Winter has at last arrived – and it is mid January! We had a night of hard frost followed by a flurry of snow on the weekend. There has lately been an uncoupling of time and temperature, and things have gone askew. Warm winters can be more disturbing than cold summers. A bit like when Tiffany Aching dances with the Wintersmith and, mistaking her for the Summer Lady, he falls in love with her.
Haven’t read ‘Wintersmith’ by Terry Pratchett yet? You have a treat in store.
This is the time of year to keep body and soul together.
One way to do this is to put a pinch of ground ginger in your tea. It doesn’t matter what kind of tea you drink, or whether you have milk or not. Just take a little pinch and stir it in. You will barely taste it, but it has a magic effect. If you have a cold, it will make it better. If you don’t have a cold, it will prevent you getting one. This clever tip came from the Indian check-out lady at my local Sainsburys, and I can vouch that it works. Do try it.
Three wise colleagues recommend ginger ale if you are suffering from morning sickness. And the next time you are on an ocean cruise, they swear there is nothing more effective than ginger ale to quell the nausea of sea-sickness when the going gets a tad squiffy in the Azores.
I find myself at the dusty, neglected end of the alphabet among the letters less frequently used.
There is nothing dusty about zucca invernale, though. I recently visited an old friend who lives in San Remo, in Italy. She took me to the local Saturday market, where we were accosted by a cheery (and very handsome) young stall holder, with a fag clamped in the corner of his mouth: the new season Scillian oranges had just arrived and would we like to try some? They were delicious, and my friend bought some. I looked at the other produce while they exchanged easy banter in Italian – the small narrow artichokes with the long stems, the Abbots pears – when my eye was caught by what looked like a street entertainer’s balloon, blown when the street entertainer was rather pissed. It was sturdy and very, very long, with smooth golden skin. I think I know my veg, but this was new to me. “What’s that?” I asked pointing. “Ah, zucca invernale”, came the reply and he obligingly chopped off the end with his enormous knife so I could see the inside. It was bright orange with large seeds, and I knew at once it was of the tribe of Pumpkin. This one was about as long as a trombone, and he asked how much we wanted. My friend told him, and he cut her a section. She paid, and we went off to finish our market business
When we got home, she prepared it and said that it made a nice pumpkin risotto. We spent the rest of the day in her kitchen, catching up with each other’s lives, and cooking. By dinner time, we had consumed rather a lot of wine and completely forgot to make the risotto di zucca; but it mattered not. She saved me the seeds, which I dried on a bit of kitchen roll, and I will plant them this summer.
When I got home, I looked up invernale and found that it means ‘of the winter’. And now that I think about it, zuccini is what the Italians call courgettes, meaning ‘little zucca’. It all starts to make sense! I think ‘long winter pumpkin’ would be a fair translation.
As an allotmenteer, I love the different sizes and shapes of pumpkins. This year I grew Crown Prince. (See below: they are ripening in my sun porch, so handsome. I am puffed up with pride.)
So why won’t I be gowing the Princes, or their gnarlier cousins, again this summer? I could be seduced by their names alone: Turks Cap, Lakota, Black Futsu, Rouge Vif d’Etampes, Kabocha – and their flavours are said to have both depth and sweetness. The answer is: because they are bloody difficult to cut. As a cook, I value my fingers. The combination of round, ribbed shape, cumbersome weight and thick, tough carapace can be lethal when trying to cut into manageable pieces.
Which is why I’m going to try the zucca invernale: you just cut off a section: easy. And, it will remind me of my friend in Italy.
I will let you know how I get on, when the Wheel of the Year has tilted.
Yacon is one of the ‘lost crop of the Incas’. How intriguing is that?
I recently met a young woman from Colombia on a flight to Italy. We had a surprisingly effective conversation, considering that she couldn’t speak English, and I can only bumble along in Spanish. She was from Medellin, where food is bland and fried, but enlivened by abundant tropical fruit. I told her about my grandmother, Clotilde Narvais who came from Trujillo in Peru. Warming to my subject, I showed her the photos of my yacon plants, grown on my allotment in Derby. She examined them politely: she had clearly never heard of the stuff. Sensing my disappointment, she kindly observed that there were many different root crops (“racinas”) of the Andes, unknown in the West.
Which brings me back to the ‘lost crop of the Incas’.
Yacon is a tuber, rather like a small sweet potato in shape, which you peel and chop. It is juicy, crunchy and tastes a bit like pears, so is perfect for winter salads. And if you store it for a couple of weeks, the natural sugars become more concentrated, and it tastes sweeter.
As it was an unknown vegetable to me, I ad-libbed this salad with yacon, chopped green onion, coriander leaves, chopped green chilli, pomegranate seeds and a handful of currants, dressed with lime juice and salt. The yacon was a calm, pure background to the other more fiesty flavours.
I originally picked up some yacon tubers at Pennard Plants , a plant nursery based in the west country, specialising in unusual edible plants and heritage seeds. You may like to check them out.
I planted the tubers, which grew into large plants with huge, soft, felty leaves. I let them grow on, pretty much ignoring them, until the first proper frost killed the leaves, and that’s the signal to dig up the tubers.
Once dug up, you carefully separate the tubers from the crowns. The tubers you wash and keep for food. They store well in a cool dark place, providing you with the basis for winter salads. Keep the crowns in dry compost, (rather like you might keep dahlia tubers) in a cool, frost free place to overwinter.
Then in the spring, bring them into the light and give them some water. Once they have sprouted, you can plant them up in a pot, but remember they are tender, so grow them on in a frost free place. When all danger of frost is past, plant them out in the sun and voila! you have new plants.
Yacon plant, a native of Peru
If you grow your own veg, I would recommend this plant. It’s easy to grow, requires no pampering and slugs are not interested.
And here’s a request. If you come from Peru, or have eaten yacon before, would you kindly tell me if there are other ways to prepare it?
Today is the 9th day of Christmas and ’tis still the season to be jolly.
It has been an eventful time. My true love and I have celebrated our 26th wedding anniversary, and I like to think of us as a pair of carthorses pulling the Waggon of Marriage up the Steep Hill of Compromise.
Time to lighten up a bit? Then let me say that this year Christmas has been an enjoyable time, where friends and family have been embraced and an unashamed amount of food and alcohol has been consumed.* The photo above shows the window of my front room, with lights and gingerbread stars, and is part of Advent Windows, organised by my local community group, Six Streets. (If you live in north Derby, you may like to have a look at what’s going on in the area http://sixstreetsderby.org.uk)
Yule was celebrated long ago by the people of the northern world, with mid-winter fires to lighten the darkness, much ale, roast hog and who knows what else besides. For those who are curious about such things, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (in the excellent translation by Simon Armitage) and The Hogfather by Terry Pratchett, master of imaginative magic, capture the spirit of Yule.
*Note the crafty use of the passive voice!
And now to help you inch towards a healthier January, yet to cunningly use up all that cheese, here is a recipe for …
CAULIFLOWER & CHEESE SOUP
Garlic 1 clove
Cauliflower 1 (mine was old and had been lurking in the shed for 10 days)
Bay leaves 2
Oil for frying 1 TB
Marigold stock powder 1 tsp
Cheese 50g or there abouts (blue cheese is good, but any cheese will do)
Freshly grated nutmeg and black pepper
Salt to taste
Peel and chop the onions roughly. Ditto the garlic.
Trim and chop the cauli roughly – you can use the stronk and any good leaves.
Heat the oil in a large pan and gently fry the veg.
Add enough water to cover and bring to the boil. Add the stock powder and the bay leaves. Simmer for 30 minutes until tender.
Remove the bay leaves. Liquidise the soup with a hand-held blender.
Grate or crumble the cheese into the hot soup and simmer till it has melted. Taste: it may or may not need salt, depending on how salty the cheese is.
Ladle into bowls. Grate some nutmeg and grind some black pepper over the surface.
Egregious: now there’s a word I don’t get to use very often.
I finally harvested my Borlottis a few weeks ago, after stormy winds blew all the leaves off the bean stalks. I’ve podded them and dried them now, and I’m keeping them to eat when the weather turns colder and darker.
Some might say it would be much easier just to open a tin of borlotti beans and some would probably be right. But growing them has made me realise their value: the time, the rain, the soil, the sun, the plant itself, and my work have all conspired to make this harvest of beans.
I realise more clearly, that borlotti beans, so readily available in the supermarket, take much time and effort to grow.
We come by our food so easily, yet waste it so egregiously.
Some of us will remember Toyah, the stomping 80’s maenad with Day Glo orange hair, whose song ‘It’s a mystery’ used to keep me up at night wondering exactly what was a mystery.
These days, quandries like that no longer trouble me. However, every now and again, I do come across a proper mystery, and then Toyah’s immortal words spring to mind. The one currently preoccupying me is this: you know those celophane discs that go over the top of home made jars of jam or chutney? Well, are they there for any purpose?
I use recycled jam jars, with well fitting lids. As far as the waxed discs go, I get it: they clearly exist to seal down the jam or chutney. But then I religiously put the dampened celophane disk over the top, secured with the rubber band. It dries pleasingly taut, and then when it’s cool I put the lid of the jar over the top. I do this every year but I have no idea why.
Is there a reason, or is it just part of the mystique of jam making?
And if I stopped doing it, would the Order of the Universe be disturbed?
I inherited a neglected old apple tree when I took over my allotment. It was festooned in brambles and the branches were all criss-crossed.
As I stood there thinking about how I might tackle it, Irish Mick (as he was known) from the next allotment strolled over to look at it with me. “Don’t be cutting that tree down, whatever you do. Them apples make great pies.”
Bearing his advice in mind, I cleared the brambles and watched the tree with interest. Mid October came. The apples were ready for picking, and Irish Mick was right. They were excellent apples, long and green, with pronounced ribs, unlike any I’d seen before. When they were all picked, I gave Mick a box , and he gave me a bag of brown onions. Sadly, he died suddenly last spring, but I think of him at apple picking time.
The variety by the way, is Lord Derby.
Should you wish to identify your apples, I can highly recommend ‘The Apple Book’ by Rosie Saunders published by the Royal Horticultural Society.
And here is a recipe for Upside Down Apple Cake
UPSIDE DOWN APPLE CAKE
Butter – 40g
Soft brown sugar – 50g
Eating apples – 4
Butter – 100g
Sugar – 100g
Eggs – 2 large
Self raising flour – 100g
Heat oven to 180C, 350F or Gas Mark 4.
Grease an 18cm round cake tin.
Peel, core and slice the apples.
Heat the butter in a frying pan. When it’s melted, add the brown sugar and cook over a gentle heat for a few moments. Add the apples and stir gently till they’re all covered. Cook for about 5 minutes over a gentle heat.
While the apples are cooking, make the cake.
Cream the the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
Beat in the eggs one at a time, adding a little flour with each.
Gently fold in the remaining flour.
Put the apples and syrupy juices into the cake tin. Spoon the cake mixture on top.
Bake for about 40 – 45 minutes.
When done, remove from the oven and allow to cool for about 10 minutes. Then carefully invert it onto a serving plate.
You can either eat it warm, or let it cool completely: either way it’s delicious. Enjoy!