Shameless Plugging – Vote for Andy Tidy!

It is the Canal and Rivers Trust elections very soon.  If you do not yet know, my husband, Andy Tidy, aka Captain Ahab, is standing.  You need a British Waterways licence to vote but if you have one, do vote, and do vote for him.  I realise I am biased, but he would do an excellent job.  His manifesto explains why he is standing and just the briefest of glances at his blog will give you an understanding of his passion for our waterways.

Polling opens on the 8th of February and continues until the 9th March.



Therapeutic Marmalade

There is nothing like a bit of wielding a sharp implement when one is feeling a little stressed.  Though it has to be said it is best to avoid bloodshed.  This week has been a tad difficult owing to that heady mixture of parenting, lack of sleep and miscommunication.  Today, I turned off my phone and took some time out to be creative.  Creativity while venting my spleen is not always easy to pull off but thankfully the Seville orange season is upon us which can only mean one thing.  Marmalade!

I have been keeping an eye open for Sevilles for a week now but my local Tesco has let me down.  Thank goodness for Sainsbury’s.  And in the nick of time too.  Heaven knows where I may have taken my sharp implement had I not had a kilo of Sevilles to slice!

I have also been keen to tweak recipes here and there.  With some Christmas book vouchers I recently bought a copy of The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit which I suspect is going to become a fantastic investment.  I am already excited at the prospect of experimenting.  Today I confined myself to adding a vanilla pod to my orange slices as they soak overnight in juice and water.  I will remove it prior to potting but I am curious about whether one pod will be sufficient.  I want there to be enough of a vanilla hit for its presence to be noted but not so much that it is over powering.  Tomorrow, I may halve the mixture prior to boiling; add another half pod to one batch and then force the unsuspecting to perform a taste test and see which scores the most highly.  Seems like a plan.

Meanwhile, the recipe I have used is below but it remains a work in progress.  No pictures tonight but hopefully some will appear at the weekend when I aim to be posting another marmalade recipe.  Watch this space!

Seville Orange and Vanilla Marmalade

1kg Seville oranges

1 vanilla pod

75ml lemon juice

2kg demerara sugar

Scrub oranges, cut in half, squeeze out juice and set to one side.  Cut oranges into fine slices and place in a bowl with the orange juice.  Split the vanilla pod, scrape out the seeds and add both pod and seeds to the orange slices.  Cover with 2 1/2 litres of water (I used hot water from the kettle to help the vanilla to infuse – no idea if this is a good plan) and leave to soak overnight.

Transfer to preserving pan, boil then simmer covered until the peel is tender (approx 2 hours).  Contents of pan will have reduced by about one-third.  Stir in lemon juice and sugar, stirring until sugar dissolved.  Boil rapidly until setting point achieved.  Remove from heat and allow to cool for about 10mins to allow the peel to distribute evenly in jar.  Pot and seal.  Keeps for up to 2 years.


Using up Boozy Fruit from Hedgerow Liquor

I have spent much of the Summer and Autumn setting copious quantities of fruit to stew in vast amounts of various alcohols.  I have made Wild Cherry Ratafia, Haw Brandy and Raspberrycello.  Damson Gin, Sloe Vodka and Blackberry Whisky.  Not to mention the Raspberry & Apple Gin, Creme de Mure, Elderberry Liquor, Currant Shrub, Beech Leaf Noyau and the inevitable Sloe Gin among many others.  Indeed, I may I have made mention of my alcofrolicking before.

Inevitably all this alcohol means the fruit is well preserved when the time comes to drain it off (arguably it has imparted all its flavour and is fit only for the bin.  I am not sure about composting things once sugar or alcohol has been involved but no doubt any gardeners among you could tell me?).  However, somehow this does not seem right.  Carl Legge suggests a wonderful trilogy of recipes for sloes which uses the same batch each time so clearly sloes, at least, still have plenty to offer.  I currently have a batch of Sloe and Rosehip wine and Vodka on the go following Carl’s advice and am looking forward to the final part of the trilogy when I get to make the jam.  So far it’s all, er, hopeful?  The wine looks pretty:

but I’m not so sure about the vodka or its potential for jam:

but I shall persevere.

Covering damsons or sloes in melted chocolate (with some citrus zest and christmas spices for variety) is another lovely way to use boozy fruits up.  The hit of whatever alcohol has been used for soaking makes these a very special after dinner treat.

Today, though, I decided to experiment with my tried and tested Christmas cake recipe.  On Friday, I had bottled a batch of Plum Brandy and a some Plum Rum, and what with plums featuring quite strongly in Christmas cooking folklore, I decided these fruits would make a welcome addition to the cake mix.  I simply stoned and weighed the plums, then substituted them for a mix of the other dried fruits.  As these plums had all come from our summer boating trips, I decided to add to the foraged nature of cake by using my chestnut flour in place of the ground almonds.  The result is a light coloured, densely fruity cake that I will feed with Plum Brandy between now and Christmas.  Having made some little ones for hampers, the Captain and I sampled one and I have to say it tastes delicious!

Hedgerow Christmas Cake

2kg Dried Fruit + boozy fruit, chopped & stoned – I used: 500g brandy & rum plums; 400g currants; 400g sultanas; 300g raisins; 225g glacé cherries; 175g mixed peel.

100g Chestnut Flour (use ground almonds instead as alternative)

grated zest of 2 lemons

grated zest of 1 orange

400g softened butter

400g dark soft brown sugar

6 eggs

4 1/2 tbsp plum brandy (or other hedgerow brandy/rum to match boozy fruit)

2 tbsp black treacle

100g self-raising flour

375g plain flour

1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

1 1/4 tsp mixed spice

1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg

Grease and double line a 9 inch deep square cake tin.  Pre-heat oven to 150c/Gas 2.  Combine fruit in mixing bowl and stir in chestnut flour with citrus zest.  In another mixing bowl cream together the butter, sugar and treacle with an electric hand whisk until light and fluffy.  Sift the flours and spices together in a third bowl.  Beat the eggs into the creamed mixture following each addition with two tablespoons of spiced flour.  Mix in the plum brandy and then fold in the remaining flour.  Add the fruit mixture and stir to combine.  Spoon into the prepared tin, spreading out evenly.  Cut out double thickness strips of brown paper to surround the outside of the tin and tie in place with string to prevent the outside edge of the cake becoming too hard during baking.  Place just the below the centre of the oven and bake for approximately 5 hours until a skewer, inserted into the centre, comes out clean.  Remove from the oven and leave to cool in tin for ten minutes before turning out onto a wire rack to cool completely.  Keep wrapped in lining paper then further wrap in foil and store in an air tight tin for up to two months.  Each week, peel back the layers and feed with a couple of tablespoons of plum brandy (or your chosen hedgerow brandy/rum) drizzled over the surface).

Quince and Apple Crumble Cake

I have already written about my plethora of quince.  Before this year, to my shame, I had never cooked with them.  The flowering variety are a very unprepossessing fruit and do not look like they promise much.  However, I have been delighted with everything that I have made which left me with a dilemma.  What to do with my remaining fruit?  They have been sitting on my kitchen table for a week now perfuming the air with their fragrance, but the time had come to use them.  I thought about mixing them with apples for a compote as I am partial to fruit and yogurt at breakfast time.  But my freezer is stuffed to the gills.  I toyed with ideas of conjuring more alcoholic mixes with vodka or gin but could not quite persuade myself.  I was sorely tempted my recipe for Quinceade but in the end decided to go with a variation on my friend Joy’s recipe for Crumble Cake.

Ready for the oven

I combined the quinces with cooking apples and the resulting tart but tasty topping was perfectly offset by the icing sugar dusting.

I made one large 9″ round, which I rather foolishly was hoping would last over the weekend, and four mini loaf tin sized cakes that I intend to squirrel away in the freezer for Christmas hampers in due course.

It works well as a cake and is delicious as a pudding, either hot from the oven or cold, with cream or without.  One I will be adding to the To Be Done Again list.

Quince and Apple Crumble Cake

For the crumble topping:

  • 80g butter
  • 100g plain flour
  • 50g sugar

For the fruit

  • 400g quince, peeled, cored and diced
  • 400g cooking apples, peeled cored, and diced
  • 2 tbsps sugar

For the base

  • 100g butter
  • 100g self-raising flour
  • 2 large eggs
  • 100g caster sugar
  • pinch of salt

Ensure all ingredients at room temperature.  Preheat the oven to 190c/Gas 5.  Grease and line a 9″ spring form tin or 4 mini loaf tins.  First prepare the topping.  Rub the butter into the flour and then stir in the sugar.  Set aside in a bowl until needed.  Next prepare the base.  Using an electric mixer, combine all base ingredients and mix for 2 mins until light and fluffy.  Finally prepare fruit and toss with sugar.  Spread base over bottom of tin/s.  Then add fruit, then sprinkle over topping.  Place in centre of oven and bake for about 1 hour (45 mins approx for mini tins @ 170c) until cooked through.  Cool completely in tin.

Beef in Homebrew with Horseradish and Chestnut Dumplings

Today my Chestnut flour finally got its first outing.

It is very precious so I wanted to use it for something special.  While furtling about in my freezer yesterday I found some organic stewing steak I had forgotten about and decided this would be the perfect partner for my flour.  Using John Wright’s recipe as a base, I tweaked and adapted the stew to suit my ingredients while remaining faithful to the dumplings.

It was incredibly satisfying to use so many of our own produce.  The carrots could not have been fresher as I pulled them up only minutes before using them.  The onions were also grown by the Captain as were the herbs and horseradish root.  Digging up the latter proved to be every bit as tricky as all my foraging books promised and preparing it was a nightmare.  Next time I think I shall dig out a pair of discarded swimming goggles from the long gone days of children’s swimming lessons.  Whether this will help remains to be seen but for those of you who have not had the unique pleasure that is grating fresh horseradish root, all I can say is, think of chopping the worst onions in the world and then multiply by one hundred.

Obviously, the beer I used was the Captain’s homebrew.  I suppose any old beer would do, but it will not be the same.  Clearly 🙂

Anyway.  Whether I am just biased after concocting such a home produced meal complete with foraged ingredients, but I have to say that the results were rather splendid.

Beef in Homebrew with Horseradish and Chestnut Dumplings

Serves 4 with dumplings and enough stew for freezing

25g butter

250g onions, chopped

275g streaky bacon, chopped

1250g stewing steak, cubed

25g plain flour

25g chestnut flour

1litre homebrew bitter

2 tbsp tomato purée

4 bay leaves

several sprigs of fresh thyme

1 heaped tbsp cornflour

For the dumplings:

  • 75g self-raising flour
  • 25g chestnut flour
  • pinch of baking powder
  • 50g freshly grated horseradish
  • 50g shredded suet
  • about 75ml water
  • sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Melt the butter in a large/deep frying pan and cook the onions with the bacon, until the onions are soft and the bacon beginning to brown.  Transfer to slow cooker using a slotted spoon.  Brown the beef in batches and transfer to plate.  Return to pan and sprinkle with flours stirring well to mix and thicken the juices.  Transfer to slow cooker.  Pour homebrew into pan, gradually, stirring well to mix in all the sediment.  Add tomato purée, herbs and salt and pepper.  Bring to boil stirring in cornflour mixed with a little water then pour over meat in slow cooker.  Leave for several hours to cook until tender.

One and half hours before serving make the dumplings.  Mix all the ingredients except the water in a bowl.  Gradually add the water, kneading lightly into a soft dough.  Shape into small balls of about 3cms in diameter.  Remove the lid of the slow cooker and sit the balls on top of the stew.  Replace the lid and leave.  Serve when dumplings cooked.


Two weeks ago one of my friends came round with a large bag of flowering quince.  It’s the sort of shrub that likes to hang out in car parks or landscaped public spaces.  It also does quite well in suburban gardens around here.  We have a small bush in ours.  We did have a bigger bush in the front garden but the Captain killed it.

I thought long and hard about how to use this bagful.  For about five whole minutes.  And then made some jam.  It’s very nice jam, not too sweet.  I like it a lot and I am not a lover of jam.  The irony of my current obsession is not lost on me.  I also started some quince brandy which I have high hopes for.  This left me with just enough to experiment with.  Alys Fowler’s book, The Thrifty Forager, makes mention of quince lemonade so I thought I would try to concoct that.  The results are so delicious that I post them with delight and heartily commend them to you.  Quite possibly the best thing about the recipe is that you need to start by freezing the quince meaning that long hot summer days, which are currently something of a distant memory, can be spent sipping this dreaming of the time when the quince will be fruiting again.

My only problem now, is what to do with the bag load of quince my Mother has just delivered to me.  Shall I freeze the lot in anticipation of those hazy summer days sipping quinceade, or make some quince and apple compote?  Perhaps a compromise is called for and a little of each made.


300g frozen quince, defrosted

2 1/2 litres water

200g sugar

Halve and de-seed the quince.  Liquidise with a little of the water, slowing adding the rest until the whole lot is incorporated.  Sieve into another container, pressing the sieve with the back of a spoon.  Add the sugar and stir until dissolved.  Use a hand-held blender to give a final whizz and achieve the frothy head.  Serve.

Chickweed Pakoras

Inspired by my afternoon’s foraging with Edible Eastside at the weekend, I strolled around the garden yesterday with a new eye.  Actually, a properly new eye would really be quite nice.  Mine is decidedly wonky.  My newly opened eyes were scouring the garden for edible weeds, the likes of which Pam pointed out.  I am sure there were loads.  But I could not find them.  I was about to give up when I spied the most enormous crop of chickweed.  Can you call chickweed a crop?  I think most gardeners call it a nuisance.  The Captain uses far less savoury words for it.  But my heart soared at its lush verdant presence 🙂  We had found some nice samples along the towpath on Saturday but this was soft and green and bushy and bursting with health making the towpath version look positively paltry in comparison.

I have been wanting to make John Wright’s Chickweed Pakoras, from his Hedgerow River Cottage Handbook, ever since I first bought the book back in the spring but have not managed to get my act together to do so.  Yesterday was the perfect opportunity.  My youngest turned eighteen on Sunday.  He received a DIY Curry Kit as a gift and was planning to treat the Captain and I to Chicken Timitar Masala so my find could not have happened at a better time.

Living in a large multicultural city made getting hold of gram flour a simple matter of visiting my local supermarket.  Asian stores will stock it if it is not that simple for you.  50g a chickweed is approximately a couple of handfuls.

This was such a simple recipe to follow and the results were good too.  The only thing I will do differently next time is to add less salt.  But it is one I will definitely be repeating.

Chickweed Pakoras

Makes 8

100g flour

1tbsp medium curry powder

1/2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp sea salt

About 120ml water

50g Chickweed, washed, dried and roughly chopped

1 small onion, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, crushed

Vegetable oil for shallow-frying

Mix the flour, curry powder, baking powder and salt together in a bowl, then slowly stir in enough water to form a paste the consistency of mustard. Mix in the Chickweed, onion and garlic, stirring until they are well coated in the pasted.

Heat a thin layer of oil in a heavy based frying pan. When hot, spoon in heaped desssertspoonfuls of the pakora mix to form little cakes, spacing them well apart. Cover with a lid and cook over a medium heat for about 5 mins until crisp and golden brown on one side. Turn the cakes over to brown the other side. Drain on kitchen paper and serve at once.

Foraging Course – Edible Eastside

On Saturday, the Captain, my Mother and I set off for a foraging adventure.  I was excited.  Very excited.  More excited than was seemly.  Have we established that it does not take much to excite me?  I think we have.  My excitement was magnified, however, because this was the first foraging course that I had both booked and actually managed to attend.  I had booked to go on a course with my Mother ages ago and one of lovely friends had booked a mushroom day for my birthday.  I wrote about them here.  Unfortunately, both of these were on top of my operation so I had to cancel.  Disappointed does not begin to cover it.

So, discovering via Twitter that Edible Eastside were running their first foraging walk as part of Birmingham Food Fest 2011 AND the walk was to take place along the towpath could not have been more perfect.  This course may very well have been written with the Captain and me in mind.  I first lost him before we even entered Edible Eastside’s yard situated in Birmingham’s Eastside and housed among a superabundance of canal heritage.  The yard itself was part of the nineteenth century Fellows Morton Clayton buildings and the Digbeth Branch Canal was just a hop, skip and a jump away.

The Captain rejoined us as Jayne Bradley described her vision of an ecologically sustained initiative to promote urban gardening and food production.  We then set off with Pam Smith, the project’s horticulturist and gardening advisor.

Her knowledge of plants, folklore and history were impressive and her enthusiasm was second to none.  She was a great believer in only eating things that were worth the picking, and frequently commented that such and such a plant was edible, but it tasted like hay.  Paraphrasing Terry Pratchett, she reminded us that all plants are edible, it’s just that some are only edible once.  We learnt things like the more brown patches there are on a silver birch, the more ghosts inhabit it.

That cleavers can be boiled and used to make antiperspirant as well as eaten.  That nettles make excellent string.  That Woodruff can enhance the flavour of alcoholic drinks.  That I have forgotten so much more than I thought would even though I knew I would forget just about everything.In all, we only wandered from Typhoo Basin through the Curzon Tunnel and up the first couple of locks in the Ashton Flight but in that short stretch alone, it was hard to see how you would starve, if push came to shove.  As well as the nettles, woodruff, cleavers and silver birch, we also found:

Oregon Hollygrapes (Mahonia Aquifolium); Elder;

Chinese Bramble (Rubus Tricolor); Mugwort; Chickweed; Plantain; and so much more.  Much of it may taste like hay, but you would have lovely nettle string bags and there would be no evidence of perspiration thanks to your Cleaver splash-on.  And there would always be the silver birch ghosts for company.

This wonderful afternoon was rounded off with a nip of Pam’s Sloe Gin and the opportunity to taste Jayne’s delicious smelling cooking.  Sadly, I had completely run out of energy so having fortified myself with sloe gin (could you really see me passing up on that?!), we took our leave.  A great day and I look forward to the next.

For the Captain’s take, check out his blog from the 28th October, when his post should be live.

Underneath the Spreading Chestnut Tree

As you will have gathered from our cider making foray at the weekend, I am recovering well from my latest operation.  It is a frustratingly slow old business, but given that I have had four operations, numerous infections and almost continuous courses of antibiotics I suppose it is not surprise that it is taking me a while to get back to what passes for normal.  I am particularly irritated as I cannot keep up with my head which is gallivanting around all over the place.  Apart from when I have exhausted myself.  Which is quite frequently now I come to think about it.

Anyway.  I have been very keen to be out enjoying the beautiful weather we have been having.  It has been Autumn at her very best.  All golden light from the ‘maturing sun’ and ‘fruit with ripeness to the core’.  Forgive me, but did you really expect me to write about Autumn and NOT quote John Keats?  I am not to be trusted out alone at present.  Some may say this should be a permanent thing.  However, the current excuse is my vision.  My double vision is sufficiently bad that I really do need to have someone with me.  Just in case.  On Sunday I persuaded the Captain to take me for a walk.  Today I pressed the incredibly soon to be eighteen year old into service.  This may have been a mistake.  Having realised he had no option, he stood in the hall, while I had gone to fetch my bag, and yelled, “Walkies!”

Still, on both occasions we had a lovely time.  My aim was to gather chestnuts.  I do not know if it is just where we live, but there are a great many Sweet Chestnut trees in my locality.

This pleases me a great deal.  My local Tesco sells them for £6.99 per kilo but my local park literally is carpeted in them.

On each of my walks I have come back with a bag groaning with nuts.

Apparently the traditional way to get to the nuts is to tread on the spiky cases and make them pop out but I have not been able to master this technique.  I suspect it is because the chestnut trees are part of a coppice of several other trees including pine and oak so the ground is soft and mulchy.

When I went with the Captain I forgot the first rule of foraging: always take gloves.  And so scratched my hands to pieces because I could not have left the chestnuts on the ground.  Obviously.  Today I was better equipped.  But I was banned from taking my basket.  Birthday boy drew the line at that insisting that his street cred could barely cope with taking his mother for a walk.  It would not recover from being seen with her carrying a basket.  Apparently.  Whether his legs will recover from being spiked by the chestnut shells that poked through the bag remains to be seen.  But at least he carried it.

I shelled Sunday’s gatherings and spread them on my laundry airer as it hangs out of the way.  It’s perfect for drying things and I suspect will be used far more for drying flowers and nuts than ever it was for clothes.  I read somewhere that once dried for a couple of days, the nuts kept well until ready for using. I do not actually intend to dry the nuts, partly because I have since failed to find this piece of advice, but mainly because I think I will be making flour with my harvest tomorrow.  I shall let you know how I get on.

Cider House Rules – or making cider with minimal equipment and little knowledge

Today our house turned into a Cider House.  It has not, in the past, been known as my favourite beverage.  But I am quietly confident that I will love it from now.  At least, I will love the cider I have made.  I know this because I already do love it.  I have long been admiring the apples hanging from the tree in our garden.  I do not know what variety they are but they look lovely and their flavour is beautiful.

Unfortunately the texture leaves something to be desired.  Eating them is a little akin to chewing a feather pillow.  It has grieved me to leave them to rot but I have no freezer room, and what with the operation and all, have not really been up to organising something more imaginative.  However, the lovely John Wright, of River Cottage fame, came to my rescue with an article he wrote back in September that someone kindly retweeted on Twitter.  John uses a proper apple press but I don’t have such a thing so I did some more rummaging on the t’interweb and discussed the problem with the Captain, knowing he is a practical sort of chappie.  At the very moment I discovered this YouTube video, he burst into the room having reached the same conclusion.  A car jack would apparently solve all our problems.  Of course, it remains to be seen whether or not the end results are drinkable, but we are hopeful.

This is how we went about it: first of all, I washed the apples in the sink.

If anyone can identify them, I would love to know what variety they are.  Once washed, I roughly chopped them, removing any bad bits or grubs and smashed them up in batches using the pulse setting of my food processor.  Traditionally, this stage is done by crushing the apples in a bucket with a stick but that really would have been much too much like hard work.  John Wright suggested using a hand-held blender but mine really wasn’t up to the job so I decided a food processor was really only the next logical option.

We found that the finer the apples were chopped, the more juice they yielded, so my later batches became mushier than the above photo.  Whether this was down to the variety of apple or not is open to debate.

The general advice was once the apples were crushed, they needed to be wrapped in smallish quantities in muslin before pressing.  I found that 2-3 quantities from my processor were about the right amount for a muslin square from Tescos baby department.

While I was doing this, the Captain and the seventeen but very soon to be eighteen year old had been busy constructing the press.

True, it is an apple press that Heath Robinson would have been proud of but it cost us absolutely nothing to construct as all the varies bits of wood used were from the shed, apart from the main platform and that had started life as a cupboard aboard Wand’ring Bark.

So even our cider has a boaty link.  Best of all, and perhaps a little to our surprise, it actually worked!  There was great excitement when with only a little pressure, the juice began to flow.

The advice I had found about pressing all spoke of patient and not hurrying the process, and to press the 11 kilos we had, it took a couple of hours.  Using the food processor made it a lot easier and to have been smashing the apples by hand for that length of time would have been exhausting.

Once the juice had been extracted the remaining apple was dry, crumbly and really fit only for composting.

When we had pressed the lot, we had a respectable total of just under 6 litres.  We decanted the liquid into two demijohns and added 1 1/2 crushed campden tablets to keep the bugs at bay.  Cotton wool then bunged the necks until tomorrow when we will add about 1 1/2 teaspoons of brewers yeast.

The whole process involves a bit of siphoning and decanting and bottling but all in all, it was a pleasant way to spend the morning, cost very little and will hopefully produce something worth drinking.  We have left it too late to be ready for Christmas but late January should see us enjoying a glass.