The tomatoes are ripening and it’s back to school

tom2

tom3

The holidays are over, the tomatoes are nearly all ripe, and I celebrate my first year as a blogger, and the third school year as a working mother, at home.

Now we’re all back to school, I can sit and browse the papers online over a morning cup of coffee again, and remember from my reporter days that newspapers, like everything, mark the changing seasons too. I see that they are once more full of the contradictory musings of female feature writers “I’m so GLAD the holidays are over”/”I’m so SAD they’re over”. It doesn’t escape my notice that no male feature writer has seemingly ever put pen to paper or hit a laptop key celebrating/bemoaning the end of the summer holidays. But of course. It doesn’t make any difference to them. To be honest, until recently, it didn’t make much difference to me either. Our nanny arranged activities and outings, and I still got home just after 6. I suppose there was an advantage in that i didn’t have to supervise their homework, but that was the only real difference in my routine. Now, as you know, I am at home. I’ve enjoyed the holidays – I like being with my boys, but I think we all felt the last week dragged a bit, and to be frank, wanted to get back to the daily routine.

Now they’re back and I’m freeeeee. Sort of. All the things I meant to do over the holidays have just stacked up, and are looking accusingly at me. Not least the greenhouse which is stacked full of tomatoes as you can see. I need to do something with them otherwise what was the point of the whole sewing, transplanting, potting on, watering routine. Cue another picture of my lovely tomatoes. These, in case you’re wondering are Sungold – the sweetest cherry tomatoes you can grow. They love the greenhouse, but I have grown them outdoors, and they seem to thrive there too. The earlier two photos are Giulietta plum tomatoes, which are perfect for roasting and freezing for soup and pasta sauces, and the brilliantly bright Golden Sunrise.

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We are fast approaching the time when there are just too many cherry tomatoes to deal with, which brings me to a fab recipe by Thane Prince I have used over the years. It’s a wonderful relish which is particularly good with hamburgers, sausages, and good mature cheddar cheese.

relish

Cherry tomato and onion relish

  • 1 kg onions, chopped
  • 1 fresh green chilli, deseeded and chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1 tablespoon celery seeds
  • 400ml cider vinegar
  • 1 kg cherry tomatoes, quartered
  • 250g white granulated sugar

Method:

  1. Put the onions, chilli, and garlic in a preserving pan.  Add the celery seeds and vinegar and bring the mixture to the boil.  Simmer for 15 – 20 minutes until the vegetables are cooked and most of the liquid has evaporated.
  2. Add the tomatoes.  Stir in the sugar and return to the boil. Simmer the relish over a moderate heat for 30 minutes or until the tomatoes soften and the relish thickens.
  3. Remove from the heat.
  4. Pot the relish into hot sterilized jars, cover with vinegar-proof seals, and label.

Takes 1 hour and makes about 1.8kg of relish which will keep for up to 9 months in a cool, dark cupboard, a year at a push.

relish1

 

 

The Summer holidays

tent

I have a simple equation for you….

2 x boys + tent + barbecue = best playdate ever

This is my third Summer holiday as a non-working parent…but still lots to learn. The first year, I panicked and filled practically every waking hour with activities – cricket club, drama workshops, drum workshops and a long foreign holiday. The result, rather frazzled and grumpy kids who needed time to do nothing. Last year, I cut back the extra curricular stuff to practically nil, but organised a kick-ass vacation to Hawaii. The result, overly energetic kids who spent the first few days in Hawaii practically bouncing off the walls….only to return home and complain of being bored. This year, I’ve tried a mix of friends coming round and outings, but kept the first week free for Son1 to recover from his first year at Senior school, and if I’m honest, get a little bored, so when week two activities kicked in, there was a certain amount of gratitude and excitement.

However, nothing I have ever planned has been as successful as Son 2′s playdate this week where he and his friend put up their own tent in the back garden, and cooked their own lunch (with supervision) on the barbecue. It kept two 9 year olds happily busy for three hours…though it did require some adult help – who knew tents were so tricky to get up? certainly not me, the camping virgin, who would be perfectly happy to never spend a night under canvas – not ever.

This morning I discovered this amazingly cool way of occupying children on holiday when I logged onto Facebook . A friend devised her own scavenger hunt so she could get the best out of a short stay in Paris with culture hating kids and culture loving parents.

parisIt’s a genius idea, perhaps I like it so much because I love the idea of making sightseeing a game, and a competitive one at that.  I can claim ownership of the ice-cream flower venue – Amarinos ice cream parlour http://www.amorino.com  having raved about it following a recent day trip to Paris to visit friends.

Here’s another photo so you can really appreciate the beauty of a “simple” cone of ice cream.ice cream flower-crop

We’re off on holiday tomorrow…so I won’t be posting for a few weeks.

The Headhunter comes a-calling

Red-rotory-phone-ringing-off-the-hook

I don’t get many calls on my mobile from numbers I don’t recognise these days. When I do, I tend to assume they’re selling me PPP compensation, or offering me yet another session with my bank manager to discuss various saving options. A couple of months ago, I got a call from a TV Headhunter looking for someone to fill the post of Head of Development at a medium sized independent production company. H of D basically means you manage/lead/initiate the new ideas process at a production company. Recognising the good ones, helping to mould them into makeable shows (not as easy as it sounds), and selling them to broadcasters. Now, I’ve done development before, and I’ve invented some long-running shows, but it’s not my favourite job in TV. However, when I get a call from someone talking about a job, I go into hunting dog mode – I virtually raise my right paw, and sniff the air. I can’t help it. It’s the way I was built. Incidentally, I have also never, EVER, got a job from a headhunter…or rather, I stand corrected, I did once get a job from a Headhunter, just not the one she was offering at the start of the process.

Back to the call. Was I interested? (Yep)  When could I meet the top executives of the company? (Anytime, really)  Could I make next week? (yep – definitely) Hang on, they can’t…what about two weeks time? (Er, yes. How urgent is this????). A full month later I finally met the present Head of Development. It seemed to be a pretty good meeting. I’m generally pretty good at meetings. I laughed at her jokes, she laughed at mine. We talked ideas and talent. There was one thing missing. Or rather one person. Yes. The complete no show of the Managing Director should perhaps have been a rather big red flag. Uh oh.

Being headhunted in my experience is rather like being invited on a blind date, completely out of the blue. There you are, happy (happyish) in your little world, jogging along nicely. Then the call comes and you get excited, start to imagine a new world, full of possibilities. You go through the lengthy interview process, do lots of unpaid work, then you get turned down flat when the company inevitably picks the person who was working for them already. It’s like being told by your blind date that you’re basically not pretty enough. So – great –  you’ve been turned down for a job you didn’t initially want, but still feel crappy and dissatisfied about your previously nice life.

That in a nutshell is what happened to me again. Only this time, I wasn’t left feeling crappy and dissatisfied. I felt – relieved. I must like this new life after all.

Elderflower, elderpower

Elder1

Today I picked the last of this year’s elderflowers. It’s late to be doing this – but that’s all thanks to our miserable, cold spring. You may not think you’ve ever seen an elder, its flowers or berries, but they are everywhere. and not just in the countryside either.These tenacious, sometime straggly green trees love city life as much as I do. This year they’ve been flowering like never before, their flat saucer-like flowers sending out a heady scent through the warm (maybe) summer days. I always think they’re very British, but a little research proves me wrong. The French use them to make marshmallows, the Swedes make heady Akvavit, and the Italians Sambucca – yes Sambucca because the Elderflower’s latin name is Sambucas nigra. I recently learned that you can freeze elderflowers which means I can make my favourite cordial late into the summer.

Elderflower cordial is enjoying a surge of popularity amongst the parents at our school, and I like to think it partially has its roots in a trip my husband and I took a few years ago.On a long flight back from America, we both read the same article in the inflight magazine about “Lemonade Day” – a scheme set up by an entrepreneur to teach schoolchildren about how businesses run, using lemonade as the product. My husband (a headmaster) was very taken with the idea, and set up the scheme in his own school. The children had to research recipes, buy ingredients and utensils, decide a price for their product, design posters, and finally book a stall at their local fete/fair. In the first year, the pupils made lemonade, in the second they made St Clements, which is a mixture of lemon and orange juice. Both were very popular, but last year they made Elderflower cordial which frankly knocked the socks off the local residents at the Summer Fair. They could not get enough of the stuff, and happily for us all, Elderflower grows profusely in our part of London. Building on last year’s success, it was finally time for my younger son’s class to take part in the newly re-named Elderflower day. It was brilliantly organised by his form teacher who sent them all home with a litre screw-topped empty bottle, a kilo of sugar, tartaric acid (you can also use citric acid), a lemon and a recipe sheet! All we had to do was find the elderflowers. Son Number 2 and I then spent an idyllic evening picking them in our local park and made our cordial in superfast time. You should really try it yourself. It is delicious, everyone loves it, and you get to feel like a 1950s mother sharing picture perfect outdoor times with your children. What’s more, when the little darlings are tucked up in bed, you can break out the gin and make a fantastic cocktail (see recipe below!). And as a postscript, Year 4 sold out of cordial in record time.

A few guidelines:

1. Only pick Elderflowers from waist height or above (dog/fox/human pee does not improve the taste)

2. Try to avoid picking elderflowers growing by busy roads, it often grows along river banks and in parks.

3. You can recognise it by the strong scent, a cross between floral/grapey and with a slight hint of cat’s pee – but in a good way. Do not pick the heads which are slightly going brown, or half in bud. Pick the creamy white, strongest smelling flowers.

4. If you really aren’t sure it’s elderflower, ask someone, or take a photo with you.

Although, my son’s school recipe was lovely, I’ve been making the stuff for years and really think Sophie Grigson’s recipe is the best. But, as with many things, it is a question of personal taste.

ELDERFLOWER CORDIAL

Makes 1.5 litres.

INGREDIENTS: 

20 heads of elderflower

1.8kg granulated or caster sugar

1.2 litres water

2 unwaxed lemons

75g citric acid (you can buy this online or from chemists)

Elder 3

METHOD 

  1. Shake elderflowers to expel any insects, cut off any leaves and long stalks, and then place in large bowl.
  2. Put sugar into a pan with the water and bring to boil, stirring until sugar has dissolved. Leave to cool a little, so it is no longer boiling otherwise it will scorch the blossom.
  3. While the sugar syrup is heating, pare zest of lemons off in wide strips and toss into bowl with elderflowers. Slice lemons, discard the ends, and add slices to bowl.Pour over the syrup, and stir in the citric acid. Cover with a cloth and leave at room temp for 24 hours.
  4. Next day, strain cordial through a sieve lined with muslin (or a new J-Cloth rinsed out in boiling water), and pour into thoroughly cleaned glass or plastic bottles.
  5. It will keep in a cold place for a couple of months, or you can pour it into plastic bottles and freeze it. If you are planning to freeze the bottle, only fill about 4/5 full as the liquid will expand as it freezes.

Dilute to taste with still or fizzy water. The cordial can be sprinkled over fruit salad, strawberries or anything covered with cream. Elderflower has a great affinity with gooseberries, and makes a delicious fool, and it’s particularly lovely sprinkled over Madeira cake, the moment it comes out of the oven.

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Gin Garden cocktail

Ingredients

I inch cucumber, chopped and peeled,

2 shots Tanqueray London Dry Gin

1 shot homemade elderflower cordial

1 shot pressed apple juice

Method:

1. Muddle (squish with the end of a wooden spoon) the cucumber in the bottom of a shaker

2. Add the other ingredients, shake with ice

3. Fine strain into a martini glass, and garnish with cucumber slices.

cocktail

Summertime

It’s sunny and warm today, it was sunny and warm yesterday, and the day before. There is something wonderful about several days of beautiful weather, all coming together in an orderly line. Wonderful if you are British. Other readers who have actual “Summers” as a matter of course, or indeed season, may wonder what the hell I’m on about….but the Brits will totally get it. We’ve had so many bad summers in a row, that anytime more then two or three forty-something adults meet, it is to discuss in wistful tones, the sun-kissed summers of our youth. The days when the sun shone for what seemed like weeks….the days when you could go to bed, confident in the knowledge that tomorrow would be another warm day, and the day after, and the day after that.

Well, one of the benefits of the sunshine is that my cucumber plants have got themselves into gear, and are merrily producing mini cucumbers. These are the type we like because a) they grow more quickly and b) a mini cucumber is exactly the right size for a child to munch before dinnertime. I grow two cucumber plants in growbags in our conservatory, and then plant another two later on in the greenhouse. In theory, this should see us through to September with a constant stream of fruit. In reality, this leads to a glut around now….

mini cucumber

“No problem” I cry as I delve into my (numerous) cookery books. There follow weeks of Tzatziki, chilled cucumber soup and Darina Allen’s sweet cucumber pickle. This is the perfect pickle for people like me, who suddenly one morning fancy a pickle for lunch…THAT DAY – without having thought about it, prepared, sterilised jars or the like. It takes 10 minutes to chop, and an hour in the fridge and you can eat it for lunch, really.

The original version is quite sweet, my version has 3/4 of the sugar in it, sometimes only half, so please feel free to play around with it. I think it would also be nice if you added some fennel seeds….

Sweet Cucumber Pickle

Ingredients

6 oz (170g) cucumber, thinly sliced

2 oz (55g) onion, cut in half, thinly sliced

1 1/2 oz (42g) sugar

1 level teaspoon salt

1 1/4 fluid ounces (35.5 ml) white wine vinegar/cider vinegar

Method

Mix together sliced cucumber and onion in a large bowl.

Sliced cucumber & Onion

 

Mix together sugar, salt and vinegar, and pour over the cucumber and onion. Cover with cling film, and put in the fridge for an hour, stirring from time to time.

Decant into screw top jar or food container. Keeps in the fridge for around a week.

Sweet Cucumber pickle

 

AS you can see, it goes really well with smoked fish, pate, and given it’s close relation, the dill pickle, probably a good hearty hotdog in a bun – but I’m guessing here.

Quick and easy lasagne

 

Easy to cook lasagne

Easy lasagne

There are afternoons when cooking a ragu sauce from scratch, stirring, sniffing, and making my own pasta seems like a great project. Thanks to a career as a producer in food tv, I own a beautiful pasta machine, and not only know the importance of “0″ grade plain flour, but have a whole range of the stuff in the cupboard. However, yesterday afternoon was not one of those days. The children had a Maths lesson after school and I needed something I could make in advance so as not to offer any diversions to two boys struggling to concentrate on algebra. Lasagne it was. This is a slightly cheaty version, using pre-made pasta sauce, frozen garlic and that type of lasagne pasta which doesn’t need pre-cooking.

Ingredients

lasagne 1

For the ragu
  • 2 tablespoons light olive oil
  • 500g minced beef
  • 1 grated carrot
  • 2 sticks finely chopped celery
  • 2 squares of frozen garlic
  • 1 jar of Seeds of Change organic tomato & basil sauce
For the white sauce
  • 50g/2oz butter
  • 50g/2oz plain flour
  • 750ml/1¼ pints milk
  • 2 tsp dijon mustard
  • 50g/2oz (or more) grated mature cheddar
  • salt and pepper
For the lasagne
  • 9 sheets of lasagne
  • 75g/3oz grated mature cheddar
  1. For the ragu, heat a large saucepan until hot and add the oil. Cook the mince until browned all over. Remove from the heat. Add the grated carrot, celery (if using) and garlic to the pan and cook until softened. Return the meat to the pan. Add the pasta sauce, refill the jar to halfway with water and add to pan, bring to the boil.
  2. Simmer for an hour on a low heat.
  3. For the white sauce, melt the butter in a saucepan. Add the flour and cook over the heat for one minute. Gradually whisk in the milk, whisking until thickened. Add the Dijon mustard and parmesan cheese and season well with salt and pepper.


lasagne 24. For the lasagne, put one third of the meat sauce in the base of a 2.5 litre shallow ovenproof dish. Spoon one third of the white sauce on top. Arrange one layer of lasagne sheets on top. Season. Spoon half of the remaining meat sauce on top. Put another layer of lasagne sheets on top, then the remaining meat sauce and half the remaining white sauce. Arrange another layer of lasagne sheets on top, and pour over the remaining white sauce. Sprinkle over the cheddar cheese.

lasage 6

Leave for at least an hour before cooking so that the pasta can start to soften.

Preheat the oven temperature to 200C/400F/Gas 6. Cook in the middle of the oven for     about 45 minutes- or until golden brown on top, bubbling around the edges and the pasta is soft.

Easy to cook lasagne

Easy lasagne

The lasagne can be frozen before it’s cooked, and any leftovers frozen and reheated.

 

Time to get my a*** in gear again!

Forgive me readers, for I have failed, it has been two months since my last post. Frankly, it’s been way too long. When I started this blog, I didn’t realise that it would hang over me some days like a bad smell, another thing on my mental “to do” list – another thing I hadn’t done. It started to prove a bit of a downer. Then I realised a mere two days ago that the problem I had with blogging is that I hadn’t truly appreciated it isn’t supposed to be perfect. I shouldn’t write it, save it, re-read it, change it, save it…and then maybe post it a good few days after I first started. I don’t have to include photos on every post. It’s not a script, an article or an essay…it’s a blog! And that’s how it rolls.

Alan Coxon’s Christmas Clementines

Bowl of Clementines

I’m just a little bit sticky, and smelling strongly of clementines right now. I blame my old friend Alan Coxon. Alan is a man in perpetual motion. Like so many telly chefs, he exists  in a never-ending whirl of international food shows, demonstrations, restaurant openings and book signings. My family and I were once in a very smart hotel in Cape Town which had the inevitable wall of fame – featuring the great and the good who had stayed there. Amongst Nelson Mandela, Brad Pitt and Hilary Clinton, I spotted Alan Coxon, just above Sting.  Such illustrious company! I took a photo of the wall and sent it to Alan. But despite his crazy schedule, he was the first of my cheffy friends to send me a few recipes to use in my blog. And may I say, an Alan Coxon recipe does NOT go wrong. Not. Ever.

If you have time over the next week, make a jar and stash it in your cupboard for one of the days over Christmas when something light, fruity and full of booze is required.

Clementines In Brandy

Makes 500g/ 1lb 2oz 1kg

( 2 ¼ lb) clementines

250g granulated sugar

150ml (1/4) pint brandy

Method

  • Peel the clementines then remove all the white pith – don’t angst over this, remove as much as you can.
  • Place into warm sterilised jars. Sterilise by putting in an oven for half an hour at 140C/275F/Gas 1
  • Stir the sugar and 300ml of water in a pan until sugar has dissolved
  • Bring to the boil, and boil rapidly until it reaches 110 degrees C (This maybe controlled with a sugar thermometer) Alternatively, test by pressing a small amount of the syrup between two teaspoon, when the spoons are pulled apart, a thread should form.

Boiling sugar with a sugar thermometer

  • At this point leave to cool
  • Measure the syrup and add the same amount of brandy and stir.
  • Pour over the fruits so they are completely covered.
  • Seal the jars with an airtight lid and keep for up to 1 month
  • Decorate with a big festive ribbon and a stick of cinnamon

A jar of Clementines in brandy

I would serve these with brandy snaps filled with whipped cream, or amaretti biscuits or even thin shortbread.

 

The reindeer cupcake project

I’m starting today with a picture to gladden anyone’s heart

Ginger biscuits in the shape of bottoms and bosoms

This comes courtesy of my friend Eva. We are fellow Karate Mums, and make cakes and biscuits for the twice annual karate grading at our local dojo. I normally throw together a couple of dozen cupcakes with hideous amounts of chocolate and frosting which appeals to our young Ninjas, but then six months ago, Eva raised the game by turning up with a tray of ginger biscuit karate kids complete with different coloured belts!  This morning’s picture, courtesy of Facebook, has stiffened my competitive resolve. It made me laugh and wonder if I could come up with something a bit more fun/seasonal/inventive for next week’s grading. I decided on reindeer chocolate cupcakes, and this is where the trouble began. At 8am this morning I was busted by my kids merrily making small fondant eyes, and attempting to drizzle chocolate antlers onto greaseproof paper. I am a great believer in celebrating failure as well as success, so take a look below. Clearly. Haven’t. Got. It. Right. Yet.

Chocolate Antlers

Which led me onto thoughts of Curlywurlys and Smarties (squiggly toffee and chocolate bar and candy covered chocolate drops for anyone unfamiliar with British confectionary)…and a walk with the dog which sneakily took in the local shops.

So this afternoon I’ve knocked up a tray of chocolate buns. Not sure about the recipe so I’ll post it if I like it, and am now weighing up chocolate fondant icing v chocolate buttercream.

Chocolate ganache icing

As you can see, I settled on a milk chocolate ganache – melted chocolate and double cream heated together and beaten.

I gave up on the fondant eyes, and used white chocolate drops with added melted chocolate pupils (marked with the end of a chopstick). Then chopped up the Curlywurly into reindeer(isn) antlers.

Reindeer chocolate cupcake

Reindeer chocolate cupcake

Well, it looked OK…but not as I wanted it to. The face looked a bit…well…flat. So, cue more scratching of head and another visit to sweetshop and this is what I came up with….more like a pig than a reindeer? But definitely an improvement.

Reindeer cupcake with a chocolate nose

I have a plan to move onto small amaretti biscuits for a muzzle, but in the meantime, and for the avoidance of any doubt, here’s a shot of the two together.

Two reindeer cupcakes

 

A question of cream

Scone with jam and lightly whipped cream

There are some culinary truths that broach no argument. Here is one. If you’re going to serve double cream, lightly whipped cream is the only way to go. I can say this with absolute certainty because Darina Allen told me.  Darina Allen is an Irish chef. She runs the Ballymalloe cookery school in Cork. She is meticulous, thoughtful and practical. If she says lightly whipped cream is the finest, no, the only way to serve double cream, you should believe her because she will have tried serving the stuff all possible ways before making such a pronouncement.  Double cream is lovely simply poured out of the carton –  but it is airier, tastier, simply better, when it is whipped enough to hold its shape, and not a second more. Now, go try it, and tell me – and Darina – she’s wrong!