Apologies for the large gap between blog posts recently. I’m hoping things will settle down to greater regularity in the near future. In the meantime, though, as very meagre compensation, here is something that is not a real recipe but more of a suggestion for how to eat the season’s figs for breakfast. This bowlful looks lusciously like something you might be served at a fancy restaurant for brunch, and I did actually have one of those moments when I sat down with it for breakfast the other day and thought ‘instagram this and everyone will ridicule you’. But in the spirit of not giving a damn, here’s how: put some thick Greek yoghurt (not low fat) in a sieve lined with muslin or a clean J-cloth, and suspend it over a bowl in the fridge overnight to drain. You’ll be left with labneh, a thick cream cheese. Spoon some of this into a bowl. Quarter some figs and roast them for 15-20 minutes in the oven with a drizzle of honey. Spoon the figs and their juices onto the labneh. Sprinkle with a few lemon thyme, lemon verbena or basil leaves (or any of your favourite herbs, really), a drizzle of pomegranate molasses or date syrup (or a little more honey) and a handful of toasted pistachio nuts, walnuts or almonds. Eat with warm flatbread or pitta. It’s a touch of Middle Eastern sunshine to brighten up the darkening days of autumn.Read More
The humble wrap gets a bad rap. So often the soggy, pallid and unappetising ‘healthy option’ at the convenience store food-to-go counter, wraps are a way of making the unsuspecting public feel like they’re eating less bread while still providing a viable vehicle for their otherwise totally virtuous hoi sin duck, chicken and bacon club or egg mayonnaise. Arranged cunningly in its packaging to look like a veritable cornucopia, positively brimming with delicious filling, the pre-packaged wrap so often tapers out into a tragic nothingness, like the Waiting for Godot of sandwiches, leaving you with a few mouthfuls of mealy, chewy dough and nothing else, dreading your 3pm hunger pangs and wishing you’d plumped – operative word there – for that hearty three-tier BLT on granary instead.Read More
In How to Turn a Bird into Dinner Part One, I waxed lyrical about the moral benefits of eating game, and directed scathing retributions at those who termed my pheasant-butchering activities ‘gross’ whilst simultaneously chomping away on meat of dubious provenance without a second thought. I disclosed photos of my apron-clad self clutching a pair of bloody scissors looking nervous yet jubilant, the bare breast of a pheasant gleaming baldly before me. Fast forward two years and my butchery skills still leave something to be desired, I still feel a sense of considerable elation when I manage to produce something edible from a feathered carcass, and I still feel strongly about the issue of meat ethics and the advantages of eating game. Fortunately, however, all that moral high ground was covered in Part One, so this time you just get straight to the good stuff: roast bird.Read More
Autumn is here in earnest, which means my fridge is constantly bursting with trays of plump figs. I adore the voluptuous, muted purple curves of this photogenic fruit, and its versatility in the kitchen. The luscious, melting flesh of a ripe fig is beautiful nestled in both sweet and savoury recipes: so far I've pan-fried them with almonds, honey and goat's cheese to serve alongside slow-cooked Greek lamb; simmered them into a glorious purple jam with pomegranate juice and molasses; baked them with honey to serve with a biscuit crumble and a scoop of vanilla whipped ricotta...and this. This is possibly my favourite fig creation yet. Grilled with honey until bubbling and impossibly sweet, these beautiful figs sit atop a pillow of labneh, a Middle Eastern cheese made by straining yoghurt until thick and firm. I've used goat's milk for extra tang, to counterbalance the sweet figs, and finished with a scattering of zesty lemon thyme, which works beautifully with dairy. The whole lot makes a glorious breakfast or lunch on top of thick slices of sourdough toast. Click here for my recipe, over on Great British Chefs!
I have a secret. You can't tell anyone, because I've spent the last four weeks moping around in huge jumpers moaning about how cold and rubbish England is compared to Asia, rolling my eyes every time I see grey skies (so my eyes have basically taken up permanent residence in the back of my head, then) and huffing every time anyone seems pleased to live in this ridiculous country. I'd hate to be inconsistent. But...and I can barely bring myself to admit it...tonight I actually found myself enjoying the English autumn.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.
If I had to name my biggest personality flaw (or, rather, select one from an epic list that includes 'raging temper', 'neuroses' and 'inability to not say what I really think'), it would probably be my impatience. I'm just awful. I notice it the most when in public places. Striding quickly down the street, for example, keen to get to my destination, I frequently find myself stuck behind some idiot who insists on dithering around, moving from side to side of the pavement and generally holding up my entire life with their sheer ineptitude.
Perhaps I'm in the pool, eager to get my sixty lengths over and done with so I can go home and eat dinner (that, after all, is the only reason I swim: so I can eat more). But oh, there's someone who is clearly blind and hasn't read the 'Medium Lane' sign properly, so is floating along on their back without a care in the world, flailing their arms wildly and preventing any kind of normal or serious swimming from going on around them while moving at a pace approximately slower than a pond snail. This is the kind of person who inevitably believes that breaststroke on your back is actually a legitimate stroke that really exists. It doesn't. You look like an idiot. Roll over and move on.
I could be on a cycle path, breezily pedalling away until I come to a crowd of people, invariably middle-aged and therefore not in a hurry, walking five or six abreast along the path, laughing away, not a care in the world, completely oblivious to the fact that I'm hovering behind them, making that 'Um, hello, there's a cyclist behind you' noise by back-pedalling. So I ring my bell, and they take approximately two hours to actually move and let me past. What amazes me is always the look of surprise and/or indignation that accompanies this action, as if the path was their sacred domain and I've just waltzed in and hideously violated it.
Oh, and don't even get me started on the tourists when I used to live in Oxford. You can tell someone who's just moved to Oxford a mile off by the fact that they actually stop to avoid getting in the way of tourists' photos. It doesn't take you long to realise that if you make that a habit, you WILL NEVER MOVE ANYWHERE in the city centre. Literally nowhere. You will be stuck, for eternity, slowly circling the Rad Cam, unable to progress beyond the Bridge of Sighs and definitely without a chance of ever passing the Sheldonian theatre. You will perish tragically, incarcerated in this touristic Bermuda triangle, unable to escape to find food, water, or your own house.
'But,' I hear you ask, 'Why don't you just say 'excuse me'?'
Because, dear readers, I long ago decided that the best strategy in all these situations is not politeness. The obvious solution is to passive-aggressively mutter 'Moron' at a decibel level that is not quite under my breath, so is still vaguely audible to the offending party, and then fly past while simultaneously making a sort of huffing noise.
It surprises me, then, that when I get into the kitchen I become a different person in this respect. What I lack in everyday life in terms of patience, I make up for in the world of cooking.
While there is a lot to be said for food that you can get on the table in a matter of minutes (but not, I think, for the crazed antics of a certain Mr Oliver who writes meal plans which are only feasible if you have a small army of kitchen minions on hand to wash everything up on the go, plug in your blender, open your packets and weigh out your ingredients), there is also much merit to be had from taking it a little bit easier, culinarily speaking. (Again, I can only do this in the kitchen - I'm totally incapable of taking anything remotely easy when it comes to normal life).
Take a stew, for example. While a stir-fry or pasta dish is a lovely thing, it can't really compete with the utterly divine aroma of a meaty mass that has been bubbling away in the oven for a good three hours or so - or even longer, if you go for that slow-roasting, oven on overnight thing (the idea of an unattended oven scares me a little, so I've never tried this). My favourite thing about stew is the total transformation it undergoes, from a mass of disparate meat and veg floating around in stock to a sumptuous, tender medley of slippery vegetables, ultra-soft meat and rich, thick gravy.
While I frequently make a loaf of soda bread for breakfast, enabling me to have fresh, warm, cake-like bread on my plate slathered in jam in under forty-five minutes, it can't quite compete with my homemade sourdough, the starter for which has been months in the making. The actual loaf takes pretty much a whole day to make, but oh my goodness is it worth it. The first time I took homemade sourdough out of the oven, I may have done a small gleeful dance when I spied its burnished, floured crust, looking exactly like something you'd pay good money for at an artisan baker's. When I bit into it, and tasted that tangy, sour, aerated crumb, it was so worth the days and days of stirring up an increasingly pungent mixture of flour and water.
Then there are marinades - nothing quite like placing some lovely meat or fish in a veritable bath of flavour for a few hours then taking it out to cook, knowing it's been soaking up all that deliciousness. I'm always suspicious of recipes that instruct you to marinate something for around 30 minutes - surely that's not enough time for proper absorption to take place. I love the feeling of sticking a tray of spice-rubbed, oil-soaked meat or fish in the fridge before I go to bed, knowing it's sitting there becoming tastier and tastier as I sleep.
Then there are the joys of preserving. While it is a faff, during the height of summer, to slice and poach kilos of apricots before packing them into a jar, spooning over syrup and sealing them in the oven, when there are gluts of these gorgeous fruits at the market, it is so worth it a few months later, in the middle of January, when I can spoon these delicious golden fruits onto my morning porridge; just as tasty as they were when they were in season. While my first instinct with gluts of fruit is just to gorge myself on them, pure and unadulterated, there's a lot to be said for taking the time to make jam, to be enjoyed at a later date.
Last autumn, I made sloe gin. I couldn't resist picking the sloes that were everywhere up in the Yorkshire dales when I was on holiday for a week. It's funny to read that post, where I extol the delights of Yorkshire eating, a year later, now that I've ended up living here.
I spent an hour or so dodging thorns to end up with a bag of fat, speckled sloes which I put in the freezer then bashed with a rolling pin until they were all crushed. They went into a big jar with gin and sugar, and then the waiting game began. I shook the jars every week or so, to let everything mingle nicely. It was a good seven months later before I had my first taste. Definitely more patience involved than I've ever had in public.
Sloe gin is a delightful beverage. Unfortunately it's so delightful because it's sweet and warming, and you can easily forget it's alcoholic. That way awkward drunkenness lies. However, as luck would have it, it's also wonderful to use in cooking. During the summer I baked halved peaches and apricots with a splash of sloe gin in a foil parcel in the oven and on the barbecue, and they were utterly luscious. The gin imparts a gorgeous rich syrupy sweetness.
So, in the spirit of using two classic autumn ingredients, I've combined our lovely sloes with one of my favourite autumn fruits: the fig. While figs are generally imported from Turkey at this time of year, you can grow your own if you're lucky. Running with the idea of the baked peaches and apricots, here I've baked halved figs in sloe gin and brown sugar until the figs mellow and soften, leaving behind purple syrupy juices. It's sweet and delicious, and a beautifully simple way to enjoy the perfection of a fig without too much messing around. All you need is a spoon and some good ice cream.
Figs baked in sloe gin (serves 2):
- 6 figs, ideally fairly ripe, but rock-solid ones will still work
- 3 tbsp brown sugar
- 5 tbsp sloe gin
Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Slice the figs in half and place into a baking dish that will fit them snugly. Toss them together with the sugar and gin, then arrange cut side down in the dish. Cover with foil and bake for 20-30 minutes, until soft and tender. Serve with some of the cooking liquid spooned over.
How utterly gorgeous are these little baby figs?
I found them in M&S months ago, but dismissed them as the kind of gimmicky, ludicrous, overpriced fruit that I generally tend to avoid, preferring to buy stuff that's in season and hasn't been shipped from halfway across the world (exceptions: pineapple, bananas, and Alphonso mangoes). They were something like £2.50 a box, which for some reason at the time seemed an inordinate amount of money to spend on just a handful of tiny fruits that would probably prove tasteless, fuzzy and disappointing.
Then I saw them again the other day, and thought...what? Two boxes for £3? Three pounds. That is, in the grand scheme of things, not a lot of money. I couldn't quite think why I hadn't just bought them before. Maybe because real, normal-sized figs were in season. Maybe because they seemed extravagant when I was still a student and not earning money. But now that I am, in fact, earning (some) money, they were just the treat I needed at the end of a long day.
Oh and I may also have just bought a pair of Russell & Bromley shoes...but let's focus on the figs. If only because they seem positively bargainous in comparison.
A fresh fig is just the thing for these grey sort-of-but-not-quite-Spring climes. If Hamlet were still alive, I venture he'd be saying 'The fig's the thing'. I just realise I wrote 'still alive', as if Hamlet were, in fact, once living and not the figment of Shakespeare's imagination. Hmmm.
Anyway, the fresh, sweet, crunchy bite of a fig is a welcome thing at the moment. As is its glorious dark pink flesh and perfect bulbous form. Even more so for being miniature - these baby figs are the perfect garnish to just about anything.
I've used them in a few recipes so far, but this one is definitely a highlight. I found some glorious smoked duck breast at the recent Feast East food festival in Cambridgeshire (more on other delights from there at a future date...), which again was something I'd usually dismiss as extravagantly expensive, but something about food festivals seems to turn me into an unabashed hedonist with an apparently limitless bank balance, so it was all OK. I bought it. Duck and figs are a classic and wonderful combination that I've worked with a few times, and adding a smoky element just makes it even better. This would have been lovely on its own, but I added some mozzarella. I'm not really sure why. I think my thought process went:
"Figs. Mmm, sweet. Good with creamy things. Like cheese. Ricotta cheese. Mmmm. But I always make a fig and ricotta salad. Need something similar. Milky and quite bland but still tasty. MmmmOZZARELLA. I love mozzarella. Haven't had it in ages. Would it go with duck? Hmm. I don't see why not. It goes with most cured meats, and that's basically what smoked duck is. Ooh I can't wait to tear apart that quivering globule of milky goodness."
Bear in mind this entire train of thought either occurred in the swimming pool or while negotiating Cambridge traffic on my bike. Unsure which. Neither are really appropriate, are they?
Now, I don't like salad without carbs. I don't mean dough sticks, Pizza-Express style. But something starchy and filling, otherwise there is just no point - I'll be hungry again in five minutes. For this element I tend to use either couscous, pearl barley, or lentils. Any of those would be great here, but I went for lentils - their earthy, knobbly texture is great with rich meats and also with sweet figs.
Puy lentils, cooked in chicken stock then tossed in a tangy mustardy dressing (I'm obsessed with mustard at the moment...I dress basically everything in mustard except myself), oodles of fresh lemon thyme (so great with figs), some rocket, those smoky slivers of tasty duck curled like ribbons on the plate, fat hunks of torn mozzarella sitting like little milky clouds and finally, those wonderful jewel-like baby figs.
I took this into work the next day and one of my colleagues peered over and said "Ooh, that looks very healthy. Are those lentils?"
I said "Yes - lentils, rocket, smoked duck, mozzarella and baby figs".
I could also have said, "Yes, I'm a massively middle class food snob, the kind that makes her own cheese and muesli and has six different types of flour in her larder, as well as a sourdough starter lurking in the airing cupboard."
Either, really. She replied, "Oh. I have last night's shepherd's pie."
So, if you happen to have some smoked duck and baby figs to hand, give this a go. It's a really delicious combination of flavours and textures, with the smoked duck the star followed closely by the adorable figlets. However, you could also use fresh duck breast, served pink and thinly sliced, or just something like Parma ham, or even bacon lardons. You could use fresh normal figs if in season, or replace with thin slices of pear or quince, or maybe grapes.
But I'd say, live dangerously. Go to M&S and buy a box of baby figs. They might make you smile. If they don't, try a pair of Russell & Bromley shoes.
I'm not going to post a recipe for this, because a) I don't really remember quantities and b) it's so easy that you could probably make it in your sleep. Though I wouldn't recommend that. Basically, you want to boil some lentils (around 80g per person) in chicken stock until tender but still nutty. Toss with a dressing made from 1-2 tsp Dijon mustard, 1 tsp balsamic vinegar, and 2 tbsp olive/rapeseed oil, and lots of salt, pepper and fresh thyme/lemon thyme leaves. Add a handful of rocket/rocket and spinach salad. Toss with strips of smoked duck, torn mozzarella, and halved baby figs. Eat.
3. Fig and orange cobbler. Figs and oranges are a surprisingly successful combination (my aim this autumn is to discover all possible partners for the wonderful fig - raspberries and oranges are two of my new finds). Mix sliced figs and segmented oranges (about eight figs and two oranges) with a little dark sugar and a splash of rum, orange juice or grand marnier in a pie dish. Dollop on this cobbler topping, then bake for half an hour or so until the fruit releases its beautiful garnet juices and the topping is crisp and crunchy. This also works wonderfully as a crumble, especially if you mix some oats and almonds or hazelnuts into the crumble mixture. The figs soften and the oranges become really sweet and flavoursome, and the combination together is juicy, fragrant and delicious. Add some good vanilla ice cream and devour: autumn in a bowl.
4. Porridge with apple and quince compote. A delicious, unusual and thoroughly seasonal way to start an autumn day. Simply simmer peeled, chopped quince in a little water and lemon juice until almost tender. Don't throw away the cores and peel - simmer those covered in water in a separate pan while you cook the quince. Add a few sliced cooking/Cox apples to the chopped quince (peel if you like - I only bother if they're quite big, otherwise it's too fiddly) and the water from the quince cores and peel, and cook until the apples start to disintegrate. You should have a lovely, pale gold bowl of fragrant goodness. You can add sugar, but I don't think it needs it - quince is sweet enough on its own. This is lovely on hot porridge scattered with a few blackberries.
5. The Great British Food Revival. A brilliant programme all about championing British produce that is in danger of being sidelined by foreign imports, putting us back in touch with our food heritage and urging us to save those traditional ingredients from extinction (think peas, pears, crab, pork, potatoes...). I loved the first series, and the second is just as good, judging from what I've seen so far: Gregg Wallace extolling the virtues of Yorkshire rhubarb, an ingredient very close to my heart and one that I hoard like a mad person during its short season. There's still some in my freezer. He comes up with some unusual and delicious recipes that I can't wait to try.
While on the subject, I love Gregg Wallace. I think he has an honest and immensely refreshing attitude to food. None of this poncing around with silly descriptions about umami, mouthfeel and acidity. He simply says "it's like a hug from the pudding angel". If that isn't a concise and accurate description of a dessert, I don't know what is. He is entirely unpretentious and seems like a genuinely nice, fun person. And I'm not just saying this because he likes rhubarb, though that does win anyone brownie points in my eyes.
I'm also looking forward to seeing Valentine Warner's contribution to the show, mainly because I had lunch with him a couple of months ago and am childish enough to get excited about having met people who appear on TV.
If asked to give a list of the dishes/recipes I've cooked more than once in my life, it would undoubtedly be short and sweet. I reckon I could count said dishes on, if not one hand, then definitely two hands. A lot of people find it odd that I never cook the same thing twice. If something tastes nice, they figure, why wouldn't you make it again soon afterwards? I sometimes wish I could see things in this way, be one of those organised cooks who has a small repertoire of tasty and perfected dishes floating around in their head, who finds it easy to make a snap decision about what's for dinner (and, consequently, make a snap shopping trip in their lunch break or on the way home for the ingredients, rather than traipsing around endless markets and butchers for inspiration and then dithering over accompanying ingredients and the like for - sometimes - hours at a time). In fact, if I could add up the number of hours I've spent simply shopping for ingredients and wandering aimlessly around markets trying to figure out what on earth to buy, it would probably be roughly equal to the number of hours spent studying for my degrees. Terrifying.
I can't help it. I just have this compulsion to experiment every time I have the opportunity to cook. Why cook something where I know what it tastes like when I could cook something totally new? If I didn't keep cooking new things, I'd never discover certain great dishes that I'd want to come back to.
I do the same thing in restaurants; I rarely order something twice. The only exception to this is my favourite dish at an Italian restaurant I go to with my boyfriend. The crab linguine was so good when I first tried it that I had it again twice. Naturally I spent about two hours dithering over the menu deciding whether to take this highly out-of-character and, let's be honest, downright outlandish step. However, the linguine wasn't as good the second and third time around, which to me seems proof of my hypothesis that you shouldn't stick to what you know; you should go off piste and welcome the possible exciting and delicious discoveries that may greet you there.
However, there are some dishes (albeit not many) that I have cooked more than once.
1. Chermoula roasted aubergine with bulgur wheat and yoghurt. It's a beauty not only because it's vegetarian and can even be made vegan if you omit the yoghurt, but because it's so incredibly delicious. You wouldn't expect it from the ingredients list, but the flavours work perfectly together, creating a harmonious and intensely moreish whole, as well as something really unusual and intriguing. You have the charred, spicy exterior of the roasted aubergine, then it gives way to something silky, smoky and unctuous, and then you have the delightful contrast in texture with the nutty bulgur, crunchy pine nuts, soft sweet raisins, and cooling yoghurt. I really cannot stress how good this is. It's perfect for those times when you feel you could do with cutting back a bit on the animal flesh.
2. Aromatic apricot and almond chicken. A sort of easy tagine, this marries the warmth of turmeric, cinnamon and ginger with meaty chunks of chicken, meltingly sweet onions, and tart pieces of apricot. Scatter over toasted almonds and lashings of coriander, and you end up with something incredible. You'd never guess it was so easy. It's also easy to make for just two people, unlike a lot of stew type things.
3. Risotto. Although I'm not sure this counts, as I rarely make exactly the same risotto twice. I always tweak things. However, favourite combinations are roasted butternut squash with goats'/blue cheese and/or bacon; mushroom and bacon; seafood; leek and cheese. I also like to substitute pearl barley for risotto rice sometimes. There's little you can't make into a wonderful risotto. I find it, without a doubt, the most relaxing thing ever to cook. All done in one pan, and after the initial frying of vegetables nothing to do except stir lazily until you're left with a beautiful starchy mound of wonderfulness. Even better if said stirring is helped along by a glass of wine.
4. Cheesecake. As with risotto, not sure it belongs on this list, as I always experiment with flavours, usually fruit. However, my basic baked cheesecake recipe is usually the same, and works for most ingredient combinations. My favourite cheesecakes so far have to be the mango, coconut and cardamom unbaked version (incredible), and the baked redcurrant version (like something you'd get in a restaurant but better).
5. Pasta with mushroom and bacon cream sauce. This started off as a sort of carbonara, but now bears little resemblance to a carbonara. I fry chopped bacon until really crispy, then drain on kitchen paper. Then I cook mushrooms and sometimes garlic in the bacon fat until nicely caramelised before adding LOADS of lemon thyme and black pepper, plus a little white wine and about a (small) tub of creme fraiche. This gets stirred into hot pasta, and the bacon scattered over at the end so it retains its crunch. Comforting, zesty, satisfying. It has all the goodness of carbonara but is much healthier, especially if you use half-fat creme fraiche and cut the fat off the bacon (or fry it separately in strips for your boyfriend to eat, as I do.)
6. Couscous with roasted vegetables. I eat this for lunch most days. In my opinion there's little that doesn't go with couscous. For me it's comfort food, something you can pile on your fork, soaked with all its lovely flavourings, and devour. Great with oven roasted tomatoes, peppers and aubergine, plus fresh basil and maybe some feta or goats' cheese. I also love couscous mixed with chopped mango, cooked prawns and lots of lime juice and coriander.
7. Pear, raisin and hazelnut pancakes with maple syrup. I make these most weekends when I'm at my boyfriend's. They are simply the best breakfast you will ever taste. I've tried numerous variations since I discovered these, in an attempt to match their glory, but none have ever come close. The apricot version was quite nice but a bit too tart and lacking in texture; the apple version was fairly insipid; the pineapple and coconut version left me feeling nauseous (probably because I put a whole pineapple in there for just two of us). I conclude that these are the definitive breakfast pancakes. It's something about the grainy, juicy texture of the pears, the fact that they're not too sweet but they're fragrant enough to stand out, and the contrast with the chewy raisins and crunchy nuts (pecans or almonds work well too). Drizzle over lashings of maple syrup, and you have something amazing. Also great with fresh raspberries or blackberries scattered over.
8. Orzo with broccoli pesto and avocado. I only discovered this dish about a month ago but have made it again since, which is very rare for me. It's such a delightful and moreish combination of flavours; it tastes and looks really healthy but also quite creamy and luxurious at the same time.
And that is basically it. Apart from things like porridge, which I make every day in varying flavours, those are the only things I can recall that I've cooked more than once. Which is actually a bit weird, now that I think about it. Obviously there are categories of dishes that I cook often - curries, stir-fries, cakes, cobblers, roasts - but as for single recipes that I've repeated, I can't think of any more.
It's not that I'm not totally satisfied with dishes I've cooked and therefore don't want to repeat them; I had a quick look through my recipe index just now and have been reminded of lots of excellent creations that I really feel I ought to repeat sometime soon. I guess my sense of adventure just nearly always overpowers my craving for the familiar.
The reason I've rambled about this is because of this cake. I made this cake a few weeks ago. Figs are still plentiful at the moment, their luscious curves calling out to me from their little plastic cocoons in the market, and the adventurous side of my cooking mentality is always trying to think of new and delicious ways to use them. Yet my mind just keeps coming back to this cake. For once, I'm actually thinking I should go with what I know. Because figs have such a short season, why waste them by experimenting with recipes that may turn out to be decidedly average? Why not seize the day and bake them into this truly divine cake, a recipe I know is perfect and which makes me salivate a little bit when I remember it? It seems madness not to.
This cake uses the sponge recipe from my Czech bubble cake, which is enriched with yoghurt to make a wonderfully soft and moist crumb. To it I added chopped figs, raspberries, chopped hazelnuts, vanilla and cinnamon. The result is so good that I think I might have to get the cake tin out now and make it again. You end up with an incredibly moist, gooey cake rippled with juicy raspberries and sweet, fragrant figs (the fig and raspberry combination is an excellent one, as featured in this fig and raspberry galette). The crunchy hazelnuts and hint of vanilla make it beautifully fragrant, while adding an intensely rich, toasted, nutty flavour that contrasts perfectly with the two very sweet fruits. Scattering the nuts over the top gives it a crumble-like topping and texture which is immensely appealing against the soft cake.
It's something that can be eaten warm with ice cream as a pudding, or later for afternoon tea. It's quite a hearty cake, quite dense and squidgy, but this is exactly how I like my cakes.
It's pretty much perfect. Why waste good figs on inferior cakes? Make this now.
Am I the only person who hardly ever cooks the same thing twice? Do you have a repertoire of trusty, tried and tested recipes that you return to time after time, or do you prefer to see every dinner as an opportunity for experimentation?
Fig, hazelnut and raspberry cake (serves 6-8):
- 75g light muscovado sugar
- 75g vanilla sugar (or caster sugar)
- 50g butter, softened
- 2 large eggs
- 200g plain flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- Around 200ml yoghurt
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract (or 1 tsp if you didn't use vanilla sugar)
- A pinch of salt
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 90g hazelnuts, roughly chopped
- 5 large fresh figs
- A punnet of raspberries
- Demerara sugar, for sprinkling
Pre-heat the oven to 180C (160C fan oven). Grease and line a 20cm cake tin.
Cream together the butter and sugar with an electric whisk until light and fluffy. Add the eggs and mix together.
Sift in the flour and baking powder, then stir in the yoghurt until you have a thick batter. Add the vanilla, salt, cinnamon and two thirds of the hazelnuts.
Chop three of the figs into small pieces and stir into the batter along with half the raspberries. Pour into the cake tin, then quarter the remaining figs and arrange on top of the cake along with the raspberries and remaining hazelnuts. Scatter over 2-3 tbsp demerara sugar and put in the oven.
Bake for around 55 minutes or until a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream. It's also tasty the next day with a cup of tea.
I was pretty excited to find my name in the Guardian this week. Food and wine writer Fiona Beckett, who also wrote the student cookbook 'Beyond Baked Beans' and has a website of the same name devoted to student cooking, featured me and Nutmegs, seven in the article 'A new generation of student cooks?' You can read it here if you're interested.
I enjoyed both the article and - even more so - reading the comments underneath, to hear about others' experiences of the world of student cookery. Some of them sounded truly disastrous, and make my minor incidents (freezer left open, pan left full of used oil for days on end, rancid rotten fish smell coming from my sodden teatowel, washing up never done) pale in comparison.
Actually no. Nothing pales in comparison to that towel incident. Lord only knows what hideous atrocities were inflicted upon my poor teatowel to make it smell like that. Had it been left inside the festering innards of a dead whale for three months?
I always kind of forget that I learned most of my cooking skills as a student. I didn't think student food bloggers were few and far between, and certainly never thought of myself as special because I was both a student and could cook. I think I was just incredibly lucky to have had several like-minded friends, whose interest in food went beyond the kebab van and the tub of microwaveable Dolmio sauce. Like the friend who spattered the kitchen in mammalian blood while attempting jugged hare. Or the friend who actually suggested we go to a farmers' market together (most students never having contemplated such a thing, and certainly not prepared to cycle across town for farm-fresh eggs and smoked rapeseed oil). I'm pretty sure all of my friends knew how to boil an egg. Although that may not just be coincidence - if they hadn't been able to boil an egg, they probably wouldn't have passed my stringent friendship vetting process.
Because I can barely remember pre-student life, I feel like I've always been a student. I keep forgetting that I'm not any more. Today I bought some pears off a man at the market, and he looked at me earnestly and said "I hope you don't mind me asking, but are you a student by any chance?" It took me a few seconds of sad contemplation before I had to admit "No, no I'm not". Desperately trying to make myself still feel young and cool, I added "any more". As if, from those two words, he'd know that I am practically still a student - it's only three months since I handed in my Masters dissertation, and technically term hasn't started yet so I could still be a student, just waiting to go back to university.
It's kind of tragic, really, that I am now desperate for total strangers to perceive me as a fresh-faced graduate, barely out of university, still in touch with that hip student lifestyle.
As if. I don't think I was ever your typical cool student (I just used the word 'hip', for example). The last time I went clubbing was in my first year. I can count on one hand the number of times I've been drunk at university. Instead of an alcohol budget, I had a budget for fruit and fresh flowers. Yes, really. (Lilies are my favourite, though I do like a nice bunch of tulips. Preferably a reddish pink colour with yellow tips.) I rarely went to bed after 1am, I rarely lay in past 9am. I never ate a single kebab, ready meal or takeaway pizza. My idea of heaven was an evening in with a cup of tea, some chocolate and some food TV on iPlayer. I spent more time in the kitchen than I did in the pub. I spent more time in the swimming pool than I did in the pub.
I kind of feel I need a disclaimer at this point announcing that I did, in fact, have some friends. Maybe if they're reading this, they could leave a comment. Just to prove their existence.
It's interesting to look at those comments on Fiona's article. I do think the image of students who can't even make toast is horribly outdated now. At least, I really like to think it is, because the idea of anyone not being able to effect the most basic of kitchen skills makes me a bit depressed. I suppose I just assume that everyone knows how to cook pasta, eggs, toast, stews, stir-fries, bacon sandwiches (no, you don't put the raw bacon between the slices of bread and then chuck the whole thing in a sandwich toaster). To me it just seems like common sense. But I suppose if you've never had anyone teach you those things, nor have never needed to learn because your parents did it all for you, then why would you know?
I also assume that everyone knows not to put metal in the microwave. However, this was sadly disproven to me when I witnessed my housemate last year standing by calmly while the metal takeaway tray she'd put in the microwave sizzled and sparked like a bolt of lightning. I leapt up from the table and turned the microwave off, and she looked most displeased. "Don't you know you can't put metal in a microwave?!" I asked in disbelief. "Really? Oh...I've been doing it for weeks and it's been fine..."
Readers, you are very lucky that I am actually alive, and was not burned in my bed some time over the past year.
What nobody seems to realise is that the enemy of student cooking is not money. It is logistics. Cooking for yourself is, as has been said time and time again, usually cheaper than buying ready meals or takeaways in the long run, especially if you cook in bulk and freeze it for later meals, or cook for large groups and share the cost. Most students have been given this advice on repeat; I'm pretty sure they're aware of the benefits.
Yet you may have all these good intentions about cooking for yourself, making your own bread, whipping up vast quantities of homemade pasta sauces and soups for the freezer, learning how to stir-fry...but if you share a tiny kitchenette comprising two hob rings and a microwave with twenty other students, as is a common scenario, then you may as well kiss those dreams goodbye. I struggled to share a perfectly decent and well-equipped kitchen with only eight other people in my second and third years. There just isn't enough space, it's impossible to have more than two people cooking at the same time, and there are bound to be fights for space at the six-chaired dinner table, especially if two people have both invited friends over.
I was lucky with my last kitchen as a graduate, because in our house of six I was the only person who used it. I think I had to share the kitchen twice in my entire year, and even then my boisterous, spoon-wielding, apron-clad presence was apparently so intimidating to one of my housemates that he felt the need to approach me timidly and ask in a tiny voice, "Is it OK for me to use your kitchen?" (in the same sort of way you might ask Lord Voldemort if it would be OK to throw a Harry Potter appreciation party) before daring to even take a pan out of the cupboard.
If universities really are serious about wanting students to cook, they need to give them better facilities. But that is unlikely to happen, especially at Oxford, because the colleges want the students to eat in hall and thereby increase their profits. I was lucky to have had a kitchen at all; there are several colleges who don't offer any in their accommodation. While to most students, at Oxford at least, this seems to be the norm, now that I think about it it's really quite shocking. Obviously I feel this way because food is my entire life, but being deprived of a kitchen seems to me akin to being deprived of running water or access to daylight; it's a basic human necessity and it seems outrageous that some students can't even make themselves a piece of toast if they've missed dinner in hall, or don't fancy the menu that night.
We can lament the state of student cooking until we're blue in the face, but until students are provided with decent facilities in which to cook, I can't see how we can expect them to start whipping up gourmet feasts. A George Foreman grill, toaster and microwave do not a kitchen make, though I've seen such set-ups described as "fully-equipped kitchen" in accommodation blurbs. Outrageous.
If that was all I was given to cook with, I'd damn well go to the kebab van too.
Off my soapbox and back to the things that really matter: crumbly buttery pastry; sticky warm figs; sweet tart raspberries; crunchy demerara sugar. I've never made a galette before but have always loved the idea: it's pie or tart for the lazy person. You make pastry, roll it out into a pleasingly uneven circle, stick some fruit in the middle, fold the edges up to partially enclose the fruit, sprinkle on some sugar and bake in the oven. The pastry turns golden and crisp, the fruit cooks down to a delightful warm juiciness, and the end result is mouthwateringly delicious.
I love the rusticity of the galette (or crostata, as I think they call them in Italy): the uneven folds of the pastry over the filling, the action of tucking your precious fruity treasure inside its little blanket of butter and flour, to slumber peacefully in the oven for thirty minutes. I love the versatility; almost any fruit would work in this recipe, and still look delightful. The problem with pie is that, until you slice it, you have no idea what's in it. It doesn't have that wow factor. Here, the fruit is boldly on display, to be marvelled at and salivated over.
The combination of figs and raspberries is heavenly. I've never tried it before, but there's something about the aroma of a cooked raspberry that is just irresistible. They smell like a sweet shop, somehow, taking on a wonderful candied scent as they emerge from the oven. The flavour is heightened, the sweetness intensified, and they make an excellent partner to the subtle flavour of a ripe fig. The combination just works. Add to that a pastry made from spelt flour, which tastes gorgeously nutty and is as buttery and crumbly as you could possibly desire, and you have a really easy but sublime dessert. The best part is the crispy pastry crust with its scattering of sugar, where the fruit has melted into it slightly and softened it. Add a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and devour the whole lot with a big smile on your face. It really is wonderful.
Fig and raspberry galette (serves 4 - recipe easily doubled):
- 125g spelt flour (or normal flour)
- 75g very cold butter, cubed
- 25g light brown sugar
- Very cold water
- 5 figs, quartered
- A handful of raspberries
- 1 tbsp demerara sugar
- Icing sugar
Put the flour, butter and sugar in a food processor and blitz until it resembles fine breadcrumbs (don't overblend it though, as this will make it too hot). Pour in a little water and blitz again until the mixture just starts to come together - I used about 2 tbsp water. Bring the pastry into a ball and wrap in clingfilm. Chill for an hour in the fridge.
Pre-heat the oven to 160C. Dust a worktop with icing sugar and roll the pastry out into a rough circle, about 5mm thick. Place on a piece of baking parchment on a baking tray.
Arrange the figs and raspberries in the centre of the circle, then bring the pastry edges up around the fruit and fold over each other in a sort of pleated fashion. Sprinkle the crust with demerara sugar, then bake in the oven for 30-35 minutes until the pastry is crispy and golden, and the fruit soft. Allow to cool slightly, then dust with icing sugar and serve with vanilla ice cream.
How do people who aren't interested in food cope with the onset of autumn?
I can bear the chill weather and the prospect of long, dark days because partridge and pheasant have started appearing in the butchers. Quinces, some of the most handsome I've ever seen, are piled high in the market. Small but perfectly formed crisp English apples - orange-scented Coxes and my favourite, the flavoursome Russet - bring a welcome change from the ubiquitous (and foreign) Pink Lady. Butternut squash, one of my favourite vegetables, will soon be everywhere, its sweet, sticky, golden flesh promising a plethora of delicious uses. I can finally cook the eight pigs' cheeks sitting in my freezer, braising them for hours in a sticky concoction of orange juice and star anise that will be just the thing to provide some cheer on a dark evening. Fine English pears are abundant, just waiting to be baked in crumbles or cakes, or scattered over my morning porridge with an obscene amount of nutmeg. As are some wonderful varieties of plum, so much juicier and taster than foreign imports, ideal baked with cinnamon and ginger for a warming breakfast or dessert. Earthy wild mushrooms will be somewhere, if I can just find them, ideal for coupling with fresh, zesty lemon thyme for an umami-rich risotto. I can't wait to take my potato ricer to some good old-fashioned floury potatoes, to make a rich mash to accompany a beef and ale stew.
Without all that to look forward to, I think I'd consider hibernation.
If you know anything about anything, or have any sort of taste whatsoever, you will of course have noticed the glaring omission from the above list.
I've devoted many words on this blog to the rapturous praise of figs. Every time I find myself bulk-buying them, I try and figure out precisely what it is that makes me so obsessed. I have come up with several answers.
1. Figs are beautiful. There's no fruit quite like them; the closest comparison would be a pomegranate, I think. With their beautiful red-pink interior, bursting with glistening clusters of golden seeds, their delightful deep purple skins, tinged slightly with green, and their curvaceous form, just begging to be held in the palm of one's hand, they are incomparable in their aesthetic appeal.
2. Figs are versatile. My favourite fruits are those that work as well in a savoury context as a sweet. Figs tick all the boxes. Wonderful baked with a little sugar or honey, or tucked into an almond tart for a dessert, they are equally delicious added to the cooking juices of duck, pork or lamb before serving. Juicy warm figs coupled with the rich meat of a slow-cooked lamb shoulder or a pan-fried duck breast is one of the best taste sensations you will ever try. Ditto figs with parma ham or goat's cheese. In fact, most cheeses, and most meats. Like pomegranate seeds, they add a wonderful burst of sweetness that is subtle enough not to overpower other savoury flavours.
3. Figs are elusive. Like a child, I want that which I cannot have. Figs appear for such a sadly brief season, and even then are rarely cheap. However, like the equally elusive Alphonso mango, I justify the cost because I am an epicurean at heart, and fully believe that money spent on good food is money well spent. So what if I spent approximately £60 on Alphonso mangoes over the summer months? (Oh dear...I think it might actually have been closer to £80, and now that I think about it that really does seem obscene). Well, I don't really buy inferior supermarket mangoes at £1-2 each for the rest of the year, so I'm only spending in one go what I'd spent in smaller stages year-round otherwise. Or something. Yes, OK, I concede that maybe that's too much to spend on mangoes. Moving swiftly on...
Altamura has quite a lot in common with sourdough. It lasts a long time, toasts well, has a satisfyingly crisp crust and a slightly sour crumb. Crosta & Mollica suggest using it for bruschetta, and I can't think of a bread that would work better. I topped mine, toasted, with ricotta cheese, slices of smoked Parma ham (I found this in M&S and am wondering where it has been all my life - the posh person's bacon, it's rich and deeply flavoured, a substitute for Parma ham with a certain je ne sais quoi), warm halved figs, and a little basil.
Oh, what a lunch. While ricotta, Parma ham and figs are always a good idea, putting them on this bread transformed a good lunch into a great one. The bread had just the right balance between a really crisp, crunchy crust and a yielding crumb with a slight tang to it. It's hard to describe what makes it so good, but I'd really urge you to try it. It's not hugely cheap, at £1.79 for a packet of five slices, but the slices are very large ones. I'd love to see what a full loaf looks like (and by that I mean "I'd love to eat a full loaf of this bread. In one go. With figs and cheese and ham, sitting on an Italian hilltop watching the sun go down, with a good glass of wine"). Each slice would probably constitute one meal for a normal person. I, being greedy, had two slices per lunch (which means, annoyingly, that I now have one slice left in the packet that I don't know what to do with - I personally think packs of six slices would be a better idea, but that I suppose is irrelevant).
I won't insult your intelligence by posting an exact recipe for this combination. Instead I suggest you head down to Waitrose and get a packet of Crosta & Mollica's Altamura bread (or, if you can't find it, some really good sourdough). Put it under the grill until nicely toasted on both sides - put the figs under the grill too, to heat through. Spread with ricotta, then layer over a few slices of smoked Parma ham (or normal Parma ham). Halve the figs with your fingers and place on the ham, using a knife to sort of spread them out so they cover the ham and cheese. Add a few leaves of basil.
Devour, and be glad for the rich bounty of autumn and Italy.
Also, many thanks to my exceptional boyfriend and duck-eating companion for the beautiful photos.