A week or so ago, I was standing in our office kitchen at breakfast time waiting for the toaster to beep. This story requires you to be familiar with the concept of a Danish toaster, so we’ll get that vital detail out of the way first. The Danes, being the edgy, thinking-outside-the-box, design-conscious folk that they are, have quite literally turned the concept of the toaster on its head. They have horizontalised the toaster. Where us plebs in England drop our flaccid sliced Hovis into a fiery, gaping maw, where it sits clamped between metallic jaws and undergoes a thrilling gamble of a transformation that could either result in charcoal or warm dough, but never the sweet Goldilocks stage in between, and which requires you to either interrupt the whole process to check on its progress or to stick your face into the mouth of the beast and risk singed nasal hair, and which is really only appropriate for bread the precise thickness of a pre-sliced loaf or, at the very most, a crumpet – heaven forbid you should try and insert your wedge of artisanal sourdough or pain au chocolat into its tantalizingly precise orifice – the Danes have realized the many potential perils of this situation. (Not least, the possibility of dropping your house keys into the slot and causing a minor explosion, as my mother once managed to do in a feat of ineptitude that still astounds and perplexes me).Read More
One of my biggest gardening successes this year has been lemon verbena. This victory has been made all the more profound by contrast. Two years ago, I bought a little lemon verbena plant from a market stall, its pale green, needle-like leaves clustered in a delicate furl. It grew slowly in my conservatory for a few months, before a plague of whitefly descended and slowly sapped the leaves of their springy vitality. I was left with a tragic tangle of spindly, pale twigs and a few yellowed, curling leaves, along with a sticky whitefly residue smothered over the floor and windows where the plant had stood. It was a depressing sight. Undaunted, I still attempted to make tea and ice cream from the leaves, but attempting to sieve small whitefly corpses out of boiling liquid is not one of my favourite kitchen jobs and somewhat hampered my enjoyment of the creative process. The plant eventually perished, robbed of life by a combination of those insidious little creatures and a harsh frost that delivered the final blow after I’d put it outside in the hope that a Samaritan ladybird would come along and deliver me from the whitefly plague.Read More
I was teaching a student the other day when he asked me to explain the term ‘idiolect’. As with so many definitions, this is something that benefits from the giving of an example. I was plunged into a moment of introspective self-analysis, rapidly mentally running through the lexicon I use on a daily basis, the words to which I attribute non-standard uses or meanings and which therefore constitute my own, distinct, idiolect. I hit, suddenly, upon the word ‘insane’. “You see, when I use the word insane,” I explained to my student, “I use it to mean amazing; ridiculously good; incredible.”
The other night, I found myself murmuring, through a mouthful of pecan nuts, “Oh my god these are insane.”Read More
When I was a child, I used to collect the Michelin ‘I-spy’ books. These were little pocket guides to various aspects of the natural world – birds, flowers, rock formations – that gave detailed and illustrated overviews of the various things you might encounter within these genres, and a handy checklist for you to tick off whenever you’d seen one. While the guide to exotic frogs remained largely unticked during family holidays to rainy National Trust properties throughout the UK, I had largely more success ticking off fossils, plant and bird life, getting incredibly excited when I encountered a new bird species or tree that I could proudly tick off as ‘done’. It’s a habit I’ve retained in adulthood with countries of the world, although unfortunately this is a far more expensive hobby than ticking off different types of fern.Read More
Apple puree is a very versatile thing to have in your kitchen. Made by simmering peeled, cored, chopped cooking apples with a little water until they turn to mush, and then blending to a pale green foamy puree with a silky texture, it has a multitude of uses in cooking. You can add a little lemon juice and a pinch of sugar and turn it into a tangy accompaniment to roast pork. You could mix it with a little maple syrup and drizzle it over ice cream. You can use it, mixed with honey, cinnamon and vanilla, to coat muesli mix before baking to make homemade granola. You can cook it down to form a dark, thick spread that Americans call ‘apple butter’, which is delicious on toast. And you can also use it to make cakes.Read More
When I was about fourteen, I went to a cookery evening class at one of the local secondary schools. I can’t remember if my mother decided to enroll me for this or if it was voluntary, but as I enjoyed it quite a lot I suspect the latter. You’re probably waiting to hear that this was an inspirational turning point in my life, that it inspired my subsequent love of food and all things culinary, that those happy evenings still stay with me, recalled in a nostalgic haze, credited with the establishment of my life’s passion.Read More
Damsons are a high maintenance love affair. You can’t just coast with damsons, putting in minimal effort for a lot of reward, like you can with a strawberry, perhaps, or a pear – all you need with these easy goers is, at most, a knife. They’re not a fruit to be popped carelessly into the mouth while reading the morning newspaper, or something to munch as a snack on the go. They’re not something you can half-heartedly throw into a cake batter for a sweet and sticky result, or toss into the smoothie maker for an afternoon pick-me-up.Read More
I’ve had an apple tree in my garden for as long as I can remember. When I lived with my parents in Cambridge, our neighbour’s apple tree overhung our garden and reliably dropped large quantities of cooking apples onto the lawn every autumn. My house in York, by happy coincidence, also has an apple tree in the garden, but this time it is entirely mine and entirely my lawn that bears the brunt of the October windfall.Read More
When you hear the word ‘wine’, what images fill your imagination? Undulating hills, perhaps? Charming French campagne ? Rolling swathes of gnarled, creeping vines, festooned with plump and plentiful grapes? A plate of buttery escargots, or a giant, bloody steak frites? Perhaps a charming French market, oozing with ripe cheeses and pungent saucisson, sturdy twines of garlic, the scent of baking bread and some fragile, sugary patisserie?
You’re probably unlikely to think of tropical rain showers, shirt-sticking humidity, the fragrant perfume of bulging mangoes, sickly, pungent durian and glossy persimmons. Glowing paper lanterns, and the ever-present aroma of wispy incense fumes. The urgent cries of hawkers and the blaring of motorbike horns. The sizzling of hot woks and the grind of blenders crushing ripe tropical fruit and coconut cream to a chilled and ambrosial pulp. Searing tropical sun, so hot it melts the nail varnish on your toes. Sugar cane peppering the vistas of the lush and lime-coloured countryside. Palm trees. Chopsticks. Rice.Read More
Do you remember that Ribena advert, proudly proclaiming that '95% of Britain's blackcurrants end up as Ribena' (or something to that effect)?
How many of you, like me, ponder that figure in your food-addled brain and think, 'wow, what a waste'?
A recent study discovered that blackcurrant juice, from concentrate, only accounts for 5% of the total Ribena product. You don't have to be a mathematician to work out that something is tragically wrong here. Take 95% of a crop of something totally beautiful, and dilute it to the point of vapid, watery nothingness? This is not how blackcurrants should be treated.
Blackcurrants are another of those slightly elusive and much-underrated fruits that I have a certain penchant for. By 'penchant', I mean 'tendency to buy large quantities and hoard them in the freezer for months on end'.
While I'm self-confessedly awful at hoarding foodstuffs in general in my freezer, there are some things that find themselves in there much more frequently, and in greater quantity, than others. Beautiful bright pink Yorkshire rhubarb is one, for the main reason that the season is so short and you just can't get that gorgeous colour all year round. Odd cuts of meat are another, because I find myself carnivorously intrigued by them and know I won't be able to get them just anywhere - ox cheeks, goose breasts, pigs cheeks, grouse breasts, whole stuffed wild ducks and venison loins have all found themselves snuggling in the frosty depths of my voracious freezer at some point or another.
Other peripherally but not immediately useful things, too, like bags of egg whites (usually a relic of a vigorous ice-cream making session), breadcrumbs, homemade stock, and apple purée (great for baking and making homemade granola), also take up valuable space in there.
The worst, though, for catching my eye and ending up consigned to the chilly white halls of the freezer, is fruit. Specifically, seasonal fruit that is only around for a short time (gooseberries, redcurrants, cranberries...), and which I therefore snap up in order to indulge in when it is in short supply.
Except I don't. I buy it all, it sits in the freezer awaiting a recipe idea worthy enough to make the most of its sumptuous scarcity...until the season comes round again, thereby totally invalidating the idea of saving it for when it's not available.
I realised quite recently that this saving of gluts for hard times is completely ridiculous, because there is always something new and delicious in season at any given point of the year, which more than makes up for the lack of something else. I save winter rhubarb for the summer months, yet in the summer months I'm far more likely to make the most of the fresh apricots in the market than want to make a rhubarb crumble. I bottle those apricots for the autumn, yet when it comes around I'm gorging myself on beautiful juicy English pears and gorgeous plump Turkish figs. Even winter isn't exactly barren of delicious things: imported lychees and persimmons, fresh cranberries, and fabulous blood oranges. I don't think there's ever been a point where I've wished for a fruit outside its season, because there's simply so much else around to tempt me.
So, in the spirit of using up things in the freezer and trying to break this compulsive hoarding habit, I decided to finally use up a punnet of blackcurrants that have been sitting there since last summer.
There's a reason I bulk-buy these little black beauties. They are quite unlike any other fruit or berry, possessing the most amazingly complex flavour and fragrance. I always think there's something floral, even grassy, about their aroma and taste. They have a mouth-puckering sharpness, but one that is infinitely more pleasant and complicated than that provided by, say, a lemon, adding its unusual qualities to whatever you choose to do with those currants. They're also beautiful, often ranging in size from tiny black dots like little bullets to much rounder, swollen globules, their skins somehow matt yet glossy at the same time, utterly fragile and yielding to the slightest bump or pressure.
And when they do yield, they pour forth a deep, rich purple liquor, possessing a gorgeous fragrant sharpness and an addictive sourness. A mass of blackcurrants, softened in a pan until just starting to release their shining juice, is a lovely addition to so many things.
Why on earth you would take that potential and water it down and sugar it up until it barely resembled the original product, I really don't know. I can think of so many better ways to use our blackcurrant crop.
They do have an affinity with apples, a pairing capitalised upon by many a soft drink, although I actually think they do better with pears, which are less sharp than apples and therefore form a beautiful soft, fragrant partnership to the assertive currants. They are also delicious with anything buttery or crumbly, as are most tart fruits.
Where blackcurrants really come into their own, though, is with dairy. Nothing like the beautiful bland, sweet foil of dairy to let their complex aroma shine, as well as set off their vibrant purple colours.
These cheesecakes capitalise upon all those partnerships: apples, butter and dairy. There's a buttery shortbread biscuit base, somehow richer than the usual Digestive biscuit base and a mellower match for the currants. There's a sweet unbaked filling, perfumed with vanilla and rippled through with a basic blackcurrant compote. There are spiced, caramelised apples on top, providing the deep warmth of ginger and mixed spice (from JustIngredients) to complement the sweet dairy and buttery base.
These are inspired by a cheesecake I had recently for dessert at one of my favourite restaurants in York. The combination of sharp, fragrant currants, creamy cheese filling and that super-crunchy buttery base is fantastic. The spiced apples on top lend a sweet and warming note to the whole thing. I made these in individual glasses, for the very pragmatic reason that I knew if I made a whole cake, I'd end up going back for seconds and then thirds and disgusting myself. That said, you can pack quite a bit of cheesecake into my individual dessert glasses, so I ended up feeling pretty gluttonous anyway.
Totally worth it, though - these are delicious. Clearing out the freezer has never tasted so good.
Apple and blackcurrant cheesecakes
This recipe can either make one cake, between 18-20cm diameter, or several individual cakes. Depending on the size of your individual moulds/glasses and your appetites/greed, it will make four to six individual cheesecakes.
- 10 shortbread finger biscuits
- 50g butter, melted
- 250g blackcurrants, stems and leaves removed (frozen are fine)
- 2 tbsp caster sugar
- 250g Quark
- 250g light cream cheese
- 150g icing sugar
- 1 vanilla pod
- /1 tsp vanilla extract
- 3 tbsp water
- 1 sachet powdered gelatine
- A large knob of butter
- 2 tbsp brown sugar
- 1/2 tsp mixed spice
- 1/2 tsp ground ginger
- 2-3 apples, cored and cut into thin slices
First, make the base. Blitz the shortbread in a blender to fine crumbs, then stir into the melted butter. If making one large cake, grease and line an 18 or 20cm springform cake tin and place a circle of greaseproof paper in the bottom. Pour the biscuits into the tin and press down to form an even layer. If using individual glasses or moulds, use the biscuits to line the bottom of each. Chill in the fridge for an hour.
Meanwhile, make the blackcurrant compote. Place the blackcurrants in a small saucepan with a tiny drop of water and the caster sugar, then cook over a low heat just until they've started to soften and release juice. Set aside and leave to cool.
For the filling, beat together the Quark, cream cheese, icing sugar. Either beat in the vanilla extract or, if using a pod, scrape the seeds from the pod into the cheese mixture. Beat together until well combined.
Bring the 3 tbsp water to the boil in a small saucepan, then remove from the heat. Immediately sprinkle the gelatine evenly over the surface, then leave for a minute. Stir the gelatine into the water, until it has all dissolved. You need to work quickly now before the cheese mixture sets. Pour the gelatine into the cheese mixture, then quickly whisk it in. Pour half of the blackcurrant compote (reserve the rest for garnishing) into the cheese mixture, then stir gently to ripple it through the cheese.
Divide the cheese filling between the individual moulds, or pour into the cake tin. Place in the fridge and chill for a few hours, or overnight.
For the spiced apples, heat the knob of butter together with the brown sugar in a non-stick pan until foaming, then add the spices and sliced apples. Sauté over a fairly high heat until the apples turn soft, brown and caramelised. Turn off the heat and set aside until ready to serve.
When ready to serve, spoon the apples over the cake(s) to decorate, then finish with the remaining blackcurrant compote.
Another breakfast recipe. I'm not going to apologise, though, because there are several reasons why this is the absolute best thing you could be making and eating right now (I mean 'right now' figuratively speaking, of course, because you might be reading this at night time, in which case it's probably not a great idea to indulge in a vat of hearty oats before lying down).
Firstly, I've read a few of those awful detox-related articles in various newspapers and magazines this week. Curse those publications, for contributing to JIGS, or 'January-Influenced Guilt Syndrome' (I have just invented this, but I think it should be a nationally-acknowledged phenomenon). They're pretty hard to avoid, and the worst part is I only read magazines and newspapers while eating, so invariably there I am, gorging on some giant bowl of carbs, reading an article telling me not to do exactly that. It's pretty depressing reading about ideal lunches based around salad, green veg and lean protein while you're tucking into their opposite.
However, one of the things these articles all have in common is that they recommend oats. Oats are great for several reasons. I won't bore you with the details, but in a nutshell - they're good for your heart, cholesterol, and they fill you up for ages, meaning you don't get hungry at 11am and reach for an almond croissant.
Another thing mentioned by these articles is that people who eat breakfast are often thinner and happier than those who don't. Combine these two pieces of advice, then, and make porridge for breakfast a new year's resolution. If you need another reason, look outside at the fifty shades of grey that is the English winter morning: this is a time for piping hot, steaming breakfasts. Even the sight of wisps of steam emerging from something is enough to calm the nerves and lift the spirits, whether it be a cup of tea, a plate of pasta, or a bowl of porridge.
To some people, porridge is a simple thing of beauty. Pure, unadulterated, creamy oaty goodness. A quiet simplicity. However, I've yet to experience the moment where I feel satisfied by contemplating a bowl of unadorned oats. If the idea of porridge bores you, or - even worse - repulses you, making you think of Dickensian style gruel, then
I can't stress enough the transformative power of a good compote.
By making a delicious fruit-based compote to top your porridge, you turn something plain and worthy into something plainly worth shouting about. You can smother your oats in sweet, colourful fruit, and pretend you're tucking into rice pudding (if you like that sort of thing - I think I'd rather have porridge). Another advantage of this is that it negates the need for sugar in the porridge, as the fruit is sweet enough to balance the bland starchiness of the oats. Not only are you getting rid of the sugar, which is generally accepted as being bad for us, you're adding one or even two of your five a day to your diet, before you've even woken up properly.
Ever since I became captivated by the unusual quince, by its glorious curvature and exquisite perfumed sweetness, I've been coming up with new recipes that make the most of its soft, aromatic flesh. Sometimes these are savoury - particularly good partners are lamb, chicken, nuts and cheese - others are sweet, such as this quince, apple and almond crumble tart or this quince tarte tatin. I recently decided I didn't want to limit the sweetness of the quince to desserts only, and came up with this compote.
If you've never cooked with quince before, this is a good introduction. Its assertive fragrance is tempered by the addition of apples - since the quince is in both flavour and appearance a cross between an apple and a pear, this makes good culinary sense. The beauty of mingling quince and apple is that the latter loses its shape quickly during cooking, disintegrating into a frothy mush, while the quince retains its form and slightly firmer texture. The result is a thick compote of almost puréed apple, studded with golden cubes of tender quince.
I've made this a few times with different spices. First I tried a cinnamon stick, then star anise. Both versions were lovely, but when I experimented on a whim with adding a vanilla pod, the result was so wonderful that it just had to be shared, even if it is a humble bowl of porridge. Vanilla works incredibly well with quinces, which have their own subtle fragrance that the vanilla serves to highlight. It also works wonderfully with apples. Although cinnamon is often the classic spice for apples, I feel that apple and vanilla are a pairing that should be given more limelight. Vanilla emphasises the apple's natural sweetness rather than its acidity.
Using vanilla in this compote also makes it intensely pretty to look at - a beautiful very pale green appley froth, flecked with those tiny black seeds that contain so much promise of flavour, full of golden quince pieces. It's sweet but still quite tart (you could add more sugar if you like), providing a bracing start to the morning and contrasting wonderfully with the comfort blanket that is the creamy porridge. I've used a lovely vanilla pod, along with some ground cinnamon and ginger in the porridge to add a subtle warm flavour. I also put sultanas in my porridge - they swell up as it cooks, giving a lovely contrast in texture. Toffee-like dried fruits combined with the sweet quince and apple is another delicious flavour contrast.
The best way to eat this is on top of the spiced porridge, as in the recipe below. I prefer to spoon the compote, cold from the fridge, over the steaming hot porridge. You get that wonderful temperature contrast when eating it, like having cold ice cream with a hot crumble or pie. It might sound odd, but a spoonful of scalding porridge mingled with the chilled, sweet fruit is beautiful. The contrast between the warmly-spiced sweet porridge and the tart, vanilla-laced fruit is delectable. However, you could warm the compote up in the microwave if you wanted.
If you're still not convinced by porridge, this compote would also make a fabulous dessert served either warm or cold with ice cream, or even with meringues or alongside a rich almond cake. But humour me, and regard my reasons for an oaty breakfast above. I want to convert you.
Spiced porridge with quince, apple and vanilla compote:
For the compote (makes 4-5 servings):
- 2 large quinces
- 3 cooking apples, or 4 eating apples
- 300ml water
- 4 tbsp brown sugar
- 1 vanilla pod, scored lengthways with a sharp knife
Put the water, sugar and vanilla pod in a large saucepan and bring to the boil. Stir to dissolve the sugar.
Peel, quarter and core the quinces. Cut each quince segment into small chunks, about an inch wide. Add to the water, then cover and cook on a medium high heat for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, peel, core and cut the apples into 1cm slices. When the quince is just tender, add the apples. Cover and cook for 5 minutes or so, stirring occasionally, until most of the apples break down into mush but there are a few solid pieces left. Turn off the heat and leave to cool, then refrigerate.
For the porridge (makes 1 giant serving - I eat a lot of porridge - can be halved as necessary!):
- 100g rolled/porridge oats
- 1/2 tsp
- ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp
- ground ginger
- 80g sultanas
- 300ml water
- 200ml semi-skimmed milk
Put the oats, spices and sultanas in a saucepan. Add the water and milk, then bring to the boil. Cook for around 3-5 minutes, stirring, until the porridge thickens. Add more water or milk if you like it less thick, then pour into a bowl and top with the compote.
Potatoes get a bit sadly overlooked in my kitchen, and I'm sure I'm not the only one to neglect these noble tubers. I reckon I cook with potatoes once a month at the very most, and probably not even that. I'm not entirely sure why they're so seldom featured in my recipes. Perhaps because mashed potato is a little bit of a faff, so generally I accompany my food with rice or couscous, which has a more interesting texture and which I actually prefer. Perhaps because I cook a lot of Middle Eastern and Asian food, where potatoes don't usually feature. Perhaps because I've got into this habit of rarely using them, they're not something that comes into my head when I'm thinking up recipes.
I remember the Great British Food Revival did an episode on potatoes a couple of years ago. Gregg Wallace did a fine job of persuading us all to reignite our love affair with the humble potato, bemoaning the fact that we're so obsessed with trendy foreign carbs (pasta, rice, couscous, bulgur wheat...) that we neglect our own home-grown starchy goodness. He offered a number of potato recipes designed to inspire us. One of them, potato gnocchi, he made look so easy and delicious that I made it the very next day.
Unfortunately, it was a disaster. My gnocchi, on contact with boiling water, disintegrated into a sieve full of squidgy mush. They were completely unrecognisable as gnocchi, and definitely not the kind of thing you can just toss in a tomato sauce and serve. I threw them in the bin - something I abhor doing - and cooked some pasta instead. Maybe it was this scarring experience that has all but banished the potato from my larder (I still have never tried to revisit making gnocchi, and doubt I ever will). I very rarely have kitchen disasters, so when I do it's pretty catastrophic - there are usually tears.
However, when Good Natured asked me to take part in a competition to design a warming potato recipe for winter, I figured I may as well put my creative energies to the test with this little-used ingredient. Plus there was a chance of winning some Le Creuset, and as anyone who knows me will know, I am a complete fiend for Le Creuset.
I had a number of ideas in mind, mainly based around memories of French ski resort food - i.e. heavy in butter, cream, cheese and bacon - but this one popped into my head and won. I'm a big fan of those potato farls you can buy in supermarkets - dense, doughy, fluffy pancake-like breads that are delicious toasted and smothered in scrambled eggs and (on a day when I'm feeling rich, so very rarely) smoked salmon. The use of potato in baked goods lends a really amazing moistness and a fluffy texture, so I wanted to try it in scones.
These are emphatically not the kind of scones you want to slather in jam and cream for afternoon tea. Instead they're dense, doughy and moist, ideal for brunch or lunch. They're enriched with aromatic thyme and sage, crispy bits of salty bacon, grated mature cheddar, and grated apple. The apple gives a slight sweetness and more moisture to the scone, while the cheese melts lusciously and turns gooey. The bacon and herbs work really well with the rich cheese, making the whole thing deliciously savoury.
The potato here lends an amazing moistness to the crumb. They're very doughy scones, rather than light and fluffy like your typical afternoon tea scones, but they would make a wonderful accompaniment to soup or stew - the perfect doughy morsel to mop up all those delicious juices left in your bowl. They'd also be good simply spread with butter and eaten for breakfast (which I did this morning while waiting for my porridge to cook), or topped with a light goat's cheese and some slices of apple for lunch. They're basically your typical bakery cheese scone, just made more interesting with the addition of potato, apple and bacon, and with a savoury squidgyness that is perfect for the colder months.
If this isn't warming winter comfort food, I'm not sure what is.
Bacon, apple and cheddar potato scones (makes 8):
- 300g peeled potatoes
- 4 rashers of smoky bacon
- 350g self-raising flour
- 1/2 tsp sea salt
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp dried thyme
- 1 tsp dried sage
- 80g cold butter, cubed
- 80g grated mature cheddar, plus extra to finish
- 1 apple, grated (I used cox)
- 4 tbsp milk, plus extra for brushing
- 1 tsp Dijon mustard
First, boil the potatoes until tender, then drain and set aside to cool completely. When cool, cut into chunks. Cut the bacon into small pieces then fry in a hot pan until crispy. When cooked, place it on some kitchen paper to absorb excess fat and let cool.
Pre-heat the oven to 200C.
Put the flour, salt, baking powder, thyme, sage and butter in a blender and blitz until the butter has been incorporated. Add the potatoes and blitz again. Put the mixture in a bowl and stir in the bacon, cheese and apple, then whisk together the milk and mustard and add to the bowl. Knead until the mixture forms a smooth and slightly sticky dough.
Flour a baking sheet (non-stick if possible). Place the dough on a worktop and knead for a minute or so, then shape into a disc around an inch thick. Place on the baking sheet. Brush with a little milk, then grate some more cheddar over the top to cover. Then use a sharp knife to divide into eight pieces, cutting about 1cm down into the dough.
Bake for 45 minutes, until crispy and golden on top. Best eaten warm.
This salad that showcases everything special and beautiful about our British autumn produce. It also uses my absolute favourite fish, mackerel, smothered in warm and aromatic spices and fried until crispy. This sits on a bed of tangy, crunchy, flavoursome salad that is also stunning to look at, using beautiful tangles of ivory fennel and apple, slivers of bold pink beetroot and sparkling pomegranate seeds. Just looking at it will make you feel warm and nourished, and every mouthful is an absolute treat to eat.
While not your stereotypical autumn comfort food - piping hot, featuring both meat and potatoes and generally various shades of brown - I sometimes think there is comfort to be had, in the frost of autumn, in vibrant flavours that wake your tastebuds up from their stew-induced stupor.
You can't think of British autumn produce without thinking of apples. I'm especially aware of their existence now that I have an apple tree in my garden, laden with bulbous blushing fruits ready to drop at the slightest breath of wind. I've been donning my wellies and heading into the long grass on a weekly basis to collect the windfalls. It always makes me sad when I find one too bruised or worm-eaten to be gastronomically viable, as it seems such a waste. Still, I try and do what I can to ensure they don't all become food for the lawn and the worms. This month has seen an apple and blackberry pie, an apple, date and cranberry crumble, a delicious apple and blackberry baked oatmeal for breakfast, and a wonderful quince and apple compote that I've been eating over cinnamon-enriched porridge studded with blackberries.
When they're not baked into a tart-sweet froth and nestled juicily under a buttery crust, apples have a lot of savoury potential in the kitchen too, particularly when coupled with other autumn ingredients - they're delicious in a casserole with pork, sausages or pheasant, or roasted in wedges with some potatoes to serve alongside a roast. I also love them thinly sliced in a sharp salad to accompany richer ingredients; their crispness and sweetness is always welcome, particularly when encased in a tangy mustard dressing.
Fennel is something I pretty much always have in the fridge. I can't resist a salad of thinly sliced fennel (I actually bought a mandolin just for this purpose) tossed in grain mustard, olive oil, herbs and salt. It goes with pretty much anything - meat, fish or cheese - and is infinitely adaptable, working with a huge variety of other fruit, herbs and veg. I usually add pomegranate seeds - their sweetness works well against the aniseed tang of the fennel - and sliced pear, which is a delicious contrast in texture, tending to be soft and melting against the crunch of the fennel strands. Here I've used apples, but pears would work well too. Fennel also goes very well with orange.
Also, a little cook's tip for you - don't try slicing a ripe pear on a mandolin, unless you want to be hunting around in your salad for the tip of your middle finger.
If you're not a big fan of the aniseedy crunch of fennel, try caramelising it in butter and a little brown sugar before using it in a recipe. It might have you converted. I love using it in any recipes involving fish, where its fresh, light flavour is a perfect complement. Fennel seeds are also a hugely underrated ingredient, working incredibly well with tomatoes, pork, fish, cheese and anything in need of a little herbal note.
Beetroot is something I always mean to eat more of, but fail to. I think it's because I can find it quite sickly. I absolutely cannot stomach those dark purple globes that come ready cooked and peeled in the supermarket - they have a disgusting squidgy texture and vile sickly flavour that makes me gag. Don't even get me started on the pickled stuff.
However, raw beetroot sliced into wedges, tossed in oil and liberal seasoning, then roasted until tender and caramelised, is a beautiful thing. One of my favourite ways to eat it is in this beetroot, carrot, orange and mackerel salad. It goes really well with mackerel, providing a sweet earthiness to counteract the rich flavour of the fish. It also works well with apple, being similarly crisp and sweet.
Raw beetroot isn't something I've eaten a lot of, but when I found these gorgeous candy and golden beetroot in the supermarket I knew I didn't want to roast them and risk marring their stunning colours. Instead I decided to slice them wafer-thin (again using my trusty mandolin, and risking the tips of my fingers with every stroke) to add another layer of crunch to my salad. They were just so pretty. I tend to wax lyrical about the beauty of fruit and veg at the best of times, but these really were incredibly beautiful. Why would you ever buy that pre-cooked vacuum-packed (or worse, vinegar-soaked) stuff when you could get some of these globes of gorgeous goodness? (To use a Nigella-esque phrase).
I also like how they are called 'candy' beetroot, which conjures up images of lurid sweet shop jars and neon sherbet, somehow making the beetroot more appealing. Maybe it's a clever marketing ploy. If so, I fell for it.
Speaking of beetroot and candy, I've always been intrigued by the use of beetroot in chocolate cakes and brownies. Think carrot in carrot cakes - the vegetable adds a moisture and subtle sweetness, and apparently its earthiness goes very well with chocolate. Something on the 'to try' list.
Also, another bonus of these beetroot varieties - they don't stain your fingers nearly as badly as traditional beetroot, nor bleed horribly into the other salad ingredients, which is always sad.
Pomegranatesare everywhere at this time of year; they are, to me, the Christmas fruit (along with clementines). There's very little I won't scatter a load of pomegranate seeds over - their snap of juiciness is always welcome, as is their jewel-like appearance. Here they add a delicious bite to the salad, and a little freshness to counteract the strong flavours of the mackerel.
Finally, the mackerel. While perhaps not as obviously autumnal as something like pheasant or venison, mackerel is the perfect partner for a lot of autumn fruit and veg. It's very healthy, very quick and easy to cook, and you can throw all sorts of strong flavours at it without it blinking an eye (well, I'd hope not anyway - if your mackerel is blinking then your fishmonger probably isn't doing his job properly). Mackerel is one of those fish that is generally better cooked as fillets - you can roast a whole one, but because it's quite oily the skin doesn't really crisp up properly, and it's all a bit flabby. Go for a nice big fillet, which will sizzle deliciously in the pan, its skin becoming burnished and crispy while the oily flesh stays wonderfully moist and meaty.
Here I've covered it in turmeric, cumin, coriander and chilli flakes, mixed with a little oil to make a spice rub. This gives it a gorgeous aromatic crust, and the spicy flavours work so well with the oily flesh of the fish. It goes into a very hot pan to allow the skin to crisp up, and then is ready to serve alongside the salad.
I really love this dish. The salad, with its lemon and mustard dressing, is tangy, crunchy and fresh, which is perfect to sit alongside the spicy, oily fish. It's also cooling against the rather assertive heat of the chilli flakes, resulting in little explosions of sweet/spicy/sour flavour in your mouth as you eat it. It takes everything that is great about British produce at this time of year, and uses those ingredients in a slightly unusual, and exciting, way. If you're sceptical about raw veg, don't be - it really works.
If you wanted to, you could swap the fish for chicken or pork, or to make it vegetarian use thick slices of griddled halloumi. It's super-nutritious - by the end you'll have had all of your five-a-day!
Spiced mackerel with apple, fennel and beetroot salad (serves 2):
- 2 mackerel, filleted
- 2 tsp turmeric
- 2 tsp ground cumin
- 2 tsp ground coriander
- A generous pinch of chilli flakes
- Olive oil
- Juice of half a lemon
- 2 tsp wholegrain mustard (I used Tracklements horseradish mustard)
- Salt and pepper
- 2 large eating apples (I used Cox)
- 1 small bulb fennel
- 2 small beetroot (about the size of a golf ball)
- 2 tbsp finely chopped flat leaf parsley
- A few sprigs lemon or normal thyme, leaves picked
- Seeds of half a pomegranate
- A large handful of pea shoots, rocket or watercress
First, make the spice rub. Mix together the turmeric, cumin, coriander and chilli flakes with some salt and pepper, then add enough olive oil to form a thick paste. Rub this all over the mackerel fillets, on both sides. Set aside.
In a large bowl, mix together a generous glug (around 2-3 tbsp) of olive oil with the lemon juice, mustard, and some salt and pepper. Cut the apples into quarters, remove the core, then thinly slice. Add these to the bowl. Using a mandolin, slice the fennel and the beetroot wafer-thin and add these to the bowl (or use a very sharp knife and try and slice as thinly as possible). Add the parsley, thyme leaves and pomegranate seeds, then toss together well. Divide between two plates or bowls and top with the pea shoots/rocket/watercress.
Get a non-stick frying pan very hot. Add a little olive oil, then use some kitchen paper to rub it evenly over the pan. Press the mackerel fillets into the pan, skin-side down. They should sizzle. Cook for around 3 minutes, or until the underside of the fish is nearly opaque. Flip over and cook for another minute. You may need to do this in batches if all the fillets won't fit in the pan at once.
Place two mackerel fillets on top of each plate of salad, then serve immediately.
The street is a soothing, nondescript muddle of brickwork and grey cobbles, glistening slightly in the aftermath of the morning rain. The sombre wares of the shop windows merge into a blur; dusty vintage clothing, old leather-bound books, pens of various shapes, sizes and degrees of antiquity. Everything has an air of tiredness to it, of weary age yearning to be invigorated with new life. It's calming, easy to walk down the street in a daze as everything blends into the background.
But there they are. Sitting there in their little wicker basket. Great orbs of primrose-coloured sunshine, their vivid yellow blazing out like a flame amidst their drab surroundings. Their voluptuous curves whisper seductively of hotter, more exotic and carefree climes, yet the soft down that clings to their skin like cobwebs suggests light snowflakes, or a vain attempt to wrap up warm for the winter. They are firm in the hand; heavy, satisfying. They feel sturdy, promising robust, heady flavours; whispering of brightness both to look at and to eat. I pick up two, cradling them gently against my stomach, leaving the rest to their quiet yellow repose.
I am, of course, talking about the first quinces of the year. Always a happy moment, the arrival of quinces in the markets promises delicious culinary joy for the coming months. It's like Mother Nature's way of making up for the cold, dreary weather that starts to grate and sadden at this time of year. You can't refuse to be cheered up by the bright spectacle of a quince, and you definitely can't refuse to be made happier by eating one.
Okay, so maybe all that was a little over-the-top and wannabe-poetic. But I really do love these fruits, which seem so modern and exotic despite dating back thousands of years. We still haven't quite figured them out as a nation - they're pretty tricky to track down, and currently the only place I can find them in York is a lovely little deli called the Hairy Fig, which is where I spied the aforementioned glowing yellow basket. None of my new friends at university have ever heard of, let alone eaten, a quince.
I'm not quite mean enough to try the 'Oh, just bite into it - it's really nice, like an apple!' trick, though. Damn my good nature, getting in the way of hilarious practical jokes.
To celebrate the first quinces of the year, I've made a rather wonderful little tart. While I love using quinces in savoury recipes, sometimes their fragrant perfumed flesh just yearns to be coupled with a liberal amount of butter, either in the form of pastry or crumble. This tart does both, in that half the crumble is pressed down to form a rough pastry, onto which the fruit is spread, while the remaining half is scattered over the top, to bake into a rough, crunchy, buttery mass. This was inspired by a Dan Lepard recipe that uses plums and cobnuts, but I figured it would work with quinces and almonds (and, dare I suggest that it might be even tastier?)
It's very common to pair quinces with apples - sometimes pears - in baking. This is, I think, because their strong flavour can rather overwhelm when left to its own devices. I don't agree, loving the taste of quince pure and unadulterated, but this is the first time I've tempered it with apples and I rather liked the result. I used cooking apples from the tree in my garden, which are rather tart, and take the edge off the cloying sweetness of the quince. The result is a gorgeous marriage; it tastes homely, somehow, like going back to basics - you can't beat the purity of stewed fruit, enhanced only with a little sugar.
There's also something rather texturally appealing about cooking apples with quinces - the quinces don't soften as much, remaining delectable, tender morsels, while the apples dissolve into a froth. The combination is delicious, and the perfect filling for this crumble tart. It's basically apple crumble, but in sliceable form, and improved with the delectable fragrance of quince. I added some flaked almonds to the crumble mixture, which give a lovely nutty crunch, and sprinkled some demerara sugar over the top for the same reason.
One of the reasons behind this dessert, apart from my passionate love for the quince, is that I was recently sent some lovely wines from South West France to sample (I know, it's a hard life being a food blogger). Home to around twenty indigenous grape varieties and the point of origin for grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec, the South West is a wonderful region for wine diversity (there are 16 PDO wine denominations). Even more excitingly, wines from this region have the highest procyanidin content of any in the world - the chemical that means wine can have positive effects on cardiovascular health.
I haven't noticed any immediate benefits yet, so I guess I'll just have to keep drinking it until I am fully conscious of my arteries expanding.
My first taste was of the PDO Gaillac, Domaine Rotier, 2008. This is a beautiful dessert wine. I don't know that much about wine, so I won't be a fraudulent bore and start waxing lyrical about bouquets and body and finish. Instead, I will tell you that this wine is like drinking liquid honey. It warms you from the inside, and is gorgeously sweet and aromatic. It has, according to the bottle, notes of apricot, fig and quince, which makes it the perfect partner for this dessert.
I made the dessert with the inkling that it would go well with the wine. In fact, it was an even better match than I could have hoped.
It's quite hard to pair wine with dessert, because very sweet or tart things tend to make the wine taste overly sour and acidic. The best way is to ensure there is a rich, buttery component to said dessert, to mellow out any assertive fruit flavours. This crumble, then, is the ideal way to go. It provides a rich, buttery base for the sweet, fragrant wine, which perfectly reflects the quince flavours in the fruit filling.
It's a way of putting a proper autumnal pudding on the table without the heaviness of crumble (not that I'd ever turn down crumble, but sometimes you want something a bit lighter and more refined). You can serve it in elegant slices. It looks far more effort than it actually is. It's exotic and will make people say 'Ooh, what's quince?' It's an amalgam of two very traditional British ingredients: quince and crumble. It breathes sweet and tasty life into a much misunderstood fruit.
Then you have the taste, which is just wonderful. Serve it with lots of vanilla ice cream, while it's still a little warm from the oven. There's rich buttery pastry, the crunch of toasted almonds, and the soft, unctuous collapsed autumnal fruit inside; sweet, yet tart, standing up robustly to its crumbly trappings.
Buttery crumble, a sweet fruit filling and a glass of ambrosial dessert wine - the absolute best way to end a meal.
Quince and apple crumble tart (serves 6):
(Adapted from a recipe from Dan Lepard's Short and Sweet)
- 1 medium quince
- 3-4 tbsp brown sugar
- Squeeze of lemon juice
- 3 medium cooking apples
- 2 tsp cornflour
- 3 tsp water
- 100g plain flour
- 75g wholemeal flour
- 100g cold butter, cubed
- 50g brown sugar
- 50g flaked almonds, toasted, plus 1 tbsp to garnish
- 1/2 tsp baking powder
- 2 tbsp milk
- 1 tbsp demerara sugar
First, make the fruit filling. Peel and quarter the quince. Remove the core. Cut into 2cm cubes and put in a medium saucepan with the brown sugar, lemon juice and enough water to just cover it. Cover the pan and bring to the boil, then simmer gently for 10 minutes or so until almost tender. Peel, core and chop the apples into similar sized pieces, then add to the quince and simmer for another 10-15 minutes, uncovered, until the fruit has mostly collapsed. Taste and check the sweetness - add a little more sugar if it's too tart (but you want it fairly tart to contrast with the crumble). Mix the cornflour with the water then stir into the fruit to thicken it. Set aside to cool.
Grease a 20cm tart tin with a removable base. Pre-heat the oven to 190C.
For the pastry, rub the butter into the flours using your fingers or a food processor. Stir in the sugar. Finely chop the toasted almonds (except the ones for the garnish) then stir these in too along with the baking powder. Stir in the milk. Press half of this mixture into the tart tin, along the bottom and up around the sides too, to make a crust. Spoon in the fruit filling, then scatter the rest of the pastry mixture evenly over the top, but don't press down. Sprinkle over the demerara sugar and reserved flaked almonds.
Bake for 45-50 minutes, until the top is golden brown. Check it halfway through to make sure it isn't burning - if so, cover with foil and turn the oven down slightly. Leave to cool in the tin before dusting with icing sugar, removing and slicing to serve (preferably with ice cream).
Winter seems to have arrived early up in York. Where this time last year, back down south, we were still basking in the afterglow of a surprise 'Indian summer' in October, on Friday I came out of the cinema to find a flurry of snowflakes had settled over the city, turning everything wet and slightly crunchy underfoot. My woollen gloves turned instantly sodden as they grasped my bike handlebars and my journey home mostly involved wincing as trees shook off their light smattering of snow onto my head. There's a real biting chill in the air, although one that for some strange reason I find more exhilarating than unpleasant. Perhaps it's the still lingering novelty of the bracing northern air flushing out my stagnant southern lungs, one that will probably wear off soon and involve me digging out my skiing thermals to wear on an everyday basis.
Weather like this calls for a bit of spice in the kitchen. I don't mean the hot snap of a chilli, but the warm, cosseting blanket of aromatics like ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg. Although I have previously never really understood the notion of 'warm' spices (no one ever seems to have placed any spices into a 'cold' category), I think I'm starting to get it a bit more now that I have to don four layers just to go and put something in the outside bin.
Perhaps it's the colour. Spices like turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg all have that beautiful golden hue, like so many different shades of warm Arabian desert sand. Although, that said, the only Arabian desert I have ever been in was in Jordan, and the sand there was more of a crazy paprika red than a turmeric yellow. It was pretty amazing. Such colours promise warmth, reminiscent of roaring fires, of sun-baked terracotta.
Perhaps it's their origin in warm countries. When I went to Vietnam this summer, one of the best things I bought (out of the 35 kilos of stuff I brought home, ahem...) was a set of little round boxes made out of cinnamon wood. The Vietnamese use the tiny ones for storing toothpicks in; I bought some bigger ones to keep sugar in: a sneaky shortcut to ready-made cinnamon sugar. I remember walking through the market in Hanoi and seeing big baskets of fresh turmeric, still muddy from the earth. We visited orchards of black pepper trees, their peppercorns hanging down like tiny bunches of glossy green grapes. There's something wonderfully exotic about the idea of all these aromatic spices growing around you; tasting them can't help but trigger some subconscious mental wandering to the hot, heady, humid climes where they grow, I think.
Perhaps it's also their use in association with warm dishes. Cinnamon stirred into hot, frothy apples, bubbling below a buttery crumble crust. Turmeric lending its distinctive marigold stain to the rich, meaty sauce of a lamb tagine. Flecks of russet-coloured nutmeg perfuming a cloud of creamy, steaming mashed potato. The subtle fire of ground ginger through a warm piece of freshly-baked cake. With a history like this, it's perhaps no wonder these are called the warm spices. I can't really imagine cinnamon working so well in something cold.
I was sent a wonderful treasure-trove of spices from JustIngredients recently - their website is a brilliant resource for all sorts of culinary enhancers, from the obvious (salt, pepper, cumin) to the more esoteric (chamomile flowers, beetroot powder and bee pollen). Aside from the rather exciting rosemary salt, the one that interested me most was the ground nutmeg. I always use freshly grated nutmeg, but it has a tendency to be very overpowering.
(So I'm told, anyway - I have a sort of immunity to the stuff and can put huge amounts on my morning porridge without finding it in any way detrimental. You may have guessed from the title of this blog that I have a bit of a penchant for this lovely spice.) Anyway, I was curious about cooking with the ready-ground version and what sort of flavour it would have.
This cake is a beautiful marriage of warm spices and seasonal autumnal fruit. So seasonal, in fact, that it was collected a mere five metres from my back door. The apple tree in my new garden is dropping fruit at an alarming rate, more quickly than I can find uses for it, and I have some blackberries that I foraged at the beginning of the month from the brambles nestling around the tree trunk. There's a small wilderness outside my back door, and something intensely satisfying about the journey from earth to plate taking a mere five minutes and five metres.
Although pairing warm spices with apples and blackberries is hardly novel, this cake is a really interesting medley. The nutmeg cream cheese icing is the key; it brings a gorgeous aromatic note to the cake and works so well with the soft apples and berries.
I used my favourite cake batter mix, one that uses yoghurt to give the cake a lovely moist crumb, and spelt flour for a delicious nutty flavour that works well with fruit and spice. Sandwiched between two layers of batter is a vein of sliced apples, a scattering of blackberries, and a sprinkling of chopped toasted hazelnuts, for crunch and another warm flavour. Can hazelnuts be said to have a 'warm flavour'? I think they can; nuts are generally quite a comforting, warm ingredient. The cake batter is infused with ground cinnamon and ground ginger, for a delicious warm spiced note.
Once this is baked, and the apples have softened and moistened the cake with their sweet-tart juice, and the blackberries have bled purple into the crumb, the cake is iced with a cream cheese icing, perfumed with ground nutmeg. The combination of thick, moist cake, sweet fruit and sugary, spiced icing is wonderful. The icing stays pretty gooey, and is a lovely texture contrast with the rather dense, substantial cake batter. The nutmeg doesn't overpower, though; it just provides a subtle background of aromatic flavour.
I was really pleased with this cake. It's quite a substantial one, probably best for afternoon tea (or even breakfast?!), though small squares for dessert would also be lovely. It doesn't keep for very long because the icing and the fruit are both quite moist, so it's best eaten on the day it's made, or the day after. Be warned: you'll need a fork rather than fingers, because the icing is pretty sticky and goes everywhere. That's part of the fun of eating it. Soft, spiced cake; sweet juicy fruit; fragrant sugary icing.
I had a vague idea of how I wanted to photograph this cake, with some apples in the background. I wasn't prepared for the lovely ready-made setting provided by the ice on my outside table. I don't think I've ever been satisfied with the photos on the very first shot before, but this time I was - the weather did all the decorating and styling for me.
I think they sum up this recipe very well: cold, frosty weather = warm, spiced cake.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, this cake is feline-approved - my cat just had to get in on the action. Even chilly paws could not get in the way of a sniff of that lovely icing.
Apple, blackberry and hazelnut cake with nutmeg icing (serves 8-10):
- 40g hazelnuts
- 75g light brown sugar
- 75g caster sugar
- 60g soft butter
- 2 eggs
- 200g plain or spelt flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp mixed spice
- 1/2 tsp ground ginger
- 250ml yoghurt
- Pinch of salt
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 2-3 large cooking apples
- 100g blackberries
- 100g cream cheese
- 60g icing sugar
- 1/2-1 tsp ground nutmeg
Pre-heat the oven to 170C (fan oven). Grease and line an 8x8in square cake tin (though I'm sure you could also use a round 20cm tin). Toast the hazelnuts on a baking dish in the oven for around 10 minutes while it heats up, until they are dark and fragrant (keep an eye on them, though, as they tend to burn easily). Set aside to cool, then chop roughly.
Using an electric mixer or whisk, beat together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Fold in the flour, mixed spice, ginger and baking powder, then add the yoghurt, salt and vanilla and mix to form a smooth batter.
Pour half the mixture into the tin. Peel, core and finely slice the apples, then layer them over the batter in the tin. Sprinkle over the blackberries and chopped hazelnuts. Pour the rest of the batter over the fruit (be careful when smoothing it out not to move the fruit around too much) then put the cake in the oven. Bake for around 40 minutes, until light golden on top and a skewer comes out clean. Leave to cool in the tin.
Turn the cake out onto a plate or board. Mix together the icing sugar and cream cheese using an electric whisk. Add the nutmeg - do it bit by bit and keep tasting; nutmeg is quite strong and you don't want it to overpower. Smooth the icing over the cake. Leave in a cool place for a little while to set (it doesn't set fully and will still be quite gooey). Devour.
I sometimes feel like I neglect the poor humble apple. Caught up in the irresistible nectar-like liquor of a ripe marigold mango, or the perfumed snap of a pale translucent lychee, or the honeyed notes of a sugared gooseberry in high summer, it's easy to forget the value of our most beloved home-grown fruit. But the apple sits there patiently in the background, biding its time, a reliable constant. Like that best friend who will still always be there once passionate romances have long faded into the distance, proffering a consolatory cup of tea and telling you there are plenty more fish in the sea and you could do much better, and she always thought there was something suspicious anyway about the way he tied his shoelaces.
We tend to just lump apples into a single category. They are the generic crunchy, juicy, perfect fruit for eating on the go. Especially if you're one of those odd people who eat the entire lot, core, stalk and all. Children like them. You can just put one in a lunchbox. You don't have to worry about bruising, unlike with bananas, which are effectively untransportable. (Unless, like me, you own a much-mocked banana guard). Apples are pretty much the same, right?
This, I think, is a mistake. Unlike oranges, other citrus fruits, bananas, berries, lychees, which generally have a pretty uniform flavour regardless of type, apples vary wildly depending on variety. It is a mistake, I think, to just blindly lunge for the expensive bag of imported Pink Lady apples. While I can understand their appeal - they are, mostly, uniformly crisp, fragrant and tasty - there is great joy to be had from some of the other apple varieties out there.
My personal favourites are Coxes and Russets. You can't beat a really good Cox apple, crisp, dripping with tart, citrus-tinged juice, its skin overspread with a delightful red blush. Russets are also a favourite; I love their sage-green skin and matt golden bloom, and their subtly fragrant flesh. They work very well in salads, like this caramelised apple, rabbit and barley salad I made last year.
Discovery apples are also fabulous, coming into season in late summer. They have an amazing tartness and crispness to them, and are probably one of the more refreshing apples. I also lust after the perfect Granny Smith, which is surprisingly hard to find - vivid, alien green, often with a speckling of white freckles on its skin, and mouth-puckeringly tart within.
Regardless of your apple varieties, though, sometimes it's hard to eat them all before they start to turn less than perfect; and by that, I mean soft and floury inside, with a slight greasiness to the skin.
As part of my Fruitdrop delivery a few weeks ago, I received around twenty apples, of several varieties. By sight, I think they were Golden Delicious, Royal Gala, and Braeburn. While I ate a few raw, I could tell that I wouldn't be able to polish them off before they started to deteriorate; the nerve-wracking downside of getting so much fruit delivered. I set to thinking about how to use them in cooking; once cooked, it's impossible to tell an imperfect apple from a perfect one.
My first endeavour was a salted caramel tarte tatin, a recipe from last month's Delicious magazine. The recipe claimed said tarte would serve eight; I would like to amend this to 'serves four', simply because it was insanely good. There was salted caramel; into this went nine peeled, cored and halved apples. Over that went a thick layer of puff pastry, which baked to a burnished, crispy, feathery base for the oozing caramel and tender apples. It was essentially my idea of food heaven. That is definitely one viable suggestion for using up eating apples (don't try it with cooking apples, like Bramleys - they will collapse into mush and the tart will not be pretty).
However, if you want more of an everyday recipe (much as I love tarte tatin, I fear it's not a surefire route to slim hips and a toned physique) to use up ailing apples, this is almost as delicious.
It's also barely even a recipe, really, but the combination of ingredients is lovely and I felt I should share it. Caramelising apples is always a good idea; they become much more pronounced in flavour, turning into a soft, golden tangle of sweet deliciousness. You simply cook them in a little butter and brown sugar until they have turned sticky and dark. I always add a little cinnamon and ground ginger, because they both work so well with apples. Adding dried fruit, such as raisins or cranberries, provides an interesting contrast in texture, and a rich, toffee-like sugary note.
You can use caramelised apples as the basis of numerous recipes - mainly desserts, but if you use less sugar they work well with rich savoury ingredients, like cheese or meat. I decided to pair them with some soft, milky ricotta, because I figured its creamy blandness would provide a lovely contrast to the sweet, crunchy apples. This is a great recipe that would work for either breakfast or lunch.
There's bread, lightly toasted. You could use any bread, but I used fruited soda bread because I love soda bread and I thought the fruit in it would go well with the apples. I reckon sourdough would be fabulous, as would brioche and maybe even a toasted muffin or some rye bread. Over this you slather a thick layer of ricotta. Then on goes a liberal sprinkling of lemon thyme leaves; thyme works very well with both cheese and apples, and helps to cut through their sticky sweetness.
On go the apples, which have caramelised in butter, brown sugar, ginger, cinnamon, and had a handful of jewel-like dried cranberries thrown in alongside them, to plump up in the syrupy juices. Then a few toasted nuts - I used walnuts, but pecans or hazelnuts would also be excellent. This gives a nice contrast in texture. Then another sprinkling of thyme.
It's a fabulous combination of textures; crunchy toast, soft and cold cheese, hot, crispy sugary apples and cranberries, and earthy nuts. I had it for lunch, but I can see it sitting happily on a breakfast table alongside a big mug of tea, or even as a dessert after a light meal. If you can't be bothered with the rest, just make up a big batch of caramelised apples, and have them on your muesli or porridge for breakfast. They're also excellent tucked into featherlight French crêpes, too.
I'd suggest you wander down to your local market soon and find yourself some unusual apple varieties. Go on, go crazy. Step out of that comfort zone. Purchase an unknown species of apple.
And if you don't like it enough to eat raw, caramelise it and stick it on some toast.
Spiced apple and cranberry toast with ricotta and thyme (serves 1):
- 2-3 slices of bread (I used fruited soda bread, but a walnut or raisin loaf would be good, or rye bread)
- 15g butter
- 2 tsp brown sugar
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp ground ginger
- 2 small apples
- A small handful of dried cranberries or raisins
- 100g ricotta cheese
- A few sprigs of lemon thyme
- 1-2 tbsp chopped walnuts or pecans
Get the bread ready in the toaster while you make the apples. Heat the butter and sugar in a small non-stick pan until foaming and bubbling. Add the spices. Quarter and core the apples, then cut into thin slices. Add to the pan along with the cranberries, and cook over a high heat until softened and caramelised in places - this should take around 10 minutes. Turn the heat down once they are caramelised to let them soften some more.
Toast the bread and spread with the ricotta cheese. Pick the leaves from the thyme and sprinkle over the ricotta. Spoon the hot apples over the cheese and sprinkle with the nuts. Serve immediately.
1. Jordan's Super Fruity Granola. To mark their 40th anniversary of making granola, Jordan's commissioned a 'Perfect Breakfast' survey to find out what us Brits consider our ideal morning. Nearly half of the 2000 people surveyed considered a bowl of healthy cereal their perfect breakfast, and needed an hour and five minutes between waking up and leaving for work to be fully relaxed. Favourite breakfast pastimes include reading the paper and watching the news, but it also gets more specific - being made a cup of tea by someone else and not having to wear a coat outside are also ingredients for the ideal weekday morning, while guaranteed threats to such a morning include a bad night's sleep, running out of milk, or stubbing one's toe. I can agree with pretty much all of these, except I like to make my own cup of tea - I'm fussy like that.
Apparently only a tragic 30% of us would refuse to leave the house without a healthy breakfast. That means 70% of the people out there are running around without having sat down to a proper breaking of their fast. I physically cannot comprehend such a notion. If I don't eat breakfast, I'm a danger to myself and others. Perhaps to combat this sad statistic, Jordan's have released two new tempting varieties of their granola: Super Fruity and Super 3 Seeds. I was kindly sent a sample of the former to try, which features sweet, toasty oats baked in honey and offset by a tongue-tingling mixture of pomegranate, raspberry and redcurrant pieces. I enjoyed it enormously - granola can often be too sweet, but this has just the right balance of sweet crunchiness and acidity from the fruits. They are really quite tangy, but the whole thing works together perfectly and will definitely provide the much-needed morning wake up call for the average Brit, who apparently snoozes for around 8 minutes after the alarm goes off before rising.
2. South African apples and pears. This lovely hamper arrived from the people over at South African Fruit the other day, so I've been feasting on delicious crisp Gala apples and Forelle pears, which I particularly like because I think you pronounce it as 'For Elly', therefore clearly this type of pear is destined to be eaten by me. It's nice to have some decent apples and pears to fill the gap before the English ones start to come into season in the early autumn. The Forelles have a beautiful blushing skin and sweet flesh. I quite like them in savoury dishes - they go very well thinly sliced and tossed with wafer-thin fennel, chopped mint, pomegranate seeds and a mustard vinaigrette to make a crunchy and zesty summer salad that works with all kinds of meat and fish. The apples I just ate pure and unadulterated - I sometimes find the Gala variety a bit bland, but these were really crunchy and juicy.
4. Recovering from kitchen disasters. A couple of days ago I decided to make a cake for my mum. Specifically, this amazing lemon drizzle cake that I've made a few times and is just utterly perfect in every way (there's a reason it's received 1041 five-star reviews on BBC Good Food...). It is incredibly moist and buttery, with a gorgeous crunchy lemon tang from the sugary topping. Normally I double the mixture and make two at once, but this time I just made a single quantity. As I poured it into my loaf tin I was a bit worried that the tin was basically full and there would be no room for the cake to rise, but I casually dismissed it in my mind and stuck it in the oven.
Twenty minutes later, I was horrified to see batter overflowing from the tin in a volcanic fashion, pooling and baking on the oven floor. There was no way the cake was going to bake properly in that way. So I hastily pulled it out of the oven and scooped about a third of the still-liquid batter out of the baking cake tin and put it into another loaf tin, thereby breaking the First Rule of Cake Baking: do not open the oven door while it's cooking.
Predictably, the main cake sank horribly the middle. We're talking a proper crater, something that might appear if a small asteroid had hit the cake. The second, improvised cake came out pretty flat, as there wasn't that much batter to fill the tin. It wouldn't have been great as a cake on its own, because it had gone slightly crunchier and more biscuity, lacking the moist centre that makes its bigger brother so special.
Rather than throw it away, which I couldn't bear, I improvised. I cut it into cubes, put it into dessert glasses, and sprinkled it with sherry. I threw a few handfuls of juicy raspberries on top, then smothered the lot in thick cream. A sort of raspberry lemon trifle, with emphasis on the 'sort of'. I've never actually made a real trifle; this is probably the closest I will ever get.
But apparently it tasted great. What's more, it looked beautiful too - much more beautiful than in its flat cake form. It just goes to show that not all kitchen disasters are disasters - some are simply the wonderful origin of a new, unintended, but nevertheless delicious dish.
5. Getting ready for my new kitchen. I'm moving house in October, to start my PhD at the University of York. I have a lovely little house awaiting me, five minutes from the gym (with heated outdoor pool!) and - more importantly - ten minutes from some fabulous Asian grocers. Finally, I will have a kitchen that is entirely my own. No more sharing with horrible dirty people who leave my pans full of oil for fifteen days or casually leave the freezer open overnight. No more asking my friends to sit on upturned bins around the table because there are only six proper chairs. No more coming upstairs in the morning to find the cleaner has thrown away my baking parchment. Thank the lord.
Naturally, this means a quick re-evaluation of all the kitchen items I possess, and a shopping spree for further essentials (such as a Le Creuset teapot). Recently acquisitions include a sexy red Gaggia coffee machine and a Magimix food processor, which I found on eBay and was a total bargain. My little Kenwood blender, which struggles even to turn bread into breadcrumbs, is no match for this beast, and I am looking forward to putting it through its paces and making some blended delights.
Like I said, I can't wait to have a kitchen all to myself. It's going to be wonderful.
Pancakes were, I think, the first dinner I ever made for my family. I'm not sure what set me off on the idea, but somewhere during my childhood I was shown how to turn a simple mixture of milk, flour and eggs into something magical, ideal for stuffing with all sorts of delicious things. Every now and again, when the whim took me, I would ask my mum if I could cook that night. Naturally, she was always delighted and assented without further ado. I'd find myself at the hob flipping pancake after pancake, feeling a rather satisfactory sense of pride at the notion I was both giving her a break from cooking and getting to eat delicious fare at the same time. Perhaps the thrill of it appealed to my inner drama queen - the sizzling of the batter as it hits the hot pan and starts to set immediately; the theatrical flick required to flip the pancake in its pan rather than chickening out and using a palette knife; the frenzy of bringing crêpe after crêpe to the table, replenishing empty plates as soon as the last mouthful has been swallowed.
Back then, I would without fail stuff these crêpes - for that is what they were: the thin, delicate French kind, although my clumsy child hands probably made them far more dense and rubbery than should be allowed - with bacon and cheese. Just that - bacon fried until crisp in a hot pan, and loads of grated cheddar. I have to say, although it doesn't have quite the same finesse as some of the flavour combinations I come up with on this blog now, you can't really beat a thin, squidgy crêpe stuffed with crispy bacon and oozing, tangy cheddar.
But, of course, only half the pancakes ended up this way. The rest were always reserved for that happy fate, the destiny of most milk-egg-flour mixtures: a liberal sprinkling with pure white sugar, and a generous squeeze of lemon juice.
You just can't beat it.
I used to have a very particular method of dessertifying my crêpes. I'd spread one out on a plate, then scatter sugar all over it. I'd then follow with lemon juice, until no white snowy patches of sugar remained - it was all saturated with sweet, tart juice. I'd fold the crêpe in half, and repeat the process, before rolling it into a cigar shape. No area remained untouched by my sugaring and lemoning activities. The result was a sublime mixture of squishy pancake, crunchy sugar, and juicy lemon. I'd find these completely addictive, sometimes eating four or five - and that was after the cheese and bacon feast. (If you're a lemon-and-sugar purist, try serving your pancakes with this incredible Earl Grey ice cream, as I did last year. The flavours work gorgeously together.)
However, in the spirit of doing something a little different for pancake day, here's what I made this year.
Inspired by the deliciousness of caramelised russet apples, which I recently used in a wild rabbit salad, I decided to pair them with goat's cheese. This is a really underused flavour combination, but it works so, so well. The chalky tang of the cheese is perfectly suited to the soft, sweet apples. Add some crunchy walnuts for texture and earthy flavour, and a handful of crisp spinach leaves for a refreshing snap of greenery, and you have something that works perfectly nestled in the soft, pillowy curves of a light, golden crêpe.
I used wholemeal flour for these crêpes, mainly because I wanted to use buckwheat but I couldn't find it anywhere, so wholemeal was the next best thing. It's great because it gives the pancakes a slightly nutty, stronger flavour, perfect for standing up to flavoursome fillings.
Incidentally, I also discovered another amazing filling for crêpes this evening. Cook some mushrooms with a little garlic in butter over a high heat until golden and toasty. Pour in a splash of white wine, allow to reduce a little, then stir in a few spoonfuls of creme fraiche. Add some black pepper, salt, and fresh thyme, then bubble for a minute or so until you have a lovely creamy mushroom sauce. Spread over pancakes, top with grated Gruyere cheese or parmesan, then fold the pancake and devour. Aren't you just salivating at the thought?
But back to the main event. This is a wonderful and unusual savoury recipe for pancake day, ideal for lining your stomach in preparation for the inevitable sweet crêpes to follow. The combination is just beautiful sitting between those golden layers; it has all the right differences in texture, sweetness and tartness. Give them a go.
But obviously, make a double batch of mixture so you can eat the rest with lemon and sugar. That's what I did.
[For other pancake recipe ideas, see the first section of my Recipe Index]
Crêpes with goat's cheese, walnuts and caramelised russet apples (makes 4, probably enough for 2 people as a main course):
- 110g wholemeal flour
- Pinch of salt
- 2 large eggs
- 200ml milk
- 75ml water
- 2 tbsp melted butter
- 3 russet apples (or any apples), thinly sliced
- Butter, for cooking apples and crêpes
- 2 tsp brown sugar
- 200g soft goat's cheese
- A handful of spinach
- A handful of walnuts
- Fresh thyme leaves, for finishing
Sift the flour into a large bowl, add the salt, and make a well in the middle with a spoon. Pour the milk and water into a jug. Crack the eggs into the flour, then gradually whisk, slowly incorporating a little flour into the eggs. As you do so, add a little of the milk and water mixture. Continue whisking, gradually adding liquid and incorporating flour, until you have a smooth mixture - avoiding lumps is easiest if you use an electric whisk. However, you will get a more bumpy texture than if you used plain white flour, so don't worry about this. Add the melted butter at the end and whisk in.
If you have time, allow the mixture to rest for half an hour, or if not, at least let it rest while you make the filling. Heat the knob of butter in a pan and add the brown sugar. Add the apples and cook on a medium high heat for 5 minutes or so until golden and caramelised. Set aside.
Pre-heat the oven to around 60C. Get a large, non-stick frying pan or crêpe pan really hot and add a knob of butter. Swirl it around the pan to coat, or use kitchen paper to wipe it over the bottom of the pan. Pour in a ladleful of batter, just enough so that you can swirl it to coat the bottom of the pan. Cook for a minute or so, then check with a palette knife to see if it has formed golden bubbles on the bottom. If so, flip over and cook for another minute.
Make all the crêpes in this way. As you go, put them on a plate with layers of greaseproof paper between them and put in the warm oven, ready for filling.
When you are ready to fill the crêpes, simply spread the goat's cheese over half of each crepe, then scatter over the spinach, walnuts, caramelised apple slices and a sprinkling of thyme. Fold in half over the filling, then into quarters. Serve warm - you can put them back in the oven for a few minutes to melt the cheese, if you like.
One of the downsides of working so close to a rather foodie area of town (well, for Cambridge, that is - so basically anywhere that doesn't have a Pizza Express, Nandos and Starbucks right next to each other) is that I inevitably end up drawn there in my lunch break. I have to get out at lunchtime, get some fresh air, walk and clear my head. These things are necessary. What is perhaps not quite so necessary is going to the butchers and the oriental grocers every time.
I can't help it. I hate walking without a purpose; even if my end goal is just to peruse aisles of weird and wonderful produce in jars, I need something to spur me on. Plus there is always something new and fascinating at the end of the tunnel: huge bunches of weird and wonderful Chinese greenery that I've never seen before; tofu in every conceivable shape, size and texture; giant bottles of soy sauce and other condiments; huge bags of rice, noodles and pulses. There's also stuff that's just downright weird, such as various undesirable bits of seafood or animal in big, bloodied bags in the freezer section. Still, I consider this my culinary education and I'd hate to miss out on it.
I'm usually drawn to the butcher on the corner as well, sucked in by signs boasting about salt marsh lamb, or something that, out of the corner of my eye, looks suspiciously like a row of neat, plucked, oven-ready pheasant on the front of the counter. I don't actually cook that much meat, especially not red meat, but I'm fascinated by all the different cuts and animals you can get from a good butcher, and I'm always looking to try something new. A couple of weeks ago it was oxtail. More recently, it was wild rabbit.
I was pretty pleased when I caught sight of the wild rabbit on the butcher counter. Admittedly not pleased because of any aesthetic reason; skinned, jointed rabbit aren't particularly nice to look at, rather resembling something that has been prematurely plucked from the womb. However, they promised all sorts of tasty delights. I've read a lot about the virtues of wild rabbit: free range, obviously, and you're also doing farmers a favour by eating a pest; more importantly, it's meant to be a lot more flavoursome than farmed rabbit. Having only eaten the farmed stuff before, I couldn't wait to try the wild version for comparison.
I cooked my rabbit fairly simply, so as not to mask its flavour. I braised it in cider with some bacon, carrots, celery, onion, rosemary and juniper. At the end I added mustard, creme fraiche and parsley. We ate it with soft polenta, and while it was delicious, I have to say it was actually rather too rich for me. Wild rabbit really does have quite an intense flavour. The texture is reminiscent of chicken thighs and is lovely, while the taste has that rich earthiness you associate with stronger game like pigeon and hare. I really enjoyed the first few mouthfuls, but after that I was defeated by the richness of the dish. And that hardly ever happens.
As a result, there was rabbit meat left over. I decided to use it in a salad, featuring something a bit sharper, sweeter and more astringent to cut through that intensely rich flavour. This barley salad with caramelised apples was the result.
I absolutely adore pearl barley. I can't get enough of its crunchy yet tender texture and its nutty flavour. It works so well in winter salads - one of my favourites features roast squash, feta or goats cheese, chestnuts, bacon and sage. I often cook a huge vat of it and use it for various salads throughout the week, throwing in whatever is in the fridge. It's filling and hearty and can stand up to strong flavours, contributing an irresistible crunch of its own. I figured it'd be the perfect base for my rabbit salad, for all these reasons.
The apples were a bit of a whim. I had some russet apples turning soft in the fruit bowl, and there's nothing I hate more than a soft apple. Then I realised that they could actually work beautifully with the rabbit; cooking rabbit in cider with apples is fairly common, especially in France, so there was no reason why they shouldn't work sliced, cooked and stirred into my salad. I caramelised them in some butter and brown sugar first, to bring out their flavour so they'd stand up to the rabbit. Russet apples are beautiful things; I love their burnished, matt skins and their mellow, intriguing flavour. They are, I can confirm, even tastier when coated in butter and brown sugar. Then again, what isn't?
This salad was the simplest thing ever to assemble: cooked pearl barley, shredded rabbit meat, caramelised apple slices, some fresh thyme and parsley, and a little of the rabbit cooking sauce from earlier in the week. A good grinding of black pepper to lift the richness, and I had lunch.
A delicious, filling, comforting lunch, full of intriguing flavours. The apples worked really well alongside the rabbit, better than I could have expected. They provided a beautiful sweet tartness against the soft, rich meat and the crunchy, nutty barley.
I don't really need to give you a recipe for this, but here's the general idea. Adapt to suit you - use chicken instead of rabbit, if bunny boiling scares you; add extra veg if you like (spinach and green beans would be good); use wild rice or brown rice instead of barley. You'll end up with something delicious, unusual, and rather pretty.
Wild rabbit and barley salad with caramelised russet apples (serves 1):
- Leftovers from a cooked wild rabbit (probably 1 leg or the loin), plus a little sauce*
- 50g pearl barley, boiled until tender but still slightly al dente
- 1 russet apple, cored and cut into thin slices
- 15g butter
- 2 tsp brown sugar
- A scattering of fresh thyme and finely chopped parsley
- Black pepper
Shred the rabbit meat from the bones. Be really careful to get rid of all the bones - some are tiny and may go undetected, until you bite into one resulting in a deeply unpleasant sensation. Mix the meat and sauce with the pearl barley, then toss with the thyme, parsley and a good grinding of black pepper.
Heat the butter and sugar in a small non-stick pan over a medium-high heat and add the apples. Cook until golden brown and caramelised, turning occasionally. Toss this with the barley salad. Sprinkle with a little more thyme and serve.
*(the recipe I used to cook my rabbit was basically this one from James Ramsden, but I added carrots, rosemary and juniper, and substituted creme fraiche for the double cream)
1. This beautiful teapot from ProCook. It's made of glass with a little stainless steel mesh basket inside for the tea, and a polished steel lid. The idea is that you can let your tea brew to your preferred strength just by looking at it - it's always hard to tell in a china teapot how strong it is. This little pot probably holds enough tea for two people. It's small but perfectly formed, a simple design but one that looks rather stylish on the table. You can buy it here for £12, or there's a brushed steel version if you're not sure about glass and tea. I personally don't go in for those fancy tea glasses you can buy. To me, tea should be taken in a cup or a mug. It's not juice. However, I'm perfectly willing to accept a glass teapot when it's as pretty as this one.
2. A wonderful barbecue chicken marinade adapted from delicious magazine. Take 8-10 free-range boneless skinless chicken thighs, and marinate for up to 12 hours in: 300ml yoghurt, 1 tsp ground cumin, 1 tsp ground coriander, 4 crushed garlic cloves, 5cm piece grated ginger, zest and juice of 1 lime, half a red chilli finely chopped, 2 tbsp ground almonds, and a finely chopped bunch of coriander. Barbecue or grill for around 40 minutes until cooked all the way through (I did mine for about 20 minutes on the barbecue and finished off in an oven at 180C for about 20 minutes).
Last night we had our first, and last, barbecue of the year in my house. My family don’t really do barbecues. Even in the days where we did, the process from start to finish, from taking the barbecue out of the shed to wiping the last smear of charcoal-encrusted sausage skin from our chins, would take approximately four hours, and only about five per cent of the cooking would actually take place on the barbecue, the rest relying on the trusty oven to banish all those nasty food poisoning bugs. However, given that we have been blessed with this much-lauded 'Indian summer', I figured it was time to seize the day and see off summer in style before the grey, drizzle and general feeling of dismay set in. I made the above marinade for the chicken, found some beefburgers in the freezer, and grilled some corn on the cob and aubergine slices which I drizzled with tahini yoghurt and scattered with pomegranate seeds. The highlight was the chicken, though.
I normally think marinades are a bit of a disappointing con, that they rarely add much flavour and just tend to evaporate away during cooking. You dutifully put your meat in its marinade early on in the morning, or late at night, and spend the next twelve or so hours anticipating the flavoursome delights of your marinaded meal, only to find that you needn't have bothered, really - there's perhaps a slight hint of garlic and lemon, but you'd have been better off adding the garlic and lemon to the cooked meat. Not so with this marinade - it was utterly divine. There was a lovely tang from the lime, a mellow creaminess from the yoghurt, and a delicious hint of the exotic from the cumin. It reminded me a bit of tandoori chicken, only all the better for having a delightful barbecued exterior.
Admittedly, it's a bit late to be telling you about this now as barbecue season is likely to be over, but save it for next summer. Or just brave the weather/use a grill.
3. Local apples. We've all been there, standing in the fruit aisle at the supermarket, surveying the vast choice of apples in front of us. Braeburn, cox, granny smith, royal gala, golden delicious, jazz. We briefly consider, in a fit of patriotism, the home-grown coxes. We toy with the idea of the British braeburns. And then what do we do? We reach for the expensive bag of foreign, imported Pink Lady apples, because we know they're always going to taste nice - there's no risk of getting a horrible floury texture as can be the case with our own country's offerings. I'm guilty of it too, at times - there's nothing worse than a mushy apple.
However, I've been inspired by all the different varieties appearing at the market stall as summer turns into autumn. First there were the crisp, pink-fleshed Discovery apples. Next the Coxes with their delightful citrus tang. Now there are the Russets, whose flavour is hard to describe - more mellow than some of the tarter varieties, with a lovely crisp texture and beautiful golden skin. Not only are they tasty, they're also incredibly cheap, and come in all shapes and sizes; a far cry from the polished, picture-perfect supermarket specimens. Goodness knows how many were thrown out as 'imperfect'. If you have access to some local apples, I'd suggest you try them - you might be pleasantly surprised. It doesn't hurt to break out of the Pink Lady rut every now and again (and it'll save you money).
4. Orzo pasta. One of those ingredients I've read about and been intrigued by, but have never been able to track down. Clearly I was just being blind, because I found it in Waitrose. It's rice-shaped pasta, ideal for a quicker version of risotto, or for salads. I first ate it in my favourite restaurant in Oxford - Moya - which serves Eastern European cuisine. They have a brilliant salad on the menu with prawns, orzo, and dried cherries. It sounds odd but it's really delicious, with a lovely vinaigrette dressing that holds the whole thing together. I've made a delicious salad with the orzo that I'll be sharing at a later date.
Maybe this book does do exactly what it says on the tin, I thought - turns Asian food into something you can easily enjoy every day. No completely wacky and unsourcable ingredients, no strenuous preparation methods, just brilliant, bold, vibrant flavours. The book was a bargain on Amazon, so I couldn't resist. I'd urge you to buy it just for the absolutely stunning photography, though the recipes themselves are mouthwateringly delicious - I went through and stuck bits of paper in all the 'must-try' dishes, and ended up bookmarking nearly everything. I can't wait to try the rare beef noodle soup with star anise, or the stir-fried butternut squash, or the lemongrass chicken, to name but a few.