The new season summons up memories of childhood for Maria Broadbent, from CASA in Bury St Edmunds, who recalls the smells and experiences that still influence her culinary choices
I love September – it reminds me of the anticipation of new books and stationery. I think I have always made more resolutions at this time of year than in January. There is a change of smell in the air as the leaves start to turn, mornings become misty and there is dew on the grass. My new ‘exercise book’ this last week has been filled with scribblings and ideas for my new menu – trying to maintain our signature style whilst incorporating seasonal food. Salads packed with tomatoes and cucumbers will make way for roasted root vegetables, rich tagines, halloumi with braised red cabbage and locally-grown oyster mushrooms in tempura batter.
Going ‘home’ always helps my creativity and wandering around my mum’s fruit and veg patch last weekend (she is 82 and still grows loads of stuff!) I felt like a child again. Smell is the most evocative of senses as it does not pass through your brain’s filter (reticular formation) but goes straight to your central cortex. This means a smell can transport you back to your earliest memories.
The smell of the windfall apples, the plums that had ripened and were drooping from the trees, that lovely aroma of tomatoes as you bruise the plant picking these bursting red and yellow fruit. Helping my grandson uproot his first carrot and sniffing that carroty smell – you just don’t get that on shop bought carrots, unless they still have the leafy green bits on them.
I remember helping my grandad sow peas, then I helped to harvest them – rather like picking strawberries, I am not sure that a high percentage ever reached the kitchen. We also used to have to go into the greenhouse when the tomato plants were flowering to tickle them with a feather to help them pollinate – these days I think they have bred tomato plants to do this without human or insect intervention!
My grandad had been a poultry farmer and when I was young he still kept a few chickens. When I stayed at his house we would get up early and make the feed up for the chickens, it was made with warm water and had a sweet cereal smell to it. Whilst we were at the hen house, which had the unpleasant whiff of ammonia, we would rummage in the straw for fresh eggs. We would return via the greenhouse to pick any tomatoes that were ready. My mum used to make bread and she always kept the dripping from the Sunday roast. This dripping had to go through beef and pork to produce the right consistency and taste! Breakfast would then be dripping on bread with tomatoes dipped in salt and, on the lucky days, a boiled egg.
Some foraging memories have mixed emotions – blackberries for example. Negotiating the brambles to ensure the only red on your hands was from the blackberry juice not the blood from the thorns was a challenge. On the other hand, going mushrooming involved avoiding cow-pats in the field. However, coming back with freshly picked mushrooms on a Sunday morning with my dad to the smell of the bacon already cooking was well worth the odd mishap. Although one morning we did get seriously chased by a nursing cow that my dad had failed to spot!
Slicing runner beans and blanching them for the freezer – one bag of these was always earmarked for Christmas lunch – pickling beetroot, prising broad beans from their blankety beds. . . all these tasks were carried out with a deceptive attention to detail. The result of this continuous exposure to freshly grown and prepared food is that I find most processed food abhorrent. Challenging at times for my kitchen team as no short cuts are permitted – but the customers benefit, of course.
FREEZING AND PRESERVING VEGETABLES
Remember any vegetable or fruit with a high water content will not freeze raw and whole successfully. This is because, as we all know (from forgetting that wine/beer in the freezer), that water/liquid expands when it freezes. The expansion actually starts at 4 degrees centigrade. This then expands the cell walls of the cell containing the liquid in the cucumber, tomato, strawberry etc. When the item then defrosts, the structure is lost and you have a mushy tomato or strawberry! So the easy way around this is simply to prepare them and cook them – then freeze. If it is a cucumber or similar then cooking is not really the solution – but pickling is a great alternative. The Scandinavians are particularly competent at all things pickled, fermented and preserved.
In order to preserve vegetables at their best in the freezer it is important to blanch them first. Blanching simply means immersing the vegetable in boiling water to kill off any bacteria, then plunging into iced water to prevent them ‘cooking’.
BLANCHING AND FREEZING RUNNER BEANS
1. Top and tail the beans then peel away any stringy edges. Chop the beans into 2-3cm chunks or slice lengthways.
2. Heat a pan of water until it comes to a rolling boil, then add the prepared runner beans. Boil for 3 mins then drain and transfer the beans to a bowl of ice-cold water.
3. Leave them in the cold water until cooled completely. Then you need to open freeze them, which is a method of freezing the beans out of a bag or container – this stops them from sticking together later. The way to do this is to line a baking sheet with baking parchment then lay all the blanched runner beans out, making sure the pieces or slices aren’t touching. Put the freezer on its coldest setting and freeze until solid.
4. Once the beans are frozen, put them in a bag or freezer box and return to the freezer. Will keep frozen for 3-6 months.
RED TOMATO CHUTNEY
This recipe was how my grandad dealt with his excess of tomatoes, mum took over where he left off and I have made it too. It’s very easy and is best if you can leave it for a year to mature. This is worth buying some tomatoes for if, like me, you don’t have anywhere to grow your own. I’ve left the original weights – most scales will do both – this way you can indulge in a little nostalgia!
2lb ripe tomatoes
1 cooking apple
6 oz sultanas
3 oz stoned dates
3 teaspoons mixed WHOLE spices
1 oz salt
½ pint of vinegar
½ lb brown sugar
Skin the tomatoes by immersing in boiling water to loosen the skins.
Peel and chop the apple.
Wash the sultanas and dates in boiling water before chopping.
Put the spices in to a piece of muslin, cotton or a clean pop sock and tie firmly with string.
Put everything, except the sugar, into a non-corrosive pan .
Bring to a gentle simmer.
Add the sugar – stirring until dissolved.
Simmer for around an hour until it has reduced and everything is soft.
Pour into sterilised jars – ensuring no metal is in contact with the chutney from the lids.
Keep for 3 months minimum before eating (if you can!).
Chutney do’s and don’ts
Use a large pan – stainless steel or enamel, NOT copper, aluminum or cast iron.
Use a long wooden spoon – keep it just for chutney as the pungent flavours will permeate the wood.
Stainless steel or nylon sieve, plus knives and chopping boards, of course.
Muslin or cotton squares (or even clean, old pop socks) to hold the whole spices.
Glass jars, preferably preserving jars with glass lids – but plastic or plastic coated lids are fine. Do NOT use metal lids – the acid in the chutney will corrode them and taint your hard work.
Vinegar canbe any type but it needs to be at least 5 per cent acidity – if the label does not state the acid levels then assume it is below 5 per cent and keep looking!