Saturday, 30 July 2011

Cherry amaretti cheesecake

Anh from A Food Lover's Journey is hosting this week's Weekend Herb Blogging, and I have some cherries to find a use for...

I have to say, I'm a bit disappointed by cherries. Every summer I get so excited by the crates of glistening blood-red fruit appearing in the markets. I buy them in great quantities when they're cheap, simply because it seems rude not to. They look so gorgeous and inviting with their glossy skins and delicate green stems, particularly when piled high in scarlet abundance under the July sunshine. Yet I've realised recently that they never fill me with anticipation. Apricots, on the other hand, whether small and underripe-looking or gorgeously plump and rosy-cheeked, always glow with promise. If ripe, I might slice them and eat them with ricotta on toast for breakfast. If not (and this is the more usual scenario), I'll slice them in half and bake them with a drizzle of honey and a splash of orange flower water, turning them into a jammy, marigold-coloured compote that bursts with exotic delight in every mouthful. Squat green Williams pears, though hardly exotic, whisper enticingly of their juicy, glassy, grainy flesh, so much so that I can hardly ever resist buying a few, either to eat as they are or chopped and scattered over a bowl of nutmeg-scented porridge. But cherries?

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Unearthed: squid and chorizo salad

It's not really summer, is it England? Is this really your best offering? I was in London a couple of days ago and I actually welcomed the rush of warm air from a passing tube train - it took the edge off the bitter chill spreading through my limbs (though also messed up my hair, which I was less pleased about). There is a time and a place for seeking solace and shelter in the dank, humid depths of the London Underground. It's called 'January'. 

Unfortunately, mother nature seems a little confused at the moment, and this schizophrenic weather only makes for schizophrenic cooking. I wake up to a dingy, clammy, chilly morning, and start planning something warming and meaty for dinner. A few hours later, the blazing sunshine has forced me to remove most of my layers and I'm squinting, due to lack of sunglasses, at the enticing vegetables in the market, having to completely rethink said dinner plan. Vegetables purchased and salad forming in mind, I then get on my bike and am greeted with a monsoon-style downpour, followed by the onset of the morning's chill. What is one to do when it comes to food?

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Pearl barley, rainbow chard and ricotta risotto

It's a common scenario. I'm standing stirring a bubbling pot of something on the hob (which makes me sound a little bit like a witch from Macbeth, come to think of it) or putting the finishing touches to a dessert using a tea strainer and a spoonful of icing sugar, invariably covering myself in a thin film of sugar in the process. I'm tossing together a salad and its dressing, or carving a piece of meat. Someone peers over my shoulder and says, "Looks good! Whose recipe is this?"

"Mine," I say.

By far the most common reaction is surprise, usually swiftly followed by a comment along the lines of "wow. I could never make up my own recipes - I have to follow cookbooks to the letter". Suddenly my culinary intrepidity is viewed with an awe and respect that I don't feel I really deserve. I don't believe being able to make up your own recipes is an immediate sign that a few years down the line you'll be the proud owner of three Michelin stars, unless perhaps you were able to make up recipes before you really even learned how to cook. No, making up recipes is, rather boringly, just down to mere practice. Until recently I hardly ever cooked from my head. I always had a cookbook to hand, and if I lacked a certain ingredient specified I would get all flustered thinking about what to use instead. My shopping list was a rigid specification of ingredients and exact quantities, and I would sometimes take two or even three different shopping lists for different recipes to town just in case one of the ingredients for one of the recipes turned out to be unavailable.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Greengage and almond cake

Chriesi from Almond Corner is hosting Weekend Herb Blogging, and this week I've got some gorgeous greengages to play with.

I know it's bad to judge people on the basis of little things. The clothes they wear; whether or not they pronounce the T in 'little'; what books they like; the music they listen to; how often they change their sheets; the places they've travelled; whether they use dental floss; their job; how often they exercise; the university they attended; how many units they drink a week; their preferred methods of relaxation; where they do their food shopping; the car they drive. I generally try not to form arbitrary opinions of people based on such criteria. I'm certainly no fashion guru, so what people wear tends to pass me by. I don't drive, or know the first thing about cars. I have absolutely no knowledge of what music is cool and what isn't, generally spending my days with a music collection that I've had since I was a wannabe Goth at the age of fourteen (are Slipknot not cool anymore?).

So I can proudly declare I don't generally form opinions of people based on any of the above qualities. The only problem is, I've just gone and formed my own, slightly more niche, set of standards by which to judge the general public.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Honey mango tartlets with basil sugar

I was amazed by the number of responses to a recent Facebook status of mine. I simply updated the world with the fact that "Elly McCausland may have just purchased twenty mangoes", and an hour or so later there were 24 comments. I usually think of this blog as pure self-indulgence, a way of reminding myself that perhaps I'm not completely useless in life and can at least throw together a decent meal and take a half-decent photo. I still think that no one actually reads my posts or cares about the super-delicious cake I baked yesterday or my plans for this season's fruit. Yet I'm constantly surprised by the rate at which my readers are growing (I don't mean literally, though if they are also cooking from this blog as well as reading it, they may well be growing physically too!) Every time I receive a comment on a blog post it feels like an exciting novelty. Few things have made me happier than the time a friend made my fruit cheesecake recipe and posted pictures of the success on Facebook, or when another friend of mine informed me that her mum had been using recipes from my blog, because "it's such a good cooking resource!" I appreciate every single comment, whether from friends who are my avid followers and seem to read about everything I make, or from people I don't know who have just stumbled across this blog and found they rather liked it (they were probably looking for Jamie Oliver's fish recipe or Nigella's teriyaki chicken, which is how most people find this site...but I'm sure it's only a matter of time before a quick google of 'Elly McCausland's sheer gastronomic genius' is the most popular referral for this blog).

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Homemade ricotta

I always describe myself as a morning person, but there's a caveat. I'm a morning person, provided said morning involves a decent breakfast. Again, "decent" is a term that requires clarifying. Such a breakfast should take at least twenty minutes, and allow me to eat at the speed I choose, read the paper or one of the many food magazines that accumulate in a large pile on the floor next to my desk, check my emails, and generally wake up and prepare myself for the things I have to do during the day. I am not one of those people who will sacrifice a good breakfast in exchange for half an hour longer in bed. If I know something delicious awaits me, I can spring out of bed at 6am, and have been known to set my alarm half an hour earlier than I really have to so that I can ruminate over a bowl of steaming porridge or berry-topped muesli before heading out into the big wide world. I have never, in my entire life, skipped breakfast, and view people who regularly do so as a different breed, as aliens masquerading as part of the human race, and best avoided. Never trust people who skip meals.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Smoked chicken and mango rice salad

I was once trying to decide what to cook for a group of hungry navy people at our weekly drill night. The options were beef goulash, or an all-time favourite of mine: chicken with apricots, almonds and coriander. Unable to decide (as so often in my life), I asked a friend of mine who shares my passion for all things edible. He suggested that the latter sounded "much more of an 'Elly' dish, being full of fruit". Such is my love of introducing the sweet, tart and juicy to savoury dishes that apparently they deserve to be named after me. I'm practically up there with the likes of Caesar, Eve and Arnold Bennett (of salad, apple pudding and omelette fame, respectively). Incidentally, for those of you who, like me, are now curious about the number of foodstuffs named after people, Wikipedia has an excellent article on the subject here. It's surely only a matter of time before dishes like this salad appear on the list as "Elly dishes".

(Disclaimer: I don't actually have such an over-inflated and grandiose sense of self-importance that I really believe I am unique and revolutionary in liking fruit in my savoury dishes, or that I deserve to have food named after me).

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Cherry and chocolate cake with almond icing

I didn't eat chocolate until I was about fifteen years old. If I'd ever had to play that irritating "tell us your name and an interesting fact about yourself" game at that age, that would have been my interesting fact, largely because it always met with such sheer astonishment. People, especially my peers and teachers, were aghast. However, when considered on the spectrum of other things I didn't eat, it perhaps wasn't that strange, considering I also refused to consume most basic foodstuffs. I remember going on a French exchange at the age of about fourteen; the family wrote to me before I visited, asking if I had any dietary requirements. I wrote back, in French, a long list of things I wouldn't eat, including "pâtes et riz": pasta and rice. I can just picture the poor family's reaction as they opened this missive. It was fortunate that I didn't also say "fromage et boeuf", or they may have refused me entry to France altogether. That said, maybe that would have been a blessing: my exchange partner was an utterly bizarre human being, with eyebrows too enormous to be fully comprehensible, and a lingering body odour. 

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Sage-crusted veal with summer vegetables

This week Rachel from The Crispy Cook is hosting Weekend Herb Blogging, and I'm going to explore the summery possibilities of sage.

Sage is a herb I rarely use. I think, like most English people, I associate it simply with the stuffing for the Christmas turkey, or other heavy, pork-laden winter fare. When I think of cooking with herbs, I think of gorgeous, vibrant bunches of coriander, with their bright, yellow-green leaves the exact colour of ripe limes. I think of feathery dill, in large quivering bunches, with its slender leaves like little jade needles. I think of fresh mint, possibly my favourite aroma in the world, reminiscent of lemons in its freshness. I once stalked a small boy halfway across the suburbs of Marrakech because he was carrying the biggest bunch of mint I've ever seen in my life, and it was perfuming the surrounding air with its zesty scent. I think of the sharp, astringent, aniseedy snap of fresh basil or the beautiful delicacy of a sprig of thyme, barely wider than one of my own hairs, with its tiny pointed leaves, those ready for picking sporting a delightful purple blush where they meet the stem. I had never noticed this until a chef I once worked for pointed it out to me, instructing me to harvest only the leaves with a deep, flushed underside for whatever dish he was cooking at the time. But rarely do I think of the braille-like pebbly texture of sage leaves, the muted jade green of a Regency drawing room, with their deeply aromatic and somehow comforting scent; designed, it seems, to be paired with other comfort foods to bring cheer in the darkest winter.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Coconut French toast with mango and blueberries

I can't get enough of these honey mangoes. The day they stop appearing in the Indian grocers is going to be a sorrowful occasion. I might hold a small mango funeral and make a mango graveyard with the stones from my last box of mangoes, wearing yellow instead of black and crooning a mournful ode to the king of fruits. Except I won't actually do that, because that would be bordering on creepy and obsessive. Until that tragic day arrives, however, I'm compulsively buying boxes of mangoes and attempting to incorporate them into every meal. I'm getting weird looks from people at the gym and the swimming pool: the mango shop is en route, so I usually arrive at the sports centre with a bottle of water and iPod in one hand, and three large boxes proclaiming themselves 'FRUITY FRESH' in the other which I then stow away secretively in a locker, with a final farewell caress, lest some common pleb get their hands on my glorious edible treasure. It's testament to how beautiful these fruits are that when I open the locker an hour later, it no longer smells of people's sweaty gym gear, but instead is fragrant with the heady perfume of golden mango flesh.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Tracklements Mustard Factory Tour

I didn't watch much of Jamie Oliver's series about unhealthy eating in America, but one moment does stand out. He went to a school in the most obese state in the US, armed with a basket of vegetables. These he held up, one by one, to the class and asked them to name the vegetable. None of them could. We're not talking about weird things like kohlrabi and jerusalem artichokes, which I probably wouldn't have been able to identify until about four years ago, but your most fundamental foodstuffs. It was particularly heartbreaking to see none of the children able to identify a potato. Yet when Jamie held up a box of chips, they unanimously recognised it, screaming with glee: "FRENCH FRIES!" Jamie again held up the potato next to the chips: "Do you know that this comes from this?" he asked. Blank looks all around.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Vaguely healthy berry muffins

For all they parrot about wanting to help customers make healthy choices, coffee chains clearly don't actually want this. If they did, they wouldn't attach the prefix 'skinny' to lower-calorie choices. I don't know about you, but I can never actually bring myself to utter the words "skinny muffin", "skinny latte" or "skinny double-chocolate mocha" (and I usually think the latter is only likely to merit the response "Yeah, you wish, fatty" from the barista). It just sounds ludicrous in every way, and there's something dreadfully uncool about opting for lower-calorie varieties. It makes me sound like I take myself far too seriously, like I think I'm some A-list celebrity whose fast-paced and pressurised career means she must live entirely off skinny lattes and not a single molecule of fat must pass her lips. 

This is clearly not the case. I write a food blog - I am obviously not the girl in the coffee queue clutching a skinny muffin and asking for a skinny latte. However, I do appreciate the inclusion of apparently less fattening muffins at the counters of Starbucks and the like. It's just that I hate the notion of a 'skinny' muffin. No one gets skinny by eating muffins. Unless they are muffins made out of air. There's a reason why a common name for the fat that hangs over one's too-tight trousers is 'muffin top'. Also, most of these so-called skinny muffins are laden with sugar and other weird things to make up for their lack of fat, so their health benefits over the normal variety are debatable. That said, I'd definitely be better off eating one of these than doing what I used to do every Saturday as a teenager: skip lunch and just eat a Starbucks triple chocolate muffin between breakfast and dinner (needless to say, that one is not of the 'skinny' variety). Ohh, those sweet white chocolate chunks in their dark, unctuous blanket of spongy, buttery, cocoa-ridden sugary goodness...

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Fig, blackcurrant and oatmeal tart

This week Astrid from Paulchen's Foodblog is hosting Weekend Herb Blogging, and my offering is all about figs.

Shakespeare's Cleopatra, in Act 1 Scene 2 of her eponymous play, casually remarks "I love a long life better than figs". If Shakespeare had been attempting to signal to the audience the inherent precarious irrationality of women, and the dangers of letting such unhinged and volatile creatures wield any power of their own, he could have picked no better phrase with which to do so. Is she absolutely mad? No one in their right mind, surely, would choose a long life over the prospect of figs. I'm pretty sure I could happily accept the possibility of dropping down dead in five years' time if I could guarantee that those five years would be spent, chiefly, in the act of consuming limitless basketfuls of plump, ripe, oozingly succulent figs. Clearly Shakespeare agreed: four acts later, Cleopatra is dead. No long life for the woman crazy enough to blaspheme the joys of this unparalleled fruit. Surely we can see this as a message. Shakespeare says: figs > long life.

Monday, 4 July 2011

ProCook: a review

I was recently sent a couple of things by ProCook to review. ProCook was set up in 1996 as a small family business, but has rapidly expanded to become the UK's leading specialist cookware company (they've also been recognised by Saturday Kitchen and Grand Design). They offer own-brand cookware, knives, utensils and bakeware that are built to last, as evidenced by extensive guarantees, and have 17 stores around the UK as well as a very easy-to-use website. They even have an own-brand ProCook kitchen clock; a quick glance at their website will show that they're pretty equipped for catering to all culinary needs, from aprons to pestles and mortars. I'd heard of the brand before but never tried any of their products, so I was interested to see how I got on with them.