Mutton with quince

Slow-cooking comes into its own at this time of year. The days are grey, damp and overcast, and the need for nourishment goes right to the bone. The problem with stews, however, is that they can get a bit….samey. So when I was flicking through Claudia Roden’s compendium of recipes from the Middle East, Tamarind & Saffron, this Moroccan dish of lamb with quince caught my eye. Incredibly simple, yet compellingly exotic, it comprises merely onions, meat, ground ginger, saffron, quince, cinnamon and honey. I had a shoulder of mutton in the freezer, quince in the fruit bowl, and a taste for something new. And lo! A new favourite is born.

A word on quince: they are in season right now. I picked mine up from the vegetable stand in Ludlow market, but I’ve seen them in Middle Eastern grocery shops in Bearwood and on the Hagley Road in Birmingham. Quince is a difficult flavour to pin down. Raw, they are rock hard and inedible, but cooked with sugar they become fragrant and delicately pink in colour. In this dish they give a sour note that offsets the rich mutton, not unlike how the sharp acidity of apple cuts through a fatty cut of pork. If no quince are to be had, this dish would probably work with apple.

Note: the photography in this post is terrible, the low levels of November light having beaten my iPhone.

First, prep your meat and onions. I boned the mutton shoulder, removed the excess fat and diced the meat. The onions are simply sliced. The only spices that are needed are ground ginger and saffron.

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Slice some onions, dice the mutton and have ginger and saffron ready

Heat some oil in a tagine or casserole dish, soften the onions over a medium heat for a few minutes, then tip in the meat. Cook for five minutes, then add a teaspoon of ground ginger, pinch of saffron, salt and a fair amount of black pepper. We are not really browning the meat here as we would for a European-style stew; it’s more about softening the onions and getting some heat into the lamb. Then add water to cover, pop the lid on, and cook for two hours or so until the meat is totally tender.

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Brown meat and onions with spices for five minutes before covering with water and leaving to cook

Then it’s time to attack the quince. Using a heavy knife, for they are as hard as a squash, quarter the quince and tip them straight into boiling water to which you had added the juice of half a lemon.

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Quince, the mysterious & exotic star of the show

Simmer the quince until soft – mine took ten minutes but they can take up to thirty, so just keep an eye on them and test regularly (if the quince are overcooked they will collapse). Drain the quince and once they are cool, remove the cores and dice into chunks, keeping the skins intact.

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Simmer quince in lemon-water until soft, then core and dice

Then it’s merely an assembly job. Once the meat is cooked to your liking, remove the lid and bubble for a few more minutes to reduce the sauce. If there is a lot of excess fat spoon it off, then adjust the seasoning to taste. Tip the quince into the meat along with a teaspoon of cinnamon and a tablespoon of honey, then bubble for a few more minutes before serving.

This stew is a revelation. How can something so simple be so nourishingly delicious? The onions collapse down to make a thickish sauce, with the faintest hint of fragrant spice. It feels like real, honest peasant cooking, albeit from a different time and continent. We had ours with couscous and a simple salad of grated carrot, sliced mint, toasted almonds, feta and lemon.

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With apologies for this terrible photograph: serve the finished stew with a refreshing carrot salad

Mutton (or lamb) with quince

From Claudia Roden’s Tamarin & Saffron 

1kg shoulder of mutton (or lamb)

2 large onions

splash of oil

salt and black pepper

1 teaspoon ground ginger

pinch of saffron

water

1 or 2 quince

juice of 1 lemon

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

honey, to finish

Bone the meat and dice into chunks, removing any excess fat. Slice the onions. Heat the oil in a tagine or stew pot, then soften the onions for a few minutes. Tip in the meat, salt, pepper, ginger and saffron, and cook for a few more minutes until the onions are soft. Tip in water to cover, pop the lid back on, and leave to cook on a low heat for 1 1/2 hours or until the meat is tender. Add water if it becomes too dry.

Prep the quince: Have ready a pan of boiling water with the juice of half a lemon. Cut the quince into quarters then tip them straight into the water. Simmer until soft – this can take 10 minutes or 30, so test regularly. Drain then remove the cores and dice into large-ish chunks, leaving the skins on.

When the meat is tender, remove the lid to reduce the sauce. Spoon off any excess fat. Add the quince to the meat with the cinnamon and 1 tablespoon of honey, cook for a further five minutes. Add more honey or lemon juice to taste, then serve.

Parsnip & cheddar soda bread

Tomatoes, be gone with thee! Courgettes, au revoir! With summer’s veg glut over, roots are making a return to my kitchen and amongst them, the humble trusty parsnip. Not that they’ve come from the allotment – we do have a few tiny plants, more seedlings really, that will stay in over winter to see if they fatten up (although my hopes are not high). Nope, farm shop parsnips it is and their rich, vaguely-spicy sweetness is a welcome addition to October dinners.

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One of last year’s allotment parsnips – this year’s didn’t germinate so well and are still tiny

It’s easy to see the parsnip as merely a useful adjunct to a winter roast – and a roasted parsnip chip is truly brilliant, provided that it’s not over-cooked…burnt parsnip being surprisingly easy to make, and horrid. But I’d urge all cooks to think a little more creatively: these roots are cheap-as-you like and their sweetness can take the strong flavours of chilli, spice and cheese with ease. Their dense texture makes for a creamy, satisfying soup, or try them baked in a creamy gratin to sit next to sausages or a pork chop.

Today I whipped up this soda bread, studded with strong cheddar and grated parsnip, which is great alongside a steaming bowl of soup for a nutritious and simple supper. It’s easy, inexpensive and vegetarian – and sometimes, that is just what it needed.

First, preheat the oven to 180c and prepare some baking parchment on top of a baking tray. Slice and sweat 1 onion in a drizzle of olive oil until it’s really soft – around 15 to 20 minutes. Meanwhile, grate 1 parsnip (I don’t bother to peel mine) and 50g strong cheddar using the coarse side of the grater. In a bowl, stir together 175g self-raising flour (white or wholemeal), a pinch of thyme leaves, a pinch of salt and a good grinding of black pepper. Add the vegetables and cheese to the bowl and give it a stir to combine.

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Mix flour, parsnip, cheese, onions, salt and pepper in a large bowl

Then whisk an egg with three tablespoons of milk, pour onto the dry ingredients and stir until you have quite a loose dough. Don’t overmix – it will stay a little craggy. Shape the dough into a rough ball and place on the baking tray.

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Add beaten egg and milk to bind to a soft dough

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Shape into a bowl and place on baking parchment

Using a sharp knife or a bread scraper, cut half-way down the dough to make a cross (don’t cut all the way through). Dust with a little flour and then bake for 40 minutes or so, until risen, golden and hollow-sounding with tapped.

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Make deep crosses with a knife or metal bread scraper, then bake

You’ll open the oven door to find this crunchy-topped light savoury loaf. Leave it to cool for a few minutes but have this warm, maybe with soup, and definitely with lots of butter! It doesn’t keep brilliantly so try to eat it the loaf in one sitting.

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Parsnip and cheddar soda bread

Recipe adapted from River Cottage Every Day.

Courgette, fennel and lemon pickle

We snuck away for a late summer holiday last weekend, albeit one that felt distinctly autumnal. The Lake District in September lies on the cusp of the seasonal turn, with golden bracken, reddening leaves and low afternoon sun. We had a day of culture in the brilliant Blackwell Arts & Crafts house, then a day of fresh air in the Borrowdale valley. Matt was transfixed by agile fleet-footed fell runners…and I reflected that love makes you do strange things (a few years ago I never would have gone out of my way to watch a running race).

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Fell-racing in Borrowdale

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Sheep amidst an abandoned mine building

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Water heads down the fell

I am grateful for the newly chilly days. It’s not cold as such, but the dreadful heaviness of August has been replaced with a more sprightly energy. On the allotment, the courgette glut has slowed down and the tomatoes are pretty much over, though there’s no end in sight to the late summer blooms.

In this September is-it-summer-or-is-it-autumn period, cooks and gardeners traditionally get down to pickling, chutneying and jamming, an activity that does indeed deal with the immediate problem of gluts – except that, in our house, we struggle to make a dent on even a few jars of preserves. I have several pints of ‘glutney’ from several years ago gathering dust in the bottom cupboard; they’ve now moved house twice. Undeterred, I still rustle up a few jars every year, transfixed by the knowledge that veg/fruit + sugar + vinegar = longlife food.

Anyone who eats out regularly knows that there’s a new fashion for pickles, inspired by the Scandi food craze. The fresh crunch of raw, pickled vegetable is everywhere, from a gherkin on your dirty burger to the chili-spiked carrot that adorned the pastrami bagel I enjoyed in Rotterdam back in May. Pickles are so much easier than chutneys or jams – there’s no boiling or finding setting points, it’s merely a question of brining some veg, making a vinegar-sugar pickling liquor, adding one to the other and hey presto, job done.

So when the courgettes were in full glut mode a few weeks back, I got busy making this fennel, lemon and chilli scented pickle. First I cleaned and sterilised my Kilner jars by washing in soapy water, rinsing, then putting them in a hot oven (200c) for 20 minutes. In the meantime, I chopped courgettes into batons, tossed them in salt and left them to drain for two hours.

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Take courgettes and a jar…

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Salt the courgette batons and leave to drain

Loads of water comes out of the courgettes, meaning that the end pickle has a pleasing crunch. The salt also begins the preserving process on the veg.

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Alot of liquid will seep out…

The courgettes were then rinsed and drained on kitchen paper to remove any excess water.

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Rinse and drain the courgettes

Now for the fun bit: the liquor, which both preserves and flavours the pickle. I used white wine vinegar, sugar (not shown), fennel seeds, lemon juice and peel, garlic and a red chilli.

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White wine vinegar, fennel seeds, red chilli, garlic and lemon

Simply heat the sugar, vinegar and lemon juice until just boiling, so that the sugar dissolves.

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Heat the vinegar, lemon juice and sugar

In the meantime, push the courgettes into the jar along with the fennel seeds, lemon peel, whole garlic (no need to peel) and the whole chilli. The hot liquor is poured over the top, pop the lid on and that’s it! The pickle cools in the jar and is then stored for a month or two to soften the vinegar flavour. I’ll report back in a few weeks as to if it’s any good or not…

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Pour the hot liquor onto the courgettes along with the fennel, garlic and lemon peel, then leave to cool

Courgette, fennel and lemon pickle

500g or thereabouts small courgettes

25g sea salt

250ml white wine vinegar

65g granulated sugar

1 red chilli (or more if you like it hot)

1 unwaxed lemon, juice and pared peel

1 tbsp fennel seeds

3 garlic cloves, unpeeled

1 or 2 Kilner jars or jam jars

First prep your Kilner jars: wash them thoroughly, rinse, then put into a hot oven for 200c for about 20 minutes.

Trim the courgettes and chop into sizeable batons. Toss them in the salt and leave to drain in a colander for at least two hours. Rinse under the cold tap then drain on kitchen paper.

In a small pan, heat the sugar, lemon juice and vinegar until the sugar has dissolved and it is just boiling. Remove from the heat. Layer the courgettes in your jar(s) with the fennel seeds, garlic, lemon peel and chilli. Pour the hot liquor over the top to cover the veg. Give the jar a tap to get rid of any air bubbles, put the lid on and leave to cool.

Leave for at least a month in a dark place before eating. Will last for months.

Bengali egg curry

Finally, our dahlias have come into their own. Labyrinth is particularly showy, with massive dinner-plate sized heads in sunset pink shades. Picked with the hot pink zinnia, they give a late summer holiday vibe to the vase.

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Dahlia and zinnia in sunset shades

Meanwhile the aubergines are ripe for picking, their glossy black skins looking beautiful against the red and yellow bowl of tomatoes.

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Greenhouse tomatoes and aubergines, looking gorgeous

It’s not just me who is harvesting: Matt carried out a late-night mission to remove the hopolisk, catching the hop corns at their perfect ripeness. He now has several trays of papery hops drying in his workshop and the pungent “aroma” is filling the room. (For the uninitiated, hops and cannabis are part of the same family. They both stink.) You actually need a bare handful of hops to make a good quantity of beer, so the fate of all these beauties remains unknown.

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Matt’s hops are now drying in the workshop

But enough of all the growing; let’s do some eating. Last weekend our friend Tune came round to cook up an Indian feast; Tune’s from Calcutta and is the most reliable source of proper Bengali home-cooking.

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Tune, our star guest chef!

Star of our Sunday vegetarian menu was this egg curry. EGG CURRY? Yes I know that sounds weird, but it’s dead good. Apparently back home in Calcutta egg curry is a regular ‘kiddie tea’, in the way that we might get beans on toast, and this makes sense: it’s inexpensive, full of protein and fibre, not too spicy and very straightforward. It does take a bit of time to make, of course, but none of the stages are too strenuous. Most importantly, it tastes great. Why can’t we get food like this in the local ‘Indian’ restaurants?

First, toss a few hard boiled eggs and diced potato in salt and turmeric.

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Toss hardboiled eggs and diced potatoes in salt and turmeric

The eggs are fryed in a splash of vegetable oil, in a wok or karahi. They will go vaguely crispy on the outside, which gives a nice texture to the finished dish and also helps to firm them up a little. Once the eggs are browned, the potatoes are treated the same way and cooked until half-done, then set both to one side whilst we make the sauce.

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Fry the eggs in a little vegetable oil

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Do the same with the spuds until they are half cooked

Next we need to get a couple of onions and whizz them up in the food processor to a proper puree. Sizzle some ground cumin, coriander and chilli powder in the pan, then dump in the onion mix along with garlic, ginger and bay leaves. Next is the important bit: it needs cooking down down down and can’t be rushed – it needs at least 15 minutes before we get to the next stage. Keep the heat low and give it a stir every now and then.

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Fry onion puree with garlic, ginger, bay and spices

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It needs to be REALLY cooked down, so don’t rush it. 15 minutes later, it looks like this.

Once the onions are heavily reduced, add a few chopped tomatoes (tinned is fine) and once again we have to reduce and cook it down. This lengthy pre-cooking stage helps turn the curry from a raw, runny, watery mess to a deeply flavoured, rich delight. Cook the mixture down until the oil begins to separate from the puree – it may take another 10 minutes or more.

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Add a few tomatoes and cook down even further, until the oil separates

Once the base sauce is ready, return the eggs and potatoes to the pan along with a splash of water, gently stir to combine, then cook through until the potatoes are soft.

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Put the eggs and potatoes back, along with a splash of water

And that is it! Simply finished with a sprinkle of coriander, then serve with rice or roti and a side vegetable or two.

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Cook the potatoes through and add chopped coriander to finish

Egg curry is one of the best vegetarian dishes you’ll find. The eggs have a firm yet creamy texture, the potatoes give substance and the onion-tomato sauce manages to be light, rich and comforting all at the same time. We enjoyed ours along with sag paneer (with home-grown spinach), rice, roti and an awesome salad made from sprouted mong beans – but that’s a recipe for another day.

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Egg curry, served with steamed rice and sag paneer

Bengali egg curry

Serves 4. Recipe courtesy Tune Roy.

8 hardboiled eggs

1 large floury potato, peeled and diced into sizeable chunks

large pinch salt

1 tsp turmeric

2 large onions

large ‘thumb’ of ginger

3 large garlic cloves

1 heaped tsp ground cumin

1 small tsp ground coriander

1/2 tsp ground chilli, or to taste (leave it out if you don’t like heat)

2 bay leaves

2 large tomatoes, diced, or about 200g tinned chopped tomatoes

water

Coriander leaf, to finish

vegetable oil, for frying

Toss the eggs and potatoes with the turmeric and salt. Heat a tablespoon of oil in a wok or karahi, then fry the eggs over a medium heat until they are golden and vaguely crisp. Remove the eggs. Fry the potatoes in the same oil over a low heat until they are half cooked, about 5 minutes. Remove the potatoes and set to one side. There’s no need to wash the pan out.

Whizz the onions, garlic and ginger in a food processor until you reach a very fine puree (you may need to do this in batches, depending on the size of your machine).

On a low heat, fry the cumin, coriander and chilli for a few seconds, then add the onion mixture to the pan. Add the bay leaves. Cook down on a low heat for about 15 minutes, until thick and heavily reduced. Add the tomatoes and cook down again for 10 to 15 minutes, until the oil separates from the vegetable mixture. It will look darker and may begin to stick to the pan.

Add the eggs and potatoes back to the pan with a splash of water, stir to combine and cook on a low heat until the potatoes are cooked through, around 10 minutes. The sauce should be thick enough to cover the eggs but loose enough to scoop with some bread, so add more water as you need to get the right consistency. Finish with chopped coriander leaf.

Raspberry vinaigrette

The sunflowers have gone mental. It’s a jungle out there – take a look at the contrast between the littlest and largest heads.

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Little and large

I saw whole sunflower heads being sold as bird food this week at an eye-watering price. But there’s no need for such extravagance: I’ve been saving up my heads and once they’ve dried, will string them up to hang in the garden. Next to them on the drying rack are the first ornamental squash – green rather than my preferred orange, though do I enjoy their exuberant striping.

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Seedheads and squash, the harbingers of autumn

It’s been a good summer for cut-flowers – here’s me with an armful of sunflowers and cosmos.

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An armful of blooms

But I have a feeling that the real bumper crop this year will be raspberries. Our autumn canes are heaving with swelling, ripening fruit. Currently I’m picking three punnets a week but give it a fortnight and, frankly, I will be overwhelmed.

A small punnet of berries is just enough to try out this raspberry vinaigrette, a recipe that I earmarked in the Jamie Magazine a few weeks ago and have only just got around to trying.

Raspberry salad dressing?! Really? Yes! At once sweet, sharp, fresh and warming, this one is a winner.

First, you heat red wine vinegar, water and sugar with the merest pinch of coriander and cumin. The original recipe calls for whole spices, and I am sure this would be better, but I only had ready-ground coriander and so that is what I used.

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Heat vinegar with cumin, coriander, sugar and water

The hot vinegar is poured onto raspberries and left to sit for an hour. The liquor turns colour from a vague peach to glorious, lurid pink.

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Leave the raspberries to macerate for an hour

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After an hour…lurid pink!

Then you whisk in some olive oil, and that’s it! Easy as anything.

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Whisk in olive oil and you have raspberry vinaigrette

Raspberries have a complicated flavour base, at once sweet, sharp and tangy, and as a result they work surprisingly well in savoury dishes. Use this dressing to offset the heat of mustardy salad leaves (mizuna, rocket, mustard) or, once the weather gets a little colder, it would be divine with rare grilled venison or duck, or even smoked meats. Plus it’s pretty, so what’s not to like?

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Pair it with mustard leaves or with game or smoked meats

Raspberry vinaigrette

Adapted from recipe by Robbin Holmgren in Jamie Magazine, July 2016

65g raspberries (fresh or defrosted)

Salt

15ml red wine vinegar

40ml water

7g caster sugar

10 whole coriander seeds, or a scant quarter teaspoon ground coriander

5 cumin seeds

25ml olive oil

Toss the raspberries in a small pinch of salt and leave to sit for twenty minutes or so. In a small saucepan, heat the vinegar, sugar, water, coriander and cumin until it comes to the boil. Pour the liquid over the raspberries and leave to macerate for an hour or more. Whisk in the olive oil and decant into a jar. Will keep for about 1 month in the fridge.

Kefir

For the last week there’s been a new pet in the house. Or rather, a few million new pets. Bacteria and yeast, in fact. Lactobacillus demand daily feeding and changing – but will repay your efforts by providing a fridge-full of the trendiest health food of the day: kefir.

Now I had heard of kefir before last week, but didn’t really know what it was. I had popped to see my old yoga teacher, Annette, and she thrust a jar of kefir grains into my hands along with some glorious photocopied instructions on how to keep them alive (clue: don’t use UHT milk).

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The little jar of kefir as it arrived home from Malvern

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Plus the instructions!

A quick Google later told me a few things. Kefir is a fermented milk product, a bit like thin yoghurt in taste and consistency, that originated in the Caucasus mountains. Like so many peasant foods, it came about as a means of preserving fresh goods: fresh cow, goat or sheep milk was fermented to make it last that little bit longer. My favourite fact is that traditionally the kefir was kept in a sheep’s bladder hanging in a doorway and whoever walked past it was expected to give it a squeeze to keep the contents from settling. Marvellous stuff.

Fast forward a few hundred years, and the current fad for clean eating has given kefir a rise in popularity. The reason is that the fermenting bacteria and yeasts convert the lactose in milk into lactic acid, which makes it lots easier to digest. If you’re sensitive to dairy, you’ll probably be OK with kefir. Various other internet reports claim that it will solve your gut issues, cure your depression, clear up eczema and even bring you back to life from the point of death.

And whilst I don’t know about that, I do know that playing with your food is a great past-time, particularly when microbes are involved. Keeping kefir alive is akin to making sourdough or cheese: it’s a mysterious, mystical process. Here’s what you do:

First, get yourself some kefir ‘grains’. This is the culture of yeast and bacteria that will ferment the milk. They look like jellied cauliflower florets and you can get hold of them in health food shops and online.

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The ‘grains’ look like jellied cauliflower

Next, put the kefir grains into a jar with fresh, whole milk. The instructions say organic milk, and who am I to argue? Cover the jar with some kind of permeable lid (to allow air to get through; I used kitchen towel secured with a hair-bobble) and place it in a warm place for at least 12 hours to do its thing.

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They sit in milk at room temperature for 12 hours or so, fermenting as they go

After about 12 hours, the kefir will have separated into curds and whey and is ready to be strained. Give it a stir and then ease it through a sieve, being careful not to squash the grains.

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Kefir ready to be strained

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Strain out the grains to use again. The liquid at the bottom is kefir.

The grains can be used again with fresh milk, or stored in a dormant state in the fridge until you’re ready to make more kefir.

The kefir itself resembles watery yoghurt – it reminds me of the type of yoghurt that you find in proper Indian restaurants. It has a slight grain to it and a sour, faintly-vinegary smell, but it tastes much nicer than it sounds.

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Store your kefir in the fridge and drink as is or use in place of yoghurt or buttermilk in recipes

You can drink kefir as it is, or use as I have, on top of fruit and sweetened with a dollop of honey. It can also be used in place of buttermilk in cooking, though of course the heat will kill off all the ‘good’ bacteria that are meant to be so good for your tummy.

I don’t know how long this latest food fad will last but for now, it’s a fun new addition to the kitchen.

Hot smoked salmon & spinach tart

I’ve been re-reading Alice B Toklas’ Murder in the Kitchen, the most brilliant compendium of food writing. Although her book was written in Nazi-occupied France, the murder in question is not war-related, but refers to the dispatching of pigeons, carp and the occasional duck that wandered into the kitchen. (A stiff drink and a few cigarettes is recommended for the murderer-cook.) Toklas was lover, muse, confidante and critic to friend-of-the-artists Gertrude Stein, and she learns to tiptoe around the artistic sensibilities of their famous visitors. A baked striped bass is chilled and then topped with colour-blocks of red mayonnaise, green parsley and the chopped whites and yolks of hard boiled eggs. Picasso, whilst appreciating the effort to create this masterpiece, says “But better for Matisse, no?!”*

This story came to mind because I attended an art dinner this week at Grand Union, the gallery and studio space in Digbeth, and I thought what a hard lot artistic people are to cook for. All credit to the brave chef! They’re a hard lot to please full stop. I’ve been helping Matt to prepare a new exhibition gallery and studios, upstairs from his workshop. He wasn’t impressed with my sanding but I think I passed the painting test, just about…

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Furniture and ceramics in Matt’s new gallery space

But back to matters of food and gardening. The hot weather has had a brilliant effect on the slugs: they’ve sloped off out of the sun. Great news. In their absence the beans and brassicas are rejuvenating, and the spinach and chard are leafing up nicely. I’m getting several bunches of sweet peas, cosmos, calendula and lavender a week, though the ammi is a bit drab this year. Oh – and the sunflowers are beginning to make their sunny brash presence known.

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July harvest of sweetpeas, potatoes, lettuce, courgette and stick beans

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The sunflowers are opening…all 24 of them

I don’t know if it’s the inspiration of Alice B. Toklas, or the sunny weather, or the allotment bounty that’s now arriving, but I’ve been lusting after doing some Proper Cooking. Yesterday I baked up a batch of hot smoked salmon and spinach tarts – a perfect light summer supper. The inspiration for these is a salmon and broccoli flan that my Mum used to get from Sainsbury’s in the 1980s, when we were kids. It had pale pastry and a deep eggy middle, and I loved it. This is a grown-up version for 2016 – I’ve substituted the broccoli for spinach, as that’s what I grow.

First things first, get yourself some decent smoked salmon. I used a roasted smoked salmon but regular (raw) cuts would work too – they’re going to be baked after all.

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Roast smoked salmon

Next, make a shortcrust pastry in the usual way. I used half-butter half-lard, like I was taught at school, as it makes for the shortest, crispest pastry. Bake the tart cases blind until the bases have dried out and are lightly golden. Incidentally, despite making pastry for years, mine always comes out wonky; it’s something I’ve learned to live with.

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Blind bake your pastry to get a good crisp bottom

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My pastry always goes wonky, no matter how hard I try…

For the filling, soften some spring onions in a touch of olive oil, and blanch the spinach in boiling water until it collapses. My spinach came from the allotment and is sturdy (I only used five or six leaves) but the supermarket stuff is more inclined to dissolve to mush so you’ll need a bit more. Be sure to drain it really, really well – squeeze all the liquid out with your hands – else you’ll end up with a soggy tart.

Spread the spinach, onions and salmon over the tart bases, then top with a savoury custard made from whisked eggs, cream and milk. Then it’s a question of baking until golden and puffy – but with a little wobble in the middle.

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Fill with salmon, spinach and spring onions before pouring on the custard and baking

I made four small and one large tart. The small ones make for a dainty summer starter and they’ve gone in the freezer for another day. Serve the tarts warm or at room temperature, with a mustard-spiked salad.

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Baked until golden and puffy

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Smoked salmon & spinach tarts

Hot smoked salmon & spinach tart

Makes 1 6-inch and 4 individual tarts, or 1 large 12-inch tart

Pastry:

400g plain flour

100g salted butter

100g lard

Iced water

Filling:

About 200g roast smoked salmon

5-6 sturdy allotment spinach leaves, or a bag of shop-bought leaves

5-6 spring onions, sliced

Olive oil

3 eggs

200ml double cream

200ml milk

salt & pepper

First, make your pastry. Rub the butter and lard into the flour, add sufficient cold water to make a pliable dough, then cover and rest it in the fridge for an hour or two. Pre-heat the oven to 190c. Use the pastry to line your cases; leave an overhang if you can, to allow for shrinkage. Line with baking parchment and baking beads and bake blind for about 15 minutes, until the base is set. Remove the paper and beads and continue cooking for a further 5 minutes (for individual tarts) or 10-15 minutes for larger tarts, until the pastry is lightly golden. Leave the tart shells to cool and then trim the edges with a serrated knife if they need it.

For the filling, blanch the spinach in boiling water for 30 seconds then drain well. When cool, squeeze all the liquid out with your hands, then finely slice. Soften the spring onions in a little oil. Flake the salmon. Mix the fish and vegetables together and fill each of the tart cases.

Make a custard by whisking the eggs, cream and milk together with pepper and a little salt (not too much as the fish is salty).

Decrease the oven to 160c. Place the tart shells, still in their metal tins, on a baking sheet (this makes moving them around much easier). Pour in the custard to near the top, then bake for 15 minutes (individual tarts) and 30 minutes (larger tarts). They should be golden and puffed but still with slight wobble. Cool for 15 minutes or more before serving.

* If this makes no sense, I’ll explain: Matisse was famous for his colour-block works of art.

Broad bean salad with mint

In these tumultuous times that we live in, I question if it’s frivolous to spend one’s time writing about food (and worrying about slugs). New government, a crumbled opposition, terrorism, revolution, environmental catastrophe – are we all doomed? And yet I’ve learned that in order to keep a clear head, it’s important to keep your feet firmly rooted to the ground. Immerse yourself in what’s real and meaningful, whether that’s feeding your family well or being kind to a neighbour. The world, and the happiness of people living on it, is determined not just from the big news events, but by everyone doing small things to improve our lot.

I’ve been asked a lot lately if we’ll be going on a summer holiday. Not likely, given that I’ve just sunk my life savings into this house. So day trips it is, not that they’re any cheaper, and yesterday took us to Chatsworth. They were gearing up for a BBC 6 Music gig later in the evening, so we mooched around the kitchen garden accompanied to the funk grooves of Craig Charles, Mica Paris and Lemar. And what a kitchen garden it is… bed upon bed of greens, brassicas, beans, redcurrant bushes dripping with fruit – and that’s before we got on to the cutting garden.

I aspire to this many slug-free greens

I aspire to this many slug-free greens

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The cutting garden at Chatsworth

Amidst the dahlias, sweet peas and roses stood this sea of delphiniums, majestic and proud. I’m inspired to give them a go next year on the allotment.

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A sea of delphiniums

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Nursery bed of crysanths. These will be spectacular in two months time!

Seeing this amazing veg patch, I can’t help but wish that this year’s allotment was better than it is. In my defence, it’s been a difficult summer (cold, gloomy, wet) and we’re under a siege of slugs. For the latter, I have finally succumbed to chemical warfare and now the beans, brassicas and greenhouse resemble an attack from the slime monster in Ghostbusters. Is it too late to make any difference? Time will tell.

But the harvest is coming: this week I’ve made the first blackcurrant ice-cream of the year (Matt’s favourite, recipe here: http://notesfromthevegpatch.com/blackcurrant-ice-cream/) and there’s a bowl of crisp lettuce with every meal.

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Blackcurrant swirl ice-cream

But star of the show currently are the broad beans, half-way through their season and still small enough to need a quick simmer and a sharp dressing. This bean and mint salad is popping up on our table again and again: serve it hot, warm or at room temperature with grilled meats or as part of a veggie spread. To make it more substantial, tear in a ball of mozzarella or crumble in some salty feta.

Broad bean salad with mint
serves 2

Broad beans in their pods – about a colander-full

Really good extra virgin olive oil

1 clove of garlic, finely chopped

Fistful of fresh mint leaves, chopped (you could also add hyssop, parsley or tarragon)

1 lemon, zest and juice

Salt and pepper

Optional: Mozzarella, feta or shaved parmesan

First, pod your beans, preferably in a chair overlooking the garden. Bring a pan of water to the boil, simmer the beans for about 5 minutes then drain well. If they’re big they may need to be double-podded.

In the same pan, gently warm a good glug of olive oil, then chuck in the garlic. It needs to putter in the oil but not really fry; we’re after a good whack of garlic flavour here. Keeping the heat low, throw your beans into the pan and toss to coat in the oil. Add the herbs, lemon zest and salt and pepper, and toss a little more. Lastly, squeeze in some lemon juice to finish your dressing.

Serve hot, warm or cold, perhaps with some mozzarella, feta or shaved parmesan.

Pad Thai (sort-of)

“In a world where everything is upside down and nothing is certain, you can still rely on the fact that if you whip chocolate with cream, it will get thick”.

Or words to that effect. This quote from that well-known film about post-industrial political crises – Julie and Julia – rang true this week. (If you don’t know this film, it’s actually a light-weight comedy about the American food writer Julia Child.) Since last week’s vote myself, all my friends, all my colleagues, are glued to the news sites. Politics has never felt so real, so compelling, so important. All those who have claimed that Politics is Dead have shown themselves to be sadly misinformed.

Great Britain have weathered crises before, and so shall we now. If the turmoil of this week is a shock, then imagine what it is to watch your country disintegrate to such a level that your money is lost overnight, you must abandon your home, leave your family: that’s the daily reality of many people in this world. Some of them appeared on Farage’s infamous campaign poster… just food for thought.

Amidst the upheaval, we can at least find comfort in food. Or at least cooking. This may sound crass but actually, I think the will to break bread with your neighbour is one of the most powerful political gestures that can be made. Food is a compelling cultural symbol and it can break-down barriers. Are we not the country that has embraced curry? Croissant? Burgers, pasta, pizza, couscous…dammit even pomegranate molasses. The Brits absorb food cultures and turn them into something new, and are all the richer for it. Let’s keep on looking outwards rather than looking in.

This week I popped to the Oriental Supermarket (it is actually called that) and picked up a few goodies – super-long spring onions, beansprouts, noodles and tofu. TOFU?! Yes, I used to think it was disgusting too, but then I learnt to deep-fry it and turn it into Pad Thai.

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Goodies from the Oriental Supermarket (actual name)

Pad Thai is a stir-fried noodle dish from – you guessed it – Thailand, which is rich with omelette, tofu, chicken or shell-fish and drenched in a tamarind-rich sweet & sour sauce. Food writers often describe Pad Thai as being ‘quick’ and ‘easy’. To be clear, it is neither. To make Pad Thai is a faff, requiring thousands of ingredients, but it’s worth it because it’s so damn tasty.

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My version of Pad Thai. It is not authentic by any means, but it tastes good.

I use a recipe that I’ve bastardised from The Hairy Bikers – I’ve never been to Thailand so make no claims to authenticity, but I do make claims for deliciousness. Authentic Pad Thai has pickled turnip in it and very few veggies – if you’re interested in the real deal, take a look at this post on Use Real Butter.

Pad Thai (sort-of)

Serves 2-4. Adapated from The Hairy Bikers’ recipe in The Telegraph

First, make your omelette. Whisk 2 large eggs with 1 tbsp Thai fish sauce and a few slices of spring onion. Heat an omelette pan with a splash of sunflower oil, slide in the eggs and cook gently until firm. Set the omelette aside on a plate to cool, then slice into strips.

Next, prep your tofu. I use 1 packet of firm tofu. Wrap it in kitchen paper and place it underneath something heavy for five minutes to drain – a can of beans or similar – and then cut into cubes. Heat a wok with several centimetres of sunflower oil and deep-fry the tofu until browned – you may need to do this in batches. Drain on more kitchen paper. Don’t miss this step as it makes your tofu change from ‘yuk’ to ‘yum’. Drain the hot oil from your wok and clean out any burnt tofu bits, ready for stir-frying.

Let’s get some noodles going. Flat rice noodles are the thing here. Cook a portion according to your packet instructions, drain and refresh under cold water. (I only had round noodles so that’s what in the picture.)

Next prep the veg. Slice 1 banana shallot, chop 2 cloves of garlic, slice 1 lemongrass stalk and 2 red chillies and grate a knob of fresh ginger. If you like green things, as I do, you could also slice a few broccoli florets, spinach leaves, courgette, or anything with a bit of crunch. Get ready a handful or two of beansprouts, some fresh basil and maybe some coriander.

The recipe goes on. Let’s make our sauce: stir 2 tbsp of Thai fish sauce with 2 tbsp soft brown sugar (or palm sugar if you have it), 1 tsp tamarind paste and a splash of hot water.

At this point you could also prep some raw king prawns or slice a chicken breast. Or simply keep it veggie.

Now let’s get cooking. Get your wok on a high-heat, slosh in some sunflower oil and toss in the shallots. Stir-fry for a few seconds before adding the ginger, chilli, lemongrass and garlic. If you’re using chicken or prawns, add them now and cook for a minute or two, until nearly cooked through. Add the rest of the vegetables, keep the heat high, stir and cook until they soften slightly, then pour in the sauce, letting it bubble up. Gently stir in the tofu, omelette and noodles, and cook through for a minute or two until it looks ‘done’. Stir in the herbs right at the end.

Serve up your Pad Thai straight away with a few slices of lime and perhaps some chopped roasted peanuts, for crunch.

Tune’s carrot salad

On Sunday we awoke to find a young fox sprawled on the back lawn, enjoying a morning kip. To begin with I thought it was dead but then it’s ears twitched, annoyed at the bug that was hovering around its head. Matt tapped on the window and the fox sprang to its feet and stared directly at us with crystal clear eyes before hopping over the back fence with nonchalant ease. It was a majestic, mesmerising creature.

The city is full of wildlife and some encounters make me catch my breath in joy. Others, alas, make me stamp my feet in irritation. Something low-slung and snuffly has been at the strawberries – they’ve already been infested with woodlouse but this week’s visitor was significantly larger, squashing some plants, chowing down the red berries and tossing unripe fruit around the bed.

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Evidence of a snuffling strawberry thief

The slugs and bugs are still rampant. This week has seen the first dahlia, calendula and even crysanthemum come into bloom – and every single one of these has been nibbled. But let’s look on the bright side: blooms this early bode well for a summer-long harvest.

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First dahlia of the year – and it’s already been nibbled

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The calendula have flowered with tones of peach, orange and red

Last week I wrote about the failed carrot sowings and it is then with some masochism that I give you today’s recipe – an Indian carrot salad that at first glance sounds dull as anything but is in fact AMAZING.

My friend Tune taught me with this dish a few years ago and now, everytime I make Indian food, it’s a given that this salad will form part of the feast. Tune was raised in Calcutta and is the best cook I know: when she gives you a recipe, you take note. To make her carrot salad, you temper whole spices in ghee before piling in grated carrot, coconut and cashew nuts, stir-fry them for a scant few minutes – and that’s it. Easy as anything. The carrots absorb the spiced oil and somehow manage to both toast and soften at the same time, whilst the coconut and cashews lend some texture. It’s light, so it’s a great accompaniment to steaming bowl of rich rogan josh, but packs a punch of flavour and is also cheap as chips. Or perhaps cheap as carrots.

This is best made with fresh curry leaves, which you can buy from Indian food shops or online (try spicesofindia.co.uk), but dried will do if that’s all you have. If you don’t like the heat then leave the chilli out.

Tune’s Carrot Salad 

Serves two as part of a meal, with leftovers

Oil or ghee, for frying

1 tsp black mustard seeds

Pinch of dried Kashmiri chilli flakes or whole dried chilli (optional)

Pinch of curry leaves

2 or 3 good sized carrots, peeled and grated

Heaped tablespoon of desiccated or shaved coconut

Heaped tablespoon of cashew nuts

Heat an Indian karahi (cooking pan) or a frying pan over a medium heat. Add the oil or ghee, then add the mustard seeds, chilli and curry leaves. Fry until the mustard seeds start to pop, then pile in the grated carrot. Stir fry for a minute or so until the carrot begins to soften, then add the coconut and cashews. Continue to stir and cook for two more minutes – you could add a splash of water if it looks like it might catch. When the carrots are softened but by no means mushy, remove from the heat. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve warm as part of an Indian meal with curry, rice or flatbreads.