Friday, March 29, 2013

Happy Easter

A lovely start to Good Friday with the sun shining in a cloudless blue sky.  Unfortunately the sun is shining on the comp. screen, so I've had to turn that sideways, but can still see what I'm doing.  Shortly the sun will have moved on so I will be able to move it back or I'll end up with a stiff neck.

Yesterday a small brochure from Sutton's seeds arrived (inside) a magazine I had subscribed to. This contained details of several very interesting plants, most available already part grown, sold in small 9cm pots as 'super plugs' or as larger, potted plants.
Am very tempted as these are all of the edible variety, either their fruits, leaves and even flowers, also vegetables (sweet potatoes, yams...), myself interested mainly in those that will grow on the windowsill in the conservatory, or easily in containers, in the garden.

The inspiration for these home-grown plants likes with the TV botanist James Wong, and certainly, those who both love to cook and also grow indoor plants will be more than happy to know they can grow plants both beautiful and interesting but also that will add interesting flavours to meals made.

One plant called 'Inca Berries' is Physalis, normally called 'Chinese Lanterns'.   Bought a punnet of these fruits (each still in its leafy case) from Morrison's last year, and only because they were on the reduced counter as they were expensive.  Used these fruits to add to a fruit dessert when entertaining.  The fruits really did taste lovely.  So that's definitely one I'll be ordering.

Also considering the 'Cocktail Kiwi'.  I love eating kiwi fruits (lots of vitamin C), and as Siberian origin - can stand temperatures down to -35C,  worth growing outdoors. When mature can yield up to 20g of fruit, up to 400 fruits each years, and this variety being smaller than the ones we buy in the supermarket, also has edible skins.

A perfect houseplant for me is the Kaffir Lime.  Up to now have had to buy dried Kaffir Lime leaves in small packs from the supermarket,  and depending how often these are used, after two years the plant will pay for itself, possibly sooner if we dry some of the leaves to 'packet up' ourselves and give as a gift (or part of one).

Having watched some of the series on Caribbean cooking (Food Network) the name 'callaloo' often crops up.  Sutton's sell the seed for this (£1.85 pkt) and harvesting can begin shortly after six weeks. The brochure says this 'is a delicious spinach-like vegetable with a rich , earthy broccoli-like flavour.

The Asparagus Pea seeds is another must, as these pods have an asparagus flavour.  Said to be very easy to grow, the more pods we pick, the more will grown.  For £1.85 a pack, definitely these will become 'regular eating'.

Cardamom plant is another that will grow happily on a windowsill.  Myself use cardamom seeds a lot to flavour curries and some cakes/biscuits, and didn't know that the plant leaves - in the same way as bay leaves - can be added to flavour a dish. 
There is another houseplant called a Vanilla Grass where the leaves can be added - as the above cardamom (and bay) to custards, ice-cream, puddings, sponge cakes...  Much the same price as a bottle of the best Vanilla extract, this plant will also end up paying for itself.

The other day Guy Fieri was cooking with 'tomatilloes', these being very similar to tomatoes, but smaller and harvested at any size larger than a walnut, while still green. They also grow in much the same way as the Chinese Gooseberry (or Inca fruit) mentioned above, not surprising as they are the same family (physalis).   Up to 10kg of fruit per plant, might be worth growing. 

Those are just a few of the plants that have caught my interest, and - as I'm very unlikely to be growing the more ordinary veggies in the garden (slugs eat everything), certainly the ones that might survive outdoors (in ground or containers, kiwi etc) I will be ordering, also those that will grow on windowsills.  As most have a May delivery, by then we should be almost clear of frosts and icy weather, and am hoping to twist B's arm to buy them for me for my birthday.

After having another lovely sleep last night due to the lavender (with chamomile) and another called 'sleeptherapy' I think  (both bought from 'the Avon lady') that I sprayed on my pillow, as Avon doesn't call any more, think I'll buy a lavender plant and a chamomile plant (Sutton's sell the latter) so I can dry the flowers to fill little muslin bags that I can slip beneath the pillow case so the warmth of my head will release the scents and I will still enjoy deep sleep.  Almost 'for free'.

Another houseplant that really would be fun is the 'Electric Daisies.  The edible flowers give a mouth-tingling sensation when eaten, similar to popping candy (or licking the end of a 9 volt battery).  Each flower grows at the top of a leafless (part) of a stem, and looks like a small, round yellow ball that has a brown centre.  The picture in the brochure shows the stems being stuck into balls of sorbet, so make a very interesting (and edible) garnish.  The more flowers removed, the more will appear.

Although we can manage to cook without any of the above, as said before 'variety is the spice of life' and if we can persuade others to buy one or more plants or packets of seeds for us - then why not? As least it these add a little more interest to our domestic cookery.  Sometimes it is so easy to get into a rut and serve up the same meals day after day (even though these would be varied).

Yesterday no need for me to cook B his supper for he wanted to cook his own meal - a stir-fry.  The only thing he needed me to do was put all the ingredients together on the table for him, then leave him to chop up.  Apart from asking how to prepare an onion ready for chopping (surprised he had to ask me that, thought everyone would know), then asking me in which order the veggies should be cooked (those that take longest to cook go in the wok first!!!), he seemed to manage it OK, and brought the plated meal in the living room to show me, where he also sat at ate it on a tray on his knee. 
Stir-fries are one of the speediest meals to cook, and also can use up many odds and ends from the veggie basket.  After pointing B in the direction of a cook-book I'd bought him '100 stir-fries' or some such similar name - he'd left it on the floor by his chair and covered it with books, plastic bags, and other things he will never put away - he will now be able to choose different stir-fries to make, and all I need then is to make sure the right ingredients are in the larder.  More expense?  Worth it when it saves me having to cook.
Silly me had bought B a very small wok as a present,  just enough to cook a stir-fry for one, so that B could 'have a play' and (eventually) cook his own supper (as last night). Unfortunately not enough wok-room to stir-fry a meal for two, so chances of B cooking a meal to serve both of us is most unlikely. 

Thanks for comments.  Leamington Spa Mandy, is a lovely town, and after visiting it many years after living there, it didn't seem to have changed one bit.  We lived fairly close to the town centre when in 'digs', (later in a house on the Rugby Road), and when a child, used to love playing in the Jephson Gardens (opposite the Pump Rooms), where I discovered a big 'weeping' tree where the many, thin branches fell - umbrella fashion - down to the ground and I used to go inside and use it as a 'hide-away'.   When I returned, over 20 years later, discovered the tree was still there, a lot more growth, but still much the same as before, and so I parted the branches and went inside to sit against the trunk of the tree, and it was just as though I was eight years old again.  Wonder if it is still there.
Do hope the 'town centre' of Leamington hasn't changed as remember it being very Regency in style with big hotels and houses on one side of the main street, and some lovely shops on the other.  Memories are making me feel very nostalgic, and I'd just love to go back to take a look at 'old haunts'.
When we lived on the Rugby Road, we were fairly close to fields, a later visit showed these have now had houses built on them.  During war-time we used to take long walks across the fields and end up by the river Avon where there was a derelict water mill - think the area was called 'Guy's Cliffe' .  I remember seeing fan-tail pigeons flying in and out.  A later visit showed this mill had been converted into what was called 'The Saxon Mill Restaurant', the mill-wheel still being visible through an outside glass wall.  Felt disappointed as I wanted things to be as I remember.  Nothing ever is, and as Gill says, 'you'd never recognise Leicester now, if you returned'.  So perhaps better I never do.

Alison, you seem to be doing what my instincts are now telling me to do:  Spring Cleaning'?  Whether much will get done in the Good household remains to be seen, but certainly this urge is stirring in my veins.   

Not sure if I've read any of Julia Child's books Pam, but the film: Julie and Julia, was shown recently on TV, and myself was disappointed after watching, perhaps because there wasn't enough cooking being shown, the film being more a story of Julia Child's life. 
Another well-known US cook/domestic goddess (who's name I have now forgotten) was often mentioned over here (have now remembered her name - Martha Stewart?), she was supposed to be a lot like me (early days) - sort of home-cook, gardener, and 'recycler'.  Think she did something naughty with finances and ended up in prison.  What has happened to her since?

Can imagine those time zones in larger countries/continents such as the US/Canada et al Margie, would prove very annoying when travelling, as time-tables (trains, buses, planes) would change with each zone.  Travelling from east to west it would 'appear' (after altering watches to suit the 'zone') that it takes a much shorter time to reach the destination, than it would the return journey.
In the UK thankfully our time remains the same, even though Bristol is several minutes (is it 9 or 19?) behind 'sun-time' than London, and where our daughter lives in Co Mayo, Republic of Ireland, they are about an hour and a half behind the east Norfolk coast, so they get lovely long (and hopefully warm) summer evenings to sit out and enjoy.

With school holidays, what better time to get the children 'helping' in the kitchen and show them how to cook 'something simple'.  Cakes are always favourites, especially chocolate, and one of the easiest to make are these 'tray-bake' Brownies.  Omit the nuts if you wish, or substitute 'chopped mixed nuts' (sold in packets in supermarkets). You could also use a different dried fruit (sultanas, or chopped no-soak apricots?).  Use the 'cheaper' chocolate, made for cooking, rather than that with high cocoa solids.
The brownies can be frozen, uncut 'in the block', once completely cooled. Bag up, then freeze for up to 3 months.  Thaw for 3 - 4 hours at room temperature, then cut into squares to serve.

Although the ingredients are mixed together in a saucepan, the marg./choc could be melted in a mixing bowl standing over hot water if you prefer to use this method.
Chocolate Raisin Brownies: makes 16 squares
3 oz (75g) margarine
2 oz (50g) plain chocolate cake covering
5 oz (150g) moist soft brown sugar
2 eggs,
3 oz (75g) plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
4 oz (100g) raisins
2 oz (50g) walnuts
Put the margarine and chocolate in a pan placed over low heat, then when melted, remove from heat and beat in the sugar and eggs. Sift together the flour and baking powder, then stir this into the beaten mixture, followed by the raisins and walnuts.
Pour into a greased and base-lined 8" (20cm) square, shallow tin, and bake at 180C, 350C, gas 4 for 40 - 50 minutes or until the cake has just begun to shrink from the sides.  Cool for 10 minutes before cutting into squares (four squares across, four down).

Those cheap 'turkey twizzlers' and 'chicken nuggets', although loved by children, are made from 'reclaimed meat', rather than solid chunks of pure meat.  It is far cheaper to buy a whole chicken, portion it ourselves, freeze the drumsticks, thighs and wings, then chop the breasts and make our own 'chicken nuggets. Add to that a now 'free' chicken carcase and we can end up with lots of really good chicken stock to freeze.
Even though the chicken breasts would cost (by weight) more when bought individually (than when on a whole bird), still worth making our own 'nuggets.  In fact, once an adult has cut the meat into chunks, the children could then assemble the nuggets themselves, ready to bake in a pre-heated oven (an adult over-seeing this part).  As well as serving with (hopefully) a salad, these 'nuggets' also make good snacks/nibbles to serve with a chosen dip (suggest ketchup for ease), this being a far healthier and more nutritional than a bag of sweets or crisp (and today these cost almost as much as a chicken breast).
Crispy Chicken Nuggets: serves 3 as 'nibbles'.
1 chicken breast
2 tblsp red pesto
3 oz (75g) fresh or dried breadcrumbs
olive oil
Cut the chicken into about 15 marble-sized chunks, and put into a bowl with the pesto, mixing well together until the chicken is well coated. 
Put the breadcrumbs into a plastic (freezer?) bag, then tip in the chicken and give a good shake so the nuggets are coated with the crumbs. 
Pour a little oil onto a shallow baking tray, just enough to cover it, then put the tray into a pre-heated oven 220C, 435F, gas 7 to heat up for 5 minutes.  Tip the nuggets onto the tray, then return to the oven to cook for 10 - 15 minutes until crisp and cooked through.   Cool slightly before eating and serve with a little bowl of tomato ketchup to dip the nuggets into. 

Next recipe is one teenagers might like to make for Mum and Dad.  For ease, buy a 'ready-pack' of mixed salad leaves to go with the chicken, then all that has to be done is pan-fry the breasts as per recipe.  When served with the 2 minute microwave rice, or speedy 'mash' (made with instant spuds), very easy to prepare/cook. The ingredients shown are enough to serve four (Mum, Dad and two teenagers), halve the quantity if just making for two adults.
Stickin' Chicken: serves 4
4 boneless chicken breasts, skins removed
salt and pepper (opt)
1 tblsp olive oil
half pint (5 fl oz/150ml) chicken stock
4 tblsp thin-cut (or clear) orange marmalade
pinch dried thyme leaves (or few fresh leaves)
cooked rice, mashed potatoes, salad (see above)
Sprinkle the chicken with a little salt and pepper (opt). Heat the oil in a large frying pan, over medium heat, and fry the chicken for 8 - 10 minutes, turning once, until golden on each side.
Pour in the stock, marmalade and thyme, then bring to the boil, reduce heat to low and simmer for 5 minutes.  Remove chicken and place in a heated serving dish, and keep warm while raising the heat under the pan to high so that the mixture fast boils down to a syrupy mixture. Pour this over the chicken.  Serve with rice or mashed potatoes (these mop up the sauce) and a fresh green salad.

Final recipe is another 'easy', although best prepared a day previously as this gives time for the chicken to absorb the flavours in the marinade.  But a shorter marination time will also give good results.  A useful recipe to use those drumsticks from the 'home-portioned' chicken.  Drumsticks are far cheaper than chicken breasts, and - being darker meat - have a great deal more flavour.  So worth using.  Chicken thighs could also be used for this dish, or a mixture of 'drums and thighs'  as some supermarkets often sell both joints in the one pack.
Sticky Chicken Drumsticks: serves 4
8 chicken drumsticks
2 tblsp soy sauce
1 tblsp honey
1 tblsp olive oil
1 tsp tomato puree/paste
1 tblsp Dijon mustard
Make three slashes into the 'fat' fleshy part of each drumstick and place into a bowl.  Mix together the remaining ingredients and pour this over the chicken, turning the thighs so they are thoroughly coated.  Cover, then leave to marinate for at least 30 minutes at room temperature, or overnight in the fridge.
Tip the drumsticks into a shallow roasting tin, and bake at 200C, 400F, gas 6 for 35 minutes, turning occasionally, until the chicken flesh is tender and cooked through and the drumsticks glistening and sticky with the marmalade marinade.

With that I will leave you. Hope you don't mind if I take tomorrow and Sunday off as I feel as if I could do with a break from my 'routine'.  Writing a daily blog (or nearly every day) for the last 6 years (at least) I'm beginning to feel there isn't much left I have to write about, and since I have (more recently) allowed myself a day or two off at 'holiday' (or busy times), feel more refreshed and able to dredge up hints, tips and memories that had become forgotten.  The last thing I want to do is write a boring blog, so always give me a nudge when you feel I've got 'past it'.  Time then for me to take another break!
Hope you all have a very pleasant Easter weekend, and hopefully I'll be back again chatting to you on Monday (unless I take that day off as well).  See you then.