Oh, how we've grown

When I was younger, I had a real aversion to sauces.  Not condiments, I’ve always had great affection for mint sauce, and I could, and still can, eat good bread sauce with absolutely anything.  It was the thick sauces, the ones that mixed with things.  Thinking back, I can’t quite remember whether it was the sauce or the things that required sauce that I hated, but I just couldn’t do it.  I hated rice, hated it with a passion, so many saucy foods where just not part of my diet.  Stroganoff, ratatouille, chilli, and, to the disappointment of my family, I used to hate curry.  Every Friday, there was a curry takeout.  My dad is a big curry eater, and my mum’s mum grew up in Burma, so my mum too grew up with a lot of curry around.  And every Friday I’d sulk, because it was one of the meals that I just refused to eat.  All I can say is that I have, wholeheartedly, realised the error of my ways, and I can only apologise to my parents for being so precious about my eating habits back then.

In my older, wiser existence, sometimes only a curry will do.  If I’m at home on a Friday night and there isn’t a curry takeout, I think I’d probably sulk.  But, I do also really enjoy cooking curry, or in fact, anything sauce-based.  That’s my favourite part of cooking, because it’s up to the cook to make it taste just how they like it.

The one thing I do not like about cooking curry, is shopping to cook a curry.  Mr. Slater wisely says that, although the ingredients list is long, once you’ve bought all those spices once, you’ll have them in the cupboard for the next time you want a curry.  This is, of course, true, and I’d never doubt his wisdom, but sometimes you want to change things up a little bit, and it’s always that one ingredient that you’re missing which is impossible to find.

So when, quite late in the afternoon, I decided I wanted to cook a curry for my brother and me, I should have anticipated the hour of wandering I had to do before I could find what I was after.  And even then, I came home missing some of the ingredients I’d wanted, but I’d compensated by bringing home some more.  A little improvisation was needed, and even though I was sure that it wasn’t going to taste good, it did.  I had intended to make more of a spicy stew than a curry, with lots of harissa and preserved lemons.  Having been thwarted by the shops, however, I was going to use a base of harissa, and then add, well, coconut milk.  I don’t know if it’s just me that feels like this is not a good combination.  I was a little bit frightened, to be honest.  Sweet and tangy harissa and smooth coconut milk?  If we’d had some yoghurt, I would’ve been more comfortable with that, but I’d got home with coconut milk, and there was no way I was going out again.  All in all, we enjoyed it.  It kind of tasted like a curry, but we ate it like a stew.  There was no rice on the table, just a few flatbreads.  One step at a time, I guess.

Harissa Spiced Coconut Stew
For four

Two onions, chopped
Two cloves of garlic, finely chopped
Three carrots, chopped
One teaspoon cumin seeds
One teaspoon coriander seeds
300ml vegetable stock
Two teaspoons Harissa
Two chopped, deseeded, red chillies
Four tomatoes, chopped
One teaspoon tomato puree
400g can of chickpeas
200g spinach
250g coconut milk
a big handful of coriander, chopped

In a big pan, over a low to medium heat, dry-fry the cumin and coriander seeds until they smell nice.
Add the onions and let them sweat for a little bit, making sure they don’t colour.
After about five minutes, add the garlic, chilli and carrot, and leave to cook, gently, until the onions are very soft.
Turn up the heat a bit, add the harissa and the chopped tomatoes and leave to bubble around a bit, perhaps a minute.
Stir the tomato puree through, add the stock and the chickpeas, bring to the boil and leave to simmer for half an hour or so.
When everything is more or less cooked, add the coconut milk and simmer for another five minutes.
Add the spinach when you are almost ready to serve, and let it wilt in the sauce.
Serve with chopped coriander on top and flat breads for mopping up.


It's not autumn yet

Towards the end of august, there’s a strange thing that happens that happens in my mind.  There’s a fear that every sunny day will be the last sunny day, so all of a sudden I have to do all the summer things I can think of.  Sitting on the grass in the sun, picnicking, barbequing, Pimm’s.  I’ve been doing these wholeheartedly for the past couple of weeks, and every time, thinking, perhaps this is the last time I’ll be able to for a whole year.  And they have been really good, because the threat of imminent autumn makes them all the more special.  I do love autumn, and I definitely can’t wait for a bit of a chill on the breeze, but that doesn’t mean I want to let summer slip by without one last barbeque.

So at home in Bristol, there was some sun.  Of course, that sun was often mingled with showers, but there was definitely sun, and so the fire pit was fuelled, the paella pan dusted off, and supper was cooked, and eaten, outside.  We ignored the occasional raindrops, and the fact that it was so cold we’d also lit a fire inside. We ate, as if it were a Mediterranean sun that shone, rather than the feeble, end of summer glow that there really was.

I’ve always enjoyed a paella, but this was my first time cooking it.  I was nervous, but towards the end of an hour or so perusing the Moro cookbooks, the guardian website, and some Simone and Ines Ortega cookbooks, I think I got the main idea: just chose the things you like and make sure everything is cooked.  So we had monkfish and chicken and prawns and squid, with a few chunks of chorizo thrown in.  I still wasn’t feeling hugely confident with it all, so I cooked a starter of clams with ham and sherry, just to get the cooking underway, and to placate my hungry family, because I wasn’t sure how long it would take to cook on the fire.

Al in all, it wasn’t perfect.  It cooked very very slowly, and by the time I impatiently took it off, it was still just a tiny bit wet.  Everything was cooked though, which is always nice, and the rice was pretty good.  There was only the merest hint of the socarrat that, I am told, is the sign of a great paella, but it was really tasty.  For a first attempt, I was proud of how it all turned out.  Sure, there were some things that could’ve been better, but, looking at the rain today, it looks like we won’t be eating another paella till next year.

Clams with ham and sherry
for four

700g clams
3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
2 shallots, finely chopped
500g serrano ham, diced
a big glass of fino
handful of chopped parsley

In a big pan, one that has a lid, over a medium heat, cook the onion in a little olive oil for around three minutes, before adding the garlic.
After another three minutes, toss in the ham and leave, stirring occasionally, until the onion is cooked.
Turn the heat up, and when the pan is hot, throw in the sherry followed by the clams.
Put the lid on, give the pan a shake, and leave for two to three minutes until the clams open.  Apparently Banging the pan with a wooden spoon makes the clams open quicker to ensure they're not overcooked.  I tried it, and I don't know if it made a difference, apart from some strange looks from my family.
Sprinkle over a big handful of chopped parsley and serve with some bread for dunking.

for four - six, depending on hunger

300g boned chicken thighs, cubed into about 2cm cubes
one fillet of monkfish, cubed into about 2cm cubes
one squid tube, sliced into rings
200g chorizo, in chunks
eight raw prawns, in their shells (or some shells you might have reserved for such an occasion)
250g paella rice, I used Bomba
one litre chicken stock
a big glass of white wine
four cloves of garlic
one and a half big spanish onions
one green pepper, cubed
pinch of saffron
two lemons, cut into wedges

Bring the stock to the boil, add prawns and leave them to cook in the stock (or just throw in the shells).  When they're cooked, throw in the saffron and leave to infuse whilst you get on with the chopping.
In a big pan with some olive oil, saute the chicken, until very nearly cooked, then take it out.  Do the same with the monkfish, and then the chorizo.
In the same pan, gently cook the onion and garlic until very soft.  Add the cubed green pepper.
Turn up the heat, and add the rice.  Fry for a minute, stirring to coat with oil, before adding the wine.  After the wine has bubbled down a bit, Take the prawns out of the stock and pour it over.
Leave to cook until there's only a little bit of liquid covering the rice, then bury all of the almost cooked chicken, monkfish, chorizo and the raw squid in the rice.  Then lay the prawns on top. It should take about seven to ten minutes to finish off.  
Take it off the heat when everything looks as you imagine a paella should look, and leave to stand for about five minutes.
Sprinkle over lots of chopped parsley and arrange the lemon wedges around the edge in the manner of a 70s cookbook.  Serve.


A perfect afternoon

I am a big fan of the rain when I’ve got nothing urgent to do.  We’ve got some real big windows in our flat, and sometimes I’ll just sit and watch the rain bounce off the stone floor.  So when I woke up the other morning and heard the rain, I put off everything I had been planning on doing, made a new plan, and set out to do it.  This new plan wasn’t particularly challenging.  It involved nothing more that buying enough milk to make some scones, and then timing it so that I was making the scones whilst the afternoon play was on the radio.  It was a delicate operation.  I made sure I had all my ingredients, laid them out on the kitchen table, washed my hands, made a cup of tea, and turned the radio on as the closing music of the archers faded out.  Perfect.

And so I sat, watching the rain and rubbing together fat and flour, dividing up my mixture for a few different flavours of scone.  My tray was greased and floured.  And then, in the calm of my kitchen, disaster struck.  I wanted a teaspoon of salt.  Just a teaspoon, but those stupid bags of salt never do what you ask, and suddenly my whole bowl of flour was coated in a fine white dusting.  The calm, however swiftly returned, as I spent about ten minutes just scooping salt out of my flour, I mean, I had forty five minutes till the play was over, and really, it was wonderfully relaxing.  I reweighed my flour, adjusted the quantity (inevitably my salt mining picked up a little debris on the way) and got back to my scone making.

One of the things I really love about baking is how you have so much time, until you add one ingredient, and then you know it’s all about getting it in the oven as soon as you can.  So, I’d added the milk, the chemistry was taking place.  My scone mixture was patted down, swiftly but surely.  And then a pause.  Do I have any cutters?  The answer is, of course, no.  When I first moved into the flat, living by myself, I didn’t really feel like there was all that much point in buying much baking equipment.  It’s pretty difficult to scale baking recipes down for one person, and it turned out that whenever I did fancy baking some biscuits and saving them for a week or so in the biscuit tin, I invariably ate the whole lot within a couple of days.  So I had some time off baking, which worked out quite well, as my problems with eggs reached their peak.

So the scones took the shape of little, slightly irregular and in no way dainty, triangles and were slipped into the oven.  Timer set, I opened the cupboard for a wire rack.  Of course I don’t have a wire rack.  I don’t know why I thought there would be one there.  Because there never was.  Luckily, though, I was very hungry when they came out of the oven, and my tea guest had just arrived.  So we ate them warm from the oven, with jam and butter, and some good Yorkshire tea, with skimmed milk of course.  The play was over, the lack of equipment was forgotten, and we simply ate lovely scones.

Makes 12 chunky scones
500g plain flour
2 tblspoon baking powder
110g cubed butter
pinch of salt
300ml whole milk
2 tablespoons of sugar
two handfuls of blueberries, 80g of raisins
omit the sugar and instead add 80g of grated cheese

Preheat the oven to 180c
In a large bowl, mix the flour, sugar, salt and baking powder together.
Rub the cubed butter into the flour mixture until you've got a bowl looking full of fine breadcrumbs. 
Stir through the cheese, raisins, or blueberries.
Make a well in the middle, add the milk, and quickly mix to make a soft, but not sticky, dough.  Add more flour if it's to wet, more milk or water if it's too dry.
Tip onto a floured surface and roll to about 3cm thick.  Shape into whatever shape you fancy.
Brush all over with a little milk or beaten egg.  If sweat, top with a sprinkling on sugar, if cheesy, some more grated cheese on top.
Bake for 15 minutes.


Home Life

I’ve been spending my evenings at home of late.  I think most people have.  It was fortunate for me, then, that I’ve begun to befriend my neighbours.  There’s something very strange about the fact that, living in such close quarters with so many people, I hardly know anyone round here.  It’s hard, with most people within my building working.  Leaving their flats at 7 and not returning until 9 means that I don’t often bump into anyone.  But a chance meeting, a shared love of knitting and baking, as well as our shared obsessions with John Lewis, means that there are some people living upstairs who have become my friends.

So, on Monday night, amid the chaos of the streets outside, and after a pretty disconcerting trip to the Sainsbury’s in Angel, of which I was ushered out of in a scarily hasty manner, a dinner party still managed to take place.  I’d invited a friend round, as it was nice to have someone to stay with my brother away, and two girls from upstairs came down for a little homely food and a thoroughly calm evening.

I’ll be honest; I’ve really enjoyed being forced to stay at home.  I did venture out yesterday, only to bump into a friend who declared ‘what are you doing out? GO HOME.  IT’S NOT SAFE.’  My explanation that I needed some milk just didn’t cut it, and I was escorted back to my flat, milk-less, but safe.  So instead, I’ve been doing some ironing, I’ve mixed up a sourdough starter, and spend a good long time watching it for any sign of life (none yet).  I cleared out the kitchen cupboards.  When I started hoovering the inside of the drawers, however, I knew something a little more exciting was needed. 

This is how the dinner party came about.  I love cooking for myself, but there’s something about cooking for others that makes everything you do a bit more purposful.  Laying the table, getting ready, tasting, chopping, stirring: when someone else is going to enjoy it with you, it’s not just cooking, but the whole preparation becomes part of an event.  The food that followed was somewhat an amalgamation of things I had in the fridge and things I could procure from the shops closest to me, but it was delicious in the end, and I think we all enjoyed a little normality. And we turned the music up just a little so that the stream of sirens we could hear were little more than background noise.

Chorizo and Harissa in a Pot
For four

Three shallots, finely chopped
Three cloves of garlic, finely chopped
Three carrots, chopped
250g smoked bacon, chopped
600g chorizo, chopped into fat chunks
four tomatoes, chopped
a large glass of white wine
500ml vegetable or chicken stock
two heaped teaspoons of harissa
one tin of chickpeas, drained
a big handful of spinach
juice of a lemon

In a big pot, heat a little olive oil over a medium low heat.  Add the shallots, then garlic and the carrots.  Let them sweat for a little bit.
Then add the bacon and the chorizo*.  Cook for about ten minutes.
Add the white wine and let it bubble for a bit before adding the chopped tomatoes.
Stir the harissa through, and then add the stock.
Add the chickpeas and bring to the boil, then leave to simmer for around half an hour.
Add the spinach, a big handful each of coriander and parsley.
Finish with the lemon juice and serve with crusty bread.

*if you've got some time, fry the bacon till crispy and till the chorizo had a crust.  Put aside, deglaze the pan with white wine and add that to the vegetables before the stock.  Then add the bacon and chorizo before the spinach.  It gives a nice bit of texture.

Plum Tarte Tatin

For six (I ate the leftovers for breakfast)
Eight plums
75g butter
6 tablespoons sugar

120g cold butter, cubed
180g plain flour
40g ground almonds
two tablespoons sugar, caster or icing
a little water

Make the pastry by rubbing together the butter and flour until breadcrumb-y.  stir the sugar and ground almonds through, and add some cold water, very gingerly, until you have a soft dough.
Make the dough into a ball, wrap in clingfilm, squash it a bit and leave it to rest in the fridge for at least half an hour.
Preheat the oven to 190°c.
Halve the plums and take the stones out.
Melt the butter in a pie dish, or baking tin, or whatever you think is suitable for a tarte tatin.  I use a mini casserole pot.  It’s really not the best thing to use, but it always comes out ok.
Add the sugar and leave until there’s a rich, medium to dark caramel.
Place the fruit in, cut side down and turn off the heat.
Roll the pastry out until it’s big enough to cover the dish, lay it on top and push down the sides to encase the fruit.  There probably will be holes, so just cover them up with any scraps.
Cook for forty-five minutes, maybe longer, until the pastry is golden.  Let it rest for about five minutes, before flipping it onto a serving plate.
Serve with cream


Fed Up

Ah, the London summer.  What a lovely thing it is.  Those first sunny days; drinking cider in the park, eating outside, tanning your legs at the bus stop.  Those are good days.  Those are the days that make you happy to live here.  But, then, after a month or so, you start to notice the other things that constitute a summer in London.  I don’t know if it’s just me, but after a while, I cannot handle the heat in this city.  It smells worse, the tube is simply painful, and sometimes just leaving the flat seems a daunting task.  I can’t get to sleep without the window open, but it seems the brakes on every single overground train need a good oil, and I can’t get to sleep with the window open either.

I was starting to long for autumn.  I was getting excited everytime it rained.  I bought some woolly jumpers, just hoping if I bought them, perhaps, perhaps autumn would hurry on over.

And then there was one day, one horrible day, which involved sitting at a bus stop for over an hour, feeling far too hot, a dead rat, and a very very bad nights sleep.  So I booked a train to the peak district, and the next day, I was so keen I arrived at Euston a whole half hour early.

And then I remembered how good the summer holidays are.  Having a burger with my dad, driving through the mountains, we played tennis, had tea and cake on the grass, played croquet, ate outside. Yes, it was still really hot, but there was a breeze.  There was space.  It felt like a whole different kind of weather. And then, oh how I slept.

So, feeling renewed and refreshed, the victoria line a distant memory, I headed to Snowdonia.  There aren't many things I can think of better than some time in a little cottage with a beautiful view to make you feel better about not just the summer, but life in general.  There were some walks on the beach, shoes off.  There were cups of tea watching the birds.  I almost stroked a horse, I saw my first woodpecker.  I heard an owl.  I picked a raspberry and ate it, straight away.  I picked a pod of peas.  I had a nap in the middle of the afternoon.  I played with the dogs.  I drank more tea.  Lots of tea.  And Eccles cakes.  And a lot of staring at that view.

And food just seems to taste better on holiday.  There's a fish and chip shop on the high street near my flat, and it always smells so delicious, and yet I've never tried them.  And it is because I know that they would never taste as good as the fish and chips bought on a beach, raced home, and eaten outside on your lap.  The fish and chips we ate, looking over the welsh hills, are, in my mind, impossible to beat.  They even throw in a lemon.  It's classy.

I was fed well on my little holiday, we ate some really good things, and they often came from the strangest places.  The little butchers down the road has the best Welsh lamb I've ever tasted.  There's another in the nearest the town with some really fantastic meat pies.  I had a really amazing homemade eccles cake in a cafe off the A55.  It was a strange place, with a plastic tweety bird in a cage and a portrait of Harry Hill, but the eccles cake was really delicious.  But with all that really good food, it seems strange that the recipe I am posting is the typical end of holiday meal that we all have.  But I promise it's a good one.  There's nothing like bubble and squeak to use up those little things that you can't take home with you, and a whole wheel of sausage each makes it into something special.  I thought I should justify this post with a recipe, but I'm sure that there are very few people out there who can't make a mean bubble and squeak, because it never fails to be delicious.

Bubble and Squeak
for four

6-8 big potatoes
1 onion, finely chopped
3 leeks, shredded
cabbage, shredded
100g lardons
whole milk
salt and pepper

Boil potatoes till tender, drain and mash with butter and milk, and season with lots of salt and pepper
Warm a big knob of butter in a big pan.  When melted, sweat the onion for about five minutes, add the lardons, and then add the leeks.  Cook over a low heat until the leeks are very soft, and then add the cabbage.  When the cabbage is cooked, mix with the mashed potato.
Add a big handful of chopped parsley.
Shape into patties and place in a hot pan with butter, or make just make one big cake and hope you can flip it over when the bottom is crusty.

Serve with a good sausage.  And some ketchup.

So now all is well.  I'm happy to be enjoying the summer once again, and although I'll miss the dogs and the cows and the owls, those trains don't sound so bad anymore.


Work in Progress

It’s always when you are doing something banal that you have your revelations, I think.  Well, not revelations, perhaps just the realisation of something you should’ve known all along.  Whatever those moments are called, I have them most frequently when I am knitting.  Although knitting isn’t really banal.  I’m just short on words that describe the way it makes me feel.  I enjoy it, it does not bore me, but it is repetitive, and doesn’t require a huge amount of thought.  I like it because your brain is working at some low level, which leaves you to think about other things.  The point that I am trying to convey is that when I was knitting just the other day, something clicked in me, and it was a very exciting thing to realise, but thinking about it now, it’s actually common sense.

Nonetheless, I will tell you about it.  I would like to be a really good cook.  I'd like to sit down one day and just think ‘what would I like to eat?’ and then produce something delicious.  I would like to feel confident enough to go food shopping without a shopping list, seeing what looks good, and then making it really, really good in the kitchen.  I was frustrated that I couldn’t do it.  When I’m planning what to eat, I always end up referring to some cookbook, or some recipe.  Of course I adapt and change them to suit what I want to eat, but I that’s not the same feeling as just sitting down and creating something.  Whilst I was knitting, though, I realised that I’m just not a really good cook yet, just as I am not a really good knitter yet, but the point is that I am always learning.  I like learning, and learning about food is one of my favourite hobbies.  All the recipes I’m cooking now, I am learning what I like to eat with what, what I think works together, and what kind of foods make me feel certain ways.  So, overall, what I learnt is that cooking is a project for me, and what makes me excited is that I’m always going to have to eat, and I am always going to be cooking, so there’s nothing I can do but carry on learning, and improving, until one day, I’m a really good cook.

deciding what's for supper

And you know what, I'm really excited about having this little blog on which to record these improvements, and look back on them.

Well, you probably all knew that already.  So here’s a recipe for a soup that can be remade many a time, with so many different ingredients I don’t know whether to really call it a recipe.  It’s more a blueprint for whatever you fancy, whenever you fancy it.  But the recipe as displayed below is the one I make when I am tired, ill or unhappy, and it will cure any ills.  We ate it on our laps, after an incredibly hectic week, and watched Bad Lieutenant, and the next day I honestly can’t remember the last time I woke up feeling so refreshed.  Magic soup.

Soup with whatever you fancy
for two
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
2-3 shallots, finely chopped
2-3 stalks lemongrass, sliced
1 small chilli, deseeded and sliced
some noodles
enough vegetable or chicken stock to fill two soup bowls
nam pla
big pinch of sugar
star anise
a really big handful of mint
a smaller handful of basil
100g chestnut mushrooms
juice of one lime

Cook the garlic and onions in a medium hot pan, add the lemon grass, chili and mushrooms and cook for 5-10 minutes.
Then add the stock, star anise, sugar and a splash of nam pla, a bit of salt and some pepper.
Cook the noodles, put them in a soup bowl with the torn basil and finely shredded mint.
Ladle the soup over the noodles, finish with the lime juice, and eat.