Five things I love this week #4

1. Tracklements Pear & Perry chutney. If you're feeling a bit jaded by the world of condiments, this is one for you. It's much lighter tasting than a traditional chutney, which I often feel can be rather overpowering in its flavour and end up masking the ingredient you want it to complement. Made with British pears and a 'generous dash' of Perry (pear cider), this chutney is lovely and sweet with a delicate fruity flavour and lots of nice textures - tender pieces of onion and juicy sultanas that burst in the mouth, plus a little kick from mustard, ginger and cinnamon. Tracklements recommend pairing it with salty cheeses like mature cheddar or Pecorino; I found it worked beautifully with a mild goat's cheese. I'd also suggest serving it with cold meats, particularly pork.

2. Café No. 8, York. My boyfriend and I stumbled upon this fantastic cafe/restaurant when we visited York back in October. I returned again last week, with fond memories of a truly gorgeous sandwich I'd eaten. It was no ordinary sandwich - the bread was a thick, doughy flatbread, encasing soft chunks of goat's cheese and marinated artichokes. The lovely oil from the artichokes soaked into the dough and covered my fingers, leading to many messy but sublime mouthfuls.

This time I had a sort of bruschetta featuring an unlikely combination of ingredients: goat's cheese, rhubarb chutney, lemon oil, and fresh figs. I'd never have thought of pairing all those together, considering it overkill, but it worked harmoniously and was so good. For dessert, one of the best cheesecakes I've ever had. The ratio of biscuit base to creamy filling was nearly 1:1, which is the holy grail of cheesecakes and one as elusive as it is wonderful. There was a thick, creamy topping, quivering slightly but still holding its shape, a topping of gooseberry compote - I bloody love gooseberries - and - it gets better - crumble. Thick shards of buttery crumble, scattered over the top. Just in case this wasn't decadent enough, the whole thing was drizzled with cream. I absolutely devoured it and am still thinking about it a week later.

So it's lucky that I'll be moving to York in October to embark on a three-year PhD. I have a feeling this place is going to be my regular haunt. If you're in the area, do visit - you won't be disappointed.

3. South African fruit. I was lucky enough to be sent a gorgeous hamper of plums and nectarines from South African Fruit recently. South Africa, with its Mediterranean climate and quality soil, has a thriving fruit industry that produces nectarines, peaches, plums, apples, pears and grapefruits. I've seen South African produce in shops and supermarkets but never really thought twice about it, until now.

The fruits arrived nestled in wrapping, beautifully cosseted and snug in their little basket. I could smell their perfume as soon as I opened the box. Normally a bit sceptical about imported fruit - especially plums  and nectarines which have a tendency to be a bit woolly and bland even when home-grown - I found these ripe, juicy, and fragrant. I usually like to post a recipe featuring products I've been sent, but I'm afraid in this case I didn't want to do anything more than eat the fruit. It was so delicious and perfect on its own that I couldn't bring myself to adulterate it in any way. Next time you're in the fruit aisle of the supermarket, have a look for the South African fruit and enjoy a little taste of summer in the cold winter and spring months.

4. Smoked quail eggs. I found these at the East Anglia food festival a couple of months ago and oh, are they addictive. Can't imagine a smoked egg? Imagine eggs and smoky bacon. There's all that rich, meaty smoky flavour, yet without the bacon. They're utterly fabulous and so moreish, giving a rich flavoursome bite to anything you pair them with. I used mine in a potato salad, with celery, dill, cucumber, broccoli and green beans, all in a tangy mustardy vinaigrette. It was one of the best impromptu meals I've ever made, with the eggs the real star of the show. If you ever see smoked eggs, or know someone with a smoking kit, get your hands on some and be amazed.

5. Thinly sliced fennel. Although not so cool when it causes you to lose the tip of a finger, fennel shaved wafer-thin on a mandolin is my current vegetable of choice for meals. I love coating it in a vinaigrette of olive oil, mustard and lemon juice and tossing with smoked mackerel and segments of blood orange, or with cooked salmon and pomegranate seeds. It's also wonderful mixed with thin slices of pear and pomegranate seeds - I ate this with a veal burger, and the combination was heavenly.

Prepared this way, with a little acidity to sharpen it up a bit, fennel is fabulous with all sorts of protein  - smoked fish (mackerel, trout and salmon), smoked meat, cooked meat of all varieties but especially lamb, beef and chicken, fish in general (oily or white) - and also with cheese (mozzarella, feta and goats' work particularly well). Add something to give it a bit of fruity bite, like orange or grapefruit segments or slices of apple or pear, and you have lunch or dinner in almost an instant. It has a pleasant crunch that makes it infinitely refreshing, and a lovely mild aniseed flavour that is the perfect foil to rich meat, fish or cheese. Plus its pale green tendrils look beautiful in salads.

British Hen Welfare Trust: happy hens make for yummy yolks

I often think about what exactly it is that draws me to food and food writing. Obviously, there is the fact that I am a glutton, greedy to sample anything and everything that can possibly pass my lips on this planet of ours. There is also the creativity that comes with cooking; I've always loved all sorts of creative acts - drawing, painting, writing, music - and food is perhaps the most unselfish creative act there is, in that it brings not only happiness to people but also fulfils one of the most basic physical human needs. What makes me love not only cooking and eating food, but also reading and writing obsessively about it, is the way it is fundamentally and inextricably linked with so many other things. Just look at the way the credit crunch brought about a huge change in the way people cook and eat, the way Jamie Oliver started extolling the virtues of back-to-basics cooking in a way that made people think twice before reaching for the phone to dial an expensive takeaway. Or the way our concerns with environmental sustainability have impacted on food, prompting a huge rethink in the way we catch and consume fish. Or the way food is so closely bound up with national identity, yet at the same time crosses cultural boundaries like nothing else; it is often said that the British national dish is now curry, a fact certainly evident from the dishes that have made the final of Great British Menu recently: coronation chicken, Indian spiced sea bass, masala-spiced monkfish. Food is not just something to be eaten as fuel; it is bound up with a whole host of sociopolitical, economic, and ethical concerns. When you hear the words veal, cod, bluefin tuna, farmed salmon, you are no longer listening to a list of appetising things for dinner, but a collection that invokes a whole host of issues that go far beyond the plate.

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.

I don't want this to sound like a lecture, and I know a lot of people can't afford free range chicken all the time. But the simple solution, to me, is to just eat less meat and buy better when you can. That doesn't sound so difficult to me. If we didn't all buy this horrible stuff, consumers would stop producing it. M&S and Waitrose no longer sell battery eggs, a fact that makes me happy, and other supermarkets like Sainsbury's are planning to phase out battery eggs. However, there is another problem: while you can go free-range when buying boxes of eggs from the shelf or a chicken from the meat counter, you have no way of telling where the eggs come from in a lot of products. Mayonnaise, for example, and ready-meals containing eggs, like quiche. 3 billion eggs go into these processed food products each year, a third of which are imported, and even if Britain did ban caged eggs altogether, there would be no clear way of identifying which eggs were free-range and which were imported from battery farms. Hellmans recently started selling a free-range mayonnaise, though, which I suppose is a step forward. The government plans to phase out battery farms totally by 2012, but there is a lot of contention as to whether this will actually happen. Especially because I read an article recently saying there was a plan to bring back battery rabbit farming. Why on earth, given all the controversy over battery chicken, would you actually take the active step of implementing further horrors on other animals?

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!

Smoked fish and quail egg ravioli

I've had quite a few moments of late where I've one way or another stumbled upon a recipe idea or concept that is either so simple or so brilliant that I find myself amazed it had never occurred to me before. Tonight I went to La Cucina, one of my favourite Italian restaurants in Oxford, and on the specials board they had stuffed sardines wrapped in pancetta. So simple, yet so delicious-sounding, and something I can't wait to try. Another such moment occurred on an episode of Raymond Blanc's latest TV series. He made a stunning pasta dish featuring ravioli filled with spinach and quail eggs; the eggs were briefly poached before being encased in the pasta, meaning that they were still liquid when cooked. I remember the camera lingering lovingly on a shot where the knife cut through the beautiful pillowy pasta to reveal flowing golden egg yolk, encased in a nest of greenery, and I wondered why on earth that had never occurred to me before. Who doesn't love slicing into the tender yolk of an egg to reveal its molten core? Surround it with a thin film of carbohydrate, and you have food heaven.

This dish had been on my mental 'to make' list for a while, and the other day I had an enormous craving for ravioli. Sometimes nothing will do, except those beautiful plump parcels piled in a steaming mountain on a plate and drizzled with a buttery, creamy sauce. I thought about making Raymond's recipe, but couldn't really be bothered to create all the different garnishes he serves with it; sauteed mushrooms, beurre noisette... Whilst the taste of ravioli served with nothing but melted butter and herbs is sublime, my waistline will unfortunately not survive such things on a regular basis. I wanted to make ravioli that could survive being served with some sort of sauce, without losing its delicate flavour; spinach and eggs are too subtle to risk overpowering with a tomato or other non-buttery sauce.

I've no idea where the idea for this recipe came from. I was on the train, and it literally popped into my head. I feel this is a good sign: J.K. Rowling said the inspiration for the Harry Potter series popped into her head in the same way, also while she was on a train, so I must be on the right track for future fame and culinary stardom. Right?

I won't claim that pairing smoked fish with eggs is a culinary revelation, because it isn't, but I am quite proud of the flavours in this ravioli. For the fish filling, I mixed flaked smoked fish (Vietnamese river cobbler, because it was on offer in the supermarket, but you could also use haddock) poached in milk with ricotta cheese, grated parmesan, salt, pepper, chives, a few fresh thyme leaves, and some grated nutmeg. The parmesan is great for accentuating the smoky, savoury richness of the fish, while the ricotta lightens it as well as binding it all together. Some lemon thyme would be excellent, but I only had normal thyme, which works too; its fragrance cuts through the richness of the filling.

The tricky part involved the quail eggs. I'm not brilliant at poaching eggs - they turn into watery ghosts more often than not - and seeing as quail eggs are so tiny I was sure I'd fail miserably. Actually, they came out perfectly, which pleased me immensely. I just added a little vinegar to simmering water, dropped them in (cracking them is not as easy as a hen's egg - you end up having to pierce the membrane under the shell with your nail), and removed them about 30 seconds later with a slotted spoon. I left them to drain on kitchen paper before placing them atop a spoonful of fish mixture on a square of pasta. It was a bit fiddly, but went much better than expected. I was worried they'd break when I tried to seal the pasta around them, but had no problems.

Unfortunately, seeing as quail eggs are so small, in order to poach them enough to be able to handle them, you have to almost cook them completely. This means that by the time the ravioli has cooked in its boiling water, the egg will be hard rather than soft boiled. I'm not sure how Raymond managed to get his to ooze luscious yolk all over the plate, and I'm a bit jealous, but to me it didn't matter that much. You still have the wow factor of cutting into each raviolo to reveal a beautiful little egg yolk, and the combination of crumbly, creamy yolk with the smoky fish filling is wonderful.

I deliberated for a while about what to serve these with, and in the end chose spinach - another classic partner for smoked fish and eggs. I found some leeks in the fridge, so decided to use those too. I just sauteed them in a little olive oil until soft and wilting, and then stirred in some seasoning, a squeeze of lemon juice, and some creme fraiche. The latter helped bring the whole mixture together to form a gorgeous, creamy green sauce. I piled it onto plates and arranged the ravioli over the top.

I am pretty proud of this recipe. The creamy greens provide just enough moisture to go with the ravioli, but aren't strong enough to overpower the subtle egg and fish mixture. It's a perfect harmony of flavours, and a very luxurious-tasting dish that still remains quite light. A bit fiddly, perhaps, but actually easier than you'd expect, given the delicious results. Thank you, Raymond, for the excellent inspiration.

Smoked fish and quail egg ravioli (serves 2):

140g plain flour
1 whole egg and 1 yolk
1 tsp olive oil
1/2 tsp salt

150g ricotta cheese
1 fillet (about 200-300g) smoked fish
300ml milk
Salt and pepper
1/4 tsp grated nutmeg
3 tbsp grated parmesan
A few lemon thyme or normal thyme leaves
2 tbsp finely chopped chives
12 quail eggs
1 tsp white wine vinegar
Squeeze of lemon juice

2 leeks, finely chopped
1 tbsp olive oil
300g spinach leaves
3 tbsp creme fraiche

First, make the pasta dough. Combine the flour, egg and egg yolk, olive oil and salt in a food processor and then knead to a firm and not sticky dough. Wrap in cling film and refrigerate for up to an hour.

To make the fish filling, poach the fish in the milk until cooked. Flake into a bowl, then add the ricotta, seasoning, nutmeg, lemon, parmesan, thyme, and chives. Mix together until you have a paste.

Poach the quail eggs in simmering water to which you have added the vinegar. Cook them for just long enough that you can remove them from the water with a slotted spoon. Leave to dry on kitchen paper.

Roll out the pasta using a pasta machine, and cut into evenly sized squares. Place a teaspoon of fish mixture in the centre of each square, then place a quail egg on top. Brush around the filling with water, then place another square over it. Be careful to push out any air when sealing the ravioli together.

Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil.

Now make the greens. Saute the leeks and spinach in the olive oil until the leeks are soft and the spinach has wilted. Stir in the creme fraiche, seasoning, and a touch of lemon juice. Keep warm while you cook the ravioli by putting them in the boiling water for 2-3 minutes.

To serve, pile the creamy greens into bowls and top with the cooked ravioli. Garnish with more grated nutmeg and parmesan, and a sprig of thyme.

Pearl barley risotto with asparagus, quail eggs and parma ham

Here goes. Episode number something-or-other in the series of "Elly tries, yet again, to like asparagus". As I've mentioned before, I am not the biggest fan of those green spears that, come late spring, set most food-lovers' hearts ablaze with excitement. Yet I feel compelled to like asparagus, because it's one of those 'things' that any self-respecting gastronome should go mad for, along with the first rhubarb of the season, real English strawberries, and purple sprouting broccoli. I therefore feel it is my mission to devise recipes that will render the green stuff a little more palatable; I am usually put off by its bitterness and almost sour flavour (maybe there's something in my saliva that reacts badly with it - I know this is the reason a lot of people can't stand coriander). So when I saw the first spears of the season at the market the other day, I snapped them up (at vast expense - how is it that English-grown produce can be three times the price of stuff flown in from Spain?) and set about devising a way of making the most of such a widely-revered crop.

I can usually enjoy asparagus when coupled with something salty to offset its bitterness. Parma ham is a classic partner, and I also thought that the salty, savouriness of a risotto would provide the perfect blanket for the green spears. Quail eggs were not really essential to the dish, but I discovered a few days ago that Sainsburys sells them (I'd only ever seen them at the market before), and they are so lovely that I just had to include them. Besides, eggs and asparagus are another classic combination (although one that, alone, I find rather cloying).

I used pearl barley for this risotto, rather than rice, because I love its texture and nutty flavour, which I thought would balance well with the salty parma ham and eggs. I used the same technique as for a rice-based risotto, but stirred for about a million hours more. Barley takes longer than you'd think (or wish, when ravenous) to cook. My friend Ben (who has berated me on several occasions for never being mentioned on my blog, so I am now rectifying this situation) stood there harassing me in the manner of a small child in the back of a car: "Is it ready yet? Is it ready now?"

I put some of the parma ham in the risotto towards the end of the cooking time, and the rest I dry-fried in a pan until it became crispy and I could crumble it over the risotto. I hard-boiled the quail eggs and used them as a garnish. I was annoyed that I overcooked them, because I wanted them soft-boiled, but I am writing this two weeks later, having had soft-boiled quail eggs yesterday, and I now know that they are nigh on impossible to peel when soft-boiled, so maybe the extra cooking time was a good thing.

I wanted to make the most of the expensive asparagus in the risotto, so I used every bit of the stem: the tough end of the stalks went in with the stock to add extra flavour; the base of the stalk I sliced finely and stirred into the onions at the beginning of the cooking time, and the fragile tips went into the mixture towards the end of cooking, so they softened in the heat of the final ladleful of stock. Some grated parmesan, black pepper, and that was it. Actually it didn't even need parmesan; it was salty enough from the stock and the ham.

The verdict? Very enjoyable. In fact, it was delicious. The combination of barley, stock, salty ham and tiny eggs transforms asparagus into something superb. It would work well with normal risotto rice, as well, and bacon instead of parma ham. The eggs are optional, but I just love the look of them perched atop a mound of glistening creamy rice. Be warned that they are possibly the biggest faff in the world to peel; start at least ten minutes before you want to eat them.

I think Ben also enjoyed it. I hope the mention of him here will make up for the countless times I have omitted his name in descriptions of dinners I've cooked for him. He provides excellent risotto-stirring entertainment by regaling me with his entrepreneurial ideas for iPhone-related gadgets...but I will say no more, because he's certain one such idea will be the making of his millionaire future, and I wouldn't want to spoil that for him by giving the idea away.

What I will give away, however, is the recipe for this risotto. Because it was very tasty and I think will win over any fellow asparagus-sceptics - are there any of you out there?! I sometimes I feel I am the only one...

Pearl barley risotto with asparagus, quail eggs and parma ham (serves 4):

1 large onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
A bundle of asparagus
Olive oil
350g pearl barley (or risotto rice, in which case cook for less time)
A glass of white wine
2 litres chicken stock
Parma ham (quantities are up to you - I used about 8 slices)
12 quail eggs
Parmesan, to serve
Chives, lemon thyme or parsley, finely chopped (or all three)

Bring the stock to the boil in a saucepan. Snap the tough ends off the asparagus, and put them in the stock. Keep it at a gentle simmer.

Heat some olive oil in a pan and saute the onion and garlic until softened. Slice the asparagus stalks into thin rounds and add to the onion and garlic - reserve the tips for later. Add a knob of butter to the pan and leave to melt, then stir in the barley and coat in the butter.

Pour in the wine, and let bubble until it has been absorbed by the barley. Add the stock, a ladle at a time, stirring until it has all been absorbed before adding the next. This will take a good 40 minutes or more for barley, about 25 for rice. The barley should be soft but still a little bit nutty. You might not need all the stock, or you might need more, in which case use hot water if you run out. Don't add the tough asparagus ends along with the stock - they're just to add flavour.

Towards the end of cooking time, dry-fry half the parma ham in a frying pan until crispy, then remove to some kitchen paper. Stir the rest of the ham into the risotto, along with the asparagus tips. Taste and season. Stir in your choice of herbs - I used chives because they go so well with eggs and ham.

For the quail eggs, bring a pan of water to the boil. Drop in the eggs and cook for 2 minutes, then remove to a bowl of cold water. Peel and halve them.

To serve, place the risotto in bowls and crumble the crispy parma ham over the top. Garnish with the halved eggs. Serve with grated parmesan.

Ottolenghi's "One-pan wonder"

I love this man. A rather outlandish statement, perhaps, seeing as the great Yotam and I have never met, but if one's cooking is an expression of one's personality, then I have reason to believe I would like him very much. This is delicious. Surprisingly so; I wasn't sure yoghurt and lemon juice on top of raw tahini and eggs would taste very nice. However, Ottolenghi's recipes have yet to let me down and this one was no exception. One problem though is that the raw potatoes take forever to cook in the pan, and by the time they are edible the onions are burnt. I would par-boil them first. Other than that - yum. I made some flatbread which I cooked on a griddle pan to go with it, but pitta bread or even a white baguette would go nicely as well - you need something to soak up all the lovely yoghurt, tomato and tahini mixture.

Brunch for a summer's day

I love brunch. I think it's the slightly luxurious nature of it - that you have the time to spend late morning and early afternoon ingesting copious amounts of carbohydrate, and yet somehow it is OK because you're combining breakfast and lunch, so you're allowed to eat more than you normally would at either. Except I don't really do that, and end up having lunch a couple of hours later. I think it's in the nature of brunch to fill you up horribly, but temporarily, and once all that sugar has left your system, you are ravenous again. Either that, or I am just a pig. I do have a sneaking suspicion that the latter is the case. 
A big stack of banana and blueberry pancakes is always good, but sometimes something a bit more nutritious is called for - in these cases, I usually make smoked salmon, scrambled eggs, and asparagus. The asparagus is English (still around...must be global warming), and I griddled it instead of boiling it, which gave it a nice crispy outside. The smoked salmon is some of the better stuff you can buy and has some sort of pepper and juniper berry mixture on it. I debated between baking soda bread and making potato farls, and the latter won out because I have never made them before. They're literally just mashed potato, salt, flour and melted butter shaped into cakes and then pan-fried. The only problem I always have with pan-frying any form of cake like this (fishcakes, falafel, carrot and coriander cakes...) is that it is hard to get the inside cooked. I often end up with a lovely golden exterior, but the interior still undercooked. As a result, it was a bit like eating crispy mashed potato, but I actually think it works quite well with the smoked salmon and scrambled eggs.

For afterwards, a summer fruit salad. Baked apricots (with honey and orange flower water), blueberries, raspberries, some superb Spanish cherries, and vanilla sugar. Baking the apricots really made a difference - it's a delicious combination and one I recommend.

A home-grown mushroom omelette

Overnight, very
Whitely, discreetly,
Very quietly

Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.

Sylvia Plath, 'Mushrooms'

My mum bought me a "grow your own mushroom" kit for Christmas. Ignoring the slightly middle-aged connotations of such a present, I was quite pleased, and set it up in my kitchen a few weeks ago. However, it seemed only to become yet another endeavour that serves to prove I absolutely cannot grow anything. Anything. Herbs, plants, fruit, veg...and seeing as a mushroom is a fungus, which makes it basically mould, I took this as quite a personal failure. I can't even grow MOULD.
So I went home for easter and came back to uni a week and a half later, intending to have to part with said mushroom kit in the bin. Imagine my delight when I lifted up the lid to find the beginning of two small mushrooms. Apparently my neglect was actually more successful than my care. So, not quite "overnight" as Ms Plath seems to think, but at least I got there.

Naturally, I made an omelette. I had to supplement my two mushrooms (the third one is still tiny so will need a bit more neglecting before it can be harvested) with some shop-bought ones, but I like to think I could pick out the home-grown from the mushroomy mass due to their superior flavour - you can literally taste all the hard work I put in... Or something.

I now understand where the phrase "mushrooming" comes from. I swear yesterday they were too small to eat, and today they were rapidly on their way to Portobello-mushroom-size.