The gorgeous gourd!

Alongside the glorious rich colours of autumn leaves, I think one of the most iconic images of autumn is of squashes – those wonderful shaped and coloured gourds or, to give them their proper name, Cucurbitaceae.

A gourd was probably one of the earliest domesticated types of plant as examples have discovered in archaeological sites dating from as early as 13,000 BC. Gourds are immensely versatile and can be found used in all sorts of ways throughout history, including as tools, musical instruments, objects of art, of course, food.

Squashes, pumpkins and gourds belong to the same family as cucumbers, melons, marrows and courgettes. There is an amazing variety of sizes, shapes and colours, and although most are edible, some are used for decoration only. All squashes and pumpkins have a tough outer rind, an inner cavity filled with hard seeds and sweet, rich, well-coloured flesh with a dense, nutty and earthy flavour.

As a child, I remember being served plain boiled marrow (ugh!) and carving pumpkins for Halloween but that was about the limit of my exposure to these vegetables. Now, we veggie gardeners grow courgettes by the ton and regularly shop for butternut squash and spaghetti squash, as well as turban squash, onion squash, acorn squash and even kabocha – this Japanese variety of squash.

Apart from being good to eat, they are also beautiful to look at, and their shapes and colours are incredibly diverse. I love seeing them arranged in a bowl almost as a work of art, and they will keep for ages.

Today, gourds are commonly used for a wide variety of crafts, including jewellery, furniture, dishes, utensils and a wide variety of decorations using carving, burning and other techniques. The Chinese developed a technique of tying a two-part mould around young gourds, or a part of them, so that the gourd grew into the mould and took its shape. Shaped gourds had various decorative uses, especially as boxes, bottles and other containers. And, don’t forget, that good old bath time companion the luffa (or loofah) is also a gourd!

Mini gourds are wonderful when included in floral decorations, such as wreaths, or table centres and you can buy a huge range online. Or you could grow them yourself, but drying, or curing, them takes time… let me know if you already grow them and I’d be interested to know how you use them!

Curing Ornamental Gourds

Curing or drying ornamental gourds requires time. There is no shortcut, like microwaving.

  1. Start by cleaning the surface of the gourds with soapy water and allow them to air dry.
  1. Place in a well-ventilated area away from direct sunlight, for about 1 week. The skin will begin to harden and change colour. After a week, the outside of the gourd should be well dried.
  1. Move the gourds to a well-ventilated, dark area where they can remain for at least 6 months. Spread them in a single layer and be sure none of the gourds are touching each other. Allow for airflow under the gourds by placing them on a screen or vented surface. It may be easier to hang larger gourds for drying.
  1. Check your gourds every few days and discard any that begin to decay, shrivel or get soft. If mould appears, see if you can wipe it off with a dry cloth or one dipped in bleach. If the gourd is still hard, it should be fine. Drying gourds is not a pretty process!
  1. Turn the gourd every couple of weeks, so it will dry evenly and to prevent rotting.
  1. When the gourds become light and hard to the touch, and you can hear the seeds rattling inside when you shake them, they are ready for use. At this time you can carve, paint, wax, shellac or decorate your ornamental gourds any way you wish. They should last indefinitely.

Gourd luck (sorry!)!

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A different twist on a quiche

I know ‘Real men don’t eat quiche’ is a well known saying, but I found several men really enjoyed this quiche over the weekend. Technically, I made it for me as it is Slimming World friendly, but with the addition of some Charlotte potatoes from the garden and a lovely salad – tomatoes, radishes, lettuce also from the garden – everyone seemed to really enjoy it. As autumn draws in, I shall miss the warm weather and the free salads sitting outside just waiting to be picked!

The joy of this recipe is that it is endlessly flexible – have a look in the fridge and see what you have left – onions work well, courgettes, spring onions, bacon, prawns, the list goes on and on!

crustlessquicheCrustless quiche – serves 4-6

  • 150g chopped mushrooms
  • 6 large eggs
  • 2/3 tomatoes
  • 3 thick slices of ham
  • Small tin of sweet corn drained
  • 100 ml milk
  • 3+ tablespoons grated cheddar cheese
  • Chives or parsley and salt/pepper
  1. Stir fry the mushrooms in a non-stick pan – use a tiny amount of oil or butter if you like. The reason for cooking these first is to get rid of the grey liquid that can seep out of mushrooms while they cook – so fry them until they are well cooked and then drain thoroughly.
  2. In a large bowl mix together the chopped ham, mushrooms, corn, seasonings and herbs. Once mixed turn into a fluted flan dish as pictured or a cake tin or skillet or whatever cooking pan you want. Slice the tomatoes fairly thinly and arrange on the top of the quiche in a circle
  3. Now mix the eggs well with the milk and cheese. Pour over the other ingredients.
  4. Put into a medium hot oven about 200°C and cook for 25 minutes.

This can be served hot or cold depending on your preference.

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Easy salmon & pinto bean pâté

Here are a couple of recipes that have proved useful for me when I have friends or family round for a meal. As I have mentioned before I am currently dieting with Slimming World and it’s certainly helping me come up with family-friendly alternatives to the higher calorie, more traditional recipes that I have been used to.

Both recipes could be thinned down with more liquid if you wanted to turn them into dips instead of pâtés – depends what you want them for really!

EasyPatesSalmon, lemon and parsley pâté
Here I used fresh salmon that I cooked in the microwave (only takes 2 or 3 minutes) – but you could use tinned salmon or bought ready cooked salmon.

  • 200g salmon
  • 200g quark (or light Philadelphia, or fromage frais)
  • Handful of fresh parsley
  • Juice from half a lemon
  • Few tablespoons water
  • Salt and pepper
  • Teaspoon (or more) Waitrose crushed chilli (a cooks ingredient in a jar, but other brands would be fine)

Method

  1. Make sure the salmon has no skin or bones – then chuck (technical term) all the ingredients into a food processor and whizz until smooth. Taste and adjust seasoning to your liking – if it seems too solid then add more water (tablespoon at a time and whizz).
  2. If you don’t have a food processor then a stick blender would work or even just forking it all together.
  3. Serve with toast, or brown bread and butter or as a dip (add more water) with crudities.

Pinto bean, chickpea and sweet chilli pâté
This recipe is ideal for any vegetarians you may have to feed, or just for meat eaters that love chilli!

  • 1 tin pinto beans, drained
  • 1 tin chickpeas, drained
  • 3 cloves garlic (or less if you aren’t a garlic fan)
  • Juice from half a lemon
  • Salt and pepper
  • Few tablespoons of water
  • Blue Dragon light sweet chilli sauce
  • Waitrose cook’s ingredient crushed chilli (or any other brand)

Method

  1. Drain beans well (I usually rinse them quickly in the sieve) and then put all the ingredients into a food processor except the last two. Whizz until smooth – then decide how much chilli sauce and chillis you want to use – I would suggest one or two teaspoons of the chillis and then several tablespoons of the sweet chilli sauce.
  2. Whizz again and check the taste – alter the seasoning and if necessary add a little more water.
  3. Again this could be thinned with more water to make a dip with crudites – or served as a pâté with warm rolls or toast.

 

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Country style potato salad that’s slimming!

It’s just so hard – having guests and staying true to your diet – but I am gradually cracking it with Slimming World, again! I have tried and failed several times but, this time, it is really working – their plan is suiting me and I have a lovely leader heading the group I have joined. So, maybe it’s true, it’s not what you know it’s who you know!

Most Saturdays see me cooking a family meal and it’s so tempting to take the easy way out and cook high-calorie family favourites. Now it’s up to me to find some healthy family favourites and this potato salad looks like becoming one of them. I barbecued (OK, Richard barbecued) chicken breasts – or you could do steaks, or pork chops or whatever you fancy, and then served this salad with it. Give it a go and see what you think – but kudos to the slimming world site for providing it!

Potato saladCountry-style potato salad

  • 500g waxy new potatoes diced
  • 1½ tbsp. cider vinegar
  • 6 level tbsp. extra light mayo
  • 50g fat-free natural fromage frais
  • 200g very low fat or fat-free natural cottage cheese
  • 1 level tsp Dijon mustard
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 small red onion finely diced
  • 4 plum tomatoes roughly chopped
  • 100g gherkins roughly chopped
  • 3 hard boiled eggs roughly chopped
  • 1 roasted red pepper diced
  • 2 tbsp chopped fresh flat leaf parsley

Method

  1. Boil the diced potatoes in salted water until cooked and then drain. Put them in a mixing bowl and sprinkle with the vinegar and leave to stand for 10 minutes
  2. Whisk together the mayonnaise, fromage frais and mustard and season well
  3. Add the potatoes and rest of the ingredients and toss well until combined
  4. Cover and chill before serving
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Posh rhubarb!

It’s rhubarb time! It seems to be a good year for it and you can spot the massive leaves lurking in people’s gardens all over the place. Partner in crime writing, Julia, grows rhubarb and has been giving it away to friend and neighbours as she can’t keep up with this year’s crop! Fortunately, she also enjoys drinking prosecco, or cava (she isn’t fussy!) so I’ll leave her to tell you her latest rhubarb discovery…

“I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, so you won’t find me turning out rhubarb crumble or pie, I simply stew it, keeping it quite sharp and eat it with yogurt for breakfast… but you can only eat so much of it and can only get so many tubs in the freezer! 

In desperation, I began looking online for other uses for rhubarb… and came up with a very easy idea for putting a zing into your summer drink selection!”

How to make a rhubarb prosecco cocktail:

First, make a rhubarb syrup:

Makes about 250ml

  • 450g/1 pound fresh rhubarb cut into disks
  • 100g/3.5oz cup sugar
  • 125ml/4.2fl oz cup water

Method

Put all the ingredients into a medium saucepan and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes or until the fruit is very soft. Turn the heat off and cool in the pan.

Strain through a fine sieve into a measuring jug. Leave the fruit to drain for a few hours and then use a funnel transfer to a bottle or other suitable container. Keeps in the fridge for up to four weeks!

Next, add the alcohol!

Put 1tbsp of the luscious pink syrup in a glass

Top up with prosecco, cava or, if you are splashing out, Champagne

The rhubarb syrup will keep for up to a month in the fridge so why not make a big batch and invite all your neighbours round!

If a cocktail isn’t your thing, it’s also delicious as a porridge topping or drizzled on ice-cream!

 

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