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The all-conquering conker!

Conkers mean the arrival of Autumn.

I spotted a request for conkers from a friend’s mother on Facebook this morning. Was she about to stage a local conker championship or challenge her grandchildren to a match, I wondered? No… she was one of the many people who believe conkers can keep spiders out of their house! Hmmm, I thought, is there any truth in that, and are conkers good for anything else, other than looking lovely, confirming Autumn has arrived and entertaining kids in the playground.

Are conkers spider killers?

I hate to disappoint you, but there’s no proof this is true. The story goes that conkers contain a noxious chemical that repels spiders but no-one’s ever been able to scientifically prove it. Legend has it that if a spider gets close to a conker it will curl its legs up and die. Others say spiders will happily crawl over conkers with no ill effects at all. What do you think? Are you one of those people who have conkers strategically positioned around your house?

Bake a cake with conker flour?

Chestnuts, the edible ones!

Do not confuse horse chestnuts (conkers) with chestnuts, the latter is a pleasant and popular nut, the former is actually mildly poisonous! Despite this, I have read that those old stalwarts, the Victorians, wrote recipes for making conker flour. The seeds were shelled, ground and then leached to remove bitter flavours.

Conkers can cure sprains and bruises?

It is said that the horse chestnut is so named because its seeds were once used to treat ailments in horses. It has since been discovered that aescin, which can be extracted from conkers, has anti-inflammatory effects and is an effective remedy for sprains and bruises in humans.

Leave conkers in your wardrobe to deter moths

Horse chestnuts… the much less edible ones!

Is this another spider scam? It seems not. If moths are munching their way through your winter wardrobe then conkers could help stop the little critters. Conkers give off an aroma called triterpenoid that wards off pests. Place fresh conkers in among your clothes and as they dry out they emit the moth-repelling chemical. I shall be investigating this!

You can get clean with conker soap

Conkers contain saponins, which are soap-like chemicals that are sometimes added to shampoos and shower gels. It is believed that the Vikings (who were apparently surprisingly clean!) made their soap out of soaked, crushed up conkers. I’m not sure I shall be relaxing in a conker bath any time soon, but fascinating nonetheless!

 

 

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Healthy, easy and delicious!

Richard has resorted to netting his carrots… and suggesting the rabbits might like to try next door instead!!

Phew, hasn’t it been hot? I can’t remember such a continuous spell of hot weather for years, perhaps as far back as 1976. Richard has been working hard on our vegetable beds and is turning into a bit of a Percy Thrower… or should I say, Monty Don? Showing my age again! Besides a forest of tomatoes, we also have beans, potatoes, lettuce, courgette, cucumber, radish, carrot and parsnip… and probably several other things I have overlooked. As long as he can keep the badgers, deer and rabbits at bay it should be a good harvest!

I enjoy cooking but while it’s as hot as this, I tend to live on salads, as standing over a hot hob is not a lot of fun. Shoving a pan into the oven and leaving it to cook isn’t so bad and, what with all the vegetables we have growing, my eyes lit up when I read a review of this fab book ‘The Green Roasting Tin’. I was straight onto Amazon to buy it!

The book contains 75 one tin recipes, all vegetarian or vegan and, from what I’ve seen so far, all delicious. As it says on the cover ‘You simply pop your ingredients in a tin and let the oven do the work… this book is for anyone who wants to eat easy veg-based meals that fit around their busy lives’. See why it appealed?! If you, or anyone else in your family, really like a portion of meat and fish with their meal – well that’s fine! Simply prepare it as normal and serve alongside these delicious veggies.

I am determined that after all Richard’s hard work I am going to make the most of all our home-grown produce – it really does taste so much better than shop bought. Having said that, I know a lot of you don’t have the space to grow much yourself, but of course, these recipes are not fussy about where your veg comes from! The recipes are so delicious even our most common veg such as cabbage, carrots and potatoes can all be turned into really tasty dishes.

Just one of the many delicious recipes in this book.

I think we quite often tend to just eat salad for a healthy option (guilty!) and fear that cooking something vegetarian that’s delicious (rather than bland) is going to be a lot of faff. Well, this book dispels that myth once and for all.

Apart from gorgeous photography, the book also includes a clever section in the middle that shows you, in a really simple picture format, how to assemble the dishes. It also divides up the dishes into ‘quick’, ‘medium’ and ‘slow’ recipes that are also very useful. While a few of the recipes include more exotic ingredients, such as spicy pastes and unusual cheeses, the majority are straightforward.

I haven’t come across the author, Rukmini Iyer, before, but this is her second recipe book. The first ‘The Roasting Tin’ was very successful and includes meat and fish recipes… and I suspect that one may well end up on the kitchen shelves too!

Mouthwatering images from Rukmini’s first recipe book ‘The Roasting Tin‘.

 

 

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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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