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!

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Lean Lamb Hotpot, from The Hairy Dieters – Cooking the Books, week 19

This little cookbook was an impulse purchase when it came out a couple of years ago, like many impulse purchases soon relegated to the shelves and mostly ignored. But I was looking for something to help me empty the freezer and this hotpot was just the job to use up a couple of lamb chops!

[Yes, I know I’m running behind with these blog posts! Life is a bit doolally just now, I’m afraid. But if everything goes well there might even be two further ‘Cooking the Books‘ posts before the end of this week!]

To make this hotpot for two, you will need a casserole dish with a lid (or some stout tin foil) and –

  • Hotpot ingredients350g lamb chops or leg steaks, deboned, trimmed, and cut into pieces 2-3cm in size
  • 1 onion
  • 3 carrots
  • 250g potatoes
  • Lamb stock cube (enough for 300ml reconstituted)
  • Fresh or dried rosemary and thyme
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • Oil
  • Plain flour
  • Salt and pepper

Preheat your oven to 170C. I’m not on a diet (if you read this blog regularly, that hopefully goes without saying!) so I was less than entirely fussy about trimming ‘any visible fat’ off the lamb. I did trim off the biggest chunks, though!

Brown off the lambSeason the lamb a little and fry brown it off in batches in a frying pan with a little oil (just a single teaspoon, if you’re following the recipe!) before transferring to the casserole dish. I also softened the onion and *whisper it* added a crushed clove of garlic, which may not be quite traditional for a proper Lancashire hotpot!

Mix ingredients in casserole dishPeel and cut the carrots into chunks. Add the carrots and onions to the meat in the casserole dish, sprinkle over 1.5tbsp of plain flour, and mix well. Make up 300ml of lamb stock with the stock cube (mine made 450ml, so I used 2/3rds) and add this to the casserole dish, along with a generous pinch each of dried rosemary and thyme and a tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce. Finally add a big pinch of black pepper, and mix well.

Arrange sliced potatoesPeel and slice the potatoes about 5mm thick, and arrange them decoratively over the top. Add an extra sprinkle of pepper over the top, cover snugly and pop in the oven for 1hr.

Browned on topAfter an hour, take off the lid and return to the oven for a further 45 minutes. The hot pot is done when the potatoes are beautifully browned.

Serve with lovely seasonal steamed vegetables, and enjoy!

Tuck in!

**
The Hairy Dieters, by Dave Myers and Si King
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2012
ISBN 978-0-297-86905-4
Soft cover, 192 pages, full colour. RRP £14.99.

Hairy Dieters - cover[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 think I’ve been a bit unfair to this cookbook – it was bought with ‘good intentions’, particularly because I hoped it might contain some packed-lunch inspiration. The ‘lunchbox’ section at the back turned out to be rather short and a bit disappointing, and so it went to live on the shelves, more or less ignored until I got it out again last week for the blog challenge.

Hairy Dieters - page viewUnusually – particularly as I’m having to be especially fussy about using what I’ve got and not buying random ingredients just now – I had a choice between several different recipes, and didn’t need to substitute creatively, either!

These recipes are, first and foremost, good decent food, selected because they happen to be lower in fat / calories / whatever. Now, I fundamentally don’t like diet recipes, because they tend to include a raft of nasty ‘cheats’ to con the flavour back into food which has been lost due to removing fats, oils, and carbs. There’s none of this here, just normal store-cupboard ingredients; if you soft-pedal on the slightly obsessive fat-avoidance, there’s some great stuff here. From Si and Dave of ‘Hairy Bikers’ fame, I suppose that should come as no real surprise!

There are plenty of recipes here that I’m going to want to make in the future – from the cassoulet, to a selection of ‘fake-away’ curries and Chinese meals, stews, pies, and one-pot suppers. Ignore the ‘diet’ marketing, and add this little cookbook to your collection – this is a (coincidentally healthy) weekday-supper goldmine!

‘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!

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The Eurovision Drinking Game – 2014 Edition

Dear visitor – this post is preserved for archival purposes.  Click here to view the fully updated Eurovision 2015 Drinking Game Rules (with bonus ‘Fair Dinkum’ Aussie round).

The 2014 Eurovision Song Contest is due to take place in Copenhagen, Denmark, on Saturday May the 10th. So, without further ado, I present to you – The Eurovision Drinking Game, 2014.

Get those bottles open!Could this be the very best Eurovision Song Contest drinking game on the internet? With all due modesty, I think it might be! Like so many good and worthwhile ideas, these rules started life at a drunken student party, well over a decade ago. They have been carefully curated and updated over the years, and play-tested by a number of kind ‘volunteers’, some of whom even remembered enough the next morning to provide helpful feedback and suggestions!

How to play –

This is a forfeit game. A variety of features of both the song and the performance have been selected, and their appearance triggers a drinking forfeit. This is usually (but not always!) ‘take a swig’.

European FlagsYou will need to divide up the countries and songs between your players. The best way to do this will depend on your personal preferences, and the number of people at your party. It’s probably unwise (though it may well be very entertaining!) for everyone at the party to play for every song. A small party might only want to play a subset of the songs available. You could allocate the songs by ballot at the start of the party, or draw straws before each song. The choice is yours!

The Songs – 

Begin any song that you are playing with a fully-charged glass.

Musical scoreSelected features of the song and performance trigger forfeits. These features can appear more than once in a performance (and sadly, often do!), and ‘score’ each time they appear – so the infamous ‘Bucks Fizz’ skirt removal would represent a single costume change, because it happened in one go, but a song that repeatedly swaps languages or makes major-to-minor-and-back-again key transitions triggers a forfeit on each switch.

Take a drink for each instance of the following:

The song –

    • Is not in an official language of the country being represented
    • Change of language
    • Change of key (take an extra swig if the key change is so egregiously telegraphed you can see it coming for miles)
    • Change of tempo
    • Wordless lyrics (da dum da, mana mana mana, lalalala)

Russian folk-dancersThe performer, costume and performance –

    • Performer(s) not of nationality represented
    • Folk costume
    • Folk instrument 
    • Folk dance
    • Weapons (with an extra-big swig if they’re ‘folk’ weapons – axes, pitchforks, flaming torches etc)
    • Uniforms – military & civil (including costume references to same – epaulettes, insignia, military-looking hats and suchlike)
    • 'Policewomen'Flags & banners
    • Pyrotechnics, smoke, fog
    • Costume change
    • Bare feet, bare torsos
    • Underwear as outerwear
    • Spandex, lurex, sequins
    • Leather, rubber, PVC, bondage wear
    • LEDs or other lighting incorporated into costumes
    • Fur, feathers, wings
    • Trapeze or wire-work
    • PyrotechnicsMagic, circus themes
    • ‘Booby Prize’ This is the big forfeit, down the remains of your drink! – Performer does not appear to be human (note this rule applies whether or not the performer is human underneath!)

The half-time performance (or the ‘Riverdance’ slot) –

Traditionally the host country puts on a performance on during the ‘voting gap’. Everyone plays for this segment. Use the same forfeit list, but all penalties are doubled.

For the convenience of all my lovely readers, I have made you a ‘cut-out-and-keep’ forfeit card this year. Click for the full-size version, print it out and hand out copies at your party, or save to your mobile devices and share the Eurovision love!

Your cut-out-and-keep forfeit card

Graphics for the cut-out-and-keep forfeit card are use under Creative Commons licenses, see links for details: Flags by Anka Pandrea, Glasses by Nora Raaum.

Voting –

The voting round should be considered advanced play, and may be unsuitable for novices. Nevertheless, these rules are intentionally kept simple. They need to be!

Voting!Before each set of results are announced, everyone guesses where the 12 points are going. If anyone gets this right, those who got it wrong take a swig.

‘Booby Prize’: Everyone downs their drink if the presenter gets the country they’re speaking to wrong, calls the national representative by the wrong name, or gets their pronunciation corrected by the national representative.

Well, that’s all, folks! Have fun at all your Eurovision parties, and if you do decide to try these rules, do let me know what you thought of them, and any suggestions you might have for improving them in future years. You can leave a comment, or tweet me @CountrySkills (where it’s likely some Eurovision live-tweeting may follow!).

And remember, please drink responsibly (*ahem!*), and definitely don’t drink and drive, attempt DIY, deep fat frying, change important passwords or operate heavy machinery. Finally, your hangover is your problem, not mine, so don’t come crying to me in the morning!

As our Danish hosts might say – “Bunden i vejret eller resten i håret!” (Bottoms up or the rest in your hair!)

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BBQ Tikka Chicken, from Feasting on Flames by Annette Yates – Cooking the Books, week 18

BBQ season is here! The evenings seem noticeably longer, almost every day, and it’s warm enough to hang around outside until sunset. And as if that wasn’t enough, it’s a bank holiday weekend here in the UK. So really, I had to go to the cookbook collection to find some BBQ cooking inspiration.

Finally insert skewers to hold shapeI have modified this recipe slightly – the original calls for six bone-in breast pieces, but I much prefer to do a whole bird. You could portion it up and cook the pieces separately, but I think doing it whole, as a spatchcock, is much more fun!

To make this, you will require –

  • One whole chicken, prepared as a spatchcock or divided into portions
  • 6 tbsp natural yoghurt
  • 1 small onion
  • Tikka BBQ ingredients2 large garlic cloves (I used smoked cloves, as I had them)
  • 2 tbsp garam masala
  • Zest and juice of one lemon
  • A thumb-size piece of fresh root ginger
  • 1 tsp malt vinegar
  • 1 tsp paprika (I used quite a mild, smoked paprika – you could use a hot paprika for a spicier result)
  • 1 tsp salt

Ingredients before mixingFinely chop your onion, mince or crush the garlic cloves, remove the zest from the lemon with a grater or zester (or use a vegetable peeler and slice the peel finely), and grate the root ginger finely. For a smoother result, you could put the onion, garlic, lemon zest and ginger through a food processor to get a thick paste.

Combine all the ingredients in a large wide bowl, and mix.

Make incisions into chickenTake your chicken, and make several deep slices into the breast and thigh meat, to help the marinade permeate. Before you start rubbing the marinade into the chicken, it can be useful to set a small bowlful aside for basting onto the chicken during cooking – it’s important to set it aside now, if you’re going to do this, as the rest of the marinade is going to end up mixed with raw chicken juices, and probably shouldn’t be put back on later in the cooking process!

Rub in marinade and set asideRub the marinade all over your chicken, top and bottom, and into all the slices, cover, and set aside in the fridge for at least a couple of hours (longer is fine!).

You can either cook this chicken entirely on the BBQ, or do most of the cooking in the oven, and then finish it off over the coals.

Cook over charcoalThe latter is a great idea if you’re not confident in cooking large items on the BBQ – I would roast it on a rack for about 1hr at 180C before finishing it over the coals. You can check that it’s essentially cooked with a meat thermometer before transferring to the BBQ grill. For a crispy skin, BBQ the ‘inside’ first, and then finish it skin-side down. Dividing the cooking like this is also really handy if you’re cooking for lots of people, as it leaves the BBQ grill free for cooking other items in the meantime!

Beautiful crispy skinFor full BBQ cooking, I like to start skin side down, turn over after about 20 minutes, and then turn back skin-side down to finish. Keep the chicken covered during cooking, with a tent of heavy tin foil or a BBQ lid (if you have one). We have a big old aluminium wok lid which is great for covering things while they cook on the BBQ. Keeping the chicken covered means it cooks much more quickly and evenly.

Divide up into portionsIf you’re going to cook this way, do use a meat thermometer to make sure your chicken is properly cooked through – you’re looking for a minimum internal temperature of 75C at the centre of the thickest part of the breast. If you’re at all unsure of your ability to find the thickest part, then shoot for a slightly higher temperature to give you a margin of safety.

Once your chicken is cooked, divide up into portions using a sharp knife – for me, half a breast portion and a thigh or drumstick per person is a nice serving size. Serve with rice and a green salad dressed with a nice mustardy vinaigrette.

Serve your tikka chicken

This is a really subtly flavoured, aromatic tikka and will suit those with spice-sensitive tastebuds. If you like yours a bit hotter, use a hot paprika and add a whole finely chopped fresh or dried chilli (or the appropriate amount of dried chilli flakes).

**
Feasting on Flames - coverFeasting on Flames, by Annette Yates
The Apple Press (Quintet Publishing Ltd), 1998
ISBN 978-1-85076-954-0
Soft cover, 128 pages, full colour. RRP £8.99.

[Full disclosure: This is our book, which we 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 paperback cookbook pretty much does what it says on the tin, with a good variety of fish, poultry, meat and vegetable dishes, and even some deserts, for cooking on the BBQ. These are accompanied by a collection of side dishes, and some menu suggestions, making this a pretty decent one-stop shop for anyone who wants to extend their BBQ cooking beyond the classic sausage, burger and drumstick fare we’re all so familiar with!

Feasting on Flames - page viewI like the fact that these recipes (like the tikka recipe above) are based on fresh ingredients, rather than taking the short-cuts of using prepared sauces and pastes, but it does mean the ingredient lists end up being quite long. They’re not unusual ingredients, though, on the whole, and should be in most people’s store cupboards. These are pretty quick, simple recipes, which cover a wide range of tastes and cuisines.

Is it a must-have book? No, probably not. It does what you’d expect, pretty competently, without any real ‘standout’ moments. There are, I imagine, many like it. If you get the chance to pick it up cheaply, by all means do, but I probably wouldn’t specifically seek it out. If it’s already on your shelf, and has been a bit neglected, maybe dig it out again and 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!

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Basic Butchery – how to spatchcock a chicken (or any other poultry!)

This is a really useful kitchen skill to master – and really straightforward! If you can portion a chicken, you can definitely do this – actually, spatchcocking is quicker and simpler. Why spatchcock a bird? Well, it’s a fantastic way to prepare a whole bird for the BBQ or oven, it opens up the carcasse, making it more even in thickness, and allowing the air to circulate evenly around both sides. And if you’re adding flavour in the form of a marinade, it’s easy to coat the bird generously on both sides.

Whole chickenIf you want to prepare a whole bird for the BBQ or grill (and why wouldn’t you – it’s so much more exciting and impressive-looking than chicken portions!) then this is the very best way to go.

Start by un-trussing your chicken, removing any string or elastic from it.

Cut from parson's nose towards neck endTurn the bird breast side down, and identify the ‘parson’s nose’. Now, with a stout pair of kitchen scissors, start to cut from one side of the parson’s nose, straight along the length of the bird towards the neck end. You’re cutting just to the side of the backbone, and through ribs and other quite solid grissly bits (this will be much less obvious on a poussin, quail, pheasant or other small bird) so don’t worry if it seems a bit tough!

Repeat the process the other side of the parson’s nose and backbone, and remove it altogether. See, simple as that!

Remove backbone  With backbone removed  Flatten breast area

Turn the bird over so that the breast side is up,and press down firmly over the breast area so that the wishbone snaps and the bird lies flat. Trim off the knuckle parts of the legs, and any loose skin from the neck area to tidy things up.

Finally insert skewers to hold shape

Finally, take two long skewers (ideally you would use metal skewers but mine are too short – bamboo bbq skewers like these are fine though) and starting at the thickest part of the breast, thread them through diagonally, ending up passing right through the thigh on the other side of the bird.

You’re done. How easy was that? Marinade them however you like (how about a whole jerk chicken using my fabulous dry jerk rub?) and get that BBQ going! What better treat this Bank Holiday weekend!

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