Friday, 29 May 2009

A Trip to Wales

Mother-in-law A&N moved to Wales a few years back. The lure of endless fresh air, a vegetable garden the size of most London flats, and plenty of large hills up which to hike and jog during dangerously inclement weather proved too much for her. She and her husband now live in a beautiful valley with their 4 ducks and the cows and sheep in the next field over singing them off to sleep.

The biggest shame about Wales (and the biggest factor in preserving its beauty) is that it can be mighty difficult to get to. A 60 mile as-the-crow-flies stretch of road can take two stomach churning hours of dipping up and down hills and rocking to and fro around endless bends in the road, often stopping or reversing since the road isn't wide enough to hold two cars at once. We haven't visited them in two years since the thought of taking the 5 hour trip when pregnant made me immediately queasy. Mr A&N last week found himself with a few days off between his freelance projects, so we packed up the c
ar and set off for a week's holiday at his mum's.

Being with baby doesn't make the traditional early morning hikes easy to negotiate, and Mr A&N was glad for the excuse to take it easy. We instead had gentle walks around ruined castles and several tours of the vegetable patch with Baby A&N taking delight in the ducks and the butterflies that stopped by the say hello. I came away from our castle trips with a build-your-own castle book that I'm trying my best not to rip into until Baby A&N is old enough to do it with me, even though I so desperately want to build a while medieval city on our dining table.

Our dining in Wales always takes place at home, with Mr A&N's mother picking things from the garden that are fresh and balancing them with meat or fish from her local farm shop. Ambling about in the same fields as your sheep and seeing them wandering in your church yards brings me closer to the reality of what I'm eating, so I appreciated the chance to buy some well reared meat from the source. Eating lamb these days does give me pangs, thinking that I'm tucking into some sheep's own Baby A&N. Thank goodness it's delicious enough to help me swallow down that guilt with a slight garlic aftertaste.

At the farm shop, the farmer explained (first in Welsh, then in English as I gave him polite but empty smiles) how he had some goat meat going cheap. He was given two goats, and while letting himself have a day to decide what to do with them (cheese? milk? sell them on? grow a herd?) they managed to eat through two water butts and some important wiring. And so goat was now being served up at the shop. Mr A&N's mother and I happily offered a home to the bargain meat, only scratching our heads on the way out over what to do with 2 racks of goat rib each. Eat them, is the short conclusion, but anything more than that and we're both stumped. Any suggestions, anyone?

Thursday, 21 May 2009


I hope you'll forgive this break in the normal recipe posting schedule in lieu of me talking a bit about Baby A&N. If you're of a delicate, non-baby disposition, do look away now (and return next week, please).

Rather than thinking of what to make for Mr A&N and myself this past week, my efforts have been concentrated on Baby A&N since we have begun feeding him solid foods. Hooray! He's a fair sized boy, in the 80-something percentile for weight and 90-something percentile for height, and has been jealously eyeing anything that went into anyone's mouth for several
weeks now. I didn't read any childcare books before Baby A&N was born since I didn't want to tie myself in knots about what I should or shouldn't do, but I felt that weaning did probably contain some shoulds and shouldn'ts and so I ought to look through a book or two before tackling solids.

But the books I looked through only confused me more, and didn't always help answer what I thought were basic questions (How much should I feed him? If he wants more solids, should I give it to him or should I guide him toward his milk? At what age should the solids replace the milk during particular feeds? How do I get him to enjoy food rather than just eat it?). So we've decided to invent our own weaning method. We're doing a bit of puree to sate his appetite and a bit of baby led weaning to help him start enjoying food (and we do our best not to panic if Baby A&N has a gagging moment while munching on his stick of cucumber/banana/broccoli). We're also trusting in Baby A&N's palate to guide us through his meals and aren't waiting to introduce strong flavors - anything goes and so far, so good. In one week, he's tackled:

  • Sweet potato
  • Butternut squash
  • Carrot
  • Broccoli
  • Cucumber
  • Mango
  • Banana
  • Apple
  • Potato
  • Beetroot
  • Pear
The only mildly unsuccessful taste so far has been the potato, but I'm sure he'll come around since I can't see him living a life without potato chips and french fries. And I'm sure I'll learn a bit more too - such as not feeding him beetroot just before heading out to meet people. "He looks like he slaughtered a cow with his face" commented Mr A&N on seeing the beetroot aftermath. True, but he wanted more - and in my book of weaning, that's a good thing.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Matina's Roasted Pork With Fennel Seeds and Lemon

Food has been a troublesome matter in the A&N household for the past two weeks. Mr A&N has been put on an exclusion diet by his Doctor to try to isolate what food (if any) causes him stomach pains. He's been plagued by trouble for years, so any possible easing of that pain would be worth the hassle in the mean time. But in the mean time, it's a hassle. Among the foods that he can't eat are:

  • Wheat
  • Eggs
  • Dairy
  • Potato
  • Corn
  • Citrus foods
  • Beef
  • Ham
  • Alcohol
  • Garlic
  • Onions
I've fielded more than one lunch-time call from him, desperately roaming the supermarket aisles for something to eat that isn't brimming over with banned substances. He's ableto reintroduce one food at a time starting from next week, and he stays awake at night thrilling over what to bring back first (wheat would let him have bread and pasta again, but my we have guests next week so perhaps bring alcohol in first...garlic and onions, though, are a staple for most other flavors, so maybe they should come before anything else...).

Going out to dinner would be difficult veering toward impossible, but luckily Baby A&N is an automatic restaurant eliminator so we don't have much to worry about. Going around to friend's houses for food is equally challenging, and filled with many apologies as we turn their menus into a pile of dust or try to postpone our get-together. Our ever-accommodating Greek friend, Matina, saw the challenge head on and produced the planned roast pork main course for us normal mortals along with an improvised grilled sardine course for Mr A&N containing nothing but approved ingredients and a bit of Greek magic.

Mr A&N cooed and ahh'd over the sardines which were full of the tastes of sea and sunshine that you would hope (I tasted, I can verify). But really, the action was where the pork was. Matina used fennel seeds and lemon to flavor the meat and the crackling, and it worked incredibly well. It worked so well that it sent me into a reverie of the different times I've eaten wonderful foods containing fennel seeds, and how I ought to pay the fennel more respect by using it more often. The slow-cooking treatment rendered the pork very soft and moist, and a bit of gravy on the side helped complete the desire to drown yourself in the flavors. A perfect Sunday lunch. Shame Mr A&N couldn't join in for now, but I'll make sure he adds this to his list of Food Deprivations - To Be Rectified for when the diet is done.

Matina's Roasted Pork With Fennel Seeds and Lemon
Good for 1 1/2 - 2 kg of pork shoulder or leg joint, preferably with skin on to make crackling

  • 3 tsp of fennel seeds
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 3 tsp of coarse sea salt
  • 1 tsp of peppercorns
  • rind of one lemon
  • 2 Tbs of olive oil
  • 1 kg leg or shoulder of pork
  • 1 pint of dry apple cider (about 250 - 300ml)
  • 1 bramley (cooking) apple, cut into 8 or so slices
    1 large onion, cut into 8 or so slices
    Flour and water (for the gravy)

  1. Turn the oven on to 200 C / 450 F
  2. Score the pork skin to help it go crispy, and dry it well with paper towels. If you want to make extra crispy crackling, separate the skin from the meat before scoring, then score and blot dry with paper towels.
  3. Mix fennel, cloves, sea salt, peppercorns, lemon, olive oil in a pestle and mortar until it is thick paste.
  4. If you have removed the skin from the pork, spread half the paste over the top side of the pork meat, then place the skin on top as it originally was and spread the other half of the paste on. Tie loosely together with string. If you haven't separated the skin, rub the paste into the skin quite well.
  5. Put the pork in the and oven tray and add the pint of cider, apple and onion
    Cook at 200 / 400 for 1/2 an hour. Then reduce the cooking temperature to 140 / 280 and cook for another 4 hours. Check on occasion to make sure the juices in the pan haven't gone dry; top up with water or more cider if they have.
  6. Rest the pork for 1/2 an hour.
  7. Check the crackling for crispiness. If it looks like it could be crispier, bring the temperature of the oven back up to 200 / 400, and blast the skin for a further 5 minutes at a time until it's crispy enough. Remove from oven.
  8. In the mean time, strain the juice for gravy. Heat the juices on the stove, adding in 1 Tbs of flour at a time until the gravy is of the thickness you like (it's easiest to stir and dissolve the flour in a glass with some water first, then add it to the gravy mix; this helps keep the flour from going lumpy).
  9. Serve the pork in slices with gravy on top and some crackling on the side.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Mushroom and Cauliflower Soup

I've been meaning to blog about this soup for a while, but I kept forgetting to take pictures in my eagerness to eat it. There's everything going for this soup: easy to make, relatively healthy, needing only a few inexpensive ingredients, and a meal in itself (if you want it to be). It's an improbable sounding combination, but it is also improbably delicious and has become a quick staple in our household.

The soup almost didn't exist except for me strong-arming Mr A&N into trying it out. He had had a sudden hankering for mushroom soup, and set out on a mushroom-fueled shopping trip. He came home with a rash of mushrooms and an itch to get started on the soup immediately. In stepped me, with unloved cauliflower in hand, begging him to add it to the mix since it had been sitting in our vegetable bin for a week and we couldn't think of anything to do with it. Although the man looked like I was asking him to shoot, cook, and serve his puppy to his mother, he dutifully obeyed and threw it into the soup pot.

The soup that emerged was a surprise to us both. There was the worry that the cauliflower would overwhelm the mushrooms and leave its pungent calling card behind with each mouthful. Instead, it helped lift the taste of the ordinary mushrooms and make it seem as if the soup was based around garlicky, rich, specialty mushrooms. The minimal stock and the cream created a heartiness, and the small bits of mushroom and cauliflower that remained after blending helped stopped the soup from being so velvety that it became cloying.

We've also tested the soup with guests who loved the depth of flavor and thought it
rescued the ordinary mushroom soup from being too 'mushroomy'. We've just finished the last batch today, and have two more cauliflowers lined up, waiting for a box of mushrooms to come along and create sweet music with it.

Mushroom and Cauliflower Soup
makes 4 hearty bowls of soup

  • 2-3 Tbs of olive oil or butter
  • 700g / 1 1/2 lbs of button mushrooms
  • 1 head of cauliflower
  • 1 small handful of thyme
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 3 1/2 C / 825ml of vegetable or chicken stock or water if no stock is handy
  • 1 C / 250ml of single cream (or milk if you're watching the fat content)
  1. Clean and roughly chop the mushrooms and cauliflower
  2. Simmer the olive oil or butter in a large soup pot over a medium heat, and add the mushrooms when the oil is hot
  3. Gently cook the mushrooms with the thyme and bay leaves, stirring occasionally, until they have begun to soften and give off some liquid
  4. Add the cauliflower and stir well
  5. Cover and cook at a low heat for about 20 minutes
  6. Uncover and add the stock or water, stirring and waiting until the liquid comes to the boil
  7. Turn off the heat and blend together the ingredients using either a hand blender or a full blender. Remove bay leaves and thyme stalks before blending.
  8. Add the cream or milk, and cook at a low heat for another couple of minutes
  9. Add salt and pepper to taste and serve with nice crusty bread