The wonder of herbs!

There’s no denying it, I am a bit of a herb fanatic. They tick so many boxes – they can transform your cooking, save you lots of money over shop-bought herbs and they often look wonderful too!

At the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2015 growers were asked to highlight some of their favourite ornamental herbs that offer attractive foliage and/or flowers. Here are some of their suggestions 

Angelica (Angelica archangelica)
This architectural plant, which can exceed 2m in height, is equally at home in the border or the herb garden. Its stems and roots are edible 

Australian mint bush (Prosanthera rotundifolia)
In late spring, this tender shrub is smothered in bell-shaped, purple flowers. Its foliage has a very strong menthol smell, and the leaves can be used in oils and infusions.

Creeping pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium)
This tiny, low-growing mint looks lovely planted in cracks in a pathway, and is said to repel ants and mice. It’s similar to spearmint and has purple-lilac flowers in summer.

Jacob’s Ladder (Polemonium yezoense var. hidakanum ‘Purple Rain’)
Jacob’s Ladder used to be used for all kinds of medicinal purposes but today, it’s mostly grown as an ornamental. This variety has unusual bronze leaves and bright blue flowers and makes an excellent border plant. 

Pygmy borage (Borage pygmaea)
Borage can reach a quite a size in the garden, so if space is at a premium, try this dwarf variety. The star-shaped blue or white flowers have a cucumber taste and can be added to summer drinks and salads. Bees adore it.

Salad burnet (Sanguisorba minor)
This semi-evergreen perennial has small, red, globe-shaped flowers and leaves that have a cucumber flavour – I use it in salads. It does best in sun or partial shade and makes a great border filler.

Pictured from the top: Angelica, Australian mint bush, creeping pennyroyal, pygmy borage and salad burnet. 

 

 

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Lobster bisque – no longer a luxury!

I am lucky to live near the sea and fishing ports down here in Devon, so really fresh lobster is easy to come by. Having said that, the big supermarkets are not only stocking more lobsters but the prices, certainly over Christmas, were amazingly cheap and it is much more available than it was.

Apart from the standard way of serving the soup – hot in a bowl – how about chilling it overnight and then serving as a canapé in little shot glasses? I thought it was a fun alternative to some of my standard canapés.

This recipe is quite easy and the key to its success is to whizz it very thoroughly. I have a stick blender that I use (yes bought from Ideal World!) or you could use a liquidiser instead. But it is important that the soup is smooth and creamy.

Recipe

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2-4 cloves of garlic (or more if you love garlic!)
  • 2 shallots and 3 spring onions finely chopped
  • 4 large tablespoons(!) white wine
  • 2-3 teaspoons Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 teaspoons (or your choice) Tabasco sauce
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme, 2 dried bay leaves
  • 6 large tablespoons sherry (any kind I find is good)
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 teaspoon Knorr concentrated liquid stock
  • 8 ounces of hot water, 2 ounces tomato purée
  • 2 ounces butter and 16 ounces double cream
  • 8-10 ounces of cooked lobster meat

Method

  1. Use a frying pan and sauté the onions and garlic in the oil for a minute or two. Now add the white wine and stir well.
  2. Add the Lea & Perrins, hot sauce and dried thyme and sauté again for say a minute or so. Now add the sherry and stir around well, gathering any bits that have caught on the pan.
  3. Add the hot water, concentrated stock and paprika. Add the bay leaves and tomato purée and allow to simmer for 10 minutes.
  4. Make sure it is not boiling, add the cream and butter with a whisk, then bring to a gentle boil. Finally add the lobster and simmer until it is heated through. Now use a stick blender or liquidiser and whizz till completely velvety and smooth.
  5. Serve in bowls with crusty bread or try chilling overnight and serving in shot glasses as a canapé. Delicious!

 

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The Ethicurean

It is rare that I go out for a meal with friends or family and come home bouncing and raving about how fabulous it was both as an experience and as a delicious meal. Well this week I did just that. We had two American friends to stay and to contrast with their fast, flashy Los Angeles lifestyle, we went to The Ethicurean in Barley Wood Walled Garden near Bristol.

I can honestly say that the food was something I will remember for a very long time and the view, wow! It just stretched for miles! Basically, this is a garden designed and built in the early 1900s for the Wills family (of cigarette fame). The old orangery has been turned into a restaurant and some of the outbuildings converted into craft workshops. The decor in the orangery is gentle, reminiscent of times gone by, and just wonderful.

The enthusiastic waitresses were both charming and very sweet – for example our waitress gently said to my American friend when he tried to add a 20% tip onto the bill, no sir, that’s too much just half that would be very generous. Well, how many times have you heard that?

Everything – and I mean everything – is home grown or raised by friends and locals. Home made drinks, bread, food – all from garden to table – yum! I had a welsh rarebit for starters, then some Cornish hake followed by local blue cheese with quince jelly. Richard chose beef followed by a sticky toffee apple pudding that I suspect he will mention over and over again (sigh) and yes, they do a cookery book and, no, I don’t know if the recipe is in there!

I took a few pictures, my apologies if my camera skills aren’t quite what they should be but you can get the gist of it – I just wanted to share with you all! Contented smiles!

PS. An ‘ethicurean’ is someone who attempts to combine ethical food consumption with an interest in epicureanism, eating ethically without depriving oneself of taste – and yes, I had to look it up!

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The wonders of seaweed!

Julia with her lovely terrier appropriately named Seaweed!I first met Julia Horton-Powdrill on a writing course, some six years ago. I was there with my partner in crime writing Julia Wherrell (you don’t meet a Julia for years and then two come along at once!) and we have stayed in touch ever since. Julia H-P lives in St David’s in Pembrokeshire where she runs foraging courses, writes novels and runs the ‘Really Wild Food Festival’ – one busy lady! Julia W went to visit earlier this month as she was collecting her new puppy from the area (and that’s another blog coming soon!), so she thought she’d ask Julia H-P about foraging and one of her major passions – seaweed!

While I enjoy growing my own veg and picking the odd mushroom and wild berry, I really am not very knowledgeable about wild plants and food for free, so I was interested to hear how Julia H-P first got into foraging.

“I was pretty much born to it!” she says. “My father studied botany and zoology at Cambridge, and then became a GP in a rural practice in south east Wales. In those days, GPs still ‘did the rounds’ and had time to pause and appreciate their surroundings so my father would often come home with foraged plants and mushrooms for our tea. I remember him bringing home elvers fresh out of the local river once, but mother thought they were revolting, so that was not one of his better efforts!

“He was also very keen on seaweed, as am I, but it wasn’t until after he died that I made a rather significant discovery. I was going through his belongings when I came across a wonderful collection of seaweeds that he’d gathered from around Anglesey back in the 1930s. It is quite probable that some of these seaweeds no longer grow in the area, so I plan to donate them to the National Museum of Wales. They already have his beetle collection anyway!”

So what is it that’s so marvellous about seaweed, I wondered? Julia’s lovely country-style kitchen is draped with the stuff – all different shapes and sizes and colours, she breaks off bits and chews them as she talks and describes how she uses them in soups and stews. Her pantry is neatly stocked with jars of it too, and there are packs stored in the freezer.

“I use it a lot adding bits here and there to dishes as different seaweeds have different flavours and textures and, of course, being Welsh, I make lava bread! It takes some time to identify different seaweeds and to know how to clean and dry and store them, but if you are interested, you can buy books on it, or look it up – it’s all there online these days. And one of the great things about seaweed is you can just stop and try a bit – have a nibble on the beach if you want to – it is never going to harm you, none of it is poisonous.”

As well as appearing on the BBCs Countryfile earlier this month, Julia has been on other TV shows and, perhaps most memorably, been filmed sitting in a seaweed bath with The One Show presented Alex Jones! “Seaweed is terribly good for your skin,” Julia explains. “It is full of all sorts of vitamins and minerals, so run a good hot bath, stick in the seaweed and hey presto – a wonderful natural beauty treatment!” 

Multi-skilling seaweed!
We come across products containing seaweed quite often but are usually completely unaware of it. You will find it in some brands of cosmetics, ice cream, toothpaste and various food stuffs. It is also in bath preparations and is widely used as a fertilizer.

You can follow Julia’s foraging exploits here.

Her wild food festival here. 

Her new novel here. 

 

 

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Chicken or the egg?

So which did come first… the chicken or the egg? Well, on this blog, it’s the chicken as we had them last week, so this week it’s the egg! Julia adores both scrambled eggs and omelettes and makes them so well I thought it was worth asking her how she does it. So here you are from the horse’s mouth or should that be from the chicken’s beak?

I keep hens because they’re great fun and I’m lucky enough to have the room but, of course, the main reason is for their eggs. Our hens produce rich golden yolks that make omelettes and scrambled eggs look really appetising as well as tasting wonderful. Eggs make excellent cheap, nutritious and simple meals in minutes – a convenience food if ever there was one! I am sure you all know perfectly well how to make scrambled eggs but it’s interesting hearing another cook’s methods – do you remember Delia teaching us all how to boil an egg? Very useful advice it was too! 

The secret of good scrambled eggs is a low heat and lots and lots or stirring!

Scrambled eggs
Allow two eggs per person, or three if you are feeling hungry. I add salt, freshly ground black pepper and whisk very thoroughly with a fork – and that’s it. I use a non-stick (very important!), heavy-based frying pan that is 9” across. I get this hot (no need for butter or oil) and then pour in the eggs. Gently stir, using a silicon spatula, the silicon works well as it’s slightly soft and means you can cleanly push the egg off the base of the pan as you stir, so you don’t get a coating stuck to the pan, end up with a bit of a mess.

Turn the heat down really low (I use gas which is nice and responsive), then just stand there and stir gently, for about 4 or 5 minutes, until you end up with a very smooth, creamy scramble – no big lumps, or hard bits. Stop while it’s still soft and moist and tip straight onto the hot buttered toast that you remembered to put in the toaster earlier!!

Create folds in your omelette so that it is delicate and light, yet properly cooked. We enjoyed this one with mushrooms AND smoked salmon!!Omelette
I allow the same amount of eggs per person, and use the same non-stick pan and spatula and, again, there’s no need for any fat. I get the pan hotter this time and will drop a little bit of egg mix in to check that it is hot enough to start cooking on contact. Then I pour all the mix in, and after about 10 or 20 seconds, when it has formed a thin cooked layer on the bottom, start pulling the mixture in from the sides. It’s rather like ‘rumpling up’ a sheet and creating folds. I always find this bit very therapeutic!

Keep doing this, angling the pan every now and then to let any uncooked egg mixture in the middle escape onto the hot pan to cook. This is a quick process and the whole thing can be done in about a minute. While it is still very moist, and even wet, in the middle, you can chuck in some grated cheese or your cooked mushrooms. Lift up the edge to check it is slightly golden underneath and then slide it out of the pan. I always flip one half over the other as it leaves the pan as this gives you a lovely hot filling inside the perfectly cooked egg. DON’T overcook it and end up with a brown underside or it will be like shoe leather!

And of course, the options are endless – using different fillings in your omelette (I love crumbled goat’s cheese!) or making a more robust Spanish omelette with lots of veg, or even a frittata with potatoes and bacon, ham, sausage … I could go on!

How do you cook your eggs? Do you have any cook’s tips? Do share as it’s always great to learn something new!

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