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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New Year, New Home – our plans for the garden

Crikey, we’re half way through January 2015 already – how did that happen?? It seems like only last week we arrived here, but it’s been over six months now since we moved, in the height of summer.

The house

It’s going to be an exciting year for us, and hopefully plenty of opportunities to showcase new skills and techniques here on the blog, too! Those of you who read here regularly will know that we were forced by the HS2 rail project to move from our lovely little cottage near Banbury. We decided to bite the bullet and make a big move – the move to the South West that Hubby and I had always told ourselves we would make ‘one day’, when the right opportunity arose. I have to say I’d always suspected the ‘right time’ might well have ended up being be 20 or 30 years from now, when we were thinking about retirement, so while it was a scary move, and stretches us financially, I’m delighted that we find ourselves here in Cornwall now, while we’re still young (well, relatively, hah!) and fit and able to work and build a life here and contribute to our local community. Even if it means we’re skint working-age folk rather than comparatively well-off retirees!

After an initial 6 months doing temporary contract work to keep our heads above water, I’ve started a new, permanent job for the new year, closer to home and with saner hours (occasional days off!) which will hopefully allow me to draw breath from time to time and spend a little more time making, doing and writing too!

So, as today is one such day, I thought I’d share a little about the projects we have coming up here at our beautiful new home in the course of the next year.

In the garden –

We’re amazingly lucky to have five acres of land with our new home, and in due course we hope to slowly build it up into a productive smallholding. For the time being we’re renting the pasture land to our neighbours for their sheep to graze, while we concentrate our time, effort, and resources around the house and gardens.

Dave dog on the paddock

Yes – gardens. I never thought I’d have gardens in the plural (well, if you ignore a scrap of front driveway!) but we have two, three if you count the old sheep fold where we’ve planted the orchard trees that we dug up and brought with us from our last home.

South gardenTo the south of the house, sloping away gently, we have a triangular garden with Cornish hedges on both sides which is going to be our ‘pretty’ garden. It has gorgeous views over Bodmin Moor and will be perfect for relaxing in on summer evenings if we ever get any time to rest!

The fish pondHubby has dug a pond here for our fish, who are settling in nicely, but otherwise this patch of land is likely to have to take a back seat for a while while we concentrate on more productive projects! With a bit of time and attention (ten years or so should do it!) I have high hopes for it being an even more beautiful place to be.

To the west side, we have an almost square, level garden with the house to one side and Cornish hedges to the other three sides, which essentially makes it a walled garden and the most protected growing space we have. This is an important factor as we’re nearly 900ft up on the edge of Bodmin Moor, and the winter weather and winds here can be a bit ferocious!

First raised bedsThis is going to be our kitchen garden, and as you can see the work has already started, the hens are settling in nicely, and the first three raised beds are planted with winter veggies.

We’re going to build a shed and a small seedling greenhouse here and add some more growing space as we go along. The soil is quite stony as we’re on granite and slate bedrock, but seems good and fertile so with a bit of luck and lots of patience and stone picking this should make for a lovely productive working garden. As long as we can keep the rabbits & mice at bay…

We plan to build a polytunnel outside the gardens to the side of the pasture paddock, to allow us to grow more tender plants like chillies, tomatoes, peppers and maybe even melons, and take even greater advantage of Cornwall’s lovely mild climate (well, by and large – it’s blummin’ chilly today!) and long growing season. The hens might even enjoy hanging out there in future winters, in the dry and out of the wind.

The hens nicely settledThe hens are doing OK now, after a disaster back in November when a stoat broke into the run and slaughtered three of the five girls we’d brought with us from Banbury. Of course, it killed my favourite, Midge, and I was completely heartbroken over the whole thing. We managed to find four new pullets to make up the numbers and all of them seem to be getting on really well now.

We’ve had far less trouble than on any previous hen introductions so we’re obviously getting the hang of this process. The new girls all have their own characters and temperaments and seem very chilled out around Dave dog, which is lovely.

There’s so much to do, but it’s so exciting! I’ve got some chillies in the heated window sill propagator (and rapidly realising I need a much bigger one!) and the first have germinated during the past few days. It won’t be long before every window sill in the house is full to bursting with seedlings – at least they’re nice thick walls, over two feet of solid granite for the most part, so I have plenty of ledge space.

Green shoots!

We missed out completely on last year’s growing season, which was torture. So even though we really should probably be focusing our time and efforts in other places, I refuse to let another whole growing year go by the wayside – it’s so very exciting to have seeds in compost again and to be seeing the very first green shoots of what should hopefully be our first great productive Cornish growing season!

Recycled cold frameIt’s a very conscious decision to concentrate our time and expenditure on the productive aspects of the gardens first – after all, the kitchen garden will go some way to feeding us. Landscaping and decorative planting, no matter how attractive, doesn’t help keep the larder stocked or reduce our food bills. We’re very much doing this on a budget, too – our rather lovely pair of cold frames are made from the glass out of the shower cubicle we had to replace when we got here.

Over the next few blog posts I’ll share with you some of our plans for the house – especially the kitchen – and for our outbuildings. Buckle up – it’s going to be a busy year!

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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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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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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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Taming the Tomato Glut – Part 1: roasted tomatoes with chicken and pasta

The tomato glut has started!  I picked all these gorgeous red beauties in a single session a few days ago. I’m growing that old stalwart, ‘Gardener’s Delight’, along with ‘San Marzanno’, the traditional Italian cooking-type large plum tomato, and two small bush cherry tomato varieties, ‘Lizzano’ and ‘100s and 1000s’.

The tomato glut is here!

Nothing beats a freshly picked home-grown tomato – the sweet flavour, and the delicate perfume so completely lost in fruits picked green half way around the world and ripened artificially in a dark warehouse full of ethylene gas – and up ’till now we’ve been getting through all of them lovely and fresh. We’ve eaten a lot of tomato salads the last few weeks! But with this sudden upsurge in ripening fruit, we’re not keeping up any more.

There are the classics of glut-busting – preserving recipes like passata, chutney, and ketchup – and of course they have their place. Depending on how the fruit output keeps up, I may well make some or all of them in the next few days and weeks. But while preserving allows us to capture a taste of summer in the depths of winter, nothing really beats enjoying fresh, home-grown, seasonal produce at the peak of it’s freshness. Which is why, as well as preserving recipes, every good glut-busting effort needs a few great meals in it, too.

This is my very favourite way of enjoying lots of gorgeous, fresh, ripe tomatoes, simply cooked. You could make this recipe with shop-bought tomatoes, but they’re unlikely to be really lovely and ripe, and you’ll need a lot of them – a decent sized punnet of cherry tomatoes at least for two people. But if you have a local market, you may be able to get hold of lovely ripe tomatoes at this time of year for not much money, so it’s definitely well worth a look.

To make this great chicken dish for two people, you will need –

  • Fresh ingredientsLots of lovely ripe home-grown tomatoes – about a bowl-full
  • Chicken breasts, skin on, one per person if you’re hungry, half per person is fine if you’re not so ravenous. If you’re buying packed chicken breasts, it’s well worth learning the simple skill of butchering a whole chicken into portions – you’ll get much nicer meat, and save money in the process!
  • One small or half a large white onion
  • A nice large clove of garlic or two small ones, (smoked, if possible)
  • A good handful of fresh basil (if you’re growing enough tomatoes to have a glut, and not growing your own basil, you’re doing something wrong!)
  • Hard cheese of your choice. I used mature cheddar because it was what I had, but almost anything would work just fine, I think.
  • Olive oil & balsamic vinegar (or even better, elderberry vinegar)
  • Salt and pepper

Optionally, for the pasta side-dish:

  • Enough good quality Italian dried pasta for two people – linguini would be great, I had spaghetti so that’s what I used. I used to buy supermarket own-brand dry pasta, but the decent Italian stuff is barely more expensive and is streets ahead in terms of cooking quality.
  • A couple of spoonfuls of fresh homemade green pesto, or alternately a generous glug of good spicy olive oil.

Chicken breasts, after fryingSlice up all your tomatoes so they’re about even sized pieces. Tiny ones can be left whole. While you’re doing this, heat a little bit of olive oil in a frying pan. Season the chicken breasts lightly with salt & pepper (be more generous on the skin side) and fry quickly until slightly coloured. Then place the chicken breasts in an oven dish big enough to contain them reasonably snugly with a small gap around.

Prepared fresh ingredientsAdd the onion, garlic and shredded basil to your chopped tomatoes in a bowl, and toss to mix. Season lightly with salt and more generously with pepper, and add a generous glug of oilve oil and a drizzle of balsamic or elderberry vinegar, as if dressing a tomato salad. To give a sense of scale & quantity, this is a large wide bowl of the kind often used to serve pasta.

Ready to go in the ovenSpread the tomatoes around and over the chicken breasts in the oven dish, and grate about a handful of cheese over the top. Now wrap the dish tightly with tin-foil (or put on the lid, if it has one) and snuggle it into an oven at 180 degrees for about an hour.

After an hour has passed, take the lid or foil off your dish and return it to the oven. I love to serve this with pasta, so now’s the time to get a big pan of water to a rolling boil, with a generous pinch of salt and a glug of olive oil, and get your pasta cooking.

When the pasta’s done to a nice ‘al dente’, strain it and stir in a small amount of pesto, if you like, or just toss it generously in good peppery olive oil. You’re not aiming for ‘pasta in pesto’, here, just a very delicate sprinkling of basil and pine kernel pieces through your cooked spaghetti.

Out of the oven!Get your roasted tomatoes and chicken out of the oven. It should be a gorgeous golden caramelised colour on top, and will smell just amazing.

I served the chicken breasts whole, but you could just as easily pick them out at this point and slice them cross-ways into bite-sized pieces, which would make it easier to eat this as a traditional pasta dish with a spoon and fork!

Don’t waste a drop of what’s in this roasting dish – serve up a chicken breast per person, with all the tomatoes and any pan juices spooned over the top. The juice is pure, concentrated, tomato sweetness, and is the absolute highlight of the dish, in my opinion.

Ready to eat!

You’re all very lucky there *is* a photo of the finished dish, as Hubby was looking on as if I’d lost my mind when I got the camera out again. We were both starving after a very busy day, and just wanted to dig right in!

So, if you have a glut of home-grown tomatoes on your hands, please do give this recipe a try. It’s a fabulous taste of late summer, and I promise you wont’ be disappointed!

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Relight My Fire – DIY recycled wax and wood-shaving firelighters

The chimney sweep came this week, and with the equinox just passed, the nights are palpably drawing in.  We use the wood-burning stove in our living room for an awful lot of our heating in the winter – the alternative for us, living off the beaten track (and off the gas main!) is our oil-fired boiler, which is both expensive and not terribly environmentally considerate.  But even if you’re not using your fire daily, there’s nothing better than a real wood fire as the nights get colder and darker!

Firelighter burning well

We have a fire most nights in the winter, and that brings with it a requirement for firelighting.  We cut our own kindling wood from our log supply (well, I say ‘we’ – Hubby does it!) so it’s not as tinder-dry as the bags of kiln-dried kindling sticks you can buy at great expense.  While I’ve succeeded in lighting the fire with newspaper, cardboard and kindling, it’s a frustrating exercise, doesn’t always work first time, and we tend to use a firelighter to get the kindling going nice and quickly and conveniently.  There’s only one downside – the white firelighter blocks you get from the co-op or the garage *stink* of kerosene.  I don’t want them in my living room!  And while I occasionally see the nicer wax & sawdust type for sale locally, I can’t buy them reliably.

But they gave me an idea – with the waste-wax I have available from old candles (believe me, I’m really bad at throwing things away, even stuff like this!), the really grotty old stuff that really can’t be recycled into new candles, from melt pools, stained with soot, with old wick and ash and even match-heads in it, in different colours and scents, could I make my own?

The answer is resoundingly *yes*, but with a caveat…

Equipment and 'ingredients' (1)You want about equal volumes of wax and closely packed wood shavings.  I was hoping to use some wood-shop waste, to make the whole thing completely free and recycled, but the stuff I could get hold of was too fine and dusty and mixed with big chunks of ‘stuff’.  I think the shavings produced when hubby breaks out the wood-turning lathe would be ideal, so I’ll save those in future.

'Ingredients' (2)For this batch I used a cup of wood shavings I stole from the supply we keep for the henhouse, it’s a tiny amount and probably cost a couple of pence at most (and technically I suppose is a recycled by-product, anyway!).  You also want an egg box (I had a few old dozen-sized egg boxes that have been damaged beyond useful re-use), and a double-boiler arrangement for melting your wax, preferably with an inner container you don’t want to use again for ‘clean’ candle-making, and a thermometer for safety.

Take your dirty grotty old wax and put it all into the double boiler, and heat the water up to about 75 degrees celsius.  This should allow you to melt the wax down without getting too close to the flash point of your wax.  I’ve used an old can which previously held malt extract for home-brewing, it’s about the perfect size for melting candle wax.  Really, any dirty old wax goes here, and don’t worry about trying to remove old bits of burnt or unburnt wick, wick sustainers, matchsticks, or anything like that.  Add more wax in stages as the contents of the can melt down, until you have the sort of volume of melted wax you need (it was about 1/3rd of the can, once melted, for me).

This part of the process is where my caveat comes in – it took a bit over an hour to melt down all this wax, during which I couldn’t really leave the wax unattended on the stove (though I did get the chance to have a nice chat on the phone with my little sister).  The time investment in making these as a standalone project probably, for me at least, make the cost / benefit of this project a bit suspect!  There may be ways around this, more of which later!

Melted wax with about half the shavings addedOnce all your grotty old wax has melted down (it will smell quite peculiar if, like mine, it contains fruity, citrussy and maple-syrup scented candle-waxes!), add your shavings in batches, stirring as you go.  You want most of the wax to be absorbed into the shavings, leaving just a little bit of ‘free’ wax to set the mix as it cools.  Pack the mix into the wells of the egg boxes, filling them to the top, and squeeze down the contents with your fingers (wait for it to cool partially before doing this, if you like).

Firelighters settingMy mix made an almost perfect dozen firelighters (I also made two ‘experimental’ lighters with rolled-up cardboard in the well). Allow the firelighters to cool, and then separate them (tear, or cut into the underside of the egg carton to get things going).  Mine look like rather suspect pink raw minced beef products because of the red waxes that went into the mix!  There’s a very subtle smell about them if you stick them right up to your nose, but nothing unpleasant.

So far so good, right?  But it’s all ‘for nowt’ if they don’t actually light fires!  Would they do the job?  Would all the wax melt and dribble out and make a mess of my lovely newly-serviced wood stove?

Setting fire to the lighter & kindlingBuild your kindling ‘jenga pile’, and nestle the fire lighter in the centre.  Then set fire to the cardboard edge of the lighter with a match, and watch it go!  It burned amazingly well, cleanly, with no wax dripping, and got up to a really good temperature, the kindling wood was snapping, fizzing and crackling almost immediately and the fire got off to a roaring start!

I suspect actually about half the total volume of firelighter would have done the job – a whole egg-well seemed a bit generous.  I might under-fill the wells a bit in future and see if it still does the job.

But ‘in future’, if the process is this time consuming?  Well, if the performance of these firelighters weren’t quite so good, I suspect I wouldn’t be making them again.  I think it will be a task that I do ‘in the background’ in a second can when I’m using the double-boiler for clean candle-making anyway (I’ll be doing quite a bit of this in the build up to Christmas!).  If you’re doing any similar candle craft, and have space for a second melting pot (or if you have one of those natty thermostatically controlled wax melting gadgets that you can set-and-forget to a greater extent) then I can thoroughly recommend making these free, recycled little firelighters.

Keep those home-fires burning bright!

Enjoy your fires this winter, folks (and have a look at my useful little tip for cleaning the glass on a wood-burning stove, while you’re at it)!

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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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Basic Butchery – how to butcher & portion a pork belly

Pork belly is such a wonderful and versatile cut, and so under-rated here in the UK.  Most of my bacon making is with belly, so we get through quite a lot of it.  As a result I tend to buy it most-of-a-belly at a time!  The process of butchering it to remove the ribs and prepare it for curing or roasting is quite simple, and worth learning, since it means you’ll end up with precisely the piece of meat you want for the task at hand, and a couple of little bonus items, too!

Large piece of pork belly

Your butcher will probably offer to prepare your belly for you, removing the ribs and trimming it to your preference, but you never quite seem to get exactly what you were after, somehow!  Doing the job yourself means you get exactly what you want.  This is my starting point – just under 2kg piece of pork belly .

Peel away the inner layer of fatStart by removing the layer of fat on the inside of the belly piece, if there’s one there.  You shouldn’t need your knife for this, it should just pull away if you work gently beneath it with your fingers, leaving a clean muscle surface beneath.  Once you’ve removed it, set it to one side (I usually keep an ‘offcuts’ plate or bowl handy when I’m portioning or butchering meats).  This is effectively pork suet.

Belly portion with fat removedNow you can get a better look at the anatomy of your piece of meat.  As it’s laid out in the photo here, the ribs are on the left, you can see the flap of diaphragm meat lying above them.  On the right side of the belly is a band of smooth muscle.  The ends of the ribs lie almost exactly where the visible edge of this muscle joins the diaphragm.

Cut beneath ribsTake a long, thin bladed, sharp knife and first cut beneath the ribs, as close as possible to them to reduce wastage.  The piece has been rotated 180 degrees from where it was in the previous photograph so that the ribs are now bottom right.  You should be able to feel roughly where the ribs end, so extend your cut beneath them as close as possible to this level.

Finding the ends of the ribsNow gently slice beneath the strap-like muscle we identified earlier, where it lies over the ends of the ribs, and peel it back,  You’ll find the ends of the ribs and the strips of cartilage which link them together.  Gently slice around these and then back underneath. By lifting the rib section it should now be quite easy to join up with the cut beneath and remove this as a block.

Rack of ribs, as removedEither put the rack of ribs to one side, or cut them up into individual ribs at this stage.  This couldn’t be simpler – just feel for the gap between each pair of ribs and slice down the centre parallel to them, your knife, if it’s nice and sharp, should cut straight through the connecting cartilage.

Ribs, divided up.You can trim away any strips of cartilage that area easy to identify – you can see this top left.  That bit is genuinely wastage, incidentally, so chuck it away if you want!  Bag your butchered ribs up, label them, and freeze them for another day (they’re great done on the BBQ with a jerk marinade!).

Pork belly with ribs removed

Now let’s turn our attention back to the pork belly itself.

You can really see now that mine is anything but rectangular! It’s actually sitting ‘upside down’ in terms of how it was on the pig – the top as we look at that photo is the part closest to the middle of the pig’s body, the rib side is towards the back.  As we get closer to the abdominal midline, the proportion of fat to muscle increases, so I trimmed the piece to rectangular, discarding the part which is most top-left in this photograph.

Pork belly, trimmedBecause I’m planning to prepare the belly as streaky bacon, this will give me more manageable, even chunks.  You can see the effect of the trimming in this photograph – the piece has been rotated again so the rib-side is now away from us.  Add your trimmings to the ‘offcuts’ bowl.

Belly pieces, divided upNow simply divide up your belly as you like.  Mine weighed almost exactly 1.6kg at this point, so I divided it evenly into four ~400g pieces.   A large piece like this would be fantastic roasted slowly whole, too, perhaps with chinese spices, for a special meal for a big gathering!  Roast pork belly has the *best* crackling.

Bag your ribs and your offcuts – these will make fantastic quite fatty minced pork for adding to any minced-meat dish that requires extra juiciness and succulence, or for sausages.  Then sit back and admire your work.

Fully-butchered pork belly

My belly portions were for curing, so I prepared a maple syrup cure made up of 100g of supracure and 90g of pure maple syrup, applied about half to all the bellies, and then bagged them together in the fridge. (More discussion of the bacon-in-a-bag ‘dry’ cure method can be found here.)

Belly pieces with maple syrup cureI’ll apply the second half after 48 hours and re-arrange the bellies so they’re skin-side together for the second half of the curing process.  The total curing time would normally be 5 days for belly pork, but these pieces are thicker than usual, so I may decide to let them go a day longer, depending on the texture and appearance at the 5 day mark.  It would be great to get some maple smoke into some of them – but that’ll depend on the weather.  I’ll keep you posted!

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