Tag Archives: herbs

Scottish Food: Skirlie

Burns Night might have passed, but I’ve got one last Scottish recipe that I would like to share. This one is great, as it is both incredibly tasty, very simple to make and really rather healthy given that the main ingredients is the wonderfood that is oats.

This dish is called skirlie, and I’ve been making it rather a lot recently. You can more or less make it from cupboard and fridge staples, and the taste is definitely a lot more than the sum of its parts.

Skirlie is made from onions that have been browned in butter or olive oil, and then you add some pinhead oatmeal and leave the lot to cook until the oats are slightly toasted. Season to taste. Voila! If you’re trying to imagine the taste, it is something like an onion stuffing (or at least, how a vegetarian might imagine stuffing to taste…). If you’re wondering what pinhead oatmeal is, it is the stuff that looks like little grains of oats, rather than the big, fat flakes. I don’t think there is any reason you could not use rolled oats, but don’t try to use oatmeal or oat flour, as they are too fine.

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I’ve tried to find out more about skirlie, but this seems to be one of those traditional Scottish dishes that doesn’t really have a lot to say for itself. No links to the Jacobites, no links to Robert the Bruce, and not (as far as I’ve seen) a favourite of Queen Victoria during her visits to Balmoral. This just seems to be a good, honest, traditional recipe, and that’s that! If you’ve got any secret knowledge, please do share! What I was able to find out is that skirlie is traditionally made with beef dripping as the fat to brown the onions, so if that’s your thing, you might want to have a go for a more “authentic” flavour. I think butter works well instead, but of course you can go for a completely vegan option by using olive oil.

This really does have the flavour of a very traditional dish, but for its simplicity, it really packs a flavour punch. To make this well, I think there are a few secrets: first, get the onions really cook down slowly until they are nicely browned, which can mean taking the time to get them cook for as long as you can on a very gentle heat. Next, let the oatmeal cook for quite a while, so that you develop some “nuttiness” in there. Finally, get a little creative with the flavours. You’ll need to add some salt, but this also benefits from some black pepper and aromatic herbs. One version I’ve seen uses generous amounts of fresh thyme and lemon zest, which makes this into a very aromatic, fresh-tasting dish.

There is, however, one way in which my version of skirlie really veers away from more traditional recipes. All the versions I was able to find told me to add the oats to the onions, and cook the lot, job done. However, I tried this and found the resulting skirlie to be a bit too dry for my liking. This would be fine if you’re serving it alongside something with a lot of sauce, or plan to mix it into mashed potato for some added flavour and crunch, but on its own, I was not convinced. The answer was simple – just add some water at the end of the cooking time, then keep cooking. It will initially boil up and thicken, looking a bit like porridge (at which point you think “oh no, porridge for dinner!”), but keep cooking and it will dry out a bit, but it will turn fluffy and the oats will be slightly tender. The end result is something with a texture a bit like brown rice.

To serve this, I think it really is best as a side dish, to provide a bit of variety from rice or mashed potato (or as I say – mix it into the potato!). You can also add other vegetables, such as mashed carrot or swede, or even some pan-fried spinach or kale for a properly healthy dish. Yes, it contains butter, but all those oats have to be doing you some good!

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To make Skirlie (serves 4 as a side disk):

• 2 large onions or 6 shallots
• 40g butter
• 3 tablespoons olive oil
• 150g pinhead oatmeal
• 1 lemon, zest only
• aromatic herbs (thyme works well here)
• salt
• freshly ground black pepper
• water

1. Peel the onions/shallots, and roughly chop. As the oats are fairly fine, you want the onions to add some texture.

2. Put the butter and olive oil in a frying pan. Heat until the butter melts, then add the onions/shallots and fry over a medium heat until they have a good brown colour.

3. Add the pinhead oatmeal and lemon zest, plus herbs, salt and pepper to taste. Cook for around 5 minutes, stirring frequently – the oats should start to brown, but should not burn!

4. Optional. Add some water to the mixture – it will thicken initially, but keep cooking until it starts to look try. Try the oatmeal – if you prefer it to be softer, add more water and keep cooking until you get the desired consistency.

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Filed under Recipe, Savoury, Scottish Food

Drink More Gin!

Last autumn I got into making a few of my own fruit liqueurs. Flavours of the season like quince, damson, sloe and spiced pear. Each of them was delicious and well worth the patience required to let them sit and quietly do their thing down in the cellar. Nothing quite as magical as pouring a little glass, and setting down to watch a festive film on the sofa next to the Christmas tree.

However, my autumnal shenanigans left me playing things fairly safely, as I had stuck to familiar fruity flavours. Of course, I had also made a batch of cinnamon-infused vodka, which packed quite a punch, even when served ice-cold, and this got me thinking about making something that was based on herbs and spices. And this quickly led me to the idea of trying to make my own gin.

Now, before anyone gets the idea that I might set fire to my own house or that they should call the police, I’m not actually planning to start running a home distillery under the stairs! No, the recommended approach for those of a gin-like persuasion and sufficiently bonkers to have a go at this at home is to take some decent-ish vodka, and then add various botanicals to allow their flavour to infuse into the alcohol. Given that most of the ingredients you use are fairly strong flavours, the whole thing is done in about three days. What you will get at the end is something that doesn’t look like the clear gin that you are probably used to, but it certainly has the flavours and aromas you might expect. The difference is due to the way commercial gins are produced, allowing the spirit to distil through the botanticals, taking the flavours as it goes and resulting in a clear spirit. My method will give you  bit more of an amber colour, but that probably means it has traces of vitamins in there too.

Now, if you’re going to make gin, the one non-negotiable ingredient in there is juniper berries. These have a wonderfully fruity and almonst pine-like aroma, very resinous, which when you smell them has that specific gin-like aroma. If I were being very ambitious, I would be harvesting these myself, as they grow wild in Scotland. Well, maybe next time, but I had to make do with dried berries from Wholefoods. The bushes tend not to grow wild in the streets of London. Do not be misled by the name London Gin!

Beyond the juniper, you’ve pretty much got complete freedom about what you want to add, and it is at this point that you might just want to raid your spice drawer or cabinet to see what you can get your hands on. The key thing to think about is what are the two or three key notes that you want to come out in terms of flavour, and then major on those, with other ingredients acting more as background flavours, to be hinted at rather than standing centre stage.

As supporting stars, I oped for cardamom, which is just about my favourite spice, with a fresh lemon-like aroma that I thought would enhance the juniper. In addition to that, I added some orange peel (rather than the more obvious lemon or lime) and a blade of star anise. This last spice in particular is very, very powerful. It adds an exotic sweet spicy note, but it really is easy to get this wrong. I added this on day two, and by day three (the last day of infusing) it was already quite noticeable.

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After that, free rein beckons. I also added a teaspoon of coriander seeds to add a little more citrus. I also did just as I suggest you do, raiding the spice drawer to add a pinch of the more aromatic items in there – red peppercorns, nigella seeds and caraway.

I also drew some inspiration from a Spanish gin that I enjoyed in Barcelona last year, which was infused with rosemary. That seemed like a good idea to try here. I also went for some thyme and lavender leaves. It was just like picking tea, I plucked only the fresh new leaves from the tips of each plant. Each of these could, on its own, be very powerful, and I did not want much more than a hint of their respective flavours.

Now, I mentioned already that I added a blade of star anise on day two. I also added a small piece of cinnamon at the same time. Both of these are sweet, woody spices, and I thought they would help to balance the fresher flavours that I already had in the gin. I make all of this sound like science, but of course, it really was all just guesswork.

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It is important to take all this merely as inspiration, and not to feel limited by what I’ve suggested. I enjoy Hendriks, a Scottish gin flavoured with cucumber and rose petals, as well as a recent discovery called Ophir, which strong notes of cardamom and black peppercorn (note to readers – talk to bartenders, they will introduce you to new things!). Whatever herbs and spices you enjoy, chances are someone makes a gin with it.

What is important is to think about what you’ve got to hand as well as what is in season. I’ve also got a blackcurrant sage bush in the garden, which could be interesting for next time? If I get back to this in summer, I can always add a few rose petals, a few violets, and perhaps a little lemon thyme…balanced with pepper, caraway and aniseed?

Whatever combination of botanicals you use, there is one way to get a rough idea of the aroma you can expect. Put everything into a bowl, then crush lightly. This should release some of the essential oils, and you’ll get a very vague sense of what you can expect. If something is dominating, then remove it, or add more of what you feel you are missing.

botanicals

Making home-made gin is a dooddle. I put everything (other than the cinnamon and star anise) into a bottle of vodka. After one day, that familiar aroma of gin was there, and the vodka has taken on a light amber hue. On day four (72 hours steeping) I strained the mixture, poured a shot into a glass with ice and a slice of cucumber, and topped it up with tonic to make what I hoped would taste not unlike a G&T. So how was it?

gin

Well…really quite fantastic. The flavours are much more pronounced than in distilled gins, and I could pick out the various flavours that I used, but the whole was definitely greater than the sum of its parts. The best way to describe this is as something that is very different from the gin that you are used to, not a replacement, but nice as an addition to the drinks cabinet. It is not as crisp, but you get more of the individual flavour components while drinking. I found that my particular gin was only so-so with lemon, nice with orange zest, but it really came to life with a slice of cucumber. Perhaps it was the fact that there was quite a lot of juniper and warm spice in there that meant it was complemented by the cool freshness of cucumber. All in all – I think I’ve had a success with this one!

To infuse your own gin (makes 750ml):

• 750ml good basic vodka
• 3 tablespoons juniper berries
• 1 teaspoon cardamom pods
• 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
• 1 sprig lavender leaves (tips only)
• 4 sprigs fresh rosemary (tips only)
• 4 sprigs fresh thyme (tips only)
• pinch red peppercorns
• pinch caraway seeds
• pinch nigella seeds
• 2 strips orange peel, shredded
• 1 blade star anise
• 1/2cm piece cinnamon

1. Lightly crush the seeds and bruise the leaves. Put everything in the vodka bottle, apart from the cinnamon and star anise. Leave to infuse in a dark place for two days, shaking from time to time.

2. Add the star anise and cinnamon. Shake well, and leave in a dark place for another 24 hours, shaking from time to time.

3. Once the mixture is ready, strain to remove the seeds and herbs. If you prefer, pass through a filter.

4. Enjoy on ice with tonic and a slice of cucumber.

Worth making? Yes! This is super-easy and the flavours are really fantastic.

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Watermelon and Feta Salad

So we’re still in the middle of a heatwave…so today I’ve got a suggestion for a salad that is part tasty feta, olives and herbs, and part refreshing, juicy watermelon. It’s a funny old time of year. The things I usually love to eat – pasty, pastry, curry or warm lentils – are all just too, too heavy to enjoy when it’s hot by day and still warm by night. This has been driving me to try some new ideas, and this classic Greek combination has been part of my attempts to eat well while still also staying cool.

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Most recipes for watermelon and feta salad seem to be fairly simple – just add some dressing and a few black olives, with perhaps a dash of mint. However, I have a garden and windowsill that have really taken off in the heat, so I was able to pick a selection of baby herb leaves to add to the salad which added some aromatic flavour to the dish. Baby basil, rocket micro-leaves, thyme, oregano and parsley. There would have been dill in there too, but my plant had wilted, but I think it would also make a nice addition. The overall effect of deep pink fruit, white feta, black olived and bright green leaves is really quite stunning on the table.

One little tip – I am normally an advocate for taking fruit out of the fridge well ahead of serving to allow it to come up to room temperature – the flavour is so much better. However, in this dish, you really want the watermelon to be chilled, and if it’s ripe, you’ll still be able to enjoy the flavour of sweet melon with the salt of the feta. One of those dishes that sounds strange, shouldn’t work, but does, and works really well!

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To make a Watermelon and Feta salad:

• 1/2 medium watermelon, peeled and cubed
• 1/2 red onion, finely sliced
• 200g feta
• 70g black olives, quartered
• 2 limes, juice only
• 3 tablespoons olive oil
• handful of mint leaves, finely shredded

• 2 handfuls of other herb leaves (depending on what is to hand)

1. Make the dressing – put the lime juice and olive oil in a jam jar. Shake vigorously. Add the red onions and leave to sit for 15 minutes.

2. Put the watermelon in a large serving dish. Add half the mint and half the other herbs, then toss lightly. Add the black olives and crumbled feta, trying to arrange them artfully on top (presentation is all!).

3. Pour the dressing over the salad, then sprinkle over the rest of the mint and the herbs, and serve right away.

Worth making? This salad is super-easy to make and fantastic as part of a casual lunch in the garden. It’s also very more-ish, and oh-so-easy to keep picking at pieces of feta and watermelon.

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Cheese and Herb Scones

Yesterday I had some friends round for afternoon tea. Chocolate tartlets, coconut macaroons, jam tarts, tarte au citron, Victoria sandwich, currant scones and chocolate clusters all magicked up in the morning. While cakes and sweet treats are all well and good, I think it is essential to have some savoury items as well. Otherwise, well, all that sugar gets too much!

I made a selection of the famous cucumber sandwiches, but I also wanted to try my hand at something more substantial. The result was these scones – flavoured with strong cheddar, fresh chives and herbes de Provence, as well as a dash of nutmeg and mustard to complement the cheese.

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These scones are soft and fluffy, and perfect while still warm – split them, and all the cheese is still melted and delicious! They are also an absolute, utter breeze to make. All you have to do is rub some butter into the flour, stir in the cheese and spices, then all some milk, which really makes them ideal if you’ve got unexpected guests or you need something a little special for breakfast. Ten minutes to make, fifteen minutes to bake and a few seconds to devour!

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To make cheese and herb scones (makes 8):

• 225g plain flour
• 2 teaspoons baking powder
• 50g butter
• 75g strong cheddar
• 1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives
• 1 teaspoon dried herbs
• pinch of nutmeg
• 1/4 teaspoon mustard
• 150ml milk

1. Preheat the oven to 220°C (420°F).

2. Put the flour, baking powder and butter into a large bowl. Work with your fingers until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs and there are no lumps of butter. Add the grated cheddar, chives, herbs and nutmeg. Mix well with your hands.

3. In a bowl, mix the milk and mustard. Add to the dry ingredients and stir until just combined – the mixture should hold its shape but still be fairly wet.

4. Put lots of flour onto a kitchen worktop. Turn out the dough and roll lightly. Use a cutter to shape the scones – aim to get eight from the dough.

5. Bake for around 15 minutes until the scones are puffed and golden. Serve while still warm, and best eaten the same day.

Worth making? These scones are amazingly easy to make and taste spectacular. Highly recommended!

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Chickpea and Herb Salad

Summertime…and the living is easy….

…and standing next to the stove is not really appealing. Quick, light and fresh are the words of the moment, so here is a chickpea salad which hopefully ticks all these boxes, and is healthy to boot. So it’s a quick post for a quick dish.

The idea behind this is pretty much based on the ingredients in hummus, but rather than purée the lot, things are just mixed in a bowl, and each ingredient is allowed to shine through. Then just throw in a little spice and some fresh herbs, and you’re done. If you want to jazz things up, add some toasted pine nuts or almonds or a little Parmesan or feta cheese. The recipe can also be made vegan-friendly by skipping the yoghurt.

Easy!

To make chickpea and herb salad:

• 2 x 400g tins of chick peas
• 3 tablespoons lemon juice
• 3 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 tablespoon tahini
• 1 tablespoon natural yoghurt
• ½ teaspoon paprika(*)
• ½ teaspoon ground cumin
• Handful of chopped herbs (chives, basil, mint, oregano…)
• 2 large lettuce leaves, finely shredded

Rinse the chickpeas, pick out any black ones, and leave to drain.

In a bowl, combine the lemon juice, olive oil, tahini, yoghurt, paprika, cumin, salt and pepper and mix well. Taste the sauce and adjust according to your preferences.

Add the chickpeas, 2/3 of the chopped herbs and the shredded lettuce. Toss the salad until everything is coated.

Just before serving, scatter the rest of the chopped herbs over the salad.

Worth making? This is a very easy dish to make either as a main or a side, and can be endlessly adapted depending on what you’ve got in the cupboard.

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