Natural history adventures sailing the culinary seas...

Thursday, 27 January 2011

The Bleak Midwinter

Just as the memory of the icing white valley has faded, it seems right to write about the snow. Winter arrived with a vengeance, blanketing every branch, rock and tangle of vegetation in my garden, and everywhere else, with cold cotton wool. In those frozen days of tumbling pedestrians and plaintive birdsong I decided to follow the advice of some lovely birdy boys (DN, Gareth and PTM) and have an avian baking session. And so the seedy muffins made their appearance.

Everyone loves a seedy muffin...
This highly technical recipe required:

Some wild bird seed
Some suet
A handful of currants

Melt the suet and stir in the seed and currants before dolloping into muffin cases and leaving to set. In some I put a loop of string so they could be hung on branches. Others I left without to break up and leave on the sundial for those who prefer to hop.

In December I spent a long weekend in Brussels, which while providing the Belgian culinary delights of frites, waffles and chocolate breasts (yes, really) did not offer much in the way of natural history diversions. This was until I took a chilly morning walk in one of the parks, where the air was rent with the screeches of Indian Ringnecked Parakeets (Psittacula krameri). I watched several frequent visitors to a cosy looking nesty hole, chuckling to myself as a curious beak emerged from its gloom, while the local joggers gave me a wide berth.

The only green in the trees that day
Back to the Yorkshire chill, and the unusual discoveries one makes as the weather laughs in the face of the memory of summer. We have a tunnel in our garden, which leads to a spring under the hillside. One morning, wandering about in the snow I noticed some interesting icy formations that had popped up along the floor of said tunnel. On closer inspection these phallic sentries were relatives of the stalactites and stalagmites of more adventurous caves. In school geography lessons some people get taught how to remember the different between these as 'Tites hold on tight, and mites might reach the top'. My school teacher had a different phrase, he said all he needed to know was that 'Tights come down'. Ahem.

The festive season called for a festive addition to my crumble repertoire, and this has been the favourite combination of the last couple of months, created on a weekend spent with PTM and Shelby:

Butter or magarine
Demerara sugar
Broken up walnut pieces

3 cooking apples
~ 12-15 dates
A handful of sultanas
~ 1tsp cinnamon
~ 1tsp nutmeg
~ 1/2tsp ginger or mixed spice
Grated rind of 1-2 clementines
Juice of 2 clementines
~ 2 capfuls of dark rum

Preheat oven to 180C/Gas 4.
- I tend to part-cook the fruit before assembling the crumble. Peel and chop your apples and put in a pan with the chopped dates, sultanas, spices, clementine peel and juice. Cook over a low heat for about 15 minutes until the fruit has softened, but not turned to mush. Stir through the rum and transfer to your crumble dish.
- Meanwhile make the topping by combining the flour, oats and cinnamon. Rub in the butter with your fingertips, so it becomes like coarse breadcrumbs. Stir through the sugar and walnuts, adding a little more butter if it seems too dusty. Add the topping to your fruit mixture.
- Cook for about 30-40 minutes. Custard, yoghurt, cream or ice-cream all go well with it. Not that I've tried of course...

Christmas is often a time that my family and I pad ourselves out with copious layers of clothing and venture out onto the hills to see how long we can last before losing feeling in our toes. This year it wasn't long, and I thought the best way to convey the bleakness was probably a picture. Note some Juncus (effusus probably?) in the foreground, it's all the ecology I can muster from this photo.

Wuthering heights... below Stoodley Pike
Impromptu ice sculpture atop Great Rock
On a brighter note, I did receive a wonderful gift from my sister this year, it's what every wannabe ecologist dreams of...

Eco-plaster with Amanita muscaria
A rather retro dessert was the pinnacle of our culinary creativity over New Year, after about 15 years of thinking about it, my sister and I finally made a Baked Alaska. It was hot, and cold, and really really good.

Snowy dome of gooey goodness
To repeat this meringue monstrosity try:

A medium flan case
500ml tub ice cream of your choice
Some frozen raspberries
3 egg whites
175g caster sugar
Some flaked almonds

First prepare the ice cream pyramid.
- Line a pudding bowl with cling film and fill with the ice cream and frozen raspberries, pressing to the edges of the bowl. Turn out the bowl into the flan case and leave to set in the freezer for about three hours.
- When ready to eat, preheat the oven to 220C/Gas 7.
- Whisk the egg whites until stiff, then gradually add the sugar, whisking continuously until it is a thick, glossy meringue.
- To assemble, put the flan case on a lined baking tray and spoon the meringue over the top. Spread so it covers all of the ice cream and case, then sprinkle the almonds over it.
- Bake for 7-8 minutes until browned, then dust with icing sugar and eat immediately.

And now, commence waiting for a verdant spring.

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