first frost before picking sloes. Even in a good year such as this, waiting until the first frost means that the birds will get them - they know far better than we where the best bushes are ... indeed, there were blackbirds nesting in the hedge less than a foot away from where I was picking.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Marrow Zanzibar

Years ago, an old family friend, the historian Christopher Hibbert, used to grow vegetables in our orchard, as he no longer had enough space in his own garden after a house move. Our daughter Eleanor, then at primary school, used to "help" him, but, really, she was drawn both by Christopher's charisma and his generous gifts of sweets.

The kitchen gardening was an extension of Christopher's interest in good food, particularly Italian food - he spent a lot of time in Italy researching various books (his guides to Rome, Venice and Florence are wonderful company in those cities), and he likes an Italian restaurant better than any other sort. Sadly, though, the allotment was too much of a struggle - rabbits, poor soil, deer, all conspired to make him give up our patch in favour of one in another friend's garden. Now I struggle with the same pests.

Christopher introduced me to the delights of tiny turnips, and he gave me this recipe for the courgette glut. It works with small ones, but is particularly useful for courgettes which have got out of hand. You may be fearful before trying this - it goes against the grain of modern cooking, which so often says you should barely heat vegetables - but, trust me, boiling the courgettes to death really does make for a delicious dish. I'm giving Christopher's original instructions, with my notes and observations below. I haven't made this for years, because I lost the paper he gave me - it came to light this week in a baking book I used to use frequently when the children were small.

Marrow Zanzibar

1 medium marrow
1 medium onion, chopped
1 crushed garlic clove
1 tsp celery seed
1 tsp lemon thyme
2 bay leaves
6 cloves
1 tbsp tomato puree
2 tbsp salad oil
2 tbsp vinegar
2 tbsp caster sugar
1 dsp salt
bit of cayenne pepper
3 oz sultanas

Peel marrow, split lengthwise, remove seeds, cut into 1-inch cubes, put into saucepan and add all ingredients. Add enough water to cover the marrow. Stir mixture.

Bring to boil, cover with greaseproof paper and lid. Simmer in oven at medium heat for 60-90 minutes.

Serve as hot veg or cold as hors d'oeuvre.

I think it's called Zanzibar because of the cloves; the finished result is redolent of Venice and Scicily, and is particularly good if you like those sort of dishes but aren't too keen on capers. The cayenne gives that extra note which capers give in, say, caponata (two different cheat's versions I've blogged are here and here), so don't leave it out, even if you don't care for too much heat in your food (just used less); most of the heat is absorbed by the bland courgette, so your mouth doesn't burn.


You can use 5-6 courgettes rather than a marrow.

I don't have celery seed in the house as a rule, so I use 2 tsp celery salt and leave out the dessertspoon of salt which is specified later - which is, in any case, far more salt than I would ever use in any dish.

I used olive oil yesterday, because that was all there was in the house, but sunflower oil would be just as good.

Don't be too faint-hearted about the water - it vanishes. But I don't use the greaseproof paper, because I want to be sure that the water evaporates (and because it's a fiddle). And I made this at a gentle simmer on the hob for just over an hour - fine if you don't want to switch on the oven specially.

PS I'm reading Christopher's biography of Garibaldi, my interest having been sparked by a one-man show about the risorgimento we saw during the Edinburgh Festival at the Scottish Storytelling. Centre

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Stuffed quince with nohutlu pilav

This was our dinner on Monday night ... good, but in need of further tinkering to make it perfect; the quince lends sweetness to the mince, while the flesh which is left in the shells is surprisingly sharp.

It comes from Claudia Roden's Arabesque, a taste of Turkey, Morocco and Lebanon

Ayva dolmasi
for 2

2 medium quinces
one chopped onion
olive oil
2 tablespoons pine nuts
100g lean mince (I used beef, but I think lamb would be better)
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
less than 1/2 tsp ground allspice
salt and pepper

Bake the quinces whole in a moderate oven, 170C, until they are soft. This will take at least an hour.

Soften the onion in oil, the add the pine nuts and keep turning them until they are golden. Put the mince into a bowl with the spices, and work them to a paste with your hands. Add the onions when they are cool enough to handle, and work them in too.

Cut the quinces in half lengthways and remove the core. Spoon out most of the flesh, taking care not to tear the skins. Add this to the mince, and then press the mixture into the quince. Bake for half an hour at 180C.

Serve with pilau rice: I made nohutlu pilav, the chickpea and rice dish which was served by Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror (who captured Constantinople in 1453) at the Topkapi Palace. A little gold ball in the shape of a chickpea was hidden in the rice, each guest hoping that they would be the one to find it. This version omits the gold.

Nohutlu pilav for 3-4

250g basmati rice
400ml homemade stock (better to use water than a cube, I think)
one small onion, chopped
half a tin (sorry!) of chickpeas, rinsed and drained

Bring the stock (or water) to the boil. Add the rice. Bring back to the boil, clamp on a lid and cook gently, undisturbed, for 15-20 minutes. Towards the end of the cooking time, you may need to check that there is enough liquid. You will know the rice is cooked when all the liquid has been absorbed and there are little holes all over the surface of the rice. Leave it to rest for a few minutes while you prepare the chickpeas. Gently fry the onion until soft and golden. Add the chickpeas and warm through. Stir this through the rice.

I love this taste of the middle east, although I think this particular recipe, again Claudia Roden, would be improved by the addition of saffron. Better than a gold nugget.

This autumnal, seasonal supper would be great for a party: you could prepare the quince ahead, giving it a little longer in the oven. The pilau could also be made beforehand, in which case it should be reheated, tightly covered, in a moderate oven for 15-20 minutes. Easy.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Quince liqueur

The distinctive and heady scent of quince transports me instantly to childhood and my grandmother's kitchen in 1950s Oxford. She used to make a delicious jam from fruit given to her by a neighbour, and it was a long job cutting the hard fruit into tiny cubes.

We have a quince in our garden, planted about 25 years ago by my mother-in-law, who used to put a few slices of poached quince into her stewed apple, rather in the way you might add a couple of cloves.

I make quince jam and jelly regularly, and this year, for the first time, I'm making quince liqueur - not to drink (although it's perfectly drinkable), but to use in my cooking throughout next year. It was a quick job, thanks to the Magimix, which made very short work of grating the fruit. I used Jane Grigson's recipe from her Fruit Book.

Quince liqueur

a one-litre preserving jar
3 quinces
60g caster sugar
about 600 ml vodka

Wipe the fluff from the quince with a dry cloth. Cut them in half so that they will fit into the feeder tube of the Magimix. Grate - yes, really, the whole fruit, skin, pips and all. The scented fruit will more or less fill your jar. Add the sugar, then the vodka, making sure that all the fruit is covered. Seal. Put in a dark place for a couple of months - there's no need to turn it.

This will need straining in December or January, at which point more sugar could be added. And then it will add a useful flavouring note to savoury as well as sweet dishes; quince is not only distinctive, it is also very strong - one quince on the kitchen table can scent a whole house.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Cheesy peasy pasta

Last month, at the Edinburgh Festival, we had lunch one day in the little cafe at the back of Valvona and Crolla, the great Italian deli. Pizza and pasta all round. The photo shows a delicious pea pasta dish which I ordered, because I love vegetarian pasta. This half-remembered dish was the inspiration for lunch on Saturday. Heart-healthy, quick, easy, suitable for one to - well, how big is your pan?

Cheesy peasy pasta for 2

2 handfuls of pasta
100g light Philadelphia
a little skimmed milk
2 cloves of garlic, chopped finely
a handful of peas
a little finely-grated parmesan

Start by boiling the water for your pasta (I used shells). Then, on a very low heat, melt the Philly with a little skimmed milk, enough to make the sauce liquid, together with the garlic. Put the peas on when you start cooking the pasta. Drain the cooked peas and add to your sauce; grate in a little parmesan for seasoning. Mix this into the drained pasta (you can use some of the cooking water to loosen the sauce if you weren't bold enough with the milk!). You could chop in a little mint, but it isn't necessary.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Quick crushed roasted potatoes

I am aware that, for a heart-healthy blog, there's been a recent emphasis on roasting potatoes. My family are all very keen on roast potatoes (although I'd happily forego them), and, I suppose, I keep on experimenting in the hope that I've found something both healthy and properly crunchy and delicious. My defence, therefore, is that I'm trying to crack this problem ... but it would be true to say that I also think that food should be joyful, and, in this house, that means roast potatoes.

I managed to blog about Nigella's squid without actually confessing that I now have a copy of the book of the TV series. This time I can't get away with it; the method you are about to read is in a show that has yet to be aired. (This week? next week? I've saved you the bother of all that irritating simpering.)

This is what you do: wrap little new potatoes loosely in a clean tea cloth, and bash them with the end of a rolling pin until they are all crushed open. Tip them into a roasting dish, toss in as little oil as you can manage, and roast them in a hot oven for about 35-40 minutes. (Nigella gets the cooking time down to under 10 minutes by frying them, but I think you'd really have to use a lot more oil, and, besides, you have to watch them.)


I'm using a tea towel because I can't bear the idea that everything we eat involves plastic, ie oil, ie geo-political problems. This is a small start, and an easy one, because you don't notice a tea towel in the next wash.

If you have a large mortar, you could probably pestle them. Mine is too small, but I'm rather taken with this one belonging to David Lebovitz

The whole exercise is rather therapeutic

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Shaken hot-water pastry

This recipe is so good, so staple, that I'm giving it again ... here, we ate it with onions, anchovies and olives - a pissaladiere - but it's infinitely variable, is quick, easy, delicious, and HAS NO BUTTER.

And for those who think that cholesterol-watching is a joyless activity, dooming you to eat horrible food, just a reminder that this is a real, traditional French recipe ... amazing, really, that it ever fell from our consciousness.

Shaken hot-water pastry

225g flour
1 tbsp caster sugar (leave it out if you're making something savoury)
1/2 tsp baking powder
pinch salt
4 tbsp mild salad oil
1/2 beaten egg
3 tbsp hot water

Put all the ingredients into a lidded plastic box and shake it for at least a minute. When you take off the lid, you will find a lumpy mixture; form it into a ball with your hands, and roll it out on a floured surface. The original recipe says this is enough for a 24cm tin, but I have made this a number of times, and find that it is rather too much for a 24cm tin, better in the next size up, because this pastry is better when it is very thin. You can use this straight away, no need to rest it.

As I said in my previous post on this pastry, the recipe comes from Geraldene Holt's French Country Kitchen, a wonderful book worth following up if you've never seen it. Actually, everything of hers I have is worth reading and re-reading, she is one of THE great cookery writers. It's amazing that she's not better known, but I suppose it has something to do with the recent ascendence of Italian cookery in this country, accompanied by the falling from grace - or at any rate fashion - of French food.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Quick squid salad

I dropped in to the butcher this morning to buy a steak for Horatio to cook for his supper while we're out dancing at a party. They had lovely whole squid, and I couldn't resist buying one for my lunch.

For years, I've used a Nigella method of cooking squid: you just dust the rings and tentacles in a mixture of cornflour and pepper (lots of it), then shallow fry in hot oil, and eat with lemon juice. Quick and easy, even when you're buying whole squid rather than prepared rings.

Nigella's just started a new series on television, rather irritating, but, even so, I can't seem to bear to miss it. Television, of course, devours ideas, and so the squid recipe has had to move on. Last week she rolled out her squid, as if new, using the same method, but, crucially, one more ingredient: semolina "for essential crunch" (2tbsp cornflour to 4tbsp semolina, plus pepper). Result? Something pretty soggy; delicious but soggy. Stick to the first, crisp, recipe ... here it is:

Salt and Pepper Squid for
from Nigella Bites

Oil - 1 cm in your pan
2tbsp Maldon salt
2tbsp black peppercorns
75g cornflour
500g squid, cut into rings + tentacles

Bash the peppercorns with the salt, add the cornflour, mix in the squid. Heat the oil until it's nearly smoking, then add the squid in a single layer, in batches if necessary. They take a minute or so, and probably won't need turning. Drain them on some kitchen roll before serving.

I don't generally bother with the salt, and I eat this on a bed of torn lettuce. Just don't bother with the semolina.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Organic fortnight: a post for the Prime Minister

It's organic food fortnight, and the Soil Association is running a campaign to highlight the fact that organic food is planet-friendly because it uses a lot less energy to produce. I'm sorry that's a little vague, although I don't think that "30% less" is any more precise ...

Here in the UK, our government is pretty bossy when it comes to telling us to turn out lights, install insulation, drive slowly &c - but it doesn't breathe a word about the benefits to the planet of choosing organic food. Indeed, it's actively hostile to the idea that organic food has benefits (you may think this article is a little out of date, but it was all I could find on the government website). Here, in the interests of balance, are a couple of links to websites that see value in organic foods - Sheepdrove, the farm set up by Peter Kindersley after selling his hugely successful publishing business, and a question and answer session from The Observer.

The Soil Association has a very funny little game (10 seconds max) you can play ... feed Gordon an organic breakfast. They're going to use the final tally of breakfasts fed to Gordon in their campaigning ... so what are you waiting for?

PS thanks Melanie

Monday, September 10, 2007

Butter-less pastry - & a fruit tart

This pastry is a revelation ... and, for those of you who think pastry can only be made with butter: this is a French recipe, a proper recipe. There are egg yolks and oil, so it's still not something to eat every day, but this is a real breakthrough for those who can no longer eat butter. And for those people who think that our low-cholesterol way of eating is somehow second best - this is really delicious and worth a try in its own right. Also, if you're not a natural pastry chef - and I never was - this is quick and easy, a definite improvement on bought shortcrust. All the virtues, then.

The recipe was discovered by clever Anna, in Geraldene Holt's French Country Kitchen, one of my most favourite of all cookery books. I've cooked and cooked from this book (but stupidly failed to spot this pastry), more than any other I own, I should think, and I've never been able to understand why Geraldene Holt isn't better known: she's at least as good as Jane Grigson, and considerably better than a whole host of well-regarded food writers. She writes out of real experience - in this book, her many years of summer living in France.

This recipe for shaken hot-water pastry comes from Mme Chalendar, who, GH notes, sells earthenware and stoneware kitchen pots in Lamastre.

225g flour
1 tbsp caster sugar (leave it out if you're making something savoury)
1/2 tsp baking powder
pinch salt
4 tbsp mild salad oil
1/2 beaten egg
3 tbsp hot water

Put all the ingredients into a lidded plastic box and shake it for at least a minute. When you take off the lid, you will find a lumpy mixture; form it into a ball with your hands, and roll it out on a floured surface. GH says this is enough for a 24cm tin, but I have made this a number of times, and find that it is enough for a larger tin, and rather too much for a 24cm tin, because the pastry is better when it is very thin. You can use this straight away, no need to rest it.

Plum tart

If you are making a fruit tart, here's another trick, and I'm not sure if it come from Mme Chalendar or GH: mix 20g flour with 20g sugar and sprinkle it over the pastry base. Then add the stoned fruit halves (raw). The flour and sugar mix will effortlessly thicken the fruit juices to make a delicious sauce.

This tart needs 30-35 minutes in a moderate oven, 190C. When it's done, glaze the fruit with a little melted jam - I used the rose petal jelly I made last month, but anything would do, even a little sugar syrup if there's no jam in the house (especially if you have vanilla- or lavender-flavoured sugar). The first time we made this, we forgot all about glazing it in our excitement - it's the one in the photographs, so you can judge for yourself whether it's worth the bother, because glazing is fundamentally a cosmetic exercise. We didn't bother with the flour and sugar that first time, which was a mistake, as I think you can see in the photograph.

We ate this tart by candlelight in the garden. It's quick and easy, the sort of food you can cook ahead, either for a party or just because you feel like it.

This is my entry for this month's Heart of the Matter ... fruit and berries is the theme for September ... and Ilva at Lucullian Delights is hosting. The idea is to build a bank of heart-friendly recipes on the Heart of the Matter website, a resource for everyone to use, and one which would have been very useful to me in the days after my husband's heart attack. There's more information about how to submit here, and some guidance for those of you worried about heart-healthy eating.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Misr wot and injeera

This morning I visited a wonderful roof garden on an office building in the centre of Reading, where there's not much greenery. Not just any old roof garden, but a permaculture forest garden - in other words, a garden that has been carefully thought out and built to be self-sufficient, to require little maintenance, to feed (in many senses of that word) those that use it.

As it is September, the end of our growing season, the garden is overblown and untidy, but still full of life - amazingly, three storeys up, there are insects and birds (no slugs though, lucky them!). There were apples, pears, cobnuts, medlars waiting to be picked, we drank lemon verbena tea made from leaves plucked earlier from the bush. I was given some of this year's harvest of emmer, the earliest sort of wheat to be cultivated in the British Isles and which looks remarkably like barley at first glance. The next village but one is called Emmer Green, and it is thought to have been named after this primitive wheat. So I am lucky to have the chance to grow this rare plant, sourced three or four years ago from Newcastle University.

The roof garden was made five years ago by the charity RISC - Reading International Sustainability Centre - in order to get grants to pay for a new roof; the old one was leaking, and there was no money in the pot for that sort of expenditure. It's been a huge success, and is visited by groups of schoolchildren, as well as gardeners.

I've come away feeling hugely inspired to do more to make my garden self-sustaining: I've got a leaflet showing me how to make a very small but highly efficient machine (that's too strong a word, but I can't think of a better one at the moment) to make liquid feed out of nettles. Now I know you can just do this in a bucket, but have you smelt the resulting brew? And this way uses a little length of drainpipe which you hardly notice, and which has a lid (made of the bottle you keep the feed in).

Back down on street level, I noticed that the global cafe had been recently taken over by new management, and now specialises in Ethiopian food. Lunch sorted: misr wot with injeera. I've been longing for this food for a few years now (in the 1980s I spent time travelling in Somalia, Eritrea and northern Sudan); I didn't realise I could find it so close to home. Misr wot is a spicy lentil stew - I've now got a recipe, and will try it out one day soon and blog it. Injeera is bread, a sour flatbread, full of little holes on the top like a crumpet; this was made with wheat, it's far far better made with tef or millet, but it was wonderful to eat it again after decades. And Tutu, the chef proprietor, brought me a lovely traditional pot of coffee to end with.

Then over to the cricket club, where I saw Horatio take a wicket, then home to find that Lettice had scored a goal in her hockey match and won 4-0, that Alfred's team had won their rugger match; that England had won the one-day test series against India, the football against Israel to qualify for Euro 2008, AND the first match in the rugby world cup (apologies to Americans reading this for a blatant display of patriotism). Could it have been a better day?

Friday, September 07, 2007

A lighter Waldorf salad

At this time of year, my mother-in-law used to start making her regular winter salad of diced apple and celery garnished with walnuts and some thinned-down Helmann's. I loved it; I don't often make it because one of the very few things my husband really doesn't like is celery. Weekday lunches - if they aren't leftovers - tend to consist of things-he-won't-eat, in particular lentils and spices.

The apples in our garden are beginning to ripen, and I can see the Cox's orange pippins from the window of my study. There was a head of celery in the veg box this week. So I got dicing. It was only then discovered there were no walnuts. I was always going to tweak the classic recipe a little - we don't really eat much mayo in this house, for obvious reasons, so I was planning to use a lemon vinaigrette. The only nuts I could find were either mixed with dried fruit, so no good, or almonds, which didn't seem the thing. And so I looked in the fridge, where I found some freshly sprouted mixed seeds ... I'm never going to use walnuts again, it was that good. A fresher taste, but still nutty.

Light Waldorf salad for 2 or 3

2 small apples
4 sticks of celery
lemon juice
olive oil
some sprouted seeds - mine were a Riverford mix of aduki, mung, lentil, and chick pea, but any of those would do

Squeeze the juice of a lemon into a bowl (if you like your salads extra lemony, grate a little of the zest into the bowl, too). Core and dice the apple - leave the skin for its goodness, taste and roughage. Put the apple into the bowl, and make sure it is well coated with lemon juice as this will prevent the apple browning. Chop the celery into the bowl, add olive oil and seasoning. Mix well, then add a couple of handfuls of seed sprouts.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Scented Kitchen, cooking with flowers

I've just read in Hannah's Country Kitchen an appeal for recipes for lavender jam, and it's reminded me that I meant to write about an unusual cookery book I bought in Scotland, The Scented Kitchen by Frances Bissell.

This is a book for gardeners, because most of the inspiration can be found in an English country garden - lavender, fennel seeds, hawthorn, marigolds, roses, violets, pansies, borage, carnations .... you don't even need a veg patch to get the most out of this book.

I found the book at Valvona and Crolla, the Italian delicatessen in Edinburgh, and couldn't put it down once I'd begun. This is a fresh approach to cooking, one which is at once old-fashioned and very modern. There's something very granny-ish about the idea of eating violet-flavoured food, and yet violet souffle seems made for the 21st century.

The recipes are easy to follow, but if you're anything like me, you'll use this book as an inspiration for improving dishes you already make, to help you range wider when thinking of flavourings. I would never have thought of making lavender sugar or lavender vinegar, and am glad that I now have both. The one recipe I did follow to the letter was rose petal jelly, a beautiful if barely-set concoction which is delicious on toast and which I have recently been using to glaze plum tarts.

Pork tenderloin with prunes

Here's a quick and delicious dinner, not too expensive either. It uses a whole tenderloin, something which is rarely seen in supermarkets, as they like to cut it up into what they call medallions. It is occasionally to be found in Waitrose, but it's more reliable to go to the butcher, where, if they're any good at all, they'll greet you like a long-lost friend after only a couple of visits.

for 3-4
one pork tenderloin
one or two onions
no-soak prunes (I used Agen)
some bacon lardons*

Start by making a marinade for the pork: put two or three cloves of garlic, a handful of sage and a little salt into a mortar and pestle them into a paste. Then add some olive oil. Smear this mess over the tenderloin, and leave it as long as you can. This is something you could do in the morning to speed things up in the evening, or you could fling the whole dish together at the last minute, giving the meat only a few minutes to soak up the flavourings.

Slice one large or two medium onions into big chunks. Put them in a roasting dish (I used a French oval earthenware one, but I can't think of any reason not to use a metal roasting pan, except that the timings will probably be quicker). Fry some lardons of bacon until brown and mix them with the onions. Add a handful or two of no-soak prunes, and a little liquid - I used Madeira, but I could just as easily have used table wine, stock, or water. Put this into a hot oven, 200C, for 10-15 minutes, by which time the onion should be beginning to soften. Add the tenderloin and all its marinade, cover with tinfoil or dampened greaseproof paper, and put back into the oven for 15 minutes. Remove the covering to cook and brown for a further 15 minutes. Then rest the meat for a few minutes before carving.

We ate this with little roasted potatoes and a huge green salad.

* You can buy little boxes of prosciutto chunks in supermarkets, but I hate all that plastic waste and, anyway, the pieces are too small to be much use. I have recently solved this by buying a small but whole piece of bacon from the butcher (you can find it in a supermarket too, labelled as gammon joints). You can then cut thick slices to make large-ish cubes for soup, pasta sauces etc. Much nicer and no trouble - I can't think why we've allowed supermarkets to teach us that tiny cooking chores are such a huge problem only they can solve. Rant over - but do try it.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Slow roasted tomatoes

I've been slow-roasting tomatoes like there was no tomorrow ... or, more specifically, because we are fast approaching the moment of the year when there'll be no more tomatoes for those of us who try to eat only local and seasonal food.

Whichever recipe you are following, you start in the same way: cut your tomatoes in half, sprinkle them with thyme and drizzle them with oil. At this point, there's huge variation in ideas ... I've tried four or five different speeds, and the very best, Rolls Royce way to roast tomatoes, is to put them in the oven at 80-100C for 11 or 12 hours. This, of course, isn't always possible. If you don't start early in the morning, you'll have a very late night. If you start too early in the evening then you have to have an early start. So you can boost the temperature to about 120C and cook them for seven or eight hours. You'll quite quickly know how they should look when they're done, dried out but not browned - and you'll find they cook at different rates, depending on size and - possibly - variety & age.

Then, there are a number of options. Some people slip off the skins (best done while they're still warm); I don't bother. You can pack them in boxes or plastic bags and freeze them to use in soups and stews. You can put them into jars (with more thyme, perhaps a bay leaf, etc) and cover them with olive oil, then they'll keep for 4-6 weeks in the fridge, and the oil (surprisingly little) is deliciously flavoured for cooking later. Or you can sieve them to make passata (best frozen).

I keep a plastic box on the go in the fridge ... I pull them to pieces in a salad (lovely to mix fresh with roasted), I heat them quickly to have on toast for breakfast, I use them in sauces which need a flavour boost. I think they'd be great pulled apart and thrown over pasta with some oil and a few chilli flakes for a quick supper.

Really useful, delicious, quick, a fabulous way to use up a glut of tomatoes (not a real problem for us this year, sadly), and very eco-friendly.

HoTM 6: the very late round-up

Next time I'm away for a chunk of August, I'll get someone else to do the round-up - how can I have thought it would work? No, that wasn't it ... I just didn't think at all. And next time it's grilling, perhaps the round-up should be done by someone who can rely on a little summer sunshine, even in these times of weird weather. We haven't used our grill once this summer, and I'm not sure that we will now - my family is all in winter mode (I'm not), pulling on jerseys and muttering about open doors and windows. That's enough breast-beating ... there are some great recipes to try - and I have already promised to cook all of them as a kind of penance. Wrong word, of course, it will be my pleasure.

Katie at Thyme for Cooking has made wonderful Spanish roasted potatoes with allioli, a garlic sauce not unlike French aioli, only without eggs, which makes it perfect for HoTM. Katie also has a grilled chicken salad (and a photo of some very black sausages her husband cooked ...)

Gilli at So So Simple Food has a good trick to keep her Ultimate Chicken BBQ moist - soak it in brine for a couple of hours.

Chris was in the hairdresser flipping through the magazines when she got the inspiration for her wild mushroom linguine with grilled gazpacho sauce. You'll find details for cooking indoors or outdoors at Mele Cotte. She's also sent a recipe for grilled salmon with three vegetables.

Cookie Baker Lyn loves asking couples how they met. So you won't be surprised to hear that she calls her grilled seafood Happily Ever After Shrimp.

Sophie says that her Earthy fig, chicken and mushroom salad can be used as a basic formula for healthy grilling. She's a nutritionist, and often includes useful links in her posts at Mostly Eating.

Kalyn gets out her mortar and pestle to make the rub for her herb encrusted grilled salmon, which she says is one of the best-tasting salmon steaks she's cooked. As usual at Kalyn's Kitchen, there are full South Beach details for dieters, and plenty of links for further information.

Ilva, my co-host for Heart of the Matter, loves to grill, and has posted grilled sweet peppers with onion and thyme or peperoni grigliate con cipolle e timo. As always at Lucullian Delights, lovely clear flavours, and beautiful photographs.

The wet weather in England is no excuse: Swaha used her George Foreman grill indoors (in a heatwave) to make Rosemary-garlic-lime tilapia and Barbeque tofu. I'm not sure that my fishmonger stocks tilapia, but I'll definitely ask him. And Swaha discusses the concerns some people have with soy products.

So, lots of things for me to cook at the first sign of an Indian summer ... thanks for joining in, thanks for being so patient about the delayed round-up. And don't forget, September's HotM is fruit and berries ....

Homemade tomato ketchup .. & caponata-ish

Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall gave this recipe in his column in the Guardian a few weeks ago, and, as I've never made ketchup before, I followed the recipe exactly. Even before we tasted it, I thought you could simplify this without loss of taste. So when everyone was lukewarm about it as an accompaniment to fish and chips, I thought it might be hard to use it up.

Not a bit of it! I've now discovered that it makes the most fantastic five-minute caponata, and since aubergine is my favourite summer vegetable, that's a bonus. To make the caponata-ish, cube the aubergine, fry in olive oil till fairly soft, add some of the ketchup, a few sultanas and some capers. Simmer for a few minutes. Best eaten lukewarm, if you can wait that long.

Back to the point, this is how you make the ketchup. It's a two part recipe, first you have to roast the tomatoes (I know a better way to do this), then sieve them. When you've recovered from this (does he have a machine? I just have a sieve, a wooden spoon, and aching arms), you simmer the passata with sugar and spice.

HFW's roast tomatoes

To make one litre, use about 2kg ripe tomatoes; the more flavour they have, the better the finished ketchup. Cut them in half, put them in a single layer on a roasting sheet, and sprinkle with finely chopped garlic (two or three cloves), some thyme, and olive oil. Roast for 45-60 minutes at 180C, until they are soft and beginning to blacken at the edges. Remove from the oven, and sieve to a pulp when they are cool enough to work.

HFW's tomato ketchup

one litre roast tomato sauce
100g soft brown sugar
100 ml cider vinegar
one tbsp ground black pepper
pinch of mace
pinch of cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1/2 tsp ground coriander seeds
two bayleaves

Put all the ingredients into a stainless steel saucepan and bring to the boil. Simmer gently for about 45 minutes, stirring frequently so that it doesn't stick. It will gradually thicken, although it won't be as thick as Heinz TK. Check your seasonings, then bottle. It will keep for a month and more in the fridge.

Here's a link to Guardian Unlimited which has HFW's original piece, Reddy Steady Cook (there's an art to writing headlines that bad!)

Good, but not as good as Heinz TK; really useful to use as the base for a quick vegetable stew; really useful if you've got a glut of tomatoes, as a change from slow roasted tomatoes preserved in oil. Alfred said he'd like it to dress pasta, but I thought it might be a little too vinegary for that.

I've just bought an old government-issue book on food preserving, which gives timings for boiling pickles and preserves to give them a long shelf life and keep them out of the fridge. It may take a while to get the equipment together, but I'll post as soon as I've got something to report.