On a January morning, you need dessert for breakfast. This is probably my favourite category of recipe, and the one most of my cooking falls into. I should point out that this does not mean you are ever justified in eating a chocolate orange, Magnum or cheeseboard before 12pm. Instead, it means adapting certain post-savoury classics to make them a little healthier, a little more substantial and a little more appropriate for the beginning of the day. I try and cut out a lot of the refined sugar and processed flour, sticking with wholesome staples like honey, spelt flour, oats, polenta and unrefined muscovado sugar. I like to think I have this down to a fine art, perhaps evident from the number of ‘breakfast crumble’ recipes in my repertoire.Read More
When you think about ‘something on toast’, that lifesaver meal that I’m sure we have all succumbed to at one point or another in our lives, it has to be said that, generally, they aren’t the most nutritious somethings that find their way onto our pieces of charred bread. Marmite, for example. Jam. Cheese. Bacon. Butter. Not very many vitamins there.Read More
There are lots of perks to living alone. A beautifully quiet house; the placid joy of going to sleep knowing that you’re not going to be woken up by marauding housemates. Never having to queue for the bathroom. Knowing that any crumbs in the kitchen or burnt on spills in the oven are solely yours, which somehow makes cleaning them up more bearable. Not having to make small talk when you come in at the end of a long day and would rather stick pins in your eyes than have a conversation with anyone. Knowing that whatever particularly appetising foodstuffs you leave in the fridge will still be there the next day. Never finding that someone has taken a metal implement to your non-stick pans, or left the freezer open overnight. Perks indeed.Read More
I sometimes feel like I neglect the poor humble apple. Caught up in the irresistible nectar-like liquor of a ripe marigold mango, or the perfumed snap of a pale translucent lychee, or the honeyed notes of a sugared gooseberry in high summer, it's easy to forget the value of our most beloved home-grown fruit. But the apple sits there patiently in the background, biding its time, a reliable constant. Like that best friend who will still always be there once passionate romances have long faded into the distance, proffering a consolatory cup of tea and telling you there are plenty more fish in the sea and you could do much better, and she always thought there was something suspicious anyway about the way he tied his shoelaces.
We tend to just lump apples into a single category. They are the generic crunchy, juicy, perfect fruit for eating on the go. Especially if you're one of those odd people who eat the entire lot, core, stalk and all. Children like them. You can just put one in a lunchbox. You don't have to worry about bruising, unlike with bananas, which are effectively untransportable. (Unless, like me, you own a much-mocked banana guard). Apples are pretty much the same, right?
This, I think, is a mistake. Unlike oranges, other citrus fruits, bananas, berries, lychees, which generally have a pretty uniform flavour regardless of type, apples vary wildly depending on variety. It is a mistake, I think, to just blindly lunge for the expensive bag of imported Pink Lady apples. While I can understand their appeal - they are, mostly, uniformly crisp, fragrant and tasty - there is great joy to be had from some of the other apple varieties out there.
My personal favourites are Coxes and Russets. You can't beat a really good Cox apple, crisp, dripping with tart, citrus-tinged juice, its skin overspread with a delightful red blush. Russets are also a favourite; I love their sage-green skin and matt golden bloom, and their subtly fragrant flesh. They work very well in salads, like this caramelised apple, rabbit and barley salad I made last year.
Discovery apples are also fabulous, coming into season in late summer. They have an amazing tartness and crispness to them, and are probably one of the more refreshing apples. I also lust after the perfect Granny Smith, which is surprisingly hard to find - vivid, alien green, often with a speckling of white freckles on its skin, and mouth-puckeringly tart within.
Regardless of your apple varieties, though, sometimes it's hard to eat them all before they start to turn less than perfect; and by that, I mean soft and floury inside, with a slight greasiness to the skin.
As part of my Fruitdrop delivery a few weeks ago, I received around twenty apples, of several varieties. By sight, I think they were Golden Delicious, Royal Gala, and Braeburn. While I ate a few raw, I could tell that I wouldn't be able to polish them off before they started to deteriorate; the nerve-wracking downside of getting so much fruit delivered. I set to thinking about how to use them in cooking; once cooked, it's impossible to tell an imperfect apple from a perfect one.
My first endeavour was a salted caramel tarte tatin, a recipe from last month's Delicious magazine. The recipe claimed said tarte would serve eight; I would like to amend this to 'serves four', simply because it was insanely good. There was salted caramel; into this went nine peeled, cored and halved apples. Over that went a thick layer of puff pastry, which baked to a burnished, crispy, feathery base for the oozing caramel and tender apples. It was essentially my idea of food heaven. That is definitely one viable suggestion for using up eating apples (don't try it with cooking apples, like Bramleys - they will collapse into mush and the tart will not be pretty).
However, if you want more of an everyday recipe (much as I love tarte tatin, I fear it's not a surefire route to slim hips and a toned physique) to use up ailing apples, this is almost as delicious.
It's also barely even a recipe, really, but the combination of ingredients is lovely and I felt I should share it. Caramelising apples is always a good idea; they become much more pronounced in flavour, turning into a soft, golden tangle of sweet deliciousness. You simply cook them in a little butter and brown sugar until they have turned sticky and dark. I always add a little cinnamon and ground ginger, because they both work so well with apples. Adding dried fruit, such as raisins or cranberries, provides an interesting contrast in texture, and a rich, toffee-like sugary note.
You can use caramelised apples as the basis of numerous recipes - mainly desserts, but if you use less sugar they work well with rich savoury ingredients, like cheese or meat. I decided to pair them with some soft, milky ricotta, because I figured its creamy blandness would provide a lovely contrast to the sweet, crunchy apples. This is a great recipe that would work for either breakfast or lunch.
There's bread, lightly toasted. You could use any bread, but I used fruited soda bread because I love soda bread and I thought the fruit in it would go well with the apples. I reckon sourdough would be fabulous, as would brioche and maybe even a toasted muffin or some rye bread. Over this you slather a thick layer of ricotta. Then on goes a liberal sprinkling of lemon thyme leaves; thyme works very well with both cheese and apples, and helps to cut through their sticky sweetness.
On go the apples, which have caramelised in butter, brown sugar, ginger, cinnamon, and had a handful of jewel-like dried cranberries thrown in alongside them, to plump up in the syrupy juices. Then a few toasted nuts - I used walnuts, but pecans or hazelnuts would also be excellent. This gives a nice contrast in texture. Then another sprinkling of thyme.
It's a fabulous combination of textures; crunchy toast, soft and cold cheese, hot, crispy sugary apples and cranberries, and earthy nuts. I had it for lunch, but I can see it sitting happily on a breakfast table alongside a big mug of tea, or even as a dessert after a light meal. If you can't be bothered with the rest, just make up a big batch of caramelised apples, and have them on your muesli or porridge for breakfast. They're also excellent tucked into featherlight French crêpes, too.
I'd suggest you wander down to your local market soon and find yourself some unusual apple varieties. Go on, go crazy. Step out of that comfort zone. Purchase an unknown species of apple.
And if you don't like it enough to eat raw, caramelise it and stick it on some toast.
Spiced apple and cranberry toast with ricotta and thyme (serves 1):
- 2-3 slices of bread (I used fruited soda bread, but a walnut or raisin loaf would be good, or rye bread)
- 15g butter
- 2 tsp brown sugar
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp ground ginger
- 2 small apples
- A small handful of dried cranberries or raisins
- 100g ricotta cheese
- A few sprigs of lemon thyme
- 1-2 tbsp chopped walnuts or pecans
Get the bread ready in the toaster while you make the apples. Heat the butter and sugar in a small non-stick pan until foaming and bubbling. Add the spices. Quarter and core the apples, then cut into thin slices. Add to the pan along with the cranberries, and cook over a high heat until softened and caramelised in places - this should take around 10 minutes. Turn the heat down once they are caramelised to let them soften some more.
Toast the bread and spread with the ricotta cheese. Pick the leaves from the thyme and sprinkle over the ricotta. Spoon the hot apples over the cheese and sprinkle with the nuts. Serve immediately.
How do people who aren't interested in food cope with the onset of autumn?
I can bear the chill weather and the prospect of long, dark days because partridge and pheasant have started appearing in the butchers. Quinces, some of the most handsome I've ever seen, are piled high in the market. Small but perfectly formed crisp English apples - orange-scented Coxes and my favourite, the flavoursome Russet - bring a welcome change from the ubiquitous (and foreign) Pink Lady. Butternut squash, one of my favourite vegetables, will soon be everywhere, its sweet, sticky, golden flesh promising a plethora of delicious uses. I can finally cook the eight pigs' cheeks sitting in my freezer, braising them for hours in a sticky concoction of orange juice and star anise that will be just the thing to provide some cheer on a dark evening. Fine English pears are abundant, just waiting to be baked in crumbles or cakes, or scattered over my morning porridge with an obscene amount of nutmeg. As are some wonderful varieties of plum, so much juicier and taster than foreign imports, ideal baked with cinnamon and ginger for a warming breakfast or dessert. Earthy wild mushrooms will be somewhere, if I can just find them, ideal for coupling with fresh, zesty lemon thyme for an umami-rich risotto. I can't wait to take my potato ricer to some good old-fashioned floury potatoes, to make a rich mash to accompany a beef and ale stew.
Without all that to look forward to, I think I'd consider hibernation.
If you know anything about anything, or have any sort of taste whatsoever, you will of course have noticed the glaring omission from the above list.
I've devoted many words on this blog to the rapturous praise of figs. Every time I find myself bulk-buying them, I try and figure out precisely what it is that makes me so obsessed. I have come up with several answers.
1. Figs are beautiful. There's no fruit quite like them; the closest comparison would be a pomegranate, I think. With their beautiful red-pink interior, bursting with glistening clusters of golden seeds, their delightful deep purple skins, tinged slightly with green, and their curvaceous form, just begging to be held in the palm of one's hand, they are incomparable in their aesthetic appeal.
2. Figs are versatile. My favourite fruits are those that work as well in a savoury context as a sweet. Figs tick all the boxes. Wonderful baked with a little sugar or honey, or tucked into an almond tart for a dessert, they are equally delicious added to the cooking juices of duck, pork or lamb before serving. Juicy warm figs coupled with the rich meat of a slow-cooked lamb shoulder or a pan-fried duck breast is one of the best taste sensations you will ever try. Ditto figs with parma ham or goat's cheese. In fact, most cheeses, and most meats. Like pomegranate seeds, they add a wonderful burst of sweetness that is subtle enough not to overpower other savoury flavours.
3. Figs are elusive. Like a child, I want that which I cannot have. Figs appear for such a sadly brief season, and even then are rarely cheap. However, like the equally elusive Alphonso mango, I justify the cost because I am an epicurean at heart, and fully believe that money spent on good food is money well spent. So what if I spent approximately £60 on Alphonso mangoes over the summer months? (Oh dear...I think it might actually have been closer to £80, and now that I think about it that really does seem obscene). Well, I don't really buy inferior supermarket mangoes at £1-2 each for the rest of the year, so I'm only spending in one go what I'd spent in smaller stages year-round otherwise. Or something. Yes, OK, I concede that maybe that's too much to spend on mangoes. Moving swiftly on...
Altamura has quite a lot in common with sourdough. It lasts a long time, toasts well, has a satisfyingly crisp crust and a slightly sour crumb. Crosta & Mollica suggest using it for bruschetta, and I can't think of a bread that would work better. I topped mine, toasted, with ricotta cheese, slices of smoked Parma ham (I found this in M&S and am wondering where it has been all my life - the posh person's bacon, it's rich and deeply flavoured, a substitute for Parma ham with a certain je ne sais quoi), warm halved figs, and a little basil.
Oh, what a lunch. While ricotta, Parma ham and figs are always a good idea, putting them on this bread transformed a good lunch into a great one. The bread had just the right balance between a really crisp, crunchy crust and a yielding crumb with a slight tang to it. It's hard to describe what makes it so good, but I'd really urge you to try it. It's not hugely cheap, at £1.79 for a packet of five slices, but the slices are very large ones. I'd love to see what a full loaf looks like (and by that I mean "I'd love to eat a full loaf of this bread. In one go. With figs and cheese and ham, sitting on an Italian hilltop watching the sun go down, with a good glass of wine"). Each slice would probably constitute one meal for a normal person. I, being greedy, had two slices per lunch (which means, annoyingly, that I now have one slice left in the packet that I don't know what to do with - I personally think packs of six slices would be a better idea, but that I suppose is irrelevant).
I won't insult your intelligence by posting an exact recipe for this combination. Instead I suggest you head down to Waitrose and get a packet of Crosta & Mollica's Altamura bread (or, if you can't find it, some really good sourdough). Put it under the grill until nicely toasted on both sides - put the figs under the grill too, to heat through. Spread with ricotta, then layer over a few slices of smoked Parma ham (or normal Parma ham). Halve the figs with your fingers and place on the ham, using a knife to sort of spread them out so they cover the ham and cheese. Add a few leaves of basil.
Devour, and be glad for the rich bounty of autumn and Italy.
I've had no magical gastronomic revelations since then, no cookery classes or soufflé-making epiphanies. There is no secret to the fact that I can invent things from scratch; it's simply the result of a lot of hours in the kitchen and possibly even more hours watching food television, reading food books and magazines, and eating in restaurants. On top of that is the importance of confidence; once you've invented something and gained a positive reaction, you have more faith in your own ability and more drive to continue. I think one of the first recipes I ever invented was a Moroccan-style pheasant cooked with quince, pine nuts and spices. Delighted by the fact that it wasn't horrible, I persevered. The recipe wasn't ground-breaking, but simply a result of my extensive cooking from Middle Eastern cookbooks; I knew that quince would go well with gamey meat, and that cinnamon, turmeric and ginger make an excellent spice mix for a tagine. I now experiment with pretty much anything; if I read a recipe I like, I'll still usually alter or add at least one ingredient to give it my own personal touch. Desserts are my favourite to invent, often because I like to try out interesting combinations of fruit and spice. I can even bake cakes without a recipe now, which is widely regarded as the ultimate challenge. Again, it's no real expertise on my part, just the consequence of enough time baking cakes to know how a batter should look and feel before it goes into the tin.
I realised quite how far I'd journeyed from a recipe-constrained mentality yesterday when shopping in the market. I had a definite plan for dinner: I was going to make a risotto using some beautiful red rice I bought in Vercelli in April, pairing it with roasted peppers and cherry tomatoes, then a liberal sprinkling of fresh basil and homemade ricotta. I went to buy tomatoes. My favourite stall had sold out of the lovely little baby plum tomatoes I'm so fond of, and all the other stalls were charging extortionate prices for vine-ripened cherry specimens. Rather than dissolve into a panic, I had a further look around. There were some lovely yellow courgettes, so I got a couple of those to replace the tomatoes and add some colour to the whole affair. About to wander home, my eye suddenly landed on a huge bunch of rainbow chard. I have only seen it once before at the market; the last time I bought some to try out in a French dessert, tourte de blette. Whilst I'm eager to try that one again, I started thinking about the savoury possibilities of chard. Still in the risotto mindset, it struck me that a pile of creamy rice would be the perfect blank canvas for an outrageous splattering of coloured chard stalks. I bought the entire bunch.
How beautiful is this vegetable? I'm often inspired to wax lyrical about the beauty of my ingredients: the orange blush of an apricot, the glossy red flesh of a pepper; the nubbly rose-coloured skin of a lychee all send me into raptures of kitchen delight. This chard was no exception. It was so outrageously bright, almost neon in its pink, yellow and green hues. No wonder it caught my eye in the market. You rarely find so many gorgeous colours in one vegetable. The bright pink stems reminded me of early season rhubarb, but then there were the sweetcorn-yellow ones and the lime-green ones, all tapering into delightful bushy, cabbage-like leaves. I couldn't wait to see how these amazing colours looked on top of a risotto.
Even if you don't think you can invent recipes, risotto is usually an exception. Once you've figured out the basics (sweat onion and garlic, add rice, coat in butter, add splash of wine, bubble until absorbed, add ladle by ladle of hot stock until each is absorbed, stirring all the time), you can flavour a risotto with almost anything (I saw a recipe for a strawberry and radicchio one the other day - which sounds utterly horrible, yet I'm quite intrigued by it). Meat, cheese, fish, shellfish, vegetables - just as most things taste good covered in batter and deep-fried, most things taste good folded into the savoury, rich creaminess of a starchy risotto. I decided to make risotto largely because I had a big ice-cream tub full of homemade chicken stock in my fridge which needed using. I really would recommend making your own stock next time you have a roast chicken - all you do is chuck the bones into a big pan of water, add some chopped veg (carrots, onions, leeks and celery are all good), a couple of bay leaves, any herbs you have lying around, some peppercorns and some salt, and let it boil very gently, covered, for an hour or two. Although risotto is still great made with stock cubes, there's something rather satisfying about using your own stock, and the flavour is undoubtedly better.
For this recipe I used pearl barley, because I like its nutty crunchiness and warm beige colouring. The downside is it takes about an hour to cook, but you can just leave it to get on and stir it every few minutes. The individual grains retain their shape and bite, giving a much more interesting risotto than your usual white rice. It's also a bit healthier. For the base of the risotto I just used onion and garlic, stirring in my homemade stock, and then finishing with lemon juice and a good grating of nutmeg. I folded the leaves of the chard into the barley as it finished cooking, so they could soften and tangle themselves around the grains. The stalks I boiled in the hot chicken stock to add extra flavour before it went in the risotto. They were scattered over the barley at the end. I was pleased that they retained most of their colour; they weren't quite as outrageously neon by the time I'd boiled them, but still one of the more startling additions to a risotto I've ever seen.
Finally, a good sprinkling of lemon thyme, a grating of parmesan, and some cloud-like spoonfuls of homemade ricotta. I was genuinely surprised at how utterly delicious this tasted. I think it was all down to my homemade stock, which had an amazing depth of salty, savoury flavour. The nutmeg gave the barley a lovely warm note, and the lemon juice and lemon thyme a fresh zestiness. All this deep flavour worked extremely well with the tender chard stalks, which have a very slight bitterness about them, like spinach. The contrast between the hot, salty, flavoursome barley grains and the cool, mellow tang of the fresh ricotta was incredible. I'm not sure how it would work with vegetable stock, but I'm sure it would still be excellent, in which case this would be a very very good vegetarian main course - it's far more delicious than most meat-based dishes I've eaten recently. I have a feeling I'm going to make this again and again, especially because I still have half the chard left in my fridge (along with those yellow courgettes, which were sadly relegated once I acquired my more aesthetically pleasing option).
Does the idea of creating recipes make you break out in a cold sweat? Or do you agree that it's just the culmination of a lot of practice?
Pearl barley, rainbow chard and ricotta risotto (serves 2 generously):
160g pearl barley
1 onion, very finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, very finely chopped
About 1-1.5 litre chicken stock (if you run out before the barley is cooked just use boiling water)
A bunch of rainbow chard (about 8 stalks and leaves)
1 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
Juice of half a lemon
A few sprigs lemon thyme
Salt and pepper
Parmesan, to serve
About 150g ricotta (homemade is obviously best!)
First, put the stock in a lidded saucepan and bring to a simmer. Keep hot on a low heat. Slice the chard stalks into 1-inch lengths and place in the hot stock. Simmer until the stalks are tender to the point of a knife, then set aside and keep warm.
Heat a little olive oil in a heavy-based non-stick pan and fry the onions and garlic until soft and translucent. Add a knob of butter and leave it to melt, then add the barley. Stir it around to coat it in the butter for a couple of minutes.
Add a few ladlefuls of stock - it should hiss and bubble when it hits the pan. Put the pan on a medium heat and stir the barley, waiting until it has absorbed all the stock before adding another ladleful. Repeat this process for about 40-60 minutes until the barley is mostly tender but still has a little bite.
Just before the barley is ready, when there's still some liquid in the pan, roughly shred the chard leaves and stir them into the barley to soften and wilt in the heat. Grate in the nutmeg, juice in the lemon and strip the leaves from the thyme and add them too. Season to taste.
Pour the barley into serving bowls and top with the cooked chard stalks. Grate over a little parmesan, and crumble over the ricotta.