September 29, 2008


There is something so satisfying about putting a pie together. And then when you serve it, no matter how humble the occasion, it feels like a celebration. Though truth be told, my mother made this pie, not me. And it was a celebration actually, a family get-together.

We tend to associate pies with winter, with cosiness and beer, but on the Continent they make lighter pies for the summer; like spanakopita, pictured above. So it was fitting that the weather happened to be good, probably one of the last warm days we are likely to get this year, and we ate in the garden, in the shade of the oak. The white table-cloth was solid with dishes – tomato salad and potato salad and a mound of cheeses my sister had just brought over from France, and French bread and quiche…You get the idea; we barely had room for our plates.

Orange roses were in bloom and the whole garden was lush from weeks of rain. It’s a proper English country garden with hollyhocks and lavender and at this time of year huge floppy dahlias in crazy colour combinations.

Sometimes in the early morning you can find deer cropping the lawn, their noses in the dew. They also ate up all the lettuces in the vegetable patch at the bottom of the garden. There wasn’t much of anything left in the patch this weekend, except potatoes, but I liked the criss-crossed bean canes; the beans had all been eaten but you could look through the canes at the hill-side beyond the garden, where cows were munching their way through the day, and it was all like something from a film of Jane Austen.

The pie was great. Spanakopita just means ‘Spinach Pie’ (I presume ‘pitta bread’ is ‘pie bread’ because it is bread which can be filled). Mum used a recipe by the great and grizzly Antony Worrall Thompson. We ate it cold, as you should, which was a new idea to me, but one which worked. I think I might have added even more feta than Mr AWT.

Back in London where the sky had inevitably clouded over, I began to dream up a winter version. The more I thought about it the more complicated it got, with pine-nuts and cream and then mushrooms and finally – why not? – in a moment of brilliance the filo pastry was replaced by puff. So all in all what I came up with might not be recognisable to a Greek. But I think it’s pretty damn fine.

Cheese and Spinach Pie (for 4, at least. 4 large people)
1 onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 courgettes, sliced
450g/1 lb fresh spinach, washed and shredded
110g/4 oz mushrooms (button is fine)
55g/2 oz pine-nuts
3 fl oz milk

2 eggs

3 dsp cream

225g/8 oz ricotta

2 tbs olive oil

1 tsp cumin

1 tsp grated nutmeg

1 tsp English mustard

Pinch cayenne

1 tbs vegetable bouillon powder

450g/ 1 lb puff pastry

Beaten egg yolk to glaze

Sesame seeds to decorate

Set the oven to 180C/250F/Gas 4.

Heat the oil in a large pan and fry the onion, gently, for about five minutes. Add in the garlic, courgettes and mushrooms, and cook for a few minutes, until the vegetables are almost, but not quite tender. (ie they should still have ‘bite’).

Add in the spinach, cover, and give it a couple of minutes. Stir. Throw in all the spices and a good grind of fresh pepper and cook over a low heat for another few minutes. Remove from the heat.

Beat up the eggs in a glass bowl, mix in the cream and milk and stir the mixture into the vegetables. Follow this with the cheese. Check the seasoning (for extra tang , replace half the ricotta with crumbled feta).

Spoon into an ovenproof dish.Dust your work surface with flour and roll out the pastry, so that it’s just bigger than the dish. Wet the edges of the dish, roll the pastry round the rolling pin to lift it, and cover the pie. Pinch in the edges to seal and then cut off the excess with a sharp knife. You can make decorations on top with the extra pastry.When you’re done, brush the pastry well with the beaten egg, and – if you like – sprinkle over with sesame seeds.

Cook for 40 minutes at the centre of the oven – but check after 30. If the pastry is cooking too much at the edges, turn down the heat slightly. Serve hot.


More Breakfasts with Friends

September 24, 2008

I’m now fully into the idea of the leisurely weekend breakfast.  At a friend’s of course, so you don’t have to cook it yourself.

I try to drop a hint the night before that I can’t function – let alone hold a decent conversation – before a cup of tea. Or you can shout ‘mine’s with two sugars’ from your bed when your friend tiptoes past on the way to the loo. Actually way simpler (how come I haven’t thought of this before?) – and especially good if you’ve got a hangover and shouting would hurt your throbbing head too much – is just send a text (with all the requisite kisses and exclamation marks which are de rigeur in London at the moment).



This weekend I stayed at my friend J’s house. He’s a great cook and great on the tea front too. I get a cup which is virtually a bowl, full of builder’s brew, the moment I open my eyes. Uncanny that, just like Jeeves used to turn up with Bertie Wooster’s breakfast tray exactly ten minutes after he came to morning consciousness. 



 Then it’s either porridge or poached eggs. J’s porridge is the ultimate, made solely with milk and embellished with raisins, chopped banana and apple, Greek yogurt and brown sugar. So tasty you savour every last creamy mouthful and so filling you don’t need to eat again until – well until lunch.



 But this weekend it was a poached egg occasion. As usual they were nests of golden runny perfection. J uses just-simmering water, adds salt to the water, but not vinegar as I was taught (I was also told you had to swirl the water, but in fact this means you end up with tendrils of slimy white).



The only poached eggs I can well manage are those my grandmother taught me to make, in buttered plastic compartments over a pan of water (see picture above). But J says these are buttered eggs, not poached at all, and he may be right.



J gave us three eggs and three slices of toast each. The culinary surprise here – for there always is one at a friend’s house – was that each egg was aflame with blood red drops of chilli sauce. Now I’m quite a chilli buff but chilli on my egg looked pretty testing; but one mouthful and I was hooked. Like the heat in a Bloody Mary, or those spicy morning-after potions that Jeeves presented to Wooster, it was the perfect pick-you-up.





sweet heat

sweet heat

I first came across the chilli-meets-chocolate thing when I cooked for a group of Shamans-in-training. Their leader had studied under the same teacher as Carlos Castenada (you know, the cosmic anthropologist and best-selling writer from the sixties and seventies). She made her pupils a potion which, apparently, was drunk by Aztec kings, to increase their potency. Or maybe it was Inca kings. She mixed ginger, garlic, possibly onion, a fat handful of the hottest and tiniest red chillies, coffee and dark chocolate, along with a concoction of secret spices and whispered incantations, to make a brew so inconceivably vile it put hairs on your chest just to look at it.

While I have no wish to repeat that experience, it lodged itself in my memory. I felt sure there must be something in the chilli chocolate thing that I would enjoy. So when I came across this recipe I knew it was a must. After all, it also included Lapsang Souchong . Don’t be put off by its oddness; this recipe makes unbelievably delicious and very adult truffles.

Note: one level teaspoon of cayenne gives a nice little kick. You may want more, if you’re a heat aficionado or a Shaman, but I wouldn’t go much beyond a heaped teaspoon.

Lapsang Chilli Truffles
225ml double cream
225g dark chocolate (I used 75% cocoa)
250g coating chocolate or cake covering
1 level teaspoon ground cayenne
3 tsps or 2 teabags Lapsang Souchong tea

Heat the cream so it’s just beginning to bubble at the sides of the pan, then remove from the cooker and add in the tea. Leave to brew for ten to fifteen minutes.

Strain the mixture (or remove teabags if you were using). Break up the dark chocolate and add it in. Reheat using a heat diffuser (or else very gently). Once the chocolate is melted stir in the cayenne, spoon the mixture into a bowl and chill until set – about an hour.Using a warmed teaspoon and your palms form little balls of the truffle mixture. Chill once again, while you melt the coating chocolate – I did this over my heat diffuser, but officially you should do it in a heat proof bowl over water that is almost – but not quite! – at simmering point. Dip the balls into the melted chocolate. This hardens very quickly, so before it does you can also roll the balls in chocolate flakes, if you want yet more gluttony.

Lapsang Souchong

September 17, 2008


tea in cup

It always seemed too much, too much scent and wood smoke and where was the good old tannin? Until this summer, that is, when W from Brighton (she of the perfect boiled eggs), showed me the proper way to drink Lapsang Souchong.

W puts two – or even three – parts Lapsang to one part English Breakfast, fills the pot with just-boiled water and leaves to brew for at least a few minutes. You need the English Breakfast to give body to the wistful Lapsang, traditionally brewed in China from leaves dried over pinewood fires.

You add milk (not lemon, which works in Earl Grey but not here). What you end up with is on the one hand a dry deep tea with the requisite kick of tannin, and on the other a cup of mountain air and mists and summer barbecues, and these two tastes somehow, miraculously, married together.

Penitent’s Dhal

September 12, 2008


It was on the Victoria line the other day and we were just drawing out of Euston. I was tired and hot. The carriage was packed with commuters, but a seat became free next to me and a young guy nabbed it. You knew he was a traveller from his piercings and partially shaved hair.

I concentrated on my book (Dave Eggers).

As I turned the page my bracelet slid down my right arm into full view. It’s from India and made of 5 metals, traditionally meant to improve your circulation. It also has Sanskrit writing on it in silver. In a flash of certainty I knew that the young guy saw it and that soon he would try to strike up conversation with me.

Which he did. Was that bracelet from India and when had I been there?

What shocked me was that 4 years ago, when I returned to London, I would have loved that conversation. I would have welcomed him as a kindred spirit. But now, I only wanted to sit there in the same dull, jaded stupor as everybody else. To be left in peace and the sooner the commute was over the better.

‘Yes, it’s from Kerala actually.’

‘Wow, Kerala.’

And then I did the unforgivable. I turned back to Dave Eggers.

So this is my version of a South Indian dhal, for that young man on the Victoria line. Made in penitence. Sorry I never swapped memories with you of the fishermen mending their nets in Cochin harbour.

225g red lentils
600-850 ml water
55g ghee or butter
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
1 red chilli, chopped
1 tsp turmeric
2 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp garam masala
2 diced potatoes (optional and not particularly authentic but a great addition. You’ll need the larger amount of water if you include these).
Juice 1 lemon

Fry the garlic, chilli and onion in the ghee until golden. Ghee makes a massive difference to the taste – it brings together the flavours in Indian cooking in a way that butter can’t quite do.

Stir in the turmeric and heat for about a minute. Then add the cumin, salt, lentils, water and the potatoes too if you want a heavier dhal. Boil well for a few minutes and then turn down the heat to a simmer, cover, and cook for about 15 more minutes, until the dhal is the consistency of porridge. You will need to stir it now and then so that it doesn’t stick.

I’ve had dhal made very thick and also as thin as soup (it can, in fact, be eaten as soup) and both taste delicious.

Stir in the garam masala and squeeze in the lemon. I sometimes melt in a little more ghee at this stage for added richness. A pinch of cayenne or a handful of chopped fresh coriander are also good additions. Some people like dhal with tomato puree in it (about 2 tablespoons, added when the lentils first go in).

Finally, make sure the dhal is properly salted, as this makes a huge difference.


September 9, 2008

tea in flask

tea in flask

I’ve bought a new flask from the Turkish Discount Store at the bottom of our street – it’s between Fri-Chik and the Hoolywood Grill (sic) and its owner sits outside all day watching traffic and looking glum.

Thermos flasks – along with teapots – have wedged themselves into my imagination as symbols. For what? Well, for a kind of ritualised letting go. Dothing nothing much, at least for a quarter of an hour. There’s a dreaminess that comes in those times out of time, when everything you thought you had to do seems really rather insignificant. The only truly meaningful thing to do is to sit and watch the sky, perhaps making gentle conversation or just in silence, and to sip piping hot tea.

Tea tastes even better outside and that’s where a thermos really comes into its own. It means freedom. When you’ve got your flask you can go anywhere. You’re close to nature, but not so close you let go of the essentials, essentials like Darjeeling or Earl Grey.

Boiled Eggs in Brighton

September 5, 2008

boiled egg

boiled egg

I was in Brighton. I’d completely forgotten the racket the seagulls make when dawn breaks and the tang of salt in the air.

It was warm enough for us to eat our breakfast on the patio. Some of the back gardens already had their washing out and the shirts and sheets seemed somehow very maritime, blowing in the morning breeze.

It’s great being cooked for by friends – feel the love! Dinner is obviously fantastic, but even better- because more rare – is breakfast. It doesn’t have to be complicated; indeed the best breakfasts are not.

On this morning I was given eggs precisely boiled with runny golden yolks and the whites soft but not gooey. ‘I put them in a pan of cold water, add salt, bring to the boil, then simmer them for two minutes,’ said W.

Everything about W’s kitchen was what I call artistic – by which I mean colourful and cobbled together. Nothing as common as a set, but each plate and cup individual, passed down by family or friends or found in a sale. Even the egg cups didn’t match. Mine was plum coloured while hers was white with red dots.

Breakfast started with a bit of a shocker – W put the eggs in their cups upside down! The fat end was at the top! It threw me, briefly, this being only 10.30 on a Saturday morning, a little early for culinary surprises.

But I got to work, and you know, I could see the point. You didn’t have to delve through half an inch of white to get to the golden honey. It was there, glistening just below the surface, lightly steaming, just waiting for your soldier to be dipped in.

There was another surprise to come. Unlike lots of people I know who are watching their weightand eschew butter altogether, or think the ‘healthy’ option of margarine is the way to go, W eased a half inch slab of Lurpak onto her toast and eased it in. So of course I did the same.

It was one of the best pieces of toast I’ve had since I was child, when I ate such things regularly without compunction.

So I followed it with another. This one was topped with thick-cut marmalade, my favourite.