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In vino veritas


This week I have been mostly … reading and relishing the pearls of gastronomic wisdom that are Simon Hopkinson’s cookery books.  In a matter of days I had devoured both first and second helpings of the epic Roast Chicken and Other Stories.  Both copies are now sitting resplendent with a rainbow of legal tags gloriously sticking out of almost every other page as I  mark each recipe I plan to try and recreate. 

It has also been a week of regrets, nothing too serious and hopefully ones I can remedy.  Firstly, regret at having been such an idiot for years and refusing to read recipe books without pretty photography – where was my imagination? – the essays at the start of each of Simon’s chapter conjure more of a taste and visial image than any photo could.

The reading seems to have taken over the cooking and I have so far only managed to recreate one of the masterpieces I have read about.  But the recipe, and more importantly the results were reaffirmation of my love for these books.

The name of the dish i recreated, lists nearly all of the components and all 5 would be  in my ingredient ‘premier league’:  Red kidney beans baked with chorizo, chilli, garlic and olive oil.  The dish is incredibly quick and simple – a bit of chopping and then the oven does all the work.

In my usual corner-cutting form I used tinned kidney beans where the official recipe calls for them to be dry, soaked in water overnight, boiled, drained then simmered for an hour and a half– if you have that much time on your hands then no doubt your version will be even more authentic, but I unashamedly admit to reaching for the can opener and the results were still splendid.

In an oven proof pan or casserole, cook 2 finely chopped onions with 4 cloves of chopped garlic in olive oil until they are lightly coloured, add chopped chorizo (i used about two thirds of a small ‘ring’ and cook for a further few minutes until the reddish oil from the chorizo starts to come through.  Next, stir in chilli flakes (i used a tablespoon but judge on how spicy you like your food) and sherry (50ml).  As I didn’t have any to hand I used a rather odd but again satisfactory combination of Martini Rosso and white wine to mimic the sherry.  Finally add the kidney beans and a little water (if you did prepare the beans from dry this should be the cooking water) and stir in a good handful of freshly chopped mint.

Pre oven

I have created what I am calling a ‘Pimms garden’ for the summer which is really just a terracotta pot on my balcony planted with both strawberry and mint.  I have yet to harvest the fruits of the strawberry plant, but mint on demand over summer has proved an amazingly helpful resource for jazzing up salads, peas, risottos and even puddings – I highly recommend a ‘grow your own’.  The mint is much hardier than basil or coriander which I find never last under my not-very-green-fingered care!

Back to the recipe and after seasoning, place in the oven for around an hour.  The book does not indicate an oven temperature – I winged it at 180 degrees but turned the oven down to about 150 after 30 minutes as it seemed to be cooking too quickly on the top.  When ready (all the liquid has evaporated) you are left with an incredibly rich and satisfying texture with the amazing garlic and chorizo aroma, where every ingredient seems to have melted into each other.  We enjoyed it with a salad and a small dash of sour cream.

My second regret of the week is one that has been niggling at me for some time.  Despite my passion for food and eating out, and a great love of wine, I have very little knowledge about how to best pair it with foods.  This is a disgrace for anyone of my age who considers themselves a foodie, however in my case it is doubly shameful as I grew up with the privilege of having a wine merchant and lecturer for a father. 

Rewind several years and imagine if you can an even moodier, female version of Harry Enfield’s famous Kevin the teenager. I stuffed my brattish fingers in my ears and was ‘bored’ whenever my poor dad tried to talk to us about the amazing wine we were being served or why he had chosen it for that particular dish.  My brother, who was far more sensible than me, seems to have soaked up every word and really knows his stuff, whereas I have a lot of catching up to do.  Akin to the prodigal son, I have finally seen the error of my ways and my wonderful and forgiving Dad has agreed to be my tutor.  

The final kick up the bottom that I needed to set myself on this path to enlightenment was a wonderful event I was invited to this week by the lovely people at Turning Leaf wines.  Hosted at La Cucina Caldesi cooking school on Marylebone Lane,  the event previewed some amazing recipes created by Turning Leaf winemaker Stephanie Edge and chef Esther Roling to compliment the different varieties of Turning Leaf wines by creating a recipe for each season. 

We were greeted with a crisp glass of Pinot Grigio and delicious canapés of fennel and apple salad with pan fried mackerel and lime oil.  The crispiness of the salad, zing of the lime and slight fattiness of the mackerel were indeed the perfect partners to the fresh, crisp and citrusy notes of the wine.

This was followed by Chardonnay, a grape I do not always favour, but was pleasantly surprised by the Turning Leaf Chardonnay’s creaminess.  The recipe to go with the wine was an absolutely fantastic red mullet with golden Moroccan cous cous – the salty chorizo and sweet onion in the cous cous with the incredibly light textured (despite its meaty appearance) mullet was superb and the chorizo in particular bound all the ingredients together.  We were reliably informed that the recipe had been selected as its spicy notes brought out the sweetness of the wine.

Already feeling thoroughly spoilt we went on to taste  a Pinot Noir – the nose was almost pure black cherry and the taste was equally fruity while the wine as a whole was quite light.  This was my favourite wine of the evening.  As time was limited we were not able to taste or cook every recipe, so skipped straight to the next vino in the form of Zinfandel.  Again incredibly fruity but this time I thought the nose was more blackberry or blackcurrant than cherry and the overall taste and mouth feel much stronger and richer.

The final wine we tried (luckily I strictly paced myself despite the very generous offers for top ups!) was the Cabernet Sauvignon and the highlight for me food- wise of the night – Rich red beef Carpaccio with a rye bread crumb and – wait for it – I nearly wept when it was announced – parmesan and truffle oil mayonnaise – as you can imagine – heaven on a plate!  The combination of textures with the velvety beef and crunchy crisp breadcrumbs with the sweetness of roast tomatoes and the frankly orgasmic truffle and parmesan mayo is not a dish I will forget in a hurry, and the old Cab Sav wasn’t bad either! All in all a great evening both on the night and for inspiring me to kick start my wine pairing education.

If you want to recreate the mackeral or red mullet recipes, visit  – the remaining recipes will be added seasonally .

With the bank holiday coming up I have visions of immersing myself in a world of cooking and more importantly eating – highlights of what I have planned include a Thai curry – my final ever attempt, a cocktail challenge and goats cheese popcorn – until next time ….

A celebration of the humble onion*

Can you imagine a life without onions?  The very thought makes the chef in me shudder in horror. Cooking would be a nightmare, options utterly limited, dishes bland and soulless and every menu a minefield. Onions form the very core of most savoury dishes from curry to risotto and soups to stews to salads.

A wonderful friend of mine, DDG,  finds himself in the very sorry situation of living in an onion free household (he is actually very happy there apart from the onion shaped void in his culinary life). Upon hearing of his wretched fortune I promptly summoned him over to Cos I’m Towers for a much needed fix of the humble bulbs in the form of an onion themed dinner.

Cooking the onion

The onion fest commenced with a puff pastry tart with red onions caramelised in red wine and topped with goat’s cheese. Finely slice two red onions and fry until tender. When soft add 3 – 4 teaspoons of caster sugar a splash of balsamic vinegar and about 8 tablespoons of red wine and leave to bubble and simmer until the onions are caramelised, stirring often. In the meantime roll out a large sheet of puff pastry (I am afraid mine was shop bought – Jus Roll.  I refuse to believe that even the most dedicated home cooks have the time or energy to make puff pastry from scratch so am unashamed at this corner cutting!). Use a knife to trace a border of about an inch around the pastry and spread the centre of the ‘frame’ with a thin layer of Pesto (I used Sacla Wild Garlic Pesto). When the onions are ready, spread them over the pastry and pesto covering up to the borders. Cover this layer with scattered chunks of goat’s cheese and sprinkle with a few sprigs of rosemary and a drizzle of olive oil. Put in the oven for about 12 minutes at 180 degrees and it is ready to serve (it is also delicious cold if you wanted to prepare in advance).

Serve with lambs lettuce with balsamic glaze

With DDG’s hunger for onions merely teased by the tart but by no means satiated, we moved onto the main, where although onions were a feature the lamb really stole the show. I cannot recommend highly enough the three fold wonders and benefits of a shoulder cut of lamb – incredible value, ease of cooking and best of all utterly delicious (and plentiful) results. Slow cooked lamb shoulder is my dinner party classic – probably best saved for the weekend though if you don’t want to wait until midnight to eat as this recipe takes at least three hours in the oven to ensure that the lamb is utterly tender and melts in the mouth.

Place lots of garlic (I use a whole bulb or more) rosemary and some lemon halves in a roasting tray and put the lamb shoulder on top. Rub the meat with salt and pepper and ass a generous slug of oil. Place into a pre heated oven at 180 degrees. After 30 minutes, turn the heat up to about 200 degrees and leave in the oven for around 40 minutes.

Another 2 and a half hours to go!

Take the lamb out of the oven and turn it over, add more salt and pepper and another slug of olive oil, this ensure the bottom of the lamb is crispy while the top is as soft as butter, all infused with garlic and rosemary – utterly divine! Cover the lamb with foil and put back in the oven, at 180 degrees again and leave for a further 2 hours. After the cooking time let the meat sit for 5 – 10 minutes before serving. In terms of carving the meat should simply fall from the one – ensure you serve a mix of the melty top and crispy bottom to ensure delighted guests who will beg you for the recipe!

Utterly delicious

But I digress – back to the onion element of the course – I served the lamb with roast Mediterranean vegetables – roughly chop lots of onion, 2 courgettes, a red and yellow pepper and toss with plenty of olive oil and 2 cloves of garlic. Roast in the oven, stirring every 20 minutes or so to ensure the veg is evenly cooked for about an hour until the vegetables are golden and the onion soft. This is perhaps the moment to confess that to while away the two hours the lamb spent in the oven our party decamped to the local pub and my best intentions to create a dish of oniony peasant potatoes were scuppered after a few ales, meaning that a simple mash with a few drops of truffle oil completed the vegetable accompaniments!

The roast veg

After positively filling our faces with as much lamb and veg and red wine as is humanly possible (and still having plenty of meat left over) we enjoyed a short pause before the cheese course.  This was formed of a selection of Pie D’Anglois, Gorgonzola and incredibly strong cheddar all served of course, with, a delicious onion jam!

Pudding was a miniature birthday cake  (again bought) as I had wisely forseen in my menu planning, that by that stage of the evening, even  a ‘wafer thin’ mint would have been too much to manage.

Dinner was a triumph and my pal was sent on his way with a belly full of onions and the remains of the onion jam to take home for emergencies! The left overs of the lamb were torn up and mixed with chickpeas, peppers and lemon and olive oil to create the following day’s salad lunch.

The next day's lunch

The End!

*Title courtesy of Geoff Partridge Esq

Not so slimming salads

The war against my expanding stomach continues to wage full throttle and despite receiving an obscene amount of Easter eggs and chocolates over the last few days I have hidden them all in an effort to be good before the wedding.  In the desperate hope of shedding a few pounds in the next nine weeks I have been eating and cooking lots of salads.  Were anyone to analyse the actual calorific contents of these ‘low fat’ delights I think I would be rumbled and my imaginary diet bubble well and truly burst but let’s ignore that and on to the recipes:

One of these which takes a matter of minutes but which is utterly delicious is what I call Japanese Broccoli salad.  Cut a broccoli into small florets and boil until soft/al dente/crunchy depending on what you prefer, in a pan with added salt and a splash of sesame oil.  Drain thoroughly and add a splash of soy sauce, Japanese sesame dressing and sprinkle with chilli flakes and sesame seeds – I think this may be my least fattening recipe and despite this, it is delicious!

Simple but delicious

Although just weeks away from my 30th birthday, I have a probably, rather unhealthy, need to constantly see and talk to my parents.  Having been abandoned by them over Easter I comforted myself with creating some of my mum’s recipes.  My mum is an amazing and established cook and her recipes and amazing family lunches and dinners are a key inspiration behind my own love of food and cooking.  Whenever I make this dish, people ask for the recipe as it is so moreish and perfect as a starter or a side dish: Lentil, bacon and avocado salad

Finely chop some bacon and fry in a pan, add roughly chopped shallots and garlic.  Add the lentils (any variety is fine – I used green tinned lentils) and add mustard, balsamic vinegar and seasoning and a little extra olive oil.  Cook for 3 – 5 minutes to infuse the flavours and then leave to cool.  Once cool add chopped avocado and a splash more olive oil and it is ready to serve.

My final recipe for this week has a cous cous base – you could swap any of the things I have added for your own favourites – I find cous cous so versatile and perfect for salads that are more of a main course – this is also great for packed lunches.

Add boiling water and a drop or two of chicken stock to the dry cous cous.  Allow to absorb the water for 5 minutes and then fluff up with a fork you can add a knob of butter at this stage too depending on how strictly you are following your healthy eating plan!  Meanwhile finely slice chorizo and fry until crisp.  Remove from the pan and using the chorizo fat in the pan lightly fry chopped yellow and green peppers and spring onions so they are only just cooked but still have crunch.  Add the chorizo peppers and spring onions to the cous cous as well as some cubed feta.  In a separate bowl squeeze half a lemon and mix with 2 parts olive oil and salt and pepper.  Add to the cous cous and mix all the ingredients together.  Finally sprinkle with very finely chopped mint leaves.

I actually served this as a side with chicken breasts that i coated in Tracklements Chilli Jam (which i am finding a million uses for as I adore it – also lovely mixed with Philadelphia to make a dip) and then baked in the oven for twenty minutes.  As well as another salad – spinach leaves with avocado, pine nuts and balsamic glaze dressing.

Pre oven!

Roll on week 11 when I can go back to filling my face with such delights as peanut butter ice cream and cheese, but as dieting goes all this lovely summer food makes it a lot more bearable!

Simple Sandwich

Sometimes the simple things in life really are the best – this philosophy was especially reinforced for me on Monday night.  After an amazing sun (and wine and Pimms) – soaked day we got home quite late to rather sparsely filled cupboards and a nearly empty fridge.  My immediate thought was to order in pizza, but having spent a fortune over the bank holiday (mostly on the aforementioned wine and Pimms!) frugality won the day.  Drained of inspiration I turned to the fiancé for help – his suggestion: Fish finger sandwiches!

This is quite a regular response from him and a key reason why he is so rarely asked for input!  His love of this breaded cod delight has meant that over the years and after many trials, i have created a version of this errmm, ‘classic’ that is in my mind the king of fish finger sandwiches.  In the spirit of this blog reflecting all my varied tastes here’s how its done:

You will need (per sandwich)

  • 2 x slices of nice granary bread
  • 3 x fish fingers (nothing beats good old Captain Birdseye!)
  • Large spoon of mayonnaise
  • 1 x pickle
  • 1 x teaspoon capers
  • 1 x slice of hamburger cheese
  • 1 x teaspoon ketchup
  • Squeeze of lemon
  • Black pepper

Put the fish fingers under a hot grill and turn regularly until cooked and crisp.  In the meantime take your bread slices – on one spread a thin layer of ketchup and cover with a slice of hamburger cheese.  In a small bowl mix the mayonnaise with the diced pickle and capers.  Spread this generously on the remaining slice of bread. 

The prep

When the fish fingers are ready place them on the burger cheese so that it melts beneath them, add the tartar sauce spread slice and enjoy!

To summer and sparrow grass

What a gorgeous week – as I write this in the blazing sunshine on my balcony, supping an ice cold beer, I reflect that perhaps summer really is starting.  The benefits of this are twofold – firstly the unadulterated joy  of casting off winter boots and scarves (despite freezing to death with the determination to wear flip flops whatever the actual temperature) and secondly, and far more importantly – Sparrow grass is in season!  The wondrous combination of the recent good weather and seeing asparagus bursting onto shop shelves and recipe pages everywhere has inspired a voracious spate of asparagus guzzling in our house. 

The beauty of asparagus is that it is such a versatile ingredient – a wonderful addition to risottos, salads, soups and many other dishes. I think its true majesty though, lies in just how fantastic it can be when served on its own or with simple accompaniments. So far this week I have enjoyed it with butter, with hollandaise, with mashed egg and also grilled with parmesan and balsamic glaze – I don’t usually eat it daily but as I said, the recent sunshine has made me over excited.

With eggs and butter

Sparrrow grass was also the inspiration behind a new risotto recipe that I created this week with smoked salmon and petit pois.  For some reason all the way through the cooking process I was really doubting the dish as it did not look very appetising (hence no photograph – apologies ) but when it was finally served up it was delicious with a double thumbs up and request for it to be made again in the future (the ultimate accolade) from the fiance.  I added lots of lemon into the mix which combined with the pea and asparagus created a really fragrant summery dish.

You could of course make a version of this without the smoked salmon – if you do I would recommend adding either mint or basil and parmesan at the last minute to jazz the flavours up a bit!

To serve four, finely chop two large onions (most recipes would recommend les but I like risotto to have a solid onion base!  When the onions are softening, add a large cube of butter and pour in the rice so that it is covered in the butter and cook for about two minutes.  Next pour in about half a bottle of wine – again often people just use a splash but the wine really adds to the final flavour.  Allow the wine to absorb for a few minutes and then slowly add vegetable stock (I like Knorr stock pots – better than cubes if you can’t get fresh) a bit at a time while the rice absorbs it.  When all the stock has been added (I used a litre for the whole pack of rice – pack instructions will tell you how much you need) add the asparagus – I trimmed the ends and cut the stalks into 3 before adding, peas (a handful) and the grated rind of half a lemon as well as a good squeeze of lemon juice.  Finally add two tablespoons of cream cheese and lots of black pepper.  When you are minutes away from serving, add finely chopped slices of smoked salmon and stir all the ingredients so they are thoroughly mixed – the perfect dish for spring.

From cooking to shopping and the highlight of my week was being sent a box of the East India Company’s Russian Caravan tea.  When I was at college I had a wonderful, if rather eccentric friend who kept in excellent shape (as did his family) by only indulging in one meal a day (I am not recommending this by the way!) and their repast of choice was afternoon tea.  This meant that I was regularly invited to all the best spots in London over a number of years and the regularity with which we visited and the range of places we went made us feel quite expert on the subject, we even set up a very greedy sort of scoring system based on whether the establishment offered you extra sandwiches, how many varieties of jam, types of cake etc.  The venue, that in those days received my highest score, was the Dorchester and the reason for this was that at the time, they were one of the only hotels to include within their vast tea selection this wonderful smoky black variety of tea.  I have never come across a ‘teabag’ at home version since so you can imagine my utter joy at receiving a box of them.  In celebration, I have been treating myself to scones with cream and jam to accompany this king of teas all weekend.  My favourite thing about this brand is the little story on the side of the box about where the rather unusual name came from:

The ‘Silk Road’ connected people, goods, and ideas between China, Central Asia, Europe and India for over 3000 years. The route was protected and taxed by the Great Khans of Mongolia. Weary travellers would rest at ‘caravanserai’ camps, and the evening tea became known as the ‘Caravan’ tea, this smoked Russian inspired tea is evocative of those evenings on the Silk Road.

Hooked, I went onto their website and discovered that all of the gorgeous goodies from the East India Company have these stories, with a lovely historical flavour about where the products traditionally came from or how they got their names on the packs.  Their shop on Conduit Street is a veritable treasure trove of amazing treats.  Next on my list to try is the Chocolate with sea salt and the range of Enrobed fruits and beans – As well as the usual coffee beans they have a plethora of options including ginger, strawberry and raspberry – I think they make the perfect Easter present and will stand out amongst the crowd of dull old eggs  – I highly recommend.

Perfect for Easter

I must now peel myself away from the sunshine to start on dinner – I am in the glorious state of having just received my grocery order so with full fridge and cupboards the world is my culinary oyster.  Options include: Sweet potato frittata, Courgette, feta and mint salad or Thai salmon fishcakes – decisions, decisions!  Until next week…