Mostarda di #Allotment

Glistening in righteous expensiveness in the upper-crust supermarkets, lives Mostarda di Cremona. What we can buy, while still the genuine article, is the lower end of the range. It’s a strange substance, candied fruit preserved ¬†in a mustard syrup. The Real Thing is split by region (there are many Mostardas) and also by specified fruit. You’d choose the one to go with your cheese or cold meat, like we would make a choice between quince or cranberry or mint jelly. It’s as much texture as flavour, some are chopped small and are more like an old English chutney, but I like the ones that look like a box of Newberry Fruits tipped into a bottle of glycerine.

When we were making Courgette and Pineapple jam, I loved the crispness of the courgette pieces in among the clear syrup, and I thought then that I’d have a go at a Courgette Cremona. Starting to research recipes, I discovered what my main problem would be. Authentic Mostardas are flavoured with mustard essential oil, which you can get in Italy but not here. There were compromise versions with dry mustard powder dissolved into the liquid, or spice bags filled with mustard seed boiled up with the fruit, but I was stomping my Ickle Foot of Tantrum. Why can’t I get it here? My Indian cookery books all talk about mustard oil with gay abandon, surely I could find it in Sheffield.

And I did, sort of. Mustard oil IS sold in Indian shops, in with the almond oil and hair tonics. It has “For External Use Only” written on the labels in bright red letters. Apparently under EU regulations it can’t be sold as a foodstuff, as it has a high amount of erucic acid. But they haven’t put anything in it to make it unusable, just a label saying Ooooh, Aren’t You Naughty. There’s a wonderfully tactful explanation on the Spices of India website. I wasn’t sure what the mustardy strength of my massage oil/hair tonic would be compared to this mythical Italian essential oil, so we took it slowly and tasted as we went.

Following the original jam recipe, I put 2 lbs of peeled and degorged courgettes, green and yellow, into a bowl and added about 1.5 lbs of caster sugar. I’d found that to be incredibly sweet when I made it before, so this time I added 2 fl oz lime juice as well. Stirred it up well, and left it overnight. The sugar brings out the juice, crisping up the courgette and also making a clear syrup. The idea is that now you boil the mixture, and it turns into jam. I wanted to stop partway through that process, while there was still plenty of liquid. It took a while to get there, but eventually I had some nicely candied courgette in hot syrup. I added a small tub of glace cherries (rinsed), 4 oz diced peel (not the regular industrial mixed peel, some candied citron, orange and lemon peel strips cut to the same size as the courgette), and simmered that for just a few minutes to meld it all in.

Now came the tricksy bit. The one thing I did know about mustard oil from my reading is that it is pungent in the bottle, but loses that and becomes sweet when you heat it. Fair play, regular made-up mustard does that too. So I didn’t want to heat it too much when mixing it in with the syrup, but I did want to get it emulsified before anything started to caramelise.

I waited until the syrup was warm enough to stick a finger into, and added 1 fl oz mustard oil. It tasted fine, sweet and slightly warming, but not anywhere near a full mustard hit. The mixture didn’t separate, though. Let it cool down a bit more, taste again, add some more oil. Over the course of a couple of hours I added 4 fl oz in total. The syrup is tangy rather than hot, certainly not piccalilli strength. It made a 1-litre jarful, and it looks beautiful. The light colours of the courgettes are set off by the deeper yellows and oranges of the peel, and the scattered bright red of the cherries. I was concerned that the syrup and oil would separate when it cooled thoroughly, but it doesn’t seem to have yet. Which means the mustard oil is slowly finding its way into the fruit …

The traditional Italian time to eat Mostardas is autumn, but I think for UK versions it’ll be Christmas. With ham, with Wensleydale, with cold turkey. Glazing a ham with it, even, or studding the top of a terrine – decorating the top of a warm whole Camembert.

We have a lot of butternut squash coming off the allotment, and I am tempted now to try a cross between candied pumpkin and a mostarda, but using the dry powder variant to see if I can get it stronger.

Preserved Courgettes

So far we’ve got three different kinds of preserved courgettes.

Courgette and Pineapple Jam – yellow courgettes, seeded, peeled and cut up small. Set aside overnight dredged with sugar. It makes a syrup, and next day you boil it up with added tinned pineapple and a bit of lemon juice to help the set. It was very very sweet, I’ve added some lime juice. The fruit is almost crystallised and the jam is very clear. I’m wondering if putting in more glace-type fruit and citrus peel, and adding mustard might make something interesting in the cremona line.

Marrow Mangoes – we did the giant courgette soaked in vinegar and stuffed with spices for 10 days, straining and boiling every day. Now they’re sliced, and bottled with some of the vinegar boiled up with sugar. They’re supposed to sit now for three months.

Courgette Chutney – there was some vinegar left over from the “mangoes”. It went in a pan with some white and some brown sugar, 3 large yellow courgettes, one red and one white onion, two large cored cooking apples, and a handful of sultanas. Fruit and veg chopped fairly small, courgettes and apple unpeeled. The vinegar was sharp rather than warmly spiced – it had sat with fresh ginger, onion and horseradish in it – so I didn’t add spice, but did put in some peeled and finely chopped fresh ginger (a fat piece about 3 inches long) and a good sprinkle of salt. It took a few hours to cook down – I started with a small amount of sugar and added more as we went along until it was the right sweetness and thickening well. It’s got a right punch, which I suspect will only increase as it matures. It’ll make great cheese sandwiches.

Sweet Potato Casserole

I goofed with this, and overbaked it so the topping actually melted down into it and it was swimming in goo. So we had sweet potato in sauce rather than the soft and cludgy bake that I remembered.

The basic idea is to layer cooked, peeled sweet potato with butter and sugary stuff, a bit of salt, maybe some rum, or nutmeg, and bake at about Gas Mark 5 for about half an hour until it's all soft, and top with marshmallow and bake for 10 – 15 minutes more so it gets a sweet crust.

I thought steaming the potatoes to cook them and peeling them afterwards would be easiest, it wasn't! Buying pre-prepared or peeling raw would be best. Don't worry if the cooked flesh loses its colour, cooking it again with the sugar will bring it back.

Next time I'm going to go with the alternative, which is to mash the potatoes with the seasonings, heat that, and flash grill the topping. It'll be easier to control the texture and sweetness.

Maple syrup is a good sweetener, but it creates that bit more liquid than brown sugar. I used salted butter, which I rarely do nowadays, and found I only needed to add a pinch of salt. Definitely a once a year treat, though.

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Speculaas Spiced Nuts

Building on the Wasabi Cashew recipe we've tried before, I've gone with a Christmas version.

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 egg white
  • 3 teaspoons Speculaas spice (Dutch Christmas mixed spice)
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • and mixed nuts, pecans, walnut pieces, and cashews – about 400 grams

Coated, baked at Gas Mark 6 for 7 minutes, turn, and 8 more minutes. Smells gorgeous. Increased the sugar from the original, less salt.

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