Friday, 27 February 2009

Friday Nibbles - Lemons

For the first time in months it was possible to go outside in short sleeves without breathing in and holding your arms close to your chest this afternoon. The sun was out and there was a faint, but noticeable, whiff of spring in the air.

Perhaps it is something to do with the weather or the crocuses and evocative daffodils that are bursting through the earth that was frozen just two short weeks ago, but when I saw these lemons in the fridge, I felt that they needed to be celebrated.

Along with limes, oranges and grapefruits, lemons belong to the genus Citrus. They grow in temperate climes throughout the world and are characterised by their sharp flavour, one of the reasons they’ve become so useful to chefs from many culinary backgrounds.

Little is known of the exact etymology of the lemon but it is likely that it was first domesticated on the Indian sub-continent. It was probably introduced to Europe through Italy, from the Middle East. Arabic influence during the 11th and 12th centuries CE further spread the use of the lemon throughout the Mediterranean and by the 15th century it was being widely cultivated in Italy and southern Europe.

Once the Americas were being colonised, the warm climates of the South East and the western seaboard were found to be ideal for the cultivation of citrus fruits – something that continues to this day.

The lemon forms a central part in much Middle Eastern and North African cooking – preserved and pickled lemons are used throughout the region to add flavour and acidity to a wide range of dishes.

Lemon has long been served with fish – the acid helps to bring out the flavours and cut through the richness of some fish, like salmon. They can also be excellent squeezed over grilled meats: Greek lamb kebabs can really be pepped up with a hint of lemon juice.

The classic Italian recipe, steak Florentine also calls for lemon juice. Simply rub your steaks with a little garlic, season with salt and pepper and fry them in a little olive oil and butter over a high heat until they are done to your taste (screaming rare, please).

Remove them to a warm plate, squeeze over the juice of half a lemon and let them rest for five minutes. Slice and serve with salad and boiled potatoes drizzled with the resting juices from the meat.

They may be a great culinary ingredient but, much like last week, it is in the drinks region when lemons really shine.

A gin & tonic would be unthinkable without a generous wedge of lemon floating amidst the ice cubes and many a cocktail would look naked without a round disc of lemon adoring the glass like a tiny sun.

My absolute favourite us of lemon, however, is in a whisky sour.

This is a cocktail that tastes great as an aperitif and just as good, if not better, at ‘round midnight. You can make this as sweet or as sour as you like. Personally, I like it best when it’s sharper than a samurai’s sword and makes you purse your lips until they disappear.

Shake two parts whisky (the cheap stuff is fine. Don’t go using the finest single malt here) with an equal amount of freshly squeezed lemon juice and one part sugar syrup. Don’t forget the ice. Strain into a short glass (ice optional here but not recommended) and garnish with a maraschino cherry. This is what Elysium tastes like.

Just some quick pointers to remember when you’re buying lemons – don’t get them waxed, or else you won’t be able to use the zest. They shouldn’t be shiny, round and perfect. They should be large, uneven and nobbly. You want a lemon that’s seen some action and some sun. Finally, before squeezing, ten seconds in the microwave should help you extract as much juice as possible.

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Thursday, 26 February 2009

Homemade Pork Scratchings - Part Two

It seems to have taken ages to get round to this, but thank you for your patience. You’ve been very kind. Ready to roll? Good.

Hopefully you managed to get hold of some pork skin and went through the laborious procedure of putting it on a tray, grinding some salt over it and popping it all in the fridge. It should take all of two minutes.

If not, here is a quick recap (homemade pork scratchings part one).

Unlike most methods, this one needs no deep fat fryer - just an oven.

Turn it on to about 180 degrees C. Remove the tray from the fridge and dry the pork skin. The salt will have helped some of the water leach out – this will give you supremely crackly pork snacks.

Grind a little more salt over both sides of the skin and put it all in the oven. Then wait.

This is cooking so easy that it should come with a pair of slippers, a velvet robe and large armchair for relaxing in.

After ten minutes or so turn the oven down to about 140. You are doing two things here: One, rendering out the fat and two, drying out the pork skin nice and slowly to get that beautiful flavour and texture.

Roughly every twenty minutes, you’ll need to drain off the fat (of which there will be much. Keep it. Seriously. Pig fat has a multitude of uses, all of them tasty. You could make rillettes?). Take this opportunity to turn them as well.

They should take about ninety minutes in total. This is quite an instinctive recipe – you just know when they are ready. The colour will be deep and rich, they will have curled up into neat little shapes and the skin will be starting to bubble.

Leave them to cool. Season with black pepper (and more salt, if you wish) and then eat them with many bottles of cold beer. Depending on their size, two or three should be enough for each person.


This is one of those snacks that you take one bite of and say ‘I could eat those until they come out of my finger nails’ but by the third mouthful you are ready to throw in the towel and have a nap.

The perfect pork scratching has a reverse side so crispy that you fear for your teeth and an inside with a little fat and meat left on so you get a textural contrast of such deliciousness that you are almost guaranteed to make that noise. Go on, be shameless. You know you want to.

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Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Quick updates and brand new feature

I'm spending the day with a butcher today so not much time to write about anything.

But, plenty to come in the next few days:

1. Part Two of the pork scratchings recipe to come tomorrow, I promise (there's still time if you want to play along)

2. Thoughts and reflections on food writing - what do you think makes a good food writer? What do you hope for when you pick up a book about food? What makes a bad food writer?

3. Last Suppers - What would your last supper be? What would you eat? Who would cook it for you? Who would you share it with? For some inspiration, click here (Charlie Rose interview with four top chefs)

4. And a brand new feature that is provisionally titled 'Nose To Tail Tuesday' (I can just hear my girlfriend sighing at this point - we haven't discussed this yet). Official launch will be next Tuesday but I'll happily entertain ideas from you good people.

The premise? The 'Nose To Tail' philosophy is both economically and ethically preferable but many people are squeamish about the parts of the animal 'beyond the fillet.' Each week will see me cooking and eating a specific part of an animal. Then reporting back. Wish me luck.

Suggestions welcome. Essential in fact. Click here to get in touch.

In the mean time find me on Twitter, Flickr or Facebook.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Nature's Pleasure

There is a scene in the first season of Mad Men where Don Draper (my new third favourite TV character. The top two being Omar Little from The Wire and Josh Lyman from The West Wing) is talking to his client, Lucky Strike.

Stymied by medical research into the detrimental effects of cigarette smoking - the show is set in 1960 – new rules from the FDA mean that they can no longer advertise Lucky Strike with health claims.

Draper, after asking his client how the company make their cigarettes, comes up with the slogan ‘It’s Toasted.’

I was reminded of this when I was sent a rather large package containing four sample boxes of Kellogg’s new muesli, Nature’s Pleasure.

Muesli is one of those things that I tend to make myself. It’s great being able to leave out what you don’t like and focus more heavily on the bits you do. Out go the nuts, in come the chopped dates, that sort of thing.

So I was intrigued when I opened the box to find that Kellogg’s new muesli isn’t really a muesli at all – instead, it’s baked which gives it the satisfying bite of a granola rather than the mushy squelch of a Bircher.

According to the box, oats, wheat and barley flakes are coated in raw cane sugar and honey with a little sunflower oil and then baked before being paired with a (quite generous) amount of dried fruit and nuts.

The result is a faintly sweet and completely delicious muesli that goes very well with Greek yoghurt as well as the more usual milk. It retains its crunch and was as good at breakfast as it was at two o’clock in the morning when post pub hunger struck.

Nutritionally, too, it’s pretty good. 9% RDA of calories, 10% RDA of sugars, 3% RDA sat fats, almost no salt. Although you do have to watch the suggested portion size – 45g would fail to satisfy a hungry hamster and I found myself doubling the amount in my bowl.

Perhaps the best thing about it? The box even tells you how to make your own. ‘It’s like open source cereal,’ quipped my girlfriend, something I will definitely be trying once we’ve finished off the final box (the other three disappeared in a matter of days).

It comes in four flavours (Almond Pecan & Cashew, Apple & Blackcurrant, Raspberry & Cherry, and Almond, Pecan & Raisin), costs round about £2.49 for 500g and will be available to buy from April in most supermarkets.

And from now on, muesli…it’s toasted.

For more info go to or Kellogg’s web site.

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Monday, 23 February 2009

Cheese on Toast

Last Friday’s ‘Nibble’ contained a brief but apparently un-ignorable reference to cheese on toast.

As such, for the past 48 hours there has been a craving working away at my psyche and only this morning did I realise what it was.

Cheese on toast is another dish of implicit simplicity that manages to delight, satisfy and comfort in equal measure. The crunch of toasted white bread is the perfect foil to the soft, gooey warmth of melted cheddar cheese.

This is fast food as I see it – food that needs little thought or effort but can make you blissfully happy within a matter of minutes. It is the culinary equivalent of a big bear hug from a close friend.

(click photo to enjoy life size)

Do you really need a recipe for this? Surely not. Toast bread. Spread thinly with butter. Add an obscenely thick layer of cheddar cheese. Sprinkle with black pepper and a few dashes of Worcestershire Sauce. Grill until the cheese is bubbling and just starting to blister into delicious brown patches.

Eat. Smile. Repeat until full.

Goes very well with a mug of tea and many episodes of Family Guy.

Part two of the pork scratching recipe is due in the next couple of days, so stay tuned.

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Friday, 20 February 2009

Friday Nibbles - Worcestershire Sauce

Aside from the very first ‘Nibble’ which was about Lingham’s Chilli Sauce, this feature has been about ingredients rather than brands.

It’s better that way.

But there are some important store-cupboard items that don’t fit so neatly into this bracket and I think it’s time to address some of these.

They will appear on merit only. Any sponsorship or advertising will be clearly marked as such, if it ever appears. These are items I use, things that I feel are worthy of a place in the culinary Hall of Fame that Friday Nibbles has become.

And what better place to start than with Lea & Perrins’ Worcestershire Sauce.

The origins of the sauce are clouded in a little mystery with some competing stories as to how it came into existence.

Like many fine culinary inventions (tarte tatin, for example), Worcestershire Sauce was discovered by accident by two chemists in the late 1830s.

Legend has it that they had been commissioned by a local nobleman to recreate a condiment that he had enjoyed whilst Governor of Bengal. What is certain is that the original recipe was found to be quite disgusting and as such the entire batch was banished to the deepest recesses of Messrs Lea and Perrins’ cellar. Where it remained, forgotten, for three years.

Only during a clear-out was the barrel re-discovered. It was found that the contents had fermented and transformed the sauce into something quite delicious.

Even today, a three-year fermentation is included in the manufacturing process.

Although the recipe remains a secret, the ingredients include molasses, sugar, salt, anchovies, tamarind, onions, garlic, spices and flavouring. All these are fermented in malt vinegar which gives the sauce its sharp flavour.

Unless you’ve tasted it, it is near impossible to describe the flavour of Worcestershire Sauce, not that you would want to consume it neat.

But as an addition, it really comes into its own. A few shakes into a spicy chilli or rich beef ragu can really enliven proceedings. It also works wonders with cheese or baked beans on toast.

But by far my favourite use of this wonder-condiment is not in a meal, but a drink. Worcestershire Sauce is an essential addition to that fabled hangover cure, a Bloody Mary.

Bloody Marys taste best on a Sunday morning, at about eleven am. Kind of Blue should be playing in the background and the previous evening’s excesses should be a happy memory, fading away with gradual ease. The newspaper should be ready and waiting, as yet untouched.

And then comes the opening of the cocktail cabinet, the gentle and welcome clinking of ice cubes into glasses and the glorious sight of a ‘hair of the dog’ honing into view, a crisp, refreshing stick of celery the only decoration.

Bloody Mary
Making a Bloody Mary is a uniquely personal experience. Some prefer to go easy on the alcohol, concentrating instead of the restorative powers of Tabasco sauce. Others like a strong mix to dull the acute edges of a hangover, allowing the vodka to gently ease its way back into the bloodstream and works its happy magic.

Below is the way I like mine. I am quite particular and this drink is as much about the ritual as the taste and effect. I love the different stages that it passes through before it is ready – astringent, sour, cold, sweet, spicy, seasoned, perfect.

Acquire and arrange your ingredients. The specific brands are important:

A tall highball glass.
Absolut, or other premium vodka (at least a double measure of 50ml)
A ¼ of a lemon
Tomato juice
Tabasco sauce
Lea & Perrins’ Worcestershire Sauce
Salt and pepper
A stick of fresh, crisp celery, about ¾ the height of the glass, sliced lengthways to about half way up.

Pour the vodka into the highball glass. Squeeze the juice from the lemon into the vodka. Drop the wedge into the glass. Fill the glass with large ice cubes. Pour over the tomato juice until the glass is almost full. Take the Worcestershire sauce in one hand and the Tabasco in the other and give two shakes into the glass.

Add a pinch of salt. Stir well. Finally add a few turns from a pepper mill, stir again. Top with a final turn of the pepper mill, garnish with the celery and commence drinking. Realise just what excellent company Miles Davies is on a Sunday morning and vow to do this more often.

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A Brief Interlude

Late last night we discovered that one of the kittens had very kindly peed on our bed. Thanks for that.

A swift Google search confirmed that distilled vinegar is the key to removing the eye-watering pong of cat piss, so early this morning I pootled off to the supermarket to pick some up.

Whilst there I thought I'd take the opportunity to buy some booze to have with tonight’s curry. A bottle of cider, sir? Don’t mind if I do.

Never have I been given such a look as when, at nine thirty this morning, I placed a litre of distilled vinegar and three litres of scrumpy on the conveyor.

Could I have made this worse? Naturally.

Instead of saying ‘Good morning, kind lady, what clement weather we are having for this time of year,’ I came out with ‘Yeah, this might look a bit weird at half nine but apparently this stuff is really good for getting rid of the smell of cat wee.’

She tried to smile, she really did, but there was little she could do to hide the look of part pity, part disdain on her face.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Homemade Pork Scratchings - Part One

Warning: The following post is not suitable for the health conscious, or those with a pre-existing heart condition.

Let’s establish some basic facts here: pork scratchings are not a health food. They are a calorie laden, artery furring, belt loosening, hypertension-inducing snack.

You know that rumour about celery being of negative calorific value? Well, these are the opposite. They are like some weird black hole, somehow managing to pack in more calories than you ever thought possible in something so small.

But holy Moses, are they tasty. They are ‘get down on your knees and pray to the God of Pork’ tasty. They are ‘Leap around the room doing the happy dance’ tasty. They are ‘get me another bowlful of those right now before I throttle you’ tasty. They are…oh, you get the idea.

And we’re going to make some. You and me. And the best part is, it is really, really easy.

Step one, are you ready for this? Step one is to procure yourself some pork skin. Your butcher will happily dish this stuff out to you for nothing. Ask nicely, smile sweetly and flutter your pretty eyes at him.

Even if you are a dude. It works. Honest.

Step two is to cut it into manageable sized pieces. Anything smaller than three inches square is fine, but don’t go too small.

Step three is to lay them on a tray and salt them. Be generous with this. Bear in mind you are making pork scratchings. Alfalfa sprouts, this ain’t. You’re already packing a hefty whack of your daily calorific allowance, a little less salt isn’t suddenly going to turn them into a mung bean and goji berry salad.

Step four is to put the tray in the fridge and, in the words of Al Pacino, ‘fugged-aboutit.’ Fugged-aboutit for about 48-72 hours.

And that's it. This is easy cooking.

OK, if I’ve scared you a little then I’m sorry. Let me try and redeem myself a little. Perhaps this isn’t something for the health freaks amongst you but this isn’t everyday food. This is a rare treat to enjoy with a few bottles of beer.

Plus, most of the fat will render out during the cooking process. PLUS this is natural fat – this isn’t something dreamt up in a lab. It’s better for you than that microwave meal you ate last week/last night/eight seconds ago.

We’ll come back to this, promise.

UPDATE - 20th February. It appears there has been some confusion. This isn't the entire recipe. This, as the title suggests, is only part one. There is more, like the cooking stage, to come. Patience is a virtue.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

A Softly Boiled Egg

‘Probably one of the most private things in the world is an egg until it is broken,’ so said the great culinary philosopher M.F.K. Fisher.

And she was right.

Boiling an egg is one of the most clandestine operations it is possible to undertake in the kitchen. Normal rules and regulations make a hasty retreat and you are left with only luck and judgement for company. And what fickle mistresses they are.

It used to be said of people who were hopelessly inept in the kitchen that they ‘couldn’t even boil an egg.’ A badly worded bon mot if there ever was one.

Few dishes can give the eater such anticipation and disappointment in the merest quiver of time. The expectation that rises up when faced with a smooth shell, too hot to touch and just waiting to be bashed in with the back of the spoon.

Will it be cooked enough? Will it be runny enough to dip in a buttered soldier of bread and see the yolk dribble down the shell? Or will it be a searing disappointment, bullet hard and impossible to smear over toast?

But when it goes right, when all the factors come together, it creates a food moment of such profound perfection that you can’t help but smile.

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Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Honest Food Campaign

Like it or not, food is a political issue: Agri-business, food aid, farming subsidies, set-aside, fishing quotas, food miles, food labelling - the list is near endless.

There are a number of campaigners who work tirelessly for a great many causes: HFW and his Chicken Out Campaign, Jamie saving farmers’ bacon, Anthony Worrall Thompson and, well anything the mercenary squashed Bee Gee will get a pay-cheque for.

And now the Tories.

I received an email from none other than David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, this morning (can only assume I am on some sort of mailing list, he didn't email me personally - I'm not that powerful. Yet).

Yesterday they launched their Honest Food Campaign in order to raise awareness about the misleading and quite shoddy state of food labelling in this country.

In order to illustrate their point, they use the example of a 'British' pork pie made with meat from Dutch pigs. They even have a little viral video to go with it, see? Look, just here:

Whilst I applaud the sentiment, I can't help but think it smacks slightly of bandwagon jumping. This has been an issue for a number of years and countless chefs and food writers have been harping on about it for longer than I can remember. For Ramsay's sake: CATCH UP.

Also, there are some staggeringly good viral campaigns out there. I've been left open-mouthed in awe or laughing until I cry by some of the more successful ones.

This, on the other hand, is possibly the most cack-handed one I've seen for a long time. It appears to have been designed, written, directed and animated by a team of pygmy chimpanzees with special needs. The Internet is a wonderful tool but in the wrong hands it can go horribly wrong.

So, yes, good idea, poor execution and, sadly, another example of politics playing catch-up rather than leading the charge, which is really what government should be about.

Still, nice to know that even as the country's economy continues to melt quicker than an ice cream sundae next to a glassblower's lips, our political elite are thinking about pies. My confidence is restored.

Tweet me. Go on, you know you want to.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Friday Nibbles - Sausages

Damned tasty, infinitely versatile, globally and culturally diverse, not to mention inherently comedic (used to full effect by Ben Elton and Richard Curtis in Blackadder, see below) – you just have to love the sausage.

[Whizz forward to the five-minute mark if you’re short on time. Sausage? SAUSAGE?! Genius]

As a species we have probably been making sausages for as long as we’ve been roasting meat over the flames. Once appetites had been sated with charred primary cuts, it was found that meat could be preserved in a variety of ways: Drying, smoking, curing or grinding up and packing into lengths of intestine.

As such, sausages are believed to be some of the oldest prepared foods in existence.

Techniques may have improved in the intervening millennia but the principle remains the same: sausages are about economising and preserving – and finding a tasty way of doing it, to boot.

There are so many varieties and variations that it would be foolhardy to attempt to discuss them all within the meagre confines of a Friday Nibble. Perhaps a book is in order? Hmmmm. Alternatively, for a slightly shorter take on the subject, see this list of the top ten sausages, according to

Think about the difference between a dark, fragrantly spiced black pudding and the smoky notes of a frankfurter, or the paprika hit of a morsel of fried chorizo compared to the delicate flavour of a Bavarian Weisswurst and you start to get the idea.

In Britain, sausages are virtually a national dish. During the war the meagre amounts of meat were padded out with rusk and water, which then boiled inside the casing before the steam burst through in a mini-explosion. This led to them being christened ‘bangers’ – a moniker that has stuck.

The somewhat ambiguous ingredients list present on many sausages has given them some bad press recently with unscrupulous manufacturers bending the rules as far as possible in order to make a cheap product. But there are some seriously gourmet sausages out there and is well worth spending a few extra pence to enjoy the very best.

Sometimes they are best fried or grilled and sandwiched between two slices of bread or wedged into a steaming pile of buttery mash, topped with sticky onion gravy. But to assume that is all they are good for is to do them a great disservice.

For many culinary cultures, a variation on the classic sausage and beans is a virtual staple. It is cheap, it is tasty, it is nutritious, it makes the most of the local produce and is incredibly easy to cook. I particularly like the Umbrian version made with boar sausages and dark Italian lentils.

But my favourite take on this dish has to be cassoulet, a meal I spend a great deal of time talking about, writing about, cooking and eating.

This dish from southern France, like many versions of the combination, is hearty and cheap, what many might refer to as ‘peasant food’. Far from being a derisory and patronising term, for me ‘peasant food’ conjures up images of tasty meals that offer the best possible flavour of an area. Peasant food is something to be embraced and enjoyed.

I’ve made many different versions of cassoulet, every one of them different but each enjoyable in their own right. This one, whilst it may lack the confit duck and pork belly, is simple, rustic and cheap. Slow food at its finest.

Six good quality pork sausages, Toulouse if you can get them
500g of dried haricot beans
Four large onions, two finely chopped
Two bay leaves
Two cloves of garlic
50g of goose or chicken fat
Two tins of plum tomatoes, drained and the tomatoes blitzed in a food processor
500ml of pork stock
A large, heavy bottomed casserole
Salt and pepper

Soak the beans overnight. Drain them, tip them into a large pan and cover with cold water. Add two of the onions, peeled and quartered through the stem so they stay together. Tuck the bay leaves into the mass of beans (a great tip for getting flavour into all orts of pulses)and then simmer for about an hour until cooked. Don’t add any salt until the beans are almost done – about fifteen minutes to go – or they will toughen up. Drain the beans and discard the onions and bay leaves. They've done their work.

Spoon half the goose or chicken fat into the casserole and put on a high heat. Brown the sasuages on all sides, but don’t cook them, then place on a waiting plate. Turn down the heat and gently fry off the onion in the remaining fat. When the onion is cooked add the garlic, return the sausages to the pan and add the tomatoes. Season generously with salt and pepper.

Tip in almost all the beans and mix them in. Save a few handfuls for the top. Layer these on the top of the sausage and bean mix (see photo above) and put into a warm oven (about 150) for an hour.

After an hour the top layer should be crunchy. Stir this into the mix and poke seven or eight holes in the top of the cassoulet all the way to the bottom of the pan. The wrong end of a wooden spoon is ideal for this. Pour the stock into the holes and over the top of the dish. Return to the oven for a further hour.

Let it cool for ten minutes, serve with a ballsy red wine and eat far too much. Delicious.

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Thursday, 12 February 2009

Laverstoke Park Farm Buffalo Mozzarella

I really didn’t think it was possible to get excited about mozzarella.

An ashed chevre, a gooey vacherin or a wedge of pungent stilton. These are cheeses to get excited about, cheeses with soul, cheeses that will happily slap you round the cheeks, badmouth your siblings and shout obscenities on the way down.

But mozzarella? It has always been something to melt onto a margarita or serve up with a few slices of tomato and some hastily torn basil leaves to create a half-arsed salad. It’s a cheese that might make you a cup of sweet tea whilst showing you a slideshow of their recent trip to the Cotswolds.

Those stringy balls of non-descript, lacklustre cheese suspended, implant like, in saline solution gradually hardening into inedibility? Not worthy of praise. They are barely worthy of pizza.

It might melt into gratifyingly long strings that somehow manage to break just before you run out of arm. And, granted, it can carry other flavours and act as a vehicle for herbs, olive oil or black pepper. But I would never have considered that it could stand on its own and just be, well, a cheese.

Until yesterday.

The luxurious life of a freelance food writer

As I mentioned, I was invited to the official launch of Laverstoke Park Farm’s latest product: a truly British mozzarella made from the milk of free-range water buffalo that graze happily on the Hampshire grasslands of Jody Scheckter’s organic and bio-dynamic farm.

Photo courtesy of Cristian Barnett

Apparently, the secret to good mozzarella is freshness. By the time we pluck it from its salty bath it will be at least a week old. And that’s assuming we have access to a good quality deli. God only knows how long those cosmetic surgery bags that supermarkets manage to pass off as mozzarella have been sat there.

But the fresh stuff is something else. It needs no adornments, no additions, no added extras like oil or pepper. It really is good enough to bite right into to enjoy the unique burst of freshness.

Photo courtesy of Cristian Barnett

The flavour is both gentle and rich, subtle and acidic, soft yet cheeky, without being intrusive and manages to coat and cleanse the palate concurrently.

This cheese wouldn’t make you a cup of sweet tea: it would mix a perfect martini then invite you up for coffee.

In short, it is just really, really good and sure to cause a few ripples in a nation that has grown used to the insipid balls of plasticy pap that float around like the eggs of some bizarre sea creature dreamt up by Jules Verne on a bad day.

Fancy trying it yourself? Just go to the Laverstoke Park Online Farm Shop where you can order it to be delivered straight to your door. And treat yourself to some buffalo steaks while you’re at it – they are as good as, if not better than, the best beef I’ve ever tasted.

Sometimes it pays to be a food blogger.

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Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Coming to a screen near you...

Although not normally known for brevity, just a little one for you today. Call it a nibblet (is that I sigh of relief I heard from somewhere in the back there?).

But there is plenty to come over the next few days, so fear not.

Yesterday was day one of ‘Mission Top Secret’ which I can’t talk about but might (or might not…) involve a cookbook that I might (or might not…) be writing with two rather fantastic chefs. More to follow.

I’m off to London in about an hour to sample some genuine British buffalo mozzarella made by former F1 world champion Jody Sheckter who has since swapped his Ferrari for a tractor and turned to organic and bio-diverse farming. Very exciting indeed. I shall report back.

In the mean time how about some homework? A while back I was given this book, My Last Supper by Melanie Dunea in which she photographs and interviews fifty of the world’s top chefs about what they would choose for their, you guessed it, last supper.

In preparation for a similarly themed post, what would you chose for your last meal on earth? Who would cook it for you? And who would you like to accompany you whilst you munch through the final morsels? I'd love to know what you'd pick so get in touch to help make this a fun and truly global feature.

Need some inspiration? You can watch Charlie Rose interview Melanie along with Eric Ripert, Wylie Dufresne, Tom Aikens and Marcus Samuelsson about their last suppers here, or just here:

Also, I know there was no Friday Nibble last week, I got a little sidetracked. This week’s will more than make up for it and will even include a killer recipe for cassoulet (that should offer some clue as to the featured item).

A bientot!

Monday, 9 February 2009

Elevenses and Solving the Credit Crunch with Cake

Much like knowledge, a little nostalgia is a dangerous thing.

Get too wrapped in thinking that life was better ‘back in the day’ and you start to forget that everything wasn’t chocolate boxes and roses. No matter what the right-wing press will have you believe, life is better now than it ever has been.

However, take off the rose-tinted glasses for a moment and there are still some aspects of bygone times that are just as appealing: train travel, picnics, cricket matches, slow food as the norm rather than a concept. And elevenses.

Elevenses is a notion that, along with Gentlemen’s Clubs, steam engines and cholera seems to belong to the past, to an age seen only in history books or episodes of Jeeves and Wooster (or Zimbabwe).

Elevenses don’t belong in an era of conference calls, celebrity perfumes and instant messaging.

But they should.

In fact, I have an idea: it should be mandatory for employers to provide coffee, tea and cakes and a fifteen-minute break at some point between 10:45 and 11:30. Actually, sod it, make it twenty minutes.

Hear me out on this one. Not only would it make the work place a far happier place (little things go a long way), it would also make the prospect of Monday mornings a lot more bearable, knowing that there was a steaming mug of coffee and a slice of Victoria Sponge cake just round the corner.

It would allow socialising and chatting and catching up and all those important human interactions to be done in a designated window.

It would foster a sense of community spirit and help to iron out any differences or bubbling animosities. It is hard to be angry with someone if they have cream running down their chin or chocolate round their mouth.

It would give employees a sense that they are being appreciated and not just being shafted by ‘the man’ in return for the privilege of a monthly paycheque.

Pretty soon, this happiness would start to spread from company to company, city to city, politician to politician, nation to nation and NGO to NGO.

The UN would be a different place altogether if they stopped for Sachertorte every day and imagine how much easier diplomatic relations in the Middle East would be if they knew there was a baklava break to look forward to in an hour?

For those that have to whittle everything down to a balance sheet - Happy people are happy employees. Happy employees are more productive and more productive employees are more profitable.

In short, it would make the world a better place.

The logic is flawless and my own projections (done on a spreadsheet, I’ll have you know) suggest that not only would the cake start to pay for itself after just a month, you would start to turn a profit (thanks to productivity going through the roof) after only six weeks. Depression, recession, credit crunch solved and a new era of world peace and harmony entered. All through cake. Here’s one to start with:

Recipe – Chocolate, Hazelnut and Coffee Cake
This is based on a Nigel Slater recipe which he, in turn, adapted from a Tamasin Day-Lewis recipe. It is awesome. Serves six.

125 grams of unsalted butter, cubed
125 grams of Demerara sugar
2 large eggs
A large shot of espresso
A heaped teaspoon of baking powder
125 grams of plain flour
100 grams of ground hazelnuts
125 grams of ground dark chocolate

Mix the butter and sugar together until they are fluffy and pale. Unless you have arms like Brian Blessed, I suggest you use an electric mixer. Add the eggs, one at a time and beat it all together.

Stir in the coffee then sift in the flour and baking powder. Using a spatula of some description fold the mixture together before adding most of the hazelnuts and chocolate. Hold some back for topping the cake.

Tip the cake mixture into a lined cake tin and pop into a pre-heated oven (about 180 degrees). It will take about an hour. You know its ready if you stick in a skewer and it comes out clean. Turn it out onto a wire rack and leave to cool for about fifteen minutes.

If you are feeling really decadent smear on some cream cheese mixed with icing sugar and cocoa powder.

Call someone, anyone, who enjoys cake. Brew some coffee, cut large slices and enjoy, smug in the knowledge that you’ve done your bit in fostering a new age of global harmony and happiness.

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Friday, 6 February 2009

Beetroot, Ginger & Chocolate Risotto

You learn something new every day, or so the saying goes. Did you know, for example, that the first meal that was eaten on the moon by Armstrong and Aldrin was a roast turkey dinner with all the trimmings (freeze dried, one would assume)?

Or that sperm swim faster after they have been exposed to caffeine?

Or that the largest beetroot ever grown was over 18 feet in length?

Or that it is near impossible to take a good photo of a risotto? Especially a risotto that I promised you good people a couple of weeks ago (you'd thought I'd forgotten, hadn't you?)

It’s true – no matter how appealing it may look on the plate, in photographic form it will almost always take on the appearance of lumpy aardvark vomit.

You could gild it with gold leaf, adorn it with asparagus and top it with truffles but under the lights and through a lens it will still look about as appealing as a jock strap salad.

We tried. We really did. But even the best photo we got wouldn’t have looked out of place in a crime scene report. So you’ll have to make do with this representation instead. And the best thing about beetroot risotto is the colour anyway. So sit back, use your imagination and take note. Recipe below.

It’s hard to write a definitive recipe for risotto. There are so many variations (rice absorbency, stock quality, stirring capacity) that I hesitate to make any assertions for fear I will end up with angry emails and comments.

Instead, use this as a platform, a launch pad, or a mere eyebrow-raiser. All I will say is that it is certainly worth trying and that there is true deliciousness hidden behind the vaguely bizarre veneer of the combination of ingredients.

The Ingredients – should serve four

Olive oil or butter (about 25g)
A pinch of bicarbonate of soda
A small onion, or three/four shallots finely chopped
Two cloves of garlic, finely chopped
A teaspoon of grated ginger
Four or five small beetroot, roasted in the skins (in a sealed foil package for about an hour), peeled and diced into teeny, tiny pieces.
Risotto rice (Arborio, carnaroli, vialone nano) – about 250g
A small glass of white wine or white vermouth
Chicken or vegetable Stock (impossible to say how much you will need but most likely about a litre), in a pan on a gentle heat.
The darkest dark chocolate you can find, preferably 70%+ cocoa solids

The method

You all know how to make risotto, right? You’re going to find this incredibly patronising if you are talked through each step in the manner of a sports teacher humiliating the fat kid aren’t you? Oh well, here goes:

Put the onion and garlic in a large, heavy bottomed pan along with the olive oil or butter. Turn on the heat (low – see here for why) and add the bicarb (this helps soften the onion and bring out the flavours. I learnt why here). Fry gently for 10 minutes, or until you have a delicious pulpy mass of onion and garlic. Add the ginger and stir.

Crank up the heat. Pour in the rice, stir and cook off for about a minute to start it toasting. Add the wine or vermouth. It should sizzle and give off a fairly potent steam of near pure alcohol. Stir again (can you see a theme developing?). Tip in the beetroot. Admire the colour. Go on, you know you want to. Stir.

The stock (which is in a pan on a gentle heat, right?) can now be ladled in bit by bit. Stir. Stir some more. When almost all the stock has been absorbed add another ladle full. Stir. Keep stirring.

Repeat the above until the rice is cooked – usually about forty minutes. By this point your arm will aching and you should have worked up a considerable appetite with all that stirring.

Spoon onto a plate, grate the chocolate over the top. Admire the colour once more and eat.

One final point – risotto should be soft, it should spread evenly and slowly over the plate like a slew of molten lava running down a volcano. You shouldn’t be able to slice it.

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Thursday, 5 February 2009

Simplicity and Scrambled Eggs (and kittens)

Despite the infinite complexity of cooking, sometimes the hardest things to master are those that appear to be staggeringly simple. Many of the great chefs subscribe to this philosophy.

‘You can tell how good a cook is by how well he does the simple things, says Marco Pierre White in White Heat.

Thomas Keller’s eulogy to the quiche in his book Bouchon is a study in eloquence that manages to list the perfect attributes that all go into making the superficially simple bistro classic. Pastry and batter – this is all there is but it is ‘the essence of luxury, a great delicacy using the most common ingredients.’ A great quiche is, he says, ‘almost sexual.’

Where there are no trinkets or trifles, there is no-where to hide.

Daniel Boulud writes in Letters to a Young Chef of the importance of being able to cook a perfect omelette and how AndrĂ© Soltner would never look at a resume. ‘Instead he would say “make me an omelet (sic).” He figured he could tell a lot simply from watching the way the applicant beat the eggs, handled the pan and tasted for seasoning.’

But it is in the simple done well that true satisfaction resides. It’s my view that the greatest dishes contain no more than three ingredients: a chicken roasted with nothing more than salt and pepper, a potato fried in goose fat with a light dusting of sea salt, a slice of fresh bread containing flour, yeast and water, a wafer thin pizza topped with tomato, basil and mozzarella (OK, technically that’s four, but you get the point).

Scrambled eggs is one such dish. Done badly it is frustratingly disappointing – dry, hard, rubbery eggs cooked too quickly over a high heat or, heaven forbid in a microwave, unseasoned and anaemic in colour. This is not an appetising dish.

Done well, however, it is a wonder to behold. Contrary to residing orthodoxy, it isn’t a convenience dish. It is something to be nurtured and appreciated, cooked slowly and stirred into creamy richness.

According to the legendary chef Auguste Escoffier, eggs should be scrambled for forty minutes, lovingly stirred at regular intervals to prevent the formation of any hard lumps. While most of us don’t have such temporal luxury, ten to fifteen minutes should be enough to create a dish to behold.

Eggs, butter, salt and pepper are all that is necessary – no need for cream, milk or any other additions. If you have good eggs, and this dish is all about the eggs, let them shine.

Crack them into a pan, add a few cubes of butter and cook them over a low heat, stirring regularly until the butter melts into the eggs and they start to set. Don’t take your eyes off them, don’t stop stirring – this is the crucial moment. Most importantly take them off the heat before they are cooked, the residual heat in the pan will be enough to set them to the desired texture.

Season with salt and pepper (always salt eggs at the end of cooking, something to do with the coagulation of proteins), stir for one final time and turn out onto freshly toasted bread. Simple? Perhaps. Easy? Nothing of the sort.

Slightly off topic, but still on the subject of simplicity and perfection, the kittens are doing well. I look like I’ve taken up self-harm thanks to the vast number of scratches covering my arms and legs but they are so much fun that it’s worth every claw mark.

Pictures below.

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Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Making Marmalade

What’s the first image that bounces into your head when you think of oranges? Sun-drenched Floridian orange groves? A cool glass of juice on a warm summer’s morning? A Spanish hillside covered with dark-leafed trees punctuated with glistening fruits? A cold February day with the heaviest snow in almost two decades?

Well. Perhaps not the last one.

For most people oranges mean summer. They scream sunshine and refreshment – glorious bursts of evocative taste, that perfect balance of sweet and sour and a delicious onslaught of juice. But for one type of orange, much beloved by preserve makers the world over, the short season comes in the dead of winter.

Seville oranges are famed for their unique bitterness and unusually high pectin content: two qualities that make them ideal for making British-style marmalade – a bitter-sweet fruit preserve that is one of the best ways to start the morning. Smothered lavishly onto thickly sliced toast and served with a mug of steaming coffee, it is almost as traditional as the Full English (but significantly less likely to give you a coronary).

It is kick-start and a treat of the sort that makes getting out of bed a little less painful. Which is exactly what breakfast should do.

The Seville orange season is short which leaves a little window for making up a batch that should (hopefully) last you the year. Providing you don’t give away too many jars.

With the snow forcing the entire country to come to a grinding halt yesterday, we decided to do something productive, something that would make the house smell delicious and something that would make the prospect of getting up this morning a shade more appealing.

We already had a couple of kilos of oranges ready and waiting along with two lemons and a large bag of sugar but we hadn’t got round to turning this pile of citrus into something worthy of gracing a slice of toast. Yesterday, however, the conditions were ideal.

It was cold outside and a layer of snow was providing the surrounding countryside with a pretty and appealing blanket. After the obligatory walk, snow angel making and snowman building, the prospect of cooking up a batch of marmalade to warm ourselves up was made even more tempting.

It is a fairly laborious process but in a way that is both therapeutic and satisfying. After the vaguely leathery peel has been removed, it has to be sliced – it forms the main constituent of marmalade – and then boiled up with the juice from the oranges along with some water and the pith and pips housed inside a muslin bag (this is where that glorious pectin lies).

Other recipes are less time consuming, Nigella Lawson’s is possibly the simplest we saw but it was Nigel Slater’s from last weekend’s newspaper that we chose to try.

Once the peel has been simmered for an hour, or until it has turned translucent, the muslin bag is removed and in goes the sugar. The whole lot is boiled hard until the setting point is reached when it is decanted into sterilised jars, sealed and left to cool.

The great thing about making your own preserves is you can tailor it to your exact tastes. Want it sweet with tiny slices of orange peel that melt into your toast? Fine. Prefer a bitter, chunky marmalade to see you right until lunchtime? Not a problem.

We plumped for the latter and now have seven jars of delicious preserve just waiting to be spooned over thick slices of bread and melting butter. We didn’t wait long before diving in and despite the cold and the dark and the wind this morning, getting out of bed was that little bit easier knowing that we had little jars of sunshine ready to wake us up.

For the full recipe, see Nigel Slater’s page on

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