A methi business

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.

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

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.

Turmeric latte. And a lot of people.

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.

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.

Stir well and serve warm.

Beetroot soup with licorice

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. 

Quincey, pudding examiner

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.

Let baigans be baigans

Rasedar Baigan (Hindi for saucy aubergine)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.

Summer’s almost gone

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.

I found my thrill

Pickled BlueberriesThe 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!)

Rhubarbade - ying and tang

We found ourselves in the garden centre again the other day. A weekday and all. We passed through aisles of green and shelves trailing leaves and branches like lazy octopi.I bought a tarragon plant and a gooseberry bush, spurred on by the constant disappointment on the supermarkets shelves. I'll leave the tarragon a while to get established, unlike the parsley which I have had to plant a few extra pots of. We seem to use a lot in this house and the poor little things can't keep up.As for the gooseberries, those furry little fruits that seemed to be a permanent fixture of my late childhood summers, I shall, with hope and care, now have my own supply. And each year, when the season dawns, I'll be able to have the simple joy of having grown my own sour little bombs of flavour. They are so good turned into a sauce with mackerel.It dawned on me, as I eyed the cakes and considered a nice sit down and a cup of tea, that perhaps I'm not freelance, I'm retired. It'll be a tartan shopping trolley in the supermarket, grey slip-ons and annoying everyone by travelling to leisure activities at peak time on the commuter trains next.Or not. Life, after all, is about balance. And the joys of the garden, especially this time of year, when every day brings a surprising new burst of colour somewhere, have given me a new pastime. One that appeals to my inate talent of 'pottering' about. A place of calm in the morning before a busy day, or a place of contemplation and unwinding after one, as you walk around with a drink in one hand and the hose in the other. However, I can see the amount of greenfly attacking the rosebuds may lead to swearing in a quiet corner, out of earshot of the children.And talking of Ying and yang, there is the heavenly balance when startlingly sour meets incredibly sweet: a sweet spot. Just the hint of something on the edge of tartness, almost mouth puckering but not quite. Rhubarb is the king of this. Perhaps it's just me, but that feeling of being just on the edge, when chillies in a curry are almost unbearable, when bitterness is almost too much in a sour cherry tangfastic, when lemon juice or vinegar just hits the acidic edge in a vinaigrette is where the flavour is at its best. It's almost thrilling to be there.But this is only a drink, so we'll stop with all that. There comes a point in life when you have bought too much rhubarb and you have to hold back. And you can't -- although Noah would vehemently oppose this heretical idea -- have crumble every day. So to use the remaining spears, I've made this rhubarbade. It's delicious and makes a refreshing change from the lime and mint  I love, or the cider vinegar and honey tonic I make. This vivid pink rhubarb at the height of its season is a real highlight of the year so get it while you can, and get it into as much as you can.Ingredients500g rhubarb500ml water50g maple syrup50g grated ginger (this helps bring out the flavour of the rhubarb, not that it needs help)1tsp citric acidJuice of a lemonMethodBring the ingredients to a boil in a saucepan and reduce to a simmer for about ten minutes. Leave to cool completely then strain into a bottle and chill.Dilute with sparkling water to serve, adding a sprig or two of mint if you like.