Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Don't Ditch the Dairy

I was asked to take a look at a range of products from Lactofree, in a bid to raise awareness for lactose intolerant people. It's not something I've ever considered before, not being lactose intolerant, myself, but it certainly got me thinking about how on earth people, who do have this problem, manage.

For people with the condition, it can mean unpleasant digestive effects due to them not being able to produce enough of the lactase enzyme.

Lactose is present in many things that you'd not expect, including crisps and biscuits, so it is not easily avoided. There are dairy substitutes such as soya or rice milk, but I know some people who find these unpalatable, forcing them to give up anything milk-like all together.
Of course, dairy produce is important in the diet, being a good source of calcium and other beneficial vitamins, so it seems quite worrying that there are people who are missing out.
Lactofree's products are real dairy, but completely lactose free, and can be used as any normal dairy product.
The milk, or dairy drink, is great tasting, I couldn't tell the difference between it and regular cow's milk. It worked just the same in tea and coffee and made a great milkshake.

I also tried the semi hard cheese, which has a slightly springy texture, but is creamy in the mouth, with a slightly tangy taste, not unlike Edam. It behaves just like normal cheese and melts well in cooking.
There is a soft white cheese available too, which is great for spreading and would be perfect for making a creamy pasta sauce or for whipping up into frosting for a carrot cake (made with oil instead of butter, of course).

Lactofree have portion packs too, which means a trip to the cafe or on holiday is much easier and you can have the perfect cup of tea or coffee, anytime.
I think this is all great news for lactose intolerant people and it would be fantastic to see Lactofree cream and ice cream added to the range too.
For more information, recipes and advice visit the Lactofree website: www.lactofree.co.uk
Lactofree product images from Lactofree website

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Beauty in the Brine

I fell in love with a coastal delicacy last year that has kept me drooling in anticipation for the next season of marsh samphire to return. The small fleshy leaved plant that inhabits the marshes and tidal mudflats of Britain’s shores is very much seasonal and as yet still a wild and uncultivated plant, thus making it a very special food from June until the end of August.

It is gathered by hand, an arduous and back-aching task, by fishermen and shore workers to supplement their summer income.
When I was in North Norfolk, last year, I saw it growing and was tempted to pull on my wellies and venture out into the squelchy mud to pick some for myself. I’m aware that it is not always acceptable to do so, although it is not illegal, one has to consider respect for nature and the environment, especially as the samphire grows on protected habitats.
For this reason, the best samphire grounds are kept secret and only those with permission have access to the green bounty.

Samphire is a type of succulent, perfect for tolerating the salt from each inundating tide. It has short branching stems, with a strange joint-like structure that reminds me of little alien antennae.
As I don’t live on the coast, I don’t often get the chance to buy it. It’s a rare thing to find in the shops around my way, so I almost fell over with excitement when the fish stall at my monthly farmers market was selling it. I bought a couple of generous man-sized handfuls.
Good, fresh samphire should be bright green and shiny, still engorged with moisture. Avoid any that looks dull or withered. It should also smell fresh, tinged with the scent of sea air.

Before eating, it is important to wash it thoroughly in cold water to remove any gritty sand and silt. I took three good washings and drainings to get mine clean.
Samphire doesn’t take much cooking, you can indeed eat it raw, but I like to drop it briefly into boiling water, drain and toss in butter. Don’t add salt to the water and use unsalted butter – the samphire has been seasoned perfectly well by the sea. Finish with a grind of black pepper and eat.

Obviously, samphire is an ideal accompaniment to fish, being juicy, clean flavoured, with just a hint of the briny blue. The very essence of all that is good about our wild coastline.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Win The Greatest Holiday in the World!

The Greatest Holiday in the World

Just imagine being able to stay anywhere in the world in some of the best hotels in the most exciting countries for free.
You could be trying a vast range of cuisines from north to south and from east to west, sampling a smorgasbord in Sweden, lingering over an evening of tapas in Spain, or even eating Dograma (don’t worry it’s a refreshing cold soup) in Azerbaijan.
With over 200 Radisson Blu hotels in over 50 countries there is vast and diverse menu of cultures to choose from.
Now I’ve got you feeling hungry for the experience why not enter the competition to enable you to have the holiday, or series of holidays of a lifetime? As soon as I had the opportunity to enter, I didn’t hesitate – it’s so easy to do.
The winner will get 365 hotel nights to spend at over 200+ Radisson Blu Hotels over a 5 year period.
As long as you are either an EU citizen, or a citizen of Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein or Switzerland you can participate.
To enter, simply visit the website (link at the top of this post) and tell Radisson why you deserve to win. It’s quick and easy and you’ll create a candidate page with your short story, so that other visitors to the competition site can vote and nominate you. The more votes you get, the higher up the rankings you go, increasing your chances of winning. You can also upload pictures and even a link to your YouTube video to enhance your candidate page if you wish.
If you’re feeling more creative there is also the added opportunity for yet another special prize.
Of course I’d be very honoured if you would vote for me, click here
And by way of thanks I can drop by your candidate page and do the same!
It would be great to read your comments – I’d love to know what you’ve submitted as your entry and where your dream destinations are and please let your friends know about this competition as it’s really too good to miss!

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Thursday, 17 June 2010

Family Values: Jackson Bars from Baileys Real Food Company

Thanks must go to Baileys Real Foods who entrusted me with two varieties of their Jackson Bars to try.
I unfortunately missed them on their stand at the Real Food Festival, but keen as we both were, me to taste their bars and for them to have me test them, Baileys kindly sent some in the post.

Baileys is a family run business in Herefordshire and they are passionate about promoting real food, health and happiness. The Jackson Bar, a type of flapjack was born from their own need to find a healthy and satisfying snack. What is very important to them, is that there is no over zealous adding of sugar and where the sweetness comes in an entirely natural form of honey, fruit juice or brown rice syrup.
The bars are indeed wholesome, using British oats and lots of seeds as the base for all the varieties.

I tried the 'Original' which had added fruits; raisins, sultanas, apricots and dates, and the 'Naughty' one with chocolate and marshmallows.
I was most impressed, the taste is rich and decidedly moreish and the texture wonderfully crumbly yet moist. I did end up with a lap full of crumbs, but who cares!
There's something of a good homemade quality about them, that no one would ever know if I popped them on to a plate and passed them off as my own creation, hiding the packaging first of course!

These would be great to take on a hiking trip, as they keep you going for a long time. After having one, I didn't feel hungry for hours – that must be the slow release qualities of the oats and low sugar content doing their work.

I only wish they were sold in a shop near me, but as yet I'll just have to order them.
Other varieties to enjoy are Tropical, Lovers, Nutty and Hot Spice. 
Of the two I tried, I preferred the Original - - - More please!

For more information and where to buy, visit Bailey's Real Food website: baileysrealfood.co.uk

Featured on The Artisan Food Trail

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Spirit of The Age: Sipsmith

Never being one to pass up on a free tasting of Vodka, I stopped by the Sipsmith stand at the Real Food Festival, where I was amazed by their products.

Based in Hammersmith, London, tucked away in quiet street, Sipsmith's small distillery, was set up just a short while ago, in Spring 2009, by founders Sam and Fairfax who had always dreamt of creating a true artisan spirit.

LEFT: From left to right – The Sipsmiths, Fairfax, Jared and Sam

They make a Barley Vodka and a London Dry Gin which is gently delivered from their handmade copper-pot still, named "Prudence", the first in London for 189 years. This beautiful still, as well as functional, could also be considered a work of art with its graceful swan neck which has been taken as the inspiration for the attractive label designs.
Producing the spirit in small batches, no more than 500 bottles per batch, in fact, ensures exceptional quality and supreme flavour.

Being a vodka lover, I am quite fussy about what I drink. I wouldn't say I am an expert as such, but I know what I like. I prefer to drink vodka straight and slowly, no knocking back shots in a violent and greedy manner but in a more measured and considerate way so that I may enjoy the flavours.
Anyone who says that vodka has no taste and that it should always be mixed in with tonic and the like, has clearly never fully appreciated a decent spirit.

The Vodka is distinctly British, distilled from English barley spirit and then blended with water from the Lydwell Spring, one of the sources of the River Thames.
Most noticeable is that this spirit does not burn your mouth or throat and is exceedingly smooth, which makes it ideal for slow lingering sipping, Unlike some vodkas that need to be chilled in the freezer to make them tolerable, this is very agreeable even at room temperature.
With its nutiness, and growing sweetness, finally ending with a hint of pepper it is most enjoyable.

I haven't drunk gin in years, mainly because I've found it to have been a bad experience. Maybe it's because of the tonic that I had with it, made me believe it to be bitter. I couldn't have been more wrong.
ABOVE: Ten carefully selected botanicals are used including: Macedonian juniper berries, Bulgarian coriander seed, French angelica root, Spanish liquorice root, Italian orris root, Spanish ground almond, Chinese cassia bark, Madagascan cinnamon, Sevillian orange peel and Spanish lemon peel.

Sipsmith's version is a joy to drink, and the smell is like a breath of fresh summer meadows. Again, as with the vodka, it is mellow in the mouth, the juniper fragrant and refreshing accompanied by bright zesty notes of lemon and orange.
Shameful or not, I could happily drink this pure and unadulterated by mixers.

So impressed was I, that I bought both the vodka and gin to take home for further enjoyment, and all I can say is, that they're both slipping down rather nicely, if a little too quickly!

For further information and where to buy, visit their website: sipsmith.com
Photo source: Sipsmith website

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Elderflower Cheesecake

Highly perfumed lacy umbels are adorning the elder trees, begging to lend they're unique flavour to my cooking.
I have tried all the usual recipes from jellies to cordials and everything in between, but I was longing to try something different, which led me to research some ancient uses for the woodland flowers.
During Medieval times, something called Sambocade was prepared as a dessert using curd cheese baked in a tart case. This immediately struck me as something I'd like to make. I doubt my version is anything like the original, but as an experiment, it turned very well indeed, if I may say so myself.
The pastry makes a nice crispy container for the soft, light, fragrant and fluffy cheesecake-like filling. It is not like your usual baked cheesecake, as the texture is not as dense, but I think the lighter consistency makes it all the more summery.

I was perhaps a little lazy on this occasion, as I didn't make my own pastry, but good quality shop bought pastry is just fine and saves some time.
Don't wash your elderflowers, as that will remove all the vital pollen that is essential in giving the wonderful taste, just shake the flower heads to remove any bugs and inspect them carefully. It pays not to be too squeamish, with some insects being so tiny, it is inevitable that you'll end up eating some of them!

500g sweet shortcrust pastry
250g ricotta cheese
2 medium eggs, separated
100g caster sugar
2 tblsp plain flour
2 tblsp double cream
grated zest 1 lemon
3-4 large elderflower heads

Preheat the oven to 190C / 375F / Gas 5.
Roll out the pastry to about 4mm thick and use to line a 20cm round non-stick spring form tin. Work the pastry in so that it fits nicely. It doesn't matter if there are a few folds, just make sure to avoid any holes, although these can be patched up with spare pastry. Leave the pastry roughly hanging over the edges at the top – no need to trim as this will crumble away later for a rustic look. Put into the oven and bake blind for about 10 minutes.

Now the fiddly bit. Pick all the tiny flowers off the stems, discarding the thick green parts. You should now a have a nice pile of free flowing flowers. Set to one side.

In a large bowl, beat together the ricotta cheese, egg yolks, caster sugar, plain flour, double cream and lemon zest. When it is smooth and glossy, stir in the elderflowers and mix well. Set aside.

In another bowl beat the egg whites until they are stiff.
Take a small amount of egg white and stir well into the elderflower mixture. Fold the remaining egg white in, a little at a time, taking care not to knock out the air. When it is all well incorporated, pour into the pastry case and bake in the centre of the oven for about 1 hour.
When the cake is ready it should be risen and golden on top and wobble slightly.
Switch off the oven, but leave the cheesecake in with the door open to cool. The cake will sink slightly with some cracking, but this is normal.
When completely cool, remove from the tin and transfer to a serving plate.

Keep refrigerated.

Photos: ©childsdesign 2010

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Box of Delights from Natoora

I was very surprised to be contacted by a marketing company, telling me that they were looking for food bloggers to review the latest Spring Taster Box* from Natoora. Knowing about Natoora's reputation for their online top quality food store, I was very pleased to accept.

Delivery was easy to arrange, I agreed a specific day with Natoora and it arrived in the morning. The website had listed the ingredients as follows, British asparagus, fresh peas, basil, strawberries from Marsala, Jersey Royal new potatoes, Camone tomatoes and loquats.
I don't think I had Camone tomatoes in my box, as they didn't look like the picture on the website, my ones were much smaller, plum shaped and very red. They looked more like Datterinis.

According to Natoora, I would be getting the same luxury food that is supplied to some of Britain's top chefs. It certainly all looked fresh, although the strawberries had suffered a little bashing in transit, but no great damage done.

Knowing that peas are best when absolutely freash, I used those first. The pods were nice and fat and full of peas, except for one where they had failed to develop.
I haven't podded peas for a while, it was lovely to hear the pop and satisfyingly remove the peas by running my thumb through the pod. No grubs either, which was a pleasant experience – when I used to shell peas as a child, with my Grandma, there was often something lurking inside!

I made a simple pea risotto topped with king prawns and a mint and parsley olive oil drizzle

The tomatoes were the most delicious and sweet of any cherry tomato I have tasted. To enjoy them, simple was the best approach, so I put together a salad by slicing the tomatoes in half and mixing with finely diced red onion and some capers. I dressed the salad with a little red wine vinegar and a good glug of extra virgin olive oil.

The basil was put to good use as the perfect accompaniment to the tomatoes. I just love the smell of basil and when I initially opened the bag, a full fragrant burst wafted out. The leaves were a good mature size and had the most amazing sweet peppery tatse.

As with all things in this box, I chose to adopt the most basic approaches to allow the flavours to remain true and the way I treated the asparagus was no exception (no photo, I'm afraid, it got eaten in a flash!)
After lighly coating in olive oil, salt and pepper, I chargrilled it and served with a squeeze of lemon juice alongside some parma ham.
The stems were very tender with no hint of woodiness, so very little wastage.

If you struggle to remember what strawberries used to tasted like, then these are sure to jog your memory.
They were exceptionally sweet and gloriously fragrant and for that reason are best served naked. (No not you, the strawberries!) I sliced some over my morning muesli and ate them in the garden as the sun shone through the trees – bliss.

Potoatoes are possibly one of the most versatile vegetables, and in my opinion can not be substituted with anything else. They're just lovely with their jackets on and new poatoes have the most forgiving and scrumptious skins. Just simmer them gently for five minutes and either toss in butter, or as I did, dress them with watercress pesto.

I haven't eaten the loquats yet. They look a lot like a quinces or a medlars so I'm intrigued to find out what they taste like.

Retailing at £15 for the box,* it may seem rather pricey, but to get particularly special, quality produce in its prime one should expect to pay likewise.

To find out more about Natoora and to buy online, visit their website: www.natoora.co.uk

* No longer available, but look out for other taster box offers on their website

Friday, 4 June 2010

A Frenzy of Foliage

The plants are closing in, but in a good way, a way that envelops you in a safe verdant blanket.
I can't quite believe how much everything has grown. Periods of rain have given way to some long warm sunny days, lately, and that has bestowed every leaf and shoot with a healthy boost.
It's all very good, but I've had to cut back some of the shrubs and overhanging branches, just so that I can get around the garden without having to duck or being snagged by wayward twigs.

Our garden is quite large, so we have tried to make it as low maintenance as possible, as there's not always enough time to be constantly tending to plants. We removed the lawn a few years ago and hauled barrow loads of gravel in to take its place. After taking the view that a lawn was largely a waste of time and moreover a waste of space, it seemed the best thing to. Before you lambast me for tearing up a green space, i would like to say that, in my defence, that we now have more plants and a small pond. The gravel has now become merely a set of pathways between areas and the garden looks far more attractive.

I have confession to make. I am not a tidy gardener, so things may be a bit straggly and unkempt. There are empty plant pots stacked up here and there and maybe a small heap of last year's tree prunings in a corner somewhere, but I've found that this has attracted an abundance of wildlife, something the garden never had when we first moved here nine years ago. 

It would seem that, inadvertently, we have created a permaculture. There are some mature trees creating a canopy, shrubs beneath and then smaller plants. Much of the edible stuff such as tomatoes, potatoes and the like, we grow in pots right outside the kitchen door and the herbs are never far away either. Our instinctive planting layout has created the perfect microclimate, each plant supporting one another and we try to avoid nasty chemicals wherever possible.

We don't have a designated herb plot as the various plants reside throughout the entire garden, be they in the ground or in containers. I would say that the herbs make up most of the structure and are beautiful to look at, smell wonderful and are essential to my cooking.
The photo above is of a sage bush. It started life as small plant, given to me by my Mum, from a cutting she had taken from hers. The plants is huge now and of all the sages I have, is the only one that flowers. It certainly keeps the bees well fed and as soon as the sun is out, I can hear the buzzing as the bees bob from flower to flower gathering nectar.

Below is a purple sage. It may not flower but the leaves are very attractive.
I love the taste of sage, but you don't need to use very much of it as it has a very strong flavour, which can be quite medicinal in nature.
It dries very well, so is one of the best herbs for winter storage, especially as it adopts a sad droopy look during the colder months. Drying is very easy to do, just clip of large sprigs (I tend to do this when I'm pruning the plant) and then bunch them together and tie with string. Hang them upside down in a warm, dry, well ventilated space for a week or so. When they are completely dry, crumble in to airtight jars.

One of my other favourite herbs is rosemary, the smell is heavenly. Just a few sprigs can perk up roast potatoes and of course it's great with lamb.
Rosemary is fantastic all year round, it is the only one that retains its glory through the winter, so I've never needed to dry it. I've been known to dash down a frosty garden to clip some for dinner!

We're relatively new to fruit growing, we've had a couple of failures, notably mystery blueberry deaths and non-fruiting gooseberries, but so far the raspberry has been a success. This year it is a mass of flowers and they're looking pretty good, with the exception of some greenfly which the ants are farming. I think if we can keep these bugs off with a little organic spray, they should be OK.

Good to see the bees like the raspberry flowers, too – pollination is important.

Yes I know this basil plant looks a little worse for wear but if you saw it a couple of weeks ago, you'd have though it was destined for the dustbin!
It's one of those supermarket ones and usually they don't last that long, so after I gave it the haircut of it's life when making a pesto, I thought it was a goner. Just as I was about to dispose of it, my husband stopped me, saying "it might grow back". I was quite sceptical at this point, but put it back on the windowsill. Lo and behold, it did grow back! I'm continuing to water it and let it outside during good weather to "sunbathe" and seems to be flourishing.

One of our trees is an almond that came with the garden, I would say it is as old as the house, probably 90 years or so. It is festooned with gorgeous pink blossom in the early spring which later develops into fuzzy green fruits. I've never actually eaten the almonds inside, so the local squirrels get those.

The tree has done so well since the old asbestos garage was demolished and without competition, the tree has grown and spread. However, it is not without a few problems. Every year, without fail, it succumbs to the dreaded peach leaf curl. Some leaves mutate into crinkly red freaks and the ones that remain untouched by the fungal infection, present themselves peppered with holes. I believe some kind creepy crawly is responsible. I'd say it is armed with a hole punch as those holes are perfectly spherical.

I grow the lemon balm in a large trough together with the mint as they both have the inclination to spread wherever they please. I've started to use lemon balm mixed with green tea. It makes a lovely relaxing infusion with citrusy notes.

I always look forward to the mint returning in spring. It's always best used fresh.

This year, the oregano has become rather prolific and has made a fantastic green cushion in the trough. I love using it with olive oil and lemon juice as a marinade for chicken before chargrilling.

More lemon flavours in form of lemon thyme. Again, this is great with chicken and also fish. The plant was looking a little forlorn and then it picked up when new green shoots began to appear on the twiggy mess it once was.

Maybe I've planted these somewhat late, but I though it worth a try, as I love french beans. There's nothing better than a fresh picked, young and tender pod.

The bean plants may only be small but they have flower buds, so that's promising.

This is florence fennel that I started growing last year, although it didn't bulb up, I have been using the leaves as a herb. I'm hoping that this year I might get some bulbs at the bottom, failing that, I've discovered that the flowers are supremely delicious. I was reading about fennel pollen the other day, apparently it is very sought after by posh restaurants and valuable too. Is this what I have?

The peas were as late as the beans going in, but they're going great guns. Those tendrils are finding the sticks and winding their way up. Sometimes when I'm sitting outside, I swear I can see those tendrils moving and twisting.

I like to grow potatoes in containers, it makes it so much easier to harvest them. As I only want small new potatoes, this works just fine. After the potatoes have finished flowering, I start removing the soil and perfect little potatoes are revealed.

Baby salad leaves are really easy to grow. To get a succession throughout the summer I sow several containers at eight week intervals and this gives me a plentiful supply of small juicy leaves.
The ones I have growing are a peppery mixture with my favourites, the red mustard.

Providing I can keep aphids, leaf miner, carrot fly, snails, slugs and even the squirrels (they like to excavate the pots) at bay, my kitchen garden should keep us relatively well fed.
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