For the love of kale

There’s something so dreary about the word ‘kale’. Trying dragging it out – kaaaaale. Depressing. Boring. Dull. Virtuous. Farty. Tough.

Wrong, it’s none of those*. And at this time of year, it’s a godsend to the vegetable gardener. We’ve had a couple of sharp frosts and right now it’s trying to snow – again – so my kale is in prime picking condition.

IMG_1332This year, I grew it by accident. Almost.

It’s a toughie: it withstands conditions like these in 2010 (the kale is the leafy lump, foreground, right), and shrugs off the worst effects of the weather, laughing all the while. It can be eaten to the stalk by caterpillars during the summer but spring right back in winter. Nothing, but nothing, kills it. And as a result, I’ve suffered from kale-glut syndrome.

The symptoms are easily recognisable: a freezer full of frozen kale, a tendency to put kale in everything, to contemplate making kale ice cream and flavouring chocolate mousse with it, a desire to be really close friends with everyone and give them presents. Of kale. So last year I decided I wouldn’t plant any, and stuck to my resolve. (Shh. I missed it. A bit.)

Earlier this year I was inveigled into taking home some small cavolo nero plants at the Green Fair and plant swap in Penrhyndeudraeth. I didn’t want to, but I most emphatically did want to get rid of some tomato seedlings in exchange, so I took a tray. I shoved them in a corner of the veg plot and left them alone. The caterpillars didn’t; they had a fantastic time. But I remembered that a bare kale stalk can mystically regenerate, and left them in. They’re now the only thing standing, and they are DELICIOUS.

cavolo neroBut what do you do with kale, even if it is the sophisticated cavolo nero, given that the kale ice cream was not a hit?

This little lot is being shredded and added to a stir fry this evening. It’s also been in stews and baked with pasta, and it’s been in a lovely Tuscan ribollita in the past, though not yet this year. There are lots more possibilities, too, and of course it can take really strong flavours and stand up to them, face them down, even. Watch this space.

My latest favourite is a pasta sauce. The recipe came from an Italian neighbour and was scribbled on the back of a receipt from the local farmers’ co-op (once my shopping receipts urged me to try perfumes; this one’s slogan informs me that ‘quality bull semen is now in’). It was pinned on my kitchen noticeboard for ages but has finally made its way safely into my notebook. It serves one, due to unreasoning prejudice in the kale stakes.

Orachietti con cavolo nero
Serves 1

80-100g orachietti
a big handful of small cavolo nero leaves
half a tsp olive oil
1 clove of garlic, crushed
6 anchovies
chilli flakes, to taste

Put a large pan of slightly salted water on to the boil. As soon as it boils, add the orachietti. Time it – when the water returns to the boil, allow the orachietti to cook for half the time specified on the packet (this usually means about 5 minutes). During this time, chop the cavolo nero and discard any tough-looking stems. Add the leaves to the orachietti once the 5 minutes have elapsed, and allow it to cook for the rest of the specified time – generally 10-12 minutes in total.

Warm the oil in a small frying pan over a gentle heat. Add the garlic and the anchovies, and break the anchovies up with a wooden spoon. Add the chilli flakes and stir – cook very briefly.

Drain the pasta and cavolo nero well, and return them to their warm pan. Tip in the contents of the frying pan, stir everything together and serve immediately, with plenty of black pepper. Enjoy!

kale

* Confession time. Honesty makes me admit that kale can be difficult. Pick the wrong variety and cook it wrongly, and it can be every single one of the negative things listed. I once sowed an obscure heritage kale out of interest and respect for generations of north-of-Scotland crofters, and it was possibly one of the toughest things I’ve ever grown. It was beautiful to look at, very prolific, and shoes, it would have been fine for. Eating – meh…

Happy Christmas!

I know there are plenty of things I should be doing – wrapping the last gifts, bringing in logs, finding cranberry juice / chestnuts / the dates I bought months ago – but if there’s one constant in my life, it’s a belief in the importance of displacement activity.

To which end, I have just decanted the apricot vodka I made earlier (though to a lightly different recipe to the one at the end of that post), and I have to say it’s pretty good… well, it would have been silly not to try it, guv. I’ve returned some of the apricots to the jar and added the remains of a bottle of Stoly, so the next lot may be even more – um, tasty. Yep, tasty. And, of course, wildly alcoholic.

Oh, yes, that reminds me:

HAPPY CHRISTMAS EVERYONE!
NADOLIG LLAWEN I BAWB!

SNOWY

Here’s what was left of my crab apples at this time four years ago, when we were in the deepest snow we’ve had for years. And fingers crossed for no repeats – despite it being incredibly picturesque. And warm, with the house buried in snow. Oh, OK then, let’s have a repeat. But only after I’ve got those logs in.

In praise of pickled onions

I’m soooo boring. I was playing ‘last meals’ with a couple of friends – you know, what would your last meal be if you were on death row (crime unspecified but possibly involving murdering some eejit politician) and yes, I know it’s tasteless but let’s just say drink had been taken. Lobsters were mentioned. Foie gras came into the discussion. And then I let the side down – or up, depending on your point of view: perfect bread, butter, great slab of strong cheese, preferably a well-matured farmhouse Cheddar or Cheshire, and pickled onions. Good ones. Great ones. Home-made ones.

This may have been because I’d just been lucky. For some reason, pickling onions have been thin on the ground this year, and because I had onion white rot in the garden (AGH!) I didn’t have any small onions or excess shallots of my own. But then I saw some, lurking in the gigantic new Waitrose (hooray!!!) in Chester. Grab and go. Grabbed the last two packs, paid and went, actually.

onions for picklingThey were a bit of a disappointment, to be honest. I knew it was late in the season, so I knew I was talking a chance but hey, this was Waitrose: they should have been perfect. And they weren’t; some had definitely gone off, and many more were a bit soft. It’s best to pickle really hard onions, but beggars who buy their pickling onions in Waitrose can’t be choosers, so I had to make do with what I’d got, pick through them carefully and hope I’d got enough for one giant jar.

And I had, and I can’t wait – but I know I must. Believe you me, they’re worth it. So here’s my pickled onion recipe, for next year. Starting with my own spiced vinegar, because I find the commercial ones rather harsh and dominant. Oh, and I double brine my onions, which takes a couple of days or so.

Pickling vinegaronions detail
1 litre cider vinegar
1 heaped tbsp cloves
2 sticks of cinnamon, 10cm long
1 tbsp black peppercorns
2 tsp allspice berries
a couple of blades of mace

Put everything in a pan (not aluminium) and bring the vinegar just to the boil – there should be no bubbling. Decant everything into a bowl, cover it and leave it to infuse for at least a couple if hours (I tend to leave it overnight).

For the pickled onions
1.5kg pickling onions
350g salt
900ml pickling vinegar
3.6 litres water

Pick over the onions and throw away any which are starting to rot (sigh). Put the rest of the unpeeled onions into a large bowl, add half the salt and water, and stir everything together. The onions will float; weigh them down into the brine by putting a plate on top. Leave them like this for 12-18 hours.

Now for the second brine. Drain the onions, then top, tail and peel them (this will be a lot easier than it would have been if you peeled them at the very start, thank goodness). When peeling them, discard any rubbishy layers, layers of onion that are a bit too soft or starting to look a bit ropy (thanks, Waitrose). Put the peeled onions into a clean bowl, maybe a slightly smaller one this time, with the rest of the salt and enough water to cover them well. Stir and weigh down the onions as before. This time, leave them for 24-36 hours. (The best point to make the pickling vinegar.)

Sterilize a large jar in the oven – just heat the oven with the jar in it at a low level for about 20 minutes. Allow the jar to cool, and then pack the onions in firmly. Drain the pickling vinegar well through two layers of muslin – or an old, clean tea towel – and, using a jug, pour it into the jar until the onions are completely covered. Seal the jar well, and put it in a dark cupboard; forget about it for at least six weeks.

wait, wait.

And, at the end of that time, make sure you’ve got some really lovely bread and an ace mature Cheddar. Or whatever floats your own particular pickled boat…

Flour power

Oh, I know, such a predictive post title – but I couldn’t resist! Yes, it’s rant time. Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s more a ‘shaking my head in sad bafflement’ time.

IMG_6863I’m a baker. I love making bread, hands and/or ancient Kenwood permitting, and do so on a regular basis. I slice it and store it in the freezer, and always try to have stock in. That’s because if I run out I’m back to the boiled baby’s blanket that passes for a loaf – even a supposedly ‘artisan’ loaf – in a local supermarket. Oh, all right – rant alert: what the heck is ‘artisan’ about any Tesco bread anyway? But I suppose ‘mass-produced in some giant factory and then shipped out to stores for a quick tart up’ doesn’t have quite the same marketing spin, does it?

Artisan, my arse. Ahem.

I buy flour in bulk. I used to share a sack with a friend, but I’m using much less wholemeal now, having finally twigged about excessive fibre giving me digestive problems. So I now buy five 1.5kg bags of Marriages Strong White Organic from a wholefood co-op, and add a little wholemeal for extra oomph. I’ve been quite happy with that, but the latest batch has been rather different. It’s softer than normal, much lighter, even finer. It’s got a completely different feel, and I’d be happy to make cakes with it which I would normally avoid with bread flour. It also makes perfectly good bread, but I’m intrigued. I know flour varies enormously – even the flour you get from one field of wheat can be different from that produced by the grains grown in the next field – but this is a huge change. Maybe it’s time to look at some different flours?

white flourI’ve tried quite a few, all stoneground – the Marriages is roller-milled, but until now I’ve been fine with that; it’s the only roller-milled flour I’ve felt was comparable. I’ve tried other roller-milled flour (the standard way of producing flour, at least in a more ‘commercial’ setting) and I can tell the difference, or I think I can. I like my flour to taste of something, and I find that other roller-milled flours are rather bland for breadmaking. Great if that’s what you want (or, of course, what you can afford) and absolutely fine for some circumstances, but I did a comparison bread test and yup, I could tell. Or maybe it was a case of emperor’s new clothes – I’m still not sure.

If I am right, there might be good reason for it. Many bakers think roller mills run too quickly, thus generating enzyme-damaging heat and giving rise to flour which lacks character. In addition, roller-milled flour has all the goodies – like the wheatgerm – removed and then added back in at the end of the milling process.

quernBut I’m not going back to prehistory, either: grains ground between the stones of a quern like this one could a) take forever – I know, I’ve done it, and b) add extra tooth-grinding grit to the flour, depending on the material used for the quern. Using a quern also wrecks your knees, neck, back, hands and wrists – women’s work, eh?

Nope, I’m happy with perfectly normal stoneground for my bread, so I’m going on a mission: to try all sorts of flours from small mills, big mills, artisan mills, little mills up obscure lanes in the Welsh countryside who sell their flour though a single outlet in Aberystwyth, Machynlleth, Conwy or Bangor. Whenever I find something a bit out of the ordinary, I’ll buy it and give it a go.

I can easily get Marriages and Dove’s Farm, and those are what I’ll use in between. I can also lay my hands on Bacheldre (the mill was up for sale in the summer, can’t work out if it’s been sold or just withdrawn from sale), Gilchesters, Little Salkeld Watermill and Shipton Mill, because they’re all available through the co-op or local healthfood shops. But I’m really after the unusual (plus I had a weevil-based experience with Shipton Mill’s strong white which has rather put me off retesting that one).

It doesn’t have to be wheat, either; of course there are other grains to try. I’ve used spelt and I love it for soda bread; its perfect for that. I’ve tried emmer and einkorn (as an acrchaeologist, even an ex-archaeologist, I felt obliged to give these neolithic grains a go) and I’ll happily have a bash at almost anything. But for me, it’s fundamentally wheat flour. But which one? I’m no nearer to my answer, though I have now set myself off on a Flour Quest for 2015 (think Shrek and Donkey going after Princess Fiona, though I’m female, not green and am unaccompanied by Eddie Murphy). But am a lot nearer to a beautiful fresh loaf. Must let it cool down, must let it cool down…

YUM!

PS: since writing this I’ve been in contact with Marraige’s, and they’ve asked me to send a packet back to them for them to check out. Luckily I still had one unopened pack – the rest had gone in the flour bin – and it’s on its way back to Essex as I write. A strange Christmas present for the miller, but there you go… us flour-obsessives are a strange lot.

The soup addict is back, with sweet potatoes

That’s it. It’s blowing a hooley outside, the car’s in for its annual service, the stove has been lit despite the general mildness (it’s getting damp, too), and I’ve made the first soup of the season.

I do like cold soups – there are a couple of recipes here – but to me there is something profoundly wrong about serving soup, especially a warm soup, in summer. I know, I know: get over it, what about avgolemono, shorbat ads? My response is that it gets cold around the Med too, and that’s the time for soup. It’s certainly colder here, so I went looking for inspiration. I fancied something a bit different; I’ve got plenty of squash in, but there’s also plenty of squash soup in the freezer already. Plus (and I know this is silly), I wanted the variety of using bought ingredients. I’ve been using squash and tomatoes and beans and shallots and spuds for months. I wanted a change! I wanted exotica!

What I got, when I finally made it to the Co-op rather late in the day, was a sweet potato. And a red pepper.

IMG_0492sweet potato and red pepper soupI like a sweet potato soup, and red pepper goes well. But I still craved something a bit unusual, and sweet potato can be (surprise, surprise) a little too sweet. Obviously onions, garlic – but what about something to give a bit of oomph? A squeeze of lemon? Coriand-– no. Chillies, make a really hot soup? Nah, but maybe on the right lines. So I toyed with the idea of adding some pimenton dulce for the smoky taste, but in the end decided I didn’t want to overdo the whole capsicums thing. Then I hit on it: smoked garlic.

I know, very noughties. But I had a serious smoked garlic habit at one time, and I used it a lot – in marinades, in casseroles, in dips. It’s not that easy to get now, almost impossible round me and definitely impossible in the Co-op on a wet Monday night, but you can get smoked garlic paste and smoked garlic powder, and I had some in. Time to experiment…

Sweet potato and red pepper soup with smoked garlic
serves 3-4, depending on portion size and how thick you like your soup

1 medium to large sweet potato
1 large red pepper
1 medium onion
1 tsp rapeseed oil (or other neutral oil)
2 small cloves of garlic, chopped
1/2 tsp smoked garlic powder, or to taste – but not more than 1 tsp
700-900ml vegetable stock

Peel and chop the sweet potato into chunks no larger than 2cm; deseed and chop the pepper and finely chop the onion. Put the oil in a heavy-bottomed pan over a medium heat, and add the onion. Cook very gently without burning for about 10 minutes, until the onion is soft and transparent – this is sometimes easier with a lid on the pan. Add the chopped garlic and cook for another minute, then stir in the smoked garlic powder, mixing it in well. Add the sweet potato and the red pepper, and stir them round too. Then add enough stock to cover and increase the heat. Bring the soup to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer until all the vegetables are soft. Blend the soup and adjust the thickness with a little water if you wish; reheat if necessary.

The best thing about this? Not just the taste, which I love – but the fact that it sent me into my store cupboards in search of possibilities. I felt a bit like Howard Carter peering into Tutankhamun’s tomb: ‘What can you see?’ ‘Wonderful things…’ Watch out for recipes involving amchoor powder, a chermoula spice blend, barberries, vast quantities of ras-el-hanout, za’atar, black cardamoms and graines de paradis. Maybe not all at the same time, mind.

Chutney time!

There’s something about making chutney. I end up feeling virtuous because I’ve used up the last of my crop – inevitably, green tomatoes are involved –

tomatoes

and there’s a beautifully stocked cupboard to admire. Well, OK, it’s a box or two under the stairs but I still come over all Laura Ingalls Wilder: ‘Oh, Ma, come quick and see! There’s so many things!’

Over the years I’ve experimented with all sorts of things: fresh chutneys, chutneys that are directly Indian in inspiration, traditional ‘British’ chutneys, chutneys using unusual or foraged ingredients (elderberry: very good). I’ve come to the conclusion that I like the lot. Cold meat, baked potato and chutney, oh yeah. Chunks of warm home-made bread with strong cheddar and chutney on the side, even more oh yeah. I’ve amassed a small library of recipes, some of which are sketchy in the extreme and some of which slide into picccallli territory (oh no).

I have now come up with a basic formula and just play around with it. It’s simple: 2kg vegetables / dry ingredients; 250g soft light brown sugar; 250ml cider vinegar and 125ml water. Spices to suit what I’m doing. I can fit this into my biggest Le Creuset casserole, and end up with (roughly) seven 300g jars (I eat a lot of Gaea’s wonderful Kalamata olives, and the empties are ideal).

steam risingThis year my two kilos were made up of 700g assorted tomatoes, mostly green; 350g finely chopped white onion, 200g sultanas and 750g apples (peeled weight). I added two chopped chillies and three scant teaspoons of tamarind paste, and made up a spice bag with cardamoms, plenty of coriander seeds, dried ginger, a few cloves and cumin seeds. That went in, followed by the sugar and the liquid, and I filled the whole kitchen with steam.

cookingI bring it to the boil, then reduce the heat to a good simmer. It cooks down for maybe two hours, maybe longer, depending – but the consistent thing is regular stirring to ensure that absolutely nothing sticks, whatever ingredients I’m using.

I check it more frequently as it reduces and changes colour, and soon it becomes more and more rich (and smells delicious). I know it’s ready when I draw a wooden spoon through it along the bottom of the casserole, and it leaves a clear trail – the inside of my Le Creuset is white, making it really clear. I’ve had my jars, freshly washed, drying out and sterilizing in a low oven, and the lids have been in boiling water.

Fighting the urge to change into a Little (Li’l?) Pioneer frock (happily, there’s no longer any Laura Ashley in my wardrobe), I start potting.

chutney jarsFirst, I retrieve my jam funnel from wherever I put it last time I used it. This was inevitably months ago, and the search can a) take time, ideal for cooling the chutney a little, and b) reveal all sorts of interesting things, like a pastry rings and an espadrille which had fallen behind a drawer (??). Then I carefully fill the jars, pop the lids on and, when they are cool enough to handle, I tap them firmly to fill up any gaps. Well, some gaps.

And then they disappear into the box under the stairs to mature. They need to be left until Christmas at the very least, and preferably until this time next year; earlier, and they are but a pale shadow of what they will later be. It takes time to develop a real depth of flavour.

I tend to use the Garden Club’s summer show as a marker, because that’s when I go prospecting, pulling jars out and tasting to determine which one has the honour of being entered into one of the most keenly contested classes. I only won a third this year – possibly because I’d eaten most of last year’s Apple, Date and Ginger and only had half a jar left:

IMG_0489

I really couldn’t enter half a jar and had to put in the Green Ginger (green toms, courgettes, apples, onion, LOTS of ginger) even though I knew it needed more time. The AD&G is delicious, but unfortunately I can’t find the notes – they’re probably in the drawer with the other espadrille and the pastry rings, hang on while I go and look… and maybe the notes for my orange chutney from 2012 will be there too.

I know I should be more organised, but for me part of the enjoyment of making chutney lies in never making the same ones twice. It’s impossible anyway, as far as I’m concerned. This year, for instance, I didn’t have as many green toms as usual and my apples ripened incredibly quickly; last year I had left-over courgettes to go in, and even a few beans. I believe in going with the flow when it come to chutneys. Plus I won’t know what this year’s contribution is really like until next August. Good, I hope. Fingers crossed!

Back to the future with retro cooking

A couple of days ago I was in search of a recipe. I knew I had it somewhere, but I searched everywhere and couldn’t find it. Then I thought about the cookery books I keep down in the basement/office/general store, and ended up down there. I didn’t find it, but I did find something else: The Hamlyn All-Colour Cookbook from 1970. Oh yes!

This was one of the first cookery books to have every single recipe illustrated, and illustrated in – drum roll, please – colour. Strange colour, in some cases, but colour. It was written by four people and the contributor of the first section is Mary Berry – in fact, it was her first foray into cookery books. Her part is largely devoted to baking and sweet recipes, and is predictably reliable, but I was looking for more savoury recipes. And I found them. Either the authors were under serious pressure (always possible), or these dishes were acceptable then, because some are – um – extreme. Many are extreme.

'rice salad'I found myself in a strange land, serving to remind me just how far we have come, and just how far food styling has come too (the images are printed at so low a res that my shots will have to remain small, btw). This is a rice salad, which consists of a large mound of cold rice with various uncooked ingredients placed on it in stripes, and surrounded by watercress. That’s it.

Should you wish to host a retro dinner party, then I can sincerely recommend this book as it is, and not as it is in any ‘modernised’ version. It was a classic – almost every home had one – and it is perfectly, absolutely of its time. Think Abigail’s Party.

'lasagne pie'Mind you, there might be a problem in sourcing some of the ingredients. Or not, even though they might be missing from your cupboards at present. The ‘lasagne pie’ for instance, uses a tin of minced beef or a tin of chunky steak (I think the stylist went for chunks), and that’s almost it. Half a packet of lasagne, the aforementioned meat, 1 tbsp tomato puree, some garlic salt and pepper, with single cream and grated cheese (not for a Béchamel – you just pour cream over it, cook it and scatter the cheese on top when it’s nearly done).

IMG_0327Vegetarians, predictably, get few offerings. I spent ten years as a veggie – my family still are – and I well remember the Ubiquitous Omelette, now replaced (my brother tells me) with the equally ubiquitous mushroom risotto. This is the Vegetarian Sunburst Salad. In case it’s not obvious, it’s grated carrot, grated cheese, some lettuce leaves and cucumber slices. It does look pretty, though… oh, and the dressing is peanut butter mixed with (bought) vinaigrette.

reallyI’d not realised the extent of the 1970 pineapple obsession. Fancy fried pineapple, with sausages and baked beans? No problems. Try Sausage Beanfeast, with a bunch of spring onions, a can of pineapple rings, pork sausages and a large tin of baked beans in tomato sauce. You fry the onions and some chopped pineapple in butter, and add the beans and chopped grilled sausages (reserving some). While you’re doing this, you fry the remaining pineapple halves. Then you assemble as shown.

But for me the prize goes to this dish. Now, my mother had this book. Plenty of friends had this book. I took an updated copy of this book to Uni. I’ve eaten some good things made from recipes in this book. I am not belittling this book. But I am – gobsmacked, I think is the right word – by Pineapple Crowns.

aghThese are Pineapple Crowns. I’m not quite sure what I was expecting when I read the recipe title as I flicked through, but it wasn’t this. Ingredients? Mustard pickles, finely chopped; white bread with the crusts trimmed away; lard; slices of canned pork luncheon meat; another tin of pineapple slices (the mustard pickle is the stuff that looks like droppings on the top – thank heavens food styling has moved on). Basically it’s bread fried in lard, luncheon meat friend in lard, pineapple rings fried in lard, all piled on top of each other and topped with mustard pickle. Rather like a Noughties’ chef might produce a tower, though I don’t think lard would feature quite so prominently… just saying.

Some of the sections are a little random, leading to some alarming juxtapositions: Cheesy Buttered Noodles (they look like tagliatelle, with butter and grated cheddar, then baked) next to Butterfly Layer Cake, which is topped with a can – well, with the contents, dur – of blackcurrant pie filling. They’re both in ‘rice and pasta’ by the way – ‘continental favourites’ has a frankfurter salad next to crèmes au chocolat – but there are more elsewhere. For me, this is the opposite of appetizing: it makes me feel slightly ill, and that’s without eating Pineapple Crowns.

But I am so glad I found this book – if you see the 1970 version in a charity shop, do buy it. It won’t break the bank (mine cost me £1.50), and it may bring benefits. Remember the Rum Truffle? I don’t think I’ve eaten one since about 1987, but I did love them and there’s a recipe here and I’m going for it.

As a finale, how about this masterpiece of styling? Get those chiffon dresses and lurid corduroy jackets out now, because this is just fab:

IMG_0329Yeay!

(Chicken Chaudfroid – poached chicken, covered with mayo which has been set with aspic jelly, and decorated to within an inch of its life. Couldn’t you guess?)