Pristine whites

Out of the loft popped a dusty box labelled “Tropical Whites”.  It has been there for 36 years on the remote off-chance that, when I was still in the Navy, I might have been sent back to an overseas appointment.

Buried in the box were a pair of brand new, classically ugly white canvas lace-up flat shoes – completely understandable why they’d never been worn.  Nestling below, some still in their original packaging, a selection of white uniform skirts, shirts and dresses.  They’d all been in the box even longer: issued to me in 1978 as I deployed for my first job in Naples as a newly-fledged WRNS Officer.

How I loathed that uniform which is clearly why it was never used.  Instead, we all tended to wear the dresses that, once one had a bit of a tan, were nearly see-through as the outline of white underwear was clear against brown skin.  No wonder we got attention from male colleagues.

The package is now consigned for the recycling centre – another bit of history.  But I’ve still got a huge bag of blue uniform in another loft and a boat cloak that still rotates, unworn, between wardrobes.  Some memories are more difficult to extinguish.

Two for one

Even in these times of restrictions, life can be hectic so one cooking session that provides at least two different meals can be a boon.

Here it has been rather a mad house of activity.  Enough mix for sixteen Christmas puddings was lovingly tied up with string for steaming in the individual bowls.  Long-term builder Rodney and his lads, Wayne and Andrew, were all over the garden for a week installing a magnificent new fence.   I reckon that the trellis topping will provide over 130 square feet of luxuriant sun-bathed growing space for productive climbers  (kiwi, blackberries, grape vine) plus annual climbing vegetables (sugar snaps, beans and more) plus some evergreen fragrant plants too.  The noise was pretty dreadful for the neighbours as they dug holes for new posts, chopped down neglected scrub outside the boundary and groaned to instal the heavy panels.  No peace for the neighbours as the security team tested the alarm system for what seemed hours.  Thankfully the plumber/heating engineer was distinctly more peaceful as he worked his special magic with a couple of leaks.

Most of these tradesmen have been here on and off for nearly 20 years.  It makes such a difference, when you can’t see to check the work, to have people whom you can trust entirely and who have become friends.  Although they still send the bills …

A quick cooking session was the solution with so much going on – perhaps an hour in the kitchen and at least two meals ready for later.

3 pieces of fresh rosemary

Good handful of fresh thyme

2 onions, peeled and finely chopped.

5 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped

2 tablespoons of olive oil

6 red peppers, de-seeded and cut in half top to bottom

2 handfuls of pitted black olives, cut in half

1 tin of tomatoes

6 fresh tomatoes, chopped

Salt and black pepper.

250g sausage meat, divided and rolled into marble size.

Remove the leaves from the rosemary and thyme and chop finely.

Sauté the onions and half of the the garlic in the olive oil in a large ovenproof pan.

Add 4 halves of pepper, chopped, plus half the olives and herbs plus the tin of tomatoes to the pan – season and bring to a gentle simmer.

Mix the remaining herbs, garlic, olives with the chopped tomatoes in a bowl and season well.

Place 3 or 4 marbles of sausage meat in each of the remaining pepper halves and top with the tomato/herb/garlic/olive mix.

Add the remaining meat marbles to the pan.

Place the filled pepper halves in the pan and cover with a lid or foil.

Place in the oven at Gas 4 for an hour and then reduce to Gas 2 until the peppers are soft  (an hour or more).

Remove the stuffed peppers for one meal (they reheat perfectly in the microwave on a medium setting).

Use the sauce left in the pan to make another meal with pasta.  I prefer shells which capture the pieces of vegetable or meat.

Super supper soup.

It takes more than an ordinary bowl for the Christmas cake mix here and inspired my very first Baking Blind video by brother Martin  https://youtu.be/Y81yGF72dUQ

In the past, I’ve used a pristine washing-up bowl but even this isn’t big enough for, by my calculations, nearly 10 kilos (20 lb) of ingredients.  Luckily, my Covid home clear-out unearthed an even bigger food-quality plastic box.  The dried fruit had been soaking in brandy for months;  two hours chopping the nuts gave me cramp in both hands; I layered the butter/sugar/eggs/flour mix with the other ingredients in the box, folded them all together and filled all the cake tins and moulds. It was a juggling act to cook them in two ovens, turning and changing their positions over several hours.  Thankfully, there was enough to have a “test cake” shared with guinea pig friends, Sue and Rod.  Verdict: perfectly moist but I’ll still be injecting brandy for the next week.

Other cooking was rather on the back burner in the midst of these culinary challenges but I did manage a new B&B soup:

1 onion, peeled and chopped

2 carrots, peeled and chopped

2 sticks celery, peeled and chopped

250g smoked back bacon, de-rinded and chopped

1 butternut squash, peeled, de-seeded and chopped

3 vegetable stock cubes

Salt and pepper

 

Sauté the onion, carrots, celery and bacon.

Add the butternut squash to the pan plus the stock cubes.

Cover the ingredients with water and simmer until the squash has softened.

Whizz to a smooth soup in a blender.

Season to taste.

 

Even Martin, staying overnight and no fan of butternut squash, declared the result to be delicious – served  with home-made soda bread to make that super supper.

 

 

 

 

Last minute buys

 

There’s a fruit and veg stall in one of the small local shopping precincts – all the traditional calls and a fine array of good produce.  At the end of the day, there are bargains to be had if you can use them fairly quickly.

The punnets of strawberries made a quick pudding and half went into the dehydrator for another day.  Baby plum tomatoes were halved and dried in the oven with a little salt and pepper – now in jars steeping in olive oil.  Raspberries went straight into the freezer but I wanted something special with the fresh figs.

 

9-12 fresh figs, stems removed and halved

1 orange, juice and zest

2 teaspoons of butter

2-3 tablespoons of honey

Handful of walnuts, shelled and chopped.

 

Place the figs cut side up in an oven proof dish.

Pour over the orange juice, dot with butter, anoint with honey and top with walnuts.

Cook in a pre-heated oven Gas 4 for 45-60 minutes.

Serve with yoghurt or cream, sprinkled with the orange zest.

 

Don’t be mean with the honey or orange juice – it is delicious.

 

And I’ve been experimenting with my hot water pastry.  It made excellent cases for turkey and mushroom pies – hot or cold – and also for vegetable tarts (sautéed onion, courgette, mushroom, potato, fresh thyme with a little well-seasoned egg and cream   custard).  The pastry had been sitting in the fridge overnight after making pork pies but was still easy to handle and cooked perfectly.  This is a pastry that can do more than just raised game pies.

 

 

With apologies to GBBO

This week I had a fresh pineapple that was getting past its best.

A pineapple upside-down-cake/pudding seemed the answer.  But little did I know that the very first episode of the new Great British Bake-Off series was going to steal my thunder – and with a hilarious political spoof too.

My version of the TV technical challenge is probably simpler.  I had the remnants of a bottle of caramel sauce that cut down on the preparation and I made the whole edifice in one large silicone ring mould: the problem of cooking so much wet pineapple is all the steam which can make the sponge soggy.  The ring mould ensures that heat gets into the very centre of the pudding so that it cooks nearly as quickly as the edges.

 

1 fresh pineapple, top, skin and core removed, flesh chopped small.

2-3 tablespoons caramel sauce

3 eggs, weighed

Same weight butter

Same weight caster or granulated sugar

Same weight self-raising flour.

2 handfuls sultanas

 

Place the pineapple and caramel sauce in the bottom of the mould.

Cream the butter and sugar.

Add the eggs one at a time with a teaspoon of flour, beating after each addition.

Fold in the flour and sultanas.

Place mix in mould and place mould on a metal tray.

Bake for 40 minutes in a pre-heated oven Gas 4, covering the top of the mould with cooking foil after about 20 minutes.

Allow to stand for at least 15 minutes for the pudding to finish cooking once out of the oven.

Turn out with care to avoid any hot juices.

 

Once cooled, you could fill the centre with whipped cream, any spare pineapple or other lavish decoration.  It keeps well for a few days and can be served warmed in the microwave or just as it comes.

Individual moulds or other cooking containers would work just as well but I’d reduce the cooking time by about 15-20 minutes, depending on the size of your vessel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Family of creators.

There are Melville-Browns making all sorts:  painting and sculpture (Chris), handmade dovecots (Peter), photography (Martin), plays and drama (Jonathan), car design(Guy), sodabread enterprise (Laura), lighting for international hotels (Jessica), architectural and other illustration (Toby), theatrical stage management (Emily) and even one of the youngest is moving in to metalwork.

Emily’s latest venture is close to our interests and links to the bees: cotton food wraps impregnated with beeswax so that they are food-safe, durable and washable.  The perfect alternative to clingfilm if you want to reduce your use of plastics https://www.numonday.com/shop/m-bee/

For my part, let me introduce the humble but wildly successful sock-dryer.  Fiddling around with individual pegs to hang up socks was just too irritating – put it down to being blind rather than innate impatience.

1 large ice-cream box lid (other pieces of plastic are available).

2 plastic coat hangers.

Gaffer tape.

1 one inch pastry cutter.

1 pen.

1 Stanley or similar sharp knife.

 

Mark two rows of 4 or 5 circles down the two sides of the lid – going lengthwise – marking the circles by running the pen around the pastry cutter.

Cut a cross inside each circle with the knife: cutting from edge to edge like a hot cross bun.

Attach each side of the lid along the length of a coat hanger with the tape.

Tape the two coat hanger hooks together.

Voila: one perfect sock-dryer.

(For good finish, make sure the circles are in a straight line and cut the crosses all in the same direction.  I confess I just did the design and master craftsman Steve did the making.)

At first, you need to watch your fingers when pushing socks through the crosses but these soon soften.  Simply load and hang up in a good drying location.  Those with tidy minds can even pair their socks in the dryer (too sad).

 

 

Man of many talents.

You may have seen me cooking with John: for Comic Relief https://youtu.be/6SaB88MiUu4xx   and with an American guest https://youtu.be/cOXzP3NGzFkxx

Not only is he a super-cook but also Director of my long-term (over quarter of a century) taxi company but he has just turned avid fisherman and arrived bearing gifts of freshly caught mackerel.  He and brother-in-law Derek (of wedding cake fame) had just returned from another trip in their boat on the Solent.

Blind people are perfect for filleting fish: we can feel all those pesky tiny bones and get them out.  But I was grateful that John had already gutted the mackerel.  Simply fried in a very little olive oil, they were magnificent for breakfast with just a little of my apple, date and walnut chutney.

Last week, suitably masked, he prepared one of his favourite dishes: slices of gammon gently poached in honey with oven-cooked potato wedges.  And long-term Navy pal, Maggie (again, I’ve known her for more than quarter of a century) joined us for the cooking demo and to devour the results.

 

1 Large potato per person

Seasoning mix such as a little ground chilli, garlic powder, crushed dried thyme and rosemary, salt and pepper.

Olive oil.

1 gammon slice per person.

Honey.

1 fresh pineapple, skin, core and top removed, sliced.

About three cherry tomatoes per person.

Stab the potatoes and microwave on high until becoming soft.

Cut the potatoes in to wedges lengthwise and brush all over with oil and then gently roll in the seasoning.

Place in a moderate oven (Gas 5) to crisp and finish cooking.

To prevent the honey burning, mix with oil: 3 measures honey to 1 measure oil.

Heat the honey mix gently in a frying pan and add the slices of gammon.

Cook gently for 20-30 minutes with the mix just bubbling rather than simmering and spitting.

Turn the gammon steaks over halfway and/or baste with the mix.

Remove the gammon when done and keep warm.

Add the pineapple slices and cherry tomatoes to the frying pan and heat through.

Serve the gammon, pineapple and tomatoes with the potatoes, a salad and those wonderful cooking juices.

 

The special extra touch was the cocktail that John  created “to cut through the sweetness of the dish” or for any reason:  Tall glasses full of ice with measures of gin and bitter lemon  with segments of pink grapefruit squeezed over at the last moment.  Maggie got a taxi home!

 

 

Terrine de campagne.

One of my long-term ambitions has been to make the sort of terrines, pâtés and cooked meats in storage jars that you can buy in France.  With the Covid situation continuing and Brexit looming on the horizon with all the possibilities of food shortages and power cuts, I have the excuse to try some preserving that doesn’t rely on a freezer.  And having a great local butcher who will select and mince exactly the right meat makes a huge difference.

I used the type of glass jars that have a rubber seal and metal clips.  This recipe is my adaptation of the Le Parfait terrine that you can find on-line https://leparfait.co.uk  (they make the jars):

5 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped.

1 glass of white wine.

500g pork meat (100% lean, minced

500g pork meat (50% lean, 50% fat), minced

500g chicken livers, chopped.

2 large onions, peeled and finely chopped.

1 egg

3 teaspoons ground black pepper

1 teaspoon mace

1 teaspoon salt

A good slug of brandy.

 

Place the garlic and wine in a pan and gently heat to soften the garlic (or microwave in a bowl).

Get a very large bowl and add all the ingredients – I used my hands so had a bowl of hot soapy water ready.

When thoroughly mixed, fill the jars to the neck, fit the seal to the lid and clamp shut.

Place in a large pan and cover with at least an inch of water.

Bring to a simmer (100°C) for three hours.

Allow to cool in the pan.

When the jars are cool enough to handle, release the clip and try to lift the lid.  If it is not possible, you have a good vacuum seal so replace the clip and store.

I also filled a silicone loaf mould with the terrine mix, on top of three bay leaves, vacuum packed it and cooked it in the sous-vide for 6 hours at 70°C.

Alternatively, you could cover loosely with foil and place in a roasting tray filled with water.  Cook in a moderate oven (Gas 4) and cook for a couple of hours – until a cooking thermometer shows 70°C.

Served with the damson and apple, date and walnut chutneys, homemade bread rolls and salad garnish.  Excellent.

 

 

 

The Good, the Bad and the Baclava.

The good news is that I’ve done another book review for RNIB Connect radio (talking about three novels I’ve just read) plus my third on-line cooking demo (for the Braillist Foundation https://www.braillists.org) to share some of my cooking tips.  The bad news is that I didn’t make the grade for a TV commercial – the casting company was super-polite but they didn’t want me.  One day, you might see the ad and remember that I was completely the wrong person to play the elderly, blind grandmother!  Those of you who know me will not be surprised.

But the triumph of the week has been making baclava: indulgently sticky and sweet with our home-produced honey; fragrant with cardamom and orange; crunchy with hand-cracked French walnuts, toasted and sliced.  I’ve had to protect the outstanding results from marauding fingers.  But it is blissfully simple and a wonderful way of celebrating our autumn honey harvest.  Any good honey from a local producer would be just as successful.

 

300g shelled walnuts, toasted and cut into pieces.

3 tablespoons honey

12 cardamom pods, husks removed and contents chopped

Zest of 1 orange

200g butter, melted

2 packs 270g filo pastry

300g honey

Juice of half an orange.

 

Mix the 3 tablespoons of honey, walnuts, cardamom and orange zest (I left overnight to infuse together).

Heat oven gas 4

Brush the bottom of a baking tray with butter.

Place a sheet of filo pastry on the bottom of the tin and brush with butter, repeat with the rest of the pack to give a firm base.

Spread the nut and honey mix on the pastry.

Place the first sheet of pastry from the second pack on top of the nuts, brush with butter and repeat to use the rest of the pack.

Cut through all the layers to make squares of baclava – about one-inch square.

Pour over any remaining butter.

Place in oven for 20 minutes and then reduce temperature to Gas 2 for a further 30 minutes – the top should be browned.  Run a knife through the cuts made earlier.

Pour the honey and orange juice syrup over the baclava and allow to cool.

There are many different flavour variations: cinnamon, pistachio nuts and more so that you can choose whatever you like best.  We had a huge bag of French walnuts, still in their shells which meant they had kept very well for nearly two years.  Otherwise, I keep all my shelled nuts in the freezer as walnuts and Brazil nuts particularly can taste rather rancid if not used quickly.

It is definitely worth finding a metal tray that fits the sheets of filo pastry closely – if not, alternate the positions or cut the sheets to fit the tin.  Don’t be tempted to make in a foil tray unless you can be sure not to cut through the bottom and lose the syrup.

 

 

 

 

 

This is a fabulous way of using nuts and honey but also utterly wicked when it comes to counting the calories – I’m going to share with friends so that the temptation is removed.

 

Tamarillo or not Tamarillo?

 

That’s the question.  We have just discovered a plant in the garden: long soft ovate leaves and elongated yellow fruits with the feel and structure of apples – even the same taste as I threw caution to the wind and ate one.  The plant finder App pronounced tamarillo (also known as the tree tomato).    But great friend and gardening researcher Elaine re-posted that they are the fruits of the passion flower: cause stomach upsets if eaten when still yellow rather than the golden peachy colour they should achieve when ripe.  I have no idea where the well-established shrub sprang from and why it has chosen to fruit this year or what it really is.  Any suggestions very welcome please.

This week I was finding a use for last year’s crop of chilli peppers.  They have been drying for many months so, once topped and tailed and de-seeded, I ground them with dried rosemary from the garden, dried thyme and powdered garlic.

A simple potato recipe for the mix:

Slice potatoes into thick slices (about 0.5 cm thick).

Throw the slices in to a bowl with a good grinding of black pepper, half a teaspoonful or so of salt, a teaspoon of the chilli/herb mix plus a good tablespoonful or two of olive oil.

Mix with your hands so that every surface of potato is covered.

Lay out on parchment paper and cook for about 45 minutes at Gas 4, turning the slices over after about 30 minutes.

Utterly delicious!

The potatoes were dished up with a roast chicken cooked the Heston way: soaked overnight in a litre of water plus 60g salt, slices of lemon and herbs.  Next day, drain, put the lemon slices inside the chicken and put into a roasting tin in the oven at the lowest heat.  The key piece of equipment is a thermometer (mine talks) and, after three or so hours, check that the temperature of the thickest piece of thigh has reached 70C (put it back in the oven if not hot enough).  When you are satisfied with the temperature, remove the chicken from the oven and cover with foil and a kitchen towel (the cotton sort).  Let it rest for about 45 minutes (while you cook the potatoes).

Turn the oven up to the highest temperature and remove all the coverings from the chicken – cook it for 10 minutes to produce a crisp, brown skin.

Serve everything with vegetables: easy roast chicken lunch.

And, while I was making this, I also cooked apple, date and walnut chutney using the same proportions and method as the damson version (posted a few weeks ago) – excellent.

(Plus, an apple crumble and a rhubarb and ginger (crystallised) crumble – a busy morning in the kitchen.  My crumble mix uses oats, brown sugar, crushed hazelnuts and butter – I prefer it to the flour version.

 

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