Category Archives: Living

Dyfi National Nature Reserve booklet

Whilst sorting out some stuff on one of my bookcases I found a bilingual leaflet/booklet produced by Natural Resources Wales giving details of the Dyfi National Nature Reserve, including walks and seasonal highlights.  It was free of charge, and I think I picked it up at the Ynyslas Visitor Centre.  The Dyfi National Nature Reserve includes the Ynyslas sand dunes, the saltmarsh, Cors Fochno, the 5000 year old peat bog and a wide range of wildlife.  It’s an excellent little publication, which I have scanned so that you can download it here.  The following shows the front and back cover, and the fold-out map.

The map shows the village of Furnace on the A487, which has the excellent and well explained remains of the Dyfi royal silver mint and charcoal blast furnace.  I’ve posted about it on the blog here, if you are interested in combining a visit to it with a Dyfi National Nature Reserve walk.

White horses and honeycomb reefs at low tide – the beach at Sandilands (Tywyn)

After a walk along the Dysynni last week, I did a three point turn by the footbridge and drove back along the line of the railway.  Instead of turning left to head back towards Tywyn I decided to turn right over the level crossing and park up to see if I could reproduce the picture from the Cardigan Bay Visitor that I posted last week.    Unfortunately for that plan I had reckoned without the addition of a caravan park since the original illustration was drawn, and both the railway track and the village were completely hidden behind it.  On the other hand, the beach at low tide was a complete revelation.

This part of Tywyn is apparently called Sandilands, but is something of a misnomer.  There is certainly sand on the beach, but mostly it is a mixture of fine and coarse gravel, surprisingly harsh on the feet, with some swathes of pebbles around, all divided by wooden breakers.  I had never seen it at low tide, and was amazed to see that the sloping beach ended in huge green-topped rocks and lovely weed-filled rock pools with sand between them, with an enormous stretch of wide open sea on the other side.  The sea was splendid, with lovely white-topped waves chasing each other in, crashing on the rocks and pebbles and sounding just what a seaside should sound like.

There were quite a few people around, most large family/friend groups, but not so many that social distancing was a problem, and it was all terribly civilized.  I had really enjoyed having the Tonfanau beach all to myself, but it was also splendid to see people of all ages launching themselves into the waves and having a really great time.  The caravan park overlooking the beach takes the edge off the beauty of the place, but keep your eyes facing seawards and there is nothing to disappoint.

I was intrigued by what looked like huge boulders made of coral.  When I stooped to touch one, it was clear that these rock-like structures were made of sand, and consisted of fine walls dividing thousands of tiny tunnels. The beach is full of them, and they are really very lovely.  After a rumble round the web I found that they are Honeycomb worm (Sabellaria alveolata) colonies.  The reef structures resemble honeycomb.  The colonies form on hard substrates and they need sand and shell fragments for tube-building activities.  They manufacture the tubes from mucus to glue the tiny pieces together.  When the tide is out the worms retreat deep into the tunnels, but when the tide covers their reefs their heads protrude and they feed on micro-organisms in the water, including plankton.

Because there are rock pools, it is possible to see various seaweeds in their natural habitat floating freely in the clear water, a lovely kaleidoscope of colour.  In the pools themselves there were lots of tiny fish, which can be seen in the video.  On the actual rocks (rather than the honecomb worm reefs) there were limpets, barnacles and various sea snails, none of which we have in Aberdovey due to the lack of rocks.   Of course there are none of the shells that Aberdovey’s beach has in such profusion, because they get broken up on the rocks and pebbles but, together with the pebble beach at Tonfanau, it’s super that there are three such contrasting beaches such a short distance apart.

I had a lovely long paddle, and would have loved to have had a swim, but even if I had gone in with my denim shorts and t-shirt, I had no way of drying myself off.  Next time for sure, and I’ll start to keep a towel in the car!

Looking to the north, beyond the caravan park and the breakers, the beach was quite, quite empty. That too is a walk for another day, but it must be a really peaceful way of walking up to the Dysynni.

The video below captures some of the contrasts of the beach – people swimming and enjoying the waves, lovely coloured seaweeds in rock pools, sections of empty sea with waves chasing each other onto the beach, and that fascinating honeycomb reef.

A mellow walk where the river Dysynni meets the sea – with oystercatchers

My walk last Tuesday, the only sunny day last week, took me back to Tonfanau.  Tonfanau railway station was added to the Cambrian Line to service the Tonfanau Army Camp, which opened in 1938 and was finally closed in 1973 after a 6 month stint as a refugee camp, before being demolished sometime in the 1980s or 90s.  The camp extended both sides of the railway line, reaching the beach to the west and spreading part way up a slight slope to the east.  I have posted about the camp here.  When Tonfanau was at its height as an anti-aircraft training facility, with emplacements of enormous guns along the field at the top of the beach, it would have been anything but a peaceful place to go for a stroll.  Today, however, it is probably the most quiet stretch of seaside in the Aberdovey and Tywyn areas.

The reason for the lack of human presence, other than fishermen some way out at sea in waders, is certainly because the beach is uncompromisingly uncomfortable to walk, sit or lie on.  Apart from a few isolated islands of sand or gravel, it is a pebble beach running down a shallow slope into a rocky foreshore.   Footwear is required.  This, together with the complete absence of gift shops, public toilets and ice-cream stalls, makes it undesirable for most families, and there is rarely any more than a handful of people there even at the height of the tourist season.  This makes it a very good retreat for sea birds, which line the water’s edge at a very safe distance from anyone who might be walking along the stony beach or investigating the rock pools.  Oystercatchers, terns and various types of seagull are all in evidence at this time of year.

The views along the beach are splendid.  After the recent heavy rain the Dysynni charges at high speed through a surprisingly narrow mouth into the sea, fascinating to watch, and you can see it and hear its roar on the video at the end of the post.  This understated but impressive meeting of the Dysynni with the sea is marked as Aber Dysynni (mouth of the Dysynni) on the Ordnance Survey map.  The sea itself makes a lovely sound on the rocky foreshore and gravel, drawing the gravel back as it retreats, and colliding with the rocks as it advances.  Above the sound of the sea and wind are the musical voices of sea birds.  As you walk along it, the beach curves around a long corner promising more of the same untroubled vistas over an empty beach, rolling white horses and, in the distance, the Llyn peninsula.  Behind the beach, looking east, are views of the major summits of Tonfanau and Foel Llanfendigaid, as well as the smooth green slopes of the hills between them

I started out walking along the top of the small “cliff” that runs along the top of the beach.  It is only a couple of feet wide, drops only about eight foot or so above the beach below and stops where the publicly accessible land meets the fence of a farmer’s field after about 10 minutes of walking.  It offers a terrific view down onto the beach, there are always some interesting wild flowers, and it is well worth doing if you are sure of your footing.

I then executed a controlled skid down a bit of the “cliff” that had collapsed into a sloping mound of earth, a quick way down onto the beach, and headed for the rocks.  The lush green seaweed  is glossy and lustrous, a great contrast to the darkness of the rocks in the bright sun.  The overall effect was delightful.  Water trickles through the multiple channels formed by the rocks, crossing the glistening gravel in a way that is quite unlike the sea flowing through channels in the sand at Aberdovey.

Someone has been having fun making pebble patterns in the sand and fields. Like most abstract compositions, it gives a curious sensation of something clearly created in the present taking on the character of something completely timeless.

Yellow Horned-Poppy (Glaucium flavum)

Small-spotted catshark eggcase (Scyliorhinus canicula), one of the smallest of all the mermaid’s purses.  There were two of them, one right at the top of the beach and the other in the field behind the beach.  They are so lightweight when empty that they travel on the wind.  For details on the subject of eggcases and the Shark Trust, see my earlier post.  The photos of the two eggcases have been uploaded to the Shark Trust Great Eggcase Hunt page.

I walked out onto a spur of sand to watch the oystercatchers, getting as near as I dared.  Unlike the video that I posted the other day, when what they were mainly concerned with was preening, today they were actually hunting for food and treating shells to merciless beak treatment.  Trying to get a little closer I scared them into flight, and they congregated a little distance off on a few rocks, looking very striking.

Oystercatchers at work

I’ve pulled a muscle in my shoulder, so the following video is not quite as steady as it might have been, but don’t miss out on the oystercatchers.  They are sublime.  The fast-moving water coming out of the Dysynni and churning into the sea is also truly impressive.  The Dysynni originates in Tal y Llyn lake, makes an abrupt turn northwest at Abergynolwyn and then resumes a parallel course to the Tal y Llyn valley in the neighbouring valley.  It passes the Ynysymaengwyn estate, finding its way through extensive reed beds, and emerges into the Broadwater, making its way around the low sandbanks before being funneled into the narrow channel into the sea.

A busy beach, but the hills are still empty as lockdown relaxes still further

Another lovely walk on Saturday, along the beach, paddling in the sea, turning up into the hills past the cemetery, and along lovely footpaths until we emerged just above Aberdovey.  I was particularly tired after a restless night, so it was super just to drift along enjoying the sights and sounds.  There was an intensity to the light that reflected off the water, the dominating colour silver rather than blue, and anything in front of it was silhouetted.  How the weather changed on Monday!

This is the first time I’ve seen the beach with more than a couple of people on it.  It was something of a visual shock, although it is great that people are able to enjoy themselves.  A lot of second home owners are back too.  The ice cream shops were a bit chaotic, with very little distance between people in the queues, but I expect that that will be sorted soon.  Further along the beach, several people were swimming, which was a bit brave as the water was frankly very chilly.

Not just a sand castle, but an entire neighbourhood of sand castles.

 

 

Normally the jellyfish that wash up on the beach are Barrel jellyfish (Rhizostoma pulma) but today there were none.  Instead, there were several Compass jellyfish (Chrysaora hysoscella), common in the south and west during the summer, where they feed on small fish and crustaceans.  The name derives from the dark brown markings that radiate from the centre.  These jellyfish are venomous, with stinging cells all along their tentacles.

 

 

The beetle Rhagonycha fulva, common all over the UK from May to August.

Swallow (Hirundo rustica).  A terrible photograph, shooting into the sun.  I was convinced that this was a swift, because the forked tails didn’t look long enough, but the swift doesn’t have the big white breast. They are migrating birds, spending winter in southern Africa and returning to the north to breed.

Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum) produces a beautiful perfume, particularly in the evenings to attract pollinating moths.  It climbs up and over hedges and shrubs and flowers from June to October, with petals that ivory coloured until pollinated by bees or moths, when they turn yellow.  The produce red berries following the flowering, during the autumn.

Another first for the year:  the beach at Ynyslas is covered in cars.

 

Tywyn History Trail leaflets 1 and 2

I was in the Tywyn Co-Op last week and spotted these two leaflets in the leaflet holder by the tills.  Do pick one up if you’re there.  Each of them consists of a fold-out map of Tywyn – Walk 1 is The Old Town and Walk 2 is The Seaside.  The map is numbered, and brief details are given about each of the numbers, so that you can do a self-guided tour.  Introductory paragraphs also give a short overview of the origins of Tywyn and its development.  In something this size (A3, printed on both sides) not a huge amount of detail can be included, but it’s a great starting point for getting to know Tywyn a bit better, and a good jumping off point for future research.  Devised and published by Tywyn and District History Society, their production was partially supported financially by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

The image below is a scan of part of Walk 1, to give a flavour of the leaflets

Orache – locally foraged greens that seriously improved three meals

When I finished my Eating Well During Lockdown series, I said I would only post a cooking commentary if it was based on ingredients that were locally grown or produced, and you really cannot get more locally grown than the Aberdovey sand dunes!

A few weeks ago, attracted by a large area covered with lovely Viper’s Bugloss on the edge of the sand dunes, spectacularly on the turn between pink and blue, we spotted a substantial clump of a green plant with distinctively shaped leaves, no flowers.  The leaves were robust and very slightly rubbery to the touch, because they are slightly succulent, and they had a faint shine on the upper surface, dull on the underside.  My friend Caroline thought that it was probably orache (pronounced “orac” or “oratch”), Atriplex patula, and after leafing diligently through a few books, that’s duly what it turned out to be.

So what is orache?  I had no idea, so a little research was necessary.  The photo above right shows as it is on the edge of the dunes, not particularly prepossessing, but as the photograph of the leaf shows, it is fairly distinctive.  It is an annual member of the Atriplex genus in the Amaranthus family, and is also known as saltbush.  Its leaves are edible and commonly used by foragers.  Edible does not always equate to delicious, but orache turns out to be both.  The salad leaves are only viable when young, because they become too tough, but they become a useful substitute for spinach when they mature.  Because they are succulents, retaining water in their leaves, and they live in a salty habitat, the water within the leaves is also slightly salty.  It’s worth remembering that when seasoning anything that you cook with orache as a component.  The roots are mildly toxic so should be avoided.  Atriplex littoralis looks similar but although it is not poisonous it has an offensive smell and tastes awful, so the two are easily differentiated.

When Caroline produced a glorious bunch of orache, having gone on a foraging expedition, I had a lot of options.  Now fully mature it was a lot greener and a lot larger, but retained its slightly rubber texture.  I immediately put the verdant bunch into a jug of water, to keep it fresh, and started plotting.

Caroline has been treating it both as spinach, wilting it slightly to serve as a vegetable, and using it raw in salads, and I also liked the look of the suggested orache tortilla-pizza on the Wild Food Girl website.  In the end I decided to use half of it for soup, some of it to replace spinach in my frequent mushrooms, dice courgettes, pancetta and spinach on toast, and the last of it to liven up a chicken rendang curry.  So here are three meals that I made with some of the bunch, with many thanks to lovely Caroline both for providing the orache and for expanding my horizons.

Wednesday’s soup became an orache-and-asparagus-with-a-few-leftovers soup, because I had a pack of six small asparagus tips that were hiding at the back of the fridge and needed using up fairly imminently, but the orache was dominant.  Other odds and ends were an inch of courgette (how, I wonder, does anyone end up with a leftover single inch of courgette?); 2 small Maris Piper spuds, very finely sliced to help it break down quickly; the floppy outer leaves of a little gem lettuce; half a purple onion, roughly sliced; three spring onions, chopped; the edible parts of the tops of two leeks; and some mint.  The main ingredient, by far, was orache.  I put all of it in a saucepan and tossed it to heat through in some butter for between five and 10 minutes, added water to cover, added some chicken stock and simmered it for another 10 minutes.  Once the potato had broken down I lobbed it into the food processor for a few minutes, in two batches.  I then put it back in the pan, re-heated it slightly, stirred in a big dollop of crème fraîche, a big squeeze of lemon juice, heated it through again gently and poured some of it into a soup bowl to serve.  Heavenly!  The orache tastes a bit like something between curly kale and spinach, full of personality, with bags of flavour released by the cooking process.

On Thursday I made mushrooms, pancetta, courgettes and orache on toast, with a poached egg on top.  The mushrooms and courgettes are fried in butter until the begin to brown. The finely chopped garlic is added with some fresh thyme, and after these are stirred in, some flour is sprinkled over the top to take up the fat from the pancetta and thicken the liquid.  It is stirred into the mixture until it is invisible, and heated for a few minutes to make sure that the flour is incorporated and cooked through.  At this point, a little water goes in, accompanied by the orache, chopped parsley and a few turns of the pepper mill. I also like to add a slosh of sherry at this stage.  When the orache begins to wilt, some cème fraîche is added and reduced, and when the orache is fully wilted the mix is served on a piece of toast with a poached egg on top.  The basic formula is a favourite, and of course it can be varied endlessly.  In the photograph, the wilted orache can be seen either side of the egg, a very dark green.

Yesterday, Friday, I was cooking a sort of ersatz chicken rendang curry, but using yogurt instead of the usual coconut (which I detest).  Also added into the mix were aubergine chunks, fresh green chilies and mushrooms.  I left it in the fridge overnight to develop the flavours.  When I slowly reheated it tonight, Saturday, I added a good handful of the last of the orache 10 minutes before the end of the cooking time, when it was simmering very gently.  It was an excellent addition, giving real balance to the rich sauce, with more than enough flavour to stand up for itself against the heat of the chili, and providing some much needed greenery as a contrast to the orange-coloured sauce and the bland solids.  In the photograph, the bright green leaves are coriander, but underneath them, the dark green wilted leaves are orache.  To complete the happy extravaganza I had a piece of garlic and coriander naan bread (not home-made).

Orache is a great plant for cooking if you like curly kale, spinach and similar flavours and textures.  I changed the water in the jug ever day, and it remained super-fresh.  Finally, I chopped and simmered the stalks with some chicken stock, leek and onion to make a well-flavoured thick soupy base for a future soup or stew, and froze it down.  The aromas as it simmered in a covered pan were wonderful.

Eating well from what’s to hand – final week, week 12

This is my final post about eating during lockdown.  I feel that 12 weeks worth of me bunnying on about cooking is probably about as much as anyone truly needs 🙂  Additionally, I defrosted the freezer mid-week and found that most of the contents consists of meals that I had batch-cooked to divide equally between the plate and the freezer.  By which I mean that I ate half and froze the other half.  It’s about time I started eating those other halves rather than creating more, or there will be no freezer space left!  There will be another post in a couple of weeks about my encounters with a locally sourced cuttlefish, but unless I can source some unusual local ingredients to talk about, I think that my culinary lockdown sharing has come to a natural end, an end to absolute lockdown, and a trailing off of my learning curve.

Lockdown kicked in on 23rd March.  I was originally supposed to be celebrating my birthday a few days after that date with a small lunch party, but a couple of weeks before lockdown was announced we decided to cancel it, because it was quite clear that the tide of the Covid-19 was rolling in very fast.  One of thousands of cancelled celebrations and gatherings, minor and major.  So I cooked for myself on my birthday, and seriously enjoyed a roasted rack of lamb from the freezer, only the second meal on my Week 1 post about eating well from what was to hand.  I had realized by then that I would have to change my ad hoc shopping and cooking regime, and organize myself so that I would only have to do one relatively large shop once a fortnight.  It had the charm of novelty at first, but  a few weeks in and I was longing to go back to a less regimented way of buying and eating.  12 weeks in, and I am now accustomed to it, if not overjoyed by it.

Oregano growing in a pot in my garden

Fortunately, it has not all been about local supermarkets and the freezer.  Dropping off bags of groceries to my self-isolating father has had its own reward, mainly for the pleasure of having a long-distance chat sitting well apart in comfy chairs in the garden for a couple of hours, with ample use of hand disinfectant, but also, with an eye to my pots and pans, in the form of delicious home-grown vegetables, lettuces and herbs.  Following the small relaxation of the lockdown rules I have taken advantage of the occasional foray into both the Aberdovey and Tywyn butchers, and have loved being able to buy fish from Dai’s Shed, when the weather has allowed Dai to take the boat out.

I have no intention of visiting a big supermarket for many weeks yet.  The government may have faith in people behaving responsibly, but after one recklessly optimistic foray into a medium-sized supermarket a couple of weeks ago I walked out in serious dismay at the risks being taken.  I cannot imagine that matters will be improving as the relaxation of rules continues.

Saturday

Prawns, avocado, mushrooms and baby spinach with parmesan, cream and a Panko topping.  In Week 7, I made my first attempt to reproduce a recipe using avocados that was served as a starter in a favourite London restaurant, which closed when the owners returned to Italy.  This is a modified version.

Sometimes the Coey sells single avocados, large ones, but when I was last there there were only small avocados in a packet of two, so I used one at the end of last week and had one left to use.  I also had some button mushrooms and pancetta left over from last week’s egg-topped mushrooms and pancetta on toast.  It was clearly an opportunity to repeat, with revisions, my reverse engineering of the Venezia dish using fridge orphans.  I am unable to buy raw prawns locally, even frozen, but the Coey had cooked frozen ones in a seafood mix, and I had some raw ones left in the freezer.  There weren’t enough prawns, so I threw in some squid rings as well, and that worked well.

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.  As before, I added a glug of white wine and some water to form a base for the sauce, but to make it a bit healthier, instead of a lot of cream, I added chicken stock and only a small dollop of low fat crème fraîche, with some grated Paremsan cheese.  I then added the cooked prawns and squid, plus two handfuls of spinach 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, just as the sauce was reducing to the right amount, put in the sliced half avocado to allow that to heat through.  If the avocado is very ripe, be careful not to move it around too much when you put it in, or it will break up.  The avocado needs to be no more than warmed through, so must remain on the heat for only a couple of minutes on a low heat before serving or, again, it will break up.

To serve, I turned it into a terracotta tapas dish, provided it with a good sprinkling of chilli flakes, sprinkled some Panko (Japanese) bread crumbs to give it crunchy gratin topping, shaved some fresh Gran Pardano cheese over the top and put it under the grill until it began to bubble and brown.  To serve, I added some more black pepper and scattered fresh oregano over the top. Without all the cream, it was less unctuous but a bit healthier, and with the Panko topping it had a lot more texture to balance the avocado.  The chili and oregano were good additions, balancing the relative mildness of the sauce. It would go well with a side salad, but I didn’t need one.

Sunday

Leftovers frittata. This is basically a quiche without the pastry, or a Spanish omelette without the potatoes.  I had some bits and pieces of courgette, cheese, onion, spinach, bacon and parsley left over, and some eggs that were hurtling towards their eat-by-date with indecent haste.

This is such an easy dish that there’s almost nothing to say about it.  I wilted the spinach, fried the courgette and bacon and put everything else into four whisked eggs.  I heated it through on the hob and then put it under the grill to finish it off.  A quick and simple meal, but full of flavour.

Monday

Smoked sausage and sauerkraut in mustard sauce.  This is a made-up meal, one I invented a long time ago.  I only discovered sauerkraut a few years ago, in a super and very unusual restaurant in London called Zedel, when my father ordered some, having been a fan for life, and I tried his.  I had tried it when younger and disliked it, but as I have aged by tastes have changed and I loved it.

I used to be able to buy Polish kielbasa smoked sausage in my local Tesco in London, which had a Polish aisle.  It’s one of the many things that have been more difficult to acquire since leaving London.  However, at long last my father has been able to place an Ocado order, and very kindly ordered me some French smoked sausage.  As I had a jar of sauerkraut in the cupboard, some German mustard, an enormous box of caraway seeds, some baby new potatoes (any spuds would do), a bit of sour cream, some fridge-orphan pancetta (bacon lardons would be more authentic), and plenty of onion, it was a no-brainer to go for a Polish-style one-pot.  Slices of apple go well too, but I didn’t have any.  A high-sided frying pan or skillet is best for this, as it can be a bit messy when you are stirring everything together.

First, the baby new potatoes are boiled until just cooked.  I peeled them, but it’s not actually necessary, just really very nice for a change as they absorb flavours much more efficiently than if you leave the skins on.  Then I spooned sauerkraut into a bowl of water and left it to allow the preserving liquid to disseminate into the water for at least 10 minutes before draining it through a sieve and squashing out the water with the back of a wooden spoon.

The smoked sausage is cut into chunks, heated through, set aside and kept warm.  In the same pan, to take advantage of the sausage flavours, a teaspoon of caraway seeds and several good turns of a pepper mill are added.  The onion and pancetta are heated until the pancetta is crispy and the onion golden, and are removed from pan.  The new potatoes are drained and added to the pan to brown.  Then it all goes back in to the pan, with the sauerkraut and mustard, and a dessert spoon of flour stirred in to thicken the sauce.  Some white wine, stock or water are then added.  It is heated gently with a lid on for 10 minutes, with wine/stock, and mustard added by the spoonful until the preferred balance of flavours and the right amount of liquid is achieved.  Then a dollop of cream is added (whatever you have to hand) and stirred in.  I like it with smoked paprika stirred in at the last moment, chopped spring onions added over the top (partly for the flavour, partly to diminish the somewhat off-puttingly anaemic appearance) and a big dollop of sour cream on the side.  It all looks chaotic on the plate, but it is delicious.  Mine had some additional heat, because I had added a fresh chilli to the onion and pancetta, which isn’t traditional but suited me perfectly.

If you prefer a tidier and more presentable meal, you can cook the sausage whole, and in a separate pan cook the sauerkraut, onion and pancetta to accompany it, and in another pan make the mustard sauce separately. If you do it this way, you will probably need to make a velouté (my preference) or béchamel to ensure that your mustard sauce has some body to it.  I would finely chop some chives into it too.

Tuesday

Adapted Nalli Gosht lamb shank and okra curry with basmati rice and minted labneh.  I used a recipe I found on the Internet (see Maunika Gowardhan) for this, as I don’t have any Indian cookbooks, and I am useless at inventing Indian dishes.  The lamb shank came from the freezer, via the Aberdovey butcher, who kindly picked out a small one for me that was perfect for this dish.  I decided to do it in the slow cooker, which departs from the recipe on the above link, but I made very few other changes:  I used skinned and chopped fresh tomatoes and a bit of tomato paste rather than all tomato paste, I had red rather than green chillis, used cassia bark instead of cinnamon, and I changed some of the proportions of the spices to suit my own tastes, adding a lot more ginger, but otherwise followed the recipe closely.  I accidentally used smoked paprika rather than mild paprika for the marinade, but fortunately I realized the moment it hit the bowl and used the mild paprika for the sauce itself, and the smoked paprika didn’t spoil it.  I added the last of the frozen okra, and made a minted labneh to go with it.

The process is simple, but see the above link for the unadulterated step-by-step version.  The lamb shank is marinated overnight in a blended mixture of garlic, ginger, mild paprika, and coriander powder (I had coriander seeds in a grinder).

When ready to cook, fry cinnamon stick (or in my case cassia bark), green cardamoms, cloves and peppercorns in butter and oil, allow to sizzle for a few seconds and then add the onions and chilli slices.  Cook til golden and then add the turmeric and coriander powder.  The recipe calls for the addition of the tomato paste followed by the lamb shank.  I was using peeled tomatoes, so I put the shank in first to brown, added the blended tomatoes next with a single spoon of tomato paste, and the yoghurt afterwards.  I then tipped the whole lot into the slow cooker, but the original recipe calls for it to be simmered for 20-25 minutes on the hob, with a lid slightly open. I carved the lamb shank to save faffing around with it on the plate, spooned the sauce over the top, and although it tasted great its appearance was less than beautiful.  I suggest you look at the source web page for presentation tips.

The recipe suggests serving with naan bread, but I had some plain basmati rice boiled in stock with fennel seeds, and some minted labneh on the side to balance the heat.

Labneh is simply drained yoghurt.  In a bid to eat a rather healthier diet I bought some low fat Greek yoghurt, and it was incredibly liquid so I decided to turn it into labneh.   The only equipment required is either muslin or kitchen roll, a sieve and a bowl or equivalent.  A couple of pinches of salt are mixed into the yoghurt, and it is poured into the lined sieve to drain, preferably overnight.  Once the liquid is removed, the yoghurt is malleable enough to form into balls.  I like to mix herbs or spices into the drained yoghurt before doing so, usually a Moroccan spice mix, but on this occasion I used mint.  It can be preserved in oil in a re-used jar as I have done here, flavoured with herbs and spices, in this case lemon, mint leaves and sliced chilli.  It is delicious served with curry, Middle Eastern stews, or simply on cheese crackers as a snack.

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Wednesday

Deep-fried whitebait with caper and gherkin mayonnaise and salad.  I’ve had a single remaining starter-sized portion of whitebait in the freezer for a very long time now.  I’ve been keeping them for when I really, really wanted them and absolutely nothing else would do, because I’m not going to be able to replace them until after the lockdown.  Lovely, lovely little fish, simply rolled in flour whilst still frozen, deep-fried on a high heat for a couple of moments and served with Tabasco, and a gherkin and caper mayonnaise.  I don’t actually have a deep fat fryer, so I poured Crisp and Dry into a baby wok, and heated it until one little fishy started to fizz in the oil.  Tipping the rest of them in lowers the temperature significantly, so I turned up the heat until the oil started to bubble again.  It’s a dicey business if you are heating oil in a pan rather than in a thermostat-controlled fryer, so make sure you have a couple of damp tea towels to hand in case it sets fire to itself.  It has never happened to me, but it did to a friend of mine.

I served my whitebait with a salad to make it into a main course.   I’ve never managed to make a tartar sauce that is both quick and delicious, but making a mayonnaise and then adding chopped gherkins and capers with a bit of parsley isn’t a bad substitute.  I have lovage, so added a couple of leaves of that too (lovage can be overpowering so it pays to add it just a little at a time, tasting before adding any more). 

Thursday

Griddled lamb chop, mashed carrot and swede, leek, cabbage and boiled and roast potatoes.  In pouring rain, I was craving comfort food, and this was a good match for my mood.  It was very much a case of using up leftovers (carrot and swede mash and lamb gravy from last week, taking up space in the freezer) and fridge orphans (a bit of cabbage and a piece of leek).  Although I love roast potatoes I wouldn’t heat an entire oven for them, but I was also cooking something else at the same time.  As I’ve done this a couple of times before, I won’t add more details, but I really enjoyed it.

Friday

Cold lamb chop, watermelon, feta, cucumber, red onion, mint, olives with a lemon, white wine vinegar and olive oil dressing, seasoned with sea salt and black pepper.  When I cooked my lamb chop with traditional roast-related veg yesterday, I cooked two chops, so that I had one left over for this salad.  The first time I had a lamb and watermelon salad was on Kefalonia, and the only barrier to repeating it has been the immense size of watermelons (called sandía where I grew up), which are so difficult to use up.  It was therefore a fairly ecstatic moment when I walked into the Tywyn Co-Op and found that they were selling baby ones.  So happy!   Watermelon is a match made with heaven with feta, red onion, cucumber and black olives, which was very handy as I had all of these that needed using up.   The oil and vinegar might sound a little odd with melon, but in fact both, together with the lemon juice, balance the flavours beautifully.

 Conclusions

Since the lockdown began and I started shopping once a fortnight, I have learned a lot not merely about planning ahead, but also planning around the leftovers and fridge orphans that I knew I would generate. Leftovers are the remains of cooked meals; fridge orphan is a term I’ve invented for the unused odds and ends left behind after the use of their companions in the meals for which they were planned.  A few mushrooms, some potatoes, small chunks of cheese and bits of courgette are typical examples. It’s a big change from doing things the other way round, looking at what ingredients I had left in the fridge and buying things to go with them.  They now have to be used up without shopping.  With this in mind, I started to leave gaps in the meal-planner so that I could bring together leftovers and fridge orphans with items in the freezer, such as last week’s chicken pie.  That is not to say that there is never any kitchen waste, but matters are considerably improved.

Over the last 12 weeks people have commented on how diverse my tastes are, but I am regarded by family and friends as a fussy eater, on good grounds.  I am mildly but genuinely allergic to capiscum (green/red peppers), I cannot stand coconut, I abhor tinned tuna, find tinned tomatoes dreadfully sweet, and think that cornflakes are an abomination.  I dislike pulses like beans and chickpeas, (although I love lentils and black beans), I’m really not keen on offal, I simply don’t understand adding raisins or bananas to savoury food, I eat nearly all green vegetables but find 80% of them exceedingly dull, and I have tried time and time again to learn to love blue cheeses, because I know I’m missing out, but I can’t.  On the other hand, baby watermelons rock!  The picture looks disconcertingly like Pac-Man 🙂

I think that the main thing I learned is that even with a relatively confined repertoire of ingredients, truly enjoyable things can be achieved, and by using herbs and spices the same ingredients can be given a completely different character.

Thanks to everyone who took the time to read my culinary experiments, and particularly to those who got in touch – email is a wonderful thing.  Please continue to practice social distancing and please stay safe!

 



Rushlight (Aberdovey Community Council newsletter) June 2020

For those who are still self-isolating, here’s the latest edition of Rushlight, courtesy of the Aberdyfi butcher who supplied tonight’s delicious lamb chop.  This edition, June 2020, should be posted on the Community Council’s new website before too long at https://aberdyfi-council.wales/council-rushlight-newsletter, where all the previous editions can be found.  You can click to enlarge each of the pages below.

Eating well from what’s to hand, just for fun – week 10

Last week’s wind and rain was a stark contrast to the sunniest spring since records began.  That amazing run of gorgeous spring sunshine was transformed, as though someone had flicked a switch, into high winds and torrential rain, and the temperature dropped accordingly.  Good for the garden, bad for the soul 🙂

The greatest happiness was that on the previous Friday Dai had managed to land an awful lot of skate, which is a fairly unusual catch in these waters.  Skate is one of my favourite fish, its flavour distinctive but delicate, its texture superb, and easily cooked.  It is perfect when floured and fried in butter, with the tips of the wings slightly caramelized.  Mackerel and sea bass are in short supply this year, but the skate more than made up for it, and Dai had huss and plaice too.  Unfortunately the poor weather for most of last week means that he couldn’t go out, so my skate and huss purchases will have to last me a while.

Saturday

Half a skate wing  with black butter sauce and capers.  Skate is one of my favourite things on the planet.  Someone mentioned to me that it was a so-and-so to fillet for serving, which seriously surprised me.  There is no need to fillet it.  The wing is made of parallel lines of cartilage, not bone, and you merely scrape the fish gently away from it.  No bones, no mess.  Delicious.  As a family, our favourite way of cooking it was always in black butter sauce with capers.   Dai (of Dai’s Shed) had been out in his boat,  and returned with a good catch of skate, which he had prepared ready for cooking.  I bought two large ones, and when I got home halved them, put two of the halves in the freezer and put the other two in the fridge for eating.

Black butter sauce is very simple, but it does need watching like a hawk.  Butter is heated in the pan and the skate is cooked through, basted regularly, about five minutes on each side.  You can flour it first if preferred, which I did (just dredge it in a plate with a shallow scattering of flour in it).  Once the skate is heated through, remove from the pan and keep warm.  Add more butter, turn up the heat and wait until it is brown, but not black (which would be burned) and add lemon juice and capers.  Heat all the way through and serve the skate with the sauce poured over the top.  Some people scatter over parsley, but I like it as is.  I served it with asparagus tips and shallow-fried potato discs.

I did far too much, and some of the cooked spuds and asparagus that I couldn’t eat were kept and added later in the week to a home made soup.

Sunday

Ham horns with feta salad. This is an old favourite, which I’ve posted about before.  The thin-sliced ham, which I had in the freezer, is stuffed with a mixture of chopped hard-boiled egg, mayonnaise and whatever suitable herb or salad greens you have to hand – parsley, coriander, chives or spring onions all work really well, and a sprinkling of cayenne or paprika goes well.  Black pepper is a must.  It is accompanied here by little gem lettuce leaves filled with tomato, lovage, oregano, green olive, capers, cucumber and feta cheese, with a French vinaigrette.  It is a simple dish, and deserves the best ham and feta available.  The Co-Ops thin-sliced porchetta is good, or the Spar’s home-cooked ham at the deli counter is thicker but has excellent flavour.  Unfortunately, the locally available feta is decidedly third rate, but it is better than nothing.

Monday

Skate Grenobloise.  I used the other half of the skate wing from Dai’s Shed to try to reproduce a skate wing (aile de raie) dish that I had in Lyon several years ago, on a truly superb gastronomic holiday.  If you cannot eat well in Lyon, you’re doing something terribly wrong.  I looked up the recipe on my return, and this was the nearest I could find to my notes.

The skate was quickly pan-fried and then poached in a fish, wild fennel and white wine stock, and served with diced lemon, diced tomato, capers and diced spring onions and, in this recipe (but not in the version I had in Lyon) diced cucumber, all gently heated through but not cooked in the poaching liquid.  It was served in Lyon with samphire, but I cannot get hold of that and my recipe recommended spinach.  Spinach turned out to be a stunning accompaniment.  Both the restaurant and the recipe agreed on peeled new potatoes cooked in chicken stock. I had only tiny baby new potatoes, and peeling them felt almost cruel, but I am glad I did as recommended, because it was excellent.  My original Lyon dish had croutons, as did the recipe, but I forgot to add them!  Next time I would add the croutons but leave out the cucumber.  The diced lemon pieces give this a wonderfully concentrated citrus hit that is quite unlike merely squeezing lemon juice over the top.

Tuesday

Spinach, watercress, rocket, wild garlic, frozen pea, asparagus and potato soup with a grated cheddar topping.  A couple of weeks ago I made myself a spinach, watercress, rocket, wild garlic and pea soup, consumed some of it and put the rest in the freezer in batches.  When I had some leftover cooked asparagus and potatoes, I dug one of the boxes out of the freezer, whizzed up the spuds and asparagus in the food processor with a little water and stirred it into the defrosted soup with a squeeze of lemon juice, a hint of nutmeg, a bit of sea salt and a lot of black pepper.  Once heated through, I stirred in a spoon of sour cream, and grated some Somerset cheddar over the top.  Bags of flavour, a good use of leftovers, and so easy.

Wednesday

Leftover aubergine, olives and tomatoes with a courgette and cheese topping.  I had some leftover aubergine and tomato mix in the freezer, which needed using up to make room for other items.  In the fridge, my experimental purchase of mozzarella slices were also in urgent need of a swift solution, and there was a single piece of Parma ham and a rather wrinkled courgette.  There always seems to be a rather wrinkled courgette in my fridge.  The happy solution was to bung them all together, layered in a harmonious marriage of flavours.

I heated the aubergine mix in a saucepan and put it in a small pre-heated earthenware dish, topped it with a few slices of courgette, added a patchwork of torn slices of mozzarella and Emmenthal, and tore up the slice of Parma ham and scattered that over the top.  It all went into the oven for 15 minutes before being browned under the grill.  A few oregano leaves finished the ensemble, and it worked really well, slightly bigger than a tapas dish but easily scaled up for a bigger meal if required.

Thursday

Chicken Caesar Salad Plus.  This started out as a simple chicken Caesar salad, but I hadn’t eaten a thing all day and was starving, so it became a rather more elaborate affair.  I had run out of anchovies (sacrilege) but had plenty of little gem, some excellent cut-and-come-again lettuce, some cherry tomatoes, a small hard boiled egg, some faux crutons (diced toasted sourdough bread, painted with garlic-infused olive oil) and some cold chicken that I had barbecued and frozen down especially for salads. The slightly charred smokiness of the barbecued chicken is always delightful.  To add some of the salty hit of the anchovies I used capers instead, and they worked wonderfully.  I had been unable to buy a wedge of parmesan, but fortunately my illustrious parent was able to help out with a bag of an excellent grated version.  Grated parmesan can be very dry, but this was really excellent.   I didn’t have the energy to make my own sauce, so used the tried and tested Cardini bottled sauce, which is mercifully not over-sweet, and has bags of flavour.

Friday

Roast lamb with mint sauce, runner beans, mashed carrot and swede, roasties and rosemary gravy.  There’s not a lot to say about a roast.  I bought a small leg of lamb, and my father and I shared it between us.  In other words, in these times of lockdown, when I pitched up at his house with the fortnightly  food parcel, I waited outside, stealing herbs and lettuces from his garden, whilst he sawed it in half and I cooked one half here in Aberdovey and he had the other half at his home near Chester.  I simply cannot wait until we can actually eat in the same house once again!  The utterly divine runner beans were also supplied by the parent, but everything else came from Aberdovey.  I grow my own mint for the mint sauce, the spuds were Maris Pipers, the leek is an essential accompaniement to lamb, and the pile of orange stuff is a mash of carrot and swede.  I don’t like swede on its own, am unexcited by carrots, but when the two are mashed together with butter and black pepper, nothing makes me happier.  I made the gravy on the hoof with a home made vegetable stock, a lamb stock cube and the juices from the roast itself.

Conclusions

I haven’t much to add this week to any of my previous comments.  The novelty of the fresh fish was superb, but the old favourites like chicken Caesar salad, home made soup and ham horns are always welcome.

My parsley has bolted (gone to seed), which means that my supply of parsley will soon be dependent on shops until I can purchase a new plant.  Potted parsley only lasts for a couple of years, and both my plants are two years old, so I bear them no ill-will, but in the future I will make sure that I buy a new one each year, so that when one bolts, another one will still be going strong.

If your parsley does bolt, and you are left with just a few leaves and some big, coarse stalks, you can use the whole plant to make parsley sauce.  Take off all the leaves and chop as usual.  Cut the stalks low, chop them into saucepan sized pieces and simmer them gently for half an hour or so with a stock cube, and you will have a wonderful parsley-infused stock as a base for a parsley sauce (made with a velouté base rather than a béchamel) or a base for stews and casseroles.

 

Late spring in the hills above Aberdovey

The hills behind Aberdovey are always particularly spectacular on fine day, with broad strokes of colour given a bright sparkle by the sun.  Eyes down, and there are wildflowers everywhere, tiny explosions of concentrated intensity.  It always astounds me how such delicate little things can stand up to their exposed position and the extremes of the weather.  Tiny pale butterflies replace the big, glossy garden species, and everywhere there is birdsong even though the birds themselves are often invisible.

Germander Speedwell (Veronica chaemaedrys)

A patch of Wild Pansy (Viola Tricolor), also known as Heartsease

Wild Pansy (Viola Tricolor)

Heath speedwell (Veronica officinalis)

It is difficult to see what this is, but it may be a whinchat (Saxicola rubetra).  The colouring is right, with a flick of white at the base of the head (visible when I lightened the image in Photoshop), and its preferred habitat is open ground, moorland and mountain plains.  It is found throughout most of Wales, but is a summer visitor, migrating to central Africa.

Stonechat (Saxicola Torquata).  One of my books described its call as a metallic ‘whit sac sac’ which sounds like stones being smacked together.”  It favours low vegetation such as gorse and thickets.  I had never seen one before, so was particularly pleased to see it.

Small Heath (Coenonympha pamphilus).  Double-brooded, appearing in early summer and then again in late summer.  Found in unimproved grassland and coastal areas.

Dune Pansy (Viola tricolor ssp. curtsii).  Favours dry coastal grassland areas.

Sea mayweed (Tripleurospermum maritimum)