ALL OVER the country people are rediscovering the joy of growing their own vegetables, a little soft fruit, an apple tree or even a few fresh herbs. It’s not just about the economics – there is the sheer thrill of digging your own potatoes, carrots or beets and it is certainly is a thrill having waited patiently for four to five months for them to grow.
In spring, it’s difficult not to get swayed by the shiny seed packets and few of us can resist planting more than we need or can share with our neighbours and friends.
So those of us who succumb will know the effort that goes into the growing, weeding, harvesting and then dealing with the inevitable gluts. But let’s look on a glut as a bonus, an opportunity to relearn the almost forgotten skill of preserving. In earlier times when there were no freezers it was an essential survival skill. Now we can utilise all the labour saving mod cons like food processors, blenders and slicers to help us prepare the food.
When I was little, in the days before electrification, a glut in the garden provoked a frenzy of activity; Mummy was determined to save every scrap of the precious crop. There was a great sense of urgency as it was the only opportunity people had to lay down a store for the winter months. Preserving was acutely important in the rhythm of the year. During my childhood waste was not an option – food was too precious and scarce to be thrown away.
Since the advent of electricity, most households have freezers and surplus food can easily be frozen, so the reasons for preserving have changed. Recently I’ve seen a huge revival of interest and creativity as people experiment, combining old and new techniques and flavours. Chefs who just a few years ago wouldn’t have been “seen dead” jam making and who regarded preserving merely as the domain of grannies are now proudly offering their own chutneys and pickles at their restaurants as an integral part of their food style.
I love the smell of jams and chutneys bubbling on the Aga. You can’t help feeling a glow of satisfaction every time you look into a well-stocked pantry and see your bottles and jam jars lined up on the shelf like “good deeds”. It also means you have a ready supply of terrific gifts to take along to a dinner party – much more welcome than a dodgy bottle of wine.
One of the best ways to preserve a glut of French or runner beans is to blanch them quickly in boiling well salted water then drain and refresh under ice cold water, drain again very well, tray freeze and then freeze in boxes or bags.
When defrosted they can be served in a variety of ways – reheated in boiling water for a minute or two and simply tossed in extra virgin olive oil and some freshly chopped herbs or better still used for Gujarati style French beans – a recipe Madhur Jaffrey taught us years ago when she came to the cookery school to teach a guest chef course.
Homemade strawberry jam can be sensational but only if the fruit is a good variety. It’s one of the most difficult jams to make because strawberries are low in pectin, so don’t attempt it if your fruit is not perfect. Redcurrants are well worth searching out for this jam. They are very high in pectin and their bitter-sweet taste greatly enhances the flavour.
Makes 7lbs (3.2kg) approx
4 lbs (1.8kg) unblemished strawberries (El Santa or Rapella if available)
3-4 lbs (1.6-1.8 kg) granulated sugar (not caster or jam sugar)
5 fl ozs (150ml) redcurrant juice (see below) or if unavailable the juice of 2 lemons
First prepare the fruit juice (see below), using about 1 lb (450g) fruit to obtain 5 fl ozs (150ml/½ cup) of juice.
Put the strawberries into a wide stainless steel saucepan with redcurrant juice. Use a potato masher to crush the berries, leave the rest intact. Bring to the boil and cook the crushed strawberries in the juice for about 2 or 3 minutes.
Warm the sugar in a low oven and add to the fruit, stir over a gentle heat until the sugar is dissolved. Increase the heat and boil for about 10-15 minutes stirring frequently.
Skin, test and pot into sterilised jars, cover and store in a cool dry cupboard. This jam sticks and burns very easily so be careful.
Put 1 lb (450g) redcurrants (they can be fresh or frozen) into a stainless steel saucepan with 6 fl ozs (175ml) of water. Bring to the boil and simmer for about 20 minutes. Strain through a fine sieve. This juice can be frozen for use another time if necessary.
Mummy’s Strawberry Jam
Put the strawberries and lemon juice in a stainless steel saucepan. Cover with sugar. Leave overnight.
Bring the strawberries to the boil; stir until the sugar is dissolved. Continue to boil until it reaches a set. Pour into sterilised jars, cover immediately and store in a cool dry dark cupboard.
Pan Fried Sole with Lemon Caper Butter
Dover sole has a delicate flavour and its flesh is firm and lightly textured. You can use either dover or lemon sole in this recipe, or plaice if you wish. Lemon sole is a misnomer as it does not have a hint of lemon.
For four people
8 fillets of sole if they are small or four if they are large
½ cup of flour
Lemon and caper butter:
A large knob of butter
2 cloves of garlic
1 small handful of capers
Zest of 2 lemons
Sprinkle the flour, sea salt and pepper onto a plate and lightly mix. Place your sole on the plate, turning it to cover both sides with the flour. Shake the excess flour from your fish.
In a mixer blitz all the ingredients for your butter until it forms a smooth paste.
Heat a small dash of oil in a pan until hot. Place your first sole fillet onto the pan, skin side down and cook for about three minutes. Turn the fish over at this point and add about a teaspoon of the lemon caper butter, place it over the fish and let the butter melt into the pan. Cook for a further three minutes until the fish is a light golden colour.
Take the fish gently out of the pan with a fish slice and put it on a plate, pour the juices from the pan over the fish. It is now ready to eat.
Chicken with Lemon Zest, Black Olives and Honey
This is a really simple dinner to make and it tastes great.
The mixture of the sweet and sour work really well together.
I would usually serve it with either potatoes or a salad, you can always place the potatoes into the baking tray with the chicken.
Add them at the very beginning and dot them around the edges.
Boiled rice also works well with the juicy chicken.
8 pieces of chicken – I usually try to get a mixture of thighs, breasts on the bone and a few extra drumsticks thrown in for flavour
Juice of 2 lemons
1 lemon cut into wedges
3 tbs of honey
1 clove of garlic, crushed with the back of a knife and lightly chopped
4 whole cloves of garlic
A generous bunch of rosemary
4 tbsp olive oil or 40g melted butter
A small handful of black olives, roughly chopped
Lay your chicken and lemon wedges in a roasting tin.
Mix the juice, honey, garlic and oil in a cup and pour it over the chicken making sure to cover it all.
Sprinkle with the rosemary and olives, season, and place in a medium oven.
Cook until your chicken pieces are cooked through and the sauce is sticky and golden, this will take more than 40 minutes depending on the size of the chicken pieces.
You can open the oven during cooking and spoon the juices over the chicken if you wish.
This desert is simple to make and all you need are three ingredients. It is lovely served with some summer berries sprinkled on top or you can put a layer of fruit at the bottom of the glass, pour your posset on top and then let it set.
600ml double cream
150g caster sugar
Juice of 3 lemons
Pour the cream into a saucepan and add your caster sugar. Warm gently, stirring to dissolve the sugar, then bring to a boil. Once it starts to boil set your timer for exactly three minutes and do not stir.
Keep an eye on the cream in case it boils over.
After the three minutes remove your saucepan from the heat and whisk in the lemon juice. Strain your mixture into a jug, then pour into six little glasses.
Set them aside to cool and then place them in the refrigerator for about four hours.
I usually cover them in cling film before refrigerating.
Lemon and Poppyseed Buns
200g caster sugar
Juice of 1 lemon
Zest of 4 lemons
75g poppy seeds
For the icing:
200g icing sugar
Juice of 1 lemon
Preheat oven to 180 degrees.
Cream your butter and sugar until they are very pale in colour. Crack your eggs into a jug and add your lemon zest. Slowly mix this into the creamed butter and sugar.
Take care to scrape the edges a few times with a spatula to make sure everything in the bowl is very well combined. Add your flour and your poppy seeds and again make sure everything is really well mixed.
Spoon your mixture into the bun cases. Usually a desert spoon per bun.
Bake in the oven for 20 minutes at 180 degrees or until they are golden brown.
Leave your buns aside to cool and make the icing by mixing the two ingredients together well.
Once the buns have completely cooled, spoon your icing on top and then sprinkle your iced buns with some poppy seeds to decorate.
I like to put a few thin slivers of lemon peel on top as well.
Can’t live without
An aloe vera plant on my kitchen window sill. Its sticky juice works wonders in helping to sooth mild burns.
Just snap an inch long piece off one of the chubby leaves and squeeze out the gel.
It is great for sunburn too.
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