Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Microwave Fig Jam

I have been out of action for a while due to having a spot of minor surgery which has seriously curtailed my ‘pottering about’ activities. As a consequence of which I have not spent much time in the garden and have taken my eye off the ball when it comes to feeding some plants and harvesting fruit. My lemons decided at some point last week that they were not happy and at least three have committed suicide, not sure if any are left as it’s a bit difficult for me to get to them. I also discovered that a load of my figs should have been harvested and were about to drop into the emergency cat litter tray in the porch.

Consequently I found myself with 11 rather small Petit Negri figs and a bit of a dilemma, as this wasn’t really enough to make anything like a tart or any other recipe I had that involved figs. I spent a while Googling ‘Figs’ in the hope of finding something that would use up the meagre handful I had, and eventually came across this recipe for Microwave fig jam with orange and rosemary. (Lots of nice pix which is good as I forgot to take any) As usual I never have quite the right ingredients and didn’t want to mess about with American measurements so this is my version, for what its worth. Whilst I do have the brilliant Pam (the Jam) Corbin’s book on Preserves, I don’t have any of the kit like a Maslin pans, funnels or a thermometer required to make jam on the kind of scale that Pam's recipes dictate. So this microwave technique seemed a brilliant idea for making just one or two jars of jam in a hurry with a handful of gash fruit that needed sorting out quick before they went off.

I don’t think the actual measurements here are that important, just the proportions of the fruit to the sugar and acid (citrus). I later discovered (too late in fact) that Pam Corbin’s book says you need 60% sugar in order to kick start the preservative action of the sugar in a jam. I only used about 42% here so I doubt it will keep for that long, but as it only makes one jar which I intend to eat straight away I doubt that it’s relevant. You have been warned.


300g of figs and plums, stalks removed and roughly chopped. I had 11 small figs to which I added a couple of plums which had sat in the fruit basket all week and refused to get any softer. Figs have low natural amounts of pectin so I made sure that the fruit I used to bulk it up were high in pectin, in this case plums. Luckily the orange needed for the acidic element is also high in pectin.

300g of sugar. I used 200g granulated and 100g of Demerara. Either way it needs to be equal to weight of your fig/plum mix.

100g of orange, peeled, de-seeded and roughly chopped. (Needs to be 1/3 of the weight of sugar.)

The zest of the orange.

The juice of a lemon.

¼ teaspoon ground ginger.

¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon.

A small knob or about ½ teaspoon of butter.

About 10 leaves from a fresh sprig of rosemary chopped finely.

I found a small muslin spice bag and put another big sprig of Rosemary and 4-5 cloves in.


Add all the ingredients to a basin/glass bowl or large Pyrex measuring jug and leave for an hour or so for the sugar to start to draw out all the juices from the fruit. Also at this time put a clean saucer into the fridge to chill.

Give everything a stir, cover with cling film and stick in the microwave for 15-18 minutes. Keep an eye on it and as soon as it starts to boil (about 5-6 minutes) take it out for a bit of a stir. Also if you used one then take the muslin spice bag out at this point. Continue the cooking, taking it out and stirring every minute or so. Don't do what I did and get distracted otherwise you'll come back to find its boiled over and your microwave is a sticky mess. Ahem.

After about 12-13 mins cooking time it should be starting to thicken up and reduce and get more viscous. This is where the chilled saucer comes in. Put a teaspoon of the jam onto the saucer and leave it for a couple of minutes, then smear it with your finger. If it wrinkles up then its reached the setting point, if its still runny continue to zap it a few more minutes. I had to keep giving mine 30 second blasts until it had been cooking for about 18 minutes when it finally reached setting point. Pour it into a sterilised jar (I use the dishwasher to sterilse jars on the hottest setting). Ideally it needs to be filled to within about ¼ inch from the top of the jar. When cool it can go into a cupboard and once opened keep in the fridge. I'm guessing you'll probably only be able to keep it for about a week or two but as I only made enough to fill a 360g jam jar I doubt it'll last that long anyway.

P.S. In the cold light of day, and on the warm toast of breakfast, I realise that I do not like bits in my jam. The flavour of the jam between the lumps is great; I just wish the whole thing was smooth and homogenous. Next time I try this I would definitely blitz up the fruit in a food processor or liquidiser before the adding sugar stage.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

The last stand of the greenhouse monsters…

Much to my amazement the greenhouse is managing to hold off the relentless assault of Autumn and is still providing an amazing harvest.

The huge Floridity tomato monster is finally relinquishing its grip on the far end of the greenhouse as it breathes its last gasps and gives up the last few small fruit. The zed zebras on the other hand are still looking robust, it took a long time to fruit and then an age for the tomatoes to start to colour but now its got the hang of it and is still chocka with huge toms. I have to say they are disappointing eaten raw in salads but make a mean passata (and chutney). They have also provided some small amusement with some amusingly misshapen offspring. See their excellent impression of a bubble-butt and the amusingly entitled ‘Tomato Escape Pod’.

The back from the dead zombie cayenne chillies have finally decided to turn red. I didn’t think they’d make it but they proved me wrong. Little do they know that in doing so they have sealed their fate, for I shall now dry and grind them into powder mwahahahah!

Outside my Mara des Bois strawberries are living up to their perpetual billing by waking up again after about a month of inactivity and have started producing another batch of huge strawbs. I was meaning to transfer them to the raised bed, like I’ve already done with the Tenira, but don’t want to disturb them while they’re busy fruiting.
Also outside is the Pepino (solanum muricatum or “melon pear”). I grew these from seed last year, only 3 plants germinated and they all got some horrible looking disease. Two of them died completely and the third was put outside against the wall to fend for itself. It somehow survived last winter and to my amazement produced some rather nice purple flowers that gave way to little fruits. These are supposed to reach the size of hens eggs and be a creamy yellow with purple stripes and taste of cantaloupe when ripe. They are hard as rock at the moment so not sure if they’ll make it all they way. But I’m impressed they fruited at all outside and this far north.
Saving the best for last, my Lemon tree in the front porch has 3 mini lemons! I completely missed the flowers as they were right up underneath the main leafy bit and totally hidden. I wouldn’t have known they were there but I noticed some blossom that had fallen into the pot and looked up to see a tiny little yellowish blob about the size of a clove, then another and another. Slightly gutted that I missed the flowers (although now I think of it the usual smell of cat pee in the porch was tempered with some lemony overtones last week) but well chuffed that I might be cooking with lemons at Xmas. Huzzah!

Monday, 13 September 2010

Breaking news on the Bilberry Front…

Ok so I know there isn’t such a thing as a Bilberry Front - yet. Although I wouldn’t put it past the politicians to start another war against an abstract foe (Drugs, Terror. What next, Pies?). Perhaps the ‘Bilberry Front’ will be part of the ‘Bramble Salient’ it does have a very MOD ring to it. Have you ever noticed how the yanks always give their military operations very macho and bombastic titles; Desert Storm, Scorpion Sting, Airborne Dragon, etc, which these days even seem to come pre-packaged with an embroidered patch logo, baseball cap and a T-shirt. We Brits have a long tradition of rather more twee operational designations; Shed, Fork, Vegetarian (all ridiculous but true). Imagine the ignominy of being captured during operation ‘Saucy’ (Burma ’43).

Anyway, I’ve just received the Ken Muir catalogue for 2011 and I see it has bilberry bushes for sale – typical! I ordered a load of blueberry bushes from Suttons Seeds as I couldn’t find anyone selling bilberries when I actually wanted them. I wonder if I still have time to cancel my Suttons order? At least now all you soft southerners can get access to your own bilberries and finally have the chance of making mucky mouth pie or black and blue ripple, you lucky things!

Sunday, 5 September 2010

First (and possibly last) Minnesota Midget

A great surprise today, when one of my greenhouse's former inmates graduated to become a fully fledged Minnesota Midget.

As mentioned in a previous post I had initially started growing both Sweetheart and Minnesota Midget varieties of cantaloupe melon, but it soon became apparent that the midgets were going to be troublemakers. Only 3 seedlings of each variety actually managed to make it as far as potting up and the midgets were fidgety and prone to fits from the start. It was always too cold or too hot and humid for them, bloody irritating little sods. Thus they were eventually packed of to live with my gran in her sunroom.

My gran has a well earned reputation for being able to turn around troublesome and/or sickly plants, and get them back on the straight and narrow. She probably has them balancing books on their heads and listening to radio 3. Whatever, it works. She turned up today with the first ripe specimen and considering they are only supposed to grow to cricket ball size she had worked some sort of fruit based miracle.

Weighing in at 502g or just under one pound, two ounces and measuring exactly 12" in circumference it was no wonder that it had impatiently detached itself from the vine - thus declaring itself 'well ripe'. The sweetheart I picked the other day had no discernible aroma until I cut it open, but you could tell that the midget was obviously ripe from across the room (taken out of context that sentence could sound like the twisted confession of a serial killer, or the opening line to my great and as yet unwritten novel).

On all counts this surpassed the retrospectively shabby sweetheart, as for flavour it was of course the best melon I think I've ever eaten. I suspect I may have to delegate the growing of melons to gran next year as obviously her sunroom is better suited to the nurturing of recalcitrant youths than my asylum for bad seeds.

NB. I bought my Minnesota Midget seeds from the brilliant real seed catalogue - I might give 'Collective Farm Woman' a go next year, bigger melons (if the photo is anything to go by fnarr, fnarr.)

Friday, 3 September 2010

Greenhouse taken over by red zebras, hybrid monsters and triffids…

Entering the greenhouse today I was assaulted by a riot of red zebras, hybrid monsters and triffids… I waited for the flashbacks to begin; the wop-wop of rotor blades that fade into The Doors and the inevitable whitey, only to be discovered hours later in the foetal position clutching the small, mangled, lifeless form of a hideously misshapen tomato and screaming ‘the horror, the horror…’

Luckily I had not walked straight into some sort of post traumatic or drug induced flashback to a long forgotten jungle trauma, just a pathetic attempt to spice up an intro to another dull blog post about veg.

My greenhouse is however, frighteningly full of tomatoes (or at least it was when I half-heartedly started writing this post a week ago, but then got distracted, there are now considerably fewer tomatoes).

The three f1 hybrid ‘Floridity’ tomato seedlings that I planted in GrowPots have completely taken over one end of the greenhouse. They are an early plum-type tomato that have cropped heavily and happily proved very resistant to splitting (whereas the free ‘Minibel’ variety that came with Gardener’s World magazine split if you so much as look at them with one raised eyebrow.) I was worried about Floridity at first. They started life as rather leggy seedlings and I thought they might be a little fragile. However, they have turned into monsters that seem to produce side shoots faster than I can cut them down; at one point I was hacking off armfuls of foliage twice a week and wishing I still had my trusty khukuri instead of a dodgy pair of Wilko secateurs that kept jamming shut. In addition to hacking chunks off it at frightenly regular intervals I also had to construct and update a complex web of jute twine slings - cunningly attached to the greenhouse struts by diverse means in order to support the weight of the ever expanding branches, convoluted cordons and fruit.

After all that effort though I found that they taste rather disappointing in salads, but great for pasta sauces; they made an outstanding passata along with my shallots, basil, oregano and garlic. However I’m thinking of replacing them next season with something more specifically suited to cooking that hopefully might be more manageable, and growing a different variety specifically for salads. * Update* Having said all that I just had a load for lunch in a salad and they now totally rock, perhaps they overheard me and bucked up their ideas, because this batch had that magic balance of sweet and acid that screams TOMATO!

The Red Zebras were a novelty impulse buy from The Real Seed Catalogue. They impressed from the outset, quickly producing very stocky trunks and looking very substantial. Despite being sown 6 weeks after the other varieties they quickly caught up and made their own bid for domination of the mid section of the greenhouse. When the fruit arrived they quickly swelled to a worrying size and required another complex system of rigging and supports that now threatened to implode the greenhouse under their weight. I had visions of the finale in Poltergeist where the house folds in on itself and is then sucked into the ground. Annoyingly the fruit were so heavy that several plants buckled under the weight and had to be splinted with twigs and canes before they had even had a chance to colour. The last thing I splinted was the broken ankle of a Swedish tourist twenty years ago, and I made a right mess of that. I later heard that she had to have it re-broken when she eventually got back to civilisation. In my defence it was a moonless night in the middle of the jungle in a monsoon downpour with only green bamboo and an old belt to work with. And considering the fact we were being circled by a leopard the whole time, I think in the circumstances I did ok…

The triffid (Sarracencia Leucophylla) is doing well, having gone from one pitcher to three, the newest of which is a huge white throated thing that is constantly buzzing and shuddering with the death throes of something caught inside. I bought it to catch wasps in the greenhouse but have a nasty feeling it’s mainly feeding on friendly hoverflies. To be honest it’s a rather depressing plant as whenever I go in the greenhouse there’s always something dying noisily in the background. It makes it difficult to enjoy the gardening experience and I admit that I have made my excuses and left early on more than one occasion as it was creeping me out.

The Cucumbers (F1 la Diva) have been fantastic, producing loads of 6”- 8” fruit(?) that have been a revelation. I never understood the point of cucumber sandwiches until I tasted my first home-grown, proper, cucumber. These are the first I’ve eaten that have tasted of anything other than water. They are fantastically crunchy and deliciously in a different league to the insipid supermarket sticks of wateryness. I will definitely be making room for more next season, but will have to give more thought about how I support them as they have become entangled in the great tomato web, thus increasing the likelihood of greenhouse implosion.

As a complete novice I attempted to grow two varieties of melon in the greenhouse this first year, an f1 hybrid ‘Sweetheart’ and heirloom Minnesota Midget. Everything I had read said that I shouldn’t try to grow them with tomatoes or cucumbers as they prefer totally different conditions. I didn’t listen, I wanted melon ice cream.

The greenhouse is dripping wet with condensation each morning as the windows are all automatic and designed to open when they reach 20 Celsius. All I can really do to regulate the temp and humidity is either open or close the door. The tomatoes and cucumbers seem to love this but the melons never looked happy. I had planted them in cheap multi-purpose compost that seemed to solidify into an impermeable brick after the first watering. Despite the fact that I had sunk plastic bottles into the pots in order to water the roots directly, the surface quickly started to grow green mould and moss. I tried using black permeable membrane as mulch but this seemed to make things worse and then the slugs started taking chunks out of the stems. The Midgets got really sickly very quickly and were packed off to my Gran’s as she has a knack for reviving plants, and sure enough at least one of them seems to be doing ok.
The Sweethearts had a constant battle with what I think was blossom end rot and some sort of manky leaf thing. They produced long climbing vines and lots of flowers, some of which turned into mini melons but they never grew bigger than a gooseberry before yellowing and falling off (a lot of my squashes outside did the same thing). One melon on each of two plants hung on and managed to grow to something approximating maturity. The other day I noticed that the largest of the two melons I’d be nurturing was in trouble, the stem had somehow been pinched by the weight of the fruit and it had cut off the ‘blood supply’ to the rest of the plant which was obviously dead. Ok so ‘nurturing’ was probably over selling it a bit. Anyway, I had no option but to pick the fruit but as it was only the size of a small grapefruit (or large orange) I didn’t expect it to be edible, especially as I read that melons ripen on the vine and stop as soon as you pick them. I had no choice but to try it as it was never going to get any riper. I am ashamed to say I didn’t bother to take a photo as when I cut it in half it was perfectly ripe, looking and smelling fantastic. It tasted even better than I had dared to hope when I first ordered the seeds.
All of which leaves me with a problem as I now want to grow more next year, but don’t want the hassle that I’ve had with these annoying specimens. I have one more fruit likely to reach maturity and will try and remember to post a photo of it. *Update just been out and removed one of the melon plants as I realised it was almost totally covered in weird leaf lurgy and none of the fruit on it had any chance of growing beyond the shrivelled yellow gooseberry stage. I thought the best thing was to remove it ASAP before it contaminates the last good melon.
BTW the zombie cayenne chillies are all doing well - see below.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Black and blue ripple, a bilberry smack in the mouth.

Bilberry season (August-September) is still a few weeks away but I can’t wait any longer. Bilberry pie is one of my fondest childhood food memories. When I was a kid we used to go up onto the moors or Sutton Bank to pick bilberries. It used to take the best part of a day to collect enough as the bushes were always sparsely populated with fruit and spread out over a wide area. Coupled with the fact they are so low to the ground means this inevitably becomes a long and backbreaking day – even for a small boy. You would also be guaranteed to be dyed purple from head to foot by the end of the day – always a bonus to a small child. Posh people had a clever bit of kit called a ‘scrabbler’ – basically a scoop with a toothed comb at the end which meant you could scoop up huge amounts in no time. We had sticky little fingers instead. Bilberry pie is one of those rare dishes that are actually worth going through all that hassle needed to acquire the ingredients and prepare them.

Vaguely related to the much blander blueberry it goes by many names; whortleberries, myrtle berries (from its Latin name Vaccinium myrtillus), whinberries and blaeberries (because blae is Scots Gaelic for blue - apparently). However, around here it is known as the bilberry and the local variation of the pie is called ‘mucky-mouth’ pie, for obvious reasons. The French have their own version, the ‘Tarte Aux Myrtilles’ (which sounds totally gay, but probably tastes fantastic). I may well have a go at trying to make that at some point in the not too distant future.

However, it is late July and I want my bilberry fix now! I thought about growing my own but apparently they are virtually impossible/a right pain in the arse to cultivate – to the point where nobody even tries any more (bang goes another brilliant idea). I have however, ordered some boring old blueberries in pots for the patio instead.

Luckily bilberries are big in Poland, which means that if you have a Polish shop nearby (and the chances are that you do) then you’ll be able to find the Krakus branded jars of bilberries in syrup (you can often find these in Morrisons and Waitrose as well, although they only seem to appear erratically). The Krakus ones are brilliant as they’ve done all the hard work for you and even provided syrup.

I was given a few handfuls of blackcurrants by my gran and had frozen them until I could come up with a suitable use for them. My brother bought me a rather
good book of ice cream recipes for my birthday (better than socks) and I had been reading up on various tricks and techniques. I hatched a cunning plan, bilberry & blackcurrant ripple', which it turns out, is possibly even more dastardly than triple choc. Mwahahahah…..

My recipe for bilberry & blackcurrant ripple

4 egg yolks (5 if very small)
300ml semi skimmed milk
Vanilla pod
1 teaspoon of cornflour (cornstarch)

1x460g jar of Krakus bilberries in syrup
300ml of double cream

150g frozen blackcurrants (probably half this amount would be enough)
15g caster sugar
About 4 tablespoons of water
2 tablespoons of blackcurrant jam (optional)
1 tablespoon of cassis (optional)

Start off by making the blackcurrant syrup for the ripple. Place the blackcurrants in a saucepan with 3-4 tablespoons of water and 15g of caster sugar (or 10% of the weight of fruit), heat until soft and mushy (or if frozen about 10-15 minutes). I added a couple of heaped teaspoons of blackcurrant jam at this point – mainly because I happened to have some handy and it seemed like a good idea. You could also try adding a drop of cassis - but I forgot this time. Strain through a sieve into a small bowl, pressing hard with either the back of a spoon or a pestle to get every last drop of juice out. Cover with clingfilm and put aside to cool, then chill until ready to ripple.

Next make the custard, this is the bit I always have problems with and always manage to curdle it. (This custard recipe is basically nicked from the ice cream machine book.) Heat 300ml of semi skimmed milk in a saucepan with a vanilla pod if you have one (I had a couple saved in sugar from previous recipes). Bring to almost boiling point, then take off the heat and allow the vanilla to infuse for about 30 minutes. Then remove the vanilla pod and retain for future use.

In a bowl beat 4 or 5 egg yolks (I used 5 because mine were tiny, but 4 normal sized ones should be adequate) with 75g of caster sugar and about 1 level teaspoon of cornflour (even though I invested in some nice measuring spoons I stupidly forgot to level it and dumped a huge heaped teaspoon in). Beat until nice and light coloured – I think the proper term is something to do with ribbons, I dunno, what-ever! Bring the milk back up to the boil and then slowly add to the eggs, whisking all the time. Don’t use an electric whisk for this bit (like I stupidly did) or everything will be so frothy you won’t be able to see when the custard is ready and it will curdle. Now pour back into the saucepan and heat slowly, stirring constantly until the custard coats the back of your wooden spoon. Pour into a bowl and cover the surface with cling film (lay it directly onto the surface to prevent a skin forming, don’t stretch it across the bowl like a drum), set aside and when cool chill in the fridge until needed.

Because I was using bilberries from a jar in syrup I just had to sieve them. If you manage to get fresh ones then make a fruit syrup as per the instructions above for blackcurrants. One other thing that distinguishes bilberries from the lesser blueberry is that they have incredibly small and gritty little seeds. You need to sieve/strain/force the bilberries through a very fine mesh. A bog-standard sieve will not be fine enough (I discovered) and so if you are unprepared like me then you’ll need to improvise something to strain it through. The seeds are not as hard and irritating as raspberry seeds, they won’t get stuck in your teeth but they will make the texture a little bit gritty so you’ll appreciate the results more if you make the effort to properly strain them out, but it won’t be a disaster if you can’t (come to think of it you might be able to grind them in a mortar and pestle – haven’t tried it but it might be worth a go). Once the syrup is strained then cover the bowl and refrigerate until needed.

When everything is suitably chilled then whisk/beat/whip 300ml of double cream until it makes soft peaks, this will increase the overall volume of the final ice cream mixture. It is preferable to do this in a large jug or bowl with a lip so that can easily pour everything straight into your ice cream maker when the time comes. Next add the bilberry syrup and whisk some more. Finally fold in the custard and mix well, (you may have to pour your custard through a sieve if like me you curdled it) the colour will keep changing from bluish purple to pink, to blue-grey and back to purple as you mix – it’s like something out of Willy Wonka’s R&D department.

Pour the whole lot (I had about 1100ml of stuff by this point according to my measuring jug) into your ice cream maker and churn for about 15-20 minutes, it will increase in volume again so make sure you decant it into a 1.5 or 2litre container as the blackcurrant ripple will add to the volume also (I probably had twice as much blackcurrant as I actually needed and ended up not using it all – it will keep in the fridge for a couple of days and goes great poured over vanilla ice cream or used as a very runny jam). To get the ripple effect, scoop a few spoons of ice cream into your container, then a couple of spoons of the blackcurrant syrup, keep alternating. Once the tub is filled then swirl the blade of a knife through the mixture a couple of times – don’t go mad or you’ll end up mixing it too much, put a lid on it and freeze. I couldn’t wait and tried it after two hours and it wasn’t firm enough, the next day it was rock solid and needed a hour in the fridge to soften up enough to scoop properly. The taste is fantastic but then I am biased because I’d eat a dead badger if it were dipped in bilberry syrup. Mmmmmmbadgery….

Update: I think the calibration/colour saturation on my monitor is out of whack as the actual colour is somewhere between these two photos (although they were taken on different days with scoops from different parts of the tub and completely different proportions of ice cream to ripple so who knows whats going on...)

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Two out of Three Ain't Bad.

I started the season with 3 proto-figs which were later joined by another 10 ‘second round’ figs. The first three have been slowly growing and ripening and I’ve been checking them everyday – until yesterday when I was so busy with stuff that I forgot. This last week it has been dull and overcast – nothing has been growing so I thought I could get away with it. However, today when I go to check there are only two, I find the other has dropped down the back of the pot and already shrivelled up. The other two fell off into my hand but I suspect they were already past their best as they seem a little flaccid. If they’d have had a few days of sun rather than slate grey skies they might have been perfect, instead they look more like Papa Smurf’s severed ‘nads. They did taste spot on though, if a little overripe.

Blah, blah, blah, rhubarb, rhubarb, strawberry, rhubarb…

It was my Gran’s 90th birthday this week so I decided to make her something nice. She is a big fan of rhubarb and had just brought me a bunch from her allotment (yes allotment where she goes everyday, did I mention she is 90?). There wasn’t really enough for a pie or a crumble (neither of which is particularly ‘special’ - not the way I make them anyway), plus it is hot and not really crumble weather. My gran also happens to be a phenomenal maker of crumbles, so anything I attempted would be a pathetic tribute act in comparison. In the end I decided to have a go at producing a rhubarb and strawberry ice cream. I could only manage a handful of strawberries from each of the three varieties I’m growing (Mara des Bois, Tenira and Alpine) but when combined with the rhubarb it ought to be enough. It might even turn out to be quite ‘special’.

My Rhubarb and Strawberry Ice Cream/frozen yoghurt thing

140g of rhubarb (this is all I had)
14g of caster sugar
111g strawberries, plus some extra for chunks.
11g caster sugar
450g pot of rhubarb yoghurt (approx 500ml)
300ml crème fraîche
4-8 tablespoons of water
1 tablespoon crème de cassis (optional)
2 tablespoons of strawberry jam (optional)
1 Vanilla pod (optional)
Runny honey to taste (optional)


I managed to scrape together a small bowl of mixed strawberries from the three varieties that I grow in my garden. They weighed in at 111g. My rule of thumb is 10% of the weight of fruit in caster sugar. I hulled and roughly chopped the strawberries and added 11g of caster sugar (lucky I have some new digital scales which allow me to be very precise). I mashed this together in a bowl, then covered with clingfilm and put in the fridge to chill.

Next chop the rhubarb into roughly 1” chunks and throw into a heavy bottom saucepan. Add 4-8 tablespoons of water (not enough to cover but enough to stop it all sticking to the bottom), 14g of caster sugar (or 10% of the weight of fruit) and 1 tablespoon of cassis (optional - I had some lying around so threw in a splash), I also added an old vanilla pod.

Gently simmer the rhubarb until it turns into a soft mush, then remove the vanilla pod (wash and save it for later) and pour into a bowl, cover and chill. I ended up leaving both fruit ‘compotes’ to chill overnight, which was handy as by the time I came to make the ice cream the next day some more strawberries were ripe enough to throw in at the end as chunks.

Once chilled, force the rhubarb mix through a fine mesh sieve with the back of a spoon or pestle into a large bowl. Similarly sieve the strawberry mix into the same bowl. Give it all a stir and check the taste. If too rhubarby then you can add some strawberry jam (pushed through the sieve to remove the seeds first) or if too tart then add some runny honey - which seems to go very well with rhubarb. I added both.

I decided to make a yoghurt based ice-cream-thing rather than a custard based ice cream as I’d just read a book that didn’t recommend giving them to very young children or the very old due to the risk of salmonella – I suspect that is mainly to cover the publishers from being sued in the unlikely event that some idiot poisons themselves but thought it would be a bit ironic to produce a killer ice cream as a 90th birthday treat. I also had a big tub of rhubarb yoghurt in the fridge so that kind of swung it.

Add one 450g pot of rhubarb yoghurt to the fruit and mix thoroughly (I was using ‘Rachel’s’ organic low fat bio-live yoghurt from Sainsbury’s because I already had it in the fridge, I am sure anything else would be fine. I am not sure why this is labelled in grams when the crème fraîche and cream are in millilitres). Next add a 300ml pot of half fat crème fraîche and mix in. You could add a few drops of red/pink colouring if you want at this point – I did.

Check the taste again, add more honey if it’s too tart. Chill for an hour then churn in your ice cream maker for about 15 minutes. I managed to scrape together another handful of strawberries from the garden which I quickly hulled and roughly chopped while the ice cream was churning. I dropped these in after the 15 minutes and let the machine churn for another 5 minutes. Pour into a container with a lid and freeze for at least 2 hours. Sorted!


I have been communing with nature this week, one way or another. I discovered that my raised bed had been plundered and that all of my radishes had been dug up and chewed – despite the bird netting. This was obviously the same bunch of mice that the cat had been bringing home for tea most nights this week, and the same crew responsible for leaving half eaten strawberries scattered over the lawn. The galling thing is that they are half eaten – what’s wrong with my bloody strawberries? If you don’t like ‘em, then stop nicking 'em. Then I realised that they had been abandoned in the most exposed part of the garden in what appeared to be a straight line between the strawberries and the fence. I began to suspect that the owls had been picking the mice off as they lugged the huge strawbs across the lawn in a sort of fruity convoy. They were obviously so pleased with their haul that they had become careless and their lackadaisical attitude to security and overwatch had been their undoing. Oblivious to the possibility of ‘death from above’ their little convoy had been picked off one by one. This was all rather sad, so I now leave a couple of reject strawbs under the bushes near the entrance to their hole so they don’t have to cross no man’s land to pinch my good strawberries.

It was one of those mornings where you think it’s going to thunder any minute but it never does. The air was thick and damp and just doing the simplest thing made you burst out into a sweat. I was a bit distracted with something and was startled by the appearance of a neighbour peering over the hedge asking; ‘how do you get them to do that?’
‘How do I get who to do what?’ I said suspiciously.
Apparently I had 5 or 6 painted ladies sitting on my head licking the sweat from my hair. It turns out they were butterflies, which is probably for the best otherwise this could have turned into another interminable anecdote about the jungle. As soon as I straightened up they took off in a cloud of fluttering orange and brown.

I didn’t get a photo of the painted ladies who went all shy and fluttered away, so here’s a pic one of the 30 tortoiseshells that spend their afternoon sunbathing on the walls of the house. They don’t care who photographs them – slags.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Weapon of mass distraction...

And it came to pass that after three and forty years in the wilderness I did buy an Ice cream maker – and saw that it was good. When word spread of my ability to turn ‘that which wasn’t ice cream’ into ‘ice cream’ the great unwashed masses were humbled and did beseech me to render unto them some triple-choc. It was decided by the counsel of elders that I would be required to feed thousands (okay a handful of relatives, but crucially that included at least two voracious nieces). A feast was expected and tribute was required to be paid, a triple-choc-tastic tribute.

The following is an amalgamation/composite/collage of about 8 different recipes I came across while Googling ‘chocolate ice cream’. No one recipe seemed quite right, either being too big or too small, in American cup measurements (I have some measuring cups but like the reassurance of precise measurements in grams.) or using odd ingredients that I had never heard of like ‘half and half’ or ‘Dutch process cocoa’. In the end the only cocoa I could find in this country that expressly stated that it was ‘Dutched’ was Green & Blacks organic cocoa powder. As it was my birthday I decided to splash out and ordered a selection of chocolate goodies from their website – mainly in the interests of maintaining recipe integrity you understand, but also because I’d never tried posh high % cocoa stuff and was curious. I have long suspected that my tastes were pretty unsophisticated and that I wouldn’t be able to handle ‘proper chocolate’. I was wrong, its brilliant and that means I am clever and sophisticated.

I had to order it online because it is impossible to buy stuff like that in shops around here. The supermarket gods have decreed that those of us who live in the ‘forbidden zone’, do not deserve nice things and have to be satisfied with crates of Kestrel Lager and microwave pies. Anyone who asks for mange-tout is taken out back by the bins to be torn apart by feral children and pit bulls. This is also why I am growing my own mange-tout this year.

A Triple Choc Ice Cream recipe (or a dastardly plot to take over the world – you decide)

5 egg yolks
600ml cream
300ml whole milk
170g chocolate
50g cocoa powder
180g sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla
Vanilla pod
2 tbsp sugar + 2tbsp water

This made enough to fill a 1 litre tub almost to the brim (I was expecting it to be more, but no matter how much I pour into the machine only about 1 litre ever seems to come out the other end). Obviously you can make less just keep the proportions relative.


Warm half of the cream (300ml) with the cocoa powder in a medium saucepan, whisking to thoroughly blend the cocoa.

Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer at a very low boil for 30 seconds, whisking constantly.

Remove from the heat and add the 170g of chocolate, stirring until smooth. I used Green & Blacks 72% Cook’s Chocolate, but then I have apparently just become a chocolate snob – I‘m sure any other dark chocolate will be equally as good. The nice thing about this stuff though is that each square is exactly 5g so you don’t need to mess about weighing things as long as you can count.

Next, stir in the remaining 300ml cream. At this point it looks like the most fantastic thing you’ve ever seen and it’s virtually impossible not to plunge your head straight into the bowl and woof down the lot. However you must resist this temptation and instead pour the mixture into a large bowl, scraping the saucepan as thoroughly as possible. I recently bought a fantastic silicone spatula which is absolutely brilliant at getting every last drop of stuff out of bowls etc, the downside of this is there is never even a speck of residue left and so no excuse to lick the bowl. You’ll also need to put a sieve on top of the bowl in readiness for the next stage.

In the still slightly chocolaty saucepan warm the milk, ½ the sugar (90g), vanilla pod (if you have one) and pinch of salt.

In a separate medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolk and the other half of the sugar (90g).

Slowly pour the warm milk into the egg yolks, whisking constantly, then scrape the warmed egg yolks and milk back into the saucepan. Stir the mixture constantly over the medium heat (this is where the heatproof silicone spatula is ideal), scraping the bottom as you stir, until the mixture thickens and coats the spatula or back of a wooden spoon. Remove from the heat before the custard curdles (this is the second time I’ve messed that up – just can’t get the hang of it). Pour the custard through the sieve and stir it into the chocolate mixture until smooth. Rescue your vanilla pod to re-use another day. If you haven’t got a vanilla pod then you can add a few drops of vanilla essence/extract at this point.

Several of the recipes I found told me to do the following step, but I am not sure if it really worked for me or if the result made any difference to the finished product. However I’ve included it here if you want to give it a try – it didn’t seem to do any harm. Put 2 tablespoons of sugar in a small saucepan with 2 teaspoons of water, turn the heat to high, and melt the sugar until it is dark brown. (I used castor sugar and it didn’t go brown so ended up chucking in some dark Muscovado sugar as well.) Once brown add the sugar to the chocolate mixture, mixing it in thoroughly with a whisk. Mine seemed to crystallise into a solid lump almost immediately and despite the reassurance of the recipes that had said ‘not to worry, any crystallised sugar will melt into the chocolate’ I could still hear and feel chunks of it clunking around the bowl. I think these were either dissolved during chilling or were broken up in the ice cream maker as they were not evident in the end product. If only I’d had the foresight to issue a ‘product recall’ I could have had the whole lot to myself. Doh!

Stir the whole thing until cool over an ice bath or bowl of cold water if like me you haven't the patience to try and get hundreds of ice cubes out of those stupid little rubber trays. Cover with clingfilm that is pushed down onto the surface to prevent a skin from forming then chill thoroughly in the fridge (anything from a couple of hours to overnight). Once chilled freeze it in your ice cream maker according to manufacturers instructions. Add chocolate chips to the machine 5 minutes before the end. I used about 8 squares of the Green & Blacks Cook’s Chocolate, roughly chopped. I was worried that this would leave bitter little bombs of unsweetened chocolate that would detract or adulterate the flavour. However, I needn’t have worried as they didn’t affect the overall sweetness and were only noticeable in terms of adding a little bite to the texture it was definitely worth including them. The mix is pretty soft when it comes out of the machine so needs decanting into a suitable container and freezing for at least two hours. Because there are no additives to make it ‘soft scoop straight from frozen’, you’ll need to plan ahead and put it into the fridge for about an hour before you want to serve it. I left mine for about 1 ½ hours and it was still pretty resistant to being scooped in my flashy retro mechanical scoop thing, so you may find you need to give it a bit more time depending on how cold your fridge is

I should make clear that I am not a massive chocolate ice cream fan but this really did taste fantastic. It reminded me of the velvety smooth hot chocolate I used to order in the CAFÈ DE L'ÒPERA in Barcelona – highly recommended if you ever find yourself in Barca btw.

In the end and after all that work, I only managed to eat one scoop before the lot was set upon by the ravenous horde (did I mention it was my birthday?). Judging by the fact that every female in the room immediately shut up and went all swoony I suspect you could take over the world with a truck load of
this stuff. I may just have come up with a rather cunning plan…mwahahahahah!

Saturday, 3 July 2010

'makes me happy, makes me cold…’

A long time ago I realised that the only way to be sure of getting anything decent for my birthday was to buy it myself. However, I think that I may have spent too long in the sun this week and gone a bit 'Tropo', because I seem to have bought myself an ice cream maker (a Cuisinart ICE30BCU, to be specific).

Like all good presents this came as a bit of surprise because I am not really much of an ice cream person. I don’t like that ultra sickly, soft scoop, swirly-whirly stuff that passes for ice cream in most supermarkets.

When I was a kid growing up in the North East of England in the 70’s there seemed to be only a handful of ice cream flavours available. 'Bog standard' vanilla came in either the form of nicotine yellow scoops, or the peroxide-blonde Mr Whippy-style squirts (made possible thanks to the tinkering of apprentice arch villain Margaret Thatcher in her pre-politics role of evil Frankenstein-food scientist.)

To me the best thing about ice cream vans was not the (rather unlikely) prospect of getting a 99. No. For me it was the smell of the vans themselves. The exhaust fumes from whatever the freezer/compressor units were powered by were intoxicating to me (presumably destroying millions of brain cells with every sniff – which would certainly explain a lot). To this day I still associate that smell with a treat, but on the other hand I can’t remember the year 1992 – let’s hope nothing important happened then.

There was an odd regional variation on the traditional cornet in my part of the world. The ice cream shops in Redcar (Redcar, Redcar by the sea… it’s the place for you, it’s the place for me…) used to sell the famous ‘Lemon Top’. This was essentially a Mr Whippy style cornet with a blob of frozen lemon curd on top. These were minutely more expensive than a regular cone and therefore off limits to my brother and I, and so became the rarest and most sought after treat imaginable to us. The criteria required for you to qualify for an upgrade to a Lemon Top in my family was extreme. Nothing short of treading on a jellyfish or 3rd degree sunburn would suffice otherwise you’d be stuck with an Orange Mivvi or a Zoom.

Very occasionally, on family holidays further afield - usually in the south of England, we would come across an ice cream van or shop that sold square cornets with bricks of what was cryptically called ‘Cornish’ ice Cream. This was far superior to the bog standard sold elsewhere and may even have been introduced to some actual vanilla at some point in its manufacture, unfortunately these encounters were rare.

My Gran always had some blocks of chocolate and strawberry ice cream in her freezer but these always tasted exactly like the brown or pink bits recovered from a block of Neapolitan. In fact the more I think about it, the more I am beginning to suspect that is exactly what she must've done – bought a load of Neapolitan and painstakingly divided it up into containers of vanilla, chocolate and strawberry to give us the illusion of choice. Even as a small child I knew this was inferior and synthetic stuff and only good enough for making ‘floats’ (dropping a couple of depth charge scoops of ice cream into a jug of lemonade).

At some point in the late 70’s, or early 80’s, mint choc chip arrived and we almost exploded from a combination of excitement and massive tooth decay.
From the mid to late 70’s our family holidays ventured further afield and we spent our summers camping in France. I suspect this is where I developed a taste for French Tarts – ooooer! Certainly the French Glaces were a revelation, sophisticated and subtle with the added bonus that you could expect to finish a cone with the same number of teeth as when you started. Glace au citron, Melon and Pistache were my particular favourites and I suspect that it was the repressed memories of these long forgotten delights that may have been working on my subconscious and prompted my, possibly rash, decision to splurge on an Ice cream maker.
In a pathetic attempt to recapture a much misspent youth, I have begun experimenting to try and recreate those long forgotten ice cream flavours (of course I realise now that I could have just hopped onto a ferry and bought a van-load of the real thing in any Hypermarket in Calais, which would probably have been cheaper, but where’s the fun in that?)

Until my lemon tree starts producing actual lemons I shall consider this a work in progress. Here is my first attempt at lemon ice cream or Glace au citron using shop bought lemons.
5 lemons
450ml milk
5 egg yolks
150g caster sugar
450ml double cream
Vanilla pod
Pinch of salt
Makes enough to just about fill a 1litre tub.

Zest and juice 5 lemons, being careful not to get any of the bitter white pith mixed up with your zest. Retain the zest and put the juice into the fridge to chill.

In a saucepan heat the milk. If you want to make a more ‘grown up’ version and are planning to add zest to your ice cream maker in the last five minutes of churning or to use some as a garnish then you’ll want to save about a tablespoon of the zest for use later on.

Add all the remaining lemon zest to the milk. If you have half a vanilla pod that was saved from another project, then add that as well (or a couple of drops of vanilla extract).

Add the caster sugar (or vanilla sugar, see note below) and stir to dissolve. Bring the milk to almost boiling point stirring constantly, then take the pan off the heat and set aside for 15 minutes to infuse.

Strain the milk through a sieve to remove the zest and vanilla pod (wash the used vanilla pod under the tap then dry on kitchen towel – it’s still got plenty of flavour in it. Keep your used vanilla pods in a jar with a lid, cover with caster sugar – this way you can re-use the pods several times and you get to make vanilla sugar as a by product which you can then use in baking etc.)

In a mixing bowl beat the 5 egg yolks together with a pinch of salt. Whisk in a small amount of the warm infused milk to ‘temper’ the eggs. Pour the egg mixture back into the milk and cook over a medium heat. Ideally it would be easiest to use a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water, but I haven’t got one so used a small saucepan inside a larger saucepan of simmering water. Heat the custard for about 10 minutes, until it just coats the back of a wooden spoon (when you draw your fingernail across the spoon and it leaves a clean trail you know it’s ready). Take the pan off the heat as it is in imminent danger of curdling (because of all the lemon zesty acid). I left mine a nanosecond too long and it did curdle but the subsequent straining seemed to help reincorporate it and the finished ice cream wasn’t adversely affected by this little drama.

Strain the custard through a sieve into another bowl and immediately cover with cling film – don’t stretch it across the top like a drum - but push it down into the bowl making sure the plastic is in direct contact with the surface of the custard preventing any air from reaching it and thus forming a skin. Set the bowl aside to cool, then put in the fridge to chill for as long as possible at least 4 hours but preferably overnight.

Once chilled strain the custard into either a large jug or bowl with a lip (it helps to have something that makes it easier to pour the mixture into the ice cream maker). Mix in the double cream (you could whisk it up a bit first to give it some frothy extra volume) and add the lemon juice to taste, I found about 6-7 tablespoons was about right for me, but you may want it sweeter. At this point you can either start pouring the mix straight into your ice cream maker or chill it in the fridge again for another hour. Mix according to your ice cream makers instructions – add the lemon zest about 5 minutes before the end if you want it zesty (or leave it out if you want it more child friendly and not all bitty). Decant the soft ice cream into a suitable container and then into the freezer for a couple of hours, remember to transfer to the fridge an hour before you want to serve to give it a chance to soften up (not having all the scientific evil additives this stuff goes like concrete in the freezer so it needs some pre-planning and foresight to make sure it's a suitable consistency to scoop into fancy balls).
The end result was fantastic, very luxurious, creamy and refreshingly lemony. However it wasn’t quite what I was looking for, it didn’t quite match up to my battered 30 year old memories of French campsite Glace au citron.

I think this recipe was a little richer and sweeter than the French stuff, which was more subtle and closer to the sorbet end of the icy spectrum. I suspect I will come back to this recipe with a few tweaks.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Progress report...

I should apologise for the lack of posts recently – but I am not going to as this is clearly covered in paragraph # 2 of the disclaimer. I have been busy. I am self employed and work from home, so when I have a job on, I shut myself away in my office/studio and don’t come out until it’s done. Last week for example, I had rush-job deadline and worked 98 hours, which is not unusual.

I have stuck my head in the greenhouse each morning and made sure things that needed watering and feeding were watered and fed, but apart from that I have basically let things fend for themselves. Everything in the garden seems to be at that interim stage of development that isn’t really very noteworthy. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that it pretty much rained for a fortnight solid up here and we’ve had very little sunshine. As a consequence most things seemed to go dormant for a while and there hasn’t really been much breaking news from the veg plot since the radish explosion. Because the kitchen was too depressing I didn’t end up making any exciting radish soups etc as planned and ended up eating them in very basic salads that didn’t require any form of kitchen intervention. Regardless of this they were fantastic and the next glut of radishes is now due. I keep forgetting to plant them gradually in small batches and instead I suddenly realise that I’ve eaten them all and madly sow a ton more. One day I’ll get the hang of this.

Other notable developments:

The two chillies from Anna Valley are now huge and covered with flower buds. I was supposed to pinch out the growing tip but can't find one so will just let them run and see what happens. Now that one of the flowers is open I have taken them out of the greenhouse during the day to give them more of a chance of being pollinated.

This Chili is 'Spanish Spice'

It looks like I may have to start liking courgettes as there is a distinct possibility I will be buried under a glut of them and have to eat my way out. I only grew them to give to my dad, because he loves them but I’ve never really been that bothered about them. The only ones I can remember ever enjoying eating were on bus journeys in India and Nepal. Small boys would climb onto the outside of the moving bus and pass them through the windows in exchange for a couple of rupees. They were sliced in half lengthways (the courgettes, not the small boys - despite it being a highly dangerous manoeuvre) and covered in what I suspect was garam masala powder but could just as easily have been roadgrit as it was always very dusty and the buses didn't always have glass in the windows. The courgettes/marrows were however very refreshing on a long and dusty bus trip.
I have two varieties of courgette on the go, Cavili which is an F1 Hybrid and Black Beauty which is one of the BBC’s Dig In Freebies. The Cavili are real triffids and obviously love my garden as each one has about 8-10 little courgettes on it. The Black beauty were planted a few weeks later and have had a harder time from slugs but seem distinctly more delicate although they are also showing signs of having 6-8 courgettes on each plant.

Huge Cavili courgette plant bursts out of its cage.

I harvested my garlic as it was obviously ready/run its course, the leaves having gone brown and limp. I was rewarded with a handful of garlic bulbs roughly the size of a Malteser which I am going through the motions of drying although I doubt they’ll go further than a couple of meals as each bulb is no bigger than a regular individual clove. I am vaguely hoping that I have produced the Mini-Me of garlics and they will in fact be concentrated pure garlicky evil.

It seems to be touch and go with my melons (Ooooer). I have two varieties on the go; 3 each of Sweetheart and Minnesota Midget. Only one of each seems to be making any effort, the others seem to be prone to dramatic fits of the ‘vapours’ if I so much as look at them funny.

After some similar amateur dramatics from the cucumbers (I had one taken out and shot as an example) they seem to have got the message and settled down. I currently have two and a half cucumber plants and I am hoping that means I’ll get a few cucumbers at least.

After my disparaging comments about the state the strawberries were in when they arrived from Ken Muir, they have got their act together and both varieties; Mara des Bois and Tenira have produced plenty of flowers and are looking like delivering a respectable crop. I think the Gardman strawberry planters were a bad idea however, as the pockets spiral up around the bag which means that several plants are just not getting enough sun. The bags are way too heavy to lift without splitting because they didn’t come with handles the top lip on each bag is coming away. Next year the strawberries will go into the raised bed.

'Tenira' Strawbs

Last year I had a fantastic crop of Hopi Indian Blue Corn, which quite happily grew without any interference from me (a quality I find very appealing).

Hopi Indian Blue Corn

This year I decided to be a smart arse and try the ‘3 sisters’ idea whereby I grow sweetcorn (in this case F1 Incredible), interspersed with Dwarf French beans (can’t remember the variety), and squashes (Baby Bell). However, instead of 3 sisters I seem to have got the Addams Family. The sweetcorn are stunted, the DFB’s are slug ravaged midgets and the squashes are sad and embarrassing. Instead of being mutually supportive and complimentary they are fighting like a bunch of spoilt kids in the back of the car. ‘Don’t make me pull over and come back there!’

Fig related news is much better. Last year the fig arrived with one fruit and produced another two later in the summer. This year it has 3 fully formed fruit and is showing the signs of producing a second batch of 13 additional fruits. This must be because I actually remembered to stop each branch by removing the growing tip after 5-6 new leaves, my failure to do this last year meant things got a bit leafy and not so fruity. If things go to plan we are on track for a big fig tart this summer. As you know my life needs more tarts in it.

The lemon ‘tree’ is doing ok although no sign of any lemons yet so I have given up on the idea of having G+T’s with my own lemons on my birthday. Plan B is underway, my Borage is producing flowers, my mint is just about clinging onto life and I am hopeful of getting at least one cucumber so a jug of Pimms now looks like a distinct possibility. Huzzah!

I don’t think I am going to bother with carrots next year as so far I have only managed to produce one carrot from my raised bed and whilst it tasted exactly like a carrot, there were no fireworks, it was not the best carrot I’d ever had. The problem with these root veg is that I can’t see when they’re ready so I’ve been unearthing things too soon. The radishes had the right idea by literally climbing out of the soil and saying ‘pick me!’ If only all veg were so obliging.

Actual size

I have just broken my edibles only rule by buying a Sarracencia (Sarracencia Leucophylla) from South West Carnivorous Plants. Ok so I am changing the rule to 'only plants that are edible or liable to eat others'. It arrived this morning, very well packed, and is already in the greenhouse waiting for any wasps that stray inside. I’ve had pitcher plants before, but found the watering requirements a bit of a hassle (rainwater only) and they all died after a couple of years. Now I am more prepared with a greenhouse and water butt, so there should be no excuse. The Leucophylla have fantastic white topped traps which are supposedly particularly good at dealing with wasps, it does seem already to be a bad/good year for wasps up here and I don’t want to share a greenhouse with them.

Sarracencia Leucophylla

In other news, the kitchen still isn’t finished, big surprise – not! There have been numerous leaks and faulty appliances sent back/replaced and as a consequence the floor isn’t down yet and the cupboards can’t be finished off. It should be sorted by the end of the week so I am hoping to be actually able to cook something next week. In anticipation of getting some baking done I am ordering some new digital scales. Stay tuned!

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Vote Radish!

I was only looking at it and it just came away in my hand – honest. Okay so I was poking it a bit to see how big it was and it kind of fell out of the earth (the soil in my raised bed is so soft things are literally falling out of it).
It was a proud moment for me today when I accidentally unearthed my first radish. So proud in fact I considered walking around and wearing it as a buttonhole like Withnail’s odd uncle Monty. Perhaps I should wear it at the polling station, people may think it’s an odd rosette for a bizarre vegetable party and pledge their support. If I let someone have a nibble will that count as ‘treating’?

I’d sown two varieties of radish, this one is French Breakfast (don’t worry they are supposed to be torpedo shaped rather than the traditional sphere) and they are definitely a lot bigger than the Scarlet Sparkler (organic old-school round variety) sown alongside at the same time. It wasn’t until I’d actually sown them that I remembered that I don’t really like radishes. Obviously this is no longer true as this particular one tasted fantastic, very subtle and sophisticated. I also love the fact that I only sowed them on the 12th of April and here I am eating one. I think radishes may become my favourite thing. I’d better start looking for some sensible radish recipes.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Now showing: ‘Cheesy Whorls of Pure Evil’…

I finally finished the Cannes job and on Saturday I got bored waiting for the kitchen to get finished and the food to ‘hurry up and grow already.’ This blog was supposed to be about growing stuff - then cooking it and yet so far I had completely failed to cook anything

The kitchen is a mess. It is halfway through being refitted, there is no floor, no extractor and the air is filled with brick/grout/concrete dust. The cupboards and worktop are partially installed but all the pots, pans and cooking implements are boxed up in the garage and, it turns out, incorrectly labelled.

The electric cooker was on its last legs before the refit even started and has swallowed so much dust that the fan oven has completely packed up. Only two of the halogen hobs/ring things are working and one of them requires a pair of pliers to turn the non-existent knob. Without the extractor the grill is too dodgy to turn on, and the top oven only works for about 30 minutes at a time. Whenever I switch on the cooker socket the whole thing shudders and makes that electro-hum sound that you hear when Dr Frankenstein flips ‘the really big switch’. For this reason I have mostly been living off cup-a-soups and sandwiches for the last two weeks. It’s just like being an art student again - except I am old and lumpy and there isn’t a stoned girl passed out in the bathtub, or any beer in the fridge.

I spent a few years working construction in London and have consequently prepared and eaten many ‘meals’ on building sites. I am no stranger to the tooth grinding bite of brick dust or the odd umami flavour of finish plaster. I have been electrocuted, blown up, burned, fallen off things, fallen onto things, had things fall on me, been branded, impaled, crushed, defenestrated, sliced and sawn. I have had more stitches than a weedy kid doing double cross-country running in January. I can do this!

Luckily the fridge is brand new, working, and full of fresh stuff that doesn’t need cooking. It gives, to the casual observer, the entirely false impression that its owner is ridiculously healthy. The kitchen also contains one functional cupboard filled with a bizarre mix of ingredients and foodstuffs hurriedly assembled as if under imminent threat of natural disaster or riots. It was clear that if I was going to attempt to cook anything it would probably have to involve instant custard powder, soy sauce and candles.

So far the only ingredients that I had managed to grow to the point of eating were the herbs; lovage, hyssop and sorrel. Over the last few weeks I’ve been munching the odd leaf from each of these plants every time I pass by and congratulating myself on how brilliant I am at growing stuff. Individually they tasted fantastic and I concluded that they would be even better when combined into some sort of baking project. I therefore decided to have a bash at cheese and herb scones. After all scones are the easiest thing in the world to cook. I remember making them back in the 70’s - during the compulsory single term of Home Ec for boys, in a badly equipped comprehensive school kitchen in the North East of England. I seem to remember getting a red star 10/10 for my scones so I ought to have no trouble knocking them up even in this mid-apocalyptic kitchen, right?

I am not going to give specific recipe directions here as I don’t want to be accused of conspiracy to distribute material support conducive to the conduct of acts of terrorism. That and only an idiot would actually try to make and/or eat these Cheesy Whorls of Pure Evil!

I had my flour, pinch of salt and fat rubbed in to the internationally accepted standard of ‘breadcrumbiness’. My first mistake must have happened somewhere around this point as far more than a ‘pinch’ of salt obviously found its way into the mix, along with some bits of non-specific grit.

My second mistake came when I tried to make buttermilk. I knew that it needed a few tablespoons of slightly sour buttermilk and the Internet told me that I could improvise by adding either lemon juice or white vinegar to some regular full fat milk. I only had semi-skimmed milk and no lemon, so I tried the juice of an old orange that had been lying around for a while. That didn’t seem to work, but then I found a bottle of white wine balsamic vinegar in the disasters and emergencies cupboard and sloshed in a slug of that for good measure. Now it definitely smelled sour, but it abjectly refused to curdle or thicken up like the helpful pictures on the interweb showed, no matter how much I stirred it or left it on a warm windowsill.

I decided that a few tablespoons of dodgy milk probably wasn’t going to make much difference overall and so added my ‘buttermilk’, egg and grated Double Gloucester to the mix. Everything seemed to be going well and I soon had my cheesy-sconey mixture rolled out on the fantastic new granite worktop.

Instead of cutting it into little rounds I had decided that I was going to spread my chopped fresh herbs over the surface and roll the whole thing up like a Swiss roll. I sliced the roll into 10 spiral slices and brushed the tops with a bit of milk and a sprinkle of Parmesan. The cooker went on with a KKLUNKFZZZZZZZZT and the top oven then chugged away for the next 15 minutes making the occasional coughing/growling sound.

When I took them out of the oven they definitely looked the business. In fact I was so pleased with them I decided to try a foody-foti. See below.

However, let me assure you that despite their benign appearance they tasted of pure evil. Individually the herbs are fantastic. The sorrel I have is a variety called silver shield, it tastes exactly like granny smith apples and will probably be brilliant in salads. The taste of lovage is essentially uber-celery, celery squared, celery – to the max! Hyssop on the other hand is more difficult to describe, being a bit sagey, a bit bitter-minty, and a bit odd. It is also, according to Wikipedia, a convulsant when used in excess. MmmmConvulsant-y. Doh!

Something sinister happens when you combine these 3 herbs with way too much salt and the aforementioned ‘faux buttermilk’. Think 'dead tramp’s feet' and you’ll have some idea of the taste sensation that awaits the unwarey gourmand.

So with this disaster I think I have safely established my cooks credentials. Stand by for the sequel, 'Log of Doom!'

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Zombie chillies have risen…

I was just about to empty out the pot of 'dead' cayenne chilli seeds that I assumed had rotted away (because everyone told me they were tricky to germinate and they’ve done nothing for ages) – but now two of them have just clawed their way out of the grave . Bloody Typical! It must have been the heat yesterday.

Now I have a bit of a dilemma, I never really expected them to live and would have preferred it if they hadn’t survived, as I never really wanted to eat anything that hot. The Anna Valley website lists the Cayenne as 6 out of 10 in terms of heat (I know from experience that my limit is the Jalapeño at 4/10) but they were a present so I’ll have to keep them. Besides I am loathe to kill anything as so many plants seem to commit suicide without my help and these little sods have been so tenacious.
They shall live - for now. I have decreed it. If they manage to fruit then I’ll dry them, grind em up and make my own Cayenne pepper Mwhahahha!

Here's a bad pic of the Spanish Spice (left) and Pepperoncini (right) now they’ve had time to settle down, not bad for £1.99 each I reckon.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Bogarting the slug beer…

I thought I might get some poster work done today, but events once again conspired to deny me electricity and thus kept me out of the office.

The good news is that the strawberries arrived this morning, 12 each of Mara Des Bois and Tenira from Ken Muir. They were well packed in a custom made box that screamed URGENT LIVE PLANTS! and yet it came second class post. I also see that it is addressed to Yorkshire and not County Durham for some reason and that the website still lists the order as pending. Hmmmnn… This may explain why everything looked pretty sad and lifeless when I unpacked them. I suspect they may have been in a depot for a week – possibly grounded by the volcano.

This was all in stark contrast to the experience I had with Anna Valley Chillies yesterday. My Gran had given me some old Chilli seeds ages ago but they completely failed to germinate, which was a relief as it was a hot Cayenne and I wasn’t looking forward to eating one in front of her and pretending to find it delicious. I’m not a fan of hot chilli and don’t see anything clever about eating something that causes pain and discomfort in the area that I am using to taste things with. In the *jungle, sliced super-hot green chillies were pretty much the only ‘flavouring’ that was available to make my twice daily ration of Dal-Bhatt slightly less monotonous, so my choice was between insipid or inflammable. As there was already a 10% chance that any meal would contain a surprise comedy ingredient like dysentery I mostly chose to forego the possibility of turning explosive Diarrhoea into a chemical weapon.

With Gran’s hot chillies a no show, I decided to order some ready grown seedlings of a more civilised variety. After a bit of Googling I came across Anna Valley Chillies who seemed to know what they were talking about and had a sensible selection. In the end I went for Pepperoncini and Spanish Spice, which I think is an F1 hybrid, both were said to rate 2 out 10 for heat and seemed like they’d be more interesting to cook with as the write up specifically mentioned the word flavour. They arrived next day, amazingly well packed with good leaves and a torpedo of roots tightly wrapped in Clingfilm, all surrounded by what looked like pipe insulation foam. They perked up within minutes of being potted up and I’m actually looking forward to tasting them - my Gran need never know that these aren’t the same chillies.

This afternoon, while I sat on a pile of grow-bags happily potting up the strawberries into my two big Gardman pop-up planters, the cat sat behind me and did her best to infuriate a series of very large and angry bees and wasps (yes we have some really big wasps already) by repeatedly poking them, and once they were suitably irritated swatting them up the back of my T shirt as I bent over. How we laughed – not!

It has been baking hot today and whilst refilling the slug traps with Sainsbury’s cheapest own brand bitter I thought ‘sod it!’ and decided that the slugs would have to buy their own beer tonight. It was surprisingly cold (having sat in the garage for a week) and as I was unsurprisingly hot it tasted rather good. I can see now why men have sheds – I totally get it. I promise to post some photos of stuff tomorrow.

* There you go, I'm doing it again. Told you so.