Plant-based inspiration

Three words that strike fear into the hearts of most working mothers must be “What’s for dinner?” I love to cook but masterminding the family dinner every evening after work seems to suck the joy from what ought to be one of the best parts of the day. I used to dream of us all chatting together in the kitchen whilst prepping something tasty, sipping wine, mulling over the business of the day. It never quite turned out like that. I’d barely set foot through the door when someone wanted to eat. Tell me, I’m not alone in that? More recently however we got remarkably near to the utopian existence. One of the benefits of lockdown and working from home, I suspect. Take the half hour commute out of the equation and the ability to munch on an apple or pop on a round of toast whenever you’re peckish and the whole ordeal becomes much more relaxed and joyful.

I’ve been a life-long veggie and although I’ve always catered for the meateaters in the family it’s the veggie dishes that I love to cook. We’re not short of veggie inspiration but this new book from Anna Jones is special. It’s veggie but making every recipe fully vegan is so easy too Since lockdown I have struggled to control my psoriasis ‘issue’ and a plant-based diet seems to alleviate some of the worst symptoms so that appeals too. There’s tons of lovely recipes which are super-easy to make in one pan, pot or tray – always a boon if you don’t have to spend the rest of the evening tackling the washing-up – and there’s a helping hand too on sustainability. Using up leftovers, shopping more thoughtfully and ethically and cooking with the seasons all get more than a nod. I particularly love the ‘ten simple ideas’ for a variety of vegetables – great if you have a veg box and tend to get stuck in a rut making the same old recipes. Baked potatoes with leeks in cheese sauce is a storecupboard favourite here but leeks and shredded greens with mustard, thyme and grated cheese is even better. I have a celeriac in the fridge and have just spotted celeriac and red wine stew with cheddar dumplings. Yum! Sunday lunch this week sorted already.

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.

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.

Wellbeing, it’s elemental. Part 2: Water

Our windowsill basil was looking the worse for wear this morning but it soon plumped up after a pre-breakfast soak in the sink. I know how it feels. At school I always have a water bottle with me; at home I’m never far away from the coffee machine. I need a metaphorical soak in the sink, to ditch the decaff for an infusion of cucumber and mint.

Drinking two or three litres of water a day is the kind if routine which benefits mind and body. One glass of warm water and lemon first thing, one glass with a tablespoon of cider vinegar before meals and several more glasses of a mint and cucumber infusion is my ideal. All good for liver function, keeping hydrated and stimulating the brain cells.

Like many things at the moment, it’s part of a decluttering regime, a desire to pare back and simplify life to prepare for what is sure to be a busy, strange and potentially stressful term back at school. If I can cultivate the habit now, it’ll be well established when life gets hectic.

Cheers!

 

 

Juicing in January

It’s time to stop the sherry trifle breakfasts or cheese and crackers with a Belgian chocolate chaser of an evening. A determination to get fit, join a gym, run more and eat more healthily is the stuff of the infant days of the year. I am a great fan of juices and smoothies but the start of term is often frantic and shopping specifically for a juice cleanse alongside feeding a family of five carnivores, vegetarians and vegans is a step too far.

So I treated myself to a five day juice cleanse from Hanna Sillitoe – all ready made.

It’s a bit of an extravagance but the odd treat does you good.

I first came across Hanna’s book and blog about 18 months ago when searching for dairy free recipes to heal a flare up of psoriasis. Since then she has appeared  on Dragon’s Den, securing offers from all of the dragons to launch a new range of products. Check Hanna out. She knows her stuff, is inspirational and a jolly lovely person into the bargain.

Yesterday a chilled box arrived stuffed full of delicious juices for the next five days. No work, no stress and packed with the kind of goodness I need to get through the start of the new term. Admittedly by Friday afternoon my year 9 class may find me a teeny bit grumpy as I’ve avoided coffee, Christmas cake and the temptation of the biscuit barrel in the staffroom for the umpeeth time.

And I’ll be smug.

Oh so smug.

Christmas kitchen – red onion marmalade

 

There’s a timely article in the paper today about foods to eat to help keep the winter blues at bay once the clocks go back. Oily fish, green vegetables and onions feature highly.

I’ve blogged about making red onion marmalade before and on a chilly Autumn day in October I like to have something to show for my time when I can’t make much headway in the garden. There are bulbs to plant, weeds to hoe and pruning to be done but the soil is so cold and wet that I’m loathe to trample piles of soil all over the lawn and the terrace ( I use the terms ‘lawn’ and ‘terrace’ in their loosest sense!).

This October’s red onion marmalade is 2 kilos of red onions sweated down for 45 minutes over a low heat with 140g butter , a good slug of olive oil (about 4 tbsp), a generous tbsp of fresh thyme leaves, a small handful of dried chilli flakes, salt, black pepper, 140 g muscovado sugar and a spoonful of ground gloves. Once the onions are soft to the touch (they should break easily if you press them with a spoon) add a 75cl bottle of cheap red wine, 350ml of red wine vinegar and 200ml port. Simmer over the heat until 2/3rds of the liquid has evaporated. Cool slightly and then pot into sterilised jars.

They should  be stored in the larder or a cool, dark cupboard where they will keep well for three to six months, by which time they will be long gone and you’ll need to make another batch. By Christmas it will be yumsome. I’m going to add some to a food parcel for my eldest who is away at Uni and mentioned ‘home cooking’ at least four times in his weekly phone call home yesterday.

Chocolate Cherry Cheerfulness

Yesterday I strained the cherry brandy I’d made back in the summer. I’ve stashed a bottle in the back of the pantry for Christmas and the rest was used to soak the fruit for the Christmas cake. But what’s a woman to do with all those boozy cherries?
I’ve put some aside for a plum and cherry crumble to take it Grandad’s; some have been served with clotted cream ice cream and the rest have been popped into a naughtily rich and delicious boozy chocolate cherry cake to welcome the teens home for their half term holiday. School’s out today!
Here’s how.
You’ll need:
150g good quality dark chocolate like Green and Black’s, broken up
3 eggs
200g caster sugar
150g plain flour
1/2 teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda
35g cocoa
125ml boiling water
125ml olive or rape seed oil
2 teaspoons of vanilla extract
pinch of salt
a few small handfuls of boozy cherries
and the ability to wash up a lot of bowls
  1. Preheat the fan oven to 150C. (170C if not a fan oven.) Grease and line the bottom of a 23cm springform cake tin.
  2. Melt your broken up chocolate gently, either over a bowl of simmering water, or in a microwave. Set it to one side.
  3. Mix your cocoa with boiling water and vanilla extract. Set aside.
  4. Combine flour and salt with bicarb in a separate bowl. Again, set aside!
  5. Now beat eggs, sugar and oil In a mixer until it becomes a little lighter and fluffier. If you don’t have a mixer then this is an excellent five minute upper arm work-out.
  6.  Tip the cocoa solution into the egg and oil mixture. Beat. Now tip flour in gradually into this mixture and beat again. Lastly, the melted chocolate and the cherries. Fold gently till all is combined.
  7. Tip the dark batter into a prepared tin and bake for 40 – 45 minutes. Test with a skewer (it should come out clean).
  8. Let it cool for 15 minutes in the tin, then remove and place on a wire rack to cool.
  9. Serve with creme fraiche and more cherries.

Bumper crops

it’s been a good year for elderberries. One of the plants I’m going to miss most on the allotment is the huge elder tree which has provided me with a good crop of flowers in spring and berries in early autumn. Fortunately there are numerous foraging opportunities within a stone’s throw of home as I have no room for an elder in the garden. Since writing about elderberry cordial and pontack I’ve discovered the delights of elderberry tincture, which is – if anything – even easier to make.

Elderberry tincture is a delicious homemade medicine which can be taken when you feel a cold or virus is about to take hold, making use of the plants antioxidant, anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory and pain relieving properties. Strip the ripe berries off the stalks into a glass jar and cover with  brandy.  Leave for two weeks, shaking every day. Then strain the mixture through a sieve lined with muslin, bottle up and label. Take  1-3ml 3 times daily as required.

Delicious and oh so good for you.

Creativity rules in the #Christmaskitchen

Chilli jam for Christmas hampers
Chilli jam for Christmas hampers

Those of you who hang around here a lot will know how I bemoan the lack of creativity afforded to teachers. Where league tables, exam performance, measurable improvements and accountability rule, a creative approach to education is out of the window. And yet the very skills and characteristics that are developed when children are allowed to be creative in their learning, solve problems, design and make and work together to complete a project are the very skills which employers want.

Personally, unless I have spent some time outdoors every day and have made something – or at least made progress in a creative project then I’m slightly out of kilter.

The run-up to Christmas is the perfect time for a little of the creative spirit and so I will be tweeting and facebooking my #Christmaskitchen exploits. Nothing is difficult and all can be achieved with and by children with differing amounts of support. Make gifts; fill up your store cupboard with seasonal treats; experiment; have fun.

Autumn Term rituals….and some seasonal bakes

Autumn colour_3
Glorious Autumn days are for walking but it’s time to get seasonal in the kitchen too

Our Autumn term Wednesday evening ritual is well underway as we approach the semi-final of the (Great British) Bake Off. We love the exploits in the tent, the baking triumphs and disasters, the hints and tips and the historical snippets. We love Mel and Sue and their ability to ease the tension. And we love the introduction to new and interesting flavour combinations.

Children can learn a lot from the Bake Off – how to face triumph and disaster with equal grace,  the importance of planning and practice, how to cope with deadlines and pressure, how to adapt the knowledge you have to new situations which you haven’t faced before and how to smile sweetly at Paul Hollywood when he picks faults in the work of hours without bopping him on the nose.

However the ambitious nature of some of the challenges for youthful bakers is akin to me attempting a triple salko on the ice when I’ve only just learnt to let go of the side. In reality, brave but ill-judged and over ambitious. My other ‘must have’ in my kitchen exploits is more than a sprinkling of seasonality. So in the Country Gate kitchen this week we are attempting Apple Muffins and Beetroot Crisps – seasonal, healthy and oh so yummy.

Here’s how.

beetroot is a superfood

Beetroot Crisps

A healthy alternative to shop bought potato crisps, beetroot are uber-healthy.

You’ll need three beetroot, a few drops of olive oil, some coarse sea salt and fresh thyme

Remove the stalks of the beetroot, leave them unpeeled, wash them under cold water and dry them in a towel ( Use paper towels as beetroot can be messy).

Slice the beetroot as thinly as possible with a mandolin or a very sharp knife.This is a job for a grown up helper.  Place the slices in a bowl, add the olive oil and use your hands to smear the oil on every slice. Every slice should be covered in a very thin coat of oil. This is the bit children love to do.

Line several oven trays with baking paper and place the beetroot slices on the baking paper, one next to the other so that they can bake to a crisp.

Bake at 160 degrees C for 20-25 minutes (depending of how thin they are). You will know that they are ready, when they start to shrink and become crispy.

When ready, take the crisps out of the oven, sprinkle some coarse sea salt, leave them to cool and then add some fresh thyme if desired.

 

Apple MuffinsApple harvest

Muffins are delicious gardening snack food at any time of year but it’s good to give them a seasonal twist. We have apples in abundance and so, what better flavour in Autumn than apple and cinnamon?

Preheat oven to 200 degrees C. Grease six muffin cups or line with paper muffin cases.

Stir together 1 1/2 cups plain flour, 3/4 cup caster sugar,1/2 tsp salt, 2 tsp baking powder and 1 tsp cinnamon. Mix in 1/3 cup vegetable oil, an egg and 1/3 cup milk. Fold in 2 peeled, cored and diced cooking apples. Spoon batter into prepared muffin cups, filling to the top of the cup.

In a small bowl, stir together 1/2 cup demerera sugar, 1/3 cup flour, butter and 1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon. Mix together with fork and sprinkle over unbaked muffins.

Bake in preheated oven for 20 to 25 minutes, until a skewer inserted into centre of a muffin comes out clean.

We may not have Mary, Paul, Sue and Mel but we have bunting, a great view from the kitchen window and a passion for baking.

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