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Lettuce & Peas

I accept that it’s the done thing to suggest that you’re not afraid of hard work, but we are.

We both hate DIY with a passion. I have no idea how it came to be considered a leisure activity, and even less idea how we all conspired to believe that we have to live in show homes. I say this as a person who even wants the insides of her cupboards to be stylish. I have been suckered in more than most.

In reality, it’s just an advanced way of creating more work for ourselves. Is it middle class guilt? Probably. We come from parents who worked on their feet, on shop floors and building sites. We – desk cats, both of us – are self-conscious about how soft we’ve become. We feel like we ought to justify it somehow, lest we appear lazy.

Well, the last three weekends, we have made amends. Our small back garden, which came into our hands neat and tidy – if populated by plastic flowers and and array of gnomes – had come to resemble a post-apocalyptic landscape over the few years we’ve owned it. In an initial burst of enthusiasm, we dug up the twee pond and fake well, and dismantled the range of ugly brick beds.

But then…well, we did nothing, other than to add more crap to it, and watch it get covered in bindweed. For four years. Herbert would nip outside and mow the sorry-looking grass once a year, and I would do my best to distract anyone who tried to look at it.

But no longer. It has been reformed, with the help of a truckload of old scaffolding planks and a terrifying number of plants. We have a deck, so that you no longer rick your ankle when you try to step outside the back door! We have a washing line! We have THREE trees (and apple, a greengage and a fig, all of which lost their fruit in transit), and a herb bed! We have garden seating! It is no longer frightening to be there!

And every part of this new wonderland was put into place in a spirit of resentful, self-pitying fury. Because it was horrible: dirty, back-breaking, spider-infested, hot and seemingly endless. I, for one, will be sticking to the desk job, and ensuring that I earn enough money to pay someone else to do the hard work in future.

Despite this, I managed to put a chicken in the oven last Saturday while H toiled on, and we ate on the deck  it with good bread, home-made mayonnaise and my summer favourite, lettuce and peas. I’d like to say it made it all worthwhile, but particular sentiment might yet require a few more weeks of hindsight.

 

Lettuce & Peas 

Over a low heat, fry a small, finely chopped onion in 1 tbsp olive oil.

Add 1 cup frozen peas (or fresh ones if they’re really fresh, i.e. you grew them), and then 1/2 a shredded lettuce (something like a butterhead or soft lettuce works best).

When the peas & lettuce begin to soften, add 1 cup chicken stock or Marigold bouillon. Bring to a simmer, and cook until the peas are ready. Season, and either add 1/2 cup chopped fresh mint or basil, or a drizzle of basil oil.

 

Basil Oil

(This is great for using up tired-looking basil. Be warned – it doesn’t keep for long).

Blitz 1 cup basil leaves with 1/2 cup olive oil (or more if you want a thinner consistency).

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Blackcurrant Vodka

 This week, I made a pint of blackcurrant vodka after trying a similar one at a Polish restaurant. It is – and I do not use the term lightly – ambrosial. So much so, that H has entirely abandoned his ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ approach to alcohol, and has taken to chugging the stuff like it’s Ribena.

 

Blackcurrant Vodka Recipe

Take a very clean Kilner jar, and fill with 1/3 blackcurrants (preferably frozen, because it breaks down the skins a little), 1/3 caster sugar and top up with vodka. Shake regularly for the next day or so, until all the sugar is dissolved. It will be ready to drink after a week, or sooner if you’re desperate. Strain off the berries (for heaven’s sake wear an apron), bottle and keep in the freezer.


Sloe Gin, Spiced Rum and Blackcurrant Vodka | Elizabeth Herbert

Love the idea of making blackcurrant vodka? Take a look at my e-book, Sloe Gin, Spiced Rum and Blackcurrant Vodka, which contains all you need to know about making your own delicious liqueurs from fruit, flower and spices.

Recipes include vanilla vodka, mojito rum and lavender whisky – and there are serving suggestions (delicious cocktails) and ideas for developing your own unique spirits, too. If you’re on Amazon Prime, you can even borrow it for free!

 

Baked Custard with Blackcurrants

Serves 6-8

This is how I used up the steeped blackcurrants – utterly delicious. The recipe is based on the one in Guy Watson and Jane Baxter’s Riverford Farm Cookbook.

Ingredients:

400ml double cream

200ml full cream milk

1/2 vanilla pod

9 medium egg yolks

70g caster sugar

200g blackcurrants or other fruit.

*

Method:

1. Put the cream and milk in a pan. Split the vanilla pod lengthways and scrape the seeds into the cream mix, adding the pod as well. Bring to just below boiling point, and then take off the heat and leave to infuse for 30 minutes.

2. Beat the egg yolks and sugar until pale and creamy. Add the cream mix (vanilla pod removed), and mix well.

3. Place in a 9″ ovenproof dish, and place that in a larger baking tin containing about an inch of boiling water. Bake at 140C/gas mark 1 for about 50 minutes, until the custard is set.

4. Leave custard to cool to room temperature. When ready to serve, pile the fruit on top.

Sign up to my Sloe Gin, Spiced Rum and Blackcurrant Vodka mailing list for a free recipe sheet containing more ideas for using up boozy fruit. 

 Available now on Amazon.

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Pistachio Shortbread

On Monday afternoon, a friend comes round to visit, and finds me in a flurry of flour and caster sugar.

‘We’ve got people coming round tonight and I’ve forgotten to bake,’ I am saying, whilst pouring pistachios over the floor. Elvis the kitten hoovers them up.

One day, scientists will discover a genetic predisposition to baking, and I will appear to be a martyr to my DNA rather than a neurotic wannabe Nigella. Until then, those around me will have to endure moments like this.

I come from the sort of family that would never dream of serving a shop-bought cake to guests. It’s not that we don’t eat that stuff at all, you understand; it’s more that we see it as private, furtive indulgence.

My Gran always kept a tin of spice buns and jam tarts at the ready, just in case any of us let our guard down for long enough to agree to eat one. Not that there was anything wrong with them; those jam tarts still sing to me at weak moments. But there are only so many baked goods one can consume without expiring. We are, unsurprisingly, a big-boned family.

Now, my Mother and I are far too sensible to keep a stock of fattening home produce (although Mum always has a stash of Kit Kats, if you know where to look for them), but we would still be uncomfortable with opening a pack of McVitie’s if there was company.

Mum is a trained confectioner, and can turn out neat rounds of shortbread from memory and without breaking sweat. I call to mind her precise, professional hands as I puff flour over the cookbook and attempt to corral the unruly pistachios into the dough.

The one thing I remember (from The Great British Bake-Off, not my Mother’s knee) is that shortbread must not be over-worked, lest it sag and lose its light crumble. I opt for patting the paste into rough triangles and studding them with nuts once they’re on the tray. If I’m honest, this is largely because I have sticky hands and can’t be bothered to get the rolling pin out. I will tell my guests it’s all about rustic charm.

By the time Herbert gets home, they are stacked up neatly on plate. Their triangular shape has softened so that they look like a pile of oysters. He bites into one, chews for a moment, and then his face crumples. I watch him pick something off his tongue, small and metallic.

‘How did you mange to get a staple in there?’ he asks.

‘What? No, can’t be!’

But the staple is unquestionably there. I bet you never get that with a pack of Hobnobs.

Pistachio Shortbread:

6oz butter
3oz caster sugar
1oz ground rice
1/2 lb flour
1/4 lb pistachios

1. Whisk butter until fluffy and pale. Add the sugar and mix well.
2. Stir in the flour, rice and pistachios, taking care not to over-mix.
3. Shape as desired and place on a greased baking sheet.
4. Bake at 160 centigrade for around 20-25 minutes if making smaller biscuits, or 30-40 minutes if rolling into one round. Either way, it’s best to keep an eye on it, so that it goes no further than the palest golden colour.

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The Food of Love

For anyone who saw me speak at today’s Mixed Grill mini-festival, here’s the recipe for the Special Sexy Mole.

Let me know if it has any effect!

Herbert’s Special Sexy Mole

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Blood Orange and Prosecco

We all agree that we need this, but for very different reasons.

In the planning phase, it was called a girls’ weekend, but that stretches the definition of the term. There are no nightclubs or tanks of chardonnay, just a flat in a remote part of Suffolk overlooking a reed-bed. One of us brings a face pack, which we all apply somewhat gingerly on Saturday afternoon, but that’s about as girly as we get. We spend most of the weekend stomping around muddy country paths and looking out for a somewhat elusive barn owl.

On Friday night, we arrive wired and weary from a long drive after work. We empty carrier bags onto the kitchen table and set about eating the spoils: two pizzas, a selection of Hampshire cheeses, a plate of pata negra and chorizo, a packet of gravadlax, a baguette, a tub of taramasalata and some smoked scallops of which we are all slightly suspicious. Much more traditionally, there is also a large quantity of crisps, which we spent our university lives chomping through.

We agree that we do the food great justice. I make us some blood orange, Campari and prosecco cocktails, the same as I drank a fortnight ago at the River Cafe. We guzzle those and move onto wine. One of us has baked delicious brownies, which we all declare ourselves too full to eat. Mysteriously, some disappear despite this. Two of us attempt a game of Scrabble, which soon deteriorates into a competition to lay the most interesting words. Scoring is rapidly forgotten, as is the entire game.

At some point over the weekend, it occurs to me how sensible we’ve become. We drink lime and soda with our lunch, and carefully get early nights. No-one is sick, not even the one of us who is pregnant (although she threatens it several times). One of us goes for a Sunday morning run. We are old enough to reminisce, but young enough to be full of new plans and schemes. One of us has just landed an exciting new job; one of us has finally met that man we always hoped she would. All of us are old and wise enough to unsentimentally leave our partners behind for the weekend. This feels like progress in itself.

On Sunday, we head into Aldeburgh for fish and chips. Then, after a windy walk on the beach (one of us – ahem – may grumble slightly that her legs are tired), two of us go home, while two of us stay on for another night. We stop off for tea at Snape Maltings, and find ourselves unable to resist a square of sticky ginger cake on the side, despite the hearty lunch.

‘This is why we’re fat and they’re thin,’ says my companion. ‘They have restraint. We don’t.’

And for the first time in my life, I agree without feeling any horror. The wonderful thing about good, old friends is that they don’t care either way.

Recipe: Blood Orange & Prosecco

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Jerusalem Artichoke Soup

I am lying in bed with Herbert on Saturday night, just drifting comfortably off to sleep, when he says,

‘Oh by the way, I forgot to tell you: I’ve joined an online dieting group for vinyl nerds.’

I take a few moments to process this information.

‘Break that down for me, will you?’

‘We all collect records, we’re all fat, and so we’re posting our weight on a forum each week. Kind of mutual support.’

‘Right. Okay. Sounds normal.’

‘I’m the heaviest. But I’m also the tallest, so it’s not fair. I think we should post our BMI instead.’

Wild horses could not encourage me to post my weight or my BMI on an online forum, but then I suppose humiliation is the point here.

‘Does this mean you’ll be eating anything particular?’

‘No, just the same as normal. Something light in the evenings. A salad. Something like that.’

Ah Herbert, ‘same as normal’ – that means good intentions until 9pm, when we both get unbearably hungry and end up having second dinner. Or maybe it means going out for dinner and so considering it a waste of money to go for the diet option? Or perhaps caving in to comfort food the moment either of us feels a twinge of stress?

I’ll admit it: I’m a feeder. I come from a long line of them. I love the process of cooking, and I love watching Herbert tuck into a plate of food that he really likes. He has this way of nodding appreciatively at good dinners. It’s extremely rewarding. I may not always manage to be the most tolerant of wives, but I make up my nurturing deficit with food.

Once upon a time, women were positively admired for producing portly husbands and fat children. On holiday in India a couple of years back, I actually received compliments for how well-kept Herbert was. I was either born in the wrong era, or the wrong country.

One of the strangest effects of marriage is the way  you become responsible for your partner’s behaviour. It is almost like we take over from where parents left off, ‘bringing up’ our other halves like reluctant children. I found myself furious at Herbert over Christmas for the sheer amount he ate, knowing that, however restrained I was being, he was inevitably condemning us both to a new year diet. When you tie your hearts together, you tie your meals together too.

I suppose, also, that it falls to me to eat up all the root vegetables left over in the fridge. Winter diets and seasonal eating regimes are not an easy combination. But, actually, I think I’ve come up with a response that’s healthy and a little bit luxurious. If your relationship can withstand the effects of Jerusalem artichokes, that is.

Recipe: Jerusalem Artichoke Soup

This is where I buy my cobnut oil – it’s delicious, almost praline-flavoured.

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Poached Chicken

New Year, New You my arse. I was quite happy with the me that existed before 31st December, thanks very much.

This year, I just can’t muster up the requisite self-hatred to go on a new year diet. It just wouldn’t seem like learning my lesson somehow. Ditto the pointless annual alcohol fast, conducted as a kind of macabre experiment to see if I might be a teeny bit addicted to the sauce. What the hell. This year, I intend to accept that sometimes I mix a martini when what I really need is ten minutes in my happy place, and move on.

However, amends do need to be made. I am not convinced I have been getting my five a day over the holiday period. Moreover, I accept that it’s not a good thing to habitually swig Gaviscon as if it’s a digestif. I feel the need to stick a flag in the ground that says, ‘Normal eating is resumed.’

What’s more, I need to carry out my annual chutney cull. This vexes me somewhat. I used to be the only chutney maker I knew. Every year, I would turn out a dozen smart jars of plum, apple or fig, and proudly present them as Christmas presents. Nowadays, everyone’s at it. Which means that, increasingly, I don’t end up making any of my own. Plus, Herbert is in the habit of picking up a jar of something every time he buys cheese. It’s always disappointing and over-shiny, and it stacks up. The cupboard has got so full that the least movement makes four jars topple out, like those penny machines in seaside arcades.

I submerge a whole chicken in my deep stock pot with onions, carrots, garlic, ginger and celery bobbing around it. As an afterthought, I slosh in the remains of the NYE champagne. As it begins to bubble happily, I delve into the cupboard, casting out no less that three jars of soft pickled onions, six jars of random chutney, two blackcurrant squash bottles that have less than an centimetre of cordial left in them apiece (Herbert is the blackcurrant drinker in this house, that’s all I’m saying), and a kilner jar of greying cherries in brandy. I am alarmed to find a bottle of red wine vinegar with a thick cap of mould; I didn’t know that was possible.

Now I’m left with the sickly task of disposing of the contents of the jars. I am glooping them into the bin when Herbert comes home. He gazes between the bin and the boiling chicken and then quickly exits the kitchen. I call him back to admire my pristinely empty cupboards.

‘There,’ I say, ‘That’s better, isn’t it?’

‘Mmm,’ says Herbert, who only ever goes in there for mustard, marmite or his MSG-based Swiss salad seasoning.

‘This year, there will be a rule: one jar in, one jar out. No stockpiling weird ingredients.’ He smirks. He knows that’s not possible.

We eat the chicken in front of the TV, with spelt grains thrown into the broth and purple sprouting broccoli on the side. I had planned to make salsa verde to dribble on top, but in the new spirit of cupboard-clearing, I blob nasturtium pesto onto it instead, a gift from a friend’s summer garden. It goes some way to taking the ascetic edge off the dish.

As does the glass of sherry I pour afterwards, to use up the Christmas stash. I don’t want to become that person, after all.

Recipe: Poached Chicken with Spelt

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