Monday, 9 January 2012


I am a little bit obsessed with fennel at the moment. Its almost medicinal, aniseed taste seems lust right at this time of year: clean and invigorating. I usually eat it raw, cut as thinly as I can manage (which is not very) and doused with proper vinaigrette or just some oil and then a squeeze of lemon. A few chopped anchovies are good here too (I used to east this a lot at university partly because I like it and party to gross out my housemates who though it was pretty much the most revolting thing you could put in your mouth. More fool them.) Don’t forget to include any of the bright green fronds of fennel-the-herb that might be poking out of the top of the bulb. I haven’t had it braised yet this year but when I do I might try adding some parmesan and breadcrumbs for a bit of crunchy contrast.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Cauliflower and couscous salad

Cauliflower isn't an easy vegetable to love, not immediately at any rate (and this fuzzy photo hardly helps). It doesn't call out to be adored, it doesn't jump up and down in the greengrocers calling for attention. It's a shy creature but with a bit of care and coaxing it can turn into something wonderful.

I didn't like cauliflower for a long time. then decided cauliflower cheese wasn't bad (how can you dislike anything when there's that much cheese involved?) before finally realising that there might be other uses for it as well The turning point for me was meal in when I was travelling in the Middle East at a castle called Crac des Chevaliers.

Embarrassingly (yet unsurprisingly?), the main thing I remember about the castle was the lunch we had there: an amazing feast of mezze. All the usual suspects were there - hummus, babaghanoush, tahini, flat bread - but there was also a plate of cauliflower that had been deep fried so that the outside surfaces of the florets were crisp and brittle and caramelised, and the inside was ever so slightly sweet and nutty. After that there was no turning back.

Deep frying scares the bejesus out of me so the closest thing I've ever created to that at home is roasted cauliflower, this time with some cumin and a few chilli flakes sprinkled over first. Don't undercook this, its charm comes from the browned bits.



You can eat this at is, or its very good rolled up in a flat bread smeared with hummus and maybe a few pickled chillies alongside. This time I used to top a sort of couscous salad with parsley added for a bit of freshness and colour and some pumpkins seeds for crunch to take to work for lunch.

Cauliflower and couscous salad

1 cauliflower, broken into small florets
1 tbs ground cumin
1 tsp chilli flakes
1 tbs oil (olive or vegetable)

Mix together. Roast on a high heat (around 200C) until browned.

For the salad I soaked coucous in enough recently boiled water to cover until just tender then mixed in chopped parsley, feta and toasted pumpkin seeds. You don't need quantities for this, you'll be able to judge when it's parsley-ish, feta-ish and seedy enough for your tastes. Add enough dressing to lubricate it without drowning everything. Combine couscous and cauliflower.

Also, cauliflower roasted with cumin (but without chilli) is fantastic with grated parmesan added afterwards, almost like a deconstructed cauliflower cheese. Trust me on the cumin with parmesan - it works in the same way that cheese like Meunster go really well with caraway seeds.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Normal service is resumed

And we now return to your scheduled programming...

And to welcome us back there is pea, lentil and feta salad! Which is exactly that, doused in vinaigrette while the peas were still warm, with lots of parsley.

I'll be back soon. Honest.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Flat White, 17 Berwick Street, Soho

Check out the rosetta - the fern-like pattern- on this flat white! I'd been meaning to go the Flat White in Soho for ages, and it didn't disappoint.

Chicken fatigue

I have been experiencing the cook’s equavilent of writer’s block. I have been cooking, but more out of necessity than desire, and while most of the stuff I've made has been OK, nothing really excited me. Most evenings in the past week I made mish-mash sort of curries using whatever vegetables were in the fridge and a jar of Madras paste and taking the leftovers to work for lunch, or made things using from bits of a chicken.

Last weekend I bought a whole small chicken to joint and use throughout the week. This was something I’d been meaning to do for ages since I knew it was far cheaper than buying pre-jointed pieces. Even though I don’t actually buy chicken very often I thought it would make a nice change, and when my housemate came back from Asda announcing that a whole chicken was only about 3p more expensive than a pair of breasts, I decided to give it a go. (Incidently a very small free-range, corn-fed bird was only about £4.)

I jointed the chicken, which I had tried a few times in the pat and made a mess of, but it was easier than I expected. The key is pulling the leg as far away from the body as possible, until it ‘pops’ slightly and then putting the knife through the joint. Wriggle around until you feel a slight dent - you should not be putting through very much bone, and shouldn’t need to press very hard.

On Saturday, the drumsticks and thighs went into a casserole with onions, bacon, white wine, cream, and lots of parsley added at then end. I was hoping the green freshness would somehow ‘cancel out’ all the cream and alcohol.

The leftover bones, and the carcass with the breasts still attached went into a pot with a broken up celery stick, a halved, unpeeled onion (the skin adds colour to the stock - in the Second World War women used onion skins to make a dye for their legs because they didn’t have stockings). I was surprised how long the breasts took to cook when they were attached to the bone, about 40 minutes. These were cut off and put away to be used at a later date: the carcass went back in to the pot for another hour or two.

The stock and some leftover rice made a vaguely south-east Asian soup which was probably the highlight of the week. I threw a small piece of star anise, a dried chilli and a big lump of ginger into the simmering stock to infuse while I chopped up some of the leftover breast meat, finely sliced a leek and chopped a handful of (admittedly quite old and droopy) cabbage. This all went into the stock with some cooked rice and just before I ate it I added more very finely chopped ginger, parsley and fish sauce. It was soothing but sprightly.

The last of the breast meat went into leeks and white sauce made with white wine and water instead of milk, some grain mustard and the tiniest drop of Worcester sauce. Nestled under some pastry it made a rather sweet looking pie for one. Interestingly I made the pastry (just normal shortcrust) quickly without paying much attention, and used margarine rather than butter, and it was the best I'd made in ages. Is margarine the answer, or maybe the need to make it quickly meant I didn't over handle it? The pie went down well with buttery steamed spinach and a not-too-bad white wine.

Looking back on this I think I have simply been suffering from chicken fatigue. I plan to rectify this with mackerel, possibly grilled with smoked paprika; fennel, whose medicinal scent seems just right after the excesses of December; and if I can get my hands on any I really fancy some salsify.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Rice, chicken, cranberry and parsley salad

I am starting a new job next week but I feel like I’m about to start primary school all over again: I’m a bit nervous, I don’t know what the other boys and girls will be like and I hope I won’t get lost in the unfamiliar corridors.

There’s an ironed shirt hanging in my wardrobe and I even polished my shoes, but most importantly I have a little lunchbox prepared in the fridge. No day can be too daunting with the prospect of something good to eat halfway through it.

This salad of rice, chicken, parsley, dried cranberries and seeds seemed to be a low risk option. It can’t leak into my handbag, and it won’t smell strong (I’ll be saving the smoked mackerel and Thai salads reeking of fish sauce for when I’m a bit more settled in). Also, I find the Christmassiness of the red, white and green immensely cheering when it’s January, cold and grey, and spring is still a fantasy.

It’s loosely based on the North American salad in (I think) Nigella Lawson’s Feast made of leftover turkey, wild rice, cranberries and pecans. I had meant to include pecans in mine, but forgot to buy any, and anyway I think the seasoned seeds I used are possibly even better. I am hugely excited about these: pumpkin, sesame and sunflower seeds mixed with a bit of soy until they are conker-shiny, sprinkled with smoked paprika and baked in a medium heat oven until dry. Be warned - these are dangerously moreish.

Although I made this from scratch, writing the recipe out make me realise it’s the perfect way to use up leftover cooked chicken or rice. Although these sorts of salads are a good time to experiment and are best made by adding what you think looks right, try not to treat them as a dustbin by putting in absolutely anything that needs using up.

About a cup of cooked rice (sorry, I didn’t measure anything for this)

A small handful of cooked chicken - I used the meat taken from one drumstick, and dark meat is better here

One very small leek, sliced into rings

Dried cranberries

Toasted seeds or nuts, whatever takes your fancy

Flat leaf parsley - lots

Dressing - nothing fancy, I like one part wine vinegar to five of olive oil

Cook the leek in a tiny drop of water until just tender, either in a small saucepan or you can do it in the microwave in the bowl you’ll mix the rest of the salad in later, then allow to cool. Mix the rice, the chicken cut into little chunks, and whatever proportions of cranberries, seeds and parsley please you. I like a lot of parsley so it almost ressembles tabbouleh. Douse in dressing.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Christmas Eve

The tree has been decorated (complete with wooden lobster), presents wrapped, and enough food bought to survive a six month siege. Christmas can begin. The kitchen still smells faintly of mulled wine, which was scented with ginger cordial, and the sitting room smells of pine needles and spicy from the Christmas tree decorations studded with cloves.

My sister is making a chocolate log, and because we don't have an electric whisk everyone has had to have a go with the hand whisk, trying to get the mixture to leave its elusive 'ribbon' that shows that it is thick enough. Once the sponge has been cooked it will be rolled up with whipped cream and jam and then smothered in chocolate fudge icing.

As well as a the chocolate log there's a pavlova baking in the Aga. This isn't excessive, you understand, the pavlova is for the non-Christmas pudding eaters and the chocolate log is for afternoon tea.

My family nearly always has fish pie on Christmas Eve, before the excesses of the next day. This one was made from cod and salmon poached in milk with a few bay leaves and pieces of leek and carrot, then the milk used in a white sauce, made more exciting with Worcestershire sauce, a tiny bit of mustard and seasoning. Instead of mashed potatoes it just had breadcrumbs on top, and we ate it with new potatoes and peas. A calming meal before the festive madness begins tomorrow.