Monday, 1 September 2014

The Summer of Our Content

And what a splendid summer it was...

We managed to cram a lot in six weeks of holidays, with a staycation in Cornwall, trips to the local farms, museums and pick your own centres. Our week in Perranutnoe was the highlight of the summer, made even more special this year because we took my Mum and niece with us. Children frolicked on the beach, built the sandcastles, climbed in the rock pools, played football, ran away from the waves, got soaked from head to toes in rather cold water and ate numerous cones of ice cream.

On rainy days we baked and played indoor games like Skittles, did puzzles, built Lego and created mosaics from Hama beads, painted and crafted.

You might remember me telling you that I was one of the lucky bloggers invited to take part in Kids in the Kitchen project put together by Betta Living, a well known fitted kitchen retailer. We received a big box of goodies for a Summer holiday bucket list as well as an activity pack of things to do with children during summer holidays.
Now looking back at the list of things suggested, what did we manage to complete and what we haven't done yet?
1. Create a kitchen garden
Yes, we have grown herbs in the kitchen, and also tomatoes and cucumelons in the greenhouse. In fact, tomatoes are still in their full glory, and we pick fresh tomatoes every day. This year I have tried a new variety of a tomato called the Black Russian, and very tasty it was too. But mostly we grow yellow and orange cherry-type tomatoes, which Eddie loves the best.

Black Russian tomato

2. Create Weetabix friends and faces: yes, and it was great fun.
3. Play the memory game: absolutely!
4. Teddy Bear tea party: not exactly a teddy bear tea party but we had a birthday party for Eddie who turned 4 last July. He loved having a picnic in the garden with his friends, and everyone enjoyed a Spiderman cake.

5. Weetabix Jenga (not done)
6. Cut out and decorate paper dolls or robots - this summer was all about Superheroes in the Varese household, so we cut out Spiderman masks.
7. E for experiment, be a kitchen scientist: something we'll do another time.
8. Create wooden spoon characters: tick the box off, we did and we enjoyed it.

9. Create a saucepan band: and very noisy it was.
10. Play dress up and put up a play. This summer Eddie is obsessed with Superheroes. For his birthday he got several Superman, Spiderman outfits and even a Batman t-shirt. Together we did a lot of pretend-play of flying like a Superman and webbing like Spidey.

11. Set up shop and become a kitchen retailer: sounds good, and we could try it on a rainy day in autumn.
12. Make some papier-mache mini-beasts: another project for a rainy day for the future.
13. Play some outdoor games indoor. We did put a tent indoors. Also Eddie couldn't part with his new scooter, and raced indoors. Given a chance, he would have taken it to bed with him.

14. Cool down with homemade ice lollies: Yes, we did, and the lollies were a great success. We made them with Strawberry Ribena, apple juice and cream (separately, not mixed together).

15. Make your own bunting: nobody was over-enthusiastic when I suggested it.
16. Hold your own wacky races: did we, or didn't we?! Can't remember now.
17. Make your own dough: we baked a lot, from cakes to cupcakes, from bread to pizza. To find out our recipe for Banana cupcakes and read what we did at the start of the project, see my post Kids in the Kitchen.
18. Time to scrub and do the washing up: Nope, that was only Mama's job.
19. Build a marshmallow tower: the marshmallows didn't stay long enough untouched, so there wasn't much left for a tower, oups.
20. Make a junk model: we had quite a lot of empty Lego boxes which ended up as models. Big boxes were turned into houses, boats and cars. It never ceases to amaze me, how with all the toys that we have the boxes are usually the most attractive.

We made a full use of our Family pass at Cogges manor farm, and visited it as often as we could. Both boys love the playground there, especially the big slide and the zip wire. Just yesterday we went there again to feed the lovely piggies and jump on the wobbly bridge. It was a sunny, even hot day, a perfect ending to a great summer.

How did you spend your summer?

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Summer #ReadCookEat round-up

As I mentioned back at the beginning of July (oh my, how long ago does it seem now?!), I could not do a round-up of #ReadCookEat posts for July. We were away in lovely Cornwall, enjoying the warm weather, the beach and lots of Kelly's of Cornwall ice cream. I promised to write a round-up by the end of August, so here it is, and though we all were busy with school holidays, there are some lovely recipes to show that our culinary fiction-inspired challenge is still alive and kicking.
I started the Summer linky with a recipe for Citrus and pistachio salad which I created after reading a splendid novel Templar's Acre by Michael Jecks, one of my favourite authors. Amazingly enough, Michael Jecks tweeted back to me, thanking for the recipe. Imagine how thrilled I was.

Cheryl from Madhouse Family Reviews is our most loyal supporter and a veritable bookworm. After reading When the Cypress Whispers by Yvette Mannessis Corporon, she felt encouraged to write a lovely post about Greek cuisine, as the book has a lot of food references and recipes mentioned. Cheryl loved the descriptions of rustic, home-cooked meals, and took her blog readers through a lot of mouth-watering recipes and photos. Cheryl is an enthusiastic cook, and her children are following in her footsteps. Just have a look at her daughter Juliette, preparing the Greek meze.

From many of the scrummy dishes mentioned in the book, Cheryl has picked a recipe for Spanakopita, a wonderful mix of filo pastry, feta cheese and spinach among many other ingredients. This brought back memories of spanakopita I ate in the States. The landlady of the flat we were renting, was an archeologist who travelled the world and the seven seas, and she was a great cook. I have very fond memories of her spanakopita. I often wish Cheryl was my neighbour, as I would invite myself to her house regularly.

Then it was my turn again, with a recipe for Sorrel soup, as described in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, a novel in letters set just after the WWII. I love sorrel soup, and have made it before, in fact it is quite popular in Russia.

A baton over to Cheryl (or should I say bagel?!). Having read The Man Who Filmed Nessie by Angus Dinsdale, Cheryl has prepared the cutest Loch Ness bagel Monsters, a fab recipe for kids' parties or just as a treat. An imaginative and easy recipe, which will make any fussy eaters ask for more.

Reuben sadwich is an American institution, I remember fondly eating it when we lived in the States. Cheryl from Madhouse Family Reviews often reviews books for teens and preteens, and Geek Girl by Holly Smale inspired her to try to make a Reuben sandwich. And what a scrummy sandwich it is, bursting with flavours! I could do with one right now!

Vanilla Salt by Ada Parellada is one of the latest foodie fiction books, which has been mentioned by many bloggers. This is a book which I have added to my wish list too. Elizabeth from Elizabeth's Kitchen Diary has reproduced a mouth-watering recipe for Chicken with Apples. Now I love a good combination of meat and fruit. Elizabeth also uses brandy and stock, and it's a real feast in one pot. I must try Elizabeth's recipe.

As Cheryl says, some books make our #ReadCookEat challenge very easy to join in. The Apple Tart of Hope by Sarah Moore Fitzgerald is one of these books. Cheryl based her Apple Tart of Hope on a classic French recipe tart aux pommes. It's a clever combination of sliced apples and apple puree, and with caramel sauce and other tasty bits, it sounds like a wonderfully indulgent dessert.

This summer I have discovered a fabulous ebook called Moonfixer by CC Tillery (it is a pseudonym of two talented sisters, Caitlyn Hunter and Christy Tillery French). This is the second book of The Appalachian Series, set in 1906. This fabulous narrative is told by a fascinating protagonist, a wise woman who is in tune with nature. By now, I read the first book in the series as well, and am waiting impatiently for the 3rd book to be published. Bessie mentioned her Mama's molasses cookies a few times, and I couldn't wait to bake some.
Christy Tillery French has kindly mentioned me on her blog, if you fancy reading it, here is the post called An unexpected surprise.

The last post of the round-up for summer has been written by your humble servant again. I watched a rerun of Inspector Montalbano recently, and picked up a copy of Andrea Camilleri's Excursion to Tindari which I read earlier this year, and bookmarked a recipe for Caponata cooked by Motalbano's muse aka housekeeper Adelina. Caponata is a great summery dish of aubergines, tomatoes, capers, olives and other ingredients, and it is so tasty, you really want to make a big batch.

And that's all, folks! We can say Good bye to Summer, and welcome to Autumn. I am adding a new linky tool to our #ReadCookEat Challege, and hope after a long holiday to see more inspiring entries!

Have you read a book recently which inspired you to run to the kitchen and cook to your heart's content?

Chris from Cooking Round the World and I are inviting you to recreate a meal, inspired by books and join in our #ReadCookEat challenge.

The idea is to choose a book, either a world classic or modern fiction, or even memoirs and pick up a dish mentioned or described in that book and then recreate it in a recipe. Please say a few lines about your chosen book, and maybe even do a quote from the book.

If you decide to take part, please add the badge to your post and link up back to Chris and me, and either use a link-up tool or add the url of your post as a comment. Alternatively, email either of us with the link to your post (my email is sasha1703 at yahoo dot com).
The challenge will start on 1 September and will end on 31 September 2014.
I promise to Pin all blogs posts taking part in this challenge, as well as RT and Google+.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Discover your Personali-tea with PG Tips

“The Chinese say it's better to be deprived of food for three days than tea for one.”
Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns

Are you one of these people who enjoy doing different quizzes online to find your past life, colour, song you represent, country you should have been born in etc etc. Well, I am one of these people. Just the other day I did a quick quiz Which career you were actually meant for? and "discovered" I should be a chef. Close enough as I enjoy cooking, but surely I wouldn't want to do it as a job. Anyway, these quizzes are harmless fun. If you follow PG Tips on Facebook, you might have noticed their exciting quiz to determine your Personali-tea.

They say: "With so may different varieties available, it's all about providing teas for every taste and finding the perfect tasting cuppa for your personality. So whether you're a visionary who is full of ideas, a loyal and conscientious character, an individualist who leads the pack, or the architect who is strong and bold, there's certainly a type of PG Tips tea for you!
To find out which PG Personali-tea you are, simply take the quiz via the PG Tips Facebook page"

How could I resist such an invitation?! The wizards at PG Tips thought The Fresh One described my personali-tea, and apparently I am The Visionary. Sounds just about right, doesn't it? (insert a smilie here).
The Fresh One is one of four teas in The Premium Range. I was curious to find out if this tea truly matches my personality in real life.

The Mellow One is a mix of black and decaffeinated teas to help you unwind. It is has quite a pronounced tannin flavour, with a woody body. I liked it best with a spoonful of sugar and a slice of lemon. As all teas in PG Tips Premium range, it is a good base for an iced tea, especially if you add some sliced citrus and/or berries.

The Fresh One is a lovely pick me up tea, with a slightly crisp edge. It makes an attractive deep red drink, easy to drink, smooth and refreshing. This blend is made of 100% Kenyan tea. It is uplifting, with a distinct aroma. The colour is a dark amber or golden brown.

The Strong One: It is a rich, full-flavoured and well-rounded brew, excellent as a morning cuppa to give you a kick start for a day ahead. As the name suggests, it is on the strong side, so better drink it in the morning and first half of the day. I liked it best with half a teaspoon of honey, to slightly sweeten an intense edge of a powerful brew. PG Tips call it a thick tea, and I tend to agree with them, it is a dark coloured tea, with a malty aroma.

The Rich One was my top favourite from the selection of four. It is very smooth, indulgent, easy on the palate, refreshing and very tasty. For me The Rich One was an overall winner. It ticks all the right boxes for me, or should I say tea boxes?! A great black tea, which is excellent on its own, with or without milk or sugar.
So, Monkey, Brand Ambassador for PG Tips, got it slightly wrong, when he suggested The Fresh One as my top tea. It so happened, that The Rich One is my top choice of the premium range.

All tea leaves in PG Tips pyramid bags are fully Rainforest Alliance Certified. So when we pick a box of PG Tips, we are helping our environment as well as tea growers and their families, a win-win situation.

Have you tried the Personali-tea quiz? What is your Personali-tea?

Disclosure: I received a hamper of PG Tips teas for the purposes of reviewing. All opinions are mine.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

OXO Good Grips Herb Mincer and Little Salad Shaker giveaway (c/d 20 September 2014)

In the last couple of weeks, I have been playing with a couple of new gadgets from OXO Good Grips. It is a well known and much loved range of kitchen tools, I have a few in my collection, and find them all very useful.

OXO Good Grips Herb Mincer is a handy little gadget made of stainless steel. As its name suggests, it is used for chopping herbs. Herb Mincer has a non-slip soft grip. It is easy to use, four circle blades chop the herbs effortlessly.
I have also been testing a new Little Salad Shaker, which is a cute little kitchen gadget. It allows you to make a dressing in a flash, just add your favourite ingredients, shake the bottle and pour the dressing. The top is easily removed to accommodate a range of ingredients. Made from Tritan, this dressing shaker is dishwasher safe and BPA-free. At 1 cup (250ml) capacity, you can make as much or as little of the dressing as you need. The seal is airtight and leakproof, so shake to your heart's content, then flip the tip, and pour.

Kind people at OXO have offered this handy duo as a giveaway prize for my blog readers. One lucky winner will receive an OXO Good Grips Herb Mincer and Little Salad Shaker.

To be in with a chance of winning this lovely prize, all you need to do is enter, using a Rafflecopter form below. As usual, you have a choice of options to enter: by leaving a comment (this is the only mandatory step), following the brand on Twitter etc.

Only the first step is mandatory: all you need to do is answer my question by leaving a comment 
(if you login as Anonymous, please leave you Twitter name or FB name, so that I could identify you, I do not suggest leaving the email address in the comment)

All the other steps are optional, you don't have to do them all. All it takes to win is just one entry.
Only one entry per person is allowed (however, you can tweet daily to increase your chances).
The giveaway is open to the UK residents only.
Once the Rafflecopter picks the winner, I will check if the winner has done what was requested. I will contact the winner, if they do not reply within 28 days, the prize will be allocated to another person.
Please don't forget to leave a comment, as it is the only mandatory step, I will make sure the winner selected by Rafflecopter has complied with T&Cs. 

The giveaway will close on 20 September 2014 (at midnight, the night from the 19th to the 20th)

Good luck! a Rafflecopter giveaway

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

We're jamming

I love the process of jam-making. It is so gratifying to turn fruit and berries into something delicious you can enjoy throughout the year. I remember those faraway days of my childhood, when I watched my grannies and aunt slaving in the open air summer kitchens, making all kinds of preserves and canning on an almost industrial size. Well, they did have big gardens, and canning is one of the Russian hobbies and pastimes. My aunt's cellar was a true work of art, with shelves groaning under the numerous jars of jams, marmalade, pickles and other preserves.

These days, I try to make my preserves in small batches, as it is much easier to handle, and also there is a problem of storing. I don't have a cellar, and my kitchen looks like a grocery shop as it is.

After our last PIY session with my Mum and niece, I have cooked two kinds of jams. One was a mixed raspberry blackberry jam, another was a plum jam made with Lady Grey tea.

Blackberry and raspberry jam
1.600kg mixed berries (I had roughly half-half, with slightly more raspberries)
1.600kg sugar
70ml water
2tbsp lemon juice
a blob of butter
I used a mix of granulated and preserving sugar. Typically I don't use the preserving sugar, but I have a few bags left which needed using.
We picked our own berries, so I didn't bother with washing it. Put all the berries in a heavy-based pan (if you have a special preserving pan, use it. I have a big pan which I use for everything, and it works well for jam-making). Squeeze lemon juice over the berries and add some water. Bring to boil.
Lower the heat and simmer the berries for 15 minutes. The berries will be soft and quite mushy.
Add the sugar, stir on low heat until all the sugar has dissolved.
Bring to boil and boil it rapidly for about 12-15 minutes, while it is babbling. Keep skimming the scum off the surface.
Turn off the heat, and add a blob of butter. Let it rest for 10 minutes before pouring with a ladle into sterilised jars.

This jam is lovely spread on toast, spooned into hot croissants or spooned over vanilla or clotted cream ice cream.

Lady Grey Plum Jam (enough for 8 assorted jam jars)
1,600kg plums
1,600kg sugar
250ml Lady Grey tea
1tsp vanilla essence
1tbsp lemon juice
Brew a mug of Lady Grey tea.
Put the quartered plums into a big pan (stones removed obviously). Pour over the tea and lemon juice. Bring to boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the vanilla essence.
Add the sugar, simmer until all the sugar is dissolved. Bring to boil, then boil rapidly for 15+ minutes. Keep skimming the scum from the surface, and watch the jam. Ideally the amount I cooked, should have been split into two pans, as at times it was dangerously high.
Turn off the heat, add a blob of butter. Let it rest for 10 minutes before ladling into sterilised jars.
This is a soft jam, not exactly runny, but not of the supermarket varieties which are so thick and jellified you can cut it with a knife. Again, great in croissants.

My tips for jam-making:
1. Ignore the stupid unsolicited EC directives about using just the new jars for canning. If your jars and lids are undamaged, wash them in soapy water and then sterilise well in boiling water for 10 minutes (I put mine 4 at a time in a deep old frying pan which I use just for this purpose, with hot water half way up, bring the water to boil, then simmer for 10 minutes. Dry them well and use). I never had a problem with my jams. I just cannot bring myself to buying new jars, when I have so many empties in the kitchen. We eat lots of honey and other preserves, and their jars are perfect for all my own jams and chutneys.
2. Make sure the lids are firmly screwed to the pots. I also cut out a circle of parchment paper to put inside the lid before screwing it on the pot.
3. Once you mastered some basic rules of jamming, don't be afraid to experiment, by adding spices and herbs to your preserves.
4. Be generous with your produce, and don't hoard 30+ jars of apple chutney, you will never be able to eat them all, and they make nice gifts too. I love receiving homemade jams and jellies as gifts.

What jams and jellies have you made recently?

Monday, 25 August 2014

Parsnip and wild mushrooms salad

Summer is almost over. The harvest is upon us. I love the local fruit and vegetable markets at this time of the year, with the luxurious displays of colourful produce. I have never grown my own parsnips but really love this humble vegetable for the sweetness and aroma. You can eat it raw, when it's young and not too woody, it's perfect in stews, but also lovely cooked in warm salads.

Parsnip and mushroom salad (serves 2)
2 parsnips (150g)
100g wild mushrooms (chanterelle and other)
1tsp dried herbs
2tbsp olive oil
1tbsp fresh lemon juice
mini mozzarella (about 10 mini balls)
a handful of green olives (about 10)
2tbsp olive oil + 1tbsp balsamic vinegar (for dressing)
sea salt, pepper
Cut the skinned parsnips into batons and cook until al dente in slightly salted water. Drain once cooked. While the parsnips are cooking, tear the bigger mushrooms into pieces, leaving the small mushrooms intact. Give them a quick fry in a frying pan with the olive oil, dried herbs and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. Assemble your salad on a big plate, first place the parsnips, ten scatter the fried mushrooms on top, add the mozzarella and green olives. Mix olive oil and balsamic vinegar for a simple dressing, and pour over your salad. Scatter the chopped parsley, season with salt and pepper.

I know that technically mozzarella is not a vegetarian cheese, but you can find some vegetarian versions of it.

I used Filippo Berio extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar in this recipe. My favourite brand for olive oil, it never disappoints and works as a great ingredient for dressings, marinades and glazes.

I have already mentioned Finest Wild mushrooms from Tesco on my blog. Tesco is the only supermarket which sells wild mushrooms on a regular basis. I usually order a pack or two in my weekly grocery shopping, and you never know which variety of mushrooms will arrive. Sometimes there are only chanterelles, sometimes they are mixed with girolles or other mushrooms). Fab for risottos, pasta dishes and with fried potatoes. For £1.50 a box it's a steal, as some of the online grocery companies sell their wild mushrooms at exorbitant prices.

In the last couple of weeks, I have been using a new herb mincer for chopping herbs.
OXO Good Grips Herb Mincer is a handy little gadget made of stainless steel. I love OXO Good Grips range, and have mentioned it several times on my blog. Herb Mincer has a non-slip soft grip. It is easy to use, four circle blades chop the herbs effortlessly.

 You can use the front edge to move the herbs together in a neat pile. To clean the blades, you open the gadget, it separates for easy cleaning. And to store it, just pop in a plastic top back for safety.

Disclosure: I received an OXO Good Grips Herb Mincer for the purposes of testing and reviewing. All opinions are mine.

If you liked this recipe, you might be interested in the following recipe:
Endive boats with candied walnuts

I'm entering this salad into Simple and in Season, created by Ren and hosted this month by Elizabeth.

Also linking with Extra Veg hosted by Sarah this month for Helen and Michelle

Caponata for Montalbano

"The moment he opened the refrigerator, he saw it.
 Caponata! Fragrant, colourful, abundant, it filled an entire soup dish, enough for at least four people. It had been months since Adelina, his housekeeper, last made it for him. The bread, in its plastic bag, was fresh, bought this morning. The notes of the triumphal march of Aida came spontaneously, naturally, to his lips. Humming, he opened the French windows after turning the light one the veranda. Yes, it was a cool night, but still warm enough to eat outside. He set the little table, brought the dish, the wine, and the bread outside, and sat down" (Excursion to Tindari, Andrea Camilleri)

Adelina's caponata appears quite frequently in Inspector Montalbano mysteries. This traditional southern Italian dish is often served as an appetizer or a side dish. You can eat it hot, you can eat it cold, it keeps well for a few days in the fridge. In Excursion to Tindary Montalbano takes a big dish of caponata out on the veranda to eat as his main course, with good bread and wine. According to a short description of the recipe in the endnotes of the book, anchovies are one of the ingredients of caponata. It is possible, that Adelina indeed adds anchovies to her caponata, but most of the recipes for this zesty colourful dish that I came across in my cook books and online, do not list this ingredient.

This is a screen shot from The scent of the night, but that's the right veranda


olive oil 8tbsp+
3 aubergines (800g)
1tsp dried oregano
2 medium red onions (200g)
2 cloves of garlic
2 stalks of celery (150g)
5 tomatoes
1 heaped tbsp capers (in salt, rinsed)
2tbsp white wine vinegar
2tbsp tomato paste
a handful of sultanas or golden raisins
a handful of green olives
a handful of pine nuts (you can use flaked almonds instead for a budget version)
sea salt, pepper
fresh parsley

For this dish you will need medium sized aubergines, which are firm and don't have too many seeds. Cube the aubergines (don't remove the skin). For this amount of aubergines, I used two frying pans, you can use one, but fry the cubes in two batches. Stir continuously, while cooking the cubed aubergines in the olive oil. Season with dried oregano. Aubergines soak the oil like tissue paper. If you don't want to use as much oil, you might roast the aubergine cubes instead. Cook both batches for about 7 minutes, until golden brown on all sides, but not entirely cooked yet. Put both batches into one pan, and set it aside. Fry finely chopped onions, garlic and celery in the 2nd pan for about 7-10 minutes, until translucent. Add to the aubergines. Chop tomatoes, and add to the pan. Mix all the ingredients well. Cook for about 15 minutes, with the white wine vinegar, tomato paste, golden raisins and green olives, stirring regularly. Rinse the salted capers before adding to the pan. Add the pine nuts at the last five minutes of cooking. Season well with sea salt and pepper. Add some fresh chopped parsley before serving.

Meet the veggies

I prefer to use the salted capers rather than those preserved in vinegar.

Caponata is a lovely snack, served on the multi-seeded toasted bread or a good chunk of ciabatta.

You can also use it as a sauce for pasta, just stir a few heaped tablespoons in your bowl of spaghetti, though this is not an authentic Italian way of eating it. Montalbano would probably shake his head in exasperation at my suggestion.
Well, for him I would also set the table with a big bowl of caponata, chunky bread and a bottle of wine.

I'm adding my recipe to In My Veg Box - Aubergines linky created by Nayna from Citrus Spice and hosted by Full Scoops
this month.