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Archive for September, 2014

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As the nights draw in and the last of the August sun lingers into the early days of September the blackberry bushes finally yield their fruit. The tight little beads of white berries turn to red and then finally swell to a deep dark purple. I watch these changes as I walk the dog.   I return to the same spots each year in the hope of cornering the best pickings before everyone else.

My special spot is high up on common ground overlooking the sea.  Amongst the long dried grass and to the side of downtrodden grass paths can be found large clumps of bramble bushes.  As the years have passed my pickings have become slimmer and slimmer, largely due to foraging becoming more popular. Last year it was difficult to collect enough to do anything worthwhile, so this year I decided not to bother.

That was until I helped Sally take a chair back to her beach hut.  When we got there she realised she had left the keys in the car, so I was asked to watch the chair (in case someone decided it was abandoned and took it home) while she returned to her car to get them.

I stood there looking out to sea; there were no ships to spy, and nothing to see so I soon became bored. The sun was quite strong, so I decided to move to behind the beach hut and stand in the shade, and that is when I made the discovery.   Behind the huts lies a steep wasteland, as I scanned across the long grassy bank I spotted what I thought was a large dark mass of ripe blackberries – surely not. I left the chair and went to get a closer look. As I gingerly scrambled up the slope I could see not only one heavily laden bush but also a whole mass of them. Deep rich purple berries glistening in the sun. There was evidence that someone had earlier this season visited and trodden down paths around the bushes and, judging by the weight of the blackberries on the bushes, had not returned.

Beachut

This is not Sally’s hut. I am keeping that location quiet for now!

I went back to minding the chair, thinking how could I have missed this rich seam over the years. I concluded that the rows of beach huts shield the area from the front and the steepness of the bank shields the view from above. I have now marked this as my new spot.  The minute I was relieved from chair minding I raced back home to grab some containers and gloves. An hour later I was back home relaxing with a cup of tea in my hand and a container of 4lbs of blackberries I had collected.  These juicy little berries were going to be turned into blackberry jelly, as I hate the little irritating seeds that get stuck between the teeth found in jam.

Blackberries are picked in England at the end of August and all through September but never after September as ‘the devil spits on them and they are bad’ that is what I was always told.  An old wives tale maybe, but not such a myth because as the weather becomes colder and wetter the berries can be infected by toxic molds.

It doesn’t matter how many blackberries you have, as with most things cookery it is all to do with the formula. Put blackberries in a large pan with enough water to cover them and lemon juice.  Blackberries are not endowed with masses of pectin so this is where the lemon juice helps.  Simmer for about one hour and strain. The juice is measured and then balanced with sugar, taken back to the heat to boil to setting point, and then bottled.

photo 1

Blackberries with water to cover

 

Blackberry Jelly

Ingredients

4 lbs blackberries
2 Lemons – juice of,  pips as well
Enough water to cover the blackberries
Sugar granulated (1lb sugar to 1lb of strained juice)
Large pan or preserving pan
Jelly bag or a couple of layers of muslin lining a sieve.

Clean sterilised glass jam jars. (see below)

Method

1. Wash the fruit and pick out any obvious stalks and rotten fruit
2. Place into the preserving pan with the lemons juice and pips  just covering with water
3. Bring to the boil and then simmer for about 1 hour
4. Using a wooden spoon or potato masher break the fruit down as much as possible
5. Let the liquid cool a little – this is not for any reason other than it stops yourself being scalded if you spill any.
6. Strain through a jelly bag and allow to drip through until it dries up. I leave mine overnight.
7. Measure the juice produced and pour back into the cleaned preserving pan. Bring gently back to a gentle boil and add the sugar:

For every pint of juice you will add 1 lb of granulated sugar.

What is left in the jellybag

What is left in the jellybag

Add the sugar a bit at a time.  Stir, you don’t want the sugar sitting on the bottom of the pan and catching.
Once all the sugar has been added stir and gently bring up to the boil.
Using a thermometer boil until jam temperature is reached and set has been tested.  When set is achieved.  Let the pan sit and cool for 10 minutes and then pour into sterlised jars (see below).  Label.

photo 3

The jelly reaching setting point. As you can see the liquid rises quite a bit so its a good idea to have a large pan or preserving pan.

The Set

Don’t just rely on the thermometer reading, the jelly still needs to be tested for set.  Place a small plate into the freezer and leave for 10 minutes and then drop a little jelly onto it and leave for a couple of minutes to cool. Now push your finger through the jam.  It should wrinkle and not flood back.  You want the jelly to be thick enough that the path remains.  If the jelly is not set then bring the preserving pan back onto the heat for another five minutes or so and test again.

Blackberry jelly does not set like other jams it has a much looser set. Once set it will wobble rather than sit solid in the jar.  It also takes quite a while to cool down so best to leave it until the following day before eating.

Makes 7 jars

Sterlising Jars

To sterilise the jars wash them in hot soapy water and rinse. Place on a baking tray and put into a warm oven Gas mark 3/325F/160C and leave for 10/15 minutes. Carefully take out and use.

I use the rule that it is either wax discs or screw lid not both. The waxed disc will prevent the twist top from creating a proper seal.

Remember to label and date. I like to keep a jar from the previous year so I can compare tastes.

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Briam / Μπριάμ

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Briam is a traditional Greek vegetable dish that is eaten as a main course.  One that everyone has their own way of doing.  My mother’s version was cooked in a large pan on the hob.  Requests for the Briam to be baked in the oven were refused by her in fear that the added heat in the kitchen would result in her expiring.  Queen and drama are two words that come to mind.  It didn’t really matter though because the on the hob version was delicious and there were clean plates all round.

Every day late in the afternoon after a hard day’s swimming in the sea we would come back home, shower, change and sit down at the table in time for a huge bowl of Briam to appear, accompanied by a large slice of white Feta.  Not forgetting the wicker basket filled with freshly baked bread, sliced in big clumsy chunks, which was used to soak up the last of the Briam sauce lingering on the plate and any stray Feta crumbs.  Afterwards I always commended myself on eating such a healthy meal of course ignoring or choosing to forget the half loaf of bread I had eaten and very generous chunk of Feta.

My mother’s version would include courgettes, baby aubergines, onion, green or red pepper and tomatoes.  Other recipes call for the inclusion of potatoes.  Different herbs are used such as parsley or dill.  My preference is a generous handful of oregano just like my mother’s version.

I find that this dish is a fabulous way of using up the last bits of vegetables lurking in the fridge.  The ones that are too small an amount to do anything worthwhile with.  Today I didn’t have potatoes but if I had I would have included them.  Instead I used up the courgettes and onions.  I only had one red onion so I used two white ones as well to make up the quantities.  The peppers I had were orange and yellow and the cherry tomatoes were an addition that I don’t usually use but were excess from yesterday’s salad.

The on the hob version that my mother made was delicious and the flavours sang out but here in England the vegetables don’t all have that intense taste so I feel that frying the vegetables first and then baking gives a more intense flavour making up for their lack of sweetness.  They are no hard and fast rules to this dish if you don’t like courgettes leave them out just add more peppers or potato.  The basics of this recipe is olive oil for frying and the chopped tomatoes or this can even be substituted with passata.  I have used baby aubergines in this recipe but if you use a large aubergine just slice them into rounds.

Briam

Ingredients

3 small onions sliced thinly

3 cloves garlic either sliced or crushed

2 peppers de-seeded and sliced

8 small baby aubergines sliced lenthways or sliced in rounds if using a large aubergine

2 courgettes chopped into large chunks

12 cherry tomatoes whole

1 tin chopped tomatoes

salt and pepper

Olive oil for frying

Oregano

Method

Turn the oven on to Gas mark 7/220C.

Heat some olive oil in pan and add the aubergines.  Sauté, turning them over until they have softened and started to colour. Remove and put into a large baking dish.

Add to the pan a little more oil if the aubergines have absorbed it all.  Put in the onions and garlic and sauté  until softened and just starting to colour.   Add  the peppers and sauté  until the peppers just start to soften.

Then add the onions and peppers to the aubergines in the baking dish. 

Put the courgettes into the frying pan and quickly turn them over.  When they have caught some colour place into the baking dish.

Add to the baking dish the tinned chopped tomatoes, salt and pepper, cherry tomatoes and salt and pepper.  Depending on your taste at this point I add a very generous amount of oregano.  With your hands gently mix all the ingredients together.

Place into the oven at Gas mark 7/220C for 30 minutes and then turn down to Gas mark 6/200 for a further 20 minutes. watching that the top of the Briam does not catch and burn too much.

Remove from the oven and leave to stand for about 5 minutes.  Serve, with bread and a large piece of Feta.

We tend to eat it lukewarm with pitta bread and Feta.  Sometimes the Feta supply only stretches to a thin slice,  when this happens I just crumble what Feta I have over the top of the Briam.  The Feta gives the Briam a tangy salty note taking the whole dish to another level.

 

 

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Baked Figs

The last of this year’s figs are now all gone, all that remains is a small bowl of  fives figs left to ripen on the windowsill. This summer there has been a race to see who got to the figs first, the blackbirds or me. There were two particularly crafty blackbirds who would sit either in the fig tree or just above it watching and waiting for the fruit to ripen. If I approached they would fly off in a huff squawking loudly at me, only to settle on a tree or bush nearby so that they could spy what I was up to. Willing me not to touch their fig tree.

Netting the tree was out of the question I had tried that before but it didn’t matter how careful I was, one of the blackbirds always managed to get themselves trapped inside. So I gave up with the netting in fear of having a feathered fatality on my conscious.

I resorted to being on constant vigil, if I saw a blackbird land on the tree I would rush out and run down the garden only to find a fig had ripened between my inspections and there to my irritation would be a large pecked hole in the otherwise perfect fig. There were the times I beat the blackbirds to it and I cannot tell you how triumphant I felt as I walked back to the house holding a ripe fig with not a beak mark in sight. This summer they have managed to eat all my raspberries and gooseberries not to mention stripping the red currant bush clean.

Now, I don’t know which I prefer the fresh off the tree sweet firm flesh of the fig or the baked soft sweet slightly flavoured with cinnamon variety. These baked delights are delicious served with soft cheese. The honey in the recipe was something I wondered if I could do without, as the figs are naturally sweet.  How wrong I was, the honey during cooking soaks through the figs and produces a thick and sweet sauce, which can be spooned over the figs when served. The cinnamon adds an extra note and to my mind is a personal preference.

I have put 2 to 4 teaspoons of honey in the recipe because even though 4 teaspoons sounds excessive it will not sit on the figs but create a sauce at the bottom of the dish.

This recipe is so simple.

Baked Figs

Ingredients

5 figs washed or as many as you have.

2 or 4 tsp honey

Cinnamon

Method

Turn oven to Gas mark 4/180C/350F

Cut the figs in half and place upturned in a baking dish, choose a dish that allows the figs to be placed closely together so they don’t move around too much during cooking.

Pour over the honey and add a pinch of cinnamon to each fig.

Place in the oven and leave for 10 minutes. Check by just squeezing the figs to see if they have soften, if not leave in the oven for another 10 minutes. Remove. Turn out onto a dish and serve. They can be eaten straight from the oven or cooled at room temperature.

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