This post combines two things I don’t normally care about: tailoring blog recipes to specific seasonal food-related occasions, and Valentine’s Day. You won’t find me whipping up treats for National Tempura Day, National Eat Ice Cream for Breakfast Day or World Tripe Day (if you needed proof that these ‘food days’ are just the farcical inventions of bored and desperate PR companies and marketing boards, there it is: World Tripe Day), because there is apparently some silly culinary designation for every single day of the year now, so by that logic I would never ever be able to make a spontaneous decision regarding what I cook. I can also take or leave Valentine’s Day, and it certainly doesn’t inspire me with culinary ambition (if I see one more hackneyed recipe feature telling me that I must serve oysters and fillet steak on the special day, I might find a decidedly more violent use for my oyster knife).Read More
I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for the start of a new year and a new way of eating, involving absolutely nothing to do with Christmas. No roast meat, root vegetables, sticky condiments, pastry, alcohol-soaked dried fruit or marzipan. Enough is enough. I feel like my tastebuds have spent the last two weeks immovably swaddled in a beige, bland cocoon of stodge and sickliness. I’ve tried to counteract this by throwing Thai curry paste, chilli and lemongrass at all my Christmas leftovers in every way imaginable, but I’m still longing for the new year and the lifting of that pressure to constantly bring a touch of Christmas sparkle to everything that emerges from the kitchen. If I read one more article claiming to have ‘the recipe to convert even the most ardent sprout-haters’, or find one more chef attempting to sneak clementines into a savoury dish, I might emigrate to a non-Christian country.Read More
This is the ultimate taste of summer for me, because it involves my ultimate summer fruit: the apricot. Between about June and October, it would be a very rare thing to open my fridge and not spy a brown paper bag full of these golden, silky, fragrant orbs. I buy them in bulk every time I visit a market or a supermarket, spending a few moments picking out the best: those that feel heaviest in the hand, those that are warm and soft as a baby’s cheek rather than hard and cold, those that sport a mottled, sienna-coloured blush on one side. Of course, this is no real indication of what they will be like to eat raw – I’ve never had a very good raw apricot in my life, and have given up trying. Instead, apricots meet one of two ends in my kitchen: that of being baked slowly with honey, orange blossom water and cinnamon in the oven, or poached in a pan with orange juice, vanilla and star anise. Oh, and sometimes I make jam, throwing in cardamom seeds and a vanilla pod. It’s divine.Read More
Sometimes, I feel like vanilla gets a little overlooked in my kitchen. That's not to say I don't use it often; a teaspoon or two of golden vanilla extract regularly makes its way into my baking and even sometimes into my breakfast. But it's always there as a background to other things, a pleasantly sweet, bland, blank canvas to be painted over in vivid stripes by other flavours. It's so easy just to tip vanilla extract out of the bottle without thinking about it, without really enjoying its heady (there's more than a little alcohol in there) perfume, to just let it blend in. You get a totally different experience using vanilla pods.
Opening a thin glass jar of vanilla pods is a wonderful thing. First, there's the incredible aroma that hits you like a powerful blast of sweet air as you take off the lid. Then there's the feel of the pods - slightly moist, almost silky, damp with flavour and perfume. I always find it odd how something ostensibly so gnarled, black and ugly can produce the flavour we associate with everything light, white and aesthetically pleasing - think vanilla ice cream or vanilla cheesecake.
Then there are those beautiful little seeds, tiny capsules of flavour that should look so wrong peppering a dish like dust, but instead are pleasing to the eye, promising an abundance of sweet vanilla goodness. I hate recipes that tell me to scrape the seeds from a vanilla pod and add to something, because inevitably some seeds always get lost in the process - they stick to the knife, or the bowl, or the spatula, or you just can't get them all out of the pod.
Still, I also like that you can recycle vanilla pods. After infusing things with them (ice cream, jam, etc.) I give the pod a quick rinse, let it dry on some kitchen paper, and then stick it in a jar of caster sugar, where it infuses the sugar wonderfully with its scent. Our vanilla sugar jar at home now has a total of five pods twisting up out of the mound of sugar - that's got to be some potent stuff. While vanilla pods aren't cheap, they're certainly good value. And while a good brand of vanilla extract (or vanilla paste, which is my new love - it contains all the seeds as well, in a viscous, treacle-like black goo) is perfectly fine for most things, you sometimes can't beat a vanilla pod in the kitchen.
This jam is one example. While I used to think ginger and orange were the best things in the world to pair with rhubarb, this jam changed my mind. There is something about the combination of rhubarb, sugar and vanilla that is just incredible. I think it's the intense sweetness of it, reminiscent of childhood desserts and sweets from the corner shop. Combine the fragrance of vanilla with the tart sugary hit of rhubarb, and you have something utterly wonderful.
This jam arose as a way of using up six bags of rhubarb from my freezer, but I've made it again since with specially purchased rhubarb, because it's just so good. The rhubarb and sugar cook down into a rather unassuming brownish pink mass, flecked with those all-important vanilla seeds, but it is definitely one of those things that tastes better than it looks. Spread on toast, where it becomes a lovely dusky pink colour, it's the ultimate sweet morning pick-me-up.
I've also added cardamom, which I have to say was a bit of an inspired idea. Cardamom works well with rhubarb, lending it a delicious citrus note, but the combination with the vanilla as well is ridiculously good. There's tartness from the fruit, sweetness from the sugar, fragrant perfume from the vanilla, and an alluring exotic citrus note from the cardamom that is reminiscent of those beautiful syrupy sweet Middle Eastern desserts.
This is a very special jam indeed, yet one that hardly takes any effort; in fact, it's more effort to sterilise the jars to put it in than it is to make the jam. A fine use for the special vanilla pod, as well as one of England's most neglected vegetables.
Rhubarb, vanilla and cardamom jam (makes 5 jars):
- 1kg rhubarb (weighed after trimming)
- 1kg jam sugar
- 1 vanilla pod, split lengthways
- 12 cardamom pods, seeds removed and crushed to a powder
- Juice of 1 lemon
Chop the rhubarb into 3cm pieces and put in a large, heavy-based saucepan or preserving pan. Add the sugar and vanilla pod, and heat gently until the rhubarb starts to turn juicy and the sugar starts to dissolve. Put a small plate in the freezer (to test for when the jam is set). Add the cardamom and lemon juice to the rhubarb, then turn the heat up and let it bubble quite vigorously for 30 mins-1 hour. Stir occasionally to prevent the rhubarb and sugar catching on the bottom of the pan and burning - this happens if the heat is too high.
Meanwhile, sterilise your jars and lids. I do this by washing them well in soapy water, then putting the jars upside down in an oven at 120C for 40 minutes, adding the lids (also upside down) for the last 10 minutes. Turn the oven off and leave the jars inside until ready to bottle the jam.
To test for a set, put a teaspoon of jam onto the cold plate from the freezer and leave for 2 minutes. If you can run your finger through it and it wrinkles and separates, it's ready. If not, let it bubble for a bit longer.
When the jam is set and still hot, ladle through a clean funnel into the jars, add wax discs and put on the lids. Voilà!
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.