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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Like a Rocket – summer glut-busting: wild rocket pesto

Summer days are here at last, and for those of us who grow our own fruit and vegetables, that means the summer gluts are starting, too. Wild rocket is really very easy to grow, which is great, as the sad little plastic salad bags at the supermarket cost a small fortune! Even if you only have space for a window box or a pot on a sunny doorstep, you’re quite likely to be able to grow more of this really punchy, peppery salad leaf than you can bear to eat in salad. Even better, wild rocket is perennial, which means that you only have to plant it once and it will come back, year after year. In the garden of our last house, we ended up with a big clump of wild rocket growing at the edge of the lawn which served us for many years.

A few weeks ago, I transplanted three rather sad looking overwintered plants from an exhausted grow-bag into one of the raised beds in my poly-tunnel. And look what happened!

Wild rocket

There you go, straight away – more rocket than I can possibly eat! And then, I thought – I wonder if I can make pesto with this stuff? It’s punchy, peppery, and in many respects quite like basil, so I was hopeful. A quick search around the internet confirmed my suspicions that it should be possible, so I got picking.

For my batch of pesto, which filled an average-sized jam jar with a little to spare, I used –

  • 120g of freshly picked wild rocket leaves. To give you a rough idea of how much rocket that is, the supermarket packs of rocket leaves are usually between 50g and 70g.
  • Washed & dried rocket3 large cloves of garlic
  • 50g pine kernels, lightly toasted in a dry frying pan
  • 50g good quality parmesan cheese
  • Plenty of good extra virgin olive oil
  • One lemon
  • A pinch of salt

Wash your rocket, removing tougher stems and any flower stalks, and dry it in a salad spinner (or give it a really good shake in a colander with a plate over the top).

You can make this pesto in a pestle and mortar (in fact, it’s my favourite way of making small batches of basil pesto, as you keep closer control over the texture and you’re much less likely to over process) but given the quantities I used my food processor for this batch. First, blitz the garlic cloves with a pinch of salt until they’re finely chopped down. Then add the parmesan, and reduce to crumbs, before adding the pine kernels. Aim to retain some texture in the pine kernels, you’re not trying to purée them!

Once that’s done, add the rocket, a handful at a time, adding some olive oil as you go if the mix gets a bit dry. Aim to retain a little texture in the mix.

Rocket pesto after processing

Once it looks like this, squeeze in the juice of half a lemon, mix well, and add oil until it reaches the texture you prefer. Taste – you’ll find it punchy, peppery, and pungent – and add more lemon juice if you feel it’s needed. You won’t need to add pepper – trust me on this! – but you may want to add a little more salt at this stage, too.

The pesto will store for a few days in a screw-top jar in the refrigerator. Keep the surface covered with a layer of olive oil to prevent oxidation. If you want to store your pesto for longer, you can freeze it in an ice cube tray, and take it out in single-serve portions. How clever is that?

Pesto in jar

Use your rocket pesto any way you would use the basil kind. It’s wonderful stirred through pasta or, particularly, gnocchi. Add a few little dabs to the top of your pizza before baking. Or spread it on burger buns as a punchy, peppery relish.

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Hugh’s on the Warpath – but is bin-shaming really the way to tackle food waste?

Last night the indefatigable Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall launched onto British television screens with a new crusade, ‘Hugh’s War On Waste’. After taking aim in previous campaigns at factory farming of poultry and against the practice of discarding fish catches at sea, this time his target is the vast scale of food waste in our homes and in the supermarket supply chain.

Let me start by saying, first of all, that I completely agree with Hugh’s view that food waste (and waste generally in our society, whether that’s disposable fashion or indiscriminate upgrading to the latest electronic gadget) is a disgrace. Perfectly edible food is wasted in the supermarket supply chain, downgraded for failing to meet the ‘Stepford Vegetable’ cosmetic standards the supermarkets insist that the British Housewife demands, or thrown in a skip when past the sell-by date. The food that makes it home with us is scarcely better off, discarded from our kitchens by the bag-full, whether this is misguidedly premature, led by confusion about food safety advice and the best-before date conundrum, or genuinely putrid, neglected and forgotten in the back of our fridges and the bottom of our fruit bowls, the victim of overbuying and poor meal planning.

Processed meat selectionThese two things, it seems to me, are very different problems; I think naming and shaming supermarkets (and other food businesses) for abusive contracts and wasteful supply chain practices is entirely worthwhile – they’ve shown that they don’t like having daylight shone on their dodgier business practices in the past – and has potential not just to reduce waste, but also to improve the situation of their farm suppliers, but I’m not all sure that rooting through people’s wheely bins on telly and shaming them for throwing away food is likely to have any useful effect on waste from homes.

Why? Well, people throw away food essentially for one reason – because they believe it’s ‘off’, and not good to eat.

Sometimes they’re right, as the hairy, slimy green peppers that I occasionally discover at the back of my fridge bear witness. But often they’re mistaken – much the food being discarded from kitchens is perfectly sound and being discarded on a precautionary basis by worried families without the food knowledge to tell the difference or the cooking skills to make great meals from ‘bits and bobs’ or ingredients which may be past their best, but remain perfectly edible.

People up aren’t throwing away edible food because they’re stupid, thoughtless, or enjoy throwing money away. They’re wasting food because they’re afraid of it. And the reason they’re afraid of it is, fundamentally, because of a huge gap in food skills that has developed in this country (and, I suspect, in many countries in the developed world).

Young adults in the UK today, if they’re unlucky, could be two generations away from the last person in their family who regularly cooked at home from fresh ingredients. Their grandmothers will have entered the workplace during WW2, and in many families, never left it afterwards. The war years with food rationing would have been inconceivably difficult, and the advent in post war years, first of domestic freezers, and then  of ready meals, would have seemed an incredible boon to these working families. As a result, many baby-boomers grew up in households where meals were rarely if ever cooked from scratch and their children, in turn, are now raising families of their own, stripped of the skills and knowledge that their grandmothers would have taken for granted, and with no obvious way of bridging the gap. It isn’t a matter of money, class, or even of general education, but rather a family-by-family lottery.

People I’ve known and worked with over the years illustrate this issue vividly. Lovely, intelligent ladies, all, and half a generation older than me for the most part. One refused to have anything in her fridge that wasn’t a sealed packet – anything, once opened and not consumed, was thrown away. My enquiries about leftovers were met with a look that I can only describe as alarm. Another fed herself, and her family, almost entirely on take-aways and what she called ‘ping-meals’ (microwave ready meals). Any jar she opened was labelled in permanent marker with the opening date and disposed of no more than seven days later – including very stable foods like jams and chutneys. Another admitted – and readers who grow their own veg might want to look away now – to furtively disposing of vegetables given to her by her allotment gardening neighbour, because they were ‘dirty, and had holes in’.

I genuinely don’t know how we solve this problem – but until we do, no amount of telling people it’s wrong to throw out food is going to make them eat something they suspect will harm them – quite probably wrongly, but nevertheless, or that they can’t see how to make into a meal. The lady with the bacon and eggs, shamed by Hugh into taking them back inside, is not, I suspect, going to eat them, no matter what she’s told. This skills gap, of course, has implications for problems beyond waste, including, most obviously, on heath.

I was incredibly lucky to have a grandmother who taught me a lot – not just about food and cooking, but in her attitude to life. Grandma, like many of her generation, considered wasting food to be almost sinful – I do wonder how we’ve come so far from this view now that we so often think of it as a normal part of life!

In the meantime, here are my top five tips for reducing kitchen food waste –

1) Buy the smallest fridge you can survive with, and the largest freezer you can find space for. And freezer baskets.

This makes sense when you think of how much perishable food goes into fridges only to be pushed to the back, forgotten, and allowed to go rotten. We have a much smaller fridge here in Cornwall than at our old house, not, initially, by choice. But by reducing the amount of fresh food we can keep to a couple of days worth of meat or fish and less than a week’s worth of green vegetables, we have dramatically reduced the amount of it that gets a chance to become inedibly past it’s best before we manage to eat it.

Sliced lemon and lime, bagged for freezingA big freezer gives you the capacity to freeze anything that you’re not going to get the chance to eat before it goes off, as well as freezing leftovers into home-made ready meals for later use. It also means you can keep a good variety of frozen vegetables which are a great, healthy, and low-waste alternative to perishable fresh vegetables.

Having access to a large freezer also means you can buy in bulk when you get the chance, and save money – but always remember to break large packs into sensible sizes before freezing – in our house packs of four chicken thighs are much more useful than trays of 20! But things can easily disappear into the back or bottom of large freezers, not to be seen for years – freezer baskets and a spot of organisation are essential to keep your frozen foods accessible and easy to find.

2) Don’t buy fresh meat, fish and vegetables from the supermarket. Definitely don’t buy ‘prepared’ vegetables.

Supermarkets sell fresh, perishable produce in pack sizes to suit themselves, not you. Then they often price them – with the help of 3-for-2 style offers – to encourage shoppers to take more home than they bargained for. The extra food may seem like a good deal, but unless it’s thoughtfully frozen, it will often end up going uneaten and ending up in the bin.

In addition to this, fresh fruit and veggies in supermarkets have sat in their supply chains for an awfully long time, far longer than you might expect in some cases – apples are stored in temperature controlled, oxygen-free warehouses which dramatically slows their deterioration, but that process cracks right on with a vengeance just as soon as the produce emerges from their enforced hibernation. Fruit and veg ‘fresh’ from the supermarket shelves often just doesn’t keep the way you’d expect.

Prepared fruit and veg – trimmed beans, peeled apples, diced mangoes, and the worst offenders of all, washed and bagged salads and stir-fry mixes – are some of the worst culprits in the food waste stakes. Despite the ‘protective atmospheres’ that these products are packed in, peeling, dicing, slicing and shredding vegetables dramatically reduces their shelf life (take two apples, slice one in two, leave the other whole, and stick them both in the fridge for a few days if you don’t believe me) making them much more likely to go to waste. And that’s without even considering the huge amount of packaging waste that also results from ‘prepared’ products.

A final reason not to buy fresh produce from supermarkets, is that their purchasing practices are pretty universally awful, full of waste and focused on supply-chain characteristics and cosmetic appearance far above flavour or nutrition.

So what are the alternatives? Well, find your local butcher and fishmonger, and buy from them. You’ll be able to get exactly what you want, in exactly the quantity you want – the quality will almost certainly be better than the supermarket, the butcher will likely be able to tell you about their origins, and you won’t end up paying over the odds, either. As for fruit & veggies your local grocer, if you have one, is ideal. That way, you can buy what you want, when you want. Veg boxes are great, but require a flexible approach to cooking and a willingness to try new things depending on what arrives in your box, so if this doesn’t honestly describe you, they may not be the right answer.

3) Meal planning

I admit, I’m bad at this one! But if you’re the organised, list-making type, it can save a lot of waste, not to mention a lot of money! If you can’t manage that, then try to keep a close eye on the contents of your fridge, bearing in mind what you’re going to eat today, and tomorrow. If there’s anything perishable in there that you’re not planning to eat in the next day or two, consider freezing it now – you can always defrost it again if you change your mind!

Not every food in your fridge will lend itself to freezing, but most will if you learn a trick or two. Meat and fish will usually freeze fine as it is. Milk, cream, butter and cheese, incidentally, can also be frozen – cream will often need to be whipped after defrosting, but is absolutely fine for cooking with. Vegetables often won’t freeze straight from fresh, but many will freeze really well after simple cooking such as dicing and roasting in the oven, or par-boiling.

4) Make and grow your own

I know this may seem impractical if you’re short on time and space, but even if you only grow a few salad leaves, some fresh herbs, or a single strawberry plant in a sunny window box, there’s something transformative about growing your own food.

Once you’ve planted the seed, cared for it, and watched it grow and ripen with anticipation, the idea of letting it go to waste is almost inconceivable. I go to great lengths to make sure I use every last thing I grow in my garden and polytunnel – freezing, pickling and preserving what I can’t use fresh – because the idea of wasting any of it makes me feel awful. That feeling can’t help but extend itself to food I buy, which, after all, has been grown with care and attention by someone else.

Tear & enjoyThe same principle extends to baking your own bread – one of the most wasted items in our kitchens. Once you’ve made your own glorious fresh loaf, believe me, it won’t be wasted. And you’ll go off the spongy supermarket rubbish pretty sharpish, too!

5) Up-skill!

Take every opportunity to improve your food and cooking skills and knowledge. I don’t mean by watching celebrity chefs on telly – that’s just sight-seeing. And you don’t need to go to expensive masterclasses or kitchen-school weekends.

Indian kebabs, servedKeen cooks are usually keen to share what they know – just look at the number of food bloggers out there! They will exist amongst your friends, your family, and your colleagues, so why not ask if you can cook with them? Perhaps there’s something else you can offer to teach them in return?

Practice. Experiment. Buy a few good cookbooks. And seize any opportunity to learn from others – from your grandparents, if they’re still with you, and other peoples’ Grannies, should the opportunity arise. Seek out older members of your family and learn what you can about your family food traditions. You never know, you may learn about a lot more than food!

Have you got any top tips on reducing food waste at home? Any bright ideas on how to close the food-skills gap? What do you think of Hugh’s approach to solving the food waste problem? Please comment below!

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Reviewed – “Back to Basics – Your Essential Guide to Make Do and Mend”

I was really excited to be asked to review this brand new ebook, ‘Back to Basics – Your Essential Guide to Make Do and Mend’ edited by the lovely Jen Gale. Jen has been somewhat in the forefront of the eco, thrifty, make-do-and-mend trend in the blogosphere and social media over the last few years. During that time, she has accumulated a mountain of practical experience (do take a look at her website, http://www.makedoandmend-able.co.uk, if you haven’t already) and connected with individuals with a wide variety of practical skills, many of whom contribute chapters to this ebook.

[Full disclosure: ‘Back to Basics – your essential guide to Make Do and Mend’ came to me free of charge as a review copy. Screenshots are used with permission. Any links provided are for interest and convenience, I don’t profit from them in any way. Jen is a twitter friend, and while I obviously wish her well with her project I have tried very hard to be fair and impartial in giving my opinions here.]

What’s in this book? Well, all kinds of things. Don’t know how to fix a puncture on your bike, or wire a plug? The instructions are here for you, alongside more ‘crafty’ tutorials on sewing skills – biased towards mending and altering – basic introductions for knitting and crochet, helpful hints on caring for your clothes and fabrics so they last you longer, tips on painting and re-upholstering furniture to refresh tired pieces without needing to buy new, and lots of other things besides.

Contents Page

Darning SkillsThis is intended to be an entry-level guide, and because it covers such a broad range of topics, some of the chapters will already be familiar territory to practical minded readers – that said, I did pick up a few extra little tips even in areas where I consider myself to be reasonably proficient (Tom Van Deijnen’s tutorial on darning knitwear is particularly good, as is Lauren Guthrie’s really comprehensive general overview and introduction to using and caring for your sewing machine).

Re-making GarmentsAlongside these, there are a few chapters that cover what I would regard as more advanced-skill level making do and mending – Franki Campbell explains how to break down a garment and make a new sewing pattern from it so that it can be recreated (and possibly modified in the process), something which scares me enough – I’m a muddling-along standard home sewer who can make curtains, blinds, and the odd garment for myself; I can imagine it being rather baffling to the novice sewer.

Crochet flowersThere are little projects included with some of the chapters, too, and these can be a weakness of the book. Some are excellent, like this little crochet flower broach. On the other hand, the knitted dish cloth ‘project’ (no more than a sample square of garter stitch, which you are expected to source brand new cotton yarn for) was a bit less inspiring.

I think this is probably an inevitable consequence of a book put together in this way, from a variety of contributors. The focus, skill level, and quality of these chapters does vary, and on occasion it can make the whole feel a bit ‘bitty’ and unfocused. But that said there is some really excellent material here, and if you find even a handful of the chapters useful it may well turn out to be a good purchase for you.

Cover ShotWho is the ideal reader for this book? It might make an good gift for a teenager heading off to university or to their own home for the first time – a really modern housekeeping guide for the 21st Century young adult. Older readers, looking to (re)discover crafty, thrifty DIY skills may also find a lot to like here. It’s a very beautifully put-together ebook, and a lot of hard work has obviously gone into the design and photography.

“Back to Basics” is available in ebook (PDF) format only, priced at £8. You can find out more, and download it here.

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

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

Before and after

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

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

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

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

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

Right, to work!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally staple down corners

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

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

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

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

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

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

Admire your finished chairs!

 

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

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

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

From the garden

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

 Sunset  At dusk  Meadow sunshine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Working on the blinds  Finished blind

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

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

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

What it's all about!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remove backbone  With backbone removed  Flatten breast area

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

Finally insert skewers to hold shape

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

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

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There’s A Hole In My Kettle, Dear Liza… Well, fix it with Sugru!

The blog seems to have been very heavy on recipes since the new year – mostly because all I’ve managed to write most weeks is the Cooking the Books post (and, you know, not always that!). There’s a lot going on in our lives at the moment that I’m not really free to talk about just yet, but which has completely put a stop to the gardening I would normally be stuck into by this time of year (my window ledges are entirely bereft of their usual forest of seedlings, and sitting on my green fingers is such torture!). But this was never intended to be just a food blog, and, of course, life goes on.

Now, I’m sure you all know about Sugru by now – I waxed enthusiastic about it to my little sister last summer, only to discover she’d been an early convert (but had somehow neglected to mention the wonderful stuff to me?!), so I know I’m late to the party. But just in case you haven’t come across it, let me tell you a little bit about this wonderful stuff. Sugru is a mouldable putty, rather like play dough or blue tack. It comes out of a little sealed packet, and then you have 30 minutes to play with it before it starts to set. The Sugru then cures, in the air, at room temperature, in the next 24 hours (longer if it’s a particularly big piece), after which it is set permanently, with a silicone-rubber character.

Sugru pack

So, what? Relatively slowly setting modeling clay doesn’t seem so exciting perhaps… Well, it bonds permanently to a very wide range of underlying materials (plastics, glass, metals, ceramics, fabrics, wood and so on), and will tolerate a wide range of temperatures from -50C to +180C, as well as being flexible, waterproof, electrically insulating… You get the idea, it’s clever stuff! [Full details on the Sugru website, here.]

Back in the summer, I used my first pack to finish my denim strap replacement up-cycle on a pair of flip flops. They held up extremely well to the wear and tear they were put through in the course of what was an unusually hot summer. I’m looking forward to wearing them again this year.

Sandal soles sealed with sugru   Denim strap upcycle - complete

Some of the leftover from the pack, I used to mend and re-attach a cracked knob on our cooker. That repair has held up so well – and is so ‘seamless’ – that until I started writing this little post, I’d almost forgotten I’d ever mended it in the first place!

Broken knob   Blob of Sugru inside knob   Hold knob tight and wait to cure

A few months ago, now, I noticed that our kettle had started leaking, apparently from the join between the metal body and a plastic viewing window set into it. We have very hard water here, so I suspect limescale got established in a little gap and slowly pushed it apart. For a while, it was just the odd drop or two when I boiled a big kettle of water, but then one day, at the end of January, there was rather a big puddle of rather hot water on the kitchen counter after I’d boiled the kettle. Obviously water and electrics are a great mix! I nearly chucked the kettle in the bin and went to buy a new one, but I do hate to throw things away that might still have some life in them – and after all, the kettle still ‘worked’… Then I remembered the Sugru, hiding in the fridge (refrigeration extends the shelf life of the product before use).

Leaky kettle

It seemed too good not to try – I mean, the worst that could happen was still the kettle ending up in the bin anyway. This is one of the reasons I love mending things so much – you can justify all manner of experimentation that you might hesitate to try on a working item for fear of breaking it. My plan was really quite simple – to make a Sugru gasket or seal for the plastic window, by pushing it into the gap all around the outside, and then the water wouldn’t be able to get out any more. So far, so obvious, right? I shared my plan with Hubby, who looked a little unconvinced and told me ‘not to make it look rubbish’ – well, there’s nothing like a vote of confidence from your nearest and dearest…

Now, the surface preparation instructions that come with the Sugru are very simple – they boil down to ‘make sure the surfaces you want the Sugru to bond to are clean and dry’. I admit, I didn’t do this carefully enough. I’d given the kettle a really good wash to remove any grease, and removed as much of the limescale as I could using vinegar. I gave it all a good dry with a tea towel but didn’t really think that there would probably be some residual water (and probably detergent) in the gap I was planning to seal. It turns out soapy water acts as a release agent for uncured Sugru. You have been warned!

Insert Sugru into gap   Trimmed away where adhesion failed

The process was simple enough – roll out little lengths of Sugru, and stuff them into the gap. Then smooth off the surface (to avoid it ‘looking rubbish’). Problem being that around the lower left part of the window, the Sugru refused to adhere and kept falling out again. This was particularly vexing as I’m pretty sure this is where the worst of the leak was coming from! Eventually I gave up and peeled the Sugru away everywhere it wasn’t sticking, tidying up the edges with a putty knife, and left the rest to cure for 24 hours.

Finished job!Fortunately, I had a second pack of red Sugru in my stash, or it would have been a funny multicoloured fix that might have upset Hubby’s ‘rubbishometer’!

On day two, with my second pack, I was able to complete the seal all the way around, without any obvious difficulty. I left it to cure for another 24 hours, and then couldn’t wait to test my repair.

Well, it works. You can see from the photo just below, taken a day or two ago – almost two months after the repair – there is a little bit of limescale visible in a couple of places around the repair. It does still leak *very* slightly – the odd drop of water manages to sneak through while the kettle is boiling energetically, and evaporates on the spot, so for my money, the repair is a success – no more water on the worktop! I’m pretty sure that if I’d waited for the kettle to be really dry (and, lesson learnt, I won’t make that mistake again!) then the repair would have been completely successful.

After two months, with some limescale showing

Will the leak get worse as time goes by? I don’t know yet – it may be that the limescale will continue to do its thing and will slowly push the gap wider. Then again, because the Sugru stays flexible after curing, it may be able to accomodate this without additional leakage. Anyway, in the meantime hopefully I will have worked out what replacement kettle might look best in my new kitchen…

And think, if only he had some Sugru, Henry could have fixed his bucket – mind you, I’ve never worked out how the straw was going to help – can any of you shed any light on the matter?

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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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Copper-Bottomed – natural cleaning with lemon and salt

For Christmas, Hubby gave me a gorgeous old copper pan we found in a second hand shop in Bideford a few weeks ago. Not everyone’s fantasy Christmas gift, I grant you, but very much to my taste, I’ve been looking for something like it for some time, but every one I’ve seen has been exorbitantly expensive.

Not so this one – a real bargain, as it happened! – but of course there’s always a catch, and the pan was in, well, shall we say ‘rustic’ condition? Well used, well worn, and yes, very stained and tarnished, both inside and out. Despite his best efforts with several rounds of ‘Brasso’ to try and make it presentable for its debut under the Christmas tree, it’s fair to say that still looked like a pan which had had rather a hard life!

I took some advice, and after considering the various cleaning options, ordered some ‘Barkeeper’s Friend’, which of course has yet to make its way through the Christmas post. I’d also come across some advice that lemon juice and salt might do a useful job of getting tarnish and stains off copper surfaces.  This morning I noticed a rather wizened half-lemon left over in the fridge, and thought, ‘hey, why not give it a go?’.

All I can say is ‘Wow!’.

Cleaning in progress

It works startlingly well, even on the dark burned stains. I used a quarter of lemon at a time, working gently in circles with a bit of table salt. You can just see the colour changing in front of your eyes. I was genuinely stunned by how quickly and easily this worked – so unexpected was it I didn’t think to take ‘before’ photos! Better still, the segments of lemon come along with their own natural gentle scrubbing pad.

Finished pan - inside

It’s not a perfect finish, by any means, but it’s a really decent clean that I would be more than happy to cook with, something I really couldn’t have said before! I think I’ll probably still try the Barkeeper’s Friend when that arrives, to see if I can get a slightly finer finish – but if I hadn’t ordered it already I don’t think I’d be bothering.

Finished pan - outside

I love the patination on the outside of the pan, so I’ve left that alone. Isn’t it gorgeous? I just can’t wait to cook in it now!

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