If one needed any further examples of how much technology can distract and distance us from reality, one should look no further than a screenshot from my phone that I uploaded to Facebook last week. This was taken from my language-learning app, which had made a triumphant sound and presented me with a page declaring that I was ‘25% fluent in Danish’, thanks to my daily practice of 15-minute sessions over the last week, matching word pairs, translating small sentences and picking the correct word out of possible options. This sounded excellent, and I was ready and willing to crow about my progress to anyone who would listen, until I realised that I am only fluent in a particularly niche subset of the Danish language, one comprised entirely of sentences along the lines of “the turtle is drinking the milk” or “elephants are vegetarian” or “the horses do not eat steak”. This would be fine if my new job were taking me to work in some kind of hipster Danish zoo, or a supermarket catering to the dietary needs of exotic fauna, but unfortunately I am moving to Denmark to work in a university that, as far as I know, does not have resident turtles or elephants and probably won’t require me to inform my students that ‘the girl is eating the oranges’ or ‘he has a dog and horses’.Read More
The other day, I bought a bunch of candy beetroots from my local market. I’ve never seen them there before, and because they are one of the prettiest ingredients you can buy, I snapped them up eagerly. ‘Have you tried these candy beetroot things?’ the lady behind the stall asked me. She was making polite conversation, but probably got more than she bargained for. Instead of a casual ‘yes, they’re great’, I proceeded not only to tell her all the best recipes for candy beetroot, but also the correct methods of cooking it so as to preserve its unique coloration (steaming in foil), the best utensils for the job (mandoline), and its Italian name (chioggia).Read More
There’s something rather magical about the pleasing and versatile word ‘glaze’. To coat porous pottery in a thick, impenetrable gloss that survives the trial-by-fire of the kiln is to glaze, combining aesthetics and ergonomics. To have one’s eyes glaze over suggests thoughts have slipped blissfully into the realm of reverie. Double-glazed windows reassure, promising warmth and comfort. Finally, there is my favourite, edible sense: to glaze food is to paint it with slick, concentrated flavour, to make it shine like a pot fresh from a kiln. It makes it glossy, inviting, shimmering with promise: think of a bountiful berry tart, multicoloured fruits nestling in a pillowy bed of pastry cream, their tops brushed and glinting with a sweet glaze of molten apricot jam; or a roast aubergine, its flesh collapsed into silken softness, smothered in a dark, umami-rich miso glaze.Read More
This is a very bold meal, in many senses of the word. First, the colours. There is an explosion of vibrant reds, in shades varying from the deep, bloody magenta of roasted beetroot to the bright, glossy crimson of redcurrants, to the scarlet hues of harissa and the earthy tones of griddled lamb. There are flecks of bright mint, a spoonful of creamy yoghurt and a background of fluffy couscous. Then there are the flavours: hot, sweet, spicy, fresh, deeply savoury. It's a riotous plate of bold and assertive ingredients, and works wonderfully together.
Inspired by my recent experimentation with whitecurrants in savoury cooking, I decided to give the same treatment to redcurrants, their slightly more common and accessible cousins. I have only used redcurrants in desserts before, my favourites being a redcurrant cheesecake or a peach and redcurrant cake. I love their delicate sweet-sour flavour, peppering cake batters with delicious sweet bursts. More than that, though, I love their beautiful appearance, like a string of jewels. As with pomegranate seeds, they add instant sparkle and glamour to all food.
For that reason, I thought they'd look beautiful strewn through a blank canvas of soft, fluffy couscous, as I would normally do with pomegranate seeds. When one thinks of redcurrants and savoury food, redcurrant jelly with lamb instantly springs to mind. Their tartness is a welcome pairing with the rather rich, sweet flavour of lamb meat. Lamb also works excellently with couscous, as Moroccan cooking exemplifies. I had two Barnsley chops in the freezer - this is taken from across the lamb loin, and is sometimes called a double chop. It has the bone in the middle and a good layer of fat on the outside, and is perfectly suited for a blast of heat from the griddle or barbecue.
Keeping with a Moroccan theme, I marinated the lamb in harissa paste. Harissa is a funny ingredient - depending on the brand you buy or the recipe you use, it can be overwhelmingly spicy and even bitter, sometimes. For the first time, I decided to make my own, using a recipe from Nigel Slater's second Kitchen Diaries book, but swapping caraway seeds for fennel seeds as I didn't have any. This harissa is slightly unusual in that it features preserved lemons, which give it a wonderful deep flavour. It's hard to describe the taste of a preserved lemon until you've tried one, but they're wonderfully aromatic and lend a delicious tang to everything you combine with them.
I'd really recommend making your own harissa. It takes minutes, and the flavour is utterly wonderful - far richer, spicier and more interesting than anything you can buy in a jar. You can control the amount of chilli, and add your own aromatics depending on what takes your fancy. It's bold, vibrant and flavoursome, and a beautiful brick-red colour, just begging to be slathered all over some juicy lamb chops.
To accompany the lamb, couscous strewn with cubes of roasted beetroot, tossed in za'atar - a Middle Eastern spice mix featuring thyme and sesame, among other things - and flecked with mint and parsley, before beautiful bold redcurrants are stirred through. I served this alongside the lamb with a big dollop of minted yoghurt, to take the edge off the harissa spice and to add a welcome hit of coolness and creaminess. It works excellently with the deep flavours of the meat and beetroot.
The lamb is just griddled on a hot pan, though you could also barbecue it. The smell of searing harissa coupled with that sweet, unmistakeable aroma of cooking lamb is fabulous. Harissa, to me, just belongs with lamb more than any other ingredient. Something about the combination of all those delicious spices manages to bring out, rather than overpower, the taste of the lamb. The redcurrants are a wonderful addition to the dish, adding a welcome note of sweetness to freshen up all those other rich, earthy flavours in there, though you could also use pomegranate if you can't get redcurrants. I love the way they look on the plate, sparkling out of the couscous.
This is a gorgeous medley of Moroccan and Middle Eastern flavours and textures. The star is the beautiful pink lamb with its smothering of bold harissa, but the redcurrants are an unusual and an inspired addition, I think.
Much more exciting than roast lamb with redcurrant jelly, I think. Hopefully you agree.
Harissa lamb with redcurrant and beetroot couscous (serves 2):
For the harissa paste:
- 1 tsp coriander seeds
- 1 tsp cumin seeds
- 1/2 tsp fennel seeds
- 3 cloves garlic
- 2 bottled piquillo peppers (or roasted peppers)
- 1/2 tbsp tomato puree
- 1 tbsp red wine vinegar
- 1 medium-hot red chilli
- 1 small preserved lemon
- 1 tsp smoked paprika
- 2 tbsp olive oil
For the rest:
- 2 lamb Barnsley chops
- 2 beetroot
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- 2 tbsp za'atar (or use 1 tbsp dried thyme if you can't find it)
- 160g couscous
- A few sprigs fresh parsley, finely chopped
- 100g redcurrants, removed from their stalks
- 200ml natural or Greek yoghurt
- A small bunch of fresh mint, finely shredded
- A pinch of ground cumin
- Baby spinach or salad, to serve
First, make the harissa. Toast the coriander, cumin and fennel seeds in a dry pan until fragrant, then grind to a powder in a pestle and mortar. Put in a food processor along with the garlic, peppers, tomato puree, vinegar and chilli, then pulse together. Discard the soft inside of the preserved lemon, and add just the skin to the food processor along with the paprika and olive oil. Blitz to a paste.
Rub the paste over the lamb, put in a shallow dish, cover with clingfilm and marinate for as long as possible - ideally overnight, but a couple of hours will work too.
When ready to cook, pre-heat the oven to 200C. Cut the beetroot into 1cm dice. Place in a baking dish, then toss together with some olive oil and the za'atar/thyme, and some salt and pepper. Roast for around 30 minutes, until just tender. Put the couscous into a large bowl, and pour over enough boiling water to cover it by about half a centimetre. Put a plate over the bowl, and leave it for 5-10 minutes until it has absorbed all the water. Stir through the parsley, some olive oil and salt and pepper, and the roasted beetroot, then gently stir through the redcurrants. Mix the yoghurt in a small bowl with the mint and cumin.
Get a griddle pan very hot, then griddle the lamb for about 3-5 minutes on each side, depending on how well-done you like your meat and how thick the chops are. Leave to rest for five minutes, then serve alongside the couscous with a dollop of yoghurt, and some baby spinach or salad.
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 sky was what is called a mackerel sky - rows and rows of faint down-plumes of cloud, just tinted with the midsummer sunset ~ H.G. Wells
Sometimes, I get this wonderful feeling having just finished a meal. It's not just the sensation of being pleasantly full where, twenty minutes ago, I was starving. It's more than that. It's the feeling of nourishment. Feeling not just as though any old thing has come along and filled up the growling gap in my stomach, but something fresh, vibrant, nutritious. I can almost feel the vitamins and minerals seeping into my bloodstream. Although I cook pretty healthy food most of the time, I don't get this feeling as commonly as perhaps I would like. When I do, though, it is a lovely thing.
When I think back to the number of times I've felt well and truly nourished after a meal, there seems to be a common denominator. Mackerel.
It is fairly widely acknowledged that mackerel, like all oily fish, is indeed very good for you. But so, apparently, are parsnips and yoghurt, and I hate them. No, there is something more to my love for mackerel than simply knowing of its nutritional benefits.
Perhaps it's the gorgeous texture; dense, hugely flavoursome and almost meaty, it provides instantly satisfying bulk to any salad. Maybe it's the deep, rich flavour, almost like bacon in its satisfying saltiness. I love mackerel in all its guises: the smoked fillets have an incredible depth of flavour that makes them ideal for lifting all sorts of salads, whereas one of my all-time favourite simple meals is a whole, glistening mackerel, gutted and grilled and served on the bone where its juicy, moist flesh flakes effortlessly away. There's something almost primal about tucking into a whole fish with its head still on, simply grilled, its skin crispy and its flesh moist within. It is one of the simplest of foodstuffs, yet it is nourishing and deeply satisfying.
The intense richness of mackerel, particularly smoked mackerel, means that you need something sweet or sharp to go with it. In the summer I make a salad of wild rice, chopped mango, smoked mackerel and oodles of lime juice, chopped mint, basil and coriander. It being January, however, fresh mangoes aren't really at their prime, and it would feel slightly wrong, somehow, to try and pretend it's summer when I am wearing my dressing gown around the house over my clothing. This is my winter version of a healthy and vibrant mackerel salad.
When I made my first post-Christmas trip to the market a couple of days ago, I was thrilled to discover that blood oranges are in season. These are one of my all-time favourite fruits, both for their gorgeous appearance and for their tart sweetness, so much more exciting and exotic than a normal orange. Last winter I made a lot of blood orange salads to serve with whole grilled mackerel, and I couldn't resist gathering up a load of these lovely fruits to try another variation.
I've also read a lot about the combination of beetroot and orange; I normally don't like beetroot, finding it too sweet, but pairing it with a sharp orange like a blood orange tones down a lot of its natural sugars and makes it taste earthy and delicious. Ditto the carrots, which I actually prefer raw to cooked. However, roasting them in wedges at a high temperature with olive oil turns them wonderfully burnished and delicious, a far cry from that horrible sickly pre-packaged beetroot you can buy.
This salad is simple. Roast wedges of beetroot and carrot until golden and caramelised. Toss with a dressing made from blood orange zest, a little olive and sesame oil and some seasoning. Add blood orange segments, coriander, wilted beetroot leaves, and finally some peppered smoked mackerel. I chose the peppered fillets rather than the plain ones because I thought the heat of them would go well with the sweet root vegetables.
This is a substantial salad, perfect for serving as a main course. It's also ideal for this time of year, when people are trying to cut back on carbohydrates and the like - you don't need anything to go with it. It's just nutritious vegetables and fruit, and protein-rich mackerel. Just looking at it is enough to make you feel you've achieved that new year's resolution to eat more healthily: you can't argue with a plate bursting with crimson, marigold and deep greens.
If you're not a fan of mackerel, you could use trout or sardines. Or, for a non-aquatic version, try thin slices of roast lamb or beef, or crumbled feta/goat's cheese, or grilled halloumi. The possibilities are almost endless, but I'd urge you to try the combination of beetroot, carrot and orange. It may sound odd, but it works wonderfully.
I really love this salad; it feels indulgent, somehow, despite being healthy - I think it's the richness of the mackerel, as well as the refreshing vibrant flavours in there from the orange and coriander. I can guarantee that, were you to eat this for dinner, you would come away feeling well and truly nourished.
Beetroot, blood orange and carrot salad with peppered mackerel (serves 2 hungry people):
- 4 small beetroot, leaves attached
- 4 large carrots
- A couple of handfuls of baby spinach (if not using the beet leaves)
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- 2 blood oranges
- A large bunch of fresh coriander
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- 150g peppered mackerel fillets
Pre-heat the oven to 190C. Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Cut the beetroot into thin wedges, and cut the carrots into thick batons. Boil the carrots for about 5 minutes, then remove with a slotted spoon and tip into a roasting dish. Boil the beetroot in the water for 5 minutes too, then add it to the carrots. (Boiling them separately stops you ending up with purple carrots).
Toss the beetroot and carrot with some olive oil, salt and pepper, then roast for about 40 minutes until soft and caramelised.
Meanwhile, zest the oranges into a large bowl. Remove the skin using a sharp knife, then cut the oranges into segments and add these to the bowl. Finely chop the coriander and add this too, along with the sesame oil and some seasoning. Stir well.
Finely chop the beetroot leaves and stalks, then place in a hot pan with a little water and cover with a lid, allowing them to steam until tender. If using baby spinach instead, you can either wilt it in a hot pan or add it raw to the salad.
When the vegetables are cooked, allow them to cool for a few minutes before adding to the orange dressing. Add the spinach/beetroot leaves, and toss everything together. Pile onto plates, and top with the mackerel fillets.