Thursday, May 03, 2007

Take Advantage of the Seasons

With trees in blossom so much earlier this year it is worth considering just what might be around for free. Even in the suburbs you should soon see elderflowers in bloom and with these you can make a really pleasant sparkling drink which was originally called 'elderflower champagne' only we are not allowed to call it by that name any more (well hard luck, I still will).
Another free food is Dandelion. In France they have a dish called Pissenlit au Lard made with dandelion leaves- (the translation of Pissenlit is 'wet the bed' - trade descriptions puzzle your head over that one) due to the diuretic properties of the plant. Best made with the tender new or blanched shoots (pop a flowerpot over the plant a week before you intend picking the leaves). The dandelion flowers will make a great wine, the roots- when roasted - can be turned into a type of coffee, even the milky sap can be used like a sticky glue (remember Gloy?). As far as the dandelion 'clocks', I was determined to find a use for those too. If given a coat of hairspray, and a cocktail stick stuck up the stem, the 'clocks' will stay in place and I have used these successfully in many a flower arrangements.

Elderflower 'champagne'':
Because this can be made with fresh, dried or even frozen elderflowers, this drink can be made all the year round. Avoid trees facing a road due to traffic fumes coating the blossom.
4 large heads of elderflowers, picked on a dry sunny day
juice and thinly pared rind of 1 lemon
2 tblsp. white vinegar
1 1/2 lb (700g) granulated sugar
8 pints (4.5 lt) water
Place everything into one large container (a new, washed bucket would do). Stir to help dissolve the sugar. cover with a cloth and leave for 24 hours (if possible in a warmish place ). Strain and pour into bottles* that have a screw-top. Screw on the lids and leave for a week (in warm weather) or two then test one to see how much 'fizz' has developed (see note below **re plastic bottles). If very fizzy, then unscrew all the lids to let out some pressure, then reseal and the fizz will build up again. Store in a cool place and drink within six weeks. If keeping longer, test for pressure every few days and release any if necessary as it can build up very rapidly.
* I always use plastic bottles that have contained a fizzy drink such as lemonade. Rinse well with cool boiled water and then bottle up the 'elderade' in these. Glass bottles were used in the past but all too often they can explode. **With plastic bottles you can at least give them a squeeze and when they feel tight you know the pressure has built up to the level where some must be released.
When opening any bottles containing fizzy drinks, always cover the lid with a cloth and hold the top away from you.
Tip: Depending on the weather, the flowers may contain so much natural yeast that the fizz will develop quite rapidly. So keep testing, testing. The drink is not alcoholic (at least up to six weeks) but having left some for much longer, I did feel a bit giggly after downing several glasses.
When drying elderflowers you will find the little flowers will fall from the stems, so pick and dry as-is in sets of four and, after removing the stems, measure the flowers in spoonsful from one set so that you will know how many to use when making the next batch of drink. Remember to write this down on the container label.
Don't forget that remaining elderflowers left on the tree will turn into berries which can then be used to make a wonderful wine, or added to jams, to make jelly etc.

Pissenlit au Lard:
The French have a lot more respect for their wild herbage than we do, so this dish is often served in their restaurants. Dandelions are also rich in minerals - so if they spring up in your garden - use them!
diced bacon, smoked or unsmoked
youn dandelion leaves, shredded
lemon juice
Fry the bacon gently until the fat flows. When crisp add the bacon, with its fat, to the shredded leaves. Add a squeeze of lemon juice and toss together. Grind some black pepper over the top and serve as a starter or side salad.

Parsley Honey: makes 1 1/2 half (700g)
Not quite a freebie, but a very good way of using up curly parsley that is past its prime. Originally this ancient recipe was made with just parsley, sugar and water, and - in truth - it is very much like runny honey, but I include just a small amount of honey to give it an even better flavour. Well worth making.
4 oz(110g) parsley, leaves and stalks
1 lb (450g) gran. sugar
1 1/2 pints (900ml) water
1 heaped tablespoon thick honey
Wash the parsley and put it into a pan with the water. Bring to the boil and simmer for 30 minutes. Strain through a sieve into a measuring jug. You should now have 1 pint (570ml) of liquid. If not, make it up with plain water. Return the liquid to the pan, add the sugar and bring to the boil stirring all the time. Then leave at a rolling boil for 20 minutes. Add the honey and stir until dissolved. Remove from the heat and pot up in small, hot, sterilised jars. Screw on lids, label and store. It will keep for many weeks. Use as you would runny honey.

Herbs: A few hints and tips
To freeze parsley:
pack into a small poly bag. Roll up tightly and freeze, then you can just slice off what you need, removing the plastic as you go.
To dry herbs:
Early summer is the best time to dry herbs, just before they come into flower, as at that time they have the maximum amount of flavour in their leaves. So - even though it seems to make more sense, don't leave it until the end of the season to start drying. Ideally, pick the leaves still on their stems and and to dry in bunches. Once dry, put them in a paper bag (leaves still on stems) and just remove what you want when you want.
Bay leaves:
Although I have a huge bay tree by the back door (I just lean out and pick), I have heard chefs say that they believe dried bay leaves have an even better flavour.
Bouquet garni:
These are little muslin bags of fresh or dried herbs (trad. thyme, marjoram and bay) made to pop into stews and casseroles. Buy some muslin (Lakeland stock squares), and make your own. Tie with thin string leaving a long piece to dangle over the top of the pan so that the bag can easily be fished out after cooking.

Later I'll be giving recipes/method for making herb butters, herb jellies, and herb oils. (Remind me if I forget). The butter used is unsalted because this will keep for many months in the freezer.

Lavender Pillows:
Nowadays lavender is counted as a herb, the flowers used in cakes and to scent sugars (although I have never been tempted to try either). When in hospital my neighbour brought me a gift of a lavender spray which I used on my pillow each night (and subsequently) as it really helps me to sleep.
Use one third of dried lavender, one third of dried hop flowers*, one third dried scented rose petals. The amounts depend upon the size of the pillow you want (it can be quite small and needn't be too thick, just large enough for you to be able to smell the flowers). You could use an old, worn pillowcase cut to size. Fill with the above and stitch to close the end.
*Hop flowers can be bought from a home-brew shop (incidentally, as can citric acid crystals which are sometimes used in recipes).

Mentioning home-brew reminded me of a time when we used to make our own lager using a kit. It was excellent and far cheaper than when bought in cans. It helps to have a warm place for it to ferment, but a hot summer is just as good. If not too fussy about brands - and lager is the only drink to serve with curry as far as we are concerned - it might be worth thinking about.

So many 'white-goods' are sold well-below market price these days. We got Boris like that. See what is on offer, if you can pay cash then haggle.
Likewise, once you have freezer space, buy that slicer, and stock up with home-cooked cold sliced roast beef, turkey, ham, chicken, tongue, lamb, pork - even sliced home-baked bread If you have normally bought ready cooked and sliced meats, you will find your slicer can pay for itself after being used twice (mine did - details in an earlier posting), and it won't be long before the freezer is paid for either. Sometimes you need to put money up front before you can start to gain it back again. But believe me, over the months, you should end up quids in.