Friday, 28 January 2011

A box of surprises

Having retrieved several pounds of tomato puree from Sue's freezer on Monday, I decided to stock up on cider vinegar and basil in readiness for making a batch of tomato and basil ketchup. However, making brown sauce on Thursday had used up all my glass bottles. So whilst the brown sauce was still bubbling away, I went onto Ascott's website and ordered some more bottles so I would be able to make ketchup next week.

Ascott's site is really interesting and I've lost count of the number of times I've contemplated buying sausage making equipment or an egg incubator before getting back to the task of buying more jars. There is only one draw back of buying from them and that is the massive box that the jars arrive in and all the really annoying polystyrene chips. I understand the need for big boxes and lots of polystyrene chips to get glass jars safely through the post but it takes ages to scoop chips out of the box and they inevitably make a mess and then I have to throw them away. Usually I use a dustpan to scoop them out then bundle them all into a black bag before either offering them on Freecycle or putting them into the green waste bin (if they are maize chips), or throwing them out with the rubbish.

Imagine my surprise this morning when I returned from the school run around 9am to find that my replacement jars had already been delivered. Impressive service! Suddenly, I had to decide if I was in the mood for making ketchup after all. A few minutes later I had retrieved the tomato puree from my freezer and had it gently warming in the preserving pan. Then, armed with my dustpan, I set to to remove the bottles from their enormous box. Another surprise! Rather than the dreaded polystyrene chips the jars were packed with cardboard mats. I've seen this used before. It seems that they take ordinary corrugated cardboard boxes and punch them with some brutal machine that turns the box into a sort of lattice. I thoroughly approve of this as it makes use of waste cardboard and, more importantly, it does away with the dreaded polystyrene chips!

I was standing there marveling at this new packaging as Steve was getting himself ready for work. "Hmmm... that looks useful," he said.

"Not for packaging," I replied, "It's too heavy for us to use through the Royal Mail." It is definitely a lot heavier than bubble wrap or chips and, although this doesn't matter to companies using couriers with set rates, for Royal Mail it puts the postage price right up.

"No," Steve said, "I wasn't thinking packaging necessarily."

So we stood there for a moment, scratching our heads.

"Strawberry mats!" Steve said at last, "put them under the strawberries to keep them mulched and clean."

I had to laugh. We were so determined to find a use for them! Still, this seemed a very sensible suggestion and definitely worth a try so I bagged up the cardboard mats and stashed them at the back of garage. Then with the box empty I realised that the girls would be thrilled to find this massive empty box in the living room when they got home from school. In the meantime, I used the actual intended contents of the box to bottle my tomato and basil ketchup. Win, win all round.

Tomato & Basil Ketchup

11 lb (5kg) tomatoes
1 lb (454g) onion
2 to 4 garlic cloves
4 x 500g passata
1 lb (454g) caster sugar
1 pt (660ml) cider vinegar
2 oz (55g) salt
2 tablespoons tomato puree
2 to 3 teaspoons soy sauce
Freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon ground all spice
½ teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon ground ginger
3 to 4 sprigs of basil

Wash the tomatoes and put them in a preserving pan. Gently heat, stir and begin to break up the tomatoes. Once the tomatoes have begun to break up, finely chop the onions and add them to the pan. Crush the garlic and add it to the pan then cook the vegetables slowly for about half an hour. In batches, pour the mixture into a blender, liquidise and sieve into a clean bowl. Wash out the pan and return the liquid to it. Add all the other ingredients except the basil, bring to the boil and simmer for several hours until it has reduced to the thickness of ketchup. Add the finely chopped basil, remove from the heat and transfer into warmed bottles and seal immediately.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Frozen food - update

You may remember that back in December when the temperatures plummeted to -13°C, my cupboard full of potatoes froze, along with the apples and onions in store. Well the temperatures have been above freezing for a few weeks now and to be honest I have avoided opening the cupboard door to deal with the potatoes.

As it happens, Tuesday night Steve decided he really needed a bottle of cider to go with his pork chop. The cider just happens to be in the same cupboard as the potatoes so off he went. A few minutes later I heard him exclaim, "Oh my God!". Then he returned to the kitchen to get an black bin bag. Fortunately, it is bin day on Wednesday so the timing was good. I didn't feel the need to see the sight for myself but Steve described the potatoes as bags of soggy, stinking mush. Thank goodness of the cider urge I say... except, of course, after all that he forgot the bottle of cider and had to go out again.

Strangely, the onions didn't seem to succumb to freezing in the same way and I have been continuing to use them up since they thawed out. I wonder whether the internal chemistry or cell structure of onions is significantly different and prevents the bursting of cells damage that goes on when potatoes freeze. Whatever the reason I'm glad that that crop is still usable.

But what of the apples? They were in a box on a high shelf and I couldn't see into the box without lifting it down. I had hoped to use the apples up to make brown sauce. Brown sauce is Steve's favourite homemade sauce and my parents are fond of it too. Unfortunately, I'm down to my last bottle of last year's vintage so need to make some more. It had been my intention all year to make some more but over and over again it seemed to be thwarted. At first, when the plums and apples were harvested I simply didn't have the time to make the sauce. The sauce takes about 5 hours to make from start to finish, whereas jam may only need one to two hours to make. Then the next problem was the low plum harvest because I only managed to gather a few pounds of Victoria plums from my tree this year. After making jams etc. I used up all my plums. But then on Monday Sue invited me round for a coffee and before I left I re-acquainted myself with the contents of her chest freezer. I had remembered the 3lb of greengages and pounds and pounds of tomatoes but had forgotten about the 4lb of plums. Hurrah, brown sauce back on the menu... Wait... what about the apples. Brown sauce needs 1lb of plums and 4lb of apples.

So it was with some trepidation that I lifted the box down with morning but what a pleasant surprise! Three mouldy apples but otherwise a perfect box, apparently unaffected by their freezing. The skins were a little wrinkled but they was destined to come off anyway. Brown sauce here we come.

Brown Sauce

Makes about 3 pints (2 litres)
4 lb ( 1815g) apples
1 lb (454g) plums
2 large onions
2 pints (1300ml) water
3 pints (2000 ml) malt vinegar
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 oz (55g) salt
2 lb (900g) light brown sugar

Peel and core the apples and cut into pieces. Halve and remove the stones from the plums and cut into pieces. Peel the onion and finely chop. Put the fruit and vegetables into a preserving pan and pour in the water. Bring to the boil then simmer for 10-20 minutes until the fruit is soft and pulpy. Blend in batches until smooth in a blender then return the puree to the preserving pan. Add all the other ingredients and bring back to the boil then simmer until thick. Remove from the heat and transfer into warmed bottles and seal immediately.

And 5 hours later, in a freezing cold kitchen (doors and windows open), I had 8 bottles of brown sauce. I also had half a box of apples left so I whipped up a batch of apple waffles (recipe to follow) and apple & cinnamon flapjacks too.

Apple Cinnamon Flapjacks

3 apples
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons apple juice
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 oz (25g) corn flour
7 oz (200g) oats
2 oz (50g) light brown sugar
4 oz (110g) butter

Preheat oven to 190°C (gas 5) and grease a shallow tin or baking tray. Peel, core and chop the apples and place them in a saucepan with the granulated sugar and apple juice. Bring the fruit to the boil and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes until soft. Place in a blender and blend until smooth. Mix the corn flour with enough cold water to make a thick liquid. Return the puree to the saucepan, add the cinnamon and the corn flour and bring to the boil, stirring continuously until it forms a thick paste. Remove from the heat and set aside. In a bowl, mix together the oats, sugar and butter until it just binds together. Press half the oat mixture into the tin. Spread the apple paste onto the oat base then cover with the remaining oat mixture and press to form a sandwich. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes until golden. Mark out the biscuit whilst still hot then allow it to cool completely in the tin.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Out with the old

I'm not particularly keen on setting New Year's Resolutions. They always seem to be things you are supposed to give up or stop doing. Instead, I like to make a New Year's To Do List - the sort of to do list that will take you all year, those big targets or those little jobs that always get put to the bottom of the list to do "if I have time", which inevitably I don't. There is definitely a feeling of out with the old and in with the new at this time of year and when you're a kitchen gardener this is perhaps a little more pressing because in just a few weeks time the first signs of spring will be here and before you know it the new growing season will be upon us.

So one of my things on my New Year's To Do List is always to empty my freezer of last year's fruit before this year's fruit is demanding its turn. Somehow I always run out of time to jam all of it before Christmas then after Christmas there is a distinct lack of urgency with no immanent craft fayres to prepare for. However, this time of year I usually find I have a bit more time available and it seemed sensible to use that for making a few preserves that would be there ready and waiting whenever the next craft fayre was scheduled.

My first job was to rummage in the freezer and see exactly what I had left. That was a job well worth doing as I discovered all sorts of things lurking towards the bottom of the freezer that I hadn't realised I had and would come in handy for meals over the next couple of weeks. There wasn't a huge amount of fruit left - a few pounds of blackcurrants, raspberries and plums plus about a pound each of strawberries and gooseberries. So during this week I made a batch of blackcurrant and a batch of raspberry jam and a spicy Chinese plum sauce.

More immediately, I used a pack of frozen chicken breast strips that I had found in the freezer to make a tasty chicken spud pie, along with a leek retrieved from the allotment. Goodness me, the allotment looked a bit bleak this week - all the brassicas have collapsed into a soggy mess after the snow and cold temperatures in December and the only thing still harvestable are the leeks. Roll on spring I say... I'm ready!

Chicken Spud Pie (serves 4)

4 large baking potatoes
Pinch of salt
A little oil
8 closed cup mushrooms, sliced
1 leek, sliced
Black pepper
1 teaspoon of cornflour
100 ml chicken stock or milk
2 cooked chicken breasts or left over roast chicken, shredded
A knob of butter

Preheat oven to 220°C, gas 7. Scrub the potato skins, pat dry then sprinkle over a little salt and rub in a little oil. Prick the skins of the potatoes then bake for an hour or microwave for 10 minutes. In the meantime, heat some oil in a frying pan then fry the mushrooms and leek for a few minutes, grinding in some black pepper as you do. Sprinkle the cornflour in then gradually add the chicken stock or milk, stirring to combine with the flour. Add the shredded chicken and cook for a little longer to warm through. Cut each potato in half and carefully scoop out the flesh, trying not to damage the skins. Place the potato in a bowl with the butter and some seasoning and mash well. Place the potato skins on a baking try and spoon the chicken mix into the skins. Top with the mashed potato then place in the oven for 10 minutes or until the mash is just browning on top.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Beating my food nemesis

It seems to me that everyone has a particular food that they just can't stand... you know... that one that makes your stomach gurgle just at the thought of it. Actually, I have 3 things that do that to me: lychee, tinned butter beans and macaroni cheese.

The macaroni cheese thing was compounded when I was about 10 year old and my grandma dished it up for dinner and my grandpa insisted I ate it despite me not liking the stuff. So I never really expected the stuff to re-enter my life after that. But one summer when Steve's son was on holiday with us he chose a macaroni cheese ready-meal for his dinner and my eldest daughter took an interest in it, saying she thought she might like it. And indeed, on trying it, she did. That meant, that every now and then I would buy her a macaroni cheese ready-meal. But then I began to wonder what I was doing! Macaroni cheese is bad enough but a ready-meal... what was I thinking?!

There really isn't anything to making macaroni cheese - as long as you are not frightened by the prospect of making a rue. It is, after all, simply some boiled macaroni pasta covered in a cheesy sauce. Very basic and inexpensive store cupboard ingredients. I would give you the recipe but I never weigh or measure anything. Here's the basic gist:

Put some macaroni in a pan of boiling salted water and simmer for 10 minutes until tender. In the meantime, put a knob of butter into the bottom of a non-stick pan and stir with a wooden spoon or spatula whilst you heat it gently to melt. Don't let the butter boil. Once melted, add about as much plain flour to it as there was butter and stir until it forms a little doughy ball - add more flour if necessary until this forms. It is also a nice idea to add about a quarter of a teaspoon of mustard powder when you add the flour. Stir the doughy ball around for a minute or two to cook the flour so it doesn't taste funny later. Now pour in some milk and stir. Continue adding milk, a little at a time, until you have a smooth batter. Now grate in some nice strong Cheddar cheese and stir until it has melted. Taste and add seasoning if desired or more cheese if necessary or more milk if it is too thick. Drain the pasta then pour the cheese sauce over the top and serve.

I now make macaroni cheese for my daughter on a fairly regular basis and you know what...? I've even tasted it and it isn't at all bad! Maybe my food nemesis after all was ready-made macaroni cheese.

The other night when my eldest said she fancied macaroni cheese for dinner my youngest complained, saying she wanted cheese & tomato pasta bake. "OK," I said, "you can both have what you want." So I chucked a load of macaroni in a pan to boil then made a batch of cheese sauce. Then, with a stroke of genius, I dug out a dish with a central divide. I spooned macaroni into each compartment then poured cheese sauce over one. Then I mixed a few spoonfuls of tomato pasta sauce into the remaining cheese sauce and heated it for a couple of minutes before pouring that over the second portion of macaroni. Finally, I grated some Red Leicester over both portions and put it in the oven at 160°C, gas 2 for about 15 minutes whilst I got the girls out of the bath. I have to say it looked and smelled delicious and I was pleased that there was enough of the macaroni and tomato cheesy sauce leftover for me to reheat for my lunch today.

Macaroni cheese can now be ticked off my taboo list... shall I tackle lychee or tinned butter beans next?

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

What day is it anyway?

It was the first day back at school for my girls today. Somehow I had managed to get myself quite into the Christmas holiday spirit and didn't feel entirely organised this morning. It was only last night that I remembered that I hadn't washed one of the PE kits or rinsed out the water bottles. Then this morning, with our coats and shoes on, I remembered that my eldest's Christmas homework was due in first day back! So there she was, hurriedly penning a book review as I got the bikes out. Homework done and to school on time... just, phew!

To continue the mixed up feel of the day I had a hot cross bun for my mid-morning snack. There doesn't seem to be a break in the availability of hot cross buns in the shops these day. Usually I'm a stickler for seasonality but I let this one go as I really like hot cross buns! Yep, hypocrite! I was somewhat alarmed when standing in my local Tesco Express on New Year's Eve to see that Cadburys Mini Eggs were back on sale and then yesterday Cadbury Creme Egg adverts appeared on the TV. Good grief!

For lunch I had a quick sweet and sour chicken meal made from left-overs but I don't think you could quite accuse me of being premature for Chinese New Year! After lunch my Lakeland order arrived. It was a huge box filled with items I had bought in their sale and most of them were stocking fillers for next Christmas so I guess I have started my Christmas shopping already!

After school I set about dealing with the 7 over-ripe bananas in my fruit bowl. I always have bananas in my fruit bowl and usually my eldest takes one to school every day. Somehow I had not quite got it sorted in my head and had ended up with a bowlful of school bananas at the beginning of the Christmas holidays. Bananas, sadly, are somehow not at all festive so they had remained in the fruit bowl for two weeks whilst people snaffled satsumas from around them instead. So yesterday I bought a tub of buttermilk and decided to make a batch of banana pancakes this afternoon. Yes, pancakes and it's not even February!

With the remaining bananas I tried a banana and chocolate cupcake recipe so that I could use up the remaining chocolate butter icing that had been in the fridge since I made the chocolate Yule log.

Banana Chocolate Cupcakes (makes about 30)

125g caster sugar
125g plain flour
25g cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
Pinch of salt
1 egg
2 small over ripe bananas, mashed
120ml warm water
4 tablespoons milk
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
+ chocolate butter icing

Preheat oven to 180°C, gas 4 and put paper cases into a cupcake tray. Put the sugar in a large bowl and sift in the flour, cocoa, raising agents and salt. In another bowl, combine the egg, bananas, water, milk, oil and vanilla. Mix the wet with the dry then spoon into the paper cases and bake for 20 minutes until well risen and springy. Cool on a wire rack then dollop a little chocolate butter icing on top.

As I was making these my eldest came in the see what I was doing and immediately made herself useful with the sifting whilst I made up the wet ingredients. Then she spotted the tube of Cadburys Mini Eggs on the cake ingredients shelf in the food cupboard (left over from last Easter, I hasten to add). So she asked if she could decorate the cakes with mini eggs when they were cool. Well, after the weird day I had had why not!