Greengage and honey compote

When, like the bee, culling from every flower/The virtuous sweets/Our thighs pack'd with wax, our mouths with honey/We bring it to the hive ~ Henry IV, part 2.

Honey is an interesting ingredient. I use it so frequently but I never really stop and appreciate it pure and unadulterated, for the complex and fascinating product that it is. While I frequently use dark brown sugar for the wonderful caramel notes it lends to recipes, I often find the flavour of honey diminishes during cooking, and its interesting flavours are masked. I'm not one for spooning the stuff over toast or savouring it straight from the jar with a spoon, Winnie-the-Pooh style. I feel I might be missing out.

There are numerous uses for honey in my kitchen. I use it, mixed with apple compote, to form a thick, luscious, gloopy mixture to coat flakes of oats and barley for my homemade granola

 before toasting them in a hot oven to result in glorious crunchy morsels. I stir a spoonful or two into a lamb tagine to lend a succulent sweetness that pairs well with the rich meat. I drizzle it, along with a dollop of wickedly dark and sticky pomegranate molasses and a splash of oil, over butternut squash and aubergine before roasting, to result in gorgeously charred, caramelised edges. I use it to sweeten a raspberry and vanilla cheesecake, to take the sour edge off underripe apricots while baking, to lend a luscious sticky sweetness to baked figs destined to be smothered in vanilla ice cream, and generally over any fruit that could do with a little sugary help in the oven.

However, none of these preparations fully enable the cook or the diner to appreciate the nuances of honey. Often it's used simply as a sugar substitute, and sugar would sit quite happily in its place. Yet just as there are multiple varieties of sugar, each possessing their unique colour, texture, flavour and aroma, so there are countless diverse manifestations of honey. 

It all depends on what the bees have been feeding on. The flower nectar they eat mixes with enzymes in their saliva, which turns it to honey. They deposit this in their hives; the practice of beekeeping encourages the bees to produce more honey than usual, so it can be collected and eaten. 

I've come across so many exciting types of honey in my food travels, from the rugged-sounding heather honey to the exotic orange blossom honey, thyme honey, acacia honey and the intriguing chestnut honey (this is fabulous and really unusual, but I'm reserving it for a future blog post, so watch this space). They all have their own colours, textures and fragrances. On a recent trip to York I found beautiful Yorkshire honey for sale in little tubs, with a layer of honeycomb over the top. There's runny honey, golden and amber-like, and the glorious thick set honey, ideal for spreading in pillowy waves of sweetness over toast. 

Honey has all sorts of fascinating qualities; it's frequently assigned multiple health benefits, depending on which variety you choose. It's also the only foodstuff that has an infinite shelf life, because of its high sugar and low water content. This low water content is due to the bees flapping their wings in the hive, which causes air movement and subsequently the evaporation of water from the honey. How clever is that? I never fail to be amazed at how mother nature has created, in the world of flora and fauna, a perfectly formed and abundant larder.

I spied some lovely greengages at the market this weekend, a bittersweet sign that autumn is rapidly approaching. Not that we've really had summer this year...but I won't turn this into a ranting arena for meteorological-based tirades against my beloved country, because I have more important things to talk about, like fruit.

Greengages are like little green plums, tart-sweet, soft and delicious. My favourite part is their skin, which is matt in places, shiny in others, and suffused with a beautiful bloom of palest jade green. They're one of the prettiest fruits to look at, I think, second only perhaps to blushing, ripe apricots. They range, like plums, from hard and crispy to quiveringly soft and jelly-like, depending on ripeness. I couldn't resist buying a bag, and figured I'd decide later what to do with them.

While sorting out some recipes I'd hastily cut from magazines and stashed in a pile on the dresser, I found one for a greengage and honey compote. I love compotes, as they really bring out the best in fruit, and are so versatile. I like mine spooned over a bowl of porridge or muesli.

For use in cooking you can get away with the cheaper supermarket honey, but when I'm going to use honey because I want to taste honey, I try and use something a bit better. I had a jar of Yorkshire honey in the larder, which has a wonderful rich aroma and actually smells and tastes like honey rather than just general sugariness. This compote required four tablespoons, which go into a pan with halved and de-stoned greengages. There's no liquid - the honey melts in the heat and the greengages release their own juice, which they stew in slowly for a few minutes, perfumed by a split vanilla pod that is tucked in among their delicate green curves. 

I don't normally add sweetener to my compotes, and if I do it's a tiny and barely perceptible amount of honey, so this was a rather different taste experience. I absolutely loved it. The whole thing is a perfect marriage of greengage and honey flavour. You can definitely taste the honey - its floral, caramel notes permeate the juicy collapsed fruit, which contributes its own tartness. I simmered the greengages until a few lost their shape and the whole thing became rather liquid, but if you prefer the fruits more firm just reduce the cooking time. Keep an eye on them, as they turn to mush in a flash.

The result of this is a wonderful golden ambrosial nectar. It's like eating honey, but improved with the addition of vanilla and delicious plummy juiciness. There are chunks of sweet, tender fruit immersed in a thick, rich syrup. It's also so ridiculously simple and takes all of ten minutes to make.

This would be fabulous served as a dessert with some cream or ice cream. You could go one further and spoon it over a moist wedge of almond cake, or a slice of vanilla cheesecake. It would sit prettily in the crusty hollow of a pavlova, or even make a wonderful topping for freshly-baked scones.

I, however, ate mine spooned over a bowl of hot porridge, along with some raspberries to balance the sweetness. A perfect cloudy morning breakfast.

Greengage and honey compote (makes 3-4 servings):

(From Sainsbury's magazine, no idea which issue)

  • 500g greengages, ripe but still firm
  • 4 tbsp runny honey (you can experiment with varieties - I reckon a thyme honey would be gorgeous)
  • 1 vanilla pod

Halve the greengages and remove the stones. Place in a saucepan with the honey, then heat gently until the honey is liquid. Run a knife down the centre of the vanilla pod and add to the fruit, then simmer gently until the fruit starts to release a lot of liquid, and is on the point of collapse. This should take only a couple of minutes.

Remove from the heat and serve hot or cold, with cream, creme fraiche, ice cream, or breakfast.

Five things I love this week #5

1. Tracklements Caramelised Red Onion Relish. It's National Sandwich Week this week, and so Tracklements were kind enough to send me a selection of their top sandwich-enhancing products. I tried their take on two classics: first, a jar of proper thick, tasty mayonnaise, enhanced with Dijon mustard for a bit of a kick and a delicious creamy flavour; secondly, a lovely tomato ketchup made with ripe Italian tomatoes that had a much deeper flavour than your standard Heinz. I'd much rather use this than something mass-produced on such a large scale. It would be delicious in a classic bacon or sausage sandwich. There was also a delicious country garden chutney - so-called because the first batch was made from all the vegetables Tracklements could find in their garden - with lovely tangy chunks of onion, carrot, swede, parsnip and turnip, and an interesting kick from apricots, tamarind, apple, sultanas and mustard.

My hands-down favourite, though, is this wonderful caramelised red onion relish. I love using caramelised onions as a garnish for any dish involving cheese, but cooking them down to tangles of sweet tenderness in a pan takes time. With this, all the work is done - the onions have been slowly caramelised before the addition of vinegar, muscovado sugar (which adds a lovely caramelly depth of flavour), salt and pepper. The jar suggests it would be the perfect partner for a steak sandwich, which I can't wait to try - possibly with a little blue cheese. If that doesn't make you rush out and buy a jar, I don't know what will. For now, though, I'll suggest this sandwich as a celebration of National Sandwich Week, which I made for lunch yesterday and which was amazing, really showing off the red onion relish to its best advantage:

Take some good sourdough bread (I made my own because I'm hideously enviable like that. But you could buy it). Lightly toast. Smother with crumbly, tangy goat's cheese. Dollop with Tracklements caramelised red onion relish. Top with quartered fresh figs and a few basil or mint leaves, roughly torn.

Eat. It'll be messy. Enjoy it. Relish it, if you will. Have a napkin ready.

2. Baked plums with ginger and orange. I found these gorgeous plums at the market yesterday and couldn't resist buying a few. Because raw plums are often so disappointing when flown in from halfway across the world, I like to bake them to bring out their sweet-tart flavour.

Simply halve and stone your plums, then arrange cut side up in a baking dish. Splash over a glug of orange juice (bottled is fine), scatter over some light brown sugar, and take a ball of stem ginger in syrup and cut it into little cubes. Scatter this over the plums before drizzling with a little of the ginger syrup. If you don't have ginger in syrup, use fresh grated ginger and add a bit more sugar. Bake at around 170C for 20 minutes or until soft but still keeping their shape. The ginger, sugar and orange will have formed a succulent syrup around the base of the plums. These are amazing served with vanilla ice cream, but are also good for breakfast on muesli, granola or porridge.

3. Two Greedy Italians. I know I'm a bit late with this one, as it's been on TV for a while, but I've only just got round to watching it. There couldn't be a more refreshing antidote to the swarm of waif-like, vapid, impossibly manicured female 'TV chefs' currently gracing our screens with their perfect lipstick and clearly false claims that they 'love cheese' while they strut around in their size six jeans and take small bites out of cakes they've made. Such shows irritate me beyond belief, especially as the recipes are so often unimaginative rehashes of things that have been done a million times.

You can't get more honest than two decidedly un-waif-like effusive Italian men gesticulating wildly whilst wolfing down everything in sight and playing pranks on each other in the process. Not only is it a fascinating insight into the lesser-known sides of Italian life, but the recipes are also unusual, original and intriguing. Chestnut gnocchi, orange rice cake, barley risotto with minced pork, buckwheat pasta baked with cheese and swiss chard...this is the kind of food I want to cook and eat, and in no small part because of the heartwarming and amusing way it is presented on the screen. I think I might have to buy the cookbook...and buying the cookbook to accompany a TV cookery series is something I told myself I would never do...

4. The Hole in the Wall, Cambridge. I've been meaning to go to Masterchef finalist Alex Rushmer's restaurant ever since I heard it had opened; it's not often that you get a contestant from your home town on national TV, and I was yearning for him to win and put Cambridge on the culinary map (not likely to happen anytime soon, as it apparently has the largest concentration of chain restaurants in the UK). Despite not winning, he's certainly done very well with his place out in Little Wilbraham on the outskirts of Cambridge. I finally ended up there for Sunday lunch this weekend, and was absolutely charmed by the place. It has a lovely cosy country pub feel, with rustic wooden tables and simple yet elegant tableware - there are little plants on each table and the butter is served on a wooden slate, sprinkled with sea salt. Everything was delicious, from the soda bread and sourdough we slathered in said butter, right through to the incredible dessert.

I had a perfectly-cooked fillet of wild sea bass on a bed of pecorino tortelloni with asparagus and pea puree. The tortelloni were the best I've ever had - the pasta was perfectly al dente, giving way to the rich cheese filling within. The asparagus was fresh and crunchy, and the sea bass meaty and delicious. If I were to make a very minor criticism, I'd say that I'm not entirely sure they belonged together on a plate - it felt rather like two very different dishes; the pasta didn't actually need the sea bass. But I enjoyed it immensely and could have eaten another plateful. My boyfriend had the roast sirloin of beef, which arrived so beautifully pink I could have cried with joy on his behalf. It came with two perfect Yorkshire puddings - the right balance of crispy and gooey - and the best duck fat roast potatoes I've ever eaten. They were so crispy you could hear one being cut into across the other side of the restaurant.

For dessert, I agonised over a choice between the lemon and passion fruit tart with pineapple sorbet, or the sticky toffee bread and butter pudding. Yes, that's right - not sticky toffee or bread and butter pudding, but both in one. Why have I never thought of that before? I told the waiter about my dilemma, and he actually laughed at me for being so ridiculous as to even have a dilemma. He rightly pointed out that I would hate myself if I ordered the tart. I saw why, when my pudding arrived.

It was a quivering, custardy square of gooey bread and juicy raisins. It came drenched in a molten puddle of sticky toffee sauce with more of those plump, caramelly raisins. There were blobs of passion fruit coulis. There were two little strawberries for decoration. There was a scoop of - wait for it - clotted cream ice cream, perched atop a crunchy biscuity mixture. The texture of the pudding was just sublime - you couldn't detect the individual bread layers, as it had all melded together into one tender, creamy mass, slightly gelatinous and subtly sweet. The raisins gave a perfect bite to the whole thing, and the toffee sauce was so fabulous that I nearly picked the plate up and licked it clean. The coulis gave a welcome sharpness to the whole thing, and the clotted cream ice cream helped lift the richness of the sticky sauce. It goes straight to the Elly McCausland Pudding Hall of Fame - in there with my top five restaurant puddings of all time. When the waiter came to collect my plate, he actually laughed at me and said "How insane were you, thinking about having a different pudding?"

Alex Rushmer is a bloody genius, people. Go and eat his food now, while you can get a table. Service is really friendly, the atmosphere is fantastic, and the food is beautiful. And don't even think about ordering the lemon tart over the sticky toffee bread and butter pudding.

5. Roasted cauliflower. Banish all thoughts of watery, grey, smelly, overcooked mushy cauliflower from your minds. Yes, it can be horrible. It can be anaemic-looking, flavourless, squashy and reminiscent of old socks. Here's how to change that.

Cut a cauliflower into florets. Toss with some olive oil, half a teaspoon of cumin, a sprinkling of cinnamon and a squeeze of lemon juice. Season well with salt and pepper. Bake at 180C for 10-15 minutes until parts have turned crispy and it is tender in the middle.

I promise you, this is a cauliflower revelation. You can vary the herbs and spices as you wish, but be sure to be generous with the oil and salt for a perfect experience. It goes very well with Indian dishes, but also with any roast meat or as part of a salad. Good flavour partners are tahini, lemon, lentils, couscous, pomegranate seeds, lemony roast chicken or spiced lamb.

Five things I love this week #4

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.