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Eastertime

…and here is what I have been making with those marvellous medlars! Mini spiced medlar ‘buns’ for Easter, with crosses in white chocolate.

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Marvellous Medlars

Last autumn I was lucky enough to be offered a large quantity of medlars and I have of course used them to make medlar cheese.

Medlars are strange fruit indeed. They have been grown in Britain since Roman times and would have been a familiar sight in on a medieval table but are no longer well-known. They are inedible until ‘bletted’: a stage beyond ripening when the flesh becomes brown and mushy. Their appearance at this stage is is quite enough to put many people off trying them, but even before that they resemble nothing so much as a large, brown squashed rosehip. Glamour is not their middle name.

Yet the taste of the fruit is a rare treat. It is sweet, fudgy, earthy, complex and like nothing else I know.  It combines beautifully with spices such as cinnamon and allspice which seem to ’round out’ and enhance the flavour (indeed spice was often used in old recipes). Who knows, perhaps we will ‘rediscover’ this forgotten fruit yet.

 

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Foraging and feasting in North London

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It didn’t actually seem that cold today until we got into Lordship Recreation Ground and were hit by an icy blast whipping across the flattened grass. I started to question the wisdom of early spring foraging walks. Would anybody have turned out for the Urban Harvest event at all?  I should have known better though – we were greeted by a large group of enthusiastic (and warmly-wrapped) people, both regulars and newbies, keen to get out into the Rec and see what leaves could be found to add to the spread planned for later.

Urban Harvest is a group dedicated to finding (and eating, obviously!) free food in North London. Events are informal and free. I am always hugely impressed by the knowledge, generosity and inventiveness of the people who turn up. Anyone can find free food in September; doing the same in the winter months is more challenging!

But find free food we did, even in an urban open space in Tottenham in March. There was salad burnet, sorrel and ribwort plantain growing in the wilder grassy areas, three-cornered leek (a garden escape) in the woodland, dead nettles and cleavers in disturbed ground, hawthorn and brambles at the edge of the woodland. All of these have leaves which can be used raw in salads, although in in the last three cases only when young. Hawthorn tastes of very little but bramble had a flavour surprisingly reminiscent of coconut.

Obviously this was not going to amount to a square meal for 20-odd people (or even 20 odd people – you decide) but back in the warmth of the Hub community centre later on we got to add our finds to the delicious food that Gemma had brought, all made with foraged ingredients.

[PS if you are a beginner it is always best to go out with experienced foragers who can tell you what is safe to eat. Obviously keep away from areas frequented by dogs and wash everything well before eating.]

 

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Mackerel and feta tartlets with membrillo

This is an amalgam of a few things I have been cooking for a while with the added bonus of using membrillo. I saw a recipe from the wonderful Ottolenghi where he used membrillo in a quiche and I realised that the North African themed dishes I had been playing with for a while could be adapted to incorporate fruit cheese in a similar way.

I have making tagines and other dishes using Moroccan spice blends and dates, apricots or figs so substituting membrillo for the fruit made sense. The membrillo is a little sweeter so it is not a direct swap. Below is the adapted recipe which might be a starting off point for someone else to take in their own direction. The combination of strong flavours from the mackerel and feta would cope with some bold spices such as ras-el-hanout or baharat which I do not include in the instructions below but would work really well. The first time I made these I used some fresh mackerel rather than smoked and they tasted great but the smoked adds an extra depth.

The tartlets, as I shall continue calling them, were inspired after visiting our friends’s house in Gillingham a while ago. Bryony made some tartlets using a slice of bread as the container rather than pastry which I thought was fun and saves mucking around with pastry (I never like using pastry). The bread is also slightly lighter than the denser pastry.

I should point out that the mix that goes into the lightly toasted bread cups can be put directly into muffin trays. The egg will bind the ingredients and if you prefer to enjoy the flavours without the bread (or pasty) or have a gluten intolerance then this is worth a go.

Ingredients

To make 12 tartlets

80g Feta
80g Smoked Mackerel fillets
50g membrillo
1 egg
12 medium slices bread
Butter
Olive oil
2 medium leeks
5 medium sized closed cup mushrooms
Fish stock
Black pepper

Method

1. Pre-heat the oven to 160 degrees C

2. Use a rolling pin to flatten a slice of the bread (not the crust)

3. Butter on both sides – used softened butter to avoid damaging the bread

4. Cut the biggest circle you can from the bread. I found a beaker that was the right size and pressed down firmly on the bread to cut the circle

5. Press the circle of bread into a muffin tray mould

6. Once all the slices have been put into the muffin tray cook for about 10 minutes

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7. Chop the leek and mushrooms into small pieces and saute in some olive oil

8. After the leek has softened add a little fish stock and let it reduce down a little so there is little liquid left

9. Dice the feta into small cubes

10. Take the mackerel fillet and remove any bones then cut into small pieces

11. Beat the egg

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12. After the leek and mushroom have cooled add the feta, mackerel and egg. Mix round to combine all the ingredients.

13. Add black pepper to taste

14. When the bread is cooked and out the oven put this mix into each of the now toasted bread cups

15. Cut the membrillo into small cubes and add to the top of the tartlets. You can mix the membrillo in with everything else but I like the look of it when it adorns the top of each tartlet. The membrillo cubes look rather wonderful with their translucence

16. Cook for 15-20 minutes until the top of the mix is browning

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17. Cook for 15-20 minutes until the top of the mix is browning

18. Take out the oven and serve hot or cold. They are wonderful with some rocket, reduced balsamic and roasted tomatoes on the side

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To a “T”

My partner has been puzzling me lately by checking what clothes’ size I take and making oblique references to things arriving in the post. Given that I am super-fussy about what I wear, and that clothes buying between us generally works in the opposite direction, I was intrigued! All the more so when a mystery parcel arrived this morning. And what did I find inside? Fruit Magpie logo T-shirts! Love it. It seems he’s right on board with the business promotion!

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Apple cheese with chilli

A quick internet search reveals a mind-boggling number of recipes for jam. Recipes for fruit cheese, however, are a bit harder to come by. The recipe below is based on one I found for crab apple with chilli which I’ve adapted for cooking apples as a friend had given me some lovely Bramleys from her north London allotment and I was keen to put them to good use. Apple is a great base for other flavours and can be taken in lots of different directions, but this one is a sweet fruit cheese with a lingering heat to it.

Makes 900g-1kg of finished product.

Ingredients:
Approx. 1kg of tart cooking apples = around 700g once cored and peeled
Granulated sugar – 2/3 the weight of the cored and peeled apples i.e. around 465g in this recipe.
Red chilli peppers to taste (I used 2 medium strength ones)
Approx. 2 tbsp lemon juice (the amount you should get from one medium/small lemon)

Equipment:
Pan (as wide as possible – I use a maslin jam-making pan)
Small pan for cooking chilli
Chopping board
Apple peeler
Sharp knife
Stirring spoon/spatula
Food processor or stick blender
Weighing scales
Mould(s) for the finished product
Greaseproof paper for lining the mould (optional)

1. Gather together all the things you need. (Ha – great advice! I invariably forget something and end up scrabbling in the cupboard at just the time it is crucial to watch the pan, but I’m sure you’re better organised!) Line the mould if you wish. Here I have used a loaf tin and put a strip of greaseproof paper at the base to make it easier to get the “cheese” out when it has set. Another way to make it easy to remove is to coat the mould with glycerine, which has the added bonus of giving a super-smooth, glossy finish.

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2. Wash the apples and the chillies

3. There are different ways of doing the next step:

i) The method I used here: If your apples have good pectin levels (which they should have if they are fresh, tart, just ripe or slightly under-ripe) then peel, core and chop them, weigh them and put in the pan with the minimum quantity of water needed to cook them. Simmer gently until tender and fluffy. This might take 15 minutes or so. Blend to a puree (I find a stick blender easiest).

ii) If your apples have slightly lower pectin levels (e.g. they are very ripe or have been in storage for a while) then chop them whole, put in the pan with the minimum quantity of water needed to cook them and simmer gently until cooked. Sieve the pulp to remove the skins, pips and cores and then weigh the resulting fruit pulp. The reason for this is that the skins and cores contain the most pectin which you need for the “cheese” to set.

(By the way, I will talk about pectin and how to work out whether your fruit has enough for a good set in another blog).

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4. Mince the chillies as finely as you can with a sharp knife or food processor. If you wish you can reduce their size further by putting the pieces in a pestle and mortar and crushing. Squeeze the lemon and add the juice, then transfer the lot to a small pan and simmer gently for a few minutes. Leave to rest for a while (you can even do this step first and leave overnight). The reason I do all this is 1) to extract the heat of the chillies into the juice so that it can flavour the whole “cheese” and 2) to make sure that the chilli is soft and does not toughen when the sugar is added. There is probably enough acid in the apples to set the “cheese” without the extra lemon juice – I add it as I find it better balances the sugar, but you could always cook the chillies in water if you prefer a slightly sweeter result.

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5. Weigh the sugar and add to the apple puree you have in your pan. Most recipes call for the apple pulp to be weighed after cooking, but if you do that you won’t know how much of the weight is the cooking water you added. I prefer to weigh the apple after peeling and coring (method i) above) but if you are using method ii) because your apples are low in pectin then yes, you will have to weigh the cooked pulp.

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6. Put the pan on a gentle heat and stir slowly until all the sugar is dissolved. This takes around 10 minutes. Make sure it is dissolved before you turn the heat up as otherwise the sugar may crystallise later on.

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7. Add the chillied lemon juice and as much of the chopped chilli as you wish. Chillies are notorious for varying widely in their heat (nearly as much as people vary in their tolerance of it!) so there is really only one way to do this: experiment! (and remember that the flavour develops with maturing – don’t just taste at the end, taste a couple of weeks or even a month later.) I’ve seen references to sugar ‘killing’ the heat of chilli somewhat – I’ve no idea whether this is true (maybe someone can enlighten me) but I’ve certainly found that the mix can take more chilli than you might expect.

8. Turn the heat right up and bring to a boil. I prefer to cook the “cheese” as quickly as possible to keep as much flavour from the fruit as I can. You can do this with apple as it is quite liquid (whereas some of the other fruit need more gentle treatment) but you will need to stir it continuously to stop it from catching on the bottom of the pan.

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9. Cook and stir until the mixture thickens and darkens. There are several ways to test when the “cheese” is done: you should see the bottom of the pan for a second or two as your spoon draws across it, the mixture should fall slowly and thickly from your spoon and a blob put on a cold plate (taken from and returned to the freezer) should, after a few minutes, set to a gel that can be pushed off the plate in one lump with no softness or stickiness. This stage should take around 15 minutes.

10. Take off the heat and pour into the mould or moulds (work fast as it sets quickly!) Put the mould on a wire rack to cool and cover with greaseproof paper to keep dust-free. I usually leave it at least 24 hours to set thoroughly before I turn it out.

11. You’re done! Turn out and enjoy. It gets even better after maturing for a few weeks.

I’ve made this a few times now, tweaking here and there, and I can say I’m pretty happy with the results now. Let me know how it works for you!

“Perfect texture and glossy exterior. Flavour an excellent balance of fruit and heat. I could not stop eating it.” Vivien Lloyd

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