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Hail king cauliflower!

Cauliflower is one of those vegetables that seem to be back in vogue all of a sudden due, in part, to some bad publicity. It recently hit the headlines when a supermarket received criticism for selling ‘cauliflower steaks’ (thick slices to you and me!) for more than the cost of buying a whole cauliflower! A case of ‘clever’ marketing – and the need for the consumer to shop sensibly, if ever there was one.

In these days of trying to eat more healthily and to consume less meat, the cauliflower has got quite a lot to offer. In my youth, I was not a fan. It was usually served soggy and grey having been overcooked or slathered in a tasteless cheese sauce. It’s only recently that the dear old cauli has been recognised as having a lot more potential.

I think its texture has much to do with its resurgence – it is substantial and can stand up to pickling, pan frying, roasting and even barbecuing. You can marinade it whole and roast it for a rather impressive looking vegetarian meal, or go completely the other way and break up the florets into a food processor and pulse until the mixture resembles couscous to create cauliflower ‘rice’. This is a really clever option as it creates a low calorie, healthy, low-carb meal or side dish and has only about a quarter of the carbohydrates of traditional rice.

While cauliflower has a distinctive taste, it also takes up other flavours well. I particularly like it in a curry as the florets stay firm and it tastes great with curry spices. The idea of steaks is a clever one – cutting big slabs of cauliflower and then cooking them in oil and herbs creates a lovely main course. Cauliflower cheese, when made properly – pre-cooked cauli mixed into a rich cheese sauce and then sprinkled with extra cheese and browned under the grill – is a super comfort food.

Cauliflowers are available pretty much all year round, which makes it extra useful when so many other veg have given up for the winter. Predictably, supermarkets demand their cauliflowers white and pristine but look out for cheaper creamier coloured ones from a greengrocer or farmers’ market. As long as they are clean and firm, they are perfectly fine. Of course, cauliflowers don’t only come in white… there are purple and orange varieties and the stunning looking Romanesco with its lime green pointy florets that look like some clever architectural design. It’s not strictly a cauliflower but is closely related.

Sadly, growing them yourself is not that easy and you need to be a pretty dedicated veg grower to succeed. They need plenty of space, a rich soil and then a cage or netting to try and keep cabbage white butterflies and greedy pigeons away! It’s one of those veg, like sweet corn and asparagus, that I find it easier to just buy when I fancy them. But if you want to have a go at growing them, you’ve still got a few weeks to get them planted. You’ll find lots of advice on how to grow them online, as ever the RHS website has it covered.

 

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Burns’ Night cometh… the mystery of the haggis!

While wandering down an aisle in the supermarket last week, my mind on other things, I came to a sudden halt and I found myself staring at some alien looking things in the meat department. After the initial shock, I realised I had come across a pile of haggis, all ready for Burns’ Night on 25th January.

In my younger days, the prospect of a Burns’ Night Supper was quite fun as it usually involved plenty of energetic Scottish dancing and a jolly evening perfect for livening up a cold and grey January. But haggis? It has never been high on my list of likes. Oh, be honest Joanna, it’s high on your list of dislikes! But the whole Burns’ Night Supper always sounds so wonderfully wild and Scottish that it appeals to the romantic in me. Served alongside the haggis you have the marvellously named ‘rumblethumps’ (potato, cabbage and onion) or ‘neeps and tatties’ (swede and potatoes), followed by the magical sounding ‘Clootie dumpling’ (a suet and fruit pudding). If all that wasn’t enough to fill you up and keep you warm through a freezing Scottish night, you can always add a few drams of whisky!

As decreed in Burns’ great poem, the haggis is slit with a dagger!

So what is haggis? It is a savoury pudding containing sheep’s ‘pluck’ (heart, liver, and lungs); minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, traditionally encased in the animal’s stomach although nowadays, an artificial casing is often used. A cheap dish designed to waste nothing and use up scraps and offal; it isn’t something many people would choose today as they try to eat less meat. But if you want to enjoy the whole Burns’ Night atmosphere there are lots of vegetarian haggis (haggi?) on sale and plenty of recipes online if you want to make your own.

Haggis is Scotland’s national dish, thanks to Scots poet Robert Burns’ poem ‘Address to a Haggis’ of 1787, a Scottish dish through and through, you would think. But wait! The name ‘hagws’ or ‘hagese’ was first recorded in England in 1430! And it gets worse…

There’s evidence to suggest that the ancient Romans were the first known to have made products of the haggis type. Even earlier, a kind of primitive haggis is referred to in Homer’s Odyssey. The well-known chef, the late Clarissa Dickson Wright, said that haggis “came to Scotland in a longship” (from Scandinavia) even before Scotland was a single nation. So that’s another ‘tradition’ shattered!

We looked for the reclusive wild haggis but couldn’t find any photos, so here’s a gorgeous Highland cow instead!

Even though there may be evidence that the Scots didn’t invent haggis after all… they have come up with an alternative history that I think sounds perfectly reasonable. The wild haggis is a small Scottish animal, a smaller hairier version of a sheep. According to some sources, the wild haggis’s left and right legs are of different lengths, allowing it to run quickly around the steep mountains and hillsides that make up its natural habitat but only in one direction. It is further claimed that there are two varieties of haggis, one with longer left legs and the other with longer right legs. The former variety can run clockwise around a mountain (as seen from above) while the latter can run anticlockwise. The two varieties live happily alongside each other but are unable to interbreed in the wild because, in order for the male of one variety to mate with a female of the other, he must turn to face in the same direction as his intended mate, causing him to lose his balance and fall over!

PS. According to one poll, 33% of American visitors to Scotland believed haggis to be an animal

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Natural winter tonics

What a winter it has been for coughs and colds! I think almost everyone I know has suffered from some sort of nasty lurgy. I’ve seen people on Facebook sharing all sorts of remedies, both traditional and slightly more eccentric – I think my favourite was rubbing Vic’s Vapour Rub into the soles of your feet before bedtime! Um, can’t say I tried that one myself! My partner in crime writing, Julia, cannot take any cold remedies as she has an allergic reaction to something in their ingredients so, apart from taking paracetamol, she just has to grin and bear it! This year, she had a stinker of a cold and ended up trying a couple of natural winter tonics to see if they helped. Here, she shares them with you. I hope you manage to escape cold-free, but if not, you might want try some of these.

“Whenever I had a cold as a child, I always remember my mother making me sit hunched over a bowl of very hot water with a towel draped over my head forming a lovely warm tent of steam. I think she used to put Friar’s Balsam into the water and it was a great way of clearing a blocked nose. I tried this again a few weeks ago, minus the balsam, and the effect of the steam and the generally lovely warm cocoon did make me feel a bit better. I also got a free facial, which was quite soothing!

My foraging friend from Wales who knows a huge amount about natural remedies, sent me a recipe for Ginger & Garlic Soup. This certainly woke up my senses, big time! This recipe is referred to as ‘medicine in a cup’. The mix of ginger and garlic should help protect you from cold, flu, sinus infections and many other diseases that can be easily caught during the cold winter months. I will be a little more cautious with the chilli next time!

Garlic & Ginger Soup

Ingredients:

  • Two cloves of garlic, peeled and finely diced
  • Four spring onions, also finely sliced
  • Seven cups of chicken stock or vegetable stock
  • 50g of grated root ginger, finely sliced too
  • And last but not least… one finely diced hot or medium-hot chilli
  • Chopped or whole mushrooms (optional)

Method:

  1. Put the Garlic, onions, mushrooms (if you are using them) and the ginger in a big pan and put it on low heat for a few minutes, and sauté them.
  2. Add the stock and bring to a boil.
  3. Turn to a simmer and stir gently, until all of the ingredients become soft.
  4. Last add the chopped chilli, and stir for another 5 minutes. Then you can serve the soup while it is warm. Combine it with lemon water and crusty bread. This will provide more anti-bacterial effects and improve your digestion too.

Winter Tea

The final remedy I tried was a Winter Tea. Herbal teas are good for all sorts of things and boost our physical and mental health. Fresh herbs are full of antioxidants, which help reduce inflammation. Keeping yourself hydrated when you have a cold is important, I loved this and found it very soothing.

Ingredients:

  • 300ml water
  • ½ a lime
  • ½ a lemon
  • 3cm piece of ginger root, sliced
  • Pinch of cayenne pepper
  • I sprig each of fresh mint, thyme and rosemary
  • ½ a cinnamon stick
  • Honey to taste

Method:

  1. Boil the water in a saucepan.
  2. Squeeze the lemon and lime into the pan, then lob the whole pieces of fruit in as well.
  3. Add everything else – except the honey. Reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes.
  4. Add honey to taste before straining to serve.

 

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Hand made soap – good clean fun!

Hand making anything is always very rewarding – and making your own soap is no exception. Not only can you create your own perfect scent combo, but you get to make a mess and play with lovely gooey stuff before turning out some beautiful end products! Not just a great treat for you, but also ideal gifts for friends and family – what’s not to love?

When she’s not looking after the company’s bookkeeping, caring for her young children or baking cakes… my bookkeeper Jo Bridgeman likes to turn her hand to different crafts. Recently, she’s been experimenting with making her own soaps and, in true Jo B style, has turned out some super results! She kindly brought in some of her fragrant bath bombs and soaps and let me have the details so you could all have a try. It is really quite a straightforward process and, once you’ve made an initial investment in some soap moulds, the world’s your lather! 

Cedar Wood & Honey soap

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb Goat’s Milk Melt and Pour Soap Base
  • 2 tbsp honey
  • 3/4 cup oats
  • Cedar wood essential oil

Method:

  1. Cut Melt and Pour Soap Base into cubes and add to a microwaveable bowl. Microwave on high for 30 seconds. Then microwave at 10 second increments, stirring in between, until melted.
  2. Mix in oats. Pour into a silicone soap mould.
  3. Drizzle honey into each soap mould and swirl it around with the end of a spoon – make sure you mix it in well or you’ll get a sticky mess! Let the mixture set for 40 minutes to 1 hour.
  4. Remove from soap mould by turning the mould upside down and gently pushing on the back of each soap.

Rose Bathbomb

Making your own bath bombs is simple and uses safe ingredients, so it is a fun thing to work on with young children. Just remember that citric acid will sting if it gets into cuts or scratches and will also be very irritating to the eyes.

Ingredients:

  • 300g bicarbonate of soda
  • 100g citric acid
  • 10ml Rose essential oil
  • Dried rose petals
  • Water

Method:

  1. Measure out the bicarbonate of soda and the citric acid into a mixing bowl, sieving if necessary and thoroughly mix together. Stir in a few rose petals.
  2. Add the essential oil to the mixture, mix in quickly and thoroughly.
  3. Now, working the mixture all the time, spray a little water on with a hand sprayer. Mix continuously to avoid it fizzing-up in the bowl and only add enough water for the mixture to hold together when lightly squeezed in your hand. It should JUST hold together and not be too damp.
  4. Once this point is reached you need to work quickly to compress the mixture into your moulds. Jo has used a rose-shaped mould to compliment the rose scent.
  5. As a finishing touch, sprinkle dried rose petals over the bath bombs.

You could use all kinds of moulds including something simple like ice-cube trays or small yoghurt pots, silicone baking moulds, cup cakes etc. Have fun!

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Books for Christmas!

In another life, I would have time to sit and read every day. I love reading, it is such a wonderful way to escape and lose yourself. Hey ho, not just yet Joanna! But that doesn’t stop me drooling over books I see reviewed online or actually stroking them lovingly in shops (I’m sorry, but it has been known!) It’s been very hard to narrow my choices for 2017 down to five, some that I’d like to give, the others to receive, but here they are:

Dairy Diary

Look, I know this isn’t exactly ground-breaking, but my Mother always had this diary and, when it comes to keeping track of appointments I am still very happy with good old paper and pen rather than technology, thank you very much. But of course, this best-seller is much more than just a diary, it is both practical and pretty with delicious weekly recipes, year planners, calendars, home budgeting, interesting garden and leisure features plus kitchen tips and tricks, stain removal and laundry tips – phew! It’s a traditional treasure trove and I’m very fond of it…and anyway, it reminds me of my Mum.

 

Down to Earth by Monty Don

I will hear no wrong about Monty Don! Here, he shares 50 years of his gardening experience with us in this easy to digest gardening book which covers a wide range of subjects including shrubs, containers, pests and compost, to growing your own edibles and useful pointers on what to do in each month of the year. In his gentle, easy way, he tells us not to worry about the plants in the garden – they are tough, and can look after themselves. Thank goodness for that! There is sensible design advice for small gardens in here too. It’s really rather good and both a great starter book for a novice gardener and a handy reference guide for others.

 

Little Miss Busy Surviving Motherhood (Mr. Men for Grown-ups)

Mr Men arrived too late for me, but my older daughter Pippa enjoyed them when small… but now, thanks to this new range I can enjoy them as a grown up! These are no great literary works, but they are fun and make a super stocking filler with their various characters getting into all sorts of humorous adult predicaments! The author of the original Mr Men, Roger Hargreaves, is Britain’s third best-selling author of all time having sold more than 100 million books. He wrote the first Mr. Men book in 1971 when his 8-year-old son, Adam Hargreaves, asked ‘What does a tickle look like?’ In response, Roger drew a figure with a round orange body and long, rubbery arms and Mr. Tickle was born. And the final twist to this rather lovely story is that Adam Hargreaves himself, now draws the characters for the modern day stories that his late father originally created.

 

Mary Berry Everyday by Mary Berry

If, like me, you are a Mary Berry fan, then you need to add this book to your collection. The blurb says: “In this brand-new, official tie-in to Mary’s much anticipated 2017 BBC series, the nation’s best-loved home cook will show you how to inject a little Mary magic into your everyday cooking, with over 120 delicious recipes.” And indeed it does! Mary is so no nonsense and has so much knowledge, you can’t go wrong with her recipes – easy to follow and using normal ingredients. Although these are billed as ‘everyday’ recipes, there are plenty that would do well for special occasions too.

 

5 Ingredients – Quick & Easy Food by Jamie Oliver

Jamie Oliver is a clever chap. This is yet another brilliant cook book from him and one that I shall be both giving and (thanks Richard!) receiving. Every recipe uses just five key ingredients, ensuring you can get a plate of food together fast, whether it’s finished and on the table super-quickly, or after some minimal hands-on preparation – just my sort of cooking! As the blurb puts it: ‘We’re talking quality over quantity, a little diligence on the cooking front, and in return massive flavour.’

 

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