Friday, 29 June 2007

Getting Messy

When I first became a dad, it seemed like an awful long way off from my little dream - cooking with the kids. Two and a half years later, I'm fully in the swing of it. And I can never take it for granted. Sitting Cerys on the kitchen bench whilst I prepare whatever I am preparing is brilliant for the two of us, especially if I have been at work all day. We can have a little chat about the day, talk about food and best of all, she can have a play with the food which gives her the impression that she has helped out. And it goes a long way to getting the food inside them! A proper bonding session.

This week it was the turn of her current favourite, fish cakes. The best thing about fish cakes is you can experiment so much, and it is perfect first food for your kids to help prepare. Stick what you like in and for some bizarre reason, they seem to eat it. Especially if they have had a go at 'squidging' them into balls and then 'bashing' them into cakes. All this talk of super foods this week, and not one fish cake mentioned. They must be.

So this week we boiled and riced the potatoes. I then poach whatever fish is going in, this week it was salmon. That is thrown into the potato. Then I get out a choice of flavours and other possible ingredients and ask Cerys what she fancies. This week she opted for Wholegrain mustard, créme fraiche, Parmesan cheese and loads of freshly chopped herbs. And a good grinding of black pepper. Completely randomly and with a bit of finger pointing from me of course. A fork was grabbed and 10 minutes of pushing and stabbing commenced in which I could have a cup of tea. 'Finished daddy!', was the cry, and I was met with basically exactly what we started with. A quick and vigorous stir from yours truly, we were happy with what we had produced. Cerys stuffed a handful straight into her mouth just to make sure. Floured hands, pat and a slap and hey presto - mustard, cheese, salmon and herb cakes aplenty ready for a little shallow frying in my favourite oil, cold pressed rapeseed from Northumberland (

The finished article wasn't the prettiest or uniform of fishcakes. But were they delicious. And the little one and I had brilliant messy fun. And she wolfed them down with gusto, along with the accompanying spinach and tomatoes. It works. Give it a go dads, getting messy is great!

Salmon, Mustard and Herb Cakes
Feeds 2 and a half people

4 large floury potatoes such as Maris Piper or King Edward
1 large piece of salmon, skinned
2 tbsp wholegrain mustard
A good grating of Parmesan cheese
A large handful of mixed herbs, finely chopped (any will do it seems!)
Freshly ground pepper
Rapeseed or olive oil for frying

1 - Place the potatoes in their skins into a large pan of cold water. Bring to the boil then simmer until you can push a knife through, approximately 30 minutes. Allow to cool.
2 - Whilst the potatoes are cooling, bring a shallow pan of water to the simmer. Place the salmon in and poach for 5 minutes. Drain and allow to cool.
3 - When cool, peel off the skin then either push through a potato ricer or mash into a large bowl.
4 - Flake the fish into the potato. Put in the mustard, cheese, herbs and pepper and mix thoroughly.
5 - With floured hands, shape into balls then pat into discs.
6 - Shallow fry in your oil of choice. Drain on kitchen paper and serve with a salad.

Thursday, 28 June 2007

The Best Ever Meal?

Have you ever had somebody ask you, 'What is your best ever meal?'. I hate and love these type of questions in equal measure. Love them because I adore talking about favourite things and debating which ones are the best. Hate them because, much like the British seasons, I change day to day. One day it could be roast beef and Yorkshire puddings with all the trimmings, surely the best of British in all its meaty glory. The next it could be a fantastic vegetarian dish such as the Turkish Turlu Turlu I made last night, which celebrated top class vegetables in the sweetest of tomato and chick pea sauces. Or perhaps it is a rich treacle tart with clotted cream. AAAGHH! For an enthusiastic foodster like me, that kind of question can confuse my little mind and send it spinning into grub confusion.

Last week I found myself contemplating a large piece of fillet steak in my local butchers. Not my favourite cut of beef, but the fillet of Orkney Gold which my butcher had just taken delivery of had me intrigued. I would always opt for a rump or a sirloin, cuts of beef that are superior in flavour as a result of the marbled fat that runs through it as well as easier on the pocket. But this fillet looked sublime. Lean and mean, and with the added benefit of coming from the environmentally friendly Orkney Islands; I couldn't resist. Two doorstops were procured and quickly rushed home for some quality treatment.

I prefer to lift the subtle flavour of a fillet with a sharp sauce. Some may say that is a crime, but people are people. Seasoned and quickly seared in a very hot pan, 6 minutes in a very hot oven and left to rest. In the 2 minutes of resting period, I had de-glazed the pan with a little brandy then formed into a thick sauce using wholegrain mustard and créme fraiche. A few sauteed new potatoes and roasted mushrooms and tomatoes finished off a quality plate. And there I was eating it, thinking to myself, 'This is the best meal I have ever eaten.'. And at that moment in time, nothing would have changed my mind. So, what is your best ever meal?

The Best Fillet Steak

1x fillet steak, thick end (mine was approximately 3" thick)
Salt and pepper
A splash of brandy (or whisky works just as well)
1 tbsp wholegrain mustard
4 tbsp créme fraiche

1 - Pre-heat your oven to GM8, 230 degrees C
2 - Season the steak all over with freshly ground salt and pepper.
3 - Heat an oven proof non-stick frying pan so that it is very hot. Quickly seal the steak on all sides until browned then immediately put on a high shelf in the oven. Cook for 5-6 minutes for rare, 8-10 minutes for medium and 12-15 minutes well done. I use the face test - push your cheek with two fingers. The same sensation on your steak means rare. Push your chin for medium and your forehead for well done. It works, honest!
4 - When cooked to your liking, take out of the pan and allow to rest for a few minutes.
5 - De-glaze the pan with a splash of brandy, allowing it to catch on the flame but be VERY careful. This will burn off the alcohol. Then spoon in the créme fraiche and mustard and take off the heat once bubbling and thick (be careful it does not split which too much heat may do).
6 - Pour over your steak and serve with your favourite accompaniment. The best meal ever? I'll leave that to you.

Monday, 25 June 2007

24 Hour Party People

It has been a quiet time on the writing front of late. The one and only reason for that is I have been devoting my time to preparing for a large afternoon garden birthday party which occurred yesterday in beautiful Whitburn, Tyne & Wear. Thanks to Carol and John's amazing house and skills in organising for 60 people to come and party at their home, and despite the bizarre June winter we are experiencing at the moment, the day was a huge success and at point of writing, no complaints have been issued to the chef.

When I first spoke to Carol a few months back, I suggested an English Tea Party as a good event to have. Carol agreed to the menu, one which consisted of such delights as traditional sandwiches, scones with jam and cream, pea and leek tarts, wild mushroom and bacon tarts as well as a whole host of fattening delights such as chocolate cake, lemon tart, summer pudding and banana and walnut loaf cake. As you can see from the list of goods, a whole EU mountain of butter and flour was churned in my kitchen this weekend. And what fun it was, especially to see my mountain of scones all rise to perfection and stay moist and buttery as a good scone should.

The star of the show was a whole wild trout which, for me, meant absolute precision and care in the preparation of it. Considering it was line caught in Alnmouth, Northumberland just the day before the event, meant that it was as fresh and stunning a fish that I have ever had the pleasure to prepare. It demanded respect and hopefully I gave it that. I felt it deserved a good poach in nothing more than a classic Court Bouillon to bring out the amazing taste that a wild trout has. In my opinion, it is far superior to a salmon in both flavour and texture. Bringing it to the boil in a huge fish kettle on Saturday evening, I nervously turned the heat off as soon as the first bubbles appeared and left it to cook in the cooling liquid.

Thanks to observing Hannah from MasterChef fame at first hand in the kitchens of Waddlestone Manor last year, I was able to produce a few tomato roses to add to the garnish that gave the fish a fine farewell on a silver platter. It was a truly beautiful fish and it was a little emotional to see it devoured with gusto from the hungry guests. Or was that just chef's jealousy at being on the wrong side of the counter? Either way, it was a fantastic if exhausting weekend of cooking and serving to the guests of two of the loveliest people I have had the pleasure to cook for. Happy Birthday John and thanks Carol.

PS An extra special mention has to go to my assistant in crime for the day, the lovely Tania who was possibly the most pleasant and courteous hardworking helper a man could ever ask for. And cracking company too. Cheers Tania x

Poached Wild Sea Trout (or any trout or salmon if wild is not available)

1x Wild Sea Trout, gutted and cleaned with head and fins intact

For the Court Bouillon
Half a bottle of white wine
1 carrot, sliced
2 stalks of celery, sliced
1 onion, sliced
3 Bay leaves
10 peppercorns

1 - Place the fish into a suitably sized fish kettle.
2 - Put all of the Court Bouillon ingredients into the kettle then pour in enough cold water to just cover the fish.
3 - Bring to the boil on the hob then turn off the heat immediately. Leave to cook and cool in the liquor.
4 - Drain, then place the fish onto a platter or large plate. Refrigerate until ready. Serve and garnish as you like with a fresh green salad and new potatoes.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Berry Berry Good

A trip to any food store at this time of the year will no doubt greet you with punnets of beautiful British strawberries. Whether it be the giants of the supermarket world or your local greengrocer, you will certainly have to fight temptation to not spend a few quid on our favourite red berry. But why not just go for it and splash out on a few punnets? I did that yesterday, and it made for a happy hour or two of cooking.

The only problem I have with strawberries is that my daughter is addicted to them. I'm convinced that even at the age of 2 years, 4 months and 9 days, she could beat anybody at the 'popping as many strawberries in your mouth at one time' competition. It is a site for sore eyes when you see her go. Fortunately, she was safe at the in-law's when I arrived with 4 huge punnets. The berries almost breathed a sigh of relief.

First on the go was a few jars of Strawberry jam. I'm catering for a 50th birthday party this weekend and with some fresh scones on the go, I thought a few jars of jam would be the perfect accompaniment. Job done, I can deliver a superb and simple jam to the party and snaffle a jar to myself.

With a punnet left and my daughter arriving soon, (along with her nose that can smell a strawberry a mile off), I knew I wouldn't be able to get away with pretending a strawberry had not ventured through the door. So I thought a really easy and healthy dessert would deliver the treat we all richly deserved. So I stewed the punnet of strawberries down in a little honey and a split vanilla pod to make a rich and scent filled vibrant red fruit filled syrup. I then whipped up a little double cream, folded it into a tub of yoghurt along with some toasted almonds and then stirred in the fruit syrup to create a beautiful swirl effect. It worked, and as Cerys stomped through the door and demanded to know where the red things were, I safely delivered my Strawberry and Almond Swirl into her demanding hands. Phew.

Strawberry and Almond Swirl
Serves 4 in large glasses

*NOTE* Please be careful with your little ones with this recipe. This obviously contains nuts, so the one I served my daughter contained severely pounded almonds as opposed to slivers that could be caught in her throat. Thanks

1 tub of fresh low fat yoghurt
1 small tub of double cream
1 tub of strawberries, washed, hulled and halved
100g runny honey
1 vanilla pod
A handful of sliced or whole almonds, toasted

1 - In a pan, heat up the honey and strawberries along with the seeds of the vanilla pod. Cook until the berries begin to break up then leave aside to cool.
2 - Whip up the small tub of double cream to soft peaks. Fold this into the yoghurt in a large bowl.
3 - Toast your almonds in a dry pan. For young ones, pound them up in a pestle and mortar or a plastic bag with a rolling pin. Fold these into a separate helping of yoghurt and cream. For adults, fold in the almonds.
3 - When the fruit syrup has cooled, fold into the yoghurt, cream and almonds to create a swirl effect. Then pour into tall glasses. Top with more toasted almonds.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

A Bowlful of Summer

Despite the monsoon of the past week trying to remind us that we still live in the United Kingdom, and doing its best to make us wet and miserable, there was still a lot of sunshine to be found in some of the delicious vegetables available at the moment.

After the depressing dirge of the post-winter roots; sad, overgrown and fibrous monsters of the earth; our vegetables suddenly take a remarkable turn for the better at this time of the year. Some of the sweetest tasting beautiful veggies appear in abundance and it gets me excited in the knowledge that a plateful of my favourites will do me for a simple supper. Runner and broad beans, asparagus, spring and pearl onions, peas, sugar snaps, baby courgettes, fennel, leeks and carrots. It is almost as if somebody has been playing a bad trick on us by withholding these gems for a couple of months, then all of a sudden saying, ‘Off you go little veggies’, and providing us with more choice than we could ask for. Happy days indeed.

A plate of summer vegetables is a treat you should give yourself at this time of the year to finally convince you that summer is actually here, no matter what the weather. Even the most hardcore of carnivores would fail to admit that a mound of sensational tasting and looking vegetables, dressed in nothing more than a little lemon and oil and perhaps some herbs, are a joy to behold. Choose your favourites, pod and slice away and before you know it you have a simple supper made for Kings and Queens on your plate. This also works as the perfect accompaniment to a piece of fish or meat. But try them as they are and you may just banish the rain from your life no matter how hard it bangs on your window. As The Undertones once sang, ‘Here Come The Summer!’. And I could not agree more.

Summer Vegetables with Lemon and Herbs
Serves 2

100g Broad beans, podded
100g Runner beans, stringed and sliced into diagonal slices
100g Baby carrots
100g peas, fresh or frozen
A small bunch of asparagus, woody stems removed
A small bunch of spring onions, trimmed
1 baby fennel bulb, trimmed and sliced thinly

For the dressing
Juice of 1 lemon
6 tbsp extra virgin or rapeseed oil
A handful of fresh herbs such as mint, parsley, dill and tarragon
Salt and pepper

1 - Pod your broad beans and place into a bowl. Pour on boiling water, leave for 2 minutes then cool under running cold water. Nick the top of each bean with your fingernails then squeeze into a bowl. This is optional, but the glowing green of the vibrant bean looks amazing.
2 -Bring a pan of water to the boil and tip in your carrots, asparagus and runner beans. Simmer for 2 minutes only. Cool immediately in running cold water then tip into the bowl with the broad beans.
3 - Tip in the peas, spring onions and fennel and set aside.
4 - Prepare a simple dressing using the juice of 1 lemon, 6 tablespoons of good extra virgin olive oil or rapeseed oil, chopped fresh herbs and seasoning. Mix thoroughly.
5 - When ready to serve, gently warm up your dressing in a pan and add the vegetables. Warm through for 1-2 minutes, mix in the freshly chopped herbs and serve.

Friday, 15 June 2007


The Organic bag has been delivering huge bunches of wild herbs recently. Bronze fennel, chives, lovage, red sage, mint. Beautiful aromas and vibrant colours. Herbs in my house have often been subjected to the usual fine chop and garnish. But with such an array of amazing seasonal herbs, I thought it a shame to not do something that would sing the herbs as the main ingredient.

Cooking with the seasons is becoming more and more important to me. I've mentioned before the delights of having a small Organic bag delivered to your door. It is a mystery gift which beholds all manner of produce to make your creative juices flow. Herbs are so delicate, and British weather being British weather means their window of availability is short. But why not just look forward to the seasons and it's produce rather than sourcing it all year round? It makes life just that little bit more interesting.

This simple recipe is perfect for a simple starter or a snack with a nice cold bottle of beer. Make a batter using plain flour, a pinch of mustard powder and freezing cold beer or sparkling water. Then combine your fizzy gloop with huge amounts of finely chopped herbs and perhaps a spring onion. That is what I did. I also served mine with a Tzatziki as we were having Greek food for main course. But this would go perfect with plain mayonnaise or an Aioli. Herbilicious.

P.S. I'm dedicating this one to Sir Freddie of Great Big Veg Challenge fame as he hits the H for Herbs mark - keep it going Freddie, you are an inspiration!

British Herb Fritters

A large bunch of seasonal herbs, any you can get your hands on, finely chopped
2 spring onions, finely chopped

For the batter
200g plain flour
300-350ml of freezing cold beer OR sparkling water

A pinch of English mustard powder
Salt and pepper
Rapeseed oil

1 - Finely chop your herbs and spring onions.
2 - Make the batter by placing your flour in a bowl along with a good grinding of salt and pepper and a pinch of English mustard powder. Make a well in the middle then, using a whisk, thoroughly whisk until you have a silky smooth batter the consistency of double cream. Mix the herbs and spring onions into your batter.
3 - Cover the bottom of a non-stick pan with the rapeseed oil and heat to just under smoking point. Add tablespoons of the herby batter and fry until crisp before flipping, around 2 minutes each side. Place onto kitchen towel to absorb some oil then serve hot with your accompaniment of choice.

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Friday Night Revolution

Since food became my obsession, I've began to view takeaway food in a different light. Not that I am too snobbish or anything, but I've found that as my cooking technique has improved, I've found it difficult to find a takeaway that can provide me with what I want; quality, freshness and value for money. In the days before food obsession, I would eat any old takeaway, and with no comparison to make and therefore little opinion, I would rarely complain.

I rarely go for the takeaway option now. A preference to cook no matter how tired I am coupled with a genuine love for great food and ingredients ensures that I don't have to battle with my conscience much. But that should not mean that I can't go for a takeaway now and again, and why not? And why can't I trust the vast number of takeaways that consume our British streets? Personally, I find it an annoyance of the highest order when an Indian or Chinese restaurant consistently gets their food wrong. As far as I am concerned, they should know their cuisine and their customers better. Of course, if we could all get a bit more confident in the kitchen and produce good simple food, we could all form opinions and get up in arms with the state of our U.K. takeaways. So I urge you all to think a bit more before accepting more colourless and flavourless greasy drivel from your takeaway. At the same time, sing the quality takeaways that you know of from the rooftops.

Close to Indian food at the top of the U.K.'s favourite cuisine is Chinese food. Admittedly it is fantastic. But only if you can find the right place. I'm still to find a real quality Chinese takeaway that I can trust in my area of the North East, so I opt for my own home style Chinese food when it takes my fancy. The following recipe, like all good Chinese recipes, is quick, fresh and delicious. It also is a great way to get your little ones to eat a bit of cabbage. Superb spring greens have been around for the past month or two, and I love the stuff just steamed and buttered. Unfortunately, my daughter doesn't. Spark it up with a bit of spice and sweetness and it seems to do the trick. You can serve this with chicken (as per my recipe), pork, beef or without meat for a great vegetarian option. If you are using meat, ensure that you cook the meat first on a high heat, remove, and then return to the pan for the final stages.

This is simple food that anybody can do. Quite why a great number of our takeaways still get it wrong bewilders me. Please try this recipe then attempt your local takeaway again. You might just start forming some opinions that could change the places you buy your Friday night fast food from. Or start a new beginning in your life which consists of less takeaways. I know I did. Friday night revolution anybody?

Hot, Sweet & Spicy Chicken and Cabbage with Egg Fried Rice
Serves 2 and a little one

For the rice
4 handfuls of Basmati rice
4 handfuls of frozen peas
A small bunch of spring onions
2 tbsp groundnut oil
1 egg, beaten

2 chicken breasts, cubed
2 tbsp groundnut oil
1 large or 2 small spring greens (or your cabbage of choice), thinly sliced
2 cloves of garlic, sliced
1 thumb size of ginger, peeled and grated
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp oyster sauce
1 tbsp chilli bean sauce
1 tbsp sesame oil

1 - Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Add the rice and without stirring, bring back to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes until the rice is cooked. Pour into a colander and drain thoroughly. Leave aside.
2 - Heat a wok or large frying pan and add the groundnut oil. When it is almost smoking, add the chicken and quickly stir fry until coloured all over. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.
3 - Bring the other wok back up to heat and add further oil if required. Add the garlic, ginger and spring greens and 2 tbsp of water. Stir thoroughly then place on the lid. Steam for 2 minutes.
4 - Remove the lid, then return the chicken along with the sauces and oil. Stir fry for 3-4 minutes until the chicken is thoroughly cooked.
5 - Whilst this is cooking, in another wok or large frying pan, heat the oil then add the rice and peas. Briskly stir fry until heated through and the peas are cooked, then add the egg and spring onions. Stir fry for 1 further minute and keep warm.
6 - Serve in bowls with the egg fried rice alongside.

Monday, 11 June 2007

My Favourite Breakfast

After an eventful weekend in which somebody paid £2600 for my services and a full conversation by the side of my football hero Mr Peter Beardsley, and now a full week of teaching kids, I've no time or energy to get creative with my writing. Before you think I've gone all Indecent Proposal by selling 'other' services, the £2600 paid was for the Tiny Lives Black And White Party ( event on Saturday in which several prizes were auctioned off. I offered my services as a cook, sat there very nervous thinking I would get a tenner for them, and the bidding started at £1000. So it is safe to say I am flattered and confused in equal measure.

Sunday morning was one of nursing a sore head, so it was time for my favourite hangover cure of kippers (preferably Craster), brown soda bread and poached eggs. And a large pot of strong tea. It worked as it always does and I have decided in my absence of a recipe (do you really need a recipe to poach an egg and grill a kipper?) to simply tell you of my tale and put a picture up of my breakfast.

If you have never tasted kippers, please try and source some quality un-dyed kippers. The best in my opinion are Craster, closely followed by Arbroath Smokies. You can eat them with jam and bread like I used to as a kid, but you will probably never want to eat one again if so. Try them with some brown bread and butter, grilled to perfection with an oozing free range egg on the side.

Friday, 8 June 2007

Battle of the Bakers

Yesterday a true competition began. One that makes MasterChef look like Blockbusters when it comes to pressure. A visit to my mother-in-law is usually very pleasant, but when the pots and pans start rattling, it sure does bring out the competitive edge in our Grace.

After an impromptu visit, we had our lunch and sat down to together. But tummies were still rumbling, and my wife asked if there were any cakes or biscuits. The answer was no. ‘Have you got any eggs, flour and butter Grace?’, I asked inquisitively. ‘I always have those ingredients in, why?’. The competition had already begun. My mother-in-law knew I was hinting at making a quick cake and it was on her ground. Not only had I mounted huge pressure on my shoulders, I also ran the risk of losing any reputation I have with her, especially since she is so fantastic at baking.

A dash into the kitchen to see what was around, I soon discovered a couple of lemons and some honey. ‘Lemon and honey cake anybody?’. Father-in-law grunted, said something about risking my own life then disappeared. So did my wife and child. All that was left was a very inquisitive and lingering presence on my shoulder at all times – the steely gaze and ever-mocking tones of our Grace.

‘This cake is easy Grace, what you do….’. I was cut off at each sentence, corrected and pushed aside. ‘I’m doing this cake Grace, did you forget?’. Little did she know I had never attempted this cake, I was blagging it. And off I went again with my hands shaking more and more as the minutes went by. ‘I use this brilliant technique where I weight 3 eggs in their shells, then add exactly the same weight in butter, flour and sugar. It is foolproof’. The look of disdain was enough to tell me that she anticipated a massive fall in my so-called cake baking skills. ‘A couple of lemons grated with the some of the juice, and honey to replace the sugar will make a fantastically sharp and sweet cake, I’m sure of it’. The biggest 'tut' filled the kitchen. Whatever David. In Grace’s eyes, the oven was too low a temperature, the cake would never rise, it would be uncooked in the middle and it would probably taste like an old sock.

After 40 minutes, the bell on the timer rang and the beads of nervous sweat began to run. As I opened the oven, I could feel a mocking mother-in-law waiting to pounce. The result was stunning. A victory on away soil. The cake had risen. It retained a bounce. The smell was heavenly. A quick syrup, made with the lemon juice and more honey, soaked the cake through. All that was left was a cooling, a turn out then the proof of the pudding in the taste. With a crisp and chewy exterior thanks to the drizzle, a beautifully moist and nectar filled interior, it was possibly the best cake I have ever made. I cannot even begin to explain the humbling look of defeat on my mother-in-law’s face. Victory was sweet and I had snatched the crown. That is, until the 2nd leg commences in the coming weeks. As the current Yorkshire pudding champion, I anticipate war on my own turf. Watch this space, it can get messy…

PS I have no image of the cake as all evidence was snaffled by the family and I didn't have my camera. You are going to have to just imagine....

Lemon and Honey Cake

3 large eggs
Self raising flour
Butter or margarine
2 lemons

1 – Pre-heat the oven to GM4, 180 degrees C and butter and line a 22cm cake tin, preferably with a removable base.
2 – Weigh the eggs in their shells. Then weigh out exactly the same weight in flour, butter and honey respectively (or sugar if you prefer). Cream the honey and butter or margarine together in a bowl until pale and creamy.
3 – Beat in the eggs one by one until combined, don’t worry if it looks curdled. The sift in the flour, grate in the zest, add the juice of one lemon and fold together until thoroughly combined.
4 – Pour into the prepared cake tin and place in the oven on the middle shelf. Bake for 35-45 minutes until an inserted skewer comes out clean. If the top starts to catch, place some foil loosely over the tin.
5 – Remove from the oven. Make a quick syrup using the juice of the lemon and a few tablespoons of honey. Prick the cake all the way through several times with something like a knitting needle (that is what I used, Grace has hundreds!) and pour the syrup slowly over the cake. Allow to cool then turn out and serve generously. Look out for jealous faces….

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Weakman in Weegmans

Last month I made a business trip down to my former home of Yorkshire. A bonus of visiting Leeds that day was to see my best mate Jamie and his wife Andrea, proudly beaming with joy with their beautiful new baby Harrison. They are about as happy as can be, even with the lack of sleep and overnight life change, but they will be the best parents in town I just know it.

As I turned off the A1 to make the journey past Harrogate towards Otley, a strange feeling came over me. A kind of familiar feeling, almost like déja vu, but one that was not disturbing in the slightest. What on earth was it? As I crept with the traffic towards Otley town centre to make the short cut towards Guiseley, this feeling became stronger and panic set in. I became faint, turned white as a sheet and had to emergency stop the vehicle. Dragging myself from the car, cold sweat dripping down my back, I staggered through innocent passers by with a look of manic desperation in my eyes. 'Help!', I cried. 'Somebody PLEASE help!'. Yorkshire people ignored this sorry sight and bustled away from me, and children mocked the sad Geordie as he half crawled, half staggered through the quaint market square.

But this isn't the X Files Blog. And of course, all of this is a complete lie. I may have had a huge rumble in my stomach as I approached Otley, and I may have became slightly excited with eager anticipation at what was to come. But that was about it. Otley is the home of possibly the finest butchers in the world who make the finest pork pies in the world. It is the only place I know where you can snaffle a hot pork pie straight from the oven. I was a weak man in Weegmans of Otley.

The smell of the rich pastry hits you first. Then as you take your first huge bite, the taste of the Organic pork and hot jelly surrounds your mouth and makes you instantly happy. After you have dusted off one pork pie, it is time to delve into another. Then another. Let the other 3 cool down and eat them at home with lots of pickles and cheese. Then eat the other 4 the next day. Pathetic I know, but a trip to Weegmans means a whole 10 pork pies in my bag, it has become a tradition. And I'm happy to be so weak for such a British classic.

Unfortunately, like all top institutions, they will never let me have their recipe (although the photo is one that I snapped before snaffling!). But here is one I pinched from Mrs Smith which I have cooked a few times. It is more of a flat pie rather than the traditional raised short pie. Nothing can compare to Weegman's little delights though, and I beg you to travel there if you are ever in the area. Be a weakman in Weegmans. I always am.

Picnic Pork Pie
Serves 4-6


8 oz (225 g) chump end of pork, trimmed and chopped into ½ inch (1 cm) cubes
8 oz (225 g) best end of veal, trimmed and chopped into ½ inch (1 cm) cubes (if you can’t get veal, use all pork)
4 slices smoked streaky bacon, de-rinded and diced
1 medium potato (7 oz/200 g), peeled and chopped into ¾ inch (2 cm) cubes
1 small clove garlic, crushed
¼ teaspoon dried thyme
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
1 tablespoon vegetable stock (or water)
1 dessertspoon chopped fresh parsley
1 small egg, lightly beaten, to glaze
salt and freshly milled black pepper

For the shortcrust pastry:

6 oz (175 g) plain flour, plus a little extra for dusting
a pinch of salt
1½ oz (40 g) softened lard
1½ oz (40 g) softened butter
You will also need a tin that has a rim and sloping sides, 1½ inches (4 cm) deep, with a 7 inch (18 cm) base and a ½ inch (1 cm rim), lightly greased, and a medium, solid baking sheet.
Begin by making the pastry by sifting the flour and pinch of salt into a large bowl, holding the sieve as high as possible.

Now add the lard and butter, cut into smallish lumps, then take a knife and begin to cut the fat into the flour. Go on doing this until it looks fairly evenly blended, then begin to rub the fat into the flour using your fingertips only and being as light as possible. As you do this, lift it up high and let it fall back into the bowl, just long enough to make the mixture crumbly with a few odd lumps here and there.

Now sprinkle 1 tablespoon of water in, then, with a knife, start bringing the dough together. Then discard the knife and, finally, bring the dough together with your fingertips. When enough liquid is added, the pastry should leave the bowl fairly clean. If this hasn’t happened, then add a spot more water. Now place the pastry in a polythene bag and leave it in the fridge for 30 minutes to rest. Pre-heat the oven to gas mark 6, 400°F (200°C) and pop the baking sheet in to pre-heat at the same time.

Next, place the chopped meats and bacon in a mixing bowl and add all the other ingredients (except the beaten egg). Now, mix them all thoroughly together, with a good seasoning of salt and pepper. Then divide the pastry in half, and roll out one half, on a lightly floured surface, to line the tin. Pile the meat mixture evenly on the pastry, dampen the edges, then roll out the rest of the pastry to form a lid and fit it over the filling, sealing well all round, trimming and pinching (or fluting) the edges.

Make a small hole in the centre of the lid and, if you have time, you can use the trimmings to make a few leaves for decoration. Now brush the pie with the beaten egg, place it on the baking sheet in the oven, then after 10 minutes reduce the heat to gas mark 4, 350°F (180°C) and bake for a further 45 minutes. If the pastry gets a bit too brown during cooking, cover it with foil. Allow the pie to cool, then wrap it (plate as well) in a double thickness of foil ready to take on the picnic.

Monday, 4 June 2007

God's Own Country....

I know that everybody has their own God's country. After spending 14 years in Yorkshire, I've had it drummed into me that the land of the White Rose is the land that nobody can compete with. As much as I love the rolling countryside of Yorkshire, and will always class it as my 2nd home, nothing can compare to the rugged seascape of Northumberland. My God's country.

I've just returned from a short break in Northumberland, and although it is only a 30 minute drive to our base in Amble, it is like being on holiday in another area. The coastline up here is stunning; from the surreal setting of the finest castle in England, Bamburgh Castle, to the quaint and postcard setting of Craster. Every nook and cranny is a delight, and I urge anybody who has not visited the North East coast to take a little trip up here to see what all the fuss is I'm making.

Craster itself was once a huge herring fishing industry, one that has sadly diminished due to over-fishing. But even more famous are the smoking houses of Craster, still smoking away and still producing a superb and subtle smoked herring or 'kipper'. Every time I visit Craster I do two things; first I pop into The Jolly Fisherman for a crab sandwich and a bowl of crab, cream and whisky soup (and a pint of course). Then I walk over the road to the smoke shop and buy a few kippers and a bag of cockles for the trip home.

A visit yesterday had my head brimming with recipe ideas. Beautiful plump whelks were crying for some creativity, and the freshly shelled cockles were in need of more than the ubiquitous douse in vinegar. With a handful of broad beans and asparagus waiting for me back home, I decided that a simple warm seafood salad teaming the best of the Northumbrian seafood with the best of the summer vegetables was the answer. It was superb, with smoky fish and chewy flavour packed whelks contrasting perfectly with a sharp fruity dressing and the fresh vegetables.

So next time you describe your own God's country and nobody is listening, perhaps embellish it with a tale of local food produce and be proud and true. I know I am. Proud to be a Geordie!

Northumberland Sea Food and Summer Vegetable Salad
Feeds 2

For the dressing
250ml cider
1tbs cider vinegar
2tbs rapeseed oil
Fresh chives, chopped
Salt and pepper

8 New potatoes
2 tbs Rapeseed oil
A small bunch of asparagus
12 Broad bean pods, shelled
1 Craster kipper, flaked
A small tub of whelks
A small tub of cockles
Fresh chives, chopped

1 - Make your dressing. Put the cider in a pan and bring to the boil. Reduce by two thirds. Place into a bowl, allow to cool, then whisk in the other ingredients. Season to taste.
2 - Boil the new potatoes. Half, then heat a frying pan with the rapeseed oil and place the potatoes in cut side down. Cook until golden and crispy then turn and cook for a further 2 minutes. Season.
3 - Bring a pan of water to the boil and add the shelled broad beans and asparagus. Cook for 2 minutes then drain.
4 - Heat the dressing in a pan and add the vegetables. Remove from the heat and add the cockles, whelks and kipper flakes. Combine thoroughly.
5 - Place the new potatoes on a plate and dress with the warm seafood salad. Sprinkle with the fresh chives.

Saturday, 2 June 2007

If at first you don't succeed......

One of my favourite foods is risotto. Warm, comforting and delicious, it makes me happy when I am sad and happier when I am happy. I even love the fact you have to invest 30 minutes at the stove with a patient arm stirring away. That fact makes the dish even more attractive, almost as though you have worked for your tucker.

Unfortunately, not everybody has the same nice thoughts on risotto. My wife hates the stuff. I've spent years trying to understand why but I don't think even she understands. She can't put it down to whether it is the texture of the 'al dente' grain or the combination of an almost dessert-like rice with a savoury gloop. I'm a persistent kind of bloke, so each time I make some for my daughter and I, I always try to tweak it slightly in the hope that my wife will suddenly like it.

One thing I always say to children and adults alike is to always try something once. If you don't like it, try it with something that you do like or eat it cooked in a different way. It usually works. I know my wife loves butternut squash, and I know she likes smoked bacon. Not a new concept in risotto I know, but I tried this combination. Also, instead of making it as 'sloppy' as I usually like it, I made it a bit drier in the hope that my wife would not mistake it with a savoury rice pudding, which I suspected was always the problem. And guess what? I tried some out on her yesterday and she finished the whole bowl. And wanted more. My daughter and I looked on with a mixture of confusion, elation and disappointment as the last drops from the pan we were saving for later were devoured before our eyes.

My wife has no idea why she ate the whole bowl with gusto. But it just goes to show that if you experiment, encourage and keep trying, you can change the perception of even the most stubborn of adults, never mind our darling head-strong children. And who on this earth really can go a lifetime without eating this fine food of the Italian Gods? Well done Helen, I'm proud of you xxx

Butternut Squash and Smoked Bacon Risotto
Serves 2 and 1 child (with a bit left for greedy people...)

1 small butternut squash, peeled and diced
1 onion, chopped finely
1 garlic clove, sliced
4 rashers of smoked bacon, cut into small strips
2 tbs olive oil
1 knob butter
300g Arborio rice
1 glass of white wine
1 litre vegetable or chicken stock (fresh or from a cube), hot
50g Parmesan cheese, finely grated
Fresh parsley finely chopped
Salt and pepper

1 - Heat the olive oil and butter in a large pan. Add the bacon and cook until crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon. Add the onion and garlic and cook gently until soft but not coloured. Return the bacon and rice, and stir until the rice is coated in the oil and fat.
2 - Add the wine and cook until the wine has almost evaporated. Then add the cubed squash.
3 - Begin to add the stock, a ladle full at a time and stir gently in a circular motion until the stock is almost absorbed. Continue in this fashion for 20-25 minutes, until the stock is used up or the grains have plumped up nicely, are almost cooked but still retaining a slight crunch (of course, you cook it to your liking!).
4 - Add 25g of the Parmesan cheese and stir thoroughly. Taste for seasoning, it should need a good grind of black pepper but go easy on the salt.
5 - Serve in bowls with fresh parsley and more Parmesan cheese sprinkled on.