What does the last of the housewives do?

Category: Preserving

Consider the Quince

This time of the year brings forth strange fruit, by which I mean stuff that you can buy at the greengrocer, but can’t immediately eat without putting a bit of elbow grease into it. I often wonder what proportion of it ends up in tastefully arranged fruit bowls in the kitchens of people who live on Instagram? I’m talking about rhubarb. I’m talking about cumquats (if you’re lucky, that might end up in a post next week). But today I’m talking about the noble quince.

It’s a big, knobbly, slightly furry fruit related to apples and pears. Completely inedible in its raw form. Apparently a lot of people make it into quince paste, which they then consume with slabs of Gorgonzola and lavosh and red wine with no regard at all for their waistlines, and why not. But that’s not what I do with it.

I like to poach it and bottle it. It’s very easy, like almost everything I make. It has the added bonus of making your house smell like you live in the Eastern Suburbs and have just put your house on the market so you can buy yourself a small island in the Caribbean and a helicopter. Here’s what you do.

Large saucepan. Four quinces, about a kilo. A cup and a half of white sugar (brown has too strong a taste). Four to five cups of water, plus the juice of a lemon. I also put in three or four small cinnamon sticks (you want it to be fragrant, but not overpowering), and a couple of expired vanilla beans from my homemade vanilla essence. Have I told you about that? Remind me to some time. Actually, it’s not even worth a blog post. Put six to eight vanilla pods in a cheap bottle of vodka and leave it for a year. There, you’re welcome.

You can roughly peel the quinces, or just scrub off the fuzz, I quite like a bit of peel in there. Chop them into whatever you consider to be bitesized. Put all ingredients into the saucepan and simmer for an improbably long amount of time. Hours. Until it’s time to pick up the kids from school. Most other fruit would fall apart, but not these babies. Go and check on it from time to time to be amazed at what’s happening to them. You don’t have to cover the saucepan for some reason either.

That’s after about an hour, hour and a half. They’re not done until they look like this:

They go that colour all by themselves, with nothing added. In that last half hour, I boil up to sterilise some random jars I have lying about, then ladle that good stuff in. I generally have a bit of syrup left over and I bottle that too, and that leads me to a story. My poor mother in law has never quite gotten over the fact that I don’t drink tea, her South African hospitality demands that she offers me a hot beverage upon entering her house, and me not wanting one has thrown her for twenty five years now. She saw me drinking something hot here at home and said “Aha! You do drink something! Please tell me what it is so I can get some and serve it to you”. I felt like quite the tosser telling it was homemade spiced quince syrup in hot water. But it is very good. Try it, it’s kind of reminiscent of mulled wine, probably because of the cinnamon, but leads to a lot less self loathing in the morning. I’d imagine that it would also be delicious with gin, but what wouldn’t be?

What do you do with it then? Whatever you would do with any preserved fruit. Bung it on your porridge. Arrange the jars tastefully on your windowsill next to the word Home, spelled in wooden cutout letters. Actually, if you do do that, you are no longer my friend and you should seriously consider your life choices. I just slap it in a dish and eat it as is for afternoon tea. It’s not as grainy as preserved pear, not as slick as peach, it has its own fragrance apart from the spices too. I love it, and should stock up before quince season is over and I have to go back to eating raw fruit again like some kind of peasant.


Three Litres of Pizza Sauce

Owning a Thermomix, as I do, gives you delusions. Of course I can make that. Strawberry jam for about a thousand Devonshire teas at the school fundraiser? A mere bagatelle. Salted caramel icecream? Give me half an hour. A pair of tights with Middle Earth printed on them? Come on Kath, you know there must have been a Thermomix involved in there somewhere. So when the call goes out for three litres of pizza sauce for the school garden party one doesn’t even hesitate.

I only have the vaguest idea as to what they meant when they asked for three litres of pizza sauce. Clearly the volume is fairly straightforward. I’ve only ever put Leggo’s tomato paste on a pizza. I don’t much like the look of the Approved Thermomix recipe for tomato paste, surprise, surprise, so I thought I’d make something up.

Obviously tomatoes. For tomatoes, there is only one place to go, and that is to Frank. You can actually smell the tomatoes as you walk past his tiny unreconstructed shop. I don’t want the giant ridged ones that you slice and put on a sandwich, though they were a revelation the first time I tried them. They don’t turn your roll to slop. I got some little Romas he had packaged up as they were getting a bit soft and some small round ones that just smelled divine. Frank doesn’t seem to mind me sniffing his produce, or maybe he’s just too polite to say anything. But how can you tell if you don’t breathe them in first?

I thought some red onions might be nice too, sweeter than brown, and the garlic looked good, and some basil. To make a paste you have to get rid of much of the water in the tomatoes, and the suggested recipe involves just boiling them for ages. You know what’s better than boiled tomatoes? Almost anything. I thought I’d roast them instead. Aren’t they beautiful?

Don’t roast the basil, and don’t bother peeling the garlic cloves. I used two garlic cloves and one onion per pan. I drizzled them with balsamic vinegar and the special olive oil I bought from Fernando in Montefioralle. I sprinkled them with salt and a Tuscan salt blend I’d bought from a madly striped macelleria. As it cooked I started to suspect that what was blended with the salt was a whole lot of MSG, mmmmmUmami.

They roasted on and off for about two hours at 140 degrees. Hard to tell, there was a train station pickup and a choir pickup in there too. I didn’t want it to dry out too much. This looked about perfect.

I squeezed the garlic out of their skins, the first time I’ve ever successfully done this. I usually burn it. 140 degrees, give it plenty of time, that’s what I was doing wrong. The whole lot went into the Thermomix to blend, with a dainty covering of fresh basil.

Telling you that it made almost exactly a litre isn’t terribly helpful if I can’t tell you what weight of tomatoes I started with. Maybe a kilo. I will concentrate when making my next two litres and may even remember to tell you.

The consistency was just right and tasted divine. I’m resisting the urge to add sugar and salt, that’s what Leggos would do. There’s something else they’d do, something I hadn’t realised until I made my own. Have a look at the finished product.

It’s not the lighting. It isn’t bright red, it’s more a sunburn colour, sort of orangey brown. It tastes of sunshine and essence of tomato and I’m very proud of it. But no shelf appeal. Luckily it isn’t going on a shelf. And neither are its two friends that I’ll make just as soon as I get myself back up to Frank’s.

Strawberry Jam

You know I love a challenge. A bunch of radical feminists I’m involved with are planning various bits of a fair at the boys school, prior to taking over the world. Baby steps. We’re going to do a cake stall, to which I plan to contribute at least a large amount of biscotti, but also Devonshire teas. “How much cream would you need for twenty dozen scones?” asked our fearless leader. “You know the IGA has cream in two litre jugs? That ought to do it” was the reply. “What about jam?”

What indeed. Once you’ve got a Thermomix it seems that anything is possible. I’ve made marmalade. Strawberry jam shouldn’t be too hard. Frank has strawberries for ten dollars a kilo at the moment, nice ones too, so the time is right to experiment.

Despite all my experience with the Thermomix everyday cookbook, I decide to start with their recipe. Not with a great deal of hope. I have 750 grams of strawberries because some kind of got eaten. I adjust the amounts in the recipe accordingly and put in the zest of one and half lemons, one and a half peeled and quartered lemons, 375 grams of jam setting sugar because I’m nervous and the strawberries. Cook for 35 minutes at 100 degrees on speed 1. And if you do that, you’ll get strawberry sauce.

I cooked and cooked it, probably another thirty minutes at 100 degrees. Then I thought bugger it, and turned the heat up to Varoma temperature. Twenty minutes on that temperature finally gave me something that looked like it might set, given some encouragement in the fridge. But because of all the lemon it had a noticeable tart lemon flavour. And because it was Thermomixed for such a long time it was very smooth.

It is recognisably jam, though if I heat it up and sieve it it would be jelly. Not bad for a first attempt, but I wouldn’t be ladling it onto scones for the local plebeians. I think it will ultimately end up in jam slice, that needs a tart jam.

Today it’s round two. It did stop raining for about twenty minutes, which enabled me to duck out for some chicken to schnitzel for tonight’s complicated evening, some fresh pasta for tomorrow nights complicated evening and another kilo of strawberries. Also a much needed coffee from Rino, you should try it. My research of last night, done while the strawberry sauce was cooking, suggested the jam might be helped along by some green apple.

I put half a green apple, minus core, into the jug and zapped it. Then added half a peeled lemon, the zest of half a lemon, five hundred grams of strawberries (saving some for afternoon tea), one hundred and twenty grams of jam setter sugar because that’s all I had left, and a hundred and thirty grams of caster sugar.

Cooked it at one hundred degrees for thirty five minutes, this time on reverse speed one to see if I could salvage some bits of strawberry. Not with much hope, they’re too soft not to be utterly mangled even by the blades in reverse. Once again, strawberry sauce, but not as tart as yesterday’s. Breathing deeply, put it on for a further fifteen minutes. Lost patience and put it up to Varoma temperature for fifteen minutes. That did it.

You ladle a bit out onto a saucer and see if it’s starting to firm up. If it spreads out in all directions, you keep going. Not a lot of strawberry bits survived, but more than in part A. I do seem to have quite a few lemon pips in there too, I should fish them out before plating up. I bit into one during initial tasting and they’re quite unpleasant.

So I’ll stick with iteration the second, especially if I can figure out how to separate out the lemon pips. I think they need to be in the cooking bit for the setting to occur. Maybe a really large holed sieve. I’m going to fossick around for a bit for a tiny jar so I can send our fearless leader a sample. I can’t be part of an organisation that serves Aldi jam.

Extracting the Essence

“I need some cheap vodka”, I told my husband. “Is it the Horror?” he asked. “Because I can take him to a movie if that would help. After I get home from soccer.”

No, not to put inside me, to make vanilla essence. Although the Horror’s piano teacher is threatening to bring a hip flask to his next lesson, tea just isn’t strong enough for him at the moment. I digress. I don’t know about you, but I get through a metric buttload of vanilla essence and that stuff isn’t cheap. It goes into most of my baking. I think it works as a flavour enhancer, you can’t really taste half a teaspoon in a batch of biscuits, but they’re just tastier for it. Make your own vanilla essence? How hard could it be?

Well, it isn’t hard, but it does take a little forethought because it takes a year. Most methods suggest six months, but I think a year is better. It’s very simple. Buy six vanilla pods, the best you can find. Stick them in a bottle of cheap vodka. I like the vodka because its cheap, tasteless and colourless, so I can see how strong the stuff is. Periodically shake the bottle. I’m sure you can finesse this and maybe shorten the process by heating it, processing the beans in some way, but you can’t beat it for simplicity. You just have to wait.

The one on the right I’m using now. It’s maybe two thirds the strength of bought vanilla essence. I could strengthen it simply by leaving the lid off for a bit and letting some of the alcohol evaporate. Or I could just add a bit more to my baking. It’s still strengthening and I give it a shake every time I use it. The one on the left is one that’s only been going for a month. See, I am capable of planning ahead.

Emboldened by this success, I’ve recently turned my attention to lavender. Over the holidays I suggested the Horror clean out his school bag. It turned out to be a little sticky at the bottom. He handed it to me. “I’d like you to wash this and when you give it back I’d like it to smell like lavender” he said. There’s something compelling about that boy. I found a lavender sachet at the bottom of my sportswear drawer, still a bit scented, and stuck it in the bag as it dried in the sun, giving the desired effect. But it made me think that here’s something that looks very easy to do, given enough lavender plants.

We gave the Horror some lavender plants of his own for his birthday, but I was resigned to waiting until they’d got big enough to harvest some time in the far future. Imagine my delight when, walking home from the Grasshopper with my takeaway coffee, I noticed that my neighbours had evidently spent the weekend trimming their lavender bushes and there were all the trimmings in their green bin, sitting publicly out on the public footpath. Honestly, the things people throw out.

It’s a green bin, there’s nothing wrong at all with scooping out an armful of lavender clippings. It’s the kind of lavender where the scent is in the leaves as well as the flowers. I’m a bit of an expert now, having chatted to the man at the garden centre for a full five minutes.

I have a litre jar that’s been recently emptied of pickled beetroot, so I start packing the leaves and flowers in. I’ve done a bit of googling on extracting, and you can either extract with a solvent, as it may be ethanol, found in large quantities in cheap vodka. Or you can steam distil the stuff, which gives me flashbacks to third year organic chemistry. Off to the bottle shop for cheap vodka then, and it’s worse than buying condoms. Middle aged housewife buys litre bottle of cheap vodka, appears to be wearing homemade fur vest, doesn’t seem to have brushed hair. Aha. “Don’t judge me!” I want to shout. “It’s for the lavender!” As if that would help.

I’ve packed the jar as tightly as I can, and it packs down even further with vodka in it.

It’s a litre jar, and a litre bottle of vodka. Can you see how much vodka is left? Familiar as you are with Archimedes principle, this will tell you that that level is exactly the volume that the lavender is taking up in the jar. So even though it looks like it’s packed very tightly, there’s more vodka in that jar than lavender.

I’m going to leave that on the windowsill for a while. Maybe some months. What’s extracting into the alcohol is scented oils from the plants, and the longer I leave it the more will come out. The theory is that when I filter the bits of plant out, I can leave the jar with the lid off until the alcohol evaporates, I’ll get a concentrated lavender oil. Which I can add to the Horror’s bath to leave him smelling delicious, which will hopefully distract people from noticing that he once again hasn’t washed his knees.

Marmalade Adventure

We don’t eat a great deal of jam in our house. The husband alleges that he likes all kinds of jam. But it’s simply not true, he actually will only eat IXL plum jam, the jam of his youth. So I needed a push to get me to make marmalade, despite having had it on my long list of things to have a go at making for some time. That push came this weekend.

If you have sons and they play any kind of sport that involves weekends and mud, you will have been called upon to provide cut up oranges at half time. This weekend was my turn to provide for the mighty Jedis, and I like to think Frank’s bargain navel oranges propelled them to their two one win. Seriously, a bag of oranges for three dollars. Nice ones too. Of course the Tupperware container came back full of skins and sucked on bits and quite a few untouched segments down the bottom. I’m not going to be fooling anyone into eating those, so it must be marmalade making time! Oh, I rinsed them off first. You don’t want grass in your marmalade.

If it wasn’t for the fact that the official Thermomix cookbook was so very rubbish I’d have less material for this blog, so I’m quite thankful. But the official recipe does very much deceive the novice jam maker. Here’s how it went.

You put a kilo of citrus fruit in the jug. My leftover rinsed orange segments were only 400 grams, so I added a Valencia I had in the fruit bowl, plus a couple of blood oranges and a couple of mandarins to make up the weight. The recipe suggest slicing the fruit finely, giving large circles. What arrant nonsense. You have a Thermomix! You chop the buggers up!

A kilo pretty much filled the jug. Once chopped it took up a lot less room.

I’m also dubious of the next step, which is to add 300 grams of water and cook at 100 degrees for ten minutes on reverse speed soft. With that amount of stuff in the jug, speed soft is just not going to mix it properly. The idea is to soften the peel. I wonder if you need the water at all? Anyway, I went on to the next step, which is to add 800 grams of sugar and cook at 100 degrees for five minutes on reverse speed two, which at least gets the mix moving. This dissolves the sugar, so that step can be left in.

Then you get to the jam making bit. The only useful piece of information in the final paragraph of the recipe is that you do it at Varoma temperature, whatever that is, and you use reverse speed 2. I cooked it for ten minutes, as suggested. I did wander off at one point to talk my husband through picking up movie tickets for WWZ that I’d booked online and wandered back to find a marmalade coated kitchen.

The recipe did warn that it might spit a bit, so put the little clear cup on the lid a little on the side, which I’d done, being a follower of rules. The cup had blown off clear to the other side of the stove. What did contain it was an upturned sieve.

I was fairly sure that it wasn’t cooked, so I gave it another five minutes. The only advice the recipe gave to test for it being cooked was that “it gels when tested”. Well, that’s less than helpful. I know about testing toffee, but toffee is cooked when it gets to a certain temperature. Jam is when the water content is reduced enough and the pectin has been extracted from the skin and seeds enough for it to start to set. Different. And this stuff was very pulpy, so a teaspoon full of it did just sit there, looking a lot like jam.

I decanted it, dear reader, into a litre jar and a half litre jar. Then I paced about a bit, occasionally mopping a bit of marmalade from a wall. It certainly tasted very good. But was it jam? As it cooled I became convinced that it wasn’t. Finally I slopped it back in the jug and set it going again on Varoma temperature at speed two, with the sieve back in place. Unfortunately in the excitement I forgot to put it on reverse, so it’s a bit more chopped up than I’d like. I let it go for twenty minutes. When that was done I had a look at it and I knew I’d got it right. It was shiny. I dropped a teaspoonful on a saucer, and raced to show the Muffet, who hadn’t been interested in a zombie movie. “Look at this!” I said, shoving the saucer under her nose. Then I tilted it to vertical and the blob of jam stayed where it was for a second or two before starting to slide very slowly towards her school blazer which she really shouldn’t have left on the floor. She scooped it up and pronounced it to be delicious, though possibly a little too hot.

It had reduced to being just over a litre of jam. After a night in the fridge it was the perfect consistency (and temperature).

That was fun. Don’t worry, though, I’m not going to top it with a square of gingham tied with rustic string. It spoils the flavour.

Pickled Beetroot

“He’s got twenty eight kilos that he has to get rid of by the end of the day, no questions asked. Can I put you down for a kilo?” Who finds themselves in possession of twenty eight kilos of julienned beetroot, possibly contraband? I’m not sure that I want to know the story, but I love a random ingredient. So I take a kilo.

The only thing you can do with that volume of beetroot, unless you’re on a salad diet, is to pickle it. I’ve never pickled anything in my life before. I know my Nanna used to pickle beetroot, but she used a pressure cooker. The stain left by a thermonuclear temperature jet of death dealing beetroot would still be on her kitchen ceiling if her house hadn’t been demolished by soulless developers. I don’t trust pressure cookers. Or developers. So I’m not doing it that way.

There appears to be the American way of pickling beetroot and the Australian way, so I take a recipe from the ABC Tasmania site and use that. Except because I have julienned beetroot I decide not to cook it. I think it would be great crunchy. First you have to sterilise your jars. I had to get down my second biggest stockpot for that.

I have 700 grams of beetroot as it turns out, so I reduced the recipe I found. Place in a non reactive saucepan 700 mls of white vinegar (I would have used a fancy apple cider vinegar or something, but I wanted to get these babies pickled while they were still fresh off the back of the truck), a scant three quarters of a cup of brown sugar, a bay leaf, half a cinnamon stick, six cloves, ten peppercorns, a bit under a teaspoon of allspice and a teaspoon of salt.

I heated that until it boiled, then covered it and let it simmer for a bit to extract those flavours. Meanwhile I managed to get the jars out of their boiling water bath without burning myself too badly. I packed the beetroot into them using tongs, trying to be all sterile and everything. They filled the jars neatly to the top with a bit of squashing. I let the pickling liquid sit for about quarter of an hour to cool down and infuse a bit more. I got the liquid into the jars using a funnel with a sieve in it.

The liquid wasn’t enough to fill the jars, curses curses. But while poking at the beetroot in frustration I found that it packed down quite a bit more in the warm liquid and there was enough after all, oh me of little faith.

I think you’re supposed to leave it for a couple of weeks alone with its thoughts, to mature and develop and a whole lot of other anthropomorphic stuff. But I couldn’t wait and had a taste today. It tastes like bought beetroot, only sparkly and crunchy and alive. Oh man, it’s good. We might have to have hamburger night very soon. Or it would go so well with rocket and walnuts and a soft feta, or goats cheese, and cracked pepper and a splash of olive oil. Maybe I should have got two kilos. I’d need to go to The Source then and buy some more jars. Oh the horror.