new skills

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

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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!

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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

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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!


Victory over (soda) bread is mine!

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