1. Caramelised peach, grilled chorizo, avocado and almond salad. I wasn't going to blog about this, but then I took some sad-looking things out of the fridge, did a bit of cookery magic, chucked them into a bowl with a liberal dousing of vinaigrette (made using some delicious hazelnut mustard that I bought from a deli in France), took a bite, and started scribbling furiously in my recipe notebook. I love using peaches in savoury recipes (particularly when they're starting to wrinkle and look a bit unappetising...), and they go amazingly well with any kind of salty, cured animal product - prosciutto is a classic, but chorizo also works wonders, I discovered. Crisp up some thick slices of chorizo in a frying pan, brown some almonds in the brick-red oil it releases, throw in the peaches briefly to caramelise, then toss it all with some salad leaves, cubed avocado, thinly sliced red onion (mixed with a little cider vinegar for a few minutes to take the edge off it) and the aforementioned dressing (mustard, lemon juice, olive oil, seasoning). It looks a treat and is an incredible medley of flavours and textures. This is the kind of salad that you feed people who think they don't like salad. It's great for your health and happiness, without being worthy. Speaking of not being worthy, this brings me on to number two...Read More
One of my favourite things to eat this summer is a combination of spicy, grilled meat of some description, coupled with a hearty, bolstering salad of grains or pulses enriched and brightened with the best of the summer’s fruits, plus a dollop of cooling cucumber yoghurt alongside – I love the contrast in both texture and temperature between hot, sizzling meat, warm pulses and thick, cold yoghurt made extra refreshing with grated cucumber and fresh mint. Peaches are a particular favourite for salads, partly because they are so sweet and delicious alongside savoury ingredients, and partly because you can griddle them to produce gorgeous chargrilled red-orange segments that will brighten up whatever you want to throw them in.Read More
I’ve eaten more peaches this summer than probably the last five or six summers combined. I usually give up on peaches in England, because they’re imported rock hard and never ripen properly, tasting sad and woolly and a tragic shadow of what you know they could be. But they’re so cheap and abundant right now that I can’t resist buying a punnet or two in the supermarket, safe in the knowledge that, if all else fails, I can at least rescue them with the application of some sugar and searing oven heat.Read More
There are many noises that occur in the realm of the kitchen, several of which bring small glimmers of satisfaction to keen cooks like myself. The gentle fracture of an egg against the side of a bowl and the voluptuous gulp as it divulges its gelatinous contents down into the centre. The crisp snap of a knife halving a bulbous pepper. The rasping graze of a zester against the knobbly flesh of an orange or lemon. The mercilessly efficient scrape of a mandolin through the crunchy flesh of a root vegetable as it shaves it into wafer-thin slices beading with moisture. The whirr of an electric beater as it pummels a solid mass of butter and sugar into soft, billowing pastel clouds.
But surely - surely - nothing beats the searing fizz as moist flesh hits the arid heat of a griddle pan.
I love griddling things. I think this desire stems from that primal urge to make meat meet fire, the same urge that drives so many men to inflict salmonella upon their nearest and dearest while prodding possessively and haphazardly at a flaming barbecue and its contents. It's not just about that ultra-satisfying sizzling noise, either. It's also about those beautiful char marks you end up with on your chosen piece of meat, fish or veg; that telltale culinary barcode that guarantees a toasty exterior and smoky succulence within.
Obviously few things are as satisfying to slap on a griddle as a large piece of meat. Steak works - for me I pretty much whack it down on one side, allow it a few seconds of sizzle, then flip it over for a few more seconds, and tuck into what is basically still cow rather than beef. I also love to griddle tuna or swordfish steak; again, eating it blue (or in the case of swordfish, pink I suppose). However, the griddle is not just for giant manly chunks of protein. It's also a great way of cooking sliced courgettes, so often condemned as tasteless watery mush by those whose only courgette experience has been badly-made ratatouille. Sliced into thin ribbons and chargrilled, they make a wonderful salad with some herbs, broad beans and goat's cheese. Aubergines are also good treated in the same way.
The other day, though, I decided to go a bit wild with the griddle pan and throw on some peaches. After the success of my guineafowl and nectarine tagine, I started thinking of other ways to use peaches or nectarines in savoury cooking. I would grill them first, mainly to give them those sexy black marks but also to bring out their flavour. After tossing them in a little olive oil (to stop them sticking) and honey (to exaggerate the sweetness), they go sizzling onto the griddle pan where they caramelise deliciously, ready to partner with other things.
Peaches (or nectarines) are a fabulous addition to all sorts of savoury dishes, possessing an unobtrusive sweetness and texture that is a perfect complement to lots of different rich ingredients. Salty ingredients are always a good match for sweet fruit, so I decided to combine the peaches with prosciutto - and also some feta cheese for good measure - in what is a super-simple but colourful, healthy and fabulously delicious summer salad. The colours alone scream 'summer' (note that is simply 'summer'; the word 'British' does not come into the equation, because a 'British summer' dish is something like stew or pie).
I found smoked spiced prosciutto in M&S, which is fabulous and works extra well with these peaches, because its rich smoky flavour is nicely complemented by their sweetness. Add to this the salty tang of feta, the peppery crunch of rocket and watercress (dressed with balsamic vinegar) and the slight anise notes of fresh basil, and you have a really fantastic combination. Basil goes particularly well with peaches - I think its fresh, almost metallic flavour helps to temper their sweetness, and this goes for desserts as well as savoury dishes.
I've tried this since with Parma ham and goat's cheese instead of smoked prosciutto and feta, and it was equally delicious. Basically, the combination of sweet grilled peaches, crunchy salad, soft salty ham and tangy cheese is utterly fabulous. I can't quite stress how fabulous it is, so hopefully the photos will suggest to you a lovely colourful summer dish that you are slightly intrigued by and really want to try.
Try it. It's wonderful.
Grilled peach, feta and prosciutto salad (serves 2):
- 2 large peaches, ripe but firm
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 2 tsp honey
- Salt and pepper
- 1 bag mixed rocket, watercress and spinach salad (or just rocket/spinach)
- A drizzle of balsamic vinegar (I use Gourmet Spice blackberry & rosemary balsamic)
- 80g prosciutto, normal or smoked if you can find it
- A large handful of basil leaves, roughly torn
- 80-100g feta or soft goat's cheese
Halve the peaches and remove the stone, then slice thinly and toss with the olive oil, honey, and some salt and pepper. Get a griddle pan really hot, then griddle the fruit on each side until each slice is lightly charred. Try not to overdo it or they will disintegrate. (Incidentally, you can skip this step if you can't be bothered/don't own a griddle pan - raw peach slices are still great in this salad).
Meanwhile, toss the salad with the balsamic and divide between two plates. Drape over the prosciutto slices, sprinkle over the torn basil, then add the peach slices. Finally, crumble over the feta or goat's cheese.
One thing I love about cooking is that it's a constant learning curve. I've often found myself feeling nostalgic for my school days recently; being a tutor makes me envious of all these kids who moan about school and homework and don't realise quite how lucky they are. School gives you a purpose, a legitimate way to spend your day constructively, without having to actively put that much effort in. What you're learning that day is all decided for you; how to learn it is decided for you; the timeframe is decided for you. How I miss having my constructive activities scheduled in such a way. It's so much harder to fill your day constructively and positively when you have to actively think up activities to ensure this purpose is fulfilled. Even though I'm going back to university in October for my PhD, it's not quite as easy as just turning up to school, being entirely a question of self-motivation. Luckily my PhD basically involves reading kids' books about knights and damsels and witches, and occasionally incest, so it's all good.
Learning has always been what I enjoy doing. I'm only truly happy when I have a hobby or interest that caters for that, allowing me to pick up new skills and absorb new information. I used to be heavily into tropical fishkeeping, a hobby my mother deplored as not only is it expensive, it's also often very messy and time-, space-, and electricity-consuming. Oh, and stressful, especially when your fish start attacking each other or dying and you don't know why. Nevertheless, it was immensely rewarding, and I still have a pretty enormous aquarium in my room which I find very therapeutic. My best friend Laura (who is always harassing me for a mention in this blog, so I hope she's pleased to read her name here) enjoys this aquarium even more than I do; when she visits we sit in front of it like a TV, watching the fish cavorting merrily.
Everyone has a general field in life in which they excel, and mine is learning. I've never been a very practical person - for me, the practical side of fishkeeping was definitely less of a strong point than the theoretical side. I can talk to you until I'm blue in the face about the finer points of different types of filter, gravel, underwater plants, fish food and fish choices, but I once nearly electrocuted myself after disconnecting the filter and siphoning a good ten litres of water all over myself, the floor, and a live plug socket. Oops.
I think this may be why my passion for food has lasted so much longer than all of my other momentary hobbies and interests. The ancient Egypt obsession that I nursed as a deeply uncool, straight-fringed seven-year-old has faded to the extent that I can no longer read hieroglyphics, and the love for small creatures that led me to keep and breed giant African land snails has pretty much evaporated (although on a rainy day if I see a snail wending its way dangerously across a busy pavement, in grave jeopardy of being trodden on, I will still always stop to move it safely to a grassy verge) - but I've been obsessed with food for a good five years now and it seems to grow stronger rather than weaker.
Food means learning.
I am always reading about food, when I'm not eating it. I love absorbing new information about ingredients, methods, cultural cuisines. I have a frankly scary amount of random knowledge about food.
Did you know that the reason rhubarb leaves your teeth feeling kind of furry and weird is because it contains a small amount of oxalic acid, which is present in large quantities in the leaves, meaning they are poisonous?
Did you know that English pies were originally called 'coffins'?
Did you know that the seeds of a papaya are an effective laxative?
Or that grapefruits are so called because they grow in clusters on the tree, like a giant bunch of grapes?
I always feel a sense of accomplishment when learning a new culinary technique for the first time. The first time I filleted a fish, and the flesh didn't come away in ragged chunks leaving me despairing, I was aglow with satisfaction. The first time I made chocolate ganache, and watched as a selection of the world's most fattening ingredients transformed themselves from a runny, silky sauce to a thick, rich, spreadable paste, was pretty magical. The first time I made creme patisserie, feeling as the vanilla-scented milk started to stiffen under the pressure of the wooden spoon, I couldn't quite believe I had produced something that adorns those beautiful delicate French fruit tarts so beloved of cafe counters everywhere.
For this recipe, I had to joint a guineafowl.
My butchery skills are pretty limited, because like any sensible person I normally rely on the butcher for such things. If I buy a rabbit or chicken from the butcher, he can joint it for me. I listen anxiously to the swish of the cleaver as it slices through the air and lands with a sharp thud on the chopping board, a part of me always waiting with bated breath for the howl of agony as it misses and finds a live limb instead (fortunately this has never happened). If I want the breasts off a pigeon, I either buy them ready-prepared, or ask him to slice them off for me. If I want lamb shoulder diced and ready for stewing, a butcher's knife can accomplish this far more easily than I could with my humble kitchen knives.
I've only really had to venture into the world of home butchery a couple of times before, when I wanted just the breasts off a pigeon or wild duck carcass. They're so much easier to cook that way and look much more attractive when presented on the plate. I gingerly sliced away with great trepidation, sure that I would end up with a bloody mess. When the breasts came away cleanly, leaving something that you wouldn't be dismayed to see on a butcher's counter, I was pretty thrilled. It took about half an hour, mind, and I had to use scissors a couple of times, but I was still pleased.
So when I bought my whole, plastic-wrapped guineafowl from Sainsburys, I knew I was in for a bit of trouble. No friendly butcher there to joint it for me, and my recipe required it in four pieces. Not to worry, though - I looked up Delia's instructions online for jointing a chicken, grabbed my sharpest knife, and started to hack through this yellowish carcass before me. It wasn't easy. I'm pretty sure my knife is now totally useless, as the cringing sound and feel of it attempting to slice its way through solid backbone and breastbone was not pleasant. I resorted to scissors at several points on this occasion, too.
But, to be honest, when I had finally hacked my way through the poor bird, it actually resembled something I might have brought home from the butcher. I felt a great sense of lightness, like a major obstacle in my life had suddenly been lifted. It may sound silly, but I felt independent. I no longer need to rely on a butcher and his knife; if I have to, I'm perfectly capable of cutting a dead thing into pieces. You can't quite appreciate how much of a mental block I'd had about this before; as if, if I brought a fish home that hadn't been gutted or filleted, or meat that hadn't been diced or jointed, it was the end; it was unusable. It may seem totally silly, but there's a great sense of freedom accompanying the knowledge that you can conquer all these obstacles armed with nothing but a knife (and maybe a pair of scissors...).
So, what did I do with my quartered guineafowl? I've had this recipe for guineafowl and nectarine tagine in my book of recipe cuttings from magazines for years, and finally got round to giving it a go. You know how much I love my meat and fruit pairings, and this one sounded irresistibly intriguing. I've never cooked with guineafowl before, and I've only eaten it a couple of times - it seems to be the knee-jerk option for 'posh' formal dinners at Oxford colleges, I think because it's easy to cook (treat it like chicken) yet it sounds exotic, even though it's basically chicken. It has a slightly stronger flavour than chicken, particularly the legs, which have a lovely rich gameyness to them. Because of this, it stands up well to assertive flavours.
So I bombarded my guineafowl with spices, rubbing it in a heady mixture of turmeric, ground ginger, cinnamon and cloves. It sat in this for a while, before I browned it in hot olive oil, sauteed an onion, then covered the lot in a bit of water and a dash of honey. This simmered until the fowl was cooked through, resulting in a shockingly yellow sauce from the turmeric, but one that was warm, fragrant and sweet.
Then, the nectarines. These wouldn't look out of place in a pudding, actually, perhaps alongside sweetened mascarpone and gooey meringue (which now I really want to try). They're sliced, tossed in a little olive oil and honey, then griddled on both sides until attractively charred, which releases all their sugars and juices and makes them gloriously soft and sweet. They go into the guineafowl sauce for a few seconds, to impart their lovely sweetness, along with a dash of orange flower water, which gives a beautiful intriguing floral note. I threw in a load of herbs - parsley, basil, coriander and mint - to lift the rich, earthy sauce and to contrast with the sugary nectarines. Nectarines and basil are a perfect partnership, both in sweet and savoury food - I love nectarines in a salad with salty parma ham, torn basil and milky mozzarella.
The first time I ate this, I left the guineafowl pieces whole. But the next evening, I decided to shred the meat from the bones and spoon over the nectarine sauce, which I think is a better idea - it's a lot easier to eat that way, and means you can get a proper mouthful of all the components without fiddling around separating meat from skin and bone.
I served this with bulghur wheat - though couscous would also be perfect - and greens beans the first night, swapping them for a large tangle of watercress, rocket and spinach the next night. Either (or both) are excellent accompaniments. A handful of toasted flaked almonds is a delicious garnish, complementing all the flavours, while a final sprinkling of fresh herbs lifts the dish and gives it a lovely summery freshness.
This might sound like an odd combination, but it's really lovely. The guineafowl, rubbed in spices, has a deep savoury flavour to it that is pleasantly complemented by the sweet, smoky nectarines and the delicious perfume of orange flowers. I also think this is a beautiful-looking dish (although my photos, taken al fresco just as an enormous thunder cloud was about to break overhead, don't really do it justice), perfect for summer days when salad isn't quite substantial enough and you want something warm, fragrant and exotic to lift your spirits to sunnier climes.
Guineafowl and nectarine tagine (serves 3-4):
- 1 guineafowl, jointed into four pieces
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 pinch ground cloves
- 1/2 tsp ground turmeric
- Olive oil
- 1 white or red onion, finely chopped
- 2 tbsp honey
- 500ml water
- 3 nectarines, stoned and cut into eight slices
- 1-3 tsp orange flower water
- 1 tbsp each chopped mint, parsley, basil and coriander (or a mixture, depending on what you have)
- Toasted flaked almonds, to serve
Mix together the ginger, cinnamon, cloves and turmeric. Rub all over the guineafowl pieces and leave, covered, for at least an hour in the fridge.
When ready to cook, heat some olive oil in a large non-stick pan over a high heat and brown the guineafowl all over (it's easiest to do this in two batches). Remove to a plate, lower the heat and saute the onion until starting to soften. Then return the guineafowl to the pan, pour in the water, add 1 tbsp of the honey and some salt and pepper, then simmer for around half an hour, turning the pieces over halfway through, until the guineafowl is cooked through and the sauce has reduced. If it hasn't reduced enough, remove the guineafowl pieces and boil it for a bit, adding a little arrowroot or cornflour to thicken.
When nearly ready to serve, mix the nectarine slices with the remaining honey and a drizzle of olive oil. Get a griddle pan very hot, and griddle them on both sides until charred in places (you can also do this under the grill, but they tend to disintegrate). Add them to the sauce along with the orange flower water - how much you need will depend on the strength of the brand you have. It should taste and smell floral, but not too much or it will be like eating soap. Allow to warm through, taste and check the seasoning (it might need a bit more salt, as the fruit is so sweet), then stir in the chopped herbs, reserving a few to garnish.
You can either serve a whole guineafowl piece per person, simply pouring the sauce over it on the plate or - if you can be bothered - allow the pieces to cool slightly (keep the sauce hot), remove the skin and shred the meat using your fingers or a fork, then mix it all back into the nectarine sauce and ladle it onto plates to serve. I prefer it this way. Scatter with flaked almonds and the remaining herbs and serve, preferably with some couscous or bulghur wheat, and something green - green beans or a tangle of watercress are both good.
1. Tracklements Pear & Perry chutney. If you're feeling a bit jaded by the world of condiments, this is one for you. It's much lighter tasting than a traditional chutney, which I often feel can be rather overpowering in its flavour and end up masking the ingredient you want it to complement. Made with British pears and a 'generous dash' of Perry (pear cider), this chutney is lovely and sweet with a delicate fruity flavour and lots of nice textures - tender pieces of onion and juicy sultanas that burst in the mouth, plus a little kick from mustard, ginger and cinnamon. Tracklements recommend pairing it with salty cheeses like mature cheddar or Pecorino; I found it worked beautifully with a mild goat's cheese. I'd also suggest serving it with cold meats, particularly pork.
2. Café No. 8, York. My boyfriend and I stumbled upon this fantastic cafe/restaurant when we visited York back in October. I returned again last week, with fond memories of a truly gorgeous sandwich I'd eaten. It was no ordinary sandwich - the bread was a thick, doughy flatbread, encasing soft chunks of goat's cheese and marinated artichokes. The lovely oil from the artichokes soaked into the dough and covered my fingers, leading to many messy but sublime mouthfuls.
This time I had a sort of bruschetta featuring an unlikely combination of ingredients: goat's cheese, rhubarb chutney, lemon oil, and fresh figs. I'd never have thought of pairing all those together, considering it overkill, but it worked harmoniously and was so good. For dessert, one of the best cheesecakes I've ever had. The ratio of biscuit base to creamy filling was nearly 1:1, which is the holy grail of cheesecakes and one as elusive as it is wonderful. There was a thick, creamy topping, quivering slightly but still holding its shape, a topping of gooseberry compote - I bloody love gooseberries - and - it gets better - crumble. Thick shards of buttery crumble, scattered over the top. Just in case this wasn't decadent enough, the whole thing was drizzled with cream. I absolutely devoured it and am still thinking about it a week later.
So it's lucky that I'll be moving to York in October to embark on a three-year PhD. I have a feeling this place is going to be my regular haunt. If you're in the area, do visit - you won't be disappointed.
3. South African fruit. I was lucky enough to be sent a gorgeous hamper of plums and nectarines from South African Fruit recently. South Africa, with its Mediterranean climate and quality soil, has a thriving fruit industry that produces nectarines, peaches, plums, apples, pears and grapefruits. I've seen South African produce in shops and supermarkets but never really thought twice about it, until now.
The fruits arrived nestled in wrapping, beautifully cosseted and snug in their little basket. I could smell their perfume as soon as I opened the box. Normally a bit sceptical about imported fruit - especially plums and nectarines which have a tendency to be a bit woolly and bland even when home-grown - I found these ripe, juicy, and fragrant. I usually like to post a recipe featuring products I've been sent, but I'm afraid in this case I didn't want to do anything more than eat the fruit. It was so delicious and perfect on its own that I couldn't bring myself to adulterate it in any way. Next time you're in the fruit aisle of the supermarket, have a look for the South African fruit and enjoy a little taste of summer in the cold winter and spring months.
4. Smoked quail eggs. I found these at the East Anglia food festival a couple of months ago and oh, are they addictive. Can't imagine a smoked egg? Imagine eggs and smoky bacon. There's all that rich, meaty smoky flavour, yet without the bacon. They're utterly fabulous and so moreish, giving a rich flavoursome bite to anything you pair them with. I used mine in a potato salad, with celery, dill, cucumber, broccoli and green beans, all in a tangy mustardy vinaigrette. It was one of the best impromptu meals I've ever made, with the eggs the real star of the show. If you ever see smoked eggs, or know someone with a smoking kit, get your hands on some and be amazed.
5. Thinly sliced fennel. Although not so cool when it causes you to lose the tip of a finger, fennel shaved wafer-thin on a mandolin is my current vegetable of choice for meals. I love coating it in a vinaigrette of olive oil, mustard and lemon juice and tossing with smoked mackerel and segments of blood orange, or with cooked salmon and pomegranate seeds. It's also wonderful mixed with thin slices of pear and pomegranate seeds - I ate this with a veal burger, and the combination was heavenly.
Prepared this way, with a little acidity to sharpen it up a bit, fennel is fabulous with all sorts of protein - smoked fish (mackerel, trout and salmon), smoked meat, cooked meat of all varieties but especially lamb, beef and chicken, fish in general (oily or white) - and also with cheese (mozzarella, feta and goats' work particularly well). Add something to give it a bit of fruity bite, like orange or grapefruit segments or slices of apple or pear, and you have lunch or dinner in almost an instant. It has a pleasant crunch that makes it infinitely refreshing, and a lovely mild aniseed flavour that is the perfect foil to rich meat, fish or cheese. Plus its pale green tendrils look beautiful in salads.
I've always been a bit of a magpie. When I was quite little I used to hoard sweets. Nothing unusual there, you might think - all children like to have lots of sweets. Except I didn't actually eat said sweets. Instead, I kept them in a special box that was like a mini chest of drawers; each type of sweet had its own drawer (jellies, caramels, hard suckable sweets, soft-centred sweets...) and I would consider it a great personal achievement if I managed to possess multiple colours of the same type of sweet.
I could never understand why my childminder was so unreasonable about letting me to go the corner shop to get sweets, why she usually said no. It is only now that I realise I never actually told her that I didn't want to eat the sweets (I didn't even like them), just to add them to my collection. Not that she'd have believed me anyway, I'm sure, but I remember being struck by the unfairness of it all - where was the harm in going to get more sweets for the sweet box?! I suppose I owe my undecayed teeth and lack of fillings to her strictness, so I guess that's something.
Money was another one. Yes, I know it's not really unusual to hoard money. Generally most people need to do it - it's called "saving". However, as a small child, if I was ever given pocket money or (ah, the good old days) tooth fairy money, and said amount happened to include a particularly shiny coin, I would tape it into a notebook. I remember getting very excited about a positively radiant pound coin that I had acquired at some point. It took pole position in the notebook and I treasured it. Or at least, I did until one day I wanted to buy something. As a small child, a pound is actually quite a lot of money. Out of the notebook it came, though I did leave a note in its place reminding myself to replace it with another shiny specimen if I ever found one.
Ironically, I'm probably less in a position to sellotape unwanted pound coins to notebooks now than I was as a child. Seven year olds don't tend to have £15,000 worth of student debt to their name.
Later in life my magpie-like hoarding stretched to less edible items. Coloured gel pens was a phase early in secondary school; I had whole pencil cases bursting at the seams, struggling to contain these different-coloured pens. Sparkly varieties were a definite bonus. I don't even remember writing with them much; I think I just liked the security of knowing I had a whole collection at my fingertips.
Then came a phase in which I absolutely failed to resist any item of sparkly jewellery. I remember stumbling upon a shop called 'Bijou Brigitte' while on holiday in Spain. Now you can find those shops everywhere on the continent and I think some in the UK, but at the time I was convinced it was a one-of-a-kind find. Not only did it stock the gaudiest, glitteriest, unsubtlest jewellery you've ever seen, it was also incredibly cheap. At the time, 10 euros was the equivalent of about a fiver. Oh, for those halcyon days of cheap European jaunts.
I would go and fill a small basket with glimmering diamanté, giant fake pearls in pastel colours, rings with fake plastic gemstones the size of your big toe, and then proceed to wear most of my purchases at once. Walking through the Spanish sun, I must have looked constantly like I was trying to signal morse code.
I shouldn't have been let loose on the Middle East last summer. I returned carrying approximately two-thirds of Syria in a large bag purchased specially for the purpose of carting my hoard back home. Everywhere I turned were beautiful silks, gorgeous scarves, ornate gold and silver tea sets inlaid with (fake) gemstones, glittering jewellery, intricate wood and mother of pearl boxes, and delicate decorated pottery. Unable to resist, I handed over Syrian pound after Syrian pound, Jordanian dinar after Jordanian dinar, accumulating items to the point where I could probably have turned into a turtle without realising, so large and cumbersome was my rucksack.
It's only natural, then, given my predilection for food, that my magpie-like tendency should extend to all things gastronomic. Certain foodstuffs just captivate me; I have to have them if I spy them on sale. It helps if they're shiny or colourful. Pomegranate seeds. Cherries. Bright pink rhubarb in late winter. Gorgeous green gooseberries. Silver-skinned, glittery-eyed fresh mackerel. Vivid yellow Pakistani mangoes or corn on the cob. Glossy purple aubergines.
At the moment, redcurrants.
I've never really appreciated the beauty of these jewel-like berries before, nor their flavour. I may have put a few in a summer pudding at one point, but it's only this year that I've really begun to experiment with them, especially after I picked some of my own early this summer in Oxford. I just love the refreshing tartness of a red or blackcurrant. Their flavour is complex, beyond that sourness - they have a hint of freshly-mown grass about them, a definite floral fragrance that makes them such a delicious and intriguing addition to desserts and other fruits. What's more, they are absolutely beautiful, particularly if you get a box of ripe, plump ones, translucent like tiny red crystal balls.
This week M&S has been selling such redcurrants, and I have been powerless to resist. I already have four boxes in the freezer, so couldn't really justify freezing any more. Rather, I seized the culinary moment and came up with two delectable dessert recipes incorporating this most beautiful of berries.
One is a simple baked cheesecake that tastes so much more than the sum of its parts. It couldn't really be much simpler to make, but the flavour is incredible. There's a hint of vanilla in the ricotta mixture that contrasts wonderfully with the tartness of the redcurrants, and a thick biscuit base to provide a delicious, buttery contrast. I used ginger nut biscuits for the base instead of digestives, but you couldn't taste the ginger once they were baked, which was probably a good thing as the vanilla and redcurrant combination was just so delicious on its own.
It can be difficult to achieve just the right consistency and texture with a baked cheesecake, but I think this one is spot on. The filling has a hint of crumbliness, but is also smooth and creamy. It still wobbled a little in the middle when I removed it from the oven, which I think is the key to avoiding a dry, powdery cheesecake. It may not be the prettiest thing to look at, but the flavour more than compensates.
The cheesecake reminded me of one I used to love on the menu at Bella Italia, back in the day when I thought Bella Italia was the height of culinary sophistication (probably around the same time that I used to wear all that gaudy jewellery). There's just the right balance between the rich, crumbly filling with its light sweetness, and the depth of flavour from the fruit. I was going to adorn the cheesecake with a peach compote, but it didn't need it. It was perfect.
The other cake is a fairly dense, moist, pudding-cake incorporating the redcurrant's favourite partner, the peach. It's an unusual cake batter that uses Quark (fat-free cream cheese) to give it moisture and substance, meaning the actual cake is very low in fat. Chopped peaches and redcurrants are rippled through the batter and then scattered on top. Again, it perhaps doesn't look like the epitome of culinary aestheticism, but it takes wonderful. Besides, I like my cakes rustic. No stupid macarons or eight-tier buttercream layer cakes here, please.
I used a rather surprising ingredient in this cake. I've recently been sampling a new addition to the Jordans Cereal Country Crisp range - the Honey & Nut variety. It's a mixture of crunchy baked oat clusters blended with honey and mixed with flaked almonds and slices of brazil nut, rather like granola but in small chunks. As a big fan of the Jordans Crunchy Oats range, I was rather delighted by the Honey & Nut cereal. However, I did find it a little too sweet - unlike Jordans muesli, which I eat quite a lot, it does have sugar added to it. Nowhere near as much as all those horrible processed cereals like Frosties, of course, but I think I've just become used to sugar-free cereal. I also eat my cereal dry, without milk, so if you're a milk fan you'll probably find that the milk takes away some of the sugariness. Anyway, the Honey & Nut Country Crisp is definitely worth a try if you're bored of muesli or cornflakes - it really is delicious, and it also makes a great snack.
It occurred to me as I was making this cake that it would be nice to add another texture, something to make it a little bit crunchy. Enter the Honey & Nut Country Crisp. Because the cereal is so crispy already, having been baked, I figured I could add it to the cake batter and it would retain some of its crunch. I also sprinkled a little on top of the cake before baking. The result was delectable, much easier than faffing around making a streusel or crumble topping, and also slightly healthier.
The cake itself is really moist and delicious, studded with juicy chunks of peach and tangy redcurrants. I'm definitely going to use this Quark-based mixture again; it makes a fabulous cake that's ideal served warm as a dessert with some cream or ice cream. It's not particularly light, so if you like your cakes mousse-like, this probably isn't the one for you, but I like my cakes substantial and slightly gooey in the middle, which this certainly is. The addition of the Jordans cereal was a stroke of genius, even if I say so myself - the added honeyed crunch is exactly what the cake needs, contrasting beautifully with the soft fruit. This cake is best eaten straight away, as the cereal tends to go a bit soft after it's been in a tin for too long, but you should have no problem devouring it fresh from the oven.
Do you have a magpie-like tendency to hoard certain foodstuffs or other objects? I'm sure I'm not alone in this.
Peach and redcurrant cake (serves 8):
- 250g Quark
- 4 tbsp milk (plus a bit more if needed)
- 30g melted butter
- 2 eggs
- 75g golden caster sugar
- 250g self-raising flour
- Zest of 1 orange
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 150g redcurrants
- 8 tbsp Jordans Country Crisp Honey & Nut, crumbled
- 3-4 ripe peaches
- 3 tbsp demerara sugar
Pre-heat the oven to 190C/fan 170C. Grease and line a 20/22cm cake tin with baking parchment.
Beat together the melted butter, quark, eggs, milk, vanilla and sugar until combined. Stir in the orange rind and fold in the flour to make a fairly stiff batter. (You may need to add more milk if it's too stiff, as I did). Roughly chop half the peaches and stir into the batter. Stir in half the redcurrants and half the Jordans cereal.
Pour the mixture into the cake tin. Slice the remaining peaches and arrange over the top of the cake. Scatter over the redcurrants, the rest of the cereal, and the demerara sugar.
Bake for 45 minutes or until the cake is firm and a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean. Allow to cool a little, then serve warm with cream or ice cream.
Redcurrant vanilla cheesecake (serves 6):
- 12 ginger nut or digestive biscuits
- 30g melted butter
- 250g ricotta cheese
- 150ml half-fat creme fraiche
- 90g caster sugar
- 1 tbsp agave nectar or honey
- 2 eggs
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 200g redcurrants
Pre-heat the oven to 190C. Grease and line an 18cm springform cake tin with baking parchment.
Place the biscuits in a blender and blitz to fine crumbs. Mix with the melted butter and press into the base of the cake tin. Bake in the oven for 10 minutes or until golden brown. Lower the oven temperature to 170C/160C fan oven.
Mix together the ricotta, creme fraiche, sugar, nectar/honey, eggs and vanilla either in the blender or in a bowl using an electric whisk. The mixture will be quite runny, but don't worry. Gently stir in two-thirds of the redcurrants.
Pour the cheesecake mixture into the prepared tin and bake for 45-55 minutes or until turning golden on top but still a little wobbly in the centre. Leave to cool in the tin before turning out onto a plate and chilling in the fridge for a couple of hours.
To serve, decorate with the remaining redcurrants and dust with icing sugar.