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
One of the biggest disappointments a gastronome can experience is to order their favourite dessert from a restaurant menu, only to find it presented to them in unrecognisable compartmentalised format. Instead of ‘lemon tart’, a Cubist explosion of prismatic pastry shards, perfectly piped mounds of glossy lemon curd, and a smattering of smug mint leaves for garnish. Instead of the glorious marriage of hot, sweet-tart fruit syrup and a toothsome crunchy topping, your ‘crumble’ will instead manifest as something that resembles the dreams of a Scandinavian minimalist with obsessive compulsive disorder; a piece of poached fruit here, a slick of compote there, and a stingy scattering of crunchy granola that refuses to interact on any sensible basis with the other two elements and entirely misses the point of a crumble. Or, heaven forbid, a cheesecake that anarchically ignores the latter part of its title and instead of being a sliceable paean to dairy and biscuit is a Kilner jar full of cream with a shot of fruit juice and a cookie on the side, more like the individual components of a child’s packed lunch than anything suitable for restaurant consumption.Read More
I tend to avoid any social event that proudly announces it will include a barbecue. It’s a common phobia for the food snob, I reckon: the communal barbecue organised and presided over by people for whom the ethical sourcing of meat is not an issue, for whom a mass-produced supermarket bap does not induce a shudder of disgust, for whom cheese comes in a square plastic wrapper. ‘Barbecue’ is often sadly synonymous with ‘a load of pre-prepared low quality meat items from the supermarket that we will prod and poke while pretending to be cavemen and leave raw in the centre and carcinogenic on the outside’. I just can’t bring myself to participate in that sort of occasion. What a waste of an opportunity, when the lighting of coals offers such potential for an enticing variety of foodstuffs.Read More
Autumn is here in earnest, which means my fridge is constantly bursting with trays of plump figs. I adore the voluptuous, muted purple curves of this photogenic fruit, and its versatility in the kitchen. The luscious, melting flesh of a ripe fig is beautiful nestled in both sweet and savoury recipes: so far I've pan-fried them with almonds, honey and goat's cheese to serve alongside slow-cooked Greek lamb; simmered them into a glorious purple jam with pomegranate juice and molasses; baked them with honey to serve with a biscuit crumble and a scoop of vanilla whipped ricotta...and this. This is possibly my favourite fig creation yet. Grilled with honey until bubbling and impossibly sweet, these beautiful figs sit atop a pillow of labneh, a Middle Eastern cheese made by straining yoghurt until thick and firm. I've used goat's milk for extra tang, to counterbalance the sweet figs, and finished with a scattering of zesty lemon thyme, which works beautifully with dairy. The whole lot makes a glorious breakfast or lunch on top of thick slices of sourdough toast. Click here for my recipe, over on Great British Chefs!
Pomegranate seeds scattered over a salad has now become such a ubiquitous trope in the world of food that we perhaps take these ruby-like seeds for granted. The other day I was standing over a plate of salad - aubergines charred on the barbecue until meltingly soft and smoky and mixed with date-infused balsamic vinegar, pomegranate molasses, mint, watercress, olive oil and lemon juice - and it occurred to me that it could really do with a jewelled sprinkling of pomegranate seeds to lift it both visually and in terms of flavour. I didn't have any, but I did have a punnet of glowing, fat redcurrants in the fridge, and it occurred to me that their sharp, sour tang would work beautifully with the rich, sweet aubergines. It did, and redcurrants have now become my summer alternative to pomegranate seeds which, after all, most of us associate with Christmas. Add some thick slices of salty, squeaky, grilled halloumi, some toasted pine nuts, and you have an incredible summer salad, an immensely satisfying array of different textures and flavours - salty, sweet, smoky and sour. I'm very proud of this one. Head to AO Life for the recipe!Read More
Easter and Christmas are very meaty holidays, but while the nut roast seems a standard vegetarian option during the winter, there isn’t really a general consensus on what vegetarians should tuck into while everyone else is enjoying their roast lamb. This delicious savoury cobbler should satisfy the non-carnivores around the table. It’s bursting with the colours and flavours of the Mediterranean, perfect for welcoming spring: lovely fresh tomatoes and peppers bake until tender under a crust of goat’s cheese scones, fragrant with lemon thyme, rich with parmesan and topped with golden pine nuts. It’s easy to make and provides a hearty, all-in-one main course, deliciously rich and sweet, with those lovely tangy scones to soak it all up. Find my full post and recipe on the AO Life blog!
When I was a lot younger, I remember stumbling upon a very curious utensil in my family's kitchen. This little knife had a wooden handle like any other, but its blade was serrated on both sides and, bizarrely, curved sharply to one side. My mum explained that it was a grapefruit knife, designed to enable the scooping out of grapefruit flesh from the skin so you could enjoy it for breakfast. She must have shown me how to use it, because I distinctly remember enjoying, on several occasions, the ritual of slicing a grapefruit into two heavy halves, running that special knife in a circular motion around the pink flesh, using a small paring knife to cut in between the membranes, bisecting the fruit like the spokes of a wheel, and finally savouring the fruit of my labours with a teaspoon, scooping each tiny segment out of the skin and popping it into my mouth.Read More
When you think about ‘something on toast’, that lifesaver meal that I’m sure we have all succumbed to at one point or another in our lives, it has to be said that, generally, they aren’t the most nutritious somethings that find their way onto our pieces of charred bread. Marmite, for example. Jam. Cheese. Bacon. Butter. Not very many vitamins there.Read More
There are lots of perks to living alone. A beautifully quiet house; the placid joy of going to sleep knowing that you’re not going to be woken up by marauding housemates. Never having to queue for the bathroom. Knowing that any crumbs in the kitchen or burnt on spills in the oven are solely yours, which somehow makes cleaning them up more bearable. Not having to make small talk when you come in at the end of a long day and would rather stick pins in your eyes than have a conversation with anyone. Knowing that whatever particularly appetising foodstuffs you leave in the fridge will still be there the next day. Never finding that someone has taken a metal implement to your non-stick pans, or left the freezer open overnight. Perks indeed.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
I'm a bit of a girl when it comes to my eating habits. I cook and eat mostly vegetarian food, I love nothing more than a good salad, I get excited about few things more than seafood and fish, I have absolutely no willpower when it comes to baked goods, and I very rarely tuck into a good hearty slab of red meat. I think I've only ordered steak in a restaurant once, at a tiny little bistro in the tiny little town of Chablis, having walked around in the pouring rain after a rather arduous trek from London involving the Eurostar and several country trains. In that sort of situation, steak pretty much sounds like the best thing in the world. It was France. It would be bloody, and come with ample carbs. There would be tarte tatin and cheese afterwards. I couldn't say no.
There is a lot to be said for a good steak. On the rare occasions I tuck into one, I ask myself why I don't do it more often. Few things have more savoury satisfaction than a slab of beef, crispy and charred around the edges, still melting and mooing in the middle. I used to work at a restaurant in Cambridge that produced some of the best steaks I've ever encountered - gigantic slabs of cow smothered in truffle butter and served with perfect chips. The smell as waitresses wafted them around the restaurant was intoxicating, a heady mix of bloody animal, butter, and rich, earthy truffle.
I've had a huge picanha steak in my freezer ever since receiving a gigantic hamper of meat in February. Picanha is a cut of beef popular in Brazil, and also known as the rump cap. The muscle over the top sirloin and rump, it is covered in a layer of thick fat which is often left on for cooking. Given that it must be a year since I ate my last steak, I figured it was high time to indulge (and clear a bit of freezer space at the same time).
While I believe one of the best and simplest ways to eat steak is with perfect chips and a divinely rich peppercorn sauce, I have neither the resources nor the energy to whip up chips and sauce in my kitchen. I knew it would probably only be disappointing, so I went for the next best way to serve steak: in a salad.
This might sound like an odd hybrid of girly food and MAN FOOD, but a steak salad is a great thing. The crispy, crunchy and tangy salad ingredients cut through the richness of the meat, and provide a meal that is never monotonous. Much as I love steak and chips, each mouthful is pretty much the same. I sometimes make a Thai-style salad with steak, with a tangy lime and fish sauce dressing, plenty of chilli and some crunchy green vegetables like cucumber and green beans. However, I didn't want to overpower this beautiful piece of meat with such strong flavours, so instead I basically put a load of delicious things in a bowl and slapped the bloody meat on top.
You may have remembered that in a recent post, I mentioned that I would be receiving fortnightly baskets of avocados to experiment with in the kitchen. This is part of a campaign to support and promote Peruvian avocados: nutritious and, as I hope to show, extremely versatile fruits. I'll be posting my recipes and thoughts both on here and on the Avocado Brotherhood blog.
Steak and avocado is a winning combination - the buttery blandness of the avocado works perfectly against the meat. Avocado works well in salads with pineapple, as I discovered recently - the combination of its creamy texture and slight sweet bitterness with the assertive tang of pineapple is fantastic. Blue cheese works very well with steak, and also with avocado (add bacon and you start entering sublime territory). I decided to combine all these flavours in one colourful bowlful, combined with peppery watercress, rocket and spinach, and a delicious dressing made from flavoursome olive oil and a little tangy cider vinegar and lime juice.
This is one of those meals that is very simple to put together, but when you sit down to eat it you're a little bit amazed at your sheer genius. For one thing, it's a completely beautiful plate of food - the jade avocado, bright pineapple with its caramelised char marks, snowy blue cheese...and that perfectly cooked, juicy meat sitting on top. Secondly, it's a ridiculously good combination of flavours, fresh and sweet and tangy without being cloying. The steak was perfect - I didn't time it, somehow using my cook's intuition to get it perfectly medium-rare, with the layer of fat on top rendered into perfect crispiness. I mean, look at the pictures - gorgeous, right?
Genuinely, if you asked me to choose between steak and chips, or this salad...I think you now know which I'd choose. Another 'why don't I eat steak more often?' moment...except now I know how easy this is to put together, I can guarantee I won't leave it a year this time before I eat steak again.
Steak, avocado, griddled pineapple and blue cheese salad (serves 2):
- Half a medium pineapple
- 3 tsp caster sugar
- 2 steaks (I used piranha, but sirloin would be good here)
- 100g spinach, watercress and rocket salad
- 1 ripe avocado
- 60g crumbly blue cheese
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tbsp garlic-infused olive oil (or a small crushed garlic clove and add 1 tbsp extra olive oil)
- 1 tbsp cider vinegar
- A squeeze of lime juice
- 1/2 tsp salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
First, prepare the pineapple. Remove the skin and woody core, then slice into 0.5cm-thin slices. Toss in a bowl with the caster sugar. Get a griddle pan very hot, and griddle the pineapple slices on each side until caramelised and charred. Remove and set aside.
Griddle the steaks to your liking - I would suggest medium rare - then leave to rest for ten minutes while you make the salad.
Divide the spinach mixture between two plates or bowls. Halve the avocado, remove the stone, then slice into chunks and spoon out. Divide between the plates. Crumble over the blue cheese and scatter over the pineapple. Whisk together the olive oils, cider vinegar, lime juice, salt and pepper to make a dressing - taste for the right amount of tanginess, adding more lime or vinegar if necessary. Drizzle half the dressing over the salad and gently toss together.
When the steak is cooked and rested, slice thickly and arrange over the salad. Drizzle over the rest of the dressing, mixed with any of the steak juices, and serve immediately.
Sometimes, it is the least spectacular-looking foods that pack the biggest flavour punch, and deliver the most reward in terms of eating. Think beef stew, a mass of dark brown homogenous sludge that delivers rich, sticky umami flavours with every mouthful. In the same vein, beef rendang, that fabulous Malaysian curry whose uniform brown appearance gives no hint of the flavour explosion within: a riot of coconut, ginger, lemongrass and garlic. Banana bread - not exactly sporting oodles of frivolous decoration, yet - for me - infinitely more rewarding than any fancily decorated piece of patisserie. Lentil dhal - if made correctly, a gorgeous blend of buttery richness and warming spices, but definitely never a contender for prettiest dish of the year.
In Syria, I once took a bite from a loaf of bread that looked distinctly normal and unpromising, only to find the most incredible soft, buttery brioche texture underneath its sweet, glazed crust. In Vietnam, the homely appearance of a bowl of pho gives very little hint of the depth of flavour promised by that clear broth. In Sicily, you'd be forgiven for turning your nose up at a bowl of caponata, a sweet-sour aubergine stew, but perseverance would reward you with an incredible medley of flavours: punchy vinegar, smoky aubergine, salty capers. Curries are, by and large, mostly indistinguishable in appearance, but what a range of hot/sweet/sharp/spicy combinations lies hidden by that homogeneity.
This Yorkshire curd tart may not win any prizes for prettiness. It has no sexily oozing ganache coating, no whipped cream swirls, no sugar paste roses. There are no glacé cherries, edible flowers or decadent spirals of buttercream. It doesn't even boast a glorious colourful simplicity about it, like a lemon tart or a rhubarb crumble.
However, this is all a cunning ploy on the part of the Yorkshire curd tart. It likes to maintain a sense of exclusivity, you see. It only wants to be familiar to that privileged and select group who are 'in the know'. It doesn't want to be adopted by the plebs, cheapened by mass production that provides barely edible, over-processed, over-sugared versions to satisfy the sweet tooths of the general public. Look what happened to its good friend Bakewell Tart, or Mince Pie. It's barely worth thinking about the poor fate of Fondant Fancy. The Yorkshire curd tart never wants to find itself in the overzealous hands of that dentist's nemesis, Mr Kipling.
In order to maintain this status quo, the Yorkshire curd tart hides its fabulous nature under a cunningly-fashioned cloak of beige. It conceals its utter deliciousness beneath a cleverly uniform, nondescript crust. Even when you cut into it (be gentle, please), it gives little away, revealing nothing more than a few uncontroversial currants peppering what is otherwise a homogenous, unremarkable interior.
Ah, I can see it's fooled you too. You weren't that amazed by the photos. They're certainly not a patch on that luscious chocolate ganache cake with the glossy strawberries I made about a year ago. You're thinking, 'meh, looks a bit bland. Beige. Click away'.
Perhaps you should, because I'm not sure the Yorkshire curd tart will be very happy about me revealing its secret to the world.
Because the truth is, you see, that this is an utterly delicious piece of baking. You start with a pastry crust, which is always a good sign. You fill this with a mixture of creamed butter and sugar, blended with pale curd cheese - a little like ricotta, but firmer. This you brighten with a few aromatic spices - nutmeg, mostly - and sweet little currants, which provide a beautiful burst of flavour within the comforting, custard-like filling.
It's hard to describe the flavour of this wonderful creation. I first tried it, at the insistence of my mother, a Yorkshire lass, at Betty's tearoom (a northern institution). I was sceptical, just like you. I probably wanted to go for the shiny fruit tarts sitting next to it. The Yorkshire curd tart is unfazed by these. It is not jealous of their flouncy airs and graces - it doesn't want to attract the attention of just anyone.
However, since my first bite, I've been hooked on the glorious combination of crunchy pastry and the soft, yielding interior. Its texture is reminiscent of a cross between treacle tart and custard tart - not too sweet and sticky, but not gooey either. It's probably best described as a more dense, crumbly version of a cheesecake. Apparently it originated on farms as a way of frugally using up the curds that are by-products of the cheesemaking process. I can't think of a better way to rescue them than by combining them with butter, sugar, spices and fruit.
Having long enjoyed the occasional curt tart from Betty's (a major factor in my decision to attend York University), I decided to have a go at making my own. It seems fitting that I mark my transition to the north of England by ensuring a Yorkshire speciality lies firmly within my cooking repertoire.
While you can sometimes find curd cheese in specialist delis and cheese shops, it's incredibly easy to make - you just heat whole milk, add a little lemon juice, allow it to separate into curds and whey, then drain the curds in a sieve overnight through a cloth so they turn a little more solid and creamy. After your cheese is ready, you just make a quick pastry, line a tart tin, then beat the cheese with the butter, sugar, currants and an egg.
I decided to add a few spices to enrich mine: nutmeg is a given, but I also put in a little ground ginger, and some orange peel powder. The slight hint of warm citrus that it lends to the crumbly, creamy filling is perfect. It's not too sweet a tart, instead possessing a delicious buttery creaminess, without actually containing much butter. It's rich and comforting without being heavy, a perfect late afternoon pick-me-up, or a delicious dessert with some ice cream.
I'm sure you're all intrigued. Get into the kitchen, make this delicious and underrated creation, and enjoy the unusually moreish combination of ingredients.
Then promptly forget it ever happened. Forget all about the curd tart. Definitely don't tell your friends. Let's keep it a little-known secret.
Yorkshire curd tart (serves 6-8):
For the curd cheese:
- 1.2 litres whole milk (a 2 pint bottle is fine)
- Juice of 1 lemon
- For the pastry:
- 140g plain flour
- 85g cold butter, cubed
- 1 tsp caster sugar
- Pinch of salt
- Ice cold water
For the filling:
- 50g butter, softened
- 50g caster sugar
- 1 egg, beaten
- 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
- 1/4 tsp ground ginger
- 1/2 tsp orange peel powder
- Curd cheese (see above)
- 35g currants
The night before you want to bake the tart, make the curd cheese. Bring the milk to a gentle simmer in a large saucepan, then add the lemon juice. Lower the heat and stir gently, and watch the milk separate into curds (white lumps) and whey (pale liquid). Remove from the heat and leave to cool, then pour the mixture into a sieve lined with muslin or a teatowel/clean cloth, resting over a pan or bowl. Leave to drain overnight. In the morning, scrape the curd cheese (it will look a bit like ricotta) from out of the cloth and refrigerate. You can use the leftover liquid (the whey) for making scones or soda bread - use it instead of buttermilk.
For the pastry, put the flour, butter, sugar and salt in a food processor and pulse until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add 1tbsp of cold water, pulse again, then continue to add water a little bit at a time until the mixture just starts to come together - you'll need around 2-3tbsp. Turn the pastry out onto a floured work surface and knead until it just forms a ball, then wrap in clingfilm and chill for at least 30 minutes in the fridge.
When ready to bake, pre-heat the oven to 180C. Roll out the pastry on a floured work surface and use to line a 20cm tart tin or pie dish with a removable base. Don't trim the sides of the pastry yet, as they will shrink when baking. Put some greaseproof paper in the pastry case and fill with baking beans, then bake for 10 minutes. Remove the beans and paper and bake for a further 10 minutes, until the case is golden.
Meanwhile, make the filling. Beat together the butter and sugar using an electric mixer until pale and fluffy. Gradually add the egg, beating in between additions. Add the nutmeg, ginger and orange peel powder, then add the curd cheese. Whisk gently to incorporate it into the mixture, then whisk in the currants.
When the pastry case has baked, pour the curd filling into it and bake for 35-40 minutes until golden and set - it should still have a slight wobble to it, though. Allow to cool, then dust with icing sugar and serve.
I've recently discovered farro, a wonderful little ancient grain that apparently once sustained hordes of Roman legions and which is now a cause of some confusion. Believed to be Italian in origin, it's sometimes mistakenly translated or described as barley, spelt or wheat berries, when it fact it is not quite any of those. However, I don't think such definitions really matter, because what is important is the sheer deliciousness of these little nuggets of wheat, which are versatile and lend themselves to all sorts of culinary uses. They've become a new favourite in my kitchen, eclipsing hot rivals such as buckwheat, quinoa and couscous - at the moment I can't get enough of their delicious texture and subtle nutty flavour.
Unfortunately, farro is not easy to come by in this country. I've never actually seen it for sale, and I frequent all sorts of weird and wonderful little delis and health food shops. I managed to come across my stash in Italy last year, where I picked up a couple of bags in a small city supermarket for about a euro each, in the same way you might find pearl barley in most of our supermarkets. I was unfeasibly excited by the fact that I had finally found this elusive grain, a cause of some curiosity as I've read about it in a few recipe books. My boyfriend looked at the nondescript bags of brown blobs that I was brandishing feverishly, and appeared more than a little bemused.
Farro looks very similar to pearl barley, and is pretty much interchangeable in recipes. Both grains absorb large amounts of water when cooked to turn into fluffy yet nutty little pearls of chewiness, deliciously textured and the perfect plain vehicle for salad ingredients or a great bolsterer of hearty soups. You can also use them as you would risotto rice, for a less starchy and creamy but equally delicious risotto.
This, my final recipe for Thomson Al Fresco, is a suggestion for a delicious self-catering recipe based on Italian ingredients that you'd be likely to find in local markets and delis. It's quick to make, very simple, only uses one pan and is flavoursome and healthy too, plus possibly the most colourful salad you'll ever throw together. It's a blueprint for all the tasty things you may find around you, were you lucky enough to be on a camping holiday in Italy - salami, ripe tomatoes, fresh herbs, beautiful cheeses and balsamic vinegar. And, of course, that sustainer of Roman martial prowess: farro.
First, a blank canvas of chewy, nutty farro grains, simmered until just tender in stock. These are mixed with wilted spinach, roasted red peppers from a jar (so much easier than trying to do it yourself, plus they have a delicious depth of flavour you just can't get from making your own), chopped cherry tomatoes, slices of salami (take advantage of whatever delicious specialities you have in your region), torn mozzarella (again, you can adapt this to make use of whatever cheeses are good nearby) and fresh basil leaves (or you could use fresh oregano or thyme). A splash of balsamic vinegar to dress, a smidge of salt and pepper, and you have dinner or lunch right there.
I was expecting this to be tasty, but I wasn't prepared for quite how tasty. The key is the red peppers, which lend some of their delicious smoky oil to the mix and turn everything sweet, juicy and wonderful. The mozzarella adds a delicious buttery note, while the salami contributes piquancy and a rich smoky meaty flavour. There are tomatoes and basil for freshness, and that splash of balsamic to enrich the whole thing. While consigned to a supporting role, the farro definitely stands out, with its delicious firm texture and nutty flavour, contrasting very well to the other rich ingredients. Don't be put off by the sheer amount of vegetables in this - it's incredibly tasty, with nothing about it that would suggest 'health food' except the colours.
Farro salad with roasted peppers, tomatoes, mozzarella and basil:
This recipe is more of a guideline than anything else. For each person, use approximately 100g (or half a cup) farro (or pearl barley if you can't find it). Cook this in boiling water (or stock if you have some) for about 20-30 minutes, until tender but still with some bite to it. Drain and return to the pan.
To the hot farro, add some baby spinach (a large handful per person), which will wilt as you stir it around the pan. Add some roasted peppers from a jar - you can drain these on kitchen paper or take them out of the jar using a fork if you don't want too much oil in your salad - around 3 tbsp per person. Add some quartered or halved cherry tomatoes, around 7-8 per person. Add 8 or so slices of salami per person. Season well with salt and pepper, and add a splash of balsamic vinegar. Mix well, then distribute onto plates before topping with torn mozzarella (or whatever cheeses you have to hand - goat's cheese or feta would also work well) and fresh basil leaves.
In the heady rush of frivolous Christmas excess, there are several things that we suddenly, out of some bizarre and frequently misguided notion of 'tradition', decide we absolutely need in our lives, regardless of all restraining logic or common sense. The classic example is, of course, brussels sprouts, those contentious little green globes that, deep down, no one actually likes, regardless of how many innovative recipes you throw at them (although it has to be said that generally the amount of butter, cream and/or bacon used in a brussels sprout dish is directly proportional to how edible it is). There is also Christmas pudding, which alienates many eaters due to its sheer density, yet always features on the Christmas table, ready to languish and congeal for weeks later at the back of the fridge as we realise we'd rather finish our meal with a mince pie or a handful from the Quality Street tin. Even turkey, which we never eat the rest of the year round, complaining about its dry, tasteless nature; we still force it down, year after year, combining it with a sauce made from fruits we otherwise show a complete apathy towards - cranberries.
Another foodstuff on this list is cheese. There was an advert recently, I think it was for a Burger King cheeseburger, that declared something along the lines of 'It isn't Christmas without cheese'. We Brits seem to adopt the same view, rushing out during the festive period to burden ourselves with Brie, smother ourselves with Stilton, choke ourselves on Cheddar and wallow in vast amounts of Wensleydale. We seem to perpetuate the myth that Christmas is the time to get involved in lovingly crafting a delicious cheeseboard, like the ones we see in glossy magazine adverts for Saint Agur. Maybe this is the year we'll finally do it, we think - we'll get the grapes, the fresh figs, the four different types of chutney, the special cheese knives, the slate board - it'll be just what we need to really make Christmas.
Yet I'm sure my family is not alone in never getting round to this cheeseboard creation. The multiple packets of cheese (best purchased from whole wheels at a supermarket deli counter or, better still, an independent artisan cheesemonger - no pre-packaged wedges of sweaty Brie here, please, it's Christmas) languish at the back of the fridge, next to the two soggy roast potatoes, the mealy, curling slices of white turkey and the bowl of greying, uneaten brussels sprouts, slowly developing their 'little furry jackets', as my mother so charmingly calls them.
Because honestly, Christmas is perhaps the most inappropriate time in the world for a cheeseboard. What you need to supplement your diet at this time of year is definitely and emphatically not a slab festooned with multiple manifestations of saturated fat. If you can still want to tuck into an array of molten, fatty, gooey cheese after all the mince pies, Christmas pudding, roast dinners and mulled wine at this time of year, I admire you. But I suspect you might be in the minority.
There's a reason all the recipe magazines pack their January issues chock-full of vivid salads, stir fries and vegetable dishes. While I hate the annual obsession with 'detox' that surfaces after the hangover has faded on New Years Day, I have to admit I often welcome these new, healthy recipe ideas. Christmas leaves me feeling disgusting. I just can't hack the sheer amount of meat and sugar I feel obliged to force down on a yearly basis. Of course it's entirely my own fault - I just had to go back for that last roast potato, or nibble a bit of stollen with my cup of afternoon tea - but that doesn't make it any less uncomfortable.
How anyone, after subsisting almost entirely on dried fruit soaked in alcohol, roast meat, buttered vegetables and various forms of spiced booze for the best part of a month, could actually welcome the idea of indulging in cheese and biscuits is beyond me, and therein lies the fallacy of our national cheeseboard tradition. Like brussels sprouts and turkey, perhaps we should finally admit to ourselves that it's okay to break with tradition at Christmas, that maybe we should listen to our appetites and what we feel like eating rather than what we believe anxiously that we should be eating.
Case in point: this year, after a discussion with my mother in which we both realised no one in our family actually likes turkey very much, we decided to do something totally wild for Christmas dinner. We had roast beef instead. A glorious rib of beef, gigantic and bloody and marbled and smelling emphatically of cow. We had: roast potatoes in beef dripping, mashed swede, broccoli and homemade Yorkshire puddings. We did not have: brussels sprouts, bread sauce, turkey, or cranberry sauce - i.e. most of those festive 'trimmings' that send cooks into a mad frenzy at this time of year as they try to juggle timings and oven space. We also didn't have parsnips, but that is simply because they are the devil's food and should be prohibited by law.
It was one of the most delicious meals I've had in a long time. I hardly ever eat roast beef - I haven't had it for over a year. Roast beef for me is far more of a treat than roast turkey, which is similar to roast chicken, something I make a lot. I would never buy and cook a rib of beef, nor order it in a restaurant. Yet when I tucked in on Christmas Day, I couldn't believe I'd been missing out on such sheer deliciousness for so long. That's a feeling I never get with turkey. It was liberating, there being so little to do - no faffing around making multiple sauces, just putting a spoon in a jar of horseradish. No bothering to make stuffing or pigs in blankets. No frantically worrying about salmonella or dry meat.
All this said, my mum still went out this year and bought a small glut of cheese. While we may have shaken off the shackles of turkey tradition trauma, we have yet to escape what I shall now term 'British Festive Cheeseboard Syndrome'. A classic symptom of said syndrome? Buying a 'mulled cheese', i.e. Wensleydale with spiced fruits in. Another symptom? Buying exotic-sounding chutneys even when there are about eighty different chutneys slowly dying in the larder, gifts from mis-judged hampers of Christmases past.
However, should you have various bits of cheese lurking in your fridge, making you feel guilty that you can't bear the notion of eating them - and you should if you want to call yourself a proper Brit - here is a great recipe for you. It turns those guilt-inducing bits of cheese into light, fluffy, deeply savoury scones that work very well with all manner of festive leftovers. They're great with cold meats and some chutney, or served with even more cheese - spread with soft Brie or Stilton, or a cream cheese. They're nice simply spread with butter and served warm, maybe with a cup of tea as an afternoon snack, if you like your snacks savoury.
These are a simple scone mixture, jazzed up with some caramelised red onion and some feisty spices - smoked paprika for a delicious moreish tang; black pepper for a little kick of flavour; nutmeg for a seasonal spiced warmth. The combination of the spices, savoury onion and tangy cheese results in a rich, flavoursome scone that pairs well with so many other flavours. You can use most hard cheeses in this recipe - I used the remnants of a Lancashire bomb cheese, a tongue-ticklingly strong cheese that comes in a wax 'bomb' shape - but strong cheddar or goat's cheese would work best, as would something like Wensleydale or Gruyere. You don't get an overly strong cheese flavour, which is why these work well with other ingredients - just a subtle savoury note that makes you want to reach for another.
You may not fancy plying your stomach with huge amounts of oozing cheese at this time of year, but by transforming it into these little scones, you have something that not only provides a vehicle for eating up other Christmas leftovers, but also makes the cheese a lot more palatable. The idea of a ripe wedge of Brie is a tad nauseating right now, but these warm, crispy, fluffy little scones are definitely not. Whip up a batch this week - they take hardly any time to make - and lighten the cheese burden a little.
Cheese and onion scones with pepper, paprika and nutmeg (makes around 12):
- 1 red onion, finely chopped
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 185g self-raising flour
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp smoked paprika
- 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
- 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
- 30g cold butter, cubed
- 60g strong cheese, crumbled or grated (I used a
- Lancashire bomb
- 1 large egg
- 3 tbsp milk, plus extra for brushing
- Parmesan cheese or strong cheddar, for grating on top
First, fry the onion in the olive oil over a medium heat until soft and golden in places. Set aside to cool. Pre-heat the oven to 200C. Sift the flour into a medium bowl then add the salt, paprika, pepper and nutmeg. Rub in the butter until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add the cheese and red onion to the flour mixture.
Make a well in the centre of the flour mixture and crack in the egg. Using a wooden spoon, beat the egg, gradually incorporating a little of the flour as you go, until you have a thick dough. Add the milk and combine using the spoon and then your hands to form a soft but not sticky dough. Tip onto a floured work surface and knead until smooth, then roll out to a circle around one inch thick.
Use small cutters (around 5-7cm diameter) to cut out the scones, then arrange, spaced out, on a piece of baking parchment on an oven tray. Roll any remaining dough out again and cut more scones, until all the dough is used up.
Brush the tops of the scones with milk, then grate over some parmesan or strong cheddar. Bake for around 10-12 minutes until golden on top.
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.
1. Lentil salad with roast butternut squash, blue cheese, cranberries and chestnuts. I made this to use up some leftovers: roast squash, a piece of Yorkshire blue cheese, and half a pack of cooked chestnuts. It was definitely better than the sum of its parts. I cooked lentils in chicken stock with some thyme, then stirred in the roast squash, some dried cranberries which I'd soaked in hot water, sliced chestnuts, and some lemon thyme leaves. I crumbled over some blue cheese, and had a delicious earthy autumn feast. It also works very well with feta, which I tried the next day. In fact, I think I prefer the feta version, but the only photo I got was the blue cheese one. This is possibly the most festive, yet healthy, dish you will find. Plus, isn't it pretty?
2. Lakeland St Kew Teacup hamper. I was very kindly sent this adorable hamper by Lakeland recently, and I just had to write about it. Largely because it comes in a wicker basket shaped like a teacup, which I think is a fantastic idea. I'm planning to keep fruit in it once I've worked my way through the hamper ingredients - it looks lovely on my kitchen worktop - although Lakeland also suggest lining it and using it for planting herbs, which I think might be the quaintest idea ever for a herb garden. If only we could grow tea in this country, I would use it for that.
There's always something special about a hamper, and this is a really good size if you don't want to confer on someone a gigantic wicker box that's too heavy to do anything but gather dust in the attic. It's neat and a refreshing change from your standard hampers full of cheese and chutney that no one will ever eat (I have a special cupboard in my kitchen reserved just for unwanted jars of chutney - it's not that I don't like it, but I don't eat it nearly often enough to necessitate several jars every December).
St Kew make biscuits, preserves and confectionery to traditional, old-fashioned recipes, and this little hamper contains two packets of biscuits, some strawberry and champagne conserve, and English breakfast tea. My favourite biscuits were the 'fabulous oatie flips' which, despite their rather quirky name, are a gorgeous cross between a hobnob and shortbread. Essentially, they taste like a vanilla-y crumble topping, and I devoured them at an indecently fast rate. Despite their inclusion in a hamper alongside tea, I would not recommend dunking them in your tea unless you want to lose all that buttery crumblyness to the bottom of your cup. Eat them on their own, and I defy you to stop at just one (okay, five).
The strawberries and cream shortbread is also delicious; rich and buttery with the sweet tang of strawberry pieces. It's an idea I've never come across before and rather like. This would make a great gift for lovers of afternoon tea, although one thing is sadly lacking from it: freshly baked, oven-warm scones on which to slather the delicious strawberry and champagne conserve while sipping a cup of St Kew English breakfast tea.
I suppose you can't really be over-critical, though - it does come in an excellent basket, after all.
3. My new bowl. It may seem a bit odd to be telling you I bought a new bowl, but this is much more than a bowl. This is about what the bowl stands for. I found it in the oriental supermarket just down the road from my new house. With one glimpse I was back in Vietnam, hunched over a table barely a foot from the ground, wedged into a tiny plastic chair more suited for children, with beads of sweat on my skin and condensation dripping from my forehead from the steaming bowl of noodle broth in front of me. The air was rent by the droning of motorbikes and sticky with September humidity, while the aromas of sizzling meat and fish wafted past enticingly to the background music of multiple blenders whizzing up condensed milk and fresh mango smoothies.
Although the bowl I purchased was (obviously) empty, I could practically see the golden, crystal-clear broth with its scattering of vivid green herbs and tangle of chewy, slippery rice noodles.
I ate out of several bowls just like this on my travels this summer. While I am very happy in my new life up north in the UK, not a day goes by where I don't yearn to be in south east Asia again, or feel painfully nostalgic for those beautiful, beautiful four weeks. It may sound stupid, but every time I sit on the sofa with this bowl full of rice and a pair of chopsticks (purchased in Saigon) in my hand, it eases the pain just a little.
4. Sea Island Coffee. I'm not a coffee connoisseur, but I really like this coffee from Knightsbridge-based Sea Island Coffee, which they very kindly sent me to try. This may be because it's Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee which even I, a die-hard tea drinker, know is one of the best in the world. I remember a friend of mine once bought me a bag of this exclusive, almost mythical substance for Christmas in my first year of university, back when I loved the stuff and before I converted to Yorkshire tea. It was possibly the most exciting present I received that year, and I treasured it, saving it for 'special' coffee occasions only. Needless to say, it was never shared with anyone else.
According to the website, this coffee has notes of dark chocolate and floral undertones. I'm not entirely sure I detected those, but it does have a delicious full, almost creamy, flavour, with a slightly sweet aftertaste. Grown on the Clifton Mount Estate in Jamaica, which has fertile soil, regular rainfall and cloud cover from the mountains, this coffee (mostly the Arabica Typica bean) thrives and consequently has such a sought-after flavour and aroma; it's often labelled as the champagne of coffees. It's not cheap, at £14.99 for a tin, but it would be a great present for the coffee-lover in your life (or for yourself, when you're having one of those days). It also won a Gold Taste award in both 2010 and 2012, which can't be a bad thing. Sea Island also sell numerous other types of coffee; for more information, and to read a bit about the estates behind the coffee, visit their website here.
I'll be hoarding this precious tin for as long as I possibly can. It goes without saying that if you come round for coffee, you're probably just getting the normal stuff while this sits ensconced at the back of my cupboard. Sorry.
5. Chaource cheese. If you're an avid reader of this blog (and if not, why not?), you may remember I wrote about my wonderful trip to Chablis last April. Although my tastebuds were extremely well looked after the entire time, and I enriched my life with the second-best tarte tatin I've ever eaten, one of the real highlights was the cheese course in a little rustic restaurant on the first night. Here I was introduced to Chaource, a typical cheese of the region.
It looks rather like a goat's cheese, with a white rind and a sticky creamy texture around the outside that turns almost crumbly in the middle. It also has the tang of a goat's cheese, but with the buttery texture of a Brie or Camembert - the best of both worlds. One of my mum's colleagues went to Chablis recently, and was lovely enough to bring me back a Chaource of my very own. It's delicious, and I can't wait to try it in a recipe or two - I think it would work very well with caramelised pears, or some dried fruit. If you can get your hands on this cheese - I reckon most good cheese shops would stock it or order it for you - then I'd heartily recommend it.
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.
This is a pasta recipe that I need to rave about. It's bloody amazing. I ate it on the sofa, greedily, from a bowl balanced precariously on my knee, whilst watching Downton Abbey. The combination was almost too joyous for my delicate nervous system to handle.
It's one of the best things I've ever made. It's the perfect comfort food dinner. It's surprising and wonderful. It has the perfect balance of flavours and textures. It can be eaten with just a fork. Starchy carbs are involved. It has a cheese sauce. There is bacon. All these are good boxes to tick, right?
I can't tell you how this somewhat bizarre combination of ingredients came about. It was a whim, and a mishmash of things I know work together, added to some other things I know work together. It was also designed with the express intention of using up leftover pears: thanks to my lovely box delivered from Fruitdrop, who organise fruit delivery in London and the UK, I have a glut of fruit that is likely to turn mouldy before I have a chance to eat it all.
Pears are one tricky fruit - they are edible for about a day, but too early or too late and they are either rock-hard or floury in the middle. Should you feel they are ripening at an alarming rate, stick them in the fridge and use them in a recipe.
There are numerous uses for pears in my kitchen. I eat them pure and unadulterated, preferably when they're at the state where I need a plate to catch the syrupy juice. I stir them, chopped, into porridge along with jewel-like dried cranberries and liberal gratings of nutmeg. I fold them into a buttermilk pancake batter along with raisins and toasted pecans, to be smothered in maple syrup. I tuck them into a tin of roasting partridge, to be eaten alongside the crisp-skinned burnished birds. I toss them into a crisp salad with goat's cheese and walnuts, or caramelise them and stuff them into thin cocoa-enriched crêpes.
This is a totally new use for pears. Pears and pasta? You think it's weird. I know you do. Don't lie to me.
But pears go with blue cheese. The salty cheese and their sweetness work so well. Bacon goes with blue cheese - this is a classic. Blue cheese and pears both go with fennel, adding saltiness and sweetness respectively to balance the sharp, aniseed freshness of it. I just decided to combine all these things in one mad, luscious plateful.
I made a blue cheese sauce for the pasta, using a lovely new cheese called 'Yorkshire Blue'. I've just moved up to Yorkshire to start my PhD (it's terrifying and exciting simultaneously), and am a huge fan of all the wonderful local produce, so it just made sense to incorporate a nice Yorkshire cheese in this dish. You could, of course, use any blue cheese. This was stirred into hot penne pasta, where it clung silkily to the quills, glistening with salty promise. There were bits of crispy bacon. There were shards of soft fennel and pear, caramelised with a little brown sugar and olive oil in a hot pan. There were some walnuts, crumbled over the top for texture (because pears go with walnuts, and walnuts go with blue cheese and bacon - it's just logic, people).
I knew it would be good as soon as I stirred it all together, but I wasn't quite prepared for just how good.
This is a taste sensation. You get the creamy, salty blue cheese sauce, which is wonderful in itself. You add the salty bacon - always good. But then the whole rich, salty lot is balanced by the deliciously crisp, sweet fennel and the even sweeter buttery pear. If you think fruit and pasta is just plain wrong, I urge you to try this. The pear is so soft that it clings to the strands of pasta and is barely noticeable as fruit; instead, it lifts the whole dish to something memorably sublime.
This has gone straight to the top of my favourite pasta recipes, which is a difficult list to top. I'm pretty proud of it, and I would wholeheartedly beg you to give it a go, especially if you have a Fruitdrop fruit delivery and therefore some pears to use up. You'll be pleasantly surprised.
Pasta with blue cheese, bacon, caramelised pear and fennel (serves 1, easily doubled):
- 100g penne pasta
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- Half a medium bulb of fennel, shaved thinly on a mandolin
- 1 ripe but firm pear, cored and thinly sliced
- 1 tsp brown sugar
- 2 rashers bacon (I used smoked), finely diced
- Half a glass of white wine
- 2 heaped tbsp creme fraiche
- 50g blue cheese, crumbled (I used Yorkshire Blue)
- Black pepper
- 1 tbsp chopped walnuts (optional)
Bring a large pan of water to the boil and add the pasta. Cook according to the packet instructions until al dente, reserving a little of the cooking water.
Meanwhile, heat the oil in a non-stick frying pan and add the fennel. Cook for a couple of minutes on a medium heat until softened, then add the pear and brown sugar and cook over a high heat until the pear starts to caramelise. Remove and set aside.
Add the bacon to the hot pan and cook until starting to crisp up. Pour in the white wine and let it reduce by half, then add the creme fraiche. Cook gently until it starts to thicken, then add the blue cheese and black pepper.
When the pasta is ready, drain and add to the sauce in the pan with a teaspoonful of the cooking water. Return the pear and fennel to the pan, and the walnuts (if using). Toss together and serve immediately.
In a bid to find a gluten-free alternative to all my favourite grainy lunchtime carbohydrates (couscous, bulgur wheat, pearl barley), I have fallen in love with buckwheat. Buckwheat, although it might look, cook and taste like your ordinary gluten-filled grain (and, of course, it has 'wheat' in its title) is actually a seed. In fact, it is related to rhubarb. It's not a grain and therefore is totally gluten free. You can buy it as flour, which is perhaps more commonly known - it's what the French use to make those gorgeous dark, nutty crêpes that they fill with savoury stuffings. This is ideal for a spot of gluten-free baking, although it has quite a strong flavour so is usually best 'diluted' with another more neutral gluten-free flour.
You can also buy it as groats, however, which is where it really comes into its own.
These are a funny little convex triangle shape, looking at first glance a bit like giant, angular couscous granules. They can be cooked in the same way as rice - boiled in twice their volume of water or stock - to result in creamy, nutty pellets of deliciousness. They have a similar sort of chewy texture to pearl barley, but not as dense. In fact, the closest similarity is probably with cooked risotto rice - tender and starchy, but still with a little bite. You can use them to make a risotto, and you can even cook them in water and milk to make gluten-free porridge. Incidentally, they are also packed with protein and other nutrients, so not only are they a lovely comforting carb-blanket, but they are even healthy, and very low in calories for something so squidgy and delicious.
I like to cook them simply in water or stock, and then use them as the starchy, comforting, chewy base of a delicious salad. The first time I tried buckwheat, I made this wonderful salad from Sonia over at The Healthy Foodie. The combination was irresistible: sweet, chewy pieces of dried fruit coupled with toasted nuts and tangy goat's cheese. Buckwheat works so well in salads because it has a slight nutty flavour of its own, which means it can assert itself well against both sweet and savoury ingredients.
For dinner this evening, I was really craving a favourite salad of mine: pomegranate-glazed roasted aubergine with couscous, mint, feta cheese and pomegranate seeds. Obviously, couscous was out of the question, but then I had the brainwave of replacing it with buckwheat.
I think I actually prefer it. Buckwheat has a creaminess that you don't get with couscous, which can be quite dry if not drenched in oil. It also has that deliciously moreish risotto-like consistency, so can easily be voraciously ingested, mouthful by starchy mouthful.
To my base of cooked buckwheat, I added broad beans - I can't get enough of them at the moment, and wanted something green and something with a crunchier texture than the soft aubergine - chopped fresh mint (goes so well with aubergine), aubergines tossed in a mixture of olive oil, honey and pomegranate molasses then roasted until soft and squishy, crumbled feta, and fresh pomegranate seeds. I dressed the buckwheat with a little tahini paste, for added creaminess and because in my mind nothing works better with aubergine, and Dijon mustard, for a bit of a kick.
Basically this was a salad born of my cravings and of what I had in the fridge or just thought might work well if I chucked it into the mix. It ended up being utterly delicious, a simple meal with simple ingredients that tasted perfect and wonderful. It's super-healthy, but in an utterly satisfying, starchy way. You'd never believe something gluten-free could be so creamy and delicious. I'd highly encourage any gluten-free dieters out there, if they haven't already, to give buckwheat a go - it could be the answer to that empty, couscous-shaped hole in your life, and is the basis for so many wonderful and versatile recipes. If I can get my hands on some buckwheat flour, which I've totally failed to do so far, though I've been trying for months, I'd be really interested to experiment with some gluten-free baking.
Other than this pretty and perfect plateful, my gluten-free eating today has been as follows: porridge with grated apple, sultanas and blueberries for breakfast; more of yesterday's creamy smoked trout pasta salad for lunch, with a nectarine; a post-teaching snack of a mango and a banana. I've had a great day, feeling very energised throughout despite desperately not wanting to leave my bed when my alarm went off early this morning. I wouldn't say it's a hugely dramatic difference, but I definitely feel cleaner and healthier somehow. It might all be in my head, but it's still a pretty good feeling. I'm not even that happy it's the final day of my gluten-free challenge tomorrow; in truth, there's nothing I've really missed.
Apart from couscous.
But now I have buckwheat, so even that doesn't haunt my gastronomic dreams any more. Hurrah.
Buckwheat salad with pomegranate-glazed aubergine, feta, broad beans and mint (serves 3-4):
- 3 medium or 2 very large aubergines
- 4 tbsp olive oil
- 2 tbsp pomegranate molasses (or balsamic vinegar if you can't find this)
- 1 tbsp honey
- Salt and pepper
- 180g buckwheat groats
- Two large handfuls frozen broad beans
- 3 tsp tahini paste
- 1 tsp Dijon mustard
- 20g fresh mint, leaves shredded
- 100g feta cheese, crumbled
- Half a pomegranate
Pre-heat the oven to 200C. Cut the aubergines into 1-inch cubes. Mix together the olive oil, molasses, honey and some seasoning, then toss the aubergine in this mixture and spread the pieces out on a baking tray. Season again and roast for 30-40 minutes until soft and sticky. Set aside.
Put the buckwheat in a pan, add 400ml water, bring to the boil and simmer, covered, for 10 mins. After this time, add the broad beans to the pan, cover, and cook for another 5 mins or so, until all the liquid has been absorbed and the buckwheat is tender (if there's any liquid remaining, drain it off). Mix the buckwheat and beans with the tahini and mustard, and season well.
Mix the buckwheat with the aubergine pieces and most of the mint. Crumble in the feta cheese. Using a rolling pin, bash the seeds out of the pomegranate over the bowl and combine gently. Serve garnished with the rest of the mint.