Monthly Archives: April 2014

Daily post video, Bodnant Cookery school and a recipe for mussels with cider, leeks and chorizo

Bodnant Welsh Food

Once more in the press, this time the North Wales Daily Post website. A couple of weeks ago I and a number of other local chefs spent a slightly nerve-wracking, but fun morning making a series of 3 minute recipe videos in our role as Bodnant Cookery School tutors. I cooked up a really simple dish of Menai mussels with chorizo, leeks and Welsh Cider which you can watch here and grab the recipe for yourself.

The spec was to create super quick dishes that demonstrated the kind of things we would be teaching in our classes as well as show casing our talents. My general ethos on life is to share and teach. In my classes I aim to teach skills to home cooks, or those wanting to become better home cooks and who perhaps want to learn a few tricks of the chef trade. I’m not a Michelin star chef and that is my strength. Although I trained as a chef I have spent many years as a home-cook so I have learnt to improvise and do it my way and not be constrained by the way it ‘should’ be done……but for all that I know how food works and what goes together well.

My first course at Bodnant was yesterday. A fully booked event exploring different flavours, spices and techniques in my easy to follow ‘One pot wonders’ session. Hands on, relaxed and good fun. Everyone got to make their own dishes, then take them home for tea…including me!

My next session is on NEXT SATURDAY ( 3rd May) where I will be showing participants how to make creative marinades for their home BBQ plus a few inspiring accompaniments. There are still spaces so check the website for more details.

After this courses are fairly frequent, the next being Saturday 10th May (fresh local fish) click here for more information and to book, then Saturday 24th May (all things asparagus), again see the website for more details and check out the Daily Post website for videos showcasing the other courses and tutors.

Bodnant Welsh Food

Leave a comment

Filed under British food, cookery courses, in the press, local produce, Recipes, Welsh produce

Guest post: going plastic free for Lent

This is an unusual foray for me, into the realms of ‘guest posts’….its not something I tend to do. My blog is for me, its my journal and a chance to share my food experiences but with this post I have made a special exception for my friend who I asked to write about her attempts to give up plastic for lent.

I bumped into her in the supermarket on day one of her attempt and we chatted about the issue of over packaging. I have taken drastic steps on occassion, tearing off unneccesary packaging and leaving it at the checkout…but this doesn’t deal with the issue that it will be thrown away. If not in my house, then at the supermarket. Vashti’s experiences mirror those of many working parents battling their personal ethical dilemmas with the demands of young children, work, time constraints and wishing to avoid the supermarket but feeling inevitably drawn there through the lure of convenience.

Vashti’s story highlights a need to tackle supermarket over packaging, it is a challenge they should be finding solutions to. There are plenty of alternatives…compostable cellulose and paper bags are just two alternatives. I use them and I run a very small business…surely they can afford to make the chnage?

*******************

Vashti Zarach is a mother, storywriter and librarian. She spends her days dashing around after two lively small children, supporting Bangor University’s College of Natural Sciences with library and information hunting skills, and attempting to do a bit of story writing during the fleeting moments when the baby is actually asleep.

The plastic free challenge
Earlier this year, I read a book called Seasick by Alanna Mitchell, about the terrible impact human activities are having on the world’s oceans, so when we decided to do a display on Junk at my workplace (a university science library), I was keen to do a section about marine litter. In addition to preparing information posters featuring photographs of litter on local beaches, and making a display of toy sea animals on a miniature beach strewn with rubbish, I contacted the Marine Conservation Society to ask for some leaflets about their work. They kindly sent the requested items, and asked whether I would like to join in with a challenge originally devised by Sea Champion Emily Smith to live plastic free for Lent. During my research into marine litter, I had been shocked to discover how much plastic ends up in the sea, harming marine creatures and taking hundreds of years to break down, so I was instantly keen to participate.

vashti 2
The day before Lent began, I took my children to play on a local beach, where we once again marvelled at the sight of plastic crisp bags and other human debris thoughtlessly scattered on the sand. On the way home, we passed Waitrose, so I decided to begin the challenge there.
This first shopping trip was a huge eye opener. I am a vegetarian, and frequently opt for organic, UK grown, or fair trade food, but have never considered packaging issues when shopping. I was amazed how much our choices were restricted, and surprised to find only plastic bags available for gathering loose fruit and veg (my son and I collected loose items and put them straight into the trolley).

vashti 3
We were unable to find many plastic-free options in the dairy section, until we discovered cheese in wax, and decided to allow butter to be an exception to the challenge (wax paper is not recyclable, nor is it biodegradable due to petroleum). We chose unwrapped bread, boxes of eggs, and various glass jars of chutneys and jams, and made the initial mistake of selecting cakes in cardboard boxes (forgetting that they were wrapped in plastic inside the boxes).
Waitrose staff were very amenable, and weighed loose shopping at the counter without complaints. We bought reusable canvas shopping bags, and my shopping was cheaper than normal, as so many of the things I would usually buy were wrapped in plastic.
We were unable to find nappies which passed muster at the supermarket, or any loose potatoes, so stopped at Dimensions, a health food shop in Upper Bangor, on the way home, where we found biodegradable nappies, loose potatoes, and even bamboo toothbrushes. However, in order to best dispose of the biodegradable nappies, I realised I would need to begin composting. Plastic free shopping is a gateway leading into a whole new world of waste reduction practices.
Over the next few weeks, we continued with the mission. I accidentally broke my challenge in the first week a few times, for example buying birthday cards (why are they all individually wrapped in plastic?) and accidentally buying a bottle from the drinks machine at work (it’s amazing how differently you feel about a bottled drink when you are aware that it takes 450 years to decompose). My husband complained that our son, who had been accompanying me on shopping trips and learning alongside me, was refusing to let him buy anything wrapped in plastic packaging.

vashti 4

caught out! Snapped at the drinks machine breaking my rule

We enjoyed our plastic-free shopping trips very much – the canvas bags full of loose veg, artisan cheese, and unwrapped loaves looked wholesome, tasted delicious and made us feel that in a small way we were helping to look after our environment.
The most difficult aspect of the challenge was feeding myself and my family when on the move. I found myself bemoaning the UK’s lack of a street food culture, leaving busy people dependant on plastic-wrapped takeaway sandwiches and drink bottles. Oddly enough, the only other place I have seen street food mentioned recently was here on Denise’s blog. I mostly managed by carrying breadboards and knives with me, and slicing up fresh bread and cheese to make sandwiches on the go (I know some parents make packed lunches, I have just never been that well organized!).
I fully intended to buy local fruit and vegetables from markets, rather than depending on supermarkets. Due to my busy schedule, I never managed to do this in the initial weeks of the challenge, so this is something I ought to explore further in the future.
After a few weeks, I cracked, and bought some Bad Plastic Wrapped Food. I have two very young children and a hungry husband, I work part time, and was tired and fancied a week with some easy-cook staples such as pasta and frozen food. I was also missing my usual organic vegetables, which were only available in plastic wrapping (as is often the case when trying to shop ethically, there are often all kinds of different considerations to balance out). And we’d run out of toilet rolls.
So, is that it? Do I intend to return to my normal shopping habits, selecting food without giving any thought to the eventual destination of any non-biodegradable packaging? Or am I happy to live on a restricted, plastic-free diet, feeling an inner glow at the thought of all the small sea creatures spared from environments full of trash by my virtuous behaviour? Well, I hope to aim for a balance, avoiding plastic packaging as much as possible, but having occasional plastic splurges to top up on staples and treats.
I recommend reading up on the impacts of your consumer packaging choices, and giving plastic free shopping a try. You’ll discover new foods, your shopping may cost less (I saved money), and the starfish and sea urchins and sandy beaches of our beautiful planet can only benefit. Many individuals add up to giant waves, we can make an impact together.

2 Comments

Filed under environmental issues, Uncategorized, waste reduction

French onion soup with a bit of oomph!

Supper club and food Burmese 2014 011

Yes I know, I slightly burnt my toast…but it didn’t matter with all that Gruyere and once it has soaked into the soup…anyway they were my last slices of bread!

I’m fast becoming the queen of soup! What with running pop-up soup kitchens at festivals and events, making soup for lunches (The Green Man crew love their lunch time soup) and quite a lot of soup recipes under my belt, I guess I have to admit, I really like soup. And so do the kids which is an important factor in the equation. If the kids will eat it, its quick, nutritious and tasty it’s on my menu list.

French onion soup is an absolute favourite but for the past few years I’ve avoided making it. This is of course because the kids won’t eat it, but now things are changing. The teen has discovered she likes onions and the boy will eat almost anything these days so I’ve joyfully rediscovered this glorious decadent,  peasant dish.

I’m not sure  ‘glorious’  ‘decadent’ and ‘peasant’ should go together in the same sentence. For all the fancy ingredients and recipes out there its the old ones, the ones made by the poorest, with the fewest ingredients that satisfy the most. The basis of this soup is just onion and stock, but I’ve chucked in a bit of butter, vermouth and some Gruyère which but takes this recipe from its firmly peasant origins to something quite luxurious.

Recipes for French onion soup vary from cook to cook but at its base is a simple formula; slowly cooked and lightly caramelised onions, good quality beef stock, wine and finished with a cheesy topped crouton. Inevitably chefs add their own touch, Felicity Cloake follows Anthony Bourdains lead adding balsamic vinegar plus a splash of brandy, the latter I approve of strongly (I usually add a dash of cognac to mine) but as the soup already has a sweetly savoury flavour, the vinegar adds little in my opinion. Delia Smith adds sugar to her French onion to help the onions caramelise. She recommends cooking in a very hot casserole, stirring until the edges turn dark, which should take all of 6 minutes! The cooking time is a huge underestimation, while sugar is wholly unneccessary because the onions are sweet enough to caramlise. As to the high heat, well slow is best, probably around 30 minutes slowly.

Another pet hate is adding flour to soup which both Nigel Slater and Raymond Blanc do. Having often made soup for friends with a range of allergies and dietary issues, I like to keep mine gluten-free and I don’t feel it lacks depth for doing so.

Like Delia I like to add a bit of garlic and as Felicity does, a bit of thyme. I would guess that these are fairly authentic additions so I don’t feel like I’m straying too far from the peasant origins.

The choice of stock is a hard one if you are vegetarian. Most of the recipes I’ve come across favour beef stock for its richness, although there are those that use chicken stock. The most important thing is that its good stock. Even if you choose to use a vegetable stock use one of those stock pots and not powdered varieties, they are a cut above and used by chefs, so that has to say something.  I wouldn’t recommend the Raymond Blanc approach to just use water. Having given it a go once I can vouch that it produces a fairly insipid soup and I prefer something with big banging flavours. The beef stock certainly gives it that.

Alcohol is crucial. Most chefs stick to dry white wine although Felicity uses cider, which is an option. I would go with the wine option, although once when I had no wine and couldn’t be bothered to go to the shop I tried it out with dry vermouth (my usual addition to any risotto) which is after all begins life as wine and to my relief it worked well, adding a somewhat deeper, heavier flavour. I balanced it by using slightly less than recipes using wine ask for, but it was a perfectly adequate substitution working along with so many other intense flavours. I rather liked it.

The other essential to component to a French onion soup is the cheese topped crouton. I wouldn’t argue with any recipe that calls for toasted baton, rubbed with a clove of garlic and topped with Gruyère. No substitutions will suffice, although the night I made my soup I was using house leftovers (as usual) and only had a crusty loaf from which I cut thick slices toasted them and cut them in half.

Of course as I already mentioned I also favour the addition of Cognac at the end, as does Lindsey Bareham and Simon Hopkinson in The Prawn Cocktail Years. It adds that last bit of oomph that the original peasant version may well have lacked.

French onion soup recipe: Serves four.

800g white onions

50g butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 fat cloves garlic finely chopped

1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

250ml vermouth (or 300ml white wine)

700ml beef stock

salt and pepper to taste

A glug of cognac

8 slices from a baguette

a clove of garlic

about 100g Gruyère, grated.

Peel and thinly slice the onions. Peel and finely chop the garlic.

Add the butter and olive oil to a large saucepan and when melted and just beginning to bubble add the onions. Allow to cook gently (for about 30 minutes) until very soft. Add the garlic and thyme and keep cooking, stirring occasionally so they don’t burn. Cook until a nice golden caramel colour. They will begin to stick to the bottom a bit at this point but keep stirring until they turn a nice golden brown.

Supper club and food Burmese 2014 006

Add the vermouth and stir scraping any stuck bits off the bottom of the pan then add the stock. Allow to cook on a low heat for about 50 minutes to an hour.

Meanwhile, toast the baguette on both sides then rub with the garlic clove. Grate the cheese.

When cooked add the glug of cognac and taste for seasoning. Ladle into warm heatproof bowls, top with the croutons and sprinkle over the cheese. Place under the grill until the cheese begins to melt then serve.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under family budget cooking, French food, home cooking, local produce, recipe books, Recipes, reviews, Welsh produce

I lost my heart to Portmeirion…my favourite place in North Wales

Portmeirion, Earth hour 002

First let me say this is not a food post, although  my reasons for visiting Portmeirion were food related. The intention was to go with my friend Sunnie on a fact-finding mission and to do a bit of PR for her dairy free toffee and chocolate (her brand is Toffi Toffee) at the Blas ar Fwyd trade show. As one of my primary Welsh produce suppliers it was a ‘business trip’ that soon became something more pleasurable.

For those not familiar with Portmeirion it was created by architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis. A passionate conservationist and devoted to the protection and preservation rural Wales, and the landscape in general. Williams-Ellis began building the Italianate village of Portmeirion in the 1920’s. Purchased for £20,000 in 1925 he described it as

 “a neglected wilderness – long abandoned by those romantics who had realised the unique appeal and possibilities of this favoured promontory but who had been carried away by their grandiose landscaping…into sorrowful bankruptcy.” 

He then changed its original name, AberIâ (Glacial Estuary) toPortmeirion: Port because of the coastal location andMeirion as this is Welsh for Merioneth, the county in which it lay (quote and history taken from thePortmeirion website) and began to map out his plans. Over the next 50 years he lovingly constructed what is now an absolute romantics dream. His original insights into its unique appeal were spot on, but he avoided stumbling into the same bankrupcy trap as other speculators through careful planning, salvage, the collection of artifacts and later on donations from other architects or salvagers. His plans were workable and with his eye for recycling, conservation and salvage he created what he called

“a home for fallen buildings”

I love that! and maybe that is a reason i’m so drawn to the place (maybe its the perfect home for fallen women?) Its eclectic, unusual, recycled, thrown together but in the most achingly beautiful way.

The first thing that grabs you as you enter the village is it fantasy like architecture; all sensual curves, nymphs on plinths, ethereal looking statues of women in flowing robes, Grecian pillars aplenty and everything doused in a rainbow swathe of warm Mediterranean colours. It immediately reminds me of sunny holidays, transporting me back to Italy and grape picking in the sun, and confusing me into believing I’ve been transported to somewhere more exotic. Anyone could be forgiven for forgetting they were in Wales.

Then there are the grounds; From the almost tropical sculpted gardens (Portmeirion seems to have its own little microclimate of sun and wellbeing), 1920’s style lido’s, secret woods and stunning views over the estuary you couldn’t fail to fall in love. With the place and whoever you are with. On the day we visited the spring flowers were in full bloom; a magnolia spilling petals over a carpet of daffodils, with the sea as a back drop.

I’ve had more than one romantic encounter with Portmeirion and its no secret that I spent my first date with my (now ex) husband there.  Since we spent twenty years together and had two beautiful children my memories are not sad, but joyful that it marked the beginning of something special.

If this isn’t enough to entice you, Portmeirion is also that place where they filmed the 1960’s cult classic The Prisoner . Surreal, intriguing and the inspiration for many searching questions back in the day…what does it all mean? The series remains a cult and has its own fan club ‘Six of One’ and I’m sure some of the questions about control still resonate.

I revisit regularly. It’s that kind of place; once bitten forever smitten and all that and I find myself drawn back again and again (In the past six months I have attended Festival No.6, which is held there in September. I also returned to do a food demonstration at the Christmas Food and Drink Festival in December and now, as the weather slowly improves again last week.

Portmeirion is open throughout the year;

Ticket prices can be found here but are reduced during the winter months. Reduced prices can be found here

You can also buy an annual pass

Under 5’s go free and no dog’s are allowed on the site

The site has a range of other attractions (if the beauty of the place is not enough!!) including gift shops and cafe’s. There are two fantastic restaurants on the site, the brasserie in Castell Deudraeth which I have eaten in on previous visits and loved and the highly acclaimed Hotel Portmeirion  which much to my shame I have never managed to eat in.

If you wanted to extend your stay there are hotel rooms in Castell Deudraeth, The Hotel Portmeirion or you can book to stay in one of the self-catering cottages within the village itself. I’ve always promised myself that I will, one day, but have never quite got round to it (or to be fair been able to afford it!)

Their website also has many special offers, especially in the off-season. They are currently advertising Spring Afternoon Tea Breaks

To contact Portmeirion about any of these offers or for further information its best to go to their website here

Come and visit, I promise you its wroth it…but you might never want to leave!

Portmeirion, Earth hour 003Portmeirion, Earth hour 006Portmeirion, Earth hour 008Portmeirion, Earth hour 011Portmeirion, Earth hour 013Portmeirion, Earth hour 014Portmeirion, Earth hour 016Portmeirion, Earth hour 019Portmeirion, Earth hour 010Portmeirion, Earth hour 022Portmeirion, Earth hour 023Portmeirion, Earth hour 026Portmeirion, Earth hour 027Portmeirion, Earth hour 028Portmeirion, Earth hour 032Portmeirion, Earth hour 034Portmeirion, Earth hour 035Portmeirion, Earth hour 005

2 Comments

Filed under travel, Travelling with kids, Wales tourism