Monday, 16 November 2009

the curry phase continues ...

We ended up with curry for ≤ten last week following a visit from the butternut squash fairy. I feel drawn towards spicy food at this time of year. The desire for something hearty and hot wins out repeatedly, and I find myself influenced by Coz's taste for Indian food even when she's not here.

I've also fallen back in love with rice. In spite of all the gung-ho cookery, I confess rice and I are not friends. It's usually an after thought quickly chucked in a pan while the rest of the meal is more lovingly cared for. I'm often suspicious of everyday products which seem to have an unnecessary premium on them, but I've been converted by pure Basmati rice. Basmati is apparently like champagne, only deserving the name by being grown in a certain area. Pure Basmati, sifted to remove broken starchy grains and aged slightly to bring out the delicate flavour is even better.

Anyway, I'd been considering the fate of the squashes since their arrival, and spotting a coconut curry sealed the deal. Gone, but nowhere near forgotten, She is now living with Mr B in Wapping, and working in London Bridge. After escorting me home She pottered and made bhajis while I tended to the curry, which went a little something like this ...

Squash and coconut curry

For six, with suitable leftovers ...

2tbsp coriander seeds
2 tsp cumin seeds
3 cardamom pods
1 1/2 tsp mild chilli powder
1 tsp dried chilli flakes
1 tbsp dried curry leaves
2 tbsp gram flour
1 tbsp light olive oil
2 x 400g tins of reduced fat coconut milk
1 x 400g tin cherry tomatoes
1 butternut squash, peeled, deseeded and cut into chunks
600g sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
3 tbsp chopped coriander

Toast the cumin and coriander in a dry frying pan, before grinding in a pestle and mortar.

Pour the oil into a big thick based pan, and once hot add the crushed cardamom pods (you can do this lightly with the side of a knife), allowing them to sizzle for 30 seconds.

Add the curry leaves, coconut milk, tomatoes and ground spices. Bring to the boil, then add the squash and sweet potatoe, bringing up to a simmer until tender. If necessary, to thicken up the source sift in two level tablespoonfuls of gram flour towards the end - you can use cornflour if you don't have any.

Season to taste, then stir in the coriander when you're ready to serve up.

This was wonderful actually, and the Brave was only slightly disappointed about the lack of meat. It's a sweet velvety curry, you could probably add more chilli to give it a bit more of a kick, but it was perfectly respectable for a Wednesday night.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

fritta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta ...

I'm sure I remember some halycon days where making a frittata was as easy as slicing a few potatoes, whisking a few eggs, and basking in the warm feeling generated by using up struggling spinach, tomatoes, mushrooms and whatever else is lying around.

Tonight's offering has taken a little more attention, but the principle is the same.

A frittata, as I'm sure you know, is a little bit like a Spanish omlette. I'm not sure what the real rules are, but I tend to use a base of eggs, onions and sliced potato ... and then throw in anything else which needs eating. For me this covers mushrooms, tomatoes, spring onions, bacon, ham, spinach, broccoli, cooked peppers ... and at a stretch bits of chicken ... and cheese to put on top.

This evening I used ...

6 eggs
250g baby spinach
big handful of new potatoes, sliced
handful mushrooms, sliced
handful baby plum tomatoes, quartered
half an onion finely chopped
cheddar to grate on top

It's pretty simple ...

You need to parboil the potatoes, slicing them first makes this pretty easy.

Meanwhile, fry off the onion in a teaspoon of oil and a pinch of salt to stop it burning. When it's starting to go translucent, add the sliced mushrooms and fry gently.

I like to steam the spinach very slightly before this goes in to the pan - this evening I stuck it over the potatoes for a couple of minutes.

When your potatoes are ready, add them to the onions and mushrooms in the pan, then add the spinach. The mistake I made this evening was to add the eggs to this too early, without giving it all time to really warm up. I had to take evasive action to make sure it was cooked all the way through.

Once this is all warm together in the pan, you can add your whisked eggs (seasoned with salt, pepper and mixed herbs if you like), then sprinkle the tomatoes over the top.

Cook the frittata on a low heat on the hob for as long as you can - you need to let it cook through without burning the bottom. Keep an eye on it (by sneaking a spatula underneath), and when it starts to go take the pan off the heat, grate some cheese over the top, and stick it under a low grill. This should melt the cheese, and help cook the top.

And it's as easy as that. This should do enough for four of you for lunch (says she who has just eaten half of it for dinner ...).

Sunday, 4 October 2009

cake bakery ... and other things

Cake baking should be enacted on calm Sunday afternoons listening to Radio 4, with plenty of care taken over weighing, mixing and pouring. Rushing back from supper and throwing ingredients into a bowl, then into a tin in the oven seems at odds with the quiet ritual ... but this is what we've done.

The Brave and I have spent an entirely relaxing and unexpected evening in Buchans, drinking wine, eating supper and discussing the pros and cons of the military. Needless to say we didn't agree on all counts, apart from crème brûlée being a superior dessert and my fillet steak being not quite buttery enough ... but an evening snatched together five weeks before his designated return can only be a pleasure.

And so to the cake ... the first episode of Cake Club, my new office style looms tomorrow, and as founding member I have gladly, if hurriedly, made Nigella Lawson's honey cake this evening. It's not your straightforward mix-in-a-bowl-and-bake cake, but the extra faff is worth it I think.

Honey cake
500g plain flour
200g light soft brown sugar
250g butter
500g (or one tin) golden syrup
2 eggs
300ml milk
3 tsp baking powder
3tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp mixed spice

Preheat the oven to 190 degrees C, gas mark 5. Grease and line a 25cm round spring form tin.

Mix the flour, sugar, baking powder, bicarb and spice in a big big bowl.

Melt the butter and syrup together in a saucepan on a low heat, remove from the hob, stir in the milk, and leave to cool.

Whisk the eggs in a separate bowl.

Once cooled a bit, stir the butter and syrup into the flour mix, then add the eggs at the end. Stir this all the time you're adding, at the end it should be smooth ... if not then give it a good whisk.

Pour the mixture into the tin, then bake for 75 - 90 minutes - test it with a skewer. If you poke it in and it comes out without any mixture on then your cake is done. This cake will rise when it's cooking, but drop a bit afterwards so don't worry. You want it a bit sticky in the middle so it's fine if your skewer is not absolutely clean as a whistle.

My 22cm cake tin is of course too small. I end up filling it with and inch and a half to spare round the top, then putting the rest of the mix into cake cases, and baking these in the oven for the first 25 minutes - a lovely cook's perk which we're just about to enjoy.

When the cake is done, take it out and let it cool in the tin completely before you take it out and serve.

Easy-ish. Looking at the ingredients, it's a shamefully rich cake, but that rich syrupy sweetness will hopefully make a lot of people happy on a Monday afternoon. Cross your fingers for me.

Friday, 2 October 2009

long time no see

that girl has been busy. In the months since I last wrote I have snuck away to a little gîte, got a new job, gained a new appreciation of Windsor, found out what absence does to the heart and most recently travelled from gay Battersea to gay Paris powered by two wheels and Mars bars.

She has moved out, and in her place Coz brings with her curry, kitchen items and superior audio visual equipment.

I have of course been cooking and eating all the while, far too much to mention in fact. Highlights have got to include a full on curry from a new book, the big spag bol which gave us fuel for our ride and pâté made from the pigs in the garden at the back of one of our hotels en route. ≤ten continues to flourish, with an ever wider circle of interesting people and some very special cakes, books and lovely flowers finding their way into my lucky hands as recompense for what is really no trouble.

I resolve, again, to cook more, to take more photos, and above all to write more about it. In honour of my new flatmate I have established a cake club at work, so expect posts about baking, and plenty of new recipes. Judging by the horror of a brack I sent to the Brave a couple of weeks ago my efforts may not be up to much.

I'll be back soon ... I promise.

Monday, 13 July 2009

A lamb obsession

An idle thought that it might be cool to spit roast a lamb one day finally became reality on Saturday night ... not my thought I hasten to add, I merely came along for the ride. I've spoken about this friendly little festival on the blog before, so finally, after what felt like months of waiting and talking, the Brave and I high-tailed it from London on Friday night and made our way to Worcestershire for a couple of days of lamb, camping, music and beer.

Our home for the weekend was a field in Malvern, a little encampment centred around an enormous round marquee. Friday night brought tent pitching, chickpea and spinach stew cooked on the fire ... beer, more beer and heart to hearts. By the time tea arrived on Saturday morning work was a mere twinkle in my eye.

But on the the important stuff. The lamb was cooked over a huge fire spread into a halved oil drum. The spit was elegantly crafted from scaffolding poles ... which were inelegantly rammed into the lambs with a sledge hammer and pure effort of will.

Total cooking time was around 7-8 hours, the lamb was turned on the spit, and basted diligently with all the usual suspects - olive oil, garlic, salt and lemon juice. The scene when the lamb arrived revealed the basest elements of human nature. Take twenty or thirty ravenous revellers and present them with wonderful fragrant meat after several cans of lager, and you can imagine what happens.

My contribution to the weekend was to be Sunday lunch, so after seeing off the Brave we got cracking. There was always going to be far too much food. Numbers for the festival were lower than expected, but though we only fed sixteen in the end, the meal described could easily have fed thirty of us.

I get told off for saying things like this, but cooking lamb stew which could feed thirty is really really not that much more difficult to cooking it for four of you. The principle remains the same ... make stock with the bones of the lamb, remove them, reduce it ... and add lentils, spices, chopped tomatoes and diced cold lamb, then bring the thing slowly up to a simmer again and serve it with hunks of bread.

More details then ...

Lamb stew

2 lamb carcasses
2 heads celery roughly chopped
4 onions roughly chopped
Bulb of garlic peeled and chopped
2 kg red lentils
4 cans chopped tomatoes
40g cumin
20g paprika

Into a very large pot place one of your stripped lamb carcasses, add the onions, celery, carrots and garlic, cover with water and place on the fire for around 90 mins – it should be on a good rolling boil for the last 30. It’s worth mentioning here that our ‘stripped’ carcass in fact included the whole haunch of one of our lambs which had been a little too pink for comfort the previous night.
Set about the rest of the cold lamb from the night before. Our ravening hoards had been less than thorough, and I managed to rescue a very large mixing bowl full of diced meat to add to the stew.

Once the stock is ready, the hard part – removing the bones. On a small scale this is a relatively simple task, involving perhaps some straining, maybe a colander or a slotted spoon ... and perhaps even a second pot. On a large scale it involved four people, a washing up bowl, two cheap kitchen knives and a set of 99p bbq tools form Asda. And a ladle. It’s a miracle we emerged unscathed.

Into the stock then went the lentils, the diced lamb, the chopped tomatoes and the spices. I turned my attention to stripping the stewed haunches of all the remaining meat, before adding this to the pot. If I’m honest there was an awful lot more meat to be had, but the numbers and the awkwardness of dealing with the lamb with very few tools ... not to mention the effects of the previous evening slightly dampened my enthusiasm.

The result? Not a thing of great beauty, but hearty and wholesome enough to make hung over people happy ... which after the weekend we'd had was all we needed.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

≤ten - the bbq edition

Well. We had our first bbq edition of ≤ten this evening, with fair to middling success. Having been delighted at how enthusiastically the bbq was going initially I quickly realised (when my 'blackened' peppers became charcoal in the blink of an eye) that excessive amounts of heat were not necessarily going to be a good thing.

The theme of the evening was home grown. The mint in the lamb burgers was plucked from our hanging baskets, and the lettuce, rocket and potatoes were from Lulu's allotment delivery yesterday. The menu was simple - lamb burgers, green salad, tomato salad and early potatoes. Instead of canapes we shelled fresh peas which had been plucked only 36 hours previously. Luckily my guests are not faint hearted ... I will confess to spotting the odd baby caterpillar in one or two.

The only recipe worth passing on is for the lamb burgers, though this I suspect could be much improved upon - I'm not sure cooking on the run with guests arriving while trying to save charred peppers is the ideal setting for creating new dishes - but they were fresh and tasty, which is surely the main thing.

Enough for 6 hungry people ... or 8 with other things.

1kg minced lamb
1 large red onion finely chopped
large handful of fresh mint finely chopped
2 small eggs or 1 large
salt and pepper (I forgot this)

It's easy ... combine all the ingredients in a bowl, then shape into 15 or so small-ish burgers. Let the bbq commence.

My guests this evening were especially helpful. Jacs's suggestion to put foil on the grill underneath the burgers saved us another charring incident, and Amy's burger tending and liberal interpretation of the three second rule should not go unmentioned.

We ate outside from our laps, drank plenty of rose (tis the season) and covered duck rape, the merits of qualitative research and telepathic / psychopathic exes. All in all, a lovely evening.

summer risotto

My wonderful sister came this evening to help me sort out some long overdue paperwork, bringing with her the spoils from our father's allotment. The parents are on holiday so it is with heavy hearts that we harvest and tuck into the fruits of someone else's labour. In fact role is that of end consumer, even the harvesting is taken care of.

Stashed away and ready for ≤ten tomorrow night are ... a round lettuce, early potatoes, rocket, a hispi cabbage, courgettes green and gold and a bulging bag of peas.

Our supper tonight was similarly summery - it's late, so this is more of an idea than a recipe. Pea and mint risotto. I've written a previous post on risotto basics ... this evening I used the usual formula, substituting a red onion and a glass of Prosecco which needed looking after, then added in two large handfuls of fresh peas, and a large handful of chopped fresh mint from the hanging baskets. Perfect for alfresco dining on a humid evening.

Monday, 29 June 2009

a mini harvest

I was feeling a bit gloomy after yesterday's realisation that I might have been the author of my own misfortune as far as the beans were concerned so I came home from work, poured myself a glass of Prosecco (in my defence, the only cold drink we had in the house ... and it was very warm) and set about tending the plants.

Part of the watering problem is about the logistics of getting to the pots inside the aviary beneath the jungle of leaves. I decided to make a watering device - not the technical term I know - for the courgettes.

Firstly cut the end off a plastic drinks bottle and remove the lid. I've used a litre bottle here (San Pellegrino dahling), but a bigger one would be better I think.

Then up-end the bottle, and push the neck into the soil near your plants. You can fill this with water easily, and they will drink as much as they need. I'm considering developing a more complex version for while I'm away at Lambfest.

I’m already using these with good effect on the tomatoes, so hopefully they’ll be just what I need. I’ve also been spraying the beans like a crazy person trying to keep them moist enough to set. It’s amazing what a girl can get up to without any distractions of an evening.

I mentioned I’d planted nasturtiums as companions to my tomatoes, sort of sacrificial plants offered up to the aphids. As it happens they’re going from strength to strength. It was a handful of these peppery leaves and a few scant French beans which went along with the first cut of spinach beets to make our first salad supper from the terrace.

I’d practically given up on the spindly spinach, but encouraged by the little tender crop above I’ve moved it out of the shade of the courgettes, and given it a pretty vigorous chop in the hope it will come back stronger. I’m slightly dubious, and feel guilty about the sullen stumps which remain, but surely they don’t call it ‘cut and come again’ for nothing ...

Sunday, 28 June 2009

trial by triffid

The plants have been unhappy. I mentioned a while ago that I'd been neglecting them, and though I've upped my game slightly, all is not well in our aviary-cum-vegetable patch.

My most pressing problems are the runner beans and the courgettes. Each of them are flowering beautifully, but failing to set. The bright red runner bean flowers can be seen in abundance, but as yet only four skinny baby beans have developed, the rest of the buds fall off without having quite gained the enthusiasm to produce. The courgettes too remain unconvincing, after reaching around an half inch in length they wither and fall off the stem.

Internet research tells me that the beans problem at least is my fault, insufficent moisture on the leaves and buds. Henceforth I'll be spraying them with a little sugar water every day to keep them sweet. I'll let you know how I get on.

It's not all bad news mind. She and I sampled a little taste of our first Battersea potatoes earlier this week which were sweet, firm and slightly peppery. By rights it should be harvest time very soon. The tubers need a couple of hours in the sun before being bagged up, and I've not yet managed to find a suitable chunk of time to do this. I'm insanely curious about how many there are tucked down in the soil.

Finally the hanging baskets are a great pleasure. I planted two up with English thyme, garden mint and alpine strawberries a month or so ago, and another with a tumbling tom and they're going great guns. I am envisaging a summer of G&Ts with thyme syrup and mojitos to come.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

thai-ish ≤ten

I have learnt from previous experience that food shopping under the influence of alcohol is a Bad Idea ... but having accidentally consumed too much beer I found myself wandering the aisles of Asda in Clapham Junction at midnight on Tuesday, searching for inspiration for last night's ≤ten. I'd been meeting Lu out east for her new Mister's gig at the Slaughtered Lamb ... I can recommend both the music and the man himself. Top marks.

Anyway, the resultant malteaser-fuelled shopping trip yielded a supper of coconut poached salmon, pak choi and jasmine rice. Which ended up a little something like this ...

Coconut poached salmon ... for 8

2 tins coconut milk
small cup water
1.25kg salmon fillets cut into large cubes
2 stalks lemongrass roughly cut diagonally
2 inch piece of galangal roughly sliced
4 cloves garlic peeled and roughly sliced
big pinch of sugar
4 small red chillis chopped
handful of basil leaves (it should be thai basil really, but I had some ordinary stuff spare so in it went)
5 kaffir lime leaves
juice of two limes
3 tbsp thai fish sauce
handful chopped fresh coriander

Infuse the coconut milk with the lemongrass, galangal, garlic and sugar in a large pan - I had this just beneath bubbling for about 20 minutes

Add the kaffir lime leaves and the chillli, and infuse for a further 10 mins - to be honest, we were waiting for latecomers, so I must have had this going for about 45 minutes in total, but less is fine
When you're good to go, put the rice on, and at the same time add the fish, the lime juice and the fish sauce to the coconut milk

Bring it up to a simmer, keep an eye on it adding a little more water if you need to ... and it should be ready by the time the rice is cooked and drained. Throw into the chopped coriander and you're there.

It's hardly worth writing a recipe for the pak choi - 2tbsp sesame oil in the wok, four finely sliced cloves of garlic ... once the oil is hot, add the pak choi which is cut into thick ribbons (I think I used five heads, two red and three green). It'll only take five minutes, so if you're making the full menu then just start it off once the salmon is poaching.

In theory it should be hot, sour and salty. I'd been expecting a non-meat eating contingent, hence the salmon, but I think chicken could probably stand up to the flavours a little better. I'll confess the quantities were a little off, had the late (and brave) addition to our party not already eaten a starter I think we might have struggled, as it was there was just enough to go round nine.

Apart from the slightly mean portions, the night was lovely, plenty of catching up ... a small amount of grilling, and some very kind gifts from my guests.

Friday, 5 June 2009

notes on a detox ...

Firstly, I have been absent of late. A combination of the detox diet and the arrival of Miss Jones from SA has set my cookery slightly off plan. Happily ≤ten has kick started me again and I am busily plotting tonight's supper.

I'm pretty anti-fads when it comes to healthy eating etc, and though I'm not sure that a detox actually cleanses your body of toxins, it did give She and I an opportunity to think about what we were eating more carefully. I won't be continuing with avocados and rye bread for brekkie, but there are a few favourites which have worked their way onto our menu for good. Essentially the plan revolved around no wheat, little dairy, much less caffeine, and plenty of fresh raw food

The best of all was a simple salad - smoked mackerel, beetroot, asparagus, avocado and watercress with a squeeze of lemon juice and a spoon of hummus.

Also scoring highly was the porridge. I'm definitely a porridge for brekkie kind of a girl, but had noticed that the pinch of salt and spoonful of sugar I mix into mine had gradually become larger and larger. The recipe I'll be using from now on follows ...

2tbsp porridge oats
splash milk
2tbsp low fat natural yoghurt
1/2 grated apple
sprinkling of cinnamon

It's pretty self explanatory, I make the porridge in the microwave - one minute on high then a stir, then another 20 seconds - then mix in the yoghurt, apple and cinnamon. I didn't think I could eat it without salt, but this does me just fine.

The spirulina will also be staying, as will decaf tea with soya milk ... out of character I know, but there's something about the combination which makes it acceptable. Less successful were buckwheat noodles, which appear to just be a massive pain in the neck to cook with, and risotto with neither wine nor fat.

All in all, a 7/10.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

green goddess

She and I are on a health kick. It came to me this weekend (possibly over cheese and saucission from the French market, or maybe while we were eating rhubarb upside down cake with creme fraiche, or was it while we were making pizza yesterday ...) that an unintended consequence of my love affair with food has been the arrival of love handles. Of course, it doesn't have to be this way. I firmly believe is possible to enjoy food, wine and the good life and look good naked. This week is about rebalancing that.

So, the green goddess ... spirulina. Spirulina is a kind of blue green algae which seemingly exists for two reasons - to photosynthesise, and to be packed full of things which are ridiculously good for you. It contains an incredible variety of vitamins, minerals and nutrients with everything from vitamin B to magnesium ... protein, antioxidants and essential fatty acids.

She and I are tucking in for the energising, cleansing, and immune system boosting qualities, and I'll be whizzing up the following juice for us every day.

300ml pressed apple juice
2 big handfuls berries / soft fruits - I use a frozen mix
2 tsp spirulina powder

The result is an alarming very dark green juice, which looks like it would be absolutely vile. It isn't. It's actually alright, I'd even go so far as to say I'd recommend it.

So apart from the blinding headache from caffeine withdrawal, and the small fortune in Whole Foods yesterday it's not too bad. I'll keep you in the loop.

Friday, 22 May 2009

double rhubarb solution

I've had some folorn looking rhubarb in the fridge this week, waiting for someone to take pity on it. There was a bit more than I thought so I ended up with a double rhubarb solution.
Firstly, I'd been having rhubarb upside-down cake thoughts, as my mother and Lulu are coming up for lunch tomorrow ...

Rhubarb upside-down cake

50g butter
200g soft brown sugar
350g rhubarb, trimmed and cut into 2cm pieces
200g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp bicarbonate of soda
½ tsp salt
200ml buttermilk - I used a mixture of sour cream and natural yoghurt as that's what I had around, either will work alone instead of buttermilk if you can't find it
2 medium eggs
80ml vegetable oil
2 tbsp finely chopped crystallised ginger
Preheat the oven to 180°C, gas mark 4

Melt the butter in a heavy based saucepan over a medium heat. Stir in half the sugar, and cook for about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat
Arrange the rhubarb in the bottom of a 24cm springform cake tin, and pour over the melted sugar and butter the rhubarb

Combine the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and salt

Whisk the remaining sugar with the buttermilk, eggs, oil and ginger. Add the flour mixture and mix well. Pour over the rhubarb and smooth the surface

Bake for 35 minutes or until the cake springs back when pressed in the centre

Cool on a rack for 10 minutes then invert on to a serving plate

As you can see, it's not a thing of great beauty, but I have high hopes in the taste department.

With the rest of the rhubarb, and half an eye on the pork I was cooking for supper (with the other half on the cheese at the French market tomorrow morning) I decided to make a little quick chutney.

Rhubarb chutney

250g rhubarb, chopped into smallish pieces
1 small onion, finely chopped
50ml cider vinegar
1cm fresh ginger, grated
100g soft brown sugar
good pinch salt

Very easy this ... everything but the rhubarb in a thick bottomed pan, bring to a rolling boil for five minutes

Add the rhubarb, take it down a little, and simmer for 20 minutes

This can either got straight into a sterilised glass jar - about 250ml, or into a pot to cool a bit to eat straight away.

Despite an insatiable desire to cut myself a slice, the cake will have to wait for tomorrow's guests. I can however vouch for the chutney, which I am still wiping off my plate with a finger.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

gardener's delight

The squirrel defences are here ... and my goodness it was worth the wait. I have in the past come in for a bit of ribbing for being a princess. In most circumstances I'd say this was wholly inaccurate, but every now and again you get the feeling you're being spoilt - the construction which arrived today was utterly above and beyond the call of duty.

I've spent an entirely pleasurable afternoon with my father assembling and filling our new rodent proof vegetable patch, the photos probably won't do it justice but it's an absolute beauty. To keep the potatoes, garlic, onions, herbs and spinach beets company we now have runner beans, french beans, green and gold courgettes and four different types of tomato including wonderful tumbling toms in a little hanging pot.

I am completely delighted.

great expectations

After forgetting to write She a list of French goodies to bring back from her recent trip, I had thought it might be a little while before we managed to fill our cupboards with Gallic treats. Not so.

Battersea High Street will be home to a French Farmers' Market on Friday and Saturday of this week. I will of course be there, squeezing baguettes and sniffing cheese. I can hardly wait.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

guest's eye view

What a lucky girl I am. Not only have I had a wonderful houseful tonight, but unusually for me I haven't had to lift a finger. Coz played guest chef for tonight's ≤ten, cooking up a storm of coconut dhal, marinated lamb chops, veggie curry, rice and chappatis. I spent most of the evening on the terrace with two lovely new guests and the rest of the crowd drinking prosecco and making use of the outdoor tables. And very nice it was too. After such a wonderful supper, Coz had to rush off without divulging her recipes so I'm still left guessing, I'll be sure to prize them out of her and post them up as soon as I can.

On another note, there is very exciting news afoot. Yonsalot and friends are running a private party this year in Malvern. 75 revellers, one acoustic tent, one dance tent ... and two lamb spit-roasts ... what more could you want? They're looking at 11-12th July, and of course I'm there with bells on. The idea is organic food centred around the roasts, good music and a very chilled weekend, it's £40 a ticket, with any profit going to charity. Buoyed by a few glasses of wine I've volunteered to help co-ordinate the food, and at the very least ensure that Saturday night's spent roast becomes spicy lamb and lentil soup for Sunday lunchtime.

Am very excited, holler if you want more details.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

how does your garden grow?

Our little terrace, like thousands of plots of various sizes around the country is starting to spring into life. The potatoes planted on Easter Saturday (one day late, by rights it should be Good Friday) have shot up. You plant them in about seven inches of compost around three inches below the surface, and as the green shoots come poking through you earth them back up so the tops are just showing, raising the surface of the soil, and creating more room for the fruits of your labours. Once the plants flower, you are pretty much ready to harvest.

I am so excited I have actually been dreaming about them. As with everything we plant outside their life began enclosed with a chicken wire cage. If tomatoes and runner beans were interesting enough for our squirrels to vandalise last year, I feel sure that the juicy little tubers of my potatoes are under threat.

My newest project are spinach beets. Growing ordinary spinach is apparently a bit tricky, spinach beets are a good solution to this - as a 'cut and come again' variety, you can harvest the outside leaves and leave the rest of the plant to continue growing. I planted them last weekend, and was delighted to see little yellow green shoots poking through yesterday.
My father has been working on a solution to the squirrel problem. Last year's cursory effort ultimately provided little protection against our furry adversaries but after an advanced viewing at the weekend I can confidently say that this year we are fully armed. We have very kindly been built a cage of such magnitude it will house a grow bag full of beans and two decent sized tomato plants. As with many ambitious creative endeavours, progress is being hampered by boring practicalities - the construction is so large we stand no chance of transporting it with an ordinary vehicle. There are van plans. Watch this space.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

asparagus quiche in a rush ...

So after the craziness of buying and cooking food and finding Estonians for Eating Eurovision, I was up early yesterday morning to make a quiche to take down to the coast for a family get together.

Raynsford's were nearly out of British asparagus - surely the season can't be over just yet - but I managed to pick up a couple of choice bundles, some lovely looking jersey royals and half a dozen eggs amongst other things ... as well as a chat about what I was cooking. Sometimes I feel they think I secretly have a houseful of children with all the produce I buy there.

Anyway, asparagus quiche - my mother's recipe. Pastry isn't something I've ever worried about. I will confess I've never made puff pastry, but shortcrust and to a lesser extent pâte sucrée haven't caused me any problems thus far. As well as fat and flour, you need two other things ... the cold, and an aloof Gallic attitude. The secret to good pastry, especially shortcrust, is to pretend you're not really making it at all.

the pastry

As a general rule, you need half as much flour as fat. So, 8oz flour to 4oz fat, 6:3 etc etc. The kind of fat you use will depend on what kind of thing you're making, but combinations of Stork block margarine, butter and lard are all acceptable. I'm not sure whether using Stork is incredibly plebeian or not, but it makes such easy, really 'short' ie slightly crumbly pastry that in this case I am happy to be down-market. More lard is great for meaty things and true indulgence, butter has a great flavour for lemon, rhubarb or tart apple tarts, but adding Stork will make your life easier and your pastry shorter promise. Also, I'd happily use this savory crust for a sweet flan but you can add sugar a couple of tablespoons of sugar if you like

For my 28cm non-stick, loose-bottomed flan tin I use the following

7oz plain flour
3 1/2 oz fat - half butter, half Stork ... straight from the fridge
good pinch salt
a little water

Put the sifted flour and the salt in a large mixing bowl, then add the cold fat in little cubes

Using just your finger tips, rub the fat into the flour gently, it should end up have a consistency like breadcrumbs. If you are one of those people with perpetually cold hands like my mother, you have found your calling in making pastry. If you have warm hands, run them under a cold tap and pat them dry before you start, open a window ... just keep it cold. If the fat melts you don't have all those tiny little pockets of air which are the reason for the crumbliness

Once you have your bread crumbs, mix in a tiny bit of cold water - maybe 2 tbsp - with a metal fork. Keep adding the water a tiny tiny bit at a time, adding just enough to bring the pastry into a ball. At this stage it should only just be sticking together. Touch it as little as possible, working pastry activates the gluten in the flour ... good for bread and pizza, bad for light crumbly pastry

Wrap your pastry in clingfilm, and stick it in the fridge to relax for at least half an hour

Preheat the oven to gas mark 5, 190 degrees C, 375 degrees F, and grease your flan tin, even if it's non-stick

When your pastry is ready, roll it out on a floured surface to the circumference of the tin plus one inch all the way round. I use a wooden rolling pin, but I have been eyeing marble ones lately for pastry making purposes

Line the tin with pastry, then roll the rolling pin over the edge of the tin, taking away the excess

Line the pastry case with foil taking care to cover all the edges so they don't catch in the oven, then fill with dried haricot beans or ceramic baking beans before placing in the centre of the oven for 10-15 minutes - I go for 10 in my fan oven

Baking the pastry case 'blind' in this way prevents your crust from ending up too moist and helps the bottom cook. The baking beans or haricot beans prevent the pastry from rising up into bubbles, providing a smooth evenly cooked surface for your filling

the filling

2 bunches slim asparagus spears lightly steamed
4 eggs, one separated
100ml milk or cream
1 cup grated cheese
1 tsp dried mixed herbs
salt and pepper

Brush the inside of the flan all over with egg white to seal it and stop it going soggy, and leave it to dry

Mix the eggs, including the remaining white and yolk with milk and seasonings then stir in the grated cheese

Arrange the spears artfully in the pastry case. My mother's tradition is to lay them like spokes on a wheel. The spears will probably be a little long so snip the ends off with scissors and either use the bits to fill in the gaps or sneak to one side for cook's perks, or more virtuously for risotto

Pour the egg mixture over the spears, and bake for 30 mins, checking after 20 to see if it needs a spin around to brown evenly

As a quick aside, I also made an Estonian salad from a recipe given to me by one of the many Eesti I bothered on Friday ...

3/4 cucumber cubed
two large ripe tomatoes, chopped into 1.5cm cubes (ish)
6 radishes thinly sliced
a few sprigs of dill finely chopped
sour cream

Put everything bar the sour cream and salt into a bowl and mix well .. then add enough sour cream to coat it, and salt to taste

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Estonia, how hard can it be?

Many many things happened to me yesterday.

I made several Estonian friends over the internet, including the lovely Pille Petersoo ( - more on her later). I discovered that there isn't a single Estonian restaurant or cafe in London, I lost a carefully written list of ingredients, got lost on my bike and visited two closed shops. I was been rained on.

I also shared a homecooked meal around my dinner table with two lovely Estonians, Evelin and Helena ... for which I am truly thankful.

Estonian cuisine is similar to what you'll find in many other Eastern European countries ... Pille Petersoo, Estonian food blogger mentioned above describes it as 'a mixture of Scandinavian, Russian and Germanic influences. Rather rustic, but also seasonal and tasty. Pork & potatoes, rye bread, forest fruits and wild mushrooms, etc etc. Dill, parsley, chives for herbs, caraway seeds, cinnamon for seasonings'.

The challenge then is to end up eating Estonian food, rather than something like Estonian food. For this reason Baltic near Southwark tube was out, though I did swing by there and pick up a few bottles of Estonian beer Viru on my food buying odyssey.

Estonia is by no means a bleak Baltic state, my dinner guests reassured me that peasants in headscarves and in your face poverty featured minimally. Instead there are good jobs, swimming pools and nice cars ... at least for some. The trouble it appears is a lack of things for young people to do, and comparatively low wages. Evelin and Helena came here for a year. In 2004.

I found my guests via Facebook through putting out a plea to anyone connected with the Estonian community, and messaging countless 'Eesti'. They seem a friendly bunch, and knew only too well how much trouble I'd have with the challenge ...

'I've been trying to find an Estonian restaurant or shop for the last four years that I've been in London, but to no avail, so if you discover something yourself, let me know. :-)'

'The national food is weird to say the least. Also rather burdensome to cook. Meat jelly i.e. sült, pea soup, i.e hernesupp - I'm sure you won't get your hands on that'

'Well, it would have been easier if you had drafted Sweden or Spain, for sure ...'

The only solution was to cook it myself, and invite some Estonians for supper. So after work there was a flurry of e-mailing, tweeting, cycling, face-booking, shopping and cooking. Topped off by the arrival of my guests at gone 9pm.

We ate ...

Cabbage rolls (I was advised that green cabbage was more authentic so made the switch)

... mushroom loaf

... Estonian potato salad and cucumber salad brought by Evelin, and beetroot, sauerkraut, sour cream and rye bread. Evelin's goodies were doubtless the winners. The potato salad is made with tiny cubes of pork sausage, organic white potatoes, Estonian pickles, sour cream, egg, a little mayo and salt. The cucumber salad is simply cucumber, tomato, salt and sour cream.

So, what was it like? Well, the photos clearly don't do it justice, so many apologies on that score.

It was good. I've never been a fan of dill, but it's addition to the cabbage rolls gave a slightly aniseedy spiced flavour, and the mushroom loaf was sticky (my bad?), stodgy and savory. I tend to use a lot of lemon to lift dishes when I'm cooking off piste, the acid of the sauerkraut and the sourness of the cream have the same effect here ... cutting through the heavy carbs and as Tetley might say, letting the flavour flood out.

Conversation round the table covered cycling, food shopping, living in Battersea (Evelin is round the corner), and of course Estonia. I must again say thanks so much to our lovely dinner guests, who I hope will come to ≤ten day, to Pille Petersoo for her lovely blog and tips, and to the long suffering She ... who had an e-mail at 6pm the day before going on holiday saying 'I think we have some Estonians coming to dinner'.

Evelin has promised to help me cook more Estonian food for everyone involved in the challenge if her home nation win tonight ...

... suddenly the Eurovision song contest has become a lot more interesting.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Eating Eurovision

Just a quick note. This weekend I’m teaming up with a few other people who quite like cooking in a challenge run by a journalist and food blogger Andrew Webb where 25 food bloggers try to eat the cuisine of all 25 finalists of the Eurovision Song Contest, in 25 hours within the confines of the M25.

The plan is this … tonight we’re heading to BBC TV Centre to hear the details of the remaining Eurovision finalists, then drawing lots to decide which country we’re assigned … tomorrow night we’ll scatter, seeking out our chosen cuisine and eating our fill … then each of us will try and find something intelligent to say about it via our blogs before midday on Saturday.

More details here -

I'm not above eating alone, but if anyone fancies dinner tomorrow night, location tbc, get in touch.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

pandemic party

Never one to pass up an excuse for a theme tonight's ≤ten was all about celebrating Mexico. On the menu was pork with lentils, salsa, guacamole, tortillas, rice and watercress and orange salad with tequila dressing.

My lovely guests bought wine, good conversation, and opened my eyes to the wonders of the After Eight game. It's pretty simple - remove After Eight from packet, tilt head back 45 degrees, place After Eight on forehead and then attempt to move After Eight down face and into mouth using only facial expressions ... no head shaking allowed. Amazing.

Back to the food. Mexican isn't really my forte, so I turned to the internet for inspiration and found the below. The salad is pinched directly from the wonderfully named 'Cooking with booze', but the pork is half me half 'Recipes 4U' ...

Pork with Green Lentils and Chilli

1.25kg diced pork shoulder (1 inch cubes)
400g green lentils
2 x 400g tins chopped tomatoes
1 inch cinnamon stick
2 cloves
1 medium onion chopped
2 fat cloves garlic minced
1/2 pineapple, peeled, cored and chopped into chunks
2 plantains sliced
1/2 tsp dried oregano
tsp dried chilli flakes

Put the diced pork in a big pan, cover with boiling water, salt, and simmer for 25 minutes - DON'T THROW THE STOCK AWAY!

In the meantime, stick half the tomatoes, the chilli, oregano, cinnamon and cloves in a blender and whizz into a smooth paste

When the pork is nearly done, start browning the onion in another heavy based pan with a pinch of salt to stop it catching. Then add the tomato paste, and cook for a few mins to reduce it down a bit

Add the pork, stock, lentils, plantains, pineapple and extra tomatoes, then simmer covered for half an hour, stirring occasionally. Season to taste

I'd never cooked with plantains before, and I did have a shocking moment of doubt about half an hour before I was going to serve this, but it was pretty good. The salsa and guacamole were pretty standard - the guacamole was a Nigella Express I think, and the salsa from Simon Hopkinson's 'Roast Chicken and Other Stories'

Watercress and orange salad with tequila dressing

for the salad ...
2 bags of watercress
4 spring onions sliced
6-8 radishes finely sliced
2 oranges, peeled and cut into segments

for the dressing ...
50ml orange juice
50ml vegetable oil
juice one lime
2 tsp honey
1 clove of garlic crushed
2 tbsp gold tequila

Put all the dressing ingredients in a jam jar, and shake well

Toss the watercress in most of the dressing, sprinkle the rest of the elements oer the top, and then drizzle on a bit more of the dressing

Monday, 4 May 2009

ice cream revisited

Okay ... so it was good. Arguably had I not given up at 2.15am it would have been a touch smoother, but I am happy to report that we have a litre or so of homemade vanilla ice-cream in the freezer. And rather nice it is too.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

at times, life is too short

I'm sure I'm doing it wrong. I have been making ice cream this evening. All evening. The infusing of the milk, the cooling, the making the custard, more cooling ... I am now on the freezing and hourly stirring (I am paranoid about ice crystals) ... at 1.30am I will confess to being tempted to throw the damn bowl out of the window.

We each have our own threshold where some things in the kitchen (or indeed in life in general) cease to offer a sufficient return on investment. There are also a few things which you will only make once or twice, just to be sure you can. I suspect ice cream will shortly come into this latter category. The one thing I really do think is worth it is pastry, no doubt with the warmer weather I'll be getting into quiches and tarts imminently, and will of course let you know how I get on.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

the asparagus rush ...

Tis the season. Asparagus prospectors can be seen at weekend farmers markets and making illicit lunchtime trips to the grocer, scouring stalls for the purple-green glint of the spears. I am no exception. The British asparagus season begins, by tradition, on the 23rd April. Having been marathoning last weekend, today was my first opportunity to join in the fun. Rather than jostling with the bugaboos on Northcote Road I headed to Raynsford's on Battersea High Street who didn't disappoint.

As with peas, the longer you leave between picking and eating asparagus, the more of the sugars will have turned to starch. This is one of the many reasons to buy British asparagus, and an excellent excuse for eating it as quickly as possible.

There are many wonderful things you can do with asparagus, usually the simpler the better. The below was today's chosen route. River cobbler is a sustainable white fish from Vietnam. I'm well aware that for someone who refused to buy Spanish tomatoes the other day fish all the way from Asia is faintly ridiculous. Little by little I am trying, I promise.

Grilled asparagus with prosciutto and river cobbler

big bunch of asparagus
2 fillets river cobbler (or one large one cut in half)

Asparagus spears are sold longer than you need them, the woody ends should be taken off before cooking. There is a lovely trick here which enables you to remove just the right amount - just bend them and the spears snap in the right place. Magic.

Once you've finished being delighted by the simple beauty of snapping each spear, wrap little bundles of them with a strip of prosciutto, three or four stalks in each.

The next steps aren't rocket science ... hot griddle pan, about 7 minutes on each side. I made a little tent of foil over the top to enable the asparagus to steam a little as well as grill, grilling the fish in the other side of the same pan. We ate this with lovely Maltese new potatoes.

I love it when a plan comes together.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

post-marathon munchies

If I never see another carb again, I will be a happy woman. Three days of constant eating before the run today left me grumpy and full. This evening I have finally cooked a carbohydrate free healthy supper. The last of the lovely spring greens and some salmon, oriental style.

Sesame salmon - no real need for a lot of explanation. Greased baking tray, salmon fillets, brush with honey, salt, pepper, cover with sesame seeds and a little sprinkle of chilli flakes. Bake in the oven at around 200 degrees for about 15-20 minutes.

oriental greens

1 head spring greens
2 cloves garlic finely chopped
1 inch grated fresh ginger
soy sauce
50 ml vegetable stock (I just make up half a cup full with a little Marigold bouillon)
tbsp sesame oil
salt and pepper

Warm the sesame oil in a wok, and fry the garlic and ginger for a few minutes.

Add the greens and a good slash of soy sauce, coat well before adding the stock, mix up again, then cover.

Steam for about five minutes.

There you have it. Fresh clean flavours ... and not a twirl of pasta in sight.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

≤ten IV

Following my lamb antics on Tuesday night I had a quick look at the joint (is it still a joint when you've taken the bone out?) on Wednesday morning before yoga, turned it over, and put it back in the marinade.

We had it with spring greens - which I've never had before but loved, and white haricot beans.

Firstly the lamb ... dead easy.

Take it out the fridge and leave it to rest while you heat up the oven to 210 degrees C. It could do with at least half an hour if you have the time

Once the lamb is back up to room temperature, pour the excess marinade off and then stick the meat in the oven. I had it spread out flat, with what would have been the skin side up. You can conserve the marinade and cook potatoes in it if you like

After 40 minutes, remove the lamb from the oven. Check to see how cooked it is, and before you pop it back in splash a couple of tablespoons of balsamic vinegar over the top

After another 15 minutes or so, remove from the oven and leave to rest for at least 15 minutes

Rosemary beans

4 x 440ml cans of white haricots beans
8 springs of rosemary
3 handfuls fresh mint
300ml white wine
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil (and a glug to finish)
splash balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper

Chop the herbs finely, and add to a saucepan with the drained beans and the olive oil

Add the wine, and bring up to a simmer on the hob

Cover, and cook for around ten minutes

Season to taste, and stir in a glug of olive oil and a splash of balsamic vinegar

spring greens with mushrooms

three medium heads of spring greens, washed, stalked and roughly shredded
two big handfuls mushrooms sliced
large onion chopped
250ml chicken stock
dash of vegetable oil
salt and pepper

In a large pan, fry the onion and mushrooms in the oil for 5 minutes until soft

Add the spring greens, coat with the oil, then add the stock

Cover, and allow to steam for about 5 minutes

So, a lovely fresh spring supper for what ended up as seven of us.

Dessert was an amazing chocolate cake brought by wonderful Coz, who may even be making an appearance as a guest chef on May 20th. Watch this space.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

late night lamb antics

It's like this ... I accidentally bought a leg of lamb this evening. I'd intended to buy chops or steaks for ≤ten tomorrow night, but I'm a sucker for a good deal as we all know and I couldn't just leave it there. Getting on the train on the way home it dawned upon me that I didn't have a hope of getting it cooked for a reasonable hour of the night.

Cut to me 45 minutes later in the kitchen, leg of lamb in one hand, knife in the other, phone tucked between the ear and the shoulder and laptop balanced on the hob (which was off). Reader, I butterflied it. On the other end of the phone was my father, who I'd hoped would have some special insight being a butcher's son ... on the laptop was the following video clip - . If I'm honest neither shed a great amount of light on the task.

Butterfly-ing the lamb enables you to cook it quicker, you can even stick it on the bbq. The idea is you cut the bone out, and spread the meat out flat into what ends up as a kind of butterfly shape, slashing into the thick sides and turning the flaps out. I referred briefly to Nigella to see if she had any pearls for me, I can now reveal that at the time of writing How to Eat, Nigella Lawson had never attempted to butterfly a leg of lamb. My attempt was fair - neither a disaster nor a thing of great of beauty.

It's currently sitting in a marinade in the fridge made with about 200ml extra virgin olive oil, five cloves of garlic bashed, 2 handfuls of fresh rosemary finely chopped and the zest of a lemon.

I will report back soon.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

how to clean a wok

I vividly remember scrubbing my mother's wok 'clean' when I was little, and feeling slightly confused by the lack of congratulation when I showed her its gleaming surface ... woks (not the non-stick kind) need gentle treatment and love rather than abrasive soap and elbow grease.

What you are ultimately after is the delicious patina which builds up over time, adding flavour to cooking and preventing food from sticking. I think the aforementioned wok has now passed into my hands, and I'm doing my best to handle it with due care and attention to make up for my past transgression.

So, how to clean a wok ...
  • Always wash the wok by hand in plain hot water, never in the dishwasher or with soap
  • Use a soft sponge or cloth to remove any food, soaking the wok in hot water to get the stubborn bits if necessary
  • If you really have to, you can use a tablespoon of salt rubbed in with a damp cloth to gently scrub off anything which isn't shifting. This is a last resort mind
  • Rinse any salt off thoroughly, wipe with a paper towel then put the wok over a low heat to dry it out completely
  • Once dry, rub a little bit of light oil - sunflower, sesame or whatever - around the inside of your wok. Et voilà

Monday, 13 April 2009

the first meal on the terrace

Finally the Easter break obliged with just a little bit of sunshine, just enough for Jingles and I to have our late lunch on the terrace. We had chicken tricolore salad - chicken fillets grilled with a little bit of sweet chilli sauce and balsamic vinegar with avocado, cherry tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, mozzarella and mixed leaves. I made some honey mustard dressing to go with it. The below was more than enough for two large salads.

Honey mustard dressing

juice of half a lemon
twice as much olive oil, more if you need it
teaspoon wholegrain mustard
teaspoon honey
salt and pepper

Put the lemon juice into a bowl and whisk in the oil gradually. Taste it, and if it tastes really overly lemony add some more oil. Then add the mustard, whisk in, then add the honey and whisk some more. Season to taste.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

avocado warning

As well as an excellent recipe for shoulder of lamb I came away from Easter lunch with the family with the following interesting fact.

Avocados are the most dangerous of all fruit.

Apparently it's the preparation which is so hazardous. Having halved and stoned the fruit there are those among us who tend to cup the it in the palm of a hand, using a knife the slice the flesh ... you can guess what happens next.

My own sad tale involves using a knife to get the stone out of a baby avocado on Friday night while weakened by running and yoga. I won't go into detail, luckily She is quite good at first aid.

The moral of the story - avocados - tasty but deadly. Don't be an idiot, get the stone out with a teaspoon and use a board to slice them.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

the Manchester method

Poaching eggs is much easier than you think. She is celebrating her birthday today, so this morning we've had Eggs Royale, which are like Eggs Benedict but with smoked salmon instead of ham. The combination of the elements - English muffins, smoked salmon, eggs and hollandaise sauce is of course very simple, it's the poaching of the eggs people have trouble with.

There are whirlpool theories which work brilliantly for some, but that method is completely beyond me. Instead I have Jones to thank for this, and by extension Mrs Jones - the originator of the Manchester method.

So here it is ...

Get a saucepan of water on a low simmer - so bubbles are coming up from the bottom, but it's not going crazy.

If you have some vinegar (I've ended up using some cheap white balsamic which turned out to be too acidic for dressings) then add a splash to the water.

This is the moment where you put your toast / muffins in ...

For each egg, crack it onto a saucer, or into a ramekin, or a plastic jug or something which gives you more control of it. Then slide the lip of your vessel just under the surface of the water, and gently slip your egg in. The chief things which make the whites explode everywhere are water boiling too vigorously and the force of the egg yolk sploshing into the water. Guard against these and you're there.

Cover, and make sure they don't start bubbling too much. While you wait stick the kettle on for your tea, and butter your toast. They need 3-4 minutes in total.

On the hollandaise ... we had it from a jar. One day I'll attempt to make it properly, but for the moment life is too short.

Friday, 10 April 2009

finger lickin' good

Once again Wednesday saw our little flat full of lovely people. I'm working at home for a couple of weeks so had a little more time than usual to slow cook something for ≤ten. I've been cooking slightly middle eastern and asian food a lot lately, so I turned back to Leon for a bit of new inspiration. As usual, Allegra McEveady didn't disappoint and we ended up with ribs, beans and rice.

I'll confess to being a little obsessed with the latest Leon cookbook. Their fondness for food that tastes good and is good for you fits in with my own. I like a bit of hearty comfort food as much as anyone else, but eating until you're uncomfortably full saps your energy and just makes you want to sleep. I want to feed people things that make them feel good.

On to the food, this managed seven of us comfortably.

Leon 'Love Me Tender' Ribs

2kg pork ribs
6 heaped tbsp tomato puree
1 heaped tsp chipolte chilli powder or ordinary chilli powder (I used ordinary)
8 tbsp honey
12 tbsp red wine vinegar
4 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp Chinese five spice

Put all the ingredients, except the salt into a bowl and add the ribs, moving them around until they are coated. Leave to marinate overnight.

Next day, season the ribs well with sea salt and put them in a smallish shallow roasting tray (or two!) and add water until it comes half way up the ribs, taking care not to pour it directly over the meat.

Cover with a lid or foil and cook in the oven at 120 degrees C / 250 degrees F / gas mark 9 for around 5 hours. Check on the every couple of hours or so, turning them over. You shouldn't need any more water, but if you do just add a little bit at a time. You can do this bit up to a couple of days in advance and keep the ribs in the fridge until you want to cook them fully.

Take the ribs out the oven while you heat it right up to 240 degrees C / 475 degrees F / gas mark 9. Cook for 15 minutes-ish, give a couple of rolls around in the sauce and sprinkle on the sea salt.

Leon's 'Hippy Farm Beans'

Olive oil
1 large aubergine cut into rough chunks
ground cumin
1 1/2 onions, roughly chopped
5 big cloves garlic roughly chopped
4 firey chillies, more if you like, roughly chopped
500g cherry tomatoes
2 tins chopped tomatoes
3 tins of beans - I used kidney beans, pinto beans and borlotti
apparently the 'secret twist' is Linghams Garlic and Chilli Sauce which you can get from Tesco and Waitrose ... I used sweet chilli sauce
300g fresh baby spinach washed

Heat plenty of oil in a pan and fry the aubergines and peppers for 15 minutes until golden crisp and lovely. Season with salt and cumin, then take them out, cover and put to one side.

Get the pan good and hot again. Fry the onion in a bit more olive oil for a few minutes (brown it), then the garlic and chillies. Few more minutes, hot. Then add the cherry tomatoes. Few minutes. Then add the tinned tomatoes and the aubergines and peppers.

Bring to the boil and add the drained beans. Now add a good glug of the sauce. Low heat, simmer covered for half an hour, uncover for a further hour; stir regularly. Turn off the heat and stir in the spinach well until wilted.

We had this with fresh baby avocados, creme fraiche (because we didn't have any sour cream), lime wedges and brown rice. Tex mex magic.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

butternut squash and sage risotto

Just to guard against any possible allegations of impropriety, I want to let you know that I ruined this risotto last night. Risotto is dead easy, it just requires a bit of focus, and a certain stubbornness ... neither of which I had at the time.

Anyway, I'll tell you how it should be done in a minute.

Once you've got the basics down, you can make risotto with whatever you like. I've put a few ideas at the bottom of the post but first of all, a couple of tips.

Rice - I tend to use Carnaroli, it's a large grain with a nutty white centre. Arborio is good too, a bit starchier, and apparently the thing for classic risotto Milanese, Vialone is a shorter, rounder grain, good for more soupy risotto and with seafood. It's worth buying good rice, the whole dish rests on it.

Still on the rice, don't rinse it. I don't seriously imagine you would, but wet rice grains repel the fat, which is not what you want. Also, at that crucial end point, don't wait for the rice to be 'perfect' - by the time you get it to the table it will be overdone. That's what I did last night. Take it off the heat when there's still a little bit too much bite to it.

Go for a heavy based pan for even heat distribution.

Heat the stock while you're adding it.

Last tip, be attentive, watch the pot, stir it rhythmically, keep tasting. I love making risotto, but I do need to resign myself to half an hour stood at the hob without distraction. Maybe other people can be trusted to keep half an eye on it, but I'm a bit all of nothing I suppose.

butternut squash and sage risotto

320g carnaroli rice
1 litre hot chicken stock - by all means use vegetable stock for a vegetarian version
medium onion, finely chopped
40g butter
125ml white wine
medium butternut squash, roasted and diced
handful chopped fresh sage
a lemon
salt and pepper

This should do four of you

Get your two pans on the hob, one full of stock gently simmering or just below a simmer, and the other a thick based saucepan ready for your risotto.

Melt the butter in the risotto pan, and gently cook the chopped onion until soft. Add the rice, and coat well in the fat until transparent.

Add the glass of wine and stir into the rice, gently but continuously until it's all absorbed.

Add the stock to the rice gradually, ladle by ladle, waiting for each one to be absorbed before adding another, stirring gently. Keep doing this for about 15 minutes, tasting, stirring ... thinking, adding stock until the rice is ready. You want it to have a good bit of bite to it still at the end. Also, the consistency should be slightly soupy. I'm not talking swimming, but if you can put it in a fancy mould and pile it up then it's too dry.

Once the rice is there, stir in the chopped squash and sage. Taste it. Add a generous grating of parmesan ... taste it again. Add salt and pepper if you need to, and a squeeze of lemon.

The sage was from the terrace. I'd been meaning to cook with it, but not quite managing to. Apart from the dreadful rice, the taste was really very good - the sage and lemon cutting though the starchiness, bringing lightness to the dish.

The more I cook with lemons and limes, the more I become obsessed with that little citrus lift, that little extra freshness and complexity they give to cous cous, risotto and things ... the difference a bit of zest makes to a crumble or to steamed beans. It works perfectly here.

If you don't fancy sage, or squash, you could try these ...

A pure lemony risotto with zest and juice to serve with chicken
Peas and lots of fresh mint
If you've made it with chicken stock, chances are you've got a pot of all the little picky bits off the chicken carcass - throw them in
Dried wild mushrooms - porchini and the like - conserve the water you used to rehydrate them and use it half / half with the stock
Pheasant. I've only done this once, and it was great. I used pheasant stock and flesh, but do watch out for shot (I didn't)
Spinach - another of my favourites. Baby spinach particularly is such a versatile thing, you can stir it in right at the end here

That really is just a starter for ten. I'm sure there are a whole host of seafoody, tomatoey type things too.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009


I've never attempted rhubarb fool before ... I'm not even sure I knew what it was until I decided to make one. I have since discovered that it is customarily made with stewed rhubarb and brown sugar mixed with either custard or double cream. Precocious as I am I decided to use half fat crème fraîche instead, insubordination sanctioned by a tip from my mother. I also added some ginger, which combines with rhubarb particularly well, orange zest would have been another fine partner.

The below makes buckets, enough for ten normal people as a sweetener after dinner ... or seven normal people and Freddie, who practically licked the bowl on Sunday.

Rhubarb fool

6 stout stems of rhubarb
3 tbsp demerara sugar
small handful crystallized ginger, finely chopped
75ml water
1 1/2 pints crème fraîche

Preheat the oven to 150 degrees C

Chop the rhubarb roughly - I only halved it - sprinkle with the brown sugar and ginger and bake in the oven for40 minutes, or until the rhubarb is soft.
Leave to cool, separating the rhubarb from any remaining syrup.

One the rhubarb is cool, blitz it with a hand blender. You can sweeten it a little more here if you'd like, but it should still be on the tart side.

With the crème fraîche in a large bowl, swirl in the rhubarb puree. Try not to mix it up too well, I think it looks prettier sort of raspberry ripple-like.

Just before you serve it, take the leftover syrup and reduce in a little saucepan right down until it really is a dark red syrup. You can then cool it a little, and drizzle artfully over the fool.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

gardening in the face of adversity

You wouldn't think that squirrels were interested in runner beans, or indeed tomatoes, but I can tell you categorically that they most certainly are. Not, you understand, as a foodstuff - but more as a symbol of their resistance to our dictatorial claiming of their space. I won't dwell on this, I will say simply that I have a terrace which I seek to grow vegetables on and my neighbourhood squirrels systematically vandalise anything I plant which is not wrapped in protective chicken wire.

However, buoyed by the success of some tentative herbs - you can see rosemary, thyme, sage and mint on the right - and a trip to my father's allotment this morning, I have today planted (and protected) a pot of garlic and spring onions, and a big planter of potatoes. It's not so much the frugality of it, rather the satisfaction at being able to just nip outside, pick what you need and carry on cooking.

Cross you fingers for me, I'll let you know how they get on.

chicken stock

A quick note.

I have a pot of chicken stock on the go, and it occurred to me it might be useful to let you know what went into it. People who write cookery columns keep telling me I can fresh chicken carcasses from my butcher, which I'm sure is an excellent theory. However, I'm not sure the man in the van selling vacuum packed meat on Battersea High Street would be too impressed with me asking for them, neither am I quite virtuous enough to join the half hour long queue outside the posh butcher on Northcote Road for this purpose ... what I'm saying is I always end up using the carcass from a roast chicken. This way, you're never going to get the clear French consomme you want to be really swish, but stock it is never the less. Secondly, stock has three great friends - carrots, celery and onion. There are a whole host of other close acquaintances which will get you pretty far, but those three are a good place to start.

On my hob at the moment is a pan containing the following:

chicken carcass - skin off, visible fatty bits off
roughly chopped large carrot
two echalion shallots in lieu of a chopped onion
no celery - we haven't got any
two peeled and bashed cloves of garlic
five peppercorns
decent pinch of salt
two small bay leaves
handful of fresh parsley
small handful fresh thyme

All this is covered with boiling water, and I'm just going to let it simmer, covered for an hour, then have a look at it, then probably leave it for another half an hour. Strain it, leave it to rest, skim off any fat, then freeze it in batches of about 250ml.

It smells pretty good so far, the bay leaves are from S&J's trees on their terrace, the parsley from my father, and the thyme is original Battersea produce from outside my own back door - more on growing your own to follow.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

red cabbage and lanterns

My first day off work since Christmas started exceedingly well. Having listened to Radio 4 from 9am I didn't get out of bed until midday. Sadly it all went downhill from there and I've been inappropriately industrious ever since. Included on the long list of things organised, posted and created are both lanterns and red cabbage. The lanterns are probably of little interest, but the red cabbage I will discuss.

I make no claim to it, it's Nigella's recipe but it's pretty special which is why I've recorded it here. I've tweaked it a little bit according to what I had in the cupboard, but it remains largely as she suggested. I always do the whole cabbage as suggested below, as I've said previously it freezes perfectly.

Nigella's red cabbage

whole red cabbage shredded*
3 banana shallots, finely sliced
2 eating apples
250ml red wine
150ml orange juice
150ml water
3tbsp light muscovado sugar
1tbsp light olive oil
1tbsp Maldon salt (1/2 tbsp normal salt)
1/4 tsp mixed spice

*If you are very lucky, you have a food processor with a clever attachment for shredding, if you are moderately lucky you have some kind of slicing plane like what they demo in shops. If you are me you have a sharpish knife, patience, and purple hands. Try to cut out the really stalky bit in the middle and away you go.

Heat the oil in a heavy based saucepan, add the finely sliced shallots and the salt, then stir round until soft but not coloured

Add the cabbage and coat with the oil, cook gently

Peel, quarter and then slice the apples - I didn't actually peel them today, and it was fine, but it doesn't look so good. Add to the pan with all the other ingredients, stir well

Bring back up to a simmer, then turn to the lowest possible heat, cover and cook for about 1 1/2 hours

I actually made this at home, then took a bucket of it round to Jingles for supper. We had it with salmon and half and half mash, but I left She a lamb steak for hers back at the ranch.

On the lanterns, I've been stockpiling jam jars to decorate the terrace with lanterns when She has a birthday barbecue in a couple of weeks. I'm so chuffed with them I can't help myself but tell you how to make them. Take a length of garden wire (£1 or so from the supermarket or wherever), wrap it round or underneath the screw part of a clean jam jar, and make a handle over the top. I'll be hanging them from 'S' hooks on a criss-cross chain canopy outside, but for the moment they are lighted and twinkling on the coffee table.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

my grocer

Just quickly. I've made peace with my grocer. I'd felt slighted after he sold me four plums which were so over-ripe I had to eat them virtually instantly. This morning I nipped out to get breakfast bits and ended up with some lovely free range eggs with bright yolks, a couple of punnets of sweet Esanta strawberries (I wouldn't usually bother with Spanish ones but these were really tasty) , some rhubarb which I've been coveting and a chat.

Raynsfords on Battersea High Street - all is forgiven.

wet puppets

Three days later I'm still smiling from dinner on Wednesday night. Again, the house was full and the food was plentiful - if not superbly assembled. Loretta and Mr L, the Bolt-Palmers, Sal, Dr Dan, Em joined She and me for chilli-miso salmon with stir fry vegetables and noodles.

I'm not sure the stir fry was anything to write home about, but it's worth mentioning the salmon. I had ten fillets, skin on, which I marinated for an hour or so before grilling.

Chilli-miso marinade

3tbsp miso paste
4 green chillis finely chopped
2tbsp sesame oil
1 tbsp soy sauce

This will make vast quantities. The miso paste is pretty pungent so don't overdo it. You want the fillets under a hot grill to sort of crisp up the top of them a bit.

The stir fry contained, amongst other things grated ginger. I only have two experiences of ginger - it's either absent from the fridge at the crucial moment or if I do have it, it's wrinkled and suspect looking. I'm sure there are people who are so wonderfully organised that they reach ginger nirvana and have just the right amount when they need it, but not I. IB gave me a marvellous tip for this which I will duly share.

Freeze it. Silly isn't it, but I wouldn't have thought of it. Just buy a big root, peel it - or not as you will - and freeze it. You can then grate it straight in. Bree Van de Kamp eat your heart out.

While I'm here, I may as well mention a few of the other things I freeze ...

All fresh herbs, and lemongrass, and chillis, which you can just chop frozen and use. Ailing strawberries for smoothies later. Stock of course, spare mash, chopped onion, and finally red cabbage. I make this according to a Nigella recipe and it freezes beautifully. If you're interested in pulling off the domestic goddess look having a stock of it standing by to match with salmon, lamb or sausage and mash for surprise visitors is a real boon.

Back to dinner. Luckily the quality of the company exceeded that of my cooking. My over-riding memory of the evening is She performing a kamikaze retelling of being splashed with water during a sex scene in a puppet show. You had to be there.