Monday, 28 September 2015

Welsh Mussels cooked in English Cider

It's a strange thing, living abroad. Before we moved, I never really considered that I was moving to another country - I mean I knew Wales was distinct and had a border - hell, you even have to pay if you cross it at the Severn - but a different COUNTRY? Really?

Well, yes, it most definitely is. My own ignorance has had more than a couple of sharp metaphorical slaps administered over the last 18 months, particularly here, out on the West Wales coast, where you hear Welsh spoken all the time, where most primary education is in Welsh and the best thing on TV at the moment (Y Gwyll) comes with English subtitles. Yes, it's very clear that we are living in a distinct and separate country.

And if you ever make the mistake of thinking Wales is just a small part of Britain, think again. Just come here when Wales are playing England at the rugby, and you can be in no doubt that you are most definitely in another country. 

There are of course, great swathes of rugby playing in England, but here it is religion; and it is national and all encompassing. No moaning rugby widows here, oh no. Rugby seems to define the mood of the nation far more than any other part of Welsh life. Wales is, of course, as diverse as England - areas of wealth and poverty, cities, and villages, mountains and coast - and so naturally there are divisions. People have different politics, different attitudes to Europe, to the issues of the day, but mention the R word, and you will have utter unity.

I find the Welsh love of country fascinating and something to be immensely inspired by. It seems to come from a deep and abiding pride in and love of Wales, rather than hatred of others. The only English people I have seen express similar love of their own country seem to be motivated by hate, and this is not the case in Wales - except, perhaps where the rugby is concerned. Of course, there is still the national passion and pride supporting the Welsh rugby team - but if ever there was a time when a love inspired by hate might become apparent, it is when the boys are playing England at rugby. For days, my Facebook has been full of posts like "I'm supporting Wales in the #RugbyWorldCup - and anyone playing the English". And really, Saturday night, it was just as much about hiding chariots where the sun doesn't shine, about crushing the English as it was about the great game that the Welsh rugby team played. And really, it seemed like the whole of Wales (as evidenced by my Facebook) was watching.  A whole country united behind their team.

It's all water off a duck's back to me - born in England and lived there all my life (apart from various sojourns in France) until now, and not particularly interested in the outcome of any sporting competition, I know I have enough Welsh and Scottish blood in me that I don't feel that this hatred of the English is really about ME - although I probably wouldn't argue the toss with one of my Welsh friends. The fact is, that whatever I feel, I'll probably always be 'English' in the eyes of my Welsh friends here. The Husband, well, I think he'd have preferred not to have to go into work this morning, but he took a deep breath and manned up, practising saying "Well, we've got to let you win sometimes" in the least bitter tone he could muster...

Of course, we watched the game. And (don't tell the Husband) I'm glad Wales won. I love the support the team has, the unfettered pride in watching a good team play brilliantly, and of course, the way the victory is celebrated - by the way, have you seen the video of Ioan Gruffudd dancing around in his pants? If anything is worth a Welsh victory, that is...

Welsh mussels cooked in English Cider

We spent the morning on Saturday before the match foraging for mussels. We're in the grip of the most gorgeous weather at the moment, so we took the opportunity to collect a couple of kilos from a local beach

Our intention was to make something called 'eclade' which we've seen Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall prepare - you cook the mussels by burning pine needles over the top of them and then stir the pine infused mussels into a concoction of shallots and spinach. So while the mussels soaked in sea water, we spent the afternoon trying to find pine needles. 

Easier said than done. We were thwarted, so instead, we cooked the mussels in cider. And very good they were too. We ate them in front of the TV watching the rugby. Welsh mussels cooked in English cider - culinary harmony, if not mirrored on the pitch.

About 2.5 kg mussels - cleaned and debearded
good knob of butter and a splash of olive oil
2 echalion shallots, finely chopped
1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
1 500ml bottle of cider
about 50 ml double cream
freshly ground pepper

You also need a large heavy pan with a lid

Melt the butter in the oil, and gently sweat the shallot and garlic until soft.

Tip in the cider and bring up to the boil before tipping in the cleaned, de-bearded mussels and putting on the lid tightly.

Cook for 3-4 minutes, shaking the pan a couple of times.

Once the mussels have all opened, stir in the cream, and then leave to sit for a couple of minutes (if you can wait) - apparently this allows any residual grit to sink to the bottom of your pan.

Ladle mussels and the cooking liquid into bowls and serve - they are exceptionally good with skinny fries and decent mayo on the side, belgian style, or if you prefer, crusty bread.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Biscotti - or what not to bake during a homework crisis...

Failure. It's a big thing at the moment. We have to let our children fail. They fail at the little things, they learn, they become stronger, more resilient and more able to cope with adult life.

I wholeheartedly agree with this approach to life. I do believe that my role is to love my children, to support them, to be on their side, and to protect them, but that as they get older, the way I do this changes and develops. They need to understand that they have responsibilities as well as the rights they are always telling me about, and that their actions have consequences. For toddlers this could be learning that not getting into the bath by the time I count to 5 means no stories (one of my least favourite evenings, that one, believe me). For 10 year olds who mess about in the morning it could mean having to get dressed in the car on the way to the bus stop (I was tempted put him on the bus in his pyjamas but decided that could wait for the next time - there wasn't one)...

So far, the actions and consequences have been relatively clear cut but Blue is now at secondary school, and the world has suddenly become a more complicated place. The possibilities for failure are many, and the consequences now include such things as detentions, missing the school bus that goes from the end of the road, completely flunking school, and, most serious of all, driving his mother to COMPLETE and UTTER distraction with keeping her counsel while he works it all out

And of course, let him, I must - let him work out how to manage, how to get himself organised - and then offer support and help only when it's asked, all that good stuff. I find it incredibly stressful though - especially when he asks for help with something when it's most inconvenient - like while I am trying to get dressed, drink a cup of tea or even indulging in a spot of late night biscotti baking in advance of a coffee date with a friend the following morning - because he left it to the last minute ...This means biting my tongue when he doesn't get out of bed till 7.30 when he has to leave for the bus at 7.55; when he leaves his homework to the last minute; when he dashes off his homework the night before it's due so he can watch old episodes of Top Gear or Scrap Heap Challenge (why? WHY???) and then reappears at bedtime worrying that he hasn't done it very well...

This last was this evening's little joy. And on inspection, he really hadn't done his homework very well. I won't go into details, but it was rubbish. We have already said to the kids that the important thing is that they do their best. And this most definitely wasn't his best. In the most reasonable tone I could manage, I said it was too late and he could either ask the teacher for extra time to finish the homework or hand it in as it was and take the consequences. He didn't take it well, and in the interests of everyone's peace of mind, we compromised. He went to bed and hour later than normal, but a lot happier. Did I do the right thing? He produced something that was much improved and has, I hope, learnt a lesson. And I managed to keep the tirade about taking responsibility and not wasting life away in front of the TV to a minimum, and mostly - ahem - offered astute observations about how things might be achieved in a less stressful manner next time. I also over-baked my biscotti while delivering my unvitriolic advice ... Not too much, but you know, if I'd been paying more attention, they might have been a little better. Still, I think they were OK.

Cranberry, Macadamia & Hazelnut Biscotti

200g mixed pack of cranberries & macadamia nuts
100g whole hazelnuts
250g strong white flour
1 tsp baking powder
150g caster sugar
grated zest of a large lemon
2 large eggs
2 tsp rum (or you could use vanilla extract if you were feeling less stressed)
icing sugar for dusting

Pre-heat the oven to 180C (160C fan) and line a baking sheet with baking paper.

In a food processor, pulse the nuts and fruit a couple of times to chop them up a little.

Sift the flour & baking powder together, then add the sugar, nuts & fruit and lemon zest, then combine.

Beat the eggs and rum together, then stir into the flour mixture and combine to form a biscuit dough.

Dust a work surface with icing sugar and turn the dough out. Divide it into 3 and form each piece into a log shape and place on the baking sheet.

Bake for 20 minutes, then remove from the oven.

Put the logs on a board and slice up into 1cm biscuits - sliced on the diagonal. 

Lay the slices back on the baking sheet and pop back into the oven for 5 -10 minutes. 

Don't engage in a discussion with your son about the best time to do his homework, and the benefits of doing the best job you can first time round. But if you do, and end up leaving the biscotti in the oven for 20 minutes they will probably be OK...

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Chicken & Chorizo Couscous

Yes, I know, I know, another chorizo recipe. But I was talking about this recipe on a Facebook group I'm part of and was looking to see if I'd posted it on this blog as an easy way of passing the recipe on, and I realised that I hadn't - or if I had, I couldn't find it. So here it is. Chicken & Chorizo Couscous.

I'm not a great fan of leftovers of cold meat, but for reasons of economy and saving the planet, it is better to buy a whole chicken and use it up scrupulously, down to the boiling of bones to make stock, rather than buying portions (although I do admit to buying chicken thighs occasionally). This dish has almost become a reason to have a roast chicken at the weekend in itself. It's a ridiculously easy and tasty midweek dish and if you are roasting a chicken this weekend, I suggest you keep back enough cooked meat, and boil up your bones, to knock this up early next week.

This is of course open to various adaptations depending on what you have in the cupboards, and I freely fiddle with quantities and ingredients. I have used tamarind paste in place of harissa, and made it veggie too. You definitely need spice of some sort, though, A bit of a kick, otherwise it's just a bit bland, especially if you're leaving out the chorizo (although why would you?). I also recommend serving with your favourite chilli sauce. Tabasco is good, as is Hot Smoky Bastard.

 And finally, seeing as how we're bring scrupulous, I believe this once came from a Good Food magazine. I can't find it on the Good Food website any more, but the index card I meticulously copied it on to (obviously when I was going through an organised phase) has the initials 'GF' by the recipe title. Anyway, I'm sure they won't mind me repeating it here.

Chicken & Chorizo Couscous

serves 6 (allegedly - but don't bank on it if folks are hungry)

350g couscous
350g cold cooked chicken, chopped into bite-sized pieces
150g cooking chorizo, skinned if necessary and diced
3 medium tomatoes or equivalent cherry tomatoes, chopped up
a couple of handfuls of frozen peas
900ml hot chicken stock 
2 tsp harissa paste
generous pinch of saffron (if you have)
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tbsp olive oil
chopped fresh coriander to serve (optional - more often than not I don't have it but parsley works, or just go without).

Pre-heat the oven to 180C/160 fan.

Combine the couscous, chicken, chorizo, tomatoes and frozen peas in a large dish.

Stir the harissa paste spices and olive oil into the stock, then pour the spicy stock mix over the couscous mixture and stir together.

Cover the dish with foil - or, if it has one, a lid - and bake in the oven for 30-40 minutes. Fluff up with a fork before serving.

It really is that simple, and believe me when I tell you it's utterly delicious. If there are leftovers, they are great cold, the next day for lunch.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Caldo Verde

It may not have escaped your notice that I was unable to leave Ultracomida empty-handed last week. Olives, sliced meats and some cooking chorizo which, in my defence, was already on the shopping list.

My love affair with chorizo continues, It may no  longer be the darling of the food scene, trends move on of course (unless it's burgers) but I am (as I never hesitate to remind you) firmly of the opinion that chorizo is one of the finest things to grace this good earth.

And on a late summer afternoon, the sun warm, but the light removed of the harshness of hotter days, lending a lovely mellow glow to proceedings, chorizo is the perfect addition to a soup. This isn't too thick and chunky to feel wintry, more sustaining and likely to contributing a feeling of well being to your soul when you know you have more paint to apply to a small girl's bedroom - or some such travail...

I found the original recipe in my slow cooker book, which tells me this is Portuguese in origin, although the name sounds distinctly Italian. Indeed, Google translate thought it was Italian too - green soup. Ironically didn't have the time to make it in the slow cooker, and so made it on the hob. Also, despite the addition of the cabbage at the end, this looked more like zuppa arancione - or sopa laranje (orange soup - whether Italian or Portuguese - what with the spicy chorizo and carrot). But I like the sound of Caldo Verde, so caldo verde it shall be. Just remember that this isn't a soup that you whizz up, so make sure you chop the veg into suitably small pieces.

Caldo Verde

A good slug of olive oil
2 onions, finely chopped
2 fat cloves of garlic, also finely chopped
3 medium sized carrots, peeled and finely diced
150g cooking chorizo, peeled if necessary and diced
500g potatoes - I used little baby potatoes that had been growing in the compost heap, of all places - diced into appropriate sized chunks
1 teaspoon of smoked paprika - I used my favourite, Chinata hot smoked paprika
1.2 litres hot chicken stock
125g sweetheart or savoy cabbage, finely shredded.

Heat the olive oil in a large pan, then gently fry the onions for 5 minutes or so until starting to soften.

Add the garlic, carrots, chorizo, potatoes and paprika and cook for a few minutes more.

Pour in the hot stock, season, bring to the boil and simmer gently for 20-25 minutes until the potato is cooked. 

About 10 minutes before the end of cooking, add the shredded cabbage into the pan to cook.

Serve, slurp and feel restored.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Ultracomida - a Moor-ish (or more-ish) corner of Pembrokeshire

The skies took on that beautiful soft blue, the sun shone, the geese started massing on the banks of the River Teifi and September was here.

The hedgerows are heavy with sloes and blackberries and the house fell quiet as the slave labour children went back to school leaving me alone to harvest.

In a bit of a first for me, I engineered to have a day with each of Blue & Pink on their own before they went back to school. 'Quality time' if you can bear to call it that - although I'll come clean and admit to dressing up ' making sure both of them were in all respects complete kit-wise for the new term' as 'quality time'. I was particularly keen to spend some time with Blue who has been growing up at a frightening pace recently and (gasp) has just started secondary school. Good job I did the kit check though, as I had completely forgotten to get him rugby boots.

While Pink's outing of choice was a perfectly easy trip to the lovely Peapod Junction, a pottery painting cafe and shop stuffed with lovely things, situated north of us, and rather delightfully in the middle of nowhere between New Quay and Llangrannog,  Blue chose a slightly longer trip down to Pendine Sands, home of the Museum of Speed. Pendine Sands is, of course, at low tide, a vast expanse of flat beach on teh Carmarthenshire coast which gained notoriety for a short period in the 1920s as being the international home of the land speed record. This before speeds starting getting really silly - over 200mph for all you petrol heads that follow this blog - and the action moved to the States.

Anyway, to Pendine we went, Blue and I. A land of caravan parks, cafes and a huge MoD range. If you're in the area and have 15 minutes to kill, I thoroughly recommend the Museum of Speed. Marvellous value (it cost me £2 for both of us), and despite Blue's slightly bewildered pronouncement "Well, it's only got 1 car and 4 motorbikes", it did that car and those motorbikes very well. There's a good little film about the heyday of Pendine as the venue for record breaking, and just enough to occupy you (even someone like me who, let's be honest, has zero interest in cars other than knowing that they can get me from A to B) before you get bored.

15 minutes is all well and good, but what to do for the rest of the day? Well, about half way from our house to Pendine is the gorgeous Pembrokeshire town of Narberth - lovely shops, lovely cafes and home of the utterly fabulous Ultracomida deli & tapas bar. There's a branch in Aberystwyth too, and quite simply if you have any affinity with Spanish flavours at all, it's a 'must visit'. Blue is about as big a fan of chorizo and manchego as I am, so it didn't take much to persuade him that what he really wanted to do, given that we'd exhausted Pendine pretty quickly, was to see if we could grab a spot of tapas on our way home.

Ultracomida is a veritable treasure trove for foodies. Stuffed to the gunnels with all manner of moorish treats, food, drinks, oils, vinegars.... sigh...

Up till now, I've only managed forays into the deli for cheeses, chorizos and salamis, and just fabulous Spanish almonds which I could eat till they came out of my ears and I start rattling. On previous visits to Narberth, I have been thwarted either by time, or a heaving mass of people in the tapas bar, and have had to withdraw, clutching my deli counter prizes for treats at home.

Arrive at 11.30, however, and the breakfast crowd has departed, the lunch crowd not yet arrived. And while the full tapas menu isn't available till 12, we settled down to a platter of 'Embutidos' (cooked meats) and a 'Platter de quesos' (cheeses) plus complimentary olives cornichons and divine, nutty bread.

There's not much to say about it other than it was exactly what I was hoping for - and Blue loved it all too. It's a great thing to be able to share this love of food with him. The only thing he was slightly ambivalent about were the crisp rosemary flatbreads that came with the meats and cheeses, but I thought they were perfect.

There's a really convivial atmosphere promoted by the seating arrangements - no individual tables for 2 or 4, simply a couple of big tables where you grab a seat, plus a bar with high bar stools, which reminded me of the tapas bars I visited in Barcelona many years ago... 

Deeply satisfied, we perused the deli and chose a selection of meat to take home for the Husband and Pink to enjoy too, plus a tin of olives and some cooking chorizo. 

A thoroughly successful outing - and, calling in on the off chance, we even managed to score some rugby boots on sale in the sports shop in Cardigan, too.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Even better Brownies

Well hello there. Long time, no see. Hope you've been keeping well? And how was your summer? Grab a coffee & a piece of brownie and tell me how you've been.

Over here at Recipe Junkie HQ it feels like it's been the summer of many things. The summer of all things Dutch, as we headed East for the Haarlem Jamborette, an international scout event that takes place not far from Amsterdam every 4 years. 

In fact, when we went 4 years ago, I'd just started this blog... As well as chaperoning 20 fantastic scouts & explorers for 10 days of 'scout type' fun and adventure (lighting fires, hiking, singing, camp firing, water games, plenty of outdoors), we visited Amsterdam and Utrecht, 

experienced amazing coffee art

visited a big Dutch theme park called Walibi World, and consumed vast amounts of Dutch mayonnaise, Vla ( a type of flavoured custard that is just ambrosial) &amp Sprinkles, and prawn crackers (don't ask).

Vla & Sprinkles. A true delicacy

Back home, it's been the summer of sheep, as we welcomed 26 woolly lodgers of the Shetland and Herdwick varieties to act as ovine grass cutters, and general providers of amusement with their surprisingly idiosyncratic sheep-like ways - especially their propensity to escape and nonchalantly stroll around the garden nibbling the roses & looking for human company...

Can you see why we needed the grass cutting?

It's been the summer of seizing the moment, and heading to the beach whenever possible - of the children choosing to go to the beach as 'the best thing ever', 

Of seeing dolphins, of the exhilaration of the waves, the joy of watching everyone else go home and know that you have the beach to yourselves; 

The summer of the ghillie kettle

Turns out that brewing up on the sand after a swim, usually wrapped up in a fleece (it may have been sunny, it hasn't always been warm), and then drinking it with a home made welsh cake or other bake, is one of my favourite things (funny that).

It's been the summer we finally made it up Cadair Idris - not the highest mountain in Wales, but one that's been on the Husband's bucket list for sometime. 

A view!

Which way?

And it's been a summer of sunsets

Sunset over the River Teifi

It's been a summer of family and friends as people finally sussed out that we really do live in a fantastic place, and we've welcomed visitors - some for an hour, some for a week and everything in between.

It's been a summer of fruit as the garden we have inherited has revealed gooseberries, red currants, blackcurrants, plums and now apples. The greengages are on the way too. There has been much rejoicing and jamming; stoning, freezing and the promise of crumble to come as Autumn creeps in.

It's also been a summer of community - starting to get to know our neighbours; working out who can sell you eggs in your hour of baking need; knowing that in times of crisis, like if you get the lawnmower stuck & set fire to the grass, at least 3 people will come running with buckets of water (ahem); working out how you can help them back; and the summer of understanding that there's stiff competition in the village in all things produce related.

And on that note, it has been the summer of the brownie. Not just any brownie though - the summer of my even better PRIZE WINNING chocolate brownie. Indeed. 2nd prize in the Ferwig Show. The final detail of flaked almonds on top came after the show. I'll nail it next year (not that I'm competitive or anything). Sadly, my jam came nowhere...

Chocolate Brownie

Due to a dinner party earlier in the summer when we had a coeliac amongst our guests, I had a bag of gluten free flour in the cupboards and have been experimenting. I'm not sure if it makes any difference, but it's good to know that it works supremely well in this bake - bring on the gluten free! What undoubtedly does make a difference is the presence of ground almonds which adds to the squodge factor in a most delightful way. After all, there's not much more disappointing than an insufficiently squodgy brownie - at least in culinary terms. Finally, the combination of milk & dark chocolate nails this recipe, as it means it's chocolatey enough for me, but not so dark that Pink won't eat it.

375g unsalted butter
200g milk chocolate
175g dark chocolate
100g gluten free (or just plain) flour
125 g ground almonds
a good pinch fine sea salt
6 large eggs
1 tbsp vanilla extract
350g caster sugar
50g flaked almonds

Your tin needs to be approx 33 by 23 cm and around 5 cm deep.

Preheat the oven to 180C/160C fan.

Line the tin with greaseproof paper.

if you're using blocks of chocolate, chop them up quite finely - or buy drops. 

Put the butter & chocolate in a large pan and melt gently together, then leave to cool for a couple of minutes.

Sift the flour and combine with the ground almonds and salt.

Whisk together the eggs, sugar and vanilla extract.

Once the melted butter & chocolate has cooled for a bit, beat in the egg mixture, then the flour mixture, making sure everything is combined.

Scrape into the prepared tin, sprinkle the flaked almonds on top, then bake for 25-ish minutes, but check at 20 - you don't want to over cook these beauties. 

You're looking for light and a little cracked on top, but still dark and dense underneath. if you're a brownie virgin, I'd recommend making these a few times, just to get the hang of it, you understand...

By the way - a good tip for slicing these babies - put the cooled brownie in the fridge, and then after it's cold, use a hot knife to slice cleanly through. A great tip that I pinched from the fabulous Vicky North - who also planted the idea of using the ground almonds in my head...