Tag Archives: cooking

Tomatoes on toast

Just in time for the August bank holiday

No matter how appalling the weather has been for the rest of the year – how many barbecues have been rained off and festival goers covered in mud, you can guarantee it will always be hot and sweaty during the last weeks of August. Because the last weeks of August are when we cook Christmas dinner, and, presumably to punish us for being so previous with his son’s birthday celebrations, God likes to play a little joke.

The joyous occasion came to pass last week. While everyone was sunning themselves in parks, I was shoving a roast turkey in the oven and blanching as the idle meat thermometer on the side read 38C. And then we lit a fire. And after a few days of this sweaty festive ordeal, the very last thing I wanted to do was come home to a hot dinner. So I suppose it’s God’s way of mitigating his hilarious heat wave timing by making sure that all manner of gorgeous, refreshing vegetables are in season right now.

For those in London, if you only go to Borough market once a year, it should be in August. The stalls are riots of the most divine fruit and veg, piled high, soft, succulent and ripe. It’s absolutely mesmerising. On escaping from the office winter-wonderland in search of an antidote for supper, I was utterly spoiled for choice, but came to rest on the heritage tomato table in Turnips. My god. Row upon row of plump, glossy tomatoes, watermelon striped, primrose yellow, huge red Coeur de boeuf, and elongated San Marzano. Completely ignoring the price tag, I filled bags with the most unusual I could find, took them to the counter, then nearly had a heart attack. On a cautionary note everyone, when being seduced by vegetables in Borough market, always look at the price tag. My haul worked out at approximately £1 per tomato. Hmm. Needless to say I balked, went to remove them, remembered all those mince pies and meekly handed over my card, grabbing a sourdough baguette before scuttling away.

Tomatoes on toast has to be one of the simplest, but most delicious meals on the planet. But you have to have good tomatoes, and while £10 for two people might be a little excessive, when you’ve spent all hot summer day steaming Christmas puddings and making pigs in blankets, it seems worth it. We ate them with a very cold bottle of Viognier, and finished the meal off with fresh figs and a tiny goat’s cheese crottin drizzled with honey. Not a stuffing ball in sight…

Tomatoes on toast for two – hardly a recipe, but worth knowing anyway

Around 600-700g ripe mixed tomatoes, roughly chopped

4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1shallot, finely chopped

drizzle sherry or red wine vinegar

pinch caster sugar

2-6 slices (depending on size) sourdough baguette or similar crusty, chewy bread, toasted

1 garlic clove, halved

sea salt and black pepper

handful basil leaves

Mix the tomatoes with 3tbsp of the extra virgin, the shallot, the vinegar (proceed cautiously and keep tasting) and the sugar (ditto). Leave it to sit for 15 minutes so the flavours mix. Rub the bread with the cut side of the garlic clove and place on two plates. Season the tomatoes generously last minute (the salt draws the liquid out of them so do this as late as possible) and taste again. You may find you need a little more vinegar after you’ve added the salt. Toss the basil leaves through and tip on top of the bread, finishing with a final drizzle of olive oil. Serve immediately, preferably outside.

If you like, you can add a few shavings of good Parmesan over the top, but I think it’s just as gorgeous unadorned.

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Filed under London, Musings, Recipes, Savoury

A rather wonderful salad

I may have mentioned this before, but I’m completely addicted to Vietnamese food. Milder, but just as intensely flavoured as Thai, and nowhere near as cloying and sticky as Chinese, it is a perfect combination of flavours – freshness from lime, herbs and chillies, depth from slow-cooked stocks and sticky marinades, and texture from crisp leaves and toasted nuts.

With my Hipstamatic

 Luckily, I seem to have imprinted my obsession onto the boy, who now requests this salad approximately once a week. Apart from it being completely delicious, it’s a break from the Pret sandwiches and frozen pizzas that seem to be the standard fare of one studying for financial exams. Plus it’s an excuse for him to eat an unholy amount of Sriracha.

Although the ingredients list is quite extensive, it’s really not hard and is perfect if you’re in the mood to faff around in the kitchen, wine in hand and music playing. This generally suits me best on a Friday night, when the results can be eaten in front of the telly. Occasionally straight from the bowl.

The ingredients here are my favourites, but by no means law, so mess around as you see fit. One thing I would insist on though is that you use carrot and cucumber – without their pickled crunchiness the salad loses a large part of its charm, and do try and find unsalted peanuts – cashews just don’t have the same impact. If you want to bulk it out a little more you can add 300g straight-to-wok udon noodles, tossed in a hot frying pan for a couple of minutes with a little oil, but even without them, it’s surprisingly filling.

Oh, and make lots. Between two of us we can usually polish off enough for 4, but it’s almost completely fat-free, and gorging yourself on veg really isn’t a big deal. Any leftovers are great for lunch the next day too – just keep some herbs and nuts back to add a touch of freshness. I sound like a Lenor advert don’t I?

...And looking slightly more refined.

Vietnamese chicken salad with peanuts and ginger

So much greater than the sum of its parts

Serves 4

Prep time: 40 mins

  • 3 medium carrots
  • 1 large cucumber
  • 1/2 white cabbage, shredded
  • ½ red onion, very finely sliced
  •  3 free-range chicken breasts
  • 2 star anise
  • chicken stock to cover
  • 3 garlic cloves, bashed and peeled
  • thumb size piece sliced ginger
  • 2 little gem lettuces, shredded
  • 100g unsalted peanuts, toasted
  • large handful each coriander and mint leaves, roughly chopped
  • 2 red chillies, deseeded and finely chopped

for the dressing

  • 4tbsp each fish sauce, sweet chilli sauce and rice vinegar
  • 11/2tbsp finely grated root ginger
  • juice 2 limes, plus extra wedges to serve

 1 Make the dressing by mixing all the ingredients together. Using a veg peeler, peel the carrots and cucumber, then drag it lengthways to make long ribbons of the flesh. Stop when you get to the lighter centre of the carrot, and the seeds of the cucumber. Toss these through with the white cabbage and red onion then pour over 2/3 of the dressing. Set aside – the dressing will gently pickle the veg.

2 Put the chicken breasts in a saute pan with the star anise, chicken stock, garlic cloves and ginger. Heat gently until the odd bubble is rising to the surface, cover and cook for around 20 minutes – don’t let it boil or you’ll dry out the chicken. Remove the chicken from the liquid, allow to cool slightly then shred. Keep the stock – it makes great noodle soup.

3 Toss the chicken through the veg with the little gem and most of the peanuts, herbs and chillies. Pour over the rest of the dressing, toss everything together, then scatter over the remaining nuts, herbs and chillies and serve with the extra lime wedges, and lashings of chilli sauce (optional…).

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Filed under Recipes, Savoury

Speculoos spread

There’s a small pot of heaven in my fridge at home and its name is Speculoos à tartiner.

Originally from Belgium and the Netherlands, speculoos (or speculaas) biscuits were given to children on St Nicholas’ eve. In England, they appear as the biscuits you get with your coffee in the hairdressers, or in those halcyon days before budget airlines, when you were still given nibbles on shorthaul flights. Caramel brown, spiced with cinnamon, these little Belgian biscuits are irritatingly tiny, just big enough for one mouthful of perfect toffeed sweetness before it’s gone, and all you’re left with is a depressing cup of in-flight tea.

Which is obviously why the lovely folk at Lotus decided to whiz up their speculoos and mix them with volumes of oil I’d rather not think about to create speculoos spread…which brings me back to that pot in my fridge.

The phrase ‘à tartiner’, means literally to spread on bread. I know what you’re thinking  – biscuits spread on bread, that’s the Belgian equivalent of a deep-fried Mars bar, but it is so good, I don’t care about the carbs. And because the biscuits are made with brown sugar and butter, they melt onto toast in a golden caramely mess, clinging to the roof of your mouth like peanut butter and filling it with sweetness and spice. Joy.

But my love affair with this stuff doesn’t stop at toast. Spooned cold straight from the fridge it cures all emotional ills as it slowly dissolves on your tongue, and last night as my housemate and I dipped between the vanilla ice cream and the pot of speculoos I felt like I might have found my new nirvana.

The next stop is cooking with it. I’m thinking molten centres in the middle of the richest chocolate brownies, a layer underneath the topping of a sharp apple crumble to melt and mingle with the tart fruit, or a more sophisticated version of last night’s transgressions – as a ripple through homemade brown bread ice cream. Recipes to come once the new batch arrives in the post.

Which brings me to the downside of all this, you can only buy it online in England. If you’re hopping over the channel, it’s available in almost every supermarket, so stock up  – it keeps forever and you won’t regret the bulk buying. My last two jars have come from a philanthropic friend with a house in Provence, but I feel I can’t trespass on his kindness any longer, so I’ll be buying it here. They even do a crunchy version. Mon dieu.

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Filed under Baking, Musings, Recipes, Sweet

Guilty Pleasures

Given the nature of my job, people generally expect me to have a certain level of refinement when it comes to eating. And while this is generally correct – free-range meat, Buffalo mozzarella, dry-aged steak etc etc, there are also those little indulgences that I would prefer to keep under wraps. Actually that’s not true, since I’m about to share them with you all.

Because, no matter how sophisticated your palate, there are times when haute cuisine is not called for. There are times when only a packet of pork scratchings will do. Even the cheap, badly seasoned ones. And I’m not ashamed, because I also love all the acceptable bits of pork. When it comes to eating the noble pig, I’m all about equality.

Before it was looted...

And don’t tell anyone, but I actually went to Nando’s last night, and what’s more, I really enjoyed it. I think the trick to it is to have realistic expectations – don’t expect a taste explosion if what you’re going to eat is popping candy.

Other guilty pleasures, hmmm. There’s peanut butter with beans on toast – picked up in childhood from my father and never forgotten. Tinned tuna melted in a panini with cheese on a hangover. Heinz tomato soup with a little milk stirred into it when I’m feeling poorly. The reassuring hot chickeny blandness of a cup-a-soup on a bleak day in the office. I’ve even been known to munch a packet of Scampi Fries after a couple of drinks in the pub. Anti-social, I know.

You're judging me aren't you

Although people tend to gawp when they see me tucking into this sort of rubbish, I don’t mind. There’s something irresistibly comforting about processed food. In reality, I have a feeling it’s the e-numbers, but I prefer to haze it with nostalgia and say it reminds you of being little, when complex flavours didn’t really exist  and these simple foods shaped your palate. Although I can’t imagine my mother ever EVER fed me tuna with cheese, but that’s hangovers for you.

Would anyone care to share their guilty pleasures with me?

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Filed under Musings, Recipes

Lunch by the Seaside

Has anyone been to Whitstable? It’s lovely. A little fishing town with a rich heritage of shellfish, I visited for the first time last week and liked everything about it. Even the slightly mucky looking beach that was littered with people cockling and crabbing and the Mr Whippy van on the concrete harbour.

It turned out we’d arrived in Whitstable slap bang in the middle of the Oyster Festival, and this could have accounted for why everyone seemed to be in such a good mood. For two jaded Londoners it was quite a spectacle to see people actually smiling as they went about their days. But then, when you live by the sea, eat a lot of shellfish and pubs play live jazz in the afternoons I see no reason to be miserable.

After a leisurely stroll around the town and the sea front, a chuckle at the predominance of seaside tat (painted pebbles, ‘To The Beach’ signs and some hilarious clam puppets), we settled down for lunch at Wheelers, which I’d been told by several people was absolutely unmissable.

 In the middle of the high street, pale pink and chocolate boxy, Wheelers seats only 14 people with room for another 3 or so at the fish bar. It’s BYOB and cash only, and though I don’t see how they can make much money without the wine mark-ups, I’m not complaining! The food is…amazing. I can’t really think of a better adjective. You’d be happy eating it at a Michelin restaurant, except here you feel like you’re in somebody’s sitting room – there are bits of old ship on the walls, dusty lamps and faded pictures.

It took us a good half hour to decide what we wanted since absolutely everything on the menu sounded delicious, but we finally settled on scallops with maple glazed pig’s cheeks, a Thai crab cake and 2 sets of John Dory with prawn stuffed courgette flower, fennel puree and samphire. Everything was beautiful, from the presentation, to the prawns perfectly cooked in the courgette flower, to the way they’d rendered every bit of fat in the pig’s cheeks so all you got was succulent, sticky pork. I would quite happily have paid double. And I loved the fact it was so small, it made it feel like we were in some exclusive pop up restaurant. One that had been there for 150 years.

Neither of us could manage pudding, so we settled for a bracing walk and a Mr Whippy once the main courses had settled. Yes, that’s right, I ate a Mr Whippy. It’s something about the childish nostalgia of the seaside – it demands ice cream flavoured chemicals.

So if you’re down Whitstable way, I would really recommend booking in at Wheeler’s. You need to plan ahead though. Those 14 seats get bagsied early. And if you can find the clam puppets, your day might just come close to perfect.

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Filed under Musings, Restaurants

Strawberry pancakes American-style

The only way to handle a mildly hungover Sunday morning for me is to make breakfast. Proper breakfast, mind, with lots of coffee, Sunday papers, fresh orange and a lot of giggling about the night before. And since I’m generally more in the American breakfast camp than the English, my meal choices for this ritual are normally trans-Atlantic. Hence this Sunday morning’s hangover pancakes.

For some reason, it has recently happened that we’ve ended up with a lot of incongruous fruit in the fridge – fruit I have no real need for – for example, when I needed grapes last night to make a grape and rosemary focaccia, all I had was cherries. (FYI this worked surprisingly well. Excellent with goat’s cheese) And when I needed blueberries to make pancakes, a punnet of droopy looking strawberries stared at me accusingly instead. So I decided to stick them in anyway. It’s all fruit after all, and as America has very wisely taught us, streaky bacon will go with absolutely anything.

These ones are obviously blueberry, but the strawberry ones disappeared before pics could be taken...

The trick to really fluffy American pancakes is, I think, to beat it all by hand. I’m not sure why, maybe you just get more air into the mix with your wrist. It’s also wise not to cook them for too many people. They sink if they’re left too long and from experience men can eat anything up to 12 of them at once. Even with four frying pans on the go, that’s quite a feat and hardly what you want with a sore head…

As to the bacon, I always use streaky for everything. You can cook it to an absolute crisp, and it’s still tasty – back bacon dries out too quickly for me. Alright it’s not as healthy, but you’re about to douse it in maple syrup – is that really what you’re thinking of right now?!

American strawberry pancakes with bacon and maple syrup

Will feed from 2-4 people, depending on gender and greed.

For the pancakes

  • 3 large free-range eggs
  • 115g plain flour
  • 50g caster sugar
  • 1tsp salt
  • 1 heaped tsp baking powder
  • 140ml milk
  •  4 rashers streaky bacon per person (outdoor-reared, British, you know the drill)
  • couple handfuls strawberries, quartered
  • butter, for frying and maple syrup, to serve

1 Separate the eggs, and add the flour, sugar, salt and baking powder to the yolks. Whisk in the milk slowly until you have a smooth batter. Whip the egg whites until you have stiff peaks, then fold them gently into the yolk mix, in three batches. Be careful not to knock all the air out – it’s easiest to fold with a balloon whisk. You should end up with a moussey looking batter.

2 Grill the bacon until crisp, then put in a warm oven while you cook. Heat a frying pan (or however many you can juggle), add a little butter with a drop of oil, and when foaming, drop a small ladleful of mixture into the pan. Repeat without crowding the pan, and place a few strawberry quarters on each pancake.

3 When the underside is golden, flip them carefully and cook on the bottom for a minute, until the pancake has puffed up and browned on the bottom. Transfer the pancakes to the warm oven, and repeat the process – cleaning out the frying pan with kitchen roll every time the butter burns. When done, layer up the pancakes with the bacon, drizzle over the maple syrup and serve with extra strawberries scattered on top. And tuck in quickly – they don’t hang around…

For more irresponsible but delicious brunch recipes, follow the link.

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Filed under Musings, Recipes

Because they’re worth it

Although I’m pretty hot on free-range farming for all meat, for some reason it is the humble pig that really gets my moral juices flowing. There’s something about their demeanour that is rather noble, and if you spend any time with them, you can’t fail to be struck by how intelligent they are. More intelligent than my manic pointers, and I cannot even conceive of locking them up in crates.

You might remember the ‘Jamie Saves our Bacon’ campaign in 2009, that highlighted the need to eat British, outdoor-reared pork. It was certainly effective – there has been a noticeable increase in British pork on the supermarket shelves since then, and the labeling has become a lot less confusing. But the problem isn’t fixed, and with astonishingly high feed prices, most pig farmers are now averaging a £10 loss on each pig they sell. Almost 70% surveyed said they were seriously considering giving up in the next 2 years if the situation didn’t improve. Which would mean a return to inhumane, flavourless, imported meat. Hardly ideal from a moral or a gastronomic standpoint.

 So what can we do to help? Well, we can eat more British pork. Bangers, bacon, belly pork, pork loin, pork ribs, a slow-cooked shoulder or a quick-cooked steak. Boil it, barbie it, roast it or braise it, just eat and enjoy it, safe in the knowledge you’re doing good, and your meat will taste infinitely better than anything from Denmark. Even if they do have a catchy jingle.

And download the new recipe booklet ‘Choose it and use it’ from the Pigs Are Still Worth It campaign. It’s full of fabulous pork recipes from celebrity chefs of the likes of Raymond Blanc and Aldo Zilli. Or of course, you can log on to our little website for some of my own offerings in the pork recipe department.

Right, I’m going to step down from my soapbox. I’m off for a suckling pig sandwich at Taste of London…

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