Tuesday 4 October 2016

Thyme-roasted belly of pork, cider apple sauce - and an 'au revoir'

Summer has inexorably ebbed away over the last few days. Chillier mornings are here, that beautifully clear light that comes on a sunny Autumn day, the undeniable yet indefinable 'smell' of Autumn that's there as you breathe in. The trees are heavy with apples, and overhead, the geese are forming and re-forming their skeins, honking loudly as they make pass after pass over our house from the estuary, and our top field is strangely quiet as the pigs that arrived in late Spring were dispatched early last week only to return, butchered and bagged, ready for the freezer.

pigs in their stye

You only really know how big a pig is when you try and fit it into your freezer. That's not a euphemism. As the pigs got fat snuffling around, rootling through the ground, churning it up, wallowing and generally enjoying about the best life a pig could have, I became increasingly concerned as to quite how our portion of pork - the rent, if you will, as the pigs were not ours - would fit into our array of white goods.  For weeks, we've been eating our way through the boxes, tubs and bags stashed away in months gone by - in many instances playing freezer roulette as a result of my apparently frequent labelling lapses. And each time it was my responsibility to feed the pigs, my anxiety would return. 2 buckets of feed morning and evening each day became three and then five, along with plentiful windfalls and other treats. I had to employ increasingly tactical strategies to get over the fence, into the pen and emptying said buckets into the feeding troughs without getting knocked into the mud and trampled all over by 8 eager, hungry and enormous pigs...

Fortunately, our efforts eating through the freezer were rewarded and the 70kg that came back on Friday all fitted in, along with 10kg of sausage. That, along with some lamb that also originated on our land earlier in the summer, and some fantastic grass fed beef from Esgair Farm near Carmarthen, means that we're pretty much sorted for meat for the next few months. 

Of course, we couldn't resist trying the pork this weekend: when you've spent 3 months anticipating meat that has grown up within 100 feet of your house, meat that you know has had a fantastically happy life, free to root around, free to wallow in mud, free to play football (stop press - pigs play football) and to run around having mad half hours - you just have to try it. I defy any meat eater to do anything else.

Pork joint ready for the oven with thyme and salt rubbed into the scored skin

Browsing through Diana Henry's Food from Plenty, I found the perfect recipe - nothing too heavily flavoured that would mask the pork, a simple treatment - and simple is often the best. Thyme-roasted belly of pork with baked apples did the job perfectly giving incredible crackling, melting meat and some rather tasty apples to go with. Apples which had grown in our garden too, along with the thyme that I rubbed into the scored skin, along with salt and pepper, in readiness for the oven. Even better, the baked apples recipe made use of some of the Husband's rather challenging home brew cider... Although we're in no position to give it our day jobs and immerse ourselves in smallholding and self-sufficiency, there's a certain sense of satisfaction to be felt from eating a meal where the meat and a significant part of the accompaniments come from your own garden.

roasted pork with amazing aromatic and crispy crackling

Caring for the pigs, deputising for our neighbour who they actually belonged to has been a big part of what has been a bit of a funny summer, what with one thing and another. Life has thrown a number of curved balls our way - nothing insurmountable, but each requiring time and attention. 

When I was blogging regularly, engaging and participating in the blogging community, I'd occasionally come across a blog which just seemed to have 'stopped'. One day, a blog post, one of a regular stream, and then - nothing. I used to wonder what had happened to those people - people obviously like me who had cared enough about what they were interested in to post regularly. Had something happened? Had they got bored? Worse? I often feared for the worst - after all my own blogging had started out of my son's serious illness - and I often imagined something of those proportions might have happened, intervening with their blogging. And then, at some point over this crazy summer - I realised that my blog was one of those - simply abandoned. Nothing to indicate the state of play, one day a post, then nothing...

I've thought about it a lot over the last few weeks, and what I've realised is that, this blog, this blog that I've loved writing, loved the comments, loved being a very small and insignificant part of the food blogging community, this blog has done its job. I started it at a time when my life was in chaos, and it gave me a focus, something I could do for me when every other moment was full of caring for a child with a life threatening illness and a baby. This year, though, with all its trials and traumas, all its highs and lows hasn't really given me any cause to sit down and blog. Fred the dog had to be put to sleep, Brexit threw me off kilter for weeks, Blue broke a foot bone, kiboshing much of our summer . On the plus side, some amazing camping and walking trips, days on the beach, sailing with dolphins, catching lobster in our own pots... and yet none of it made it to the blog. The cooking for solace and celebration - and life in general - it's all been going on, but nothing I just haven't needed to share in the way I used to feel so compelled to do so.

And Blue and Pink who gave me so much fodder for the blog - being as much of my cooking that formed the heart of the blog was aimed at feeding them healthy, varied, homecooked yet easy food - have all of a sudden grown up. I no longer feel comfortable calling them 'Blue' and 'Pink'. Blue, almost 13, is taller than me, and is as strong as an ox, enjoying life at secondary school. Pink is a maelstrom of hormones, already comfortable in the kitchen herself, and working her way through a collection of Sam Stern recipes and the children's Silver Spoon cook book. Even more significant, I can pretty much put anything on the table, and it will be eaten up. Salads, lentils, curries, fish. My work here is done.

So to those of you who came with me on my blogging journey, thank you and goodbye - well, au revoir. I'm still lurking about on Twitter and Instagram, There may also be another blog on the horizon, so watch this space (or, at any rate, a similar blog space). And if you just came across this blog and wondered what happened, well, I just moved on. I've said all I have to say about food - from now on, I'll just be cooking and eating it.

apples in the tree
All that remains is for me to leave you with a recipe for cider apple sauce - a great way to use up cooking apples and challenging bottles of home brew cider.  With the bulk of the pork in the freezer, I actually had space left - space to fill with apples. Faced with the rest of the bottle of challenging home brew cider from the baked apples, and a pile of cooking apples, I cooked up a huge batch of cider apple sauce, which is now frozen in portions alongside the pork. It's going to be a good winter.

Cider Apple Sauce

Cooking apples
Dry cider (home brew is fine)
Soft brown sugar

Depending on how big your pile of cooking apples is (I reckon I had at least 20) take a big, thick bottomed pan and tip about 1cm of cider into the bottom, plus around 50g sugar. Turn on the heat to low.

Start peeling, coring and slicing your apples, adding them to the pan as you go. Stir the apples occasionally as they cook down and as you add more apple slices in. 

Taste as you go and add more sugar as needed (this will depend on how tart your apples, and your cider, are...)

If the mixture looks like it's drying out, add a slosh more cider and basically keep going till you've used up your apples, and they are all cooked out and it all looks like a big pan of apple sauce. If you like it a little chunky, take the pan off the heat before the last apples have fully cooked down.

Leave to cool and then portion up and freeze.

Friday 12 February 2016

Cardigan Bay Bakers - Valentine's Breakfast

The Cardigan Bay Bakers met earlier this week. Sometimes we meet as the Cardigan Clandestine Cake Club but strange as it may seem, we decided some time ago that we didn't always want to bake cake within the remit provided by the Clandestine Cake Club, so sometimes we meet as the Cardigan Bay Bakers. This week was one of those times.

You might have thought that a theme of Valentine's Breakfast would be tricky seeing as how we meet in the evening, but as I'm sure you'll agree, everyone rose to the challenge. We had a great mixture of savoury and sweet from a bacon platter - candied bacon, chocolate coated bacon (yes really) and bacon jam, served with a side of chocolate coated strawberries, individual smoke salmon 'crustless quiches' and some delicious savoury scones packed with sundried tomatoes, maple syrup and rosemary - to cappucino muffins, heart shaped flapjack, oat and raspberry muffins and lemon and marzipan buns.

We were hosted by a new venue for the club - the recently re-opened Penrallt Country House Hotel which perches above the coastal village of Aberporth. We were warmly welcomed, and very much enjoyed hanging out in their conservatory/terrace while we shared our stories and our bakes for the evening. Hopefully they will have us back on another occasion - we were too busy talking and eating to snoop around the refurbished rooms this time!

My contribution was the Lemon & Marzipan Buns. A Dan Lepard recipe from Short & Sweet. Delicious. There recipe's here. No need to thank me...

Sunday 31 January 2016

A Modern way to Cook by Anna Jones

Always last to jump on a bandwagon (or anything for that matter - I didn't realise I had to do anything with my eyebrows until I was well into my 20s, and dealing with bushy eyebrows is no bandwagon issue), I have only recently come across Anna Jones. Friend and erstwhile employee of Jamie Oliver; Slender of leg, blonde of hair, vegetarian wholefood enthusiast...

Anna Jones A Modern Way to Cook

You might have thought I'd be more than a little dismissive. I am, after all the person who sent Deliciously Ella back whence it came (my mum) a few short months ago for reasons too numerous to mention (oh, OK then - I found it irritatingly smug, couldn't connect to the writing style or the writer, there was, frankly, far too much quinoa in the first few pages for her to be credible, and what I really wanted was Diana Henry's 'A Bird in the Hand' but obviously I hadn't been hinting hard enough.)

But we're not talking about Deliciously Ella or A Bird in the Hand (although I will return to Diana Henry in a later blog). We're talking about Anna Jones and A Modern Way to Cook and, swoon, my latest food crush.

I'm never going to be a vegetarian but I flirt with reducing the amount of meat in our diet for numerous reasons. I am conscious that there are calories and there are calories and I need to make them count. A Modern Way to Cook seems to tick both boxes. There are many vegetarian cookery books that I've tried and enjoyed but are very cream and cheese laden, thus defeating the object of my latest quest to make my calories count in the right way. Anna Jones' approach to food seems to be easy and straightforward. Ditch the refined sugar, choose alternatives to dairy, cut out the meat. Yes, my cupboards now groan with a wider selection of pulses and unrefined sugar options (Agave syrup, anyone) but get your head around that and you're laughing. And feeling lighter and generally more energetic. Really. Couple this shift in culinary preferences with a surprisingly successful Dry January and I'm feeling perkier than I can ever remember for this time of year which usually drags me right down. To top it all - and probably crucial to this feeling of well being - is that I don't feel like I've been hard done by in the food department. AND I'm half a stone lighter than I was at the end of December.

So what have I cooked? Admittedly, I've majored on the baking section in A Modern Way to Eat - I am after all trying to lose a bit of weight, but I love a treat, so if I can make the contents of my cake tins healthier, that's got to be a good thing. There's a totally divine 'Ultimate Pecan Banana Bread' combining bananas, oats, pecans, maple syrup - as a connoisseur of banana loaf this comes in very close to the top of my list of banana loaves to bake; 

A Modern Way to Cook Banana Bread

A Carrot Cake Flapjack which somehow combines the best of both carrot cake and flapjack without eggs, flour or refined sugar; 

Dark Chocolate Goodness Cookies - who would have believed you could use cannellini beans to such amazing effect?! If you've read any of my blog before, you'll know how much of a cake fan I am. Of course, these don't taste the same as my usual bakes, but different is good, and I am converted.

I served up celeriac, bay and mushroom ragu the other evening - it disappeared. And if comfort food is what you need, rhubarb apple and maple pan crumble is a revelation - scrummy crumble topping with none of the heaviness to leave you groaning afterwards for hours...

Rhubarb Apple Maple Pan Crumble Anna Jones

Honeyed rye loaf

Honeyed rye bread was delicious (despite a slightly over-enthusiastic crust - it's a few months since I've baked bread and I need to get my mojo back) especially topped with avocado and roasted tomatoes with a cheeky fried egg on the side.

Honeyed Rye Bread Avocado and roast tomatoes

And if this is all seeming like it's too good to be true, well, I have had one disaster. I made some lush kale pesto (inspired by lunch in a local cafe, of which more another time) and decided to 'knock up' some chick pea pasta - from A Modern Way to Cook - to serve it with. The very idea of 'knocking up' fresh pasta, chickpea or otherwise, on a week night when I was tried from work and had hungry mouths to feed, shows just how much confidence Ms Jones had instilled in me. Of course I ended up with a sticky unworkable disaster that I had to chuck away before reaching for the dried pasta. But I feel this was probably more down to user error than anything else. My chickpea flour was somewhat old, and I didn't have ground flax seed as required, so tried to whizz up ordinary flax seed in a food processor to use instead. Disaster, disaster, but I will try it again another day.

There are still plenty of the recipes in A Modern Way to Cook that feel a little too worthy for me, a step too far down the road to kale oblivion, but I'm getting over that. Anna Jones puts together really delicious flavour combinations, and her useful charts suggesting combinations for salads and the like are worth digesting (pun intended). My meal plan for this week includes lentils with roast tomatoes and horseradish, and I can't wait to try frying pan Turkish flatbreads with spoon salad. Some of the ingredients are something of a challenge to locate here in very rural West Wales, but there are ways around that. In the same way that Nigella seems to instil the confidence to experiment, so I feel I can enter our local health food shop, Go Mango in Cardigan, with my head held high and ask if they might possibly stock freekeh...

So, in conclusion, A Modern Way to Eat - definitely worth a read. Certainly worth an experiment. A worthy addition to any shelf of cookery books. But you probably already knew that, didn't you...

Thursday 14 January 2016

Cauliflower Couscous

Another new year, another round of self-flagellation in the Recipe Junkie household... And when you're making cauliflower couscous, you know it's got to be bad...

The age crisis that I blithely ignored as I turned 40, feeling full of the joys, life beginning and all that. Well it all came crashing down around me in the car the other day on my way to Carmarthen. I was heading for an appointment to see an absolutely gorgeous and lovely practitioner of the Bowen technique in a bid to sort out my ever problematic back. If you're in the area and need sorting out, I recommend her. But I digress.

As I avoided the floods and negotiated the broken roads (where the floods had receded) a voice echoed around my head: 

"This year you will be 44". 


I have no idea where the voice came from, and there's no good reason why 44 should be any different to 40 - but then it's only 6 years to being 50 and where does that leave me?!

Being the person that I am, I have given myself several good talkings to since, and thought I'd got over it. But no! Another 'old' moment befell me at the optician when, during a routine eye check, the young whippersnapper (who tried to sympathise with me by telling me that he'd be turning 30 this year - I had to stop myself for trotting out all the trite guff about how great being 30 is...) advised me that "Not this time, but probably in a couple of years we're going to have to think about varifocals!".


I might as well just go out and shoot myself now...

Then I found my copy of "When I am old I will wear purple" and decided that it wouldn't be all bad, as long as I don't just let old happen to me. I know people who have done this - become old, adopted an old mindset, determined that they couldn't do anything to improve the situation, and metaphorically, if not actually, walked themselves to the old people's home and bolted the door behind them.

This of course will not happen to me. I cannot do anything about the numbers (or, perhaps the varifocals) but I can prevent the 'old'. 

Being the new year and all that, in a bid to stave off being old as long as possible. I have taken the opportunity to once again resolve to eat better, make sure I get enough exercise - drink 8 glasses of water a day. I am even doing Dry January - but that has as much to do with an ill-judged strawberry daiquiri on New Year's Eve as anything else (there are some parts of my life where, it seems, I will forever be 17).

I am currently contemplating A Modern Way to Cook by Anna Jones and Diana Henry's A Change of Appetite. Interesting reading. I even have a jar of coconut oil in the cupboard - and yes, I have been using it to bake with. (Incidentally it's also fab as handcream - I have some lush stuff fragranced with lemon balm. Heaven).

And as always the case, there are pounds that absolutely MUST be shed. Not many, but I am conscious of them creeping back on and being harder to shift when they do. Not doing much for my self image, and I can't afford a new wardrobe. So back to my old favourites - spinach soups fragrant with lemon grass, ginger, chilli and not much else; carefully measured portions of porridge, making sure I scrape away any leftovers fom the kids plates IMMEDIATELY. In a bid to livening things up (!) I have even stooped to making couscous out of cauliflower. Not adding deliciously roasted florets to a chunky couscous rich in good things like chorizo, olive oil and the like. Not that at all. Rather, that thing that was all the rage with the 5:2ers (oh yes, that was me, briefly, wasn't it...) where you whizz up cauliflower and pretend its carbs. Cauliflower couscous. And surprisingly, it was very tasty.

I can't promise that I won't be reaching for Chef Fatboy's 'Cooking with cream, cheese and extra butter' shortly (you mean you haven't got that one? It's very good). But for now, a bit of restraint and plenty of chilli and lime is doing wonders for me!


Cauliflower Couscous

This is based on a recipe from the Abel & Cole Veg Box Companion by Keith Abel.

Serves 2-4 depending on whether you're eating it on its own - I ate about half of it with some cooked mushrooms for my supper and will have the rest for lunch tomorrow...

100g sunflower seeds
1 reasonably large cauliflower
1 fat garlic clove
1 red chilli
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp cinammon
Zest & juice of a lime
Seeds from a pomegranate
A good handful of parsley

Toast the sunflower seeds in a pan until golden and nutty then set aside (remember that if the pan is too hot, they might burn even off the heat, so tip into a bowl if necessary)

Trim the leaves from the cauliflower and roughly chop into florets. Peel the garlic and deseed the chilli.

Chuck the florets, garlic and chilli into a food processor and whizz up till it looks like couscous, then tip into a big bowl.

Sprinkle over the ground spices and stir through the cauliflower along with the sunflower seeds.

Stir in the lime zest and juice, the pomegranate seeds and finally chop up the parsley and add that.

Leave it for a few minutes - I was worried that the ground spices would taste a little 'raw' but they mellowed for being left to marinate - and then eat!

Tuesday 1 December 2015

Issy's Food Blog

As I've said before, one of the fantastic things about the internet generally and blogging particularly is that it gives a voice to anyone who wants to have one. I don't always agree with all the voices I 'hear', but I can choose those I want to listen to. (Even though much of the internet is written, I think you can often hear the voices that are speaking, not in a weird, spooky way, but through the tone and the words that are chosen, you can imagine a voice speaking the words...maybe it's just me). 

One of the voices I choose to listen to is Issy. I'll declare my interest now, Issy is the daughter of one of my oldest and very dear friends, and as such, I've known her since she was a twinkle in her parents' eye. 

For her summer project this year she could choose anything she wanted to do - I'm not quite sure of the parameters, but I remember her mum telling me that they could pretty much take their pick - and Issy decided to write a food blog

What I love about Issy's Food Blog is that I can really hear Issy's voice. This is no pretentious pre-teen blog, just a lovely girl enjoying the kind of cooking that you'd expect a nearly 11 year old to be cooking at home. I also love the little stories that she conjours up reflecting the food in its context - Grandpa's Breakfast cooked for a much loved grandparent who'd been in hospital, Really Easy Pasta inspired by a Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall recipe but in true good cook fashion, adapted to suit what she found at home, and of course Wonderful Welshcakes - yes, they came to visit in the summer!

Of course I'm biased, but I think it's brilliant that the internet has given Issy and her exploits in the kitchen a voice - why not check out her blog and leave her a comment?

Friday 13 November 2015

Printed Chocolates

Let me talk to you about chocolate (never a chore). More specifically, Printed Chocolates

Pretty cool - and pretty tasty too. 

Good quality Belgian chocolate - milk, dark, white - and great flavours such as salted caramel and a delicious mint filling. It's already a winner in my book but what makes Printed Chocolates really interesting is the 'printed' element. Edible ink printed directly onto the chocolate sets Printed Chocolates apart from other novelty bars that you might have come across.

The other great thing about Printed Chocolates is the thought and imagination that has gone into them. In the run up to the General Election, Ipad-sized bars, a specific flavour representing each prime ministerial candidate... 

For the recent Rugby World Cup (did you miss it? such things are not possible here in Wales), each member of the Welsh squad received a commemorative bar. if you're running a business and looking for something different to the average business card, well, how does a chocolate business card sound? The other great idea is to use Printed Chocolates as wedding favours or thank yous. I just wish they'd been around when the Husband and I got married...

The force behind Printed Chocolates is Lee Ann Smith who has re-ignited a passion for chocolate making that she's harboured since childhood in South Africa. The less clement climate of South West Wales, where she's made her home, led her to retreat to her kitchen where Printed Chocolates was born. I met Lee Ann through the Women in Rural Enterprise networking organisation, and when she asked me if I'd write a blog I was only too happy to oblige.

Of course, what you're really wanting to know is how do they taste? Well, they taste great. 

There's no flavour from the edible inks that are used to customise the chocolates, so all you get is a chocolate hit. The flavoured bars I tried, salted caramel and mint, were balanced well so the chocolate casings and fillings complemented each other rather than one flavour overwhelming the other. I enjoyed them a great deal. I also very much enjoyed the little bag of truffles Lee Ann sent me to try along with the bars. Inspired by something she'd seen on Australian MasterChef, she'd created a dessert she hadn't been that happy with but turned into truffle form and rolled in crumble topping - bingo - something very delicious indeed.

If you're in business and looking for a quirky, chocolatey promotional vehicle, or if you're looking for a way to give a personalised gift for an event, these are a fantastic option! 

Thursday 15 October 2015

Pollo Alla Cacciatora (or Hunters Chicken - with apologies to the hunter, the chicken, and Nigella Lawson)

Cooking to the clock - not for me. I can rarely put a meal on the table at the time I've estimated to allow everyone else to get on with other things. All these challenges - Masterchef, BakeOff - where you have to produce your finest in a set amount of time? Putting aside the fact that I don't generally watch them and don't really approve of them, I could NEVER do that. I'd be completely rubbish. May be that's why I don't approve. But I digress. 

You'll remember, perhaps, my fling with Jamie Oliver and his 30 Minute Meals? Definitely stressful, even if the dinner that resulted was rather delicious - and (here's the crux of it) NOT AN ENJOYABLE EXPERIENCE AT ALL. Flinging stuff around, feeling up against it. Cooking is something I genuinely use to relax. It sounds so trite, but all that chopping, stirring, tasting - I love it. But the more time pressure there is on me to get food on the table, the less I enjoy it.

I have, in fact, been feeling very much up against it recently in various elements of life. Combine that with my ridiculous need to cook proper food for the kids (and the Husband, although he's away this week) every night, relaxation or not, and it's not a happy picture. In my last menu planning session, I turned, for inspiration, to Nigella Express. I haven't paid that much attention to Express apart from a rather fabulous cheesecake offering that's graced a number of our smarter occasions in the last few years. Pollo Alla Cacciatora caught my eye (it's on page 296 of my version), and onto the meal plan it went. When you're feeling under pressure, and Nigella says you can have "tea on the table from scratch in comfortably under half an hour" well - it's almost irresistible.

Of course, I had failed to have on hand some of the ingredients that meant the meal could in fact achieve that golden 30 minutes, and I added in some extras, but, as Nigella says, the fact that this is an old recipe "grants a certain amount of licence". Anyway, it was delicious. I'm sure the hunter would have approved. I hope Nigella would too. And it did only take a smidge longer than 30 mins...

Pollo Alla Cacciatora

Serves 4

Olive oil
1 fat clove of garlic, peeled & finely chopped
1 medium onion, peeled and quite finely chopped
100g pancetta cubes
1 sprig of rosemary, leaves only, finely chopped
500g chicken thigh fillets, cut into 3-4 pieces
salt & pepper
125ml red wine
1 x 400g can chopped tomatoes
2 bay leaves
1/2 tsp sugar
6 chestnut mushrooms, sliced
1 x 400g cannellini beans

Add a slug of olive oil (about a tablespoon's worth) to a large frying pan, and add the chopped onions and garlic. 

Sweat the onions gently for 5 mins or so then add the pancetta and rosemary and cook for another 5 minutes.

Add the chicken and sprinkle a couple of pinches of salt and grinds of pepper, then tip in the wine and bring it up to a bubble. Bubble for a couple of minutes then add the tomatoes, bay leaves and sugar.

Add the sliced mushrooms to the pan.

Turn down the heat and simmer for a good 20 minutes or so till the chicken is cooked. 

Drain the cannellini beans and stir into the sauce. Leave for a couple of minutes to heat up