1. Apricots. Although you can buy these almost year-round in the supermarket, the fruits that start to emerge on the shelves in late May have something special about them. They're plumper, softer, promising jammy ripeness and mild sweetness, and they seem to glow more brightly orange than the pale, bullet-hard, woolly varieties that grace the shops in winter. I think there are few things more beautiful than a downy, ripe apricot, its honeyed skin blushed and dappled with sienna, glowing like a beacon in the hand. In summer, I like to pile them into a pale blue or white bowl and marvel at their beauty on the worktop. Briefly, anyway, before I get to work turning them into luscious desserts like this apricot and almond custard tart. For the next few months I reckon I'll eat at least a punnet of these beautiful fruits every week, either in desserts or baked with honey and cardamom into a luscious marigold compote to spoon over hot porridge and scatter with blackberries or blueberries.Read More
There are some ingredients that I can’t help but think of as edible jewels, glamorizing and adorning whatever culinary creation you choose to scatter them over. Pomegranates are the most obvious, those little sweet stones adding a dramatic ruby flourish and a burst of vitamin-rich sweetness to anything that needs a bit of visual magic; I particularly love them paired with snowy white goat’s cheese or yoghurt for the ultimate colour contrast. There are also pistachios, adding flecks of emerald to salads or grains, or, when finely ground, imparting their incredible vibrant green to a cake mixture. Clementines, too – though we tend to simply eat peel and eat them unadulterated, those bright marigold segments are beautiful to cook with, adding a snap of colour and a fresh citrus hit to salads and stews.Read More
One of my favourite things to eat this summer is a combination of spicy, grilled meat of some description, coupled with a hearty, bolstering salad of grains or pulses enriched and brightened with the best of the summer’s fruits, plus a dollop of cooling cucumber yoghurt alongside – I love the contrast in both texture and temperature between hot, sizzling meat, warm pulses and thick, cold yoghurt made extra refreshing with grated cucumber and fresh mint. Peaches are a particular favourite for salads, partly because they are so sweet and delicious alongside savoury ingredients, and partly because you can griddle them to produce gorgeous chargrilled red-orange segments that will brighten up whatever you want to throw them in.Read More
We all, I think, have times where we wish our mouths had an ‘undo’ button. Where we would happily go back in time and refrain from eating that last piece of bread, slice of cake, cutlet of meat, forkful of noodles, entire two courses…times where we’re so disgracefully full that we empathise with force-fed foie gras geese as we waddle, moaning plaintively, home to fester fatly in bed until the following morning when we declare we are never eating that much again. A bit like a food hangover, really.Read More
Blood oranges make winter worthwhile. Grey rainy mornings are a little bit brighter as you take your sharp serrated knife and gently slice the skin off these reassuringly weighty citrus fruits, revealing the stained-glass segments within. Marigold orange with blushing tinges of red, through to the dark scarlet of lifeblood, every blood orange is different, and part of the enjoyment is taking a moment to admire the individual tones of the specimen you’re about to eat. You can eat them as they are, of course, but I like to mix them with other ingredients, particularly where their gorgeous colouring can be fully appreciated.Read More
There are two things I absolutely must do whenever I go travelling to a new place. Number one is to take cooking lessons from the locals. All the better if this takes place in gorgeous open-air surroundings by a Vietnamese river amidst gardens of fresh lemongrass and Thai basil and a swimming pool for when the exertion of cooking all gets too much, as I was once lucky enough to experience in Hoi An, but any form of cooking lesson is hugely exciting for me, even if it’s just a street food seller taking the time to demonstrate to me how they make their delicious wares. If they let me eat said wares along the way, even better.Read More
There's a recipe in Yotam Ottolenghi's book Plenty, I forget the name of the dish. It's a spicy Asian creation of some sort, the breakfast of choice in a certain far Eastern country. In the blurb at the top of the recipe, Ottolenghi says something along the lines of "Breakfast is the one meal that doesn't cross cultural boundaries." This had never occurred to me before, but upon reading it I realised how true this is. No matter what is offered to me for the breaking of my fast in a country other than my native England, I always find it slightly difficult to begin the day with anything other than my usual, rather English, breakfasts: porridge, granola or homemade bread with jam.Read More
'Salad' is a funny word. I don't think there's any word in the entire realm of gastronomic lexicon so versatile as 'salad'. Originating from the Latin word 'sal', meaning 'salt', salads were originally assortments of raw vegetables liberally dressed with oil and salt. Today, the Italian word for salted - salata - is very similar to that for salad: insalata.
Yet in this modern day and age, the word 'salad' can be applied to pretty much anything. Without even thinking about it, I titled this recipe a 'salad'. It got me thinking a bit more about the word, and what sort of rhyme and reason lies behind the labelling of something as a salad.
At your most basic and primitive, you have the simple green salad. An assortment of leaves, dressed with a simple blend of vinegar, oil, and seasoning. This sort of salad is all about the dressing. Without it, you have a bowlful of slightly bitter greenery that is only going to be palatable in company with an onslaught of meat, cheese or carbs (or all of the above). Coat each leaf in a light film of tangy oil, however, and you transform it from worthy to worth eating, on its own, rather than as an afterthought during a mouthful of something more tasty.
To upgrade the green salad, you might want to add some protein. Meat or fish, for example - like a classic Caesar salad, or tuna nicoise. You could throw in some croutons - this turns it from a side dish to a main meal. Do you serve your choice of protein in chunks - flaked tuna, maybe, or shreds of chicken - or serve it whole, perched on top of its bed of leaves? Does this make it more of a meat/fish dish with a salad accompaniment, rather than a salad?
Do salads even have to have leaves in them? I've certainly made and eaten a few salads that lacked any leafy component whatsoever. A robust medley of roasted beetroot, carrot, flaked mackerel and orange slices, for example - no leaves there. I still called it a salad, though. What about carbohydrates? Does a bowl of couscous count as a salad if it contains vegetables? What about beans or lentils? Their comforting earthiness is about as far as you can get from a springy, sprightly bowl of leaves.
Thinking about it, I'd say there were two hard and fast rules, at least in my book, behind terming something a salad. Firstly, it has to contain at least two different vegetables, leafy or otherwise. Secondly, its ingredients have to be mostly cut into similar sized pieces, so the eye is presented with an agreeable colourful medley. Other than that, though, I really can't think of anything definitive about a salad. It can be hot or cold, with protein or without, involving carbs or not, leafy or decidedly lacking in greenery...the possibilities are pretty much endless.
Even the dressing issue doesn't seem to define a salad. We are no longer in those Roman times, where salt was the main crucial component. Some salads, if their ingredients pack enough of a punch, need nothing more than a slick of olive oil or a squeeze of lemon juice to brighten them up and make them tasty.
Some, however, just need that dressing - Vietnamese and Thai salads, for example, where a selection of otherwise lacklustre raw crunchy vegetables take on a new character when liberally soused in tangy fish sauce or rice vinegar, lime juice and brown sugar.
I used to think the word 'salad' meant 'boring'. This was before I thought outside the green salad box, before I realised the endless possibilities conjured up by the word 'salad'. If you don't limit yourself to leaves, there's a whole world of delicious potential out there. I love experimenting with salads, throwing things together often out of a desire to use up the contents of the fridge or fruit bowl. You can be pretty creative, adding a bit of fruit here, some canned pulses there, maybe some nuts or herbs.
This is one of those dishes that I've termed 'salad' due to not really knowing what else to call it. It's more substantial than your average leafy salad, because it contains quinoa. If you haven't tried quinoa, it's a little like couscous, only with a slightly firmer texture and delicious nutty flavour. It's also one of those healthy 'superfood' type things, which unfortunately means it's often extortionately priced, but supermarkets do sometimes sell it for a reasonable amount.
If you didn't think salad could be sexy, this might just make you rethink. The colours alone whisper of exotic eastern promise: the bold scarlet of pomegranate seeds, the blushing magenta interior of ripe fresh figs, the jade green of chopped pistachios. It's an absolute beauty to look at, perfect for brightening up the depths of winter. It also uses some of my absolute favourite ingredients, ones that remind me of hot and heady days spent travelling the Middle East: dark, unctuous pomegranate molasses; bulgingly ripe fresh figs; toasty pistachios and beautiful sparkling pomegranate seeds.
Cooked spinach is stirred into cooked seasoned quinoa, for a flavoursome base. To this is added shreds of cooked chicken, which are briefly tossed with pomegranate molasses, spices and honey over a high heat to caramelise them on the outside and imbue them with the warm fragrance of cardamom, black pepper and garam masala, plus a lemony tang from the molasses. Figs are thrown in too, to turn jammy and sweet on the inside. This all sits on the mound of nutty quinoa, topped with fresh coriander and chopped pistachios for crunch and a rich earthy flavour. Finally, sweet pomegranate seeds to balance the sour tang of the caramelised chicken.
This is a great recipe for using up any leftover chicken, though most poultry would work with it - leftover duck would be delicious, or turkey, or even some game. The meat becomes deliciously moist, with a beautiful caramelised exterior that is sweet and sour and fragrant with warm eastern spices. The figs soften and turn syrupy, while all this is balanced by the nutty quinoa and pistachios. Pomegranate seeds and coriander add freshness and zest to the whole plateful. There's no dressing to speak of, so maybe this isn't technically a 'salad', but you really don't need anything more than a little drizzle of olive oil to bring together such vibrant and flavoursome ingredients.
These are ingredients that just seem to belong together: the fragrant spices, the sweet fruit, the earthy quinoa and pistachios.
Is it a salad? Who knows. Is it delicious, beautiful, and good for you too? Yes, so let's not get fussy over definitions.
Pomegranate glazed spiced chicken and fig quinoa salad (serves 2):
- 100g quinoa
- 2 large handfuls baby spinach
- Salt and pepper
- Olive oil
- 8 cardamom
- 1 tsp garam masala
- 12 black peppercorns
- 240g cooked chicken
- 3 tsp pomegranate molasses
- 1 tsp honey
- 8 fresh figs, quartered
- 2 tbsp pistachios, roughly chopped
- Seeds from half a pomegranate
- 4 tbsp coriander leaves, to garnish
- Thick yoghurt, to serve
Put the quinoa in a saucepan and cover with boiling water by about an inch. Cover and cook on a medium heat for 12 minutes, then drain well and set aside. Cook the spinach briefly, either using a microwave (1 minute on high power) or by wilting it in a pan. Roughly chop and stir into the quinoa. Season with salt and pepper and a drizzle of olive oil.
Crush the cardamom pods in a pestle and mortar and remove the husks. Grind the seeds to a fine powder, then crush and grind the peppercorns too. Add the garam masala.
Heat 1 tbsp olive oil in a non-stick frying pan or saucepan. Add the spices and cook for a minute on a medium heat, then add the chicken. Cook for a minute or two, then add the pomegranate molasses and honey. It should bubble and sizzle. Stir to coat the chicken in this mixture, then add the figs. Cook for a couple of minutes, until everything is dark and sticky. Drizzle with a little olive oil.
Divide the quinoa mixture between two plates. Top with the chicken and figs, then scatter over the pistachios, pomegranate seeds and coriander leaves. Drizzle over a little more olive oil, if you like, then serve with a dollop of yoghurt.
My kitchen table is currently groaning under the weight of an enormous cardboard box packed with fruit. If you know me, you'll know this basically means I've reached my peak of happiness. Yes, I lead a life of simple and edible pleasures. There are three bunches of bananas (which are just crying out to be left to blacken and become prime banana bread material), a scattering of plump marigold clementines, several voluptuously tapered conference pears, and an abundance of round rosy apples. There are also some beautiful plums, deepest purple with a gentle white bloom. This delightful array was sent to me by Fruitdrop, a company that delivers fruit to workplaces in London and across the UK to help keep workforces motivated, healthy and productive.
There are, of course, many advantages to getting fruit delivered in this way. You're more likely to eat it if it's just there, rather than it involving a trip to the shops. I know too many people who work in offices and complain about the amount of junk food they eat, just because it's 'there' on someone's desk. A box of multicoloured fruits is likely to brighten up any workplace. It's good for you. The list goes on.
However, I was also thinking about the potential downside to having a huge box of fruit. This may not apply so much to offices, where each box (containing around 50 pieces of fruit) is shared between employees, but for someone who lives alone like myself, eating 50 pieces of fruit before it all goes mouldy is quite a challenge. I've been coming up with recipes, therefore, to use up any fruit that's going a bit past its best, to create something delicious, healthy, and much more eco-friendly than chucking the lot in the bin.
This is something I love doing - coming up with slightly novel (I flatter myself here, really, because there isn't much that is novel in cooking, ever) ways to use fruit that are a bit more exciting than just 'a pie' or 'a fruit salad'. It's so easy to consign fruit to the realm of desserts, yet it's an incredibly versatile ingredient in savoury food too, often bringing a much-needed freshness to earthy ingredients like meat, cheese or nuts.
For my first recipe, I wanted to use the lovely plums from my fruit box. Plums are one of the few fruits I don't experiment much with, simply because I know exactly how to get the best out of them - halve and stone them, put them in a dish with brown sugar and ginger in syrup, splash over some orange juice, then bake until soft, silky and oozing pink juice. The result is sensational spooned over porridge or muesli, but equally good with ice cream as a warming autumnal dessert.
However, the plum has a flavour suited both to sweet and savoury cooking. When unsweetened, plums can be rather tart, possessing a refreshing bite that partners well with meat, particularly game and red meat. I came up with this because I had some smoked chicken to use up (yes, OK, a frightfully middle-class sentence). Smoked chicken is one of those things that needs a lot of assertive flavours to go with it, because it's very rich and cloying on its own.
Enter tart plums, sliced and caramelised with honey, fresh ginger, and Chinese five-spice. The latter because plums are a component of hoi sin sauce, which goes well with duck therefore also chicken, and has a heady five-spice note to it. Ginger because plums and ginger are just meant to be. Actually I'm not sure this salad had any rational thinking behind it; it was very much a work of instinct and what I suspected might work well together.
Nutty couscous, savoury spring onion, deeply earthy toasted almonds for crunch, fresh lemony coriander, tender smoked chicken, tart juicy plums, and the bite of ginger and five-spice. This is fragrant and delicious, a wonderful combination of tastes and textures. It's a bit of an odd English-oriental-Middle Eastern fusion, with the coriander/couscous/plums. It is an ideal lunch for one, but you could also make larger quantities and take it to work for a few days - it's good cold too.
Incidentally, if you can't find smoked chicken, just use ordinary leftover cooked chicken. I also think you could happily substitute chicken for feta or goat's cheese to make this vegetarian.
Thank you Fruitdrop for the fruit, and watch this space for more fruit-based recipes!
Spiced ginger plum and smoked chicken couscous salad (serves 1, easily doubled):
- 50g couscous
- Boiling water
- Salt and pepper
- 1 spring onion, finely chopped
- 1 tbsp almonds, toasted
- 3 tbsp finely chopped fresh coriander
- 2 tbsp rapeseed or olive oil
- 2 plums, halved, stoned and thinly sliced
- 2cm piece fresh ginger, finely chopped or grated
- 1 tsp honey
- 1/2 tsp Chinese five spice
- 1/2 smoked chicken breast, thinly sliced or shredded
First, make the couscous. Put it in a bowl, pour the boiling water over it to just cover, then cover it with a plate and leave for a few minutes. When ready, stir in the spring onion, half the oil, the toasted almonds and coriander (reserve some for garnish) and some salt and pepper.
Heat the remaining oil in a non-stick frying pan and add the plums and ginger. Cook for a minute (they should sizzle), then add the honey and five spice. Cook for another few minutes until sticky and caramelised.
When the plums are ready, stir them into the couscous along with the chicken. Garnish with the extra almonds and coriander, then serve.
I generally consider myself a sweet rather than savoury kind of girl. By that I refer, of course, to my tastes in food, rather than implying that if you came over and licked my arm it would taste sugary. I enjoy baking and the gentle crafting of desserts more than I do the assembly of savoury dishes, and I have a completely unlimited appetite when it comes to the final course of a meal. Especially if it involves crumble and ice cream. Seriously. I have been known to eat half a cheesecake in a single sitting.
Yet when my attention is drawn to a specific fruit - something on sale in the supermarket, maybe, or something that's just come into season and is appearing in ripe, plentiful boxes at the market - I seem to instinctively bypass the natural reaction of contemplating desserts to showcase it, and instead jump straight to thinking up savoury recipes.
I put this down to my desire to think up slightly unusual pairings (perhaps a consequence of being achingly uncool as a child and therefore desiring to be edgy and different nowadays), but perhaps also to my love of fruit in all its guises, particularly as a sharp, sweet and zesty way to perk up the richer ingredients in life, from smoked fish and braised meat to oozing cheeses and plates of sexy wholegrains.
No, that's not an oxymoron. Believe it or not, I actually like wholegrains.
No, I don't wear socks with sandals.
A couscous or pearl barley salad, for example, wouldn't be the same without the explosive magenta snap of a jewel-like pomegranate seed. Rice, particularly the brown variety, is always tastier with some chopped dried apricots folded through, perhaps with a little cinnamon too. Then there are the endless possible pairings of meat and fruit, or fish and fruit, many of which appear on this blog already. Pork and apple, standard, but also more interesting ideas like duck and figs, or steak and mango.
Or chicken and cherries.
I think this delightful combination was first introduced to me by the wonderful food writer Diana Henry, in her book 'Food From Plenty'. She features a stuffing for roast chicken comprising cherries - dried or fresh - goat's cheese, dill, breadcrumbs and onion. It worked wonderfully. I've tried it with both fresh and dried cherries, and the dried ones are actually more successful, possessing a stronger, resinous flavour that can stand up to the assertive cheese and dill.
Perhaps that's what was bouncing around in my subconscious when I suddenly came up with the idea for this salad.
Largely responsible for the raw materials are the wonderful people at Picota Cherries, who have been sending me gorgeous cherry-based goodies (including a mug, which has quickly become my favourite thanks to its sturdy shape and ample tea-carrying capacity) to mark the start of the season for this excellent fruit. Incidentally, I also love them for sending me the most incredible hamper of Spanish foodstuffs and making me feel like Christmas had arrived in the middle of summer.
I'd never heard of these Spanish cherries before. They're grown in the Jerte Valley in the Extremdura region of Spain, where they are ripened for twice as long as other cherry varieties, lending them a deep red colour and sweet flavour. They're notable for being the only naturally stalkless cherry available - as the fruits fully ripen, the stalks just fall away. Proudly bearing the Denomination of Origin status, these are special cherries indeed. I was thrilled when I received some in the post last week.
They're great cherries. Beautifully dark and heart-shaped, with a strong and lovely fruity flavour. You can slice them in half lengthways and admire their gorgeous dark-veined interiors, a pale gold colour with a crimson blush radiating out from the middle where the stone had been cosseted only seconds before.
As I said, my mind immediately turned to the savoury rather than the sweet. I've made sweet things with cherries in the past - notably this cherry and amaretti cheesecake, or cherry and chocolate cake with almond icing - but I've always thought that the lovely subtlety of the cherry's flavour is masked by the sweet things we naturally pair them with, like chocolate. It tends to blend into the background like a shy girl at a party, swamped by those dominant flavours who hog the limelight. One of my favourite ways to use cherries is in a cobnut and goat's cheese salad with shaved fennel, and this recipe is basically a new and different version of that. Similar, in fact, only in that it uses goat's cheese too.
Goat's cheese, because it works so well with cherries (as it does with most fruits - particularly pears and apples). It has a chalky, tangy richness that needs the bite of a crunchy fruit to cut through it.
Smoked chicken, because - unlike normal chicken - it's cloyingly rich and can take the strong crispness of fruit as a partnering flavour. In fact, the fruit positively balances the strength of the smoky meat.
Fresh basil and mint, to add a citrussy snap that lifts the whole plateful. Plus these herbs both work very well on their own with goat's cheese or chicken.
Watercress and rocket, for a peppery hit to counteract all those intense flavours.
A drizzle of hazelnut oil, for a rich, nutty flavour to soften the sharp edges of the cheese and fruit.
Finally, a hefty dash of balsamic vinegar and a squeeze of lemon juice to brighten up the palate. Don't be shy.
This is just a gorgeous summer plateful. The colours are so striking when it's all piled together. The flavours are like a small rave going on in your mouth with every bite - sweet, salty, smoky, crunchy, peppery. It feels indulgent, yet is terribly healthy. It's unusual, so will win you dinner party points, with people oohing and aahing over the exciting and frightfully modern use of cherries in a savoury dish.
I can't think of a better way to showcase these lovely Picota cherries.
So much more exciting than a chocolate cake.
The best thing about this salad is its adaptability. I added some cooked brown and wild rice to make it a more substantial meal (meals without carbs frightne me). I also think some toasted nuts - particularly flaked almonds or chopped hazelnuts - would add a welcome flavour and texture dimension. You could swap the smoked chicken for smoked duck, or any smoked meat really. Smoked mackerel would be surprisingly good, I think, or even Parma ham (though to keep it vaguely Spanish, let's say Serrano ham). Blue cheese might work instead of goat's, or possibly some feta or mozzarella.
Picota cherry, smoked chicken and goat's cheese salad (serves 1 generously):
- A large handful of watercress or rocket, or both
- 12 Picota (or normal) cherries, halved and stone removed
- 1 smoked chicken breast, shredded
- 2 sprigs fresh basil, leaves roughly torn
- 2 sprigs fresh mint, leaves finely chopped
- 50g soft goat's cheese, crumbled
- Hazelnut oil (optional - use olive if not)
- Balsamic vinegar
- A squeeze of lemon juice
- Salt and pepper
- Additions: toasted flaked almonds or chopped hazelnuts; cooked brown/wild rice or lentils
This is the easiest recipe you will ever make. Place the watercress and/or rocket, the cherries, the chicken breast, the herbs and the goat's cheese in a large bowl. Toss gently together. Drizzle with the hazelnut oil, balsamic vinegar and a squeeze of lemon, to taste, and season with salt and pepper.
In honour of the Mexican holiday Cinco de Mayo (the 5th of May) this Saturday - from what I gather from reading various US-based food blogs, across the pond it's basically known as an excuse to gorge oneself on nachos, tacos, enchiladas and the like - the lovely people at Discovery sent me a load of fajita-themed goodies to celebrate with. I have a bit of a soft spot for Discovery ever since I won a KitchenAid blender at one of their competitions last year, and am still trying to work my way through the huge stash of goodies I picked up then. Included in this treasure trove are their new Green Jalapeño Relish, a fajita kit and their mild and medium salsas; pretty much everything you need to whip up a perfect Mexican celebratory supper. They were even nice enough to send me a pan and a chopping board, so I literally had everything I needed to cook said supper...apart from maybe a hob. (Note to Discovery - I'd like an induction one, please, and you can deliver it any time that's convenient).
Rather than make your standard fajitas, however, I decided to do something a bit different. If you're feeling lazy, it's stupidly easy to whip up fajitas with Discovery's fajita kits, which include basically everything except the meat and veg (it's even easier if you follow their recipe for all-in-one chicken fajitas, where everything is fried in one pan). I love their fajita spice mix, which contains just the right amount of heat, flavour and piquancy to liven up chicken and make an authentic-tasting dinner, and they have a great range of salsa and relish (guacamole, sour cream topping, whole red and green jalapeños...) to make your fajita more interesting on its journey from plate to mouth (the green jalapeño is even better for being green - you can pretend it's one of your five-a-day!)
I've made this Mexican salad on several occasions, though, and figured it was time to blog about it. The photos aren't great, and certainly don't do this vibrant salad any justice, but given that the fifth of May is nearly upon us, I may as well suggest it to you as a dish for the occasion, as it's utterly delicious.
OK, so this is my interpretation of Mexican. I rarely eat Mexican food and have never been to Mexico, but I know what ingredients can be combined to make something vaguely authentic. This salad features all the staples - sweetcorn, beans, red peppers, avocado, lime juice, chilli, coriander and spiced chicken. Only instead of being stuffed into a tortilla, they're served in salad form. The chicken is coated in Discovery fajita spice mix and seared over a high heat, then serve atop its colourful bed of sweet, tangy, crunchy vegetables. The dressing is a mixture of lime juice, coriander, and Discovery chipotle paste. If you've never tried chipotles, you're missing out. They're smoke-dried jalapeños and they have the most incredible addictive aroma and flavour. They lend the salad a real kick. Discovery do them in a handy paste form which is ideal for adding to sauces and stews, but you can also buy them as dried whole chillies.
When I first made this, I used freshly cooked black beans, as they seem more Mexican (and by that, I mean they're normally the kind I find in burritos I buy every now and again). You can use a tin of black beans if you can find them, but I've never succeeded - in which case tinned kidney beans are fine. Discovery also do refried beans, which might work, and cannellini beans would probably work too. The point is to have those pillowy, starchy pulses to contrast with the crisp crunch of the vegetables. This is a pretty easy salad - you just chop stuff and put it in a bowl, and some of it you don't even need to chop because it comes out of a tin (not normally my style of cooking, but sometimes there's something so therapeutic about just opening tins and throwing things into a bowl, particularly when the end result is this good).
The avocado is, in my opinion, essential. It gives a really gorgeous creamy texture to the salad, and I love its mild flavour against the spicy chicken. Avocado, lime and coriander are such an excellent trio, and they feature well in this dish. It's such a healthy-looking and healthy-tasting plate, and pretty filling considering there aren't really any carbohydrates involved, but go ahead and add some nachos or a tortilla if you're that way inclined.
The beauty of this salad is its versatility. If you omit the chicken, you can stir some grated cheese into the vegetable mixture, sandwich it between two tortillas, and fry it in a pan to make a lovely melting quesadilla (be warned, though, that it'll be impossible to flip without at least some of the filling leaking out). That's how I first came across this combination, and it was delicious. You could wrap the whole thing in a tortilla and eat like a fajita, or stuff it into tacos, or maybe even bake it into enchiladas. Add some feta cheese instead of the chicken to make it vegetarian, or even coat slices of halloumi with the spice mixture and fry. Use steak or pork instead of chicken. Change the vegetables a bit. It's up to you.
My version has a bit of yoghurt on top - I didn't have any sour cream, but that would be preferable - and is served with lime wedges and Discovery salsa alongside. I find it quite spicy, but you can add some of that feisty green jalapeño relish if you want to make it hotter. Use it as a template for your own Mexican-themed feast, and enjoy its fresh, tangy, spicy flavours and beautiful vibrant colours.
Happy Cinco de Mayo! Will you be cooking up anything to celebrate?
Mexican spiced chicken salad (serves 4):
- 1 x 400g tin sweetcorn, drained
- 1 x 400g tin black beans or kidney beans (or cook your own from scratch if you like)
- 4 sweet pointed red peppers, chopped into 1cm dice
- 4 spring onions, thinly sliced
- Juice of 1 lime
- A large bunch of coriander, finely chopped
- 1 tsp Discovery chipotle paste
- 2 ripe avocadoes, sliced or cubed
- 4 chicken breasts
- 1 sachet Discovery fajita spice mix (mild or medium, depending on your preference)
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- To serve: sour cream or yoghurt, lime wedges, and Discovery salsa
In a large bowl, mix together the sweetcorn, beans, peppers, spring onions, lime juice, coriander and chipotle paste. Toss well and check the seasoning - if you like it spicier, add more chipotle. Gently fold in the avocadoes without turning them to mush. Divide the salad between four plates.
Thinly slice the chicken breasts and coat in a couple of tablespoons of the spice mix and the oil. Heat a non-stick frying pan over a high heat then add the chicken, turning occasionally until slightly charred on the outside and cooked through. Taste - you might want a bit more spice mix if it's not flavoursome enough for you.
Divide the chicken between the plates. Top with a dollop of sour cream, a wedge of lime, and Discovery salsa, if you like. Serve immediately.
Spare a thought for the humble chicken breast. Often sliced from the frail bone of that saddest of spectacles, the battery chicken, this piece of meat is so often maligned. It's hacked up and tossed into curries and stews where its fibres are abandoned to toughness and aridity. It's baked in the oven, the noble cook erring so much on the side of caution, so much against the notion of juices running anything but crystal clear, that it ends up possessing the texture of leather. There it sits on the plate, a sad, withered relic of that former chicken, perhaps oozing an unpleasant looking substance as evidence that it has been injected with water during packaging and processing. No amount of flavoursome sauce is going to disguise the mouth-puckering dryness of this overcooked piece of meat; no amount of chewing is going to render it anything more than simply satisfactory.
I hardly ever buy chicken breast any more. The main reason for this is rather mundane: it's too damn expensive. Since I am unable to buy anything other than free range (my conscience won't let me, especially after my post on battery chickens), I just can't afford to buy it more than a couple of times a month. Two free range chicken breasts notched up an impressive seven pounds in Tesco the other day; I could get a whole chicken for not much more than that from a decent butcher.
I've also discovered thighs.
Oh yes, people. Sweet, succulent, rich, meaty thighs. (We're still talking about chicken here). Chicken thighs are my cut of choice for most dishes now. This is nothing new in the world of cookery, as writers like Nigella have been saying this for years, but I never really paid attention until recently. I'm a complete thigh convert: the meat is cheaper, much more flavoursome, less likely to dry out, and stands up more readily to spices and other strong flavourings. If you take the skin off, it doesn't have much more fat than chicken breast, which often seems the cut of choice for a lot of people because of its leanness. Thighs, skinless or otherwise, retain their moisture better than breast, making them much more suited to long cooking in a stew or curry.
However, there is still a place for the chicken breast in my kitchen. Because of its high price tag, I've decided it's almost sacrilegious to hack up the poor thing for use in stews and the like. Instead, I feel a good, free-range chicken breast should be cooked whole, as you would a steak.
Yet there is a problem with this idea. As discussed above, a whole chicken breast dries out very readily in a pan or oven. Poaching it in stock can help, and then you can thinly slice it and add it to dishes such as risotto or Asian recipes, but another way around this is to stuff the meat with something to keep it moist. Not that this always works, mind - I remember a dinner event a few months ago at which we were served chicken breast stuffed with (I think) ricotta and basil. Nice idea, but the execution failed. The meat was incredibly dry, no doubt because the caterers had cooked it to death to avoid any salmonella scares. The stuffing had also become rather arid, and most of it had leaked out of the meat thereby making its purpose redundant. I rarely leave food on my plate unless I don't like it, but I recall leaving half of mine simply because I couldn't be bothered to chew my way through the thing. I may as well have taken off my shoes and tried to eat them.
However, careful cooking and a good choice of stuffing can turn the chicken breast into a thing of joy to eat. I think I've happened, here, on the best possible choice of stuffing: 'nduja, the super-trendy spreadable Calabrian salami that I blogged about recently. I've been thinking of recipes to use up the large quantity in my fridge courtesy of Unearthed, and this came to me out of the blue.
Combined with creamy ricotta, the 'nduja makes an incredible stuffing. Its piquant chilli heat is tempered by the cheese, meaning you don't burn your tonsils off, and it melts in the heat of the oven, flavouring the chicken meat around it while keeping it lovely and moist. I decided to wrap the chicken in parma ham, which helps to conserve even more moisture. At first I was worried that it might be pork overload, but actually 'nduja and parma ham have such different flavours that they complement each other - you get the spicy, rich mouthfeel from the 'nduja and then the crisp saltiness of the parma ham, which is a lovely contrast in texture with the chicken. It just works. The meaty texture of the chicken breast against the crumbly ricotta, fragrant with chilli and pork, is a thing of joy to eat.
I also added lots of fresh oregano to the stuffing, which worked really well. I don't think I've ever seen fresh oregano on sale over here, but it's a world away from the dried stuff that is synonymous with pizza topping. It's hard to describe its flavour; quite zesty and lemony, and very strong. We have loads growing in our garden (it grows like a weed), but you could substitute basil or lemon thyme very effectively - you want something quite citrussy and strong to cut through the richness of the 'nduja and parma ham. Even parsley would do.
I served this magnificent chicken on a bed of cannellini beans, roasted cherry tomatoes and spinach, again flavoured with lots of fresh oregano, as well as garlic-infused olive oil, salt and pepper. This recipe is incredibly simple, as it all goes in one dish in the oven. It takes 10 minutes to prepare, around 40 to cook, and you can do other things (like salivate in anticipation, or ceremoniously don a bib in preparation) while you wait. The spinach, with its iron tang, is the perfect match for the rich chicken, and the tomatoes go very well with the herbs, ricotta and pork. You don't need a sauce or anything, because the tomatoes, 'nduja and spinach release a lot of flavoursome liquid into the beans.
I should warn you - when you get a sharp knife and pierce the chicken breast at the thickest part to check it is ready, remember that you've stuffed it with a load of bright red salami. I was horrified when I did this to discover scarlet liquid pouring out of the chicken after 30 minutes in the oven. How on earth could it be so bloody after all that time? It took me a good few seconds to realise that this was not, in fact, the precious lifeblood of that noble bird, but in fact the chilli-infused oils from the 'nduja. Panic over.
Chicken stuffed with 'nduja and wrapped in parma ham (serves 4):
[If you like this recipe, have a look at my other recipe featuring 'nduja: octopus, fennel and 'nduja risotto]
- 2 x 400g cans cannellini beans
- A large handful cherry tomatoes, halved
- 2 tbsp garlic-infused olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
- 4 tbsp fresh oregano leaves (or another herb of your choice)
- Half a bag of baby spinach (around 150g)
- 4 free-range chicken breasts
- 30g 'nduja
- 100g ricotta
- Salt and pepper
- 8 slices of parma ham
Pre-heat the oven to 180C/fan 170C. In a large baking dish, toss the cannellini beans with the garlic oil, cherry tomatoes, spinach, salt and pepper, and half the oregano.
Mix the rest of the oregano into the ricotta, along with salt and pepper. Slice each chicken breast lengthways, almost in half but not quite, to create a pocket for stuffing. Spread a quarter of the 'nduja into the gap, then a quarter of the ricotta. Place two slices of parma ham next to each other on a chopping board, slightly overlapping, then wrap the chicken in them. Place on top of the cannellini beans and spinach mixture.
Repeat with the remaining chicken, ricotta, ham and 'nduja. Season the wrapped chicken breasts, drizzle with a little more garlic oil, then place in the oven for 40 minutes or until the chicken is cooked and opaque at its thickest part, and its juices run clear (it's quite hard to tell because of the red 'nduja stuffing, so err on the side of caution). Serve immediately on a bed of more baby spinach.
I was once trying to decide what to cook for a group of hungry navy people at our weekly drill night. The options were beef goulash, or an all-time favourite of mine: chicken with apricots, almonds and coriander. Unable to decide (as so often in my life), I asked a friend of mine who shares my passion for all things edible. He suggested that the latter sounded "much more of an 'Elly' dish, being full of fruit". Such is my love of introducing the sweet, tart and juicy to savoury dishes that apparently they deserve to be named after me. I'm practically up there with the likes of Caesar, Eve and Arnold Bennett (of salad, apple pudding and omelette fame, respectively). Incidentally, for those of you who, like me, are now curious about the number of foodstuffs named after people, Wikipedia has an excellent article on the subject here. It's surely only a matter of time before dishes like this salad appear on the list as "Elly dishes".
(Disclaimer: I don't actually have such an over-inflated and grandiose sense of self-importance that I really believe I am unique and revolutionary in liking fruit in my savoury dishes, or that I deserve to have food named after me).
It's no secret that I'm in love with the current influx of honey mangoes from Pakistan. If I told you I was bathing in their juice and sleeping on a bed of their skins, you probably wouldn't be surprised (though I'm not, by the way - I like food but I also like not being sticky, yellow, and an attraction for wasps). After the amazing success that was my mango, coconut and cardamom cheesecake I decided to branch out into savoury mango recipes, suspecting that no dessert recipe could ever quite top the sheer brilliance that is that cheesecake. Because these mangoes are so ripe and sweet, I thought they'd make a good match with more assertive savoury flavours. I tried them out in a salsa with barbecued mackerel - I normally make this to serve with oily fish, using chopped mango, avocado, chilli, lime juice, basil, coriander and mint. This time I omitted the avocado and used a chopped Granny Smith apple, because I had an inkling that its crunch would be a nice contrast with the very ripe mango; avocadoes have a similar texture and I worried it would be a bit mushy. Apple and mango juice has been one of my all-time favourite things since childhood; I really believe no other combination of fruit juices can match it for sheer ambrosial goodness. The salsa was a triumph; the tart apple balanced out the excessive sweetness of the mango, and the fresh herbs and lime juice lent it a beautiful sharpness that worked well with the charred mackerel.
I then had the idea of transforming those flavours into a salad, with wild or brown rice, flaked smoked mackerel, herbs, chilli, lime and mango, and maybe some cucumber added for texture. In the market, with the intention of buying smoked mackerel, I caught sight of these whole smoked chickens in the butchers. I'd thought about using chicken instead of mackerel in the recipe, but worried it would be a bit bland to work with the sweet mango and punchy herbs. Smoked chicken, however, I thought would be excellent, and perhaps not as cloying as smoked mackerel sometimes can be. I bought one of the chickens, figuring it would feed me and a friend. How wrong I was. I sat down to strip the meat off the bones, and about ten minutes later I was still going, a huge pile of shredded chicken mounting on the chopping board. If you've never tried smoked chicken before, I cannot recommend it enough. The smell is incredible; it will permeate your kitchen and fridge for days (which I think is a good thing, but I suppose it depends what else is in your fridge). The meat is incredibly tender, because it's still on the bone, and the skin a gorgeous burnished colour. It was also brilliant value - I got mine from the organic butchers, and it was still less than £6, which provides enough meat to easily feed five in this salad. If you often find chicken a bit boring, try it smoked. I can't wait to experiment with it in other salads. Incidentally, smoked duck and turkey are also fabulous.
For the salad, I cooked some brown rice (it has more texture and flavour than white, so works better in salads, though if I'd had some I would have used a mixture of brown and wild rice for even more texture and colour). I mixed in the shredded chicken, then made a dressing by blitzing a ripe mango in the blender with some lime juice, a dash of sweet chilli sauce, and huge handfuls of herbs: basil, mint and coriander. This is, in my opinion, the holy trinity of herbs. They're wonderful on their own, but combined they give off the most incredible zesty aroma and flavour. However, if you don't want to buy all three, any of them would be fine on their own. I chopped up another mango and stirred it into the salad, and finally added some chopped cucumber, for a lovely mellow crunchiness. It works best if you stir the mango dressing into the rice while still hot, as it soaks it all up, and then leave it to cool for a bit before adding the mango and cucumber. I also chopped up some more herbs and stirred them in at the end.
I absolutely love this salad. The flavours in it are just incredible - the chicken is so rich and dense, but it's lifted perfectly by the sweet and soft mango, and then the mixture of vibrant herbs and lime juice prevents the whole thing from cloying. The rice is a beautiful nutty canvas for the other flavours, and the cucumber provides a refreshing crunch. It's best served at room temperature, but keeps well in the fridge - you can just microwave it for a few seconds to take the chill off it before serving. I added extra fresh mango when serving it for the second and third time, just to perk it up a bit. I'm no nutritionist, but I think this is a pretty good healthy lunch or dinner - protein, whole grains, fruit and vegetables, plus large bunches of vibrant green herbs which always make me feel healthy just looking at them. It's immensely filling so you don't need very much, though the temptation to eat a large plateful is immense, given its deliciousness. When honey mangoes are out of season, you can just use normal ripe mangoes, and if you don't have chicken, use mackerel, and if you want to use white rice, do. It's a very versatile combination of ingredients but the basic mango/herb/lime dressing makes whatever you do with it taste incredible.
Smoked chicken and mango rice salad (serves 4-5):
- 300g brown rice (or a mixture of basmati/brown and wild rice)
- 2 honey mangoes, stoned, peeled and chopped
- Zest and juice of 1 lime, plus another lime for serving
- Large handfuls each of basil, coriander and mint
- 1-2 tsp sweet chilli sauce
- A smoked chicken, meat pulled from the bones and shredded (or normal leftover chicken, or 4 smoked mackerel fillets)
- Half a cucumber, sliced and each slice quartered (or more if you love cucumber!)
- Salt and pepper
First, bring a large pan of water to the boil. Add the rice, and boil according to the packet instructions - mine took around 45 minutes. When cooked but still with a bit of bite (brown rice doesn't go soft like white, it still has some crunch to it), drain and place in a large bowl.
While the rice is cooking, place one of the mangoes in a blender along with the lime juice and zest, the chilli sauce (use 1tsp and then add more if you think it needs it) and the herbs. Blitz to a runny paste, then toss with the rice in the bowl so it's evenly coated. Season with salt and pepper.
Add the chicken and toss everything together. Allow to cool for a little while then add the cucumber and the other mango.
Toss through a few more herbs, if you like, then serve with the other lime cut into wedges for squeezing over.
I didn't watch much of Jamie Oliver's series about unhealthy eating in America, but one moment does stand out. He went to a school in the most obese state in the US, armed with a basket of vegetables. These he held up, one by one, to the class and asked them to name the vegetable. None of them could. We're not talking about weird things like kohlrabi and jerusalem artichokes, which I probably wouldn't have been able to identify until about four years ago, but your most fundamental foodstuffs. It was particularly heartbreaking to see none of the children able to identify a potato. Yet when Jamie held up a box of chips, they unanimously recognised it, screaming with glee: "FRENCH FRIES!" Jamie again held up the potato next to the chips: "Do you know that this comes from this?" he asked. Blank looks all around.
While this is an extreme example, it is true that in the last few decades we have become detached from where our food comes from. Do we really ever consider, chomping down on a Big Mac and fries, the cows and potatoes that, many many stages back before they became processed rubbish, formed the building blocks of said meal? It's often worst with those everyday, mundane foodstuffs that we take for granted: tomato ketchup is rarely called by its full name - when was the last time you thought about the production process of ketchup? The fact that it actually involves tomatoes? I have a friend who claims to hate tomatoes but will happily cover food in ketchup, which just goes to show how estranged from the original much of our food has become.
So when I was kindly invited by Tracklements, producers of many, many award-winning sauces, relishes, jams, pickles and chutneys, to visit their mustard fields and factory and see how the condiment is produced, I paused and realised that I had absolutely no idea where mustard comes from. Mustard, to most people - including myself at this point - is something bright yellow that comes in a jar or a squeezy bottle, right? I bet that not many people have ever considered the natural raw material that ends up as this viscous yellow substance. It's almost as if mustard is harvested in this state, perhaps from some kind of mustard swamp or a giant mustard plant that you can tap to extract. I know of mustard seeds, and have used them in cooking, but had never really given thought to the fact that mustard is a living, growing crop like any other. I wondered how you turned dry, pebbly mustard seeds into the moist, thick substance you can spread in a ham sandwich or squeeze in a lurid strip onto a plastic-looking hotdog. The trip was fascinating and really opened my eyes.
We were met by Guy Tullberg of Tracklements and taken first to the mustard field, where he explained to us the history of the mustard. 'Tracklements' is a Lincolnshire term for traditional accompaniments for meat and cheese. The company was started by William Tullberg, who in 1970 began to make the first wholegrain English mustard, seeking a variety that did not exist at the time (the only readily available mustards were Colman's yellow or brown). Guy told us that the reason for William's obsession with mustard was that he worked in a sausage factory whose sausages were so disgusting he needed mustard to disguise the taste (a buyer at Tesco pronounced them "revolting", and apparently the specification for the sausage was worse than for prison sausages). Having tried the French
moutard a l'Ancienne
, William came across a mention in John Evelyn's diaries (1641-1697) of what appeared to be the English equivalent. After a few trials and experiments, he started to make the occasional batch of mustard, to serve at sausage and mash parties. Its popularity grew among friends and neighbours until one day he was asked to make a couple of dozen jars for the pub, which he packaged and labelled as 'Urchfont Mustard', and the business developed from there. Guy recalls his father making his first batch of mustard "in a dustbin in the kitchen"; Tracklements now make twelve different types of mustard which they sell to around 1200 delis across the UK, as well as Waitrose and Ocado.
Tracklements still make mustard to the original recipe, derived from John Evelyn's diaries - it includes whole chillies, peppercorns and allspice as well as the mustard seed. "What I love is the idea that all those spices were just coming into people's lives at the time", Guy said. His father, apparently, was visited by Trading Standards after he began making and selling his own mustard. They told him he couldn't call it mustard, because "mustard is bright yellow". William showed the inspector Evelyn's diaries, and apparently the dispute was settled. (Incidentally, the reason a lot of mustard is bright yellow is just because of the addition of turmeric). Technology has moved on somewhat since John Evelyn wrote about mustard, however - his recipe calls for a 'quern', an ancient pair of stones used to grind grains and other foodstuffs (sometimes cannon balls, rolled on a hard stone surface, were used), but Tracklements use an industrial grinder (albeit one that is a quarter of a century old).
"I don't believe there's much new in food," Guy told us. "We think we're great experimenters, but it's all been done before. Just look at onion marmalade - there's a recipe existing for it from the mid-eighteenth century." When Tracklements started making onion marmalade, "Trading Standards all over the country went bananas. So between my father and myself we produced 26 pages of historical facts to show that onion marmalade had existed for years." A similar furore occurred over Tracklements' production of Cumberland Sauce, which Trading Standards objected to because it didn't come from Cumberland. "And yet you wouldn't hold up a bottle of Worcester sauce and complain that it wasn't made in Worcester."
It took a while to convince farmers to plant mustard seed for Tracklements: an incredibly prolific crop, a handful of mustard seeds will produce eight tonnes by its second harvest. Once planted, it is almost impossible to get rid of. One of the oldest cultivated spices, mustard was believed to have been introduced to Britain by the Romans. In 2003, a local farmer agreed to grow it for Tracklements, only two miles from their factory in Wiltshire. A great success, the farm now provides Tracklements with all of their yellow mustard seeds. "We make as good a product as we can all the time, so if we have an opportunity to make something better, to have someone grow something for us, we grab it and go for it." Guy recalls how "last year someone bashed on the back of the van and said, 'I've got a ton of quinces, can you do something with them?' and we said yes, we can. I love that."
The first thing that struck me was the similarity of the mustard plant, with its bright yellow flowers, to rape, that enemy of hayfever sufferers everywhere (however, it definitely doesn't have the same eye-watering properties). Another thing that surprised me was that the entire plant is edible. The leaves have a lovely peppery quality, rather like watercress or rocket (I was itching to steal a bundle and try them out in a pesto or salad). We were shown the little seed pods on the plant, shaped rather like tiny green chillies, and the tiny budding mustard seeds within. Eaten raw, they have a real kick to them.
The field was full of butterflies and bees, flitting amongst the mustard plants that, in some cases, were as tall as me (as you can see from the above photo of Guy and myself...though he is in no danger of being dwarfed by the mustard, as evident from the fact that he had to stoop substantially to be the same height as me). It was amazing to think that this, with very little processing involved, turns into one of the nation's favourite condiments (incidentally, Tracklements' top-selling products are plain wholegrain mustard, followed by horseradish and onion marmalade). Perhaps surprisingly, when BSE hit the UK, sales of Tracklements mustard went up. "I think more people were going back to their butchers, because they trusted the meat more, and that's where our products were being sold." The plain wholegrain is only the start of Tracklements' mustard selection, however: the range also includes Strong English, Beer, Green Peppercorn, Original Urchfont (with a hint of chilli), French Dijon, Spiced Honey, Horseradish, Organic Tarragon, Organic with Honey, and Lemon.
After a delightful picnic in the mustard field, sitting on bales of hay, drinking cider and eating ham, cheese and pork pies (with lashings of different mustards, of course - my favourite was the spiced honey, followed closely by the lemon, which are both fantastic with pork and strong cheese), we headed to the Tracklements factory to see the production process in action. The air in the factory was heady with the scent of vinegar and spice; we were shown giant tubs of cardamom pods, dried chillies and peppercorns just waiting to go into the big blue grinder. We saw and felt newly-bottled jars, their contents still hot, and huge mixing pans that can hold enough ingredients for around 360 jars of product. We watched the jars being labelled and packed and examined the imposing-looking machinery (which actually turned out to be simple equipment like a dicer, or a mixing vat). We were dwarfed by absolutely enormous vats of vinegar (Tracklements use three different varieties, depending on the sauce), the scent of which pierced the air like a knife.
We watched Guy make a batch of mustard, throwing handfuls of spices into the grinder, as he informed us that there is no real written recipe; it's all done by feel. I was amazed that he seemed to be doing no measuring whatsoever, just throwing spices in by the bucketful, but I suppose if you've grown up in the business you've probably got it memorised by now. The smell from the grinding mustard and spices was amazing; we were able to taste the mustard seeds before and after being crushed, and notice their flavour intensifying. The advantage to grinding the spices minutes before processing them into Tracklements mustard is that all the essential oils are retained; it's the same reason why cookery writers will always advise you to buy whole spices and grind them yourself. Plus, you'd have to be a bit mad to forego the amazing smell of ground spices that emanated from the 25 year old grinder in the factory, still going strong.
We met Sam, the mustard maker, who showed us how the ground mustard seed and its accompanying spices are doused in vinegar in a large vat and then stirred every day with an enormous paddle to allow the spices to soak up the liquid and the flavours to develop (during busy periods Tracklements can make 30 barrels of mustard in a day). It wasn't particularly surprising to learn later that Sam is in fact a champion boxer - you need some pretty impressive arm muscle to stir mustard that has been thickening for a week (I should know - I tried it, pathetically prodding it with the plastic paddle and entirely unable to achieve so much as a full clockwise stir).
As Guy remarked, the Tracklements factory contains "everything you'd find in a home kitchen, only bigger" - choppers, grinders, pans, spoons. The raw materials are all natural, and the best Tracklements can find. "If I went to the cooks and put a big bag of garlic powder in their kitchen, five minutes later it would end up back on my desk. 'We don't want to use this', they'd say. I think that's really important." It's a far cry from the kind of factory where everything goes into a closed machine system and comes out processed to oblivion and ready for sale. Guy recalled a trip to a mustard factory in France, where he noticed a valve in one of the machines. Asked what it was for, the factory owner told him that he used it to alter the quantity of air in the mustard - if asked by a supermarket to produce the same sized jar of mustard for, say, one euro instead of four, he would just add more air to the existing mustard. I was slightly horrified by this.
Guy was keen to impress upon us the notion of a "happy food business". Tracklements, and the small delis they stock ("our bread and butter"), may be small businesses, but they are happy ones. "I love that," he said. "As you go further up the scale, moving up to places like Asda and Tesco, things probably aren't so happy there. We're trying to be as good and honest with good as we can be." He sees Tracklements as "not really reinventing, much more rescuing" sauces and condiments, often starting from a historical background to make a new product. Guy cites Tracklements' new fruit cheeses as an example of this approach. "I can find cheese recipes for every fruit that ever existed in old books. If you hadn't seen that before - for example, a gooseberry cheese spiced with nutmeg - you'd think it modern, but it's not. It's very, very ancient."
"We always say that 'you won't find a kumquat in the factory'. We try not to make things for effect, we try to make things with some sort of provenance. There's a reason those old recipes work - they would have been safe from a preserving point of view, as they were made to sit on the shelf for a year. We'll make six jars upstairs in the test kitchen, then multiply that by 30 or 40. We make a batch and off we go." Guy recalls a "fabulous lemon pickle from one of those old books. I thought, wow, that sounds really interesting. It involved chopping up lemons, salting them for 24 hours, washing the salt off, then adding mustard seed, spice, and horseradish. It was 250 years old, that recipe. I thought it was delicious." Unfortunately, the product didn't sell very well, which Guy thinks is "because it was called lemon pickle. We should have called it 'Uncle John's pickle' or something."
He recalls the time Tracklements took their products to the Italian market, the Slow Food festival in Turin. While attempting to sell very traditional British items to the Italians might seem difficult, Guy believes products like Tracklements' transcend cultural boundaries. "The thing to do is just let people taste it. They ask 'what does it go with?' and I tell them, 'whatever you want it to'." I am living testament to this: a huge fan of Tracklements Crabapple Jelly, I shun their recommendation to serve it with roast pork and instead have devoured mine plain on toast, with strong cheddars, game, and even with smoked mackerel.
(However, telling an Italian that Tracklements sauces go very well with "cane" did not go down too well - there is a very subtle distinction in pronunciation between the Italian words for meat, carne, and dog, cane). "They were a little bit horrified."
I had a thoroughly enjoyable day at the mustard field and factory; I've never been to a food factory before and it was wonderful to see how a raw material is turned into the end product on the shop shelf. I'd always thought of factories as rather intimidating places, but the Tracklements factory was so small and intimate, and it was great to see no bizarre things being done to the food - as Guy said, it's basically your average home kitchen, but on a bigger scale. I have to admit that I never really ate mustard before this day, but now I'm a little bit of a convert, especially with all the exciting Tracklements varieties available, and especially because I was sent home with a bag groaning under the weight of six jars of mustard (one of which was specially customised with my name on the label, which sent me into something bordering on a paroxysm of joy - it's the small things in life).
So eager was I, in fact, to start experimenting that I made this mustard-themed dish as soon as I got home. I very rarely see a recipe, think "yum", and am so keen that I end up cooking it that day, so this is testament to my excitement about all things mustard-related. It's based on one of the recipes in the Tracklements catalogue, for chicken stuffed with mustard and wrapped in bacon, but I adapted it a bit by using cream cheese instead of cheddar and mascarpone, and wrapping the chicken in Parma ham rather than bacon, because I love the wafer-thin saltiness it brings to a dish, particularly after crisping in the heat of the oven.
I also added some thyme to lift and freshen the flavours, and because its lovely jade green colour looked beautiful against the pink ham and pale chicken. The Tracklements recipe uses Original mustard, but I used the Spiced Honey variety, because I thought the sweetness would work very well with the salty ham. I baked my chicken on a bed of mushrooms, which ended up dark and caramelised, saturated in the salty juices from the chicken and the ham, with a hint of honeyed sweetness from the mustard. My boyfriend also heard 'mustard' and demanded mustard mash, so I served the whole thing on top of a big mound of gloriously fluffy, spiced mashed potato. We ate it outside in the glorious summer evening, with large glasses of white wine. An excellent end to a very interesting day.
Mustardy stuffed chicken wrapped in Parma ham on mustard mash (serves 2):
- 2 free-range chicken breasts
- 4 slices Parma ham
- 4-6 heaped tbsp garlic and herb cream cheese
- 2 tsp mustard (or more, depending on how much you like mustard)
- A few sprigs thyme
- 2 large potatoes, cut into chunks and peeled if you like (I never bother)
- Salt and pepper
- Olive oil
- Milk and butter
- A packet of mushrooms, sliced
- Green beans, to serve
First, pre-heat the oven to 180C. Bring a large pan of water to the boil.
Lay out two slices of Parma ham next to each other and slightly overlapping. Place the chicken breast in the middle. Make a slit through the chicken breast and open it out (but don't cut it in half). Mix the cream cheese with 1tsp of the mustard and some thyme leaves, and use half of this to stuff the chicken breast. Close it and wrap in the ham, then repeat with the other chicken breast.
Place the sliced mushrooms in an oven dish and drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper. Place the wrapped chicken on top, scatter with thyme sprigs, and put it in the oven for 20-25 minutes, or until cooked through.
Meanwhile, boil the potatoes until tender, then mash with the salt, pepper, mustard, milk and butter to taste.
Serve the chicken and mushrooms on top of the mustardy mash with some steamed green beans alongside.
I'm quite the mustard convert now (as evident from the rather silly photo above), and can't wait to try it out in other recipes. I'd like to thank Tracklements, particularly Guy and Becky, for a really fantastic day out, and Emma at Wild Card for inviting me.
The same is true of eggs and chicken. I'd like to think that most people in this country are at least partially aware of the horrors of battery farming, though I am frequently confronted with examples that prove that, sadly, this is not the case. A friend of mine remarked that he doesn't care where his chicken has come from, provided he gets to eat it. This kind of thing shocks and disgusts me. Hens are crammed into cages, often with less space per hen than a piece of A4 paper, allowing them no room to move freely or stretch their wings. This creates an increase in disease, cannibalism, and odd pecking behaviours caused by boredom and stress. If you want more horrible details about the conditions in which your chicken and eggs are produced, read here or here. Hideously, it is estimated at 60% of the world's eggs are produced in these conditions. It basically amounts to torture, and yet it's sanctioned and taking place all around us.
What really surprises me about people who buy battery eggs is that they're barely any cheaper than free-range. Surely for about 30p more per half dozen, you could get eggs that don't come with such a horrible ethical burden. When it comes to chicken for eating, free-range chickens are often a bit more expensive than the pallid, blue-tinged, shrink-wrapped specimens on the supermarket shelves, so naturally people are inclined towards those without sparing a thought for the conditions in which the chicken was raised. I firmly believe this is an issue of supply and demand. Because, as a culture, we are obsessed with the idea that a meal is not a meal unless it contains meat, we are driven to purchasing lower quality, less ethical meat simply to satisfy our own demand for the stuff. Personally I would rather go vegetarian for a few days each week, then save up and buy a really gorgeous free-range chicken to roast for lunch at the weekend. What's the point in filling meals with tasteless, chewy, battery-farmed chicken breast just for the sake of having some meat involved? I'd much rather have a chicken that tasted of something and that I treated with respect, making the most of it for its chicken-ness rather than to fill an animal-protein gap that culturally I have been made to believe exists.
As the old saying goes, which came first: the chicken or the egg? I believe it is a case of putting the chickens first, not the need for cheap eggs.
For most battery hens, their life will be a miserable journey from cage to slaughter, once they have passed their peak egg-laying potential. However, the British Hen Welfare Trust, set up in 2005, is a charity that aims to give ex-battery hens a new lease of life. Each year they save approximately 60,000 hens from slaughter by giving them to people to adopt as pets. The BHWT was actually responsible for bringing about the Hellman's free range mayonnaise, and aims to educate people about the horrors of battery farming and what they can do as consumers to make informed choices regarding egg-containing products. Most importantly, they turn battery hens into happy hens, giving them up for adoption by people who can provide space for the hens to roam. If you don't have space for your own hens, you can sponsor a hen for a small cost to guarantee it a better life. I am incredibly keen to have my own hens at some point - you really can't beat fresh eggs, and it's not always apparent, but supermarket eggs may have been lying around for weeks before sale. I remember staying in Italy on a farm in Perugia a few summers ago, and eating eggs still warm from the chickens for breakfast. They're not only tastier, but also better for a variety of culinary usages - it's well known that only fresh eggs will poach properly.
My friend Laura recently adopted some ex-battery hens from the Trust, and I was lucky enough to be given some of their eggs to sample. I thought they were delicious; much more flavoursome than supermarket eggs. Laura tells me that now the hens have been out of the battery farm for a bit longer, the eggs are even better (I look forward to receiving another batch). The hens were a bit scrawny and decrepit-looking when she first got them, but she tells me that she has noticed "such a difference in their perkiness and featheriness already". You can see some photos here of the happy hens (Eliza, Matilda, Jennifer and Prudence), freed from their hideous prisons. I imagine it must be immensely satisfying to watch their journey from traumatised, brutalised animal into freely roaming, happy outdoor hen. It's a mutually beneficial relationship, too: happiness for the hens, and yummy eggs for the human. It also just goes to show that, despite a large part of their lives being spent in such traumatic conditions, a hen is not a worthless creature to be discarded afterwards. They are susceptible to habilitation, and I think it's great that charities like the British Hen Welfare Trust are working to achieve this. To transform a hen from a scraggy, tormented thing to a proud and splendid animal is something I envy all ex-battery hen-adopters.
So if you're reading this, I hope you'll consider changing your egg and chicken-buying habits if you haven't already. Think of poor Eliza, Matilda, Jennifer and Prudence. And if you are considering getting hens, definitely have a look at the BHWT's website - there's loads of useful information on there about getting your hens (they're free, but they suggest a small donation to help maintain the charity), caring for them, recommended vets, etc. There's also a lot of information about British free-range chicken farmers and the need for an educated, egg-wise consumer.
And, below - what better way to eat delicious, free-range, fresh eggs than poached on toast with a generous helping of smoked salmon? Guilt-free indulgence. Thank you Laura!
1 large chicken, jointed into four or eight pieces
2 red onions, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, crushed
4 tbsp olive oil
1 1/2 tsp ground allspice
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tbsp sumac
1 lemon, thinly sliced
200ml chicken stock or water
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp ground black pepper
2 tbsp za'atar
400g Greek yoghurt
Half a cucumber, grated
20g fresh mint, finely chopped
200g bulgur wheat
2 onions, thinly sliced
A handful of pine nuts
2 tbsp olive oil
First, marinate the chicken. Mix the onions, garlic, olive oil, spices (not the za'atar), lemon, stock/water, salt and pepper. Add the chicken pieces, coat in the mixture and leave to marinate overnight or for a few hours in the fridge.
Preheat the oven to 200C. Place the chicken and its marinade on a large baking tray, skin-side up. Sprinkle over the za'atar. Roast for 30-40 minutes until the chicken is cooked through.
Meanwhile, mix the yoghurt, cucumber and mint and set aside. Boil the bulgur wheat in the water until tender, then season generously. Caramelise the onions in the olive oil (this will take about 20 minutes), then add the pine nuts and let them colour. Spoon the bulgur into a serving bowl and spread the onions and pine nuts on top.
Serve the chicken pieces with the bulgur and mint yoghurt, and some chopped parsley scattered over, if you like. You can also sprinkle over more sumac and za'atar.
(Chicken recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi's Ottolenghi cookbook)
There are few simple meals I enjoy more than a roast chicken. My favourite part is the crispy skin, so wonderful a thing when you've seasoned it with lots of salt and pepper and rubbed it with butter or olive oil. The contrast in texture between the crunchy exterior and the soft chicken flesh underneath is a wonderful thing. The only thing that makes this experience even more delicious is the promise of some juicy, flavoursome stuffing encased within the meat. I know some chefs advocate cooking the stuffing separately to make sure it cooks through, and because stuffing a chicken takes a bit of effort, but for me the main reason to eat stuffing is because it has soaked up all the delicious chicken juices during roasting. The only problem when roasting a whole chicken for several people is that this gastronomic gold has to be divided up, and you can't fit that much stuffing inside a chicken. Serving poussin, however, solves this problem. It feels, somehow, as if you get so much more because you have it all to yourself. No faff of carving a whole chicken and trying to make sure people get all the bits they like; with poussin, you get a whole bird per person. It feels so much more generous and looks so much neater. Plus, there's more crispy skin, all for you.
I've made this before, using dried cherries instead of fresh. However, there are a lot of imported cherries around at the moment, and I can never resist the lure of fresh fruit coupled with meat in a dish. Cherries and goat's cheese go particularly well together, both aesthetically and flavour-wise. The slightly acidic sweetness of the cherry couples nicely with a chalky white goat's cheese, and I think there's something rather beautiful about the way the cherry-stained knife leaves pink trails over the surface of the cheese, reminiscent of the rose-coloured pout of a porcelain doll, or those lilies whose petals are bright pink at the base and taper out into whiteness.
The stuffing also involves dill, which works very well with chicken. Every time I use this herb I can't imagine why I don't use it more. It has a lemony, aniseedy freshness that is very good with fish, but also with the blander meats like chicken. I put rather a lot in the stuffing; it stops the cheese being too rich. Other than that, it's just onions, garlic, and breadcrumbs.
The poussins, after being stuffed with the mixture, go into the oven at 180C for about 40 minutes. I rubbed the skin with olive oil and sprinkled it with salt (rather a lot), pepper, and dried herbs. I put the stuffing that didn't fit in the birds underneath them once they'd been in the oven for about 20 minutes, so that all the roasting juices ran down into it. You may have to keep adding a bit of water to stop it burning.
The result is a beautifully burnished skin, crunchy and salty like the best French fries. The flesh of the bird is lovely and moist, and the stuffing is truly wonderful. I do think, actually, that it's better with dried cherries rather than fresh - they add a nice tartness that is lacking in the fresh ones. However, either work well, and the goat's cheese and dill give an unusual flavour to the mixture. The fresh cherries look rather beautiful, as they soften and turn rather jewel-like in appearance, a bit like pomegranate seeds. It's as comforting as a good roast dinner, but fresher-tasting, and - the real bonus - you don't have to fight over the crispy skin or juicy stuffing. Excellent.
Poussin with cherry and goat's cheese stuffing (serves 2, with lots of extra stuffing):
(Adapted from Diana Henry's Food From Plenty)
Pre-heat the oven to 180C.
Melt a little butter in a frying pan and sauté one finely chopped onion and 3 crushed garlic cloves until soft. Put into a bowl and mix in 100g white breadcrumbs, 100g goat's cheese in chunks, and 4 tbsp chopped fresh dill. Add 100g dried sour cherries or pitted fresh cherries. Season with salt and pepper and mix together gently.
Stuff into the cavity of two oven-ready poussins. Place in an oiled baking dish and rub the skins with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and dried herbs (a mixture of thyme, rosemary, basil and oregano is good, or any one of those). Place in the oven and roast for 20 minutes. After this time, put any remaining stuffing in the dish around the poussins, and put back in the oven. Keep checking to make sure it isn't burning - if it is, pour in a little water.
After 40 minutes, check the birds for done-ness as you would a chicken - you want the juices to run clear.
Serve the birds with any extra stuffing, a big green salad, and couscous, rice, mashed potato or potato wedges.