The January kitchen

Cooking seasonally is one of the joys of growing some of your own food and shopping locally. Every month has its own special ingredients. After the post-Christmas back-to-basics simplicity, I crave a burst of citrus and the colour of sunshine to sustain me through the cold and dark days of January. It’s usual at this time of year to leave for work and to return in pitch darkness so how about making a few jars of luminous, gloriously sticky, blood orange marmalade? A practically perfect way to while away an hour or two on a January weekend.

Seville oranges and blood oranges are readily available in the farm shops in January. They are also available in Lidl and Aldi, so don’t think I’m smug because of the discount we get as a result of the youngest’s weekend job. I used to think that marmalade-making was a bit of a faff but over the years I have experimented and this recipe works every time. Use about a kilo of sevilles to 500g of blood oranges, 2 lemons, 2 kilos of preserving sugar and 2.5 litres of water.

First remove the buttons from the oranges, halve them and juice them over a sieve into your jam pan. Do the same with the lemons. Scoop the middles out of the fruit and put all the pulp and pips into a muslin sack. Tie up and add to the pan. Slice the skins of the oranges to your preferred thickness with a sharp knife. I find the repetitive nature of the task remarkably soothing. (My mother would find this evolution in my character highly amusing. The harem-scarem girl I was would NEVER have had the patience.) Add these to the pan along with the water.

Bring to the boil and then simmer on a low heat for a couple of hours until the peel is tender. Do a spot of weeding in the garden, read a book, watch a film or mark a set of student exercise books, if you must. Remove from the heat and set the muslin bag aside in a bowl.

Once everything is cool, squeeze the muslin bag over the pan, scraping in any sticky liquid. Add the sugar and gently warm, giving it an occasional stir until it has dissolved. Turn up the heat and bring to a rolling boil for 20 minutes. Ensure you regulate the heat so that it doesn’t boil over. If it does, your sense of eudaemonia will be destroyed and you’ll spend the rest of the weekend scrubbing the sticky mess from the top of your hob.

Do the wrinkle test by dropping a little onto a frozen saucer, leaving it for a minute and then pressing with your finger. If it wrinkles, your marmalade is set. If it doesn’t, avoid being consumed by a creeping sense of your failure as a Nigella tribute act and continue boiling for another 5 minutes. Repeat the process. It could take up to half an hour to achieve a set. During this time you will doubtless panic about what to do if it doesn’t. This is normal. Hang on in there. It will work.

Once setting point has been achieved, skim off any scum, ladle into sterilised jam jars, seal and label. Stow away in the pantry until needed. If you’re lucky you’ll find a few jars next Christmas when you’re looking for home-made gifts for friends and neighbours.

Any leftover blood oranges can be redeployed to craft a scrummy blood orange poppy seed loaf. There are a few recipes online. Another opportunity to get creative and an excuse to get some exercise during the daylight hours, working off the calories. I’ll be gardening.

Christmas 2021:Midwinter fire

I’d hoped to spend the evening at a village gathering, round a fire pit, drinking gluwein and singing Christmas carols but it didn’t work out. So I made my own fire to celebrate the solstice and the return of light in the form of a quick batch of delicious chilli jam.
A kilo of preserving sugar, the better part of a couple of bottles of cider vinegar, a dozen red chillies and a couple of pointy red peppers deseeded and chopped finely put on a rolling boil for 10 minutes and poured into sterilised jars when cool, setting and the scarlet flecks are evenly distributed and suspended in the jam.

So easy and uber delicious.

Christmas 2021: Homemade

Homemade presents are the best. I was all set to make a batch of chilli jam for friends when I stumbled upon a batch of marmalade I’d made (and forgotten to label) at the back of the pantry.

Fifteen minutes with the pinking shears and an offcut of starry material and these jars of jewelled loveliness are ready for delivery around the village tomorrow. We might even combine it with a jaunt around the advent windows and Carol singing with mulled wine and mince pies around the firepit at the outdoor village eatery.

Just the job to celebrate the Winter solstice.

A present from Seville

If white is the colour of the first half of January, then by the end of the month it’s given way to orange. I love a bit of purity and minimalism after the richness of Christmas. Early January is a time for snowdrops in tiny vases, nutritious green juices and snow. But after a few weeks I’m ready for a bit of sunshine – even if that is in a jar.

I bagged a bargain box of Seville oranges from a local farm shop to make marmalade but couldn’t resist putting a few aside to make bitter orange pud for our supper. It’s a twist on Nigella’s bitter orange tart. I had a packet of Dorset ginger biscuits left over from Christmas so crunched them up with melted butter to form the base, divided the mix between 5 ramekins, popped the orange curd on top and chilled.

Once I find those muslin squares I put away for a rainy day and today’s snow has lost its virgin sparkle, I’ll be making a few jars of marmalade with spiced rum. Jars of sunshine in the depths of winter. It’s what I crave right now.

When life gives you lemons…preserve them

It’s been a busy week – teaching from home, on the rota with keyworker and vulnerable children in school, year 11 assessments to collect evidence for the end of course grades and a 290 mile round trip to take my father-in-law for his COVID jab. Pretty shattered actually and so the simple task of chopping a few lemons to preserve was just the job. Creative, therapeutic chopping which resulted in someting pretty and useful to stash in the larder.

It’s the work of a moment but a real mood booster. Sterilise a Kilner jar, place a couple of teaspoons of salt granules in the bottom then layer up fat slices of lemon (I used 2 lemons) with a teaspoon of salt between the layers. Cover with the juice of a couple of lemons, press down so that all the lemon slices are covered by the brine. Pop a couple of bay leaves in the top, seal and place in a cool, dark cupboard for a couple of weeks. Give the jar a shake from time to time.

They should be ready to use in a fortnight. I use them in soups, tagines and stirred through grains like bulghur wheat. You can preserve whole lemons or lemon wedges but I find slices are more versatile for my needs and you can make a small jar which is ready in 2 weeks as opposed to three months.

Wrapping up Christmas

Christmas is cancelled, according to the doom-laden press. It’s true enough that Christmas is very different this year for many. It’s true that we haven’t felt very Christmassy because the usual rituals have been curtailed or changed. It’s not true that the spirit of Christmas has been cancelled. Resilience, adaptability and community spirit – always positive character traits – have been forced upon us.

Here we are lucky enough still to be able to wrap up homemade gifts with love and care and deliver them to the friends we love who live nearby. We don’t go in for sparkle and glitter in our wrapping, but there was plenty of sparkle when we stood for 15 minutes on doorsteps chatting and planning to meet when were all allowed out next year. It was lovely to find a bit of normal in our topsy-turvy world.

Elderberry tincture

Some people spent lockdown learning Swedish, writing a novel or taking on an allotment. Virtual learning and preparing to move schools curtailed my usual creativity. No elderberries were harvested and so there is no usual elderberry tincture in the pantry to stave off those usual Winter colds and boost my immune system.

Consequently I indulged myself and ordered an elixir from Sweet Bee Organics. It’s the business but hugely expensive. I’m going to find time to make my own using freeze dried elderberries rather than fresh this year. I’ll blog the recipe and provide step by step instructions in due course.

Christmas Cake 2020

This year’s Christmas cake is in the oven – an annual half term job. More than ever this year I feel the need to prepare for a truly memorable Christmas. Nothing fancy – just the simple pleasures of family walks, log fires, books, board games and comfort food. I am a Celtic mother after all.

I used Mary Berry’s Christmas cake recipe this year but substituted honey for treacle, cut out the nuts as some of the family don’t care for them and used my own special mix of dried fruits. The fruit was liberally soaked in brandy for four days prior to cooking (obviously) and will be fed once a week with more brandy until Christmas – if I remember. Sometimes I don’t- but the cake is all the better for getting slowly sozzled.

I enjoy October Half Term more than any other holiday with its colourful Autumn walks, bulb planting and tidying up the garden, store cupboard cooking for Christmas, bonfires and domestic chores. The gutters have been cleared and cleaned, the firewood chopped and stacked, the quince tree mostly harvested, the dresser cleaned and polished with beeswax and the tree surgeon and oven cleaning guru are booked to do their magic over the next few weeks. The latter, I admit is a bit of an indulgence but I treated myself and my still-broken arm. Full time teaching in a new school during a pandemic, all the while without proper use of one arm needs rewarding somehow. A professional oven clean and a vastly expensive bottle of elderberry tincture to ward off the usual school lergi should be just the job.

More about elderberry tincture to follow.

Apple muffins on a rainy day

I was too late booking tickets for a brisk Autumn walk around Stourhead today. Usually we can just check out the weather and pop over; in pandemic times we have to plan a week ahead.

As it happens, the weather was pretty grim. Instead I turned on the oven and used a few of our home-grown apples to whip up a batch of cinnamon apple muffins. I may pop in some toffee to the next batch for bonfire night. These however were perfect for an afternoon treat in front of the fire with a good book.

Stourhead is booked for next weekend and there’s a Wales v France rugby match on the TV later. Rainy days rarely get me down.

To make the muffin sift into a bowl 300g plain flour, 1 tablespoon baking powder, 2 teaspoons cinnamon.

Stir in 4 medium cooking apples, peeled, cored and chopped into chunks and 100g brown sugar.

Mix together 2 beaten eggs, 180 ml milk and 125 g butter melted and cooled.

Stir wet ingredients into dry ingredients until combined. Don’t over mix.

Scoop evenly into 12 muffin cases. Sprinkle with some demerera sugar. Bake at 180 in a fan oven for 20 mins.

Et voila.

A Bumper Harvest of Greengages

Delicious greengage chutney

Last night the boys gathered the last of our bumper crop of greengages. It’s the first year we’ve had a proper crop after planting the tree about 6 (or more) years ago. This afternoon, while the younger members of the household variously sunbathed on the beach at Budleigh Salterton, played football or cycled 130km with clubmates Mum got to grips with the harvest. Chutney-making is the kind of cooking I love. There’s plenty of therapeutic repetitive chopping and stirring and you can give full rein to your creativity.

I had about 2 kilos of greengages, stoned and quartered. To these I added 4 large cooking apples, peeled, cored and chopped. These were donated by a neighbour (ours aren’t ready yet and there were none to be found in the supermarket this week). Next went in three medium red onions, chopped small, a large knuckle of ginger, peeled and grated, 400g raisins, a kilo of preserving sugar, 750ml cider vinegar and a spice mix (2 tsps each of ground cumin, ground coriander, pink peppercorns, mustard seeds, a tsp of cardamon pods, a generous tsp chilli flakes and a cinnamon stick) and a pinch of salt. I  boiled it up and then simmered for a couple of hours, stirring occasionally. Then ladled it into 11 sterilised jars which have been stored in the pantry ready for Christmas boxes.

Not a bad way to spend a Sunday afternoon in August.

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