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.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Chilli jam

This is terrific chilli jam, better than any I've made before. It takes moments to prepare, and then not quite an hour and a half to simmer before bottling. This is enough for nearly three Bonne Maman jars.

Blend 400g whole tomatoes, four chillies (seeds and all), six cloves of garlic, two small knobs of ginger (don't bother to peel them), & 30 ml of Thai fish sauce (half a little bottle). Put this in a saucepan with 450g ordinary sugar, and 8 tbsp red wine vinegar. Bring to a simmer. Meanwhile, finely chop another 400g tomatoes. Add them to the pan, and gently simmer for at least an hour, stirring occasionally. You have to judge for yourself when it's cooked, and it may well take longer than an hour to reach a set (it will set without trouble, because tomatoes are full of pectin).

I like this best of all with crab cakes, but it's also good stirred into pasta, in sandwiches, with cold meat.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

A St Andrew's Day feast

Just back from St Andrew's Day at Eton, to collect Horatio. He spent the morning playing rackets against Old Etonians, beating them 3-0, and then rushing on to play in a football match against yet more Old Etonians, beating them 4-2. I managed to fit in a quick visit to the art school on the way from rackets court to soccer pitch, where there was some stunning work. Horatio's series of three showed Churchill + bulldog, first in collage, then in print, then abstrcted into a huge oil painting, in which, by some magical & probably unintended process, Churchill looked rather like Mussolini. There was also an exhibition of late 20th century St Ives painters, so a chance to commune with Terry Frost, Rachel Nicholson, Hepworth, and best of all Patrick Heron. No chance of affording even the lithographs!

On the way home, I suddenly realised I had made no plans whatsoever for lunch. So, when we got home, I put on a tomato sauce (one large onion, a tin of good Italian tomatoes, the chopped remains of last night's tomato salad, some olive oil and the end of a bottle of red wine). Then I put on some maccheroni, nice artisanal pasta of the sort you can buy in Waitrose. So far so ordinary. Especially dull for those of us who don't eat much cheese, and prefer to save the notional allowance for savouring a little piece at a time (no bigger than a matchbox, no more than twice a week). So I blitzed the end of a sourdough loaf, added a couple of anchovies from the jar I generally have in the fridge, fried that in some olive oil. When it was crunchy, a grated on a little lemon zest and added a few chopped parsley leaves. I felt almost sorry for Horatio, topping his pasta with boring old parmesan!

Friday, November 18, 2005

Spicy chicken with dried plums

Here's proof that "low fat" food isn't boring - this is a good supper dish by anyone's standards, with the advantage of being quick and easy. Spicy but not hot.

You'll need some chicken breasts, prunes, and a little stock.

Chop an onion and sweat it in some olive oil; add finely chopped garlic just as the onion is beginning to brown. After a moment, add half a teaspoon each of turmeric, coriander, ginger and cinnamon. Slice three or four chicken breasts, add these to the pan. When they have browned, add a couple of large squirts of tomato puree (or the contents of one of those tiny tins), and 300ml of liquid, which can be water, chicken stock, veg stock, whatever you have to hand. The chicken will neeed to cook for 15-20 minutes. Add 150-250g prunes to this. If they are the expensive, half-dried sort, add them towards the end of the cooking time, as they will only have to warm through; if they are the cheaper ones, then put them in with the chicken; if they're really hard, it would be a good idea to soak them first (probably in the cooking liquid).

We ate this last night with broad beans in white sauce, boiled Shetland Black potatoes (very floury, quite tasty), and a tomato salad.

Last night there was a heavy frost, the heaviest so far this autumn, and as heavy as any we had all through last winter. We woke this morning to a whitened world. The thermometer showed two degrees of frost, despite being in quite a sheltered spot. This is what my herb bed looked like:

Thursday, November 17, 2005

A little light reading for a cold dark winter day

The weather here has suddenly turned cold, we've had two or even three frosts this week, so I need to go out and deal with the blackened foliage of my dahlias. Not an inviting prospect. Instead, I've been reading essays by Elizabeth David, in Is there a Nutmeg in the House, and in An Omelette and a Glass of Wine. Inspiring ...

I'm almost ashamed to say what it has inspired me to do today - there were strawberries at the market, so I am going to make Sir Walter Raleigh's recipe for "cordial water" which he regarded as medicine for cleansing the blood, whatever that means. It's a summery equivalent to sloe gin, with strawberries and vodka. The only thing that stops it being really embarrassing is that the strawberries were grown in Berkshire (the next county) rather than air-freighted half way across the world.

I'm going to soak 1.4kg of strawberries in a litre of vodka, probably for 3-4 days, and then add some sugar. ED says she regretted omitting sugar. Can't imagine how it will taste, but it will make a good Christmas drink, and anyway I forgot to pick sloes last month.

Every time I pick up a book of Elizabeth David's, I'm entranced. She writes so well, and has such interesting things to say about food, particularly its history. I nearly always end up cooking one or two dishes. All the same, I have one major reservation about her, which is that I can't help feeling that her strong emphasis on food from France and Italy was partly responsible for the collapse of interest in traditional British food in the 1950s and 60s. On the other hand, we are a trading nation with long-standing culinary influences from abroad (think curry/kedgeree rather than "nasty greasy foreign muck") , & it was a time when our population was diversifying, with all that that meant for our country's cookery. And although she wrote a wonderful book about British baking, that came later, and was never so popular as the earlier books covering Mediterranean foods. Still, we can't lay all the blame at her door, and I suppose we should be pleased at the revival of the best of British cookery which has taken place over the past few years.

The other thing I did today in an effort to keep myself indoors was to add a counter to my blog. It took about three minutes.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Stuffed pumpkin

This is adapted from the blue River Cafe book, but Ruth and Rose wouldn't approve, because I didn't use the right pumpkin, and I didn't cook the potatoes specially, they were just there, in the fridge, left over from another day.

Halve a butternut lengthwise. Crush some salt, peppercorns and a dried chilli, using a pestle and mortar (these words, apparently, put people off cooking, but I find using a pestle a mortar curiously satisfying, there's something elemental about all that crushing). Smear the spices on the pumpkin and drizzle with oil. Bake in a hot oven for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, either cook some new potatoes, or take them out of the fridge. Either way, they should be diced quite small, coated in olive oil and liberally strewn with chopped garlic and thyme. Put them in and on the pumpkin, and bake for a further half hour, until it's all crunchy and slightly blackened at the edges.

Lucius said, approvingly, that he couldn't taste the pumpkin because of all the garlic. I have now used up the entire pumpkin mountain, and will try to incorporate orange food into our diet using something else. Stand by for some carrot recipes!

Stuffed mushrooms

Shirley Conran, mystifyingly, said that life was too short to stuff a mushroom. It took a couple of moments, and they were delicious.

Cook one chopped onion in olive oil. Blitz 4-5 slices of good bread, then add some thyme, parsley, garlic, a tomato with the seeds removed (use a teaspoon), the stems of the mushrooms you are going to stuff, a tin of anchovies and its oil, and the cooked onions. Brown the mushrooms (I used four field mushrooms) on both sides, put them in a dish, cover with the stuffing, and bake in a hot oven for 20-25 minutes.

There's a bit of this mixture left over, and I am going to use it as a sort of rouille for the fish soup we are having for lunch. (I'm currently simmering a tomato sauce, and, when it's time to eat, I will add some sliced squid, a few prawns, and some scallops.)

Friday, November 11, 2005

Crab pasta

I love this, because it's delicious, because it's quick, and because it's a little extravagent without being indulgent. We had it for supper last night, following an avocado vinaigrette, which is Lucius's best starter.

Cook enough pasta for two or three people (one not particularly big dressed crab will stretch to pasta for three, and is not too much for two). Do not succumb to the temptation to use so-called fresh pasta from the supermarket - either used dried, which is both better and cheaper, or take time to make it yourself (a very rare but always enjoyable event in this house). Finely chop some spring onions and a red chilli pepper. Grate the zest of a lemon, then juice it. When the pasta is cooked, turn it in a little olive oil, add the lemon juice, the flesh of a dressed crab, and all the veg. Mix and serve.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Pumpkin risotto

Yesterday I spent the day with Eleanor in London. We met at the Tate Britain, where the Turner prize exhibits are better than they have been for years. There's a wonderful & emotional video installation by Darren Almond based on a journey with the artist's grandmother back to Blackpool where she had spent her honeymoon. It is tender, beautiful and profound, time past and time present all in one room. There's also some sensational painting by Gillian Carnegie, including two completely black paintings of a wood, which, as you can see, don't reproduce very well. Then we moved on to look at the photographs of Roger Fenton, whose pictures of the Crimean war do not show battlefields but logistics, and whose British landscapes are as stunning as the best painting. We traipsed round a couple of the permanent galleries, and, on the way out, I noticed there was a small temporary exhibition of the montage work of John Heartfield, the German communist who consistently criticised the Nazis during the 20s and 30s, and who eventually fled to Britain. There were images I had never seen before (I'm a historian, and Heartfield's work comes up all the time when you're looking at interwar Germany). Powerful stuff.

We had lunch at The Ebury in Pimlico Road, which I remember from my 20s when I lived in Pimlico as a scruffy pub. Now it's been thoroughly made over into a chic restaurant, full of slightly terrifying women whose instinct is to boss rather than to nurture. The menu was good, although Eleanor laughed at some of its pretentiousness, especially the notion of crushed potatoes.
Whatever, the menu lived up to its promise, and I had a very good, smooth pumpkin risotto. Everyone laughed at me for photographing it - the waitress was sneering in an offhand kind of way: "I hope you enjoy eating it as much as looking at it." It's the kind of restaurant where they take the 12.5% service charge without worrying about whether or not they deserve it; I'm still old-fashioned enough to believe that a tip (or, more accurately, the amount of the tip) should be a matter of choice, depending on whether it's been earned.

So, pumpkin risotto for dinner, seeing as there were a couple of butternuts in the veg basket waiting to be eaten. I had to improvise, as all the recipes I read were for risotto with pumpkin chunks. They were also all flavoured with sage, and it was raining, so I didn't want to go out in the dark and wet to pick leaves. All squashes pick up spice flavours well, so I decided on cinnamon.

Gently stew one chopped onion in olive oil. Remove. Stew the diced flesh of one butternut until it's soft. Add a little of this to the onion; process the rest until it's smooth, adding liquid if necessary. Return the onion mix to the pan, add a teaspoon of ground cinnamon, and enough risotto rice for three or four people. Stir, then add some white wine. Boil off the alcohol. Cook the rice by adding small amounts of hot water from the kettle. When the rice is almost done, add the pumpkin puree. Serve with flakes of parmesan, pepper, and toasted pine nuts.

That's what I did, because it's what I had. It would have been improved by the use of stock, but I didn't have any in the fridge, and I no longer use stock cubes because even the best ones are full of things I don't really want to eat. Using water was fine, although it would have been better if I'd gone out into the rain and fetched a couple of bay leaves to liven it up. It would also have been nicer if I'd chopped some parsley into it at the end, and that's what I'll do next time. Despite the limitations, it was good and creamy, with a little bit of bite provided by the onion and squash mix. It would also be good, and much less trouble, without making the puree.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

14 in the house, so pumpkin, pork, lamb - but no oven!

Last week Johanna "the passionate cook" posted a recipe for roast squash bites with pumpkin seed pesto, and I thought it sounded good to eat. She published a photo of beautifully presented canapes of the sort I can never get right. So I simplified it, threw it on a plate, and three people asked for the recipe. With apologies and thanks to Johanna, this is what I did:

Pumpkin and pesto

Peel and chunk one butternut squash, put in a roasting dish, drizzle with oil and roast in a hot oven until cooked through. Meanwhile, dry roast 2 tablespoons of pumpkin seeds, and put in the food processor. Add an equal quantity by volume (by eye) of finely grated parmesan, and 4 tablespoons of oil. Blitz.

When the pumpkin is done and slightly cooled, put it in a single layer on a plate, and arrange the pesto over it in little dollops so that each chunk has some pesto on it. Spear a few of them with cocktail sticks and hand round.

Johanna specifies pumpkin oil, which I couldn't get in my local Waitrose, so I used something called Cool Oil, made by The Groovy Food Company, which my local Waitrose does stock and which I bought in a fit of keenness last year, because it's made with flax oil, hemp oil, evening primrose oil, and pumpkin seed oil, so it's rich in Omega 3, 6, 9. The trouble is, it doesn't taste very nice, and my search is for food which is good for us, and particularly healthy heart food, and which - most importantly - tastes good. But it was good in this dish, and it doesn't stain - Johanna says that pure pumpkin seed oil stains yellow. My nicest jumper got stained last weekend with saffron which I can't wash out ... on the other hand, it was delicious!

My oven still isn't working, so everything has to be cooked on a small hob (two rings, one big, one small) - tricky when we are so many. On the other hand, a great opportunity to cook new things. I got out the Moro cookbook - although I've read it, I haven't followed many recipes from scratch. This lamb (simplified) is a great one-pot dinner full of lots of flavours. I'm going back to the amounts for six, although I tripled this last night, and almost all of it got eaten.

Slow-cooked lamb with artichokes and mint

Slow cook an onion in olive oil until it's soft. Add 1.5kg neck of lamb cut into chunks. Brown the meat. Then stir in a little flour to thicken the sauce. At the same time add some garlic (3-4 peeled cloves), and some thyme (if it's from the supermarket, then chop it; if it's tougher and from the garden, then put in a small branch which you can retrieve later). Also some bay leaves, if you have them. Add 200ml dry sherry, let it bubble and cook for a couple of minutes, then barely cover the meat with water. Simmer gently with the lid half off until the meat is tender. After 1-1 1/2 hrs, add small new potatoes. When these are almost cooked, add a couple of jars of drained artichoke hearts to warm through, and a bunch of chopped mint.

Porridge for breakfast. Then we all had to build up an appetite for lunch, so ... Lucius carried on planing wood for a new ceiling he is making for our dining room; Lettice (15) went to county hockey training; Horatio (17) and Alfred (13) played on the PS2 (although in fairness they played football after lunch); Catrin fed her lovely new baby Cecily (7 weeks); and the rest of us went to the farmers' market in town.

Meanwhile, simmering in my biggest saucepan were two joints of pork in milk. I'm not sure whether we were following the recipe in Moro or the very similar one in the blue River Cafe book. Whichever, it was great, although the sauce didn't caramelise in quite the way described. This is what we did:

Pork in milk

Menna took the skin and most of the fat off two roasting joints of pork. Meanwhile, I bashed up some salt, mixed colour peppercorns and chopped thyme. This we rubbed into the meat and tied it up again. I browned these in oil, then covered the meat with milk. Neither of the recipes specified what sort of milk we should use, so I used what I had, which was semi-skimmed. I now think full fat would have worked better. I lobbed in a stick of cinnamon, some bay leaves, and a little lemon zest. This we simmered for 1 1/2hrs. We served it with mustardy mash and a courgette salad.

Lettice said there should have been peas as well. Catrin said she had cooked a chicken using the same method from a Jamie Oliver recipe. Either way, it was delicious, and there was nothing left, even though in the end we were only 11 for lunch, not 14.

Then we had homemade membrillo made by Bruce and Menna from the quinces in their garden with manchengo, a dry Spanish cheese, and wonderful rosemary and potato bread from the farmers' market. No need for supper.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

A bit of a rant

Eating healthily has involved us in trying to turn away from the food industry at least some of the time; part of this means being more self-reliant - more cooking, some growing. Not on an allotment scale (I'm never going to grow maincrop potatoes), but a few life-enhancing fruit and veg (the melon experiment was a huge success, also very easy), and lots of herbs. So this year has been a turning point in the vegetable garden here - & now I'm keen to grow lots more, even though the mice got the peas, the broad beans got blackfly and I forgot to plant the garlic. I've found a terrific resource, The Real Seed Catalogue, run by a couple called Ben and Kate from their small farm in Pembrokeshire. They grow most of the seeds they sell, and they have really unusual varieties: I'm going to try an early Ukranian melon called, irresistibly, Collective Farm Woman.

Ben and Kate are on a mission - they sell books by the 70s self-sufficiency guru John Seymour, and they give instructions for saving seed even though it can't be good for business. They're not keen on the food industry either; they concentrate their dislike on the big seed companies. This is what they say - it struck a huge chord here:

"... real farming is a project that has been ongoing for millenia, but now in the height of our tiny period of cheap oil, we think we know better and have turned it into just another industrial process. Your loaf of bread should represent stored sunlight and water, but 90% of its calories come from oil these days - for the ploughing, spraying, fertiliser, transport. When the oil runs out, who will have the real seeds that can grow without it? Seed-saving is easy. You will get better seed, better food, and help preserve 11,000 years of work for future generations!"

The trick will be to see if I can carry on feeling inspired by this attitude, rather than guilty if I don't live up to it. It didn't take much effort to sow the parsley, and every time I cut some (most days), I'm not using one of those one-trip plastic boxes supermarket herbs are packed in. So that's a gain (and the parsley tastes better). Tiny steps, one at a time, and, like a toddler, I expect to fall down quite a lot. It's the best I can do.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Daube provencale

Today we were 11 for lunch. My oven's not working, so no question of a Sunday roast. Stew. This recipe is one I've used off and on for years, it's very easy and is full of complex flavours. The amounts here serve 4-6, but it's the sort of recipe that doubles up pretty easily, so I often use it for a crowd.

1kg braising beef - topside, shin, etc cut into thick slices (you can cook this in one piece, although obviously then it takes a couple of hours to cook, rather than an hour or so).
275ml red wine
3 tbs olive oil
2 crushed cloves of garlic
a branch of thyme (or a tsp dried herbes de provence)
100g bacon
1 onion, chopped
225g chopped tomatoes
a strip of orange peel
some anchovy fillets

Mix the wine, oil, garlic and herbs in a large bowl. Add the beef and marinade for at least a couple of hours, and up to two days. Soften the onion and bacon together in a casserole, add the beef & marinade. If you are very keen (and I'm mostly not) you could brown the beef slices before adding them to the dish; I'm more likely to do this if I'm cooking the beef in one piece). Add the tomatoes, anchovy and orange peel. Bring to the boil, and simmer on a low heat for an hour or so. OR put in a low oven (160C).

This is delicious with mashed potato. Today I served it with small new potatoes smothered in parsley; braised leeks; courgette and lemon salad; peas. Not very provencale, but easy and good.

Gravadlax cucumber

Last night I tried another of Sarah Raven's recipes. I expect she makes it with home grown cucumbers, but I used it to make a bland commercial cucumber taste of something. The flavours are exactly the same as in the gravadlax salmon I bought in Waitrose last week. Lucius said it was delicious, and I agreed although I thought there was too much sugar. I'm posting it because I'd like to make it again.

Cucumber and dill salad for four

1 large cucumber
85 ml wine vinegar (Sarah specifies rice wine vinegar, but I don't keep that)
115g caster sugar
some dill

Heat the vinegar and sugar until all the grains have disappeared. Thinly slice the cucumber (I used the potato peeler as for the courgette salad below, which, although successful, was not as successful as with the courgette, because cucumber is inherently more watery, less firm). Chop the dill and mix with the cucumber. When the vinegar has cooled, pour it on the salad, and chill for at least an hour. I peppered it at this point. Next time, I'd add salt to make the finished dish more sweet and sour (I use very little salt in my cooking, but I am happy to use it where I think it will improve the end result).

Sarah says you can chill this overnight; I chilled it for two hours, and it was quite watery by then. Next time, I would put the sliced cucumber into a colander to drain it for half an hour or so.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Courgette salad

Until I started growing courgettes, I wasn't that keen to eat them. The ones you buy in the supermarket don't taste of much, and they have a lot of seeds. The ones you grow (and see my post about melons, below, they really grow themselves) don't have many seeds, and do have a lot of taste (only the children still won't eat them). Today, I spent a lot of the day looking forward to supper, because I wanted to eat:

Delicious courgette and lemon salad

Use one courgette per person, and half a lemon per two courgettes.

Slice courgettes lengthwise using a potato peeler. This is a piece of equipment which has a place in my kitchen only because my husband and children will not use a knife to peel potatoes. I use a knife, as I'm not keen on gadgets. But I discovered today that the easiest way to slice courgettes thinly is with a potato peeler. It's quite wasteful, but I put the bits on the compost heap, and, anyway, there are a lot of courgettes.

Make a dressing with lemon juice and zest, olive oil and a little honey or sugar to sweeten. Salt and pepper, obviously. Add some toasted pine nuts (not too many, otherwise they'll end up in the bin, because the courgettes are the thing here). Also chopped parsley.

This recipe comes, slightly adapted, from Sarah Raven in last Sunday's Observer food supplement. I'm going to add a link to Sarah's website, because she taught me to garden. I went to a couple of her courses; very expensive, like her seeds and other stuff from her catalogue, but well worth it. In the case of her courses, she has given me the lasting gift of enthusiasm for the garden and gardening, plus the feeling that everything is possible - a hugely important gift. In the case of her seed etc catalogue, she has such a good eye that everything in the catalogue is worth buying.

I'd just like to say here that this is the first year I've ever grown parsley. We have a huge glut of it, so it goes on all sorts of things. I often go out into the garden with a torch to pick it. Sometimes I don't bother with the torch, and just go in the dark. You can smell the parsley. It has a strong smell, and it is juicy. It is nothing like the parsley you buy wrapped in plastic. It is delicious. It is worth growing. It is cheaper to grow it. I would now grow it in a pot on a windowsill if that was the only place I could grow it. And if I couldn't germinate it (this is the first year I've managed), then I'd plant up some of the plants you can buy all year round in the supermarket. And, yes, I'm talking about ordinary curly parsley, not the fashionable flat leafed stuff.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Melons from the garden

Last year, I grew - without any real effort on my part - a mountain of different squashes. They looked wonderful, I thought they were delicious, but the rest of the family quickly got bored of eating them. So this year, I thought I'd try to grow melons as well. I stuck a few seeds in some compost and put the pots on my study windowsill, and after a week or two I planted them out (probably April and May). I watered them a couple of times and then left them to it - it's a sunny bed, and we have heavy clay soil which retains moisture in that part of the garden, so things have to take their chances. I read an article about growing melons, describing horrendous amounts of work building a frame, pinching them out and tying them in. I ignored it. The melons rampaged over the bed, trailing in and out of the squashes, and over the lawn, an untidy but pretty promise of good things to come.

On Sunday, for lunch, we ate the first of them, as they are only just ripening. What's more, we ate them in the garden, even though it was the first day of October.

They were delicious, sweet, and contrasted wonderfully with the Parma ham. I'm definitely growing them again next year; I'm going to use the same method, only this time, I'm going to grow more, and I might put some in the greenhouse, which usually only houses tomatoes in the summer (although something tells me they'll be more trouble in a greenhouse, and I don't have much experience of growing things under cover). I'm sure that I would have got more melons if I'd done all the things suggested in the article, but about 25 from three plants isn't bad, especially for about 10 minutes' effort.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Saffron mash

Dagmar sent me saffron from the back of her kitchen cupboard, and I've had a very merry week reading cookery books to decide what to cook with it. I associate saffron above all with Cornwall, with the smell of the bakery in Market Jew Street in Penzance, and the beautiful golden cakes you can buy there. When we were staying at Prussia Cove, my friend Susan, who is a wonderful cook, once made us a delicious saffron-scented fish stew after an early-morning trip to the fishmonger in Newlyn. Elizabeth David's book on yeast cookery gives a recipe for a Cornish saffron bread - no good for us, because it's enriched with lots of butter, just like a brioche. The next obvious place to look is in Claudia Roden, because saffron is such a feature of Middle Eastern cookery: delicious-sounding rice recipes, which I will try another time, but I'm the only member of my family who truly likes rice. My elder daughter Eleanor, who is a drama student, was visiting, and her favourite food is mashed potato, so I decided to cook Simon Hopkinson's saffron mash, from his book Roast Chicken and Other Stories, which has recently been voted the best cookbook ever (astonishing - to him as well - because although it's good, you wonder how the voters forgot about E David, J Grigson, C Roden, etc etc etc). I hadn't made it before, and I thought it might make me feel more enthusiastic about the book (it worked). We didn't quite finish it, and the next morning, the fridge was delicious with the scent of saffron, so that I am now determined to remember to use saffron more often in my cooking.

Simon Hopkinson's saffron mash

900g floury potatoes, peeled
1 tsp saffron threads
1 large clove of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
200 ml milk (SH specifies creamy; I, of course, used skimmed)
200ml olive oil

Boil the potatoes. Meanwhile infuse the saffron and garlic in the warmed milk. Drain and mash the potatoes. Reheat the infusion and add the olive oil. Add the saffron to the potatoes and mix well (he suggests using an electric mixer, but I just carried on with the potato masher). Stand in a warm place for half an hour to let the saffron flavour develop.

PS just before writing this, we had homemade pizza for lunch, topped with a little tomato sauce, some anchovies, and a generous cutting of chopped parsley and chives added as the pizza came out of the oven. As I was eating it, I thought next time I might add some raisins and capers soaked in an infusion of warm water and saffron, a sort of homage to Venice and the spice route rolled into one! I also wondered about adding a little saffron into the pizza dough, but I can't help feeling that there may be a reason all the saffron / yeast recipes also include lashings of butter ...

Wednesday, September 28, 2005


This post is for my sister, who lives thousands of miles away in California, and who we don't see much. But - amazingly - she's just been over for three days, so last night I had dinner with her. At some point we started reminiscing, and we've done this so often that we now only need a couple of buzzwords to conjure up the memories. One of those buzzwords is beetroot, because we always had beetroot for school lunch on a Wednesday (what torture to give children exactly the same food each week!). The beetroot (soused in harsh malt vinegar) was accompanied by lumpy mashed potato and corned beef. When we were sent to a different school which sent us home early one day a week, we begged our mother to give us beetroot for lunch, and she did, accompanied by liver, another of our favourites.

Well I still love pickled beetroot, and so does my sister, but I much prefer the sweetness of baked beet, and I even like it raw. We often eat it, and it tastes nothing like the harsh sliced beetroot of my childhood.

Baked beetroot

Cut raw beets into chunks. I tend to use small beets, a bit bigger than a golf ball, and quarter them. Put them in a baking dish, add slithers of garlic, as many as you like, and some chopped thyme. Drizzle with oil (you don't want them sitting in a pool of oil) and mix until they are well coated. Bake in a hot oven for half an hour or so. Exact timings will obviously depend on the size of your chunks, but it's easy to tell when they're cooked, by piercing with a knife. This is good hot or cold. We eat it as a starter, with salmon, with chicken breasts & salsa verde, with lamb, or for lunch with bread and a little feta or goat's cheese.

Raw beetroot salad

Grate 4 small beetroot (c 725g). Finely chop a big bunch of coriander and of mint and add to the beet. Dress with the juice of a lemon. All this is obviously easier if you have a Magimix. Serve with 0% Greek yoghurt. I've adapted this from a recipe in Nigella Lawson's How to Eat.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

What a lovely surprise ...

This week I'm taking part in a wonderful event called Euro Blogging by Post, in which bloggers send each other food parcels. It's organised by Andrew of, who, amazingly, turns out to live down the road from me. When I got home from posting a parcel of quinces to a blogger in Austria, I found a parcel from Dagmar in Sweden on my hall table. It was like Christmas - so exciting, wondering what was in it. Dagmar has been reading my blog, so she thought of sending things which we could eat without feeling guilty ...

As you can see, there's rye crispbread, with lovely Swedish treats to put on them: smoked cod roe (in the little tubes), and herrings in mustard sauce. Now I can hear lots of English people thinking 'herrings in mustard sauce, ugh' - but they couldn't be more wrong. We ate them at my nephew's wedding in Stockholm earlier this month, and I am very keen to get a good recipe so that I can make them at home. There's also red tea flavoured with ligonberry and blueberry, which I'm looking forward to trying, and some of Dagmar's favourite sweets. AND there's a jar of homemade ligonberry jam, which I've left out of the photograph, and which I'm going to try at breakfast.

In the bottom left hand corner, there's a little packet of saffron from Dagmar's cupboard. I'm not sure what I'm going to make with it - perhaps a risotto, maybe some Cornish yeast cakes. But I'll keep you posted!

Thank you Dagmar ... you made my day.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Delicious fishcakes

I made these for supper last night, out of some leftover salmon and smoked salmon, adapting a recipe I often use for crab cakes. The salmon had been smothered in lemon zest after it was cooked, so the finished cakes were very lemony.

Mix and mash together 450g cooked salmon and smoked salmon. Add 50g Matzo meal, a quantity of chopped parsley and a little finely chopped chilli pepper. Stir together one egg, 2 tsp Dijon mustard, and a tablespoon of lemon juice. Mix this in with the fish, and leave to stand for at least half an hour. Fry in a drop of olive oil.

We ate this with a tomato salad dressed with olive oil and spring onions.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

The courgettes have turned into marrows ...

... I know, I know, if you pick them daily then you get lots of little finger sized courgettes of the sort supermarkets air freight in from Kenya and sell for huge sums. The trouble is that whenever I say that I'm going to pick some courgettes, the children all groan together, and so the days go by, and the courgettes remain unpicked. The children were all out for lunch yesterday, and I could barely lift the marrow I brought in.

I peeled it, quartered it lengthways, took out the seeds (very few, so although it was big, it wasn't tough), the cut it into inch-thick chunks. I put it in a dish with olive oil, finely chopped oregano from the garden, and coriander seeds & black pepper roughly bashed with the pestle and mortar. Then I covered it in foil and baked it in a hot oven for about half and hour. Not even slightly watery; good enough for Vicky to ask for the recipe (although honestly compels me to report that her husband Edmund keeps an allotment, so I expect she has a glut of marrows too).

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Long silence ...

... I was rather put off my stride by a comment made to me by someone who was asking about our diet. I said we followed advice to try to eat seven portions of fruit and veg a day, and was told firmly that half the world didn't have that much food. So I've been thinking about that, too. And in the bigger picture, this is a diet which is sustainable, because the more veg you eat, the less meat you eat, and meat is the most wasteful food in terms of world resources - I can't remember the figures, but you need to grow a lot of grass and/or cereal to produce one kilo of beef. The other part of the equation here is trying to eat food that is in season, rather than food which is flown half way round the world, tasting of very little at all. And that thought leads me to the next recipe, from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage Cookbook, for courgettes - well, in my case, more of a marrow, since no-one picked them while we were away.

Essence of courgette

Thinly slice the courgettes, and put them in a wide-based pan with some olive oil and a little garlic. Sweat these over a very low heat until they are all collapsed and there's no water in them. They shouldn't be allowed to go brown. Bash them up a bit, and eat them hot as a veg, or room temperature on bread or toast (ie bruschetta). HFW has several other things to do with this mixture, but, as they involve cream and a lot of cheese, I am not going to post them. However, I am going to see if I can adapt them, and will keep you posted (there are going to be a lot of courgettes over the next few weeks ...).

Sweet and sour aubergine

Make a tomato sauce with onions, garlic and tomatoes - I generally make quite a bit at once, because it's useful as it is on pasta, and it is useful as a short cut in daily cooking. It's just chopping and then slow sweating for an hour or two. Meanwhile, chop the aubergine into cubes, salt them, and leave them in a colander for an hour or so. I don't always bother to do this, but it definitely means you have firmer, "meatier" pieces of aubergine in the finished dish. When you're ready, rinse and squeeze the aubergine, and put them in a pan with some olive oil and brown them. Turn the heat down and add some tomato sauce, and here you have to decide what type of dish you want to end up with - I like it to be not too tomato-ey, because I don't want it to end up like ratatouille, but Lettice prefers it with lots of tomato. So I put in quite a lot less tomato than aubergine. At the same time, add a good lot of dried mint (and it really is better here than fresh mint), some chopped parsley, some red wine vinegar and some sugar. Yesterday, with a 2 aubergine mix, I put 2tsp dried mint, 2 mugs of chopped parsley (another post-holiday glut), 3tbsp vinegar and 1tbsp of sugar. Sweat it slowly for 15-20 minutes, until the aubergines are cooked.

This is good at room temperature. And if you've got some stale bread, you can toast it, break it up, and put it in the bottom of the serving dish.

Next time I make this, I will probably put in a little crumbled dried chilli.

This recipe is adapted from Claudia Roden, and the adaptation makes use of the tomato sauce that was already in my fridge. CR starts with onions and garlic, moves on to aubergine, and then adds tinned tomato and seasonings.

I've got lots of other things to post soon, because I've been away in Sri Lanka, eating a lot of different vegetable curries, and delicious salads. I find I am less and less interested in eating meat, because vegetables offer so much more variation of taste and texture. So I am rather pleased that what is sustainable as a personal diet is also a more sustainable diet for the planet.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Yeast starter for bread - & the bread

Last year I began reading everything on food labels, and was horrified by what I found. It was clear that the interests of the food manufacturers are not necessarily those of the individual. So I've been cutting down as much as possible on all processed foods, even apparently innocuous products such as tinned tomatoes, orange juice or bread. I haven't cut them all out all the time, and I certainly wouldn't want to - it's extremely useful to be able to open a tin of chickpeas in order to make hummous quickly. The new regime isn't about being neurotic about food, it's about making life as healthy as possible at home, in order not to worry too much when we're out and about. It's also about taking a view, aiming for balance, not fretting too much. In this way, lapses don't mean the end of the regime (as they would if we were "on a diet"), they just mean you know you should try a little harder for a day or two. This also means I can experiment with food - and I do, all the time.

So I began thinking about the bread we eat. I used to make it, but the children came to prefer sliced white flannel (what a galling admission!), and it gradually petered out. I got out of the habit. This was partly because it was a time-consuming and fiddly sort of breadmaking, involving searches in the supermarket for yeast, weighing ingredients out exactly, and generally fretting. I've been reading Dan Lepard's wonderful book, The Handmade Loaf, which proposes a very different, traditional method, using a starter. This is the bread which has been made for centuries, first in Europe, then taken by those admirable women who travelled across America in wagons, so that once on the West coast it became the sourdough loaf which is such a feature of San Franciscan cooking. This is food which you can adapt endlessly; it's food which involves sharing and generosity; it's food which fits in with a busy life. It also frees you from the food processing industry, especially if you can find a local source of flour.

Once you have a starter - yeast and flour, water, perhaps some sugar - all you have to do to make bread is mix part of it with some flour. Then you feed your starter with more flour, so that the process can begin again. If you want to help someone out by giving them some of your starter, just add a little more flour and water. If you don't want to make bread for a while, just leave the starter in the fridge until you do. When the moment comes to make bread, you can measure it all out carefully - or you can use your ladle to approximate the quantities. Despite using the same starter, you can make all kinds of different breads by changing the shape, the flour, the flavourings, the method of proving and kneading. It turns out that most bread has traditionally been made using a starter (to keep the yeast alive in the absence of a shop); it's only in the days of so-called convenience food that we have complicated things by making ourselves dependent on the supermarket.

It's not remotely complicated to make a starter, it just takes a few days. That is to say, it takes you a couple of moments, but you can't use it for a few days.


Dissolve 3 tsp dried yeast in 450ml warm water. Add 375g strong white flour. Cover, put to once side for at least three days, stirring twice a day. I used one of those French jars, about 8 or 9 inches tall, which was fine, except at the very beginning when it bubbled over, so I switched to a big bowl, which I covered with a teacloth. It seemed to be a one-off, because I now keep the starter in a French jar, and although it bubbles up when I add flour and water, it doesn't get anywhere near to overflowing.


1. Sift 175g strong white flour with 75g wholemeal flour, and some salt if you want (I leave it out, for me it's part of the point of making bread; apart from taste, the main effect of salt is to improve the keeping qualities of the bread).
2. Add 500ml of starter. Mix the starter and flour, adding a little more water to make a firm dough. You will have to feel your way here, so it would help if you've made dough before. Generally, you want to avoid using too much water, otherwise your loaf becomes rather hard (my early attempt at making buns, years ago, being known as bullets on account of too much water).
3. Knead the dough; you want it to be smooth, you want it to be what bakers call elastic, you'll know it when you get there, even if you haven't made bread before. It'll take 10 minutes by hand, no time at all in a Kenwood (indeed, using a machine, the danger is that you over-knead it). I can't give any advice about a breadmaker, because I've never used one.
4. Now it needs to be left to double in size. This is the moment when you can take control of the timings. If you want the loaf soonish, then leave it somewhere warm, and it will take about 2hrs. If you want it for breakfast, then put the loaf in the fridge, and it will take all night.
5. Knock it back (this just means giving it a punch to let out all the air), shape it, put it on a floured baking sheet, and leave it to prove. It's ready to bake when it's doubled in size. Slash it, cook it in a hot oven, 220C - check if it's done after half an hour (tap it on the bottom, it's ready when you get a hollow sound). It might take up to an hour.

Replenish the remaining starter with flour and water in the same quantities (a little maths is in order here). Now it will bubble away, waiting for the next loaf. This time, you could use different flour; you could decorate it with poppy seeds; you could dig out a recipe for ciabatta and make that instead (if it says to use processed/dried yeast, just use your starter). The second time you make a loaf using this method, you can just get on with it, because the starter is there, waiting for you to use it. Keep the starter in the fridge, just get it up to room temperature before you start mixing.

When you are adapting recipes, don't fret too much. The yeast in the starter will do most of the work for you, and it's forgiving stuff. Remember that the women who crossed America in the wagons didn't have scales, they just had measures, so the best way to claim this recipe for your own, to make this something you can do quickly and easily, is to work out how many ladles of starter are needed for each ladleful of flour in the bread, and how many ladles of water and flour you need to replace what you have taken out of the starter. I found it a little complicated to work out (maths is not my strong point), but once you've done it, you never need to use your scales when you are baking bread. Dan Lepard's book gives percentages of ingredients for each recipe, and the point of that is so that you can use a ladle rather than a scale.

Jamie Oliver's books have good bread recipes, and sensible advice on how to go about making your own. The key thing is that once you've got this going, it only takes a few moments to mix. If you mix it after breakfast, you've got a loaf for lunch. Or you can slow it down so that it's ready at supper time. Either way, it's delicious, and it makes you feel very clever and competent.

I made the starter last week; I made the first loaf with it on Saturday, with the help of Catrin (she was extremely helpful with the maths). She's just emailed to say that she's made a starter. I'm looking forward to reading her blog about how the bread went ... and I'll keep you posted about where I go from here.


PS I forgot to say, the bread was delicious - I brushed it with water and dotted it with fennel seeds. We ate it for lunch, and it was gone in a moment.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005


If you're on a low cholesterol diet, or trying to lose weight, then pudding is thought to be a bit of a minefield. I haven't found it so. It's true that we aren't great pudding eaters - I probably make one a week, and that's enough for everyone. The rule of thumb is to make sure that fruit is the main ingredient. Now I know that that's a problem for the many chocaholics who find themselves having to reduce their cholesterol. Lucius and I are both keen on chocolate, and we eat very good quality black chocolate in tiny squares a couple of times a week. I find that's enough, although I'm not sure Lucius would agree. What I have also found is that, since starting the new diet, I do not have such a sweet tooth - I really can't eat mass produced milk chocolate any more, because it's too sweet, and too fatty. And I never crave chocolate, whereas before I occasionally did.

One important thing to remember is that if you are restricting eggs in your diet, it's actually the egg yolks you are restricting, not the whites. You can eat unlimited quantities of egg whites, indeed there are books you don't want to read which are full of recipes for omelettes made from egg whites only and other similarly disgusting low-fat treats. Lots of recipes can therefore be adapted (I haven't done much experimenting in this field, but will keep you posted when I do). However, it does mean that meringues are allowed. Also macaroons and their Italian cousins Amaretti (you can get very good quality ones in Waitrose these days, but they're easy to make, and the almonds are good for you). So pavlova with a mix of 0% Greek yoghurt and 0% fromage frais topped with raspberries and blueberries is healthy, delicious, and does not make you (or any guests you may have) feel as if you're either on a diet or deprived.

Waitrose gives away useful recipe cards, and there's one at the moment with a good idea for low fat baked Alaska. You buy a flan case (the cards are aimed at getting you to try new products), chop a peach onto it, pile on half a tub of raspberry sorbet, and top with a meringue made with 2 egg whites and 100g caster sugar. It needs 3-4 minutes in a very hot oven. I'd only use the bought cake if it was low fat (ie 5g fat per 100g); otherwise I'd make it myself. (Sorry, I haven't checked; nor have I tried this, it's just a new train of thought.)

Low fat sponge cake

Sift 50g sr flour and mix with 40g caster sugar. Beat five egg whites to soft peaks; gradually add 60g caster sugar. You can then add 1 tsp of vanilla essence, if you've got it (but you don't need to if you keep a pod of vanilla in your cooking sugar). Now fold in the flour mixture, and spread this onto a Swiss roll tin. It needs about 15 minutes in a medium over (180C). Obviously for the baked Alaska, you want this cake to be round, and I think it would be okay in a pizza tin (you don't want to put it in a Victoria sandwich tin, because it would be too thick). If you want to use this cake to make a Swiss roll, then you should turn it out onto greaseproof paper to cool, spread it with your mixture, and then roll it up, which is less fiddly than it sounds. It doesn't keep all that well, altlhough if it's stale, you can use it in a trifle (obviously the usual substitutes for cream, and if you must have custard, you can mix it down with yog or fromage frais).

I've had slightly less luck with the topping for apple crumble. I suspect in the end I will give in, and use the nasty marge. But last time, I used a blitzed mix of Amaretti, Brazil nuts, jumbo oats and almond oil. I can't remember the exact proportions, but I do remember that when I tried without any oil it was completely inedible. The almond oil is worth using for this, because it adds sweetness and flavour. Sue Kreitzman has a recipe she calls apple crumble: the topping is 75g ricotta (read the label carefully to make sure you get the low fat version), 75g plain flour, 25g rolled oats, 1 tbsp marmalade (or, in a related recipe, maple syrup), 1 tbsp brown sugar, plus vanilla and spice. I thought it was good, but the children laughed when I called it crumble.

I remember that my grandmother used to make a pudding with stewed apple which was topped with crunchy breadcrumbs (probably fried in butter); I will look it up in Mrs Beeton, but probably not until the end of the summer. I'm sure we could adapt it.

Well that's enough pudding to keep me going for most of the summer. But I'll get back to you on the question of chocolate, and lemon, which I love.


Monday, June 06, 2005

More things for breakfast ...

It's a problem, breakfast, because Lucius is so keen on a traditional fry-up (weekends only), and of course we don't do that any more. Two eggs a week, no sausages, not much bacon. But actually, there's lots of other things you can eat which are much better all round. Tomatoes on toast (wholemeal, unless we've run out, in which case there's generally the children's nasty white sliced); mushrooms on toast (much more delicious cooked with a bit of stock, some sherry or wine, and a little Worcester sauce); scrambled eggs with smoked salmon (that's my favourite); kippers.

I like fruit and yoghurt. At the moment, I'm eating a lot of rhubarb, cooked in orange juice/zest (so from a fruit, not a box), with a little honey stirred in. Later in the summer, I'll go back to my autumn and winter staple, plums halved and baked in grape juice with cinammon and cloves. For a change, I also do dried fruit, which I cook in lots of different liquids, and flavour on a whim with various different spices. Cardamom features regularly, as does China tea. When the gooseberries are ready to pick, I will cook them with elderflower (and if it's over by then, I'll stir a little elderflower cordial into the fruit after it's cooled). None of this takes very long, and I generally do it while I'm cooking anyway. Then I don't have to think in the morning. Stewed apple is an autumn breakfast, but that's more trouble - none of the others needs much preparation. Having said that, it's worthwhile trouble, because you can't buy cooked apples with the delicious sharpness of apples stewed at home (even when you're finishing up the wizened ones at the bottom of the fruit bowl, even when they're all eating apples rather than cookers).

This week I bought a juicer in a sale, because a friend who came to supper gave us a huge quantity of grapes, more than we were able to eat. The grape juice was nicer than any I've ever bought, so it was quite inspiring. My heart sinks at the thought of "healthy" things like carrot juice and spinach juice (both suggested on the box the juicer came in), but I'd quite like to experimeent with tomato juice. I've never been able to understand why commercial tomato juice has so much salt ...

Friday, May 27, 2005

Toast and Marmite ...

We decided on a complete change - if no butter, then none of that fancy marge either. Early on we were pointed in the direction of the new marge that lowers cholesterol, but when I read the instructions, it turns out you have to eat it two or three times a day to have any effect, and that's not going to help a total change of eating habits. So olive oil. Problem: how can you eat toast and Marmite without butter?

So far, I haven't found anything that's quite right, but here are a couple of solutions. Put Marmite on the toast, then a thin layer of 0% fromage frais, or a little of the new ultra lite (ie under 5% fat) Philadelphia. Lucius doesn't like either of these ideas, and eats dry toast with Marmite, but I can't do that. Either way, it's not the same, it's not as nice, and you don't want to eat it so much. And that, of course, is the point.


Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Getting started ...

So what happens is, you decide to eat healthy heart food, you read some of the British Heart Foundation booklets they gave you in the hospital, you go to the supermarket full good resolutions, you read a few labels and discover everything is full of fat and salt and sugar, and if it's not it's got transfats, and you don't really know what they are but you know you shouldn't be eating them. And you think, well okay, he's on statins, it'll be okay, diet doesn't matter very much, the statins will take care of it. So then I thought about the 20 or so minutes before we reached the hospital when I really thought he might die, and thought that my genes are probably just as dodgy as his - and our children are too young to be orphaned.

When I came back from that shopping trip, I felt I had lost my culinary bearings - just how much saturated fat was there in parmesan? In Somerset goat's cheese? In a lamb chop? In a coconut? I bought piles of books, but they mostly seemed to be full of bland food utterly unlike what we were used to. Sue Kreitzman's books were the most useful, full of tips and useful recipes, but, even so, the whole thing felt rather staid, and not the kind of thing you could imagine Nigel Slater or Nigella getting the saucepans out for. So I read them, put them away, and got out my "proper" cookbooks. And started cooking again, adapting, discarding, picking up on new tastes.

And that's the key: as you eat more vegetables, less saturated fat, your tastebuds change, and you have to be receptive to this, start cooking things you might not have tried before. As you take out the saturated fat, you realise how much we have traditionally relied on this highly unsuitable food as a flavouring. And so you add herbs, spices. You learn that nuts are good to eat so long as they're not roasted and salted, and that not only are they not fattening, but they'll help you lose weight. You find that if you eat porridge or home-made muesli with lots of dried fruit at breakfast, you don't really want anything to eat until lunchtime. And then, if you eat - say - vegetable soup, some wholemeal bread and a salad, you probably won't get a chocolate craving in the afternoon. And if you do, well then dried fruit is good, and dried pineapple works the very best. And after a while, without ever trying or limiting the amount you eat or being faddy, you find you have more energy than before, and that you are two dress sizes smaller than you used to be.


This is well worth the very little trouble it takes.

When you read the ingredients list on shop muesli, it's rather surprising to find sugar and milk powder, and coconut (saturated fat problem) - and you thought this was a health food. Luckily it only takes a few minutes to make, and you don't have to make it very often. Get a really big bowl. Put in a packet of rolled oats. Stir in as many packets of dried fruit and nuts as you like - I like it to be at least half fruit and nuts, because it's almost the only way to get Lucius to eat them. At first I used to chop them up, but now I don't bother. If you've got a sweet tooth, then put in lots of fruit (dried cranberries and cherries, as well as raisins, apricots, pineapple, dates, although I draw the line at freeze-dried strawberries). I also always put in various seeds - sunflower, poppy, pumpkin, whatever there is. Mix it all together, and then store it in a big jar. It needs an occasional stir because the smaller things tend to sink to the bottom, and sometimes you need to add a few more bits before it's all finished up.

You can eat this in a variety of ways. Mostly, we just pour milk on it and eat it straight away. Often I eat it with 0% fat Greek yoghurt. Sometimes I grate an apple into it and cover it with apple juice. Even more rarely, I do this the night before, and then it's like a sort of uncooked porridge. At this point I have been known to add blueberries.

It is much more delicious than any muesli I have ever bought. My sister in law toasts the oatmeal, and that is very delicious, but too much trouble for me - the only time I tried, the first batch was undercooked, the second was burnt. The main thing is not to worry too much about the ingredients, just accept that it will taste slightly different every time you make it.


Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Onions and garlic

The onion family is very good for healthy heart eating. I used to roast whole onions (the small so-called cooking onions you get in a large bag in the supermarket) for about an hour, when we were having a roast dinner. Now I find them rather bland, because they have effectively steamed in their skins. They taste very sweet. You can do the same with a whole head of garlic, and then lop off the top and squeeze it like a delicious toothpaste onto bread, or eat it with whatever else you're eating.

These days, I use the big Spanish onions, peel and slice them, put them on a roasting tray with some olive oil, and bake them for about half an hour. Sometimes I forget, and the edges get really black, and Lucius - amazingly - says they're even better that way. I occasionally add chunks of red and orange pepper to this mix, but generally it's just the onions. They go with everything, and they keep for days in the fridge. Rather like the salsa verde, they're useful to pep up something bland when you're in a hurry. Huge reward for little effort (I know that for this type of cooking I do have the advantage of the Aga; all the same, I'd switch the oven on specially to make roasted onions).


Here's something else from the onion family that we eat occasionally, this is a pungent Greek dip - we first had it at a small Greek restaurant run by an energetic old lady in a village half way between the site of the Battle of Lepanto and Missalonghi where Byron died (neither of which we visited).

Peel and cube 2 large potatoes; cook through. Process with 100g of blanched almonds (or pine nuts), 4-15 (yes!) cloves of garlic, 250 ml of olive oil, 1 tbsp red wine vinegar. Again, this is a recipe you can vary - I've never made it with blanched almonds, because I never have them in the house, and I'm really not going to start peeling nuts just to improve the look of the thing. I've got another version of this which uses bread instead of potatoes - let me know if you'd like that and I'll post it.

It really is worth a try. You can use it as a dip with chopped vegetables, or you can add it to soup and stew.

This week's experiment is going to be a sourdough loaf, which will involve making a starter which captures natural yeasts. I've tried this before, and only succeeded in making a nasty smell in the scullery. The new instructions are simpler, and only take five days to get to the breadmaking stage. I'll keep you posted.


Monday, May 23, 2005

Blogger seeking comments.... Do give it a go....

I've had lots of great emails and conversations with you about this blog, which is great. The blog would be hugely enriched if you occasionally contributed something in the comments ... then it's like a conversation - you can add a better idea, or ask about something, or just pass the time of day. It really is very easy to add a comment, just as easy as sending an email. In order that I don't feel hugely bossy, I am going to give you an extract from a blog written by a great friend of ours who got me started on this. She had exactly the same problem when she started her blog in December ... here are her instructions for how to blog:

"I have had so many wonderfully sustaining, touching, funny, irreverent emails in response to my blog ... that the only disappointment has been the near-zero take up on the comments front. If it works, it can be a brilliant further dimension to the blog, like a friendly mutually supportive forum, we are all friends together here I promise you. ...

To begin with, I thought that the reason I wasn’t getting any comments was because you were all too shy and retiring…. but I’ve changed my mind.Having asked several of you specifically to post comments, really quite clever people with degrees and Phds and ologies as Maureen Lipman would say, and discovering the only people who have found their way onto the blog are Nigel and Sally Swycher from La Jolla, California (America is another country and they do things differently there, so they don’t count) and a quartet of 11 and 12 year old girls from the City of London School for Girls. Now they are extremely bright and applied, and obviously a credit to their academic institution, which came 10th in the Sunday Times League Tables by the way, so I attach no blame or censure whatever when I say with all respect that what you probably need is a teeny bit of HELP.

I therefore contacted lovely patient David Cohen from Conde Nast who helped me set the whole thing up. He has logged onto the blog today and agrees that it's “not that easy” to navigate, which is IT-ese for impossible, and offers these “ simple and usable instructions”. Let me know if he’s lying.

Apparently, the way it works is:

You choose the post (i.e. diary entry) you wish to reply to. You click the "0 comments" (or "1 comment" etc) link at the bottom, which will take you to a new screen with just the post you have chosen and any and all comments already made to that post. Scroll down to the bottom of this and click "Post a comment".

This will take you to a log-in screen. If you have a Blogspot account you can log in, and the comment will appear under your username. This is not rocket science and could be an option if you fancy making frequent comments. If you don't, you can click "log in anonymously". Don’t worry, I am getting to the point very soon, now, so do wake up there at the back.

Either option will lead to a final screen where you can compose your message. If you log in anonymously you can simply add your name to the bottom of your comment, so I know it’s come from you. Be sure to click "publish comment", too, not sure what the precise wording is but it will be something like that.

If for any reason, you subsequently have second thoughts about your comment, such as there being someone who might log on who you would prefer not to read it, and would rather it were deleted from the record, email me ( and ask me to delete it. Apparently only I can do this because I am the all-powerful "Administrator" ..

Dave then concludes thus. And I have to tell you I have already majorly simplified his message. “I hope the above makes sense - I'm sure if you give out these instructions, once people have done it once or twice they'll see that it’s quite easy once they know what they're doing.”

Let me know if he’s right."

DO give it a try
PS thanks Debs!

Salsa verde

Okay, well I think I've made everyone feel thoroughly daunted by posting that list of good things to eat. Those are just suggestions for what you can best eat instead of all the nasty saturated fats you are taking out of your diet. They come from the Superfoods book listed, as do the suggestions for how often you could be eating them for maximum benefit. We try to eat a lot of those foods, but don't always manage. And we don't worry about it, because our number one rule is NOT TO BECOME NEUROTIC ABOUT FOOD.

When we began this, the biggest problem seemed to be making food taste of something. No butter, not much salt, no cheese, it all began to seem rather tasteless. We eat enormous quantities of herbs, and quite a few spices. Lucius claims that spices are "wasted on him", but we now eat quite a lot of mild curry (cumin, maybe just a little chili), and he likes it a lot. (By the way, when making mild curry, be aware that coconut contains a great deal of saturated fat.)

Salsa verde

Salsa verde is something I always have on the go - it makes anything bland taste wonderful. We use it on potatoes, in soup, with boring chicken breast when I couldn't think of anything to cook. It takes five minutes to make, keeps at least a week, and is particularly useful for producing instant meals.

This is the basic recipe, which you must feel free to vary. It's slightly different every time I make it.

Process 2 cloves of garlic, some capers, a tin of anchovy fillets, a bunch of flat parsley, of basil, of mint, 1 tbsp Dijon mustard, 3 tbsp red wine vinegar, 8 tbsp good olive oil. You can vary the proportions. It's especially good with a lot of mint, and I often use coriander. The aim is to get a sauce the consistency of homemade mayonnaise (but it's quicker and easier to make).

Monday, May 16, 2005

Some basic rules

I made this rule sheet a couple of weeks ago, and, as I was writing it, became aware that we have been backsliding. So we've got sterner recently. But the idea of using strict rules for home eating is that then, when we're out, we don't have to fuss if we can't follow the diet. It's a way of life, so it needs to incorporate the occasional treat (thank you Isabel E for introducing us to the Artisan du Chocolat), the occasional lapse.

What the sheet below doesn't say is that processed food should be a no-no. Once you start reading the labels, you quickly realise that, however fancily they package it, processed food contains high levels of fat (mostly saturated), salt and sugar. These are all things to avoid. So you need to know how much of them you are actually eating - which means putting them in yourself. Or not.

I was given a really good piece of advice by a nurse in the cardiac department of the Ninewells Hospital in Dundee: don't think about what you're taking out of your diet, think about what you're putting in. So we started by concentrating on putting in the seven portions of fruit and veg (now I'm told it should be nine!), which naturally limits the amount of other things you can eat. And because cheese is largely off limits, I started to develop other ideas for flavourings to add when I would have added cheese. I'll post something in a day or two about the way I've tackled that problem (I think it's been our biggest problem, because we used to eat quite a lot of cheese without really noticing the totals).


* Do not think of what you are taking out of your diet, think of what you are putting in.
* Aim to eat seven portions of fruit and veg a day (this is the most important rule – if you’re only going to make one change, this should be the one).
* Eat more fish.
* Meat: twice a week max, and no more than the size of a cigarette packet at once (also cut away all visible fat). Never eat chicken skin.
* Cheese: once a week max, and no more than the size of a matchbox at once.
* Eggs: 2-3 a week (but as much egg white as you like, which means you can adapt lots of recipes which call for eggs).
* Butter, cream: never! Use olive oil instead. And fat free fromage frais.
* Pudding, if any, should almost always be fruit (fresh or cooked).
* A little black chocolate once or twice a week is fine; nuts &/or dried fruit are good to nibble on.


* Legumes: all kinds – green beans, baked beans, chickpeas, lentils etc
* Cabbage family – not just broccoli, but also Brussels sprouts, chard, rocket, cauliflower, watercress, kale, turnips, all kinds of greens
* Cereals: oats, wheatgerm, ground flaxseed, brown/wild rice, barley, wheat, buckwheat, rye, millet, bulgur wheat, spelt, couscous, etc
* Oranges, lemons, tangerines, limes, and grapefruit, unless you’re on statins, in which case never. It shouldn’t all be in the form of juice, as part of the goodness is in the fibre. The zest is good, too
* Pumpkin: also carrots, butternut squash, sweet potatoes and orange peppers
* Salmon, also halibut, tinned tuna, sardines, herring, trout, sea bass, oysters, clams
* Spinach: also kale, spring greens, pak choi, Romaine lettuce
* Tea: black tea is fine
* Tomatoes: also watermelon, papaya, guava
* Skinless chicken/turkey breast
* Nuts: walnuts, almonds, pistachios, sesame seeds, peanuts, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, pecans, hazelnuts, cashews. NB not roasted/salted
* Yoghurt, fat free and unsweetened
* Blueberries, red grapes, cranberries, loganberries, raspberries, strawberries, currants, blackberries, cherries
* Onions, garlic, shallots


* Be strict at home so you don’t have to fuss when you’re out.
* Don’t worry if you lapse, this is not “being on a diet”, this is a way of life. Just try not to lapse too often or for too long.
* Menna’s tip is to ask caterers for “no dairy”, and you’ll generally get plain cooked food, with no sauce, no fat, and fruit salad to follow.


* Anything by Sue Kreitzman.
* Superfoods, by Steven Pratt and Kathy Matthews. Written in American self-help style, but interesting (the basis of the good things to eat section).
* in the BBC Good Food book series, a little square book called 101 Low-fat Feasts has lots of good ideas.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Something a little more glamorous

Having started blogging this morning on a whim, I am now worrying that the kedgeree recipe will give the impression that we have become earnest, sandal-wearing, bean-eating near veggies, who only eat food that is brown, mushy, ugly and tasteless. Well, no, actually. As this unfolds, I will explain some of our new basic recipes, which take the place of the saturated fats we used to use as flavourings (butter, cream, etc). But in the mean time, I'm going to post a fantastic Raymond Blanc recipe I tried this week.

Essence of tomatoes

This requires two short bursts of activity, and can be made ahead. It is utterly delicious. The ingredients seem a little extravagent, but the pulp can be used either to make a stock (that's what I did this week, and it is going to be the basis of a beetroot risotto this evening), or to add to the bolognese sauce to increase daily veg portions without making people feel deprived of meat. (Actually, now I come to think of it, this is the ideal way to add veg to mince, because it wouldn't make it watery.)

Process: 2.5kg good tomatoes, 1 stick of celery, 1 shallot, half a bulb of fennel, 1 clove of garlic, some thyme, a little tarragon (I don't grow this, and couldn't find it locally), some basil, 1 tbsp sugar, 2 pinches of cayenne pepper, 5 drops of Worcs sauce, 3 drops of Tabasco (I might leave this out next time). Leave this to marinade all day.

Next you have to strain the pulp. I've got a fine seive, and that worked well. But you could use muslin, or a kitchen cloth. RB says that it needs straining for "at least 15 mins". Well, it's not nearly long enough. Half an hour would get most of the juice, a hour would get it all. DO NOT THROW AWAY THE PULP (see above). Chill the tomato essence.

You could just drink this wonderful cold soup like this, with a few drops of olive oil and some finely shredded basil leaves. But it is even better - and more glamorous - with tomato chopped into it. What you do is skin and deseed six large plum tomatoes, chop them up small, and put this mixture into the bottom of your soup plates. If you want real glamour, you can arrange them using a ring (we used an egg-poaching ring, but a napkin ring would do as well), and gently spoon the soup round it, and then float the shredded basil and oil round the tower. There isn't always time for this sort of caper, but even without it, the soup is delicious, and a lot cheaper than a visit to the Manoir au 4 Saisons.