Tag Archives: preserves

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…

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!

Preserves and produce – the show season

I tend – like most of us, I expect – to judge the passing of the seasons with markers. If the first Duke of Edinburgh’s Award hikers have collapsed on my wall it must be summer; if the village garden club show has happened, autumn cannot be far behind. This year I have been working flat out, so the show burst upon me. It was just as well that I’d not entered anything in the baking, because I was far too busy checking the dahlias for earwigs to worry about Victoria sponges and whether I could do a Helen Mirren and buy one from M&S.

I had all my preserves ready, though. I still had to stage a chutney beauty contest because I’d lost the ability to distinguish one from another, but apart from that I was done. The produce and wine section is always keenly contested, and I’d been nominated as the steward. This meant helping the judge – a local chef – by writing frantically, washing spoons, saying almost nothing about anything other than the weather, putting prize markers in the right place and keeping an absolute poker face whenever he approached any of my entries with his spoon (or asked me to taste something – er – surprising).

preservesThere were a lot of entries in our classes – from country wines to vegetable pickles, from sloe gins to lemon curds. And they all had to be tasted, assessed, judged – often requiring repeated tasting – and reflected upon. We were still working our way through the chutneys when the other judges and stewards had retired for sarnies, but I didn’t mind.

Of course there were some unfortunates: the jelly which hadn’t set, the still wine starting to fizz and ferment. But there were some truly wonderful things, produced by people with real talent, and our judge treated everything with proper respect.

I also got to taste one or two, and not just my own…

When we were setting up, I was helping place entries and came across something I’d not encountered before: bread and butter pickle. The maker said she’d found the recipe in an old book, and had no idea why it was called this, but it involved pickling cucumbers and onions and she’d added a courgette, all finely sliced, as well as mustard seeds and a little turmeric and, and… It was gorgeous. Its maker also said it was ‘like the pickle you get in McDonalds’ – oh no, it wasn’t. It was a million, zillion times better. Of course it won.

I’ve now done some digging around, and the name ‘bread and butter pickle’ won’t come as a surprise to any of my US friends – perfectly normal pickle (sniff). Wikipedia says that bread and butter pickles are sweeter than ‘normal’ dill pickles, with more sugar added to the brine, and with sliced cucumbers rather than whole ones. And b&b pickle is indeed cited as often an accompaniment to burgers, so our maker wasn’t so far off the mark in theory, even if she was blissfully miles away in reality. I’ve also found a recipe in an ‘old’ book over here – Reader’s Digest Farmhouse Cookery from 1980 – and there are numerous online versions. In the RD book it is given as a UK pickle, described as ‘countrywide’ and ‘an old country pickle’, but I can’t confirm that. However, it is delicious – and if anyone wants to have a go, our show winner had finely cut her cucumbers into long strips, which really worked.

marmeladesOur judge alternated between sugary preserves, less-sugary drinks, pickles, fruit liqueurs and chutneys, trying not to overload on sugar or vinegar (or alcohol, come to that). The sheer range was astonishing, even in the more specific classes – like the marmelade, for instance. There were plenty of recommendations for next year, and I made plenty of personal notes, mental and physical – scribbled on my hand. Principally…

there is no way I am going to resist making apricot vodka. Everyone should make apricot vodka. Make it, then hide it.

I always make sloe gin, and though mine is not particularly sweet it has won in the past (not this year, though). This year, I added blackberry whisky to my repertoire and somehow managed to save enough to have some for the show – it got lost at the very back of a cupboard; the first lot went alarmingly fast). Next year apricot vodka has to be marooned behind the bulk buys.

There were several entries (apricot vodka has a specific class), but the one which won was simply unbelievable. It was deeply golden, and had a depth of flavour and subtle maturity which made it stand out. The basic recipe given in the show brochure says to leave the apricots in the vodka for eight days, or maybe fourteen, or maybe twenty-two: the winner had definitely left them for longer. There are other recipes out there, but the show recipe is simple. The winner followed it apart from the timing (he’s saying no more), so I am going to experiment. Here’s the recipe, verbatim: ‘1.5 lbs dried apricots, 2 pts vodka, 1 lb sugar. Place all ingredients in a container, do not mix. Turn twice a day for 8 days, leaving the jar sitting on its lid for some days [!]. Strain and bottle. You can also use the same apricots for a second batch but this time leave for 14 days. If the vodka is too sweet for your taste after the first blending [?] use less sugar on the second batch and blend after the 14 days.’ As a food writer and editor, I’ve got some queries about this, but I’m going for it anyway. Watch this space… hic….

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.