Tuesday, 11 August 2009

I've Moved....

This is just a quick post to say that I've moved my blog to my own domain. Please come and check it out at:


All the posts that are here on blogger are there too but all new posts will be on the new domain.

The most recent post is on the #BPRSummit on Monday 10 August where UK food bloggers and PR's met to discuss how they might forge better relationships. Read it here

Hope you stop by the new site soon.

Thanks :)

PS I'm still building my blogroll of favourite blogs so please bear with me whilst I add you to the new site.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Feeling flowery in veggie heaven

Last week I took part in Dan of Food Urchin’s dinner blogging challenge (called ‘Where’s my pork chop?’). Basically I cooked him some dinner and in return I got, well these:

There loads of potatoes, beans and courgettes hiding under the kale

I’m going to be blogging what I cooked for Dan in a separate post so check back for that in the next few days. Here I want to tell you some of what I’ve done with the veg so far.

Dan had been down to his allotment bright and early on the day of the swap and picked me a selection of goodies in their prime. In the bag were charlotte potatoes, curly kale, green (French) beans, courgettes and COURGETTE FLOWERS ☺. I’d been hoping for some of the latter as I’ve only tried them once before and they aren’t that easy to buy. We’ve tried to grow our own courgettes this year but we aren’t having much success so far (the first lot of seeds didn’t germinate) so I was particularly delighted with the flowers.

Of course as everything had been picked only a few hours before I took the picture above the veg were absolutely bouncing with freshness. I was pretty pleased with my haul and it really demonstrated how lovely and fresh veg can be when their distance from the ground to the kitchen is short. I now have allotment envy.

So what I have I done with the veg so far?

Well as recommended by Dan I did some of the kale with oil and chilli. I actually steamed it first then gave it a quick sauté in rapeseed oil and chilli flakes. It was really good, the kale still had a little bit of crunch to it and the chilli complemented the slight bitterness that is inherent in brassicas like kale. I’ll definitely try it like this again and venture out into varying the spice choice as well.

The potatoes are just brilliant. One of my gripes about potatoes is that its not that easy to get ones that taste of anything much but when you do WOW instead of thinking potatoes taste kind of bland and nothingy you realise they have an earthy sweetness all of their own. Dan’s potatoes hit the mark on this – I assume its because they were straight from the ground. So far we’ve had them simply boiled and also crushed and cooked with some onion. Yum.

The beans and the courgettes we’ve steamed and tossed in a little oil or butter – again when things are this fresh they can shine on their own.

And the flowers?



Well searching in cookbooks, on the internet and tweeting all seemed to point to stuffing the flowers, dipping in a tempura batter and deep-frying. Hmmmmm. I’ve never deep-fried anything; I don’t own a deep fat fryer, I too vividly recall close calls with chips pans in the 1970s (and that safety advert they used to run) to suddenly think that deep-frying them is the way to go. I also don’t want to experiment with a new technique on my precious courgette flowers – imagine if it goes wrong…..after a bit more thinking and searching I decide to just have them fresh and perky as they are in a salad but I do go with the flavours that many of the deep fried recipes suggest i.e. fresh soft cheese and herbs.


I simply tore the flowers and tossed them with the rest of the salad (rocket, basil, lollo rosso, tomato, cucumber) before adding some of my favourite Buxlow Wonmil cheese and drizzling with a little oil. The flowers aren’t particularly strong in flavour but they add a both a different colour and texture to the salad. They are curiously soft yet slightly crunchy at the same time and a good addition.

I guess if I get more flowers I might dare to experiment with deep-frying but for now I’m happy I stuck to adding my flowers to a salad. (Dan – more flowers please….)

Friday, 24 July 2009

Boxed in

About a month ago I was contacted by the PR firm for Abel & Cole asking if I’d like to try one of their veg boxes for free, well in exchange for doing a review of it on my blog, after all nothing is truly free; although I figured they’d have a hard time trying to enforce the contract if I just scoffed the food then did nothing.

Legal matters aside there was, of course, the issue of whether to accept a freebie and whether you can write an objective review of something you didn’t pay for. In actual fact can you write an objective review, full stop, whether you paid for something or got it free? As anyone who has spent more than five minutes reading up on social science concepts well knows, along with there being no such thing as a free lunch, there is no such thing as an objective (re)view. The best we can hope for is that people openly state their position and try to balance both sides of any debate.


So in the spirit of this here is my position:

I’m female, white, middleclass, over 35, married, management job blah blah blah. In fact how come I’ve not been buying Abel & Cole every week since they started I must be in their core demographic? Well that’s because although I’m keen on organic and local and stuff like that I also like shopping (some might say rather too much), so the idea of a box with my weekly food shop in just turning up on the doorstep has never quite worked as a concept for me. I’ve toyed with the idea a lot on and off, looked stuff up on the web, found different schemes, been tempted by recent money off ‘junk-mail’ offers from both A&C and Riverford but never taken the plunge.

But now I was being offered the chance to try it for free! So of course I said yes.

Now before we continue lets just be clear here that Abel & Cole have approached quite a number of bloggers with the same offer and many have said yes. It’s fuelled an existing debate about freebies and ‘bloggers as reviewers’ that I’m not going to expand on here (suffice to say mud was thrown along with the term ‘blaggers’). I think that as long as people are clear that something was free, that it fits with what they normally blog about and that they try their best to be objective then readers can judge for themselves – and I’m sure the readers do. Its also means that there been plenty said already so I’d suggest you go and look at the other reviews as well - I’ve listed some at the end.

Because remember:

THIS IS JUST MY OPINION BASED ON A SAMPLE OF ONE

What then was my experience of the box scheme. I guess it can be summed up in one word:

AMBIVALENCE. Yes that’s right ambivalence.

Look at the size of that lettuce!


Why? Well let’s go through and score the whole thing on some measures (not out of ten but as YES or NO or INDIFFERENT):

Ordering = INDIFFERENT

I didn’t use the online system but just took the standard box. I’ve looked at the online system since and it looks ok but no better or worse than similar offerings. So no real advantage here but some sites are far worse.

Delivery options = NO

A big fat NO in fact. They tell you what day they deliver to your area and it could be at anytime of day. Where I live it’s a Thursday but pity the people who are on a Monday. I’m not at all keen on the goods turning up when it suits their schedule. On this occasion they turned up before I went out for the day but I wasn’t pleased to find a whole box of veg on the doorstep at 7am when I was about to leave for a meeting that I then had to divert my attention to and deal with (the veg not the meeting). I’m also not that thrilled with the idea of it sitting on the doorstep all day - the only place they can put it being in the recycling bins! So this doesn’t work for me. I’ve used Ocado quite a bit (I’ll come onto whether its for comparable things) and you select your day and time down to an hour. The price varies accordingly but in this case you get what you pay for. With A&C its 99p for it to turn up when it suits them and for Ocado it can be as much as £6 to have it turn up when suits you. I guess it depends on how much you value the ability to say when you want it delivered. For me this is one of the biggest losing points.

Quantity = YES

It looked like you got a lot of stuff in the box and for 2 people (it was a medium box) it was certainly plenty for a week.

Hmmm its a bit of a squeeze in here

Variety = NO

The medium box is billed as for 2-3 people and although there was lots of quantity there was less in the name of variety which would mean you might get bored before the week was out or you could end up wasting stuff or you’d still need to go and buy more stuff e.g. there was lettuce and spring onions but no other salad stuff. You can of course substitute things or add extras.

Accuracy = INDIFFERENT

Sorry call me pernickety I but expect 100% accuracy when the contents are only listed on the site 2 weeks in advance of delivery. I was so looking forward to little gem lettuce but that’s not what I got. Irritating. With Ocado (and others) you can at least decline the substitution.

Seasonal/Local = NO

I have to give it this because you should not be able to suggest the box is seasonal when it contains APPLES. They are not in season in the UK so must have been shipped half way round the world. Now of course in winter this could lead to a box full of turnip week in week out but considering this was late June there must have been something more local and seasonal than apples from the Southern hemisphere. I don’t think that something that is so good in the UK when its in season should be put in the box out of season. Things we can’t grow here might be a different matter but things we can and in fact we are good at should be optional extras for those who want them not standard items. Imagine what I’d have to say if they sent me asparagus in February…..

Labelling = NO

There is no indication on the produce or the receipt where the items have come from (except I’m hoping the Jersey Royals came from Jersey). In the supermarket it either states the country or in the case of much UK produce the county and even the farmer it’s from. The farm shop can and does do the same. Come on A&C this isn’t good enough. On the website it supposed to show what is local (for which I read UK generally rather than local to me specifically as I understand much of the stuff is from the South West) but it should also be clear on the receipt, and be more specific.

Quality = INDIFFERENT

The apples were woolly and tasteless, as you’d expect for something shipped from somewhere random in the Southern hemisphere at the end of their season. The beetroot were mixed – some giant and woody, some good. The broad beans were very fresh but big and rather floury. The chard was giant but tasty and fresh. The green cabbage was huge but good, sweet and fresh. The lettuce was fine but wilted quickly and was therefore too large, lots got wasted. The Jersey Royals were fine but quite large so end of very first crop and average taste wise. Melon, ripe and smelled lovely but taste was bit watery. Nectarines were rock hard on arrival then suddenly ripened and started to go off; tasted good at their peak. Spring onions were fine. I got the impression the standard box is the place for A&C to use up gluts that are near end of shelf life. There is no option to rummage like you might in a shop (and I include supermarkets here) or market for the best items or the cheapest or whatever floats your boat and budget.

Price = INDIFFERENT

I compared the prices on Ocado for the closet choice I could get to the box contents. I thought I’d give them a chance and I also imagined that competition wise Ocado might be a closer match than Lidl. The standard box at standard price was cheaper than Ocado (I’m ignoring delivery here just looking at produce) by several pounds, which is good but at least what I would have expected. But if you start to substitute in the box – or if you’d built it yourself then Ocado would be a few pence cheaper. Not so good.

Value = INDIFFERENT

Its clearly better produce than some options but the lack of choice for the standard offering (or the prices if you pick freely) mean that overall its probably marginally worse than something like Ocado and definitely less value than the farm shop or some of the supermarkets.

At the end of the day it depends on a balance of convenience and price. If you don’t have easy access to transport then a delivery service is great and is certainly a way to buy non-food basics even if you can get to local shops easily. But as soon as you have a choice of local shops, good farm shops or even a decent supermarket and you can get to them easily then the convenience starts to lose out over the ability to pick the items you want, see what you are getting, and at what price, and not suddenly wonder what to do with a giant lettuce that’s fading fast.

So for me my initial reluctance to sign up myself has mainly been born out – I just want to see what I’m getting before I buy my fruit and veg. But that’s me and so I can’t quite see where A&C might fit in to how I shop for food. But remember readers this is just my opinion it might work for you.

For the record I normally shop at the following places (in no particular order):

Ocado for boring basics such as cat food and kitchen roll and a few other regular things that are sufficiently uniform it doesn’t matter like butter or yoghurt or pasta. But if they substitute it almost always goes back.
Waitrose (two branches in London) for slightly less basics plus veg and meat when I can’t get to the farm shops I like. Plus wine and beer.
Several farm shops in Essex and Suffolk where I stock up on my favourite produce when I’m nearby for meat, deli products and veg.
And the occasional foray to specialist shops and markets such as Borough and Neals Yard.

Here’s some other reviews:

Food Urchin – veg box
Purely Food – veg box
Freestyle Cookery – veg box
Kavey Eats – veg/chicken, lamb/beef
Hollowlegs – veg box
Essex Eating – veg box, chicken
Oliver Thring – veg box
Gastrogeek – various items
Gourmet Chick – veg box

And I'm happy to add other A&C reviews if people let me know they have done one.

You can find Able & Cole here.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

An unexpected glut of cherry plums

Of what? Of cherry plums. What are they then?

The simple answer is they are plums that look like cherries and the trees can be found planted in many a street and garden mostly across the southern half of the country.

But you want to know more than that don’t you? Well then if you are sitting comfortably I shall begin.

© Danielle Harlow - Fotolia.com

We’ve lived in our house for nearly 12 years and when we arrived the garden was a bit ramshackle. It had been nice at one point I’m sure but the previous owner was rather old (he had lived his whole life in the house) and it had been left to get overgrown. Both garden and house were in need of a LOT of work. It was a great chance to start from scratch and not have to live with someone else’s idea of the ‘perfect’ terraced house. So we set to work. It took the best part of 8 years for the house to be completely finished and a bit like the Forth Bridge it’s now time to start decorating all over again (no walls to re-plaster though this time).

But I digress.

We have also made plenty of changes to the garden. Sadly the greenhouse hidden at the end was too rotten to save and the pond a little too large to look after. So they went. There were plants that were past their prime or couldn’t survive the severe trim they needed and others we didn’t know what to do with (or didn’t like - pampas grass anyone!). One of these was a quite young looking tree that didn’t show much promise; it was bolting for the light through the trees in our neighbours’ garden. The initial decision was that it would probably have to go. But we didn’t get round to it and then it was February and the tree came into blossom way before anything else giving a wonderful feeling of the approaching spring and providing some brightness in a wintery garden.

The tree in blossom earlier this year

So it stayed. And each year the blossom has been wonderful, sometimes as early as January but never later than the end of February. The blossom is white and because it comes so early I started to assume maybe it was some kind of almond tree.Then we started to get fruit, not many at first and often hard and green with a small stone. It didn’t really look like an almond and I never got very far in trying to find out what it was.

Plums on the tree in mid June

Then this year I became determined to find out what it was. I was spurred on by my day of wild food foraging but it wasn’t until I got a copy of The Forager Handbook (thanks @RachieGraham) that I was finally able to work out what it was. Some cross checking on the internet to confirm and just as the fruits started to be ready I knew at last that it is a cherry plum and that it is edible. And this year there seemed to be quite a lot of fruit.

Just some of the haul

So I started to collect the fruit, and I carried on collecting them, and on and on and on and on and on. And over about 3 days I collected about 15kg (I lost count somewhere I think). And then I needed to process them because eating 15kg of fruit straight off was not going to be a good idea. A couple of tweets later and I had recipes for pickled plums (thanks to @Weezos) and plum chutney (thanks to @TheAmpleCook) and some possible giveaways that in the end couldn’t be managed. Naturally I already had in mind some of my almost legendary fruit vodka so I got to work. Oh my and what work it was.

Bucolic England (Flatford Mill, 2007. copyright Jonathan Taylor (Flickr user Northstander)

When I was a ‘corporate slave’ I harboured dreams of having a little chutney and preserves business, because when you sit at a desk most of the day building spreadsheet models, writing reports and trying to keep 150 very nice solicitors in check your mind roams off into bucolic styled dreams of country England and domestic pursuits such as baking bread and making chutneys. Every now and then I would rustle up a batch of some kind of chutney and dish it out to delighted friends and family – it all seemed such fun. Well let me tell you its not so much fun if you have to do it day in day out. And I say that after only 2 ½ days of plum processing! I reckon that each kilo of plums equated to about 180 actual plums.

Just some of the 2700 plums I stoned

So I’ve stoned 2,700 plums BY HAND. I’m surprised I haven’t developed RSI. And the thing is I reckon I only got about ¼ of the total possible harvest…why? Well the tree is against our fence so half of the branches are over next-door’s garden so there’s 50% I didn’t get and then I was only collecting those that fell and were in good condition and weren’t under a prickly shrub. I took a peak under one of the shrubs and there were loads more under there so I reckon I lost another 25% that way (of the total not of the remainder – see what all those years with spreadsheets did to me). So I guess the tree had roughly 60kg of fruit on – not bad for what used to be a gangly upstart that we nearly got rid of. 

Now I have pickled plums, plum chutney, plum vodka, plum compote, bottled plums (in sweet syrup) and I’m still collecting about 500g a day……more vodka with them I think as that’s the easiest to make.

Here's the final haul

So if you’ve got a plum or damson tree watch out because I think it’s going to be a bumper summer. And if you’ve not well then don’t go too mad at the fruit farm 2½ days of fruit processing is more than enough for anyone.

Here’s some ways to deal with your own fruit glut. I’d also recommend The River Cottage Preserves Handbook for good ideas.

My Legendary Fruit Vodka

I don’t use fixed measure for this but ratios.

Select your fruit of choice and weigh it. They tip it in a large glass jar (e.g. a preserving jar with a clip lid).
Add between half to the same weight of sugar (I usually used granulated) depending on how tart the fruit is and how sweet you want the result to be.
Then pour over about 1 ¼ -1 ½ times the volume of vodka as you had weight of fruit; so if you had a 750ml bottle of vodka you’d be looking to find between 500-600g of fruit.
Add any extras you think you’d like, a shaving of lemon peel is good with damsons or sloes.
Stir it all round to get as much as the sugar to dissolve as possible.
Close the jar and leave for a minimum of 6 weeks.
Check regularly and shake to help the sugar dissolve. After the first 6 weeks test the flavour and either leave to extract more flavour or strain and bottle.
Leave the bottle to mature for a further few months minimum. It gets better with age if you can resist for long enough.

Tips:

  • If you haven’t got a large glass jar but have a glut of fruit you need to use up quickly then put everything a big non-reactive pan, cover and then track down a jar – it’ll be fine for the first few weeks in a pan.
  • You can use gin instead of vodka but remember gin already contains its own aromatics so you’ll get a different flavour. Sloes and damsons work particularly well with gin.
  • If the fruit is quite hard then you need to break the skin to allow the flavours to mix – I do this by putting the fruit in a large freezer bag and bashing it a bit with the rolling pin. If you’ve stoned the fruit (or its a soft fruit) then there’s no need to do this.
  • You might want to strain through muslin or even a coffee filter before bottling if you want a really clear result. If you don’t mind sediment there’s no need to bother.
  • Be wise whom you share the vodka with; once people have tried some they’ll always be angling for another bottle.

Plum Pickle (adapted from a series of Tweets by Weezos)


1kg plums
1ltr wine vinegar
500g sugar
100g salt
spices of your choice

Salting the plums

Stone the plums and place them in bowl sprinkling salt over each layer as you go. Leave for 12-24 hours.
Sterilise glass jars in an oven for 10 minutes at R2/150C and leave to cool.
Bring the vinegar, sugar and spices to the boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Allow to cool.
Rinse the salt from the plums and pack in jars. Cover with pickling vinegar.
Seal and allow to mature for a minimum of two weeks (longer is better) in a cool place.
Good with terrines and game dishes.

Spiced Plum Chutney (thanks to TheAmpleCook)

Nearly ready for the jars

This recipe is from Delia Smith.

3lb plums
1lb apples
3 onions
3 cloves garlic
2 heaped tsp ginger
1lb seedless raisins
1lb soft dark sugar
1lb Demerara sugar
1 pint vinegar (recipe says malt I used cider)
2 tbsp salt
2 cinnamon sticks
1oz allspice berries
1 dsp whole cloves
large non-reactive pan
6 jars

Note: you can adapt the spices to a mix of your favourites but you need roughly the same quantity, for example I had a smoked chilli in mine, and coriander because I like them.

Put the spices in a muslin square and tie it tightly with string.
Stone the plums, finely chop the apples (cored but leave on the skins), finely chop the onions and put them all in a large pan.
Crush the garlic and add it, the raisins, ginger, sugars and vinegar to the pan. Sprinkle in the salt and stir well.
Suspend the whole spices in their ‘bag’ into the pan and tie to the handle for easy removal later.
Bring to the boil and then simmer pour about 3 hours until the vinegar has almost disappeared and you have a thick, soft chutney. Remember to stir occasionally to prevent sticking.
Sterilise the jars and fill whilst both they and the chutney are still warm.
Leave to mature in a cool place for a minimum of 3 months.


Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Tasting notes: Suffolk cheeses

Early in May I took up the #livelocal challenge. I learnt lots in the first week some of which I’ve already blogged about. A big part of taking up the challenge was not just to do it for a week but try to think more about what I ate, where it came from and so explore food options closer to home. And so to one of my favourite foods – CHEESE.

England has a great history of cheese making, we came a bit unstuck in the Milk Marketing Board post-war era with many cheeses being lost and production becoming very industrialised. Things have moved on, particularly from the 1980’s onwards when the likes of Patrick Rance and Randolph Hodgson started championing and supporting small cheese producers. So we are now in a position where it’s not that hard to find great cheese; wonderful examples of classics such as Cheddar, Cheshire and Lancashire and newer varieties that draw on French, Italian and Spanish styles of cheese (such as brie and soft goats cheeses).

Now I LOVE cheese in pretty much all its guises and I’m certainly not intending to give up all time favourites like Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire just because its outside the area I defined for #livelocal. I thought it might be interesting to see what cheeses are produced more locally. It transpires that the counties in my ‘local’ area are not really renowned as dairy farming areas (neither now or historically) and so there isn’t a plethora of cheeses to choose from. There’s some scathing comments in Patrick Rance’s book from 17C on Suffolk ‘flet’ cheese are being ‘mean’ – it was made with skimmed milk so probably wasn’t very rich in flavour. Undeterred I decided I’d take it county by county and see what I could find.

First up is Suffolk, mainly because I already knew of some cheeses I really love and I wanted to find more. On a recent short break in Suffolk I did a bit of cheese exploring and I came up with a cheese board of five contrasting cheeses and I’m hoping there are others I’ve still to try.

The cheeses are (L-R on the board):

Buxlow Paigle, Buxlow Wonmil, Hawkston, Shipcord, Suffolk Blue.

So what were they like?

Buxlow Paigle: This is a relatively firm textured off white cheese. Its smooth, with a nice mild tang, its quite moist and a bit like (although less crumbly than) a very mild Wenslydale. It’s made from pasteurised cow’s milk on a small farm in Friston near Aldeburgh. There is also an apple wood smoked version; I didn’t taste it this time but it worked well on a wonderful rarebit I had recently.

Buxlow Wonmil: Okay lets be honest here, this is one of my all time favourite cheeses and part of my inspiration for doing this tasting. Anyway it is quite a soft cheese, a little in texture like goats cheese but not as crumbly. It’s very young and therefore soft, fresh and tangy with a lovely lemony-ness. It’s very white in colour and is sold at only two days old. It’s a classic fresh cheese that you don’t find that much in the UK. I love it in frittata but its great on the cheese board too providing a nice contrast to harder cheeses. Again it’s a cow’s milk cheese and in case you couldn’t guess from the name it’s made on the same farm in Friston as the paigle. As you can see I love it.

Hawkston: Made from unpasteurised cow’s milk and matured for 3-5 months this is slightly crumbly and quite tangy. It’s rather like the cheeses of Cheshire, Lancashire or Wenslydale in style. It’s quite white in colour and a refreshing hard cheese. It’s made at Rodwell Farm, which is near Needham Market.

Shipcord: This is made by the same dairy as the Hawston, again from unpasteurised cow’s milk. It’s matured for longer (about 6 months) and is made by a different method. It’s much firmer and yellower. Its rather like a mild cheddar or Lincolnshire Poacher. The dairy suggest its akin to some alpine cheeses and there is a sweet nuttiness to the flavour. There is also an extra matured and a smoked version available which I’ve yet to try.

Suffolk Blue: This is a blue version of Suffolk Gold. It’s made from Guernsey milk so is very creamy and rich yellow in colour. It’s a soft cheese like a firm rich brie in texture. It’s very buttery, a little earthy and has a mild blue tang with undertones of salt. It’s made by The Suffolk Cheese Company again near Needham Market.

Overall I enjoyed testing out some new cheeses that are local to me. I think my favourite of the new finds was the Hawkston but since I grew up in Lancashire maybe that’s no surprise. I’ll be adding them all to my repertoire but expect the Wonmil and Hawkston to the be the two I buy most often.

If anyone knows of any Suffolk cheeses I’ve missed then I’d love to hear about them so I can give then a try. I also need to decide which county from my ‘local’ definition to tackle next; basically there’s Essex, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire to choose from, suggestions welcome.

I found all the by just looking out what was available cheeses in farm shops in Suffolk but a useful book for English cheese spotting is ‘Great British Cheeses’ by Jenny Lindford. Its pretty up to date as it was published in 2008. It’s got good pictures and some background and tasting notes on each cheese. Unfortunately it doesn’t have an index by county!

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Can I cook Chile Verde?

Tomatillos (anytime)

And can Karen cook asparagus tart

Asparagus spears (early evening)

It’s a kind of recipes at dawn this, Chile Verde vs. asparagus tart, one blogger pitched against another. Masterchef without the cameras, or the publicity, or the random commentary, or the…….well almost any of it. Just a bit of fun.

You might remember back in early May I was ‘adopted’ by Karen over at ‘Karen Cooks’. We did a blogo-interview of each other to introduce our very different worlds and in the meantime I’ve been asking Karen lots of questions about food and blogging and incorporating things I’m learning into my blog. Anyway, we thought it might be fun to have a cook-off: each pick a recipe from the others blog that would be a bit challenging and new and then cook and blog it. We agreed that we mustn’t pick something too easy but also we aren’t to email back and forth to ask for guidance if we get stuck, we’ve got to make our own judgements on how to substitute things. No winner, no loser just some fun.

But as soon as you start to think about it there’s lots of hurdles and tests.

Some hurdles, © cxvalentina - Fotolia.com

Can you get all the ingredients? On the face of it I might have an advantage here: I’m in London, population 7.55M, over 300 languages spoken and with 40% of the population from a non British background there’s a huge variety of influences and lots of shops selling all sorts of things from around the world (hopefully Chile Verde ingredients!). Karen meantime is in Havre, Montana, population just under 10,000 so maybe the food supplies will be more limited, or maybe not. I can see she’s tried lutefisk at the local church dinner so they aren't short on interesting dishes/ingredients.

Havre, Montana (copyright Karen)

Do you even have an idea what the dish should taste like? Um no, in my case I don’t. I’ve picked it because Karen describes it as her second favourite Mexican dish ever and also she says that it’s so good you’ll taste it and think you’ve gone to heaven (well in fact the Imperial Valley in Southern California). Actually, come to think of it, I don’t even know anything about the Imperial Valley so how do I know I want to be transported there…..

And can you actually follow some one else’s instructions? Especially if you have to start to free form if you can’t find all the ingredients….

We’ll see, let the cook off commence!

Right to cook my recipe I need:

Here's Karen's ingredients (copyright Karen)
  • 10 tomatillos - I’ve heard of these so surely they can’t be that hard to find….can they? I’ve no idea what they taste like and the web’s not much help. Mainly the consensus is sour tomatoes but then someone goes and says then can be quite mild and sweet. Helpful.
  • 5lbs of boneless pork shoulder - ha easy! Britain is a veritable pork farm especially in nearby Suffolk and Norfolk. But hey 5lb (2.25kg) of pork! How many are we cooking for? Oh, right, Karen doesn’t say – maybe she had people coming over that day, or maybe it’s a great ‘make loads freeze it’ thing, but still, 5lb is a LOT of pork. Maybe we’ll scale back a bit on this. I mean imagine if we find that, for us, the Imperial Valley is more like hell and we don’t fancy a return trip, there’s now way I would want to end up with 10 portions languishing in the freezer.
  • 2 tbsp of olive oil - at least I’m assuming that what Karen means by ‘2 T’ - anyway olive oil, yup, we’ve got plenty of that to hand.
  • 1 tbsp chicken bouillon – again Karen says ‘1 T’ and she doesn’t say whether its powdered liquid or whatever. Well I’ve got cubes so they’ll do.
  • 5 cloves garlic peeled –that’s nice and simple.
  • 1 onion, coarsely chopped – another easy bit.
  • 2 large jalapenos, stemmed and seeded – yeah easy, I’m sure I’ve seen them in the supermarket.
  • 7oz can whole green chiles – hmmm can this one be hard, maybe, what exactly are green chiles? This will call for a bit of checking I think.
  • 2 corn tortillas – ooo another easy bit the supermarket definitely has Mr ‘Old El Paso’ corn tortillas (Karen does kindly confirm my one question that its soft tortilla I need not nacho thingies).
So next it’s onto the internet to find out where to get my mitts on tomatillos and green chiles. A bit of rummaging tells me that green chiles are Anaheim chiles and you can get them fresh and canned, well you can, but there’s no fresh ones right now in the UK as its too early in the season. And cans don’t seem to be that easy to come by either. Ok so lets look for tomatillos. Again you can get them fresh but its way too early, they won’t be ready until at least late June and we’ve set a deadline of 16 June to post. There’s tins as well and I find that Cool Chile Co stock these and they have a stall at Borough Market – great its been ages since I’ve done a trip to Borough so that’ll be some fun AND I can go via there on my way to meet a friend for lunch AND Cool Chile do corn tortillas so I can pick up some of those.

Close to be being sorted I sit back and relax and do other stuff. How foolish of me!

On my next trip to the supermarket I check for fresh jalapenos and also look, in the somewhat small Mexican section, for green chiles. None of the latter and no fresh jalapenos either – had I imagined them in the past? There’s sliced pickled ones mind, so I might have to substitute with them.

But its okay. I’m going to Cool Chile at Borough market on 11 June and I’ll be able to make up lost ground. Yes. Well. That would be the case if the lovely RMT didn’t decide to call a 48 hour tube strike meaning its madness to go into central London unless you have to – is a can of tomatillos a ‘have to’ trip? Probably not, and as I’m in London on Friday (and the strike will be over) I might be able to pop by Borough then. No wrong again. I have to be somewhere before Borough opens (why does it only open at midday!) and there’s not going to be time to get there afterwards.

It’s getting rather close to the deadline.

Of course Borough is open on a Saturday but I’ve heard its mad busy and packed with people ambling and not buying, and I won’t even be able to do a smash and grab style shop as I don’t actually know where the stall is within the market. Although there’s a map its not that easy to read without a portable electron microscope......

In a bit of a panic I do some extra research on Karen’s site and come up with an alternative choice of Portuguese Chicken and Rice, only then I find this needs Old Bay Seasoning – okay like I’m not going to get that in time but I do find a couple of mix your own recipes if all else fails.

My husband is now set on the idea of Chile Verde, however, and shuffles our Saturday plan around then packs me off to Borough to try to get tomatillos.

Tower Bridge, London, copyright Geoffrey Metais, from Fotolia

The tube journey is amazingly fast for once and from Monument it’s just a walk over London Bridge. Well just a walk through the thronging crowds of Euro tourists admiring Tower Bridge who’ve presumably come to take advantage of the exchange rate (and not just the views). I'm glad they are helping the battered British economy (and boy does it need some help right now) and they all seem to be having a lovely time in the sun admiring the views up and down the Thames, but I’d kind of prefer it they were splashing their Euros just slightly off my direct route to tomatillo buying. You can’t have it all ways so I do my helpful deed of the day when a couple of Irish lads ask if they are near Oxford Street and, having broken the bad news that they are way off target, I point them back in the right direction (like back on to the tube with very specific instructions). 

Cool Chile Co's stall

Eventually I get to the market and plunge in through the nearest entrance, which, somewhat amazingly, brings me in pretty close to Cool Chile, and woo hoo they have tinned tomatillos. Ah, on closer inspection they prove to be giant catering tins containing 2.9kg (6lb 6oz) of whole tomatillos! Um, that’s a few more than I need. The lady says nope there are no smaller tins, they used to get them but can’t seem to anymore, they freeze well though. Right. I’ve never tasted them. I might not like them. I’ll have enough to feed a Mexican family for, well who knows how long. After some discussion we agree that I will cheat using the tomatillo salsa, it’s a normal size jar, its got a few other things in it, but it makes more sense and I won't end up with stretched arms carrying it home. 

I also find that they don’t do tinned green chiles but I am able to get the tortillas and some whole pickled jalapenos. Mission kind of accomplished I decide it’ll be nice to wander round the rest of the market and may be have a coffee from the wonderful Monmouth Coffee Store. About 2 seconds later I realise it can only have been the high of finding something that is vaguely tomatillo-y that made me think this. This market is PACKED with people ambling so slowly they are almost in reverse and there's a queue at Monmouth coffee that is frankly, even if this ranks as one of London’s best coffees (and it does), more than any sane person could take. I make my exit and tube it home to a coffee there.

Next stop is the supermarket and pork shoulder; drat all the pieces are rolled and ready stuffed, Sunday roast style, with apple and sage – how annoying! I spy some cut as kind of chops with no extra adornments and get those, another search (thats 3 laps of the relevant sections) but no green chiles to be found at all so I go for green bell peppers and I’ll load the jalapenos a bit to balance things out. I spy a bottle of Mexican red wine (!) and decide that will be fun (or hangover material) and grab some of that.

Back home it’s time to get a move on and start cooking.

My final set of ingredients.

I’ve got 750g of meat (so 1/3 of Karen’s recipe). It’s hard to tell from her measures how much 10 tomatillos is so I just decide to use all the jar of salsa, 3 green peppers, 1.5 jalapenos, 3 cloves of garlic, half a small onion and 1 chicken bouillon square which I whizz together in the food processor to make the sauce. I cube the pork and cook it in oil to seal it (I do it in two batches, its easier) then in goes the sauce, stir it all round, bring it to the boil, turn down and simmer for four hours. Right now its just coming up to the 2 hour mark….so I’ll be back in while to tell you about progress.

Bringing it up to simmer for 4 hours!

With 30 minutes to go I’ve popped in the rest of the onion and the chopped up tortilla. I’m musing on what accompaniments to serve. The smell is pretty good so I’m hopeful it’s going to be a hit of a dish.

The finished dish with accompaniments

We served it with rice, guacamole, tomato salsa and refried beans – who knows whether that’s what you have it with but that’s what we chose.

Mexican wine

AND THE VERDICT?

It was fairly hot, but I’m a bit of a chile wimp. I thought it was going to build up to something that had me mopping by brow with a tea towel but it didn’t, staying tingly but with the tartness of the sauce cutting through the heat to make it a really refreshing dish. The Mexican wine was pretty good too, big flavours and fruity.

So overall a 9/10. It was delicious ☺ and in fact I’m regretting not getting the catering can of tomatillos after all because this is a definite big addition to my cooking.

Wonder how Karen's doing with the asparagus tart.....

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Back of the fridge pasta


Yesterday when I was catching up with posts on a few of my favourite blogs I spotted a pasta blogging event that Mangocheeks at Allotment2Kitchen was taking part in. So I followed the links and ended up at Presto Pasta Nights, which this week (PPN #117) is hosted by Katie at Thyme for Cooking. The concept is that you blog about a pasta dish (well anything that has pasta or noodles in actually) and as pasta is one of my favourite quick dishes I thought it might be fun to take part especially as I had pasta for lunch on Monday from a mixture of things lurking in the fridge.

As I work from home quite a lot I get to rustle up whatever I fancy each day from whatever I can see in the fridge. I don’t often buy things specifically to use for lunch but instead muddle through with whatever I can find from leftovers and store cupboard basics. Its fair to say our cupboards and fridge are fairly well stocked so it not often that I struggle to make something tasty, but I do tend to really on pasta, salads and open sandwiches a lot.

On Monday the fridge yielded:

  • some cooked garden peas and new potatoes leftover from dinner the night before
  • the remains of a bunch of asparagus that had got hidden behind something else so it wasn’t in top form any more but still edible
  • some fresh tarragon pesto that was dangerously near its use by date
  • the last of a chunk of parmesan

So I headed to the cupboard and dug out the current pasta shape (some De Cecce Tortiglioni) and cooked it as per the packet instructions. I steamed the asparagus above the pasta for about 7 minutes and then cut it into 2cm lengths. Once the pasta was done I drained it, put it back in the pan and stirred in a couple of spoonfuls of pesto, and tossed it with the asparagus, peas and potatoes (cut into 1cm dice). Into a bowl with a good grating of parmesan on the top and there was my lunch. Maybe 15 minutes from fridge to table – not bad.

Note: The fresh pesto was Purely Pesto. I’m going to be doing a producer review soon so watch out for that.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

A walk on the wild side

“Here, turn right here, this has got to be it”.

We swerve round the corner and bounce along the driveway. “Nice pond, but where’s the big house?” There’s plenty of rolling parkland and a cluster of outbuildings but no grand house to be seen.

There’s also a tall affable looking chap wearing wellies and a big chunky jumper so we slow up and roll down the window. “Here for the food foraging?” he says, “follow the track round between these buildings and you’ll see a group of parked cars and over to the right people on the lawn, that’s were you need to be.” So we drive on as instructed and sure enough there’s about 15 cars and a bunch of people standing about having coffee. I get out and amble over and my husband drives off to a day of peace and quiet.

At last, I’m at Food Safari’s first foraging event at Henham Park in the depths of rural Suffolk.

I get a coffee and Polly (half of the duo that makes up Food Safari) passes me some still warm flapjack (yum! this is a good way to start) then introduces me to the rest of the group – none of whom I’ve met before but some of whom I’ve been chatting to via twitter (yes that's you @Farctum and @EssexGourmet). Once everyone is here Tim (the tall affable chap in wellies, he’s the other half of Food Safari) tells us the format of the day. We’re going to be foraging for wild foods here on the estate and then also down by the river Blyth (also on estate land) then we’ll be off to The Anchor at Walberswick for a lunch show-casing some of the wild foods.

Tim hands over to Jacky (aka WildFoodie) who’s our foraging expert today. She explains that we are on private land so sadly we can’t entertain any thoughts of popping back sometime to bag some more goodies; well I guess not unless we can get to be new best friends with Hektor who manages the estate, I imagine he’s probably got enough friends already though. Jacky also explains that the weather in Suffolk has been so dry recently that we probably aren’t going to find enough stuff in really good condition for us to take bagfuls home. We are going to have to be content to watch and learn, that’s the nature of foraging, it’s a real luck of the draw thing. Jacky had a scout about yesterday so she’s got lots of examples to show us and she’s been able to collect enough goodies for our meal later.

Then we move on to our first spot, I’m expecting we’re going to have to walk a good distance across the park perhaps into a wooded area, but no, there’s plenty to see only steps away from where we are. Take a look - what can you see that’s edible?

Hmmm looks like a bunch of weeds in a badly tended garden if you ask me…..but hold one we are going to find at least FOUR, yes that’s four, edible goodies in this patch.

Okay so clearly I’m in nappies on the foraging front compared to the likes of Jacky – I can’t see a thing I’d fancy eating. But with Jacky’s expert guidance we learn about ground ivy, cleavers (aka sticky willy – hmmm), nettles, ground elder, burdock and elderflower – blimey that’s six – and I don’t think Jacky was even trying hard….she tells use how to identify each of them through look, feel and even sound and also which bits to pick and even how to pick (clever scissor movement with your fingers for nettle tops). We taste as we go when things are okay to eat raw. Mostly everything we test has a fresh but quite bitter taste but there are differences between them.

Next its time to move on to the river. But before that a few of us think a comfort stop might be good so Polly takes us over to the stable block, which has been converted into a rather lovely looking B&B, and we get to use the facilities there. I also get a quick lesson in the intricacies and long running feuds of the Rous family and learn that the final version of the big grand house was knocked down (some say a fortuitous fire…) in 1953, so that’s why we couldn’t see it. There are plans afoot for a new house to be built.

Anyway down to the river – I would say bank but here the estuary is really wide and flat so it’s more like a gentle slope. The estuary systems in Suffolk and Norfolk are havens for all sorts of things and in particular marsh samphire

If you look really hard you can see the samphire at the front of this picture

I’ve had this before, bought from local farm shops and I love it. We are a little early in the season but we can see the samphire starting to sprout like some kind of mini primeval forest. We get to test the samphire and its wonderfully juicy with a salty tang –I’m looking forward to it being available in the farm shop soon and hoping we get some at lunch. We also find sea purslane which looks a bit like a succulent version of sage although it tastes nothing like sage. Again it’s juicy and salty.

Sea Purslane

And finally we head off to The Anchor pub at Walberswick with our appetites suitable whetted. But before we get to tuck into lunch we take a quick look at the pub’s allotment where Jacky tells us about poppy leaves (nice and sweet and almost pea like in flavour), hops shoots, dead nettles and chickweed (plus other assorted things you might just throw away but can actually eat!).

At last it really is time for food. We wander over to the beautifully refurbished stable block and are served with glasses of refreshing elderflower scented beer from Lowestoft whilst nibbling on fresh asparagus, tempura hop shoots and absolutely wonderful chickpea and samphire mini pancakes. These are so divine we are nearly knocking each other out of the way to get our hands on them; I’m definitely going to be trying to recreate them at home.

Mark then guides us into the stable block itself where a huge long table awaits us and a further three courses of food with matched beers. Mark is an absolute mine of information about the beers and clearly likes to surprise his guests with things such as a Gueuze he describes as having aromas of sweaty horse saddle and horse piss - great! Hektor and I try to tell him that we are not especially familiar with either of these but to no avail. Food wise every thing was delicious but dishes and flavours that particularly stood out were the chicken of the woods in the risotto, 

The chicken of the woods is the pinky/orange bits

a very meaty mushroom that might make some vegetarians shudder, the semi pickled carrots in the salad, the elderflower panacotta

and finally my favourite local cheese, Buxlow Wonmil. It makes a change to have lovely food paired with beers rather than wines and is something I might try myself. Of the beers I think my favourite was the Frambozen although the Gueuze was much nicer than Mark's description would lead you to expect; its kind of nicely tangy and refreshing, a bit like liquid sourdough.

Its time for everyone to head their separate ways, full of new knowledge, exceptional food and plenty of beers. I have a glass of Benedictine for the road (fortunately my husband is collecting me) and we waddle off clutching our information packs, happy foragers that we now are. 

You can find out more about Food Safari’s days out in Suffolk on their website, arrange gift vouchers for loved ones or simply book a treat for yourself. I’m hoping to try another one of their days soon.

To view the menu and other information about The Anchor at Walberswick click here. Go on treat yourself to some great food and beer.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Feeding time at the sourdough zoo

A little while back I set a sourdough starter running. The first ten days to two weeks you are just supposed to leave the mix of flour water and grapes to get on with doing its own thing although the urge to peek, tweet and blog about progress got the better of me. In the process I experienced the joys of seeing the starter come to life and also its unique and pungent smell!

After 10 days it was time then time to start the daily feeding routine. This involves feeding the starter twice daily with flour and water. It becomes a regular routine but it too has its interesting nuances and moments of both joy and concern.
So what happens? Well first of all you get rid of the grapes.
Remove them from the starter:

Squeeze any remaining juices from them back into the starter. And discard, their work is done:

Tip away about 1/3 of the mixture (roughly 4-500ml):

Then top up with 250150ml of water and 150100g of flour. Mix it in and pop the lid back on.

Everyday, twice a day, you discard 200ml of the mix and add 150ml of water and 100g of flour. You do this for TWO WHOLE WEEKS. It gets a bit monotonous. Then you start to worry, when after a few days, nothing seems to be happening, there might be a few bubbles but not much, the smell is much less (which is nice, but also makes you wonder if all is on track). Each time you lift the lid the flour will have settled out and so you need to stir the mix to get a lovely wallpaper paste type consistency before you discard 200ml. Oh and if you are thinking this discarding is wasteful, well maybe, but do the maths and you’ll see that you’ll have gallons of the stuff if you just keep adding water and flour and not getting rid of any – which is fine if you are planning on starting a bakery but not if you’re simply hoping to make some tasty bread for home consumption.

After about a week of not much happening, and egged on by Dan at FoodUrchin (he’s about two months ahead of me in the sourdough game), I dared to taste the starter. WOW. Its sort of like sherbet fizz stuff – this is the progress we need. We are on track.

In the second week of feeding the starter got lots more active with a good thick yeasty top each time it was feeding time. This might have been temperature fluctuations as well as the starter getting going because week one of feeding was pretty cool and week two we had what, by UK standards for May, was almost a heat wave. At each feeding your stir the yeasty topping back in before discarding some.

At last, at the end of two weeks feeding, preceded by two weeks of waiting/peeking, there was a starter that looked good and active.

It was time to move to baking bread…….but that’s another story.

Sunday, 31 May 2009

Easy peasy BBQ baby chicken

Ahhhhhh its barbecue time of year and barbecue kind of weather: smell the grilling food, hear the chink of glasses, the laughter, the fun, the delicate aroma of firelighters, the burnt food, the lobster tinged neighbours. England, the summer.

But it's be a shame not to join in with at least some of this, right? Correct.

Here's the easy chicken (well poussin actually) we did last night:

2 poussin butterflied (dead simple this, lie it breast bone down, hold the parsons nose, cut along either side of the backbone and remove, flip it over, press down firmly on the breast to flatten, et voila. If stuck try YouTube for clips).

Marinade in lemon juice, zest, oil, garlic and rosemary for a couple of hours (use 50:50 juice to oil).

Light barbecue (using your preferred method: paper, firelighters, gas ignition) and wait for coals to be that delightful glowing cooking temperature.

Pop the poussin over the heat and cook for about 30 minutes turning regularly (cook it with skin side up more often than down, this way it cooks the meat from the inside without over cooking/burning the skin).

Meantime heat the remaining marinade in a saucepan and simmer hard to reduce to a nice glossy sauce.

Cut each poussin in half to make 4 portions. Eat with veg and carbs of your choice.

We had homemade sourdough bread to mop up the sauce/juices and broad beans tossed in minty yoghurt.

Yum.