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.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Molasses cookies for Moonfixer

I have been following Free E-books Daily on Twitter for a while and added quite a few books to read, mostly cook books and historical fiction, as these are two genres I enjoy the most. They seem to favour chick lit, romance and sci-fi, which I read very rarely. But I also happened to discover a few new authors from my favourite genres. One of the pure gems I came across was Moonfixer by CC Tillery, Caitlyn Hunter and Christy Tillery French. As it happened, it was a second book in The Appalachian Journey series (after I finished Moonfixer, I bought the first book).
It starts in 1906 when Bess and Fletch Elliott buy an old plantation in North Carolina, with a house and slave shacks nearby. They got 400 acres of land to work on, with beautiful views. What they didn't plan to acquire was the ghosts of the slaves.
Bessie, a talented healer, has inherited her skills from her Cherokee ancestors. Her grandma Elisi, her spiritual mentor, is often mentioned in this beautifully written book. She feels the nature as a live being, and finds solace and strength in the restorative powers of nature. The sounds, smells, colours all come to life in the book descriptions.
The life on the mountain is tough, and the work is endless. Some stories are totally heart-breaking and tragic.
Yet Bessie is determined to follow her career and be an inspiring teacher for the mountain folk's children.
She shares her knowledge of the Cherokee legends with the young generations, and also helps the locals as a wise woman. She picks the herbs and plants, and uses them as medicine.
In some ways Bessie reminded me of my own grandma, who lived in the middle of nowhere, in a small Southern Russian village. She also collected and dried herbs, growing some in her garden which was bordering with the woods, and going in the wild steppes to pick the other plants. She was brilliant with animals, and they responded to her gentle touch.
I was thrilled to discover this inspiring book. I'm looking forward to reading the first book, and hope the third book will be published soon. Moonfixer ended on a cliffhanger, and when I visited Amazon, eager to read the sequel, I realised that it is not finished yet.

With our #ReadCookEat challenge in mind, I kept reading the food references with great interest. There were a few possible choices for recreating a recipe, but it was Molasses Cookies that I finally decided to bake.
It was a bit difficult to find proper molasses in our little town, the supermarkets only sold either pomegranate molasses or molasses sugar. Eventually I found two different brands of liquid molasses in Holland & Barrett.
But as I bought a box of molasses sugar, I decided I was going to combine both ingredients in my recipe. There are lots and lots of recipes for molasses cookies online, but they are all American, and I could never figure out the exact cup measurements. The conversion guides are very confusing, with different kinds of sugar and flour coming to different weights. So my recipe is based more on my intuition than any precise American recipe.
"I won't be but a minute and I think Loney has some of Mama's molasses cookies hidden away where the little ones can't get to them. We'll have some of those, too" (Moonfixer)

Molasses cookies (20+)
100g molasses sugar
100g granulated sugar
4tbsp molasses
125g butter, softened
1tsp bicarbonate of soda
a squeeze of lemon juice over the soda
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1 egg
225g self-raising flour
90g oats
oil, for the baking sheet or foil

In a deep bowl beat together the sugar, molasses and butter. Squeeze lemon juice over soda, once it goes all bubbly, add it to the sugar mix. Add all the spices, egg, flour, oats and mix well. The dough will be quite sticky.
Put the foil or parchment paper on two trays and slightly oil it. Put a bowl with cold water next to you. Dip hands in the cold water, then pinch a piece of dough and roll a ball the size of walnut. Place about 6 balls on a tray, spaced from each other, as they expand during baking. With a fork flatten each ball, so it looks more like a cookie. I ended up with 4 trayloads, so I baked them in two batches.
Bake the cookies at 180C for 10-12 minutes. They will still be soft when you take the trays out. Let them coo, and they start to harden.
Very tasty with a cup of tea or coffee, or with milk if you prefer.

I don't know if Bessie's Mama's Molasses Cookies were similar to mine, but hope she would have liked them.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Who doesn't like a proper pick your own?!

Today is a sad day for me. My Mum and niece Sasha who stayed with us for a month, have left very early this morning. I have heard briefly from my brother that they safely landed in Moscow, and tonight they'll be boarding a train for a 22-hours-long journey back home. We had precious times together, and managed to cram quite a few activities in these weeks. Pick your own was a fun day out.

I've got an apple!

It's just the right season for blackberries, plums and apples... When planning a pick your own, Millets farm springs to mind as an excellent spot for a berry- & fruit-picking session and a fabulous food shop.
I haven't visited Millets farm, Abingdon, for quite a few years. I don't drive, so it is not very easy for me to get there, but as my Mum and niece were staying with us for a month, I've been thinking of ways of making their stay more fun, and our friend Jen has kindly offered taking us to Millets farm. (I don't know where the apostrophe should go in the word Millets, is it before s or after, the website seems to use it without any apostrophe, so that's how I am going to call it as well.)
The morning wasn't very promising, and at 9 o'clock I thought we might need to cancel the trip altogether as it was downcast and even drizzling a bit. By ten the drizzle stopped and we decided to go, raincoats in the bags.

Oi, that was sour!

Luckily for us the weather has changed dramatically, and the sun was shy at first, but later grinned and sent its hot arms towards us. My Mum who my son calls Baba (grandma in Russian) is an excellent fruit-picker, her basket was full in no time, while we were still running around and sampling.

Mum says she looks like a daughter of Genghis Khan in this photo, now wouldn't that make a lovely title for a book?!
My lovely niece Sasha fluttered around like  butterfly, tickling my mini-tornado Eddie and chatting with him. It was Sasha who spotted the zucchini flowers in the fields which I later used for cooking a delicious dish of stuffed zucchini flowers.

We didn't pick an enormous amount, as I didn't fancy cooking too much jam. At the weekend I made a batch of mixed raspberry-blackberry jam and another one, of plum jam with Lady Grey tea.

Eddie was happy to help, but mostly he was running around like a demented happy billy goat. He also ate a bit too many blackberries.
There is a fabulous shop at Millets farm. If you don't fancy doing any pick your own, you will be spoilt for choice of already picked produce. They have a great fresh fish section, and an amazing array of jams and preserves. But prices are quite amazing as well, so I have spent a small fortune, paying for our picked berries, as well as the other food goodies like goose fat, two fresh trouts, a couple of jams, sweets for kids and more.

Mum, I had enough...
As we were putting the bought berries and goodies in the back of the car, my son has spotted a big merry-go-round and a bouncy castle, so off we went to explore the area designated for entertaining kids or Millets Maize.

My people wanted to go on the bouncy castle, but they don't sell the entrance tickets just to one attraction. You have to pay £17 for two kids and one adult, which might be OK if you plan to spend a day there, but a total rip-off if all you wanted would have been maximum 15 minutes on the bouncy castle. Also, clearly an adult just accompanies kids, it's not like I would have climbed on any of the equipment. So, a grumpy old woman that I am, I told Eddie I am not wasting money and he was crestfallen.

Luckily for him, there is a small size tractor just outside the maize. You put a pound coin in a slot, and can ride it for three minutes. Eddie had a couple of rides, and his good mood was restored.

He was ecstatic, riding the tractor. My niece explained to him how to operate it, and he was driving around with a big grin on his face.
Looking back at these photos brings back memories of a special time I had with my family.

 photo ActiveFamily150x150_zps28e829a4.jpg
Country Kids from Coombe Mill Family Farm Holidays Cornwall

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Mittens the white cat (Happy's Pets)

Who would have thought that my Superheroes- & Lego-obsessed little man would fall in love with a fluffy bundle called Mittens?! Mittens the white cat is one of four cute Happy's Pets, a brand new range of tail-chasing pets from Flair.

There are four interactive furry friends who love to play: Bentley the retriever, Chance the beagle, Sport the goldendoodle and Mittens the white cat. They can interact with the owner and each other, using Infrared Technology. Each pet comes with its own special themed Happy treat. For example, our Mittens arrived with a yellow fish treat. You press the little button, and Mittens performs the tricks.
All Happy's toys are able to move around fast, spin, make noises and a silly dance routine.

Photo of The Happy's pets is reproduced here courtesy of The Happy's

My son was thrilled with Mittens' antics, and was happily chasing it around the room. He was in stitches when Mittens was spinning and making mewing noises. He keeps saying now that he is going to take the cat with us next time we go on holidays to Italy to show to his Nonna (who is very fond of cats and has three or four cats).

Mittens is fluffy, cuddly and cute. The Happy's will make a lovely gift for any preschooler or primary school child.
The only fault I could find is that the treat has ran out of battery very quickly. Mittens itself is still full of beans and loves pouncing and spinning, but the treat needs a new battery already.

Flair said they are set on a mission to make every kid in the UK happy. Don't know about all the kids, but they have certainly made one little boy happy indeed.

Disclosure: we received Mittens the cat for the purposes of reviewing and writing an honest review. All opinions are mine.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Discovering the Ancient Worlds at the Ashmolean

You cannot possibly explore the Ashmolean Museum in one day, you can only get some insights and glimpses. Years ago, when we used to live in Oxford, I worked in a University department just a couple of blocks away from the museum, and loved popping in the museum for a quick visit very often. My current life is like a rapid torrent these days, I just about manage to keep afloat, and haven't had a chance to revisit my old haunts for several years. What, with Sasha's autism and dislike of crowded spaces, and Eddie being a bit too young to appreciate the glories of the Ashmolean, I kept postponing the trip. But as my older niece Sasha (don't get confused with our two Sashas) is very interested in the ancient Egypt, we decided to go to the museum together and split afterwards, if my older son gets too agitated.

Marvellous faces at the Ashmolean

I was as excited to see my beloved Ashmolean as my niece, who visited it over four years ago. We were a group of six, three kids and three adults, and together we were discovering and re-discovering the ancient worlds and cultures.
The Ashmolean is the most visited museum in the UK outside London. Its ancient Egyptian collection is spectacular.

The Egyptian collections with mummies were the highlight of our latest visit. Some of the objects on display have been part of the collection since the opening of the museum in 1683.
Recently there has been a lot of discussions on the ethics of displaying mummies and other human remains in the museums. Is it a sacrilege or simply science? The mummies in the Ashmolean come with the fascinating stories behind each of them.

There is a mummy of a 2-year-old boy who died of pneumonia. His mummy is undisturbed and is dispayed next to the modern art work by Angela Palmer, who was so moved by the story of the little boy who died 2000 years ago, that she visited the site where he was found in Hawara, and brought back a handful of the local sand to remind him of his home. Touching and bizarre at the same time.

Now that I had a quick visit, I want to go back on my own. Maybe once Eddie is settled in school (he starts school in a couple of weeks), I might be able to go to Oxford on my own and study the collections at my own pace.

My son Sasha was actually quite curious about the artefacts (well, up to a certain point, when the crowds got too much for his peace of mind, and he got quite stressed, then we said good bye to my niece and Mum. They went to the exhibition Discovering Tutankhamun, and we left the museum).

For some reason Eddie was fascinated by a double portrait of a Roman doctor Claudius Agathenus and his wife Myrtele. He looked at them and asked me: "Mummy, why is she so grumpy?" A good question, my darling, but I don't know. They look a bit like a mismatched couple, she clearly is much older and quite masculine in appearance.

Eddie liked the sculptures the most, and I will take him along another time. My clever niece Sasha was most studious, and even bought a heavy book on ancient Egypt in the museum shop.

I love the museum shop, and could be happily browsing there for hours.

It is a marvellous place to visit with children, and the admission is free.
How do you keep your kids entertained in summer?