Friday, October 22, 2010

A forage in the fields: sloe gin

The husband and I are worried that we may be turning into a parody of ourselves. When making the transition from an urban existence in London to the much-longed-for country life, we were keen to fit in and avoid potential hostility from the neighbours who had lived in the area for a lifetime. In our eagerness to look the part, we may perhaps have gone a little far...

The black labrador was really a non-negotiable and, to be fair, he was part of our lives before we made the move. From black labrador, it was a very short step to the Barbour jacket. An essential for muddy walks, I would argue. Green wellies too are a necessity (in the city I'd favoured a more flamboyant floral wellie but when these sprang a leak, I felt that only green would do). Soon after, I invested in a Driza-Bone hat. This too seemed necessary for dog walking - my bright pink umbrella screamed 'townie' and is hardly practical when carrying dog lead, whistle, poo bags, dog treats and other canine-related paraphernalia. So far so good...

But then the husband decided the time had come to buy a flat-cap. This, he argued, was a necessity for keeping his head warm and dry on early-morning walks (...and trips across the fields to the local pub, no doubt). I was uncertain but came round to the idea once I'd seen it on. As yet, it remains unworn. He's put it on a few times and then removed it in a state of uncertainty - is it just one step too far? Are we taking country living a little bit too seriously? After all, he managed dog walks on cold mornings in London perfectly well without the need for such a garment.

Enjoying the countryside
It doesn't end here however. Our eating habits have changed too. Not only do we find ourselves in possession of the obligatory Aga (serviced today and firing up nicely as I type), but we also find ourselves living off the land in a way we haven't done since we were children. Aside from a few efforts at 'growing things in pots' in my London courtyard garden, eating food from the garden and hedgerows is something I've not done in any significant way since I was young. Our garden has three apple trees, a plum tree and a pear tree and we've been enjoying these enormously. Dog walks have become missions in picking as many blackberries as we can carry and Sunday afternoons have become sessions of chutney-making and cake-baking. What could be more enjoyable?

I suspect that our neighbours may be laughing at us as we stagger home with punnets of foraged fruits. Whilst this is still a novelty for us, I suspect they enjoy the fruits of the land in slightly less greedy quantities knowing full well that a person cannot physically eat sixty jars of chutney before next year's crop of apples. We are clearly a little more eager than most.

But, who really cares what the neighbours think? We are loving our new life and have no shame when it comes to helping ourselves to what nature offers up (...though we do leave a little for others to enjoy!).

Blackthorn bushes drowning in sloes
Our latest haul has been of sloes. Sloe gin is a real favourite of mine and this year seems to be particularly good for sloes. The hedgerows are positively drowning in these little black fruits so we didn't feel too bad helping ourselves to a good haul.

There is much debate surrounding when one should pick sloes and how to make the best sloe gin. I've read it all and come to the following conclusions...

1. When to pick?

It is best to pick sloes after the first frost of the year. They may look enticing in September, but it really is better to wait until late October or early November. I'm not sure why this is, but it does seem to improve flavour. I picked mine a few weeks ago. We'd had a frost and they looked good. But yesterday, I picked a whole lot more with my sister for her to take home. They were noticeably riper, bigger and juicier. I wish I'd been a little more patient and waited longer... One further tip - pick only the sloes which are showing a whitish 'bloom'. Leave the totally black sloes behind.

Sloes: pick those with whitish bloom
and wait until after the first frost

2. To freeze or not to freeze?

Some advise that sloes release more flavour if they are frozen prior to use. I suspect this may be true for those picked earlier - a stimulation of the frost perhaps. I'm not sure of the science here but, as I picked mine a touch early, I washed and dried my sloes carefully and then popped them in the freezer overnight. This does cause the some of the skins to split, helping to release the juices and flavour.

3. To prick or not to prick?

Traditionally, one is advised to prick each sloe by hand before adding to the gin to release juices. This could be described as tedious and time-consuming. It could also be described as satisfying and strangely therapeutic. Some argue that freezing the sloes overnight causes the skins to split and therefore does the same job but I found that most of my sloes remained intact despite freezing. I decided to prick mine. I used a needle which I sterilized by washing in very hot water and dipping in gin!

4. Any old gin or high-quality gin?

Tricky one here. Does it really matter what kind of gin you use? I'm of the view that a recipe is only as good as its ingredients so I therefore feel it does matter. Having said that, I wouldn't use an expensive brand. I think it is important to use a gin which is over 40% alcohol. I wouldn't choose to drink a gin under this - I once studied a course on spirits and was led to believe that higher alcohol brings out the flavour of the different botanicals which give gin its flavour. Below 40%, you don't get a 'full' experience. So, I looked for a special offer on a gin which had 40% min. alcohol. Tesco had an offer on litre bottles of Greenalls gin, so I went for that.

5. What to add to your gin?

The classic 'recipe' calls simply for sloes, sugar and gin and that works for me. But I've read that other flavours work well so this year I've added almond essence to one of my bottles. Over at Dinner Diary, Kerri has experimented with a delicious-sounding spicy sloe gin. I can't wait to hear how it turns out!

6. How long do I have to wait?

Oh dear. This is where I come unstuck. I'm not the most patient of people, it has to be admitted. I know that sloe gin gets better with age. I know that to enjoy it as its best I should wait a year. But I'm afraid that come Christmas Day, I may just have to have a teeny, tiny sip. Just to see how it is coming along, you understand! Basically, the gin is 'ready' after three months but really you should try to keep it longer!

7. When and how should I drink it?

Sloe gin is a wonderful pick-me-up at any time. Wait! That doesn't sound good. I'm not suggesting you start on it at breakfast time. But seriously, I love to enjoy a small glass after dinner in front of the fire. Or a little swig from a hip flask on a really cold day when out for a walk. But it can also be delicious incorporated in a cocktail. My favourite is a 'sloegasam' (apologies - I didn't invent the name). Half a shot of sloe gin, topped up with Champagne or sparkling wine. Yum. More cocktail ideas are here.

Here is how we made ours. You will need some empty bottles or kilner jars.

Sloe gin

1. Pick as many sloes as you can find. Wash and dry them, then prick each sloe with a sterilized needle or pin.

2. Take a litre bottle of gin and pour half the gin into a jug. Put to one side.

3. Using a funnel, pour in approx. 150g sugar.

4. Top up the bottle with the pricked sloes until the level of gin has risen almost to the top. Seal tightly. Pour remaining gin into another bottle or jar and repeat steps 3 and 4.

Topping up with sloes, one at a time...
5. Give the bottles a little shake to combine. Do not worry if, at this stage, the sugar all collects at the bottom. With time, it will dissolve.

6. Store in a cool, dark place away from greedy paws. For the first week, you should turn/shake the bottles a little each day. You should then continue to do this once a week for three months. Taste occasionally and add more sugar to taste if required.

7. After three months, decant the gin off the sloes into pretty bottles. It is ready to drink although it will improve in bottle over the coming months.

Notes: the 'used' sloes can be put to good use too. I've seen recipes for sloe gin jelly, sloe gin cake and sloe gin chutney. I'll report back once I decant the gin off the sloes later in the year!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Venison casserole

Another gorgeous weekend basking in incredible autumnal weather. We had my two nephews staying and took them to the local trout farm where we tried our hand at a spot of fishing. Imagine the excitement when my five-year-old nephew caught his first fish! Once he'd met his maker courtesy of a sharp tap to the head, we took the fish home to cook for the boys tea. Anticipating some resistance and cries of 'Yuk - don't like it', I picked up some oven chips on the way home so that I could 'sell' the meal as an exciting treat of 'fish and chips'.

I needn't have worried. Those brave boys were fascinated as they watched my husband gut the fish, stuff the cavity with herbs and place it in the fish kettle to steam. Served with chips and peas they declared their catch to be 'delicious' and ate absolutely masses. A great result all round and so good for them to catch their own food. Sadly I forgot to take the camera with me but I thought you might enjoy the story!

A few weeks ago I helped organise a hen party for one of my closest friends. She loves good food and we based the evening around a special dinner cooked by all of her girl friends. Each 'hen' prepared a part of the meal whether it be a pre-dinner nibble, a vegetable side dish, starter or post-meal chocolate. I was in charge of a main course for fifteen people. I quickly decided that a one-pot dish would be easiest and hauled out my biggest casserole dish. I'd noticed that the first of the season's venison had appeared in the window of the local butcher. I adore venison and we eat quite a bit of it - it is such a lean meat and lends itself to all kinds of dishes. Often we enjoy venison steaks with redcurrant jus and bubble and squeak. We often choose venison sausages if we want a night of comfort food - just a little lower in fat than regular sausages. Venison is also great with oriental flavours and we sometimes serve strips of steak on top of stir-fried vegetables and noodles dressed with plenty of soy sauce. But my favourite way to enjoy this full-flavoured meat is braised slowly in red wine until it falls apart.

The recipe I'm sharing is a real favourite - it is a Nick Nairn recipe from BBC Good Food. I rarely tweak it although I vary the vegetables according to what I have to hand. The trick is to cook it on a low heat for a long time. The redcurrant jelly is really important here so don't leave it out although you could substitute a different fruit jelly - bramble, rowan or quince might work well. The sweetness works beautifully with the earthy, gamey flavour of the meat. The recipe is very easily doubled or halved and freezes well too. As with all casseroles, flavour improves if made a day in advance.

Apologies for the photos - it is so hard to make a stew look enticing in a photograph. I also forgot to take any photos of the 'finished' dish which was a much deeper colour with the tender meat falling apart.

Braised Venison
Serves 6-8


2 carrots
140g swede
2 onions
3 sticks celery
1 garlic clove
1kg cubed leg or shoulder of venison - ask your butcher for meat suitable for casseroling
5 tbsp flour seasoned with salt and pepper
2 heaped tbsp redcurrant jelly
450ml red wine
450ml beef stock
2 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf

1. Pre-heat the oven to 160C (fan oven). Roughly chop all the vegetables in preparation.

2. Heat some oil and butter in a large casserole and add the onions, carrots, swede and celery. Fry for a few minutes until golden. Crush the garlic and add to the pan. Stir to combine and then set the vegetables to one side.

3. Sprinkle the meat with seasoned flour and mix to coat. Add a little more oil to the casserole and brown the meat in batches. Set aside with the vegetables.

4. Add the wine and jelly to the pan and bubble away, scraping up all the bits that have stuck to the bottom of the pan. Pour in the stock, thyme and bay leaf before adding the meat and vegetable back to the pan. Stir to combine and then bring to the boil. Cover and cook for minimum 2 hours (my preference would be to cook for longer at a slightly lower heat but it depends how much time I have!).

5. Remove the bayleaf and serve. Great with mashed potatoes and braised red cabbage or savoy cabbage flavoured with juniper.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Oriental steamed seabass

I spent the weekend down on the Isle of Wight. It is where my parents live and where I lived from the age of ten. It really is a very special bit of England and this weekend was at its sunniest, sparkliest best. Our dog was extremely chuffed as he was finally allowed to tear along the beach - during the summer months dogs are not allowed on the beach near my parents' house. He had his first taste of swimming in the sea and absolutely loved it. I was momentarily nervous as he hasn't done much swimming as yet (he's just 8 months old) and the tide is so strong that I worried he might be swept out to sea. Fortunately he appears to be a strong swimmer and made it back to shore before indulging in an almighty shake-out...

But this has nothing to do with food. The sea surrounding the Island is home to a great deal of food however. Earlier in the week my mother was lucky enough to be given a large bass which she'd immediately frozen so that we could enjoy it at the weekend. Seabass is a favourite fish of mine and I often order it in a restaurant but I have to admit that I'm not sure I've ever cooked it before. My favourite way to enjoy it is with lovely fresh Oriental flavours and I've eaten it recently in a Chinese restaurant sprinkled with coriander and ginger with soy sauce and sesame. Inspired by this I took a look through my  mother's books and found a recipe very similar to the one I'd tasted. The book was written by Sophie Grigson and William Black and has the very original title of (you guessed it) Fish. I don't have the exact recipe here but I can remember what we did. It was extremely tasty - the only fiddly bit was serving the fish but with practice I'm sure we'd improve!

Oriental steamed seabass
Serves 2-4 depending on size of fish


1 large seabass
1 inch piece of fresh ginger
3 spring onions
1 small red chilli (less or more to taste)
1 fat clove of garlic
2 tbsp vegetable or sunflower oil
2 tbsp sesame oil
soy sauce
large handful fresh coriander

1. Wash and clean your fish and trim the dorsal fins. Cut 3-4 slashes through the skin on both sides. Season the cavity generously and place a few stalks of coriander in the cavity too.

2. Steam the fish. We used a fish kettle for this but you could curl it up in a regular steamer over a pan of boiling water as an alternative. Depending on the size of the fish, this could take anything from 10-20 minutes. Ours was pretty large and took almost 20 minutes. You want the fish to be just cooked.

3. Whilst the fish is steaming, prepare the garnish. Peel the ginger and cut into small matchsticks. De-seed the chilli and cut into very fine matchsticks. Finely chop the garlic and the spring onions. Mix all together in a little bowl. Chop the coriander.

4. Once the fish is ready, transfer quickly to a warmed serving plate and sprinkle on the ginger, chilli, garlic and spring onion mixture. Sprinkle over the chopped fresh coriander too.

5. Heat the oils in a small pan until smoking. Once really hot, pour over the top of the fish and garnishes. Dress liberally with soy sauce and hurry the fish to the table!

6. To serve, gently ease the fillets from the backbone and spoon over the juices and garnishes. We served ours with plain boiled rice and stir-fried vegetables.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Caramelised apple cake

I love the British climate. I sometimes suspect that I may be alone in this. Friends, family, strangers seem to take great joy in grumbling about the weather - it is a very British trait. Just this weekend a great friend was lamenting the end of summer and wishing that she lived in somewhere where it was warm and sunny all year round. I don't. I love the changing seasons - the bright golden-tinted days of autumn are amongst my favourite especially when the sun shines but there is a slight chill in the air.

I could never live somewhere where it was hot all the time. When would I get my fill of rich, hearty casseroles? Sticky, syrupy steamed puddings? I'd hardly feel like them if I were permanently sauntering round in shorts and t-shirts. I love the edible treats that come with each season too and eating with the seasons is something about which I feel quite passionate. That isn't to say that I don't occasionally buy a punnet of strawberries in the depths of winter or that I only eat root vegetables in the winter. But, broadly speaking, I do like to save seasonal treats for times when they are... in season. And therefore tasting at their very best.

Autumnal apple cake

On the flip-side, eating with the seasons can mean that come the end of May I never want to see another stalk of asparagus or that mid-winter I'm sick to death of parsnips and longing for the light fresh greens of spring. Currently we're experiencing something of an apple glut. We have three apple trees in the garden and more apples than we ever dreamed we'd need. No point in putting them in boxes outside the front gate for passers by to take - all the neighbours are in the same boat and doing the same. It is not a complaint but I just can't bear to see good food go to waste and we don't really have much space to store them.

Over the past few weeks we've enjoyed apple and blackberry sponge, apple crumble, apple meringue, apple sauce and apple cake. We've also made chutney. A lot of chutney.

But there are still more apples. In fact, I'm sure that each time I pick them, more grow in their place when I turn my back.

Eager to get through the apples before we need to move onto the pears (ripening nicely and almost ready for picking), I'm still on the lookout for imaginative apple recipes. When shopping recently in Tesco, I was drawn to one of their recipe cards which depicted a gleaming cake topped with sticky apple slices. Resistance was futile and I returned that afternoon and set straight to work.

Our apples are of mysterious type. We've three species in the garden - they all seem to be eaters but when cooked they do pulp down nicely as cooking apples would do. This cake calls for Bramleys but I think you could use any mixture of apples. I used two types from the garden and it worked perfectly. *Tesco even taught me a great little tip for coring apples - so simple really - use a melon baller to scoop the core from halved apples. Worked brilliantly and much easier than using a knife. Very handy trick!

Easy way to core apples - use a melon baller!

This is the sort of cake that you could serve as pudding - at its best eaten warm from the oven with a dollop of ice-cream or custard. We enjoyed it this way the first night and warmed up slices on following evenings but it was very good cold too. It reminds me rather of a tarte tatin in cake form. Sticky and delicious. One word of warning - as the apples are full of juice, it is a very moist, damp cake and becomes more so with time. A fork is definitely required!

Caramelised Apple Cake


4-5 Bramley apples (or 800g other apples, unprepared weight)
Juice of half a lemon
275g soft light brown sugar
5 medium eggs
100g butter, melted
pinch of salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp ground cinnamon (my addition - optional)
215g plain flour
3/4 tsp baking powder
100g ground almonds

1. Pre-heat oven to 180C. Grease a 9 inch loose-bottomed or spring form cake tin and line base and sides with baking paper.

2. Peel, halve and core the apples. See the tip above*. Slice the apples into 1/2 cm slices. Coat with lemon juice and 50g of the sugar - mix with hands to ensure thoroughly coated - set to one side.

3. Scatter a further 50g sugar over the base of the tin and cover with a layer of apple slices. This will be the top of the cake so try overlapping them slightly in concentric circles so they will look pretty.

4. Beat eggs, melted butter, remaining sugar, salt, cinnamon (if using) and vanilla until combined.

5. Sift flour and baking powder over the mixture and then sprinkle over the ground almonds. Add remaining apple slices with the juices and gently fold together until combined (though be careful not to overmix).

6. Pour into tin over the layer of apples and bake for 50 minutes until the cake is risen and golden brown.Check after 30 minutes and if the top is already quite brown, cover with a layer of foil for remaining cooking time.

7. Cool for 5 minutes in the tin before carefully turning out onto a serving plate so that the bottom is on top. Serve warm with ice-cream or custard.