Wednesday, 21 July 2010

New website

You are hereby cordially invited to the shiny new site. The time has come to bid farewell to this fair blog and smash a bottle of cava over the bough of my brand new site. It would be great if you would care to join me there and update any bookmarks you may have as well.

You can also follow me on Twitter

Friday, 2 July 2010

5th-17th July: Cooking at The Wild Garlic

It is amazing where slightly drunken conversations can lead. In this case the answer is Dorset. To Mat Follas’s Wild Garlic restaurant, to be more specific.

A request from the man himself to cover for a holidaying sous chef could not be passed over so I’ll be cooking there for two weeks from July 5th – a prospect that fills me with excitement given the amazing range of produce available. Knowing how much Mat values local and seasonal food, the menu will be a pleasure to cook.

What’s even more exciting is that I’ll be cooking with Terry again for the first time since what has become known as the ‘WI Debacle’. I think we’ve both improved a lot since then but it’s probably for the best that you don’t order the fishcakes.

The Wild Garlic is in Beaminster, Dorset. To book a table call 01308 861446.

Doner Kebabs

If there is a food more maligned than the doner kebab then it remains unknown to my palate.

Long the butt of jokes and the final resort of a hungry lush as he or she stumbles back home from the pub via a neon takeaway, the poor kebab as we know it in England is far removed from its original form.

Sweaty mystery meat sculpted into the famous ‘elephant’s foot’ rotates slowly in front of orange hued heater bulbs behind the counters of less salubrious dining establishments throughout the country. Unimaginably long lengths of it are hacked off and crammed into epic flatbreads or warm pitas before being topped with a token salad of four cucumber rings, some harsh raw onion and a few wedges of watery tomato.

The whole lot is finished with a Russian roulette chilli sauce that ranges from the pathetic to nuclear hot and then eaten with gusto, delight and a side order of late onset guilt.

And it tastes great.

Admittedly the average doner diner is three or even four sheets to the wind by the time they get their laughing gear around this culinary oddity that somehow manages to pack a day’s worth of calories into a single polystyrene box. They are chowed down late at night to sate the deep hunger brought on by overindulgence of the grape and grain’s fine nectar.

I can recall many morning after conversations that have included the phrase ‘I must have been quite pissed – I even had a kebab’ and fondly remember one incident when the distinctive doner niff followed us round for an entire Sunday after a heavy Saturday night. Even a shower and a change of clothes wasn’t enough to quell the odour. It was only when my friend reached into his coat pocket for his wallet and pulled out a length of brown meat that the mystery was solved.

In short kebabs tend to be eaten in haste and regretted at leisure when noxious burps scented with onion exacerbate the hangover. They are the guiltiest of guilty pleasures and a gastronomic punchline for a joke that ceases to be funny at about 6 o’clock the following morning when the belly cramps and the head aches.

But this shouldn’t be the case. In its true form, the doner is a thing of beauty: marinated lamb meat, slow cooked into tender softness – warm with spices and rich with natural fat. Blistered flatbreads with that wonderful gentle bitterness. Heat from chillies tempered with cool salad. Hummus. Yoghurt. These are all good things. Great, wonderful tasty things. And more importantly all things you can achieve at home.

Doner Kebabs

OK – this isn’t a true doner. For that you’d need epic amounts of meat of dubious origin, a large vertical spit, six hours of turning and a hungry mob to consume it all. So we cooked a simplified version which was superior in every way.

Once a lamb shoulder had been boned out and butterflied it was covered with a spice mix containing cumin, coriander, chillies, oregano, garlic, lemon zest and olive oil before being tied up and roasted in the oven over a layer of roughly chopped onions.

Three hours at a low heat was long enough to render the meat tender and almost liquefy the onions.

Whilst it was resting we cooked up a batch of flatbreads, made some hummus and a chopped salad of cucumber, tomato, red onion and plenty of parsley.

The lamb meat was shredded with two forks and mixed in with the cooked onions and the fat and juices that had pooled in the bottom of the roasting tray. Heaped into fresh warm flatbreads and then finished off with all the necessary accoutrements it was a meal fit for the gods themselves. Or at least Bacchus.

Photography by Charlotte

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Rocket and Brazil Nut Pesto

We waited weeks for the truly good growing conditions to arrive. A late frost gave us cause for concern and we thought for a few days that we’d lost the entire crop of potatoes - not to mention numerous salads.

Thankfully the sad looking leaves survived and thrived into lush green offerings. The rows of potatoes now stand tall and proud, a thick carpet of the distinctive green leaves cover half the garden like a layer of cloud.

Two lines of lettuce look perky and happy and we’ve already devoured three or four, one with a simple roast chicken with warm bread, some runny mayonnaise and freshly chopped lemon thyme.

The rocket is looking healthy as well: too healthy in fact. We returned after a couple of days away to find it reaching skyward in a manner that would please NASA. Thinking quickly we harvested as many of the oversize leaves as we could and pounded them along with some basil into a fresh, summery pesto.

Stirred into spaghetti it made a wonderful and very quick supper: fresh, peppery, warm with garlic and zingy with lemon. Sometimes a glut is a wonderful thing.

Spaghetti with rocket and brazil nut pesto

Although usually made with pine nuts, the Brazil nuts we found in the back of the cupboard proved to be an excellent substitute. The slightly creamy texture added a slight richness to the pesto.

Two large handfuls of rocket leaves, washed and dried
One handful of basil leaves
9-10 Brazil nuts
2 cloves of garlic
One lemon, zested and juiced
Olive oil
20g Parmesan or Grana Padano cheese, grated
Salt and pepper

Chop the rocket and basil leaves enough to make them fit into a pestle and mortar. Pound the Brazil nuts into a coarse powder then add the garlic and a pinch of sea salt and pound some more. Add the lemon zest then the rocket and basil leaves and continue mashing with the pestle until it begins to look like pesto. Add the olive oil until it is a certifiable sauce then stir in the grated cheese.

Season with sea salt, black pepper and lemon juice and stir through warm spaghetti.

Photographs by @photolotte (flickr)

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Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Phad Thai and Cooking Like a Pro

Professional chefs work differently to home cooks. This is a lesson you learn very early on in a restaurant kitchen.

Working a successful service relies on a number of key practices but chief amongst these is doing one’s meez before the first ticket comes in.

Meez , short for mise en place, a French term for ‘putting in place’, means getting everything ready to go so you aren’t faffing around chopping vegetables when you should really be concentrating on cooking that sea bass for table 14.

It is getting everything how you want it, where you want it so when the time comes all you have to do is cook.

Whilst this is good working practice for a professional environment, it is a lesson I’ve brought home with me as well. I approach cooking differently, first doing any peeling or butchery then moving onto chopping and the like.

Only when everything is ready to go, do I start cooking. This actually cuts down the time spent in the kitchen and means that hands on cooking is as swift and smooth as possible.

More importantly it means there isn’t a mountain of washing up to do after dinner because all the clearing up is done as you go along – another lesson you learn very quickly in professional kitchens.

A chef friend of mine put it rather more succinctly. ‘The six Ps,’ he said when we were talking about cooking for paying customers. I looked at him blankly. ‘Proper preparation prevents poor performance.’

‘That’s only five,’ I replied. ‘Five Ps.’

‘Oh yes,’ he said. ‘I gave you the clean version. Commis chefs get the six P chat. Proper preparation prevents piss-poor performance.’

And he’s right.

One dish that really benefits from this approach is a stir-fry when you have a matter of just a few minutes to actually cook everything and Phad Thai is a real favourite. Last time I visited the family, my sister asked me the best way to cook this. I gave her a little lesson but neglected to write down the recipe so, Ellen – this one’s for you.

Ellen’s Phad Thai
The key flavourings are palm sugar (although you could sub in brown sugar) for sweetness, tamarind and lime for sourness, fish sauce and soy for saltiness and chillies for heat.

The core philosophy of Thai food is ensuring these are balanced so feel free to play with quantities as you see fit: There are no rules – it is a dish from the streets of Bangkok. It is fast, filling and very tasty indeed.

Ingredients are listed in the order they should be cooked

Per person:
Cooking oil (2-3 tablespoons)
½ carrot, sliced into thin strips
½ onion, finely sliced
2 cloves of garlic, finely sliced
Tablespoon of pickled radish or pickled turnip (you should find this in your friendly local Chinese supermarket)
Fresh red chillies, finely sliced
2 spring onions, finely sliced

10-15g palm sugar
2 tablespoons of tamarind
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce

100g rice noodles, cooked in boiling water

1 egg, beaten

Tablespoon of peanuts, roasted and roughly ground
Tablespoon of dried shrimp

To finish
Bean sprouts
Finely shredded spring onion
Finely shredded red chillies
Roasted and ground peanuts
Lime wedges

Once the first ingredient goes into the hot oil this dish is about two minutes away from the plate so you have to work quickly. Get all your ingredients ready to go and set up in order – this is your mise en place. Congratulations, you are now a chef.

Heat up a wok so it is good and scorching. Add the oil then tip in the onion, garlic, carrot, chillies and pickled radish (or turnip). Move around the wok then add the flavourings: tamarind, palm sugar, fish sauce and soy stir well then add the cooked noodles. Coat with the sauce then make a well in the centre and add the egg. Let it cook, scramble it and incorporate it into the dish.

Sprinkle in the dried shrimp and peanuts, stir one last time and spoon into bowls. Garnish with bean sprouts, spring onions, chillies and peanuts then feel free to go crazy with the seasonings to pep up the dish to your own personal tastes. Finely chopped bird’s eye chillies in fish sauce is a real favourite that always brings back the memory of Thailand.

Who needs a takeaway?

Friday, 4 June 2010


Confession time. I’m cheating on my beloved.

We’ve been together since 2003 so I suppose it could be the famed ‘seven year itch’. Only this is more serious. This isn’t just an illicit fumble in the stationery cupboard. This is more. This is love.

Since I began nurturing my love of coffee I’ve tried every method under the sun to attain the perfect cup of Joe. For a while the Cafetiere was enough to see me through the mornings, heaping coarsely pre-ground beans into the warmed jug. The resultant sludge was passable but there was no panache, merely the niggling shadow of 1980s dinner parties and After Eight mints.

The trusty Moka Express came next – ‘every Italian home has one’ came the re-assuring sales pitch and sure enough it proved to make a cup up from the workmanlike brew that spewed forth from the Cafetiere.

Getting the brewing time right was difficult though – too fast and the coffee scorched becoming bitter as the final drops puttered through the spout and the bottom pot boiled dry. Too slow and it took an age for the coffee to appear. It was also a pain to clean and more often than not remained sullied with wet grinds for longer than was suitable.

There was also a frustrating lack of crema – the nutty caramel coloured layer that adorns the finest of espressos, a drink that was becoming my coffee of choice whenever away from home.

For a while I gave into my Swedish heritage and enjoyed the simple delights of filter coffee. Smooth and strong without being overly bitter, it was a coffee to drink throughout the day but it lacked that specific oomph and I never got excited about it in the same way I did about a really good shot of expertly made espresso.

There was only one course of action: to admit that I was a fully-fledged coffee nerd and invest in a machine that would allow making of exquisitely crafted espresso at home.

After much research I chose the La Pavoni Europiccola machine – as much a piece of iconic design as an espresso maker. I was dazzled by its classic lines, its manual mechanics and its apparent simplicity. It was a thing of shiny beauty – curvier than Marilyn Monroe and heavy with brass fittings, I adored it from the moment I bought it.

The love affair lasted quite some time. It had quirks that made it impossible for anyone other than myself to make it work. It was high-maintenance in the extreme, needing constant tweaking. There was no temperature or pressure gauge meaning a sustained period of trial and error before the two were in sync to yield a perfect shot of dark espresso with a satisfying crema.

The boiler itself was small – once enough water had been drawn through the machine to heat all the components there was barely enough left for a couple of coffees. It would have to be re-filled – a task that only the bravest of baristas would dare to undertake.

Tea-towels had to be wrapped around hands to avoid being scalded by the burst of steam that spewed, volcano like, from the boiler as the lid was unscrewed. More waiting, more releasing the pressure from the steam wand, more failed coffees if any aspect was amiss.

Drawing the perfect espresso is a hard task – if one single element is out of kilter, it drags the whole process down with it. Freshness of beans, size of grind, temperature of water, latent heat in machine, pressure, speed of extraction. All these had to be perfect before the Europiccola would even consider emitting a good espresso.

I grew to think of my machine as a well-bred, hot blooded Italian lady: happy to comply on rare occasions but unwilling to compromise and prone to increasingly lengthy bouts of sulking where compliance was NEFC (not-even-fucking-considered).

But those rare occasions when the planets aligned, they made me forget about all those failed shots poured down the sink. Those sleepy hungover Sundays when all I wanted was a simple coffee and instead what I got was violent steaming temper tantrum from an apparently inanimate object. The time I’d spent making coffees for more than two people. The red raw hands scalded from the steam. All those went ignored when I sipped the one 1% of shots that passed muster.

Inevitably though I grew tired of the tantrums. Frustrated by La Pavoni’s increasingly erratic behaviour, I sought solace in the simple pleasures of others.

Telling myself it was just a temporary measure, that I would have my machine serviced and the love would blossom again, I dabbled and toyed and conducted electric affairs with as many coffee makers as I could, desperate to find that spark.

Everything from the Aeropress, a plunge device made by a company famed for their flying rings to futuristic handheld gadgets powered by nitrous oxide. I tried them all desperate to rekindle that spark I’d once felt for the shiny silver elephant now in the corner of the kitchen.

But each brief encounter brought a growing realisation that the relationship with my Italian diva was over. The reality was that most of the methods I was now using made better coffee than the Europiccola ever did. I was just blinded by adoration, rendered incapable by its gorgeous curves and flawless design.

Heartbroken, I resolved never to love again.

And then my brother went travelling. ‘You can babysit the Gaggia, if you want,’ he said. I agreed, thinking it would serve a purpose but nothing more.

In the month since it has been resident in the kitchen, this wonderful machine, this glorious piece of modernist design, all square edges and simple function, has become as much a part of the household as the cats.

We’ve called him Gary. Gary the Gaggia. He sits next to the grinder, taking up more than his fair share of the space in our tiny kitchen but we don’t care. He tells us when he is ready, he never overheats, his pressure is so well maintained I think he may be on statins and he steams milk to textured perfection.

Once the coffee is ground and tamped into place, a simple push of a button is enough to have glorious espresso dribbling through the portafilter. Crema is inevitable and even the GF – who never dared go near the Pavoni – is happy to make coffees now. It is a thing of perfection.

The only problem is, at some point I’m going to have to give him back. Adam – if you’re reading this I might have to look after Gary a little longer…

So – how do you get your coffee fix? Is it a matter of anything goes as long as it is fast and caffeine jacked or are you more of a perfectionist? Share your thoughts below and there may even be some sort of coffee based prize in the offing.

Speaking of coffee, I will be putting my expertise to good use as part of the judging panel for the World Aeropress Coffee Championships at Caffe Culture, Kensington Olympia on June 25th. Come and say hello.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Summer Food: Tagliatelle with peas and bacon

It’s been a busy fortnight. Book pitches. Meetings. Business plans. Scouting out potential restaurant locations. Press events. Oh, and making 6000 canapés with Dhruv for a hungry City crowd.

We jokingly suggested to the producers of Masterchef that the latter of these should be a new challenge on the show. Apologies in advance to future contestants if it makes the cut.

All this is a round about way of excusing myself for neglecting the blog which itself is in the middle of an overhaul.

This weekend has seen some glorious weather. One may go so far (providing you’re not the superstitious sort) as to say that summer is upon us and with it the freshest bounty of the garden and meats grilled over hot coals.

No more braises, stews or hearty belly-fillers. The next few months are about simplicity. Fresh, zingy flavours and ingredients cooked simply and, whenever possible, enjoyed al fresco. A meal soundtracked by nature and the sounds of the open is far tastier than one taken indoors.

Although it rarely fills our bellies during the darker half of the year, come spring and summer pasta forms a larger part of our diet – its innate versatility somehow more suited to the ad hoc nature of summer meals where time spent in the kitchen detracts from time spent outside.

Consequently, now seemed a good time to invest in a book on the subject and The Geometry of Pasta appeared to fit the bill perfectly. A rather beautiful, monochrome tome it harks back to a traditional Italian approach where pasta and sauce are matched with care to capitalise on the characteristics of each. A noble concept indeed.

Although the prospect of hand-crafting some intricate orecchiette was tempting, last night’s supper was an exercise in simplicity: fresh pasta tossed with bacon, peas, a little blue cheese and cream and finished with grassy pea shoots picked from little pots in the garden.

Tagliatelle with peas and bacon

As tasty as homegrown peas are, I find growing them a thankless and arduous task that yields disappointing results. With the frozen sort as good as they are I have no qualms about using those to bulk out a meal and picking off the wonderfully fresh tasting (not to mention pretty with their winding, curling fronds) pea shoots to serve as a delicious garnish.

200g pasta flour
2 eggs
OR 200g dried pasta

150g bacon, pancetta or other cured pork, diced
Olive oil
A medium sized onion, finely chopped
A splash of white wine
Two handfuls frozen peas, cooked in boiling water (or the microwave. Really)
200ml double cream
Any leftover cheese you happen to have, as long as it is of the melty variety.
Salt and plenty of black pepper

If you are the sort of person who has a pasta machine, you don’t need me to tell you how to make the stuff. Just whip up a batch in your usual fashion, it will be more than fine.

If you are the sort of person who doesn’t have a pasta machine, you don’t need me to tell you how to cook the stuff. Surely. Just go about it in your usual fashion. But not before making the sauce.

Fry the bacon until it renders off its lovely fat and begins to turn crispy. Lower the heat under the frying pan and add the diced onion. Cook it gently until it softens in the bacon fat. If it looks a little dry add a dash of olive oil (but not the good stuff). Give it 10-15 minutes so it softens and sweetens without burning and turning acrid.

Deglaze the pan with white wine - just a splash should do the job - then add the cream, peas and cheese. Season well with black pepper but go easy on the salt depending on what cheese you’ve gone for.

Cook up your pasta in a big pan with plenty of salt and as soon as it is ready, drain it (but only briefly – the cooking water adds a tasty element) and toss into the sauce. Heap into bowls, garnish with pea shoots and serve outside just as the sun is dipping beyond the trees, ocean buildings or whatever vista forms your view onto the world.

Food fotos by Charlotte (Flickr page)

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

The Cambridge Menu

The brief from BBC Radio Cambridgeshire was simple: create a dish that sums up the area using the best locally sourced produce available.

Cornwall has the pasty, Bedfordshire’s got a clanger and Bury the black pudding – but Cambridge? Cambridge has…well, therein lay the problem. Our county is bereft of a classic.

The challenge to rectify this glaring omission came from our local BBC radio station. I would have a week to come up with something special and they’d then record me creating it in my own kitchen.

The obvious place to begin was looking at what local produce was available. It soon became clear that the area may be lacking in a signature dish but that isn’t for want of superb ingredients: locally reared beef, pork, lamb and game are plentiful, when in season.

In May, the Fens groan under the weight of the asparagus spears that peep through the earth. Celery and watercress also grow in plentiful abundance. The committed and enthusiastic loca-vore can even take their rod and line down to the River Cam and try to land a pike or zander. However, I didn’t think a week would be enough to organise a fishing licence (or actually learn how to fish).

Being bound to the fruits of the local land was no hardship, though and after a few days of hard research I came up with the following efforts for my Cambridgeshire Feast. Great British Menu, watch out.

Starter: Asparagus, bacon and egg

With it just sneaking into season, now is a great time to eat locally grown asparagus. The spears are sweet and tender and are yet to develop the slightly woody note that can tarnish the fern later in the year.

This isn’t a very original presentation but my goal was to keep it simple. The asparagus was steamed, brushed with butter then served with an egg (from our front garden) poached at 64˚and a couple of slices of home-cured pork jowl, uniquely preserved by the Cambridgeshire air and then fried until crispy like dry-cured streaky bacon.

Main Course: Beef cheeks, braised celery and Stilton and mustard cream

Beef and Stilton is a classic combination. Stilton and celery, likewise. Here they come together in a wonderful open pie.

Whilst most regions in Britain can lay claim to a local cheese, Cambridgeshire’s most famous dairy product can’t actually be made in the county. The PDO that proudly adorns Stilton cheese limits its production to the three counties of Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire – but the town of Stilton itself lies within the boundaries of modern-day Cambridgeshire and here is where the cheese became justifiably famous.

Beef cheeks (from CamCattle, a company who locally rear cattle grazed on common land in the centre of Cambridge) were cooked slowly in red wine and stock with carrot, celery, onions and garlic until tender – then the cooking liquor reduced to a rich and sticky gravy.

The celery too, was braised by browning in a little butter then covering with a light chicken stock before being vacuum sealed and cooked for 35 minutes at 85˚ (the temperature at which pectin – the ‘glue’ that holds vegetables together –breaks down, making vegetables tender but ensuring they retain a little bite).

The celery and beef were topped with a disc of puff pastry and then a cool cream flavoured with Stilton and mustard was added to the dish, along with a some watercress for a peppery bite.

It may be a little optimistic to hope it’s a future classic, but one can always hope. It’s certainly delicious enough to warrant making again, very soon.

Dessert: Cambridge Burnt Cream with Rhubarb

Perhaps better known as crème brulee, this dessert was the closest that I came to finding a genuine heritage dish from Cambridge. Although the veracity of the origins of the dessert cannot be verified, legend has it that it was first served at Trinity College in the late 19th Century – a tale that Ian Reinhardt, head of catering at Trinity, was happy to stick to. As am I.

Rhubarb seemed a natural addition – both because it can be found all over the region at this time of year and also due to its natural affinity to custard: a pairing that almost universally tends to remind us of childhood.

Deceptively simple, the secret to a perfect ‘Burnt Cream’ lies in setting the custard to a soft texture without scrambling the egg yolk. Just don’t get it too hot.

Split a vanilla pod and add the seeds to 425ml double cream and gently bring to the boil. Whisk together 110g caster sugar with four egg yolks until pale then pour the cream over the yolks and sugar. Return to the heat and bring almost (but not quite) to the boil.

Pour the custard into ramekins and cook in a low oven (or bain marie) until set. Chill then sprinkle the tops with sugar. Use a blowtorch or hot grill to caramelise the sugar then cool.

For the rhubarb, melt 25g butter and 25g sugar in a pan. Add the sliced rhubarb then cover with orange juice. Cook until the rhubarb is tender (about 7-8 minutes), remove and reduce the liquid to a glaze to spoon over the soft rhubarb.

One final flourish that Ian kindly shared with me when I went to speak to him about the origins of this tasty pudding concerned the ‘branding’ of the caramelised sugar with a metal plate adorned with the college crest. A piece of theatre indeed, but perhaps a little extravagant for the home cook – at least, until I get my own coat of arms commissioned.

So – thoughts? Feedback? Outrage that I’ve missed a truly local classic? Get in touch in the comments or on Twitter and we’ll have a chat about it.

To listen to my Cambridgeshire menu appear on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire, click here (next 7 days only). It's at the 1 hour 20 ish mark. Just after Feargal Sharkey.

Pictures by @photolotte (flickr)

Friday, 30 April 2010

Two more ways with nettles

The sheer mettle of nettles. They are taking over the garden: cropping up in the vegetable patch, dominating the borders and creating no-go zones in the middle of the lawn.

But revenge comes in many forms – all of them tasty.

Nettle soup is a well-worn classic: virtuous and brilliantly evocative of Spring but hardly exciting and there are a thousand and one recipes for it washing around the Internet. In short, it needed re-mastering.

Sweet Potato, Nettle and Chickpea Soup

This is a soup with substance; a filling bowlful of hearty satisfaction. Pepped up with the warmth of some aromatic spices it is perfect for those evenings when the sun dips a little too fast leaving the seven o’clock air with a surprising, biting chill.

Two large sweet potatoes, peeled and diced
A baking potato, peeled and diced
Two white onions, peeled and sliced
As much garlic as you wish
Spices: cumin, cinnamon, coriander, cloves, star anise – take your pick
Lots of fresh nettle tops
A tin of chickpeas
Vegetable stock, about 3 pints

I’m fairly certain you know how to make a soup so forgive me if I patronise.

Fry off your chosen spices in a little oil until they in turn start to release their oils. The smell will change, just take care not to burn them else you will add a bitter note to the soup. Crush them in a pestle and mortar then add the garlic.

Fry the onion until soft then add the potato (both sweet and regular). Give it a little colour then add the spices and garlic before covering with stock. Leave to simmer until the potatoes are cooked then blend and pass through a sieve to remove and rogue crunchy spices.

Wash and pick over the nettles removing any thick stems and inevitable creepy crawlies. Cook in plenty of rapidly boiling, salted water then leave them to drain in a colander or sieve. Chop the nettles then add to the soup along with a can of drained chickpeas. Heat through and serve with bread or cheese straws anda big jumper.

Nettle Aloo

As an accompaniment to Indian food, aloo saag (potatoes and spinach) is a firm favourite. Here the spinach is replaced with blanched and chopped nettles which gives a wonderfully fresh, almost grassy flavour. It works.

A large white onion, finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
Teaspoon of mustard seeds
Two teaspoons black onion seeds
Two teaspoons methi (fenugreek seeds)
Salt and pepper
2-3 potatoes, depending on size, peeled and diced into c.2cm cubes
Nettles, lots.

Blanch the nettles in boiling water then drain in a colander. Finely chop them and set them to one side.

Boil the potatoes in salted water until just shy of being cooked. About 10 minutes should do it

Fry the spices in oil, lower the heat then add the onion and cook until it softens. Add the garlic then the potatoes. Cook until they begin to colour and are soft throughout then add the chopped nettles. Let down with a little water if necessary, season and serve with whichever curries you desire.

Photos by @photolotte (flickr)

Friday, 23 April 2010

Nettle & Yarg Risotto

Nettles don’t immediately spring to mind when thinking of this time of year and the bounty the season offers.

Tender milk fed lamb, wild garlic or the first crisp spears of asparagus, perhaps, but nettles? They’re certainly not at the top of many people’s spring essentials lists, or the bottom, come to think of it.

Long a fixture of many a hippy’s ingredient roster, nettles are gaining a following amongst some high profile chefs keen to follow in the footsteps of visionary cooks like Rene Redzepi who places provenance at the centre, and periphery, of his food philosophy.

With good reason. They are plentiful, free, brilliantly British, wildly versatile and, moreover, delicious.

Our garden is teeming with them. They burst through the earth in wild clusters at the first hint of warmth. Picking them requires some unbroken rubber gloves and a little patience but if the sun is out and the radio is providing happy company it is a pleasure rather than a chore.

Given their aptitude for wilting, it is a good idea to pick more than you think you need. Lots more. A pan full will magically disappear leaving just a vivid green layer and the memory of its volume.

Sunday was a lazy day and we picked lots. Feeling adventurous we made a nettle tea, which tasted like it was doing us good even after it had been pepped up with honey and lime juice, a nettle soup and even some zingy nettle pesto which was great on crackers with a little cheese.

But the best recipe was for nettle risotto – a clean yet hearty bowlful of springtime.

Since cooking at Le Calandre under the tutelage of Massimiliano Alajmo (the youngest ever recipient of the culinary world’s highest accolade: three stars in the Michelin guide) I’ve changed the way I make risotto.

Whilst there not only did I taste the best dish I have ever eaten in my entire life (a risotto flavoured with rose petal and peach – hands down the most incredible taste experience ever. Ever) I also cooked one of the restaurant’s signature dishes – saffron and liquorice risotto – which shows the levels to which rice and stock can be elevated. In the hands of a 3* chef, the humble risotto isn’t quite so humble.

Whilst this effort doesn’t quite have such high aspirations, the method remains the same and a departure from the rather labour intensive approach I used to take.

Dry toasting the rice over a high heat cuts down the cooking time from a frustrating 35-40 minutes to a shade under 15 and makes for a creamier texture as the starches are quickly released allowing the grains to retain some integrity and bite. A top tip indeed

Nettle and Yarg Risotto

A note about Yarg – Yarg is a semi-hard cheese from Cornwall. It is fresh and satisfyingly creamy. It is also wrapped in nettle leaves making it a perfect partner for this risotto instead of the more usual Parmesan

Half a small white onion, finely chopped
A clove of garlic, finely minced
15g butter

A large quantity of nettle tops, washed, picked over then dropped into boiling water for a minute or so. Once cooked, shock them in iced water so that the bright green colour remains, strain well then chop and fry in a little butter.

A handful of rice, per person
White wine
Chicken stock, warmed
20g butter
25-50g Yarg cheese, finely diced.

Soften the onion and garlic with the butter over a gentle heat until the turn translucent. Remove from the pan and reserve. Dry the pan and crank up the heat. Toast the rice for 2-3 minutes taking care not to burn it. Add the onion and garlic back to the rice then pour in the wine. It will bubble like mad.

Ladle in some of the stock so that the rice is covered, stir then let it bubble away. As soon as it looks as if it is too dry, add some more. It should bubble away like an active swamp.

A good risotto should be semi-liquid. Keep tasting it and checking the texture of the rice. When it is barely cooked add another ladle full of stock and remove from the heat. It will look too wet but don’t worry – risotto has a tendency to seize up as it cools. Stir in a healthy dose of butter and the cheese then spoon into warm bowls.

This one was finished with some blanched nettles leaves, a little more cheese and some spiced salt. Fresh yet slightly warming all at once.

Photos (the good ones anyway) by @photolotte

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Observer Food Monthly Awards

Thankfully the Observer’s Food Monthly magazine received a stay of execution after the recent cull that saw the demise of its sister titles: Woman, Music, and Sport Monthly.

As a result food nerds, geeks and obsessives can still revel in the glory of unashamed nosh based writing from the likes of Jay Rayner, Rachel Cooke and Nigel Slater (amongst others).

Every year the OFM runs an awards special where readers can vote for the people and places that have rocked their food world over the previous 12 months.

Categories include ‘Best restaurant’ (my vote went to St John an admission that will surprise few) ‘Best independent local retailer (these guys, just outside of Cambridge who posted all the lovely Masterchef messages) and ‘Best cheap eats’ (oodles of noodles? Yes please)

Pootle over to the Observer website to cast your votes. There are prizes too if you need further incentive.

There’s also a ‘Best UK Based Food Blog’ category. Just saying, is all…

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Two ways with Ox Heart

[Warning - this post contains offal]

It was supposed to be three.

Three ways with heart.

A hat trick of heart-y preparations to entice the brave and convert the wary whilst trying all the while not to scare off the timid.

The third of these was to be a long, slow braise. I had visions of spoon tender meat in a rich, beefy gravy similar to the French Laundry braised beef short ribs. The reality was a little disappointing.

Most meat that needs slow cooking is a network of fibrous muscle protein and connective tissue layered with strata of fat. As the meat cooks it becomes tender (due to the break down of the collagen) and very tasty.

A braised lamb shank is the classic example – cooked properly a gentle shove with a fork should have the meat collapsing off the bone like a tower block undergoing a controlled demolition.

But heart, I came to learn, is different. The meat is lean, tightly packed and without the necessary additions of collagen and fat that make a truly rib-sticking braise. Rather than falling apart into tasty strands, the meat constricts and seizes up into dense, rubbery nuggets that taste nice enough but texturally are not pleasant.

It was with a heavy heart (arf arf) that I admitted defeat on this one and fed the chunks to some very grateful cats who I doubt appreciated the time, effort and bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon that had gone into the dish.

So, two ways it is.

The first thing you notice about an ox heart is its sheer size. They are great, hulking vast rugby balls of meat. Weighing in at a shade under three kilos, even accounting for the necessary ‘trimming’, there is plenty of meat here. A similarly sized rib of beef would set you back around £45. A three-kilo piece of sirloin closer to £70.

The heart cost a tenth of the price – about £7. Even if it merely served to slake my curiosity it was still cheap.

Once the whole thing had been trimmed of anything that looked even vaguely unappetising (no mean feat considering its size), a third of the meat was thinly sliced to be marinated overnight, a third cut into chunks to braise and a third finely diced for a ragu.

The braise, being something of a failure as already discussed, is probably best not dwelled upon so we shall move swiftly onto the more successful preparations.


The first of these was a simple ragu. Finely diced heart meat browned in oil then cooked long and slow with a soffrito of onions, celery and carrot, a little cured bacon, half a bottle of wine, some good beef stock and a tin of tomatoes.

Five hours under a cartouche in an oven barely warmer than a Swedish sauna was enough to create a tasty sauce that works well over pasta but isn’t even close to being as good as one made with cheek.

Far more successful though was the following:


A South American preparation, anticuchos seems to be a fairly generic term for ‘meat on skewers’ and can be made with almost any type of meat. The most famed, though, are made with beef heart.

Marinated overnight in ground cumin, garlic, chilli and oregano mixed with olive oil and red wine vinegar, the thinly sliced heart is then concertinaed onto wooden skewers before being grilled over hot coals.

Cooked quickly like this means the meat has little opportunity to constrict and toughen up. The light charring of the barbecued meat adds a warm, deep savoury note and the marinade, pepped up with the sharpness of vinegar, really lifts the dish.

After 5-6 minutes over hot charcoal, the meat was picked off the skewer onto a hot flatbread and served with rocket, a few spoonfuls of mayonnaise and the leftover marinade cooked down with some tomato puree.

‘This is a conversion dish,’ claimed the GF, whose initial trepidation evaporated once she got a whiff of the hunger inducing scent that is created when meat is introduced to hot coals. ‘This is seriously good. Really good. Good enough to convince non-offal eaters, in fact.’

She was right. Anticuchos is the sort of food that you could easily dish up and dazzle with at a barbecue. Questions over provenance could easily be waved away with vague mutterings about ‘steak kebab’ until the hungry throng come back for seconds.

By that point they will already have undergone their Damascene moment. Oh, you are offal. But I like you