times are a-changin’

Well, the kitchen work was finally finished about two weeks ago – but the process of moving all our things back in there, and finding some new items of furniture to complete the new look, is taking just that little bit longer than we anticipated.

Couple that with a few major life events going on, plus a seemingly endless stream of visitors, and I’m really not getting more than our usual day-to-day meal cooking done.

Still, I’m sure there will be clearer waters ahead. I just have to be patient. And, in the meantime, I’ll simply enjoy the new kitchen! For the first time in five years, I now have a decent amount of storage space, and all the worktop surface I could possibly need (I hope, anyway!).

All it needs now is for me to get cooking…

waiting for a kitchen…

The kitchen’s being given a major overhaul at the moment, so I can’t get in there to cook. Getting back to blogging will therefore have to wait a little while longer… But not too long – just a couple more weeks before I’m back at the stove, I hope!

the new year awaits

As we come to the end of the calendar year and look forward to the next, I won’t be making any resolutions. I never have.

But I would like to return to writing more on here again. The past few months, especially the last 3 or 4, have been immensely challenging. Things are a little calmer now, but it remains the case that my time will be largely occupied by others for the foreseeable future.

Still, my love for food is undiminished, and I’ve been particularly reminded this year of its potential to bring people together and to make precious memories. That’s something I’ll be bearing in mind.

For now, though, I’d just like to wish anyone still reading this blog a very Happy New Year.

See you soon.

Kentish huffkins

huffkin 1

While Kent is famed for its produce (think orchard fruits, soft fruits, hops, seafood), it is probably fair to say that our county isn’t readily associated with a great number of dishes. We don’t have something like, for example, Lancashire hotpot, which is well known throughout the country.

Perhaps Kent folk have kept the best Kentish recipes close to their chests, rather like the Italians don’t export their best Frascati. I would happily argue that Kentish Well pudding and Lenten pie, for instance, are as good as any puddings and pies you’ll find anywhere.

And then there’s the huffkin, a barely sweetened yeasted bread roll of sorts, enriched with lard (or butter, though I favour lard), with a soft ‘crust’ and texture and open crumb. Its shape (oval-ish) and thumbprint in the middle makes it visually distinctive. It’s a real trencherman’s bread, hearty and filling, and definitely not for the timorous of appetite.

There’s no consensus as to how the huffkin should be eaten, although some would say that its central hole lends itself to a generous spoonful of jam. I prefer to eat them split and filled with something savoury, preferably something simple and robust. For me, ham and cheese does the trick.

You’ll find numerous versions of huffkin recipes, but this is the one I use, by the venerable Jane Grigson:

15g fresh yeast/1.5 tsp dried and mixed with a pinch of sugar
225ml warm fresh milk mixed with water
450g plain flour
1 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar
50g lard

Heat the oven to 220C/425F/Gas mark 7.

1. Blend the fresh yeast with the milk and water, or, if using dried yeast, sprinkle into the milk and water with the sugar and leave for 15 minutes and/or until frothy.

2. Put the flour, salt and sugar into a bowl and rub in the lard. Make a well in the centre, then pour in the yeast liquid. Beat well together to form a dough that leaves the sides of the bowl clean.

3. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead well for about 10 minutes until the dough becomes smooth and elastic. Place in a clean bowl and cover with a clean tea towel. Leave to rise for about an hour, or until the dough has doubled in size.

4. Divide the dough in 12, then roll into oval ‘cakes’ about 1cm thick. Place on 2 greased baking sheets, cover and leave for about half an hour until doubled in size.

5. Just before putting in the oven, make a deep thumbprint in each ‘cake’. Bake for 15-20 minutes, until the crust is a deep golden brown. Wrap in a warm clean tea towel (this helps keep the crust soft) and leave to cool.

Eat!

DSCF7424

talking about traditional Kentish food…

I’m always pleased to be able to talk about Kent’s rich heritage of food production. But Kent also has a number of delicious historic dishes which have arguably fallen out of fashion in more recent years. Now, however, they appear to be back ‘on trend’, and are re-appearing on menus all over the county and in some top London restaurants. Let’s hope that they’re here to stay this time.

You can read my tuppence worth about them in the current edition of Kent Life, here.

spiced pear and wine jam

Comice pears

I must admit – I’m not entirely ready for the hallowed Keatsian season. As I write, we’re just about clinging onto August, and as a resolute lover of the sun, I still hold out hopes of an Indian summer.

But Nature tells a different story. Most vegetable and fruit crops have been early this year, thanks to the optimal growing combination of warmth, sunshine, and occasional showers following our long, wet winter. And so it’s proving again with pears and other traditionally Autumnal fruits in this part of Kent. The blackberries are already finished, and I’ve just been out to gather in what is probably the penultimate picking of pears from our community orchard.

Three pear trees were planted on a bitingly cold winter’s day nearly four years ago. Happily, they’ve all survived, and this year, for the first time, they’ve borne a significant quantity of fruits. The Comice have thrived best of all, and it’s from them that I’ve made a few jars of lightly spiced jam.

Married with spices, pears really come to life. In this recipe, tweaked from one of Marguerite Patten’s, I’ve added a special wine, too – Chapel Down’s gorgeous dessert wine, the appropriately-named Nectar (2009 vintage).

900g peeled and cored slightly underripe pears
6 tbsps dessert wine (avoid those with strident citrussy notes)
0.25 tsp ground cinnamon or cardamom
900g granulated sugar
4 tbsps fresh lemon juice

Dice the pears (Patten suggests 1.5cm). Put into your pan along with the wine. Simmer over a low heat until the pears become soft. Add the sugar and lemon juice, keeping the heat low, and stir until the sugar has fully dissolved. Then turn the heat up very high and boil the jam rapidly – don’t stir! – until it reaches setting point (approx. 104.5C, but check with the wrinkle test). Turn the heat off, and leave to cool very briefly. At this point, I also add a generous knob of cold butter – it helps disperse any lingering scum and gives the jam additional richness. Spoon into hot, sterilised jars and seal tightly. This quantity should give you about 6 x 8oz jars.

spiced pear jam

summer three-bean pesto

three beans

2014_07233107140008

2014_07233107140009

2014_07233107140011

2014_07233107140013This summer has brought with it optimum growing conditions – a combination of warmth, plenty of sunshine, and a reasonable frequency of showers has resulted in a glorious abundance of produce in the fields, hedgerows, and gardens.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been almost overwhelmed with both wild and homegrown fruits – and still they keep coming! My jam store has never looked so bountiful.

But in the past fortnight or so, we’ve started to reap a large harvest of beans, too. After a shaky start following a slug onslaught, plus a couple of worrying days and nights of storms, the runner beans have been doing very well, and the broad beans have now largely caught up with them. Add to those a few peas, and we have the makings of quite a bean fest.

Given the amount of time I’ve spent lately making jam over a hot stove, the last thing I feel like doing in the evenings is expending much effort for dinner. A simple pesto, full of summer flavours, is often just the ticket. But there’s no reason why it should be made just with herbs. Why not try beans for a change?

Here’s how I make mine. You’ll need a small handful each of fresh broad beans, runner beans, and peas. Blanch them by tipping them into a pan of vigorously boiling water for one minute, and then draining and plunging them into ice-cold water. This will perk up their colour and help prevent spoiling.

Then put the beans in food processor, and add half a peeled garlic clove to the cold beans, grated parmesan (or Lord of the Hundreds – a Sussex cheese closely resembling parmesan), chopped walnuts, a generous pour of good quality olive oil (or rapeseed, if you want to stay local), parsley and mint, sea salt and black pepper, and a dash of lemon juice – all to taste. (Don’t be tempted to overdo the garlic – raw garlic is both pungent and rather astringent, and can ruin an otherwise delicious pesto if used overenthusiastically.) Blitz until you have your preferred texture. Taste, and then tweak your ingredients, if necessary, for the balance of flavours you’re after.

As with ‘normal’ pesto, it’s great with pasta, but it’s try it with other foods, too – it’s delicious stirred into new potatoes, for example, or as a dip for flatbreads. Experiment!

a summer salad

I’ve always loved summer. I adore the warm sunshine, and the long, light days stretching deep into the evenings are those I look forward to most.

And, of course, this is the time of year rich with fresh produce – from the garden, fields, and orchards. My refrigerator is currently completely full of soft fruits, cherries, beans, herbs, courgettes, salad leaves, young turnips, beets, summer greens, and edible flowers, and I feel so very fortunate to have such a bounty.

Having said that, there are days when it’s genuinely difficult to know what to do with it all – not that I’m complaining! I have been jamming and fermenting as much as possible, and it looks as though I will be doing that for a good while yet.

But for me, one of the greatest pleasures of having all this food to hand, particularly from the garden, lies in being able to put together a wonderfully tasty salad in no time at all.

The other day I did just that. Using salad (rocket, mizuna, young beet leaves, radishes) and vegetables (slow-fried onions, courgette ribbons) from the garden, together with some Puy lentils and gorgeous burrata, our dinner was soon ready. Finished with an impromptu pesto (rocket, nasturtium leaves and flowers) and generous splash of a lush olive oil, it seemed to me to capture what summer is truly all about.

summer salad 2014

a garden friend

We read so much about the fragility of our ecosystems these days: the decline of our pollinators, falling numbers of what were once common garden birds, the disappearance of flower-carpeted meadows, and so the apocalyptic list goes on.

This year, I’ve noticed that one of our two apple trees – having been a reliable cropper for the past three years – has no forming fruit on it. Not one. Just coincidence, or a direct result of our vanishing bees?

I don’t know. Time will tell. But for now, I am very happy to see a friend back in the garden again.

2013_06151706130041

lovage salt

In the few weeks that have elapsed since my last post, Spring has most definitely arrived – and with a vengeance. The hedgerows are absolutely packed with flowers, foliage, and edible goodies, while the garden has suddenly woken up and gone straight into overdrive. We were worried that extraordinary quantity of winter rainfall might have a deleterious effect on the flora and fauna around here – how very wrong we’ve been proved.

I try to go for a walk every day, weather permitting. Already, the countryside around me has offered up its first easy pickings – most notably wild garlic, three-cornered leeks, alexanders, wild radish, jack o’ the hedge, cleavers, and the ever-abundant nettles and dandelions.

In the garden, though, there’s a herb whose emergence I await more eagerly than almost anything – lovage. Having flourished all summer and into the autumn, over the winter it disappears back into the ground completely, leaving no trace of its presence. But a couple of weeks ago, it popped its head up above the soil again and, ever since that glorious moment, it’s been flourishing along with everything else in the garden. Already three feet or so high, and with a similar spread, it’s come back bigger and better than ever. All I need to do is to keep up with it…

lovage 2014

I usually end up giving a lot away, and no doubt I will do so again this year, but I’m also looking at more ways of preserving it for use during the cold months. First of all, I’m making lovage salt, and lots of it. Since it has a unique umami quality about it (a little like celeriac), I think it’ll make a cracking seasoning.

I’ve followed Alys Fowler’s blindingly simple method and ratios from her brilliant book, Abundance, for dry salting any herb – 4 parts herb to 1 part salt. Roughly chop the lovage…

chopped lovage

Add in your (sea) salt…

salt for lovage

Mix…

mixed lovage salt

And then cover with a tea towel and leave in a suitably warm place so that the mix can dry out. Stir it occasionally. Then transfer to a sterile container and store at 5-10C. “This will keep for several months”, says Alys.

Not around here, it won’t.