Saturday, August 30, 2008

Spicy sweet potato soup

This seems like a rather inappropriate post seeing as it is roasting hot outside. When I cooked it, two nights ago, it seemed entirely appropriate. It was positively autumnal and I needed something soothing and warming. So, apologies for the inappropriateness of this warming soup but no doubt it'll be foul again tomorrow and we'll all be craving something of this sort.

I don't usually make hot soups in August, it has to be said. However, at the moment, soup is one of the few things I can actually manage. I'm suffering with my wisdom teeth. Is anyone actually able to tell me what the point of wisdom teeth actually is? As far as I can see they are completely unnecessary and there simply to cause pain. A great deal of it. A bit like the appendix really.

Anyway, unable to move my jaw much means that I've been eating a lot of soup. And ice-cream. And rice pudding. And mashed potato. Not all at once, you understand. This soup is one I'll make again and freeze in individual portions to take to work once the nights draw in. If I take them in frozen, there is no chance of spilling or leaking en route and they are defrosted in time for lunch.

Spicy sweet potato soup
Makes 3-4 portions


2 large orange-fleshed sweet potatoes
1 medium to large white onion
1/4 tsp cumin seeds
1/4 tsp coriander seeds
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp dried chilli flakes (or half a deseeded red chilli, finely chopped)
1 pint chicken or vegetable stock
yoghurt or cream for serving

1. Peel and chop the onion and then sweat in a little olive oil over a medium heat.

2. Crush and grind spices using a pestle and mortar (or rolling pin and plastic bag). Add spices to onions and stir to coat, continue to heat until onions are translucent and coated in spice.

3. Peel sweet potatoes and chop into small pieces. Add to pan and heat for a few minutes with onions. Add stock and simmer until potatoes are tender (around 20 minutes).

4. Take pan off heat and blitz soup with a stab mixer or in a liquidizer. Season with salt and pepper as required and serve with a little cream or yoghurt drizzled over. And perhaps some chopped fresh coriander.

Notes - For a richer version, you could add some coconut milk.

P.S. Don't you love this picture of my brother's dog 'shrimping' at low tide in north wales?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Happy Birthday to me - lovely lemon cake

I've just returned from a wonderful fortnight on holiday. I haven't taken a full two weeks off work for six years, so it was a real treat. I usually like to spread my hols out throught the year, but I had a little spare this year and decided to make the most of it. After a wonderfully lazy few days is Provence with girl friends, I headed up to my beloved North Wales for a week and a half with family.

Since I was a baby, I have holidayed up on the Llyn Penninsula and really think it is one of the most beautiful parts of our country. The scenery is just stunning. Of course, the 'problem' with holidaying in the UK is the age-old one of the weather. It becomes an obsession. From our rented house, we watched the clouds and rain in earnest over breakfast, trying to decide what the day had in store. We'd look out of each side of the house, hoping for a touch of blue sky out of one of the windows. Sadly, on this occasion, 'him upstairs' was not on our side. We had a couple of sunny-ish days, but most were grey, grey and more grey...

It was a shame, but didn't matter too much. I still managed some lovely walks and loved catching up with nephews, nieces and parents.

I was also very spoilt. Yesterday was my birthday, you see. It wasn't one I was looking forward to. I'm now twenty-nine. Twenty-nine is not a problem in itself, you realise. It is just the fact that it comes before the dreaded three-oh. I know, I know. I'm still a young whipper-snapper. I've heard it all before. I'm afraid nothing will convince me though. Turning thirty is not something I'm looking forward to.

However, as I mentioned, I was very spoilt. The blow was duly softened by some lovely presents. Most exciting of all is my new
Kenwood Mixer! I have wanted one for ages and had to put it to use straight away.

It seemed only apt that I should bake a birthday cake. A challenge when staying in a rental holiday house without your usual cake tins, baking equipment, cook books etc... I thought about my favourite kind of cake. Luckily I had bought one book with me; my favourite
'How to be a Domestic Goddess' from wonderful Nigella. At first I thought I'd go chocolately, then fruity but eventually I decided upon lemony.

I adore lemony cakes and wanted a full-on explosion of lemony flavour. I followed Nigella's basic Victoria Sponge recipe, sandwiched it with lemon butter icing and lemon curd and then topped the lot with bright white lemon glacé icing. You'll see that Nigella uses a little cornflour in her recipe - this can be replaced with regular self-raising flour, but she reckons that the cornflour makes for a lighter sponge.

My efforts were hampered by various factors. I didn't have sandwich tins, so baked the cake in one large springform 20cm tin and then cut it in half. I was also cooking in an oven which had a mind of its own. Everything we made in it seemed to burn, so I cooked it on a rather low heat and relied on some guess work.

The result was, I think, absolutely delicious. Wonderfully citrussy with just the right balance between the sweetness and the tangyness. This is certainly an indulgent cake, with two kinds of icing AND lemon curd, but if you can't indulge on your birthday, when can you?!

Very lemon cake
Serves 8


For the sponge:
225g butter
225g caster sugar
4 large eggs
200g self-raising flour , sieved
25g cornflour
juice and zest of one unwaxed lemon

For the butter cream:
75g butter
75-100g icing sugar
juice and zest from half a lemon

Homemade or good quality bought lemon curd

Icing sugar and juice from half a lemon

You will also need two 20cm loose bottomed sandwich tins, buttered

1. Pre-heat oven to 180C. For the cake, cream the butter and sugar (in your brand-new Kenwood mixer...). Add the eggs one at a time, adding a tablespoon of flour after each addition and continuing to mix. Fold in rest of flour and cornflour, plus the lemon juice and zest. The mixture should be a dropping consistency. If too thick, add a touch of milk.

2. Pour the cake mixture into the prepared cake tins and bake for 25 minutes, or until the cakes are springy to the touch and a skewer comes out clean when inserted into the centre. Leave to cool in tins for ten minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack.

3. Whilst the cakes are cooling, make the buttercream. Using a mixer, blend together the butter and sugar and add in the lemon. If too runny, add more icing sugar until a spreading conisistency is reached.

4. Sandwich the cakes together with a thin layer of butter icing and then a layer of lemon curd. Top the cake off with a layer of glossy glacé icing. Sieve the icing sugar and mix to reasonably thick consistency with the lemon juice. Add candles and away you go!

Monday, August 11, 2008

They may be small...

...but these are the best tasting tomatoes ever! Freshly picked from my garden - what could be better?

I'm away for the next couple of weeks, in France and then in Wales. I hope to check in occasionally, but will be back in full force on the 28th!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Summer Pudding

I'm fairly surprised to find that I've not yet posted a recipe for one of my favourite British pudding. Summer pudding is something I make quite frequently during the months when berries are at their glorious best. I make it for several reasons. Firstly, I think it is delicious. Secondly, most other people tend to think it is delicious, hence it is a winner at a dinner party. Thirdly (and this is the exhibitionist in me), people are always rather impressed when you turn a gleaming pudding such as this out of the pudding basin. They seem to think it is a complicated pud to make. I'm happy to let them think that. It's nice to bathe in a little glory once in a while.

The secret is out though. Summer pudding is actually a remarkably simple thing to make. In fact, it was one of the first desserts I ever attempted. Admittedly, it is not quite as simple as my father used to think. One evening when we were congratulating my mother on having turned out the perfect summer pudding, he asked what all the fuss was about. It was surely very simple to make, he said. Surprised that my father felt he could make a summer pudding (his culinary skills extend to making toast, though he does have many other talents), we asked him for his recipe. Well, he said, you take a large loaf of unsliced bread and scoop out all the bread from the middle. You then fill the space up with fruit and leave in the fridge for a day-or-so. Hmmm. Not quite sure that would be the summer pudding of my dreams. I'll stick to my mother's ever-so-slightly more complex version, I think!

I've tried lots of different summer puddings over the years in restaurants and have reached several conclusions. Your tastes may well be different to mine, but for me, summer pudding should be kept simple. Trying to fancy it up just doesn't work (...for me).

First things first. Make one big pudding rather than several little ones. This actually pains me to say it, as I think individual puddings look far prettier. But the ratio is all wrong with an individual pudding. Too much bread and not enough fruit.

Secondly, and this is where things may get controversial, I use plain old medium sliced white, slightly stale, bread. Seriously. I've tried it made with brioche, with thick freshly-baked bread, with all sorts. Nothing works for me as well as a loaf of medium-sliced white bread which is past its best. Fresh bread just doesn't soak the juices up as well. Brioche is too rich and buttery. Delia and I come to blows here. She insists upon high quality bread. Delia and I don't often come to blows, but on this matter I refuse to shift. I'm sorry, Delia.

Finally, don't be afraid of the sugar. Remember, raspberries and redcurrants are tart. You want a little tartness in your summer pudding, but not too much. Puddings should be fun, not leave a sour taste in the mouth! Taste, taste, taste as you go - all berries differ in sweetness so I just add the sugar until it tastes right to me.

I find it a little tricky to know what quantity and mixture of fruit to suggest. Purists would insist on just raspberries and redcurrants. They would be horrified at the inclusion of strawberries or - heaven forbid - blackberries. I'm not a purist though. Use whatever fruit floats your boat. I think some kind of black fruit is essential to give the pud its glorious colour. I like to use a mixture of red and black currants, raspberries, strawberries and blackberries. My grandmother used to add apples. This may seem like a total no-no, but it is not at all bad and perhaps a wise tip in times of credit crunch: apples pad the pudding out and are cheaper than expensive berries. The proportions are entirely up to you. Nigel Slater has some interesting things to say on the matter.

One final comment before the recipe itself. My mother's method involves lining the pudding basin with the bread, spooning in the fruit and weighting it down overnight so that the juices seep through. They usually do, of course, but sometimes there are a few 'bald' patches. These can be covered up with reserved juice. This time round, I wanted to be sure of success, so I cheated. I dipped the bread briefly into the juices before lining the bowl. That way, they were instantly the 'right' colour. I felt like I was cheating. I felt a bit like a fraud. But it worked beautifully, of course. And if it works, then why does it matter?!

I used a 2 pint pudding basin for my pud - it was huge and would have probably fed ten. It needed a whole lot of fruit to fill it. Fresh is best, of course, but you can get good quality frozen berries in most supermarkets and these tend to be much cheaper. I threw in a couple of frozen punnets along with the fresh on this occasion and I really don't feel it made any great difference.

Summer Pudding
Serves 10


Approx 1.8 kg mixed summer berries (use any mix of raspberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants, blackberries, strawberries, tayberries, cherries etc...)
Caster sugar
Framboise or cassis (optional)
White medium sliced loaf of bread - approx 10 slices, crusts removed

1. Sort through all the fruit, wash and discard any slightly manky fruit!

2. Place in a large, deep saucepan and pour over a cup of water and 4-5 tablespoons of liqueur if you are using. Sprinkle over some sugar - I'd suggest about 150g to start with. Heat gently until the berries start to burst and release their juices. Cook gently for about five minutes - you want the berries to retain most of their shape, but be nicely softened and sitting in plenty of juice. Taste and add more sugar if necessary. You also want plenty of juice - sometimes I'll add a little more water if needs be, but you don't want to dilute the juices to much, so keep tasting.

3. Turn the heat off and leave to cool slightly while you prepare the pudding basin. Cut the crusts of the bread and then line the pudding basin, as if it were a jigsaw puzzle. Dip each bit of bread into the juices before lining the basin for ease, if you like. Cut a circle for the bottom of the bowl and then slot together triangular bits of bread until the sides are entirely lined with bread. Make sure there are no gaps.

4. Ladle the juicy fruit into the pudding basin. I use a slotted spoon for this - you want some of the juice in the pudding but also some to keep aside to serve alongside the pud. Fill it right up to the top and pour some of the juice over the berries. Then cover the top of the pudding with another layer of bread.

5. Place a plate on top of the pudding basin and stand the whole thing on a larger plate (to catch any overflowing juices). Place a heavy weight on top of the plate - a can of baked beans works well. Chill in the fridge overnight. Pour the juices into a jug and chill.

6. To serve, run a palette knife around the edge of the pudding. Place the serving platter on top of the bowl and quickly turn upside down. The pudding should (with a little help) plop neatly out onto the platter. Ta-dah!

7. Serve with double cream and the juices in a jug. If the pudding is quite tart, you may like to serve a bowl of sugar for sprinkling in case your guests prefer something a little sweeter.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Fishy behaviour: salmon with tarragon butter and samphire

Yes. I am aware that this is not a picture of a salmon.
It occurred to me the other day that I've featured only nine fish recipes since I started blogging over a year ago. I have to hold my hand up and say that I am not a bit eater or cooker of fish.

But I do love a fresh bit of fish and think that it is time to start redressing the balance. It is true that I don't cook fish all that often and don't even order it all that often when eating out. I'm a bit of a carnivore, I suppose. My greedy eyes skimming over the fish dishes on a menu and finding their way to the meaty dishes. I'm not sure why this is. I mean, I grew up by the sea. You'd think I'd be an enthusiast of all things scaly and slippery.

I think that part of the problem is that I no longer have a really good fishmonger nearby. I'm
surrounded by superb butchers but have not yet discovered a reliable source of fresh-as-a-daisy delicious fish. I'm therefore rather reliant on the local supermarket. The choice there is uninspiring and one wonders how fresh it really is.

I also panic slightly when it comes to cooking fish. I come over all nervous when face-to-face with whole fishes. I can see them looking at me, challenging me. Laughing at my incompetence even. So, I tend to stick to 'bits' of fish instead. I eat a lot of salmon. Some trout. Fillets of smoked haddock, cod, pollock, coley - that sort of thing. I also tend to be quite conservative about what I do with those bits of fish. I have a few trusted recipes that I stick to and tend not to experiment as much as I do with every other avenue of food.

Last weekend, I spent two heavenly hours in
Whole Foods on Kensington High Street. This flagship store really is heaven for food enthusiasts. If you haven't yet been, then do. It is spread over three floors and is bursting with every foodstuff imaginable. When I first heard the store was coming to London, I couldn't understand what all the fuss was about. I've been into a few Whole Food Markets in the States and whilst they are clearly a notch above the average supermarket, I didn't notice anything particularly out of the ordinary. This enormous version in Kensington? Definitely out of the ordinary.

Anyway, I picked up lots of interesting ingredients and produce and headed bravely to the fish counter chanting silently to myself 'I WILL cook a whole fish tonight. I WILL cook a whole fish tonight. I WILL cook a whole fish tonight'. When I got there are gazed into all those beady eyes though, I came unstuck. They didn't have the fish I'd decided upon and I couldn't decide what else to choose. I bottled out and found myself blushing while I asked for a 'nice BIT of salmon'. Pathetic.

I returned home with my tail between my legs.

The upshot of this sad, sad story is that I did actually cook a very nice salmon dish. It rather took me by surprise as I don't really like tarragon. I'm not quite sure why I even bought the tarragon. Perhaps I bought it to punish myself for the pathetic performance at the fish counter. In any case, it was good despite the tarragon! I also tried my hand at cooking
samphire for the first time. I love this salty, vibrantly green stuff. It can be hard to find but fishmongers often sell in in July and August, when it is at its best. It doesn't keep too well, so cook it as soon as you can. I steamed mine and slathered it with butter. It is very salty, so I didn't add any and went easy on seasoning the accompanying salmon too.

Here is the simple salmon recipe. Next time I promise to do better and brave it with a more adventurous fish!

Salmon with tarragon butter and samphire
Serves 1


Salmon fillet
Generous knob of butter
Tablespoon of chopped fresh tarragon
White wine

1. Preheat oven to 180C. Lay two sheets of foil or baking parchment out on the counter and place the salmon fillet in the centre.

2. Make the butter. Chop up a the tarragon and mix into the butter. I softened mine in the microwave for ease. Place butter on top of the salmon fillet.

3. Pull the sides of the foil/parchment up around the salmon to make a loose parcel. Before sealing at the top (by folding the foil over), pour in a little white wine. Place the parcel on a baking sheet in the oven and cook for around 20 minutes.

4. Meanwhile, prepare the samphire. Wash and then steam for about three to four minutes. The samphire should still have a nice crunchy bite to it. To serve, add a little butter to it. Samphire likes butter. So do I.

5. Remove the salmon parcel from the oven and serve immediately.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Sticky, aromatic ribs

Whilst in my late teens, I spent eight months living across the pond. I spent time in various parts of the States and also a few months in Canada. Whilst staying with a wealth of extremely hospitible family and friends (...and friends of friends and brothers of friends of friends etc), I was introduced to all sorts of exciting new flavours all of which I lapped up great pleasure. During those months I developed passions for certain foods that will remain with me until I depart this earth. Peanut butter is one such love. I didn't understand peanut butter until I went Stateside. We just didn't really ever have it at home. I figured that it sounded a bit... wrong. These days I can't actually have peanut butter in the house. I love the stuff so much that I can eat it neat from the jar with such relish that I could finish the pot in one sitting. Dangerous.

Key lime pie is another obsession. I also developed a disturbing addiction to 'Ranch' dressing and maple butter. Perhaps my favourite discovery though was the sheer joy to be had in gnawing on rack of deeply sticky ribs.

I don't really know why it was that I'd never had ribs until I went to the States. Ribs are in plentiful supply over here, of course. But we never had them growing up at home. At school they were never on the menu either. I remember well my first rib experience. I had the lot, in all its sticky, gooey glory. Not just the ribs but also the corn, the 'slaw' (...that's coleslaw to those Brits among us) and even some barbecued baked bean type things. The plateful looked daunting and extremely un-ladylike. I was momentarily unsure how to proceed. I gingerly took my knife and cut into the sticky pork. One bite and there was no looking back. I'd hit the jackpot. Down with the knife and fork, the ribs were in my greedy fingers and banished were all thoughts of being ladylike.

Oddly enough, despite my love of ribs, I'd never cooked them myself. I was sure that I would be unable to perfect the sticky glaze and that I'd be left feeling unsatisfied. It had been playing on mind though, of late, having bookmarked some time ago a post by Wendy about
the most perfect sounding plate of ribs. On returning to the post, I realised that I was lacking the key ingredient required to re-create Wendy's dish. I was crushed. I knew that I could get most likely get hickory salt over here (hers came from Peter at Kalfogas, along with the recipe) but I also knew that I couldn't get it in my local shop and that I'd got my heart set on ribs for supper that evening.

In my despair, I turned for comfort to
Nigella. She offered the required words of comfort. The words in question were 'oozy' and 'sticky'. I was sold.

The recipe in all its original glory can be found in '
Feast'. My version has a few adjustments as I was cooking for one and didn't have all the ingredients to hand. The final result was spot on - not only were these suitably sticky but the meat was melt-in-the-mouth and the flavour aromatic and satisfyingly spicy.

As for the number of ribs you want to eat - I leave that to you. The marinade is about right for two people.

Rather good ribs
Serves 2


Baby back ribs (approx 300g per person??)
1 onion
1 star anise
1 small stick cinnamon, broken into shards
1 teaspoon dried red chilli flakes
3 cm piece of fresh ginger, finely sliced
juice and zest 1/2 a lime
2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
1 tbsp groundnut oil (I used vegetable oil)
1 tablespoon molasses
60ml pineapple juice

1. Place the ribs in a large freezer bag and then fill up with marinade ingredients. Chop the onion into eight and throw in along with the star anise, cinnamon, chilli, and ginger. Next mix together the lime, soy sauce, oil, molasses and pineapple juice. Pour into the bag. Tie a knot in the bag and squodge the whole lot together. Pop in the fridge for at least two hours or, ideally, overnight.

2. Pre-heat oven to 200C. At same time, remove ribs from fridge to allow to come to room temperature. Pour entire contents of bag into a roasting tin and place in oven for one hour, turning once halfway through.

3. When nicely browned on each side, you are done. Serve with the obligatory 'slaw'.
Homemade is obviously preferable.