good tidings of comfort and joy: stollen

family-soothing stollen?
Christmas this year has not been awash with happiness. It was not so much that I minded not having turkey. I didn't. In fact, I was quite relieved, since I wouldn't have to feign appreciation, with all those "nom, nom, nom" noises tokening approval. I am a good actress unfortunately, which means we keep having turkey, which I loathe.. But what with the house being flooded, the oven not working and my relatives being a bit cranky, food and drink doesn't seem to have been at the forefront of anybody's mind, except for mine (as usual).

a guilty pleasure . . . the noodles in my chicken noodle soup!

chicken noodle soup
I posted a recipe for a Thai hot and sour soup recipe a few days ago. It's something I make often. No shame in that. But I do have a guilty pleasure. It is so bad, that when I confessed it to Nephew Number 2, he appeared as shocked to the core as the average eleven year old can be. Although he admitted it was funny, he was more incensed at the injustice of it all. How come I can get away with it and he can't? I suggested he learn to cook . 

I raise a toast to all of you: thank you, thank you, thank you!

mince pies
Christmas Poem  
Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light;
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson 1809-92

nam prik pao (thai chilli paste)

nam prik pao (Thai chilli paste)
Cooking chillies can be lethal (as I know to my cost). I am sensitive to chillies, so have to make sure that I wear rubber gloves (and probably a wet suit) to prevent the pain that envelops me if raw chilli gets anywhere near my skin. So do watch out when cooking the chilli itself. The fumes can be noxious, as an unsuspecting public and Thai restaurant in central London discovered to its cost a few years ago, when it set off a terrorist alert!

it's not over 'til it's over: thai tom yum soup

Thai tom yum soup
We haven't even got Christmas out the way and I am asking you to think about leftovers. But trust me. A little preparation now will help avoid a whole world of hurt. And apart from all that, this soup can cure the mother of all Christmas hangovers. Trust me, I'm a kitchen witch; I've felt your pain and I am certain I have the cure!

not a thing of beauty, but a taste sensation! aromatic cauliflower soup

aromatic cauliflower soup
Trying to be frugal this year, a tired looking cauliflower was transformed into a gloriously smooth and aromatic soup. Yes, it is a rather dreary colour, but I promise you that has a beautifully gentle and soothing effect.

I was looking for a bit of inspiration and this is adaptation of a Shaun Hill recipe (formerly of Merchant House and now of The Walnut Tree) - a man of such exquisite taste that I knew I wouldn't be able to resist it. I hope you won't either.

a perfect pasta sauce: garlicky, tomato and mushroom sauce

garlicky tomato and mushroom sauce

I have a confession to make. I actually posted this recipe at this point last year, when I was just starting out as a food blogger. However, I didn't have a good photo of this delicious pasta sauce. Since this is something that is one of my standby sauces, I thought it would bear repeating since I often make it And I now have a photo which I defy you not to be tempted by.

what's in season: december

autumn leaves in a London garden
(my garden needs raking!)
I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December.
A magical thing
And sweet to remember.

"We are nearer to Spring
Than we were in September,
I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December.

Oliver Herford, 1863 - 1935

This time last year I was writing about icy winds and Arctic weather; London was snow-bound and I was greedy for warming, hearty food.

to warm the cockles of your soul: spicy parsnip soup

spicy parsnip and ginger soup
You may not have known your soul's cockles needed warming, but even if they don't, this spicy soup (adapted from Nigel Slater's Tender I) will definitely give them a bit of a tune-up and put a zing in your step on a chilly day.

Last weekend I hiked up to Birmingham, to attend the BBC GoodFood Show (more of this tomorrow) and to stay with an old friend of mine from days of yore.

Off to BBC GoodFood Show . . .

A trip to the Midlands to stay with friends, meet new ones and taste and talk about good food. I cannot wait!

reasons to be cheerful: celeriac and stilton soup

celeriac and Stilton soup
If I ever needed a reason to be thankful, it is to the happy accident that led to the discovery of blue cheese. A combination of conditions, bacteria and man's willingness not to be put off by a bit of mould, means that we now have a whole gamut of piquant blue cheeses that taste fabulous and cook beautifully. It is yet again another example of serendipity in the world of food. Oh happy days! 

stir-up sunday: make mincemeat and make a wish!

Stir up, we beseech thee, the pudding in the pot
Stir up, we beseech thee, and keep it all hot.

One of my culinary New Year's resolutions for 2011 was that I was going to be much more organised this year, particularly around preserving and pickling. Last year I didn't get around to making mincemeat until the week before Christmas and by that time was actually a bit mince-pied out . . . so we were still eating mincemeat in various incarnations in April! This year I was determined to get my mincemeat in early, and in fact made mine about a month ago.

kari therakkal; a south indian lamb curry

my lamb therakkal
As you may know I recently visited an Indian restaurant in London that literally rocked me to my core with their beautifully exciting curries. I love Babur. And I love it so much that I have been back since (more of this another time). I was lucky enough to finagle one of their recipes from them. admittedly there was nothing devious about my approach. I asked for a recipe and they gave. Because that's the sort of lovely people they are! 

Baby it's cold outside . . . so welcome to a warm pie embrace! a traditional steak and ale pie

steak and ale stew
What could be more welcoming on a cold wet autumn night than a beef and ale stew? Actually, a beef and ale pie is even better. I think my love for puff pastry is well-known and the combination of light, buttery and crisp puff pastry with an intensely savoury stew is richly satisfying; a perfect homely pie to banish away the drizzlin' blues.

While I don't think that "life is too short to stuff a mushroom" as Shirley Conran famously, if foolishly, said, I do think there are other culinary-related scenarios where I would rather use the time spent doing something else . . . making two courses instead of one, baking a loaf of bread or just chatting to friends and quaffing more wine. 

boum-boum sausages

boum-boum sausages with onion jam
It is said that to be truly happy, you should take pleasure in the small things in life. There is no doubt that I am really enjoying the process of emptying my freezer since I keep finding little frozen nuggets of unexpected pleasure.

A small plastic box contained six small patties of . . . who knew what? They looked suspiciously like my fish cakes, but lacked any fishy smell. On defrosting it was quickly apparent that they contained breadcrumbs and some peculiarly dark flecks of something that I couldn't identify. I was baffled; I had no memory of making them. (Note to self - remember to label everything with smudge-proof, indelible ink.)

a hearty autumn stew: sausage and pumpkin awash with spices!

sausage and pumpkin stew
Autumn is my favourite time of year. I love the smell and colours of the year as abundance fades away; dormant until the new beginnings of spring. At the moment my garden is an abstract painting of fallen leaves, rusty orange, muted yellow and faded red. At this time of year I am also keen on meals, that leave the sunshine simplicity of summer cooking and heartiIy banish away the grey drizzle of an autumn chill. I want a dish of strong and complex flavours, full of warming spices to keep the gloom at bay. 

what's in season: november

the last of this year's
ruby chard
november night 
Listen . . . 
With faint dry sound,
Like steps of passing ghosts,
The leaves, frost-crisp'd, break from the trees
And fall.

Adelaide Crapsey, 1878 - 1914

Now is the time to start searching out game, the seaon of which is now in full swing. Actually sourcing game should actually be easier for us city dwellers, since supermarkets such as Budgens and Marks & Spencers have started selling it; (as a result of a change in the law. Hurrah!) Although while I may be looking for partridge, pheasant and pigeon, I think I may have to draw a line at squirrel!

tartare sauce-inspired fish cakes

tartare sauce inspired fish cakes
I am on a mission to empty my freezer before Christmas and unfortunately it means I am discovering frozen foods that one I didn't know I had (or frankly didn't remember - that case of out of sight, now out of mind) or unidentified things in Tupperware that I can't remember freezing and once defrosted have no ideal why I had kept them in the first place, apart from some ingrained sense of thrift. I suspect that this latter scenario is something to do with a combination of the current economic climate and being the child of people who themselves were brought up during an era of austerity and rationing.

a truly chilling ice cream - perfect for halloween parties!

toxic swamp ice-cream for
little monsters everywhere!
Sainsbury's had sent me their new spooky ice cream to sample - Toxic Swamp, a limited edition ice cream available for only three weeks from 12 October. It was created by nine year old Christopher George from Hampshire, winner of the I-Scream competition to devise a creepy ice cream for Halloween.

I decided to do a mini-taste test, on the basis that I probably wasn't the ice cream's demographic (being neither a parent nor a child). I knew my marketing background would come in useful one day!

beware! here be ice dragons . . .

William Eggleston: Untitled c. 1971-1973
I have a slight fear of icebergs. Odd, I know, especially since I have never been anywhere near one, there being a dearth of random ice formations in north London. But then having said that, I have a friend who is so afraid of Great White Sharks that he will never go into the sea, not even to paddle, not even in Southend.

So there is something about icebergs that I find absolutely terrifying. Their austere beauty fills me with awe but it also fills me with a sense of fear and horror that is really quite dizzying. Just how I feel when I look at the contents of my small freezer . . .

Babur - an adventure in southern Indian food!

idli with three chutneys
Like fine wines, and occasionally the French rugby team, Londoners don't travel very well. What I mean to say is that whether you are London-born or London by adoption (of which I am talking about myself) we are not very good at moving out of our own little territories. Yes, we may travel to the City or to Westminster or central London for work, or go shopping in the West End. But mostly we like to stick to our own little patches. Frankly, unless we are rioting, and there's a JD Sports, we don't move very far from our home manors.

No seriously, we don't. Especially after the age of about say 35 when frankly the novelty of travelling to new places and partying around London has worn off. Shame on us.

a glorious beetroot and hazelnut cake

beetroot cake with added nasturtiums!
I have an aversion towards beetroot. I wish I didn't. The humble beetroot has some many good qualities, not least in its sumptuous colour and natural sweetness. I blame this firmly on an early childhood memory of one of my father's contributions to the world of low cuisine - the piccalilli and pickled beetroot sandwich. Since then, the smell of beetroot, even the thought of beetroot has made me feel a little faint, not to say even queasy. But I have vowed that I will learn to love this vegetable which I have much maligned and to do this I have to find interesting ways to cook it, that don't involve pickling!

what's in season: october

a parade of pumpkin carriages
There was a yellow pumpkin
Born on a pumpkin-patch,
As clumsy as a 'potamus,
As course as cottage-thatch.

It longed to be a gooseberry
A greengage, or a grape,
It longed to give another scent
And have another shape.

The roses looked askane at it,
The lilies looked away, 
"This thing is neither fruit nor flower!"
Their glances seemed to say.

One shiny night of midsummer,
When even fairies poach,
A good one waved her wand and said,
"O Pumpkin! Be a coach!"

perfect pasta for a heat wave! tomatoes with basil and breadcrumbs

tomatoes with basil and breadcrumbs
We're having a heat wave,
A tropical heat wave,
The temperature's rising,
It isn't surprising,
She certainly can can-can. 

Well my anatomy is not likely, as Irving Berlin wrote, likely to make "the mercury jump to ninety-three" but this simple tomato and pasta dish "proves that she certainly can can-can" make a perfect dish for a blistering hot September day!

a lively marinade for chicken wings

lively marinaded chicken
English weather is topsy-turvy at the best of times and right now is no different. In mid September, it felt as if autumn was well and truly on its way. Chilly mornings and evenings and damp air all around. But it that beautifully perverse way that English weather has, as October approaches so does the balmy weather and that Indian summer we thought had passed us by has firmly come to stay.

tips: 4 interesting things to do with vinegar

I have recently been having a bit of an autumn clean up - cleaning my windows with a final spritz of vinegar which makes windows seem to glow and stops them looking streaky.

I was curious about what other household uses vinegar might have, not just in the kitchen and I was able to find a whole plethora. In fact I found so many that I think there might be a book in it! (I suspect it has been done before!)

sussex stewed steak

sussex stewed steak
A dark sticky stew, the meat a rich mahogany colour and a melt-in-the mouth texture full of beguiling savoury flavours. It is perfect for frugal times since this recipe stands up well with cheaper cuts of beef and is also worth the long cooking - particularly now the autumn evening chill seems to be settling in. It is simplicity itself. 

the full english!

the full english!
I have recently been rereading Phillip Kerr's wonderful Bernie Gunther detective novels. Don't worry I am not trying to convert anyone to the joys of detective literature, (although I would if I could get away with it!) No, there is definitely a food point to this posting. I am just going to make you work a little for it. 

A man is in general better pleased when he has good dinner on his table than when his wife talks Greek!

So said Samuel Johnson - a rather strange man; a bit of an odd-ball who was well known for his lack of social skills. (It is now suspected that he may have suffered from Tourette Syndrome). But what he lacked in charm he made up for his incredible contribution to the English language and to English literature. The man was a genius . . . however, very much a man of the 18th century, he wasn't fond of cucumbers (believing them to be poisonous) and he was certainly not in favour of female emancipation.

malay curry puffs

malay curry puffs
It was the last gasp of summer and I made my favourite childhood treat, the curry puff, for a drinks party in the garden. I haven't made them in a while and since my pastry-handling skills are not the best, it seemed like a good idea to get in practice . . . Christmas is on the horizon and these are perfect party nibbles.

elderberry cordial - great tasting anti-flu in a mug

My guest blogger, Heathcliffe's second blog post.

elderberry cordial
So. It's Elderberry season. And Flu season. Luckily, in a game of rock-scissors-paper-elderberry-flu; Elderberry beats flu.  

In essence: when you get flu, the viruses invade your cells, hijack the mechanics and turn the cells in to virus making machines . . . cranking out copies of the virus faster than your body can deal with them. The neuraminidase inhibiting chemicals in elderberries are one of the few things clinically proven to slow down their spread.

prawns with harissa dipping sauce and cumin salt

Prawns served with the spicy chilli dip, harissa and a squeeze of lime brings back memories of a holiday in Tunisia.

I actually got the idea for the recipe from an old copy of Australian Gourmet Traveller, one of my favourite food magazines, which in its turn got the inspiration from a chef called Matthew Gudykunst from the Smolt restaurant in Tasmania. And that’s all she wrote.

nut and mozzarella lamb kebabs

nut, mozzarella and lamb kebabs
Silvena Rowe's Purple Citrus + Sweet Perfume is a glorious adventure in the food of the Eastern Mediterranean. This is the cuisine of the Ottoman Empire; of the Oriental Mediterranean from eastern Europe, the Balkans and the Crimea to Turkey, the Lebanon and Syria. A style of cooking that certainly here in Britain, we seem to be much less familiar with. If this is a best kept secret in the culinary world then it is one that is screaming out to be made heard. So please pass it on!

eating for england

Faster, higher, stronger?
I am ready to serve my country . . .

I realise that recently I have been concentrating on the favourite food of the kind of people who like lots of variety in flavours and textures. Mezze, tapas and antipasti are perfect, not just for the summer (what summer I hear you ask, as the rain pelts past the window), but for champion nibblers like me. In fact, if grazing were an Olympic sport, I suspect I would have a shot at medal glory. 

what's in season: september

English apples - by Phil Eldon
From the dew-soaked hedge creeps a crawly caterpillar
When the dawn begins to crack
It's all part of my autumn almanac.

Ray Davis - Autumn Almanac

September is the pinnacle of perfection in terms of the vegetable patch; a truly excellent month for fruit and veg such as sweetcorn, broccoli, apples, blackberries, damsons and early pears. Glorious salad vegetables such as peppers and juicy tomatoes are still around and I am still working out what to do with a glut of courgettes. It is definitely time to start thinking about preserving this embarrassment of riches in chutneys, jams and my favourite fruit vodkas.

romesco sauce

romesco sauce
Romesco is a lovely word - there is something beautifully rounded about it. I like the way it sounds when I say it, as it rolls around my mouth. I think it is one of those words that looks rather beautiful on the page, whether printed or in my somewhat reubenesque handwriting. The Catalan sauce, Romesco, has a rather fulsome round beauty too. 

tapas: garlic mushrooms

garlic mushrooms
I am pretty mad about mushrooms. I love their intense meaty flavours and have rarely met a mushroom I didn't like. Although I can't much be bothered with those anaemic white button mushrooms so beloved by supermarkets. Always, always go for the brown (chestnut) mushrooms: they actually taste of something and if using in soups or stews, impart a spicy mossy flavour. 

This is delicious with some good rustic bread, to mop up all the buttery garlic cooking juices.

tapas: spanish tortilla (tortilla española)

tortilla espagnola (Spanish egg and potato omelette)
This ubiquitous tapa is served all over Spain. It is also a fabulous lunch dish; a great way of using any leftover boiled potatoes and both cheap and easy to make. 
While it is a rather forgiving recipe and you can use any vegetables such as peppers or courgettes as you like, so long as they are chopped to the same size and you need to keep the proportion of eggs to vegetables the same (basically one egg to one potato). You could also use leftover scraps of ham too. I am rather fond of peas in mine. (Although in my mind, every day is Pea Day!) 

tapas: marinated cracked green olives

cracked marinated green olives
Spanish cuisine from the Andalusian region has been much influenced by its Arab history, (the Moors and Berbers of north Africa) using spices such as cumin, paprika, saffron, rice, citrus fruit and lots of olives.
These olives are full of herbs and spices; the longer they marinate, the tastier they become.

tapas: meatballs in tomato sauce (albondigas en salsa)

albondigas en salsa
Meatballs are one of my favourite tapa, but equally delicious as a main course, with noodles or rice. These tapas are from the La Mancha region of Spain, and are made with a mixture of minced meat, such as beef and pork. Although you could use veal or lamb (or a mixture of all). I serve them with a classic tomato sauce (there are always tubs of this in my freezer).

This is a great recipe to make with children; (they do love getting their little paws dirty!) The meatball mixture also freezes easily, so is good to make in advance for a party, or to freeze any leftovers, (not that I imagine you would have any, these are deliciously moreish!)

a taste of tapas: small plates of something delicious

a selection of tapas
"I love anything that involves getting to eat seven different kinds of food in a single sitting"

So says the character Ellie Hatcher in Alafair Burke's City of Fear referring to her love of tapas. A woman of impeccable taste, I suspect.

To me tapas mean several things - simple food cooked really well; a myriad of gorgeous flavours; a gathering of friends - convivial and ever-so slightly bibulous; of Spanish holidays and the ultimate taste of summer. Tapas is the perfect food for hot summer days when traditional British stodge just won't cut it; when you want something that is full of profoundly Mediterranean flavours.

courgettes with parsley, garlic and breadcrumbs

courgettes with parsley, garlic and breadcrumbs
We had this to accompany last Sunday's roast; I have a glut of courgettes to use up, about the only thing in my garden that seems to have grown well this year. 

It would also make a great light lunch with a tomato salad and some good rustic bread and a large glass of chilled white wine. Another perfect summer meal. 

when life gives you lemons . . . make lemons awesome!

heathcliffe's mead
Let me introduce my guest blogger, Heathcliffe's, first post. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. (Yay, Heath!)

This week I've made mead and a fridge.

See, the big problem here is that I've just moved into a new flat and, right now, I have no appliances and no money left. I have an Argos catalogue shining out from my lone bookshelf like a beacon of all my life could be, but my bank account says no. So I figure a plan is in order.

So when life gives you lemons . . . let's make lemons awesome.

sunday roast: spiced roast pork shoulder

My love for the pig is conditional. I don't hate pigs. In fact I rather like them in their natural habitat; a mob of rambunctious piglets playing in a field is guaranteed to make me smile. I'm just not that keen on the pig on my plate.

Perhaps I am more of an Anglo Saxon than I had realised. When England was invaded by the Normans, as the elite, they appropriated all the best cuts of meat for themselves. Those mean invading Normans would have been welcome to my pork loin or shoulder. I am happy with bacon. I have never met a sausage I didn't like. (Please feel free to insert your own Carry On joke here).  

the great tunnock teacake mystery

the Tunnock Teacake mystery!
I was walking into Kentish Town a few weeks ago, along Leighton Road; a modest street of narrow pavements, lined with London Plane trees and boxy Victorian villas. This is not a road that shouts "mystery" or even "excitement". In fact, Leighton Road is a rather typical, if dull, north London street of mixed housing, a couple of corner shops, a dodgy pub and a curry house. Although I do get my knickers in a bit of a proverbial twist every time a rather famous actor smiles and says hello to me. But apart from an occasional rise in my blood pressure, and a flurry of hormonal activity, this is not a road I find particularly thrilling. It is merely a way of getting me from home to somewhere else and back again. 

So I was surprised to see boxes of Tunnock Teacakes, nestling at the base of several of the trees along the road. One box for each chosen tree and one teacake removed from each box. It was as if a rather demented Goldilocks had tasted her way along the road for flavour, quality and consistency. I was intrigued.

it's all gone a bit jackson pollock! (or when food photography goes wrong . . .)

our Jackson Pollock moment!
It was going so well - Heathcliffe's birthday drinks party, food prepped and we moved the nibbles to the balcony to catch the late afternoon summer sun. I wanted to take some photographs for this blog.
It all went a bit Pete Tong as they say.

sausages roasted with honey and mustard dressing

honey mustard sausages
Cocktail sausages baked with a honey and mustard dressing have a lovely sticky, tangy flavour. Another good nibble for a drinks party, although I sometimes take leftovers into work, with a light cucumber salad. I am usually forced to sharpen my elbows to fend off marauding colleagues!

party food on a stick: cherry tomatoes, mozzarella and pesto

cherry tomatoes stuffed with pesto and mozzarella (without their sticks!)
This is ideal party food - intensely savoury, yet slightly sweet, mouthfuls of deliciousness. On a stick. Use the sweetest cherry tomatoes or baby plum tomatoes that you find. I would say make your own pesto, but failing that, buy pesto from a deli or from the deli counter of your supermarket. (Please don't use that stuff in jars that has a strangely subdued colour and a distinct flavour of rancid cheese). So make your own, it's a revelation.

summer pea soup

summery pea and ham soup
A rather nice soup for spring or summer, whether using young sweet peas, floury late summer peas or even frozen peas, (which because they are frozen at source retain their natural sweetness). It is delicious served hot or cold and you can use just about any green herb, such as thyme, chives or even coriander with a bit of green chilli. I stick to mint, which traditionally enhances the English pea.

this being a tale of serendipity and liquid enchantment: the velvet slipper cocktail

velvet slipper cocktail
It sounds like such a small thing but I am feeling a little serendipitous; ("serendipity" is one of my favourite words, if you're interested and my only claim to fame is that I got it mentioned as "The Word of the Day" on the Words for Life website).

So why serendipity? Well a few days ago, I had restored an old CD full of ancient files I haven't looked at in years, because I had thought that the CD was damaged beyond repair. On it I rediscovered this fabulous cocktail, the recipe for which I had also assumed lost for good.

mezze: herby courgette and feta fritters

herby courgette and feta fritters
A friend's birthday drinks and nibbles and we are eating and drinking on his roof terrace on a balmy summer night. These fritters were perfect; a little bit of the eastern Mediterranean came to east London.

turkish-style stuffed tomatoes

On my mission to be frugal I had decided not to throw out some leftover rice, intending to make a Turkish or Greek rice stuffing for some kind of vegetable. I would decide on which vegetable to use when I actually got to the market and saw what was available. Of course all my frugal intentions went out the window when I saw (actually smelt first) a beautiful mound of the plumpest most scarlet tomatoes I have ever seen.

Still on the vine, you could smell their intense green clove-like aroma from about 30 feet away. I had to have them. At all costs. This turned out to be the debt of a small sovereign nation) All my frugal intentions went out the window. Well life is not too short to stuff a tomato!