The humble wrap gets a bad rap. So often the soggy, pallid and unappetising ‘healthy option’ at the convenience store food-to-go counter, wraps are a way of making the unsuspecting public feel like they’re eating less bread while still providing a viable vehicle for their otherwise totally virtuous hoi sin duck, chicken and bacon club or egg mayonnaise. Arranged cunningly in its packaging to look like a veritable cornucopia, positively brimming with delicious filling, the pre-packaged wrap so often tapers out into a tragic nothingness, like the Waiting for Godot of sandwiches, leaving you with a few mouthfuls of mealy, chewy dough and nothing else, dreading your 3pm hunger pangs and wishing you’d plumped – operative word there – for that hearty three-tier BLT on granary instead.Read More
Apologies for the slightly clickbaity, buzzfeedy title. You won’t BELIEVE what these herbs did next…number 5 will SHOCK you...et cetera. Ahem. As my interest in food has diversified into gardening and growing my own fruit and vegetables, I’ve discovered some wonderful edible treasures that you don’t often hear about but that are widely available in garden centres or the internet. These herbal beauties will transform your cooking. Many of them are variants of the more common herbs that we can buy in the supermarkets, but I’d encourage you to seek out these lesser-known varieties and give them a try. They can all be grown in pots, so you don’t even need a garden or a lot of space. They’re fabulous for adding new interest to old, staple dishes, or for becoming the star of a new recipe. You might be surprised at what you can grow for your cooking - even exotic Asian herbs can be cultivated in the UK with a little care.Read More
Sometimes, I feel there should be an official ‘British summer’ checklist. Like with trainspotting or birdwatching, you could tick off the various items as you spot them, aiming for a complete full house before the summer is out. I think it would run something like this:
Barbecue implements moved to the front aisles of the supermarket
Signs up on the tube advising people to carry a bottle of water
Gooseberries, blackcurrants and redcurrants on sale at the supermarketRead More
I generally consider myself a sweet rather than savoury kind of girl. By that I refer, of course, to my tastes in food, rather than implying that if you came over and licked my arm it would taste sugary. I enjoy baking and the gentle crafting of desserts more than I do the assembly of savoury dishes, and I have a completely unlimited appetite when it comes to the final course of a meal. Especially if it involves crumble and ice cream. Seriously. I have been known to eat half a cheesecake in a single sitting.
Yet when my attention is drawn to a specific fruit - something on sale in the supermarket, maybe, or something that's just come into season and is appearing in ripe, plentiful boxes at the market - I seem to instinctively bypass the natural reaction of contemplating desserts to showcase it, and instead jump straight to thinking up savoury recipes.
I put this down to my desire to think up slightly unusual pairings (perhaps a consequence of being achingly uncool as a child and therefore desiring to be edgy and different nowadays), but perhaps also to my love of fruit in all its guises, particularly as a sharp, sweet and zesty way to perk up the richer ingredients in life, from smoked fish and braised meat to oozing cheeses and plates of sexy wholegrains.
No, that's not an oxymoron. Believe it or not, I actually like wholegrains.
No, I don't wear socks with sandals.
A couscous or pearl barley salad, for example, wouldn't be the same without the explosive magenta snap of a jewel-like pomegranate seed. Rice, particularly the brown variety, is always tastier with some chopped dried apricots folded through, perhaps with a little cinnamon too. Then there are the endless possible pairings of meat and fruit, or fish and fruit, many of which appear on this blog already. Pork and apple, standard, but also more interesting ideas like duck and figs, or steak and mango.
Or chicken and cherries.
I think this delightful combination was first introduced to me by the wonderful food writer Diana Henry, in her book 'Food From Plenty'. She features a stuffing for roast chicken comprising cherries - dried or fresh - goat's cheese, dill, breadcrumbs and onion. It worked wonderfully. I've tried it with both fresh and dried cherries, and the dried ones are actually more successful, possessing a stronger, resinous flavour that can stand up to the assertive cheese and dill.
Perhaps that's what was bouncing around in my subconscious when I suddenly came up with the idea for this salad.
Largely responsible for the raw materials are the wonderful people at Picota Cherries, who have been sending me gorgeous cherry-based goodies (including a mug, which has quickly become my favourite thanks to its sturdy shape and ample tea-carrying capacity) to mark the start of the season for this excellent fruit. Incidentally, I also love them for sending me the most incredible hamper of Spanish foodstuffs and making me feel like Christmas had arrived in the middle of summer.
I'd never heard of these Spanish cherries before. They're grown in the Jerte Valley in the Extremdura region of Spain, where they are ripened for twice as long as other cherry varieties, lending them a deep red colour and sweet flavour. They're notable for being the only naturally stalkless cherry available - as the fruits fully ripen, the stalks just fall away. Proudly bearing the Denomination of Origin status, these are special cherries indeed. I was thrilled when I received some in the post last week.
They're great cherries. Beautifully dark and heart-shaped, with a strong and lovely fruity flavour. You can slice them in half lengthways and admire their gorgeous dark-veined interiors, a pale gold colour with a crimson blush radiating out from the middle where the stone had been cosseted only seconds before.
As I said, my mind immediately turned to the savoury rather than the sweet. I've made sweet things with cherries in the past - notably this cherry and amaretti cheesecake, or cherry and chocolate cake with almond icing - but I've always thought that the lovely subtlety of the cherry's flavour is masked by the sweet things we naturally pair them with, like chocolate. It tends to blend into the background like a shy girl at a party, swamped by those dominant flavours who hog the limelight. One of my favourite ways to use cherries is in a cobnut and goat's cheese salad with shaved fennel, and this recipe is basically a new and different version of that. Similar, in fact, only in that it uses goat's cheese too.
Goat's cheese, because it works so well with cherries (as it does with most fruits - particularly pears and apples). It has a chalky, tangy richness that needs the bite of a crunchy fruit to cut through it.
Smoked chicken, because - unlike normal chicken - it's cloyingly rich and can take the strong crispness of fruit as a partnering flavour. In fact, the fruit positively balances the strength of the smoky meat.
Fresh basil and mint, to add a citrussy snap that lifts the whole plateful. Plus these herbs both work very well on their own with goat's cheese or chicken.
Watercress and rocket, for a peppery hit to counteract all those intense flavours.
A drizzle of hazelnut oil, for a rich, nutty flavour to soften the sharp edges of the cheese and fruit.
Finally, a hefty dash of balsamic vinegar and a squeeze of lemon juice to brighten up the palate. Don't be shy.
This is just a gorgeous summer plateful. The colours are so striking when it's all piled together. The flavours are like a small rave going on in your mouth with every bite - sweet, salty, smoky, crunchy, peppery. It feels indulgent, yet is terribly healthy. It's unusual, so will win you dinner party points, with people oohing and aahing over the exciting and frightfully modern use of cherries in a savoury dish.
I can't think of a better way to showcase these lovely Picota cherries.
So much more exciting than a chocolate cake.
The best thing about this salad is its adaptability. I added some cooked brown and wild rice to make it a more substantial meal (meals without carbs frightne me). I also think some toasted nuts - particularly flaked almonds or chopped hazelnuts - would add a welcome flavour and texture dimension. You could swap the smoked chicken for smoked duck, or any smoked meat really. Smoked mackerel would be surprisingly good, I think, or even Parma ham (though to keep it vaguely Spanish, let's say Serrano ham). Blue cheese might work instead of goat's, or possibly some feta or mozzarella.
Picota cherry, smoked chicken and goat's cheese salad (serves 1 generously):
- A large handful of watercress or rocket, or both
- 12 Picota (or normal) cherries, halved and stone removed
- 1 smoked chicken breast, shredded
- 2 sprigs fresh basil, leaves roughly torn
- 2 sprigs fresh mint, leaves finely chopped
- 50g soft goat's cheese, crumbled
- Hazelnut oil (optional - use olive if not)
- Balsamic vinegar
- A squeeze of lemon juice
- Salt and pepper
- Additions: toasted flaked almonds or chopped hazelnuts; cooked brown/wild rice or lentils
This is the easiest recipe you will ever make. Place the watercress and/or rocket, the cherries, the chicken breast, the herbs and the goat's cheese in a large bowl. Toss gently together. Drizzle with the hazelnut oil, balsamic vinegar and a squeeze of lemon, to taste, and season with salt and pepper.
I was recently invited by Allinson (the bread and flour company) to take part in a recipe challenge. Harking back to founder Thomas Allinson, who in the nineteenth century encouraged healthy eating by prescribing the consumption of two salads a week, Allinson are encouraging consumers to grow their own herbs by offering them a Kitchen Herb Garden when they send off tokens from the Allinson bread range. The herb garden includes a box for growing the herbs, compost, and three packs of seeds - basil, parsley and chives. The challenge was to come up with a recipe featuring one or more of the herbs along with bread from the Allinson range, and to focus on healthy eating, in the spirit of the company's founder.
Like many pioneering geniuses, a lot of Allinson's ideas were regarded as a bit mad during his time. He outlandishly believed nearly all ailments could be cured by a good diet, exercise, and a healthy lifestyle. Apparently this was regarded as 'rebellious' by his peers. Oh, how times have changed.
I've never had much success with growing my own herbs. I did try, diligently, when I moved into a house in my second year of university and found myself with a window ledge. It was promptly filled with pots of mint, coriander and parsley. They all showed promising progress for a while, and then almost as promptly decided to stop growing altogether and die. From then on I kept mint in my room, and had a bit more success, but it still had a tendency to grow rapidly for a couple of weeks then stop, turning wispy and lacking in foliage to be used for Moroccan tea-making.
I've always been so envious of people who complain that fresh mint grows like a weed in their garden. Oh, to have my own giant supply of this wonderful, fresh, versatile herb. I've tried so many times and failed, and I think I deserve a successful mint plant far more than most people, seeing as it's one of my favourite herbs and I would actually use and treasure it rather than dismiss it as a weed and moan about it.
In spite of these failures, I gave the Allinson box a go. I sprinkled my seeds - which came in cute little sachets bearing quotes from Allinson himself, such as "Pure air is our best friend", "A man is what he eats" and "Brown bread is not a luxury but a necessity" - into the soil, watered, and waited.
Lo and behold, after a week or so, green shoots started to appear.
Despite this promising start, the shoots still remain in this state, several weeks later. The basil has gone a bit mouldy and the chives have wilted, but the parsley is still growing, I think. Perhaps this is due to my assiduous over-watering. I did desperately try not to over-water them, but I'm useless at knowing when to stop. Here's a tip if you're thinking of collecting the Allinson tokens (6 tokens and £2 P&P, or 3 tokens and £5 P&P) and getting your own herb garden: if you think it needs watering, it probably doesn't. Err on the side of dryness, and you'll probably have much more success than me. It's a lovely little box and I love the idea of it growing happily away on the kitchen worktop. If only I'd held back with the water.
Fortunately I wasn't required to use my own home-grown herbs for this competition, or you might be looking at a recipe for 'strawberry French toast with a tiny sprinkling of mouldy basil shoot'.
I had numerous ideas for recipes involving bread and a combination of chives, basil and parsley. Cheese was involved in nearly all of them, as were eggs. However, I wanted to do something a little bit different.
Generally, people think of herbs as an ingredient for savoury cooking. However, the dessert potential of herbs is something I find fascinating, and enjoy experimenting with. I once made a rosemary ice cream which was beautiful with slices of poached quince, and I imagine would have worked well with poached pears too. Bay leaf ice cream was another hit; served alongside a very spice-heavy, fruity crumble, it added an intriguing herbal note that cut through all the other flavours.
Perhaps the most common herb used in desserts now is basil. It has a fairly sweet, citrus flavour which makes it easily adaptable for sweet dishes; you'd probably have a harder time getting chives, sage or parsley to taste good alongside sugar (although I love a challenge in the kitchen...maybe I'll have a go one day). Basil ice cream was a hit with everyone who tried it; they were often expecting to be repulsed, and ended up going back for thirds. It worked beautifully alongside strawberries, whose light, fruity sweetness sits comfortably with the more complex, slightly metallic flavour of basil.
Basil sugar was an experiment for me last summer; I used it to sprinkle over these honey mango tartlets, giving them a fabulous crunch and another dimension of flavour to set against the super-sweet Pakistani mango topping and soft, creamy ricotta filling. When I entertained the concept of doing a sweet dish for this recipe competition, I immediately decided to incorporate the basil sugar. It's different, interesting, and surprisingly delicious, delivering a totally unexpected flavour and texture.
It's the simplest thing to make, too - you just blitz caster sugar and fresh basil together in a blender, until the sugar becomes pungent with heady basil flavour, and the leaves disintegrate to colour the sugar. It ends up looking rather like green snow.
French toast seemed the obvious sweet way of using bread in my recipe. You might argue that French toast isn't exactly healthy, and the emphasis is supposed to be on healthy eating, but I disagree. French toast is actually healthier and more nutritious than toast itself - you're soaking it in milk and egg, which are good sources of protein and nutrients. It's basically the same as having toast, a boiled egg, and a small glass of milk. I used wholemeal bread, too, which ups the health quotient a bit. You add a tiny amount of sugar and pan-fry it in a very small amount of butter, no more than you'd have on your normal toast.
The result is, of course, a delicious crispy, chewy exterior giving way to a fluffy, soft, gooey crumb, subtly flavoured with vanilla and a touch of cinnamon. It's also a great way to salvage stale bread, which makes the best French toast as it soaks up more milk.
The French call it pain perdu, 'lost bread', which I quite like - I have this image of the lost souls of countless loaves wandering bread purgatory until their redeeming kitchen angel decides to save them through a good baptism of milk and egg.
So, then you cover your little lost bread it in sliced strawberries - one of your five a day - and sprinkle over a little of this delightful basil sugar.
The sugar is the star of this recipe. OK, so the delicious squidgy French toast is pretty spectacular, and the sweet strawberries go very well with it, but it's the herbal, citrussy crunch of the basil sugar that turns the whole thing from an ordinary breakfast or brunch to something classy and a bit special. It gives another texture to the plate, adds a pretty green finishing touch, and works harmoniously with the strawberries.
This is probably a breakfast or brunch dish, but if you made the portion a bit smaller it would make a lovely dessert after a light meal, too. You could swap the strawberries for raspberries or even blueberries; basil would work well with them all, I think.
Strawberry French toast with basil sugar (serves 2):
- 2 tbsp caster sugar
- A small bunch of fresh basil
- 4 slices wholemeal bread, preferably a bit stale
- 2 eggs
- 150-200ml milk
- 5 tsp sugar (caster or light brown)
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- A pinch of cinnamon
- A knob of butter
- Sliced strawberries, to serve
First, make the basil sugar. Put the 2 tbsp caster sugar in a blender along with the basil, and grind until the sugar turns green and fragrant with the basil - there should only be tiny bits of basil leaf still visible. Set aside.
Cut the crusts off the bread and cut into triangles. Mix the eggs, milk, 5 tsp sugar, vanilla and cinnamon in a shallow dish using a whisk. Put the bread into the dish to soak up the mixture for a minute or so, then flip over and soak the other side. You may need to add a bit more milk, depending on how 'thirsty' the bread seems.
Heat the butter in a non-stick frying pan until foaming. Add the bread slices and cook for a couple of minutes, until they develop a golden crust, then flip over and cook the other side in the same way.
Place the toast on a plate to serve, and scatter over the sliced strawberries and basil sugar. Serve immediately.