Blooming marvellous!

MarigoldsIt seems that using flowers in food and cooking has, well, blossomed in the last few years!  That’s not to say there is anything new in the idea though; in fact, flowers have been part of world cuisines for as long as some vegetables and fruit.  They’ve been used in the same way as herbs and spices to complement, enhance, add flavour to food or bring a splash of colour to the plate.  We know that roses were used in both cooking and medicine in Ancient Rome and violets and primroses have been eaten since the Middle Ages.  Flowers were particularly popular additions to salads in the Victorian era.  Saffron has long been used in world cooking to add both flavour and colour to food; just think Spanish paellas, Italian risottos, French bouillabaisses and Indian biryanis. 

Elderflowers

There are severaPimmsl familiar examples in our own food heritage.  Elderflower, used for cordials or wine, is an obvious example but who else remembers putting borage in their Pimms?  With a taste similar to cucumber, the leaves in particular work well in the classic summer drink but the slight peppery taste of the flowers means they have had a culinary use in this country since Medieval times. 

Nasturtiums

Another spicy tasting and versatile plant, the nasturtium was introduced into Europe in about the 18th century and has been used in cooking ever since.  The flowers and leaves are great in salads and the seed pods can be dried, ground and used as an alternative to pepper or soaked in vinegar and used as a substitute for capers (they are sometimes even referred to as ‘poor man’s capers’).  Nasturtium leaves are sometimes used as an interesting alternative to basil in a homemade pesto.          

Edible flowers are so much more than a pretty garnish.  Why not try some of these ideas:

  • Chive flowers look great on a potato salad but like the stems they have a subtle onion flavour that works particularly well with the earthy taste of new potatoes or try using the blossom to flavour a pot of sea salt
  • Use flowers to flavour vinaigrettes or marinades – basil or thyme flowers work well
  • Or try crushing peppery nasturtiums or citrus flavoured marigolds and mixing into softened butterDaylily
  • Daylilies have been eaten in China for centuries.  The flower buds add a lovely crunch to salads or try them sautéed or stir fried with vegetables

Courgette Flowers

Stuffed courgette flowers are popular in Mediterranean cuisines.  Try stuffing them with ricotta and herbs and deep-frying in an airy, light batter

Pink Rose

Rose petals are often used in desserts as their scented flavour works well in sweet recipe (Turkish Delight is an obvious example).  The best tasting roses are, of course, those with the best scent.  Try making rose petal jam or steep the petals in sugar syrup and use to poach strawberries or peaches

  • Infuse cream with chamomile before whipping to add another dimension to desserts, particularly good served with summer berries

LavendLavenderer is another versatile flower in cooking.  The flavour works well in both sweet and savoury dishes.  It is often paired with lemon; try making lavender shortbreads to serve with lemon posset or try roasting with a joint of lamb  

  • Crush pansies or violets and use to flavour buttercream.  Delicious on cup cakes or between layers of a sponge cake

Elderflower Cordial

  • Elderflowers make such a delicious cordial that it is a must-make each year in our kitchen but we also use the flower heads in the same way as rose petals, to flavour poaching syrups and liqueurs
  • We were first introduced to the idea of putting hibiscus flowers in champagne in Australia but jars of the flower buds preserved in syrup and ready to pop into a glass are now widely available in this country
  • Many edible flowers make lovely floral teas.  Calendula, chamomile, rose, rose geranium and hibiscus to name just a few.  Use on their own or combine with fruit or herbs

The flowers included above are probably the ones we use most often in the kitchen but there are many more out there.  We should point out that if you do use flowers in your cooking then make sure they have not been sprayed with pesticides etc. and rinse them well if you have foraged from the wild.  Better still, grow your own then you’ll know what they’ve been exposed to!  There is wealth of information available on edible flowers but remember; never eat a plant that you can’t identify and if you are eating something for the first time, it is perhaps sensible to try a small amount just in case you discover it disagrees with you!    

Enjoy the sun and happy cooking!  

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Food for love

Love, whose month is ever May…           

Shakespeare, Love’s Labour’s Lost

BasilMost people will know that oysters are considered to be one of the top foods when it comes to love but did you know that basil also has claims as an aphrodisiac?

May Day, has traditionally been celebrated as the beginning of summer even though the months of June, July and August are officially thought of as the season.  It’s no wonder that May is the month of love though; it’s an optimistic time of year with the promise of warmer weather, clear skies, thriving crops and blooming flowers just around the corner.  You’ll still find a few Morris Dancers and May Queens adorned with garlands of flowers in some parts of the country but however quaint and innocent it might look, it’s all in honour of one thing, fertility and sex.

Although, scientifically, there is little firm evidence that foods really can act as aphrodisiacs, (beyond a placebo effect that is) claims for certain foods can be traced back to ancient times and these foods are still generally turned to in order to get in the mood for love.  While any truth in the assertions remains yet to be proven these are often things we’d enjoy eating regardless.  We’ve been having a look at some of the well-known and more obscure suggestions and compiled a list of foods you just might want to consider if you are planning a special night in! 

  • We all know that chocolate is purported to be able to give us a little boost and most people would swear that it does.  Popping a piece of chocolate into our mouths usually has a positive effect on our mood so perhaps it can, indirectly, be termed an aphrodisiac.      
  • The English herbalist Nicholas Culpepper wrote in the 1600s that asparagus, stirs up lust in man and woman’ and in 19th century France three courses of the spears were served to bridegrooms the night before their wedding. 
  • It’s no wonder that avocados have an association with sex.  It was the shape of the fruit hanging in pairs on the tree that led to it being known as the ‘testicle tree’ by the Aztecs and also its ban in Spain by Catholic priests. 
  • Chilli peppers contains capsaicin, a chemical which increases circulation and stimulates nerve endings.  Guaranteed to get the blood pumping faster!  
  • We know red wine is a relaxant, contains antioxidants and can help boost blood flow and circulation but is it also an aphrodisiac?  Perhaps this quote sums it up the best; alcohol ‘provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance’! (Shakespeare, Macbeth)   
  • Almonds have been linked to fertility since ancient times.  The aroma of almonds was said to arouse passion, particularly in women.  
  • With links to the Bible, Cleopatra (apparently it was her favourite fruit) and the ancient Greeks, figs have also long been associated with love and fertility.   
  • Trawling through pages on the internet you can find claims that the pomegranate has both aphrodisiac and contraceptive qualities!  Take from that what you will!       
  • As already mentioned, it has been claimed that basil is an aphrodisiac, in particular the smell which is said to increase heart rate and excitement.
  • Other foods said to act as aphrodisiacs include vanilla, banana, honey, watermelon, garlic, red berries, raw meat, gin (or juniper berries but then why not gin?!), puffer fish and turtle eggs.
  • Finally, certain kinds of ants found in China and South America and loaded with energy giving nutrients are also said to be powerful aphrodisiacs but perhaps we’d be happier to accept other people’s word for it…!

Happy cooking (and eating)!

An English pastime

We hope you’re managing to keep warm in this unseasonal weather!  With our new summer menus out we’ve been busy taking bookings for later in the year and trying hard to imagine guests sipping chilled drinks in the sun – not very easy at the moment!  We keep saying it but perhaps we will finally see the turning point this week…

In the meantime, take a look at our latest post about another quintessentially English pastime (besides talking about the weather!) that of taking afternoon tea.

“…there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”

Henry James ‘The Portrait of a Lady’

Afternoon TeaSitting here this afternoon, taking a quick break from the kitchen to leaf through a new food magazine, a cup of tea in hand and the feeling that we could just do with a little something to keep us going until dinner, we started to consider  how the tradition of ‘Afternoon Tea’, delicate little sandwich fingers, slivers of cake, scones etc. washed down with tea sipped from bone china cups, first began.

It’s generally believed that the custom was started in the 1840s by Miss Anna Maria Stanhope, the 7th Duchess of Bedford and a lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria.  It’s said that she found, during the long wait between breakfast/lunch and dinner (not usually eaten until 8 or 9pm), she felt a ‘sinking feeling’ and craved a little something to stave off the hunger pangs until the evening.  She started asking her servants to bring her pots of tea and bread and butter at about 4pm in the afternoon.  This idea developed and she was soon inviting friends to join her for tea in the afternoon.   It wasn’t long before her friends reciprocated with invitations of their own and the ‘tea’ menu became more elaborate and varied.  ‘Afternoon Tea’ was a social occasion for the upper classes (tea was itself an expensive luxury at the time) but particularly for women who were denied access to men’s membership clubs after lunch but were able to receive guests at home.   By the Edwardian period, hotels were offering an ‘Afternoon Tea’ experience often accompanied by music or light entertainment and the custom remained popular until tea rationing was introduced during the Second World War.  Although it could be said that coffee took over as the fashionable hot drink in the later twentieth century, many of us today still enjoy the occasion of a proper ‘Afternoon Tea’.  Read more about the tradition of taking tea in the afternoon here.

Did you know tea is the ‘second most consumed beverage on Earth after water’?

What do you think constitutes the perfect ‘Afternoon Tea’?  Sandwiches of thinly sliced cucumber with a grinding of black pepper, scones with jam and clotted cream, Earl Grey tea, fingers of fruit cake, muffins, crumpets, all served on tired cake stands and bone china?  Click on the link for the recipe for a great, very easy, fruity tea loaf – perfect spread with butter and enjoyed with a cup of tea in the afternoon or at any other time of the day!

Take a look at our new Afternoon Tea Menu Summer 2013 or email info@foodforoccasions.co.uk if you would like to receive our full new Summer 2013 Menus.

Spring forward!

Spring forward!

Time must surely be speeding up; it’s already March and it hardly feels like we’ve had time to adjust to the fact that it’s a new year.  What a start it’s been too; snow drifts, icy winds, lingering coughs and colds, more depressing news about the state of the economy…at least there are a few signs around that spring is just around the corner to give us a little lift! 

Thinking of springtime, new life, renewed energy (we hope!) etc. we’ve been making a few goals for the new season (much better than resolutions which often seem to be about depriving yourself of some of the few pleasures in life!).  They are all food related of course; well, what else would we be talking about?!             

  • Bake more bread – we’ve been making our own bread at home for many years now but we’re interested in trying out some of the alternatives to wheat, particularly as the number of people with intolerances seems to be on the rise.  We’ve already had good results with spelt but have yet to try khorasan wheat.  Although both are closely related to wheat and not gluten-free they are possibly more easily digested and certainly nutritious substitutes.  For gluten-free alternatives we know buckwheat flour makes good blini but it would be good to look into using it in other ways.  Amaranth and quinoa flours are also gluten-free, high-protein possibilities; does anyone have any experience of using them in baking?   
  • A proper cup of coffee in a proper coffee pot – well ok, the coffee pot’s not strictly necessary but we really think we should go to the trouble of making a cup of decent coffee if we want a drink.
    Coffee cups from Couvert, bespoke event hire in Surrey

    Coffee cups from Couvert, bespoke event hire in Surrey

     Trying different types of bean and from different countries for example or a new blend; on this note, there are 2 local roasteries we can recommend: Coffee Real and Beanberry who now roast on demand for the coffee house Pinnock’s in Ripley (the UK’s first drip coffee bar).

  • Buy fresh, buy seasonal, buy local – yes, we’ve said it before but it’s always worth reminding ourselves of it, particularly as the horse meat scandal still persists in the press.  This is in no way an excuse for false labelling but isn’t it true that you get what you pay for?  Anyone who has bought meat from an independent butcher knows this is true and is prepared to fork out a bit more to guarantee the quality of the food we eat.  Buy it local, buy it fresh and from known and trusted sources; what more is there to say?! 
  • Make more time to read and follow other people’s blogs – there are some amazing people, doing amazing things with food out there and the best part is they’re willing to share their ideas with us.  The least we can do is show some support!   
  • Spring clean the pantry – it seems a good time of year to check through our dried goods and have a bit of a clear out, particularly the spices and dried herbs.  Although they might not ‘go off’ in the way fresh produce does, their strength, taste and aroma does deteriorate over time.  We know most dried products should be kept away from heat, moisture and direct sunlight but we’ve been reading recently that chilli powder, paprika etc. are actually best kept in the fridge to maintain their colour (although this advice does seem to come from countries with considerably hotter climates than ours!).      
  • Get out and about – there’s nothing better than finding a hidden gastronomic gem.  A delicatessen, café, farmer’s market, specialist producer, ingredient etc. it’s exciting to discover something new for the first time, only trouble is they don’t stay hidden for long!     

Tell us about your goals for this spring!

 

 

 

What did you find under the tree this year?

Amongst the usual Christmas gifts of socks, gloves and scarves, there were a few culinary treats for us under the tree this year; some attractive bannetons, a sugar thermometer, personalised aprons, some foodie books, a cheese making kit, ceramic measuring spoons, an ice cream maker…  All we need now is a bit of time to play with our new toys!

We also exchanged some homemade gifts with each other (what better to give to people passionate about food?!) including clotted cream fudge, spiced biscuits, peanut brittle, salted caramel truffles, chutneys, curds, bramble gin, limoncello…

It would seem the FFO staff are as busy in their own kitchens as they are here!

A year of celebration!

As we near the end of 2012, we can celebrate what has been, despite the challenges of the financial climate, a great year for FFO. In our 25th anniversary year, we have shown that we are at the top of our game, committed to producing high quality food that is seasonal and stylish but above all full of flavour whilst providing an excellent and bespoke service for our customers.  Here’s hoping we have even more to celebrate in 2013!

We’d like to wish all our customers, suppliers and staff a very Happy New Year!

It’s THAT time of year again!

Over the last couple of months, we’ve been up to our elbows in dried fruit and nuts, spices and an excess of brandy here in the FFO Kitchen as we’ve made preparations for the festive season.  We’re now well into the swing of things; sorting Christmas orders for cakes, puddings, mince pies, meals for those moments when friends and family drop in at short notice, chutneys, pickles, gift hampers… and that’s not to mention the drinks parties, dinners, carol concerts and winter weddings we’re also catering for!  With our new menus out, this time of year is always busy for us but it hasn’t been all work and no play; we’ve also found time to taste test some great new products and ingredients ready for winter entertaining.  There was great excitement in the kitchen last week when a new range of chocolate arrived for us to test in our desserts and this week we’ve put aside an hour or so to try some different coffee and tea blends.

Brandy soaked Christmas pud

Brandy soaked Christmas pud

When it comes to our own Christmases (it still seems a long way off at the moment, many mince pies still to make!) we’re anticipating the usual arguments at home over tradition vs. ‘something different’!  Should we eat turkey or goose on Christmas Day or go for venison, beef or perhaps rabbit this year?  Will it be fish again on Christmas Eve or shall we ring the changes with an Indian or Thai meal?  We’re about half and half in our families for those who’d welcome a bit of variation and those in favour of convention, although everyone seems to agree that whatever is eaten for the main course, there must be a Christmas pudding to follow, even if the alternatives turn out to be more popular!

We’re also about half and half of those in favour of or anti brussels sprouts; there would be outrage from some if they didn’t appear at the Christmas table but for others their absence certainly wouldn’t be missed!  If you are serving them this year, there are countless ways of adding a bit of interest; in the past we’ve shredded them and served with crushed juniper berries, tossed them with broken chestnut pieces, sautéed them with cubes of pancetta, added lemon and thyme or apple and walnut oil…no doubt they’ll appear in a new guise this year!

If you are looking to keep the Christmas flavours classic this year but would like to vary things just a little bit, why not try serving mulled cider (apple or pear) or white wine?  You can use the same spices that you would for mulled red wine (try experimenting with cardamon and star anise) but honey works well instead of sugar and ginger and slices of apple (and some juice) are also good additions.

Don’t forget to look out for those ingredients in season and at their best at this time of year.  Among the highlights:

rabbit, goose, mackerel, apples, pears, celeriac, brussels sprouts, turnips, beetroot, salsify, jerusalem artichokes, leeks, chestnuts, wild mushrooms…

Cordial autumn greetings!

We’ve had a busy summer catering for barbecues, garden parties and weddings etc. and from the Jubilee in June to the Golden Glory in August; it seems there’s been plenty of reasons to celebrate this year!  Although we weren’t able to guarantee the sun (we were caught in a few downpours ourselves over the summer – usually as we were loading or unloading for an event!),  we were able to keep spirits raised by making sure the drinks stayed flowing!

For many, Pimms is the taste of summer! While we certainly mixed a few jugs this year…

…we also stirred things up a little differently!
Click here for our recipe for Limoncello and Mint Lemonade.

Some people might be ready to turn their attention to Christmas but here at ffO we aren’t quite so eager to welcome in the winter just yet (even if the temperature is plummeting and the nights drawing in!).  To remind ourselves that it is still only September, we’ve been getting out to pick the late summer/early autumn fruits around at the moment (during the odd breaks in the rain that is!).

Cordials from left to right: Plum & Cinnamon, Apple & Sloe, Rhubarb & Ginger and Blackberry.

Blackberries, raspberries, plums, damsons, pears, apples and sloes are all in season and a really quick and simple way to savour the taste is by making a fruit cordial.  Basically, cordials are flavoured sugar syrups (this is true in the UK anyway, in America the term is used to describe what we would call a liqueur – in fact both terms have the same origin; the first cordials/liqueurs were alcoholic and used purely for medicinal purposes).  Cordials are usually made with fruit but flowers, spices, herbs etc. can also be used for a twist on a basic fruit flavour; plum and cinnamon, blackcurrant and vanilla, lemon balm and mint, apple and rose, rhubarb and geranium, the flavour combinations are endless…!

Making cordials is not an exact science; quantities can be tweaked, the syrup sweetened to suit personal taste and the fruit, spices, herbs etc. blended to creat the perfect fruit cocktail!  Delicious mixed with sparkling water; they are a fantastic non-alcoholic alternative to offer guests (of course there’s also nothing stopping you from adding them to a glass of prosecco or sparkling wine!).

First, we made a sugar syrup (equal quantities of sugar and water brought to the boil and then simmered until the sugar had completely dissolved) which was then used as the base for each of our cordials.  In some cordial recipes, the fruit, water and sugar are all heated together but by making the sugar syrup separately we were able to control and fine tune the amount of sweetness for each flavour. The fruit (and other flavourings) were then gently cooked until soft and the juice dripped through a muslin cloth before being added to some of the sugar syrup (with some, more delicate, herbs/flowers etc. it is better to add them at this stage and allow their flavour to infuse the cordial rather than heat them with the fruit).  The cordials will keep well in a fridge for a couple of weeks but we find it better to freeze them in small amounts and then use as wanted (you could even freeze as ice cubes).

We’ll be looking out for rose hips to make into cordial this autumn.  Choose hips that are firm and bright in colour and ideally pick them after the first frost for the best flavour.  Or why not use elderberries for another Vitamin C rich cordial (we’re told elderberry and clove is a good combination to try…).

Finally, a quick plug for a great range of cordials available to buy if you’re not into making your own!  We tried these fruit cordials on a quick trip to Norfolk this summer.  Handmade and using only natural ingredients, the flavours in these cordials are beautifully balanced and taste clean and refreshing.  It was difficult to pick a favourite but we particularly liked the ‘Red Gooseberry and Wild Elderflower’.  We notice from their website that the cordials can be found in ‘The Larder’ in Cobham and also now in Fortnum and Mason!  http://www.norfolkcordial.com/index.html

A taste of the season!

We’re still in time for a couple of highlights of the late spring/early summer growing season and two firm favourites with the ffO team.

Asparagus spears!

Asparagus has always been a prized ingredient mostly because it’s in season for such a short time in the year.  Coveted by the Romans, the spears usually make an appearance in early May and for around eight weeks they are pared and trimmed, steamed and grilled and enjoyed by people all over the country (here we’re talking about the green variety rather than the white that is favoured on the continent).  This year, the prolonged wet weather earlier in the season meant that the asparagus has been a bit later in making a show but that does mean we’ve still got time to savour the taste!  (The heavy rain has had another, rather unfortunate, effect on the crop, kicking sand and grit up into the tips resulting in the need for lots of rinsing…sigh!)           

Here in the ffO Kitchen we use asparagus in many different ways across our menus but at home we think British asparagus should be enjoyed simply; lightly steamed and then drizzled with melted butter and seasoned with salt and black pepper.  We might also char grill a few spears on the barbecue (if we get a break between showers!) and serve drizzled with olive oil and shavings of pecorino.    

Rhubarb & Ginger Ice Cream

Another favourite of ours, (although a bit like Marmite for some!) and in season for a bit longer than asparagus (hurrah!) is rhubarb.  Some of you might have been enjoying forced rhubarb for some time already this year but field grown rhubarb is being harvested now and should be available for the next couple of months.  For some, forced rhubarb is superior with its tender stems and delicate flavour.  Field rhubarb generally has a more robust texture and taste and often needs more sugar to counter the acidity.  To be honest though, we really can’t get enough of either so the longer the season the better in our mind! 

We always make a few batches of rhubarb and ginger ice-cream at this time of year, experimenting with quantities of sugar, ginger and ginger syrup to get the perfect result!  Remember; when making ice cream some of the flavour is ‘lost’ in the freezing so make sure you achieve a good strong taste before you turn it to ice!  We start with a custard base and add puréed rhubarb and small chunks of stem ginger and extra syrup to taste before churning in an ice cream maker.  Delicious!

Incidentally, experimenting with ice cream flavours is not a new trend.  According to food historian Jeri Quinzio, we’ve been trying different ingredient combination since the 17th and 18th centuries, including brown or rye bread, cheese, rose petals, foie gras and… asparagus!  (Jeri Quinzio in the essay ‘Asparagus Ice Cream, Anyone?’ from the Spring 2002 edition of Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, Vol.2 No.2)  http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/gfc.2002.2.2.63

What’s good to cook and eat now.

Among other ingredients in season and at their best at this time of year, look out for the following over the next few weeks: 

  • Asparagus (cook and eat it as soon as you can after buying but watch out for gritty tips after all the rain!)
  • Rhubarb (ice cream, crumble, compote, fool, stewed, with custard… also excellent with oily fish such as mackerel, don’t just think desserts!)
  • New Potatoes (particularly Jersey Royals)
  • Wild Nettles (pick and cook when young as they will be tender and less bitter than older plants)
  • Herbs & Salad Leaves (particularly Chervil, Parsley, Chives, Mint, Chicory, Rocket & Sorrel)
  • Elderflowers (around and ready to pick now for cordials and fritters!)

So, what was on the menu 25 years ago?

So, what was on the menu 25 years ago?

When we first started cooking in the 1980s, Mediterranean flavours were all the rage: sundried tomatoes, olives and olive oil, antipasti, pesto, hummus etc.  Pasta, in all its different forms and varieties was widely popular and pizza restaurants were well established and well frequented (as they are today of course, though this was before eating carbohydrate heavy meals had become frowned upon!).

There was also great enthusiasm for microwave and ready meals, fast food and take away, instant and convenient, packets, packaging and generally all that was over processed and over produced.  Well, just because something’s popular…!   

In restaurants, French influences prevailed.  Reductions and emulsions, glazes and purées spattered the menu and in the nouvelle cuisine fashion, greater attention was being paid to aesthetics although, sadly, this was sometimes over taste.     

Today, you are more likely to see gels, jellies, foams, alginate pearls and other chemistry wizardry on the menu.  There are new ingredients and old or forgotten ones to taste and a greater concern for sustainability and fresh, local and seasonal produce.  

A First Course from our 2012 Spring/Summer Menu

For nostalgia’s sake, we thought we’d hunt out a recipe from our early cooking days to share with you.  Some ingredient combinations really do stand the test of time! 

(Click on either picture below to take you to the recipe).

An old favourite…

Happy Cooking!