The prim, old-fashioned charm of zinnias

I have no zinnias, and I confess I can’t quite remember what they look like, although they were often in our garden at home. I have a memory of brilliant shocking pinks and deep purples and pastel mauves… but maybe I am thinking of a different flower. The reason I am even thinking about zinnias is that I’m looking at my Modern Practical Cookery – my edition was published in 1936 but I feel it may have been written earlier.

Towards the end, in a section entitled ‘Little Dinners’ are monthly suggestions for dinner parties for six guests. I think it is rather a nice idea – and as well as the menu of soup or starter, main course, dessert, then a savoury, there are also suggestions for table decorations and settings.

What can equal the prim, old-fashioned charm of zinnias in mixed colours? Their bright hues are enhanced by the soft delicacy of a Chinese bowl.

That actually does sound lovely, I can just imagine it!

Here is a delightful menu for the betwixt-and-between season when the days of fresh fruit are behind us, and the time for heat-giving foods of winter is not yet come.

I wonder who wrote this? This is another reason I like old cookery books, they are so charming and often elegantly written. I don’t think I’ll ever find out, lost in the annals of Amalgamated Press who published it… but here is the ‘delightful menu‘:


cauliflower cream soup
roast chicken, bread sauce
potatoes, beans
plum jelly creams
mushroom toast

The soup is seasoned with celery seeds and paprika, there are a pair of roast chickens stuffed with breadcrumbs, onion, parsley, butter, chicken livers, seasoning and bound with an egg; the bread sauce is flavoured with onion and cloves; the plums are set in a lemon jelly, with almonds, and served with cream; the mushrooms are cooked in butter and served on rounds of toast.

PS I know my featured image isn’t a zinnia… the flowers I was thinking of aren’t even zinnias! This maybe a geranium… it is very pretty and pink and would make a lovely table decoration – in the absence of zinnias!


Potato salad

Potato salad always seemed the simplest hing in the world when I was a child… cold potatoes and salad cream. when mayonnaise started appearing in the shops it replaced the salad cream… gosh, how sophisticated we were! Sometimes spring onions were finely sliced and mixed in, or chopped chives… but that was about it.

When I went to visit my friend who lives in Washington State, almost as soon as I arrived we went up into a forest and stayed in a cabin. it was wonderful, there were a whole load of other people and we all stuck in, getting things ready for a meal… I guess it was a barbecue, but actually I don’t remember… however, I do remember the potato salad. I was astounded as I made it at all the things people kept passing me to go into it… hard-boiled eggs – cut them into eight! … gherkins – slice them finely! …some sort of frankfurter sausage – slice into chunks! … white onions – slice them up and in they go! …celery – chop it up however you like and in it goes! There may have been other things I don’t remember, I just do remember being amazed and then thinking how wonderful it tasted!

So now, every time I make potato salad, and add whatever comes to hand, fresh herbs, green beans, chopped ham, chunks of feta cheese, chopped red pepper… whatever there is, I always think to my first American potato salad!

February 1st, and let’s have boxty pancakes

February 1st is st Bridget’s Day, a Christian observance which was grafted onto the old Gaelic celebration of Imbolc. Imbolc is thought to have been celebrated in Ireland since the Neolithic times in some form or another – this theory comes from the alignment of some Megalithic monuments. Whatever its origins, as with other celebrations in other cultures at this time of year, the festival marks the beginning of spring, and was an excuse or reason great feasting.

St Bridget may originally have been Brigit, Brigid or Bríg,  a much older goddess associated with dawn, the spring, fertility, healing, poetry and strangely, smiths! Saint Bridget of Kildare or Saint Bridget of Ireland, if she actually existed as a real person, may have lived between 451AD and 525AD and in Ireland today she is much revered.

As with all these special days, there are foods associated with them, and in one little book I have boxty pancakes are given as what is traditionally eaten, spread with fresh churned butter. The pancakes have potatoes in them which weren’t brought over from the New World until the end of the fifteenth century, but even so, these are delicious and easy to make!

Boxty pancakes

  • 8 oz mashed potatoes
  • 8 oz raw, peeled and grated potatoes
  • 8 oz white flour
  • ½ tsp bicarb (I have seen some recipes where it is omitted)
  • 8-12 fl oz buttermilk (you need to have a fairly stiff batter)
  • salt
  1. mix both types of potato, flour and bicarb and salt to taste
  2. add buttermilk until you have a fairly stiff batter
  3. use butter or oil to grease a pan or griddle and cook large or small pancakes
  4. … and here’s the important bit – serve and eat straight away with whatever you like, as a breakfast or with honey!!

Leek and potato soup with vegetables


This is so warming for a cold and miserable day… I actually made it from leftover vegetables, but the basis was leeks and potatoes.

This is my recipe:

  • butter
  • 3 leeks, sliced thinly
  • 1 yellow pepper, cut into small pieces
  • 2 small onions,  sliced thinly
  • two sticks of celery,  cut into small pieces
  • 6 small-medium potatoes,  cut into small pieces
  • stock (I used chicken) – about 1½ pints but adjust for your preferred thickness
  • a couple of ounces of Polish chopped pork
  • cream, chilli sauce and celery leaves to garnish
  1. melt the butter (I used about 2 ounces but use more or less or use oil of choice)
  2. add all the vegetables except the potatoes, stir well to cover in butter/oil, put the lid on and leave to cook gently until soft and tender
  3. add the potatoes, stir well, and add stock
  4. leave to cook until the spuds are done (about 25 minutes for my potatoes)
  5. blend or rub through a sieve or both
  6. add teh chopped pork pulled into small pieces (miss it out or  add cooked bacon/chorizo pieces, lardons, anythig you fancy)
  7. add more liquid if necessary, stock/water/milk
  8. serve with cream and chilli sauce twizzled on top and chopped celery leaves

Worth buying a chicken!

According to Ambrose Heath and Mrs D.D. Cottington-Taylor, this recipe to use up left overs is so delicious it is almost worth buying a chicken and making bread sauce to go with it in order to have some left over to use up! Isn’t that so often the case? Fried left over mashed potato is so yummy it’s worth making extra mash just so you can have it for breakfast the next day. I don’t like bubble ad squeak, but other people say the same about that!

Potatoes and bread sauce

  • boiled potatoes, sliced
  • bread sauce
  • butter, melted
  • breadcrumbs, browned
  • salt and pepper
  1. lightly butter a shallow fireproof dish and put in the bottom a layer of bread sauce, season
  2. on this put a layer of potato slices, and proceed alternately until the dish is full, seasoning with discretion as you go
  3. finish with a layer of potato, sprinkle on plenty of browned breadcrumbs, and a little melted butter
  4. bake for half an hour in a slow oven

I’ve mentioned before that bread sauce isn’t something we as a family ever had with roast birds, but it is as you might imagine, a milk sauce thickened with bread; traditionally the milk was simmered with an onion stuck with cloves, and spices such as black pepper, nutmeg, or mace, and a bayleaf, and then cubes of bread were stirred in until they broke up to make the sauce…

Carolyn’s roast potatoes

My cousin Carolyn is a great cook, and I use lots of recipes I’ve had from her; this evening we had rosemary roast potatoes, and really, it couldn’t be simpler or more delicious!

It seems to work with any sort of potato, from small new potatoes, to older ones which have to be peeled and chopped into same size chunks. I usually leave the skin on but cut out any blemishes. Heat oil in a roasting pan, I don’t like it too deep, when it is really hot, put the potatoes in very carefully, turn them over so they have oil on every surface, sprinkle with sea salt and torn up sprigs of rosemary (and cloves of garlic if you like!) then put them back into the very hot oven. Depending on the size of the potato chunks, and the variety it takes 25-40 mins. After about 15 mins, take the pan out and turn the potatoes over and add a little more salt, but not too much; you may want to do this again if they are in the oven for a while.

These are delicious with anything; if you make too many they are nice cold, or fried up for breakfast with your eggs and bacon.


Left over spuds? Don’t waste them!

I just saw a news item about food waste – which I abhor anyway, but this was about the amount of potatoes we waste. Apparently 5,000,000 potatoes are thrown away… now I don’t know if that is each day, week, month year but it is a lot of potatoes! (Did someone actually count them? – Just joking!)

Our problem with potatoes is that they go green, even if we keep them in dark bags and specially bought bags, so now we just buy the small amount we need… any that do go green and then chit (sprout) we plant and usually they grow into plants and produce more potatoes.

Left over cooked potatoes can be used for all sorts of things, even left over roasties can be popped in the oven and ‘refreshed’. Boiled potatoes can be mashed and heated or used on shepherd’s/cottage pie, made into potato salad, cut up and fried for breakfast, or used in frittata or added to stews or curries or soup, or made into soup with leeks. Mashed potato… well why would anyone throw mash away? It is the most delicious thing in the world just fried, patted really flat so there is plenty of crispy bits, used to make potato bread/scones/cakes, used in puddings and sweet cakes (yes really, google it and find a recipe)

Finally, I’m not very keen on bubble and squeak, but mashed potato is a core ingredient and those who like it really like it!!

I wrote about this before… have a look at what happened when I planted some of those chitted potatoes!