Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Cold Snap

Formed around a dripping hose...

First, I made some soup. I'd already made bread, but I thought if we're going for a walk in this we'll need something warm and substantial on our return. My basic vegetable soup recipe is HERE. That done we dressed up so warmly until we looked like unfashionable Michelin Men and tying boot laces became a laborious task. then we sallied forth.

It's been very cold for a week or so now. This time last year we were languishing in dry, unseasonably warm weather, there was a hosepipe ban in the southern counties and it was due to be very dry into April. Little did we know what was to follow or that our summer had pretty much happened.

Early primroses are showing...

My wife and I just had to get out for a walk though, cold or no cold. We had been working away indoors at the NEC and were suffering from Cabin Fever. It was just 1 degree outside, but a bitingly cold north easterly breeze made it feel more like -5 or so.

Bracket fungi ....

My iPhone captured some of the frozen sculptures that could be found with a watching eye and as you can see from the icicle around the blue hose, it was jolly cold. There was still some life working its way through though; early primroses and hazel catkins were abundant, but the Bluebell buds that were very obviously coming through last year, are pretty much conspicuous by their absence today.

hot soup and warm bread in front of a wood fire was a wonderful treat when we got back home and our faces were soon glowing as we drank our tea and relaxed on the sofa.

But it was good to get out, even in the cold.

Homemade soup and bread

Friday, 22 February 2013

Early Jobs....

Chittin' 'taters....

It's not quite spring, but as I walk around the garden It's becoming evident that it's on its way. Spangles of low sun patchwork what's left of the lawn after such a wet winter, with variegated patterns of light. The fallen leaves that covered the paths with carpets of gold in the autumn like treasure strewn across a cave floor, are now mulched into the soil providing nutrients for the year to come. Although the bracken hasn't uncurled from the woodland soil, the bitter cress is spreading its fingers in hidden parts of the yard and the daffodils are growing taller each day. It's now light for about 10 hours, the sun is higher in the sky and the buds on the trees are turning the aspect of the woods into a brushwork of textures and colours of expectation for the burst of early leafy life to come.

Everywhere is wet through...

The chickens are becoming more aware too. Poor Dilly Dilly our Lavender Bantam, is being stalked and put upon by our cockerel, Charlie - a hulking giant of a chicken compared to poor Dilly, who stands beneath him when he's crowing, looking up lovingly at him as he cries to the skies, yet she squawks so loudly when he tries it on that you would think he was murdering her. The first time I heard her I thought we had foxes in the run.

There are still jobs to do outside, though sometimes the cold and the lack of daylight hours can reduce the time available. I try and spend 30 or 60 minutes outside each day if I can. There are bean poles to be foraged - hazel is best - it grows pretty straight and is easy to cut if you have to. The beds need digging over and I like to cover them then with tarpaulin or old compost bags, this keeps the weeds back a bit and also warms up the soil a little too. This is quite important because it takes the ground quite a while to absorb the sunlight to a depth that will have an impact on young seedlings. I also ensure that my bags are inside up, because black looks far better than the garish colours that the bags can come in.

Foraged bean poles...

Then there are pots to be prepared for the seeds, having them ready to fill with soil just saves a bit of time later, mine are stacked outside the tunnel. I have also started some veggies off in the poly tunnel; broad beans, leeks and some parsley as well as the strawberry plants are all in. Soon, I'll sow the other beans, except Borlotti - it's not warm enough for them yet, even inside the tunnel.

The most important early year job is to chit my potatoes; allowing the eyes to produce shoots gives them a great head start when they are planted after the frosts. I put the potatoes into egg cartons to keep them safe and put them in a bright, draught free place - my bedroom currently! But not for much longer I suspect.

There are many things to do before the warm weather arrives and turns plans into manic hours of fire fighting as everything needs attention at once. Best to try to keep ahead if you can.

I wish I could.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Horses and Rabbits

There were a lot of these doing the rounds...

There is nothing wrong with eating horse meat intentionally, of course - the French enjoy it occasionally and so do many other nations; Britain's disdain of some meats is probably a frequent topic of conversation over a local glass of red in France and I sometimes despair at the attitude many Brits have about the absolute necessity of Supermarket shopping. I understand that local grocers, butchers and fishmongers can be a little more expensive, but I'm afraid that extra expense is almost always offset by our propensity to 'over-shop' at Tesco or Morrison's because of all the enticing offers that tempt us into buying non essential items that weren't on our original shopping list, or two for one offers that languish in our freezers for months...


Buy local, buy healthy foods, not boxed processed meals and you will be certain of what you have. You will eat healthily, and probably eat less. You will certainly know what is in your meal because you will have put it there yourself. It doesn't have to be difficult or too time consuming to cook from fresh. There are so many fast meals and snacks that can be prepared and cooked in 20 minutes or so if you are in a hurry, even if you have children, however I believe we have become a little lazy in our eating habits in recent years but if something else takes the place of a healthy diet, perhaps it's that something else which needs looking at carefully.

We have been lulled into a false sense of security, we have become too trusting of our Supermarkets and too reliant on their manipulation of the food chain. If this whole Horse Meat Fiasco achieves anything, I sincerely hope it will be to make us think a little more about cooking from fresh, buying fewer processed meals, and having a little less faith our local supermarket's concern for our welfare over and above their need for increasing profit. It sounds simplistic, but it really needn't be complex. Eat simple, eat fresh and eat healthily.

Why Rabbits in the title?

Well, I have about six jointed rabbits in the freezer. I have tried to give them away, offered them to friends, but many noses have wrinkled, many eyebrows have raised and many looks of mistrust have been thrown my way.  So I shall be using them myself in the next few weeks and posting recipes on here in the hope that rabbit, a much loved meat on the Continent, may become a little more popular in Britain. As a lean, healthy meat it has  few competitors, it's cheap, it's abundantly available and it's delicious.....any takers?

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Bread Machine Tips

A Bread Machine Challah style loaf

I seem to have become the first port of call for people - friends and family, mostly - who are trying to make their own bread  and who have questions regarding its manufacture, not that I mind, it's quite a compliment actually, but by far the most questions concern the use of bread machines.

Many people are often disappointed with the results achieved by the use of this equipment and I'm sure that most of these resulting loaves could be much better, lighter and tastier with just TWO changes of approach. 

Just chucking the ingredients into the pot and hoping that a reasonable loaf results would be OK but for one tiny little fact - yeast hates salt! That means that these two ingredients should be kept apart for as long as possible during the process. The salt we add to our loaves is not just a flavour enhancer (supremely requisite if you have ever tasted a loaf without salt!) it is also a yeast inhibitor. This means that the salt will kill the yeast - or at the very least stop it working - usually resulting in a solid, un-risen block of flour. So, when putting the ingredients into the loaf pot in the machine, follow this order according to the recipe you are using:

Liquids first (water/oil/yogurt/eggs/milk)
HALF the flour 
salt/sugar/powdered milk etc
The REST of the flour
Yeast on top

That's it - that's the first change of approach. If you always follow this order a major mishap waiting to happen can usually be avoided.

If you just want to put on your machine and 3 hours later have a nicely baked loaf, then this ONE change will get you there, but if you have time or want to get a little more 'Hands On' then there is one other change to your approach which will help.

Most machines (All, probably) have a "Dough" setting and by using this, the machine will mix your ingredients (still following the order above), knead the dough and give it its first proving.

You then take the dough from the machine, knock it back (just push it back down) and shape it as you want it to be (usually round or a torpedo, bloomer shape) Let it rise again; it is this second rising that can make all the difference to the finished result. You can knock it back and re-shape it almost as many times as you want before cooking it. Once it has risen to about twice its original size put it in the oven and bake it as per my original blog post HERE

I almost always use this latter approach, even when using one of my sourdough mixes, but whichever method you use just following these tips should help bake a better loaf.

Watch out for more tips coming soon.

A loaf made by the second approach