Thursday, 12 September 2013

All the goodness in those lemons

Citrus limon. I adore it. And lemons are so useful in the kitchen, in Italy we say you should always have at least one at hand.

You can drink their juice, full of vitamin C (also containing vitamin A, calcium and phosphorus) and hot, sweet lemonade is an Italian traditional cure for indigestion; the same juice helps your jam set, and you can flavour dishes with both juice and zest. Drinks and dishes can be garnished with their pretty slices and you can use any leftover halves to de-grease pots and pans and take away the smell of fish; leaving them in the fridge is also said to prevent smells there. Adding their juice and leftover halves to water when washing vegetables that oxidise (i.e. artichokes) is the perfect way to prevent discolouring. And you can eat the peel, which, instead, I seem to waste most of the time.

I thought of all the effort of growing and picking the lemons, packaging and transporting them all the way to my home. Making the most of them seemed the only reasonable thing to do.
So, when Riverford sent me a particularly fresh, healthy (and untreated: unwaxed, no fungicides), juicy and thick-skinned lemons I decided I would use them whole: such a pity to waste a valuable and delicious edible.

First thing, I juiced them, and made ice cubes with the juice. It has been very convenient and handy over the weeks I must say. It's always there when needed and no mouldy or dessicated old lemons in the fridge!

Then I decided to candy the peel. Which is very easy to do. You only have to slice every juiced half in half and peel away the translucent membrane (leaving the spongy white pith). It comes off easily.

Then you slice as thick as you wish, and, to take away the bitterness of the white pith, you blanch in boiling water. I do it twice, throwing away the water once it has become yellow.

After blanching them, and without further ado, you cover the peel with sugar and water (2:1) and bring it to a quiet boil - stir from time to time and do not let it stick: add more hot water if needed. 

When the peel has turned translucent, it is ready. Drain, reserving the aromatic sugar syrup (keep it in the fridge, it might go solid) and let the peel dry for a couple of days (or as necessary) on a cooling grid.

Candied lemon peel is gorgeous to eat as is (irresistible, but be careful to stop in time: after a while your tongue will start to fizz rather unpleasantly with the essential oil), or I find that I can use both the syrup and the peel in my muffins, replacing part of the sugar with the syrup (remove anything coconut and use the peel instead of the raspberries, all the rest is the same).

P.S. The gorgeous cooks at @SchumacherColl also use cubed lemon peel, fresh, in salads. The one I tried was with blanched greens (i.e. leaf beet) in a salad with olives, lemon peel cubes and some lovely seeds. I tried at home making a sliced carrot salad with lemon peel cubes and seasoned with a pinch of salt, lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil, which won husband's approval. Definitely a winner!

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Finding the right recipe for your produce

It is very important to find the right recipes for your produce, the ones that bring out the best of its qualities - if you want to enjoy it. I am pretty sure that everything edible can be enjoyed if prepared in the right way.

Just a few minutes ago I was talking to someone that had tried eating dandelion raw; unsurprisingly, he had not enjoyed it: dandelion can be rather bitter and an acquired taste, but if you cook it in the right recipe... A few weeks back, an English friend told me that she had enjoyed cauliflower for the first time, raw or quickly blanched, and it did not compare at all to the mushy stuff she used to eat - and hate - as a kid.

This discussion also came out on Twitter over the winter, with regards to mashua (Tropaeolum tuberosum). Much like marmite, mashua seems to split people into lovers and haters (proven by @rhizowen survey!). Mashua has a funny taste, and is very aromatic: the impression I got when tasting it for the first and only time was eating potatoes while smelling violets... and that is weird. But I am sure there is a recipe that does mashua justice, and therefore I have grown a few plants this year, to have a proper go at findingit. @carllegge is a master of that art, and he has inspired me no end.

But this post, which I have been mulling over for a while, is about tree spinach. Another "unusual" plant that I grew for the first time two years ago as part of Garden Organic members experiments. It is a pretty weed, Chenopodium giganteum, prolific self-seeder with green leaves tinged with purple dust. However, I was not over excited about it at the time of the experiments: the texture is downy and tougher than ordinary spinach, definitely less moist. Not a success as a replacement for blanched spinach.

This year, thought, two years on, tree spinach made a voluntary comeback in my plot. And I was desperate for self-seeders that might give me good crops without too much work. So I decided not to pull it out and have another go.

And guess what? I found the perfect recipe, a recipe in which it replaces spinach but that is more suitable to its texture: curry.

Referring back to my Indian food guru, Anjum Anand, I found a recipe for spinach pilaff in her book Indian Food Made Easy.
Here is my adaptation of that recipe.

Spinach pilaff

  • 2 tbsp oil
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 black cardamon pods
  • 6 black peppercorns
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1-2 green chillies, forked but left whole
  • 1 small onion, peeled and chopped
  • 300g cooked Basmati rice
  • 200g tree spinach leaves, blanched then pureed
  • salt
  • 3 tsp lemon juice

Cook the Basmati: I learnt from @pukkapaki. Rinse away the starch until the water is clear. Pour into a crock pot, cover (just) with cold water, add a squeeze of lemon and a tsp of salt. Bring to the boil then put a lid on it and let it simmer in its own steam until the water gets all soaked up. You might need to adjust the water level, depending on the rice and pan. It usually takes some 10 minutes to cook.

Blanch the tree spinach in boiling, salted water (never put vegetable in non boiling, unsalted water: the colour will go dull) until tender. Puree.

Heat the oil in a large saucepan (I find cast iron is best for curries), add the whole spices and green chillies and cook for 20 seconds. Add the onion and cook for about 4 minutes until translucent. Stir in the rice, spinach and salt and heat through. Just before serving, add a squeeze of lemon juice to taste.

That is a quick recipe, not expensive, filling, nutritious. Even leftovers, reheated, are nice to eat.

My tree spinach is going to seed now, and I am letting it do its thing.

It will be very welcome next year, and I will try some new curry recipes with it.

I guess the moral of the story is: do not give up on a so so vegetable, give it a second chance, talk to other people that might have used them, and be creative in the kitchen, it might turn out to be so worthwhile!

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

Taraxacum officinale are beautiful wild flowers, laden in pollen (I remember a spring in the mountains when everything was covered in yellow "dust" as dandelions all came into flower) and last year, after reading about someone having the largest botanic collection of them, I started noticing the different leaf shapes... I even considered devoting them a special patch on the plot. But for some reason I did not think of picking them for food.

Dandelions are 100% edible: flowers, leaves and roots. According to PFAF:

  • the flowers buds can be used as fritters, or like capers, after preserving in vinegar; the flowers can be eaten either raw or cooked, with a rather bitter taste, or made into tea; with the petals you can make wine.
  • leaves can be eaten both raw and cooked, and are rather nutritious; they can also used to flavour beer and soft drinks, as well as
  • the roots, also used as flavouring, or as a coffee substitute (I remember my auntie using it, either on its own or to bulk up her arabica).
Dandelion at the front, catalogna at the back

The other day I was picking my chicory catalogna, and next to it was a dandelion head, lush as I had never seen one. 

The differences between the two leaves were small (in fact in Italy we call dandelion "false chicory": cicoria matta), they can be used in the same way. And they are for free.

I though it would be silly not to pick them. Blanched them, and they were nice, not even the husband complained. 

So I picked a bag full of dandelion the next time I was on the plot.

And here is where my bread post from last night comes in. I decided to make a pie with the dandelion, using some bread dough I had ready.

Focaccia ripiena with dandelion leaves

The dough was made with 150 g wholemeal rice to 525 g plain white flour: I used 2/3 to make pizza for dinner, and the remaining 1/3 I decided to fill with the dandelion (perfect as packed lunch). 

First of all, I added a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil to the dough and let it rise a bit longer, while I prepared the greens (inspired by this Italian catalogna recipe).

I blanched the dandelion, then light-fried some onion in extra virgin olive oil, with capers, olives and anchovies (those preserved in olive oil), and threw it in, giving a good stir until the flavours had soaked through.

Two thirds of the dough I used as a base, in a cake tin, greased with some oil. The remaining third of the dough, rolled with a pin, made up the pie top.

180°C, 40 mins in regular oven (20 or so in ventilated) and... VOILA! 

The greens have a slightly bitter aftertaste that complements well the slightly sweet wheat and rice focaccia dough.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Because bread just goes beautifully with most homegrown produce...

I have been making my own sourdough bread since Carl Legge taught me in beautiful North Wales then sent me home with a little bit of his starter to set me off. Over the months, I have learnt some more, among others from Sonia and Joanna. And, with time, I have come up with my reliable recipe and a process that is adapted to my lifestyle. As my lifestyle is busy busy tired tired, I have gone for the least folded sourdough bread ever. Still, we are happy with the results here at Casa Cecconi, so we stick with it.

My starter's name is Bruna. She started off as a wholemeal wet starter, but now she has turned white. I freshen it up once a week or up to 10 days with as much again water (that has been left for a while so that chlorine & other chemicals they use to make it drinkable evaporate) and as much again organic 0 flour from Italy***. So 1/3 starter, 1/3 water and 1/3 flour.

After leaving the starter to bubble up (up to a day, so that is smells nice and sweet and milky), I take 200g for my bread and put the rest away in a Kilner jar in the fridge. She emerges again in one week or so (often sour and smelly of vinegar so much it takes your breath away) gets to room temperature, then I freshen it up.

And here for my reliable recipe.

Sourdough bread

  • 200 g starter
  • 675 g white flour (I use plain flour rather than strong, and up to 150 g of it I often replace with wholemeal rye, rye meal, wholemeal rice, wholemeal spelt or just wholemeal**)
  • 300-350 g lukewarm water (depending on how the dough feels, which depends on the flour)
  • 1 tbsp barley malt extract

Mix all together in a glass bowl (using a spoon with rye, as it sticks to your hands like hell), knead a little bit and leave 20 minutes to hydrolize. Then I add

  • 15 g salt
diluted in a little bit warm water, and knead it until it reaches the right texture again. This would be the time to add any seeds to the mixture ( I have done it only once, with chopped pistachios).

Just untucked for you to have a peek...

Then I leave it to rise for a day, or a night, covered with a plastic freezer bag I wash and reuse all the time, in a warm place. Inside the oven with the light on was suggested, or on a sunny windowsill, kitchen surface or my mother in law used to tuck in her pizza dough under the duvet (warning: danger of spilling!).

My "lifestyle process" is so adapted that I can make bread around a fulltime job away from home. So if you freshen up the starter in the evening and make the dough in the morning then you can bake it in the evening. Or, conversely. if you freshen up the starter in the morning, then you can make the dough in the evening and bake in the morning. Easy peasy.

I don't bother kneading until my muscles ache, or bashing the dough around, as some TV presenter seems to think necessary. 

When the dough has risen, I turn on the oven to 225 C (regular, not ventilated) with my stone in it. It requires about 40 minutes for the oven and the stone to heat up to the right temperature. At the start of that, I shape the loaf, after folding it a couple of times, and give it a nice sprinkling of flour. Then I cover it with the (upturned) glass bowl, the one I had mixed and let it rise in, and go about my business.

Loaf in the oven

When the oven alarm goes off, I score the loaf (with a razor blade wetted in cold water) and place it in the oven for 55 minutes, together with a little metal dish with a tbsp of water to improve the crust.

Best to leave your bread to cool before slicing, but
sometimes you just can't resist...

When the alarm goes off again, the loaf is out of the oven and put on a wire rack to cool. 

I store it in a straw basket inside a towel, where it keeps well for a week or so.

I can send you some starter if you wish to have a go: it's not so difficult!

*** the reason why I am using Italian white flour for my starter, is that one of the friends helping me is Italian and she knew best how to rescue an ailing starter (too vinegary for my liking) with Italian flour types, and that was the only Italian flour I could get. Since it worked, I stuck with it. If you use UK white flour for your starter, keep it mind it comes with additives (more about flour fortification on the RealBread Campaign website).
** two years on, I have tried with chestnut flour, 250 gr of it, the rest plain white. It goes with a tablespoon of honey instead of the malt, and one of cocoa. Does not rise much, but it really nice, and goes well with butter and smoked salmon too.