Signs and Portents – autumn on the way

Swifts gathering

The mornings are dawning bright, crisp, and soaked in dew the last week or so.  I’ve been in my wellies sorting out the hens and walking the dog.  Last Thursday I snapped this photo (sadly on my mobile phone – it was a gorgeous morning and I only wish I’d had my good camera with me!) of our local swifts gathering for their southward migration.  They’ll soon be gone, now, for another year.

The autumn fruit is ripening in the hedges and it won’t be long before we’re picking sloes for this year’s batch of sloe gin.  The blackberries are just about ripening now.  The lambs are big and fat and hard to tell apart from their ewes.  The harvest is nearly in, summer has given almost all her growth and fecundity for another year, and the autumn nights are definitely starting to draw in.

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The Butterfly Bush – a photo from the garden today

It’s been a funny year, weather wise – we had a very late, wet spring, and summer has been resolutely grey and damp with only flashes of heat and sunshine, and we’ve seen very few butterflies.  And in the last week, suddenly, they’re everywhere.

The buddleia, which grows in a scruffy bit of ground behind our pond, has really been earning it’s name of ‘butterfly bush’ in the weekend sunshine.

Peacock butterfly on buddleia flower.

This is a peacock butterfly – which are around at the moment by the dozen.  In just a few minutes, I also saw several tortoiseshells and a couple of red admirals.  I’m so pleased to see them all around at last, here’s hoping they enjoy all the lovely late nectar on offer and get a good breeding season in!

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Meet the Family – Dave the dog

This is Dave, our eight year old rough collie.  He’s the ‘face’ of the country skills blog and twitter avatar, too. 🙂

I took this photo yesterday night, while he was ‘hanging out’ on the sofa, enjoying the new sheepskins we brought back recently from Yorkshire.  I should add, he’s not allowed on the sofa, really – but he sprained his elbow a few days ago and is feeling a bit sorry for himself, so has extra privileges just now!  I love how his coat blends and contrasts with the fleeces in this picture.

I hope all of your pets (if you have them) are enjoying good health today, and are as much a source of joy to you as Dave is to us!

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Cooking with James Martin – a little taste of the treats on offer!

Our day at Food at 52  with James Martin was in two halves.  Our participation was called for in the morning as we were pressed into service as a rag-tag team of commis chefs in the preparation of the first three dishes – which made up our menu for lunch.  James guided and instructed and was only occasionally scathing of our efforts!

In the afternoon, already replete with amazing food, and enjoying a nice drop (or two!) of Sauvignon Blanc, we got to sit back and relax as James prepared a further six dishes while we watched, asked questions, and then struggled despite our already full bellies to taste all his wonderful creations.

Here’s a quick whizz through the wonderful dishes we tasted – hopefully I’ll be able to post some recipes in due course!

Lunch Menu

Thai crab risottoThai crab risotto – This was the first dish we tasted and was definitely one of the stand-out recipes of the day for me.  It has amazing complex & multi-layered flavours in exquisite balance, and despite how much is ‘going on’ in this dish somehow manages to taste crisp and clean and not at all muddled.  James described this as his ‘signature dish’ and I can completely see why – it knocks every risotto I’ve ever tasted into a cocked hat!

Smoked haddock rarebitSmoked haddock rarebit with confit tomatoes – An unusual twist on a Welsh rarebit, with the cheese-based layer built on top of a lovely naturally smoked haddock fillet.  Served with a confit tomato salad (which will definitely be making it into my culinary repertoire) it’s a lovely dish for an English summer’s day, balancing the clean crisp flavours of the tomatoes with the comforting warmth of smoked fish and grilled cheese.

Hot chocolate mousseWarm chocolate mouse with banana ice cream & custard – The freshly made ‘last minute’ banana ice cream is actually the star of this dish for me.  It’s packed with really distinct flavours and heaps of texture.  Perhaps it’s because I’m not that much of a chocoholic – the chocolate pudding is tasty, and gooey in the middle, but very similar to things I’ve had before.  The custard involved a lot of hard work, and is clearly something I should master, but I’m not that much of a custard fan and I’m not convinced it adds that much when you already have the gorgeous banana ice cream.

Demonstration Dishes

Pea and watercress soupPea and watercress soup served with a deep-fried egg – This soup is an amazing colour (no Photoshop trickery here!) and has a lovely fresh pea flavour.  I’ll certainly be playing with this soup recipe at home, though I have to admit to being a bit mystified by the soft boiled egg crumbed and deep-fried and served in the centre in a style – I’m afraid – a bit reminiscent of the famous Australian ‘meat pie floater’! It’s a dramatic ‘cheffy’ touch to finish the dish but I’m not entirely convinced it adds anything that a poached egg wouldn’t in terms of flavour (in fact I suspect I’d prefer the latter) and the crispy texture it imparts is duplicated in the streaky bacon garnish.  Think ham and egg with peas, but all taken apart and put back together again!

Pea and watercress soupLamb with chilli pickle – This is a great little dish, James described it as ‘bar food’ and it would be ideal for nibbles with drinks, but also makes a lovely light lunch or supper dish if you’re looking to impress someone!  Great fresh flavours with a lovely crisp tang from the freshly prepared pickled vegetables, and the lovely tender pink lamb loin is the perfect counterpoint.

Cod cheeks with tartar sauceVodka-and-tonic battered cod cheeks with tartare sauce – The batter was an unusual concoction, with the cocktail-cupboard ingredients and made ‘live’ with yeast, quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.  It fries up lovely and crisp and keeps the cod cheeks gorgeous and moist.  The freshly made tartare sauce is the first such I’ve ever actually liked!  I don’t batter and deep-fry much, but it looks like a  great party-piece!  I can imagine diving into a big bowl of this with a load of friends around a table, perhaps with some slightly spiced potato wedges.

Seared tuna with 'Japanese slaw'Seared tuna in spiced apricot marinade with ‘Japanese slaw’ – A beautiful dish to look at on the plate with some lovely flavours – there’s an almost North African vibe with the fruit & spice flavours.  By this stage in the tasting I was really struggling to eat another bite, but was very glad I did.  We don’t often cook fresh tuna at home but I will certainly adapt this marinade next time we do, as it just lifts that slightly bland character it can have while letting the flavour still shine through.

And now for some desert!  We now felt so full we could pop…

Strawberry cheesecakeStrawberry vanilla cheesecake – James introduced us to this dish, which is one that he developed for Thomas Cook‘s refreshed airline menu.  This is a wonderful quick simple & impressive little desert which you can imagine being able to adapt almost infinitely with different fruits in season and flavours in the cheesecake mix & biscuit crumb.  I particularly liked that this wasn’t an over-sweet dish, letting the flavours of the fresh English strawberries and the slightly acid-note from the cheese shine through.  It isn’t at all cloying and has an almost palate-cleansing quality, nice and fresh – just the thing when you’d eaten quite as much as we had!  All in all a great little dish and definitely another one for the repertoire!

Cheat's GateauxLast, but quite definitely not least, James’ rather marvellously named Bullshit (or “Cheat’s”, for polite company!) Gateaux seems quite the work of patissier’s art.  Just look at it!  In fact it’s startlingly simple – well, for the most part! There’s a story behind this cake – and the name – which I hope to share with you soon..!

For the time being here’s a little snapshot of the man himself doing some of his famous sugar-craft!

Sugar spinning

I hope this has really whetted your appetite for more details of these dishes – writing about them and going through the photos has certainly made me hungry!  I can safely say it’s the most amazing day’s foodie indulgence I’ve enjoyed in a very long time.  I can’t wait to experiment some more with the recipes and let you know how I got on!

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Cooking with James Martin – some initial thoughts & photos!

The big day was today – I’m finally back home from London (seriously, Londoners, how do you survive the Tube these days?!) exhausted but seriously excited about today’s cullinary adventure!  The competition winners met up with famous chef James Martin at the ‘Food at 52‘ cookery school in Clerkenwell, and he spent the day sharing with us some of the tricks of his trade and feeding us until we nearly popped (while he himself seemed to survive on a diet of Diet Coke and Red Bull!).  The whole event was thanks to Thomas Cook, with whom we heard James had been collaborating on aeroplane catering.

James Martin

There are recipes and tips to share with you, and we’ll get to those in due course (probably once I’ve re-cooked at least some of the recipes to iron out quantities etc!) but I just wanted to share a few initial ‘teaser’ photos featuring some of the marvellous ingredients we got to ‘play’ with today.

Brown crab  Ingredients  More ingredients

It’s also been a great opportunity to meet other keen cooks and bloggers, and I hope some fun things will come of that in the future, too!

Look forward to more blogging on the subject once I’ve had a good night’s sleep (perhaps several!) and caught up on myself a little!

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Signs of Summer – hedgerow posy

It’s great to see the field margins and roadsides crowded with flowers at this time of year, isn’t it?  I couldn’t resist, and picked a small posy from our paddock – red clover, buttercups and grasses.  It looks a treat on my window sill.

Hedgerow posy

Go and pick one of your own – it’s a little bit of summer, for you to enjoy indoors!  Beautiful, and best of all, completely free!

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Ice and a Slice – a great little tip for your summer drinks!

Summer is finally here – what could be nicer on a sunny afternoon than a lovely long drink over ice, with a slice or two of lemon or lime?  And how often does half a citrus fruit end up mouldering in the door of the fridge until it’s completely useless and inedible?  Even worse perhaps, how frustrating is it when there’s no edible lime in the fruit bowl just when you really really fancy that G&T?

Sliced lemon and lime

Here’s my top tip to save waste and avoid citrus fruit frustration this summer – freeze them!

Sliced lemon and lime, bagged for freezingWhen you’ve sliced what you want, keep going, and finish slicing the whole fruit.  Pack them in a bag (I like using ziplock sandwich bags, if I have them, because I can re-use them time and time again).  I lay them in the bag in twos, if I can, since that’s how I tend to use them in drinks.  Put them in the top of the freezer with the ice-cube trays, job done!  Couldn’t be much simpler, could it, really?

Citrus fruit portions from the freezerHere are a couple of bags of frozen lemon and orange segments I pulled out of my freezer just now.  I freeze all sorts of pieces – half lemons can be defrosted in the microwave (a few 10s blasts should do the trick) and used in cooking and baking (microwaving fresh citrus fruits briefly before juicing is also a useful tip and greatly increases the juice extraction!).  The slices go in drinks, of course (or into the cavity of whole fish before baking!) and the segments are multi purpose – great in a long drink or squeezed over whatever you like.

No need to defrost before using, if it’s a long cold one you’re after.  Just toss the slice or segment into your glass with the ice, and pour over your drink of choice.  The citrus flavour will take a little longer to diffuse into your drink than a fresh slice, but it will all happen as the lemon thaws – which is almost instantaneous for a slice, slightly longer for a segment perhaps but patience is a virtue!  Sit back, and enjoy – and never waste a lime, or go without your wedge of lemon again!

Your long cold drink, ready to go!

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Signs of Spring – the lambs are arriving!

Not much to say today, folks.  Just thought I’d share some photos of lambs that I shot yesterday evening just before sunset on my mobile phone camera.  Aren’t they wonderful? (The lambs, that is, the matter of the greatness or otherwise of the photos is left as an exercise for the reader…)

          

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A little egg-centricity – all about the chicken and the egg

Nothing beats a really fresh free range egg.  For breakfast, fried or poached, boiled or scrambled, or for lunch in an omelette, a really fresh egg – preferably laid this morning – is head and shoulders above any other egg you’ve ever tasted.  You can see the difference straight away, even before you crack it – the shell may well be a bit grubby, and a slightly funny shape, an unexpected or uneven colour.  When you crack it open, the egg white is firm and ‘sits up’ in the pan, and the yolk is a deep orange, and bigger than you expected – if beaten, the raw egg is a rich dark yellow, rather than off-white.  In your mouth the yolk is velvety and rich, creamy and almost sweet with a luxuriant almost-custard quality and the white is firm but never rubbery – a million miles away from the flaccid anaemic and tasteless output of battery cages and the supermarket supply chain.

Fresh egg

It’s a sad fact that in the supermarket dominated, urban West, most people have probably never tasted a really good, fresh egg.  We think of eggs as being uniform, sized and graded, cheap and frankly, dull.  But they’re a natural product, and they vary – in size, colour and shape – and from the very firmest, freshest example, to the end of their storage life when the egg white is watery and the best of the flavour is gone.

I said nothing beats a very fresh egg, but of course that depends what you’re doing with it. If you want to beat the egg and use it to help with raising – in baking, or a soufflé – or you want hard boiled eggs peeled for a Salade Niçoise, then the very freshest eggs aren’t for you.  The egg white – the albumen – is actually in two parts.  The outer albumen is quite watery, you can see it spread out in the pan in the photo above.  The inner albumen is much more firm in a very fresh egg (but in an egg which has been stored for some time you probably won’t be able to see a distinction between the two).  In a very fresh egg this inner albumen has too much structure and tends to want to hold together, which doesn’t allow the batter to rise properly.  Furthermore, if you hard boil a really fresh egg and then remove the shell, the outer albumen will come away with the shell, which is a waste and makes for a scruffy-looking boiled egg.  Eggs about a week old are best for baking and hard boiling – realistically you won’t get eggs much fresher than this from the supermarket, though.

Egg storage

These are my eggs, and three things are obvious – first the range of shapes and sizes, secondly that they’re in some sort of wire device (it’s called an Egg Skelter, and I wouldn’t be without it) and not in the fridge, and thirdly that, frankly, they’re a bit grubby!

The size variability is something that you have to make adjustments for with ungraded eggs.  My approach is to weigh them and then adjust according to standard size references.  The Lion Egg Scheme people have a size guide here.

Fresh eggs will keep safely at room temperature for 3 weeks (it’s no coincidence that this is the length of time they have to stay ‘fresh’ under a warm hen if being hatched!), but if you do put them in the fridge, then you need to leave them there.  If eggs are removed from refrigeration, moisture condenses on the outside of the shell and can then be drawn through into the inside of the egg by osmosis, potentially pulling pathogens from outside the shell into the egg itself and increasing the risk of food poisoning.  My eggs don’t sit around for anything like three weeks (if I have a glut I know plenty of people who are happy to help me deal with it!) so storage at room temperature is ideal.  Better still, the egg skelter enforces first-in-first-out use, which is trickier with other storage systems.

So you’d think washing the dirt from the outside of the egg would be a good idea, right?  In fact dissolving these contaminants in water, and disrupting the outside surface of the shell, also increase the risk of pathogen entry.  Much better to leave grubby eggs as they are, and rub off any loose dirt and mud from the surface just before use.  Egg washing is not permitted in the production chain for commercial shell eggs in the UK, on a risk assessment basis, though it is common practice in other countries including the US (they tend to wash in a chlorine solution – because bleach is what you want in your eggs!).  This goes some way to explaining the obsession with clean eggs in intensive production systems – and the resulting battery cages (improved, but not yet gone), as ‘dirty’ eggs are downgraded.

I’ve kept hens for two and a half years now.  I wasn’t expecting get as attached to them as I have, they’re fascinating animals.  Funny feathery little dinosaur-descendants they certainly are, they’re inquisitive, social (and not always sociable!) little creatures.  Only when you’ve watched hens scratch around for bugs, enjoy a bit of a flap and a wing stretch, and then settle down into a well-earned and apparently thoroughly indulgent dust bath, can you really start to understand how inhumane intensive cost-led egg production systems are.  This is Gertie, by the way, my ‘top hen’, being a bit confused by her first sight of snow, and wondering what I’m doing with that camera.

Outdoor hen

You may not be able to keep your own poultry, but if only for the sake of your palate (never mind the quality of life of the poor intensive egg-producing bird) it’s worth seeking out the best and freshest outdoor reared eggs you can find – farmers markets and farm shops are a great place to start – or ask around, you may be surprised to find a colleague keeps backyard hens, and if you’re really super nice to them, they may be prepared to share! Then, enjoy your wonderful, freshest eggs, with the best home cured bacon for the most amazing breakfast fry-up you’ve ever tasted.

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Waxing Frugal – making a recycled scented chunk candle

Everyone loves a candle, they cast a lovely warm flickery light, and, chosen carefully, can fill a room with beautiful scent (sure, sometimes they can fill a room with the scent of cheap pot-pourri, but this is a matter of taste!).  After Christmas, we had several left over candle ends around the house, and rather than throw them out, I wanted to do something creative and recycle them.  But while there are lots of great candle-making kits out there, I didn’t really want to spend any money on the process.  So this is a candle-making project that, with the exception of some wick and a wick sustainer, you can do entirely with things that you already have around your home and kitchen.

Recycled chunk candle, burning

For this project, you will need –

  • Two old candle-ends, preferably one coloured & scented and one plain, total weight 300 – 400g
  • Empty Pringles tin (I recommend starting with a full one, and working on it!)
  • Large saucepan, a trivet (or an old saucer or side plate), and a large empty tin can (I used an empty malt extract can from home brewing, but any large catering size tin can will do)
  • Stirrer (I used a large wooden lollipop stick, anything will do but not something you plan to use with food!)
  • Chopping surface (again ideally not one you plan to use for food use in future)
  • Large knife
  • 6in length of appropriate wick, a wick sustainer, and something to use as a wick pin (a kebab stick is ideal)
  • Kitchen hob
  • Scales
  • Jam / sugar / preserving thermometer, old tea strainer (recommended but not absolutely required)

Basic equipmentGather up your equipment, starting with the knife and the pringles tin.  Cut the Pringles tin down to about 4″ high using your knife, and make a couple of ‘notches’ in the top on opposite sides of the top.

You’ll need to get an estimate of the capacity of your candle mould, so put a sandwich bag inside the Pringles tin, put it on the scales to zero, and then fill the bag with water to about a 1/2″ below the top.  The weight in grams of water is a good estimate of the volume in mls, as wax is slightly less dense than water (it floats on water, after all), you can reduce this estimate by about 10% to get the weight in wax required to fill the mould to this level. I came up with 300g and used around 270g as a target weight of wax.

Prepared waxNow, cut up your coloured candle.  Try to cut it into even cubes a bit bigger than half an inch cubed, but it’s likely you’ll struggle, and if the pieces are a bit rough, don’t worry. From what you’ve chopped up, sort to one side and weigh all the sensible chunks, leaving the dust and small fragments aside (wrap these up for another project).  Weigh your coloured chunks (mine weighed about 140g) and put them in the mould to check how high up they come. Ideally this will be about the target ‘fill’ level.  Now roughly chunk up your white wax candle.  It doesn’t matter what size and shape these pieces end up, but the smaller they are the faster they’ll melt.   When working with old candles, try to avoid including the ‘melt pool’ from the candle as this will be dirty wax and may well include bits of old burnt wick and suchlike, which you don’t want in your shiny new candle.

A word about wicks, before we go on – the size and construction of wick you need depends on the chemistry of the candle-wax and the width of the melt pool you want in your candle (which is closely related to the diameter of your candle, usually).  When working with recycled waxes, the chemistry involves a fair bit of guesswork.  I assumed the waxes were a basic paraffin pillar blend, since this is the most usual situation for commercial candles manufactured to a price point.  There’s a useful wick size guide here.  (See my suppliers list and library for more reading.)  I used an LX16 wick which should have been a good match for the ~70mm diameter Pringles mould.  Secure the end of the wick into the wick sustainer using pliers.

Melting waxNow, start melting your wax.  Put the white wax into the large tin, and put the tin inside your saucepan on the trivet.  Fill the saucepan with water so that it comes up the side of the tin about an inch and a half.  Use the thermometer, if you have one, in the water.  You don’t want this to boil, but ideally it should stay around 75 degrees centigrade, which should be enough to melt the wax without risk of overheating.  The flash-point of wax is quite close to the melting point, and at the flash point the wax is at risk of catching fire, particularly if you have a naked flame in the vicinity (for instance, if you’re using a gas hob), so be careful and heat the wax very gently.

Primed wick in situOnce the wax is melted, you need to prime the wick, which just means dipping the wick into the wax so that it can be absorbed onto the surface of the cotton.  Also dip the sustainer in the wax, and use this to secure the sustainer to the centre of the bottom of the Pringles tin.  Stretch the wick up vertically and wrap it around the wick pin to keep it centred in the mould.

Chunk candle with poured waxNow, arrange the chunks of coloured wax in the mould around the wick, trying to make sure you don’t close off any pockets which would prevent the melted wax filling all the gaps.  When you’re happy, pour about 90% of the melted wax into the mould, pouring through the tea strainer if you see any ‘bits’ in it.  Keep the remaining 10% over a low heat to keep it liquid, and continue to keep a close eye on it.

Cooling candle by immersionThe wax will shrink as it cools and this will form a dip or a ‘well’ near the wick, which will affect the candle as it burns.  Encourage the candle to cool by putting the mould inside a plastic bag and immersing it into a bowl of water.  You will need to weigh it down to keep it immersed, I used a marble pestle, but anything heavy will do.  This is of course quite faffy, and if it’s a nice cold day, you’d probably do as well to put the mould outside for half an hour or so.

As the wax sets and you start to see a well forming near the wick, make a couple of holes in this area with a skewer.  Once the surface of the wax is springy but not hard to the touch, pour over the rest of the wax tapping the mould to make sure it goes into the holes you’ve made near the wick.  Now set the mould somewhere nice and cold to set – in the fridge if it’s a warm day, or outside if it’s January in the UK.

Candle cooling in mould

After a couple of hours the wax will have set hard.  I was expecting to have to sacrifice the Pringles can at the end of the moulding, but the wax had shrunk back nicely from the sides, and I was able to ease the candle out without having to destroy the mould – however your results may vary and I wouldn’t lose to much sleep about it if you have to break the mould away from the candle.  Trim the wick so that about 1cm is proud from the surface of the wax.

Recycled chunk candleRecycled chunk candleI’m thrilled with the results, which I think are very pretty for a first effort.  The white wax is a little bit ‘dirty’ which I probably could have concealed by using a little bit of ivory or honey-coloured candle dye.  I poured the bulk of the white wax in two ‘goes’ and you can see the line between them, which is something I’d avoid in future.

Recycled chunk candle, with melt pool

My only real criticism of the finished candle would be that I chose too small a wick – the melt pool the candle produces is quite a bit narrower than the body of the candle, and stops short of the sides by about half an inch all the way around.  I suspect this is to do with the chemistry of the original white candle, which we stopped burning for a very similar reason – lesson learned!  If I re-make this candle with the remains of the white wax from this batch I’ll use an LX20 wick which may give a better result.  The melt pool is very pretty though, a lovely dark pink colour from the mixed waxes and gives a gentle berry aroma.  For the cost of a new piece of wick, and a little bit of kitchen chemistry, it’s a beautiful, and extremely thrifty, scented candle.

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