Take A Seat – how to re-upholster a dining chair, for complete beginners

So your dining chairs are looking a little tatty. Perhaps the seat fabrics are stained, marked, torn, threadbare, or just looking rather dated and no longer suit your decor. Time to throw them out and start saving up for some new ones, perhaps? Don’t be silly! For a start, chairs are really expensive (I mean, easily £100 each for nice ones!). If the chair frame is still sound, then DIY re-upholstery or re-covering of the chair pads is a job which should be within the grasp of anyone with a few basic craft and DIY skills.

Before and after

In order to do this job properly, you will require -

  • A chair or chairs in need of restoration
  • Staple-removing tool or tools
  • Heavy-duty staple gun suitable for upholstery tasks, and staples
  • Replacement covering fabric, of the mid to heavyweight upholstery type
  • New bottoming fabric (non-woven synthetic material)
  • Replacement seat foam (optional, see later)
  • Basic everyday tools such as scissors, screwdrivers, iron and ironing board
  • Adhesive spray and stain-repellant spray may also be useful

The right tools for staple-removingIt is possible to cut corners on the equipment list, of course – you can remove staples using a flat-headed screw driver (not one you’re particularly fond of, as it will never be the same again!) and a reasonably heavy-duty desk stapler could be pressed into service instead of a staple gun, but having the right tools will make the job an awful lot easier and quicker, not to mention safer for you! A staple gun and hinged-type staple remover should set you back about £10 between them, so won’t break the bank.

I would definitely replace the seat foam if the chair is imported, or is older than the 1988 UK fire safety regulations, as upholstery foams before this date (and some of those still in use overseas) can be incredibly flammable. If you know your chairs are more recent than this, and the seat foam is in good condition, not stained or breaking down, then it’s reasonable to re-use what you have. This is what I’ve done in this tutorial, as I know the chairs are at most six or seven years old and were originally manufactured here in the UK. Obviously this is a DIY job for my own use, the chairs won’t be labelled as complying with the regulations after re-covering, and consequently will not be suitable for sale or for use in a furnished rented property.

I want these chairs to last me many more years, so I’m doing this properly – yes, you could just wrap an extra layer of fabric over what’s there already and staple it down, it’s a quick-and-dirty approach which will save you a lot of time and effort, but you will inevitably add bulk, particularly at the corners and underneath, and the seat pads may very well not sit properly afterwards. Stripping the seat pads down is pretty hard work and takes time, but for me it’s worth it in terms of the quality of the eventual finish.

Right, to work!

Chair in need of re-upholsteryThese are the chairs I’m re-upholstering. I bought them from eBay to match four I already have, but they are very stained and all my stain removal efforts have failed. If you turn your chair over, it’s very likely that you will find the seat pad held on by four screws through the base, one at each corner. Remove these and set the screws aside, you’ll need them again later.

Seat pad - bottomRemove the seat pad and turn it over. The view that greets you will probably be a bit like this one, a sheet of bottoming cloth held on with staples all the way around. This is light non-woven fabric, generally, and while it’s tempting just to rip it off, you’re going to want to remove all the staples anyway, so you might as well get started. Leaving staples in situ is a tempting effort-saving decision (trust me, it will once you’ve taken a few out!) but will interfere with neat tidy fitting of the new fabrics later on, and may affect the way the seat pad fits back into the chair.

Personally I find having one of the wooden-handled, curved, pointy staple removing tools a real benefit, even though they’re quite expensive (expect to pay about £15 for a new one – but it will last you a lifetime) – I use it on the staples first, just to ‘break’ the back of them and make a little space in the centre. Then I use the jointed plastic handled tool, which grips the staples to pull them out evenly. You could save a little money and buy just one or the other – they will do the job on their own but the curved tool struggles sometimes when one side of the staple comes free first, and you’ll need pliers to pull out the other end. The plastic tool has a chunkier tip and is much less easy to squeeze under the tight staple to start with.

The wrong tools for removing staplesI mentioned you could use a screwdriver – well, you can, but it’s not the right tool for the job, you’ll damage the corners using it for leverage, and will require a lot more force to use, too. All of which means it’s a lot more likely to slip, and damage parts of the chair you want to keep. Or, you know, your fingers. Obviously you should keep all your fingers *behind* any tool you’re using like this (be it a screwdriver or a proper staple removing tool). Don’t say you haven’t been warned!

Once the bottoming fabric has been removed, you’ll find even more staples holding on the top fabric. You’ve guessed it, these all need to go too. In all, it’s quite likely there will be well over 100 staples in each seat. It’s a long old job and until you get the knack of it can easily take over an hour for each chair. But it’s worth it for the quality of the eventual result.

Finally, you’ll have all the fabric off the seats. Probably, what you’re left with will be a wooden (plywood or chipboard usually) board and a foam pad, which may or may not be glued together. If they’re not glued down, or you’re replacing the foam pad, then it may be worth turning the board the other way up before re-fitting, particularly if it’s chipboard and crumbling a little where the old staples have been. If you’re replacing the foam, it’s easiest to take one of the existing pads to a foam supplier and ask them to cut replacements the same size and shape for you – most will be happy to do this though they may charge you something to do it. I’m keeping the foam pads, because they’re relatively new and in good condition still.

Cut out fabric and mark wrong sideYou’ve probably chosen your replacement fabric already, and really anything could work, so let your imagination run wild! The fabric I have used is actually salvaged from a pair of heavy cotton curtains we found in the house when we got here. I’d taken them down and washed them as I didn’t like them where they were, but the subtle neutral check pattern makes a great seat and goes really well with the natural oak of the chair frames. And also, you know, it’s free, which is awesome!

If you’re buying fabrics to use, a thrifty option could be to have a look at the second hand curtains for sale in local charity shops, where you may find a real vintage bargain! Try to choose a fabric of a similar weight to the one that you’ve removed, as this should make the seat pad fit back into position best, without unexpected gaps or excessive thickness. If you’re buying new, don’t feel you need to restrict yourself to upholstery fabrics – for a little job like this, clothing fabrics like denim or a heavyweight woollen cloth could make great alternatives. Do bear in mind that a fabric with an obvious check or stripe, like mine, will show up any wonkiness and uneven tension in the fabric re-fitting much more than a fabric without!

Pre-wash, dry, and then carefully iron your fabric before cutting out. I hate ironing as much as the next person (in fact, I pretty much only ever iron at all if I’m doing a sewing or textiles project!) but do go to the trouble of doing this, it’s important I promise! Washing your fabric first should both shrink it, if necessary, and improve your chances of removing stains from it in the future, should you need to, without causing colour run.

Using the old seat fabric as a template, cut out your new seat covers. I prefer to cut a little larger, and to cut to square corners, without ‘scalloping’ them out. This just provides more of a margin of error for the fitting process! If there’s any risk of confusion, mark the ‘wrong’ side of your fabric clearly when you cut it out, to ensure it goes on the chair right-side-out! If your seat foam isn’t already glued down to the wood, consider using some spray adhesive to do this, as if the two are fixed in position already, it will make stretching the fabric over them much more straightforward.

Fix straightest edge with staple gunThen, starting along the straightest edge of your seat pad, secure the fabric with your staple gun. The first side is simple, but of course it gets a bit trickier after that. Do the opposite side next, so that your fabric is nice and straight. While it *is* possible to stretch, hold, and staple the fabric on your own, this task is a lot easier if you can recruit a glamorous assistant to help you (hello, Hubby!).

Wrap over fabric snugly and fix opposite edgeYou will want to pull the fabric as tight as you can, and this will curve and round-off the cut edges of the foam in the process. Work slowly and keep the tension even. I tend to work in a divide-the-difference pattern, placing each new staple in the centre of a gap, rather than trying to work along a line from one end to the other.

Then fix sides, maintaining desired tensionThen do the same with the two other sides, though you might find it easier to work on both sides alternately, rather than securing one side and then the other. Just keep checking your tension is even and appropriate as you go along, and don’t be nervous of taking staples out and trying again if you’re not happy with the result!

Once you’ve finished the sides, fold the corners over neatly and secure these too.

Finally staple down corners

With a bit of luck, you’ll end up with seat pads that look a bit like this.  Now just to finish the bottoms. You could re-use the bottoming cloths that you took off in the first place – if you managed to get them off without tearing – but they’ll look tatty and new non-woven fabric to replace them is very cheap (it’s usually available in black, grey, white, or beige and costs a couple of pounds a metre, so choose the one that will blend in best). You could even forget about it and just re-fit the seats as they are, but that will leave the raw edges of your covering fabric exposed and these will eventually fray.

Cut out replacement bottoming cloth using old fabric as templateA word to the wise – take it from me, and do not attempt to iron your bottoming fabric. Doing so (even on your iron’s lowest setting) will result in ruined fabric and a nasty sticky mess on the bottom of your iron. Do you really need to ask how I know this..?

Attach new bottoming cloth with staplesCut out the bottoming cloth using the old one as a template, and then staple this in place over the seat bottom, concealing all the rough edges and staples securing your top fabric as you do.

Treat seat pads with stain-repellant sprayMindful of why I had this job to do in the first place, I got out my trusty can of Scotchgard spray (other stain repellant products are available) and treated the re-upholstered seat pads before re-fitting them. This would also be a good time to make any repairs to the wooden chair frames, and oil, varnish, or even paint these if necessary.

Finally, fix seat pads back in position with screwsOnce everything is done, re-fit the seat pads using the screws you set aside at the beginning, and stand back and admire your handiwork! Aren’t they fine? I’ve only got another four to do, now!

Just consider the possibilities – old dining chairs in need of re-upholstery sell online and in general auctions for pennies on the pound compared to new ones. Doing the job yourself takes a little time and effort, but you can produce a really professional looking result, save a heap of money, and bring a great vintage feature into your home, too!

Admire your finished chairs!

 

Still doubt that this is a beginner’s project? Well, these chairs are the first things I’ve ever upholstered. If I can do it, I have no doubt that you can, too!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Cooking the Books – with some regret, I’m giving up the challenge!

Just after New Year, and struck with the realisation that I had lots and lots of cookbooks that I rarely seemed to use, I set myself a year-long blogging challenge – each week, I would take a recipe from one of my books (one I had never made before, if possible), cook it, and then write it up for the blog along with a review of the book in question. I’ve enjoyed this challenge hugely, both in the discipline of regular blogging, and in the wonderful new recipes, techniques, and flavours that I’ve been able to explore while doing it. My readers seem to have enjoyed it too, based on the lovely comments and feedback that I’ve received both here on the blog and on Facebook and Twitter.

We were doing so well until mid June! But since then, we’ve moved to a new home in Cornwall, and I’ve been working very long days (and nights, on occasion!). There is so much to do in our beautiful new home – including in the kitchen! – that I’ve finally had to admit to myself that I haven’t got the time to try to keep up with the weekly recipe challenge. Over the last few weeks, the feeling that I ought to be writing up a recipe has stopped me committing time to other blog posts that I could have written instead, which is rather counterproductive, all things considered!

At least my cookbooks are out of boxes again!

The cookbook shelves

So, while I hope and intend that there could well be a few more Cooking the Books posts between now and the end of the year, they’re going to have to be on an as-and-when basis. For the time being at least, trying to turn one out once a week just isn’t going to happen! And I hope, as compensation for all my lovely readers, to be able to offer blog posts and tutorials covering many of the other thrifty DIY skills and sustainable projects that are going to be part of the process of getting our new home the way we feel it deserves to be, without spending the earth doing it!

Thank you all for your great support and feedback on the Cooking the Books posts over the first half of this year, and I do hope you continue to find posts here that you enjoy going forwards!

‘Cooking the Books’ was my self-imposed blog challenge for 2014 – trying to cook a new recipe from one of my (rather extensive!) collection of cookbooks once a week, write it up and review it. Hopefully there will be one or two more in due course!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

We’re here! Just starting to get settled into our new life in Cornwall.

Thank you all for your patience in the recent blogging hiatus! We’ve moved (actually, we’ve been here four weeks now, I just feel I’ve barely had a chance to pause to draw breath since then!) and are starting to settle into this beautiful spot – and really start to realise all the work that is to come…

From the garden

This really does feel like a special little part of the world. We’re well off the beaten track, without mains water or drainage (mains gas is a wild and distant fantasy!) but with the amazing quiet and stunning scenery that comes from being just that extra little bit out of the way. The broadband is serviceable – good by very rural standards, actually – but any need for a Netflix subscription is a long way off… We’re lucky to have found ourselves with lovely neighbours, who we hope will become very good friends in time, and have been made wonderfully welcome and introduced to everyone in our great local pub. So far, no one seems to mind that we’re incomers, but are pleased that we’ve come to make a life long-term in their community, which is heartwarming.

 Sunset  At dusk  Meadow sunshine

I’ve been taking a few photos from the garden (because it’s just so pretty I can’t stop looking at it!) – that’s Bodmin moor, in the background of those photos. Our nearest village, Altarnun, which is mostly famous for having been the parish of the dodgy vicar in Dapnhe Du Maurier’s ‘Jamaica Inn’, has a gorgeous church, a little river running under an ancient stone packhorse bridge, and is exactly as full of whitewashed slate and granite cottages with flowers out in front as you might imagine.

The move itself was more than a little more ‘interesting’ than it might have been – one of our lorries was involved in a road traffic accident en route, and was held up for nearly a week while a new lorry was found and the contents transferred – the driver was blessedly uninjured, thank goodness – unfortunately for us the lorry contained all our plants and trees, which got to spend a week locked in the back of a lorry in a freight yard in full sun. We asked for them to be watered and I think that must have happened as they turned up in far better shape than we had feared – a few broken branches but not dried up husks. Otherwise, we’ve suffered the usual small number of breakages – thankfully though, nothing irreplaceable.

All of that somehow pales into insignificance now that we’re here. The insect and bird-life that we’ve seen just in the last few weeks is amazing – we have house martins nesting in the barn, and flycatchers and bullfinches join the more common sparrows, dunnocks, wrens, robins, blackbirds, thrushes, a variety of tits and some pretty serious birds of prey – buzzards definitely, but quite possibly kites, too – that we see in the garden, on the bird feeder, and out and about. At night, the swifts and house martins give way to lots and lots of bats.

I’m completely in love with the Cornish hedges – which are no such thing, of course, they’re mounds of granite packed with soil, as many an unwary motorist has discovered to their cost over the years. These are to all intents and purposes vertical wildflower meadows stretching for mile after mile, full of clovers and vetches, foxgloves, meadowsweet, cranesbills, honeysuckle, ferns of all shapes and sizes, and wild strawberries, so very lovely and unusual to see up at head height or above, walking between cornish hedges is a bit like lying face-down in a meadow, without the inconvenience and grass stains! I’m sure the hedges – and the grazing that they surround – are the reason we have so many wonderful butterflies, bees and other insects, and the amazing bird life in turn.

The houseThe house itself is beautiful, with bags of character, thick granite walls, slate floors and open fires, but it’s over 200 years old and was always likely to be troublesome – its first ‘surprise’ for us came in the form of a curtain of water running down the dining room wall when Hubby was having a shower a couple of weeks ago. The long and the short of it is we need to completely re-fit the shower and the bathroom tiles, something that we were planning to do in due course but wasn’t a priority for our currently rather strained finances. Ah well…

Apart from taming the overgrown grass, we haven’t even started on the garden yet… but the ideas, at least, are starting to come together.

Last weekend I started making the curtains and blinds for the living room from the gorgeous floral tapestry-like fabric we found for a bargain price on the Goldhawk Road market last time we were down in London. It’s not the easiest fabric to work with, but I think you’ll agree the results are quite rewarding? (There will be a blog post on how to make roman blinds coming up – the executive summary though? Very efficient on fabric yardage, but a lot more trouble than curtains in terms of time, effort, and required accuracy!)

Working on the blinds  Finished blind

I’ve discovered, meanwhile, that some beautiful fabric I had bought to make bedroom curtains for our old cottage – and never got around to because it soon became clear we would be moving before long – is *just* long enough to make two pairs of curtains for the new bedroom, even accounting for the inconveniently long 62cm pattern repeat. This discovery has made me implausibly happy.

Bookshelves!Just today we’ve managed to empty a load of book boxes onto the shelves. It’s amazing how much more lived-in – and less echoey – full bookshelves make a room seem! The cookbook collection finally has some space to spread out, a whole bookcase to itself! Of course I’m weeks behind with Cooking the Books now – who knows if I’ll ever manage to get caught up??

And of course, when we’re not trying to sort out the house, and I’m not at work (which feels like all the time at the moment!) there’s the wonderful Cornish coast and countryside to enjoy. Dave dog is absolutely delighted with his at-least-weekly visits to the seaside, something that could only be a very occasional treat when we were in the Midlands. We were even greeted by a swim-by of a pod of dolphins at Trebarwith Strand, Dave dog’s favourite beach.

What it's all about!

The weather has been absolutely gorgeous since we got here, which is both a joy and a torment, when I’m stuck at work sweltering staring at a beautiful sunny Westcountry summer’s day out of the window. Too warm, sometimes, for doing the things that we need to do around the house and garden – the pond remains un-dug and the trees are not yet planted – but at least the paint dries quickly!

I’ll stop rambling now as it’s a gorgeous sunny evening and while I’m sat in here typing, I’m not out there enjoying it! Hopefully the blog will feel a little less neglected over the next few weeks, though as I seem to be working all the hours, I’m not making any promises… All the stress and upset of the compulsory purchase of our lovely old cottage does seem to be fading into memory, and though I’m not a fatalist, something about how I feel about this place makes me wonder if we were meant to end up here all along..?

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Macaroni with Leeks and Bacon, from Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course, Cooking the Books, week 24

Pasta bakes are such a staple that it almost seems odd to treat them as a recipe. Still, we’re clearing the store cupboard and fridge as much as possible, and this variation on the classic macaroni and cheese caught my eye.

To serve two -

  • Ingredients for bacon leek macaroni175g of pasta (I used fusilli, penne would be more traditional)
  • 1 large leek (or one small one and a shallot, as I’ve used)
  • 90g streaky bacon or pancetta
  • Butter
  • Plain flour
  • 3/4 pint of milk
  • Ingredients for cheese sauce90g grated cheddar cheese
  • 45ml double cream
  • Whole nutmeg
  • 1 tbsp grated parmesan cheese
  • 1 tbsp breadcrumbs
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Salt and pepper

Put the pasta on to cook in plenty of well salted boiling water, and cook until not quite done, so that there’s still just a hard ‘bite’ to it. When you’re happy with it (about 8 minutes, probably) drain into a colander and run under cold water to stop the cooking, then mix in a drizzle of oil to stop it sticking to itself and set aside.

Mix pasta, leek and baconWhile that’s going, chop up your bacon into pieces and fry until just going crispy, set aside, and using the same frying pan, slice and fry the leek (and/or shallot or onion) until just soft but still nice and green-coloured.

Mix the leek and bacon into the pasta in an oven dish. Pre-heat your oven to 180C.

To make the cheese sauce, start with 25g each of butter and flour in the pan on a relatively low heat, melt the butter and make your roux, mix in the milk and bring up to a very light simmer. When it has thickened to your taste, melt in the cheese, and season with salt, pepper, and some freshly grated nutmeg.

Frozen cream-cubesNow, a little aside, if you don’t mind, about small quantities of cream. I’m always buying cream for this or that recipe, and then the rest goes off in the door of the fridge and eventually gets thrown away. But as it turns out, there’s an alternative. Take any surplus cream you have after cooking with it, and pour it into an ice cube bag (I prefer the bags for this to the open plastic trays, because the cream is fully sealed in them and can’t take on flavours).

Cream-cubesTie the top securely, and freeze. My bags produce cream-cubes of almost exactly 15ml each, conveniently a tablespoon measure. Then, when you need a little bit of cream for a recipe – sauces like this one are a classic example – just take what you need out of the freezer. I don’t think it would whip-up properly after this treatment, but for this kind of use it’s perfect.

To finish the sauce, add the double cream. You can thaw the cream-cubes out before using – it will tend to separate a bit but whip it lightly and it’ll come back together – or in this case, just throw the cream cubes into the hot sauce and stir until they’re dissolved. Or, add your fresh cream now, if you’re using it!

Macaroni ready for the ovenPour the cheese sauce over your pasta, pressing it down to make sure it’s all nicely covered. Then sprinkle over the breadcrumbs and parmesan mixed with a pinch or two of cayenne pepper. Pop the dish in your pre-heated oven until it’s browned and bubbling – just over half an hour should do it!

This is a really solid variation on the classic mac ‘n cheese. And you can easily substitute alternative alliums for the leeks, depending on what you have to hand. Other cheeses would be fine too – I felt it would benefit from something a bit punchier than the mid-range cheddar I had in the fridge.

Ready to serve

If you don’t over-cook your leeks they come out still looking lovely fresh and green, which is great. The cayenne pepper just adds a little unexpected warmth which is a great detail. It’s not haute cuisine, for sure, but it’s better than many. This may well be my new standard cheesy pasta bake.

**
Delia Smith - coverDelia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course (Classic Edition)
BBC Books, 1978 (revised 1992)
ISBN 978-0-563-362494
Paperback, 640 pages, black and white with colour plates. RRP £9.99.

[Full disclosure: This is my book, which I bought. I have received no payment or sponsorship for this post, nor have I accepted a review copy. I do not have an amazon affiliate account and do not profit from any links provided.]

I honestly don’t know what to say about this book. If any book has a claim to be my ‘Kitchen Bible’, this is it. Mum has a copy, my Grandma had a copy, I bought my own copy in my first term of university because I couldn’t work out how to live – how to eat – without one. We have two at home, because when I discovered that my then-boyfriend (now-Hubby) didn’t have it, I bought one for him, too.

This particular dish is new to me. It’s classic Delia – simple home cooking that works first time, well tested and reliable, but still interesting despite being, really, pretty humble! I know this cookbook more or less inside out (just look at the state of it!) and I’ve never yet found a bad recipe. I have such faith in this book that I’m happy to try recipes first-time-out for dinner guests. This is where I come to time and time again to refresh my memory on times and temperatures for roasts and pot roasts. It’s my reference for basic pastry. It practically falls open on the well-splattered page for the classic All-In-One sponge cake.

Delia Smith - page viewYes, this book shows it’s age – actually, this is particularly the case when it comes to pasta, which to be fair had barely been ‘invented’ in the UK when this book first came out. But all of English cookery is here. This book has been in my life for as long as I can remember – in many respects it’s been the cornerstone of my culinary life.

All the fundamentals are here, and if you sent me to a desert island – obviously one equipped with a good kitchen and a full pantry! – with just one cookery book, it would have to be this one, hands down. What more is there to say, really?

‘Cooking the Books’ is my self-imposed blog challenge for 2014 – I’ll be trying to cook a new recipe from one of my (rather extensive!) collection of cookbooks once a week, write it up and review it. Wish me luck!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Indian-Style Kebabs with Yoghurt Sauce, from The Complete BBQ Book – Cooking the Books, week 23

BBQ weather returned this weekend (hurray!). This challenge is getting really difficult just now, because we’re due to move in just under a fortnight so not only is there stacks of other stuff I should be doing, but I’m trying really hard not to buy anything that’s going to be wasted when we go. So we really are down to store cupboard staples and creative substitution!

These kebabs are actually kabobs, in the recipe, as it’s a US-published cookbook. ‘Kabob’ is one of those words that just makes me laugh. I don’t know why! But let’s get on.

To serve two (four kebabs), you will need -

  • Kebab ingredients300g of good minced beef
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 1″ length of fresh ginger
  • 1/2 tsp paprika
  • 1 tbsp curry powder
  • 1/2 tsp ground coriander
  • Pinch of chilli powder
  • 1 egg
  • Salt and pepper

Complete kebab mixMince the garlic, peel and grate the ginger, and add these with all the dry ingredients to your beef and mix well. Then add the egg, and mix this in. It will look to start with like there’s far too much egg, but keep mushing the mixture with your fingers and eventually any wetness from the egg will be absorbed it will all combine into an even dough-like mixture.

If you’re worried about this, you can always beat the egg first and add it in increments, but I suspect you’ll end up adding less than the mix would have taken – and if your egg is particularly large, or your minced beef particularly un-absorbant, you can always throw in a handful of breadcrumbs to rescue the situation, should it come to that!

Shaped kebabsSet aside your mixture in the fridge for 5 – 10 minutes to firm up a little, and then split into four even portions, and form each of these these around a BBQ skewer. The disposable wooden kind is just fine, I’ve long since given up on soaking them before use. I find rolling the mix around the stick doesn’t work very well and tends not to seal back up properly, so I form a sausage shape in my hands, first, insert the skewer into the centre, and then squidge the mixture around the stick to spread it out evenly. There’s no polite-looking way of doing this job, so feel free to giggle as you work!

Wrap up your kebabs and return them to the fridge for an hour or more before cooking – you could make these much earlier in the day, if you’re having a party.

Once the kebabs are made, prepare the yoghurt sauce, for which you require -

  • Yoghurt sauce ingredients2/3rd cup of plain greek-style yoghurt (conveniently, this is about 160ml, or give or take 1/3rd of a standard 500ml pot – eyeball it, the exact quantity is pretty unimportant here)
  • A sprig of fresh mint (about four leaves)
  • 1 tbsp of chopped fresh celery leaves (this replaces 1 tsp of dried fenugreek leaf from the recipe)
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • Yoghurt sauce mix1/4 tsp of honey
  • 1/2 tsp dried coriander
  • 1/2 tsp paprika (plus extra to garnish)
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

Chop the mint and celery leaf finely, and mince the garlic. Mix all of the ingredients together and cover and refrigerate until it’s time to cook.

Kebabs after turningWe ran out of charcoal, so these were cooked on the BBQ over wood, which is a nice treat anyway! Be very gentle with the kebabs as they’re quite soft-textured and could easily fall apart if you handle them too soon after putting them on the grill. They cook nice and quickly – three or four minutes per side should be enough, depending on the heat of your BBQ and the thickness of your kebabs! You could do these indoors under an electric grill, if you preferred.

I served my kebabs with a crunchy salad and fresh home-made pitta bread, a big dollop of the yoghurt sauce and a couple of wedges of lemon.

Indian kebabs, served

These are decent recipes, by and large. I’d like to try the yoghurt sauce again without the celery-for-fenugreek substitution. I also think it would really benefit from perking up with a little bit of lemon or lime zest and / or juice.

The kebabs had a lovely flavour and aroma but could have taken a little more heat. Whether you agree with this will depend very much on your palate and on the precise characteristics of the spices you use. I thought mine was a hot paprika, but tasted it later and discovered it wasn’t. My curry powder was a medium madras type – again, a hotter curry powder would have done the trick I think. I suspect next time I make these, I’ll use the same spices but add a finely chopped fresh red chilli to the mix, as this will add some good fresh flavour as well as the extra heat.

For a BBQ party, these would be great served in a toasted pitta or wrapped in a flatbread with just a squeeze of lemon and a dollop of yoghurt sauce, which makes them great standing-up food!

Complete BBQ - cover**
‘The Complete BBQ Book’
Chancellor Press (Octopus Publishing Group Ltd), 2003
ISBN 978-0-753-708088
Hard cover with spiral binding, 368 pages, black & white. No RRP.

[Full disclosure: This is my book, which I bought. I have received no payment or sponsorship for this post, nor have I accepted a review copy. I do not have an amazon affiliate account and do not profit from any links provided.]

What can I say about this book? Well, it’s a collection, again. I hunted front and back and I can’t find an authorial or editorial credit at all, which is rather sad for the poor folk who put it together! I also can’t trace it on Amazon, so presumably it’s gone out of print now.

With over 500 recipes here, they’re inevitably going to be a bit hit-and-miss. The two I tried were competent, but could both do with some gentle refining. I suspect that’s likely to be the tone throughout. Then again, with this many recipes to choose from you’re probably going to find something to suit your tastebuds and the contents of your store cupboard!

Complete BBQ - page viewThere are a couple of highlights – a good section at the front contains a wide array of marinades which could easily be pressed into service for all kinds of different uses, on and off the BBQ, and there is a good selection of side dishes.

As it’s a US book, a set of American cup measures will save you a fair amount of mental arithmetic! Overall, I would rate it as competent but a bit uninspiring. I’ll keep it, but I don’t think you should all dash out and buy it at once.

‘Cooking the Books’ is my self-imposed blog challenge for 2014 – I’ll be trying to cook a new recipe from one of my (rather extensive!) collection of cookbooks once a week, write it up and review it. Wish me luck!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

A Summer Fling – my new favourite gin, apple and elderflower cocktail

Being able to mix a decent drink is a very useful country skill – it brings a splash of sophistication to life when you don’t live somewhere where you only need to chuck a rock to hit three decent cocktail bars.

Anyway, I had to share this one with you – it was suggested to me by an old school friend (who, fortunately for him, is safely on the other side of the world where I can’t hold him responsible for the consequences!) and it’s such a beautiful, fresh taste of summer, that I’ve fallen rather in love with it.

You will require -

  • Your cocktail ingredientsGin – whichever nice one you usually drink (beggars can’t be choosers at the moment at our house, so it’s Aldi’s London Dry Gin, which is surprisingly decent!)
  • Home-made elderflower cordial (or bought, if you really must – but they’re in full flower right now, so what a perfect excuse to make a batch!)
  • Really good cloudy apple juice, the best you can get, ideally quite a crisp, dry one.
  • Ice

In a tumbler, place three or four cubes of ice. Pour in a measure of gin (or why not a double – go on, you’ve earned it!). Now add a splash of elderflower cordial – only a little one! Finally, top up with apple juice.

Go on, have a sip!

There, how easy was that?

This is absolutely gorgeous (and one to try even if you don’t think you like gin). The apple juice is the star here, and really defines the character, so the better your apple juice, the better the cocktail (anyway, I’m sure it counts as one of your five-a-day). The elderflower adds a subtle sweetness and a gorgeous floral bouquet, and the gin just sits discretely in the background with a delicate waft of juniper and a little citrus zing. Be warned, though, it does go down very easily!

A sinister thought has occurred to me, which is that it might be possible to concoct a related drink, made with Plymouth gin, Cornish cider and hedgerow elderflower cordial, and call it a ‘Westcountry Wrecker’… Some experimentation may be required!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Mustard and Rosemary Chicken, from Chicken Meals in Minutes – Cooking the Books, week 20

Hurray! I’ve rescued the pictures from the faulty memory card, so we can skip back and catch up with The Missing Episode!

This is rather a neat little recipe, which makes a great quick supper. It’s full of flavour, quick, fresh, and (whisper it) healthy.

To serve two, you will require -

  • Mustard chicken ingredientsTwo chicken breasts, skin on (my preference)
  • A whole lemon
  • 2 tsp grain mustard
  • 2 tsp chopped fresh rosemary (you could substitute about 1 tsp of dry)
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 300g potatoes (small new-type potatoes would be ideal)
  • 125g baby spinach leaves
  • Butter
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

A quick note on chicken, first – if you buy chicken portions from the supermarket, stop it right now. Dividing a whole chicken into portions is so easy, with a little practice it can be done in a minute or two. You will save money, and get better portions (the chicken breast portions you buy are woefully under-sized and over-priced compared with buying a whole roasting chicken), and also not be participating in the stupidity that sees the UK import white chicken meat from places like Thailand and Vietnam, while at the same time we’re net exporters of chicken leg meat. Madness. Right, rant over, and on with the recipe!

Make marinadeIn a bowl, coat the chicken breasts with the mustard, rosemary, crushed garlic, a pinch of pepper, a squeeze of lemon juice, and a little glug of olive oil, and set aside to marinade for half an hour or so, if you have the time – don’t worry if you’re in a rush, though, you can go ahead and cook straight away. I had two wings from my portioned whole chicken, so I put those in, too.

Chicken in roasting dishThe recipe calls for cooking the chicken on the BBQ (it’s an Australian recipe, after all), but for UK convenience, on a slightly drizzly evening, I chose to roast it in the oven. Preheat your oven to 180C. In a roasting tin or tray, arrange your chicken pieces. Once the oven is up to temperature, slide in the chicken, and roast for 35 – 40 minutes.

Buttered boiled potatoesAfter about 10 minutes, cut your potatoes into bite-sized pieces (or use small new or salad-type potatoes, which you might just want to halve) and boil until tender. Drain, and mix in a good dollop of butter. Your potatoes can wait now with a lid on until the chicken is ready, which shouldn’t be long.

Once the chicken is done, remove from the oven, and rest, covered loosely with foil. Pop the buttered potatoes back on the hob, and add the spinach to the pan with a tiny splash of boiling water. It will look like far too much spinach, but don’t worry, it will wilt down quite dramatically. Shake & mix the veggies from time to time, with the lid on, until the spinach is all wilted down. Season with plenty of black pepper, and a little salt to taste.

That’s it, it’s ready to serve, with a slice of lemon on the side.

Mustard and rosemary chicken - serve

There are some peculiar features to this recipe. Presumably they can be explained by the whim of the publisher, which is The Australian Women’s Weekly. I’m the last person to over-season with salt – I find it quite intrusive, if done to ‘cheffy’ levels – but the recipe mentions seasoning nowhere, and if you skip the black pepper, particularly, I think the flavours will be the weaker for it. I presume there’s a salt-avoidance rationale behind it somewhere. Likewise the recipe expects skinless breast fillets, which is bound to be down to fat-reducing, but compromises on flavour and texture for me. Make up your own mind!

The combination of mustard and rosemary flavours works really well – I say this as someone who is not historically a great fan of mustard as a dominant flavour – and the chicken does go very well with the potato and spinach side dish. It was quick and simple to prepare but the flavours are big, fresh, and quite bold without being overpowering or unbalanced. This is healthy everyday food that doesn’t set off ‘diet food’ alarm bells. I recommend you try it!

Chicken Meals in Minutes - cover**
Chicken Meals in Minutes, The Australian Women’s Weekly Cookbooks
ACP Publishing Pty Ltd, 2002
ISBN 978-1-863-962605
Soft cover (magazine binding), 120 pages, full colour. RRP £5.99.

[Full disclosure: This is my book. I have received no payment or sponsorship for this post, nor have I accepted a review copy. I do not have an amazon affiliate account and do not profit from any links provided.]

This is an odd little book, and one of a series. I can’t rightly remember how it came into my possession, whether it was a gift or a bargain bin purchase, but unlike many ‘collection’ books, it’s rather better than you might expect from the outside!

Chicken Meals in Minutes - page viewAs you might suspect from an Australian mass-market recipe collection around the turn of the millenium, it’s quite heavy on asian-influenced dishes without requiring a larder full of specialist ethnic ingredients; this makes it refreshinly easy to shop for in our local village Co-op! The food is light, fresh, and very suitable for summer eating. There are a variety of BBQ dishes which I will definitely return to during the course of the summer.

The lack of seasoning follows through all the recipes, and can only have been an editorial decision. Fat and kJ values are given for the recipes, but the collection doesn’t appear to have been selected on this basis, which is refreshing! All in all, it’s a nice surprise, then. Better than expected. I wouldn’t suggest you all dash out and buy it, but if it happens to be hanging out on your bookshelf, perhaps give it another look?

‘Cooking the Books’ is my self-imposed blog challenge for 2014 – I’ll be trying to cook a new recipe from one of my (rather extensive!) collection of cookbooks once a week, write it up and review it. Wish me luck!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Elderflower Vinegar, From the Forager’s Kitchen by Fiona Bird – Cooking the Books, Week 22

No elderflower champagne for me this year (*sob*) but I refuse to miss out completely on the floral bounty of the season. Last year I made a very small experimental batch of elderflower vinegar – just stripped some flowers into a Kilner jar, topped up with cider vinegar, and forgot about it for a couple of weeks before straining it and putting it back into the bottles it came out of. I was delighted with the results, which captured the fresh elderflower fragrance remarkably – even more so, if it’s possible, than cordial or champagne do. It was a tiny batch, so I had very little to share around, but everyone who tried it seemed amazed by it.

So this year, obviously, I had to make a little more. Not as much as I would have liked, because it has to move house with us in a few weeks, but I thought I could just about justify a two litre batch… And then I thought, before diving straight in and just making it up as I went along like last year, I ought to have a look at the cookbooks…

Forager's Kitchen - page I wasn’t really expecting to find anything, but The Forager’s Kitchen came up trumps – it has some remarkable infused vinegar suggestions, including violet vinegar (which is the recipe that first drew me in to this fabulous little book), so I shouldn’t really have been surprised I guess! Fiona’s elderflower vinegar is a fair bit more sophisticated than my efforts last year, with a double-infusion and the addition of a little lime zest. So here goes!

Picked elderflowersFor a two litre batch, you will require -

  • 60 elderflower heads (30 now, 30 later)
  • Two litres of cider vinegar
  • One lime
  • A 2l Kilner jar or similar

Pick 30 your elderflowers on a warm, dry, bright (and ideally sunny!) day.

Shake off any visible insect life, but don’t under any circumstances be tempted to wash them, as you’ll flush away all the beautiful flavour. Now you need to remove the tiny little flowers from the flower heads. Yes, I know it’s a pain, but sit down comfortably, and you’ll be done in about half an hour.

All the little flower heads in a jarMy technique is more like rubbing the flowers between my thumb and fingers than picking individual flowers, and once you’ve got the knack it’s surprising how quickly you can do it. The flowers will probably be crawling with tiny little black insects – if this bothers you, try not to look at them! (We all eat bugs all the time – even veggies and vegans! – you only have to look at the FDA permitted levels of contaminants in food products if you don’t believe me!)

Top up with vinegarTransfer all your tiny little flowers to a clean sterilised 2l jar, and top up with cider vinegar. Put the caps back on the empty bottles and put them safely to one side, you’ll want them again later.

With a vegetable peeler, peel the lime zest in strips, taking as little of the white pith as you can, and add this, too. Seal up the jar and put it somewhere nice and warm, shaking occasionally, for 10 days.

Don’t waste the rest of your lime, slice it up, and put it in a bag in the freezer. It’ll still go a treat in your gin & tonic!

Peel lime zest Slice lime Bag lime for the freezer

After about ten days, pick yourself 30 more flower heads, remove the flowers as before, strain off the vinegar from the elderflowers and lime zest, and replace them with the freshly picked flowers. I wouldn’t worry about really fine filtering at this stage, a normal sieve ought to be fine. Put the jar back somewhere warm and repeat the occasional shaking for several days.

Place in a warm place, shake occasionally

You’ll see that there’s quite a lot of pollen settled at the bottom of the jar. If you want a really clear vinegar, you’ll want to filter it finely before bottling. I suggest initially straining off the flowers, before passing the vinegar through a fine jelly bag or several layers of muslin. Once filtered, return the vinegar to the bottles it came from. I don’t bother to re-sterilise these, by and large, since they shouldn’t have had a chance to become contaminated since the vinegar was poured out, as long as they’ve been kept capped. Fiona advises using sterilised bottles, though, and she’s probably right!

The vinegar will keep in a cool larder cupboard for at least a year, if you can make it last that long!

**
Forager's Kitchen - coverThe Forager’s Kitchen, by Fiona Bird
CICO Books, 2013.
ISBN 978-1-908862-61-7
Hard cover, 192 pages, full colour. RRP £16.99.

[Full disclosure: This is my book, which I bought. I have received no payment or sponsorship for this post, nor have I accepted a review copy. I do not have an amazon affiliate account and do not profit from any links provided.]

This is such an incredibly beautiful book that it’s easy to forget what a great resource it is for wild eating! It covers a huge range of foraging habitats and seasons, hedgerow to coastline.

There are plenty of foraging handbooks out there (I’ve reviewed a couple in the past) – what makes this book remarkable is the quality, inventiveness and sophistication of the recipes, all of which genuinely seem to respect and require the foraged ingredients. There is a freshness and originality about these recipes that I’ve rarely seen elsewhere and which makes me want to make them all, just as soon as I can wrap my grubby little forager’s mitts around the required ingredients!

If you’re at all interested in wild food (with the proviso that it really is UK-focused, and probably progressively less use the further afield you might be) go and buy this gorgeous little book!

‘Cooking the Books’ is my self-imposed blog challenge for 2014 – I’ll be trying to cook a new recipe from one of my (rather extensive!) collection of cookbooks once a week, write it up and review it. Wish me luck!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Cannelloni al Forno, from ‘Pasta’ – Cooking the Books, week 21

Apologies, first, for the late running of this blog series! Those more observant souls among you will have noted both that we’ve arrived at week 23 of the calendar and only managed to reach week 21 of the series, and that we seem to have skipped inexplicably over week 20 (technical difficulties, I’m afraid – I’m waiting for an SDHC card reader to come so that I can hopefully recover the images from a corrupted memory card!). I’m doing my best to get caught up, despite life happening in the form of an imminent house move, so please bear with me!

Apologies also for the quality of the photography in this (and subsequent) blog posts – until I’ve sorted out the memory card issues on the dSLR, we’re on iPad photographs I’m afraid!

Pasta - cover viewThis recipe is another Hubby-request. ‘I fancy cannelloni’, he said, when I asked what I should make for dinner. Now, I don’t believe I have ever made cannelloni in the eight years of our marriage (or before, for that matter), and I have no idea what put the idea in his head, but any excuse for a new cookbook is a good one, so I dived straight for this rather thick paperback tome, titled ‘Pasta’, which surely would contain the answer?

To make things all the more interesting, I’ve unearthed our recently-neglected pasta machine in the course of pre-move tidying, so why not really push the boat out and make a batch of fresh pasta, just for the occasion?

I must warn you, before you’re tempted to wade in and make this recipe – it takes an inordinate amount of time (about three hours), will make just about every pot, pan, bowl, and gadget in your kitchen dirty, and the end result is… well, read on, we’ll get to that bit!

For the fresh egg pasta, you will require -

  • Pasta ingredients300g ‘type OO’ flour (or strong white bread flour, if you can’t get the proper stuff)
  • Three eggs (please ignore the photographs only having two!)
  • A teaspoon of finely-ground sea salt
  • Semolina (optional but helpful)
  • A hand-cranked (or electric, if you’re posh!) pasta machine

Of course, you can skip the fresh pasta making and either use fresh lasagne sheets or prepared cannelloni tubes from the shop, if you prefer!

Make your doughIn your roomiest mixing bowl, add the flour and make a well, and break the three eggs into the centre. Sprinkle the salt and mix it into the eggs, breaking up the yolks, before slowly incorporating the flour. If you have hens like mine who tend to lay rather large eggs, you may need to add a little extra flour to stop the pasta dough being too sticky.

Once all the flour is incorporated, remove the dough from the bowl and kneed for about five minutes on the countertop. The dough will be much denser and firmer than bread dough, so don’t worry if you’re used to this. Then wrap the dough in cling film and set it aside for 20 – 30 minutes.

[You should start cooking the mince now, but for the sake of clarity I'm going to stay with the pasta and come back to the filling in a minute!]

Pasta machineFix your pasta machine firmly to a table or worktop using the clamp, and spread the surface generously with semolina. On the widest setting, run the pasta through the rollers. It will look like a complete dog’s dinner, torn and lumpy. Don’t worry. Fold the resulting mess in half, dust with semolina. If you haven’t got semolina, it’s not a big problem, just use flour – but you’ll miss out that characteristic texture. And repeat. And repeat. You’ll probably want to push it through the thickest setting at least ten times (this is essentially part of the kneading process) until what comes through is even textured, silky, and has relatively neat edges.

Single sheet of finished pastaThen, one step at a time, start to narrow down your rollers. The pasta sheet will get longer as it gets thinner (obviously, I suppose – but quite dramatically so!) so if it’s becoming difficult to handle, you can cut it in half. Keep the surface well dusted with semolina or the pasta will tend to stick to itself if you fold it over to handle it. As the sheet becomes thinner it should become really soft and silky – it’s really great stuff!

Finished pasta sheetsIn the end, it should be somewhat transparent (you can see the print of this oilcloth table cloth straight through it), silky and flexible. Cut out 12 lasagne-sized sheets and dust these generously both sides with flour or semolina, cover with a tea towel or cling film, and set aside. Any extra cut into sheets (or into ribbons if you prefer) and dry to use another day – hang them or lay out well spaced on a baking sheet lined with grease-proof paper and well dusted with flour or semolina.

For the meat filling (to serve four) you will need -

  • 300g of good quality minced beef
  • 50g of cold cooked ham or sausage. I improvised and used a Cumberland sausage along with a thick slice of smoked pancetta, because that was what I had available. I don’t think it matters!
  • Half an onion
  • One clove of garlic
  • Dried mixed herbs
  • 100ml of stock (I used vegetable bouillon powder, but beef stock would be better)
  • 2 tbsp bread crumbs
  • A handful of freshly-grated parmesan cheese
  • 1 egg
  • Salt and Pepper

Fry beef with onions and garlicStart by frying off the beef, finely chopped onion and minced garlic in a little olive oil until lightly browned. This will take about 5 – 10 minutes. Then add the stock, a teaspoon of dried mixed herbs, and a good pinch of pepper, cover with a lid, and simmer for about 20 more minutes. By this time most of the stock will have been absorbed and the onions will be extremely tender. Set aside in a bowl to cool.

[Now, you'll want to start on your tomato sauce - but for the sake of clarity, again, I'll follow through the beef filling first. Don't worry, I'll add a timeline at the end - yes, it really is that sort of recipe!]

Filling ingredientsChop up your cooked, cold ham or sausage, and add this to the cooled beef, along with the parmesan cheese, breadcrumbs, and egg, and mix well. The recipe tells you to taste this for seasoning, which, given you’ve just added a raw egg, probably isn’t advice that many people ought to follow – I would trust your seasoning to date, remember your ham / sausage, parmesan and stock are likely to contain salt, and just add a little black pepper.

Take each sheet of fresh pasta, spoon on some of the beef filling, and roll. Set these aside for now. Now to the tomato sauce.

Fill your cannelloni    Set filled cannelloni aside

For the tomato sauce -

  • Half an onion
  • Half a carrot
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • A celery stick (if you like – I really don’t so I don’t keep them in the fridge!)
  • 1 can of chopped tomatoes (400g)
  • 1/2 tsp dried basil
  • 1/2 tsp dried oregano
  • Olive oil, salt and pepper

Finely chop the onion, carrot (and celery, if you’re using it) and mince the garlic, and fry these gently in a little olive oil until softened.

Tomato sauceNow add the can of chopped tomatoes, herbs, salt and pepper (I used a little vegetable stock powder instead of salt to season, to compensate for the lack of celery – this is something I often do when making sauces, actually!). I also nearly always add a little splash of vinegar to tomato sauces – balsamic is good, but I prefer the fruity character of my home-made elderberry vinegar. Add about half a can of water, too.

Mix well, cover and simmer for about 20 minutes. Once it’s cooked, blend with a stick blender or in a food processor so it’s (nearly) smooth.

Assemble dish with tomato sauceYou can start to assemble the dish now – put a thin layer of tomato sauce in the bottom of your oven dish, then arrange the filled cannelloni (in one layer if at all possible!) followed by the rest of the tomato sauce on top.

But we’re still not there yet! Preheat your oven to 190C.

Now you just need the white sauce…

  • 30g butter
  • 30g plain flour
  • 600ml milk
  • Nutmeg (whole, ideally)
  • A handful of freshly grated parmesan

Ready for the ovenMake your white sauce – melt the buter gently in the pan, add the flour and stir in, and cook the butter and flour mixture for a minute or two (keep stirring). Then add the milk, a little to start with and whisk it into the roux, then add the rest and cook until you get it about the thickness of double cream. Add in some freshly grated nutmeg to taste.

Pour  the white sauce over the top of the cannelloni, and then sprinkle over the parmesan. Put the whole thing in the oven for about 40 – 45 minutes until rich golden on top and the pasta is tender.

That timeline, for clarity (you really do want to do it this way, if you do one at a time the whole thing will take closer to five hours than three!) -

  1. Make pasta dough, set aside to rest.
  2. Cook off beef with onion and garlic, add stock and cover
  3. While the beef is cooking, roll out the pasta into sheets and cut up
  4. Once the beef is done, set aside to cool
  5. Start veggies for tomato sauce
  6. Add tomatoes and set to simmer
  7. Make up the meat filling with additional ingredients
  8. Assemble your cannelloni with their filling, set aside
  9. Blend tomato sauce, assemble tomato & filled cannelloni in oven dish
  10. Set oven to 190C
  11. Make your white sauce, pour over, sprinkle parmesan
  12. Put in oven
  13. Finally pour yourself a well-deserved glass of wine.
  14. But don’t relax too much, you should probably tackle the enormous mountain of washing up!
  15. Serve and enjoy!

Cannelloni al forno

*Phew*! Exhausting or what?

So, what about the recipe? Well, I scaled it down from serves-6 to serves-4 by reducing the quantities by 1/3rd – all apart from the tomato sauce, which I really couldn’t be bothered with, since it used a whole can of tomatoes, and sensible quantities of other things. Despite this, the cooked cannelloni is really very dry – tastes good, but all of the moisture in the tomato and white sauce was completely sucked into the pasta.

12 cannelloni between 4 is too many, I think – I would probably reduce to 8 cannelloni but keep the same amount of filling. I think you could easily get away with doubling the volume of the tomato sauce, though if you reduced the pasta by 1/3d you may get away with increasing by 50%. I would add some extra stock, or maybe some wine, and increase the carrot to a whole one. I might also consider adding some ricotta cheese to the beef filling, to moisten it a little.

The recipe proofreading leaves a lot to be desired. The onion appears in the ingredients list for the beef filling but is never mentioned in that part of the instructions, so I just had to guess (I can’t see that you would want to leave it out, it seems essential to me). While I personally am willing to eat raw egg, advising tasting for seasoning after this addition in a recipe without caution is probably inappropriate.

Re-heated with extra stockI re-heated the second half of this for lunch today (adding about half a pint of good rich stock made from roasting juices) covered tightly in a medium oven. It was improved by the extra liquid, and reheated well.

I don’t think I would ever re-make this recipe just for the two of us. It’s far too much time, trouble and washing up! It is quite a promising recipe, but I wouldn’t call it good, as it stands. There are some interesting flavours and textures. I think a few rounds of trial and error and you could create something really fabulous from this starting point, starting by correcting the obvious deficiencies above – but I’m not convinced I wouldn’t be better off just finding a better cannelloni recipe!

Modulo the above, it *could* be a really good meal for feeding a large crowd, especially as you could make the cannelloni and the tomato sauce ahead of time – the day before, even (keep them separate, and in the fridge, until you’re ready to bake).

**
Pasta, Jeni Wright (contributing editor)
Hermes House (Anness Publishing Ltd), 2003
ISBN 978-1-843-099-277
Soft cover, 512 pages, full colour. No RRP published.

[Full disclosure: This is my book. I have received no payment or sponsorship for this post, nor have I accepted a review copy. I do not have an amazon affiliate account and do not profit from any links provided.]

Pasta - inner page viewThis is a cookbook with a ‘contributing editor’ instead of an author, and as I’ve worked though the cookbooks on my shelf, that’s becoming more and more of a red flag. Admittedly on a sample size of a single recipe (out of the 350 ‘inspirational recipes’ promised on the cover), there are mistakes, omissions, and the result, while it shows definite promise, is moderately unsatisfactory as-is.

The frustrating thing is that, due the highly-illustrated style of cookbook, someone has clearly cooked this recipe in order to photograph it – if they noticed the problems with the recipe, nothing was done about it!

I may give this book a second try, but I think there’s a good chance of this one ending up in the charity-shop pile in due course. I’m learning my lesson, though – at the end of this year of recipes, I think I’m going to be a much more discerning customer of the bargain bin!

‘Cooking the Books’ is my self-imposed blog challenge for 2014 – I’ll be trying to cook a new recipe from one of my (rather extensive!) collection of cookbooks once a week, write it up and review it. Wish me luck!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

April Showers Bring May Flowers

It’s finally feeling like summer is coming. But a time of year that would normally see me full of excitement and plans for the garden and kitchen is instead leaving me feeling bereft!

It’s not something I’ve been talking about here, but for the last six months, Hubby and I have been negotiating the frequently infuriating, frustrating, and quite honestly heartbreaking process of surrendering our beautiful home to the Department for Transport so that their friends at HS2 can build a high speed railway line through it. In some respects our entire time here –  in this beautiful piece of rural England, in the cottage that we hoped might be our home for the rest of our lives – has been overshadowed by HS2, which was announced six months after we arrived, ironically on the very day that a huge box of bare-rooted saplings – the orchard I had always wanted – arrived in my kitchen.

So, this year, there have been no window sills full of seed trays. No greenhouse full of tomatoes and chillies (no greenhouse at all, any more – it has gone to live with a friend in the village). No cut flower patch. I’ve had to sit on my green fingers, and it’s been the worst kind of torture.

My poor potted orchard!The only thing we’ve done that could be considered to be ‘gardening’ has been the heartbreaking task of digging up my beloved orchard trees – which will otherwise end up under three metres of backfill – and transferring them into pots, and which felt like nothing more than an act of vandalism.

Of course, just to make me feel worse, everything has decided to blossom this year, most of them for the first time ever! I’m assuming this year’s fruit harvest is a write off, but hopefully my precious trees will survive the abuse, and go on to thrive in their new home.

In six weeks time (fates willing!) we – with the hens, and the trees, and Dave dog – should be just starting to find our feet in our new home in Cornwall. We decided to take the plunge, and make the move we’ve been talking about for years as ‘some day’, to make an opportunity out of what could so easily be a small personal tragedy.

Elderflower buds, just breakingFor now, though, the elder is starting to burst into flower, and yet another highlight of my culinary year is about to pass me by. I could cry!

While there will almost certainly be no elderflower champagne for me this year, there’s no reason you should miss out!

Zested citrus & elderflowersElderflower ‘champagne’ was a great favourite of my grandmother’s, and a few years ago, just after we moved to the cottage, I decided to explore it for myself. It’s been my gateway to a great adventure with all sorts of home-brewing, and is still one of my favourites. It’s so simple, everyone should give it a go!

However, there are two little ‘gotchas’ that I’ve come across with elderflower champagne. Firstly, this live-bottled brew can over-pressurise and create ‘bottle bombs’. Not something that has happened to me personally, thank goodness, but this is mostly because I absolutely insist on using only plastic soft-drinks bottles for this feisty little number. Secondly, if you make this brew with whole flowerheads (and I usually do – it’s a lot of hard work otherwise!), rather than hand-stripping the flowers first, it has a very short shelf life.

Ready to drink!While it’s still actively fermenting in the bottle, all is well, but after three or four weeks, as the brew is ‘fermented out’ and starts to drop clear in the bottle, the flavour begins to turn bitter. Insidiously at first, but pretty soon it will be undrinkably unpleasant. So don’t try to lay this stuff down – enjoy it at its fresh best, start drinking just as soon as you like, once the bottles have pressurised, and enjoy the batch as the sweetness diminishes (and the potency increases!) over the next couple of weeks.

Elderflower cordial, steepingElderflower cordial is another great favourite, and my larder will be the poorer for not getting a batch laid in this year. Again, home-made is the simplest of things. There are no gotchas here, and since I found out about using a little campden powder (wine-makers sulphite), I’m quite happy to lay it down in wine bottles in a cool dark place, where it keeps perfectly for at least a year. If you’d rather not use sulphites, then make a small batch and keep it in the fridge, or freeze a larger quantity using well washed plastic milk bottles or tetra-packs that have held fruit juice.

Diluted with sparkling water, with a handful of ice, it’s a wonderful refreshing drink on a hot day, and a taste of summer in the depths of winter. And the leftover citrus fruit makes a wonderful elderflower-infused marmalade, too!

Last year I made a small experimental batch of elderflower and lemon gin, and some elderflower vinegar. I can report that both of these were excellent – though the lemon gin would have benefited from having the rind removed after a couple of days, leaving just the elderflower to infuse for longer, as the citrus overwhelms the floral character a little.

The elderflower vinegar has amazed me (and the very small number of people I’ve shared it with!). It captures absolutely all of the beautiful sweet scent of the fresh elderflowers, without sugariness, and makes a quite remarkable simple floral vinaigrette! It’s so good that I may just try to make some this year, even if I can’t manage anything else with the house move imminent!

While I’m on the subject of flower vinegars, I absolutely must mention (and heartily recommend to you!) chive flower vinegar, since chive flower season is here or just around the corner. This is remarkable stuff – for a start, just look at the colour!

Chive flower vinegar

The flavour is great – all the fresh onioniness of chives, but without the ‘hot’ character that often comes from raw alliums. It is the simplest thing to make – even a jam jar quantity with a dozen or so chive flowers will be worth your effort – and keeps at least a year in a cool dark place (do beware light – the colour will degrade very quickly even if it’s not in direct sunlight!).

So there you go – May flowers; the figurative ones are hopefully just around the corner, and as for the real ones, they not just for looking at, but for eating too! So enjoy them! And while you do, spare a little thought for us poor up-rooted souls..?

More of this to come!This wonderful little cottage has been so good to us – we have learned so much from being here, and this blog undoubtedly owes its existence to our having made it our home. It’s going to be a real wrench to leave (and heartbreaking to think about what will happen to this little patch of heaven soon) but hopefully, for us, it’s a step on the way to another, bigger adventure!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>