Category Archives: food

Re-visiting and seasoning the Holcroft skillet

Over the winter of 2015-16 I tried out a new method for restoring a very rusty cast iron old Holcroft skillet that had been used as a garden ornament for many years and was decidedly the worse for wear. I recently came across a picture I’d taken of it in 2006 and it had been a garden ornament for a good while then. There were nearly ten more years of rusting after that!

In its original spot

Anyway, a bit of back story. We work in woodland over the winter (more on that here) and a hot lunch is extremely welcome, so we decided to start making proper use of the skillet. Some logs and slabs of stone had been used to form sitting places and were already nicely set out to be used as an outdoor cooking area, so that’s where we cook.

The kitchen

Come lunchtime, we bring out the basket of supplies, set up the stove and get cooking.

This stove is an MSR Dragonfly multi-fuel stove and while it isn’t cheap, it’s a well made piece of kit and runs on any petroleum-based fuel. The first time we cooked bacon and egg rolls was delightful – just the two of us in the middle of the woods on a chilly January day and we could provide ourselves with a hot meal. We’ve cooked for other people since that first time and everyone has reacted with the same pleasure. It’s an instant mood-lifter.

I had previously seasoned the skillet using lard and it worked pretty well – the first eggs cooked in it came out perfectly and nothing stuck to the pan. We used it all winter with no issues. At home, I’d scrub it out with a hard brush and hot water, dry it straight away and wipe a light coating of oil or fat over it to keep the rust off.

The thing is, if it wasn’t wiped with oil or was left wet, then it did rust, so I looked for other seasoning methods and came across Sheryl Canter’s excellent blog on the chemistry of cast iron seasoning. Here, she discusses the polymerisation qualities of varying oils and fats and explains why flax oil is the best to use for seasoning. Polymerisation means that the combination of iron, heat, oil and oxygen creates a plastic-like protective layer on the iron. She recommends that you use the oven’s self-cleaning function to clean off old seasoning, but our oven doesn’t have that feature so I just scrubbed it out as well as I could.

The idea goes like this: put the pan in the oven and heat to 100C to open up the iron’s pores. Take the pan out and wipe all the inside surfaces with the lightest smear of flax oil (you must use pure food-grade flax oil), then wipe it again to make sure you’ve removed any excess. Put it back in the oven, turn to full heat and let the pan bake for an hour. Turn the oven off and let the pan cool completely. Repeat five or six times until you have a smooth dark veneer on the pan’s cooking surface.

Without having the inside ground by a machine, a smooth veneer simply isn’t going to happen with that old skillet, but I thought it could do with some TLC, so decided to give the method a go. Five seasonings later and it’s looking pretty good, even wood-ready. Compared to how it was before I started work on it, it’s impressive. The surface looks like it’s been freshly oiled , but it’s completely dry and there is no tackiness at all.

Before

After

Does this seem a little obsessive? It might do, but I wanted to experiment with how what was an unusable skillet could be turned back into something to be proud of and, above all, something that could be used again, and I believe I’ve done it.

Not too shabby!

Grape expectations

2012 was a fruit year for us; we planted two new apple trees and a grape vine in our medium sized garden, adding to another apple tree, currants and gooseberries planted the year before. Each year we’ve watched them put out a bit more fruit, a few more apples on this tree or a better crop on the blackcurrant bushes, but it was the grapevine that had me most excited. We’d already used leaves from the summer pruning to make variations on Cypriot Koupepia, tasty little rolls of vine leaves stuffed with rice, meat, tomato and fresh herbs, but the fruit was slower to appear.

vine_leaves_2Koupepia in the making

I know that grapevines do well in this area as I’ve seen them growing and producing many bunches of fine tasting grapes. How good it would be to have a vine in our garden too – it’s one of those things that, once you realise the possibility, you just have to do it. The vine was planted over Easter 2012 against a south-facing wall where it would be bright, warm and sheltered. That first year it got settled in and didn’t grow a lot, not that we expected it to. Thereafter, it grew a little more and we carefully pruned it and tied it into the wires we’d put up, but the grapes were small and few so we left them for the birds.

oxford-grapesGrapes in a garden close to where we live

It didn’t start producing any fruit to get excited about until this year, when some 20 bunches started to form, tiny and green, gradually swelling and turning a beautiful dark purple. We waited impatiently for them to ripen, looking forward to the first fragrant, sun-warmed juiciness bursting in the mouth.

The view of the grape vine out of the kitchen window is partly obscured by the branches of the Magnolia tree, but it didn’t prevent me from seeing a blackbird flying into it, the foliage moving briefly and then all going suspiciously calm. That blackbird looked to me like it flew into the vine with purpose. Its movements mirrored exactly the way they fly into next door’s cherry tree when the fruits ripen and the tree fills with birds for a week or two. They clamber along its branches to pull off the cherries and scattering stones on the ground, which are then put into storage by mice. Time to check those grapes.

grapesNot a lot, but it’s a start and there should be more next year

I discovered that the blackbird had clearly been paying more attention than I had – the fruit was ripe and many of the easily reachable grapes had already been pecked at or eaten. Even so, there were many bunches of grapes that the birds couldn’t reach and they were ripe, as juicy and delicious as hoped for, so I cut them from the vine, leaving some for the birds to finish off. In hindsight, it’s obvious that the birds would watch the fruit more closely than me; indeed, I know from past experience that they do as I remember seeing a blackbird eating a huge and perfect strawberry I’d had my eye on for days, moments before I was about to pick it for myself. Next year it would probably be a good idea to net the vine before the fruit ripens, but we shall still leave some for the birds.

Tahini and honey balls

Last Monday morning, I spotted a recipe for a snack reputed to have been eaten for millennia and mentioned in ancient Egyptian texts as well as Homer’s Iliad – tahini and honey balls. It sounded tempting; apparently, once combined, the runniness of both ingredients thickens and becomes like plasticine and you can then scoop teaspoonfuls, form them into balls, roll them in sesame seeds and have an instant honeyed snack with a boost of protein from the tahini.

intrion-seeds

We don’t have many sweet snacks, but occasionally get the urge for one and generally buy a pastry or some like thing from a supermarket. They’re almost always disappointing – dry, too sweet and lacking in flavour. I don’t really know why we bother, to be honest, so seeing a simple recipe for an instant snack was appealing.

intrion-1

We had tahini, honey and sesame seeds so I could try it right away. The recipe called for equal amounts of tahini and honey to simply be mixed together to form a thick paste – I combined them and stirred vigorously but, whilst it did thicken, it didn’t thicken as much as I thought it would, so I added some dessicated coconut and that helped. Later, I discovered that if you let the mix stand for a few hours it does thicken up quite a bit more but the addition of coconut tastes good and pleasing to chew on. Mixing in sesame seeds is also good and provides further pleasing texture.

Today, on this lazy Sunday, I rolled three small balls for each of us and instead of the usual sesame seeds coating I tried coconut and it worked extremely well. Not better than the sesame seed coating but a nice change. Chopped walnuts are next on the list.

intrion-coconut

These things really do pack a punch and three can keep your energy up for a morning’s work. In Homer’s Iliad they were called ‘intrion’ and were given to warriors to increase their energy in battle. I have done no work this morning, however, and will not be going into battle, so I’m still buzzing two hours after eating them.

If you can’t beat it, eat it – ground elder risotto

groundelder-risotto

Many wild plants in the UK are edible – before the wide range of cultivated vegetables became available people called them ‘pot herbs’ and ate them for dinner. They were much appreciated ingredients, supplementing vegetables grown in the garden. In modern times, people have become oddly finicking and dainty about what they’ll eat; suggest to someone that they might enjoy sampling a wild plant and you will likely be met with a moue of distaste as if you’d proposed eating raw tree bark. ‘Oh no, I couldn’t possibly’ they’ll say, ‘Why do that when you can just go to the supermarket?’ or ‘What if a dog has peed on it?’

Ask these questions – ‘Do you know where the supermarket food you buy has been, how far it has travelled, how it was grown, what it’s been sprayed with and who (or what) might have handled it before you bought it?’. Unless you visited the field where it was grown, the answer can only be ‘No’ and yet the wild plant is viewed with a suspicion which might well be more deserved of the shop bought plant. To me, it doesn’t seem rational – this food is nutritious and if it has grown in woodland or your garden, then it is likely to be organic. It is local, fresh and, more to the point, it is free. I’m not advocating a move to only eating wild plants, but promoting the idea of trying them before dismissing the idea out of hand.

Which brings me to the wild plant ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria). It is thought to have been introduced by the Romans as a pot herb and was later grown around monasteries and known as gout weed, since it was thought to ease the gout suffered by monks as a result of their rich diets. Today it is found in many gardens, under hedges, alongside walls and in woodland. Spreading by its roots and sending up new shoots, it is a vigorous grower and can form dense patches, invading clump forming plants in a short time. It can be controlled by careful digging, but the smallest fragment of root left behind will easily form a new colony.

groundelder-plant-rootsThe whole plant – the rhizomes spread horizontally through the soil

What to do? One way to control ground elder is to use it as the Romans intended and eat it. I see ground elder often so, as it’s said to be at its best in spring, I collected a carrier bag full and brought it home to try, adding it to a risotto and serving it with trout. I hadn’t actually tried ground elder before eating it, but had crushed a leaf to sniff and it smelled fresh and pleasant. Cooked, it was reminiscent of parsley with a touch of lemon so was a very good partner to the trout. We both liked it very much and will cook it again.

A word of warning – choose the younger ground elder leaves as they will be more tender and avoid picking after the plant has flowered, as it then develops laxative qualities. If a laxative is what you’re after, then go ahead.

groundelder-leafNote the grooved leaf stem and the bright green of the foliage – click to enlarge the picture for a better view

Recognising ground elder is pretty straightforward. The bright green leaves uncurl from the soil in early spring and are thusly described: ‘Aegopodium podagraria is perennial, growing to a height of 100 cms with rhizomes. The stems are erect, hollow and grooved. The upper leaves are ternate, broad and toothed. The flowers are in umbels, terminal with rays 15 – 20, with small white flowers’.

And so to the recipe.

Ground elder risotto

Serves four

A carrier bag of ground elder leaves, washed and with roots removed.
2 onions or large shallots, chopped
Olive oil for frying
200ml white wine
300g risotto rice
Cup of pre-cooked or frozen garden peas (if you feel like it)
1 litre vegetable or chicken stock

In a large frying pan, fry the onions gently until softened and very lightly browned. While they are cooking, lightly steam the ground elder until wilted, cool and roughly chop. Add the rice to the onions, stir in and then add the white wine and some of the stock. Cook over a low heat, stirring regularly and adding more stock as the rice absorbs it. You may find that you need more or less according to how soft or al dente you prefer the rice to be. When the rice is at the texture you prefer, mix in the ground elder leaves and the garden peas if you are using them and heat through again before serving. Season at the table and, if liked, add grated parmesan cheese.

Lavashak – Iranian fruit rolls

Lavashak is similar to apple leather but it’s the Iranian version and uses different fruit – plums, sour cherries, apricots or whatever you have a glut of. Some recipes use only one type of fruit, others use a mix. Take your pick. I used plums because someone I know has a couple of plum trees and they weren’t going to use the fruit.

lavashak_3

Continue reading Lavashak – Iranian fruit rolls

Apple leather

I can’t remember now where I came across the idea of fruit leather. It was quite a few years ago for sure and I logged it away for future reference, should I find myself with a large number of apples to deal with. The day came after a customer who is allergic to wasp stings asked for all the apples to removed from her tree and taken away, so we ended up with several compost sacks of them. Some were turned into purée and bottled, I made spicy apple chutney and Karl made some very nice apple wine. All that processing and we still hadn’t used them all, but then I remembered about fruit leather and decided to give it a go.

fruit-leather-2

Looking up what to do, it seemed pretty straight forward so I set to and got peeling. I don’t have pictures of the process, unfortunately, but only of the finished product. Next time I make fruit leather, I’ll take pictures. So, having peeled and cored enough apples to fit into my biggest cooking pot, I cooked them gently until they were puréed as if for apple sauce.

Continue reading Apple leather

Making apple cider vinegar at home

I can’t remember what it was that motivated me to try making vinegar, but there are so many things I’d like to try doing for myself and it was probably just one of those questions that comes to mind from time to time – ‘How do you actually do that?’. Once a question has been asked, it frequently requires an answer, if only to silence it. Anyway, I like knowing how to do things so making my own vinegar would be a worthy project.

vinegar_potThe vinegar pot that Karl gave me

I work for people who have apple trees and they often have more fruit than they can use and don’t want to waste it, so in the autumn I get given a lot of apples. We’ve done various things with them – Karl made some excellent apple wine one year, others were cooked and frozen, some cooked and jarred and one year I made a lot of fruit leather to be snacked on when we remember about it.

Continue reading Making apple cider vinegar at home

First adventures with sourdough bread

Sunday the 9th of November, 2014, was the day I finally got around to finding out how to make sourdough bread, having wondered about it for a few years. I wondered and wondered but didn’t do anything and the question of ‘How do you do that?’ kept popping up. I like knowing how to do things myself, it is immensely pleasing to me.

sourdough-1112The sourdough starter after two days

It seemed to me that if people have been making bread this way for thousands of years, then it can’t be that complicated or they wouldn’t have started doing it in the first place and I couldn’t understand why nearly all the recipes and videos I found made it out to be so complex.

Continue reading First adventures with sourdough bread