Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Caramelised Chilli & Rosemary Nuts

You could toss any combination of nuts in this gorgeously sticky, spicy, crunchy glaze and the result would be equally or more wonderful.

I am mildly obsessed with finding the best recipe for this kind of warm, spicy nuts. I have tried a few different recipes but by far the best technique, I think, is to warm the sugar and spices in a large pan - the melted sugar bubbles and browns and sticks everything to the nuts, giving a good balance of flavour on every nut. Other recipes usually suggest warm butter to act as spice glue... but I find this always ends up in a big heap of butter and spice at the bottom of the dish. My way gives out crunchy nuts that are evenly coated - and suitable for storing in an airtight jar, ready for pulling out (and perhaps warming briefly on a baking tray) when visitors arrive. (and making you feel like a truly perfect hostess, despite the dust on the fireplace.)

500g mixed nuts - I buy these separately (macadamia, almonds, pecans, hazelnuts) - skinned. (To skin hazelnuts, toast in a low oven, then rub them in a tea-towel.)
2tbsp fresh rosemary, finely chopped
2tbsp brown sugar
2tsp Maldon salt
1tsp Chipotle chilli flakes
2tsp pink peppercorns (or 1/2 tsp black pepper)

Grind the salt, chilli and pepper in a pestle and mortar and mix in the rosemary. In a large pan, warm up the sugar slowly until it starts to melt on the surface. When at least half of it has melted, you can add the nuts. Toss quickly then sprinkle over the spice mix, and continue toasting in the pan until the sugar is caramelly and the nuts are starting to brown here and there. Tip into a bowl or baking tray to cool, then put into an airight jar. The sweet, salty, spicy combination is addictive!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Butchart Gardens, late Sept (for Alicia)

Monday, October 20, 2008

Smashing Veggie Squeak

Look, I know it's not exactly a culinary sensation, and it's not the healthiest dinner in the world, but here's the thing: if you feel like chips or chocolate, or you have a cheese craving, this is a fix that will make you feel far less guilty. It feels like a treat - and, containing just a splash of olive oil and a sprinkling of cheddar, it's not quite so bad as a giant Dairy Milk. But you'll feel equally rewarded.

Eat with fresh bread and butter!

Smashing veggie squeak
For 2

2 medium potatoes, scrubbed and cubed (1")
1 cup fresh borlotti or other haricot-type beans
1tsp Marigold vegetable bouillon
2 cobs of sweetcorn, kernels removed
1tbsp olive oil
1 small onion, finely sliced
1tbsp fresh rosemary, finely chopped
2-3 medium tomatoes, cut into wedges
Plenty of salt and pepper
Large handful cheddar cheese, grated
OPTIONAL: also good would be mushrooms, sweet potato, red pepper, spinach.

Put the potatoes and beans into a pan and just cover with water; sprinkle over the stock, bring to a boil, and cook for 4 minutes; add the sweetcorn kernels and continue for another 2 minutes - until the potato pieces are knife-tender. Drain in a colander.

In a wok or large frying pan, heat 1tbsp olive oil. Toss in the onion, the rosemary, and then the drained vegetables. Season very generously with both salt and pepper. Stir-fry on a high heat for about 4 minutes, getting lots of golden crunchy bits. Preheat the grill. Add the tomatoes and continue for 1 more minute. Taste for seasoning (I seasoned again here - lots of pepper and salt is GOOD).

Dish up into large bowls or plates and sprinkle over the cheese, then put under the grill until melted. Serve.

How to cook chestnuts

First, I wanted to show you some gratuitous pumpkin porn. But now it's onto the chestnuts, I promise.

These pictures of mine are TERRIBLE. But maybe if you shut your eyes a bit and squint at them, they will come slightly into focus? No? Oh well. Humour me.

Here are some chestnuts, fresh from the grass. You can tell they're chestnuts because they have that tuft at the top - unlike conkers (horse chestnuts) which are fully rounded.

Officially, you should slit each one before dropping it into a pan of cold water. I don't bother, thus risking eighty-nine miniature explosions that will send soft shards of chestnut flying all over my kitchen. Luckily, I am not the nominated Kitchen Cleaner in our house, so I don't let miniature explosions bother me too much. So - drop them in, and remove any chestnuts that float to the top. They're bad'uns.

Bring rapidly to the boil, and boil until the nuts feel tender. If they are freshly fallen, this could take just 5 minutes - yours could take longer, so keep an eye on them.

Now remove a few nuts from the pan and put them on your chopping board, ready for the hell to begin. They are easier to peel while hot, so it's best to tackle a few at a time. You will want to clear the nearby rooms of any family members who have done nothing to deserve your wrath.

So - see that brownish lump on my chopping board (brownish background)? It's a chestnut, after boiling. It does not look very different to the way it did pre-boiling, except that I have slit open the top with a knife and peeled away the outer (glossy brown) and inner (the paler brown) skin. Only another eighty-eight nuts to go. Best put on some soothing music - that'll help with the impending chestnut rage...

After what feels like six years, you will be looking at a small heap of the nuts that are now your least favourite nut in the entire world. Your back will ache. Your knife will be dull. And all appetite for these lovely little scamps will be lost. But that's okay. Because you saved a couple of pounds and a trip to the grocer. Now don't you feel good about the world?

Okay. So it will take you some time to feel good about the world. Until then, put these peeled monsters into the fridge or freezer, and try to forget about them. Or throw them immediately into a Mushroom & Chestnut Stroganoff, and destroy the evidence by mouth. Yum!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Wipe your feet and come on in

I am in fierce competition with our nextdoor-but-one neighbour when it comes to window displays. Here is my autumn sill. I expect she will top it with an enormous display of dried fennel heads and elegant foliage. Mine always look a bit on the... hm, rustic side. But I prefer to think of them as 'cute'.

PS. Our cottage was built pre-1800, and the Planning officers "prefer us to fix, not replace" the windows. So yes, you are looking at draughty, peeling, rotting, cracked old windows, but at least their history is intact. Be glad you don't get our heating bills.

Welcome to my kitchen. Charlie rules the roost in this house, and she likes to remind us. She especially likes to climb anywhere that she can look down on us. She is doubtless planning a surprise attack of some sort. See how she is sharpening her claws on the ancient wooden beams?

The walls are a fetching swamp-monster green. That's what my husband called it when I painted splodges from trial pots. But now he loves it. Further proof, if needed, that I am virtually always right.

Indulge me. This is my cooker. I often stand in the doorway and gaze lovingly at it. I saved up for this darling and it makes my cooking better in every way. (I am not crying. yet.) And can you say that about a race bike that lives in the shed for 300 days of the year? No. You cannot. Do you think those tins are real antiques? I don't know either. I don't mind, anyway. In case my husband reads this, especially the bike part, I should also point out his lovely white silicone around the worktops and tiles. Beautiful work, yes?

You may be getting the sense that this is a slightly censored kitchen tour. That perhaps I chose a good moment to take pictures... to prove otherwise, here is the sink, complete with dirty dishwater and undried plates.

This dresser was especially sawn up, I mean adapted, for my kitchen. It is loaded with jars and things I have no other place for. But that's what it's for, yes? Charming mess.

Just in case you didn't get a good look at the card in front of the tea caddy: yes, it really does say that. There is no low to which the woman will not stoop to secure her first grandchild. I plan to make her wait a LOT longer, or at least that's my story.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Finding food for free

Our mortgage lender is one of those banks that has gone bankrupt (the irony). I don't understand much of the economic stuff, and I am not very good at economising, either. I have very expensive tastes. Lovely husband is constantly amazed at my unique skill - I can walk into any shop or aisle or look at any catalogue page and instantly pick out the single most expensive item with a firm "I want". Knitwear, shoes, TVs. We often check the prices to see if I have missed something with a bigger price tag! and I haven't failed once!

But one place I do economise - for pleasure more than relief - is in the kitchen. I like to make our own pizza bases and jam, hummus and biscuits, because I know what went into them. I am very fortunate to work at home, which gives me the little extra time to boil pulses or start dough in advance of dinner.

And speaking of blessings... we live in the country, and we have an energetic dog who must be walked for an hour ever day, whether it's hailing or baking. In the last three years I have thus learnt a lot about finding food for free!

At the moment there are a few things for the taking, and I thought I'd give you a quick tour. First of course are the easily recognised Blackberries (pictured above) - which are wonderful combined with windfall apples (any type - a mixture is good) in a crumble or cobbler. (They are also nice simmered gently and pressed through a sieve to make a coulis for vanilla ice-cream, cava cocktails, or cheesecake.)

Elderberries - which are just coming to an end (just! but if you hurry you'll find some clinging on!) - can be used to make a cordial full of Vitamin C. It does taste a bit like cough syrup, mind you, so what I'd suggest is... make a note of where you saw them, and return in late spring for the flowers instead!

Rosehips - the oval red berries (avoid the round ones as, with the exception of haws, the varieties I see are inedible) - supposedly make a tomato-like soup, according to Edible Wild Foods (Grub Street 2007) but are more commonly used for syrup or a crab apple jelly.
And finally, chestnuts - which deserve a post all of their own, and will get one. Before I do, take a walk and look for some chestnuts. Don't confuse them with horse chestnuts (conkers) which are rounded. Sweet chestnuts have little tufts at the top, a bit like small punks. They are ready just about now so, instead of buying them at the grocer, go out and find some!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Corn and Sweet Potato Chowder

And why not have soup for dinner? Especially if you polish off an entire French stick alongside it. This lovely soup makes the most of some seasonal ingredients, and bay leaves and rosemary from the garden. I'm sure it must count as a couple of our five-a-day. It's particularly cheap if your husband has been pilfering sweetcorn "windfalls" from a nearby field. But if you're not this way inclined, sweetcorn is available widely and (comparatively) cheaply at the moment.

For 2

2 slender leeks, finely diced
1tsp butter
2tsp chopped rosemary
1 sweet potato, in 1cm dice

1 cob of sweetcorn, kernels stripped into a bowl
1 cup stock made with Marigold Bouillon (1tsp)
Salt and pepper
1tbsp milk mixed with 1tsp cornflour
3tbsp milk

Soften the leeks in the butter, then add the rosemary and potato and stir gently for another couple of minutes. Tip in the stock. Bring to a simmer and let it simmer very gently for 6 minutes, then add the corn, simmer for another 2 minutes and switch off the heat. Stir in the cornflour paste, and leave until you are ready to eat. Now taste and season generously, add the extra splash of milk and very, very gently raise the heat until the soup is steaming but not boiling. Check it's hot enough and serve.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Southwestern Succotash and Griddled Polenta

It's been a long time - I know. I have started an allotment blog ( and am failing to keep this or that updated. But both have been very useful to me, as memory aid and inspiration, so I'm going to do my best to keep them going.

We have just returned from a trip to Canada - where we ate so much good food! Tofino, Vancouver and Victoria in particular are great places for foodies. All of my holiday shopping was food-related, and included 'smoky southwest' seasonings, chocolate for cooking, a madeleine tray, cookery books and new table napkins for autumn. When oh When will Williams-Sonoma open a store in the UK? Preferably in Exeter...

This recipe is based on a southwestern ratatouille that I ate at Coyote's Grill in Banff (PICTURED ABOVE). It was served with polenta, which was cooked a bit more softly than I've decided I like. I also took inspiration from the recipe for Lima Bean and Corn Succotash in Bon Appetit, which I read and then lost at Calgary airport (and am now subscribed to both Gourmet and Bon Appetit - there are so many wonderful food magazines in Canada!). The bean, corn and squash combination is the '3 Sisters' from the allotment and this dish makes the most of all three, which are now - of course - in season. (I loved the roadside pumpkin patches on Vancouver Island!) Anyway - less talk, more eating.

1 cup polenta (Merchant Gourmet)
4 cups warm water
Pinch vegetable bouillon
1tsp salt and pepper
1tsp butter
100g feta

Cover a small baking tray with cling film and set close by. Bring water + bouillon to a rolling boil and tip in the polenta, stirring. Now protect your hands as the thickening polenta bubbles madly! Ouch! Stir frequently (but not constantly) over medium heat for five minutes. Stir in the butter, seasoning and feta, crumbled, and smooth the mixture into a slab on the baking tray. Cool for about an hour. This makes enough for 4 people. To finish, cut into 8 triangles (toast-sized slices) and put onto a hot griddle that has been brushed with oil. Griddle for about 20 minutes until golden and crunchy on both sides - surprisingly good!

1/2 butternut or other sweet squash, diced 1cm

2 small corn cobs, corn removed
1 cup borlotti, broad or soya beans
2 tomatoes, chopped
1tsp tomato puree
Pinch sugar, salt and pepper
1 jalapeno, diced
1tbsp each basil and coriander, sliced
Squeeze lemon juice

Simmer the borlotti for about 20 mins in light stock, adding the corn 5 mins before the end. Warm some olive oil and cook the squash gently for 30 minutes, adding the tomatoes, puree, seasonings and half a cup of water 5 mins from the end (for quite a dry result). Stir in the beans and lemon juice, turn heat to high and warm through; add herbs and serve.