Sunday, December 03, 2006

Mother's Ruin?

It has been an awfully long time since my last food blog, for no other reasons than I am trying to restrain the ramblings on my personal life elsewhere and that my newly acquired single-status does not lead to the most scintillating of sensory overloads. As yet.

However last night I had a rare opportunity to cook, and not just for anyone, but for someone I love. My mother.

The older I get, the more I appreciate my parents and I increasingly relish the tastes and pleasures in which we share. And for mum and I, one of these little joys has to be the fragrant and heady flavours of gin. Dubbed 'mother's ruin' for a whole host of reasons in the 18th century (on which I can bore for Britain, my specialist degree subject bizarrely encompassed such matters - a hint is the works of Hogarth), I am happy to reveal that my mother and I find that gin, rather than ruining an evening, tends to enhance it.

The situation for our happy reunion is immaterial, suffice to say we found ourselves alone, in an alien kitchen with salmon fillets, a bottle of gin, sparse store-cupboard goodies and a camera on its last legs (hence the dirth of images). Mother's ruin? More like Mother's Success.

Tipsy Salmon (for a tipsy mother/daughter combination)
olive oil
2 leeks - washed and finely sliced
1 garlic clove, finely sliced
juice of half a lemon
bay leaf
flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
two salmon fillets

Preheat the oven to 180-200 centigrade.
Put the leeks, garlic, bay leaf and parsley in a shallow oven-proof dish. Sprinkle over a good glug of olive oil, lemon juice and a sizeable glug of gin. Season and cover with tin foil. Pop into the oven for approx 20 minutes, turning at least once. When the leeks are soft, nestle the salmon fillets on top of the leeks (skin down), re-cover with foil and cook for approx 15-2o minutes depending on how well one likes one's salmon cooked. Baste at least once during cooking time to prevent the fish dying out, adding more gin/lemon juice or even a splash of apple juice if necessary.

Enjoy with steamed greens, possibly jasmine rice, but certainly with one's mother.

Friday, November 10, 2006

BBC Good Food Show??

Good Food Show? Not so one would notice.

I should have known from the difficulties I had purchasing a ticket (down to tracking down the organiser's office which promised to call me back. Twice). What a disappointment.

Years ago the Good Food Show was exactly what it's name implied. A wealth of interesting food suppliers and products, and although there were the obligatory used-car-type salesmen peddling all manner of squeezy implements and choppers, on the whole it represented good value for money at less than a tenner and an afternoon well spent.

How things change in a few years. Or perhaps it is one's standards and expectations that alter with age and experience. Whatever the reason I came away from Olympia this afternoon feeling rather saddened. Not only by what was on offer but also by my fellow show-goers.

The products proffered were predictable on the whole and collectively uninspiring. I imagine it is prohibitively expensive to participate which would explain the large brands that were represented. I was however rather taken with the following products:

Bateel - sparkling date juice
This gorgeous nectar is not cheap however it is a superb alcohol-free drink to offer guests (and oneself on school nights) and looks rather impressive in its glitzy bottle. Two bottles are now nestling expectantly in my wine racks.......
Perhaps not the most inviting of names but this is the first range of gluten and dairy frozen ready meals that I have encountered. Sadly the freezer section of my fridge is replete with edamame, peas and ice and I feel uncomfortable considering any ready-meals due to the laziness factor, however I feel duty bound to spread the word.

Black Mountain
When I was a younger and was coming down with a cold or flu, my mother would always offer a little brandy and hot water. Uuuegh. My tastebuds simply cannot stand the assault of harsh spirits such as neat brandy and whisky, so I was startled to find myself buying a tiny bottle of Black Mountain - an apple brandy with blackcurrant which is as smooth and warming as a French Kiss (I vaguely remember what they are like!).

Socialite London
I have been rather hesitant to share this particular find. A new venture is being launched and, I hasten to add, it is NOT a dating website. However if one likes to eat out and doesn't always have friends available to dine with, then one can find a number of dinner companions on
Yes, the promo girl hooked me in like a pro ("You're single after how long? Oh that's tough. And you like trying new restaurants in London? This is soooo for you.") But it does sound rather fun and with a month free trial it's worth a shot.

But the people there!!! Oh my word. I think I'll elucidate on my other blog, but there must be something about free food (and especially alcohol as I remember from my wine trade days) that brings out the animal in people. And we're not talking cute, fluffy kittens here. More predatory, growling lions, ready to pounce. A rather unpleasant sight and experience all told.

So, if you're contemplating popping along I feel duty bound to advise against it. Save your money, go to Borough Market or your local farmers', fill your boots (or rather your basket) with quality, fresh produce and avoid the blatant consumerism. And the unpleasant grabbing hoards.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Mung's The Word

I recently read that mung noodles are a good alternative to their wheat or rice counterparts, particularly if one is mindful of GI content. Whilst I'm not, I do find that carbs sit in my stomach like an unwelcome house guest and so when I spied a packet of these delicious, delicate noodles in my local Thai supermarket, I pounced on them with glee.

My shopping basket was soon full with lemon grass, galangal, limes, thai basil, red chillis and beansprouts. With the addition of a few chestnut mushrooms, spring onions and mange tout, a fiery but light supper was borne.

Huggermunger Stir-Fry
skein of mung bean noodles
1 clove garlic, finely sliced
1 red chilli, deseeded and finely sliced
2 spring onions, finely sliced
1 'thumb' of ginger, peeled and finely sliced
1 stem of lemongrass, outer leaves removed and firmly bashed
1 star anise flower
handful of chestnut mushrooms, wiped and sliced
handful of mange tout, sliced in half
handful of beansprouts
nam pla
tamari (or soy sauce)
sherry or rice wine

First soak the noodles in boiling water for 10 minutes.
Heat sesame or vegetable oil in a wok or frying pan and when shimmering-hot, add the garlic, chilli, ginger, lemongrass and star anise and briskly stir.
Add the onion, mushrooms, mange tout and beansprouts and tip in a good shaking of nam pla and tamari to your individual taste.
Pour in a little sherry or rice wine to add a little liquid.
Drain the noodles and add them to the pan.

Simplicity in itself, light on the stomach and good for fighting colds.

Yes, mung is the word.

Sunday, November 05, 2006


Lifetimes ago, when I had a very uncomfortable relationship with food, I avoided fat with a pathological obsession.

I would watch my ex-husband eat half an avocado with horror, used God awful olive 'lite' spray with which to saute (I could never countenance the word 'fry'), skirted around nuts, counted and recorded the number of stolen crisps from my ex's packet of Hula-Hoops, removed any trace of whiteness from a piece of meat (back in the days when I ate the stuff) and convinced myself that an equation existed whereby the addition of essential oily fish to my diet equaled in gigantic thighs. Not a healthy, nor rational, way to exist.

Thankfully wisdom and a desire to be look after myself has come with age and now I relish the silky character that avocado lends to my homemade sushi handrolls, use olive oil liberally to sweat onions and celery, take enormous pleasure in my daily cracking of walnut shells to access the rich meat inside and try to ensure that if I don't get round to eating oily fish, then I at least take capsules containing their goodness.

But there is one food that still challenges me when I'm feeling a bit low. Cheese.

Being intolerant to cow's dairy I have a natural excuse to avoid the yellow stuff, but my stomach can take small amounts of goats and sheeps cheeses and yet my mind still balks at the fat content. I would never buy a block, let alone a sliver for myself and so tend to celebrate catering for others with a good-looking cheese board.

Last night was no exception. After a hearty and robust fish stew (I've blogged it before so won't bore you again although this time added butter beans), we dined on lactic acid - one cow and three goat. The wine flowed, the cow was polished off by my guests and I was left, to my dismay, with a substantial quantity of cheese which I could actually eat. Not letting myself cave in to the temptation to slide the lot into the waiting and hungry bin, I forced myself to pop it into the fridge. Where it sits, planning it's calorific assault on my arse.

Determined to dispel old behaviours, I re-introduced the cheeses to their board and ate a Sunday lunch of fromage, celery, cucumber, apple and a couple of mejdool dates. Washed down with a large glass of Australian Shiraz, a shot of coffee and accompanied by the tranquil tones of Pink Martini. And boy, it was good.

Tomme de Chevre
A texture that lies between hard and soft with an incredible depth of flavour. Reminds me of garlic for no good reason. A sumptuous luxury.

Murcia al Vino
This has a creamy consistency and a slight tannic twang (the rind is soaked in red wine) which is balanced by a gentle acidity and touch of citrus fruit.

This is a mousse like cheese, light and airy with hints of lemon and grass. Divine with celery and would be the perfect partner to a steely Chablis or Sauvignon Blanc.

So, more fat in one meal than I would normally consume in a whole day but when coming down with a cold on a chilly Sunday, sometimes a little lard is required. And yes, I did go bananas at the gym this morning in anticipation and no, I can't promise that the remainder of the cheeses will resist the call of the bin, but at least I tried.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

It's cabbage, but not as we know it......

Doing my homework for my creative writing course today sent me spiraling back to my childhood and with it, the tastes and flavours which are so deeply ingrained with those memories. Some bad - liver, broad beans, dog biscuits (don't ask, I was a curious child) but mostly good - custard, crumble topping, peas, cod, anything baked by my mother, her bucketful's of strawberry jam (literally) and, weirdly, cabbage.

Perhaps not an obvious choice for a child but there was, and still is, something about white cabbage that makes my tummy smile. I have never liked Sunday roasts, finding meat rather cumbersome and indigestible, however I used to relish the taste of cabbage softened in gravy.

Since then, trips to Vienna have rekindled my love for cabbage, this time in the shape of sauerkraut, and when I spied a perfect little baby green example in the shop today I could not resist.

Still fighting off a cold and firmly believing that the combination of garlic, chili and ginger has the power to kill all wayward germs, I concocted the following cabbage dish. I added caraway seeds as they are reputed to counter the (ahem) gassy properties of cabbage but also I love the sweet character they add to a dish.

I'm afraid that I seem to have stopped measuring ingredients when I cook for one, taking a rather haphazard approach. Happily one that works but it does mean that I can't give exact quantities. Be brave, experiment!

Combat Cabbage
1 onion, finely sliced
1 red chili, deseeded and finely chopped
thumb' of ginger, peeled and finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
sprinkling of caraway seeds
1 little baby cabbage, finely shredded
white miso soup made with paste and hot water (or use vegetable stock - I just don't have any!)
tamari (or soy sauce if you're not wheat-shy)
nam pla (fish sauce so omit if vegetarian)
frozen peas
half a can of cooked chickpeas

Fry the onion, garlic, chili and ginger in a glug of groundnut or vegetable oil until soft and sweet. Add the caraway seeds and the cabbage. Stir well.
Pour in enough miso or stock to cover, shake in a good measure of tamari or soy sauce, a drop or two of nam pla and sherry, stir and cover. Cook on a low heat for approximately 10 -15 minutes, checking the moisture levels and topping up with sherry/stock as necessary.
Add a handful of frozen peas and chickpeas (if you need the protein - else serve as a side dish to steamed white fish or pork chops), cover and cook for up to five minutes.

The white miso and caraway seeds create a sweet base for this dish which is counterbalanced by the tamari and chili. Oh yes, I have rekindled my love for cabbage. Just not in gravy this time.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Comforting Cod

I am beginning to find my groove, such as it is, for now. I won't bore you with it here (if you're really interested you can always visit my other non-foodie blog) but I am finally learning that nourishing one's self - one's emotions, self-esteem, home and ultimately, one's appetite - is a recipe for contentment and one which should be encouraged rather than one in which to find guilt.

And so, in order to guard off a threatening cold (hence the ginger, garlic and chili) and to celebrate the opportunity for a candle-lit dinner for one I concocted the following simple, but soul-warming dish.

Comforting Cod
(yes, you guessed it, serves one gorgeous blonde)
sesame oil
2 cloves garlic, finely sliced
1 red chili, deseeded and finely sliced
'thumb' of ginger, peeled and finely chopped
star anis
1 leek, washed and finely sliced
150g crimini mushrooms, wiped clean (halve or even quarter the large ones)
nam pla (fish sauce)
tamari (or soy sauce - tamari has a meatier taste and just loves fungi - but then don't we all love a chap with a sense of humour?!)
handful of baby spinach leaves
1 cod fillet

Heat a good slug of sesame oil in a large frying pan to which you have the lid. Once warmed add the garlic, chili and ginger and muddle about for a few minutes.
Add the leek, cover and sweat, check occasionally that the leeks are not sticking to the pan. Trickle sherry in as and when necessary to avoid this and to create a shallow pool of liquor. Throw in a few petals of dried star anis.
After around 10 minutes when the leeks have lost their rubbery quality and softened to a baby's breath, add the mushrooms, a good shaking of both the nam pla and tamari and pop the lid back on the pan.
After around five to ten minutes throw in a handful of spinach leaves, another glug of sherry and replace the lid.
Sit the cod fillet on top of the vegetable tangle, replace the pan lid and allow the fish to gently steam for approx. five to ten minutes (depending on thickness of fillet and how well done you like your fish to be).
Remove the fish and serve the vegetable melange on a plate and then pop the fish on top.

I am aware the portion in the photo looks enormous and quite frankly, it was rather large! However as I don't tend to eat carbs (for no other reason than my odd stomach doesn't like them and that this morning I succumbed to the hi-tech weighing machine at the gym and am apparently a bit of a light weight with a BMI of just 19), I really don't care! As I said, it's about nourishing one's soul. Lemony or otherwise.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Venison for the Vegetarian

When I first met my friend Darren he was a confirmed vegetarian. Well I say 'confirmed' although that is patently not the case. He first turned to the veggie side for love - not of green matter but of a girl. However, dating and then being married to the gorgeous Goody have turned his tastebuds again and love has returned him to am omnivorous state.

I now take great amusement in cooking meat for him and so used D and G's company as an opportunity to cook a venison casserole.

Venison is the only red meat that I eat - not only is it the healthiest (low in cholesterol and fat) but it is the only meat not to race through my troubled stomach, leaving a trail of intestinal devastation in its wake. Casseroling meat is such a gorgeous method to cook it - the flavours have an opportunity to melt and mingle and the fibres of the meat have time to tenderise into silky morsels. Casseroles are even better when reheated and so they are the perfect dish when entertaining - all the hard work has already been taken care of leaving you to enjoy your friends and the wine.

Venison and Pink Peppercorn Casserole
400g venison steak, cubed
olive oil
2 banana shallots, peeled and finely sliced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
200g crimini mushrooms, wiped clean
red wine
tomato ketchup
dried oregano
pink peppercorns
chunk of dark chocolate

Preheat the oven to 150 degrees centigrade.
First remove any traces of fat or sinew from the venison. Put a few spoons of cornflour in a food bag, toss in the meat and shake it about to evenly cover the meat.
Heat a good slug of oil in a casserole and then brown the meat. Remove when evenly coloured (don't skimp on this bit - it is so important to brown meat well to seal in the flavour).
Add a little more oil then tip in the onion and garlic. Fry until soft.
Throw in the mushrooms, chopping larger ones in half and also chuck the meat back into the dish.
Pour in enough red wine to cover the meat, add a good sized squeeze of ketchup (I know it sounds odd but it really adds to the flavour), a sprinkling of dried oregano (for no other reason than it's all I had to hand but it works), and a large sprinkling of pink peppercorns - roughly two or three tablespoons.
Bring to the boil, stirring well, season with a touch of salt and a good grinding of black pepper. Pop the lid on the pot and then put it in the oven for 1 1/4 hours if you are going to reheat the dish, else cook for 11/2 - 13/4 hours.

And the chocolate? At the end of cooking, break in the chocolate and stir it until it melts. It adds to the depth of the flavour and shouldn't all good meals end with chocolate?

(sorry - we gobbled it up before I remembered to take a picture!)

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Perfect Plum

How fortunate I am to be able to appreciate the beauty of the simple things in life. The crust of a perfectly cooked fruit pie. The glean of expertly tempered chocolate. The gentle downy skin of a ripe peach. And the utter joy to be found in a bowl of delicious English plums with their delicate, dusty bloom. When pleasure in food is this simple, why complicate it?

Beauty surrounds us in a myriad of forms every day if only we can open our eyes and our senses to embrace it. And so a bowl of honeyed plums is a sumptuous yet simple start to one’s day, savoured whilst bathed in the warm light of an early Autumnal Sunday which comes streaming through the window and awakens my senses.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Moules Lillois

Yesterday I returned from a long-weekend in Lille, the capital of Flanders and home to one of my most wonderful friends and his loving partner. We shared recipes, discussed politics, food and love and bathed in the warm glow of deep friendship. A truly lovely weekend and one that has helped to restore my spirit. And my passion for creating recipes.

Peter has not eaten meat for nearly twenty years and is a brilliant cook of all dishes pescatarian. He concentrates on a one or two key quality ingredients at each meal and creates simple but beautifully orchestrated food.

I have never cooked mussels, being rather nervous of their barnacles and fearful of poisoning myself or others if the little blighters choose not to open. Peter however is fearless and far more sensible than me and so he executed a vibrantly freshly flavoured version of moules marinieres which we christened Moules Lillois.

Moules Lillois (serves three to four)
2kg fresh mussels
2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
3 or 4 stems of celery (depending on their thickness), diced
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 carrot, peeled and finely diced
3 or 4 sprigs of thyme
200ml white wine
200ml water
Large sprig of parsley, chopped

Wash the mussels, scrape off any lingering barnacles and discard those that are open or cracked.
Fry the shallots, celery and garlic in olive oil until they soften. Add the carrot and fry for a few more minutes. Add the thyme, wine and water and raise the heat so that the liquid simmers. Add a good grinding of black pepper. Throw in the mussels and cook for four to five minutes until their shells have opened and the flesh is a tender orange in colour.
Remove from the heat and serve into large bowls with the liquor, removing any shells that failed to open. Sprinkle with the parsley and serve.

Uncomplicated and truly delicious. There is a lot to be said to such an approach to food.

For more about Peter and his move to France, visit Le Log Lillois at

Sunday, September 24, 2006

World Blog by Mail

I participated in a worldwide Blog By Post organised by The Happy Sorceress and eagerly awaited my parcel whilst pulling my own together to send to the States.

It is a curious concept to send a food parcel to someone whom one has never met or even been in touch with. It is akin to being given a pen pal whilst at school and writing that very first introductory letter. I visited the blog of my designated recipient to gain a flavour for her tastes and life and decided to send a thoroughly traditional British packet which I hope Nicole will enjoy, despite being on a nutrisystem diet (of which I am completely ignorant). And so my little pack of England contained:

Tiptree Little Scarlet conserve, pack of Williamson earl grey tea, tube of Coleman’s mustard, bar of organic Rococo chocolate flavoured with cardamom, disc of Gentleman’s Relish (I know that no-one ever eats this curious paste but it wouldn’t be a true traditional parcel if I had omitted this essential item), pack of rhubarb and custard boiled sweets for that taste of an English childhood and a pack of sugar flowers for decorating cakes as Nicole loves to bake.

And what did I receive? Chris Church from had thoughtfully packaged up the following:

Wheat, gluten and dairy free bread and brownie mixes
Buckwheat flour
Toasted carob powder
3 organic fruit and nut bars
Sheets of toasted nori
Sindhi biryani masala mix
Cardamom pods
Garam masala

I can’t wait to get baking with the mixes and to see how American allergy-free compare to ones available in the UK. I have already nibbled the bars and they are truly scrumptious – great for those mornings when you have already tried on three pairs of shoes, have yet to chose the matching outfit and ‘oh my god’ you only have five minutes to run for the train to work. The rate with which they disappear from my cupboard will indicate just how indecisive I am (and how many times I am late!).

Chris’s parents hail from Saudi Arabia, hence the variety of spices. The only one that is completely new to me is za’atar which Chris informs me is a lovely accompaniment to bread and olive – even more reason to try out the new bread mixture.
Sumak is a herb that is often used in Lebanese cuisine when lemons aren’t available and so I will be sprinkling that on a variation of the vegetable moussaka I made for girlfriends this week (marvellous, tonight’s dinner is taken care of).
I have to confess that I have already consumed the nori – one of my absolute favourite foods – which provided me with a couple of lunches of handrolls (minus the rice) in which it encased strips of cucumber, avocado and slices of marinated tofu.

Thank you Chris and thank you to the Happy Sorceress for organising the blogging event. What a fantastic way to travel the world – with one’s tastebuds. Lord knows that may be the only way I’m to achieve it until I have more work confirmed…………

A Feast of Friendships

I wanted to not only anoint my new flat with a home warming party, but also to thank those girlfriends without whom I would not have survived the last few months of pain and hurt in one piece. A true feast of friendship.

Five women, all of whom are battling with their own problems and yet have found the time and the space in their hearts to cherish me at the time when I have most needed it. The least I could do was to cook a meal for them.

All of us are interested in food and like to taste different cuisines and I realised that I have eaten in Lebanese restaurants with each and every one and so I let the Lebanon flavour the dishes. As ever I tweaked recipes that I have digested to make them my own and conjured up the following:

Nigella Lawson's Aubergine Moussaka (veggie option)
Moroccan-ish Chicken
Green salad
Saffronjeweledd rice (white basmati cooked with saffron threads and dried cranberries, decorated with toasted flaked almonds and flat-leaf parsley)
Chocolate crusted lemon and cardamom tart

I promised to post the recipes for the first and the last of the above dishes and will include the chicken for good measure, purely because it is such a simple main course to create. The tart is rather time consuming but from the licking of lips and pleas for leftovers to take home for husbands/fiancees, I surmised that it have been worth the effort.

Aubergine Moussaka (serves four as a main course, six as a side dish)

500g aubergine (two decent sized vegetables), cut into 11/2 cm cubes
1 large onion, peeled and thinly sliced
10 small cloves garlic, peeled and thickly slivered
1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 ½ tbsp pomegranate molasses
500g tomatoes, peeled, seeded and quartered (do this before you embark on the rest of the recipe)
1 ½ tsp salt
½ tsp cinnamon or one stick
½ tsp ground allspice
200ml water
Pack of feta
Mint leaves

In a large pan, heat a good amount of oil and fry half of the aubergine until golden brown. Remove to a dish and repeat with the remainder aubergine.
Splash in some more oil and add the onion and garlic and fry until soft and pale.
Add the chickpeas, the molasses and return the aubergine to the pan. Add the tomatoes, sprinkle with the spices and add the water. Bring to the boil, cover and reduce to a simmer for around an hour.
Serve warm or cold, strewn with torn mint leaves and a crumbled pack of feta.

Moroccan-ish Chicken
(serves 4)
6 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1tsp each salt and ground black pepper
1tsp ground ginger
½ tsp ground cumin
½ tsp paprika
1kg chicken thigh fillets (I remove as much fat as possible)
150ml freshly squeezed orange juice
Pared rind of one orange
150g organic dried apricots (organic ones are darker in colour as they aren't dried with sulphur dioxide)
¼ tsp saffron shreads
150ml sherry or white wine (whatever you have to hand)
3tbsp sherry vinegar
2tbsp oil
1 onion, peeled and finely sliced
3tbsp plain flour (I make a cornflour paste, being unable to eat wheat)
300ml chicken stock or bouillon
Two or three preserved lemons
Flat leaf parsley

Put the first five ingredients in a large bowl and mix well. Add the chicken, orange juice and rind and stir to ensure that the chicken is well covered. Chill for at least four hours or overnight.
Put the apricots, saffron, sherry or wine and vinegar in a bowl. Cover and leave to marinate at room for temperature for the same length of time as the chicken.
Heat the oil in a large casserole. Transfer the chicken (reserve the marinade) and brown over a high heat then remove. Add the onion and cook until soft (around five mins).
Add the flour, stir well and cook for one minute (or make a cornflour paste and add). Add the marinade, stock, the apricots with their soaking liquid and the preserved lemons. Stir and bring to the boil. Return the chicken to the pan and simmer.
Cover and either cook on the hob for around 30 minutes or in the oven at 180C for around 40 minutes.
Serve with chopped flat-leaf parsley.

Chocolate Crusted Lemon and Cardamom Tart
(serves approximately eight)
175g plain flour
25g cocoa powder
Pinch of salt
25g icing sugar
125g unsalted butter, chilled and cubed
1 large egg yolk
2tbsp cold water

75g dark chocolate (the higher cocoa content the better), grated
3 unwaxed lemons
150g caster sugar
4 large eggs
150ml double cream (or a 142ml pot - for some reason it is not possible to buy 150ml)
Six cardamom pods, crushed to release the black seeds. Throw away the pods.
Icing sugar to serve

To make the pastry put the first five ingredients into a food processor and pulse until the mix resembles fine breadcrumbs. Don't over process - this is very short pastry!
Mix the egg with the water and add to the mixture to make a soft dough. Gather the pastry into a ball, flatten into a disc and wrap in clingfilm. Chill in the fridge for at least an hour.
Roll out the pastry (between two sheets of greaseproof paper is best) and line a 23cm (9 inch) tart tine with a removable base. Prick the pastry with a fork in several places and chill for at least two hours.
Preheat the oven to 200C/gas 6.
Line the pastry case with foil and baking beans, put on a baking sheet and bake blind for 15 mins. Remove the foil and beans and return to the oven for five minutes. Remove from the oven and sprinkle the grated chocolate over the base. Leave to cool. Reduce the oven temperature to 170C/gas 3.

To make the filling, finely grate the zest of the lemons into a bowl. Squeeze the juice from the lemons and add to the bowl with the sugar. Whisk until the sugar has dissolved then whisk in the eggs, cream and the cardamom pods until the mixture is smooth.
Pour the mixture into the cooled pastry case and carefully return to the middle of the oven. Bake for 30-35mins until just set. Remove from the oven and leave to cool completely on a wire rack before removing from the tin.
Dust with icing sugar and serve with a few raspberries for a contrast of flavours and colours.

Ginger Nuggets

My very good friend Goody recently let slip that she sometimes like to nibble ginger nuts whilst chilling out in front of the TV of an evening. A gorgeously domestic and indulgent picture but one with a few additives and other nasties. As a thank you for all her love and support, I resolved to knock her up a batch of my ginger nuggets and to christen my oven in the process.

This recipe is one that I’ve tweaked and reworked over the years until I think I’ve got these sparkly little gems just right. They are unbelievably easy to make and have been known to cure my eldest sister’s morning sickness.

Ginger Nuggets (makes approximately 16)
4oz plain flour
1 level tsp bicarbonate of soda
1- 2tsp ground ginger (according to personal taste)
2oz butter
2oz golden caster sugar
2oz golden syrup
1 knob of stem ginger in syrup, chopped finely
2-3 tbsp golden caster sugar - extra

Sift the flour, bicarb of soda and ginger into a mixing bowl.
Weigh the butter, sugar and syrup directly into a little saucepan – a good trick when measuring syrup is to run the spoon under a hot tap first and then the syrup glides off with ease.
Warm the saucepan over a gentle heat until the butter has melted and the mixture is runny without getting too hot. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry, add the chopped stem ginger and mix well to form a soft dough. Wrap in clingfilm in a long sausage shape and chill in the fridge for at least one hour.
Preheat the oven to 180C/gas 4. Unwrap the dough and slice into 16 pieces.
Put the extra sugar into a plastic food bag and toss each slice so that they are well coated in sugar. Arrange them on a baking sheet, leaving plenty of room for spreading. Flatten them a little with a palette knife.
Bake in the middle of your oven for 10 minutes, leave the biscuits on the tray for one minute and then transfer to a wire cooling rack.

Whilst they may not be the prettiest of biscuits, I'm assured that the taste more than compensates for their aesthetically challenging appearance!

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Moroccan Mystique

It has been an age since my last post. I've been adapting to my new single life, me new flat and I have to admit, I have yet to use my new oven. I'm still not particularly enamored by the thought of cooking anything exciting for one, and so I am satisfying my food porn needs by helping out at the cookery school.

Saturday evening found me at La Cucina Caldesi, helping out a Moroccan themed cookery course for the tamest hen party I have ever encountered, with possibly the largest appetites I have ever witnessed amongst a group of women. How very refreshing.

The chef for the evening hailed from Essaouria(where I had to admit I suffered the worst food poisoning of my life so far) and having been taught to cook by his mother, he holds the secrets of the honeyed flavours, rich spices and silky flavours that make Moroccan food so wonderfully appealing. One of the most memorable flavours I have ever encountered was a fresh date, warmed by the shimmery heat of the sun and picked fresh from a tree on the banks of an oasis in the Moroccan desert whilst stroking the rough hair of a donkey.

On Saturday I learnt a couple of very useful lessons. The first - how to make preserved lemons in a hurry. In theory these citrus ingredients should take a minimum of three weeks to develop their flavours, however if you have run out or cannot find them in a local shop, this is the fast-track recipe:

Preserved Lemons in a Dash
Two lemons

Make four cuts into each lemon as if you were going to quarter them but without cutting right through the flesh so that the fruits remain intact.
Bring a pot of water to the boil and add a good handful of salt. Add the lemons and boil for approximately 30 minutes or until soft but not falling apart.
Remove from the heat, sprinkle with more salt and drizzle with a good glugging of olive oil. Leave to infuse for an hour.

The hen party sipped their champagne, rolled up their sleeves and started to dip their fingertips into the ingredients. Between them and with our direction they made the following sumptuous feast:

Baked aubergines with paprika and preserved lemon dressing
Kefta balls with a hot tomato sauce
Lamb tajine with prunes

The long list of ingredients for the meat dishes belie how easy they are to prepare. Never have I smelt such a jumble of spices to tickle one's nose in one room, the air of which was heavy with the fragrant fug. Try these delicious nuggets and see if you agree.

Kefta Balls (serves 4) - Ghalid Assyb's recipes
500g minced beef
2 crushed garlic cloves
1 onion, grated
1 red chili, finelychoppedd
1 tbsp turmeric
2 tbsp sweet paprika
1 tbsp ground black pepper
1 tbsp ground coriander
1 tbsp ground cumin
1/2 bunch of flat-leafed parsley, finely chopped
juice of half a lemon

It couldn't be easier. Tip all the ingredients into a bowl and use your hands to mix everything together until well combined. Roll the meat into equal sized balls (roughly the size of a walnut). Fry in a pan for a matter of minutes, ensuring that they don't overcook.

Healthy, fast and delicious food which couldn't be simpler to make.

And the second lesson I learnt that night? I'm afraid that only readers of my other blog are privy to that little revelation............

Monday, August 21, 2006

A Fragrant Tangle

Tangle - noun
1. a complicated or confused mass of hairs, lines, fibres etc knotted or coiled together
2. a complicated problem, condition or situation

It is interesting how the state of one's mind and emotions can transfer into one's cooking. Here I am, 31 years old, truly single for the first time in 10 years and not sure who CB on her own, without a man is but fast coming to some wonderful but scary conclusions. Still aching and hurting but trying to move on. Trying not to think of him but of building a new life whilst trying to mend a stupid, fragmented heart (don't worry - this is the last you will hear of my emotional outpourings - I have plans for those elsewhere. In a truly anonymous fashion). I am rather tangled, in every sense.

A supper with friends at the weekend, dazzling with zingy flavours and conversation, has rather tempted my tastebuds into life once again, as did a trip to the local farmers market the following morning. And so this evening, tired after a day at work (during which I felt the creativity bleeding out of me) I opened the fridge, mentally re-ordered its contents and created the following dish. Tangled in appearance, it rather matched my spirit.

A Fragrant Tangle of Leeks and Prawns (serves one - get used to it!)
1 clove garlic, finely sliced
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 small red chili, seeds removed and thinly sliced (in an attempt to ward off a summer cold)
2 small leeks, cleaned and thinly sliced
glug of wine (I used red as it was open but white would also be lovely)
handful of spinach leaves
tsp of wholegrain mustard
150g or so of large, cooked prawns

Heat a glug of oil in a frying pan (one to which you own the matching lid), and when shimmering, add the garlic, cumin, coriander and chili. Fry until the aromas tickle your nostrils.
Add the leeks and heat gently to soften. Add a glug or two of wine and cover with the pan lid. Stir from time to time to stop them sticking and trickle in a teardrop or two of wine when necessary.
When the leeks have separated and start to resemble a knotted ponytail (around 10-15mins) add the spinach and the mustard, stir, check the moisture levels and cover once again.
Once the spinach has wilted, stir in the prawns, heat briefly and then tip into a bowl.

Eat, smile and be happy.

Tangled, yes, but in a beautiful, (lemon) soulful way.

(No pictures as my camera is with an Italian.......)

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Dining Alone?

My new single existence is one to which I am trying to become accustomed. I won't bore you with hateful and self-pitying mentions of the hurt, anger, loneliness and a myriad of other emotions which surge through my being. Or of the panic to find somewhere to live which is steadily setting in.

But being alone does tend to open one's eyes and mind. I refuse to withdraw into my own little world and to never venture out into the wide world, to spend every meal time at 'home' just because I may not have a 'date' for that particular lunch or dinner.

Dining alone is a rather strange experience and one which differs between the lunch and dinner sittings. At lunch, the solitary diner is easily explained and tolerated. But come the evening, and one is treated either with sympathy, suspicion or downright rudeness (I'm sorry that I'm not going to spend as much as a couple, but is my custom any less valued? Clearly). And so I have rather come to enjoy lunching on my own, and by refusing to bury my head in a book or magazine, behaviour often exhibited by other solitary diners, I choose to use it as an excellent opportunity for people watching.

There are the business lunches where an awkward hesitation hovers over the wine list. Will the client imbibe or not? One can audibly hear a breath of relief exhaled by the hosting agency as the phrase “I think a little glass of wine might be in order” is uttered. The couple of gentlemen of a certain age who guffaw with added gusto to avoid any confusion as to their sexuality. “Not that there’s anything wrong with queer chaps you understand. Heavens, Cynthia was married to one once.”

The ‘yummy mummies’ whose attention is diverted to their wailing offspring and who only manage to half consume their by-now cold lasagne (“I need the carbs sweetie. I’m breastfeeding.”). And of course, no musing on lunchers would be complete without mentioning those legendary ladies-who-lunch. The mineral water sipping, Silk Cut Slim puffing, Chanel encrusted brigade are not just an urban myth. Fearful of not fitting into next season’s Manolos if their weight creeps over seven stone, they appear to exist on greens and the occasional prawn. Oh, and a glass of champagne on a Friday.

The couple whom have been married forever, for whom food is solely fuel and whose only conversation is “I hope that’s not salt Geoffrey, you know what Dr Hughes said.” The young couple who are caught in the heady whirlwind of fresh love and whom devour more of each other than their shared fruit de mer (she daren’t tell him that there is a risk that shellfish might make her eyes swell to the size of gobstoppers).

Yes, lunchtime offers a fascinating insight into human behaviour and relationships. And that's the positive spin I shall try to continue to put on my new life.

But of course, all dinner dates are very welcome.

Monday, August 07, 2006

A Restoring Recipe

Now that I am living alone and have a temporary 'home' (I have now lost all concept as to what that word actually means), I am trying to adapt to this strange new life. Gone are the lingering weekend mornings making bacon sandwiches for the man I love, conjuring up the occasional evening meal for us to share and being cocooned by familiar and loved surroundings. Instead I am renting someone's flat, using their crockery, putting my food in their fridge and eating my solitary salads in their garden. Cooking for one just does not have the same appeal at the moment.

In a period of change however, I have found one delightful and unexpected pleasure and a new outlet for my passion of cooking. La Cucina Caldesi cookery school.
I have assisted at two classes so far and love the sense of satisfaction that helping others to cook brings. Encouraging children who are timid about handling food to attack dough with gusto. Gently helping a grown man to delicately slice an onion. Explaining how to use a food processor and why one toasts spices and pine nuts to release their aroma and flavour. Preparing a tortellini filling of ricotta, sage and parmesan for the chef, collecting all the ingredients from the restaurant's kitchen and gently stroking the beguiling skin of a perfect aubergine in the process.

It is long hard work and I have never washed up so many pots, repeatedly, in my life and by the end of the day I am very tired. But in a glowing way, happy in the knowledge that I may have helped just one person to gain a little more confidence with food, have encouraged one person to try a new flavour and have met a variety of characters in the process. And I am learning a huge amount in the process and particularly about foods which I would not cook for myself (due to gluten and dairy being involved) such as pasta and bread.

Yesterday with the charming Ursula Ferrigno the class of eleven adults made pasta, bruschetta with caramelised red onion and young pecorino, baked stuffed courgettes, meatballs, goats cheese and grilled vegetable focaccine and a glorious hazelnut meringue gateau. Wonderful aromas, a mingling of like-minded strangers and a combination of beautiful Italian flavours. Now that's a recipe!

Oh and if your self-esteem has taken a bit of a knock, I heartily recommend running in and out of a kitchen full of young Italian chefs all day. Yes, yesterday was a good day!

(I forgot to ask Ursula or the school if I could post a recipe hence the absence of one. I shall remember however to do so this Friday at the childrens class).

Friday, July 14, 2006


The cupboards, the fridge and me. All empty.

The link between emotion and appetite is of a curious nature. Whilst some cannot contemplate sustenance in times of turmoil or ecstasy, for others these extremes stimulate their tastebuds and they crave their individual version of comfort food.

In a current state of uncertainty, hurt and confusion I find that I have rather lost my interest in eating, surviving on a peculiar diet of cherries, olives, tomato juice, almonds, wine and cigarettes (with the occasional salad thrown in for pure survival). I feel empty, devoid of substance from head to heart.

I have become an observer, rather than a partaker, a true reveler in food porn. The odd spot of cooking for family and friends, digesting my fellow blogers words, drinking in their recipes and pictures and forging plans for the occasional piece of work. I have not lost my passion for food, just my relish for eating, for stimulating my tastebuds as my senses have become subsumed with painful issues.

I can only hope that these issues are soon resolved, albeit for better or worse, that some peace is found, and with it my appetite. That I will, once again, be joyfully full. From heart to stomach.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Picnic Envy

Last Saturday I went to the annual Henley Food Bloggers Party and what a day it was. Perched on the banks of the Thames during the Henley Regatta in blistering sunshine, my fellow food bloggers and I witnessed something which I have seen a few times, but never to quite such a forceful degree - picnic envy.

From years of attending picnic concerts across London, I am accustomed to the sight of wonderful picnics, resplendent with starched linen, silver candlesticks, beautiful awnings and yet when one looks a little closer at these displays of luxury, the food is somewhat disappointing. How often these revellers resort to plates of smoked salmon, a bought quiche, acres of French bread and packs of kettle chips to dunk into their Waitrose dips.

No, true picnic envy is when the food, and not the pertaining paraphernalia is what arouses interest. We heard countless comments, my favourite being "wow, they've got real food" and were congratulated on our spread, much to my surprise. But our intention was not to elicit comment not to attract attention but to share our food with like-minded people who are passionate about good food. And blogging.

The delicious dishes included chicken with preserved lemons and coriander, a chickpea salad that glistened in the sunlight with its pomegranate dressing (these were by far and away my absolute favourites), picnic bread stuffed with goats cheese and peppers, homemade quiches, a plethora of salads, blueberry and almond cake (see previous blog for recipe) and the results of a Bakewell Bake-off between Xochitl and Andrew.

I made some new contacts that day, heard similar frustrations about wanting to 'get into' food and maybe friendships will be formed. And of course, tasted some fantastic food.

And I almost forgot. There was rowing. It was a Regatta after all.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Bish Bash Bosh Braai

Our much loved friend from South Africa has been intermittently staying with us and so we thought "what better excuse to have a party?" The work on our garden, already delayed by a week or so, was due to be completed that day and so an al fresco evening appeared to be a super June idea. The gardeners' (Bish, Bash and Bosh) perceptions of deadlines were rather at odds with ours however and so they were power washing the patio and hastily packing up (only to return again - twice) as the first guests arrived. M was wiping down chairs, J was frantically lighting the braai whilst I was hoovering up detruis from dust sheets.

"Glass of wine anyone?" Hell yes.

The mozzarella and tomato canapes were out, the chicken had been marinating all day, J's lamb burgers were good to go and I had a made a petit pois and cheese quiche and a blueberry cake to boot (J's favourite fruit so I couldn't resist), so let the eating commence!

Tomato, Honey and Mustard Madness (a marinade for 1kg of chicken pieces)
8 (yes 8!) tbsp tomato ketchup (only Heinz will do)
4 tbsp clear honey
2 tbsp worcestershire sauce
2 tbsp wholegrain mustard

Mix everything together, season to taste and pour over the chicken pieces. Roll the chicken around with abandon and leave to marinade for as long as you dare.

(I have never heard so many "hmmmms" of pleasure elicited from a marinade. J's dictum that ketchup is the secret ingredient in the recipe of happiness is once more proven to be true).

Petit Pois and Crumbly Cheese Tart (requires a 23cm round, 4cm deep flan dish)
Easy pastry;
8oz plain flour, sifted
4oz chilled unsalted butter, diced
1/2 tsp salt
1 medium egg, beaten

Filling; (and yes, it is!)
3oz petit pois, either fresh or defrosted frozen peas
6oz crumbly cheese (e.g. Lancashire or Wendsleydale)
200ml tub creme fraiche
2 medium eggs
100ml milk
bunch of chives, chopped plus two whole chive leaves

For the pastry;
Preheat the oven to 200C/gas 6. Tip the flour, butter and salt into a food processor and whiz briefly. Add the egg and blitz until small clumps form. Remove, form into a ball and wrap in clingfilm. Chill in the fridge for at least 30mins.
Roll the pastry out on a floured surface to fit the flan dish. Prick the base and chill for another 30mins.
Bake the pastry case blind for 15mins (i.e. pop some foil and baking beans/rice into the dish). Remove the foil and beans and bake for a further 5mins. Cool slightly and reduce the oven to 190C/gas 5.

Scatter the peas over the pastry case and crumble the cheese on top. Whisk together the eggs, creme fraiche, milk, chopped chives and season. Pour over the peas and cheese and top with the remainding two chives (or more if you're feeling artistic). Bake for 30-35mins until the filling has puffed up and has a golden brown colour.

Blueberry and Almond Cake
(requires an 18-20cm round, loose-bottomed cake tin, greased and lined for ease of removal)
150g blueberries
125g self-raising flour
200g unsalted butter, softened
200g golden caster sugar
4 medium eggs, separated
1tsp almond extract
125g ground almonds
golf-sized ball of marzipan

Preheat oven to 180C.gas 4. Rinse the blueberries, pat dry and dredge in 1tsp of the flour.
Cream the butter and 175g of the sugar until pale and fluffy. Beat in the egg yolks (as ever, alternating with a spoon of flour to avoid curdling) and the almond extract. Gently stir in the flour.
Whisk the egg whites until soft peaks form and then gradually whisk in the remainding 25g sugar. Stir in the ground almonds.
Use a metal spoon to fold in a quarter of the whisked mixture into the creamed mixture then fold in the rest. Break the marzipan up and roll into little balls. Drop into the cake mixture and gently fold in. Spoon into the cake tin and level the surface.
Scatter the floured blueberries over the top and bake in the oven for approx 1 hour or until a skewer inserted into the centre, emerges clean.
Leave to cool in the tin for 10 mins and then turn out.

Serve with cream and a smile.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Portobella Prawn Sandwich

It was hot, I had been walking all afternoon and I craved something meaty that I could eat with my hands and really get my teeth into. If I could eat bread and red meat, a toothsome burger in a pillowy white bap would push the button, however one quick trip to the shops later and I decided on this digestible alternative.

Portobella Prawn Sandwich
(serves one hungry lady)

zest and juice of 1/2 lemon
1dsp runny honey (I used lavender honey)
soy sauce (or tamari for avoiders of wheat)
3tbsp wholegrain mustard
2 large Portobella (field) mushrooms
200g tiger prawns (pre-cooked for extra speed)
1/2 hass avocado, sliced
salad leaves

Mix the lemon zest and juice with the honey, a generous shaking of soy sauce and the mustard. Season with black pepper to your liking and pour over the prawns and leave to marinate.
Meanwhile, get a griddle or grill very hot. Remove the stem from the mushrooms and brush both sides of the caps with a little sesame oil. Grill each side until cooked.
Remove the mushrooms and if using a griddle pan, briefly toss in the prawns to heat them through (or flash fry in a non-stick frying pan).
Put one mushroom on a plate, cap side down and fill with as many prawns as you can. Top with a couple of slices of avocado and some leaves. Top with the other mushroom and drizzle with any remainder dressing.

Accompany with any prawns that oozed out of the mushroom sandwich and some extra salad leaves to mop up the juices.

N.B. I had a few spears of asparagus that needed eating and so had griddled them along with the mushrooms and prawns. The dressing suprisingly really added to the char-grilled asparagus and I'll definitely dress it that way again. I do love it when one happens upon flavour combinations by accident.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Vegetable Indulgence

The past few weeks have been somewhat of a whirlwind - sister's wedding (thank goodness the cake J and I made was a moist success), followed by a quick jaunt over to Paris and then to the Charantes (bonjour maman et papa) and then back to London and a day at the gee-gees (or Royal Ascot to give it it's right and proper title). All of which is a protracted explanation for the recent dearth of blogging. And cooking.

The summer is J's busiest period with work and so I often have days and nights on my own whilst he is running shows, doing deals, glad-handing celebs etc. Although I adore cooking for others, for some reason I never seem to create anything exciting for just me. A couple of weeks away from my pans, pots and spatulas however have left me itching to don my apron, wield a knife and to get cracking. And the dishes of choice? J being out is the perfect excuse to resort to my natural veggie inclinations and to revel in the sumptuous sensations of aubergines, the zingy flavours of lemons and the climactic crunch of carrots (note to self - must get out more).

For me aubergines will forever conjure up images of exotic lands, air heavy with the smell of spices and the sun pricking at one's skin. Difficult to imagine when one is in the local greengrocer I grant you, but there is something of an indulgence about this fantastic vegetable. When roasted, its smoky character and silky texture make the aubergine an earthy pleasure.

So my Friday night of vegetable pleasure consisted of my version of moutabal (aubergine dip from the Lebanon) and a zingy carrot and courgette salad. Eaten with nothing other than chicory leaves, a glass of crisp white Burgundy and accompanied by the soothing tones of Jack Johnson.

CB's Moutabal
pinch of saffron stems
1 aubergine
1 clove of garlic in its skin
1 dsp light tahini
1 lemon
glug of olive oil

Infuse the saffron in a little hot water and leave whilst you prepare the aubergine.
Prick the skin of the aubergine to avoid any explosions and hold over a gas flame with tongs or put under a very hot grill, turning often until the skin is charred and the vegetable feels soft to the touch (about 25-30 minutes). This gives a wonderful, smoky flavour so don't be afraid to let it really char.
If using the grill, pop the clove of garlic under the grill at the same time and allow to soften.
Leave the aubergine to cool then strip the skin away and place the soft flesh into a blender. Squeeze the garlic from its skin into the blender and add the tahini, zest of the whole lemon and the juice of half of it along with a drizzle of oil. Add the saffron with its water, season and blitz until a smooth paste is formed. In the absence of a blender, mash everything with a fork.

The addition of saffron is not authentic by any means but I find it adds to the earthy character of the dish and also adds a certain jolly colour.

Carrot and Courgette Salad
1 courgette, grated
2 large carrots, peeled and grated
approx 50g pack of fresh peas
pine nuts (approx 2tbsp depending on how much you like them)
2 tsp cumin seeds
1 red chili, deseeded and finely chopped
2 tbsp sherry vinegar
1/2 - 1tsp orange blossom water
juice 1/2 lemon
bunch of mint leaves, chopped

Mix the courgette and carrots in a bowl. Briefly cook the peas in simmering water until just tender but retain a bite (approx 3-4 minutes). Drain, cool and add to the vegetables.
Toast the pine nuts and cumin seeds in a non-stick pan, taking care that they don't burn. Sprinkle over the carrot mixture.
Whisk the dressing ingredients together, season to taste and then pour over the salad.

Both recipes make enough for a starter or side dish for two to three people.

A simple, healthy and flavoursome meal perfect for a summer evening of self-indulgence. Talking of which, these are the cute green shoes that sang to me today so I just had to give them a new home. I like my shoes like I like my meals - green.

Monday, June 05, 2006

1st June 2005 - a right royal affair

I am fortunate enough to have experienced some incredibly memorable meals in my life. The night at Nobu when my virgin tastebuds exploded with their first tasting of blackened cod, where the wine chosen by my host just happened to be from the exact small parcel of Sancerre which I had helped to make the year before in the Loire.

My first oysters, perched up amongst the painted stars that twinkle over the seafood bar of Grand Central Station in New York. My first (and last) steamed snail in a tiny but exquisite Japanese restaurant in Paris. The spankingly fresh and perfectly cooked seafood in The Cod Father in Camps Bay (South Africa). The juiciest crayfish on a braai in Hermanus, cooked by J on our first lengthy holiday together.

However, somewhat bizarrely, one of the most memorable meals that I've ever been involved with is one which I did not eat. The one which precipitated a wee meltdown a year ago and prompted my decision to make a career, indeed life change.

As you can imagine, this was no ordinary evening. It had been in the offing for at least three years. A private, royal fundraising event and boy, were the stakes high and expectations were even higher. And the one individual who was ultimately responsible, who coaxed and cajoled trustees, elicited donations, was aiming for a further £1million and had to swallow the foul-mouthed screams of a royal aid...... was, of course, me.

1st June 2005 was one of the most peculiar nights of my life, and if you were to tempt me with a few glasses of something expensive and fizzy, a few details may escape, such as the septuagenariann millionaire who offered me job of a somewhat dubious and personal nature. Other elements however are far too sensitive to be blogged and I'm afraid that I'm not prepared to discover the fate of those who contravene the official secrets act, even for you, my dearest reader. However details I can divulge are....

The venue: Clarence House
The hosts: HRH The Prince of Wales and the future Duchess of Cornwall (Camilla to you and I)
The guests: donors who had given up to £1million and those with the ability to give in excess of £100,000
The aim: to raise another £1million to re-open a royal palace

For three years I had worked on guest lists, cultivated people to the point of eliciting donations, persuading Lords to access their contact networks and yet, unlike any other dinner party I have ever thrown, the food was the very last thing on my mind.

So what did the guests eventually eat? Unusually there were no canapes which which to soak up the flowing champagne. And trust me, a late royal party tends to heighten tensions and encourage the bubbles to flow. But the menu read as follows:

Steamed Norfolk asparagus in puff pastry with a poached egg and white truffle butter

Highgrove Home Farm Aberdeen angus beef rib with red wine jus, potato and leek gratin

Highgrove red fruit sorbet with blackcurrant bavarois and sablee biscuits

Sadly I cannot report how perfectly the asparagus was executed, how succulent the beef and how delicately the dessert was performed, as despite protestations from guests on the night, we, 'the hired help' were not encouraged to sit for dinner.

Ultimately the evening was a success. It raised a decent sum of money directly, indirectly a fairly substantial amount can be attributed to that night and because the Prince of Wales had gained confidence in the charity, the venue of his mother's 80th birthday party was decided that evening.

But perhaps more poignantly for me, I have realised that this was an evening which was to decide my future. I don't want to plan dinner parties where the food is an afterthought. I want to plan my evenings, indeed my life, around food, around times and occasions with friends which embrace partnerships, both gastronomic and personal. I want to be creative, to have the freedom to think, to be listened to, not to be shouted at. Oh, and to make the occasional fairy cake.

Maybe this fundraising lark was not for me. Life was, and still is, ready for a change.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Hooray, Hooray the 1st of May

J has a variety of friends from all walks of life - from his school days thirty odd years ago through to those that he has acquired more recently. And of course there is one friendship that is nearly two years old and which has blossomed into something else, but that's the subject of an entirely different and personal blog.

As with any group of people whom have known each other for years, J's friends have a number of rituals that mark the passing of each year. Lives change, partners come and go, children swell the numbers and yet the essential rites of passage remain the same. One such event is the annual Pimms Party which signifies the official start of Summer. Hence, whatever the date of said party, 'Hooray Hooray the 1st of May, outdoor sex beings today' is the huzzah of choice. (No, I don't really understand the whole thing either).

D and P were the generous hosts of this year's party and it was an opportunity to christen their new garden. Or it would have been had the heavens not decided to pour forth their scorn with a soaking of drizzle accompanied by a chilly wind. Not exactly garden party conditions. However, in true British spirit, that which singles us out as the only nation curious (and some would say mad) enough to picnic outdoors, come hell or high water, the party continued. In the kitchen. Where all parties end up gravitating regardless of where they commence. (Does this happen the world over or is that also a British trait?)

For me each season has a distinct taste and texture. Winter is the time for long, slow cooking that allows flavours to marry and to develop into rich and soothing casseroles with their soothing smoothness. The season for the deep, red fruit flavours of old vine Grenache and Syrah.

Spring is synonymous with the new season of fresh greens; asparagus, spring cabbage, onions, purple flowered broccoli and the welcome tart relief of forced rhubarb. And of course, Summer with its berries, bursting with colour that bleeds onto one's fingers and stains one's lips with their unctuous juices. With fresh crisp salads, silky goats cheese and the chilled grassy flavours of French Sauvignon Blanc.

But there is one combination of flavours, other than the obvious strawberries and cream, that typifies an English summer for me; that of gooseberries and elderflower. I only have to hear the very words and images of cricket whites and village greens fill my mind.

So the obvious contribution to the ultimate Pimms party had to be an elderflower and gooseberry sponge cake. I cannot recall from whence this recipe came as I found it amongst my treasure trove of 'must make' clippings, amassed over the past few years. However from the smeared plates and happy grins, I surmised that it hit the summery nail on the head.

Gooseberry and Elderflower Cake
225g unsalted butter, softened
200g golden caster sugar
4 medium eggs, beaten mixed with
4 tbsp elderflower cordial
225g self-raising flour

142ml pot double cream
2tbsp elderflower cordial
5tbsp gooseberry conserve
icing sugar

Preheat the oven to 180C/gas 4. Grease 2 x 20cm sandwich tins and line the bottoms with baking parchment.
Cream the butter and sugar. Add the egg and cordial mixture a little at a time with a spoonful or so of the flour (this prevents dreaded curdling). Stir in the rest of the flour and gently combine. The mixture should easily plop off the spoon when tapped - if necessary add a touch more cordial to soften.
Spoon equal amounts of the mixture into the cake tins and level. Put on the middle shelf of the oven and bake for 20-25 mins until the cakes are springy to the touch and have a beautiful golden hue. Allow the cakes to rest in the tins for five mins and then turn out onto wire racks. Peel of the baking paper when cool.

For the filling;
When ready to serve, whip the cream until it forms soft peaks (boyfriends come in very handy at this stage) and stir in the cordial. Spread the top of one cake with the gooseberry jam and then top with the cream. Sandwich the cakes together and then dust with icing sugar.

Note: if traveling with the cake, assemble it upon arrival - we learnt the hard way and oh my, is gooseberry jam slippery!

Oh and the outdoor sex? Not in 10 degrees centigrade with a howling gale. Nature's answer to birth control.

Friday, May 26, 2006

A Whiff of the Future

Whilst sitting at a desk in the offices of my client, pensively staring at the beautiful green domed roof of Smithfields market, fingers pressed together in a prayer position against my mouth, wondering how best to deal with an increasingly awkward situation, I breathed in deeply, hoping for calm. What I was to receive was the most delicate hint of garlic from my fingertips.

A smile played on my lips as the smell evoked a feeling of comfort, the pleasure of creating a dish the previous evening, of conjuring up a recipe, of cooking for the man I love after he'd battled through a weary and frustrating day. Of the important things in my life. My breathing slowed, my shoulders eased as the tension ebbed out of me and I remembered why I am working as a consultant - to give me time to work out if I can find a way into the world of food. Officially.

I sat up straight, thrust my glasses along the bridge of nose and resolved to redouble my efforts; not only with the task in hand that day, but also with my search for a new career.

If persevere, my food future will happen. I have to believe that.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Hake Days and Holidays

My return to the land of 'serious work' has, by choice, been on a part-time basis on the grounds that I could devote time and energy to working out how, indeed if, I can turn my passion for food and writing into something that could financially fill more of my life. Also it's a time to try different things out - an eight week stint in a chocolate shop was fun but I soon realised that life behind a counter is not for me. An evening food journalism course was exciting and has left me hungry for more. And yet I am still struggling to find my way.

Plus, of course, it is amazing how quickly those 'spare' two days are filled with house hunting, running errands and recently, traveling. So last Friday I was determined to do something food-related so headed to Borough Market for inspiration.

The market on Saturdays is now almost impossible to navigate unless visited at the crack of dawn due to the coach loads of gastro tourists, however Fridays are slightly less bustling with a strange but happy mixture of suits buying their lunch, serious shoppers seeking ingredients for the weekend and, of course, the ubiquitous film crews.

Mindful that we were having friends over for dinner on Saturday night to celebrate their engagement (yippee), I headed for the Morcombe Bay fish stall. I explained to the lovely fishmonger what I wanted to cook and he recommended Scottish hake, promptly disappeared into his walk-in fridge and emerged with a huge, glistening fish. A few deftly applied blows of a cleaver ensued and I was presented with two beautiful fillets with a silvery, pinkish skin that shimmered in the light. I was also offered the head which I declined to which it was plonked onto a waiting spike to either ward off or to entice my fellow shoppers. I couldn't quite decide which.

Last weekend in Vienna I ate a delicious salad of green and white asparagus with strawberries and a balsamic dressing, in which, unfortunately the ingredients swam. Seeing both kinds of the veg nestled side by side on a stall, I whisked them up and decided to replicate the dish as a starter at home. The greengrocer insisted that the Dutch white asparagus was not grown in banks and that is was 'just white' naturally - hmmm. My research begs to differ but who am I to argue with a chap in the know?

One jar of wonderful gooseberry and elderflower jam for an afternoon cake and a bunch of end of season of rhubarb and I was good to go. The makings of a three course meal were in my bags - let the cooking commence.

Roast Hake with Salsa Verde (serves 4)
leaves from a handful of flat-leaf parsley
leaves of a spring of mint
2 tbsp capers
3 anchovy fillets in olive oil, drained
2 cloves of garlic
2 large vine-ripened tomatoes, cut into eight slices
bunch thyme (the lemon variety is great if you can get it)
olive oil
white wine
2 fillets hake approx 500-600g each (salmon works equally well as does cod)

Heat oven to 220C/gas 7. To make the salsa verde roughly chop the first four ingredients with one of the garlic cloves and then give them a good pounding in a pestle and mortar with a good grinding of black pepper.
Line the base of a roasting tin with baking parchment and lay the tomato slices in four lines across the base of the tine. Slice the remaining garlic clove and scatter over the tomato along with most of the thyme sprigs (save one). Sprinkle over approx 1tbsp oil and a glug of wine - this prevents the fish from sticking and produces a wonderfully fragrant sauce.
Brush the skin-side of one hake fillet with oil and place, skin-down, on the tomatoes. Cover with the salsa then top with the other hake fillet, flesh side down. Rub a little oil into the skin, season and sprinkle with the leaves from the remaining thyme sprig.
Roast for 20-25 mins until cooked through. Cut the fish into slices and serve with the tomatoes and spoonfuls of the sauce.

J turned the asparagus into a delicious (and in my opinion far superior) version of that which we ate in Austria - simple, elegant and seasonal with a delicate dressing of balsamic and oil which complemented the sweetness of the strawberries whilst not overpowering the asparagus.

And the rhubarb?

Rhubarb and Orange Cake (from a Waitrose recipe card)
400g rhubarb, washed and cut into 2cm pieces
200g golden caster sugar
150g butter, softened
2 eggs, lightly beaten
75g self-raising flour, sifted
1/2tsp baking powder
100g ground almonds
grated zest of one orange plus 2tbsp juice
30g flaked almonds

Preheat oven to 190C/gas 5. Grease an eight inch springform round cake tin and line.
Place the rhubarb in a bowl and cover with 50g of the sugar and leave for a minimum of 30mins.
Cream the remaining sugar with the butter and incorporate the eggs and flour, a little of each at a time to avoid curdling. Fold in the ground almonds and baking powder and then stir in the orange zest and juice.
Add the rhubarb and its sugary juice to the cake mix and pour into the waiting cake tin. Sprinkle over the flaked almonds, put the tin on a baking tray and bake in the middle of the oven for 25mins.
Reduce the temperature to 180C/gas 4 and cook for another 20-25 minutes or until firm. Allow to cool in the tine for 10 mins.

We served with double cream which J so cruelly, but expertly, whipped.

Gosset non-vintage champagne and Porcupine Ridge sauvingon blanc tickled our palates and helped us to celebrate both a new engagement and a new friendship.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Lemon Fairies to the Rescue

The past few weeks have been something of a whirlwind in some ways, but also the creation of a mountain out of a molehill, the combined result of which has been a dirth of blogging. A weekend at home however has enabled me to breathe, relax and to create.

So far the spring has not only awoken nature but seems to have breathed life into my social life, which although is incredibly fun and interesting, is also at times exhausting. I have caught up on and cemented friendships, watched new ones develop and blossom and have spent time with family, both mine and J's. In the past month alone we have stayed in the Home Counties, Hamburg and France and ever occasion, every meeting of friends has conjured up a plethora of emotions.

I have let myself become crowded by what needn't be, but what has at times become, the 'serious' side of life; my consultancy business, the search for a house, the start of a new French class, tax returns (actually I think that anyone would find that one troubling at the best of times), the hunt for a specific outfit (how on earth can the thought of new shoes become stressful?!) and a recurrent bout of stomach problems. It sounds silly but I have not had the headspace (such a loathsome phrase and yet so accurate) to write, to relax, to cook.

Yet I am fortunate enough to have been reminded that life is too short to worry constantly and that a crowded mind can not be a creative one. And so this weekend I took a deep breath, had some fun and let the baking tins edge their way out of the cupboard.........

When asked which fancies he would like to munch on this week, J replied "fairy cakes" and so I was more than happy to oblige. Upon reflection I think that he would rather have demolished a chocolate cake or a sticky cherry confection, however J sensed that I would have more fun decorating and icing the little fairy sweeties. What a wonderful man he is. As my spirits felt lifted I decided to lighten the air with the aroma of lemons and so made these

Lemon Cupcakes (makes 12)
125 soft unsalted butter
125 caster sugar
125 self-raising sugar
2 eggs
1/2 tsp lemon extract (or limoncello - I'm determined to use it up!)
zest of one unwaxed lemon
1 - 1/2 tbsp milk

Preheat the oven to 200C and line a 12-bun tin with paper cases.
Cream the butter with the sugar and then add by stages, a spoon of sieved flour, a spoon of egg, flour, egg etc until the ingredients have combined (doing this gradually ensures against the dreaded curdling).
Add the lemon extract and the zest. Add a little milk as necessary for a flowing texture - so that it drops easily from the mixing spoon when tapped.
Spoon evenly into the paper cases.
Bake in the middle of the oven for up to 20 minutes or golden brown in colour and springy to the touch. Remove from the oven and transfer onto a wire rack as soon as they have cooled sufficiently to the touch.

Easy! Then have enormous fun decorating them with whatever silly fripperies you have to hand. I can never resist the urge to make baby pink, soft blue and white icing and to use a mixture of hundreds and thousands (J's favourite), crystallised violet sprinkles and sugar flowers.

Three Little Words

Words are possibly the most powerful of all ammunition in the human nelson. They have the power to raise spirits, to elevate expectations, to inspire love, to create a whirlwind of desire and yet conversely they also have the ability to prick one's bubbling joy, to wound, to harm and to instill deep sadness.

Extraordinarily the same words in the English language can create entirely different emotions when used in differing contexts. Within the space of two days, the words "I miss you" were uttered to me. The first was a sign of warmth, of a burgeoning friendship borne from a love, shared interest in and passion for food. I felt honoured and full of joy to be lucky enough to have been missed.

The second however made me feel wretched, deeply saddened, momentarily angry and ashamed. Ashamed that this wonderful person's deep love for me had caused them pain; that I had neglected them in what can I can only think is a strange bid for independence. And yet ultimately I feel incredibly fortunate to be so cherished.

And yet how interesting that three little words created such a maelstrom of emotions. I am left wondering if this is why I sometimes choose to express love and affection through cooking. Why I would rather bake a cake or cook a meal than risk my words being heard with a different meaning than which they were offered. Surely it is difficult to misinterpret the whipping up of a meringue; hard to be upset by the smell of a casserole as it develops in the oven; difficult to be angered by biting into one's favourite lemon cake?

The language of food. A dictionary with a limited subtext and one of which I am increasingly fond.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Cupboard Love

House hunting (an exercise which J and I are currently practicing daily) has proved to fuel an obsession of mine - other people's kitchens.

As a potential buyer one can only wistfully view cupboards from the outside and occasionally (oh heavenly joy) be permitted a snatched glimpse into the secret world of what lies within. I hold my breath as the fridge door clicks, the light leaps into action and one has to blink quickly to take in the sight of a half-empty bottle of Chablis, a pat of butter and if they are people worth purchasing from, a quality jar of marmalade (doubtless J might disagree on this point).

However my real fascination comes into play when we are fortunate enough to stay with friends and family. No matter how hard I try I simply cannot withhold the urge, indeed the compulsion, to poke into pantries, leaf through larders and to foray into fridges. Due to the fact that I naturally wake up earlier than most sensible adults, these gastronomic expeditions are habitually performed in the early hours as the sun is yawning and stretching its rays, and in silence, not wishing to disturb the slumber of my hosts.

And what fuels this weird obsession? I can only attribute it to a curiosity to unearth an insight into the characters whom are our friends and family. What hidden passions are concealed at the back of a shelf, behind the inevitable collection of tins, packets and jars of sauces? To what extent does the opinion of what substantiates a 'staple' vary from one household to another?

There was a time when I could lay a bet that the sole contents of my eldest sister and brother-in-law's fridge would be champagne, Miller lager, orange juice and margarine. One child later and number two well on the way, it is like opening the fridge door to another world - organic milk, organic veggies, freshly cooked meals for my nephew, salads - a transformation, not only of consumables but also of lifestyle.

And what are the staples of our little household? We are rarely without lemons, apples, goats milk, dark chocolate, apple and ginger tea, salad leaves, walnuts, parma ham, yogurts, ketchup, fresh pasta, brandy and wine. I will leave you to draw your own conclusions as to which of us eats which foodstuff and what (if anything) that reveals about our life.

Oh and one last thing. Please don't take offence at the thought of me having nosed in your cupboards. It may sound peculiar, but if I wasn't interested in you and didn't care about you then then your larder would remain untouched. Consider it a rather strange sign of affection, albeit a secret one.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Encourage - to inspire someone with the courage or confidence to do something

It must be a rare occasion when one can recognise a life-enhancing moment as it happens, and yet that is what I was fortunate enough to have experienced last week. A mind-broadening, horizon-widening conversation that I now must have the the courage to truly recognise as the inspirational occurrence that it was and to take action.

One evening last week, I spent a treasured hour and a half of my boyfriend's father's precious time. J (my boyfriend) is an intensely private person and so I have refrained from dipping my toe into his very deep waters, but I am moved to plunge into the depths that are the Hope family. Christopher Hope is a writer of such enormous talent that I feel honoured to have discussed writing with him and certainly that occasionally reads this nonsense blog.

Christopher (henceforth referred to as 'CH' to save my fingertips) lives near Carcassone but was in London briefly to meet his agent and publisher in the run up to the publication of his new novel, 'My Mother's Lovers'. He had a little time to spare and so we met up for what was an extraordinary evening, for me at least.
CH suffered my questions about how he writes a novel, from the discipline of physically writing to the frustrations and complete obsession with one's emerging piece. It is as if the characters in his novels are shifting sands that develop and move in relation to one another which CH relates to a game of chess. CH spends periods of time in his native South Africa in isolation, devoted to pouring out his emerging story from dusk 'til dark, to the extent that on his last trip, a relative expressed concerns that Christopher was having an affair. And in many ways he was. In essence he was in love, absorbed by the characters and the lives that he had created.
The latest book was three and a half years in the making and he has devoted the magnitude of that amount of head-space in two little words that barely fill a hundredth of the title page - "to Jasper". To his son.
And why was this conversation so powerful, so able to make me nervous and excited at the same time? Because it is the first time that such a talented writer has shared thoughts about their art and, more significantly, has given me encouragement. "Have courage" were CH's enduring words. Yes I am a hopeless novice but be brave. Broaden out. Read beyond your current parameters. Expand your mind. Take encouragement from every quarter and have the courage to allow your mind to create. And the last step - to allow your fingertips to pour the creation out onto the page.
I was, indeed am, excited but also incredibly nervous. Only I can make the effort to learn, to change, to improve. Will I have the courage to bare my soul in the way that writers like CH do, to open myself up to the opinions and criticism of others? Will I ever be able to find any talent and then a vehicle to use it? Only time will tell. Just don't expect too much now that I have shared my fears with you.