Rhurbarb and rosewater cardamom crumble

It is the end of the traditional rhubarb forcing season and to mark this season’s end, I have a recipe with a twist on the traditional rhubarb crumble. The flavours North Africa and the Mediterranean have been added, with the curveball of rosewater to surprise the palate.

I must admit that my forced rhubarb is not Hebridean in origin, but at least in justification, I am supporting an important and seasonal piece of British food history and our food industry by buying it. It hails from the famous Rhubarb Triangle, an area of West Yorkshire between Wakefield, Morley and Rothwell famous for producing early forced rhubarb in the darkness of forcing sheds. So historically important is this area for growing forced rhubarb, it was awarded Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status by the EU in 2010. The stems of forced rhubarb are crimson, delicate and sweet, quite a different animal the equally delightful outdoor thug that will be gracing the gardens and fields of the UK from now (well, if it warms up).

Of course, had the builders not dug out the foundation for the workshop while we were away on holiday, I would have had time to rescue our rhubarb. Alas, I have to start again by growing new crowns.

Crumble is so simple and delicious and of course, rhubarb crumble is hard to beat. Yes, it is patently a fairly rustic affair, but for something that tastes divine and takes no more than 20 minutes to prepare and 20 to cook, who could possibly resent the time spent to produce such cuddlesome comfort food. My time is very stretched just now, so crumble recipes are ideal for such busy phases.

To further bolster my argument, what better excuse to indulge in a comprehensive choice of delightful accompaniments of the dairy variety: ice cream, cream, custard, crème patisserie, crème fraiche or yoghurt. it really would not be the same without one of them, would it?

Rhubarb and rosewater cardamom crumble

I prefer to retain the sharpness of the rhubarb, so I don’t add much sugar at all, especially since the pomegranate molasses add sweetness.  This also applies to rosewater – don’t add too much or it becomes unpleasantly overpowering.

Preheat the oven to 180C

rhubarb crumble 3

Ingredients

Rhubarb:

250g rhubarb (it need not be forced)

1 tbsp soft brown sugar

2 tbsp water

1 tbsp pomegranate molasses

1/2 tsp rosewater

For crumble:

150g plain flour

50g caster sugar

100g unsalted butter, cubed

75g pistachio nuts, coarsely chopped

1 tsp ground cardamom

rhubarb crumble 1

Method

  • Gently poach the rhubarb in a pan over a medium heat with the sugar, water, molasses and rosewater until it softens but still retains its shape and some texture.  This should take about 10 minutes for thin forced rhubarb.
  • Transfer the rhubarb to a gratin dish and sit aside for an hour to infuse the flavours together before topping with the crumble.
  • For the crumble, simply pulse then blitz the ingredients in a food processor, except the pistachios, but only enough to make them into a breadcrumb texture and no more.
  • Roughly chop the nuts and mix through the crumble before topping the rhubarb with the mixture. Bake for 20 minutes at 180C. Serve with your accompaniment of choice, I favoured single cream on this occasion.  The Man Named Sous went for home made Turron Ice cream, which worked too, apparently.

rhubarb crumble 2

Potato Anathema?

I have a confession to make.  I can’t get too excited about the prospect of eating potatoes. There, I’ve said it.  The Scots are not so different from the Irish in their general adulation of tatties, notably here in the Outer Hebrides, where a confession such as this is tantamount to blasphemy.

‘Machair potatoes’ are a key conversation topic here and are generally loved by all (machair potatoes explained in due course).  I have experienced many a heated debate about varieties, passions rising most in the ‘waxy versus floury’ subject area.  The consensus here seems to be floury potatoes are tops, with varieties like Rooster and Desiree generating most excitement – ‘Machair potatoes are a meal in themselves’, I’ve been told.

I know, potatoes are a cheap and plentiful crop that can grow in a wide variety of climates and locales. They do have culinary versatility and are a key source of carbohydrate.

All that said,  the prospect of eating a plain boiled potato, especially a floury one, with the traditional addition of butter, no matter how much it is cited as machair, fresh, local and delicious leaves me cold. The sensation of claggy carbohydrate sticking to the roof of my mouth is not one I have learned to appreciate. Given the diversity of carbohydrate choices out there, I’m mystified why potatoes predominate, but for tradition and habit. Give me cous cous, rice or pasta in preference any day.

For those not interested in the experience of growing potatoes please see potato recipes at the bottom.

The Potato Enigma

And then there is the issue of growing potatoes.  Here is a crop that takes up a huge amount of space, especially if you really want to factor a potato plot into an organic rotation.  Many varieties are subject to a range of pests and diseases (not least the notorious blight), hence the rotational requirement.

Potatoes are cheap and always available to buy in the shops and if they are dressed up significantly in a recipe, can you seriously tell the difference in flavour between fresh potatoes bought from a shop and those grown at home? (I know this statement will be like a red rag to a bull for some readers)   Better still, buying potatoes from a farmers market or local veg growing co-op will eliminate supermarkets and alleviate the feeling that such potatoes are ‘not the same’ as home-grown and at the same time support local growers.  So why bother to grow them at home at all?

In justification, if you have the space, why not? Or maybe a desire could be borne out of nostalgia – memories of helping a parent or grandparent – planting, digging, eating together? It could just be intrinsic love of the taste of the humble spud.

I have come to appreciate that I generally find growing potatoes more exciting than eating them. For me, the best thing about growing potatoes is the physicality of the experience.  Chitting and preparing the tubers is very tactile. Digging the soil in preparation for planting and barrowing on manure can be tough physical labour, especially when breaking new ground. The satisfaction of raking the prepared soil to cover over the seed potato, knowing its nascent and continued growth will yield an incredible edible crop as it withers away to  rancid mush.

Then comes the quiescent period of growth and what is essentially crop abandonment, save for some ridging of the haulms. The mystery of what lies beneath. The soil is untouched by fork or hoe and left largely to get on with growing for a few months.  There is growing anticipation of seeing the fresh tubers exhumed from the earth, pale and interesting.  I enjoy embedding my arms in the cool, freshly turned loose soil, clawing it back with my bare hands to capture stragglers that I fear I may pierce with my fork.  Then the physical experience turns to inquisition. How much did each seed potato yield? Which variety did well? How healthy is the crop? Any scab? Blight?

Once they are off the plot and in the darkened storage of a hessian sack, my fervour  subsides.  I gather the potato of choice for inclusion in a meal, the right texture to suit my needs, waxy, floury, all-rounder. I work to dress them up in an enticing way. I check the stored crop regularly to ensure they are all in good condition to extend storage as long as possible. Then, as I did today, I browse seed potato suppliers websites, having decided that I can’t bear to miss the experience of the potato growing process this year.

Anya - planted in my now defunct asparagus bed

Anya – freshly dug in autumn from my now defunct asparagus bed

Potato growing pains

I must admit, the decision was a close call.  Despite my best efforts, my experiences of growing potatoes here have been mixed and at times frustrating as well as downright disheartening. Last year featured peaks and troughs.  The trough was definitely the abysmal early/second early crop.

Potato planting bags

After text book care and chitting of Pentland Javelin and Charlotte potatoes, I decided to use 12 potato bags and a precious supply of my own compost.  I did not want early potatoes to take up valuable space in a raised bed that I wanted to use for other veg.  I also thought of this as a potential solution to the rotation issue.  I  wanted to give them a strong start in the polytunnel and move them outside to a sheltered spot when the worst of the gales had passed.

Four potatoes were added to each bag, compost topped up as the haulms grew.  The plants quickly grew sturdy and tall and when it came time for my tomatoes to be planted in the tunnel, I hardened the potatoes off and moved them outside.  I gave them a light feed of dilute liquid feed from my wormery, watered regularly and thought I was assured of success.

Earlies in potato bags - in their death throws

Earlies in potato bags – in their death throws

I was concerned when the haulms died back a bit earlier than I anticipated and without showing many flowers.  Nonetheless, I let them die back a bit more, harvesting just a bit after the suggested date for each variety (because of our latitude).  I tipped the contents of the first bag into the wheelbarrow, expecting a great bulk of white tubers to roll forth.  After picking my way through the compost, I found the seed potato and estimated a yield of just 4 or 5 potatoes per seed planted.

Emptying bag after bag, the result was the same.  First I was despondent, then mortified that I could not grow a tuber cited as ‘easy, great in bags on patios, big yield.’ I am too scarred by the experience to try this method again this year – and my compost is too precious. If any one has any suggestions as to what may have gone wrong, I’d be happy to know.  No disease was evident on the leaves, or the tubers.

Machair Potatoes

Yes, those much revered machair potatoes. supposed to taste superior as a result of growing in this exceptional habitat. Last year I was fortunate to gain access to a small machair plot to grow potatoes on the Isle of Benbecula.

Machair is rare, coastal grassland, unique to the north-western fringe of Europe. About 70% in western Scotland, the largest proportion being on The Southern Isles of the Outer Hebrides (from Berneray to Barra) hence the global significance of the conservation value of the habitat.

Machair forms when sand with very high shell content blows landwards by prevailing westerly winds, creating a fertile, low-lying plain. The unique compliment of biodiversity found in association with machair relies on habitats managed by traditional low intensity crofting methods where grazing regimes, rotational cropping and minimal use of pesticides and inorganic fertilisers results in a mosaic of habitats and a proliferation of a diverse array of wild flowers in the summer.

Corncrakes, corn buntings and the enigmatic and rare great yellow bumblebee rely on machair habitats to breed and forage, as do waders such as lapwing, redshank, dunlin and ringed plover. Beautiful swathes of flowering bird’s foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), kidney vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria), red clover (Trifolium pratense) and lesser knapweed (Centaurea nigra) carpet the machair grasslands, flowering successionally from mid to late summer, providing forage for the bumblebees and other pollinating insects.

Great yellow bumblebee on red clover (Copyright: NHM.ac.uk)

Great yellow bumblebee on red clover (Copyright: NHM.ac.uk)

Rotational corn crops are bounded by a high diversity of flowering arable weeds, different flowers predominating at different stages in the traditional 2 year crop / 2 year fallow rotation practiced in some townships. Potato patches add to the mosaic being little islands of arable weed diversity between the patchwork of sown machair corn strips and are cropped at a new site each year. A useful and more comprehensive summary about the machair habitat and the species it supports can be found here.

I got pretty excited about having access to the patch, however, it took some time to organise exactly where it would be and it was then kindly ploughed for our benefit.  I wasn’t there when this was done, so driving round trying to find a pretty small strip in a patchwork of others while it is being described to me on the phone was challenging. ‘It’s by the second fence post. level with the gate and so-and-so’s patch.’ (!) It’s a miracle I planted the potatoes in the right place – and managed to find the patch again as the surrounding corn and grassland grew and entirely changed the lay of the land!

machair potato plot in mid-summer

machair potato plot in mid-summer

Harvesting at the end of the season

Harvesting at the end of the season

So, we planted a bit late (April) and tucked the potatoes under the turned furrows and crossed our fingers.  The summer was exceptionally dry and I returned at the end of May to add some organic fertiliser.  The potatoes were doing great, despite the conditions as the turned turf of the furrows locked in moisture.  We harvested at the end of September, taking a moderate yield, not surprising since we planted so late, and because we included a couple of heritage varieties we could not expect to produce high yields.

The star for yield was Red King Edward, also for condition and flavour – sublime for roasters.  Picasso also did exceptionally well.  The heritage purple waxy variety Edgcote Purple had a lower yield, unsurprisingly but was a great potato for pomme fondant, caldo verde and tartiflette. Markies was a big disappointment – very low yield.  I planted Anya at home in my old asparagus bed.  The yield wasn’t great but what little we had were in good condition and stored well. In all, we got about 60 kg.  They are storing well, but way too much for 2 of us, so we will share out the remainder before quality declines.

Potatoes –  (another) new approach

Lovely as it was to be out on the machair surrounded by waders and wild flowers, the plot was 15 miles away, so not convenient for checking and planting dates were beyond my control and too late, really.  This year, I am planning to reclaim a bit of our garden to give potatoes another chance. I will plant varieties Swift, Anya, Kestrel, Red King Edward and Picasso. I don’t want to give over a precious raised bed, but we have an old ruined blackhouse (traditional stone house with a thatched roof) shell in the garden.  We think the walls are about 1m or so high most of the way round, but it is so heavily vegetated, it’s hard to tell – as you can see from the photo, it just looks like a ridge of turf.garden house 1

In fact, when we viewed the house before buying it was mid-summer and nettles completely obscured it and it wasn’t until after we moved in winter we found it.  Our neighbour is knowledgeable about local history and told us that at one time the building was an inn that served the local community and that a ferry used to run to the bay at the bottom of our garden when the tide was in.  Information about when is scant but according to our neighbour, a man left the inn on foot one night and was later found drowned, thereafter it closed.

It will be tough work digging it out and goodness knows what we will find.  It will serve as a small walled garden until we figure out what we might ultimately do with it.

Finally, a few images of the garden just now, showing the dichotomy between the ravages of winter gales on the leeks and the first hopeful signs of spring from the chives and garlic. The weather has been so beautiful, clear calm and sunny these last few days, there has been a little growth spurt.  Fingers crossed we don’t get too many severe gales this spring.

Can you tell what it is yet?

Can you tell what it is yet?

garden chives

Happy garlic

Happy garlic

Potato recipes

Plain potatoes (roast excepted) may be out for me, but there are a few cunning ways to dress the potato to form wonderful dishes, that I admit.  I previously provided a recipe for pomme fondant.  Here I share Aloo Chaat, which I make to accompany curries and also the deliciously alpine tartiflette.

Aloo chaat

This well known hot and sour North Indian street food is delicious for lunch or supper or served alongside curry.  The wonderful tangy hot flavour is created by the addition of tamarind.

Ingredients

500g potatoes

1 green chilli, seeded and chopped

1 red chilli seeded and chopped

1/2 tsp chilli powder

1/4 tsp salt

2 tbsp. tamarind water, or pulp, liquidised with some water.

1 red onion, finely chopped

2 tbsp. fresh mint

2 tbsp. fresh coriander

splash of groundnut oil

Method

  • Boil the peeled diced potatoes until soft and fry gently in some flavourless oil.
  • Blend the rest of the ingredients except the onion.
  • Stir the onion and blended ingredients through the potatoes and serve.  Simple and makes potatoes taste deeply interesting – and hot!

garden pot curry

Tartiflette

If you are looking for gratuitous cheesy potato indulgence, tartiflette is a good place to start. Tartiflette hails from from the Alpine  Haute Savoie region of France and contains deliciously creamy Reblochon cheese, an unpasteurised soft washed rind cows cheese that is gentle and nutty. Some recipes use a whole wheel of cheese, sitting atop the potatoes and letting it melt and ooze down through them, but I thought that was perhaps a bit excessive, so used a sliced half. The dish looks pretty rustic but is incredibly tasty.

I took the opportunity to buy some cheese (more on that another time), including Reblochon as I specifically wanted to use it to make tartiflette.  The trouble is, when I buy this cheese it is mysteriously nibbled to the extent that there is never enough to make the dish.  I got there just in time to have enough.  The dish is best served by using waxy potatoes.  I used Edgecote Purple potatoes and left the skins on, for colour, texture and flavour. It is rich, so lightly dressed green salad is a fine accompaniment.

Ingredients

800g waxy potatoes, boiled

a knob of butter

splash of olive oil

I onion, sliced

150g pancetta

60ml double cream

1/2  a Reblochon round

salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 180C

Method

  • Boil the potatoes and slice or dice them, set to one side.
  • Soften the onion in the butter and oil until translucent, add the pancetta and cook both until slightly golden at the edges.  Remove from the pan and set to one side.
  • Put the potatoes in the pan and gently fry until slightly golden at the edges.
  • Place the potatoes in a gratin dish together with the panchetta and onion, pour over the cream, season to taste.
  • Place the Reblochon slices over the surface of the potatoes.
  • Bake in the oven for 20 minutes.

Après-ski personified!

tartiflette

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

Wild greylag confit d’oie and more

For many British game species, 31st January is end of the open season, including wild greylag geese. I thought it would be fitting to mark the occasion by spending time exploring classic goose recipes by Julia Child. I was particularly thinking of confit of the legs.  I had another recipe in mind for the breasts courtesy of Cooking in Sens, a delicious balsamic goose breast recipe.  It is also a requirement, of course, to use the whole bird and the carcass was used to make goose or game stock (as I call it).

We have accumulated a number of wild greylag geese, shot and kindly gifted to us by a friend.  One never quite knows when geese will arrive at the door, but we are always pleased to see them, no matter how busy or inconvenient the moment – it is a pleasure to receive such delicious and free wild meat.

We recently took receipt of our final two geese of the season. Given the pretty awful experience of plucking the last two indoors (being forced to do so by darkness and grim weather), we decided our only option was to get out while it was daylight and the weather calm enough to deal with plucking, etc.  Since it was mid-week, and we both work full time from home, this meant seizing the opportunity at lunchtime to get on with the job.  Not your average lunchtime pursuit!

goose plucking bay cottage

So, down we went to the bay at the bottom of our garden, a goose each in hand and got plucking.   Fortunately, only the sheep can see us down there.  I had to abandon The Man Named Sous, (pictured finishing the job sitting on the rocks in the company of sheep as the tide came in) as I had to get back to work.

Room with a view

This is also the view from my office window and I work hard not be distracted by the ebb and flow of the tide and daily patterns of activities that the changing sea level brings, particularly those of birds. Waders including redshanks, greenshanks and curlews use the bay all year, as do a resident population of about 50 shelducks.

Female eiders nest around the edge of the sheltered bay in the breeding season, forming crèches with other females and their broods to try to protect their vulnerable chicks from predation, particularly by gulls.  Lapwings and oystercatchers nest around the house in the mosaic of marshy grassland, as do snipe.

Passing and hunting raptors including hen harriers, short-eared owls (both daily visitors in the breeding season), peregrine, kestrel and the occasional white-tailed sea eagle make use of the bay and the surrounding common grazings.

It’s a busy and beautifully noisy place most of the year, especially so in spring when lapwings display and snipe drum overhead. A bit later in the season, oystercatchers start to get excited as their broods hatch and they constantly circle anything that comes close, trying to see them off with their distinctive and relentless, loud piping call.

Of course, resident greylag geese also use the croftland all year and nest out on the islands, bringing broods in to the sheltered bay once they hatch. It is also why the location, overlooking the bay and islands sold the house to us – and that was before we realised how incredible the sunsets would be. It pays for us to remember these most sublime views when the weather is at its worst, as it has been on some days over the last couple of weeks.

sunset 1

sunset 2

sunset 3

Plucking complete, goose feathers were gathered up and added to our compost heaps as they make an excellent addition to compost, providing nitrogen and minerals (similarly, I also add wool gathered from around the common grazings that surround the house).

Preparing geese, I must admit, is a lot of work and was covered more fully in a previous post Plucking Hell, it’s an ‘een of evisceration but is well worth it.

Confit d’oie

As the season goes on, geese accumulate more fat reserves, so the bonus of late season geese is the ability to utilise this fat to confit part or all of the bird.  Although greylag geese can be difficult to age, I had judged this bird to be one of the 2012 broods, so was reasonably confident the breasts would be wonderfully tender and fit for the fine recipe I had in mind.

Wanting to maximise what the goose could deliver in both the number and variety of dishes, I opted to confit the often tough legs and wings.  Actually, only one wing was fit for confit as the other had sustained irreparable damage when the goose transited from sky to ground.

I used Julia Child’s recipe for Confit D’Oie. Salt curing the goose pieces first for 24 hours, I omitted the saltpetre (Potassium nitrate) from the original recipe and it still works. For this volume of goose, you need a lot less of the quantities than Julia suggests as her cure is for a large pork joint.

Ingredients

For the salt cure:

20g Maldon salt

2 bays leaves, shredded

2 springs of thyme

1 tsp. of ground black pepper

3 garlic cloves

  • Crush this mixture in a mortar and pestle and rub it all over the goose pieces, skin and flesh, massaging it in well. Refrigerate the pieces for 24 hours.

Goose confit, 1

goose confit 2

  • Scrape the seasoning off at this stage.
  • Brown the goose legs in a frying pan in some goose fat to colour them lightly.
  • Now the legs are ready to go into the goose fat.

goose confit fat

For the goose fat:

  • Use enough goose fat to submerge the pieces of goose, I used about 700 ml (melted).  Put in a casserole dish with a lid – it will be going in the oven.
  • Bring to the gentlest simmer on the stove top and preheat the oven to 140C.
  • Place in the oven, covered for about 2 hours.  Check it half way through to make sure all the meat is covered.

It should be golden brown and the flesh exceptionally tender when it is ready.  The smell was intoxicating when I took the lid off the pot.  Mine were perhaps a bit too brown, but it did not diminish the deliciousness.

goose confit 3

There was no way this goose was ever going to last long enough to be preserved in goose fat, the original reason for confit being to enhance the storage potential of the meat. Having made goose stock with the carcass,  I served the confit legs and wing with puy lentils cooked in the stock, with a bit of carrot, shallot and celery, folding through some tomato concasse at the end and garnishing with parsley.

goose confit 4

A final added bonus was all the spare fat which the goose was cooked in.  This was strained and stored for other recipes – not least wonderfully flavoured roast potatoes.

Balsamic goose breast with roast potatoes and braised red cabbage

Having boned out each goose breast, I use a goose breast recipe courtesy of Cooking in Sens, where the recipe can be found – delicious marinade of balsamic vinegar, honey and ginger.  The only alterations I made were to replace the chicken broth in the original with goose stock – and the alternative side dishes.

goose breasts

I also made a sauce by taking a decent splash of Madeira, simmering it to let the alcohol vapours leave the sweet flavour, then adding the reserved marinade.  This was then reduced slightly before whisking in some cubes of unsalted butter at the end, straining and serving over the goose breast which was served nice and pink and extremely tender.  Apologies for the quality of the photograph!

goose final

Potatoes were diced for a large surface area to absorb the flavour from the goose fat they were roasted in, reserved from the confit. Braised red cabbage was cooked in a bit of goose stock, sherry vinegar and a few sticky drops of pomegranate molasses.

In the end, the goose went a long way because the breasts were so big, we could only eat one between us.  We had the other one cold in a tasty winter salad the next day as we discussed how great greylag goose tasted and what we might do with the others in the freezer.

Biscuits with Bartok 1: Peanut butter cookies

Once a week The Man Named Sous gets together with friends to play some music in his acoustically wonderful workshop.  Musical choices for violins range from Bach to Bartok. A lot of Bartok’s work is delightfully infused with the essence of Hungarian and Romanian folk music and other music native to the Carpathian basin and beyond.  His duets are refreshing to listen to and fun to play, therefore popular in the repertoire.

Every musician, of course needs a break from the rigours of the musical challenges. Although we supply the coffee, our hosting skills to provide sweet treats to go with the oh-so-wet coffee are perhaps not as spot on as would be customary and sometimes there is nothing much at all to offer. Meanwhile, cakes and biscuits are contributed by the visiting musicians. Poor show, shame on us (well me actually, the cook).

It would be somewhat of an understatement to say The Man Named Sous likes biscuits.  Hot drinks are simply too wet without them, apparently. The problem is, I am not that partial to biscuits, although there are a few I do really enjoy; amaretti, biscotti, Florentines. Yes, a good biscuit for me means Italian and only consumed in earnest with coffee.

I enjoy making cakes and desserts, usually because of the complexities of processes, combining different elements; creams, meringues and pastry to deliver the dessert.  I love the dark art of baking bread, constantly striving for success and improvement. However, I have singularly failed to engage with biscuit baking to any extent.

Inspired by Bartok and embarrassed by lack of hospitality (in fairness, I have managed the odd bit of cake – we just have to remember not to eat it all beforehand), I am planning a more consistent approach.  I aim to provide a new biscuit each week for the musical gathering, hopefully for a run of 10 weeks (although work may impede occasionally) to see where my biscuit baking foray takes me, hopefully building confidence to produce some unique creations by the end, or at least unique in my culinary repertoire.

For the first ‘Biscuits with Bartok’ I’m going for a straightforward confidence building peanut butter cookie.  I’ve still got my head in the Wahaca cookbook and found this recipe.

Peanut butter cookies

The beauty of this recipe is the speed and ease with which these biscuits can be made – thanks to the assistance of my KitchenAid.  I’m sure it would be pretty quick by hand too. The recipe states it makes about 25 biscuits, but I got about 45, which was great volume and hence value (about 7p per biscuit) compared with inferior shop-bought biscuits. The recipe gives a cooking time of 12-15 minutes at 180C, but my first batch were a bit burnt round the edges at 12 minutes, so 10 minutes was fine for my fan oven.  The biscuits turned out to be lovely, very simple to make, are very light and have a melt-in-the-mouth texture. They were perhaps a bit too rich and buttery for me (I know, that’s the point!). However, The Man Named Sous says differently and so they will devoured with fervour.

Preheat the oven to 180C

Ingredients

180g plain flour

3/4 tsp of bicarbonate of soda

pinch of salt

225g unsalted butter, softened

200g light brown soft sugar

1 egg plus one egg yolk

200g crunchy peanut butter

1 tsp vanilla essence

120g roasted salted peanuts

Method

  • Sift the flour, bicarbonate of soda and salt.
  • Cream the softened butter using a food mixer (if you have one) until pale, light and fluffy.
  • Add the sugar to the butter, then the egg and egg yolk.
  • Gradually mix in the flour, peanut butter, peanuts and vanilla essence.
  • Put the mixture in the fridge to firm up for 30 minutes.
  • Line baking sheets with silicone/parchment and place a heaped teaspoon of the mixture onto the sheet to form each cookie.  Leave plenty space (about 5cm) between them to allow for spread during cooking.  Top each with a half peanut garnish.
  • Bake in batches for 10 minutes and cool on a wire rack before storing in an airtight jar.
  • Get the kettle on and enjoy with your brew of choice.

Peanut butter bisciuts Peanut butter bisciuts 2

Hebridean langoustines – three ways

The supreme quality of seafood available in the Outer Hebrides is hard to compete with and I feel ashamed that I have yet to champion Hebridean seafood by featuring it in a recipe so far (except mussels, of course).

I am thinking specifically about crustaceans. Recent posts highlighting super-fresh Crustacea by My French Haven (langoustines) and Food, Frankly (crayfish) have further served to remind me to do so, as well as a superb meal cooked for us by friends at the weekend and featuring a star dish of lasagne with local crab.

Langoustines – King of Crustacea

My King of Crustacea award goes to langoustines (Nephrops norvegicus), also referred to variously as scampi, Norway lobster and Dublin Bay prawn. Prawn, the local name here, is confusing nomenclature as they are more closely related, and have a flavour and texture similar but superior to lobster.  Eaten when fresh, langoustines have the sweetest most delicate flavour of all crustacea and indeed, are sublime, but they should be fresh i.e. live when you acquire them.

The life of the langoustine

Langoustines are found where there is suitable muddy sediment, the habitat in which they construct and occupy burrows where they spend most of their time. They can be found in shallow coastal waters a few metres deep, including sea lochs and up to water depths of more than 500m to the west of the Outer Hebrides at the edge of the continental shelf.

They are opportunistic predators and scavengers feeding on marine worms, other crustaceans and molluscs. Females mature at about 3 years old. Mating takes place in early summer, with spawning in September .  The ‘berried’ females carry the eggs until they hatch the following spring.  The planktonic larvae develop, metamorphosing through several fascinating larval stages, before settling on the seabed about 2 months later.

The Outer Hebridean langoustine fishery

The fishery is extremely important economically for the Outer Hebrides and has been growing since the 1960’s.  Scotland contributes to about 1/3 of the total catch of langoustines worldwide.  Here in the Uists, a good proportion of the catch is made by small local boats using creels, mainly in coastal waters.  This method of fishing is more sustainable than trawling since it causes less ecological damage as it is more selective.  The prawns are also of very high quality as they are less damaged and stressed than trawled specimens. The Scottish Government consider this fishery to be healthy around the Outer Hebrides.

The main markets are for export and most of the stocks caught here are transported live to Spain and France and also to a number of discerning hoteliers and restaurateurs on the UK mainland. Vehicles carrying live prawns can be seen leaving on the ferries most days.  For residents, you have to know where to intercept this prime export at source before it leaves the island.  I am fortunate to have a friend with a langoustine export business, so my prawn quarry is easy to find. I consider it foraging by proxy.  Visitors to the island are likely to have to do a bit of homework to pin down some langoustines while here. While I am familiar with ecology of this species, my friend had provided fascinating insights into the live langoustine business here on the island and beyond.

Cooking with langoustines

Freshly cooked langoustines

There is no doubt that langoustines are luxury produce and therefore are very expensive, especially around Christmas and New Year, when market demands are high and they are in good condition.  Last time I saw them for sale in Glasgow they were £35 a kilo – and that was for dead cooked prawns.  Buying them dead is not without risk as they can be like cotton wool inside and quickly lose their sweetness if they have been sitting around for too long.

I get about 2 kilos at a time and tend to make several meals out of them to celebrate the luxury.  Langoustines are graded according to size and the bigger they are, the more in demand and expensive they will be.  I tend to go for medium/large.

First, out of respect for the animals, they need to be dispatched quickly.  I have a huge pot that I fill with tap water and bring this to a rolling boil.  I place a few prawns in at a time, leave them for about 2 minutes and remove them.  Some recipes I read suggest plunging them into ice-cold water once removed but I think this waterlogs the flesh and risks losing some flavour.  Provided they were only in the pan for a couple of minutes, yes, they do continue to cook a bit, but letting then cool at room temperature seems to work.

The most recent batch I had served me well to make 3 meals and I made absolutely certain nothing went to waste.

Langoustine salad with hot garlic butter, parsley and lemon dressing

This is a recipe I have used for many years and is a variation on a Nick Nairn recipe from his book Wild Harvest 2. Once you have peeled the prawns, this recipe is quick, easy and the flavour combination brings out the sweetness of the prawns.

Ingredients

1kg live langoustines, cooked

50g unsalted butter

2 garlic cloves

2 tblsp lemon juice

zest of 1/2 lemon

a few handfuls of mixed salad leaves

2 tomatoes, seeds and skin removed, flesh finely diced

a handful of chopped parsley

salt and pepper

Method

  • Prepare the cooked langoustines by removing the flesh from the tails.  Keep all heads, claws and shells.
  • Melt the butter with the garlic and lemon zest for a few minutes to tone down the garlic a bit.
  • Add lemon juice then season with a little salt and pepper.
  • Heat this dressing until just boiling, add the prawns, parsley and tomatoes and mix well.  Serve with the mixed leaves, and some fine homemade bread to mop up the dressing.

lango salad

.Split and grilled langoustine with chilli, lime and coriander

This recipe couldn’t be simpler, and with a hot grill or barbecue, is ready in about 3 minutes. Enough for 4 people as a starter, 2 as a main course, but I could easily eat the whole kilo myself…..

Ingredients

1kg of langoustines, cooked

2 garlic cloves, crushed

juice of a lime or a lemon

1 large red chilli, finely chopped

a bunch of chopped coriander

4 tblsp of rapeseed oil

a few turns of pepper

Method

  • Mix the chopped coriander, chilli, garlic, lime/lemon juice, pepper and oil together.
  • Split the langoustines down the centre, place on the grill pan and drizzle over the dressing.
  • Cook under a hot grill for 3 minutes, or until just hot.  Serve with lemon/lime wedges.

Split and grilled prawn delight

Split and grilled prawn delight

Langoustine bisque

This recipe is more time-consuming and complex than the last two but uses the remains of the whole animal to provide an outstandingly rich and decadent bisque.

Shells form the previous two recipes ready to use in the bisque

Shells from the previous two recipes ready to use in the bisque

Ingredients

40g butter

1 onion, finely chopped

2 stalks of celery, finely chopped

1 carrot, finely chopped

2 cloves of garlic, sliced

1 red chilli

1/2 fennel bulb, sliced

1 tin of chopped tomatoes

2 bay leaves

juice of a lemon

a pinch of saffron

1 tblsp of brandy

a small bunch of parsley

1 tblsp tomato puree

1.5 litres of water

500ml fish or shellfish stock

small glass of Noilly Prat

150ml of double cream

Simmering of bisque underway

Simmering of bisque underway

Method

  • Heat the butter until foaming and gently fry the onion, celery, carrot, garlic, chilli, fennel, bay leaves until the onions have softened a bit.
  • Add the Noilly Prat and cook until reduced by half.
  • Add the shells, heads and claws of the langoustines to the pan, crushing them to extract a lot of flavour.  I use a potato masher to do this.
  • Add the fish/shellfish stock and water, tomatoes, tomato puree, most of the parsley and saffron.  Allow to simmer gently for an hour or so.
  • Sieve the mixture into a clean pan, again squeezing all the flavour from the langoustines and add the brandy, cream and lemon juice and season, as required. Heat gently.
  • Serve and garnish with parsley and swirl in some cream.

Langoustine bisque is served

Langoustine bisque is served

lango grill

Brussel Sprout Pakora

The glut of brussel sprouts I have grown this winter has taught me to see this much maligned brassica in a new light and I have grown to love it. We have eaten them sliced with juniper and bacon, shredded and fried with shallots and folded through mash, but my sprout epiphany came this evening.

Mid week, mid January and we are living in Old Mother Hubbard’s house. The problem with our house is that we live in a world of ingredients, but there is sometimes not a lot to actually eat, especially if you are looking for something instant. So, admittedly the cupboards aren’t exactly bare, but are burgeoning with an enormous range of store cupboard ingredients; pulses, grains, rice, pasta, cous cous, quinoa, flours, jars of preserved fruits, pickles, chutneys, relishes, jams, dried fruit, nuts and above all else, spices.

I am a spice collecting addict.  I pick most up from Asian and African food shops in Glasgow and can’t resist buying anything I haven’t heard of before or topping up on things I do have, but imagine I am running low on. (e.g. I have a collection of many shades of mustard seeds in rather large quantities and enough turmeric to make a world record-breaking dopiaza).

All this but only a finite range of fresh ingredients – potatoes, onions, two carrots, brussel sprouts, a tomato or two, and a handful of herbs, some lemons and yoghurt.  It was starting to feel like a Masterchef invention test. Pretty weird selection at first glance but determined not to shop until at least this weekend, a vegetarian Ruby Murray banquet was conjured up.  The pakora features tonight and I will follow up with another post covering the rest of the aromatic and spicy veggie curry spread.

Brussel Sprout Pakora

Broccoli and cauliflower make wonderful pakora, so why not their cousin the sprout?  Sprouts need a bit of respect and careful cooking to bring out the best in them and I must admit, I wasn’t convinced this creation was a good idea.  The sprouts must be steamed and blanched first or they will be rock hard and cold in the middle. The bicarbonate of soda helps lighten the batter.

The pakora turned out to be rather good. the sprouts were cooked evenly and deliciously soft with the fresh sprout flavour coming through, cloaked in a blanket of firey and aromatic batter that complemented the humble sprout very well.

Ingredients

20 or so small brussel sprouts

150g gram flour

1 tblsp garam masala

1 tblsp ground coriander

1/2 tsp kaloonji (nigella seeds)

2 tsp sambal oelek

1 tblsp tomato puree

1/2 tsp turmeric

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1/2 tsp salt (optional)

a few twists of black pepper

water – enough to form a thick batter

ground nut or sunflower oil for deep-frying

Method

  • Peel the outer leaves from the sprouts, score the thick base with a cross using a sharp knife to ensure even cooking and steam for 5 minutes.
  • Blanch in running cold water and pat dry with kitchen towel.
  • Sieve the flour into a bowl and mix in all the other remaining ingredients, except the frying oil.
  • Add enough water to form a soft batter, making it thick enough to coat the sprouts.  You can test this as you go. Add more flour if it gets too thin.
  • Heat the oil, testing it is ready by dropping in a piece of batter.  It should float to the top immediately and should fizz enthusiastically, taking on a golden colour quite quickly without instantly burning.
  • Drop in a few sprouts at a time and deep fry for a minute or two until they take on a good colour.
  • Drain on kitchen paper.

Serve with dipping sauces, preferably something hot containing lots of chilli and a contrasting and cooling raita.

Brussel sprouts are delicious.  Really!

Brussel sprouts are delicious. Really!

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!

Passionfruit and orange tart with homemade vanilla ice cream

Hidden gems

I have spent a couple of nights this week rummaging about in the fridge and the cupboards to make sure any of the festive residue that may be lurking in nooks and crannies is used.  I abhor food waste.  Although I keep a stealthy eye on perishables sometimes fridge contents get beyond ‘use by’ dates. I basically ignore these anyway and let my palate tell me if something is beyond the point of usefulness.

I managed to squeeze a good-sized pot of jam out of some leftover cranberries and made an array of dishes with some kilos of beetroot given to me by my parents (great stuff, versatile, delicious, can’t get enough of it). I poured all the remnants of the various cream cartons into a wonderful cream of celeriac soup. It is amazing how creative you can (try to) be with sprouts.

So, what did I do with the cream from which the remnants were derived?  Well, there had to be ice cream, of course, and a passion fruit and orange tart with a lovely crisp crust.

Passion without guilt

I really do try to make all my food predominantly from local, seasonal produce but as stated in Ethos, I maintain food integrity as much as I realistically can, but there comes a point where I cannot castigate myself to the stage where I end up restricting my diet to the detriment of my health, mental, not least.  Self flagellation for breaking ones strictly defined rules is a matter for others more committed than me.

Passion fruit and orange tart

This passion fruit tart is a ray of sunshine for the palate, and to behold on the greyest of dark winter days, not least served with homemade vanilla ice cream. The contents of the tart are courtesy of Gordon Ramsay (yes, I know – but he can cook), with a tweak – I processed the passion fruit pulp to maximise the flavour from the seeds.  Pastry is a classic Michel Roux pâte sucrée.  Ice cream is from the lovely Leibovitz bible ‘The Perfect Scoop’.

Pastry – Pâte sucrée

Pâte sucrée is a classic for fruit tarts. It is a forgiving sweet pastry, less delicate than pâte sablée and thus is perfectly capable of containing the wet tart mixture – with a bit of help (well, belt and braces) from some chocolate. It is easy to roll super-thin and remains very crisp in the tart base. I make the pastry the Roux way, all ingredients on the work surface, but you could easily combine the ingredients to form the pastry in a bowl.

Ingredients

250g plain flour

100g butter, cubed and slightly softened

100g icing sugar, sifted

Pinch of salt

2 eggs at room temperature

Preheat oven to 180C

Method

  • Put the flour on a work surface, make a well in the middle and add the butter, icing sugar and salt to the well and mix with your fingertips.
  • Gradually draw the flour into the centre and mix with your fingertips until the dough is slightly grainy.
  • Form a new well and add the eggs and work them into the mix until it begins to hold together.
  • Once amalgamated, knead a few times with the palm of your hand until it is smooth.
  • Roll it into a ball and rest in the fridge for a couple of hours.
  • Roll out to the desired thickness of  2 – 3 mm on a lightly floured surface.

I used a 24 cm flan tin (with a removable base) to make sure the tart is thin because I think this gives more elegant presentation than a deep slab (it will also cook more evenly).

  • Lightly butter the tin to help the pastry adhere to the sides.
  • Carefully transfer the pastry on a rolling pin and form the pastry to the shape of the tin.  Use a ball of extra pastry to push the lining pastry into the corners of the tin if it is not compliant.
  • Do not trim off the excess pastry because the edge of the case will shrink a bit in the oven – trim after the pastry is baked.
  • Prick the base gently with a fork, line with greaseproof paper and baking beans. Rest in the fridge for 20 minutes.
  • Blind bake for 15 minutes, remove the paper and beans and bake for a further 5 minutes. Trim the overhanging pastry and leave to cool.

Chocolate pastry case lining

Tart case lined with quality 70% cocoa solids dark chocolate

Tart case lined with quality 70% cocoa solids dark chocolate

The inside of the case was lined with a thin layer of dark chocolate, which acts as the perfect foil to the sharpness of the fruit and gives an extra dimension of flavour. This also provides a nice surprise for your guests. You will need:

40g quality dark chocolate

Place in a bain marie and melt.  Let it cool slightly and brush onto the slightly warm case, filling in any holes and pores with the chocolate. Allow to cool and set.

Passion fruit and orange tart filling

Ingredients

6 ripe passion fruit, blitzed in a food processor and then sieved

350ml fresh orange juice

250g caster sugar

200ml double cream

6 medium eggs

Reduce the oven to 150C

Method

  • Put the pulped passion fruit and orange juice in a pan, bring to the boil, reduce by half and then sieve, allow to cool.  There should be about 250 ml.
  • Beat the fruit mixture, sugar, cream and eggs together until smooth, pass through a sieve into a jug.
  • Pour the filling into the case until it reaches the top.  I would sit the tin in the oven and pull the shelf out to do this – it is tricky to lift the full case and not spill the mixture otherwise.
  • Bake for 35-40 minutes at 150C until the top forms a light crust and is set (it can be a bit soft in the centre), allow to cool and chill until ready to serve.

Additional option:  Dust with some sieved icing sugar and use a blowtorch to caramelise the top.

Vanilla ice cream – the real icing on the cake

The grand finale is an easy vanilla ice cream, so-called Philadelphia style, made without a traditional egg custard.  It is lighter tasting, cheaper and easier to make than the full-blown custard version, but doesn’t taste any less delicious.

Ingredients

500ml double cream

250ml whole milk

150g sugar (granulated is good)

Pinch of salt

1 vanilla pod, slit in half lengthways

1/4 tsp vanilla extract

Method

  • Pour 250 ml of the cream into a pan with the sugar and salt.
  • Scrape the vanilla seeds from the pod and add both pod and contents to the pan.
  • Warm over a medium heat to dissolve the sugar. Add the remaining cream and milk and the vanilla extract.
  • Chill thoroughly, remove the vanilla pod and churn using your ice cream maker or do so by hand.

tart

 

Mole Poblano with turkey – in the dark

Like most other people in our culture, the last week has been Über-indulgent, with the excuse of festivities being used to indulge in copious quantities of meat, cheese and fizz, in particular. I have enjoyed seeing friends and relaxing over good (and very rich) food, however,  I am now almost at The Grinch stage and I must admit that I have been eyeing up the tree with a view to taking it down and am looking forward to getting back to the normal routine that the New Year will bring.  I miss running, and haven’t been out for over 2 weeks, although this has been enforced due to flu before Christmas, and lingering symptoms.

We Scots are supposed to know how to really show the world how to bring in the New Year with our partying and hospitality on Hogmanay.  Hmmm.  My gasket is well and truly blown, so I think I’ll pull the chair up in front of the fire and stare wistfully into the flames for the rest of the evening.

Welcome back wind

It has been a very atypical and surreal weather year in the Outer Hebrides, with the notable absence of wind being, quite frankly, disconcertingly abnormal.  And so it was, a poor forecast and severe weather warning at the start of the weekend heralded the arrival of the Hebridean gales we know and love.  Sometimes.

Before the wind picked up, we walked round the garden and did a check that there was nothing lying around that would sail off as the wind speed increased.  Polytunnel door closed.  Check.  Cold frames latched down.  Check.  Ash pan for the fire empty.  Check.  This is particularly important because we have had many a ‘Big Lebowski moment’ as we end up wearing the ash, trying to empty the ash pan in the wind. We only burn peat, hence the bright orange ash can leave you looking like a belisha beacon, hair coated in fine orange ash, and sneezing.  A lot.

Despite the wind getting up to about 60 mph, gusting to about 80 mph, our intrepid friends arrived for dinner and it was a great relief that the power stayed on without a flicker. Due to the southerly direction of the wind, we also managed a record-breaking lounge temperature as the stove was totally out of control – an amazing 23C!

Damage limitation

The next day, the wind dropped a bit, we sustained no damage but we found our neighbour’s fence had blown down.  They were away and there were sheep in the garden.  Together with our other neighbour (we only have 2 neighbours remotely near us), sheep were herded from the garden and back onto the common grazing, we did what we could to the very exposed fence to brace it in place before the wind got up again as forecast. Our neighbours have a lovely garden, veg and ornamental and it would have been awful to see it trashed by sheep.

The sheep on the common grazings around the house are very tame hooligans and will take any opportunity to access gardens and tasty grass/plants/trees within.  They are also very quick and we cannot even leave our gate open for half an hour without finding a few have sneaked in. They are also completely unperturbed by the dogs and I frequently find Darwin standing at the gate, a flock of sheep on the other side, each staring steely eyed at the other in some kind of Mexican stand-off, usually just before Darwin gets frustrated, emits one sharp bark and the sheep momentarily scatter.

One of the most dangerous acts to partake in here is to wander onto the common grazing with a plastic bag that vaguely resembles a sheep feed bag.  All sheep within the vicinity spot you, do their sheepy thing, bleating and charging at you like a single amorphous, off-white entity and trample you in a bid to access what is in the bag, as it MUST be sheep nuts.

My neighbour swears that one of the local sheep looks like Margaret Rutherford.  The Man Named Sous agrees with this identified resemblance and can spot ‘Margaret’.  I’m not so sure myself…

Mole Poblano with turkey

Safely back in the kitchen and having escaped the vagaries of the gales and sheep, the turkey swan song took the form of mole poblano.  Mole poblano de guajolote, to give the dish its full title is the national dish of Mexico (although mole simply means sauce).  I had the Mexican food bug again after visiting Lupe Pintos deli and stocking up on ingredients, and also reading Mexigeek blog that I follow on Facebook, where there are a series of informative posts about this dish and which helped to inspire me to give it a try, as well as reading some variations in Thomasina Mier’s Wahaca cookbook – ‘Mexican Food at Home’.  So, with that I embarked on my own freeform mole recipe.

The dish appears to commonly contain upwards of 20 ingredients of varying quantities, and I am certain no two moles are the same, and it would be difficult to re-create exactly each time.  That is why I like it so much, as well as for the chilli and the fragrant and aromatic nature of the dish enhanced by nuts, spices, chocolate and sometimes fruit too. The seeds and ground almonds add texture and thicken the sauce, as does the bread.  Stale corn tortilla is also typically added, but I had none, so went with the bread.

Ingredients

2 tomatoes, roasted

2 onions, roasted

6 cloves garlic, roasted

1 dried ancho chilli, toasted and rehydrated

2 dried pasilla chillis, toasted and rehydrated

2 dried mulato chillis, toasted and rehydrated

30g pumpkin seeds

6 allspice berries

6 black peppercorns

15g sunflower seeds

40g chocolate (70% cocoa solids)

4 cloves

1 cinnamon stick

1/2 tsp nutmeg

1/2 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp coriander seeds

1tsp cumin seeds

1/2 tsp aniseed seeds

50g ground almonds

1 slice of stale bread

sprig of oregano

turkey, Christmas day leftover bits

turkey stock, enough to get the right sauce consistency

pinch of salt

Mole ingredients

Method

Chillis – dried pasilla, ancho and mulato prep

  • First, prepare the three types of dried chillis, discard the stem, cut them in half,  keep the seeds.
  • Heat a dry, heavy based frying pan to a medium heat and add the chillis.  Toast briefly on each side, about 20 seconds until they begin to release their aromas, do not burn as this will taint the mole.
  • Soak in boiling water for 20 minutes (seeds too) to rehydrate

Rehydrating the dried pasilla, ancho and mulato chillis

Rehydrating the dried pasilla, ancho and mulato chillis

  • Next, dry fry the spices and grind them and put these with the chillis in a food processor.
  • Put the rest of the ingredients in except the chocolate and turkey.  Blitz to a fine paste, adding just enough turkey stock to create a thick paste.
  • Transfer to a saucepan and warm before adding the chocolate.  Be sure to add a little at a time to ensure the mole is balanced as too much chocolate will overpower and spoil the balance of flavours. Adjust the seasoning, add more stock, if required and stir in the turkey pieces. The mole was pretty hot when just made, but mellowed significantly by the next day when we ate it.

Mole before adding turkey

Mole before adding turkey

Finishing touches – accompaniments

I can’t resist turning any Mexican meal into a bit of a banquet.  I made some guacamole – mandatory with any Mexican meal, added some tortilla chips bought in Lupe Pintos, natural yoghurt, basmati rice and flour tortillas – and margaritas, of course.

As I was rolling the final flour tortilla, inexplicably and without so much as a flicker of a warning, the power went off, even though the wind speeds had dropped to about 30 mph. This brought an entirely new perspective to the description of a dark mole. Fortunately, the rice was cooked, but despite our best efforts with the frying pan on top of the stove, it just wasn’t hot enough for the flour tortillas to cook, so we resigned ourself to eating in the dark without them.  Presentation was perhaps not the finest, but what the hell, the atmosphere was just right.

Dark mole is served

Dark mole is served