Thursday, 18 August 2011

Award winning hand-made ice-cream

Regular readers of my blog will know that I enjoy making ice-cream but I never expected to get an award for it! This changed the other day when I entered the Farr Beach sandcastle competition. Inspired by a beach ice-cream set that I picked up in IKEA for a few pounds, we decided that this year’s entry would be a sand ice-cream van.

First we dug out a large hole and built up walls to make the outline structure of the ice-cream van and then the girls created a series of different ice-creams in cones and ice-cream sundaes to “sell” at the counter. This was the most fun part, trying to find suitable substitutes for yummy ingredients on the beach. Dry sand for vanilla, damp sand for caramel flavours. Green seaweed for mint. Small sticks as chocolate flakes, red pebbles as cherries, seaweed as chocolate sauce.

After an hour of digging, sculpting and creating, the ice-cream van and its stock was finished. Then, the judges walked up and down the beach, assessing each castle. We all gathered together at the end of the beach to hear the announcements – in reverse order of course. 3rd then 2nd places… then finally, 1st place for the ice-cream van! What a lovely surprise and a brilliant way to end an enjoyable, fun, family day out on the beach. Funnily enough, as we left the beach that afternoon we all fancied an ice-cream, sadly though my stock of real home-made ice-creams was in the freezer at home 600 miles away!

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

A Kitchen Gardener on holiday- Part 2

By the time we needed to visit the supermarket again we were running low on homegrown vegetables too. There were still plenty of spuds and alliums, courgettes and French beans but the broad beans, peas and beetroot were eaten. It is somewhat surprising that vegetables such as courgettes and French beans should still be edible after a 600 mile car journey and 6 days out of the ground but compared to the journeys some fruit and vegetables have to arrive in supermarkets its nothing.

When homegrown is not available I like to shop local instead and this is probably easier here than anywhere in the UK. The Scots are very proud of anything Scottish so supermarkets are stocked with Scottish products including everything from haggis to cheese to carrots. And with the different pace of life up here, where Tescos only arrived a couple of years ago, there are still thriving local specialist shops such as butchers and fishmongers. It makes a pleasant change to shop in places like this and the whole family actively enjoys our shopping trips.

So a 40 minute, 30 mile drive to Thurso isn’t the chore it might be if this was something I had to do every week of the year. Instead we look forward to it, made more enjoyable by the ease of parking near to each of the shops we visit. First to MacKay’s the butchers – a large, rotund man with ruddy cheeks who was clearly born to be a butcher. He greeted us in his usual friendly way, recognising us from previous annual visits. All his meat is local, of course, and can be cut to order if necessary. His sausages are the highlight of our trip and my daughter claims they are the only sausages she likes. Here we stocked up on fillet steak, leg of lamb, a chicken and sausages as well as “olives”, pieces of frying steak wrapped round a sage and onion stuffing. I’ve never seen these anywhere else so enjoy having them when I can just because they are a bit different. We also bought half a dozen local free-range eggs and a punnet of Caithness grown strawberries.

A very short drive to the quayside and we parked this time outside the fishmongers. It is also right by our favourite café “The Tempest” and although we were all starving we decided to visit the fishmongers first as this, like the butchers, still have the quirky habit of closing for lunch. Like so many places up here this is also called “MacKay’s” but a different and unrelated MacKay to the butchers (Sutherland is of course Clan MacKay country). Here Steve stocked up on a pot of crabmeat, some enormous fresh scallops and a wedge of Orkney cheese before we headed into the café for lunch. I can’t help marvelling at the car park – a huge expanse of tarmac at the quayside, next to several shops and a popular café and with a seaview, overlooking the Orkney Islands. Firstly, it is remarkable because there are absolutely no road marking in it so you can park wherever you choose. Secondly, it is completely free of charge. And thirdly, it is almost entirely empty. Imagine such a car park in Cornwall, closely packed bay markings, pay and display and full by 9am.

Nicely stocked up with a variety of fresh, local produce we drove back to the cottage in excited anticipation of our next meal.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

A Kitchen Gardener on holiday- Part 1

When you love kitchen gardening as much as I do, it is a bit of a strain to leave it behind for 3 weeks to go on holiday. To lessen the strain, firstly, I have perfected the timing of my summer holiday to slot neatly between the end of broad beans and the beginning of the French beans, and between the end of the soft fruit and the beginning of the tree fruit. Secondly, I make sure there are people back home who can keep an eye on the plot whilst we are away and to keep picking the produce to stop them going over.

Before leaving on holiday I went around the plot picking everything that I could to take away. The peas and mangetout were winding down but I got a small bag of each. The broad beans I thought were over but got a few new pods from re-grown shoots. The first of the French beans were ready so I picked everything I could from these. I pulled up a few beetroots and cut all the courgettes. When freshly picked like this, it is possible to expect these vegetables to last at least until the end of the first week away. I added these last pickings to my previously harvested onions, garlic and 3 different variety of potatoes. Three varieties of potatoes may sound excessive, but when you are away for 3 weeks it is nice to be able to cook potatoes in different ways and each variety is particularly suitable for certain cooking techniques.

Our holiday destination was our little cottage on the north coast of Scotland. It is a very basic affair with a tiny galley kitchen but the kitchen is well stocked with utensils and vessels. It has an old but spacious fridge, with a dodgy door that has to be held shut with a bungy cord. It also has an electric cooker with an oven and 3 working hob rings. Work surface is almost non-existent but it is surprising what you can cook when you put your mind to it. I could, of course, live on ready-meals for a week, simply reheating them in the microwave that’s so old it doesn’t even have a rotating turntable and probably microwaves the kitchen as much as it does the food inside. But I’m a foodie at heart and part of being on holiday is enjoying lovely evening meals. I’m happy to cook as long as Steve does the washing up. And he’s happy to do the washing up as long as he’s well fed!

When on holiday we tend to choose luxury items that we wouldn’t normally eat every day so our first meal was roast duck, roasted Sharpe’s Express potatoes, carrots, tiny broad beans and peas. If cooking duck at home I would have strolled into the front garden and grabbed a bundle of fresh sage then stuffed the cavity with sage and onion. In the absence of fresh sage I decided to concoct a stuffing from the flavours I did have to hand. I finely chopped up a red onion, a clove of garlic, some root ginger, an inch of celery, a small yellow courgette, a mushroom and a rasher of bacon. This I stirfried for a few minutes in some olive oil then put it in a bowl with breadcrumbs made from two slices of wholemeal bread. I squeezed it together before stuffing the crop and the cavity with the mixture before roasting the duck. And very tasty the stuffing proved to be.

The next day we headed west around the coast. It was a beautiful sunny day and as we drove home later that evening I was struck by the picturesque beauty of the Kyle of Tongue in bright sunshine. We pulled off the road to take a photo and to my surprise there was a huge fennel bush growing at the edge of the layby. I guess not everyone would recognise a fennel bush when they see one, but for a kitchen gardener it was an easy identification. As megrin sole was on the menu for that night’s dinner I took the liberty of gathering a few sprigs of the fennel and back at the cottage I grilled the fish on a bed of fresh fennel.

The next day was another epic roast meal but this time it was a beautiful Scottish leg of lamb. Again, at home, a trip to the herb garden would be in order to pick a sprig of rosemary and then I would stab the leg all over, pushing in a slice of garlic and a piece of rosemary into each slit. With no rosemary to hand I sent Steve out to retrieve some of the wild thyme I could see growing outside the kitchen window. As usual I inserted garlic into every slit but this time a piece of thyme went in with it. Then I seasoned it all over with salt and pepper before spreading a good dollop of mustard all over it. This was accompanied by Kestrel roast potatoes, the last of the peas, carrots and some roasted yellow courgette. I had never roasted courgettes before but it was simple to do. Firstly I cut the courgette into chunks then tossed them in a mixture of olive oil, salt, pepper and dried mixed herbs. I then placed them carefully in the roasting tin with the potatoes, skin side down, and cooked them for the last 20 minutes of the roasting time. They were beautifully sweet with a lovely herby flavour.

After that, the next meal was a little simpler. Boiled gammon and baked potatoes. It still took an hour to cook but an hour when I could get on with other things. The potatoes, by the way, were overgrown Charlotte potatoes. Usually known for their boiling ability, I discovered last year that when left in the ground too long and grown too large, they actually make brilliant baked potatoes with lovely crispy skin. The secret to a crispy skin on a baked potato is to rub it with oil and a little salt before baking. Then to finish the meal, a few salad items such as tomatoes, cucumber, celery and some homegrown beetroot, cooked that morning after breakfast.

So for the first week at least, we managed to eat homegrown vegetables and enjoy the lovely flavours of the season.