The other day, I bought a bunch of candy beetroots from my local market. I’ve never seen them there before, and because they are one of the prettiest ingredients you can buy, I snapped them up eagerly. ‘Have you tried these candy beetroot things?’ the lady behind the stall asked me. She was making polite conversation, but probably got more than she bargained for. Instead of a casual ‘yes, they’re great’, I proceeded not only to tell her all the best recipes for candy beetroot, but also the correct methods of cooking it so as to preserve its unique coloration (steaming in foil), the best utensils for the job (mandoline), and its Italian name (chioggia).Read More
Who needs E numbers and artificial colourings when you have the splendid, radiant palette of Mother Nature? Think of the vivid hot pink of a slender stalk of early season rhubarb, or the luscious magenta of a heavy, ripe raspberry; picture the coral, pearly inside of a freshly cut fig or the eye-popping green of a blanched broccoli stalk. These colours are something for the cook to get excited about; they make preparing a meal as much of a joy as eating it. It’s rather ironic that the slogan ‘taste the rainbow’ was adopted by Skittles to sell their sweets, whose artificial colours are a sorry simulacrum of the spectrum real food has to offer.Read More
When I was a child, I used to collect the Michelin ‘I-spy’ books. These were little pocket guides to various aspects of the natural world – birds, flowers, rock formations – that gave detailed and illustrated overviews of the various things you might encounter within these genres, and a handy checklist for you to tick off whenever you’d seen one. While the guide to exotic frogs remained largely unticked during family holidays to rainy National Trust properties throughout the UK, I had largely more success ticking off fossils, plant and bird life, getting incredibly excited when I encountered a new bird species or tree that I could proudly tick off as ‘done’. It’s a habit I’ve retained in adulthood with countries of the world, although unfortunately this is a far more expensive hobby than ticking off different types of fern.Read More
Sometimes, you just have a bit of a brainwave in the kitchen. A sudden spark of inspiration, filling you thrillingly with the utmost conviction that yes, these two ingredients are just made for each other, or that wow, that would be the perfect cooking method for this particular thing, or that yes, it is completely a good idea to alter such and such a recipe in a certain way to make something new and wonderful. These are wonderful little moments of insight, familiar no doubt to anyone who is lucky enough to indulge in the creative process as a hobby or even as a career path. I only wish I had as many moments of revelation during my PhD work as I do during my kitchen hours.
Perhaps this is okay, though - convenient, even. Nature, observing that I am spending my working hours grappling with ridiculously abstract concepts, horrifically complex academic treatises and a general nebulous mass of incoherent ideas, kindly decides to make everything come together and make sense in at least one area of my life. And let's be honest, if there's one time when you want everything to make sense, it's when eating is involved. Far more important than academic matters.
A bowl of kumquats had been providing me with a source of anxiety for a couple of weeks.
(This, in my world, is a totally normal sentence.)
Seriously, though. I was wracking my brains to decide what to do with them. Although I could have made this delightful kumquat and vanilla cheesecake again, I figured I should branch out a bit. I thought about an upside-down cake, but it never materialised. I wanted to use them in a savoury dish, given my penchant for fruit in savoury food, but the ideas weren't really flowing.
While I pondered, there they sat in their little punnet, looking totally inconspicuous in an orange, bulbous sort of way, until I realized that a couple at the bottom of the pile had turned blue and furry, and were thus polluting and infecting the rest with their mouldy pestilence.
Thus began a battle against time, to save the kumquats before that tragic disease of the blue furry coat spread throughout their ranks and decimated the lot.
Gosh, it was stressful.
Kumquats aren't the most common of ingredients. I reckon many of you won't ever have tried them. They look like little elongated oranges, with a firm shiny skin. Their flavour is intensely refreshing, quite sharp and sour but with a really strong citrus hit. They are a powerful little ingredient, and need something quite strong (or sweet/creamy, hence the cheesecake) to balance them out.
I'd been pondering various uses: in salads, as a compote alongside meat (they're quite good with venison), as a compote on top of porridge...until one day, I don't even remember why or how, I suddenly had the brainwave to roast them with some wedges of fennel and serve them with fish.
I can't really tell you why I thought this would be a good idea. I guess it started because I love the combination of fennel and fish. I usually just shave it wafer-thin and serve it as a salad, but I thought its aniseedy crunchiness would be wonderful roasted into soft, melting, sugary tenderness in the oven. I thought roasting the kumquats would concentrate their intense citrus flavour and also soften them a little, as they're quite hard and crunchy when raw. I figured the whole lot - sweet, fresh, crunchy, sour - would pair very well with the rich oiliness of cooked salmon.
I could have complicated this recipe quite a lot. Added some wedges of cooked beetroot, maybe. Some grains or pulses to bulk it out a bit. More herbs. Some toasted pine nuts for crunch. Wilted spinach for greenery. All of these would be excellent additions, I'm sure, but for once I wanted to keep it simple. Just salmon, fennel, kumquats, and mint. Fresh mint works very well with fennel and with citrus, and here it is perfect, giving a lovely freshness to the roasted vegetable and fruit medley.
I sprinkled the kumquats and fennel with a little sugar and drizzled them with oil before roasted them for half an hour or so. Their edges scorch and become burnished and caramelised, while they soften and become more concentrated in flavour, much sweeter and almost melting in texture. Tossed with salt, pepper and fresh mint, they are absolutely delicious.
Finally, a drizzle of some fabulous bergamot-infused olive oil from this wonderful range of infused olive oils that I've mentioned before (see this chocolate and mandarin olive oil cake). If you've never tried bergamot before (apart from maybe in Earl Grey tea), it's fantastic - incredibly zesty and fresh, rather like a cross between a lime, lemon and grapefruit. This oil really packs a punch - it was the first time I'd used it, and I couldn't believe the amount of flavour it brought to the salad, combining really well with the rich fish and the zesty kumquats. If you don't have bergamot oil, though, you could just add a drizzle of olive oil and a squeeze of lime.
This is an incredibly simple recipe, but it is unusual and delicious. The roasted fennel and kumquats with the mint and bergamot oil would make a fabulous side dish to accompany most things: chicken, fish (particularly trout, mackerel and salmon), pork and grilled halloumi cheese would all work wonderfully with it. As it's quite sweet, it works very well with rich things that need a little taming, like oily fish or cheese. It's a real riot of fresh, zingy flavours, yet warm and comforting at the same time from the soft caramelised fennel. I'm pretty proud of this ingredient combination, as it's not one I've ever seen before but it just works so well.
A perfect way to use up an anxiety-inducing bowl of maturing kumquats.
Salmon with roasted kumquats and fennel (serves 2):
- 1 large bulb of fennel, sliced into wedges
- 12 kumquats, halved
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- 1 tsp brown sugar
- A few sprigs of fresh mint, leaves finely chopped
- 2 fillets ready-cooked salmon
- 2 tbsp bergamot-infused olive oil (optional - you could also use lemon-infused oil, or just olive oil with a squeeze of lemon juice)
Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Place the fennel and kumquats in a baking dish and drizzle over a little olive oil. Scatter with salt, pepper and sprinkle with the sugar. Toss together. Roast for around 30 minutes, until starting to scorch and caramelise, and the fennel is tender.
Divide the fennel and kumquats between two plates. Sprinkle with the mint and flake over the pieces of salmon. Finally, drizzle with the bergamot oil and serve.
This salad that showcases everything special and beautiful about our British autumn produce. It also uses my absolute favourite fish, mackerel, smothered in warm and aromatic spices and fried until crispy. This sits on a bed of tangy, crunchy, flavoursome salad that is also stunning to look at, using beautiful tangles of ivory fennel and apple, slivers of bold pink beetroot and sparkling pomegranate seeds. Just looking at it will make you feel warm and nourished, and every mouthful is an absolute treat to eat.
While not your stereotypical autumn comfort food - piping hot, featuring both meat and potatoes and generally various shades of brown - I sometimes think there is comfort to be had, in the frost of autumn, in vibrant flavours that wake your tastebuds up from their stew-induced stupor.
You can't think of British autumn produce without thinking of apples. I'm especially aware of their existence now that I have an apple tree in my garden, laden with bulbous blushing fruits ready to drop at the slightest breath of wind. I've been donning my wellies and heading into the long grass on a weekly basis to collect the windfalls. It always makes me sad when I find one too bruised or worm-eaten to be gastronomically viable, as it seems such a waste. Still, I try and do what I can to ensure they don't all become food for the lawn and the worms. This month has seen an apple and blackberry pie, an apple, date and cranberry crumble, a delicious apple and blackberry baked oatmeal for breakfast, and a wonderful quince and apple compote that I've been eating over cinnamon-enriched porridge studded with blackberries.
When they're not baked into a tart-sweet froth and nestled juicily under a buttery crust, apples have a lot of savoury potential in the kitchen too, particularly when coupled with other autumn ingredients - they're delicious in a casserole with pork, sausages or pheasant, or roasted in wedges with some potatoes to serve alongside a roast. I also love them thinly sliced in a sharp salad to accompany richer ingredients; their crispness and sweetness is always welcome, particularly when encased in a tangy mustard dressing.
Fennel is something I pretty much always have in the fridge. I can't resist a salad of thinly sliced fennel (I actually bought a mandolin just for this purpose) tossed in grain mustard, olive oil, herbs and salt. It goes with pretty much anything - meat, fish or cheese - and is infinitely adaptable, working with a huge variety of other fruit, herbs and veg. I usually add pomegranate seeds - their sweetness works well against the aniseed tang of the fennel - and sliced pear, which is a delicious contrast in texture, tending to be soft and melting against the crunch of the fennel strands. Here I've used apples, but pears would work well too. Fennel also goes very well with orange.
Also, a little cook's tip for you - don't try slicing a ripe pear on a mandolin, unless you want to be hunting around in your salad for the tip of your middle finger.
If you're not a big fan of the aniseedy crunch of fennel, try caramelising it in butter and a little brown sugar before using it in a recipe. It might have you converted. I love using it in any recipes involving fish, where its fresh, light flavour is a perfect complement. Fennel seeds are also a hugely underrated ingredient, working incredibly well with tomatoes, pork, fish, cheese and anything in need of a little herbal note.
Beetroot is something I always mean to eat more of, but fail to. I think it's because I can find it quite sickly. I absolutely cannot stomach those dark purple globes that come ready cooked and peeled in the supermarket - they have a disgusting squidgy texture and vile sickly flavour that makes me gag. Don't even get me started on the pickled stuff.
However, raw beetroot sliced into wedges, tossed in oil and liberal seasoning, then roasted until tender and caramelised, is a beautiful thing. One of my favourite ways to eat it is in this beetroot, carrot, orange and mackerel salad. It goes really well with mackerel, providing a sweet earthiness to counteract the rich flavour of the fish. It also works well with apple, being similarly crisp and sweet.
Raw beetroot isn't something I've eaten a lot of, but when I found these gorgeous candy and golden beetroot in the supermarket I knew I didn't want to roast them and risk marring their stunning colours. Instead I decided to slice them wafer-thin (again using my trusty mandolin, and risking the tips of my fingers with every stroke) to add another layer of crunch to my salad. They were just so pretty. I tend to wax lyrical about the beauty of fruit and veg at the best of times, but these really were incredibly beautiful. Why would you ever buy that pre-cooked vacuum-packed (or worse, vinegar-soaked) stuff when you could get some of these globes of gorgeous goodness? (To use a Nigella-esque phrase).
I also like how they are called 'candy' beetroot, which conjures up images of lurid sweet shop jars and neon sherbet, somehow making the beetroot more appealing. Maybe it's a clever marketing ploy. If so, I fell for it.
Speaking of beetroot and candy, I've always been intrigued by the use of beetroot in chocolate cakes and brownies. Think carrot in carrot cakes - the vegetable adds a moisture and subtle sweetness, and apparently its earthiness goes very well with chocolate. Something on the 'to try' list.
Also, another bonus of these beetroot varieties - they don't stain your fingers nearly as badly as traditional beetroot, nor bleed horribly into the other salad ingredients, which is always sad.
Pomegranatesare everywhere at this time of year; they are, to me, the Christmas fruit (along with clementines). There's very little I won't scatter a load of pomegranate seeds over - their snap of juiciness is always welcome, as is their jewel-like appearance. Here they add a delicious bite to the salad, and a little freshness to counteract the strong flavours of the mackerel.
Finally, the mackerel. While perhaps not as obviously autumnal as something like pheasant or venison, mackerel is the perfect partner for a lot of autumn fruit and veg. It's very healthy, very quick and easy to cook, and you can throw all sorts of strong flavours at it without it blinking an eye (well, I'd hope not anyway - if your mackerel is blinking then your fishmonger probably isn't doing his job properly). Mackerel is one of those fish that is generally better cooked as fillets - you can roast a whole one, but because it's quite oily the skin doesn't really crisp up properly, and it's all a bit flabby. Go for a nice big fillet, which will sizzle deliciously in the pan, its skin becoming burnished and crispy while the oily flesh stays wonderfully moist and meaty.
Here I've covered it in turmeric, cumin, coriander and chilli flakes, mixed with a little oil to make a spice rub. This gives it a gorgeous aromatic crust, and the spicy flavours work so well with the oily flesh of the fish. It goes into a very hot pan to allow the skin to crisp up, and then is ready to serve alongside the salad.
I really love this dish. The salad, with its lemon and mustard dressing, is tangy, crunchy and fresh, which is perfect to sit alongside the spicy, oily fish. It's also cooling against the rather assertive heat of the chilli flakes, resulting in little explosions of sweet/spicy/sour flavour in your mouth as you eat it. It takes everything that is great about British produce at this time of year, and uses those ingredients in a slightly unusual, and exciting, way. If you're sceptical about raw veg, don't be - it really works.
If you wanted to, you could swap the fish for chicken or pork, or to make it vegetarian use thick slices of griddled halloumi. It's super-nutritious - by the end you'll have had all of your five-a-day!
Spiced mackerel with apple, fennel and beetroot salad (serves 2):
- 2 mackerel, filleted
- 2 tsp turmeric
- 2 tsp ground cumin
- 2 tsp ground coriander
- A generous pinch of chilli flakes
- Olive oil
- Juice of half a lemon
- 2 tsp wholegrain mustard (I used Tracklements horseradish mustard)
- Salt and pepper
- 2 large eating apples (I used Cox)
- 1 small bulb fennel
- 2 small beetroot (about the size of a golf ball)
- 2 tbsp finely chopped flat leaf parsley
- A few sprigs lemon or normal thyme, leaves picked
- Seeds of half a pomegranate
- A large handful of pea shoots, rocket or watercress
First, make the spice rub. Mix together the turmeric, cumin, coriander and chilli flakes with some salt and pepper, then add enough olive oil to form a thick paste. Rub this all over the mackerel fillets, on both sides. Set aside.
In a large bowl, mix together a generous glug (around 2-3 tbsp) of olive oil with the lemon juice, mustard, and some salt and pepper. Cut the apples into quarters, remove the core, then thinly slice. Add these to the bowl. Using a mandolin, slice the fennel and the beetroot wafer-thin and add these to the bowl (or use a very sharp knife and try and slice as thinly as possible). Add the parsley, thyme leaves and pomegranate seeds, then toss together well. Divide between two plates or bowls and top with the pea shoots/rocket/watercress.
Get a non-stick frying pan very hot. Add a little olive oil, then use some kitchen paper to rub it evenly over the pan. Press the mackerel fillets into the pan, skin-side down. They should sizzle. Cook for around 3 minutes, or until the underside of the fish is nearly opaque. Flip over and cook for another minute. You may need to do this in batches if all the fillets won't fit in the pan at once.
Place two mackerel fillets on top of each plate of salad, then serve immediately.
Britain. You need to eat more sardines.
In this current age of austerity, economic climate, blah blah blah, when food prices are continually rising, supermarkets are trying to pull the wool over our eyes by proffering multibuy offers that actually involve spending more, and there is barely a single source of protein available that doesn't carry a heavy cost both literally and in terms of animal welfare, I honestly believe the solution lies in the humble sardine.
I went to the fish counter the other day and asked for five sardines. The woman behind the counter scooped up their plump, shimmering bodies and dropped them on the scales to weigh them. I could barely believe my ears when she told me that those five beautiful specimens, plump, meaty and very decently sized, were going to cost me a grand total of £1.60.
Therein lies the first major bonus of sardine consumption. It's cheap. I make that 32p a sardine, and given that two or perhaps three will quite adequately feed a normal adult (I've been known to eat four at a time), you're not exactly breaking the bank.
The second pro is of course the nutritional benefit. Sardines are one of those much-heralded 'oily fish' that we all know are hugely good for you. Or if you don't know, then have you been living in a cave? Get out there and ingest some omega oils before you waste away and die.
If only they weren't given such an unfortunate branding...calling anything 'oily' is hardly going to get people flocking up to put it in their mouths. I think maybe "firm-textured deliciously rich and meaty fish" might be a better tagline, but it's not quite as easy to cram onto packaging labels.
Thirdly, they're ethical. Sardines are one of the few sustainable fish species left to us now. Eat them with a clear conscience, and let your cod live out its happy life under the sea rather than meeting a speedy and ignominious end encased in batter and served on a piece of newspaper.
The fourth plus point of sardines, and oily fish in general, becomes apparent when you get them into the kitchen. There you can assault them with your entire arsenal of flavourings and spices, and they'll just sit back meekly and let you get on with it. These are tough creatures; I can't think of a single ingredient that an oily fish couldn't stand up to. These are fish you'd want on your side if you were ever getting a fish army together. Which, let's face it, is probably unlikely, but I thought I'd just mention it in case the occasion ever arises and you're stuck choosing between a mackerel and a monkfish. Monkfish may look impressive and threatening, with their hideous faces, gaping mouths and creepy spines, but the cool and unassuming mackerel will always win.
I literally have no idea what I am talking about. Back to the sardines.
There you have it: I can't think of a reason not to enjoy these lovely fish. They're so cheap, so ethical, so versatile and so good for you.
And please, to those of you who whine about all the little bones, I really, really don't have time for you. Nothing annoys me more than people who complain and say they don't eat fish because of the bones. Jesus, get over yourself. Take the five minutes to pick out the bones and just man up.
Here's a lovely way to eat sardines. Their skins are rubbed with a mixture of olive oil, salt and pepper, ground cumin and sumac (a lemony Middle Eastern spice, but you could use lemon zest if you can't find it). They're grilled until crispy. Then they're served on a bed of vibrant, fresh, zingy, citrussy salad. It has wafer-thin slices of crunchy raw fennel, for that aniseed bite that works so well with our oily friends. It has curls of red onion, to add savoury depth. It has a handful of fragrant mint, for freshness, and lemon juice, for zingy bite. Finally, it has thin segments of pink grapefruit to deliver a punch of zesty flavour that works so well with the creamy flesh of the fish.
The salad on its own is lovely, but it needs something rich to mellow all those vibrant flavours. Mackerel would work beautifully - either fresh or smoked. Spicy chicken could be an excellent substitute if you're one of the above annoying fish-bone-haters. Even a tangy cheese like goat's cheese or feta, or slices of grilled halloumi, could replace the sardines.
But, given my highly cogent and persuasive argument above, why would you want to replace the sardines? They are the answer to Britain's problems, and possibly the world's.
Grilled spiced sardines with fennel and grapefruit salad (serves 2):
- 1 bulb fennel, thinly sliced on a mandolin
- 1/2 a red onion, thinly sliced on a mandolin
- Salt and pepper
- Olive oil
- A small bunch of fresh mint, leaves picked
- Juice of half a lemon
- Two pink grapefruits
- 5 sardines, filleted (yes, the ones in the photo are whole, but only because my fishmonger apparently misheard 'filleted' as 'gutted' - if using whole ones whack them under the grill rather than pan-fry)
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp sumac
- A couple of handfuls of spinach, rocket, watercress, or a mixture
First, make the salad. Mix together the thinly sliced fennel and red onion with the lemon juice and a good glug of olive oil. Season with salt and pepper, add the mint, and toss together well. Use a sharp serrated knife to cut the skin off the grapefruits, then cut in between the pith all around the grapefruit to release the segments. Add these to the salad and toss gently to mix.
Rub the sardine fillets with olive oil and season with the cumin, sumac and some salt and pepper. Get a non-stick pan very hot and cook the sardines, skin side down, for a couple of minutes until crispy, then flip over and cook for another minute.
Divide the spinach/rocket/watercress between two plates and top with the grapefruit salad. Place five sardine fillets on each plate and serve.