Friday, 28 December 2012

Summer Harvest: a perfect culinary oil-rounder!

As a farmer’s daughter and former active member of a local Young Farmers’ Club (more moons ago than I care to remember...), I am acutely aware of the way in which farming businesses have had to diversify to survive over the past couple of decades. My own LittleBruv  launched a horse feed business (much to the delight of his many equine customers) while another nearby farming business opted to focus on human provender, more specifically a range of locally produced cooking oils. Having written a feature about this enterprising Scottish farming company, Summer Harvest Oils, for an agricultural magazine a few years ago, I had already been introduced to their gorgeous golden rapeseed oil, so I was more than a little chuffed when a complimentary bottle landed on my kitchen table in perfect time for Christmas.

A perfect oil-rounder in the kitchen
For those of you not acquainted (or “acquent”, as Robbie Burns would have said) with oilseed rape, it’s that ubiquitous crop that turns much of the countryside a radiant shade of sunshine yellow in the spring and early summer each year. When the seeds ripen they are harvested, before being cold-pressed to extract their precious oil content. The oil is then filtered and bottled ready for use in commercial kitchens and homes throughout the UK. Rapeseed oil has numerous nutritional benefits over other oils.  For a start, it has only 6% saturated fats.  Secondly, it contains no trans fats and, thirdly, it boasts a high level of Omega 3 plus naturally occurring vitamin E.

Rapeseed oil’s light, fresh taste makes it perfect for dressings and marinades, while its unusually high flash point (230°C) means it’s ideal for roasting veggies and doing stir-fries. 

Already ‘my precious’ bottle of Summer Harvest oil has seen active service on several occasions. Take Christmas morning, when we drizzled (as per the turkey driving cooking manual) the oil over the underside of the ‘burrrd’ before it was encased in tinfoil and squashed rather unceremoniously into our undersized oven. I am pleased to report that, contrary to the fears expressed in my previous blog post, the promisingly titled Terror of Being a Turkey Virgin, our festive fowl actually turned out all right; in fact, miraculously, it was cooked to perfection – not too dry and decidedly delicious. 

Fuelled with unaccustomed culinary zeal in the wake of my turkey triumph, on Boxing Day I grabbed the bottle (of oil!) again and used it for roasting a selection of veggies to accompany leftover turkey meat.

Crisp and golden
As Daughter No2 would put it, this operation was “simples”.   We peeled a melange of Osprey potatoes, sweet potatoes and parsnips (the latter harvested from the garden less than an hour before by HunterGatherer), chopped them into uniform-ish chunks, and parboiled them for a few minutes, just to start them softening.  Then we drained the chunks, patted them dry and popped them on to a baking tray which had been preheated in the oven with a few tablespoons of rapeseed oil. We gave them a quick shoogle (technical Scottish term for “a good shake”) in the sizzling oil, wafted some ground seasalt and pepper over the top and then popped them in the oven at 200°C for half an hour or so until they were crispy and golden. Re-sult!

Next day it was the turn of soup-making: potato, onion and bacon soup, to be precise.  Once again, the Summer Harvest oil was perfect for frying the lardons, onions and potatoes briskly before they were engulfed in yummy homemade turkey stock (that turkey went a long way!).  Yesterday's lunch sorted.

For tonight’s supper, the final batch of salvaged turkey meat was combined with some chopped ham, parsley, fried (in guess what!) leeks and leftover bread sauce to create a yummy cranberry, turkey and ham pie topped with crumpled sheets of filo pastry, fresh cranberries and orange zest.  Eagle-eyed ‘gourmande’ Daughter No1 had spotted the free recipe card in Sainsbury’s upon her return from Paris, but as she’s currently preoccupied with completing myriad online applications for internships, it was left to her boyfriend T (head chef) plus Yours Truly (sous-chef, with responsibility for chopping meat and leeks) to implement 'the pie project’. 

Turkey, ham and cranberry filo pie: recipe from Sainsbury's
After this uncharacteristically hectic period in the Sparrowholding kitchen, the arrival of the New Year will undoubtedly see evening meals return to the standard issue ‘pasta with something’ on most days. However, my trusty bottle of Summer Harvest rapeseed oil is now a firm fixture beside the cooker – it's what you might call a 'golden' example of a Scottish farm diversification success story!

Sunday, 23 December 2012

The terror of being a turkey virgin

Strange bedfellow

For various reasons, too numerous to mention, this will be the first year in my entire life (and bear in mind I’ll be 50 next year...) that I have been charged with delivering the dreaded Christmas dinner. Sitting round the table on the afternoon of the 25th will be the five Sparrowholding incumbents plus Farmpa and Supergran – who will drive the 40 minutes from the farm in anticipation of their yuletide meal. 

To say that the prospect of tackling the turkey fills me with terror is to understate the case several million times.  My middle name being neither Delia nor Nigella, I am approaching Tuesday morning with a dread similar to the fear with which I used to approach the dentist’s chair (in the dark days before I became a patient of my current lovely dentist at Cherrybank Dental Spa, I should add!).

In any case, it’s not just the actual 25th one has to worry about with turkeys, as I discovered when I began to consult the “detailed instruction sheet” supplied by Donald Russell in Aberdeenshire along with the turkey itself. First there was a mathematical calculation to be done, involving a challenging conversion from pounds (or rather grams) to hours and minutes in oven.  Not a good start considering that when it comes to flaws, second only to my complete lack of cooking ability is my dearth of numerical ability.  This being the case, a scientific calculator was tracked down (with some difficulty) so Yours Truly could work out when the festive fowl should emerge from the freezer in readiness for the thawing process.

All would have been fine and well had we had a fridge big enough to house the turkey till “C-day”.  However, our fridge is already bursting at the seams with other festive fare, so we had to follow the “plan B” of turkey defrosting.  This turned out to be rather complicated, involving returning “the bird” to its original polystyrene container in the garage (the company recommended a “cool” environment and stipulated that ice packs should be added to ensure it didn’t get too warm).  These ice packs, the instructions advised us “should be washed and changed every night and morning” over the three days it would take the turkey to thaw. 
We dutifully did everything required, but were extremely concerned, on the first morning (24 hours into the process), to find that the ice packs hadn’t defrosted one iota and that the turkey was still solid as a rock.  

A panic phone call to Donald Russell was duly made (very impressively, it appears they man the helpline even on a Sunday!) and the young lady at the end of the line advised me politely that it might be better if we brought the bird into our house rather than the garage. However, she stressed that it must be kept in a cool room.  Not a problem normally, since we don’t have central heating. However, with everyone at home over the festive period, our trusty wood-burning stove keeps the sitting-room delightfully toasty (the sort of toasty that would probably breed pedigree salmonella on the outside of the turkey while the inside was still frozen). Meanwhile, the oven keeps the kitchen fairly warm, so that is no use either. And the kids each have a radiator in their respective bedrooms, which ruled them out - not to mention the fact that I suspect they might not have welcomed the turkey into their boudoirs with open arms. 

The only room that has no form of heating is our (i.e. HunterGatherer’s and my) tiny bedroom. Which explains why there is currently a large polystyrene box strategically positioned on the floor on my side of the bed.  In this box sits our “big bird” (or “burrrd” as we say up here in Scotland). Worryingly, he still looks and feels extremely frozen this evening, and only time will tell if he will recover from his unfortunate slow start and be oven-ready in time for C-day. For the first time ever, I suspect that instead of diving straight for my stocking when I awake on Christmas morning, I shall be reaching out a tentative hand to grab the turkey beside me. Better make sure I don’t reach in the wrong direction or HunterGatherer might get a rude awakening! 

Friday, 21 December 2012

Yummy potato recipe for the festive period

Cranberry Crumble Dauphinoise

4 Tbsps olive oil
2 red onions
250g mushrooms, wiped and chopped
1 red pepper, deseeded and diced
150ml dry white wine
2 Tbsps fresh thyme leaves
4 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
200g Dolcelatte cheese, roughly chopped
1 red apple, cored and sliced
600ml double cream
100g fresh breadcrumbs
150g fresh cranberries
50g pine nuts
1 Tbsp freshly chopped sage leaves
1 kg potatoes peeled and thinly sliced

1.    Preheat oven to 180 C / 350F/gas mark4. Heat 2 Tbsps of oil in frying pan and fry onion for 5 mins till soft. Add mushrooms and pepper and cook for 5 mins. Pour in wine and cook for 10 mins until liquid has almost evaporated.  Stir in thyme and set aside.
2.    Boil potato slices for 3 mins, then drain and rinse in cold water. Layer half potatoes and garlic in a greased 2 L deep ovenproof dish.  Season. Spoon in mushroom mixture and half cheese. Top with remaining potato, garlic and cheese, finishing with apple slices.  Season. Pour over cream. Bake for 1 hr or until potatoes are just tender.
3.    Mix remaining oil, breadcrumbs, cranberries, pine nuts and sage, and sprinkle on top. Bake for 30 mins or until golden.  Serve with buttered green beans and cranberry sauce.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

The Square Sparrow 2012 – the Antidote to Round Robins

A lovely handmade gift from one of my pupils - the real spirit of Christmas

Dear all,                                                                                           

As the gold and silver memories of the Halcyon Olympic summer entwine seamlessly with similarly coloured tinsel on Christmas trees from Land’s End to John O’Groats, and as Rudolf and his antlered amigos enter their crucial last week of sledge endurance training, the moment has come to take stock of another year. In time-honoured tradition, no stone will be left unturned in Yours Truly’s quest to bring you a blow-by-blow account of family life at the Sparrowholding in the year 2012 AD.

The 21st ceilidh: kilts in full swing!
DaughterNo1 turned 21 in May and celebrated “Scottish style” with a riotous ceilidh in the local village hall (which, contrary to expectations, is still standing). Suffering significant withdrawal symptoms from Gallic culture and cuisine following her previous stay in the French capital, she chose to spend her 3rd year studying at the Sorbonne. ‘Paris: Act II – La Rentrée’ began with  a huge “dilemme” about which of the many available courses to study – a traumatic experience which saw daughter dear swithering between Courtly Conventions in Medieval French Literature and Ancient Egyptology (in French...). Quel problème, indeed. 

Of course, being a complete cultural philistine, Yours Truly would have swiftly resolved the situation by avoiding both courses like the plague (note token medieval analogy) and heading for Angelina’s Café on the Rue de Rivoli, there to imbibe hot chocolate so dense it’s more akin to luxury custard. As they say across the Channel, “à chacun son goût”. In addition to University, plus her evening job teaching “Baby English”, Daughter No.1 has joined a French hockey club. Consequently, she is amassing a useful new set of bijou French sporting phrases such as “go for the legs” and “that umpire doesn’t know his derrière from his elbow.”  

My precious: a tin of Angelina's chocolate powder
Daughter No.2 (19) is sharing a flat with two fun-loving fellow music students in Edinburgh and has continued her 2nd year of study just as she began her first: “inspecting” every possible pub and party venue for the good of the student body (though possibly not her own!). Sadly, successive bouts of tonsillitis mean that she has been consuming antibiotics as if they were Smarties this year. Indeed a cocktail of painkillers and antibiotics possibly contributed to her sleeping so soundly on the train home one weekend that she missed her stop, thereby causing Yours Truly to venture bravely into deepest Fife (bandit country...) to retrieve a semi-somnolent daughter several stations down the line before heading hotfoot (or rather “hotwheel”) up the M90 to attend a Beethoven Concert in Perth. 

To intense parental relief, she has swapped last year’s sleep-starved nightclub employment for a daytime job as a hockey coach, and is still getting used to being called “Miss”. Painful shin splints caused by her own excessive hockeying over the last decade mean she is often reduced to hobbling up the field instead of sprinting, but that doesn’t seem to have made her any less terrifying to her opponents. Indeed, one of her own teammates was overheard recently saying: “I’m really scared of her when she’s playing: she gets so angry...” 

The daughterly duo spent a sisterly summer together in the south, keeping 100s of 14–17 year-old language students on the straight and narrow (possibly an example of ”poacher turned gamekeeper” in DD2’s case). Their work was certainly far from dull  – for example, one of DD2’s charges slightly misunderstood the “total immersion” aspect of the course, and immersed himself in vodka rather than vocabulary, necessitating a 999 call. Another couple of students decided they’d head off to visit a friend in London for the weekend, but never thought to mention to the house manager (DD1) that they were going... Paramedic and police visits notwithstanding, it was an uneventful summer’s work experience!

Total immersion: the continental way...

As for Son+Heir (17), well, his teachers all share one thing in common: a grudging respect for his ability to turn homework avoidance into an art form. He is, it would appear, the Picasso of procrastination and the Degas of delaying tactics. Suffice to say, this year saw him continue his tour of the country’s educational establishments, culminating at our local high school. Fortunately, his lack of academic rigour is not mirrored by his unstinting efforts on the hockey pitch, and 2012 saw him head off to Ireland and Wales with the U18s and Germany with the U21s. In a rueful phone call during the latter trip, he advised his fond parents that as he and two of the others were under 18, they’d been dispatched to the funfair in Hamburg for the evening while the others sampled the city’s more “interesting” nightlife. Sadly, his weekend of high-level sport was marred by a collision with a German player who had evidently consumed several tonnes more Bratwurst than Son+Heir had haggis. Result: one dislocated shoulder and several weeks of enforced rest. 

While he was facing the might of the German sausage-munchers, his sisters and parents ventured to the Olympic Games. Yours Truly had, of course, secretly been hoping for selection, but since my prodigious penalty-flicking skills somehow failed to catch the eye of the GB coach, we had to settle for watching the real hockey players. There are no superlatives sufficient to do justice to the atmosphere that prevailed in the Olympic Park this summer. It was epic, amazing, sensational, phenomenal, incredible, utterly unforgettable – and that was just the giant McDonald’s...

Belgium vs Spain: superlative hockey skills

But I digress... Back to the family news and a marathon of a different sort: July saw Farmpa and Supergran celebrate 50 years of marriage, and recently another family milestone was reached when Farmpa turned 80 (though that doesn't stop him being out on the farm seven days a week!). HunterGatherer, too, remains firmly a man of the soil and, for the past six months, has been based on a large soft fruit and vegetable farm near Perth. Having spent long hours in the autumn getting up close and personal with turnips (a skill well honed after living with us for many years), our very own Baldrick is now busy tucking up strawberry plants in “bed” for their winter nap. 

Disappointingly, his often protracted working week has left little time for hockey, but he still managed to score the odd goal during his rare escapes from plant policing duties. One highlight of 2012 was attending his first-ever ‘pop concert’. Luckily we didn’t have to travel “500 miles” to see the Proclaimers, as they were performing just 25 miles down the road at Edinburgh Playhouse. The late-starter enjoyed the experience immensely, though his aged ears (they – and he – turned 50 in March) are still readjusting after this unprecedented assault on their unsuspecting tympanic membranes. His big 5-0 in the spring was celebrated with a family meal for the five of us at the Hard Rock Cafe in Edinburgh. Unfortunately, a 90-minute wait for a table saw the birthday boy (‘fresh’ from a 12-hour shift, in fairness) morph rapidly into a veritable Victor Meldrew [translation for foreign readers: ‘grumpy old man’!].

Nothing to beat hearing "Sunshine on Leith" in Leith!
In the spring, Yours Truly took the risk of jumping into the freelance abyss and – as the bank manager would, without doubt, testify – I’m still falling, though pleasingly at a slightly slower speed than back then. Painfully aware of my impending half-century (August 2013 – argggghhhh!), I tried to thwart the ravages of my insidiously sedentary lifestyle by playing hockey all summer as well as winter.  However, sadly a hefty collision in July saw my shoulder AC slightly displaced in one on-pitch collision, only to be knocked rather conveniently back into place during a second collision in September (which left me with whiplash instead!). Am now considering taking up freestyle rock climbing in the hope that it might prove a safer option. 

November was my most frenetic month of 2012, as – in a moment of madness – I signed up for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). This involved penning 1,667 words of prose per day for the whole month, in between doing the ‘day job’ (copywriting), the evening job (private tutoring) and playing Little Bo Peep to our 20 Shetland sheep (alias “the chocolate sheep”). The outcome of NaNoWriMo was one extremely rough 51,000-word novel, which is about as far from the infamous "50 Shades" as it is possible to get – and is thus destined to remain forever in the recesses of my PC and never see the light of a candle, far less a Kindle.

That was a hard month, that was...

Having dug deep (and missed a lot of sleep) for those 50+ thousand words in November, I had initially feared that it might be a step too far to gird my loins for this, albeit shorter, literary endeavour in December. However, the deeds of 2012 have now been consigned to virtual posterity, so it only remains for me to wish those hardy souls who have made it to the end of this epistle a very happy Christmas and a (not too) merry New Year!   

Festive greetings from all at the Sparrowholding and here's to a great 2013 :-) 

Thursday, 6 December 2012

When you're sick of being sick

I have to confess that I don’t often pay much attention to the royal family as I go about my daily life. It’s not that I have any particular antipathy towards them. Quite the contrary in fact – they seem pleasant enough folk. It’s rather that I’ve never really had anything in common with any of them.  Until this week, that is.

The situation changed overnight, with the public announcement a few days ago that the Duchess of Cambridge had been admitted to hospital suffering from an unfamiliar sounding illness known as ‘hyperemesis gradivarum’.  Derived from a combination of Latin and Greek words, this term translates as ‘excessive vomiting by pregnant women’, and I should certainly know because I was unlucky enough to suffer from it badly in each of my three pregnancies.

It is difficult to describe to anyone who has not experienced this little known condition, which affects between 0.2 and 2 percent of pregnant women, just how debilitating and unpleasant hyperemesis can be. 

Let me state, in my defence, at the outset that I am not – and never have been – a ‘sicky’ person. In fact, before I fell pregnant at the age of 27, I’d probably not been sick more than a dozen times in my life.  My stomach seemed to be pretty resilient and I took it for granted.

When I began to feel nauseous around 6 weeks into my pregnancy, I just got on with it at first. However, slowly the nausea began to take over every waking minute of my day and – worse still – I began to throw up.  But not just in the mornings as the name "morning sickness" suggests. From the 8th week of my pregnancy onwards, I turned vomiting into an art form 24/7. 

The Porcelain Shrine

If HunterGatherer even as much as waved an unopened can of baked beans in my direction or allowed the smell of whatever delicacy he was eating (out of sight) to invade the room where I was skulking (as far from the kitchen as humanly possible), I had to make a mad dash for the loo, to worship on my knees at what was to rapidly become my porcelain shrine.  It wasn’t long before I reached the milestone of throwing up an impressive 100 times in the space of one week – not bad going, eh?

Only actually it was pretty bad.  From before I even opened my eyes every morning, the familiar wave of overwhelming nausea would engulf me and despite trying every possible remedy imparted to me by family, friends and medical professionals, nothing would stem the wretched retching until I fell back to sleep, exhausted from the physical effort of the constant heaving, at night. I tried having tea (which I don’t normally drink) and a ginger nut biscuit or dry crackers before sitting up each morning – fail. I tried pressure wristbands used for travel sickness – fail. I tried mint in every shape or form – fail. I tried to keep eating, gradually weeding out the foods that were the most unpleasant to bring up again (mashed potato springs to mind as one of the worst!) – still a massive fail.  

HunterGatherer, who was at that point a member of the local Life Boat crew advised me that at sea one eats oranges when being seasick, as they’re about the only things that taste the same coming up as they do going down!  And he was right, you know.

My best friend the bucket...

It didn’t seem to matter what I did.  Sickness became a way of life.  By good luck, at that point in my life, I was working as a freelance translator from home, so there were no colleagues to disturb with my antisocial habits.  As I sat typing away at my computer, an expectant bucket was strategically positioned beside my left foot. Unfortunately, during that less than happy period, one of the texts I had to translate was for the Ministry of Agriculture and focussed on every intimate detail of the stomach-churning production methods used for traditional pâté de foie gras in France. To be honest, I reckon that what I learned in that document might have made me sick even without the help of the hyperemesis...

My other best friend: the Mars Bar
During those Halcyon hyperemetic days, the only food that managed to stay put in my steadily shrinking stomach space was that healthiest and most nutricious of snacks, the Mars Bars. So my GP told me just to keep eating those as often as I could to at least keep some calories in my system. That was, without doubt, the one and only positive about the whole hyperemesis experience: guilt-free Mars Bar consumption! On the other hand, the weight was dropping off me, and I was becoming extremely weak, ketotic and dehydrated, despite consuming what felt like gallons of electrolyte drinks.

 By about 11 weeks into my pregnancy, I was utterly ‘puggled’ (not a medical term, but very evocative of the way I felt). Seeing that I was metaphorically and literally on my knees, the local GP referred me to hospital where I was duly admitted and – as happened to Kate – promptly wired up to I.V. fluids.  Ironically, after I’d been on the drip for a few days, my brother visited me and proclaimed that he reckoned my complexion was the clearest he’d ever seen. This was probably due to the fact that for once in my life – I don’t often feel thirsty and often forget to drink enough –  I’d actually “ingested” (albeit intravenously!) the recommended amount of fluid each day for a normal human being.

The doctors offered me drugs to curtail the sickness, but well aware of the terrible and lasting side-effects that a previous notorious anti-emetic had on thousands of unborn babies in the early 60s - I was adamant that I wasn't going to let any chemicals of any sort pass my lips while I was carrying my precious cargo.

Several ‘I.V.’ days later, things began to improve. I started to be able to keep toast down, and I swear the welcome, appetising smell of those first slices of toast that stayed put in my tummy still lingers in my nostrils today. Once I was able to keep a reasonable amount of food down, I returned home, and although I was still feeling horribly nauseous at 17 weeks, I was throwing up far less frequently.  

By about 24 weeks, I only felt sick occasionally, and I cannot begin to tell you what an utter joy and relief it was to wake up in the morning and go through a whole day feeling relatively “normal”.  It certainly rammed home to me how incredibly lucky I was that I only felt this awful when I was pregnant i.e. when there was a very exciting and pleasant reason behind the sensation.  I was, and still am, acutely aware that many others experience severe nausea on a long-term basis for far less pleasant reasons. Moreover, when discovered that Charlotte Bronte is thought to have died of hyperemesis, I also felt immensely grateful to whichever scientist invented the first IV fluid equipment.  I wonder who he or she was?

Unfortunately, none of the obstetrics experts at the hospital deemed it necessary to warn me that hyperemesis can become worse with each pregnancy, so I duly went on to have another two bambinos and spent longer on a drip each time.  Third time round, they almost ran out of veins to put the drip in by the end of my hospital stay.  Perhaps I should have realised then that this was a bad omen and that the resultant infant would cause me more teeth-gnashing and pulling out of hair than the other two put together! Perhaps, on second thoughts, it was better to remain blissfully ignorant...

My memories of hyperemesis are very strong. In addition to feeling unspeakably yucky, I also felt envious when I saw other pregnant mums-to-be who were literally "blooming" - while Yours Truly looked and felt "blooming awful". Somehow I felt like a failure as a mother even before my first baby was born. So I have to confess that Kate has been in my thoughts quite often this week.  If I could contact her, it would be to pass on something that my obstetrician told me, no doubt to try and make me feel better when I was continuously throwing up and feeling rather sorry for myself. He pointed out that hyperemesis is caused by high levels of pregnancy hormones, and that this generally means a well-established pregnancy i.e. less risk of losing the baby. That was indeed a comforting thought, even as I knelt repeatedly at my porcelain shrine. And now, when I look at the young adult outcomes of my three bouts of hyperemesis, I remind myself that all those weeks of bucket toting and mashed potato regurgitation did have a few advantages, after all :-).

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Lunch at The Roost – a very pleasant way to unruffle your feathers

Whilst I may always have banned the “C” word in our household until the 1st of December each year while the kids were small (thereby avoiding Santa talk for at least 11 months out of 12), my principles were not so inflexible this week as to prevent me from accepting an invitation from an old and dear family friend  to join her for a lunch billed as “your early Christmas present”.  Especially when that lunch just happened to be at Tim and Anna Dover’s award-winning Perthshire restaurant “The Roost”...

Tim and Anna are passionate about what they do. That will be clear to anyone who has had the enviable experience of dining at The Roost over the past couple of years or who followed their progress recently on Marco Pierre White’s Kitchen Wars on Channel 5.  This passion translates itself into a simple yet superb eating experience in the peaceful, rural setting of a converted hen house in Bridge of Earn, a mile or so outside Perth.
Our family friend had just returned from a trip to France during which she had been wined and dined in Cognac so, for her, the culinary benchmark was set high. In my case, any meal that I don’t have to prepare myself is fantastic, although I knew from previous experience that this wouldn’t be just “any meal”.

 Having eschewed breakfast in favour of writing – my NaNoWriMo quest continues, despite the obstacles of innumerable eager English tutees and marathon taxi runs  – I shamelessly had a starter, and also partook of the tasty slice of tomato bread proffered by an attentive waitress soon after we sat down . 

Since I’m a great fan of risotto, it didn’t take me long to select the very seasonal Pumpkin Risotto from the mouth-watering menu.  Whenever I attempt to cook rice, it usually ends up a very sad, soggy, tasteless affair; but this risotto was another breed entirely.  It was beautifully presented, with the orange hue of the pumpkin enhanced by a starkly contrasting bright green liquid around the edge of the dish – upon enquiry, I was informed by Anna that the said gorgeous green concoction was basil oil. Its delicate herby flavour infused perfectly with that of the pumpkin, making a very successful savoury combo which was rapidly dispatched by Yours Truly.

Vibrant green basil oil set the pumpkin risotto off to perfection
Next it was time for the main courses. Our family friend had chosen the Ayrshire pork loin, with grain mustard mashed potato, red cabbage and caramelised apple, and proclaimed it to be excellent.  Meanwhile I stuck with the veggie theme (though this was pure chance – I’m not a vegetarian) and opted for the Parmesan and Parsnip tart served with beetroot and spinach. As an avid beetroot fan, I tucked in with gusto to the halo of roasted beetroot chunks dotted round the circumference of the plate, before turning my attention to the tart itself.  If gravity hadn’t been conspiring against it, I swear the pastry was so light, this tart would have floated off the plate – instead it was fork-borne towards my very appreciative palate, where the fusion of parmesan and parsnip flavours certainly hit the mark.

Loving that beetroot...

“Dessert?” asked Anna as she cleared our empty plates.  “Rude not to,” we decided and promptly plumped (perhaps an unfortunate choice of word!) for the cherry frangipane tart with ice cream and the lemon tart with blood orange sorbet respectively.  Once again, we were not to be disappointed. My luncheon companion was rapturous in her praise for the generous slice of frangipane tart which arrived before her, and I was in a state of citrus bliss after my encounter with the zesty lemon tart and refreshing orange sorbet.

Enjoying our just 'desserts'!
Suitably re-energised and inspired by such a wonderful dining experience, I thanked my kind friend profusely for her invitation to what had been one of the best early Christmas presents a gastronomically inclined girl could wish for.  Then it was back up the M90 to harness all that inspiration as I ploughed on with my own creative efforts for NaNoWriMo, currently sitting at 20 thousand words, many of them penned while burning the midnight oil – which is, I can confirm, not half as enjoyable as eating basil oil...

Monday, 5 November 2012

It was going to be a Na NoWriMo Movember – but then someone shaved...


Son+Heir and I had decided to subscribe to two very different projects this month. Suffice to say, one of us was to be growing a moustache and the other was to be taking part in National Novel Writing Month. I shall leave it to my astute readers to work out which of us was planning to do which (and for those of you who guessed incorrectly, enough of your cheek!). However, I can report that by day four Son+Heir had annihilated his nascent whiskers, presumably because they risked interfering with his aerodynamics on the hockey pitch.

Yours Truly, however, is still going strong, by which I mean penning an average of 1,667 words per day and wondering how long her mind/body/imagination can keep it up. Originally, the plan was to combine the month-long exercise in writing self-discipline with a similarly challenging exercise in dietary discipline i.e. no chocolate for November. The sheer impracticality of this scheme rapidly became evident as I lay lifeless in front of the screen some time just before midnight on day three, trying to summon the energy to type the first word of that day. That’s when I knew for certain that NaNoWriMo and NoChoco were completely incompatible and cracked open a giant tube of Smarties which subsequently powered my virtual pen well into the wee sma’ hours.

Sweet inspiration
And so to the official warning which is the purpose of this blog post: In view of this gobbling up of my precious “personal” writing time – as opposed to the paid ‘day job’ writing time – it is highly likely that blog posts this month may be few and far between, so I felt that an advance apology might be in order.

By way of compensation, however, here are a few photos that encapsulate the last week or two of life in and around the Sparrowholding...

Not to be outdone by the US, there has been some jostling for position going on out in the paddock, as pony politics prevailed. Incumbent Highland pony Large has been playing host to next door’s two equines while their field is “resting”. HunterGatherer quickly christened the hairy trio Fatso (ours), Wimpo (too scared to venture past Fatso to get into the stable) and Shorto (who rapidly found a kindred vertically challenged spirit in his new field mate, Cocoa the Shetland tup).

"You've got a jacket on so you've no business in here!"

We Shetland folk like to stick together...
Meanwhile, things have got a lot tidier outside lately, thanks to several highly productive visits from Farmpa last week.  He may be “nearly 80 you know”, but that didn't stop him getting just about everywhere - up ladders removing moss from the roof, cocooned in the polytunnel cutting back Vinnie the Vine, outside in the rain pruning the plum and apple trees and giving the lawn a final mow of the year during a rare period of glorious autumn sunshine.  The Sparrowholding doesn’t know what’s hit it!

The roof moss marauder in precarious mode
Whilst the flora in the garden may be finished for the year, my own private potted primula plant is sitting resplendent on the kitchen window sill, bringing a vivid splash of violet vitality to the otherwise dull job of washing up. 

Pretty in purple - my pot of primulas (or polyanthas?)!
Of course, one ideal way of dodging the domestic drudgery is to escape outside, and recently I was invited by a good friend to accompany her on a hike up nearby Dunning Glen.  It was an idyllic autumn afternoon, and the views during the ascent and from the top of the hill were sublime - a reminder, if one were ever needed, about how lucky we are to live in this unique and special part of the cosmos. So even though my pathetically unfit legs (not to mention the rest of me) were screaming out at the unaccustomed assault on their normal sedentary existence, I returned feeling thoroughly inspired and invigorated by all that good, clear, fresh Scottish air. Here's hoping it blew away sufficient cobwebs to allow the creative muse to move in for November -  nine thousand words so far and counting!

Modern vista - the wind turbines looked like weird metal flowers

Three men in a boat in Perthshire

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Autumn in and around the Sparrowholding

Several folk on Twitter have commented recently how much they're enjoying the photos that I snap randomly in and around the lovely rural area where we live, so I've gathered a group of these photos together for my latest blog post. For once, I'll let the pictures do the talking (mostly!)...

Somewhere over the rainbow... or in this case under the rainbow: newly cropped stubble fields around Loch Leven.

Our local hamlet's book swapping "library" is housed in an old phone box.  It's perfect for the job and, when it's lit up at night, looks rather inviting - not to mention pretty darned cool :-). 

Last week we had so much rain that an impromptu mini-loch formed in the pony's paddock.  When I posted this photo on Twitter, one tweep suggested that all I needed now was a "puddock" (Scots word for frog for any non-Scots reading!)  for my paddock.

And lo and behold - what did we find on the track next to the paddock coming home that night: a puddock!? (Fortunately son+heir spotted the poor wee soul in the headlights before I flattened it!)

Of course, autumn in the sheep fank (Scots work for "pen or fold") means it's time to wean (or "spain" in Scots) last spring's lambs from their long-suffering mamas. Three of our male lambs headed off to deepest Fife, where they are official orchard lawn-mowers.  Their new owner (who kindly sent me the photo below) also has alpacas, and when I asked her how her new trio of ovine incumbents were doing, she texted back: "They are settled well and have recovered from thinking that alpacas could be morphed mummy sheep!" 

When I was wee, my granny used to talk about the autumn crocus flowers in the garden as "naked ladies", which (as a child) I thought sounded very rude. Now I think they are such beautiful, delicate flowers and appreciate that this pseudonym is derived from the fact that the flowers appear all on their own, with foliage following later. 

The crocuses have been far more productive this autumn than Vinnie the Vine.  Perhaps the sensitive chap didn't like the fact that our polytunnel was ripped to shreds by the high winds in April? Whatever the reason, the grapes below were the sum total of our crop this year :-(. HunterGatherer can forget any wine-making plans!

The local bramble bushes were much more bountiful in their fruit bearing, however, and there are still berries left which make welcome autumnal pickings for hungry birds. The vibrant hue of the turning bramble leaves below caught my eye while I was out jogging one morning last week - how I'd love a dress this colour.

FatCat certainly does not believe in going jogging - or indeed even moving a paw when it can be avoided.  While I was out pounding the country lanes of Kinross-shire, this is what he was doing. Evidently he is oblivious to the autumnal delights that lie outside...

Monday, 15 October 2012

A mysterious Hallowe'en package arrives at the Sparrowholding...

“Season of mists and fudgy fruitfulness...” OK, perhaps that wasn’t quite how Keats captured autumn – his version was similarly alliterative, but distinctly more lyrical. However, the reason for me misquoting the bard and committing this literary travesty with the opening line of his famous Ode to Autumn is because fudge has been front of mind this week.  Why? Because something extremely exciting happened... Yours Truly received her first ever product for review on this blog.  Funnily enough, there are no prizes for guessing what it was. Yep, got it in one: fudge!
However, be assured that this was no ordinary fudge. It was a sample of seasonal ‘Halloween Fudge’ from burgeoning Scottish food company Berry Scrumptious, who are based in Rosehearty, Aberdeenshire. What’s more, as I was rapidly to discover, its unique zingy taste is guaranteed to make even the scariest witch or spook stand up and take notice.

Fudge with a seasonal kick!

Fortunately, having a home economics teacher as a mother, I was trained – from the moment I could first differentiate one letter of the alphabet from another – to pore over the ingredients list of any comestibles before letting them within an extendible fork’s length of my lips. This meant that after a quick glance at label on the back of the packet, rather than anticipating the usual intense sugary explosion that tends to accompany a mouthful of commoner gardener fudge, my palate was primed to expect a rather different sensation from this special seasonal variant which arrived through my letterbox this morning. 
Indeed, with tomato puree, celery salt, Tabasco sauce and (wait for it...) vodka on the ingredients list, this ‘confectionary from the cauldron’ boded to be more like a Bloody Mary than a mundane sweetmeat. 
When I first sank my teeth (or perhaps I should say “fangs” to sustain a suitably ghoulish theme!) into the fudge, it was actually sweeter than I’d anticipated – but a mature, autumnal sweetness rather than the usual sucrose rush.  So far so good...  There was a tang of tomato as a slightly savoury, yet also faintly fruity, flavour developed (hardly surprising, since tomatoes are, of course, technically a fruit!). Then, at the very last moment, as the fudge fully dissolved in my mouth, came the Tabasco kick – somehow unexpected, even though I’d known it was in the mix – providing the perfect sweet'n'sour Hallowe’en twist for refined adult taste buds. 
Fancy trying something a little different this Hallowe'en?
So this year, if you’re daring enough to try something a tad different from the ubiquitous orange foil-wrapped chocolate pumpkin lookalikes and tasteless ‘horror’ jelly creations, think Bloody Mary fudge – but it’s a limited edition, so you’ll need to get on your broomsticks fast!

Monday, 24 September 2012

Not all F-words are bad...

After being exposed to decidedly too many F-words in the past few weeks, I was intending this post to take the form of a diatribe about the sad demise of decent English vocabulary amongst the younger (and some of the older) generation. 
But then, just as I was preparing to vent my spleen about the excessive expletives which seem to pepper just about every sentence uttered these days, I started thinking instead about the many wonderful “f” words that our rich English vocabulary contains. Moreover, it dawned on me that  if I were to start “ranting” about the youth of today before I hit 50, what would there be left for me to do in my 60s and 70s?
With this in mind, I decided to focus my attentions on a positive example of an “f” word rather than waste my precious time pontifcating about one that is so over-used these days anyway - mostly out of context - that it has long since been reduced to meaningless verbal filling material.
So what about the aforementioned GOOD words? Well, there are myriad words starting with the sixth letter of the English alphabet which have pleasantly positive connotations.  And the first one that sprang to my mind (quelle surprise...) was “food”.  This, of course, is no coincidence since the plan was (er, I mean “is”) for me to be cutting down on the amount that I ingest, with a view to entering my 50s next year as a shadow of my 40s’ self. Suffice to say, the plan hasn’t been going too well thus far...
Granted, I’ve been partaking of a plethora of healthy peas from our garden, plus the one miserly fruit produced under protest by our pest-ravaged plum tree Victoria.  I also managed to salvage a reasonable crop of potatoes by dint of some determined digging last weekend (harvested spuds are now snuggling happily in a Hessian bag procured for the princely sum of two pounds something from our local Dobbies).
One measly plum, one tiny tomato and plenty peas!

However, our runner beans have been less fortunate: they’ve suddenly been blighted by the appearance of ominous black splodges, and we’re not sure if they’re safe to eat (any advice gratefully received – photo  below). 
Still, I’ve more than made up for any disappointments experienced with our home produce by enjoying a few meals out during the past month, either with friends (another wonderful “f” word, which I’ll possibly look at in a future post) or family (ditto). 
In early September, I met up with a couple of other long-suffering hockey mums (and no, none of us is planning on running for US President à la Sarah Palin!). We partook of a leisurely supper at the Dalmore Inn and Restaurant on the outskirts of Blairgowrie.  Not having been there before, gourmand Yours Truly was a very happy bunny to discover this exceedingly good eatery.  The menu was wide and eclectic, and the only problem was deciding what to choose... 
To stop us swithering over starter selection for too long, we came up with a cunning plan: split two of the starters (the crab & crayfish tart and the grilled goat’s cheese crottin) between us, so we could each sample both of them!   Next up was a melt-in-the-mouth venison main course, which was simply superb, and the grand finale was billed as the “Dalmore Summer Berry Ice Cream Bonanza if you dare! (mini marshmallows, strawberries, raspberries, berry sauce, sherbet, flakes and popping candy!) ” We dared...  

Don't mind if we do!
Another recent foray saw Supergran and I head for The Brig Farm shop near Bridge of Earn, where we enjoyed a rather sophisticated soup (courgette and white wine – definitely worth a try if you ever get the chance!) plus a ploughman’s lunch. The cheese and pickle selection which was supposedly destined for a humble ploughman was, in fact, fit for a king. And if someone whispered “what about your high cholesterol?” I certainly never heard them...
Say cheese :-)
Eating out is not something that HunterGatherer and I do often as a couple – mainly because HG is usually too busy zooming up and down fields in a tractor, obliterating the bugs and spores that proliferate on the agricultural plant life of Central Scotland...  So it was a real treat to be invited out mid-September for a “thank you” dinner at Basil’s Grill at The Green Hotel in Kinross by DDNo1’s boyfriend T (the student maths and engineering wizard who stayed with us this summer while doing an internship with a local company). 
There was absolutely nothing “Fawlty”-like about Basil’s cuisine, and our meal was excellent; although it has to be said that T himself is no mean chef,  often turning his hand to concocting mouth-watering evening meals for us during the weeks he spent chez nous.  Unsurprisingly, we were distinctly sad to bid him farewell when he left last week to resume his studies down south.
Considering how untalented Yours Truly is in the kitchen, it is nothing short of a miracle that DDNo1 is not only fond of cooking, but also extremely adept at it.  Indeed in the two weeks that she stayed at home in September before heading off to France (now there’s another nice “f” word) on her mandatory year abroad, we were treated to divine chocolate brownies, heavenly homemade strawberry ice cream, pink sugar encrusted cupcakes and too many other delicacies to mention.
Sadly, the Sparrowholding’s version of Nigella is now ensconced in a flat (another “f” word, which brings back happy memories of my own student days) in the 17th arrondissement in Paris, where she will remain until next June. Currently, she is debating which of the many appealing (to her!) courses of study on offer at the Sorbonne to pursue: will it be the conventions of Courtly Love in Medieval French literature or the innermost secrets of Louis Quatorze (in French, bien sûr)? Ahem, spoilt for choice, I’m sure... And sad as I was to bid her au revoir, it has to be said that whilst DDNo1’s presence in Paris may benefit her spoken French, her absence from our kitchen may benefit my waistline J.
Meanwhile, DDNo2 – who has only recently begun to discover the joys of self-catering – appears to have been taking the kitchen of her Edinburgh flat by storm. Over the past few weeks, she’s tweeted me various photos of her culinary concoctions, and at this rate it won’t be long before her skill levels overtake her mother’s (not difficult).
After all these ruminations about food, I suppose I’d better make a start on the pile of proofreading which awaits my attention. But first, I reckon my brain needs a little sustenance...  *heads for fridge* (yet another inspiring “f” word!)