Tuesday, 21 June 2011

A host of new recipes - yum!

Strawberry cheesecake muffins
It's been a busy couple of weeks in the kitchen, with a number of firsts in the baking and preserving department.

Strained juice and sugar for the jelly
Thanks to our prolific strawberry crop, I've made my first batch of strawberry cheesecake muffins (see above) for the year as well as my first ever strawberry preserve - a strawberry and apple jelly. I made this using four granny smiths apples and 500g of our strawberries. I simmered the fruit in two different pans with the required amounts of water (just cover the apples, 150ml for the strawberries) for about an hour. This was then drained through a muslin overnight to produce 250ml of combined juice. I then boiled this up with 180g of sugar (half caster sugar and half jam sugar) to achieve my shiny, red jelly.

Blackcurrant jam and the (already half-used) strawberry jelly
We've had the first crop from our blackcurrant bush, planted last year. It netted us 275g of blackcurrants, which is pretty good on a two-year-old plant, so I made two jars of blackcurrant jam. Because I was making such a small quantity, the set is a bit firm, but I'll adjust this for next year. Hopefully, I'll be taking some hard cuttings from our bush in the autumn in order to propagate a couple more blackcurrants so that we can look forward to bumper crops in future years!

Flavouring the vodka for limoncello
I've also developed a bit of an addiction to craft and homestyle magazines at the moment. There's a host of new titles on the market this year, suggesting I'm not alone in rediscovering my love of making things - from cookery to craft. My current favourites are Making, Mollie Makes and Simply Homemade (although I gave Handmade Living a try too!). A recent issue of Simply Homemade had some great recipes using lemons which caught my eye. The first was for homemade limoncello, the well-known Italian liqueur which is a fantastic digestif served ice-cold and is my secret added ingredient when making Nigel Slater's lemon icecream tart with gingernut crust from the Kitchen Diaries. You can see the recipe at the jamjar shop website but it's a very similar process to making flavoured gins, like the raspberry gin we make in the autumn.

The second recipe attracted me because it made use of dill. Having decided to include dill in my herb garden, I confess to being a little at sea for exactly what to do with it, and so have been looking out for some interesting recipes. This one is for a  summery lemon and dill mustard; it was fantastically easy to make and would go well with fish dishes, as an alternative to mint in potato salad, or to english mustard in a ploughmans.

Half were drizzled with lemon icing and half with mint icing.
Finally, I've been planning to make some lemon and mint biscuits for ages, to take advantage of the applemint growing in the herb garden. It basically adapts a simple lemon biscuit recipe to include chopped mint and I used the lemon juice leftover from stage one of the limoncello to make some homemade lemon curd (thanks, Delia) which I then used as the lemon base. They've actually turned out surprisingly minty, so I think next time I'll add some lemon zest as well just to sharpen them up.

Lemon and mint biscuits
350g plain flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
140g butter, cut into small cubes
175g caster sugar
125g lemon curd
2 eggs, beaten
x2 large sprigs of mint, chopped into small pieces
*the zest of 1 lemon

1. Preheat the oven to 180 fan/200 C. Sift the flour, baking powder and bicarb into a large bowl.
2. Add the butter and rub to fine breadcrumbs.
3. Stir in the sugar, mint, lemoncurd and eggs (*and lemon zest). Shape the resulting dough into small balls and press them gently onto a greased baking sheet.
4. Bake for 12-15 minutes until light golden in colour.

You can then choose to ice your biscuits. I made up some mint-flavoured icing and some lemon-flavoured icing and did half-and-half.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

I love herbs!

The completed garden
I love herbs! I've always had a yen to try out my own herbal tonics and creams, etc and, of course, I love using them in cooking - both fresh and dry - and for years have had a pot of two on the windowsill. Unfortunately, these never seem to last too long (I'm not very good with indoor plants!) and so ever since we moved here I've been itching to develop my very own herb garden.

Well, having finally cleared the large brick-built raised beds near the house, I decided that the largest area would make a fantastic space for a herb garden. We already have an enormous lavender bush which we inherited with the house and the pergola area has been underplanted with some herbs in pots for a year now, but I wanted an area dedicated completely to herbs too. I did quite a lot of research into what herbs to grow - I wanted to have a good range of those I use regularly in cooking (basil, mint, rosemary, oregano), along with those that I tend to leave out because we don't need them very often and therefore never get round to buying (parsley, coriander and dill), some I don't use enough (chives, thyme and sage) and some new ones just to experiment with (summer savoury and tarragon). I also looked at various layouts for traditional gardens, but due to the nature of the space, have ended up with a version all my own.

preparing the space
1. Planning the space and preparing the ground. I'm not much of a one for detailed, to-scale plans (even though I have the graph paper, I just get too excited and impatient!) so I sketched out my idea in a notebook. I wanted to take the idea of a herb wheel and apply it to the rectangular space, with the main planting in the wheel bordered by some of the bushier herb varieties. I wanted an actual cartwheel to plant into (it's amazing what you can find on ebay), but when it came to it, couldn't find any big enough for the space, so had to adapt my design based on using two smaller wheels instead - one for herbs with a mainly culinary use and the other for medicinal/home/craft use. The main preparation once the bed was cleared of the old shrubs, involved digging it over, covering it with weed-proof membrane and then placing the wheels.

2. The new layout has three planting areas: the wheels, the curved corner areas and some terracotta pots. Once I'd worked out what herbs I wanted, I ordered some as plants and some as seeds (to keep costs down). We bought two terracotta pots from the garden centre and we inherited a third which came with the garden.

3. Planting up the wheels. Each wheel has twelve spaces between the spokes, so I decided to plant six herbs per wheel, with each herb allotted two spaces. The only exception to this are my chives, where I have one space for common chives and one space for garlic chives. The wheels are planted up as:

Wheel 1: Culinary

  • Chives (common and garlic)
  • Summer savoury
  • French tarragon
  • Coriander
  • Apple mint
  • Oregano

Wheel 2: Medicinal/Household/Craft
  • Chamomile
  • Borage
  • Calendula
  • Feverfew
  • Hyssop
  • Herb robert

One of my corner borders is a selection of thymes (common, lemon and creeping) and the other is made up from taller herbs (dill, rosemary (two varieties), sage and flat-leaved parsley). Finally, two of the three pots hold goji berry bushes and the third is a sweet bay. Elsewhere in the garden we've lemon balm, lavender (as mentioned), black peppermint and more rosemary, hyssop, tarragon and thyme.

tall herbs in the left corner
thymes in the right corner
4. Finishing touches. The finishing touches included covering the weed-proof membrane with gravel and placing the terracotta pots.

It's so exciting to be able to nip out and pick my own fresh herbs to add to dishes, even at this stage when some of my plants aren't quite ready. We've had mint in a potato salad and with strawberries; coriander in a number of curry dishes, tarragon in a chicken dish and rosemary. I'm in the process of developing a recipe for mint and lemon biscuits (watch this space) and I'm sure the other herbs will come into their own over the next few weeks and months too.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Feed me!

I've been particularly excited recently as our high chair and feeding set have arrived for Izzy. She's four-and-a-half months old already and we'll soon be using them - doesn't time fly?!

Last week we attended a weaning class, run by our area Health Visitors in a local surgery. Babies at the class ranged in age from four to five-and-a-half months. The practice nurse started off the discussion by asking if anyone knew the government-recommended age for weaning babies. 'Six months' piped up someone from the other side of the room. 'Yes, it's really changed from my day, when people started weaning as young as three months. So, how many of you are weaning?' It turned out about two thirds of the people at the class have already given their baby solid foods, mostly baby rice or pureed fruit - even though they were fully aware of the government advice.

Now, I'm not one for believing everything the government tells me and I also firmly believe that as a parent I should be able to choose what feels right for myself and my child, without being made to feel guilty by the state, the health service or friends and family. Yet, I'm afraid I've got to ask: 'What is the rush?' Although many of these babies had good head and neck control none of them could sit unsupported. None of the mothers had been advised to wean for medical reasons. They'd just felt it was 'time', either based on conversations with friends and family, or the fact that their baby had started to show an interest in what they were eating, or had started waking in the night. It can be argued that none of these are truly 'signs' that a baby is ready to eat. He may just be showing an interest in you eating, because he learns all his social and physical cues from you. He may be waking in the night because something else is bothering him, or for no real reason at all. And just because someone else's baby is eating solids, or 'you were eating two meals a day when you were his age' doesn't mean that you should rush to catch up! Apparently the best sign that your baby is ready for solids is if his weight gain tails off for at least a couple of weeks (just one week could be the result of a cold, a growth spurt or some other factor).

After this somewhat leading opening, the class was then shown a DVD of the baby-led weaning method popularised by former midwife and health visitor, Gill Rapley. I'd already heard of this approach and as a result have actually read her book, but the DVD was a good summary of what I'd consider to be the main points:
  • don't offer any food until at least six months, when a baby's gross motor skills and digestion are better developed;
  • to start, offer baby food cut into easy-to-hold shapes;
  • initially they won't eat it at all - it's just a new game to them - but one that is developing their sense of taste, their chewing action and their ability to move food around their mouths;
  • be prepared for a mess and you won't be taken by surprise;
  • always eat with your baby, let them eat the 'meal' at their own pace and avoid trying to help them by picking food up and giving it to them or putting it in their mouths;
  • when they're starting to 'eat' more purposefully, give them a baby-sized portion of your meals (assuming you eat a healthy, balanced diet, the only thing you might need to change is the amount of salt you use in cooking).
Admittedly, both the DVD and the book I've read aim to 'sell' you the concept of baby-led weaning, and perhaps overstate the negatives of other weaning methods. (I'm sure most parents don't really shovel the pureed food into their babies' mouths but let them eat at their own pace). However, the principles seem to be fairly sensible, and the advice about starting out is definitely something we're planning to follow. Again, in brief:
  • once your baby is able to sit in his highchair, allow him to sit with you for family meals (or alternatively, sit him on your knee). At this stage, you might want to give him a spoon or plate to play with too;
  • if he seems interested, start offering him food from your plate;
  • when this interest becomes regular, give him his own food, cut into appropriate shapes with a 'handle' for him to grasp.
You can find out more about the full process via Gill Rapley's website.

The class were then given some information relating to more 'traditional' methods as well as a brief discussion of the DVD we'd just watched. It was really quite surprising to hear people ask questions about 'how long' babies should feed for when weaning, 'how many' meals to give them and 'how much' should they eat. The vast majority of these mothers have breastfed and are still breastfeeding, so surely they should be used to the idea that their baby will eat when and if he is hungry, and will take as much as he needs to satisfy himself? Trying to control how much your baby/toddler eats is surely a straight road to eating problems later on?

Personally, although I'm excited about her reaching this next stage, I'm prepared to wait until Izzy's ready. This is helped, somewhat, by the fact that I'd love her to mainly eat things that we've grown ourselves, and for that we need to wait until August/September for the bulk of our crops anyway. With little hands, mouths and stomachs in mind I'm hoping to get good crops from our runner beans, baby carrots, apples, raspberries, plums, brocolli, sweetcorn and globe courgettes in particular, for the finger food phase, before she moves on to joining in fully with our meals.