Category Archives: food

Herbal serendipity

Today I’ve taken one more step towards a stereotype of middle-age and middle-class as I had a gardener round to spend the morning hacking the jungle.  He certainly got more done than I would have in a half-day session, and I’m not shredded!  He’s coming back for a session once a fortnight for the time being.

There’s a bit of history to this.  A series of minor mishaps that had left the jungle rather more overgrown than it should have been.  The strimmer’s battery died and my various attempts to find a replacement proved futile.  I was out of action myself with a bout of ‘flu for a spell back in April.  And finally, my garden waste bags disappeared, just as the garden reached its most vigorous.  So I took a chance on getting some help with it.

And already it paid off.  Among the small, inconspicuous weeds I hadn’t recognised, he identified oregano.  Great: one more delicious thing for the kitchen, to tide me over until the blackberries and plums are ready.

Sweet and Earthy

Since getting the juicer, I’ve made a few interesting discoveries.  New flavours – some better than others – and some interesting rules of thumb.  Perhaps the most interesting revelation is what it can do with roots.  Both the general-purpose mixer (the carrot), and the strong flavours (like ginger, radishes, turmeric).  Why do we not see more roots in the range of juices sold by our supermarkets?

I have observed when shopping for juice that apple is treated as a pretty-universal mixer.  Both when explicitly named (apple-and-[pear|mango|elderflower|etc] and in the blends with labels like “exotic”, “garden”, or “tropical” (hmm, bit of a mismatch there).  Basically it just works with everything.  The only substantial exception is citrus fruits, which rarely blend much with anything non-citrus.

But trying it at home, I find the carrot to be pretty-much just as good and universal a mixer.  For example, I was sure apple-pear-ginger would be delicious, and now I find carrot-pear-ginger works just as well.  It’s a little less sweet, but the pears bring ample sweetness, and the main flavours are still the pear and ginger.  The only time I wouldn’t want to use carrots in place of apples is when I really want the extra sweetness: for example, while apple-cucumber-mint work nicely, I’ve no burning desire to try that with carrot.

Another case was today’s brew, when I tried another root in there for the first time.  Taking the view that the earthiness of turmeric would want to be offset by something sweet, I blended it into apples and grapes.  It worked nicely, but I suspect would be an acquired taste with less sweetness.

One more flavoursome root that works nicely in small amounts is radishes.  And though I have yet to try them, I expect I might get something interesting with horseradish or wasabi.

Actually, the one strong flavour that has disappointed is chillies.  As with today’s turmeric, I thought they’d need to go in something sweet, so I tried back in the summer in an apple/strawberry blend.  The heat of the chilli didn’t really make it into the drink: I guess it must’ve ended up in the pulp and gone to waste.

One other minor revelation: things one doesn’t much like in their normal form can work well in a drink.  Specifically celery: some time back I had some spare after using it in a tomato-and-basil soup, so I tried blending it into a drink.  Given that I’ve never much liked it raw, I was pleasantly surprised by that flavour.

Alas, washing up is quite a chore.  Now the novelty has worn off, I’m not using the machine more than once or twice a week, and drinking supermarket juices the rest of the time.

Fruits of the Garden

I’ve just eaten my first blackberry of the year.

I used to think of blackberries as (predominantly) September fruit. Late August, early October, but predominantly September’s bounty.

In Southwest England I gradually got used to an extended season. In 2003, when I had no money for food, I was picking and eating blackberries into the second half of November. By that time they had long since ceased to be a pleasure, and were hard work to gather, but in the absence of soup kitchens it was a matter of necessity. Subsequently I also found that we have a rich crop through pretty-much the whole of August, too: indeed, on lower ground there’s more in August than September.

But mid-July? This must be a new record! Though it was just the one berry that had reached a real sweet ripeness.

The bushes in my garden show a huge crop to come. Last year I ate them, froze them, gave them away, cooked desserts with them, even made several jars of chutney, and still could’ve had more. This year I have a new fruit&veg juicer, so I look forward to drinking some, too!

And I must check up on the plums. Last year I had just a handful of them from the garden, but they too were delicious.

The things they don’t tell you

I used my new toy for the first time yesterday. A fruit&veg juicer. Feed in fruit&veg at the top and collect a thick, rich juice. Lunch with a concoction of carrots, a hunk of cucumber and half a lemon, together with a banana that needed using up. Evening with a more traditional pear and ginger. Various ingredients bought in bigger bags than I’d’ve done in the pre-juicing era.

Before buying it I had done a bit of research online. Would it do a good job? What could I expect to juice? And crucially, would it be so much faff that I’d soon give up using it? The jury is out on the latter: getting rid of the pulp is a bit more of a faff than with an espresso (or percolator) but in a similar ballpark, and general cleaning just means running the fruity parts through the dishwasher.

Overall, it’s certainly less hard work than juicing as I’ve done in the past. But there are some gotchas, like the liquid trickling slowly out. If I take the jug through to the dining table where I’m eating, a little puddle appears in its place as the final juice dribbles through. And it comes out a little warmer than the fruit going in, so best used with ice.

And then there’s the Big One noone mentioned at all in the bumpf or online reviews. That is, literally. It’s a bigger machine than I’d imagined. I now need a bigger fridge to accommodate ingredients for it, and a bigger dishwasher, not to mention a bigger kitchen. It won’t reasonably go in the corner I’d planned alongside the kettle and espresso machine. It can’t go under any wall cupboard or shelf, because while it just-about fits, it needs space above to feed the ingredients in. I’ve finally done some re-arranging so it can live in the far corner between the sink and the wine rack, where it’s also mercifully easy to clean up any little puddles it might make with a simple wipe.

Preliminary verdict: I’m going to enjoy the fruits of this gadget, but it won’t completely replace supermarket juices.

Blackberries

This year I have my own private supply of blackberries.  That is to say, I have brambles in the garden, with no human competition for them.  Nor indeed their customary companion, nettles.

Having today picked my second big batch of the season, I am astonished by both the quality and quantity of what I can easily get from just a few bushes.  Yes the weather has been great for them with a good mix of sunshine (the dominant theme this summer) and also a healthy amount of rain.  But I’m sure having them to myself, with the neighbourhood cats probably even reducing competition from the birds, is the main reason they’re so great.

This gives me a happy problem of excess.  Even freezing a lot of them (as I always do) I’ll have desserts to last me more than the year to next season, so I’m going to have to find other uses for them.  Two that spring to mind are giving them away and repeating the delicious chutney I made a few years ago, last time we had a really good season and I wasn’t incapacitated by that tennis elbow.

It also thrusts on me the problem of managing rampant briars.  I hadn’t realised before that they grow huge, vicious stems bearing none of the fruit.  Until recently I had removed none of the brambles except when they came to block my path/steps, as I didn’t want to deprive myself of their fruit.  This morning before picking the berries, I went out in boots and old, full-length trousers and chopped the unproductive branches ruthlessly.  That left my hands as shredded as they always are in this season, but re-opened paths at the back of the house for next time the window-cleaner comes 🙂

I’m faintly wondering whether removing vast quantities of those vicious brambles might affect next year’s crop.  But I’m reassured by having seen brambles cut back ruthlessly, yet grow back vigorously in ample time to yield another vast crop the following year.

Does the thickness of a bramble correlate with its age, so a thin (though still long) green stem is this year’s growth while the half-inch-diameter ones are several years old?  If so I’ve cleared the brambles of ages from where the fruitless ones were thickest!

My Kingdom for your dinner!

You wait years for one, then they all come at once.  That is, stories with a dubious or tenuous equine link.  Or in other words, we now know what happened to Richard III’s horse, and your humble scribe once again wishes he had the artistic ability to express it in a cartoon!

I’ll leave it to people with something interesting to say[1] to comment on the haplessly horseless monarch.  But the horsemeat story is crying out for an angle that seems to have eluded the Chattering Classes, and I’m faintly wondering if it might even have a very local aspect.

OK, to recap for posterity where we’re at.  Horsemeat has been discovered in processed food products supposed to be beef.  Nor is it a one-off: it’s widespread!  Big scandal: how has this been allowed to happen?  And a food scare: if this can be allowed to happen, what else could be in our food?  Horses (which are, after all, abused in a very athletic context) get pumped full of hormones we don’t want in human food.  The story is shining a spotlight on long and complex food chains, and everyone implicated is pointing fingers of blame at someone else.

And why haven’t the retailers who sell food to the public protected us?  Well, in that most relevant question the evidence is clear: they do protect us.  When was the last breakout of salmonella or e-coli attributable to supermarket ready meals?   Whatever processes they have are working perfectly well to protect consumers from contamination.

But hang on!  It’s not food poisoning or BSE we’re worrying about, it’s horse hormones!  How do we know those aren’t in the food chain?  Well, speaking from complete ignorance of food processing and testing but a little insight into basic science, I’ll stick my neck out and say I don’t believe that happened.  Why not?  Because with today’s rigorous levels of testing, such chemical contamination would surely not have passed undetected!

You[2] should be glad that those who run your food chain focus their testing where it matters, and aren’t devoting disproportionate time and effort to testing things irrelevant to your wellbeing.  At least hitherto: I suppose they’ll now have to add another cost to your food.

Meanwhile, when vox pop consumers are asked their reactions, most of them give the perfectly rational reaction: if they’re prepared to eat cow then why not horse?  If they’re happy with the taste then what’s the difference?

Oh, and yes, I did say a very local angle in the second paragraph above.  How so?  Well, Dartmoor is famous for our ponies, some of which are usually to be found about 15 minutes walk from my front door.  Do they feature in some yet-to-be-discovered branch of this food chain?  And if the fallout from this deprives someone of profit from them, how many will be allowed to remain a few years hence?

[1] I discovered that blog while googling for an image I could snarf for this post.  I gave up on the picture, but enjoyed the blog so much I just had to share.
[2] Excluding myself and others who are unaffected by virtue of not eating meat.

Giant Squash

Much of this autumn’s seasonal produce has been below average in both quantity and quality, possibly due to the weather.

But I’ve been given the most enormous squash from someone’s garden.  Got round to using it yesterday.   Taking the line of least resistance I thought I’d make a big cauldron of spicy pumpkin soup – a dish I know well.  But on chopping it up I find that unlike a big pumpkin, this vegetable is mostly good flesh, with relatively little of the stringy bits and seeds that need to be scraped out.  There’s too much flesh for my big cauldron! 😮   I made the soup with nearly three quarters of it (it contained so much moisture I hardly had to add any water at all), but what to do with the remainder – which is still the size of about two regular shop-bought seasonal squashes?  Can one make a veggie version of pumpkin pie?  Should I trawl the web for some other recipe?

Hmmm …

Marke’t Econom’y

Went into town today to buy some salad for lunch (already had bread, cheese, and soup in the kitchen).

Our local greengrocer looks different.  Bare, empty.  With a much-reduced range on display.  There are notices apologising for the reduced range, but explaining they’re in administration.  Oops!

Apparently if all goes smoothly they have a buyer lined up, and it’s another greengrocer, so the difference to consumers should be minimal.  It’s a foreign company – a wholesaler – taking over, but from only just across the border in Kernow.  Our Cornish neighbours grow some excellent fruit&veg, so here’s hoping for some good local supply lines, though perhaps not so much in the coming wintertime as in the season of plenty.

If all goes well, can we infer the market economy is coming back to life again locally?  The weak going out with minimal fuss, and giving way smoothly to the strong.  Our food shopping has seen some improvements recently with on the one hand the coming of Lidl as an alternative to the muzak-ridden supermarkets, and on the other hand the rise of great specialist shops!

Three in a row!

Our cheese shop has long been one of the best things in town.  It’s one of the small shops in the area immediately outside the market: a shopping and services area that’s pedestrianised during shop hours.

This week it’s been joined by two more great food shops.  Firstly the wholefood stall from the market has gone up in the world and moved into a real shop.  On the other side, the olive stall has done the same.  Both the new shops are taking advantage of their improved premises to expand their ranges a little, though it’ll be another day or two before the olive seller looks like a working shop!

That’s my three favourite specialist/luxury food shops all in a little row!  Yum!

Oh, and any foodies might like to make a pilgrimage to Tavistock for the last weekend of this month, when the cheese shop hires the town hall for its annual cheese fair.  A fantastic opportunity for the cheese-loving public (that’s me 🙂 ) to meet the producers, learn about their craft, and of course sample a huge range of cheeses, accompanied by supplements from local wine to pickle, and whatever new attractions they can bring us this year.  In common with other locals, I use this annual event to expand the range of cheeses I’ll regularly buy over the following year.

Burning!

Anyone overdone the chillies?  Silly question, we’ve all breathed fire sometime in our lives, haven’t we?  And made the once-only mistake of rubbing the eyes with hands not quite as clean as we thought?  But what about burning the fingers?

My benchmark used to be the tiny little Thai chillies – or their African equivalents.  But since one of our local shops started selling the even-hotter scotch bonnet, I’ve taken to them.

Today I bought a big one, for a curry I was making to feed friends.  Chopped it up small, and as I was doing so felt a sharp pain in a finger.  At first I thought it must be a tiny (invisible) wound, but I’m not so sure any more.  Reacting to it brought heat and pain to the face too – aaargh!

The curry was meant to be hot, and turned out even hotter.  Now after it, the backs of my fingers are burning from the inside.  Even to look at they’re bright red, as of a nettle-rash or insect bite.  Now I see why they use chillies as chemical weapons, and use their essence to keep elephants out in parts of India and Bangladesh.  Yow!