JOANNA'S FOOD: family cooking, from scratch, every day

Saturday, December 31, 2005

Happy New Year

We are in Switzerland, breaking all the culinary rules, having a lovely holiday, not taking photographs of all the delicious food we are eating, and preparing for a new year party this evening ... Happy New Year, and I promise to post more photographs in 2006.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Sticky Christmas meringues

I've just come back from a wonderful party given by Johanna the passionate cook, where I met a number of food bloggers. We all brought different biscuits, ate them (this after a delicious Austrian lunch of dips, sauerkraut and sausage, cheese fondue), and then swapped. I went with a boxful of meringues, and came home with a boxful of all sorts of beautiful & delicious biscuits. I made sticky Christmas meringues. This is how I did them:

Beat six egg whites with 375g icing sugar until it holds its shape. Meanwhile, chop 300g shelled pistachio nuts with 250-300g dates (I pulsed them in my Magimix, but you need to be careful not to make a puree, some texture is what you're looking for here). Fold this into the meringue mixture. When I made these yesterday, I used a tablespoon to make about 30 small meringues. Tomorrow I'm going to use this amount to make two big circular meringues (think Pavlova) which I will sandwich with creme fraiche and decorate with blueberries and icing sugar. Either way, they need about 1 1/2 hrs in a cool oven, 150C.


This week, I was watching Richard and Judy whilst clearing up the kitchen, and I heard an expression which encapsulates our way of eating - 80:20. Get it right 80% of the time, and don't fret about the rest. Then there's no need to be the kind of person who won't eat this and won't eat that, & it's all easy.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Soused herrings

Oily fish are, of course, something we should all be eating lots of, and I, for one, get fed up with variations on a salmon steak. So I was very pleased to see herring fillets on sale the other day, and snapped them up. I more or less followed Jane Grigson's recipe for Bismarck and rollmop herrings (I'm still not sure which are which, or what the distinction is). The result wasn't as good as I'd hoped. It was as if I'd used malt vinegar, when in fact I'd used a mixture of cider and red vinegars; and the fish itself had an overcooked texture after only four days. I should think the way to solve both problems would be to dilute the vinegar. At any rate, they don't have the melting texture I was hoping for, and which I know is achievable, because that's what I got at Heston Blumenthal's pub on Wednesday evening. Back to the drawing board.

This is what I did:

Soak 12 herring fillets in a brine made with 120g salt and 1.2l water. Two to three hours. While this is going on, make the marinade from: 600ml wine or cider vinegar (I was forced to use a mix of both, because there wasn't enough of either), 1 tbsp pickling spice (with dried chillies), some peppercorns, & 3 bay leaves. Bring this slowly up to a boil and then leave to cool. Drain the herrings, put them in a 1l Le Parfait jar with a sliced onion, then pour on enough vinegar to cover. Leave for at least four days.

I didn't roll them up around gherkin and sliced onion (which, now I come to think of it, is probably the distinction between a rollmop and a Bismarck herring). I wonder whether they would have been more tender if that's what I'd done. On the other hand, HB's herrings were clearly pickled flat, but his marinade was much gentler. I remember donkeys years ago (at least a couple of decades ago) pickling some mackerel fillets in home-made raspberry vinegar; I've often thought I should do it again, but couldn't remember how I did it ... pretty much as here, I should think (although I have some dim memory of baking them first in tea). It'll have to wait until next summer.

For Scandinavian, German and Austrian readers, this is probably a very routine recipe - some advice would be very welcome, even if you have to consult your mothers and grandmothers!

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Looking back

The other day, on the way to London to see Eleanor's first play (a five-minute scene acted by fellow students at Central School of Speech and Drama who had also written five-minute plays, great and varied evening), I bumped into an old friend at Reading station. He told me that he had just got back his cholesterol test results - high, too high, but not high enough to be taking statins. I gave him the address of this blog, and told him to look at the first or second post, where there's a general explanation of the changes we have made to our diet. The whole conversation reminded me of how we started out after Lucius came out of hospital. No longer any idea of what to eat, but a determination to improve the diet. Pretty soon, people began to ask about what we were doing, and, after a while, the blog was born. Now I'd be lost without it, and, more to the point, all my recipes would be lost - this is the best recipe filing system I know, and I don't do any of that fancy indexing you see on so many beautiful blogs made by people more technically compentent than I could ever be.

But now I've been worrying that people think I'm being prescriptive about what to eat - the aim of this blog is to explain what we are doing, not to tell other people how to eat. I've just been re-reading some of my early posts, and find that it also functions as a record of the journey we have made since Lucius was ill. My attitudes to the food industry & to supermarkets have changed fundamentally, and there's no going back - anyway, it's more fun shopping at the market, and from small producers, it's something you can look forward to doing, which is not true of any trip to any supermarket I've ever visited. I still go to the supermarket, because - well you know why, all the usual reasons, convenience, cost - but I try hard to use local suppliers as much as possible.

Before going to the plays, I went shopping with Catrin and her 12-week-old baby, a mixture of boring things like light bulbs & stain remover and more fun things like baby clothes. We found a vibrant pink dress for Cecily to wear on Christmas Day, and then retired to the Peter Jones cafe for tea and cake. Catrin remarked, as I chose a piece of lemon cake, that it must be difficult to stick to a low-fat diet when out and about. I told her that what we decided from the beginning that our approach to food should not be neurotic, no refusing food cooked by people kind enough to invite us out, no fussing over menus. So we decided to be strict at home, in order that we could break the rules when we wanted to or needed to. It seems to work; neither of us frets about "breaking" the rules, yet both of us eat very little saturated fat overall. On the other hand, we eat lots of delicious food, and never feel as if we're "on a diet".

There's another thing about blogging, and that's reading other people's food blogs, full of enthusiasms and stories, wonderful pictures, interesting lives. This weekend, I'm going to a blog party, hosted by Johanna the passionate cook, and it will be great to meet some of the people who I have found so inspiring over the last few months. What an extraordinary world we live in!

Christmas plans

The idea of a low-fat Christmas sounds inherently horrible; if Christmas is a celebration, there should be feasting and plenty. The problem is that if you are serious about making a life change, then it needs to encompass all areas of your life. Last year was the first post-heart attack Christmas, and we were nearly 20 for dinner. No-one sitting at the table guessed that Christmas dinner was well within our rules, with, I think, the sole exception of the brandy butter. It took lots of research, and the usual amount of planning, but I really wanted to make our traditional Christmas dinner fit into our new way of eating, and without anyone feeling deprived.

Just one problem … I didn’t have a blog this time last year, I didn’t write anything down - and now I can’t remember exactly how I did it. So I’m going to have to do all that research all over again.

I expect we started with smoked salmon, probably on bread, and sprinkled with coarse black pepper and lemon zest. This year, I’m not going to bother with the bread, I’ll just fold the salmon onto cocktail sticks. Less filling, prettier, less conventional. All those fish oils really are good for the brain, for the heart, and for the taste buds.

Next – well, turkey, obviously, cooked upside down so that the juices run into the breast. Also a baked ham (easy to cut off the fat if you need to). There’ll have been cranberry sauce, bread sauce made with skimmed milk which is no problem whatsoever if you flavour it well with bay and nutmeg and cloves. Roast potatoes, clearly, and then lots and lots of veg – carrots, red cabbage, Brussels sprouts, leeks, roasted onions (probably cooked in their skins, so that they steam, because all you have to do to prepare them is cut a little bit off the bottom so that they stand up straight), maybe some roast garlic. The key thing in a low fat diet is to regard the meat as an accompaniment to the vegetables, that way you get the balance right on the plate. I don’t think I did sausages, because, hey, isn’t there enough here already? I know I made a stuffing, it’s just that I can’t remember what it was; it will have been a departure from the normal sausage-based stuffing, because sausages are right off our menu, being pretty full of saturated fat. There are two options here, one is to say, it’s Christmas, I’m buying the very best sausages I can find (almost certainly at Henley farmers’ market, where you can buy them from the man who kept the pigs and then made the sausages) and we will eat them; the other is to research a really good stuffing recipe. I may end up doing both.

I remember very clearly that I decided not to make a Christmas pudding. None of us is very keen on Christmas pudding, so it wasn’t a big issue. I tried to move away from this particular tradition, but various guests said it wouldn’t be Christmas without a plum pudding. So I stood in the supermarket for a very long time, reading all the ingredients of all the puddings, until I found one which had a low fat content and a good lot of fruit. I made sure there were lots of little bowls of nuts and fresh dates dotted about the table, and that there were mandarins within reach of everyone. This year it will be easier, because I’m not cooking on the 25th itself, so I’m going to make a pudding which is a cross between meringue and Christmas cake. Recipe to follow when I’ve experimented with it. Meringue and fruit is the perfect low fat pudding, because the fat in an egg is all in the yolk; when you think of meringue and fruit, you tend to think summer berries, so Pavlova or Eton Mess. I am going to turn the whole thing on its head, and combine Christmassy soaked dried fruit with the meringue mix itself; it should cook into a gooey meringue. If it’s a disaster, I’ll just crumble it up into some fromage frais for a Christmas Mess!

We had cheese, too, the fantastically smelly Vacherin, which is made in the Alps from the milk which comes from the first spring grass which grows after the snow melts … if you’re not going to eat much cheese, you need to make it worth eating, and memorable. Cheese biscuits are a surprisingly fat-ridden product – we now use Matzos.

Here’s a recipe from Elizabeth David’s Christmas, which I bought last year to give my plans a boost (and which annoyingly began to fall apart the very first time I opened it, and which is now little more than a loose leaf folder of pages falling out). I didn’t do it, but it sounds ideal. It’s a great read, and full of unusual ideas, because ED didn’t enjoy Christmas, so didn’t feel the need to slavishly follow its traditions.

Rice and almond stuffing for turkey

1 teacup of risotto rice
60g sultanas
a big bunch of parsley
30g chopped onion
a strip of lemon peel
60g of shelled almonds (skin still on)
the turkey liver
60g butter (here I would use olive oil, judging the amount by eye)
juice of half a lemon

Cook the rice for 15 minutes in plenty of water. Soak the sultanas in warm water. Chop the parsley, onion and lemon peel, also the almonds. Lightly cook the liver in the oil, then chop it. Mix everything together, adding a little oil at the end.

ED says that the rice is flaky, light and dry when it emerges from the bird, because it isn’t bound with an egg. I would be very tempted to add an egg (probably just the white) to the mix, because it would make it much easier to serve and to eat.


Office dinner last night at the Hinds Head in Bray, Heston Blumenthal's gastropub. Lucky us. I threw caution to the winds and had thrice-cooked chips (yes, I know I am supposed to be telling you how we cut down on dietary fat, but you need to eat unsaturated fat, and, anyway, this is a way of life, not a diet which means you are allowed to break the rules occasionally, especially when not at home; also I started with soused herrings). I'd just been reading HB's ideas on cooking mashed potatoes (in Don't Sweat the Aubergine by Nicholas Clee) - 20mm slices, water at 70C for 40 minutes (yes, really!), potatoes plunged into cold water, reboil, drain, dry (yes!), push through a food mill, add warm milk, butter etc, warm through on a low heat, serve. Finally, eat. Me, I just boil up a few chunks, drain them, mash them with a little milk straight from the fridge. Fine. So I was interested to see if cooking chips in a similarly elaborate manner would make a difference (it tells you on the menu that they are cooked three times). And I have to say that, yes, it does. They were very crunchy, almost like roast potatoes, although they looked like chips. I'd have asked for the recipe, only this is not the type of eating we do at home.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Bean stew

This is instant winter-warming comfort food. It will be much much nicer when it turns into slow-cooked, fresh-from-the-garden, aren't-I-clever food, but that'll have to wait until next June. In the meantime, this is fine. It doesn't have to be open-a-tin instant, of course, you could make it from dried beans, and then it would taste even better. I wouldn't bother for just the two of us, but if I was making it in any quantity, I'd start from scratch (it only means thinking ahead a little, but we don't always want to be doing that).

Sweat a chopped onion in a little olive oil, garlic too, if you feel like it. When it's soft, add a can of chopped tomatoes, a drained can each of borlotti beans and of kidney beans, perhaps some dried herbs if they're not just dust in a jar. Bring it to a simmer, then add a bag of spinach leaves, cover the pan and cook through until the spinach has wilted.

There will be days when you have all the tins but no spinach; then you could add chopped parsley, or finely chopped spring onions, as it's definitely improved when there's something green in it. And, actually, more or less any old beans will do, too.

At this dark time of the year, when the days are short and shortening, it's hard to believe we'll ever be making bean stew fresh from the garden - podded and boiled, broad beans, borlotti beans, anything in between beans, cooked until tender then mixed with tomatoes, onions, garlic and herbs from the garden, dressed with olive oil. Delicious - low in fat and low in food miles; apart from the olive oil, we're talking food inches. Still, that's a long way off. Perhaps, as a pagan gardener's article of faith, I'll eat this winter bean stew on 21 December, as the year turns and the days start to lengthen. I can't wait.

Artichoke dip

I'm always on the lookout for quick and delicious things to eat instead of cheese. After Lucius had his heart attack, we were told to limit saturated fats, particularly in dairy foods. Cheese no more than twice a week, and never eat a piece bigger than a matchbox. I thought it would be difficult, I thought it would be depressing. Actually, it's been neither. These days I probably eat cheese once a fortnight at most, and then I make sure it's something really good. But that still leaves a number of meals when we would have been eating cheese, especially if it's soup, which it often is on a Sunday evening, or a Saturday lunchtime.

I'm not sure where the idea for this came from. Drain a jar of artichoke hearts. Whizz together with an equal quantity (by eye) of fat-free cottage cheese. At this point I added black pepper and lemon juice. It was good, but a little overwhelmed by the lemon juice. Next time, I think I'd add a quick grating of lemon zest instead. Good on toast and with crackers. Keeps well in the fridge.

A culinary disaster

Well, I was reading the Sunday papers, and somebody mentioned moules and chips, that delicious staple of Brussels. So I thought I'd cook it up (McCain's oven chips are less than 5% fat, and that's the "official" definition of a low-fat food, although who decides these things I don't know).

Next day, I'm preparing the mussels I bought that morning in the supermarket. Lucius comes in and, sounding very disappointed, says, "oh, I don't really like mussels." Heartlessly, I tell him he can't have his favourite every day. (Do you know that wonderful New Yorker cartoon of a husband saying to his wife, "Not my favourite again"?) But pretty soon I find I've thrown away more mussels than I've put in the pan, and I begin to think that I don't want to eat the remaining few on the grounds that they are going off faster than I can cook them. So I chuck the lot, resolving to go and complain in the supermarket (which prides itself on its fish, and should know better). It is at this point that I realise there's nothing else fresh to eat.

I hunt through the larder (rather a grand word for a few cool shelves in the corridor outside the kitchen), and all I can find is a couple of tins of tunafish. The problem is that these days chefs and cookery writers have given up tinned fish in favour of fresh (mostly a good thing, but you can't use fresh for tuna bake - you know, tuna, tinned sweetcorn, mushroom soup, crisps on top, children's favourite fish dish). So I blew the dust off a wonderful book I don't use often enough, an old-fashioned book full of good things, Suppers by Claire Macdonald of Macdonald. Lady Macdonald and her husband used to run (perhaps they still do, but I haven't seen their advertisements in The Spectator for years) a hotel in Skye called Kinloch Lodge. I've never stayed there, but rather wish I had, because Lady Macdonald's books are full of unpretentious, tasty, welcoming food.

So, instead of moules and chips, we had Lady Macdonald's devilled tunafish (although I didn't do it exactly as I was told). I made tons of it, and used the leftovers in sandwiches, a distinct improvement on tuna mayonnaise, which is generally rather bland, and obviously out of the question for us to eat. You'll need tins of tunafish, an onion, milk, a lemon, and the rest you'll probably have anyway.

Devilled tunafish

Slowly cook a chopped onion in a little oil. When it's soft, add a little flour and make a white sauce with a pint of skimmed milk. When the sauce is cooked through, take it off the heat and add 2 tbsp each of lemon juice, dry sherry and Worcester sauce, then 3 tbsp tomato ketchup. Stir in the tunafish from three tins and warm through.

Meanwhile, whizz a couple of slices of bread in the processor with a handful of parsley and an anchovy fillet. Then fry this mix in a little olive oil until it's crisp and golden. Serve together.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Rubbish ...

I’ve been thinking about rubbish quite a lot recently, because I feel guilty about how little we recycle and compost. The other day, as I was struggling with the bin under the kitchen sink, I wondered what other keen cooks and food bloggers do with their rubbish. So I fired off an email, and got an instant response from Andrew of Spittoonextra, who lives just down the road from me. What can I say? Not only is he the food blogging beginner’s best friend, he’s also a keen recycler – he was the first in his street to use the new-ish recycling bins supplied by the council, and he used to sort through the bin of a rubbish flatmate who refused to recycle. What a hero!

Most of the rest of us are doing what we can, and feeling guilty that it’s probably not enough. Sam from Becks & Posh in San Francisco recycles diligently, but her Fred thinks it’s all a big sham. I think that’s the problem for lots of us – all those stories you hear about how it all ends up in landfill even if you’ve sorted it, or the thought that the main ingredient in glass is the energy required to make the bottle, which is lost the moment you smash it into the bottle bank.

Anne at Anne’s Food keeps her trash under the sink, lining the bin with used plastic groceries bags (that’s what I do). Her block of flats (in Stockholm) has a recycling room, where they put paper, glass, bottles and cans. She doesn’t bother with milk cartons, though, because she says she doesn’t have much rubbish, and “it just doesn’t feel very urgent.” She thinks she’ll feel differently when she has a family. Dagmar at A Cat in the Kitchen doesn’t have a recycling room in her apartment block (also in Sweden), so she throws out everything except newspapers and bottles, and she has to find places to take them. She says: “I don’t know many people at all who compost their leftovers or recycle empty cans, probably because we lack the possibility.”

It’s a tricky issue. In theory, I feel just like Andrew about recycling, but in practice I don’t necessarily have time, can’t always be bothered, and am sceptical about some of the claims. On the other hand, I am getting more serious about growing things to eat – it started with a few herbs, and now includes spinach, garlic, courgettes, pumpkins, melons, artichokes, beans and failed peas (the mice got them) – which means getting more serious about composting. I have a beautiful compost bin which looks like a beehive (people often say when they see it, “I didn’t know you kept bees”). I put some of the kitchen waste into this. It doesn’t rot down very quickly, and this is because I am playing at it, like Marie Antoinette at the Petit Trianon. And I’ve been worrying about putting non-organic waste into the compost because, for me, the main point of growing food is that it should be organic.

So last week, as well as starting this meme, I emailed Monty Don, who writes intelligently about gardening, and who presents the British TV programme Gardener’s World, to ask him whether the nasties in non-organic kitchen waste would get through to the compost. He sent me a very helpful and reassuring email back, and, although I don’t think my compost would necessarily pass the Soil Association mark, it’s better than not composting, and it’s probably good enough.

This is what he said:

Dear Joanna

Too much angst! The composting process will get rid of almost all toxins, be they man-induced or natural. Chuck anything onto the heap and it will come out the other end all organic sweetness and light. The secret, of course, is to compost it well so that everything is turned into that dry elixir of sweet smelling crumbly black loam.

Two things are the key to good compost

1) Shredding/chopping/mowing. This makes a HUGE difference.

2) Turning. Ideally once a month until it is ready - in our case three
turns and then a final turn 3-6 months before using.

Other than that just chuck it all on and let the bacterial and anaerobic
process do the rest.

Just one thing - why have ANY non-organic waste? Just buy organic.

Best wishes

So I am just off to buy one of those compost bins that is a drum you can turn with a handle, because, with the best will in the world, I am not going out in all weathers (or any weather come to that) to turn my compost heap with a spade.