Tuesday, March 4, 2008


This week, I have been mostly eating... everything. After spending the whole of last week miserable with a kidney infection, I have recovered and my apetite is well and truly on the loose. Hence a very, very expensive trip to Sainsbury's yesterday to get supplies, having missed out on a Borough trip last week. Of course, I went with a list, as I try to plan my weekly menu ahead to avoid wasted ingredients. But then, as I wandered up and down the aisles, other foodstuffs just seemed to jump into my basket without my knowing it. After a while, I had to go and change for a trolley, giving the cheeky manchego cheese, passion fruits, cantuccini biscuits and speciality charcuterie even more space to loiter around until reaching the checkout. Most annoying.

I wanted fish last night, and the only thing that had not been previously frozen was a trout, with shiny eyes and gleaming, slimy skin. I am supposed to be 'cutting down' this week in preparation for a friend's night out (and mandatory minidress) at a club. Not my scene, but not my choice. As someone who is proud of never dieting - I feel what I eat is perfectly healthy enough - it does go against the grain, but if eating less simple carbohydrates for a week gives me toned legs, then I suppose I'm on board.

With the fish, stuffed with some lemon and herbs and roasted, I had a roasted sweet potato and a simple tomat salad. I often find that colourful food on a plate gives the impression of richness that happily tricks the hungry mind. Really good, but I still can't fully reconcile with a sweet potato, not matter what sharp, chilli-spiked dressing I add to it.

Later, though, was a great big bake-in with my flatmate; her law society needed cakes for the stall, and I was happy to help, being able to turn out a batch of fairy cakes in around 20 minutes. We made short work of it all, but of course every chef needs to taste her food, and so my healthy 'plan' was ever so slightly knocked off kilter. I decided to make up for it today, with a lunch of vibrant salad and a bowl of miso soup - lively and, again, cheeringly colourful. I'm right back on track; a good job as I'm going outfit-shopping this evening. Another plus is that tomorrow is the last day of antibiotics for this episode, so alcohol will once again play a (small) role in my evening wind-down. Gin and tonics are fat-free, right?

Tomato, mozzarella and prosciutto salad

1-2 tomatoes, sliced

a ball of buffalo mozzarella, torn up into mouth-sized chunks

some salad leaves, such as baby spinach and peppery rocket

a few slices of prosciutto di Parma, or other cured ham, torn up

1/2 a red chilli, finely chopped


extra virgin olive oil

a splash of balsamic vinegar

salt and pepper

Arrange the ingredients on the plate. Make the dressing - 3 parts oil to one part vinegar, as always - in a jam jar; however much you make will keep happily in the fridge for a couple of weeks. Give it a shake and add lightly to the saad ingredients, tossing them all together gently. Serve simply with some crusty bread, and feel (almost) virtuous.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Rhubarb and Orange Tart

I have brought the sweet little bunch of outrageously pink rhubarb up to Derbyshire with me, its colour flushed the same as my cheeks when I stepped off the train into the biting cold. It's hard to believe that I'm still in the same country; the other day in London I was wearing a skirt. Fresh air though, relief from the Big Smoke. My cold is already better, although my nose is running more than yesterday. My mum made a risotto tonight, which was just what I needed, velvety and enveloping and soft and nubbly.

The rhubarb needed eating immediately, no longer so crisp and snappy as it was when I bought it on Friday. I wanted to show off its shameless Ann Summers hue and fresh flavour, so I made a rather summery tart, with a curd made from the candy poaching juices and the fruit, lightly poached, piled on top. Sexy.

Rhubarb and Orange Tart

Sheet of puff pastry, ready-made or home made (how very virtuous of you if you manage the latter), rolled out a bit

Juice from the poached rhubarb (see below)

3 level tablespoons cornflour

2 egg yolks

A small knob of butter

Forced pink rhubarb (catch it quickly as its season, January, is happily behind us for the most part), cut into short chunks

Orange, juice and some segments

Juice of half a lemon

200g caster sugar

A vanilla pod, split and seeds scraped out

Trace a rectangle about half an inch from the outside of the already-rectangular sheet of rolled-out pastry, like a picture frame, with a knife, not cutting through the pastry all the way. Bake at around 180C, for the length it takes you to prepare everything else.

Put the sugar in a dry saucepan and let it melt and caramelize slightly. Tip in the rhubarb chunks, at which point the caramel will harden and splinter. Don't worry! Put in the vanilla pod too, and the scraped-out seeds, and the orange juice. Don't stir, but shake, as the rhubarb will break up which you don't really want. As soon as the caramel has dissolved again, take it off the heat. Let it cool a bit, then tip gently into a sieve to crain off the juices. Set the rhubarb aside.

Put the cornflour in a bowl and add just a bit of the juice to make it into a smooth paste. Then bring the rest of the liquid to the boil in a pan and pour it over the cornflour paste. Put this mixture back into the pan and stir constantly for a few minutes, tasting at intervals until there is no trace of cornflour-flavour. Loosen it up with a bit of orange juice if needs be.

Take out the pastry case, and if there are any gaps seal them with a clementine or tangerine marmalade, or apricot jam; if not, you risk having a soggy pastry case floating on a bit of rhubarby juice. Spread the curd on top, and then the rhubarb on top of that. Scatter a few segmented (pith- and peel-less) oranges on top if you like, to make it go further. Put back in the oven for a few minutes to meld all the flavours, then serve quite quickly with dollops of thick Greek yoghurt, Total brand is best. The sweety-like flavours really will put you in a mood for summer, or at least spring, and I bet you a wardrobe re-assessment, resulting in the putting away of heavy woollens, will follow, however badly judged it turns out to be.

Valentines' Day

This year, Valentines' Day fell on the 15th for me, or at least celebrating it; The Boy being unable to skip his Friday morning lectures in order to travel down on Thursday evening. No matter, a sumptuous gift from Rococo sorted him out just fine. It's my absolute favourite chocolate shop, on the King's Road and also the world wide web, selling all sorts of fabulous confections; from exotically flavoured solid bars (sea salt, basil and Persian lime) and truffles, hand-painted figures, and old-fashioned friends such as aniseed balls, all crafted with a quirky humour and of exceptional quality. For special treats really, as fabulousness, quirkiness and humour all appear to come at quite a price, especially when so beautifully packaged. Brownie points for me, though.

In return, less romantic if only for its practical nature, was a goodly amount of cash to take to Borough Market, to buy the ingredients for what I planned to be the most ambrosial dinner I had ever cooked for him. I dreamt up the shopping list during a French lecture on Cubism - where better to seek inspiration? - and set out on Friday morning, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, for my treasure hunt.
I had planned to meander through the market whose nooks and crannies I now know so well, but hadn't reckoned on how busy it would be at 11am. I have noticed myself adopting the prejudices I had noted in fellow local market-goers, and was taken aback by myself for cursing the teaming hoards of 'gastro-tourists' blocking my path just a bit more grumpily than usual.
Taking into account the business of the place, I decided to make for the fishmongers I told you all about last time - 'Shellseekers' - just in case some shelfish shopper had decided to buy up all those lovely hand-dived scallops. Wasted fears, though; there were plenty left, all live and kicking. One of them tried to snap at my hand as I stood admiring the glistening pile, so I picked it up along with three other enormous beauties, a few handfuls of clams, a couple of red mullet and some shrimp, to give it its watery payback. I was pleased, too, that I was recognised warmly by the guy I'd chatted to for so long last week who had that morning dived for the very scallops we would later be eating. This farmers' market lark; it's a beautiful thing.
A dash to the butcher's for a rack of lamb, then round for some herbs, bread, cream and butter and some rudely pink forced rhubarb, all stuffed into a non-plastic shopper (natch) finished off the trip in a sudden hurry. Oh, and a few interesting beers for him, and a Jurancon for me, to wash all the loveliness down.

I was so excited about the whole thing. Sauces, presentation and a chocolate pudding; I had it all planned to a T. But the way things work out isn't always how you had imagined, and you have to work with life as it happens. In the evening, my flatmate's hilarious boyfriend came round, and inevitably we finished every liquid element of the meal before any actual cooking took place.

The fish worked out well enough, steamed open in the oven with herby, winey, fishy juices. For the lamb, I went so far as rubbing the scored skin with a bit of chervil, salt and pepper and olive oil; sealing it in the pan, and roasting it to a surprisingly perfect pink. The vegetable accompaniments, all very interseting and well thought-out, did not fare so well - they are still in my fridge. Instead, I chucked together some interesting leaves with more oil and a bit too much lemon, sliced up the chops with not a bit of finesse; and we gnawed hungrily, and slightly drunkenly, on the whole messy lot. I think it was utterly fabulous; great fun and plenty romantic enough, but I can't quite remember.

Monday, February 11, 2008

A busy week

Forgive me father, for I have sinned. It's been over a week since my last confession. But before you get the wrong idea, the week has not been spent on foodie regression; a seedy journey into the world of darkness and destruction, of kebabs and microwave pizzas. Don't even suggest it.
No, this week has seen me do more cooking than ever, with such a diverse array of meals as to bemuse even those with the most varied of diets. I have roasted guinea fowl, made a stock with its carcass, made a risotto with that (not good, tasting strongly and bitterly of some inedible offal that hadn't been so scrupulously removed - threw the whole load in the bin and went hungry that night). I have roasted a shoulder of lamb over faintly Greek-style potatoes, cooked up a Moroccan harira (soupy, spiced cheakpea and lamb soup - divine), baked rose-flavoured heart-shaped buns to take to my young cousins, divised a beautifully silky, rich sauce to smother over linguine, and finally polished off the blood orange granita that I made a little too long ago.
And yes, there has been a pizza. Ordered over the telephone, dropped off by a couple of decidedly non-Italian fellows (a betrayal of the company's name, 'Mario's/Luigini's/De Niro's Pizza, something like that), it was thick, bready, greasy - and perfect beyond compare after an evening spent at a grotty local bar, all 15inches of it soaking up the cheap gin and flat tonic.

On the plus side, there has been a trip to Borough (I go every week now), the most profitable yet. I bought more blood oranges, for juice, and some lemons and limes of course; as basic and necessary to me as salt and pepper. My cockles having been warmed by the recent Disney film of the same name, I had an overwhelming urge to make ratatouille, so I bought all those vegetables (aubergine, courgettes, peppers, tomatoes, onions and more garlic), wonderfully evocative of Provence in July. I re-stocked my supplies of chillis and lemongrass, and then went in search of the second fishmonger, which is to say not the one with the enormous counter displaying huge monkfish with their gaping, desperate jaws. My uncle had told me of the other, promising it was by far the superior, with the freshest fish possible. I wasn't diappointed.

I arrived when one of the guys was unpacking the fish and displaying it on the counter. The stall, by the way, is to be found around the corner from the organic stalls pushing wheatgrass shots like the Californian answer to the much less worky double espresso. This man was fantastic, as even though I'd explained that I wouldn't be able to buy that day due to a weekend away, he still spent a huge amount of time getting out various fish; stunning John Dory, or St. Peter's fish with the mark of the disciple on its side; gloriously fat, shiny mackerel and heaps of beautiful squid, their tentacles dribbling over the tiled floor. All the fish comes from their own boats in Dorset, and not from Billingsgate market, and the other guy there had hand-dived the scallops himself. Nothing could be better; this is the sort of thing we should fight for tooth and nail. What's more, it's not too expensive: the freshest, most glisteningy perfect stuff, like mackerel, £5.75 per kilo. Go there.

Finally, a quick foray into Neal's Yard for some Doorstone and Cornish Yarg, and a whizz by the Comte stall - such a fab cheese, I couldn't resist. Oh, and then a jasmine plant - there is sunlight now and it'll be beautifully abundant with some care. Moreover, it is the one scent my father, to whom I do not speak, could never stand, making it all the sweeter to me. Bittersweet perhaps, but not too bitter; I have my rich, velvety ratatouille to keep me sweet.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Comfort food, Thai-style

When things go wrong in life, and all is bleak, sometimes declaring hakuna matata doesn't quite cut it. These are the times when food can provide the most succor. A billowing cloud of creamy, fluffy mashed potato with a pool of melting butter as a voluptuous blanket for the over-tired and under-nourished; a pint of Ben&Jerry's to cry into when you've been chucked; numb, vacant, empty bites at a banana make velvet pillows for the aching lump in your throat when you're grieving for a lost friend; a mug of milky, sugary tea: a warm, deep cuddle from the inside out.

Today, I don't have my mother's shoulder to cry on. Words of comfort through a telephone are just not the same. I need something tangible, something soft and tender and soothing. There is no-one else to make it for me today.

Yesterday I bought a beautiful, gleaming vermillion fillet of rainbow trout, fresh and slimy from its recent catch. I had in mind some sort of nursery supper; fishcakes, firm and round and dependable, with something green. Today seems as fitting as ever for such a meal. At around nine, I finally decide I'm hungry, and open the fridge. There is cream, butter, milk, the fish, and potatoes in the cupboard; all I need for the little cakes. Then, like beams of sunshine breaking through cloud, I am roused by the loud, fragrant and lively scent of Thailand (or at least, how I expect Thailand smells). Bright, hot chillies; the spritz of lemongrass; knarly ginger and garlic. It is a lift like no other.
An idea starts to form in my head. I've got some purple-sprouting broccoli from Borough, my favourite way to cook it being in oyster sauce with chilli, ginger and garlic. This, with some hot and crisp fishcakes, will wake me up with a jolt; the equivalent of being told to 'buck up' by the school matron - only a lot tastier.

Thai fishcakes have to be really over-flavoured in order to be any good - if you've ever ordered them in a pub or such-like you will no doubt have shared my disappointment in such a needlessly mediocre meal. Under-season at your peril.

Thai-style fishcakes

fillet of a well-flavoured fish - I used the rainbow trout
floury potatoes - Maris Piper or King Edward
1 egg

spring onions
lime or lemon, zest and juice

panko (Japanese cracker breadcrumbs), or plain water biscuit crackers, smashed to smithereens
a beaten egg

Purple-sprouting broccoli with oyster sauce

Purple-sprouting broccoli, bok choi, or any dark Chinese leaf
oyster sauce

For the fishcakes, put the fish into a pan of hot milk and poach until just cooked. Boil the potatoes, drain and mash. Let cool ideally, to make the mixture easier to handle.

Put all the aromatics, finely chopped, into a mixing bowl, add the potato and an egg, and mix well to bind. Season very well with salt and pepper. Then add the fish and gently mix it in, so that the flakes are a decent size and everything is distinguishable from each other. Form the mixture into cakes of any size you like, then dip in the beaten egg and roll in the cracker crumbs. Get a little production line going; this is all quite therapeutic.

For the greens, put the chilli, garlic and ginger, all sliced finely, into some oil and heat. Put in the broccoli, turn in the mixture and then add a good few glugs of oyster sauce. Cover and let steam for a few minutes or so.

Fry the cakes in some hot oil, flipping them over gently when they turn brown. When both sides are done, drain on kitchen paper. By this time your stomach may be aching with greedy excitement, and your problems should be long gone. All that matters now is eating.

Serve with the greens, and some sort of sharp sauce, if you like. I mixed a bit of lemon juice with some Greek yoghurt, salt and pepper - not authentically Thai I'm sure, but very welcome with me. In your satisfaction and gusto, nothing will seem quite as bad as it was before, and the warmth spreading through you, echoing brighter and sunnier climes is, believe me, a true comfort. There is nothing to rival a full stomach.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Birthday Cake

Yesterday was my flatmate's birthday, and a cake had to be made. After some considerable rhumination as to the form the cake would take, we decided on a Sebastian crab (as in The Little Mermaid), this being the name of said flatmate.

A chocolate cake it had to be, and as this boy is Swiss and knows a thing or two about how chocolate should taste, it had to be an exemplary chocolate cake, whilst on the exterior resembling a Disney character as closely as possible. Ambitious? Not at all.

It turned out better than we could possibly have hoped for, as I'm sure you can see....

300g sr flour, sugar, butter

6 eggs (free-range and organic, natch)

good cocoa - NOT drinking chocolate

good quality milk or dark chocolate, or a mixture of both

a knob of cold, unsalted butter

500g icing sugar

250 slightly softened unsalted butter

food colouring (red and orange for a crab) - pastes are better than liquids and generally less messy!

writing icing, candles, decorations etc - any manner of beautiful things!

Make the sponge mixture by creaming together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy, you know the drill, then gradually sift in the flour, cracking in an egg here and there, until you have a light and perfect sponge batter. Sift and fold in some cocoa - enough for a pale-ish brown colour, which will darken whilst baking.

Divide the mixture between two buttered round cake tins (or your tin of choice), and bake the sponges at 180C for around 20 mins. Test by inserting a sharp knife; if it comes out completely clean, and the sponge is bouncy to the touch, it is ready. If they need a little longer but are over-darkening on the outside, cover them with some tin foil until they're ready.

Meanwhile, make up the buttercream - you will be surprised how much icing sugar the butter will take, so persevere if it seems a lot at first - go gradually. Add food colouring to get the desired effect.

To make the chocolate ganache for the middle, melt the chocolate carefully in the microwave (no need whatsoever to bother with bowls and pans of simmering water) and then, once cooled slightly - but still warm enough to melt butter - add in enough butter for it to thicken a bit and go glossy: you judge how much to use.

Take the sponges out of the oven and the tins and let them cool on a wire rack. Then, when everything has cooled, get creative. We crafted the crab by cutting a smaller disc out of one of the sponges and sticking it on top of the other with the ganache, to make a dome shape once smothered with the vivid red buttercream. To make the buttercream really smooth, heat a palette knife of large metal spoon under the hot tap, then use it to glide over the top of the icing, reheating several times, until everything is glossy and beautiful.

With the left-over sponge, we make claw shapes and some little legs, which we outlined in black writing icing. We also put little black dots for the eyes, surrounded by whites of course, and drew a smiley mouth. It is scantly possible that someone out there is a little more creative than we are, in which case there is no need to follow our masterclass on cake decorating. Let your imagination know no bounds!!

Incidentally, I would love any cake decorating ideas - I may cook but I'm no artist.

In any case, the cake was much appreciated by Seb, and my other flatmate and I have felt like true domestic goddesses all day; a priceless feeling let me tell you.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Chillis, Round Two

Ok, so remember that Moroccan chickpea curry/stew thing I was going to make? Well, tonight was my night. It wasn't really a curry as such, more a sort of stew with those sort of North-African flavours, like coriander, a teensy bit of smoked sweet paprika, tomatoes, garlic and the hint of sweetness from a dribble of honey.
And best of all? Harissa. This is, for those who aren't aware, a chilli paste first and foremost, and not being one to let this most essential of ingredients get the better of me, I decided to use a goodly amount - this, of course, being the main Moroccan element. It worked like a dream, and the score now stands: Chilli 1, Harriet a triumphant 1, and counting.

I must give the recipe because it's FABULOUS and so very easy, quick and cheap to do.

Long grain rice (boil-in-the-bag sachet is fine)

garlic, finely chopped
ginger (not too much), finely chopped
red onion, sliced
chopped tinned tomatoes
fresh tomatoes, roughly cut up
chickpeas, canned - drained and rinsed
harissa paste (Belazu's rose harissa is lovely, and Middle-Eastern grocers stock it very cheap)
coriander seeds and sweet smoked paprika, a pinch of each
baby spinach
fresh parsley and coriander

But the rice on to boil. Meanwhile, do all your chopping, slicing and tin-opening.
Heat some olive oil in a wide pan or wok, and add the coriander seeds. Fry for half a minute, then add the harissa, then garlic, ginger and onions. Then, after the onions have softened a bit, add the tinned tomatoes, heat through and add the chickpeas and fresh tomatoes. Then add a small pinch of paprika and a drizzle of honey; stir through, taste and season with salt and pepper.
Finally, stir in the spinach and fresh herbs. By this time, your rice should be ready; serve together and feel yourself being warmed and comforted deliciously.

No sooner have I finished my plateful than I realise that the feta I had got ready to crumble over is still waiting, all lonely, on the chopping board. No problem, I'm still hungry, and it'll add a salty new dimension to my second helping. Though really, trying to be economical, I should save it all for tomorrow's lunch, and get on with my blood oranges (which I still haven't been bothered to turn into sorbet). The likelier outcome? I'll let you know after tomorrow's lunch...