A little taster of what's cooking...
Exciting times at Hare’s House – we have a huge box of dried Mexican chillies to play with! We’ve been selflessly trying out recipes for Fajitas for a couple of months now (it’s a tough job sometimes) and now we’ve all decided that they’re ready to fly the nest.
If you like fajitas (who doesn’t?), your only option at the supermarket seems to be to buy a packet of hydrolised stuff with maltodextrin and ‘flavour’ and sprinkle it all over some chicken. Hardly traditionally Mexican, is it? Authentic Tex Mex food doesn’t involve sprinkling anything other than spices and herbs. I wanted to bring a kit to you that lets you experience some of the drama of proper Mexican cooking.
Our new Mexican kits feature Tex Mex Chilli or Fajita. Both take a little more work than opening a packet and sprinkling, but both are authentic and much, much tastier! You will need 3-4 chicken breasts/steaks of beef or pork or vege equivalent such as 2 packs of paneer/Quorn/vegetables, 1 tblsp white vinegar (cider, white wine, rice wine, distilled), salt and sugar to taste.
This is what’s in your Fajita kit
First of all, dried chillies can be a little dusty so it’s good to give them a wipe with a piece of damp kitchen roll and straighten out the ancho as much as possible. Heat a dry frying pan/griddle/tava until hot and then put the dried chillies, fresh chilli and the whole, unpeeled garlic cloves that are in the kit, onto the pan. Press the dried chillies down onto the hot pan with a spatula, you may hear it crackle as the oils in the chilli are forced out.
Turn the chillies over and do the same with the other side. You aren’t looking to cook the chilli, just briefly toast it. It will turn a lighter tan colour and shouldn’t take much more than a minute before it’s done. Don’t let them burn!
Toasted ancho chilli, just starting to blister and turning a lighter shade of tan.
Take the chillies out and leave them to one side to cool. Continue cooking the fresh chilli and garlic cloves until they are covered in black spots and well charred and soft. Put to one side to cool and then slip the skin off the soft garlic and remove any loose skin from the chilli.
With a pair of scissors, cut the stems off the top of the chillies (taking care not to take too much of the chilli with the stalk) and then cut down one side of the chillies to reveal the seeds inside. Empty the seeds out and take out the inner membrane if you want to reduce the heat in the final dish.
Cut both of the dried chillies into 2cm (ish!) squares and put into a small saucepan. Cover with boiling water and bring to the boil. Take off the heat, cover and leave for 15 minutes to soak and rehydrate.
After 15 minutes, drain the chillies into a sieve and rinse with fresh water. Put into a mini chopper or similar along with the toasted garlic, 1 tblsp cider vinegar (any clear vinegar will do – rice wine, white whine, distilled or even lime juice), 2 tsp salt, 1 tsp sugar and the Mexican herb/spice pack. Process until smooth, adding a tiny splash of water if necessary. Taste. It should be a little too salty and hot (it’s got a lot of meat to flavour), the vinegar flavour will disappear when cooked. If it’s not hot enough, add some/all of the toasted red chilli to taste and process again until smooth. Taste again and add more salt/sugar if you think it’s necessary.
You can bake/grill/fry your fajita. If you’re going to bake/grill, leave the chicken/steak whole. If you’re going to fry, cut the chicken/steak into strips. Either way, put into a large plastic zip lock/tie handle bag along with the chilli paste.
Through the bag, massage the paste into the meat until thoroughly coated. Tie or zip lock the top of the bag and leave in the fridge for as long as possible – preferably overnight, but for at least 20 minutes.
Grill/bake/fry as per instructions (if grilled or baked, slice the chicken/steak into strips before serving) and serve with whatever you like to eat with your fajitas: sour cream, pickled chillies, peppers and onions, grated cheese, guacamole (see my blog entry for Stef’s guacamole recipe), salsa (see my blog entry for a traditional toasted salsa) and soft flour tortilla.
Seriously. What’s not to like?!
Elderflowers are wonderful and quite underused nowadays. Their lovely frothy, creamy white flowers can be seen everywhere during June/July. If you decide to go and pick a few choose a lovely sunny day – elderflowers picked on a damp or rainy day will taste bitter and in some cases will develop a mould if you’re using them to make champagne. They love the sun as much as we do and on a sunny day will taste sweet and smell of Muscat grapes.
I was always told that when the elder is in full flower summer has arrived and it ends when the berries are ripe. Maybe now that we only have a week of summer, it isn’t as true as it seemed when I was a child!
I was also taught that you should give a respectful nod to the Elder as you walked past and when you understand why it has always been held in such high esteem, you can see why it commands such respect – not only for its usefulness, but also its musky fragrance. It was believed that if you fell asleep under an elder tree when in flower, you’d never wake up as its scent was so intoxicating! It was used for a great many things apart from the uses we still know about (flowers and berries) – musical instruments were made from it’s wood, as the central part of the stems contain a woolly substance that is easy to push out and so leaves you with a perfect pipe. No small boy would have been without his Elder Pea Shooter! The leaves if bruised don’t smell very nice and because of this they were bruised and put around delicate or precious plants to deter mice and prevent insect invasion. They are also said to ward off midges and biting insects and so people used to rub the leaves on their skin to prevent them from being bitten. It’s leaves and roots were used as dye. The fungus that traditionally grows on Elder is called Jew’s Ear or Jelly Ear Fungus – it has the shape and texture of a human ear! It’s perfectly edible, but is more popular in China than in Europe but was used centuries ago as a medicine. It seems such a shame that we’ve forgotten about nearly all of Elder’s uses.
Jew’s Ear fungus or Jelly Ear as it’s called now
A basket full of elderflowers
Elderflowers can be eaten straight from the bush – the pollen that collects on them is sweet, while the flowers themselves are tart like grape skin. A lovely combination. They’re beautiful when sprinkled over deserts or green salads and add an extra dimension.
There are lots of things that you can do with the flowers. I wanted to make some elderflower cordial and some very easy elderflower vinegar.
Elderflower vinegar is especially lovely to use in the winter – it reminds you of Summer. It’s easy to make and can be used in the same way as any other vinegar. It has a lovely floral, grape like taste which is quite sweet. The vinegar will keep for a year or more.
Ram as many elderflowers into a clean jar as you can, pushing them down as much as possible. Fill the jar with light vinegar such as cider vinegar, white wine vinegar or rice vinegar until all of the blooms are covered. You may have to take some out if they won’t cover. Put the lid on tightly and leave on a sunny window sill for a couple of weeks, shaking it all every day.
After a couple of weeks, strain through 2 layers of kitchen roll and then strain again through another 2 layers of roll (or new j cloths) to get rid of any sediment. You probably won’t get all of the sediment out – it’s mostly pollen and this will settle at the bottom of your bottle.
Put into pretty bottles and label.
Fill the vinegar to the top of your jar
I don’t like my cordial too sweet, so feel free to add a little more sugar if you’d like. I also add lemon and orange to my cordial which lifts the heady muscat flavour without it becoming lemonade. If you’d like to just use lemons to make a Elderflower and Lemon cordial, feel free. You could also leave the citrus out, but I’ve found using just Elderflowers can be a little bland.
Pick 25-30 elderflower heads on a bright, sunny day and shake them as you do to dislodge any bugs. When you get home, put 1.7litres (3 pints) of boiling water into a large saucepan, along with 900g (2lb) granulated sugar. Stir well until dissolved (you may need to put a very low heat under the saucepan to assist with melting, but don’t let it simmer or boil). Turn the heat off and leave to cool while you prepare the 2 oranges and 2 -3 lemons. Use un-waxed fruit if you can get it, but if not make sure you scrub the skins with hot water and washing up liquid to remove the wax before using them. Rinse well and dry. Peel the oranges and lemons and add the peel to the hot sugar water. Cut the peeled lemons and oranges into thick slices and add them to the water.
Next plunge in the elderflowers and stir everything together. You’ll need 50g (2oz) citric acid which you can buy from chemists (you won’t find it on the shelves, you’ll have to ask for it and you might be asked what you want it for! It can also be used in the preparation of drugs…). Citric acid will prolong the life of your cordial. If you can’t get hold of any, you can make the cordial without but it will only last a couple of weeks in the fridge, but you could freeze it in portions.
Add the citric acid and stir everything together. Cover the pan and leave in a cool place for 24 hours, stirring every now and again. After 24 hours, squash everything in the pan with a wooden spoon to extract as much flavour as possible and strain everything through a sieve lined with 2 clean J cloths. Bottle and keep in the fridge. It will keep for around 6 weeks, maybe more. If you see any kind of mould floating on the top of your cordial – it’s time to throw it away! Dilute with fizzy or still water and serve with lots of ice. Also lovely added to fizzy wine on a hot day!
You can use the cordial in lots of ways – add it to fruit crumbles, make a different kind of drizzle for lemon cake – 4tblsp syrup, 4tblsp caster sugar. You can also add a couple of tblsp to your normal biscuit/cookie/cup cake recipes.
Elderflower Salad Dressing
Combine your vinegar and cordial to make a lovely, light summer salad dressing put 3tblsp light tasting oil such as mild light olive oil, rapeseed oil etc into a clean jam jar, along with 2tblsp elderflower vinegar and 2tsp elderflower cordial or light honey. Add salt and pepper. Put the lid on the jar and shake until well mixed. Taste and add more salt/pepper if needed.
You can’t possibly need any further reasons to get out there and pick some lovely elderflowers. Be sure to leave some on the bush though, so that you can go back at the end of summer and collect their lovely berries. And remember to show it the respect it deserves when you walk past, with a little nod!
Nettles, to my way of thinking are one of the most underrated free vegetables that we have. They contain 10% protein which is more than any other vegetable, they are packed full of iron, contain vitamin A, C and D, along with potassium and calcium.
They’re also a natural antihistamine. So if you suffer with allergies including hay fever, it makes sense to try and include as much nettle into your diet as possible. Now that you know all of this, please don’t dig them up out of your garden without at least pinching the crown out of each one and giving them a try. If you like the irony taste of spinach, you’ll feel the same way about nettles.
Before you know it, buying spinach at the green grocers will be a thing of the past and you’ll be cultivating that patch of nettles rather than digging them up!
The best time to harvest nettles is when the first delicate growth makes an appearance in May, after that the stalks become woody and tough and the larger the leaf the more bitter it is and once they flower, you’re better off leaving them alone. Before the flowers appear, just pinch off the very top leaves to use. If you have a patch of nettles, as long as you regularly chop them down (maybe with a strimmer), new growth will keep appearing for you to pick.
I made some lovely Nettle and Paneer Koftas last night and thought that you might like to give them a try. Please don’t do what I did though – I forgot that I’d used nettles and tasted a spoonful of the raw mixture to check that there was enough salt in the mixture! After that, I wasn’t sure if I’d used too much chilli or that I’d stung my tongue! Taste the mixture BEFORE you add the nettles – ouch.
NETTLE & PANEER KOFTAS
Collect around 10 nettle tops (using rubber gloves) and chop them finely along with a handful of fresh coriander. Put the coriander in a large bowl, but put the nettles to one side to add at the end!
Chop the nettles, but don’t forget to keep the gloves on if you’re moving them around the chopping board!
To the bowl add half a block of grated paneer (you can buy it from most supermarkets now, or have a go at making your own – the recipe is on this blog), 1 small onion finely chopped, a 5cm (1″) piece of ginger grated, 1 clove garlic crushed; chilli to taste (use fresh, ground or flakes) along with 3tblsp chickpea flour (also known as gram flour, this is available from most supermarkets in the world food section). You could add 3 tblsp processed canned chickpeas instead with 1tblsp normal flour added to the mixture.
Spices – 1/2 tsp of ground coriander and cumin and 1/4 tsp turmeric and garam masala. If you haven’t got all of these, just add the ones that you have.
Add 1tsp salt (or to taste), 1tblsp oil and the juice of half a lemon.
Mix well and taste at this point so that you can add more salt/chilli/lemon juice. Finally add the stinging nettles and a little more flour if the mixture seems overly wet. Give everything a good stir. You want a mixture that holds its shape.
Take desert spoons of the mixture and put them onto greaseproof paper. Try and make them into some sort of shape so that they hold together during the frying process. I made quenelles with mine using 2 spoons.
Fill a wok/deep pan half full of oil and heat. The oil is ready when you drop a piece of bread in, it will sizzle gently.
Gently and carefully slide the kofta into the oil, not too many at a time so as not to reduce the oil temperature too much and fry until golden.
These can also be baked in the oven if preferred, just make sure you spray/brush each kofta with oil before putting in a medium oven until golden.
Draining the kofta after frying
I served mine with a mushroom curry sauce and rice. They are also good served with cucumber raita with drinks.
Nettle and Paneer Kofta – worth leaving the nettles in the garden for!
Stef has been telling me all about how good the authentic corn tortilla taste in Mexico, hot from the pan and so I thought we should all be able to experience them, in the comfort of our own homes!
You’ll need to find Masa Harina flour which is flour that is made out of corn. DON’T use the type of cornflour that you get in the baking section at supermarkets that you’d use for thickening, or putting into shortbread – it’s completely different! Also, don’t use polenta as that’s also different. You can find Masa Harina on line or from some delis.
There is no gluten in corn which means that if you grind it up, it won’t stick together to become a dough. It has to go through a process in which lime is added to the cooked, soaked corn so that when it’s dried and ground, it will form a dough when water is added.
In a large bowl add 2 cups of masa harina flour, 2 tsp oil and a good 1/2 tsp salt.
Add 1 1/2 cups of hot/warm water (you may need a little more or less) to the dough and squish it all through your fingers to mix. It’s best not to use a spoon as you get a feel for how the dough should be. As you squish it, you’ll find it’s not like normal dough – it seems a little ‘cleaner’, in that it doesn’t stick as readily to your fingers. Keep mixing until the dough is soft and feels exactly like play-doh (I think it smells similar too!). Put into a plastic bag and leave for 15 minutes so that the corn can absorb the water.
After 15 minutes, take the dough out of the bag and check that it still feels like play-doh. If it’s a little firmer add a splash more water and squish it through with your hands until it’s mixed in. Don’t be afraid to add more water, the secret with this dough is to keep it soft. You can always add a little more masa harina if you’ve gone too far with the water. It should look like this:
Take a large, good quality zip lock bag and cut it open, so that you have to pieces of plastic. Take a small golf ball sized piece of dough and roll it into a ball and put on top of one piece of the plastic. Cover with the other piece of plastic and squash down.
Roll out the dough through the plastic. If you try and roll the dough without a plastic covering it will just stick to the rolling pin. You can’t dust with flour to stop it sticking because it makes the dough too dry. You can use a tortilla press to make the process quicker, but I think you can roll the tortilla more thinly this way, which gives more of a chance of your tortilla puffing up during cooking. Heat a frying pan (non stick if possible) up over medium heat while you’re rolling out your dough. Don’t add oil to the pan.
Peel the rolled tortilla off the sheet of plastic (it may tear if you’ve rolled it too thinly, in which case you need to squash the dough together and start again) onto your hands and put it onto the hot dry frying pan.
The tortilla should start to cook at the edges straight away, you’ll see the tortilla start to whiten. If you’re lucky, you’ll then see that it starts to puff up. This is ideal (though certainly not essential) as it cooks the dough thoroughly in the middle. You can encourage this puffing up by pressing firmly with a fish slice all over the tortilla. Keep looking under the tortilla until you see brown speckles forming and then turn it over.
Keep pressing down on the tortilla with the fish slice so that the other side cooks evenly and to encourage puffing. When you have brown speckles form on the side nearest the pan, you can take it out. Put in foil to keep them warm and serve straight away.
If you have any left, you can brush them with oil, sprinkle with cheese and bake them in the oven to make home style Doritos!
My Dad used to talk a lot about the Pignuts that he ate as a child, telling me about them tasting like a cross between celery, parsnip and fresh nuts and that he used to carefully find his way down the plant with a stick, to find the tasty buried treasure, hidden in the soil below. I found out a lot about wild food from my Dad, but never got round to finding pignuts with him.
A couple of weeks ago, I asked my local Countryside Rangers if they knew of anywhere that pignuts grew. I was really excited when I found out that not only had they found some, they’d also got permission for us to dig some up! Pignuts are protected, so you need the landowners permission to dig them up and don’t forget that every bit of land in the UK is owned by someone. You could have a look in your own back garden to see if there are any lurking there – then you can give yourself permission to dig!
We decided to make a morning of it and meet up at the ‘secret location’ (very James Bond) with equipment and ingredients so that we could cook up a feast in the woods!
The pignut plant is very similar to other species of umbellifer (such as hemlock and fools parsley), some of which are poisonous – so it’s important that you correctly identify it. Even though it’s called a pignut, the part you unearth and eat, is actually a tuber.
We found a patch of ground that had a lot of pignut plants on it, which unfortunately were growing in heavily matted grass weed. This was going to make digging down for the pignuts a lot more difficult!
Our first sighting of a patch of pignut flowers
I understand why my Dad told me that he needed a solid stick to assist in the digging – I looked around for a stick to help us carefully dig out the fragile stem, but could only find deadwood which was no help at all! Luckily, Morgan had brought some cutlery to use and along with a sharper knife, we were able to dig our way down. It’s important not to cut through or break the stem as you will lose your way down to the tuber. We dug down as carefully as an archaeologist unearthing a piece of history!
A close up of the ‘umbels’ of the pignut – the flower formations are called umbels.
After clearing some of the grass away so that we could see the stem more clearly, we started to dig carefully down with a knife.
Carefully digging down
The stem twists and turns like a twisty, turny thing making the journey down to the nut, perilous! We had a couple of shouts of ‘yesssss!’ only to pick out a stone which looked like it might have been tuber treasure. Finally, Nige pulled out a dry clump of soil which promised great things!
*squeal* it’s a pignut!
After some gentle dusting off, we’d found a lovely heart shaped pignut. Not all pignuts are heart shaped, we liked to think that this one was special – just for us!
The outer skin peels off very easily to reveal a milky white nut.
Our heart shaped pignut still attached to its stem.
We decided to cut the pignut into three so that we could all try a piece before we dug any more up. If we didn’t like them, we were going to leave them there! The texture was similar to a raw chestnut – quite mealy but pleasantly crunchy. The taste was celery straight away, leading on to nutty parsnip and then a lovely sweet ‘cake’ kind of taste. We decided to crack on and dig some more up. Soon, we had a few to take away with us for our woodland feast.
Our pignut harvest
Morgan had previously spotted some ‘Chicken of the Woods’ which she took us to see. She’d already cut a small amount off for her supper a couple of weeks earlier, but had left the rest there for another day! Chicken of the Woods is an edible fungus that grows on trees. It’s one of the few fungi that is easily recognised as being edible, it’s very difficult to confuse it with anything else. It has layers of yellowish white structures, which grow out of trees. Don’t eat any Chicken of the Woods that you find growing on Eucalyptus, Yew, Conifers or Cedar Trees as these can upset delicate tummies – any other trees are fine. It’s supposedly called Chicken of the Woods because of it tasting rather like chicken.
Chicken of the Woods hiding behind a piece of holly!
We spotted another one, although it was a little bit too far up for us – but it looks so tasty!
The lower down clump was soon cut off and put in the basket for our lunch!
We set up the tiny camping stove in a clearing with a fallen down tree to act as a place to sit. There, we chopped up the Chicken of the Woods and our Pignuts and started to cook. If you’ve never cooked outdoors before (other than in your back garden when you’ve got the barbecue out – that doesn’t count!) you should give it a go. It’s something that connects you with nature and feeds your soul as well as feeding your body.
We melted some butter in the pan and added the Chicken (otW) with some salt and pepper. We cooked it quite a bit longer than you would mushrooms and then added a splash of cream and some Wild Garlic and Walnut Pesto along with the chopped Pignuts. The fungus was lovely, it has the same smell as mushroom but has a chewier texture and is a lot like chewing a piece of Quorn and the crunchier texture of the pignuts was a perfect accompaniment. I certainly didn’t get the ‘like chicken’ taste, but can imagine that if you’re down on your luck meat wise, finding a piece of Chicken of the Woods would certainly give you something meaty to chew on for your supper.
I’d brought along some Wild Garlic and Cheese scones which was great to mop up all of the wonderful juices left in the pan.
Woodland Feast? DONE!
The texture of Chicken of the Woods makes it a perfect sponge for absorbing different flavours. It soaks moisture up in the same way as an aubergine. When I got home, I cooked the rest of the CotW and this time pan fried it very gently with some butter and garlic. Then to give more moisture to the cooking Chicken of the Woods, I cubed a courgette to add to the pan. I put the lid on and left it all to braise together. When the lid came off, the Chicken of the Woods had turned a beautiful golden colour which looked just like perfectly roasted chicken. It had absorbed all of the butter, garlic and courgette juices and was delicious. If you find a clump of Chicken of the Woods on your walk, I’d recommend that you cut off what you need and take it home, or better still go back the next day armed with a camping stove and cook it just where it grows.
Chicken in the Woods really is a funghi to be with :-/