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

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A picnic in the lowlands of Scotland

Yesterday we spent the day in the car, travelling with increasing urgency to catch the last ferry to Mull - so that, by the end, Lucius was imitating Lewis Hamilton as we roared along the wonderful road from Crianlarich to Oban, fearful that we may not have left enough time.

On Sunday evening, I made a beef sandwich to eat on the way. I made it with some fillet steak I bought on Saturday morning, and a sandwich loaf. Next time I'll do it with a piece of sirloin and a flatter type of bread - it'll probably be for the picnic on the way down, because this is very good travelling food - and that will make it easier to manage. This will do one family for one picnic, or smaller numbers for a longer journey.

We stopped in South Lanarkshire, near Abington, and found a meadow of wildflowers - huge daisies, ragwort, lots and lots of lovely thistles in flower - where we spread out rugs and cut the sandwich. Cherries for pudding (the boys had fun with a stone-spitting competition). Then we made coffee (I have a little stove and a kettle, which I get out at the drop of a hat, to make proper coffee and decent tea ... later yesterday, our host here on Mull found me on the quayside at Oban, waiting for the ferry and brewing tea ... as a fellow tea drinker, he was very pleased). Then back on the road. Half an hour for a proper meal with delicious food. That wasn't the cause of our need for speed, it was a little misunderstanding between driver and navigator in Glasgow (least said soonest mended).

Travelling beef sandwich

One loaf of bread
one single piece of steak
some flat field mushrooms

a breadknife and a board or plate

The night before your journey starts, cut both the ends off your loaf and hollow it out enough to get the meat in (this is not half as tricky as it sounds, and it doesn't need to be neat or a good fit, because later on you are going to squash the whole thing flat, which will hide all untidiness). Meanwhile, cook the steak in your usual way, making sure that it is as rare as you can bear it. When it is cool enough to handle, push it into the bread, then push in the cooked mushrooms. I found that the best way to get the mushrooms into the middle of the loaf was to use the handle of a spoon.

Wrap in greaseproof paper or foil, and put on a plate and cover with weights to flatten it. Put it in the fridge and either pack or go to bed. If you are like me, write a post-it note reminding you to take the sandwich, otherwise you will have to turn back to fetch it.

Quick and easy, delicious, and, I suspect, infinitely variable - why stop at mushrooms?

Sunday, July 29, 2007

HoTM 6: the grill

It's time to announce the theme for August's Heart of the Matter - let's hope the weather improves, because it's grilled food.

Ilva and I have been really thrilled by the response to Heart of the Matter in the six months since we set it up ... so many of you have joined in to help us make a bank of heart-healthy recipes which everyone can consult. The main points to consider in a heart-healthy diet are: drastically reduce saturated fats (found in meat, cheese, butter, cream), increase consumption of friendly fats (found in oily fish), eat lots and lots of fruit and vegetables.

This theme is going to be a huge learning curve for me, because we rarely use the barbecue here - laziness, lack of expertise, I'm not sure of the reason. A few years ago I bought a Weber kettle barbie, and love cooking a chicken or a whole leg of lamb on that for a party, but the children all turn up their noses when I suggest that for a summery lunch for friends. And so we hardly used the Weber last summer, and haven't used it at all this summer. Although that may also be something to do with the fact that, so far, this summer has felt more like winter.

But grilling is a good way to go in a heart-healthy diet - there's lots of scope for cooking vegetables (would somebody consider doing a post on the different ways to bake potatoes on a fire?), fish tastes really good grilled, and there must be good sweets to eat apart from marshmallows on sticks (which, of course, are fine in moderation because they are made with egg whites, and all the saturated fat in an egg is found in the yolk).

So I'm really looking forward to hearing all about the things you cook on your grill: anything and everything from starters to main courses to pudding (which you now all know includes desserts!). And then I'm going to get out there and cook them one by one.

I'm sure many of you know the "rules" by now, but here's a recap: all you have to do is to send me the link to your entry at joannacary AT ukonline DOT co DOT uk before 23 August, make a link to Joanna's Food and to the HotM blog as well if you like. I'll post the round up on both blogs. In order to keep this focused on heart health we ask you to consider this as a one-entry event, i.e. we prefer that you don't use your post for other events as well.

I'm really looking forward to reading all your recipes and tips ...

Saturday, July 28, 2007

A perfect shopping expedition

The sun's shining at last, we're about to go on holiday, and I've just come back from the perfect shopping expedition in my home town of Henley on Thames.

I started at Patisserie Franco-Belge, where I bought a white sandwich loaf. When I was a child, the Saturday morning queue outside Franco-Belge used to snake out of their lovely medieval premises right round the corner - that was in the days before Henley had a supermarket. This morning, I went to the more industrial premises they moved into about 20 years ago, no queue at all, but I was served by the same smiling lady who has worked there for most of my life.

Then round the corner into the Market Place to the butcher, Gabriel Machin, for a piece of steak to put into the bread to make a travelling sandwich for Monday's drive to Scotland (I will post about this remarkable sandwich as soon as I get a connection next week). I had to explain to the smiling butcher exactly what I was going to do with his steak so that he could cut it the right shape - much merriment in the shop, which was full of customers. This butcher is under fairly new management, and at least as good as ever; in fact, I like it better now. I remember going there once or twice as a child (my mother used a different butcher, now defunct), the butchers used to write a ticket for everything you ordered, and you'd take it to a booth in the corner of the tiny shop, to pay a little old lady who would then hand over your parcels, wrapped in brown paper and tied with string.

Then down to the Bell Book Shop to pick up Lettice's holiday reading. That's another shop I've been using all my life; it opened when I was a teenager, just beginning to want to buy books. Now my house is full stuff I've bought there, although, these days, I prefer the sister shop in Marlborough, the White Horse Bookshop.

Off to Waitrose, for big flat mushrooms, cherries, vinegar, and a crab for supper tomorrow night. Lucius and I are off to a wedding now, staying overnight in Tunbridge Wells, then on to a lunch party on the coast near Chichester, back home, pack, and then off at the crack of dawn to catch the last ferry for Mull on Monday evening. A few days there, then a week in Edinburgh, and the flat I have rented is near both a lovely secondhand bookshop and the wonderful marvellous magnificent Scottish-Italian deli Valvona and Crolla.

Out of the car park by 9.50, and home by 10, to find coffee made and on the table. Bliss.

On the way home I drove past the river, to see if the floods are subsiding. The answer is yes, but slowly. These photographs were taken a couple of days ago, just before the peak, about two inches higher than this. Now it's back to these levels.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Rose petal jelly

I really felt as if I was bottling sunshine when I made this delicious jelly, because as soon as I had finished picking the roses, the sky turned grey and the heavens opened - yet more torrential rain, fierce enough, once again, to damage flowers.

I found the recipe this morning, lying in bed reading old Sunday supplements unread from the weekend of our parties. It was extracted from a book which I see is due to be published tomorrow, Edible Wild Plants and Herbs: A Compendium of Recipes and Remedies, by Pamela Michael. Looks good enough to buy. As ever, I've adapted the recipe a little.

Rose petal jelly

1 litre rose petals
1 litre water
juice of two lemons
1 kilo sugar

Pick one litre of scented roses. The original recipe suggests dog roses, but as they're now over, mine was a mixture of the beautiful English rose Noble Antony (David Austen), Tuscany Superb, Gloire de Dijon, a pretty little unnamed pale pink rambler by the front door, and Compassion. I don't spray my roses (or anything, come to that), so they're okay to eat. I had no idea what a litre of rose petals looks like, so I went out with a colander which I half filled. Too many, it turned out, but no matter, they'd have needed dead-heading soon anyway. You want them blousily open, but not over. Check for scent as you pick, because some roses become more scented as the flowers develop, other lose their scent quickly.

Pull the petals off the stalk, and loosely fill a one-litre measuring jug. Check for insects - I put several earwigs back into the garden, as well as a couple of small grasshoppers. Put the petals in a stainless steel saucepan with a litre of water, bring to the boil and simmer for 15 minutes. They will completely lose their colour, and the water will turn a murky shade of reddish-brown, deliciously scented. Strain this into a glass bowl and cool.

Next you add the lemon juice, and a magical thing happens - the murky brown suddenly becomes a beautiful and bright pink. Pour this back into the pan, and add one kilo of sugar (I used preserving sugar because I happened to have it in the house, but ordinary sugar would do just as well, it would just take a little longer to dissolve). When the sugar has disappeared, turn up the heat a little and bring to the boil. It will take 10 minutes to reach setting point, or you can use a sugar thermometer.

Leave it to cool a little before bottling - if you do this, you'll find that much of the scum disappears. I never bother to skim the scum, because I don't enter my jellies in the produce show, and because it's perfectly edible - it disappears if you're heating up the jelly later (the main reason I make jellies is to liven up sauces).

Bottling isn't too much of a palaver, although you need to sterilise the jars. This is easily achieved in one of three ways (I am assuming that they are already clean): 1) put them in the sink and pour boiling water on them; 2) run them through a hot dishwasher cycle; 3) put them in a low oven for half an hour.

People get very worked up about making jellies, and Nigella even said in one of her books that making jelly was more trouble than jam ... but Nigella's wrong, and the whole process is quick and easy. Jelly is easier on the cook than jam, because you don't need to peel and core, top and tail, you let the sieve or jelly bag do all the work. And the key thing is never to make more than 3-4 jars at once ... in other words, never use more than one kilo of sugar - scale the recipe down if necessary (it's also true for jam). This rose petal jelly took under an hour from start to finish, in three short bursts of activity.

Incidentally, you can see from the photos below just how much colour is extracted from the petals when they're simmered. The original recipe suggests putting the petals back into the syrup when you've dissolved the sugar, but I didn't want to spoil the look of the jelly, and, besides, thought I'd probably have to sieve it before using it in a sauce.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A lemony courgette salad

I've posted this before, I think, but now that the courgette season has begun, here's a reminder - it's that good.

Slice courgettes lengthwise using a mandoline, or a potato peeler (messier and slightly slower, but just as good). The slices need to be as fine as you can make them, almost transparent is best.

Chop herbs, whatever you've got: parsley obviously works well, perhaps tarragon, maybe even a little basil. Toast a handful of pine nuts in a non-stick pan.

Meanwhile, make a vinaigrette using olive oil, lemon juice, honey, salt and pepper. I often put in finely grated lemon zest as well (this is the work of a second if you have a Microplane grater, and if you haven't - well, it will transform your kitchen, no exaggeration).

Mix it all together. Delicious - essence of summer.

Here's the old post on the same subject - just looked it up. I'm amazed to find that I am still making this the same way, usually recipes evolve (often for the worse) over time, and I've been making this regularly for two summers, this is the third.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Chorizo and new potatoes

A few weeks ago, I had lunch and laughs with Tanna and her friends Sue and Karen at Books for Cooks in Notting Hill, a brilliant place for food bloggers to meet. The test kitchen at the back of the shop tries out recipes from the books, and sells the results to first-comers for lunch. The day we went the book was 100 Great Tapas by Pippa Cuthbert. It's the closest I've ever been to Spain.

It's taken me too long to get round to cooking anything from this book, which must be a good argument for NO MORE COOKERY BOOKS (as if!). But this is quick and easy, delicious on its own for Saturday lunch, or as part of a spread of little dishes.

Chorizo and new potatoes

You need about twice the weight of potatoes to chorizo, which makes this a good dish for people trying to keep their meat intake down. Potatoes, though, don't really count towards your five-a-day. The recipe specifies cooking chorizo, which I couldn't find; taste-wise, cured chorizo (easy to find near the salami in a supermarket) was fine, but it dries out a little in the cooking, so is not ideal.

new potatoes

Boil some new potatoes whole, and in their skins. When they are just cooked, drain them, then cut them in half lengthwise as soon as they are cool enough for you to handle. Meanwhile, cut your chorizo into chunks (on the slant looks best), and cook them in a non-stick frying pan over a high heat. When they've given up their oils, add the potatoes and some finely chopped rosemary. The recipe says to cook them for "two to three minutes .. until golden and crispy", but you'll need to cook them for much longer to get them crisp. When they are, or when you think it looks good, add two tablespoons of Madeira to the pan, and reduce it until sticky which will take two or three minutes. I actually used a litle rioja, which was fine, if less sticky.

Monday, July 23, 2007


I read recently a peasant maxim that the gods punish those who waste more than their weight in bread during their lifetime. This half-remembered truth has been haunting me ever since. Especially if you broaden its message to include all food waste.

So. Panzanilla for lunch. I can't now think why you'd want a tomato salad without bread in it. And it's one of those recipes that demands to be made ahead: restful for the cook, who can potter around with other things.

Mine was very simple - just cherry tomatoes, basil, old bread, olive oil, a little Maldon salt. Some recipes make a terrific meal of this, adding onions, capers, anchovies. But the joy of panzanilla is its simplicity, made with the best ingredients you can find.

I really want to stress that part ... this is something you make only in the summer, when tomatoes are in season and full of flavour, when the basil has been grown in the open air and tastes of something. But above all, this is a salad you make with proper, decent bread. Decades ago, when I first began tentatively to cook, I tried to make this with Mother's Pride. It was a disaster. Slimy, tasteless, a real lesson that it's worth taking pains over basic foods.

Quantities - well, if you've got a lot of leftover bread, use more of it. If you've got a glut of tomatoes, use more of them. For a generous salad for five, I used three slices of bread and about 30-40 cherry tomatoes. I cubed the bread quite small, but if it had been baguette I might have torn it into quite large chunks. I quartered the tomatoes - you need them to give up their juices.

When I make a tomato salad, I very often dress it only with oil and salt, then leave it to mature for half an hour. If you prefer the taste of vinaigrette with your tomatoes, then go ahead and use that. The key is to have plenty of liquid soaking into the bread.

Lay the tomatoes into a shallow dish. Add the bread and some chopped basil. Crumble a pinch of Maldon salt over this, drizzle generously with oil or vinaigrette, and mix. Leave for at least half an hour, an hour would be better.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Beetroot and lentils

The people who live in this house divide between those who think lentils all taste the same (horrid, mushy, nasty, pointless, to use a few recent descriptions), and the person who is a bit of a lentil connoisseur. That person was pleased to discover that Merchant Gourmet has started to import a new type from Spain, pardina lentils, and found them on introductory offer in Waitrose.

New recipe needed for new lentils: I decided to serve them with roasted spiced beetroot, pinching this idea from Sarah Raven's new Garden Cookbook (although completely changing the nature of her original dish). I like to try new lentil recipes, as, ever the optimist, I am sure that one day I will find a dish all my family will devour - and legumes are such heart-healthy food that I like to persevere in the face of severe discouragement.

Cook 150g lentils in a mix of white wine and water, with slivers of garlic (actually, homemade stock would be better, and plain water would do just as well). I would normally use Puy lentils, which would take around 20 minutes to get to the tender-not-mushy stage; the pardina lentils took nearly 40. Meanwhile, roast four or five beetroots, coating them with olive oil, and a mush of the following spices bashed in your mortar: two star anise, seeds from 4 cardammoms, and 2 teaspoons each of juniper berries, caraway and cumin seeds. This aromatic combination will bring out the earthiness and sweetness of the beetroot. I nearly didn't bother with the cumin, because I often don't like the note it imparts, but here - well, try it for yourself.

When the lentils had finished cooking, I tasted them, and found them sharp, rather unpleasantly sharp. No chance of changing any minds about lentils. What to do? Looking in the fridge for redcurrant jelly, I found instead blackcurrant jelly, and put a tablespoonful into the lentils, where it melted away. I then added chopped mint and parsley, less than I wanted, because we seem to have weeded away most of the mint plants (they have come to rest, inconveniently, in a rose bed), and because of course the rabbits have got to the parsley first. A big handful of each would be ideal.

I put the lentils onto a shallow dish, and strewed the sliced beetroot over. Delicious. The boys made a terrible fuss (two horrible foods at once, etc) before eating a miniscule amount, Lettice ate only the beetroot with one or two lentils clinging, and Lucius ate it silently, with the air of someone concentrating hard on doing his duty. I ate lots. I'd have liked it better with fat juicy black Puy lentils. Turns out pardino is Spanish for small and grey!

PS this is my entry for Weekend Herb Blogging, hosted this week by Anna at Anna's Cool Finds

Saturday, July 21, 2007

A plate of nibbles for drinks

The night before my sister and her family left for home (California) via a week in Spain, she had a drinks party. It's been non-stop partying for nearly three weeks while she's been here, so no-one felt like making a huge effort. But, at the same time, drinks without nibbles - well, it's not really a party, is it?

I needed to reduce the croissant mountain (not many of the young felt like breakfast the morning after the night before), so that was my starting point. I halved them and stamped out rounds, using a biscuit cutter ("You mean a cookie cutter?" said my sister, who no longer speaks entirely the same language as I do, after 20 years in the US). Normally I'd use bread, then toast it in a hot oven, but the essence of this sort of cooking is to use what you have.

Next I spread a little light Phillie on them, and, finally, put tiny dabs of this and that on the top - chorizo, ham, chilli jam, pesto, olive. They went in seconds, despite fierce competition from the cocktail sausages my father insists on at every party.

Friday, July 20, 2007

The Pedant in the Kitchen

There are too many books about food in this house. Another one - two, actually - arrived yesterday: The Pedant in the Kitchen by Julian Barnes. I've already read it from cover to cover (it's a series of short essays, only 136 pages, not much type on each page, and lots of illustrations).

The recommendation to read it came from Pomiane, a blog I've recommended before. The combination of Pomiane and Julian Barnes was too much to resist: have you read Arthur & George, or Flaubert's Parrot, or Letters from London? You're only ever a click away from Abe, where books cost from 50p (plus a huge lot more for postage). That was Tuesday; it came in Wednesday's post.

Barnes describes the trouble he has with cookery books. His cooking is surprisingly tentative, and this is the dilemma: Nigel Slater's too vague, Delia's too dull, if reassuringly didactic, River Cafe too cheffy, none of them there, in his kitchen, to answer his inevitable queries. When he was corresponding with Jane Grigson about another matter, he casually threw in his dilemma over one of her recipes, and was surprised, indeed slightly indignant, that she had moved on to a different method of preparation.

Here's his conclusion about what makes good cooking: You choose a loaf. You are reckless with the butter. You reduce the kitchen to chaos. You try not to waste scraps. You feed your friends and family. You sit around a table engaged in the irreducible social act of sharing food with others ... It is a moral act. It is an affair of sanity. Let (Joseph Conrad) have the last word. "The intimate influence of conscientious cookery," he wrote, "promotes the serenity of mind, the graciousness of thought, and that indulgent view of our neighbour's failings which is the only genuine form of optimism. Those are its titles to our reverence." ... there's something boiling over. I must go. I have an idle feast to prepare.

I was going to stop there, but, leafing through trying to track down the exact query he had with Jane Grigson, I found this story; wonderful, laugh-out-loud stuff:

I once made Hare in Chocolate Sauce for a retired admiral. Does that sound like a good menu selection to you or not? It was certainly a questionable call in that I'd never tried the dish out on anyone else before. The Admiral was in his seventies, a fierce and personable man with a certain amorous back-story. From the supper table he looked around him and noted that there were pictures on the wall.

"My father used to do a bit of this ... art stuff," he remarked.

I knew - and he knew that I knew, and I knew that he knew that I knew - that his father had been about the most famous British painter of his day. Some sort of marker was being put down. When it became clear that the Pedant was in charge of the galley that evening, and, moreover, was proposing a main course that sounded like plain cooking mucked around with, I felt myself the object of a less than entirely dispassionate gaze.

The recipe came from Jane Grigson's
Good Things. When the stew is cooked, you start preparing the sauce by melting sugar in a saucepan until it turns pale brown, and then adding some wine vinegar. It is meant to fuse into a rich syrup, to which chocolate, pine kernels, candied peel, and so on are added. Instead, with violent insubordination, it let off a broadside of flash and fizzle and turned on the spot into some sort of sour caramel crunch. There was no bluffing my way out of this one. The hare was waiting on one side, the final ingredients on another; they could only meet with the help of this facilitating sauce.

I got out a new pan and was apprehensively melting the sugar when I heard the Admiral declaring his passion for She For Whom the Pedant Cooks. This was somewhat unexpected to me, and to her, and by the sound of it, to the Admiral himself. His voice was loud and exact, as befits someone used to giving orders.

"What does one do when one falls in love?" he was asking in a non-rhetorical way, words that have somehow stuck with me ever since.

The sugar began to melt just as my heart, I have to confess, was hardening a little. My nose was in the cookbook, but my ears were aimed towards the dining room, so maybe my concentration wasn't at its fullest. I arrived again at the key moment of gastro-fusion, and exactly the same violent explosion took place all over again. Was this some sort of goddamned metaphor? Well, I'm sorry, Admiral, but the menu has changed. We're having Hare with Chocolate but without Proper Sauce. The sauce is in the bilges. Oh, and do be sure to watch out for any dangerous bones that might lodge in the throat.

And since that night I've never once been tempted to make Hare in Chocolate Sauce again. Though I have from time to time found myself wondering what roast admiral might taste like ...

Barnes may not want to cook hare in chocolate sauce again, but I'm now longing to try it for the first time, to give me the excuse to get out The Pedant in the Kitchen, and read the story out loud.

I loved it. A bargain for 50p - ex-library stock, the borrowers of Kirklees Council don't know what they're missing (it looks as if none of them bothered to read it).

Quick prawn stew

Longing to eat something not leftovers from the fridge. Something easy to make after a trip to the cinema (Harry Potter, not recommended, even by the HP fans amongst us). Also longing for fish. And feeling guilty about not having posted anything for Heart of the Matter this month (fish). Made a shopping list to buy straight after tutoring at 3.30. Hopeless - HUGE traffic jam, went to pay the paper bill instead.

They've just begun to stock fish at the village stores, so I bought a large packet of large prawns (this is where the thinking shopper gets into a hopeless muddle: on the one hand, I don't buy gigantic prawns from the other side of the world, but on the other hand, I want to support the local shop as much as I can).

With half an hour to spare before leaving for the cinema, I sweated a couple of chopped onions in olive oil, then added chopped tomatoes left over from the weekend, and beginning to be fit only for the pan. This bubbled away until everyone was ready - in this house there's always five-minutes-hanging-about-in-the-hall waiting-for-the-last-person-to-appear: sometimes me, sometimes my husband (even though he likes to think he's the one doing all the hanging about), frequently one or other or all of the (no longer) children.

When we got back, we ate avocados as the sauce came back up to temperature, and then I threw in the prawns to heat through. We ate it with bread (not home-made, but good). The tang of very plain tomato sauce set off the sweetness of the unfamiliar prawns (we generally eat coldwater prawns from the northeast Atlantic, which are much smaller). Sometimes basic is best.

This is my first entry for this month's Heart of the Matter, which Ilva is hosting at Lucullian Delights - fish, or, rather, anything that swims.

P.S. Some of you may be worrying about cholesterol and seafood, prawns in particular. I've spent a lot of time looking in to this, and the answer is - don't worry. Dietary cholesterol (found in prawns, coffee that's been kept hot on a hotplate - yes, really! - etc) is not a problem in a heart-healthy diet. The cholesterol that's a problem is that which your body makes as a result of processing saturated fats. So seafood is fine - no saturated fat, indeed no fat at all.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Blogging for positive change

I am extremely flattered and surprised to have been nominated by Amanda of Figs Olives Wine as a Blogger for Positive Global Change - it's a joint nomination with Ilva of Lucullian Delights, a pat on the back for Heart of the Matter, the blog we started together earlier this year.

The idea of Heart of the Matter is simple - each month, people contribute heart-healthy recipes on a theme - this month it's fish. That way, we build up a resource of delicious recipes for people with heart disease, people watching their cholesterol, people worried about their genetic inheritance. It's beginning to come together - and I know that it's something I would have found hugely helpful after my husband had a heart attack two years ago.

When I first began this blog, my ambition was modest - I wanted a means of keeping track of the food I was cooking (it was changing all the time, still is to some extent), and a means of sharing it with friends who saw the benefits the new diet were bringing to us, and wanted details. Gradually - does this sound familiar? - I turned into a blogger ... more frequent posts, more photographs, more engagement with the blogospere - and re-thinking a lot of my attitudes to food and the world at large.

I have come to see - I hope this doesn't sound pretentious or pompous - that what is sustainable personally is often sustainable globally ... the best example of this, the only one I am going to give now, is what happens when people decide to eat more vegetables. It's good for the individual - better heart-health, good protection from other diseases including cancer, more vitamins, huge feeling of well-being (bordering on smugness) if you grow even some of them yourself. Etcetera. And all this is good for the planet: it is fantastically wasteful to eat meat - vegetable matter has to be grown to feed to the animals before their protein can be fed to us. I'm not advocating that we all become vegetarian ... but eating more vegetables is a positive change in our diet AND a step in the right direction for the globe. And once you start thinking like that - well, the next thing I did was to start growing a few (really very few), and to stop buying any food that has been air-freighted (who wants to eat food with jet lag?).

I am a real beginner on this road. I started this blog in order to help me keep track of what I was learning. I have found that it is a useful tool in keeping me learning - I read other people's ideas, I think hard about what we're doing because I'm regularly explaining it.

Some of the very best blogs that have helped me on this journey have already been nominated for this meme ... but here, in random order, are five that are doing good work, that I hope you will find as interesting as I do:

1. The Cottage Smallholder, who no longer buys supermarket flowers. This may sound like a small change, but it's an increasing problem, as most are airfreighted, many from Kenya: it's something we'd do well to think about seriously. If you've got a garden, it can be done, just take a look at this lovely jug of flowers. If you haven't got a garden, well, you could try talking to the manager of your supermarket about how the flowers get there. Stumbling self-sufficiency is a small space - it's always an interesting read.

2. Mike's Allotment Diary has a wonderful address: surelythisisn'tinteresting. But it is, Mike, it is. The first time I visited, I laughed out loud at his title page: this diary is really for my own benefit as I can never remember when I've sown/dug/harvested anything and it always annoys me when Monty Don mentions that he harvested his first sweetcorn of the year 20 minutes earlier in 1976. The deeper I've got into blogging, the more I find I no longer need mainstream media for information - if you're new to veg growing and you don't have an allotment, Mike is the experienced gardener you need for useful tips and pointers. Who needs Monty Don? Can't remember the last time I watched Gardener's World.

3. David Hall at Book the Cook teaches children how to cook healthy food. He writes about that, and also about how he feeds his own young family. His blog is full of infectious enthusiasm and good recipes - check out this vegetarian Turlu Turlu, definitely a keeper. I'm always pleased when BtC is bold in my feed reader.

4. I'm amazed to find that no-one has yet nominated A Year in Bread ... this is a collaborative blog by three experienced bakers, Susan, Beth and Kevin. They take a topic each month, and post their own take on it, often contradictory, always interesting. Baking is soothing in itself (personally sustainable), and globally sustainable - less plastic bags, very likely less trips to the shops, almost certainly using flour from a more local source.

5. Janelle at Brown Bag Blues is full of ideas for healthy packed lunches - she's keen to educate children into eating well, using wit (I seem to remember an entirely pink day for her daughter) and sound nutrition. Although I don't have to make daily packed lunches, I've used lots of her ideas as a starting point for picnics, and indeed for meals in my kitchen.

Should they wish, nominees may now proudly display the BPGC badge on their blogs. If any nominees have someone in mind that they’d like to nominate in turn, just be sure to pass this list of rules to the blogs you are tagging.

The participation rules are simple:

1. When you get tagged, write a post with links to up to 5 blogs that you think are trying to change the world in a positive way.
2. In your post, make sure you link back to this post at Climate of our Future so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme.
3. Leave a comment or message for the bloggers you’re tagging, so they know they’re now part of the meme.
4. Optional: Proudly display the “Bloggers For Positive Global Change” award badge with a link to the post that you write up.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

My favourite presents

I don't know about you, but the presents I like best are almost always homemade. And here are two of the nicest things I was given at the weekend - a loaf of bread made by Isabel, aged seven, and a pot of pesto made by her sister Pippa, aged six. Also 10/10 for packing, Is - pink tissue, pink tulle, and a pink spotted ribbon which I wore in my buttonhole for the rest of the day. Thanks, girls!

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Cucumber: a question

Very quickly, while everyone is finishing their breakfast (scrambled eggs, run out of bread and milk, so black coffee to accompany) ... lovely lunch (for more than the 120 I was expecting) yesterday, of beef, salmon with samphire, hot new potatoes, salads, then mixed soft fruit, arranged in lovely layers in a glass bowl, with meringues made with the egg whites from the mayo. I'll post a little more about all this in due course (108 for lunch today, then young party in the evening).

In the meantime, Jenny, who made all this delicious food, peeled and deseeded the cucumber, before slicing them. It looks lovely. I never bother. And now I can't decide whether doing all that puts the taste in the compost bin. What do you do?

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Healthy eating - a reminder

Here's a reminder about healthy eating ... it's easy to backslide, especially when you're busy. I'm not sure I've been so good about my five-a-day in the past week or so, what with all the huge quantities of food I've been cooking for hungry oarsmen, and my children working out the best way to cook roast potatoes.

Abby's absolutely right - the easiest way to improve your diet is to eat more vegetables and fruit. I'm not sure I could ever manage 17 a day, though!

That's enough roast potatoes

We're having three parties this weekend, lunch for 120 on Saturday, lunch for 100 on Sunday, and then the young are having a dance on Sunday evening. So I'm busy. Lettice cooked dinner last night ... yet more roast potatoes (some people have had them three nights in a row this week), with roast chicken. Also roasted peppers and onions, stewed mushrooms, and a salad. Delicious. Lettice cooks her roasties in a conventional manner, no funny shapes, no holes, no bacon - and they were perfect. I only had one, because (whisper it gently) I'm getting rather fed up with them. Horatio ate dozens.

I got up early early this morning and drove to Covent Garden flower market to buy flowers for the marquee. Only as I was driving home did I realise that virtually all the flowers I had bought were scented ... lilies, lavender, tobacco, stocks. Sunflowers were the only exception, because I couldn't resist them. They're in buckets of water now, and I'll arrange them tomorrow, nothing too fancy, just one type of flower (one colour in the case of the stocks).

It's the first time I've ever handed the food over to a caterer, a very special lady called Jenny. We're having cold meats, salmon, tarts, with salad and hot potatoes, because Lucius always wants hot potatoes. Then soft fruit for pudding. Samphire with the salmon if we can find it. I'll keep you posted, and try to get a couple of the tart recipes from Jenny, as they sound wonderful. Sunday night the organic farmer who comes to the Henley farmers' market is doing a pig roast.

I'm off to buy yet more beer for the boys ... in the mean time, here are the flowers:

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Roast Potato Taste Test

Dinner was at 10.30 last night, so we just got on and ate it. Despite the lack of a blindfold, we compared roast potato cutting techniques, and came up with a surprise conclusion.

In fact, there are a couple of surprises here, for all those people who think, as I do, that the perfect roast potato is made by parboiling, then shaking before adding oil. You'll be thrilled to hear that you do not actually have to model the Eiffel Tower (see picture below of Horatio with his piece de resistance). But, amazingly, we did find it was worth making a hole through the potato (for example, when you've made a flower-shaped roastie to please your mother) ... because the potato taste shines through with a sweetness that was unmistakable and remarked on separately by all those who were lucky enough to get a holey one. There was a lot of talking and not much listening going on, so you can be sure that each person who noticed this was forming his/her own judgement. We used that acme of roasting potatoes, the King Edward.

The other surprise has ended a running battle in this house, and I have lost. Whenever Lucius makes roast potatoes (he is occasionally cornered into this by the demands of family life), he drapes them in - bacon. If I notice this happening, I always say that the potatoes will be soggy, and will not go crisp. Up until now, I have been right. But the boys have found that this has nothing whatever to do with the bacon and everything to do with the oven temperature. Which should be very hot. Obviously. But I'm going to have one last defiant skirmish - if you drape the potatoes in bacon (it's better than olive oil, mum - only I notice he used olive oil as well) then you get little crumbs of completely hard, slightly burnt (and not very nice) bacon every so often.

In the end, everyone was allowed to contribute two sentences to sum up. You may therefore find some of the punctuation a little peculiar. I'm giving the comments in the order they were made.

Alfred: The best roast potatoes ever, the most fun to eat. It's like a funfair in your mouth. Modest boy.

Lucius: They were very good, but we're having them with salmon and no gravy which made comparisons difficult. They were very crispy. This is not a normal menu in this house, but the shopping had been done by the time the tasting was found to be imperative.

Lettice: They were a bit burnt. Too many different sizes, so I'm eating burn and I don't like the taste of burn (H: "extraordinary, I love it"), in a way they're a bit too crispy, they've got a shell.

Horatio was rather nettled by this last comment; his original stance was a good chef never comments, however sibling rivalry prevailed:

Horatio: I aimed for a pork scratching. The bottom half of the Eiffel Tower was excellent, but as oxygen thinned, taste decreased. What he means is that the fat bit at the bottom was just about edible, but even the dogs wouldn't eat the thin bit at the top.

It was generally agreed that the experiment would have been more successful if the trimmings from all that carving had been cooked separately, both as they boiled and as they roasted. (Please note the ingrained dislike of food waste, this was a fine maternal hour.) It was also generally agreed that further work on this might have to be done this week. Perhaps not with salmon next time.

PS my favourite roast potatoes are completely different ... whole new potatoes, the smaller the better, roasted from raw with the entire contents of a tin of anchovies in olive oil. Fabulous. Known as girlie roast potatoes in this house, because Eleanor, Lettice and I love them, whereas the chaps all see it as a waste of an opportunity to have "real" roasties. Covered in bacon.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Roast potatoes: a question

Lunch today with Horatio, Lettice and Alfred, always a pleasure. The talk turned to roast potatoes, a great favourite in this house, particularly among the blokes. Last night, while I was out watching Lettice play hockey (her team won 7-0 and are now in the semi-final), Horatio and Alfred made roast potatoes out of the three spuds they found in the bottom of the veg box. This took them most of the evening, and they'd only just finished eating them when we got home at 10.20.

Men - at least the ones in my house - have a completely different take on cooking ... it seems to be a sort of running science experiment. And so, this lunchtime, the conversation went like this: We know they always get crisp on the bottom, so we have to decide how to get them crispier on the top. The sharp bits get the crispiest, so we need to cut them. Triangles would be best. No pyramids. Castles. I told them that the usual method is to shake them vigorously in the colander once you've drained them, to rough them up.

So tonight's plan is for competitive roastie-making: each of them to cut the potatoes into their chosen shape, cook those, and to shake one or two of each shape. We may have to taste them blind. Dinner may not be on the table until midnight. There will be much laughter. And they will mind - very much - who wins. As I am not cooking, I will take photographs.

Just as well I bought a large bag of King Edwards this morning.

Oh and my question is: how do YOU make your roast potatoes crunchy?

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Meatballs: a question

The question is: do you fry your meatballs? Or not?

Last night, the secrets of my cheating kitchen were out. I made the meatball sauce before everyone arrived (I can hardly bear to tell you ... slowly sweated huge quantity of pre-chopped onions together with pre-cubed carrot and swede, then added commercial tomato-y pasta sauce), but I hadn't lobbed in the meatballs. So the kitchen was full of people to watch my mass-catering shame. Ready-made meatballs chucked straight from the packet into the sauce.

This sparked a bit of a conversation ..."I'd never have thought to do that." "I always fry my meatballs first," etc etc. Me thinking, I wish I'd made these myself, I wish the sauce was more carefully made.

But we set it on the table, together with baked potatoes and the remains of the lunch picnic, and whoosh - it vanished in moments, a momentary lull in the ceaseless chatter of "my" crew, their parents, and my family (husband, children, parents, sister-from-America-with-her-three-boys). Then out for a game of rounders in the fast-fading light. It wasn't about the food.

Friday, July 06, 2007

A week at Henley Royal Regatta

Too busy to blog properly, but someone asked me to tell them about the regatta, so here are a couple of pictures. This is a pretty typical regatta scene - it shows "my" crew, Newport Aquatic Center from Newport Beach California, wending their way down to the start during the lunch break for a spot of practice.

The other photo shows my sister just about to leave for the enclosures - wellies essential this year ... and none of us can remember a year when the Stewards announced that wellies could be worn. She borrowed these from Lettice.

Just off to produce supper for about 20-25 ... not very elegant - meatballs and baked potatoes, combined with leftovers from our lunch picnic, a joint effort attended by five or six families. Then a game of rounders. Lucius has mown the lawn specially, the first break in the rain long enough to get all the grass cut.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Fourth of July tart

Happy Independence Day! Or does saying that reveal me as unAmerican? Whatever, have a good day ...

This jam tart is slightly undercooked to keep it white, and will be accompanied by a sauce (the sort that restaurants call coulis) made from blackcurrants. Red white and blue, plus stars. I think - but no doubt there'll be plenty of people to correct me - that today's all about the flag.

PS you need to know that I shamelessly stole the idea for this tart from Amanda at Little Foodies, who is cyber-circling the world in food, complete with geography lessons for her children, because, just at the moment, it's the only way she can travel. This week, for obvious reasons, she's in America.

Another pea puree

Yesterday was a day from culinary hell. At breakfast, 14 oarsmen said they would like supper. In the end, only eight of them turned up for the two sittings (some of them had pretty solid excuses, but one or two of them were old enough to have known better). There were also three extra family members at the last minute for one sitting, and later, much much later, I realised that the father of one of the Americans hadn't eaten, so I gave him some of the huge pile of leftovers.

Luckily it was stew, so that went into the freezer. The specially-cooked vegetarian number looked pretty filthy this morning on its dried-out plate. And then there were the peas.

I hate waste. I hate throwing food away. So the panful of peas sitting on the worktop (no room in the fridge) reproached me this morning. Then I remembered the lovely green pea paste we ate at Matilda's christening. Here's my latest version - almost a pesto, utterly delicious in its sweetness (I've been eating it for breakfast, and, if I'm not careful, I won't be able to stop!).

Another pea puree

440g cooked peas
a handful of basil leaves
a lump of parmesan, cut into chunky slices (if you have a Magimix, there really is no need to grate the cheese first - this is a really useful thing for cooks-in-a-hurry to know)
2 tablespoons pine nuts
2 tablespoons 0% Greek yoghurt
4 tablespoons olive oil
one fat clove of garlic, peeled and sliced

Whizz this in the Magimix until it's smoothish, and has stopped making that noise that tells you there are still a few big lumps in there.

Serve on toast or crostini.

Usually in this house the leftover peas get put into a green salad, where they are a very popular addition. Maybe not any more ...

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

These are a few of my favourite blogs

It's sometimes surprising (to me, anyway) the blogs that get huge readerships, and those that have tiny (niche?) followings. My absolute favourite blog of the moment, Pomiane, has only one bloglines subscriber, and that's me. No idea why, great food, English and Italian ... perhaps it's the lack of pictures, but most of the best cookery books are unillustrated.

Another one I'm really enjoying at the moment is Slow Cook. It's written by an American who's given up a high-powered job in journalism to cook, grow food, and blog. He writes about all that, and also about wider food issues, environmental issues that affect the kitchen - it's a lively read, one I'm always pleased to see bold in my feed reader.

Not all my best blogs are about food - Mostly Macro comes under the heading of food for the soul ... wonderful photos of wildlife - moths, butterflies, birds, flowers, you name it, if it's wild and in his garden or neighbour, Dean photographs it.

Graham Rice, the garden writer, has recently started blogging about his life in England and the US. Transatlantic Plantsman is imbued with a deep knowledge of plants, and always interesting to read. One day I'm going to pluck up courage to ask him why I have such a lack of success with most of my sweet peas!

I thoroughly recommend all of these.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Anchovy toasts

Here's something delicious to go with soup, or to stretch a meal when someone turns up unexpectedly ... you can make anchovy toasts from store-cupboard ingredients - well, I can, anyway, as I always have bread in the house, as well as tinned anchovies and anchovy paste (which I often use instead of stock cubes).

Spread anchovy paste onto a piece of thinly-sliced bread. Add three anchovies, arranged evenly in lines. Cover with another thin slice of bread. Drizzle with olive oil, then toast on each side. When it's done, cut into three fingers ... you can either give each piece one whole anchovy, or cut the opposite way, to give each slice three little bits of anchovy.

Good, wholesome, heart-healthy food. If you find the taste of anchovy strong, you could thin the paste down with a little Greek 0% yoghurt, or some soft cheese. Or indeed use soft cheese instead of anchovy paste. It's good with soup, especially something earthy and sweet, such as a beetroot soup. And you can make it ahead - prepare the sandwich in the morning, then drizzle toast it when you're ready.