Friday, 27 February 2015

Not quite so chilli, chilli

Most people who know me, know that I am not the greatest heat/spice fan. I'm getting used to it courtesy of my Cuisinart spice grinder, that allows me to customise my blends to suit my palate. However slowly, but surely, I am increasing the amount of heat in my diet, albeit if it's not quite in line with other peoples' interpretation of hot.

However this week has seen me laid low by a dose of the flu (and believe me just getting from bed to bathroom has been a monumental effort) followed by its' not so lovely friend conjunctivitis, so to say that I have been completely off my food is an understatement.

I've been launching myself out of bed to cook an evening meal, if only to save myself from my husbands' offer of shop bought ready meals which as someone with an existing digestive condition, does not bode well. Well today I had to go to opticians to get my eyes sorted, so en-route home was wondering what the hell I was going to cook that I probably couldn't taste that well, would tick the boxes of a heat lover, but still use up the food we bought at the weekend not anticipating my incapacity. I thought about chilli and came across some spring onions in my local greengrocers and the ideal came to me, a not so chilli-based chilli, with a Mexican inspired side of couscous containing spring onions and a stray Romano pepper found in the fridge charred over an open flame. You could also create some sides of sour cream, home made guacamole and tortillas if increasing the quantities and cooking for a crowd.

My recipe for two people therefore was:

For the chilli

1 red onion, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon of tomato puree
1 teaspoon of ground cumin
1 teaspoon of ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon of smoked paprika
pinch (or two or more if you like) of dried chilli flakes
175 minced quorn (or meat if you prefer)
1 tin of plum tomatoes
1 tablespoon of Worcester sauce
1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar
1 small tin of kidney or cannelloni beans
Coriander, to garnish
Fresh red chilli, finely chopped, to garnish

For the couscous

150 grams of couscous
3 spring onions
1 Romano red pepper, chargrilled and skinned (you could use a regular red pepper instead)
1 teaspoon of vegetable stock
300ml of boiling water

To start, first of all char-grill the pepper. I normally do it over an open flame as I have a gas hob. But if you don't, or do not feel as brave, then you can place it under a grill, turning regularly until blackened on all sides. Put into a bowl, cover with cling film and allow to cool.

Next, chop the onion and garlic and place in a pre-heated pan containing a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. Add salt and pepper and cook over a medium heat until softened. Add the tomato puree, cumin, coriander and paprika and cook on a low heat, covered, for 10 minutes to allow the puree to cook out. Next add the quorn or meat and brown, followed by chilli flakes to taste (or not as might be the case)

Once the quorn or meat is browned, add the kidney beans, plum tomatoes, Worcester sauce and balsamic vinegar. Chop the tomatoes with a pair of scissors and then bring to the boil. Turn the heat down to a simmer and cover with a lid. Allow to cook for 20 minutes to allow the flavours to mingle.

Whilst the chilli is simmering, place the couscous in a bowl, add the vegetable stock and cover with the water. Cover with either a lid or cling film and allow to plump up. Meanwhile skin and de-seed the pepper and chop roughly. Finely slice the spring onions. When ready, fork through to separate the grains and then gently mix in the onion and pepper.

When ready to serve, place the couscous into a warmed deep bowl followed by the chilli mixture. Chop the coriander and use to garnish. And if you feel that you want a little more heat in your chilli, add the fresh red chilli, to taste.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Madam Sophia's Birthday cake

My husband and his grand daughter have birthdays four days apart. My husband is a Valentine's baby which means that it is impossible to forget his day, but allows me to push the boat out and cook something really special to celebrate both occasions. However little girls are a different matter. Last year we held a small celebration with close family and friends, the occasion being marked with a decadent chocolate fudge cake to please children and adults alike.

She is known affectionately by me as Little Madam, mainly because she has a very strong personality, in the nicest way possible. She has a very healthy interest in food and cooking and for her age (she is now four) asks some incredibly mature questions. She came to cook with me just before Christmas, we made some pastry for a quiche and she was questioning why the pastry needed to go into the fridge to rest, why it needed another resting after rolling out, why I was using baking beans etc. We also made a Victoria sponge, with balsamic strawberry and cream filling and she was well and truly the chief taster, telling me that she thought the strawberries needed more flavouring, before declaring them "yummy"And she is very opinionated about what she will and will not wear so at this stage it's a toss-up between chef and fashion designer!

This year it has been different. She is now at the age when a proper children's party, complete with the usual sugary and generally unhealthy foods are de-rigeur. Like most little girls at the moment, she is totally in love with the movie Frozen, and has a whole host of Frozen related items to boot. As her party clashed with Valentines day, celebrations took place across two separate weekends, with this weekend being a family celebration. This did mean however that the lucky girl ended up with more than one cake; the children's party was a generic Frozen themed affair, together with themed cake, with my contribution this weekend being a variation of the Primrose Bakery's triple layered confetti cake, albeit made more grown up with the addition of rose water to the cake mix and buttercream covering. I also tried to make it a little more adult with the addition of edible rose petals and pearlescent sprinkles on top. The rose water is not overpowering, instead it lends a very subtle flavour and aroma to the cake and icing, but don't be tempted to go over the top.

I'm pleased to say that it went down a storm, although Sophia went straight for the icing first. My take on the Primrose Bakery original is below.

Cake mix (makes one 3-layer 20cm cake)

315g self-raising flour
35g cornflour
1 ½ tsps baking powder
335g golden caster sugar
6 large free range eggs
335g unsalted butter at room temperature
3 tbsps whole milk
2 tbsps rose water
1½ tsps vanilla extract
¾ tsp red food colouring
75g hundreds and thousands

Pink rose and vanilla buttercream icing:

230g unsalted butter, at room temperature
120ml semi-skimmed milk
2 tsps vanilla extract
3 capfuls of rose water
1kg icing sugar, sifted
pink food colouring (I prefer to use the paste as you get a more vibrant effect without diluting the buttercream
edible rose petals
white sugar pearls


Preheat the oven to 180°C/gas mark 4. Then put the flour, cornflour, baking powder and sugar in a mixer and combine.

Add the eggs, butter, milk, rose water and vanilla extract and mix until combined, but do not over mix as the batter will become tough.

Divide the batter between three identical bowls. Weigh them to ensure you end up with three equal-sized sponge layers. The best way to do this is to weigh the empty mixing bowl before you start, then weigh again once you have made the batter. Subtract one from the other, then divide by three and you'll get the correct weights you need. Add 25 grams of the hundred and thousands to each bowl. For the different shades of sponge, add ¼ tsp red food colouring to one bowl, ½ tsp to another and mix thoroughly. Leave the third uncoloured.

Pour the batter into three greased and lined 20cm sandwich tins and put in the pre-heated oven. Cook for 20-25 minutes until a skewer inserted into each tin comes out clean. Leave to cool in the tins for 10 minutes before turning out onto a rack to cool.

For the icing, beat the butter, milk, rose water, vanilla and half the icing sugar for a couple of minutes until it’s a smooth, creamy consistency. Add the rest plus enough food colouring to reach the desired shade of pink and mix.

When the cakes are cool, remove the greased paper and put the first layer of sponge on a plate or cake stand. Spread with 1 cm of buttercream. add a second layer of sponge and repeat to make a three-tier cake tower.Finally, cover the sides and top of the cake with buttercream, spreading evenly with a spatula. To finish decorate the top with the rose petals and sugar pearls.

If not serving straight away, or if it is a warm day, it is a good idea to place in the fridge for 30 minutes or so to allow the buttercream to firm and and make the cake easier to slice.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Comfort food for a grey day

It's been wet, cold and windy today. And very grey too. So I felt in need of something to lift my spirits.

I love cauliflower, eaten raw, steamed, roasted with cumin or in one of my favourites, cauliflower cheese. However I do like to make mine a main meal, with a little salad or bread on the side. This is my favourite way of doing it, I hope that you like it.

For four people (or in my husband's case two greedy ones)

1 medium cauliflower (pull the leaves apart when buying, what might look like a generous cauli can turn out to be disappointing in my experience)
1 medium head of broccoli
1 pint of whole milk
2 bay leaves
5 whole black peppercorns
2 cloves
50 grams of butter
50 grams of plain flour
1 teaspoon of mustard powder
125 grams of grated hard strong cheese of your choice, It can be cheddar, red leicester, cave aged Gouda or anything else of your choice
2 slices of bread, preferably stale, toasted
25 grams of parmesan

Start by bringing the milk almost to the boil with the bay leaves, peppercorns and cloves. Leave to 30 minutes and then strain to remove the aromatics.

Next cook the cauliflower and broccoli under just tender. You can either boil or steam. Place in a colander to get rid of the excess moisture.

Next make the sauce. Put the butter, flour and milk in a saucepan. Heat slowly until starting to thicken, whisking all the time, then add the mustard. When starting to bubble on the surface, add the cheese and allow to melt. Let simmer gently for 10 minutes to let the flavours mingle.

In the meantime, blitz the bread and parmesan to make coarse crumbs and set aside.

When the sauce is ready, pour one third into the bottom of an ovenproof dish. Arrange the cauliflower and broccoli so that everyone gets
a bit of both when served. Pour over the remaining sauce and top with the breadcrumb mixture. Put on a baking tray and place in an over at 180c for 30 minutes, until golden and bubbling. Leave to cool slightly and then serve.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

The cheat's way to perfect white sauce

I know so many people who do not even attempt to make their own white sauce. The reason for this; well they see chefs on the TV making a roux, adding warm milk a little at a time and coming up with a perfect lump-free sauce. They try it themselves only to not quite get it right, their confidence plummets and they convince themselves that a basic white sauce is the preserve of the professionals.

Now for me, making a roux based sauce is as natural as breathing, but for friends who have not had my culinary training, it seems daunting. Well there is another way of achieving the same result. All it involves is a saucepan, whisk and a gentle heat. And of course the patience to stand over it while it thickens.

When I'm short of time, normally after a hectic day at work when I need to whip up a variation on the white sauce I put everything in the pan, heat gently and keep whisking. After about 10 minutes of gentle heating you will have a sauce that can then be customised; with cheese for cauliflower, parsley for fish, egg yolks for a moussaka topping, nutmeg to create a bechamel to top lasagna, the list goes on.

The default recipe that I use is therefore:

1 pint/568ml of full fat milk
50grams of unsalted butter
50 grams of plain flour
5 black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
2 cloves
half an onion, skin on

Start by combining the milk with the peppercorns, bay leaves, cloves and onion. Push the cloves into the onion to make removing easier. Heat until just reaching boiling point and then leave for 30 minutes, to let the flavours infuse. You could do this the day before, strain and chill in the fridge ready for use when you need it.

When you are ready to make your sauce, strain though a sieve into a pan, then add the butter and flour. Heat gently, whisking all the time, over a low heat until the mixture thickens. Allow to simmer for 10 minutes to cook out the flour, after which time add your flavourings and either serve as it is, or use in your chosen recipe.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Harissa, with a twist

I'm not a fan of overly spicy food. I'll say this now, and am ready for the brickbats, I'm not overly keen on Indian food or anything spicy at all. Well I say that, but since I asked for a Cuisinart spice grinder last Christmas, life has changed. I can now make curries and spicy food as hot or as mild as I want. I have even converted my husband to thai style curries, even though he said he was a coconut hater.

Well I was looking for something different to do with some sea bass that was lurking in the freezer and found inspiration from Yotam Ottollenghi. I have the books "Plenty" and Jerusalem" and found a wonderful recipe for fish in harissa. Except that I was not keen on all the ingredients. So I decided to modify the original Yotam recipe as follows:

1 red pepper roasted until the skin is black
1/2teaspoom of coriander seeds
1/2 teaspoon of coriander seeds
1/2 teaspoon of caraway seeds
1 small red onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon of runny honey
1/2 teaspoon of dried rose petals

Now this is where the customisation comes into play, add as many birds eye chillies as you can dare. Remember however that this gets hotter over time so you might want to moderate accordingly.

You need to pan roast the coriander, cumin and caraway until they start to give off their aroma. Then either tip into a spice grinder, or a pestle and mortar and grind to a fine powder.

Roast the pepper over an open flame until blackened.If you do not have a gas flame then grill turning regularly until the pepper is black. Put in a bowl and leave to cool. Whilst cooling, cook the onion, chillies and garlic until softened.

Add the cooled red pepper and onion mix to a grinder or food processor, together with the spice mix, honey and rose petals. Blitz to a paste and use if your own favourite recipe.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Comfort in a bowl

What can be better in life than a bowl of tomato soup when you are feeling down, or under the weather. Now a lot of people look back on Heinz Cream of Tomato with fond memories, but what could be better than making your own soup fresh to order.

I went to Finland with my husband a couple of years ago, to a small town called Mikkeli. Now Mikkeli is beautiful but despite the abundance of supermarkets,what really struck me was just how expensive fresh fruit and vegetables were. I suppose living in a country where the climate does not lend itself readily to diverse agriculture accounts for this, but it also reminded me of just how important it is not to waste a single thing.

It was on one of these days when my husband, tired of the options in the university cafe, asked me if I could rustle something up if he came back to our apartment during the lunch break. A quick rummage in the fridge resulted in finding a punnet of cherry tomatoes and some basil, about to do from being slightly past their best to unsalvagable. So I decided on soup, putting the tomatoes in a saucepan with little salt and pepper, gently cooking them until they burst and then putting in the liquidiser with the basil and blitzing. That was my original recipe which I have further refined as below:

1 pack of piccolo tomatoes
1 pack on sunstream tomatoes
pinch of salt and pepper
1 pack of basil or basil plant, stalks and all as they add to the flavour

Place the tomatoes in a small saucepan and put over a very low heat. If you want added tomato flavour, place the tomato stems in well, but do not forget to fish out before you blitz.

When the tomatoes have burst and leeched out their juice, take off the heat and allow to cool slightly. Blitz either in a liquidiser or with a stick blender, When still slightly chunky, add the basil and blitz to your required consistency.

You can either eat straight away, or allow to cool and use the next day, after which the flavours will have developed further.

Welcome to my revamped blog

I originally set this blog up in late 2009 with the very best of intentions, To use it as a way of sharing my thoughts and ideas on all things food related, and to discover inspiration from others. However in the intervening years, I got married, acquired stepchildren, faced the prospect of redundancy, ended up transferring to another area of my employer and then found myself spending the bulk of each week in London. Although it's the city of my birth, and I love it very much, it became a millstone round my neck in terms of having a personal or family life, with no energy to pursue my culinary passions as much as I would have liked to do so. Fast forward five years and a personal commitment to spend more time at home and less on the road, and I am giving life to this blog again. It's really a vehicle to share my creative output with people, as well as showcasing the best of local food related businesses where I live, as well as those further afield. Whilst I cannot promise to post every day, or week, I'm looking forward to seeing how it will evolve. I hope you enjoy reading it.