Discovering Ottolenghi: Lentil and Sour Cherry Salad

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Isn’t it funny how some food trend crops up all over the media, just at the same time that you ‘discover’ it for yourself? You’re left wondering if you did find it on your own, or if the media planted the idea in your head so cleverly that you didn’t even notice them doing it. Just like in fashion, there are trend spotters in the food industry predicting the next year’s big fads, like gourmet popsicles (they’re the new cupcakes, don’t you know?), or liquorice in savoury dishes, or bacon and chocolate. It’s unsettling- are there any original ideas out there, or are we all just puppets in a giant marketing machine?

For example, I’ve recently become enamoured of Yottam Ottolenghi, the Israeli-born, London-based chef who seems to have a magical touch with simple, fresh salads and ordinary vegetables, treating them in such a way that any meat-eater couldn’t help but look twice. Here’s how it happened: a friend of mine made one of his recipes for a dinner party and told me about it, and his name being hard to forget, I found myself drawn to his eponymous cookbook Ottolenghi: The Cookbook a few weeks later. It was calling to me, saying ‘take me home with you!’ in that way that only a cookbook can.

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I spent a few days drooling over recipes like Grilled mackerel with green olive, celery, and raisin chutney. I made his Chargrilled asparagus, courgettes, and manouri salad for a barbecue (to rave reviews from my friends), as well as my own version of his Fennel and feta with pomegranate seeds and sumac. And then I realised his name is everywhere. He’s all over the Guardian with his ‘new vegetarian’ recipes, his new book Plenty is getting great reviews, and I’ve since seen his name in food blogs like Matt Bites, David Lebovitz, and Design Sponge. So, uh, I guess I wasn’t the first one to notice him. Hell, I’ve only just got his first book!

Never mind, I don’t really care if I’m the last one to get there, I’m just glad I did. This food is so good, that even my ‘where’s the meat?’ boyfriend can’t help finishing off the last morsels in the bowl. Here’s one that went down particularly well.

Puy lentil and Sour Cherry Salad
adapted from Yottam Ottolenghi’s Ottolenghi: The Cookbook
Serves 4 as a side, or 2 as a main meal

200 g/ 1 cup puy lentils (uncooked)
2T olive oil
3-4 shallots, sliced
75 g/ 1/2 cup dried sour cherries
3T red wine vinegar
1t sugar
3T water
4 slices of prociutto
75 g/ 1/2 cup stilton, gorgonzola, or other crumbly blue cheese
3 large handfuls of fresh spinach, roughly chopped
salt and pepper to taste


Start by picking any stones out of the lentils, then cover with water and bring to a boil. Simmer for about 20 minutes until cooked, and drain.

Meanwhile, sautee the shallots in the olive oil until soft and translucent, then add the cherries, vinegar, sugar, and water, and let simmer for a few minutes to soften. Once the lentils are done, add them to the cherry mixture and set aside to cool.

Fry your prociutto in a little olive oil until crispy, then drain on paper towels.

Once everything is cool, crumble the prociutto and blue cheese into the lentil mixture, and mix in the spinach. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Sweet and Earthy Beetroot Soup

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Beets taste like sweet dirt, and I mean that as the highest compliment. Mmm…dirt. No, I haven’t developed a case of pica. I just love the beet’s incredible sugary earthiness, and how you know you’re eating something that used to be in the ground when you take a bite. They’re like geodes, innocuous rocks in the earth that when cracked open reveal a hidden treasure that you are the first to witness. And they’re more than just a pretty face: beets are grown for the production of sugar and vodka, and are also used as a de-icing product as well as cattle feed. In the UK, there are plans to use surplus sugar beets as biofuel. Their cultivation stretches back thousands of years.

As a kid, my limited experience with beets came in the form of the pickled slices from a can that you could find in only the finest all-you-can-eat buffet restaurants the suburbs had to offer. They were flavorless discs of slightly vinegar-y matter—not exactly the kind of thing that would set your heart aflame. You may remember that in previous posts I’ve talked about my great-grandmother Nettie and the wonderful culinary legacy she left behind. In direct contrast, my own grandmother Lois was (and still is, but I am safe in writing this because she doesn’t trust computers) a notoriously bad cook. Among the culinary horrors to be had at Lois’s were chalky, dry livers that had been cooked to within an inch of their lives, canned okra packed in slime, and canned pickled beets. You can forgive me for not knowing from an early age what these little gems really had to offer.

beetroot-soup-2 The realization came to me slowly, over a series of kitchen experiments involving the attempt during my high school days to dye a friend’s hair pink using pureed beets (it didn’t work,) and later branching out into attempts to actually eat the fresh stuff, greens and all. I eventually discovered such pleasures as beet and wild rice salad with fresh parsley and lemon vinaigrette, beet greens simmered in garlic, white wine, and butter, and the most magical classic combination of all: beets and goat’s cheese. From then on, I was hooked on sweet dirt.

There are a few particularly tasty-looking beet-based recipes in blog-land right now, including this beet and greens salad with goat cheese and balsamic vinaigrette from Three Many Cooks, and these raw vegan beet ravioli stacks with cashew ricotta from Cake Walk.

When I first moved to England I quickly fell in love with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (he is a major threat to my future marriage.) On one of his River Cottage programs, he made a chilled beetroot (as it is commonly called here) soup that has become a standard in my repertoire. I serve it hot in the winter and chilled in the summer, and have convinced my entire in-law family of beet-haters that these scarlet roots are actually a wonderful thing, just on the basis of this soup.


Beetroot Soup
adapted from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recipe

For the tomato sauce:
8-10 fresh tomatoes sliced in half, or enough to fit snugly in one layer in the bottom of your baking dish
2 cloves of garlic
olive oil
salt and pepper

For the soup:
1 large white onion, roughly chopped
6 medium sized beets, peeled and chopped
1 litre/ 4 cups beef stock
Salt and pepper

First, make the tomato sauce. Cut the tomatoes in half and arrange skin side down in a single layer in a baking dish. Finely chop the garlic and sprinkle over the tomatoes, and add a good healthy glug of olive oil and plenty of salt and pepper. Put in the oven on a low heat—150C/300F for about 45 minutes, until the tomatoes are soft and turning a little brown at the edges. Dump the whole contents of the dish into the blender and puree, then pass through a sieve to strain out the chunky bits.

To make the soup, sweat the onion and beets for a few minutes in olive oil and then add the beef stock. Let it come to a boil and then simmer, covered,  for about 20 minutes, until the beets are cooked through. Add the tomato sauce and then put everything back in the blender (or use a stick blender if you prefer) to make a smooth soup. You can add a little water at this stage if the consistency is too thick. Add salt and pepper to taste, and top with crumbled goat or feta cheese to serve.

What’s for elevenses? Nettie’s Date and Walnut Cake

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When I was growing up, I believed there were only three meals in a day, not counting the steady stream of potato chips, cheese, crackers, popcorn, and pretzels I consumed between the time I got home from school and the time our meatloaf, instant mashed potatoes, and canned lima beans were ready for dinner. Clearly, I was in need of enlightenment.

Here is something my great-grandmother knew (or at least, I’m guessing she knew): there are really five meals in a day, and no snacks. If I were a hobbit, I’d tell you there are at least seven- but let’s not get carried away, ok?

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The two meals missing from my childhood eating patterns are alive and well here in England: elevenses, which one eats around eleven AM, and tea, which one eats around four PM. Tea (the drink) is mandatory for either occasion. What should you eat for elevenses or tea? Think of chintz and lace doilies and grandmothers overfeeding you, and the sorts of treats such ladies (if they exist) might have stashed around the kitchen for just such an occasion as your arrival. Scones. Biscuits (as in, cookies). Breads and cakes laced with dried fruit and nuts. Muffins. Something sweet and a little naughty, but not so sweet as to qualify as indulgent.

In my office in London, there’s a virtual rush hour on the tea kettle at eleven and four, when practically the whole company lines up to top up their mugs. Pleasant chit chat springs up amongst the congestion, and since there’s usually some kind of baked good hanging around by the kettle, you hear lots of mumblings of ‘ooh- don’t mind if I do',’ and ‘go on then, just a little slice.’

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It’s a brilliant system: eat three square meals, two small treats, and no snacks a day. A hobbit would feel deprived, but I think it’s genius.

In the name of bringing more cozy treats into my life, I’ve been on the lookout for some good recipes, like this Chocolate Babka from Trissalicious, or Almost Bourdain’s Poppyseed and Walnut Potica with Coffee Glaze. Then I decided it might be fun to ask you all to send me your best elevenses recipes, and I’ll post them with your links in a roundup on June 11th. So! Email me by June 10th at stephanie (at) buttermilkpartycake (dot) com with your link and a photo of your favorite not-too-sweet treat (no larger than 700 pixels wide please,) and then we can have a little elevenses party on the 11th.

To tide you over in the meantime, here is a good one from my great-grandmother Nettie herself:

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Nettie’s Date and Walnut Cake

10-12 dried dates, pits removed, roughly chopped

1 1/2 cups boiling water

2 t baking soda

1T unsalted butter

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 egg

1/2 t salt

1 t vanilla extract

2 3/4 cups plain flour

1 cup chopped walnuts

Combine the dates, water, and baking soda in a bowl and set aside until the mixture cools. In the meantime, whisk the butter, sugar, and egg together until pale and fluffy. Mix in the water and date mixture, and then add the flour, salt, vanilla, and walnuts and mix until combined. Nettie tells us to pour the batter into two bread tins, but I don’t have any so I put mine in a springform cake tin (greased.) Bake at 160C/ 300F for 50 minutes, or until a skewer in the center comes out clean. Make a cup of tea, and have the neighborhood ladies around for elevenses.

Risotto Arancini

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I have a confession to make: I knew nothing about arancini when I fried up a batch the other day and took these photos. All I knew was that I had some leftover risotto—not enough to even make a decent lunch for the next day—and I didn’t want to throw it away. I discovered that I also had a little bit of flour, an egg, and some breadcrumbs, so I thought what the hell? and played around with rolling rice into gloopy balls, dipping it in the flour, egg, and breadcrumbs in that order, and then chasing Steve around the house with my breadcrumb elephant-man hands.

leek-and-pancetta-arancini-2-web After calming down and frying the balls in shallow oil, we made short work of scarfing down the lot, breaking into the crisp outer shell to find oozing rice inside studded with pancetta and leeks, like some kind of savory Cadbury’s Creme Egg. Washed down with a glass of homebrew, the arancini made a perfect lazy weekend afternoon snack, and seemed like a completely different creature from the original risotto we had eaten the night before.

 

Then today I did a little reading and found out that they are something of a cult dish in their native Sicily. leek-and-pancetta-arancini-3-webEven Inspector Salvo Montalbano from Andrea Camilleri’s famous detective novels—a fictional foodie I’d take recommendations from any day—goes to great lengths to get his hands on a homemade batch. Every household does them slightly differently, but the main components are risotto, mozarella, peas, ragu (and I don’t mean the stuff from a jar,) flour, eggs, and breadcrumbs. The idea is to bury a few chunks of cheese, peas, and some ragu in the center of the sphere of rice, using as little risotto as possible but enough to keep the secret contents from escaping. Then coat the little devils in flour, egg, and breadcrumbs, and fry in hot oil until crisp and golden.

Well! That sounds like it would put my batch to shame…I’m already looking forward to more leftovers…

The patron saint of pastry

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My contact with saints has been limited. There was one time when I was sixteen and visited the Chapel of the Miraculous Medal in Paris with a group of 30 or so American High School exchange students in the last few days before we were sent off to meet the families we would live with for the summer. We all lined up to see Saint Catherine Labouré’s ‘incorrupt’ body (though she was missing her real hands, which seems a little corrupt to me,) and then left the site with shiny medals in our pockets for protection. I was hoping for protection from ending up with a mean family, and from the possibility of returning to the States at the end of the summer without having ordered any alcoholic drinks in public while chatting up at least a few good-looking French boys. But that’s about it.

I am not Catholic, but I have always been a little intrigued by the concept of saints and the minute details of daily life to which they are assigned. For example, why do charcoal-burners need special protection? I understand that skiers might need a little divine intervention every now and again, but what do librarians get up to that’s so risky? Bakers and pastry chefs can look to Saint Honorius of Aimens, and considering all that can go wrong with pastry, I suppose they can use the help. It seems that bakers are grateful for Honorius’s services—they’ve even named a classic French cake after him, the Gateau St. Honoré.

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The Gateau St. Honoré is a beast of a construction, involving a cake-shaped wall of choux pastry balls filled with a set whipped cream and glacé cherries. Sometimes it’s even called ‘ball cake,’ but if you ask me, Gateau St. Honoré sounds distinctly more appetizing. Using that much choux pastry as an integral part of the structure of a cake seems dangerous—that stuff is supposed to be really hard to make. I mean, I’ve heard that you’ve got to check the temperature of the air and the humidity, and really know your oven, and do a little choux pastry dance around the kitchen just to make sure it turns out all right. You’ve got to beg, well, I suppose Saint Honoré himself, don’t you?

Let me let you in on a little secret. Come closer, I don’t want anyone to overhear or else our friend Honoré is going to be out of work in no time. Choux pastry is really very easy to make. Seriously. I can hardly get my fiancée to boil an egg (‘But sweetie, you’re so much better at it,’ he says. Well…if you put it that way…,) but mention profiteroles and he’s in the kitchen at the speed of light, beating the hell out of some choux pastry before you can even say ‘miracle,’ never mind pray for one. And his cream puffs turn out perfect every time—no matter what oven he uses, his elevation above sea level, how many pre-party beers he’s had, nothing.

He hasn’t tackled the full Gateau yet, but really there’s no need. Show up to a party with a box full of cream-filled, chocolate-covered choux puffs, and eyebrows will raise. How impressive, what hard work, so elegant! But we know the truth, and so does Saint Honoré.

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Profiteroles

Choux pastry recipe from The Complete Cook

50 g unsalted butter

150 ml water

65 g plain flour

2 beaten eggs

250 ml whipping cream

100 g dark chocolate

Melt the butter in a saucepan, then add the water and bring to a boil. Take it off the heat and dump the whole lot of flour in, beating it in like your life depends on it. Once the flour is incorporated, let it cool a little and then add the eggs a little at a time, beating the mixture thoroughly as you go. It’s a bit of a workout, but worth it. Once the mix is smooth, put it in a piping bag or sandwich bag with the corner cut out, and pipe little walnut-sized dollops onto a baking tray lined with dampened parchment. If you wet your finger it won’t stick to the dough, and you can tamp down any little points that poke up off the tops of your choux lumps.

Bake in 200C oven for about 30 minutes. Do not open the oven during this time, because the pastry uses steam to puff up, and you don’t want to let it out before it’s done its job. Once they are all puffy and golden brown, take them out of the oven and slice them in half horizontally before they cool. You want to do this pretty quickly or else the steam inside will make the puff go soft again.

Whip your cream to stiff peaks. You can add sugar or booze if you like, but we usually eat ours plain. Fill the inside of each puff ball with plenty of cream and top it with the other half of pastry just like a sandwich. Melt the chocolate in a heat-proof bowl set over a pan of boiling water, then drizzle over each cream puff. I usually refrigerate mine for a few minutes to let the chocolate set, and then get to eatin’.

A reunion of chili and chocolate



Chili and chocolate may seem like an odd combination, but the two ingredients are old friends. They began their partnership way back when the Aztecs used pepper, chili, vanilla, annato, and honey to flavor the drink that they made from pounding roasted cocoa beans in a mortar and mixing the resulting pulp with water.

Chocolate has come a long way since then, seducing people all over the world with its endorphin-releasing charisma. We associate it with love, guilty peasures, and comfort. It makes addicts out of us. Why not take that addictive quality into overdrive by celebrating chocolate's Aztec roots and adding a little touch of heat to the mix?



Yesterday, for my friend Dr. Vinnie's birthday, I made a couple of batches of dense, moist brownies using the basic recipe from the Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook. But to make sure no one forgot what they ate, I added a hit of chili: not enough to blow anyone's head off (it's still dessert, after all,) but enough to leave a little reminder in the back of people's throats.

They went down incredibly well (if I do say so myself,) and the suprise of the chili kept people talking about the brownies for the rest of the night.



Chocolate Chili Brownies
adapted from the Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook

200 g dark chocolate
175 g butter
325 g sugar
130 g plain flour
3 eggs
1/2 T dried ground red chili
1/2 T finely chopped fresh red chili

Melt the chocolate and butter in a heat-proof bowl set over a saucepan with a little boiling water in the bottom. Once it is all melted and smooth, take off the heat and mix in the sugar and flour until completely combined, then add the eggs and chili and mix again. Pour the mix into a greased rectangular cake tin, and bake at 170C/ 325F for about 30 minutes, or until cooked but still soft in the middle. Let them cool before you cut into squares, if you can wait that long.


Consider the humble lemon...



A few posts ago I mentioned lemons among the staples in my kitchen that I rely on every day. When I’m improvising a weekday dinner, I often get to a point when I know my dish needs a little something, but I’m just not sure what. Enter the lemon. A quick squeeze or a little rasp of zest usually does the trick, and lifts an already OK pasta/ soup/ salad into something more than the sum of its parts. It’s like the high note in a musical chord. Or a really excellent backup dancer that supports the performance of the main act. Lemon plays an important role in so many dishes—but one that is easily overlooked.

So today, I thought we could celebrate this little workhorse with a few amusing lemony facts (which I learned from the worldwidegourmet.com), and then some cake.
-The lemon originated in the Middle East, and around the end of the 12th century began its travels around the world as a treatment to ward of scurvy among sailors on long sea voyages.
-The use of lemons on warships and cargo vessels was required by English law, and became so associated with this use that people began to refer to English ships as ‘limejuicers’ and to English sailors as ‘limeys’
-Catalan priests once declared that lemons were the fruit of the devil, as evidenced by their distinctly not-perfectly-round shape, in contrast to the more worthy, very round orange. Therefore (and this is my favourite fact,) the priests excommunicated the poor lemon.
-However, it didn’t always get such bad press—Cassanova believed lemons were a powerful aphrodisiac. And he should know.

And now, for the cake. I’ve mentioned this one before as the inspiration behind my orange and almond scones, but this time we’re ditching the holier-than-thou orange for the bad-boy lemon. This recipe is Nigella Lawson’s, and is great for entertaining non-gluten-eating guests.



Flourless Lemon Cake

3 large lemons
250 g ground almonds
6 eggs
A pinch of salt
250 g sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder

Cover the lemons with water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down and simmer for 2 hours. I recommend putting a lid on the pan, because if you’re anything like me you’ll forget the lemons are on the stove, water evaporating away, and 2 hours later you’ll come back to find their dried and possibly charred remains.
Once the lemons have cooked, drain the water off and leave them to cool. When they are at room temperature, cut them open and look for any seeds that might be lurking within, and get rid of those.
Then take all of your ingredients in a food processor and whiz together to form the batter. The lemons go in skin, pith, flesh, and all.
Dump the mix into a lined springform cake pan, and bake at 190C for about 45 minutes, or until cooked in the middle. If it is getting dark on top you can cover it with foil while it finishes baking.

Eat well, consume less: top tips for economizing in the kitchen

I’ve admitted it before: I’m cheap, and I’m ok with that. I happily spend hours scouring comparison websites for the best prices on my staple groceries. When there’s ‘nothing to eat in the house’ I challenge myself to make it through one or two more days without buying any new ingredients. It fills me with pain to throw away uneaten food, even dry crusts of bread or the last wilted spring onion from a bunch that I used when they were fresh the week before. This could be for a variety of reasons- a sign of our troubled economic times, a legacy from my depression-era grandmother, a practical necessity when living in a city as expensive as London, a political statement about reducing waste. These are all reasonable explanations for my stinginess and each of them are in part true. But there is another side to it…I actually enjoy economizing. I find it strangely satisfying to maneuver the resources in my life to cover my needs without exceeding them. It makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something important, even when all I’ve done is feed myself and my friends a humble bowl of stew.

Here are my top tips for making the most of the food that you buy:

-Always keep certain staples in the house which allow you to turn scraps and half-ingredients into nice meals. My staples are: canned beans, cubed pancetta, chorizo, anchovies, sardines, lemons, cans of chopped tomatoes, eggs, olives, capers, stock cubes, and a wide variety of carbohydrates like potatoes, rice, risotto rice, pasta, cous cous, barley, and bread flour. When I’ve run out of all of the above, I know it’s really time to go shopping.

-Use mysupermarket.co.uk or a local comparison website for your staples, which prompts you to make the most of in-store promotions, and to move your virtual shopping cart to the store that charges the least.

-Buy ingredients that you can make several different meals from. You can afford to spend £7 on a single free range chicken if you consider that this will provide four separate meals for a household of two (or two separate meals for a household of four- you get what I’m saying.) Meat is an area of your kitchen where this works really well- you plan the primary meal, for example roast chicken, and then there are several offshoots, like chicken and herb risotto, or chicken and caper pasta, which you can make with the leftovers. Then you use the bones to make stock, which you can freeze in ziplock bags until you need it.

- Use your freezer liberally. I do a massive shop online once a month and have it delivered to my house (we don’t have a car,) then all of the meat (with the exception of what I plan to use in the next two days) goes straight into the freezer. That way unplanned nights out don’t lead to ‘erm, do you think this shrimp is still ok?’ type conversations.

- Understand what single portion size is, and only use that much per person, unless you want leftovers for an offshoot meal—especially when it comes to expensive ingredients like fish and meat. Feeding a lumberjack? Ramp up the cheap ingredients like rice or pasta, but stick to the normal portion of meat. A serving of meat or fish should be about the size of your fist if it's being incorporated into a stew or something else with plenty of other ingredients. If the meat is the main feature on the plate, you'll probably want about 50% more than that. I generally find that 50g of rice per person works in my house, and I do actually weigh it out so that I don’t overdo it. We eat more pasta though, so I usually measure out 75g per person. Look on the package labels, weigh it out, and then adjust according to your needs. Once you get a few numbers in your head that work for you, you won’t have to think about it so much.

-When you see luxuries available for a big discount, pounce! There is a beautiful bordeaux that my local supermarket carries, which is usually out of my price range. But occasionally they run a half-price sale, and when they do, I buy a case. It stings the wallet a little, but then I’ve got my lovely wine sorted for weeks and I don’t fritter away £5 here and there for inferior bottles on impulse.

-Make it yourself. Like beer? Learn to brew. Like bread? Make your own. Mayo? No problem. The more versatile you are on the basics, the less you have to shop for factory-made versions. Learn to joint a chicken. Better yet, learn to do your own butchery, or make cheese. The possibilities are endless.

There are so many ways to eat well while consuming less- do you have any additional tips to share?

Borough Market Jackpot



I hit the jackpot with seafood last Saturday. After a completely unsuccessful dress shopping trip to Oxford Street, braving rain and wind and hideous crowds, my friend Gwynedd and I decided to stop at Borough Market near London Bridge for a drink and some nibbles before heading back home. This is by far my favorite market in London- in fact, it's one of my favorite places in London, period. I love to wake up early on a Saturday morning, shuffle down to London Bridge half asleep, then spend the morning eating a roving brunch from the market stalls of comte cheese samples, and raw oysters sold one by one, and rare breed bacon sandwiches. It's a wonderful thing.

By the time Gwyn and I got there, the market itself was already shutting down for the day, but it didn't matter because we were making a beeline for the excellent Brindisa Tapas, which is right next to the market and is connected to the same company's shop which sells Spanish cured meats and other specialties. As we worked our way through the disbanded stalls, trying to avoid getting run over by vendors who were clearly ready to stop work for the day, we passed a seafood stall that hadn't completely broken down yet.



'Everything 50% off!' the fishmongers were shouting. And bizarrely, no one within earshot seemed to care. In the spirit of economizing, I immediately made my interest clear to the guys behind the counter, and within seconds they talked me into taking ALL of their remaining fresh sardines and hand-dived scallops away with me. It was easily £50-worth of seafood, which they gave us for £20. Gwyn and I split the cost and the loot, and still had enough each to entertain about 8 people for the evening.

I turned to the Moro Cookbook for ideas, and adapted this recipe from theirs for grilled sardines.

Pan-fried Sardines with Orange Parsley Sauce

Sauce:
3T olive oil
1.5T lemon juice
zest of one orange
one clove of garlic chopped fine
3T parsley chopped fine
salt and pepper

Mix all of the sauce ingredients together. Season the raw sardines with salt and pepper and then fry in shallow oil for 2-3 minutes on each side. Be sure to get your pan really hot before you add the fish, or they will stick to the bottom. Drizzle the sauce over the sardines and serve. Easy!

And next time...I'll tell you about the scallops!

Name that Potato



Usually when I'm buying potatoes, I don't think beyond the two most basic categories of 'waxy' for putting in salads or 'floury' for mashing or roasting. I'm not unique- a careful inspection of the choices available in your average supermarket will show that stores, and therefore consumers, see potatoes as potatoes. Or should I say consumers and therefore stores? Who knows? The point is, we don't seem to be very in touch with the amazing vareties of potatoes that nature has to offer.

I've decided to start paying more attention to the proper names of my vegetables. As InnBrooklyn points out, if we as consumers can name and ask for specific varieties, we can create the demand for them. I for one, would love to find the same kind of interest in varietal species in my local everyday supermarket as I would in the specialist farmer's markets and farm shops.

For most of the year in the UK, people only see shades of waxy and floury, but when spring hits, everyone really starts to go nuts about Jersey Royals. The mere mention of the name elicits lots of 'ooh's and 'mmm's from just about every English person I know, with good reason- they really are delicious. They're full of flavor, and would be perfectly dressed with just a little butter, salt and pepper. It seems kind of obvious to describe a potato as 'earthy' tasting, but I think these are more so than your average spud.

Somehow I doubt anyone wants to read a post in which I describe how to put butter on potatoes, so I decided to jazz mine up in a salad with a little north-African harissa. Addictive stuff.



Warm Jersey Royal Salad with Harissa Dressing

500 g jersey royals
3 medium tomatoes, cut into wedges
1T lemon juice
2T olive oil
salt, pepper
roughly chopped parsley
1/2T harissa paste

Scrub the flakey exterior of the potatoes but do not peel them. Cover with water and boil for about 15 minutes or until just cooked in the middle. Drain and set aside to cool a little while you prepare the rest of the salad.
Combine lemon juice, olive oil, and harissa in a bowl, then add tomatoes, warm potatoes, parsley, and plenty of salt and pepper. Toss to coat all of the vegetables in the dressing and serve.

Kitchen Basics: Two everyday bread recipes



There is something incredibly satisfying about making your own bread. Bread is one of those things that we take for granted, because it's such an everyday item that holds a permanent place on our supermarket 'to get' lists. But it's not hard to make yourself, and if you have a couple of good basic recipes in your repertoire, you'll never have to go without the absolute freshest, most wholesome bread available.

There are two recipes that I use all the time, so often that I don't even have to think about what goes into them anymore. The first is a basic white yeast loaf that I make every weekend, and sometimes during the week too if I'm in for the evening. I don't even remember where the recipe came from- I think I have just made so many different versions that I have finally settled on my own method that works for me. It doesn't take much effort, just 3 hours or so of your time- which if you're vegetating in front of the TV after a long day at work isn't too much to ask.

The second recipe is for Irish Soda Bread, which doesn't use any yeast and therefore doesn't need any time to rise before baking. The result is a crusty, dense loaf that is great with soups and hearty stews. It is something you can decide to make at the last minute, and still have fresh-from-the-oven bread by the time you finish cooking the rest of your meal. I use a recipe from James Martin, which I especially like because of the self-raising flour, which creates a lighter bread than some other recipes I've tried. However, it isn't traditional to use self-raising flour, but soft (or pastry) flour instead.



Basic White Loaf

400g strong white bread flour
1/2t salt
10g yeast
300ml warm water
1t sugar
3T olive oil

I use the bread hook on my mixer to do the kneading, but you could also do it by hand. Start by mixing the flour and salt in a big bowl (the mixer bowl if you're doing it that way). Separately, dissolve the sugar and yeast into the warm water, and add the oil. Pour the wet mixture into the flour, either into a well you've made in the flour if doing it by hand, or if you're using a mixer you can just dump the whole wet mix in with the speed on low. Mix until everything is well incorporated and a dough starts to form. At this stage you need to use your instincts a little to decide if the dough is looking too wet or too dry. You want it to be smooth and silky and elastic, not sticky. So if you touch it and dough gets stuck all over your hand, it's too wet. Add a little more flour if it's too wet or add water if it's so dry that it isn't holding together. Once you've got your consistency just right, you can either turn up the speed on the bread machine and let it run for about 10 minutes, or you can give yourself a workout by kneading by hand for 10 minutes.
Put the dough in a lightly oiled bowl and cover with a tea towel, and stash it in a warmish place in your kitchen for two hours while it rises.
After the two hours is up, punch it down and knead a few more times. Now put it in the vessel you plan to bake it in: I use an uncovered dutch oven, but you could also put it on a floured baking tray, or into a floured loaf tin.
Let it rise for another 30 minutes while you heat your oven up. The oven should be hot- 220C/ 425F. Bake for about 30 minutes or untl the bread makes a nice hollow sound when you thump it. I try to let mine rest on the counter for about 10 minutes or so, but Steve has no self control and usually tears right into it.



Irish Soda Bread
adapted from a recipe by James Martin

170g whole wheat flour
170g self-rising flour
1/2t baking soda
1/2t salt
250ml buttermilk, or plain milk with a tablespoon of vinegar mixed in.

Combine your dry ingredients in a bowl, and then make a well in the flour and pour in the milk. I hold a little milk back, just to be sure that the dough needs it before I put the whole amount in. Mix together with your hands until it all comes together into a dough. As above, decide if it's too dry (won't hold together) or to wet (sticks to your hands), and add milk or flour accordingly. Knead the bread on a floured surface a few times, but it doesn't need much of this. Form it into a round, flat-ish shape on a floured baking tray, then cut a cross into the top of the dough to give it room to expand. Bake for 25 minutes at 200C/400F.

Orange and Almond Scones



I have been observing a supernatural occurrence in my life: oranges seem to multiply around me. I start off with two in the fruit bowl, which I’m sure I’ll get around to eating one of these days, and then look back a week later to find six instead. I throw away the first two, which are looking pretty pathetic by now, and think ‘I must start eating those oranges’. The following week there are eight. I go on a rampage some Sunday mornings, juicing the entire crop that is now threatening to squeeze all of the other poor fruits out of the bowl. That’ll show’em. But they begin again the next week, popping up like funghi. They’ve even started spreading to my office, where there are three sitting on my desk as I write.



The funny thing is, I probably do eat 3 or so a week. It’s not like I’m neglecting the orange! But I need to find a way to cull them more frequently, because I HATE throwing away perfectly good food that could have been used if I had just had a little more time or imagination. One of my favorite things to make with oranges is Nigella Lawson’s Clementine Cake, which is so ridiculously easy (you literally boil the oranges and then whiz them up in a food processor with the other ingredients, skin and all!) and is always a hit with my gluten-intolerant mother-in-law. Plus, it’s really good—moist, full of flavor, and not too sweet.

In this recipe I’ve used Nigella’s orange-almond combination in scones. My version is not gluten-free, but pretty yummy nonetheless. Do any of you have any good orange-based recipes I should add to my repertoire, before my fruit bowl spills over the kitchen counter?



Orange and Almond Scones

175 g self-raising flour
50 g ground almonds
Pinch of salt
50 g butter
10 drops of almond extract
50 g caster sugar
100 ml milk
50 ml orange juice
Zest of 2 oranges

First mix your flour, ground almonds, and salt in a bowl, then rub the butter in until the mixture is like breadcrumbs. Add the almond extract, sugar, and orange zest and mix to combine. Then add your OJ and milk, but hold a little bit of the milk back just in case your dough doesn’t need it. You just want enough liquid to make everything hold together, but not so much that it’s sticky and wet. Tip: do not knead or overwork the dough. Just handle it enough to get it to hold together in a smooth ball, but no more. Press the ball out into a flat disc about 2cm thick, and use a round floured cutter (or if you don’t have one you can use the lip of a thin drinking glass) to cut out your scones. Take the trimmings and press them together to cut out a few more, until all the dough has been used.
Bake on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper at 220C/425F for 10-12 minutes.

Sour Candy Rhubarb



I don’t eat candy often, but occasionally it just seems right and I find myself drawn to a bag of pick 'n' mix, aka ‘penny sweets’, if for no other reason than the delightful quaintness of that phrase. They don't cost a penny, but call to mind a time when they did- when gangs of little kids roamed the streets of England playing conkers, or kick the can, or whatever it was quaint-old-fashioned-kids got up to. Usually for me, penny sweets come around when Steve is feeling nostalgic about the days in Nottingham when he was the neighborhood paper boy and the UK only had something like 2 TV channels. Even those went off the air for a good part of the day, and were replaced with a single still image of a little girl playing jacks. Ah, so far away from my childhood in Marietta, GA, where I thought I was the most deprived kid I knew because my parents wouldn’t pay for MTV and Nickelodeon!

When a bag of pick ‘n’ mix appears, I just go through it for one thing: the really tart sour chewy things coated in sugar. I love that stuff! It’s addictive, that feeling of a sour rush hitting you and making your eyes water for just a second before the sweet comes in and softens the blow. Rhubarb may seem miles off from penny sweets, but I’ve been craving it lately and considering why it's so good. I think it’s because it’s the fruit equivalent of chewy sour candies, like some kind of alien fluorescent pink vegetable that couldn’t possibly be of this world. It looks almost unnatural, and makes your mouth feel as if it’s turned inside out. Rhubarb is a wonderful thing, and one I pledge to eat more of.

Try baking it with sugar and vanilla to make a thick syrupy mush, which when dumped over ice cream turns vanilla into one of the most exciting flavors around.




Baked Vanilla Rhubarb

100g caster sugar
500 g rhubarb cut into bite-sized pieces
1 t vanilla extract

Spread the sugar into an even layer at the bottom of a baking dish. Rinse your cut rhubarb in a colander but don’t shake off all of the excess water- instead dump it into the sugary dish while it’s still wet. Keep the rhubarb in a single layer so that it's all in contact with the sugar. Sprinkle the vanilla over the top, and bake in a 180C oven for about 30 minutes. The sugar will turn runny and syrupy and the rhubarb will just fall apart. Let it cool, and dish it up over ice cream.

City Foraging


So, spring is in the air here in London and I've been reading plenty on what is good to eat right here, right now. Wild garlic leaves feature heavily in the food media, and this gets me excited- I imagine myself wandering English country lanes, wearing wellies and throwing a stick for my non-existent dog to fetch, while picking wild garlic to take home in a big basket for my dinner. It sounds wonderful.

The truth is, the nearest I get to foraging in country lanes is me shuffling across the street to the corner shop for a beer and a pack of salt and vinegar crisps. I suppose I could go out and collect some of the nettles that grow along the footpath to the local train station, but I'm pretty sure that those plants are accustomed to being pissed on by local dogs and drunks, so I could be forgiven for not wanting to incorporate them into my meal.

However, what I do have is Franklin's Farm Shop in East Dulwich, which is pretty much the city equivalent of the country lane scene I really have in mind. Instead of wellies I don skinny jeans and leopard-print flats, and instead of walking dogs people are wheeling their babies around in prams the size of small SUVs. Oh, and the wild garlic isn't free.

I take inspiration from Tom Norrington Davies' article in the Guardian, and decide to whiz my garlic leaves into a fragrant pesto.



Wild Garlic Pesto

2-3 big handfuls of wild garlic leaves, stems removed
10-15g pine nuts, lightly toasted
1 large handful grated parmesan cheese
salt and pepper
3-4 T olive oil
a squeeze of lemon juice

I use a food processor because I'm lazy, but you could use a mortar and pestle too. Whiz up the nuts first until they are finely chopped, then add your leaves. Pulse them a few times until they are roughly chopped and then add your cheese, salt and pepper to taste, and about 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Then let the machine run for 30 seconds or so, drizzling more oil into the mix until you have a loose paste. Add a queeze of lemon julice for a little brightness, and you're done.

Courgette, Chamomile, and Blossom Honey Muffins




So after a week or so of really perfect, beautiful spring weather, I find myself pottering around the house on a Sunday while it's pouring rain outside. Like Bill Bryson says, it looks as if the whole world is under tupperware- pretty much what you expect in England.

I have adapted ways of dealing with the sudden change from cherry blossoms and sunny pub gardens to murky, chilly air: I pull on a pair of big fuzzy socks and spend the day shuffling around in pajamas, making muffins.

I have a few courgettes (that's UK-speak for zucchini. Actually, it's French, and zucchini comes from the Italian word zucchine) that have been knocking around since Monday's veggie box delivery, so I really need to do something with them. And one of my new cookbooks (thanks Snowy!) is Red Velvet and Chocolate Heartache by Harry Eastwood, which has the most wonderful veggie-based cakes and desserts in it, including one recipe for courgette and chamomile cupcakes. I'm intrigued by the idea of dumping tea bags into my baking, so decide to see what it's all about.

I'm not following the recipe in the book, but am taking inspiration from the main ingredients. I'm also using honey in my recipe, so that it really feels like eating the muffin version of a cup of hot tea.

Courgette, Chamomile, and Honey Muffins

2 eggs
100 g golden caster sugar
50 g honey
125 ml vegetable oil
8 chamomile tea bags, cut open and chamomile removed
250 g grated courgette
225 g self-raising flour
1/2 t baking powder
1/2 t baking soda

First, whisk the eggs and sugar together until they look pale and fluffy. Then whisk in the honey and oil. In a separate bowl, mix the flour, baking powder, and baking soda evenly.
Fold the flour mix, courgette, and chamomile into the wet mix until combined. Fill a greased muffin tin with the mix, about 4/5 to the top of each compartment.
Bake for 20 minutes in a 180C oven.