If you looked at the progression of food through history you would inevitably see an upwards curve – from humble, untouched caveman beginnings, through the complexity that seems to have dominated in Ancient Rome and the showpieces of 18th Century France food has become ever more complex.
But now – the curve has, perhaps, levelled out. For while the Heston’s and Ferran’s of this world create increasingly complex, intricate dishes with multiple processes at a molecular level, the flipside is the chefs who simply source well and put things nicely on plates. This is, of course, quite a simplistic way of looking at it – when you take dishes as simple as Jose Pizarro’s look on the plate, there are more processes behind the scenes – but more and more I end up with simpler and simpler plates at home.
I get a bit over-excited as the days get longer and my food takes a summery turn, almost skipping Spring, before it settles – frequently dinner is simply a ball of mozzarella with olive oil and sea salt flakes, some Jamon de Belota, some good bread charred on the griddle and some dressed leaves. This type of cooking relies purely on the quality of ingredients – so sourcing may take a little longer but putting dinner on the table takes minutes and is, inevitably, delicious.
So – perhaps tonight take it easy and take pleasure in the simple things.
Vegetarians don’t half get it unfair. Well – some would argue that their choice to not eat meat is their choice and more fool them – but that’s not really very fair or very nice. I’ve also got a vegetarian sister so perhaps a bit biased!
What that does mean is I’ve spent lots of time thinking about and cooking vegetarian food. Forget meat substitutes, TVP and the like – vegetarian cooking means we have to get creative and play around with pulses – red, white and black rice, brown, red, yellow and Puy lentils. We’ve got to make them sing with fresh herbs, with beautifully, luscious vinaigrettes and give vegetables and dairy products centre stage – steamed purple sprouting broccoli with a sharp, thin cream dressing topped with chilli and a crispy duck egg – vegetarian starter of champions.
The toughest deal in the vegetarian market must go to Goat’s cheese – relegated to a thousand veggie tarts served with the ubiquitous roast vegetables and balsamic reduction. Well, that has to change and here are some top ideas to test out on your veggie friends.
Click the links below to read recipes for:
Grilled Pear, Endive and Crottin de Chavignol toasts with caramelised walnuts pecans
French goat’s cheese camembert salad with beetroot and artichoke
French goat’s cheese camembert salad, prosciutto, cumin and chilli sweet potato
For the most part, we’re people of comfort – we like staying in our comfort zones, cooking the things we’re used to. Perhaps this is in part due to our schedules, juggling work, family, friends and keeping a house in order. Sometimes we just don’t have those moment to flick through a cookbook and decide that we’ll cook something new and experimental.
I’m as guilty of it as the next; there are plenty of things I’ve never turned my hand to and things I promise myself I’ll do and never get round to; I’m still planning on a month of Thai at some point…
Ham hocks are a cut I’ve never tried to do myself before; the few times I’ve tried to buy them they haven’t been available, perhaps because they’ve become one of the fashionable cheaper cuts. A hock should set you back more than four or five quid, and that’s talking London prices.
They make great stock and you’ll have some tasty nuggets of meat to throw into a salad with fennel, goat’s cheese and a mustardy dressing; to slip into the silky folds of a mac’n’cheese, or perhaps simply to stuff in between a couple of slices of fluffy white bread with French’s mustard, dill pickles and maybe just a lick of mayo. The bits of ham you shred off are great for carbonara or for making a delicious hash fried till crisp with bits of potato and topped with a poached egg. You can also remove the skin and coat them with honey and mustard or a jerk rub. Check with your butcher whether you’re getting hot smoked (ie already cooked) or cured/brined. Some are even lightly smoked – requiring cooking too.
They’re dead easy to cook – click here for the ridiculously simple recipe.
Am I allowed to mention it? Can I? The ‘t’ word?
I brined my turkey this year – a first for me and something I had been keen to try out. A fellow cook and friend also tried it. A quirky spot of prep saw a lot of saline solution being prepared (read ‘my friend Jane hanging around the job for hours trying to dissolve vast quantities of salt in boiling water). The results, a resounding success all round – a beautifully moist bird, crispy skin and what seemed to be a faster cooking time for us both. Fine – I’ll ‘fess up – my turkey was ready for the table before i’d even put my potatoes on to boil.
But now – on to the next, for the warrior chef never sleeps. So what to cook for the next social event in the calendar, New Year’s Eve?
Having just been earning my wellies on a shoot in the countryside I can think of nothing finer than a spot of game. A slow roasted haunch of venison would be ideal here, maybe even braised with some red wine, a spot of juniper, a tiny smidgen of orange peel. On the side, I’m moving away from roasted roots and heading towards a subtle mash – a mixture of celeriac and some potato. For ease, my vegetables will just be kale or spinach, their iron-heavy notes providing a contrast to the gravy and meat.
Pudding – I might pop back to Christmas and do a mince pie ice cream, but more than likely I’ll go for that winter warmer, crumble. Apples are at the peak of their season now so it would be rude not to use them. A home made custard is an absolute necessity; unless, of course, clotted cream is your weapon of choice.
Happy New Cooking Year all!
On your marks…get ready…set….GO! And we’re off – the great Christmas cooking race has just about begun. Have you started stocking up the fridge yet? If not, why not! Having said that, I’ve only found time to buy one present so far. Pretty terrible, considering that I’m usually done at the beginning of the month!
Well, shopping aside –I have been getting ready and that’s what I wanted to share this month. The importance of prep – and getting ready. We’ve all been there – caught out on the last day. I read on Twitter today how one parent forgot to order any food and didn’t tell anyone until it was time to start prepping the lunch on Christmas Day. A serious crime.
Anyway, unimaginable Christmas cruelty aside – prep is of the utmost importance when it comes to a big day like this and it starts way back with ordering your ingredients or creating a shopping list – I do this online so I’ve got a visual check-list in front of me. I plan each meal, course and then dish and work out what I need for each. A little over-zealous one might say? I even work out what equipment I’m going to need for everything. It’s what you get used to working in a professional kitchen – and you don’t want to get caught out at the last minute.
So make your list; write your timings down; get everything laid out and ready on the big day. All this unfeasibly serious planning will allow you a couple of things: to get your lunch out just about on time without breaking much of a sweat, burning anything or screaming anyone; but more importantly it will allow you to enjoy the day – to really get into your cooking, to handle it like a pro and to have a great time cooking your delicious festive feast.
American food is all the rage.
Maybe our culinary interest has diversified; with programs like Man Vs Food and Diners, Dives and Drive-Ins, our knowledge of American chow has extended beyond the boundaries of major cities in which the culinary culture often replicates our own – although things are moving on in NYC – they’re getting down and dirty with their burgers, ‘cue and wing shops.
My culinary interest is peaked by the South – by traditional American barbecue (pit-smoking, as opposed to the grilling we are accustomed to), pork cooked low and slow with spices till fork tender, shredded and stuffed into buns with slaw and hot sauce.
One classic American dish is buffalo wings – the ultimate finger food to accompany a football game or a movie. Make no mistake, this is a messy, delicious dish. It’s over the top, unctuous and tangy with a fiery smack. The dressing that goes with it is a blue cheese sauce – the perfect cooling foil to the slippery suckers.
Click here to read my recipe for buffalo wings with blue cheese sauce
When I was growing up and Hallowe’en came around, we would end up with bright red, blue and green fingers from all different kinds of food colouring, creating weird concoctions (that usually both looked at tasted brown in the end). Jellies, cakes, drinks – everything you could think of. I can even remember a blue baked potato one year. Now, food colourings (at least the artificial variety) have all but disappeared, leaving a wake of children in desperate need of some funky looking food.
Natural dyes have replaced those artificial ones across the board – stretching as far as TV favourite Hugh FW’s use of beetroot to colour marshmallows. More complex versions derived from brightly coloured foods like turmeric and saffron are often used in factories.
Hallowe’en now is a very different beast somehow – gone are the foods that look like zombies, guts and ghosts, replaced with a more pleasing array of dishes that are simply inspired by this time of year – roast pumpkin with sage butter (click here to check out some fantastic pumpkin recipes ), sausages with sticky glazes, sticky toffee cupcakes decorated with scary faces – transitional food that span the gap from summer through to Christmas, marking a change in the way we eat as the evenings draw in and the cold really begins.
Maybe it’s just that the food has got less ghoulish. Though you’ll have to offer me some serious bribery if you think you’re getting one of my Haribo Fang-tastics.
What are your favourite Hallowe’en eats? Are you still eating childhood treats?
Some days only rice will do. Warm, comforting, nourishing, wholesome, filling, a pillow of a food stuff. It’s the food equivalent of a hug and perfect for the coming months of cold.
As the barbecue really does get put away for the last time (but hey…who knows), I turn to rice as my go to starch. Where I’d normally be eating potatoes – baked, mashed, roasted, sautéed, rice is steadily taking it’s place. Ready in a flash and a friend to all manner of dishes to suit your mood – a vegetable-laden Indian curry, a hot, sour and coconut-rich Thai curry or a good slow-cooked dark chilli con carne.
But there is a problem – rice has caused me no end of trouble. So much so that I even abandoned Jasmine and Basmati for brown as I just couldn’t cook it. The one foodstuff that escaped me. Whatever technique I used it would just flatly refuse to come out right – always overly soggy and falling apart. And you’d only ever find out once all your other dishes were ready.
But recently – success. A friend explained a very simple and easy technique for foolproof rice each time. And here it is – so if you, like me, have had a few rice-related issues, you can wave them goodbye and turn your attention to the more important matter of eating your dinner…
Click here to read my recipe for foolproof rice
There’s a time and a place for fillet steak – in steak tartare for example; a time for chicken breasts, flattened, breadcrumbed and fried till golden and crisp. There’s a time for a rack of lamb, marinaded in Indian spices and yogurt before being slapped onto a hot griddle; there’s a time, too, for a loin of pork, with crisp, golden crackling.
But the heroes of late and indeed good friends through winter are the cheap cuts; the bits that need some care, some trimming and some long, slow cooking but that give up huge rewards in the taste department.
Pork belly, slow roasted to rend out most of the fat, is rich, decadent, unctuous and fairly cheap. Breast of lamb is another cheap favourite – and one worth investigating – slow braised and then stripped, the meat shaped into patties and fried till crispy. Ham hocks, poached slowly in broth then shredded make an ideal inclusion in a potato cake – the ultimate Saturday morning breakfast with a poached egg.
This weekend was the turn of the ox cheek – a hefty piece of meat, but plentiful and rich with quite a distinct texture. I braised mine for hours and hours with caramelised onions that, by the time the pan came out of the oven, had melted entirely into the sauce. I chose to serve mine in a US style, shredded and stuffed in sourdough rolls with ‘slaw and a vinegary American barbecue sauce but this dish would be equally good served over rice or mash – even a sweet potato variety. I’m looking forward to leftovers used to make a cottage pie – rib-sticking, warming winter fare.
Click here to read my recipe for braised ox cheek
The Bloody Mary is initially quite the quirksome cocktail. Tomato juice isn’t to everyone’s taste given its savoury nature – but for me the cocktail has become one of my favourites. The Sunday morning special; I tend, contrary to tradition, to often have one prior to meals in restaurants.
Perhaps it’s the umami nature of the drink; perhaps the killer savoury, spicy, citrusy combination, set off with a hit of celery that whets my appetite. Who knows – it has become a firm part of my repertoire and a pre-dinner must. Indeed, as I write, I’m readying a round of Bloody Marys for an October barbecue – the first of those that I can remember.
As with the realm of food, that of the cocktail is so open to interpretation, I threw the floor open to some friends and came back with an eclectic selection of ‘ultimate bloody marys’. Tim Hayward, writer and owner of Fitzbillies bakery in Bristol suggested a recipe using Spanish gazpacho (the carton, shop-bought variety available in Spanish delis) and a slug of olive oil. A common suggestion from fellow foodies was chilled sherry slinked into the top which sounds a delicious, complexity-adding addition. My friend and author of the recent fab book Comfort and Spice suggests using stunning Isle of Wight yellow tomato juice. One of the more eclectic suggestions was for a Tom Yum variation – although perhaps the fish sauce might be best left out. Maybe not though – after all, Worcester Sauce, an essential ingredient, does have anchovies in it.
For my money, I go classic. It’s a good starting point to work from. I may vary it by using a different hot sauce – chipotle Tabasco for example, for a smoky hit. Give this a whirl next Sunday morning, pre-roast. For a perfect appetiser serve with some pork scratchings. The ultimate warm up.
Click here for my recipe for a classic bloody mary