Thursday, 15 December 2011

Celeriac & Barley Risotto

Rose Prince gave a recipe for this the other week in one of the weekend papers and it sounded so good I made it as soon as I got my hands on some celeriac. It doesn’t sound terribly promising, indeed I might even apply the adjective ‘worthy’, but it’s filling and warming and not at all stodgy. This makes enough for two.

Melt a good knob of butter in a pan and sweat a finely chopped onion. Cut half a head of peeled celeriac into matchsticks and add to the pan with a clove of chopped garlic. Stir in the butter for a couple of minutes, then add 150g or so of pearl barley. Coat in the butter, then pour over enough chicken stock to cover by 1cm. Put a lid on and leave for 15-20 minutes. Check how the barley’s cooking, it might need a splash more liquid. Cook until the barley is tender, but don’t expect it to amalgamate like risotto. The grains will stay completely separate. Season and squeeze in as much lemon juice as you like, but lots is the key, Serve topped with a good dollop of creme fraiche or sour cream.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

It’s beginning to feel a lot like winter

Or at least, it is up here. The skies are menacingly grey and low, the wind is actually howling (no doubt exacerbated by the gaps around the front doors), we’ve had hail and even a little snow. And yet, at the Tarporley Christmas Lights Switch On last Friday, I definitely overheard someone who sounded like he knew what he was talking about, saying how the multitude of holly berries meant we were in for a mild winter. Since then I’ve been carefully examining all the holly I can see and I can categorically state – and the people of Scotland can rise up in chorus – there really aren’t any berries on any holly up here. Maybe he has a special, sheltered one. In the Caribbean.

But it is definitely starting to feel a bit Christmas-like. I don’t need a small child to feel excited about it; I genuinely love the run-up and up here it’s all a lot less frenetic and – dare I say – a lot more fun to do the dreaded shopping. I’m not going to lie and say I’ve spent mere pennies on buying locally-crafted wooden toys for all made by cherry-cheeked Cheshire people, but there just isn’t the stress of a mass of humanity rushing to do the same thing in the same place at the same time. I’m also a bit more reliant on the internet which does take the fraughtness out of it. And I am sailing through a short but defined list of achievements.

1. We have decorated. See random picture (which for some reason I can’t crop) of our big tree.


It is purple and silver and the photo really doesn’t do it justice as I think it’s so so beautiful. I bought proper decorations (actually from the lovely garden centres round here) and it is splendid. We even have a small (real) one in the lounge for MCD Jr to stand and – oddly – rub his face against like a small cat. Whatever makes him happy.

2. I have ordered the Christmas meat. This year it’s a gigantic rib of beef. I follow Nigella’s Christmas book like a mantra, although in reality it’s no more stressful than a roast. On Christmas Eve we shall have a ham with her parsnip, potato and porcini gratin, which feels like the start of a tradition in itself.

3. I have mostly done the shopping apart from one last Amazon order and a little more internet magic. This I am incredibly proud of but I have been like a general, sending people spirit-crushing emails along the lines of IF YOU DON’T TELL ME WHAT YOU WANT BY THE END OF THIS WEEK, YOU SHALL BE GETTING NOTHING AT ALL. Two family members are in hideous peril of this actually happening; it makes me quite ill to think they might not have a gift to open.

4. I have organised our first ever pre-Christmas drinks. Actually what happened was I sent a text to my new friend asking if she and her husband wanted to come over. She phoned and said, in a terribly efficient manner ‘And shall I bring trifle or a cheeseboard?’ I leaned my head against the patio and admitted I had gotten no further than the excitement of making poinsettia cocktails out of Nigella and could we not make do with crisps? She countered with fried chicken from the kebab house. I am now making a lamb and date tagine (Nigella again!) to continue the illusion I am a grown-up and I hadn’t thought we might just sit and drink and everything would be fine in the morning.

5. I have bought a really large tupperware box to freeze the tagine in as I shall make it before we go away for a few days.

6. We stop and look at the nativity scene in the village every time we go past. This is in the vain effort to educate my 14-month-old son in the ways of a nativity sheep (he is one) and that they go ‘baaa’ and stand quietly, looking solemnly at the wonder of the new baby. I have an inkling his strategy is to employ his three new favourite noises which is to snort like a pig if he doesn’t know the animal noise; to follow with a slightly dampened roar (unlike his dinosaur roar which is full-on) which is his version of hee-haw (like a donkey) and then (his latest and never fails – alas – to send us both stupid with laughter and I know I shouldn’t encourage) to strain to make a fart because apparently it’s very funny when he does so.

It’s going to be a very noisy Christmas.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Rockett St George

paul-farrell-limited-edition-tree-series-2096-pThere is hardly one thing on Rockett St George I wouldn't want at any time of the year, let alone Christmas. Possibly everyone I know will be getting something from here. Love it. A lot.

Friday, 18 November 2011

On friendship, with a side order of soup

NB: Rambly.

It’s a funny old thing, friendship. As Tania K points out, no-one really sings about it; Love is the eternal, the worshipped, the all-important ending. But friendship also – and sometimes even more so – lifts us up where we belong (to coin a phrase, although does anyone else find Bette Midler’s rendition particularly irritating, in passing?).

Living up here in Cheshire now, without the solid structure of friendships around me as I had in London, along with the age-old game of making new friends has made me rethink a lot of what I thought I knew. How do we make friends? At school, at university, in our jobs, through life-changing circumstances… all of these cause new people to be thrown into our paths and hopefully some of them might just be walking along the same path as you for a while. I’m not sure length of friendship or even physical closeness is what makes it hold faster; sometimes it’s just the very intensity of the situation in which you met can bond you tighter for a while. Once something changes, it’s only natural that first passion, for want of a better description, fades a little and the bond, the glue holding you together loosens just a little. Sometimes friendships survive it, sometimes they just fade away.

Longevity is a funny thing. We went to a wedding recently. It was one of our university friends, someone MCD lived with, incidentally marrying someone we have never met. Living in London, eager, or even not un-eager, to continue the friendship meant three of them would meet up every few months or so. It wasn’t necessarily a close friendship; do we just sometimes need to see people who knew us then. Who knew us as we were before responsibilities, ties, life got in on the act. Do we just need to be reminded of who we were as well as of the times we had? A device, rather than a friend, one might say. The wedding was all it should have been, but as MCD and I watched the First-Dance Shuffle, we realised that this wedding was about – as are all weddings – the friend’s life and we knew no-one else there. (In point of fact we were put on a table with his father’s friends…) We had moved to the periphery in each others’ lives and that former closeness had dissipated over the years. The fact we didn’t even know the bride spoke volumes. It left us sad, but curiously unfazed.

It got me thinking. I’m going through that first intense passion again – I have my first ‘hot date’ with a new friend next week and the thought fills me with joy. Moreover, an evening date with no children which makes me think she finds me interesting enough without a small child to distract and fill in the silences. My ego is boosted. But on the other hand, I have to maintain my friendships in London. The shorthand you get with familiarity and frequent meetings has already vanished and the phone calls must be planned and timed for sleeping children or abruptly terminated for the same reason. It makes it slightly awkward, with too much to say and not enough time. You have to learn to summarise briefly and observe the niceties by making sure you ask as much as you answer, ask after and send love. There’s more etiquette to fit in and less time for chat.

Then there’s the rediscovery of ancient friendship. I’m now living close to my oldest friend. She and I have been together for – being quite accurate – 28 years. (We have to minus a few years because there was the ‘Donna’ period and it all got messy in a 5-year-old triumvirate kind of way….). As I’ve said before, we haven’t lived this close since we were seven, and our phonecalls were practised pieces of our own kind of shorthand; friendship in precision, etiquette dealt with quickly before moving on to the hardcore stuff. Now I’m having to re-learn the art of taking it slowly with her, hanging out, learning the finer details of her life and finding more – and less – in common as we go.

In many ways, the essence of friendship can be trickier than love. Love tends to be viewed - wrongly - as a one-time-only deal, but even if you love two, three, four times in your life, the number of friendships are still going to be many times that - so many different relationships to be managed and thought over and fought over at the same time. Is love the steadier in the face of fraught friendship; the quid pro quo for when love goes sour?

Happily there's always soup for the soul in these moments. It's a long-winded process making ham and pea soup, but the final dish is so comforting on rainy cold days, it's worth the effort. It's a two-parter so you could always do it over a couple of days if you can't face whole hours in the kitchen, but there's not much to it other than occasional stirring.

Part 1: Place a large ham hock in a deep pot with a carrot, celery stalk and onion cut into chunks. Add some parsley stalks, a small handful of black peppercorns and fennel seeds. Pour over a bottle of dry cider (in this case 568ml) and top up with water to cover. Put the lid on and bring to the boil, then turn down to a simmer and cook the ham very slowly for about 2 hours or until it pulls away from the bone.

Once the ham is cooked, sieve the cooking liquid and discard the vegetables. Taste - it should be faintly salty and sweet from the veg and cider. At this point you can refrigerate everything, or just push on through.

I had about 1 litre of cooking liquor, so use this as a general measure. First finely chop (and by this I mean just blitz in a food processor) 1-2 carrots, 1 celery stalk and 1 onion. Fry gently in a little oil in a deep pan then tip in about 400-500g yellow split peas. Pour over the stock and bring to the boil. Put the lid on and cook gently for about an hour, stirring and topping up with water occasionally if necessary. When the peas are grainy and soft and collapsed, you're almost ready to go.

To finish: Flake the ham - as much as you want - into the soup and adjust the seasoning. Layer some good melting cheese - anything you fancy - onto a slice of toast, top with another and grill or bake until the cheese has melted. Once you've ladled the soup into bowls, I like to add a drizzle of cider vinegar on top (it's a straight nostalgic hit of Germany for some reason). Serve with the hot cheese toasties on the side.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Hot Lightning

Which is impossible to say without the Grease inflection [‘Hot Latnin’ and perhaps a John Travolta finger point], I notice. Anyway, it’s my take on a very fine Scandinavian/German idea for potatoes, apples and pears which makes an excellent accompaniment to anything porcine. Personally I feel Halloween and Bonfire Night are prime sausage time (and as it’s British Sausage Week this week), and for me, good peppery Cumberland are just right.

This can be made with new potatoes, which gives you a slightly less ‘stewed’ dish. It’s up to you; I rather like the way the potatoes break down in the sauce. You may want to add a couple of crushed juniper berries for variation.

Take 1 large floury potato, 1 apple and 1 pear per person and peel. Cut into large chunks. Melt a good know of butter in a casserole and fry 1 rasher streaky bacon per person until golden. Remove from the pan, then add the potatoes and try to get a little golden colour on them. Add the bacon back into the pan with the apples and pears, season and add a really good slug of white wine or even cider. Pop the lid on and cook very gently until all is tender. You should stir occasionally to ensure nothing’s sticking. You may want more liquid, so add more if necessary.

Serve, perhaps sprinkled gaily with parsley, with your bangers.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Apple & Gorgonzola Risotto

An unctuous, comforting supper for a rainy dark night. Use any blue cheese, but something melting and sharp is good. You may also want to add a little texture at the end like crushed hazelnuts or chopped walnuts.

For 2:

Peel and finely chop one onion and sweat in butter in a pan until soft. Add 150g risotto rice and stir until thoroughly coated in the butter. Pour in a good glassful of white wine and allow to absorb. Meanwhile, peel and finely chop a Bramley or any apple you like, but something with a good flavour, and add about three-quarters to the rice.

Stirring frequently, pour in your hot chicken or vegetable stock a bit at a time. I find I usually need about 500ml to make a risotto. After about 15 minutes, add the rest of the apple – this won’t melt down as much, giving a bit of texture to the whole. Once the rice is tender, turn off the heat, add as much blue cheese as you fancy and a good knob of butter and season and leave to mantecare as the Italians say.

Serve with the chopped nuts in great big bowlfuls.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Cheshire: Love Food, Love Life

Sitting here in the study gazing at the dazzling-hued chestnut trees that line my back garden, I remember back in London I had medium expectations of foraging little local food treats. However it turns out I have yet to drive for more than 20 minutes in any direction without tripping over yet another farm shop, independent producer, butcher’s, greengrocer’s… It is my idea of heaven.

Tarporley itself is blessed with an excellent butcher’s (perfect for weekday shopping and really excellent sausages), a lovely chocolate shop, a wine shop and a Co-op doing the basics. The only puzzling thing is not so much the lack of fishmonger’s (people never use fishmonger’s and then they complain of their absence. Use it or lose it. It’s very simple. Here the problem is circumvented by the butcher’s stocking frozen fish), but rather the lack of a decent greengrocer’s. There evidently was one but clearly it befell the same fate as the fish and now we are reliant on the very basic offerings of the Co-op. Not so much a problem, but without a car, I was climbing the walls a bit until the monthly farmer’s market came along with all the glorious sunset colours of autumn vegetables.

So now I have a car and it takes every ounce of willpower (does anyone ever say gram of willpower? Imperial  is imperative) I own not to simply sling MCD Jr in the back of the car every day and drive off to yet another rumoured treasure trove. It has to be said the only reason I’m resisting is the money it seems obligatory to spend, because I cannot walk away empty-handed.

Just 10 minutes up the road is The Hollies Farm Shop. This is one seriously glamorous outlet. Built on a scale to rival Harrods’ Food Hall, I have found that there is almost nothing they don’t stock. The prices rival Harrods too but for weekend treats and for guests, it’s a must. And it’s not just any old farm shop. You can ‘glamp’, visit The Christmas Barn or stop for lunch at their cafe, which is reasonable food but at inflated prices (says the Londoner).

In the other direction, down proper twisty-turny (and yesterday very muddy) lanes lies The Rose Farm Shop. Decidedly less Elizabeth Taylor, more Hilda Ogden, nevertheless the butcher’s counter remains a work of art, the vegetables are seasonal and fresh and the Food Hall is admirably stocked with everything you need and nothing you don’t. They even have a little Post Office and groceries section. They have a garden centre and a basic cafe which overlooks a field of friendly, demanding sheep. (MCD Jr’s first live experience and a bit of a shock).

Should you fancy ice cream, on the way into Tarporley is Snugbury’s, who announce their presence with a huge, 50 foot polar bear and cub moulded out of straw in the next door field. You can find their ice cream everywhere around here, along with Cheshire Farm. Tiresford make excellent yoghurt, particularly lactic and grown-up – again on sale everywhere local.

So far, a month in, I haven’t actually been to a supermarket. I’m led to believe there’s a big Sainsburys at Nantwich, which I shall have to get to at some point, but it’s not an appealing thought.

But if you didn’t want to cook, man, can you eat out. Tarporley itself has three or four pubs all serving good to really good food plus Piste, our local wine bar which is a bit more ‘London’. But five minutes away is The Alvanley Arms or The Fox & Barrel, both in The Good Food Guide. And that’s just what we’ve seen on drives past.

We still feel like we’re in a holiday cottage and at any moment we’ll have to go back to ‘real life’. It hasn’t quite hit yet – no doubt the winter will help) – that this is our life. It’s a pretty decent one.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

In which we fall in love; or The Move

Ack it’s been weeks. And not for any good reason other than ORANGE  really F*CKED UP. (Let me just type this so it gets picked up by someone in Orange PR, then we’ll move on. ORANGE IS SHIT. There, that ought to do it.) Instead of transferring our account, they cancelled it. Then tell us it’ll take THREE WEEKS to reconnect us. Then we’ll move to BT.

Anyway, all of that fades into insignificance just a tiny bit against the brilliant background that is Tarporley, Cheshire. It’s a beautiful village with real amenities, like a proper butcher’s, post office, coffee shops and pubs and so on. Trundling round with MCD Jr in the pushchair has been a delight.

But the real joy has been in what lies outside. We only just got the second car last week so I’ve been a bit crazy with cabin-fever. It’s a good thing Tarporley is so bustling because it’s all I’ve seen for three weeks. But, oh, the rest of the county.

We have yet to drive more than 30 minutes in any direction and fail to come up with somewhere to revisit. The A49 alone could keep me occupied for hours… The Hollies Farm Shop (practically my new supermarket), Blakemere craft centre, the North-West’s largest remainder bookstore (…), beautiful pubs, the golf club up the road with spa, the walks foraging for late blackberries. It’s everything we’ve wanted.

Part of the loveliness is the lack of high street chains anywhere. Or at least not in such eye-searing quantities. No matter where you go, be it the village or Nantwich or even Chester, you’re more likely to find an independent before a chain. But if you’re desperate – and to be fair, this weekend we were – Cheshire Oaks in Ellesmere Port is jaw-dropping when it comes to brands. On one side it’s a designer outlet centre that took us fully an hour to walk around – without shopping. On the other there’s a few big high-street names which is a benefit because sometimes you really need a Boots.

And then there’s the house. We’re not quite unpacked. I have gotten so far and then realised I need at least two more bookcases, one more for the nursery, a chest of drawers and some more storage cupboards. So boxes remain, but for the most part we’re up and running. I’m learning to cook on an electric hob again (oh I miss gas), but on the plus side, I have three fridges and two freezers, so y’know, I’m coping.

And the food. Good grief. Down the road from Tiresford who make fabulous yoghurt, or Snugbury’s ice cream, or local meat and game at the butcher’s or farm shop. It’s not only easy to cook local, it’s practically impossible not to. (And not having a supermarket on your doorstep helps enormously). Every corner you turn, someone is selling potatoes or game or vegetables.

So in short, so far, after a brief amount of time, it’s fabulous. And now the cold weather’s setting in and there seems to be snow around the corner, we’ll see how we get on. I might end up screaming for the 249 bus after all. But I rather doubt it.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

In which I go slightly off-tangent and emotional; Or We’re moving

Warning: This isn’t about food. And it may be slightly emotional.

So we’re moving onwards and literally upwards. It has become a case of Move or Become Jobless which is not a particularly lovely tightrope to walk, but we have chosen the former with the hope of busting on out of there in the very near future and damning the consequences, as Norman Douglas would say.

There are very many positive, shiny benefits to moving to Cheshire, our destination. My oldest friend lives up there, will be no more than 20 minutes away, a proximity we haven’t achieved since we were seven. I have other friends of friends in the area, all of whom are probably somewhat aghast at my constant jokes about rain and lack of natural daylight, but whom I hope to get on a firmer footing with. Ma and Pa are but 90 minutes away; again, a proximity not achieved since I was 17 and champing at the bit to get to Durham. And I ache for change.

I have a bit of the wanderlust in me. I can do a few years in a place and then I get the itch and I need a change. I love change. I have a slightly naive tendency to leap in, feet first and hope everything just works out. It invariably does and mostly for the better. London’s good for that – there’s always something new around the corner. When the idea of a move was mooted, some months back, I immediately felt the itch return; the desire to seek out the new, get to know another place, go on another adventure (though I admit it’s hardly trekking the Andes). I get very excited about the thought of new coffee shops, restaurants, pubs – places where somebody might just one day know your name – all together now – and they’re always glad you came; new roads and towns; new PEOPLE.

MCD is, he would hold his hands up, naturally more cautious. His live-by motto: No-one likes change. He sees the obstacles, the pitfalls and takes only calculated, carefully weighed and measured risks; he is my perfect partner. I can see only the positive in such a move; he calculates the negatives and then puts on a life jacket before jumping in. I’m a bit more sink or swim.

But then there are the negatives. Mostly it’s to do with the life we’ve built here in Crystal Palace. I’ve always loved it; its village-y feel, the fact that actually quite a few of the places round here do know me and MCD Jr and it’s been a wonderful, still-freshly-amazing time to be so close to friends who had always lived in South London. I used to loathe being the only one heading home North and alone on the Tube at night. I have loved the nearness of them.

One of the benefits of having a baby is the new friends you meet, the network that gets set up almost without you noticing until you realise that there is rarely a week go by without coffees and baby lunches, playgroups and singing sessions. In fact we’ve just started hitting the 1st birthday parties, which is both incredible and rather pleasing. WE MADE IT, I want to keep exclaiming at them.

And it gave me the chance to properly get to know my sister again. It’s been such a brilliant few years being able to just drop in, hang out, get her to childmind while I work like a dog every now and then… I am not great at expressing emotion but I am going to miss her like gangbusters, as will MCD Jr. It’s going to be that bit lonelier and harder without her there.

I have LOVED my life in London. The last 11 years have been extraordinary and brilliant, life-enhancing in every way. Watching it burn a few weeks ago, however, only confirmed what I know to be true for our family. I want our son to have a go at life as my childhood was – a rural idyll where he might be safe for a few more years. I think everything has a natural lifespan; I don’t hold with Pepys’ old saw at all. I’m older and more tired (God, how very tired!) and I am now full of the things I don’t want to know (our local gang is called the Gipset Taliban. I never wanted to know that). I crave green and space and air.

Cheshire, here we come.

PS: I haven’t stopped blogging. But there may be a bit of a pause until I come over all unnecessary at new food finds.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

The ONLY* drink I shall be drinking from now on

I am a sucker for nostalgia. Anything that suggests a yearning sense of time passed immediately snags my attention. When I was living in Germany (I too have travelled) there was a tiny shop in Bad Nauheim called Zeitgeist. Over here it would have been too too kitsch; over there the oddities and collectibles were too tempting not to spend a couple of hours browsing through, if only for a misplaced sense of home. (Although how’s this for forethought: I bought MCD – at that time ‘just a friend’ – the most beautiful chess set, thinking one day he might use it to play with his children. It now sits in our dining room, awaiting MCD Jr’s no doubt keen involvement). The objects in there made me want to own them, to connect me in some tangible way to another time – most often the Twenties. I can’t be the only person who really quite desperately longs for a sepia-toned globe for a drinks cabinet? But then my ideal home is Eltham Palace and they have one, so you see where I’m coming from.

I am, as you see, quite suggestible. So when I read in Victoria Moore’s How to Drink about Negronis and their evocation of Florence and the Forties and palazzos et al, I think, That is the drink for me. I spent a very nice holiday pre-baby in Venice drinking 'lo Spritz – Prosecco with a dash of Campari -  at nearly every opportunity, so glamorous and quasi-Italian did it make me feel. A Negroni is like a supercharged injection of Sophia Loren-ness. I don’t think I could pass a Saturday night without one now. When I shall fit my dirty Martinis in, I don’t quite know.

Simply pour one part Campari, one part red vermouth and one part gin over a generous amount of ice in a tumbler. Drink whilst ensuring you are feeling card-sharp and endlessly, Dorothy Parker-style witty. This feeling will increase as you drink. I’m not one to caution against drinking, but one of these is a rocket. I haven’t dared have two yet.

*Apart from the afore-mentioned martinis, wine both still and sparkling, Bloody Marys and cocktails of all descriptions apart from sweet and creamy.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Mexican sunshine

God, Saturday’s weather was rubbish, wasn’t it? In fact, it was so rubbish, we got back from food shopping and were faced with something of a dilemma. MCD Jr was fast asleep in the back of the car; the rain was lashing down; we were shattered. We just couldn’t face getting out of the car; in fact we argued over who was going to get out and take the shopping in and who got to stay in to watch MCD Jr/snooze. In the end, we both decided passivity was the way forward and we all had a refreshing 45 minute snooze in the car - in the rain - on our drive. When we woke up it was still raining. But at least we could face the walk up the garden path.

We had planned a picnic in a local park for the weekend (more of which later), but for Saturday night I wanted to cook something a bit different. I had caught a glimpse of Tommi Miers’ Channel 5 show in Mexico where she put together a take on prawn cocktail and the idea inspired a complete Mexican feast. The recipe ideas are all taken from her book, so don’t think I’m suddenly revealing some authentic Mexican ancestry – I’m just copying.

We started with the prawn cocktail and this was sheer genius. One packet of cooked tiger prawns and one packet of those tiny queen scallops would probably feed 4, so I made this over two nights because it was so damn good.

Firstly make the sauce. It’s a bit like a Mexican Bloody Mary and is considerably enlivened by alcohol. (What isn’t, I ask myself?) Pour 250ml good –quality tomato juice into a measuring jug. Add the juice of 2 limes and 1 mandarin (or orange), a few good shakes Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco, a good squeeze of ketchup, salt and pepper and a shot of Tequila or vodka. Taste and adjust as you see fit, then refrigerate for at least one hour.

In little tumblers, arrange some diced cucumber, diced avocado and shredded Little Gem lettuce. Top with the prawns. Quickly fry off the scallops in a little olive oil for two minutes, tops then add to the cocktail. Pour over the tomato sauce and eat.

We ate this alongside guacamole, salsa and nachos – just a light starter. We followed with a derivation of Tommi’s chilli and tamarind-infused pork belly, only I used ribs, stuffed courgette flowers and a quick version of her smoky stuffed peppers. Here we go again.

Get the ribs going first. I tend to cook them in  a 150C oven for 2-3 hours so they are meltingly tender before the final baste. Make a marinade for them by combining 4 smashed garlic cloves, 1 cinnamon stick, 1 tsp cloves, 1 tsp allspice berries, 1 tbsp tamarind paste, 1 heaped tbsp chipotle puree (I happened to have some chipotle relish in the cupboard so I used that), 3 tbsp soy sauce, 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar, 2 tbsp brown sugar, salt and pepper. Coat the ribs thoroughly and cook as above, covering the roasting tin with foil and check them from time to time to turn.

While they’re cooking, make the peppers. Tommi makes a no-doubt delicious but slightly more time-consuming potato-based filling for this, but I frankly couldn’t be arsed so here’s my quick version:

Halve red or yellow peppers and de-seed. Place in a roasting tray. In a bowl combine: the chopped flesh of a ripe mango, 100g goats cheese, 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar, small handful oregano leaves, 1 crushed garlic clove. I stuffed the pepper halves with this and drizzled with oil, then baked for about 25-30 minutes until the peppers are soft.

The courgette flowers I have described before so just repeat. In fact, this time I didn’t even make a batter; I just separated the courgettes from the flour and finely sliced, then sautéed them both in a little oil.

We ate this with mucho Margaritas and followed with chocolate tiramisu from Gu to which I might be a little bit addicted. Even though I don’t actually like chocolate very much. Go figure.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Some summery ideas

Not terribly sure if summer is planning on hanging around much longer; let’s face it – we’ve already had the Glorious Twelfth (and where is my grouse?) and we’re bombing towards the cornucopia that is September bounty, so I would suggest if, like me, you’ve barely opened a summer cookbook this season, just do it – barbecue in the kitchen, picnic in the lounge, dine al fresco in the rain – otherwise we’ll have gone from navarin of lamb to beef stew without so much as a by your leave.

Last night I made a pudding. It doesn’t happen very often, given I’m not that keen, but I had some delicious greengages waiting to be used and a sheet of puff pastry.

Divide the puff pastry into four equal parts. (Actually I just divided it in half, but we are big fat pigs and know no restraint, but for normal people a quarter would do.) Halve and stone the greengages and arrange within each quarter of pastry, leaving enough pastry to fold over and make an envelope.

Sprinkle the greengages with a good teaspoon of sugar and a little cinnamon. MCD had some raspberries with his too. Fold over the pastry and use the tines of a fork to seal around the edges. Make a slit in the top and carve your initials into the pastry. That's particularly vital. Brush with eggwash and bake on baking parchment in a 180C oven for around 20-30 minutes, or until puffed and golden.

Eat with creme fraiche or ice cream or any dairy product you have in. Apart from Cheddar.

I’m starting to run out of ideas for what to do with green beans and courgettes and marrows. Jamie’s tomato-based green/runner bean stew is particularly good, but I’m freezing bag-loads. As for courgettes I made a particularly good pasta dish the other night with the leftovers from a roast chicken and they worked well with it.

Based on Nigella’s Venetian-style chicken, simply cook penne-sized courgette pieces in oil with a couple of cloves of garlic until tender. Add in the pieces of shredded chicken, a handful of raisins soaked in warm water and a good slosh of white wine and a tbsp chopped rosemary. Simmer until the wine is syrupy, season and add a handful of toasted pine nuts if you have any.

Toss with cooked pasta and sprinkle effusively with parsley. It was rainy-night satisfying, especially with a pesto baguette along the lines of garlic bread.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Beans, beans, beans

Never, ever, EVER, turn your back on an allotment. Not even for 48 hours. For you can guarantee that the tiny sweet baby courgettes that looked like they might remain in nappies for days yet will, by the time you look again, have turned into sprawling, squawking monsters whose pliable adaptable nature you have missed and with which you can do very little.

Sarah Raven peels and roasts her marrows, cubed in a little oil, with aubergines and onions to serve with a curry. I would toss them in cumin and coriander and serve with yoghurt and make them the focal point. Other than that I can offer you very little other than Nigel’s excellent Thai-style pork mince alongside or simply to give them to slightly startled friends and family.

But the beans are much more docile. True, they swarm up and down the canes like gangbusters, but you can at least freeze them. Last night I made an outrageously good side dish with them. The only negative was that MCD ate very little of it and I could have given him less and saved more for lunch today. God Damn.

I made this with green beans only, but now the runner beans are kicking in, by all means use a mixture.

Top and tail a large handful of beans and cut into 2cm lengths or thereabouts. Boil briefly in salted water for 3 minutes and no longer.

Meanwhile drain a can of flageolet beans and leave over the sink. Drain the cooked beans through the sieve, simultaneously warming the flageolet (the THRIFT) and combining the beans and tip everything back into the pan.

Whisk up a dressing of 2 tbsp grain mustard, 1-2 tbsp red wine or other vinegar (but not a sweet one), salt, pinch of sugar, pepper and a tsp of honey. Whisk in good olive oil to emulsify and stir into the beans. Taste and correct the seasoning if necessary and serve while warm.

We ate this with Barnsley lamb chops and some spinach on the side. Or at least I did. MCD seemed to toy with a bit of plate. If you do have leftovers, like I managed to scrape together (alright, I cleaned off his beans – I’m not proud), you might eat them alongside something like a pork pie perhaps, or some nice cheese.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011


This is not a good week. I have been snowed under with a vast and seemingly unending recipe project, I barely see MCD Jr, my sister bought a fabulous puppy last week which died yesterday and my grandmother appears to be intent on joining it. Poor dog. So what with writing about food all day and mourning the loss of a dog and the absence of my son in the evening, I haven’t been much of a one for the stove.

However, out in the allotment, picking beans not quite as quickly as they are growing, I can’t help but be bowled over by the sunshine yellow of the best courgette flowers we have ever had. It would be a crime not to use them, so I came up with the following as I don’t deep fry (vats of boiling oil would not – I suspect – be my best friend).

Clean and wash very very carefully two courgette flowers (with small courgettes attached for preference). Snip out the stamens and dry on kitchen paper.

Whisk together in a bowl 4 tbsp ricotta, small handful of oregano leaves or chopped basil, a little lemon zest and juice, 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil and salt and pepper.

Gently spoon the mixture into the flowers and press the flowers together to seal.

Make a batter by mixing 100g plain flour with 1-2 glasses of white wine. If it’s still too thick add a little water to make it the consistency of double cream.

Dip the flowers in and make sure they are thoroughly coated.

Heat 1cm depth of vegetable oil in a large frying pan and when hot enough, lower the flowers in. Fry for about three minutes until the underside is crisp and golden, then carefully turn over with the spatula to cook the other side.

Drain on kitchen paper and eat as an appetiser before an appropriately courgette-based main dish such as Jamie’s courgette carbonara from Jamie at Home.

This seems terribly downbeat – sorry. Back with the stiff upper next time.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Green things

Working motherhood, then, and the ability of a 9 month old to come back from lovely afternoons with a doting aunt and fix you with a gimlet eye denoting utter contempt for your decision to be absent from the day’s entertainment and simultaneously shower said aunt with much affection before refusing to acknowledge your very existence in the intervening period between arrival and bedtime. I never expected to face such strong feelings so early, and I don’t think I am reading too much into it, but suffice to say that even three afternoons a week can see the guilt ladled onto your already heaped plate, seasoned with a hefty dose of frustration that you’re only doing your best and it’s never ever going to be enough for this small chunk of humanity. And I do mean chunk.

This blog too has become sadly neglected since I started working a bit and for that I apologise. However, I’m going to try to post at least weekly (haven’t I said that before?) to at least attempt to retain a reader or two.

In the garden, the allotment has shot into abundance verging on glut given all this weather we’ve been having. We’re still picking kale and cavolo nero, digging up potatoes and now the courgettes and green beans are begging to be picked. I thought I’d pass on ways to deal with the oncoming flood, although I’ll be damned if I’m going to pickle.

Green beans are just lovely freshly picked, but what to do with them other than simply boiled. Quite often it’s all in the pairing and I treat them much as I would broad beans, enjoying as they do all manner of dairy and porcine companionship. Particularly good is any cheese crumbled over still-warm beans and left to soften.

I’ve also taken to braising them slowly: Boil them briefly until just cooked, then drain and add to olive oil with garlic, perhaps an anchovy or two melted into it and a little water and lid on for perhaps 10 minutes until the beans are khaki and truly soft. I like to add a little white wine to the oil, or throw in some herbs or a squeeze of lemon at the end.

The greens I still adore sauteed with similar flavourings, perhaps a touch of dried chilli for good measure. I have some chorizo in the fridge and – with this rain seemingly set in for the week – it would sit perfectly in a Portuguese-style stew with potatoes and greens and some excellent bread on the side.

The courgettes and their concomitant flowers I shall come back to. I have some buffalo mozzarella in the fridge and tomorrow night’s dinner shall be some combination of them, probably with a pasta base. I shall keep you posted.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Barbecued potatoes

My default accompaniment for anything barbecued is either a garlic-heavy panzanella salad, preferably heavy on the cucumber for ultimate refreshment or cubed potatoes roasted in the oven with rosemary and garlic. However, we appear to be going through what the BBC and the dear old Met Office are endearingly calling a heatwave (I would call it summer and slap on the sunscreen, but then I am not paid for hyperbole and panic-mongering) and the thought of having the oven on was enough to make me hyperventilate and swoon to the floor (you can have that hyperbole for free).

Flicking through the excellent Barbecue for their Memphis recipe for pork ribs, I came across their recipe for barbecued potatoes which fitted the bill entirely perfectly and justified the turning on of the BBQ. I of course jigged it about a little, because I can never leave well enough alone, but the idea is in essence theirs.

Serves 2 with leftovers:

Bring a pan of salted water to the boil and add roughly two good handfuls of either scrubbed new potatoes or larger potatoes but in half. Cook at an enthusiastic simmer for 5-6 minutes until just tender but offering a little resistance to the point of a knife.

Drain them thoroughly, even drying them out over a low heat for a few seconds, toss in olive oil and season liberally.

Whisk together the juice of 1/2 lemon, 5-6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, 2 tbsp olives, stoned and chopped, a sprig of rosemary, finely chopped and a crushed garlic clove and season.

Thread the cooled potatoes onto skewers and leave them on the BBQ for around 15 minutes until they start to crisp and turn gold. When done to your liking, toss them in the dressing and serve warm.

Monday, 20 June 2011

An Italian slant on steak and chips

or, in other words, without any chips at all. We love steak, love it, but I have to admit the whole idea of steak, chips and bearnaise sauce does pall and so I look for other ways to get the juices flowing. I should add at this point MCD Sr is always very happy with chips and bearnaise; was in fact disappointed when I announced my intention not to do chips at all, so I worked hard to find a happy substitute. I think I did it.

My basic premise was a ‘spread’; you know, the kind of thing that makes elderly ladies’ eyes mist over a little at the effort and sheer abundance visibly displayed on the table. I had at my disposal an ageing fennel bulb, some ok tomatoes and mozzarella, a can of cannellini beans, a cornucopia of fresh herbs growing outside and a couple of hours off from MCD Jr to play. Here goes…

First : none of these dishes are time-consuming so do them in the order suits you – they can all justify hanging-around time.

Patate al forno: Oven-roasted potatoes to you and I, but once you’ve cubed and tossed the potatoes in olive oil, put them in a 200C oven for 20 minutes. THEN and only THEN add a few cloves of garlic and some sprigs of rosemary, otherwise the flavourings will burn and it all tastes of forest fire. Once they’re cooked through, usually another 20 minutes, leave them in the switched-off oven till you’re ready.

Fennel: Ok, this is just genius. MCD Sr hates fennel, but I noted he ate 2 strands of this, so I count that a win. Make an envelope out of some foil and shove in the fennel bulb, cored and thickly sliced, the juice of the other 1/2 of the lemon plus the squeezed-out half, seasoning and a good glug of white wine and a little olive oil. Bake alongside the potatoes for about 30 minutes. It comes out tender, delicious and submissive – just how you want a vegetable.

Insalata Caprese: Again a plain old tomato and mozzarella salad, but I came up with a fiendishly clever dressing. Slice or chop the tomatoes, then lay on a plate. Whisk together a good few tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, a little red wine vinegar and seasoning then drizzle over the tomatoes. Tear apart a mozzarella and lay on top, channelling Jamie Oliver as you do so. If you happen to have any fresh mint and oregano around, this is what I used, but use basil or parsley or whatever you have, just simply smash them up in a pestle and mortar, then whisk in enough extra virgin to make a loose dressing and some seasoning, then drizzle over the cheese.

Beans al’Italia: When we went to Florence many years ago, on our first night we had authentic Florence bistecca and white beans on the side. Dead simple, absolutely perfect and a bugger to recreate ever since. I may have come up with a second-best, given I am using canned and not fresh or dried. (If you do have either of the latter, then can I direct you to Jamie’s Italy, where there is a lovely recipe). I simmered the beans very gently in quite a strong vegetable stock*, along with the zest of 1/2 a lemon, a garlic clove and some rosemary. Don’t go too fast or too long or they’ll break up. Once they’re soft and heated through, season and set aside. You won’t need all the liquor, so just spoon them out onto plates to serve.

The steak I simply griddled to medium-rare, so I won’t bore you with the details. Serve along a table interspersed with wine bottles and candles for full effect. Don’t forget bread for all the juices. We didn’t have any and I regret it still.

NB: Any leftover beans are delicious heated up with a spoonful of cream and served on toast the next day.

*I hate to boast but I am so proud of this thriftiness. My veg stock actually came from cooking MCD Jr’s noodles, chicken and veg for lunch; I simply saved the cooking liquor for the beans with all its ready-made flavour. I rock. You have my permission to use a stock cube.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Venison chilli–sort of

Yeah, not really sure what to call this. It’s not one thing or t’other but it was really really nice. I had some venison shoulder steaks in the freezer and I thought they might not be meltingly tender cooked just as steak, so thought I might slow-cook them. Browsing, I came across Clarissa Dickson-Wright’s recipe for a Texas Hash in her Game Cookbook, which I adapted and messed around with and came up with this:

Slowly fry a sliced onion and diced green pepper (or whatever colour you prefer) in a casserole dish until softened. Meanwhile, chop up your venison; I cut it up into quite small pieces then add to the pot. Brown, then stir in a good tbsp of tomato puree. I poured in about 100ml passata, or use a can of tomatoes, and around 200ml beef stock, a good slug of Worcestershire sauce and a little smoked chipotle Tabasco which I happen to love, but ordinary will do fine. I simmered it for around 30 minutes, until the sauce had thickened and reduced a little, then seasoned and poured into a shallow lasagne dish.

Peel and finely slice some potatoes (sometimes, in the spirit of adventure I like not to use my mandoline but test my knife skills. The mandoline wins every time) and arrange prettily or haphazardly on top of the meat. Drizzle with oil and seasoning and bake in a 180C oven until the potatoes are tender. Frankly, this could take up to 50 minutes, so just keep checking. If the sauce reduces too much or the potatoes start to darken, slosh a tiny bit of water in and cover with foil. When all is tender top with slices of cheese and pop back into the oven for the cheese to melt.

Serve with a large helping of greens on the side for health.

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Friday, 10 June 2011

Cottage cheese–a retro pleasure

Frankly, the whole cottage cheese issue is a bit like Marmite. So, if you’re in the camp that goes ‘yack’ at the mere mention, turn away now. Or be brave, stick around and try it again.

I quite often whisk extra-virgin olive oil, salt, and sometimes a little garlic and herbs into yoghurt to make an impromptu sauce for chicken or lamb. It’s particularly good in BBQ surroundings. I also do something similar to ricotta if I have it in, spooning it over pasta for a quick dinner. I had bought some cottage cheese a little while ago for MCD Jr, thinking to spread it on toast for lunch and so on. However, it was a big tub and going nowhere fast, so I had to come up with something like this.

Spoon some cottage cheese into a bowl and whisk in the e-v olive oil – perhaps a couple of tbsp. Season and then stir in a few fragrant fresh herbs. I happen to have a particularly pungent oregano growing outside the back door so in it went, but basil, parsley, even mint would work well, although in the latter case I would bring out the cheese’s sour notes with a squeeze of lemon.

I cooked an over-generous portion of pasta – trottoli actually, those tight, fat spirals – and tossed with some tomatoes I had diced and left to macerate in good oil, garlic, seasoning and a squeeze of lemon. You may like to add a few chilli flakes. Stir the pasta and tomatoes together in the warm saucepan, spoon into a bowl and top with the cold cheese mixture.

The concept works well enough for breakfast too, with the tomatoes laden on toasted sourdough and topped with the cheese; something I often have with a pot of good coffee.

It’s a budget supper, to be honest, but it’s also a good alternative if ricotta or yoghurt proves elusive; everywhere sells cottage cheese, and if you can overcome any textural difficulties – and I understand that point of view – it’s a bonus in the fridge.

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Monday, 6 June 2011

A motley crew

I am just appalling at keeping up with myself, but I am back again. I thought it might be an idea to jot down a few suggestions to try over the summer, particularly as the lying BBC weathermen have us desiccating slowly away over the coming months (as I write this, it’s the wettest Monday morning in months...)

Suggestion no. 1 is a take on salsa verde, that pinging green sauce that goes so well with lamb, fish and practically everything else and ratatouille, given I had no courgettes or peppers. I had some lamb chops I particularly wanted to roast until rosy pink inside and wanted a refreshing side dish. I whizzed up in the food processor (you don’t want a smooth sauce, more of a sludgy paste), three to four  anchovies and a little of the oil, a good squeeze of lemon, a big handful of mint leaves, a few oregano leaves, a tiny bit of grain mustard and enough olive oil to loosen. Check the seasoning and lemon juice in particular. Drain and rinse a can of borlotti beans (or cook your own fresh, naturally) and toss in the dressing. I roasted some cubes of butternut squash and aubergine alongside the lamb, then tossed the vegetables with some fresh chopped tomato, a handful of rocket leaves, then stirred them through the beans and dressing.

Coming back to the missing ingredients above, roasted peppers would work fabulously with the dressing, with or without the lamb.

Suggestion no. 2 is just a very simple dressing to spoon over squid or fish fresh from the BBQ. Squeeze a lime into a dish, add a little chopped chilli, half a tsp of cumin, a little salt and then whisk in some olive oil. It just lifts like nothing else.

No. 3: Going back to the asparagus and pea puree I made a few weeks ago, my most recent batch found a culinary bedfellow in the scooped-out insides of a baked potato, piled back in the skin and topped with a little grated cheese before being heated through in the oven. It would be lovely with something porcine – perhaps even such an old-fashioned thing as a gammon chop.

The hot sunshine of last week prompted a flick through some books to find an exciting salad recipe for no. 4. Jamie at Home has a recipe for strawberry and halloumi salad with speck ( a cured ham), which was just the ticket. Macerate the strawberries with a tbsp balsamic vinegar, a little lemon juice, salt and pepper and a little olive oil. Fry a few slices of halloumi in a pan until golden. Toss the strawberries through a salad leaves, top with the halloumi slices and if you have anything in the way of crispy bacon, ham or even speck, it’s terribly good with – and not so bad without.

Friday, 13 May 2011

A sort-of-broccoli pesto

I am very much a fan of the kind of pasta dishes that don’t start with a sweated onion and a can of tomatoes. Blah, blah is all the unenthusiastic verbosity I can muster when faced with the inevitable store cupboard standbys. However, give me a handful of greens of some – any -  description, some anchovies and garlic – and now we’re talking. The bitter, savoury, salty, grown-up flavours appeal to me much more than an over-reduced tomato base, and with a kick of chilli and a squeeze of lemon, it’s enough to roll you over and have you begging for more. Well, maybe, depending on how low your standards are.

I started with a bag of past-its-best purple sprouting (having bought two bags at the market in a spirit of hollandaise-based enthusiasm and conveniently forgetting MCD loathes the stuff) and thought about how I successfully used the woody asparagus ends last week. I took off the tiny stalky florets and set them to one side and then roughly chopped the longer woody stalks. I put them in the food processor with a large clove of garlic, a sprinkling of crushed dried chilli, a good squeeze of lemon, a couple of anchovies and some oregano for good measure and blitzed the lot.

I then slowly fried the mixture in some olive oil in a pan with a little water to help steam it; a little white wine would be good here too. Be warned: it does go a deep, perhaps unattractive, khaki colour but no-one promised you a rose garden. Meanwhile get your pasta of choice on to boil and about three minutes from the end of cooking time, throw in the reserved florets, then drain when all is tender.

Toss the pasta and florets into the sauce, then add a fierce amount of Parmesan and maybe more lemon and chilli if you really need a kick up the backside.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

What to do with asparagus ends

This comes courtesy of Lindsay Bareham in The Times. I’ve tweaked it a little but it’s still a brilliant use of the woody ends of asparagus that you would normally throw in the bin, or, if you’re extremely thrifty and clever, freeze for stock or some such. This is less work and fiendishly inventive, not least because you wouldn’t want to use whole asparagus in this, but it’s perfect for those who hate waste.

Chuck your snapped off asparagus ends in boiling water for two minutes. I used the ends of two big handfuls of asparagus. Then add around 100g frozen peas and cook until both are tender; I’d say about 3-4 minutes but keep testing. Drain them, then blitz in a food processor with a good dollop of crème fraiche, salt and pepper, a few mint leaves and a handful of basil. I added a little lemon juice too, just to freshen the flavour.

Lindsay suggests spreading the puree on toast and topping with the rest of the asparagus, steamed, with a poached egg and some Parma ham, which sounds fabulous. We had it bruschetta-style and MCD Jr had it stirred into baby pasta and devoured the lot (though to be fair, there’s very little he doesn’t devour, so I wouldn’t take that as a recommendation).

Monday, 2 May 2011

Wild garlic cream–you read it here first

Wild garlic is a wonderful delicacy at this time of year and when I come across it, I tend to go a bit mad and buy armfuls – like its spring companion asparagus - convinced it will go with everything; thankfully, it is an amiable accompaniment to most things. However, last night was a feast of sheer genius (I hope you don’t mind me saying) and I must, must write it down.

We were aiming for something around the theme of steak sandwiches and chips and in my head this seemed perfectly preceded by a bunch of asparagus roasted in the oven with olive oil, as is our wont. Pondering on how to include some of the wild garlic, I was seduced by the idea of a wild garlic cream to dip the asparagus and even the chips into. What follows is how I put it all together.

For the chips either: open bag of frozen chips and bake in hot oven for around 20 minutes or: cut peeled floury or unpeeled new potatoes into wedges, drizzle with oil and salt and bake in a hot oven for around 30 minutes, depending on their size.

For the wild garlic cream, gently warm half a tub of crème fraiche in a small pan (it’s hard to be prescriptive about this, but as much as you think you would like spooned over everything…). Finely chop a good handful of the wild garlic leaves and add to the cream, leaving it to gently bubble for a few minutes. Cube some Jarlsberg (again, hard to be dictatorial about this as this was simply what I had in; the Pecorino also in stock would have been a bit too big for its boots first time around, but I see no reason not to try it next time) and add to the sauce. Jarlsberg adds a lovely sweet nutty background taste that lets the wild garlic take centre stage. Check the seasoning.

Roast or steam your asparagus until tender and set aside, kept warm.

Griddle your seasoned steak until done to your desired degree. I tend towards rare as rare can be and underdo it on the griddle so that the resting time cooks it through a little more.

Split your sandwich bread of choice open (we had ciabatta) and smear with a thin layer of Dijon mustard. I find it impossible to have a steak sandwich without this essential layer; you may feel differently. Toss over some watercress. Slice your rested steak thinly and carefully, saving the juices and arrange on the bread then pour over the juices and season again. Spoon over some of the wild garlic cream and sandwich together.

Pour the rest of the cream into a pot and use for dipping asparagus and chips into. Heavenly creamy bliss in a few minutes.

You, my friends, are welcome.

Monday, 25 April 2011

How to dress a cow…

Cold rare beef is one of the nicer things to have loitering in your fridge. (Can beef be said to loiter? It might be a bit regal for that). Its first outing was on Friday, with cubed roasted potatoes with rosemary, a simple tomato salad dressed with olive oil and seasoning, a green salad of watercress and pea shoots and a mustard mint dressing of Nigel Slater’s that is so utterly luscious and wonderful I shall share because I am kind and want only to enhance your day.

Whizz together 2 egg yolks, a large handful of mint, a tbsp grain mustard and a good squeeze of lemon juice. Trickle in 4-5 tbsp olive oil until the mixture has amalgamated and season as you will.

The lovely thing about the meal above is that the beef need not be piping hot and the sauce can be made at the last minute, so you have masses of time to do your sides. By which I mean the side salads, not your own sides. What quite you might be doing with them I can’t think. Moving swiftly on…

If you want to go Continental with your cold beef, think anything Thai, New Yorker style with gherkins and mustard getting involved or even just eat with any of the leftover sauce from above, perhaps on a piece of toasted sourdough with some peppery green leaves. Or you could try the following take on a Banh Mi – a Vienamese pork baguette and a particular addiction of mine that, I think, adapts well to other meats.

Grate a carrot and a courgette coarsely and toss together in a bowl. Throw in some leaves if you have any; other additions might even be a tin of beansprouts if you’re wondering what the hell to do with it. Cool and crunchy is the idea. Slice up a chilli, red or green and add to the vegetables. Whisk together a tbsp sugar with a couple tbsp white wine vinegar and taste – you want sweet and sharp and lip-smacking – then stir through the grated vegetables and leave for a few minutes.

Split a baguette in half and layer with the beef, as thinly sliced as you can, and the grated vegetables. Press together and enjoy. Alternatively, do without the carbs and have it over more salad or even tossed with noodles.

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Saturday, 23 April 2011

How to dress a cold chicken…

It needs less layers than you think. Whisk together a couple of tbsp mayonnaise, 1/2 tsp of honey, a good squeeze of lemon juice and 2-3 tbsp olive oil. Check it – you may need seasoning and more lemon juice – then pour over the shredded chicken, which you may have arranged over some mixed salad leaves, slices of avocado etc.

That’s it. It’s just really really good. Next time, how to dress a cold cow.

Monday, 18 April 2011

So Belinda Carlisle did have a point…

Well, at least a minor one… There actually could be truth in ‘Oooh Heaven is a place on Earth’ – and it might be Dorset. Pretty much all of it, apart perhaps from Poole. I’ll get to that later.

A quick round-up:

Favourite place to eat: Tricky. I loved The Olive Branch in Wimborne Minster, because it had a lovely garden and clever platters for sharing.

The Royal Oak in Cerne Abbas serves really excellent pub food in a village already gorging on good places to eat. And they don’t do children’s food, as such but prefer to do a smaller appetites menu. This makes me love them.

FishyFishy Brasserie on the quay in Poole looked amazing, Unfortunately we didn’t get to eat there because MCD invoked his right to eat lobster on his birthday so we went instead to Corkers which was deserted, with curiously old-style patterned swirly carpets and creaking waiters and lobster Thermidor, naturally.

West Beach in Bournemouth again is worth a stop – particularly for their takeout fish and chips, or indeed tempura prawns, to eat on the beach. Again I didn’t get to actually eat here because we couldn’t bloody find it the first time around and MCD Jr was gagging for lunch. And when I did find it, on a return solo trip, I wasn’t actually very hungry, but I am assured it’s good.

Where we stayed: Grange holiday cottages are beautiful.

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Dorset Holiday April 2011 006

This is Petersham, a one-bed cottage which suited us perfectly. I’ve never done a holiday cottage before and didn’t know what to take. Tip for the future: you don’t need washing up liquid, but do take ketchup, bin bags and check, if you have a small person, where you can bathe them. This had a wet room which was rather fabulous for us, but somewhat trying for MCD Jr, who had to be bathed in the sink each night and soon got tired of it.

Favourite village: without a doubt, Cerne Abbas. I expected it to be weirdly, horribly touristy but it was delightful, mostly because of the plethora of fabulous pubs, a sweet tea-rooms, a General Stores that was actually a proper, honest-to-goodness place where you could buy useful things, such as local meat, cheese, veg – in short, like nothing in London. Also because of the notices around the village informing everyone of an upcoming funeral of a local resident (I am assuming this was because she was much-loved, but this might not have been the case; still, the devotion to population was touching). And the giant on the hill with the big willy was quite far enough away not to impact really upon it. It’s not like it was looming priapically over the village or anything. Obviously seeing it all in early April means we missed the hordes, so it may become a hell-hole come late summer, but still – fabulous.

Least favourite place: Poole. Ok – not everywhere can be amazing but, considering its position so close to Sandbanks etc, it was strangely down-trodden, dated even. Apart from the quay – well, a bit of it – it just wasn’t very attractive. The shops were tired and clearly struggling slightly; we worked hard to find a decent place to eat (see above); it all felt as if no-one cared very much. And – this may be a very unfair comparison – we had just come from a buzzing Bournemouth, which although it can be seaside hell, still felt as if people wanted to be there. All very strange and I stand to be corrected.

Weirdest tourist attraction: The combination of the only exhibition outside China to be showing the Terracotta Army and The Teddy Bear Museum. MCD Jr loved the latter; MCD Sr loved the former – everyone was a winner.

Bonus pics:

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This is actually as close to the Cerne Abbas giant as we got. But this was a good thing: if it is a fertility aid, I don’t want to be near it for some time.

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A house named after my sister. Or maybe it’s the name of the resident. Either way, I rather like the idea of naming my house like this. ‘Come to Stanley’ I might roar, exuding bonhomie in my Dorset idyll.

Monday, 28 March 2011

All in Good Taste…

As one might properly hope on this blog. Sorry for the hiatus but the last few weeks have been thoroughly liquidised into one. MCD Jr is weaning (in fact, today is his half birthday and to celebrate he has his very first tooth) and I seemed to have done nothing most days other than think of and consequently make yet another delicious mixture of vegetable and fruit purees.

But then, this suddenly was not enough and now the child is devouring salmon with potatoes and carrots, chicken and parsnip stew and – last night – polished off a bowl of beef casserole with butternut squash mash. So I am still cooking for the little person and not much enthusiasm is is left for the big people and their dinner.

However, the big people have to eat too, so as the parents were due down last Friday, I set off up to Crystal Palace to inspect our brand new shiny deli, Good Taste. It was a treat. Two large fridges house a fine range of mostly British cheese, including a ripely perfect Waterloo, sharp tangy Dunsyre Blue from Scotland and even Lord of the Hundreds, a hard Pecorino-esque cheese Rose Prince is always banging on about but have never tracked down. There’s a cabinet of charcuterie including a wonderfuly rich cured peppercorn venison, bread from Born and Bread, dressers of olives, chutneys and jams and, at the back, a coffee bar where they can freshly grind your choice of coffee to take away.

Frankly we couldn’t wish for more in the area; all we need now is a decent butcher and life would be sweet. The new food fair coming to West Norwood next week, however, might yet improve things further – Good Taste are attending, amongst others. I shall report back.

I wouldn’t normally post a very self-indulgent picture but it’s been six whole months and we’ve made it and I’m very proud of us….


Wednesday, 23 February 2011

A Chicken and Lentil One-Pot Stew

It doesn’t sound terribly exciting does it? I suspect that the mention of lentils is never going to set the culinary world on fire and have you racing to recreate this in the kitchen. I might add it’s a very brown sort of a dish. But cast those prejudices out the window - this is the kind of adaptable one-pot cooking that’s quite useful when you’ve got a couple of pieces of chicken and you want something soothing rather than the razzle dazzle.

So, chop up some base vegetables. By this I refer to the Italian concept of ‘soffrito’; think carrot, celery and onion. Perversely I used celery, leek and garlic instead but any and all combinations of the above will work. Sweat them in a casserole in some olive oil until softened. At this point, you may or may not want to add some pancetta or streaky bacon – it depends on whether you want the final dish to have that bacon hit of smokiness or something altogether gentler; anyway, it’s up to you.

Once the vegetables have softened, add (for two people) around 150g Puy lentils and a good handful of potatoes, chopped up. Again it doesn’t matter if you use waxy or floury potatoes, but the end result will differ quite a bit: waxy potatoes will keep their shape; floury ones will disintegrate into the sauce and make it a bit creamier. If you’re using floury potatoes, peel them before chopping. If waxy, simply halve or quarter them, according to size. Pour in about 500ml water or even chicken or vegetable stock (I might favour stock if there was no bacon), season and then place on top the chicken pieces you have and place the lid on.

If you’re using chicken thighs, this will take maybe 50 minutes to cook; if using chicken breast, check after 30 minutes. If you’ve left the skin on (and no reason why not, it’ll just add to the moistness of the chicken) don’t expect it to crisp up. In fact, if you’re averse to flobby skin, it’s best discarded once the chicken has cooked.

Once the chicken is cooked through and the lentils are tender, remove the chicken and set to one side. This is where you start punching up the flavour. Don’t get me wrong: check the seasoning and you might find that you like it just the way it is. But you might want to throw in a few things to freshen it up – try a good squeeze of lemon juice, a tbsp of English or Dijon mustard, a handful of chopped parsley or even chilli sauce if you really want the razzle dazzle. Stir in your chosen flavourings, pop the chicken into warmed deep dishes and ladle the soupy lentil stew around, finishing with perhaps more parsley and a drizzle of extra virgin. It ain’t pretty but it sure is good.


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Monday, 14 February 2011

Entirely non-food-related…

Right now the tidal wave of revolution and reform has reached Tehran and the citizens of Iran are endeavouring to create their own political change; the government appear to be adding to unemployment by making all pilots entirely jobless (you must forgive me if these news snapshots are inaccurate; MCD Jr is a bit distracting) but David Cameron is shopping at The People’s Supermarket so that’s ok and 118 dogs have been found near rotting to death in just one house (– how has gone unnoticed?) In other news I am loving:

The Killing: watching it on iPlayer bit by painfully slow bit as MCD Jr’s naps are generally only about 45 minutes and so the last 15 minutes are spent distracting him with the spare socks on the bed.

James Lee Burke: I have completely and utterly fallen in love. Every sentence is perfectly and divinely crafted and the descriptions of Louisiana and the Bayou are haunting. I have been borrowing them from the library but I shall have to buy his entire oeuvre at some point.

MCD Jr’s latest trick: at the moment he has discovered two - count them, two – different ways of blowing raspberries. I said to him ‘at very nearly 20 weeks, that’s quite impressive.’ Less impressive is his immediate desire once picked up to vacuum his open mouth to your shoulder and blow a dribbly raspberry on it. My clothes are either damp or crusty.

Roast Figs, Sugar Snow: Diana Henry’s book on winter cooking. I’ve mentioned it before, but I’ve been reading and cooking from it slightly obsessively. Watch out for recipes on sour cream, apple and pecan muffins; a whisky and marmalade sauce to go with grouse and Danish roast pork belly with pickled prunes and cucumbers. (Yes that was food-related. Tough)

Ngaio Marsh: A New Zealand crime writer whose books are a little curious and even old-fashioned but kind of fun and whimsical. I like very much.

Jamie’s 30 Minute Meals: Oh my god. I know, I know, I wrote an entire post on how he’s missed his market, and I still think he has –in point of fact I’m taking the recipes off the Channel 4 website and just making the dishes to my own pace and rhythm. They’re  good recipes and very cleverly done, but I still wonder at the will and burn of ambition to follow him to the letter and cook it in 28 minutes. I’m even more curious about his dream school. Is he actually angling for world domination?

The Bishop: pub in East Dulwich with 25% off for mums in the week. Really great food, nice cider and lots of space for prams and tipsy lunchtime weaving. Nothing more is necessary.

I now realise that was mostly food-dominated. Never mind, what else do you come here for?

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Bringing home the bacon…

I very rarely cook a ham. It’s not something that immediately springs to mind when I’m perusing the meat counter or stall, although I dearly love all things porcine. Having picked up, then, a piece of bacon collar in Waitrose a couple of weeks ago and stashed it in the freezer quite literally ‘for a rainy day’, I thought on Sunday it might be rather fine thing to have for dinner.

But how to cook it? Somewhere in the back of my mind lingered the flavours of vegetables poached in the ham stock and a parsley sauce was probably a must-have as well as a sugar-mustard glazed crust. But I also wanted mustard and the fresh sweetness of apple somewhere along the line, although I had no cider in. So here’s what we ended up with.

The bacon collar was just under a kg in weight. Now I’m not sure of any precise cooking times and I did want to add in a bit of baking time so, after checking with Delia’s similar cooking method, I decided 45 minutes poaching and then I would bake it in the oven for at least 30 minutes and see how the crust was coming along.

So into a deep pot went the bacon, an onion that I tried to stick with cloves (but has anyone done it without really hurting their thumb and breaking the cloves?) so the cloves rather drifted into the stock of their own accord, a couple of pieces of celery, some parsley stalks and 7 peppercorns and covered the whole with water. Bring it up to the boil, stick a lid on, bring it down to a blipping simmer and from time to time skim the stock of the impurities.

Meanwhile, chop into decent chunks swede and 2-3 celery sticks, clean some young carrots, or chop older ones into chunks as well, and perhaps you might like a potato as well, which we did. And it helps to remember it soaks up a little of the salt in the stock, so you might as well. I also sliced the cheeks off an apple.

After the bacon was cooked, I sieved the stock. I took the rind off the bacon, scored the fat into diamond shapes and coated it with a sugar-mustard glaze. This is best made with English mustard for the heat and a darker sugar for the smoky caramel, but use what you have. I then put the chopped vegetables back in the pot, balanced the ham on top and ladled back over the stock just to cover the veg – you will have some left over, but keep it. I added the apple and put it in a 180C oven to bake.

Once the ham looked golden-crusted I took it out and foiled it up to rest. You might find the veg are still a tad al dente, so just put the casserole on the hob and simmer until they’re tender. Fish out the apple skin.

While the vegetables are simmering, you might want to make a parsley sauce. It’s just a simple white sauce (yes you do know it – tbsp each of flour and melted butter to make a paste, stir in around 400ml of the reserved ham stock and 100ml of milk and stir until thickened and smooth.) I whisked in a good tbsp of grain mustard and a handful of chopped parsley just before serving. 

To serve, spoon the vegetables into your dish, top with a couple of slices of the warm ham and spoon over your hopefully velvety parsley sauce. The leftover ham stock and cooking liquor will make a perfect basis for pea soup (later this week) with ham sandwiches, risotto or even as a soup base for some little cheese-stuffed ravioli perhaps…

(I don’t generally do pictures: I’m a rubbish photo taker and I never have a camera on me. But on Sunday’s walk with MCD Sr and Jr, we saw the first signs of spring. Thank god.)


Thursday, 3 February 2011

Two for the price of one: Chicken livers and a root vegetable stove-top bake

I’ve been meaning to pass on this incredible recipe for chicken livers for about two weeks, but have failed to organise my time and MCD Jr efficiently enough to get it done. And then last night I made the most amazing vegetable cheesey bake thing and desperately wanted to share that too, so you get a double-whammy. Just don’t expect it too often.

For the chicken livers, clean and cut them in half if they’re on the large side. Sizzle some butter in a frying pan and toss in the livers. Cook for a couple of minutes until the underside is starting to caramelise then turn each liver over.

While they’re cooking, slice some chicory however you want, but thin strands seem most pleasing and when you turn the livers over, add the chicory. The whole point about chicken livers is that they are gorgeous if you manage to get them pink and moussey, and utterly disgusting if you over-cook them so feel free to slice into one or two to check their done-ness at any point. When they’re cooked to your liking, use a slotted spoon to remove them from the pan. Add a tbsp or so of grain mustard, a tsp or so of honey, a squeeze of lemon and a dollop of crème fraiche or cream – enough to make a sauce. Warm it through then check the seasoning and add a small handful of chopped parsley if you’ve got any. Add the livers back in to warm through then tip onto toast.

Ok – the veg bake: Finely slice an onion and fry gently in butter with some garlic in a deep-sided frying pan. Ideally you want the onion golden and silky. Then finely slice – as thinly as you can – half a peeled celeriac (mine was enormous so I only needed half for the two of us) and a couple of peeled potatoes. If you’ve got a mandoline so much the better.

Now you can either pile all the veg slices into the pan and mix thoroughly with the butter and onions; or you can carefully remove the onions with a slotted spoon and layer alternately celeriac, onions and potato. It doesn’t much matter but the latter makes for more even cooking and a more refined end result. Both taste delicious. Pour over just enough chicken or vegetable stock to cover and half-cover with a lid. Leave to cook gently for about 20-30 minutes depending on how thinly you sliced the vegetables. Test with the point of a knife: ideally the stock should have all but evaporated leaving only sticky juices and the vegetables meltingly tender.

Now, this is the good point. Thinly slice any cheese you fancy, as long as it’s a good melting cheese. I used Taleggio but I have used mozzarella in the past as well as Reblochon and Gruyere with equally good results. Place the cheese slices on the bake, pop the lid back on and leave off the heat for a few minutes while you cook – in this instance – some lamb chops to go with. You might want to drizzle said chops with a little balsamic for extra savour. Serve pink and rosy – both you and the meat – with socking great spoonfuls of the bake. If you’re lucky, there may be some left for tomorrow.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Salt and pepper squid with noodles

Amazingly simple and quick.

Slit your squid tube (1 per person) down one side, open it up and slice it in half again. Score the outsides in a diamond pattern lightly with a sharp knife and cut each piece into three. Pat dry with some kitchen roll and set aside.

Heat a frying pan and toast 1 tsp each Sichuan and black peppercorns until slightly darkened. Pound them in a pestle and mortar and throw in about a tsp of sea salt.

Now’s the time to get the noodles and greens on. Tip your noodles into boiling salted water, give them 2 minutes then add in finely sliced greens of your choice. (Obviously if you’re using spinach, for the love of God don’t throw that in; instead wilt it in the heat of the drained noodles once they’ve cooked). After another 2 minutes, everything should be cooked, so drain reasonably thoroughly, put back in the pan and shake in a good 2 tbsp or so of soy sauce and a little drizzle of sesame oil. One thing I find every single time is that I’m too enthusiastic with the soy sauce and end up with puddles of it at the bottom,so go easy.

Get the frying pan back on a high heat and dust the squid with a little flour. Add the squid to the pan, in batches if your pan isn’t big, and cook until just opaque and ideally a little golden in patches. Toss in the ground seasoning and a few sliced red chillies and spring onions if you have them; dried chilli flakes will do if you don’t.

Tip the squid over the noodles, add a squirt of lime juice, and you may even like an extra dollop of chilli sauce. Lingham’s Garlic Chilli Sauce is my condiment of choice at the mo.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Caldo Verde–a variation

Never gild the lily, so they say. It’s a truism, especially in cooking when sometimes the simplest things are the ones we find ourselves yearning for in quieter moments. It’s the austerity perhaps that we find comforting, particularly these days, and the ability to conjure something wonderful out of seemingly meagre pickings.

Last night it was cold outside it seemed a soup would be just the thing. I had potatoes, a bag of kale, an onion, a couple of pieces of stale bread in the freezer and – randomly – a couple of chorizo sausages leftover from the squid and chorizo pilaff from the night before. Slice the onion and sweat in olive oil in a casserole. While that’s cooking, peel and chop one potato per person into chunks; the size is up to you. Large chunks will hold their shape, smaller ones will crumble into the liquid and thicken it: a mixture of the two is optimal. Add them to the pan and throw in the chorizo, sliced into coins. Add a large sliced clove of garlic and cook gently for a few minutes just to allow the oils to leach from the sausage and coat everything.

At this point, I got out my gold spray equivalent, for also in the fridge, while rummaging, I found a few Jerusalem artichokes. It seemed the nutty sweetness would only add to the soup so I simply halved them and threw them in too. I added around 600ml chicken stock, brought it up to the boil and then let it simmer until the vegetables were soft and melting into the soup.

At this point, check your liquid and then throw in as many handfuls of kale as you fancy. Last night I used nearly the whole bag, as it cooks down to near-nothing, top up with more stock if necessary and simmer for a couple of minutes until the kale is cooked.

At this point, taste and season. I also added a tsp of paprika to bumph up the smokiness. The potatoes and artichokes had crumbled and thickened the liquid to a silky sweetness, counteracted by the smoky sausage and bitter greens. I toasted the bread, rubbed it with garlic, drizzled with oil and placed it in the bottom of the warmed (!) soup bowls before ladling the soup on top. Warming, nutritious and a lily barely dusted with gold but all the better for it.