Friday, 27 November 2009

Is life too short to stuff a mushroom?

This week saw us pass through the 1 month to Christmas mark and finally the weather has turned a little nippy. Amazingly, however, we have yet to have our first frost here in Milton Keynes. Last year frost came fairly early in October and I was caught unawares and this lead into what I would call a "proper winter" with snow on the ground for a fortnight. This year I certainly won't be putting a bet on for a white Christmas. We could do with a bit of a cold snap to kill off some of the bugs that would otherwise be ready to infest the plants next year.

With Christmas looming large on the horizon I decided to make some stuffing balls to freeze until the big day. It also provided a useful way to use up some cut pumpkin I had in the fridge.

Christmas stuffing balls

3 slices of bread made into breadcrumbs
5 oz (150g) pumpkin
3 oz (85g) dried apricots (plus a few extra)
A sprig of sage
8 oz (225g) sausagement
4 ish mushrooms
A dash of nutmeg
Freshly ground black pepper

Cut up the pumpkins, apricots and sage in a food processor then add the rest of the ingredients and whizz again until combined. The mixture can now be frozen for use in the crop of the bird or it can be rolled into balls and placed on a tray for freezing. Before freezing, add a third of a dried apricot to the top of each ball for decoration. Cook at 180°C, gas 4 from thawed for 25-30 minutes or from frozen for 35-40 minutes.

Last week on a whim I brought a bag of rocket, water cress and spinach whilst in the supermarket and we made a couple of salads out of it. Then this week, after the bag went past its best I decided to nip to the allotment to see what leaves we had left. With no frosts to damage them I had quite a few to choose from but in the end I just grabbed a big bunch of 4 different types of lettuce and a couple of beetroot. When I dished up salad for tea again my husband thought nothing of it but was somewhat surprised when I told him that the leaves had comes from the plot rather than a poly-bag. With it we had some of the beetroot and some tomatoes from the line across the conservatory. I'm truly staggered how well those tomatoes have kept. Good grief, it's almost December and we are still eating fresh homegrown tomatoes!

Salads aside, now is time to really get stuck into the joys of autumn and winter veg. My brussel sprouts are amazingly plump this year but I shall save those for Christmas. I'm not sure what we did right this year with them - probably made sure the soil was nice and firm around their roots. But now is the time to eat leeks, cabbage, and baked potatoes. Actually, speaking of baked potatoes I had a lovely one for my lunch today. It was an overgrown Charlotte as it happens but I decided to bake it anyway then I dolloped a couple of spoonfuls of pasta tomato sauce and some grated cheese on top. Baked potato, pizza style... yummy! Bring on the lycopene too!

Earlier in the week I turned 4 large flat mushrooms and a leek into a meal for two by making stuffed mushrooms. I have been told that Delia Smith once said that life is too short to stuff a mushroom. I don't know whether she did but I certainly don't agree. It is dead easy and really tasty.

Stuffed Mushrooms

4 flat mushrooms
1 leek
1 clove garlic
Grated cheddar cheese
8 rashers of streaky bacon

Preheat oven to 190°C, gas 5. Pull the stems off the mushrooms and finely chop them. Chop the leek and the garlic. Fry the mushroom stems, leeks and garlic together until softened then spoon this mixture equally into the 4 mushrooms. Scatter over with cheese if desired. Then place each mushroom on a cross made from two bacon rashers of bacon and bring the bacon up to meet in the middle of the mushroom. Bake for 20-25 minutes until cooked. Serve hot with potato cakes and salad.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Preparing for fairs

I keep thinking next week will be less busy but I have been thinking that for weeks now and there's no sign of a let up. Next week I have the first craft fair of the season so I have been busy preparing my preserves for that. Despite the fact that I have been steadily making jam and chutney every week since the summer I still have quite a bit of frozen fruit in the freezer and marrows in storage. Last week I was invited to a selling evening at a friend's house. Originally I was invited just to be a customer but I asked if it would be OK if I brought some jam and chutney sample jars over for people to have a taster. So this focused my mind and I spent the days beforehand preparing, printing and sticking 660 labels on 330 jars! I decided that as well as a sample of every preserve I make, I would also take two jars of each as stock should anyone decide to buy some on the night. This turned out to be two boxes of jars simply because I make such a huge variety of different preserves. I don't usually take samples when I run a stall at a craft fair because I usually have so many heavy boxes to carry as it is that I don't want to lug another box along (full of stuff I can't sell). I have, however, occasionally been asked if I have a taster so I thought this particular evening would be a useful experiment to see how useful taster jars are.

On the night itself I put out the sample jars, labelled roughly with handwritten labels, and the hostess provided some pieces of French bread to try the preserves on. I had also made some mini pastries with plum and cinnamon jam for people to nibble on. So I found myself in the kitchen, chatting away to the 10 or so other guests at the party about my preserves. But how did the sampling go? Well, bizarrely nobody tried any of them! All the pastries went but no one got as far as spreading a preserve on a piece of bread. The closest we got was a couple of people who took a lid off and sniffed. But far from the evening being a failure, I sold £37 of preserves. It just goes to show that people aren't particularly bothered about tasting the product, they just go on the sound of the name of the preserve and the description on the label. This is particularly true for preserves bought as presents.

Plum and Cinnamon Jam

3 lb (1400 g) plums
2 cinnamon sticks
¼ pint (150 ml) water
3 lb (1400 g) sugar
3 heaped teaspoons of ground cinnamon

NB: Every pound of plums requires 1¾ fl oz (50 ml) water and 1 pound (450 g) sugar.

Wash the plums, cut in half and remove the stone. Put the plums in a preserving pan with the water and the cinnamon sticks and cook for 20 to 30 minutes until soft and pulpy. In the meantime warm the sugar. Once the fruit is cooked, add the warm sugar and stir over a gentle heat until completely dissolved. Bring to the boil and heat rapidly for 10 to 15 minutes until the setting point is reached, stirring occasionally. Skim off any scum and remove the cinnamon sticks. Then add the ground cinnamon and ladle into jars and seal immediately.

Plum & Cinnamon Pastries

Puff pastry
Plum and cinnamon jam

Grease a baking tray and preheat oven to 200°C, gas 6. Roll out the puff pastry into a rectangle. Smear the jam all over the pastry and scatter on sultanas. Roll the pastry up then cut the roll into 1 cm wide pieces. Turn the pieces on their side and place them on the baking tray then cook for 10 to 15 minutes depending on their size until risen and golden. Eat the same day.

Anyway, having got all the jars labelled for that evening, it was time to return my attention to the fruit still in my freezer, especially with Christmas approaching when my freezer needs to be used for other things. So since then I have made tayberry, blackcurrant and liquorice, and raspberry jams and redcurrant jelly. Of course, now I have a few more jars to label before the craft fair on Thursday.

And with Christmas in mind I spent a day this week making Christmas pudding and Christmas cake. My husband asked if I'd make another pumpkin and ginger loaf as he had enjoyed it so much so I cut into one of my mini pumpkins for this. Despite making the cake there was still pumpkin left so I decided to sneak a little of it into the Christmas pudding! I'm sure no one will ever know. I still have some of that pumpkin left over and I have a few ideas how else I might hide it in the Christmas fayre. But in the meantime I chopped some up and put it in the stir fry we had on Friday night. That turned out to be a delicious meal, helped, it has to be said, by the addition of my home made sweet chilli sauce. Tonight's dinner was less exotic, just fish in batter, but I did pick 5 French beans from the plant growing on the windowsill which added a welcome freshness to it.

Christmas Pudding (makes 6 mini 1/4 pint puddings)

5 oz white breadcrumbs
4 oz plain flour
4 oz suet
10 oz mixed dried fruit
2 oz raw, grated pumpkin
4 oz light brown sugar
Grated rind and juice of half a lemon
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon mixed spice
1/4 pint ale
2 eggs
1 heaped teaspoon baking powder

Mix all the dry ingredients together except the baking powder then combine with the eggs and ale. Cover and leave to stand overnight. Bring a large pan of water to the boil then stir in the baking powder and transfer the mixture into the pudding basins. Cover each pudding with a piece of cloth, tied with string. Boil for 5 hours. To serve, reheat in the microwave for about 1 minute and serve hot with custard and/or cream.

Beef stir fry (serves 2)

1 sirloin steak cut into strips
1 carrot, cut into juliennes
1 piece of celery, cut into small pieces
4 mushrooms, sliced
1 onion, sliced
A piece of root ginger, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
Pumpkin, cut into juliennes
A fair dollop of oyster sauce
Same again of sweet chilli sauce
A little mushroom ketchup

Stir fry the steak and vegetables until cooked then add the sauces. Serve immediately with rice and prawn crackers.

Also this week I got round to pureeing the tomatoes from my tomato chandelier. In a way I was reluctant to see it go but I decided to leave the line of tomatoes across my conservatory for the time being to eat fresh and because they look so pretty! It was nice this lunchtime to be able to just reach up and pluck a ripe tomato from the line. My husband said we could almost pretend we were sat on some Mediterranean patio somewhere, picking fresh tomatoes straight from the vine. That would have been fine had it not been for the clattering of rain on the roof and the howling of a gale but fortunately I do have a particularly good imagination!

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Fireworks night

November the 5th came and went in our house with little more than an excited exclamation by the girls when they saw a firework from the window, but the lack of note was mainly because it was on a Thursday. We saved our own celebrations until Sunday night when, following a 5 year old family tradition, my parents came over for dinner, followed by fireworks in the garden. So on Sunday I made an effort to make it look as if the string of tomatoes across the conservatory were in fact seasonal decorations rather than ripening fruit. The previous Tuesday we had collected and laminated autumn leaves as part of my after school gardening club and I had a few left over so I threaded these onto rustic looking pieces of twine and strung them up along the line of tomatoes. I had convinced my daughters when the tomatoes were green that they were harvest festival decorations, and now they were red it was time to convince my parents they were bonfire night decorations. And for added effect, we lit the pumpkin lanterns for one last time too.

Being a Sunday night, I decided to opt for roast chicken for dinner and I'm pleased to say we are still eating meals where all the veg is home grown. On the menu that night were roast potatoes, carrots, parsnips, leeks and calebrese. And for dessert, I took the individual plum crumbles out of the freezer and served them hot with custard. It was a yummy meal.

The usual bonfire night fare should include plot toffee but as my dad has a few false teeth I decided it was probably best to avoid this. However, I had decided some time ago to save my small plate full of hazelnuts for this particular occasion. When I weighed them, complete with shells, there was just under 150g but after spending about 20 minutes supervising my daughter with the nutcracker, our annual harvest weighed a mere 35g. After a few moments thought I decided to modify a Florentine recipe and make hazelnut and sesame seed Florentines. It probably breaks with all the rules as to what Florentines should contain but my daughter was pleased we had made something she liked with our hazelnuts and they were soft enough for my dad to enjoy too.

Hazelnut and Sesame Florentines (makes 12-16)

1 1/2 oz (40g) unsalted butter
1 1/2 oz (40g) golden syrup
1/2 oz (15g) plain flour
1 1/2 oz (40g) chopped hazelnuts
1 1/2 oz (40g) sesame seeds
1 oz (25g) glace cherries
1 oz (25g) dried mixed fruit

Preheat oven to 180°C, gas 4 and line a large baking sheet. Melt together the butter and the syrup in a pan over a gentle heat then remove from the heat and add all the other ingredients. Stir well and leave for 2-3 minutes. Dollop teaspoons of the mixture well spaced out on the baking paper then bake for 5-8 minutes until golden. Cool on the sheet for 2-3 minutes then transfer onto a wire rack to cool completely.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Pumpkin for breakfast!

Another week and still I'm working my way steadily through the pumpkins. Having neglected to buy pancakes from the supermarket I decided to offer my girls pumpkin pancakes for breakfast. This was met with enthusiasm! As it happened, I had frozen the last batch I had made and I quickly discovered that two pancakes sandwiched between two plates needed only 1 minute in the microwave to reheat them from frozen. Then a light scattering of sugar and a squirt of cream before putting them on the table - a quick and easy breakfast that looked like it took a great deal of effort. Having watched a TV programme last week that discussed the nutritional horrors of the average breakfast cereal, this breakfast compares quite favourably even though it feels like an indulgent treat.

I had 9 oz of pureed steamed pumpkin left over from the Halloween lanterns so early this week I used that up making pumpkin drop scones. I imagined my husband tucking into them after dinner, maybe sandwiching two together with a lick of butter and a splodge of jam but as it turned out he grabbed a couple on his way out of the door the next morning as he rushed off to a meeting. Who would have thought we'd be eating pumpkin for breakfast!

Pumpkin drop scones (makes 12-16)

9 oz (250g) pumpkin puree
1 whole egg and 2 egg yolks
7 oz (200g) self-raising flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 fl oz (55ml) condensed milk
3 oz (85g) sultanas (optional)

Preheat oven to 200°C, gas 6 and grease a large baking sheet. Place all the ingredients in a food processor and blend together. Dollop spoonfuls onto the baking sheet then bake for 12-15 minutes until risen and golden. Use a palette knife to remove them from the baking sheet and cool on a wire rack. Can be eaten plain, with butter, jam or cream and can also be toasted.

Sunday, 1 November 2009


Well it was Halloween yesterday so as you can imagine it was time to do more stuff with pumpkins. The day before we'd gone out for the day to a local wildlife attraction where one of their Halloween themed activities was carving pumpkins. This could be done for an additional charge of £2 and most people were getting stuck in. They had a huge trailer full of pumpkins and bin loads of pumpkin inners. It is a weird thing when you stop and think about it to take a huge edible fruit and to turn it into something completely inedible. With the pumpkin industry becoming big business, there must be fields dedicated to growing pumpkins which will all be thrown away!

But I'm no spoil sport and I love carving pumpkins for Halloween. Of course, I may have looked like a spoil sport as I whisked my children home from the wildlife attraction without a carved pumpkin each. Instead we went home and selected a pumpkin each from our homegrown collection. My now seven year old daughter decided that this year she wanted to carve her own pumpkin so I gave her a few instructions and words of caution and wisdom and let her get on with it. When she paused long enough from her hard concentration she asked me how old I had been when I carved my first pumpkin. I had to confess that I had been 24! Still, it wasn't the done thing in my day! As it happens, my daughter turned out to be a natural and produced a beautiful carving.

This had taken about an hour longer than I had anticipated and it was dinner time so we took a break and I resumed pumpkin carving in the morning for my youngest daughter. She wasn't keen to carve her own and that was just fine by me so I set about doing hers. But as soon as I'd got past the gooey and tiring emptying of the pumpkin stage my eldest appeared and declared she wanted to carve this one too. I let her get on with it until the tool blade snapped and it all became a lot trickier at which point I finished the job for her. She was also noticeably absent for the smearing of Vaseline over all the cut edges. She apparently hates Vaseline on her hands more than pumpkin goo!

I noticed that our homegrown pumpkins had much thicker flesh than the ones being carved the day before. In a way that makes carving them harder work but it does mean they yield quite a lot of pumpkin that can be eaten. With the flesh from the first pumpkin we made some pumpkin cup cakes and decorated them ready for our Halloween party after dark. I have steamed the flesh from the other one but have yet to make it into anything. Where am I now with my 101 things to do with a pumpkin? Number 10 maybe... I'm not sure I'm ever gonna make it to 101!

Pumpkin Cup Cakes

6 oz (175g) light brown sugar
3 oz (85g) butter, softened
2 large eggs
8 oz (225g) plain flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground mixed spice
Pinch of salt
1/4 teaspoon bicarbonate soda
8 oz of steam, pureed pumpkin

4oz (110g) cream cheese
2 oz (55g) icing sugar
1 oz (25g) cornflour
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
Orange food colouring
White chocolate
Liquorice wheels

Preheat oven to 180°C, gas 4 and put paper cases into a fairy cake tin. Cream together the butter and sugar then stir in the eggs. Sift in the dry ingredients then add the pumpkin puree and stir until mixed well. Spoon into the paper cases and bake for about 20 minutes until golden and risen. Cool on a wire rack. Whisk together the cream chesse, icing sugar, cornflour, vanilla and food colouring to make the frosting. Once the cakes are cooled, spoon the frosting on top each cake. To make the chocolate decorations, melt the chocolate over a pan of boiling water then pour into Halloween themse ice-cube trays. Chill overnight until hard then remove from the trays and stick them into the frosting. To make the liquorice spiders, unravel a liquorice wheel about half way and snip the liquorice off. Stick the remaining wheel onto the frosting then cut some of the remaining length into 8 legs and two claws and stick these on too. Store in the fridge but eat at room temperature.