Can’t See The Tree For The Lights – invisible outdoor decorations – Blog Advent (8)

I know I’ve said I don’t like outdoor decorations much, but I make an exception for simple, fresh, crisp white lights.  I love the solar outdoor fairy lights that have become available over the last few years, for very reasonable prices.  The last couple of years I’ve strung a string through the bare branches of the small apple tree in our garden – but I thought I’d try something different this year!

Light Tree

This outdoor ‘tree’ smothered in light is so simple and very effective!  You need a set of outdoor solar lights – this was a string of 100 lights on a 12m strand, six bamboo canes – mine were old 6ft ones I had lying around from the veg patch this summer, and some string.  You could obviously make a bigger or a smaller tree, depending on your preferences and the lights you have available.

Arrange your canesStart by arranging the bamboo canes in a rough circle.  This is really easy in our lawn this winter because it’s been so wet recently!

Form into teepee shapeNow tie the tops together firmly with some string or wire, whatever you have to hand, so that the canes are in a teepee shape.  You don’t need a garden, of course, you could also create this in a pot planter on a sunny patio or balcony.

Wrapped with lightsFinally, set up your solar lights.  Usually these come with a small photovoltaic cell on a spike – you can install this in the centre of the ‘tree’.  Then, starting at the top, just wind the lights around and around your tree, spreading them out as evenly as you can.  Secure the ends with string if necessary, leave the lights to charge and wait for sunset.

I like it just simple as it is – but you could add some extra ‘tree’ details if you liked, like a star topper or some cheap plastic baubles.  I rather like the fact it almost entirely disappears into the garden during the day, and only becomes a feature after dark.

Advent - day 8

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A Festive Welcome – recycled fabric wreath – Blog Advent (7)

For many years I made a Christmas wreath every year out of spruce, holly and ivy, around a straw wreath-form which had been knocking around for years.  Eventually it fell apart, and instead of buying a new one, I made this – it was made really quickly, and I didn’t expect it to last as well as it has, but it’s now been our front door decoration for four or five years, and looks as good as ever.

Fabric Wreath

It’s another recycled craft, really.  At the base, it’s a wire coat hanger, shaped into a circle with the hook folded over into a triangular hanger for the wreath.  I wrapped this around with the sort of brown packing paper that turns up in all your festive purchases from online retailers at this time if year – just scrunch the paper lengthwise into a sausage shape and wrap it around and around, securing with some sticky tape here and there when you need to.  Use newspaper, if you haven’t got packing paper.  You could even use plastic packing wrap, or bubble wrap – whatever you have to hand, really, as long as it ends up with your coat hanger fairly evenly wrapped.

Now measure the circumference of your wrapped hanger, and get the long measurement from the hook all the way around the outside edge.  Add about an inch for hemming, and this is your fabric requirement.  I was lucky to have some blue and green-based tartan curtain offcuts, but you can use whatever you like.  Fancy a runched-effect?  Use a longer piece of fabric than you need.  If you have a sewing machine to hand, roughly sew your half inch hems on all four sides of your rectangle (I did this really really roughly, with a wide zig-zag stitch!).  If not, then just press them down with an iron to fold them over.

Back view - seamWrap your fabric around your homemade wreath form, starting at the hanger.  Slip-stitch the long seam by hand in as discreet a colour thread as you have. Don’t worry about making this beautiful, though, since it’s going to end up on the back!  Once that’s done, join the two ends of the tube around the hook.  Perhaps ladder stitch this part to make the join as tidy as possible, though if you look at mine I’ve covered the evidence with ribbon!

Really, that’s it – find some pretty Christmas ribbon in a coordinating colour and wrap it around, perhaps add a bow at the top.  Hang it on your door to welcome your festive guests!

Advent - day 7

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Saint Nicholas – Blog Advent (6)

December 6th is St Nicholas Day, a celebration which was a big part of my early childhood and meets with mostly blank looks when I mention it to friends here in the UK.  My early years were spent in rural Switzerland, and my early memories of the Christmas season are very much from that part of the world.  St Nick of course is the pattern for Father Christmas, but in much of Europe his celebration is separated out from Christmas itself.

I recall St Nicholas Day parades, when St Nick, in full regalia, was carried through the town on a horse or donkey-drawn cart, throwing out wonderful gingerbread cakes to the children.  I can almost taste them now!

On the night of December the 5th, children leave their shoes (preferably nicely polished!) out on the step for St Nicholas.  He comes and fills the shoes of the good little children with sweets and small toys and knick-nacks (I remember getting a French knitting loom in the form of a soldier, one year).  There are variations in the tradition, of course, depending on where you are in the world, but generally St Nicholas has a not very nice sidekick, known as ‘Père Fouettard’ (roughly translated, ‘Father Whip’) or Black Peter (with a blacked-up face which is either very un-PC, or has been retro-fixed to describe him as a chimney sweep!), in the part of the world I was in, but he comes with different names and identities in different places.

If you read up on this on Wikipedia, you’ll find it asserted that although St Nick’s nasty sidekick is supposed to bring punishment, or at least make sure that St Nick doesn’t bring gifts to the bad little children, this is some sort of an empty threat, and of course all the children get gifts.  Well, I remember vividly at my Swiss infants’ school (and I’m not so *very* old), that while the rest of us got sweets and chocolates, Black Pete brought only a piece of coal to the ‘bad’ child in the class.  Imagine that, these days?

Advent - day 6

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We’re On A Roll – recycled gift box – Blog Advent (5)

Just a really quick, simple Christmas gift wrapping tip for you all tonight – I can’t even claim it’s original, since I saw the idea on Pinterest a few months ago, but it stayed with me as something cute, and really rather useful!

Finished wrap

You will require...Here’s a cheap, quick, attractive, and recycled way to wrap small gifts this holiday season, using only things you already have – the cardboard centre of a toilet roll (or kitchen towel roll, or the centre of a roll of wrapping paper), some small scraps of wrapping paper, and some ribbon, raffia, or twine.  Yep, a toilet roll centre.  Nothing but the best here at the Country Skills Blog!

Wrapped and flattenedStart by wrapping the cardboard roll in a piece of wrapping paper – I had some gold tissue paper lying around, so I used that.  Tuck in the ends.  Now flatten the tube.

Fold over endsThis is the cute bit.  Simply fold the ends towards the centre to form a small curved box.  You’ll need to form the fold along a bit of a curve.  It’s worth playing with an unwrapped tube first, just to get a sense of the shape you’re after.  Hell, it’s something to do instead of the sudoku while you’re sitting on the throne!

Completed boxAnd here’s your completed box.  Just tuck whatever special little gift you’re wrapping inside, perhaps folded into an extra piece of tissue paper, and tie it up in a bow with some ribbon, raffia, twine or even knitting yarn!  Gift boxes can be so expensive – this one looks a million dollars, is a great solution to the ‘fiddly little package’ problem, and costs nothing!

Dave's tube!I was going to show you a bigger one made from a section of wrapping paper tube, but Dave thought better of the idea.  He says you all seem like smart people and he’s sure you can work it out for yourselves!

Now I’ve got a little confession to make – last night, while I was writing up the hazel and twine Christmas star decorations, I took my eye off the advent candle and we got a bit ahead of ourselves – all of today’s candle burned and half of tomorrow’s!  Oops!  It looks a bit sad tonight!

Advent - day 5

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Star of Wonder – simple twig and twine decorations – Blog Advent (4)

Blogging on work nights is a bit of a challenge – but here’s what I’ve been up to the past few days, in bits and pieces, finished off during my lunch break today – some really pretty, simple, twig and twine Christmas star decorations (I wrongly described these as Star of David decorations – they’re not of course, but you could easily make those if you prefer them!).

Hazel stars

Preparing your twigsMine use some thin hazel ‘whips’ we pruned from our hedge a few weeks ago, but anything would do – willow or ash would be particularly suitable as they tend to grow nice and straight, but a quick scavenge around the garden, park or woods should yield something you can use.  The only other things you need are some string (I used jute twine because I think it’s pretty, but raffia or plain cotton or linen string will do just fine), and some fabric glue (I’ll get to this later).

Arrange your piecesCut your twigs into even lengths using garden cutters – I wanted different sized stars, so I cut the thicker ends of the twigs into longer pieces than thinner bits.

Now, I’m going to pause the how-to quickly to teach you a little trick you really need to know, and it’s a knot known (to me anyway) as a ‘packer’s hitch’ – I’m informed by my sister, who knows better, that it’s properly called a clove hitch!  It’s a self-tightening double loop, so is ideal for this sort of job – or any other situation when you’d otherwise be calling out for someone’s finger to hold the knot for you!  I’ve illustrated it below, but basically you form two loops in the same direction, then take the second and pass it behind the first.  Anything you pass through the centre of the two loops is caught in your noose, pulling the ends tightens it but because the way the knot is constructed, it’s very unlikely to loosen itself again.  Tying a second throw over the top, as in a reef knot, secures the hitch permanently.

How to tie a packer's hitch

Points of star, tiedForm a packers hitch, and use it to tie the tips of two of the twigs together.  Don’t complete the knot with a second throw at this point, you’re just loosely securing the ends.  Work your way around all five points of your star.

Now, have a bit of a play with your twigs to make sure you’re happy with the shape, the more even the better, but twigs are an organic thing, so the aren’t always straight or completely even!  That’s part of the beauty of these little decorations.

Knots placedOnce you’re happy with the shape, start tying the twigs together where they cross over in the centre. I use a knot which crosses over to stabilise the joint.  Make sure you arrange these so that the knots are on the same side as those from the packer’s hitches!  Just like these hitches, don’t complete the knots, just tie the first throw.

This is the time to decide which point of your star is the top, if you’re planning to hang it.  If so, replace the packers hitch on the top point with one made with a much longer piece of twine, so there’ll be plenty of length to work with.  If you want a string of stars, do the same thing with the centre point at the bottom, letting a long tail hang down.

With centre knots completeNow, go around all of these knots and put a blob of glue on the knot – I used fabric glue, because it was what I had to hand, but anything which goes on or dries to clear should be fine.  Now tie your knots nice and tight, and add an extra throw, if you like.  The glue is to stop the knots unravelling when you cut the tails off really short, which is what you’re going to do next.  Now do the same with the packers hitches at the points, making sure that you tie everything as tight as possible before securing the knots down with a blob of glue.

Finished starsIncidentally, I apologise for the classy ‘Costcutter’ bag, it was protecting my table at work from the consequences of my lunchtime activities!

That’s it, you’re done, if you want to be.  I think they look great ‘au naturel’, but I’m planning to get out my gold spray paint and just add a slight ‘burnish’ which I think will really add that final detail to the finish.  You could spray them any colour (or combination of colours!) to suit your decor.  Also consider adding glitter, beads… whatever takes your fancy!

This would make a really good kid’s Christmas craft, I think – no dangerous parts (assuming a grown up cuts the twigs up!), fiddly enough to be challenging without being overwhelming, with a pretty end product, and knot-tying skills to boot!  Perhaps one to try with a group of children at a Christmas party, club or youth group?

Advent - day 4

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All Things Bright And Beautiful – Blog Advent (3)

I’ll be honest and say, I’m not a huge fan of outdoor Christmas home-illuminations!  Yes, sometimes you see some gorgeous efforts – a beautifully lit tree in a front garden, or some little tasteful icicles adorning a gutter – but so often, they’re really really naff!

This little home-made decoration is my concession to fairy lights around the front door, and hangs in the tall thin window which we have just to the side.  I think it’s really lovely, festive and welcoming, don’t you?

Front door lights

It was so quick to make, out of a small piece of left-over silver organza, and a cheap string of LED Christmas lights, so I thought I’d share it with you lot.  You can easily adapt the idea to fit any window or door which particularly needs a bit of sparkle!

Centre joinConstruction is very simple, it’s just a tube, closed at the top, and open at the bottom.  My fabric was too wide and not long enough, so there’s a join in the middle – this isn’t a problem! The open bottom needs to be hemmed, but nothing else does. I think the seams add a nice additional texture in the way the lights play on the fabric, so I didn’t make any effort to cut them really narrow or press them flat.  This is the reason I’ve left the long seam in the middle of the decoration, too, rather than trying to hide it away to one side.

Top detailThe wire for the lights goes in at the bottom (conveniently, your plug socket is likely to be down there somewhere!), and loops over a  few stitches up in the top of the tube before hanging back down again.  If you’re making this for a wider window, you could have two or three of these supporting clusters of stitches, and loop the lights over each in turn.  Finally, there’s a little loop right at the top to hang the decoration from.

Front door lightsI used my sewing machine, but it’s simple enough that you could easily run it up by hand if you don’t have convenient access to one.  This is what it looks like from indoors, it makes a lovely addition to the doorway from both sides, I think!

This is likely to be our only real decoration until we get the tree in a week or two – but it gives us an exciting promise of sparkly pretty things to come!

Advent - day 3I’m trying to write a post a day during Advent, so, please come along with me while I try to Blog Advent – the Country Skills Way – and forgive me if I don’t quite manage it!

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No Smoke Without Fire – Boxing Day ham and Christmas bacon – Blog Advent (2)

This morning, bright and early (probably a little *too* early after last night’s lovely Christmas dinner with some excellent friends!) and in the freezing cold, I got my smoker out and set up.  For the past couple of weeks, my fridge has been half full of partly cured pork products.  Well, the curing finished last week, and today it was time for some smoke!

Smoker, set up ready

What you can see hanging there is my boxing day ham, and a batch of Christmas streaky bacon.  For more information on my DIY cold smoker, you can have a look at the smoking and curing posts, collected here.  For suggested UK supplies of smoking and curing ingredients and paraphernalia, have a look at my suppliers list.

The little sawdust-burning ProQ cold-smoke generator has served me very well in the course of the last year or so, but we had a bit of excitement with it this morning, after the tea light which is used to start the sawdust smouldering decided to overheat and do a striking impression of a miniature chip pan fire!  You’ll be relieved to hear, I’m sure, that no serious harm was done to the bacon, and that I still have my eyebrows!  It was however alarming enough that I’m going to look into alternative ways of starting the smoulder in future.

Boxing-Day Ham

Baked home-cured hamThe amazing colour of the ham comes from the same treacle-based cure I blogged about using earlier this year, though in deference to the larger piece of pork leg, and the fact that this time, it has the bone in, I allowed a curing time of 10 days.  The only other change was the addition of a couple of fresh bay leaves to the curing solution.  The gorgeous 2.5kg piece of pork leg came from our local farm shop butcher, who has wonderful meat.

Between now and Boxing Day, once it’s rested for 48 hours to let the smoke flavours permeate, I’ll wrap it up and put it in the freezer.  I’m expecting that, once boiled and glazed, it will look a lot like this – I can’t wait to see what difference the smoke makes!

Christmas Bacon

Gorgeous pork bellyThe bacon is mostly intended for gifts (except for the biggest piece, which is mine-all-mine!).  It was a great success last year, and seemed popular with its recipients!

It’s been curing over the last week, using a bacon-in-a-bag technique I’ve been refining over the last year.   Nearly all my home-cured bacon is made this way now, and I’ve settled on an 8% cure for most purposes, made up with between 66-75% curing salt and 25-33% sugar.

This total batch was about 2.5kg in weight.  In addition to the meat, I used –

  • AromaticsSupracure – 133g  (see my other curing posts for more information about this pre-mixed curing salt)
  • Mollasses sugar – 66g
  • Aromatics, consisting of 4 bay leaves, 20 juniper berries, 40 allspice berries, one clove, and about 1/4 of a whole nutmeg
  • Two large strong freezer bags

Prepared bacon cureGrind up all the spices in a spice grinder (except the nutmeg, which you’ll probably be safer grating by hand), and then mix the spices into the salt and sugar.  Prepare the pork belly by trimming it if required and then slicing into the appropriate pieces.

With cure rubbed inNow rub about half of the cure generously over all the surfaces of the pork, and pack it into the freezer bags.  Put these in the fridge and turn them over at least once a day, alternating which one is on top if you have more than one bag.

In two days (three if you’re using pork loin rather than belly), pour off any liquid which has accumulated in the bag – this may be very little if you started with excellent quality meat that hasn’t had water added! – and apply the rest of your cure mixture before returning to the fridge for a further 3 days, turning daily as before.

Bacon in a bagAfter your 5 or 6 days in total have elapsed, take the bacon out of the bag, rinse it carefully under cold tap water, dry with kitchen towel, and place on open racks or uncovered on plates in the fridge for another day (or ideally two) to allow the pellicle to form – this is a sticky glossy surface which will develop on the surface of the bacon.

Then, you can eat your bacon, or, as I did today, smoke it.

I’ve used a mix of beech and apple sawdust for todays smoke run, it gives quite a strong, aromatic smoke which I think will stand up well against the robust flavours in both the ham brine and the bacon cure.

The bacon will be frozen, wrapped as individual pieces in waxed baking paper, until we use ours to make our pigs-in-blankets on Christmas day (it was amazing last year!), or give it as gifts.

Advent - day 2

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Like a Candle in the Dark – Blog Advent (1)

It’s the first of December, and secular Advent is with us at last.  Kids (young and old!) all over the world have broken open the first window of their Advent calendars this morning, and the countdown to Christmas is well and truly on!

Advent candle

I started candle making last year, in a very small way, and mused at the time whether my advent candle, this year, might be home-made.  Well, here it is!  I’m quite pleased with it!

Advent - day 1

Candle making is a great little craft, though it can be a bit time consuming.  I’ve had an Advent candle for many years, and it’s such an important part of my pre-Christmas traditions that I wanted to get it right.

Incidentally, these instructions are equally relevant to making almost any sort of pillar or taper candle.  My consumables (wax, transfers etc) mainly came from Making Your Own Candles (see the suppliers list for more details).

Candle moulds and wickTo make a candle like this one, you’re going to need the following –

  • A taper candle mould (mine were cheap, plastic, and came from eBay – more sophisticated models are available!)
  • Appropriate candle wax – I used 90% of a paraffin pillar blend, and 10% beeswax
  • Candle dye and scent (optional)
  • Waterslide transfers for the Advent days (you can skip this if you’re just making dinner candles!).  You can buy waterslide transfer papers for laser printing yourself, or buy the transfers already printed from a candle supplies shop.
  • Wick – I used LX8 for these taper candles – wick sustainers and mould seal
  • Basic candle-making equipment – some sort of double boiler (mine is a large tin can in an old pan), a jam thermometer, an a stirring stick of some sort.  These should not also be used for food!
  • Kitchen scales, hob, fridge and freezer.

Wax beads with stirrer and dyeFirst, assemble your moulds if required, and then work out their volume (I filled them with water, and then weighed the water).  This will let you work out how much wax they will take to fill.  Wax is about 10% less dense than water, so reduce your weight by 10% and that’s the amount of wax you need.

Each of my taper moulds took about 60g of water, which I adjusted down to 55g of wax made up 50g of paraffin and 5g of beeswax.  I also added a 1g chip of fudge-coloured dye to the 110g of wax (that’s the orange thing you can se in the wax tin).  Now warm the water in your double boiler up until the wax starts to melt.  This should start at about 65C.  Try to keep the water below 75 to ensure the wax stays safely below its flashpoint (the temperature at which it’s at risk of catching fire).  The lower the temperature you keep your melted wax while working with it, the less shrinkage will happen as it cools, which is likely to give you a better result, so be patient and let it melt slowly!

Wick fixed with mould sealMeanwhile, prepare your moulds, feeding the wick through the wick hole at the bottom and plugging this with some mould sealant (I use generic white-tack of the sort you’d use to fix posters to the wall, and this seems to work fine).  Then turn the moulds the ‘right’ way up, and secure the other end of the wick to a wick sustainer, again using some of the tack.

If you’re adding scent to your candle wax, do this now, just before pouring, to reduce the amount of scent you will lose by evaporation from the hot wax.  I added a few drops of sweet orange and ginger essential oils to give a gentle festive scent – but there are lots of commercially prepared specialist candle scents, which, unsurprisingly, you should use according to the directions that come with them!

Moulds ready for pouringOnce your moulds are ready, you can start pouring the melted wax.  Do this carefully but steadily.  You can see that I placed my moulds in a tin just in case the mould seal failed, to avoid molten wax going all over the kitchen.  Fill both moulds all the way to the top.  You will have some left over wax, if you’ve calculated right. This is good news.  Put your filled moulds somewhere cold such as the refrigerator, or outside, for about an hour.

Candles with voids around wicksMeanwhile, either keep your wax melted (this involves watching it carefully all the time) or pour it out into a container like the tinfoil tray and let it set for now. After about an hour, retrieve your candle moulds.  You’ll notice that there’s a massive great ‘well’ in the centre of your candles.  Give this a bit of a poke with a kebab skewer to make sure there aren’t any hidden voids, then re-melt the wax you have left over, and use it to top up the moulds again, right to the top.

Finished candles in mouldsReturn the candles to your cold place to finish setting for a few hours.  When you get them out again, they should look a bit like this.  Now you need to release them from their moulds. Shrinkage is your friend here, so I stuck mine in the freezer for about half an hour.  Then I could pop the cap from the bottom of the mould and gently ease the candle out – well, that’s the theory at least.

Candle free from mouldAs you can see from this next photo, on this particular candle – the first I made, I ended up accidentally breaking the rounded top of the candle in the process. Well, you live and learn, and subsequent efforts were more successful!  Freezing is a big help, as is giving the mould a brisk but gentle tap before gently pushing up from the ‘pointy end’.

You can tidy up and ‘finish’ the bottom of the candle by trimming the wick and then melting the bottom against a hot iron or any other hot surface to melt it down flat.  Obviously, choose your hot surface judiciously and don’t use your laundry iron or anything that’s for food use!

If you’re just making a dinner candle – congratulations, you’re done!  If it’s an advent candle you’re set on, there’s just one more step to go.

Plain candles with waterslide transfersApplying the waterslide transfers turned out to be surprisingly straightforward.  Cut these to size, if required, then soak the transfers in a bowl of tap water for about a minute.  This will allow the clear film which forms the transfer itself to come away from the paper backing.

waterslide transfer soakingThen, very gently place the film on the surface of the candle and smooth it out.  It won’t stick down fully for a couple of minutes as it dries, so you have plenty of time to straighten it out and get rid of any bubbles or wrinkles, I found wiping it gently with a damp piece of kitchen towel was very helpful.

I’m really happy with mine – isn’t it gorgeous!  It’s a lovely warm honey colour, and has a gentle fruity scent from the essential oil additions.

Candle and calendar

Of course, many people prefer an Advent calendar to a candle – those of you who were early readers of this blog may remember my fabric Advent calendar project from last year.  You can see more photos and instructions for the calendar over here.

I’m trying to write a post a day during Advent, so, please come along with me while I try to Blog Advent – the Country Skills Way – and forgive me if I don’t quite manage it!

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Holidays Are Coming… and it’s very nearly Advent!

There’s no escaping the fact that winter has well and truly arrived, and that Advent, and Christmas, are just around the corner!  Christmas is probably my favourite time of year, which is a bit odd, I suppose, as I really really don’t get on with winter.  The cold, and especially the long dark months, seem to sap my energy.  I’m sure I evolved from a creature that hibernated, because honestly I could curl up under a rock in the middle of November and not come out until March.  But Christmas – Christmas is a bright, beautiful jewel in an otherwise dark and barren winter landscape.  The lights and sparkles, the food, the drink, and above all, the laughter and joy of loved ones, friends and family.

Every year that goes by, I seem to spend less money on a ‘commercial’ Christmas, and more time and effort on home-made, food and drink, gifts and decorations.  So the next few weeks are going to be really busy!  Never mind the inevitable – welcome, but time consuming – increase in social commitments, works parties, people visiting. Of course, what everyone needs with all this going on is an extra time-sink.

The thought occurred to me a couple of weeks ago that it would be really fun (fun?!?) to try to blog daily, from December 1st to Christmas Eve – about my Christmas preparations, food and drink, making and doing, building up to the big day…

So, please come along with me while I try to Blog Advent – the Country Skills Way – and forgive me if I don’t quite manage it!

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Cooking with James Martin – pea and watercress soup

Earlier this year, I was privileged to be invited to spend the day ‘Cooking with James Martin’ with a group of other foodies and bloggers.  We enjoyed some amazing dishes, and I did promise at the time to share the recipes with you.  Time has rather run away with me the last few months, but here, belatedly, is the first recipe – ‘Pea and Watercress Soup with Deep Fried Egg’. 

Pea and Watercress Soup, presentation

While we were very kindly provided with recipes after the event, I made notes at the time and my notes and recollections vary from the recipes we were given in various ways – that’s the art, I suppose!  The recipe I present here is closer to what I remember James cooking on the day, than to the ‘official’ recipe.  How much of the miss-match is due to errors and omissions on my part, and how much to revisions on his, I wouldn’t like to say!

This is a beautiful summer soup and an absolutely amazing colour.  James served it with a crispy-on-the-ouside, soft-on-the-inside deep fried soft boiled egg, which was an amazingly ‘cheffy’ touch, but I think the soup would stand up very well without it, if it seems a bit faffy for you.

To make this soup, you will require –

  • 1l of good quality vegetable stock (the nicer the better – but nice bouillon powder would probably do at a pinch)
  • 500g of frozen peas
  • 300g fresh watercress
  • 100g of flat leaf parsley
  • 1 shallot, chopped
  • 150ml of double cream (see later note)
  • Decent knob of butter
  • Small handfull of asparagus spears (optional)
  • Salt and pepper
  • Blender, either the stick-type hand blender or, for a smoother finish, a food processor blender jug would probably work better

James MartinBlanch the watercress and flat leaf parsley by immersing very briefly in boiling salted water, and then removing straight away.  Squeeze it out in a tea towel to remove as much water as possible and set aside

Now melt the butter in a saucepan (or wide chef’s pan, if you have one), add the shallot and fry gently until translucent.  My recipe mentions some garlic here, but I don’t recall any being used, you could add a minced clove of garlic if you like though!  Once the onion is translucent, add the stock to the pan, along with the peas and chopped asparagus, and simmer for 2 – 3 minutes, so that the peas are just soft but still bright vivid green.

Blended soupNow take the pan off the heat, add the blanched watercress and flat-leaf parsley (the recipe also says the cream – I don’t remember any cream but it could well be an oversight on my part!) and blend aggressively until it looks almost luminescent green.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Bread-crumbing egg for deep fryingJames soft boiled some eggs (5 minutes), and once cold, peeled and coated in breadcrumbs (flour, egg wash and then crumbs) before deep frying until golden brown.  The egg adds a lovely richness and texture balance to the final dish, but for me, thinking about this as a dish to cook at home, the deep frying was a flourish too far. I think floating a poached egg in the soup would achieve a very similar effect.

Bring the soup up to temperature, without boiling, and serve in your prettiest bowls, placing the egg in the centre.  James added some crispy fried bacon bits, which add a nice crunch and salty-savoury note.  You could add a sprinkle of crispy breadcrumbs or small croutons to increase the crunch if you liked – particularly if you’re skipping the crunchy deep-fried egg.  The finished effect, it struck me at the time, is very much ‘ham, egg and peas’, but taken apart and put back together again all fresh and inside-out!  The final presentation flourish is celery cress & coriander cress, sprinkled over.  They don’t sell celery cress or coriander cress in my local co-op, and it’s the wrong time of year to sprout my own, so I suppose I’ll have to make do with a few reserved flat-leaf parsley leaves!

Really Important Note – You know that ghastly grey-green colour and slightly odd sulphurous odour that tinned peas have? This soup depends for it’s amazing colour and fresh flavour on absolute freshness and minimal cooking.  It will not re-heat!  Well, not without turning grey.  So don’t prepare it in advance and expect it to be any good re-heated for your dinner party.  You have been warned!

If thats got your appetite going, have a look at the collected James Martin recipe posts, here…

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