I’ve been spending far too much time thinking about how to winter-proof my life. I’m cycling the 12 miles into work three times a week, which has meant investing in all manner of hivis, lycra and thermals. The list of kit requirements grows every time the mercury drops by a degree and I still haven’t found a hat that I’m willing to leave the house in. My only choice seems to be a toss up between looking liken an elf or a toddler.
So it’s a good thing I’ve got this distracting, sunny post to remind me of cotton, linen and short sleeves. These photos are from a long weekend jaunt down to Somerset, just before everything started heading towards Autumn. We were visiting Toby’s brother, sister in law and little nephew and spent a glorious afternoon with them walking up and down the Mendips before catching the last of the afternoon sun in their garden.
This is cider country, where even the tiniest hamlet has at least one, if not several, pubs and it seemed each one we went into was even friendlier than the last. Driving through the Mendip’s valleys is a stunning experience, with clusters of thatched cottages lurking behind each bend, not to mention gorges and wild goats! A particular treat, a belated birthday present, was a trip to The Ethicurean. It’s been on my wish list ever since it was voted Best Ethical Eat in the Observer Food Monthly Awards in 2011, who also gave a nod to its head bartender this year.
No surprises there, their chipotle infused take on an Old Fashioned was the nicest, strongest and most unusual cocktail I’ve had in a long time. A drink to be sipped, steadily and contemplatively well into the first course. Toby’s cucumber beer from the Wild Beer Co. also went down a treat. We were lucky to arrive while it was still light, so could enjoy a stroll around the gardens and the views of the surrounding hills. The restaurant is set in a walled garden and built into a series of conservatories. The whole thing would risk being overly twee if it wasn’t for the fact that the food and drink is so damn good, you’ve got to take it seriously. Everything is, naturally, sourced or grown locally, which means the menu is incredibly innovative as these constraints demand a fair degree of resourcefulness. The staff were also fantastically knowledgeable and we left promising to go back. Hopefully soon.
We stayed at the gorgeous Longbridge House in Shepton Mallet. This B&B only has one gorgeous room at the moment, which overlooks a quiet courtyard. It was a lovely place to stay and not without some historical cudos- the Duke of Monmouth stayed at the house before the battle of Sedgemoor in 1685. We were given a warm greeting by Tanya, the proprietress along with tea and homemade cake in our room, which won me over straight away and that was before I saw the enormous tub. Breakfast was cooked to order and included eggs from Tanya’s own hens. I went for a little stroll and visited their coop at the top of the house’s tiered garden and took some snaps before we drove back to London.
We’ve both been working pretty much flat out since then and I have to admit I wish we’d had a bit longer in Somerset to rest up before the whirlwind of my new job, Toby’s recording schedule and the usual run around in the build up towards Christmas. However, I’ve been able to produce a few recipes inspired by our few days there, all with that most autumnal and most Somersetian of fruit- the apple!
Hearty Chicken Stew with Apple Dumplings
You will need:
For the stew:
2 tbsp olive oil
1 large chicken, jointed or 8 free-range chicken thighs, bone in
2 large onions, chopped
2 garlic cloves
2 parsnips, peeled and roughly chopped
1 turnip, roughly chopped
3 large carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
500ml chicken stock
750ml good-quality medium English cider
2 bay leaves
1 sprig rosemary
Large handful parsley
For the dumplings:
120g self-raising flour
100g fresh white breadcrumbs
1 large cooking apple, or two smaller ones, finely diced
2 tbsp rosemary , chopped
1 small bunch parsley, chopped
2 eggs, beaten
1. Heat the oil in a large pan, season the chicken and brown in batches, until lightly golden all over. Set to one side and drain off all but 2 tbsp of the fat in the pan. Add the onions and fry over a medium heat until softened. Add the cider and allow to bubble down until syrupy, about 5 min, scraping any bits stuck to the bottom of the pan.
2. Tie the bay leaves, rosemary and about half of the parsley together with some string. Add this, along with the garlic and the remaining vegetables to the pan. Finally, return the chicken to the pan and pour in enough stock to just cover. Bring to the boil, then turn the heat down and simmer for about 1 hour, until the chicken is cooked, the meat is starting to come off the bone and the sauce has reduced and thickened.
3. While the stew is cooking, make the dumplings. Mix together the flour, breadcrumbs and suet. Add the herbs and seasoning and then slowly beat in the egg to form a wet mixture. Stir through the diced apples and then divide into roughly 12 even sized balls. Add these to the stew about 20 minutes before the end of the cooking time so that they just sit on top of the chicken. Cover and allow to steam until soft and cooked through. Divide into large bowls and scatter with the remaining parsley.
You will need:
1kg cooking apples, peeled, cored and cut into chunks
800g granulated sugar
50ml Apple brandy (Somerset, preferably of course, but I only had French), plus a little extra
1. Put the apples and blackberries into a large pan or a preserving pan with the cider and slowly bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and allow to simmer until the fruit is completely soft and mushy, adding a little water if it is looking too dry.
2. Add the sugar and continue to cook on a low heat, stirring to help dissolve the sugar. Then, turn the heat up to and cook until the jam reaches setting point. You can test for this by placing a saucer or small plate in the fridge, then putting a tsp of jam on it. Allow to cool before ‘pushing’ the jam across the plate with your finger. If it wrinkles up, the jam has set.
3. Finally, stir in the brandy and pour into warm, dry sterilised jars. Leave to sit for about 7 minutes, then pour in a another slug of brandy into each jar. Cover, seal and leave to cool before storing. Keeps for a year, refrigerate once opened.
Apple and Blackberry Loaf Cake with Almond Crumb Topping
You will need:
150g butter, softened
250g self-raising flour
1 apple, like Bramley or similar cooking apple, cubed
2 plums, cubed as best you can
1 tsp mixed spice
1 tsp cinnamon
100g caster sugar
3 eggs, beaten
For the topping:
2 tbsp flour
2 tbsp sugar
Handful flaked almonds
1. Preheat your oven to 180C. Butter and line a 2L loaf tin with some parchment. Place the flour, sugar and spices in a large bowl and stir in the butter. Stir the eggs and milk together and gradually mix into the the dry ingredients. Finally, stir through the chopped fruit and raisins until evenly distributed. Pour into the prepared loaf tin.
2. Rub the butter sugar and flour for the topping together in a small bowl. Add the flaked almonds and mix together with your hands, breaking the almonds up a little bit. Sprinkle over the loaf and bake for about 40-45 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool before tucking in while still slightly warm.
I’ve blogged before about chili jam, which is a bit of a favourite at maison alwayssohungry. It is a brilliant chutney to make as it ticks so many pickle boxes: you can have it with any cheese or meat BUT but but… because of its heat, it also works really rather well in spicier dishes. It livens up a stir-fry, can act as a marinade for chicken or fish when mixed with soy sauce and rice wine vinegar and I often dilute it with some water and sesame oil to make a light but scrumptious salad dressing. And it just sings as an accompaniment to sausages. I use the salad club’s recipe and double it. But double doesn’t last very long.
The only issue with this gorgeous glop is it totally stinks up the house. I think it’s partly the fish sauce. Let’s face it, the stuff smells like feet. Then there’s the chili, which gets right at the back of your throat, particularly when you are blending the jam together at the start of the cooking process. I stumbled upon a solution the other day when I was idly watching everyone’s guilty favourite, Come Dine With Me. One of the contestants was blending soup with a stick blender straight in the pan, as I often do too. The problem with this is that you get splashes of hot liquid all over your clothes, in your face, eyes (not great when you are dealing with 20 odd chillies), hair and kitchen. I normally just roll with it and pretend it isn’t happening. This is obviously a pretty stupid method. However, the CDWM contestant had cleverly covered his pot with cling film and made a hole in it to accommodate the blender, sparing any splash attacks. So simple, so clever! The CDWM commentator made a typically sarky remark at this technique, which was characteristically unnecessary and a bit cruel. That commentator can be the best thing about the programme, but he does irk me sometimes.
In any case, this solved part of the problem but I still had to put up with the stink in the kitchen, made worse because I couldn’t escape due to my self-imposed deadline to make 4 preserves in one weekend. I should obviously have done the chili jam last, rather than first. We live and learn.
So, half-blind and choking, I proceeded to make quince jelly as the chili jam bubbled away. The jelly is not dissimilar to quince cheese, perhaps just slightly less firm and put into a jar rather than a tray mold. It of course works absolutely brilliantly with cheese, but I find it can also work very well with pâtés and rich meat dishes, in particular game. Quinces are in season during the autumn, my local corner shop is currently selling them at the bargain price of 2 for £1. But the season is short, so if you see them, don’t hesitate. This was the first time I attempted quince jelly and with mixed success. I feel it is much too sweet, so I have adjusted the recipe below accordingly. I would also heartily recommend that you source some muslin (making sure you get the stuff that’s food-friendly, rather than something that has been treated with chemicals for DIY purposes) to use for sieving the quince pulp. Here’s what I did:
You will need:
1.5kg quinces (about 5 large ones)
Approx 2l water
100g sugar to every 200ml quince juice (approx 400-600g depending on how juicy your quinces are and your patience, more on which later)
Remove any stems and cut off any bruised bits before coring and quartering the quinces, leaving the skins on.
Put the quince in a large pan and fill with enough water to cover all the fruit, bring to boil, reduce to a simmer, cover and leave for about 45min, until quinces are really soft and almost as if they are about to dissolve.
Take the pan off the heat and mash the quince and water mixture with a masher. You want something that’s the consistency of runny jam or applesauce, so you will most likely have to add quite a lot of additional water.
Strain the mashed up pulp into a separate bowl, either through muslin or by using a fine mesh sieve. Either way, this will take the patience of a saint, especially if you have to stir the pulp through the sieve, rather than just leave it to slowly drip through the muslin. You will find out pretty quickly if you’ve not added enough water, i.e. if nothing happens.
You then need to measure the amount of juice you have, before pouring it all back into your pan and adding the sugar, 100g sugar per 200ml juice. Bring the sugary juice to a boil, stirring constantly to make sure the sugar has dissolved and doesn’t burn at the bottom of your pan.
Bring the heat down to a simmer, skimming off any foam that bubbles to the top with a slotted spoon. The mixture should now slowly begin to change from the colour of cloudy apple juice to a deeper amber. The consistency will also start to change, gradually thickening. The best way to check if the jelly (or any jam for that matter) is done is to put a small dollop onto a saucer. Leave this to cool, then ‘push’ it with your fingertip across the plate. If it wrinkles and shoves up, your jam is done, but if it is still runny, it needs more time. Decant into sterilised jars and leave to cool.
Next up, a red onion marmalade. This is one of my favourite pickles, again because of its versatility but also because it reminds me of so many things that I love about Scandinavian food at this time of year. It has the evocative sweet and sour flavour from the vinegar and sugar combo used in lots of Swedish preserves and the thyme and mustard seeds lend a really deep earthy flavour. This is wonderful with a crumbly goats cheese on rye bread or with a pâté.
Red Onion Marmalade
You will need
1kg red onions
4 large garlic cloves
2 tsp black mustard seeds
3 sprigs of thyme
1/2 tsp salt and pepper
75 g muscovado sugar
1.5 tsp black treacle
5 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
75mul white wine
First, slice your onions, using the old wives’ tale of your choice to avoid tears. My favourite is to suck on a spoon or light a candle near your chopping board. Or both at the same time? Cut the onions in half and then slice each half into thin half-circles. Heat about 4 glugs of olive oil in a large pan, add the onions and crushed garlic along with the mustard seeds and thyme. Season with salt and pepper.
Cook the onions uncovered over a medium heat, stirring frequently, until they have reduced and are beginning to caramelise (about 20-30 min). Make sure they don’t catch on the bottom of the pan (lower the heat if this starts to happen).
Stir in the muscovado, treacle, vinegars and white wine. Leave to bubble away for another 20 min or so, until the liquids are just absorbed and the mixture is caramelised- but not dry. Remove the thyme sprigs and add a knob of butter, if desired. Decant into sterilised jars while the mixture is still hot. Leave to cool and sore for up to 2 months.
Lemons are another brilliant fruit to preserve. You can easily do this at home so don’t buy an expensive jar that will just sit at the back of your cupboard for months. If you preserve your own lemons and watch them slowly mature and soften in their acidic juice over the course of a month, you will be counting down the days until they are ready for tasting and using, as I am now. By the time they are done you will have come up with all sorts of delicious uses for them. They are, of course, traditionally associated with Moroccan food, and do work beautifully in tagines, couscous and the like. However, you can also blend the skins with creme fraiche or greek yoghurt before adding chopped mint or parsley to make a dip or sauce for fish. They are wonderful when added as wedges for the last 20 min or so roast spuds. Or stuffed into the cavity or under the skin of a chicken that’s been rubbed with paprika before heading into the oven. They are also wonderful chopped up with vegetables and pulses such as chickpeas, okra, aubergine, courgettes… the list goes on. Once mine are ready I’d also like to experiment with adding them to lamb, perhaps in a marinade of some kind.
You will need
Lemons (UNWAXED), plus more for juicing.
Coarse sea or kosher salt
This is super easy. Wash and scrub your lemons good and proper. Cut off any stems or tips, so that they can sit upright. Quarter each lemon lengthways almost all the way through, so they are still whole and joined at their bottoms.
Stuff each lemon generously with plenty of sea salt (make sure you don’t have any cuts or grazes on your fingers or this will be really painful!). Put each salt-stuffed lemon in a large sterilised jar, really squishing them in as much as possible. Even when you think you can’t fit another lemon in the jar, try to anyway. You’ll need to give them a little push or a shove every so often for the first few days, to release more juices. You will most likely need to add some additional lemon juice to get things going. Also add some peppercorns and bay leaves for additional flavour. Star anise also works well.
After a few days the jar should be full of juice, but if not, add some more and do a bit more squashing. Turn the jar every few days to distribute the flavour. Leave them to preserve for a month before using.
A note on sterilising glass jars.
There are several ways to do this.
The simplest way by far is if you have a dishwasher, in which case you simply run them through it on a short cycle. I don’t have one of those fancy machines. So, I alternate between one of the following methods- either putting the jars in a large pan of water on top of a steaming rack (so they don’t touch the bottom of the pan), and bring the water to a boil for 10 minutes. Or sometimes I put clean, dry jars sans lids, in a 120 degree C oven for about 15 minutes. With all of these methods, however, you do run the risk of cracking the jars if they get too hot. It is worth bearing in mind how thick your glass jars are and when in doubt, let things cool down a little.
Keep all your preserves in a cool, dry place and once opened store in the fridge. All of the recipes above will last for a few months.
… or what I did with those plums
The first thing to do with the harvest- plum jam. I foolishly decided it was a good idea to get cracking with this at about 10pm one mid week evening (night?) which of course meant that I didn’t get to bed for ages. Having said that, it was a relatively easy process, actually. And of course completely worth it because I now how lots of jars full of brilliant plum jam.
We cracked open the first jar at a big brunch my flatmate, Liz, hosted. I can take no credit for the pics of the amazing fresh fruit, muffins and fritters.
You will need:
About 1.5kg plums
A cup or so of water
1) Get a really massive pan, wash your plums and remove any leafs, bugs, stems, etc. Put them in the pan along with the water and turn on the heat. The plums will start to ‘melt’ and bubble away quite nicely.
2) Reduce the heat and leave for about half an hour.
3) Add the sugar and lemon and give it all a good stir. Leave to simmer for about another 20 min then test to see if it has reached setting point. You may want to pick out the kernels, I didn’t bother and it was fine.
4) Pour into sterilised jars and put the lids on straight away. Leave overnight to cool.
NOTE: Setting point: The easiest way, and most fun, I think, to do this is to get a teaspoon of your molten hot jam and put on a cold plate. Leave it to cool completely and then ‘push’ the jam with your finger. If the surface crinkles up and makes a film, you are done. If not, leave for a bit and try again in another 10 mins.
My plum jam had its first outing at a brunch hosted by my flatmate, Liz, on some nice crusty bread. Lovely. Some pics below are of the rest of the amazing brunch, which I can take absolutely no credit for whatsoever.
sweetcorn and chive fritters with a poached egg and sour cream
a white loaf and tea. ahhh…
fresh, fresh, fresh!
-nut muffins with crumble topping