Sunday, 19 August 2012

When space is lacking, think up!

Now I'm not short of space at my allotment so my reasons for growing vertically is purely an experimental one. However if space is a premium for you and you have a handy shed door to hang something on then read on and discover the joys of growing upwards.

Here's how I did it

First I popped to Argos and bought their shoe holder, it's the cheap 6.99 one which is made out of fabric; this is the best kind as it allows drainage. Along with that I bought 30litres of basket compost, this has moisture retaining crystals in it which is ideal for these small exposed pockets as they could dry out quickly. Finally I popped to my local Sainsbury's and picked up two packs of their living salad, basically lettuce already growing in plugs and it only cost a pound! All in all this project cost me less than 15.00 to set up.

Hang up the shoe holder using the metal hooks provided, you will need to adjust them so they don't stretch out and let the shoe rack slip. The weight of the compost, water and growing plant could cause that to happen. If you have the ability to, screw it in to the door for even more sturdiness.

Fill up the pockets with the compost.

Water them, ready for planting and then put in the plugs of lettuce.

They will need regular watering, as you would a hanging basket. I'm also not sure on how the slugs will treat them, hopefully they will ignore them. I've just remembered that I left the other pack of lettuce on the floor so they may have eaten that as a sacrificial feast.

If you have a go at this, I'd love to hear from you.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Sweet and Savoury Shortbread (part 2)

I know I haven't shown much of my allotment recently, well I've been having the same trouble as everyone else, too much rain! The slugs have loved it and the cold weather has meant stunted and troubled growth. However there is a light at the end of the tunnel, I can see how it will all fit together and next year hopefully it will be much better. I've also been asked to put myself forward to be on the allotment committee which is great, it means I could help organise socials and also work days as well as get to know the plot holders.

I have managed to salvage a cop of onions, shallots and garlic. A courgette is finally establishing itself and the potatoes are ready to be dug up. All in all I'm pretty happy, there is still much work to do though. Here's some shots...

Jerusalem artichokes.



Red onions, shallots and garlic.

Right this second post is to share the recipe for the cardamom and white chocolate shortbread biscuits.

What you need
  • 250g butter
  • 50g caster sugar
  • 250g plain flour
  • 125g cornflour
  • 6 cardamom pods
  • 2 tsp rose water
  • 100g white chocolate
What you do

In an electric mixer with the paddle attachment beat together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Then pour in the flour that you have sifted. Slower bring it together to form a dough, before you tip it out and chaff it (as before) add the rosewater cardamom and white chocolate. Honestly an electric mixer such as a Kenwood Chef or Kitchenaid really make baking so easy. 

I removed the cardamom from the pod and put it in a pestle and mortor and then ground it into a powder. I added the rosewater to this to enable it to be all poured out and into the dough.

I find that chopped fresh chocolate has a better texture when cooked than preformed chunks, they also lack all the emulsifiers what are needed to keep a chocolate chip shaped like a chocolate chip. 

Roll the dough up into a log about 12" long, wrap in cling and chill in the fridge.
Preheat the oven to 180C, line two baking trays with greaseproof and using a sharp knife and a sawing motion (don't press down on the dough), cut 1cm thick slices. Bake for about 20 minutes until just golden brown.
Remove from the oven and decorate with melted white cooking chocolate.

They really have the cardamom flavour but the white chocolate chunks burnt, so I should have cooked them for a shorter time. I think I'll just stick to a chocolate topping in future with these. 

Hope you have enjoyed these two posts, leave a comment to let me know what you think of the blog.

Sweet and Savoury Shortbread (part 1)

God bless Ina Garten! Who doesn't love her? She is, as someone once put to me so affectionately, a plump bundle o' fun. Her show on the food network, Barefoot Contessa, is on daily and usually served up as a double helping. I think I have probably seen all of them now, but every now and then an episode crops up, like an episode of the Simpsons, that I've never seen.
She is responsible for my love of the food network UK. I first saw her when I was in Minnesota staying with friends, and when I discovered that they were showing her programme over here in the UK I was hooked. 

Ina lives a simple lifestyle, writing foodie columns for a magazine, living in a enviably massive colonial house in a town that feels like a rural idyll. It is quite a quirky town, all of her neighbours seem to be interior designers or florists, they are all pretty much in civil partnerships and the fleeting nature of her own husband Jeffery means that Ina pretty much mother hens the whole community. She holds endless parties and serves up good wholesome food, even if it is a bit heavy on the butter and salt.

Anyway for my Christmas 2011 my good friend bought me one of her books, barefoot contessa how easy is that? Named after her famous catchphrase, it is a collection from one of her series. So It's ideal in that I can watch the recipe being prepared by Ina on the TV and then recreate it from the book. So far I have made her tabuleh salad and also her banana cake, which being cooked in a round tin, put a refreshing turn on a classic banana bread. I know she loves her salt but actually it does make things taste better... After years of not using it at all in my cooking I'm finding more and more that I'm adding a pinch here and there.

So this evening I'm heading to my book club, now it's been a long while since I last attended which is bad on my part. I set it up about 2 years ago now and because I moved away from the area, getting to meetings has proven tricky. To make up for my lapse in attendance I'm taking some shortbread but with a twist. One batch will be from Ina's book how easy is that? and will be her stilton and walnut crackers (I'm not sure why they call them crackers, I suppose they would serve them with cheese and therefore classify them as crackers, I'd call them savoury shortbread). 
The second batch are cardamom and white chocolate shortbread, I love the taste of cardamom and it reminds me of wintery bowls of porridge, I would pound up cardamom with demarara sugar and then pour it all into the oats before making the porridge. 

Ina's Stilton and Walnut Crackers (Cheesy Savoury Shortbread)

You will need:

  • 4oz room temperature butter
  • 12oz of stilton (8oz with rind cut off)
  • 7oz plain flour
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1tsp black pepper
  • 1 egg for washing
  • 1 hand of walnuts, chopped finely.
Chop up the walnuts until fine and set aside for later.

Chop off the rind from the stilton, I freeze it to add flavour to soups and things later on. Also if your butter and cheese are fridge cold, slice them into 1cm thick slices, smoosh them against the side of a bowl and pop in the microwave for 10 second bursts until they are soft. 

Fit a paddle attachment to an electric mixer and cream together the butter and cheese until smooth, pale and fluffy. 

Now with the mixer turned to a slow beat, add the flour a little at a time, along with the salt and pepper, until it's all mixed in and a dough has formed. You may need to add a splash of water to bring it all together. When the dough has formed, tip it on to a floured surface and chaff it into a smooth ball. 

Roll it into a 12" long log and then brush with the beaten egg. Roll this log in the chopped walnuts, and then wrap in clingfilm. 

Put this log into the fridge for at least half and hour, you could even freeze at this stage.

Warm up your oven to 180C and line two baking trays with greaseproof paper. Cut the log into 1cm thick slices (3/8"). Bake them until very lightly browned (about 20-22 minutes). Cool them on the baking tray and then store in a tin. 


Check back very soon for part 2.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Broad Bean Falafel Flatbread

In-spite of the weather the broad beans have done reasonably well. The rain has meant they haven't been ravaged by hordes of black fly this summer, although they have taken some time to grow.
I picked a pan full of them and wanted to use them, food network UK is showing Eat Street and Street Feasts which gave me the idea of making falafel with them.

I first ate falafel in Bangkok, my travel companion at the time, a Californian, was quite surprised I had never even heard of it before, this was before they really took off in the UK. After trying them there, from a street vendor, I was hooked. I tried many packet mixes but they always let me down, too doughy or floury. This is the first time I have made them from scratch and they are well worth it.

For the mix, I had about 3/4lb of broad beans, podded but still in their shells. I blanched them for 3 minutes to soften them up, and make them easier to shell.

I'm assured that it's the shell around the inner cotyledons that caused the bitter flavour so that needed to come off, after I had shocked the blanched beans in some cold water.

This took some time, but it really is worth it. Just look at the insipid nature of the discarded shells and the lush green of the bean proper that they concealed. 

Using a potato masher I mashed the beans in a bowl until they were broken down into a coarse pulp. I didn't was a fine mash, lumps add character in my opinion. Into a mini food processor I poured some pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and hemp seeds. A good shake of each, I'm not sure of the measure but nothing too excessive really. These were blitzed until they were finely chopped, not powdered. I added these to the beans and then in the same chopper I put a clove and a half of garlic, a tsp of cumin, ground coriander and herbs du provence. These were blitzed until the garlic was chopped and mixed with the herbs and spices. This was added to the main bowl and mixed in along with 1tsp of salt and 1 tsp of pepper.

Using olive oil I greased my hands and started to mould small walnut sized rounds of the mixture.

In a large pan I heated up about 1" depth of sunflower oil. I am not a fan of deep frying so I opted to shallow fry. When the oil was up to temperature (tested by dropping a little loose falafel mix into it and watching it sizzle and bubble) I fried the balls 5 at a time, turning after 1 minute or so. It's important that not too many are done at once as this can lower the temperature of the oil and also make turning them over tricky.

After they were an even golden brown all over, with some green still showing from the beans underneath, I removed them from the oil using a slotted spoon and put them onto kitchen paper to drain off the excess oil. 

Now for the flat bread

Mix 2 cups of bread flour 3/4 cup of water, 1/2 tsp salt and 1tbsp olive oil. Mix all of this together and knead for about 10 minutes until the gluten has developed and given it a bit of elasticity. I didn't have a standard cup measure so I followed my own rule of just use the same cup to measure everything and you'll be okay... It seems to work.

Divide into 12 balls. I do this by rolling sausages of the dough and cutting it in to halves and thirds until I have 12 balls all roughly the same.
Roll them out with a rolling pin, turning a little after each roll so they end up round in shape.

Heat up a frying pan, but don't put oil into it, dry fry the bread 1min on each side. Don't let them burn, but brown spots on them is usual. When done keep on a plate covered with a damp, clean tea towel.

Load up the flat bread with salad, mayo and falafel, serve in pairs like a soft taco and enjoy!

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Crispy Bacon and Custard Creams.

Now from the title I'd forgive you for thinking I'd gone and ruined perfectly good custard cream biscuits with bacon, that is not the case. It just so happens that today I cracked the art of frying bacon to a golden crisp and made some custard cream biscuits.

Perfectly fried bacon
Not to be confused with the soft, back bacon used for a proper English fry up, this is smoked streaky bacon that has been slowly fried to a crisp.
I wanted to have shards of bacon in my tabouleh salad for lunch so I did a bit of research and here are my top tips for perfectly fried, crispy, streaky bacon.

1) Start with a cold pan. Don't put the bacon into a hot pan, especially if it is rind on bacon, this just makes all the meat tighten up and cause it to curl.

2) Use a medium to low temperature. You are essentially rendering the fat out of the bacon and slowly cooking/drying it out. 

3) Turn frequently. When the bacon starts to sizzle you want to be turning every 45 seconds or so. This ensures an even colour all over.

4) Mop up and remove excess fat. When you notice the fat rendering out of the bacon it's time to remove it by tilting the pan and using absorbent kitchen roll to mop it up. A small sheen of fat on the pan is good, but the bacon shouldn't be swimming in it. For three rashers I used in total about 4 sheets of kitchen roll oh and use tongs, not your fingers, to do this.

5) Take your time. It's true what they say, good things come to those who wait. Well this takes time, any quicker than around 5 minutes and you're doing it wrong. It of course depends on the thickness of your bacon to begin with and the fat:meat ratio in the strip but go for 5 minutes as a ball park minimum and you'll be okay.

If you follow these rules then you will end up with some golden, crispy rashers of bacon that you can dry on absorbent paper and then crumble into a salad. Very much worth the time taken to cook them. 

New pans!
When I get the chance and a stray tenner in my pocket I like to browse through charity shops for second hand gems. I get it from my Dad, growing up I'd often go to the local car boot sale with him to look for what is now oh-so-trendily entitled as 'vintage kitchenalia'. I'm a sucker for 'vintage kitchenalia', be it a Hornsea coffee set, 1980's Tupperware or cast iron pans.

Imagine then the excitement I felt when walking into a charity shop in Monmouth I saw, for a total of 15 quid, these two Le Creuset pans.

Squashing down the bubbles of disbelief, I picked them up and hastily walked to the till and paid for them. Now I am the proud owner of two, volcanic orange, Le Creuset pans. They already have a lifetime of use and now will get another lifetime of use. They didn't have lids but that's not big deal. I can always find a lid on ebay or just get a generic replacement. It doesn't need to be the same brand, the lids aren't what conduct the heat so beautifully. 

Keeping with the volcanic orange theme, I discovered on (my new favourite place to browse for inspiration) a Fat Lava glazed mug.
Surely this is something I need to work at when I start my 27 week pottery course in September. 

Custard Creams

Custard creams are perhaps my favourite biscuit of all time, so much so that I tend to call them custard dreams. If you are unfamiliar with them think Oreo but with with a custard flavour and colour. They are pretty amazing really and a pack of 50 won't last more than a day with me around so I've taken to making my own. For some reason I'm slightly more reserved when I've taken the time to make them... only just mind. The recipe I use is based on one from Nigella Lawson's Feast book. She makes them as love heart biscuits, I have removed that saccharin association and plumbed for a basic fluted round.

For the biscuit, put into a bowl the following: 175g plain flour, 50g vegetable shortening, 50g butter, 3tbsp of birds custard powder, 1tsp baking powder, 3tbsp caster sugar. 
Rub these together with your fingertips until they resemble bread crumbs. Don't worry if some of the fat is in largish lumps, my experience with pastry suggests that when you chaff the crumbs into a dough it will come together and smear through the paste. 
Mix one egg with 1tbsp of milk and add them to the dry. Bring it all together to a crumbly dough and turn out on to a work top. 
Using both hands quickly chaff the dough into a smooth paste. You're looking for a Playdough texture. Wrap this in clingfilm and refrigerate for 20 mins. 
Meanwhile turn on the oven and warm it to 180C (160 if fan assisted). Line two baking sheets with baking paper.
After 20 minutes, remove the dough from the fridge and dust a rolling pin and surface with flour. Roll out to 4mm thickness. Cut out as many rounds as you can, bring the scraps together, re-roll and cut until you have used it all up.

Bake these for 10 minutes, keep an eye on them as they brown quickly; move them around in the oven if needed. I'm sure you know how your ovens work so I'll leave that to your discretion. Cool on a wire wrack. 
As you can see some of mine got a little more brown than I would have liked. It's no big deal though, they still taste good. I've stacked them in pairs for the most part so each on you see here is one complete biscuit. 

Now for the cream filling.
Cream together 50g of soft butter with 1tbsp of custard powder and 100g of icing sugar. When it forms a stiff paste add a little boiling water (about 1tsp) and mix to a smooth filling.
Sandwich two halves together with the cream filling and you're done.
Home made custard creams, far superior to those bought in a shop!

I wonder if adding cocoa instead of custard powder is all you need to do to make them into bourbons?

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Gooseberry Curd

I'm staying with my parents in the Forest of Dean and the weather has improved hugely. It seems that as the summer holidays have begun the sun has decided to come out. Perfect weather for fruit picking and a spot of light weeding in the family garden. The fruit patch is a bit of a jungle, black currants fight against the gooseberries for space and light and the raspberries are hogging almost half of the patch with thick trucks of raspberry canes; it makes for difficult picking, especially when the best gooseberries are in the centre of the briar.
Licking my wounds I weighed my haul and found I had just shy of 2lb of the hairy tart fruits.

A quick google search later and I had found a recipe for gooseberry curd and typically I didn't follow it to the T. I topped and tailed the gooseberries and popped them into a large saucepan with a glug of water and brought to a buoyant boil, letting them burst.
I quickly realised that I had put a bit too much water into the pan so I drained it off and the gooseberry pulp that was left I blitzed with a hand blender. I reserved the cooking water to add back to the pulp if I needed to slurry it up a bit. This pulp I then pushed through a sieve to remove the seeds and then the resultant gooseberry puree was spooned into a jelly bag and hung up with a collecting bowl underneath.

I wonder if the effort I went to just to get 200ml of gooseberry juice was worth it, it was time consuming and I confess that to speed things up I did squeeze the jelly bag, a cardinal sin in jelly making as it makes the jelly cloudy, but I'm not going for a clear jelly here but a curd so I figured it was okay.

When this 200ml of gooseberry juice was ready I popped two bonne maman jam jars into the oven without their lids, and turned the oven on to 150C, letting it warm up and sterilise the jars.

I weighed out 3.5 oz of unsalted butter and put it into a pyrex bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water. When this had completely melted I added 80z of golden caster sugar and the berry juice. This was heated until the sugar had dissolved and then 2 whole eggs and 1 egg yolk (kindly supplied by my parents chickens), were added to the pan and whisked quickly. Apparently the trick to not ending up with scrambled eggs is to keep the heat low and keep stirring, well I did that and had no trouble with chunks of egg white in the curd.

This mixture was then heated until it had thickened, this took AGES and I had to keep stirring it all the time, I ended up looking at websites for hints about when it's ready. Jam is ready when a drop is put on a chilled plate and you move it with a finger to see if it has set, I tried that with the curd and it didn't work. I guess this is because it sets slowly in the fridge, like custard. I used a jam thermometer to reach a temperature of 75C which, according to the joy of baking is the temperature at which the curd is done.

When it was ready I poured it into the jam jars, it made 1 and half in total and then put it into the fridge.

It was delicious!

If I'm honest though, the phaff of making the gooseberry juice was such that I probably shan't make it again, but I won't ever begrudge a high price for it at a farmers market. It does open up the concepts of curds made with all kinds of fruit juices, not just lemon!

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Elderflower and Blueberry cupcake pies.

This is true alchemaic baking, inspired by a reduced to clear item at Sainsbury's. They had some filo pastry reduced to 90p so I picked it up, along with my odd collection of things (it wasn't a planned trip you see) and spent the rest of the time walking about the shop just thinking about what I could do with it.

Elderflower-Bluberry cupcake pies.
Stay with me, I know what you are thinking, cake in a pie? Yes please! Well they tasted really good, have no paper cake cases to throw out (so eco-friendly???) and here is the recipe for you. 

First make a basic 2 egg sponge mix.

Cream together 4oz of butter with 4oz of soft brown sugar until it is light and fluffy. Break 2 eggs into the mixture, stirring well after each egg. Then sift in 4oz of Self-raising flour and mix until just incorporated, try not over mix. At this point I glugged in 3 sloshes of elderflower cordial. I know they aren't precise measures so basically just add it a bit at a time until you can taste the elderflowers. The flavour isn't terribly strong so don't worry if it's slight, it's more of an accent in the cake, as vanilla would be, the icing is where the flavour really is.

Unwrap the filo pastry, and spread out each sheet on a cleaner worktop. Brush it with melted butter and then put the next sheet over the top. Brush again with melted butter and add a final sheet. 

Taking a sharp knife, cut the large, 3-layered sheet of filo into 6 squares/rectangles. Use each to line the holes in a  muffin tin, repeat this for the last 6 holes so you have a 12 hole tin lined with filo pastry. Brush the edges with more melted butter.
Put in 1 tsp of sponge mix into each case, then pop in 4 blueberries and 1tsp of sponge mix more on top. Bake at 180C for about 15 minutes or until the sponge is golden brown and springy to the touch.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool, then take them out of the tin.

Make a quick glace icing, using 175g of icing sugar and slosh in elderflower cordial until you have an icing which coats the back of a spoon. Drizzle it over each cake/pie and let it set.

Then enjoy!

I took them to a play read-through today and the director and rest of the cast really enjoyed them! Have a go, they are very Summery and if you took away the icing you could serve them warm with custard (everything tastes better with custard I say).  Another twist would be to make a frangipani sponge using ground almonds, and make a Bakewell version.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Food For Free

Today I met up with my cousin Laura and her friends.

They are down from their home in Aberdeen to start their very exciting adventure. They will be cycling around Britain, visiting permaculture centres and throwing seed bombs. All part of Operation Seed Bomb Britain By Bicycle . I had made some shortbread crunch bars (my own creation and recipe to follow) to sustain the three of them on their journey (for a few days anyway) and, packing them up with a card and piece of reflective gear, I set out to meet them in Finsbury Park.

We were meeting a group of people who had gathered to do a foraging walk along the Parkland Walk. The walk was organised by Urban Harvest  and with the weather failing to produce rain, the conditions were great for finding lots of greens that could be gathered for free. Living in the economic slump that we are, I find the idea of getting some edible greenery from nature very appealing, and at this time of year there is a bounty of fresh Spring greens that can be harvested. I took notes and photos as the leaders stopped and showed us various plants so here is my take on the urban harvest.

Please note, eating wild plants without someone who knows which plant is which or training is not advised. This post is merely a collection of my experiences today and is not intended to be a field guide.

Common Hogweed Heracleum sphondylium
Not to be confused with giant hogweed which is incredibly toxic and easy to identify as it is generally, well, giant. 

You can reach into the heart of the plant and pluck out the fresh, unfurled, stems. Steam them like you would asparagus and dress with a drizzle of olive oil and they offer a delicious vegetable. I think you could easily replace broccoli with this vegetable. The use of the hogweed doesn't end there though. When the umbels of flowers have been pollinate, the seed head develops. If you get them young enough, whilst they are green, you can eat them raw or even better put them into pickling vinegar to a delicious citrus tang. The older seeds can be ground and included in a herb rub for meats etc. 

The young leaves can be chopped up and incorporated into a stir fry if you like.

Dandelions Taraxacum officinale
The old wives tale of bed wetting when you pick these isn't strictly true, their diuretic properties isn't that strong.

You can eat the leaves but unless you cover them when they are young to keep them white and pale, they will have a very bitter flavour. I've not tasted dandelion sap since I was a child, but it isn't nice. The petals however can be sprinkled into a salad for colour. Dandelion roots are best harvested in the Autumn, to then be used for root beer.

More common in Cornwall.

I'd never heard of this before but apparently it was, like many things, brought over by the Romans. It's flavour when eaten raw is like a mild celery. I really liked it and would consider growing it at my allotment, edible wild flowers are much more fun to grow in my opinion. 

I didn't try the leaves but you can eat them apparently. I'd imagine that they are best when really young and before the tannins have built up in them as with other tree leaves. Other than that, they were a nice white bloom to look at when we walked along the path.

Not only a delicious black berry to eat in late summer, you can pick and dry the leaves to make bramble tea.
Pick the tips as they have not only the best flavour but also the thorns on those parts of the plant are soft. Pop them into a paper bag and hang it in a window which gets sunshine. Shake the bag every now and then to aerate the leaves. When they are dry, crumble them up and brew them in the same way you would make tea. 

This is one that I'm a bit unsure of, it was edible and had a soft texture (like a marshmallow ironically), but it didn't have that much flavour. Add it to salads perhaps?

I didn't know this plant existed and was surprised to learn it is considered to be a pest of a plant. The flavour is stronger than wild garlic and has lingered with me all day, very delicious!
As you can see, the leaf is like a triangular prism, thus its name. I have a mighty bunch of this and will no doubt be stinking all week when I take it into work as a soup.

Along the route we saw this happy chap leaning out of a railroad arch, 
Say hello to the Green Man, smiling down on us gathering his bounty.

This plant grows prolifically around the UK and is another one that is regarded as a weed by many. It had a peppery/citrus flavour. I can imagine it being quite tasty with fish, or in savoury scones. 

Finally the end of our walk had a monster of a plant, revered and hated by many gardeners.

This plant is incredibly invasive and huge effort is needed to eradicate it. The problem is the structural damage the rhizome does to buildings and the rhizome is very large it takes a lot to kill it off.
It is edible apparently and tastes like rhubarb.
The issue with harvesting it, we were told, is that if it has been identified and is being killed off then it would be very toxic to eat due to the chemicals being used. Were you able to find a patch that hadn't been then perhaps it would be okay to eat. I'm not saying go and find it and certainly don't grow it, but I was very surprised that it was a plant that could be eaten.

We got to the end and went to the home of the sister of one of the guides for treats and tastings. 

Forage topped bread, now that was a tasty slice!
It was washed down with,

Fennel seed infused vodka, it tasted like Pernod! I will be making this from the fennel I have growing in my herb bed at the allotment I think. 

Finally we had some sweet treats,
Transition tarts, mini tarts made with vegan pastry, using British flour and oil and so called because they are made from the last apples from last Autumn and rhubarb from this Spring, so a transition of fruits (not that rhubarb is a fruit!).

Overall I had a great time and would recommend anyone to join them on their next forage. Check out their website for more information.

Good luck and much love to my cousin on her journey, be safe Laura and bike defensively.