Raving about ribollita

I’m still dealing with the great Snowdonia kale mountain, which looks dangerously as though it’s about to run to seed. So much for my ‘hungry gap’ filler. Better pick it and eat it, then. And I know just what to do with it.

ribollita in progressOne of my all-time favourite ways to use the cavolo nero which grows so well in my garden is in the Italian soup ribollita: ribollita because it’s ‘reboiled’ – cooked one day, reheated and eaten the next. And the day after that.

What am I saying? It’s not Italian, it’s Tuscan. I’ve been doing a bit of research and have come to the conclusion that there are as many versions as there are Tuscan grandmothers.

There are four constants: kale or dark cabbage, some sort of dried or canned bean, olive oil and bread. One person’s nonna used potatoes; another thought that putting them in was a crime. Someone else refused to believe that you could have a ribollita without the addition of sausage. The identity of the beans caused a debate too: borlottis, or cannellini beans? What about tomatoes? Obligatory, or an offence?

So I turned to my collection of recipe books, and found an equal variety. One has a version which includes both potatoes and sausages, and suggests using any white beans, including butter beans. River Cafe have a fabulous recipe which goes for cannellini beans, no potatoes or sausage – only it serves 10. Anna del Conte’s recipe from Classic Food of Northern Italy has chillies in it (cannellini beans; no to sausage, yes to potato, yes to tomatoes). I’ve found another which adds chard and bread to a basic minestrone, and the minestrone has bacon in it as well as pasta and wine (surely not). I’ve found a recipe from another well-known food writer which oddly has no greens. That’s definitely not ribollita, but it may be an editing error.

I give up. But not on ribollita, because if I do give up on that the kale plants will uproot themselves and come marching into the house like triffids. So I’m doing my ordinary ribollita: no sausages, no potatoes, no pasta, no chillies, no wine (well, maybe a splash), no bacon; borlotti beans because I’ve got some in, and tomatoes just because.

Ribollita
serves 4

1 small head of celery
1 tbsp olive oil
3 carrots, peeled and chopped into roughly 1-cm pieces
2 small red onions, peeled and chopped
2 large cloves of garlic, crushed
a good bunch of flat-leaved parsley
250ml passata, or 1 x 400g tin tomatoes, drained and chopped (set the juice aside)
a huge armful of cavolo nero – about 750g untrimmed, 500g trimmed
1 x 400g tin of borlotti beans

To serve: good bread – it can be a day old – and more olive oil

Trim the celery well and remove the strings with a knife, then chop the sticks finely. If the leaves look good, finely chop a few of those too and put them to one side. Heat the olive oil in a large casserole or pan (with a lid) over a low to medium heat, and add the chopped celery, carrots and onions. Put the lid on and allow the vegetables to cook until soft, but don’t let them colour up. Add the garlic when the vegetables are almost ready; it – especially – must not burn, and then add the parsley and celery leaves (if using), stir them in, and cook everything together for a couple more minutes. Add the passata and continue cooking for another half hour or so – check to make sure the soup isn’t catching during this time; add a little water if necessary.

While the ribollita base is cooking, trim the cavolo nero. Discard any thick stems and, above all, any caterpillars (eek – surely it’s too early!), and then chop it into fine strips – it looks like a vast amount but it cooks down. Drain the borlotti beans and rinse them; put half the tin in a small bowl. Add the cavolo nero and the rest of the borlottis to the ribollita, and then top up with water, but be careful – this is a very thick soup (this is where you can add a splash of wine). Bring the heat up and simmer the ribolitta for 20 minutes or so.

Mash the remaining borlotti beans up with a fork and add them to the pan; cook for a further 10 minutes. If you want to be authentic – and it’s worth it for the depth of flavour – take the soup off the heat and leave it overnight, in the fridge if your house is warm (if you can’t wait, cook it down until the soup is very thick). Check for seasoning before reheating, then cook it until there is very little liquid left. Break up some stale-ish bread and stir it into the ribollita just before serving. Ladle the soup into bowls – it should be too thick to pour easily – then add a good drizzle of olive oil and serve.

ribollita ready

And it’s yummy. Especially on a day like today when the mist is down, the drizzle is persistent and yesterday’s promise of spring was a cruel joke from the weather gods.

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chickens for soup...

On comfort food and chicken soup

I have not been very well and, while I haven’t felt an awful lot like eating, it takes more than a nasty virus to stop me thinking about food.

The Sick Lady(This is me. Oh, all right, it isn’t. I’m in jeans. And I’m not getting any sympathy at all.)

I have had a horrible cold, followed by bronchitis. OK, none of it’s very serious when compared to what some of my friends are going through, but it’s thoroughly unpleasant. And of course the infectious nature means I’m steering clear of people, particularly a couple of friends who are immuno-supressed at the mo.

I have been distracting myself with thoughts of comfort food. Not, until recently, eating that much of it, and I admit my interpretation might be a little eccentric: for some reason taramasalata doesn’t often crop up on lists of foods that make you feel better. I’ve been having a lot of mashed potato and chicken soup – not together, eeeugh – which is possibly unsurprising, as I clearly remember someone once describing mashed potato to me as the gentile equivalent of chicken soup. Comfort food. But chicken soup also does you good. Mashed potato? Not the same. Nobody ever called mashed potato ‘gentile penicillin’.

Chicken soup helps – and this is really true, backed up by some serious science which must have been fun to do if the researchers were allowed to taste – with colds and coughs. It is not a myth; it’s reality. It has anti-inflammatory properties. Yes, it improves hydration; yes, it helps your ‘nutritional balance’ – but, and more significantly, yes, it accelerates ‘mucosal clearance’. Perhaps doing the research wasn’t so pleasant after all…

chickens for soup...Over the years I’ve had a bash at all sorts of variations on the chicken soup theme, from great chunks of chicken in cock-a-leekie (yum) to home-made chicken stock in an avgolemono (also yum). Oh, yum to the lot of them – well, except from some rather bizarre-tasting tinned things, that is.

But when I talk to some of my friends about making chicken soup, the general consensus – and there are some very honourable exceptions – is that it’s too much faff. But it doesn’t have to be, unless you want to go into overdrive and Eastern-European shtetl-based stereotypes and boil up a raggedy old fowl for several hours first while playing the fiddle on a roof.

So here are a couple of simple chicken soup suggestions with some variations – written out generally as most of them are designed to be riffed on, as it were. And both of them involve the remains of a roast chicken (you can bake a couple of chicken thighs if the two-legged mice have been at your cold chicken while you weren’t looking). Both are designed to serve two, though they can easily be stretched further.

First, my simple roast chicken soup:
Strip all the meat from a roast chicken carcass; there are usually some pieces left over which nobody quite fancies. Remove the skin and any bits of gristle from these, and put them to one side – ending up with a small pudding-bowl full of meat. Put a little oil in a pan over a medium heat. Peel and finely chop a medium onion, two carrots, two sticks of celery. Add to the pan and cook gently until transparent – do not brown. Peel a medium-sized potato and add that, then add the chicken and enough chicken stock (ideally, but good vegetable stock also works) to cover. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until all the vegetables are soft. Check for seasoning, adjust the thickness by adding some boiling water if necessary, then blend the soup. Serve and start feeling better.

Variations:
• Omit the carrots;
• Use a couple of slim leeks instead of the onion;
• Add two chopped cloves of garlic in the last minute or so of cooking the onion, carrot and celery;
• Add a little smoked paprika at this stage (but not with the garlic: hmm? Nope, too much – for me, anyway);
• Don’t blend the soup, or blend some of it and then return it to the pan to reheat.

And a quick Chinese-style chicken soup:
You need some good-quality chicken stock for this – about 600ml – as well as the bowl of chicken bits. Put the stock in a pan and bring it to the boil (skim if necessary). While it is coming to the boil, finely chop about 150g mushrooms, a clove of garlic and a piece of fresh ginger about 2cm square. Cut four thick spring onions into fine diagonal slices, and shred a couple of small pak choi. Add the garlic, ginger, mushrooms and chicken to the boiling stock and cook for five minutes. Then add the spring onions and pak choi. Simmer for a couple more minutes, check the seasoning, and serve.

Variations:
• Add finely chopped chillies. Or chilli. As many and as hot as you dare (that will scare the cold bugs away). Add with the mushrooms, garlic etc.
• Add a dash of Tabasco.
• Try using Chinese dried mushrooms – about 25g, rehydrated in boiling water for 20 mins, then drained and chopped.
• You can add a beaten egg for the ‘egg flower’ effect and some extra nutritional oomph. When there’s barely a minute to go, beat an egg well and drizzle it into the cooking soup over an upturned fork. Don’t stir; remove from the heat and serve.
• Or add a few noodles. A few.

You can freeze the first one – beautifully. Not the second, though; it needs to be fresh.

Interestingly, the chemical composition of a good chicken soup is remarkably close to that of a drug (acetylcysteine) which is sometimes used to treat bronchitis. I have bronchitis. I clearly need chicken soup. NOW. I’m off to get some chicken thighs and get stuck into making more.

Jan Steen, Fat Kitchen
Jan Steen – Fat Kitchen

 

 

Missing out on Marmite?

Sometimes you can be wrong about things for ages. Sometimes your prejudices have no basis in fact, and sometimes your pride just gets in the way of you admitting it. Yes, I am Elizabeth Bennett – well, except for the fact that this is not the early nineteenth century, I’m not wearing a high-waisted empire line dress, and I don’t have Colin Firth hidden in the wardrobe. But I am talking about something else dark and handsome: Marmite.

YUM!I’m taking a risk here. At this point at least half my readers will go ‘bleagh’ and move on, making horrible retching noises. That’s because people either love the dark savoury spread or hate the revolting black slimyness, depending – a fact Marmite have often used in their advertising.

I’m unusual in that I didn’t always love Marmite. In fact until about twelve years ago, I don’t think I’d ever tasted it. It was one of those things I knew I didn’t want to experience directly – rather like Morris dancing, plague or incest – and which I preferred to leave to other people (exactly like Morris dancing, plague and incest).

Just before I left London I was in my normal overcrowded coffee bar, picking up my breakfast espresso and croissant. The customer in front of me asked the new, very young, very French assistant for coffee and some toast and Marmite. The boss was distracted with my order, and we all suddenly noticed at the same time that the girl was slathering vast quantities of Marmite onto the toast. Everyone started shouting at once, but her English had evidently abandoned her in the resulting panic so I joined in with ‘non, non, non, c’est dégueulasse!‘ at the top of my voice. And at that time I did think it was – well, I suppose the best translation in these circumstances is ‘vomit-inducing’.

1929 campaignI’ve no idea when I went over to the dark side – I genuinely cannot remember. I’m not even sure when I started buying it in the biggest possible jars, the 500g – yes, that’s half a kilo -ones. I get through about three a year, and that’s just me… so what do I know about my toast topping of choice? It turns out, not a lot.

I knew it was a fantastic source of B vitamins. OK, it’s a bit on the salty side but you’re not going to eat it by the spoonful unless you are someone desperately trying to impress a young French girl working in a London coffee bar. It’s a by-product of the brewing industry, and a little makes a vast amount of difference to the taste of a stew. That was it.

Oh, I did know that the recipe and process were secret. That had filtered through. As had the fact that it is not the same as Bovril: dear lord, no. Bovril is made from cows and I don’t want to know what bits or how. Marmite is 100% vegetarian.

1930s ad• But I didn’t know that the first Marmite pots were earthenware, even though it is named after a marmite, traditionally an earthenware cooking pot. Somehow I thought it was always sold in the distinctive glass jars. In 1974 there was a jar shortage, and Marmite was sold in more conventional ones for a while. Some things are just plain wrong.

• I didn’t know that British troops in WW1 had Marmite as part of their rations, or that it was supposed to be particularly important for those serving in Mesopotamia, where deficiency diseases were thought to be more likely. It was also used as a vitamin supplement for German POWs held in Britain during the Second World War. And in 1999, British soldiers in Kosovo were sent their supplies.

• The BNP used a jar (and the company’s  ‘love it or hate it’ slogan) in an ad campaign, leading to threats of legal action if the ad was not withdrawn. Didn’t know that either. Of course, the ‘love it or hate it’ Marmite comparison has been used for numerous analogies, not just the BNP – yuk. It’s also been used to describe things as diverse as Wagner, test matches at Headingley, George Galloway, Russell Brand, Cath Kidston’s fabric designs, The Archers, Thought for the Day, Times New Roman, bagpipes, Boris Johnson, faith schools, Shirley Bassey, Twitter, Lily Allen and Ken Livingstone. There are many others… horse racing, for example. Enough, already. (Oh, and there are two Marmite board games and even a Marmite rap.) Ahem.

• Nor, thankfully, did I know about a couple of Marmite cocktails. No, no and thrice no. One involves vodka and yellow tomato juice and blackberry liqueur as well as other ingredients. The other, allegedly from a top London hotel, I’ve only heard about; it’s unsupported by concrete evidence and may have been so scary that its existence is subject to official sanction.

1930s ad• On a more positive note, I’d absolutely no idea whatsoever that Marmite was used to treat mill hands in 1930s Bombay; they were suffering from a form of anaemia and the remedy worked (that was because of the folic acid it contains). It’s also been used to treat people suffering from malnutrition.

• It is, however, banned in Denmark. It’s fortified with some other vitamins, and that makes it illegal there. Oh, all right – it isn’t, even though that’s how it was reported. Products which are fortified have to be licensed in Denmark; the company which imported Marmite wasn’t licensed and therefore stopped selling it. Not quite the same thing… but nearly. There have also been similar problems in Canada. And the idea that it was banned from prisons because it could be used to make hooch is just an urban myth. It isn’t, and it can’t.

• I didn’t know that the New Zealand version had a different taste. I knew it had different packaging, but I didn’t know it tasted all that different (‘less tangy’, apparently – it contains caramel and sugar, which the original does not). I also didn’t know anything about ‘Marmageddon’, the 2012-13 Marmite shortage in New Zealand and Australia, after the manufacturing plant was damaged in the Christchurch earthquake. Apparently there was panic buying. I’d have been there, storming the supermarkets.

And during Marmageddon ridiculous prices – up to NZ$800, according to some sources – were demanded for jars. This may or may not be completely true; it could be more press exaggeration. Anyone know for sure? Anyone spend NZ$800 on a jar of Marmite?

• And another question. It’s supposed to keep mosquitoes at bay. Anyone know if it works, and if it does, do you have to lather it on – as though you were that toast in a London coffee bar – or eat it? Just asking… even though I now love Marmite, there are some things I do not want to do. Almost as bad as the cocktail, in fact.

Right, time for toast!

Whatever happened to afternoon tea?

I’ve been fiddling about in the basement office – well, I say office, but at this time of year it’s a store for garden furniture, kindling and unwashed fleeces – and I came across a book from the 1980s, Jane Pettigrew’s Tea Time.

afternoon tea...A little idle flicking through brought instant nostalgia – for the habit of afternoon tea, not for the scary big hair in the author photograph: 1986 may have been a good year for teashops, but it was evidently a fantastic year for anyone selling hairspray.

A brief read of the intro was enough to make me realise that a great gulf of time had suddenly opened up, however. And some of the recipes – Downton, pure fantasy Downton. Admittedly they were self-consciously nostalgic even in the 1980s, but kidney paté on toast? Did anyone really make that? Devilled sardines?

All of this made me think seriously about the role afternoon tea has played in my life. It’s barely conscious, but it is a constant. And it’s quintessentially British, too – not English, oh no, it’s got a fine place in Scotland and Wales, and in Ireland. Especially at funerals, but that’s a specialist sub-set of the afternoon tea. And of course it’s present in literature – the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, for instance.

Alice

It’s been a constant for me for as long as I can remember (though dormice in teapots have been remarkable by their absence).

Constant right from being a child, when we regularly had afternoon tea at my grandparents, all fine china and salmon and something slithery my step-grandma called ‘shape’, or when we went on celebratory trips, all dressed up, to Betty’s of York. Then it persisted, in a bastard but equally enjoyable form, though college – Fitzbillies cakes and crumpets cooked by being slapped onto the bars of a gas fire – and my first years down in London, where I indulged at Fortnum and Mason; I know, I know, but I worked almost next door. It was a marked feature of holidays in Ireland and of holidays in Yorkshire.

(An Irish friend developed a Yorkshire–English phrase dictionary. This included such phrases as ‘let’s just stop for a cup of tea’, which was translated as ‘let’s just stop for a few buckets of tea, a sandwich, an unfeasibly large scone and a ginormous piece of chocolate cake’. I can’t think what she was going on about, really… it’s not unique to North Yorkshire. And nor were the arguments about who was paying, either. Think about Mrs Doyle and Mrs Dineen slugging it out over afternoon tea payment in Father Ted. and you’ve got about the right image – er, apart from our appearance, that is. We were both goddesses and neither of us wore a hat.)

But it’s not a constant now – or not in the classic sense. We seem to have lost the habit of afternoon tea. Or perhaps it’s just changed (and got infintely, unbelievably expensive if you will have it at the Ritz). No more devilled kidneys, no more sitting down over cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off, no more smoked salmon pinwheels. When did you last see a three-tier stand with sandwiches on one layer, little scones in the middle and elegant small cakes on the final one? Rather than one filled with lurid cupcakes or, more latterly, equally lurid macarons?

But there’s a lot more ‘meeting up for a coffee and a cake’ going on (and notice the pattern on the oilcloth – referencing afternoon tea):

coffee and cake

Perhaps we’ve turned Viennese, with our kaffee und kuchen instead. I’m not decrying that; I love it, it’s really enjoyable and damn near perfect when you’ve got good places to go like the Llew Glas Deli In Harlech and T H Cafe in Dolgellau (though there can be a downside, which I’ve moaned about elsewhere).

There’s no doubt that there’s a baking revival underway, with the Great British Bake Off, things like the Clandestine Cake Club and the popularity of cupcakes (they’re not popular with me, though: I detest the oversweet, sticky, tasting-of-damn-all-except-sugar, squishy little sugar transporters – and no apologies for repeating ‘sugar’, either). And there’s been an increased interest in good tea, too. But it seems to me that the interest in afternoon tea as such is more style than substance. So far.

Maybe it is time for a 1980s-style revival of the 1930s interpretation of the nineteenth-century tradition of afternoon tea. Maybe we need to be hunting out those china three-tier cake stands in junk shops and using them as they were intended to be used, and laundering damask tablecloths. Maybe we need to revisit parts of the 1980s – not the hair or the politics, please – and go full throttle for reinventing the British tradition of afternoon tea. It’s ideal, sometimes. If you’re going out in the evening, why rush over eating a meal which then leaves you doubled-up with indigestion in the theatre? Why not have a good afternoon tea instead? Oh, I know, work. It gets in the way of so much. But perhaps we could introduce proper afternoon tea breaks? Just a thought. No more polystyrene, get out the bone china. Yo!

well, quite

(I’m sorry about this. I found it on Pinterest, sans credit, and couldn’t resist…
Those animals are stuffed, and possibly the child too.)

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!