Monday, September 29

Oysters

oysters
 Like most people I can't afford designer garbs. I experience Calvin Klein et al not through their apparel, but through their au de parfum. A little puff of Armani adds a spring to your step when the label you're wearing today is Primarni. The super-thick cardboard (often gold embossed) box, the ornate bottle an artwork itself, this is all a taste of another world. Not my real world, I don't shop in Bond Street, I shop in Boots on a Saturday afternoon. The high street is my gateway to high end brands, and there's something rather amusing about a bottle of Chanel rattling around a basket with a can of Batiste and a chicken and sweetcorn sandwich. I imagine venturing into a proper designer store must be how truly posh people feel in Argos: completely flummoxed by an alien format. I'll stick with the fragrance counter and collect my Advantage Card points thanks.

Likewise, it's fairly unlikely I shall ever stay at The Ritz: my Mr Ben adventure into a decadent world of gliding waiters, twinkly afternoon piano and chandeliers worthy of the ambassadors ball, comes via the all-too normal experience of drinking a cup of tea (and eating many scones and gulliver-sized sandwiches of course). It is my brief glimpse of this other world, snatched but therefore special.

And my latest experience of this different sphere came last week, when we had oysters. Shucked by the sink, plated and served on the oil-cloth-covered kitchen table and wolfed down with CBeebies providing the muzak.


Oysters
Lemon juice
White wine



Wednesday, September 10

Quinoa with squash and apricots


Continuing the theme of my ignorance regarding the lexicon of food I've got a real shocker for you...did you know that Quinoa is pronounced 'keen-wa'? No? Me neither.
I've had a vague awareness of this new super cereal, mostly because I've clocked the odd quinoa salad in the M&S 'To Go' section. Elbowing my way through the besuited lunch-hour scrum to the melting middle chocolate puddings thinking Quin-noa (pronouncing it internally as Quinn, as in Dr Quinn, medicine woman)...nah, not for me.
 But after watching Dr Michael Mosley and chums in the recent Horizon programme 'how much meat should we eat?' , (the answer, for various reasons, environmental and health, being very little) along with a panicy pledge to never again eat another bacon sandwich (bacon supposedly being the worst thing ever...ugh, but it tastes so good) I was jolted into seeking protein alternatives for my dinner plate.
I am pro-pulse, loving the lentil, championing the chickpea, but quinoa to date has remained a question mark to me.
Learning the method to cook a new pulse/ grain is such chore: the recipe you're following is guaranteed to be subtlely but crucially different to the packet instructions. How many parts water? lid on or off? bring to the boil or simmer? water absorbed or to drain? and the result, usually on the claggy side and invariably too much cooked. I've had many a pan of bulgar wheat with the consistency of rice pudding. Sieving and fluffing with a fork to no avail.
And quinoa takes from packet to plate 30 minutes to cook, so it's not going to be your new quick-cook-penne-and-pesto-dinner,  but when there is no fish or fowl in your fridge there is a third way.

Quinoa with roasted squash, onion and apricot
Serves 4

150g quinoa
1/2 a large butternut squash
4 small onions
5 dried apricots
small bunch parsley
(optional hazelnuts or other nuts)

(I should state I think this recipe would be particularly nice with the addition of some chopped nuts, probably hazel nuts, but this was serving a baby and a toddler this is a choking hazard-free version)

1. Preheat oven to 200
2. Measure out 150g of quinoa. Add 5 parts boiling water to 1 part quinoa (or whatever your packet says). Stir, cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Once the water has been absorbed take off heat and leave for 10 minutes.
3. Whilst the quinoa is cooking chop the squash and onion and roast in the oven for 30 minutes.
4. Chop a bunch of parsley and 6 dried apricots (I would also toast some hazelnuts and chop if possible).
5. Once the quinoa and roasted veg are both ready, combine all ingredients and stir through. Serve warm.


Wednesday, September 3

Lemon curd and blueberry muffins

As a child you often mishear words in school hymns and the like, resulting in many years of belting out the wrong line at full blast.
It never occurred to me that it might not be "and I am The Lord of the dance settee". 

Similarly my teen years were spent tortuously picking over REM lyrics, doing my best to ensure my fragile teen cred bubble was not pin pricked by mis-singing a Stipe penned line. I developed a method that involved confidently singing a line I was sure of and then affecting a distracted glance as the words got tricky and I could only mumble. 

And this is affliction has not been limited to songs and lyrics. The coffee shop revolution has twice exposed me as a fraud in the cool gang. Perhaps atonement for my inner smugness when tourists in the pub where I worked ordered Brakspeare phonetically. 

The first tale of a coffee shop faux pas came when over the course of some weeks I repeatedly ordered a Chai Latte for a friend who was asking for a Dry Latte (it really does exist!). She was too kind to tell me. I am not sure whether she ever drunk her spiced coffee.

My second experience was chronologically the first. Happening in the early noughties when Starbucks were sophisticated destinations to be sought out and be seen at. I noticed my colleagues, all London-cool and smoother than a Flat White, were asking for their coffees with a prefix. Skimmy (or so I heard). I had no idea what it meant but it seemed de rigeur to ask for your daily coffee as a skimmy version. So I did merrily did this, for a long time, until the penny dropped as a barista self-corrected what they believed they had heard: 'skinny latte'. Cringe.

And alongside the milky frothy coffee this new take on the coffee hosue made an impact on our eating habits too...they made muffins mainstream. A cake on the breakfast menu, no wonder it's a trend that has stayed in fashion. Lemon muffin and skimmy latte please (double shot)

Lemon curd and blueberry muffins
250g self raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
75g caster sugar
50g flour
175g blueberries
grated zest of 1 lemon
2 tbsp lemon curd
2 eggs
250ml milk

lemon glaze
a little lemon juice
little icing sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 180 (fan).
2. Measure and mix flour and baking powder into a large bowl.
3. Rub in the softened butter to form fine breadcrumbs.
4. Stir in the sugar, blueberries and lemon zest.
5. Mix together eggs, milk and lemon curd in a separate bowl. Once combined add to the dry ingredients and lighly mix together. The mixture should be quite loose (not combined and uniform like a sponge or biscuit mixture).
6. Spoon the mixture into muffin cases in a 12-hole muffin tray.
7. Bake for 25 minutes (until springy and well risen). Cool on a wire tray.

Once cool brush with a little glaze for a shiny lemony finish.




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