I bought a bird feeder from the hardware superstore the other day. Along with a new huge barbecue and quite a few other things you're allowed when you graduate from Dad school.Except it seems to be badly calibrated. In this part of South east London it seems the only birds it attracts are squirrels. And three very shifty looking pigeons. And while I may proudly wear a 'For the many' lapel badge on my jacket, in this situation I am taking a hardline stance on scroungers and layabout animals wanting something for nothing. I threw a tennis ball in their general direction earlier and they retreated to a safe distance, eyeing me with beady contempt.But while the level of seeds and nuts dimishes quicker than my enthusiasm for the new season's hot weather after two days of sneezing my face off, my excitement at the garden grows daily as new things pop out here and there, seemingly overnight. Violets and forget-me-nots appeared from the garden's edge like a very slow jack-in-the-box and the tulips opened wider than I thought possible to soak up the strong, bright sunlight shining constantly on the borders.We cooked outside for the first time this year. In April. Which surely is unheard of. I over-catered in my excitement. Chicken, slender sausages, langoustines with garlic butter, burgers, lamb chops marinated in harissa, za'atar, cumin and rosemary, flatbreads, charring in parts until the edges shatter when you tap them. I roasted aubergines on the coals until soft and blackened then mashed them with olive oil, plenty of garlic and some more cumin and we sat outside stuffing our faces in the late afternoon warmth.After a weekend of overeating and behaving as if we were battery chickens busted out into the freedom of the garden, Monday night called for a calmer supper.I made this tom kha, trying to recreate the one from our local Thai restaurant. And while not quite the same as theirs -- I have a feeling they may lace it with sugar -- it was fresh tasting, spicy (but with a nice heat that sort of punched you in the face then left you alone, rather than one that slowly builds like a kind of gaslighting) and ready in about 20 minutes. Halve the amount of chillies if you like, but I do rather enjoy the rush you get from something that is almost too much.I put prawns in this one, but chicken is equally delicious. As is pigeon or squirrel. Possibly.IngredientsA thumb sized piece of galangal, finely sliced3-4 red chillies (birdseye or finger)2 sticks of lemongrass, bruised and sliced into 3cm pieces1 tin of coconut milk (400ml)6 or so kaffir lime leaves1 shallot, finely sliced2 medium-small tomatoes, choppedAbout six meaty mushrooms (I used chestnut, but would have preferred oyster)300g raw tiger prawnsJuice and zest of a limeA dash of fish sauce and a little pinch of salt to tasteA bunch of coriander, choppedMethodThrow the galangal, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, shallot and chillies into a saucepan with the coconut milk and slowly heat, stirring gently and occasionally.Cook for about five minutes then add the mushrooms and prawns and bring to just below the boil. Cook for another 5-10 minutes, until the prawns are cooked through then season with the lime juice and fish sauce to taste. Try to get the balance between salty, sour, sweet and sharp.Add the chopped coriander and lime zest and serve straight away with more lime wedges and chilli slices on the side.This weekWatched: Swan Lake ballet for children at the theatre. About my level really. I still found the whole thing preposterous though. I mean really...Read: The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. Sicily, a prince in the 1860s. I mean, it's perfectly readable, but I had no great desire to rush home and pick it up.Eat: Neil from Eugene cooked us great steaks the other night, before he and Linda returned home. Delicious food and great company.Listened: Some new English jazz, would you believe. Ivo Neame featuring Shabaka Hutchings. Good stuff, interesting, and wide-ranging.
Before Christmas I was invited to eat at Hot Pot in London's Chinatown. Think meat fondue, but with fireworks, dancers, a full orchestra and a jousting tournament.I have never seen so much food on a table, it would have seemed excessive even to George IV, but we made a good go of it. Fresh fish, squid, mussels, tofu, dried beancurd, steak, pork, vegetables, cardiac heart paddles, elastic waist trousers and more. For once, sharing plates actually had enough food on them for me to not feel hard done by.There were a lot of base stocks to choose from. "Beauty rich" collagen broth, a thick, deep stock from pig bones, "longevity mushroom", "ancient pork stomach" (not sure if it's the recipe or the stomach that's ancient, but I thought if it's piping hot throughout, it's probably ok) and quite a few others. Plenty of sauces on the side made it a real mix and match meal, every bite different.Now we're in January, soups and broths are just the thing fill you with an enormous sense of wellbeing as you look to eat more healthily until at least next week when the chocolate, crisps and self-loathing resurface. I occasionally have a hot mug of broth in the morning in place of coffee. It's a refreshing way to start the day.But I've never made a proper tom yum, always making it up as I go along. Ben, the chef at Hot Pot (who is from Thailand), gave me this, his recipe, and watched over me as I made it. "Good" was all he said. So I'll take it that this is the way to do it. I like it fiery, almost lip-numbing, so I've gone quite far with the chilli here. Tone it down if you prefer.If you have a fondue set, you can recreate the hot pot experience at home. Just use the fondue dish as the bowl for the broth, keep it hot and bubbling and dip slices of fish or meat or whatever you're cooking in to it and keep going until you've had enough. Put everything on the table and tuck in. You could even invite some friends round.Ingredients1l chicken stock2tbsp galangal or some sliced ginger (I used galangal paste from the supermarket)3-4 shallots, pounded in a pestle and mortar2 lemon grass sticks, sliced1tbsp dried chilli paste (you could use harissa at a push)6 kaffir lime leaves1tbsp sugarFish sauce and lime juice to tasteGreen chilli, sliced, to tasteA bunch of coriander1-2tbsp tom yum paste. You can buy this or make it yourself by blitzing together:1 shallot (echalion or banana. Don't bother with the small round ones, they are a bugger to peel)Lime juice (about one lime)2 lemongrass spears1tbsp galangal (or ginger)Roots from a bunch of corianderSome dried red chillies (I used about six)Enough rapeseed or groundnut oil to make a pasteMethodBring the stock to the boil, reduce to a simmer and add all the other ingredients apart from the coriander leaves and green chillies. Cook for a few minutes, taste and adjust the seasoning by adding more fish sauce or lime juice and more chilli if it's not hot enough. Dress with coriander and sliced green chilli.That's it. It freezes well, too, so you can make batches of this and defrost it as and when.
Yes, this is my second mushroom recipe this week, but I had to use them up somehow. And yes, it has noodles in it, but this couldn't be more different to the fettuccine with mushrooms dish if it tried. Although that's not strictly true, it could be soup. Or a croissant.This is a comforting as well as zingy meal. Sometimes we want that carby hit and a bowl of noodles is just the thing. This one seems almost healthy with all the basil.I've used 'chicken of the woods' here. Its texture and meatiness is so like chicken it is perfect with noodles or in stir fries, especially as we all should cut down on our meat eating. Make sure you use it as freshly as possible, it starts to develop a slightly spongy texture if you keep it too long. If you can't get hold of it, use tofu instead, or feel free to use chicken or prawns if you're keen on the meat.Ingredients (for two):Rapeseed oil and chilli oil if you have it2 cloves of garlic, finely sliced2tbsp soy sauce1tbsp fish sauce80ml water2 red chillies, sliced plus more to finish if you like it hotter1 thumb of galangal, grated (or ginger if you don't have any)200g chicken of the woods, thickly sliced1/2 red onion, sliced2 eggs, beaten1 small turmeric root, grated100g 'sen leek' noodles (folded rice noodles) - cookedA large handful of holy basil leaves per personMethod:Mix the soy, fish sauce and turmeric in a bowl.Heat some oil in a wok and gently fry the galangal, garlic and onion. Turn the heat up and add the mushrooms. Season with a little salt and add some chilli oil. Fry until golden in parts and softened. Turn the heat back down.Add the egg to the pan and scramble gently. Pour in the soy mix, chillies and noodles stir and add the water. Turn up the heat and heat through. Mix through loads of the Thai basil, add a drizzle of chilli oil and more chillies if you like it hot, which I do.
Savoy cabbage, quickly cooked, with butter and pepper is pretty good as it is. But if you want to pep it up to serve as a side dish with south-east Asian food it may not quite cut the mustard.The trick with cabbage is to not cook it for a whole school term. A flash in the pan to soften it is enough, so be careful and be quick. This is fiery and comforting at the same time and goes really well with some steamed fish with lemongrass and lime leaves.Ingredients1/2 Savoy cabbage, shreddedCoconut oil for frying2 hot red birdseye chillies, sliced1tbsp red Thai curry paste1tbsp dessicated coconut1tbsp coconut aminos or soy sauce1tbsp lime juice100ml coconut creamSalt to seasonMethodSauté the cabbage in some coconut oil, letting some of the shreds almost burn. Add as much chilli as you like, my chillies were surprisingly hot, so be careful.Add the curry paste to the pan (home made if you can be bothered) and add a little more coconut oil. Cook for a few minutes, stirring well so it doesn't burn.Pour in the coconut cream and heat through. Tip into a bowl and blowtorch the top of the cabbage if you have one to give it a little bit of a dramatic char. Add a little more sliced red chilli and some hazelnuts sprinkled on top if you fancy, and serve.
Still off the carbs and sugar, mealtimes are becoming much more interesting. While I have craved the odd sandwich or snack, and with weekends being particularly tricky with the spaghetti loving children around more, it's not been too difficult to keep on track.I've realised that we rely so heavily on carbs to fill us up, adding other ingredients to it, rather than focusing on vegetables as the main ingredient and building around that. We've also cut down on salt here, which goes against all my instincts in the kitchen. I'm having to really get as much flavour out of the ingredients as I can through spicing, and sleight of cooking. The jar of powdered dried mushroom now has a place at the front of the shelf.Still, as I float from room to room rather than bloat my way around, I feel a little lighter physically and a little more excited about fresh ingredients. I do half expect David Attenborough to peek out from behind the vegetation in the fridge at times —I also have crocodile meat in the freezer, so he may well be in there too— such is its lushness.Apart from the seven hour lamb leg with harissa, rosemary and garlic I cooked on Friday, this week has had a lot of fish in it. Including my favourite pickled herring in dill which is my snack of choice, I've cooked salmon, tuna, prawns and in this recipe, hake. I'm surprised it's not more popular here, it's soft and meaty like cod and has a lovely delicate flavour. It's a winner with coconut and Thai ingredients so please try this. Once you make the paste, which you can keep in an airtight container for a week, this recipe takes about ten minutes. I'm not going to give you a paste recipe here, by all means buy some ready made if you like. I used David Thompson's Panaeng paste recipe, which does involve boiling peanuts for half an hour, but that's up to you. I ate this on my own, by candlelight listening to The Beautiful South, but that, also, is up to you.IngredientsThis is for one person, so just add more veg and fish as you need.Coconut oil for frying (or olive oil if you don't have any)4tbsp Panaeng curry paste - homemade or bought. I'm sure green curry paste would be as delicious1 tin coconut milk125ml water1/4 savoy cabbage, inner leaves only, shredded1 small bunch of spring greens, trimmed2 small hake fillets, total about 180g, salted for five minutes and rinsedSoy sauce and lime juice to tasteA pinch of chilli flakes to tasteMethodHeat a little coconut oil in a deep, heavy saucepan and fry the paste gently for a few minutes.Add the coconut milk and water then bring to the boil. Now throw in the spring greens and cook for 3-4 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.Add the cabbage and cook for a minute, then add the fish, bring to the boil and simmer for 3-4 minutes depending on its thickness.Taste the broth and add lime juice and soy sauce to taste.Spoon the greens into a bowl then add the cabbage and fish. Pour over the broth and finish with chilli flakes.
Fishcakes are a great way of either using up fish trimmings or making fish a bit more accesible for the children.I'm a big fan of Thai fishcakes. Full of zingy flavours, and with their added prawn and no potato they are firm and can be roasted in a little oil or deep fried, as with the traditional British ones. When making the British kind, something that's really important to me is not including too much potato and not making them too large.This recipe is for fishcakes that are a bit special because they use mackerel that has been cured in sugar, salt and jasmine pearls. These are easily found in supermarkets in the tea section. The fishcakes have turmeric and spices in them to boost the flavour. Increase the quantity to suit your palate; I made these to be very child-friendly. Normally I prefer them with a bit more kick.Serve with a cucumber and dill mayonnaise or some smoked paprika ketchup.Serves: 4Preparation time: 30 minutesCooking time: 20 minutesIngredients4 fresh mackerel, filleted4 tbsp of jasmine pearls4 tbsp caster sugar4 tbsp salt4 medium floury potatoes50g butter, melted50ml milk1 tbsp turmeric powder1 tbsp garam masala2 tsp ground coriander seedsSalt and pepper to seasonFlour for dustingMethod1. Place the fish on a large plate or tray and sprinkle over the jasmine, salt, sugar and a twist of pepper. Make sure all the skin and flesh is covered then wrap in clingfilm and leave to cure in the fridge for at least an hour.2. Rinse and gently poach the fish in water for about five minutes then remove the skin, flake the fish and set aside to cool.3. Cook the potatoes until soft and starting to fall apart when you prod them with a knife. Drain and leave to steam dry for a while then mash well with the butter and milk until creamy.4. Mix together the fish, potato and remaining ingredients and shape into fishcakes.5. Toss them in flour to dry them out and shallow-fry in vegetable oil (preferably rapeseed) until golden brown, flipping halfway through.6. Drain on kitchen paper and serve with the mayonnaise and ketchup and a beetroot and chicory salad.