Category Archives: Basics

Chuffed to bits by bread!

Sometimes, when you’re bread making, you have disasters. I’ve produced loaves even the birds won’t touch, and others which have been more air bubble than bread. I’ve made loaves which fell apart at a touch (how the heck did that happen?) and loaves I couldn’t get the bread knife to even scratch.

Those days have, due to huge amounts of practice, largely gone. Oh, I can still have my off days – who can’t? Days when I forget to set the timer, get distracted and have no idea how long the bread has been in for; days when I even forget that the timer exists and am only alerted to imminent disaster by the acrid smell of bread burning. Then there are days when I get everything set up and forget one vital thing. Like whether or not I’ve got enough starter.

I set everything up on Sunday and then looked at the Le Parfait jar in which my starter was sitting, allegedly ready. Only it wasn’t. I’d made the mistake of using almost all of it, and had then had to revive it big time. I’d thrown away most of the first revival – very watery – and done the second. I really needed to do a third, but I was also out of bread and out of fresh (or dried) yeast. And there wasn’t very much of the starter anyway, not if I wanted to keep some back and avoid making the same mistake again. But what there was did look quite lively.

Brilliant BreadThe inspiration struck – I thought I’d seen something in James Morton’s excellent book Brilliant Bread. And I had – a basic formula for a sourdough. One I could adapt to whatever quantity of starter I had available. So I got the scales, found a clean bowl, found the calculator, found a pen, found some paper, had to find the calculator again… but it was worth it.

Essentially the formula is 2 parts white flour to 1 part starter. Easy. I had 160g starter (measured out in my clean bowl), so I needed 320g flour.

Then I had to work out the water I needed – not quite as straightforward, but simple once you realise that the starter can be assumed to be 50:50 flour and water. You need 75% of the total weight of flour, so my starter could be assumed to  contain 80g flour – with the 320g, that made 400g. Three-quarters of 400 is 220g of water.

Made up tepid water in jug, put jug on scales. No idea how much jug itself weighed. Poured out tepid water, replaced empty jug on scales, set scales to 0 (thank goodness for digital scales). Filled jug with tepid water until it weighed 220g.

Salt, nearly forgot salt. Salt should be 2% total flour weight, so 8g in my case. No probelms.

And then I made my sourdough as normal, letting it prove in the fridge overnight. Second prove in the morning, only took about a couple of hours; result? Great – lunching on fresh bread. On the perfect mini sourdough (not so mini, come to that).

Mini sourdough

Obviously I had to adjust the cooking times slightly, but that’s no hassle. And – quite frankly – neither is working out the maths. And the next time I’m faced with a similar problem (OK, piece of stupidity), I know what to do. Find the calculator.

Oh yes. And remember to keep some of the starter back for that next time.


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!

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…

Kitchen kit to fight for

I was making bread this morning when my Kenwood Chef started making ominous protesting sounds. It’s an old model, because my experience of the latest ones could best be described as profoundly negative (any further explanation would consist of much swearing, shouting and the hurling of ‘guarantees’ across the kitchen) but It’s been fine. Not as fine as my old old one – if you see what I mean – which was given to me when one of my neighbours died. That had been deeply loved, had a history and a hand-sewn cover but it also died eventually; my ‘new’ old one came from eBay. It was reconditioned, and it worked just fine.

Due to repeated hand injuries, I can no longer do all the kneading by hand when I make bread. So what to do, now that my Kenwood is doing banshee impressions? I’ve tried no-knead or short-knead breadmaking methods and I either don’t care for the end result or can’t manage my life with a stopwatch (8.30: knead the dough for 10-15 seconds … 9.00: knead the dough for 10-15 seconds…).  So I’ve settled for a tortoise approach – I’ll think about it when I have to. But in the meanwhile it made me think about what equipment I had that I couldn’t live without. Well, obviously I could, in extreme circumstances, but hey.

I’m baking at the moment, so I initially considered the things I use for my bread. I wouldn’t care to be without my bannetons – Carrefour, I love you – but if needs be, I can improvise with a bowl and a linen tea towel. Then there are the two ancient dough scrapers, which are fantastically useful. I suppose I could improvise an alternative? Yes, I know I could – I once used a credit card. It was never the same again, but that was probably just as well. What about a flour shaker? Obviously I could just chuck flour over the linen tea-towel in my banneton bowl, the worktop, the floor, myself and Next Door’s Cat who thinks he lives here; that would work.

aghI was on a roll (otherwise known as waiting for the oven to heat up), and opened the stuff drawers. I remember an episode of Gavin and Stacey, in which everyone was searching for a take-away menu and it was suggested that it might be in ‘the messy drawer’. All my drawers are like that. Time to sort them out, perhaps.

There are three of them, vaguely organised by diminishing frequency of use. So drawer one consists of cutlery and things like scissors and tin openers and corkscrews and a digital timer; drawer two has bulkier stuff like a plastic funnel (so attractive), pizza cutters (plural? How did that happen?), graters, hand whisks and rolling pins, and drawer three is the – well, the one-offs. And then there are the old pickle jars (three of those too) which hold the wooden spoon collection and the collection of – er, more stuff. Spatulas, etc. (A new swear word, I think. Oh, spatulas!)

I used to be, you see, an equipment slut. Used to be?

agh 2I blame Divertimenti (you’ve got to blame someone). They used to be on the Fulham Road, and I didn’t live that far away, plus I was at the stage of being in my first place and just having to add to my kitchen. And they opened on Sundays, or am I imagining that? Anyway, I would spend far too much time wandering around, picking up expensive pans, putting them down again, fondling obscure pieces of kit and buying some of them.

It’s the resulting one-offs that I could easily live without – crème brulée iron, anyone?  – though I have to say that an oyster knife is just perfect for getting solid lumps of dried mud out of the tread on your walking boots. How my life has changed.

spoonsAt some points I’ve improvised alternatives for all sorts of things. An wine bottle can sub as a rolling pin, and I have opened a tin by stabbing it repeatedly with a screwdriver (er, not recommended at all, plus it takes ages). I’ve whisked with a fork, which worked though it did take a couple of days to regain the use of my shoulder. Much as I love my ancient wooden spoons, and despite the extent to which I am baffled that some people manage without any, I could always use a stick.

(What sort of future am I envisaging here, I wonder? I’ve been reading something about partisans behind German lines in Eastern Europe which may account for this whole speculation, but have no intention of eating very old, very dead horse. Or people, but we won’t go there.)

It was only when the bread was cooked that I realised the piece of kitchen equipment that I absolutely cannot do without, or rather the pieces. I could throw everything out tomorrow, but leave me my knives. And a steel. They’re nothing flash, just a selection of Kitchen Devils and a rather old Prestige bread knife with a naff red handle dating back to the late 1980s (guess who had a red and white kitchen? Must have looked like a pizzeria). But I keep them scarily sharp and love them dearly. I’ve had ‘posh’ knives, and I’ve got rid of them, finding them more trouble than they were worth (and pigs to sharpen, too). So take my dariole moulds if you must, but leave me my four-inch vegetable knife.

And a corkscrew. Natch.

Service, or tablecloths?

Casual dining is apparently bang on the button, it’s the cat’s eyebrows, It’s now, it’s so hot it’s cool.

Sorry about that – they’re all phrases (well, except for feline facial hair, but it’s probably only a matter of time) I’ve seen or heard which describe the fact that Marcus Wareing’s reopened restaurant is introducing a ‘new informal style of service’. Another top chef has dispensed with tablecloths: Kenny Atkinson was quoted in the Guardian as saying ‘I can’t spend £13,000 a year on laundry.’ None of this, of course, means that these places are suddenly going to be anything other than very expensive, but hey. Maybe it’s a start.

This made me stop and think for a while. What do I most remember, the surroundings or the service? I certainly remember bad service. Slapdash in Dublin; bordering on the aggressive in a top chef’s place in central London – ‘you will be vacating this table in the next twenty minutes’; nope, it wasn’t a question and, yep, it was just after 8.30. There was a Chinese place in Soho which was so notorious that people actually went there to experience the terrible service (the food was OK, though). I was there once with a Cantonese-speaking friend. There was the most enormous argument, and later she said that the bad service appeared to be a deliberate choice. A reputation feeding on itself, perhaps.

Menu outside the Petite Syrah in NiceIn semi-defence of the entire restaurant industry I must say that bad behaviour from customers often engenders the bad behaviour from staff, and there was some wry amusement last year at a cafe in Nice, which charged different prices for coffee according to how polite you were (photo courtesy Nice Matin).

Now I’ve done some waiting in the past, and customers can be very strange*, even when they’re not spontaneously rude. I had one woman who asked for more napkins because a huge sunburn blister on her leg had just burst – nice – and everyone who has worked with the public will know that some people are just spoiling for a fight. They don’t really need a reason; maybe somebody pipped them to a seat on the Tube, maybe their boss stared at them in a funny way – and so they look for someone to bully who can’t bite back. I can, and I’ve never lost a job because of it.

When I was first in a position in which I had to manage people who dealt with the public I used to say ‘treat customers as you would like to be treated’. No grovelling, no aggression, no indifference. Be polite, be courteous, but without any forelock-tugging whatsoever; just be friendly and helpful. (Oh yes – and ‘get me if they’re really horrible’.) The more I think about the service I would like to receive now, the more I realise that I somehow got it right even though I was very young – right for me, at least. That’s exactly what I want when I’m eating out.

So has anywhere got it right for me? I can immediately think of one example: the late-lamented Yetman’s. This small restaurant used to be in Holt in Norfolk, where I hired a cottage every spring for a few years to get away from ‘work’ work and do some real work instead. There was a sense of occasion there, not least because of Alison Yetman’s great cooking, and the service (from Peter Yetman) was great. It wasn’t laid back, though some critics felt it was; I found it confident, relaxed and deeply enthusiastic about the food – ideal. Above all, it wasn’t intimidating: no ‘sir’ or ‘madam’ stuff; you didn’t feel out of place in jeans, and you certainly weren’t treated any differently if you did turn up in denim. But there were big vases of flowers, comfy chairs in which to relax while you ordered, crisp tablecloths and napkins, and I liked all that: it added to that sense of occasion, florist and laundry bills or not. And that was – let’s see – must have been in the late 1990s.

So I don’t see why this ‘informal’ approach is being treated as though it was something new and insightful in a ‘fine dining’ (lordy, I hate that expression) establishment. It’s not. Informal service is not synonymous with bad service; top-end restaurants (and Yetman’s did have five stars in The Good Food Guide) do not have to have eighty-five waiters hovering around each diner, filling up wine glasses and brushing down crumbs every five minutes. Obsequiousness is not the same thing as great service.

dessertsI don’t think it’s just me.

I was staying in southern Normandy a few years ago, and there were two excellent restaurants nearby. The food was equally good at both, both had been equally well reviewed, and they both cost about the same. Neither was exactly cheap, and both of them had tablecloths (mais bien sûr).

The major difference was the service. One was a classic, preserved in aspic from the 1950s; the other was more modern in its attitude, more like a bistro, much more informal.

You could get a table at one of them whenever you wanted. Guess which? Yup. I am definitely not alone in what I prefer.

* OK, staff can be strange too. I helped a maitre’d friend a few times at a rather trendy restaurant in – no, let’s fudge and just say er, um, ‘in London’. It was perpetually short staffed, hence me putting on my black jeans and waiter’s half-apron. But I wasn’t the only helper… the boss was into S&M, and if things were really difficult he would ask what he revoltingly referred to as ‘my girls’ to come and help as well. We wore DMs; they wore stilettos (eek!). The kitchens were downstairs, and you could track the chef’s mood by the number of crumpled pieces of foil about the place – volatile, generally. One summer evening there was a mighty scream, and one of the ‘girls’ came running into the restaurant, followed by the chef wielding a large knife. What I couldn’t see was that there was a large rat between them: she was running away from it and the chef was chasing it, intent on rodenticide. Fortunately it was a Tuesday and it was pretty quiet, but any decent customer service which had been happening died on the spot (unlike the rat, which apparently ran off through the open door). I defy anyone to recover from that one…

Beautiful breakfast

There was a time when I didn’t eat breakfast… or so I said. What I did, of course, was not eat breakfast at home. Instead I would grab the early train, nip into a coffee bar by Farringdon Station, order a coffee, open my laptop and then find myself back at the counter ordering something like a croissant. Or maybe two.

But I’ve changed. It was self-employment that did it, even before I came to my senses (insight © my mother) and left London. I used to go for a swim early every morning instead of standing at the station trying not to make eye contact with anyone. When I came back I was so hungry I would eat the kitchen – and I mean the units, not merely the contents of the fridge. The only way of preventing tooth marks on the fixtures and fittings was to make sure there was something ready for me when I got back. I experimented with all sorts of cereals, porridge with and without salt / jam / sultanas, types of toast, condiments – but I never really solved the problem. So many of the packet cereals – whether they were gritty and brown or mainstream and quite sweet – seemed rather dusty. Cardboard, with dried fruit.

granola 1Then I moved here, and a friend passed on a recipe for a homemade morning – and a late evening after meeting friends in the pub – solution: a granola. I’ve made several versions since then, riffs on the theme, and have finally settled on an adaptation which I particularly enjoy. I’ve also added weights and rewritten some of the instructions, which originally included such highlights as ‘watch the pan while galaxies form and reform…’.

I make a huge quantity, and last week I ran out. Time to load up again at the wholefood co-op and find the biggest bowl in existence. And by talking to someone in the co-op I’ve found the answer to a question which baffled me but probably nobody else: the difference between muesli and granola. Muesli is uncooked and uses no fat; granola is toasted in the oven, and uses a little. Commercial granolas tend to use quite a bit; mine doesn’t.

Gorgeous granola
Makes a giant vat. I store it in a plastic box which takes 4kg of flour.

500g porridge oats
500g jumbo oats (used in two stages)
150g dessicated coconut
150g sunflower seeds
150g pumpkin seeds
75g set honey
1 tsp malt extract
100ml sunflower oil
100g flaked almonds
150g sultanas
100g dried cranberries
100g dates, chopped

Preheat the oven to 160 degrees fan, 180 conventional (but watch for a heated element at the top – may need to adjust settings to avoid this getting too hot and burning the granola) or GM 4. Take a ginormous bowl and put in the porridge oats, 400g of the jumbo oats (set the rest aside), the coconut, sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds.

Put the honey – best measured by putting the full jar on the scales and spooning out honey until it weighs 75g less than it did – in a non-stick pan together with the malt extract. Then add the sunflower oil. Put the pan over a medium heat and melt everything together. As it reaches boiling point it will foam and rise up the pan (or alternatively start to look like galaxies forming); take the pan off the heat immediately and pour the contents into the bowl. Mix everything together thoroughly, breaking up any clumps that form.

When everything is combined, empty the mixture into some baking dishes. I generally use glass – Pyrex – ones; earthenware takes a little longer and metal roasting tins – tempting when you look at the sheer quantity – are unsuitable. Believe me #1. Don’t fill the dishes completely; you want to be able to turn the granola over and around to ensure it all toasts, and that’s difficult if you’re worried about spilling half of it on the oven floor. Believe me #2.

granola 2Bake the granola in the oven for 10-15 minutes, or until the top is starting to brown. Then take the dishes out of the oven and stir them well, bringing untoasted grains to the top. Replace them in the oven and repeat the process until all the granola is golden brown and toasty, but not remotely burnt. Warning: it speeds up towards the end and will need checking more regularly. Believe me #3.

Empty the contents of the baking dishes back into the bowl and allow the mixture to cool down completely, possibly overnight.

Considerably later or the next day, put a large dry frying pan on a medium heat and roast the flaked almonds, shaking the pan and stirring as they warm up. When they are evenly light brown in colour and beginning to smell warm and toasty, empty them into the granola bowl. Scatter in the sultanas and cranberries, then chop the dates and add them too, along with the remaining 100g of jumbo oats. Stir everything together again and put the mixture into its storage container. Hide container.

It’s delicious with yoghurt…

granloa 3One of the main reasons I love this is its sheer adaptability; the recipe above is what I prefer, but you can make it truly individual to suit personal preferences.

Adaptations I’ve tried include adding 100g each of hazelnuts and chopped brazil nuts before cooking; adding chopped dried apricots and figs after cooking; adding flaked coconut at that stage too, as well as the dessicated coconut earlier; adding sesame seeds with the other seeds (not particularly good – too small). Just one word of warning – it’s easy to make it too cloyingly sweet, and treacle and/or golden syrup: no. Or at least that’s a no as far as I’m concerned. Thank heavens I only made a smaller quantity that time!

In praise of stock

It’s often said that good stock is the basis of good soup – and stews, and risottos, and many other things I love making, and so it is. But I’ve battled with finding a decent one. Oh, apart from Marigold’s vegetable bouillon – and even that is a bit salty for me (I don’t care for taste of the reduced salt version). In my past life, I used to bring stock cubes back from France, but that’s no longer a realistic option and, let’s be honest, it was a bit daft even when I was using the Eurostar as an extension to the Northern Line.

Recently all sorts of stock options have become available, even in my local supermarkets, but I’m still not thrilled. There are fresh stocks, coming in at about £2-3 for 300-500 ml; fresh gels at roughly the same price for a smaller quantity, but they’re more concentrated; improved cubes – I don’t really need to make my own, do I? Oh yes I do:  how appealing does this lot sound?

‘Water, Glucose Syrup, Salt, Sugar, Flavourings, Lower Sodium Natural Mineral Salt*, Yeast Extract, Chicken Fat (2.1%), Carrots, Vegetable Fat, Leek, Parsley, Gelling Agents (Xanthan Gum, Locust Bean Gum), Garlic, Chicken Powder (0.2%), Colours (Plain Caramel, Mixed Carotenes), Maltodextrin, Carrot Juice Concentrate, *Contains naturally occurring Potassium’.

That’s, by the way, a chicken stock gel, but probably the 2.1% of chicken fat and the chicken powder (???) gave the game away. And why the need for four forms of sugar: glucose syrup, sugar, caramel and maltodextrin? AND, and, and, remember the rule of ingredients lists – they’re in quantity order. So there’s more glucose syrup, salt and sugar than chicken or vegetables. Hm. Think I’ll make my own.

stock remainsBut doesn’t it take ages? That was my objection before I started, and I soon discovered that though it is a long process – and one that can be, er, fragrant – it can easily be fitted around anything else I’m doing, because 99% of the time I can just leave it to do its thing.

Another objection was that I might not have enough bits and pieces and I didn’t want to end up buying things specifically for stock – after all, part of the aim was to be economical as well avoid the chicken powder, locust bean gum and maltodextrin I didn’t particularly want to add.

That was easily addressed.

I like a roast chicken, but I love a good one. So I pay decent money and don’t have roast chicken all the time. That’s my choice, and it means that I use flavour-packed, healthy chicken. It would be criminal to throw out the remains, but one chicken isn’t enough for a decent quantity of stock – so I pick over the carcass, get rid of as much fat and skin as possible (the birds love it), and freeze the bones until I have enough.

And then I make my stock, often combining making it with cooking something else like a carrot soup which will give me other left-overs: carrot peelings, the ends of celery sticks and leeks. OK, the remains can look like something rather unpleasant, but the stock – wow, the stock.

So here goes. This isn’t an organised recipe, really, but it is seriously worth trying – and I’ll follow it in the next posts with a couple more soups I made with the start of the stock ingredients.

Chicken stock

A heap of chicken bones, the result of two or three roasts, picked over and frozen
Ditto of carrot peelings (wash the carrots first) and ends
Ditto leek – also carefully washed – or you can use an onion instead
Ditto celery…

And that’s it. I might add some parsley from the garden in summer, or maybe a sprig of thyme in winter – but I go easy on the additions because they can become emphatic when frozen, and this stock is going to be frozen. That’s also why I don’t add any seasoning; the dishes eventually containing the stock can be seasoned when they’re being cooked.

I put the vegetables and the frozen chicken bones in a large casserole, cover them well with lots of water and stick the casserole on the hob. I bring it to the boil and then leave it simmering for a couple of hours over a really low heat. Of course it could go in a stove or indeed on one – I’ve a friend who simmers her stock casserole on her woodburner, but that assumes the existence of a woodburning stove with enough room above it for a casserole and a family who don’t mind the smell, because there’s no doubt that boiling up bones does smell. Not offensively, or at least I don’t find it offensive – just, um, unappealing. I don’t skim my stock at this stage; if I’ve done a good enough job of picking over the bones and washing the veg, I find I don’t need to. Then I go and do something more interesting.

When I go back, the veg are all soft and the meat has fallen off the chicken bones. This is the draining stage and is when the debris looks truly horrible. I get a large bowl and a large sieve, a bigger sieve than I think I need since my first attempt which left boiled bones on the floor, and empty the casserole into the sieve. I prop the sieve above the bowl on a couple of jars and just let it drain while I go away and – you guessed it – do something more interesting.

Then I remember, possibly an hour or so later, and give the sieve a final shake. (All the bits go in the food recycling bin; I don’t put cooked stuff or bones in my compost bins.) The bowl – now full of cold stock – is covered with cling film and put in the fridge overnight.

My fridge is cold (and quite new – my old one got tropical, ahem, but I’m more careful now) and when I take the bowl out the following morning, a layer of fat has formed on top. If I’m very careful lifting the bowl I can manage not to disturb it, and it’s consequently quite easy to remove. Then I pot up the stock into freezer containers. I use a ladle which holds 100ml comfortably, so I know that a freezer box has, say, 300ml in it. But I also fill little 100ml tubs, which are phenomenally useful. And tasty.

(Of course, the long, slow cooking that stock requires can seem uneconomic, but I don’t make stock all the time and, when I do, I make shedloads – enough to keep me going for a couple of months at least. It’s so flavoursome that I don’t need to use a lot, which is why the 100ml tubs are so good. They give a dish a depth of flavour without overwhelming everything else. Right, I’m making carrot soup – where are those bones?)