Sunday, 30 December 2012

Heavenly Vanilla Cupcakes

Merry Christmas everyone! I hope you all had a wonderful time over the festive season with lots to eat and drink and lots and lots of presents. I for one had a great Christmas. It was the first year N and I had hosted and for some reason I thought hosting Christmas Day and Boxing Day would be a good idea! I enjoyed every minute of it and made some great food but by the end I told N that I didn't want to cook anything again for another week! The look of horror on N's face was priceless! I did assure him I was only joking but I'm not sure he was convinced as I have somehow managed to avoid cooking dinner since Boxing Day. I think N is very concerned about where his next meal is coming from!

Although I haven't cooked anything for the last few days yesterday I did do some baking. One of my presents from a friend at work was The Hummingbird Bakery Cake Days recipe book. It is definitely one of the most beautiful recipe books I own. Every single page is full of the most exquisite cakes. Unfortunately most of them require a little planning as they use ingredients I don't really keep at home. But I did manage to find a recipe for some vanilla cupcakes that didn't require me to head out to the shops. I vowed to myself that I would follow the recipe to the letter as I wanted to see what all the fuss was about but I just couldn't bring myself to do it! Firstly, the recipe indicated the use of full fat milk, which I never keep at home and if I did buy it specially the rest would just go to waste. So I took the risk of substituting it for semi-skimmed. Secondly, was the huge amount of sugar the recipe required. As I started to pour it in to my mixing bowl I just couldn't do it. I reduced it by about a qaurter in the end and it tasted just fine. For the frosting, I made only half the quantity suggested and it was plenty. The cupcakes were still covered well and the ratio of cake to frosting was perfect.

When I started out baking the cakes I wondered what all the fuss could be about. Why are Hummingbird cakes so famous. After tasting it I know why. These are probably the best cakes I have ever eaten and I felt so chuffed that I had made them myself. I distributed a few to friends and family and when you get a text back saying 'Oh my god the cupcakes are absolute heaven! I have just eaten two!' you know they must be pretty good!

Heavenly Vanilla Cupcakes
(makes 12 | Total prep and cooking time 1 hour + 30 mins cooling time)


Ingredients for the sponge
- 80g unsalted butter, softened
- 210g caster sugar
- 230g plain flour (sifted)
- 1 tablespoon baking powder (sifted)
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 240ml semi-skimmed milk
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract or powder
- 2 large eggs

Ingredients for the frosting
- 225g icing sugar
- 80g unsalted butter, softened
- 25ml semi-skimmed milk
- 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract or powder
- chocolate sprinkles

Method
- Preheat the oven to 180 degrees fan and line a deep muffin tin with muffin cases
- Using a hand-held electric whisk or fresstanding electric mixer slowly beat together the butter, sugar, flour, baking powder and salt until all the ingredients are well mixed and resemble fine breadcrumbs
- Mix together the milk, eggs and vanilla by hand in a jug. With the whisk still on a low speed, pour three-quarters of the milk mixture into the dry ingredients and mix well to make sure all the ingredients are fully incorporated. Add the rest of the mixture and beat again on a medium setting until the batter is smooth.
- Spoon the batter into the muffin cases up to about two-thirds full. Put the in oven for 20 minutes. Check they are springy to touch and a skewer comes out clean, if not put in for a bit longer. Do not be tempted to open the oven door within the first 20 minutes. Leave to cool slightly before removing from the tin and cooling on a wire rack
- While the cakes are in the oven make th frosting. Whisk the icing sugar and butter on a low speed using the electric whisk until fully combined and sandy in consistency. Add the vanilla to the milk and pour into the butter and icing sugar while still mixing on a low speed. Increase the speed to high and whisk the frosting until light and fluffy
- Once the cupcakes are cool, add the frosting, smoothing with a palette knife. Decorate with chocolate sprinkles








Thursday, 20 December 2012

Melt-in-the-middle chocolate pudding

How many of you have dessert after a weekday dinner? I've never really had a sweet tooth but N has and his bad influence has definitely rubbed off on me. We don't have a formal dessert every evening but we do tend to have something sweet after dinner. It might just be a fruit yoghurt or some ice cream or perhaps just a little piece of chocolate. It's still 5 days till Christmas and we've already run out of chocolates on our Christmas tree!

Once in a while though, I do like to have a real dessert in the evening. Sometimes I buy some profiteroles or a mousse from Marks and Spencers but I'd really love to make one myself more often, if only I had the time. This recipe solves all those problems. Not only is it a chocoholics delight but it's super quick to prepare (approx 10 mins) and takes only 20 mins to cook so as soon you sit down to eat dinner just pop it in to the oven. It's also perfect for a dinner party as it can be made earlier in the day and then just cooked when you need it. It looks best if you make them in individual ramekins but as I now realise that's the one thing my kitchen is lacking. It's probably a bit late to put that on my Christmas list but if anyone who's planning to buy me a gift is stuck for ideas....

Melt-in-the-middle chocolate pudding
(serves 2 | total prep and cooking time approx 30 mins)
 
 
Ingredients 
  •  50g unsalted butter + extra to grease
  • 1 teaspoon cocoa powder
  • 1 egg
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 40g caster sugar
  • 50g plain flour
  • 50g chocolate (min 70% cocoa)


Method
  • Heat the oven to 160 degrees fan
  • Melt the chocolate and butter together in a bain marie
  • Take off the heat and leave to cool
  • Whisk together the egg, egg yolk and sugar
  • Butter the ramekin(s) and dust with cocoa powder. Shake of any excess
  • Whisk the cooled chocolate into the eggs and sugar mixture
  • Sift the flour and stir in to the mixture
  • Transfer into the ramekin(s)
  • Bake for 20 mins
 


Thursday, 29 November 2012

Chicken and Chorizo Parcels

I always have the dilemma of whether to cook with chicken breasts or thighs. Breast meat is better for you as on average it contains about a third of the saturated fat content of thigh meat and a lot more protein. But the problem is it's no way near as tender. In reality I use both depending on what I am cooking. For soups, casseroles, paellas and stir frys I use breast meat as I end up shredding or chopping the chicken making it taste less dry. Thigh meat works better for roast chicken, coq au vin or chicken curry (skin left on for the first two and off for the last). But finally I have found a great way of cooking chicken breast meat that keeps it moist and tender. My inspiration came from a recipe in Stylist magazine a few months back. Of course the end result had a fair few Accidental Cook signature variations! By cooking the chicken in baking paper it locks in the moisture and takes up the flavour of whatever you accompany it with. With this last thought in mind there could be no better pairing than my favourite ingredient, chorizo!

I served this dish with a mixture of sweet potato and regular potato wedges (another way to hide the sweet potato from N!) and some steamed asparagus.

Chicken and Chorizo Parcels
(serves 2 | total prep and cooking time 35-40 mins)
Ingredients
  • 2 chicken breast fillets
  • 3 tablespoons chopped chorizo
  • 1 tomato - chopped
  • 1/2 onion - diced
  • 3 cloves garlic - finely chopped
  • 2 tablesoons chopped herbs e.g. parsley, thyme or basil
Method
  • Preheat the oven to 108 degrees fan
  • Heat the oil in a frying pan
  • Add the chorizo and fry for a few minutes until the oil starts to release from the chorizo
  • Add the tomato, onion and garlic and stir until the chorizo is cooked
  • Stir through the herbs
  • Place the chicken breast on a piece of baking paper and season
  • Spoon over the chorizo mixture
  • Wrap the paper into a parcel
  • Bake in the oven for 20-25 minutes until the chicken is cooked through




Sunday, 18 November 2012

Sausage and Bean Cassoulet

Oh the humble sausage, it has saved many a meal time for me. It's quick and tasty and although I am a little sceptical about its nutritional value once in a while I think it is fine. I'm pretty sure N has 'forgotten' how to cook since we got married but if he ever does have to fend for himself it usually involves some form of sausages.

But this dish makes the humble sausage into something beautiful. I've tried a few sausage and bean cassoulet recipes in the past and they've always been fine, but never great. This is one of those dishes where every mouthful is an explosion of taste and no matter how full you are you really don't want it to end. And it tastes even better every time I remember that I invented the recipe myself!

Cook's tip: for a vegetarian version substitute the pork sausages for vegetarian ones such as Quorn or Linda McCartney.

The Accidental Cook's Sausage and Bean Cassoulet
(serves 4 | approx prep and cooking time 1 hour)

Ingredients
6 good quality pork sausages
2-3 tablespoons chopped cooking chorizo
1 onion - diced
4 cloves garlic - finely chopped
2 dried bay leaves
1 heaped teaspoon fennel seeds
1 can (400g) chopped tomatoes
1 can (400g) butter beans
1 can (400g) mixed beans (e.g pinto, canellini, kidney)
2 leeks - sliced
500ml vegetable stock
1 level teaspoon paprika
1 generous teaspoon whole grain mustard
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
Method
  • Brown the sausages in a non-stick frying pan. They do not have to be cooked through.
  • Heat some olive oil in a large saucepan or stock pot
  • Fry the onions for a few minutes
  • Add the garlic and bay leaves and fennel seeds. Cook for a minute or two
  • Add the chorizo and mix well. Cook on a low heat until the chorizo starts to release some oil. Mix well so the onion is coated in the chorizo oil
  • Drain the beans and rinse thoroughly with water
  • Add the beans and the leeks to the stock pot and mix well
  • Add the chopped tomatoes and all the juices
  • Add the paprika and stir well
  • Cut the sausages into pieces (approx 1 inch) and add to the bean sauce
  • Add the stock, bring to the boil and simmer for approx 20 minutes. If there is too much water increase the heat to evaporate, or if it is too dry add some boiling water
  • Just before it has finished cooking still through the parsley and mustard
  • Serve with crusty bread


Sunday, 11 November 2012

Good Food Day


What an amazing day I had at the BBC Good Food Show yesterday. For any 'foodie' it really is heaven in an exhibition centre. If you've never been I urge you to go next year. Whether you like cooking at home or prefer eating out there's something for everyone. My friend Shamli and I started our day watching a live performance by the talented James Martin. With his brash Yorkshire mannerisms he makes elegant food unpretentious. He did a mini version of Saturday Kitchen Live with the help of the excellent Theo Randall and with guest star radio presenter Chris Evans. I know they say sarcasm is the lowest form of wit but Evans had me in fits of giggles yesterday.

We followed Martin through to a question and answer session and then on to a book signing. I did feel like we were stalking him slightly but it was worth it to have my photo taken with him. Shamli's very helpful comment to interrupt my glee was that Martin's head looked twice the size of mine! On looking at it I agree. I'm not sure if he has a particularly large head or me a small one. I suppose it's because he is over a foot taller than me, it's a good thing he was sitting down or we may have looked like we were at a photo event promoting The Hobbit!

Our little circuit of following Martin was repeated with a similar one for Michel Roux Jnr. What a superb chef and actually a lot less scary in real life! The rest of the day was as you can imagine. Some great food, a wander round the stalls and some souvenir shopping...a bit of cheese, some kitchen gadgets and a very fun replica Masterchef apron. I don't think I'm quite at the Masterchef level (yet!) but a girl can dream...

Monday, 5 November 2012

A Bonfire Hotpot

All I could think about today was lamb hotpot. From the moment I took the diced lamb out of the freezer this morning it was constantly on my mind. I've been planning the recipe all day, perfecting it in my mind. I could almost taste it before I even made it. November the 5th. It just felt like the right dish for bonfire night. Dark, rich and comforting. Perfect for a cold night. And trust me it didn't disappoint.

I didn't even have a base recipe for this one, it was invented by what I thought worked together. Lamb and aubergine belong together. The taste, colour and texture just work really well. And rosemary and thyme are the natural choice to go with them. I've been experimenting with knorr stock pots recently and have found they're a bit heavy for pastas and risottos but perfect for soups and casseroles. It gave the lamb base a great depth and flavour. As for the topping, I've read that sweet potato is better for you than regular potato but N has been very sceptical to try it. A combination of the two worked very well as a topping.

I know it takes a while to make this one so a weekday may not be practical, but I definitely recommend you try it at a weekend. The best thing about it is once it's in the oven you're free to have a well deserved break. A cup of tea, a glass of red wine or a peak out of the window to watch the fireworks!

  Lamb and Aubergine Hotpot
(seves 2 | total prep and cooking time 1 hour 30 minutes)
Ingredients
400g diced lamb
1 small aubergine - cut into 1 inch pieces
1/2 red onion - diced
3 garlic cloves - finely chopped
2 totmatoes - chopped
200ml hot water - finely chopped
1 vegetable stock pot
A few sprigs of fresh rosemary
A few sprigs of thyme
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1 potato - sliced
1 sweet potato - sliced
Dry Italian herbs
Method
- Preheat the oven to 180 degrees
- Lightly grease an oven proof dish
- Remove any excess fat from the lamb
- Heat some olive oil in a frying pan and brown the lamb. Set aside
- Heat some oil in a saucepan and fry the oinions
- Add the garlic and cook for a few mins
- Add the chopped tomatoes and aubergine and mix well. Cook for a few minutes
- Add the paprika, rosemary and thyme leave
- Add the stock pot and boiling water
- Mix well and cook on a high heat until a lot of the water has evaporated. It should be moist but mot watery
- Transfer the lamb mixture to the oven proof dish
- Layer the potato and sweet potato slices on top of the lamb and sprinkle with a little olive oil and dry herbs
- Cover and cook for 40 minutes
- Remove the cover and increase the temperature to 200 degrees. Cool for a further 20 minutes


Thursday, 1 November 2012

The only kind of drizzle I actually like

I can't believe I missed the Great British Bake-Off this year. It's like I'd been asleep for the last 3 months. I only actually came to realise it had been on when my work colleague said 'I can't believe I missed the Bake-Off final this week'! Missed the final, I'd missed the whole ten weeks. Well thank god for iPlayer. Especially now I can watch it on my new smart TV rather than on the tiny iPad screen. It's changed my life (a very dramatic statement and probably a slight exaggeration). And it's almost as good as watching it on TV except when it decides to start buffering for 5 minutes.

So, back to the Bake-Off. Those contestants are amazing. They can bake everything. I mean I'm ok at a cake or biscuits or perhaps a crumble or two but if anyone asks me to make a strudel I'd fall to pieces like flaky pastry. But these guys are stars, even the poor contestant that gets kicked out in week one! And the winner, what a guy. An amazing baker and what a great soldier. The amount of blood there was the week he cut his hand, I honestly had to look away and I work in a hospital!

But, for me the Bake-Off isn't just about entertainment, it's about inspiration. Most people can make a cake, but it's making a really good cake that I aspire to. The one where everyone fights over the last piece. And this lemon drizzle cake is the one. I am generally quite critical about my own food but I loved this one. So much so that I made sure it was me that ate the last piece!

Lemon Drizzle Cake
(makes 9-12 pieces | total prep and cooking time approx 1 hour 15 mins)


Ingredients
2 eggs
140g caster sugar
150g soft margarine, plus extra for greasing
Finely grated rind of 1 lemon
175g self raising flour (sieved)
125ml milk
Icing sugar for dusting
For the syrup: 110g icing sugar, 50ml of fresh lemon juice

Method
- Preheat the oven to 180 degrees
- Grease a 7 inch square cake tin and line with non-stick baking paper
- Place the eggs, caster sugar and margarine in a a mixing bowl and beat hard until smooth and fluffy. It is best to use an electric hand mixer to do this
- Stir in the lemon rind
- Fold in the sieved flour lightly and evenly
- Stir in the milk and mix - Pour mixture into the cake tin and spread evenly so the top is level
- Bake for 45-50 minutes until golden brown, firm to touch and a skewer comes out clean
- Remove from the oven and stand the tin on a wire rack to cool
- Just before the cake is cool make the syrup. Place the icing sugar and lemon juice in a saucepan and heat gently. Stir until sugar dissolves, do not boil!
- Prick the cake all over with a skewer and spoon the hot syrup evenly over the top, allowing it to be absorbed
- Leave to cool in the tin and then turn the cake out and cut into even pieces
- Dust with a little icing sugar before serving

(original recipe taken from the Big Book of Baking, amendments by yours truly!)

Friday, 26 October 2012

Chorizo and Green Bean Tapas

N often plays drums on a Tuesday night, which means he gets home and has to leave within about 15 mins so that he can make it to practice on time. In that time he needs to change out of his work clothes into his 'drum playing clothes' (a dodgy rude boy hoodie and some dated jeans!) and have a quick dinner. Luckily I get home before him so, being the wonderful wife I am, I make sure there is something ready for him to gulp down. Now to be fair, I only get home about 15-20 minutes before him so it has to be a pretty speedy dinner. Normally I make a quick pasta, a stir fry, or if things are seriosuly rushed he has to make do with poached egg on toast! Tonight, as I had some chorizo left over from a paella I made a few days back, I thought I try to conjure up a chorizo and green bean tapas style dish. It took just 15 minutes and tasted fantastic. So much so that I think it could definitely give Jamie Oliver's 15 minute meals a run for it's money!

Chorizo and Green Bean Tapas
(serves 2 | total prep and cooking time 15-20 mins)

 (sorry blog readers I just could not get this picture to rotate, you'll have to lie on your side and look at it!)

Ingredients
1 onion - diced
3 cloves garlic -finely chopped
1 pack green beans- trimmed and cut
1/2 pack cooking chorizo - sliced
2 tomatoes - chopped
1 tablespoon tomato puree
Pinch of chopped chilli
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1/2 cup boiled water
 
Method
-  Heat some olive oil in a non-stick frying pan
-  Fry the onions and garlic
-  Add the chorizo and cook for 3-4 minutes on a low heat
- Add the beans and tomato, stir well
- Add the chilli, parsley and tomato puree, stir well
- Add the boiled water and mix
- Cook until most of the water has evaporated
- Serve on toasted bread
 
 

 
 


Sunday, 16 September 2012

Chocolate and Vanilla Marble Loaf Cake

I had a great urge to bake yesterday, which is very unusual for me as I am definitely more of a savoury cook than a sweet one.  It was a beautiful day so I had taken my kindle into the garden, but for some reason I just could not settle. I needed to create something.  And what better way to create than to bake a cake.  For me cooking, and in particular baking, is a cross between science and art. I love the precision of measuring and weighing, it is so completely absorbing.  But even more than that I love the feeling of creating something beautiful and decadent out of such basic raw materials. And the amazing aroma it creates while it's baking is an added bonus. As N says, candles just don't come close.

As it was a case of baking on impulse I had to work with what I had at home. Luckily I keep most of the essentials to hand.  Butter, flour, sugar and eggs are all staples in my kitchen.  Whilst taking them out I also noticed something peaking at me from my baking shelf. A bar of chocolate. Then the inspiration came. Chocolate and vanilla marble loaf cake.  And what better recipe to use than that of the queen of baking, Mary Berry.  As always I made a few signature tweaks. Every time I look at a cake recipe it astonishes me how much butter it contains. As I weigh the butter I can literally feel my arteries clogging up, so I always try to reduce the quantity as much as I think I can get away with. Same goes for the sugar content. I was also amazed to find that the original recipe didn’t contain any real chocolate in the cake itself so I added some of that in, as well as a bit of golden syrup to give it some extra depth. In my opinion this cake tastes fantastic but if you’d prefer to use the original recipe just click on the link below:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/recipes/8737915/Mary-Berrys-chocolate-and-vanilla-marble-loaf-recipe.html

Chocolate and Vanilla Marble Loaf
(serves 10| total prep and cooking time approximately 1 hour 15 mins)


Ingredients
For the Cake
150g unsalted butter (softened)
150g caster sugar
275g self-raising flour
1-2 tablespoons golden syrup (or clear honey)
2 level teaspoons baking powder
3 large eggs
2 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
11/2 level tablespoons cocoa powder
2 tablespoons hot water
50g melted milk chocolate

For the Icing
25g butter
15g sifted cocoa powder
1-2 tablespoons milk
100g sifted icing sugar

Method

·         Preheat the oven to 160 degrees fan

·         Grease a 2lb (900g) loaf tin

·         Measure the butter,  sugar, flour, baking powder, eggs, milk and vanilla extract into a large bowl and beat with a hand-held electric mixer for about 2 minutes, until well blended.

·         Spoon half the mixture into another bowl

·         In one bowl add the golden syrup and mix well

·         Melt the chocolate in a bowl suspended over a saucepan of boiling water (bain-marie). Make sure the bottom of the bowl doesn’t touch the water

·         In a small bowl mix the cocoa powder with the hot water until smooth. Allow to cool slightly

·         Mix the melted chocolate and the cocoa powder mixture into the second bowl of cake mixture. Mix well

·         Spoon the vanilla and chocolate cake mixture randomly into the loaf tin until all the mixture if used up. Gently level the surface

·         Bake for about 50 minutes until springy to the touch and well risen

·         To check it is cooked pierce with a knife. The knife should come out clean

·         While the cake is cooking make the icing. Melt the butter in a small saucepan and add the cocoa powder. Stir to blend and cook for about a minute

·         Stir in the milk and icing sugar and then remove from the heat and mix thoroughly

·         Leave aside and stir occasionally to thicken

·         Once cooked remove the cake from the oven and allow it to cool

·         Slice the cake in half and spread with the icing sugar, or spread the icing sugar on top of the cake

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Award winning monkfish

My god, where do the weeks go? I can’t believe it’s been three weeks since I posted anything on this blog. I am absolutely ashamed of myself. But unfortunately real life seems to have gotten the better of me recently. Between working, commuting and looking after the house and the hubby there really aren’t enough hours in the day. Although, that’s not completely true. I have managed to squeeze in some essential Olympics time.

Yesterday we spent the day at the Olympic Park. Although I try not to think about how much money the Olympics has cost the tax payer I have to admit they’ve done an amazing job on the Olympic Village. It’s well designed and well organised and it really is such a wonderful experience to be part of it. I’m not sure the experience of buying tickets can be praised quite as much. To be honest it all looked so stressful I didn’t even bother trying to do it myself. Luckily N’s sister has a lot more energy with these things than me and she kindly invited us along to watch the men’s hockey. The buzz and the adrenaline of being there in the stadium is indescribable (the Olympics as a whole that is, the match itself was a little one-sided with Australia beating Pakistan 7-0)! My favourite event so far has definitely been the athletics, for which I have sat glued to the TV for hours. For me, that’s what the Olympics are all about. N and I seem to have had more conversations about Usain Bolt this week than about anything else!

So, even after a long day at the Olympics yesterday, dinner still had to be made. I had bought some monkfish fillets the other day, but was still undecided on how I was going to cook them. I love monkfish as it’s so versatile and not too ‘fishy’! I normally cut them into medallions (quite apt for a post-Olympic meal) and add them to pasta or a fish stew. But yesterday I fancied something different. I conjured up a dish with lemon, garlic and rosemary. It was definitely a winner, so much so that N offered to give it a gold medal!


Monkfish with Lemon, Garlic and Rosemary
(serves 2 | total prep and cooking time less than 30 minutes)



Ingredients
 
2 monkfish fillets - cut in to medallions
6 cloves of garlic - peeled but left whole
Half a lemon - cut into 4 wedges
A few sprigs of rosemary
Olive oil
Salt and Pepper

Method

- Sprinkle some salt on the monkfish about an hour before cooking to draw out any excess water
- Heat the oven to 180 degrees fan
- Pat the monkfish medallions dry with a paper towel and season with salt and pepper
- Heat some olive oil in a non stick frying pan and pan fry the monkfish for about 2 minutes on each side
- Lay a piece of foil on a baking tray and transfer the monkfish to the centre of the foil using a slotted spoon. You do not want to transfer any of the liquid
Nestle the cloves of garlic and the rosemary in amongst the monkfish
- Squeeze a little lemon juice of the fish and arrange the remaining lemon wedges between the fish pieces
- Fold the foil into a parcel and place in the oven for about 15-20 minutes or until the fish is cooked through
- Serve with wild rice or potatoes and vegetables of your choice





Wednesday, 18 July 2012

A Meal Fit for a First Date

Do you ever wish you could describe your life through food and drink? Wouldn’t that be beautiful? Your favourite food as a child or perhaps your worst food as a child! The dish you ordered on a magical night out with your partner, the first dish you cooked, the wine you drank at your wedding or perhaps the champagne at your graduation. Food and drink plays such an important part in our lives and a great dish, just like a great song, can conjure up so many wonderful memories.  I think that’s why N and I often go back to the same restaurants again and again and even the same holiday destinations. It’s the sense of familiarity it brings, the sense of comfort and the feeling of belonging.
Carluccio’s is a place that brings back the fondest memories for me. N and I went there for our first date. I know it’s just a high street chain restaurant but the food is wonderful and generally consistent and I love having a look around their food store while I wait for my table. I’ve picked up some great treats there that have since become staples in my larder.  And my signature dish….Spaghetti alle Vongole. I have to thank N for introducing me to this one. It’s so delicious we’ve been known to leave restaurants if they’ve run out of it. Carluccio’s does a fantastic job at producing this dish but we’ve also found other great versions in Paris, Sorrento and at a fantastic little family run Italian trattoria on the Gray’s Inn Road in Holborn called L’Osteria 57. The wonderful thing about this place is they let us tailor the dish to our taste so we often swop the traditional clams for mussels and prawns to give it a bit of a twist.

This dish can be prepared in two ways: with tomato (in rosso) and without (in bianco). Both are great but I tend to order the bianco variation. The rest of the ingredients are so simple, but I think it’s the simplicity that makes it taste so great. And the fact the ingredients are so simple means that it is also a great dish to prepare at home. When I recreate this dish at home I make my prawn and mussel version. You can use fresh mussels and steam them yourself but I use ready prepared ones from M&S. Bit of a cheat I know, but this way it means the whole dish takes only 15 minutes to make.

 Spaghetti alle Vongole
(serves 2 | total prep and cooking time approximately 15 minutes)



Ingredients

130g dry spaghetti

Olive oil

140g raw prawns

1 pack of Marks and Spencer’s cooked mussels in shallots and garlic or in white wine and parsley

4 cloves of garlic – finely chopped

Finely chopped chilli – how much depends on your preference

100ml white wine

1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

Method
·         Cook the spaghetti according to the instructions on the packet

·         Rinse the mussels under cold water and remove them from the shells (you can keep them in the shells if you prefer, it looks better that way but slows you down when you’re eating!)

·         Heat some olive oil in a large frying pan and pan fry the prawns till they turn pink. Remove the cooked prawns with a  slotted spoon and keep aside

·         Heat a little more oil in the same frying pan and add the garlic and chilli, cook for a couple of minutes

·         Add the prawns and the mussels

·         Add the white wine and bring to the boil. Cook at this temperature for about 5 minutes to make sure the alcohol evaporates

·         Add the chopped parsley

·         Toss in the cooked spaghetti

·         Serve with cracked black pepper on top and accompanied by garlic bread and salad




Tuesday, 3 July 2012

A Gift of Paper

For every year you've been married there are specific material associations relating to that anniversary. There are traditional ones, modern ones, flowers and gemstones. For our first anniversary I decided it would be fun for N and I to buy each other a present linked to the traditional association, it didn't have to be expensive, just thoughtful. The first anniversary is paper. My initial thought was a newspaper printed on the day of our wedding. But seeing it was only the previous year I figured if I looked hard enough in N's pile of still to be read newspapers I would probably find it there for free rather than paying good money for it! I racked my brains and then it finally came to me. I sourced and framed the sheet music to my entrance song at our wedding - Arrival of the Queen of Sheba by Handel - it was perfect! N also managed to stick to the theme, he bought me a paperback book I had been going on about for ages, which just shows that he does listen to me occasionally!

For our second anniversary I put my thinking cap on again. Cotton. Apart from underpants I couldn't come up with anything but I didn't give in that easily and finally decided on a soft cotton scented candle that smelt of freshly washed linen. Not really cotton I know but pretty clever laterally thinking in my view and very well received. N bought me flowers. I'm guessing he was already bored of the theme game! Our third anniversary is fast approaching and this one is associated with leather. Perhaps this year we'll club together and buy something for the house, like a leather armchair. Not very romantic I know but it's been three years now so who am I kidding!

So what's this got to do with food I hear you ask. Well recently I read that for Will and Kate's first anniversary she cooked them a meal of  fish en papillote (fish in paper). That was such a great idea, I am only jealous I didn't think of it myself. Especially because I have the perfect recipe. This salmon dish is delicious. It's one of those dishes that you forget how amazing it is until you eat it again and then you wonder why you don't cook it every week.

So, if your first anniversary is coming up this is definitely the dish for you. Or if you're already way past that one just make it anyway. It's super quick and pretty healthy, which makes it the perfect weekday dinner.

Spectacular Salmon Parcels 
(serves 2 | total prep and cooking time 30 minutes)



Ingredients
2 salmon fillets
120g couscous
1/2 stock cube dissolved in 200ml hot water
1 tomato - diced
2 spring onions - sliced
2-3 cloves of garlic - finely chopped
3 tablespoons olive oil plus extra for drizzling
juice of 1/2 a lemon
tablespoon of chopped parsley
1/4 teaspoon fresh chilli - finely chopped (or a pinch of chilli flakes)
dried tarragon
black pepper

Method
  • Place the couscous in a bowl and pour the stock over it. Leave it to rest for 10 minutes
  • In a separate bowl mix the tomato, spring onion, chilli, garlic, olive oil, lemon juice and parsley
  • Once the couscous has absorbed all the stock stir in the chopped tomato mixture. Make sure it is mixed as evenly as possible
  • Cut 2 squares of baking paper (approx 25cm X 25cm)
  • Transfer the couscous mixture evenly between the 2 papers
  • Top the couscous with a fillet of salmon drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with dry tarragon and black pepper
  • Twist the ends of the paper to resemble a large boiled sweet

  • Place on a baking tray and put in the oven for 15-20 mins. Check the salmon is cooked through before you serve it
  • To keep it rustic eat it from the baking paper. Serve with steamed broccoli or other vegetables



Wednesday, 20 June 2012

For the Love of France


I have finally come to terms with it, I am definitely a Francophile. I have no idea why. I have no familial or childhood link to France and I hated learning French at school but for some reason, on a trip to Paris a few years ago,  I suddenly had a strong urge to start learning French again. I get these hair-brained ideas regularly but for some reason this one I actually did something about. A few months later I was enrolled in an advanced beginners French language class. I have been learning French for about two years now and I love it. But it's not just the language I love, it's the French style, the people and the food.

France really does have some beautiful dishes…and desserts…and pastries…and wines…and gosh I could go on for ever. And you’ll immediately know why they cook so well if you ever take a trip to a French hypermarket. The choice they have is amazing. The variety of produce and the freshness of their fruit and veg, for me it’s like going to Disneyland!

I have a few French dishes in my repertoire now. They tend to appear after we’ve eaten something nice in France and N asks me to try and recreate it at home. N loves French fish soup, I personally will never order a fish soup in a restaurant. Once they’ve blended it like that you no longer have any idea what’s in it – how many fish heads and carcasses went in to it is anybody’s wonder. My need to find a fish soup recipe arose on a trip around the supermarket. We had just returned from Paris and N clearly still had fish soup cravings. He insisted on buying bouillabaisse in a tin. I have never seen anything that looked and tasted so revolting. But he ate it all. It was then I realised that if he loved it so much I would have to find a way of making it.

My version is not truly authentic but I had to make sure I would eat it too! But I do try to serve it as authentically as I can. I accompany it with a cheat version of an aioli (mayonnaise, lemon juice, Dijon mustard, crushed garlic, salt and pepper), some grated cheese (cheddar is fine it doesn’t have to be fancy) and toasted French baguette. Bon appetit! 

Fish Soup
(serves 2 as a main or 4 as a starter | total prep and cooking time 40 mins)


Ingredients
2 tablespoons of olive oil
1 onion (red or white) – chopped
2 sticks of celery – chopped
2 cloves of garlic – chopped
1 large bay leaf
2 spring onions – chopped
2 small fillets of white fish (e.g. haddock or cod) – cut into 1 inch pieces
1 small can (227g) chopped tomatoes and juices
Pinch of dry chilli flakes
½ - 1 teaspoon of paprika
The leaves of a few sprigs of thyme
½ teaspoon of dry tarragon
100g vegetables e.g. peas or runner beans
1 pint fish stock
140g cooked prawns
A generous sprinkling of parsley
Squeeze of lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste

Method

  • Heat the oil in a saucepan on a medium heat
  • Add the onion and celery and cook until they soften
  • Add the garlic and bay leaf and stir, cook for a few minutes
  • Add the spring onions
  • Add the chopped fish and stir gently, cook for approximately 5 minutes until the fish pieces start to become opaque. Do not stir too vigorously or the pieces will break
  • Add the tomato tin and juices and mix so the fish is evenly covered
  • Add the chilli flakes, paprika, thyme, tarragon and the seasonings. Cook for a few minutes so the herbs and spices can infuse
  • Ass the vegetables and stir
  • Add the fish stock, bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes
  • Add the cooked prawns and cook for a further 5 minutes or until the fish is cooked (opaque all the way through and slightly flaky). Add more boiling water depending on your preferred consistency
  • Remove the bay leaf, top with chopped parsley and a squeeze of lemon juice and serve


Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Istanbul



Istanbul can only be described as a feast for all the senses. As the only city that crosses over two continents it really is a destination packed with all types of Turkish delights.

For the eyes you have the magnificent scenery. Hundreds of beautifully built mosques dotted like jewels around the coastline of the sun-reflected bright blue Bosphorus. And what about the 1500 year-old Hagia Sofia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with its low hung chandeliers and ancient Christian mosaics which are, without a doubt, the must-see sight of the city.  

Your ears are filled with the sound of car horns (the traffic in Istanbul is unimaginable), the voices of the Grand Bazaar traders and the prayer calls bellowing out from each of the magnificent mosques. These noises blend together to form a soundtrack to the city.

For your taste buds you have the bitter, velvety Turkish coffee and the honey tasting tea served in miniature vase shaped glass teacups. Not to mention the intense syrupy taste of traditional Turkish pastries, baklava, which provide a perfect end to every meal.

I would say your sense of smell experiences a journey like no other. The scent of freshly made kebabs and freshly cooked bread makes you hungry even when you’ve just eaten.

And finally, for the sense of touch. Your skin rejoices under the beautiful Mediterranean sun followed by the indescribable relaxation found in the traditional Turkish baths and hammams.

Istanbul, what an experience. As you can tell I loved every minute of it. A week was too short, I could easily have stayed for another. However the highlight, apart from a week away with N of course, was, without a doubt, my Turkish cooking class. Hidden away in the old town of Sultanahmet, nestled behind the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, was a cute little restaurant owned by a lovely lady named Eveline. This was the setting of my journey into the world of Turkish cuisine. Cooking Alaturka (www.cookingalaturka.com) provided us with the use of a real working restaurant kitchen, traditional recipes and carefully selected ingredients to prepare six delicious dishes.

We started with a hot yoghurt soup infused with dried mint, also known as a ‘meadow soup’. To follow we made runner beans cooked in olive oil with onion, garlic and tomatoes. This was delicious and definitely one I will be adding to my repertoire. We served it with delicate courgette, herb and cheese fritters. Next course was traditional lamb stew in a tomato based sauce accompanied with a smoky aubergine puree. And finally, the piece de resistance, walnut-stuffed figs cooked in syrup. This was definitely my favourite dish and one I can’t wait to make again: tiny pieces of walnut hidden in deliciously sweet figs. I can’t think of a better way to end a meal…except Turkish tea and baklava of course!

If you do go to Turkey, or any other country for that matter, I urge you to sign up to a cooking class. It’s such a wonderful way to learn something about the local culture and you get to bring home a skill to help you recreate your holiday again and again.
 

Walnut-stuffed figs in syrup

(serves 6 | prep and cooking time approximately 50 minutes)



Ingredients

12-18 dried figs (soft as possible)

100g walnuts

½ litre of water

250g sugar

The juice and peel of ¼ lemon

12-18 cloves (approximately 1 for each fig)

Grated coconut and ground pistachio for serving



Method

·         Prepare the syrup by bringing the water, sugar, cloves, lemon juice and peel  to the boil

·         In the meantime put a knife into the side of a fig and cut through to a point a little beyond the centre. Then turn the knife in a way that a little less than half the fig gets opened on its side (you are basically making a pocket)

·         Stuff the opened fig with half a walnut or the equivalent in smaller pieces. Place the bulbous side of the walnut under the stem of the fig

·         Close the fig back up making the sides stick together

·         Repeat the process with the rest of the figs



·         Add all the figs with their stem facing up into the boiling syrup. Simmer for about 30 minutes

·         Turn them mid-way through the cooking process and then turn them back again 5 minutes before the end, to give some colour on each side




·         Take the heat off and let the figs cool in the syrup

·         Transfer the figs onto a plate, leaving the syrup behind

·         Decorate with ground pistachios and grated coconut

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Toad-in-the-hole fit for a Queen

So, after all the build up and all the bunting the Diamond Jubilee is finally here. Congratulations to Her Majesty for 60 years as our Queen, as second to only Queen Victoria she is one of our longest reigning Monarchs, which goes to show that women really do have more stamina! I remember the Golden Jubilee this time 10 years ago. I hopped on a plane to Rome and had a long weekend away with the girls. And I have to admit I’m skipping town again this year. Not very patriotic I know and I promise you it’s definitely not an anti-Monarchy statement, in fact I quite like the Royal Family (N can confirm I have a particularly weird obsession with Kate Middleton’s wardrobe)! It’s just that when someone gives you 4 days off in a row I just can’t say no to a holiday!

But we did honour the Jubilee last night by a celebration of all things British…dreary weather and bad Saturday evening TV! But the highlight was the quintessential of all British dishes, toad-in-the-hole. For those of you who haven’t made it before please trust me when I say don’t ever buy a ready-made version ever again. They just don’t cut the mustard, and as it’s so easy to make you won’t ever have to. For those of you who are vegetarian or don’t eat pork the sausages can easily be substituted with a vegetarian version, although you may have to adjust the cooking time a little. Or try pouring the batter into a greased muffin tray for great Yorkshire puddings, just be careful not to fill it too much as they rise.

So, for those of you staying around for the celebrations I hope you have a wonderful time and I hope the weather holds out for you. I am off to a Turkish cooking class in Istanbul so I’ll be sure to report back with some great recipes when I return.


Toad-in-the-hole
(serves 2-3 | prep and cooking time 1 hour)




Ingredients

  • ½ an onion (red or white) – cut in into wedges with layers separated
  • 6 thick good quality pork sausages
  • 1 tablespoon of olive oil
  • 50g plain flour
  • 1 medium egg
  • 150ml semi-skimmed milk
  • 1 tablespoon wholegrain mustard
  • The leaves of 3-4 sprigs of fresh thyme or rosemary
  • Black pepper to season
Method

  • Preheat the oven to 180 degrees fan
  • Put the onions into a shallow non-stick oven dish
  • Put the sausages on top of the onion and drizzle over the olive oil
  • Shake the tray so the oil coats the bottom of it
  • Put in the oven for 20 minutes
  • In the meantime make the batter. Sift the flour into a large bowl, drop the egg into the centre and beat the milk in a little at a time until it makes a smooth batter
  • Stir in the mustard, thyme and seasoning
  • After 20 minutes remove the sausages from the oven and pour the batter in quickly while the oil is still hot
  • Return to the oven for 20-40 minutes until the batter has risen and is golden.
  • Serve with mashed potatoes and steamed vegetables

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

What type of cook are you?

In my opinion there are two types of cooks in this world. For arguments sake let’s call them recipe cooks and off-the-cuff cooks. Recipe cooks find a recipe they like and then go out and buy the ingredients or perhaps find a recipe based on the ingredients they have at home. Off-the-cuff cooks improvise. They see what they have at home or buy a random set of ingredients in their weekly shop and then conjure up a dish based on their archives of experience. Now, there’s no right or wrong and there will always be a degree of overlap, but I do believe that every person has a natural pull towards one of the two categories. So which one are you?


I definitely have a tendency towards the former. I like the structure of a recipe and still feel I have a lot to learn from other people’s tried and tested experiences. It’s rare, however, that I ever follow a recipe to the letter. I generally tweak a few things here or there as, at the end of the day, everyone’s tastes are different. In fact quite often I will trawl through about five or six recipes of the same dish until I find one that I will even consider adapting. Or I make my own recipe from a combination of the ones I have looked through. These recipes are what I’ve used to build up my own recipe journal. It is one of my prized possessions; if anything were to happen to it I think there would actually be tears! I really must find a more permanent way of storing them…but then again I guess that’s what this blog is for!



I am a huge fan of recipe books. In fact I have so many now that they recently broke the shelf on my bookcase (N was not impressed)! They have now had to start their new life as a pile in front of the shelving unit. This is clearly much safer but very annoying when it comes to the weekly vacuuming! I have my sister to credit for most of these recipe books, which means I also have her to blame for breaking my bookshelf! Pride of place definitely goes to my Jamie Oliver collection which she managed to get signed by the man himself. I always look forward to my birthday or Christmas as I know she’ll get me the latest in the line of celebrity cookbooks. Sis, if you’re reading, the next ones on my wish list are Rachel Koo’s Little Paris Kitchen and Lorraine Pascal’s Home Cooking Made Easy!



I do worry that I’m a bit addicted to recipe books. Quite often I read them even when I’m not planning on cooking anything; I find they provide me with a great source of inspiration. My favourite book to just ‘read’ has to be Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries. From reading his book I get the impression he is an off-the-cuff cook. I have written an excerpt from his book below so you can get a feel for what I mean.


The smell of white rice cooking, clean, nutty and warm, casts a sense of peace over the house. As if snow has fallen. Seasonings change with the day, but tonight it is green cardamom, black cumin seeds, cinnamon and, somewhat unusually, a couple of star anise flowers. What was once a distinctly Indian smell is now edged with something faintly Chinese. Fleeting, intriguing, gentle. At the table, I bring to it some steamed Chinese broccoli, complete with its long, tender stalks.

Slater seems to be able to create magnificent dishes from next-to-nothing. The man is full of talent, not only can he cook but he can write beautifully too.

So let’s make this post interactive. Do leave a comment and let me know what type of cook you are. And if you are a recipe cook what’s your favourite cookbook? I’m always looking for new books for my sister to buy me…!