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

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year

I like my new year resolutions to be positive, so amongst this year's selection: more walks, visit more galleries, more time in the garden, learn to cook new and challenging foods.

More walking will be easy, with views like this only minutes from our house:

And in anticipation of spring blossoms, Viburnum x bodnantense: lovely scent, like all winter flowers ... I don't have it in my garden, so that's another positive resolution made

Friday, December 26, 2008

Boxing Day ....

My favourite present by a mile was this lovely brooch from Canada, made to raise funds for Aids orphans in Lesotho ... I love those three little girls: Hattie says they are singing Tamla Motown songs, and I think she's right.

A whimsical watering can ran it a close second:

The sun is shining bright here, I'm off for a walk with my dogs.

PS here are our young, in a whirlwind of present unwrapping:

And here is Lucius, poaching eggs for the assembled multitude at breakfast this morning:

Well, this is a food blog, and he's brilliant at it. I can't poach (or boil) an egg to save my life - the secret, I'm told, is vinegar (but I can tell you that if you use red wine vinegar, it turns the eggs a slightly strange colour).

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Christmas Eve feast

We're having our Christmas feast here tonight: smoked salmon, delicious roast lamb with lots of vegetables. I've made little lemon pots for pudding, and mince tarts, and then there's cheese and fruit. All the children are here (my girls are wrapping all my presents for me, I can hear them chatting by the fire next door ... very soothing).

Now I'm off to get dressed in the half hour before my oldest friend and my parents arrive. Suddenly, after the usual Christmas Eve pressures, I feel Christmassy. Lovely to have everyone under one roof - I always get it in the neck for saying that, but it's true.

The lemon pots are quick and simple: melt 75g sugar in a 3ooml tub of double cream. Add the juice of a lemon and pour into tiny pots or shot glasses. Put them in the fridge, and by the time the cream is cold, it will have set. Mmmm

The mince pies were particularly easy: I bought a jar of very standard mincemeat, and jazzed it up with the grated zest of an orange and a little armagnac. I made pastry with 240g flour, 120g butter, and the juice of the orange. I then pressed this with a wooden stick into the tiny holes of my tart tin. I then put the pastry into the fridge to rest for an hour before putting a little mincemeat into each tart and putting them in a very hot oven (220C) for 10 minutes.

Alfred says that he likes them to have lots of icing sugar (or what he calls sweet flour) ... and the more sugar they have, the better he likes them. They're also my father's favourite.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

This wonderful, pagan knocker is on the door of Durham Cathedral.

In the Middle Ages, the cathedral could be used as a place of sanctuary by fugitives. If you'd committed a serious offence, you could claim sanctuary by knocking at the door (the knocker is very high). You then had 37 days to organise your affairs, and either stand trial, or leave the country by the nearest port.

I took my reluctant boys to the cathedral yesterday morning as we were passing, and it's very close to the motorway. There's a chapel for the Durham Light Infantry, my grandfather's regiment, and I was glad to be there the day before the anniversary of his death in 1941. He served in the DLI in the first world war; in the second world war he served in the Royal Artillery, so his name is not in the DLI roll of honour in the Cathedral. But it was good during this hectic season to have a quiet moment's reflection about a man I love but never met.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Preserved lemons

I've got a glut of lemons, so - at long last - I'm going to preserve a jar or two. And now I need a little advice from those of you who have done this. It comes from too much reading and not enough doing: does it really matter if you top up the jar with water as well as lemon juice? Or should it be only lemon juice? Paula Wolfert is stern: no water, just the juice of lemons you have squeezed yourself. But Pam Corbin, the author of the River Cottage handbook on Preserves, says you can top up with a little water.

I'll give both the methods (principally so that I can find them easily when we get back from a lunch party) ... but I'd really like some advice from anyone who's done this.

Paula Wolfert's preserved lemons

5 lemons
70g (or more) salt
freshly squeezed lemon juice if necessary

+ optional Safi mixture:

1 cinnamon stick
3 cloves
5-6 coriander seeds
3-4 black peppercorns
1 bay leaf

Quarter the lemons from the top to within a centimetre of the bottom; sprinkle salt on the exposed surfaces; reshape fruit.

Put one tablespoon of salt in the bottom of a Le Parfait jar. Pack in the lemons, squashing them down, adding more salt, and the spices if you're using them. Press the lemons to release juice, and add more if necessary until the fruit is covered. Seal.

Keep in a warm place for 30 days, shaking daily.

Pam Corbin's preserved lemons

for two 450g jars

1kg small lemons
150g sea salt
1 tsp pink or black peppercorns
3-4 bay leaves
1 tsp coriander seeds (optional)

Set aside 3-4 lemons for juice.

Partially quarter the others by slicing lengthwise but keeping them intact at the bottom. Rub a teaspoon of salt into the cut surfaces of each lemon. Pack into the jars, sprinkling with salt and spices. Cover the lemons with juice. Top up the jars with a little water if necessary. Seal. Leave for four weeks.

What would you do?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Jellied stock good enough to eat on its own

Okay, this post is not for the squeamish. But it IS for anyone who likes complex flavours in their food, for anyone who hates waste, and for anyone who has access to a butcher's shop. Emphatically not supermarket food.

For once, I'm following a recipe to the letter. Next time I won't be so literal ... I won't put in as much Madeira, because the result is very sweet. It's not exactly a waste of good Madeira, because the taste shines through, but in this house I think we'd probably rather drink it than use it quite so liberally in the cooking.

The recipe comes from Fergus Henderson's book Beyond Nose to Tail Eating. It's the sequel to Nose to Tail Eating, a book which I have not yet read, although I ordered both at the same time. The recipe for this wondrous stock - which Henderson calls Trotter Gear - has been several years in the making, and therefore does not appear in the first book. But loads of the dishes Henderson makes with it are in both books, and I will definitely be making them.

Trotter gear

6 pig's trotters (I used four)
2 onions (peeled)
2 carrots
2 sticks of celery
2 leeks
1 head of garlic
a handful of peppercorns
1/2 bottle of Madeira
enough chicken stock to cover the trotters

Get the butcher to split the trotters. Put them in a large casserole, cover with water and boil for five minutes. Drain and rinse off the scum. Put back into the rinsed casserole with all the other ingredients. Bring to a simmer, then put in a low oven for three hours or more - until the meat is falling off the bone.

When the trotters are cool enough to handle, strip off the flesh. Shred it, and put into a Le Parfait jar. Strain the stock over it. Seal, and keep in the fridge. Do this while everything is still warm, because it's much harder when the meat is cold.

If you are a little squeamish but have managed so far, you could just strain the stock off, and not worry about using the meat. I might do this next time, because my dogs were keen as mustard to get hold of the trotters, and they'd be a fabulous treat for two Jack Russells.

Either way, the meaty basis of this nectar cost £1. Jellied stock, sitting in my fridge. Five minutes' work. So many possibilities.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Fabulous cinnamon rolls

These celebration pastries are achievable by cooks at any level, and easy for experienced bakers. The basis is a white dough, enriched with sugar, eggs and butter. This is then smeared with more butter, and topped with a sugar and cinnamon mix, then rolled and cut. Not for dieters, obviously.

If you don't want to go to the trouble of making the rolls, then use the enriched dough as it is to make brioche.

If you're an incorrigible tinkerer with recipes, you could enrich your own favourite dough. It's what I did.

This is enough to fill one pan (mine's approx 30x25 cm). Or you could make it in 2 medium foil dishes so that you could freeze half for another day. Don't be tempted to use the small size, because it doesn't work (I used the not-very-good result to make a delicious bread-and-no-need-for-butter pudding*).

It sounds like a lot of trouble, but the work, such as it is, breaks down into three distinct parts, each of which takes only a few minutes. This is good make-ahead celebration food, whether you use the fridge or the freezer.

Brioche dough

5g instant yeast (or a sachet)
450g strong white bread flour
good pinch of salt
1 tbsp sugar (I used vanilla sugar)
125g melted butter, cooled
4 eggs
warm water

I mix this in my bread machine, but it works just as well if you stir everything together in a bowl and knead/stretch til smooth.

Mix the dry ingredients together. Add the cooled butter. Break the eggs into a measuring jug, and make up the volume with warm water to 100ml. Add to the bowl. Once the dough is smooth, leave it to double. (This will take about an hour in a warm room. Or you could put the dough into the fridge overnight and take it out for two hours in the morning.)

Cinnamon rolls

for 16

30g melted butter
70g muscovado sugar
1 tbsp ground cinnamon

Glaze: 250g icing sugar mixed with 5-6 tbsp water (sieve the sugar, or you'll end up with little lumps, like those pictured)

On a lightly floured surface, pat the dough into a rectangle 30x45cm. Smear on the melted butter, then add the sugar and cinnamon mixture. Use your fingers to get this mess right to the edges - it's just like playing mud pies, so this is a good place to get young children involved.

When the dough is completely covered, roll it up along the long edge. Then cut the rolls and arrange in your tin/s. Leave in a warm place while you heat up the oven, to 190C.

Bake for 25 minutes, but start checking after 20. As soon as you get them out of the oven, pour on the glaze, making sure you cover them well.

Mmmm ... these are Lettice's new favourite breakfast-on-the-move when she's up and out of the house early. Better than a bought croissant, any day. Cheaper, too.

*PS bread-and-no-need-for-butter pudding: slice brioche into a buttered dish, pour on a custard mix made with 3/4 pint of milk and two eggs, a little sugar (you'd need more if this was for plain bread), and a drop of vanilla essence. Leave this to soak for half an hour or more, then cook in a low oven for about an hour. Cover with greaseproof paper if it looks like burning.

This time last year: we were at Eleanor's graduation ceremony and making parsnip puree. In 2006 I was making a spicy squid stew with chorizo - easy and memorable.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Five most useful cooking implements

  • citrus juicer
  • knife sharpener
  • Microplane - they really are as sharp as the manufacturers claim; worth saving up for
  • kitchen scissors - when someone hasn't nicked them
  • Magimix - I use this most days
What are your must-haves in the kitchen?

This time last year I was posting a delicious very low-fat Christmas pudding.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Frying pan bread

I've made all the bread we've eaten in this house this year. Occasionally there's a crisis when I forget, or when appetites are larger than I think they will be. Those days, I either make soda bread, or this frying pan bread. It's not perfect, but it's better than going out shopping. Shamingly, I've had to make it this morning (absent-mindedness last night).

Emergency frying pan bread

Mix a soft dough from self-raising flour and water, with a little salt. You can use plain flour, or strong bread flour, but I find you get a slightly lighter result with self-raising. Flatten into a round and fry lightly on both sides in a little oil.

It's not perfect, but it's what we do. Does anyone have a better "instant bread" recipe?

We ate our flatbread with a stew made from a tiny bit of leftover tomato salad and a small box of mushrooms simmered for a few minutes until everything was cooked through. Much nicer than plain mushrooms, and a good use for the spoonful or so left in the bottom of a bowl overnight. A very good breakfast, even though you can't make toast.

Incidentally, I blitzed the leftover wedge with a handful of parsley, some mushroom stalks, a couple of anchovies and some lemon juice. I put this into an ovenproof dish, and it's going to be a stuffing / forcemeat to go with a very small joint of lamb which has suddenly had to stretch to feed to extra mouths. (Delicious: the lemon juice made it; some zest would have been even better.)

The frugal kitchen produces delicious food, full of different tastes.

Related posts

Six seed rolls
Bread knots - another simple way to make beautiful and delicious rolls, using this dough, or your default dough

Yeast starter for bread - and the bread
make your own sourdough starter

No-knead bread the famous NY Times recipe
Speeded-up no-knead bread and a different take on it

Yoghurt bread fabulous, easy, TRY IT
Quick oat loaf
Spelt bread - it's getting easier to buy this highly-flavoured flour

Fresh corn bread - now is the perfect autumnal moment for this
Late summer hearth bread - another perfect autumn bread, this one with grapes

Anti-oxidant tea bread - I made this for my husband for a pre-surgery boost - delicious, too!

Yeast conversion - fresh/dried/quick

Things to do with stale or leftover bread

Herb stuffing for roast chicken
Grilled trout with rosemary stuffing
Baked scallops
Anchovy toasts

Links to the best blogging bakers I know

Tanna at My Kitchen in Half Cups
A Year in Bread
Susan at Farmgirl Fare

this list is not exhaustive, there are dozens of wonderful blogging bakers

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Red cabbage salad for winter days

The other day, Lettice was moaning about the lack of salad at this time of year: I HATE winter ... she's missing soft salad already, but we really are committed to not buying leaves which are flown in from abroad. This red cabbage salad was my response, we've eaten loads of variations.

Finely chop as much red cabbage as you need. Grate some orange zest onto it. Squeeze the juice from the orange, add a little salt, some oil. Chop parsley, perhaps some leeks too; grate carrot. Mix everything together. You could add caraway if you've got some.

I've made it with clementines (as you see): great, but they're hard to zest - and the zest really does add zing, so I'd be loathe to leave it out.

Too disgusting to eat

... too much sugar. Pity.

Friday, December 05, 2008

A winter celery salad

I've posted at least a couple of Waldorf-ish salads over the years, and here's another one. I love celery.

Apples, chopped; celery; a few sunflower seeds; a splash of red wine vinegar; a slightly bigger splash of olive oil; coarsely ground black pepper. Mix in the serving bowl.

Two ingredients worth mentioning here: the apples were russets, something you never used to see in a supermarket, and with much thinner skins than when I was a child. And - star of the show - Fenland winter celery, bang in the middle of its short season in England right now ... really delicious & worth the premium: it's lovely and pale, it's not stringy, it's got a nutty taste, and I'm confident that it will convert my celery-hating husband. (You have to wash it carefully, as the whiteness is achieved the traditional way, by banking up the plants with earth, to stop the light getting in.)

Related posts

Sort of Waldorf salad
A lighter Waldorf salad
Caponatina - a sweet/sour salad with celery and other vegetables

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Fish or chicken in breadcrumbs, with seeds

Here's a quick tip for sprucing up fish or chicken cooked in egg and breadcrumbs/flour. Add a few poppy seeds and some sunflower seeds to the flour or breadcrumbs ... delicious.

I shamelessly pinched this idea from Marks and Spencer, who sell fillet of cod lightly dusted in seasoned flour with sunflower millet and poppy seeds. I just don't keep millet seeds in the larder - can anyone tell me if they're worth seeking out?

Other things to do with breadcrumbs

Quick mushroom tart
Grilled trout with rosemary stuffing
Baked scallops
Stuffed cabbage
Cauliflower gratin
Another cauliflower gratin

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Heart of the Matter round up: whole grains

Grains were the subject of this month's Heart of the Matter ... and here you'll find a small number of very good ideas from some of the best bloggers around. Cooking wholegrains always seems tricky to me: there's that whiff of 70s sandal-wearing earnest hippie-dom which is hard to shake off - boring brown food that tastes like horsefeed.

Not these days. The 21st century way with wholegrains is altogether tastier, somehow less earnest. I've been experimenting with the help of a highly recommended book, A Cook's Guide to Grains by Jenni Muir. Now I'm planning to add these dishes to my staple repertoire - these are all easily achievable, mostly quite quick, all of them the kind of recipes you can fiddle with to add your own stamp.

Labelga's quinoa flakes with spinach and red chilli is ready in 10 minutes, so there are no excuses for not giving this a go. It's one of Labelga's AAP dishes - another alternative to pizza! As you can see from the picture, the flakes are spread onto the plate, then topped with this fabulous spiced mixture. Find it at Leafy Cooking.

Christine at Kits Chow made vegetarian multigrain rice with vegetables, inspired by a Japanese rice dish, matsutake gohan (rice with mushrooms). This is something to get you experimenting - there are five grains: brown rice, black glutinous rice, buckwheat groats, oat groats and millet.

Bee and Jai have been doing some hard thinking about what they buy, cook and eat. Their post for Heart of the Matter is interesting and inspirational - they share their personal "rules", and finish with a versatile recipe for roti: this one is sourdough Swiss chard and cornmeal. You'll find it at Jugalbandi, always a good read.

I often think of cooking wholegrains as time-consuming, but here's another recipe that shows that wholegrains can be quick and easy. Michelle The Accidental Scientist, one of my co-hosts for HotM, makes this Mexican style rice when she's short of time, as an accompaniment to fish, tacos, beans - lots of links to these and other recipes.

Co-host Ilva at Lucullian Delights has stuffed courgettes with kamut grains which she found when out shopping a little while ago. As always with Ilva's food, it's beautiful and packed with flavours: she calls her dish oven baked zucchini filled with kamut, olives, thyme and parsley.

Olive Oyl is a blogger without a blog, and she's sent me this variation on the traditional Greek dish spanakorizo (Spinach rice), another happy & easy meal:

Plenty for 2 hungry people, also good cold the next day

Chop an onion and gently fry in a biggish saucepan, in a good glug of olive oil. Rough chop around four heads of spinach, I often also add sorrel, baby nettles and cleavers, depending on what's growing, and add to the pan, cover and let sweat for five minutes. Next add 250gms of brown rice, 600ml of water and juice of a lemon. Bring to the boil, season,cover and turn the heat down. Check after about 20 minutes, stir, add water as needed and so on until cooked (usually around 50 minutes)you might also want to add at this point a good few fistfuls of herbs such as mint, parsley, celery leaves, dill. When cooked it has the consistency of risotto and is a beautiful emerald green. Be more or less heart healthy with a grating of cheese on top.

Nearly forgot: I blogged two grain dishes at Joanna's Food - Skirlie, a cheap and cheerful Scots dish made with oats, and these great six-seeded rolls.

Thanks to everyone for taking part, and watch out for the announcement for December's Heart of the Matter

Friday, November 28, 2008

How DO you say Miele?

Most inconveniently, I've fallen in love - preposterously, with a fridge. Not just any old fridge, either. I'm not much of a one for labels, so it was a coup de foudre. No, really, I don't even notice labels - yesterday, I told the man from Lavazza that I loved his coffee, only it turned out to be Illy's, and, moments later, I found myself telling the Dove miller that the flour my children liked best in the world was his Seed and Grain - only that turns out to be made by Allinson. Oh dear.

Anyway, back to the fridge. This is how it happened. We were in the huge theatre at the Good Food Show watching the pantomime dame that is James Martin spinning sugar out of a pan, his patter awash with doubles entendres, the audience screaming with delight - not the children, grown women (some of whom clearly thought they were about to see the Chippendales). Show over, our little group of bloggers was allowed up on the stage.

My plan was to take photos of the underside of the demonstration worktop - does that sink actually work? From the murky world of investigative blogging I can tell you definitively: no. There's a waste pipe poking down, but no bucket. Probably no water in the taps, either, but I didn't get the chance to try them.

On the way back down to earth, I passed the fridge. Being the sort of person I am, I opened it. Nothing in it. Nothing at all. Even so, the fridge beckoned: it's got more lights than the third runway at Heathrow, you'd never lose anything in there. I thought I'd take a photo, but someone from Gordon's team elbowed me out of the way, on an urgent mission to fill the fridge with everything he needed for the next show (a small plate of tuna steak). Actually, now I come to think of it, any photo of mine wouldn't have done justice to my new love, but it's okay, I'm not about to forget. (Also, it just occurs to me that there's probably a properly pornographic photo in the brochure I've got somewhere.)

A couple of us stayed on to watch Gordon (first I'd heard the papers say he's been a bad man was from his own lips). While he was patronising us with something he called blotty soup, but which the rest of us might think of as minestrone with an awful lot of wind, I began to notice that both TV chefs had mentioned all their sponsors bar one (James Martin gleefully telling us that Waitrose is a better bet than the sponsoring supermarket). At first I thought it might be because they took for granted the presence of a hot oven in their kitchens. But gradually I realised it was because any fool can say Billington, Sainsbury, etc etc.

And then - forgive me - I began to feel smug. I'd taken the precaution, earlier in the day, of asking our host for definitive advice. Miele. Rhymes with dealer. I just wish I'd asked how much my fridge is going to cost.

Other bloggers at the Good Food Show yesterday

Becky at Girl Interupted Eating
Francesca at 101 Things Every Cook Should Cook
Nicola at Cherrapeno
Katie at Apple and Spice
Anne at Anne's Kitchen
Sam at Antics of a Cycling Cook

Useful link, especially if you want to buy a fridge


PS the photograph (illicit, I'm afraid, but I was sitting in the back row and came over all naughty schoolgirl) is not so much a snap of Gordon as a picture of the perfect fridge (on the left, and in the background on the right)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

Just back from a fabulous day out arranging flowers with Robbie Honey ... we made wreaths, table decorations, a hand-tied bunch ... we chatted, we laughed, we ate Anna's delicious food. All in the most beautiful conservatory at Ransoms Dock in Battersea.

More treats tomorrow, I'm off to the Good Food Show, as guest of Miele ... lunch with James Martin, a TV chef.

And all of you celebrating Thanksgiving - have a great day!

Extra fruity Christmas Cake

I recently found myself promising to make a Christmas cake for the raffle at the cricket dinner. Fine, I'm good at making fruit cake (if I say so myself). But not so good at decorating them. So I took the easy way out, and studded it with almonds, as if it was a Dundee cake.

This is the extra fruity Christmas cake I made last year, after lots of help from readers. I made two. I'll make marzipan for ours - it's a doddle, and much much nicer than anything you can buy. In fact, if I didn't have time to make a cake, I'd buy one and STILL make the marzipan, it's that good.

Icing? Well, I aim to crack that this year ... in the past, I've either bought very nasty ready-rolled, or made rough icing that slid down the cake, onto the plate and off onto the worktop. Can anyone give me any good tips on making Christmas cake icing?

Links to related posts

Boiled fruitcake my mother-in-law's foolproof and delicious recipe
Pistachio marzipan

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

10 ways with mashed potatoes

On a grey rainy day last week, I test drove a new-to-me car. I picked it up on another rainy day. The next morning, there was an inch of snow on it. None of this would matter, except that it's a convertible. Mad. I still haven't driven it with the roof down. And now we're into winter comfort food: lunch at the weekend was game stew and mash, just what was needed now the weather's closing in till spring.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall found 11 things to add to mash this weekend ... on top of the 100g of butter and 200ml of hot milk he adds per kilo of potatoes (or 100ml each of cream and milk).

Here, mashing is both favourite and least favourite way to cook potatoes. Some people like them better than any; others say it's a waste of a good potato. Sometimes I find myself making two types of potatoes. Who says I'm not an indulgent wife and mother?

Here are 5 ways I make mash:

  1. When I'm mashing potatoes, I routinely add milk, nearly always skimmed
  2. Sometimes, I add a good dollop of grainy mustard; good with ham
  3. A spoonful of grated horseradish (from a jar, as I don't grow it) is delicious with roast beef
  4. Olive oil added to mash instead of milk is particularly good with fish, or if you're going to use the potato as a pie topping
  5. Or you can use a little cheese (and something from the onion family finely chopped) to perk up a pie of leftovers
HFW does all that and more:
  1. Add some unpeeled cloves of garlic to the pot with the potatoes, then squeeze the puree out and beat into the mash
  2. Add a few slices of caramelized shallot and some Bramley puree for a mash to go with roast pork
  3. Infuse the milk with a bay leaf and grated lemon zest (to accompany fish)
  4. Add Jerusalem artichokes and nutmeg (roast lamb)
  5. Grated cheese and roasted chopped poblano chillies, to go with steak. Steak??? Is he mad? If steak, then chips, no question.
What do YOU do with mash? I'd love to know, it's my favourite

Monday, November 24, 2008

Black Boxes widget

Here's a new way to drive up traffic / waste time ... Black Boxes (scroll down a bit). You have several either/or decisions to make, and at the end, you're sent to a blog which has made similar decisions. Just before you link off, though, be sure to add your own dilemma, otherwise the game has an awful lot of A/B choices, which aren't much fun. It's a bit like Stumble Upon, only more random.

You know the sort of thing ... bread or toast (this IS a food blog), tulips or dahlias (with added gardening), Tennyson or Betjemann (and the odd bit of poetry), birds or bees (the wildlife in our garden gives me as much pleasure as the plants), etc etc

I found Black Boxes on Veg Plotting, but it started in the world of creative writing blogs, so there's a bit of a glut of writers at the other end ... though I'm confident that there are enough time-wasting food bloggers out there to have changed all that by the end of the week ;)

Just a thought for a cold, grey, wet November morning.

Monday, November 17, 2008

A recipe for bumblebees in your garden

I'm always a little surprised when I read that British bumblebees are in decline to the point of near-extinction, because there are so many in our garden. This morning I discovered the reason: I have the same taste in flowers as bumblebees.

Bumblebees are one of the early signs of spring in our garden: when the snowdrops are in full flower, there they are, bumbling about on the rosemary bush by the kitchen door. And I see them daily until the end of autumn. I thought that's how it was in all gardens, but apparently not.

Here's the recipe for encouraging bumblebees into your garden:

  • make sure you have some early-flowering plants such as crocus, rosemary, clematis, fruit blossom - you will find these just as life-enhancing as the bumblebees, which come out earlier than other bees (the queens come out of hibernation in February)
  • in summer, give up bedding in favour of cottage garden flowers and native wildflowers. Sages, foxgloves, thymes, thistles of all sorts (including artichokes, if you can bear to let some of them flower)
  • in high summer leave at least some of your lawn uncut, so that bumblebees can feed on clover and birdsfoot trefoil
  • plant a wildflower meadow, however small - you can use seed saved from verges in your area if the price of a packet seems high
  • opt for single and semi-double flowers rather than doubles
  • plant a wide range of bumblebee-friendly plants, to encourage several of the 25 British species - three are already said to be nationally extinct. Bumblebees have different-lengthed tongues, so need different types of flower to get at the nectar
  • provide somewhere for bumblebees to overwinter. You can buy or make special nesters, but our garden is untidy enough for bumblebees to be left to their own devices

This is a seasonal list of bumblebee-friendly plants supplied by the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. We have most of them in our garden (no heathers though - wrong soil):

February, March and April: apple, bluebell, broom, bugle, cherry, erica carnea (heather), flowering currant, lungwort (pulmonaria), pear, plum, pussy willow, red dead-nettle, rosemary, white dead-nettle

May and June: alliums, aquilegia, birdsfoot trefoil, bugle, campanula, ceanothus, chives, comfrey, cotoneaster, escallonia, everlasting sweet pea, everlasting wallflower, foxglove, geranium, honeysuckle, laburnum, lupin, meadow cranesbill, monkshood, poppies, raspberries, red campion, single roses, sage, salvia, thyme, vetch, white clover, wistaria, woundwort

July and August: borage, bramble, buddleia, cardoon, catmint, cornflower, delphinium, heathers, hollyhock, hyssop, knapweed, lavender, lesser burdock, marjoram, mint, penstemon, purple loosestrife, red clover, rock-rose, sainfoin, scabious, sea holly, snapdragons, St John's wort, sunflower, teasel, thistles, viper’s bugloss

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Six-seed rolls

I used Allinson's Seed and Grain Bread Flour for these fabulous rolls. The flour itself is white, but 20% of the mixture is made up of wheat and barley flakes, kibbled rye grains, sunflower seeds, linseed and millet. The people in this house who moan about wholemeal bread like this, and those of us that would always rather avoid white flour have something to get our teeth into.

I made the dough in the breadmaker, on the pizza setting, then rolled it into balls which I put into a cake tin. Easy - but not much more difficult to mix by hand (instructions at the bottom). This method gives the dough a great deal of oven spring, which means the rolls are light and airy ... invaluable for someone like me, who is apt to make rolls as heavy cannonballs. (Compare the two photographs, and you'll see what I mean - I put the dough straight into the oven after taking the picture.)

Seeded rolls
for 6

1/2 tsp dried yeast
300g flour
170ml water
a pinch of salt
a dribble of olive oil

Put the ingredients into the breadmaker* (these are given in the right order for a Panasonic, but some machines would like you to use reverse order). Use the pizza setting (which takes 45 minutes).

When the dough is ready, roll it into a sausage and cut into six pieces. Roll these into a ball, tucking the untidy bits underneath. Place them in an 8-inch cake tin and leave to rise in a warm place. Bake in a hot oven. I left these to rise near the woodburner for nearly an hour, then baked them for 15 minutes in a hot oven. They would have been better with 3-4 minutes more.

* If you don't have a breadmaker: mix the ingredients together and knead until you have a dough (you don't have to use a bowl for this, you can make a circle of flour to surround the wet ingredients). When it is smooth, put in a lightly greased bowl and cover with a plate; leave in a warm place until doubled in size.

This post is an entry for this month's Heart of the Matter, the subject is grains ... we'd like to hear your heart-healthy ideas for cooking with wholegrains - not only breads. All the details can be found on the Heart of the Matter website. I'm hosting this month - the deadline is Thursday 27 November, round-up over the weekend.

Related posts

Bread knots - another simple way to make beautiful and delicious rolls, using this dough, or your default dough

Yeast starter for bread - and the bread
make your own sourdough starter

No-knead bread the famous NY Times recipe
Speeded-up no-knead bread and a different take on it

Yoghurt bread fabulous, easy, TRY IT
Quick oat loaf
Spelt bread - it's getting easier to buy this highly-flavoured flour

Fresh corn bread - now is the perfect autumnal moment for this
Late summer hearth bread - another perfect autumn bread, this one with grapes

Anti-oxidant tea bread - I made this for my husband for a pre-surgery boost - delicious, too!

Yeast conversion - fresh/dried/quick

Things to do with stale or leftover bread

Herb stuffing for roast chicken
Grilled trout with rosemary stuffing
Baked scallops
Anchovy toasts

Links to the best blogging bakers I know

Tanna at My Kitchen in Half Cups
A Year in Bread
Susan at Farmgirl Fare

this list is not exhaustive, there are dozens of wonderful blogging bakers

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Christmas chutney

For many people, the warm spices - cinnamon, cloves, cardamon, nutmeg, mace - are the smell of Christmas. They're also the typical contents of a jar of mixed spice. I've got two lots of mixed spice on the go at the moment: Bart's contains coriander, cinnamon, cassia, ginger, caraway, nutmeg and cloves; whereas the Spice Shop Christmas Pudding Mix contains cinnamon, mace, nutmeg, cloves, anise and cardamon. Either way, they can be substituted for individual spices when you're following a recipe - or you can make your own mixture with the flavours you like best.

This Christmas chutney is brilliant for people who've never made one, because it's made with dried fruit, which means you don't have to boil it for hours and hours while the moisture from fresh ingredients is driven off. It's also brilliant for people without much time, because you don't have to chop - you just pulse the cooked chutney in a food processor. And it's delicious.

Christmas chutney is good for presents, for eating with cold Christmas leftovers, and to perk up sauces and gravies. It takes half an hour of fuss-free cooking. If you make it now, it will be at it's best at Christmas, although it will keep for years.

Christmas chutney
enough to fill three 0.5l Le Parfait jars

250g dried apricots
250g pitted dried dates
250g dried pears**
250g dried cranberries
125g light muscovado sugar
300ml cider or wine vinegar
300ml water
1/4 tsp ground cloves*
1/2 tsp ground allspice*
1 tsp ground cinnamon*
1 tsp ground ginger*

Put everything into a large stainless steel saucepan. Slowly bring to the boil, simmer for 20 minutes, loosely covered. Stir occasionally, to ensure everything is properly cooked through. Leave to cool for a while, then tip into your food processor to pulse. Three or four quick pulses is enough, as you want texture, not babyfood. Spoon into sterilised jars (ie, straight from the dishwasher cycle, or from 20 minutes in a low oven).

*Do not worry if you don't have all those spices - don't go out to buy allspice specially, just make up the amount with a mixture of the others. And if you don't use much spice, then mixed spice will do fine - look at the ingredients, and you'll see they are not much different.

** I had a little trouble finding dried pears (Cooks' Ingredients section of Waitrose). But dried apple slices would do just as well, and are more widely available.

This is adapted from Nigella's Christmas, a book I am much enjoying

Related posts

Other things to make as Christmas presents

Caramel-salt nuts - you can make these just before you go out
Spiced apricot and orange chutney
Fig vinegar
Chilli and pepper chutney
Red onion marmalade
Plum jam - there are still a few plums in the shops
Home-made vanilla extract - superfast: put vanilla into a jar, then pour on vodka!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Tree of happiness award

Just having a bit of a spring clean of my computer, and found, hidden away, from long ago, a lovely award given to me by Top Veg, the Tree of Happiness.

You have to list six things that make you happy:

  1. all my family sitting round the kitchen table eating a delicious dinner
  2. tulips
  3. reading - a good book, a poem, a recipe, the newspaper ... not too keen on the cereal packet unless there really isn't anything else
  4. the warmth of the fire seen through the window of the woodburner, the smell of apple logs burning
  5. a delivery of fresh organic vegetables and milk from Riverford ... seasonal, delicious, and no need to go to the supermarket
  6. winter flowers - snowdrops, the scent of witch hazel, sarcococcus, iris reticulata ... all of them tiny, fleeting yet intense pleasures
And six blogs, new-ish to me, which make me happy, & which get my Tree of Happiness award:

Thanks, Top Veg!

PS Bridget, can't find your email address, but I know you'll find this anyway!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Fig vinegar

Christmas presents are so much nicer when they're homemade: I treasure the chopping boards made by my children, the necklaces made of conkers, the jewelry cases made from old boxes decorated with beads, grandma's delicious marmalade and shortbread.

This is the work of moments, and I know it's going to be delicious. Lovely for dressing seasonal salads. And Christmas presents.

Fig vinegar
for one litre

250g ready-to-eat dried figs
75g runny honey
a sprig of thyme (or a teaspoon of dried)
a pinch of peppercorns (I used multi-coloured)
1 litre white wine vinegar

Snip the figs fairly small into a two-litre Kilner or Le Parfait jar. Add all the other ingredients. Shake. Put in a cool dark place for a week, shaking occasionally as you remember. After a week, decant into 4 sterilised 250cl bottles, using a funnel and sieve.

Keep in a cool dark place until you're ready to use it or give it away.

This is adapted from Nigella's Christmas.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A story for Armistice Day

My grandfather was born in 1899. Just right to serve in two world wars. He was a talented sportsman (played international rugger in the 1920s), and saw many of the best members of his school XV go straight from school into the army, and on to the endless casualty lists. When he left school in the summer of 1917, he went straight into the Durham Light Infantry, and by Armistice Day he was a German prisoner of war.

For years, I thought that the photograph above was taken when he was in his mid 20s. It is only very recently that I discovered he was 18 when it was taken; he had just left school, just swapped his Marlborough uniform for that of the Durham Light Infantry. My younger son goes to the same school, plays rugger on the same pitches, and is also a fly half. I cannot imagine - I have tried, but I cannot cannot - what it can have felt like to be at school, watching the older boys enlist and be killed, week by week, month by month, year by year, knowing that soon it would be your turn. One family lost three sons in quick succession; my grandfather played games in the same team as two of them - these were boys he knew well.

During the second world war, my grandfather joined the Royal Artillery, and just before Christmas 1941 died on active service in Wandsworth, where he ran a searchlight battery. Not very glamorous. This morning I visited his memorial at Mortlake Cemetery, where I was unexpectedly overcome with an intense feeling of grief for a man I've never met, but whose birthday I share.

This afternoon, I was at Twickenham, home of England rugby, and home of the Harlequins at the time my grandfather played for that great club. There I found a team photograph taken before my grandfather's first match for England, against Wales at Cardiff Arms Park in 1922. He looked strangely vulnerable - a mixture of apprehension and excitement. The photograph below was probably taken during that match. V.G. Davies - my grandfather - is on the left. Heaven knows what treatment the spongeman is giving his unfortunate team-mate!