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!

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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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Pesto Pasta with Chorizo and Artichokes, from James Martin Easy Every Day – Cooking the Books, week 17

This is a book with good memories attached, it’s autographed and came directly from James Martin himself, at the masterclass I was privileged to attend a couple of years ago. For all that, I haven’t cooked from it very much at all – a good time to change that, then! I fancied something light and fresh, and this pasta recipe – particularly with the fresh home-made pesto, really caught my eye.

Pesto ingredientsFirst, you’ll need to make your pesto. You will need –

  • 50g of fresh basil,
  • A large juicy clove of garlic,
  • Three anchovy fillets,
  • A tablespoon of pine kernels,
  • 25g of parmesan, and
  • Olive oil

Toast the pine kernelsIn a dry pan, toast your pine kernels until they’re starting to go golden brown in places. Meanwhile, grate your parmesan cheese.

Now, you can do this the easy way, or the more interesting, but harder way! You can just fling all your ingredients into a food processor, blitz them up and add olive oil until you get the consistency you want. Easy, but boring, and for me the texture leaves a bit to be desired. So I prefer to make my pesto in a pestle and mortar. But don’t even consider this approach if your pestle and mortar isn’t of the very large and heavy variety – the sort that you might use for crushing the occasional fresh spices isn’t going to do the trick here!

Crushed garlic & pine kernelsStart by crushing your garlic roughly, then add the toasted pine kernels and break these up. You should add the anchovies at this stage, but I forgot so mine went in much later! It’s fine, though. Now roughly chop the basil into the mix a handful at a time, along with a bit of the grated parmesan, and a drizzle of oil, and work away at it. Yes, it is hard work, but you’ll get there in the end! Add as much olive oil as you need to get the consistency you want.

Fresh hand-made pestpThis fresh pesto is a beautiful colour – a lovely fresh bright green rather than the slightly brown colour of the stuff from a jar – and even if you’re buying your basil like I had to this time (regretfully, it came all the way from Kenya) and account for the full cost of a tin of anchovies, it still works out comparable in price to the shop bought stuff. Later in the year, when there’s plenty of home-grown basil available, it works out about half the price. So really, it’s a no-brainer.

Cover the pesto very snugly until you’re going to use it (I wrapped it tightly with cling film) – any leftover will keep in the fridge for several days in a jam jar. Pour in a little extra olive oil to form a layer over the surface to exclude all air, as the basil blackens quickly if exposed to oxygen. These quantities are generously enough for four people worth of pasta. I love how the handmade approach leaves variable-sized little bits of recognisable basil leaf in the mix, rather than rendering it all to a homogenous pulp!

Prepared fresh pesto

You can enjoy this pesto just as it is, stirred through freshly cooked pasta, with a sprinkling of parmesan. But I wanted something a little more complex. The recipe for ‘Pesto Pasta with Chorizo and Artichokes’ is on the page next door to the pesto recipe in James Martin’s book – but it’s really just a variation on our family favourite we know as ‘Pasta with Pesto and Stuff’ – where ‘stuff’ will often encompass some combination of bacon, chorizo, mozzarella, sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, olives… you get the idea. Perfect for a quick satisfying dinner straight from the store cupboard. What makes this variation special is the wonderful fresh pesto, and the thoughtful combination of additions.

Pesto pasta with chorizo and artichokesTo serve two, you will need –

  • About half a quantity of freshly made pesto (above)
  • 250g good quality dried pasta
  • 100g chorizo sausage
  • 100g artichoke hearts in olive oil
  • Parmesan
  • Salt, pepper, and olive oil

This is a really quick meal, if you’ve made the pesto ahead of time. (You could of course use pesto from a jar, but the result will be more ‘everyday family supper’ than ‘gastro treat’!)

Get a big pan of water boiling rapidly, and add a big pinch of sea salt and a glug of olive oil, before adding the pasta. I’ve said this before, but if you’re not in the habit of buying the really good, Italian, dried pasta, please do give it a go. Yes, it’s about twice as expensive as the supermarket own-brand stuff, but pasta is such a cheap ingredient that you’re really only talking an extra pound, or less, per pack. The difference is really striking – the cooked texture is much better, with a nice bite without going stodgy. The other mistake that many people make when cooking pasta is trying to cook it in too little, under-salted water. Use your biggest pan, the pasta loves plenty of space to move around. And don’t overcook it for goodness’ sake!

Thinly slice your chorizoAs soon as your pasta goes on, thinly slice your chorizo, and fry it gently in a frying pan, turning regularly, until it starts going crispy. Then set aside. Slice your artichoke hearts into segments, if they’re not that way already. Once your pasta is cooked, drain it, reserving about half a mug of the cooking water. Put the cooked pasta back in the pan, and pour over a glug of the seasoned olive oil from the artichoke jar, and toss them around so they don’t stick.

Now, quickly, mix in the pesto (about a desert spoon per person), the fried chorizo and the artichoke hearts, and some of the pasta water if you feel a bit of extra moisture is required. Shave over some nice curls of parmesan (you don’t need a special tool for this, a perfectly ordinary vegetable peeler works just fine!), a sprinkle of freshly ground black pepper, and serve immediately.

Pesto pasta ready to serve

Doesn’t it look mouthwatering? It tastes just as good as it looks, with wonderful peppery punchy aromatic freshness from the home-made pesto. Yes, the raw garlic is likely to hang around on the breath for a bit – you could use roast garlic instead but you’d sacrifice the hot bite that it contributes. Don’t leave out the anchovies, please, even if you don’t think you like them – they just augment the salty savouriness of the parmesan cheese (really effectively actually!), there’s nothing ‘fishy’ about this pesto, I promise! The cooked chorizo pieces have a lovely sweetness to them, and the artichoke hearts add a nice mild freshness.

This pesto is, I must admit, very similar to my previous home-made pesto recipe, except for the addition of the anchovies, which is inspired. It’s a small improvement but little incremental variations like this are so often the difference between ‘good’ and ‘fabulous’.

James Martin - cover**
Easy Every Day, by James Martin
Mitchell Beazley, 2012 (paperback edition)
ISBN 978-1-84533-667-7
Soft cover, 304 pages, full colour. RRP £14.99.

[Full disclosure: This book was autographed and given to me as part of a masterclass I attended with James Martin, which was a competition prize in 2012. I suppose, in some respects, it might be considered a review copy! I do not have an amazon affiliate account and do not profit from any links provided.]

James Martin - page viewThis book is actually a re-collection of recipes from two of James Martin’s older books, ‘Delicious!’ and ‘Eating in with James Martin’. There’s some really good stuff here – from pasta dishes like this one, and risottos, to lovely meat and fish recipes, breads, sweet treats, and even some preserves. There’s also a useful set of menu suggestions at the back, which makes picking three complementary courses for a special dinner a bit of a doddle.

Frontispiece - autographThe editorial slant is towards dishes that don’t require protracted preparation, and while in a lot of cases that gives lovely, simple, fresh results, there are some ingredients in use here, such as prepared tomato-flavoured pasta sauces for pizza toppings, which just feel like a shortcut too far for me; they’re not in my kitchen cupboards, I don’t like them – over-sweet and cloying – and I’m not going to be buying them just because James Martin says so!

That said, this is a minor gripe, really, in what is generally a really excellent collection of approachable recipes with a definite ‘wow’ factor. If you’re looking for a recipe book to help you find the confidence for dinner party entertaining – as well as some very posh family suppers! – this may be a good place to start.

‘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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Rhubarb Cocktails, from The River Cottage Year – Cooking the Books, week 15

Against the grain of this blog series, the recipe for this week is actually one that has been a regular pleasure going back all the way to my university days! I remember treating myself to this book, at about this time of year. It was an indulgence on my student budget, and a distraction, I suspect, from upcoming exams!

Love it or hate it (this is a bone of contention in my marriage – Hubby thinks it’s the Devil’s vegetable), it’s rhubarb season! This rhubarb syrup is delicate and fruity with subtle floral notes, and makes a glorious cocktail ingredient. It’s simplicity itself to make, too, and will keep in a jar or bottle in the fridge for longer than it will take you to drink it all (about a month, according to the recipe, but I’ve never managed to test this!).

You will need –

  • Rhubarb syrup ingredients400 – 500g of trimmed rhubarb (the pale pink forced rhubarb is fine, if that’s what’s available locally, and will produce a lovely syrup with a more delicate colour)
  • ~100g of sugar (I used golden granulated, but white sugar would be fine)
  • 2 oranges

Chop your rhubarb into ~1″ chunks and put them in a saucepan. Add the juice of your oranges (I ended up using three because they were disappointingly un-juicy ones) and four tablespoons of sugar.

Stew the rhubarb until soft

Stew the rhubarb gently until soft, then strain it. You can eat the rhubarb after straining if you like – it’s very tasty with ice cream, and waste not want not! Pour the syrup into a clean bottle or jam jar and stick it in the fridge to chill until you’re ready to use it.

Strain the stewed rhubarb  Strained syrup  Store in a jam jar in the fridge

My favourite way of using this syrup is mixed with sparkling wine to make a rhubarb bellini – a ratio of syrup to fizz of about 1:4 seems perfect for me, and makes a fresh, cheerful cocktail with one of the unmistakable tastes of spring. It would make a lovely little aperitif, I think – how about making it this Easter?

Rhubarb Bellini

Through my student years I’ve taken little bottles of this nectar to a few parties, and experimented with some different (and, indeed, ‘different’!) variations. I can report it’s good with almost everything, but do beware, mixed with ice cold vodka, this is glorious, and far more quaffable than is really good for anyone!

River Cottage Year - cover**
The River Cottage Year, by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
Hodder and Stoughton, 2003
ISBN 978-0-340-828212
Hardcover, 256 pages, full colour. RRP £18.99.

[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.]

Full of highly seasonal recipes for garden produce and hedgerow ingredients, of course I was going to be drawn to this book. It’s a smaller book than many of the River Cottage tomes, but none the worse for it in my opinion.

River Cottage Year - page viewIf you grow your own, or shop at farmers markets, then this will give you some great inspiration for how to use your produce at it’s best and freshest, month by month. It’s not a vegetarian book, but with veggies the really obvious seasonal ingredients, there’s inevitably a fruit and veggies bias to the recipes, which, in a world where we’re now supposed to be eating seven-a-day, is probably no bad thing!

If you’re vegetarian, or cook for one regularly, I would definitely recommend you give this book a look. An honourable mention for fresh seafood dishes, too, which look stunning – unfortunately, living in the Midlands, these are of limited use to me at the moment. You never know, this may change..!

Really, what’s not to like?

‘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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Microwave ‘Roast’ Garlic – and a gorgeous roast garlic and rosemary bread

I was looking for a garlic flatbread recipe yesterday (as you do!) and came across a very intriguing suggestion… that it was possible to ‘roast’ garlic in the microwave, in just a few minutes. Could it be true? If it was, it would save quite significantly on the time and energy involved in roasting in the oven – typically 45 minutes to an hour, fine if you’re organised and remember to put your little tinfoil parcels in with something else, but irritating and inefficient if you find yourself wanting some right now!

The instructions I’d found were only a tantalising hint, unfortunately – vague on both the technique and on power and timings. So I had a little google, and discovered that apparently lots of people were doing very similar things. Convinced now that I was reinventing the wheel, and that everyone else already knew about this trick and just hadn’t bothered to tell me, I tweeted to this effect. What was said in response surprised me – apparently, no one else had heard about it, either. So, I promised to investigate and then blog my findings. True to my word then, here goes!

Obviously, you’re not really roasting the garlic, since this requires the application of direct heat. Consequently you won’t get the caramelisation which true oven-roasted garlic gains (well, you can, but more of this later!). The process is closer to steaming, but produces a soft, sweet, cooked garlic very suitable for using as a substitute for true roasted garlic if you’re short on time and organisation – and there are ways to cheat the last mile and get that caramelisation, too.

For your microwave ‘roast’ garlic, you require –

  • Ready to 'roast'One or more garlic bulbs (I suggest you start with one, until you’re happy with the process),
  • A splash of water and olive oil,
  • A microwave proof dish with suitable loose-fitting lid (or some cling film), and
  • A microwave, obviously.

Slice the top off your bulb of garlic, at a level where you’re just ‘scalping’ all of the cloves of garlic inside.

Add 2 or 3 tablespoons of water to the bottom of your bowl (enough to cover the bottom about 5mm deep), add your clove of garlic cut side up, and drizzle over some olive oil. Cover loosely – don’t seal, and if you’re using cling film, leave a small opening on one side. Pop the whole lot in your microwave.

Now – all of these directions are for *my* microwave, which is a very standard UK-type category E (800W) device. Your microwave may be slightly (or very!) different – even if it claims to be the same – so a little experimentation is going to be required!

Softened and changed colourStart by heating the garlic for 1 minute on full power. Then take it out of the microwave, remove the cover (carefully, as there will be a lot of steam!) and give the cut surface of the garlic a speculative prod with the point of your knife. It should give very slightly, and have changed colour subtly from white to a slightly translucent creamy shade.

It probably isn’t convincingly soft yet, though, so pop it back in the microwave and this time give it 30 seconds on full. Take it back out and repeat the poking process. Depending on the size of the cloves in your garlic, it may well be ready by now. If the surface of the garlic seems reasonably soft (it won’t be pulpy), and the cloves are coming away from their inner skin, then it’s worth popping a clove out to test.

If you can crush the clove easily with the handle of a spoon, then it’s done. If not then give it a little longer. My bulb had a couple of quite big juicy cloves, so I put it back in, but only for a final 15s. So total time in the microwave, for me, of 1 minute and 45 seconds.

Crush a clove to test

After letting it cool for a few minutes, I popped out one of the bigger cloves, and it squashed really easily. Job done.

Taste a little piece – it has become quite unlike raw garlic, instead mild, sweet and aromatic, just like roast garlic. Yes, it lacks a little note of caramelisation – but we’ll get to that!

Here’s the really important thing. ONCE THE GARLIC IS SOFT, STOP!

Burnt garlic bulbBecause, these photos aren’t from my first attempt. The first attempt I made turned out like this. I gave it two initial 1 minute blasts in the microwave, and so pleased was I with the progress it got another 30 seconds. A nice toasted smell started to develop, and a golden colour on the edge of the garlic. I was delighted. Right up until I gave it a poke and it was rock hard. So let my mistake stand for all of you, and we won’t have to sacrifice too many perfectly innocent garlic bulbs!

What do you do with it now? Well, if you want something closer to ‘real’ roasted garlic, heat up your oven, wrap up your garlic in a little tinfoil parcel with an extra drizzle of olive oil, and bake it for 10 – 15 minutes at 180C until it takes a little colour. Much quicker! An even ‘cheatier’ approach might be to heat a little olive oil in a frying pan and just brown off the cut surface gently until golden. No one will ever know!

But most of the time, roast garlic is going into something else, anyway. As I said, all of this came about because I wanted to make some garlic bread to go with pasta for dinner. The one I chose to make is based on this recipe from BBC food.

To make one roast garlic and rosemary bread (serves four generously as a side dish) –

  • Dough ingredients250g strong white bread flour
  • 150ml warm water
  • 1 (7g) sachet of dried yeast
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 1 bulb of garlic, ‘roasted’ as above
  • 75g unsalted butter
  • 3 or 4 sprigs of fresh rosemary
  • A generous pinch each of salt and freshly ground pepper

Kneaded dough before rising

Weigh your flour into a bowl, and make a well in the centre. In a measuring jug, combine the water, oil, sugar and yeast, and stir in gently. Now pour the liquid, a little at a time, into the flour, and combine into a dough.

Knead the dough for about 5 minutes, until it becomes silky and elastic, and set aside to rise at room temperature in an oiled bowl until well risen about tripled in size is ideal). This will take an hour or so, more if your room temperature is low!

Crush your garlicIn the meantime, you can prepare your microwave ‘roast’ garlic as described earlier, and allow it to cool. Once you can handle the garlic comfortably, pop all the cloves out of the bulb and crush them with the flat blade of a knife, leaving a little texture (you’re not making garlic puree).

Chop rosemaryFinely chop your rosemary (stalks removed), and mix this, the garlic, salt & pepper into your softened butter. My butter lives at room temperature, but if yours is coming out of the fridge, a 10s blast in the microwave (with foil wrapper removed!) will soften it up and make it easier to work with. You’re pretty much all set, so go and do something else while the bread dough rises.

Well risen dough and herb butterOnce your dough is well risen, find a baking sheet or shallow-sided baking tray and line it with baking parchment. Tip the dough out onto a well oiled work-surface, and knock it back gently, shaping it to the size and shape of your baking sheet. It will be quite a thin layer, probably about 1cm thick. It doesn’t need to be perfect and I certainly wouldn’t use a rolling pin, you should be able to stretch and shape it with your hands just fine. Transfer carefully to the baking sheet – it doesn’t matter if it gets a bit ‘crumpled’ looking!

Shaped dough with butterNow spread your flavoured butter over the surface. Again, use your fingers, blobs and knobs are fine, you’re not aiming for an effect like icing a cake, but try and share the butter around reasonably evenly. Finally, stab the bread all over with a fork, and leave to prove for another 30 minutes or so until the dough is looking a little puffed up again.

When you’re happy, heat your oven to 230C and once it’s up to temperature, slide in the baking sheet. You’ll want to watch this bread reasonably carefully, because it’s quite thin and will bake reasonably quickly, and there’s a risk of the garlic burning and taking on a bitter flavour if your oven has nasty hot-spots (mine does, sadly!). Turn the bread if you notice it starting to brown unevenly. Don’t hesitate to turn the oven down to ~190C if the surface seems to be browning too fast. It should take about 15 minutes to be lovely and golden brown all over.

Bread fresh from the oven

This was a glorious accompaniment to a pasta supper. The garlic acquires all of that sweet caramelised flavour during the baking of the bread, so there’s no loss at all from the microwave roasting process compared to a more traditional approach. After baking, the garlic is sweet and aromatic with none of the raw hot flavour you get have from raw garlic in garlic bread. I will definitely be making this one again.

And serve!There are some obvious variations, which I think would work very well with this bread. Adding some finely chopped, caramelised red onions to the butter would work very well, I think. You could also throw a handful of grated parmesan into the butter mix, which would melt beautifully into the surface. You’re really in pizza-bread territory here, and the world is your oyster! Experiment!

The microwave garlic roasting technique is the real star of this show, for me, though. One of those accidental discoveries which really will change the way I cook. I recommend you give it a try!

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Taming the Tomato Glut – Part 7: finally, putting it on ice!

Now that's what you call a glut!

In the end, there’s always the freezer…

At the end of October, I had the last few bowls of tomatoes I hadn’t managed to preserve, eat, or give away, and we were on our way to Cornwall for a week. They weren’t going to survive until our return, so it was time for desperate measures.

Freezing is a great food preservation technique – maintaining all the freshness and nutritional value of your home-grown fruit and vegetables. This comes at some cost to texture, undoubtedly, but usually in ways that are irrelevant if you’re going to cook the veggies anyway. Preparation is generally quick and straightforward – certainly compared to preserving, bottling or pickling. Of course the limiting factor is always the space available in the freezer, which for me, despite the obvious advantages, tends to make freezing my preserving technique of last resort.

Wash & trim tomatoesI needed to get these tomatoes stored with as little faff as possible – I had a holiday to get started! – so I chose the simplest of all solutions.

Wash your tomatoes and discard any which are spoiled, trimming any minor damage. Remove their little green hats. Then, a batch at a time, just pulse them very quickly in a food processor enough to break them up.

Chop in food processorYou’re not trying to reduce them to pulp, just roughly chop to release enough juice that they will freeze as a solid ‘brick’ of tomato flesh and juice.

This leaves the skins and seeds in, which I know some will disapprove of. Personally I struggle to be offended by tomato skins – really, life’s too short to be peeling tomatoes! You will hear that chopping tomatoes in a food processor will break up the seeds and release a bitter flavour – while this may be the case if you’re trying to blend to a smooth texture, I’m pretty sure hardly any of seeds are damaged with such a short chop.

Pint measureDecide on your freezing volume – I chose to freeze these a pint at a time, in retrospect that was too much for us, since I’m usually just cooking for me and Hubby, and when I do this again in future I will probably freeze at least some in half-pint volumes for greater convenience.

Bag up your tomatoes, excluding all the air when you seal the bag, label the bags and tuck away in the deep freeze until you need them.

Ready for freezing

You can use these for more or less anything, to be honest. Allow them to thaw out, and use them in place of fresh tomatoes, for example in the recipe for roasted tomatoes with chicken and pasta. Passed through a mouli, you have a batch of fresh passata ready to go straight away – and thus remove the skins and seeds, if they offend your delicate sensibilities! You can also use them directly as a substitute for chopped tinned tomatoes in chillies and pasta sauces – I used some in the puttanesca sauce I made recently, and they were excellent. I can’t however recommend trying to eat them raw – the texture is altered by freezing and while the flavour is lovely and fresh, it would be a bit like putting tinned tomatoes in your salad!

Serve!

Well, folks, that’s it for last year’s tomato glut (I know, I know…)! It’s taken me a while to finish writing these posts up – hopefully they’ll be of use to my Southern hemisphere readers pretty soon, at least! But I still have jars and bottles of passata, tomato and chilli chutney, and green tomato chutney in the larder, ‘sun dried’ tomatoes in a jar in the kitchen, and a couple more bags of frozen tomatoes in the freezer. Even in the depths of winter, I can enjoy my summer’s produce, a genuine taste of bottled sunshine, and that makes it all utterly worthwhile!

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Chicken Breast with Spaghetti Puttanesca, from ‘Food Lovers: Chicken’ – Cooking the Books, week 4

This week, my choice of recipe was guided by the fact I have two chicken breasts in the fridge that need eating today. Which, if you think about it, is an ordinary enough problem in a country where chicken breast portions are some of the most popular cuts of meat bought daily in our supermarkets.

Chicken breast portionsNow, I would normally buy a whole chicken and portion it up myself, but for reasons not worth going into here, on this occasion I’m the ‘proud’ owner of these two rather aggressively trimmed, skinless and boneless breast pieces. And I can immediately think of at least a dozen things to do with them, too – the trouble is, it’s Thursday, and I’m due to do a Cooking the Books post, so none of my usual go-to recipes will do, I need to find something different from among the extensive cookbook collection.

Cross-legged on the floor by the bookcase, I must have gone through at least half a dozen of my favourite books – Jamie Oliver, Nigel Slater, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and even the Two Fat Ladies all let me down, their chicken breast recipes either variations on something I already regularly make – and prefer my version to theirs – or requiring an exciting range of exotic ingredients which aren’t in my kitchen cupboards and which, I suspect, I might have had trouble finding in our local village co-op!

So, down to my second string of cookbook options, the ‘collections’ – Good Housekeeping, Australian Woman’s Own, even the National Trust, and found the same problems here, too. What was going on? And then I spotted a paperback book which, I have to say, I’d forgotten we own, but the spine caught my attention, saying simply ‘Chicken’. Here, surely, would be the answer I was looking for?

Inside page viewI can’t remember whether this book came to us as a gift, or as a remaindered-bin find, but I’m pretty sure I haven’t cooked from it before. A flick through, though, came up with the goods – a recipe for spaghetti puttanesca with chicken breast. Perfect, a taste of summer for a winter supper, and because the recipe called for fresh cherry tomatoes as the base for the sauce, an opportunity to substitute some of my chopped and frozen home-grown tomatoes.

A quick read of the recipe instructions, however, immediately started to raise some doubts.  For instance, the second instruction, after ‘Heat the oven to 400F’, is ‘Cook the spaghetti according to the package instructions’. Before you’ve started to do anything with the raw chicken. So, you either have the slowest-cooking pasta known to mankind, or it’s going to be a nasty overcooked mush before your chicken is half-way to being safe to eat. Not an auspicious start. Still, the recipe for the most part seemed worth trying, caveat coquus

To serve two, you need to get together the following ingredients –

  • Assemble your ingredientsTwo chicken breast fillets, skinless and boneless
  • Six anchovy fillets
  • Two smallish cloves of garlic
  • 50g of black olives
  • 250g of fresh tomatoes (mine were home grown, roughly chopped and frozen last year, but fresh cherry tomatoes, halved, would be fine, or you could even use a tin)
  • A handful of sun-dried tomatoes (optional)
  • Dried rosemary, thyme and oregano
  • Chilli flakes
  • 200 g of decent italian dried spaghetti
  • Salt and pepper
  • Olive oil
  • Butter
  • Balsamic vinegar, or better, elderberry vinegar

Put the oven on to heat at 180 C.

Fry the anchovy, garlic and chilliIn a frying pan, heat a tablespoon or two of olive oil. Mince up four anchovies, and the garlic, and add these to the pan with about a quarter of a teaspoon of the dried chilli flakes. Fry until slightly browning, then add a teaspoon each of dried thyme and oregano, and about half a teaspoon of rosemary.

Chicken ready to go in the ovenSlice the chicken fillets in half to make four half-thickness fillets, and mix these with the herbs and flavours in the pan, coating evenly, and fry lightly on both sides, until just golden. Then transfer the chichen to an oven proof dish, with all the tasty extras, and put it in the oven.

Return the frying pan to the hob, add a little more olive oil and a knob of butter, and once this has melted, the fresh tomatoes. Here I deviate from the recipe in the book, quite significantly and without apology. The tomato sauce in the recipe is just fresh tomatoes, red wine, olives, salt & pepper.  I think it needs a little more than that to stand up to the highly-flavoured chicken fillets.

Fresh and dried tomatoesAdd the sun-dried tomatoes if you’re using these. They make a great addition if your fresh tomatoes are chopped, like mine, or if you’re using tinned tomatoes, as they’ll add texture to the final dish as well as the lovely sweet flavour. Mine are the dry type (home-made!), which you can add directly. If yours are in oil, drain as well as you can before adding.

Now, you can boil the kettle and get the pasta going. Use a big pan with lots of salted water and a glug of oil to keep the pasta from sticking.

Mince another two anchovies, and add these to the tomato in the frying pan, along with a sprinkle of thyme and oregano, and a pinch of chilli flakes. Once this has cooked down a little, add about half a glass of red wine. Keep tasting this tomato sauce as it’s the only way you’ll get it right. Tomato sauces often need a lift in the sugar and acid department, and my favourite way of adding this is by using a splash of vinegar – balsamic is great, but home-made elderberry vinegar is better! Add a pinch of freshly ground black pepper, if you think it needs it.

Finished sauceAt this stage, notice that your olives aren’t pitted, and swear under your breath. Squeeze out the stones, while keeping a close eye on the spaghetti, to make sure it’s not over-cooking, and on the sauce, to check it’s reducing nicely to a rich dark colour. Chop the olives roughly, and add them to the tomato sauce to heat through.

Mix pasta with sauceDrain the pasta and mix it into the tomato and olive sauce.  Take the chicken out of the oven, and check it’s cooked through (since you sliced it in half, it should be nicely done, cooked through but not dry). Serve the pasta in wide bowls, with the chicken on top, pouring over any pan juices from the chicken. Serve with a sprinkle of freshly grated parmesan.

So – the verdict? This is a properly decent pasta dish, with or without the chicken, but the chicken, pan-fried and finished in the oven with all those great flavours, is tender and really very good. I recommend this dish to you. Sadly I can’t say the same about the cookbook!

Serve!

**
Food Lovers: Chicken by various authors.
Recipes selected by Jonnie Léger. Images & Recipes by StockFood©.
Transatlantic Press, 2011. ISBN 978-1-907176-80-7.
400 pages. RRP £16.99.

[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.]

Chicken - cover shotThis is pretty much a ‘copy and paste’ effort of a cookbook, and I can’t honestly recommend you buy it. I may have been unlucky with the recipe I chose, but if the checking and proof reading standards are this unpredictable, I would bet on problems with other recipes, too. It’s quite a pretty book, in fairness, a nicely photographed large format paperback, and I’m sure there are some gems in among the 200 recipes featured, but I can’t see it being worth the hit and miss effort required to find them. And anyway, I rather suspect most of these recipes are probably available on the internet, in places like Epicurious.

So, probably not one to add to the collection – and as there seem to be others in the ‘Food Lovers’ series, I’d give those a miss, too.

‘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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Taming the Tomato Glut – Part 6: Grandma’s green tomato chutney

I remember my grandmother making her green tomato chutney, towards the end of the summer holidays, when it was clear that the best of the ripening days for the tomatoes she lovingly grew outdoors, on the patio, were over. After her death, my mother transcribed some of her hand-written recipes for my sister and I – including the green tomato chutney recipe.

Now that's what you call a glut!

Back at the end of last summer, I had rather a lot of green tomatoes.  So I went and had a dig around the darker, dustier recesses of my laptop hard disk, and retrieved the text files containing Grandma’s recipes, and hidden among them, sure enough, was this –

GREEN TOMATO CHUTNEY

3lb green tomatoes, 2lb cooking apples, 3/4lb sultanas. 1oz ground black pepper, 4 tbs salt, 1 quart malt vinegar, 1lb Demerara sugar, 1/2 oz mustard seeds, pinch cayenne pepper

Peel and slice tomatoes. Cut up apples. Chop sultanas. Put in enamelled saucepan with remaining ingredients. Boil gently for 2 hours, stirring constantly until chutney gets dark and tomatoes and apples are well cooked. Bottle when cool.

The main thing that struck me about this recipe was the lack of any onions – honestly, I can’t remember whether Grandma used them or not, but I expect onions in a chutney recipe! I made a couple of other, more minor modifications, too (Sorry, Grandma!), and scaled the recipe up to use as many of the green tomatoes as possible.

This, it turns out, was a mistake – the quantity I made was totally impractical, took forever to cook down, and almost ended in disaster, more of which later. Really, I can’t recommend making more than half this batch size. Even if, like me, you have a really big stock pot. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

For my chutney, I used –

  • Cooking apples3 kg green tomatoes
  • 2 kg cooking apples
  • 1 kg onions
  • 1 kg Demerara sugar
  • 2 l malt vinegar
  • 750g dried vine fruits (I used a mix of raisins & sultanas)
  • 2 tbsp freshly ground pepper
  • 1 tbsp sea salt
  • 1 tbsp yellow mustard seeds
  • 1 tsp cayenne pepper

Life is too short to peel tomatoes (especially 3kg of them!) and I was cooking on a work night, so it was too short to lovingly chop them by hand, too! Out with the food processor, and rough-chop all the tomatoes, onions, and apples, before putting them in the stock pot with the rest of the wet and dry ingredients.

Chopped green tomatoes  Chopped onions  Ingredients mixed at start of cooking

And now, just simmer it, slowly, for what – with a batch of this size! – will be a very very long time! I had to give up and go to bed, fitting a tight lid to the pan, and finished cooking the chutney the following evening. This is one very good reason not to make such a giant batch at once.

The other, of course, is that you will require an enormous quantity of jars (with plastic lined lids, or they’ll corrode from the vinegar – mind you, I can’t remember the last time I was an un-lined jar lid!). While I was sorting these out, I took my eye off the pot, and the inevitable  happened – the chutney caught on the bottom of the pan, and started to burn.

Finished chutneyDisaster! I panicked a bit, and then with Hubby’s help, decanted most of the chutney into any available container, leaving the burned stuff on the bottom of the pan. After a damn good scrub, we were back in business, though I remained convinced for the rest of the cooking time that I could taste the burnt flavour in the chutney. This paranoia wasn’t helped by the highly visible flecks of black pepper in the mix, which my brain kept insisting on seeing as burnt bits.

I very nearly threw the whole lot in the bin, but a bit of gentle encouragement that I’d done all the work now anyway convinced me to bottle it anyway and hope for the best. I deviated from Grandma’s instructions again here and bottled hot, into hot oven-sterilised jars, as I usually do. Now all that was left to do was to leave the chutney to mature for a couple of months.

Served-up

This (and wanting to make sure this tale had a happy ending!) is the reason for the delay in writing up this recipe. I’m really pleased with the result – after maturing I’m pretty sure it doesn’t taste burnt, and is a lovely gentle fruity chutney, with a lovely black pepper warmth, which goes brilliantly with cheese, ham, and even curries!

So this year, at the end of the home-grown tomato season, why not make a batch? But, promise me, make it a smaller one?

As for me, I’m still really curious about the outcome of making the recipe as written – so perhaps this year I’ll make a test batch of the onion-free version. Who knows, it may be a revelation?

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Taming the Tomato Glut – Part 5: roasted tomato sauce

With apologies now, to all but my antipodean readers – the tomato glut, and the long hot days of summer, seem a long way behind us, but there were a couple of recipes that fell through the cracks, for one reason or another. Hopefully they’ll be of use to you later this year!

Lay out on baking trayThis is a great little recipe for using up those slightly over-ripe tomatoes that inevitably start to pile up once the harvest really gets going.

You will need –

  • Home grown tomatoes (about 1kg here)
  • Three garlic cloves
  • Two or three bay leaves
  • Sea salt, mixed dried italian-type herbs

Trim out any obvious damage and discard any that are really ‘over’, cut the tomatoes into even pieces, and lay the tomatoes out in a single layer on a baking sheet.

After roastingTuck the cloves of garlic in amongst them, and snuggle the bay leaves underneath, sprinkle over a little sea salt and a few mixed herbs, and roast in the oven at 180 C for 30 to 40 minutes until you’re starting to see some browning to the skins.

Pass through a mouliDiscard the bay leaves and put the rest through a mouli with the fine filter fitted (or push through a sieve with the back of a spoon, if you don’t mind the labour!). This will hold back the skins and seeds and allow just the beautiful smooth sweet tomato pulp through.

Done! How simple is that?

I started with around 1kg of lovely ripe home-grown tomatoes, and ended up with about 350ml of sauce, which may not seem like much but all the flavour and sweetness is concentrated right down into that sauce. I asked Hubby to taste a spoonful and he thought it tasted like tomato soup – and certainly you could let it down with a little bit of vegetable stock, maybe add a sprinkle of fresh basil, and enjoy it just as it is! I made lasagne with it, and it was perfectly wonderful.

Finished sauce

If you wanted to make a big batch, for keeping into the winter, you could bottle and pasteurise for storage just like the fresh passata. I wish I had, now! I could just do with some roasted bottled sunshine!

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Courgette or Zucchini – this is a pickle you will relish!

Not so very long ago, though it’s hard to believe it now, the long hot days of summer were with us and the vegetable garden was in full flood. As well as the tomato glut, I did end up with a few more courgettes than I knew what to do with.

Garden-fresh courgettes

Now, I absolutely abhor the idea of wasting food I’ve gone to the trouble of growing – but I struggled a little to work out what to do with a kilo of courgettes all needing using up at once! Pickles, of course, are the almost-universal solution to making tasty preserves from gluts of vegetables. So I had a flick through some of my cookbooks, and when that didn’t turn up anything I particularly fancied, I did what we all do and turned to the blogosphere. The pickled courgettes I eventually made are based on this recipe for zucchini pickles, from Lottie + Doof.

For my quantities of courgettes,  I used –

  • 1kg of garden courgettes, mixed sizes (smaller ones are better, but use what you have!)
  • Two small onions
  • 6 tbsp sea salt
  • 1l of cider vinegar
  • 300g of golden caster sugar
  • 3 tsp of mustard powder (Colman’s, of course)
  • 3 tsp whole mustard seeds, lightly crushed in a pestle and mortar
  • 2 tsp of powdered turmeric

The dreaded mandolinYou will also need a mandolin (unless you’re both very patient and a remarkably precise slicer of vegetables), a mixing bowl, sterilised jars with plastic-lined lids (my quantities filled two 1lb jars perfectly), and a salad spinner (if you have one) or a clean tea-towel.

Sliced courgettesSet the mandolin about 1.5mm thick, and then use it slice up all the courgettes, lengthways or slightly on the diagonal, using the guard and taking great care not to also slice your fingers! I’m quite terrified of my mandolin (reasonably, I think!) and I really have to psych myself up to use it, but for a recipe like this there really is no alternative.

Sliced vegetables with saltThen peel the onions, and put them through the mandolin on the same setting. Once all your vegetables are sliced, mix them together in a bowl with the 6 tablespoons of sea salt (yes, I know it seems like a lot, don’t worry, it’s not staying in the finished product!), and top up with ice cold water, mixing gently until the salt is all dissolved. Add some ice cubes if needed to keep the temperature down, and put to one side for about an hour.

Pickling vinegarWhile the sliced courgettes are marinading in their brine, prepare the pickling vinegar, combining the vinegar, sugar, mustard powder, mustard seeds and turmeric powder in a saucepan, and bring to a simmer for two or three minutes.  Then allow the vinegar to cool to room temperature (you can speed this process up by immersing the pan in a sink of cold water). It’s a rather ghastly colour, but don’t be put off!

In the salad spinnerBack to our courgettes – once they’ve sat in the salt water for an hour or so, you can taste one of the pieces, which should be quite crisp and gently salted.  Drain off the salt water and then, using the salad spinner if you have one, finish getting them as dry as possible. If you haven’t got a salad spinner, dry them carefully in small batches in a folded tea towel, trying not to damage or break them if possible.

Mix the vinegar and vegetablesFinally, combine the cold vinegar with the courgette and onion in a bowl and mix carefully, before packing the mixture into sterilised jars. There may be extra vinegar, which you can discard (unless you can think of something really creative to do with it!).  Refrigerate for at least a day before tasting, but longer is better.

I started the first jar more or less straight away, in the spirit of experimentation, but the second I kept unopened for Christmas. It’s a very good pickle, pretty much immediately after making. It has a definite sweetness and I think I might reduce the sugar a little in future batches. The mustard flavour is present, but quite soft and subtle. The onion, too, is clearly present but not overwhelming, and tastes less ‘raw’ as the pickle matures. I don’t know whether I would bother with quite so much turmeric, next time, but it does give a very pretty colour to the finished pickle. It’s great with burgers and sausages, and goes particularly well in a salt beef sandwich.

Pickled courgettes on toasted sandwich

I must admit, writing up this recipe had rather fallen through the cracks until I had some yesterday with a wonderful grilled ham and cheese open sandwich. It is *just* fabulous, the icing on the cake of a wonderful lunch made from wonderful things – home-made sourdough, home-cured ham, and even our homegrown ‘sundried’ tomatoes. The mustard note takes this from comfort food to pure gourmet delight.  It’s quite wonderful.

So next summer, when you’re faced with a courgette glut, or find some lovely fresh courgettes in your local market, grab them and make this pickle. You won’t regret it!

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