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Friday, 27 May 2011

Elderflower season

One of the things I find frustrating when I flick through preserving recipe books is when a recipe requires ingredients that are not available at the same time when growing your own. Blackcurrant and apple may be a classic combination but I do not have apples ready when the blackcurrants are out. I saw a recipe the other day for a jam using rhubarb and apple. Fail! There are about 4 months between these two ingredients (at least in my world!).

Fortunately, with the use of the freezer it is possible for me to freeze some blackcurrants to use when the apples are ready and so you will find Blackcurrant and Apple Jam in the Jammy Cow product list. Another classic and delicious combination which requires the intervention of the freezer is gooseberry and elderflower. These two seem to miss each other by a matter of days, with the elderflowers finishing by the end of May and the gooseberries ripening sometime from the end of May to July. So rather than risking missing that special moment when both are available (although arguably not at their best), I pick the elderflowers now and freeze them until the gooseberries are good an plump.

I don't grow elderflowers myself but they feature frequently in the hedgerows and municipal planting of Milton Keynes. We pass many bushes on the school run each morning in fact. Once you have your eye in you'll spot them all over the place. Although it may not be your eyes that notice them first, as the heavy scent is often so strong that your nose will notice it first.

There are other whitish cream blossom flowers out at the moment so if you do decide to collect elderflowers please make sure you know what you are doing. The result really won't be the same if you collect the wrong flowers and I guess there is a possibility you may poison yourself! Below is a photo of a blossom that isn't elderflower.

Elderflowers grow on shrub or tree sized plants and have an umbrella shaped blossom made up of numerous of tiny cream flowers. The leaves are typical leaf shaped, fairly large and grow in collections of 5 or 7 leaves on one stem. If you think you have found the elderflower then smell it. It should have a lovely strong sweet perfume. If it has no perfume or stinks like sweaty donkeys then forget it! Below is a photo of what you are looking for.

Most recipes call for 20 large flower heads so aim to collect at least this many. They can be snapped off with sharp fingernails or snipped off with scissors. Back home, give them a good shake to remove any bugs. You may also wish to wash them. I always use my elderflowers in recipes as a flavouring so they usually get strained out of the finished product. This means there is no need to fiddle around with snipping each flower from the head. So, either use them fresh or pack them into freezer bags, squash out as much air as possible and seal. Then pop them into the freezer until needed. They will probably discolour and go brown on thawing them out but they will retain their flavour and this is the key thing. They can be used from frozen to flavour jams (recipe to follow when seasonal) as well as to make things such as elderflower cordial.

If you fancy using them straight away then try making some elderflower cordial now. It is dead easy and tastes delicious. As well as diluting it to make a drink you can use it to flavour other things such as butter icing for fairy cakes. You may also like to try the River Cottage recipe for elderflower panna cotta. My 8 year old made this a couple of weekends ago and it was delicious. Whatever you decide, if you want to use elderflowers then get out there and pick some now because they won't be there next week!

Elderflower Cordial

2lb 4 oz (1kg) sugar
1½ pints (900ml) boiling water
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon lime juice
about 15 large elder flower heads
1 lemon, sliced
1 lime, sliced

Put the sugar in a non-metallic bowl with the boiling water and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Add the lemon and lime juices. Wash and flick dry the elder flower heads then snip off the flowers into the bowl. Add the sliced lemon and lime. Stir then cover the bowl with Clingfilm and leave to stand for 24 hours. Scald a jelly bag and drain the mixture through it into a clean bowl. Funnel into sterile bottles then refrigerate. Dilute to taste with still or fizzy water. Will keep in the refrigerator for about 3 months.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Tomato - fruit or vegetable?

"Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit, wisdom is knowing not to put it in the fruit salad"

I love this quote and it is so true! In my mind, the terms "fruit" and "vegetable" should be used to describe the way the food is eaten rather than the technical botanical definition. If used in sweet dishes then they are fruit, if used in savoury, they are vegetables. Using this rule, rhubarb is a fruit and tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers are all vegetables.

That may be wisdom, but that does not change the fact that tomatoes are in fact the fruit of the tomato plant. So the question is, can you make a jam out of tomatoes? Maybe another question ought to be, would you want to? I can't quite imagine reaching for a jar of tomato jam to spread on my breakfast toast! Maybe wisdom would be to use the knowledge that tomatoes are a fruit to make a preserve that sets like a jam but that can be eaten in a savoury way.

I had 6lbs of tomatoes left in my freezer and with the soft fruit about to ripen, it was time I used the tomatoes up to make some space. So here was my chance to try making some tomato jam.

The jam making technique requires the fruit to be cooked gently to extract the natural pectin from the fruit. With the addition of sugar and by bringing the mixture to a vigorous boil for several minutes the pectin reaches its setting point. When it cools down, the jam will set to something that can be spread. This is quite different from the chutney making process, which relies on simmering the mixture for several hours until enough water has evaporated that it becomes thick. In a way, chutney making is easier because with enough patience it will always become thick but on the other hand after hours of reducing you can end up with a lot less than you thought you might! I figured it would be nice to use the natural pectin in the tomatoes to thicken the preserve rather than having to reduce it to almost nothing to get it thick enough.

Using this technique would make the preserve a jam but I wanted to make something savoury so I decided to add some savoury flavours to the mixture such as herbs, chilli, onion, celery and just a dash of balsamic vinegar. As it was just the flavour of the onion and celery rather than the texture that I wanted, I decided to chop these but wrap them in muslin so they could be removed after cooking.

After 10 minutes or so of cooking to thoroughly infuse the savoury flavours, it was time to add the warmed sugar and to continue as if making a jam. After 15 minutes or so of rolling boil the mixture began to show signs that the setting point had been reached but as I suspected it was only a light set, producing something of a sauce consistency rather than something you could balance on the back of your knife. I was pleased with this - a sort of ketchup feel to it but without the tangy vinegar flavours. In fact, I think I had created a sweet tomato and chilli dipping sauce. Hmm... sounds more appetising than tomato jam, I think! So what shall I use as the official name on the labels?

My new quote is:

"Knowledge is knowing you can make jam from tomatoes, wisdom is knowing not to spread it on toast."

Sweet Tomato & Chilli Dipping Sauce (Tomato Jam)

6 lb of tomatoes
750ml passata
1 tablespoon tomato puree
Juice of 1 lemon
About 1 fl oz of balsamic vinegar
1 onion
1 stick of celery
3 teaspoons salt
3 teaspoons of crushed chilli
1 bay leaf
About 3 lb granulated sugar
A bunch of fresh marjoram
A bunch of fresh basil

Puree the tomatoes and pass through a sieve to remove the skin and seeds. Add the passata to the puree and measure it. For every pint of tomato liquid, weigh out 1 pound of sugar. Place the sugar in an oven proof dish and heat in a low oven. Pour the tomato liquid into the preserving pan then add the tomato puree. Squeeze the juice from the lemon and measure then make up to 3 fl oz with balsamic vinegar. Pour this into the tomato liquid. Peel and chop the onions and chop the celery then wrap them in a piece of muslin and place in the pan. Finally, add the salt, chilli and bay leaf to the pan. Bring to the boil then simmer for 10 minutes. Next, remove the muslin and bay leaf and pour in the sugar. Stir well until the sugar has dissolved completely. Bring to the boil and allow it to boil for 15 minutes or so then test for a set. Once set, remove from the heat and add the finely chopped fresh herbs before ladling into warmed jars.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Amazing May

I was so tempted when I was Tescos earlier this week to buy a punnet of strawberries. Usually I have a strict rule about not buying strawberries as I think it is so important to enjoy fruit in season and at its best. But, these were in season British strawberries and it had been MONTHS since we last ate fresh strawberries. But with our own plants already bending with green fruit it seemed silly to spoil the moment by having shop bought ones a bit ahead of time.

And how glad I was that I didn't buy them in the end when on Wednesday afternoon a quick visit to the plot revealed that several strawberries were already beginning to turn red. The girls were very excited by this and rushed round, checking for any signs of redness. Then yesterday, with the girls slopping around the house lethargically, it was the possibility of ripe strawberries that enticed them out of the house. They rushed straight to the ones that had been most promising on our last visit and a moment later they reappeared at my side with a beautiful perfect specimen. After months of waiting, I made them wait just a moment longer whilst I photographed it then they tore it in half and shared it. What joy! We have never had ripe strawberries in mid-May before. There is a lot of promise for the soft fruit this year. It will, however, be a few weeks before we have enough strawberries that they won't be able to eat them all straight off the plant and I'll get to bring some back to the kitchen.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Rhubarb & Ginger Jam

The months between January and June are quiet for the home preserver. Unless you buy Seville oranges in the spring to make marmalade, there is very little to preserve other than rhubarb. Despite my best efforts in the last couple of years, I have failed to get rhubarb to grow on my plot yet I love making rhubarb and ginger jam. As such, I am somewhat dependent on the generosity of others for my rhubarb.

So far this year I have received donations from Simon (who works with Steve), my friend Clare and our neighbour John. Simon and Clare were both happy to receive jars of the finished jam in exchange, whereas John did a straight swap with some of our asparagus. I do love bartering! In total to date I have make 4 batches of jam from 8 lbs of rhubarb and have made 62 jars (55 and 110g). Of those, I think we have eaten two jars as it does go particularly well with toasted hot cross buns!

Rhubarb & Ginger Jam

1 lb (454g) rhubarb
The same weight of sugar as rhubarb
1 small lemon, rind and juice
½ oz (15g) root ginger, bruised
½ oz (15g) stem ginger, finely chopped
1 tablespoon syrup from stem ginger jar

NB: Every pound of rhubarb requires 1 lb (454g) sugar, 1 lemon, ½ oz root ginger, ½ oz stem ginger and 1 tablespoon of stem ginger syrup.

Wash the rhubarb and cut it into pieces roughly 1 inch (2.5cm) long. Layer the rhubarb in a non metallic bowl with the lemon rind and sugar then pour in the lemon juice. Cover the bowl and stand overnight. Tip the contents of the bowl into a preserving pan and add the root ginger, wrapped in a piece of muslin. Bring to the boil then simmer for a few minutes until the rhubarb is soft, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar. Bring to a vigorous boil and boil for 5 to 10 minutes until the setting point is reached. Remove from the heat and discard the root ginger. Stir in the stem ginger and syrup. Ladle into warmed jars and seal immediately.