There are some things that, in my mind, have zero place in tea. Just like some people have an entirely irrational aversion to raisins in muesli, or olives in salad, I absolutely refuse to entertain certain rogue ingredients in my morning (/afternoon/evening) brew. Liquorice is the main culprit here: I can detect its sickly-sweet aroma simply from the vapour of the tea before it even touches my lips. Not that I’d let it, because then there’s a disgusting syrupy aftertaste that ruins the entire point of a cup of tea, which is to be bracing and relaxing all at the same time. It’s not candy, or medicine.Read More
Whenever I read about someone enjoying their porridge plain, ‘with just water and salt’, a small part of me withers and dies quietly inside. It is often, apparently, meant to seem like a badge of honour (specifically, a sort of Spartan-cum-Northern honour): look how I shun the decadent trappings of modern culinary life in favour of my abstemious bowlful of gruel; look how little I require to achieve true happiness. While I am undoubtedly envious – imagine how much simpler one’s entire existence must be if one is sated by just oats and salt – I can’t help but think of all the opportunities that are closed down by that Puritan preference for a no-nonsense breakfast bowl.Read More
There are many benefits to cooking with coconut oil. It’s full of good fats, nutritious, it can replace dairy in many recipes, it has a pleasant slightly sweet coconut flavour…but, if I’m perfectly honest with you, one of the main reasons I love this new trendy ingredient is because you can melt it in the microwave without it exploding everywhere, as butter has a tendency to do. Who hasn’t felt their heart sink as that sickening ‘pop’ breaks the monotony of the whirring, grinding microwave, knowing the next few minutes will be spent painstakingly wiping a greasy yellow film off the hot plastic, the air heavy with the slightly sickly scent of warm animal fat? Who hasn’t opted for the microwave to melt their butter, out of laziness and not wishing to wash up a pan, only to end up spending those valuable saved minutes scraping away smears of grease? (You can, of course, avoid this problem by covering your bowl or jug with cling film while microwaving, but for some reason I take the chance every time…I think I just like to live on the edge).Read More
This tastes like Christmas, although I definitely wouldn’t save it just for the coldest moments of the year. Simmering fragrant quinces and perfumed pears in a cranberry syrup, rich with warming spices and scented like mulled wine, gives them a luscious, melting tenderness. Add some tart, bouncy dried cranberries you have a wonderful textured mass of sweetness and spice. The colours are muted, but beautiful in their own right: deep amber, dusky pink, ochre-tinged cream, a tangle of tender poached fruits, occasionally punctuated with the ebony blade of a star anise or shard of cinnamon quill.Read More
It’s rhubarb season, and I feel like an excitable little girl with a penchant for Disney and ponies every time I take a tray of the stuff out of the oven, its radiant fuschia guaranteed to perk up even the lowest of spirits, even if only for a moment. While you can bury this delicious sweet-tart vegetable under a blanket of pastry or a smothering of crumble, it seems a shame to hide it when it’s so beautiful. There’s a reason rhubarb at this time of year is called ‘champagne rhubarb’: it’s far superior to the summer stalks in colour, flavour and texture. It makes sense, then, to show it off.Read More
For me, mornings are the worst part of winter. I normally count myself as a guaranteed lark, reveling in the early hours of the day, but those early hours in the colder months of the year barely deserve the label ‘morning’. Mornings mean sunshine, beams streaming through the window and the promise of productivity and good things to come. Mornings don’t mean opening your eyes in darkness; the hazy, nauseating orange glow of streetlamps replacing real rays; the rasp of cold, clammy air against your skin as you tentatively reach an arm outside the duvet to check the time and remind yourself that no, it isn’t a mistake, it genuinely is time to get up despite the dark and the cold and the feeling that you might be turning into a hibernating mammal. Mornings shouldn’t mean having to shiveringly shroud yourself in a dressing gown to make the briefest of journeys between bedroom and bathroom, or turning all the lights on in the kitchen just so you can find the all-important switch on the kettle.Read More
Another breakfast recipe. I'm not going to apologise, though, because there are several reasons why this is the absolute best thing you could be making and eating right now (I mean 'right now' figuratively speaking, of course, because you might be reading this at night time, in which case it's probably not a great idea to indulge in a vat of hearty oats before lying down).
Firstly, I've read a few of those awful detox-related articles in various newspapers and magazines this week. Curse those publications, for contributing to JIGS, or 'January-Influenced Guilt Syndrome' (I have just invented this, but I think it should be a nationally-acknowledged phenomenon). They're pretty hard to avoid, and the worst part is I only read magazines and newspapers while eating, so invariably there I am, gorging on some giant bowl of carbs, reading an article telling me not to do exactly that. It's pretty depressing reading about ideal lunches based around salad, green veg and lean protein while you're tucking into their opposite.
However, one of the things these articles all have in common is that they recommend oats. Oats are great for several reasons. I won't bore you with the details, but in a nutshell - they're good for your heart, cholesterol, and they fill you up for ages, meaning you don't get hungry at 11am and reach for an almond croissant.
Another thing mentioned by these articles is that people who eat breakfast are often thinner and happier than those who don't. Combine these two pieces of advice, then, and make porridge for breakfast a new year's resolution. If you need another reason, look outside at the fifty shades of grey that is the English winter morning: this is a time for piping hot, steaming breakfasts. Even the sight of wisps of steam emerging from something is enough to calm the nerves and lift the spirits, whether it be a cup of tea, a plate of pasta, or a bowl of porridge.
To some people, porridge is a simple thing of beauty. Pure, unadulterated, creamy oaty goodness. A quiet simplicity. However, I've yet to experience the moment where I feel satisfied by contemplating a bowl of unadorned oats. If the idea of porridge bores you, or - even worse - repulses you, making you think of Dickensian style gruel, then
I can't stress enough the transformative power of a good compote.
By making a delicious fruit-based compote to top your porridge, you turn something plain and worthy into something plainly worth shouting about. You can smother your oats in sweet, colourful fruit, and pretend you're tucking into rice pudding (if you like that sort of thing - I think I'd rather have porridge). Another advantage of this is that it negates the need for sugar in the porridge, as the fruit is sweet enough to balance the bland starchiness of the oats. Not only are you getting rid of the sugar, which is generally accepted as being bad for us, you're adding one or even two of your five a day to your diet, before you've even woken up properly.
Ever since I became captivated by the unusual quince, by its glorious curvature and exquisite perfumed sweetness, I've been coming up with new recipes that make the most of its soft, aromatic flesh. Sometimes these are savoury - particularly good partners are lamb, chicken, nuts and cheese - others are sweet, such as this quince, apple and almond crumble tart or this quince tarte tatin. I recently decided I didn't want to limit the sweetness of the quince to desserts only, and came up with this compote.
If you've never cooked with quince before, this is a good introduction. Its assertive fragrance is tempered by the addition of apples - since the quince is in both flavour and appearance a cross between an apple and a pear, this makes good culinary sense. The beauty of mingling quince and apple is that the latter loses its shape quickly during cooking, disintegrating into a frothy mush, while the quince retains its form and slightly firmer texture. The result is a thick compote of almost puréed apple, studded with golden cubes of tender quince.
I've made this a few times with different spices. First I tried a cinnamon stick, then star anise. Both versions were lovely, but when I experimented on a whim with adding a vanilla pod, the result was so wonderful that it just had to be shared, even if it is a humble bowl of porridge. Vanilla works incredibly well with quinces, which have their own subtle fragrance that the vanilla serves to highlight. It also works wonderfully with apples. Although cinnamon is often the classic spice for apples, I feel that apple and vanilla are a pairing that should be given more limelight. Vanilla emphasises the apple's natural sweetness rather than its acidity.
Using vanilla in this compote also makes it intensely pretty to look at - a beautiful very pale green appley froth, flecked with those tiny black seeds that contain so much promise of flavour, full of golden quince pieces. It's sweet but still quite tart (you could add more sugar if you like), providing a bracing start to the morning and contrasting wonderfully with the comfort blanket that is the creamy porridge. I've used a lovely vanilla pod, along with some ground cinnamon and ginger in the porridge to add a subtle warm flavour. I also put sultanas in my porridge - they swell up as it cooks, giving a lovely contrast in texture. Toffee-like dried fruits combined with the sweet quince and apple is another delicious flavour contrast.
The best way to eat this is on top of the spiced porridge, as in the recipe below. I prefer to spoon the compote, cold from the fridge, over the steaming hot porridge. You get that wonderful temperature contrast when eating it, like having cold ice cream with a hot crumble or pie. It might sound odd, but a spoonful of scalding porridge mingled with the chilled, sweet fruit is beautiful. The contrast between the warmly-spiced sweet porridge and the tart, vanilla-laced fruit is delectable. However, you could warm the compote up in the microwave if you wanted.
If you're still not convinced by porridge, this compote would also make a fabulous dessert served either warm or cold with ice cream, or even with meringues or alongside a rich almond cake. But humour me, and regard my reasons for an oaty breakfast above. I want to convert you.
Spiced porridge with quince, apple and vanilla compote:
For the compote (makes 4-5 servings):
- 2 large quinces
- 3 cooking apples, or 4 eating apples
- 300ml water
- 4 tbsp brown sugar
- 1 vanilla pod, scored lengthways with a sharp knife
Put the water, sugar and vanilla pod in a large saucepan and bring to the boil. Stir to dissolve the sugar.
Peel, quarter and core the quinces. Cut each quince segment into small chunks, about an inch wide. Add to the water, then cover and cook on a medium high heat for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, peel, core and cut the apples into 1cm slices. When the quince is just tender, add the apples. Cover and cook for 5 minutes or so, stirring occasionally, until most of the apples break down into mush but there are a few solid pieces left. Turn off the heat and leave to cool, then refrigerate.
For the porridge (makes 1 giant serving - I eat a lot of porridge - can be halved as necessary!):
- 100g rolled/porridge oats
- 1/2 tsp
- ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp
- ground ginger
- 80g sultanas
- 300ml water
- 200ml semi-skimmed milk
Put the oats, spices and sultanas in a saucepan. Add the water and milk, then bring to the boil. Cook for around 3-5 minutes, stirring, until the porridge thickens. Add more water or milk if you like it less thick, then pour into a bowl and top with the compote.
Although some of my more rant-led blog posts may encourage you to believe that I am a constantly angry and occasionally violent grumpy old woman, I'm actually quite a nice person. However, there are certain things that you just don't do if you want to remain on speaking terms with me ever again.
For example, cook rice as you would pasta, in a vat of boiling water, draining it with a sieve. This is not acceptable behaviour and I will not tolerate it from anyone in my life.
Secondly, you never, ever, mess up the froth on my cappuccino. Drinking a cappuccino is a ritual, revolving around the steady scraping off of the chocolatey froth from the top with a spoon and the inhalation of its heady cocoa-rich aroma before indulging in the actual coffee lurking underneath. The chocolate is the best bit. I once went on a date with a boy who flagrantly ignored this, leaned over the table and swirled his spoon vigorously around in my cappuccino (which sounds like a euphemism, but is not). I was actually rendered speechless with horror for a good few seconds. Needless to say, it didn't work out. A person who could do such a thing is clearly evil and therefore not boyfriend material.
Thirdly, you don't announce that you can't cook, proudly and as if this is some kind of badge of honour. You say 'I can't cook'; I hear 'I'm a lazy good-for-nothing layabout'. Cooking is pretty much the easiest thing in the world. You don't have to rustle up a three-course feast involving foams, textures and an ingredient 'done three ways'. But to make something like pasta or a curry is about as difficult as cutting your toenails. If you claim you 'can't cook', I'm sorry, but I just think you're too lazy to try. ('Won't cook', incidentally, also hurts me to hear, but is at least more honest).
You don't wave your exposed wrists in my face when I tell you I have a phobia of wrists and blood. That, people, is just unkind and not actually very funny, because I have a tendency to pass out on such occasions and while that may sound hilarious, you really don't want to be responsible for my concussion. Because I will track you down and kill you.
You don't wear leggings that are slightly see-through instead of trousers, i.e. not concealed by some kind of skirt or shorts. This is never, under any circumstances, OK. I'm sorry, but I don't want to go out with you in public if everyone who walks behind you can read the slogan on your knickers.
Come to think of it, slogans on knickers are not really OK either.
On that note. Boys: Tom and Jerry boxers are not - I repeat, NOT - a thing that should exist. If they're made of silk, this does not somehow make it OK. In fact, I think it makes it worse, by suggesting said product is geared towards a hideous hybrid of pre-pubescent child and male porn star. Wearers of such things, you know who you are. If you're ever wondering why we didn't work out, there's your explanation.
You don't always arrive late and/or cancel things at the last minute. This drives me up the wall and is just bad manners. Just because we live in a luxurious world of technology where we can instantly let someone know if we're running late or unable to make it, it doesn't mean it's OK or socially acceptable.
You don't eat at Cafe Rouge. If you eat at Cafe Rouge, consider yourself judged. Like, as judged as you will be on the way into heaven. Except if you eat at Cafe Rouge, you are clearly not going to heaven. But don't worry, I think the food in hell is probably a marked improvement on what that ubiquitous, nauseating, faux-rustic chain serves up on a daily basis.
And, finally, you don't get in the way of my breakfast.
Breakfast, to me, is probably the best time of the day. It's a quiet time, a time of solace and reflection before the rush begins.
(OK, I admit, as a PhD student my life never gets much more of a 'rush' than 'Oh! I must hurry my five-minute commute so I can get to that seminar in time to make a cup of tea first!!! I hope I remembered to leave my lapsang souchong teabags in my locker for just such an occasion!')
It's a time to be on my own and enjoy the first meal of the day in peace. Sometimes I read recipe books or food magazines, or watch a food show on TV. I make sure I always have something delicious to eat and take my time over, whether it's a big bowl of porridge with fruit or a freshly baked loaf of soda bread with homemade jam and a big cup of tea. I have a special mug that I reserve for my breakfast cups of tea. (By 'special', I essentially mean 'giant').
For most people, breakfast is probably a bowl of supermarket cereal and a glass of juice or a cup of tea. Or maybe a couple of pre-sliced bits of flabby, plasticky, mass-produced bread. While I appreciate that a lot of people don't have much time in the morning, I've always felt it worth getting up a little bit earlier so that I can have a proper breakfast. For me, the prospect of a freshly baked loaf or a steaming bowl of porridge is infinitely better than an extra fifteen minutes in bed. I put more effort into my breakfast, I imagine, than most people, rarely eating the same thing for more than a few days in a row.
Take, for example, this recipe. It is inspired by one of the most delicious things I've ever eaten: Joy the Baker's 'Vegan Apple Cranberry Oatmeal Bake', which she posted on her blog a few weeks ago and which instantly shot straight to the top of my 'to-make' list. Lucky recipe - some things languish for years on that list without a second glance. I made it a few days later, and spent the entire time I was eating it groaning with delight in a slightly indecent fashion. I changed her recipe only slightly in that I used pears as well as apples, which I think made it even better. You get a gorgeous muddle of burst, juicy, tart cranberries, sharp apples and soft, grainy, perfumed pear pieces. This is all interspersed with clusters of spiced oats, crunchy and crisp in places and soft and gooey in others where they've come into contact with the fruit juices. It's one of those absolute keepers of a recipe, one that I know will become a staple in my kitchen for evermore.
It is the closest I've ever come to eating crumble for breakfast. Honestly, it's pretty much impossible to tell that it isn't crumble. What's more, it's markedly healthier. This is essentially the holy grail: dessert for breakfast, plus no guilt. That said, it could also be happily served as a dessert with some ice cream, as Joy suggests.
There are some gooseberries in my insanely middle class food hoard (freezer) that have been lurking there for months now; I bulk-bought them in the summer and didn't use them up, saving them - as always with things in the freezer - for a 'special' occasion that never arose. As my freezer was approaching bursting point and I'm going home for the holidays, I wanted to have a bit of a clear out before I left.
I made a wonderful gooseberry crumble a couple of months ago, infinitely better than any previous attempts due to roasting the gooseberries in the oven first with brown sugar then draining most of the juice, to prevent a soggy mess that has been the tragic downfall of previous noble crumbles. The result was beautifully tender, tart berries, slightly scorched in places and wrinkled in others, under a crunchy, buttery crust. It was probably the best crumble I've ever made. It suddenly occurred to me that I didn't have to wait for an occasion when I could justify eating huge amounts of crumble to use up those gooseberries...I could use the same principle of roasting the berries first then blanketing them with a crunchy topping, but in a form that could be eaten for breakfast.
I roasted the gooseberries with brown sugar until starting to burst. They didn't release too much juice, so I didn't drain them. Instead I tossed them with chunks of pear, some mixed spice and some cornflour, to thicken any juices that did emerge and stop everything becoming watery. The crust is a mixture of jumbo oats, spelt flour, salt, mixed spice and ginger, because ginger works very well with gooseberries. It's moistened with maple syrup, olive oil and almond extract, because almond also works very well with gooseberries. The result, which looks like flapjack mixture, goes onto the fruit. You stir it in very slightly, just so that some bits of the crust end up soaked in the bubbling fruity syrup, then scatter over some flaked almonds for extra crunch, and it goes in the oven.
Oh, my goodness. I know I tell you all my recipes are good, even delicious, because obviously I'm a gastronomic genius and I crave love and acceptance, but this is beyond good. As Joy herself said of the cranberry version, it's 'bonkers delicious'. Firstly, the smell as it bakes is better than any scented candle (which makes me wonder if there isn't a gap in the market for brunch-based scented candles). Secondly, it's just so, so tasty. Hopefully you can see from the photos, because words kind of fail me. Imagine the best crumble you've ever eaten. It's sort of like that.
The gooseberries turn puckered and wrinkled, lending their beautiful honeyed, fragrant sweetness to the syrupy juice under the oats. The pears soften but still retain their grainy bite, adding their subtle perfumed flavour to the mix. The juice bubbles stickily. The oats soften and turn gooey in places, crunchy and crisp in others, with a toasty, buttery flavour (but of course, this uses olive oil so has the bonus of being vegan) and a hint of warm spice. There's crunch from the almonds. The whole thing is a delightful medley of textures and a riot of toasty and sweet, syrupy flavours.
This is my new favourite breakfast. Eating it was a perfect ritual: big mug of tea, warm, spiced fruit, comforting crispy oats. I devoured half the dish in one sitting; Joy claims her original recipe served 4-6, but this is clearly some kind of conspiracy. I would be very, very surprised if you managed to make it serve four, let alone six. When I made it for friends a couple of weekends ago, I doubled the quantities, and it comfortably fed four of us. So be generous in your portion estimations.
I'm slightly devastated that I'm going to have to wait until summer to get gooseberries to make this again. Unfortunately it probably means I'm going to hoard even more of these fruits than last year, but at least now I'll know exactly what to do with them. However, out of season, you can use most berries for this: cranberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries. You won't even need to roast them first, in that case - just put them in raw with the pears, cornflour and spices and add the oat mixture. I reckon blackberries would be insanely good.
So, after that somewhat scary list of things not to do if you want to be my friend, I'm going to give you one suggestion of something you should do: make this. And invite me round. Just be prepared for me to eat nearly all of it. And make sure you serve my tea in a suitably large mug.
Pear, gooseberry and almond breakfast oat crumble (serves 2-3):
- 3-4 large handfuls gooseberries, topped and tailed
- 3 tbsp brown sugar
- 3 medium pears (I used Rocha)
- 1 tbsp cornflour
- 1 tsp mixed spice
- 150g jumbo oats
- 40g spelt flour
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- 1/2 tsp mixed spice
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 3 tbsp maple syrup
- 1 tsp almond extract
- 1 tbsp water
- 2 tbsp flaked almonds
Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Put the gooseberries in a medium baking dish with the brown sugar and toss together. Bake in the oven for 15 minutes or so until they have softened and started to release their juice. Quarter the pears and remove the core, then cut half of them into thin slices and half into small chunks. Add to the gooseberries, and toss together with the 1tsp mixed spice and the cornflour.
In a small bowl, mix together the oats, flour, ginger, mixed spice and salt. In a measuring jug or mug, whisk together the olive oil, maple syrup, almond extract and water. Stir this into the oat mixture until it is moist and starts to clump together.
Pour the oat mixture over the gooseberries and pears, then give it a couple of stirs to roughly mix it together - you still want most of it over the top, though. Sprinkle over the almonds. Bake for around 40 minutes, until the oats have turned crunchy and golden and the fruit has softened. (Check it halfway through, and if it looks like it's a bit dry, add a drop of water to the fruit). Allow to rest for a couple of minutes, then serve.
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.
One thing especially impressed itself upon my mind during this, my second day of eating gluten-free (for day one and the reason behind this gluten-free challenge, click here). That is:how incredibly hard it is to find food on the go that doesn't contain gluten. It seems that the pesky thing lurks everywhere, in the most unexpected and surprising places. Nor is its presence particularly well-labelled. To be on a truly gluten-free diet is exhausting, especially when it comes to grabbing a 'quick' lunch from a supermarket; it requires the constant checking of labels and analysing of ingredients, plus the inevitable and tragic disappointment of finding that basically everything you want to eat is cruelly denied you.
For breakfast today, I had a bowl of gluten-free porridge with some rhubarb compote and fresh blackberries. It was delicious; I love the combination of comforting, creamy porridge laced with the potent tang of stewed rhubarb, and the juicy burst of sweet blackberries.
I didn't have much time between doing various errands and starting work in the early afternoon. I definitely didn't have time to make something gluten-free for lunch, mainly because I wanted something a bit healthier than a gluten-free bread roll filled with whatever was in the fridge, which consisted of mostly cheese. So, naturally, I went to M&S on the way to work, my destination of choice for packaged salads, sandwiches and the like because they generally seem much more inviting than cheap and horrible Tesco varieties. Yeah, that's my excuse. Actually it's just because I'm painfully middle class, and never more so than when it comes to food.
My gaze hovered over all the attractive options, and I came pretty close to picking a few up before I realised: couscous, bulgur wheat, pasta salads were all out of the equation. Never mind, I thought, there are a couple of nice-looking quinoa salads, and I know quinoa is gluten-free. One check of the label, however, boldly informed me 'Contains: Wheat, Gluten'. Where this could possibly be in a salad of quinoa, feta and vegetables, I'm not quite sure.
I went for sushi, one of my favourites. The components of sushi are normally pretty basic: rice, sugar, salt, vinegar, fish. So how on earth could the label tell me that there was gluten involved? I assume because of the soy sauce; perhaps you didn't know this, but soy sauce contains wheat.
I was even more shocked, though, when I picked up a salad of edamame beans and sugar snap peas to discover that it contained gluten. Where was the gluten hiding?! Seriously? It was just vegetables! I can only assume that the little pot of dressing provided contained soy sauce or something, but I didn't want to eat a pot of vegetables without anything to season them. The same went for various other salads: mixed bean, Greek...all of them innocently concealing gluten.
I genuinely found this quite surprising, and it also gave me a great deal of sympathy for coeliacs and those wildly allergic to wheat or gluten. There was nothing on the M&S shelf proclaiming itself to be gluten-free; I imagine for such sufferers, finding lunch on the go is a tiresome and frequently fruitless guessing game.
Fortunately - and this was a real stroke of luck - it happened that my favourite M&S salad, one I discovered recently and can't get enough of - didn't contain gluten.
It's a salad of wild rice, lentils, aubergine, peppers and celery with a garlicky dressing. Doesn't sound that great, and definitely doesn't look particularly appetising, being mostly beige and slimy-looking, but it tastes fantastic - sharp and garlicky, creamy from the roasted aubergine and nutty from the lentils and rice. It probably made my day discovering that I was allowed to eat this. I sat outside in the sun and devoured it with a plastic spoon, then had a delicious ripe white nectarine afterwards.
Ripe nectarines are a rare thing, to be treasured when one can get their hands upon them.
The M&S salad was not very filling, however. Especially not when one has been undertaking the tiring job of teaching fourteen rowdy 16-18 year olds for the afternoon. I had a banana and a medjool date (the fattest, stickiest, most toffee-like dates you'll ever eat, which is why I only had one - they're very satisfying) with a cup of tea (these dates have to be consumed with a hot beverage, to melt the sugar off your teeth!), before I went for a pretty gruelling run in the sweltering heat.
Can I tell you a secret? It wasn't as good as the run I went for two weeks ago, which was fuelled by a substantial afternoon tea featuring scones, jam, clotted cream and a huge amount of caffeinated tea. In that respect, I don't think the gluten-free diet has given me a manic burst of energy all of a sudden, but the kind of energy one gets from floury scones is probably the bad kind that will give you a huge sugar low an hour or so later...I was just clever enough to go for a run before that low hit, while I was still high as a kite. I imagine the gluten-free kind of energy is more sustainable and keeps you going for a longer period of time. I still ran seven kilometres, so am not doing too badly without any gluten to sustain me.
Dinner this evening is an example of how - fortunately - some of the most delicious meals are naturally gluten-free. Instead of viewing a gluten-free diet as all about everything you can't have, it seems logical to me to embrace it, to find new and more exciting ways of filling yourself up than by simply gorging a vat of bread or pasta. To me, it seems about much more than simply swapping your bread or pasta for a gluten-free variety, which is a perfectly viable option but seems somewhat lazy and unimaginative.
Instead, I'm thinking about meals that are delicious, and coincidentally naturally lacking in any form of wheat whatsoever. These are the ones I'll be sharing over the next few days. You'll be amazed at how tasty some dishes are, despite the lack of a gluten factor. I tried a recipe from Diana Henry's Food From Plenty, for sea bream cooked Spanish-style. It's one that I've always skipped over before because it just looked too simple. I tend to shy away from simple recipes, favouring more unusual flavour combinations and ingredients. I'm now going to have to rethink my entire philosophy, because this was fantastic.
Sea beam, gutted and scaled (they were on offer in Tesco), baked in the oven under a thick blanket of breadcrumbs, smoked paprika, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil and parsley. The olive oil and the paprika mingle to form a pungent, aromatic, shockingly scarlet oil that permeates and infuses the fish with its deliciously rich, smoky flavour - think chorizo but without the meat. The lemon juice adds tang, the garlic depth, while the breadcrumbs turn crispy in places and soggy in others, saturated with oily, smoky juices. The fish flesh remains deliciously moist, its creamy texture the perfect balance to the assertive bread topping.
I used gluten-free bread to make the crumbs, naturally. To be honest, I think that was all it was good for - the loaf had the texture of dry sponge. However, I did receive it in the post on Thursday, so it is probably just old, a result of my neglect. It would have been fine toasted, though, and I'm sure gluten-free loaves are much nicer when fresh.
I served this fish with boiled potatoes (yay for gluten-free carbs) and a lovely little salad of chargrilled courgettes, broad beans, green beans and basil, dressed with garlic olive oil, lemon juice, and salt and pepper. It was the perfect green and crunchy partner to soak up all the delicious sweet and smoky juices from the fish. Such a simple meal, but one that is much more than the sum of its parts, and is a perfect recipe for a balmy summer evening.
It's now late, and I'm probably heading to bed soon. I feel pretty good - nicely exhausted from running, and wonderfully nourished from my lovely vegetable-heavy dinner. Much better than if I'd eaten a giant bowl of pasta or similar, I'm sure.
Spanish-style sea bream (serves 4):
(Barely adapted from 'Food From Plenty', by Diana Henry)
- 4 sea bream, gutted and scaled
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- 50g breadcrumbs (gluten-free if necessary)
- 5 tsp smoked paprika
- 4 cloves garlic, crushed
- 1 lemon
- 4 tbsp flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
Pre-heat the oven to 190C. Lightly oil a baking dish. Rub olive oil over the fish, inside and out, then season well. Lay in a single layer on the oven dish. Drizzle with olive oil and squeeze over half the lemon.
Mix together the breadcrumbs, garlic and paprika, and season well. Spoon this over the top of the fish, then squeeze over the remaining lemon and drizzle over some more olive oil.
Bake in the oven for 15 minutes, then sprinkle over the parsley. Bake for another 5 minutes, or until the fish is opaque and flakes easily away from the bone at its thickest part.
Serve with a salad (perhaps some green and broad beans) and some boiled new potatoes.
I was recently invited to participate in the 'Making Sense of Sensitivity' Blogger Challenge, in order to help raise awareness of the newly recognised condition of gluten sensitivity. Unlike coeliac disease, there is no formal test for diagnosing gluten sensitivity, yet it is six times more prevalent than coeliac disease, affecting up to 6% of the population and causing unpleasant physical symptoms which are related to a heightened sensitivity to gluten in food. (For more information on the condition, click here).
As part of the challenge, I will be living gluten-free for five days, blogging about my experience and recommending delicious things to eat while on a gluten-free diet, while highlighting the potential pitfalls of cutting out such a prevalent food group.
I agreed to the challenge mainly out of curiosity; it does seem to be generally accepted nowadays that a huge amount of gluten in the diet is not particularly good for you, and I was keen to see if cutting it out completely would have any drastic effects on me. Eating toast for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch and pasta for dinner has never left me feeling at my slimmest and healthiest, so while I generally try not to eat too much gluten anyway, I think I rarely go for days at a time without consuming any.
I was sent a booklet of recipes as part of the challenge, along with some gluten-free products (mainly bread and pasta, but also cornflakes, which I'm intrigued about). I'll be trying out a couple of these as well as suggesting my own recipes for a gluten-free diet, in an attempt to prove that living without gluten can be pretty painless.
I've also been sent a pretty stylish little video camera to record my experience, so expect Nutmegs, seven to be branching out into the world of video blogging!
In my head, most of the meals for these five days are sorted. I eat a lot of salads for dinner at the moment, which are naturally gluten-free anyway (unless, of course, I add a large pile of crispy, garlic-scented sourdough croutons, which has been a regular feature lately. Out with those, I guess). Lunchtime is slightly more tricky, in that my usual lunchtime staples, while healthier than bread, turn out also to contain gluten. No more bulgur wheat, pearl barley or couscous salads for me. However, I luckily recently discovered buckwheat and quinoa, both of which I love and work in a similar way to couscous, so that should be fine, and I have lots of lovely plans for those. Yes, I'm a bit of a health freak. But I promise you, they actually taste really good.
No, the real difficulty is breakfast. I'm not really a fan of bread for breakfast, because it doesn't fill me up and I end up starving mid-morning, so it's not quite as simple as just buying gluten-free bread for my toast. Normally I make myself a giant bowl of porridge or muesli, with lots of fruit. You might be surprised to learn, though, that oats are not gluten-free. This is because they're often contaminated with wheat in the milling process. My yummy homemade granola, then, which contains not only oats but barley and wheat flakes, is out of the question.
Fortunately, you can buy gluten-free oats. They're prohibitively expensive (£3 for 450g, as opposed to under £1 a kilo for my normal oats), but you can get them. Given that I use 100g of oats per bowl of porridge, I'd be spending a fortune on these if I were to live gluten-free in the long term. It's going to be gluten-free porridge for breakfast for these five days, though.
Except for today, which is Sunday. Sunday means special brunch, something more exciting than a bowl of porridge (although, tragically, to me even the most humble bowl of porridge is still exciting). Armed with gluten free oats, and some of the finest summer fruit in season at the moment, you can make this utterly delicious cherry, vanilla and apricot baked oatmeal.
It's a summery adaptation of my hugely successful rhubarb, blueberry and almond baked oatmeal, an irresistible cross between breakfast and dessert, rather like a fruit crisp but healthy. A layer of sliced marigold apricots bakes to a fragrant, jammy tangle of sweetness, while tart sweet cherries ooze their subtle perfume and scarlet juice into the mix. The milky layer of oats, bound with an egg and peppered with cinnamon, vanilla and a little sugar, bakes to a tender, chewy crust, crispy round the edges where the fruit juices have permeated it stickily. A scattering of almonds and some more cherries finishes it off, adding crunch and juiciness.
Incidentally, I call it 'oatmeal' because it's adapted from an American recipe, but it is basically baked porridge. Scroll down for the recipe, if you're interested.
I stumbled across another pitfall while making this - baking powder. It's incredible how many products that we take for granted contain traces of gluten; I realise I'm going to have to think very carefully about this over the next five days. Baking powder often contains corn starch, which means it isn't gluten free. However, you can buy a lot of gluten-free brands of baking powder. Even better, though, I discovered (via Google) that Tesco and Waitrose own brands don't contain gluten, and the former (which uses rice flour as its bulking agent) is what I happened to have in the cupboard.
I decided to experiment a little with the new video camera, so here's a delightful little 'how-to' video of me making this baked oatmeal for breakfast. I think Stephen Spielberg can feel pretty safe, however.
After tucking into a pretty generous portion of this for brunch, my lunch consisted simply of a nectarine and a pear. I think if fruit weren't gluten free, I'd be totally unable to do this challenge, as I eat a huge amount of the stuff every day.
If you need proof that a gluten-free diet needn't mean deprivation, look no further than my dinner this evening. Because, for the first time in approximately three months, the sun had actually come out, it seemed only fitting to celebrate by turning on the barbecue. We had some delicious barbecued sausages - I like them when they're black and crispy on the outside, because those carcinogens are just so damn tasty - along with a sweet, colourful tangle of roasted vegetables, a mound of salad, and jacket potatoes with a generous helping of cheese.
Not quite haute cuisine, but probably the most satisfying meal I've had in a long time. Just make sure, though, that if you're eating sausages on a gluten-free diet, they are suitable - sausages often contain rusk to pad them out, which contains wheat flour. Check the label, and if you can't get the gluten-free variety, choose some less processed cut of meat instead - a lovely steak, for example.
I didn't really notice any difference in how I felt today, probably because it's only day one and, as I mentioned above, it's not like I'm a gluten addict suddenly forced to go cold turkey. But I did feel pretty good after that barbecue! Who needs spongy, tasteless, processed burger buns when you can have a lovely crispy-skinned jacket potato instead? No gluten in those bad boys!
Rhubarb, blueberry and almond baked oatmeal (serves 4-6):
(Adapted from 'Super Natural Every Day', by Heidi Swanson)
- 7-8 large ripe apricots, sliced
- 300g cherries, halved and stoned (or 200g blueberries if you prefer)
- 200g gluten free oats (try and get the whole or 'jumbo' oats if possible)
- 40g flaked almonds, toasted
- 60g light brown sugar
- 1 tsp gluten-free baking powder
- 1.5 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 475ml milk
- 1 large egg
- 3 tbsp melted butter
- 2 tsp vanilla or almond extract
Pre-heat the oven to 190C. Butter an 8in x 8in baking dish, or a similar-sized dish (I use a small Le Creuset one). Scatter the apricots over the bottom and add half the cherries.
Mix together the oats, half the flaked almonds, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon and salt.
In a large jug, whisk together the melted butter, milk, egg and vanilla/almond extract.
Sprinkle the oat mixture on top of the cherries and apricots and spread out so it forms a fairly even layer. Pour the milk mixture evenly over the oats, and give the dish a couple of bashes on the worktop to make sure the milk is evenly distributed. Sprinkle over the rest of the cherries and the flaked almonds.
Bake for 40 minutes or until the oat mixture has set and turned crunchy on top. Leave to cool for 5 minutes before serving.
(...or, "look, crumble for breakfast - but it's healthy!")
Sometimes I think that recipes shouldn't be allowed to tell you how many people they're supposed to serve. I wonder who those portion-control fascists are, that believe they have the right to dictate to us exactly how much of a glorious pan of food we are legitimately allowed to dole out to ourselves and devour with a clear conscience. I wonder why we allow ourselves to trundle on in this Nineteen Eighty-Four style existence, nonchalantly turning a blind eye as the food police worm their way into all aspects of our lives. No longer are we allowed to eat one of those big packs of sushi for lunch; no, the packaging tells us "One serving = half a pack" and then proceeds to blare out those guilt-inducing red and orange traffic light symbols that mean we couldn't enjoy scoffing a whole pack even if we tried, because those garish warning colours are now forever imprinted on our retinas, basically indicating that a single mouthful of the other half of the packet will send our blood sodium levels skyrocketing into stroke-inducing territory, and our arteries to immediately clog with lipids and refuse to let anything important - like blood - past.
Perhaps that's a bit extreme, but I do have a point, I think. Recipe serving guidelines are totally arbitrary, given that it's impossible for them to cater to the hugely diverse variation of appetites in our population. One of those packs of gnocchi you can buy in the chilled section of the supermarket ostensibly serves three or four; I once lived with a boy for whom it was merely a component of his lunch (the others being bacon and pesto).
My biggest irritation comes from those recipes that make wildly outrageous and vague claims like "serves 4-6". What does that EVEN MEAN? "Serves six normal people but four MASSIVE BLOATERS - if you only get four portions out of this luscious lasagne or sizzling stew, prepare to feel really crap about yourself, fatty"?
Yet I have to admit that I, too, conform to the pressure to tell the world how many people one of my (utterly fabulous) recipes will serve.
And I'm ashamed to admit it, readers, but...
...sometimes I lie.
For example, my recent rhubarb crumble cheesecake. Incredible. Astounding. A work of pure creative genius. In a moment of mendacity I had the nerve to tell you that it serves six. Except this is a purely hypothetical and an estimate totally lacking in any factual foundation, because the first time I made it, I ate over a quarter by myself.
So should I assume that all my readers share my rampant and sometimes indecent desire for that luscious menage à trois of cream cheese, rhubarb, and buttery crumble, and tell them that the cake serves four? Or should I - as I did - realise that I'm generally the exception to the rule and can cram far more dessert down my oesophagus than any normal human being should, and therefore give my serving estimate with that in mind?
The perils of recipe writing.
But really, there is nothing more disheartening than picking up a nice lunch-to-go from the chiller aisle of a supermarket (well yes, that is disheartening in itself, but read on for what's even worse), thinking it looks just right, size-wise, for the current black hole of starvation you're feeling in the pit of your stomach, and then seeing "serves 2" on the packet, or the nutrition information for "One serving (half a pack)". Firstly, is this just some sick ploy to make us all even more obese? Because I'm pretty sure no one in their right mind is likely to eat half a sandwich or salad or box of sushi for lunch and be able to leave the rest sitting on their desk or in the office fridge without it plaguing them, haunting them, and eventually driving them to crippling, dribbling despair that results in them clawing their way across the office floor with sweat pouring from their ears as they try to resist the repellent force-field around said lunch item that forbids them eating the whole thing.
The same goes for puddings. I picked up a lovely-looking sticky toffee pudding in Tesco the other day. Rustic. Gooey. Vaguely home-made looking, though that was clearly just clever marketing and it had actually been lovingly created by the mechanical hands of a piece of factory equipment. In China. It was packaged in one of those foil trays with a cardboard lid, like you get for takeaways. Thinking it'd be just perfect for me and the boyfriend, I was about to put it in the basket.
I should have done. Should have just done it. Got it over with. Thrown it in the basket and never looked back.
But for some reason I glanced at the packaging (one thing you must never do: look at the nutrition information for a sticky toffee pudding), and lo and behold, there it was. The dreaded words.
Yeah, I thought. Four people who really hate life. Four children, maybe. Or four birds.
I had to put it back. As much as I'm trying to resist the tyranny of the serving guideline fascists, I realised in that sad and sticky moment that I am their slave. They will always rule me. Always make me feel guilty about the sizeable amount I'm able - no, scratch that - I need to eat for lunch. Always make me cringe at the capacity of my stomach to squirrel away anything combining butter and sugar in very uncouth amounts. I hate them.
Anyway, you're probably wondering where this rather vitriolic diatribe came from. The reason I began this post in this way is that the recipe I'm going to tell you about today, by the wonderful Heidi Swanson (writer of the superb blog 101 Cookbooks and author of the inspirational cookbook Super Natural Every Day), has inflicted on me a similar sensation of unpleasant gluttonous guilt. The reason being that under the recipe I am going to tell you about, she writes these ominous words: "Serves 6 generously, or 12 as part of a larger brunch spread".
I can eat the whole thing in three helpings.
Which makes me equivalent, in stomach-expansion terms, to either two or four people.
Which makes me, quite frankly, disgusting.
I can't help it.
This recipe is utterly incredible.
For good reason, it's become a widespread food blog classic, frequently popping up in different guises on the internet; I'd wager a large proportion of all the bloggers out there have given it a go at some point, either in its original form or adding some variation of their own. Heidi Swanson is a genius; I always marvel at the originality and creative flair of her recipes, and this is a case in point. It's simple but totally addictive and wonderful.
The original recipe uses bananas, sliced and used to line a baking dish, over which you scatter blueberries and then a mixture of oats, nuts, cinnamon, sugar (or maple syrup), salt and baking powder. Over this you pour another mixture of milk, egg, melted butter and vanilla extract. After a final scattering of more nuts and blueberries, it's ready to bake (salivating yet?). In the heat of the oven, the milk soaks through the oats and makes them moist and tender underneath, while the top sets to a crispy, crunchy crust. The juice from the fruit bubbles up around the crust, leaving those classic gooey, sweet, crispy edges so beloved of things like crumble, cobbler and pie.
It's basically a crumble, but without the flour or (most of) the butter. Soft, sweet fruit; crunchy nuts; gooey, chewy topping. I've made the banana and blueberry version three times now. Heidi's original recipe suggests walnuts, but I much prefer to make it with pecans, which are one of my favourite nuts and work so well with bananas. Walnuts I find a bit too bitter.
Anyway, this is unbelievable. You'd never have thought such a simple idea could be so divine. I'd heartily recommend the banana and blueberry version, but I had a load of lovely Yorkshire rhubarb lying around so decided to try a version with that instead. I swapped the pecans for almonds, the vanilla extract for almond extract, and the bananas for chunky pink sticks of rhubarb. These softened in the oven, releasing their tart-sweet juice and perfuming their coating of oats with its syrupy goodness.
I guess the reason this dish has won such a devout following is that it's basically a template for your mind and your stomach to run wild with. Change the fruits; change the nuts; change the vanilla to something else. Its basic make-up is something that cannot be beaten, an irresistible contrast in textures and flavours. Above all, it's wonderful breakfast or brunch food, designed to set you up for the day and still be healthy while tasting decadently like dessert. It also reheats well, so if you want to make it for just you (do it! DO IT!), you can keep it in the fridge and warm up portions in the microwave. It's actually even better after a couple of days, when all the flavours have mingled together.
So I'm sorry, Heidi, but I really do question your suggestion that this could serve up to twelve people. It's just too damn good.
Rhubarb, blueberry and almond baked oatmeal (serves...er.....I'll go with four big breakfast fans)
(Adapted from 'Super Natural Every Day', by Heidi Swanson)
- 400g rhubarb, cut into 1-inch lengths
- 4 tbsp vanilla sugar (or caster sugar)
- 200g blueberries
- 200g rolled or 'jumbo' oats (not instant oats)
- 60g almonds, roughly chopped
- 60g brown sugar
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1.5 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 475ml milk
- 1 large egg
- 3 tbsp melted butter
- 2 tsp almond extract
- 3 tbsp flaked almonds
Pre-heat the oven to 190C. Butter an 8in x 8in baking dish, or a similar-sized dish (I use a small Le Creuset one). Scatter the rhubarb over the bottom and toss to coat in the vanilla/caster sugar. Add half the blueberries. [If making the banana version of this dish, omit the sugar - rhubarb needs it because it's quite sour, but banana doesn't].
Mix together the oats, chopped almonds, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon and salt.
In a large jug, whisk together the melted butter, milk, egg and almond extract.
Sprinkle the oat mixture on top of the rhubarb and spread out so it forms a fairly even layer. Pour the milk mixture evenly over the oats, and give the dish a couple of bashes on the worktop to make sure the milk is evenly distributed. Sprinkle over the rest of the blueberries and the flaked almonds.
Bake for 40 minutes or until the oat mixture has set and turned crunchy on top. Leave to cool for 5 minutes before serving.
I have a curious fascination with dried fruit. Perhaps that associates me with socks-and-sandals-wearing health freak weirdos, but I don't care; I love the stuff. Not just your run-of-the-mill raisins and maybe dates or apricots, but other more overlooked fruits too. Prunes, often unfairly dismissed as a bit too virtuous, I find utterly squishy and divine, particularly simmered in a lamb tagine. I enjoy the crunch of a dried fig, with its sweet aromatic flavour and nubbly little seeds. Dried cranberries add a perfect sweet-sour zing to everything from porridge to salads. I relish the foamy sweetness of a dried apple ring and its slightly tangy flavour, reminiscent of Granny Smiths. Strips of leathery, golden dried mango are often far more promising than they look, delivering a gorgeous deep, sticky sweetness if you make the effort to sink your teeth in.
In fact, I'd go so far as to say I get a bit of a kick out of finding new and unusual dried fruits. Tragic? Perhaps.
Pears are something I'm rather intrigued by and have yet to sample. Blueberries and cherries are prohibitively expensive in dried form, even more so than when fresh, so I haven't yet managed to bring myself to purchase any. Dried pineapple - the proper stuff in ragged rings, not those artificial pastel-yellow cubes that taste like sugar and little else - is another one on the mental wish list.
I tried a dried strawberry for the first time the other day, in a packet of 'dried berry mix'. I have to say, it was vile and definitely one that has been crossed off said mental wish list.
I can see, however, why some people shy away from dried fruit. It can be quite strong, a bit too chewy, a bit musty-tasting. This is why you cook it, dear readers. You add some form of liquid, apply a little heat, and you end up with a completely different concept altogether. You end up with delightful sweet, squidgy morsels of fruity goodness that are oh-so versatile and oh-so delicious.
They taste like sweets...only they're good for you.
Dried fruit is excellent for perking up a lacklustre stew. Apples work well with pork in their fresh form; that's a given. But dried apple rings are also an unusual and lively addition to a pork casserole. Prunes are brilliant not only with lamb but also with beef, particularly oxtail, as my braised oxtail with prunes, orange and anise recipe shows. Apricots work well with lamb too, but also pork and duck, and sometimes chicken. The other day I stuffed some chicken breasts with cream cheese, thyme, toasted pecans and dried cranberries. It was gorgeous. Raisins or sultanas always make a good addition to curries or rice pilafs. The culinary possibilities of even the most basic dried fruits are endless; I can't wait to think up some ways to use things like dried mango, pineapple and pears.
This is a delicious way to use the more common dried fruits in a sweet, rather than savoury, way. When you think of fruit compote, fresh fruit usually springs to mind, but there's no reason why you can't make a gorgeous compote using the dried stuff. There's something a little bit magical about the transformation of dark, shrivelled morsels into plump, juicy globules of goodness.
I make this compote to top my morning porridge, but it would also be wonderful spooned over ice cream or served alongside a creamy dessert or a cake. I just love the contrast between the cold compote, which keeps in the fridge, and a piping hot bowl of creamy oats.
Dried fruit is simmered in a mixture of orange juice and spices until plump and juicy; you're left with a delightful sweet, sticky syrup full of tasty fruity pieces. I then add sliced blood oranges, which are still in season and which I am still obsessively hoarding due to my magpie-like culinary tendency to snaffle up anything shiny or pretty. These are both. Plus they have a lovely tang that complements the sweetness of the fruit perfectly. You can leave out the orange segments if you like, though - the compote is great either way. I keep it in the fridge, take out a bit every morning for my porridge, and add a sliced orange to it.
It's also pretty healthy, as there's no added sugar other than that from the fruit and orange juice, yet it tastes stupidly delicious.
OK, so this is barely a recipe and you're probably thinking "yeah, well duh...", but I love this compote so much that I had to share. If you've never seen dried fruit as anything more than those little Sun Maid boxes of raisins or the occasional dried apricot for snacking on, I hope this will make you a little more adventurous.
This is a very versatile recipe - use whatever fruits and spices you want, in whatever quantities you want. The basic premise is to poach them in enough liquid to cover them, until they turn soft and juicy. Use apple or cranberry instead of orange juice, add other fresh fruit rather than oranges...whatever you like.
Spiced dried fruit and blood orange compote (makes 6-8 servings):
- 200g dried apricots, halved
- 200g prunes, halved
- 200g raisins or sultanas
- 150g dried figs, roughly chopped
- Orange juice (bottled is fine, no need for fresh)
- 2 tsp mixed spice (or a mixture of cinnamon, ginger, cloves, star anise and coriander seed)
- Sliced blood or normal oranges, to serve (one per person)
Put the dried fruit in a saucepan with a lid and half-cover with orange juice. Pour over enough water to just cover the fruit, then add the spice(s). Cover with a lid and bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer very gently for 20-30 minutes until the fruit is plump. Keep checking as you may need to add more water or orange juice - you want there to still be some liquid syrup left in the pan when the fruit is juicy, and it absorbs more than you'd think.
Set aside and leave to cool, or serve hot/warm. When ready to serve, add a sliced orange per person, along with any juice left over from slicing, and stir into the fruit.
~ Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone
He is right. I have always felt breakfast to be the best meal of the day, or at least I have since I discovered porridge. Although, really, it is odd that I even like porridge. Given that I hate milk and yoghurt and anything with a sort of unchewable consistency, porridge should really be something that I loathe and detest. However, it is something I would happily eat at every meal and look forward to every morning.
Admittedly, the idea of plain porridge with no adornment does make me feel a bit sad. My approach is to cram it full of lovely sugary (but in a good way) things so you end up with a bowl of something that feels more like a dessert than breakfast, but is still infinitely better for you than eating hideous processed cereal. I make it with half water and half milk, mainly because I can never be bothered to buy milk often enough to use entirely milk, and because it's less like having a lead brick in your stomach that way. I don't really measure anything, just sort of guess, and if it still looks a bit grainy add some more milk. There's something rather therapeutic about standing at the hob absent-mindedly stirring a steaming bowl of porridge, especially on a grey rainy day like today. It's the same calmness you get from stirring a risotto. I still eat it in the height of summer - it's filling, delicious and means you're not hungry until lunchtime.
So, some good porridge recipes. Firstly, pear and nutmeg. Grate massive amounts of nutmeg into the oats when you add the milk/water. Add a handful of sultanas. Cook the porridge, then cover with chopped ripe pear and lots of honey, and maybe some flaked almonds if you can be bothered.