Friday 24 June 2011

Rubies in the green

The raspberries are fantastic this year: Chanel red, glossy and juicy, and I’ll swear they are twice the size they were  last year. I’m relieved because in the mini-drought during April, I didn’t water them concentrating instead on spot-watering the seedlings and plants I know to be thirsty like the early lettuces. So I did wonder if I might get some rather wizened little fruits (and maybe I would have done if it hadn’t started raining in earnest this month).
So we are having a bumper harvest and may even get to store some in the freezer. Usually they get eaten en passant – I leave a bowl of raspberries out in the kitchen and they’ll be gone within a couple of hours.
However, confined to the house by a particularly squally rain shower and thinking that the current batch of raspberries might need eating up really quite soon, I thought a spot of baking might be appropriate. These are raspberry muffins, adapted from Nigella’s Blueberry Muffin recipe (How To Be A Domestic Goddess), which can also be found here, by substituting 200g raspberries for the blueberries and adding half a teaspoonful of vanilla extract.

200g plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
Pinch of salt
75g caster sugar

75g butter, melted
1 egg
200ml buttermilk (Nigella also says you can mix half and half yogurt and semi-skimmed milk instead)

200g raspberries
½ tsp vanilla extract

Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees. 
Mix together the dry ingredients. Beat together butter, egg and buttermilk in a separate bowl. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and mix lightly with a wooden spoon – a few lumps don’t matter. Fold in the raspberries and vanilla extract.
Scoop (N’s suggestion of an ice-cream scoop turns out to be just the thing) into muffin cases and bake in a suitable tin for 20 minutes.

Thursday 23 June 2011

A glut of gooseberries

I am – barely – managing a glut of gooseberries at the moment. Last year my three gooseberry Pax bushes managed a grand total of eight fruits, each devoured in situ, and in a single morning, I think. This year, each bush is groaning with beautiful, crimson-blushed fruit and with the recent downpours after the drought, some of the fruits are beginning to split.

I’ve found myself at a bit of a loss to know what to do with them. A crop that gives you enough for some fruit salads and maybe a couple of fools is one thing, but this year’s harvest requires something more in the way of mass production. Perhaps a chutney? We have been missing a good chutney over the last winter and spring: usually I make a green tomato chutney in October to use up the last of the fruits that haven’t yet turned red. Last year, I was still waiting for any ripe tomatoes in October and I really couldn’t face making chutney out of the whole crop. So a gooseberry will usefully fill a gap in the store cupboard; the sharp-sweet flavour of gooseberries seems well-suited to a chutney as well.

Gooseberry chutney with cranberries and fennel

Made with sweet amber gooseberries, this cooks to a glorious deep maroon colour. The cranberries were included as an alternative to the more usual raisins and actually may help more with the colour than anything else. The fennel notes, which cut the sharpness of the gooseberries, are quite subtle even with the addition of a whole star anise. I did consider using fennel seeds in the spice mix and would normally do so, but on this occasion thought it might just overload the chutney with aniseed.

1.2kg gooseberries
300ml cider vinegar
500g light brown sugar
1 onion, chopped
1 fat fennel bulb, chopped
100g dried cranberries
2cm cinnamon stick, ground
1 star anise
2 tspcrushed black peppercorns
1 tsp Szechuan pepper
3 cloves
1 cardamom pod, crushed
½ tsp turmeric

Rinse the gooseberries, then top and tail them. In a large pan, bring the gooseberries and vinegar to the boil and simmer until the gooseberries are disintegrating – about 10-20 minutes depending on how ripe the gooseberries are.

Add the onion, fennel, cranberries and sugar and stir well to dissolve the sugar. Bring to a simmer. Lightly pound the spices, apart from the star, together to a coarse powder and add to the pan. Simmer gently for about 2 hours, until the mixture has cooked right down and is sticky rather than soupy.

While it’s cooking, sterilise your jars so that the chutney can be potted up and sealed as soon as it’s ready.

Friday 17 June 2011

Nut cutlets, fake bacon and other horrors

Some of my favourite meals don't involve meat or fish: a Spanish tortilla, a Greek salad, cauliflower cheese made with gruyere and cream, a vegetable curry - perhaps an aloo gobi or a Thai style dish with coconut and snow white rice, a wonderful artichoke casserole with tomatoes and preserved lemons picked up from Skye Gyngell, aubergines stuffed with tomatoes and mozzarella ... the list goes on. 

Every so often I’ll consciously cut down my meat intake and stick to vegetables. What I won’t have is fake meat. I simply don't get the point of vegetarian sausages, fake bacon, or a pretend roast such as Linda McCartney’s Vegetarian Roast, which describes itself as  a "chicken style roast with sage and onion stuffing". It’s probably unfair to single out the Linda McCartney range: there are plenty of other vegetarian roasts that parade their ‘meat-like’ credentials. Why?

I don't mean dishes like vegetable lasagne where lentils, or mushrooms, or squash are used instead of meat, sometimes these are preferable to a heavy meaty version. Or maybe even a nut cutlet, although what is that word ‘cutlet’ trying to imply in this context? I mean food that pretends to be meat but isn't. Why is that remotely attractive? Why is it remotely attractive, especially, to a vegetarian, who has rejected meat?

As a non-vegetarian, I probably shouldn’t make presumptions about why people don’t eat meat, but I’ll have a go anyway. Perhaps …
  • They don’t like the taste of meat;
  • They believe that a vegetarian diet is healthier;
  • They believe they can eat more cheaply on a vegetarian diet;
  • They believe that a vegetarian diet is more environmentally sustainable;
  • They believe that a vegetarian diet is more economically sustainable for food producers;
  • They believe that eating meat is inevitably cruel to animals;
  • They believe that killing animals for food is morally unjustifiable (the humaneness of treatment and death being immaterial).
I’m sure there are more. They all seem valid to me and most lead me periodically to try to eat more meat-free meals. But what I don’t understand is why if you have rejected meat for whatever reason, you would then want to eat something that tries to emulate the look, taste and /or texture of meat. Doesn’t this in some way contradict the reason you stopped eating meat in the first place? At the very least it must generate some degree of cognitive dissonance.

Most veggie sausages, veggie burgers, veggie rissoles are highly processed, so hardly healthier. Or cheaper (Linda McCartney’s Sausages are £4.07 per kg at Waitrose when on special offer; their Essential pork sausages are £2.14 per kg, though admittedly organic versions cost more than Linda’s). If you are a vegetarian on moral grounds, then eating something that makes itself resemble meat as closely as possible is hardly a good look. If you are veggie on economic or environmental grounds, then eating a Deli Bacon Flavour Rasher makes you look a bit wistful, as you are admitting that it’s a sacrifice, that you didn't choose to stop eating meat, but felt you had to give it up.

The last time I tried vegetarian sausages was at a barbecue. “The children love them,” I was told by my host, himself a vegetarian. So I tackled one. It tasted mainly of monosodium glutamate with a bit of yeast extract and had the texture of sage and onion stuffing. Why on earth would you want to eat that at a barbecue when you could have, say, corn cobs marinaded in soy and honey and five-spice, or kebabs with green peppers and halloumi, or aubergines seasoned, wrapped in foil and cooked in the embers until they are all soft and smoky?

My final argument is, quite simply, quorn. I don't think any more needs to be said.

Friday 10 June 2011

Cold comfrey farm

I’m making comfrey tea for the first time this year. Not a tea to drink – although in my extensive Google-based research, I found this somewhat cautionary tale about drinking comfrey herbal tea in large quantities – but a liquid fertiliser for the allotment crops.

Comfrey plants have very long taproots which reach right down into the subsoil, enabling the plant to absorb many trace elements as well as a high concentration of all three of the main plant nutrients: nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus (NPK). I inherited a comfrey patch in the corner of my plot and have used the cut leaves both as a compost starter (chucking the leaves liberally on the heap in between layers of other material) and also to line the trenches when planting potatoes. But until now I haven’t got round to making comfrey tea partly because I haven’t had a spare container and mainly because everyone tells me that it will smell awful.

However with the help of and the acquisition of a spare water butt, I have made a start at making my own liquid fertiliser. The water butt has its tap intact and secure, so is leak-proof, and as for the smell, well, we’re out in the open and can it really be any worse than manure? Lurking in the back of the shed was an ancient hessian potato sack, so I have stuffed this with fistfuls of comfrey leaves, tied up the open end with twine and placed the sack in the water butt. Containing the leaves like this will hopefully stop them from clogging up the tap and will make disposing of them once the tea has brewed a bit easier and less slimy.

Next, I filled the butt with water so that the sack is completely submerged and I have clamped a lid on it – actually a spare water butt stand up-ended and pushed into the top of the butt like a bung. Now the tea is stewing away and should be ready in about a month. There is –as yet – no smell.

If you don't have an off-the-peg comfrey patch to plunder, the plants are readily available in garden centres or you can take root cuttings from friends. If buying, make sure you get Bocking 14 – other varieties are invasive and will self-sow everywhere. Even Bocking 14 is pretty vigorous and you’ll be glad of a reason to cut it down regularly. It also attracts lots of bees when in flower – another bonus.

Thursday 2 June 2011

Washing vegetables

When I rinse fruits and vegetables under the tap before eating them – whether they’re homegrown or not, I often wonder if I’m really doing any thing effective. If it has visible dirt on it, then fair enough. If not, am I really going to make any difference with a quick rinse and a rub? The recent e.coli outbreak in northern Germany has certainly made me think twice about the thoroughness with which I clean fruit and veg prior to eating.

According to this article in The Guardian, it’s a miracle I haven’t offed the entire family with salmonella poisoning on a regular basis. It is one of those articles that in one paragraph quotes an expert saying, don't worry, salad is safe, and in the next, explains how the rates of e.coli, salmomella, campylobacter et al are going through the roof.

Then, at the end, there is this astonishing (well, astonishing for me, anyway) assertion, quoting Stephen Vaughan who owns a food company called All Food Hygiene and who runs food hygiene courses:
"The most sensible way to wash vegetables at home is to use Milton Sterilising Fluid. You need to use a double sink method – one bowl with Milton diluted in water (as per the instructions), then put your fruit and vegetables in there for 20 minutes. Fill the other sink with tap water to wash off the chlorine. It leaves no taste and kills the bacteria."
I have never done this, or indeed anything close to this. I think I don’t know anyone who has ever done this. What would a soft-leaved lettuce look like after 20 mins submerged in the Milton, anyway?