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Friday, 21 August 2015

The day I bit into a begonia and was inspired...

I've never understood the attraction that begonias have for some people. Mama for example loves them. That's my Mum by the way - and the last  time I went down to Somerset we went looking for the right ones at a huge garden centre in Somerset. We didn't find them, and I can't say I was bothered ., I don't think so. Mind you, I'd never thought of eating one either , until two weeks ago, that is.

I was near  Ipswich at Jimmy's Farm in Suffolk where Thompson and Morgan have their own trial ground, and  a number of us were being shown around the flowers, fruit and vegetables , before sitting down to a delicious lunch.That's when I bit into a begonia which decorated the rather lovely apricot pudding.

The begonia leaves tasted of citrus surprisingly, a delicate flavour, and even more surprisingly I was impressed with the most vivid begonia collection I've ever seen. Mama would have been in her element oohing and aaahing, especially at the Evi Bright Pink begonia. .

It's amazing what has been done in the trial ground which is on a hill and had previously been left to grass. In a season, that empty space is now a glorious technicolour  display of lots of new varieties of plants. Yes, I know it's a cliche but apt and technicolour, well when there's pots of blue, pinks purples,yellows, oranges, reds, magentas massed together,'s quite an overwhelming sight.

Michael Perry, aka @thegardening_greek on twitter, or the gorgeous greek as he's also been described, was our irrepressible  host around the displays.

Now this plant hunter is not short of word or two but there again he had a lot to talk about and so many new exclusive plants to introduce.

In the midst of all the riotous, in your face colour, it was lovely to see a huge mound of Cosmos Cupcake.....the cool grey green foliage and the simple beauty  of the flowers made an attractive sight.

 But the flower I lost my heart to that afternoon was a Scabiosa Kudos.

The delicate symmetry, the shade, just called out to me, and there's up to thirty blooms per plant. If I hadn't been on my best behaviour, the whole pot of them would suddenly have mysteriously found its  way into my car and would have come back up the A 14 with me. Mind you it was very hard to resist the temptation to get my spade out of the boot of my car (doesn't everyone carry one?) and dig up major parts of the planting scheme to take home.

But by now it was time for Colin Randel,the Vegetable Development Manager to introduce some new vegetable varieties to us...

My eyes honed in immediately on the peas. I'd not grown enough this year, and the terrain peas which Colin was handing out for us to taste were delicious and sweet. Lots of peas in each pod too.If you like Hurst Green Shaft then you'll like these  even more. I did when I was told there's more resistance to pea beetle, and the fact that you can grow them later than many other peas. Apparently in Colin's growing trial with Terrain last year, he sowed a last batch on 4th August and they were still cropping in mid November, when there was a very hard frost.

 "Go on" he urged," give them a go" I have done , and that's why I was on my hand on and knees on my allotment the following evening, bottom in the air, sowing the peas when I was surprised by one of the other allotmenteers. But I digress......and I will let you know how my late pea sowing trial goes.  Next year though I'm going to be trying another of Colin's new varieties of sugar snaps called New Horizon, with a good flavour and a satisfying crunch.

We also tasted some new varieties of tomatoes...... I might give them a whirl but  for me, well my heart still belongs to Thompson and Morgan's Sweet Aperitif, which is my favourite cherry tomato of all time....bursting with flavour, an easy grower and quite prolific.

Kale of course is one of the veggies that has come in from the cold and is now an oh so fashionable superfood. I love it as it's so reliable, so I was pleased to see and taste the new variety Midnight Sun, which  be eaten raw or steamed. A plus point is that within sixty to seventy days, you can be eating it as a baby salad.

And then Colin came up with a surprise.....

Now you wouldn't normally put the following two words together would you? Wasabi and rocket....both hot little who thought of combining the two? Does the combination work? Well yes, it's very tasty, makes an attractive clump in a pot or in the ground, but I would use it sparingly in a microsalad, with peashoots, or a sweet beetroot leaves.

A final surprise  for me was this

I'd never seen one...and didn't realise that the berries were edible. Now this is what I call a multi tasking plant. It looks beautiful, like all fuschias , but the berries  taste a bit like kiwi fruits. These plants can be grown in tubs on the patio and in the fruit garden. Last year, there was one plant of this variety, now there's 400,000....amazing.

I had such an interesting day seeing many of the new varieties of flowers, fruit and vegetables which  will be featured in the 2016 catalogue.

There was almost a sensory overload, so many visual delights, tasty treats to eat and scents to inhale. I came away with  so many new ideas of what can be achieved, and  the sounds of so many fascinating conversations with both the experts at Thompson and Morgan -, the enthusiastic  and knowledgeable Paul Hansord, Michael Perry and Colin Randel and  the garden writers who were my companions for the day.

Friday, 7 August 2015

A day of fancying a fritter from the wonderful Yotam Ottolenghi

So, it's Friday again, which means I've been going through my cookbooks to try a new recipe
Something savoury I thought, something without meat.

Yotam Ottolenghi sprang to mind immediately, but then it was decisions decisions....which book of his shall I cook from? I have two, "Plenty" and "Jerusalem", and I love them both. What shines from every page  of both books is a strong narrative and a sense  of continuity though cooking. Many of the recipes have survived  turbulent times, and years of change for families and friends mentioned in the books.

Last night, I wanted something tasty, yet not too exacting. I flicked through the pages of "Plenty", and there it was, a recipe I've been meaning to make for ages. Leek fritters.

Ok, I have a feeling that some of you reading this may be turning up your noses at the thought of a fritter, even perhaps channelling your inner Lady Bracknell..."a fritter?" But at certain times they  can hit the spot in a very satisfying way. Especially when leeks are involved. Plus spices.

So let's begin shall we?

Ingredients include leeks, shallots ( I used onions), chilli pepper, spices, egg white etc.....

How to make

After sautéing the leeks and shallots until soft, you gradually add all of the other ingredients...and at this stage the mixture is rather sloppy, as you can see by the state of the bowl....

I made eight fritters, and I'll definitely be making these again. They're so creamy, light, and the subtle spices don't overpower the lovely flavour of the leeks.

I may have eaten more than I should have, even though they're quite filling. In fact I did eat more than necessary, but my defence is M'lud, I simply couldn't resist just another bite, and then another....

There's also a coriander sauce to accompany the fritters, but last night, I just sprinkled them with a couple of squeezes of a lemon, and that was just enough for me.

Another recipe from "Plenty" I tried for the first time was a salad ,which I first encountered at my friend Debbie's house. Oooh I did enjoy it...a beetroot, walnut and orange salad - on page 15 of the book, if you're interested. The earthy sweetness of the beetroot, the crunch of walnuts and olives, and the sharpness of the citrus made a delicious combination.

So I made it, and in our eagerness to dive in and eat, no photographs were taken, but trust me, again, this recipe is a winner. But then again, for me, all of Yotam Ottolenghi's recipes are....I've not encountered one that's a dud yet.

He's also in that rare band of chefs and writers who  establishes a real connection with the reader. Whenever I read one of his recipes, I feel hungry, I need to make it...and I somehow smell the finished creation before I've even made it.

There's only one other writer who makes me feel that way, and that's the wonderful Nigel Slater.
Alas he doesn't run a restaurant, but Yotam does ,and I can't wait to finally get down to London to visit one of them. It could be dangerous though, I might decide to work my way through most of the menu and get stuck behind a table, unable to leave or waddle back to the train. But hey, that's a risk I'm willing to take.

The complete recipe for leek fritters can be found here or in the book itself, which is so good, I refuse to lend it to anyone else.

"Plenty" by Yotam Ottalenghi ,published by Ebury Press, 2010.


Thursday, 30 July 2015

A day of cooking from the book "Lucy's Bakes"

So, you may recall I discovered the other week that I own ninety books about food. Recipe books, cookery books, history of food books, travel books with recipes in....I have them all. And I love reading them all.
But recently, I have been rather remiss and rather lazy when it comes to trying out new recipes and dishes. So, each Friday, I'm going to try something different....whether it be a brand new cake, dessert, or a savoury supper dish.
So, what book do I choose to test first? Why, the latest in my collection of which I bought about three weeks ago. Well actually I bought two copies, one for me and one for my daughter.
"Lucy's Bakes was published in April by Hardie Grant Books , and it's full of gorgeous traybakes, cakes, biscuits and bread.

I've known Lucy Cufflin, the author for years. She knows her food, as a former chef to the Britsh Ambassador in Sweden, the Executive Chef for Skiworld., she has her own food business and I worked with her on  British Red Cross fund raising committee for a number of years. She's funny and feisty, and a no nonsense type of gal...and good to have  few glugs of wine with.

Anyway, we met for lunch a few weeks back.

Also there, and also on that committee was the other Lucy, Lucy Lee-Tirrell who has collaborated on this book. The two Lucys are friends who are joined at the hip when it comes to cooking, baking, and devising recipes...and neither of them can stop talking about food.

I've eaten lots of their food before , so trust what they tell me to do in a recipe, which is just as well, when I tried their "weird and wonderful banana cake".

The title intrigued, but how can you resist the first line of the recipe which says "Brace yourselves!"
Well, I couldn't.....but almost flinched when next come the words "this cake is made with mayonnaise."

Now, I've been making banana loaves for years, and have always gone back to Nigella's recipe. But now, but I trust the two Lucys. And you should too, even though you might be initially slightly put off by the sloppy mixture with a whiff of mayo coming from the bowl.

Because what you get, is the most beautifully light ,moist banana cake, which keep in the tin for four or five days and still tastes fabulous. I've made this cake twice now, testing it on my family and friends at work. Everyone loves it and no one suspected that mayonnaise was involved in its making.

One of my sons hasn't  been eating cake for a number of months now , he's juicing, detoxing , eating healthily , you name it etc....but he seemed to be  mysteriously drawn  to the kitchen as the cake came out of the oven. I cut a slice for him . The cake, still warm, disappeared in a a few nanoseconds. Like Oliver Twist, he held his plate out and asked for more.

And although it does taste delicious still warm and fragrant, please leave most of it until the following day, and the next day, when it just gets better in terms of flavour and moistness.

As for my friends at work, well , they loved it too. I loved it, and will have to ban myself for making it more than once a week.

 I've also made Lucy's soft cookies...another oh so easy recipe which is cheap and cheerful too. My cookies didn't look exactly like Lucy's  I have to admit, but boy, they went down a storm.

There's over 200 recipes in this book, and what I like is the no nonsense directions when making each recipe...concise but informative, with lots of suggestions for ways for adding different ingredients to adapt the cakes or biscuits etc. For example, Lucy lee Tirrell's weird and wonderful banana cake can be also adapted to make a carrot cake too. There's plenty of short cuts in this book too...making every recipe accessible to complete beginners. Plus, each recipe has been tested by volunteers, and their comments are also included.

I also like the little details of how they found or devised each recipe. Anyway, what do I bake next from the book? I'll definitely give the carrot cake a go, but not until I've tried after I've made the lemon curd cake and the parsnip and ginger cake. Oh, and the biscotti and bread and.....

But before I get carried away, here's the recipe which I know you will love....

Weird and Wonderful Banana Cake

250g (9 oz) very ripe bananas (about 3 after peeling)
200 g (7oz or 1 cup) soft light brown sugar
250g (9 oz/ 1 cup) mayonnaise ( I used Hellmans mayonnaise, which Lucy also recommends)
100g water or strong coffee (I used water)
250 g (9oz/2 cups) plain, all purpose flour
10g (half an ounce) bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
pinch of salt
Demerara sugar for  sprinkling

So here's what you do....

1.Preheat the oven to 180C (350 degF/Gas  4).Line a 1 kg (2 lb) loaf tin with baking paper.

2.Mash the bananas to a smooth paste.

3.Add the sugar with the mayo, mix well with a wooden spoon, add the water or coffee.

4.Add in the dry ingredients and mix well.

5. Put into the prepared tin and sprinkle with the demerara. Bake for 40 -45 minutes until risen and firm to the touch. Turn out onto a wire rack, remove the paper and leave to cool.

6.Store in a cool place in an airtight container or well wrapped in cling film (plastic wrap) and foil.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

A day of meat and more meat....

I don't eat meat every day. Not even every other day, and I've never bought a beef burger. A veggie burger yes, but a beef burger. Nope. It's not just the beef bit of a burger I dislike, I can't stand the bun either. It's usually what I call a plastic bit of bread. Yuck!

So, what a revelation it was  on Wednesday night, to be not only eating a beef burger, and the bun, to be actually enjoying it. I ate ribs too...chunky, moist ribs with a smoky flavour, and finished off with with a veggie burger which turned out to be my favourite.

I was at Meatcure , a new joint in town..on Highcross Street in Leicester. It was their launch, the second restaurant belonging to owner Rob Martyniak and partners and a stable mate to their Market Harborough.

Launches of new events or products can be interesting....sometimes in a car crash kind of way, where no one turns up. The executives/owners are sweating with nervousness, the PR dollies are over you like a rash and  yet they're rationing out the warm glasses of fizz in case hundreds suddenly turn up.

That wasn't the case on Wednesday night, the place was heaving at just ten minutes after the specified opening time. Glasses of ice cold Prosecco were being thrust into everyone's hands or beer for the boys. Within a moment, the first of the tasting trays were being carried through the throng.

I sat down at a table to check out the first offering...a big, fat juicy burger.

Suddenly, the light was stolen, I could hardly see, the sunlight streaming through the windows disappeared. I turned to my left, and realised that half the Leicester Tigers rugby  team had turned up. With shoulders the width of buses, and nearly as tall, it was they who were blocking my light. They pounced on the beer and everything else offered with gusto.

So did everyone else, there were quite a few familiar faces there from work, from lots of chats, more fizz and more food. It all just kept coming, including the ribs

The kitchen staff were busy as was owner Rob Martyniak.

I managed to have a quick chat...where the hell did you get these brioche buns for the burgers I asked. He smiled..."from an independent bakery in Market Harborough. It took four and a half months to perfect the recipe." That's what I call dedication, and the meat is from the butcher I always go to in the village of South Kilworth.

Rob and his team also do street and festival food, that's how they started.So, they obviously are experienced in delivering food that people want, but Leicester seems to be a magnet at the moment for other burger restaurants, an indie or two as well as the big boys, the big names.

So why here? Just around the corner from the huge Highcross Centre ? Surely there's a lot of competition? Rob smiled again..."I reckon we're different enough to attract others. We're not a big, impersonal place , and we're friendly."But he also adds that although everything has to pay it's way, for him, for him, opening a restaurant, serving food is all about the adventure, and the people you meet along the way.

By now, I had to go, just another glass of prosecco , time to say goodbye, and inch my way out of the crowded Meatcure. In a couple of hours I had just eaten more meat than I usually do in a fortnight.
Oh, and I'd also had the best and biggest onion ring I've ever eaten.

Friday, 24 July 2015

Days of loving my cookery books.

Erm...there's 90 of them. Yes, I have 90 recipe books and books about food.

I didn't realise I had so many a guess last year I thought there may be 60. Oops...
Some of them are on the bookshelves in the kitchen

Others can be found on the dining table,

by my bed, on the coffee table...wherever I sit and read, there's bound to be a book about food close by.

My collection of books holds the usual suspects that can be found on many shelves....offerings from Nigel, Nigella and Jamie. There's two from Otam Ottalenghi, a couple from Skye Gingell, a tattered , original old copy of Elizabeth David's French Food as well as several paperback copies of her others, there's quite a few books on Italian cookery, Australian fusion food, thai food, books on fruit,and mother and daughter Jane and Sophie Grigson put in a couple of appearances. And if you want to read a book about cowboy food, well I have one right here.

There's even one that I helped to produce with Kim Hall....a book compiled of 25 years of recipes from Miranda Hall which was published by the British Red Cross to raise funds.

Reading a cookery book isn't just about the recipes, the best , for me, give  an insight into the culture of the country where they came from, and I'm a sucker for personal stories which accompany the recipes themselves.

There's something so comforting about being able to nestle down and read about food. There's something exciting about planning a different meal, to search for inspiration. Plus, there's something so satisfying about looking for a recipe to make  something delicious from fruit and vegetables I've grown myself.

The thing is, I do have my favourite books and my go to recipes of dishes I know and love. Especially if friends are coming around. Better be safe than sorry is my motto.

I also tend to use what I've got...sometimes I'm not organised to select a recipe and make sure I've got all the ingredients in advance!

However, in the spirit of being more organised, and trying out some different recipes , I've decided that each Friday I'm going to be taking two of my favourite or two completely new recipes from a different book in my collection and making them. I'll share them with you.....and let's see where it takes us. Here on this blog, Friday will be Foodie Friday!

In the meantime, why not listen to this?

It's a broadcast from a couple of Fridays ago on BBC Leicester. My friend at work Ed Stagg invited himself around for a late lunch...he wanted to record me making an easy peasy recipe.

So here is what I made....and this is what it sounded like! Go on, you know you want to listen....and the recipe is there too.

Friday, 3 July 2015

The day of the barn dance

If it's the last Saturday in June, it can only mean one's the annual barn dance in our village.
Yee haw!

It's a tradition which has been going for a long time and which is looked forward to every year.
My gang of children began going when they were knee high to grasshoppers, and as they became teenagers, their friends would come too. As they became older teenagers, all their friends would camp overnight...and the garden began to look like a mini festival, with at least ten tents pitched on the lawn....
By the time the gang had reached their twenties, there was up to forty staying overnight...which was all very well, but they wouldn't go to sleep. Or go home the following day.......the kitchen would be full of people with hangovers, queues for the loos and they'd all want toast and coffee.

And lunch....that's when I would get the bell out. It's an old school bell with a satisfyingly loud clang, which I started ringing at 11.30 am or 12noon...and they all knew they had to to skidaddle very shortly afterwards.

  This year was surprisingly usual the gang began to gather about 4.30pm for drinks in the garden.....                                                                                                         

And one person we were all pleased to see was Sam Beckett, pictured on the right, he's the one who was missing in Nepal after the earthquake....and experienced some very frightening times.

 Of course the dogs are in the tick of it having lots of attention too....

And the girls were enjoying the Pimms which Elly made...

And then it was time to head off the other end of the village, to the barn dance itself....for old friends to meet up

 And to sit outside in the early evening sunshine and tuck into the barbecue. On the right is the lovely Shirley who very kindly lets us use her barn every year...

And in the barn itself was the band who were playing jigs and reels at breakneck speed

It's a night when everyone matter what age they are...there's no "I'm too cool for this" malarkey, and besides, it's such good fun...

The younger children then go home, then at about 10pm, the disco starts...the decibel levels rise, 

And we dance until about 1am....taking time out around the sides to flop on the bales of hay for a breather..

Or having a drink as the sun goes down....

And at the end of the night, everyone slips away, walking home in the moonlight....saying goodbye to  the organisers, Ian, Jules and Tom , who have worked so hard to make the evening a success.

And a success it was, raising over £1,500 for our village charity. The date is booked for next year,
and in our diaries already. The hats and checked shirts will come out again, and we'll be dosey
 doh- ing and disco dancing once again.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

The day we went orff to Ascot

Tuesday am

This time last week, the picnic was packed and I was slipping into something uncomfortable. A pair of shoes with high heels....not totteringly high, but high enough for me. Oh, and I was putting on a frock.....the girls and I were off to the races. To Ascot for the first day.

The Friday fizz night gang left Leicestershire at about nine thirty, the Range Rover packed with champagne, a picnic, prosecco and hats. Four large ones. The red Range Rover isn't mine you understand, it belongs to Fiona. Or Saint Fiona as she is now known...for driving us, abstaining from the fizz and taking us on a tour of Windsor, Ascot and its environs.

We were there to celebrate Laura's forthcoming nuptials in August to Giles, (she's the elegant blonde in the black scarf) and in celebratory mood a bottle of champagne was popped open as soon as the car was parked. The picnic table was erected and we all stuck into smoked salmon, tarts, salads, cheese and bread in the sunshine. Oh and another bottle of champagne.

Bliss - well at this stage, we were all still wearing flip flops and feeling rather relaxed as we watched a parade of race goers totter past the car in eye catching and eye watering outfits of many colours. We thought it was time that we joined the throng walking over to the course, but we were all rather perturbed by our neighbours car, which had swung in earlier. Four or five jolly Irish ladies got out immediately and left, but we couldn't help noticing the dead magpie splattered all over their windscreen. True, it wasn't going anywhere, especially not to the races, but we had thought they might remove it. They didn't.

So, it was race time.

First stop was to see the Royals in their carriages....

And to have  a look at the runners in the first race.

Now, I'm not a gambler, but I thought I should have a flutter on the first race.

So I chose number three...because it was a good looking horse , and I also liked it's name. What do you mean, I should have looked at its previous form?

Anyway, we settled ourselves in the grandstand and watched a few races...Fiona won, but that was about it....

We walked around ,saw more horses, had a few more drinks and wondered at all the bottles of champagne being thrown down race goers necks at nearly a hundred pounds a bottle..... and I got the giggles when I overheard at the bookies,  someone who was somewhat miffed with her lover, husband or whoever he was....she quelled him with a ferocious stare saying "Oh do bugger orff Timmy!"

Timmy, in his tails, sloped off rather timidly.......and it was all part of the joy of Ascot...whoops of delight as horses won, overheard snippets of gossip in the Ladies, and sheer amazement at some of the outfits.

The afternoon flew by and within what seemed a few minutes, the last race had been run, and it was time for the sing along, attended by hundreds.

Songs were sung en masse from "New York ,New York" to "Land of Hope and Glory", and the crowd were still singing  as we walked off into the early evening sunshine with sore feet.

Back at the Range Rover , we glanced over at the Irish ladies car, and yes, the mangled magpie still lay on the windscreen, completely rigid by this time, despite the evening sun.. We opened a bottle of Prosecco, devoured a lovely runny Brie and biscuits , and chatted about the day and said hello to our next door neighbours as they came and sat down behind their car to have a drink.

We left them and their magpie in the car park, as we made our way home, tired but happy. So Ascot, it was lovely, but would anyone like to invite me into the Royal Enclosure next year for even more fun?