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 :-).