Friday, 28 September 2007

The Best Things In Life Are Free

Three lovely things happened to me today. The first happened early this morning as I walked my daughter up the street to nursery. Just before turning the corner, something crunched under my feet. Usually I wouldn't have bothered to look, but a strange force was pulling my head down for a quick peek. And there, smashed to smithereens on the cold damp pavement, was my favourite free product in the whole world - a cob nut.

Now I may have mentioned this before, but when I moved from my old house in Leeds, the one thing that I knew I would miss the most was my cob nut tree that I happened to have in the front garden. Every year I would let battle commence with the squirrels in a strange scrap of nature for a few bags of nuts, me on one branch and a few angry grey squirrels on the other. I often lost. But I did seriously miss that tree. So imagine my happiness to discover a beautiful nut stuffed tree at the top of my otherwise unremarkable terraced street here in sunny East Boldon.

I danced a happy jig on the way back with my pockets stuffed and then made my way up to Alnwick in Northumberland to do a few cookery demonstrations at the farmer's market. Here, in one small square, are some of the most fascinating people selling sublime products with real passion and belief. So when a supplier brings me some of her pear and black pepper bread to try, the very bread she was making with her own hands that very morning, the already present smile on my face just got bigger. Pear and black pepper bread, what a combination!

They say that all of the best things happen in 3's. And as I was packing away, a gentleman from Alnwick started telling me about his own home made blackcurrant vinegar and then produced me a bottle from his pocket. I had to taste it there and then and I can tell you, it was sensational. Sweet and savoury, thick and moreish, it had my head instantly filled full of all kinds of food combinations.

If every day was like this for me, I would never remove the smile from my face and people would avoid me in the street. Food for free, quality food at that, is a rare thing. So no recipe this week. Just a little story of luck and a picture of the bread, cobnuts and blackcurrant vinegar with a couple of slices of creamy melting Coquetdale cheese. It made for a quick and extremely satisfying tea. The best things in life are free.

Monday, 24 September 2007

Offally Delicious

In this mad new world of food that I work in these days, not one day seems to go by without a good story or a meeting with some fabulous food producer. I'm always championing the North East of England for its produce, and I'm genuinely proud to be working amongst some of the most amazing food producers.

Recently I met a farmer called Jimmy Bell, better known around these parts as Jimmy The Lamb Man. Why? Well, he rears, butchers and sells superb lamb which has grown up in the hills of his farm in East Wingates near Morpeth. Real quality lamb which you just know has been treat with great respect.

Last week I took a few glinting fresh lamb kidneys, a true treat that I have not used for an age. I know a lot of people are not sure where they stand with offal, but I try to inspire people to start using it more often. Not only are they cheap and good for you, they are also incredibly diverse in what you can use them in. Kidneys for me are the jewel of the offal; buttery soft if cooked properly with a fantastic gamey aftertaste, utterly delicious.

This is a variation on something Hugh does with kidneys. They seem to go so well with earthy produce such as lentils, so with the addition of robust beetroots and starchy sweet potatoes, this simple dish makes for a nutritious and flavour packed one pan meal that must surely convert the most strict of offal avoiders. Cheers Jimmy.

Chilli Lamb Kidneys with Puy Lentils, Beetroot and Sweet Potatoes
Feeds 4

150g puy lentils, boiled until slightly soft
1 sweet potato, cut into 1cm dice
2 beetroot, cut into 1cm dice and par-boiled for 5 minutes
2 cloves of garlic
1 tsp chilli flakes
4 lamb kidneys, washed and cut into quarters with the membranes cut out
1 glass of robust red wine, I used a Shiraz
1 small tub of créme fraiche or single cream
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper
Olive oil

1 - In a large non-stick frying pan, heat the olive oil. Add the sweet potato and saute for 5 minutes until golden.
2 - Push to one side then add the garlic and kidneys. Fry briefly for 1 minute until golden all over. Add the beetroot and chilli and cook for 1 minute.
3 - Add the glass of wine and quickly reduce by half. Tip in the lentils, créme fraiche or cream and balsamic vinegar and cook for 5 minutes.
4 - Taste for seasoning. Scatter with parsley. Serve with boiled rice and greens.

Saturday, 22 September 2007

Rice and Peasy Does It

My wife hates risotto. And kidneys. And a good rare steak. These just so happen to be 3 of my favourite things. So I suppose it is a good job that at times, opposites attract actually makes sense.

Not that it doesn't drive me mad. When I feel the need for any of those foodstuffs, I have to make two different meals. I now class a rare steak or a risotto as my Saturday night meal, or a meal I make for myself when my wife has gone out for the night. A little self indulgence, and no need to make two different meals.

Risotto is true comfort food. If you are feeling a little under the weather I find that warm savoury rice, sticky with strong Parmesan cheese, tends to lift the spirits. It is also a great dish to eat in those self indulgent moments, with a good bottle of wine on a Saturday night all to yourself and a movie of your choice on the box.

This risotto is one I turn to time and time again. No frills, just 20 minutes stood over the pan with a glass of wine and some music on. People tend to be put off making a risotto due to this essential 20 minutes of stirring. I find it comforting, therapeutic and peaceful, not to mention exciting as this classic Italian savoury dish slowly comes together to make for the perfect Saturday night food.

Pea, Mint and Saffron Risotto
Feeds 1

100g risotto rice, such as Arbario or Carnaroli
400ml vegetable or chicken stock, boiling hot
1 onion, finely chopped
1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
A pinch of saffron
2 handfuls of frozen peas
A handful of fresh mint, chopped
25g Parmesan cheese, grated
2 tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper

1 - Heat the olive oil in a thick bottomed pan and add the onion. Cook until soft, around 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic and rice and stir for 1 minute so that the rice is coated in the oil.
2 - Add the saffron, then add 1 ladleful of stock. Stir until the stock is absorbed and then continue to add ladlefuls of stock, stirring each time until absorbed. Do this for approximately 15-20 minutes.
3 - Test the rice. It should be soft but still retaining a bite. Stir in the peas. Taste for seasoning.
4 - Take off the heat and stir in the cheese and fresh mint. Spoon into a bowl and sprinkle over more Parmesan. Put your feet up and enjoy the peace!

Thursday, 20 September 2007

King Biscuit Time

The weather took a turn at the weekend. With a nip in the air, that first sign of autumn officially hit my daughter and I as we cycled along the coast. With her strapped on the back bicycle seat, it was blue noses all round by the time we got back home. Oh how I love the first chills of autumn.

When the first leaves have been kicked around in the back garden, nothing makes me happier than a bit of comfort baking. It is even better now that I have a very enthusiastic mini sous chef to help stir things up. On Sunday it was King Biscuit Time. Me being King Biscuit, and Time being the small amount of time it takes to knock up a good biscuit dough and shove them in the oven. Home-made biscuits are just fabulous.

We decided on some good crumbly oaty ginger biscuits. Ginger biscuits with a bit of a sting, rather than the tepid taste you often get from the commercial ginger biscuit. So lots of good ground ginger along with a few stem gingers finely chopped, to add a chewy spicy surprise into each bite. We also had a new set of biscuit cutters to try out, and it was sous chef Cerys' job to do the cutting. Ginger stars, men, flowers, circles and hearts a-plenty were soon adorning the kitchen tops, and after a 15 minute blast in the oven, the kitchen was lifting with beautiful home baked ginger smells.

The hardest bit about making biscuits with your little ones is stopping them eating the biscuits with the same enthusiasm they made them with. As you can see in the picture, sous chef Cerys risked the odd burnt finger in an effort to snaffle a few before they had the time to cool down. King Biscuit Time makes for good times all round. Roll on the next chilly Sunday.

Double Ginger Oat Biscuits
Makes approximately 20

125g self-raising flour
2 tspns ground ginger
4 stem gingers, finely diced
3 tbsp syrup from the stem gingers
50g oats
50g dark muscovado sugar
75g butter or margarine

1 - Pre-heat the oven to GM5, 190 degrees C.
2 - In a large bowl, sift in the flour and ground ginger. Mix in the oats, sugar and stem gingers, then add the butter and rub until it resembles large breadcrumbs. If it is a little dry, add more butter.
3 - Finally, add the syrup and combine thoroughly. You should be left with a semi-soft dough.
4 - Roll out onto a floured surface about 1cm thick, and cut out your shapes. Place onto a buttered baking sheet and place onto a high shelf. Bake for 10-15 minutes until golden brown. Leave to cool on a wire rack and watch out for little hands reaching up before they are cool.

Friday, 14 September 2007

Lets Get Ready To Crumble

Desserts have been a bit of a feature this past few weeks. In an effort to be good, I have managed to get into the habit of making the dessert a weekend treat. But with the summer fruit almost coming to an end, I've made it a great excuse to indulge a little.

Crumbles are now officially a British classic. The French spent years ribbing us on our supposed only offers to the culinary world of roast beef and a crumble. Now crumbles have been spotted on the menus of top French restaurants, and a book was even written by a French lady called Camille le Foll on our favourite British dessert. Happy days indeed.

Of course we need no introduction to the splendours of a good old crumble over here. A crumbly buttery topping, giving way to hot syrupy fruit, it is the perfect no fuss dessert which can be knocked up in no time and feed the five thousand in one sitting. It is also the perfect dessert for doing a bit of experimenting. So experiment with this, take a little glance up at whoever you are eating it with and ask them - is this the best dessert in the whole world? Oui mon ami, bien sûr c'est !

Peach and Strawberry Almond Crumble
Serves 4-6 people

For the crumble
150g plain flour
150g ground almonds
150g brown sugar
200g butter, cubed
5 amaretti biscuits, crumbled (optional)

For the filling
500g strawberries, halved
3 peaches, skinned, stoned and cut into eighths
50g brown sugar
1 vanilla pod, seeded
1 tbsp amaretto

1. Preheat the oven to 180C, GM 4.
2. Place the flour, ground almonds and sugar in a large bowl. Rub the butter in until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Sprinkle in the crushed amaretti biscuits and mix in.
3. Place the fruit into a saucepan and sprinkle in the sugar and vanilla seeds. Bring to the boil then simmer for 10 minutes.
4. Butter a 24cm ovenproof dish, then pour the fruit in, followed by the crumble mixture on top. Shake to level it.
5. Bake in the oven for 40-45 minutes until golden and the fruit is starting to bubble over the edge. Serve with cream, custard or yoghurt.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

The Fool On The Hill

With English plums at their absolute best this month, there are some happy faces in the house. My daughter wants to eat them like sweets, and it is actually harder keeping her mitts away from them than it is the dreaded plum loving wasp.

Plums are so versatile. Get them a little unripe, you can roast them in a savoury dish or stew them for a lovely crumble. Get them ripe, you can still do the same and also have one of the best fruit around to simply gourge on at will. I love plums, and quite stubbornly I'm convinced that our British plums are the best in the world.

The reason I say that is because we do of course have stubbornly accurate seasons in the U.K. When it is winter, it is cold. When it is summer, it is hot (well, we might want to give 2007 the exception). Therefore, that 2-3 month window of the British plum makes for a far superior fruit than the often watery imported plums. Another lovely little fact about the plum is that they have stones like human fingerprints - each is unique to the variety of plum. Apparently, experts were able to identify over one hundred individual plum stones found on the flagship of Henry VIII’s Mary Rose, which sank in 1545 and was raised in the 1980s. Amazing!

I've been working through a few punnets of superb Victoria plums this week. Some went into a tagine, lots went into Cerys' gob, and the others went into a lovely fuss free plum and vanilla fool which I served with my attempt at a macaroon. Since I could not get any amaretti biscuits the other day, I made some of my own. They were flatter and a little softer in texture, like a mini meringue with a chewy centre. After doing a bit of research on them, I realised that the original English macaroon derives from the amaretti, basically an egg white, sugar and almond biscuit. Tremendous! And with a plum packed fool to scoop up with them, they certainly were.

Plum and Vanilla Fool with Macaroons

500g plums
100g sugar
1 vanilla pod, split and seeded
300ml double cream, whipped to soft peaks
200ml yoghurt

For the macaroons
3 egg whites, whisked to soft peaks
100g caster sugar
100g ground almonds
A drop of vanilla extract

1 - Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees C, GM4.
2 - After whisking the egg whites, beat in the sugar until glossy. Gently fold in the ground almonds and vanilla extract. Drop tablespoons onto buttered baking paper on a baking tray and place onto the middle shelf of the oven. Bake for 25-30 minutes then cool on a wire rack. You will need to do this in batches.
3 - Place the whole plums, sugar and vanilla pod into a pan with a little water. Bring to the boil and simmer for 10-15 minutes until soft. Leave to cool.
4 - When cool, drain some of the plum syrup and keep separate then take out the stones. Blitz in a food processor.
5 - In a large bowl, fold in the plums and yoghurt into the whipped cream. Place in the fridge for at least one hour.
6 - Serve with the macaroons and a little plum syrup drizzled around.

Friday, 7 September 2007


Apricots and nectarines seem to be available in large quantities at my greengrocers this month. Flown over from Spain, the peaches I have been eating are so beautiful, fragrant and juicy, enough to quench the most severe of thirsts in just one bite. It makes me envious of our Mediterranean cousins who have the heat to enable them to grow such a delectable fruit.

I love the Italian way of stuffing peaches and baking them. As the almond is related to the peach, the method of crushing little Amaretti biscuits and combining with a little Amaretto, sugar and ground almonds makes for the perfect match. It is one of those no-fuss recipes I turn to time and time again when the peaches arrive, as they always deliver satisfaction.

With no Amaretti biscuits in the cupboard, yesterday I decided to experiment. I had to find an alternative to go with the four juicy peaches I had. Wondering if ginger and walnuts would make for a good alternative, I went for it. A split vanilla pod and a good pinch of ground ginger would pick up any blandness, and it all combined to make a surprisingly delicious stuffing for my peaches. Chewy, fragrant and spicy from the ginger, it worked an absolute treat. Whether or not the Italians would approve is another matter, but here in sunny East Boldon, I was happy to take that risk. Goda I miei amici!

Ginger and Walnut Stuffed Peaches

Serves 4

4 peaches, split and stoned
6 ginger biscuits, crushed to fine crumbs
1 vanilla pod, split and seeded
A large handful of walnuts, crushed
50g softened butter
50g caster sugar
1 tsp ground ginger
2 tbsp of fruit juice, any (or if you have the white wine open, use that)
1 egg yolk

1 - Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees C, GM6.
2 - In a bowl, combine all of the ingredients to make a spreadable paste. if it is too stiff, add a little fruit juice.
3 - Fill the peaches with the stuffing then spread out to the edges of the peach.
4 - Place on a high shelf and bake for 20-25 minutes.
5 - Take out of the oven. Allow to cool slightly, dust with icing sugar then serve with creme fraich and a drizzle of honey.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Root Manoeuvre

I sense exciting times around the corner. As much as I love the summer and the bounty of edible goodies that comes with it, it is the Autumn that gets me most excited. Thanks to the odd weather we have had this year, early root vegetables are beginning to poke their heads out of the soil, and it is this most versatile of vegetable that has my creative juices flowing.

Take a turnip, swede, beetroot, carrot or a parsnip. Mash it, boil it, roast it or braise it. Either way, it will taste wonderful. And that is what I love about them. Cheap and plentiful, easy to prepare, and you don't need to be a top chef to get the best out of them.

Roasting is by far my favourite technique. Slowly roasting a root vegetable seems to tease out their natural sugars and achieves beautiful soft sweetness. Blend them at this stage with a little stock and you have an amazing intense soup. I took a whole load of roots and slow roasted them with a little cumin and chilli. The spice and the heat seem to compliment a slow roasted root and somehow makes them taste even better.

I also threw in a couple of late summer vegetables from the hot house, peppers and courgettes, as well as a tin of borlotti beans. A couple of lamb leg steaks with mint and lemon roasted for the final 20 minutes made for a superb one tray supper, the vegetables soaking up any leaked juices to add to the already fabulous sweet slow roasted flavour.

Slow Roasted Cumin and Chilli Vegetables with Minted Lamb
Makes one baking tray worth

1 turnip, peeled and cut into large chunks
3 carrots, peeled and cut into large chunks
1 beetroot, peeled and cut into large chunks
1 onion, peeled and cut into large chunks
1 courgette, cut into large chunks
1 red pepper, seeded and cut into large chunks
1 tbsp cumin seeds1 tsp dried chilli flakes
2 lamb leg steaks
1 lemon
A handful of fresh mint, chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 tin of borlotti beans
Olive or rapeseed oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 - Pre-heat your oven to 180 degrees C, GM4.
2 - Place all of the vegetables except for the courgette into a large baking tray. Slice the lemon and squeeze one half over the vegetables, putting the lemon half into the tray. Scatter on the cumin seeds, chilli and seasoning along with a good glug of olive or rapeseed oil. Combine thoroughly and then place on a high shelf in the oven. Roast for 1 hour.
3 - Whilst the vegetables are roasting, place the mint, garlic, a little oil and seasoning into a bowl. Rub the lamb with the marinade and leave for 30 minutes.
4 - After one hour of roasting, turn the heat up to 200 degrees C, GM6. Place the courgette into the roasting tray and gently toss. Place the lamb steaks on top and put back into the oven for 20 minutes.
5 - Pour in the beans, warm through for a further 5 minutes then serve.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Take Me Out

Listening to the legend that is Keith Floyd at the weekend, somebody asked him what his favourite food was. He then proceeded to list off a 3 course meal with complimentary fine wines which had us all drooling. His choice of food, which was turned into the food he would eat if he was faced with a firing squad, was all British. For somebody as intelligent and well travelled as Mr Floyd, it was superb to see good old British tucker getting his number one choice.

This then had my mind turned to what my meals would be if faced with the firing squad. As I love most things, it is an incredibly difficult question to answer. Like my other love, music, my mind changes on what I want to listen to or eat depending on my frame of mind. One day it may be something that takes a few hours of preparing and cooking, the next it may be rarebit on toast.

One ingredient that would have to feature in there though is crab. In my opinion, it is far superior in flavour to its expensive cousin, the lobster. Just a plain old crab, boiled and served with bread and butter and a mustard mayonnaise. You cannot get anything more simple yet it tastes truly magnificent and costs very little.

This dish is not British in origin, but it celebrates the sublime flavour of crab within a pasta sauce. Complimented with a little fennel and bulked up with salmon or trout, it takes 5 minutes to make and satisfies crab fans on every level. Making this kind of food strengthens my opinion that the best food is the food that takes the least time. And if faced with the firing squad, you won't have long to gobble it all down. Bang bang. So tell me, what would your final meal be?

Crab and Salmon with Fennel Cream
Serves 2

Half a fennel bulb, sliced finely
2 tbsp olive oil
1 glass white wine
100ml creme fraiche (low fat works fine)
Crab meat from one whole crab, cooked
1 medium fillet of salmon or trout, cubed
Juice from half a lemon
Fresh dill
Salt and pepper

1 - Boil a pan of water and cook your pasta of choice, I used tagliatelle. Whilst the pasta is cooking you can start and finish your sauce.
2 - Heat the olive oil in a non-stick pan. Add the fennel and cook for 1 minute until softened but not coloured. Add the white wine and reduce by half.
3 - Add the creme fraiche and bring to the boil. Then quickly turn down the heat so it just bubbles, you need to make sure it does not split. Add the crab and salmon and stir thoroughly. Cook for 1 minute. Add a squeeze of lemon and a good handful of freshly chopped dill. Taste for seasoning.
4 - Stir in the pasta and serve with optional Parmesan cheese.

Sunday, 2 September 2007

Berry Spice

This weekend, I have been simmering down the last few punnets of strawberries and raspberries from my local greengrocer with a few brambles pinched off the local hedge. One is expensive, and one isn't. Although I hope that there is a good month left in the berry season, I always do a squirrel at this time of the year and store a few for the winter months just incase.

If I'm not freezing them whole, I always stew them in a little honey before deep freezing. Then I have a lovely sauce to pour over ice cream or an instant fruit filling for a delicious crumble once the apples come along. A blitz in the blender and pushed through a sieve, you have a sweet fruity sauce to cut through a piece of rich game. So versatile and simple.

I kept a bit back today, spiced up with a stick of cinnamon and a few cloves and piled some onto meringues with a twist - black pepper meringues. Black pepper and berries are one of those combinations that often make people pull their faces in disagreement, but if you have never combined a hot peppercorn with our favourite strawberry then you are missing out on one of life's great surprises. It works perfectly. Try it and see.

Spiced Berries on Black Pepper Meringues

Makes 6

For the meringues
3 egg whites
150g caster sugar
Half teaspoon finely ground pepper

For the berries
1 small punnet of strawberries, cleaned, hulled and quartered
1 small punnet of raspberries, cleaned
1 small punnet brambles, cleaned
6 tbsp honey
A splash of balsamic vinegar (optional)
1 cinnamon stick
3 cloves

1 - Pre-heat the oven to 110 degrees C, GM quarter.
2 - Either using a hand whisk or a food mixer, whisk the egg whites until they form soft peaks. Then whisk in the black pepper and then the sugar 25g at a time until thoroughly combined and glossy.
3 - On a baking sheet, place a piece of baking parchment. If you have a piping bag, or using a plastic food bag with the corner snipped off, pipe 6 circles with raised sides approximately 7-8 centimetres in diameter. Place into the oven and bake for 90 minutes - 2 hours until cooked. Switch off the oven and leave to cool.
4 - Place all of the fruit, honey and spices into a pan and bring to the boil. Simmer for 5-10 minutes until the fruit has softened. Leave to cool completely then remove the spices.
5 - Whip some cream, and place into the meringues. Pile on fruit and serve.

Sticky Sweet and Sour Aubergines

This is a recipe I've slightly tweaked a few times from Sabrina Ghayour's fantastic cookbook Bazaar, a wonderful book with a huge se...