Forage a feast!

It’s been a very busy and eventful summer for us both in and out of the kitchen. We were honoured to be part of several fabulous garden parties and some simply stunning weddings this year which were, for the most part, celebrated in glorious sunshine.

However, autumn is now upon us. With hazy mornings and distinctly chilly evenings, the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ has well and truly arrived. It has become extremely trendy to get out and about to take advantage of this fruitfulness; foraging along hedgerows, in meadows, woodland and parks. Foraging is not, of course, a new phenomenon; we’ve been gathering wild food as long as we’ve been eating and it wasn’t that long ago that it was part of day-to-day life in this country. There is food to be foraged all through the year but at this time, nature’s harvest does seem particularly plentiful.

Fruit and berries, leaves, nuts, fungi, are all available for the picking during autumn. Many have medicinal properties and were traditionally sought out as ‘food supplements’ and preserved in order to improve a limited diet during the winter months. Rose hips, for example, are known for their high vitamin C content and were commercially gathered during the Second World War as citrus fruit was hard to come by.

Food in the hedgerows

Rose hips…

...and blackberries

…and blackberries

Foraging for mushrooms has become so popular in recent years that there are fears that it might lead to varieties being wiped out in places like the New Forest and Epping Forest so the message is to forage responsibly and sustainably. Pick only what you are going to use; remember animals and birds often rely on these foods for their survival. Be absolutely clear about what you are picking; carefully identify and double check, particularly when it comes to mushrooms and if in doubt, leave well alone! There are several deadly mushrooms in this country and several others that will make you very ill.

Wild mushrooms

Wild mushrooms

Below, we’ve listed some of the top foods to forage at this time of year with suggestions of how they can be used. There are countless other examples of wild food available for the taking but thinking gastronomically, it is worth remembering that the only reasons for using an ingredient is because it enhances your dish and tastes good. Just because it’s foraged doesn’t necessarily mean it should be served up for dinner!

Top foods to forage at this time of year:

  • Crab apples – high in pectin so ideal for jam or jelly and particularly useful paired with low pectin fruit/berries. Use as you would apple and purée, juice or stew the fruit, remembering they are usually very tart and you will probably need to add more sugar or honey. Make chutney ready for Christmas or try poaching the apples (with their stems still attached) in sweet wine and spices to serve with a creamy cheese as a first course.

  • Rowan berries – traditionally used with crab apples to make a jelly (it is low in pectin so crab apples are a good partner) but also used as a sauce for game (they have a slight bitter taste which works well with rich meats) or in a fruit or tea loaf. Like other berries, rowan berries are apparently sweeter when gathered after a sharp frost.

  • Rose hips – Traditionally cooked with sugar and strained through a muslin to make syrup, cordial or jelly, rose hips are very high in vitamin C and A. Rose hip syrup is delicious poured over pancakes and ice cream or pour a little into a glass of chilled Prosecco. Also try making rose hip vinegar.

  • Blackberries – one of the best known wild hedgerow food. Bramble jelly is a firm favourite at FFO for an autumn cream tea and who doesn’t like a blackberry and apple crumble or pie? Blackberries are also delicious pickled and served with cheese or try making a sweet, rich liqueur to enjoy at Christmas, if you can wait that long!

  • Sloes – another hedgerow favourite and packed into bottles of gin by enthusiasts all over the country! Also try making sloe and apple jelly.

    Sloe Gin

    Sloe Gin

  • Damsons/Bullaces – both types of plum make very good jams, fruit cheeses and tarts or make a sweet damson vodka liqueur as an alternative to sloe gin.

  • Elderberries – elderberry vinegar or wine are popular uses for these black, jewel-like berries. Elderberry jelly is an excellent accompaniment to venison. Remember elderberries must be cooked before they are eaten as they are poisonous raw.

  • Wild Garlic – can be harvested throughout the year. Use the leaves in a stir-fry or salad or to add flavour to winter soups or stews.

  • Mushrooms – September and October are key months for picking mushrooms. Always cut mushrooms at the base rather than pulling them out of the ground, this way the mycelium won’t be damaged and the mushroom will be able to regenerate.

  • Seaweeds – use to accompany fish dishes, in stir-fries or in risottos. Don’t take the whole plant when harvesting, leave something to grow back!

  • Nuts – a rich source of protein and energy. Delicious roasted, use as the base for a vegetarian bake or tossed into a stir-fry. Soak, pulse with a little water and press through a muslin to make a dairy-free ‘milk’ or extract the oil to use for frying and dressings. In particular, look out for sweet chestnuts, cobnuts and beechnuts.

Happy picking!

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Summer cooking with children

Summer Fruit

Summer Fruit

With a couple of weeks of the long holiday still to go, perhaps you’re looking for a few more ideas of things to do with the children this summer?!  Spending time in the kitchen might not be your first thought in the hot weather but cooking is an exciting and rewarding activity for children and you can certainly enjoy eating the delicious food you make with them outside in the sunshine even if the cooking is done inside.Many of us will remember cooking as a child with a parent or grandparent.  I have fond memories of baking with my mother or, if I’m totally honest, of licking the spoon and dipping my finger in the cake mixture but I did also learn key basic baking skills and started a life-long passion for cooking.

Although it would be true to say that cooking with children requires time and patience and there will inevitably be extra clearing-up and cleaning to consider, the rewards are well worth the effort.  It is well-documented that when children are involved in the preparation and cooking of food, they are more likely to eat it.  With today’s concerns about children’s nutrition it is now more important than ever to get them interested in trying healthy foods and children who learn to cook and eat well are also more likely to eat healthily as adults.  All in all cooking with your children is quality time spent together on a fun, hands-on, creative and ultimately valuable activity. 

It’s worth remembering that the whole process is a learning experience for children.  From the planning, shopping, weighing-out and preparation of ingredients to following a method, cooking techniques and skills, food hygiene and information about food sources and production, not to mention the tasting, the learning opportunities are plentiful.  Even children under the age of five can help with many of the activities; there is never a too young to get involved in the kitchen and of course never a too young to help with the clearing up! 

With the abundance of fresh vegetables, salad and fruit at this time of year, the summer is an ideal time to get children involved in the kitchen.  We’ve put together some seasonal recipes for you to make with your children or grandchildren this month. 

Encourage your children to eat more fruit by making these non-alcoholic cocktails with them.  Children will enjoy using the blender (under supervision of course!) and the idea of mixing up a ‘cocktail’ is sure to appeal!    

Shaken or stirred!

Children will also love making berry fruit jellies as they can be creative about choosing their own combination of fruit and layering it before pouring over the jelly and allowing it to set.  You can use a packet of jelly or try making your own using fruit juice and leaf gelatine.  For younger children, try making fruit kebabs allowing your child to come up with different combinations and sequences with the fruit.  For a little luxury, these could be served with a chocolate dipping sauce (white chocolate is particularly popular with children).  Fruit smoothies or fruit juice frozen in lolly moulds is a great treat when the weather is hot or try making a fruit sorbet, a winner with children and adults alike.   

Jelly & Sorbet!

Need an idea for a picnic or a tasty snack to take on a day out in the holidays?  Why not get your children to make these cereal bars for the family?  

Making burgers to cook on the barbecue in the summer is another great idea whatever your age.  Home-made burgers taste so much better than shop-bought ones and are really very simple to make.  The seasoning and additional flavours in this recipe can be adapted to suit individual tastes.

I remember making this lemon pudding as a child and we ate it both warm in the winter with pouring cream and cold in the summer with fresh berries.  It might not be particularly healthy but it does involve many cooking techniques for children to begin to get to grips with!

No cook cheesecake is another great idea to make with children.  To make the base, ask children to crush biscuits (place into a freezer bag, seal and encourage them to crush enthusiastically with a rolling pin!) and then help them to stir the biscuit crumbs into melted butter (the butter could be melted in the microwave rather than the hob if wanted).  Press down firmly in the tin before adding a creamy cheesecake topping.

Happy cooking!

Next month: Tips on which drinks to serve at a late summer party.