Plant of the month: August echinacea

One of the beauties in the August border is echinacea, so called because of the way the seedhead resembles a hedgehog or sea urchin. I’m not a fan of the pink variety but I love the jewel-like red and orange hues and the zing of the lime green. Perfect for the end of summer, particularly this one with its uncertainty about the months ahead, as documented every day in the news. Folklore has it that carrying Echinacea will provide inner strength during trying times. Cut and placed in a vase it will draw prosperity into the home and protect the family from suffering in poverty. Ideal right now then. Plenty of people need echincea in their gardens and in their lives.

It’s a fabulous plant for pollinators too if gardening for wildlife is important to you – and why wouldn’t it be? Natural rainfall is usually sufficient for its needs but you’ll need to water in new plants in the current climate and it likes a nice mulch in the winter, but it usually doesn’t need much in the way of care. It will return year after year and if you don’t deadhead it, it will feed the finches and other small birds through the winter and what seeds are left will sprout new plants in the spring. What’s not to love?

You may have come across tinctures of echinacea in the pharmacy. Herbalists recommend it to shorten the duration of the common cold and flu, and reduce symptoms of sore throats, coughs and fevers. It is also said to help boost the immune system and help the body fight infections. Here’s the recipe for a homemade version. Bear in mind, I’m not a medical herbalist – but all of us have survived this far using this to boost our immune systems.

Echinacea tincture

1. Harvest echinacea leaves and blossoms. Avoid picking any which have started to wilt ot die back. Fresh and vibrant is what you’re looking for. Rinse them well under cold, running water and allow to air dry.

2. Weigh your leaves and flowers and place in a mason jar, adding food grade alcohol (190 proof) at a ratio of 2:1 . You want twice as much alcohol as flowers and leaves.

3. Screw on the lid and give it a good shake. Then unscrew and push all the flowers and leaves down beneath the alcohol so everything is submerged. Put the lid back on the jar and let it sit at room temperature for two weeks.

4 . Every time you walk past your jar, give it a good shake!

5. After two weeks strain out the flowers and leaves through a fine mesh colander and bottle up the liquid into amber bottles, preferably the ones with a dropper lid. Store in a cool cupboard.

6. Use as required. In our house at the first signs of illness, we take 1.5 mls or one dropper full every hour until symptoms cease. Alternatively you could dilute in a small amount of water or tea three four times daily.

Summer 2022 – a greengage summer

I’m in my happy place dealing with the first glut of the summer. We returned from holiday to a bumper crop of greengages, many over-ripe so, apart from a handful eaten fresh from the tree and another of the best batch turned into a delicious greengage crumble the rest are destined for the kitchen alchemy of becoming gingery greengage chutney.

I am such a fan of chutneys – no fiddling around with setting temperatures, saucers stashed in the freezer and pushing spoons of hot jam around to see whether it wrinkles. Seriously, who has the time? Chutney-making is kids’ play. It really was when our children were little and tiny hands were eager to mix and stir, measure out spoonfuls of spices and throw piles of chopped vegetables and fruit into the pan.

Every batch is slightly different but a pick and mix of currants, raisins or sultanas, cinnamon sticks, pink peppercorns, ginger and cloves usually make an appearance somewhere alongside the obligatory vinegar, sugar and glut of fruit or veg. This pan will make several pots of lusciousness to be stowed safely in the pantry awaiting the time when crusty bread with a hunk of cheese and an apple is an economical way to fill a hungry hole. Some will make their way into Christmas hampers for friends and a special pot is on its way to our neighbours Dave and Dickie as a thankyou for putting the bins out and watering the pots when we were away. The best kind of thankyou – homegrown and homemade with love.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

 

 

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