Chris's Weblog – City Chickens


Herbs and Spices 3 – Cumin – Cuminum Cyminum

This morning the postman bought me a parcel of twelve packets of seeds, ordered from my favourite supplier of the moment, Seekay. Amongst them was a packet of Cumin seeds. Another new spice to me and one I intend to learn how to grow and cook with. This is number three of my posts about herbs and spices. I am sowing a few of these this month in moist compost and sealing in a polythene bag. Germination should take up to 14 days. These seeds went in on 24th February and today, 10th March, after 14 days, six very spindly seedling are through. I have moved them on to the window ledge but think they may need more light than nature is giving to us at the moment.

Sow the seeds in April – May where they are to flower or indoors from February. For Apr / May sowings sow the seed where they are to flower 10 mm deep. Keep the soil moist but not waterlogged. Germination should occur within 10 -14 days. Thin out once the plants are large enough to handle. Harvest the seeds after flowering. Seekay

Number 3 – Cumin

Cumin is an aromatic spice native to eastern Mediteranean countries and Upper Egypt. This warm, flavoursome and slightly bitter spice derives from the seed of the Cumin plant and is traditionally added to curries, Mexican dishes and Moroccan lamb dishes. White cumin seeds are the most commonly available variety whilst black cumin seeds are slightly smaller and sweeter in flavour. The aromatic seeds are the part of the plant that is utilised. Cumin seeds are brown, oblong-shaped and are ground to make cumin powder. Seeds may be used both whole and ground. 

Every time spices are added to a dish they boost nutritional content without adding calories. Cumin is appreciated not only for its versatility but also because of its many health benefits. Thought to be the second most popular spice next to black pepper, cumin is harvested from an herbaceous member of the Apiaceae or Umbelliferae family, which includes parsley and fennel.

Cumin is highly valued in different cuisines. Mexicans, Indians and North Africans love using it to add color and flavor to their dishes. Cumin is also a primary component of curry powder. Cumin adds a nutty and peppery flavor. Cumin seeds strong flavor adds a warm perception on your taste buds, mainly due to the essential oils they contain. Dry frying cumin before grinding it brings out its flavour and softens its very spicy punch. Heat a frying pan, do not add oil, and add cumin seeds and toss until they expel a warm, rich aroma. Leave seeds to cool slightly, then grind and add to curry mixtures, soups and stews.

Cumin’s uses as a culinary spice have been well known ever since the ancient times but there are other uses for it too. Ancient Egyptians used cumin to mummify pharaohs, while in the Bible, it was mentioned that the spice was given to priests as tithes. Cumin even became a symbol of love and fidelity. Guests attending a wedding carried cumin in their pockets while wives sent their soldier husbands off to war with cumin bread.

The most popular use for cumin is as a seasoning or condiment adding a deep flavor to various recipes. This spice is a mainstay in curries and rice dishes. Cumin powder can be used in sauces and soups, rubbed on meats prior to grilling or roasting or for pickling. Cumin seeds are best gently toasted or roasted before adding to dishes. Grind the seeds when you’re ready to use them to keep its fragrance and flavor intact. Remember that ground cumin is spicy and peppery so don’t use excessively. If you have the seeds on hand make your own cumin powder by grinding them with a mortar and pestle.

Sowing the Seeds

Cumin doesn’t transplant well so start the seeds in 7″ deep pots. Using seed compost sow three seeds about 1/4″ deep in each pot. Place each container in a plastic bag to preserve moisture. Cumin seeds need heat to germinate. Check pots daily to aerate them and check soil moisture. Cumin can take 7-14 days to germinate.

After Germination 

The moment the seeds sprout they need light. Without enough light the seedlings can become leggy. After removing the pots from the plastic bags place them on a sunny window ledge and rotate them periodically so the seedlings grow upright and don’t have to reach for light. Alternatively suspend a daylight 40 watt bulb about 6″ above the pots. Keep the lamps on for 16 hours a day and move them up as the seedlings grow so they’re always 6 inches above the pots. Thin the seedlings to one strong seedling in each pot and continue growing the plants indoors. If you want to transplant them outside wait until after the frost when the plants are about 2″ tall and the temperature is at least 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Plant 1′ apart in a sunny area of the garden with well-drained, fertile soil. Although cumin is tolerant to drought it benefits from moderate water during dry, hot spells.

Herbs and Spices 2 – Garlic – Allium Sativum

Number Two – Garlic

Technically Garlic is neither a herb nor a spice but is a species in the onion genus, Allium. Its close relatives include the onion, shallot, leek, chive, and Chinese onion. Garlic is native to Central Asia and northeastern Iran and has long been a common seasoning worldwide with a history of several thousand years of human consumption and use. It was used by ancient Egyptians and has been used both as a food flavoring and as a traditional medicine.

There are many varieties and they differ in size, pungency and colour. The most widely used European variety has a white/grey papery skin and pinkish-grey cloves and is grown in southern France. The bulbs found on sale are actually dried though we tend to consider them fresh. Garlic is one of the world’s most valued ingredients, synonymous with so many cuisines that most kitchens would be bare without it. Not only does is have an irresistible flavour, it also has amazing healing powers. Consuming just one clove a day will not only top up your body’s supplies of vital vitamins and minerals, but also help maintain a healthy heart and help the body fight off infection. Well, I’m sold on this popular ingredient and intend to grow and cook with it much more in future. I have found an excellent book called  ‘The Goodness Of Garlic’ by Natasha Edwards so I am looking forward to learning more. Natasha Edwards grew up surrounded by garlic on the world renowned garlic farm on the Isle of Wight run by her father, Colin Boswell, and she draws on her own knowledge and experience of cooking, eating and using garlic as a remedy. She is the co-author of The Garlic Farm Cookbook and author of Garlic: The Mighty Bulb.


Some varieties of garlic are best planted as sets in autumn to be harvested in early to mid-summer the following year. It’s a crop easy to grow from sets and rising in popularity all the time to use in the kitchen and to grow in vegetable plots. Garlic is propagated by planting cloves or using bulbils. Save some of your crop for planting next season. Propagating garlic using bulbils can be much more effective than planting cloves. There are many more bulbils than cloves, making it easier to build up your planting stock. And since bulbils don’t touch the ground, you have a lower incidence of soil-borne diseases. Plant them just like you would plant cloves

Although the ideal planting time is November you can plant as late as April and at this warmer time of year you could try planting up any spare cloves left over from supermarket bought garlic. Start by dividing the cloves of garlic from the bulb and plant the largest and healthiest. The wild ancestors of modern day garlic would have originated from the mountainous regions of Asia and are programmed to search deeply for water. Fill a deep pot with seed compost. Plant one clove per pot in an upright position no more than 1½ ” below the soil surface. Water well and place outside in a sunny position out of the way of cold winds. From early June onwards begin feeding with a general purpose plant food every two weeks. The garlic should be ready for harvesting any time between August and September depending on weather and variety.Once dried these bulbs should keep in good condition for 3-4 months.

Garlic has many culinary uses. The cloves are separated, peeled and then used whole, chopped or crushed. The easiest way to crush garlic is to place a clove on a board and, using the flat side of a small knife, press down firmly until you have squashed it to a pulp. Sprinkle a little salt on the clove to help the knife grip. Garlic crushers are fine but some say that crushing the garlic this way gives it a bitter taste. The more finely the garlic is crushed the stronger it will taste in the dish but slow oven baking tends to mellow the flavour. By baking the garlic it softens the sharpness of the flavour and brings out it’s sweetness.

You can’t beat the simple flavour of garlic, thyme and salt and pepper on a good quality rib of beef. The juices make a fantastic gravy. Garlic bread is another popular way to use this versatile food.


Herbs and Spices 1 – Star Anise – Illicium Verum

I have never used herbs and spices in my cooking and indeed admit to very little knowledge of them apart from the Sage and Onion, Mint Sauce, Salt and Pepper etcetera that are in every British kitchen cupboard. I have recently taken an interest and want to expand my use of them in my cooking. I have decided therefore to do a small series of posts as I think I learn and remember better when I write things down. Today I have made a rice pudding and to add a little spice have floated a star anise on top. It must be discarded before serving.

Number One – Star Anise

Star anise is a seed pod shaped like an eight-pointed star and contains seeds with an aniseed flavour which comes from the spice’s essential oil.  It is used widely in Chinese cooking and is one of the five spices in Chinese five-spice powder. Star Anise has been made in to a tea and taken as a remedy for rheumatism. The seeds are sometimes chewed after meals to aid digestion.  Like anise, star anise is an anti-flatulent and can be used as a diuretic.  The taste imparted is aniseed or liquorice and can be used when poaching fruit. By itself whole star anise is frequently used to sweeten soups and meat stews in other types of cuisines. One or two pieces are usually enough to flavor a large bowl as the taste can be overpowering. If you plan to use it as a spice rub, powdered or ground star anise is more practical. The spice is also commonly used in breads, pastries and other types of desserts because of its particular sweetness. Pudding, strudels and custards are some of the preparations where star anise can be used to add a unique flavor. Spice up a rice pudding by adding a couple of stars to a simmering pot and discarding before serving.

Star Anise provides us with vitamins and minerals including Vitamin C, Vitamin A, Calcium and Phosphorous. It also provides moderate amounts of various B-complex vitamins. This versatile spice also helps ease digestion.

Illiciums first evolved in the Cretaceous period around 100 million years ago while dinosaurs still roamed the earth. They are a group of around 30 species of small trees and shrubs from North America, the Caribbean and Asia. Illiciums may not be instantly recognisable by their botanical name but will be recognised as the spice Star Anise which  is the seed pod of Illicium verum. The spice commonly called Star Anise or Badiam that closely resembles aniseed in flavor is obtained from the star-shaped seed pod of the fruit of Illicium verum which are harvested just before ripening. Star anise oil is a highly fragrant oil used in cooking, perfumery, soaps, toothpastes, mouthwashes, and skin creams. 



Aicok Juicer

I have recently treated myself to a juicer. Initially it was to use up all the frozen berries that had accumulated in the freezer because I hadn’t been making jam. However, I am now very keen to try to consume a daily smoothie having read about the health benefits. Apparently its not just fruit that can be used up by juicing but vegetables too. My Aicok Juicer is small and was relatively cheap and is the centrifugal type.

There are two main types of juicer, centrifugal, the most popular and the cheapest and masticating cold press or slow juicers.  Centrifugal machines shred ingredients with their toothed blades on the bottom of a spinning sieve with a force that separates the juice from the pulp. They often have two speeds for hard or soft fruits and veg while pricier ones sometimes enable you to juice particularly soft fruits like berries. Centrifugal juicers generally tend to be smaller than masticating ones and work quickly. Some don’t even require you to chop fruit and veg up first. Masticating or cold press machines crush fruit and veg using slowly rotating augers that press out the juice through a punctured screen. There’s little they can’t juice but be warned, they are slower and often trickier to clean.

The next step is to discover which fruit and vegetables mix well together and which ones taste good. It seems obvious to me that any fruit and veg are healthy but not all go well together. The first experiment was made from what was available in the kitchen on that day. I had two bananas, half a pineapple and a few grapes plus a couple of scoops of Greek yoghurt and a good spoon of honey. This first try taught me something. I put everything that I was using in together through the little funnel to be juiced. Wrong!!! I should have just juiced the fruit and then added the yoghurt and honey to the smoothie afterwards. Made perfect sense after the event. I have since made juice with some frozen red currants, blackberries and raspberries that have been sitting in the freezer since last Autumn. I think I am going to love my new gadget. A few days on and although I have enjoyed quite a few smoothie drinks I am dismayed at the pulp waste which gathers in the bottom of the machine. I have given some to the chickens and composted some but am still shocked at the amount of waste created. I think citrus fruit in particular is still best done by hand in the old fashioned squeezer.



Roast Marinated Topside of Beef

After Christmas I picked up a bargain joint of beef from Lidl and it has been sitting in the freezer until now. It’s Sean’s birthday on Monday and I thought they may just visit on Sunday so I have put the beef to marinate ready to cook a roast.

A marinade is a mixture of acid, oil, herb and spice. It’s designed to impart flavor and tenderise meat. There is an endless list of combinations that can be the difference between dry meat and a succulent meat.

The acid – Vinegar, acidic fruit juices like lemon or wine are the acidic components in the marinade that tenderise meats. They also play an important part in imparting flavor. An example of a high acid wine is Champagne or a zesty white wine. Use low acid marinades when marinating overnight. Go with a low acid wine. Too much time on acid can turn the meat from tender to mushy.

The fat – Apart from extra virgin olive oil and butter, there many other kinds of oils to consider such as sesame oil, peanut oil, grapeseed oil, etc. Each type of oil has a different flavor and smoke point which is something you’ll want to consider.

Herbs – The herbs and aromatic vegetables will impart the floral, vegetal, earthy and even fruity characteristics into your meat. Zest is the shaved skin of an orange, lemon or lime and an excellent way to add flavours.

The spice – Spices add heat and aromas and enhance flavours. Salt and pepper will always be your base but there are many other choices to throw into the mix. Many components in spices such as capsaicin in pepper and  vanilla are more soluble in fat or alcohol than in water. Since meat is up to 75% water using oil and alcohol in your marinades helps to better dissolve the spices and integrate them into the meat.

  • Acid – 1 cup wine
  • Fat – ½ cup oil
  • Herbs – 1 tablespoon
  • Spice – 2 tablespoons of salt

Your acid plus your oil should be enough to immerse the meat easily in a sealed container. It depends on how big the meat is but you want the final result to equal about 1 cup with half as much oil as acid. If you are planning on adding vinegar, lemon juice or Worcestershire sauce as well, you will only need ¼ of a cup. With something more pungent like Dijon mustard or overly-sweet like honey, then only 2 tablespoons are required. Whisk the acid, oil, dry herbs and spices in a  glass bowl until well integrated and the salt is fully dissolved. Gently add the fresh herbs last. If you need to increase volume to completely submerge your meat add it in the wine. Leave to marinate from 2 hours to overnight depending on the size of the meat.

When ready to roast allow the meat to approach room temperature. Whatever your method of preparation, the meat should now be thoroughly tenderised and well-flavored. I melt a little beef dripping in my meat dish and then add a chopped onion, celery, parsnips and carrot into the tin placing the beef on top. Spread mustard over the meat, I use the cheap Sainsbury’s basic for this job, then cover the whole tin with foil sealing the edges. Cook for and hour per kilogram. Today my joint is 2.5kg so I am cooking at 180 for 90 minutes before getting it out and basting before replacing in the oven to brown.

I shall serve with green vegetables, roast potatoes, boiled potatoes and mash.  The gravy is amazing made with the juices from the meat dish.


Angel Cake

When I was about ten years old I went to a birthday party with my Sister and my Mother. The little girl whose party it was has long ago disappeared from my memory but I have an unforgettably vivid memory of her birthday cake. It must have been the first time that I had seen or eaten an angel cake. Pure white cake covered in pure white icing. Apart from Mr Kipling’s White Frosted Fancies, a poor substitute, which always appear in the shops in the month before Christmas, I have never eaten this angelic delight since and so set about finding a good recipe. I am determined to have a try with this recipe and cover it with white icing and desiccated coconut.

Angel cake is a white sponge cake made only with stiffly beaten egg whites and no butter. Apparently, the first recipe in a cookbook for a white sponge cake is in Lettice Bryan’s The Kentucky Housewife of 1839.





  • 4½oz plain flour
  • 10½oz caster sugar
  • 10 large free-range egg whites
  • 2 large lemon grated zest only
  • 1 tbsp lemon juice
  • 1 tsp cream of tartar
  • ½ tsp salt


  • Preheat the oven to 180 and arrange an oven shelf in the bottom third of the oven.
  • Sift the flour and 3½oz of caster sugar together in a bowl and set aside.
  • Whisk the egg whites in a large bowl on a high speed for one minute until frothy.
  • Add lemon zest, lemon juice, cream of tartar and salt and continue whisking for 2-3 minutes, or until soft peaks form when the whisk is removed from the bowl.
  • Increase the speed and add the remaining 7oz of caster sugar, one tablespoon at a time to form firm, but not stiff peaks.
  • Add a third of the flour mixture and fold gently to combine. Repeat with the remaining flour mixture folding gently to keep as much air in the mixture as possible.
  • Do not be tempted to grease the tin as it will prevent the cake from rising properly
  • Transfer the batter to a 10in angel cake pan. Gently run a knife through the centre of the batter to remove any pockets of air. Cook for 45-50 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.
  • Remove from the oven and immediately turn upside down onto the tin’s cooling legs. Leave to cool for at least one hour.
  • Leave to cool on a wire rack.

Quick and Simple Apple Pie

After all the rich food of Christmas I have made an apple pie for after dinner today. My apple pie could be called boring but I prefer to call it quick, simple and satisfying. Ever since the first time I used Sainsbury’s short crust pastry block I haven’t gone to the trouble of making my own pastry from scratch. It is my opinion that it cant be beaten. I usually buy the pastry when it is selling for £1 and put some in the freezer. Move to the fridge the night before you want to use it then leave at room temperature for a couple of hours.

I always use English Bramley Apples and just at the moment they are plentiful and good. I do have my own tree in the garden and have enjoyed the few apples that I have been able to pick from the garden. I like to soften the apples in a saucepan with lots of sugar and lemon juice. Always taste a little of the filling to be sure that its perfect.  I find two large Bramley’s is enough for my pie plate. I cut the pastry block in half and after buttering the plate I roll the pastry out quite thinly and make the base, trimming around the edges. I then  put the cooled filling onto the base and brush a little water around the edges to get a good seal when placing the pastry lid on. Decorate as you like either with just a pinched edging and a good sprinkle of sugar or brush with beaten egg to taste. Serve with cream, ice cream or custard.


Peppered Steak in Red Wine


1 steak per person

4 heaped teaspoons of whole or crushed black peppercorns

4 tablespoons of olive oil

crushed garlic

300ml of red wine

For best results prepare your steak early and leave to marinate. Coarsely crush the peppercorns with a pestle and mortar.  Take a shallow dish large enough to hold your steaks comfortably side by side and pour 1 tablespoon of olive oil mixed with half a clove of crushed garlic into the dish. Coat each steak evenly on both sides with crushed peppercorns, pressing them in firmly. Lay the steaks in the dish and spoon the other tablespoon of oil and the rest of the garlic over them. Cover with Clingfilm and leave them on one side for several hours, turning them over once.
To cook the steaks use a thick based frying pan. Place it over a very high heat and let it preheat the hotter the better. Sear the steaks quickly on both sides for about a minute each side. Then lower the heat and cook them how you want them. 1 minute before the end of the cooking time pour in the wine and let it bubble and reduce down to a syrupy consistency to about one third of its original volume. This whole process will be very quick. Sprinkle with salt and serve the steaks as quickly as possible with the wine sauce poured over. Serve with chipped or sautéed potatoes and green salad, beans or peas.

Saucepan Boiled Fruit Cake

This recipe used to be a family favourite when the kids were all young. It’s a soft, moist fruit cake that can easily be adapted to become a celebration cake with the addition of treacle, alcohol, cherries etc. Another plus is that it does keep well if wrapped in foil or cling film.  I have the inclination to give it a go again.


  • 12oz of dried fruit
  • 4oz margarine or butter
  • 1/4 pint of water
  • 4oz caster, granulated or brown sugar
  • 8oz self raising flour
  • tsp baking powder
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp mixed spice if you like it


Add the water, sugar, fruit and fat to a saucepan and bring to the boil stirring to keep from sticking. As soon as the mixture reaches boiling point turn down to a simmer and cook for about 20 minutes. At this point the mixture will be evenly mixed and the fruit plump and juicy. Remove from the heat and leave to cool. Stir occasionally to stop skin forming on top or cover with cling film or greaseproof paper. When cool gradually add the beaten eggs, flour and baking powder, folding in and making sure the ingredients are evenly distributed. Bake in the centre of the oven for about an hour and a half. It does help to line the cake tin with greaseproof paper or as I do, wipe the tin round with margarine and shake flour so that the inside is coated evenly. At this point you could sprinkle with granulated sugar, decorate with almond slices or put a few candied peel slices on top. This cake also takes well to decorating with icing. All in all, a good all round stand by. My sort of cake.

Pumpkin Soup

Well, I’m told that Sainsbury’s are selling off the pumpkins left over from the Halloween mayhem. Laura is hoping to bring us back a bargain for 10p. I shall cut up the flesh and cook in a little water until soft then use my blender to make a puree. Add a chicken stock cube dissolved in boiling water and season to taste, Pumpkin is very bland so any type of flavouring could be added, even curry powder, but I prefer it as it comes with a shake of black pepper on top and plenty of crusty bread. I have added a potato and a stick of celery before when cooking the pumpkin flesh, it just depends on what I have in the fridge at the time. The Delia Soup Collection advocates roasting the chunks of pumpkin in the oven first. I haven’t tried that yet but may do one day.


I large pumpkin deseeded and peeled

Chop up the flesh, rinse and put into a saucepan with a little water

If preferred add a potato, carrot and chopped celery at this point

Add a little salt

Simmer gently until soft

Drain and mash or blend to make a puree

Dissolve a chicken or vegetable stock cube in boiling water

Gently add the liquid to the blended pumpkin stirring until you have a creamy consistency

Serve hot with a chopped chives or parsley garnish

Sprinkle with black pepper and serve with crusty bread