Jars of Darkness

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Pickled Walnuts are now counted among the things I didn’t know I was missing from my life.  

I admit that the pickling of walnuts was never on any bucket list.  I do have an inordinate soft spot for beetroot, and onions, and piccalilli, but unripe walnuts?  It’s not a natural jump I’d make.  Indeed, I’m surprised anyone made that jump.

Before they’re ripe, green walnuts are unassuming, misshapen and lumpy.  A thick spongy skin encasing an embryonic brain of a nut, itself milky white and a little repellant.  And they don’t want to be picked – they fight back with a seemingly innocuous juice that hits the air and turns into a staining dye of legendary persistence.

It doesn’t end there, the finger blackening chemical is called Juglone and it harbours even more sinister intentions.  Spread throughout the leaves, bark and roots of the walnut this thing is also toxic, and deployed to literally weed out the competition.  The Romans cottoned on to this particular charm offensive and worked out that green husks meant fishing could be a whole lot easy.  If you poison the water, the whole rigmarole of line and rod is redundant.  Walnuts therefore, are so toxic, that they’re a natural and non explosive method of dynamite fishing.

So, as I say, when it was someone decided to take these particular talents, and then add vinegar, is a puzzle.

However, someone did, and it caught on.  Pickled walnuts are ensconced now in the lexicon of slightly odd, but utterly delicious foods.  I have a friend who adores them, and describes them as multi sensory luxury, their spiced nuttiness enhanced by having to ‘fish around for them in that jar full of darkness’.

Making them is easy (although takes weeks and months of waiting), the hard part may be finding your green walnuts in July.  Grey squirrels love them (apparently immune to death by juglone), so even if you know someone with a tree, there’s no guarantee of a crop.  I found an online supplier in Ludlow Vineyard, who sells and sends them out to you by the kilo, and I know of people who bring them back from holidays in Greece in their hand luggage.  

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Pickled Walnuts

Begin by pricking your walnuts with a needle (you may want to wear gloves, I ended up with what looked like a nicotine stained finger for weeks) and then mix up a brine bath of 500ml of water and 200g salt.

Soak the nuts in the brine for a week, then drain, and repeat in a fresh mix for another week.  Wherever they touch the air, they will blacken, the water will also turn the colour of an oil slick .  Don’t be alarmed by its morbid murk.

After these two weeks, drain them and rinse them, then lay them out on kitchen roll to dry for two-three days.  Once dry, they will have turned entirely black, as that poison oxidises.

Mix up a batch of pickling liquor with 1 litre of malt vinegar, with 1cm fresh ginger, a small dried chilli, 2 star anise, a stick of cinnamon, 2-3 cloves and a generous teaspoon of whole black peppercorns.  Add 100g soft brown sugar and bring it to the boil on the hob.

Finally add the walnuts and simmer for ten minutes maximum.

Then spoon the nuts into sterilised jars, and top up with pickling liquid.

Like any pickle, they’ll improve with age, and are ready after a couple of months, but over a year, and they may start to disintegrate into their dark void.

Those unprepossessing lumps you took under your wing in July are now softened and spiced, a natural pairing for cheese or cold meat.

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Posh bread & butter pudding for January

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Some things are meant to be, it’s as though they were preordained by a greater power.

Bread, Marmalade and Butter pudding, is such a thing.  But, and this is a very big but, only when you substitute bread for panettone.   It has absolutely no finesse.  This is something to make for you alone, or close family, or friends – your nearest and dearest.  It is too good for dinner parties meant to impress, they don’t deserve it. 

So here we go.

Bread and butter pudding is such a childhood, nursery pudding  – it’s sort of woven into the fabric and culture of British food.  Yet it’s also  something so easy to make spectacularly unappetising.  Bad bread, cut thinly will go soggy, too long in too high an oven and you end up with bitter, burnt rabbit droppings instead of swollen, juicy sultanas.  In the very recent past, it was suggested that margarine was an acceptable substitute for butter (clue, it isn’t).

That said, it’s also very easy to get spectacularly right – with a little tweaking of the kids’ stable, you can have a sexy, if chaotic looking winter pudding, that is bowl-scrapingly good.

This most often appears at mine in January and February, due to the predictable rhythms of the kitchen year:

1) at least one person will, kindly, have given me a panettone for Christmas.  However, I’ll probably have bought one, the Sicilian may also have bought one.  There will be a surfeit of pannetone taking up a lot of shelf space.

2) Seville oranges will be appearing in the shops.  And it is impossible to resist the urge to make marmalade.  Therefore old marmalade must be used up to justify the making of new marmalade.  (more on marmalade in the next week or so)

3) It is dark, the twinkle of Christmas is over, and spring is a long, long way off.  I’ve never understood the school of thought that suggests we deprive, and deny during January.  Save all that for better days, when the sun and growth and the prospect of trips to the seaside are around to make up for our loss.  Hearty puddings are a necessary pyschological defence at this time of year.

The tweak then is just two ingredients; panettone instead of bread, and the addition of good, bitter marmalade (your own, someone else’s or from the shop – go for the one which pleases you most and is easiest).  The butter-rich panettone  is both lighter and richer than ordinary bread, making the whole pudding more grown up somehow, whilst simultaneously furring up your arteries.  The marmalade and dark sugar give a punch of citrus and bitterness that further elevate it above nursery food status.

For 4-6 people you’ll need:

1 classic panettone, cut the crusts off.

50g sultanas

Butter (at room temperature)

Bitter marmalade

2 eggs

100ml Double cream

300 ml Whole milk

25g Dark brown sugar 

A large pie dish.

Start by slicing your panettone into thick (not quite doorstop) slices and then cutting these into triangles that will fit into your pie dish, pointy side up.

Butter them on both sides and spread marmalade generously on one side.  

Arrange them as artfully in the pie dish as you can, with a spoonful of sultanas between each slice.

Beat the eggs, milk and cream together and pout over the bread. 

Leave it for 10 minutes to soak in, then sprinkle the brown sugar over the top and bake for 25 minutes.

It’ll be tongue-scalding hot when it comes out of the oven, so be prepared for vigorous blowing if you’re serving it straightaway.

New traditions

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December 2nd and the darkness continues to deepen.  In this light and (or absence of it) nothern European flavours and traditions are edging out the Sicilian.  When 4 o’clock feels like 10 o’clock, and the skies are relentlessly lead grey, you see the reason why we try to light our way out of the gloom, with the explosions of Bonfire Night rolling into the increasingly riotous gaudiness of the Christmas build up.

First though, there’s advent, which is supposed to be like Lent, all penance, contemplation and guilt.  I think it’s safe to say that that version of advent has been ditched by most people.  But I do get a real buzz out of a measured preparation for Christmas – annual rituals such as making sloe gin in October, allowing a restrained advent calendar as the only decoration until 13th, when the bling emerges from the Christmas Chest.

Mincemeat is an essential part of that preparation,  Everyone likes a mince pie, (well everyone I know).  But not everyone likes (or has the stomach capacity for) Christmas cake and pudding.  The pies have been around for at least 800 years, in one form or another, so, as you’d expect, there are more recipes floating around than you can begin to imagine.  There are various vague explanations of its origins, none of them definitive.  ‘Mince’ in French means ‘thin’ so perhaps we have the Normans to thank for their invention – perhaps there is a parallel version in France that has taken a different culinary pathway? You can go back to the ‘original’ and include actual meat (Hannah Glasse suggests beef tongue), use vegetarian suet instead of kidney fat, go light on the fat and sugar altogether, and go for more of a boozy compote type affair.  There are no rules, just traditions, and as every family and every home creates and evolves its own Christmas traditions – your mincemeat should be yours alone.

I decided to create a new tradition this afternoon, tweaking my recipe by adding quince and crystallised ginger, and in the gloom, I wanted the house to smell of spices and treacle sugar and hot rum. 

Everyone agrees that the foundations of your mincemeat are dried fruit and spices.  That’s where I started – and then started improvising.

250g sultanas

250g raisins

150g candied orange peel 

150g flaked almonds (crushed up)

150g crystallised ginger

2 eating apples (chopped)

1 quince (peeled and chopped)

A mix of cinnamon, allspice, cloves, mace and coriander – (around half a teaspoon of each but to fit your own taste) all ground together

200g vegetarian lard

Juice and rind of an unwaxed lemon

350g dark brown sugar.

2 tablespoons of brandy

2 tablespoons of dark rum ( I keep a flavoured bottle with a cinnamon stick, allspice and mace steeping) 

This recipe is unusual in that you then cook all the ingredients (bar the alcohol) on the lowest of heats for 1 – 2 hours.  This is mainly to cook the quince and apple (especially the quince), but it also melts the suet through the mixture and ensures that any dusty dryness is eased out of the spices.  Once cooked, stir through the booze and jar up the mincemeat.

It now needs time to age – 2 weeks at least – but you can leave it sealed in the fridge for next year if you want some really fine mincemeat (all that sugar and alcohol make excellent preservatives).  Like sloe gin, the longer it’s left, the better it’ll be.

And there you are – all set to get baking your famous mince pies, the ones that everyone talks about, the ones people look forward to as the nights draw ever in and it becomes acceptable to mention the C word.

Or, if you like, you can make a tart. My own particular kitchen weakness  .  My mum would make an open tart, filled with a jar of humble Robinson’s mincemeat and topped with a lattice of pastry.  Served piping hot with custard, it was a special, rare treat.  It has no finesse or sophistication and its existence could probably tip a cardiologist into insanity, so keep it to yourself, as your own guilty pleasure.

Raspberries! Raspberries! Raspberries!

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November has been unseasonably mild so far. I was walking the dogs in a T-shirt on Wednesday, and was still too hot.  There are still wasps about (I’m allergic to their stings, so I have a paranoid eye for them).  And best of all, the autumn raspberries are showing no signs of quitting.  At this rate we’ll be having them on Christmas Day.

I already have enough jam to last me a decade and the new-fangled freezer is flashing me alarming displays that something is wrong – but not what is wrong.  It seems the only way to find out is to pay for an expensive engineer to come and tut at it, and probably tell me that ‘this is a known problem with this model’.  So I don’t want to risk freezing them, in case of sudden freezer death

The upshot is, I’m eating and cooking with fresh raspberries like they’re going out of fashion, which is hardly onerous, but does require a bit of variation to prevent the onset of raspberry ennui.  It’s also allowed me to resort to one of may all time favourite puddings – both stupidly simple and inherently British.  It’s from Elizabeth David, like so many good things, you can find the original in her Summer Cooking.  It’s just a raspberry crumble, although for some strange reason, she insists it’s a shortbread.  Are you allowed to disagree with Elizabeth David?  I’ve got a feeling it could be against the rules?  But whatever it’s called, it’s fantastic.  I’ve metricated her recipe for 21st century purposes.  Raspberries are definitely a northern thing, which is why the best raspberries are grown in Scotland.  And hot fruit puddings are an undeniably British speciality.  So the first time I made this for the Sicilian, it was an eye opener.  He slowly declared it ‘de-li-cious’ (insert Italian accent).  So, thank you Elizabeth David for your shortbread not crumble.

450g fresh raspberries

170g plain flour

100g soft brown sugar*

50g butter, cut into small pieces

1/2 teaspoon ginger

1 teaspoon baking powder

She ‘strews’ her raspberries with “a little white sugar,” in their pie dish.  I like this, it implies the need for a flourish, even on a humble crumble

To  make the ‘shortbread’, mix the butter and flour together til it’s a slightly chunky, breadcrumby texture

Add the sugar, ginger and baking powder and mix everything up thoroughly.

Cover your raspberries, but don’t firm it down.  

Bake at Gas mark 4/180 C for 20-25 mins.

 

The raspberries intensify in flavour, they become quite heavenly.  Eat it with cream, or ice cream, to top off its rib-sticking joy.  I’ve also used chopped up stein ginger in the crumble – but I really, really like ginger – so don’t feel obliged to follow my whim.

*She calls is moist brown sugar, but I know people who are physically repelled by that word, so for their sake, I’m playing fast and loose with language

Fruit cheeses – a peculiarly British amnesia

This is a short one,  mainly because I wrote about quince cheese last year, (the very first post) so there’s not a lot more to say.  Fruit cheeses are a super thick jam – so thick, that you can cut them, just like cheese.  Although packed with sugar, they should also retain a puckering tartness. 

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Quick recipe

Equal weights of jam sugar to cooked fruit pulp and lemon juice.  

Simmer until it’s a roiling, suppurating , molten, burn-inflicting mass and when you pull a wooden spoon through it, the pulp momentarily remains parted, like the Red Sea, just before it engulfed the pharaoh’s army.

Decant into chosen containers (saucers, cake tins, old molds from Sicily) and leave to set.

It keeps for ever, if kept somewhere dry and airtight.

Eat with real cheese and pickles

Last year, when I made the cotognata (Italian quince cheese) with mended moulds, saved from the bin, despite the best, foot-stamping efforts of TNT, I was talking with J about the long and broad tradition of British fruit cheeses, and we both started collecting recipes.  Whilst Sicily has it’s cotognata, and mustarda (not the spicy mustard version, but the heady, sweet, sweet grape juice one that Mary Taylor Simeti writes about), in Britain we quietly made the setting of fruit into hard jellies an under-the-radar national treasure.  

Perhaps it’s our tougher climate, but we do have a lot of pectin-rich fruit in our trees and hedgerows.  And pectin is what turns fruit and sugar into something stiff, set and jewel-like.  I’ve also just read that it can slightly reduce your cholesterol levels.  What’s not to like?

So with this trove of recipes, gleaned from pre and post war women, foraging their way out of poverty and rationing, I decided to assemble my own array of forgotten cheeses.  Quince cheese is still probably the one more people have heard of – although they’ll probably call it membrillo if they have heard of it, perhaps thinking that only the Spanish ever thought to make it.  But I wanted to celebrate the diversity of Britain’s own food heritage, whilst appropriating the charm and twee religiosity of the Sicilian moulds.

Over three months, around Birmingham, I squirrelled out rosehips, medlars, crabapples, damsons and quinces.  And bought some greengages.  Then applying the magic formula above, made my jewels.  The only variation is with the medlar cheese, which frankly, just tastes like earthy sweetness.  So, added cinnamon and allspice were used to jazz up its sturdy brownity.

To finish though – I’ve been set a task – a 17th century recipe for Queen Henrietta Maria’s Marmalade of Cherries – dug from the inestimably excellent ‘Good Things of England’, Florence White’s treasure trove of English food. We’ll see if it’s a recipe that was good enough to console her in her unfortunate widowhood.  J has dropped a big hint that there’s plenty of time to make it before Christmas, and I have a freezer drawer stuffed with the necessaries.  

Also, next year, I plan to make some suitably British moulds, to sit alongside the culturally appropriated Sicilian ones.  Fruit cheeses with images of medieval popes on them are all well and good, but they tend to upset the CofE contingent amongst my friends and relations.  I’ll see if I can fashion a passable St George or perhaps the head of Charles 1, although I doubt Henrietta would approve of the later.

Take an axe and a Squash….

I grow squashes, a lot of them.  Even though I know that I’ll end up giving most of them away.  Even though there isn’t room in the larder for the annual haul.  Even though I don’t really like them.  I grow them because they unfailingly instil a giddy school boy wonder in me.  How can nature be this bountiful? A plant that is joyously productive and whose fruit will sit for months on end without even blemishing.  I still have bags of steamed squash in the freezer from two years ago. Actually, make that three.  This plant is the botanical version of the Magic Porridge Pot

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When growing, they need space, food, water and warmth – all in vast amounts. If they get these, they are rampant, obscenely so. This is another reason I grow them, because my allotment is way too big for me to cope with, I grow things that’ll obscure the weeds from the allotment police. And I’ve never been adverse to a bit of obscenity.

But, my God, whilst they may be stupidly fecund and pleasing on the allotment, they’re boring in the kitchen.  I know people who rhapsodise about their ‘nutty flavours’ that intensify with storage, their versatility, their betacarotenes.  But essentially, they are just orange starch.  This is, I’m sure, why they have such a mythic status in East Coast American culture, all those early Puritans must have known they were in God’s promised land when they discovered a food so prolific, so sustaining and yet so, so dull.  Take pumpkin pie: packed with sugar, spice, evaporated milk: throw enough flavour at anything orange and it’s bound to stick.  Or any recipe for soup that involves a squash; first add generous amounts of garlic/ginger/smoked paprika.  Squashes exist to carry flavour, not to impart it.  They are the Typhoid Mary of the vegetable patch, without the blessed relief of typhoid. 

However, there is one thing that I adore about them; often you need an axe to break into them.  And there are precious few things that you’re allowed to legally attack with an axe

So here I am with my mind all set on the blandness of squashes.  And then the Sicilian comes along and does his trick of taking a few ordinary ingredients and giving the damn things a culinary ascension.  It’s a risotto, that you eat in autumn and winter (or year round if you’ve got three-year old frozen squash), it’s delicious and simple and comforting and easy.  There are all sorts of recipes out there that add sage, or bacon, or mushrooms, or saffron, or chestnuts. It doesn’t need any of them, just rice, squash, onion, some white wine, stock and cheese. And it’s bloody brilliant!

Risotto for four

Around half a kilo of winter squash or pumpkin, peeled, de-seeded (hang on to the seeds – I’ll explain later) and grated (or you can use the same amount of presteamed).

300-400g risotto rice (depending on how healthy your appetites are)

One large onion, finely chopped (if you want you can add garlic too, but it’s not essential)

50g butter

About a third of a small smoked scamorza

Parmesan – amount is up to you – but around 25-50 grams 

A glug of white wine (not vermouth, the flavour is too overwhelming)

At least a litre of cooking liquid (the Sicilian prefers water, so as not to overwhelm the delicate squashiness of the dish, but you can use a veg stock if you prefer).

Start by melting half the butter in a deep frying pan and then add the rice. Stirring it so that all the grains are coated.  You then want to cook this so that the rice becomes slightly toasted; not like burnt toast – more like sugar puffs.  This is where you get the nuttiness into the risotto, believe me, not from the squash.When you’ve reached your desired level of toastiness, put the rice into a bowl, for the time being.

Lightly fry the onion (you don’t want to brown it) in the remainder of the butter before adding your squash.  Heat it through and then add the wine.  There will be a whoosh of boozy steam which will make you feel like you’re a proper cook.

This bit will take some time: essentially, you want to break down the individual cells of the squash, so that it becomes a smooth paste.  If you’re using steamed squash it’s much easier.  Keeping cooking and stirring the onions and squash until you get to that paste consistency – add a little stock if necessary, to keep it wet.

Once you’re there, add your toasted rice back into the pan and the grated scamorza, along with more stock – about a third of it at first.  Bring it up to a simmer, stirring occasionally to stop it sticking on the bottom.  When most of this first lot of stock has been absorbed by the swelling rice, gradually add more in dribs and drabs until the rice is cooked how you like it (I prefer a bit of bite).  You’re aiming for something the consistency of warm rice pudding – so don’t add all the remaining stock at once, as you may not need it.

Then turn off the heat,  get a big wedge of parmesan, grate enough to indicate that it’s about to go out of fashion and stir into your risotto, leave it to melt for a couple of minutes.  Add loads of black pepper. Serve

There is magic at work in this dish.  It is smooth, unctuous, subtle and comforting. It will make any day better.

Oh, and remember those seeds….

Wash any pulp off them and then soak for a few hours in a brine as strong as the Dead Sea.

Drain, throw them into a baking tray and scatter with sea salt.  Dry roast them in a hot oven for 10-15 minutes.  These make a brilliant snack with a martini (more of which another time).  Treat them like a mini-pistachio.

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Quinces, Cotognata and Gin

There’s a short period in the autumn, usually a few weeks in October,  when you can buy quinces in the UK.  I’ve never seen them in a supermarket, so you might have to hunt them out – or plant your own tree.  Before Farmers’ Markets caught on, I’d make an annual pilgrimage with a friend to the corner of a rural garden centre, where someone had thoughtfully planted one, and where it fruited reliably and with forgotten abundance.

And they’re a tricky thing.  Yes they come with a heady perfume that will fill the kitchen when you first get them home.  And they have that slighty disconcerting ‘fur’ which rubs off when you stroke them, a characteristic only found in British quinces apparently – coats to survive our notorious summers perhaps? But my God, they’re tough – hard as nails and prone to grittiness.

Perhaps this explains why they have fallen out of favour here.  There’s a lot of effort involved when it comes to quinces.

But, boy are they worth it.  There are recipes for poaching them and baking them – but perhaps the most famous and widespread use of them is for a form of thick set Jam – what we’d call Quince Cheese, here in the UK. In Spain its membrillo, France has its pate di coing and Sicily trumps the lot with its Cotognata.

The recipes are much the same wherever you go – equal weights of quinces to sugar, stewed and sieved and then cooked down with lemon juice to a scalding, burping, lava-like consistency the colour of an Anglo-Saxon garnet and so stuffed with pectin that the cooled paste sets into a hard jelly.

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It’s a thing of joy – its keeps pretty much indefinitely and possesses a fantastic, palate-cleansing, perfumed tartness despite all the sugar. You can slice it and eat it with cheese, or cut it into lozenges and cover in sugar to create your own fruit pastilles. Yes, you can buy it, as with most things – but the process, giving over several hours to peeling, chopping, stewing and stirring, stirring – is surely part of the pleasure? The smell, the gradual chemistry unfolding as the colour intensifies to that deep pink-orangey-red, the commitment to not leave the cooker for a second in case it catches, the trophy burns as the mini volcanic eruptions spatter you with molten sugar.  These steps are as integral as the actual ingredients to the finished cheese/membrillo/cotognata.

So if you’re Sicilian how do you improve on this?  With added baroque of course.

In the backs of kitchen cupboards, often hijacked as ashtrays; or the flea market in Palermo down the hill from the Palatine, you can still find wonky, crudely formed, old molds – specifically for the making of cotognata.  When turned out, you discover that your quinces have been transformed into St Christopher, or the Sacred Heart, a nameless bishop or an angel in flight. It’s an idea of genius – and typical of Sicilian food, that you take something simple, mundane even, and elevate it with an almost effortless flourish.

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And finally, the gin – an inherently British response to quinces.  I’ve been making this for years – so long that I can’t remember were I first saw the recipe.  I do remember that it was one of those years when the sloes failed, to the extent that people were writing to the papers looking for suggestions to fill the Sloe Gin void.  The process is identical.  Take your quince (chopped up, core, peel and all) add to gin, add sugar to taste (there’s no point giving an amount, as everyone is scattered along the line from syrup to near neat gin), leave it alone until at least Christmas, bar the occasional jiggle. Drink