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On the day that world leaders congratulated themselves on having ‘hit back against recession’ and the narrow streets around the Bank of England were packed with demonstrators hemmed in by a massive police presence, what we really noticed was that spring had come to town.

In the countryside spring is unequivocal: everywhere you look are flowers or at least buds and the trees and hedges are spendthrift with blossom. But in the city where it’s hard to see the skyline,  spring views can only be taken in as fragments round corners, down alleyways, rapid glimpses from the train, a single tree covered in pink in a street of identical terraced houses. You feel spring as much as you see it, in the warmth in the air.

I sat beside the canal in Paddington Basin at lunchtime, under a clear blue sky, eating a Marks and Spencer’s Egg Mayonnaise sandwich. The sun was bright on the water and there were placid barges (Somerset Joy and Frideswid) with their tubs of daffodils and red tulips. It felt like I didn’t have to worry about anything. It was good enough just to be there.

When I got home the cherry blossom was falling on the garden. In Japan when the blossom falls they celebrate. I could see why.

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Cheese Scones

March 30, 2009

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When we think of scones it’s always teatime and there’s jam or honey and quite possibly cream. The sun is out. Bees hum in the roses and it’s all very Edwardian and English.

But there’s a whole other way of eating scones, where they’re a savoury item, to be eaten either on their own with butter, or with soup – best of all, to my taste, being sweetcorn soup.

These are they. The recipe has been handed down to me so I don’t know who was its original author. But the addition of the spring onions is mine, though you could use a leek.

Cheese Scones
at least 12

225g self raising flour
pinch salt
1/2 tsp mustard powder
55g butter
100ml milk
1 egg
50g cheddar cheese, grated
paprika
2 spring onions, finely chopped

Set the oven to 220C/425F/Gas 7. Grease an oven tin.

Sieve together the flour, salt and mustard powder. Rub in the butter.

Mix in half the cheese. Crack the egg into the middle of the flour and pour in most of the milk. Gradually work the ingredients together. Add the rest of the milk if it’s necessary,  but aim for a soft dough which isn’t sticky.

Turn out the dough onto a floured surface and knead a little, before pressing it down to form a slab about 2cm thick. Cut into 5cm rounds.

Place the scones onto the baking sheet and brush with milk. Then top them with a little cheese and a sprinkling of paprika.

Bake for 10-12 minutes.

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Spanish Omelette

March 26, 2009

Why make it?

1. It’s simplicity itself.

2.You can share it with someone you like.

3. It’s a good excuse to drink some red wine, probably Rioja.

4. After the wine, you can say tortilla de patatas in a bad Spanish accent with a silly lisp.

5. It comes from my favourite country in Europe.

Spanish Omelette (Tortilla de Patatas)
for 2

1 medium red onion
12 oz potatoes
3 tbs olive oil
1 clove garlic (not authentic, but good)
4 large eggs

Peel the onion, cut in half width-ways and slice thinly. Peel and slice the garlic. Peel the potato and cut into thin slices. The thinner they are the quicker they will cook.

Heat 2 tbs of the oil in a sturdy frying pan, about 10″ in diameter. Add the vegetables and turn down the heat. Season well. Cook covered for about 10 minutes, stirring every now and then. Breaking up the potatoes slightly with a wooden spoon is also good.

Crack the eggs into a basin and beat lightly. Season. When the potato mixture is done, add to the eggs.

Heat another tbs of oil in the pan, spoon in the tortilla mixture, cover and turn down the heat to the absolute minimum. Leave to cook for about 15 minutes.

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To cook the top of the omelette, cover the pan with a plate, holding it there firmly, and invert so that the omelette lands on the plate. Then slide it back into the frying pan to cook for another couple of minutes.

Serve with salad. And wine of course.

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The Honey Sandwich

March 18, 2009

Now that Marks and Spencer have unveiled their own jam sandwich, competitively priced at 75p, I feel certain that the time is ripe for an occasional series on my own favourite sandwiches.

The homemade sandwich is a very personal affair. Since most of us only admit to eating them when we have to  – ie for lunch at work – owning up to actually liking them feels like a truly personal revelation. Particularly on a food blog, you know? It sounds kind of slummy. Like telling you that I don’t wear underwear.

But there it is. I do (like sandwiches that is).

And this is my latest favourite.

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That’s butter (or Utterly Butterly to be perfectly exact) on granary bread. Plus a thick layer of set honey on one of the slices, and a thin layer of light Tahini on the other.

Tahini is made from sesame seeds and it adds a little chewiness, along with some protein and a rather larger number of calories.

It works, really it does. Try it. And then let me know your  own favourite sandwiches.

Parsley

March 5, 2009

It’s the most versatile herb in the kitchen and the most retro.  We keep thinking we’re too cool for it, but back it comes, never to be forgotten.  And did you know that the Romans used it as a breath freshener before orgies?

Now is it’s time.

Actually, any time is its time what with supermarkets, but now is the time to get your own seeds, bung them in a pot of compost and leave the pot on a windowsill to germinate. Then plant the seedlings out and you’ve got your very own crop.

Or if you’re too lazy for that, as I am, do what everyone else does. Buy a bunch down the corner shop. But please, please, don’t keep the parsley in a glass of water on your kitchen window. The water ends up green and smells vile  (though not as bad as daffodil water, that really does smell of sewers) and the parsley stems go soggy and the whole thing is absolutely disgusting. No. Don’t do that. Put the glass of water in your fridge, or wrap the fronds of parsley in foil or clingfilm and put them in the fridge like that. They’ll keep so much longer and stay crisp and fresh. After a week they shouldn’t be there anyway; you should have used them up.

Parsley works with everything. It goes in soups, stews, stocks,  and salads. If it’s cooked food, then the parsley is added right at the very end, so that it keeps its nutrients (vitamins C and A and iron) and the kitchen is full of that fresh scent, like beech woods after rain.

Put it in Tabbouleh. Put it in Italian Salsa Verde. Put it in Baba Ghanoush. Or best yet and most retro of all, put it in Parsley Sauce.

You remember parsley sauce, don’t you? You must have had it at school. It made the driest fishcake almost edible and you could drown the lumps in your mashed potato in the thick creamy stuff, flecked with pale green. I predict a big return through 2009 for parsley sauce: it’s nostalgic, reminiscent of the nursery, simple and cheap to make.

Here’s how. It’s basically like any white sauce, but the one essential thing is to totally pulverise the parsley before you add it in, so that any ghost of shape has been hammered out of it and it lies on your kitchen surface like damp aromatic moss.

Parsley Sauce (enough for about 4 people)
2 tbs butter
2 tbs plain flour
400ml milk
4tbs parsley, finely chopped (you can use some of the stalk too)
salt, pepper

Gently melt the butter over as low heat. Stir in the flour with a wooden spoon to make a pale yellow paste and let that heat for a minute or two. The flour gets cooked, but not browned.

Then the fun part. Begin to add the milk, little by little, slowly does it, stirring all the time. At some point, when the paste is becoming the consistency of sauce, you may want to move over from a spoon to a whisk.

Once all the milk is added, let the sauce come to the boil and simmer gently for up to 5 minutes, by which time it will be thick and creamy. If it’s too thick for pouring, add in a little more milk.

Take off the heat. Stir in the parsley, the salt and pepper, and then inundate those boiled potatoes.

NB. You can ring the changes with any or all of these: grated nutmeg; a teaspoon of Dijon mustard; lemon juice, just a dash; cream, about a tablespoonful.

Very Nice Recipe

February 20, 2009

Well here we are again. At least, here I am, and you are too, hopefully. In fact I’ve sat here 10 minutes and I still don’t know how to begin. Which is new to me.

I do have a recipe to share, no problems there. But how to present it so that you realise its true deliciousness? How not to put you off at the very first hurdle?

Its the name I’m worried about. I fear it will bring back memories from childhood of something pale and soggy, watery even, to be shunted to the side of the plate when nobody’s looking and hidden under a lettuce leaf.

So maybe I’ll write about something completely different. How ab0ut Nightime in London. Did you know that it isn’t the ever-present roar of traffic that keeps me awake at night? It isn’t the wail of police sirens every two minutes or the raucous laughter of urban youth.

It’s animals.

Actually the grunts and shrieks are positively blood-curdling. I thought someone was dying last night. The same mad cry over and over for about 10 minutes. And y0u know what it was? Foxes, mating.

London is completely overrun with them. And that’s not to mention the owl with his torpedo of a hoot and the little unknown animals who rustle through the undergrowth and squeal incessantly.

Maybe they’re about to be eaten.

Which reminds me, in a rather unpleasant and unvegetarian way, that I’m actually here to tell you a recipe.

Oh alright then, here goes. It’s Cauliflower Cheese.

There, I’ve done it. You still here? If you bear with me, I’ll try and explain why this version is nothing like the insipid morass you ate all those years ago.

For a start it doesn’t have cauliflower in it, but broccoli and potatoes. (And it could have slices of celeriac in it, was going to in fact, but I couldn’t find any in the local shops).

Secondly it’s not bland, but rich and tangy in a mature-cheddar kind of way.

And it’s simple. Just lightly cooked vegetables inundated with a creamy cheesy sauce, topped with more cheese and breadcrumbs and bunged in the oven for 25 minutes.

In fact the only possible stumbling block, as far as I can foresee, is the calorie count. There sure is a load of cream in here! Then again, you don’t get a meal this rich, sticky and crisp on the top and warmly  succulent in the middle, without adding a millimetre or so to your waistline.

Broccoli and Potato Gratin
for 4

500g potatoes, scrubbed and cut into chunks
250g broccoli florets
50g butter
50g plain flour
salt
400ml milk
150ml cream
150g grated cheddar – or Parmesan
25g oats

Set the oven to 180C/350F/Gas4.

Parboil the potatoes for 5 minutes, add the broccoli and simmer until just cooked: 8-10 more minutes. Drain well.

In a medium saucepan melt the butter, stir in the flour and heat for a minute. Then, ever so slowly, add in the milk, little by little to avoid any lumps. Gradually bring to the boil, by which time the sauce will have thickened. Mix in the cream, half the cheese and some salt.

Half the sauce goes into a 2 litre oven dish, dollop in the vegetables and pour the rest of the sauce over the top. Scatter on the remaining cheese and the breadcrumbs and cook for 25 minutes, or until the top of the gratin is golden-brown.

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When we were snowed in recently and I was at a loose end, my thoughts turned, inevitably, to food, and I began to wonder why so many people think vegetarian food is bland and heavy.

It can be, of course, judging by what’s dished up in many restaurants, where anything vegetarian is a poor second cousin to the real deal, meat. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Here are a few tips to ensure you don’t go down the road of stodgy vegetarian lasagne or gloopy mushroom stroganoff, or any other excuses for a meal that you’ll find in your local pub.

1. Depth of flavour
You have to work much harder to create full sensuous tastes when you don’t have meat. This comes partly from using herbs and good stock, but also from the cooking processes themselves. Lightly frying vegetables, from broccoli to potatoes, before you make them into a soup or stew, will bring out their flavour like nothing else can. Or slow roast aubergines, peppers or cherry tomatoes, with olive oil and herbs, before you add them to a casserole. Combining different cooking methods like this gives variety and adds fullness of taste and texture.

2. You don’t need fancy ingredients.
This is not what we’re taught I know, but good cooking is more about how you do what you do in the kitchen, than splashing out on expensive and exotic ingredients.

If your corner shop is anything like mine, you won’t always be able to get the crispest of lettuces, the plumpest of tomatoes, or even good potatoes.

What matters is what you do with what you buy. Make a good dressing and that lettuce will perk up magically. Mash those potatoes with lots of butter and pepper and they turn into wonderful comfort food. Cover tired cooked vegetables with dressing as you would a salad and they transform – that’s what they do in the Mediterranean and their food is revered all over the world.

3. Be simple.
It’s fun to go to town on some ornate dessert, but you don’t need to, even for guests who you want to impress. Simple is good too – what better pudding can there be than fresh strawberries with cream?

For the best fast lunch go for ripe cheese, pickle and bread (though here I am fussy and I do think that the bread must be really good, crumbly on the crust and warm and fresh within. Perk up suspect bread with a few drops of water and ten minutes in the oven.)

Above all, be imaginative and don’t sweat. Don’t let TV chefs make you believe it’s all about tears and heated tempers. It really isn’t. Good vegetarian food, like all culinary delights, is born out of having fun in the kitchen.