Greasing up for the sunflower shortage

THERE is alarm in the nation’s kitchens and supermarket aisles over the impending shortage and rise in the price of sunflower oil. It is already being  rationed to two bottles per customer.

It’s yet another oil shortage.

I shall not be worried. While sunflower is a component of very many foods there are other oils to cook with, vegetable (mostly soy), rapeseed and good old olive oil – although undoubtedly there will be knock-on increase in price due to demand.

It’s been triggered by the disgusting Russian invasion of the Ukraine, which produces much of the world’s sunflower oil, and is likely to last several years.

There are alternatives.

For a start we can all eke out our supplies by following the Chinese practice of saving leftover oil from frying and filtering it back into a separate bottle. Waste not, want not.

If you are frying bacon cut off the rinds, or the fat at the edge of your rashers, and put them in a warm pan to render enough grease in which to fry.

Then there is lard. It’s cheap and acts exactly the same as oil for most purposes when heated. Or duck fat. I keep mine in a jar in the fridge. It’s amazing how much you get from a duck.

I also save any fats obtained from cooking processes – bacon, dripping from roasts, renderings from duck or chicken skin, grease from chops etc – in a pot. After all  it’s what our great geandmothers did in the last war. There is a war on now you know.

If you make your own stocks – and everyone should – you’ll get more than enough fat solidifying on top to use.

It will need to be clarified to rid it of impurities but that’s done easily enough. There are plenty of videos on YouTube like this one:

This fat, which will turn snowy white on solidifying, can be used exactly the same as cooking oils. Well almost, sunflower’s smoke point of 450F is twice that of lard. But enough for us.

It may take a little time and effort but it’s one in the eye for Putin.

Would you have the neck to cook this?

Neck on the block

YEAH I know, it’s not a looker. But would you eat this turkey neck? I did.

You’ll find one in your Christmas turkey, that is if you buy a bird with giblets. We had beef not turkey last year but we knew someone who did.

Someone who shuddered with disgust at the plastic wrapped innards and was not going to make giblet gravy so I volunteered to take them. I am all in favour of ‘nose to tail’ eating and that must include the neck.

I bunged them in the freezer for a few weeks before getting round to cooking them.

I only had vague ideas, possibly a soup, but when I opened the two bags what a lot I got. One contained the neck, the other two hearts and two glossy, juicy livers but no gizzard.

Now turkey liver is much too good to throw away on soup and had been well cleaned so just needed slicing, frying off with onions, thyme and garlic, and finishing with sherry, mustard, creme fraiche and the odd grape – liver Veronique. Served on toast.

And very good it was too. The flavour is much more pronounced than chicken livers.

I wasn’t so sure about the neck. Googling recipes came up with a Jamaican mock ‘oxtail stew’ from which I took a cue, if not the spicing. It might have been better if I had.

Oxtail requires long, slow cooking so after whacking the neck into segments I did the same thing. After searing the meat I added onion, celery, carrots, bay and thyme. Then as an afterthought I threw in a few no-soak pinto beans. The cooking liquor was a chicken stock cube. I included the sliced hearts for good measure.

Three or four hours later it was ready, the meat falling off the bones. But this was no rich, thick, vibrant dish, more a muddy, earthy tasting gloop. I don’t think the beans helped here.

I tried to improve things slightly with soy sauce and my home made elderberry Pontack Sauce) but . . .

It wasn’t unpalatable but not, I think a wiñner. I ate slightly more than half of it, telling myself it was what the Italians call cusina poverta, poverty cooking. But you wouldn’t get an Italian eating this!

In future, I’ll leave turkey necks for giblet gravy but the livers are an extra special treat.

A pint of prawns, a bowl of soup

Prawn bits and crab ready for the pot

ONE of the perks of being a journalist, at least when I did it for a living, was going on a a holiday, hopefully overseas, disguised as a working trip. We called them ‘freebies,’

If you were lucky you took your spouse or partner. Sometimes you went with a group of random journos. Either way you had a good time,

Back in the Nineties I managed to wangle the same trip for at least four years to Calais, organised by the port’s local chamber of commerce.

The idea was to write a story convincing at least some of the holidaymakers who passed through on their way to their various destinations to tarry awhile, perhaps at local attractions, wineshops or restaurants and spend some money.

I don’t know whether it worked but every year I came back with a brightly coloured ‘Via Calais’ tea tray and memories of a meal at the Hotel Atlantic.

It was always the same: heaps of pink, glistening shell-on prawns, crisp baguettes, garlic butter and glasses of crisp white wine. I am a sucker for shelling a pint of prawns, slowly, leisurely, for a hour or so. I can do it in my sleep: twist off the head, pull the tail and shuck off the legs with a thumb.

I like to have it at home, too, perhaps a couple of times a year. Buying the prawns is no problem, finding a decent baguette is impossible.

On the boil

Not only is it an enjoyable tea but I can look forwards to a fish soup. For the prawn carcases make an ideal stock. Just cover them with water, bring to boil, swim off the scum, add a few vegetables and, voila, the basis for a soup in 30 minutes. These days I usually add the shell of a crab.

Strained, it goes in the freezer to join various bits of fish, usually offcuts from portions I have bought earlier. When I have enough I make fish soup.

There isn’t really a recipe. The ingredients are whatever you have, onions, carrots, celery and potatoes, some garlic, loads of herbs, a grated tomato or two, bay leaf, tomato puree, Thai fish sauce and a spoonful of paprika, seasoning and a squeeze of lemon.When all is cooked add your fish.

It’s the ultimate in waste not- want not cooking, using up scraps to make something delicious. I’ve just had some. It was lovely. Now I am already planning the next prawn tea.

The finished soup

Beans Meanz Boston

WHEN a neighbour came on our street WhatsApp group offering jars of dried haricot beans for free I was after them like a shot.

There’s nothing I like better than food for free and I love beans. Dried beans. Cans of already cooked beans don’t quite have the same mealy-cum-meaty texture.

Besides, there was a lovely little story attached to these beans. My neighbour’s parents live in Belgium and grew the beans themselves, dried and packed them and then brought them over to Britain on a pre-Christmas visit.

But beans need forward planning. You have to soak them 24 hours in advance. And with toddler Henry to look after Tilde and Rich have 57 varieties of things on their mind. It was too much of a faff. But not for me.

So what was I going to do with them?

We already had cooked dried beans in the freezer awaiting the next mixed bean chilli ( those packets of 12 varieties from Waitrose are a bargain), let alone more dried beans in a jar on the cupboard shelves.

Boston baked beans, that’s what.

Beans are soaked overnight.

If you have tomatoey baked beans for breakfast, that old British cupboard standby, they are a dim and distant descendant of this frontier dish. So I was going to make them, or an approximation at least.

I checked a number of sources for recipes. It depends how far back you want to go and how authentic they need to be. For instance, tomatoes are a comparatively recent addition. They didn’t have too many tins of tomatoes in the Wild West.

And while I enjoy YouTube channels such as Townsends, which recreates American frontier life, I wasn’t going to dig a hole in the back lawn for a firepit and bury a pot of beans in overnight.

As a foodie friend remarked, it’s really a cassoulet.

People have cooked dried beans the world over but Boston’s contribution was to sweeten them with molasses, originally produced from sugarcane used to distill rum. Today, American baked beans are sweeter than the British version.

Almost ready!

The basic recipe is to soak then fast boil the beans to destroy any toxins, simmer in a casserole with a chunk of salt pork or smoked bacon for flavour, some molasses (or treacle) for sweetness, with garlic, herbs and spices – and a tin of tomatoes. In a low oven, around 150C, it takes something like three hours but check things don’t get too dry.

I enjoyed the texture of the beans and traces of pork, a big improvement on those tins of beans with sausages!

I used a Hairy Bikers* recipe as my template and added flavourings to hand.

And just as tins of baked beans are a store cupboard staple, so are pots of Boston baked beans in the freezer a great stand-by.

*Here’s the recipe:

500g soaked haricot beans

Piece of pork belly, cut into chunks

100g smoked bacon

100mls red wine

Large onion, chopped

4 cloves, tsp ground mace, bay leaf, thyme

400g tin chopped tomatoes

3 tbsp black treacle or molasses

1 tbsp English or Dijon mustard

Shake of Hendersons

In a casserole, cover beans with cold water, bring to boil for 20 mins, skimming off foam. Them simmer for 40 minutes. Meanwhile fry meat in a pan until browned and add to beans. Similarly fry onion and add to beans. Declare pan with wine.

Add the rest of ingredients, stir and cook in over at 150C for up to three hours. The beans improve with reheating.


Carrot pickle with crunch

WE WERE having dal and rice for tea and I wanted something spicy and crunchy to brighten things up. My Anglo-Mango chutney wasn’t quite the thing.

Instead of going out and buying a jar I rustled up my own version of gajar ka achar, or carrot pickle.

Sub-continental enthusiasts might bridle at my take on this lovely little side dish but it works for me.

For one sitting you’ll need two medium-sized carrots cut into batons and the principal spices are mustard seeds, turmeric and fresh ginger. Anything else is up to you – a bit of chilli if you want it hot, a pinch or two of cumin and a little fenugreek perhaps.

Heat a little oil (mustard oil is more authentic but not essential here) then add the spices. I used two dessert spoons of black mustard seeds, two inches of grated fresh ginger and a dessert spoon of turmeric.

I like to add a bay leaf when cooking and I scattered in a pinch of chilli flakes. Season to taste.

Now add the carrots batons and fry gently for about five minutes before adding a dessert spoon of sugar and enough white wine or cider vinegar to cover. Keep cooking until the vinegar evaporates. Add more if necessary.

You are looking for a sweet-sour, spicy finish with the carrots retaining a little crunch.

We find this very more-ish and it’s ready within minutes. It will improve if left for a day or two.

Incidentally, if you have any leftover rice and dal then mix them together with a little beaten egg, shape into small patties, dust with flour and shallow fry for a snack, lunch or light tea. They are very good.

How I bottled Spring


THE COLOUR is a shimmering greeny-gold, the aroma is like that of a damp morning and the taste is nutty, warm and smooth.

I think I have just bottled Spring!

A couple of months ago, you may recall, I picked young, fresh leaves from a beech tree overhanging my garden to make noyau, the French liqueur. I posted then because there was only a short period when the leaves are at their best.

I promised to let you know how I got on. The answer is splendidly!

To recap, I picked and washed enough leaves to almost fill a one litre jar and poured over a full bottle of gin, making sure the leaves were submerged, then left it in the dark to infuse. As you can read here

Some weeks later the leaves at the top had turned brown – not really a problem but it explains why recipes call for them to be ‘tightly packed – but those at the bottom were still bright.

Leaves in the Kilner jar

The colour as I strained the gin off was brilliant green ( it looks darker in the picture as I photographed it after adding brandy ) but I wouldn’t want to drink it ‘neat’ as the taste was rather harsh.

This was solved by adding a strong sugar solution, 150g of caster sugar in 200mls of water. It was a lot better! But, of course, the alcohol has been diluted ( the gin was 37.5 ABV ) so 125ml of brandy brought it back up and added pep and smoothness.

It’s a really pleasing drink, ready to drink now but will, they say, improve over time.

I can see this being a regular nightcap, bringing back memories of spring. Now I wonder what other leaves I can turn into a tipple . . .

Noyau – a glorious colour

Like salmon? Here’s a cure for it!

IT was a bargain too good to miss: a whole side of salmon, weighing a kilo, for just £10 using our Tesco Clubcard. But we only wanted a couple of fillets to steam for tea and the small ones on the lower shelves cost a fiver.

Naturally I bought the side, cut off my two fillets and didn’t really have to think too much about what to do with the rest.

A nice plump section would make me gravadlax, cured pressed salmon, an excellent alternative to smoked, with the chance to add subtle flavours. The rest went in the freezer for a family dinner later in the week, cooked Chinese-style, with even more, the tail end, reserved for soup.

It was the Scandinavians who came up with gravadlax as a way of preserving salmon, smothering it in salt and herbs and burying it in the ground. That’s why you’ll see it alternatively translated as buried or pressed salmon. I have heard it had a bit of a reek!

Things have moved on a bit since.

Essentially you cut your salmon into two equal pieces, leaving the skin on, smearing it on both sides with sugar, salt, herbs (fresh dill gives that distinctive flavour), peppercorns, and a splosh or two of spirits, in my case gin, although alcohol is not essential. If you’re teetotal crushed juniper berries will give the same kick.

Now sandwich the two pieces of salmon together, fleshy sides inwards, wrap in clingfilm or put in a ziplock bag and nestle the whole thing in a handy container. Raid the pantry for two or three tins to press down on the salmon and pop it in the fridge.

Curing can take between one and four days, depending on the result you want or how long you can wait. Just remember to turn the salmon every 12 hours.

When ready, drain the liquid from the salmon, wipe clean and lay on a flat board. Now find a very sharp knife (I use a fish filleting knife) and cut the thinnest slices you can, on the slant, starting at the tail end. Hold the salmon still with a pad of kitchen paper.

Don’t worry about the skin. Curing will have toughened it up and you won’t slice through it, cutting at an angle.

You may disagree but I think gravadlax, as with smoked salmon, gains in texture by being sliced as thinly as possible.

I like it in thinly cut sandwiches with cream cheese or on blinis, little buckwheat pancakes (recipes are everywhere on line) with sour cream.

It’s improved by marinating briefly with a little lemon juice but taste first for pepper.

My cure is taken from Shaun Hill’s Salt is Essential but it is much the same, whatever your reference. Quanitites are for a kilo fillet, scale down if necessary.

You need 4 tablespoons each of rock or sea salt and granulated or Demerara sugar, a bunch of chopped dill and a tablespoon of crushed peppercorns. He adds two tablespoons of brandy to the mix. I used gin plus crushed juniper berries.

Now enjoy it. Gravadlax will keep for at least a week in the fridge, depending on the length of cure, and will freeze, keeping it in one piece. Obviously you won’t refreeze it.

The Stinky Buds of April

When I wrote this last April I didn’t realise that pickled buds would become trendy – at least, so I am told although I haven’t seen it on any menus. Try it now before the ramsons burst into flower. They are very pungent. Mine are still edible after a year and my 10-year-old grandson loves them. He also eats them raw!

WILD GARLIC pesto is in season but so last year these days. Well, it is for me. Pesto goes with pasta but having been recently diagnosed as diabetic my tortellini days are over, at least for the moment. (I’m in remission now).

There are only so many grilled chops you can smear pesto on, soups to enrich or plates to dot artistically with the emerald green paste when in cheffy mode.

Luckily it’s not just the leaves you can harvest. Everything about wild garlic, or ramsons, is edible, from the flower to its bulb.

I’ve been pickling the buds as a kind of caper, or caper berry because they are around the same size, and have an experimental jar on the go. I’ll let you know how it goes.

I already make capers very successfully from nasturtium seeds and elder buds so am hoping for good results. In fact, I don’t bother buying the real thing these days.

You may look at a swathe of ramsons (of all its folk names I prefer Stinking Jenny) and wonder where the buds are. They turn into the beautiful white star blooms later in the season. Right now they are at the bottom of the plant, among the leaves.

You will have heard of the Darling Buds of May; well these are the Stinky Buds of April!

Pick one and enjoy the crisp, garlicky taste which would make, in moderation, a great addition to salads.

I picked 70g (precisely 101 buds, I counted them), enough for a small jar. Now you can ferment them, apparently, but I stuck to pickling. After a good wash they were packed into the sterilised jar and I made up a pickling vinegar by heating up 250mls of white wine vinegar with bay, peppercorns, mustard seeds, fennel and two tablespoons each of sugar and sea salt, leaving it to infuse before straining and pouring over.

You need to pack them very tightly as they float up and the top layer will not be fully immersed. I found a plastic lid which went neatly inside the jar. I’ll give it a couple of months before trying.

I’ve flavoured vinegar with the flowers in past years and used the broader leaves to wrap soft cheeses stored in oil so it’s a pretty useful plant.

At the end of the season you can also pickle the seed heads when the flower has faded. I might give this a go but have been warned it’s a fiddly job.

You can also eat the roots, using as a mild form of garlic in cooking. My neighbour was digging up a clump in his garden so I took them. Don’t go digging them up in the wild.

Medlars make marvellous chutney

YOU struggle to find a recipe for medlar chutney on the Internet and it’s not hard to see why. The pulp may taste sweet and lovely when you squeeze  it into your mouth but the pips!Since every fruit contains at least five sizeable pips it’s going to be a faff to sieve them out. And it is!
Making jelly is a cinch, you just turf the fruit in the pot, boil it up and the juice strains through the jelly bag later.It has crossed my mind to sieve the boiled pulp later for a chutney but I reckoned most of the flavour had gone into those little golden jars of jelly.But this year I collected so many medlars, about a couple of kilos, that I had a go. And once bletted and, without boiling them first into a solid, sticky mess, I could sieve out the pips without too much of a struggle.
You might find a little powdery blue mould on some of the fruit so either discard or nip off and, at any rate, give them a good rinse.Mind you, it took about 30 minutes hard work with a metal sieve and large spoon.
One medlar gives you 4-5g of pulp.
You’ll find it doesn’t easily fall through but has to be scraped off the underside.I got an aching wrist but I had about 600 grams of brown, sweet, sticky pulp to play with.For me, a ripe medlar ( the fruit is only edible when it has rotted or ‘bletted’) is a cross in flavour and texture between a date and fig. I have heard it compared to stewed apples. It’s the pips, which you spit out, which are the nuisance.But without cooking the fruit up first removing them was not that much to a struggle.Now dates and figs make very good chutneys and I had high hopes with this. I more or less made up the recipe as I went along, cutting back slightly on the sugar because there is so much in the pulp.
600g medlar pulp
600g apples
One medium onion, chopped finely
700mls malt vinegar
100g sultanas
2 tbs crushed coriander
1 tbs crushed mustard seeds
‘Thumb’ of fresh ginger
2 tbs garam masala
1 tsp chilli powder
900g sugar (see below)
All but the sugar was boiled up until mushy, adding a little extra vinegar from time to time if the mixture looked too thick (just simmer, don’t  boil fast). Then I added 900g of white granulated sugar, although brown would be even better.Cook on in the usual way until there is no surface liquid and you can see the bottom of the pan when stirring a spoon. Allow to cool slightly then put into warm, sterilised jars (I boil mine). I had eniugh to fill half a dozen variously sized jars.I am delighted with the result, worth the extra effort. It’s a sweet, rich, subtly spiced chutney which goes spectacularly well with cheese, especially blue.

Mashed potato adds to flour power!


Russian potato bread: one-third mash but you’d never know

WELL. who would have guessed we have so many secret home bakers in Sheffield, judging by the way all the flour has disappeared off the shelves in the Coronavirus panic buying sprees?

Those of us who bake bread regularly and who obeyed the government’s pleas not to raid the supermarkets are now having to rethink. It’s not staying on the shelves  that long.

You can’t do without flour but there are ways to eke out your supplies of strong white.

For a start, plain or self-raising can help but you wouldn’t want to use more than, say, four ounces to every pound of bread flour. Portuguese breads get their distinctive yellow colour from maize, polenta or semolina which you can use in a 2:1 ratio in favour of bread flour.

If you have rye, add a little of that, or whiz your porridge oats in a blender to make flour.

And then there are spuds.

Russian potato bread uses mashed potato and I have just baked a very successful loaaf, weighing just under two pounds, using eight ounces of mashed to one pound of bread flours (12oz white, 4oz wholemeal), a ratio of 2:1 which is a significant saving.

You couldn’t tell the difference unless you knew. This makes a very pleasant moist bread which toasts well and has good keeping qualities.

You can find plenty of recipes on the web but mine came, adapted, from the book Bread by Christine Ingram and Jennie Shapter {Hermes House).

It assumes you start from scratch, cooking your potatoes then reserving some of the water to knead. I already had the cooked potatoes so simply warmed them in milk (the equivalent of the reserved water), mashed them and carried on from there.

A couple of points. I needed more liquid than suggested but do be careful not to add too much. It felt heavier to handle and did not rise much while proving but came out fine. I made it on a baking tray rather than in a tin.

This is what you do. Peel and dice 8oz (225g) of spuds in unsalted water until soft. Drain and reserve a quarter pint (150ml) of the cooking water and mash the potatoes.

Put 12oz (350g) of strong white and 4oz (115g) of wholemeal in a bowl, adding 7g (quarter ounce) easy bake yeast and two tsps of salt.

It called for an ounce (25g) f butter to be rubbed in but I used olive oil. You can also add caraway seeds if you like.

Now add mash and potato water (probably best reunited beforehand) and work to a soft dough. This is the bit you adjust as you go but keep kneading before you add any more liquid.

As I said, it is not so light a dough to handle and less responsive in rising.

It was baked for just over 30 mins in a fan oven at 200C and is pretty good.

It doesn’t have to be potato. In Madeira they have the a griddle bread made with flour and sweet potato, baked as a flatbread on a hotplate. When the taters run out I’ll give that a spin.


It’s got a lovely, moist crumb