Pasta e ceci

It began with a pan of cabbage-infused water, left over from gently steaming some Savoy cabbage.

I don’t normally use cabbage water for stock because of its tendency to ferment while my back is turned, but well, I hate waste, it is still winter, the kitchen was cold and I figured the water would last overnight in a firmly closed saucepan. And I had a recipe for pasta e ceci I wanted to try, and a very old bag of chickpeas I wanted to use up.

Soaked the chickpeas for twelve hours, with several spoonfuls of salt, then drained and rinsed the chickpeas, and threw them in the slow cooker with the cabbage stock, a couple of springs of rosemary and a garlic clove.for twelve hours.

I used 500g of cooked chickpeas for the soup.

I heated 6 tablespoons of olive oil in a pan, sweated a finely chopped small onion and a couple of chopped cloves of garlic with three anchovies (actually it was five, as two were small) and a sprig of rosemary, tossed in the chickpeas and 1.2 litres of stock. After it all came to the boil I added 200g of roughly crushed tagliatelle and vermicelli (that’s what needed using up) and simmered it all for fifteen minutes. I finished it off with a grinding of black pepper.

Delicious, but I burned the roof of my mouth on it.

Marmalade without Tears

I want to live in the world where marmalade sets after 15 minutes of boiling.

Fifty minutes, both batches this time, but at least it did set.

I have Seville orange marmalade, which is splendidly bitter; and I also have blood orange marmalade, which is unsurprisingly rather dark in colour, and somewhat perfumed.

Later in the year I shall make lime marmalade. Right now I have a lot of marmalade to eat.

Making Jam Without Tears

Many years ago there was an incident with some damsons.

The end result was supposed to be  ‘damson cheese’. It went catastrophically wrong in some way I can’t quite recall – I might have cooked it too long – but it was enough to put me off messing around with fruit and sugar for a long time.

More recently, my veg box provider offered a pack for making marmalade, and I decided to have a go, because I like marmalade, and I like a challenge. I followed the instructions, such as they were, and what they turned out to be was a bit lacking. The first batch of marmalade was ok, if a little runny. The second batch was rather runnier. I decided not to try again for a while. Also, there was a lot of marmalade to eat up.

Somewhere in all this I made four perfect jars of strawberry jam from a recipe I now can’t find.

I also made twelve jars of something I decided I would call bramble syrup because it certainly wasn’t bramble jelly.

Last Christmas, among my presents was a sugar thermometer, which I had requested because I was growing increasingly frustrated with my attempts to make a particular kind of chocolate fudge I remembered from childhood. It kept going wrong because I couldn’t get the sugar to the right temperature.

It turns out that fudge-making and jam or jelly-making are not dissimilar in that there are many recipes that claim to be foolproof. Actually, the same is true of cooking rice. Everyone has a foolproof recipe for that too. But each recipe – be it for jam, fudge or rice – is not so much foolproof as a distillation of what works for the author. Often, they leave something out. It’s generally something so obvious to the recipe’s author it simply doesn’t occur to them to mention it. Sometimes it is something that makes sense once you have made jam or fudge, or cooked rice, but only once you’ve done it and got it right. Either way, foolproof recipes are often anything but.

Also, and I cannot stress this enough, just because it works for the writer of the recipe, doesn’t mean it will work for everyone else. This is especially true of rice, where the age of the rice, the size of the pot, and god knows what else, can make all the difference in the world. Thus, while I have foolproof rice recipes for steamed and pilau rice, they’re foolproof insofar as you need the same saucepan I’ve got. Sometimes I forget, and use the wrong saucepan. It’s a disaster.

But today we are talking about jam. Jam-making is easy, apparently. You just heat the fruit and mash it a bit to get the juices out, then add sugar, bring to the boil, do that testing thing with the chilled saucer, and it’s done.

You’d never know that from my trail of failures. After some thought, I concluded that my problem probably lay in being so afraid of overcooking the jam I was in fact undercooking it. Clearly, a sugar thermometer would solve this problem.

And thus it has proved.

I am very fond of quinces, especially quince jelly. We went to Brogdale’s Apple Festival a few weeks ago, and in between sampling many delicious varieties of apple, I also bought a kilo of quinces, and a pound of so of medlar (we’ll come back to them in a bit). I had a recipe that involved simmering quinces, making jelly from the resulting strained liquid, and membrillo, or quince paste, from the pulp. I decided to give it a try.

Setting jam or jelly is all about getting enough pectin, or setting agent, into the mix. Some fruits are high in pectin, among them quinces and apples, especially crab apples. Some  fruits have an average amount of pectin, while some are notoriously low in it, strawberries being the prime example. I can only marvel at those four pots of perfect strawberry jam I produced that time. The luck of the innocent was clearly with me that day.

Jelly-making is, I think, a little easier than jam-making because it is all about producing a liquid that can be mixed with sugar and then boiled to the correct temperature, somewhere around 105°C, at which point the jelly will happily set when cooled. Quince jelly can’t wait to set once it gets there. Indeed, it helps to have an assistant to wash and dry those jars and get them on the counter ready, before the wretched stuff sets in the pan.

A kilo of fruit, barely covered with water, simmered for an hour, yields about 800 millilitres of liquor. Add 75g ordinary granulated sugar per 100 millilitres, heat until the sugar dissolves, boil to the correct temperature, test for setting properties by putting a spoonful on a chilled saucer, leaving for a minute and then seeing if it wrinkles when pushed with a clean finger, take off the heat, and pot in cleaned warm jars. There are websites and books which explain the business with the waxed discs and lids/cellophane covers. Also, books that explain the thing with the cooling liquid on the saucer. Once you know what to do, it really works. The sight of that jelly cooling and wrinkling when you push – it’s very satisfying.

Jam is more difficult in that you are boiling actual fruit as well as juice, and the endless reams of advice about skimming scum become more pertinent, at least until you’re trying to skim it off floating strawberries. None of my books mentioned this; I eventually discovered you have to leave strawberry jam to cool for a bit before you can take off the scum, and incidentally be assured that the strawberries do not float to the top of the jam pots. My four less-than-perfect pots of strawberry jam testify to this ignorance, but I don’t care – they taste fabulous. My loganberry jam (eight pots) is amazing. (I tossed the fruit harvest into the freezer until I could figure out what to do with it. My top tip – process the fruit before you freeze it. You avoid a world of pain and stained fingers that way.) I used sugar with added pectin when making the jam, and it seems to have worked well.

Jam-makers seem to be divided between those who warm the sugar beforehand, those who don’t. I tried it each way and noticed no discernible difference. Another division comes between those who use jam sugar and those who use plain granulated. The argument is that using the latter gives you a softer set while using jam sugar gives you a ‘commercial’ set. As I am of the school of thought that believes jam’s place is on the bread or scone, not dripping off it, I’m happy to use jam sugar if necessary. Either that or you must permit me lick my tea plate in polite company so as not to waste that jam.

My biggest triumph, however, came when I decided to deal with that bramble syrup. By this time I had learned that the point of all this boiling is to drive off sufficient water to allow the sugar to do its thing, and set. I reasoned, therefore, that if I reboiled the syrup I might be able to turn it into jam if I could drive off sufficient water. And if it failed hideously, I was no worse off than before.

It turns out that if you take your two-year-old bramble syrup and boil it to the right temperature, you can drive off the equivalent of four pots of water and turn it into eight pots of properly set bramble jelly. Who knew?

I said I’d come back to the medlars. I came back to them after leaving  them in a cool place for a while so they could get on with bletting – that is, becoming ripe to a point very close to being rotten, but not quite. I discovered a couple of days ago that they had reached the point where something needed to be done with them. Medlars are not very high in pectin, which would mean using jam sugar, but as I had so few I wondered if I could combine them with some Bramley apples for extra bulk, and pectin, and make jelly from that mix.

It turns out I could. A pound of medlars and two large Bramley apples, barely covered with water, then simmered for an hour with the juice and zest of half a lemon, yields 800 millilitres of a liquor that tastes vaguely of pear. Once boiled with sugar (I used half jam sugar, half ordinary granulated), however, it turns into something else altogether. I have four and a bit jars of an exquisite golden jelly that tastes vaguely of the rose hip syrup of my youth. I’m going to have to eke this out because it is astonishing stuff.

As it’s the end of the fruit season, I’m running out of things to turn into jam and jelly, except I heard yesterday that my favourite local plant nursery still has pick-your-own chillies for sale, so clearly it’s time for chilli jelly.

In conclusion, do I have any advice for novice jam and jelly-makers? Absolutely.

Buy a sugar thermometer.

Seriously. You can get a perfectly adequate sugar thermometer for under a tenner. You may get to the stage where you don’t need it because you have learned to recognise the sounds of jelly boiled to the right temperature, or the way the bubbles change size, or any one of the other arcane ways of assessing the readiness of a pan of boiling fruit and sugar, but until you get there, a sugar thermometer will keep you on the straight and narrow. I’ve made more jam and jelly in the last week than in the entire rest of my life, and not a single boiling has gone wrong.

(Coming soon – adventures with membrillo.)

Springing sprouts … at last

I have just noticed that the lovage roots I transplanted a few weeks ago have sprouted. I am so ridiculously excited by this. I didn’t want to lose the lovage, even it rampages a bit, and I can never use it up fast enough, given that the flavour is so dominant, but I thought my cavalier treatment of it had probably been a bit too much. But, no, I’ve just noticed it sprouting bravely in the sunshine while I was inspecting the compost bins for signs of rodent activity. This is tremendously exciting. Next, I need to transplant the volunteer fennel seedling lurking in a pot, and I also need to prune the fig tree, which is all over the place. I treated myself to a new pair of secateurs for my birthday: Felco No.2, which are so far everything they’ve been cracked up to be. The fig tree will be an excellent work-out for them.

Meanwhile, the mice seem to have finished bivouacking in the compost bin (although something is still throwing vegetable peelings around after dark – peculiarly muscular slugs training for the annual peeling-tossing championships?), while the rodent that was lurking in the cellar has gone mysteriously quiet after stashing at least six large packets of mouse poison and definitely snacking on a seventh. So far there is no smell of decaying flesh so I assume it has either mummified quietly in a corner or else was commuting in from elsewhere. And the cats have stopping bringing in little corpses (we’ll draw a veil over the incident involving the live ratling in the bed at 10 p.m.).

Time, then, to sow seeds, I guess.

Yesterday I decided to divide and move the venerable lovage clump which has been obscuring my loganberry trellis for the last few years, as well as providing a summer hideaway for the cats.

It probably wasn’t the ideal time to move it but I’d suddenly realised I couldn’t stand another year of grappling with it and the loganberries, and anyway, the bed it currently occupies could be put to better use growing tree onions and parsley. (So far the cats have not ventured an opinion, but I shall have to build them a new shelter of some sort.)

Getting the clump out was a struggle. It’s been there a while, it’s put down huge roots, and the clump was pretty gnarly generally. By the time I finished, I stank of celery. Lovage is effectively celery on steriods, with a very powerful smell.

But finally I managed to extract enough material to replant on the other side of the compost bins, in a good rich soil I hoped would encourage it to do its thing.

And then I decided to dig a little more in order to make sure I’d got most of the root out.

Spade went in. Chink. Scrape. Must be a half brick down there (I was over a foot down by this point).

I put the spade in again and levered out a thin terracotta pipe, about a foot long, with a couple of inches diameter. Fine.

Put the spade in again. Chink. Scrape. Another identical pipe.


I put the spade in again …

At this point my husband fetched a trowel and I discovered there were another three identical pipes at the bottom of the hole, lying parallel to one another.

I have no idea.

I’m fairly sure they’re not part of some eccentric sewer system. The house was built in 1903 in suburbia and while the local sewage system struggles on occasion it was conventionally built.

I can only conclude that a former owner put in some sort of primitive garden drainage scheme, though given how thoroughly this garden has been dug over in the twenty years we’ve had it (and that includes digging out the edgings from flower beds hidden under a former patio and having the middle of the garden turned over to build a new patio) I’m surprised that we’ve only just found evidence of this.

What did we do?

We hastily reburied everything and are pretending we never saw it.

Today I shall weed the patch, dig in some compost and then start sowing parsley seed in pots, in between hoping the lovage survives the trauma.

Simple sourdough starter

Lately, I’ve been involved in various discussions about how to set up a sourdough starter. Now it may just be that I’m lazy but most of the starter recipes I’ve come across seem to be a bit of a faff.  Nigel Slater, using a recipe from Dan Lepard, covered his kitchen in a mix of yoghurt, currants and lord knows what else. Paul Hollywood’s starter uses grapes (or, apparently, in one version, apples).

I know they include these items because they carry natural yeasts to help get the starter going but a) I’m lazy, and b) I am disinclined to believe the average peasant kitchen was filled with such things.  Which is why I like the recipe I’m about to give you.

It’s from Enjoli Liston and was published in The Independent on 16/4/2009. It’s very simple and straightforward. I lost my first starter created from this after a year, thanks to an incident involving some mould, but the second one has been going happily for four years. It sits quietly on the bench in a kilner jar until I wake it up; it takes a couple of days to wake up but after that, with regular dividing/feeding, it is quite lively, and responds well to being built up, ready for baking.

Day One

It needs a warm room, somewhere between 20C and 30C (or summer). 

Clean a large glass jar and spoon with boiling water (I just run things through the dishwasher).

Add 50 ml water (I use filtered water as our water is really hard), 35g white flour, 15g rye flour to jar, stir and leave for 24 hours.

Cover if you like, but I left the lid ajar (and indeed do so when I’m reactivating the starter).

Days Two and Three

Add same quantities of flour and water

Day Four

Throw away most of the mixture, leaving about a tablespoon of starter in the jar. Add 100ml of water, 70g white flour, 30g rye flour, stir and leave for 24 hours.

Day Five


Day Six

The starter should have increased in volume by about a third, and bubbles will be evident. Repeat steps for Day Four.

Days Seven-Fourteen

Repeat steps for Day Four daily. When mixture doubles in volume, has surface froth and plenty of bubbles after being left for the 24-hour period, it is ready to use for baking.

When I reactivate the starter I tend to throw half away, add the usual quantities of flour and water to get it going, and then in the next couple of days double the quantities to bulk up the starter ready for baking. I’m not a scientific sourdough baker but it seems to work.

Top tips: use rye flour as part of the mix. It really does make a difference. Use a wooden or plastic spoon

The year’s first project – sprouting date stones

First day of a new year and the sun breaks through after what seems like weeks of rain. How many days of this it’s going to take to dry out the ground, I can’t begin to imagine but I need to start doing something to convince me that 2013 will be a year in which I manage to grow things, after 2012, the year in which everything seemed to need water wings to keep going.

My first project for 2013, however, is an attempt to sprout some date stones. I tried this once before but nothing happened, but when I bought a pack of medjool dates just before Christmas and looked at the stones afterwards, I couldn’t resist the challenge. A little light googling led to these instructions which I am dutifully following. At present, the dates are finishing off their preliminary two-day soak. Tomorrow I clean them and put them to soak again. I’m hoping that with the help of my heated propagator I’ll have some success this time.

Carrot Pineapple Muffins

I made these for the first time this last weekend, and they are amazingly good! I used white sugar but will try brown sugar next time, just to see what happens. I skipped the cream cheese frosting as these muffins were intended for lunch boxes, but may try that at Christmas, just for fun.

7 oz (200 g) carrot, finely grated (or chopped well in a food processor)
4 fl oz (120 ml) well-drained crushed pineapple ( or blitz 4 slices along with the carrot)
9 oz plain flour
1 tsp (5 ml) baking powder
1 tsp (5 ml) bicarbonate of soda
½ tsp (2.5 ml) salt
2 tsp (10 ml) cinnamon
1 egg
4 oz (110 g) white granulated sugar ( or light brown soft sugar)
3-4 fl oz (90-120 ml) milk or water (depends on juiciness of pineapple)
3 fl oz (90 ml) corn oil
2-3 oz (60-85 g) chopped walnuts

Icing (optional)
2 oz (60 g) cream cheese, room temperature
4 oz (110 g) icing sugar
¼ tsp (1.2 ml) vanilla essence.


Preheat oven to 375-400°F (190-200°C)

Prepare carrot and pineapple

In a large bowl sift/stir together flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, salt and cinnamon.

In another bowl, beat the egg. Add sugar, milk/water, oil, carrot and pineapple together.

Pour all of wet ingredients into dry. Stir just until combined; batter will be thick and lumpy. Add walnuts if used at end.

Spoon into muffin cups. Bake for 20-25 minutes. Allow to cool before icing.

For icing, use the back of a spoon to blend together softened cream cheese, icing sugar and vanilla until smooth. Add ½ tsp milk if needed. Spread on cooled muffins.

Flat meals …

This is simply to note that today I tried out Dan Lepard’s recipe for supper flat breads and it was really good. As I had the ingredients handy, I tried the courgette, bacon and cheese topping on the wholewheat and honey crust  and it worked exceedingly well. One plus some green stuff makes an excellent lunch.

I foresee a whole new area of flat meals opening before me. 

Beercan Chicken Jubilee – the Folkestone way

I’ve had a yen to do try out Steven Raichlen’s recipe for Beercan Chicken on the barbecue grill ever since I first came across it. What can I say? I like amusing flashy things like that. With a long weekend in view, I decided the time had arrived to try it out.  So while the Thames Pageant made its way down the windswept river I was in my windswept garden, grilling. I took photos, so here is a short photo essay.

The basic ingredients – a chicken, some ginger beer

The ingredients for smoking the chicken – maple chips were probably not robust enough for the job but they were all I had. Chips were soaked in half a can of ginger beer, topped up with water. My lovely assistant was unimpressed.

Preparing the can, part 1

Preparing the can, part 2 : add two tsp basic barbecue rub to the can

Preparing the bird by rubbing it with two tsp basic barbecue rub. Not a pretty sight

The prepared chicken – front

The prepared chicken – back

Firing up the grill. Yes, it was raining

My lovely assistant was faintly disbelieving by this time

Frankly, so was I.  It was wet out there

Bird ready to grill, and looking very rakish

Adding the smoking chips

Putting the chicken into position

The lid is now firmly in place, and yes, it is now pissing down with rain

The reveal … and yes, I do look slightly smug

My lovely assistant was deep in denial by this time

In all its smoked and grilled glory

Ginger beer can clearly visible

Side view