Friday May 21st 2010, 8:32 pm

rhubarb for sale in the forest of dean by the roadside

Month five Tigress’s can jam canning challenge and for May there are two ingredients to choose from; asparagus and rhubarb. Asparagus is still quite hard to come by locally. I found some in the Co-op but as it has come all the way from Peru I decided to give it a miss. I have a hard and fast rule to only buy English asparagus, which therefore means I only buy it during the 6-8 weeks that it is in season. I did buy an organic bundle in the deli here at Taurus Crafts, where my shop is situated, but it was quite expensive, so there was no way I would be prepared to mess about with such a prized ingredient other than to devour it chargrilled for my supper. So that leaves rhubarb, a crop I have already been working with for the last two and a half months but that is such a favourite of mine that I have yet to tire of it.
As luck will have it, whilst driving through the Forest of Dean I happened upon someone selling rhubarb at a very reasonable price from his smallholding. This place is a real find and I know that I will go back there often from now on, as he grows a great selection of soft fruits which will be really useful for preserving as the summer unfolds. I stupidly didn’t ask the man’s name, but will be sure too on my next visit. When I parked up and knocked on his door, my rhubarb was yet to be picked, so I knew it was as fresh as could be when the generous bundle was handed to me for a snip. Rhubarb is a strange crop. It grows really easily and can be seen in abundance in local allotments and gardens, but it is hard to find for sale and supermarkets rarely sell it. Tesco stock it most of the time but don’t always source British never mind locally. I saw it for sale earlier in the year shipped from New Zealand, which seems extraordinary when there are varieties in the UK which can grow almost all year round. So as I drove back home, with my canjam ingredient on the seat beside me, what was left to decide was what to make next.

harvesting rhubarb at forest of dean smallholding

I have already made a rhubarb marmalade, a rhubarb jam and a rhubarb cordial this year, so in the quest for something different I have decided to opt this time for a ketchup. Chutneys, sauces, relishes and ketchups are all kind of similar, except that they vary in texture and consistency. I fancied a ketchup that was smooth, with no recognisable pieces or chunks. I thought that if I kept the ingredients pale; white sugar, golden sultanas etc, I might just get away with a pinkish looking result. It wasn’t to be, as it cooked down it did take on a pinkish hue but of a beige variety. At that point I had to decide whether to stick with boring unattractive beige or whether to make the colour deeper and richer. I opted for the latter and added some balsamic vinegar. This has only a slight impact on the eventual taste of the ketchup so may seem a rather superficial consideration, but for me the downside of my ketchup is that what I have ended up with is brown. Brown, brown, brown. One of the most wonderful qualities rhubarb posesses is its colour. What a blunder, I should have made a beautiful clear rhubarb jelly instead to add to my already groaning rhubarb preserve mountain. However, now I’ve come to terms with the lack lustre appearance, the taste is making up for it. A sort of wolf in sheeps clothing scenario. I’m beginning to fantasise about dolloping ketchup on bubble and squeak, as a relish on a Double Gloucester sandwich or even with yoghurt and extra virgin rapeseed oil to dress some homegrown salad leaves. It may be brown but it is a winner all the same.

rhubarb for sale in a forest of dean smallholding

A while back I had an email from someone in the US who had bought my book. She said she was going to return the book to the shop the following day, accusing me of being ‘cavalier with ginger’. Amongst my friends, since then, this phrase has often been repeated and never fails to give us a laugh. My rhubarb ketchup is unashamedly cavalier with ginger, as rhubarb and ginger make such fine bed fellows. Obviously, if you aren’t a ginger fan, then tone it down to suit your taste. As usual when making chutneys, relishes and ketchups, that all contain vinegar, they do need a maturing phase to mellow the sharpness. This ketchup is surprisingly tasty straight away as I added some honey at the end which just takes the top edge off any harshness, but if you leave it for 3-6 weeks before opening you will find it well worth the wait. The result is fruity, spicy and I’m convinced it will be very versatile. I am not sure whether a strong enough ‘rhubarb’ vibe comes through yet, more of a lovely but general ‘fruity’ one, but I’ll see what it is like in a month or two and report back then. It is certainly worth making if you have rhubarb to spare that you hate to waste.

rhubarb ketchup canned and ready for the pantry


Makes approx 1.6Kg (3 1/2 lbs)

1Kg (2lbs) chopped rhubarb
300g (10oz) onion (approx 3 med onions), chopped
325g (12oz) white sugar
1 Tbsp sea salt
600ml (1 pt) white wine vinegar
80ml (1/2 cup) balsamic vinegar
300g (10oz) raisins or sultanas
4 garlic cloves (approx 10g) peeled
4 knobs of ginger (approx 30g) peeled
2 tsp mustard seed
1 tsp allspice, ground
1tsp ground coriander
2 small dried chillis, crumbled
1/4 tsp cinnamon, ground
1/4 tsp cloves, ground
1 Tbsp honey

Place the rhubarb, onions sugar and sea salt in a non reactive preserving pan. Place the garlic, ginger, raisins (or sultanas) and vinegar in a food processor and pulse it to roughly chop everything together and break up the dried fruit. Add to the preserving pan along with the ground spices. Place the whole spices in a pestle and mortar and crush them roughly, then tip them into a piece of butter muslin, tie up in a parcel with string to secure and add to the pan.

rhubarb ketchup ready for serving

Bring to a simmer and cook until the fruit is soft, the onions are transparent and the consistency is beginning to thicken. Remove the spice bundle and push the contents of the pan through a sieve or use a food mill with a fine mesh, collecting the resulting smooth mixture. (This part of the job took rather longer than I’d have liked. Next time I will probably wizz the mixture in a blender or food processor first so it passes through the sieve faster.) Return to the pan.
Prepare the water bath, jars and seals ready for canning. For more info about how to hot water process, refer to the guide here. Add the honey to the mixture and stir. Bring the contents of the pan to a simmer and cook further if necessary until the ketchup is of a suitable consistency, like tomato ketchup. Pour into the jars leaving required headroom, seal and hot water process for 10 minutes. Remove the jars from the water bath and leave them till completely cold before testing the seals. Label and store. Leave the ketchup for at least 3 weeks before using. Without water processing the ketchup will still keep for several months unopened.

rhubarb ketchup canned and ready for the pantry

Monday May 17th 2010, 7:39 pm

popping corn ready for popping

All these reality TV programmes on Saturday nights claim to have brought about a revival of shared family time with parents and siblings enjoying time together gathered around the box. It was whilst I was watching the X Factor last year that I had a yearning for some sweet treat to eat mindlessly whilst listening to the contestants ‘back stories’. I rushed into the kitchen and in a neurotic frantic fashion, threw some popping corn and sugar into a pan to rustle up an impromptu snack. I did end up with something vaguely edible that did the job required, but in the process I burnt the corn, much of which hadn’t popped properly and was left with a pan coated with black burnt caramel that took some elbow grease to put right. If it had been a contest I would definitely have been voted off that night. I decided to find out how to go about it properly and since then popcorn has become one of my favourite things.

growing popcorn seeds

I thought I would have a go at growing popping corn this year. There is still some time to plant some if you are quick about it. I found the seeds here. As per usual, I’m lagging behind with my planting. Last week I visited my friend Shelley and her seedlings were looking positively joyous compared to mine. Her sweetcorn seedlings reminded me of rhythmic gymnasts dancing with streamer ribbons whereas mine have only a short pointy bit showing, as if gesturing ‘up yours’. Oh well, hopefully they will catch up in time. As corn is wind pollinated, once the seedlings get going, you need to plant them out in a grid formation (like Cheryl Cole’s backing dancers) 20-30cm apart. You can grow squashes beneath them and use their tall stick like habit as supports for climbing beans as well, to make good use of the space.
Popcorn is different from sweetcorn, as the outer skin of the kernels is tougher and you leave the ears of corn on the plant to dry out. It is this tough skin that helps the corn to build up pressure when heated in the pan and that eventually explodes, as the expanding fluffy middles turn inside out. Different types of corn also need to be planted at least 250ft apart, otherwise they will cross pollinate and wont grow true.

a bowlful of plain popped corn

Here are a couple of ways to make popcorn that I have tried and tested and recommend that you copy. I guarantee that a bowlful at a summer party will be wolfed down no problem. The first recipe is for a classic kettle corn which is slightly sweet but salted at the same time. Made properly, it is rather too easy to eat and I do find it hard to put on the brakes if I have a bowl to myself, so be warned. I’ve now got the method down to a fine art so don’t ever burn the pan and end up with hardly any unpopped kernels (called old maids).
I have used Halen Môn sea salt with vanilla for the final seasoning and it is heavenly. You can of course use plain sea salt instead but do seek out Halen Môn if you can. They make other flavoured sea salts which I intend to try on popped corn drizzled with melted butter, as well. The salt is in softish flakes so needs to be ground in a mill, bashed in a pestle and mortar or squashed under a spoon.
The second recipe makes a luxurious sweet caramel popcorn which requires cooking in the oven. This bit is the clincher as it turns out a lovely crunchy toffee coated popcorn with nuts unlike anything you’ll find in the shops.


Makes a large bowl full

2 Tbsp oil (sunflower, coconut or corn oil will do fine)
80g popping corn
60g caster sugar
Halen Môn sea salt with vanilla (or plain sea salt will do)

Have the corn and sugar ready within arms reach. Pour the oil into a large pan with a lid and place on a moderate heat. Throw in 4 corn kernels and replace the lid. Wait for the kernels to pop and when all 4 have popped tip in the corn and the sugar, replace the lid and immediately remove the pan from the heat. Count from 1 to 30 outloud (this is compulsory) then place the pan back on the heat. The kernels will begin to pop. Give the pan a shake now and again and once the frantic popping seems to be subsiding remove from the heat altogether, leave covered until the popping stops then immediately tip the popped corn into a large bowl. Turn the popcorn over with a spatula to separate any sticky bits and sprinkle with sea salt, coating lightly to taste. The popcorn crisps up as it cools.

a vintage cup measure filled with popping corn


Makes a large bowl full

2Tbsp oil (see above)
80g popping corn
110g soft brown sugar
50g unsalted butter
3Tbsp golden syrup
2tsp vanilla extract
120g nuts roughly chopped (I used half cashews / pecans and salted peanuts are good too)

Pop the corn following the technique given above, but omit the sugar. Pour the popped corn into a bowl and leave to cool. Heat the oven to 130C (250F Mk2).
To make the caramel, place the sugar, butter, syrup and 2 Tbsp water in a pan. Heat till melted and combined then bring to the boil and cook until the syrup reaches the hard ball stage 120C (250F) on a sugar thermometer or a drop of syrup when placed in cold water holds its shape when pushed with your finger. Remove from the heat, whisk in the vanilla extract and pour the caramel over the popcorn, turning the corn with a spatula and adding the chopped nuts at the same time. You want the corn to be evenly coated and the nuts to be evenly distributed throughout.
Lightly grease 2 deep baking trays or line with baking parchment and divide the corn between them. Bake in the oven for 1 hour, turning the corn 2 or 3 times during the cooking time. Remove from the oven and leave to cool, turning the corn now and again till it is cold, crisp and the kernels are separated.

caramel popcorn in 50's style boxes

Tuesday May 11th 2010, 8:32 pm

wild garlic freshly foraged in May

Right now, wild garlic seems to be the best thing since sliced bread. It is extraordinary that it has become such a fashionable ingredient and that people consider it somehow wacky and daring to make use if it. This poses the question, why has such a wonderful herb been overlooked for so long. Belonging to the allium family, once established in a habitat that meets its requirements, it grows prolifically forming a lush carpet of smooth pointed leaves, later topped with delicate white flowers for about 6-8 weeks in the spring. Right now, round here, it is looking just perfect and there’s loads of the stuff. It is growing in abundance all around the little chapel just a hop skip and jump from my house so I am doing my best to make the most of it.

wild garlic grows profusely once established

In fact wild garlic is a really useful plant and all of its parts are edible. Someone told me today of a local ‘professional’ forager who when the flowers go over and set their seed goes round with a little portable vacuum cleaner and hoovers them up. He sells them to top restaurants for grinding as a seasoning. The flowers can be added to salads, the bulbs can be pickled and the leaves can be used to bring their delicious flavour to stir fries and of course pesto. Anyone who hasn’t tried wild garlic is missing a trick. Here is a recipe for wild garlic pesto, which might get you started on your own daring food journey. Watch out Ray Mears!

wild garlic flowers in May


Makes about 350g

100g wild garlic leaves
60g parmesan cheese or a similar hard cheese (I like this vegetarian one )
60g pinenuts
120ml cold pressed rapeseed oil or virgin olive oil (I’ve been using this one )
salt and pepper

Wash and dry the garlic leaves using a salad spinner or patt them dry with kitchen towel. Grate the cheese finely in a food processor then tip out into a bowl. Lightly roast the pine nuts to heighten their flavour taking great care not to overdo it or they’ll burn. Wizz the nuts in the food processor to grind them then add the cheese and half the leaves roughly torn. Blend till the leaves are finely chopped then add the rest of the leaves and blitz again. With the processor running, drizzle the oil into the pesto until it is all added and combined. Season with salt and pepper and pour into a sterilised jar for keeping in the fridge. By pouring some extra oil over the surface it should keep for a few weeks. A couple of spoonfuls stirred into linguine is just perfect and topped with a handful of chargrilled asparagus and a few Parmesan shavings makes it heaven on a plate.
You can freeze pesto, so that is the best way to extend the season for this delicious sauce. I have seen it written to leave out the cheese before freezing, but as Parmesan freezes well, I don’t think that is necessary. I have taken to freezing single portions of pesto in individual plastic containers and right now my freezer is looking well stocked.

wild garlic pesto ready for the freezer