new skills

Window Box Gardening

This year has seen a great deal of change, as I moved into my own place, which gave me both more and less space to grow my herbs and vegetables. I’m now in a first floor flat with no actual garden so instead of my small container garden I now have a collection of window boxes to work with, along with some ikea hanging baskets in my kitchen.

I wasn’t sure if my herbs would survive their summary removal from a container on the patio into a window box, so I gave them a few weeks sitting in my living room to settle before I put them back outside again. Apparently they liked my living room a bit too much as within a month of being outside my kitchen window they were universally looking like the saddest herbs on the planet.

It’s not been a good year for herbs in general chez moi. All the herbs I’d bought for my kitchen planters have died a death. In fact the only thing I’ve planted in my hanging kitchen planter that hasn’t keeled over is an Aloe Vera plant. Which nearly keeled over in the other direction as I’ve had to turn the planter round so that its leaning toward the sunshine doesn’t tip the whole thing out on the floor!

One thing that has been an unmitigated success is my bay tree. Having been a small but resilient little container tree on the patio for the last couple of years, when I moved somewhere without a garden I planned to return it to my parents care. (Their own Bay Tree that mine is an offshoot from, had died a death the previous year.) It was a shame, my friend M noted while helping me move, it looked good in my living room. After some consultation with green-fingered friends we concluded that it should be fine as long as it got plenty of light, so I found it a sunny spot, watered it regularly and hoped for the best. Reader, it thrived. It’s got at least a foot taller, I had to re-pot it into a bigger tub and it’s never looked healthier.

This summer I tried out window box gardening for the first time. Between spring arriving late and being generally busy with the move I didn’t actually get any seeds in the soil until June. I planted a row each of carrots and spring onions in one box and a row each of radishes and pak choi in the other. I didn’t have high hopes for them but I reckoned it as better to try then just look sadly at those empty window boxes all summer. Yet to my surprise, the sunshine and showers that marked June meant that my radishes and pak choi burst into enthusiastic life to the extent of needing thinned out. My carrots looked pathetic and my spring onions never broke the surface – I suspect bird interference – but I began to have hopes about salad.

However, come July we had a heat-wave, and I returned from a week away for work to find that my pak choi and radishes had both shot beyond rescue, so all I got from that box were some rather pretty yellow and pink-purple flowers. After last year’s spinach disappointment, I suspect salad leaves are not going to be my thing.

However, to my surprise, the carrots rallied. I’d decided to grow a miniature variety and miniature they certainly were. But I did at least get enough carrots to do something with. I was able to get enough to eat boiled with dinner one night, and during my sushi experiments baby carrots proved to be the perfect size to quarter and use as batons. Also they may have been tiny, but they packed a disproportionate punch of taste. I’ve never eaten carrots with such flavour so despite their unimpressive showing, I’ll definitely be giving them a second try next year.

I have had one last success in my window box gardening. I noticed the other day that my chive plant – previously thought dead – was showing some fresh green shoots among the dead husks. So I’ve carefully cleared away the dead stems and other debris and it looks that I might yet have a chive plant – and who knows I’ve seen that mint plant come back from worse in previous years…

Categories: growing my own, nablopomo, new skills | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Baked Comfort

Over the last few months I’ve been getting more adventurous with my oven usage. After something of a false start when I first moved in where it turned out the thermostat wire had melted through, I’ve been slowly getting the hang of my new oven. The rule of thumb appears to be, 10-20˚C lower than the recipe/packet suggests and 5-10 minutes less cooking time (180˚C on the middle shelf seems to be sweet spot of the oven) and you’ll be just dandy.

To my great delight – and relief! – unlike my last place’s oven, this one actually bakes cakes and buns properly, no more half-cooked blueberry muffins for me! They don’t weld themselves to the paper cases anymore either! I’ve now successfully made two different kinds of muffins (rhubarb ones and apple and cinnamon varieties) in the oven so I feel more able to be more adventurous with my baking again. I didn’t realise how much frustration and uncertainty about whether they’d come out okay had curtailed my baking.

Apple cinnamon muffins

The somewhat temperamental nature of the previous ovens meant I really only made pasta bakes and pies in it – though an honourable mention needs to be made for the delightful discovery of baked eggs. It’s been rather fun experimenting with roasted vegetables – I may never again eat sweet potatoes any other way – as it’s opened up a whole bunch of recipes that I previously avoided as they started with ‘first roast the vegetables’ and it was too much of a faff. It really does improve the flavour of a surprising number of vegetables.

I’ve also successfully made bread in the oven now – even if only from packet mix so far – something I never risked attempting in either of the ovens at my old place. Before I moved to Inverness I used to bake bread, not all the time, but at least on a regular basis. I’d got pretty good at making soda bread, and it became a ritual to make it every time I made pea and mint soup, something I now only really do when I’m home visiting my parents for Xmas. I’d forgotten in the interim, how easy and satisfying I find making – most, ciabatta never comes out right for me – bread until I had the dough under my fists pummelling it gently into submission. There’s a special kind of joy in going to check on my proving dough and finding it successfully doubled in size. In the way my whole flat smelled of warm bread for a good 24 hours afterwards, and the repeated pleasure I got every time I opened the breadbox to be greeted by the scent. The way the loaf was exactly the right size for me to have eaten it all before it went off, and the satisfaction of making sandwiches for lunch with it, the added pleasure of the casual ‘that looks nice bread’ comments from colleagues to which I could proudly respond ‘thanks, I made it myself’. There are few more comforting scents than fresh bread you made yourself, I find. An olfactory hug if you will.
Cheese and tomato bread!Cheese and tomato bread sliced!

Categories: feeling philisophical, new skills | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Missing Sushi

One of the things I miss most after moving to the Highlands, is Japanese food. I had been thoroughly spoiled in the Central Belt always being under an hour away from decent Japanese food.

One of my friends likes to entertain her work colleagues when we’re meeting up for sushi dates, telling them that she’s going for sushi with the friend that introduced her to sushi – and that said friend does not eat fish. Which is funny and also true. I don’t eat fish.

The first time I ate sushi, it was at Yo Sushi on Oxford Street and the friends I went with encouraged me to eat the veggie options and work up to the raw fish. I ate and loved the veggie options and chickened out of the raw fish, but I was determined so I went again when I was back in Glasgow, gave my friend the same advice and savoured all the veggie options while she fell head over heels for the raw fish element. Somewhere along the way I became a vegetarian and she was diagnosed with coeliac disease and sushi became our go to dinner choice because it easily accommodated both our dietary requirements.

Anyway…

I love and miss eating sushi on the regular – the M&S veggie sushi option is better than nothing but all too often a disappointment – and then I realised that I could just, learn to make it myself! I could get the ingredients and the kit fairly easily, learn to roll sushi – I got a book from the library and where that failed youtube came to my rescue – and then make myself cute little bento boxes of sushi for lunch. (Tasty and Instagrammable!)

I started out with sushi balls which are apparently the easiest to make, and while the first few fell apart a bit when eaten, I got the hang of compressing them properly and the later ones in the batch could be safely dipped in soy sauce without collapsing.

My second attempt was in making sushi rolls of the conical variety which seemed a manageable step up in complexity. However this was stymied by the fact that I’d accidentally picked up nori strips rather than sheets so they were too narrow for my purpose. And honestly for most practical purposes as far as I can tell, as they’re about the width you want a maki to be but not long enough to actually hold one together. Perhaps cut into even thinner strips to hold pressed sushi and it’s topping together? I’m not sure you could even make the little sushi boats – whose proper name I’ve forgotten – with them. So the experiment went on hold until I could get hold of some nori sheets.

Once I’d acquired more sensibly sized nori sheets I cooked up another batch of rice – much better consistency this time, and I suspect using actual sushi seasoning rather than making my own from the recipe book helped – and took another run at it. My sushi cones were less than successful, but after some trial and error with the sushi mat I think I’m beginning to get the hang of rolling maki – I have a tendency to over load my nori with rice and not leave room for the filling. But with practice I’m definitely getting better at both general rice handling and also at properly portioning out my rice. My rolls are still chunkier than I’d like but I can now make futomaki that I wouldn’t be ashamed to take to work in my lunchbox even if I’m not quite ready to serve them to anyone else yet!

I may however, need to invest in an actual sushi knife, either that or a whetstone, as apparently I don’t own a single knife sharp enough to be able to cut sushi rolls in an easy or neat fashion!

Sushi

Categories: being veggie, challenges, new skills | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Growing My Own

After last year’s success with herbs, this year I decided to try my hand at growing some vegetables. I kept things simple by only trying two things – I figured that growing vegetables from seed was adventurous enough for one year – and picking varieties that were supposedly good for container growing.

I had high hopes for my spinach – cut and come-again variety – which got off to an early and promising start. Unfortunately it proved to be disappointingly insipid in flavour, and I never quite master the cut and come-again aspect of the process.

Growing Things

My spring onions on the other hand were an unmitigated success. They got off to a slow start, as it wasn’t until mid-July that I had any worth picking, but once they got going, I had a veritable glut of them. My favourite part of growing spring-onions is that you can leave them in the ground and just pull them as you need them. So I could just pick two or three as I needed them. Also I’d under-estimated the germination rate of the seeds thus had planted them too densely. So once I had made first few croppings (picking the biggest ones, that had pushed their bulbs out of the soil, as per the internet’s collective wisdom) I found that the remaining bulbs spread out into the new space and bulked up in turn. Oh and the flavour of those more mature plants was something else, as a friend of mine put it, less of a strong onion flavour and more of green flavour. The polar opposite of my bland and insipid spinach. I’ve never been much of one for raw spring onions, but I found myself garnishing all sorts of things with these piquant little fellows. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to go back to their bland supermarket compatriots over the winter…

Spring Onion Omlette

My herbs have been rather less successful this year. After thinking that my mint had died a death in a late snow, I was delighted to find that it made a stellar recovery, only for my rosemary to wither and die for no obvious reason. (More experienced gardeners suggested it had wet feet, but as it was in exactly the same level of drainage as it had thrived in the previous year, I have my doubts.) Also while my parsley is still struggling away, struggling is definitely the word, as it has remained pretty much the same size since I cut it back after it’s attempts to take over the world last year. Though the purple sage has definitely benefited from the parsley’s downfall, as I’ve had far more sage than I could possibly eat.

I decided to try a different herb preservation technique this year, I was brave and attempted to dry my herbs in the oven. The version that worked for me, was to lay out all my herbs on an oven tray while my dinner was cooking in the oven, and put them in the very bottom of the oven once it was switched off (but still warm) shut the door and leave them to toast gently while I ate dinner and washed the dishes. So far I’m quite happy with the results, and the little grinder that I bought for the purpose is now full of ‘mixed garden herbs’ (mint, thyme, sage and a few left over bay leaves).

Dried Herbs

Categories: challenges, growing my own, new skills | Tags: | Leave a comment

Homegrown Adventures

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything here on a regular basis, but I wouldn’t want you to think that I’ve not been cooking in the interim. Perhaps not cooking as much as I’d like, but certainly cooking and even occasionally being adventurous. This month has largely involved cooking from my garden and the gardens of various friends.

We’ll start with my own garden adventures. In the Spring of this year, I finally got round to starting my own, long wished-for, container herb garden. I started with a basic selection of herbs to see what worked and what didn’t. And more importantly, what I cooked with and what I didn’t. Apple-mint, thyme, rosemary, parsley, purple sage and lavender. I was warned about the prolific nature of mint, so kept it in its own container within my larger herb container, but honestly it was the parsley that nearly took over the world. I have eaten a lot of parsley this year, I had no choice, it was that or watch helplessly as it colonised the entire container. I’ve used it as a substitute for coriander, I’ve used as a garnish on all sorts of things, I’ve cooked it in soups and omelettes. Never has my food been so well seasoned as it was this summer.

Tiny herb garden ahoy

Having only narrowly avoided drowning under the parsley, I didn’t have a great deal of a rosemary crop, but having gone to such effort to save it, I felt the urge to do something special with what I did salvage. So I decided to make herb infused oil. Over the last month or so, a jar of oil has been gently infusing on a sunny window-sill, its burden of rosemary and thyme getting an occasional shake on the passing. Some of it has even been bottled into a pretty little gift bottle. So I guess I better start cooking with my own share, in its rather more prosaiccontainer: a former jar of mayonnaise.
Herb oil

More recently I’ve acquired a Bay Tree, which, as the Autumn as turned, has reminded me that there are other ways to preserve herbs for the winter. As beautiful as my purple sage is to look at, I’ve hardly cooked with it. So I’m attempting to dry some in two different ways to see which works best. One set are being tied up in a cool dark place to air-dry and the other are going in the bottom of the oven on as low a setting as I can get it. We’ll see which works best.

This Autumn has seen the most extraordinary glut of apples. Almost everyone I know with an Apple Tree (and a few more I didn’t even know had one) has been pressing bags of apples onto everyone they know this year. I ended up with unexpectedly red cooking apples – the owner of the tree claims that every other year they’ve been green – that ended up becoming parsnip and apple soup, and several mini apple pies. I also ended up with nearly 3kg of proper tiny crab apples. (I could have had more if I wanted. They’re owner just got sick of picking them she had so many.) The only thing to really do with them was make jelly, so I ended up buying a jelly bag and getting the pure and ridiculous joy of straining them overnight, like a small scale version of my mother’s jelly-making shenanigans from my childhood.

Cooking Crab ApplesStraining the Apples

It took me…a while…to get the jelly to set, but I did finally manage it, so I now have a ridiculous hodge-podge of sizes and shapes of jars of apple jelly. The real mystery of which, now that the excitement and novelty of finally achieving jelly has faded a little, is emerging. Why, if the apples were yellow, the juice that I extracted post straining was yellow and the sugar was white, is my jelly, a bright vibrant red?
Apple Jelly!

Categories: being veggie, challenges, nablopomo, new skills | Leave a comment

Bake More Often 2/10: Baking from the Big List

Well, at least one of my foodie resolutions is going well. So far this year I’ve baked three times, which is the same amount that I managed all year in 2014 and its only March! Today I want to talk about the two items I made that were also on my big 30 recipes list (I’m now up to 23 recipes tried) which is an extra kind of progress.

Technically one of those baking incidents was actually two because it was across the Friday and Saturday of an epic weekend of baking. Why am I calling it one baking incident instead of two? Well it’s silly really, but when it comes down to it, as a novice cook, determined to learn to cook properly there’s a lot of snobbery out there about ‘cheating’ at cooking. (Bless Delia Smith for her campaigning against this kind of nonsense, I may not want to cook her recipes but, she’s a kitchen legend for a reason.) I stand by my statement that life’s too short to make your own puff pastry, yet still that little niggly voice says ‘well, its not really baking, is it’. Which is nonsense. Between pummelling the pastry into submission so they didn’t attempt to take over the world, carefully trimming the sausages to fit perfectly, and making sure the rolls stuck together properly, it certainly felt like baking. Also I suspect I’ve ruined their mini frozen cousins for myself which to me is always a sign that I’ve done some proper cooking. Next stop learning to make my own veggie sausages for them!

Lazy Sausage Rolls

The other bake that I want to talk about is the batch of Bite-size Pinwheel Snacks that I made as a Cheerio Biscuits for my workmates on my last day working there. Normally when recipes say ‘tiny’ or ‘bite-size’ they aren’t even close – and make you wonder about the size of said chef’s mouth – but these actually are, perfect when you’re baking for a team of people where at least half of them are on diets. They are a bit of a challenge though they actually look more complex than they are. The mixture is really quite dry (not an egg in sight!) and I was quite worried for a while about it coming together until I thought to just get my hands in there and knead it into submission (you add the chocolate to half the mixture by kneading it in so I figured that it couldn’t hurt) after which it behaved much better. They turn out to have a pleasantly short-bready texture to them, which I enjoy. Due to not actually liking chocolate as a child – I’m still much more a crisp hand even now – baked goods in my childhood were chocolate free and it mostly doesn’t occur to me to use it when I’m baking myself now. To the extent that when I came to having to buy cocoa powder and was faced with the range of options I plumped desperately for the ones I’d seen in my Inverness flatmate’s cupboard – he made really good chocolate brownies, alright! So this was actually my first attempt at cooking with chocolate and my goodness you get in a glorious mess! Oddly enough the most frustrating bit of the process isn’t weighing and dividing the mixture or even rolling the two batches together like a swiss-roll, but having to chill the mixture in the fridge for half an hour – twice! The first time was fine, it gives you time to do the dishes, but second time round I’d run out of things to do. Definitely one to do on days when you’re making several different things. Mine weren’t as neat and tidy as the recipe-book picture, but I’m sure I’ll get tidier with practice.

Bitesize Pinwheels

Categories: bake more often, challenges, new skills | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Soda Bread Success

I have a culinary success to report. A couple of years ago I got caught up in all the hype around making your own bread – they made it look so easy on the Bake Off – and decided that the next step on my path to becoming a fully rounded cook, was to learn to make bread. Also my beloved Lorraine Pascale cook books had a whole selection of breads in them and well, she’d never led me wrong before so I felt confident that this was a thing I could master. I started myself off simply enough with rolls (which were decent) and English muffins (which were delicious) so I felt ready to tackle an actual loaf. I love Italian food so I thought focaccia would be the best place to start….this was NOT the case. My mum, who watches far more cookery programmes than I do, assures me that actually it’s a bit of a finicky bread and the art is in the proving so is not really the best place to start with bread making, but all I know is that I’ve tried to make it several times to different recipes (including one of those little packet mixes that are supposed to make it easy) with results that varied from ‘a bit rubbish’ to inedible. I was, I must confess, a bit scunnered with bread making.

However, when I put together my original 30 recipes list, I put soda bread down on it as here was a bread that required no proving, and after my most recent jaunt over to Belfast in October I was reminded how much I like soda bread and wanted to learn to make it myself. I spent all of November procrastinating over the subject, gathering what I needed to make it and generally making excuses to not get round to it. This weekend I determined I was going to make it, for two reasons, one I hate admitting defeat and two if I didn’t make it soon the buttermilk was going to go off and I hate wasting food.

So today I made soda bread. I stuck with Lorraine – because she’s right 90% of the time – and just adjusted for taste (no treacle as I hate the taste of treacle). It was quite an unusual process because it’s quite a sticky dough (the temptation to add more flour is great!) and you don’t knead it for very long, nor do you leave it to rise at all. The only effect the lack of treacle seemed to have was that I couldn’t get the nice smooth finish to the dough when I shaped it. Otherwise it all went well, it cooked away in the oven and once done it had a promisingly hollow sound.

Soda Bread

It was approximately twice the size of the loaf you see in the picture, because the instructions said ‘serve warm from the oven’ so we cut a couple of slices to see how it was and ended up eating half the loaf warm with butter. I was also instructed that I’m to bring a loaf for the family festive celebrations, as it will go perfectly with the pea and mint soup I’m making. So I think we can call this one a resounding success!

Slice

Victory over (soda) bread is mine!

Categories: new skills | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.