Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Colours of Christmas

Christmas colours in sunshine country! You no longer have to stick to the traditional red and green of mid-winter Christmases, but a new scheme of bright yellow, orange and red comes together all on its own. Sunflowers picked from the veggie garden, nasturtiums likewise, our everyday bright and cheerful plates seamlessly blending in.

Christmas Day was hot and sultry, so cold turkey, bacon wrapped sausages, gammon and salads were the order of the day. Followed by summer pudding, ice cream and a little tiny Christmas pudding just for tradition.

We still managed to be completely stuffed afterwards with barely any room for our traditional stripey jellies!

Now all the leftovers are finished, so I'm cooking a second gammon to eat cold for New Year's Day lunch - just to keep those Christmas flavours flowing.
And tonight we're celebrating with fillet on the braai. What about you?
Happy New Year everyone!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas Preparations

I haven’t been feeling very Christmassey so far. The press of work to be completed before Christmas, the usual self-employed person’s dread of the financial dead season casting a shadow over the delights of Christmas shopping, have rather left me lacking in the Christmas spirit.

But now our tree is is up – a beautiful one that my sister-in-law has had her eye on all year for it’s beautiful rounded and bushy shape. We cut it on Sunday, with a cluster of cousins visiting from the US to join in the fun.

It just fits into the house, talking up almost half the width of our sitting room, smelling of pine and twinkling with lights, two sets at least, the third one gave up after one day and we haven’t managed to find the guilty bulb!

Youngest helping bake the Christmas cakes

I’ve just made the marzipan for the Christmas cakes (baked a couple of weeks ago) – seemingly vast quantities of almonds, sugar and eggs, that underline how much of a festive celebratory excess Christmas cake really is.

I always use Delia’s recipe and just leave out the almond essence, adding extra lemon juice instead, and it makes a lovely mild marzipan, that all but the most ardent marzipan haters (my husband for one!) like.

Talking of marzipan I rather love the old English word for it – marchpane. It reminds me of a favourite children’s book by Alison Uttley, A Traveller in Time, where a little girl slips back to the 16th century in the time of Mary Queen of Scots. In between plots to rescue the sad queen from captivity, she fashions an elaborate model of the family farmhouse out of marchpane, an image that has stayed with me to this day. I could never work out how she made such intricate models and detailing from marzipan, which in my experience crumbles to pieces so easily... she must have had a different recipe!

Middle Daughter with papier mache goo hands

Middle Daughter has completed and wrapped an impressive stack of home-made presents, including papier mache masterpieces, our son has made his cards and has decided to make origami figures as presents this year, Youngest has written a story as one of her presents, that she was laboriously typing out on the computer, painful letter by painful letter. I stepped in and typed it for her, to her dictation, and just need to work out how to get it printed off to form a real book!

I on the other hand have purchased a total of two presents and am relying on last minute inspiration and the fact that the large family will anyway swamp our children with presents, so the tree will look suitably abundant on Christmas Eve!

How are your Christmas preparations going?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Kitchens of My Childhood

Corey at Tongue in Cheek wrote about her Mum’s kitchen, still the same kitchen of her childhood, full of baking and constant comings and goings of family. She sent me back to recollecting the kitchens of my childhood.

The front of the school where I grew up - not me in the picture!
I say kitchens, because there were two. The small galley kitchen in our flat and the big bustling school kitchen below. I grew up in a school, a small, English boys’ boarding school. The buildings were an old manor house in warm honey stone built for the local squire and his family in the late Victorian era. Spacious and roomy but not too imposing. Our flat was the upper floor in the servants’ wing forming an L to the main house. Our kitchen was small, the end of the wing partitioned off, high counters put in by the first headmaster and his wife, who were both tall, big windows just a bit too high, but light and airy looking over the stable yard.

There wasn’t much counter space for spreading out on, but my mother had a trolley that we used as an extra surface when baking biscuits or cakes and it is there that I remember waiting to scrape out the cake mixture, hovering, one foot in the green carpeted corridor, as she scraped as much into the cake tin as she could, us willing her to stop before it was all gone. It was there I learned to make drop scones, proudly serving up a plateful to a party of visitors one tea-time (was it the school governors?).

Every corner was used, cunning turntables on the corner shelf just inside the sliding door held all the little pots of baking powder and such like, another turntable on the wide window ledge held jams and honeys, bottles of orange squash and Ribena lined the counter, cereal boxes lived high on top of the wall cupboard, with the sliding glass door that one of us broke trying to climb and reach something. Tupperware lived in the cupboard underneath the trolley that needed just the right pressure to open. A blue padded top stool with a retractable step sat next to the trolley to reach the high shelves over the cooker. The four of us could just fit in to do the washing up if we stepped around each other carefully.

The big school kitchen immediately below my bedroom was another domain. Three big Agas in an imposing row kept it warm year round. A huge table stood in the middle, big built-in wooden dressers on two sides. In the days before stainless steel regulations took over, it was little changed from the old manor house kitchen, with painted wood cupboards and linoleum floor. In term time it was a hive of activity presided over by the cook and housekeeper.

I would sidle in with a  bowl on a mission from my mother to fetch flour, dried fruit or eggs from the store room. A big old fashioned scales with weights sat on the dresser. Three big metal dustbins held the flour (self-raising and plain) and the sugar. A metal dipper sat on top of each, to scoop out from the white powdery mountain inside, and I’d carefully weigh out however much I needed, adjusting the metal weights in pounds and ounces, for whatever recipe my mother or I was baking up in the flat, before scuttling back upstairs to our little kitchen.

The dried fruit required more exciting fetching. The first drawer in the dresser held a heavy bunch of housekeeper’s keys. Above the drawer hung a clipboard with the school menus for the week pencilled in. I would check it out regularly, my heart quailing if it showed fish for lunch on Friday, or relieved if a favourite pudding was planned. All the larders were kept locked, but I had the entree and could help myself to the keys and go and fetch whatever was needed.

The dim housekeeper’s larder held shelves stacked with dry goods and tins, and smelled of spice and raisins, in my memory at least. Whatever I was fetching I would be tempted to open the dry fruit cupboard and lift the lid of the tin containing mixed dried fruit (the cake mix with candied peel) and grab an illicit handful... There were three other interlinking larders with wire mesh screened windows and stone slab counters, dating back from the days before refrigeration and between them all the food for the school was stored. Apart from that there was the potato shed in the back yard, dark and slightly damp where the potatoes were stored in a heap still covered with earth. Milk was delivered daily, as the fridge for the whole school in those days was only the size of an average large family fridge today.

In term time I slipped in and out of that kitchen shyly and surreptitiously, politely greeting and then escaping back up to the quiet upstairs, occasionally lingering if it looked like there might be enticing tastes offered. But in the Christmas holidays the school kitchen became ours. My aunt’s family, and great uncle and great aunt, joined us and we would cook meals for the extended family downstairs, expanding into the school as if it were once again a family home and manor house. Then we would stand around the big table, my aunt, mother cousin and I, icing the Christmas cake, mixing up brandy butter with frequent tastes, peeling potatoes, preparing big meals.

The tall cupboard that contained food colouring and baking supplies was at our disposal for making peppermint creams with all the fancy cookie cutters. The Agas always kept the kitchen warm and toasty, unlike the chilly winter corridors of the school in holiday time, with central heating turned right down. By now I knew that the wooden sloping lidded box on the window salt contained salt not sugar – my toddler brother and I had discovered that, tricked by laughing kitchen staff, who were then less than thrilled when we spat our mouthfuls out over the clean kitchen sink!

We’d use the rattling metal school trolleys to wheel the food up the stone flagged passageway to the smaller dining room, or to take tea things, always a proper afternoon tea with bread and butter, cake and biscuits, through to the wood panelled main hall which we transformed into a sitting room, grouping all the sofas and chairs around the huge fireplace, the school Christmas tree adapted for our own use.

After Christmas with the new school term, we shrank back into our little upstairs kitchen again.

Those tastes of a big warm kitchen with a central table stayed with me. My dream kitchen was formed by the descriptions in Rosemunde Pilcher novels of a kitchen stretching the width of a London basement, welcoming friends and family to sit around and chat, sofa at one end, room to stretch out and bask in the warmth of baking and cooking. And that is what I now have here.

A kitchen that stretches into sitting room, a big table where everyone can sit around, scents of baking bread and biscuits. And I almost never cook fish on Fridays!

What do you remember about your childhood kitchen?

Friday, November 04, 2011

Cooking Without Gas

Running on empty
Photo credit © Ichtor |
 One of South Africa’s best kept secrets right now, isn’t a beautiful game reserve or a beach-side boutique hotel... it’s the fact that we’ve run out of gas. Bottled LPG gas for cooking that is. About 1200 restaurants have closed and yet no-one in the general public knows about it. We only found out because we ran out of gas the other day and our usually supplier has none. Nor do any of the other suppliers in our area. We tracked down some in a town 120km away on Wednesday, baulked at driving the distance and then today when we were desperate enough to drive that far, found that they had run out too.

Everyone I mention the shortage to is surprised and disbelieving. Large gas bottles can last a family for months and so for many people this isn’t an issue. Only for improvident souls like ourselves, who find that our spare bottle  was never re-filled and now that’s it. Until the gas manufacturers get their act together. Apparently several of the nation’s plants closed for servicing at the same time, or something like that. Well orchestrated to make us appreciate them more perhaps! Or maybe so that we don't complain about a price hike when they finally do have supplies again... so cynical!

So now after years of treating our microwave with utmost suspicion I am forced to consider it as a means of providing nutrition for my family. I secretly suspect it of stripping all nutrients from any given food-stuff (surely irradiating food is a bad thing?!!), turning wholesome ingredients into junk food and probably turning me into an alien at the same time.

Luckily our oven is electric, so it’s just the hob that I am without. So now I am Googling stuff that most students could probably tell me. How to cook rice in the microwave.... I tried it last night and to my amazement it worked perfectly! The amount needed for our family takes longer in the microwave than on the stove, but as a means of survival until the gas returns, it is a success. Next up is tomato sauce for pizzas, which shouldn’t be too tricky. Pasta is another matter when you’re cooking for five... so any ideas of meals that can be cooked without using the hob at all would be much appreciated.

And if you haven't yet voted in the Food category of the SA Blog Awards, please do click on the button below  and help Food and Family on its way! The promise of tea, scones and strawberry jam still stands!

SA Blog Awards Badge

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Strawberry Jam Season - And The Recipe

Strawberries have been an intrinsic part of my October and November life since before my blog began. Some years we’ve grown enough to sell, jam and feast on, others only enough to gather surreptitiously and tell no-one else about, lest we be short of a few jars of jam before the next season rolls in. Two years running we had a strange bug that bothered our strawberries  (we grow organically so no sprays)  and I spent ages sorting and chopping out the bug bits, jamming the remainder.

Strawberry jam is one of my home-made Christmas gifts to friends. I beg jars from all and sundry, spend evenings washing, drying and chopping the gorgeous ripe fruit.

I pick twice a week and yet never get beyond popping that perfect sweetly ripe berry into my mouth instead of into the basket.

At least one morning a week a huge pot of ruby jewel-like syrup bubbles on the stove, filling the house with a warm rich jammy aroma. Often it bubbles right over, leaving a sticky mess to clear up later.

And then there is the satisfaction of a neat row of filled jars, sealed and cooling on the counter.

And yet never yet have I posted my recipe for strawberry jam. Not because it’s a big secret. It’s very simple with no tricks of the trade other than good strawberries to start with. So I’m sharing it now, just in case you are also lucky enough to have excess strawberries on your hands.

Recipe for Strawberry Jam
1 kg strawberries
750g white sugar
2-4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, or more
(you can easily double the quantities if you have a big enough pan and plenty of fruit)

Wash and dry the strawberries. They must be dry before you start or the water will dilute the natural pectin and it will take forever to set. I usually put a clean dishcloth on a tray and lay them out in one layer after washing with another over the top until most of the dampness has been absorbed.

Chop the berries, in half or quarters depending on the size.

When you have 1 kg of chopped berries, put them into a large stainless steel (or enamel) pan and pour over the sugar. Give the pan a shake to let the sugar get cosy with the berries. Leave the pan in a cool place, covered, overnight.

(The soaking in sugar overnight helps the soft fruit retain its shape in the finished jam instead of dissolving to a mush as it cooks)

Next morning the berries will have given out a beautiful red syrup, floating with sugar icebergs, and are ready to cook.

Bring the jam gently to simmering point over a low heat. Stir several times to make sure the sugar isn’t stuck on the bottom. Only when all the sugar has dissolved, raise the heat. Add the lemon juice (for its pectin – the amount to use depends  on the fruit – use too little and it won’t set  - the riper the berries the more lemon juice you need ).

Bring the jam to a brisk bubble. Watch it like a hawk – at this point it loves to bubble right up and over the edge of the pot, to flood the stove top with sticky red syrup. This is why you need a really big pan. Ideally the berries and sugar should come no more than half the way up the sides of the pan before you start cooking.

Let it cook for 20-30 minutes, then test it for set. Mine tends to be fairly runny, as that is how we like it. It keeps the fresh berry flavour better.

Pour the hot jam into sterilized jars and seal immediately.

Our season started late this year and so the strawberries are only now getting into top gear. I’ve only just made my second batch of jam, but the way they are fruiting this week I’m cautiously optimistic that I’ll have enough for gifts, enough to see us through the year and even some over to sell at the local market.

Now if it will stop raining I’ll just go and pick that last row which is groaning with ripe berries.

Oh and the youngberries have loads of flowers right now, so in a few weeks we’ll be picking them too. 2011 is a good year for berries!

Other recipes to do with strawberries: strawberry cake... or strawberry tarts

I've bravely entered the SA Blog Awards this year, so please vote for me - all you have to do is click on the Vote button in the sidebar on the right - then confirm your vote on the e-mail they send you. Only one vote per category per person - so I'm hoping the promise of strawberry jam will sway you! Tea and scones at my house anyone?!

Monday, October 31, 2011

Leftover Spaghetti Omelette

Leftovers are always a gift to busy mothers... one less meal to think up, just a matter of cooking up some rice and heating through the leftovers. When it comes to leftover spaghetti there’s an even better bonus – spaghetti omelette, or rather frittata, as it is the Italian rather than French version of eggs in a pan. Two out of three kids love it and my husband cooks extra pasta on purpose on his cooking night, just so I will make this the next day.

In Rome I used to love the frittata rolls served in the local Trastevere bar. Thick wodges of omelette filled with all sorts of tasty vegetables and sandwiched in a crusty roll: cheap, filling and satisfying to a student with fledgling gourmet inclinations. I don’t remember if they ever had spaghetti in, but I must have come across the combination somewhere in Italy that year, and have fond memories of it.

We usually have our spaghetti either aglio, olio, peperoncino (just garlic and oil with a little chilli) or with a tomato and bacon sauce. The leftovers of both work well brilliantly in a frittata. A handful of breadcrumbs, a sprinkling of parmesan, a scattering of chopped parsley, is all you need to add.

Here’s the recipe – quantities are vague and can be infinitely adapted, added to and generally changed!

Spaghetti Omelette/Frittata Recipe

Leftover spaghetti, sauced – about one generous serving
6 medium eggs
½ cup fine breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons grated parmesan
2 teaspoons chopped parsley
Salt and pepper

Warm the leftover spaghetti through.
Beat the eggs together in a good sized bowl. Stir in the parmesan and breadcrumbs, and season with salt and pepper.
Sprinkle the parsley onto the spaghetti and stir the whole lot into the egg mix.

Heat a deepish heavy based frying pan (I use my Le Creuset 7”/18cm omelette pan), with a tiny amount of butter, over a medium low heat. Tip in the mixture. Cook slowly over a low heat, until it is set about 2/3 of the way through. The proper way to do this is to loosen the bottom, put a plate over the pan and turn it, returning the omelette to the pan to finish cooking... but I chicken out and cook the top under the grill for the last five minutes or so until just set.

Serve with salad and bread, or even eat cold in a sandwich.

I made this yesterday and the kids and their friends demolished almost all of it. I had to save the last piece in the photo for my husband or there’d have been trouble in camp!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Berry Muffins Too Early On A Weekend Morning

It’s early for a weekend morning. Consciousness dawns and with it a reminder that I need to bake muffins for my husband to take in to his photography workshop.

Semi-awake, it’s out to the mulberry tree, early sunshine flirting with clouds to see who will be the dominant partner today.

The tree is usually dripping with ripe berries, but it was well raided yesterday and I have to look carefully under leaves and in between branches to fill my cup.

Sift together dry ingredients.

Mix together wet ones.

Fill the trays with muffin papers, because berries stick like crazy to unlined tins.

And by the time the rest of the family is ready for breakfast, after watching the first half of  Victor/Victoria, the tune of Jazz Hot is humming through my mind and I feel like a supermum, golden muffins in serried rows waiting to salute the breakfasters. I didn’t tell them I made them for the workshop... not especially for them!

Here's the berry muffin recipe.

Or if you're feeling in a virtuous muffin mood, how about yoghurt and oat muffins
or branflake muffins?

Have a happy weekend!

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Spring Festival in Pictures

Two weeks have flown past since our spring festival, blurring memories so quickly, but the photos live to tell the tale. The spring theme is water and flowers - a bowl of water filled with flowers is the centrepiece of our circle.

Two friends were charged with decorating the circle, given a selection of jam jars, a pair of secateurs and free reign over the garden and wild flowers.

Little posies surrounded the circle, interspersed with brown paper candle bags to glow as darkness fell.

Other friends got creative with flower crowns, paper flowers, real flowers, raffia and anything else that imagination provided.

Mine was all lavender, perilously strung together in a raffia plait.

Another stalwart design friend, resisted out the onslaughts of miggies and pollen to create a fantastic archway to lead us into the sandpit.

And the kids provided the water feature, working hard on a castle that incorporated the hosepipe into its design.

Then at last, as the sun dipped below the horizon, we were finally ready to follow the river of light into the circle, taking a basket of fresh flowers and jugs of water to pour into the water bowl on the way.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Quiche Recipe with Fresh Peas

Our veggie garden is in prolific spring mode – for a few weeks we have fresh peas in gluttonous abundance, it’s all or nothing, famine or feast; when it comes to petits pois, there is no such thing as moderation. Now the broad beans are all demanding to be picked too, the strawberries are revving up and picking becomes a regular duty rather than an occasional pleasure. ...

But this wonderful excess of fresh stuff, frees you up to experiment with new recipes. Usually peas are just a side dish in our house, quickly boiled with a few leaves of mint, to go alongside a roast chicken. Making quiches for our spring festival I decided it was time for the peas to star in their own show. I rifled through my Marcella Hazan recipe book (The Classic Italian Cook Book (The Art of Italian Cooking and the Italian Art of Eating)) for an Italian take on peas and found just what I was looking for – a recipe for peas cooked in olive oil with a little garlic and prosciutto. I tweaked a little adding onion for more bulk and sweetness, leaving out the ham, (though it would be a good addition to my final recipe – I just didn’t have any and was wanting it to be vegetarian) and adding a sprinkling of fresh chopped mint for spring life and zest.

The result was just what I was after – sweet, tender and meltingly spring flavoured. As Marcella Hazan says, you want just the sweet, tender peas, so leave out any that have gone too far and got that slightly bitter starchiness.

When I was podding peas with the girls, I was appointed official tester and had to taste one pea from every pod that was doubtfully fat and overstretched. I now can tell almost just by looking at the pod whether they are still sweet or gone to starch – a useful skill if I ever need a job in a pea sorting factory! The quiche can be made with frozen peas too, just cook them for less time and don’t add any water as they cook.

Pea Quiche recipe
1 medium onion
1 clove garlic
3 tablespoons olive oil
300g fresh peas, shelled weight
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Salt and pepper
A sprig of mint
250ml / 1  cup cream
3 eggs
Shortcrust pastry to line a 23cm round dish or tin

Chop the onion and garlic finely. Cook them in the oil over a medium heat until they are soft and translucent, but not coloured.
Add the peas and the chopped parsley and stir to coat with oil. Season with salt and pepper. Add 2 tablespoons water, cover the pot and cook over a medium heat until the peas are tender. This can be anything from 5-15 minutes depending on the peas. If you use frozen peas, leave out the water and cook for about 5 minutes. Leave to cool a little while you prepare the pastry.
Line the dish with pastry. Blind bake for ten minutes at 190C.
While it is baking, beat the cream and eggs together and season with salt and pepper.
Tip the pea filling into the pastry case, sprinkling with torn mint leaves then pour the egg and cream mix over the top.
Bake at 190C for 40-45 minutes until set and golden.
The quiche went beautifully with a simple salad of tomatoes and steamed broad beans dressed with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon.