Saturday, February 16, 2013

Using up the blackberry products

I don't often pull out all the stops for dinner, weekday dinners usually being rather stressful.  There is something about trying to pull together dinner when children are demanding attention, you have to persuade them to eat (because they are tired) and you get comments like 'that's not my favourite' or 'yuck.'

Sometimes I have to remind myself that I enjoy cooking (for adults).  I figured that it was the end of a long week and we deserved a yummy meal.  It makes a nice replacement for going out on Valentine's Day.

All the work I've done in the garden this summer is starting to pay off.  This meal really demonstrates it - lots of herbs, garlic herb butter (home-made butter from teaching the children about food science and garlic from one of my two successful bulbs), blackberry vinegar, cherry tomato sauce and blackberry cordial.  I've been so happy with the amount of food we have preserved this year - either in jars, as products like vinegar or cordial or just frozen waiting to be used.

The cherry tomato sauce is a funny story.  I accidentally 'invented' tomato sauce (ketchup)!  While it is not an original invention, I did wonder if this is how tomato sauce was originally invented. It doesn't seem to be, but I did learn that the phrase 'tomato sauce' is limited to Commonwealth countries - in other parts of the world tomato sauce is what we tend to call pasta sauce .  I'd hoped to lightly cook the cherry tomatoes with some blackberry vinegar to have as a side dish.  It was initially too tart, so I added a little sugar and cooked at a high heat.  Unsurprisingly tomato, vinegar, sugar and seasoning is tomato sauce! Delicious!

Yummy meal.  The beer bread with garlic butter was delicious.

Horribly out of focus picture, but I really wanted to show the colour of the dressing.
This photo looked better on my phone!  I mixed blackberry vinegar, olive oil, poppy seeds and seasoning to make a nice dressing for these baby cucumbers.

The cherry tomato side dish that turned into tomato sauce!  Since the tomatoes were very ripe and full of pectin the addition of heat and sugar made them kind of 'jammy' - delicious.

Valentine's mocktail: blackberry cordial mixed with sparkling grape juice

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Garden harvest 2013 (January)

Somewhere along the way I've become a gardening nerd.  In the seven years that I have lived in this house I have indifferently gardened.  While we were still renters we did very little and then four years ago I started adding a bag of compost and mulch to the garden each year.  I've focused on growing vegetables but my desire to get a lot of variety means that I would grow too little of one thing.

This year I was organised.  I ordered the King's seed catalogue and planned in advance.  I even drew a little plan on the back of an envelope.  When the trees were harvested at the rear of our property it revealed new sunlight opportunities - we can now grow vegetables and fruit that require extra sunlight hours.  I dug two new gardens at the front of our house.  I read a lot, mostly anything by Linda Hallinan.

On holiday earlier this month I managed to get through about eighteen months worth of NZ Gardener magazines.  I'm ready!

I've planted the basics: lettuce, tomatoes, strawberries and carrots but also heritage varieties of peas, Picton Sno and Capucijners.  I learned how to get the best out of the indifferent berry bushes we have - and produced two raspberries and have about thirty blackberries ripening.  On the recommendation of a neighbour I planted courgettes and enjoy getting a new courgette to eat every three or four days.  I'm starting to get results from my rhubarb.  I've planted complimentary flowers to attract bees and have even started seed saving. I tend to take twice daily looks at the garden (this is how I know that I am obsessive).  I love ripping laterals from tomato plants.  I love that I know what laterals are.  And I love that tomato laterals will just sprout roots if you stick them in the ground.

Tomatoes ready for dehydrating and eventual freezing.

My children are starting to enjoy the garden.  Digging for jersey bennie potatoes with the children was a lot of fun - they enjoyed the treasure hunt and the youngest loved washing them in a bucket of water.  I produced a lot of strawberries - but the youngest loves them, as well as my three year old neighbour so they became experts at looking for and eating warm, ripe berries.  I barely rescued enough for a pot of jam. This evening they helped me to pull up carrots.  We brought them inside and rinsed them, then sliced them thinly for eating.  My oldest had hers on a cruskit cracker of all things. 

I'm loving making meals of the food from the garden.  Tonight we had the last of the jersey bennies and a salad including lettuce and carrots from the garden with our meal.  In the next couple of months I should be harvesting cucumbers for pickling, miniature red cabbages, bok choi and a lot of tomatoes.  A serious amount.

In a previous post I mentioned a concern about garden costs.  I'm keeping a running total of expenditure and I'll try and see how that balances out at the end of the year.


  • Courgettes = 7
  • Strawberries = 6
  • Tomaccio tomatoes = 17
  • Lettuce = harvested leaves three times
  • Blackberries = scrumped 30 cups worth
  • Carrots = 20
  • Rhubarb = 3 cups worth, stewed
  • Garlic Bulb = 1 (not an awesome amount but 100% better than previous year)
  • Herbs = I've harvested parsley and thyme three times.
Tomaccio - it is hard to see but there are about 185 tomatoes on here!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Good/ best: School night desperate dinners

I really thought that I would have more time to concentrate on cooking once I had kids.  In some ways I have, I have more headspace to THINK about cooking, but not a lot of actual time to do it.  My first daughter had afternoon naps right up to starting school, my youngest has all but stopped at the age of two and half.  So I don't really have uninterrupted time to cook during the day.  This means that dinner mostly needs to be prepared at dinner time.  My husband has long working hours so is never home for dinner during the week.  It is just me, and two worn out, attention needing girls.

If I have a lot of cooking energy to get out I might make a separate meal for my husband and I, but usually we all have the same meal. At least half the time it will be some kind of stir fry - this suits the cultural needs of our family, but also speed needs!

Some nights are just toxic though: when you are late home from swimming or playgroup, when the kids need a bath, your daughter has reading to do and you have nothing prepared.  This blog post, and the rest in the series are my attempts to address that.  I'm going to do post a recipe for the fastest, technically adequate version, then put in variations that make it yummier or healthier.  I'll call these ones 'Desperate Dinners.'

Vegetables, noodles and meat: OK version

One packet of two minute noodles (baked version)
Handful of tiny vegetables (chop/ grate thinly - I use broccoli, grated courgette and mushroom)
Shredded leftover meat/ shelf stable tofu

Boil water in a pot for the two minute noodles - put in vegetables for a couple of minutes with the 'soup powder' then add the noodles.  When the noodles have been cooking for a couple of minutes add the shredded meat.  Done.

You can have this as a soup, or strain and have as noodles.

Vegetables, noodles and meat: Best version

One packet of udon or quick cook hokkien noodles
Selection of tiny vegetables, including a diced spring onion for garnish
Shredded leftover meat/ pre-marinated chicken/ frozen shrimp/ fresh firm tofu
Fresh stock: homemade, from the fridge in the supermarket or made up using gel stock pots. For a family of four you will need at least one litre.
Soy sauce/ peanut oil/ sesame oil

To have as a soup:
Put the stock on to boil and add the vegetables and meat (if not precooked).  Cook for three or four minutes at high heat, then reduce to a simmer and add the noodles (and tofu/ precooked meat if using). Add a teaspoon of soy sauce and a drop or two of sesame oil to each family member's bowl prior to adding the noodles, meat and stock.  Sprinkle with spring onion. 

To have as a stir fry:
Stir fry the uncooked meat and vegetables in peanut oil for two or three minutes until the meat looks cooked and vegetables start to soften.  Add half a cup of stock and a teaspoon of soy sauce and bring to the boil.  Add the noodles and stir fry rapidly until most of the liquid has disappeared.  Add the pre-cooked meat or tofu if using.  Sprinkle with spring onion.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Delicious blackberry curd and blackberry barbeque sauce

The first batch of blackberry recipes has been quite popular and by the time I wrote it all up I needed to add a couple more recipes. There is no end to blackberrying - and my husband is suggesting doing some more blackberry picking once the girls are in bed tonight!

For the first time today we encountered competition!   My husband spotted a new blackberry patch while out jogging (when your partner takes up exercising there are benefits for the whole family) and we visited there after visiting the beach this afternoon. We took our gumboots, sheet of cardboard and the hockey stick.  The girls helped pick the low berries and my husband and I worked together to get the trickier ones (me lying on the cardboard across a large thorny branch while my husband used the hockey stick to pull a prolific branch closer.  After we had half a smallish bucket we noticed a Mum and her son further along.  A small creek bubbled along and while we were on the bank the mother and son were in the creek.  We were very envious (and look forward to the day we can send our children into creeks to assist with berrying). I asked about their berry recipes (blackberry muffins with fresh blackberries mixed with cream cheese for icing) and we respected our various spots.

Another car drove slowly by.  They pulled in behind our car and I instantly knew what they were considering.  They continued on, I guess noticing that the area was well covered and likely picked bare.  They drove off and I didn't think about them until a couple of minutes later, when I realised that they had gone on to the private driveway above the creek and were picking from there.  As we left, two members of their group circled back to check out the patch we had just covered!  They were not going to find any!


 A friend asked what I do with all the caterpillars on the blackberries I picked and it occurred to me to write a few blackberrying facts:

Blackberries and caterpillars:
  • Just about every blackberry will have a tiny caterpillar on the inside.  I found spreading them on a tray while fresh and picking them off every time I walk by the most effective method of removal.
  • If you soak the berries it can drown the caterpillars.  I suspect though that many caterpillars drown still inside the berry.
  • If you freeze them the caterpillar remains inside the berry.
  • Inadvertently eating tiny caterpillars is an inevitable fact of cooking with blackberries.

Picking blackberries:

  • Keep your eye out for blackberry patches every time you are out driving.  They love creek beds and overgrown bush.  
  • Blackberry bushes are thorny - wear running shoes or gumboots and old clothes.  Expect scratches and thorns stuck in your fingers.  Wearing gloves makes it hard to pull off the berries.
  • Take along a hockey stick - it can help you reach high up branches
  • A bucket looped over your arm makes picking easier.
  • Consider how likely it is that the berries have been sprayed.  You will need to wash them well if they have been sprayed (add a small drop of detergent to the washing water, then rinse with clean water)
  • Children get very bored with picking berries quite quickly and are likely to stop after the first prickle.  We took a lot of snacks to keep them amused.
  • Manage your expectations for the amount of berries you are likely to get.  Altogether we have picked about 40 cups of berries....but probably spent about ten hours altogether doing this over many trips.  Picking berries for up to an hour is fun, picking for much longer a chore.
  • Take a first aid kit with plasters, splinter probes and tweezers.  Insect repellent is also a good idea.  My legs look like I've been subject to a vicious cat attack, interlaced with red shiny mosquito bites.  Attractive.
Storing blackberries:

  • Rinse them straight before using them, not when you get home.  If the berries are kept dry and cool they are much less likely to go mouldy. Even refrigerated, washed berries are likely to get mouldy overnight.
Blackberry curd is a brilliant use of eggs and blackberries.  You can use the curd as you would lemon curd (e.g. to make lemon meringue pie) and to flavour home made ice cream (just add a generous scoop or two of the curd).  Blackberry curd is better than blackberry jam for making ice cream as the jam tends to result in more ice crystals throughout the ice cream. 

Blackberry curd:

500 grams blackberries
300 grams caster sugar
4 eggs, lightly beaten.
90 grams butter

Take 500grams of blackberries and quarter a cup of water and heat together in a pot until boiling.  Once boiling reduce to a simmer and cook for about twenty minutes.  Squish the berries while cooking.  Place a sieve over a bowl and press the mixture through using a wooden spoon.  This will take about five-ten minutes - you want to end up with nothing but a dry, seedy mixture left in the sieve.

Most people use a double boiler arrangement to cook sweet curds but I do not have the patience.  You need to know that you will be able to pay full attention to the curd while cooking if you do it in a pan.  Heat the berry juice in the pot on a medium low heat.  Add 300 grams of caster sugar and stir until dissolved.  Beat four room temperature eggs lightly, then temper by adding a spoonful of the berry juice to the eggs and stirring.  Repeat tempering a few times (otherwise you will scramble the eggs when you tip them into the pot).  Slowly add eggs to the pot, stirring constantly.  Add 90 grams of butter and keep stirring.

Bring the heat up slightly to medium, but never enough where the mixture starts bubbling.  When a very thick ribbon forms (this happens quickly) take off the element and pour into sterilised jars.  The mixture should last about two weeks in the fridge.

Recipe inspiration:  From Stephanie Alexander's A Cooks' Companion and Cream Until Fluffy

Blackberry BBQ Sauce

500grams blackberries
4-5 plums
4-5 apricots
1 cup tomato sauce
2 cloves of garlic
Dash of hot sauce (or a finely diced red chili)
Half a cup brown sugar.
1 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper

Put the berries and fruit in a pot and simmer for about thirty minutes (I simmered for nearly an hour, but had dashed to the shop and forgot that I left the pot going, thankfully my husband was still here!  Push the sauce through a sieve to remove berry seeds and fruit stones.  Be aggressive with sieving, keep going until the leftover seeds are a dry thick paste.  Add garlic, tomato sauce, hot sauce and sugar.  Season. Simmer for about twenty minutes for taste.  I found the original mixture too heavy on the vinegar so I added 2 TBSP of the blackberry cordial I made earlier.  You can just add extra sugar if too acidic.  If too sweet you can add more sugar.  Use a stick blender to make sure the garlic is incorporated and then pour into sterilised bottles.