Sunday, 30 September 2007

The Wind The Rain and Other Things

We've had a rainy couple of days here where I live. Typical autumnal weather, I suppose. Chilly and damp, with small bits of sunshine in between. I can remember my first year over here in England. It was the wettest autumn and winter on record and there was widespread flooding in the South. I was beginning to wonder what had I let myself in for! It rained literally every single day.

I've discovered that it's very difficult to take photos of rain. You can't really see it, at least not with the lens of an ordinary camera. Much like the wind, it's very hard to capture. You can see the effects of it though, on other things, such as

the drips that fall onto the leaves and flowers in the garden . . .

or on a window pane . . .

or into a puddle . . .

The garden looks so dismal when it is raining and wet outside. One feels sorry for the many birds that frequent our little corner of the kingdom here. I venture outside to put a few crumbs out for them, and they do flit back and forth to the feeders, but I'm sure it isn't a pleasant journey for them. There is a little robin that is quite tame. He sits in a bush nearby and peeps at me as if to say," Come on now, hurry up, I am ready and waiting for my supper!"

Jess doesn't like it when it rains either. She knows that her ball playing and walkaboutswill be curtailed somewhat and not as much fun as they usually are. She mostly sits in the corner and sighs at us with disgust from time to time. Alas, the house is not the place to be throwing a ball to and fro, or for racing excitable dogs to be running about.

One thing that a rainy cold and wet day is good for though, is to eat a nice bowl of hot soup. Sitting here, in the cosy, warm and dry kitchen of our small cottage, with a fire blazing away in the grate and Jess at our feet, we could be in heaven . . .

*Celeriac, Apple, and Stilton Soup*
Serves 6

I often use celeriac raw, tossed into salads or cut into sticks for dipping in a garlic mayonnaise. It's nice sliced thin and baked into a gratin as well. This creamy soup though is a really delicious way to showcase it's pleasant sweet taste, which blends well with the sweetness of the apple and the savoury rich taste of the cheese. This is a real winner served up with some lovely Apple Sage Muffins on the side, the apples from the orchards around us and the sage from our own tiny garden.

4 TBS butter
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
1 1/2 pounds celeriac, peeled and cut into small chunks
1 large potato, peeled and coarsely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
2 eating apples, peeled, cored and cut into wedges
8 to 9 cups of hot vegetable stock
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 ounces stilton cheese, crumbled
Celery leaves for garnish (optional)
celery seeds for garnish (optional)
a bit of stilton to crumble on the top

Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the onions, celeriac, potatoes and garlic. Allow the vegetables to sweat and cook gently for 8 to 10 minutes, giving them a stir from time to time and making sure that they do not brown. Add the apples and enough vegetable stock to completely cover everything. Stir in a generous bit of sea salt and black pepper. Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat and allow the soup to simmer until the celeriac is tender, about 30 to 40 minutes.

Ladle the soup, in batches, into a blender or food processor and puree until smooth. Alternately use your stick blender to blend it into smoothness right in the pot. (my preferred method). Return the soup to the stove over low heat and add the crumbled Stilton cheese, stirring constantly until the cheese melted. Serve in heated bowls with celery leaves and celery seeds scattered on top if desired. Offer a basketful of the warm Apple and Sage Muffins on the side if you wish.

*Little Apple and Sage Muffins*
makes about 24 mini muffins

These are lovely little tender bites that go very well with the above soup. There is an underlying savoury crunchiness from the cornmeal and a delicate sweetness from the apple. The sage only enhances these lovely flavours.

1 cup plain flour
1/2 cup finely ground yellow cornmeal
3/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
2 tsp coarsely chopped fresh sage leaves
1/2 tsp dry mustard
pinch cayenne pepper
5 TBS freshly grated Parmesan Cheese
1/4 tsp salt
1 large egg, beaten
1 tsp sugar
4 TBS butter, melted and cooled
1/3 cup sour cream
1/4 cup milk
1 apple peeled, cored and grated
3 TBS soft Goat's cheese

Pre-heat the oven to 180*C/375*F. Lightly grease two mini muffin cup pans (24 holes) or spray them with cooking spray and set aside.

Whisk the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, soda, sage, mustard, cayenne pepper and 3 TBS of the Parmesan cheese together with the salt in a medium sized bowl.

Combine the egg and sugar together in aother bowl and slowly add the melted butter, mixing it in well. Whisk in the sour cream and the milk, mixing to combine well. Fold in the grated apple.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients, mixing gently until just combined, without overmixing. Crumble the goats cheese over and gently mix in, allowing for clumps.

Spoon the batter evenly into the muffin cups and then sprinkle the remaining 2 TBS of Parmesan cheese evenly over top of each one. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes or until light golden brown. Serve warm with the soup.

Thursday, 27 September 2007

How to murder .... ahhh.... cook an artichoke

I know it's hard to believe, but before I moved over here to the UK I had never eaten an artichoke in my life, let alone cooked one. I don't think I'd ever even seen one, except in pictures. They always looked exotic and foreign and not at all like anything I'd want to cook, let alone eat. They looked vicious and cantankerous and hard to cope with.

I have discovered them though, since moving over here, and I quite like them, although I still hadn't cooked one until yesterday. Most of my artichoke experiences had been of the jarred and marinated or canned kind.

A native of the Mediterranean, the artichoke is a perennial in the thistle group of the sunflower (Compositae) family. In full growth, the plant spreads to cover an area about six feet in diameter and reaches a height of three to four feet. Its long, arching, deeply serrated leaves give the plant a fern-like appearance. The part we eat is actually the plant's flower bud. If allowed to flower, the blossoms measure up to seven inches in diameter and are a beautiful violet-blue color.

When faced with cooking one for the first time it's appearance can be somewhat daunting. It closely resembles something you might find in a desert somewhere and not anything you might want to eat, let alone prepare for cooking.

The artichoke makes no concessions to those who want a quick meal. They are not "quick" to fix, nor are they "fast" food. Why then do people eat them? Serious artichoke eaters will tell you that the reason for eating an artichoke is its unique, nutty flavor.

Some people cook the whole artichoke, and slip each leaf petal, one by one, through their teeth until they reach the delectable heart. Messy, fun to eat, with the tips of the lucious petals dipped in butter, they are delicious done and eaten this way.

I was in the grocery store the other day and they had a lovely pile of the dangerous looking beauties on special at two for £2 and so I decided to jump into the deep end with both feet and buy some and cook them. This artichoke virgin was ready and willing to give it all up once and for all!

Looking at them sitting on my cutting board they looked somewhat scary and not a little daunting. I had a book that told me what to do with them so I decided there was no time like the present to get started and so I got out one of my sharpest knives and got stuck in.

First I cut off the stem near the base of the choke. Then I removed the tough outer darker green
leaves by bending them backwards until they snapped off near the bottom. There was ever so much that ended up in the refuse pile.

Using my small sharp paring knife I then cut off the dark green parts of the base and the leaf bottoms until the base was smooth and pale green. (I know, it seems like an awful waste doesn't it!)

After that I cut the artichoke into quarters, and then cut out the choke with the same sharp paring knife. Apparently this is very nasty to eat and feels horrible in the mouth.

I trimmed the tougher leaf tops from each quarter so that all that remained was the choicest most tender part of the artichoke. As I cut them I dropped them into acidulated water because I had read that if you didn't they turned brown very quickly.

After having mastered or tried to master the art of the artichoke I have to say they are not as frightening as they once seemed, although to be perfectly honest, it did seem like an awful lot of faff and waste just to get what I ended up with after all that work!

What do do now . . . I know, how about a delicious potato and artichoke salad to go along with the chicken I am roasting . . .

*Charlotte Potato and Artichoke Salad*
Serves 6 to 8

This is a delicious lemon and oil dressed potato salad with a bit of a mediterranean flavour to it. The perfect way to use the artichokes I had prepared.

2 3/4 pounds of charlotte potatoes
1 lemon halved
4 large artichokes
1 2/3 cup water
1/3 cup olive oil
1/3 cup dry white wine
6 whole peppercorns
6 coriander seeds
2 sprigs of fresh thyme
1/2 red onion, peeled and very thinly sliced
3 green spring onions, thinly sliced diagonally
2 handfuls of cherry plum tomatoes, halved
15 black brine cured black olives, such as kalamata or Nicois, pitted and chopped
6 fresh basil leaves, finely sliced into chiffonade
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 TBS Dijon mustard
3/4 cup olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Cook the potatoes in a large pot of boiling salted water until just tender, about 20 minutes or so. Drain well. Cool and then peel as soon as you can handle them. Cut into halves.

Halfway fill a large bowl with cold water. Squeeze in the juice from half of the lemon. Cut the second lemon half in half. Cut off the stem from 1 artichoke and rub the exposed area with the cut side of a lemon piece. Starting from the base of the artichoke, bend each leaf backward and snap off where the leaf breaks naturally. Continue to do this until the light green leaves are exposed. Using a small sharp knife, cut off all the dark green areas. This is the artichoke heart. Cut the heart into quarters. Rub all cut surfaces with the lemon. Cut out the choke and pink inner leaves from each section and discard. Place the artichoke heart sections in the water with the lemon juice. Cut off top two inches of artichoke. Repeat with the remaining artichokes.

Combine the 1 2/3 cup of the water, olive oil, wine, peppercorns, coriander and thyme in a heavy saucepan and bring to a boil. Drain the artichokes and add to the saucepan. Cook until tender, about 15 minutes. Drain well and cool. Cut into slices

Mix the potatoes, artichoke slices, red onion slices, spring onion, tomatoes, olives and basil in a large bowl, tossing gently to blend well.

Whisk together the lemon juice, Dijon mustard. Gradually whisk in the olive oil. Pour over the salad and mix gently together. Season to taste with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

A Timely Reminder

I just wanted to remind people that the end of the month is fast approaching and so is the deadline for any submissions you might want to get in for the "Show us Your Sarnie" blogging event that I am hosting!

I thought showing you the prizes up for offer in this first time event would be some added impetus so here goes:

First prize will be a lovely set of soaps by Cath Kidston. There are twelve dainty little personal sized soaps in her three famous scents, Lemon and Geranium (my personal favourite), Lilac and Lavender, and Rose and Carnation. I don't know anyone who wouldn't love to have a selection of these sweet smelling and gorgeous soaps!

Second Prize will be a beautiful little assortment of Beauty Balms from Rose & Apothecary, a lovely Rose Petal Salve for sore dry skin, chapped lips, nappy rash etc . . . Lavender Balm which is good for minor cuts, grazes, raches and chapped skin . . . Sweet Violet Salve, to scent and soften delicate places. Wonderful to have for yourself or to save for a gift for someone else.

And finally third prize will be this delicious box of Lily O'Brien's Contemporary Chocolate, all the way from Ireland, no less! There's some delicious flavours inside such as Sticky Toffee, Crispy Praline, Chocolate Fudge Cake, Lemon Meringue Pie, Vanilla Latte and finally Simply Chocolate, which from the photo looks like a lovely blend of bitter dark and sweet white chocolate. Yummy! Who doesn't like chocolate!!!

Anyways for those of you who have forgotten or who might be reading this for the first time here are the details once more:

I'd like to challenge you all to participate in my first ever "Show Us Your Sarnie" blogging event. Be creative and think outside of the sandwich box. I want you to venture beyond the basic construction of a sandwich and expand your sandwich horizons. All shapes and sizes and flavours welcome. From simple combinations such as grilled bread brushed with a delicious pesto, to the traditional closed-faced grilled cheese and every combination in between. Savoury or sweet, we want to be dazzled by your creations!!!!

Once you've created and posted your entries, please send an e-mail to me at MarieAlice at cheerful dot com by no later than midnight on October 20th, 2007. Please put "Show us Your Sarnie" in the subject line. I will try to post the round up by no later than October 21st, 2007. After that, you will have nine days to check in and vote for your favourite entries, at the end of which time, I shall pick a winner, to be announced on October31st, 2007 ! (Happy Hallowe'en!) The only request I would make is that you place a link in your post linking it back to my journal and this post. Thanks so much!

Please include the following in your e-mails:
• your name
• your location
• the name of your blog and its URL
• aURL link to your post
• a picture of your delicious creation

So come on now, get your entries in and spread the word!

*Note: Deadline has been extended from the 30th of September until the 20th of October in order to allow more people to participate. Thanks so much for your patience! I want this to be a fun event for everyone! The more the merrier! Hope you'll all forgive my very feeble attempt to change the dates on my graphic! I am so computer illiterate it's unbelievable, and it's amazing that I was able to do it in the first place at all!

Sunday, 23 September 2007

Pretty in Pink for Pinktober!

Minko from over in Couture Cupcakes is holding her very first blogging event. "Think Pink for Pinktober" which just happens to co-incide with Pink Ribbon Day , which is October 22nd I believe.

Breast Cancer is something that is very close to my heart. My own dear sweet mother is a breast cancer survivor of almost 25 years now. (Thankfully) I can still remember the terror those words struck into my heart when she telephoned me to tell me that she had it. I was a young mother with four young children and that was the first time I recognized that my mother would not be around forever. Because her own mother had died of cervical cancer my mum had always been really aware of cancer and always very vigilent in watching for the signs and having regular checkups. One day when she was checking herself she noticed a small lump. Since she is a very small breasted woman that was something that she noticed right away. She made the appointment to see her GP and was in for a mammogram almost immediately. Within several days she got the dreaded news that, yes indeed, there was something there that looked very suspicious. They did a needle biopsy and sure enough, the news that came back from that was not favourable, and within a very few days she was admitted to hospital and went through a complete radical mastectomy.

In those days it was very risky to do a lumpectomy, and really, because she was so small breasted, a lumpectomy would have taken almost all of her breast tissue anyways. Thankfully, the cancer had not spread in to any of her lymph nodes and she did not have to have any chemo or radiation therapy. She had been one of the lucky ones who caught it really early. All her vigilance and frequent checking had paid off.

My mother's experience has made both myself and my sister even more aware than ever of our own risks. Having had a Grandmother and Aunt both die of cancer and our own mother having had breast cancer, we both know that our chances are that much greater than normal, and that we have to be extra vigilant and cautious in our monthly checks. We must never be complacent. Neither should you be. Please check yourself regularly. It only takes a few minutes. If you notice any changes at all, such as a dimple in the skin or nipple that wasn't there before, a lump of any size, any change in colour or shape, a sore that never seems to heal, just anything different at all . . . run . . . don't walk, to your nearest GP and request further investigation. It could save your life!

Miki has invited us to each make a Pink dish in honor of Pink Ribbon Day. I have long been a fan of carrot cake and decided that I would take the idea one step further and make a beetroot spice cake. When I first grated the beetroot, and looked at it's horrifyingly red colour I thought perhaps this might just be a bit too pink, but, as you can all see from my results, it turned out perfectly fine and actually is quite delicious! Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you my pink offering . . . (pink being one of my favourite colours!)

*Pretty In Pink Polkadot Cake*
Serves 9

Moist and spicy with intriguing pink speckles throughout. Your guests will be quite surprised when they find out where all that pretty colour comes from! I like to think this is quite healthy and a good way to have your vegetables and eat your cake too!

150g raw beetroot, peeled and grated
200ml sunflower oil
250g golden caster sugar
3 large eggs, separated
3 TBS milk
100g chopped walnuts, toasted
200g plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp each, ground cinnamon, ground ginger and ground nutmeg (I like to grate my nutmeg fresh)
1/2 cup really good quality strawberry jam for filling
180g butter, softened
150g icing sugar, sifted
450g low fat cream cheese
1 tsp vanilla extract
Pink sugar flowers and pink glitter to decorate

Preheat the oven to 190*C/400*F. Grease two nine inch cake tins really well and dust with flour. Set aside. (alternately you can line with baking paper and grease it as well)

Remove about 1 tsp of the grated beetroot into a small bowl and cover with 2 teaspoons of boiling water and set this aside. (You will use this to colour the icing)

Whisk the sugar and the oil together in a bowl. Whisk in the egg yolks and the milk. Fold in the remaining beetroot and the nuts. It will look quite revoltingly red but don't let this alarm you in the least! (trust me!)

Sift together the flour, baking powder and the spices. Stir this mixture into the beaten mixture. Whip the egg whites until stiff with an egg beater and then fold them into the cake mixture in three additions, being careful not to over fold. Fold only to incorporate fully. Divide the batter evenly amongst the two prepared pans.

Bake in the heated oven for 30 to 35 minutes, only until the cake tests done and shrinks away a bit from the sides of the pan and a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. Remove from the oven. Run a knife around the edges and leave to cool completely on a wire rack.

Make the frosting by beating the butter and icing sugar together until light and fluffy. Blend in the cream cheese until smooth and then work in the vanilla. Add some of the reserved beetroot liquor a little at a time to help tint the icing a pretty pink.

Remove the cake from the pans and place one layer in the middle of a pretty plate. Spread about 1/4 of the frosting on top of this layer. Spread the strawberry jam over top leaving about half an inch border around the edges with just icing. Carefully sandwich the other layer on top. Use the remaining frosting to cover the top and sides, spreading it evenly and swirling it somewhat on the top. Decorate with the sugar flowers and sprinkle on some pink glitter to finish.

Place in the refrigerator for about 1 hour to set. If not serving straight away, cover with cling film and chill. Remove from the refrigerator about 30 minutes before you want to serve it.

Saturday, 22 September 2007

An autumn dance

There is a public footpath that goes by our cottage and down through the orchards in the fields next to us. Public footpaths can be a nuisance to landowners over here in the UK, but I have always thought they were a beautiful way of allowing each person, landowner or not, the same right of being able to enjoy the beautiful walkways and sights of our rural landscapes. How right and proper is it that nobody should be able to keep this national treasure all to themselves . . .

We often have walkers and their dogs ambling past the end of our drive. At first, Jess used to get really excited and go out to meet each one, but now, after four years of it, she is quite used to their passings, and it is only the occasional one that she chooses to greet. We know the regulars and their dogs off by heart now, and their names. There is a particular border collie pup that comes racing through our garden every morning at full tilt. It is quite comical to watch him race through to the back and then out again, without stopping for an instant . . . he's there, and then . . . he's gone.

We love to walk across the fields and through the orchards this time of year, as much as any other. The trees in the orchard are full and dripping with fruits and amongst them you can hear the voices of the pickers as they chatter back and forth. The hedgerows are full of the last of the ripe blackberries amongst the brambles and other berries and fruits, such as pips and haws and sloes. I plan each year to make a batch of hedgerow jelly, but it somehow evades me, perhaps this will be the year that I actually do it.

The ground beneath our feet as we walk has become stony and full of the hard bumps of dried acorns, having fallen from the mighty oaks that line the hedgerows. They digg into the bottoms of our feet and crunch beneath our shoes with every step we take. I complain about it every year, as it hurts a bit to walk on them, but even I would not change it if I could. It is one of the rites of autumn . . .

Across the fields one can look and see the south downs, their colour slowly changing from the greens and yellows of summer into the warm golds and ambers of the fall. The air is filled with the smoke of the farmer burning brush and one is reminded of the smell of burning autumn leaves in days gone by and a longing to smell them once again.

All around us nature is in a dance as vivid and beautiful as any ballet, as it prepares itself for the cold winter months ahead, the seed pods every bit as beautiful as the flowers once were, and will be again . . . just different in their beauty, ready to take flight in the slightest breath of a breeze.

The birds are a lot quieter now. Even they are settling in for what they know is coming in the months ahead, the mating dance long over and baby fledglings having long flown the nests, now begins the preparations to either think about moving south or digging in for cooler days that can not be far off . . .

Yes, there is a different sound in the air now . . . gone is the twitter of birdsong and now here is the sound of crisp leaves that brush against each other as they fall from the trees and crunching acorns in the dry brush . . . I love this time of year.

In honour of the first day of autumn yesterday I made us a lovely salad for our lunch filled with autumnal flavours and scents . . .

*An Autumn Salad of Apple Dressed Pears and Walnuts with Blue Cheese Toasts*
Serves 4

This is a lovely salad to enjoy on a warm autumn day. The tart flavour of the cooking apple shines through in the dressing without being overpowering and goes very well with the savoury crunch of the toasted walnuts and the sweetness of the pears. The lovely blue cheese toasts are it's crowning glory. If you can't find walnut bread a french stick will do, but do try to find the walnut bread if you can. It really does add a special touch.

4 baby gem heads, washed and leaves separated, the larger ones torn into smaller pieces
8 thin slices of walnut bread
75g of mild cheddar cheese, cut into small cubes
75g of cashel blue cheese, cut into small cubes (you can use another strong blue cheese such as a stilton if you wish)
2 ripe pears
100g of whole walnuts

1 cooking apple, peeled, cored and cut into small chunks
1 shallot, peeled and finely chopped
50ml of walnut oil
100ml of good olive oil
1 tsp runny honey
1 TBS cider vinegar
seasalt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Heat a TBS of the olive oil in a small skillet and cook the shallot and apple in it, stirring, until golden. Remove from the heat and put into a blender along with the other dressing ingredients. Blitz until smooth. Check for seasoning, adjust if necessary, and set aside.

Toast the walnut bread on one side. Mix the cubes of cheese together and then divide amongst the slices of bread and toast under the grill until the cheese is all melted and bubbling and starting to brown just the slightest. Take out and set aside.

Toast the walnuts in a dry pan for about 30 seconds.

Peel, core and slice the pears. Toss the sliced pears with the lettuce leaves, toasted walnuts and apple dressing. Divide amongst four chilled plates, garnishing each with two slices of the cheese toasts.

Friday, 21 September 2007

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

We have a rather rambunctious Border Collie named Jess. Because we can't have any children of our own, we choose to have a dog. She is as spoilt as any child would be if we did have one and gets most, of not all, of our attention. We got her at a dog rescue centre when we were living up in Chester. I wasn't quite sure at the time if I really wanted a dog. I'd always had cats pretty much, but Todd was a real dog person at heart and he was longing to have one, so we went along to have a look. My heart always breaks when we go into those types of places. I always want to bring all of them home with me. We looked at all the dogs, one by one, but our Jess, her face just reached out to us and tugged at our heart strings. She had such a compelling look about her and we fell in love with her at the very first glance.

She's a lovely dog. It was quite obvious from the moment we got her home that she had been abused by whomever had owned her before us. She was very timid and frightened and cowered at any sudden movement or noise. I don't know how anyone can be cruel to animals. They had told us at the rescue centre that she was about 2 years old, but she doubled in size after we got her so we don't really think that she had even been a year old. It was several weeks before we even knew she could bark. She made no noise at all. When we would put her food out for her to eat she would cower and it was only after alot of encouragement on our part that she would go over to it and eat, and even then, she appeared to be anxious and had her tail between her legs, looking every bit as if she expected to be smacked or worse the whole time she was eating. The minute there was a loud noise, or anyone came to the door she would wee and then of course she would be terrified that she would be in trouble. We never got cross with her though, it broke our hearts to see how frightened she was and how nervous. After the first few times, we just took up the carpet and got rid of it for a time. It took us about six months of patience and love and finally she stopped doing that, although even to this day she is very leery of men when they come to the house, unless they are well known to her.

She loves living here where we live. We don't need to tie her up and we often take her on long walks over the orchard. She's very obedient, unless there is a rabbit or a squirrel about. She loves to chase those and we often have to call and call and get a bit cross with her before she will come back. She always has a sheepish look on her face when she does as if she knows she has been a bit naughty. She's a funny dog though, although she could go out in the garden and play for hours at a time and has the freedom to come and go as she pleases she rarely will, if ever, go out there on her own, much preferring for one of us to be with her, or the little lad next door. They are fast friends.

Her favourite game to play is ball and she will play that for hours or as long as you will throw it at any rate and every round object is a ball to her and something for her to play with. When my youngest son was over here she played football with him every day in the back garden. Because it was too large for her to hold the ball in her mouth, she would run her nose under it and throw it up into the air that way. This time of year she really enjoys her orchard walks as there are apples lying everywhere and they are just balls to her, albiet tasty ones and she is constantly bringing us one to throw for her to run after and catch. Sometimes she will just sit and chew them. She loves to chase sticks as well.

Another of her favourite games is bubbles. We discovered that quite by accident. I had some bubbles that we got from several of my children's weddings. Over in Canada now, instead of confetti people blow bubbles and I had brought them home as souveniers. One day I just happened to blow a few and she went nuts, chasing them around the garden and jumping up in the air to catch them, a very surprised look on her face when they dissappeared. Now we buy bubbles just specifically to play with her and she gets really exited when she seems the container come out. They make her very thirsty though . . . so as much as she loves to play the game I don't do it with her very often.

She's such a happy soul and I know she smiles. Her whole body smiles. I'm so very glad we chose her to join our family and brought her home with us. My heart breaks to think that even for an instant that anyone was ever cruel to her. She has such a gentle, loving and obedient nature, I cannot even imagine anyone ever needing to be really cross with her.

There is something very comforting about having a dog in a home, especially one as loving and affectionate as our Jess. She's always happy to see us no matter how long we've been out and she's great company on a cold and windy day. She doesn't ask for much and only loves in return. She's added a dimension to our lives that we would otherwise never have experienced and I cannot imagine a life without her in it now. Country cottages and dogs . . . they just go together, well . . . like peas and carrots . . .

*Aubergine Parmesan*
Serves 4 -6

This is a really delicious way to enjoy aubergines. I love the crunchiness of the bread coating over the soft melting tenderness of the aubergine inside. When you combine it all with a delicious tomato sauce and oozing mozzarella cheese you have pure and utter bliss.

1 large aubergine, or several small ones
1/2 cup panko bread crumbs
1 tsp dried basil leaves
1/2 tsp dried oregano leaves
1/2 tsp garlic powder
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
2 eggs beaten
olive oil for frying
4 cups marinara sauce (see recipe below)
(or you can use 28 ounces of your favourite jarred spagetti sauce)
8 ounces fresh mozzarella, cut into slices
Parmesan cheese for topping
torn basil leaves

Slice the aubergine into 1/4 inch thick slices.

Mix together the breadcrumbs, basil, oregano, garlic powder and parmesan cheese in a shallow bowl and set aside. Put the beaten eggs into another shallow bowl.

Sprinkle the aubergine slices with salt and pepper and then dip them into the beaten eggs. Dredge each one in the panko mixture. coating them well. Set aside on a plate until all the slices are coated.

Heat some olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium high heat. Add the aubergine slices and fry them until golden brown on both sides. Drain on some paper toweling until finished.

Pre-heat the oven to 180*C/350*F. Place the fried slices into a baking dish. Cover with the marinara sauce and then the sliced mozzarella. I like to overlap the slices of aubergine a little bit and tuck the slices of mozzarella in betweeen. Scatter a healthy dusting of more Parmesan cheese over top and then throw on some torn basil. Bake in the heated oven for about 30 minutes, or until nicely bubbling and golden brown on top. Remove from the oven and let sit for about 10 to 15 minutes before serving. I Like to serve it with some buttered angel hair pasta and a fresh green salad on the side.

*Marinara Sauce*
Makes about 4 cups

A good all purpose tomato sauce that's big on flavour and great to haveon hand in the freezer.

1 large onion, peeled and chopped
1 TBS minced peeled garlic
1 TBS dried basil
2 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp dried chili flakes
3 to 4 TBs olive oil
12 ounces of tomato puree (tomato paste)
28 ounces of tinned whole plum tomatoes, undrained and broken up with a fork
1/2 cup of dry red wine
2 tsp sugar (optional)
salt and black pepper to taste

Heat the olive oil in a large heavy bottomed saucepan. Add the onions, garlic and chili flakes and sweat them in the heated oil until soft and translucent. Add the basil, oregano and tomato puree. Cook and stir for a few minutes, before adding the tomatoes along with their juices and the wine. Simmer, uncovered over low heat for 1 to 2 hours, stirring occasionally. Season with salt and pepper to taste and the sugar if desired. If you find it too thick you may thin it with a bit of stock. This freezes very well so I often double the recipe.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

The journey from there to here

I grew up in a small town in Canada. Actually, in a lot of small towns in Canada, as my dad was in the Canadian Air Force. The closest I ever got to a city was when my dad would take us on business trips with him to Winnipeg, once in a blue moon, and really, we only saw the outskirts from the back seat of my father's car. My whole world consisted of my family and a very select group of people.

I used to dream though, of travelling the world and of one day being successful at something. I loved to write. I had a passion for cooking. I had a great love for my family and friends. I never pursued a career as an adult, not unless you can consider a brief stint as the pastry chef in a hotel a career. Instead I chose to do what I loved most at that time and that was to bring up a family, as a wife and a mother. Those were wonderful years that all too soon passed.

So how does a small town girl from Canada find herself living in the rural countryside of England and working as a chef? I pinch myself every day, because, yes, it is a dream come true, and yes, it is quite far removed from anything that shy little girl, from way back when, could have ever imagined one day doing.

I believe I was born with my face in a pot and a wooden spoon in my hand, for I have loved recipes and cooking for as long as I can remember. My mother was not a cook who enjoyed having children in her kitchen, but I can remember spending long hours at my grandmother's elbow watching her roll out cookies or pat out biscuits. Sometimes she would let me play with the leftover dough and then bake my creations for me, all soot stained from my grubby little fingers, and then exclaim at how delicious they were when they were done. As a child, I spent many hours cooking in a make believe house in our back garden, which, in reality, was only an outline in the grass made of stones, but my oh my . . . what beautiful dishes I concocted out of bits of leaves, sticks, grass, flower buds and mud.

As a teen, my mother went out to work full time, and so the wooden spoon was passed down to me and I began to cook for my family. At first, my culinary adventures consisted only of heating up things my mother had already prepared ahead of time, but, with several terms of schoolroom home economics under my belt, I soon gained confidence and began to prepare and cook the family's meals all on my own, and I loved every minute of it.

Once I got married I really began to shine as a home cook. People always loved to come to my table and, to be perfectly honest, that is when I was happiest . . . when I was cooking a meal for those that I loved and cared about, their satisfied and smiling faces around my table the only reward I needed or desired.

I have had quite a few mentors and good friends through the years, and I learned something from each and every one of them. From my first mother in law, who was a farm wife, I learned the basics of good farm house cookery and how to please a family with little money, using wholesome, honest and pure ingredients. A Ukrainian friend, Esther, showed me how to make my own perogies. (I wish I had a dollar for everyone of those I have rolled out through the years!) Leona, Mabel, Jewel, Debbie . . . I was very lucky throughout my life to have good cooks as friends. Good friends who didn't mind sharing their experience and recipes with me. I picked up a little bit of knowledge from each and every one of them, and lots of good recipes too! Cooking for a growing family of five children and then teenagers gave me lots of practice and lots of guinea pigs to experiment on. They never went hungry and they were never bored with the meals I prepared, because I so loved to try new recipes and a variety of ingredients.

I divorced in the late 1990's and met my present husband on the internet. Yes, it does work out, and quite successfully at times. I had always wanted to come to England and he was not yet ready to retire, and so I ended up emmigrating over here instead of him going over there to Canada. I had not really been able to find a good job in Canada. At best, I was only ever able to gain employment working part time at a Tim Horton's coffee shop, flogging donuts and coffee. After having been a stay at home mom for 22 years, I really didn't have any useable skills, at least not that I recognized at that time at any rate!

Once I got over here and we settled in to married life, I began to explore the possiblities of training in something, so that, once my husband retired, I would be able to find a decent job to help support us. I had always loved cooking, and I was good at it, and so we decided that I should take a chef's course. At the time, we were living on a council estate near Chester in the North West of England. My husband had done Estate work throughout the years and, to be honest, we were both tired of living in an urban environment, and so, upon completion of my course, we started to look for employment in the country, with myself as a cook and him as a part time handyman. Basically he would be retired. (although he would laugh at that idea now, because he is busier retired than he ever was when he was working!)

We saw an ad in the "Lady" magazine in September of 2003, where a couple with a small family were looking for someone to cook for them. We came down for an interview and were employed within the week.

I love what I do and I love the people I work for. They are good, kind and decent people, and I really do feel like a part of the family. I get to live and work in a beautiful environment, using the finest ingredients and equipment. I get to stretch my skills often, especially when they entertain, and to try new things and develop new recipes, all at someone else's expense. Yes, I truly am blessed. I pinch myself every day.

There are quite extensive gardens and greenhouses where I work. They grow alot of their own flowers, having beautiful rose gardens and other cutting flower gardens. They grow fabulous vegetables and fruits, some of which you have already seen showcased here in my blog. Yesterday one of the gardeners brought me up two big baskets of beautiful tomatoes grown here in the greenhouses and right away they sang out tomato soup to me. It is not often, only but a few times a year, that you have access to lovely flavoured tomatoes worthy of making a delicious soup with. You just cannot beat a fresh tomato soup, made with homegrown tomatoes . . . tomatoes that haven't spent weeks in a refrigerator truck or been sprayed to keep them from ripening too quickly. These scarlet delights are the real deal . . .

*Fresh Tomato Soup*
Serves 4 to 6

This is a delicious soup that beautifully showcases the lovely fresh flavours of vine ripened tomatoes. Even if you don't grow your own tomatoes, this is the perfect time of year to go to the local farm markets and buy them. Quite often you can get huge quantities of rather battered, very ripe tomatoes quite cheaply and these will shine in this lovely recipe. Make lots of it to freeze and take out in the winter months . . . a little taste of late summer sunshine on those bleak, grey and cold days ahead.

200g onions, peeled and chopped
50g butter
900g tomatoes, halved if small, cut into quarters if larger
5 TBS dry sherry
1 TBs sugar
3 TBS torn fresh basil, plus some to serve
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
chicken stock (or vegetable stock) if needed
a little cream to serve

Place a large pot over medium-low heat and melt the butter. Add the onions and cook them very slowly, without browning, stirring them from time to time until they are soft and translucent. Add the tomatoes, sherry, sugar, basil and salt and pepper. Cook for about ten minutes, until the tomatoes are softened.

Remove from the heat and blitz with a stick blender, or put through a mouli. It will probably be fairly thick, but you can thin it with a bit of hot stock, if necessary.

Ladle out into hot soup bowls and drizzle a bit of cream over top. Scatter a bit more torn basil on top and serve with plenty of warm crusty bread.

Monday, 17 September 2007

Figs and Tarts . . .

I was delighted to learn that Ivonne of Cream Puffs In Venice was hosting the 35th Edition of Sugar High Friday and that the chosen object of our sugary affections this month would be figs! Oh, what a wonderful challenge to come up with a fantasic dessert using figs . . . fresh, dried, preserved, what delicious concoctions will we all be creating?

I gathered all my cookbooks together and began to read through all the obvious ones, trying to come up with a recipe to use these beautiful fruits in, but could not find any one in particular that struck my fancy. Having searched and come up empty handed, I decided to wing it on my own and this is the delicious creation I came up with.

I wanted a tart that would have a lovely crisp base, but a base that would not detract from the sweet deliciousness of the fruit. The figs must be the star. I finally decided that filo pastry would give me the effect that I was looking for. I also wanted a type of custard base to fill the tart and surround the figs, but one that was not going to be overly sweet, as the figs would be sweet enough on their own. I hope you all enjoy this tart as much as we did. The only dissapointing thing about it was that it is not really a keeper. You must eat it all on the day it is baked, but then, as good as this is, that should not really be a hardship that is too painful to endure . . .

*Fresh Fig and Crisp Filo Tart*
Serves 6 to 8

This is a really easy tart to put together. Crisp filo pastry stogged full of deliciosly sweet figs, encased in a lovely almond batter. This is delicious served with lashings of clotted cream or pouring cream. Best eaten on the day baked. Resistance is futile . . .

5 sheets of filo pastry, each measuring about 14 inches by 10 inches
2 TBs unsalted butter, melted
6 to 8 fresh figs, cut into wedges
3 ounces plain flour
3 ounces golden caster sugar
4 large eggs
1 cup milk
1 cup single cream
1/2 tsp almond essence
icing sugar for dusting the finished tart with
Clotted cream or pouring cream to serve

Pre-heat the oven to 190*C/375*F. Grease a 10 inch by 6 1/4 inch tart tin well with butter. Brush each sheet of filo pastry with the melted butter and use to line the buttered tin.

Trim the pastry as necessary, leaving a bit of an overhang around the edge of the tin. Arrange the fig wedges over the base of the tart attractively.

Sift the flour into a bowl. Whisk in the sugar. Beat in the eggs and some of the milk, whisking until it is smooth. Gradually whisk in the remaining milk and the cream. Stir in the almond essence. Pour the resulting batter over the figs.

Bake for 1 hour, or until the batter is set and golden brown. Remove the tart from the oven to a wire rack to cool for at least ten minutes before serving.

Dust with icing sugar and serve warm with a dollop of clotted cream on top or a jug of pouring cream to pour over it. Enjoy!

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Blue Cheese and Walnut shortbreads

*Blue Cheese And Walnut Shortbreads with an Indian Twist*
Makes 36

These tasty and savoury shortbreads are truly delicious even on their own, but when you marry them with the soothing creaminess of soft cheese and the tangy spicness of a good mango chutney, well, it truly is a marriage made in heaven! These are always the first to dissappear off the Hors D'oeuvres trays.

1/2 cup of sharp blue cheese (such as cashel blue or maytag) at room temperature
3 TBS unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup plain flour
1/4 cup corn flour
1/4 tsp black pepper
1/4 tsp sea salt
1/3 cup walnuts, chopped
3 TBS cream cheese
3 TBS good quality mango chutney
1/2 cup walnut halves, toasted (for garnishing)

Put the blue cheese and butter into the bowl of a food processor. Process together until creamy. Whisk the flour, corn flour, pepper and salt together in a small bowl. Add to the creamed mixture in the food processor and pulse to combine. Add the chopped walnuts and pulse just until incorporated. You still want there to be little discernable chunks of walnuts. Do NOT overprocess.

Remove the mixture from the food processor and shape into a flattened disc. Wrap well in cling film and chill in the refrigerator for at least one hour, or until firm.

Pre-heat the oven to 160*C/325*F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.

Place the chilled dough on a piece of cling film. Cover with another piece of cling film. Roll the dough out to about 1/4 of an inch thick. Remove the top piece of cling film and cut into 1 inch fluted circles with a sharp cutter. Place on the prepared baking sheet. Gather the dough scraps together and press back into a disk, roll out and repeat until all the dough is used up , placing each on the baking sheet, leaving about 1/2 inch of space between each one.

Bake until lighty brown, about 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and place on wire racks to cool. You can do this much several days ahead if you wish.

When you are ready to serve them. Top each biscuit with a tsp of the creamed cheese and then an equal amount of the chutney. Finally place a toasted walnut on top of each. Serve. (Don't top with the toppings until you are ready to serve them)