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.

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.

New Year lockdown

Pic Anne Williams

Back to school has been a bit different this term. As a family we were lucky to enjoy some time together, walking, playing board games and sitting by the fire at Christmas but we all agreed it didn’t feel very Christmassy this year. I think- more than ever – I associate Christmas with cold weather and so when it arrived in January I wanted to savour that slow holiday feeling that comes with a break from school.

Amidst the frantic scramble to move to online teaching and learning, keep everyone safe when I am in school on the teaching rota and allay the fears of my colleagues, students and parents about what is going to happen to GCSE and A Level assessment this year, I have carved out some time to go for walks, spend time tidying the garden and cook. I’ve ordered the second load of logs of the winter (our log store is more bijou than I would like) and have a stack of books ready to read when I switch off the work computer half an hour earlier in the evening. (Let’s hope I manage that!)

The weather in Wiltshire is crisp but not snowy and our ramble along the canal towpath was a bit boggy this afternoon but it was an hour of fresh air, living in the moment with my husband, nevertheless. Now I have a lot of preparation and marking to do before tomorrow. I also have a box of seville oranges to turn into marmalade sometime soon. I think I might add the last of the Christmas spiced rum to the pot.

Balance is everything.

How are you maintaining the balance in your life whilst working from home?

Dandelions, Rumpelstiltskin and pots of gold.

Dandelions have featured rather a lot this week.. As well as springing up with abandon on the lawn – I use the term lawn loosely – they have been a hot topic of conversation around the Twitterverse, in the neighbourhood and on the telebox.  From dandelion fritters to dandelion root coffee, dandelion and burdock to endless gourmet dishes and even food for guinea pigs, everyone seems keen to eat their weeds.

Whilst I can often be found foraging and am the lucky recipient of other people’s veg and fruit gluts, I draw the line at eating weeds. Apparently you can even eat ground elder. Well YOU can….. but I’d prefer not to. However the thought of a spot of alchemy,turning something lowly into a fabulous pot of gold IS an attractive prospect. Think of me as a modern day Rumpelstiltskin, without the bad temper and penchant for stealing other people’s children. Cue – Dandelion petal jelly/marmalade.

I have made heaps of jellies in my time – usually apple based. I make elderberry and rose petal every year. Why not a spot of dandelion petal? It was labour intensive, collecting three  decent sized tubs of flowers on a dry day and carefully snipping off all the petals. Other than that it is simple, therapeutic and the result is six pots of pretty,golden -flecked deliciousness.

Here’s how….

Pour a litre of good quality cloudy apple juice into a pan. The crisper the taste, the better the jelly will be. I used The Orchard Pig’s Apple Rambler. Tip in about 60g dandelion petals and gradually heat to simmering point. Take it off the heat. Cover the pan and leave to infuse overnight.

I should warn you at this stage it smells rather like silage and looks like pondwater but worry not and plough on in the morning.

Seive the contents and put the juice back into the pan with the juice of 3-4 lemons (about 100ml). Bring to the boil gradually and add 750g jam sugar. I rarely use jam sugar but, in this case you DO need sugar with added pectin. Stir this in until it dissolves and add 20g dandelion petals. Bring to a rolling boil. It will take about 7 minutes to reach setting point.

Skim off any scum, ladle into sterilised jars , seal et voila – pots of golden deliciousness to enjoy and no dandelions on your lawn. Win, win!

Oranges and lemons…….

Seville Oranges
Seville Oranges

Apparently today is the feast of St Brigit, provider of plenty. It’s also Candlemas. What better day to spend stocking up the shelves with a bit of home-made produce and connecting with the earth mother in me?
February can be the bleakest of months , even with the odd snowdrop and crocus poking its head optimistically through the frozen wastes. It’s a good time to be cocooned in the kitchen steaming up the windows with a bit of boiling and baking. Yesterday’s job was to turn a last treat from our veg box (a couple of kilos of seville oranges)  into a dozen or so pots of delicious marmalade.

I had never made Seville orange marmalade before but was inspired by the gift of Pam Corbin’s Preserves Handbook  for Christmas. I tried the sliced fruit method – ideal for me as I hate messing about with muslin, pips and scientifically accurate measuring. And apart from a sticky moment when an ancient sugar thermometer packed up and I had to boil it all up again, it worked like a dream.  I am now the proud owner of a shelf stacked with jewel-coloured goodies to give away or dollop into my speciality bara brith or bread and butter pudding.

Time now to draw up a plan for the  allotment. It’ll provide some focus for the back breaking work of the next few weeks as we clear the couch grass, brambles and stones. Here in Wiltshire it’s just started snowing – so today’s work is strictly dreaming and planning.

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