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.

Packets of potential

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The postman’s called and it’s almost time to sow a few seeds outdoors. I’ve got a few peas, beans and beetroot in already but I tend to wait to sow annual flowers, salad, spinach and squash until later in the month. I don’t mess about much with sowing in seed trays any more. Seeds that are sown direct soon catch up.

Now that we’re in lockdown, growing your own has never been so popular. There’s quite a dig for victory vibe going on. I love that families are looking to dig up bits of their garden and grow their own veg and there’s always room for a few flowers in a cutting patch.

There’s plenty of advice online for newbies as well as more experienced gardeners. My grandad always said you should hold off on outdoor sowing until the soil is warm enough to drop your trousers and place your bare backside on it comfortably. I’d suggest a less extreme measure. Just wait until the annual weeds begin to sprout, hoe them off and then away you go. I deploy old CDs on string as bird scarers to keep my seedlings safe from the pigeons. Other birds don’t seem to scavenge as much.

I’m partial to lettuce varieties with interesting names. Last year’s was ‘Drunken Woman’. This year’s is ‘Elf’s Ears’ courtesy of the very lovely folks at Vital Seeds, whose strapline is packets of potential.

They certainly are. Potential for growth in the future.

I think we need that right now.

Shout if you need any advice.

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.

The Importance of Rituals

 

Ritual plays a big part in our home. October Half Term is THE time for making the Christmas cake. Recipes come and go but the ritual of buying ingredients, soaking the fruit and mixing the cake two months before Christmas remains the same. Mary Berry’s version (above) with the odd twist from me is this year’s cake of choice. (I used homemade cherry brandy and a slightly different combination of dried fruit.)

There was a time when I had three little helpers in the kitchen. This year I have one away preparing for a university cycling competition, one upstairs doing his A Level coursework and one relaxing with friends before the next spurt of GCSE mock revision. They’ve all ‘checked in’ that the Christmas cake is in hand.

Being a Celt and a mother it’s not surprising that food plays a big part in our family life and that I share kitchen rituals from my own mother and grandmother with my own children and, one day perhaps, they’ll share the same ones with their own children. Of course they’ll change some; they’ll adapt some; they may even abandon some but that connection and routine is important to our well-being and sense of identity. If you want to read more about the importance of ritual and routine try this as a starting point.

 

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.

Creativity, Community and Crab Apple Jelly

Schools are frantically busy places in the Autumn. Much of the teaching takes place in the Michaelmas Term at my current school where we teach on Saturdays and finish at the end of June. Consequently there is little time to do much else between the end of August and half term in October. Frantic bursts of work followed by short periods of creativity and slow living work for me.

October Half Term is a golden time of Autumn walks, putting the garden to bed for the winter, planting bulbs, and finding sheltered places for the tender plants, preserving our harvest bounty, baking the Christmas cake and spending time with my own family beside a log fire with a steaming cup of something good in my hand. Spicy apple cake, squash and sage risotto and ginger Parkin will feature In the kitchen. I guess I have a deep-rooted urge to be creative away from the classroom.

This year I am the happy recipient of one of my teaching colleague’s crab apple largesse. There’s quite a creative kitchen community among the staff – I’ll be sharing round the quince after the holidays. After Wales narrow rugby victory yesterday I celebrated by boiling up the 1kg stash of beauties with 1200ml water, a couple of cinnamon sticks and a small handful of whole cloves until they were mushy; then left the whole lot to drip through a jelly bag overnight. This morning I added preserving sugar to the luscious ruby red liquid after I’d boiled it up, stirred to dissolve and then put it on a rolling boil for 9-10 minutes, until it reached setting point. Poured into small sterilised jars,  I have another beautiful item for the Christmas hampers.

 

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