Tuesday, August 12

Aubergine with roasted vegetables and parmesan

Cooks Block. Must mean it's approaching lunch time.

Breakfast: easy, it's groundhog day. That's how everyone copes with creating and serving a meal pre-9am right?

Dinner: a challenge of course, but one with resources thrown at it. An assigned budget within the weekly grocery shop, and a truth universally acknowledged that dinner-making is worthy of its own time slot. Therefore it is do-able.

Lunch: There are two schools of thought and its a polarised affair: Lunch Is For Wimps Vs The Long Lunch.
Now I am definitely not siding with Gordon Gecko and his cronies, as satisfying as my muesli is, I need a calorie pitstop mid way through the day. Equally impractical is The Long Lunch, of course who wouldn't agree to grazing, drinking and talking their way from 1pm to 4pm, if only those pesky problems such as work, unloading the dishwasher and checking Facebook on your phone didn't get in the way?

But what of the Everyday Lunch? The daily Ready Steady Cook like challenge combining a race against the clock and a fridge of random ingredients. And the answer to that problem is mostly the sandwich. But when you're sandwiched out where do you go?

Baked aubergine topped with roasted vegetables and parmesan

1 aubergine
1 small courgette
1 pepper
1 tomato
small handful of shaved parmesan

1. Preheat oven to 200
2. Slice aubergine in half length ways and place on baking tray.
3. Roughly chop the courgette, pepper and tomato into large pieces. Place on the same baking tray and lightly drizzle with olive oil. Do not put oil on the aubergine.
4. Bake in the oven for approximately 25 minutes or until the aubergine is soft and squidgy, and the vegetables soft and sticky.
5. Once all cooked pile the vegetables on top of the aubergine slices and scatter with the parmesan. Place back in the office for 2-3 minutes until the cheese has melted.

Tuesday, July 29

Chicken in yoghurt with griddled courgettes

I make a little mental note to myself as the summer starts and the weather warnings turn away from icy roads to mini heat waves.

Never complain that it's too hot. Enjoy the heat, soak up the sun, and if tempted as the mercury rises to wish away the sun cream days and yearn for cooler nights,  think back to January and recall the dark days, the click of the central heating superseding the alarm clock, and the never ending chore of de-icing the car.

Of course I am as successful at keeping this resolution as my yearly promise to myself to stop my biting my nails. The first whiff of sun cream ("hhmmmm smells of holidays") soon becomes tainted: the daily children and Factor 50 ritual becomes about as fun as de-icing the car at 6am without any gloves. I find myself secretly longing for a chill in the air, eager to justify a roast dinner and a hot pudding. An apple crumble in the oven just seems odd when the Sunday afternoon air is still heavy with barbecue lighter fluid.

The weather forecasters start to justify my reluctant dissatisfaction with the hot weather. " If you're finding the heat difficult" they console as they announce the arrival of some humidity busting thunderstorms. Feeling vilified by my comrades at the Met Office I make an alternative resolution:

Never complain it's too cold. Enjoy a crisp winters morning, embrace the opportunity to match hats to gloves, and recall the sweaty summer days where sleeping with the window open became natures own alarm clock. And don't get me started on the black out blinds.

But while the summer still is here, this dinner is just what you need.

Chicken in yohurt, with griddled courgette

Serves 4

Chicken in yoghurt

Chicken thighs(or pieces of your choice)
Bunch of mint
Small pot of greek or natural yoghurt
Zest and juice of 2 limes

1. Preheat oven to 180
2. Mix yorhurt, lime juice and zest, and torn mint
3. Marinate chicken thighs in yoghurt mixture for at least 30 minutes
4. Place in dish and bake for 30 minutes or until juices run clear (longer if meat is still on the bone)

Griddled courgette

2 medium sized courgette
Bunch of basil
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
Olive Oil

1. Begin by slicing the courgette into very thin flat pieces. No thicker than a pound coin.
2. Heat the griddle pan until extremely hot. Brush lightly with olive oil.
3. Batch cook the courgette pieces on the griddle pan, cooking for around 2-3 minutes on each side.
4. While cooking mix the dressing: olive oil, lemon juicec and zest and basil.
5. Place the cooked courgette pieces in the dressing mixture for a few minutes. Once coated remove from mixture.

griddled courgette with lemon and basil

chicken with yoghurt and mint

Tuesday, July 8

Brownies (no flour)

I was recently set a challenge. Not being able to describe myself as goal-orientated (except on my cv) any whiff of a test is enough to set me into an internal spin. That hunger to win, I just have hunger...mostly for chocolate (I am not fussy, Angel Delight will do if the craving strikes). But for those of you who chew up and spit out a triathlon for breakfast, who have the entry date for the London marathon as an alert, and consider Sunday morning an ideal time for putting in some miles on the bike rather than for reading the papers, I think you may believe this particular challenge to be somewhat pedestrian.

Bake something sweet...wait for it... without flour. Gulp. Cold sweat. I need an ice bath.

I consider my options:
Flapjacks? It's a possibility but I tend to either cook flapjacks into a cobbled paving slab of solid uncrackable oat, or undercook, resulting in a crumbly mess. 'Short' may be an endearing quality of pastry, but with flapjacks it's effectively just a pile of crumbs. Hey, it's granola. (Check back in a couple of months for a two birds with one stone flapjacks-come-granola post)
Meringue? I am totally fine with a pavlova for breakfast if one presents itself in the fridge, but I am guessing that others may not dig a dessert with their morning coffee.

The answer... it's brownies!

And with that realisation I punch the air, Yeah! This is how my marathon running friends must feel when they cross the line and are wrapped in a foil blanket. Yeah, definitely I think, reaching for the greaseproof and lining my tin.
I know what it's like to reach my goal, overcome adversity, beat the odds. I am on a wave, I've beaten my demons, risen to the challenge...Ok  I did it in my kitchen listening to The Archers Omnibus but isn't it the output that matters (that's the jargon of a SMART objective by the way). I eat challenge for breakfast, hey, I eat brownies for breakfast!

Flourless brownies

75g unsalted butter
250g dark chocolate
1 tbsp cocoa
2 tsp vanilla essence
250g caster sugar
4 eggs
100g ground almonds

1. Preheat the oven to 180 (160 fan). Line an 8inch square tin.
2. In a large pan gently melt the butter and chocolate over a low heat.
3. Take off heat and whisk in sugar, vanilla and cocoa.
4. Once combine whisk in the eggs, one at the time.
5. Lastly fold in the ground amonds.
6. Pour into the prepared tin and bake for 25-30 mins. Leave to cool completely in tin before cutting.

flourless brownies

flourless brownies

Tuesday, June 24

A fresh dal

What did you cook when you were a student? Or should that be phrased what did you eat when you were a student? Pot Noodle? Takeaway pizza? Beans on toast? Baked potatoes? Maybe some pasta if you were particularly sophisticated. I had a thing for hash browns during my student years. One thing I am pretty sure about though, is that lentils, be that puy, red or green, they were most definitely not in your repertoire.

I blame the obligatory Student Cookbook (usually with a picture of an omelette on the front) for perpetuating the myth that lentils were the preserve of those that consider a 10am lecture 'early' and defined 'seasoning' as one of those sachets in a Supernoodle packet. Whilst my IKEA sieve saw many a meal of pesto pasta I don't believe it was used to 'rinse thoroughly' any lentils during my 3 years of study.

And yet most would believe that if you're paying for your food with a wage packet rather than a student loan then you would not actively choose a bag of lentils for a midweek dinner.

We've all been duped. Let's reclaim the lentil! 

If Tomorrow's World was still on TV I am convinved they would be trumpeting the meagre lentil as the food of the future.
Listen folks, do your prep now, and so in a few years when a packet of chicken thighs costs the same as a steak of Kobe beef, and a tin of tuna sets you back as much as a tin of caviar, you won't spin into a panic with the realisation that your only option is to reach for a packet of pulses.

So let's examine the lentil: their long and nomadic journey starting with the flagship 1970s classic, the Lentil Loaf,  rather misleadingly getting labelled as staple student food, moving into the mainstream as puy lentils became a standard accompaniment to fish and now capturing the zeitgeist and enjoying its' time centre stage. Truly a food which is sustainable, healthy, and economical. This pulse may be meek but it will inherit the earth.

A fresh dal

200g red lentils
350ml water
1 onion - finely chopped
1tsp chopped fresh ginger
3 cloves garlic - finely chopped
2 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp paprika
10 curry leaves
400g can tinned tomatoes
2 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp fenugreek
50g butter
Bunch of coriander
Juice of 1 lime
small pot of Greek yoghurt

1. Wash lentils and leave to soak in the 350ml water
2.  On a medium heat gently cook the chopped onion, garlic and ginger until soft. This will take approximately ten minutes.
3. Once softened add the spices: ground coriander, cumin, turmeric, paprika and curry leaves. Cook for a further three minutes.
4. Add the lentilsand their soaking water. Stir in the tinned tomatoes, sugar and finally fenugreek. Give everything a good mix, cover the pan and simmer for around twenty minutes (or until lentils are soft).
5. Stir through the butter, lime juice and torn coriander leaves
6. Serve with a dollop of Greek yohurt.

'Never a dal moment' Michael Caine

Monday, June 16

Lemon shortbread

I am an unashamed Archers fan. Immediately soothed by the famous opening bars of the dum-di-dum  theme, there can be no more pleasant a way to spend one and a quarter hours than to listen to the omnibus. The gentle drama placed against a backdrop of the changing seasons and countrylife not only delivers me my soap fix but provides a constant stream of culinary references. Don't listen when hungry.

Does my love of The Archers make me old before my time? I am not sure, but if I add to the mix my penchant for Horlicks I am starting to feel more Jill Archer than Pip. Or for those of you yet to experience the delights of Ambridge, more Camilla than Kate.

I got a pair of slippers for Christmas... and I was very pleased. When I recently listened to (a documentary on) 1Xtra I had to turn off with the depressing realisation my street vernacular is at least fifteen years out of date.

As I come to the conclusion that in tastes I am a pensioner not a party animal I can think of no more fitting a biscuit to bake than the mighty shortbread.

In a tin from Marks and Spencers at Christmas, dressed in tartan on the Scottish tourist trail and topped with strawberries and cream on a summer dessert plate. The instituion of shortbread stretches far and wide. I even have a recipe in my Archers cookbook.

Lemon Shortbread

225g plain flour
100g cornflour (I hear semolina gives a slight crunch but I didn't have any)
225g butter
100g caster sugar
zest of 1 lemon finely grated
demerara sugar for dusting

1. Preheat the oven 160/140(fan)/gas 3
2. Lightly grease a 30 x 23 cm shallow roasting tin.
3. Mix together flour and cornflour.
4. Add butter, sugar and lemon zest. Rub together with your finger tips (as you would making pastry) until the dough binds together.
5. When the dough is formed press it into the greased tray. You can use the back of a large spoon or spatula to smooth it down.
6. Prick the dough all over, and bake for 35 minutes.
7. The dough will be a pale golden cream when cooked. Leave to cool in tray for a few minutes and then cut into fingers and carefully lift out to continue to cool on a wire rack.

Lemon shortbread
lemon shortbread

Tuesday, June 10

Chickpeas With Roasted Carrots and Caraway Seeds

 The Season, that quintisentially English run of events, spreading the warmer months and taking in such traditional sloane preserves as The Boat Race, Badminton and Cowes. Whilst the cast of Made in Chelsea and their chums might mark the passing of the summer in a series of marquees, heals gently sinking, flutes in hand. I suggest the English Season is most definitely not for Non U (and I).

I present to you The Alternative Season. The warm up act that is Cleaning The Garden Furniture, the pivotal moment of The First Lunch Outside, what's a bank holiday without The First BBQ, and everymans Henley...The Paddling Pool. These are the events that real English summers are made of. Who needs Glyndebourne? I've got the iPod dock and an open kitchen window.

Afterall, nothing beats scurrying back and forth between kitchen and garden table too many times to mention... food...plates...glasses...drinks...condiments...move the table (aiming for shade and sun)... everyone sit down.  Where's the cutlery? Back to the kitchen... Oh it is fun.

I for one don't want to be in the Cartier tent, polo sticks clattering in the background. I've got the buzz of a lawnmower and the heady aroma of lighter fluid creating all the atmosphere I need for our inaugural event of The Alternative Season: The First Lunch Outside.

And what food for this feast day? Why chickpeas of course with their nod to sunnier climes and store cupboard availability.

Chickpeas with Carrots, Caraway Seeds and Beans

1 clove garlic
4 medium carrots (cut into narrow sticks, not quite julienne)
1 400g tin of chickpeas
1 onion
1 tsp of caraway seeds
250g fine green beans (cooked)
handful of chopped mint

1. Preheat oven to 180
2. Toss carrots in olive oil and caraway seeds. Roast for 20 minutes (until soft and slightly caramelised)
3. Meanwhile saute onion, garlic and cooked green beans.
4. Once carrots are finished, add to saute pan along with drained chickpeas.
5. Mix and cook for 5ish minutes. Finally add torn mint.
Serve with yoghurt and pitta

Tuesday, June 3

A Raclette

If I had a time machine I would most definitely have a Tudor Banquet on my wishlist of experiences past.

If you've ever been to the Kitchens at Hampton Court Palace and you've also thought about owning a time machine then you'll just be nodding your head and silently thinking "why of course", but if neither of the above are true I suggest a pronto trip down to the south west London 'burbs and maybe a History magazine subscription for Christmas. Picture the scene: imagine, Henry VIII as wide as he was tall, his  doublet embroidered with a gold thread so valuable one line of stitch could see a peasant family good until Elizabeth died and the Tudors were no more. Henry casually tossing  a swan leg over his shoulder and tucking into a pie of four and twenty blackbirds as Wolsey sniped at his side and Catherine of Aragon remained depressed but dignified in the wings.

I'd like to think the food got wackier as the mead flowed and the banquet progressed. Perhaps starting with a baked pike accompanied by thirty six hard boiled eggs and some minced veal, and ending with a dozen roasted peacocks served atop of a wild boar from the Kings own Windsor estate. These Tudors laughed in the face of a Mediterranean diet.

And so channelling our inner Tudor we assembled our version of the modern day banquet, The Raclette. This very European cooking invention is guarateed good times, think a Christmas game of sherry-fuelled Pictionary (tap your inner creativity) crossed with the best buffet you've ever been to.

I know it's a chore but I do need to explain the concept of a Raclette to you. I know I know, we've all been to those restaurants where the waiting staff ask if you've been before and attempt to teach you how to read a menu. It's tedious. But, and I am cringing as I write, a Raclette is less recipe and more concept. Ugh.

Essentially, it's a hot metal plate on which the participants in the Raclette feast can use their own mini pan to fry a series of mini dishes, and under which they can also grill. Anything you like, take inspiration from the Tudors and go random. The list of ingredients is endless, fresh meat, fish, vegetables, sauces, marinades, spices, herbs, and seasonings. Whatever you have in your cupboards, your fridge and your fruit bowl (maybe).

Here are some of my favourite combinations:
1. Cod, chorizo, tomatoes
2. Chicken, Thai-ish marinade (limes, garlic, coriander, olive oil, lemongrass, ginger)
3. Beef, shallot, mushroom, cream
4. Peppers, mushroom, egg
5. Salmon with lemony marinade (lemon, garlic, rosemary, olive oil)
6. Chicken, ginger, soy sauce
7. Beef, Boursin and sour cream
8. Chicken, chorizo, tomato, white wine
9. Chicken, onion, tomato, basil, cream
10.Courgette, peppers, tomatoes, melting cheese

Now if that's not enough to make you say YES! to Europe I don't know what is. I think the Lib Dems missed a trick here.

a modern day banquet