Sunday 22 June 2014

A Strawberry Sonata

I don't know whether there's a collective noun for strawberry-themed things. I feel perhaps there should be. In the absence of any obvious, recognised term, I've called this little strawberry celebration, "a strawberry sonata". Variations on a midsummer theme. 

The little crocheted strawberry above, nestling among the strawberries on my rather battered, Cath Kidston, strawberry oil-cloth tablecloth, is from this pattern. I love it and may now crochet a long chain from which to wear it round my neck*. Boho in aim, may be just cranky in reality! (*Done and dusted - see final pic now added in!) The tablecloth has seen better days. (This is a good bit of it.) It has never been quite the same since my month of parrot-sitting a couple of years ago and Raffles, my green African parrot visitor, thought it might make good eating. Only it didn't. Anyway back to my strawberry sonata:

First Movement: allegro. Strawberries, just as they are, from the fields down the road. None in the garden owing to the depredations of the naughty and greedy pigeons. When the berries are as ripe and as juicy as this, you must eat them quickly - they won't keep.

Second Movement: thema con variazioni - theme and variations on unadorned strawberry simplicity. More andante than allegro these, as they take more preparation time and last longer. 

1 Strawberry and cinnamon torte - strawberries are, of course, perfect on their own, when they are as sweet as they seem to be this year. Barely even need the addition of cream. But if you want to do something more with them, this torte is a delight. The recipe, originally published in BBC Good Food over a decade ago, in June 2002, has not deteriorated with age. The crumbly shortbread / pastry is a bit temperamental to get in place on top of the strawberries. I find it easiest to spoon it on in teaspoonful-sized dollops and them smudge the dollops together roughly with the flat blade of a blunt knife but don't bother to fuss over getting it too even - it will just clump together and refuse to cooperate. 

2 Strawberry jam. I used to find strawberry jam quite difficult to make. Tricky to get to set properly and so disappointing when you opened the precious jars, months down the line, hoping for a quick burst of summer sunshine in November or February, only to be greeted by a layer of green mould. Using jam-sugar which has added pectin in it, to boost the low pectin content of the strawberries, seems to have solved this problem. My last year's jam is still fine a year on, even my reduced sugar batch, but I couldn't resist making a few jars this year too.

This version above is plain strawberry, which is my favourite - made yesterday from fruit still warm from the sun. The version below has some raspberries in it to make up the weight after removing the green leafy hulls from the fruit. As it was destined for the local village fête last weekend, I felt I had better label it accurately before being had up by the trades description people, but it is predominantly strawberry and the small quantity of raspberries do no more than emphasise the strawberry taste. 

Third Movement: scherzo - something playful and a bit frivolous. Experimenting with drying a punnet of heavy, ripe fruit into brittle, fragrant fragments, light as air. A conceit perhaps, but not entirely a facetious one. I love strawberry muffins but they make the mixture very wet, veering towards soggy. Not good. So I thought I'd dry some and see if I couldn't obtain the strawberry flavour without the moisture. We'll see! You could add them to muesli or granola too if you like dried fruit in your breakfast cereal and don't have a history of picking all the raisins methodically out of boxes of Alpen, as a child in the 1970s, as, I regret to say, Mrs T did. 

Fourth Movement: a rondo finale. Because. Because I love the colours of strawberries from flower to fruit and where nature leads, art, or at least Mrs T's hooky craft, feels compelled to follow. I haven't really succumbed to mandala mania this summer, or not hitherto, perhaps I should say! More may follow - they are very soothing to hook up and having cut my left hand rather drastically while cutting up a resistant bulb of fennel on Friday with a disobedient knife, making more teensy-weensy hooky flowers for my Flower Festival Flower Arrangement is too awkward to manage at the moment. This pattern is Zelna Oliver's Sunny Flower Mini Mandala that you can find here. I have a use in mind for this that I think you might like but that's for a separate post.

Wishing you a happy strawberry Sunday (sundae) evening!
E x

PS Edited to add a pic of my new hooky strawberry necklace. It's had a few funny looks from the rest of the household but I like it! Simple crochet chain with slip stitches back into it all the way along and a few strategic stitches into the stalk of the strawberry. Voilà! A perfect summery accessory as far as I am concerned!

Wednesday 18 June 2014

Flowery Cooking and Hooking

This month is turning out to be rather flowery.

Outside, there are flowers everywhere - including gorgeous, deep pink, wild roses like these in the hedgerows

and the more flamboyant stripy ones in the garden, as well as my new delphiniums, that are supposed to be deep blue but have decided to turn out pink in sympathy with the roses. I have no idea why. Inside, I have flowers seething fragrantly and quietly in pots in the kitchen and flowers in my crochet baskets dropping off my hook, like gaudy blossoms after a rainstorm. All good.

The flowers in the kitchen are not roses but small quantities of purple chive flowers, added to wild green soup made from wild garlic, wild thyme, dandelion and jack-by-the-hedge leaves along with a (less wild) bunch of domesticated watercress - very good and packed with vitamins. Well, I don't know about vitamins in the flowers but certainly in the green stuff. Combining wild green leaves with milder cultivated ones works very well - makes the bought stuff go a lot further but you don't get the strong, bitter flavours of wild greens in too great a concentration. Unmuted by tamer leaves, they can be too much of a good thing in my experience.

And in rather larger quantity, elderflowers, which seem to be particularly profuse round here, this year and which I've been turning into elderflower cordial.

There are lots of recipes out there for this. All basic variations on the theme of steeped flowers, citrus rind and / or juice and a heavy sugar syrup. Some have citric or tartaric acid added to them to improve their keeping qualities. Some stick to the pure elegance of just lemons to partner the heavy, creamy elderflower perfume, others flirt with oranges as well, or limes. You can vary the type of sugar and the proportions but at the end of the day, whatever recipe you use will be delightful and with this kind of frugal, foraged food it's always better to use what you have, rather than slavishly go out of your way to replicate what you haven't, I think. So if you have oranges or limes in your fruit bowl but no lemons, use oranges or limes and if you run out of white sugar, use brown.

I've adapted a couple of recipes over the years and this amalgamated version of my own is what I usually come back to. Like to try it? Here it is. It's beautifully simple and tastes divine. Sweet and fragrant but also refreshing and light. Despite my sweet tooth, I don't like it, if it's overly sweet and cloying.

To make just over one and a half pints of finished cordial, you need:

fresh elderflowers - about eighteen flower heads on their stalks. You don't need to strip off all the little florets - the cordial is going to be strained through muslin so don't worry about the little stalks within the flower heads. Choose fresh-looking blossoms - some will be more open than others. Doesn't matter. Avoid any with predominately browning patches but the odd, rogue, browning floret won't matter nor will flower heads where some of the florets are still in bud.

As you snip and pick the flowers, gently shake them, before putting in your basket or colander, to dislodge tiny insects or any of those pale, jade-coloured spiders that like to make their camouflaged home among the elder's greeny-white parasols.

You're not going to wash the flowers - you'll lose half the scent like that - so it makes sense to pick the flowers away from a heavily-trafficked roadside. You are after the taste of a fragrant, English hedgerow here, not car exhaust fumes. Elder trees grow readily in the English countryside, in parks and on wasteland so you shouldn't find it too hard to locate a suitable tree, if you live in the UK.

two lemons - unwaxed ones

one and a half pounds (650 g) of sugar - ordinary, white, granulated sugar is my first choice but my second batch this month I made with demerara sugar because I'd run out of white and although the colour is less elegantly pale, the flavour is very good and has an attractive, slightly deeper, note to it.

one and a quarter pints (700 ml) water

What you do:

Place the flower heads, just as they are, in a large heat-proof bowl.

Get a potato peeler and peel off the lemon zest from both lemons in wide ribbons. Add to the flowers.

Squeeze the juice from the lemons and add to the bowl.

Put the sugar and water in a separate pan and bring to the boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Once the sugar is fully dissolved and the syrup boiling, remove from the heat and pour over the flowers. Stir gently.

Cover the bowl with a clean tea-towel and leave for twenty four hours or so.

The next day, line a sieve with a double layer of very clean muslin (or a new J-cloth) and place it over a large jug. Tip the perfumed, syrupy mixture into the lined sieve and allow it to drip through. Don't press the flower debris, just let it drip. It won't take long.

Pour the cordial (which is what it now is) into clean, sterilised bottles or plastic containers. Design a pretty label, if you wish.

It will keep, just as it is, for a week or two in the fridge. If you want to keep it longer than that, it''s best to freeze it or you can add an ounce (25 g) of citric acid to the mixture but the flavour is purer without it. I usually freeze what I don't need immediately in quantities of about three quarters of a pint (350 ml) in scrupulously clean, plastic tubs, the kind you sometimes get honey in. Label it though - it can look very much like chicken stock once it's frozen into an anonymous, frosty tub and your soup will not thank you for an unexpected splurge of flowered sweetness not to mention the affront you risk inflicting on your beautiful cordial of being unceremoniously tipped into a maelstrom of hot, sweating onions and olive oil!

Back to the (unfrozen) cordial you are going to use now. Sample it in a long glass, diluted with plenty of chilled, sparkling water, ice and perhaps a slice of fruit floating in it, if you so fancy. I like it with a couple of leaves of fresh mint myself.

Dilute the cordial to taste - I don't like it too strong and find one tablespoonful is enough in a half pint glass of water but this is purely personal taste. Works well diluted with still, or sparkling, white wine too, should you feel so inclined.

If the elderflowers are pale and interesting and have a certain aristocratic elegance about them, my hooky flowers are blowsy by comparison. A riot of shapes and colours jostling one another in a slightly uncouth way in a big basket.

They have come about because I don't know how to say "no". And I never seem to learn. Anyone else have this problem? A few months back I was asked if I would supply a flower arrangement for a village flower festival celebrating "Village Life in Flowers". It was January - bleak, wet and cold and the idea of footling about with fresh, summery flowers sounded pretty good so I said, "yes".

A little inner voice in my head reminded me that the appointed weekend at the end of June was already very busy with work and I wouldn't have a great deal of time running up to it, to do a lot extra. "You will get stressed about this, Mrs T." it said loftily. But I took no notice. What did my inner voice know about it? Quite a lot as it turned out! As the flower extravaganza moved from being safely in the long grass of months away, to something pressingly close in the diary, I wondered what particular form of idiocy had induced me to sign up for this. Mrs T is not a flower-arranger but a stick-a-bunch-in-a-jam-jar-kind-of-girl. "Stick-a-bunch-in-a-jam-jar won't be acceptable for this." said the smug, inner voice in my head, adding sotto voce, "I told you this was a bad idea at the time but you wouldn't listen!" OK, inner voice, touché! But what now?

After a bit of stressful to-ing and fro-ing with ideas, "What now" turned out to be what you may feel is "cheating"; I prefer "creative solution" myself! It has the advantage of being actually manageable instead of beyond my powers and unlike any fresh flower arranging, lends itself to advance preparation, namely a hazel wreath (a bigger version of my Easter one) festooned with crocheted, English, cottage-garden flowers - roses, sweet peas, marigolds, chrysanthemums, pinks, pansies, clematis, fuchsias, michaelmas daisies and a few peonies.

A lot of work has gone into these - there are fifty two blooms in total but it's been spread over a period of weeks and I have the peace of mind of knowing that there will not be a last-minute panic of tears, broken stems, wilting petals and wayward secateurs in the small hours, in a fortnight's time.

Sometimes lateral thought is just what's needed. And just in case anyone jibs at them being artificial I shall stick a bunch of real ones in a jam jar to sit at the base of the wreath which is going to sit in within the stone embrasure of a Medieval church window. All good!

The wreath is cut from the whippy stems of a hazel bush in the garden and is currently tied in shape with purple string and drying out in the sun in the apple tree.

It's rather large - about three feet across. I hope I have enough flowers to cover it properly. They may have to be eked out with fresh bay leaves. I'll let you know when I assemble the thing!

I have some other flowery plans too - in the kitchen and out of it. 
Happy Flowery Days! Keep 'em coming!

Saturday 7 June 2014

June Moments

1. Watching the rain. This is my rose bush this morning seen through a curtain of pouring rain. Wet but still very beautiful.

2. Walking in, and after, the rain. It's rained a lot in the last fortnight. I quite like summer rain actually - Being out and about, without an umbrella and feeling rain falling onto my face and trickling through my hair is rather nice. Of course, I am quite glad to get home and exchange soaked clothes for dry ones but I still like it. You get the countryside almost to yourself - more sensible, less foolhardy souls prudently staying inside until the downpour is over. I know it's not what you are supposed to wear for walking but I always wear wellington boots to walk in the countryside, except in the height of summer when everything is really dry underfoot. I find them very comfortable, even over long distances, although I always wear an additional pair of socks to keep them from chafing and into which to tuck the cuffs of my jeans. They are impervious to the assaults of nettles, brambles and thorns. They negotiate mud (and worse) with aplomb and, best of all, you can walk in puddles and streams in them.

I've always loved walking in puddles and as far as I am concerned, the bigger the puddle, the more inviting. If you wear proper walking boots, this joy is denied you and you lose out on one of life's small, but noticeable (and absolutely free), pleasures. If you haven't recently waded into a large puddle, I recommend it. Only in waterproof boots though or the pleasure of sploshing about merrily will be marred by cold, wet feet for the rest of your walk. And that is not one of life's pleasures.

3. Temporarily abandoning the second rainbow project I'd started ...

and beginning to hook up a raft of rain-blue triangles to make a Gypsy Shawl. I was so happy when Sandra posted the arrival of her pattern here - this shawl is something I've been wanting to make ever since she posted about it last summer. The triangles are complicated but not as complicated as I feared when I first read through the pattern and my heart sank because I thought I'd never be able to commit it to memory. A nuisance for a project where you've got to make so many of the same components. But once I'd got going, I found that the pattern lodged in my memory quite nicely and I've been rustling up triangles in every spare moment. Mostly in the car waiting to pick up H after exams. It's a perfect, portable project - just one ball of yarn, a hook and some scissors (and a folded up copy of the pattern in case I have a "senior moment" and forget what I am supposed to be doing next.) I've been blocking the triangles in batches as I go. They come off the hook quite curly like these:

But after being pinned out on the ironing board, zapped with a spray of water and allowed to dry, they go beautifully regular and lie nice and flat.

I've managed to make just over forty so the end is in sight. I need forty eight in total. Can't wait to assemble them all. The only snag is that when I bought the yarn back at the end of last summer, I didn't buy quite enough yarn, and the two additional balls I had to buy recently, of course, are of a different dye-lot and yes, it does show. Annoying. But I am not going to fuss about it. Nobody will notice, Mrs T.

4. Picking wild garlic.

The wild garlic is almost over, now that it's June, but there is a bit of woodland nearby, where, although the flowers are now long gone, the leaves are still bright green and the stems juicy. I've wanted to use some in cooking for a while but hadn't quite plucked up the courage. Nudged along by this book - The Forager's Kitchen - I picked a bunch. You can do various things with it - use it in soups or to flavour stews; add it to bread dough, salsas or salads. In the end I decided to extract the juice from it, using the juice extracter attachment of my food processor. This was interesting as I've never used this particular attachment before and it took me some time to work out how to assemble the wretched thing. One component I couldn't, for the life of me, see how how to fit and had to leave out. I eventually realised it  belonged to some totally different appliance! (Ahem! I've kept quiet about this little piece of mechanical incompetence in front of the other members of the household - it's one of those things I would not be allowed to forget along with a little episode, twenty years ago in a car park at Heathrow, when the car battery had failed and D was trying to push-start it into life only to discover I had left the handbrake on and he was practically giving himself a hernia trying to move it! When, red-faced and sweating with effort, he put his head through the window to find out what was wrong, I was not popular! Nor have I ever been allowed to forget it. Mrs T is not very mechanically minded, I fear!)

Anyway back to the wild garlic. Having assembled the juicer gizmo bits so that they (more or less) resembled the diagram in the handbook, I stuffed in my bunch of wild garlic and whizzed it. The most amazing, aromatic, green juice spun out

I've mixed this with some olive oil to add to risottos, soups and bread dough. I'm thinking of using it to make some wild garlic hummus. It's garlicky but not throat-catchingly so and I firmly believe anything that vividly green is nothing but good for you as well as delicious.

4 Baking cactus muffins. No prickles in them you'll be glad to hear. But using agave syrup instead of honey in an attempt to cut down my sugar consumption.

You can find my original recipe here. In the summer I use raspberries and blueberries rather then blackberries and apples. As you will know, if you have been reading these pages for a while, I have a very sweet tooth. Tea and homemade cake are the two essentials for surviving life in my book.

But as we all know, sugar is the new bad guy on the block. First it was the poison, "salt", that had to be seen off. OK. I do use salt in my cooking but not much and find I don't crave it much either, so cutting back wasn't really a problem. Then it was evil "fat". "All fat" and then just "some fat" because not all fats are equal. (Pace, George Orwell). OK again. I don't fry things; I don't even own a deep-fat fryer or particularly like fried food. I like the taste of bread on its own and tend always to eat it unadorned. I love olive oil and prefer the flavour of unsalted butter to margarine, packed with trans-fatty-whatnots any day. I do use oil in my cooking and butter in my baking but am quite happy with recipes which don't go overboard on the fat content.

But now a new war is on: against a new and alarmingly, seemingly ubiquitous, demon, "sugar". Uh oh. And the dismaying fact is that so many foods seem to contain it - not least fruit (which I love), and my beloved baking. "Sad face" : ( as H would say. So I am experimenting a bit with replacing straight-up sugar with alternatives such as agave syrup which comes from a cactus plant and doesn't do the malign things to your blood sugar that ordinary sugar does but still tastes sweet and isn't some noxious chemical substitute. So far, so good and my standard muffin recipe works, if anything better with it than before. "Smiley face!" : ) Don't tell me, the easy way to reduce sugar consumption is not to make or eat the muffins at all. I know, I know but there are limits and this is one of them. You can get agave syrup now from Waitrose and I imagine other supermarkets. I prefer the light variety; the dark one is a bit strong-tasting. My original muffin recipe contains soft brown sugar and honey. I still use the soft brown sugar but replace the honey with the agave syrup. Works a treat and I tell myself it's at least a beginning. Not sure I'll get much further though so don't hold your breath on Mrs T becoming sugar-free. Perish the thought, quite frankly!

Wishing you all a happy weekend!
E x