Tuesday, 31 December 2013

A canal-side walk

Although our weather has been atrocious most of the time over the holiday period, we have had the occasional nice day in between all the floods of rain. Sunday was one of those days, and I took the opportunity to go out for a walk to enjoy the sunshine. I am fortunate in that I live close to the Basingstoke Canal, which runs from the village of Greywell, near Basingstoke to the River Wey at Woodham, a few miles beyond Woking. It is possible to walk the whole length of the canal on the towpath - though on Sunday I just did a couple of miles!

This is where I got onto the towpath - under the A323 Aldershot road at Pondtail Bridge:

From the bridge above this is the view:

Much more picturesque, I think you'll agree. Although Fleet is basically a commuter town, with many of its residents working in London, it has plenty of "green space", and right next to the edge of town lie real fields and woods! It was good to see that the canal towpath was quite busy on Sunday afternoon, with walkers, joggers and cyclists making the most of the amenity.

The recent storms seem to have taken a heavy toll on the trees, and several have fallen into the canal:

There are a lot of pine trees here, and leading off from the towpath there are many paths through the nearby woods.

This thing houses the controls for a sluice gate that controls the level of water in the canal. With all the recent rain, it must have been sorely needed!

Here is the water spilling out through the sluice-gate:

The water runs over a weir and into a stream - currently clogged with fallen branches:

Just past the sluice-gate you come to an area where there are several small ponds just next to the towpath. There was a light layer of ice on them on Sunday, and they looked really beautiful in the weak December sunlight:

After perhaps another mile the trees begin to thin out as you approach the edge of Farnborough airfield. This is as far as I went, because I felt it was time to turn back so that I would be home before the light failed.

As I walked I stopped frequently to photograph things of interest (attracting many odd looks from the other users of the towpath as I crouched in the undergrowth!). I have too many photos to put them into this post, but I will write another tomorrow.  Just want to show you this though:

Isn't that beautiful? The plant is a Nightshade of some sort - I don't know which. Nature's own Christmas decorations!

One last photo. The golden glow of the sunshine on the distant trees across the heath as the light begins to fade, with a very characteristic Silver Birch tree in the foreground...

So there we are then - a walk in our beautiful Hampshire countryside, which was a lot nicer than sitting indoors watching repeats of the Two Ronnies from 1987 or something similar on the telly!

Naan bread recipe

Several readers (and Twitter / Facebook friends) have enquired about the Naan breads I made the other day. If you want the recipe, follow this link to a post from September 2013 on Jane's blog Onions and Paper.

The dark patches on mine are poppy seeds, but Jane says that if you want to get the authentic burnt patches (as if cooked in a tandoor), then you need to hold the breads over an open flame (be careful!). Alternatively, use dry baking sheets rather than greased ones, and hope that the bread will stick in a few places.

If any of you do try the recipe, could you please let us know how it went? Thanks.


Monday, 30 December 2013

A Christmas curry

Due to the early advent of our latest granddaughter, Luna, our Christmas arrangements this year were a bit different to our normal ones. We usually get as many as possible of our immediate family together for a turkey meal on Christmas Day, and Boxing Day is normally a smaller affair, with a meal based on a roast Gammon Ham. This year, with Jane being away in France I went over to join our daughter Emma and her family on Christmas Day. Emma was cooking the "full works" traditional Christmas Dinner for the first time (she did a brilliant job!). The Boxing Day event was cancelled, but I was keen to return Emma's hospitality, so I invited her to bring her family over to my place to join me and my brother (who lives very nearby) for a curry on Saturday. Curry is not traditional Christmas fare, but it is something I reckon I can cook reasonably well, whereas roast Gammon is not something I am ready to attempt just yet.

This is what I dished up:

The star attraction was a chicken curry made in vaguely Indonesian style - in other words with lots of coconut milk, along with the obligatory onions, ginger, garlic, and chillis.

I didn't put much chilli in this time, because I knew the children would be eating it. Playing up to the fact that Lara likes what she calls "yellow curry", I added a spoonful of turmeric powder to give it the necessary colour. I actually cooked the sauce in advance and used the food-processor to blend it into a smooth texture. I added the chicken later on, and allowed it to simmer for a couple of hours to absorb all the flavours.

My second dish was a lamb curry, cooked long and slow in a tomatoey gravy flavoured with fragrant spices - cardamon, cinnamon and cloves - along with some paprika and some ready-made curry powder:

In my opinion no curry is complete without dhal, so dhal it had to be... Actually I made two different lots. One was intended solely for the children, so I cooked it very plainly, without spices of any sort:

But I also made a "grown-ups" version. This dhal was made with three different pulses: Moong (or Mung) dhal, the yellow Toor dhal and the little round red lentils. This combination gives the finished dish a really interesting texture. The dhal was flavoured with a "tarka" make with fried onions and whole spices that were "crackled" - in other words heated in a dry frying-pan until they begin to jump and pop, which really accentuates their flavour.

Naturally the dhal needs something to mop it up, so I cooked some Basmati rice and some Naan bread:

This was the first time I had made Naan bread, so I was pretty happy with the result. I have to say though that what you see in the photo above was actually my second attempt. I tried using a recipe taken from the BBC Good Food website, but it was a disaster, so I reverted to using the recipe that Jane always uses. It is one she got years ago when I was in the Army. It is hand-written and resides in a plastic wallet-folder along with many other tried and tested recipes that have stood the test of time. Should have used that one first really. There are a lot of rubbish recipes circulating on the internet!

Just to complete the meal I offered a selection of bits and pieces that we always refer to as "sambals" - chopped tomato, sticks of cucumber and raw carrot, raisins, bananas, Cashew nuts, and (in the absence of the more appropriate poppadums) some Prawn Crackers. On the table I pre-positioned Mango Chutney and Hot Lime Pickle.

So what do you think? Does that sound good? It was certainly appreciated, because there was hardly any left...

This is the sort of food that I love cooking. It is not quick to do, since many dishes like this benefit from long slow cooking, but I had plenty of time available so this was not an issue. I enjoy cooking with spices too. It is something that gets better with experience. You learn what works and what doesn't - when to add hot spices and chillis, and when to add sweet, fragrant spices instead. Some people think that "curry" is one dish and that it has to be searingly hot, but I disagree. There are as many "curries" as there are "not curry" dishes, and in my book flavour is more important than heat. Dhal was Emma's first solid food, and it looks as if a liking for curry, rice and dhal is continuing into the next generation too!

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Wet, wet, wet!

I have seldom been more glad that we don't live near a river. Our house stands on a small (very small) hill, but right now it's a welcome hill. We have had so much rain recently, and there is no end in sight.

It has not been good gardening weather, that's for sure, and I have only made the occasional brief foray into the garden to take a few pictures. This is what most things look like right now - sodden:

Raindrops on a broccoli leaf

Cavolo Nero

Well-watered broccoli

Despite the rain, the "Soleil d'Or" daffodils I brought back from Scilly are beginning to produce buds:

"Soleil d'Or"

I mustn't complain too much, because I know that many people (most people, in fact) are much worse off than me. There is a lot of flooding throughout the UK, and unusually the South-East is one of the worst-affected areas.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Potato, Leek and Bacon gratin

This dish was a bit of a "What can I do with the things I have in my fridge?" affair. I had three rashers of smoked streaky bacon, one leek, a pint of "on its sell-by date" milk, and a small piece of Gruyere cheese. With the addition of some flour, some butter and a clove of garlic this sounded to me as if it needed to be made into something along the lines of a Tartiflette! (Yes, I know the link is somewhat tenuous...)

Here in pictures is my method for putting the dish together:

1. Using butter, flour, milk and cheese, make a cheesy white sauce:

2. Cut the bacon into small pieces and lightly fry them with a little finely-sliced garlic:

3. Peel and thinly slice a couple of large potatoes. Put a layer of them into a suitable oven-proof dish, and cover them with about half of the cheese sauce. Wash and slice the Leek and add that too:

4. Add the bacon:

5. Add the rest of the cheese sauce and then another layer of potato slices. Season with salt and black pepper. Dot the top with small knobs of butter:

6. Bake in the oven at approx 120C for about 45 minutes, until the potatoes are tender, then turn up the heat to about 180C and cook for a further 10 minutes to brown the top:

7. Serve - either on its own or with something else to add a bit of colour (I had some carrots):

8. Serving suggestion - this dish needs a glass of nice wine to accompany it. Since it is vaguely Tartiflette-like, I suggest a light French red, such as Cotes du Ventoux.

Here's another thought: this would work quite well with some leftover turkey or ham in it too!

Friday, 27 December 2013

Chop, Chop!

Amongst my Christmas gifts this year I received two really special chopping boards.

One of them is this lovely item, fashioned in the shape of my blog's trademark chilli:-

If you chop lots of chillis and don't want their taste to taint other food  it makes sense to have one of these, because you really can't fail to remember which board is the right one!

This other board is a beauty too. It is made of laminated bamboo wood, which is very strong and reputedly slightly anti-bacterial too:

Take a closer look at the edge - it has been personalised for me!

I think this one may well be used as a prop for some of the food photos I take for this blog...

They are both fab, and completely appropriate for me. Thank you very much to their donors (you know who you are.)

Thursday, 26 December 2013

The lull between the storms

The weather here in the South of England has been pretty poor over the last couple of weeks. Even the TV weather presenters, who are apt to describe our weather in euphemistic terms, described Christmas Day as "the lull between the storms". December 25th was in fact a very nice day in our part of the world, and we, in common with many other families, were able to get out and take a walk in the sunshine after our Christmas Dinner. The previous 48 hours it had rained so much that there was widespread flooding in our area and lots of trees fell over. The wind didn't seem spectacularly strong, but I think many trees succumbed  simply because the ground is so soft and waterlogged. And now they are talking about more strong wind and rain coming our way!

Getting back home today after spending Christmas Day with my daughter Emma and her family I was of course anxious to check the state of my property and garden. Fortunately there is no sign of any damage, but the garden is in a bit of a sorry state. For a start it is absolutely littered with twigs and pine-needles blown in from the trees at the other side of the road:

There are twigs everywhere!

This is not staged; this is for real.

The wind has gathered-up piles of fallen leaves, but they are horribly soggy:

Most of the purple berries have come off the Callicarpa bush. Looking on the bright side, at least this will make it easier for the birds to eat them. The Blackbirds seem to be the ones that like them most.

Next time we get a dry day (not looking imminent, I must say), I'll have a lot of tidying-up to do!

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Happy Christmas!

Since I can't physically greet you and share with you a real Mince Pie, I offer you a virtual one:

Jane's winning streak has been continuing, and Monday saw the delivery of this lovely prize - a very comprehensive collection of Christmas goodies:

This little lot included a 15lb turkey, a jar of Cranberry sauce, 12 mince pies (as seen above), a Christmas pudding, Stilton cheese, crackers, (edible type), a big bag of Satsumas, two bottles of wine, and positively LOADS of different veg - including the inevitable Brussels Sprouts (love 'em or hate 'em they are part of the tradition now).

Most of this lot has gone across to my daughter Emma's house, where I will be spending Christmas Day. [Jane is over in France with Fiona and Juan, helping them to prepare baby Luna's first-ever Christmas Dinner. I don't expect Luna will eat any sprouts...!]
Best Wishes to you all. I'll be back posting to my blog in a few days...

Monday, 23 December 2013

Harvest Monday - 23rd December 2013

Well, it's Christmas week, but I've still managed to harvest a couple of things from the garden. First, some Parsnips:

Parsnip "Gladiator F1"

These were the ones served alongside the Roast Partridges we at a few days ago.

Parsnip "Gladiator F1"

As well as the Parsnips I also managed to get two small Curly Endives.

Curly Endive

They were not really 100% mature, but I felt it was justifiable to pick them because we were having Rack of Lamb with Gratin Dauphinois, a very favourite meal of ours, with which we traditionally eat Endive dressed with French Dressing. This meal is just not the same without the Endive!

I normally like to blanch the Endives for a week or ten days before harvesting, but this time I had not foreseen the requirement.

Here are the Endives after preparation (the outer leaves are always a bit tough and tatty, and need to be discarded):

What remained was still a decent-sized serving for two people, nonetheless.

That's it for this week then. Let me finish by wishing all you Harvest Monday people out there a happy holiday. I'm sure that many of you will be making plans for what to buy / build / sow / plant for next year, so I wish you sweet dreams on that score too! :-)