Foraging on my doorstep 3: Dulse and beer bread – with my salt beef

It’s been a while since I posted a recipe that included the most obvious bounty on my doorstep – seaweed, in this case, dulse. I have coupled this with my first attempt at preparing salt beef, using a fine quality brisket of Aberdeen Angus. This unique combination produced a sandwich of some distinction, well worth the effort to collect the dulse and time to brine the beef.

In the process

As mentioned before, I am not a hardcore forager because in some respects, I don’t believe in tokenistic use of foraged ingredients. Seaweeds, if not appropriately processed, carefully considered and balanced to be an integral part of a dish can fall into this category. Dulse, however, I have discovered, does have significant merit as a distinctive ingredient that brings novel and intriguing flavour dimensions to a dish.

I am slightly limited in my experimental explorations with seaweeds as I currently don’t have a dehydrator, a tool that would give me more flexibility in using seaweed as an ingredient. Given that we are on the cusp of renovating the house and in the process of packing stuff away to facilitate the incredible mess that will ensue, buying more kitchen gadgets, normally something I would be looking for an excuse to do, is not on the cards.

Help with kelp

Dulse harvest

Dulse harvest 2

It is not the best time of year to be collecting dulse – end of summer / early autumn is optimal, but where there is kelp, it can usually be found at anytime of the year. I began thinking about recipe ideas, as possible contributions to Fiona Bird’s next book – based around culinary explorations with seaweed. The least I could do was come up with some ideas for Fi, Champion of Hebridean seaweed. See also my review of Fiona’s fabulous last book ‘The Forager’s Kitchen‘.

On a sunny but very windy day, we combed our local beach for living kelp that had been cast ashore (as opposed to the masses of dead plants, detached and usually devoid of dulse).  The holdfasts (‘root’) of living kelp plants still grip hard to the boulder substrate on which they are growing and are often thrown high up this beach during storms, well above the kelp zone, therefore making them easy to find.

So why, you may ask am I looking for kelp but intend to forage for dulse?  Dulse (Palmaria palmata) is a red seaweed that is epiphytic on several species of seaweed, notably the most abundant kelp found along the west coast of the Uists, Laminaria hyperborea. The stipes (‘stems’) of this important algae are often festooned with dulse, which has a ribbon-like appearance at this time of year, having been ripped and shredded by the force of stormy seas. These kelp plants live for up to 15 years and dulse tends to found associated with older specimens. Dulse also grows on rocks and mussels in the intertidal zone.

The kelp Laminaria hyperborea, tangle, to give it one of its common names,  is an incredibility important species, notably for these islands. The most apparent benefit of beach cast tangle (as well a few other seaweed species) is that it is traditionally collected from beaches after winter storms and utilised by crofters as a natural fertiliser for crops.

However, it is the unseen benefits provided by these kelp forests that extensively fringe the west coast here that make them so important.  Kelp (actually an umbrella name for a number of ‘forest-forming’ macroalgae) has been described as an ‘ecosystem engineer’, a wonderful term that perhaps, rather simplistically, may be described as any organism  that creates or significantly modifies habitats.  North American beavers and termites are often cited as the more obvious examples.

Kelp forests are extremely dynamic and productive with high biodiversity, acting as a habitat and refuge for many organisms and are important for nutrient cycling and energy capture.  Of key importance to this low-lying island chain may be the capacity of kelp forests to offer a degree of protection to coastal zones from flooding and erosion by acting as a buffer, reducing the velocity of approaching waves during storms.  A recent paper that gives an excellent synthesis of the functions of kelp can be found here. 

My life is currently awash with kelp – not just in my spare time used foraging for dulse,  at work I am currently managing a research project focusing on kelp.  A world of weed indeed!

As you can see, the dogs thought harvesting dulse this was a great game and quickly cottoned on to what we were trying to do.  They excitedly began seeking out kelp stipes. Unfortunately, when found they then proceeded to chew off and eat the dulse, or run around with the entire stipes hanging out of their mouths, nonchalantly chewing them while running amok.

Dulse and beer bread

I was aware that the flavour of dulse is complemented by ale and, in wishing to continue pushing the envelope with my recent bread making exploits (more on these another time), decided to pair the two flavours in a loaf.  I have been making a lot of ale rolls recently and was intrigued to experience how the dulse may alter the flavour and texture of my basic ale roll recipe.

The flavour was malty, full and distinctive. The dulse gave a new dimension and depth of flavour, soft texture, even bake and a pleasant smell that was incomparable with any loaf I have made before.  The colour was interesting, slightly tinged with yellow and the keeping qualities of the loaf appeared to be very good, although I admit, it didn’t perhaps last long enough to really test that out…

As mentioned, there are benefits to drying the dulse before use but without a dehydrator, I decided to try using it fresh. After checking the dulse for inhabiting species and removing them, I rinsed it thoroughly under the cold tap for a few minutes.  I then placed it in a bowl of warm water for half an hour, before drying it with a kitchen towel and then blitzing it quite coarsely in a food processor. I have no idea what the standard practice for fresh dulse is, but presumed this would remove creatures, salt and soften it a bit. It seemed to work.

Dulse

The recipe provides 2 large loaves and economically uses 1 500 ml bottle of ale. Alternatively, make 1/2 the volume and drink the spare 200ml of ale! Modify according to your preferred method of bread prep. and room temperature.

Ingredients

600g strong white bread flour

200g strong wholemeal bread flour

200g strong malted bread flour

40g fresh dulse, finely chopped

500 ml ale

100 ml water (approx.)

20g instant yeast

20g salt

60g butter

a little olive oil

some semolina for dusting

Oven: 205 C (fan)

Dulse bread

Method

  • Put everything in a bowl and mix until it comes together and tip onto the surface.  Be careful not to add all the water at once in case the dough is too sticky – especially due to the added moisture in the dulse.  Adjust water amount accordingly.
  • Put a little olive oil on the surface and tip out the dough.  Knead for about 10 minutes until the dough is no longer sticky but becomes soft and elastic.
  • Put in a clean, lightly oiled bowl. Cover with cling film and allow to rise until doubled in size.  This may take up to several hours for a big batch like this, depending on room temperature.
  • Tip dough out and fold inwards to knock the air out and cut in 2 before shaping your loaves into your preferred shapes.
  • Place each on a baking tray dusted with a mixture of semolina and flour.
  • Cover with a plastic bag and leave to prove for at least an hour, or until the loaves have again doubled in size.
  • Dust the loaves with a mixture of semolina and flour and slash, if desired, before placing on the oven for 30 minutes.

Dulde bread 3

dulse bread 2

Salt beef: another briny recipe

Although I have always been aware of the existence of salt beef and its origination in Ashkenazi cuisine,  I must admit, I don’t recollect eating it, most probably because it is generally hard to acquire in Scotland and secondly, I have not thought to specifically seek it out. I had a good quality marbled piece of Aberdeen Angus beef and was contemplating what to do with it that would make it special when I came across a number of salt beef recipes online.

Salt beef, it transpires, is remarkably simple to make, so difficult acquisition is irrelevant if you are prepared to make it.  Admittedly, it does require considerable patience during brining.  At this stage, I found myself opening the fridge and staring longingly at the briny brisket, counting the days when it would be ready to cook and consume.

Traditionally, saltpetre would have been added.  This does give the beef its characteristic pink tinge. Although we do have some (for something to do with violin making, not cooking!), I prefer to keep the product more natural, so have omitted it.

Since the beef will languish in the brine for an entire week, it is perhaps not wise to try to undertake this without the benefit of a large fridge. Fortunately, I have one.

This recipe is an amalgamation of several I found online.  I modified the contents of the brine and subsequent cooking ingredients to my own tastes.

Salt beef brine recipe


275g soft light brown sugar

350g coarse sea salt

2 tsp black peppercorns

1 tsp juniper berries

3 cloves

3 bay leaves

a few sprigs of thyme

a sprig of rosemary

salt beef 1

Method

  • Put all the ingredients for the brine into a large saucepan with  2.5 litres of water, bring to the boil, stirring to help the sugar and salt dissolve.
  • Once it comes to the boil,  simmer for two minutes. Take off the heat and leave to cool completely.
  • Pierce the brisket all over with a skewer and place in a large sterilised, non reactive container (plastic is best) that will hopefully fit in your fridge.
  • Pour over the brine to immerse the beef, weight it down if you can, or turn in the brine regularly.
  • Leave to brine for 1 week.

For the beef 

2 kg (minimum) beef brisket

1 large carrot, roughly chopped

1 onion, roughly chopped

1 celery stick, roughly chopped

1 leek, roughly chopped

1 bouquet garni of seasonal herbs

1 head of garlic, halved

Method

  • Take the beef out of the brine and rinse it.
  •  Place a pan with the vegetables, bouquet garni and garlic, adding enough cold water to cover.
  • Bring the water to simmering point, then leave to poach very gently for about 3 hours, or until the meat is completely tender.

salt beef 2

Serve hot or cold.  We preferred it cold, as luxurious lunchtime sandwiches with the dulse and beer bread, some wholegrain mustard and accompanied by small onions I grew last summer, preserved in a sweet and gentle pickle.  There is no doubt about what I will be making with the next brisket I acquire – an outstanding way to celebrate one of the best cheap beef cuts, making it feel very extravagant.

salt beef sandwich

The vile weather continues here, so time for a break. London calling.  Here’s hoping when I return spring will be vaguely apparent (though I did hear an optimistic skylark singing this morning in the short sunshine interlude between the continual low pressure weather systems).

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London: Unabashed Food Hedonism

I spend most of my year cooking home grown food or foraged wild meat and fish at home on North Uist, therefore, when we do get away for a trip, there tends to be a focus on eating the best food we can access/afford wherever we head. This could be Michelin star dining; The Kitchin and Martin Wishart in Edinburgh being our two Scottish favourites, or, as in our trip to London this week, more relaxed, less austere and affordable eating experiences.

I love cooking and preparing food but even I need a break from cooking from scratch on a daily basis. The perfect antidote to ‘Cook’s Fatigue’ is to recharge the batteries with a visit to London, one of my favourite cities in the world and, of course, I had accumulated a list of places I had to eat and some foody items I had to purchase while there. Some of you who read my blog will not be surprised to learn this predictably included a visit to Ottolenghi and Wahaca but this also extended to indulging in some street food and Portuguese food nostalgia, both of which I have been dreaming of for some months.

Bear with me, this is inevitably a long post, so feel free to cut to the chase of the tagine recipe.

Our reason for visiting London was primarily work-related in that The Man Named Sous, (elevated to his real name Eric for this post, given the redundancy of his nom de blog for our London trip) was displaying instruments at the British Violin Making Association annual violin makers event.  I was certainly required as a porter for the event, as we arrived from Edinburgh by train with various instruments including cello, violin and viola.

He had been working very long hours to finish a new cello for this event and another last week in Glasgow where it and other instruments he made were played in the Violin Makers Scotland showcase concert at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. So new is the cello, pictures of it have been posted in his Facebook page, but have not yet made to his website, Eric Jackson Violins (shameless plugging here, but I am proud of his skill to produce very fine instruments as well as his commitment to his profession).

The event at Old Sessions House, Clerkenwell Green was a success and it was good for both of us to catch up with people we had not seen for a few years, such as flatmates Eric shared a house with while studying at the Newark School of Violin Making. After the event, we had a few pints in the delightful The Crown Tavern across the road from the venue with violin maker and musician pals and rounded the night off with a curry at Cafe Saffron, Aylesbury Street, which was excellent, good value and service too.

We were staying at a friend’s flat in Highgate, North London, except our friend was not there but in transit back from Algiers, although we did make the acquaintance of his Hungarian friend also staying at the flat. It was nice to be able to spend time with him of an evening, exchanging tales of London, Hungary and the Hebrides, and he also cooked us up a fine Hungarian Goulash as well as kindly gifting me some Hungarian sweet paprika, which I had long ran out of, but used to pick up when I worked in Hungary during my PhD.  I included some of this distinctive spice in my tagine recipe at the end of this post.

paprika

After so much intensity and immersion in the violin making world, we delighted in spending a couple of well-earned days snatching time to explore some of London’s culinary and cultural offerings, although, must it be said it was a bit manic, cramming as much in as we could in so little time.

Street food is currently very much in vogue in the UK and the best place to find a diverse selection is London.  We had heard about the Moroccan Soup Stand in Golbourne Road, which recently won a BBC Radio 4 Food Award. I then read a great post by Craig at Mad Dog TV Dinners, who has great local knowledge of the best markets to visit in London.  He wrote an inspiring and enlightening post about Golbourne Road where I learned about the Portuguese community and associated shops there. Thanks to Craig for the info, his comprehensive post should be read in conjunction with this one to get the full flavour of the experience.

This made a visit to the area mandatory as I was in need of some Portuguese food nostalgia after my recent post about living in the Algarve.  On arrival at Golbourne Road, we found Lisboa Patisserie first (don’t know why it isn’t called Lisboa Pastelaria), so we had to start our afternoon with coffee and pastels de nata.  These were the most authentic I have eaten in the UK. Delicious crisp flaky pastry layers, perfect deep wobbly but steadfast custard within and a deep dark caramelisation on top.  One would never have been enough, and had I not been planning to visit the Moroccan soup stand further down the road, I could have eaten a third!

pastel de nata

The award winning Moroccan soup stand was next. It wasn’t excessively busy and we got a table and were quickly served by the very friendly and helpful proprietors. I had Bissara (green split pea) soup and Eric had Harira.  It was lovely to sit outside sharing a table with Portuguese customers on a beautifully clear crisp afternoon. The soup was really delicious and we decided to go for a tagine next, opting to share a chicken one. Needless to say it was delightful and came with bread to mop up the deliciously aromatic gravy.  A bargain for such authentic cuisine at £6.00.

tagine

Afterwards, we naturally gravitated towards the unmistakable smell of bacalau (salt cod) emanating enticingly from the Lisboa Deli.  I wanted to buy some to take home as it has been many years since I have eaten it and I don’t know of anywhere in Scotland that sells it. At the back of the shop, in a room dedicated to bacalau, stood a stack of huge sides of dried cod so loved by the Portuguese, next to a bandsaw on which my kilo of bacalau was cut for me.  Unfortunately, I forgot to take a photo of this unique set up. I bought some other nostalgic items including quince marmalade and chorizo, becoming aware that if I bought much more, we would not be able to carry it home, given we were already laden on the way down, and I had not yet visited other shops in the street.

As it was, by the time we got to the end of the block, we had bought olives, harissa, an array of herbs and spices and a large bag of rose petals.  We just had to and would worry about how we would carry the stuff back to Scotland later.  We had a fantastic relaxing afternoon in Golbourne Road and I will certainly be returning for supplies and great food next time I am down in London, not to mention to buy a tagine dish, which I simply couldn’t carry this time.

Later that evening, we dropped in at Wahaca at Covent Garden for some Mexican tapas and cocktails.  The restaurant had been recently refurbished and was vibrant and friendly.  We enjoyed a couple of margharitas – the passion fruit version was great, along with a snack of fennel pork scratchings with guacamole, lovely, although I didn’t sense much fennel.  We shared a small selection of tapas dishes including chicken tinga tacos, chicken guajillo tostadas and chipotle chicken quesadillas, then realised everything we ordered contained chicken!.  I also ate them before I realised I should have perhaps photographed them (oops!). Pretty tasty they were too, and surprisingly, not too hot.

wahaca snacks

We could not leave London without a visit to Ottolenghi, but rather than going for lunch or dinner, we opted for brunch at Islington.  As readers will know, I adore the Ottolenghi ethos, flavour combinations and recipes.  Although Ottolenghi sits on a pedestal as high as The Shard, I was not at all apprehensive that a visit may not live up to my expectations.  In fact, the experience was indeed sublime and the food, service and experience utterly flawless.  We both opted for shakshuka.  It had enormous depth of flavour and the perfect balance of heat and richness while still allowing the flavour of the egg yolks to shine through.  The labneh was a a perfect foil to the warmth and richness of the peppers and tomatoes.

shakshuka

This was served with a perfect cappuccino, one of the best I have had in London (no mean feat since we always seek out the best coffee shops, especially those revered NZ places in Soho).  A second cappuccino accompanied the grand finale of the famous Ottolenghi cakes.  It took us a considerable time to choose, the selection was mesmerising.

Otto coffee

otto cakes

In the end I went for a passion fruit meringue tart. In truth, I can’t resist anything containing passion fruit.  I was not disappointed.  This was genuinely one of the best cakes I have ever eaten. Crisp light pastry, oozing passion fruit custard with the perfect balance of sharpness to match the uber light and not too sweet soft, delectable meringue. I was smitten.  Eric chose the rhubarb and ginger cheesecake, which was gargantuan and delicious.

otto meringue

meringue open

otto cheesecake

The display of salads looked so enticing and if there was anyway I could have squeezed in another mouthful, I would have tried some.  At least there’s an excuse to return next time we are in London.

otto salads

In order to recover from our brunch, we visited the Courtauld Gallery to see the ‘Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901’ exhibition.  This was a wonderful opportunity to see a unique exhibition reuniting major paintings from his debut exhibition. Picasso was only 19 years old and this prolific year of his life shaped his future career, notably in the second half of 1901, when Picasso quite radically changed the direction of his work at what was the beginning of his now famous Blue period.

Picasso is undoubtedly one of my favourite artists and when I visited the Picasso museum in Paris over 20 years ago, his work left a huge impression on me. I feel very fortunate to have viewed so many of his early works in one place. It was delightful to see the steps of transformation before the progression to his most famous works which went on to define him as one of the most important artists of the 20th Century.

No visit to London is complete without an afternoon/evening in Soho. There is always a great buzz and an enormous choice of great coffee shops, bars and restaurants. Top coffee shops include Flat White and Sacred, where we stopped for a cappuccino.

We stopped by at Fernandez and Wells to indulge in some charcuterie and prosecco choosing a three meat platter for £12, consisting of Limoto Iberico de Bellota, Schiena (an Italian version of speck from Trentino) and Cecina de Leon (beef air cured and oak smoked, an interesting alternative to bresaola).

fenandez and wells

charcuterie

Of course, we always dwell for a while in The Crobar. This small, friendly bar is well known in rock and metal circles and has the best classic rock and metal jukebox you will find nowadays (I just realised I make myself sound very old by adding the word nowadays). Everything from classic thrash like Slayer to contemporary heavyweights Mastodon as well as classic and some stoner rock is blasted out.

Staff and patrons are very friendly and it has an exceptionally long happy hour. On arrival, we were deliberating about what to drink and the barman asked where we were from.  ‘Scotland’ we stated blandly and generically.  Turns out he was from Dundee and gave us the rather weird shots we chose on the house.  It is also one of these places that occasionally attracts rock stars and journalists. The night we were in, legendary rock journalists Malcolm Dome and Jerry Ewing were standing at the bar.  I would never have noticed, but Eric has a brilliant memory for names and faces, especially anyone related to music or film.

Crobar

We eventually caught up with our friend, who returned from Algeria sans luggage and had himself been so busy on return, we had only a few hours to see him and his partner (also a friend) for dinner at her home in Kentish Town before we returned to Edinburgh next morning.  It was great to catch up with them and hope we can reciprocate when they visit our Hebridean home.

Lamb Tagine

Inspired by our visit to London and pulling together some experiences from the Moroccan Soup Stand, Portuguese cooking, visit to Ottolenghi and my Hungarian paprika gift, I made this tagine while visiting my parents on our return from London.  The lamb shoulder was purchased from an excellent local butcher. The preserved lemons included in the recipe were some I made and gave to my mum as a gift at Christmas and are so simple and easy to make. I serve this with Portuguese broa bread, my recipe described in a previous post.

Ingredients

600g lamb shoulder, diced

2 onions

5 small tomatoes

skin of 1/2 a preserved lemon, chopped

2 bay leaves

large pinch of saffron

60g dried apricots

80g green olives

600 ml vegetable stock

400g waxy potatoes, peeled and cut into large chunks

40g toasted flaked almonds

1 400g tin of chickpeas, drained and rinsed

For spice rub:

1/4 tsp ground cumin

1/4 tsp ground all spice

1/4 tsp ground cinnamon

1/4 tsp ground ginger

1/4 tsp ground turmeric

3 green cardamom pods, contents ground

1/4 tsp Hungarian sweet paprika

1 tsp harissa

2 cloves of garlic, crushed

salt and pepper

1 tbsp olive oil

Method

  • Combine all the ingredients for the spice rub with the oil and rub into the lamb pieces.  Leave to marinade for at least 2 hours, preferably overnight.
  • Add a splash of olive oil to a casserole dish and brown the pieces of lamb.
  • Remove the lamb and add the onion, soften and caramelise slightly.  Return the lamb to the casserole dish or place both in tagine, if you have one.
  • Add the tomatoes, saffron, olives, bay leaves, apricots, chick peas and vegetable stock.  Slow cook in a low oven about 150C for 2 1/2 hours, add the potatoes and preserved lemon with one hour to go, scatter the toasted almonds over the top and serve with bread and /or salads.

tagine

Portuguese caldo verde and broa bread

Some of the best memories and experiences I had when I lived in Portugal are intrinsically linked with food. One of the most enduring memories I have is of eating the deliciously rustic and simple soup, caldo verde, served with a freshly baked big oval white loaf direct from the bakery in our street, aptly named Urb. Farinha (Flour Street).

Living the good food life – Algarve style

For a couple of years, my family and I lived in Sao Bartolomeu de Messines, a small traditional Algarvian market town with barely a trace of tourism, let alone any British residents, yet it is only 25 minutes drive inland from the busy coastal resorts. The food was therefore really part barrocal (inland) and part litoral (coastal).  Rabbit and pork featured a lot and also fish like bream and sardines; seafood including clams and lobster.

The food available in Messines defined the place and living there. The daily municipal market in the town centre was open all morning selling spanking fresh local produce. I remember sardines, red mullet and bream and freshly picked fruit and vegetables from the surrounding countryside – citrus fruit, pomegranates and figs. There was also a butchers selling local meat and charcuterie such as presunto, a dried cured ham similar to proscuttio.

massines market

mesines municipal daily market

Messines daily market (Casa Arabella website)

On the last Monday of each month, there was the added bonus of the arrival of a travelling market which moved round towns in the area each week. It always felt like an especially festive day, the town centre buzzing with locals having a day out, a good day to catch up with friends and neighbours.

The food was a real treat on these days. Barbecues were set up in the street round the town centre selling grilled chicken and barbecued polpo (octopus) tentacles (a favourite) as well as bifanas – spicy thin pork medallions marinated with chilli and paprika served in a crusty roll. Such delights would be followed with masaladas, Portuguese donuts deep-fried to order in the street, coated in sugar and handed to you in a slip of greaseproof paper.

These days usually ended by joining my friends in a pastelaria, sitting outside and drinking copious numbers of bicas (espresso), accompanied by delicious and irresistible pastel de natas before we moved on in the evening to a few imperials (draught) beers, usually the attractively named Super Bock.

Two doors up from our house, our neighbour had converted the ground floor of her house into a makeshift restaurant and served up her rustic and creative French / Portuguese food.  You never quite knew what you might get, or even what you were eating, but it was usually soups, stews or roasts, always delicious and an entertaining place to take visiting friends from the UK. On special occasions, like weddings, christenings and birthdays, I remember eating suckling pig, shellfish dishes such as cataplana and drinking copious amounts of local wine as well as vinho verde from further north.

The village was surrounded by lush countryside and the gentle hills on the west side of the town were covered in regularly harvested cork oaks as well as olive groves. It was also where local people would collect fruit from the Medronho tree, Arbutus unedo  (also called strawberry tree). These trees are not cultivated but are wild and form part of the natural vegetation around the area.

The Medronho fruits are collected  to make the local firewater Aguardente de Medronhos.  Local men usually drank a shot of this potent Medronho along with a bica first thing in the morning. Although largely unregulated and unlicensed, distilling of Medronho was tolerated as a local tradition and you could be guaranteed to be offered some if paying a social visit to friends and neighbours.

Medronio - red fruits ready to pick

Medronho – red fruits ready to pick

Olives, much like Medronho, are considered to be an acquired taste and I certainly developed my love of olives while living there, in fact it is almost an infatuation these days.  I recall our neighbour handing over a huge bucket of olives he had just collected from a tree in his garden.  They didn’t last long in our house.

Finally, there was Tia Rachel’s (Aunt Rachel’s) restaurant on the outskirts of the town, and a short walk up the hill from our house.  This was the place where we regularly made a lunchtime pilgrimage to indulge in the best barbecued chicken piri-piri the Algarve had to offer (despite the claims of other piri-piri places on the tourist trail).  Sitting outside in the shade, even in summer, lunch would always start with the simplest caldo verde and fresh white local bread.  This was followed by a pile of spicy chicken piri-piri with fine-cut chips and a lovely fresh side salad with a simple vinaigrette. Barbecued chicken doesn’t get better than that!

Caldo verde

Caldo verde, meaning green broth is a very simple traditional Portuguese soup that would have originally contained only a handful of the most frugal ingredients: kale (couve gallego), onion, garlic, potato and water. Many permutations can be found online which in my view unnecessarily ‘sex-up’ caldo verde, adding sausage or chorizo, beans or rice.

In fact, I never saw a piece of sausage in caldo verde in the Algarve – just the basics outlined, although I permit myself the decadence of using home-made chicken stock instead of water. I’m not a purist, and I love chorizo, but the soup wouldn’t be the same with these additions.  I used home-grown Picasso potatoes and Brussels sprout tops, which needed picked just before they were burnt and blackened by another impending storm.

The way to get the most out of this soup is to use the best ingredients you can get and serve it with a traditional Portuguese-style loaf – I chose broa.

Ingredients

6 large potatoes (not a floury variety), diced

1 large onion, chopped

3 cloves of garlic, crushed

2 big handfuls of kale or other brassica, sliced to taste – shredded or chunky

1.5 litres of good quality chicken stock, or veg stock

olive oil, a glug

a few grinds of black pepper

salt, to taste

Method

  • Sweat the onions, garlic and potatoes in the olive oil, covered for 10-15 minutes.  They should not take on any colour.
  • Add the stock and simmer gently for 40 minutes, or until the potato chunks are tender.
  • Blanch the brassicas for 30 seconds in boiling water and refresh in cold water, before adding them to the soup.  This way, they will lose any bitterness and retain their vibrant colour. Add seasoning.
  • Stir the greens through the soup and then serve with broa or other thick crusted artisan bread.

caldo verde 2

Broa bread

Although this is not what I would have regularly eaten with caldo verde in the Algarve, it is another traditional Portuguese bread.  The daily loaf I had in Messines was more akin to a classic Italian bread, with a thick, crisp, hard crust and many air holes.  It was a bit more yeasty though.  Despite searching, I have been unable to pin down if this this type of loaf has a specific name and everyone just called it ‘pão’.

Broa is a hearty rustic bread made from a mixture of cornmeal, wheat and rye.  There are many and varied recipes online, most of which I found less than enlightening and a bit confusing, or there were aspects of them I simply didn’t like. I therefore decided to make my version of what I considered a rustic textured broa should be.

The best technique I thought might work for this recipe was to make a sponge with water, strong white flour and yeast before combining and kneading the remaining wheat flour, rye and polenta. It worked well, producing a very even bake. The rustic loaves were not too dense or heavy (achieved by keeping the rye proportion down) and had a thick crisp crunchy crust thanks to the polenta – and bags of flavour.

Ingredients

Sponge:

500g strong white bread flour

10g dried fast action yeast

600ml warm water

Rest of the ingredients to be added when sponge is ready:

250g polenta

250g rye flour

20g salt

20g fat – I used goose fat for extra flavour – butter or olive oil are fine

Preheat the oven to 250C

Method

  • Mix the sponge ingredients together well in a large bowl.  Cover with cling film and put in a warm place to at least doubled in size (takes about 45 – 60 minutes).
  • Either by hand, or using the dough hook on a food mixer, combine all the ingredients and knead for 10 minutes.
  • Flour the dough lightly and place in a bowl,  cover and put in a warm place until it doubles in size (1-2 hours).
  • Gently knock the dough back, divide in 2, form into 2 rounds and leave to rise on a covered baking sheet or in a proving basket until it rises significantly, about 30 minutes in a warm room. Dust with rye flour.
  • Place in a very hot oven for 10 minutes, adding a cup of boiling water in a tray at the bottom of the oven to give a crisp crust. After 10 minutes,  reduce the temperature to about 180C and bake for 40-50 minutes more.  It should sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.

broa 1broa 2

It has occurred to me that I would like to explore more of the Portuguese culinary repertoire and remind myself of further delights.  Fun as this may be, perhaps I should just take a holiday in the Algarve and experience the real deal once again!

caldo verde

Easy like Sunday Morning? – Croissants and Seville Orange Marmalade

Croissant Crisis

Well, no, actually not easy, but perhaps crisis is a bit melodramatic.  As an amateur cook living life as a realist and with a lot to learn, I am not going to pretend that everything I create works first time, looks and tastes great and makes it as far as this blog.  Croissants are a case in point and after my third attempt, I am pleased to say that following a steep learning curve, I have produced offerings that are more edible than laughable.

I am used to making enriched doughs.  Brioche for example, is a safe place to dwell and never really goes wrong.  Croissants, however, are laminated dough Viennoiseries with lots of butter and are more akin to pastry than bread, being rich and, well, pretty unhealthy, although undeniably tasty and even more delectable fresh from the oven.   I would describe them as making puff pastry squared.

I recently had excellent croissants for breakfast at The Peat Inn in Cupar, Fife, the best I have had for a long time.  However, this is a Michelin star establishment, so the expectation was that they would be delicious. This inspired me to give croissants another shot. Yes, one could argue that life is too short and could be better spent doing other stuff, but sometimes you just have to get these things out of your system.

Once, twice, three times… you know the rest

I don’t know how Lionel Ritchie crept into this post.  Must be an 80’s flashback or something.  I’m not a fan.  Really.

I started by somewhat ambitiously using the Roux Brothers recipe from their formidable (et c’est formidable) book ‘Patisserie’.  As you can imagine, it is all very precise and uncompromising.  Trouble was, my old Kenwood Chef wasn’t at all precise and set off at the RPM of a sports bike at full throttle. The recipe called for 1 1/2 minutes of gentle kneading, so it was curtains within a couple of minutes and I had a dough that I knew was overworked.  Despite this, I tried a second time, persevering with the Roux recipe.

By this time, my Kenwood Chef had expired so I mixed the dough by hand.  After 6 – 8 hours in the fridge, the dough had not risen significantly and this set off alarm bells. Sticking my head in the sand and feeling an overwhelming sense of impending doom,  I went ahead and rolled the pastry and shaped the dough anyway but predictably, it never did rise. Although the laminae were numerous and well-defined, the exterior was tough and the croissants were generally too dense. I didn’t view this as a waste of time and money though, it was part of the learning process that led to my third attempt – with the benefit of a different recipe.

One problem for me with the Roux recipe is that I didn’t have access to fresh yeast, so substituted with an appropriate quantity of dried yeast (after checking the conversion online). I think this may have exacerbated my problems as I am sure it would work better with the fresh yeast.  To explore in future, perhaps.

I found a croissant recipe in my River Cottage Handbook – Bread. It is a lot simpler than the Roux recipe (bien sur), uses dried yeast and has two not four pages of instructions, so better for the shorter attention span (although I must admit I followed dough folding instructions as per Roux as it worked so well).

‘Easy’ Croissants

This entails making the sticky, elastic dough in a food mixer the night before preparation of the finished article. You do need a big time commitment the next day, so make sure your diary is clear at least for the morning. The dough must be cold when it is rolled. A food mixer is best as the dough ends up way too sticky to easily be kneaded by hand.

You need to make an isosceles triangle template out of cardboard or similar, 14 x 18 cm.

Ingredients

1kg strong white bread flour

20g salt

330ml warm water

330ml warm milk

10g powdered dried yeast

140g caster sugar

500g unsalted butter

Method

Dough the evening before

  • Put everything except the butter in a food mixer.  Using a dough hook and low speed, knead for 10 minutes until the dough takes on a stretchy, satiny quality.
  • Put the dough in a poly bag with enough space inside for it to rise, tie a knot in the top and stick in the fridge overnight to rest.
Croissant dough ready for a night in the fridge

Croissant dough ready for a night in the fridge

Butter next morning

Next morning, take the butter out of the fridge and let it soften slightly – it should be about the same temperature as the dough.

Flour it lightly, stick between 2 sheets of cling film and give it a bash with a rolling pin until it is about 1cm thick all over.

The Dough

  • Take the dough out of the bag and turn it onto a large floured surface. It should have risen quite a bit overnight. Knock it back gently.
  • Roll it into a rectangle a bit bigger than twice the size of the butter, allowing a couple of centimetres all round.
  • Lay the butter on one half and fold over the other half on top of it.  Seal the border of dough all the way round.
  • Roll out the dough until it twice its original length and fold over each end of the rectangle into the centre on top of each other to produce three layers of dough.  Rest in the fridge for 20 minutes.
  • This should be repeated another twice so it is rolled 3 times in total, 20 minutes rest between, each time rolling along the long axis of the rectangle (in effect giving a quarter turn each time as you would with puff pastry).

The Finished Article

Cutting out croissant dough using teh isoceles triangle template

Cutting out croissant dough using the isosceles triangle template

  • Roll the dough into a rectangle about 75 x 40 cm on a lightly floured surface. Flap up the dough a couple of times along its length to prevent shrinking.
  • Using the triangle template, cut rows of triangles from your rectangle.
  • Leave the triangles to rest in the fridge for 20 minutes or so before rolling to form the croissant.
  • Place the central point underneath, sticking it in place with some water.
  • The corners can be turned in to form a crescent.
  • The croissants should then be egg washed and left for at least an hour to double in size before baking.

croissant dough shapingAt this stage, they can be frozen in batches, but you must use them within a week and allow them to defrost and rise for an hour or so before baking.  It’s probably therefore easier to bake them then freeze, although they take up a bit more room in the freezer.

Unbaked croissants ready for the freezer

Unbaked croissants ready for the freezer

Croissants – A worthwhile endeavour?

Overall, while I was pleased with the results, I wasn’t quite dancing on the ceiling ( I know, must stop). They were not perfect and could have perhaps done with a bigger rise before baking. If you live in an isolated place where there is not access to ‘real’ croissants, and you can make a big batch and freeze them, yes, making them is worthwhile.

I have to be honest and say that I might think twice if I lived in a town with a good artisan bakery or patisserie. However, I am glad that this is not the case (for more reasons than just croissant buying, admittedly).  I have learned a significant amount about the character of the enriched dough for croissants. This can be applied improving the way I make them in future, as well giving me a better instinct when making other enriched dough recipes.

Croissants, good with cranberry jam as well as marmalade

Croissants, good with cranberry jam as well as marmalade

'Pain au Bramble' made with pastry offcuts

‘Pain au Bramble’ made with pastry offcuts

Seville orange marmalade

I could in some respects justify my time for making the croissants because I did so in tandem with making a sizeable batch of Seville orange marmalade. Not just a perfect Sunday treat of a breakfast, but also an ideal recipe partnership because the marmalade also takes a night and part of the next day to make.

It is quite remarkable that every January when Seville oranges begin to come into season, our local independent supermarket ‘Neilly’s’ (Maclennans to visitors) on Benbecula always stocks them.  Sometimes I miss them – the window of opportunity is small, but this year, I am in luck.

seville oranges

Coincidentally, I was in the supermarket looking for fruit to make marmalade, not anticipating these oranges would be in, as it is perhaps a bit on the early side of the season. We were down to our last centimetre of marmalade at home, an unacceptable situation that had to be remedied.

Having decided on a pink grapefruit, orange and lemon marmalade, I put the fruit in the basket and turned round to see a crate of Seville oranges.  I tried to contain my excitement, and selected 2 kilos.  I would have perhaps taken another kilo, but there wasn’t that much left, so I wanted to leave some for other shoppers, lest that was all that was remaining.

Whole fruit or sliced fruit method?

I first learned to make marmalade using the whole fruit method from a 1981 copy of the Good Housekeeping Book of Home Preserving, which contains many wonderous suggestions for brining, pickling and preserving a gamut of fruit and vegetables. There are also recipes in the River Cottage Preserves handbook worth checking out. I consulted both for my marmalade.

Although the whole fruit method is quicker and easier,  I now prefer to use the sliced fruit method as it produces a lighter, clearer and more delicate preserve. It’s just down to personal preference, and time, and I had plenty of that as I was moving between croissant and marmalade management.

For this method, the raw peel of the oranges is cut before cooking and Demerara sugar is used instead of granulated, so it’s a bit more expensive to produce. The fruit to sugar ratio of 1:2 is the same for both methods.  My quantities were large, so scale down, as appropriate if you are not a marmalade addict. I think I cleaned out the supermarket supply of Demerara sugar to make this quantity.

Take time and care to sterilise your jars properly.  It is heart breaking to find bacteria have got in and mould is present, especially if you make a big batch to last a year or so, like this one. I wash my jars in very hot soapy water, rinse with clean hot water, pour in boiling water then leave to stand for a couple of minutes, empty this out and let the inside dry in an oven at 100C.  A bit OTT, but it works.

Makes about 12 x 500ml jars

Ingredients

2kg of Seville oranges

100ml lemon juice

4kg Demerara sugar (!)

Method

  • Clean the oranges, remove the button and cut them in half, squeeze out the juice, and sieve to remove the seeds.
  • You can place the pith and seeds in muslin and float the bag in the preserving pan.  This allegedly adds maximum pectin.  Personally, I have never done this and have no problem getting marmalade to set without doing so.
  • Slice the rind to your desired thickness.  I like to do this by hand as I am very particular about the thickness of the cut, which must be as thin as possible. I don’t like the results a food processor or mandolin slicer give.  However, slicing by hand is very time-consuming.
  • seville orange slicesTake the sliced oranges and put in a large bowl or two, together with the juice and 5 litres of water.  Soak overnight.
  • Next day put the mixture into a preserving pan, boil then simmer gently, covered, until the peel is tender, about 2 hours.
  • Add the sugar and lemon juice and stir until the sugar has dissolved.
  • Bring to a rapid boil until setting point is reached. For this volume, it takes about 45 minutes. I know to start testing for set when the mixture starts to get a bronze foam on top, then I do a ‘wrinkle test’ using a chilled saucer, pushing finger through a teaspoon of marmalade on the saucer. When it has thickened sufficiently enough to wrinkle, it’s ready.
  • Leave to cool for 5-15 minutes, depending on how chunky the peel is.  Remove any scum from the top and place into sterilised jars and seal immediately.

jars of marmalade

While the outlay appeared large at £12 for fruit and sugar, each large half litre pot of jam worked out at about £1 each. This is amazing value, considering the price of good quality marmalade and all free from additives and preservatives. It was a joy to make as much as it is to eat!

First Forage of 2013 – meteors and mussels

The horizontal smir prevented my attempts to achieve anything meaningful in the garden over the last couple of days. Low cloud and mist have been scudding over the surface of these low-lying windswept islands for a few days.  Flights and ferries have been disrupted and cancelled, mail and papers erratic.

Quadrantid Meteor Shower

Nonetheless, last night there was a small break in the cloud just after midnight. This allowed us to get a glimpse of the promised first meteor shower of the year, the Quadrantid meteor shower. The shower is apparently produced from the debris of an asteroid (2003 EH1), possibly the extinct nucleus of a comet that broke up centuries ago and the shower was supposed to reach its peak just before dawn today.

The possibility of seeing an average of 100 shooting stars an hour, here in the UK, cloud cover permitting, forced us into the back garden to scan the night sky over the Atlantic.  Of course, there is no light pollution here on the edge of Europe and star-gazing on a clear night yields interesting observations, be these of planets, constellations or satellites  – and shooting stars. We have also had irregular but spectacular views of the Aurora Borealis.

Astronomical advice was to look north west to see the radiant point where meteors may stream from.  Sure enough, we were outside being buffeted in the wind and in only 2 or 3 minutes we saw numerous shooting stars, one was particularly bright  and spectacular, enough to make us both gasp ‘Whoa!’. Unfortunately, patchy cloud smothered out the view very quickly and thickened over the course of the night, so the promised natural firework display was short-lived.  Despite keeping a vigil from bed with the curtains open, the cloud never really lifted and we lost the opportunity to see any more of the spectacle.

Day time forays – The Mightly Mytilus

I don’t return to work until Monday, yet despite this, I don’t feel like I have a huge amount of time on my hands to get things done, or even that I am particularly achieving a lot while I am off! This always leads me to question how I do manage to cram what I desire to acheive into the average weekday of work, et al.  It certainly seems to be the case that I am much more efficient when the working day puts a squeeze on my time, so in a way, I look forward to returning to that status quo next week.

Meanwhile, despite the weather, I wanted to make the most of getting outside, beyond my daily dog walk. This was a bit too exciting today as the dogs disturbed three red deer. Fortunately, after a quick dash towards the deer, they returned excitedly to our side as they would rather be with us and deer are quite frankly a bit big and scary.

Winter foraging opportunities are rare here. The collection of even those easiest to locate beasts along the seashore, the mussel, is complicated by the requirement for low tide to fall in the short hours of daylight and on a day when I am not working. Hence, while mussels are common and abundant,  I get out to collect them very infrequently.

The mussel Mytilus edulis is common all around the UK coast, occurring from the high intertidal to shallow subtidal on the shore.  It is found on rocky shores or open coasts as well as where hard substrates occur in more sheltered coasts, including estuaries.  It is so successful because of its capacity to tolerate a wide range of temperature, salinity, and to some extent, water depths.

Mytilus edulis is gregarious, and can form very dense beds, with young mussels settling to colonise any available space between individuals already attached to the bed by super-strong byssal threads. These threads (also known as the beard to the cook) help to maintain their position in the bed, even in strong currents and storms. Mussel beds provide niches for many other marine organisms and mussels are heavily predated. Predation has the biggest impact on mussel mortality – and makes them important in the food chain.  They are eaten by birds (notably eider and oystercatchers), flounders, crabs, starfish and dog whelks, to name but a few.

As an invertebrate zoologist, I must admit that I find it very difficult to stop myself going on at length about the fascinating physiology of these bivalve molluscs. I will resist and spare the reader the detail, save to say that the fact the mussel is a filter feeder has fundamental implications for the way the forager selects and the cook manages mussels.

My local mussel patch

Wild mussels on the west side of North Uist

Wild mussels on the west side of North Uist

I collect wild mussels from a few favoured spots.  The one I chose yesterday is on the west side of North Uist, a few hundred metres from my house. It is a sheltered sandy bay protected from storms by many islands and reefs and is well away from the open Atlantic. It is a great spot for swimming at low tide in summer when the pools left behind warm up in the sun – you don’t even need a dry suit to get in.

It is also an area where it pays to keep an eye on the tides as this vast expanse of sand has channels of water that are deep and fast flowing once the tide turns and fill up alarmingly quickly, preventing safe crossing.  However, it is a convenient site for me and happens to yield the best mussels I have found so far.  They are always almost grit free, moderately sized with plump contents.  Sometimes the biggest shells do not yield the biggest mussels. I always take only as many as I need, usually about 2 kg, enough for 2 meals to make it worth my while.  I also try not to detach smaller mussels that have settled between those larger ones I am harvesting and I don’t take them all from the same spot.

I did photograph the bay, which is really quite beautiful in most weathers, however, yesterday conditions were so poor, it looked incredibly bleak and driech and I decided not to include the photos as I don’t want to give such a bad impression of the place – or to have the tourist board on my case.

Gathering your wild mussels

Often there are concerns raised about the safety of eating wild mussels, particularly in areas where contaminants/pollutants may accumulate in the tissues of these filter feeders. Also, there is potential for toxic planktonic algae within the mussel to cause food poisoning, either Diaretic Shellfish Poisoning (DSP) or the more serious Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP), depending on which dinoflagellate algae are within the mussel. Neither pollutants or blooms are an issue here.

The best way to avoid the risks is to stick to the old adage of only collecting and eating mussels when there is an ‘R’ in the month, hence avoiding the spring and summer seasons when algal blooms may proliferate.  Mussels are also in better condition over the winter and are plumper as males and females build up stores of milt and roe prior to spring spawning. If you live in an area where blooms are an issue, or have concerns about using wild mussels, farmed mussels are the easiest option.  Mussel farming is pretty sustainable, and the only fundamental difference between these and wild mussels is the precaution to manage the toxic algae risk by placing the mussels harvested from ropes in tanks of sea water sterilised by use of UV lights.

Mussels cleaned, barnacles and beards removed

Mussels cleaned, barnacles and beards removed

Of course, wild mussels can have a lot of barnacles growing on them, as well as seaweed, and these need dealt with too.

Preparing your foraged mussels

For the first stage, I rinse them under the tap and place in a bucket of cold tap water, sprinkle over some oatmeal, add a tablespoon of salt and leave overnight.  This will allow the mussels to filter through and clean out grit (the oatmeal is supposed to help) and also loosens the barnacles which you will need to remove later.

Next day, I scrape the mussels, remove the tough beards from the inner lip – these are the byssal threads that attach the mussel to rocks – pliers are handy if you find this a struggle. I scrape off the barnacles with a knife, otherwise they will fall off in cooking and the gritty pieces will spoil any sauce (although I always strain cooking liquids to be sure to remove any grit). They are ready to be cooked ASAP.

Moules Marinière

Yes, there are a million and one recipes for this but it is hard to resist making one of my mussel meals this classic.  It is very quick and simple and encapsulates everything about France and the sea in one bowl. I served it with sunblush tomato and thyme foccacia on this occasion.

Ingredients

1kg of mussels, cleaned

splash of olive oil

2 shallots, finely chopped

2 cloves of garlic, sliced

a sprig of thyme

a couple of glasses of dry white wine

a few grinds of pepper

fresh parsley, chopped

2 tblsp double cream (optional)

Method

  • Put a glug of olive oil in a large pan with the shallots and garlic, fry gently to soften for 5 minutes.
  • Throw in the thyme, mussels and pour over the wine.
  • Cover with a lid and wait 5-10 minutes, shaking the pan vigorously occasionally until all mussels are open and cooked, discard any shells that don’t open.
  • Strain off the cooking liquid into a pan through a fine sieve or muslin to get rid of grit, herbs, garlic slices.
  • Add the double cream (if desired) and bring to the boil and simmer for a few minutes.  Season with pepper.
  • Plate up the mussels and pour over the sauce and garnish with parsley.

Moules mariniere

Sunblush tomato and thyme foccacia

A quick and tasty foccacia to mop up the sauce from the mussels. My thyme is now well and truly ravaged by my excessive pruning for cooking and the vagaries of the weather.  I have 2 intact plants remaining – I hope they can last me until the spring…

Ingredients

1/2 tsp dried yeast

300g strong white flour

1 tblsp olive oil

1 tsp salt

170 ml water

1/2 jar sunblush tomatoes in olive oil

4 sprigs of thyme

2 garlic cloves, crushed

Extra olive oil to top foccacia

Maldon salt for sprinkling on top

Preheat oven to 195C

Method

  • Combine all ingredients in a bowl, slowly adding the water to get a slightly sticky dough consistency.
  • Put some olive oil on the work surface and knead for 10 minutes until the dough is stretchy, elastic and smooth.
  • Leave in a warm place for 45 minutes and knead for a further 5 minutes. Rest for a further 15 minutes before rolling out to the desired size/shape and adding the tomatoes
  • Mix the thyme leaves with some olive oil and the crushed garlic and spread over the surface. Sprinkle over some Maldon salt.
  • Bake for 18-20 minutes until golden, cut up and serve.

Sun blush tomato and thyme foccacia

Mussel and Leek Chowder

To get the most out of the mussels, I used the second kilo to prepare another meal.  This chowder recipe is based on that in Nigel Slater’s ‘Tender Volume II’, a vegetable growers cookbook bible, especially for easy everyday vegetable-centric delicious meals, snacks and suppers.  I replaced the bacon with chorizo, as I had no bacon. I also cut down the cream by 1/4  I thought it may be too powerful for the mussels with the chorizo, but they still came through on balance, thanks to the use of the cooking liquor.  I always favour Noilly Prat for such recipes (to bring a bit of Languedoc to North Uist), but any white vermouth can be used.

Ingredients

1kg mussels, cleaned

3 leeks

150g chorizo (not hot)

40g butter

2 glasses Noilly Prat

450g potatoes

150 ml double cream

2 bay leaves

4 sprigs of thyme

handful of chopped parsley

Method

  • Clean and thinly slice the leeks, slice the chorizo.
  • Add the chorizo to the butter in a pan on a moderate heat and cook for a few minutes, add the leeks and turn down low, put on a lid and cook for about 20 minutes
  • Clean and prepare the mussels and place in a large pan pour over the vermouth and put the lid on.  Cook on a high heat until all mussels are open.  Discard any that do not open.
  • Remove the mussels from the shells, strain and retain the cooking liquor.
  • Peel the potatoes and cut into large dice.  Put in a pan with 400ml of cooking liquor, the cream, thyme, bay and some black pepper.
  • Bring to the boil and simmer for 15 minutes or until potatoes are tender.
  • Add 3/4 of the potatoes to the leek and chorizo mix, remove the herbs then blitz the remaining potatoes and liquid with a hand blender or liquidiser until smooth.
  • Add to the pan with leeks, chorizo, potatoes, etc, add the mussels and parsley, bring to the boil and serve.

Mussel and leek chowder

The Bread Delusion

Yes, I know, yet another dire pun.  I can’t help myself. In justification, bread is God. I have always enjoyed making my own bread by hand, and have done so for a long time – always freestyle with approximations of ‘the bakers percentage’ (flour – 100%, everything else a proportion of this – water 60%, yeast 1% (dried), salt and fat 2% each).  I also have a bread maker that I use to make ‘the daily bread’ loaves, mainly as a time saver.  I simply do not have time to hand make each loaf we eat.

I am very grateful to own my breadmaker.  A Panasonic SD-255, the only reliable breadmaker I have ever owned. It produces pretty good consistent quality bread with minimal effort – and has a timer so you can wake up to the smell of fresh bread in the morning.  Making your own bread, by whatever means is always going to taste better than a mass-produced shop bought loaf (I don’t have the luxury of a local artisan baker here) and also has the bonus of being much cheaper – especially if you buy flour in bulk.  So, it must be at least 4 years since I bought a loaf of bread.

Last week, a component of my grossly overworked breadmaker broke, inevitable after years of hard labour.  Given the recent spate of electrical goods losses we have experienced, the last thing I wanted was to have to purchase a new breadmaker.  Fortunately the broken part was a mechanical component and following disassembly by the technically capable Man Named Sous, and a lot of web searching, we found a replacement for the broken part at a cost of just £10 – a massive +£100 saving on a new breadmaker.  Problem solved?  No, not really.

The repaired breadmaker

The repaired breadmaker

Having no breadmaker for about 10 days made me realise how complacent I had become about bread making over the last few years. Without realising it, I had lost a lot of my bread making Mojo over that time and I’d become, let’s face it, a bit slack. I felt ashamed.

It also magnified the fact that there are significant issues with bread making in our house.  It’s reasonably cold at the moment, with frosty clear mornings resulting from clear skies overnight. Our house patiently awaits renovation.  Current insulation levels are a joke and amount to a thin layer of polystyrene flapping about between the plasterboard and the stone walls.  Yes, the croft house walls are thick (60cm), but this is a windy place.

When the ‘breeze’ does pick up here to its usual autumn / winter 40 – 80 mph gales, the house has proven to be hellishly draughty.  Wind whistles through the electrical sockets and our rug at the top of the stairs levitates above the draughty floorboards (I am not exaggerating!).  Oh, and another small issue is that we have no central heating. Yet. We do have a stove, but controlling the draw by the wind can be difficult in a gale, exacerbating the problem of keeping the place warm (not least because the chimney cowl was blown off in a storm).

The open plan lounge/kitchen has usually fallen to about 14C by mid afternoon.  By mid evening, the stove stoked to the max, we are lucky if we can reach the toastiness of 18C. I don’t function well at these temperatures any more than the yeast in our bread does.

Of course, I had been taking the easy option, making dough for pizza, foccacia and pittas in the breadmaker. Chuck the ingredients in, 45 minutes later, voila, take out your dough, or leave to prove in the bread maker for a bit longer.  No worries, the little heated element within keeps the dough at an optimal temperature, yeast loves it.

In facing the quandary of how I would be able to get a temperature warm enough to make the yeast reactive as well as find the time to hand make a loaf, I made a fateful error and bought a sliced loaf from the supermarket.  That was a very bad idea for obvious reasons: the dry cardboard flavour and texture and too many additives. At least it shocked me into bread making mode.

After perusing some dough-related books and the web, I was ready to take on the challenge again – even in the cold. Time for kill or cure.

I opted to make a basic recipe using malted grain.  I lit the stove and looked at strategies to get the yeast to do its work.  This meant hovering the bowl and baking trays over the stove to encourage yeast action. It sort of worked, but took way longer than I anticipated – only really possible at the weekend for me.

Malted Grain Bread

Instead of my usual freestyling loaf, I needed a bit more input to get it right.  I read the instructions to produce a basic loaf outlined in the River Cottage Handbook No.3 – Bread.  I chose malted grain because I found our local independent Bayhead Shop selling it. The mix is usually mainly white flour mixed with a proportion of wholemeal flour, malt powder and malted grains.

Ingredients

1kg malted grain flour

10g dried yeast

20g fine salt

600ml warm water

1 tblsp melted butter

handful of rye flour for coating

Method

  • Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl.  Sometimes I warm up the flour to make the yeast react more quickly. Add the butter then the warm water.
  • Adjust the amount of water or flour at the end to get a relatively sticky dough, turn it out onto the work surface.
  • Knead for 10 minutes, in your chosen style.  Whatever your kneading style, make sure the dough gets smooth and silky.
  • Shape it into a round and rub with oil.  Place in a bowl and cover with a plastic bag to ferment. It should about double in size.  This make take as little as 45 minutes in a cosy house, for me, it took 3 hours!
  • Tip out the dough onto a surface again and deflate using your fingertips.  Don’t batter it about too much when knocking it back.
  • You can leave it again to rise.  The handbook suggests up to another 4 times to improve texture and flavour.  That would have taken me until the next week, so I did this once.
  • Divide up the dough and shape as desired.  I made 2 big loaves, you could make several small, or rolls.
  • Coat the loaves with a little rye flour to improve the look and texture of the exterior.
  • At this point, turn up the oven high, I tried 250C.  Leave your shaped loaves to prove while the oven heats.
  • When the loaves have risen significantly (almost double), they are ready for the oven. Slash the tops about 1 cm deep, if desired.
  • Put an oven tray with boiling water from the kettle into the bottom of the oven just before you put in your loaves.  This enhances the crust texture and give a good rise in the oven.
  • After 10 minutes, turn the oven down – the temperature will depend on the colour at this stage.  If pale, turn down to 200C, if browning quickly, 170C.

I left my 2 big loaves in for 50 minutes.  Tap the bottom when you take them out – they should sound hollow.

All in all, I was pleased with the result. Although it was a bit epic, I aim to hand make one loaf a week from now on to keep my hand in.  And these loaves did taste better than those produced in the breadmaker, so worth the extra toil.

Welcome back, my real friend

Malted grain loaves – Welcome back, my real friends

Garlic: A year in the life

Allium sativum – pleased to pleat you…Planting finished, the remaining bulbs were pleated.

I don’t remember a time in my life when garlic was not part of my diet. One of the best cooking aromas must be the pungent scent of garlic gently frying in good quality olive oil. I am very fortunate that my mum cooked with olive oil when I was a child, a time when most mums were still only sticking it in their children’s ears. Similarly, garlic was a culinary delight in our everyday meals and I didn’t give it a second thought until I noticed the lack of it when I had tea (as we called it then) at friend’s houses.

Garlic is my number one favourite ingredient and is one of the big four, one or more of which I invariably use every day (chilli, olive oil, lemons being the other three). From the outset, I have been determined to grow garlic successfully here on North Uist. If you fling it in the ground and hope for the best, you will get results of sorts, but random gardening, as I have found out to my cost with many veggies is a bit foolhardy if you live here. In fact, typical Uist climatic conditions (wind, rain – and persistence of both) mean the weather can be merciless even if you do your green-fingered best.

So, I have been on a strategic programme of growing trials to optimise my garlic growing success. It has taken 4 years of experimenting, but I tentatively consider that I may at last be on the cusp of success. I have tried soft neck versus hardneck, autumn versus spring planting, numerous varieties: Albigensian Wight, Bella Italiano, Solent Wight, Early Purple Wight to name but a few. Comparisons were made in yield and bulb size as well as storage time. I concluded that softneck garlic produces higher yields, produce bigger bulbs and more bulbs that are subject to lower losses in the ground than hardneck varieties. Importantly, the softnecks store for significantly longer, in my experience.

Autumn planting is the only way. I have tried 2 early spring plantings (same varieties and harvest year as the autumn planting). One was a dismal failure, the other less so, but still with a yield well below autumn plantings, regardless of variety. I suspect that our relatively mild winters mean that by the time it gets to planting in early spring, the bulbs do not get the period of cold they require to flourish. The star variety is without a doubt Provence Wight, for size and storage. This is now the only variety I grow. Garlic may not grow as large here as it does further south in the UK, but the cloves are intensely flavoured, which is all that really matters if you are a garlic lover.

Class of 2011 – Garlic crop harvested on 17 July last year

All butchery out of the way (for now) at last (1 deer, 2 geese, then 2 rabbits), I am hoping to get my culinary life back. Hope springs eternal that weather windows will occasionally fall at weekends so I can get on with some outdoor stuff in the garden too. And so it was with fair weather I spent the best part of Sunday getting my favourite Allium into the ground.

If you like to eat garlic, but do not want to read about the minutiae of growing it, skip to my Roast garlic soup with home made pitta bread recipe.

Preparing the bed

I practice a fairly standard organic rotation.  I do not grow entirely organically, but pretty near it.  I have given up using 100% organic seed.  I am not intending to go for Soil Association accreditation and I was finding it restrictive in terms of varieties (and especially ones that work here), and a bit costly. The soil was depleted after a beetroot crop over the summer (pimple-sized beetroots, embarrassingly small).  Hence, the first job was to call one of my neighbours, a local crofter who keeps pigs among other things, to arrange to collect some well-rotted pig manure. Half an hour or so of shovelling and our trailer was full enough to replenish 2-3 raised beds.

After digging a trench in sections along the garlic bed, the manure was dumped at a depth of about 15 cm and the soil raked back over so the garlic can happily dangle their roots into the nutrients as they grow.  This was an easy job in these raised beds.

Adding well-rotted pig manure to add nutrients and texture before planting

I have worked hard to get a fine tilth, sieving and removing stones, essential if root veg, especially carrots are part of your rotation (although I would not manure a bed that carrots are going into).  The soil is very light and free draining and I incorporate a lot of my own compost too for soil conditioning. I also top dress with seaweed over the winter to minimise erosion and  to add more nutrients and minerals.  Some machair soil was also added to lighten the structure and bring the soil to a neutral pH.  Finally, I weed regularly and never stand on the soil surface to avoid compressing it.

Preparing and planting garlic

The 2011 crop was grown from 7 bulbs bought from a commercial grower.  I was a bit disappointed by the number of cloves per bulb, which fell short of that promised in the catalogue (20-25 cloves per bulb.  I got 15 on average).  Some were also very small and this seems to be correlated with small clove development/size.  Nonetheless, with no signs of disease, I got 75 healthy bulbs from the crop, about three-quarters were larger than those you can buy in the supermarkets.

This year, I am using part of the crop from last summer’s harvest – my next trial, I suppose. I prepared them by selecting the biggest bulbs from my stored garlic, then selecting the biggest and healthiest cloves from these bulbs.  Any that were slightly soft or damaged were kept for cooking, but there were very few.  By this time, the light was fading, so being up against it and in trying to be ‘efficient’ I managed to somehow slash the side of my hand with the scalpel while separating the cloves. There was an interlude to deal with the ensuing minor bloodbath and melodrama.  More haste less speed, as the saying goes!

Preparing for the soil

I wanted to fill the entire bed with the crop and it took me 14 bulbs to do this, a total of 144 cloves.  I always compress the soil slightly with a plank of wood which also acts as a planting guide. Some compression helps the garlic stay put in the wind while the roots get established, since they are planted with the tops just under the surface. Each was spaced about 10 cm apart along the row, each row about 20 cm apart.

Garlic cloves in situ in neat rows of compressed soil.

Despite the race against the light on a short winter day, I got the planting finished, although admittedly it was quite dark and I had to finish the job with the help of the workshop lights.

Imagine my consternation when I got up the next morning to admire my work in daylight to find the night crawlers had been in.  There were cat paw prints across the bed, which I can cope with, but there were also about 35 very neat little holes which garlic cloves no longer occupied.  I don’t think it was the cat, but I should have perhaps asked my neighbour to check her cat’s breath…  I had my suspicions about the culprit, especially since most cloves were missing at the end near the dry stone wall.

I have known blackbirds to inquisitively pull at the papery tops of the cloves after the first day of planting but I usually see their tracks and the cloves are rejected and left nearby on the surface. No cloves to be seen, or dead blackbirds lying about having choked on the chunky cloves. Being rather trusting, and indeed sticking my head in the sand, I decided to leave it another night to see if the novelty would wear off for the critter (or it might have a garlic overdose).  Hardly.  Next morning, same again, 15 cloves missing.

I couldn’t sustain losses at this rate and after re-planting 50 cloves – another 4 bulbs, and having a suspicion this was the work of a rodent,  I went for belt and braces, covering the crop with environmesh and setting up a tunnel along the wall with 2 rat traps in it.  Both measures would protect any birds/cats from the traps and would attract rodents to my bait in the tunnel – prime chorizo – 100% irresistable in my experience.  And so it was, my garlic survived intact last night and I found a mouse in one of the traps. These traps are only supposed to spring with the weight of a rat but this was one big mouse (I wonder why?), so it got chorizo, but then its luck ran out.  It is always disappointing to have to take this action, but I want to eat my veg, not supplement the diet of an already burgeoning local rodent population.

Roasted Garlic Soup

Before pleating the remaining intact garlic bulbs, I thought it would be a good idea to use up all the small bulbs and loose cloves in one of my favourite soups, roast garlic.  Roasting the garlic and adding it to the soup makes it wonderfully sweet.  Topping it with dry fried chorizo or cheesy croutons complements the dish with saltiness to balance the sweetness of the roasted garlic. Don’t be put off by the amount of garlic used.  It is quite a different animal when roasted in the oven.

Ingredients

2 large garlic bulbs, left whole

bay leaf

olive oil

onion, chopped

2 carrots, finely chopped

3 large potatoes, diced

sprig of rosemary

1 litre chicken stock or vegetable boullion

500 ml milk

salt and pepper

chorizo, enough for garnish, sliced and dry-fried

parsley

Set the oven to 180oC

Method

Cut the tops off the 2 garlic bulbs to reveal a bit of white flesh in each clove. This will make the soft garlic easy to squeeze out after roasting.  Place them in a foil parcel with a bay leaf and a drizzle of olive oil and bake in the oven for 45 minutes.  Leave aside to cool.

Peel and chop the onion, carrots and potatoes and sweat in a pan on a low heat with a small amount of olive oil for 10-15 minutes.  Add the garlic by taking the cooled bulbs and squeezing each at the base.  The garlic will be soft and should squeeze out like toothpaste.  The aroma is wonderful.

Add the stock and rosemary, season and simmer for about 1 hour.  Let it cool slightly, add the milk, remove the rosemary then blitz in a blender or puree using a hand-held blender. If it too thick (although I like it thick, as in the photo), add a spot more milk or water.  Pass through a sieve or chinois and heat through.

Garnish with parsley and chorizo or cheesy croutons. Serves four.

Home made pitta breads

I served this soup with pitta breads on this occasion. This simple bread regularly features in this house because it is so versatile and easy to make – especially if you have a bread maker. There’s nothing wrong with using a bread maker for dough like pitta or foccacia.  It can be a huge time saver. If you have not made them before, give them a try.  They are astonishingly straightforward to make and are incomparable with the rubbery, slightly stale, vinegary tasting pitta breads you buy in supermarkets.

I am not sure where I got this recipe, I have been using it for so long.

Ingredients

500g strong white flour

2 tsp yeast (easyblend)

25g butter,

1 1/2 tsp salt

310 ml water

Set the oven to 220oC

Method

If you have a breadmaker, fling everything in and set to dough only program. This takes 45 minutes on my Panasonic SD-255 machine – the only breadmaker I would recommend, having had many others that sat on the shelf due to poor performance. I usually let the dough rest for another half hour once the program stops to ensure light and puffy pittas.

Alternatively, you can mix by hand, incorporating all the ingredients then kneading on an oiled surface for 10 minutes.  Allow it to prove for about an hour, covered with cling film in a warm place.

Place the dough on a heavily floured surface and break off golf ball sized pieces of dough with floured hands and roll them into tongue-shaped pittas with a floured rolling pin, to about 3mm thick.  It doesn’t matter if they are a bit misshapen – that’s called rustic, or more current still, artisan. Flour a couple of baking sheets and put the bread in the oven for 8-10 minutes.  I usually turn them half way.  Most will puff up, some won’t but keep an eye on them in case they get too thin and crispy as they puff.

This recipe usually makes 12. I do them in 2 batches of 6, 3 on each baking sheet.  I keep the first batch warm under a tea towel however, we usually start eating them straight away if there is some moutabal or hummous to hand and they are best eaten fresh and still warm from the oven.

They will keep overnight wrapped in a tea towel but need to be re-warmed and get a bit chewy if they are allowed to cool.