Hot lemon, ginger and chilli drink for when you’ve got the lurg

I’ve just got back from holiday (more on which later), hence the lack of blog posts over the last week or so. For most of our time away, Owen and I had rotten colds which are still refusing to budge. So, one of the first things I did when we got home was to make a batch of this drink in the hope it’ll sort us out.

I’ve been making this for years and the recipe has gradually evolved over time (not that it’s terribly complicated). I can’t make any scientific claims to this potion’s medicinal properties, but it always seems to help clear my chest, throat and head and make me feel better. I automatically make it every time I’ve got a cold- it’s especially helpful in getting me through work (transported in a Thermos) when I’m feeling snuffly. Imagine, if you will, me sitting at my desk, surrounded by a fug of lemon and ginger aroma and a scattering of snotty tissues, while my colleagues look on with disgust as I cough and splutter my way through the day. Sexy.

Ingredients:

  • 4-6 lemons
  • A medium sized hand of root ginger
  • 2 red chillies
  • A stick of cinnamon
  • A few star anise
  • Sugar (white, brown, whatever)
  • Manuka honey

Start with a big pot. A stock pot of some sort would be ideal- I use a big oval cast iron one. You’ll need to put lots of water in this. I have two fridge jugs- one big, one small, that I fill with water and pour in, as then I know the mixture will be the right amount to fill them and store in the fridge. If you need an exact amount, this is about three litres, but you can make slightly more or less according to your own fridge storage receptacles.

Once you’ve got the water in the pot, put it on to boil while you zest the lemons. Add the zest to the water, then cut the lemons in half and squeeze the juice straight into the pot. Then chop the remaining lemon bits up a bit more and throw those in the pot as well.

Next, grate the ginger and add to the pot. I don’t bother peeling the ginger for this, as it’s all going to be sieved at the end anyway.

Halve and de-seed the chillies and add those to the mixture. I tried this without de-seeding once and it found the heat a bit too overpowering, but leave the seeds in if that’s your thing.

Break up the cinnamon stick and chuck that in along with the star anise. Once everything’s boiling nicely, give it a good stir, put the lid on (if you have one), turn the heat down and simmer for a while. There isn’t an exact timing to this- I usually just leave it there while I get on with other stuff, like washing up all the bits from its preparation. When it’s been simmered for a while, add some sugar until the edge is taken off the sharp sourness, but it isn’t too sweet (as you’re going to add honey later).

When it’s cooled, sieve the mixture (I usually do this in batches into a large Pyrex jug) and decant into your chosen jugs/ bottles to be stored in the fridge. When you want to drink it, heat up enough in a pan or microwave to fill a mug, and stir in some manuka honey to sweeten. As manuka honey is ridiculously expensive, I sometimes use eucalyptus honey instead if I’m feeling skint. Any other honey would also be just as nice, I’m sure.

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Operation Lunchbox: Mini baked falafels with cucumber and mint raita

Now, I enjoy a cheese and pickle sandwich as much as the next person, but when you end up eating them ALL THE BLOODY TIME for lunch, they get a bit boring. This is why, every now and again, I decide that Owen and I are stuck in a ‘lunch rut’ and vow to make more interesting things to take to work for lunch. We also happen to be on a bit of a health kick at the moment (contrary to what some of my posts may lead you to believe), so I’ve been thinking of wholesome, healthy things to eat at lunch time to get us through the working day. We do often use up dinner leftovers for lunches, which is nice, but is dependent on what we’ve had the night before and whether there’s any left (which there usually isn’t). I’m not planning on creating any of those bento box masterpieces you see lots of on the internet, I just want something decent to eat in the middle of the day that’s easy to make.

So, I was really pleased with myself when I had an idea for mini baked falafels. I then Googled ‘mini baked falafel’ and realised that lots of people had unsurprisingly already thought of this before me. I still thought they would make a good packed lunch though, and my own recipe for them is below. I did wonder whether these would need an egg or something to bind them together, but they came out okay and didn’t fall apart. They weren’t too ‘mealy’ either, despite being baked rather than fried.

For the falafels:

Ingredients

  • A 400g tin of chickpeas
  • A small red onion (or half a large one), peeled and roughly chopped into chunks
  • 2 cloves of garlic, peeled
  • A red chilli, halved and de-seeded
  • A tablespoonful of cumin seeds
  • A heaped teaspoonful of ground coriander
  • A third of a bunch of fresh mint, any large stalks or dodgy leaves removed
  • Olive oil

Put the onion, garlic and chilli in a food processor and whizz until finely chopped. Scrape this mixture out into a pan and add a bit of oil and the cumin seeds. Fry until the onion is translucent and the other ingredients are nice and fragrant. Set aside to cool a bit.

Drain and rinse the chickpeas and drain thoroughly again. Add them along with the fresh mint into the food processor and whizz until everything is an even crumbly consistency. Scrape the chickpea mixture out into a bowl and add the onion mixture from earlier. Add the ground coriander and season with salt and pepper. Add enough olive oil to bind the mixture together well and use clean hands to squelch everything together until it’s thoroughly mixed.

Use a pastry brush to lightly oil a baking sheet. Roll the mixture into balls measuring about an inch across and place them on the baking sheet. This mixture should make about twenty mini falafels.

Bake them in the oven at gas mark 5 for about 45 minutes, or until they are nicely crispy on the outside without being burned.

Before they went in the oven.

Cucumber and mint raita

Ingredients

  • About two inches of cucumber, halved with the watery seeds scraped out and discarded
  • A third of a bunch of fresh mint, any large stalks or dodgy leaves removed
  • A clove of garlic, peeled
  • Greek yoghurt

Put the cucumber, mint and garlic in a container- I use a blender stick/ wand thing to make this and it comes with its own plastic beaker, but any container with a flat bottom would be fine. Add a couple of tablespoons of yoghurt and whizz until blended. Keep adding yoghurt until you reach your desired consistency. You can obviously adjust the amounts of ingredients depending on how strong you want the flavour and how much you want to make. That one raw garlic clove goes a long way though- unless you want to be breathing garlic all over your co-workers then you might not want to add much more than that.

If you don’t have a blender wand, you could use a food processor or just grate the cucumber and finely chop the mint and garlic.

This keeps in the fridge for a couple of days.

We had the falafel and dip in our lunchboxes with some bulgar wheat salad. As all the mint on my balcony garden has died, I had to buy fresh mint especially for this, but I didn’t mind too much as it got used in the falafel, raita and bulgar wheat salad so there was no waste. I think coriander would make a good substitute for the mint, so I might give that a go too.

Preserved lemons

I’ve never actually bought ready-preserved lemons, as I decided to try making them myself once and realised how easy it was. Whenever I’m running low, I just do another jar of them so that they’re ready by the time I get round to needing them.

I usually either use these in tagines or chopped up into ‘grainy’ salads (for example those involving bulgar wheat, cous cous or pearl barley). They have a lovely salty, tangy taste.

To prepare them once they’re preserved, scrape the flesh from the peel with a teaspoon and discard. Rinse the peel thoroughly before chopping and adding to your chosen dish.

Ingredients

  • Unwaxed lemons
  • Coarse sea salt
  • Bay leaves
  • Cinnamon sticks
  • Mixed peppercorns

Start by choosing your jars. It’s best to use jars with no metal in the lids or attachments as the salt water will corrode them. Kilner-type jars are therefore not a good idea (trust me on this one- I preserved lemons in a Kilner jar once and the salt water residue corroded the metal lever closure until it just pinged off in the fridge one day). You want the jars to be large-ish, but also small enough to comfortably fit in your fridge as you’ll need to keep the lemons in there once you open them. I usually use 100g size coffee jars with plastic lids.

Sterilize one or two of your chosen jars, using your preferred method. (This article gives more details on sterilizing stuff.) Meanwhile, fill a large jug with boiling water and leave to cool. Tip a reasonable amount of sea salt into a bowl.

Once you’ve got your nice, hot, sterilized jar(s) and your boiled and cooled water, it’s basically just an assembly job:

Cut your lemons in half lengthways, then almost quarter them lengthways but leave them attached at the bottom. Open the cut in the halved lemon and generously pack it with sea salt. Sprinkle some sea salt in the bottom of the jar, then add your halved lemon, squishing it down into the jar. Repeat this process, packing the halved lemons tightly down into the jar and adding bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, peppercorns and more sea salt in among the lemons. If your jar’s a bit bigger, you can leave the lemons whole and cut a cross lengthways almost to the base, packing the lemons with salt as before. Try to squeeze as many lemons into your jar as you can.

Once your jar is full to the top, sprinkle on some more sea salt and pour the boiled and cooled water into the jar right to the top. Cover with cellophane and a rubber band and then screw the lid on tightly. Invert the jar a few times to distribute the salt and leave in a cool, dry cupboard for at least a few weeks before eating. Invert the jar every now and again to re-distribute the salt. Once opened, keep in the fridge.

Lavender ice cream

A few months ago, I impulse-purchased an ice cream machine (as if there’s any other way to buy an ice cream machine). It wasn’t an impulse purchase in the sense that I just decided to buy it on the spot, but more that I managed to convince myself over the course of about five days that this was something I needed in my life and, after looking at lots of online reviews, finally bought one on Amazon. Sadly, I’ve only actually used it once up until now (to make lemon and elderflower sorbet).

I think the idea when you own an ice cream machine is to try out lots of weird and wonderful flavours because, let’s face it, if you want vanilla or mint choc chip then you may as well nip to Sainsbury’s and buy a decent tub of it instead of faffing around waiting for it to churn at home. With this in mind, I borrowed this book from the library the other day:

This is the official book released by The Icecreamists, who sell ice cream from their base in Covent Garden. They’re the ones who ‘controversially’ sold breast milk ice cream under the name of ‘Baby Gaga’ and incurred the wrath of Lady Gaga as a result. (Personally, I’d have called it ‘Simply the Breast’, but I suppose that would risk pissing off Tina Turner and nobody needs that kind of hassle.)

This book is worth getting your hands on even if it’s just for the photography alone- it’s like ice cream porn. It’s also got lots of interesting ideas for flavours with catchy names such as ‘Doughnut Stop Believin’ (jammy doughnut), Glastonberry (seasonal berries) and ‘Lenin and Lime’ (gin and tonic). I chose to try their lavender ice cream first as I’ve wanted to make lavender ice cream for a while. We also happen to have a lavender farm in Kent called Castle Farm, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to use some local produce and support a local business. They have an online shop as well as a farm shop, and I ordered some lavender essence as well as some nice ‘sleepy’ lavender tea. I would have bought the lavender honey from here as well, but they only sell it in the actual farm shop and I haven’t had chance to visit in person yet- I may wait until next summer and do a proper tour of the farm (which I know sounds really boring to most people but I love a bit of that kind of thing). Besides, I can get lavender honey in Sainsbury’s so it’s not the end of the world. The Sainsbury’s lavender honey comes from Spain though, so there goes any sense of smugness I originally had about buying local. Also, my desire to make my ice cream look all posh and inviting in the photos led me to buy some culinary lavender to scatter over the top of it. While this came from a local health food shop, the lavender itself came from the Cotswolds, so again, not as locally sourced as it could be. Never mind…

So here’s the recipe, adapted slightly from the one in The Icecreamists’ book:

Ingredients

  • 250ml full fat milk (And I definitely mean full fat)
  • 125ml double cream
  • 2 egg yolks, from fresh, free range eggs (you can freeze the whites to be used in something else)
  • 88g caster sugar
  • Four drops of lavender essence
  • 1 tablespoonful of lavender honey
  • Purple food colouring (optional- I didn’t bother)

Put the milk and cream in a pan and heat very gently on a low heat until it’s just starting to steam, but not boil. Take off the heat and set aside.

In a bowl, beat the egg yolks and sugar together until they’re pale and fluffy. Very gradually add the warm cream/ milk mixture, whisking as constantly as you can to stop the eggs scrambling. I’d say it would be best to make sure your eggs are at room temperature before you start, but mine came straight from the fridge on this occasion and they were okay. Perhaps I was just lucky though.

Add the mixture back to the pan and put on a low heat again (without allowing it to boil). Add the lavender essence, honey and food colouring (if using) and stir until dissolved. I found that where I’d been whisking the mixture, it had frothed up on the top a bit. I’m not sure how to avoid this, but I skimmed the froth off with a spoon and carried on from there. Once you’ve turned off the heat, put the mixture in a bowl and cover with cling film. When the mixture has cooled sufficiently, put it in the fridge until thoroughly chilled.

When your mixture is chilled, put it in your ice cream maker and churn according to the instructions. I have one of these Kenwood ones and I keep the bowl in the freezer so it’s ready whenever I want to make ice cream (which I’ve promised myself I will do more often). This ice cream took about 25-30 minutes to churn. If you don’t have an ice cream machine, put the mixture in a tub and freeze. About once an hour or so, churn the mixture with a spatula to remove any ice crystals.

Once the ice cream is looking smooth and ice cream-y and looks like it has increased in size, scrape it into a tub with a lid and pop it in the freezer for a few hours. Take it out of the freezer a few minutes before you want to serve it so that it’s a good scooping consistency. Decorate with lavender flowers if you’re that way inclined (I was).

The verdict

I was actually really pleased with how this turned out. I was a bit concerned that I’d end up with something that either tasted like the inside of an old lady’s knicker drawer or of nothing at all. However, the four drops of lavender essence and spoonful of honey seemed to give just the right hint of lavender flavour without being overwhelming. This was nice as it was, but I think it would also be nice with some lavender honey or melted dark bitter chocolate drizzled over it.

The Maidstone Mela 2012

The weather has been fabulous this weekend and we made the most of it by going to the Maidstone Mela, which is held in Mote Park in Maidstone one weekend a year in September. We’ve been to the Mela on and off for the last few years (we don’t always get to go because of holidays or rubbish weather) and had a lovely afternoon there today.

Apparently ‘Mela’ is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘gathering’ or ‘to meet’, and that’s exactly what it is- an event celebrating music, dance, food, local business, local produce and multiculturalism. There was a stage with an itinerary which included performances by local dance schools, a steel drum band and a choir from St Petersburg. There were also stalls representing lots of local businesses and organisations.

I did take my camera, but rather foolishly hardly took any pictures, hence the lack of photographic illustration here. I think I probably just got side tracked by the food, which I did actually take some pictures of. Some of the food we had included pakoras (which I love- I always end up eating too many of them) and some tasty chicken satay:

Not the best pakoras I’ve ever had, but tasty nonetheless.

Chicken satay

We also tried jalebi, which is a sweet treat made by deep frying a kind of batter in a squiggly shape. We weren’t really sure what they were (I had to Google them later to find out what they were made of), but were intrigued watching them being made and when someone we were with bought some we thought we’d give them a go. They were alright- they mainly just tasted of sugar. I don’t think I could have managed a whole one…

Jalebi, in all its shiny orange glory.

Beef Tagine

I’m not going to advertise this as any kind of ‘authentic’ tagine recipe (although I’m not sure what that might even be), nor is it cooked in a proper tagine pot (although it could be for anyone who has one). I’ve never even been to North Africa. It’s just my interpretation of a beef tagine that I cook fairly regularly in the slow cooker and it tastes good, which is what’s important. The slow cooker has the same effect as a tagine pot, cooking the meat slowly so that it’s nice and tender.

I don’t tend to add dried fruit to tagines because Owen has a weird thing about dried fruit in savoury food, but you could easily chuck some in to this recipe. Perhaps some dried apricots or figs or whatever you fancy.

Ingredients

  • 60g dried chickpeas
  • A level tablespoonful of caraway seeds
  • A level tablespoonful of cumin seeds
  • A level tablespoonful of coriander seeds
  • A teaspoon of ground coriander
  • A teaspoon of ground cumin
  • A teaspoon of ground ginger
  • A teaspoon of ground cinnamon
  • A teaspoon of paprika (not smoked)
  • 500g beef stewing steak, cut into chunks
  • A handful of flaked almonds
  • An onion, sliced into half moons
  • 1 or 2 red peppers, chopped into small chunks or strips
  • 2 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • Half a teaspoon of chilli flakes or a red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
  • A tablespoon of cornflour
  • A tin of chopped tomatoes
  • Half a large preserved lemon
  • A tablespoon of honey
  • A beef stock cube

Soak the chickpeas overnight or for at least 8 hours in plenty of water with a bit of bicarbonate of soda added to it.

Into a large, deep, dry frying pan, add the caraway, cumin and coriander seeds and toast on a medium heat until they start to become aromatic but without burning them. Add the seeds from the pan into a pestle and mortar and bash until they’re powdery and fragrant. Add the bashed seeds along with the ground coriander, cumin, ginger, cinnamon and paprika to a bowl with the beef chunks and rub with clean hands to coat the meat. Set this aside for a moment.

Add the flaked almonds to the dry pan and toast them on a medium heat until they start to colour, but again, don’t let them burn. When they’re nicely toasted, add them to the pestle and mortar and bash them gently to break them up a bit. Set aside.

Brown the spice rub-covered meat in batches in the dry pan and remove with a slotted spoon into a bowl.

Add a small glug of oil to the pan and fry the onion and peppers on a medium heat until the onion turns translucent. Add the garlic and chilli and fry for a couple of minutes more.

Add the cornflour and stir in until it’s coated in oil.

Add the tinned tomatoes (whizzing them first in a food processor if you like), then refill the tin a third full with water and swill around to get the remainder of the tomato-y goodness. Add this water to the pan as well.

Remove the flesh from the preserved lemon with a spoon and discard. Finely chop the remaining lemon peel and add to the pan.

Add the honey and crumble in the beef stock cube, and drain and add the chickpeas. Add the browned meat along with any juices.

Stir everything together before putting into the slow cooker and cooking on low for 6-8 hours. Serve with cous cous, and maybe sprinkle some more toasted almonds on top to finish.

Entropy and my balcony garden

In the TV programme Wonders of the Universe, Professor Brian Cox demonstrated how entropy works using a sandcastle in the Namib Desert. It’s all about the order of things and how everything eventually descends back into its chaotic natural state (or something- I don’t think my PHD is likely to arrive in the post any time soon). Anyway, this is basically what has happened to my balcony garden. Honestly- just look at the state of it:

The plants are neglected and dried up, there is bird food absolutely everywhere, the pigeons (and a squirrel) have knocked over pots of soil and it’s essentially just a mess. I know it’s nice to let nature take over but this is ridiculous.

So over the next few weeks I’m going to try to get it nice and clean and tidy ready for the Winter. I can then start planning what I’m going to plant in the Spring…