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Seasonal Pestos

by Louise Gorham

What a brilliant way to get out and use the first of the Spring Bounty. I made the Ramsons pesto and shared it with my one year old daughter who ate hers with gusto and then tried to elbow me aside to pinch the rest of mine.

All measurements are rough estimates – use them as a starting point and adjust them to your own taste.

Ramsons Pesto

100g ramson (Allium ursinum) leaves, washed (3 large handfuls)

10g fresh basil leaves

1 handful roasted pine or pistachio nuts

Juice of ½ lemon (up to 1 lemon depending on your taste)

3 cloves garlic, crushed

50g grana padana (or any hard cheese) grated

2-4 tbspn good olive oil

Salt and pepper

Put everything into a food processor (or use a bowl and a hand blender), you could also use a pestle and mortar if you have all evening. Blitz, blend or pound away. Taste and adjust salt, pepper, lemon juice or anything else that needs adjusting.

Nettle Pesto

2 large (gloved) handfuls of fresh nettle tops, washed (probably about 70g)

1 small handful fresh basil leaves

1 handful roasted pine or pistachio nuts

Juice of ½ lemon (up to 1 lemon depending on your taste)

1-2 cloves garlic, crushed

30-50g grana padana (or any hard cheese) grated

2-4 tbspn good olive oil

Salt and pepper

Get a large pan of water on the go and when it’s boiling add the nettles. Put the lid on and simmer for 2 minutes. Drain and then run them under some cold water to stop the cooking process (you don’t want them too mushy). Add everything to the blender, blitz, taste, adjust seasoning.

Pea Pesto

Not strictly seasonal but still fresh, green and tasty. This is really good with pasta and can be made in less time than it takes the pasta to cook.

300g garden peas (fresh or frozen)

2 cloves chopped garlic

A small handful of grated hard cheese

A small handful of fresh parsley/basil/mint depending on your taste

Salt and pepper

Boil the peas for about 2 minutes. Drain, reserving some cooking water, and put into a food processor. Fry the garlic for a few minutes, add to the peas. Add everything else plus 10-20mls cooking water. Blitz. Adjust seasoning & more cooking water if needed.

All of the above pestos can be frozen, and need to be kept in the fridge & eaten within a week.

Coming soon – Hip and Haw Ketchup…

Homemade soups are nutritious, cheap and easy to make. There are no added colourings, preservatives or chemical flavour enhancers as found in most shop bought soups, just real food. Like my approach to making jams & jellies, soups are a wonderful way to use up any small quantities of odds and ends and turn them into something unique, delicious and full of nourishment. It’s a great way to introduce infants and young children to vegetables! Young children should not have added salt, so remove their portion before adding stock cubes and seasoning, and liquidise or mash to the desired consistency.

Some recipes include specific herbs & spices but do take the opportunity to include anything you fancy anyway. Thyme and Winter Savory are particularly useful as they’re available fresh right through the winter. Parsley can be kept in the freezer simply by chopping it coarsely and bagging it. And then there’s my favourite, Lovage leaves, (which can also be frozen like Parsley). It’s delicious, adds an extra bit of ‘umami’ to any soup, and brings out the flavour of everything else.

A good hearty soup can make a full meal in itself when accompanied by a nice thick doorstep of fresh crusty bread – or use up some of the day-before-yesterday’s bread in the form of toast.

Anyway, at the time of writing it’s a cold November day, so I’m off to make some soup!

Carol Church

Leek & Potato Soup

This one is one of our favourites, and such a good winter standby, as leeks are so easy to grow and will sit there waiting to be used from September to March.

3 medium leeks

4-5 medium potatoes (I like King Edwards)

1 onion

Water

Sunflower oil and butter

Salt, pepper (1 vegetable stock cube if preferred)

Peel the potatoes and cut into cubes. Peel and finely chop the onion. Prepare the leeks – strip off the outer leaves and remove the top growth an inch or two above the main stem. Run a knife through lengthways from the root to the green top. Half turn the leek and repeat. Run under cold water to get rid of any soil trapped between the layers of the leek. Shake off excess water. Chop crossways into small pieces.

In a large saucepan, heat approx 1 tablespoon sunflower oil and a knob of unsalted butter. Add the onion and potato and simmer gently for about 10 minutes, stirring to prevent the vegetables sticking to the bottom of the pan. Add the leeks and continue to cook gently for a further few minutes until soft. Add approx 1½ pints (850ml) water, (and a stock cube if you’re using one). Stir, bring to the boil and then simmer gently for 25-30 mins. Add salt and pepper as desired.  Serve.

Can be eaten either as a chunky soup, or liquidised (in a food processor, or using a hand blender) to a smooth creamy soup.

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Herbal Beers! What a marvellous idea, it struck us with the force of a revelation 4-5 years ago and we have been cheerfully making beers on and off (time permitting) ever since. Our original inspiration was Stephen Harrod Buhner’s book ‘Sacred Herbal & Healing Beers’ highly recommended as inspiration for recipes and general beery herb lore.

Our motivation was the realisation that our beer habit at the time was costing far too much. Our herbal beers cost us less than 50p a bottle to make. I’m not including the price of buying the bottles as they get re-used so many times that their cost is offset. Homemade herbal beers are also much more delicious, more complex and flavoursome in taste than commercial beers (or home brew in a can) and, because they contain herbs, you can fool yourself that they’re good for you. Which they are of course. Mostly.

Included in this article is general advice as well as several tried and tested herbal beer recipes to get you going. Tried and tested does not of course mean infallible – all beers fail sometimes for no apparent reason and that is part of the organic and mysterious world of herbal beer making.

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It’s something of a departure to have recipes in the Herbarium that don’t necessarily contain herbs. Why? Making food from locally sourced fruit is a nice contribution to the sort of self-reliant, eco-friendly life-style that we’re trying to foster. But we’re also mindful of Hippocrates’ edict – ‘All good foods are medicines, and all good medicines are foods‘. Herbalists are certainly proud of the nutritive virtues of herbal medicines – but the food on our table should also be good for us too. A more modern edict is to ‘eat colour‘ – and the pigments in our own homegrown berry fruits offer a fantastic range of antioxidants – there’s really no need to take exotic imported supplements when we have our own superfoods growing in our gardens and hedgerows. One of the revelations from making your own preserves and puddings is the stunning range of oranges and reds and purples, deep and glowing.

2010 has been a particularly good year for fruit – both home grown and foraged. From the garden we’ve picked strawberries, raspberries, loganberries, blackberries, apples, pears & cherries; from next door’s garden – greengages, crabapples & quinces; and foraged from the Downs – sloes, rosehips and more blackberries.

JAMS & JELLIES

Making jams and jellies can be a bit of a mission in the large quantities you usually find in recipe books. What I’ve found is that using really basic techniques and equipment it’s easy to produce a jar or two whilst cooking the evening meal! Just as important, I try hard to use whatever fruits are available on the day, so they’re nice and fresh and I can choose to mix them together as well – so every ‘recipe’ is likely to be different, but the technique is always the same.

I’ve generally speaking used imperial rather than metric measurements because most kitchen equipment (and most jam jars) are still in the ‘old’ pounds and ounces.

Like all cooking, it helps enormously to make sure you’ve assembled everything you need before you start, and that it’s all nice and clean.

Equipment

 

  • A large saucepan (jam expands a lot when boiling).
  • Measuring jug.
  • Kitchen scales.
  • Jars & lids (recycled is fine).
  • Labels.
  • Jam funnel (helpful but not essential).

 

Ingredients

  • Fruit, prepared as necessary (always unblemished & ripe).
  • Sugar: everyday white granulated is recommended, being inexpensive, but the choice is yours. Preserving sugar or invert sugar are unnecessary.
  • Lemons (to squeeze for juice). Note that lemon juice is usually added as a source of pectin (essential for the jam to set). Few home-grown fruits contain enough of their own pectin.

 

Recipes

The ‘magic proportion’ of ingredients is simplicity itself – always use equal parts of fruit and sugar and you can’t go wrong. The basic method below calls for 3lb fruit and 3lb sugar, which should yield about 5 lbs of jam (the missing 1lb is lost through evaporation). It helps to know this so that you can have the right number of sterilised jars waiting. However (and this is the whole point!) you can use any amount of fruit, however large or small, so long as you stick to the 1:1 ratio with sugar. For instance, I’ve just picked what turned out to be 9.4 oz of raspberries (that’s all there were today), so with the same weight of sugar and a dash of lemon juice, the result (rather neatly, I thought) just squeezed into a 1lb jar. It took me less than half an hour. Lovely!

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What I really love about these flower champagnes is that they are so very seasonal – however much you make you will always run out and there will be a long dry spell. The seasonality is almost a novelty these days and it makes the champagne seem even more special, eagerly anticipated and gladly drunk. My eldest son looks forward to the elderflower season, he loves the champagne and I’m sure anticipation adds to the flavour.

The champagne recipes below are not alcoholic; there is only enough natural yeast to make a fizz, not to make alcohol.

Elderflower

This recipe is probably one of my oldest ones; in fact it’s so old I can’t remember where it came from. At a guess I’d say Christopher Hedley may have given it to me when I was studying at evening classes with him in 1902 (aha ha).

I usually use twice as many elderflower heads as stated in the recipe. I love the taste of elder, and I often make double the amount at a time, but there’s never enough.

This recipe is one of those that require a touch of magic. Some elder champagne recipes would have you add yeast, pah! Part of the magic is that it doesn’t always work and you never know if it was a ‘good’ year until 2 weeks later when you pop open the first bottle. The elder should have enough natural yeast on the flowers to make a good fizz.

3 large elderflower heads

1 ½ lb (750g) granulated sugar (I use that organic golden stuff)

1 gallon water (8 pints; I don’t know what it is in metric!)

1 unwaxed lemon

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

As with all flower recipes lay out the flowers on white paper and give all the insects the 5 minute warning to leave.

Trim, or use a fork to pull, the flowers from their stems. Put the flowers along with the juice and thinly peeled rind of the lemon, the sugar and vinegar into a large ‘crock’ (an earthenware container usually with a lid) or a plastic brewing bucket. Add the cold water and steep for 48 hours.

Strain through a coarse sieve then through muslin and pour into either swing top or strong screw top bottles (the recipe fills about 10 Grolsch bottles). Do use muslin because those pesky slender black insects (I think they’re what we used to called thunder flies) will get through even the finest sieve and you’ll have unsightly black things floating around in your otherwise gorgeous champagne.

Leave for at least 14 days before drinking. Serve chilled. Very nice with gin in place of tonic.

Always approach the first bottle with caution, we open the first bottle at the bottom of the garden – sometimes you get a nice hearty pop and fizz, sometimes a disappointing fizzle (or even worse, nothing at all) and sometimes, like this year – a small explosion and an effervescent fountain, deeply satisfying, if a bit wasteful.

We used to put our bottles on the bottom shelf of a dresser. It had the advantage that it was difficult to find stuff down there so every year we’d discover things that had been overlooked – two year old elder champagne, the odd bottle of beer. One year I had started early & made loads of the elder champagne and we still had some left as we went on holiday in August. When we came home I pulled a few bottles out to put in the fridge. The bottles were sticky and covered in bits of glass. I think one had exploded and caused a chain reaction, fortunately, judging from the glass we’d only lost 3 bottles. Take my advice: keep them in plain sight!

I’ve tried varying the time I harvest the flowers – early, late, newly opened, nearly over and it doesn’t seem to make a difference, some years it makes a fizz and some it doesn’t. If it doesn’t work we have been known to pop a little brewers yeast (a pinch, literally) in each bottle and that does revive it to a small fizz but it feels like cheating and doesn’t taste as fresh (that could be my imagination).

Meadowsweet

I love meadowsweet, I love how it looks, all creamy foamy flowers and it smells like marzipan, yum. One year we got very excited and harvested far too much meadowsweet – we were in a big patch at the peak of flowering time and it smelled so delicious. Anyway we made a huge amount of tincture, I made some cordial (see the cordial section), I made some ice cream and then I thought there was no reason not to try the champagne. There is a lot of pollen on meadowsweet flowers. So I made a small amount to test it, using exactly the same recipe as for the elderflower.

It worked a treat, nicely fizzy and that slightly asprin-y meadowsweet taste. Of course by the time I’d tried the first bottle flowering time was over and it was too late to make more. As I write this year’s batch has just been bottled. I was going to try using orange instead of lemon this time but when it came to it I didn’t have any, so lemon it is!

Also very nice with gin in place of tonic, almost better than the elderflower.

This year I have been making cordials and squashes – I had a pleasant fantasy of being able to supply enough to for the needs of my son, nieces and nephew. In the event I have been the victim of my own success and cannot keep up with demand.

My cordial making frenzy had at its heart the recipes from the excellent River Cottage Handbook No. 2: Preserves written by Pam Corbin. The book was given to me for my birthday last summer and has been a constant source of inspiration and satisfaction. It covers all manner of preserved things from jam, jellies and chutneys to cordials and vinegars. I really cannot recommend it highly enough, I love my copy, and it is now a bit sticky & warped and has things written in the pages – a proper recipe book.

In most cases I have used Pam Corbin’s recipes as a starting point and diversified. First I made her lemon squash, then I made her suggested orange and lemon squash (`St Clements’) variation and then, emboldened by my success, I made my own invention `Citrus Squeeze’ with lemons, oranges and grapefruit; delicious!

So are cordials `herbal medicine’? While they’re certainly not medicine in the specific treatment sense I do feel they are part of herbal medicine in the wider sense that incorporating herbs into daily life helps to forge a different relationship with plants, food, health. It’s also true that if you make your own cordials or squashes you can control the ingredients; choosing organic ingredients, raw cane sugar, using no preservatives or colours etc, and they are cheap! Finally, I feel a strong link with my ancestors when making my own preserves and drinks, my recent forbears would not have found it a novel or strange occupation and in a deeper way I also feel that I am demonstrating my love for my family, as well as having the most enormous fun and almost instant satisfaction.

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