Cooking simply doesn't have to be cooking boringly. A fresh piece of wild fish or some high-season asparagus doesn't need much doing to it. Meals like this are quite often the best, in terms of flavour, sustainability and time. Vegetables at their freshest and most seasonal take almost no time to cook and with something like a flavoured butter or herb oil to complement them you are going to eat very well.
You can make many of these things in advance, butter freezes well to use as and when you like; spice mixes; freshly toasted and ground, will keep well in a jar in the cupboard for a couple of weeks to sprinkle over a finished dish. Try this gunpowder recipe for roast squash or this za'atar one to add to stems of tender broccoli or to sprinkle over.
Flavoured butters are one of my favourite way to add flavour and excitement to a dish and -- contrary to the advice given by the idiots in charge of dietary 'guidelines'-- it is good for you. Why on earth you would substitute a natural and delicious ingredient for an industrially produced trans-fat laden 'spread' which is one step away from plastic is beyond me.
Last week I made a batch with wild garlic as well as a harissa-laden one. I used them liberally to cook salmon, melt into a butter bean and chorizo stew and pour over fried eggs. This version, using a bunch of fresh fenugreek leaves (I threw the stalks into the blender too) is an elegant pale jade colour. Its maiden voyage is going to be with cauliflower, the florets first boiled until just starting to soften, next a coating of turmeric powder and mustard seeds, then caramelised in a pan and poached in the butter until ready.
Ingredients 250g softened unsalted butter (homemade from pasture-raised cows milk would be best, but failing that, Yeo Valley butter is a good supermarket one, if you must use those vile warehouses of sugar, food-type products and palm oil) 5g Maldon salt 1 bunch of fenugreek, well chopped 1tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Method Melt 25g of the butter with the olive oil and add the salt. Throw in the fenugreek and stir well. Cook for about five minutes, until everything is well wilted then remove from the heat and leave to infuse for half an hour. If at the end of the infusion the butter has started to solidify again, gently heat it. Strain the mixture through a sieve into a large bowl, discarding the leaves then add the remaining butter and whisk well until it all comes together. Pour into a jar or dish and chill until firm.
We sat down to supper, the children just having gone to bed. They were supposed to be asleep, yet by the volume of giggling wafting downstairs were still wide awake. Perhaps we could finish our meal in peace before resorting to investigation followed by threats.
I'd spent about half an hour in the afternoon making wild garlic butter from scratch. About 600ml of double cream into the churning jar was enough for a large pat and the buttermilk left over will go very well in some scones or to marinate some chicken.
A few handfuls of the garlic leaves and flowers, dug from the garden and cleaned of soil were wilted in a pan and squeezed dry. Salt and a pinch of turmeric went in to the blender with the butter until it became a vivid green, then I poured it, still fairly liquid, into a dish in the fridge to firm.
Making your own butter means you can choose cream that you know comes from well looked after cows. Grass-fed and allowed to live as they should: on pasture and well treated, contributing to and being part of the wider healthy biosphere. There is also a freshness to homemade, as well as a the excitement of seeing the simple magic of separating whey from fat. And once you've rinsed and squeezed it through muslin you can flavour it as you like.
When the children help, we wrap and label theirs with their names so they have personalised butter pats. They usually stick to plain butter, but you could spice it with garam masala or a tablespoon of harissa, rosemary or tarragon. You could even go sweet with ground cinnamon and sugar.
When you make a batch, roll each into a cylinder and wrap well in paper. You can freeze for later use or keep in the fridge for about a week if salted.
I used the wild garlic butter last night with chorizo scrambled eggs. The spices from the meat mingling with the deep green butter as the cubes sizzled and crisped. On the side were garlic-laden sautéed courgettes and a green salad lightly dressed with a punchy mustard vinaigrette. As if it wasn't rich enough, I had some very creamy goats cheese on my eggs. Maybe I'm calcium deficient at the moment and my body is trying to tell me something. If that meal was the result of subliminal dairy messaging, then I'm all ears.
It's a rare occasion that sees me pass a merguez sausage without buying it. Many a night, in the back streets of Toulouse after a hard day at Art college followed by the necessary 'unwinding', I could be found loitering by one of the many 'merguez-frites' vans. The meat may have been dubious, but if you add enough spices to something (and by those spices I also include everything that went in the sangria at Le Chat d'oc) it tastes amazing.
These days, I neither spice myself nor eat dubious things from vans. No matter that eating from a van or a skip is the height of fashion, and far be it from me to not appear as a man about town, full of a la mode encounters, I prefer to have a cosy night in knowing that what I'm eating is of du bon provenance, as it were. And besides, the idea of eating on a cold London street is frankly quite beyond the pale for a man of my age.
The newly opened butcher's shop down the road from us knows each farm that supplies their meat, if not each animal they slice up in the brightly lit back of the shop in the village. If things aren't up to scratch, they don't stock them. This gives me confidence in them, they really seem to care.
A large vitrine looks into the chilly fridge as you walk in the front door, framing the animal version of a gruesome Mafia scene and a pale red neon glow gives a rather voyeuristic feel to the whole set up. I ask for some bones for the dog, stock up on chicken and beef then spot the merguez. Ben, the tatooed and bearded man with the cleaver hands me the bag of body parts meat and I slowly, smilingly, back out of the shop and drive home through the leafy sun-dappled streets of Dulwich.
Back home, the dried butter beans(*) go into a bowl, covered with boiling water and soak for an hour before cooking. And I cook them in chicken stock made from Fosse Meadow farm birds until soft and velvety. Stirring through a good handful of parsley and a large pinch of dried mint I then pour in a lot of olive oil and leave the beans to quietly cool in a corner of the kitchen.
Later I will grill the merguez until oozing red oil comes out and the skin starts to crisp. The egg yolk(**) I've kept back from the stock clarifying is perfect for the rouille to go on top. All it takes is some toasted cumin seeds(***), ground to a powder with some saffron(*****), a couple of small garlic cloves(*****) and some salt(******). The olive oil(******) goes in a thin stream into the mortar as the egg yolk breaks golden into the spices. Thickening slowly it will add a hit of flavour to bring the sausage and beans together like a sun-tanned priest at a wedding.
*From Madagascar, apparently. For some reason or other I'm sure. **From a nice farm in the Cotswolds. ***Packed in the UK, apparently. What a weaselly thing to say. ****From La Mancha. Saffron Panza de la Mancha. A quixotic strand. *****French. I think. ******This, of course, is from Maldon. *******La bella Liguria. This is really all over the place isn't it?
Life is full of surprises. Take me for example, I'm not as young as I look. And that's all down to the restorative elixir made from Nature's wonder: turmeric. Yes, that's right, for only a few pence a day, you too can look and feel like me. And you will have the guaranteed extra benefit of living forever.*
Try as I might these days to shop and eat food from sources I know and trust, it's not always possible if I want to continue with the occasional exoticism. We have been trading spices for years as a nation (not always necessarily in a morally legitimate way) so I accept that my cupboards are full of fragrant wonders of the world I thoughtlessly spice up our meals with.
The turmeric in this drink came from Peru and I have no idea of what the lives of the farmers and workers is like. The almond milk supposedly came from organic small growers and co-operatives, but we all know that a lot of almond farming is on environmentally shaky ground and the cost of growing is huge.
The pepper came from Telicherry, Kerala, meant to be the finest pepper in the world. As I stir it into the drink, savouring its fruity aroma, what's the picker doing after a day's work? And the saffron, cardamon and coconut oil that goes into it too? Could I not just be happy with a fresh mint tea, made from the herbs growing in my garden? But then I think if there was no demand for all of this, there would be no point in growing it and no economic benefit. Is a pathetic wage really an economic benefit at all?
I love this drink though. It's comforting, healthy, tasty and nourishing. But as with everything we ravishingly consume it's worth stopping to think a little about where it comes from and the people who have been involved in its journey. From the earth to the farmers who grew it; the pickers and packers; the delivery drivers who collect and transport it; the shipyard workers and the ship's crew; the distribution workers here and the people you hand your money over to before you bring it home. All for a moment's pleasure and the guarantee of eternal life.**
*not a guaranteed benefit. **not a guarantee.
Method I make a paste from about five tablespoons of turmeric powder (dried is best for this, it is more concentrated so you get more of the curcumin) and add a fair amount of water until it's the texture of houmous. This is all done in a small pan on a gentle heat, so when I add a tablespoon of coconut oil, it melts easily in and is quickly absorbed.
A good twist of pepper, some ground cardamon (about a teaspoon's-worth), a pinch of chilli flakes or cayenne pepper and sometimes a touch of ground cloves go in.
Finally, a pinch of saffron if I'm feeling the urge, maybe some ground ginger or cinnamon and then I transfer it to a glass jar, kept in the fridge to use over the course of the week.
To make it up, put a heaped tablespoon of the paste in a small milk pan and top up with a tumbler-full of almond milk. You can, if you prefer use cow's milk, coconut milk, soy milk, rice milk, whatever.
The roads winding through the countryside, some tree-sheltered and some opening onto wide rolling fields belie how close we are to London and the grey January concrete I've just left behind.
Although the weather is downcast and gloomy, the skies heavy with cloud and light drizzle, the journey out of my corner of South East London quickly and always surprisingly opens out into fresh air and the wide landcapes of West, then East Sussex.
Most of the fields I pass are brown, the work happening underground. The quiet surface appears asleep with no visible sign of life. Most of the winter produce is cropped now and all that remains is either stumpy and scrubby or muddy and lumpy.
I wonder if this is the best time to visit a fruit farm. But I wanted to see where the work of growing began. Normally all you see in your fruit bowl is the gloriously ephemeral end result. You give it little thought as the juice from the berries runs down your arm and chin, but here, on a cold and muddy morning, you can see the long journey from it's soily and unglamorous beginnings.
Brambletye biodynamic fruit farm near the small town of Forest Row, is down a long and bumpy road that after a few twists and turns becomes little more than two muddy ruts. I drove past the ruins of the 17th century Brambletye manor, of which there are only separated halves of the facade remaining, and knocked on the door of what I took to be the farm house. Two large dogs (I'm not good with breed names) galloped around me, and the lady of the house, aproned and with flour covered hands like the country version of a seaside postcard told me I was in the wrong place. A great shame, as the smells from the kitchen wafted out the door like siren song.
A few minutes later and slightly further along the road, I stepped from the car into the mud of the farm then got immediately back in and changed out of my towny white trainers into wellies.
Greeting me were Ellie and her two year old daughter who was well wrapped up with a wooly hat pulled down over her ears, and coat and scarf drawn up around her, but not quite able to prevent a little cold red nose poking out.
Crates of bottled apple juice were stacked high all around ready to be sent out, and the big barn behind was being swept out by Stein Leenders, clad in dark blue overalls and dusty boots. He and Ellie have been farming on this land for 10 years now after he moved over from Holland along with 15,000 apple trees to what was then a rented field.
The first thing Ellie took me to see were the mushrooms, growing in an old shipping container. Rows of plastic barrel-like sacks, packed tightly with mushroom spores and wood chippings from the hazel trees in the neighbouring woods were sat neatly on shelves. The damp air and low hum of the artificial lights casting a Bladerunner like glow gave the impression of a strange tunnel, lined with embryonic alien life. Here and there, out of the plastic where holes had appeared, sprouted little mushrooms. Pink, yellow, and blue winter oyster mushrooms were vivid in the half-light, slowly growing larger until harvesting. Growing this way recreates the exact conditions all year round as if they were growing in the forest. This was very different to the mushroom farm's long stacked beds I spent weekend mornings picking in as a teenager to earn money to buy the latest A-ha album.
A few minutes walk from the mushrooms and we were on the crest of a hill, the highest point of the farm overlooking the sweeping High Weald. Rows of stunted apple trees, Evita, Santana and Red Topaz varieties, lined the field, sounding like a musical revue. Leafless and jagged, it seemed as if a fierce wind had blown through, stripping everything. On this exposed hillside, it probably had.
Chickens, lots of them, run freely and curiously among the slim tree trunks, the grass growing happily under their feet. "You don't see this very often," says Ellie, picking up her daughter, who was starting to get cold and a little hungry, as was I. She tells me the chickens are owned by a neighbouring farmer and share, and therefore fertilise, the land. We walk along to their coop, a long, movable shed where in the porch-like entrance is a window through which a conveyor belt's end pokes through. One egg sits proudly on it.
Behind this, through another door is the main room where the chickens can sleep, lay eggs and hang out, possibly watching telly, or whatever it is chickens do on their days off. Fifteen or so are clucking around happily and when we step out the door we are greeted by a large crowd of them, gathered like fans at the stage door of the Palladium.
We head back toward the main apple shed, past rows of gooseberry bushes, the green and the sweeter purple types. Past cherry trees, blackberry bushes and then the pear trees, of which there are a few varieties such as Wildeman and Concorde. Every tenth pear tree is a pollinator, that is to say, a different variety. They are grafted onto quince roots and you can see the quince trying to fight it's way up through the soil around the base of the trees.
Red and blackcurrant bushes are being pruned and a few cabbages, kale, cavolo nero remain, the end of the season approaching. As spring arrives, so will 'the hungry gap', the space between the hardy winter root vegetables and brassicas growing and the fruit season starting. This is when the farm maintenance and planting happens.
The longer storing varieties of apples, held back for this lull -- some in low oxygen storage -- can be pressed for juice, ensuring a constant year round supply. Vats of cider vinegar are in the background too; the raw, unpasteurised stuff, full of good bacteria and culture, just like my French family. These are sold along with the juices, purées and fruit and veg at the farmers markets and shops the farm supply.
The apple pulp and waste gets fed to the two pigs, which, as it comes out of the pigs, feeds the land on which the apples grow, just like with the chickens eating the plants in the orchard.
It's an inspiring sight to see, and the work and dedication they put into their farm is uplifting in these strange times. I tentatively ask about what 'Brexit' may mean to them, and Ellie tells me they use mainly local pickers in season, and plenty of restaurants and suppliers have already been in touch to see what they can use on a local produce level. So perhaps, if there is anything good to come out of this whole farce, it may be that we become much more connected to the seasons and to shopping locally rather than relying on imports.
Ellie and Stein care about their farm, the land and their products and we as consumers should be grateful for such dedication. We are able to get real food grown with care and respect and not covered with 'Roundup' or picked before being ripe and cold-transported thousands of miles. Perhaps it's time we toned down our sense of entitlement to all year round asparagus and enjoyed things as they appear from the land before us. It certainly leaves a better taste in the mouth.
Switchel Raw, unpasteurised cider vinegar, as produced on Brambletye farm has many supposed health benefits, not least I suppose because it's all natural. It's not just something to make a salad dressing or vin d'alho with, either. People have been drinking it for centuries. There are so many varieties, but if you taste proper vinegar you'll never go back. As well as apple, there are many raspberry vinegars, parsnip ones, red and white wine, obviously, Banyuls vinegar, which is like having a glass of port, aged vinegars, young ones, all kinds.
I use the cider vinegar to make 'switchel,' a centuries old drink that deserves a revival. It's refreshing and interesting and you can make it as sweet or sharp as you like. I prefer sharp to add some zing, there are already to many sweet drinks around. For a non-drinker it's something that tastes a little more grown up than the seemingly thoughtless offerings of children's fizzy squash packaged in adult designs and it's not based around sugar. It's important to also use raw honey here to get the full healthiness.
Make a bottle, keep it in the fridge and swig merrily away, knowing it's all pure.
Ingredients 1tbsp raw honey Juice and zest of a lime 4tbsp raw cider vinegar A thumb of ginger, grated Water to top up (or leave it neat and dilute with sparkling water)
Method Dissolve the honey in a few tablespoons of hot water then top up with the lime juice, vinegar and grated ginger. Funnel into a 500ml sterilised glass bottle and add fresh, filtered water to the top. Seal and leave to infuse for a day. Keep in the fridge, serve with ice or just straight in short glasses.
It changes your attitude, somewhat, to the fish you're eating when you know the name of the fisherman who caught it. Joe caught my bass, out on the stormy seas while I was pottering around my warm kitchen with a cup of tea that didn't throw itself across the room every ten seconds as the house hit a wave That adds a whole new level of respect as I place the fish in the hot pan.
The crew of the day boat 'Le Belhara', owned by Chris Veasey, fish out of Eastbourne, and the catch makes its way to Veasey and Sons Fishmonger, in Forest Row, East Sussex, about 30 miles from the coast. Chris opened the shop, housed in a former butcher's, with son-in-law Dan Howes eight years ago after success at the East Grinstead Farmers' Market.
While the day boat sails from Eastbourne, Dan and his colleagues staff the bright, yet cosy feeling shop on the narrow road that leads out of the village to Hartfield. An elderly man and lady whom I assume to be his wife by the way they argue, looks at me standing over the mussels and says "We're very fortunate to have this fishmongers in the village." I nod back and mumble something about my good luck that they are at the market every Saturday where I live.
I first discovered them when they started their crushed ice-laden fish stall at the Crystal Palace food market four years ago and finally got round to visiting them last week. They now have ten market stalls every week as well as the shop and are spreading their passion for quality fish wherever they go.
It's a privilege to be able to buy such good fresh fish minutes from my house in London on a Saturday morning. One of my great disappointments in life is how much of our amazing seafood gets exported. But that's because The Europeans seem to respect fish more, it's more part of their daily diet than here, where we stretch mainly to cod and chips on a Friday or fish fingers for the children. Fish and chips is all very well, but the chips must be hot, salty and spiky with vinegar, the sea should be no more than 15 metres away while you eat them and the weather should be blustery.
But it's more a state of mind than a meal. In reality that state of mind often becomes a state of disappointment, apart from the very occasional highlight at places such as Lewis' fish shop in very fishy town of Newlyn where it was so good we went a few times on our summer holidays last year.
Sadly, the price of fish is often serious injury or lives lost at sea, Dan explains as he shows me an x-ray from one of the fishermen's hands after an accident with a winch. Bones crushed and crunched out of shape, finger joints at right-angles, like a particularly gruesome skeleton pianist from a travelling horror show.
The cod is particularly good at the moment, Dan tells me as I eye what to buy. Bass, sitting firm on it's bed of sparkling ice crystals as if in a giant jewellery box has to come home with me, it looks too good to resist. I also take a meaty cod loin which a day later is shared with the family in a fish molee, rich with coconut sauce, onion and the hint of cinnamon, cardamon and clove. I'm generous like that. Home made fish cakes also fall into my bag, a quick supper for when we've been out all day.
And last, I also ask for a bag of mussels, which, coincidentally, was the nickname I always wanted. A few large handfuls go in, they clack and knock together as they slip into the bag, looking like shiny black pebbles on the beach as the waves ebb away.
The bass will be dusted in flour and cooked in darkening butter. A squeeze of lemon may be enough, but I'm always a fan of salsa verde or a herb-laced olive oil. One of the best things about fish is that you can have supper on the table in about ten minutes if you get yourself together. The molee I made was ready in the time it took for the rice to cook, and the mussels, which I had for lunch today were ready in less than five. You can't even get fast food that fast. Just remember where it came from as you enjoy it.
Mussels with miso and n'duja broth Ingredients for two people A bag of spanking fresh mussels (these keep in the fridge for up to a week if looked after) 2tbsp white miso paste 2tbsp n'duja 500ml hot water 1 shallot or small onion, very finely diced 1 clove of garlic, grated or crushed A large splash of verjus to steam the mussels (white wine or water as an alternative; I prefer verjus which keeps better and is more interesting than the leftovers of some bad supermarket wine) Olive oil Salt to season
Method Heat a heavy, lidded saucepan and add the verjus followed by the mussels. Put the lid on and steam until they have opened, this should only take a couple of minutes. Remove from the heat. Meanwhile, sauté the shallots and garlic in a little olive oil until soft, season well. Add the miso and n'duja and a splash of hot water and mix well to a creamy paste. Add the rest of the water, mix well and bring to just below the boil. Remove from the heat and pour into the mussel pan. Stir gently and serve straight away. Possibly with some crusty baguette if you fancy.
There is a frost outside, covering everything in a faint white. The school run has to begin a little earlier on these mornings and the only way for that to happen is with threats. I should get up a little earlier, but no-one wants to get out of bed when it's this cold. Especially when it means having to go outside in a dressing gown to let the dog --who still smells like a tart's boudoir after his trip to the groomer-- out.
So on days like this after you've spent the morning trying to warm up through to bone level, soup is just the thing for lunch. For us, soup must have lots of things in it, more a meal in a bowl than a hot drink. And this beetroot, bacon and cabbage one has plenty going for it. A good homemade chicken stock, a pinch of licorice root powder giving a hint of spicy interest and bacon and buttery cabbage so it's not just an odd, hot smoothie.
Peel and cube two or three medium-large beetroot and sauté them in a little olive oil in a covered pan or roast it in foil until soft. Add a litre or so of stock, a pinch of licorice powder (some people don't like licorice or beetroot, in which case this whole thing may sound like a nightmare), salt and pepper, some dill seeds and bring to the boil. Simmer for about ten minutes then blitz in the blender. Don't forget to attach the lid properly.
Meanwhile, sauté the bacon and shred half a Savoy cabbage. Add that to the bacon with a little butter and cook for a few minutes until it starts to soften.
Serve the soup with the bacon and cabbage and a pinch of chilli flakes for added warmth.
It's cold outside, bleak, wintry. The pile of quinces on the kitchen counter hasn't moved for a week and some of them are on the turn. Unlike the pumpkins still on the windowsill these needed to be used quickly. A version of a Tarte Tatin seemed the solution, as it could well be for many of life's problems.
Peel and core the quince, (about six or so went into this). I used the peelings and cores to make a syrup: sugar, water, a cinnamon stick, a pinch of saffron-- then poach them in water for about 15 minutes, until tender, but still firm to the touch. I then mixed them in about 4 tablespoons of cinnamon sugar left over from the 'skillingsboller' Maya and I made on Sunday which Noah then ate most of.
Then, proceed in the way you would if making an apple Tatin, that is to say melt and caramelise some sugar in a heavy, wide, oven-proof pan or tatin dish and layer the quince down. Cook for a few minutes before covering with the puff pastry* and gently tucking it in around the edges as if putting it to bed (you can also use shortcrust if you prefer, but you will be wrong).
Cook in a fairly hot oven (200c) for about 25 minutes, or until the pastry is puffed and golden. Leave to cool for a while before turning out onto a plate, sprinkling over the hazelnuts and giving a drizzle of syrup if you have any. Serve with creme fraiche.
*Some frozen puff pastry (homemade is obviously better, but I didn't fancy it today, and I had a roll to use up) defrosted and rolled a little thinner is fine for this and makes the whole thing a really quick yet impressive pudding.
I had my first mince pie(s) of the year yesterday. Hallowe'en and bonfire night have gone and now it's open season on the festive fun. So many films to watch, so little time.
We are most definitely into the cosier meals. The slow roasting and the richer sauces, the gradual disappearance of lettuce and delicately vibrant greens. We had a chilli last weekend, simmering slowly, full of spices and a hint of chocolate. Sunday afternoons are less guiltily filled with chocolate cake or toasted crumpets, the fire crackling and a general air of sloth.
I've been roasting things a lot, too. Red peppers with shallots and garlic, sweetening and softly caramelising in the dish. These beetroot, wrapped in foil, laying on a bunch of slightly past its best coriander stems and remaining leaves were sloshed with olive oil and salt and left for about and hour and a half in a medium-hot oven until tender. The oven trays have their chance to shine with 'sheet-pan' dinners a regular thing.
Perhaps the beetroot will be served warm in wedges with gunpowder spices or a generous dusting of ground cumin and mixed through with the remaining peppers. I may cube them and serve warm with coriander creme fraiche and lemon oil, or maybe cut into large chunks and used in a Sri Lankan beetroot curry while we watch the cricket in Galle on the telly.
It's these things, usually seen as a sideshow which really bring dishes alive so make sure to treat them with care and you'll always have good food. Most of the work is just done by time and heat leaving you free with the Griswolds or Fozziewig's Christmas party.
A grey dawn was spreading over the sky like cold soup across formica as Maya poked me in the face to wake me up. She has to walk past Bee's side of the bed to get to me, and I always wonder why she doesn't just ask her whatever inanity she's bound to come out with before seven o'clock.
With her question dealt with, I lay there, thinking about the important issue of the day: what to cook for our guests that evening. A side of salmon in the freezer would be a good start for the six of us. Lightly salted and rubbed with freshly ground coriander seed and lime zest.
This week's veg. box had leeks and a squash in. So a side dish of leek, sliced and softened in plenty of butter. The squash would be roasted.
There was a beetroot the size of a doorstop, gnarly and grumpy looking. The carrots, firm and full of tension, the soil still clinging to them. Both of these shredded and mixed with raisins, finely sliced chives fresh from the garden, cider vinegar, and olive oil mixed in would make a bright and sharply sweet salad.
The bag of runner beans, a few starting to slightly sag went through the krisk slicer and into cold water for an hour to firm even more Once briefly cooked, I tossed them through with garlic olive oil, toasted almonds and plenty of salt.
Then to the regal glory of a crown prince squash the size of my head. The colours of autumn squash are so intense and vivid, a real seasonal display of oranges, blues, reds and yellows.
I carved it into wedges, no easy task. It cried with every slice of the knife, beads of clear juice forming at the edge of each cut. Into the baking dish with a lot of olive oil, a good few cloves of fat purple garlic, skins still on for a good hour long roast. Everyone was going to be well fed that night. (The seeds went in a pan on top of the wood stove to toast and keep for later).
But wait. Before the squash went in I sprinkled it all over with gunpowder seasoning. It's Southern Indian, an often used seasoning that as well as looking like gunpowder is explosively flavoured. This one is black, but there are many variations. It's smoky and toasty; made up of mainly cumin, black sesame and nigella seeds. It went so well with the pumpkin and even better on the salmon.
I'd make a batch and store it in a jar to liberally sprinkle on everything. It's going to top the soup I'm making tonight with the leftover squash (there was enough for a meal twice over) and the trimmings from the leeks and carrots.
Fireworks aren't just for the autumn night sky. While it may be a crown prince rather than a king, it's nice to see it working so well with gunpowder.
Ingredients A handful of black sesame seeds 3tbsp or so of urad dal (black, squat lentils, easy to find online) 8 black peppercorns. (That's how many fell in, it's not that precise) 1tbsp brown mustard seeds 1tbsp cumin seeds 1tbsp nigella seeds 2tbsp poppy seeds A good pinch of Himalayan salt (pink or black, the black being more sulphuric, or Maldon) Chilli powder to taste, if you want some heat. I didn't
Method Toast the sesame seeds in a dry cast iron pan for a couple of minutes. Don't wander off like I did. Remove them from the pan and put in a bowl. Add the dal to the pan and toast for a few minutes until fragrant and starting to brown a little. Throw in the peppercorns, mustard seeds, cumin, nigella and poppy seeds and continue to toast for another minute, until the cumin starts to smell really toasty and cumin-y. Remove from the heat and tip into a food processor or large spice mill with the salt. Grind to a coarse powder that resembles, well, gunpowder, then stir in the sesame and leave to cool. Store in an airtight jar for up to a month.
The more I cook, perhaps the older I get (or is it tireder), the fewer ingredients I want to use in a dish. And the simpler the food I'm making, the more delicious it seems to be.This week it's been a case of taking a vegetable and using that as the starting point for a meal. A little more thinking has had to be applied rather than thoughtlessly going with the usual starchy suspects you reach for on a rapidly darkening Tuesday evening.As if dealing with the sad acceptance that we don't live in an endless Swallows and Amazons summer wasn't enough, now we have to start eating properly again. No more cream teas and cake for the evening meal. Out has gone the pasta, rice and potatoes that form so many daily meals, and in, the sad acceptance that we are no longer inhabiting our 20 year old bodies.But it need not be dull as we slip headlong into turnip season. We are still heavy with aubergines, broccoli, cauliflower, courgettes and sweetcorn among other things. The salads are fading, but my appetite is growing. And as we lose nearly two hours of daylight over September's delicate and gentle colour change, we can start to get bolder and deeper with flavours.This recipe is based on the gloriously named Pushpesh Pant's 'curried aubergine in coconut sauce', which he says is from India's 'coastal region'. So just a small area then. I've added saffron, almond flakes, green chillies and coriander to mine to pep things up a little.Rich and exciting, it's texture is indecently silky, as if Liberty's had opened a dodgy Soho alleyway silk scarf shop. We had it twice this week, the juices mopped up with spiced chickpea flatbreads. I've still got one more aubergine in the fridge from the veg box, so we haven't seen the last of this in our house.Ingredients1 medium-sized aubergine1tsp asafoetida1tsp chilli powder1/2tsp turmeric powder200-240ml coconut milkA sprinkle of flaked almondsA pinch of saffronA small green chilli, sliced thinlyCoriander leaves to garnishSalt and pepper to seasonGroundnut, rapeseed or vegetable oil to fry. And plenty of itMethodMix the spices together in a little dish or ramekin with enough water to make a fairly thick paste.Trim and slice the aubergine into discs roughly 1/2cm thickHeat the oil in a large sauté pan and fry the aubergine in a couple of batches until golden on each side, having seasoned with a generous hand. Set each batch aside on a plate until you have finished.Add the spice paste to the pan and fry for a second or two, stirring well so it breaks up a little. Add the coconut milk and mix well until the spices dissolve into it, giving it a golden amber colour and releasing its aromas.Gently add the aubergines back to the pan and simmer for a few minutes until heated through. Don't cook them for too long or they will collapse.Sprinkle with the green chilli, nuts, saffron and coriander, give a good twist of pepper and serve hot.
It's a crisp blue morning, a slight fresh chill to the air. The car windscreen, condensation covered, needed time to clear. This is how autumn begins, bright skies and the day gradually warming a little to remind us summer isn't quite over.The leisurely feeling of holiday, nothing more pressing than deciding what is for lunch or whether or not we can fit afternoon tea in as well as lying around reading, has passed.Gradually we are getting back into the swing of a routine. The children — I'd finally accepted having them around all day every day, a kind of Stockholm syndrome — bless them, have gone back to school giving me a break from Noah's non-stop cricket statistics and ball by ball descriptions and Maya's constant demand for paint supplies or sellotape.Autumn is when food starts to get more serious. No longer will a mimsy salad be enough. It's time to start breaking out the swedes and turnips. The long stews and rich sauces. "Out of the way you pathetic leaf", shouts the butternut.As we are still on the cusp of seasons ("ooh, yes, a cold, that'll be the change of weather") it's not yet time to quite let go. There is still sweet corn on the cob, boiled and drenched in butter, salt and pepper to eat messily and deliciously.Occasionally, lime zest with chilli flakes and melting, grated cheddar will appear on top of it. Maybe there will be a final opportunity for a barbecue, the cobs still in their husks, smoky and ineffably summery.So until the clocks change there will still be a hint of summer in our kitchen. The slow cooker can wait a few more weeks.
The smells coming from the oven are doing that thing to me. My mouth has started tingling, I think it’s the deep aroma of the harissa. It just sends me a little giddy.The squash, quartered, was covered with liberal pinches of sumac, marjoram, fennel seeds, pepper, chilli flakes, seaweed and salt and then harissa (a small jar’s worth) mixed with an equal amount of olive oil poured over. A few quartered tomatoes and another pinch of salt to be sure and it went into a hot oven for about an hour. Ideally it would have gone in the barbecue, but I just don’t have the will tonight to light it.All that remains is what to serve it with. There will be a good squeeze of lemon juice first then perhaps giant cous cous or some golden buttery crisp-bottomed rice. Perhaps a buttery dollop of polenta. Maybe I’ll let it cool a little and serve with warm flatbreads, some saffron yoghurt and hibiscus tea. I’ll give it some thought.Ingredients1 large squash, quarteredTablespoons of:Fennel seeds for brightness, dried marjoram for a little green earthiness, sumac for a sharp fruity contrast to the squash, chilli flakes for a little kick, warming turmeric powder so you live foreverPlenty of pepperSaltA pinch of seaweed flakes if you have anyA small jar of harissa and an equal amount of olive oil blended with itMore olive oilA few large tomatoes, quarteredSome flaked almonds and fresh oregano to finishMethodHeat the oven to 180cLay the squash on top of the tomatoes and add the remaining ingredients apart from the almonds and oregano, pouring the harissa and oil mix over last.Season well and drizzle with a little more oil.Cook for about an hour. Remove from the oven and add the almonds and oregano then cook for another five minutes.Give a good squeeze of lemon juice over and serve with giant cous cous and sumac yoghurt
The height of a very hot and unusually consistent summer means cooking has ground to a halt in this house. Almost. The sheer willpower needed to move takes away any enthusiasm we have for eating, let alone heating pans. A cold drink and perhaps a Cornetto seems about the limit of my ability.But life is dull without good food, so the simplest things are on the table. Prawns, quickly fried and doused in garlic butter is enough, as was a little spinach and ricotta tortellini in some chicken and vegetable stock for last night's supper. On the side, a pear, Gorgonzola and walnut salad, simply dressed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.We had friends round on the weekend, so I did have to grudgingly cook for them, the freeloaders. But a few chickens, jointed, browned and then chucked in the oven to slowly cook with tomatoes, bay leaves and cinnamon and left to cool to room temperature made an easy lunch with some flatbreads and salad. And pudding was a few caramelised bananas shoved under some ready-made puff pastry. A banana tatin with minimum effort. That was served with some cheap vanillia ice cream, which sometimes, is just the thing.So there is no need to miss out on meals when the the grass is scorched brown and the riverbeds are cracked drier than a Ryvita with no butter. Light and simple is the way to go and these blueberries are excellent on a plate with some anchovies or a little albacore tuna, gently cooked and preserved in olive oil the Italian way. Don't use cheap rubbish or it will taste like it. Throw a couple of rocket leaves or lamb's lettuce over the top and that should do it.Why you may ask, am I pickling soft fruit at the height of its season when everything should be simple and easy? Well, this is simple and easy, and a little jar of this in the fridge goes a long way. The effort is minimal, and besides which, have you seen what happens to soft fruit in this weather? It lasts about ten seconds. And besides, a little sharpness can be just the tonic in this heat.Ingredients400g blueberries120ml cider vinegar200g golden caster sugar1 long cinnamon stick1tsp cardamon seedsA pinch of chilli flakesA pinch of saffronMethodSlowly heat the vinegar, sugar, cinnamon, cardamon, chilli and saffron in a saucepan until the sugar is dissolved, stirring occasionally. Bring to the boil and add the blueberries.Wait for a bit to let the heat come back and cook for 30 seconds. Remove to a plate or tray with a slotted spoon and let the pickling liquid cool and thicken.Put the cooled blueberries and liquid into a clean jar, seal and leave in the fridge for at least a day.This weekReadDipping in and out of Vasari's 'Lives of the Artists'. Reading it now, rather than back at Art College before we had the internet is such a different experience. Being able to see reproductions on the screen as you read illuminates the text in ways the author probably couldn't imagine. Although there is something to be said about a book that describes paintings, you tend to imagine what they look like from your perspective with all its experiences, influence and scars.WatchedSacred Games on Netflix. Indian cop drama set in Mumbai. Thoroughly engaging if a little lacking in living up to its potential, but there are supposedly more series to come so I'll give it the benefit of the doubt. The baddy is so charasmatic and good looking and the good cop has enormous humanity and presence. It's gripping for those two alone.EatIce creamListened'The Sporkful', a food podcast by Dan Pashman is always a good listen. Apart from that, I had Tanita Tikaram's album 'Ancient Heart' on for the first time in years. That was a good blast from the past. (1988 if you were wondering. Cripes, it's 30 years old!)
With this incessant sunshine the pace of life changes. I feel all we are good for is to flop down somewhere warm, the only occasional movement being the lifting of a cold glass of lime, mint and ginger soda to our lips, and the only words spoken are the ones to our punkah wallah to increase the fanning speed.And with that in mind, our meals have been made with the minimum of time and effort this week. But they have by no means suffered in flavour. We've had chicken thighs, poached and shredded and tossed in a peanut butter, sesame oil and soy sauce along the lines of bang bang chicken. The cucumber and spring onion a refreshing breeze through the richness as we suffered the tension of a penalty shootout.One evening I slowly roasted tomatoes with garlic and harissa in the cocotte in plenty of olive oil then stirred in cooked chickpeas and spinach and served that with some five minute lamb kebabs laced with cardamom and cumin. This cocotte method is fantastic, something you can do in the background and once cooled you stuff the tomatoes and their juices into kilner jars and keep them in the fridge to use during the week. There is no need to buy tinned tomatoes if you do this and the flavour and intensity is out of this world.And last night we had kasha, (toasted buckwheat) simmered in double the amount of water and mixed through with sautéed onions, chestnut mushrooms a good lump of butter and a healthy squeeze of lemon juice. On top of this I added salmon fillets I'd seasoned and then rolled around in za'tar. A quick flash in the frying pan and supper was ready.So today's recipe is for this versatile spice mix. You can, of course, buy it ready made, but if this way, being homemade, it's in your hands how it tastes. You can take charge of your own flavours as you see fit.Trying to give a definitive ingredient list for a spice blend is the culinary equivalent of describing music. Just as there is not one dahl recipe, when you are mixing, blending and tweaking spices around a theme -- in this case a Middle Eastern sesame seeds one -- the variations are infinite and based on personal preference. Just bear in mind that the sesame seeds should take up roughly half of the total mixture. Whether or not you toast them is up to you. I don't because I find the flavour becomes too strongly nutty, and there is enough going on already. You can replace the marjoram with dried winter savoury if you like and add a pinch of black sesame seeds as I do.Give it a little bash in the pestle and mortar to release some of the cumin oil and store in a jar to use on grilled lemon chicken breasts or to add to lamb cutlets before chargrilling and serving with aubergine and chick peas. You could also sprinkle it over grilled courgettes or roast strips of red pepper too. It can go on flatbreads before grilled or be mixed with olive oil and used as a dip for after.IngredientsSesame seedsGround sumacDried oreganoDried marjoramCumin seedsSaltMethodHalf fill a bowl with sesame seeds then divide the remaining space with a pinch of black sesame seeds if you have any, sumac, dried oregano, dried marjoram, cumin seeds (you can toast these first if you like, try it and see which you prefer) and a pinch of salt.Bash it about a little with a pestle and it's ready.
Bread. So comforting. All types from the soft and pillowy to the crusty, worthy and hard work. The trashy white slice filled with butter and grated cheese, the ciabatta rubbed with garlic, drenched in olive oil and toasted. The baguette, the base of a pizza, the pitta bread to hot to hold plunged into the houmous.It fills every need and no meal is worse for it being involved somewhere. Sandwiches would be very poor without it.I can't imagine a dahl without naan to dip in it and I love to dredge some focaccia through the rich juices left behind from some tomatoes slowly roasted in olive oil. The restaurants of my childhood memories are full of bread rolls and butter too hard to spread. Even rye bread, denser than the 'contestants' on 'Love Island', has its place, supporting prawns, dill mayonnaise and boiled egg.I'm always keen to try out new variations on what is always based on the simple premise of flour, yeast, water, salt and time and these 'sheermal' are a slightly sweet and soft milk bread. A new addition to the recipe collection. They are great straight from the pan and work well as a breakfast bread with some strong spiced tea but go equally well with a yoghurt dip.There is saffron in them, even though time and time again I ask myself why? It may be a pretty colour, but is it not, ultimately tasteless and a big waste of everybody's time?Ingredients125ml milk250g bread flour1tsp dried yeast1tsp cardamon seeds1tbsp sugarA pinch of salt185g melted butterPinch of saffron1tbsp orange blossom water1tsp vanilla pasteMethodPour the milk into a large bowl and add the yeast, spices and sugar.Mix in the butter and flour then mix in the milk and salt to make a soft dough.Rest for two hours. The bread that is, although feel free to lie down too.Divide the dough into eight balls then roll out into flat circles.Heat a cast iron pan until really hot then cook each bread for ten seconds on each side until colouring. Pile up and serve warm or leave to cool and serve with cucumber yoghurt dip.This weekWatched:Joan of Arc documentary on BBC4. Was she nuts? Was she guided by God? Was the country fighting itself because humans are greedy, corrupt and power crazed? Who knows, but she was certainly committed to her cause and didn't let 15th century attitudes (not too dissimilar to 21st century ones, sadly) stop her.Read:A New Yorker feature on the Faroe Islands dining scene. Fascinating and engaging, but something I'm more than happy to experience vicariously.Listened:The soundtrack to Good Morning Vietnam. Found when I was sorting out my cassettes. For the younger readers, cassettes are terrible things spooling magnetic tape all over the place and when they do function sound awful. However, it brought back good memories and suddenly I was back in 'Nam again. I wasn't, but I was transported somewhere.Eat:Meal of the week was slow roasted tomatoes with harissa, oregano and olive oil cooked in a cocotte. Intense.
I had just locked the garage door when I noticed the coriander had bolted. And what with the rather sad looking fennel in the fridge I realised I needed to turn my neglect into something positive. The crisp crunch of anything deep-fried is a textural pleasure and as naughty as it feels, it doesn't necessarily mean it's unhealthy. Unless of course we are talking Mars Bars or perhaps a saveloy, made from who knows what. Vegetable tempura, crisp on the outside and delicate within, salt and pepper prawns, elderflowers, even. If you keep it hot and quick and don't do it every day, things will be ok.So to rescue the fennel I used it in place of onions in a bhaji. And I plucked what coriander leaves and stems I could save and blitzed them with green chillies and garlic to make a fiery green chutney to dip the zesty, spiced fennel into.These are also good with a herby yoghurt dip if there are children or chilli scaredy-cats lurking around the place. If you don't have some of the spices, which I admit can be a little tricky to get hold of (unless you live near Tooting) feel free to leave them out. For an even speedier version, just make a batter with garam masala or curry powder, it will still be delicious.IngredientsFor the batter:5 cloves1tsp fennel seeds1tsp coriander seeds1tsp black mustard seeds1tsp amchoor (mango) powder1/2tsp nigella seeds1/2tsp tukmuria (basil) seeds1tsp cumin seeds1/2tsp cardamon seeds1tsp turmeric powderSalt and pepper to season100g Chickpea flour (gram flour)Enough water to make a batter as thick as double cream.1 fennel bulb, slicedFor the chutney:A large handful of coriander leaves and stemsA few green chilliesA clove of garlicA splash of cider vinegarA pinch of saltMethodGrind the spices to a powder and mix with the chickpea flour. Stir in the water to make a batter.Meanwhile, blitz the chutney ingredients together in a blender and set aside.Heat two litres of rapeseed oil in a deep-fat fryer to 180c or half fill a heavy-based saucepan with the oil and heat. It's ready when you drop a little batter in it and it immediately sizzles and starts to colour.Dip the fennel in the batter and fry in small batches. Drain on kitchen paper and serve hot with the chutney.This weekWatchedBirdman with Michael Keaton. Excellently acted and directed, I really felt we were part of the theatre. A few bits of it left me a little cold and annoyed, although perhaps that's because we were watching it outside as part of the Crystal Palace festival. ListenedMoses Boyd, Time and Space, and Absolute Zero. Two contemporary Jazz albums from a young man born in Catford. Very, very good.ReadSome poems by John Hegley and a few more by Joe Duggan, two of the performers we saw at the Antenna Studios spoken word event as part of the C.P. festival again. Both as enjoyable as ever. John Hegley is a master. And very grumpy too.And Joe's soft Irish delivery and witty lyricism can be both warm and poignant at once.
The wateriness of courgettes puts many people off. But that's only if you cook them like a 1950s battle-axe of a boarding-house landlady. The key is to give them no more than a flash in the pan. A mere glimpse of searing heat, just enough to turn the slivers of garlic golden and crisp, and the courgettes, be they cubes or baby ones, will have bite and a juicy crunch to them.For years we have usually done these with grated garlic, melted gently into the hot oil, almost like a confit, but the other day I left the heat on a little too high and saved the slivers just in time. Now, we do both, having in modern parlance 'garlic two ways' and it has lifted this from delicious to sublime. A few chilli flakes and some lemon zest lift this a little higher still, and looks as if you've made a little bit of an effort. Even though, as is often the case, simple, fresh ingredients treated well are all you need.Be generous with the garlic, olive oil and seasoning here, courgettes do need a little help.IngredientsBaby courgettes, sliced lenegthwise. About 12-14 is enough for two peopleA good helping of good quality extra virgin olive oil2 fat cloves of garlic, one sliced very finely and one grated on a microplaneA generous pinch of Maldon saltSome chilli flakesZest of half a lemonMethodHeat a sauté pan with the olive oil and add the slivers of garlic, cook on medium until turning golden then add the courgettes and the rest of the garlic. Season well and toss them around a bit on high heat until the green of the skin sets its colour vividly. Dress with the zest and chilli flakes to taste and check and adjust the seasoning. Serve straight away as an excellent side dish.
I had started with the intention of making a dip. It turned into a pasta sauce. And that is not a bad thing when that pasta sauce becomes an instant favourite; we've had it three times in the last two weeks, not least because a jar of it from the fridge made an excellent emergency supper when an underfloor gas leak one evening this week has led to the hob being disconnected.We are left, temporarily with a two ring burner for our cooking. So it's basic meals for the next week, I don't think a barbecue every night is an option, we're not Australian for God's sake.This does also make an excellent dip, served slightly warm with fresh flatbreads, so make enough, store in sterilised jars for up to five days and you'll have a few options. You can omit the chilli if you want to feed it to the children, but the kick you get really lifts the sauce. I'd suggest training them to love chilli instead...Ingredients2 large aubergines2 Romano peppers (just increase the bell peppers if you can't get these)1 red bell pepper1tbsp ground cumin1tbsp ground corianderA lot of olive oil, this dish really needs it for richness and depth1 dried red Scotch bonnet chilli or habanero1 good quality tin of plum tomatoes10 or so cherry tomatoes2 large cloves of garlicSalt and pepper to seasonMethodHeat the oven to 180cSlice the aubergines and peppers put them in a roasting ray with the cherry tomatoes.Blitz the remaining ingredients in a blender and pour over the peppers and aubergine. Season well and add a little more olive oil for fun. It really should have an indecent amount.Cook for 45 minutes until soft and 'done' then leave to cool.Blend roughly and serve hot with fusili. Or Malluredos, but that is next to difficult to find.This weekRead:The Sea, The Sea, by Iris Mudoch. Very funny, sublime and evocative. The main character is a self-obsessed pomposity of a man and a joy to read.Watched:The final series of Episodes. I'm glad it's over, but I'll miss it. I loved the ending, never saw it coming, but it was blindingly obvious when it did.Listened:Suanne Sundfor's new album, Norwegian interestingnessEat:Awful and boring the worst of England bland and mediocre, loveless pub food in our favourite East Sussex village. And it cost an arm and a leg each night of our stay too. The worst of this country's attitude to food.