Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Tomato & Fennel Soup

It was getting cold. The sea had leaked through my wholly inadequate aging leather boots and a frustrating hunger was beginning to nibble away at my belly. I was most definitely on the edge of a full-on grump.

The GF was still taking pictures, seemingly keen to fill up the entire 8 googabytes of memory that her camera was capable of.

[photo credit]

‘Can you just get a shot of me taking a picture of this limpet?’ she asked, very sweetly, it must be said. I trudged over and snapped away, well aware that we’d left the car two miles away across decidedly swampy marshland. Lunchtime had been and gone and the kipper I’d eaten for breakfast but a distant memory apart from the occasional fishy burp. Even less pleasant than it sounds.

More photos for her magazine. I poked a few of the tenacious shellfish to pass the time, making a mental note to check HFW’s Fish Book later to see if they were edible (turns out that they are).

‘All done, come on, I’ll take you for something to eat at Badgers Tea House, it’s really good.’

Nod. Ok then. Trudge, trudge, trudge. the kitbag beginning to instil a niggling and deep ache in my shoulders.

The sight of the car was enough to lift the spirits, as was the promise of sandwiches, tea and cakes. But what really blew the fug away was Alfriston itself, a small but perfectly formed village in East Sussex, home to a quirky independent bookshop, numerous eateries and a village store that could have been yanked determinedly out of Edwardian England.

It was disconcertingly close to my own personal Elysium.

By the time we arrived at Badgers it was mid-afternoon and there was no way a sandwich would suffice. Something warm and hearty was required, stat, and the soup of the day seemed like the ideal option, despite the addition of fennel – a flavour I haven’t seen eye-to-eye with since discovering the debilitating effects of Pernod in my early teens.

Two bowls arrived, cauldron like, mine ‘garnished’ with a chunk of bread and a wedge of brie the size of a generous slice of pizza. It was delicious. A slightly jokey, but mostly serious request for the recipe was met with a frustratingly dismissive laugh and the words ‘Ooo, it’ll cost you, it’s top secret I’m afraid.’

The only disappointment of the meal (followed by tea and mince pies) was that this wasn’t mere banter. The recipe really was not forthcoming and there was no hastily scribbled list of ingredients on the back of the (very modest) bill.

But gosh darn it, I think I cracked it and I’ll be a little more open with the knowledge. Here you go. Merry Christmas.

Tomato and Fennel Soup

The fennel here is magical – it offers up none of its medicinal, aniseed qualities, merely backing up and boosting the rest of the flavours to the extent where you’d really notice if it was gone. A bit like a bass guitar. Ideal if, like me, you're not too keen on it of itself.

Makes lots.

Two small carrots, peeled and chooped
Two small onions, diced
A single rib of celery, diced
A fennel bulb, roughly chopped
Three tins of tomatoes
A litre of vegetable stock
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

In the manner of Gordon Ramsay: vegetables, olive oil: fry. Tomatoes. Stock. Simmer. 40 minutes.

Blend. Seasoning. Serve. Tomato and fennel soup with homemade bread and squidgy cheese? Done.

For more soupy secrets, follow me on Twitter

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Sous Vide Christmas Lamb

I've been playing with my immersion circulator again and came up with this festively coloured lamb dish.

The cut is rump and it was vacuum sealed along with some rosemary before being cooked to the magic 64 degrees and then quickly seared in a smoking hot pan.

Served with a sweet tomato passata, pepped up with a little chilli, spiced cous cous and baby leaf spinach it was darn near perfect.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Albums of the Decade

Not just that time of the year but that time of the century. An arbitrary but nonetheless worthy block of time has passed. Cue lists. Top tens, top twentys, top hundreds. The best of the times, the worst of the times.

It may be lazy journalism but it is mind candy of the highest regard. So with that – and slightly off topic – here are the best records of the noughties. According to me. Huzzah!

10. Merriweather Post Pavilion by Animal Collective

The trippy optical illusory cover of Animal Collective’s eighth offering provides perhaps the best visual illustration of what lies beneath. Concentrate on any aspect of the artwork and the rest of the picture swirls and shifts and pulsates agonizingly much like the aural delights within. Trying to describe the sound of AC is like trying to nail jelly to a wall – they transcend traditional genre-boundaries, sampling from the musical soundscape buffet until they have created something completely original. Beats pulsate to a seemingly brand new tempo. Synthesizers swirl sonically through the record like a confused swarm and lyrics are littered indiscernibly over the whole musical meal like wantonly applied seasoning. And yet, perhaps in spite of this approach to music making rather than because of it, it all works.

9. Silent Alarm by Bloc Party

One of many records that can be directly attributed to the influence of The Rapture, Bloc Party’s debut is a drum driven, high-octane, pulsating, breathless album. Disappointing follow-ups merely served to illustrate how good Silent Alarm actually is, as does the fact that it still sounds fresh five years down the line. Okereke’s vocals are as sublimely delivered over cleanly distorted guitars, full frontal bass and tidal drums as they on quieter offerings, the almost balladic ‘Blue Light’ and ‘So Here We Are’.

8. Aha Shake Heartbreak by Kings of Leon

Their aptly titled debut ‘Youth and Young Manhood’ promised greatness and the Kings from the deep south truly delivered with the follow up. Their knowing smiles and upfront euphemism remained along with the tumescent energy but the boys Followill had also matured as songwriters, musicians and as adults without straying too far from what made them great in the first place. Subsequent offerings, whilst being increasingly populist, are still excellent albums but Aha Shake Heartbreak is a zenith that will be difficult to top.

7. Antics by Interpol

‘Turn on the Bright Lights’ may not be optimistic in its outlook but this, it’s younger brother, is richly cynical, darkly melodic, anthemic and altogether wiser than Interpol’s debut. It may be less eulogistic but that doesn’t make it any sunnier. The darkest recesses of late-era punk wash over the album like thick smog but listen beyond the grey and you’ll hear some outstanding song-writing not to mention top-notch tunes.

6. Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

Ever prolific, Cave has released four albums since the turning of the millennium. Whilst not always a sign of quality (and some have been verging on the below average. Nocturama anyone?), two fully deserve all the praise that was lavished upon them. While 2001’s No More Shall We Part may be a ‘nicer’ record, sharing much in common with his masterpiece The Boatman’s Call, the truly epic AB/TLOO perhaps better illustrates the two sides of Cave: the heartbroken introspective depressive and the raging, angry antipodean hell bent on causing a ruckus. The heavy pinch of gospel could easily have bloated the record but tempered against the clever arrangements of the Bad Seeds, it is a perfectly seasoned symphony of Cave at his remarkable best.

5. Want One by Rufus Wainwright

Originally intended as a single album, Wainwright’s ‘Want’ project remains his magnum opus (despite dabbling in opera and recreating Judy Garland concerts) with the first part, ‘Want One’ being the superior work (although ‘Want Two’ certainly has its moments). Here, in almost symphonic style, Rufus finally found his voice as a songwriter, musician and composer. The album ebbs and flows masterfully, rising and falling, the faultless production slightly reigning in the lip gloss and pearls ambitions of its creator and allowing the brilliance of the work to shine without becoming overblown, a trap he fell into with the follow-up ‘Release the Stars’. Of course, there are moments of camp theatrics and orchestral swells (the opener and its sampling of Ravel’s Bolero is probably the most diva-esque moment), and it wouldn’t be a Rufus album without them, but they co-exist with some seriously pared down and haunting productions, perhaps the best being ‘Dinner at Eight’, a sucker punch in song at his oft-absent father. A beautiful, complete work from an artist at the very top of his game.

4. Gold by Ryan Adams

Heartache and longing have proved a rich vein for many a musician but none more so than Ryan Adams who must have been on the receiving end of a weighty rejection given the nature and profligacy of his output during the first half of the decade. By far the most accomplished of Adams’ efforts though is ‘Gold’ from 2001. The secret of its charm is the chameleonic nature of the album– one can almost hear the hourly shifts in its creator’s mood as the record moves from seemingly bright and breezy to quiet contemplation to all out anger and rage at the world. Resolutely and unashamedly American in nature from a time before Americana was trendy, Gold, thanks to it being recorded in the weeks prior to 9/11 could be viewed as the last great record of the 20th century, perhaps only temporally belonging in the 21st but that doesn’t alter the fact that from start to finish it is an exquisite record.

3. Everything All The Time by Band of Horses

Ryan Adams may have been something of a one-man band in 2001 but by the close of the decade, everything folksy and American was hot property be it beardy paeans to heartbreak (Bon Iver) or sultry West coastal harmonies of the like Fleet Foxes do so well. Blazing a trail under this radar though was Seattle based Band of Horses who managed to find their own sound that despite being firmly rooted in the iconography of the States – straw carpeted barns, pick up trucks and plaid. Lots and lots of plaid – spoke of something new. Everything All The Time is the soundtrack of the Platonic road trip, a voyage of discovery on empty roads across flat plains being kissed permanently by the setting sun. It conjours up images of the American Dream as realized by a cynic raised on a diet of road movies and British humour. This is the album that makes everyone who hears it want to pack it all in, grow a beard, read Kerouac and drive. Just drive. Oh, and wear plaid. Lots and lots of plaid.

2. Boxer by The National

Boxer is a great album. It really is as simple as that. Singer Matt Berninger drawls almost in homage to Tom Waits providing rich, deep and resonant vocals that are both immersive and distant. The apparent indifference of delivery belies acutely observational and downright clever lyrics layed over sublime melodies creating songs that are sometimes sneeringly dismissive – ‘you don’t mind seeing yourself in a picture as long as you look far away’ – and other times heartrendingly beautiful. ‘You know I dreamed about you for twenty nine years before I saw you’ runs the refrain in the stand-out track ‘Slow Show’. Boxer is the sound of the decade of decadence, the decade of consumption, the decade of celebrity – and it offers its withering judgment with the sort of delicate intelligence that usually only distance and retrospect can provide.

1. Funeral by Arcade Fire

Is there anything left to be said about the album that defied and defined the noughties? One could harp on about the freshness, the originality, the two fingers held rousingly up to conformity, the complexity, the near multi-sensory experience that Funeral provides not just the first time you hear it but each time there after. Indeed, it is so immersive one can almost taste it, feel it, smell it as well as hear and see it. It is synesthesia made rock and roll and real. It is youthful exuberance and cynicism at once. Both wide eyed and world weary. Finely tuned and wildly out of control. And I guarantee it will still be fucking awesome in fifty years time.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Molecular Gastronomy - New Site and Freebies

At some point in the not too distant future I will be helping the good folks at Cream Supplies, purveyors of the finest molecular gastronomy goodies, to launch a new interactive cooking site.

The focus will be on making molecular gastronomy accessible to us mere mortals.

We will be de-mystifying the processes, equipment, ingredients and techniques used by many of the world’s finest chefs and showing you how to achieve those same results at home.

But before we can get down to the serious business of playing with our food, we need to know what you want to know.

What would you like to learn?

Perhaps you want to know how to make lighter than air foams? Or those neat little caviar pearls for cocktails? Maybe you want to make spaghetti from strawberries, vegetarian panna cotta or little spheres that burst in the mouth.

Whatever your question, we’ve got the answers. Please either email me or leave your question as a comment below.

To sweeten the deal we have five awesome kits to give away to the best questions:

What’s more, one lucky so-and-so will be sent one of these to get you started on the road to molecular greatness:

You’ll be making airs, foams, spheres and edible pearls before you can say ‘Ferran Adria’.


To give you a little flavour of the sort of thing we’ll be getting up to, here is a lavender rice pudding with black olive caramel and a black olive foam.

Infuse 200ml of milk with a few lavender leaves and sweeten by dissolving in two tablespoons of sugar. Toast some risotto rice over a high heat and add a nob of butter and 25ml of sweet vermouth. Pour over the warmed milk, cook for 20 minutes, or until the rice is tender, stirring occasionally.

Rinse and finely chop 50g black olives. Add half the olives to 200ml milk and blend using a stick blender. Heat gently and stir in 1g soya lecithin. Blend again and allow to cool. Pass through a fine meshed sieve and leave until ready to serve.

Heat two tablespoons of caster sugar until it starts to brown. Add the remaining black olives and allow to cook for thirty seconds. Pour onto a silicon or heatproof mat and leave to cool. Break into small pieces.

Use a stick blender to agitate the olive, milk and lecithin mixture until it begins to create a foam.

Spoon the rice pudding into a warm bowl and garnish with a few lavender flowers, the black olive caramel. Spoon the olive foam over the top and serve immediately.

Lecithin is an emulsifier found in eggs and soya beans that allows you to create foams and airs from a huge range of ingredients.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Home-cured Guanciale (or 'Cheeky Pancetta')

In the eyes of the layman (and I include myself in this category), charcuterie looks like pure magic. Admittedly slow, drawn out magic, but trickery nonetheless.

It is a true artisanal craft that, done properly, illustrates beautifully the idea that cooking can be alchemy. With just a few extra ingredients (usually salt, booze and a few herbs) it is possible to transform the mundane into something truly sublime.

There are few simpler pleasures greater than eating a thin slice of cured meat – the fat melting like butter onto the tongue, filling the palate with rich, porcine flavours. A loaf of warm bread, some good oil or butter and a plate of cold cuts can make for a very happy time indeed.

Having tried making cooked charcuterie, in the form of rillettes and pâté, I felt it important to embrace the next logical step: curing.

Preserving meat using salt has a long and noble tradition. Prosciutto, pastrami, baccala, salt beef, herrings – all are made in the same way and use the dehydrating properties of salt to help extend the life of produce.

Bacon seemed like the ideal place to start, given how easy it is supposed to be to turn a slab of belly pork into dry-cured rashers but these plans were shelved after a revelatory moment at west London Sicilian deli, Vallebona.

Guanciale is cured pork jowl. Cheeky pancetta, if you will. Given my history of trying to turn pig’s heads into tasty treats, one taste of this face bacon was all that was needed to convince me it was worth trying to re-create.

Popular in Tuscany and Umbria, it can be used in place of pancetta in a whole raft of dishes or simply thinly sliced and enjoyed with a glass of something cold and alcoholic.

But whereas pancetta tends to be on the expensive side, because guanciale utilises a cut that is often thrown away, it is incredibly cheap, not to mention surprisingly easy to make.

In short, it is everything anyone could possibly desire from an item of charcuterie.

If that has done enough to whet your appetite for dipping an adventurous toe into the dark art of meat curing, here’s how to do it.

First procure yourself one or two pig’s noggins and remove the jowls starting below the chin and, keeping as close to the jawbone as possible, working your way up until just underneath the eye socket.

[If this is too much, you could just order them ready trimmed from your friendly neighbourhood butcher]

This is a dry curing process (as opposed to making a brine) so mix together 200g of fine sea salt and 200g of dark brown sugar and add 10 crushed peppercorns, a couple of crushed cloves, a small handful of very finely chopped rosemary and a pinch of saltpetre.

Rub this mixture into both sides of the cheeks then pour a thin layer of it into a plastic container (make sure it has a lid). Pack the cheeks in and cover with a little more of the cure mix. Pop the lid on the box then put it in the fridge for 24-48 hours.

Commence thumb twiddling.

When you next come back to them, the cheeks should be swimming in a liquid that feels a lot like wet sand. This is water that has leached out of the cheeks (see, they look a bit smaller). Pour this off, repeat the salting process, replace them in the box and leave for another five days.

After a week they should be ready for drying. Remove them from the salt, rub them with a dry cloth and attach some butcher’s string to the thin end. Hang them in a cool place (no warmer than 18 degrees) for three weeks and hope to Buddha that they don’t fall prey to many of the potential pitfalls that could destroy them.

Re-commence thumb-twiddling or alternatively keep your fingers crossed so darn tight it begins to hurt.

Results to follow soon. In the mean time, how about saying 'Hi' on Twitter?

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

The Tastes of Autumn: Squash, Chestnut & Bacon Risotto

When it comes to food, Autumn is the most exciting season. By the time the end of November rolls around, one hankers for rich, big, warming flavours and hearty platefuls to ease the depression of driving home in the dark and fighting through increasingly bad weather.

Large jumpers can hide expanding waistlines and the only way to achieve a healthy glow is by supping an extra glass of wine. It truly is the season for gourmands.

Those earthy flavours so reminiscent of Autumn are a delight to cook with. Their versatility offers infinite combinations, each one guaranteed to be tasty. Pick three of the following and you’re almost certain to achieve deliciousness in perfect harmony:

Pheasant. Bacon. Mushrooms. Pears. Truffles. Pumpkins. Squashes. Rabbit. Potatoes. Pigeon. Chestnuts. Garlic. Thyme. Apples.

In fact, you could probably put all of the above together and create something lip-smackingly good.

I didn’t quite go that far with this risotto but came pretty close.

First step was to roast off a small squash – sliced and cooked until tender in a hot oven, squash develops a rich sweetness that demands to be matched with something salty. In this case bacon, although some melted blue cheese with it would make a good meal on its own.

Once the bacon had been crisped up nicely in a hot pan, the fat rendered out into a tasty sizzling liquid, it was put to one side and a finely chopped red onion softened in a tablespoon of the reserved bacon fat – using the same pan to make the most of the flavours in there (and minimise washing up)

A handful of chestnuts were roasted in the oven until the insides were sweet and the skins had split open. Half were then chopped finely, the others merely split in two to act as a textural contrast.

The risotto was made in the usual way – toast rice, add onions and spoon stock in until rice is tender but still in possession of some integrity. Right at the end, along with the requisite Parmesan and butter, the bacon, roasted squash and chestnuts were stirred in.

The whole thing was topped off with thinly sliced pheasant breast that had been fried off in a little butter, chestnut halves and a little of the reserved bacon. Finally, it was seasoned with a small pinch of ground coffee to add the merest hint of bitterness.

A big, steaming, delicious bowl of Autumn.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Just One More Hit...

Sometimes things don’t always go right in the kitchen.

There is a wonderful book called ‘Don’t Try This At Home’ where fifty highly skilled chefs share their own personal culinary horror stories. It as an affirming read: to know that such artistes as Adria, Batali and Henderson can mess up gives us mere mortals reason not to hang up the sauté pan just yet.

Last week I attempted a rather adventurous process with my ingredient of the year, a pig’s head.

After removing the jowels, they were seasoned with salt, pepper, lemon and rosemary and cooked sous vide for about 8 hours. Once cool, the meat was shredded and fat removed from the skin. The shredded meat was then spiced and packed back into the skin, the whole thing rolled up into a crude sausage.

The inspiration was a Tom Kitchin recipe I saw in Coco – crispy on the outside with a hint of teeth sticking crackling and soft within, exactly the way pork should be.

Except it didn’t quite work. As the sausage hit the hot metal of the pan it split quite enthusiastically, the skin popping and sending the filling flying out onto the hob.

The cats ate well for three days.

And I declared that I’d had my fill of porcine head – that it was fun but I’d proved my point and, what’s more, belly is far, far tastier. ‘I can’t be arsed to cook one of these again,’ I uttered as I tipped the last of the snout into the rubbish and waved it goodbye, a piggy little eye looking up at me from the depths of the bin.

Like a true junkie, 48 hours was all it took to renege on my promise.

Brawns and braises and crispy fried ears are all well and good (and sometimes not so good) but it was a tiny transparent slice of charcuterie that convinced me it was worth obtaining just one more head from my butcher.

Guanciale is the perfect halfway point between pancetta – made from belly pork – and lardo, the cured back fat of a particularly chubby variety of pig. It is the cured jowl cut, the name coming from the Italian word guancia, meaning cheek. And it is delicious.

Some say the reason behind the popularity of chocolate is that it melts at body temperature – pop a piece in your mouth and you can feel it gently spreading across the palate as it transforms slowly into a liquid.

For me, charcuterie has the same effect. The fat in top quality cured meats should be near translucent at room temperature and should slowly dissipate once in the mouth leaving just a tiny morsel of intensely flavoured meat to chew on.

Guanciale did just that. It fluttered around the mouth like a delicate angel’s wing but then settled into tasty, porky goodness of the sort I’ve only tasted with the finest and ethereally thin slices of prosciutto.

What’s more, it convinced me that now is the perfect time to attempt some proper meat preservation. It should be ready by Christmas…

Friday, 13 November 2009

Eccles Cakes

A while ago I wrote a brief manifesto centred on making the world a better place through the introduction of mandatory elevenses.

Should I ever be appointed ‘Food Tsar’ in order to help see the successful passage of this essential legislation, the Eccles Cake would almost certainly be the official flagship treat.

The finest example of this Lancastrian delicacy can be found not in their hometown of Eccles but at Restaurant St. John close to the City of London. Tightly packed with spiced currants and served warm, with a cup of tea on the side, I can think of no better way to ward off winter ills than taking 15 minutes out of your day to have your cake and eat it.

These are loosely based on the St. John recipe and should make six decent sized cakes.

Be sure to slightly overfill each one and pack it in tightly to full appreciate the glory of these delightful wonders.

NB - If you want to make a smaller or larger quantity just use the ratio one part butter to two parts sugar to four parts currants.

Half a block of ready-made puff pastry (oh, how convenient)
250g currants
60g unsalted butter
120g golden caster sugar
One egg white
Extra caster sugar, for dusting.

Heat the sugar until it starts to melt and colour slightly then remove from the heat and add the butter. Allow to melt then add the currants. Stir well so each is coated with some of the caramel. Flavour with allspice and nutmeg – keep tasting it until it is slightly Christmassy and comfortingly warming – then leave to cool.

Roll out the pastry to about half a centimetre’s thickness then using a 9cm cutter press out as many discs as you can. Re-roll the leftover pastry and repeat until you have 12-14 discs. Top each with a spoonful of the filling and sandwich them together, making sure to press the sides together tightly.

(You can make the circles larger and fold the pastry together underneath. Either way works fine)

Turn them over and neaten them up with your palms. Flatten the top and cut three times with a sharp knife (supposedly to symbolise the holy trinity). Brush with egg white and dip into caster sugar. Bake for 20-25 minutes until they are an inviting colour and the filling is oozing out of the top.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

'Easy As' Pie

There is something slightly decadent about a pie that belies their inherent simplicity.

Well, most pies.

I’ve had many a miserable midweek football match warmed by a steaming meat and potato number at halftime and to call these a luxury would be akin to describing X Factor as a singing competition.

But pastry can work wonders. It can turn a stew from sustenance into a centrepiece or even make the most cackhanded of bakers look like a master practitioner: Crème patissiere plus puff pastry equals ‘millefeuille’ – a dessert so impressive that it is near impossible to pronounce, let alone eat.

As a result I’ve taken to keeping a slab of ready made pastry in the freezer for those occasions when potatoes, rice or pasta just won’t cut it and my Northern roots are whispering that sweetest of words down my lughole: pie. Pie. Pie.

This little creation is light enough not to raise the blood pressure but also satisfying, cheap and downright delicious.

Cheese, onion and ham pie

Serves four, or two with enough left over for an enviable lunch the following day.

Half a slab of ready-made puff pastry (save the other half for Eccles cakes – coming soon)
6-8 white onions, depending on their size
3-4 slices cured ham (prosciutto, Serrano – anything of that ilk)
two or three handfuls of young leaf spinach
Any cheese that melts and as much of it as you like
An egg, beaten

Chop/slice/dice the onions any which way you wish but be sure to leave them in fairly big pieces. Cook them slowly in olive oil until they begin to brown. This should take 20-30 minutes, don’t rush it or they will go from crunchy to burnt in a matter of minutes without passing through that delicious sweet stage. Stir them occasionally.

Whilst the onions are cooking, cut the pastry into two squares (so two quarters of the original block) and roll them out to two equal sized rectangles – about 8 x 12 inches. Put one on a suitably sized baking sheet and layer on the ham, making sure to leave a border of about a finger’s width round the outside. Top with a few dollops of pesto.

Once the onions are cooked, stir in the spinach to wilt it down and spoon the whole lot over the ham. Grate or slice the cheese and sprinkle over the onions. Brush the border with beaten egg, lay the second pastry sheet over the top and press it into place round the edges. Brush the top with more egg and cook for 25-30 minutes. Eat as soon as it comes out of the oven. Mouth burns are inevitable.

For more pastry bites, follow me on Twitter

Monday, 9 November 2009

The Ultimate Comfort Food: Gnocchi

If it’s comfort food you are after, there are few better options than gnocchi.

These little pillows of deliciousness deliver satisfaction in ways that a mound of pasta could only dream of. They have a dense chewiness and a slightly sticky texture that holds onto whatever sauce they are coated in making each one a ferocious nugget of flavour.

They almost invite you into the bowl like tiny carbohydrate Sirens, their sweet song beckoning you further and further to the bottom of the pile until you inevitably collapse in a misty fug as the last one makes its way down your throat.

Cue belly rubbing, sighs of satisfaction and the inability to move as 90% of your body’s blood rushes to your stomach as it begins fighting its way through the wheat/potato onslaught that has just descended.

The only option is to sit very still, sip the final inch of red wine that was sitting innocently in the bottle – a chianti would suit nicely – and fall into a merry doze on the sofa as mindless brain candy plays its way across your television screen. Happiness descends. Winter isn’t that bad after all.

Potato Gnocchi with tomato, chilli and oregano

Like bread baking, the secret to successful gnocchi is instinctive. Play around with the dough and I guarantee you will just ‘know’ when it’s ready. Not too sticky, not too dense and easy to roll. Make the sauce whilst the gnocchi are resting in the fridge.

Precise measurements rarely work for this type of cooking, it’s better to think in terms of ratios and various flours and potatoes behave very differently. As such there is no recipe here, merely a rough method.

Bake a large potato for an hour or so until the insides are light, steaming and fluffier than Paris Hilton’s bedspread. Scoop out the innards and let it cool in a bowl.

Weigh out how much potato you have and add 20% by weight of plain flour (example, for the dunces, if you have 200g potato, use 40g plain flour). Keep some aside for dusting and rolling.

Add an egg (roughly one egg per two potatoes)) and some salt. Mix well with your hands and knead into a pliable dough. If it’s too sticky just work more flour into it but go easy.

For rolling out the gnocchi, I find the easiest way is to divide the dough in two and roll until it becomes unmanageably long. Divide again and continue rolling, repeating the process until your dough sausage is about as thick as a plumber’s forefinger. Split into half inch sized pieces and place on a floured tray. Cover with a damp towel and refrigerate.

For the sauce, heat a generous sluice of olive oil in a frying pan, add a clove of garlic, gently biffed with the side of a knife (leave it whole so you can fish it out later) and a finely chopped chilli, heat dependent on your preference. Allow the two to flavour the oil then pour in some passata. Season with salt, pepper and oregano and allow to bubble away for 15 minutes.

Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and drop in the gnocchi. Rather helpfully they will rise to the surface when cooked so you can easily fish them out with a slotted spoon straight into the waiting sauce. Stir, serve, eat and sleep.

Oh, and keep those potato skins…(recipe to follow).