Category Archives: Recipe

Squash soup for a stormy day

The weather forecast is terrible; it sounds as though the end of the world is coming. In such circumstances I have one response (er, apart from a tendency to say ‘yeah right’ and ask if it’s been reported anywhere other than in the Daily Express). That’s to make vast quantities of soup. I’m not at all sure what the connection is – I like soup in summer too; a hot day and some chilled cucumber soup – but it seems to be inevitable. I shall just go with it and fill the freezer. Freezers.

SquashIn late November I met up with some friends at Machynlleth market. It’s one of the best markets near me – well, it’s quite near, about an hour away – and is often worth a trip. Plus there are some good places for coffee and some rather nice shops, but one of the big draws for me is the vegetable stalls.

There are several, and they are generally excellent. One is a particular favourite, and I picked up a beautiful Crown Prince squash for 80p, along with some romanesco and a heap of succulent banana shallots. I often grow squash but, depressed by recent poor invisible harvests, I failed to plant any this year. Clearly a mistake, given the good summer, but that’s gardening for you. This stall had several different varieties, all looking beautifully autumnal, but I plumped for the Crown Prince because it tastes gorgeous and keeps well. It certainly has, and this seemed the perfect time to turn it into soup.

There are all sorts of variants on the theme of squash soup. Some recommend roasting the squash first, but in general I find that this can make the soup a bit oily – for me, anyway. Maybe I’m too generous with my olive oil when roasting the chunks of squash, but I have tried it with very little and – well, neh. I’ve used lots of different recipes recently, some I’ve been editing and some I’ve just been trying for pleasure, but for me this simple version stands head and shoulders above the rest. However, you do need a well-flavoured squash (roasting can compensate for one that is less than thrilling); all, alas, are not the same. Butternut is probably the most reliable one, and one that is also easily available. That’s if you’ve not grown any Crown Prince, something I plan on rectifying next year. I’ve given two alternative flavourings, as well…

soupSquash Soup with sage or nutmeg
serves 3 to 4

1 medium squash
1 tsp olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
100ml good chicken stock
water or vegetable stock
1 small sprig of fresh sage or a few grates of a nutmeg
salt and black pepper

Using a heavy knife, chop the squash into slices or sections. Trim the skin off the squash sections, remove the seeds and chop the flesh into chunks about 2cm square (you should have about 650g of squash pieces).

Put the olive oil into a large heavy-bottomed pan and warm it over a medium heat. Add the onion, turn it in the oil and put the lid on the pan to sweat the onion for about 5 minutes. Check that it isn’t burning, giving it a good stir, then allow it to colour slightly – and add the garlic and put the lid back on for another minute or so.

Add the squash to the pan and turn it in, mixing everything together. Add the chicken stock and enough liquid to cover – go easy, because the thickness of the soup will depend on the type of squash and should be adjusted later (some squashes can turn out to be surprisingly watery, and adding lots of liquid at this stage would result in a thin soup). Add the small sprig of sage or some freshly grated nutmeg. Bring the soup to the boil then lower the heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove the sage sprig (which should hold together; if not, fish out any large leaves too) and continue to cook until the vegetables are soft. Blend the soup, and then thin it to the required consistency with water or vegetable stock. Reheat, season with salt and plenty of black pepper, and serve.

Some recipes suggest toasting the seeds and adding them as a garnish. However, they are better dried, and I prefer to lightly toast some pumpkin seeds in a dry frying pan and scatter those over the top. You can always dry the fresher seeds out for next time (or not).

OK, weather, you can do what you want now – and a simple bowl of soup will also be very welcome after all the richness of Christmas food, too. Maybe I’d better make more!


Hedgehog balls (aka healthy sweets, honest)

I’ve just realised two things – Christmas is quite close, and that it’s not quite as close as I thought it was. Somehow I managed to mentally – not physically, I’ve not been whisked away in Stewie’s time machine – lose a week. I’m putting it down to working like a maniac, but have happily got an almost clear run now (owing to thinking Christmas is closer than it actually is and packing everything in). So I’m having fun. I’m going to see The Hobbit this afternoon – a round trip of over 100km; it better be good – and I’ve been making my favourite sweets: Hedgehog Balls.

hedgehog ballI’ve been making these, on and off, for years and years and I honestly can’t remember where the original recipe came from, but it’s so adaptable that the version I make now probably bears no resemblance to it. The giving of the name, however, I can remember. They were named by a friend of mine who was, I think, about 6 at the time. All the adults fell about, and they’ve been known as Hedgehog Balls for the last five years or so.

These little darlings are perfect to make with children though be warned – the mess is phenomenal. Sorry, that should be PHENOMENAL, and that’s even when I make them without the aid and assistance of people under 10. Save cleaning the house (should you do such a reckless thing) for afterwards. But do make them, because they are worth it.

Oh, you’ll need a food processor; I hate to think what it would be like without – and a stick blender doesn’t cut it. Believe me, I know. And about 50 small sweet cases, the cuter the better. Plus, as you can tell from all the alternatives in the recipe, it’s very adaptable.

Hedgehog Balls
makes about 50.

50g pumpkin seeds
50g sunflower seeds
10g (2 level tsp) sesame seeds
400g dried fruit: I used 200g sultanas and 100g each of apricots and cranberries
50g almonds, hazelnuts or walnuts
25g dessicated coconut
a little nutmeg
1/2 – 1 tsp ground cinnamon
juice of 1 orange
additional ground nuts and coconut, to coat.

First, grind the seeds roughly – pulse only – and decant them into a large mixing bowl. Then add the dried fruit, halving anything big like the apricots and breaking up any gatherings of truculent sultanas. Grind the almonds quite smoothly and add them to the bowl. Decant the lot – carefully, ahem – into the bowl of the food processor. Set the empty bowl to one side.

HBs in prepAdd the coconut and spices to the mixture, then add some of the orange juice and process the mix – it should be thick and not sloppy, so be careful about adding more (you can always drink the rest, perhaps with Campari, just saying). Ideally, you want the mixture to have the texture of good – chunky, but not too chunky – mincemeat. If it is a bit too chunky, it won’t hold together when you start to form the balls, but it can always be returned to the processor for a final whizz.

Now the really messy bit begins.

Empty the dried fruit mixture back into the bowl. Grind some more nuts and put them in a smaller bowl, and put some dessicated coconut in another. Put out the sweet cases on a couple of baking trays and remove all animals, relatives, men who are hanging about trying to help themselves, toddlers, etc, from the kitchen. Older children are fine – in fact, they love this. Keep a damp rag handy, though.

Carefully form the mixture into small balls, just the right size to fit gently into the cases. Sometimes you will be able to roll them gently between the palms of your hands; sometimes they will need to be shaped with your fingers (and they should never, ever be thrown at your sibling or at the cat). Then dip each one, alternately, in the ground nuts or the coconut, making sure they are covered all over. Put them carefully in the sweet cases, and then put the trays in the fridge for at least an hour. They will keep for about a week, but they generally only last a day or so.

Now clean the entire house.

a clutch of hedgehog balls

Afterthought, before going so far as do do any actual housework: you could try substituting some Cointreau for the orange juice – I don’t, because of children. But you could. Hm, wonder how that would taste? Might as well add to the mess before I clear up…

Soups unite against the cold – pea and ham

I love soup. I’m a bit of a soup head, really; always have been, always will be. And it always, always astonishes me when people don’t make their own, because producing great soups is so quick, so easy and so affordable. Soup also freezes brilliantly, so you can make oodles and store the rest (though use heavily spiced soups promptly; spices can intensify). Admittedly some ready-made soups have a strong comfort factor – Heinz tomato being a case in point – but you can make much, much more, and with greatly reduced expenditure, and without any strange ingredients when you do it yourself. I don’t need extra ‘milk proteins’ with my own soup, for instance, and accidentally discovered a more-than-passable version of the Heinz fave while trying to factor those out (red pepper is key, BTW). I don’t need modified maize starch, added caramel or high levels of salt, either, and my butternut squash soup will contain a lot more than 12% butternut squash, and 0% additional preservatives. Grr.

There are some soups which, undeniably, might take a little longer than 30 minutes to cook, notably those involving pulses. But there are ways round this, such as cooking them while you’re doing other things or – for heaven’s sake – using tinned pulses or a pressure cooker, the latter not as terrifying a prospect as it once was. It’s not rocket science, and it saddens me deeply when I hear someone on the radio, as I did the other day, bemoaning the fact that they miss their grandmother’s soup. Takes too long to do, apparently, and the presenter agreed. It was pea and ham. How sad…

pea and ham soupSo, with ‘killer snow’ in the forecast (thanks, Daily Express), what better time could there be to come up with a quick and easy pea and ham soup? One that doesn’t involve buying a packet from the supermarket, either. No sodium triphosphate; no dextrose, no added ‘beechwood smoke’ whatever that is, no tricalcium phosphate, etc., etc – plus I know the ham it contains is ham I’d be happy to eat and not some miscellaneous bits of pig, only appetizing if you can’t see them ‘raw’.

Let’s not forget the aesthetic element, either. It’s a beauty – satisfying to the eye as well as the palate. Perfect for this time of year, with the sky suddenly darkening and sleet rattling on the window (maybe the Express was right). Even if it failed completely to help me with the crossword.

Pea and ham soup
serves between 4-6, depending on how thick you like your soup

2 small potatoes
1 small onion or 2 large shallots
1 tsp rapeseed oil
1 small pinch of salt
900g frozen peas
100ml unsalted chicken stock
75g ham offcuts from the supermarket deli counter

Chop the potatoes (leave the skin on) and the onion fairly finely. Warm the oil in a heavy pan over a medium heat, and add the chopped vegetables. Give them a stir in the oil, making sure they don’t stick, and add a small pinch of salt. Cover and leave for a couple of minutes, then add the chicken stock and stir.

Add the frozen peas, cover the pan again and let the peas defrost in the heat and begin to cook. Then add water to cover – about 750ml – and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat to a steady simmer and cook for 5 minutes. While the soup is cooking, pick over the ham pieces, removing excess fat as much as possible. Chop the pieces and add them to the pan, then continue to cook for a further 5-10 minutes, until everything is cooked and heated through thoroughly – note that it’s important not to overcook the soup as it will lose the gorgeous green colour. Blend it by hand, preferably, giving it a rough texture, and thin to the required consistency with water if necessary. But it is best nice and thick!

The last of the hedgerows

A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine told me about a conversation she’d had with some German tourists; they’d been surprised at the huge crop of berries in the hedgerows, and at how little use was being made of the excess – apparently they felt that the branches would have been stripped bare in Germany. This made me stop and look and, yes, there was still a lot of fruit in relatively good condition. So I dug out my walking boots, a bag and a useful stick and got the last berries in, just before the weather turned.

jellyLet me confess something. I’m not the best jam maker in the world. My damson is respectable, but I don’t eat a lot of jam and I’ve not really bothered to perfect my technique (you can’t make Marmite at home, alas). I do, however, enjoy making jellies. It may be largely aesthetic, though not having to pick seeds out of your teeth in an unladylike manner also comes into play. And my autumn jelly is sooo pretty; I can’t think how I had overlooked making it this year. So when I set off with my stick and bag I had a clear picture of what I wanted to find. Almost anything.

‘Almost anything’ isn’t fair, though. The jelly does need structure; it’s not a sling everything in and see what happens, compost heap of a jelly. Too many blackberries, for instance, tend to dominate and I often make a straight blackberry jelly with those as well. It also needs a certain proportion of crab apples for the set, and though my trees have been a bit straggly this year they managed to yield enough (a mystery; it’s been a good apple year in general). For the rest – well, I use whatever is available within reason. Elderberries can go in too, though I tend to save those for my elixir.

Autumn Jelly – five small jars

500g mixed autumn fruits – rose hips, haws, sloes, rowan berries, a few blackberries
500g crab apples
600ml water
sugar – the quantity depends on how much juice you get; see below…

Remove as many leaves and stalks from your hedgerow haul as possible, but there’s no need to be too finicky about small things like sloe stems. Roughly chop the apples if they are wildings – bigger than classic crabs, they are the product of ordinary apples discarded by passers by; just as good but need more chopping – otherwise, just halve them. Put all the fruit in a large pan, add the water and bring to a simmer. Cook until everything is soft and then allow the mixture to cool a little. Set up a jelly bag and stand or, if you’re like me, create one using muslin, string, and the legs of an upturned chair. Put a bowl beneath the bag and carefully ladle the contents of the pan into the jelly bag. Allow it to drip overnight.

In the morning, remove the jelly bag – for a really clear jelly, make sure you do not squeeze the bag before doing this – and discard the contents. Pour the liquid into a measuring jug; for this quantity of fruit, expect about 700ml. Then weigh out the sugar, 75g for every 100ml of liquid. Put the juice into a heavy-bottomed pan and bring it to the boil, adding the sugar just as it reaches that point. Stir carefully until the sugar has dissolved, then stop stirring and let the jelly boil vigorously until it reaches setting point; this should take about 7-8 minutes. Take the pan off the heat while testing for a set – I do this by putting a little jelly on a chilled dish, turning it upside-down over the pan and seeing if the jelly drips off; if it does, I boil it a little more. Once it’s fine, skim the jelly of any foam and pot it into warm sterilised jars, sealing immediately.

I love this jelly with cold roast chicken and a baked potato. Why did I think of that? I’ve only just had breakfast…

There is something deeply satisfying about making preserves. Every year the peak season seems to coincide with all sorts of other complications, but the one year I threw my hands up in horror and produced nothing I felt deprived (and guilty too). This year I’ve gone a little bit bonkers and have five different types of chutney – that bumper apple crop again – as well as this jelly and some damson jam. Could this behaviour be the human equivalent of a squirrel stashing nuts? If so, I generally like to think I have greater mental capacity than the average squirrel – after all, they forget where they stash things and rely on encountering them by accident. And then I cleared out the understairs store and found two jars of chutney from 2009. Ahem. Delicious, by the way.

Magic cure-alls – and elderberries

I’b had a code. I’b had a bad code. But becaud I’b dot a man, id wid be over soon. Seriously, this plague flu pox nasty cold comes from a nearby town and seems to affect everyone – but differently according to sex. With blokes, it’s a fortnight. With women, hee hee, oh, 48 hours… though I must admit that I’m still coughing. I have, however, had my magic solution to all colds / bugs / winter illnesses to hand, and am thanking heavens that I managed to find elderberries this autumn.

Strangely, for such a common shrub, elders are rather elusive round us. In North Yorkshire entire hedges are made of huge overgrown elders, heavy with frothy blossom in spring and bending with the weight of berries in the autumn. Near me, by contrast, nah – we guard ours. I try and spot them in the spring, marking them out closely for investigation later, and I have a few secret spots up in the hills where elders grow quite well, sheltered by abandoned farm steadings. I’m not particularly interested in making cordial, especially as each blossom removed means no berries, but they are easier to spot when they’re in flower.  And each year I also interrogate friends with elders: have they ripened? How’s the crop? Have the birds got to them? Do they want all the berries themselves, and if not pleeeeeease…..?

elderberry drinkThat’s because I need to make elderberry elixir. No, it deserves caps: Elderberry Elixir. Sneezing and sniffling, I turned up at a neighbour’s house a few years ago. She took one look at me, summoned me in, sat me down beside the stove and gave me a glass of something alcoholic, sticky and purple. It was delicious, definitely better than any cough remedy I’d encountered and, as I quickly discovered, seemed to work.

I’m not the only person to have noticed this. Elderberries have been well and properly researched and used to treat all sorts of things, not just colds. Success as an effective ‘cure-all’ might be down to the astonishingly high levels of Vitamin C they contain, as well as the fact that they are packed with antioxidants, particularly anthocyanins. It might be because of these (known or unknown) that elderberries have been seen as an effective remedy wherever they grow. They’re commonly used for all sorts of colds, coughs, bugs and bothers, and are even now being trialled in the treatment of some cancers. (In the case of my traditional recipe, I feel certain that the half litre of rum is also, er, useful.)

recipe noteI had to make my own. The recipe came to me in the form of a faded photocopy of a handwritten note. I had to fill in some gaps, but I’ve managed to make some every year since (and added my amendments – notably using less sugar – and some tweaks and extra bits and bobs). I try not to raid elders on roadsides, but if they are all I can get, they’re all I can get.

This year was not looking good; the birds had got to most of the berries before I could. And then I got a call from a friend. She’d been hacking down undergrowth and realised that there was a tall and straggly elder with plenty of berries which was now accessible. Power cables passed overhead, and that may be why the birds hadn’t gobbled up the whole crop – so I set off with a full-size shepherd’s crook (so useful for pulling down branches) and a plastic bag, prepared to deal with any I got immediately. That’s because if you pick elderberries and then leave them you soon have a bag full of grey-green fur: I know this. Off the tree, into the bag, back to the kitchen and into the pan, all within  the hour – that’s they key. Oh, and they catch quite quickly, too, when cooking – keep an eye on them.

So, as a public service, here’s the recipe – and you can use brandy or whisky instead of the rum; I’ve not tried whisky, but the brandy works a treat. My photocopy attributed this gem to Antonio Carluccio, but I’ve  not been able to track down an original. Nonetheless, let’s give him the credit. Go, Antonio!

Elderberry Elixir

2kg elderberries
200ml water
5 cardamom pods, crushed
15 cloves
2 cinnamon sticks, about 5cm long
juice and rind of a medium unwaxed lemon
750g caster sugar
500ml rum

You need a large pan – a stockpot is ideal. Strip the berries off the twiggy stems. This is easy if you run a fork down the stems and hold the bunches over the stockpot as you’re doing it; that way most of the berries go in the pot and not over the floor / walls / cat, which they will stain temporarily purple. Don’t worry about small twiggy bits. Add the water and cook the berries over a gentle heat for about 20 minutes or until the berries burst, then take the pan off the heat. Using a potato masher, squash the berries down against the base of the pan to extract the maximum amount of juice. Allow to cool a little. Suspend a jelly bag over a bowl as you would if making jelly, and carefully ladle the elderberries and all their juices into the bag. Allow it to drain overnight.

In the morning, squeeze any remaining juice into the bowl and discard the pulp; there will probably be about a litre of liquid, depending on the initial juiciness of the elderberries. Empty this into a clean pan and add the cardamom, cloves and cinnamon sticks, followed by the lemon juice and rind. Cook everything together over a gentle heat for about 10 minutes, then add the sugar and increase the heat a little to melt it. When the sugar has dissolved, bring the liquid up to the boil and cook it for another 5 minutes – you don’t want to reduce it as sharply as you do a jelly, but you do want to reduce it somewhat.

Let the mixture cool a little and then strain it into a bowl or large jug (it’s best to strain it through muslin rather than just relying on a sieve). Add the rum, mix it together well, and decant into sterilised bottles – I keep any good 50cl bottles during the year and use those. Seal and store; the resulting elixir keeps for a long time. In theory.

Oh yes: enjoy. And it does make colds go away. Really.

(I feel strongly about food writers who assume we all have obscure equipment lurking under our worktops but that’s probably because of editing some top chefs – ‘domesticating’ their recipes. And no, I do not have a sous-vide, surprising though that is, sunbeam, and I don’t think most domestic cooks do. OK – yet. I’ll give you that.
So here no-one
actually needs a purpose-made jelly bag. I’m still using a square of muslin tied at the corners and fixed to the legs of an upturned chair with string, though jelly bags are cheap and easy to find these days – I don’t have to behave as if I’m in a re-enactment project. But it works as well; just involves a bit more swearing.)

Hazelnuts, history – and a sweet treat

Phew. This is the foraging season par excellence, and I’m knackered. It’s a spectacularly good wild food year (so far) and this will be the first of several posts devoted to the art of getting something – at least partly – for free. It’s a wonderful year for nuts especially – a ‘mast’ year, when trees go into overproduction. Nobody really knows why it happens although there are many ideas floating about, but the net result as far as I am concerned is that the squirrels can’t keep up (and that’s one of the theories – overproduce, and some will be left to grow). But this also means that there’s a vague chance of me gathering some hazelnuts too.

Nearby are some woods where the hazels are both productive and accessible; some years I’m lucky and beat the squirrels and foraging dog walkers to the bounty, but I didn’t need to go there this time. I was in a friend’s garden a couple of weeks ago, near the woods,  and I suddenly realised I was walking on a carpet of nuts. My friend didn’t want them (?), so I gathered as many as I could – a sort-of public service, helping her tidy her garden.

hazelnutsAs I sat in front of the television cracking the nuts, such a boring job, it struck me that I was simply doing what inhabitants of this area have been doing for time out of mind, and indeed what the prehistoric inhabitants of most of Britain would have been doing at this time of year. Except they wouldn’t have been in a comfy cottage watching Strictly (go Dave Myers!); they’d probably have been sitting outside a bender-like home and listening to someone telling stories about how the land their father used to hunt over was now too wet to walk on.

Once archaeology has bitten you in the ankle, in my case at the age of about six, it never lets go. The Mesolithic – the period just before the development of farming (if you can draw clear boundaries at all), when there was extraordinary environmental change – has always been my passion; let’s say broadly from about 9000BP to about 5000BP, depending on where you are. Hunter-gathering always held more appeal for me than a settled, farming life with the growth of hierarchy; it was a world I could relate to. And one of the major food resources exploited by the Mesolithic people of Britain was – drum roll, please – the hazelnut.

Like us, they’d have foraged for them at this time of year. Their harvest could have been stored (roast nuts store quite well, and many of the hazelnut shells retrieved from archaeological sites have been burnt), or they might have been processed in some way for future consumption – ground and made into a paste, perhaps. It’s also noticeable that the spread of hazel and the spread of people seem to keep pace; they were clearly a vital resource. There’s even some speculation that the growth of hazel was deliberately encouraged by setting fires which would clear the land. This would also make hunting easier – a double benefit – and there’s no way of telling (yet) which came first; they seem to be simultaneous. At Goldcliff East on the Severn Estuary there’s evidence of this firesetting, plus of the actual preparation of hazelnuts, plus – amazing, this – the direct traces of the Mesolithic people themselves: footprints. And we know hazels flourished in Doggerland before it was drowned; analysis of peat dredged up from the North Sea tells us this. And of course it wasn’t only the nuts; the bendy, flexible wood was useful for many things, too.

As befits such an ancient food, hazelnuts crop up in legend, myth and superstition all the time. Hazelnut shells can be used in divination on Halloween; the wood was sacred and used to kindle the need-fire at Beltane; the ‘milk’ of hazelnuts might be given to Scottish children born in autumn as their first drink because it would bring them good luck and health. In Celtic myth they’re a signifier of wisdom. Even in Victorian times ‘nutting’ had a suitably, er, outrageous and almost pagan reputation. In Flora Britannica there’s a reprinted complaint from the owner of Hatfield Forest: ‘…as soon as the Nuts begin to get ripe … the idle and disorderly Men and Women of bad Character from Stortford … come … in large parties’ – and got up to all sorts of things, and not just picking hazelnuts, ahem, ahem, filth. Disgusting.

I’d probably class as a Disorderly Woman, certainly when I was whooping about my friend’s garden, scooping up nuts. So what did I do with my haul? Recreate a Mesolithic house in my own garden and sit outside it, contemplating the level of the Irish Sea? Nah. When it came to it, I didn’t have that many – the nuts are often blind, and some of the ones I picked up had also been there too long. In the end I adapted a River Cottage recipe.

Toasted hazelnuts in honey hazelnuts

A quantity of hazelnuts
clear honey
Greek yoghurt

You never know how many hazelnuts you are going to have, so just adapt the recipe to suit. Find a small jar (or several if you’ve been lucky), and put it in a low oven to sterilise it while you shell the nuts (you can also sterilize a jar in a pan of boiling water, more economical and practical unless you have shedloads of nuts). Allow the jar to cool. Rub any loose skin off the shelled nuts.

Put a dry frying pan on the heat and put the hazelnuts in it. Roast the nuts, shaking them about so they don’t burn. When they begin to smell warm and toasty, take the pan off the heat and tip them onto a plate. Put a layer of nuts into the bottom of the jar, and add a teaspoon of honey, then more hazelnuts and so on, until you have run out of nuts, making sure they are covered in honey. Press the nuts down into the honey; they will float upwards, but just keep pressing them down as you use them (this is why you need a small jar). Cover the jar and set aside.

This mixture is absolutely delicious spooned over Greek yoghurt – you don’t need much, either. I tested them over ice cream (briefly – I’m lactose intolerant, after all) and found them too sweet, but that’s another suggestion. And they’re perfect on porridge, at least according to me…

And I’ve no idea how long they’ll keep because – well, because I’m eating them fairly quickly. I’d have starved to death in the Mesolithic.

Crumble time!

Almost everyone loves a pudding and now that the nights are getting cooler and mist is accumulating in the dune slacks overnight, it’s time for apple crumble.

Oh, enough with the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ stuff. It’s time for apple crumble because my three ancient apple trees have gone into massive overproduction this year. People I know will soon be running away from me – if they stand still for five seconds I’ll be forcing them to take plastic bags filled with fruit, and they remember previous years. (Some have actually requested apples. They know not what they do. But they are about to find out.)

BlackberryAnd then there are the blackberries. The earliest are ready, fat and full of juice. I’ve some in my garden – they got missed in the Great Weeding – and only have to walk five minutes round the corner to get more. Blackberry and apple crumble is a traditional favourite, but I do get bored picking the seeds out of my teeth (ever the lady). I also think apple crumble can be a bit, er, basic – that’s fine, but I decided to come up with a more alcoholic adult version nonetheless.

I love playing with the concept of the crumble. I’ve done savoury ones; I’ve made the crumble from almonds and walnuts and oats and all sorts of other things; out of season I’ve crumbled whatever fruit is on special offer in Aldi; I’ve added interesting spices. But this one worked best when the topping was simple and traditional. Of course it’s good with crème fraiche or Greek yoghurt or double cream or ice cream or custard, but that’s not much help if you fall into the category – as I do – of the lactose intolerant. Hence the coulis. That and avoiding the whole seed/teeth/public embarrassment problem.

Apple crumble with blackberry coulis
(Serves 4, using a 20cm baking dish at least 5cm deep; a soufflé dish is ideal – but see below re servings…)

50g wholemeal flour
50g porridge oats
3 tbsp unrefined sugar
50g butter, chopped
half a tsp cinnamon
800g – 1kg cooking apples
2 tbsp Calvados or brandy
1 tbsp sugar

For the coulis
300g blackberries
a little water
2 heaped tsp vanilla sugar (according to taste – plain caster sugar can be used instead)

Make the coulis first. Rinse the blackberries to dislodge any wildlife and put them in a pan. Add a very little water – not even enough to cover them – and a teaspoon of the vanilla sugar. Bring to a simmer over a medium heat, stirring. Once the blackberries are soft and beginning to disintegrate, remove from the heat and mash them slightly. Then pass them through a sieve, preferably a nylon one, into a bowl – push as much pulp through as possible and discard what remains in the sieve. Pour the contents of the bowl into a non-stick pan – there will probably be about 300-400ml, depending on the juiciness of the blackberries. Taste the liquid and add another teaspoon of vanilla sugar if necessary. Bring the juice to the boil, stirring constantly, and reduce the liquid by half (don’t be tempted to walk away because it will boil over, quite suddenly, if you do). When it’s reduced, pour it into a jug and put it to one side to cool.

Then it’s time to make the crumble itself. There are two ways – by hand or in a food processor (I’m a recent convert to the latter). By hand, the butter should be warm; otherwise, cold from the fridge. Put the flour, oats, sugar, butter and cinnamon (if using) into a bowl or the food processor. If processing, pulse until all the ingredients are well mixed. If purist, gradually work the butter into the other ingredients with your hands until you have a fine crumb and all the butter is incorporated. Set the crumble to one side while you prepare the apples.

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees / 160 degrees fan / gas 4. Peel the apples, halve them and remove the cores, then chop them up and put them in the bottom of the baking dish, packing them down; they should come to within about 1.5cm of the top. Pour the Calvados over them, then scatter the sugar over the surface. Finally top with the crumble mixture, spreading it evenly over the surface and pressing it down with the back of the spoon. Bake the crumble in the oven for 45 minutes.

Serve – hot, warm or cold – with the gorgeous purple coulis poured over it. The coulis can be warmed up, but in practice it takes on a lot of warmth from a hot helping of crumble…

Sigh. OK, now I’m hungry.

Ah, yes, one final note – as I’ve discovered, this may well be enough to serve four – but if men are involved you may find it serves two, possibly three if you run, get there first and beat the competition off with a ladle. Hmm.

Foraging the market

marketSunday saw the small but perfectly formed farmers’ market in Dolgellau and – by strange coincidence, ho ho – the gathering of our wool-spinning group, the Sunday Market Spinners. We’re a motley band but the first thing most of us do is hit the market; only then do we return to our woolly group and get on with nattering, fondling fibre and solving each others’ gardening dilemmas.

The market happens on the third Sunday of each month, except in January and February when the risk of frostbite is just too high. There are regulars selling everything from plants to vegetables, mutton to eggs, chocolate to goats’ cheeses, and the stallholders also usually include a beekeeper, a wonderful Kurdish baker and a smokery. Occasionally there are surprises, and they are really worth looking out for – and they are also one of the reasons why it’s a good idea to hit the market before hitting the spinning wheels.

On Sunday I had a shock while passing the Wildlife Trust’s stall. There, quietly and discreetly, partly sheltered behind some herb plants, were two tubs of chanterelles. giroles

I have a favourite foraging spot for chanterelles, but there haven’t been many this year – either that or the people staying on the nearby campsite have wised up – and even on a good year, supplies are limited. So stumbling upon these was wonderful: no clambering around in dripping woods, no sliding down muddy paths and dropping my finds in a stream, no unfortunate encounters with sylvan dog toilets. But I haven’t got a lot. So what to do with them? There aren’t enough for Antonio Carluccio’s wonderful cantarelli in salsina – with shallots and a simple creamy sauce – but I could serve them with pasta. Or I could mix them with other mushrooms, perhaps cook them off with onions, lemon juice and a little cayenne, serve on toasted sourdough. Nah – I’d miss the delicate taste, and I fancy my wild delights as the hero ingredients.

I know – girolles à la forestière. A traditional French recipe, adapted by Jane Grigson in Mushroom Feast and then by Roger Phillips in the wonderful (if patchily edited – missing ingredients, missing quantities) Wild Food. And I’ll have to adapt it again, heavily, to suit the fact that – strangely – I haven’t got a kilo and a half of the mushrooms and I also want to use less fat. However, it’s perfect for me because I have some good bacon to hand (we do excellent butchers round here)  and I’ve a great crop of potatoes, La Ratte – perfect for this recipe. In the event, my adaptation was even more significant because my chanterelles just didn’t give off the reported amount of liquid.

Girolles à la forestière – de ma façon
(serves 2)

250g chanterelles
250g new potatoes
1 tbsp olive oil or a sliver of butter
4 rashers of good back bacon, chopped into strips
a sprig of thyme
salt and black pepper

Carefully clean the chanterelles, brushing off any flecks of soil. Trim the ends of the stalks and chop any particularly large ones in half. Put the potatoes into a pan of cold water and bring it to the boil. Cook the potatoes until they are just done – test them while they are cooking and take them off the heat as soon as they are ready. Drain and set aside, then chop them into smaller pieces (to match the size of the chanterelles) as soon as they are cool enough to handle.

Put the oil in  a non-stick pan or large frying pan and cook the mushrooms over a medium heat for five minutes or so, stirring all the while, until they are just beginning to colour. Drain off any liquid and set the mushrooms aside. Increase the heat a little and put the bacon in the pan. Cook it for 5 minutes, until it too begins to colour and give off fat (if there is a lot, drain some of it off). Add the potatoes to the pan and  turn them over in the bacon fat. Allow them to brown a little, stirring again – this will probably take another 5 minutes – then return the chanterelles to the pan and scatter the leaves from the sprig of thyme over the potato, mushroom and bacon. Cook everything together for a couple more minutes, stirring, then season with salt and black pepper and serve immediately.

Serving: lovely with a green salad and a chunk of good bread. And a glass of something!

And now I need to get my boots and my stick and my basket. Because the man on the stall said there were lots of ceps around, and I think I know where he’s found them…