Pitta and Naan Breads – from the Fallback Pantry

Pittas and other flatbreads are so versatile – whether you like to stuff them, wrap them or dip them – and the difference between the pre-packed long-life supermarket versions and freshly cooked bread is night and day. There are essentially two sorts of flatbreads – yeast leavened flatbreads, of which pittas and naan breads are good examples, which tend to be cooked in an oven, and unleavened breads, such as chapatis and tortillas, which are usually cooked on a hotplate or skillet. Different breads vary in their ingredients, but the process for each type is essentially the same.

Pittas are served

These are some of the easiest and fastest breads to make – it’s a mystery to me really why anyone ever buys them when they’re so quick, easy and satisfying to make at home. You can even make the dough a day or more ahead of baking – once baked it’s best to eat these breads immediately, as they go stale quickly. If you bake more than you can eat in one go, they’re best frozen as soon as they’re cold.  This recipe for pitta breads can easily be adapted to make naan, with the modifications to the ingredients noted below. 

To make 12 pittas (takes about 2 hours, including proving and baking time):

  • 500g strong bread flour (I use a 75% white, 25% wholemeal mix because I prefer the flavour and texture, but 100% white is fine too. Flatbreads are more forgiving of lower gluten flours, so if you only have plain flour at home you can still attempt this bread, it will just be a little less elastic / chewy) plus extra for dusting / shaping.
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp instant dried yeast
  • Oil – I use cold pressed rapeseed oil for this (and almost everything), but olive oil would be more traditional
  • Water (about 300-400ml)

In a bowl (or bowl mixer fitted with a dough hook) combine all the dry ingredients, about a tablespoon of oil, and mix in enough water to form a nice elastic dough. One of the most common mistakes people make when making bread is not adding enough water to the mix. The best bread comes from a really well-hydrated dough that’s just on the edge of being too wet to work with, under-hydrated dough makes stodgy, heavy bread with poor texture and rise. The more practice you have with this, the easier it will become to judge – I use a little shortcut, which is to add water until I’ve gone a little bit too far, so the dough is starting to become sticky, and then add a spoon or two of extra flour back in just to make it handleable again.

Knead the dough for 5-10 minutes, by hand or in the mixer, until it becomes lovely, smooth and elastic. I oil my countertop for kneading rather than flouring it, as that avoids accidentally incorporating more flour into the dough. 

What you do next depends on whether you want the bread today, or not:

  • If you want to bake the pittas straight away, oil your ball of dough, return it to the bowl, cover with a clean tea-towel and leave it at room temperature to double in size, which should take an hour and a half or so. 
  • If you don’t want the pittas until tomorrow (or a little later) oil the dough and cover the bowl with cling film, or put it in a good-sized Tupperware-type container, and put it in the fridge at least overnight. (What you’ve done here is create a batch of ‘fridge dough’, which is really versatile – more on this later. If you’re short of baking yeast at the moment, this is a game changer!).

When you’re ready to bake: 

Set your oven to its highest temperature (ideally at least 220C), with a heavy baking sheet or baking stone inside. 

Decide how many pittas you want to bake – I tend to take half the dough and divide it into six pieces. Flour your work surface generously for this bit.  Form each piece into a tight ball by drawing the edge repeatedly into the centre, and then leave the balls to rest for about 10 minutes, covered with a tea towel. 

To shape the breads, you could use a rolling pin (in which case try to roll them out about 5mm thick and in an oval sort of shape). Personally though I can’t see the point, it’s just as easy to stretch them out by hand and I think the texture is better. First, squash the balls down into a thick disk, then slowly stretch them out.

IMG_6576_1

Only stretch the edge, the middle will take care of itself. You’ll find they want to spring back but keep working on them in turn, each time you ‘go around’ you’ll find them willing to stretch a little bit further. Get them to the size and shape you want, around 5mm thick (but this will be a bit variable – it’s fine, but try to avoid going particularly thin as these areas won’t be able to ‘puff’ into the traditional pocket). Cover them again with the tea towel for about 5 minutes. 

IMG_6577

When the oven is up to temperature, working very quickly, pull out the hot baking sheet or stone. Place each pitta on it, the opposite side up to the way they were on the work surface (having the ‘dry’ upper side down seems to help them bake nicely), and get them back in the top of the very hot oven as quickly as you can. You want to avoid losing any heat if you can. 

If everything has gone right, they should puff up in the oven into little ‘pillows’. Once they’ve puffed, you can turn the baking sheet around (particularly important if your oven has hot spots). You want to cook them until the outside of the bread is dry but still soft. Don’t wait for the top to brown, they’ll be crispy by then – they’ll normally have some colour on the bottom where they have been in contact with the baking sheet. Take them out of the oven and cover with a tea towel until serving, just as soon as they’re still warm but not too hot. 

IMG_6580

They’re perfect for stuffing, dipping in home-made hummus, or enjoying with soups, salads – anything you can think of!

Variation: To make naan – 

  • Use strong white flour or a 50:50 mix of strong and plain flour (Or 100% plain, see note above). 
  • Use a mix of half-milk, half water, and add about four tablespoons of plain yoghurt (you’ll need less water/milk as a result). 
  • You can use a plain-flavoured oil or melted ghee in the dough.
  • Once out of the oven, brush with melted ghee or butter while still wet. Mix crushed garlic with this butter for a garlic naan, or fold chopped dried sultanas, figs, or dates and almonds into the dough, before shaping, for a Peshwari-style naan. 
  • I expect my naan to be a bit bigger than pittas, so I would make six or eight from a full quantity of dough. 

 

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Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread – a collection of recipes from the Fallback Pantry

Limited shopping opportunities mean many of us are baking bread at home for the first time – or at least, for the first time in a long while! So here’s a quick round-up of recipes and techniques to give you some extra ideas and inspiration.

“But I can’t get…” Some advice on ingredients and making do:

Flour and yeast seem to be ingredients in short supply at the moment, so some creative baking may be required.

If you can’t get bread flour, you still have options if you have other flour types available.

  • Chapati (Atta) flour works well as a bread flour, it makes a slightly dense but very tasty wholemeal loaf. I recommend using a bread tin for this.
  • Soda bread and flatbreads are more forgiving than traditional loaves – you can make pittas, tortillas, chapatis and all sorts of lovely things.
  • You can bake with any mix of bread flours – combining rye, spelt, or wholemeal flour with strong white gives a tasty satisfying loaf which rises better than these flours will on their own.

If yeast is the problem:

  • Get cracking with that sourdough starter!
  • In the meantime, experiment with soda bread.
  • Old expired yeast (those packets in the back of that cupboard!) will be sluggish and produce poor results, but can often be brought back to life. It will take a little care and attention – activate the yeast in some warm water with a bit of sugar before baking, even if the instructions say this isn’t necessary, and use more than the recipe says. Be prepared to give it extra time to prove – time is flavour so this is not a bad thing!
  • If you have a little bit of yeast, you can make it last (almost!) indefinitely by keeping over a portion of live dough from each bake, incorporating it into the next. This is what traditional bakeries have done for centuries, and works really well – store the live dough in the fridge and plan to bake two or three times a week to keep it refreshed and active.

Good luck and happy baking!

Yeasted breads:

No Weigh! – the bake-anywhere, traveller’s loaf
A basic, white bread recipe and technique which requires no special kitchen equipment – if you have flour, water, salt, yeast and oil, access to an oven and some sort of a baking tray, you can make this loaf.

Don’t be Sour – a dalliance with yeasted ‘quick’ bread
A good basic ‘pain d’épi’ loaf recipe that can be adapted for all sorts of different flour types.

Roast Garlic & Rosemary Bread
A lovely fougasse-type bread ideal for serving with pasta.

Pain de Savoie, from Paul Hollywood’s ‘Bread’ – Cooking the Books, week 2
This is a filing, savoury loaf with which is a meal in itself – made with bacon (or ham) and cheese, it really hits the spot.

Milk Loaf, from ‘How To Bake’ by Paul Hollywood – Cooking the Books, week 14
Something a little sweeter and more sophisticated – if you’re missing posh breakfast breads this simple but delicious milk loaf might be for you.

 

Sourdough (and semi-sourdough) baking:

Sourdough Saga: Episode 1 – failure to launch
How (not) to create a sourdough starter.

Sourdough Saga: Episode 2 – keep calm and carry on?
We got there in the end!

Sourdough Saga: Episode 3 – good things come to those who wait!
My basic sourdough recipe.

Sourdough Saga: Episode 4 – cheese and sun dried tomato bread
A nice recipe variation.

Sourdough Saga: Episode 5 – how to look after your starter

Sourdough Saga: Episode 6 – awesome home-made sourdough pizza
This is a really good replacement for take-away!

Sourdough Saga: Episode 7 – six months on, life with my sourdough starter

Sourdough Saga: Episode 8 – semi-sourdough baguettes
Not a ‘novice’ bake, but one I’m really really proud of. These baguettes are the business!

 

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Stinging Nettle Gnocchi with Garlic and Sage butter – advice on eating weeds, from the Fallback Pantry

Welcome to a new blog series here at the Country Skills Blog: in the ‘Fallback Pantry’ I plan to build a collection of recipes to help make the best of what’s in the kitchen and garden. At the time of writing, at least a quarter of the world’s population is under some sort of ‘lockdown’ restriction resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, making the sorts of recipes and techniques the blog has always focused on more valuable and relevant than ever.

Whatever our circumstances, a slow, thoughtful look at the resources at our disposal will hopefully yield options to help us eat well and make the best of what we have available.

With regular trips to the shops on hold for most of us, access to fresh greens can be a particular challenge. Thank goodness it’s stinging nettle season! Nettles are a great wild food, really nutritious and full of good things, widely found in gardens and other green spaces, and can be used very much like spinach. This recipe for home-made gnocchi really makes the best of them, I think – and they’re fun to make, so you can keep the kids entertained for several hours, too!


An important note about wild food – 

When picking wild plants to eat, it’s really important that you’re completely confident that you know what it is you’re picking. There are one or two seriously poisonous wild plants out there, and eating the wrong one could kill you. That said, stinging nettles are some of the easiest wild plants to identify – most British children will have mastered this skill by the age of five or six (though an adult friend of mine admitted to me recently that she wasn’t that confident she could!). Invest in a well-illustrated field guide and learn how to use it, take someone with you who knows what they’re doing, and if you’re ever in the slightest doubt, don’t take a risk! Remember that in many countries there are rules about what you can and can’t pick, pull, or harvest on land that doesn’t belong to you, so please stay on the right side of the law, and check with the landowner first to be sure.


Stinging Nettle Gnocchi with Garlic and Sage Butter

SERVES TWO

Ingredients:
100g stinging nettle tops
200g potatoes
One free-range egg
Around 100g Type-OO white flour (you can substitute strong white bread flour (better), or even plain flour will do in a pinch. Not self-raising, please!)
Semolina (not essential – you can use more of your flour for shaping but will sacrifice a bit of texture)

To Serve:
50g unsalted butter
3-4 sprigs of fresh sage
2 cloves of garlic
Parmesan cheese
Salt & pepper
Optional extra: dry-cured streaky bacon lardons

Serving alternative: any other sauce you fancy – all sorts of pesto-type sauces will work well here, so the only limit is your imagination.


Picked stinging nettlesPick nettles carefully – I wear washing up gloves – selecting the top two or three pairs of leaves only. Nettles are best early in the year, they can get rather tough and coarse flavoured later on. Actually, I tend to pull up a whole batch of nettles – I’m usually weeding – and then pick through them for the nettle tops afterwards. Remove the leaves from the stems, wash them thoroughly, and dry in a salad spinner (keeping your gloves on all the while!). 100g is roughly the amount you get in one of those prepared salad bags.


Start by boiling your potatoes, skins on, in a pan of briskly boiling water. 

Meanwhile, in a large frying pan with a well-fitting lid, put a splash of water and a little knob of butter, add all the nettle leaves, cover, and steam until the leaves start to soften and go a slightly darker shade of green. You can take your gloves off now, as the sting will have been disarmed. 

Wilted steamed nettles

Squeeze all the water out of your nettle leaves, by hand in a tea towel, or in a sieve. Then chop the steamed nettles up as well as possible. 

Keep an eye on your potatoes. When they’re cooked, drain them into a colander and once they’re cool enough to handle, you can peel their skins off really easily. 

Your chopped nettles should now be essentially cold. In a food processor (or pestle and mortar) combine the nettles with the egg and reduce to a reasonably fine pulp. 

Mash your potatoes, ideally using a potato ricer if you have one.

Combine the mashed potato with the egg & nettle paste, and mix well. 

Now, start adding the flour until it makes a soft but manageable dough. This will probably be about 100g but will vary depending on how much moisture was left in your nettles & potato, and how large your egg was.

NettleGnocchi_3

Once you have a workable dough (it will still be a bit sticky) dust your counter with semolina, take a handful of dough, and roll it into a sausage about ¾” in diameter. Then cut the sausage into individual gnocchi about ½” thick and place – spaced apart – on a semolina-dusted baking sheet or chopping board. Carry on until you have used up all the dough. 

Allow your gnocchi to rest for about 30 minutes and then press gently with the tines of a fork to get the traditional ridges, which help sauces cling to the gnocchi.

Gnocchi ready for cooking

To Serve:

Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a brisk rolling boil. 

Meanwhile, in a large frying pan, melt the butter. Chop the garlic finely, add to the butter, and cook very gently until golden.

While the garlic is cooking, add the gnocchi to the boiling water. They will sink initially, and are done when they float to the surface.

Finely slice the fresh sage leaves. When the gnocchi are cooked, add the sage leaves to the butter and garlic, stir quickly, and then transfer the gnocchi into the garlic and sage butter in the frying pan using a slotted spoon. 

Mix well to coat the gnocchi evenly with the herb butter, and serve, topped generously with freshly grated Parmesan and a good pinch of ground black pepper.

Variation – fry off some good smoked streaky bacon lardons until golden and crispy, before you start cooking the gnocchi, and add these to the gnocchi and sauce at the end.

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Unprocessed Lent – a food challenge

I’ve been thinking for some time about giving up processed foods – at least as an experiment. The time has never seemed right, but with Spring on the way, and Lent around the corner, it seemed a very Lenten sort of exercise in food discipline.

Hang on, what do you mean by processed food?

When I’ve discussed this idea with friends in the past, one question arises, sooner or later. ‘What do you consider to be processed? I mean, all cooked food is processed. Even flour is processed!’ And this is a very fair question. Everything apart from raw fruit, vegetables, meat and fish has been processed to some extent – arguably, even those have, unless you start with a live chicken or dig the potato from the ground yourself.

unprocessed-lent_7What I’ve tried to do is construct a logical ‘traffic light’ system that categorises foods purely by their degree of processing. I’m not making any moral judgement here, or asserting that one category of foods is healthier, better, or more environmentally sound than any other. This isn’t by any means a ‘clean eating’ thing (I think that’s a rather pernicious fad, and well past it’s sell-by date). It’s purely a list of categories sorted by – if you’ll forgive the expression – increasing ‘buggered-aboutness’.

There are definitely other criteria that we might want to be considering, as thoughtful, ethical consumers, and I refer to some of these in the annotations to the categories. They will colour the degree to which I’m inclined to be militant about the degree of processing. For instance, freezing, drying, and canning foods – all undoubtedly forms of processing – significantly increase the shelf life and preserve the nutritional value of foods, reduce food waste, and allow us access to fresh produce all year around without needing it to be flown half way around the globe. I would rather eat frozen peas or tinned tomatoes in February than fresh ones flown in from Kenya or produced in an artificially lit and heated glasshouse somewhere.

I’m not making an argument here that additives / preservatives / flavourings and so on are necessarily and axiomatically bad (though many undoubtedly are) – just that they are more likely to disappear invisibly into certain sorts of food than others, along with trans fats, invert sugar syrups, and artificial sweeteners, and I like to know what’s on my plate. For me, the most worrying thing about the 21st century food chain is that it introduces black boxes, and unknowns, into what we’re eating. When food is a commodity, we lose touch with our food and our farmers. As a planet, we have never been more divorced and isolated from the origins of our food. Making a point of starting from simple ingredients, and shopping, cooking, and eating thoughtfully, is a great place to start in reconnecting ourselves to the food on our plates.

Embarking on this challenge at this time of year means that I can’t cheat by drawing heavily on my veggie garden – we’re fully in the ‘hungry gap’ and there’s pretty much nothing growing just now. Where I will be benefiting from our usual lifestyle is that I have a good stock of home-made preserves – pickles, jams, chutneys and so on – which, assuming they were made from simple ingredients, I consider absolutely fair game.

unprocessed-lent_6

Why are you doing this?

As thoughtful consumers, there are plenty of important questions we might want to ask about the food we eat –

  • Where was it grown, and how was it stored and transported?
  • What resources – water, soil etc – and other inputs such as fuel, insecticides and herbicides were used in its production?
  • What are the consequences of that for the local and global environment?
  • Who produced it, and were those farmers able to work safely and be paid fairly?
  • Is it good for us, or will eating it have negative consequences for us as consumers?
  • Is it good value for money?

Different people will have different priorities. But whatever is important to you when it come to food, we are deluding ourselves if we think we can start to answer any of these important questions without first being able to answer a much more basic one. And that question is –

 “WHAT AM I EATING?”

When we eat processed and highly manufactured foods, we cannot possibly answer this question. And without that answer, any attempt to answer any of the others is meaningless. Stripping out processed foods from our diets is the first, essential step towards being able to make good decisions about food. If we don’t know what’s in the food on our plates, we can’t possibly make good choices about it – whatever ‘good’ means for us, at any given time in our lives.

It’s not Lent until the 1st of March, so why the preview? 

Well, I’m asking you to argue with me, I guess. Point out important food groups that I’ve missed, or places where you think my categories are not working or where I’ve introduced false-equivalences. I think it’s very unlikely that I’ve got this right first off. So, folks, what have I forgotten or got wrong?


Unprocessed Lent – food categories


Green
 – Fresh foods
unprocessed-lent_4Permitted – first choice if home-grown or locally produced and in season, otherwise substitution with yellow or amber items may be preferred.

  • Fresh whole fruit & vegetables
  • Fresh whole identifiable pieces of meat or fish
  • Fresh egg
  • Honey

Yellow – Single-ingredient foods simply processed for preservation purposes
Permitted – in my view these are no ‘worse’ and in some respects more desirable than fresh – they make foods available out of season without causing dramatic food miles, without significant deterioration in food value, and reduce food waste.

  • Frozen meat, fish and vegetables (otherwise as above)
  • Pasteurised whole milk
  • Whole grains (brown rice, pearl barley etc)
  • Un-roasted seeds and nuts
  • Dried pulses (peas, beans, lentils etc)
  • Cold-pressed (extra virgin) vegetable oils

Amber – these are still primarily single-ingredient foods, but have been processed more heavily.
Permitted – these foods may be starting to lose some food value compared to their fresh or unprocessed equivalents, or have had small additions of other ingredients. In exchange, they often store better than fresh, reducing food miles and food waste. I can’t see how we can do without them and there’s nothing here that would have bothered my grandmother.

  • unprocessed-lent_9Tinned vegetables in their own juice (eg tomatoes)
  • Dried fruit & vegetables
  • Roasted nuts and seeds
  • Lightly processed whole grains – white rice, rolled oats etc
  • Wholemeal flours
  • Fruit juices (fresh or pasteurised, but preservative free)
  • Skimmed & semi-skimmed milk (pasteurised)
  • Cream
  • Unsalted butter
  • Animal fats (lard, suet)
  • Natural unsweetened yoghurt
  • Maple syrup
  • Coffee beans roasted (& ground)
  • Loose-leaf tea
  • Unsweetened cocoa powder
  • Dried herbs and spices
  • Sea salt

unprocessed-lent_5Amber+ – similar to amber but more processed
Substitute – where possible

  • White flour
  • Refined sugars
  • Minced meats

Orange – foods created by traditional preservation techniques such as fermentation, curing and smoking. These are foods with amazing, complex flavours; the very stuff human food culture is made of.
With Care – source is everything here, so buy carefully, from small – ideally local – makers using traditional techniques (actual smoke, rather than liquid, for example), look for PDO products, consider alternatives & home-made. The industrially manufactured versions of these foods fall into the ‘black’ group.

  • unprocessed-lent_8Cheese
  • Cured and/or naturally smoked meats & fish (anchovies, bacon, smoked haddock)
  • Real ale & cider
  • Wine
  • Natural wine and cider vinegars
  • Lacto-fermented foods (kimchi, sauerkraut)

Red – multi-ingredient manufactured foods. These are foods that our grandparents would have recognised, and may have bought from outside the home (at least some of the time). They can often be a source of hidden ingredients (salts, sugars, fats & additives)
Avoid – unless home-made

  • Bread & bakery products
  • Fresh & dried pasta and noodles
  • Prepared ‘deli-style’ meats ready to eat
  • Sausages, burgers
  • Jams, pickles, chutneys
  • Tinned fruit and vegetables in brine or syrup
  • Tinned fish
  • Squashes, cordials, and flavoured syrups
  • Manufactured condiments (mustard, ketchup, sweet chilli sauce, mayonnaise etc)
  • Tea bags

Black – convenience, industrially manufactured foods. Our grandparents would have been mystified by many of these, or, while recognising them, would never have thought to buy them ‘off the shelf’. These sorts of foods are where all the hidden sugars, salts, and oils (not to mention invert sugar syrups, trans fats, artificial sweeteners, preservatives, flavour enhancers, and so on) sneak into our diets. Obviously, all of these foods made at home from lower category ingredients are fine!
Off-limits

  • unprocessed-lent_3Any ‘orange’ food produced industrially
  • Ready meals (including prepared sandwiches)
  • Convenience fruit & veg (bag salad, peeled / chopped fruit & veg)
  • Prepared pizza
  • ‘Chorleywood process’ bread
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Prepared sauces (pasta, curry etc) and raw foods coated in them
  • Tinned prepared foods (baked beans, pasta in sauce etc)
  • UHT or homogenised milks
  • Solvent-extracted vegetable oils
  • Margarine and similar non-dairy spreads
  • Non-dairy creamer
  • Sugar-free sweetners
  • unprocessed-lent_1Fruit juices containing preservatives
  • Prepared soups (fresh & tinned)
  • Instant noodles & soups
  • Sweet & savoury pies, scotch eggs
  • Crisps, biscuits, prepared snack foods
  • Sweets, chocolates, etc
  • Carbonated drinks
  • Spirits
  • Instant coffee
  • ‘Coffee pod’ coffee (Nespresso, Tassimo)
  • Stock cubes & gravy granules
  • Packet sauces & seasoning mixes
  • Take-aways

 

‘Tricky’ foods – additives and additions traditionally used in kitchens, and manufactured condiments in small quantities.

Additives / additions – our grandparents would have been familiar with all of these, even though, as kitchen ingredients, some have fallen out of common use. I plan to continue to use them when appropriate. Yes, some of them even have E-numbers.

  • Bicarbonate of soda
  • Baking powder
  • Dried yeast
  • Citric acid [E330]
  • Sodium nitrite [E250](saltpetre, used in tiny quantities in curing salt)
  • Sodium metabisulfite [E223] (Campden, used as a preservative and sterilising agent in brewing)

Condiments – while noting these are ‘red’ foods, they may be used occasionally, while looking for home-made alternatives.

  • Soy sauce
  • Mustard
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • Balsamic vinegar
  • Ketchup, brown sauce, sweet chilli sauce

It’s just under a week until we start. Looking forward to your comments!

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And Now For Something Completely Different – are you an aspiring smallholder?

One of the nice things about writing a blog is that people email you out of the blue from time to time to say nice things about it. Often they want to sell you something, of course, but isn’t that the Internet all over? Anyway, today I got a message from Eve White, who works in programme development at the BBC; as well as being ever so nice about the blog, she wondered if I knew anyone who might be able to help them out finding a family to participate in a programme they’re making.

Now, this isn’t really the kind of blog where I’d normally post this sort of request, but I just have sneaky suspicion that this might suit some of my lovely readers here down to the ground – so, if you’re considering taking on a smallholding or wanting to take bigger steps towards a self sufficient lifestyle, listen up, this may be for you!

Copied below is Eve’s email to me and her contact details. Please contact her directly, if you’re interested in participating, as she won’t be checking comments here!


My name is Eve and I work in the programme development team in BBC Bristol. We’re looking at a new daytime programme idea featuring Paul Martin (antiques expert who presents the BBC1 show ‘Flog It!’ – but also happens to be a smallholder) whereby families thinking of leaving behind the urban life for a new one in the countryside try their hand at smallholding challenges at Paul’s home.

It might be that you and your family have always dreamt of giving everything up to move to your own piece of land in the countryside, or that you’ve climbed the career ladder for long enough and want the chance to become self-sufficient, or that being a smallholder has always been pushed aside in the face of the reality of your day-to-day lives.

We are looking to film what’s known as a taster tape – a short preview film to give a flavour of how the programme might look and feel – with Paul and a family who are considering this change of lifestyle in around two weeks time. This isn’t for broadcast, but will help show our commissioners the potential for a brand new series for BBC1. This will involve a bit of filming with you to find out more about why you’d like to leave the rat race and move to the country, and some hands-on practical smallholding challenges at Paul’s farm in the south west.

We’re looking to film in about two weeks time on the 21st September, so you’d need to be available then.

If you think you and your family might be up for the challenge, or have somebody in mind who you would recommend, please get in touch via my email address eve.white@bbc.co.uk and I will respond as promptly as possible.


So, if that sounds like you, and you fancy the experience of TV without the stress of actually ending up on the box, why not drop Eve a line?

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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 >>

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 >>

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 >>