What a caper!

The nasturtium seeds on the left become capers

The nasturtium seeds on the left become capers

The salty, pungent caper which gives you a jolt in salads and perks up no end of Italian dishes and sauces might be doing you more good than you think. Capers contains lots of selenium which, among other things, lifts the libido for both sexes. No wonder Italian ladies of the night favoured rustling up quick pasta with puttanesca sauce between making the bedsprings bounce.

The aptly-named caper might account for all that Mediterranean hot-blood so, as the plant doesn’t grow in Britain, we miss out. But not entirely. We have the poor man’s caper in the pickled nasturtium seed. I’m not sure how much selenium these contain compared to the real thing but, properly done, they are almost dead-ringers in taste.

Nasturtiums are in full bloom and going to seed right now so you might want to try pickling them yourself. I go around with a plastic bag and collect the seeds as and when I see them as I don’t have enough from my own garden. They’ll keep for a few days in the fridge while you collect the quantity needed. Aim for enough to fill at least a small jar.

Nasturtium flowers and seeds

Nasturtium flowers and seeds

I love nasturtiums (the name is Latin for twisted nose) because the leaves (best to go for the smaller, paler ones at the top of the plant) makes a peppery addition to salads, as do the red and yellow flowers, which are edible.

Collect enough seeds (making sure they are still bright green and not going brown) to fill a small jar, wash and divide them. You’ll find the individual seeds cluster together in two or threes. Because they contain a lot of mustard oil you’ll need to brine them for a couple of days in a solution of 50g salt to 450ml of water. Rinse to remove excess salt.

Then you need to pickle them in a spiced vinegar. Avoid murky malt vinegar but go for white or cider, infused with, say, celery seeds, garlic, peppercorns, thyme, a handful of pickling spices or what you will. Strain the vinegar before pouring over the seeds.

I find no need to keep them in the fridge, even when opened. They should be ready in two or three weeks. You’ll find them firm and savoury with crunchy little centres and great flavour enhancers, in salads, sauces and on pizzas. I chop them up and add them to fish cakes and pop them in my jars of home made Italian pickles. And who knows what they do for my libido!

Pickle your nasturtium seeds in small jars

Pickle your nasturtium seeds in small jars

Two for the price of one

Blackcurrants two ways, as vodka and granita

Blackcurrants two ways, as vodka and granita

Regular readers know that this blog doesn’t like waste. It can always find a second use for things. Plastic and paper bags go in a kitchen drawer for another time, silver foil is washed, dried and folded for future use, crushed eggshells are part of my anti-slug warfare. They don’t like it up ‘em, as Cpl Jones would say.

This policy also goes for food and drink. I have just strained a two litre jar of damsons and blackberries in gin, bottled this time last year. The resultant liquor, a fiery red, will go down very nicely as autumn blends into winter. I will probably drink it neat as the juices and sugar will have diluted the gin (I got two almost full 75cl bottles) down from 40ABV to less than 20.

But I’m not going throw out the brownish coloured fruit. It still contains alcohol and will be the makings of a tipsy jam or a drunken chutney. But I haven’t got time now as I’m too busy picking more damsons, plums, blackberries and, if I get around to them, rowans for rowan jelly. And I don’t want to miss the elderberries, hips and haws.

So the fruit has gone into the freezer to wait until a rainy day to become a jam or chutney. Or perhaps a granita.

Earlier this month I furtled around the cellar and discovered a big Kilner jar of blackcurrants in vodka from the previous year which had been forgotten. It was hiding behind the brown sauce. Once strained, through a plastic sieve and jelly bag, it turned out to be one of the best drinks I’d made. It’s not just me saying that: my stepson David took home half a bottle.

That left me with the fruit. I’m sorry, I didn’t make notes but this is one of those easy recipes you can adjust as you go along. I simmered the fruit in a little water with sugar. The general rule is to add about one fifth to one quarter sugar to the weight of fruit but that will depend on the sweetness of the fruit.

Taste as you go remembering to make things a little sweeter than you’d like because freezing reduces the perception of sweetness.

I let it cool, whizzed it in the blender and pushed it through a sieve. Then I added a slug or two more of the blackcurrant vodka and froze it in an old ice cream carton.

It’s a very soft freeze because of the boozy berries. Not all the alcohol evaporates at a simmer. And I added a little more. Sometimes I have to scrape my granita with a fork as it freezes to a solid block. This was more like an adult Ribena Slush Puppy.

And very nice it is, too, when we want something light to finish off a meal. And I can serve it with a shot of blackcurrant vodka. This way I’ve extended the pleasure of picking the fruit in the first place, with memories that can be drunk and eaten.
So that’s two items on the menu for the price of one. I’m very happy and so are the wee beasties in my compost bin. The pulp that didn’t go through the sieve finished up in there.

Pea Pod Soup

Pea pod soup with yoghurt and a mint oil

Pea pod soup with yoghurt and a mint oil

So I was halfway to the compost bin when I asked myself why I was throwing out tomorrow’s tea before I’d eaten it. I’d been shelling peas and had a bowl of empty pea pods in my hand. Come on Dawes, they’re the making of pea pod soup.

When fresh peas in the pods cost more than a bag of frozen petit pois you don’t want to waste, do you? I sorted through the pods and tossed out any wrinkly ones, washed the rest and roughly chopped them.

What happens next depends on your pods. If they are young, tender and very fresh and you’ve taken the trouble to string them first you can cook them with some onions or shallots, a stalk of celery, peas and perhaps some cooked potato for texture and a handful of mint. You want the overwhelming flavour to be peas and the colour to be green so forget carrots. Simmer in stock, blitz and serve. If you pass it through a sieve it will be a shade more delicate.

If the pods are getting on a bit I’d use them to make a vegetable stock and then go on to make your soup. The one in the picture has some courgettes, outer leaves of lettuce and lemony sorrel. Plus some peas, fresh and frozen.

Then I got all cheffy and drizzled some mint oil (made from bashing up some fresh mint in virgin olive oil) and a little yoghurt for garnish. I haven’t reviewed restaurants for 26 years without learning a few tricks.

I’ve made a few pea pod soups this summer and they’ve varied from very good to OK. It all depends on the pods.

I eventually made a trip to the compost bin and by now the pods were a mush. But I’d got a nice little meal out of them for very little cost.


Don't waste your pods and you shell peas

Don’t waste your pods when you shell peas

My huckleberry friend

Bilberries at Ringinglow

Bilberries at Ringinglow

I’m not in the habit of accosting strange women in the middle of the countryside but she did have a comb in her hand. A bilberry comb. She looked like she knew how to use it, which is more than I did with mine, so I wanted advice.

If she was surprised she didn’t let on. Put it down to the camaraderie of the hedgerow or, in this case, the moors around Sheffield. This is the bilberry season and there must be hundreds of tons of the fruit just waiting to be picked. But isn’t it a bugger doing it?

The bilberry, smaller than a blueberry, is a small purple-black berry with a sharp juiciness. That’s the good news. Sadly, picking them by hand is a tiresome business. The bushes grow low and there’s too much back-breaking bending down so I usually kneel or loll and pick everything around me, trying to ignore the flies and midges. Trouble is, this way I look like I’m up to no good. And it’s slow: after 50 minutes I had barely more than a few ounces.

Last year I bought a bilberry comb, convinced I’d be able to pick pounds in minutes. All I got were twigs and leaves and the odd berry crushed between the tines. Of course I was doing it all wrong, ploughing the comb through the bushes without any finesse with one hand, holding a plastic box to collect the ‘harvest’ in the other.

A bilberry comb - but learn how to use it first!

A bilberry comb – but learn how to use it first!

As I was shown, it needs a light touch, dipping the comb in from the top of the plant, holding a branch with one hand while raking it with the comb. This meant abandoning my plastic ice cream tub and letting the berries collect inside the comb. There’s a ledge which acts as a one-way trap so they can’t easy fall out.

I was now collecting berries much, much faster than before but also little bits of leaves and twig – a job to sort through back home. These combs, used by the French and Scandinavians are a recent import because you never used to see them, now everyone has them.

There don’t seem to be as many pickers these days, mainly middle-aged and elderly, for the young are not so keen on foraging – anything – as they should. I’ve come back to bilberries. Picking expedititions were fractious when the kids were young as they soon got bored – or bitten. Later on, wet weekends and family holidays got in the way. Now I’m retired I have all the time in the world.

The bilberry is also known as the blueberry, whortleberry, whinberry, winberry, windberry, wimberry, myrtle blueberry and fraughan, while in North America, where it is bigger (naturally!) it is called the blueberry – or huckleberry. Now I didn’t know that.

People mostly use bilberries for jam or in pies. The French make a liqueur, crème de myrtille, while I once came home from Italy with a bottle of fierce bilberry flavoured grappa. It lasted a long time.

My huckleberry friend and I talked about how we were going to use the harvest. She planned a fruit salad, not a pie, as she was cutting down on pastry. I reckoned that as they were so much trouble to pick I didn’t want the reward to be over in a mouthful so would be making a bilberry gin. Then I would drain the gin-soaked boozy fruit and make a pie, jam or chutney, as I do with my damsons, getting twice the value.

Here and there were clumps of bright red berries on bushes with similar but greener leaves to the bilberries. They taste sweet and I think are the cowberry or bearberry (and a lot of other folk names as well). I picked them, too.

It took ages to clean the berries back home, Put them in water and the berries float along with the detritus, unlike blackberries. I had nearly a pound to put in a large Kilner jar with four tablespoons of sugar (60g) and a 70cl bottle of Aldi’s prizewinning Oliver Cromwell gin for £9.99. By Christmas I shall have a flavoured gin with a gorgeous colour. Hopefully it will be better than the elderflower gin which faintly pongs of swimming baths.

I went back again and collected enough bilberries for a bilberry, blackberry and apple pie, made entirely of foraged fruit. You won’t want to see a picture of it as there are plenty of pies on this site already!


My bilberry haul

My bilberry haul

Forty Minute Foraging

Still life: foraged apples, blackberries, damsons, plums, sloes, rowan, sloes and one blackcurrant

Still life: foraged apples, blackberries, damsons, plums, sloes, rowan, cobnuts and one blackcurrant

I’ve been foraging throughout the year, ever since the wild garlic pushed its way through the river bank but now things are really in earnest and it’s not yet autumn. There is a cornucopia of wild fruit to be had if you know where to look.

Now foraging can take up all morning or all day – I am still psyching myself up to go out on the moors to pick bilberries, a hot, sweaty, midgey business – but I’m a great believer in the Forty Minute Forage, just going for it whenever you see a likely site. For that reason, I always carry a bag or a box on my person or in the boot of my car.

I was anxious to gauge the state of the local plums and damsons and to see whether the first blackberries have arrived so headed off to my favourite spot, a rural idyll in the heart of the city. The plums and damsons still need a week to ripen but that didn’t stop me picking a few anyway.

The first blackberries are already ripening and I managed to collect a couple of handfuls. And I found a tree with small but lovely, sweetish apples. By now my box was filling up rapidly and I had to go back to the car to get another.

I found just the odd blackcurrant and all the cherries were gone (this was not Attercliffe) but I got a bonus in finding some cobnuts. They would go in a salad, the fruit in a pie*. I picked a couple of sprays of rowan to add a little colour. Later on I will be picking them in earnest for rowan jelly, great with meat or in gravies.

On my home, in the General Cemetery off Ecclesall Road, I found a few more blackberries and some sloes from a bush I hadn’t noticed before. They will be frozen until I have enough for a sloe gin. All in all, not a bad reward for 40 minutes or so. And for free.

*I cooked the damsons first and sieved out the stones, The apples were finely sliced and mixed with the blackberries. Adding rowans to a pie is perhaps not a great idea! Most of the sugar for the pie was from those little packets foraged in coffee shops.

Fruit pie: foraged in 40 and cooked in 40 minutes

Fruit pie: foraged in 40 and cooked in 40 minutes