pumpkin crisps

Our first half term holiday since Ruby started school and I’m really savouring it. It’s so good not to be nagging her in the morning to get dressed, brush teeth, eat breakfast, have hair plaited. So great to have time to play, cook and make things with her when she’s not overtired. And lovely to be able to pull our wellies on after breakfast and wander into the garden in our nighties to find beetroot because we fancy baking chocolate and beetroot brownies.

Ruby was keen on ‘a making day’ today and her initial ideas revolved around bits of gold paper, old sweet wrappers and copious amounts of cellotape. Very happy to encourage this sort of making, I also managed to sneak in a bit of the edible sort. Halloween biscuits of course and a few of the crisps I always make at this time of year. These work well with parsnips and beetroot too but this week it has to be pumpkin. Well. butternut squash to be exact – it’s normally tastier, less watery, and I love the leftovers in thai curry or noodles.

This isn’t really a recipe – just a simple suggestion that seems right for Halloween week, generally goes down well with children but feels fairly healthy for parents. All I do is peel a butternut squash, shave crisp size pieces of it with a potato peeler and fry them quickly in hot oil (I use local rapeseed oil). Drain on kitchen roll then try not to eat them all yourself before your children get their hands on them.

I rinse the seeds from the squash, leave to drain and they can be cooked in a frying pan with a little olive oil or rapeseed oil, then given a tiny sprinkle of tamari sauce for another tasty snack.


pickled elderberries and hedgerow fruit

Chillier weather is good for my plan to make air-dried ham (my tunnel-boned leg of one of our Berkshire pigs is still salting in readiness) but is giving me a slightly panicky feeling about the fruits of our hedgerows. My head has been full of thoughts of rosehip jelly, pickled elderberries, elderberry wine and blackberry jam for a while but as usual I don’t seem to have found the time to make all the things I hoped for. And as I look out at another foggy day with all colours muted, I’m all too aware that the rich fruits I have so many plans for won’t be around for long.

At least there are still daily raspberries that can be picked from the garden without venturing too far in the fog. Definitely recommend Autumn fruiting raspberries for any of you who don’t already grow them: hassle-free, they don’t even need netting from the birds and are productive into November usually. I have them growing in what looks like quite a messy hedge at the moment, although variegated lemon balm nestles amongst them and in the summer hollyhocks flower behind the raspberries. Little packets of our raspberries are already in the freezer along with blackberries for the winter days when there’s a dearth of home-grown fruit and am already thinking of melting a little white chocolate with cream to pour over the frozen berries Nigella style.

In the meantime, I felt a need to walk across the fields to gather the last of the elderberries. I aimed for the spot where we heaped bags full of fragrant elderflowers for cordial on a warm summer evening. It turned out to be one of those days when looking out of the window the monotone colours of the foggy fields don’t tempt, yet once outside you notice tumbles of turmeric and russet Autumn leaves.

Back home I made Elderberry pickle and its rich purple colour made me feel more Autumnal still. I’m imagining it will go well with local cheese or venison but would love to hear of any other ideas. This is the recipe I used:

Elderberry Pickle

675g elderberries (weighed off stems)

50g light, soft brown sugar

12g ground ginger

few grinds of black pepper

pinch ground cloves

1 medium onion, finely chopped

240ml cider vinegar

1 teaspoon salt

pinch ground mace

50g sultanas

Wash elderberries well and drain. Sieve the berries, pushing out all the juice with back of a wooden spoon to make a thin puree. Put into a pan with all the other ingredients, bring to boil and simmer, stirring well for 20 minutes. Put into small, sterilized jars (I normally use them straight from the dishwasher for ease). Ready to eat after 4 weeks.


ham and piccalilli

I seem to have gone ham and pickle mad. A glut of apples coinciding with the last few runner beans, squash and edible hedgerow berries always has me reaching for the kilner jars at this time of year. Sometimes it feels like a preserving panic, at others an evening chopping fruit and vegetables at the kitchen table feels really quite calming, And the thought of pantry shelves filled with chutney,jam and jellies is very reassuring.

Runner beans have been used in a mildly spiced runner bean chutney and, trying to wean myself off my usual ‘glutney’ that makes use of any leftovers from the garden, I’ve made the Apple, Fig & Pear Chutney with cardamon from Karen at Lavender and Lovage. Some of my chutneys are quite randomly labelled, you may notice the squiggles on the ‘glutney’ jar at the fromt of my shelf. Ruby is quite keen on labelling.

Something about the Autumnal weather and changing appetites is also making the cooking and curing of ham very popular in this house. Or maybe it’s something to do with the large amount of Berkshire pork in our freezer.

I cured a ham last week in a cider brine and since cooking it, we’ve enjoyed the following:

Slices of ham with scrambled eggs for brunch

Ham and cheddar toasties for Ruby after school

Ham, parsley sauce and some of the last pink fir apple potatoes

Puy lentils simmered in the ham cooking liquor (some frozen too, imagine it will make great pea/broad bean and ham risotto at a later date) and eaten with slithers of ham, crusty bread and green salad from garden.

Ham and cheese toasties for Ruby after school (simple but with great ham and cheese, I couldn’t resist either).

We’re having a ham free night tonight, then we’re going to enjoy what I reckon will be a truly tasty ham, egg and chips. The eggs very local and with rich, deep yellow yolks, the ‘chips’ thin strips of the trusty pink fir apple potatoes cooked in olive oil in the oven.

In the spirit of doing justice to our pigs, any scraps of ham will end up contributing wonderful flavour to pasta carbonara, quiche or asian noodles.

I think Ruby’s favourite of the ham meals will unsurprisingly be the ham, egg and chips. It reminds me of my favourite meal at her age – spam and chips. How strange (or maybe not too surprising when you think about it) that I went from loving a processed mass-produced meat product that I imagine tasted mainly of salt, sugar and additives, to being a non-meater for 30 years, before relishing the taste of happily home-reared, well fed, rare breed pigs.

When I cured the first ham from our pigs, I omitted saltpetre from the ingredients, deciding that it was an unnecessary chemical additive. The ham tasted excellent but was obviously a different colour to any we’d been used to, as it’s the saltpetre that keeps the flesh pink.

Ever since, Ruby has asked me for some of “that lovely pink ham”. Remembering my spam weakness at her age and knowing that any ham we buy (even organic) always seems to be pink and so must’ve had saltpetre in the cure, I relented. Searching online for saltpetre, I found that it’s also used in explosives. Having seen saltpetre in most recipes for curing meat, yet reading different opinions as to whether it’s a natural mineral that’s been used in curing for hundreds of years or a heinous chemical that’s bad for us, I’m still undecdided about actually using it. Any other ideas on the subject very much appreciated! But my Amazon recommendations may be decidedly dodgy from now on.

We now have a leg of pig covered in salt, and waiting to be wrapped in muslin and hung outside to air-dry proscuitto style too. Will report in more detail on this soon.

But with lots more ham to be cooked over the next year, I’ve just made the perfect Christmas leftovers accompaniment. My home-made piccalilli feels just retro as Spam – hopefully it’ll be as different in flavour from the shop bought pickle of my childhood as our home-reared ham is from the tinned pink meat that I used to love.

Recipe Piccalilli

1 kg vegetables (I used cauliflower, last of the runner beans & courgettes, onions)

50g sea salt

30g cornflour

20g mustard powder

20g turmeric

pinch of cayenne pepper

200g sugar

600ml cider vinegar

Dice the vegetables, place in a large bowl and mix with the salt. Cover and keep in the fridge overnight. The next day, put the dry ingredients in a saucepan, whisk in the vinegar, then bring to the boil, stirring all the time, until it’s thickened. Rinse vegetables, getting rid of excess salt, add to the spicy paste and simmer for 5 minutes. Pour into sterilised jars (makes 2 large kilner jars) and seal immediately. Use after 4 weeks and it will keep for a year.

Very pleased with how gloriously yellow this pickle is, any excuse for colour on these drab foggy days is good! And think I may need to make a pork pie over Christmas too, now I have home-made piccalilli in the larder.


cosy autumn reading

Now that it’s getting dark so early, I’m missing my indulgent dusk gardening after Ruby’s bedtime. But the chill in the air gives me an excuse to bring some wood in from the woodstore and stoke up the woodburner. I peel and chop up some of the many apples that are heaped in a bowl in my kitchen and gently cook them on the woodburner for future puds.

The satisfying feeling of preparing for future meals gives me the excuse for some indulgence so I grab my favourite comfy cushion and curl up with a good book.

Much as I love catching up on the escapades of Pippy Longstocking, there’s something very decadent about having time to  enjoy a book of my own, even if it’s just for 30 peaceful minutes. And while one of my favourite things is cuddling up with Ruby on the sofa, a pile of her library books at our side, it’s very lovely having the sofa to myself once in a while. These are some of my recent favourite reads for such a time:

Hens Dancing and Summertime by Raffaella Barker

Both follow the gloriously shambolic rural life of Venetia Summers, who tells us about her domestic disasters, wild garden and errant cockerels in a diary style that makes you feel intimate with her quickly. As if she’s a very good friend with a zest for nature and life, who unloads the stories of her errant husband, three eccentric children and new love, over cups of tea at the kitchen table. Actually, probably sloe gin knowing Venetia.

Raffaella Barker is brilliant at writing engagingly about the Norfolk countryside and nature generally, whether it’s describing errant cockerels, children sleeping in a pig sty or a trip to hear nightingales. I also love the voices and characters she gives to the children in her novels – the regal serenity of ‘The Beauty’ Venetia’s baby/toddler is wonderful.

The only thing that bothered me about reading these two novels is how I found myself drawn to Venetia, who is clearly meant to be a bit shoddy in her rural style, as a role model.

The Wild by Esther Freud

I chose this novel because Hideous Kinky by the same author is one of my all-time favourite reads. One of the things I like about Hideous Kinky, apart from all the wonderful hippy-chic scenes in 1970s Morocco, is the way that the story unfolds through the eyes of children.

The Wild is about a slightly hippy single Mum who moves with her children into an old bakery converted into a home by the very capable (he makes his own ravioli, chops down trees and makes them into sheds and single-handedly brings up 3 children) William. Perhaps predictably, while the children fall for life at ‘The Wild’ with its garden where they can grow all their vegetables as well as play badminton, and its fireplace big enough to sit in, the grown-ups fall for each other.

But the story enfolds through the eyes of the children again and Esther Freud is fantastic at evoking what this feels like, including the gradual realisation of William’s egotism.

For any of you who live in the Cotswolds. or plan to visit, my favourite place to browse for great reads such as these is Jaffe and Neale in Chipping Norton. It’s one of those enticing independant book shops with a tempting selection of books, friendly helpful people and a lovely vibe. There’s a good children’s section and if you stop for a coffee (very much recommended as are the homemade cakes) there’s seating for kids and a lovely little pile of books kept purely for visiting children to look at. So you can encourage their love of books, enjoy your coffee in peace and not have to worry that grubby fingerprints are marking books for sale.

Jaffe and Neale was set up by a farmer’s son turned bookseller, now with 3 sons who want to turn the bookshop into a petshop. Hope they don’t get their way, it’s one of my favourite place for treats and presents.

Obviously the serene scenario by the woodburner described above is pretty rare. It’s far more likely that once I’ve started cooking apples, I’ll decide that I’ve got time to mix up some cinnamon and ginger granola too. Well, it makes sense while the woodburner is roaring away doesn’t it, I can pop it in the oven while the apple cooks on top. And granola with apple compote will be perfect for breakfast tomorrow, especially with a dollop of greek yoghurt. Ever optimistic when it comes to time, measuring out the ingredients will take a little longer than estimated.  Dribbles of honey, scattered oats and sprinklings of hastily chopped nuts will need clearing up. In my haste I’ll probably have hacked at my fingers as usual and forgotten where Ruby’s hidden her precious plasters. And I’ll probably have decided I need to catch up with my emails simultaneously. Just as I have a kitchen table covered with apple peel and the rest of the kitchen is nicely chaotic, before I’ve actually got to sit down with a book, let alone had chance to savour the wholesome smells while I read, there’ll be a shriek of “Mummeeee!” from upstairs. And I’ll realise that the time in which I could’ve had a relaxing read is gone.

The wonderful thing about the books above though, is that they’re all both very well written and easy to read. The sort of books that you can pick up and quickly get into (because they have very well crafted characters and engaging prose, rather than because they’re trashy) in any spare moments. Whether you’re snatching a few minutes between the ironing and feeding the pigs, or savouring that precious bit of relaxation time between finishing chores and dropping off to sleep. I know they deserve better though, and I have very good intentions for better reading…..

harvesting nigella and other seeds

It seems such a short time since our view from the kitchen table included the bright yellow heads of Ruby’s sunflowers, cheery and upright. Glancing at their now sorry state and feeling tardy, I also noticed the nigella seed pods.

Ruby liked the idea of gathering seeds, especially as it involved little envelopes, jars, and her sunflowers, so we headed out in our wellies. As easily distracted as my 5 year old daughter, I couldn’t resist picking a few runner beans for tea as we passed them. Some of the larger ones looked too tough, so I decided they’d provide seed for next year’s display of ‘painted lady’ beans. I love alium seed heads purely for decoration, placed in jars in the house. And remembering Sarah at the garden deli’s (www.thegardendeli.wordpress.com) biscotti recipe, we harvested fennel seeds too.

After lots of poking about with sunflowers (actually by Ruby this time, not me) and trips to the compost heap, we settled back into the warmth of the kitchen. Ruby laid out old newspaper and happily gathered the brown envelopes, putting a few to one side of course for her secret stash. I found some empty jars and pens and we started to sort out our hoard.

The painted lady beans, when podded, turned out to be huge and beautifully mottled pink; we wondered if they were perhaps magic beans and could be exchanged for a cow on the way to the market.One of the sunflower heads was destined to provide food for the birds, hanging from the magnolia tree outside our kitchen window along with a large fir cone that we’d filled some time ago with bird seed. It may look as if we’re setting up a joke for some unsuspecting townie visitor by creating a weird fruiting tree, but we’re hoping the birds will enjoy their treats.

Ruby decided she’s going to plant 100s of sunflowers next year by saving seeds. Looking at the packets crammed with nigella seeds, it seems their pretty blue ‘love in a mist’ flowers are going to be even more prolific. Loving crushing the crinkly dry seed pods and seeing the jet black tiny seeds spill out, Ruby was happy. I was thinking of culinary uses, dreaming of flatbreads sprinkled with nigella seeds, similar in flavour to cumin. A taste of the Middle East from our Cotswolds woodburner.

When I looked at our collection of sunflower heads for the birds, jars of seed for the kitchen, and packets of seed to plant next year, it felt very satisfying. I was reminded somehow of the gardener’s adage, “One for the rock, one for the crow, one to die, and one ro grow.” Then I looked around and saw seeds, husks and pods scattered everywhere. Maybe it would’ve been a good job for the outside table. I realised that as usual my enthusiasm had skipped ahead of any thought for planning. Definitely don’t remember twenty for under the table, a hundred for the rug, fifty for the kitchen floor being part of the adage.


roast tomatoes

My tomato harvest has been truly pitiful this year. Never exactly abundant, this year I could give you a description of each individual tomato.

It may be a combination of not enough sun at the right time, too much rain at the wrong time and me going to Dorset when they needed me. Other than the odd feed from my worm composter, the tomatoes haven’t exactly been cossetted. I always start off with good intentions; determined to pinch out the sideshoots religiously, support them well and feed and water regularly, I find myself forgetting for a few days and coming back to a triffid. Loads of green growth but unlikely to be great in terms of tomato production. When I look at my pathetic tomato and chilli plants I don’t exactly feel like a great gardener. The only time I have green fingers at the moment is when I squash the caterpillars on my brassicas. Well, I have to at least protect my broccoli, kale, cauliflowers and sprouts.

Ever optimistic, I have plans to look out for a second hand or freecycle greenhouse for peppers, tomatoes and aubergines next year. And concentrate my efforts!

In the meantime, luckily we have a great local farmshop where several different varieties of tomatoes are grown in some old greenhouses at the back. So tasty, they have the most flavour of any tomatoes I’ve eaten that hasn’t benefitted from an intense mediterranean sun.

Spotting the crate of 30p a pound very ripe tomatoes, it became my mission to think of ways to prolong the taste of late summer. The woodburner, now in regular evening use and using free wood is perfect for Autumn and winter cookling. It has a separate oven which is great for imprecise roasting or cooking warming casseroles and stews.

The intense flavour of the tomatoes is preserved wonderfully by roasting with garlic, olive oil and woody herbs for tomato sauce. It freezes well and so we’ll be enjoying it in pasta and risotto dishes through the winter. Pressed through a sieve by Ruby and mixed with a little vinegar, sugar and mustard, then cooked to reduce, it also makes a great alternative to the tomato ketchup she’s becoming far too fond of.

My own favourite is roasted tomato soup, perhaps with some of the last basil leaves stirred in at the last moment. We took some in a flask on a walk and enjoyed it sitting on the fallen tree that will heat our woodburner next year.

Roasted tomato soup

1.8 kg ripe tomatoes

200ml olive oil

6 garlic cloves, crushed

4 bay leaves

4 sprigs fresh thyme

4 onions, sliced

A couple of lovage leaves, chopped

2 teaspoons tomato puree

2 teaspoons sugar

juice of 1 lemon

Pre-heat oven to 190C/375F/Gas 5. Mix olive oil with garlic, herbs and tomatoes in roasting tin and roast for 35/40mins until tomatoes darkening at edges. Remove from oven and puree in a liquidiser with the tomato puree, sugar and lemon juice. Add water if necessary to make a smooth pouring consistency. Push through a sieve into a saucepan, taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper and more water if it needs it. Warm and serve with basil leaves or, if you still have rocket in the garden, a spoon of rocket and pumpkin seed pesto is good (recipe to follow in future blog).