I think I would consider lemon tart to be the most dangerous dessert. Not dangerous in the way of Japanese fugu or anything, I’m not claiming that it will kill you if incorrectly prepared, but dangerous in that capable-of-completely-abolishing-all-willpower sort of way. There’s something about the irresistible mix of buttery pastry, silky custard, and the snap of lemon that seems to prevent you reaching that overload threshold you get with other desserts. Because it has a welcome acidity from lemons, you can just keep on going without feeling yourself slip into a sugar coma. Until you do, of course, slip into a sugar coma, one that has crept up on you like some kind of saccharine ninja and left you defenceless.Read More
As food geeks, we all have a few ‘fun facts’ up our sleeve, right? Random snippets of foodie info that we use to pepper the conversations at parties or liven up a boring first date? Don’t tell me you’ve never reached for a bit of asparagus-related trivia to brighten up a dull moment, or quietened a room by pointing out that red Skittles are coloured with smushed-up insects. If you haven’t, I’m certainly never going to a party with you.Read More
When I was seventeen, I worked in the kind of restaurant that I was far too much of a food philistine to appreciate. Why would a fussy teenager who lived off a diet of McDonalds super-size happy meals, cheese sandwiches and fish fingers care about organic food that was lovingly sourced from within a fifty-mile radius, with an emphasis on seasonality, ‘from-scratch’ cooking and unusual flavour combinations? Not for my anaemic adolescent palate the delights of duck liver and raisin pâté, pickled fennel, greengage pavlova or Moroccan lamb and preserved lemon tagine. Pass the chicken nuggets.Read More
I don’t think I ever tried a piece of the lemon meringue pie that they used to serve in my school canteen, but it sticks in my memory because of its frankly alarming neon-yellow colouring. I watched friends manipulate chunks of this rubbery, radioactive stuff around their plates, reminiscent more of glow-in-the-dark wallpaper paste than of anything that was once rooted in the earth. I was oddly fascinated by it, the way its jelloid luminescence was able to support a crest of snowy meringue, the way it resembled that fluorescent putty you give children to play with. Its presence on a plate seemed somehow outrageous. Too yellow. Too lurid.Read More
Normal people have certain staples in their freezers. Bags of peas. Ice cream. Breaded fish fillets. Ready meals. Frozen pizzas. In the freezer of the food-waste-phobe, this set of staples will probably have a few extra additions: tubs of homemade stock from the leftovers of a roast dinner; parmesan rinds to be added to soups; odds and ends of bread to be turned into breadcrumbs when the need arises.
And then, if you’re me, you can add to this list a plastic bag full of squeezed lemon halves, and three frozen bergamots.Read More
My latest project for Great British Chefs has involved playing with matcha, the glorious Japanese emerald green tea powder hailed for its health benefits, refreshing bitterness and versatility in the kitchen. It also makes a good latte, so I'm told, but instead of frothing it with milk I've been stirring it into cake batters and using it to cook meat and fish. I've come up with three recipes using this beautiful ingredient: a matcha loaf cake with candied lemons and lemon syrup, a soba noodle salad with matcha tea-poached salmon, avocado and edamame beans, and a mango rice salad with matcha-smoked chicken, brined and smoked with aromatic matcha. If you've never tried cooking with tea before, or are keen to experiment with something new, I'd encourage you to give these a try. For all the recipes in one place, head over to my contributor profile at Great British Chefs. Enjoy!
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. So the saying goes. What about when life gives you one of the strongest El Niños on record, floods the city in which you live and numerous others across your country, veils the sun in a shroud of grey fug so thick that it takes three months to emerge again, smothers your house in a perpetual coat of damp that sees a bloom of bright algae spread like a butterfly across your kitchen window, has you hiding under your duvet for a good forty-five minutes every morning willing the sun to rise properly, none of this pallid half-light please, and bestows upon you a case of seasonal affective disorder so violent that no number of light boxes, sunrise clocks, daytime walks or Vitamin D pills can encourage it to dissipate and leave you feeling like a normal human being again?Read More
‘Sometimes simple is good’, my boyfriend intoned while eating this. Although I would put most of my cooking under the ‘simple’ bracket, the ninety minutes or so it inevitably takes me to make a meal every night might suggest otherwise. While I don’t begrudge any time spent in the kitchen, I think I do have a tendency to eschew the overly simple out of some kind of strange culinary logic whereby a meal only tastes good if you’ve spent ages faffing around over it and it contains at least three separate components. This fifteen-minute pasta dish has proved me wrong.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
There may not be much that is certain in life, but here are three things that are certain in the world of cooking:
- You will always happen to be wearing a white shirt when preparing tomatoes, pomegranates or beetroot.
- You will never be able to brown meatballs ‘evenly on all sides’, because they are in fact spherical and therefore do not have sides.
- You will never, ever, find a recipe that calls for an entire red cabbage.
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
Crab is one of my absolute favourite ingredients, but I don’t cook with it as often as I’d like, on account of it being quite expensive. If you’re a crab fan, though, there is a way to get around this: brown meat. For some reason it is the white meat of the crab that is more highly prized; it has a delicate flavour and meaty texture, whereas the brown meat tends to look a bit more like, well, sludge. However, it is in the brown meat, I think, that all the flavour lies, much like with chicken or turkey. You can buy it in small pots in most supermarkets. Although not appetising enough to make the star of a salad, brown crab meat works beautifully in dishes where you really want that strong, sweet crab flavour.Read More
I have a difficult relationship with yoghurt. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been unable to stand the stuff. I think I ate it as a child, but at some point something clicked in the back of my brain somewhere and I became deeply averse to the substance, to the point where watching a woman tucking into a big pot with a spoon early one morning at a bus stop in Oxford made me feel physically sick and sidle in precaution over to the nearest bin. I’ve tried to conquer my aversion, finding it irritating that there is a foodstuff out there that I don’t like, generally priding myself on my diverse omnivorousness – I used to hate melon, but a fairly un-rigorous process involving making myself eat more melon soon conquered that minor affliction – but I simply cannot get over it.Read More
Blood oranges make winter worthwhile. Grey rainy mornings are a little bit brighter as you take your sharp serrated knife and gently slice the skin off these reassuringly weighty citrus fruits, revealing the stained-glass segments within. Marigold orange with blushing tinges of red, through to the dark scarlet of lifeblood, every blood orange is different, and part of the enjoyment is taking a moment to admire the individual tones of the specimen you’re about to eat. You can eat them as they are, of course, but I like to mix them with other ingredients, particularly where their gorgeous colouring can be fully appreciated.Read More
There are some fruits that people are, generally speaking, fairly comfortable encountering in a savoury dish. Few people would bat an eyelid at a sliver of apple turning up alongside their roast pork, either in sauce form or maybe – outré prospect as it is – in thick wedges, roasted alongside the meat to soak up its delicious juices. Although a subject of mockery, ham and pineapple is a pretty established combination by now, whether it’s performing the ludicrous feat of turning your margherita into a ‘tropicana’, or in the form of a lurid golden ring of fruity goodness perched atop a fat pink slab of salty gammon.Read More
Among several recipe instructions that are guaranteed to make my blood boil is the phrase ‘brown the meatballs on all sides’.
Now, I know a qualification in mathematics is not an essential requirement for the amateur or professional chef, or indeed the humble recipe writer. But it doesn’t take Archimedes to figure out that meatballs are, in fact, spherical. This means that firstly, they do not actually have sides, and, secondly, the act of browning them entirely over their total surface area is logistically impossible.Read More
Have you ever tried whitecurrants? I bet you haven't.
Even I, until today, had never tried whitecurrants, and I've tried a lot of weird and obscure fruits and vegetables. I bet you go your entire life without ever seeing whitecurrants in the supermarket or market; in fact, you may never see them in the flesh at all, unless you're lucky enough to spend a lovely couple of hours at a pick your own farm that has them (and even then, space is usually devoted to the more popular red and black varieties). Or, of course, unless you're lucky enough to have a PhD supervisor who frequently bestows her home-grown fruit and veg on you.
She referred to them as 'a challenge', and it's not hard to see why. You can't exactly pick up a cookbook and find a selection of recipes for whitecurrants. The only recipes I've ever seen are in a tiny chapter devoted to the fruit in Nigel Slater's Tender Part II. Even there, he remarks upon the sourness of the currants and therefore their difficulty as happy bedfellows with other ingredients. There is, though, a luscious-looking whitecurrant tart that I have my eye on, with a ginger biscuit crust and a fromage frais and cheese filling.
We don't really seem to 'get' currants in the UK. You can sometimes find them at markets and supermarkets in summer, but only for a very brief period of time, and no one really seems to know what to do with them. They do present a problem, being fiddly to remove from their stalks and, to some tastes, unpleasantly sour. The trick, I find, is to couple them with sweeter fruits: redcurrants are lovely with peaches, for example, or strawberries, and blackcurrants work well with apricots, pears and apples. If you're looking for a reliable supply of these treasures, pick your own farms are probably your best bet, or growing your own (or, as I did, accidentally but conveniently choosing as your supervisor someone who grows their own).
Whitecurrants, though, are the most elusive of the lot. While redcurrants can be found, fairly reliably, in the summer, and blackcurrants do usually make an appearance in some supermarkets, whitecurrants are just not cool in the world of currants, apparently. Maybe it's their lack of bright colour, unlikely to catch the capricious eye of the passing supermarket shopper. Maybe it's their intense sourness, an acquired taste. Maybe it's a vicious circle: the less we see these currants, the less we know what to do with them, therefore the less likely we are to buy them.
So why bother with these little globes of sourness? Because, as you can see, they are totally gorgeous to look at. Up close, they have an eerie translucency to them; you can just make out the seeds inside, while the skins have a pearlescent sheen. They are not really white, but myriad shades of cream, jade, beige, almost giving off a muted glow as they sit in a bowl, waiting to be made use of. They really do look like a string of culinary pearls, begging to adorn your food in the way you might use pomegranate seeds or dried cherries. And food, in my opinion, should be adorned. Even if it's just a scattering of bright herbs, it can make all the difference.
Given their sourness, whitecurrants need to be paired with something very sweet - my thoughts initially turned to cheesecake and meringue. However, I then considered their potential in savoury recipes. Sour ingredients - those that spring to mind are gooseberries and rhubarb - are often combined with fatty meat or oily fish, their astringency used to balance the richness of the protein. Always one to go for oily fish over pretty much any form of meat, I just had to choose the best oily fish of all: mackerel.
The sour nip of a whitecurrant works perfectly with the moist, rich, crispy-edged flesh of a seared mackerel. The combination is unusual and refreshing, surprising with every mouthful. To make the mackerel even more flavoursome against the currants, I coated the fillets in a mixture of lemon salt (I'd really recommend this if you don't have any; it's just salt mixed with dried and ground lemon peel, and you can get it from JustIngredients online) and smoked paprika. It's an incredibly flavoursome, moreish combination: smoky and salty with an addictive tang from lemon. I think I might always cook mackerel in this way now; it works with so many accompaniments, and it really brings out the intense character of the fish.
To go alongside, a salad of whitecurrants and lentils. This is basically taken from Nigel Slater's Tender, where he suggests serving it with the leftovers of a roast. It works so well with my mackerel idea, though, that I don't think you could find a better combination. The lentils are nutty and earthy, a pleasant canvas for the other dancing flavours, while the burst of sour juice from a currant peppers each mouthful. There is freshness and zip from masses of shredded parsley and mint, and finally that gorgeous, succulent, crispy-skinned spiced mackerel.
If you can't get whitecurrants, you could make this with redcurrants, or pomegranate seeds, or even dried sour cherries or raisins at a push. If you don't like or have mackerel, use trout or salmon, or go the meat route - smoked chicken, sausages, roast pork, lamb and game will all work well. If you're vegetarian, try it with some crumbled goat's cheese and toasted walnuts or pecans. Either way, you'll be rewarded with a simple but beautiful plate of food, packed with nourishing and delicious vibrant flavours.
And, of course, garnished with a string of pearls.
A big thank you to Trev for the gift of whitecurrants - I hope you approve of what I did with them!
Smoky spiced mackerel with whitecurrant and lentil salad (serves 4):
- 400g puy lentils
- Sea salt
- 6 tbsp olive oil
- 2 tbsp cider or white wine vinegar
- Freshly ground black pepper
- A small bunch of parsley, finely chopped
- A small bunch of mint, finely chopped
- 200g whitecurrants (or redcurrants if you can't find whitecurrants), stalks removed
- 4 mackerel, filleted (to get 8 fillets)
- 3 tsp lemon salt
- 3 tsp smoked paprika
- Olive oil, for cooking
Cook the lentils in plenty of boiling, salted water for about 15 minutes until tender but still nutty. Drain and return to the pan. Mix the olive oil and vinegar with a teaspoon of salt and some black pepper, then stir into the lentils while still warm, along with the herbs. Allow to cool a little, then gently stir in the whitecurrants. Check the seasoning - lentils need quite a lot of salt to make them sing.
For the mackerel, dry the fillets on kitchen towel. Mix together the lemon salt, paprika and some black pepper, then spread over the fillets. Heat a glug of olive oil in a non-stick frying pan, then sear the mackerel on both sides over a high heat for about 2 minutes each side (you may need to do this in batches if your pan isn't big enough). Serve on top of the lentil salad, garnished with a little extra parsley.
I really didn't want to start this post with a 'when life gives you lemons' remark. However, these are no ordinary lemons. So I'll soften the cliché blow and alter the old adage thus:
"When Tesco unexpectedly offers you a four-pack of elusive and infamous Meyer lemons from California, the kind you read wonderful things about on American food blogs but had never expected to be able to try, you eagerly snap them up. Then, after a lengthy thought process about what possibly to do with this golden bounty, you end up making this tart."
Meyer lemons, as I have read many a time on said American food blogs, are a very different thing to the pale yellow, firm, mouth-puckeringly sour variety we are used to finding in supermarkets. They are thought to be a cross between a lemon and a mandarin or orange, which explains their colour - more marigold than yellow. Their skin is thinner than a normal lemon, and they have a much sweeter, more fragrant flavour than their regular cousins, which generally just offer a hit of tartness rather than any distinct flavour to speak of. I couldn't wait to try them.
It was difficult to know where to begin when coming up with a recipe for my little gold beauties, harmoniously nestled in their grey cardboard tray. As soon as I brought them into the kitchen, they spoke of sunshine, a radiant presence on the otherwise dark kitchen table, cast in flat winter light. I know I always talk about how generous mother nature is at this time of year, bestowing such colourful, flavoursome fruit on us when we need it most (champagne rhubarb, blood oranges, lychees, persimmon...), but it really is true, and this is another classic example.
(Of course, this argument would suggest that mother nature had anticipated the invention of air travel, knowing that we in the cold, grey UK would have access to the bounty of the Caribbean, Asia, or Peru, but let's not focus too much on that...)
After a quick google, I found a great article on the LA Times: 100 things to do with a Meyer lemon. Aside from some strange, non-culinary uses (put slices in your bath, anyone?), it was fascinating, and suddenly made me realise how useful and versatile the humble lemon can be. Frequently a back note in a recipe - a hit of acidity in a dressing, a subtle fragrance imparted to the cavity of a roast chicken - lemons rarely become the star.
I do have a couple of recipes that bring the lemon into prominence. One is an incredible roast chicken recipe from Ottolenghi, where chicken pieces are marinated in lemon juice, red onion, spices and olive oil before being roasted with thinly sliced lemons on top. The lemons soak up the fatty chickeny juices and turn crispy, meaning you can eat the whole thing. The combination of sharp, gooey roasted lemon with the deep savoury chicken skin is incredible. Another is a simple lemon drizzle cake that I found on the BBC Good Food website and which is devastatingly delicious. I also tuck lemon slices into a whole trout before baking it in a foil parcel, which is delicious, as is a hit of lemon juice and zest added to a sort of broccoli pesto sauce for pasta.
I didn't want to bake the lemons like this, though, for fear of losing their subtle fragrance and aroma. I wanted a recipe that would capture the pure essence of the Meyer lemon in all its glory, as simple and unadulterated as possible.
You can't get much more lemon-centric than a good lemon tart.
Shockingly, I've never actually baked this classic dessert before. I love a good lemon tart, indulgent yet refreshing after a meal, but for some reason I've always thought it would be tricky to make, and have steered clear. There are things that can go wrong: a soggy pastry bottom, a curdled lemon filling, an overbaked and rubbery lemon filling, too much sugar so it cloys or too little so it leaves your mouth numb. However, always keen to try new things in the kitchen, and convinced that a simple lemon tart would be the best way to showcase the Meyer lemons, I went with it.
I found the recipe on the excellent food site Food 52. It seemed very simple, perfectly in keeping with what I was after. The slightly unusual part is that instead of a pastry crust, it uses a shortbread mixture that is pressed into a tart tin to line it. This is good for three reasons: one, it dispenses with the faff of making pastry; two, no risk of a soggy bottom here; and three, it tastes damn delicious.
How could it not taste delicious? You beat softened butter and sugar with a wooden spoon until creamy and fluffy (good exercise for the biceps - means you can eat more of the finished product). You then beat in semolina and flour, to make pale golden crumbs that smell warm and buttery. It's exactly like making shortbread, but you press it into the tin in a hollow crust shape, rather than a solid round.
After pressing the shortbread crumbs into the tin, you make lemon curd. Not nearly as scary or difficult as it sounds. This was great fun to make: squeezing my precious lemons into a bowl along with an indecent number of golden egg yolks, a pile of sugar, and the zest of the fruit. Whisking this pale yellow liquid over a low heat until suddenly, like magic, it had transformed into the most lusciously thick, marigold, glossy lemon curd. It's a bit like making custard or crême patisserie - you're standing there for ages stirring, stirring, stirring, bored...and then suddenly it turns, thickens, becomes shiny and wonderful.
Then you whisk in cubes of butter, which is the fun part - watching it melting under the pressure of the whisk and turning the curd even thicker and glossier. Naturally, I had to taste-test some. It had the perfect balance of sweet and tart, with a lovely fragrant zestiness from the Meyer lemons. It inspired me to make my own lemon curd more often, to eat for breakfast.
The curd goes into the baked shortbread crust and into the oven for a very brief bake, to just set it while allowing it to still have a little quivering wobble. It comes out perfectly smooth, translucent, glorious yellow - the colour of sunshine, citrus, and fat, globular egg yolks.
Once I tasted this, I knew I'd never make another lemon tart recipe again. The shortbread base, short and buttery and slightly crispy with the addition of semolina, is ridiculously fabulous. Couple this buttery richness with a smooth, sticky, deeply sweet and tart lemon curd, and you just have the most glorious dessert. If you don't have Meyer lemons, I'm sure you could use normal lemons and just up the sugar content a little to make up for their sourness. This is a recipe that should be on everyone's list of regular desserts. It is honestly one of the best desserts I've ever made.
More than that, it provides a welcome burst of citrus sunshine during the depths of winter. Sitting there on my kitchen table while I faffed around taking photos, the mere sight of it cheered me up. It sat there, almost glowing, as if I'd just turned a light on. Its buttery, fresh citrus taste is a welcome presence after the dark, sticky, alcohol- and dried fruit-laden puddings of Christmas. It slices gloriously into a perfect wedges of sunshine, sweet gelatinous curd on its toasty biscuit base.
So now you have your answer. When life gives you Meyer lemons, you make this lemon tart. There's really no other option.
The Meyer lemon shortbread tart recipe can be found here, on the Food 52 site.
Incidentally, I've made this twice now. The first time I served it with a scoop of crème fraîche, which was lovely, but the second time I made my own Earl Grey ice cream to accompany it. As lemon and Earl Grey is such a classic combination, I'd recommend trying this out if you have the time to make your own ice cream - it really is a delicious pairing.
Lemon and mint cheesecake (makes one 20cm cake):
250g light cream cheese
200g icing sugar
30g bunch of fresh mint
1 sachet gelatine
90g ginger biscuits, whizzed to crumbs in a blender
50g melted butter
1 egg white
6 tbsp granulated or caster sugar
Grease and line a 20cm cake tin. Mix the biscuits with the melted butter and spread over the bottom of the tin.
Whisk together the two cheeses and the icing sugar. Place half the mint leaves in the blender with the zest of two of the lemons, then blitz to a fine powder (if your blender is better than mine). Stir through the cheese mixture.
Juice 3 lemons into a small pan, then heat gently. Sprinkle the gelatine over the top of the juice and leave for a couple of minutes, then whisk into the hot liquid, ensuring it is completely dissolved. Whisk this mixture into the cheese mixture, quickly, then pour into the tin and place in the fridge to set for about 4 hours.
For the crystallised mint leaves, simply dip the remaining mint leaves into the egg white and then into the sugar, on both sides. Leave to dry on silicon baking parchment - it's best to let the upper side dry and then to flip them over, so they're completely solid and sugary.
When ready to serve, decorate the cake with the mint leaves and some extra lemon zest.