I often find it odd that Earl Grey is an almost ubiquitous beverage, whose tell-tale floral perfume scents teacups the world over, and yet its key ingredient, the bergamot, is a rare specimen whose glowing presence amidst the jumbled crates of a farmers market stall is guaranteed to send serious food-lovers into paroxysms of excitement (and, subsequently, to lead to heightened activity on Instagram as we first show off our esoteric citrus haul and, not long after, start crowdsourcing suggestions on what on earth to do with this highly underrated and underused knobbly lemon thing). Earl Grey is available in myriad forms, from high-class zesty loose leaves for infusing in china teapots to the tannic dust likely to fill your cup in a greasy spoon café or on an aeroplane meal tray. That the actual source of these plentiful, cosmopolitan cuppas remains elusive is one of the strange realities of our modern food supply system.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
How do you go about making a home?
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the gradual process by which a place shrugs off its aura of newness and unfamiliarity and starts to become home. The repetitive performance of micro-rituals that, step by step, wear down the strangeness of a place and cosset it in the comforting blanket of domesticity and belonging. When do you stop being a tourist and start becoming a citizen? When does house become home? How do you stop staying in a place and start living there?Read More
1. Abundance and preserving. It’s that time of year again: the regular thud of apples falling off heavily-laden boughs onto my lawn; the triffid-like majesty of two thriving rhubarb plants; the first swelling of aubergines and cucumbers on their stalks in the greenhouse, and the flourishing of herbs - lemon verbena, grapefruit mint, Thai basil, oregano, lavender…The markets are full of beautiful rosy Victoria plums and blooming jade greengages, the last of summer’s peaches and downy apricots, and jewel-like berries in abundance. At times like these, I love nothing more than to dust off my jam pan and start preserving for the autumn and winter (although admittedly I make far more preserves than I can ever get through alone, and give away around 80% of what I produce, but that’s part of the joy too). Favourite recipes at the moment include Diana Henry’s plum, orange and cardamom jam, greengage and honey compote (this freezes well for use on winter porridge), and my own spiced apple and date jam, or rhubarb, vanilla and cardamom jam. If you have an apple glut, try making flavoured jellies for sweet and savoury food: my two favourites are festive apple jelly and lemon verbena jelly. For more luscious jam ideas, see Diana Henry’s beautiful book Salt Sugar Smoke – the apricot and lavender jam is also excellent.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
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.
What food would you find it hardest to give up? Sometimes, when I'm bored, I ask myself this. Because I'm gastronomically masochistic like that. I've frequently toyed with the idea of going vegetarian or even vegan for a month, just to challenge myself. In fact, I very nearly went vegan for Lent this year, until I realised that I was going on holiday to Italy slap bang in the middle of it. There's pretty much no point in going to Italy unless you're going to eat vast quantities of meat and cheese. Apparently they have some decent art and some Roman ruins and stuff, but we all know that the only reason to go to Italy is to gorge oneself on bread, cheese and meat, preferably all together in that excellent vehicle designed by the Italians to combine these things into one coherent meal: pizza.
There's one main thing that stops me embracing vegetarianism, and it isn't, as you might suspect, bacon. I'm not much of a carnivore; in fact, I have an unhealthy habit of hoarding meat in my freezer without ever actually getting round to cooking it. Currently the contents of my freezer include two chickens, four pig cheeks, two goose breasts, three grouse breasts, four pheasant breasts, a stuffed mallard, and ten rashers of bacon. (I'm sure there's some kind of breast joke in there somewhere, but I'm too mature to make it. The comments box below is designed for just such a thing).
While not a carnivorous eater, however, I am a carnivorous cook. This I think is an important distinction. I really enjoy cooking meat, especially meat that lends itself to all sorts of diverse flavours like game or lamb. I enjoy the potential for experimenting that it offers, particularly with so many different cuts for every animal. Pigs aren't just for chops and sausages, for example; pig cheeks are surprisingly delicious, as are ham hocks and ribs. I love cooking meat, though more often than not I don't actually tend to eat very much of it. But I know I would feel like a huge part of my cooking repertoire had been removed if I turned vegetarian.
Veganism would be an interesting challenge, but it's never going to happen full-time. Two words: eggs and cheese. In fact, mainly eggs. Scrambled eggs on toast is the ultimate 'can't be bothered but it will still taste delicious' dinner. When I was contemplating Lent veganism, I thought about how my usual daily intake of food would be affected. Porridge for breakfast as usual, I thought - that's totally vegan. Except it's made with milk. Soya milk is not a thing I want in my life. Lunch is usually couscous, roasted veg and feta cheese. Feta cheese is a thing I want in my life. You see where this is going.
Sometimes I think the food I'd miss most would be couscous. It struck me today that I think I've eaten couscous literally every day since I started university again in October. I'm not sure what I'd do without its comforting starchy goodness for a mid-library lunch. That said, giving up porridge might make it impossible to get out of bed in the morning. And giving up fruit would undoubtedly leave me in a state of traumatised despair, possibly with rickets and maybe also scurvy. I'd have to find something new to replace my five-a-day, and I'm pretty sure it would end up being cake.
I gave up gluten for five days back in July as part of a gluten-free blogger challenge. While it wasn't as hard as I thought, what really struck me was the myriad of places where gluten hides its wily self. Soy sauce, stock cubes, sushi and packaged salads all fell victim to the gluten plague. It made me think much more about how difficult it would be to live with a real gluten intolerance, particularly when eating out. Plus, gluten-free porridge oats are approximately one million times the price of normal porridge oats, which is not really OK. And gluten-free bread is generally one million times more cardboard-like than normal bread. However, gluten-free pasta is pretty much the same. Those are my profound conclusions from my gluten-free five days.
This cake arose out of a need for a gluten-free, lactose-free dessert. I have a friend who can't eat either, and I wanted to make her something so she didn't feel left out during a night when the rest of us were tucking into a giant apple crumble I'd made.
Unfortunately, it's surprisingly hard to find cake recipes that are both gluten- and dairy-free. Gluten-free cakes are everywhere these days now that awareness of food intolerances is much higher than it used to be, which is great. Such cakes usually replace the flour with ground almonds (or other nuts) or something like polenta. However, they nearly always use a lot of butter to compensate for the lack of that wheat-based tastiness. Dairy-free cakes, generally made with olive oil instead of butter, usually feature flour. I reckon you could substitute the butter for olive oil in the gluten-free cakes and the flour for ground nuts in the lactose-free cakes, but I wanted to be sure before embarking on a baking mission.
Fortunately, I found this excellent recipe from Nigella. I think it's actually from her latest TV series, which is impeccably good timing. I was pretty excited about the idea of a chocolate olive oil cake, but even more excited about the prospect of using some delicious mandarin-infused olive oil that I had in the cupboard (as you do). A while ago, I wrote about a nice Italian man named Mauro, who came to our house in Cambridge selling beautiful Calabrian extra-virgin olive oil. I used this delicious oil in a blood orange and cardamom syrup cake (every bit as amazing as it sounds - click and ogle the pictures), and when Mauro came back to our house a few months later he introduced me to a range of six different flavoured oils: bergamot, mandarin, chilli, balsamic vinegar with black pepper and garlic, rosemary, and lemon. Unable to choose between them, I bought all six. They're really wonderful and incredibly versatile for cooking, especially the black pepper, garlic and balsamic one which is basically an instant salad dressing. If you want more information on where to get them, click here. (Incidentally, I'm not being asked to write about these - I just really like them and wanted to share, particularly since Mauro is so friendly and sells such a brilliant product).
I hadn't had an opportunity to use the mandarin version yet, and it seemed the perfect ingredient for this cake. Obviously, chocolate and orange work very well together - those awful Terry's chocolate orange adverts have certainly immortalised that flavour pairing - so I swapped the normal oil in the recipe for the mandarin version. I also scaled down the recipe to fit a smaller cake tin, using 2/3 of Nigella's quantities.
You dissolve cocoa powder in boiling water and add vanilla, then whisk together eggs, sugar and olive oil until thick and creamy. The scent of citrus as my KitchenAid whisked the whole thing round at lightning speed was delicious. In goes the cocoa mixture, turning everything a gorgeous rich chocolate brown, followed by ground almonds, bicarbonate of soda, and salt.
I was a bit sceptical as I poured the batter into the tin, as it seemed very runny, but who am I to distrust the buxom Ms Lawson herself?
Obviously, this cake was delicious. You only have to look at the photos to see how dark and moist it is. I was quite surprised by the sheer darkness of it; it's pretty much black which is rather odd as a food colour (just try not to think that you're eating coal), but once you get past that it's just plain wonderful. The crumb is incredibly light and incredibly moist from the olive oil and almonds; it's rich and flavoursome while still remaining feather light. There's a real chocolate hit with just a hint of citrus tang from the olive oil. My cake sunk a little bit in the middle, perhaps because I scaled the recipe down, but this was more than compensated for by the flavour (also, I think it looks quite charming - a bit like it's sighing wistfully at its own goodness).
It's definitely an unusual cake and probably unlike anything you've made before. For that reason I'd urge you to try it.
It's also a fabulous recipe to have up your sleeve for anyone with allergies to either gluten or lactose (or both). It works well as an afternoon slice of cake with a cup of tea, or as a lavish dessert accompanied by some juicy red berries and - if lactose isn't an issue - a scoop of ice cream (though I think you can get very good dairy-free ice cream these days). Decorate with orange zest and a good dusting of icing sugar, and you have a beautiful decadent cake no one would guess was missing a good hit of flour and butter.
Chocolate and mandarin olive oil cake (serves 6-8):
(Adapted from Nigella Lawson's recipe here)
- 35g good quality cocoa powder (I used Green & Blacks)
- 85ml boiling water
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 100ml mandarin-infused olive oil (or other flavour/plain oil)
- 130g caster sugar
- 2 large eggs
- 100g ground almonds
- 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
- Pinch of salt
Pre-heat the oven to 170C. Grease and line an 18cm springform cake tin (you could use a 20cm tin too, it will just give you a slightly flatter cake).
Sift the cocoa powder into a bowl then whisk in the boiling water to form a paste. Whisk in the vanilla then set aside to cool.
Using an electric mixer or whisk, whisk together the oil, sugar and eggs for several minutes until thick and creamy. Turn down the speed then pour in the cocoa mixture, whisking well to incorporate it. Fold in the almonds, bicarb and salt. Pour the batter into the prepared cake tin and bake for around 40 minutes, until the edges have started to pull away from the side of the tin and the top is fairly firm.