Monday, 28 March 2011

Rescuing Burnt Preserves

Having made the effort to prepare the fruit for jam or vegetables for chutney, it is more than a little disappointing when you accidentally burn the stuff whilst making the preserve but sadly this does sometime happen. I find that apples & plums are the worst fruit offenders, whilst sultanas are the most likely to catch when making chutney.

So how do you prevent all your hard work from being wasted?

Firstly, it is important to never stray far from your preserving pan; althouth it is tempting when it takes 40 minutes to cook blackcurrants or 2-3 hours to reduce a chutney. Your attempts to not waste time and get on with something else could result in the whole process being a waste of time if it burns. For this reason, be sure to have everything to hand before you start - e.g. don't go rummaging elsewhere for your jam jars after you have started the cooking process. Be on hand to give your jam/chutney a stir every now and then. I have a fantastic preserving spoon - a long handled wooden spoon with a squared off spoon-end (from Lakeland) that is just perfect for scrapping the bottom of the pan to make sure everything is still moving around.

The key point for stirring a jam is after the sugar has gone in. Stir and stir and stir until all the grittiness has gone and then a bit longer to be sure because any undissolved sugar will catch and burn. I remember reading in several preserves books that once you get jam onto a rolling boil to reach the setting point you must not stir it as this will lose the boil. Good grief, they make it sound as if doing so will somehow destroy the jam setting spell and all will be lost. I have discovered from experience that stirring during a rolling boil is essential when making plum jam. It is true that the boil drops for a moment but it soon returns when you stop stirring and it is better than having plums sticking to the bottom of the pan and burning. I would add a note of caution: sticking a spoon into a vigorously boiling pot of jam turns it into an angry volcano that spits and spats at you. Speaking as an ex-science teacher, I would not let a pupil of mine do such a dangerous thing and would certainly recommend the wearing of goggles if they did! So, hold your long spoon at its maximum length and stand well back, wearing glasses if you have them. Alternatively, temporarily remove the pan from the heat, give it a thorough stir then return it to the boil.

Chutney becomes more prone to sticking the thicker it becomes so be prepared to dedicate more of your attention towards the end of the chutney making process.

If you have ever burnt your jam or chutney then you'll remember the smell well and will be super sensitive to it in the future. This is a good thing as it will give you the chance to save the preserve before it is ruins beyond saving. Be aware that a similar smell occurs when small amounts drip or splatter onto a hot hob so it may not be your preserve that is burning after all. If you suspect burning then remove the pan from the heat and give it a tentative stir. If you feel a layer at the bottom that is stuck then stop stirring. If you are to save your preserve then it is not a good idea to stir the burnt layer into the non-burnt stuff above. It may be that your jam is set or your chutney is thick and you can carefully bottle the non-burnt preserve without disturbing the burnt later at the bottom. I would strongly advise tasting it though to check that the burnt flavour has not penetrated it. Should your jam or chutney not be ready for bottling then tip it into another pan or bowl, clean out the preserving pan then return it to the preserving pan and continue as normal, again checking that the burnt layer hasn't affected its flavour.

So how do you remove a burnt on layer on the bottom of your pan? Firstly, a soak in very hot soapy water is a good idea. Try to remove anything that will come away easily so that only the really tough stuff is left. Next, use a blade hob scrapper if you have one or a wire wool pan scrubber. You can also use a sprinkling of bicarbonate of soda and boiling water to shift it.

Inevitably, however you clean your pan it will leave it scratched. This happened to my preserving pan and eventually I found that everything I cooked in it was sticking to the bottom. Somehow the scratches in the bottom of the pan make it more likely for things to stick in the future. I was finding it very labour intense to have to stir everything pretty much all the time, including things like blackcurrants that never normally stick. I feared it might be time to buy a new preserving pan but first I thought I would try polishing the bottom of it smooth again.

I started with a scourer and a thin layer of vegetable oil. This immediately came away black so I knew I was removing the top surface of the steel (a good thing in this case). Having rinsed that away with soapy water, I fitted a mini drill with a buffer pad and smear the bottom of the pan with toothpaste. Then I picked up the phone and had a nice long chat with my mum whilst polishing the pan with the drill in the other hand. Finally I gave the pan a thorough clean to remove the toothpaste and hey-presto it was smooth and shiny again!

For the final test I cooked up a batch of rhubarb (another sticker) and ginger jam and it cooked perfectly with no more than the normal level of stirring required.

I don't think I have ever met a preserve maker who hasn't burnt something at some point so if you do burn something you'll be in good company. It is disappointing and it is tempting to try to save what you can. As I have said, most of the time something can be salvaged but always check the flavour. Don't let it put you off, just chalk it up to experience and learn from your mistakes for next time.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Red Hot Sauces

At the beginning of the year I was asked if I could devise a sauce for Red Hot World Buffet. For anyone who has never been, Red Hot offer an all you can eat buffet with a variety of world cuisines.

With so many different cuisines on offer in the restaurant, it was initially difficult to decide where to start with a suitable sauce... Indian, Chinese, Italian, British...? So I decided not to focus on just one but to come up with several sauces and to see which one they liked best. On that basis I made a lime chutney suitable for Indian food, a plum sauce for Chinese food, a sweet chilli sauce, a tomato ketchup and a brown sauce.

After several weeks of maturing in the bottle, it was time for the sauces to have their first outing so on Tuesday I took them to the Red Hot restaurant in Milton Keynes' theatre district where the chefs & service staff had a chance to have a taste. Oddly it was both exciting and slightly nerve-raking to be present as people tasted my sauces. After many years of making preserves I have learnt to have faith in what I make because lots of people have told me that it's good stuff but usually people just buy a few jars and disappear, to eat and comment in private.

The feedback from the Red Hot staff was both useful and interesting and soon it became obvious that the Lime Chutney, Plum Sauce & Sweet Chilli Sauce were the 3 favourites. Another or maybe several tasting sessions are needed yet but it was a good start. It will be interesting to see how the process unfolds.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Horray for spring

On Friday afternoon 200 children left school with a Red Nose biscuit they had made and I left with aching feet but a feeling of satisfaction. Then several hours later I sighed, felt my shoulders drop back to their normal position and realised it was the weekend!

And what a glorious weekend it turned out to be. The frost was just thawing as I pegged my washing out in the garden early on Saturday morning. And by the afternoon it was very nearly... er... warm. Time for another family outing to the allotment. Whilst Steve wrestled with the temperamental Mantis, my first job was to plant the onion sets.

I have tried planting onion sets at various times in the year with varying success. The worst time from the onions' point of view seems to be in the autumn as many of them succumb to the winter weather. Those that do survive tend to only reach a small size and the whole crop is ready about the same time as spring sown sets so no advantage there either. The worst time for planting from a human point of view is February when everything is still cold. I used to dread the onion planting as by the end of it my fingers & feet would be numb. Heat-treated onion sets need to be planted later - usually April, which is nice time to plant onions. Only thing is, heat-treated onions are more expensive to buy and don't seem to be significantly better than ordinary ones. So now I buy ordinary, spring planting onions and wait until March to sow them.

Having planted 100 brown Sturon, 100 red onion sets and 40 shallots, I turned my attention to the girls' plot which needed digging over. In the background, the Mantis was reluctantly being coaxed back into life. By the time I had forked over the girls' plot the Mantis was up and running so Steve gave the bed a going over with it. Then I marked it out with string to separate it into five main sections - two sections for potatoes, one for shared sweetcorn and one section each for their main vegetable growing area.

By this point the girls were getting bored with their quest to dig down to bedrock so I suggested they got their potatoes planted instead. My youngest is growing Mayan Gold again this year. She started growing all yellow vegetables last year and enjoyed it so much she's doing it again this year. Despite Mayan Gold being chosen mainly on the basis of its yellow colour, it turned out to be a very tasty potato that made lovely crispy chips. My eldest this year will be trying out Mayan Twillight - a yellow potato with big pink patches. It looks very pretty and I'll be interested to see how it cooks.

With the girls' potatoes planted they were ready to go home so we left Steve planting 3kg of Charlottes. Back home the girls were hungry & thirsty so I put some apple & cinnamon hot cross buns under the grill and made it extra tasty by spreading plum & cinnamon jam on top. A lovely springtime snack to end a lovely spring day.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Red Nose Day

I'm spending the day at my youngest's daughter's school tomorrow & Friday making "Fruity Face" biscuits for Red Nose Day. I did the same thing two years ago for the last Comic Relief and volunteered to organise it all again this time.

I sometimes wonder why I do these things. Sorting out a simple recipe and testing it is one thing but scaling it up to make 220 of them over two days with children between the ages of 3 and 7 is another. It involves meetings, letter writing, spreadsheets, budgeting, delegation, people skills, teaching skills... shall I go on?

So far this week I have worked out how much stuff I needed to buy, collected and counted a vast quantity of 50p donations, been out to buy the ingredients, organised my team of volunteer helpers, tweeked the timetable with the deputy head and cooked a test batch to remind myself of what equipment we'll need and any possible pitfalls to highlight in advance.

Phew... no wonder I'm feeling tired. 180 biscuits to cooked tomorrow... expecting to feel tired tomorrow night too... and Friday night as well.

Still, this time next week I'll have a rosy view of the whole thing and be pleased to have done it and who know, in two years time I might do it all again despite several times today saying this would be my last time !

Fruit Face Biscuits (makes 6)

4 oz (110g) self-raising flour
2 oz (55g) margarine or butter
2 oz (55g) caster sugar
A few drops vanilla extract
1 fl oz (2 tablespoons) milk
3 glace cherries
12 raisins
2 dried apricots

Preheat oven to 190°C, gas 5 and grease a baking tray. Sift the flour into a bowl then rub in the fat until it feels like breadcrumbs. Stir in the caster sugar then add the vanilla extract to the milk and use it to bind the mix into a soft dough. Divide the dough into six balls. Roll each ball in your hands then flatten onto the baking tray. Press two raisins into the biscuit to form eyes, half a glace cherry for a nose and a thin slice of dried apricot for the mouth. Bake for 20 minutes until risen and golden. Cool on a wire rack.

Monday, 14 March 2011

A busy day in the kitchen

Phew, Sunday was a busy day in the kitchen. It started with breakfast where I whipped up a batch of banana waffles. After that I turned 4 lb of thawed out blackcurrants into my famous blackcurrant & liquorice jam. Then it was time to make some banana bread so that it could be cooking whilst I sorted out lunch. At this point I got to sit down for a few minutes whilst I joined the girls in cheese toasties & soup.

After lunch I spent maybe as much as half an hour sat down whilst I looked up some recipes on the internet then it was straight on with making some garlic and ale mustard with some of the garlic we still have in store from last year's harvest. There is quite a lot of if left and it's starting to shoot so I need to use it or lose it (as they say).

Garlic & Ale Mustard

100 g whole yellow mustard seeds
2 teaspoons sea salt
4 garlic cloves
15 g plain flour
175 ml ale

Grind the mustard seeds with the salt to a smooth powder using an electric spice grinder. Put the mustard in a bowl and add the flour. Whiz the garlic in a food processor until finely chopped or crush in a garlic press, then add to the bowl. Gradually add the ale, mixing until it forms a smooth paste. Leave to stand for about 10 minutes then check the consistency again and add more ale if necessary. Spoon the mustard into sterilised jars and seal. Leave to mature for at least 2 weeks in a cool place before tasting.

By the time that was in jars it was just after 3 o'clock so time to get my piece of brisket into the oven. For this I browned the brisket all over in a frying pan then placed it in a casserole dish. Then I quickly fried some snippets of bacon (2 rashers in total) and some slices of leek. This joined the beef in the casserole, along with 10 shallots, some chunks of carrot & a few sprigs of fresh rosemary from the garden. The whole lot was surrounded by a pint of beef stock then put in the oven at 160°C for 3 hours.

I do remember a brief sit down after getting that in the oven but as my kitchen looked like a bomb had gone off it was soon time to get the washing up down and the clear everything away. By the time that was done I had to get the potatoes in the oven to roast. That left me just long enough to get the washing in from the garden, have a bath (and bathe the girls) before it was time to get the brisket out to rest. With the brisket resting, the oven temperature was increased to crisp up the roasties whilst I tidied Sunday's activities off the kitchen table. Then a couple of spoonfuls of flour mixed with cold water was needed to thicken the gravy from the casserole. All that was needed then was to thinly slice the meat whilst the frozen Yorkshire puddings cooked (give me a break, I'm not going to make my own Yorkshires after a kitchen marathon like that!).

Ahh... lovely to sit down for a family roast dinner whilst watching Countryfile on the telly...

Then, up again, tidy away, sandwiches made for tomorrow's packed lunches, stories read to the children, kids in bed and time to do the ironing... don't you just love Sundays?

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Having got the first early potatoes planted yesterday with the Year 2 children, I took my girls around to the allotment this afternoon to get the polythene cloches from Lidls over them. In the meantime Steve dismantled our Mantis tiller. Last weekend when he had tried to start it it had failed. We can't remember when we bought the tiller but it is probably about 8 years ago and we have never maintained it in any way other than putting new petrol in it as needed. So Steve got on the internet and looked up all the possible things that could go wrong and decided to splash out £25 on a maintenance kit. Now armed with the necessary bits and pieces and determination he stripped the thing to pieces. I left him to it.

Once the plastic hoops were in place over the two rows of potatoes I decided I needed to enlist the help of the girls in order to maneuverer the plastic sheeting into place. This proved to be a hugely entertaining game as far as the girls were concerned as the wind ballooned the sheeting up whilst they had in out stretched. I let them run around giggling with it for a few minutes before attempting to train it into place. As well as the two large tent pegs that came with the cloche, I secured the edges of the plastic with several bricks and a good scattering of soil.

Once the potatoes were covered I moved my attention onto the broad bean bed to finish the job the children had started on Friday. I pulled out 4 long trenches then my eldest reappeared, asking if she could help sow the broad bean seeds. She very patiently worked her way up and down two rows before her sister arrived asking if she could help too. So together they finished the last two rows together.

I left them to it and went to admire the apricot blossom. Oh I so hope this doesn't get damaged by frost - it would be great to get some apricots this year.

With the broad beans all sown, I covered up the drills and placed the cloche hoops over the rows before asking the girls if they fancied another go with the plastic parachutes!

Job done! Stand back and admire.

Oh yeah... and Steve got the Mantis working again just before dinner.

Allotmenting - The Next Generation

The first 30 Year 2 children arrived on my allotment at 1.30pm yesterday afternoon, along with their class teacher and 2 helping parents. The walk from school had taken them 15 minutes as predicted so they were right on time. They arrived with wide eyes, seeing the site in a way I have never seen it and already asking lots of questions even though we hadn't formally started yet. They all instantly spotted the slide that we have on one side for the girls, of course.

I started by welcoming them to the site and asking what they knew about allotments. I knew from my youngest that they had been talking about allotments at school for a few days already so they had some idea from that. Some of them had even helped out at Grandad's or Aunty's allotment. Then we talked about the seasons and I explained why there wasn't much growing at moment. It was then that I invited them to plant some potatoes and broad beans.

Eighteen children took seed potatoes from me and lined up along the trench Steve had dug out last weekend. There was a plant label at each point where a potato needed to be planted and I explained to the children to pull out the plant label and place their seed potato where it had been. The instructions were clear and the children managed it easily. Then as I pulled the soil over the top of the potatoes we talked about how potatoes grow, the tools I was using and other random things like the cat they spotted in the background or empty snail shells on the soil. Those children who hadn't planted potatoes then got to sow a row of broad beans with me.

Planting done, as I leaned on my hoe like an old-time gardener, the children asked me questions. Great questions like, what things do I grow, how long do things take to grow, where does the water come from and what things eat the plants. Then there were the amusing questions that you might expect from 6-7 year olds such as: are cats allowed on the allotment, do I stand guard all the time, why don't I get my dad to fix a tap close by for watering, and how old am I? You've got to love them!

We were just finishing off when the second class of 30 children arrived. So then a repeat of the session, although with slightly different directions taken depending on the questions asked by the children.

By 2.30pm the children were heading off back to school, having thanked me in the enthusiastic way that primary children en mass do: "Thaaaaannnk yooooouuuu!" The teachers also thanking me and saying they felt inspired to get an allotment now, or at the very least plant some strawberries.

So not a bad afternoon at all. My first early potatoes and 2 rows of broad beans planted and hopefully lots of learning having taken place too.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Spring Cleaning

We ran out of apple juice on Thursday. I like a glass of apple juice with my breakfast and any other juice just isn't the same. After suffering orange juice for 2 mornings I decided on Saturday that I couldn't wait until my scheduled Tuesday visit to Lidl's and I needed to go straight away. My youngest agreed that a trip out was in order whilst my eldest was too engrossed in Saturday morning TV to be bothered. What I hadn't expected was the selection of gardening supplies that was on sale in Lidl's this weekend. Everything from apple trees (buy 2 for £10) to kneeling pads to coldframes.

So after picking up the apple (and other) juices, I added two large self-watering flower pots, a pair of secateurs, a large rose arch, a new pair of gardening gloves and 4 cloche tunnels to my trolley. I came home, in the spring sunshine, feeling ready to get out in the garden - or onto the allotment to be precise.

After lunch, all of us headed out to the allotment. The girls scootered round on their new scooters and were soon busy in their fantasy world. The allotment looks pretty good despite the lack of attention it has had recently. I did make quite an effort to clear it and deweed before the winter and now it is relatively easy to bring it back into usage. The raised beds with their wooden edging stand empty, like trampolines on an out of season beach.

My youngest's topic for this half term is "growing" and her teacher asked me before the holiday whether it would be OK for Year 2 to visit out allotment as part of this topic. I did point out that there isn't a lot growing at this time of year! Anyway, on Friday she asked if it would be OK for her to bring Year 2 to the allotment this coming Friday. As you can imagine, my youngest is very excited at the prospect of all her year group visiting our allotment. Having informed Steve of this immanent visit, he started our Saturday visit to the plot by passing a health and safety eye over it and removing anything hazardous. This largely involved moving trip hazards and eye-poking canes.

In the meantime, I dug out old carrots and a few weeds so that Steve would easily be able to dig over beds ready for planting. Then I unpacked one of the cloche tunnels I had bought from Lidl's that morning and soon discovered that each cloche is about 5m long and 1 meter wide. That is bigger than I had imagined but great for £4.99 each. So Steve and I discussed their possible uses for a few minutes and decided we would try them over broad beans and first early potatoes to get them off to a good start. So I packed it back into its box whilst Steve dug over the beds we had identified as the potato and broad bean beds. We are thinking that with a bit of organisation we should be able to get every child from Year 2 to plant either a potato or a broad bean when they visit.

We returned to the plot on Sunday to finish the preparations for the visit. Steve raked over the bed that will be the broad bean bed and then dug out 2 long trenches for the potatoes. He dropped compost into the base of each trench and marked out 18 points in each trench in which a potato can be placed by a Year 2 child. In the meantime, I pruned the raspberry canes with the help of my eldest who just loves using secateurs. Later, bored with the pruning, she decided to hook the blanket weed out of the water trough only to discover a bundle of frogs spawn in it. This is not a good place for frogs spawn so she fished it out in a flower pot and transferred it into our little pond. She told Granny all about it excitedly on the phone later so it must have been a highlight of her weekend.