Wednesday, 28 August 2013


Sourdough is one of those things that I spent a few years reading about and wanting to try, but being a bit too scared to have a go at.  A bread, leavened - risen - bread, without yeast ?  Just didn't seem to make sense.

And then there was the lack of clear instructions anywhere, or so it seemed.  A bit of this, and a bit of that, it might go this way, or it might go that, it will change depending on where it's made....

Yet this is how I normally cook - just not the way I was used to baking.  Whilst cooking was always alchemy, even magic - the phases of the Moon and the tides seeming to have as much influence on the final result as the recipe used as the inspiration (for that is what recipes are for), or the actual edible ingredients added to the dish..... Baking was supposed to be a science.  Exactly this amount of a) added to exactly that amount of b), in a vessel made strictly of material c), baked at a temperature no greater than d) and no lesser than e), for strictly the amount of time specified in figure f).....

And you know what ?

It's not like that at all.  That might be science the way it was taught to me at school, sadly - hence I am no scientist - but really, every magician needs a bit of a scientist about them in order to properly perform their craft.  So here is the vaguely scientific know-how of baking, and specifically of baking leavened bread - you need flour, and this flour needs to be manipulated in some way in order to stretch the protein in it and make it rise - and you need a rising agent.  And as this rising agent can run away with itself if left unchecked (and as bread with no salt in it just tastes nasty), a bit of salt to keep the rise in check does not go amiss.

Now, this rising agent is usually yeast, and yeast needs food - this is why you'd feed your dried yeast with a spoonful or two of sugar - but naturally occurring complex sugars in your flour will also do the job, although more slowly.  You need warmth, as yeast gets sluggish in the cold (therefore, sticking your dough in the fridge will slow down the rising process), and you need a pre-heated oven, because heat over 200 C will kill the yeast and stop the rise as you are ready to bake.

But - wait a minute - sourdough does not use yeast, does it ?  So how does that work ?

Well, actually, it does - only not as a separate entity, an ingredient to be added to your collection of bread-making ingredients above.  When making sourdough, you are activating the naturally occurring yeasts in the flour itself, and gathering to them the yeasts from your environment - and this is a slow process.  Sourdough does not need much effort, but it does need a bit of commitment.

Because a lot of yeasts need to be gathered for your loaf to rise, the best starting point is flour that is processed as little as you can possibly get away with.  That means wholemeal;  preferably stoneground; certainly unbleached; and the best, quickest, yeastiest flour for your starter is rye flour.

Don't panic if you can't get hold of any - I have done it with Tesco value chapatti flour, which costs 40p per kilo (as opposed to over a £1 for Balchedre Watermill stoneground rye, for instance), and it worked absolutely fine.  It will just take a bit more time, a bit more patience - and a willingness to accept a different kind of flavour.

As well as your flour, you will need a large bowl to brew your sourdough in, and water.  And that's it to start with. 

I use a plastic homebrew pot for my sourdough, purely because this is the one receptacle that I have in my tiny kitchen that is not called upon for other uses often enough to disturb my starter - if you are more aesthetically minded, something a bit.... prettier .... will probably be a wiser choice, because this will be sitting on your counter for as long as you wish to be messing around with sourdough. 

Got your pot, then ?  Right.  Measure out a cup of flour, then a cup of water, into your pot.  Stir well (I use a balloon whisk to get rid of any lumps), then cover with a cheesecloth or similar - I use an old jelly baf - something that will keep bugs out, but let yeasts in, so nothing too thickly weaved. Stick a rubber band around the rim to secure it, and push to one side. 

And that's it for day one.

The next day, add another cup of flour and the same volume of water.  Stir well, cover again.  Repeat daily.

Now, every day, as you come to your sourdough, you will see that it looks - and smells - and sounds !!! - a little different.  As the yeasts gather and start to gossip away, there will be bubbles, and susurration, and a rather vigorous ferment (usually around day three or four, but this will depend on the temperature of your kitchen), eventually supplanted by a gentler one.  On day 7, your starter should be ready, nicely fed, but ready to get its metaphorical teeth into something more substantial.

On that day, you will get out your mixing bowl, pour some flour into it, mix it with some sourdough starter, add a bit of salt to it, and.... Wait now, how much of each ? 

Ah, yes.  This, I'm afraid, rather depends.  It depends on so many different factors - type of flour you used, how many yeasts in your kitchen air made it into your starter, how much water evaporated over the course of the week.....  So you'll have to be brave now, and just have a go.

What usually works for me - but you simply have to be prepared to be flexible and follow your starter's lead - is about 350-400 =g of flour - rye, wholemeal, white, spelt - at this stage it's a question of suit yourself - the heavier, darker the flour, the heavier and darker the loaf - about a teaspoonful of sea salt, and enough starter to make dough that is dry enough to knead, yet wet enough to be elastic and allow for a decent rise.  If you bake your own yeasted breads, you will know the texture you are after - if you don't, just be brave.  Play with it.  Add a bit of this a bit of that until you like what you see and feel..... And if you don't like it, get it into the oven anyway.  Chances are, it'll still work - and the finished result will give you a bit more of an idea as to what not to do next time.

Sourdough.... Is a learning process.  You can grow together with it until you have exactly what you want to have.  Or you can just pay minimum attention to it and let yourself be surprised by the final result every time.  I tend towards the latter.  My family would probably prefer less of an element of surprise and a bit more security in their daily loaf.  Either approach to sourdough is, I believe, equally valid.

Because, you see, no matter what you do, the end result will be the healthiest loaf you could conceivably eat.  The lacto-fermentation of the sourdough starter almost pre-digests the flour for you, assuring you will get optimum nutrition from it.  And if you make your own whey (of which more in another post), you can add some of that to your loaf, too, to add another layer of lacto-fermented probiotic goodness .

Anyway - you have your dough now.  Shape your loaf, stick it on your greased baking stone/ baking tray/ loaf tin;  slash the top in a diamond pattern if you like (I don't always bother), and leave it alone somewhere warm.  For 24 hours at least.

And this is the bit that I like best of all - a lump of dough with no fast-acting yeasts added to it at all.... Yet watch it rise.  Slowly, like the grass growing - yet rise it does.

Bake for 35min - 1hr on 200 C.  Preheated oven, of course, else you'll get a cracked loaf.  But you know what ?  If you do, cracked is also fine.  Who says they have to be pretty ?




Monday, 26 August 2013

It Tastes Better with Feta and Chorizo

Tonight's dinner was one of those dishes that do not require a recipe, just a method.  My favourite - good food  made with whatever happens to be to hand and needs using up.

It started with the potato harvest.  This week has been designated a food and garden week, which means that my first priority is to get to grips with the wilderness that even a tiny garden becomes this time of year.  The potato plants were starting to die back, so we got the spade out and dug them up.

I ended up with about 5-6 lb of spuds.  Not exactly enough to see us through the winter, but considering how badly I'd neglected my soil, not to mention my failure to earth the spuds up as they were growing, it really was a great deal better than I deserved.

Dinner, therefore, was going to be spuds in one form or another.  A quick look around the kitchen, a quick peek in the fridge - bad move, this, as it brought the feline next door running, and I am trying hard not to feed him anymore as he is refusing to go home - and I came up with one of my large round courgettes that have marrowed before I got to picking them, a handful of smallish onions, half a head of garlic, a scrag end of chorizo and the same of feta cheese.

Thinking about it now, how come that chorizo seems to come as scrag ends only ?  I mean, I recall quite clearly buying the whole sausage, bringing it home.... And the next time I see it, it's a scrag end, and a scrag end that never seems to quite run out.


The spuds got peeled, quartered and parboiled for five minutes.  Water drained, a teaspoonful of semolina sprinkled over them, lid back on, shaken up to get them all rough around the edges, just as they should be.

Onions peeled and quartered, the courgette cubed fairly small - oil heated up in the oven for five minutes, then in it all went.  And this is the beauty of this dish - I had potatoes, onions and a courgette, so that's what I used - but whatever veg I happened to have lying around, as long as it lends itself to roasting, in it would go.

Twenty-five to thirty minutes later, the roasting dish came out, and peeled and halved cloves of garlic, cubed feta and thinly sliced chorizo went in - and ten minutes later it was dinner time.

Other half and I had ours with home made kimchi.  The daughter objects to kimchi on grounds of smell, so she had hers without.  

And then the plates were empty, and approval was indicated all round - and the gnawing edge of anxiety that has been manifesting itself as a hollow feeling inside my belly that my brain chose to interpret as hunger was - thump !  - gone, just like that.

And I felt full.

See, the family have been a right ruddy pain about food the last few days - and yesterday was one of those days when you end up wondering why the heck do you bother.....  And I cooked and I ate all the food that everyone was moaning about or turning their noses up at, and felt hungrier and hungrier and.....

.... and now I rather regret eating so much because my waistband is rather tight and that really was rather a lot of potatoes.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Runner Bean and Courgette Chutney

This is by far our favourite chutney - and a very good idea for all the backyard gardeners that are starting to suffer runner bean and courgette gluts right about now.


600g runner beans, thinly sliced
4 courgettes, thinly sliced
350g cooking apples, peeled, cored and chopped (although I have used eaters when there were no cookers available - just use what you can get your hand on and don't worry about it too much)
2 onions, finely chopped
450g sugar
1tsp mustard or mustard powder
1tsp turmeric
1tsp coriander seeds
600ml vinegar (cider is nicest, but anything will do, even malt)


Put all the ingredients into a preserving pan. Cook on a gentle heat, stirring until all the sugar has dissolved. Bring to boil then cook on a rolling boil for 10 minutes.  Reduce to a simmer, cook for one and a half hours, stirring from time to time, until the mixture thickens.

Make sure you open all the windows - the fragrance of the chutney cooking will permeate the house !

Once the mixture has thickened, ladle into sterilised jars and mature for at least a month before eating.



Thursday, 22 August 2013

Runner Bean and Potato Stew

This is the sort of thing I grew up eating back home in Croatia - superfrugal, superfresh, and super delicious - if you like that sort of thing, that is.

The daughter scrunched up her nose and said "That does not look very appetising!"  Well, yes, OK, a stew can look a bit brown and mushy, no matter what you put in it.  No judging of books by their covers around here though - or food by its looks.  In the event, she had seconds.  So did I.  Even OH - not a runner bean fan at best of times, and not really all that keen on meatless meals, either - said that, as runner bean dishes go, this will do the job.

So get out and pick your runner beans (I am assuming that you would probably not be bothering to read this if you were not a backyard gardener suffering a glut!).  As this is a stew, there are no hard-and-fast quantities to it - it's a case of "chuck in a bit of this, and a bit of that, turn up the heat and see what happens" cookery. 

You have your beans now, right ?  A good handful (and I have rather large hands) did for the three of us.   If you are growing your own potatoes, go and furtle for a bit - a couple of medium ones per person is about right.

Other things you will definitely need - an onion, a couple of cloves of garlic, some good stock (water will do in a pinch, but a stock adds flavour, goodness, and frankly so much more), salt, pepper.

Things that will help a great deal - a carrot, a celery stick, some paprika, a splash of Worcestershire sauce, a couple of bay leaves.  You could add a slug of wine if you like - I don't if there's no meat in the stew.  You could add herbs, or some tomato puree, and end up with an altogether different dish.  Play around, be brave - as long as you have the basics, you can not go far wrong, not unless you go silly and start adding things you know you don't like. 

This is how I did last night - another time, I'll do it in a slightly different way, depending on the mood and availability of ingredients.  That is how I cook, and what I really like about cooking - organic, changeable, different every time.


Oil (a splash)
Onion (one large or two smaller, chopped)
Carrot (one, chopped into small cubes)
Celery (one stick, as above)
Runner beans (a large handful, sliced to one inch lengths)
Potatoes (two medium ones per person, cubed fairly small)
Garlic (two cloves, crushed)
Stock  (enough to cover the ingredients; dilute with water as necessary)
Paprika (two teaspoons)
Bay leaf (two)
Worcestershire sauce (a couple of splashes)
Salt and pepper (to taste)


Splash a bit of oil into a large saucepan.  Chop your onion, carrot and stick of celery, and sauté gently for a few minutes.  Add cubed potatoes, runner beans, crushed garlic, and the rest of the ingredients  up to and including the bay leaves.  Bring to the boil, then turn the heat down and simmer for 35-45 minutes.  About five minutes before turning the heat off, season with salt, pepper, and a splash or two of Worcestershire sauce. 

Incidentally, as my daughter was a rabid vegetarian until very recently, I would have normally made this with vegetable stock and minus the Lea & Perrin's, so if you are one, it's still going to be nice enough if you do the same.


Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Courgette Fritters

100g plain flour
1 egg
75ml milk
150g (about one middle-sized) courgette
salt, pepper
oil for frying

Put flour into a bowl, add milk and beaten egg, whisk until you have smooth batter.

Grate the courgette, squeeze out the excess liquid, mix in. Season to taste.

Heat up the oil in a largish frying pan, then drop tablespoonfuls of batter into it.  Flatten slightly and fry for 2 minutes each side.

We had ours with tabouleh made with the last of the bulghur wheat I've been trying to use up, homegrown cucumbers and homegrown mint, the whole lot drizzled with homemade sweet chilli sauce.

Fed three hungry people for not very much money at all !

Monday, 19 August 2013

Five minutes away

Five minutes walk from my front door, and there are fields:

Village church in the distance - same spire that can be seen from my back garden:

The river:

Church closer up:

                         The pocket park, aka the old churchyard - suitably spooky for you ?

The alleyway leading back home: 

Blackberries are starting to ripen - picked a lunchbox full today, and plan to pick many more over the next days and weeks.  As I still have so much jam left from previous autumnal preserving frenzies, this year most of the brambles will be turned into wine, or just open frozen to be used in cooking over the coming months.  Look out for autumn preserving recipes starting soon.....

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Before and after

Sometimes a little bit of digging will come up with surprising rewards.

Sometimes you'll end up a little bit shocked as to how far you've actually come.

I look around our house and all I see is what still needs to be done;  and there's always something to be done.  It's all too easy to forget everything you've already done.

This is what we've done:

Lounge - we used to have a tortie cat, and kept losing her on that carpet.  Funny how you forget.

A bit of a difference with the kitchen, isn't there ?

.... and with  the bathroom !

Yup, that's the same room !

Before and after with DD's bedroom.  Mind you, hers went through three different incarnations in the last six years.  I like the latest one best though (and so, for the time being at least, does she).

This is what I was looking for earlier - a "before" photo of the conservatory !

Okay, so the garden was always nice.  You couldn't eat it before though, which - in my book - is definitely a drawback. When it comes to gardens....



Garden in August

In my August garden, there are flowers:

                                                         Bumblebees and butterflies:


Beans in the making:

Pumpkins to be:


                                                               Miscellaneous greenery:

And food ready for picking:

Yup, just the one tayberry today.  

I've been very, very good the last few days, and added them to the open-freezing tray as I picked, rather than just popping them in my mouth as "there's only one or two".  This way, there'll eventually be a few more than that.  Hmmmm, what shall I do with them then, I wonder.........

Making Space

Stuff multiplies.  Fact.

No matter how much you get rid of, no matter how little you bring in.... The moment you turn your back, stuff breeds, or perhaps brings its little friends round to play, and then they forget to go back home.  Who knows?  Fact is, the only way to prevent getting pushed out of your own home is to declutter.  Little and often is what works best for me.

And then, of course, there is the maintenance of the stuff you have left.  It really does not need saying that the less stuff you have, cluttering the place up, the easier it will be to do those lovely jobs (ugh) like cleaning and decorating.  Face it, stuff takes up a lot of your energy.... The less you have, the more energy will be left for important, meaningful, or fun stuff.

So, this summer I've been mostly getting rid of stuff.  We are hoping to move next year, and those of us who used to religiously watch Ann Maurice - and nowadays Phil Spencer -  know very well that the way to release the best value from our bricks and mortar is to present them to potential buyers in the best possible light.  That means that the emergency decorating jobs from six years ago, when we moved it, just won't do.

Now, this is the point when I post the tatty "before" photos, followed by nice, shiny "after" photos, but as I have dopily forgot to take any photos before cracking out the paintbrushes, I had to trawl through my photo archives in order to find something that would give you an idea as to what it all used to look like to start with....

                                                   So, here goes - conservatory before:

Yes, it was Christmas when this photo was taken.  Live with it ;o)

And this is what we have now:

That's as far as it got in terms of decorating - but much more achieved when it come to decluttering.

                                                             A view of the kitchen last year:

                                            This is the top of the kitchen cupboards now:

Trouble is, the kitchen is still too small for the cupboards to store absolutely everything.... Therefore, bookcase to the rescue:

                                                             The master bedroom:

Daughter's bedroom (and you do realise that the only reason it's this tidy is because she is away, don't you ?)

And finally, the lounge:

                                            The lounge is still a work in progress though !