Category Archives: Aberdyfi

Walking in the hills above the Aberdovey coastline

A lovely morning, with the usual lyrical voices and occasional bickering of goldfinches in the cherry tree.  I always know when the bird feeder is running out of nyjer seeds, because the occasional squawk that signals a rare dispute slowly rises to an embattled ongoing staccato cacophony of discordance,  as the goldfinches jockey for position and fend each other off in a great colourful swirl of wings and feathers.  When silence falls it means that the bird feeder is empty, and that now sounds completely unnatural.  Fortunately I refilled the feeder only a couple of days ago, and harmony currently reigns.  For a sample of their more melodic song, try listening to the recording on the Bird Song UK YouTube site.

It was a good start to the day, which I needed.  I went out a few days ago to find that someone had driven into my car and dented a door.  I might have taken it in my stride a couple of months ago, because I have no great faith in human rectitude, but in the middle of all this chaos, with everyone talking about how people are really pulling together, it really upset me that no-one left a note.  Nothing to be done of course, apart from wishing that sticking pins in wax dolls is a real thing.  I did, however, find that it truly lifted my spirits to get out of the house and into the hills to walk off the pervasive melancholy and sense of disillusion.  Fortunately, this particular walk would have challenged anyone to remain down, and it was delightful.

This is the longest walk I have done so far this year, and it was a joy.  It had a bit of everything:  The hills, the stunning views over the coast to the north and west, a beautiful farmyard pond, streams, valleys, wind blowing in the trees that sounded just like a waterfall, marshy flatland, sand dunes and the endless, beautiful beach with peat beds, sand drifts forming amazing shifting patterns and the walk back up Balkan hill with wild flowers in the verges.

Foxglove (Digitalis, meaning finger-like) has gone mad this year, with vast purple plumes dotted around hills, verges, hedgerows and gardens.  Some are in full flower, others are just coming out, and all of them combine to provide a marvellous array of colours.  In the 18th Century digitalis was found to have an impact on the heart and research has proved it to be useful in fighting heart disease.  Foxgloves flower from June to September, so there is plenty of time to enjoy them.

The photo above shows Pond Water-crowfoot (Ranunculus peltatus) forms little networks of leaves and flowers on top of still water.  An aquatic white version of the more common yellow land-based buttercup (also Ranunculus).  The leaves are rounded and divided into lobes.  On a pond, they look like tiny water lilies.  Unfortunately this photograph is over-exposed, so the flowers are difficult to see properly.

Common ragwort (Senecio jacobaea), which is in the same family as dandelions (Asteraceae) is common around Aberdovey, and is a frequent colonizer of wasteland.  Growing up to 150m in height, it is easily distinguishable from other members of the Asteraceae family due to its rather untidy, seaweed-like leaves.  It is the food-plant of the orange and black striped caterpillar of the cinnabar moth (Tyria jacobaeae), which may strip its leaves completely.  It can be poisonous for livestock.  A biennial, it flowers from June to November, and the caterpillars start emerging in June, so if you know of a patch of common ragwort, it is worth watching out for the lovely looking caterpillars and the stunning red and black moths that follow.  It flowers from June to November.

Yellow flag iris (Iris pseudacorus) grows in ponds and marshes, and loves to have its roots wet.  There were only a couple in flower, but it should soon be a fairly spectacular sight.  They usually flower between May and July/August.  the Yellow flag iris is supposed to be apotropaic, something that wards off evil, but it often has a bad reputation for being somewhat evil in its own right, spreading so energetically that it colonizes whole areas, frequently becoming a thorough pest in garden ponds and lakes in parks.  Its rhizomes (root system) spread out sideways and form dense masses that are really difficult to eradicate.  In the wild, although they are wonderful to see, they can oust other wild species from the same habitats.

The Cuckooflower (Cardamine pratensis), also known as milkmaid and lady’s smock, is a member of the Brasicaceae (cabbage) family is found in damper areas such as river banks, reed beds, saturated marshland and damp pastures.  The young leaves are edible and have a slightly peppery taste, that also extends to the flowers.  It has a relatively short flowering period, from April to June.

Peat beds, that look like rock outcrops, on the beach between Tywyn and Aberdovey. When you find a bit that has come loose, it is rich, black and dense, highly consolidated.  Near to and when the day is dull it is ebony black.  In the sun, slightly damp, it reflects the sunlight and looks silvery.

Common or Large-flowered Evening Primrose (Oenothera erythosepala) is a lovely flower, smothering the sand dunes at the moment, but whenever I walked in the dunes the flowers seemed to have gone over, with none in flower.  The answer to the puzzle is that the flowers open just before sunset and and begin to wilt by noon the next day.  Their appearance is early this year, usually not flowering until June, and they last until September.

A rather fuzzy photograph of a silver-studded blue (Plebejus argus).

Ivy-leaved toadlfax (Cymbalaria muralis), once confined to southern Europe, was poking out of one of the walls on Balkan Hill in various places and crawling along the stone surface on long, red stems.  They are thought to have been introduced into England first in 17th century and were so prevalent in Oxford that they became known as the Oxford weed.  The leaves are edible and taste similar to watercress.

Another wall-inhabitant is Navelwort (Umbilicus rupestris) with its distinctive leaves and cream-coloured bell-like flowers clustering along the stem.  It flowers from June to September.

It is the longest walk I have done this year, and I enjoyed it so much.  The emptiness of the hills is always, with or without Covid-19, something really rather special.  A superb walk, a lovely day.

Eating from what’s to hand, just for fun – week 7

By the end of this week’s cooking I was more than tired of my own efforts, not to mention my own company.  Planning and shopping ahead means that it is difficult to be spontaneous and go off piste with fridge and freezer ingredients, because that will leave various orphans in the fridge that don’t obviously match anything else and will probably go to waste.  Twice this week I really didn’t fancy what I had planned to eat, and as I was desperately trying to avoid cooking randomly, in order to avoid food waste, I simply chose one of the other items on my personal menu.  I had built in enough variety to make this possible, but I am beginning to long for the ability to eat what I want when I want it and not feel tied in to something that I had decided on a week before.

I’ve also realized that even though I have always loved one-pot cooking, and have enjoyed what I have done over the last few weeks, I have done far too much of it.  This is mainly because the dishwasher is currently broken and my kitchen is so tiny that not having the dishwasher in which to stack things is a nightmare.  The state of my kitchen during the cooking of the roast chicken and veg just had to be seen to be believed.  I hadn’t realized that my dishwasher actually acts as another cupboard – it is either full of clean stuff or is being filled, which takes the pressure off the rest of the kitchen.   So I am longing to get the dishwasher fixed, to recover some of my kitchen space.  When we went into lockdown I was looking at how best to organize myself to live within the new confines; now I find myself planning what I will do food-wise the moment lockdown ends.

Saturday

Slow cooked brisket with mushrooms, back bacon, carrots and and mashed potatoes.  I had half a brisket hanging around in the freezer and a bottle of Bishop’s Finger ale in the kitchen, for cooking with.  That seemed to decided a one-pot meal of slow-cooked brisket with button mushrooms, dried shiitake mushrooms, carrots, with flavourings of crushed juniper berries, thyme and bay leaves.  Brisket is full of flavour, but is as tough as old boots, so needs a long slow cook to tenderize it.  I browned the piece of brisket first, and then put everything into the slow cooker to sort itself out for a couple of hours, with half of the bottle of Bishop’s Finger (the rest went into the freezer for future stew) and some beef stock to give it a lift.  Fifteen minutes before serving, I took out the piece of brisket, sliced it fairly thinly, and returned it to the slow cooker.  I served it with potato, parsley and spring onion mash, with butter and cream mashed in to give it a creamy, rich texture and flavour.  I can’t remember the last time I had mash, and it was a great change, made with the rather splendid British Lilly spuds.  Probably the most inelegant meal that I have turned out so far, but it was packed with flavour and was very comforting.  A slow cooker is not required for this menu – just cook in the oven, in a very well sealed pan, on a low setting.

Sunday

Watercress, spinach, rocket, leek and feta soup.  I needed to use up a mixed pack of watercress, spinach and rocket, which I had bought to use for salad, but hadn’t needed because of the number of herbs in the garden.  It was ageing rapidly, so I decided to turn it in to soup, with the help of some leek, red onion, garlic, stock and feta.  I wilted the contents of the pack in boiling water for three minutes and drained through a sieve over another pan so that I could re-use the flavoured water.  Into this pan I put the the ends of a  chopped leek, leaving the middle part to use on another day.  The wilted and drained spinach mix was then put into a bowl, and the leeks were then added.

In a little butter I then cooked some diced red onion, garlic and some more leek, allowing it all to go golden before adding a few cubes of feta cheese.  I put a little boiled water with a little chicken stock over the top to loosen it up and provide a little more flavour.  Whilst that was cooling down, I stirred in a table spoon of crème fraîche into the spinach, watercress, rocket and leek mix, which I put through the food processor (a blender would be much better).  I then added the onion and feta mix to the food processor, and let it whizz for several minutes (it would require less time in a blender).  On tasting, I also added some white wine vinegar, and quite a bit of salt and pepper.  It hit the spot perfectly, very nice with some grated cheese on top and served with a bit of rustic bread.   I had it as a meal on its own, and put the other half in the freezer.

Monday

Roast tarragon chicken with leeks, tender stem broccoli, carrots and roasted potatoes.  I was able to pick up a very small roast chicken when I last went shopping.  Whole chicken is always a good option, because I will take off what I want to eat and then use the leftovers for chicken Caesar salad, for chicken, mushroom, carrot and pea pie, and I use the skin and chopped carcass for stock.  I always forget, when doing a roast, to just do the vegetables for one, so there were far too many on my plate, but they went into the stock.

I stuffed the chicken cavity with chopped onion, leek and a lot of tarragon and pushed tarragon and a little garlic with some butter under the skin of the breasts.  There no were Maris Piper spuds in the Tywyn Coey when I last went shopping, so I picked up a bag of “British Lilly,” which turned out, when peeled, to be a lovely shade of yellow.  I chopped a small spud into four, and boiled the pieces for five minutes (seven minutes for bigger pieces) whilst duck fat was melting in a pan in the oven.  When the spuds had been drained, they were tossed in the duck fat and the pan was returned to the oven.

I had used up all my fresh stock, so whilst the chicken and spuds were roasting I had to improvise with a low salt stock cube simmered with a lot of chopped leek tops, a big handful of tarragon, a spring onion and some parsley, with a glug of white cooking wine.  When the chicken was not far off being heated through, I drained the liquids into the stock and then removed the pan to allow the fat to rise to the top, at which point it was drained off.  I then made a roux in another pan, and strained the stock through a sieve, little by little, into the roux.  It was desperately anaemic so I added some browning to it, but it could have done with a bit more colour.  The flavour was great, with loads of tarragon.  I steamed the vegetables together for ten minutes to serve.

The whole thing was a really nice change, a bit of a treat as I always consider doing a roast for one more than a little lavish, even though every part of the bird is used for other meals and for stock.  I had the top slice of one of the breasts with the skin, which was wonderfully brown and immensely thin and crispy (achieved putting butter over and under the skin and by roasting the chicken on high for 20 minutes when it first goes in the oven).  The chicken was moist and had a lovely taste of tarragon.  I was particularly taken with the British Lilly spuds, in spite of the seriously daft name.  They roasted beautifully, brown and crispy on the outside, yellow and fluffy on the inside.  They were delicious, slightly sweet and a beautiful colour. I hope that I’ll be able to buy them again when things go back to normal.

If you have chicken left over, and I had a lot even with a small bird, just run it under a cold tap in a sieve to ensure that the fat drains off.  A roast chicken is inevitably very oily, even if you don’t butter the top and put some under the skin (which I did), because as the skin crisps up, the fat drains all over the chicken.  If you make stock with the carcass, I recommend chopping all the bones so that all the goodness of the bone marrow flows into the stock.  When the fat is drained off and it is left overnight in the fridge, it becomes jelly-like and wobbly, and has to be spooned into a tub for freezing (as above), a sure sign that it has acquired some good flavour from the bones.

Tuesday

Lamb, aubergine, olives and feta in tomato, spinach and herbs.  This is a favourite of mine, and I often do it  after a big meal the day before, served in a small earthenware dish without accompaniment.  I do this in the slow cooker, but it could go in the oven on a low setting perfectly well.  It is a great way of using up odds and ends that have been used in other meals, like olives, feta, spinach, and even bits of salad like rocket. Courgette can be used as well as or instead of aubergine, and par-boiled sliced potato can be used to supplement or substitute for both.  It can be done with any type of meat that can be converted into chunks, it goes brilliantly with firm fish that holds its shape, or you can have a vegetarian version by adding extra aubergine, olives, spinach, and feta, and other ingredients like artichokes, okra, hard boiled eggs and of course capsicum (green/red/yellow peppers).  I always forget about capsicum because I am allergic to them.

I used a lamb chop, griddled it and cooked it whole in the sauce, cutting it into chunks before serving.  I had some mashed up tomatoes in the freezer, so threw those into the slow cooker, fried some finely diced onions and garlic and threw them in with two slices of dehydrated lemon, and poured over a little stock before adding the griddled chops.  Capers, chopped salted anchovies, olives and some sun-dried tomato pesto also went in.  An hour before serving, with the slow cooker on low, I put in a couple of handfuls of spinach, some whole mint leaves and some oregano.  Don’t mistrust the mint – it is utterly divine in this sauce.  15 minutes before serving I griddled a couple of aubergine slices and put those in to the sauce, at the same time removing the lamb to cut quickly into chunks before returning them too to the pan. I like my aubergines with nearly-burned stripes, which has to be done on a very high heat and requires constant monitoring.

I served the finished dish with a sprinkling of coarsely torn basil over the top, although coriander would work too.  A grating of parmesan goes superbly with the aubergine if you’re not using feta.  For me that was plenty on its own after previous day’s roast, with loads left over as a base for another sauce, but rice, cous cous or a salad would go well.

Wednesday

Chicken Caesar salad with grilled croutons.  Caesar salad is one of my favourite dishes on the planet, when it is done well.  The best one I have ever had was in the British Museum’s Great Court restaurant, which served (probably still does) stunning dishes, often themed around the museum’s temporary exhibitions, and it was a favourite place of mine when I lived in London, either for meeting with friends or eating on my own.  One of the few restaurants in London where lots of people are at tables for one.  Having a lot of leftover roast chicken just yelled out for a Chicken Caesar, and it’s one of those dishes that gives a lot of flavour in return for just a few ingredients.

I was going to have a go at making my own salad dressing after watching an episode of Rick Stein’s series about his travels in Mexico, when he visited the restaurant where Caesar salad dressing restaurant was created (Caesar’s Restaurant in Tijuana, now managed by well known chef Javier Plascencia) and talked through how it was made (shown here on the MENU website, if you’re interested).   But after a particularly long walk and a late arrival back home, I really couldn’t be bothered to do anything remotely resembling cooking, so fell back on a bottle of Cardini Caesar salad dressing, which I bought a couple of weeks ago in the Aberdyfi Village Stores. 

Caesar’s Restaurant serves the Romaine lettuce and the sauce without accoutrements, except for one big crouton (a sliced piece of baguette-type bread, deep-fried) and some shaved parmesan.  My mother used to do Caesar salad with the addition of chicken pieces, wedges of hard boiled egg, and little cubed croutons.  Having walked past the Coast Deli on the way back home, and inhaled a great noseful of wonderful aromas, I was starving, so I added some leftover roast chicken, half a boiled egg (halved again), two pieces of Romaine, two salted anchovy fillets and some little cubed croutons.

I like little bits of crouton sprinkled around rather than one big one, so did it the way that Mum used to.  Rustic bread that’s a couple of days old is cubed (about 2cm in all directions) and then rolled in olive oil.  They then go under the grill for a couple of minutes, turned regularly.  You have to keep a seriously close eye on them, or they can burn horribly, but as this is the only cooked component in the dish, you can afford to stand and watch them.  They emerge crispy but with a bit of give.  The last thing to be done is to spread each romaine lettuce leaf with the sauce to coat it, which I did with the back of a table spoon.  It’s important to do it at the last moment so that the lettuce doesn’t go limp.  It is put on the plate with sliced chicken, the croutons and anchovies are added, and more parmesan is shaved or grated over the top of it.

Thursday

Dressed crab from Dai’s Shed followed by prawns, avocado, mushroom with parmesan and cream.  I only ever eat more than one course when I’m in a restaurant.  But when dressed crab is available from Dai’s Shed, I usually either have a salad with it or do something relatively small to follow it. I bought my dressed crab frozen because they had run out of fresh, which I had never done before, but there was nothing to worry about – it was wonderful.  I like it with loads of salt, pepper, lemon juice and Tabasco, and it tasted so much of summer.  In terms of “living from what’s to hand,” it is of course a cheat.  I found that Dai’s Shed was open quite by accident on one of my longer daily walks, and the crab was a spontaneous, happy purchase, although it broke my once-a-fortnight shopping rule.  Dai’s Shed, by the way, wash all their coins at the moment.

My second course was a copy of someone else’s work.  When I first moved to Surrey Quays in London, there was an Italian restaurant nearby called Venezia.  It was there for about 15 years, and although it was modest in its ambitions, its decor a little on the Chianti-in-a-basket side, the food was exceptional and it was one of my favourite restaurants in London.  During the delivery of an important project at work over a 9-month period, I used to eat there when I came back very late from work at least once a week.  I was right at home there, and got to practice my Spanish, as one of the waiters was actually from Madrid.  Then, with no warning, the owners went home to Italy whilst I was on holiday in France.  Oh the misery!   I wish that I had had the chance to ask for at least three of the recipes before they left.  One was a starter that they used to turn into a main course for me, consisting of button mushrooms, prawns and avocado slices in a creamy sauce topped with parmesan and finished off under the grill.  I’ve never tried to reproduce it, but why not?  So this was first attempt to reproduce that recipe.  As I also had my dressed crab from Dai’s Shed to eat, I did a starter-sized portion in a tapas dish and to be honest, given the amount of cream and the oil in the avocado, it should probably only ever be served as a starter.

This is the simplest dish ever.  I was surprised to see avocados for sale in the Coey, but it was an opportunity to try this dish, which I was thinking about last week, so I jumped at the chance.  I was unable to buy raw prawns, but the Coey had cooked ones (“ready to eat”) in the freezer, so I used those.  I fried some button mushrooms, and added a fine-chopped clove of garlic and some pancetta cubes until well cooked.  I sprinkled over some flour, just enough to help it thicken, added a small glug of white wine and some water to form a base for the sauce and stirred in some crème fraîche, followed by a glug of double cream and some freshly grated parmesan.  I then added the cooked prawns to heat through.  I left this to reduce for a couple of minutes, gave it a good stir, seasoned it with some salt and black pepper, and then, right at the last moment, put in the sliced avocado to allow that to heat through.  The avocado was very ripe, so I really didn’t want to move it around, and left it to heat very gently.  If is more than warmed through, it will break up, so it only needs to be in the sauce for a short time.

To serve, I turned it into a terracotta tapas dish, grated some parmesan over the top and put it under the grill until it began to bubble and brown.  I added no herbs or spices, because I wanted to try all the ingredients without distraction, but when I tried it I added more black pepper and a good sprinkling of chilli flakes and I think that fresh oregano or marjoram over the top would have been a distinct plus.  It was just as I remembered it and I will now be adding the copied dish to my repertoire, but next time I’ll try to find some low fat crème fraîche instead of the full fat version, which I was unable to source last time I went shopping.

Friday

Chicken salad with a herb sauce.  A lot of chicken in one week, but it didn’t bother me at all.  This was more of my leftover roast, and it went down very well indeed.  The salad was simply diced tomato, cucumber, lovage and purple onion with capers and a handful of rocket, all topped with a German mustard vinaigrette.  The sauce was basically a herb mayonnaise with sour cream stirred in to make it go further, rather than making twice the volume of mayonnaise.   A low fat fromage frais would be better from a healthy perspective, but I couldn’t find any.  Make sure that the mayonnaise is really thick before stirring in fromage frais or sour cream, as whatever you stir in will instantly loosen it.  You can choose whatever herbs you like, and if I had tarragon I would use oodles of that with chicken, but I had a bottle of tarragon mustard (bought – the Maille brand) and some tarragon vinegar (fresh tarragon shoved into a bottle of shop-bought white wine vinegar for a few weeks), so used them in the making of the mayo, and it worked brilliantly.  Alternatively, marjoram or dill would go really well with poached chicken, as would parsley and chives and finely diced spring onions.  I added fresh chives and parsley.  I squeezed a lot of lemon juice over the whole lot.

Conclusions

  1. I love cucumber.  Although I keep it out of the fridge during the winter, as the seasons heat up I transfer it to the fridge but I used to find that it had a tendency to go soggy in the fridge.  In a fridge-full-to-capacity crisis a couple of years ago, I placed one vertically in the fridge door between bottles.  It worked really well, and I find that cucumber keeps much better when stood up in the fridge door.
  2. A whole chicken goes such a long way.  As well as the roast, I got two other meals out of it this week and have enough left over for two more next week, and I used the skin and bones to make a chicken and leek stock for the freezer.
  3. Good quality bottled sauces and packet pastes and gels really are helpful, and although I’ve usually tended to avoid them on an everyday basis, I often have something of the sort in my kitchen cupboards as a fallback.  My chicken Caesar salad sauce would probably have been better with freshly made ingredients, but the bottled version saved me time on a night when I was running late.  I always have curry pastes in the cupboard, as well as a particularly excellent hot and sour soup gel that I will be doing next week.
  4. Why, oh why do I keep forgetting to label things I put in the freezer?  It’s soon going to be like living out of a tombola.
  5. I have been enjoying the challenge or pre-planned cooking and eating, but I am craving a return to a less rigidly organized and more spontaneous regime, and a less over-stuffed fridge and freezer.
  6. The dressed crab from Dai’s Shed was such a treat, not merely because it was terrific in its own right, but because I so welcomed eating something prepared with such skill by someone else!  And I would seriously love to eat someone else’s cooking for a change.  A raspberry ripple ice cream in a cone, from the newly re-opened Sweet Shop (practising strict social distancing, and using masks and gloves), felt like a very special occasion.  The fact that Coast Deli and Dining and Walker’s Quality Fish and Chips are now offering phone-and-collect ordering on certain days of an evening is very promising.
    The light that I’m waiting for at the end of this particular tunnel is the ability to go to a favourite restaurant, where all the lovely dishes are delivered by a friendly waiter or waitress accompanied by some seriously nice wine, and one can mellow out until ready to drift home.

Village opening times following the relaxed lockdown announcement

I walked down into the village for my usual circuit down Gwelfor Road and back up Balkan Hill yesterday (Saturday) and checked out some opening times.  There were more people in Aberdovey than I’ve seen before since the start of the lockdown, and it was a matter of crossing the road several times to maintain the 2m distance, but the car parks are still very quiet.  The opening times below are offered in good faith, but they may change at any moment depending on the experience of individual shops.

The Abedyfi Butcher continues to be open Monday to Saturday 8am to 2pm. You can visit the shop (there’s no room for more than one person inside at a time) but they are also happy to take orders and payment over the phone, you can then pick up your order from outside the shop if you’d prefer (you can pull up in your car right outside the shop) and they will bring the order out to the car for you.  01654 767223

Walkers Quality Fish and Chips is now open during evenings on Friday and Saturday preferably for telephone orders and you will be given a slot, but they will also allow a maximum of four people at a time in the shop for drop-in purchases.  Enter by the side entrance (up the alley between the fish and chip shop and the building to its right) and practice strict social distancing.  Facebook https://www.facebook.com/Walkers-Quality-Fish-Chips-407214866695428, 01654 768098.

The Sweet Shop, with its wonderful ice cream, is now open 1100-1400 from Thursday to Saturday.  The front door is barred by an information sign and instead the huge open window is used to serve the ice cream, with all the usual cones etc available.  A blackboard listing all flavours available is propped on the side of the window.  Masks and latex gloves are used by the staff, and social distancing is strictly observed.  https://www.aberdyfiicecream.com, Hello@AberdyfiIceCream.com, 01654 767 222.

Dai’s Shed is open for seafood from 1100 – 1400, Thursday – Saturday, and you can phone them to find what’s available.  Huss, flounder, mackerel, crab and lobster have all been available recently, but it depends what Dai manages to catch when he’s out on his boat, so it’s a case of seeing what’s available, and you can phone to find out.   Dressed crab is usually available frozen if fresh is not available, and I can recommend it. http://www.daisshed.co.uk, 07944 264821.

The Coast Deli and Dining is now offering a take-away Call and Collect menu from 1700-2015 from Thursday to Sunday, and a copy of the menu is both on the website and in its window showing starters, main courses and desserts and a range of drinks.  Orders can be placed by email or telephone.  The gorgeous aromas emerging when I passed made me absolutely starving. https://www.coastdelidining.co.uk, croeso@coastdelidining,co.uk, 01654 767470

Both the Aberdyfi Village Stores (Facebook https://www.facebook.com/aberdyfivillagestores/, 1654 767451) and the Spar (01654 767415) continue to remain open, certainly in the mornings, but I forgot to check the afternoon closing times, and the Aberdyfi Village Stores Facebook page says that their opening times may be subject to change.  Both practice a strict rule of allowing a maximum of two people in the store at once.

The Post Office has continued to remain open throughout the lockdown, practising strict social distancing rules, with only two people at a time in the store, whether that’s for the Spar or the Post Office.

Another visit to the Bluebells in the hills behind Aberdovey

I couldn’t resist going back for another look at the bluebells before they go over.  I cannot remember ever seeing anything quite so stunning.  That plunging hillside, absolutely covered in a massive sweep of bobbing blue heads, was just beyond description, and also beyond any attempt to capture its glory in a photograph. It was a breezy day, with some sun and a lot of cloud. It was quite cold, and there was no hanging around, but I was lucky to arrive at the bluebells in a good spell of sunshine.  The verges, hedges and fields on the way there and back were also full of interest and pretty things.  A fairly short walk, about an hour’s round trip, perhaps a little longer, but so rewarding.  As well as a Pied Wagtail, a Small Copper butterfly and some various beautifully lyrical but invisible song birds, surprises included a field of horses (sheep and cattle are what one tends to expect at the top of a hill) and a rabbit bouncing down the road.

Two rather fuzzy photos show a Pied Wagtail and a Small Copper.  Both were quite a long way away (as was the rabbit at the end of this post).  They were right at the limit of my lens.  It’s a good all-round lens but blurs edges at its full range, so apologies that these photos are particularly clear.

Pied wagtail (Motacilla alba yarellii), pied meaning simply “of mixed colours.”  Frequently found near sources of water and in open country, particularly near farms.  Their diet is made up of insects, mainly flies, and those venues provide plenty of insect life.

The Small Copper (above) likes to feed on the Common Sorrel (below).  There is Common Sorrel dotted around all over the area, maturing to red flowers, but it is not particularly thick on the ground, so it’s good that there’s enough to support the Small Coppers.

Common sorrel (Rumex acetosa) is dotted around the field of the area.  It flowers from May to July, and its tight clusters of blooms are red when the flower is mature.

Ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea), a member of the dead nettle family.  Apparently it smells strongly of blackcurrant.  In beer-making, and before hops were used instead, ground ivy leaves were used to add flavour to beer.

Red campion (Silene dioica), one of those summer-long flowers that is seen all over the country in the summer and seeds like crazy, so will continue to bless a location with its presence for years to come once it has been established.

Common vetch (Vicia sativa).  This was native to southern Europe and became established all over northern Europe when it was introduced as a fodder crop for livestock.  It is a member of the pea family, and makes its own nitrogen, making it a good fixer of nitrogen in soil.  The leaves, engagingly arranged in opposing rows, have needle-like tips.  I love the vetch.  Its delicacy, its vibrant colouring and the parallel symmetry of its leaf arrangement are beautiful.

 

The biennial foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) can be found just about anywhere throughout the summer, and look as though they were custom-made for bees.  Amazingly versatile, and they will take almost any soil and any light conditions and they seed themselves like mad.

Ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata) in flower.  During the winter, the seed-heads provide a good source of food for birds.  A very beautiful field right on the top of the hill is chock full of ribwort plantain, buttercups and daisies.

Navelwort (Umbilicus rupestris) with distinctive leaves and cream-coloured bell-like flowers clustering along the stem, like tiny floxgloves.  I had never seen it before, but it grows all over this area, in verges and rocky niches and I love the disc-shaped leaves that have the dip, or navel, that gives the plant its name.

Creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens).  Splendid colour, pure sunshine.  We used to hold buttercups under our chins when I was a child, and the more yellow the reflection, the better you were supposed to like butter.

I am not sure about this one.  Possibly a scabious, but I should have paid more attention to the leaves.

Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta).  The latin word Hyacinthoides derives from the name of  Prince Hyacinthus in Greek mythology.  Hyacinthus was the lover of the god Apollo and died when hit by a discus when the two were playing quoits.  When Hyaninthus died, the god Apollo wept, and his tears spelled the word ‘alas’ on the petals of the hyacinth flower that sprang up from the prince’s blood.  Non-scripta simply means unlettered and and is used to distinguish the Bluebell from other species in the genus.

Walking across the hill behind Aberdovey to check out the bluebells

A friend and keen walker told me that there were bluebells still out in two choice spots that I knew of from a previous walk, so in spite of lower temperatures and a fairly stiff breeze, a walk up the hill seemed to be in order, starting a few minutes walk from my house.  The wild flowers are lovely at this time of year, splashes of bright colour against the rich green of hedges and hillside.  The view of the canalized section of Afon Leri, about which I have written here, was particularly good, a long straight slice across Cors Fochno.  Cors Fochno is a Special Area of Conservation and one of the largest remaining examples of a raised peat bog in Britain, which started to form from c.5500BC.   Bardsey island was visible, lying to the west of the Llyn Peninsula, both of them visible as subtle blue silhouettes.  The sea looked striated, with layer upon layer of colour.  I heard my first cuckoo of the year, a soft, musical sound in the valley below.  I’ll fill the gaps in the plant identifications below when I am reunited with my excellent wildflower books next week, and I’ll add the latin names at the same time.

Gorse

Cow Parsley forming an attractive hedge

Foxglove

Hawthorn

Strawberry clover surrounded by ribwort plantain leaves

Bird’s Foot Trefoil

Bardsey Island

Bluebell field

Bluebells in an oak wood

Speckled Yellow Moth – (Pseudopanthera macularia)

Bluebell

Wall Brown

 

Eating from what’s to hand, just for fun – Week 6

Six weeks in to the lockdown.  What still remains so staggering, so completely difficult to grasp, is that a pandemic should have swept so rapidly across the globe and closed down nearly every nation in its path, taking with it so many human lives.  It is the colossal rampancy of it that is so astounding.

I don’t suppose that I am alone in being somewhat concerned about the dubious wisdom of the partial relaxing of the lockdown, announced yesterday for England by the PM.  It will be interesting to see how these concessions are interpreted by the public, particularly given that people have naturally become very fed up with lockdown restrictions.

Although I have so much sympathy for all businesses, particularly small ones, the re-opening of garden centres seems a bad idea.  I am utterly unconvinced that it would be possible to create a low-risk solution to virus transmission in a garden centre.  As an incredibly enthusiastic garden centre shopper, the idea that social distancing can be imposed on people milling around, randomly searching for plants and other products seems incredibly far-fetched. More worrying is that wherever there is an object and a person in intimate contact, there’s a risk of the virus passing from the human to the object.  Everyone touches everything at a garden centre, picking things up to inspect them or read instructions on boxes, touching and occasionally sneezing and coughing over pots, plants, sacks of compost, seed packets, bottles of anti-fungus and bug-killer, boxes of grass seed, bits of hose fitting, bags of bird feed etc etc.   We run those risks when we go food shopping, but that’s for necessities, not for pleasure.  Disposable latex gloves and masks would seem to be a minimum requirement.  Please stay safe.

I continue to work in my garden, do odds and ends of DIY, go for occasional walks, push forward with re-learning French (which I am enjoying enormously) and forging ahead with various projects on my computer.  Never a dull moment.  And I continue to be busy in the kitchen.  In all my life I have never been so active in a kitchen, although this week I again managed to make meals that would serve more than one portion, only needing to be heated up later in the week.   My herbs continue to do well outside in their pots, and as the summer continues to drift nearer and the herbs look increasingly perky, salads are looking like a very strong regular option – and a lot less effort than cooking!

Saturday

On the way in to the dehydrator

Sausage, white pudding and dehydrated vegetable casserole.  Well I know that that doesn’t sound desperately appetizing.  As I was assembling it, looking at the wrinkled up vegetables, doubts were foremost in my mind, and when I first came to tasting it, I was rather like someone approaching a spoon full of reputedly unpleasant medicine.  But wow.  I have now learned that the dehydrated vegetable seriously rocks.

I bought a dehydrator two weeks ago on the recommendation of my friend Sarah, who had bought one for dehydrating fruit and was very much enjoying it.  Like Sarah, I wanted it primarily for fruit, mainly for the autumn when the best British fruit is harvested and is brilliantly fresh and full of flavour.  My plan was to get used to it before I need it, and reading through the book I bought to accompany it, it turned out that it can also be used for dehydrating vegetables, meat and even fish.  So as well as apple and lemon slices, my first batch in my shiny new dehydrator included sliced courgettes, tomatoes, mushrooms, leeks, onions, and some cabbage leaves.  The dehydrated lemon slices worked superbly when thrown into last week’s gumbo and this week’s chilli con carne, really fantastic, but I seriously lacked confidence about the vegetables.  One forges ahead anyway.

The core components of my casserole were a pork and black pudding sausage, a slice of white pudding (halved to form two discs), some pieces of bacon, all from the freezer, a bay leaf off the tree in my garden and a good amount of diced onion gently fried in oil.  All of the other solid components were dehydrated:  a lot of dried leek, mushroom, courgette, and some cabbage leaves.  Also some sage that I had actually sun-dried earlier in the year during that long hot spell.  The liquid components, which I added as I went along after tasting and re-tasting to try to get just the right balance of acidity and depth, were chicken stock, white wine, mustard, a hit of soy to give it a bit of body, and a small squeeze of tomato paste for just a hint of sweetness.

To my genuine astonishment, it was a great success.  The dehydrated vegetables all rehydrated splendidly and imparted a dense and vibrant flavour to the casserole.  The textures, about which I had been so worried, were great, not even slightly chewy.  It did not look particularly elegant in the bowl, even with the optimistic sprinkling of parsley over the top.  Once again, no Michelin stars or Masterchef awards, but as a completely new experiment in rich flavour and excellent texture it was a real winner.

I didn’t need anything else to accompany it, although mash would work really well.

Sunday

Pitta pockets with herb salad, capers, sour cream and anchovies.  One of those timeless, simple meals that you just throw together with whatever salad stuff you have to hand.

The pitta is simply toasted and then either cut along the side or halved.  I halved mine.  In a bowl I mix whatever salad stuff I happen to have to hand.  Today I chucked in some diced tomatoes, diced cucumber, a bit of lettuce (little gems are my favourite), and fresh herbs (in my case coriander, lovage, marjoram, parsley and mint), capers and some chopped salted anchovies.  Then I squeezed in some lime juice and added two big spoonfuls of sour cream, some ground sea salt and black pepper, and gave the whole lot a good stir.  And that’s it.

You can tackle this in a dignified way, spooning the mixture into the pitta  before eating it, or you can simply spoon in the contents as you go.  Either way, it’s a bit of a messy process to eat it, but who cares?  The flavours are so fresh and the hands-on approach feels very summery.

Monday

Slow-cooked chilli con carne with black beans, rice and sour cream.  Chilli con carne literally means, in Spanish, chilli with meat, suggesting that the chilli is the star of the show.  The carne is beef, and in the UK often minced beef it used, but I like it done with chunks of tougher cuts cooked until tender in the slow cooker.  The slow cooker is one of those pieces of kitchen equipment that I would hate to be without, and I’ve had one since university days.  I had an enormous piece of chuck steak in the freezer, about half an inch thick, and cubed it into 1 inch pieces.  Chuck steak doesn’t shrink much during cooking, so you can be fairly confident that chunks will retain their size.  If you are using one, the slow cooker must be pre-heated.

Finely chopped onion, sliced chillis and finely chopped garlic are fried until translucent and just beginning to brown.  The following are then added:  cayenne, smoked paprika, ground cumin, ground coriander, a good sprinkle of dried coriander, some fennel seeds, a fresh or dried bay leaf and either some cinnamon or a piece of cassia bark (the latter my preference) and some dehydrated lemon slices.  Once heated through they are removed to the slow cooker.  The beef chunks are fried on high heat until browned all over, flour is sprinkled over the beef, given a good stir to coat, then added into the slow cooker, and given a good stir to mix with the other ingredients.  Peeled and chopped tomato are added together with some beef stock to cover, and the whole lot is left to its own devices for several hours for the chuck steak to tenderize and the spices to blend.  I only had a couple of tomatoes, so added the the dehydrated tomato slices that I had donef on Saturday, together with (if you’ve been reading this blog since it started, you’ll have guessed it) a big glug of Big Tom and some sun-dried tomato pesto.  Two whole dried limes were also thrown in, an excellent online purchase.  Half an hour before serving, I put in black beans (from a can).  Kidney beans are more traditional, but I love the flavour of the black bean, and the ebony shine looks wonderful against the reddish mixture and the green of the coriander (or parsley if coriander is unavailable).

The chuck steak was superbly tender, the flavours had merged perfectly and the black beans had retained their structural integrity.  I served it with plain boiled rice and chives, and a heavenly dollop of sour cream.  If you want to bulk it out a bit more, guacamole would also be a traditional accompaniment.  Alternatively, a side salad with lots of cooling cucumber and tomato, and some aromatic coriander and a spritz of either lemon or lime juice would be excellent as a contrast to the rich flavours.

There was another portion left over for another day, which I’ve placed in the freezer and will be anticipated with enthusiasm.

Tuesday

Pork and black pudding sausage, smoked back bacon, baked beans and a fried egg.  If you knew me, you would know that I never, ever eat fried eggs.  It’s a bête noire.  The amount of oil needed to cook them makes my hair stand on end, and I never liked the flavour of the fried egg whites, or the crispy edges.  I griddle or grill sausages and bacon and poach the egg.  However, I screwed up the timing on the meal, so everything else was ready and the egg was still sitting patiently in the bottom of a cup.  The quickest solution was to fry it, and I was quite curious about how it would taste as the last time I had a fried egg must have been about 30 years ago.  The pork and black pudding sausage was divine, with great chunks of black pudding.  The smoked bacon was heavenly.  The Heinz baked beans were just as they have been for decades, although I had accidentality bought a rather bigger tin than usual, so there were far too many of them.  The dollop of Branston small-chunks pickle hit the spot.  The egg, however, simply confirmed my prejudices.  The yolk was gorgeous, but the oily white was just as I remembered it, and the fried egg experiment will not be repeated.  Each to their own, and good to know!

Wednesday

Herb-stuffed and bacon-wrapped baked trout with a tomato and onion salad.  In my massive freezer sort-out, I found an enormous whole trout.  I was slightly taken aback by its size, but since I craved trout, I decided to roast it whole, and remove one side to eat, retaining the other side for a salad.  Baked trout, like poached salmon, is delicious cold, unlike most fish.

I beheaded and gutted the trout and  stuffed the cavity with onion slices, parsley, lovage and bay, and then wrapped the whole thing in smoked bacon slices. If not wrapping in bacon, I would have added lemon slices to the stuffing.  The bacon has the double effect of keeping in the moisture of the fish whilst the fat crisps up the skin of the trout.  Win-win.  I put it on a metal grid in a baking tray and put it on a fairly high heat in the oven to crisp the bacon and cook the trout through.  I served it with a simple tomato and onion salad topped with mustard vinaigrette and given several turns of the pepper mill and a good sprinkling of sea salt.  It doesn’t look very exciting on the plate, but just letting the flavours get on with it without excessive elaboration or accessorizing works so well.  Simple.  Quick.  Full of flavour.  Happy.  I ate half of it, and put the rest in an airtight box in the fridge for another day.

Thursday

Chilli con carne #2.  One pot cooking is a fabulous way of generating enough food for two or more meals, cutting down on the time spent in the kitchen.  I love chilli con carne done with chunks rather than mince, and this was probably even better after a couple of days allowing the flavours to mellow than it was on the day that I actually cooked it.  Spring onions chopped into the plain boiled long grained rice gave both freshness and a good contrast to the richness of the chilli.  A sprinkle of lemon or lime over the top is always a good idea.

Friday

Cold trout with herb salad and tarragon, lovage and parsley mayonnaise.  Cold cooked trout is a heavenly thing.  I had the other half of the trout wrapped in bacon during the week, and removed this half from the bone at the time and put it in the fridge.  I seriously love salad, but I do understand that not everyone is as keen.  For me, it has to have herbs and a great dressing.  I divided my salad into two, the first part slices of cucumber and tomato with fresh marjoram leaves in between.  The rest of the salad, herbs and leaves, consisted of shredded little gem, lovage, parsley, spring onions, buckler-leaved sorrel (which, unlike other sorrel, has a great citrus hit), sliced chilli, marjoram and mint.   I sprinkled capers everywhere, and added some Fragata lemon-stuffed olives in the middle.  I made mayonnaise with tarragon mustard, fresh lovage and parsley, sea salt and a squeeze of lemon juice.  Mustard vinaigrette was tossed into the leaves.  A simple meal, and always such a pleasure to use herbs that are growing outside the kitchen door.

Conclusions

  1. I have mentioned cooking wine on a number of posts, mainly talking about white wine.  I keep separate wines to drink and wines to cook with.  I am a fussy wine drinker, red and white, but my rules on cooking wines are simple.  Where white wines are concerned I don’t pay the earth for them, but neither do I buy at the bottom end.  So I tend to avoid French wines for cooking, because even really poor wines tend to be over-priced, although Muscadet can sometimes be found at a good price for cooking, and is often great for the purpose.  I tend to use Italian dry whites for cooking, unless there is a really good reason for something sweeter, and known grape types like Pinot Grigio or Soave tend to work well.  German or Alsace whites can work if you want a sweeter white wine.   Red wines are different, because you are generally trying to add body and richness to a dish.  When cooking over a long period I like really big, fruity, rich reds, lacking subtly.  A lower-priced Chianti or Shiraz usually works well.  On the other hand, if it is a sauce for steak, cooking relatively quickly, something of superior quality will be a much better choice.
  2. A hit of even the most ordinary supermarket brandy can give a rich red wine casserole a really helpful lift.
  3. Chilli tends to be intensified in the freezer.  Whole chillis pack a real punch when frozen, but even if you freeze down something that has chilli cooked with it, it will usually be hotter when it emerges.
  4. A tip with salads is that if you soak a piece of kitchen paper in cold water (Blitz is excellent for this) and put it over the salad, it will keep it beautifully fresh, even out of the fridge.  If too much salad has been made, placing it in a zip-lock bag with a piece of kitchen paper in the bag, and put it in the fridge, it will be almost as fresh the following day.
  5. Again thinking about salads, I have learned the hard way to leave adding vinaigrette to the last moment before serving.  For one thing it prevents it sinking to the bottom and leaking out, and for another it prevents the salad going soggy.
  6. The new dehydrator rocks (the photo above shows a batch ready for putting into the dehydrator), but one does need an awful lot of airtight boxes! Not to mention the room to store them.

Another Aberdovey beach walk, nothing special, but so nice to get out

Walking along the beach seemed to be the safest of all the outdoor exercise options yesterday, because the beach is so huge that it is easy to avoid other people doing their similar constitutionals.  The Panorama walk is probably the next safest option.  I would love to do the walk along the estuary and back, but for a lot of that walk there would be incredible difficulty in keeping a safe distance if one met someone coming the other way.

I wanted to take a photograph on the sea front to match up with a vintage postcard, so I opted for the beach.  I was breaking in a new pair of shoes, and was fully armed with blister-treating gear, but happily they were spectacularly comfortable.  The light was particularly beautiful.  Looking over the estuary, the clouds were gathering over Ceredigion, as they so often are.  Looking north up the coast, the sky was completely clear, an endless unblemished ceiling of pure blue.  There was nothing much to see in the dunes.  The evening primroses are in flower, and are dotted all over, but there is nothing else in bloom at the moment.  The very high strandline trailed along just in front of the sand dunes, and contained an unusual number of small crab remains but nothing else of note.  There were a few jellyfish washed up, as usual for this time of year.  The tide, on its way out, had clearly been remarkably high, nearly reaching the long row of steps that run along the top of the beach along the front of the car park, with a pool of water left behind by the retreating tide also showing how high the tide was.

Common evening primrose

Sea holly

Beautiful colours on a crab claw

After the yellows and blues of the dunes and the beach, it was fun to walk back up Balkan Hill, where lush green dominated, and the gardens were full of yellow falls of laburnum and wonderful lilac-coloured rhododendrons.  Even the verges were on full alert, with a lovely display of colour.

Red Valerian

Fuchsia magellanica

Speedwell

Common Stork’s-bill

Sea Mayweed

 

 

Vintage postcard of fishing-net racks on the beach, postmarked 1917

This postcard was purchased with the job lot that started the vintage postcard series, but for some reason it did not get published with the rest, and I found it whilst putting the entire collection away for safe keeping.  It is interesting, capturing echoes of the small-scale fishing industry.  The postmark has a date of 1917, which means that the photograph was taken before that time.  It shows the lovely four-terrace white building Cliffside that still stands, beautifully maintained.  This side of it, nearest to where the photographer stood, is a low building with a tall chimney at the back.  Does anyone know what the building with the chimney was for?  I’ve been through Hugh M. Lewis books, but I cannot find a mention of anything that would explain the chimney in that location.

All of the buildings adjoining Cliffside are still in situ, but the chimney has gone.   The dominating feature of the photograph is the rickety looking arrangement of poles that run along the beach, for the drying of fishing nets.   There is also a really rather nice little open-top carriage on the road, minus horse.

Above is the same sort of angle today.  The fishing net frames were built where the concrete platform now stands.  The concrete monster puzzled the life out of me for years, but I was told recently that Aberdovey used to have extensive mussel beds, and this platform was used for processing them.  Indeed, it lies next to the foundations of an earlier platform.  It fell out of use when the mussel beds shifted elsewhere.  I do wish that someone would knock it down, as it’s a real eyesore!

In the image below I have superimposed the photograph over the postcard and reduced the opacity of the photograph so that if you look very hard (and it does make your eyes go a bit funny), you can see both the fishing net frames and the mussel sorting platform.   The bus stop has changed the line of the wall, but the slipway is still in situ and the houses have changed only very little.

Not many postcards include a sender address, but this one does, and there’s a neat little cross written on the left of the postcard to show where it is located:  C/O Mrs Richards, Aberdovey Cottage, Bath Place, Aberdovey, Wales.  I think that this is probably now 3-4 Bath Place, known as Dovey Cottage (just east of the Literary Institute).

The postcard was sent without a stamp, and there is a pencil-written note saying “Unpaid.”  Presumably the Ashton Under Lyne recipient, Miss Bishop, had to pay an excess fee.

The card, number 42883, was in the Sepiatone series, produced by Photocrom Co.Ltd.  of London and Tunbridge Wells.

Dai’s Shed – Open and selling seafood on the Aberdovey wharf!

Dai’s shed is open on the wharf, selling freshly caught seafood on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 11am – 2pm.  So miffed that I didn’t know, because they have had flounder in, and had just sold out when I turned up!  But I came away with a frozen dressed crab, so it was still a splendid result.   Fresh live lobster, and fresh dressed lobster are also available.  Lockdown just got a lot fishier.

This card from “Dai’s Shed,” selling superb locally caught seafood from Easter until Autumn, shows Dai’s fishing boat at low tide against a backdrop of the hills over the estuary.

 

Eating from what’s to hand, just for fun – Week 5

This week is a real contrast to last week.  Last week was fresh herb week, thanks to my father, and it was delightful to have all those bright flavours to play with.  It’s a good arrangement.  I take him groceries every fortnight and get to raid his garden for vegetables and herbs.  On Saturday and Sunday I used up the last of my booty of wild garlic, sweet cicely and mega-lovage.  I have to ration my own lovage and my two parsley pots are beginning to look a bit sad due to over-exploitation, although I have just given them both some serious encouragement with soluble plant food.  On the upside a pot of buckler-leafed sorrel and marjoram are beginning to get a more substantial grip on life, having been planted out into much bigger pots, my oregano is recovering, and my mint is attempting a world take-over bid.

By contrast, from Monday onwards this has been a one-pot week full of rich flavours, mainly from hotter climes of the world, and largely supplemented with high-carb ingredients.  That’s mainly because I had nearly run out of all vegetables except tomatoes, and by Tuesday had no salad left, but it’s also partly because my dishwasher has broken down, and it is easiest to do the washing up with one-pot meals!

Saturday

Leftovers salad with mustard vinaigrette and herb mayonnaise.  I found myself with some the tail end of a lemon-marinated chicken breast, a slice of ham, the middle bit of a little gem lettuce, some feta, and the end of a cucumber that was rapidly losing the will to maintain structural integrity.  Separately they were a bit of a puzzle but they worked well together as a salad tied together with a fresh herb mayonnaise, some capers, shallot, tomato and herbs dotted around and a bit of vinaigrette, it all worked splendidly.

I do the mayo in a baby food processor that has a small hole in the top for precisely this purpose.  An egg yolk was put into the processor bowl together with a teaspoon of mustard, a couple of squeezes of lemon juice, a teaspoon of white wine vinegar and some rock or sea salt.  The lid goes on, and then olive oil is fed, immensely slowly, through the hole in the lid.  Just the thinnest possible trickle.  Slowly the mixture starts to emulsify, changing colour, thickening.  When the preferred consistency is reached (and it’s fine to keep stopping and checking) add the roughly chopped lovage, wild garlic, chives and a finely sliced spring onion and whirl until completely broken up.  When the preferred consistency is reached (again, keep stopping and checking) turn it off, put in a small bowl, lay cling-film gently on the surface to prevent the surface reacting with the air, and leave in the fridge until needed.  There was plenty for the salad and, as intended, enough left over for another salad.

The vinaigrette is even simpler.  In a jar with a tight-fitting lid (you are going to shake it madly, so it needs to be a good fit), put three parts olive oil to one part white wine vinegar, add French Dijon mustard or German mustard to taste (add, shake, taste, repeat until the desired result is achieved), season with salt an pepper, a good squeeze of lemon juice and, if you fancy it, fresh or dried herbs.  Shake until the mustard has distributed itself throughout the vinaigrette.  Job done.  Lots of variations are possible, like a hit of Balsamic vinegar, or adding French brown mustard to the Dijon, and using different types of oil and adding herbs to achieve different flavours.

In the photo, the little ham tubes were two pieces of leftover sliced ham spread lightly with the herb mayonnaise and rolled into spirals.  The little gem leaves had a mint leaf, a finger of tomato, a finger of feta, some sliced shallot, and a few capers, topped with a mustard vinaigrette dressing.  The cucumber was similarly dressed, whilst the disc of tomato was topped with some of the mayo and a few capers.  Lovage leaves between the little gem boat finished off the salad.

It was too big, of course, but I covered what I didn’t eat with a very damp piece of kitchen towel and put it in the fridge for lunch on Sunday, instead of my usual morning slice of toast.

Sunday

Spinach, rocket, watercress, wild garlic, chive, mint and frozen pea soup.  Another tale of leftovers, another tale of unexpected, wild bursts of flavours.  I am in love with leftover living.  Or at least, I am at the moment, while it retains the charm of novelty.  I had one of those salad packs, with baby spinach, rocket and watercress (a bit of a fib on the latter – there was very little watercress in the pack).  But it’s difficult to eat enough of a big pack as a single person without becoming single-mindedly rabbit-like in one’s eating habits, which would be so tedious.

So I fried a chopped small onion, two small cloves of garlic, a large chopped chive and some chopped wild garlic in a pan, very slowly, til translucent and smelling wonderful.  I then added water that had been boiled and left for a few minutes, chicken stock, frozen peas, the spinach, rocket, watercress and a handful of mint.  I let it almost-simmer for ten minutes and then whizzed it up in the food processor.  A blender would be much better, but a food processor is what I have, so I just let it run for a long time until the right consistency was achieved.  It was still stunningly green, and anxious to preserve this, I poured it into a fridge-chilled glass bowl, tied it into a plastic bag and put it into the fridge as soon as it had reached room temperature.  With a slice of toasted rustic bread, this was wonderful, not because I’m a good cook (I’m a highly inconsistent hit-and-miss one) but because the ingredients were so excellent.

You could add a swirl of cream, sour cream or crème fraîche, and it looks so pretty when you do, but I loved it just as it was and cream can really interfere with pure, super-fresh flavours, softening and dulling them.  A grating of parmesan cheese over the top might work well.

This soup is also delicious chilled.

Obviously you could replace the chicken stock with vegetable stock, and the only reason I didn’t here is that I haven’t any home-made at the moment, and I find that the shop-bought cubes are dominated by the flavour of celery, which I dislike.

Monday

Starting off a high-carb week, using up leftover veg and bits and pieces in the freezer, was this improbable but happy mix of ingredients based on paella rice.  Paella rice is a bit like risotto rice but, in my experience, produces a meal that is not as gloopy. 

The rice part of the meal was a simple mixture of courgette slices, halved, fine-chopped onion, sliced chillis and garlic, with just a little saffron, all of which are fried in olive oil.  Thyme is scattered over the whole lot.  The rice is added and stirred to coat, and cooked for a couple of minutes.  Blitzed fresh tomatoes are then added and heated through and hot stock is poured over the top.  It takes approximately 15 minutes for the rice to be cooked and the water to be boiled off, leaving a pleasingly sleek and cohesive result.  I had a chicken thigh floating in my freezer, so marinated that for an hour in what I fancied, which was zatar and sumac, sea salt, lemon juice and olive oil.  I then put it under the grill.  A simple side order of chopped tomato and cucumber with vinaigrette, and a dollop of the last of the Greek Yogurt rounded things off, with a chunk of lemon to crush over the chicken and rice just before serving.  Happy!  Such a simple meal, and although phenomenally inelegant on the dish it had bags of flavour. 

Chicken is just what I happened to have, but it goes brilliantly with lamb chops, most fish (but especially hake, swordfish steak and sharks fin) or works fine on its own.

Tuesday

Photo from the Italian Cooking Class cookbook. Australian Women’s Weekly series, p.41-42

Sicilian spaghetti.  This was a favourite dish of mine many years ago, and I don’t know why I stopped cooking it, although I suspect that it was a case of failing to scale down recipes that I used to do for a group.   Whatever the reason, it was a mistake because I find that it is still great and easily scaled up or down.

I chose to do double and have it twice this week (because I am by no means confident that the aubergine/eggplant and spaghetti would freeze well).  But what’s not to love about that?  It is so great that the same dish twice in one week is a good thing.  As a change from my normal format, both the photograph and the recipe are scanned from the book from which they came, to give credit where credit is due.

The ingredients are only a few components away from those that make up an anglicized spaghetti Bolognese, but this is all baked together in the oven with an aubergine lining, with peas to provide little explosions of sweetness and cheese to bind it together.  It forms a completely unique culinary experience, a dense, delicious gooey mass, encased within overlapping aubergine that keeps all the flavours sealed in.

Photo from the Italian Cooking Class cookbook. Australian Women’s Weekly series, p.41-42 (click on it to expand it to a readable size)

The recipe comes from the excellent book Italian Cooking Class Cookbook (in the Australian Women’s Weekly series), and from which the photograph here is taken to show it at its brilliant best.  My version was a fraction of the size and lot untidier than this!   I rarely vary from the original recipe, if I can help it, but I did on this occasion have a small portion of leftover pork mince, which I found when sorting out when defrosting the freezer, so chucked that in just to save it from being thrown out.  That’s not as inauthentic as it sounds, because the two are often mixed in Italian cooking – for example, Carluccio uses a mix of beef and pork mince in his Spaghetti Bolognese recipe.  As usual, as I don’t like tinned tomatoes, I peeled fresh tomatoes and whizzed them up in the food processor with a big slug of Big Tom (tomato, celery and chilli) and some sun dried tomato pesto, the latter sourced from the local Spar.

Perfect for al fresco dining with a glass of good, rich red wine.

There was enough of the basic mince mix (pork and beef mince, onion, garlic and tomatoes, before other ingredients were added) to freeze down as a base for another, different meal.  I use Lurpak Spreadable tubs, 250g or 500g, which stack brilliantly in the freezer.

Wednesday

Haddock, shellfish and saffron with chilli, lemon and coriander or parsley.  This is very much a freezer-dependent meal and I had to empty half of the freezer to get to it, because all of the seafood was at the back.  I hate emptying the freezer to find stuff, as no matter how much I remove to cook, somehow I always struggle to get everything else back in!  But after last week’s plaice I had a seafood craving.  Haddock is usually available in local supermarkets in vacuum packs, and I prefer the flavour to cod, which is more widely available round here, but I find very bland. The shellfish was a mixed frozen seafood selection that I bought from one of the big supermarkets when visiting my father a couple of months ago, so I’m not sure if this can be reproduced using local shops.  It was all bits and pieces, so it was great to be able to use it up in a single meal.

The base is made of gently fried onions and garlic, with skinned tomatoes added when the onions and garlic are heated through, herbs, saffron if wanted and whatever else is available on the day.  This meal was more on the fiery side than usual, and a lot more lemony, because as well as some peeled fresh tomatoes, I actually used two leftover sauces from the freezer:  a very small amount of leftover sauce from last week’s chicken Doro Wat (a chilli-infused, highly spiced tomato sauce with dried lime, garlic and onion) and an equally small amount of leftover sauce from a fish tagine that I made before the lockdown, mainly characterized by saffron, garlic, toms, preserved lemons, mint and coriander.  I loved the transformation, which compensated perfectly for the virtually tasteless Dutch supermarket tomatoes, and will invent a recipe that does something of the sort in the future for similarly spicy and fiery seafood stews that can be replicated without being dependent upon random leftover sauces.  I also chucked in salted anchovies and sun-dried tomato pesto for richness, and two chopped chillis for heat.

I used fresh tagliatelle, boiled for a couple of minutes in water, draining off most of the water, but leaving a bit behind.  The seafood mix is stirred into the pasta and served.  Ever since a visit to the Algarve, which was a culinary delight, I have been in the habit of topping seafood stews with coriander.  I had found some rather elderly coriander in the back of my fridge, and although it was too sad to sprinkle over the top, I stirred it in at the last minute.  If coriander is not available parsley is more conventional, more readily available and adds a pleasing fresh look to the dish.  I used it here.  Whatever else you decide, lemon wedges are essential for squeezing over the top. It was a meal in itself, but a smaller portion could be served with a side salad.

That left me enough of the seafood mix for another two meals, so into the freezer it went.  The haddock won’t survive the freezing process and will disintegrate, but of course will add flavour.  Either more fish can be added (I have another haddock fillet) or it can be had as a more liquid sauce over pasta, or consumed as a thick soup.

Thursday

Louisiana Gumbo.  Gumbo, the official state dish of the state of Louisiana in the U.S., is full of flavour, and the level of heat is entirely optional.

This version used slender Welsh Pen Y Lan pork and chilli sausages (because that’s what I had), uncooked jumbo king prawns and a chicken thigh.  The sausage, which is usually very fine in its own right, was all wrong for a gumbo, but in this age of compromise and leftovers seemed worth giving a whirl.  On the whole, I really wish I’d left it out, although it did impart a useful pork flavour to the sauce.   A solid smoked sausage is the best, and if you have access to a Polish supermarket or a Polish aisle one of the big mainstream supermarkets (I used to be able to buy Polish goods in the Tesco where I lived in London), kielbasa works superbly.  Cooking chorizo is a common substitute, but can overwhelm all the other flavours.  A very simple dish. To me, okra/bhindis are essential, but green beans are often used as an alternative by those who are not so keen on okra.  If you are using full-sized fresh okra, top and tail them so that they heat through nicely.  Frozen baby okra can be thrown in as they are.  I also threw in some diced courgette/zucchini, because I happened to have some (courgette soaks up the flavours beautifully) and some slices of dehydrated lemon as an experiment.

Fish works just as well in gumbo, using only fish of the sort that doesn’t break up during cooking (huss, which is also known as rock salmon, monkfish, conger eel or swordfish steak are good choices) and shellfish.

If you are using fresh tomatoes, peel and then blitz them in the food processor/blender before you start.  Otherwise, tinned tomatoes are fine.  You will need a Creole spice mix.  You can either make up your own, which allows you to prioritize the flavours that you prefer (paprika, cayenne pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, black pepper, dried oregano and dried thyme), or a pre-made mix (good brands are Bart and Seasoned Pioneer).  I could have sworn I had a Creole mix, but it turned out to be a Cajun one, so I used that and added the oregano, thyme and cayenne.  Due to the lack of smoked sausage, I used a heavily smoked Spanish paprika, which worked well.

Just fry the chunks of sausage and chicken breast and remove from the pan.  Fry onion, fresh or dry chillis and garlic until soft and then stir in the creole spices and heat everything through and return the chicken and sausage to the pan.  Add some flour lightly over the top and give a good stir to mix it all in, to help thicken the sauce.  Add the tomatoes with lemon zest, some lemon juice to taste, a good pinch of saffron and a good glug of dry white cooking wine (no point using the good stuff, but the wine does make a difference so use something reasonable). Depending on how much liquid the tomatoes added to the pan, you can add some chicken stock if you want it to be rather more liquid.

Let it simmer for 10 minutes to allow the chicken to cook through and the flavours to blend.   Taste to see if you need more lemon juice, saffron or chilli.  Add the prawns and okra and cook for another 5 to 10 minutes until the prawns have gone pink and the okra are warmed through.

At the last minute stir in coriander and sprinkle some over the top.  This retains all the flavour of the coriander, which heats instantly in the sauce without overcooking it.  Serve with plain boiled risotto or long grain rice, dependingly on preference, with spring onions or chives chopped into it and chunks of lime or lemon for squeezing over the top, together with a jar of flaked chillis or some Tabasco to add additional heat if required.  I also added a dollop of fromage frais, which I bought by accident instead of sour cream, but happily lasts for weeks in the fridge and was a reasonable substitute for the sour cream.

Friday

Sicilian spaghetti #2.  I had the second part of my Sicilian spaghetti, and was very happy.  I simply took it out of the fridge, let it come to room temperature under its clingfilm lid, and then put it in the oven to heat through gently for 30 minutes.  When I removed it from the oven, where I had cut through the aubergine lid and removed a portion of spaghetti, the vertical section of spaghetti had now been exposed directly to the oven heat, and had emerged crispy, which was utterly delicious.  The interior was just as mellow and gooey as it was on Tuesday.

Conclusions

  1. Gathering the ingredients together for the Sicilian spaghetti and the seafood stew, both of which I started off on the same day, leaving the final touches for when I wanted to eat them.

    Right now the use of pasta (and/or rice) seems like a good way of converting ever-decreasing numbers of ingredients into substantial meals, which is defining feature of cucina povera, a style of cooking that emerged from rural peasant kitchens in Italy.  Pasta and rice, being carbohydrates are filling.  It is usually possible to buy fresh pasta locally and although it’s not something I eat much of, I usually have some in the freezer for emergencies and as I found out this week, dry spaghetti is a great substitute for fresh, a good change if you usually have the fresh stuff, different in a good way, with rather more body and a good, eggy flavour.

  2. Rice still seems to be easy to source and is another excellent way of making other ingredients go further.  I did a gumbo and a courgette and tomato risotto-type affair, but rice is a super base for biryani, paella and vegetable pilaf, and rice as an accompaniment (egg-fried, boiled, pilau, basmati etc) are all winners.
  3. Still on the subject of making meals more filling, using breadcrumbs as a thickening agent works a treat.  It was a standard way of using up stale bread in Spain, and it not only works as a thickener, helps to give more body to a meal, but absorbs the flavour of any sauce without imparting any of its own.
  4. Capers give a purposeful hit of sharp intensity to so many fish dishes, herb sauces, cream-based sauces, tomato-based sauces, mint sauce (they are fantastic in mint sauce), tartare sauce and salads.  I have never run out of capers in my life.  Right now, down to the last dregs, I am feeling almost weak-kneed with fear at the prospect of a caper-free existence.  Top of my list for the next time I go shopping, with my fingers and toes crossed that they haven’t sold out. If you haven’t tried capers you should be able to find them in even the smallest supermarkets and you might want to give them a whirl.
  5. As well as the eponymous component of mint sauce, mint adds a real sparkle to green salads, is glorious fine-chopped with diced cucumber in yogurt dips, gives Mediterranean vegetable soups a lift, and adds freshness to Mediterranean and Middle Eastern fish or lamb stews.  A truly versatile herb.  I grew mine from a pot sold in the herb section of a supermarket (Tesco, I think) and it grew into its huge pot, and comes back every year.