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Saturday, 27 October 2012

How to Carve A Halloween Pumpkin

With just a few days to go until Halloween, you may well be making plans for what to do on the day. The most obvious thing is to take your kids Treat or Treating, dressed up in appropriate fancy dress costumes. If you don't have children of your own at home then maybe you would like to have some treats ready for children who may come to door. It is readily accepted in many neighborhoods that Trick or Treaters will only call on houses that show a sign that they are welcome and the most usual sign for this is a carved Halloween pumpkin.

If you have never carved a pumpkin before, it really isn't as difficult as you might imagine and it is a great activity to do with your kids. Last week I read an article which said that children could be involved in the selecting of a design for the lantern but they mustn't help more than that because it is dangerous. After my last blog rant about kids and knives, you'll not be surprised to hear me say that I don't agree with this and that once again children can be involved if they are properly supervised, have the correct tools and are shown properly how to help.

So, the first task is to select your pumpkin. Children tend to go for the largest they can find but small ones are a lot quicker and easier to carve and look great too. All pumpkins have "sides" to them because they grow resting on the ground so one side is always flatter and rougher than the rest of it so decide which side is best to carve. To get started, cut a rough hexagonal shape around the stalk to make a removal lid. This can be done with a large, pointed and sharp kitchen knife in a series of stabbing cuts downwards through the flesh and into the void in the centre of the fruit. I would recommend that this bit is done by an adult. Once cut, the lid can be removed but there will be some resistance because the gooey stuff inside will be holding it down but gentle tugging and twisting should release the lid.

Now the gooey stringy stuff and seeds needs to be removed and this is definitely a job everyone can get involved in. Hands are by far the best tools for this job and great fun can be had just because it is all so slimy and gross! Once the majority of the icky stuff is removed, use metal spoons to scrape away some of the flesh of the pumpkin, concentrating particularly on the side that will be carved to thin the wall here to make it easier to carve. Save the pumpkin flesh for cooking later.

The next step is to decide on the design to go on the pumpkin. There are lots of images on the web and you can also buy template books, or you can just draw a design. If you feel particularly confident, draw the design directly onto the pumpkin with a suitable pen. Otherwise, tape a printed version of your design to the pumpkin and use a sharp point such as a drawing pin to prick points along the lines of your design to create a dot-to-dot pattern in the skin of the pumpkin to use as a guide one the printed design is removed.

The best tools to use for cutting a pumpkin are in fact pumpkin carving tools, which are readily available to buy these days in supermarkets and online. The small, serrated saw-like knifes cut through the pumpkin perfectly and are easy to use and change direction as you are cutting. If you have a tool like this then you should be able to let your child from about the age of 7 or 8 use it safely. If you don't and are using a kitchen knife then you'd better do the curving yourself as the knife will be more inclined to slip. So, using your tool, carefully cut out the shapes on your design, putting the pieces of removed pumpkin to one side to cook later. If your pumpkin wall is very thick, you may need to remove more pumpkin flesh from the inside of your pumpkin as you go.

If you would like to keep your pumpkin lantern for a few days then smear the inside and all the cut edges of the design with petroleum jelly to help keep the moisture in and the mould out. I have also found with experience that the heating that occurs when a tealight is lit inside the pumpkin is enough to encourage a growth of furry mould so using a battery powered tealight is better for the health of your lantern as well as for safety. If using a tealight, always leave the lid off when the candle is lit. If using a battery powered one you can put the lid back on.

With the bits of pumpkin that you have saved from your lantern you can make a yummy batch of Pumpkin Muffins, which make a lovely afternoon snack after all your hard work!

Pumpkin Muffins

1 lb (450g) pumpkin
3¼ oz (90 g) wholemeal flour
6½ oz (180g) self-raising flour
½ teaspoon mixed spice
¼ teaspoon grated nutmeg
3¾ oz (95g) dark brown sugar
2 oz (55g) sultanas
2 eggs
4 fl oz (115 ml) sunflower oil
4 fl oz (115 ml) whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Peel, chop and steam the pumpkin for 20 to 30 minutes until very soft.  Squash until smooth then allow to cool. Refrigerate overnight if desired.  Preheat oven to 210°C, gas 7.  Sift the flours and spices into a bowl, adding any bran remaining in the sieve.  Whisk the eggs, oil, milk and vanilla together and add to the dry mix then add the pumpkin.  Combine until just mixed.  Spoon into paper cases in a tin.  Bake for 20 to 25 minutes until a skewer comes out clean.  Cool on a wire rack.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Kids, Kitchens and Knives

We are all familiar with the story of Sleeping Beauty. Like so many fairy tales, there is a moral to it but it is parents who can learn from it. So terrified of the curse put upon their daughter, the king and queen burnt all the spinning wheels in the kingdom in order to prevent Sleeping Beauty ever coming into contact with one. Surely, if they had left the textile industry intact and merely explained to their daughter about the curse she would have known to have steered well clear of the spinning wheel in the tower.

I know what you're thinking, what's this got to do with anything jam related? Well, as you'll know I have two young apprentices (my 8 and 10 year old daughters), who when in the right mood, can be rather helpful in the kitchen. But for many people kids and kitchens don't mix. It is certainly true that most accidents happen in the home and of all the rooms in the home, the kitchen is the most dangerous. It is little wonder then that people choose to keep their kids well clear. However, it is my belief that children can and should be part of the kitchen, just suitably educated on the dangers to help them stay safe.

6 and 4 years old, already helping in the kitchen
The main dangers in the kitchen are of course the oven/hob and knives. When my children were babies and toddlers I had a stair gate across the middle of kitchen so that they could not get anywhere near these dangers. They were simply too young to understand the dangers. But as they have grown up I have allowed them into the kitchen, explaining along the way what the dangers are and why. The stair gate is long gone and  they have been using the hob and knives under supervision for several years now. In my opinion, the biggest danger in the kitchen is ignorance. Showing them how to do things safely is the way forward.

When my eldest daughter was in Year 2 (6-7 year olds), I ran the Let's Get Cooking club at her school. Each week I had a group of 6 children to teach cooking skills to. Using the hob and knives were an important part of this club. It was heartening to be allowed in a school situation to teach these useful skills and for health and safety to not be so over the top as to block this.

When my daughter entered Year 3 she moved to the next school up and spent the first 6 weeks of the autumn term learning how to make a sandwich in her DT lessons. How exasperating! Sandwiches?! This is a child who can make a Victoria sandwich cake! The same child who made Piccalilli from scratch as a Christmas gift to her teacher the same year.

Making Piccalilli aged 8
I know, teaching a child one to one at home how to use a knife safely is something far removed from trying to do it with a class of 30. But, hey, I used to be a secondary Science teacher and used to have classes of  30 hormonal teenagers using Bunsen burners, chemicals and scalpels! Seven years of teaching and no one ever ended up in hospital. We really do need to have faith in our children and allow them to learn how to do things safely rather than just not allowing them to do it for fear of injury.

So, given that knife skills is not something children are likely to learn in school, take the opportunity to teach them to your children if you can. I'm not talking about chefy knife skills - you know, that super quick chopping thing they do - just basic correct handling of a knife and safe chopping.

Here is my list of key points for children for being safe with knives.

1. Never use a knife unless there is an adult with you.

2. Choose the correct knife for the job - not too big or too small, and not too sharp or too blunt for the task.

3. When carrying a knife always hold it down by your side, pointing towards the floor.

4. Always use a chopping board to protect both the work surface and the knife blade.

5. Make sure your work area is tidy so that you can move freely without knocking things over.

6. Make sure your hands are clean and dry so that you have a firm grip.

7. Use the correct grip (claw or bridge) on the food to keep your fingers away from the knife blade and re-position them as necessary as you work.



8. Watch what you are doing at all times, concentrate and take your time.

9. Never put your knife into a bowl of washing up. Instead, keep hold of it and carefully wipe the blade clean with a brush or sponge.

With a little practice you too could have a useful, trustworthy kitchen helper and someone set up with some really important life-skills.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Making the best of the end of the season

As much as we would like summer to go on forever, it is now very definitely autumn and the end of the growing season. With nothing much growing from now until the rhubarb season, it is important to gather in the last of the crops and make the most of them.

There is always a frost in October and frosts damage the non-hardly plants. In particular, this means things such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumber, courgettes, squash, pumpkins, runner and French beans, and sweetcorn. So rather than leaving these late crops outside to be damaged, gather them in beforehand and get them stored and preserved.

It doesn't matter too much if the crops that are harvested now are not quite ripe because many of them will continue to ripen when picked or they can be used as they are. Green tomatoes can be used to make Green Tomato Chutney (see recipe below). This is a favourite of mine because it was something my grandma would make every year and I grew up with cheese and chutney sandwiches. It is a very handy way to use up unripe tomatoes that would otherwise have no purpose. It is true that many green tomatoes will remain green and never ripen, but others will ripen if left in a suitable place for a week or too. A warm, sunny place, such as a windowsill, greenhouse or conservatory is ideal. To help them ripen, place a ripe fruit such as an apple or banana near them. This will slowly release ethylene which will cause the tomatoes to ripen.

Similarly, peppers will ripen fully if they are picked as they are just beginning to turn, although of course they can be used green anyway. Pumpkins and squash can be picked green too and they will gradually ripen. It is important to cut them with a few inches of dried stem left on, otherwise rot will get in. If intact, they should store nicely until the end of the year.

Courgettes and cucumbers store surprisingly well in open cupboard boxes in a cool place such as a shed or garage for several weeks. In fact, they seem to survive better like this than refrigerated. Again they need to have a bit of stem attached and be free from blemishes so they don't rot. With time the skins toughen so you may like to peel them before using them and cucumbers will continue to "ripen" too, eventually turning yellow and bitter.

All these crops are perfect for making into chutney, along with other stored ingredients such as apples, onions and garlic. So, between October and December, work your way through these stores, making a variety of different chutneys and by Christmas you'll have converted your stored vegetables into a cupboard full of delicious chutneys that should last you all the way to the next end of season.

Grandma's Green Tomato Chutney

Ingredients (makes 2-4 jars)
2lb (900 g) green tomatoes
1lb (450 g) cooking apples
8 oz (225 g) onions
1 oz (25 g) salt
4 oz (110 g) sultanas
1 pint (600 ml) malt vinegar
½ tsp ground ginger
1 tbsp pickling spice (e.g. cloves, cinnamon, allspice berries)
8 oz (225 g) light brown sugar
1 tbsp black treacle

Coarsely chop the tomatoes then peel, core and chop the apples (weigh after preparation).  Peel and chop the onions and tie the spices in a piece of muslin.  Mix all the ingredients except the sugar in the preserving pan and bring to the boil. Drop in the spices. Simmer gently, uncovered, until the pulp is tender (20 to 30 minutes). Add the sugar and stir well until it has completely dissolved.  Bring back to the boil and continue to boil until thick. Pour into warm jars and seal immediately.