1. Caramelised peach, grilled chorizo, avocado and almond salad. I wasn't going to blog about this, but then I took some sad-looking things out of the fridge, did a bit of cookery magic, chucked them into a bowl with a liberal dousing of vinaigrette (made using some delicious hazelnut mustard that I bought from a deli in France), took a bite, and started scribbling furiously in my recipe notebook. I love using peaches in savoury recipes (particularly when they're starting to wrinkle and look a bit unappetising...), and they go amazingly well with any kind of salty, cured animal product - prosciutto is a classic, but chorizo also works wonders, I discovered. Crisp up some thick slices of chorizo in a frying pan, brown some almonds in the brick-red oil it releases, throw in the peaches briefly to caramelise, then toss it all with some salad leaves, cubed avocado, thinly sliced red onion (mixed with a little cider vinegar for a few minutes to take the edge off it) and the aforementioned dressing (mustard, lemon juice, olive oil, seasoning). It looks a treat and is an incredible medley of flavours and textures. This is the kind of salad that you feed people who think they don't like salad. It's great for your health and happiness, without being worthy. Speaking of not being worthy, this brings me on to number two...
2. Burgers at the Slug & Lettuce, York. I was recently invited to review the newly-refurbished Slug & Lettuce on Swinegate, York. Having not been to a Slug & Lettuce since I was legally able to drink (ssh), and definitely never for anything other than their famous two-for-one cocktails, I was intrigued to see what this ubiquitous chain had to offer in the way of food. The answer, in a nutshell? Bloody great burgers. The new interior is rather lovely too, with an eclectic mix of non-matching upholstery, bold wall patterns and - the centrepiece - an enormous glistening blue chandelier dominating the spacious dining area. It's a very pleasant place to while away an evening, with none of that gloomy, sticky-floored feel you often get from bars and pubs. The menu is rather overwhelmingly large for my taste, and the section of standard crowd-pleasing dishes (fish and chips, lasagne, curry, pasta) didn't hugely excite me, but there are some more interesting options if you care to look for them, like smoky Spanish-style chicken with quinoa and couscous, a tear-and-share poppy seed bread crown with beetroot hummus, or Lebanese-style chicken marinated in yoghurt, lemon and herbs. They also offer a range of lighter dishes for the health-conscious, which is always a nice touch.
We tried the smoked haddock fishcake salad to start, and I was very impressed with the incredible crispy crust on the outside of the fishcakes - they were delicious with a creme fraiche dip and the 'house salad', which is much more exciting than you'd expect: there are pomegranate seeds, edamame beans and chilli in there alongside the usual tomatoes and cucumber. A pleasant medley of textures and lovely with the rich, creamy fishcakes. But, as I said, it's all about the burgers. These all come in a glazed brioche bun (I was sold right there and then), with chips (you can upgrade to sweet potato wedges), spicy slaw, tomato, lettuce and mayonnaise. The 'Ultimate S&L Burger' sounded truly monstrous, featuring beef, pulled pork, grilled chicken and smoked mozzarella with a sticky tabasco sauce, so we went for the slightly less meat-heavy options (I was also very tempted by the beef burger with goat's cheese and onion marmalade). I had a lovely grilled chicken, mango and avocado burger with tasty sweet potato wedges - despite being probably the lighter option, it was still very filling, but felt reasonably healthy. There's also a monthly 'burger special', which this month happened to be a ridiculously rich and incredible medley of chorizo, beef, grilled peppers and manchego cheese christened - of course - the 'Olé Burger'. As properly huge, impossible-to-fit-in-your-mouth-without-spilling, all-the-trimmings burgers go, the Slug & Lettuce definitely delivers.
A word of warning, though: if you're going to have one of these epic meat-fests, you really don't need a starter and pudding. I valiantly endured both so as to be able to tell you that with 100% authority. The amaretti and Irish cream cheesecake should come with additional dental insurance, it's that sweet and sticky, but undeniably delicious (at least for the first few mouthfuls - I didn't eat a whole piece!) I imagine the caramel apple crumble pie is in much the same vein, but it did sound good. I'd suggest accompanying the cheesecake with a strong coffee, though, or you might end up feeling queasy. The molten chocolate pudding is rather bigger and more fluffy than the chocolate fondant-style creation I was expecting - more like a slightly undercooked chocolate sponge cake, but nice all the same. It is also huge, however, so plan your portions judiciously. There are also warm Belgian waffles, chocolate brownie and chocolate fondue on offer - again, nothing that is going to set the world alight with its originality, but satisfying, crowd-pleasing food. If you're in York, keen on cocktails and you appreciate the finer points of a good burger, I'd definitely recommend the newly-refurbished Slug & Lettuce. The atmosphere is lovely and the service is excellent - our waitress was very friendly and good at providing food recommendations (always important, especially when dessert is at stake). I also want to know where they got these blue chairs, because I want to replace all the chairs in my house with them.
3. Making the most of new season sea trout. I finally brought myself to part with extortionate amounts of cash to procure one of these beauties recently. I've never tried sea trout, only hearing its praises sung on food TV programmes and in cookery books, because whenever I go to the fishmonger and he tells me the price of the whole fish I start to cry a bit and have to walk away, wallet untouched. I bit the bullet recently, while in need of a treat, and I managed to cut down the expense by getting half a fish instead of a whole one. It still cost me £12, though, so I made sure this sea trout was really put through its paces in my kitchen. I divided it into four portions of beautiful coral flesh with the dappled skin still on. Two of them were seared in a hot pan with liberal amounts of butter until the skin was crispy and glorious, and served alongside roasted Jersey royals and slender asparagus spears, with creamed spinach. I've never made creamed spinach before, but followed Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's recipe, which basically involves making a béchamel sauce and stirring in lots of chopped spinach and lemon juice. I probably could have just eaten this by the bowlful. It was ridiculously delicious, the kind of simple, modern European cooking I rarely ever do but definitely should, if this was anything to go by. Seriously, I can't explain how satisfying the combination of creamy, lemony spinach with the crisp-skinned trout was. It looked beautiful and tasted even better.
Not wanting to freeze the remaining trout but unable to eat it the next day, I took advantage of my recent initiation into the world of home smoking, and hot-smoked the second half of the fillet, following Diana Henry's recipe for hot-smoked salmon. It worked perfectly, firming the flesh and intensifying its colour and flavour. I ate half of this in a salad of shaved fennel, sliced mango and avocado - always a beautiful combination with oily fish - and turned the other half into the kind of ridiculously moreish pasta dish that you want to eat for the rest of your life: linguine in a creamy cheese sauce with cherry tomatoes, avocado, lemon thyme, rocket from the garden and lots of lemon juice and black pepper, the flaked trout stirred in at the last minute. I don't know which I enjoyed more - the incredible pasta dish or the fact that I'd made one piece of fish into three entirely different, and gorgeous, meals. Next career stop: home economics teacher?
4. Home-grown rainbow chard. See previous post about monstrous vegetative triffids taking over my garden. First it was rhubarb, now its chard. I can't believe the little inch-high seedlings I planted a couple of months ago have now turned into swathes of vibrant, neon-stemmed greenery that I can gather by the armful. They're quite the spectacle in my garden. Chard is such a versatile ingredient, and I always marvel at the beauty of those bright, crinkled leaves and their rainbow stems on the worktop before I start cooking. My favourite chard recipe is this Moroccan-style pie with feta, pine nuts and sultanas, which I made last week. It's a lovely way to use the greens and a really interesting combination of flavours and textures.
5. Peach and almond crumble tart. I found several punnets of organic peaches reduced in the supermarket the other week, so naturally hoarded them all without having the slightest idea what I'd do with them. I turned to my favourite dessert blog, Pastry Studio, for inspiration, and found this nectarine crumb tart, which I'd wanted to make for a long time. You make a very light, flaky pastry dough (the dough for this really is incredible, it's amazingly crunchy and crisp once baked), press it into a tart tin, sprinkle over sliced peaches (or nectarines) mixed with a little lemon juice, sugar and cornflour, then top the lot with a crumble mixture enriched with brown sugar for a delicious caramel flavour. I scattered over flaked almonds too. Easy, but it looked like something out of a French patisserie (at least, it did in real life - excuse my iPhone photo below) and tasted incredible with some vanilla ice cream. Probably one of the best desserts I've made all year, and I've made a lot of desserts this year. If you find yourself with peaches or nectarines that aren't quite good enough to eat raw, make this. It'll get a lot of approving comments as it comes out of the oven.