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.

Book review: A Year at Otter Farm by Mark Diacono

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I have to say that the arrival on the doormat last Saturday of Mark Diacono’s new book was greeted with more than a little excitement at Country Gate Towers. ‘A Year at Otter Farm’ charts the first few years of dreaming, planning, growing, rearing and eating on Mark’s Devon smallholding. I read it on a short break to rainy West Wales and loved the dreamy mix of anecdote, aspiration and good advice on growing and cooking.

You may know Mark from his time spent at River Cottage, where he wrote three of the River Cottage Handbooks. You may know him from his award winning recipe book or his blog or his climate change smallholding. You may not know him at all. Never fear, I am here to correct that wrong. Anyone who can show me an edible use for those stalwarts of granny’s gardens everywhere –  fuscias – deserves world-wide recognition. (Not included in the book, however.)

Mark’s approach to growing is based on producing tasty food. How refreshingly sensible! He has a whopping  17 acres to play with but even a few pots of unusual herbs and a mulberry bush will make a difference to what you can serve up to your family and friends. I know, because that’s what I started with on a windy North London balcony many years ago. This book will inspire you to experiment in the space you have available. It isn’t the work of a trained horticulturist or chef but that of an experienced,experimental and observational gardener and cook with a knack of communicating just the right balance of inspiration and realism to make you believe that your life will be made that little bit richer by planting salsify, foraging for wild garlic or keeping chickens.

Divided up month by month Mark documents activity on the farm, outlines which crops are at their peak and gives hints and tips for growing them successfully. At the end of each quarter a few delicious sounding recipes are included as a starting point for what you can rustle up in your own kitchen. There are one or two of his famous cocktails and plenty of original ways of using veggies. I may have fallen in love with Jerusalem artichokes again as a result of his Jerusalem Artichoke cake!

If you’re interested in a warts and all account of growing exciting and unusual food successfully despite changing weather patterns then this is the book for you. Engaging, humorous and rooted in reality (see ‘Dear Henry’on page 54)  it’s beautifully photographed too – mostly by Mark himself. Some people are sickeningly talented, aren’t they?

The only omission is the lack of a cut flower patch on Otter Farm to provide beautiful blooms for the table. But I can advise on that. Mark – cut flower patch – do it now. You’ll be able to eat many of the blooms too. Win. Win!

Published in hardback by Bloomsbury and available priced at £18 from here.

A Year of Seasonal Eating

It's Raining Plums

I make no New Year’s resolutions but post-Christmas ‘blow-out’ is as good a time as any for a little discipline in the kitchen. My battered second-hand copy of *It’s Raining Plums* has inspired a little 2013 project. How difficult can it be to feed a family of five on seasonal food for a year? Take three children, a father with *particular* culinary tastes and an experimental mother. Game on!

My monthly column for Local Morsels this year will follow my family’s attempts to eat seasonally and I shall be blogging about it. This is where you all come in. In the best panto tradition – audience participation is the name of the game. Help me, people! Ingenious ways to feed your children Jerusalem artichokes? What to do with Seville oranges when you live with a family of marmalade-haters? Anyone?

Every month I will be sharing my successes and failures, seasonal recipes-both old favourites and new discoveries and I’d like you to do the same. Send me your tips and recipes via Twiiter, this blog or email cally@countrygate.co.uk  and I’ll publish them on the blog, tweet about them, mention them in my column and may even choose a monthly prizewinner.

January stars are Seville oranges, leeks, parsnips, celeriac and Jerusalem artichokes. It’s over to you.

Stir up Sunday

Here on the plot we’re hurtling towards another milestone on the journey towards Christmas readiness – *Stir Up Sunday* which will give us plenty to take our mind off the howling winds,rising flood waters in the middle of town and the fact that we are rapidly developing trenchfoot.

Time was that this was a community event with family members each taking a turn at stirring the mix from East to West before trooping down to the village hall with their carefully marked pud and placing it with all the others in the communal steamer. Time for a knit and natter, catching up on the local news before taking your pud home, rewrapping it and stowing it safely away in the pantry for the day itself.

We are likely to be mixing our pud post rugby mudfest in the privacy of our own kitchen on Sunday afternoon. Unlike the cake the pud is an old favourite inherited from my Great grandmother and includes the addition of a couple of grated carrots. Secreting a vegetable or two into sweet treats obviously runs in the family.

Granny Scourfield’s Christmas Pudding

Ingredients

  • 300g fresh white breadcrumbs
  • 100g self-raising flour
  • 1 tsp mixed spice
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • ½ whole nutmeg, very finely grated
  • 350g raisins
  • 100g mixed peel (we’re not keen on mixed peel so substitute a mix of peel, dried cranberries and dried apricots finely chopped)
  • 50g flaked almonds
  • 250g suet
  • 225g demerara sugar
  • 225g sultanas
  • 225g currants
  • 2 carrots, peeled and very finely grated
  • 2 cooking apples, peeled and very finely grated
  • Zest and juice of 1 orange
  • Zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 small glass of brandy
  • 2 tbsp black treacle
  • 4 eggs, lightly beaten

Method

Put the breadcrumbs in a very large mixing bowl. Sieve in the flour together with the mixed spice, cinnamon and nutmeg. Then add the remaining dry ingredients including the dried fruit..Add the  grated carrots and apples.

Combine all the wet ingredients in a jug. Pour over the dry ingredients and mix together, from east to west, with a big wooden spoon. At this point you can add lucky charms to the mix for lucky people to find on Christmas Day. My granny used threepenny bits. The whole family should take it in turns to give it a stir, closing their eyes and making a wish.

Cover the bowl with a clean, damp teacloth and leave overnight.

Butter 2 x 1.2-litre pudding basins and spoon the mix into them. Place a disc of baking paper on top of the puddings, then seal with a big sheet of baking paper with a central pleat, to allow expansion. Cover with muslin cloth and tie with string. Steam for 6 hours in steamers, You can use a pan of simmering water if you don’t have a steamer. It needs to reach  2/3rds up the sides of the basins. Be sure to keep the water topped up.

Remove and allow  to cool.

When cool, re-cover the basins and store in a cool, dry place. On Christmas day steam for another 1-2 hours. Turn the pudding onto a plate, then pour 75ml of brandy into a ladle and carefully warm over a low heat for 1 minute or so. Light the brandy using a long match and tip over the pudding just before serving.

picture courtesy of Local Morsels

Local Morsels

Those of you who pop round here from time to time will know how important local food is to me. I’ve  worked on a freelance basis for the local community agriculture project; I teach children and families to grow their own food on a limited budget and a couple of years ago I did a little Lenten experiment where I only ate food grown or produced within a thirty mile radius of home.

Today marks the next phase of my local food adventure with the launch of an online magazine for foodie types celebrating the growers and artisan producers of delicious food in my neck of the woods. It’s called Local Morsels and I’ll be writing a monthly column for it. This month you get a recipe for Toffee Apple Muffins in time for Bonfire Night and an exclusive look at my special Christmas Pud recipe – the one handed down from my granny and doubless generations before her.

Yes of course I’ve played around with it a bit. Why wouldn’t I?

The launch is in Bradford on Avon, upstairs at The Fat Fowl from 4pm to 7pm. There’ll be cake and some of this season’s yummy preserves to try.

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