FESTIVE JAM FROM FAR FLUNG PLACES
Monday December 19th 2011, 9:57 am
I prefer to use the ingredients I find on my doorstep, but sometimes occasion decrees it’s time to push the boat out. I’d love to find homegrown cranberries but have never seen them for sale on my travels, though Sainsburys are selling Kent grown cranberries this year, but only available in that area. So for my special Christmas jam, my cranberries are from the US, dried apricots from Turkey and pineapple from Costa Rica. I hope all you locavores will forgive me! For some of you lucky enough, these ingredients will be on your doorstep.
I saw mention of this combination in an old book of mine and thought it worth exploring. In that recipe the pineapple came in a tin and for my first experiment I used a tin of crushed pineapple in natural juice. Having noticed fresh pineapples not much different in price to tinned, I decided to use fresh for my second batch. Both work well with perhaps the fresh having just that added zing you might expect. The final flourish - apricot brandy, just makes this fabulous jam extra special, befitting the season.
The fruits cook down to a ‘feltly’ consistency, which from my experience means you need to watch it doesn’t catch on the bottom of the pan and burn. So don’t leave the bubbling jam kettle for even a minute or your jam may be spoilt. My recipe calls for relatively little sugar. This does mean that it is advisable to store the preserve in the fridge or the ideal alternative, do like I do and can it. That way it will store for a year or even longer. Serve on toast, scones or with your celebration meal as a relish. I’m off to make some more.
CRANBERRY, APRICOT AND PINEAPPLE JAM
Makes 1.3Kg (5 x 1/2pt jars)
1 med size pineapple, approx 1100g (2 1/2lbs) in weight or a 432g (15oz) tin crushed pineapple in juice
150g (5oz) dried apricots
300g (1x 12oz pack) fresh cranberries, rinsed and drained
450g (1lb) sugar
apricot brandy (optional)
Prepare the pineapple; slice off the top and base and pare away the skin. Chop down through the centre lengthways and cut into 4, then remove the woody core. Slice the flesh into chunks then pulse in a food processor to give a fine texture. Pour into a sieve over a bowl and collect the juice that drips through. With my 1100g pineapple, this gave me 280g (10oz) pulp and 200ml (7 fl oz) of juice. (You don’t need to be spot on here just aim for approximately that amount.) Chop the apricots into small even pieces and place in a bowl with 200ml (7 fl oz) of boiling water plus the pineapple juice and leave to soak for several hours or overnight.
If you plan to can (water process) your jam, prepare the water bath and jars and place jar seals in a pan of hot water on the hob. Alternatively, prepare clean jars by sterilising them in a low oven, keeping them warm till needed. Place the cranberries, apricots, crushed pineapple and soaking juices in a preserving pan. Add another 200ml (7 fl oz) water and cook gently for approximately 20 minutes, until the cranberries have started to pop and the mixture combines and takes on a ruby glow. Remove from heat for 5 minutes then add the sugar. Stir over a gentle heat until completely dissolved, then up the heat and bring to a rolling boil, taking great care that it doesn’t burn. It only takes 5-10 minutes before you can see the texture is thickened and a small blob on a cold plate will hold its shape. Turn off the heat. Leave for 5 minutes then stir in 3-5 Tbsp apricot brandy.
Pour into prepared hot jars leaving 0.5cm (1/4in) headroom, tap jars on worktop to de-bubble, clean rims and seal, then process for 10 minutes. Remove jars from water bath and leave until completely cold before testing the seals. Alternatively, pot the hot jam into clean hot jars and seal then store in the fridge when cold.
Saturday December 17th 2011, 9:41 am
Apologies for my long absence. I’ve been reassessing how I allocate my time! That and my Mum being ill has given me a lot to think about. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been busy though. Once you have been following the seasons with ingredients, watching, anticipating, harvesting, canning and preserving for a while, it becomes second nature, the way that you live and a direct and real connection to the food you eat. I’ve become particularly aware of this by being displaced due to my Mum being ill. I have by necessity been spending time away from my home and my patch, the place I have been observing and making use of so intensely for the last few years. It just meant I’ve had to find new connections in a city I left 30 years ago.
Yesterday it was time to rustle up my Christmas wreath. The wreath base has been used on previous occasions and is a favourite; washed and weathered, looseley twisted vine that comes already wrapped with some tatty raffia from a previous incarnation, perfect. I wanted my wreath to be a celebration of what nature has handed me in 2011 and would have searched for a few remaining sloes on branches or scavenged some crab apples of a neighbours tree, but I didn’t want it to turn into a performance. So I just went around the garden looking and snipping and then very simply pushed stems through between the twisted vine base. I used some lengths of straggling clematis that the cold had turned dark crimson, some plump orange-red rosehips, sprigs of bay; the fresh growth tips of bay trees branches, hypericum with black fruits set amongst stunning red tinted leaves and finally some unripe blackberries that found themselves double-crossed by deceiving weather conditions. You don’t need much for it to work. My tip if you are new to this sort of thing and want to have a go, is to use your foliage in 3’s, to give a loosley structured and organic result odd numbers work best.
I hope that you enjoy the holiday season ahead, whatever it means to you and look forward to starting afresh in 2012. In such uncertain times one thing shouts out to me loud and clear - CANNING IS THE WAY TO GO! Just saying. Have a good one.
BLAISDON PLUM & LAVENDER JAM
Thursday August 04th 2011, 4:04 pm
Just drove up the road to my house and the road side is lined with windfall plums, like a guard of honor greeting me back home. The plum thing round here is just about to kick off and I want to be ready to make the most of this abundant harvest. It’s on the doorstep and comes for free. I have written about Blaisdons, our local plum variety before and last year bottled them, see here . I also bottled squashed plums very simply, stoned and cooked in a light syrup. They were delicious and kept me in dessert for several months with custard, yogurt or cake. I need more of them alright, the larder needs to be well-stocked to take me through the winter.
So to ease my way into the season I thought I’d start with a jam. I generally find plum jam quite uninspiring and one dimensional, so this jam called for the addition of careful thought to really make it sing. As I said on Facebook yesterday, good jam does not come from throwing everything in a pan and boiling like billio. That’s just stewing fruit and you end up with jars of sweet pink mush that somehow remain in the larder for years and that you are unable to ever get rid of. I want to make jam that is so fantastic that you quickly run out and vow you’ll make more next year. I like to macerate the fruit to draw out the juice and the fresh flavours and this method suits my way of life really well. It means you can begin to process your newly picked fruit at it’s freshest without having to get the jars and all the other paraphernalia ready. It gives you a day or two’s grace to get your head round the task in hand. You do need lots of bowls and in my kitchen and sitting room table-top space is often at a premium as bowls of fruit covered with cling film wait their turn, all topped and labeled with post it notes.
I mentioned in my last post that using lavender as a flavouring requires a light touch. It needs to be just present so it’s hard to put your finger on just what the flavouring is, to really work. This jam is delicious and is a brilliant colour too. The cooking time is kept to a minimum without too much sugar, so the plums have a tart edge to them, which any good jam should have in my opinion. I used lavender recently harvested from the garden, so though dry is also very fresh. Blaisdon plums are a cling-stone plum, so you either remove the stones after cooking them, filching them out one by one, or you cut the flesh from the stone. Some of my plums were windfalls so I needed to cut off any bruised and manky bits, so the second method, though time consuming, worked well in this instance. I have no doubt that as the season progresses, stone filching will become tedious. Right now I’m just loving the thrill of anticipation. Blaisdons - bring them on!
BLAISDON PLUM & LAVENDER JAM
Makes 1.125 kg (2lbs 4oz)
1.2Kg ( 2lb 8oz) plums or 1kg (2lb 4oz) when stoned
750g ( 1lb 12oz) sugar
juice of 1 lemon
1 Tbsp dried lavender
Chop the plums into quarters and remove the stones. Place the fruit in a bowl layered with the sugar, add the lemon juice and push the lavender, tied in a piece of muslin, down into the fruit. Cover and leave overnight to macerate.
Next day, pour the contents of the bowl into a pan and heat it through stirring until the sugar is completely dissolved. Bring to a simmer then remove from the heat, pour back into the bowl, push a piece of greaseproof paper down onto the surface of the bowl’s contents, then cover and leave to macerate for anything between 3 - 24 hours, whatever fits into your schedule.
If you plan to can or water process your jam, prepare your jars and seals, otherwise make sure your jam jars and lids are clean and hot by placing them in a warm oven for 20 minutes. Remove the lavender bundle, then with a slotted spoon remove the plum pieces from the syrup. There is no need to be too painstaking about this, it just means that your finished jam will have some nice chunks of plum flesh instead of it all being cooked into an homogenised mass!
Place the remaining syrup in a preserving pan, heat to boiling then maintain at a rolling boil until it reaches setting point. This took me about 10 minutes to achieve. Add the plum pieces and bring back to the boil and check for setting point again. Pour the jam into hot jars and seal. If you are canning your jam, process for 10 minutes then remove from the canner. Leave till cold, then test the seals. Label and date your jam.
TIME TO PICK LAVENDER
Thursday August 04th 2011, 12:02 am
The other day whilst walking back from the preserving garden I suddenly caught a whiff of lavender on the breeze. Looking to the house alongside me, I could see through to a garden where there were two long hummocks of the stuff, running the whole width of the lawn, all in full spikey bloom and an intense shade of purple. The bees were having a field day. It was well worth stopping to breathe in another purposeful whiff before going on my way. Lavender is in flower so fleetingly, and it reminded me to harvesting some to dry for the linen drawer as well as some for culinary use. As a little goes a long way, plants in the garden at home, though nowhere as lush as those I had passed, would yield quite enough for drying without leaving them noticeably shorn.
It isn’t a crop that requires much in the way of pest control so is easy to grow organically. All the better for flavouring ice cream, buttery biscuits and cupcake icing. But a lightness of touch is most definitely required, as you can easily have too much of a good thing and end up with an overpowering medicated result. The flavour needs to be just there but hardly discernable, so getting the balance precise can be tricky. True lavenders, such as Lavandula augustifolia, including the popular Hidcote and Munstead varieties, are best for this, whereas the lavender hybrids called lavandins, bred especially for their oil are best avoided, as they are more likely to leave a strong camphorous aftertaste if used to flavour food.
Ideally picked on a dry sunny day when the flowers are just on the cusp of bursting open, you only need to tie a bunch together with string and hang it upside down, somewhere dry and shaded for the flowers to dry out in no time. When completely dried through, just crumble the brittle flowers away from the stems and store them in a sealed jar alongside your other herbs and spices. You could then use some to make my lemon, fig and lavender marmalade, which is featured in my friend, Canadian writer and canner, Sarah B Hood’s new book We Sure Can available in the UK from September. I’ve also just made some Blaisdon plum and lavender jam, which has been a big success, so i will post that recipe next to encourage you on your fragranced journey.
I thought I’d show you another traditional way to store a bundle of lavender, for scenting linens, where the flowers are encased in a cage made from the flower stems woven with ribbon. Called a lavender bottle, made this way, the flowers stay put and don’t go all over the place, so it can be pushed in between layers of stored bedlinen, kept in a drawer with your smalls or hung in the wardrobe to keep your best clothes sweet. For this the lavender variety is immaterial, the smellier the better.
Again pick your lavender on a dry sunny day when the flowers are just about to be or are partly open. The stems need to be long, green and pliable. Pick an odd number of stems, I used 21 here, and bundle them together, so all the flowers are bunched up together and the stems are smooth, pulling off any smaller flowers lower down. Tie tightly together below the flower heads with a piece of thin ribbon or twine. Then one by one, bend the stems back over the flowers so they form a cage around them. You do have to try and arrange the stems as evenly spaced as possible to keep things as neat as you can at this stage.
Tie a piece of ribbon or twine tightly around the stems to hold everything in place. Now, take a long length of narrow ribbon, 5-10mm (1/4-1/2in) wide is ideal, and starting at the top pointy end, wrap one end of the ribbon around one of the stems and fix it in place with a few stitches made with needle and thread. Begin to weave the ribbon in and out of the stems (you may find a bodkin useful to help with this), working round the stem cage and pulling the ribbon evenly to give the lavender bottle a good shape. When the flowers are completely encased by the woven ribbon, tuck the end of the ribbon around a stem and fix in place with a few stitches with needle and thread. Trim the stems to the length you like then tie the stems tightly together with ribbon at both ends. Leave the bottle to dry out for a while and give the flowers a squeeze from time to time to reactive the scent.
Another fab way to scent bedlinen and clothing is to spray them lightly with lavender linen water whilst ironing or just before you put them freshly laundered into the linen or airing cupboard.
SHOW ME THE WAY TO A MORELLO
Thursday July 28th 2011, 12:43 am
It is cherry time again and the pitter is at the ready. Last year it was put to good use as I removed the stones from an abundance of fruit going well into the night. This year I’m unlikely to be so lucky … or unlucky depending how you look at it. The cherry harvest is nowhere near as lush as it was in 2010, but that’s OK. I like my canning years to have distinctive differences, so each year I have new ingredients to find and explore.
I’ve still got some jars of canned morello cherries in the larder as so many were put away last summer and the joy of canning means you can store enough to see you through more than one season, if you do it right. Morellos are a sour cherry, for culinary use only, that I have never found for sale. The ones I preserved in a light syrup were, on first tasting, fairly undistinguished and plain - no big deal. That is until you add a splash of kirsch and pour on some cream, and then they become something totally exquisite. I have served them that simply on many occasions since last summer and opened a jar to make the filling of a black forest brownie cake more than once. So this year my cherry canning is set to be on a modest scale.
Cherry clafoutis is another traditional pudding that uses sour cherries and works well with fresh or bottled fruit. This isn’t time to skimp on filling - it should be well packed with fruit with all the gaps adjoining melded with custardy batter. There is some debate as to whether you should leave the stones in the fruit or remove them. As the stones imbue a slight almondy flavour to the pudding, many people say they are essential. I prefer to serve and eat food without the hassle of filching out stones as I go, so add a splash of amaretto or kirsch to complete the flavours. A clafoutis is so easy to make and needs to be eaten whilst still warm from the oven, though having said that, I have eaten leftovers for breakfast the next day, and very nice it was too. Any syrup remaining can be drunk like cordial with sparkling water added.
Serves 6 (generously)
100g (1/2 cup) caster sugar
1tsp vanilla extract
40g (1/3rd cup) plain flour
200ml (1 cup) milk
450g (16oz) fresh cherries, pitted or whole
(or 400g (14oz) if using bottled/canned , well drained)
kirsch or amaretto
some icing sugar (optional)
Butter a 25cm diameter earthenware or enamel dish. Pre-heat the oven to 200C (400F, Mk 6).
If you are using a mixer, just throw the first 6 ingredients together and beat together to form a smooth batter. Working by hand, whisk eggs, sugar, vanilla and salt together, then add the flour followed by the milk to make a smooth batter.
Pour half into the prepared dish, spread the cherries over the batter and splash with a few teaspoonfuls of your chosen liqueur. Pour the rest of the batter over the fruit. Bake for 40-45 minutes until the top is lightly golden and the custard centre is beginning to set. Leave to cool for a while so the custard sets further. Serve warm dredged with icing sugar and another drizzle of liqueur if you like.
SUNSHINE AND SUMMER BERRIES
Wednesday June 08th 2011, 7:30 pm
I’m so glad I made a concerted effort to get the preserving garden allotment sorted out earlier in the season. I’ve been distracted for the last few weeks so the plot has been neglected and there’s now much weeding to be done to make it all neat and tidy again. But sometimes a break is necessary if only to accept that to some degree, what will be will be. Now comes the payoff. The berries are ripening and my longed for supply of strawberries has become a reality.
The other day I picked my first substantial batch and there should be several more punnets full to come in the next few weeks. The bulk of my plants are Cambridge Favourite, which I chose as a classic jam making variety. Planted autumn 2009, there was no fruit to speak of last year and the plants sent out lots of runners, some of which I encouraged to root and establish. The plan was that this year would be the first season to expect any fruit and I’m not disappointed.
The rule of strawberry picking is to chose a warm dry day for it and, of course, to eat as many berries, warmed by the sun, as you can, right there and then. These berries are just so sweet and packed with flavour. When picked that warmth quickly ‘cooks’ them and they lose their polished look in moments once they are detached from the plant, so you need to get them cooled fast. Even after my seasonal binge there were still 3 kilos of fruit to take home to preserve.
I plan to make jam with subsequent pickings but for this first load I wanted to can compote and syrup, using my harvest as fresh as possible to capture this exceptional flavour. Strawberries aren’t highly rated for bottling as they overcook fast but making compotes to eat out of season to serve with yogurt or vanilla cheesecake or a simple sponge cake with cream …. well, that does it for me. This is were canning makes such sense. Jam is usually overladen with sugar and jam makers often complain that they have far too much of it to consume, but compote can contain much less sugar, so the flavour of the fruit shines through and by water processing it, you can then stock the pantry with jars that will keep throughout the year ahead.
With canning generally, it is important to use jars that are a size that suits how many people you feed. I like to use smallish jars so once opened I know none will go to waste. My next door neighbours brought me these Le Parfait Familia Wiss 350ml jars back from France recently so they looked to be just perfect for the job. I canned the left-over syrup in a 250ml sized Weck flask and there is another half flask, in the fridge for using up now.
The berries need to be macerated with sugar overnight so their lovely juice is drawn out, turning the sugar to syrup at the same time. I wasn’t sure how much syrup the berries would produce but there was enough left over to bottle on its own. This syrup is just fab stirred through Greek yogurt and I’ll be churning some vanilla ice cream soon to make another perfect partnership. The compote will go with just about anything.
STRAIGHT-LACED STRAWBERRY COMPOTE
Makes 6 x 350ml (7 x 1/2 pint) jars compote, plus approx 375ml (3/4 pt) strawberry syrup
3Kg (6 1/2lbs) strawberries
350g (12oz) sugar (adjust to your taste)
2 vanilla pods
1Tbsp balsamic vinegar
Rinse and drain the fruit if you must! As I knew exactly where my fruit came from and that it had been mulched with straw to keep the berries clean and off the soil, I didn’t wash the fruit … so you choose! Remove the stalks and halve the largest berries then place in a large glass or ceramic bowl, sprinkling the sugar in layers between the fruit as you go. Split the vanilla pods and scrape out the sticky seeds then bury the pods and stir the seeds in amongst the berries. Cover the bowl with cling film or a plate and leave in a cool place or the fridge overnight.
Prepare the water bath, jars and lids for canning*. Pour the fruit, sugar, vanilla and any juice into a preserving pan. Warm it through stirring until all the sugar is dissolved. Add the balsamic vinegar then bring all to a simmer and cook through for 2 minutes. Using a slotted spoon or sieve remove the berries and vanilla pods from the syrup into a warm bowl. This way the softened berries will still be surrounded by syrup. (Some fruit pulp will remain in the syrup. If you want to make a smoother syrup from your left-overs then pass it through a sieve.) Cut each vanilla pod into 3 then using a jam funnel, pack the strawberries into the jars, to come just below the headroom line for the type of jars you are using. Push a piece of vanilla pod down the side of each jar so it shows against the glass. Top up with hot syrup from the pan if necessary, so the berries are submerged.
De-bubble the fruit around the sides of the jar using a narrow spatula or chop stick to release any trapped air bubbles, wipe the jar rims clean and seal. Water process for 10 minutes then remove from the water bath and leave till cold. Check the seals and label your jars ready to store. If any of your seals fail, use the compote as if fresh*.
For the remaining syrup in the pan, bring to a brisk boil for 5 minutes till the syrup is slightly thickened or to your liking. Pour into hot jars to the headroom line appropriate for your type of jar (Weck flasks can be filled almost to the top), tap the jar on the counter to release any trapped air bubbles, wipe rims and seal. Process for 10 minutes then remove from water bath and leave till cold before testing seals are fixed.
*If you don’t intend to water process the compote and syrup it should keep, if refrigerated, for about a week.
HIGH HOPES FOR AN EGGY FUTURE
Saturday May 21st 2011, 2:03 pm
There is much excitement close to home, as me and next door are about to collaborate on our first chicken keeping venture. We have placed our order for 5 orpingtons; 2 lavenders, 2 buffs and a lavender cockerel, and will be taking delivery in a couple of weeks time. We can’t expect any eggs from them until around November time but most importantly - the names have been chosen. As I’ve never kept chickens before I’ve begun to swat up on them. I do know people who keep chickens, so suspect it isn’t too difficult and can already see which way this new interest is likely to go as even at this early stage we have started to discuss other breeds we might like and what colours of eggs they will hopefully produce.
In the meantime, I bought my first book on the subject; Hens in the Garden Eggs in the Kitchen by Charlotte Popescu. I’ve collected several other books of hers and can really recommend them. As well as chicken keeping, she writes about other subjects close to my heart, from wild fruits and apples to vegetable gardening and bee keeping. They are all small paperback books packed with useful information and recipes presented in a very simple and modest way.
In my new hen book she gives this really useful guidance about the freshness of eggs, particularly relevant to those people who know exactly when their eggs are laid. If you are buying shop bought you’ll just have to guess I’m afraid.
Your eggs need to be as fresh as possible if you want fried or poached eggs. For boiled eggs that you wish to peel, it is best to use eggs that are about a week old as the shell and skin are really difficult to peel off on fresh eggs. ….
If you are scrambling your eggs or making an omelette, eggs can be up to a week old. For baked dishes, eggs can be older than a week. If you want to separate the yolks and the whites to make meringues, eggs are best a few days old as the whites whisk up better if not too fresh.
Pickled eggs have never interested me until I came across a recipe for Pickled Huevos Haminados in another lucky find, The Mediterrannean Pantry by Aglaia Kremezi, published 1994. As soon as I read the recipe I knew I had to make it, though haven’t done so yet. I’m actually growing the red onions at the moment, which is, I suppose, beyond the call of duty. I have found the recipe online here if you fancy having a go and beating me too it. I’ll be tempted to serve a pickled egg with some asparagus spears pickled earlier.
This week I’ve been trying to make some room in the freezer before the berry season kicks off. I’m not a big fan of freezing as mine works on an ‘out of sight out of mind’ principle. I tend to forget what’s in there, all the while those ingredients are racking up additional running costs! (This year I’ll be canning fruit in jars as much as I possible.) I used a tub of blackberry puree, picked and prepared last August, and rustled up 4 pots of blackberry curd, which is a delicious way of using up eggs. A spoonful or two of fruit curd swirled through some Greek yoghurt is fabulous, or you can use it as the filling in a simple sponge cake or dollop on meringues (making use of even more eggs).
Oh yes, I’ve got eggs on the brain and this is only the beginning.
Monday May 09th 2011, 9:18 am
The asparagus season is in full swing. 14 of the 15 crowns planted in my newly prepared asparagus bed have started to appear, sending up very fine spears that then become frothy graceful ferns. They must be left alone for the time being to build up energy and form good sound crowns for the years ahead and I must be patient. I’m hoping the 15th crown is OK and wonder if I could have planted it upside down, and if I did, will it find its way right way up in time?
The other day I came across some bargain priced asparagus at the supermarket that had reached its sell by date, so was going cheap, half price in fact. Recognising a bargain when I see one, I bought up the lot so I could do some pickling. Since the Canjam last year, when other canners participating produced pickled asparagus, I’ve been wanting to experience this preserve first hand, but with this prized vegetable never exactly in abundant supply and always required for immediate scoffing, I couldn’t envisage when the opportunity to pickle some would arise. So watch what you wish for, here was my golden opportunity and I grabbed it with both hands.
I am now the proud owner of 5 x 500ml (1 pint) jars of pickled asparagus. I canned 3 to start with then had the idea to add the last of some wild garlic flowers, picked that day, so canned a couple more jars. I have no intention of sampling these pickles until the memory of the fresh English stuff is a distant memory, as this is not intended as a replacement for what is available in season right this minute. Some pickled spears, served with hard-boiled eggs, a handful of salad leaves and a wedge of homemade bread and butter will be a simple lunch to look forward too in 6 months time.
Fitting the spears into the jars is a wasteful business as they do need to be trimmed especially short to fit. I made asparagus soup with the stem cut-offs, so none went to waste, but shorter dumpier spears to start with makes the task less painful. There is no way I would have wanted to do this if I’d paid top wack for my ingredients.
I used 2 x 200g bundles of fresh asparagus spears to fill each 500ml (1 pint) jar, but it will depend how long the stems are and how much stem you’ll need to chop off so they fit into the jars. Allow a few more spears so they can be packed tightly into the jars and cut them so they fit snuggly and sit below the level of vinegar headspace when packed upright in the jars.
For each 500ml (1 pint) jar allow:
400g (1/2 lb) asparagus spears
120ml (1/2 cup) white wine vinegar
120ml (1/2 cup) water
1 tsp dill seed
1/4 tsp chilli flakes
1 tsp sea salt
1 small shallot, finely sliced
1/2 clove garlic, sliced
6 fresh wild garlic flowers (optional)
*Prepare the canning bath and keep your empty jars submerged in there until they are needed. Prepare lids in another pan of simmering water. Blanch the asparagus spears fleetingly in boiling water for 60 seconds, then drain them and cool immediately with cold water, so they don’t cook any further. Mix the vinegar and water in a pan and bring to a simmer.
Place the salt and spices in each jar, then pack the asparagus spears upright (or you can do them pointing down if you like!) in the jars, adding the shreds of shallot and garlic, and the wild garlic flowerheads in amongst them as you go. Pour in the vinegar/water to cover the asparagus, leaving the headroom necessary for your type of jar. De-bubble, to release any trapped air pockets surrounding the spears, using a chop stick or thin spatula. Wipe the jar rims clean and seal. Process for 10 minutes, then remove from the canner and leave until cold before testing the seals.
*Once canned like this your pickled asparagus will keep for a year or even longer. Pickling can be done successfully without hot water processing so long as the acidity of the vinegar / water used is high enough. Canning removes the guesswork!
MAKING EVERY HOT BUN A HAPPY BUN
Thursday April 21st 2011, 3:34 pm
Whilst once upon a time hot cross buns only turned up in the shops just before Easter, they can now be bought any old time. So one-a-penny, two-a-penny, hot cross buns are now ten-a-penny, having lost their seasonal specialness. I try each year to make my own, even if it is only just once and the buns turn out far superior to anything shop bought. Even using mixed spice from an old packet that has sat in the cupboard for just about forever, you make a better bun. But it is only when you actually grind and blend the spice mixture yourself, moments before baking, that you learn to appreciate what a difference really fresh spices make to the taste. With a comparative whiff of your own fresh and zestful mixture alongside an already opened packet of the shop-bought sort, it is blatantly obvious that one is doing a merry dance with the occasional pirouette whilst the other is wearing misshapen Ugg boots and dragging its feet in a slovenly fashion.
It really is worth taking a little extra time to grind your own spice blend. Use whole spices that are as fresh as they can be, but even with whole spices you’ve had a while, if you grind them yourself just before you need them, they’ll will have bags more flavour than ones already ground that have sat on the supermarket shelf for who knows how long.
I do have an old Moulinex grinder somewhere that I use just for grinding spices but haven’t a clue where I’ve put it, and am certainly not prepared to allow my coffee grinder to be tainted with spice. So on this occasion I pounded and ground the spices by hand with a pestle and mortar, which is a job I very quickly tire of, but I got the result I wanted in the end. I do think some help from an electrical appliance is the best option.
If you use lots of mixed spice, you’ll be able to adapt the blend to suit your own tastes and tweak the amounts accordingly. Can’t say I’m that tuned in to it yet, but here is the blend I made for my hot cross buns that I am very satisfied with. Perhaps next time I’ll try a bit more cardamon and add some fennel seeds as well. I didn’t have a cinnamon stick so did add my cinnamon and ginger ready ground.
2tsp whole allspice
1 1/2 tsp whole cloves
2tsp freshly ground nutmeg (probably best to grate it separately first)
2tsp ground ginger
2tsp ground cinnamon or ground fresh from a cinnamon stick
1/2 tsp coriander whole seeds
4 blades of mace, broken up
seeds from 4 cardamon pods
Grind them all together to a fine powder. Keep in a well-sealed jar and label with the date.
I’m not partial to tasteless flour paste crosses on my buns though can appreciate the tidy result. I cut my crosses with a razor blade just before the risen buns went in the oven and this gives a much more haphazard, somewhat charming homemade look. You can of course make them non-denominational if you prefer and dispense with the cross altogether.
HOT CROSS BUNS
Makes 16 buns
500g strong white flour
7g packet of fast acting yeast
60g soft brown sugar
2 heaped tsp of mixed spice
1 tsp salt
60g butter, melted
1 egg, beaten
grated zest of 1 lemon (optional)
60g candied peel **
250ml milk, slightly warmed
For the sticky glaze:
Place all of the ingredients except the currants in a food mixer with a dough hook and mix to a sticky dough for 5 minutes. You can of course use a bowl and combine by hand, but the mixture is quite soft and sticky. Add the currants and stir them through the dough. Cover the bowl with a tea towel and leave in a warm place for a couple of hours or a cold place for 4-6 hours until the dough has more than doubled in size.
Punch the dough down and empty the bowl’s contents onto a floured board then knead it for 2 minutes, incorporating more flour if needed to make a manageable, smooth dough. Form the dough into an even circle, cut into 4 equal pieces then cut each of these quarters into 4. Form each piece into a bun shape and place with some space between, on greased baking trays. Cover with tea towels and leave to rise and double in size. This will take as little as 30 minutes in a warm kitchen, or a couple of hours in a cool room.
Pre-heat the oven to 220C (425F, Mk7). Slash a cross in the top of each bun with a sharp knife or blade just before they go in the oven. Bake the buns for 15 minutes until lightly browned. Remove from oven and whilst hot brush generously with sugar glaze. To make this, dissolve the sugar in the water in a pan and bring to the boil.
** I didn’t have any candied citrus peel in the house so used some candied melon peel, which gives texture, but without the tang, so then added 2 Tbsp chunky cut marmalade to the mixture as well. (I’m telling you this, not to confuse you but to encourage you to make things up as you go along!)
A SEED PLANTING MASTERCLASS
Saturday April 16th 2011, 11:48 am
Well this week I managed to get my asparagus bed planted, which felt like no mean feat. The soil needed a lot of attention and I took great care to remove any perennial roots I could find as I sifted through it, as all the books tell you you must. When the asparagus crowns were safely in their straddling positions and covered with earth, instead of feeling a great sense of achievement I was positively down in the dumps; only 2 more years to wait for a crop. Whoopee, roll on 2013! By then I’ll be two years older but hey, I’ll be eating my own homegrown asparagus. I don’t seem to have quite the right attitude, do I?
Anyway, what next? Time to plant some seeds to fill in the gaps around my fruit bushes. I love buying the packets with inspiring pictures of my prospective crops on the front, but you really do have to get them in some compost as they don’t do that themselves. I decided to go visit my friend Shelley, who is a brilliant gardener and font of horticultural knowledge, for a masterclass in seed sowing. She will surely give me the inspirational uoomph I seem to be currently lacking to restore my gardening mojo.
Shelley is really into growing veg. She grows some for her local show and the competitive bug has well and truly taken hold. Her garden is set out in quite a formal way, with geometric shaped raised beds all working towards central focal points, in the style of a classic parterre with finials on every corner. There is a four sided regency arch with a chandelier hanging from the centre which will soon have sweet peas and climbing beans scrambling over it. The difference with Shelley’s planting style is that she fills the beds with vegetables and uses them in a decorative way. So instead of the beds being edged with box hedging, she uses broad beans with green stakes, or leeks growing for showing in terracotta tubes. Each year the planting changes as the crops rotate. She starts her potatoes off in small pots of compost then plants them as part of the pattern, planting and earthing up in one fell swoop. The soil looks amazing and she is the best person I know to consult when I want to know just what particular element a certain crop will need, beit more nitrogen or a little potash to get the best results.
First she showed me some seedlings that she hadn’t grown from seed. Both of us seem to have arrived at the point where we have realised it can be unproductive to want to grow absolutely everything. Sometimes being over ambitious can be a problem. Though we both share a love for unusual plant varieties we’ve concluded it’s better to grow a good classic, great tasting spud than some weird purple sort that only looks good in a photo. There is always room for experimentation but the best flavoured crops are now a priority. Shelley has some dill seedlings that were bought as one pot from Homebase which she then split to make six very healthy looking plants. That would suit me fine too. I need some dill for my pickling, so this would also work well for me. No need to always invest in a whole packet of seed.
Next she planted up a tray of her special Serbian pole beans. She’d been given this bean some years ago and saves more seed each year. This bean apparently has a very fine flavour, can be eaten fresh but stores well when dried. Perfect for my preserving garden. The compartments of a recycled seed tray were filled with Shelley’s specially mixed seed compost and a bean was pushed into each one, covered with a bit more compost, et voila, that was easy enough.
Shelley showed me her trick for broad beans, where she germinates the beans in a plastic bag partly filled with compost, just throwing her handful of beans inside, tying the bag and placing it by her Rayburn for a few days. It is also a good way of testing the viability of the seed if it has been hanging around for a while. This means that only germinated seeds get planted and avoids any gaps in the rows that you sometimes find when planting straight into the ground.
Seeds that traditionally would be sown straight in the ground and resent root disturbance can still be started off in pots, but for these a biodegradable pot works best. Beetroots and parsnips fit into this category. Shelley had some paper pots already made from newspaper for this job using a paper potter. The beetroot seeds contain several seeds in a cluster, so it is only necessary to put one seed per pot. By the time they are ready for planting out the newspaper will easily disintegrate and allow the roots to work their way out into the surrounding soil.
As the rows of seeds were sown each was labeled to avoid any confusion later on. All the seeds were lightly covered with compost except some romanesco brassica seeds that like to be planted on the soils surface. For these a light sprinkling of vemiculite neatly finished them off. All the seeds were given a sprinkling of water from the watering can then placed out of the way to germinate, in Shelley’s case on a shelf in a cold greenhouse.
So spurred on I set of back home, my tray of Serbian pole beans on the car seat beside me as well as a globe artichoke plant and a bunch of freshly picked lovage. I’m now feeling full of enthusiasm to get planting. As Shelley opened the gate for me to drive away, I thought I’d give something back in return and handed her a very healthy looking Jerusalem artichoke that just happened to be sitting in a bag in the car, recently collected from someone on Freecycle, who had offered them for free. They are the plumpest, healthiest artichokes I’ve ever seen in my life! Shelley was also suitably impressed with their quality and happily accepted my gift. That’s the great thing about gardeners, simple things can mean such a lot.