The Rhubarb season is upon us and I for one rejoice to eat the first fruit or vegetable of the season.
I love Rhubarb it takes me back to my childhood of pink Rhubarb pies and tart crumbles, yum. As a vegetable or a fruit and there is quite a debate on that topic, it’s been seriously out of fashion for a number of years, but has recently enjoyed a resurgence with trendy TV cooks reintroducing it to the nation’s palates. In fact Rhubarb can be hard to get hold of, when researching this post I found that Tesco supermarket were offering none for sale and Ocado the Waitrose’s online brand were offering Rhubarb at a whooping £7.50 a kilo no wonder they are keen to sell it!
I don’t think my Mum was paying the equivalent of £7.50 a kilo back in the day, the truth was that we had loads of rhubarb because as any rhubarb grower knows if you have a plant you have a glut, so any friends with a garden or an allotment would drop some off.
Rhubarb has a long history even it’s name is of note, Rhu refers to the river Rha the Roman name for the Volga right on the eastern edge of the Roman empire where wild Rhubarb grows on the banks. Barb refers to the barbarians on the edge of the empire, therefore ‘the plant of the barbarians’.
References to Rhubarb as a medicine go back thousands of years in Chinese history, where it was taken as a laxative amongst other uses. Rhubarb was imported along the silk road in the 14th century and was on par with silks and jewels. A Ruy Gonzales de Clavijo’s report of his embassy in 1403-05 to Timur in Samarkand: “The best of all merchandise coming to Samarkand was from China: especially silks, satins, musk, rubies, diamonds, pearls, and rhubarb…”
£50 worth of Rhubarb!
Rhubarb became popular in the 17th Century when sugar became affordable and consumption reached it’d peak between the wars. A relic of these times hangs on in the famous Yorkshire triangle of Wakefield, Leeds, and Morley, all flat caps and whippets where forced rhubarb is harvested by candlelight in huge forcing sheds. I force my rhubarb but I don’t have a forcing shed or a whippet but I do have several rather fetching flat caps, I just use an old inverted black water butt. I picked the first crop this weekend, hence this post. As you can see from the photo at Ocado’s prices I picked about £50 worth!
The one problem with Rhubarb is getting young people to eat it, in a corn syrup world they find even the taste of even the sweeter pink stalks too tart. At best I get a begrudging push around the plate until they decide that they are full and they raid the fridge for a proper pudding after a semi-respectable pause.
In fact rhubarb is so part of UK culture the very wonderful Eric Sykes filmed Rhubarb, a short film in which the only word spoken was rhubarb. Then he remade it years later as Rhubarb Rhubarb, here’s a link to the film here. Enjoy.
If that is not enough there was the 1970′s tea time joy of Roobarb and Custard one of the best children’s programmes ever made a youtube link to an episode is here. Enjoy again.
As this is a food blog I should write about the culinary uses of rhubarb and if I can get organised I will write some follow up posts on this theme. To start off we can remember that the simplest way of eating rhubarb is to dip tender young shoots in sugar something commonly given to children over the years. Some people believe you shouldn’t do this because rhubarb is poisonous uncooked because it contains Oxalic acid which is destroyed when cooked. This is correct but you would need to eat over 5 kilo’s of uncooked rhubarb at a sitting to cause any harm which is an unlikely event.
Here’s a simple and slightly unusual recipe for Rhubarb Schnapps
- 1 Kilo Rhubarb cut into 2/3 cm lengths
- 300 grams sugar
- 1 bottle of vodka (as cheap as you like)
Put all the ingredients into an old sweet jar or similar and stir daily until the sugar is dissolved. Ready to drink after 4 weeks. You can serve your Schnapps straight from the jar or decant into a bottle. It has a lovely colour and is delicious served chilled.
I am thinking about popping in some Orange peel in my next batch as orange and Rhubarb are good partners, I’ll give it a go, I’ve got loads of Rhubarb!
I made reference in an earlier post to studying a Massive Open Online Course or MOOC on the Science of Gastronomy, I’m still waiting for a start date but in the interim I have just started an Algebra course not because I am an uber geek (well not completely) but because I would like to study the MOOC astronomy courses but its 35 years since I was at school so my algebra is far too weak for success. Therefore if I want to study astronomy I need to sort my algebra, time to get busy doing some preparatory study. The algebra course gives 20% of the marks are from a weekly exam or test and I planned to spend Sunday, completing the first exam. Well that was the plan.
Julie had a fund raising dinner Saturday night with her keep fit group and got back in the early hours declaring that she was returning the following day to finish clearing up and to have lunch with the other committee members and their partners, my presence was expected. Yes dear, at least I could sort my exam before and after lunch. That would work!
Sunday morning nice and leisurely, listening to the radio, listening to the sound of barking dogs, lots and lots of barking dogs! Checked it out to find that some hunters’ dogs had cornered a wild boar in our garden, confusion reigned not helped by the fact that the boar and the dogs ended up in our pond. A little while later there’s a dead boar and a bunch of apologetic but triumphant hunters. A messy end to a hunt but don’t kid yourselves the boar got a better deal than most animals reared for meat and living in the heart of a rural community such things are ever present. By the time it was all sorted it was time to go for lunch and to clean the Salle de Fêtes, never mind I’ll do my exam after lunch.
Off to the Salle de Fetes to join a group of 16 for lunch, of course lunch is the main meal of the week so it wasn’t rushed! But it was a lesson in rural French dining.
Epine or Blackthorn Aperitif with Rillettes
Garden salad and cheese
Rouserolles with crème anglais
This is all well and good, the salad was particularly good, freshly picked from one of the diner’s greenhouse and the company was warm and welcoming and coincidentally several of the dishes I have written about in this blog, just click on the links for further details. The problem was drink, I do have some self-control and steered my way through the Epine, the Rose, a youthful and a mature Cotes du Rhone with some success. My undoing was the production of a basket of bottles containing assorted homemade eau de vie and Marc’s which were up to 30 years old! Now even if you are French this is a notable event and it would have been discourteous to not sample a representative range so a little tour through eau de vie de cerise (9 years), eau de vie de poire (18 years), eau de vie cidre and eau de vie prune 30 years and finally Marc (31 years), the oldest had become a wonderful nut brown and all where smooth, soft and full flavoured. Well that was the final nail in the exam coffin. I did manage to help tidy up but I noted that the cleaning of the sale de fetes only took about 20 minutes and even then most activity was focused on washing up after the lunch we had just enjoyed!
Then home for a little lie down.
a leg of fresh wild boar
To end the day one of the hunters called by with a leg of wild boar as a recompense for the inconvenience of earlier in the day, I don’t know whether to freeze it for roasting or stewing or make it into a dried ham. The idea of a dried wild boar ham is currently favourite, what do you think?
p.s. Just in case you are worried about the exam I missed, I am allowed to complete the exam late but with a 10% penalty. The final exam is 80% of the marks, interim tests or exams are 20% of the marks, therefore 10% of interim exams or tests = 2% ÷ 10 (the number of interim tests or exams) = 0.2% penalty, I can live with that.
It’s interesting how things come around, when I was at school I always preferred going for a drink over lessons and definitely over exams.
We have snow all around chez nous, across France and the UK, in an unusual burst of commonsense I agreed to postpone Monday’s training course and I have reaped the benefits of being able to stay at home for a couple of extra days.
Snowy Garden Veg
One benefit was that despite the snow I could spend a bit of time in the garden, mostly sorting wood but I picked some snow covered veg for tonight’s dinner a simple no fuss Roast Chicken with trimmings and an Apple Crumble made with ground hazelnuts. I’m supposed to be watching what I eat but snow on the ground is a winning excuse for comfort food.
Most people think of their gardens being productive in the summer or autumn but there is quite a range of winter veg in ours. Currently we have wild rocket, leeks, broccoli, carrots and beetroot to name just a few. A frugal approach to good fresh produce is to try and ensure you have something to pick or lift all year round and all veg is at it’s cheapest and best just picked from the garden.
We’re finishing our comfort Chicken Dinner with a Hazelnut Apple Crumble, making it is simplicity it’s self. You can just add chopped Hazelnuts to the crumble mix but I prefer adding ground hazelnuts to the crumble mix, it gives a more aromatic and smoother texture. Getting hold of ground hazelnuts can be problematic but you can easily make your own by toasting of what you need and blitzing until ground in a food processor.
To make Hazelnut and Apple Crumble (for 2)
- Some apples (as many as you need)
- 40gs flour
- 40gs Ground hazelnuts
- 30gs of sugar + a bit for the apples
Apple and Hazelnut Crumble
Peel, core and roughly chop the apples and about a dessert spoon full of sugar to an oven proof dish leaving about 3cms of space at the top of the dish.
Gently rub together the flour, ground hazelnuts and butter and add the crumble mix to the chopped apple mix. Bake in a oven at 190C for 40 minutes. Serve warm with custard or cream.
Over Christmas and New Year we were lucky enough to have Julie’s sisters and their families stay at Chez Nous and the stay gave me an opportunity to do some cooking with the youngsters. I really like cooking with young people if you can chose the right recipe or technique they enjoying the cooking and subsequent eating with an enthusiasm that you would very rarely get from an adult.
We had 3 youngsters stay, Oscar who is a self assured 5, Alex who is 12 and Lydia who is 15. Alex and Lydia have been subjects of earlier posts but Oscar is a newcomer to my little blog. I am going to write 3 maybe 4 posts on this theme and first up in age order is Oscar and how to make Sherbet.
I love Sherbet, no sweet propels me back to childhood faster than Sherbet, with that fizzy sugary hit. The fact that it lasted for ages and it was cheap meant it was always a favourite for me.
Small children love making sweets the realisation that they can make what they buy from a Sweet shop is a bit of a revelation thal always brightens their day.
Making Sherbet is easy and entirely suitable activity for a 5 year old as long as you don’t tell their dentist.
Ingredients for 4 people (or less)
- 50g Icing sugar
- 1 tsp Citric acid
- 1 tsp Bi-carbonated soda
- Hard liquorice 1 stick per person
Sieve the Icing sugar, bi-carbonated soda and citric acid into a small bowl and mix thoroughly.
Place bowl in the centre of the table and distribute liquorice stick between diners, tuck in.
Oscar making sherbet. The pictures a bit rubbish but it’s all i’ve got. I didn’t take any photos of the finished product because I was busy fighting of Oscar’s Mum, Dad, Aunties and Uncles so I could get my share of the Sherbet
Getting citric acid can be a problem as many chemists have stopped stocking it, but home brew shops often have it available and specialist cookery shops such as Lakelands also keep it in stock, a little goes a long way.
Another problem in my house are two legged fridge mice who raided the fridge for my stash of hard liquorice, there was barely enough to go round. Currently said fridge mouse is in Australia the traditional dumping ground for English criminals though as he is enjoying 40 C temperatures compared to the cold European winter he is not suffering!
If you happen to read about me in the about page of this blog you will know that I work in education and it follows that I have a predisposition to learning activities. My brother Andrew (who is so bright his buttons shine) pointed me towards ‘MOOC’s’ – Massive Open On-Line Courses’ and I was interested.
MOOC’s enable anyone with an internet connection to study university level course units for free. In a world were higher education costs are becoming unaffordable to many and unaffordable and inaccessible to most in the developing world, MOOC’s could be a learning revolution. If you want to learn more about MOOC’s have a look at Daphne Koller’s TED presentation here.
Why all this stuff about MOOC’s on a cooking blog? Well anyone with a passing interest in cooking knows that cooking is a form of applied chemistry and now MOOC’s gives anyone the opportunity to study – The Science of Gastronomy with Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. The course blurb says
This course introduces students to elements of science lying behind cooking and cuisine preparation. The ultimate goal is to help students recognize the importance of scientific principles being applied in everyday life, so that they will appreciate and be able to apply some of these principles in their future cooking practice.
Over 6 weeks the syllabus will cover;
- Gastronomy: cuisine preparation, the chemical and physical principles
- Enjoyment of Food: parameter of excellence – the basis of taste
- The Basis of Flavor: the aroma and taste-aroma interactions
- Aroma and Coloring: coloring-association and improvement of perception
- Texture of Food: the highlight of contrast
- Fruits and Vegetables: properties, nutrition and enhancement of quality in cooking
- Meat: properties, taste, aroma and texture
- Meat: ways to modify the texture, enhance the taste and smell of meat
- Meat: precision cooking – how to cook a perfect steak?
- Sauce: modification of the viscosity and flavor of sauce
- Dessert: manipulation of desired texture: gluten formation and protein denaturing
- Examples of Dessert Making: ice-cream with liquid nitrogen and ginger milk curd
The course start date has not been fixed yet but you can sign up for free here.
What’s not to like? If you read this blog and you sign up do let me know, we can meet in a virtual class room, hopefully soon.
This is a very overdue post, but as it was part written you’re going to get it anyway.
France like the UK had a very doubtful summer with wet weather and cool temperatures, as a consequence the local tomato crop was a bit of a disaster attacked relentlessly by Odium (mildew) therefore when out local supermarket was selling tomatoes for 1 euro a kilo I fell on them like a rabid dog. They weren’t going to stay at that price for long.
It’s all very well buying 7 or 8 kilos of something because they are cheap but what are you going to do with them? Well my plan was eat some as per usual, make a batch of roast tomato soup and the rest would be dried.
I love sun-dried tomatoes, you can add them to nearly anything to get an intense tomatoey kick, and they transform a pizza, make a tomato sauce and help create a lip-smacking Bloody Mary. I also like them because I will get a taste of summer in the depths of winter, I’m fussy about what I will eat on one level I’ll eat anything but on another level I prize seasonality and quality. I do compromise, I will begrudgingly eat tomatoes out of season but you won’t catch me eating strawberries or asparagus anytime soon. Drying tomatoes just extends the season for my purist myopia.
Liking sun-dried tomatoes is one thing, but making them in the late summer sun in mid France is another, I think a little helping hand is required. Fortunately making them in a cool oven is simplicity itself.
Take some tomatoes and place on a baking tray. If you are using cherry tomatoes simply put cross I the top and add a pinch of salt and finely chopped garlic. If your using large tomatoes cut in half scoop out the seeds, flatten slightly and sprinkle with salt and finely chopped garlic. Sprinkle the tray of tomatoes with thyme and place in a cool oven at about 80C – 90C until dried. I know that’s a bit vague, to get semi-dried tomatoes which I prefer takes about 8 hours but you must store them covered in oil. This is not really a hardship as the oil is delicious sprinkled over pasta, pizza etc.
Completely dried tomatoes take about 12 to 16 hours but if dry enough can be stored as they are, but they will need soaking in warm water for about 20 minutes.
That’s it, as you can see from the photographs they look good in a suitable jar, I’ll spread the love and the season by giving some away as presents.
If you read my last post you will know that I’ve been very virtuous and walking each day but it also gives me an excuse to look out for fruity autumn treasures and surely there is no doubt that the damson is a real gem.
I love damsons and I chanced upon the most glorious stash two weeks ago so armed with two carrier bags, Jim and I made our way back on Saturday. Within 20 minutes or so we had picked just shy of 7lbs. They were at the perfect stage of ripeness and it was tempting to gorge on them but no doubt that would have had disastrous consequences and anyway I had other things in mind.
Like the rest of the nation (except Jim, who incidentally doesn’t like Strictly either, but that’s an ongoing argument between the two of us!) I am hooked on the fabulous Great British Bake Off and was inspired to make something I had never made before – Queen of Puddings – no, it isn’t a moniker for the majestic Mary Berry although it should be.
A quick Google search soon bought up the recipe used on the show a couple of weeks ago, which version is of course, attributed to the great Mrs Berry herself. It comprises a bottom layer of baked custard, a thin layer of homemade jam using summer fruits and a meringue topping. Since I had damsons galore, I decided I would make a few changes to the recipe.
First off, the bulk of the damsons were destined for jelly rather than jam…you try stoning 3lbs worth of damsons…far easier to push the whole lot through a sieve and the end result is just so wonderfully deep purple, red and well, jammy. So on that basis, I thought I would make a damson and apple compote for the middle layer instead. That decided, it needed a further twist to really elevate it into autumn, so I decided to fold roasted, chopped hazelnuts into the meringue, sprinkling a good portion on top. Hazelnut meringues are very popular in France where you regularly see them piled high in boulangerie windows. That sorted, all that remained was to give it a go.
And the results? There were five of us for Sunday lunch and the fight for seconds almost caused a revolution. I can honestly say that I have never seen a queen made such short work of, since Marie Antoinette suggested cake!
For the custard:
600ml/1 pint full-fat milk
25g/1oz butter, plus extra for greasing the dish
1 lemon, zest finely grated
50g/2oz caster sugar
3 free-range eggs, yolks only
75g/3oz fresh white breadcrumbs
For the compote:
1 medium sized cooking apple, peeled and cored
4-5 tablespoons of castor sugar (or to taste)
For the meringue:
175g/6oz caster sugar
3 free-range eggs, whites only
50g/2oz chopped roasted hazelnuts (plus a few for sprinkling on top)
• Preheat the oven to 170C/325F/Gas 3 and grease a 1.4 litre/2½ pint shallow ovenproof dish (one that will fit into a roasting tin) with butter.
• For the custard base, very gently warm the milk in a small saucepan. Add the butter, lemon zest and the 50g/2oz of sugar, stir until dissolved.
• Lightly whisk the egg yolks in a bowl. Slowly pour the warm milk into the eggs, while whisking.
• Sprinkle the breadcrumbs over the base of the buttered dish and pour over the custard. Leave to stand for about 15 minutes, so the breadcrumbs absorb the liquid.
• Carefully transfer the dish to a roasting tin and fill the tin halfway with hot water. Bake the custard in the preheated oven for about 25-30 minutes until the custard has set. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool a little.
• Meanwhile, put the damsons into a pan and warm over a gentle heat. Once they’ve softened and released their juice, remove the stones. (I removed them from the heat, let them cool slightly and simply fished them out). Add the chopped apple and stir gently until it resembles a soft compote although retaining some ‘body’ .
• Add the sugar and cook for a further three minutes.
• Whisk the egg whites using an electric hand whisk on full speed until stiff peaks form when the whisk is removed. Add the remaining 175g/6oz sugar a teaspoon at a time, still whisking on maximum speed until the mixture is stiff and shiny. Fold in the toasted chopped hazelnuts. Transfer the meringue mixture to a piping bag. (I didn’t pipe and it was still fine).
• Spread 4-5 tablespoons of compote over the set custard, then pipe the meringue on top. (or spoon making some lovely peaks). Sprinkle with the remaining hazelnuts.
• Lower the oven temperature to 150C/300F/Gas 2 and return the pudding to the oven (not in the roasting tin with water) for about 25-30 minutes until the meringue is pale golden all over and crisp. Serve warm.
A summer salad that is very French in it’s conception is Salade aux gesiers (Gizzard Salad), I say very French as most nations in the English speaking world struggle with the idea of eating gizzards but cooked low and slow (confit) they really are delicious. Like 99% of French people we buy ours ready confitted in the supermarket and they just require reheating in a frying pan.
Salade aux gesiers a la maison
A gizzard is part of a muscular bird’s stomach that is designed to retain grit to help grind the seeds that a bird digests. The gizzards used in France are commonly from Chickens or Ducks. If you are in the UK or elsewhere finding gizzards in the supermarket can be problematic, your best bet is to find a traditional butcher, order on-line or pick some up if your visiting France.
The are a myriad of ways to prepare Salade aux gesiers, when I make mine I always ensure that I use roughly chopped walnuts, chunky homemade garlic and olive oil croutons and some fresh herbs, typically flat leak parsley and chives. I prefer to dress the salad in a walnut oil vinaigrette but any vinaigrette will do as long as it is not to bland.
A general recipe for 4 people would be
Add to a bowl and mix the following ingredients;
- Several handfuls of chopped mixed salad leaves.
- A good handful of garlic croutons
- A couple of handfuls of chopped cucumber
- 2 or 3 chopped tomatoes
- A handful of finely chopped spring or white onions
- A handful of roughly chopped walnuts
- A small handful of mixed herbs
In a frying pan reheat your confitted gizzards on a fairly high heat roughly chop and add to your salad.
Mix in the walnut oil vinaigrette and serve. To make walnut oil vinaigrette simply add to a small jam jar 4 tbs of walnut oil, 1 tbs of white wine vinegar, a good sprinkling of salt and black pepper and 1/2 tsp of mustard, shake well.
I know it’s a hassle getting hold of the gizzards but this recipe is quick, simple, healthy and filling. If you can overcome any prejudice you might have about eating gizzards I assure you you are in for a tasty treat.
As summer wraps its rain soaked charms on France (yes it’s wet in France this year), my thoughts turn in hope to summer cuisine. A simple and frugal favourite is Tapenade bursting with Mediterranean ingredients – Black olives, sharp capers and mouth flavour filling anchovies. Roughly blitzed together with a few other flavours I can nearly forgive the weather outside.
Tapenade is one of those ridiculously expensive items that supermarkets love to mark up at a huge price, sometimes up to £3.50 for a little over 100 grams. Given the ease of manufacture if you buy their fancy little jars that tearing sound you hear at the checkout is you being ripped off.
Spread on toast, stirred into pasta or smeared onto a leg of lamb sunshine will cut through the rainiest of days and warm your heart.
To make Tapenade you need
- 1 clove of crushed garlic
- Juice of a lemon
- 3 tbsp of capers
- 6 anchovy fillets
- Approximately 250g black pitted olives (about a can)
- small bunch fresh parsley roughly chopped
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
- A good slug of olive oil as good a quality as you can afford, if you must measure it about 4 tbsp
Add all the ingredients to a food processor and blitz until a rough textured paste is formed, take care not blitz the mixture to a smooth puree it is best with a chunky texture.
Tapenade and a Magarita (strictly for medicinal purposes, if I drink enough I think it's stopped raining)
That’s it, I recommend making some toast while you are assembling and blitzing the Tapenade ingredients. When your Tapenade is ready spoon some on to the bread and enjoy, if you ensure that your other hand is holding summery cocktail such as a Kir Royale, Pimms or as in the picture a Margarita you are ahead of the curve! Enjoy