Weekend cat blogging

A quick post – I’m about to go out and start the New Year’s Eve celebrating, but thought I’d leave you some pictures of the rapidly growing kittens before heading off. Thanks again to Clare at Eatstuff for organising Weekend Cat Blogging.

It is hard to type with a kitten fast asleep on each elbow. Now they’re getting older, they’re sleeping less and gremlining more. Raffles, the boy, has turned out to be particularly cuddly, and is now getting a little larger than Mooncake. He continues to steal food. Raffles has spent the week moving too fast and squinting too much to photograph well, so here is the gorgeously photogenic Mooncake having a wash.

Planting a medlar and a quince tree

Just in time for Christmas, the fruit trees I ordered several months ago have turned up, ready for planting. I’ve wanted my own quince and medlar trees for years, but have been living in rented houses, places with no garden and abroad for all that time. When we bought our first house this year, one of the first things I did back in the early summer was to order a pair from Keepers Nursery, where they claim to have the world’s largest selection of fruit trees.

Usually, the trees would have been delivered for me to plant earlier in the year, but this autumn was long and warm, and the trees didn’t fall dormant (and plantable) until much later than usual. The quince tree (it’s a Meeches Prolific, which is bred to fruit heavily – see the picture at the top of the post) is recognisably a tree already; it’s two years old, and has lovely goblet-shaped branches. I think we’ll get good flowers from it in the spring, and if we’re extremely lucky we may get some fruit next autumn.

The medlar (macrocarpa) is only a year old, and is a single, whippy stick with roots on one end at the moment. The twig lashed to the garden cane (to be replaced later by a proper tree-stake) in the picture is my baby tree. There’s no hope of getting any fruit from it next year, but I’m extremely excited about it; medlars are a very slow-growing, long-lived tree, and specimens over 600 years old are known in England. It promises to be beautiful. This one is on a semi-dwarfing root stock, so it won’t get enormous, but it’ll do well in the poor soil at the front of our house.

I know you all know what quinces are, because my first ever post on this blog was all about quince jelly. Medlars, though – well, they’re a forgotten fruit in England these days, having a botanical place somewhere between the pear and the hawthorn. (This picture is from a tree I found growing on a hillside in France this September.) I first came across a tree when I was at university; ouside the Law faculty in Cambridge is a standard tree about ten feet high which I used to park my bike by. It was a beautiful tree with large pinky-white blossom in the spring, and a mysterious fruit which looked like a bit like a small, brown pomegranate with an open end in the autumn. I later found out that it was a medlar with the help of an old botanical in the University Library, and collected some fruit after a frost to let it blett (the fruit of the medlar is not edible until it has sat in a dry place for a while and gone soft and brown). The taste was sweet, delicate, acid-winey and completely addictive. Given that you can’t buy medlars in the shops, and that I didn’t intend to go within five hundred yards of the Law faculty once I’d managed to graduate and escape its bloodsucking, cobwebby clutches, I decided I’d buy a tree at the first opportunity.

The medlar is an ancient tree; in 700BC the Greek botanist Theophrastus was writing about it while munching at a well-bletted specimen. It has literary pedigree too; Shakespeare mentions it in four plays (although not in particularly glowing terms – fruits which have one end which looks a bit like a dog’s bum, to be consumed when they look rotten, make for easy metaphor).

Both of these trees are self-fertile, so I only need one of each variety to make sure I get fruit like these quinces from my Mum’s garden (just as well, really; my garden’s not very big and I seem to have gone a little mad this year and given about 33% of the bedding space up to mass garlic production). Expect some glorious blossom pictures in the spring.

I’ll do my best to update as usual over the Christmas period, so keep an eye out for mulled wine, a home-made dill sauce for salmon, sausage rolls, and the enormous sirloin of beef I’m cooking on Christmas day. A very merry Christmas to all those of you who are swearing off using computers for the holiday period.

Weekend cat blogging

And, for those of you who are only interested in my kittens (thanks to Clare at Eatstuff for organising Weekend cat blogging), here are Raffles (back) and Mooncake (front), who have now been living with us for a week. They’ve settled right in, and Raffles has decided what sort of family this is (i.e. an omnivorous one which eats too much) and has so far stolen and eaten a slice of garlic bread, a piece of gnocchi and some creamy mushrooms. We think it’s the garlic he likes and suspect that what we’ve bought here is not in fact a pair of kittens, but two small vampire monkeys with strap-on ears.

Mooncake is quieter (and seems to prefer Mr Weasel, the little rotter), but absolutely adorable, apart from when she’s weeing on your feet in bed. This has now been addressed (we think she was scared of the dark and didn’t want to go down to their tray without Raffles, who was too busy sleeping to pay much attention) and now, with landing and corridor lights on, she’s happy to go downstairs on her own. She has, as you can see below, decided the cushions match her eyes.

Both cats turn out to be keen typists. This week they have sent several emails (with body text saying perceptive things like ‘rrrrrrrrrrrrrttt’ and ‘~~~~~~~~~~~~~@’) and chased mouse pointers as if their lives depend on it. Here is Raffles, who has clearly started writing a blog post, become bored and passed out on some nice lady’s dressing gown.


People come to this blog via all kinds of peculiar search terms, but I am in equal measure charmed and perturbed by the person who rolled up here yesterday via a Google search for ‘Custard warm poured knickers’. I suggest a cold shower and something non-creamy to eat.

Weekend cat blogging, mooncakes

I know, I know – you don’t come here for cats. You come here for recipes and to hear me complain about other people’s cooking. But I just couldn’t resist it today; our two new kittens arrived this morning, and, like a proper feline proselytiser, have decided to share their arrival with you to encourage you to get some of your own. I will also talk a bit about food so you don’t become disheartened and stop visiting. Thanks to Clare at Eatstuff for hosting Weekend Cat Blogging.

These guys are Raffles (left) and Mooncake. Raffles is demonstrating his disdain for the Royal British Legion, and is busy finding out that last month’s charity poppy is not edible. They’re Singapuras: a breed which came out of Singapore’s drain cats. (See this site for more information on Singapuras.)

Being very fond indeed of Singapore (mostly because of the food and the fantastic hospitality, along with the shopping, if I’m honest), we decided that we should keep the theme going with their names, so Raffles is named after the Raffles hotel. (I stayed there when I was a little girl, before all the Michael Jackson visits and the rebuilding and rebranding, and had an exceptionally underage Singapore Sling in the famous Long Bar, where the drink was invented.) Mooncake is named after . . . mooncakes, the pastry traditionally prepared for the Moon Festival in China and Chinese communities.

The mooncake is only available for part of the year. It’s made from a dense, sweet paste (usually lotus paste, and sometimes red bean paste), wrapped around one or two salted duck egg yolks, then covered with an oily pastry, pressed into a mould and baked. I don’t have any photographs of the non-four-legged kind, but there are plenty with this article, which talks about the remarkable variety of mooncakes available today in Malaysia. (I feel about mooncake adulteration much the same as I do about Martinis; you put chocolate in it and it’s not a mooncake any more.) Mooncakes were used by the Chinese to smuggle secret information past the Mongols in the 14th century (presumably the Mongols didn’t go for the salted yolks); people were instructed not to eat them until the day of the Moon Festival, when the rebellion began.

The festival falls on October 6 in 2006 – this will be the day when, according to the lunar calendar, the moon will be brightest. My own mooncake mould is an antique one I found in the UK; I may have a go at making a few for the festival next year.

Finally, here is a furry kind of Mooncake, demonstrating her prowess in killing pink ribbon. I have bought them cat toys; they are ignoring them. My kind of cats.

Ouch my eyes

Rachael at Fresh Approach Cooking is currently running a showcase of really horrible food photographs from bloggers. She has used one I sent in (and it is truly horrible); please drop by and have a look. See the things I eat to keep you entertained?

Tagged again . . . top ten foods

Eggy from Greedy Goose has tagged me with another meme; this time, it’s the You are what you eat meme: My top ten favourite foods. This is something I’m quite experienced at; top ten foods was a favourite game of my Dad’s when I was little (but in our case we used to pretend we were selecting our last meal. Nothing concentrates the tastebuds like imminent death). So without further ado:

1. Siu Yuk – Chinese crispy roast pork belly. This is the stuff I used to save my pocket money up to eat in Chinatown restaurants when I was at school, all on my own with a book. Paradise. I swear my A-levels were 90% fat-fuelled.

2. Unagi sushi – fatty freshwater eel, grilled in a teriyaki sauce until crisp and melting, on sushi rice. The best I’ve ever had was, ludicrously enough, 10,000 feet up in the Sierra Nevada at Samurai Restaurant in South Lake Tahoe. (I’ll be back in February; watch out for a review. Their oyster shooters, in a little shot glass with a raw quail egg, a little rice vinegar and some spring onion, are fresh and magnificent. They will also deep-fry the head of the delicate, sweet raw prawn that’s nestling on your sushi rice until the whole thing, eyes, antennae and all, is crispy and delicious. The likelihood is that the other people at your table will be too squeamish to eat theirs; this is all to your advantage. Dig in.)

3. Sauteed potatoes. Sauteed potatoes made by me, that is. They’ve got to be a floury King Edward, chopped into pieces the size of the top of your thumb, parboiled, then sauteed in very hot goose or duck fat. Once golden and crisp all over, stir in grated garlic and salt and keep stirring gently for two minutes until the garlic is cooked and aromatic, then throw in a handful of chopped herbs and eat immediately. Here are some nestling up with some boeuf en daube. Try not to dribble.

4. Oysters. Sweet, sweet little oysters, tasting of the sea and sucked straight from their shells. I discovered this year that when adding your squirt of lemon, your oyster will be further enhanced by the addition of a little wasabi, which somehow underlines the oyster’s natural sweetness.

5. Roast garlic, popped out of its skin and daubed on a crusty, warm bread.

6. Brioche, spread with a sweet butter and a tiny drizzle of strawberry jam. The brioche must be a good, plain one, full of rich egg yolks and without any vanilla flavouring.

7. Chicken choke – a Chinese chicken rice porridge. This is my favourite breakfast, sprinkled with cripsy fried shallots, slivers of fresh ginger, spring onions, a little sesame oil, some fish in black beans and soya sauce. Unfortunately I very seldom have it at home – but I eat it every day when we’re in Malaysia. The best I’ve ever had was at the Renaissance Hotel in Malacca (a hotel whose rooms could be in any commercial travellers’ hotel in the world, but where the breakfasts are unsurpassed). One bowl will set you up for the day; you won’t need to eat again until the evening.

8. Foie gras. The best I’ve ever had was a cold terrine with fig compote at La Truffiere, a Paris restaurant specialising in truffles. When Mr Weasel and I used to live in Paris, there was usually a mi-cuit foie gras in our fridge; it is astonishing how the ready availability of gloriously fattened liver sublimates the urge to cook for yourself. We lived on foie gras, onion marmalade, brioche and Sauternes. We became very fat and spotty.

9. Peking duck. Proper Peking duck, with a crisp skin served first, the meat kept in the kitchen. The skin is wrapped in egg crepes so thin you can see your hand through them, with a hoi-sin type sauce, cucumber and spring onions, like the crispy duck in Chinese restaurants in the UK. The meat is then served as part of your next course, in whatever style you ask for. The best Peking duck I’ve ever had has been at Lai Ching Yuen, the restaurant at the Regent Hotel in Kuala Lumpur. Whenever in KL, we try to go to Lai Ching Yuen as often as possible; this became slightly embarrassing in the last week we spent in the city, where we found ourself in there twice in one day on the Tuesday, then twice again on the Thursday. I don’t have a picture of the duck, but here is their very superlative dim sum.

I read recently that Frankie Woo, Lai Ching Yuen’s chef, has left since I last visited to set up a restaurant on his own. It’s on the list for the next time I’m in Malaysia.

10. Fiori di zucca fritti – zucchini flower fritters. I’m growing squashes next year not for the fleshy little courgettes, but for their flowers. They’re fantastic served with the quince jelly I made a couple of months ago. There is all the difference in the world in a zucchini flower you’ve picked seconds ago, and one you’ve bought in a shop, put in the fridge and taken out, damply, later in the evening.

And with that, I think it’s time for dinner. I have to tag five people with this, so the Great She Elephant (not a food blogger, but I have observed her eating), Santos at The Scent of Green Bananas, Umami (whose front page seems to be displaying a very enticing picture of chicken porridge at the moment), The Wine Maker’s Wife and Johanna at The Passionate Cook can expect an email soon.

A note . . .

I’m going to be in Prague until early next week. Blog posts will, hopefully, continue as usual, but this rather depends on whether the hotel has in-room Internet access. I am keeping my fingers crossed, and hope to be delivering you commentary on beer and dumplings tomorrow evening.

Wild carrot – and violets in November!

This week’s post (organised by Kalyn from Kalyn’s Kitchen) couldn’t be conducted from the garden, because most of the garden is either hidden under mulch or looking very, very sorry for itself at the moment. Winter finally arrived in earnest last week; our absurdly long, warm autumn (something to do with African winds, according to the weather forecasters) has gone, those warm winds replaced by something much less friendly from the north. It’s freezing, but very beautiful. Time to take a quick picture of the ruined church next door, and go and find some herbs growing wild somewhere.

We live at one end of the Devil’s Dyke, an Anglo-Saxon earthwork which stretches for seven miles in a perfectly straight line. It’s an internationally important Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI); the chalk grassland along the length of the dyke is untouched and provides an environment for some very rare plants and animals, including the pasque flower, lizard orchid (which smells dreadful when in flower – a lot like unclean stables) and the exceptionally rare chalkhill blue butterfly. It’s a great place to walk and find plants, and there are usually very few other people out walking along it, so it’s very a peaceful and pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

The very warm autumn has meant that some plants along the dyke have become confused and are flowering now, when they should be flowering in the spring. I found this violet (in a clump with several others, all pushing boldly through the frost) flowering several months early, not having realised it’s November. Violets are a lovely plant to cook with; I’m currently on the lookout for some violet essence to flavour fondants with at Christmas (at the moment it looks like I’m going to have to send away to France for it), and the flowers, crystalised, are beautiful as well as delicious. These violets were smelling glorious. The leaves and root as well as the flower carry the soft, powdery scent, and can also be used in cooking; the leaves are slightly tart but scented, and can be used in a salad or made into a tea, and the roots are used medicinally in cough syrups. It’s very sad to see them flowering now, knowing the frost will kill them in a couple of days; I look forward to the violets in the garden flowering next year.

Further along the dyke, I found the dead seedhead of a wild carrot. This is the ancestor of the carrot you grow and eat at home; it has a tap root like the modern carrot, but this tap root is white and more spindly than the carrots we use. (You may know this plant by its colloquial name, the Bee’s Nest.) Pick the root young if you want to eat it; it quickly becomes too woody to be eaten.

The whole plant, when green and juicy, smells aromatic and carroty, although the root is not as tasty as the cultivated sort, being rather bitter. The whole leafy part of the plant can be used in a tea, and used to be used widely as a medicinal herb, as it is rather diuretic. It can also be added as a cooking herb in stews, giving a fragrant, carroty flavour.

The wild carrot’s seeds are also used in cooking and folk medicine; they have a warm and toasty taste and are good on top of breads. The flower heads, when fresh, can be battered and fried like elderflower heads, and are really delicious; I’ll write a post on them in the summer.

Next weekend’s herb blogging is going to be awkward and will require some thought – I shall be in Prague for the Christmas markets. I hope the hotel has Internet access – watch this space!

Twice-baked garlic and herb potatoes

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that the pub baked potato, a horrid thing which usually comes with a raw, solid middle, a charred outside, and insufficient cheese, does its genre a great disservice. The baked potato can be fantastic; a thing of creamy beauty.

American readers whill be shocked to learn that I had never come across the twice-baked potato until February this year, when, skiing in Nevada, I had a sudden and terrible craving for carbohydrates. A nice man agreed to sell me a steak with a choice of accompaniments, among which was a twice-baked potato. I had to ask what it was. He looked at me as if I were wearing an even stupider hat than I actually was, and explained that the twice-baked potato is a potato baked as normal, with the fluffy flesh scooped out and mixed with butter and other good things, placed back into the shell, and baked again until piping hot.

When the nights are cold, dark and depressing, some fresh herbs in your dinner will work magic in making you feel summery. I used flat-leaved parsley, tarragon and chives. I wanted the potatoes’ flesh to be really fat and creamy, so looked out for some full-fat cream cheese to beat into them. Full of cheeses, butter and all those carbs, this is not a slimming recipe – but then again, if you want to keep the cold out, you’ll need a layer of fat under your jeans. For four potatoes you’ll need:

4 baking potatoes
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pack garlic and chive cream cheese
1 pack unflavoured cream cheese
1 clove garlic, crushed into a paste
1 handful each tarragon, chives and parsley, chopped roughly
2 tablespoons butter
8 tablespoons grated cheddar cheese

Rub the potatoes with the olive oil, and sprinkle with a coarse-grained salt. Bake at 200C (450 F) for an hour and a quarter. When they’re done, slice them in half and, holding the potato in an oven glove, scoop out the flesh. You’ll be left with a nice little potato-skin container.

Combine the soft potato flesh with the cream cheeses, herbs and garlic in a large mixing bowl, and thrash about it with a fork until everything is combined. You don’t want a completely smooth mixture; just make sure all the ingredients are dispersed equally. Don’t salt the mixture; there will be enough salt in the cheeses, and you’ll also be able to taste the salt on the lovely crispy skins.

Pile the mixture into the potato skins in the dish you baked them in, and sprinkle the cheese over evenly. Put everything back in the oven for another twenty minutes. Eat with or without a ski hat, but do try not to spend so long taking photographs that they go cold.