The return of the pole dancing squirrel

This morning was the second time I’ve seen a squirrel on the balcony this year. I found him (her? it?) snaffling the food from the bird feeders, brazen as you like. Even a withering look from a nearby pigeon didn’t put him off. I’d be angry, but look at his little face…

This picture reminds me of how I feel when I go running- leaning on a lamp post, out of breath.

The aforementioned squirrel/ pigeon stand off. The picture was taken through a (dirty) window so is a bit rubbish.

Squirrel fact of the day:

Squirrels do actually make noises. I only found this out about a week ago when I was woken early in the morning by a weird sound coming from outside the bedroom window. My bird watching instincts/ nosey neighbour tendencies compelled me to look to see what the racket was. It turned out it was a squirrel in the tree outside, making a bizarre noise which can only be described as a kind of ‘squawk’. And here endeth today’s squirrel tutorial.

Bank Holiday blowout food

This weekend was the last Bank Holiday weekend before Christmas, and I managed to wangle a shift off from work to enable me to enjoy the whole three days off. In classic British Bank Holiday fashion, the weather forecast was for rain all weekend. “There goes my nice long bike ride in the sun,” I thought. However, yesterday was lovely and sunny and while we didn’t cycle the longer route I’d originally planned, we did have a nice cycle around the park in the sunshine (sitting down to enjoy a cheeky Calippo under a tree along the way). As I’d thought the weather was going to be rubbish all weekend, I was feeling a bit indulgent and planned a menu of tasty treats for our three days off together.

We started off on Saturday with a nice lay in (interrupted by needing to answer the door, bleary eyed and Russell Brand-haired, to the postman to take delivery of some packages from Amazon). We then enjoyed a pot of coffee and some pain au chocolat while still in our dressing gowns, watching re-runs of Time Team on the telly. Lovely. I won’t bore you with this level of detail about the rest of the weekend but it’s worth mentioning how much I appreciate not having to set an alarm and having a home filled with the smell of fresh coffee first thing in the morning.

I decided to make cream teas on Saturday, the original plan being to cycle to the park and enjoy them in the sun. As it was pissing down with rain, we enjoyed them in the comfort of our own home instead. The scone recipe I used was this one (don’t do what I did and absent-mindedly use plain flour instead of self-raising- I had to chuck out the first batch and start again when I realised they weren’t rising in the oven). We had our usual debate about whether to put the jam on first or the clotted cream- I always put my cream on first with the strawberry jam on top because I think it’s more aesthetically pleasing (which is the Devon way of doing it). However, Owen spent a large portion of his childhood and teens in Cornwall, and he and his mum will argue until they’re blue in the face that the Cornish way (jam first, cream on top) is the only correct way to serve a cream tea.

Cream teas (the Devon way). I got a bit carried away and decided to put them on my extra chintzy bone china plates.

Yesterday’s breakfast was pancakes with bacon and maple syrup- one of my favourite weekend breakfasts when I can be bothered to make it. I use the following ingredients for the two of us, adjusted from this Jamie Oliver recipe.

  • 2 eggs
  • 80g plain flour
  • 95ml milk
  • Half a teaspoon of baking powder
  • Pinch of salt

Breakfast pancakes with bacon and maple syrup.

Owen did a roast for dinner last night. I’m not very good at roasts, but I do always contribute by making the stuffing balls (chopped onion, grated apple, sage and breadcrumbs bound with an egg) and Yorkshire puds. A roast is one of those meals, like a full English breakfast, which always tastes that much better when someone else cooks it for you. Owen happens to be very good at making a roast dinner (his roast potatoes in particular are excellent), which works out well for me…

Owen’s yummy roast potatoes.

I made tomato soup for lunch today using this Felicity Cloake recipe (which is my standard ‘go to’ tomato soup recipe- the balsamic vinegar lifts the flavours perfectly). I quite often make soup for lunch on a weekend, especially if the weather’s a bit miserable- I find it quite comforting with a nice bit of crusty bread for dippage.

I couldn’t resist taking a picture of these before they went in the oven- I just thought they looked pretty…

Tomato soup

One of the aforementioned Amazon deliveries was Lorraine Pascale’s latest book, which provided the inspiration for tonight’s dinner- prawn linguine with chorizo and cabernet tomato sauce (the recipe wasn’t on her usual BBC page so the link is to the Mail Online- sorry about that). The only adjustments I made were to use one tin of tomatoes instead of two and enough linguine for two people instead of four. There are loads of recipes in this book that I want to try, so you’ll no doubt be hearing more about them soon…

Lorraine Pascale’s prawn linguine with chorizo and cabernet tomato sauce

So, we’re back to work tomorrow. After all this culinary naughtiness (I’ve not even mentioned the Tesco’s jumbo chocolate croissants and copious amounts of beer and wine we washed everything down with until now), I think I’ll need to get on the exercise bike and cook a few healthy meals this week to restore the balance…

The Vegetable Fairy

I used to work with a woman called Di who had an (amazing) allotment, the spoils from which she used to share with all of her colleagues, including me. I actually have her to thank for inspiring me into and guiding me through my first forays into preserving. Di retired a little while ago (lucky her) but still pops in to my work from time to time to say hi. I went into work the other day to be greeted by a selection of veg on my desk- a bag of dwarf beans, a bag of runner beans and a pattypan squash. I recognised this immediately as Di’s own unique calling card (which I suppose makes her a bit like The Joker, but with veg. And with slightly less sinister overtones.)

I’ve never eaten pattypan squash before, so I did a bit of Googling and also asked Di if she had any recipe suggestions. She said I could treat it in the same way I would a courgette, so I ended up roasting it with some other veg (red pepper, red onion, a bit of carrot I had left in my fridge and a few garlic cloves- all sprinkled with fennel seeds, oregano, salt and pepper and drizzled with oil) and adding it to a bulgar wheat salad (cooked bulgar wheat with some added chopped spring onions and finely chopped preserved lemon). I griddled some halloumi to have with it as well:

Ready to go in the oven (gas mark 5 for about 45 minutes).

Bulgar wheat with roasted veg and griddled halloumi.

I usually add chopped fresh mint to a bulgar wheat salad, especially if we’re having halloumi with it, but I didn’t have any left on the balcony garden. Fresh chilli is nice in this as well, but I left it out on this occasion.

As for the other veg- I used some of the dwarf beans in a stir fry and the rest are going in a risotto tomorrow. I’m planning on having the runner beans with a roast over the coming weekend.

Thanks, Di!

Owen’s verdict on pattypan squash

Owen insisted on referring to the pattypan as a ‘pontipine’, which, in case you didn’t know, is a type of creature from In the Night Garden. (I’m not really sure how we even know what they are, considering we don’t have any children.)

He also commented during dinner that he kept imagining the chunks of pattypan were chunks of lemon, and got a bit worried about eating a big mouthful of lemon. He did say it was tasty though, so there you have it. Spoken like a professional food critic.

Growing lemongrass and tamarind

A quick Google search will give lots of ‘how to’ guides on growing your own lemongrass plant, so I won’t go into masses of detail here. Basically you just get a stalk of lemongrass, put it in water until it’s grown roots about an inch long, plant it in a pot and leave it in a sunny place to carry on growing. I did this a while ago and I now have a lemongrass plant with three stalks. It was getting a bit pot bound so I’ve potted it up today in the hope it may sprout some more stalks- I’m a bit reluctant to cut any off to use in cooking until there are more of them!

The pictures are a bit crap, but you get the idea:

Now I’ve potted it up, this plant doesn’t fit on the sunniest of my windowsills anymore, so I’ve had to move it to a slightly shadier spot. I’ve put it in a miniature greenhouse where I’ll keep it misted to try to replicate the humidity of its natural habitat and we’ll see how it goes.

Some time ago, I also managed to germinate some tamarind seeds from shop-bought tamarind pulp, and I now have two tamarind plants. I’m not expecting them to grow much bigger, but I’m glad they’ve made it this far. I also like the way their leaves fold together at night:

It seems quite apt to be writing about tropical plants when we’ve enjoyed the hottest days of the year so far this weekend (a sweltering, clammy 32⁰C). However, the chilly UK winter will soon be on its way and my lemongrass and tamarind will no doubt be shivering in their pots, clutching a mug of tea and a hot water bottle. In the meantime, I’ll keep slapping on the factor 50 sun cream and will try to squeeze in as much beer gardening as possible while I still can.

Generic apple and sultana chutney

It feels a bit early to be making chutney- it’s usually more of an autumnal activity. However, I was visiting my dad recently and couldn’t resist scrumping a basket of apples from the two trees in his garden, which are already laden with fruit. The apples aren’t sweet enough to eat as they are, so I thought I’d make a batch of chutney.

If you’re just beginning to dabble in the world of preserving, chutney is a good place to start as there’s not much exact science involved- you just chuck everything in a pan and cook it until it looks ready. You don’t need to worry about jam thermometers and checking for setting points or straining jellies through bags for days on end. It has what an ex-colleague of mine would call “A very low fuck up potential”. The most faff that’s involved is preparing the jars- scrubbing labels off and sterilizing them (more on which later). The preparation of the apples admittedly did also take a bit of time, as I had to peel, core and chop lots of very small apples. However, you could always rope in an extra person to help out with this or get one of those gadgets that peels and cores apples (which, as I was preparing these apples, I did consider scurrying off to Amazon to purchase). Having your headphones in also helps- incidentally it turns out that ‘Blue Monday’ by New Order is an excellent accompaniment to chutney making.

This recipe was mostly made up as I went along- I had a basic idea of what I was going for and just sort of added ingredients and spices as I went, tasting it and adjusting accordingly. As I was adding the spices, I realised the chutney had taken a slightly festive direction, which inspired me to add a dash of rum in a moment of Christmassy cheer. It probably wasn’t necessary though. In my enthusiasm, I also forgot to weigh the apples before I prepared them, so the weight is an approximation. To give you an idea, I used all the apples in the basket pictured above. I guess all this further illustrates my point that chutney isn’t an exact science and is very difficult to balls up.

Ingredients

(This made five and a half jars)

  • About 2kg apples- peeled, cored and chopped into 1cm ish cubes
  • 3 onions, chopped
  • 3 or 4 handfuls of sultanas
  • 120g fresh ginger, peeled and grated
  • 400g sugar (I used caster sugar but you could substitute some of the sugar with dark muscovado for an extra hint of Christmas)
  • 400ml cider vinegar
  • A tablespoon of ground ginger
  • A tablespoon of ground cinnamon
  • A tablespoon  of mixed spice
  • A teaspoon of grated nutmeg
  • A dash of dark rum (optional)

Add all the ingredients to a large pan. Bring to the boil and then simmer (stirring regularly) for 45 minutes to an hour, or until the chutney is thick and syrupy. Turn off the heat and ladle into hot, sterilized jars using a jam funnel* and seal (I use cellophane held in place with an elastic band and then put the lid of the jar on over the top).

Leave to mature for a few weeks before using/ palming off on friends, relatives and colleagues.

*Which in this case I had to wrestle off my boyfriend, who was wearing it on his head in an attempt to impersonate the tin man from The Wizard of Oz. Very helpful.

A note about preparing jars and sterilizing equipment

Preparing jars is my least favourite part of making preserves, especially getting the old labels off. Sometimes, soaking the jars in hot soapy water is enough and the labels easily slide off. Failing this, a good scrub with a nail brush used specifically for this job often works. However, you inevitably end up with a few jars still covered in infuriating sticky label residue. I’ve used both Goo Gone and Sticky Stuff Remover, and I have to say that Goo Gone is the most effective of the two in getting rid of even the most stubborn residues. It’s a good idea to have a stash of jars which have already been de-labelled to save messing about when you’ve got a cauldron of jam/ chutney/ jelly on the go.

Once you’ve got your labels off, you need to give the jars a good thorough scrub in hot, soapy water. To sterilize them, I immerse them in Milton for 20 minutes, then put them in the oven on the lowest possible setting for at least 30 minutes. Don’t forget to sterilize the lids as well.

Most decent books about preserving will give a variety of methods for sterilizing jars, so it’s just a case of finding out what is easiest for you. Apparently you can use a microwave to sterilize jars as well, but I don’t have one so this isn’t an option for me. It’s also important to sterilize your ladles and jam funnel, which I do using boiling water.

Lorraine Pascale’s tin foil Thai salmon and the post-Olympic comedown

Owen and I are two of the least ‘sporty’ people you’ll ever meet, but we still spent two weeks watching almost nothing but sport on telly during the Olympics, wondering what we’d do when it was all over. We took the “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” approach and couldn’t help but get sucked in. I cried actual tears along with Jessica Ennis when she was presented with her gold medal (although admittedly I had had a few beers), and found myself on the edge of my seat, shouting at the telly and cheering on Team GB on countless occasions. When the closing ceremony arrived, everybody thought: “What the hell are we supposed to do now?”

So it was on Monday night, as I sat watching Lorraine Pascale’s latest cookery programme while Owen registered his disinterest by tinkering on the computer, that I realised everything is already back to normal. I’m absorbed by food programmes on the telly while Owen rolls his eyes and skulks off to do something else. The balance is restored.

Anyway, this rather long preamble brings me to this recipe, which is from Lorraine Pascale’s new TV programme and book. It’s a nice, simple, fish-in-a-foil-parcel affair, and it’s tasty too. I used salmon instead of trout and cooked my fish parcels for 20 minutes instead of 12 as my oven is a bit rubbish. I also served it with wholegrain rice and broccoli instead of the suggested noodles, because we’re big lovers of broccoli in this household and wholegrain rice goes nicely with salmon.

Goldfinches and other second broods

Our balcony garden has been visited by goldfinches on and off since the spring, but recently their numbers seem to have increased along with the frequency of their visits. Almost every time I glance out of the window, there seems to be at least one out there on the feeders. Sometimes we get about ten of them at once (which doesn’t sound like a lot to some people, but it’s a lot of birds for my tiny balcony!)

I think many birds have recently had a second brood of chicks, as I’ve suddenly started seeing juvenile goldfinches and greenfinches again and my dad has a dunnock nest in his garden containing at least one chick. It’s nice to see one last surge of new life- it’ll be autumn before we know it!

Adult and juvenile goldfinch.

Dunnock nest.