Sunday, July 31, 2011

Veggie box

I had a brief spell of having a veggie box delivered a long time ago, but gave up bcause the quality wasn't up to scratch. The final straw, I think, were some carrots with an inedible, fibrous 'core'. However, back in Edinburgh I decided to give East Coast Organics a go. We've only had a couple of boxes, but I'm already impressed by the quality and variety. I particularly like getting small quantities of various different types of vegetable, so that I don't find myself suddenly swamped with 2 kg of celeriac, or more fennel than I know what to do with.

So far, I've been rediscovering the joys of sliced mushrooms in my salad, have perked up some saag aloo with a little fennel, and made some really good turnip and potato soup, which got a nice peppery kick and a beautiful green shade from the addition of turnip greens and a bit of chard.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Pickled cucumbers with dill, garlic and horseradish

The two large jars of cucumbers I pickled last week were so good that they have already disappeared, so it was back to my local Polish deli for more supplies. Along with a couple of kilos of pickling cucumbers, I got a bundle consisting of some dried, stalks of bolted dill, a head of garlic, and a length of dried horseradish.

2 kg of pickling cucumbers
4 cloves of garlic
dried bolted dill stalks
6-inch piece of horseradish root
1500 ml of boiling water
3 tbsps of salt
3 tbsps of sugar
12 tbsps of cider vinegar

  1. Sterilise 4 good-sized pickling jars, with their lids.
  2. Allow to cool a little, then pack the cucumbers into them.
  3. Into each jar, place 1 peeled garlic clove, a 1-inch piece of horseradish root, and 3 or 4 lengths of dill stalk.
  4. Dissolve the salt and sugar in the boiling water, and add the vinegar.
  5. Pour the pickling liquid over the cucumbers, seal the jars and store for 2 days at room temperature and at least 1 week in the fridge.
I don't know why, but I felt rather pleased when the shop assistant in the deli addressed me in Polish, even though I think she was just asking me to get out of the way so she could get back to the till.

Strawberry jam

I've been wanting to make jam for ages - it seems the natural accompaniment to my bread baking and pickling exploits - so we all headed off to Craigie's "pick your own" farm out by South Queensferry. Before going, I'd checked my recipe books, and trusty Darina Allen of the Ballymaloe Cookery School had assured me that raspberry jam was the best for beginners, as strawberry jam could be a bit tricky. But when we arrived at the farm, there was barely a raspberry in sight. I was doubly disappointed: not only was I not going to be able to make my "beginners' jam", I was also going to have to bend for strawberries (raspberries grow on canes, so you can pick them standing, whereas strawberries are found underneath very low bushes).

We headed off to the strawberry fields, and I was soon cheered up by the realisation that I could actually pick the strawberries while lying down, popping the odd one into my mouth as I went. This is my kind of farming! After about an hour, of hard, supine labour, we had almost 3 kilos of little, ripeish strawberries. (For jam, it's important that your fruit is not overripe or bruised.)

Back in the kitchen, I checked my recipes again, but Darina Allen was prescribing redcurrant juice and more lemons than I had, so it was time to google. After a bit of searching, I finally hit upon Sophie Grigson on the BBC. I had all the ingredients, the recipe seemed nice and easy to follow, and best of all I had to leave the strawberries soaking in sugar overnight, which got me off the hook of actually making the jam that evening.

1 kg of unblemished, ripe(ish) strawberries [weight after preparation]
1 kg of caster sugar
juice of 1 lemon
small knob of butter

  1. Remove the stalks from your strawberries. Cut larger fruit into halves or quarters; leave very smal ones whole. Put the fruit into a large bowl, add 500g of sugar, cover with clingfilm and leave in the fridge overnight.
  2. The next day, put a plate in your freezer (you will need this to test the setting point) and sterilise your jars and any other equipment as follows: wash well, rinse, place upside down on a rack in your oven, heat the oven to 140oC, and once it has reached temperature, keep there for 30 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, put the strawberry and sugar mixture into a very large saucepan (or a jam pan, if you have one), add the remaining 500g of sugar and the lemon juice and stir very well, over a low heat until all the sugar is dissolved.
  4. Turn the heat up and bring to a boil. If you have a cooking thermomenter, once the temperature reaches 105 oC, you can start testing for the setting point, as follows: drip a couple of drops of the jam 'juice' onto the cold plate. Leave to cool for a few seconds. If it is ready, then the surface will wrinkle when you push the drop with your fingernail. (Or you can just stick your finger in it and see if it has a slightly sticky, jammy consistency rather than a syrupy one.) It may take a good 20 minutes of boiling to reach the setting point; keep testing at regular intervals and make sure you don't overcook it.
  5. When your jam has reached setting point, turn off the heat, stir in a small piece of butter, skim off any scum on the top, and allow to sit for 10 minutes.
  6. Ladle the jam into the sterilised jars (using a jam funnel if you have one), cover with a wax lid, and put a lid on the jar while still hot.


soaking strawbs

Pick your own: strawberries and fresh camomile tea

We went strawberry picking the other day, to Craigie's Farm, near South Queensferry (just a few miles outside of Edinburgh). I have fond memories of occasional fruit picking as a child (I suspect I only did it once or twice), and have been meaning to take the kids for ages. We almost didn't go, as there was a family meltdown around lunchtime, but when we finally got there (at about 4 o'clock) everyone agreed that it had been worth the effort. The raspberries canes were pretty scarcely populated, but the strawberries were a bit thicker on the ground - although we still needed to do a fair bit of searching. It was fun, though, lying around on the straw rooting around between the strawberry plants and handpicking the small but perfect fruit. Although my main aim was to make some jam, after we had sorted through the fruit, we had plenty left over for good old strawberries and cream.

Carmela dressed up in her school uniform to eat hers. (This is what home educated children do when their lives don't seem quite grey enough or when they're just tired of the stress of having to choose their own clothes!)

And we had also found some camomile growing around the strawberry fields, so we picked some of that and made some fresh camomile tea, which to my mind was much better and less 'grassy' tasting than the dried version.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Polish-style pickled cucumbers

When I left Edinburgh, the Polish influx was just getting started. Six years later, the Polish community is well and truly established, and is served both by a number of specialist Polish delis and by little Polish sections in most supermarkets and convenience stores. The other day, I was heading for the Chinese supermarket when I stopped into my nearest Polish shop. My eyes were instantly drawn to a couple of big baskets of very fresh looking pickling cucumbers, and I supplemented some of these with a bag of fresh dill.

12 pickling cucmbers (between 8 and 15 cm in length)
500 ml of boiling water
1 tbsps of salt
1 tbsp of sugar
4 tbsps of good quality cider or white wine vinegar
2 cloves of garlic, peeled
8 sprigs of fresh dill

  1. Put the water, salt and sugar in a pan. Bring gently to a boil, stirring so that the salt and sugar are dissolved, turn off, add the vinegar and allow to cool a little.
  2. Clean the cucmbers and distribute them between 2 large or 3 medium-sized sterilized jars. Add the garlic and fresh dill, pour the pickling solution over the cucumbers so that they are completely covered, and seal the jars.
  3. Keep at room temperature for 2 days, then store in the fridge for 1 week. The cucumbers are now ready to eat - they should taste fresh and cruncy.
In a pickle
I have a long-standing if rather intermittent love affair with pickling. I first pickled things when I was at university - peppers, cucumbers, onions, eggs (lots of eggs!) and even an octopus. I have particularly fond memories of the octopus. It was truly delicious - simmered in vinegar with plenty of herbs and some delicate spices, then preserved in oil and left to mature for 6 weeks. Shortly before making it I had been out flyposting for a CND rally (summer of 1985) and me and my friend Angus were spotted and threatened by the local criminals who, unknown to us, controlled the flyposting business in south Manchester. When I got home feeling a little shaken, I remembered the octopus in my fridge and decided to do some therapeutic cephalopod preservation.