Baked fig and smoked mozzarella piadina

Generally, as a culture, we're getting to grips pretty well with the idea of street food. It's been the 'next big thing' in gastronomy for a while now, with nomadic vendors of everything from ice cream to burgers, particularly those in London, drawing huge crowds mainly through that potent combination of word of mouth advertising and a half-decent product to sell. I've heard countless stories of an obscure street trader suddenly faced with queues snaking round several streets, packed with people eager to sample his wares, simply because word got out on twitter. Such places are deeply trendy, especially if they start changing location and requiring you to be 'in the know' to actually be able to locate your dinner.

We're also getting increasingly au fait with street food from other countries, which is just as well really, because I don't think the British actually have a famous street food. You can find Thai noodle stalls in most major cities; you can track down the delectably filling Vietnamese banh mi sandwich in your local branch of Eat (which many agree is a curse rather than a blessing); there are countless pseudo-Japanese places offering bowls of slurpy ramen, and burritos are nearly as common parlance as baguettes.

While this is, of course, great news for us travellers-cum-foodlovers, many would argue - correctly I think - that street food away from its street of origin is never quite the same. For starters, a lot of ingredients that are found in abundance in foreign climes just don't exist over here, and those that do are usually exported and inferior in quality and flavour. Fruit and vegetables, for example. Not only are food miles bad for the environment; they're also not great for the taste of the produce either. Fruits and vegetables are picked underripe for easier transportation, and consequently arrive on our home shores barely edible.

The next big issue is cost. Recently I came home from a month in Vietnam, having indulged in gorgeous steaming bowls of beef or chicken noodle soup on an almost daily basis for under £1 a time, to find that the same thing would cost me around £10 to order in a restaurant. And I'd have to go to London to get it, rather than simply turn out of my hotel and be guaranteed to find a pho vendor on the next corner. While I understand that our economy is very different to that of Vietnam, and everything is generally cheaper in South East Asia, it still hurts me and seems against the free, gluttonous, instant-gratification-led spirit of street food to charge prices for it that wouldn't look amiss on a restaurant menu.

Then, of course, there's the fact that it simply isn't the same. Many street food sellers in foreign countries have been making those burritos, noodles or dumplings their entire lives. Their recipes were probably passed on from generation to generation. They have their dish down to a wonderful, delicious art. In Vietnam, I watched women speedily ladling rice batter onto steamers covered with muslin, then deftly rolling the resulting banh cuon pancakes around pork and mushrooms, scattering over fresh herbs and piling them onto a plate. The process took about twenty seconds from start to finish, and was repeated over and over again. They must have made thousands of those pancakes in a single day. Try as you might, you'll never be able to replicate that skill and tradition on the other side of the world. 

Plus, while you can list the obvious ingredients for a street food recipe, down to the last pinch of salt or scattering of spices, there are those hidden ingredients to be considered. The ones that I would argue are equally important. The baking heat of the midday sun. The humidity of the rainy season clinging to the air like a wet teatowel. The dust from the daily onslaught of mopeds speeding past the stall, throwing up fragments of earth. The bustle of the nearby markets, the sheer vibrance of life as it goes on around. Culture is an ingredient one simply can't buy or export, and it changes the flavour of a dish entirely. 

I could order a bowl of pho somewhere in the UK, I'm sure. But eating it on a proper chair, on a proper table, rather than a tiny plastic stool perched in a dingy alleyway corner, without a constant cascade of sweat beading its way down my face and the back of my neck, would just be wrong. It wouldn't taste the same. The whole point of street food is its sheer evocativeness. It is inextricably linked to romanticised, nostalgic holiday memories. Translating it into the harsh, often cold, reality of England is perhaps not such a good idea after all. (That said, given our climate, perhaps a hot bowl of pho is exactly what we should be eating more of...)

However, in this current climate of street-food mania, there's nothing more depressing than spending hedonistic holiday days gorging oneself on cheap and plentiful street food, only to find that your staple of choice is completely untraceable once you get home. While you may be able to find restaurants for every cuisine imaginable in our country nowadays, certain types of street food just don't seem to be able to translate across borders. 

One of the best things I have ever eaten in Italy (and I have eaten a lot in Italy) is a piadina. I first tried this in Turin, where it was basically a tortilla wrap filled with cheese and vegetables and grilled so the cheese melted. It was nice. But then I went to Ravenna, a beautiful city in the Emilia-Romagna region and home to some incredible UNESCO-listed mosaics. Here I found the piadina to be a rather different creature: this was a big flatbread, much thicker and squidgier than a tortilla; in fact, almost like a naan bread. Its soft, supple texture and fluffy crumb is due to the inclusion of pig fat (strutto) in the dough. This is stuffed with a variety of fillings, grilled to melt the filling and toast the outside of the bread, then served in a sleeve of foil. 

This is a photo of me in Ravenna. My smile is entirely due to a diet of piadina, not the fact that I was riding the most ridiculous hire bike in the world.

Oh, if I could only go back and eat one thing from my travels to Italy, it would probably be that. The combination of toasty yet squidgy bread with its molten filling is beyond tasty. A favourite combination for the piadina is that classic Italian triumvirate of prosciutto, mozzarella and rocket, but there were other delightful fillings too, mostly based around a cheese-meat-rocket combination (gorgonzola and bresaola, for instance, which is salty salty heaven).

My favourite, and something I still dream about a little bit, was a mixture of squacquerone cheese and caramelised figs. The cheese - pronounced s-quack-er-oh-nay - is a soft, spreadable cheese with a slightly lumpy texture. It has a very mild, creamy flavour with a bit of a tang to it. The taste is actually reminiscent of Dairylea cheese, those awful processed triangles I used to love as a kid, but this is a million miles from that. The figs are a big thing in the Emilia-Romagna region. They appear in huge, dark vats in delis, flecked with their nutty seeds and all clumped and tangled together into one delicious, sugary mass. I imagine they're cooked for hours in some kind of sugar syrup, possibly with some balsamic vinegar to add that acidity. Their flavour is so strong it tastes almost alcoholic. Coupled with the mild cheese, they are gorgeous. Add some Parma ham, and you may as well never eat anything else again.

I can't understand why piadina hasn't travelled over here. It's the perfect street food - quick to make, filling, involving pig fat, and with all sorts of potential for different delicious combinations of flavours. To this day I lament the fact that I can't find it here. So when Crosta & Mollica, makers of authentic Italian breads, announced a new addition to their range -  packs of piadana breads (also known as piada) made in Emilia Romagna - memories of that cheese/fig combo flooded my mind and I just had to have a go at recreating it. 

I should point out straight away that this is definitely not the same as the piadina in Ravenna. This is much closer to the type I tried in Turin. It's thicker than a tortilla wrap, and more pliable, but definitely not the squidgy, lard-enriched beast of Ravenna. Because of this, it's ideal for warming and filling with whatever you like. I shouldn't really have teased you with that enticing description of the fluffy pork-fat bread, only to tell you that it's still a maddeningly distant prospect, but this is the next best thing.

Although I do have a jar of fichi caramellati from Emilia-Romagna, I had some baked figs left over in my fridge (as you do - recipe coming shortly). I went to the wonderful cheese shop in York on the off chance that they'd have squacquerone, but was (predictably) disappointed - I've never managed to find it in the UK; I imagine because it's soft and mild it doesn't travel well, like fresh ricotta. However, I did find some smoked mozzarella which was a bit exciting, and decided to use that. Most cheeses work well with figs, though - you could go strong, with a nice gorgonzola, cheddar, pecorino or stilton, or mild, with some ricotta, buffalo mozzarella or taleggio. I put the piada bread in a dry, hot frying pan and scattered half of it with sliced cheese, sliced figs, some pea shoots for crunch (rocket would also have worked0, and some lemon thyme (works so well with cheese and figs). 

As I'd hoped, the cheese started to melt. Once the bread had softened, I folded the unfigged half over the filling and flipped it over, to toast the other side. The result was a deeply satisfying combination of toasty, crunchy flatbread with gooey, smokey cheese and sweet crunchy figs. It was very reminiscent of a quesadilla, that Mexican toasted tortilla sandwich. 

It's been too long since I had melted cheese between pieces of bread. I feel this needs to become a regular fixture in my life.

I'm not going to give a recipe for this, because it's so straightforward. Get yourself a pack of Crosta & Mollica piada flatbreads (they stock them in Waitrose and Ocado). Put one in a hot, dry frying pan. Scatter your choice of filling over half the bread. Some suggestions for fillings:

Goat's cheese and roasted red peppers with a scattering of basil
Rare roast beef and stilton or gorgonzola
Parma ham, mozzarella and basil, with some sliced tomatoes
Smoked salmon and cream cheese
Smoked cheddar and caramelised apples
Turkey, brie and cranberry

Once the cheese starts to melt a bit, fold the bare half of bread over the filling. Flip the whole thing over and toast the other side. Remove, cut in half, and eat with your hands. Relish the contrast in textures and temperatures. 

Then start saving up for a plane ticket to Ravenna, so you can try the real thing. Because, as with all street food, it's just not the same otherwise. 

Gluten-free Challenge: Day Five

Let's talk a bit about risotto. Risotto is perhaps, I have decided, the ultimate gluten-free dish. This is because it's 100% naturally gluten-free. No need to make any changes or substitute any ingredients with inferior variations. No need to skimp on delicious creamy, starchy goodness. Take your basic mixture of olive oil, butter, risotto rice, onion and stock, and add to it whatever meat, fish, cheese or vegetables you like. The only thing you have to watch is your stock cubes, some of which may contain gluten in the form of various starches. I know that Marigold bouillon powder, though, which many chefs regard as the superior stock brand, is gluten-free.

If you know a gluten-free eater, make this for them. Don't let them suffer a diet of salads. Slap a big plate of creamy, gooey, chewy rice in front of them, grate over a mountain of cheese and a good grind of black pepper, maybe a handful of fresh herbs, and watch a glazed look of delight pass over their face. At least, that is always my response to a good risotto.

On my last day of this gluten-free challenge, I tucked into a plate of mushroom and bacon risotto, kindly made for me by my mum. I think this divine Italian combination of rice and stock has to be the ultimate comfort food. It's also incredibly easy to cook, and so versatile. I must have made at least fifty different types of risotto in my life, but these are some of my favourite combinations, and ones I would urge you to try if looking to inject some life and delight into a gluten-free diet:

Leek, blue cheese and bacon
Lemon, broad bean and ricotta or goat's cheese
Wild mushroom and truffle oil
Sausage and radicchio
Butternut squash, bacon and chestnut
Chicken, lemon and rocket

Apart from this lovely dinner, I pretty much ate the same as yesterday - porridge for breakfast; pasta salad for lunch, and an apple.

All in all, I haven't found going five days without gluten challenging at all. This may be due to the fact that I rarely eat that much of it anyway, but it was still a really interesting experiment, and has made me realise a few important things. Here is a little video to summarise my findings:

To celebrate the end of my gluten-free challenge, here's a list of some of my favourite recipe creations that are naturally gluten-free. There are even a few cakes on there!

Spiced dried fruit and blood orange compote, to be served on gluten-free porridge
Mexican spiced chicken salad

Who says going gluten-free has to feel like deprivation? I'd say it should be an adventure!

Duck with chocolate and marsala

If it's possible for food to be sexy - and of course I believe it is, otherwise my life as a food blogger and aspiring food journalist would be very barren indeed - then this dish might just be the epitome of blushing, pulse-quickening, supple-fleshed sexuality. 

Think tender, succulent, meaty duck legs, smothered in a powerfully rich and complex sauce. It's glossy and dark with molten chocolate, enriched with the creamy bite of toasted pine nuts, sweet and juicy with plump raisins and laced with alcohol. It dribbles seductively off the spoon over the crispy skin of the duck, a dark and dramatic waterfall leaving sweet-savoury nuggets of powerful flavour in its wake.

This is a recipe from the Bocca cookbook by Jacob Kennedy, acclaimed head chef of Bocca di Lupo in Soho. I've been there twice and it's one of the best restaurants I've ever visited. It serves Italian food, but not as you'd know it; the dishes are often unusual, highlighting recipes, flavours and combinations from all over the diverse gastronomic melting pot that is Italy. Flavours are hearty and robust, the cooking is exquisite, and eating there is a fascinating tour de force of Italian cuisine at its lesser-known and best.

Unsurprisingly, then, the Bocca cookbook has no time for lasagne, spag bol and carbonara. Instead it treats you to underrated classics: caponata, the amazing sweet-sour aubergine stew from Sicily; guidelines for making your own Italian sausages; octopus with olive oil and peas; baked pigeon and bread 'soup'; cassata, a sublime confection of ricotta, chocolate and candied fruit from Sicily; tuna tartare, and other wonderful and exotic dishes. 

(Incidentally, I'm not being asked to write about this lovely book...I just thought I'd share my passion for it with you.)

I've started bookmarking recipes in new cookbooks as soon as I first read through them, to make it easier to find them later on. I take this a bit too seriously, having created a geeky colour scheme of page markers (blue for fish, green for vegetarian, pink for desserts, purple for meat...) to categorise the recipes. It's lucky I'm going back to university in October, really, isn't it?

This recipe was bookmarked immediately. Just the title had my mouth watering in anticipation.

Perhaps because it just rolls off the tongue in this incredibly sexy fashion. Perhaps because the word 'chocolate' is effortlessly inviting, conjuring up images of dark, sweet, melting goodness; of the voluptuous flow of a chocolate fountain or the warm, molten centre of a chocolate truffle. There's something beautiful about the word 'marsala', too, its soft sounds reminiscent of a seductive whisper, a romantic sigh, the letters curling around each other like slumbering lovers.

I've always been fascinated by cooking with chocolate. It's not a new concept; the Aztecs used it in this way before we Europeans got hold of the stuff and pumped it full of fat and sugar. You still find chocolate used as an ingredient in some savoury Mexican cooking. I've been experimenting with its deep, tannic richness recently, finding it a perfect partner for smoked duck, caramelised pears and goats cheese in this beautiful salad, though it's also commonly paired with venison. If you use good quality dark chocolate, it can add an intriguing complexity of flavour to a dish; a hint of bitterness, a touch of fragrance, a soft and melting mouthfeel.

This recipe starts by browning duck - it states to use a whole duck, jointed, but duck legs were on offer at the supermarket so I went with those. Once the duck skin is brown and crisp and has rendered down a lot of its fat, you remove it from the pan and fry chopped onion, pine nuts and raisins along with a cinnamon stick, fennel seeds and bay leaves.

The scent emanating from the pan as I stirred this heady mixture was intoxicating. The combination of spicy fennel, warm cinnamon and perfumed bay is unusual, wonderfully fragrant in a way that manages to be both sweet and savoury simultaneously. The pine nuts toast, offering up their nutty aroma, while the onions soften into translucent slivers.

To this you add a generous amount of marsala, or medium sherry (I went for the latter as marsala is pretty expensive). The duck legs sit in this sauce, covered, for around 45 minutes, braising gently away while infusing all of their meaty liquor into the sherry.

The finishing touch, once the duck is cooked, is to stir some dark chocolate into the sauce, where it melts and colours the whole thing a deep, dark brown. Being dark chocolate, it lends more of a bitterness than a sweetness to the mixture, which is already quite sweet from the alcohol, rounding off the complex mixture of spices, nuts and raisins. It also thickens the sauce, turning it glossy and unctuous. I stirred in a little parsley at the end, to lend its welcome freshness to the whole affair.

The recipe suggests no other accompaniment than plain couscous or wilted spinach, owing to the complexity of the flavours. I'd have to agree. I served my duck with bulgar wheat (slightly nuttier and chewier than couscous, so a good match for the strong sauce) and the suggested spinach, which worked perfectly.

I'm hoping I don't even need to tell you how unusual and delicious this dish is, because the title has already caught your eye, like it caught mine, and made you think "Right. I can go no longer without this in my life". It's just a fabulous combination of ingredients that work in total harmony. It's sweet yet bitter with cocoa, it bursts with juicy raisins and the crunch of toasted nuts, it melts in your mouth like chocolate. It doesn't overpower the rich flavour of the duck meat, instead complementing it perfectly and allowing its iron-rich gameyness to shine. It is incredibly rich, though, so a little sauce goes a long way. In future I might try it with pan-fried rare duck breasts, which are less intense in flavour than the legs.

I'm not going to give you a recipe, unfortunately, as I cooked the dish word-for-word from the Bocca cookbook, and I think it would probably infringe some kind of copyright to replicate it exactly on this blog. But do go out and buy Jacob Kennedy's excellent book; you'll find far more delights than just this gorgeous dish nestling in between its hallowed pages.

Five things I love this week #5

1. Tracklements Caramelised Red Onion Relish. It's National Sandwich Week this week, and so Tracklements were kind enough to send me a selection of their top sandwich-enhancing products. I tried their take on two classics: first, a jar of proper thick, tasty mayonnaise, enhanced with Dijon mustard for a bit of a kick and a delicious creamy flavour; secondly, a lovely tomato ketchup made with ripe Italian tomatoes that had a much deeper flavour than your standard Heinz. I'd much rather use this than something mass-produced on such a large scale. It would be delicious in a classic bacon or sausage sandwich. There was also a delicious country garden chutney - so-called because the first batch was made from all the vegetables Tracklements could find in their garden - with lovely tangy chunks of onion, carrot, swede, parsnip and turnip, and an interesting kick from apricots, tamarind, apple, sultanas and mustard.

My hands-down favourite, though, is this wonderful caramelised red onion relish. I love using caramelised onions as a garnish for any dish involving cheese, but cooking them down to tangles of sweet tenderness in a pan takes time. With this, all the work is done - the onions have been slowly caramelised before the addition of vinegar, muscovado sugar (which adds a lovely caramelly depth of flavour), salt and pepper. The jar suggests it would be the perfect partner for a steak sandwich, which I can't wait to try - possibly with a little blue cheese. If that doesn't make you rush out and buy a jar, I don't know what will. For now, though, I'll suggest this sandwich as a celebration of National Sandwich Week, which I made for lunch yesterday and which was amazing, really showing off the red onion relish to its best advantage:

Take some good sourdough bread (I made my own because I'm hideously enviable like that. But you could buy it). Lightly toast. Smother with crumbly, tangy goat's cheese. Dollop with Tracklements caramelised red onion relish. Top with quartered fresh figs and a few basil or mint leaves, roughly torn.

Eat. It'll be messy. Enjoy it. Relish it, if you will. Have a napkin ready.

2. Baked plums with ginger and orange. I found these gorgeous plums at the market yesterday and couldn't resist buying a few. Because raw plums are often so disappointing when flown in from halfway across the world, I like to bake them to bring out their sweet-tart flavour.

Simply halve and stone your plums, then arrange cut side up in a baking dish. Splash over a glug of orange juice (bottled is fine), scatter over some light brown sugar, and take a ball of stem ginger in syrup and cut it into little cubes. Scatter this over the plums before drizzling with a little of the ginger syrup. If you don't have ginger in syrup, use fresh grated ginger and add a bit more sugar. Bake at around 170C for 20 minutes or until soft but still keeping their shape. The ginger, sugar and orange will have formed a succulent syrup around the base of the plums. These are amazing served with vanilla ice cream, but are also good for breakfast on muesli, granola or porridge.

3. Two Greedy Italians. I know I'm a bit late with this one, as it's been on TV for a while, but I've only just got round to watching it. There couldn't be a more refreshing antidote to the swarm of waif-like, vapid, impossibly manicured female 'TV chefs' currently gracing our screens with their perfect lipstick and clearly false claims that they 'love cheese' while they strut around in their size six jeans and take small bites out of cakes they've made. Such shows irritate me beyond belief, especially as the recipes are so often unimaginative rehashes of things that have been done a million times.

You can't get more honest than two decidedly un-waif-like effusive Italian men gesticulating wildly whilst wolfing down everything in sight and playing pranks on each other in the process. Not only is it a fascinating insight into the lesser-known sides of Italian life, but the recipes are also unusual, original and intriguing. Chestnut gnocchi, orange rice cake, barley risotto with minced pork, buckwheat pasta baked with cheese and swiss chard...this is the kind of food I want to cook and eat, and in no small part because of the heartwarming and amusing way it is presented on the screen. I think I might have to buy the cookbook...and buying the cookbook to accompany a TV cookery series is something I told myself I would never do...

4. The Hole in the Wall, Cambridge. I've been meaning to go to Masterchef finalist Alex Rushmer's restaurant ever since I heard it had opened; it's not often that you get a contestant from your home town on national TV, and I was yearning for him to win and put Cambridge on the culinary map (not likely to happen anytime soon, as it apparently has the largest concentration of chain restaurants in the UK). Despite not winning, he's certainly done very well with his place out in Little Wilbraham on the outskirts of Cambridge. I finally ended up there for Sunday lunch this weekend, and was absolutely charmed by the place. It has a lovely cosy country pub feel, with rustic wooden tables and simple yet elegant tableware - there are little plants on each table and the butter is served on a wooden slate, sprinkled with sea salt. Everything was delicious, from the soda bread and sourdough we slathered in said butter, right through to the incredible dessert.

I had a perfectly-cooked fillet of wild sea bass on a bed of pecorino tortelloni with asparagus and pea puree. The tortelloni were the best I've ever had - the pasta was perfectly al dente, giving way to the rich cheese filling within. The asparagus was fresh and crunchy, and the sea bass meaty and delicious. If I were to make a very minor criticism, I'd say that I'm not entirely sure they belonged together on a plate - it felt rather like two very different dishes; the pasta didn't actually need the sea bass. But I enjoyed it immensely and could have eaten another plateful. My boyfriend had the roast sirloin of beef, which arrived so beautifully pink I could have cried with joy on his behalf. It came with two perfect Yorkshire puddings - the right balance of crispy and gooey - and the best duck fat roast potatoes I've ever eaten. They were so crispy you could hear one being cut into across the other side of the restaurant.

For dessert, I agonised over a choice between the lemon and passion fruit tart with pineapple sorbet, or the sticky toffee bread and butter pudding. Yes, that's right - not sticky toffee or bread and butter pudding, but both in one. Why have I never thought of that before? I told the waiter about my dilemma, and he actually laughed at me for being so ridiculous as to even have a dilemma. He rightly pointed out that I would hate myself if I ordered the tart. I saw why, when my pudding arrived.

It was a quivering, custardy square of gooey bread and juicy raisins. It came drenched in a molten puddle of sticky toffee sauce with more of those plump, caramelly raisins. There were blobs of passion fruit coulis. There were two little strawberries for decoration. There was a scoop of - wait for it - clotted cream ice cream, perched atop a crunchy biscuity mixture. The texture of the pudding was just sublime - you couldn't detect the individual bread layers, as it had all melded together into one tender, creamy mass, slightly gelatinous and subtly sweet. The raisins gave a perfect bite to the whole thing, and the toffee sauce was so fabulous that I nearly picked the plate up and licked it clean. The coulis gave a welcome sharpness to the whole thing, and the clotted cream ice cream helped lift the richness of the sticky sauce. It goes straight to the Elly McCausland Pudding Hall of Fame - in there with my top five restaurant puddings of all time. When the waiter came to collect my plate, he actually laughed at me and said "How insane were you, thinking about having a different pudding?"

Alex Rushmer is a bloody genius, people. Go and eat his food now, while you can get a table. Service is really friendly, the atmosphere is fantastic, and the food is beautiful. And don't even think about ordering the lemon tart over the sticky toffee bread and butter pudding.

5. Roasted cauliflower. Banish all thoughts of watery, grey, smelly, overcooked mushy cauliflower from your minds. Yes, it can be horrible. It can be anaemic-looking, flavourless, squashy and reminiscent of old socks. Here's how to change that.

Cut a cauliflower into florets. Toss with some olive oil, half a teaspoon of cumin, a sprinkling of cinnamon and a squeeze of lemon juice. Season well with salt and pepper. Bake at 180C for 10-15 minutes until parts have turned crispy and it is tender in the middle.

I promise you, this is a cauliflower revelation. You can vary the herbs and spices as you wish, but be sure to be generous with the oil and salt for a perfect experience. It goes very well with Indian dishes, but also with any roast meat or as part of a salad. Good flavour partners are tahini, lemon, lentils, couscous, pomegranate seeds, lemony roast chicken or spiced lamb.

Five things I love this week #3

There's a definite autumnal feel to my 'five things' this week; that much is evident from the muted beige tones of these photos. After a wonderfully warm October, I think I'm finally ready to embrace the onset of autumn, and all the delicious produce it brings with it. 

1. Wild mushroom and truffle risotto. I've been craving risotto ever since I had a beautiful starter at the Yorke Arms last week: truffled partridge boudin with ceps and carnaroli rice. The rice was a gorgeous risotto-like concoction, heady with the musky fragrance of truffle, the rice still with a little bite to it, creamy and savoury and incredibly delicious. I couldn't ignore my truffle/risotto cravings any longer, and succumbed with this lovely recipe. 

It's a standard risotto to which I added chopped chestnut mushrooms when frying the onion and garlic; I also used soaked porcini mushrooms and added their soaking water to the chicken stock used to plump up the rice. The risotto is finished off with some pan-fried girolle and shiitake mushrooms (shockingly expensive, but a nice little luxury, and so much more interesting to eat and look at than standard mushrooms), a drizzle of truffle oil, lots of lemon thyme leaves and a hefty grating of parmesan. Savoury, umami-rich wonderfulness. 

2. Pumpkins and winter squash. It's easy to just pick up the knee-jerk butternut when planning winter squash recipes, but the other day I discovered these beauties at the farmers market. I think the pale blue one is a Crown Prince squash; the others I'm not too sure about. 

I cut them all into chunks (risking life and limb and a hernia in the process; who needs a gym when you can spend an evening hacking your way through an unyielding orb of orange?) and roasted them with olive oil, salt, pepper and lots of chopped fresh rosemary. They softened into intensely flavoursome, sweet, fudgy deliciousness. Their flesh was much more dense and full-flavoured than your standard butternut squash, while the skin went beautifully dark and caramelly. 

I served them alongside roast partridge (recipe to come) and also mixed them with some couscous, feta and cherry tomatoes for a salad. Winter squash are great with anything salty, like bacon, feta or goats cheese. The possibilities are pretty much endless. I'm definitely going to seek out different kinds of squash in future (and perhaps an axe to chop them with). 

3. Fig and orange cobbler. Figs and oranges are a surprisingly successful combination (my aim this autumn is to discover all possible partners for the wonderful fig - raspberries and oranges are two of my new finds). Mix sliced figs and segmented oranges (about eight figs and two oranges) with a little dark sugar and a splash of rum, orange juice or grand marnier in a pie dish. Dollop on this cobbler topping, then bake for half an hour or so until the fruit releases its beautiful garnet juices and the topping is crisp and crunchy. This also works wonderfully as a crumble, especially if you mix some oats and almonds or hazelnuts into the crumble mixture. The figs soften and the oranges become really sweet and flavoursome, and the combination together is juicy, fragrant and delicious. Add some good vanilla ice cream and devour: autumn in a bowl.

4. Porridge with apple and quince compote. A delicious, unusual and thoroughly seasonal way to start an autumn day. Simply simmer peeled, chopped quince in a little water and lemon juice until almost tender. Don't throw away the cores and peel - simmer those covered in water in a separate pan while you cook the quince. Add a few sliced cooking/Cox apples to the chopped quince (peel if you like - I only bother if they're quite big, otherwise it's too fiddly) and the water from the quince cores and peel, and cook until the apples start to disintegrate. You should have a lovely, pale gold bowl of fragrant goodness. You can add sugar, but I don't think it needs it - quince is sweet enough on its own. This is lovely on hot porridge scattered with a few blackberries.

5. The Great British Food Revival. A brilliant programme all about championing British produce that is in danger of being sidelined by foreign imports, putting us back in touch with our food heritage and urging us to save those traditional ingredients from extinction (think peas, pears, crab, pork, potatoes...). I loved the first series, and the second is just as good, judging from what I've seen so far: Gregg Wallace extolling the virtues of Yorkshire rhubarb, an ingredient very close to my heart and one that I hoard like a mad person during its short season. There's still some in my freezer. He comes up with some unusual and delicious recipes that I can't wait to try.

While on the subject, I love Gregg Wallace. I think he has an honest and immensely refreshing attitude to food. None of this poncing around with silly descriptions about umami, mouthfeel and acidity. He simply says "it's like a hug from the pudding angel". If that isn't a concise and accurate description of a dessert, I don't know what is. He is entirely unpretentious and seems like a genuinely nice, fun person. And I'm not just saying this because he likes rhubarb, though that does win anyone brownie points in my eyes.

I'm also looking forward to seeing Valentine Warner's contribution to the show, mainly because I had lunch with him a couple of months ago and am childish enough to get excited about having met people who appear on TV.

Roast beef, truffled polenta and summer vegetables

I don't exaggerate when I say that I can count on one hand the number of times I have cooked beef. I've made a couple of beef stews; a gorgeous warming one with ale, carrots and onions on bonfire night a few years ago, which was the perfect antidote to standing around in the freezing cold to watch the pretty lights in the sky; this rather delicious tomato and pepper stew enriched with cinnamon and stirred into pasta ribbons; and a couple of weeks ago I made an improvised beef goulash for eighteen hungry Navy people. Tender cubes of lean stewing beef, in a rich tomato sauce with strips of red and green peppers, lashings of paprika and cayenne pepper, and dumplings. It was unexpectedly delicious, and inspired me to experiment a bit more with the humble cow. I don't know why I hardly ever cook beef; I think it's because it's a meat that you can't really experiment with, and by that I mean pair it with fruit. Anyone who's ever been cooked for by me will know that I adore the combination of fruit and meat, which is why I usually cook with lamb or pork. Beef doesn't really lend itself to such weird and wonderful combinations, so I usually assume it's 'boring' and steer clear.

However, having caught the beef 'bug' from the delicious goulash and a little bit of my boyfriend's roast at the pub the other day, I decided to give beef another go. Luckily, fate seemed to be on my side, as the butcher had an enormous piece of topside on offer. It was gigantic, over two feet long, weighing over three kilos, and a bit of a bargain. I struggled home with it and then had a think about recipes. Initially I had the idea of serving it very rare, thinly sliced, with truffle oil, parmesan and rocket, rather like the classic Italian beef tagliata. I was going to bake bread to accompany it, but eventually I couldn't be bothered and therefore the need arose for more carbohydrate. I was intent on using truffle oil somewhere in the dish, ever since I had an incredible starter of wild boar ham drizzled with the stuff in Italy in April. It goes very well with beef, I think - beef and mushrooms are a great combination, and truffle oil is just taking it one step (well, several steps) closer to gastronomic luxury; the earthiness of the truffles have a great affinity with the earthy, iron-rich flavour of good beef. Firmly set on an Italian interpretation, I decided to make some wet polenta infused with truffle oil, imagining that its richness and slightly grainy texture would match the tender meat perfectly.

I suppose the obvious thing to do with the topside would have been roast beef with all the usual trimmings, but we're nearing June now and the weather is (or was, at least) just too summery to start whipping up Yorkshire puddings, roast potatoes and thick, dark gravy. For that reason, I decided that some simple summer vegetables would be the perfect accompaniment; their flavour would bring freshness to the dish and their flavour wouldn't overpower the truffley aromas emanating from the polenta, or the richness of the beef. Tagliata and carpaccio usually pair very rare or even raw slices of beef (usually fillet) with a rocket salad; I decided to serve the meat with a peppery combination of rocket, watercress and spinach, to complement its deep flavours.

I roasted the topside on a bed of onions, sprinkled with a few thyme sprigs and some seasoning. It barely fit in my oven dish due to its enormous size, and there was something immensely satisfying about just sticking a huge piece of meat in the oven and forgetting about it, without having to slave over the hob for hours. The beef I just seasoned with coarse sea salt, black pepper and olive oil, rubbed into the skin. I read somewhere that patting the skin with flour helps it crisp up during cooking; it worked like a charm, resulting in the most incredibly delicious crunchy texture around the outside of the meat, with delicious little nuggets of sea salt. The best bit of all, though, was the 'gravy'. I didn't actually make gravy, just serving the beef with the roasting juices. All the fat rendered down from the meat into the onions in the roasting tin, turning them caramelised, sweet and tender. Spooned over the sliced beef they were absolutely incredible. 

The only slight issue I had was with the cooking of the meat. I don't know what happened - I timed it perfectly to result in rare meat, and it came out closer to medium. I guess my oven just runs hotter than it should, because I left the beef in for really the shortest time possible. I love rare meat and wanted it still bloody in the middle, but instead it was just pink. I was assured it was delicious, but to this day I am still very grumpy about this mishap and intend to order a meat thermometer as soon as possible to avoid future incidents. I suppose generally people don't share my love of meat that is practically still breathing, so cooking it to this stage is probably more socially acceptable.

This is a fairly simple roast dinner, and a perfect way of bringing traditional roast beef into summer. If you're not taking on the mad task of making a roast for nine people, you could use a smaller piece of topside or another roasting joint - fillet would work well too, if you can afford it. Thin slices of pink beef topside, summer vegetables (carrots, asparagus, peas and green beans) dressed with a little garlic oil, a creamy mound of rich polenta drizzled with truffle oil, and a watercress and rocket salad. The finishing touch - a spoonful of meltingly sweet onions and roasting juices. It has all the satisfaction of a Sunday lunch, but feels slightly healthier and much more appropriate for summer weather. The earthy truffle polenta works perfectly with the meat and onions, and the sweet, crunchy vegetables and salad provide a nice freshness. Delicious.

Roast beef, truffled polenta and summer vegetables (serves 10):

3 kg beef topside joint, ready for roasting
5 onions, peeled and sliced
4 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed with a knife blade
A few sprigs of thyme
Olive oil
Coarse sea salt and black pepper
3 tbsp flour

500g quick-cook polenta
Salt and black pepper
Truffle oil
50g grated parmesan
Vegetables, to serve (I used asparagus, green beans, peas and carrots)
Rocket and watercress, to serve

Pre-heat the oven as hot as it will go.

First, prepare the beef. Sprinkle the onions into a large roasting tin, add the garlic and thyme, and season. Rub the olive oil, sea salt and pepper into the beef and place it on top of the onions. Pat the skin with the flour. Put the beef in the oven and roast for 15 minutes. Then turn the oven down to 170C and roast for half an hour per kilo - this should give you rare/medium-rare meat, but if you like it very rare try 20 minutes per kilo - you can always put it back in, and remember it continues to cook while resting.

When the time is up, remove the beef to a board and cover with foil and a tea towel. Leave to rest for 20-30 minutes before carving.

To make the polenta (do this just before serving), bring 2 litres of water to the boil. Add a little chicken stock cube for extra flavour, if you like. Gradually pour in the polenta, whisking constantly, until it thickens. Stir in a generous amount of seasoning, and the parmesan. Spoon big mounds of it onto the plates and drizzle generously with truffle oil. Top with several slices of beef, drizzle with more truffle oil, and spoon over some roasting juices and caramelised onions.

Serve with your choice of vegetables, dressed with a little garlic-infused olive oil, or butter and salt, and a pile of rocket and watercress salad.

Baked mushrooms stuffed with triple-garlic risotto

This week Graziana from Erbe in Cucina is hosting Weekend Herb Blogging, and I have been cooking with not one, not two, but three new and exciting types of garlic. It started with the Real Food Festival, where I picked up a beautiful bronze bulb of smoked garlic. The intense aroma of this is just incredible; it has an immensely appetising quality to it. You wouldn't pick up a bulb of normal garlic and consider eating it there and then, yet the smoked variety has a sort of sweetness and mellowness to it that invites immediate eating (I wouldn't recommend it though). I was trying to think of the perfect recipe to showcase its wonderful qualities, when two more exciting ingredients appeared on my radar.

The second and third varieties are both products of a weekend trip to Borough Market in London. I always think Oxford's market is pretty cosmopolitan; you can find most weird and wonderful ingredients there (kumquats, salsify, loquats, granadillas, Jerusalem artichokes...). Yet the fruit and veg section of Borough Market never fails to delight me with some unexpected surprise. Back in February it was the sight of gorgeous yellow quinces, months after they'd disappeared from the market in Oxford; then it was the two fat teal I found at a butchers' stall there, having never managed to track down the elusive bird elsewhere. Last weekend it was the sight of huge bunches of wild garlic leaves and flowers.

I've heard a lot about the wonders of foraging and the merits of wild garlic (primarily through Masterchef winner Mat Follas, whose restaurant is actually named 'The Wild Garlic', possibly after a dish that helped to win him Masterchef and also because he's a keen forager), but have never got round to attempting to find some for myself, and I have certainly never seen it for sale anywhere. Yet it was there: delicate bunches of the leaves and flowers, that I would have mistaken for some kind of house plant had I not seen the sign. They looked like the leaves I would normally peel off my bunches of lilies before putting them in water. Intrigued and delighted by a new ingredient, I bought a bunch immediately. It went in my fridge for a few days, and I now understand why they say it's easy to forage for wild garlic: you just follow your nose. I think my fridge will retain the pungent smell of these leaves for weeks to come.

I thought my garlic-related surprises were over for the day, until I stumbled across a bunch of 'elephant garlic'. The first thing that struck me was its gorgeous purple and white colouring; the second its enormity. It looked almost like a comically exaggerated bulb of garlic. Equally intrigued by this curious product, I bought some. A little research informed me that it is milder than normal garlic, and can be eaten raw in salads. I just love the sturdiness of it, with its fat stalk and huge purple-skinned cloves.

There's probably nothing I enjoy cooking more than a good risotto, and it felt like time for one. It also seemed the obvious solution to an abundance of garlic; I figured the rich, creamy rice would make a perfect base for such diversity of flavour. I also had a bag of carnaroli risotto rice that I brought back from Vercelli in April, and which was recommended to me by the man in the shop as the best rice for risotto, so naturally I was eager to put it to the test (ultimately, I can conclude that risotto rice is risotto rice, and I think maybe I'm not quite Italian enough to appreciate the nuanced difference between arborio and carnaroli - apart from that Tesco charges twice the price of the former for the latter - but it was very tasty).

As luscious as I envisaged my garlic risotto would be, I figured it needed another dimension. Normally when I cook risotto I add something for texture, like bacon, mushrooms, leeks, or peas. However, I didn't want to distract from the diverse garlicky flavours. The answer came miraculously to me in the form of mushrooms. Initially I considered just frying some in butter and spooning them on top of the risotto, but then I thought that stuffed mushrooms would look much prettier. It would also enable me to take advantage of the beautiful flat cup mushrooms that I've often spied in the market here; they are so clearly meant to be the vehicle for some kind of gorgeous stuffing, and it would be rude not to oblige.

I roasted the mushrooms in the oven for about 45 minutes, drizzled with a little olive oil, seasoning, and some sprigs of thyme. The key to roasting mushrooms is to cook far more than you think you'll need; they shrink a surprising amount in the heat. They also turn golden and wrinkled at the sides and beautifully dark and juicy in the middle, and exude lots of delicious mushroom liquor. I added this to my risotto as well as the stock.

For the risotto, I used my normal recipe, but added smoked garlic instead of normal garlic. The stock was, in an impressively home-economic fashion, homemade chicken stock from the last roast I had. One thing that surprised me about this was how much salt I needed to add to the risotto to achieve the taste I'd consider normal. It makes you realise just how much salt is added to commercial stock cubes - slightly terrifying. Anyway, I finished off the basic risotto recipe with sprigs of thyme, lots of seasoning, grated parmesan, and my two other types of garlic. The leaves I finely shredded and stirred in, and the elephant garlic I finely chopped and sprinkled over towards the end of the cooking. Elephant garlic is apparently milder than normal garlic, though I nibbled a bit and it was still quite strong, so I let it cook in the rice and stock for a few minutes to take the edge off.

I spooned the garlicky risotto onto the juicy mushrooms, grated over a little more parmesan, and finished with a drizzle of truffle oil to really bring out both the mushroom and the garlic flavour. There's something about truffles that is reminiscent of garlic - and it's not just me that thinks this: my Flavour Thesaurus (a great book for any keen cook, by the way) agrees. The two work perfectly together, as garlic and mushrooms do. Even better when the garlic is incorporated within mounds of soft, starchy rice. I was worried the effect would be overpowering, but I think it was just right. If anything, in future I'd add a bit more of both the elephant variety and the garlic leaves.

I'm now hooked on the idea of wild garlic, and hope I find it again sometime soon. I'd love to try it in a pesto, simply tossed through hot strands of tagliatelle, and I have a few leaves left which I'm thinking of using to stuff or wrap around whole fish for baking. The rest of the elephant garlic I'm going to roast so its flavour mellows and I can spread it on bread to eat with some cheese. I like the simplicity of this risotto, though: a good way to showcase three exciting new twists on the humble garlic bulb.

Oh, and needless to say - this is not something to eat if you've any sort of romantic encounter planned for afterwards.

Baked mushrooms stuffed with triple-garlic risotto (serves 4):

12 large flat mushrooms
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
1 onion, finely chopped
1 stick celery, very finely chopped
2 cloves smoked garlic, finely chopped
1 small glass white wine
A knob of butter
300g risotto rice
1 litre hot chicken or vegetable stock - keep it warm in a pan
About 10 leaves wild garlic, finely shredded
1 clove elephant garlic, very finely chopped (or use garlic-infused olive oil)
Parmesan for grating
Truffle oil for drizzling (optional)

First, bake the mushrooms. Spread on a baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil, season, throw over some thyme sprigs and bake at 180C for about 45 minutes until very soft and juicy. Add any juices to the stock as you make the risotto.

For the risotto, saute the onion and celery until softened, then add the smoked garlic. Cook for a couple of minutes, then add the butter and let it melt before adding the rice. Stir to coat in the butter and cook for a minute or so before pouring in the wine. Wait until it is completely absorbed, then add a couple of ladlefuls of hot stock. Stir the rice until all the stock is absorbed, then add another ladleful. Keep doing this until the rice is almost tender - keep tasting it. If you run out of stock, supplement with boiling water.

When nearly done, stir in the garlic leaves and elephant garlic (or drizzle in the garlic oil). Grate in some parmesan, and season to taste.

Remove the mushrooms from the oven, arrange on four plates, then spoon over the risotto. Drizzle with truffle oil - or more garlic oil - and grate over some more parmesan.