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Balsamic & Prune Stuffed Chicken

I’m a girl raised on the Somerset Levels. Even though I now live up in the hills, the timeless beauty of this part of England never fails to grip me and I will forever be inspired by it’s dramatic landscape. It’s thought that the county of Somerset derives it’s name from this low lying area that was too wet to farm in winter but rich and fertile in the summer – hence Summerlands.  Kitchen Bakehouse Mince Pie

Farming and food remains an important part of the economy here and there are some amazing local producers and retailers dotted around the towns and villages that rise from the wetlands.   One of these is Kitchen Artisan Bakeshop in Langport. Founded by Peter Ridley a former royal butler to William and Harry, this bijoux but exquisitely presented bakery uses local produce to create the most scrumptious of goodies.  When I visited this week there was a pile of perfect macaroons in shades of silver of gold, mince-pies that stood tall and thin, scones both sweet and savoury, panettone and all manner of breads.  I went for the scone with roasted red peppers and black olives. The oiliness of the red peppers was a great match for the crumble of the scone and even though I’d promised to save a bit for my little boy I’m ashamed to say I wolfed the lot!

When I got home I decided that bread was my “thing” for the day and that what I needed was a roast chicken with sweet and sticky stuffing.  I’m a big believer that the gravy and stuffing are the best part of a roast and I always make an effort with this part of the meal- but more of that another time.

This Balsamic and Prune stuffing for the chicken can work equally well with turkey on Christmas Day just double the quantities.  The stickiness of the reduced balsamic and the prune is, I think, the perfect accompaniment for the chicken. Make sure you’re using a well raised, free range, medium chicken (the non free range taste like cardboard so you’re doing yourself a favour by spending a few extra ££s as well as being kind to chicken-kind ) .

Ingredients: 

  • 1 medium free range chicken
  • 1 onion finely chopped
  • 3 rashers of streaky bacon
  • 1 tablespoon of butter
  • 4 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar
  • 3 oz of prunes
  • 1 oz of roughly chopped hazelnuts
  • 1 egg
  • 5 oz of breadcrumbs
  • salt and pepper

Method:

  • Dice the bacon and fry off in the butter on a medium heat with the chopped onion until the onion is soft
  • Add the balsamic vinegar and keep on the heat for 1 minute to reduce the liquid.
  • Finely chop the prunes and add to the pan with the hazelnuts.
  • Add the breadcrumbs.
  • Combine over the heat and add the seasoning.
  • Take off the heat and when cool add the beaten egg.
  • You’ll now need to stuff the chicken with the mixture.  My method is to gently loosen the skin from the breast meat with my fingers to create a space for the stuffing. Very carefully push the stuffing into this space again with your fingers. Do not tear the skin! You can then secure the neck skin together with a cocktail stick to keep the stuffing in place.
  • Place the chicken on a rack cover the breast with a little duck fat or butter and season well with salt and pepper.
  • Place the chicken on the rack in a roasting pan and cook according to instructions or until the juices run clear.

I served the chicken with confit tomatoes, cauliflower with a mustard cream and smashed potatoes. YUMMY!

If you’d like to visit the Kitchen Bakeshop then you can find their website with directions here http://www.kitchenlangport.co.uk/

Muffin’s Famous Christmas Cake

I’m not normally one to name and shame but sometimes I feel the need to warn the world (and by the world I am in fact referring to my small but perfect Somerset existence)  about a truly disastrous eatery.  This place is The Enmore Inn on the outskirts of the divine little village that I call home.Christmas cake

From the outside the pub looks like a broken down miners welfare club and inside does no better.  I was greeted by the new landlord who was smoking by the entrance in a dirty chef’s coat illustrating last night’s service in streaks reminiscent of a poor man’s version of the dessert trolley.

What really upset me though was the smell when I walked through the door.  It made me gag and wish for rescue, I couldn’t breathe and was momentarily struck dumb by the waves of vile odour. It was I fear, my own version of the stench of Elizabethan London and put me off time travel for good. If Peter Capaldi ever comes calling I know now what answer I’ll be giving. Cigarette smoke mixed with stale beer, bad food, deep fat frying and dirt was all around me clinging to my skin, clothes and coating  the inside of my throat.  What ever food they were serving I was not eating and will never be going back.

This little trip did however get me thinking about smells and how they invade our memories and drive our desire to eat (or not!).  I once had a bad bout of flu that started while I was making slow cooked lamb which has put me off sheep for life while the smell of garlic butter transports me to The Colony Hotel in Kennebunkport where we ate lobster till we popped, drank, swam and swayed all summer in this perfect All American paradise.

As Christmas approaches we’re bombarded with the scents of pine, cinnamon, clove, ginger and orange.  Richly warm and intensely evocative, to me these are the memories of my childhood.  This made me decide to share with you all my Grandmother’s Christmas Cake recipe that we’ve been making here as a family for many many years and is as famous to us as all of the other traditions we hold dear as a family.  We affectionately called her Muffin hence the title of this post.

Ingredients

  • 14oz of self raising flour
  • 8 oz of rich Somerset butter
  • 10oz of soft brown sugar
  • 1 pound of mixed fruit and cherries
  • 4 eggs
  • 1/2 a pint of milk.  This can be substituted for Somerset Royal Cider Brandy, freshly squeezed orange juice or a mixture of all three.
  • 4/5 teaspoons of mixed spice

Method

  • Soak the fruit in the liquid over night or for 12 hours in a cool dark place and keep well covered.
  • Melt the butter and sugar in a heavy bottomed pan.
  • Add the fruit with it’s liquid  and the spice.
  • Simmer on a very low heat for 15-20 mins.
  • Allow to cool
  • Beat the eggs
  • Add the eggs and the flour and stir in well with a wooden spoon until the mixture is combined.
  • Poor into a deep cake tin (size will depend on how you want your cake to look – either short and fat or tall and graceful!).
  • Bake on a low heat (150 degrees) or in the bottom of the AGA for 1.5 to 2 hours.
  • Half way through the cooking place a piece of baking parchment over the top to prevent burning.

When the cake is cool place in a cake tin and feed with your cider brandy once a week until Christmas Eve.  You can follow your own traditions either by covering in marzipan and icing and a jaunty little Christmas scene or by studding with more fruit and nuts.  The Blonde is a huge fan of marzipan and I’m an ever bigger fan of jaunty little scenes (and brandy) so you know which way we’ll be jumping!

Thank you to http://www.haahandbook.co.uk for the scrumptious image.

To buy Somerset Royal Cider Brandy go to http://www.ciderbrandy.co.uk/

Somerset Beef

We’ve had 15 house guests here at Castle Farm over the course of the last week and I don’t think I’ve done so much washing up since my time at Brownie Camp. That particular incident and my objection to Fairy Liquid led to a telling off from Brown Owl and my untimely departure from this hallowed organisation.  Somerset Cider Brandy

The Brownies today appear to be just the kind of club I’d have loved.  These fearless tank-girls are all in pursuit of wild adventures and are feminist to the core but back in the day it was all about learning how to be a good mothers-help, getting your knitting badge and learning how to cover a book in sticky-back plastic. I wanted to learn how to light fires using a magnifying glass, make money from selling lemonade and how to rule the world – sadly these vital life skills where deemed suitable only for the boys.    Now I’m all grown up I still shudder at the thought of dancing round a toad-stools  but my love of entertaining means I’m happy to live with the washing up.

One thing the Brownies did teach me was to be prepared when it came to domestic planning. So, with many mouths to feed this week I’ve embraced Aga cooking and have been perfecting my one pot wonders.  These are the staple of any house party when the hostess would rather be tucking into champagne with her guests than cooking at 8 o’clock as they can be prepared the day before they’re needed.  My Somerset Beef recipe is a rather tasty take on boeuf-bourguignon, drawing inspiration from the French classic while using the very best of Somerset produce.

You’ll need

  • 1.5kg/3lb5oz of braising steak (preferably raised in Somerset!) cut into pieces
  • 3 tbsp of Somerset rape seed oil (vegetable oil if you can’t get it)
  • 4 large onions cut into chunks
  • 2 sticks of celery cut up
  • 1 litre of Scrumpy Cider (normal cider will do if you can’t get hold of the good stuff)
  • 5 cloves of garlic finely cut
  • 5 bay leaves
  • 50g/2oz unsalted butter
  • 2 tbsp of plain flour
  • 375g/12oz of mushrooms (what ever you can find or forage) 
  • 450ml or a pint of stock
  • 5 tbsp of Apple Brandy

How to Cook

  1. Heat 1 tbsp of the oil in a large saucepan. Add one of the onions, the garlic (both cut up) and celery and cook for 2-3 minutes. Add the cider and the bay leaves. Bring to the boil and simmer for 15 minutes.
  2. Place the beef in a large bowl and pour over the cold cider marinade. Cover and keep somewhere cool (and away from your greedy dogs) overnight.
  3. Drain the beef from the marinade. Keep the marinade safe.
  4. In a frying pan heat of some of the butter and a little oil and fry off the rest of the onions.  Then add and brown the beef in the pan. Tip all of this into a  casserole dish.
  5. Deglaze the pan with some of the marinade and tip this liquid into the dish.
  6. Stir in the plain flour, the remaining marinade and stock into the casserole dish.
  7. Bring to the boil, cover and place in the bottom oven of the Aga (or a low heated normal oven) for 4-5 hours or until the beef is very tender.
  8. Halfway through cooking, heat the remaining oil and butter in your frying pan brown off the mushrooms – finish off with the brandy and cook down for a couple of minutes.
  9. Add the mushrooms to the casserole.
  10. You can either eat this straight away or keep safe and cool for 24/48 hours when it can be re-heated.

If you’d like some suggestions for producers and suppliers of Somerset meat I can happily point you in the direction of Pynes the Butcher and his amazing farm shop.

Somerset Brandy has to come from The Somerset Cider Brandy Company and Somerset Rape Seed Oil from Fussels   

The Ultimate Raspberry Jam

In our house there aren’t many arguments, some might say that’s because the Blonde knows better than to disagree with “practically perfect” me, but there are a couple of topics that will send us both into mild strops and sulky faces across the kitchen table.  The first is the perennial tea versus milk debate (obviously tea first then the milk) and the second and by far more controversial is the order in which you load the cream and jam onto your scones. 3 Day Raspberry Jam from Castle Farm

Although I adore Cornish and would give my eye-teeth for a just-baked pasty at most times of the day I can’t agree with them when it comes to a cream tea.  On this thorny topic I have my feet firmly in the Devonshire camp with big dollops of clotted cream going on first topped with a  teaspoon full (or two) of jam. The Blonde maintains that the jam provides a grip for the cream but he’s just plain wrong. You’d never put jam on a piece of bread and then put the butter on the top – think about it.

The one thing we don’t disagree on though is the jam.  Forget strawberry, you need to get with the raspberry.  The punchy hit of a good raspberry jam makes strawberry look like it’s poor relation both in terms of taste and looks.

With a garden full of raspberries this year I just had to turn my hand to making our very own Castle Farm variety, something that’s sure to delight the Blonde on his early morning toast (butter on second of course).  In amongst my old recipe books I stumbled upon a version called Three Day Raspberry Jam.   The results were amazing; an incredibly intense flavour and a deep ruby red colour. This recipe comes from Thane Prince.

  • 1.5kg raspberries
  • 1.5kg white granulated sugar
  • Freshly squeezed juice of 4 lemons

(i) In a large non metallic bowl, layer the raspberries with sugar, then sprinkle with the juice. Cover with cling film and leave in the fridge for 24 hours.

(ii) Scrape the contents of the bowl into a preserving pan and bring slowly to the boil – without stirring. Allow the mixture to bubble over a low heat for five minutes.

(iii) Remove from the heat, cover and allow to stand for another 48 hours in the fridge.

(iv) Return the pan to the heat and bring the mixture back to the boil. Skim thoroughly, then boil until a setting point is reached. The jam will always be quite soft, so boil it gently until it seems to have the right consistency.

Now, off you go and enjoy this with your cream tea and remember to always specify a china tea with the milk poured second!

Dahlias – the supermodels of the plant kingdom

115016.Black-Burgundy-Dahlia-Flower-250Back in the day when I worked at Vogue.com London Fashion Week meant partying all night and then struggling to get through the next day on a combination of Marlboro Lights, Haribo and kick arse Codeine tablets.

Now, I have the pleasure of watching most of the collections as they happen via the wonderful internet and my hangovers are epically reduced. I still miss the buzz of watching front row politics unfold and obviously the parties where my chubby thighs would occasionally brush against the hot-dog legs of the models-du-jour, but life is good down here in Somerset.

I will NEVER miss the terror of “what to wear today!” which made mufti days at school look like a walk in the park, these days my leather builder boots are my best friends. While I do occasionally find myself pulling up weeds in Vivienne Westwood I’m generally sensibly attired and “garden ready” much to the horror of the fashionista who still lurks within.

While wandering in the garden yesterday and picking a bunch of Dahlias for my father it suddenly occurred to me that these tall, showy, scentless plants have a certain affinity with the models who stomp the runways at shows across the globe. Long, skinny, glossy limbs topped with arresting and sometimes breathtaking heads, these are the essence of the English show garden. As a model can reinvent her looks at the whim of a designer so have these stunners been reinvented over the years by obsessive enthusiasts. There are now over 57,000 cultivated forms of Dahlia and this number grows every year.
Despite not having a scent the visual impact of this plant has inspired designers and fragrance houses alike with luminaries such Givenchy naming their perfumes after the Dahlia and Tom Ford designing the oversized Dahlia Sunglasses. Lest we forget there’s always the gruesome tale of Elizabeth Short nicknamed “The Black Dahlia”.

The Dahlia is a perennial tuberous plant that you’ll need to dig and store in the winter months. We’ve not been at the house long enough for this task to have come around on the calendar so I’ve had to rely on the advice of others for this post. The ever wonderful Sarah Raven offers her advice here including how to deter the dreaded earwig!

While arranging a tall and flashy display of these blooms for the house, I smiled at the thought that I was bringing a little of the glamour of London Fashion Week to Castle Farm. Now all I need is a direct line to Vivienne so I can plead with her to craft me some gardening gloves!

Marvellous Myrtle

As the days of our first summer here at Castle Farm are coming to an end, I was feeling more than a little sad at the demise of the sweetpeas and the other glories that have filled my garden.  That was until the marvellous myrtles that ring the house started to come into bloom and what a show they’re putting on. Delicate, white, fluffy flowers have emerged like pom-poms lending their delicate scent to the first days of autumn.  Myrtle tree

The myrtles here have been trained to trees and we have lines marking the edge of the main boarders in the cottage garden as well as a couple of stunners either side of the main entrance to the house.    I’m utterly converted to this bushy evergreen and hardy shrub.  Their glossy pointed leaves give off the most amazing rosemary like fragrance when you brush against them and they are just so damn pretty!

They first arrived in Britain from Spain in 1585, imported by Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Carew and the across the years the leaves have most commonly been dried and used for potpourris.  I’ve also read that you can use them to flavour pork and game dishes, as you would bay.

These shrubs need to be protected from very cold weather but other than that are pretty hardy little things.

If you’d like a little more information on how to grow and care for this shrub then please click here.

If you fancy a few of these stunners for yourself you can hop on over to Crocus.

You can have too many Pimms…

At the back of the house we have a terrace onto which all of the downstairs rooms open.  This is utterly divine when the weather is fine as I feel like I’m living some in Tuscan-come-Somerset dream sequence.

There are borders surrounding the house which need some attention if not only for the Brazilian Firecracker which is taking over – and not in a good way. I can’t understand this plant; aggressive and fast growing with the tiniest red tubular flower. It’s strangling the roses and killing off the other clematis. Apparently it’s a great plant to attract Hummingbirds – naturally we have hundreds of those in the Quantock Hills! To my mind there’s no merit here and we’ve been happily ripping it out.

The other dominant plant in the borders is mint – spearmint, lemon mint, cat mint – you name it we’ve got it.  In the last few weeks since moving  here I’ve loved the immense amount we’ve harvested for our Pimms but today was met with Mint Armageddon as I simply couldn’t face yet another fruity concoction. All I wanted was a beer and I was not the one to feel guilty. So, I dug it all out – an entire bed of mint approximately 10ft in length, roots and all and down to the depths of the milky white tubers, we had it all.

With Pimms, you simply must follow the Jackson method and make it with tonic water rather then lemonade and add some borage as well as the  mint.  The most important thing with Pimms is to enjoy it in the moment.  My moment today was casting aside the mint.

The Brazilian Firecracker (Manettia luteorubra)