Hmm, first question of the day, what to do with the final jar of last year’s marmalade? Next question…can I use it with chilli?
Well, bake a ham is the simple answer.
So what will we need?
a ham, a good smokey fella. We always go big when cooking a ham as it lasts for ages, freezes well and goes with pretty much anything you want.
For the boiling pot: dried casabel, whole onion, couple of tangerines, fresh bay leaf, fresh thyme sprigs, a few garlic cloves, an apple, jalapeños, allspice berries and peppercorns. Do not stress too much peeling or prepping this as it will all be discarded.
For the glaze: marmalade, mustard of your choice, black onion seeds, fresh red fruit chilli, we used a rocoto.
Soak the ham overnight as the salt levels could be high. Discard the water.
Put the ham in a big old pot, add enough water to cover and bring to the boil. Discard the water and start again. More salt management.
Add more water, the liquor flavourings: and bring to the boil again.
Reduce the heat until gently simmering. Cook for 20 mins per 500g.
Remove the ham and let it sit for 20 mins. This just lets it cool down a bit and then it is easier to handle. The remaining stock will make a wonderful pea and ham soup.
Prepare the glaze by mixing the ingredients together. Quantities really depend on the size of your ham.
Carefully slice away the skin. Leave the fat and score in a diamond pattern.
Gently apply the glaze, trying to get in between the criss cross lines.
Bake in a 180 0 C oven for about 30 mins. Keep checking as the sugar in the marmalade could darken quickly.
Take out the ham and try really hard not to eat it all in one go. One nibble won’t hurt though.
Just which compost to choose for our precious chillies?
The options are a little overwhelming but let’s dig down to what we know about chilli plants to see if we can come up with our perfect potting medium.
Considering the geographical heritage of our chilli plants should hopefully give some guidance to the type of soil required for perfect chilli production. Chillies originated from Mexico. They gradually became mainstream as part of the Columbian Exchange in the 15th & 16th Centuries. A large percentage of the soil in Mexico is shallow to medium depth, dry, free draining, not layered or super structured, contains gravel, often fertile, pH leaning towards acid: 5.5-6.5. (Food Agricultural Organisation for the United Nations state that Leptosol, Regosol and Calcisol make up nearly 65% of the soil in Mexico if you want the scientific terms) Replicating this soil composition seems like a good starting point for creating the perfect chilli compost.
Back here in the UK
However, where chillies come from is not the only factor in soil choice. Surely where they are actually going to grow plays a part too. The UK offers a dizzying range of soil types, some of which would be incredibly inhospitable to a poor little chilli plant. Our Hampshire soil is about 6 inches top soil and then solid chalk. Not sure what our chilli amigos would say to that. A slightly acid, sandy loam in the South Hams of Devon would be perfect for growing chillies in the ground. With that in mind, we will be planting in pots.
Our UK weather is such that too much organic matter, such as peat or manure, silt or clay could easily become water logged and get cold. No one likes a soggy cold bottom, especially not chilli plants.
The potting soil in question will have two main functions for our plants: 1. to provide a habitat for our chilli roots to do their thing. 2. To be a vessel for the chemical requirements for great plant growth and chilli production. Let’s tackle each function separately.
A cosy home
We want the roots to have plenty of space to stretch out. Soil is typically 50% solids (mineral and organic) and 50% spaces, about half of which is occupied by water and soluble and suspended nutrients. A light, airy soil, with small particles would match the requirements. The roots can work their way through the gaps.
We will be gradually moving our chillies into progressively bigger pots. They sulk for ages if the pot size goes up too quickly. The indicator that they need to move home is when their roots poke through the bottom. Watering from the bottom should avoid compaction (which leads to a reduction of spaces within the soil available for root growth & essential gas, water and nutrient storage). Perhaps a layer of Horticultural grit in the base of each pot would avoid aforementioned sulky soggy bottom too.
Adding Perlite to the mix is another way to allow the soil mix to stay loose, encourage root growth and water drainage. No rotten roots here.
Feed the need
No great nutrient supply is needed from the soil solids as we will be feeding with Chilli Focus regularly. The organic components of the soil provided by the garden compost will ensure a good supply of microorganisms to exist alongside our chilli plants and work their bio magic. No doubt a few extra seeds will germinate as well but that is all part of the fun of doing things yourself.
We do not want too much green Nitrogen releasing organic matter. We hope to encourage good all round plant health and then fabulous flowering and fruiting. Extra Nitrogen may cause bushy green plants that forget to flower.
The seedlings are currently receiving a weekly feed of 5ml per litre of Chilli Focus. This will increase to 10mls per litre once a week when the plants have been pinched out and show some signs of flowers forming. At the height of flowering and fruiting the plants will have two feeds each week.
Vermiculite is another ingredient to consider. A natural product that is a good addition to any soil type. Added to clay soils it allows aeration and flow through the soil, reducing water logging and stunted or bound root growth. In sandy soils it soaks up water allowing retention where there would be very little otherwise. Good access to water, slowly released, means good access to those soluble and suspended nutrients. Sounds like Vermiculite is definitely going into our chilli mix.
So what does this all mean?
It’s looking like a hand mixed potting medium of 3/10 loam top soil, 2/10 coir, 2/10 organic homegrown well rotted compost, 1/10 grit for the bottom of the pot, 1/10 vermiculite to hold on to water and nutrients between watering and feeds, 1/10 perlite for free drainage within the soil. Probably very similar to John Inness No 2!
We’ve been waiting for a rainy day to attempt this. After surprising each other with Onggi for Christmas it feels like the time is right to attempt Gochujang.
A Korean earthenware pot. They’ve been made pretty much the same way for about 5,000 years or so. If it ain’t broke then don’t fix it, right? Onggi have lots of uses including water storage, dry food storage but predominantly fermentation. Korean soy sauce is traditionally produced in Onggi. The porous nature of the iron rich clay pots adds to the ferment and encourages the ripening and breathing of the fermenting food within. The pores in the clay draw out impurities and encourage air flow. Thus keeping everything from decaying.
Our first ever batch of Gochujang will be split between a traditional Onggi and a glass Kilner jar. A bit of an old vs new, East vs West comparison. Surely the glass will allow more UV to hit the paste…but glass is certainly not porous. Hmm, how different will the products be? We’ll be reporting back in a couple of months.
Next, what is Gochujang?
It is a fermented chilli pepper paste from Korea, made to 400 year old recipe. It is a burgundy red, hot, pungent paste used to marinate meat, enrich soups & sauces and generally add all round yumminess to a lot of Korean dishes. Uber umami. Traditionally it is made in Onggi and left out in the sun to ferment, occasionally stirred. Commercially produced Gochujang is readily available in familiar red boxes in Asian supermarkets and online. Not sure it compares to the homemade stuff. Let’s find out!
How do you make Gochujang?
OK, after copious amounts of food channel watching and internet research here are the top two sources of inspiration and information we will be using:
Mussels are a firm family fave at The Birdhouse. We eat them as a treat meal…cheap meal…a pescatarian meal (yes, well, one of the birds of The Birdhouse is mostly veggie)…a one pot meal…a quick meal…and a healthy meal.
Today’s dinner is Thai mussels served with fermented chilli sourdough. The ingredients are store cupboard items, supplemented with a few homegrown yummies and of course fab, fresh UK mussels. This time our mussels come from Loch Fyne.
A quick prep of the mussels: check they all close, discard any that don’t. Trim off any ‘beards’ and scrape off any barnacles. Then they are good to go.
Place your pot of choice on the hob. We need very little excuse to use our mega family sized Le Creuset pot (in Volcanic). Chop the broth ingredients: red onion, garlic, fresh green birdseye chilli, lemongrass. Fry in some sunflower oil. Add coriander seeds, lime leaves, cumin, lime zest and coconut milk. Bring to a gentle simmer. Pour in a little fish sauce, soy sauce, lime juice and palm sugar. Tip in the mussels and pop that lid on.
Leave to simmer for 4 minutes. Quickly prepare the bread and chop some basil. Be ready to serve the mussels as soon as they are open.
Plate up the mussels and sprinkle the basil on top. Squeeze a little more lime juice and season with our new condiment crush: World of Zing’s Siriacha chilli sea salt. Settle down for a tasty meal with the one (or more) you love.
It’s darn cold here in the UK right now. Not necessarily the darkest depths of double digit negatives but it is colder than we’re used to and snow is forecast. Keeping the north side of our house warm in temperatures like this can be a challenge. A key heating strategy is cooking, especially in the mornings.
Does it surprise you to know The Birdhouse is a sourdough kinda place? Surely not. And today was a sourdough kinda day. As are most days. Preheat the oven, bake for an hour or so, eat warm bread. All in the name of breakfast.
We always have a sourdough starter on the go. A regular feed and warmth -with the occasional vacation in the fridge- keeps it lively and tasty. Our starter began life as equal weight of flour and water. Fed until it was a robust, living, breathing member of the family.
The idea is that the natural yeasts and bacteria found on grains (and so in flour) multiply over the first few days of warmth and feeding. After the natural balance of microorganisms has battled it out and found harmony, this foamy starter can then be used in place of bakers’ yeast to make a leaven loaf.
When we started on our sourdough adventure we endlessly pored over images, recipes, blogs and FAQs from a couple of sources: Vanessa Kimbell at The Sourdough School and Maurizio at The Perfect Loaf.
Our own tried and tested recipe and method is as follows:
100g of sourdough starter (not recently fed but not ravenous)
300g of water
500g of flour
10g salt mixed into 15g water
All the ingredients are in grams as this just makes adding everything easy. It seems to be sourdough convention to do it this way. This is not a quick bread. Our dough generally takes 24 hours to get from jar to plate. This is a slow, cool, fermenting prove, not a quick, hot and tasteless affair. Minimal effort, spaced over a leisurely day. Once you get into a routine it’s difficult to get it wrong.
This morning we have chosen to add a good tablespoon of our Prairie Fire fermented hot sauce. Surely that will keep the frostbite at bay. We’ve mixed it with the salt and reduced the water accordingly.
Mix the ingredients. No need to build up a sweat kneading, just bring it quickly together into a smooth dough in a bowl.
Leave the bowl, in a warm place with a damp tea towel over the top for 20 minutes or so. This allows the microbes a chance to do their thing with the fresh flour.
Then add the salt & extra water and poke it into the dough with your fingertips until there is little or no liquid remaining. You can’t add the salt too soon as it might kill off the fermenters.
Lift and stretch and fold the dough in half. Do this four times: once to the top, once to the right, once to the bottom and once to the left.
Leave the dough to sit for another 20 mins. Repeat the folding pattern.
Leave for another 20 minutes, repeat fold.
Last time, after 20 mins, fold away. You can leave longer than 20 minutes between each stage. Let it fit in with whatever else you are doing that day.
Prepare your proving basket. We have bamboo bannetons. They add the iconic sourdough concentric circles of flour to the loaf. Dust out any older flour. Sprinkle a little cornflour, or polenta or semolina flour. Anything to stop the sticky dough sticking to the basket.
Transfer the dough to your proving bowl. The bottom of this dough will be the top of your loaf so try and place a smooth side down into the basket.
Cover the basket with a damp tea towel and place in the fridge overnight. This will allow the dough to prove slowly and the fermented sour flavour to develop. Baking can take place anytime within the next couple of days.
Preheat the oven and baking vessel to 220 degrees. We bake in a dutch oven/casserole with a lid.
Carefully turn out the dough and place into the baking dish. Pretty side up.
Score the surface of the dough with a very sharp knife or razor. This allows the steam to escape as the bread rises and keeps the shape round and even. We have a birdie shape we like to add.
Bake the loaf for an hour with the lid on.
Remove the lid and reduce the temperature to 180 degrees.
Bake for another 15-45 minutes depending on how dark and crisp you like you crust. By the way, it’s all about the crust.
Take the loaf out and let it rest for a while. The final steam will come out and make carving a whole lot easier.
At steps 4-7 you can add all sorts of yummy ingredients: spices, herbs, seeds, nuts, flowers, fruit, cold porridge, sauces and pickles, sugars, syrups and honey, colours, veggies, cheese, pieces of meat, oils. The list is endless. At step 8 you can put a topping in the base of your banneton. We like rosemary springs, sesame seeds, walnut halves and chilli flakes (natch).
Just use your judgement regarding how these additional ingredients will affect the prove, consistency and bake of your loaf. Perhaps reduce the water? Maybe a little extra flour? An extra coating in the banneton? Baking is a science that requires thought, not just blindly following a recipe.
We love a dark chocolate, lime and coconut loaf as a breakfast bread. The basic recipe is an excellent way to use up the end of a pack of… whatever really. But today, it’s Prairie Fire chilli sourdough. Watch out, ‘coz here we come!
It’s time to give these little chilli seedlings a bit of what they fancy. They have been potted on into seed compost and are settling in admirably. The seed leaves are opening, they are a good green colour and generally they look healthy. The seed compost has no nutrients in it though.
In the future we’d like to have a go at producing a homemade, maybe organic, specialist chilli feed. Using local ingredients. Perhaps with a seaweed enrichment? But not just yet.
Seemingly THE recommended chilli food is Chilli Focus. Containing ‘A precise formulation for optimal performance of chillies and peppers in pots, grow bags or the open ground.’ We used it all last season and the chilli plants and crop were spectacular. It turns out that Chilli Focus is ‘Made with care in the UK’, and ‘enriched with organic complex plant acids and pure concentrated extracts of kelp’ and comes in a 5 litre bottle, ‘enough for 1,000 litres of feed’.
Err, sounds pretty good to us. Homemade fertiliser can wait for further research on a rainy (or snowy, check the forecast!) day.
The seedlings have been given a gentle dilute feed of 5mls per litre. This will be given once a week for now. Once the plants start to flower it will increase to 10mls per litre and then twice weekly when they set fruit.
And still the chilli seeds arrive. A brief trip to Potato Day (100s of varieties of seed potato at 20p a spud) resulted in us buying not just potatoes but additional chilli seeds too. A repeat from last year, ‘Tobago Seasoning’. We had zero success in germinating this variety but we’re having another go. So far the Chinense types are responding well so fingers crossed. Tobago Seasoning are now hanging out in the propagator after their tea bath.
Then, a surprise, 26 days after they were ordered, more chilli seeds turn up in the post: 7 Pot Bubblegum and Poblano. Woo Hoo! They got dunked into a cuppa and they will be introduced to the germinating station the next day. The Bubblegum seeds have a neon pink tinge to them and the Poblano seeds are the biggest chilli seeds EVER!
A free pack of Numex Christmas was also in the package. Perhaps more ornamental than culinary? They have small multicoloured chillies, thin skinned and are on the hot end of the scale. Ones to sell as pretty plants.
We are going to need a second greenhouse. Seriously.
It’s been too long, maybe actual hours, since the last chilli featured in our lives. Well, that’s not strictly true as we eat chilli with most meals and are compulsively checking the nursery of chilli seeds for germination and leaf growth. So to be more honest, we have not made a chilli product in a while and, after the scrummy success of the fermented jars, we are itching to experiment. Tricky though, as homegrown fresh chillies are not easily forthcoming in January in the UK. However, a local supermarket comes up with the goods. Let’s get fermenting!
We’ve been discussing other ingredients for the fermenting jars. Pineapple is on the list, as is ginger, turmeric root, rose petals, cola, bay, mango and lemongrass. With this far flung candy box of ingredients in mind, my attentions turn to our stores. What do we have that can be bubbled up in a jar and turned into a tasty chilli sauce?
It turns out we have some peaches, jalapeños, white onion, lime, garlic and coriander seed. Chopped up, salted and topped up with water. Current status: inert. Give it a couple of days in the sunny windowsill and Mather Nature will work her magic.
Fermenting jar of peaches, white onion, limes, garlic, jalapeños, salt and coriander seed. Top up with water and twist on the lid.
An update, with added advice to self for next year:
The sprouted seedlings have been transferred to their paper pots, 135 of them so far. Thank goodness for grandparents and all their newspapers. The seed soil was cold and waterlogged (it is January after all) The pots were filled and warmed gently on the radiator.
Paper pots are quick to make and take less paper than you would think. Hopefully the pots will be soft enough for the first roots to break through meaning there will be no need to disturb the seedlings when potting on the next time.
Chilli seeds in their forever pots
Do not let the moisture in the chitting pods evaporate completely or the roots shrivel and dry. This has happened to Habanero Primavero Red. Hopefully some of the remaining seeds will germinate as we have no more in the packet. Not buying any more.
Also, don’t leave the sprouted seedlings too long in the chitting pods as their roots become intertwined with the capillary matting. Some of the roots have snapped in the transferring process. Not sure whether they will survive or not but they will sulk for at least a week, no doubt. Maybe a vermiculite mix to germinate in would be best next year?
The chillies have been chitting in their heated propagator. After their tea bath they were carefully strained then snuggled into the chitting pods (takeaway container + capillary matting). Finally they were placed into the heated propagator on the 17th January.
In the propagator the temperature stays above 25 degrees (even on the coldest of – 5 nights so far) and reaches the sweaty heights of 35 degrees +. The pods are stacked with the Chinense types at the bottom, nearer the heated base, and the Annuum varieties on top, not quite so warm.
Without a thermostat it is impossible to keep the temp constant but it seems that most of the varieties have responded well. Here are the results so far…
Chilli (A=Annuum, Ch=Chinense)
Date started chitting (after a soak overnight in some tea)
Date of first germination
Cow Horn (A)
Cherry Bomb (A)
Golden Greek Peperoncini (A)
Sweet Banana (A)
Scotch Bonnet (Ch)
Madame Jeanette (Ch)
Trinidad Perfume (A)
Habanero Primero Red (Ch)
Mustard Habanero (Ch)
Yet to germinate
Orange Habanero (Ch)
Yet to germinate
Not bad results for 8 days after starting.
You may notice that a couple of previously mentioned chilli types (Poblano and 7 Pot Bubblegum) are missing from the first list. They have not yet turned up in the post. A refund will be requested. And, the very observant amongst you will have seen the addition of Serrano. These came free from one company. Lovely.
The seeds that germinated in the first few days are now in need of planting in their very first pot. These are newspaper pots filled with nutrient poor seed compost. We don’t want these tiny seedlings growing too quickly as daylight hours are still short and too much food will produce leggy seedlings. Hmmm, note to selves: do we need to think about a lamp?
Off to buy some seed compost and make 100 million more paper pots.