Posts Tagged ‘Home’

Autumn riches – blackberry heaven!

September 27, 2013

Summer in all its glory, has come and gone. And as if to make sure we understood, the weather turned bad overnight and gave us all a nasty turn. This week though we are back to lovely Autumnal days; cool sunshine, turning leaves and ripening fruit.

Living as we do in the big metropolis with a weeny (but so glad we have it) garden, our fruit-growing abilities are somewhat limited, however we do have a thornless blackberry, which always provides us with heavy crops of delicious blackberries in the late Summer and Autumn.

blackberries in a colander

All you folk who live out of London will be laughing into your tea at the idea of planting a blackberry bush. Is she mad? Just go blackberrying. Well yes I would, but I haven’t found a reliable crop near us and anyway there’s something quite lovely about striding (all of a dozen steps) to the end of our garden and plucking a few ripe juicy fruits to add to my breakfast bowl each morning.

Don’t get me wrong, if we’re in the countryside then I love nothing more than scratching my arms to pieces in order to gather a bowl or bagful of lovely ripe blackberries, but this is our easy urban alternative.

As a fruiting plant to cultivate, a blackberry bush has to be the easiest as it requires barely any maintenance. Each year it puts forth two, or when it’s feeling particularly happy three, new shoots from the base. In their first year these new shoots grow and climb and sprout leaves. They are eager to please and grow vigorously. In their second year these same branches will flower and then bear fruit, while down below another two branches begin sprouting ready for serious growth the following year.

All I do each year in late Autumn is cut down the two or three branches that have just fruited, leaving next year’s growth ready to flower (and then fruit) the following Spring. I also clip the ends of those new branches so that they bush out rather than continuing to fire out longer and longer stems. How easy is that! I have never fed it – well maybe when feeding other nearby plants, but not because it needs it.

branch of blackberries

Of course it’s quite unruly, especially if left completely to its own devices, but I can tie back the branches easily enough and its somewhat random and wild growth suits our somewhat errr random and wild garden.

This year we’ve had a bumper crop; all that Summer sunshine has produced an abundance of plump sweet fruit. In the countryside blackberries can vary from tiny, hard, hairy fellas to sweet, round juicy beauties, and the two can be in brambles right next to each other – overall I think there are around 150 varieties of wild blackberries. Of course the glorious challenge is in reaching the juiciest, which are inevitably the ones that are tantalisingly just out of reach. Those fellas are definitely worth fighting for, but there’s also something very nice and London-ish about being able to pick a bowlful of consistently big and juicy blackberries from our garden without spending time removing small thorns from our forearms afterwards. It’s theraputic as, although we’re in the middle of London, our garden is very quiet and to lose oneself in something so sweet and satisfying is a joy.

bowl of blackberries and a book

The book is a great read: Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

So what have we done with this year’s lush fruit? Well apart from eating them straight off the bush, I have as I mentioned, been scattering them on my summer breakfast oats for the past few weeks. I soak oats and some chia seeds with milk and a squeeze of lemon juice overnight and serve them cold with fruit and yoghurt.

overnight oats with blackberries

The basic recipe is courtesy of my favourite cookery blog: My New Roots written by Sarah-Britton who-is-a-culinary-genius. Her recipes have had greater influence on my diet in recent years than anyone else’s. So if you’re in the mood for a dietary revamp head over to My New Roots and dive in. Highlights for me include her totally addictive kale crisps which are and her best lentil salad ever, which is. Oh and I must mention our most recent find: Flavour Bomb Greens and Noodles. Go on, you won’t regret it!

Alongside the daily blackberry pickings we’ve also had 3 bumper crops so far. With the first, in the heat of summer, I made a blackberry sage water – fruit and sage leaves muddled together (with a muddler – woo hoo!) and topped up with sparkling water.

blackberry sage water

While I sipped on my delicate flavoured water I made a batch of blackberry ripple ice creams that went down a storm with the troops. A simple concoction of custard, condensed milk and of course blackberries, these beauts are based on a recipe for raspberry ripple ice creams. They would be good to make with the children, if any of the mixture made it into the moulds that is. Although we loved them there’s still one left in the fridge because none of us can bear to eat the last one. Maybe we’ll put it out for Father Christmas – it’ll make a nice change from mince pies.

blackberry ripple ice cream

With the last of that crop I made an upside-down blackberry cake, courtesy of Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall. I forgot to take a picture. A nice alternative to a classic apple and blackberry crumble or pie but there’s a reason why those two are classics.

Fast forward a couple of weeks to harvest number two. I’ve made blackberry cordial before and homemade mure – a blackberry liqueur but this time I fancied blackberry jam. A peruse online and I found a recipe for blackberry jam with mint and ginger. End result: delicious but a bit runny and not particularly well-spiced. I couldn’t taste the mint or the ginger, though Danny could tell there were other flavours. Not convinced, I re-boiled the jam with some more ginger and mint. Now it zings and sings!

Crop number three has given us more breakfast berries, as well as an intense smooth blackberry puree for ice cream and finally blackberry five spice sauce to accompany grilled chicken (duck or pork). Delicious. It shall be repeated. Incidentally the recipe requires the sauce to be made in a Vitamix. I made it in a pan and strained it afterwards. Easy peasy.

As an extra special addition we sprinkled on some freshly ground szechuan pepper – our first crop EVER from our very own szechuan pepper tree.

As you chew Szechuan peppercorns (the pink shells actually) they release fascinating flavours known as ‘ma’ and ‘la’. They are a complex taste sensation that left my bottom lip partially numb for half an hour after trying my first one! Try it, it’s amazing. Oh you don’t have a szechuan pepper tree? Really? Oh, right, well my mistake…

szechuan pepper bush

I love our little peppercorn tree – its leaves smell citrusy (because it’s a citrus) and deserve a little rub on the way past. It came from Otter Farm in Devon which is run by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s farming chum Mark Diacono. Mark has a lot to say about szechuan pepper just here. He has made it his mission to grow more unusual crops and fruit trees, especially now that things are hotting up a little in the U.K. Have a look online and see if you can’t be tempted…

blackberries tipped into a bowl

Overall I’ve come to the conclusion, that having a small garden, we are better off growing fruit and veg that aren’t easy to buy. Last year we grew strawberries, but what’s the point when we can buy punnets of English grown strawberries in season? So instead we’ve switched to growing alpine strawberries. We don’t get many but each one is a little powerhouse of intense flavour and a really special treat, especially eaten straight off the plant.

So as we come to the end of this growing season, I am looking forward to the next with eager excitement. Time to consult some books, do some research and buy some seeds. And in the meantime I feel a blackberry and apple crumble coming on. Why don’t you get out there and do some blackberrying too – there’s still time for one of the best seasonal treats there is and it’s totally free! Quick, before it starts raining again.

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Ain’t no sunshine when you’ve gone…

June 14, 2013

In the absence of proper sun in the sky, it falls upon each of us to create some of our own, for life is no good without it.

At Alice’s school some of the children have created some much needed sunshine on the walls and it is a bright and cheery sight indeed…

kids sunflower painting collage

Meanwhile at home we’ve achieved our own major success, with help from a boxful of these…

box of alphonso mangoes

I like mangoes ALL the time, but life is truly enhanced in Spring and early Summer when two of the best mango varieties, which also happen to have two of the shortest seasons, arrive in town.

For a few short weeks in the Spring and early Summer, boxes of them are stacked up outside our local Asian supermarkets. Life is indeed brightened by their presence. The mango carnival has arrived, in my head anyway. First up are the all-singing, all-dancing Alphonsos and they are followed, heel hot, by the equally delicious, slightly more diminutive Honey mangoes.

You can’t buy either variety singly; not easily anyway, but who’d only want to buy just one of these anyhow? Their flesh is fragrant, sweet, juicy, velvety and totally irresistable; a boxful lasts a mere few days around here.  Last weekend we bought a precious box of Alphonsos from the legendary Taj Stores in Brick Lane and in the car on the way home as the anticipation grew, so their sweet scent wafted through from the boot to us in the front. Mmmm…

Opening a box of Alphonsos is like opening a Christmas present. Actually it’s better because you KNOW you’re going to love what’s inside. There’s a little bit of friction on lifting the lid, as if it’s reluctant to give up the treasure within, but once off there’s just a rough tissue paper cover between you and the golden jewels inside. Each fruit is carefully wrapped in its own newspaper nest, protected for the long journey from India to East End.

mangoes in paper

Usually I might say, I try to shop mindfully – I shop locally, use supermarkets infrequently and minimise food miles when I can. I also love the seasonality of food, so currently we’re also enjoying the delights of English asparagus and peas. Incidentally, earlier this week I made a delicious rapeseed mayonnaise or ‘rouille’; recipe via the Guardian, in which to dip our asparagus spears. Yum. And it’s still going strong – salad, sandwiches and supper all covered alongside a simple cooked chicken. Cooks notes: extreme patience needed for adding the oil drop by drop. And though it seems like a lot of oil it’s just right.

But I digress. Where was I? Oh yes, I’m afraid my best efforts with food miles and local produce fly completely out of the window when the Alphonso and Honey mangoes arrive. I am definitely no saint and they are certainly a guilty pleasure.

Of course there are many delicious things you can cook and create with mangoes. Pork and mango is a great combination and mango salads are delish as are mango creams. Such dishes feature at discerning restaurants at this time of year. But in my opinion the BEST way to eat these sweet and succulent beauties is in the privacy of your own home, where you can bask in the full glory and wonder of their un-adorned flesh.

Alphonso mango flesh is sliced away from the stone, after peeling in my book. This is usually a slippery and none too elegant affair, but the resulting heap is absolutely delectable. Eat straight off the board – I do – or if you’re really restrained, transfer to a bowl, for a modicum of decorum before devouring.

A unique preparation technique for honey mangoes adds another layer of excitement and keeps everything together; until you get it near your mouth, that is. Select your fruit and (after giving it a good, deep, appreciative sniff) slice in half across its middle and around the thin stone. Twist the two cut halves in opposite directions and one half of the mango will pull away. Twist and remove the slippery stone from the other half (elegance matters not) and then simply spoon the sweet flesh straight into your expectant, drooling mouth.

mango half and spoon

Bliss.

And when you’ve finished spooning the succulent flesh into your mouth, there is still one final treat in store – as if it could get any better. Pick up your mango stone, pop it in your mouth and suck. The juiciest, sweetest flesh clings to the stone and it is your duty to leave none; not one juicy vestige, behind.

Sinfully gorgeous, it is essential to end up with juice running down your arm and a big, sweet grin on your face!

You may also find you are left with a mostly dry and slightly hairy stone. With the addition of some felt pen eyes this can be turned into a temporary pet for the children to enjoy. Honey the hamster always enjoys her short time with us. Of course she can’t stay very long though…

And when you’ve finally finished, rather than wipe any juicy dribbles away or heaven forbid, wash them off; why not just rub them in – mango is known for its skin-replenishing properties, you know. Hurrah!

Pile of Alphonso mango flesh on chopping board

No self-respecting restaurant would allow you to indulge in this kind of behaviour. Well they could, but they won’t, so this is a fine example of home food prep (I can hardly call it cooking) outgunning even the classiest restaurant.

So that means that as well as everything else, eating these delights at home actually SAVES you the expense of a posh night out!

Now, I’m sorry to bring the tone down at this point, but I feel that amid this joy we must spare a thought for a group of sad individuals who, according to our learned friend Rod, suffer a strain of dermatitis that arises from skin contact with mangoes. These tragic souls come out in a nasty rash, bless ’em. Mind you Rod assures us that they can still eat mango, so long as it doesn’t touch the sides on the way in. Where there’s a will there’s a way, I say.

So there we have it; my suggested sunshine substitute. I utterly, utterly recommend, encourage and cajole you to seek out your nearest Asian supermarket or greengrocer and find out what the fuss is about for yourself. I know you have to buy a boxful, but I promise you won’t regret it; why not share the love with your friends and neighbours.

The Alphonso season only lasts a couple more weeks, then the honey mangoes will arrive for even less time. So hurry, while stocks last! Between these two delectable fruits we should be kept in sunshine through much of this miserable season that is, or at least may be, our summer. And should the sun actually come out then you can enjoy these little beauties outside, in the sun. Even more heavenly.

Very important note. Please, please, don’t be under any illusion that the average supermarket mango is an adequate substitute for this slice of heaven.

It. Is. Not.

Why not let us know how you get on AND share your top tips for bringing some much-needed sunshine into your life.

Happy weekend everyone.

poppy in the gutter

Finally and by way of a special bonus I offer you my secret recipe for an instant and really cheap holiday – we all need one of those from time to time. When going to bed switch your sheets and pillows round and sleep at the other end. In the morning you’ll awake in unfamiliar surroundings and for a few blissful seconds, you’ll think you’re on holiday. Joy.

It all adds up, hopefully…

April 5, 2013

First things first, WHAT is going on with the weather?  Like everyone else I’ve had ENOUGH. I’m taking it personally now and I’m not happy. Nor is Alice…

retro bad weather

These retro weather fridge magnets came with a few suns but I don’t even know where they are. Gathering dust under the fridge I expect, useless as they are.

Michael Fish is not the only one sporting a black cloud around here. Currently there is a LOT of maths happening in this house. Too much methinks.

Elsa revealed yesterday (a week into the holiday – ho hum) that she’s been given a 10 page maths booklet to complete. 2 week holiday, 5 working days in each week, 10 pages to complete. You do the maths, oh no wait; we’re doing the maths. So it’s a double page of tricky maths every weekday over the holidays. Weekends off. Thank you Mr. Teacher.

However as we’ve only just started this homework, thank you Ms. Elsa, we have a considerable amount to achieve in not much time. We even had our lunch amid the paperwork today.

homework table

Help!

I say ‘we’, but of course it’s Elsa’s homework. However I am fearful of leaving her to this scary booklet; maths is already a subject that she sometimes feels unconfident about. It’s a common dilemma I/we/most parents have – whether and when to step in and help. Unlike maths, parenting questions rarely have a simple answer. And often, whatever course of action we take feels wrong. Or is that just me? I think not. Perpetual guilt it’s called. And it’s one of the joys of parenting.

As a counterpoint to the muddle that is parenting, I actually quite like maths usually. I like the certainty of it. The maths problems I can get my head round have either a right or wrong answer and I find comfort in that. For my new freelance-self I find myself doing bookkeeping for some friends businesses and although I’ve now got to get my head around software packages, I’m quite enjoying dusting off the principles of debit and credit, T accounts and trial balances. Scary but true. Hence I found myself looking up accountancy tutorials at 7.30 this morning. Oh joy!

The interweb is such an amazing resource – tutorials on EVERYTHING you could wish for. Mind you I’ve yet to find an entertaining accountancy tutorial. But the answers are all out there, it’s knowing how to ask the right questions that matters now.

However these tutorials, in combination with helping Elsa with her maths homework means I think I may have hit sums overload. I have numbers swimming in front of my eyes and they’re not making sense.

As it’s Friday I think it may be time to abandon ship, cut a pizza into fractions – equal quarters of course and relax.

cat on homework

Luckily it’s not the final homework she’s sitting on.

Have a great weekend World.

Happy Easter

April 1, 2013

Row of Easter chicks

 

Like loads of families we’re relishing four days off in a row. Four days to relax a bit and eat a lot, in this house anyway…

We decided to make some Easter biscuits. Fishing around in my shoebox of biscuit cutters I discovered I’ve accumulated seven bunny cutters. Seven! I think I’ve probably bought a new one each year, each year thinking to myself “It’d be nice to make some Easter biscuits”; but failing to do so because of, well I don’t know what, but something, always something.

Row of bunny biscuit cutters

Each cutter is a best laid plan gone by the wayside

So anyway THIS year it’s going to happen and inspired by a biscuit book we were given at Christmas (thanks Oli and Vics!) I started off with the idea of making perfect-o gorgeous-o creations that would be worthy of sale in Selfridges or Harrods.

Of course right when I first opened the pages of that book I should’ve known that we would end up doing something totally different.

The joy of cooking with children is that if its going to truly be a family activity then you have to let go – the pursuit of perfection, finessed techniques, presentation; all these disappear in favour of making sure that the finished article is edible, that everyone involved still has all their fingers and that you have managed to keep your cool throughout the process. You also need to let go of any usual concept of time. It all takes an inordinate amount of time.

But it’s so worth it. The act of making the biscuits in itself a joy – the kids delight in the qualities of the ingredients and the concentrated effort when weighing, measuring, spooning, stirring and rolling means that this is so much more than a biscuit-making session. It is a maths lesson, a science class and a masterclass in texture, design, taste and touch. No wonder it takes so long!

Making biscuits collage 1

‘Wow, the syrup’s like liquid gold!’, ‘Do you like how I’m cutting the butter’, ‘I need my goggles to zest lemons’, ‘Uurrghh! I stuck my fingers in the egg!’…

I should mention that as well as inspiration, the aforementioned book; The Biscuiteers Book of Iced Biscuits provided a few gems of culinary usefulness. For example: roll the dough between two sheets of baking parchment rather than use flour, which will dry out the mixture and secondly: use two lengths of dowel (or wooden spoons, they suggest) to roll the mixture to an even thickness before cutting.

rolling and cutting collage

Et voila! And it’s only 3 o’clock.

We ALL got involved with the icing. But you see that little sentence, yes that one there that I just wrote. Seven innocent little words. Well it hides about 3 hours work! To get all the icing ingredients weighed and mixed. To find and choose the colours, to divide all the icing into little bowls and tint carefully – not too much now! Try not to spill it. Oh. You have. All down the cupboard door. And yourself. And me. Sigh. Find enough squeezy bottles and piping bags to contain all variations; dark, light, pouring and piping. We even had to make some piping bags.

So after all that, some three hours later, we iced. We iced for all it was worth. And we had fun. And the results? Well the results speak for themselves. We will not be selling them in Harrods, they are too good for that. We each put a little piece of ourselves into these fellas (creativity I mean, not fingernails) and we’re very proud. What d’you reckon?

collage iced biscuits

A salutary tale for Monday

March 11, 2013

What a difference 24 hours makes. Apart from anything else it’s bitterly cold today, I’m sure its colder than my phone alleges.

When Alice and I got the bus to school this morning a lady started talking to us. She thought Alice looked tired. Probably. She said that when she was a child, she was always tired at school and then went on to tell us why. It made me reflect on Mother’s Day and blog writing and the horror of some people’s lives and how lucky I am and, well…

For 10 years, from the age of 4, this lady was sent to a Irish convent boarding school that was primarily meant for mentally and physically disabled children. She didn’t learn, she said and the children there came out dumber than when they went in. But they were punished.

“If I did something wrong” she said, “I would be hit, on the front or the back of my hand and if I didn’t learn my lesson, I’d be whacked on my inner thigh. When we were really bad we were locked in a cupboard, with no light and nothing in it, for 24 hours at a time. No toilet, no nothing.”

She finally left when she was 14 – her stepfather realised it was doing her no good and pulled her out.

She was also sectioned twice, when she was 7 and 11. She never knew why or by whom. But when her Mum died she found the evidence. Her Mum’s signature was on the papers, both times. To this day she doesn’t know why. She says she can’t forgive her, but “she’s still my Mum”. Now in her late 40s she is self-educating herself, learning to read and write. “If it wasn’t for that place I’d probably be a lawyer by now”. I don’t doubt it, she came across as a strong and bright woman who was learning to stop her past overcoming her. Amazing.

Of course I have no idea of the context of her story, or even the truth of it. But she had no reason to lie and whatever the details, it’s a salutary counterpoint to Mother’s Day and my schmaltzy post of yesterday. A child’s love is extraordinary and it’s a responsibility we must take seriously.

I don’t want this blog to be a saccharine-loaded piece of fluff. It’s easily done – just blog about the shiny bits. Of course there’s plenty to celebrate but there’s also plenty that’s a lot harder to manage, understand and cope with. And some people’s lives are simply horrendous.

This blog is part of my journey into a new happier chapter of life that I’m really enjoying so far, but my life is not a stream of sugary joy and nor is anyone else’s I know. I haven’t suffered like the woman on the bus, not at all, but I want this blog to reflect some of the truths about life, not just the good bits.

Will I be able to do it? Is the temptation to choose the sparkly bits too great? Is it a kind of therapy? Am I too shallow to blog about the tricky bits? Is the truth too risky in the blogosphere? We’ll see. Keep me in check if you please. X


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