Sunday, 30 October 2011

Pumpkin season

I love everything about autumn – that ‘autumn smell’ and crispness in the air, the vibrant colours on the trees, being able to snuggle into a warm sweater and cosy gloves on a cold morning, and – above all – pumpkins. For me, autumns in the UK have a big pumpkin-shaped hole in them, as not even Starbucks sells pumpkin spice coffee, and people give me strange looks when I mention pumpkin pie.

That of course doesn’t stop me making it and many other pumpkin delights. It is possible to buy pumpkins around this time of year (though the standard kind are usually sold as carving pumpkins for Halloween rather than just pumpkins you can use in cooking). So, every year I buy a few, cut/boil/mash them and freeze two-cup portions that I use for breads, cookies, etc. I’ve found one grocery store in this country – a ‘posh’ store – that sells canned pumpkin, which I prefer to use when making pies and cheesecakes.

We did try to grow our own pumpkins this year, but started a little too late in the season, and had to self-pollinate in order to get any fruit. Only one miracle pumpkin made it to the orange stage (shown above).

One advantage to being in a country that tends to use pumpkin in savoury rather than sweet dishes is that I’ve been trying pumpkin more often in things like risottos, casseroles and stir-fries. The pureed portions I freeze are great for stirring into a vegetable risotto, which adds a comforting autumnal taste as well as a bit of colour.

Because it’s usually dark when T and I leave and come home from work, we didn’t realise that a tree in our backyard was slowly turning into this…

...a lovely site to behold as I sip pumpkin spice coffee from the stash I’ve smuggled here from back home. 

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Infused oils

They can look so pretty in a kitchen – rows of coloured bottles of oil, artfully shaped, assembled and positioned to make the room seem like the home of a serious cook who knows how to use them. Infused oils are one of those things that always looks great to buy, but then I see the price and think, “really? I’m sure I could do that myself for a lot cheaper…” and of course, I never do.

Perhaps not as aesthetically pleasing as more
expensive versions, but it's the taste that counts..right?
So, during the few manic hours of packing, cleaning and preparing to fly back to the Motherland for a few days, I naturally decided that was the perfect time to reverse that habit and make my own infused oils. To be fair, I’d already been collecting empty salad dressing bottles for a few weeks, and had bought the bits and pieces I needed earlier that week.

Which brings me to the first thing I found out – you can’t just put any old thing in a bottle of olive oil and walk away happy. Fresh herbs, fresh lemon rind, fresh garlic, fresh chilli…seeing the pattern?...are all forbidden unless you’re happy to keep the oil in the fridge and use it within a week or so at most. Anything that hasn’t been dried will have water in it, which is the perfect breeding ground for bacteria. Even though fresh herbs look so much prettier in the bottle than dried, it’s not a good idea unless you have the fridge space (which means no one can see how pretty it is anyway) and the recipes in mind to use it that week.

I read that dried herbs, etc. take a couple of weeks to infuse properly, but that the risk of bacteria isn’t a problem so you don’t have to use it all right away. It’s still a good idea to keep the oil stored in a cool, dry place, and to make sure it’s not hanging around for months.

Using proportions of 1/4-1/3 herbs, and 3/4-2/3 olive oil, I used:
  • Sundried tomatoes
  • Dried, chopped garlic
  • Dried whole red chillis
  • Peppercorns
  • Dried mix of shitake, oyster and porcini mushrooms (mostly shitake, as I’d read that they’re particularly flavourful)

They’ve been infusing for three weeks now, and I used the garlic one in a moussaka last night. Not really the best recipe to test it on, as there are so many other spices as well, but I’m looking forward to trying the others in stir-fries later on.

On another note, I look with shame on the dates between my last post and this one. Life circumstances have altered somewhat (in a good way!) and meant that blogging time is more difficult to find than before, but that just means cooking and baking are even more of a necessity to step back from a hectic daily schedule. T and I have been trying to add some new recipes to our usual repertoire, and I hope to be sharing some of those soon!