The quick-quick-slow food movement

Roasted butternut squash

After a fun-filled, non-stop Christmas and New Year celebrating with various family members, I’ve eased myself slowly into 2015. It feels good to be home again, sleeping in my own bed, keeping my own simple routines, cooking in my own kitchen… The mince pies, Christmas cake, endless boxes of chocolates, glasses of wine and flutes of Champagne have given way to green juices and smoothies, vegetable soups, winter salads and herbal tea. Rather than feeling bereft, I actually feel relieved – it feels so good to be kind to my body after testing its limits for the past few weeks. After the obligatory Christmas cold, which persisted until the end of the year, I’ve got back into my running, donning my trainers, wooly hat and gloves to brave the cold and make the most of any glimpses of sunshine that break through the clouds and over the London rooftops.

My super-healthy culinary experimentation has been greatly helped this month by two rather fantastic Christmas presents: a Vitamix (a hugely powerful blender, for the uninitiated) and a crock-pot cooker (slow cooker). From this I can deduce that a) I have been a very good girl and b) Santa is a bit of a foodie. The Vitamix can blitz pretty much any food into a smooth purée or liquid – if you add frozen fruits and blitz them quickly, you have instant sorbet (add cream or yoghurt if you want ice cream), and if you put in raw veggies with some liquid, then blitz for a few minutes, the friction from the motor heats everything to such an extent that it makes hot soup in just 5 minutes. Magic. I’ve also been whizzing up various veggies with a little bit of fruit and some coconut water to make a healthy morning smoothie, though I’ll admit that – in a bid to create something wonderfully virtuous the other morning – I did end up with something far more nutritious than delicious. Note to self: go easy on the kale and celery in the next one…

Raw honey halva

Raw Honey Halva

This is not the crumbly-textured halva I had tried before, which is often made with hot sugar syrup and egg white; this version is chewy, like soft toffee – rather delicious and very good for you, with no refined sugar and no heat to kill off the nutrients.

Makes 4 to 6 portions.

  • 150g / 5¼oz almonds
  • 225g / 8oz tahini
  • 125g / 4½oz pitted dried dates
  • 3 tablespoons honey
  1. Line a small baking tin with clingfilm.
  2. Put the almonds in the Vitamix and secure the lid. Select variable speed 1, turn on the machine and slowly increase the speed to 6. Run for 6-7 seconds until the almonds are finely ground. Add the tahini, dates and honey and secure the lid.
  3. Select variable speed 1, turn on the machine and slowly increase the speed to 10, then to High. Run for 10 to 20 seconds until the mixture forms a soft paste, using the tamper to press the mixture into the blades and stopping occasionally to scrape the mixture from the sides of the container.
  4. Spread the mixture into the baking tin, cover the top with the cling film and chill for at least 1 hour until firm before cutting into squares. Keeps in the fridge for up to 1 week.

Banana-berry ice cream

The sweet, creamy texture that you get from blitzing frozen bananas has to be tasted to be believed! A Vitamix or similarly powerful machine is ideal for this as you really need a good motor to handle the frozen fruit. It’s important to add the yoghurt in first so the blades can rotate and do their job – if not, they get stuck on the harder bananas and berries. The dates add a little extra sweetness, but they aren’t essential. The ice cream will be very soft in texture and definitely should be eaten immediately – the lack of sugar does mean than it will get rock-hard if you leave it in the freezer.

Serves 2.

  • 120g / 4 oz coconut yoghurt (or normal dairy yoghurt if you prefer)
  • 2 frozen bananas
  • Hanful of frozen berries
  • 3 pitted Medjool dates

Add the ingredients in the order specified and secure the lid. Select variable speed 1, turn on the machine and slowly increase the speed to 10, then to High. Run for about 10 seconds until the mixture is smooth, using the tamper to press the mixture into the blades. Stop to scrape the mixture from the sides of the container and blitz again, as before. Don’t run the motor for too long as the ice cream will start to heat up and melt. Eat immediately.

Green smoothie

Green smoothie

What you put in your morning smoothie is really up to you and can depend on what nutrients you’re looking for, how you want it to taste, what’s in season, where you are in the world… I like to vary things so I don’t get bored! Fruit is full of vitamins but also sugar, so try to balance that out with some veggies to keep the smoothie from being too calorie-packed and acidic.

Serves 2

  • 4 leaves cavolo nero (black kale)
  • 200ml / 7fl oz (approximately) unsweetened coconut water (or filtered water if you prefer)
  • 1 banana
  • 5cm / 2” piece of cucumber
  • Small piece (the size of the tip of your thumb) of fresh ginger
  • Large handful of fresh or frozen berries

First, tear your cavolo nero into pieces and add to the Vitamix / blender with the coconut water. Blitz for a few seconds, then add the banana, cucumber, ginger and berries and blitz until smooth. Pour into glasses and drink immediately.

Butternut squash soup

Butternut squash soup with chilli and coconut

The chilli and ginger in this soup should be subtle, but you’ll feel their warmth spread throughout your body – perfect on these chilly winter days. I love roasted butternut squash and the addition of coconut milk gives this soup a lovely creamy texture.

Serves 6.

  • 1 butternut squash, about 1kg / 2.2 lbs peeled, deseeded and cut into large cubes, about 5cm / 2”
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 onions, peeled and cut into large chunks (same size as butternut squash)
  • 5 garlic clove, left whole in their skins
  • 1 cm / ½” slice of fresh ginger
  • 1 mild red chilli, deseeded, or a pinch of chilli powder plus 1 chilli to serve, deseeded and sliced
  • 500ml / 1 pint vegetable stock or chicken stock
  • 200ml / 7 fl oz coconut milk
  • Green herbs, eg a few chives or leaves of parsley / coriander
  1. Heat oven to 200℃ / 390℉ normal oven (180℃ / 355℉ fan). Toss the cubes of squash in a large roasting tin with the olive oil and salt and pepper. Roast for 20 minutes, then add in the onion and garlic. Continue to roast for 15 to 20 minutes, until golden and soft.
  2. Add the stock to the Vitamix or blender (all ingredients can be cold if using a Vitamix, but need to be hot if using a normal blender) and tip in the squash, onion, garlic (squeeze the softened flesh out of the skins and discard the skins), ginger and chilli. Add the coconut milk, then whizz until smooth. If putting cold ingredients in a Vitamix, run the motor on high for about 4 to 5 minutes until the soup is hot.
  3. Season to taste and serve the soup in bowls with a few chopped herbs and chillies scattered on top.

A large part of my Vitamix’s appeal is the speed, impressive power and convenience (the ability to create such a diversity of yummy, nutrient-packed food in a matter of seconds or minutes makes it the ultimate fast food machine), but I must admit that they are eye-wateringly expensive. A decent blender would do a lot of the “wet” things a Vitamix can do and a food processor (like Magimix) would take care of many of the “dry” recipes (eg pastry)… but the results from a Vitamix are so impressive that it’s worth looking into if you’re keen. My crock-pot cooker, however, is wonderful for many of the opposite reasons: it’s a relatively inexpensive, economical (it uses far less power than a hob or oven would and it transforms the cheaper cuts of meat that need long, slow cooking) and it’s very simple: add the ingredients (which may need some prep first, eg searing in a frying pan), turn the cooker onto either high or low and leave it for as many hours as required, which is often overnight or all day. It may not produce instantaneous results, but with a bit of preparation the night before or that morning, it’s the easiest way to have dinner ready and waiting at the end of a busy day. The real joy of slow-cooking is definitely in the eating: meat becomes meltingly tender, sauces are rich and unctuous, flavours are deep and intense.

Cavolo nero

Cavolo Nero and chickpea soup

This is half-way between a soup and a stew… I took the original idea from a recipe for the Italian soup ribollita, but my version uses chickpeas instead of cannellini or zolfini beans and I don’t use bread, which makes it a much lighter dish, whilst keeping the essence of the original. I love making this all winter, as long as cavolo nero (black kale) is in season. As with all the slow cooker recipes here, this freezes well if you make too much.

Serves 4

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 small red onions, peeled
  • 2 carrots, peeled
  • 3 sticks celery, trimmed
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 pinch ground fennel seeds
  • 1 pinch dried red chilli
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 400g / 14oz good-quality tinned plum tomatoes
  • 1 x 400g / 14oz tin chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 200g / 7oz cavolo nero, leaves and stalks finely sliced
  • Sea salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  1. Finely chop your onions, carrots, celery and garlic. Add the olive oil and the vegetables to the pan with the ground fennel seeds, chilli and bay leaf. Sweat very slowly on high with the lid on for around 60 minutes until soft, but not brown.
  2. Add the tomatoes,the cooked and drained beans plus a little water and stir in the sliced cavolo nero. The soup should be thick but not dry, so add a little more water if you need to loosen it. Continue cooking on high for about 2 hours – you want to achieve a silky, thick soup.
  3. Season with salt and pepper and stir in the extra virgin olive oil before serving to give it a glossy, velvety texture.

Coconut chicken curry

The spices in this curry give it a wonderful warmth that is essential during the colder months. Turmeric also has great anti-inflammatory and healing properties – perfect for chasing away those winter germs. I like cooking with chicken thighs, especially when slow cooking, as they don’t dry out (as chicken breasts do) and they have far more flavour.

For the spice blend:

  • ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
  • ½ to 1 teaspoon chilli powder (depending how hot you like it)
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1½ teaspoons ground turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon salt

For the curry:

  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 2 inch cube of ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 1 small onion, peeled and quartered
  • 1 tablespoon coconut oil (or vegetable oil)
  • 6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into four
  • 2 x 400ml / 14 fl oz cans coconut milk
  • 1 corn on the cob
  • 2 peppers, deseeded and sliced
  • Large handful of frozen peas or broad beans
  • Small bunch coriander
  • 1 lime
  1. Combine the ingredients from the spice blend together and set aside.
  2. In the small bowl of a food processor, combine garlic, ginger and onion and pulse until it forms a paste.
  3. Heat up the oil in a frying pan, add puréed garlic, ginger and onion and stir well. Cook for a few minutes, then add the spice blend. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring constantly.
  4. Add the chicken pieces to the pot. Cook chicken on all sides to brown lightly and coat thoroughly with the spice mixture.
  5. Transfer the contents of the frying pan into the slow cooker and pour the coconut milk over – it should just barely cover the chicken.
  6. Cut the corn off the cob and add it to the chicken with the peppers.
  7. Cook on low for 4 hours.
  8. Add the frozen peas or broad beans and cook for another 30 minutes until the chicken is cooked and the vegetables hot.

Pork belly carnitas

Pulled pork

This is one of my favourite Mexican dishes and this version is also pretty healthy (bearing in mind that my previous go-to recipe involved cooking the pork in a braising liquid that included cola and lard, amongst other things. Tasted fantastic, but probably not so good for the insides…) I cooked the pork for the full 8 hours and the results were so good that we were rendered speechless for a good few minutes. Seriously, if a slow cooker could only make this, it would still be worth it.

Serves 4

  • 1kg / 2.2 lbs lean boneless pork (I used a leg joint), excess fat trimmed, cut into 7cm / 3″ chunks
  • 330ml / 10 fl oz beer
  • 1 large white onion, diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon chipotle powder (or chipotle in adobo sauce)
  • 2 teaspoons cumin powder
  • 1 teaspoon chilli powder
  • 1½ teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
  1. Heat a large frying pan over high heat. Add the pork and sear on each side until browned (about 2 minutes per side). Transfer pork to the slow cooker.
  2. Add remaining ingredients and give the mixture a careful stir to combine. Cook on low for 6 to 8 hours until the pork is completely tender and shreds easily with a fork.
  3. Once the pork is cooked, preheat your grill to high heat. Use a fork to shred the meat into bite-sized pieces and then transfer it to a large roasting tin, spreading it out evenly in a single layer. Reserve the remaining broth from the slow cooker.
  4. Place pork under the grill for about 5 minutes, or until the edges of the pork begin crisping up. Remove the tin, and use a spatula or tongs to carefully toss the pork. Then pour over a ladleful of the remaining slow cooker broth over the pork. Grill for an additional 5 minutes to get the meat more crispy. Then pour an additional ladleful of broth over the crispy pork.
  5. Serve immediately with tortillas or tacos, guacamole, salsa, salad, soured cream, grated cheese, jalapeño peppers, etc – or cover and refrigerate, or freeze.

A version of this article first appeared on The Journal of Wild Culture on 20 January 2015.

LAURA POPE works as a private chef to clients in the UK and abroad. She has also cooked in some very wonderful establishments worldwide — from a boutique hotel in southwest France to the restaurants Chez Panisse in California and Ottolenghi in London. She teaches cooking, develops recipes, blogs and has created gluten-free recipe apps for the iPad.

See Laura’s website and Facebook page.

Home for the Holidays

The holiday season has a terrifying knack of putting the fear of God into many folk all over the Western World, sending the usually sane members of society into a tail-spin, creating consumerist mayhem in high streets, shopping malls and online, while also stretching people’s patience (and credit cards) to the limits. And that’s not taking into account family dynamics. . .

My family does tick plenty of the boxes that comfortably sit at the so-called ‘dysfunctional’ end of the spectrum. But, as my sister so perfectly put it, “we actually function incredibly well”. Christmas is a great example of this: rather than trying to round up each and every sheep in our extended flock, we’re just happy to spend Christmas with whoever is there. This has meant that some years we’ve had 16 family members spanning three generations around the table — and another year, there were just three of us. Due to a propensity for second (and even third) marriages, resulting in half- and step-siblings, not to mention in-laws, mine has never been a nuclear family, so there are always various parents, siblings and in-laws to be considered.

This will mean blending different traditions, customs and cultures, quirks and routines, to hopefully to create something new and rather lovely. My mum – also known as “Mother Chef” due to her role as teacher, mentor and endless source of culinary inspiration – is hosting this year and will be working her usual magic in the kitchen. I’m not sure exactly what she’ll let me actually get stuck into on the day, but for now I’ve settled on making a gravlax in advance that we can graze on over the Christmas period, so at least I know I’ll be contributing something!

CITRUS-CURED GRAVLAX WITH CACIK

Citrus-cured gravlax with cacik on bliniI make no claims of authenticity here, since I’ve taken a very Scandinavian fish dish and paired it with a dip straight out of the heart of the Middle East. Not, I’ll admit, your typical bed-fellows, but it was the communal dill that inspired this marriage, and it works wonderfully. If you wish, you can serve the salmon and cacik on serving platters or individual plates, or you can make little bite-sized buckwheat blini that, topped with a little dollop of cacik and a sliver of gravlax, make the most wonderful canapés.

For the gravlax:

•1 filleted side of very fresh salmon (900g / 2lb)

•Very large bunch dill (80g / 3oz)

For the salt mix

•250g (9oz) Maldon sea salt (beloved by many chefs), or other quality salt

•375g (13oz) demerara sugar

•4 star anise

•1 teaspoon coriander seeds

•Zest of 2 limes

•Zest 3 lemons

For the cacik

•1 large cucumber, coarsely grated or finely diced

•500ml / 1 pint Greek yoghurt

•1 fat garlic clove, crushed

•20g / ¾ oz dill, stalks and leaves finely chopped

•Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

•Extra virgin olive oil, to drizzle

For the blini (makes about 20 small blini)

•1 egg

•100g / 3½ oz buckwheat flour

•1 teaspoon baking powder

•150ml / 5 fl oz milk

•2 tablespoons sunflower oil

Method

1Tip all ingredients for the salt mix into a food processor and whizz until everything is combined and the spices are completely ground.

2Stroke your hand along the salmon fillet to check for any stray bones. If you find any, pull them out with a pair of tweezers or small pliers. Trim away the thinner part of the fillet — plus any fat around the edges — so that the fillet has an even shape.

3Scatter about a third of the salt mix onto a large tray in a line about the size of the salmon fillet. Lay the salmon, skin-side down, over the salt and pack the rest of the salt mix on top. Cover with cling film (plastic wrap), put another tray on top and weigh it down with a few cans or an empty casserole dish. Leave in the fridge for 3 days.

4TO MAKE THE CACIK: carefully squeeze out and discard the excess water from the cucumber (by hand, or in a sieve).

5Under cold running water, wash the salt mix off the salmon fillet, then dry with kitchen paper. Finely chop the dill. Lay the salmon on a board and cover the flesh with the dill, pressing it down to pack it onto the salmon. You can now wrap up the salmon in cling film and keep in the fridge for up to one week.

6To finish the cacik, place the cucumber in a mixing bowl and mix in the yoghurt. Add the garlic and dill, mix well and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

7Use a sharp carving knife to cut the salmon into fine slices against the skin.

8FOR THE BLINI: using an electric beater, whisk the eggs until frothy and then mix in the flour, baking powder and milk. Beat well to make a smooth batter (don’t do this too far in advance: the baking powder will start working as soon as it’s mixed with liquid).

9Heat a little oil in a heavy frying pan and put tablespoons of the batter into the hot pan to make little pancakes (you will probably have to do a few batches). Cook until small bubbles appear and the underside of the blini are golden, then turn them over and cook the other side. Cover the blini with film or foil until required.

CHRISTMAS TURKEY & STUFFING

Turkey and stuffingMy mother’s turkey defies the usual “dry, boring, bland” fears that plague so many holiday feasts, so I thought I’d share her recipe with you. The original recipe came from Gordon Ramsay; however, my mother being a rebellious mother, it will have therefore been altered a few times.

For the herb butter

•250g / 9 oz packed unsalted butter, softened

•3 to 4 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves only

•A sprig of fresh rosemary, chopped leaves only

•2 tablespoons fresh parsley leaves, chopped

•Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the meat

•5 to 6kg / 11 to 13lb medium-sized turkey

•3 or 4 good quality, thick sausages, skins removed

For the stuffing

•125g / 4½ oz butter

•1 onion, finely chopped

•A large sprig of thyme and rosemary, chopped leaves only

•200g / 7 oz white breadcrumbs

•6 fresh sage leaves

•1 lemon, zest only

•50g / 2 oz pine nuts

•1 teaspoon sea salt

•Freshly ground black pepper

•3 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped

For the gravy

•1 onion or large shallot, chopped

•2 tablespoons olive oil

•125ml / 4fl oz dry white wine

•1 sprig of fresh thyme

•1 bay leaf

•500ml / 17fl oz chicken stock

•200ml / 7fl oz double cream

•Pan juices from roasting

•Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Method

1Pre-heat the oven to 180℃ / 350℉ normal oven (160℃ / 320℉ fan oven).

2Make the herb butter: mix herbs and butter together to form a paste, season well and chill.

3Prepare the turkey legs: to remove legs, cut through the skin and pull joint firmly away from body then cut through ball and socket joints.

4Cut away the ‘oyster’ on the back of the turkey so the leg and thigh come away cleanly.

5With a thin sharp knife, bone both legs and stuff with sausage meat.

6Wrap tightly in tin foil and chill to set the shape.

7PREPARE THE TURKEY CROWN: cut off wing tips and, for easier carving, take out the wishbone and cut away back bone with poultry shears.

8Lift up the breast skin with your fingers and separate it from the flesh.

9Divide the herb butter between the two breast flaps and pull the skin back over.

10Season well, place in a roasting tin and cover loosely with butter paper or foil.

11COOK THE TURKEY: put the foil-wrapped legs in a roasting pan and cook at 180℃ / 350℉ normal oven (160℃ / 320℉ fan oven) for 45 minutes.

12Reduce temperature to 160℃ / 320℉ normal oven (140℃ / 285℉ fan oven) and cook for a further 15 minutes, then remove foil and cook for a further 30 minutes, straining off any juices for the gravy.

13Cook the crown for 1-1½ hours at 180℃ / 350℉ normal oven (160℃ / 320℉ fan oven) until juices run clear and let the bird rest for 30 minutes before carving.

14MAKE THE STUFFING: melt butter in a large frying pan and gently sauté onion for five minutes until soft.

15Stir in the herbs for one minute then add breadcrumbs to absorb the butter.

16Mix in zest, pine nuts and seasoning and cook over medium heat for about seven minutes until crumbs start to brown and crisp.

17Take off the heat, mix in the parsley and serve warm.

18MAKE THE GRAVY: sauté the onion in the olive oil for about five minutes.

19Pour in the wine, add thyme and bay leaf and boil until reduced right down.

20Add stock and boil until reduced by half, then add cream and boil for a further five minutes.

21Season with freshly ground black pepper.

22Remove from heat, cool for ten minutes and strain.

23Add turkey pan juices, boil for two minutes, season with salt and strain.

24The gravy can be made in advance and frozen before the juices are added. When thawed, simply heat until boiling, add the juices, boil for two minutes, season with salt and strain.

I appreciate this recipe above isn’t exactly going to give Jamie Oliver’s “15-Minute Meals” a run for its money (now there’s a man who knows how to do Christmas). But it only happens once a year and, when you see my mum calmly doing her thing in the kitchen, making it all look so easy, you almost forget why some poor souls make such a fuss.

What, I wonder, goes on in other homes that can turn Christmas into such a torturous experience? And is it just Christmas, or do you see Hindu parents running around the local market in a frenzied state in preparation for Diwali? Does Eid strike panic into the hearts of Muslim mummies as they contemplate the family descending for the endless feasting? Is Hanukkah actually the most terrifying time of year for many Jewish families? And — most important of all — what do they all eat on happy days and holidays?

My friend Amit is an English-born Indian who has an impeccable food pedigree — thanks to growing up in his parents’ vegetarian restaurant, which inspired him to make the fabulous film “Jadoo”, a feature-length love letter to Indian cuisine. When I asked him what they eat during the holidays, he replied “it tends to just be loads of everything, then of course the Indian sweets…” Having eaten at his family restaurant in Leicester — with endless rounds of gorgeous, flavour-packed, colourful dishes, so delicious that I longed for an extra stomach so I wouldn’t have to stop eating such exquisite food! — I have a fairly good idea of what Holi or Diwali must be like chez Gupta: wonderful and terrifying, all at the same time.

POTATO & LONG BEAN CURRY

Amit’s mum, Mrs Gupta, has been cooking this dish for family, friends and guests for many years, but significantly, it has a rather eminent fan: Madhur Jaffrey — who liked it so much that she featured it in her book “Curry Nation”. Whilst filming with Amit in Leicester, she ate this dish regularly with chapatis, yoghurt raita and black dal. “It made me feel that I was in my own home,” she said. “Nothing could have been nicer.”

Serves 4

•5 tablespoons olive or sunflower oil

•¾ teaspoon cumin seeds

•1 large onion, finely chopped

•1 teaspoon turmeric

•500g / 1lb 2oz potatoes, cut into 2.5cm / 1 inch pieces

•250g / 9oz long beans, or green beans, cut into 2.5cm / 1 inch lengths. (Long beans, or yard long beans, are about one foot in length and are commonly found in Asian markets. If you can’t get them, use ordinary green beans instead).

•Salt, to taste

•¾ teaspoon of garam masala

1Pour the oil into a medium-sized pan, about 20cm / 8 inches diameter, and set it over a medium heat. When it’s hot, add the cumin seeds and cook for 15 seconds. Quickly add the onion. Stir and fry for about five minutes, or until the onion is lightly browned.

2Add the turmeric, stir once and add the potatoes, beans and salt. Mix well, cover, reduce the heat to low and cook for 15 minutes, or until the potatoes are almost done. Stir a few times during this period.

3Mix in the garam masala, replace the lid and continue cooking until the potatoes are soft, about five minutes more, then serve.

DAL WITH COCONUT & TOMATO

Dal with tomato & coconutThis is my own go-to recipe, which I make on fairly large scale and then freeze in batches so it’s ready for when I need something wholesome, delicious, lightly spiced and comforting.

Serves 4

•250g / 9 oz toor dal (or red lentils)

•1 cinnamon stick

•1 level teaspoon turmeric

•165ml / 5½ fl oz can of coconut milk

•3 tablespoons of vegetable oil

•1 large white onion, peeled and finely diced

•3 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely sliced

•2 thumb-sized pieces of ginger, grated (leave the skin on)

•1 level teaspoon garam masala

•1 teaspoon cumin seeds, toasted and ground

•1 teaspoon coriander seeds, toasted and ground

•2 teaspoon mustard seeds

•25 (or so) curry leaves (you can buy these fresh in bulk and freeze them)

•2 whole peeled plum tomatoes (tinned is fine)

1Give the lentils a good rinse in plenty of cold water to distribute any of the starchy dust that will make the dal gluey.

2Put the lentils in a large saucepan with 1.2 litres / 2½ pints of cold water, the cinnamon stick and the turmeric — bring to a boil. Skim off any froth that surfaces and simmer for one hour, or until the lentils are cooked (you many need to top up with a little extra boiling water towards the end).

3Add the coconut milk and a little salt. Do not let this mixture boil – the coconut will curdle if this happens. Continue to cook for a further 15 minutes until it has thickened but remains soupy.

4Take the pan off the heat.

5In a frying pan over a moderate heat, add the oil. Then fry the onion until it’s soft and beginning to turn golden brown – about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and grated ginger and continue to fry for a further three minutes.

6Add the spices, mustard seeds and curry leaves – put a lid on the pan – and gently fry until the mustard seeds have stopped jumping about and crackling. Add the two tomatoes and cook for about 5 minutes until broken down and mixed well with the spices.

7Add the spiced onion tomato mix back into the dal, stir well and check the seasoning.

Whereas the Midlands and East London are two of the best places to go for amazing Asian food in the UK, right here on my doorstep in North West London I have a wonderful array of Middle Eastern restaurants to choose from. Much as I love cooking up a storm at home, I can’t resist the call of my local Lebanese restaurant, The Cedar. I especially love their dips, flatbreads and salads — the perfect food to share as a vegetarian feast, or a lovely accompaniment to their kebabs and grilled meats. I wish I could get my hands on their recipe for moutabal (a smokey aubergine dip), to no avail, so I’ve tried to replicate it as best I can here.

MOUTABAL

MoutabalThe idea is to get a deep smokey flavour into the flesh of the aubergine (egg plant) — some recipes tell you to scorch the skin over an open flame but that’s not possible without a gas hob; and, even if you do have one, it really can make a mess. So, a barbecue is a great option when the weather is good. But, if not, you can char the skins in a griddle pan then finish them off in the oven.

Serves 6 as part of a selection of mezze.

•2 large aubergines (about 250g / 9oz each), slashed lengthways 4 times

•2 fat garlic cloves, chopped and mashed to a purée with 1 teaspoon of sea salt flakes

•2 tablespoons tahini paste

•Juice of half a lemon (or more to taste)

•1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

•Sea salt

To serve:

•Extra virgin olive oil

•1 teaspoon smoked paprika

•2 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted

•1½ tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley

•Flatbreads

1Light the barbecue. When the flames have died back and the charcoal is grey but with an orange glow (after about 20 to 30 minutes), put the aubergines on the grill and cook for 20 to 30 minutes, turning often, until well charred and completely soft. Or, if you’re cooking inside rather than outside on the barbecue, char the skins in a hot griddle pan over a medium heat, then transfer to an oven preheated to 180°C / 355℉ normal oven (160°C / 320℉ fan oven), then cook, covered with foil, for 20 minutes until softened through.

2Let the cooked aubergines cool, then split them open lengthways and scrape the flesh into a bowl, cutting as close to the skin as possible — taking care not to pick up any charred skin.

3Mash the aubergine flesh with a fork or whizz in a food processor with the garlic, tahini, lemon juice and 1 tablespoon of olive oil. The tahini taste should be subtle (remember, you can add more, but you can’t take it out) and the lemon juice shouldn’t make it overly tart. Season with sea salt to taste.

4Put the moutabal in a shallow bowl and make indents in the top. Pour over the olive oil, sprinkle over the pine nuts and parsley, dust with smoked paprika and serve with flatbreads.

FATTOUSH

FattoushI love this salad by Sabrina Ghayour — the cucumber and peppers: crunchy and refreshing; the tomatoes: ripe and full of flavour; the lemon and herbs: a zesty tang. You can easily leave out the toasted flatbreads; there’s usually quite enough bread in a Middle Eastern meal and it’s nice to have a lighter dish to offset the rest.

Serves 10

•2 (preferably stale) large pittas or flatbreads (optional)

•400g / 14 oz cherry or baby plum tomatoes, roughly chopped

•4 heads baby gem or romaine lettuce, halved lengthways and roughly chopped

•1 large cucumber, halved lengthways and cuts into 1cm / ½ inch thick half-moons

•1 red pepper, cored, deseeded and cut into 2.5cm / 1 inch dice

•1 green pepper, cored, deseeded and cut into 2.5cm / 1 inch dice

•200g / 7 oz radishes, trimmed and cut into quarters

•1 bunch of spring onions, thinly sliced

•20g / ¾ oz flat-leaf parsley, leaves picked and finely chopped

•20g / ¾ oz mint, leaves picked and finely chopped

•1 heaped tablespoon sumac, plus extra to garnish

•5 tablespoons olive oil

•Juice of 1½ lemons

•Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1Preheat oven to 200℃ / 390℉ normal oven (180℃ / 355℉ fan oven). Line a baking sheet with nonstick baking paper.

2Cut the pittas or flatbread roughly into 4cm / 1½ squares and lay them on the baking sheet. Toast them in the oven for 15 minutes, or until they are dry and completely crunchy.

3Put all the salad ingredients into a large salad or mixing bowl and sprinkle over the sumac, olive oil, lemon juice and sea salt and black pepper to taste. Toss the salad well, ensuring everything gets a good coating of dressing. Serve it piled high, topped with the toasted croutons and an extra sprinkling of sumac.

As I bounce around from one world cuisine to another, there is one more celebratory recipe I’d like to share with you. I’ve appropriated these cookies into my own repertoire, not out of any personal claims of authenticity, but simply because I adore them. These are traditional at Mexican weddings, but they make lovely gifts and I’d happily serve them anytime, anywhere.

WALNUT WEDDING COOKIES

Walnut wedding cookiesIn these dense, crumbly biscuits, the tannins of the walnuts are perfectly complimented by the creaminess of the butter and the sweet dusting of icing sugar. The recipe comes from a fabulous trio of cookie recipes by one of my favourite bakers: Claire Ptak, formerly of Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California.

Makes about 35 cookies

•175g / 6 oz unsalted butter, softened

•75g / 2½ oz caster sugar

•100g light muscovado sugar

•1 egg

•½ teaspoon salt

•100g / 3½ oz buttermilk

•1 tablespoon runny honey

•½ tablespoon vanilla extract

•375g / 13 oz plain flour

•225g / 8 oz walnuts, finely ground

•Icing sugar, for dusting

1Preheat oven to 150℃ / 300℉ normal oven (130℃ / 265℉ fan oven).

2Use an electric mixer to beat the butter and sugars until pale and fluffy.

3Add the egg and continue to mix until it is incorporated.

4Add the salt, buttermilk, honey and vanilla, and beat well.

5Stir the flour and walnuts into the butter mixture and mix well.

6Use a teaspoon to scoop small balls of dough. Roll into balls and bake for 20 minutes.

7Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly. Toss in icing sugar and allow to cool completely. Toss again in icing sugar.

A version of this article first appeared on The Journal of Wild Culture on 18 December 2014.

LAURA POPE works as a private chef to clients in the UK and abroad. She has also cooked in some very wonderful establishments worldwide — from a boutique hotel in southwest France to the restaurants Chez Panisse in California and Ottolenghi in London. She teaches cooking, develops recipes, blogs and has created gluten-free recipe apps for the iPad.

See Laura’s website and Facebook page.

A History of Gin – from Mother’s Ruin to The Three Graces of Chiswick: Prudence, Constance and Patience

The French may lay claim to Champagne, the Belgians can boast about their beer, the Japanese should continue sipping their sake – and the Greeks are most welcome to their dubious role as the originators of ouzo. For in London, we have gin: a most quintessentially English drink, it is as much part of this city as Big Ben, the River Thames and the Queen.

Gin, however, had rather less illustrious beginnings – and, to be honest, it wasn’t even originally British… Gin derives from the juniper-flavoured Dutch liquor “Jenever”, which became extremely popular in England in the 1600s after our armies fought alongside those of the Dutch King William of Orange, giving rise to the expression “Dutch courage”. William went on to become King of England and gin went on to become our favourite tipple. As gin-mania took hold of London, every man and his dog set up a gin still (in which the spirit is distilled) at home, churning out pints of lethally-strong, pungent booze. Juniper was then – as it is now – an essential part of the drink, but whereas now it enhances gin’s flavour, back in the 17th and 18th centuries, the spirits being produced were so rough that botanics were used to cover up the horrendous turpentine flavour. So in 1751 the Gin Act came into force, making it a legal requirement for anyone distilling gin to buy a license for the astronomical sum of £50. This was far too much for most folk, whose homemade gin was now automatically classed as moonshine. Only the wealthiest families could afford the license and went on to produce top-quality gin, creating world-renowned brands such as Tanqueray and Gordon’s. These distillers have long since moved out of London, however, taking their production to a global scale and, in the process, abandoning the traditional methods in favour of more economical means of mass-production.

Prudence   Constance   Patience

Though the big names may have left town, the traditional art of London gin distillation has not been lost. On 11 January 2008, childhood friends Sam Galsworthy and Fairfax Hall opened Sipsmith, the first copper distillery in London for over 200 years. The timing for such a bold new venture would have put the fear of God into lesser men for, on the very same day that Sipsmith launched, the London Stock Market (the FTSE 100) suffered its greatest ever fall, thus kicking off the recession in the UK and prompting the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown to advise his subjects to proceed with “economic prudence”. Sipsmith took Mr Brown’s advice very seriously… and named their first copper still “Prudence”. Their bold move paid off and, almost seven years later, “Prudence” has been joined by “Constance” and “Patience”, three curvy copper beauties that reside in Sipsmith’s West London distillery. In the words of Observer Food Monthly: “Sipsmith has spearheaded a revival in London gin – although it’s hard to think that anyone else will go to quite such lengths for authenticity.” But where Sipsmith has led, many others have followed, with old-school gin distilleries popping up all over town.

Stills   Swan head

Sipsmith’s dedicated team of eccentrics make spirits the old-fashioned way; their methods are extremely labour-intensive, time-consuming and produce tiny yields… but this is what makes the results so very special. Whereas one could compare the method for mass-producing gin and vodka to making orange juice from concentrate, Sipsmith’s artisanal spirits are made more along the lines of freshly-squeezed juice, or cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil. The vodka contains only English wheat and water, but the ingredients list of gin is rather longer, which is what makes it a rather more nuanced drink with many different aromas and flavours.  Jared Brown, Sipsmith’s master distiller, has created a recipe for the London Dry Gin that features a heady mix of juniper berries, coriander seeds, lemon peel, orange peel, cinnamon bark, cassia root, liquorice root, almonds, orris root and angelica root. Meanwhile, distiller Ollie Kitson was tinkering with his latest experiment in a “rotavapor” (a miniature still): a mince pie-flavoured gin that sadly won’t be on sale to the public, but will be sent to very special clients for Christmas (now that’s a Christmas list worth being on!) One of the newest and rarest additions to the range, which is available to all, is the Sipsmith VJOP: Very Junipery Over-Proofed gin. This giant of a gin has 57.7% ABV (Alcohol By Volume – most gins are between 37 and 47%!) and loads of juniper berries are added at various stages throughout its production, making it rather special – only four batches have been made in the 12 months since production started, which has done nothing to dampen the ardour of the finest bar tenders in town. I love Sipsmith’s Damson Vodka (you may remember my penchant for this lovely fruit when I eulogised about it in September): a tart and plummy, wonderfully full-bodied drink made by steeping fresh English damsons in Sipsmith’s own gorgeously smooth Sipping Vodka. If you’re a fan of mixed drinks, I would highly recommend the bold, complex and aromatic taste of their London Dry Gin for a perfectly-balanced Gin & Tonic or a smooth Martini. Whilst in the company of Sipsmith’s Georgie Woods, a self-confessed Martini Maestro, I took my chance to ask her for a few tips…Gin martini

Gin martini

The Sipsmith Martini

There are few better ways to get a party started than with a Dry Martini – it’s timeless and elegant, whilst being potent enough to really break the ice. How you take your Martini is very much a matter of personal taste, but the Sipsmiths like theirs dry, with a twist. With just three ingredients, it’s deceptively complex to mix but there are a few guidelines to attain the perfect Martini:

  1. Always make sure the glass is chilled – ideally, it will come straight from the freezer.
  2. Your ingredients should be of the highest quality – since the drink is so simple, you’ll taste a lower quality ingredient instantly.
  3. The drink should be stirred or thrown, never shaken, as the ice crystals from shaking dilute the drink (sorry, James Bond…)

Ingredients

  • 70ml / 2½ fl oz Sipsmith London Dry Gin
  • 1 teaspoon dry vermouth, such as Noilly Prat or Martini Extra Dry
  • A twist of lemon zest

Method

  1. Fill a cocktail shaker with ice cubes and add the vermouth and gin.
  2. Stir briskly for about 50 turns, then strain into a chilled Martini glass.
  3. Spritz with a twist of lemon zest, which can be left in the glass as a garnish.
  4. Drink immediately.

g&t reg

The Sipsmith Gin & Tonic

A well-made G&T is wonderful… but when poorly-made, it can be an absolute shambles (I’m talking about a single measure of low-quality gin sloshed into a glass over watery ice cubes, filled up with tonic from a bar soda dispenser and topped off with a tired slice of lemon that arrived in a catering pack. Hideous.) So how should one make a truly excellent G&T?

  • Again, top notch ingredients are essential – a drink this simple relies on being made with only the very best.
  • Lime is tarter than lemon and therefore acts as a lovely balance to the sweeter hit of lemon already present in the gin. However, this is not a hard-and-fast rule, so do go for lemon if you prefer.
  • Don’t squeeze your wedge of lime (or lemon) in your drink as it will overpower the aromas of the gin itself.

Ingredients

  • 1 part Sipsmith London Dry Gin
  • 2 parts Fever-Tree Tonic Water (this is by far the best tonic water I’ve ever tasted – it’s superior to others in every way)
  • A wedge of lime (or lemon)

Method

  1. Half-fill a large balloon glass (so much better than a high-ball as it allows the aromas to circulate in the glass) with crisp ice cubes.
  2. Add your gin, top up with freshly-opened tonic water and add a wedge of lime or lemon.
  3. Drink immediately.

French 75

This cocktail was named after a French field gun of the same name for its comparable effect on the drinker. You will wonder what’s hit you after drinking one of these… but you’ll know it tasted extremely good! If Champagne seems a little extravagant (but then that’s the whole point of cocktails, in my book), you could use a good quality sparkling wine.

Ingredients

  • 25ml / 5 teaspoons gin
  • 20ml / 4 teaspoons lemon juice
  • 15ml / 3 teaspoons sugar syrup (made by gently dissolving 1 part caster sugar to 1 part water, then bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes)
  • Champagne, to top up

Method

  1. Fill a cocktail shaker with ice cubes and add the gin, lemon juice and sugar syrup.
  2. Stir briskly for about 50 turns, then strain into a chilled Champagne flute.
  3. Top up with Champagne.
  4. Drink immediately.

Sloe 75

I was introduced to a very tasty variation on the French 75 by mixologist Kai Dunn at Bistro Union in South London:

Ingredients

  • 30ml / 6 teaspoons gin
  • 15ml / 3 teaspoons lemon juice
  • 2 drops sugar syrup
  • A tot of sloe gin
  • Champagne, to top up

Method

  1. Fill a cocktail shaker with ice cubes and add the gin, lemon juice and sugar syrup.
  2. Stir briskly for about 50 turns, then strain into a chilled Champagne flute.
  3. Top up with sloe gin and Champagne.
  4. Drink immediately.

For more information on Sipsmith, visit www.sipsmith.com.

A version of this article first appeared on the Journal of Wild Culture on 17 November 2014.

How d’ya like them apples?

Amazing things, apples. Attributed with numerous health benefits (verging on the miraculous thanks to the old idiom “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”) they have come a long way from their scandalous beginnings in the Garden of Eden to the heart of school lunch boxes, fruit salads, tarts, pies and all manner of sauces, jellies and chutneys. I can see why Eve was tempted – their piquant, sweet taste and satisfying crunch make them extremely delicious, but if her resistance was broken by a single piece of fruit, the mind boggles as to how she’d have fared in the West Country (the largely rural area covering the South West of England), which is groaning with apples and pears at this time of year.

A

At the suggestion of a bon vivant French friend, we travelled from London to the beautiful Forest of Dean to experience just one of the many ways to make use of the apple glut: cider. I should explain that the cider we have in the UK is rather different to its North American counterpart – for a start, it’s alcoholic (in some cases, as much as 8.5%, which is pretty feisty, but nothing compared to some hard-hitting 12% stuff in continental Europe!) It can be sparkling or still, cloudy or clear, ranging in colour from delicately amber-hued to a rich, deep rust. There are mass-produced ciders on the market, usually packed full of added sugar and additives, but we were only interested in the artisanal drink, made with love and care – and a great deal of back-breaking work and no small amount of skill.

IMG_5312

Symonds Yat on the River Wye

No strangers to a bit of home cider-making ourselves, we wanted to see how the professionals do it, so headed off to Severn Cider, an award-winning business that makes cider and perry (pear cider) from carefully-selected heritage fruits. Founded by Nick, it’s a real family affair, with his son Tom making the cider and Nick’s wife, May, cooking lunches and hosting guests staying at the beautiful farmhouse that has been in the family since Nick’s father bought it for just £3,300 in 1956. Their ciders and perrys have won awards aplenty and are stocked in smart London establishments such as designers shops and art galleries, but the farm itself is truly, unashamedly authentic: mud, tractors and all the necessary machinery needed for the cider process, from harvest to bottling. Nick explained that they are extremely committed to the conservation of heritage apples and pears and therefore all the fruit they use has been grown organically in local orchards growing old, traditional varieties, including an orchard propagated from the last known surviving Box Kernel tree. Their fruit trees are all harvested at different times to ensure that each variety is picked by hand when it’s perfectly ripe, before being hand-sorted and washed, ready for milling and processing. As we sipped on our first drink of the day, a deliciously warming mulled cider, we watched Al Day hard at work shovelling scratted apples (shredded to make them easier to break down) into a wooden cider press. It looked like back-breaking work, but it was mesmerising to watch the pulp being laid between each wooden palette in the press and the juices oozing out. Apparently the remaining pulp is then used to feed the farm’s pigs and the resulting meat is packed full of apple-y deliciousness as a result. Meanwhile, the juice is fermented and then matured in oak casts until it is ready for bottling.

IMG_5320

Our cider press

IMG_5279

Al Day manning the cider press at Severn Cider

Mulled Cider

Ingredients (all quantities are rather approximate – feel free to make it spicier or sweeter as you wish)

  • 2 litres (4 pints) of good quality traditional cider
  • 5 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 x cinnamon sticks
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 6 x cloves
  • 3 x star anise
  • Small piece of fresh ginger (about 2.5cm or 1” long)
  • ½ teaspoon ground ginger
  • ¼ nutmeg, grated finely

Method

  1. Heat all the ingredients in a large pan, bring to the boil and then simmer for a few minutes – this infuses the cider with the fragrance of the spices, concentrates the flavour and pasteurises the cider by killing off the wild yeast.
  2. Strain the liquid through a fine mesh sieve or a sieve or colander lined with a clean muslin cloth. The mulled cider can then be stored in sterilised bottles for a year.
  3. Gently heat before serving.

After about 10 “tots” of different ciders and perry, we made our way (a little unsteadily) through to lunch. As I suspected, cider makes the most wonderful partner to a Ploughman’s Lunch, with four local cheeses, homemade bread, salad from May and Nick’s garden and ham cooked in cider (but of course). My favourite match for the cheese was a medium-sweet sparkling cider, but it’s deeply personal and others preferred a much drier drink with more pronounced tannins.

IMG_5274

Cecile and Claire enjoying the mulled cider

Perfect Ploughman’s Lunch

The key here is the quality of the components – supermarket bread served with sweaty, plastic cheese, synthetic ham and mass-produced chutney is NOT going to make a good lunch in any way, so take a trip to a lovely farmers’ market, farm shop or artisanal supplier to find some wonderful local products. Serve on individual plates or a big, communal platter with a steady flow of cider.

Ingredients

  • Selection of local cheeses (we ate mature Double Gloucester cheese with chives, organic cow’s camembert so ripe it was almost running off the plate – my idea of heaven, Cheddar and Shropshire Blue)
  • Chutney
  • Ham (ours had been slow-cooked in the cider)
  • Salad (rocket, sorrel, nasturtium, marigold, mint, tarragon, parsley, cucumber and tomatoes all came from the garden)
  • Homemade breads and butter

We were lucky enough to coincide our visit with a local food festival on the Sunday, which attracted artisan producers from all around the region. The sun shone brightly and, anticipating our hearty walk in the forest later, we treated ourselves to more lovely cider and a bread bun filled with succulent shredded pork and some of the best apple sauce I’ve ever tasted. The result was utterly mouth-watering – it’s hard to recreate a full-on hog roast when cooking for just a few people at home, but slow-cooking a shoulder of pork for a  is simple and completely delicious. Making apple sauce can be as simple as peeling and coring the apples then slow-cooking them in a saucepan over a very low heat until they break down into a mush (some people add sugar or butter, but if the apples are sweet, all you need is a little water to help the process and ensure the apples don’t burn in the pan). Zuni Café in San Francisco does a wonderful roasted apple sauce recipe, which I will share with you here.

IMG_5296

Our Ploughman’s lunch

Slow-Roast Pork Shoulder with Roasted Apple Sauce

Ingredients

For the pork:

  • A shoulder of pork, skin on
  • Coarse sea salt
  • 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
  • 6 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
  • 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, or ½ tablespoon dried thyme leaves

For the apple sauce (recipe from “The Zuni Café Cookbook” by Judy Rodgers) – makes about 3 cups:

  • 1.5 to 1.8 kilos / 3½ to 4 pounds apples
  • Pinch of salt
  • Up to 2 teaspoons sugar, as needed
  • About 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • A splash of cider vinegar, as needed

Method

For the pork: start the process two days before you’re serving the pork for lunch, or the morning of the day before you’re having it for dinner.

  1. Using a pestle and mortar, blitz together the fennel seeds, garlic and thyme.
  2. Score the skin with a small, very sharp knife, rub in the salt, then rub in the mix of fennel, garlic and thyme. Marinade for about a day.
  3. Set your oven to its hottest setting and cook the pork for 20 – 30 minutes until it’s brown and crispy, then turn the oven to its lowest setting and continue to cook the pork for about 10 to 12 hours, until it’s meltingly tender and falling apart.
  4. While the pork is cooking, make your apple sauce: preheat the oven to 190℃ / 375℉ (or 170℃ / 340℉ fan oven).
  5. Peel, core and quarter the apples. Toss with a little salt and, unless they are very sweet, a bit of sugar to taste. If they are tart enough to make you squint, add the full measure of sugar. Spread in a shallow baking dish that crowds the apples in a single layer. Drape with slivers of butter, cover tightly, and bake until the apples start to soften, 15 to 30 minutes, depending on your apples.
  6. Uncover, raise the heat to 260℃ / 500℉ (240℃ / 465℉ fan oven), and return the pan to the oven. Leave the apples to dry out and colour slightly, about 10 minutes.
  7. When the tips of the apples have become golden and the fruit is tender, scrape them into a bowl and stir into a chunky “mash”. Season with salt and sugar to taste, then consider a splash of apple cider vinegar to brighten the flavour (try a drop on a spoon to see if you like it).

This roasted apple sauce also makes a fabulous filling for my almond crumble. Blackberries are also in season now, so I stirred a few through the apple sauce as the two fruits go together beautifully.

Apple Crumble

Ingredients

  • 140g / 5oz plain flour
  • 50g / 1¾ oz granulated sugar plus 1 tablespoon extra
  • 50g / 1¾ oz light or dark brown sugar
  • ⅛ teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 85g / 3oz unsalted butter, softened and cut into 6 pieces
  • 55g / 2oz flaked/sliced almonds

Method

  1. Heat oven to 190℃ / 375℉ (170℃ / 340℉ fan oven).
  2. Combine flour, sugars and salt in magimix bowl – drizzle vanilla over the top.  Pulse in 5 x 1-second blasts, add butter and half the almonds.  Process until mix clumps together (approximately 30 seconds), scraping sides halfway through.  Sprinkle over remaining almonds and combine with two quick pulses.  Spread in thin layer on parchment-lined baking sheet and bake in middle of oven until chunks are lightly browned and firm (about 18-22 minutes).  Can keep the cooled topping in a jar or tupperware for a couple of weeks.
  3. To assemble and bake: sprinkle the topping over the fruit in the dish(es) and sprinkle over the remaining teaspoon of sugar.  Place in the lower third of the oven at 200℃ / 390℉ (180℃ / 355℉ fan oven) until well browned and the fruit is bubbling at the edges (20-35 minutes, depending on the size of the dish(es) – one big, or individual smaller ones).  Cool the crumble(s) on a wire rack until warm (at least 15 minutes) and serve.
  4. This tastes great with vanilla ice cream or a mix of half crème fraîche and half mascarpone, the seeds from one vanilla pod and icing sugar to taste (make in advance, scoop into sieve sat over a bowl, cover with clingfilm and leave in fridge – this drains off excess water).
IMG_1284

Apple & blackberry crumble with mascarpone & vanilla cream

For more information on cider, the Bull family and their farmhouse, visit www.severncider.com.

We visited the annual Forest Showcase Food & Drink Festival www.forestshowcase.org.

LAURA POPE works as a private chef to clients in the UK and abroad. She has also cooked in some very wonderful establishments worldwide – from a boutique hotel in southwest France to the restaurants Chez Panisse in California and Ottolenghi in London. She is also a teacher on gluten-free cooking, a blogger, and creates recipe apps for the iPad.

See Laura’s website and Facebook page.

A version of this article first appeared on The Journal of Wild Culture on 15 October 2014.

Damsons are a girl’s best friend

Each season has its own gems, although I must admit I have a particular fondness for summer produce: succulent crab meat, juicy berries, vibrant salad leaves, lashings of crisp rosé wine… but the long, lazy days of sunshine and holidays are now behind us and it’s time to move into autumn. Once you get over the crashing slump of post-holiday blues, you can start to appreciate the fantastic foods appearing in gardens, hedgerows and fields now. One of the best things about this latest seasonal shift is the arrival of damsons. These little beauties are currently ripening on trees, just waiting to be picked and turned into all kinds of deliciousness.

Basket of damsonWild Culture article

My mother’s Damson Ketchup deserves the first mention as it has attained almost mythical status amongst friends and family, with pleas for her recipe rolling in thick and fast around this time of year. The process makes the kitchen look like the film set from a battle scene in Game of Thrones, but the end result is extremely worth it. I’d recommend a good pair of (clean) rubber gloves and a rainy afternoon to while away in the kitchen.

Damson Ketchup

Ingredients

  • 6-8 dried chillies
  • 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
  • 1 tablespoon mustard seeds
  • 15g (½ oz) dried root ginger, crushed a bit first (or 30g / 1oz of fresh ginger, grated)
  • 15g (½ oz) allspice berries
  • 2 whole garlic cloves
  • 3.6kg (8 lbs) damsons
  • 225g (8 oz) currants
  • 450g (1 lb) onions chopped small
  • 55g (2 oz) course salt
  • 450g (1 lb) demerara sugar
  • 950ml (2 pints) distilled white vinegar

Method

  1. Tie up the chillies, peppercorns, mustard seeds, ginger, allspice berries and garlic cloves in muslin to make a little bag.
  2. Very gently heat the damsons until the juice runs and they go soft enough to put on the rubber gloves and squeeze the stones out until most of them are out. Then put the pulp in a colander to trap the rest of the stones, being careful to put all the pulp back in the pan.
  3. Add currants, onions and bag of spices.  Add half of the vinegar, bring to the boil and simmer gently, uncovered, for about 30 mins or until mixture is soft.
  4. Remove the bag of spices, place contents of pan in liquidiser and blend until perfectly smooth.
  5. Rinse out the pan and return the purée and bag of spices to it, add salt, sugar and remaining vinegar.
  6. Bring to simmer and cook gently, uncovered, for 1½ to 2 hours or until the ketchup has reduced to approximately 1.6 litres (3½ pints). At this stage, the ketchup should be slightly thinner than you would like it as it thickens as time goes by. Whilst cooking, stir occasionally to prevent it sticking.
  7. Pour into sterilised bottles, label and store for at least 6 months and up to 3 years.

Damson ketchup

Another favourite is Damson Gin – like the ketchup, it takes a little patience, not just to make it but also for it to be ready to drink, but I promise you it is very much worth the wait. The trick is to make as much of it as you possibly can as you’ll dread running out of this fragrant, jewel-hued nectar. I love drinking it with tonic on warmer days (no need for a wedge of lemon or lime as it’s quite tart enough as it is) or sipping it neat as a digestif. I wasn’t sure on the quantity of sugar to use as I’d previously only come across sloe gin; as sloes are much tarter, they require more sugar, which is why I prefer damsons – more natural sweetness and flavour, so less added sugar. I consulted Diana Henry’s fantastic book “Salt Sugar Smoke”, which yields delicious results – her recipe is below.

Damson Gin

Fills 1 x 1 litre (1¾ pint) bottle.

Ingredients

  • 500g (1lb 2oz) damsons
  • 250g (9oz) caster sugar
  • 600ml (1 pint) gin

Method

  1. Prick each damson with a skewer and put into large preserving jar or bottle with the sugar and gin. Seal the top and give the jar a really good shake.
  2. Now leave it somewhere so the damsons can infuse the gin with their flavour and shake it every day for a week, then every week for 10 weeks or so. Taste and see whether you want to leave it for longer.
  3. If you are happy with the flavour, pour through a nylon sieve and bottle. Matures after about 18 months and keeps for two years.

Damson gin

But what if you want to enjoy damsons now, without the agonising wait? A sorbet is a great way to showcase damsons as the sharpness of the fruit makes for a satisfyingly tart, assertive taste that really packs a punch. Whereas some sorbets can taste rather generic, there is no doubting the authenticity of the fruit here.

Damson Sorbet

Ingredients

  • 1 kg (2lb) damsons
  • 450g (14½ oz) caster sugar
  • Small pinch of salt

Method

  1. Put the ingredients in a medium-sized pan over a low heat. Stir until the damsons begin to burst and release their juice.
  2. Remove from the heat and strain through a sieve, pushing gently with a wooden spoon or ladle.
  3. Chill the syrup in the fridge until cold and then churn in an ice-cream maker until frozen.
  4. Remove and store in a small container in the freezer until ready to use.

A teaspoon of the sorbet can be stirred into a glass of Champagne or Prosecco to make a refreshing apéritif that is a modern take on the classic Champagne Cocktail. For a non-alcoholic version, mix the sorbet with a splash of elderflower cordial and top up with sparkling water, or homemade lemonade.

Thermometer and damsons

A version of this article first appeared on The Journal of Wild Culture on 17 September 2014.

What’s the story, morning glory?

No sniggering at the back… this is a serious problem. My little urban garden has been repeatedly engulfed by a seemingly innocuous, almost attractive plant, that is in fact a rampant nuisance. Morning glory (so called because the flowers bloom with the sunrise) can be gorgeously colourful (I particularly like the rich, ultra-violet varieties) but my flowers are few and far between, and boringly white. I wouldn’t mind it so much were it not for the fact that it takes over EVERYTHING – whether living or inanimate – at the rate of knots. So far, it has smothered the lobelia I planted, throttled the ancient roses, coiled itself around the potted trees, elbowed its way past the geraniums – and it’s even trying to consume my garden table and chairs.

Morning Glory going wild

Morning Glory going wild. There are about another five lanterns under there…

So, today I took a stand and tackled the morning glory. Like a woman possessed, I snipped, tore and prised the clingy tendrils from the trees, trellises, bushes and plants. While I was on a roll, I weeded the gravel, pulled out all the potted herbs and plants that had fallen victim to slugs and other predators, snipped back the branches of the elder tree that hangs over my garden from next door (thanks for the elderflower cordial in May, neighbours!) I filled up two enormous bags with my garden cuttings, swept and hosed down the decking and I even scrubbed the dark purple pigeon poo from my sun loungers (thanks to them stuffing their beaks on berries from the ever-bountiful elder tree).

    

My garden now feels somehow bigger. Although it really was a job that needed doing, it looks a little bare, as if it’s had a particularly brutal Brazilian wax job. Perhaps I need to learn a little finesse in the art of gardening, but at least Douglas now has easier access to the gap beneath the fence that divides my garden from my neighbours’, who have a sweet little dog called Rosa. Theirs seems a funny relationship as she regularly pines for him while he stoically gives her plaintive whines a stiff ignoring… only for him to then spend ages pinned to the fence when she’s not there, waiting for a sign that she is on the other side. Their little Pyramus & Thisbe routine is rather sweet, if a tad puzzling, but I’m sure that the sight of me ripping up the garden didn’t exactly make much sense to Douglas, either. Well, he’d better get used to it… the rate that bloody morning glory grows, I’ll be doing it all again in a few weeks.

Douglas waiting in vain for Rosa to make an appearance

What’s the opposite of green fingered?

Picking cherries in south west France (it turns out I am better at harvesting than I am at growing stuff).

Picking cherries in south west France (it turns out I am rather better at harvesting than I am at growing stuff).

I used to hope that two factors would make me a naturally gifted gardener (once I finally turned my hand to it):

1. My family. Loads of them are brilliant gardeners, ergo, it’s in my blood and I shall therefore be brilliant.

2. I’m a chef. That means I’m good with nature’s bountiful produce and should therefore be good at growing stuff.

Right? Oh, how wrong I was… It turns out that gardening really isn’t a walk in the park. Mother Chef, a revoltingly accomplished gardener, admitted that even the best gardeners have had many disastrous failures along the way, some of which have helped make them the green-fingered wizards they are now. Other misadventures, however, just have to be chalked down to experience – Mother Nature’s way of reminding us who’s really in charge. Gardening, it turns out, requires a lot of knowledge, patience, intuition… and lashings of luck. Right now, a decent, eco-friendly slug killer would probably improve things vastly in my little garden. Rather than buying a selection of potted herbs, petunias, lobelias and geraniums, I may as well have purchased a few bags of mixed salad leaves and scattered them around the garden as the slugs seem to think that it’s their birthday and have attacked my little infant plants with gusto. A few have survived and I’m looking at them hopefully, praying they’ll make it to the flowering stage, but I’m not holding my breath.

Behold the verdant leaves on the left... and the path of the slug's destruction on the right.

Behold the verdant leaves on the left… and the path of the slug’s destruction on the right.

So, with my borders and plant pots hosting a disappointing lack of flowers or herbs, I have cast my eyes further afield… The neighbours’ elderflowers have started blossoming, so I have ‘re-housed’ a few blooms hanging over the garden fence and am now steeping them for three days with lemons, sugar, citric acid and water, ready to decant into bottles – my first ever batch of West London Elderflower Cordial (check out May’s Recipe of the month). I’ve also got my sights set on the magnificent damson tree in my friends’ Highgate garden, which yields a decent crop about once every two years – fingers crossed 2014 is a bountiful one and we can get cracking on some damson ketchup and damson gin this autumn.

Elderflower blooms, ripe for the picking.

Elderflower blooms, tantalisingly ripe for the picking.

Damson gin, made with the bumper Cornish crop a couple of years ago.

Damson gin, made with the bumper Cornish crop of 2012.

But, until then, I will make do with the wonderful local farmers’ market every Sunday… and the gorgeous garden at Treverra Farm this summer (exquisitely designed by Natalie Ashbee), full of gorgeous blooms and succulent fruit. I’ll see if I can pick up a few tips and maybe, this time next year, I’ll be admiring the fruits of my own labours…

Treverra strawberries.

Treverra strawberries.

Jams made with Treverra fruits.

Various jams made with Treverra fruits.

The London Project… this time it’s for real

Working from home

Working from home

Back in May I wrote a post about my visit to London, which pretty much involved me eating my way around the city, aided and abetted by some food-loving friends. It was this short trip that really cemented the idea in my head to move back to London to experience its vibrant, cosmopolitan buzz once more… I had missed its hustle and bustle and was longing to take advantage of the opportunities it held.

Oxford Street at dusk

Oxford Street at dusk

Five months later I was moving my belongings into a flat in Queen’s Park, a stop-gap very kindly provided by an old friend, and found myself caught, like a rabbit in the headlights, in the glaring bright lights of the big city. My calculated risk to move back here in order work on the recipe apps I’ve been developing, whilst funding myself with private cheffing work for clients I’d previously cooked for in Cornwall, has been paying off – in spades. My work diary has been full to bursting, while some confused friends have contacted me to ask if it’s really true I’m back in town… or just an urban myth. But, though my social life hasn’t been given a chance to thrive and I have visited woefully few new restaurants, I keep reminding myself that at least I’ve been busy – far better to be drowning in work than to be twiddling my thumbs… It’s not yet been seven weeks since my return, so it’s still early days, but I’m starting to settle in little by little. Friends have been wonderful, reassuring me when it all seems to much and cheering for me when it’s all going well. The new year will bring more changes as I look for a more permanent home and create a new recipe app, but hopefully there will be consolidation, too.

Breakfast at the local farmers' market

Breakfast at the local farmers’ market

In the meantime, there is my first Christmas at home in four years to look forward to: the family, the fun, the food, the dogs, the blissful peace and quiet of the countryside… In just 10 days, I will be driving down to Dorset with a contented smile on my face and no work booked in for over a week. Well, except for the 20 or so new recipes I need to come up with by January for the next app…

Happy Christmas to you all and have a wonderful 2014! x

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”

It’s a cliché, but especially true in the world of cooking. All cooks do it, whether a novice taking their first intrepid steps in the kitchen, or a seasoned restaurant chef at the the top of their game, anyone with culinary aspirations will, at some point, gain inspiration from other chefs. My tour of some of London’s restaurants in May was not just an excuse to spend most of my days eating, drinking and catching up with friends – I needed (yes, needed) to eat out in all those fabulous places to feed my imagination, not just my appetite. And I know it was totally worthwhile, as it gave me so many ideas and that, ultimately, benefits everyone – particularly me and my guests. Polpo was a real goldmine and I’ve been happily romping my way through Russel Norman’s gorgeous book since I bought it a couple of weeks ago, bringing a little taste of Venice to north Cornwall.

Fennel, frisée & French bean salad with walnuts recipe (slightly adapted) from “Polpo” by Russel Norman

Flourless orange & almond cake recipe from “Polpo” by Russel Norman

Jamie Oliver’s books, especially the ones related to travel, such as “Jamie Does”, “Jamie’s Italy” and “Jamie’s America”, are full of recipes that I constantly revisit. I love Thomasina Miers’ “Wahaca: Mexican Food at Home” and for pure, unadulterated travel/food porn and gorgeous photography, I adore David Loftus’ compilation of recipes “Around the World in 80 Dishes”. To remind me of my San Francisco days, I was thrilled to be reunited with my copies of Alice Waters’ “The Art of Simple Food” and Judy Rodgers’ “The Zuni Café Cookbook” (buried and temporarily lost for three long years in the bottom of a packing box) – I can almost taste the fabulous Californian produce in every sentence.

Mackerel & pomegranate ceviche recipe by Jamie Oliver

Cherry tart recipe by Bill Granger

I really enjoy cooking recipes developed by these brilliant chefs, who have a wealth of experience between them. Some I’ve been lucky enough to meet in person, others I feel as if I know, at least in the culinary sense, via their books. I hope to be joining their (very lowest) ranks soon as I am putting the finishing touches on my own recipe app for the iPad. Over the course of my career as a private chef, I have developed a collection of recipes for people who share my passion for food and healthy living. In any group of guests, often a number of them will have dietary restrictions, so I have adapted several of my favourite dishes in order that everyone around the table can share the meal and eat together. I’m hoping that my recipes take the worry and stress out of cooking for a group of people including those on special diets, and if any of my dishes become part of other cooks’ repertoires, I will be over the moon.

Photography by Beth Druce for my recipe app www.bethdruce.com

The London Project

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Celebrating the end of the Verbier season

Celebrating the end of the Verbier season

When you start to live your life according to the Bible of Bueller, it’s probably time to stop living in a ski resort. But, my god, it’s been fun. What’s not to love about the heady cocktail of unlimited skiing, fresh air, sunshine, snow-covered mountains, après-ski and dancing until dawn? However, the inevitable change of season has heralded a new era and my migration from the mountains to the sea. Cornwall beckons, but before I head back, I’ve been taking in a landscape of a very different kind…

The London Eye

The London Eye

London, my home town for almost a decade until 2009, is the kind of city of which I dream when faced with another cheese-tastic, formulaic, heavy, overly rich Alpine stodge-fest (hence the lack of blogging over the winter – I couldn’t bear to write about fondues and raclette, and I felt that banging on about skiing might be stretching the point of this blog, so I’ve kept quiet). I’ve been reading up and salivating at the prospect of some fantastic-sounding restaurants that have opened up over the four years since I last lived in London, vicariously experiencing them via blogs, newspapers, magazines and cookery books, whilst patiently waiting to get stuck in at the earliest opportunity.

So, first stop: The Modern Pantry. I’ve had my heart set on trying the restaurant out since a friend gave me Anna Hansen’s cookery book, full of incredible flavours and unexpected combinations (it made sense when I discovered that Anna founded The Providores with the wonderful Peter Gordon, who kindly let me loose in his magical and tiny kitchen during my training at Leiths). Sadly, Verbier is still in the dark ages when it comes to international ingredients, so I was stumped when it came to actually trying out her recipes myself, but I read the book from cover to cover like a food porn novel, mentally savouring every last mouthful of her gorgeous food. The restaurant is open all day from breakfast to dinner, with everything in between, and has the more formal restaurant as well as the more informal café, which is where we ate. The setting, in Clerkenwell, is perfect – fresh, modern, light-filled and buzzy. The menu reads so well that the major issue is deciding what to eat. So we cheated and ordered a total mish-mash, complete with matching wines, in order to create our own tasting menu: Wild garlic, roast celeriac & pecorino fritters, pear & tonka bean purée; Sugar-cured New Caledonian prawn omelette, green chilli, spring onion, coriander, smoked chilli sambal; Grilled tamarind & miso marinated onglet steak, carrot, ginger & preserved lemon gratin, tahini lemon cream; Pan-fried south coast cod, parsnip purée, chamomile braised fennel, tomatillo & yuzu tobiko salsa; Pomegranate ‘cheesecake’, oat & pistachio crumb, mandarin & jasmine sorbet. This miscellany was like manna from heaven to my inspiration-starved palate and the wild combinations really did work. I’d go into more details, but we went on for cocktails afterwards, at which point my memory gets hazy.

The Modern Pantry

The Modern Pantry

Next stop was my birthday dinner with some of my favourite girls at The Almeida, opposite the theatre of the same name just off Upper Street in Islington. Run by my always-elegant friend Claire, a vision of French chic and a professional yet warm manner, we were spoilt rotten with Champagne and fabulous canapés, followed by a lovely meal about which I honestly can’t remember many details as we were all in full-on filthy story mode and I spent most of the night laughing so hard that I actually stopped breathing at one point. Thankfully we were stashed away in their private sunken room, for which the other diners were probably extremely grateful.

I escaped London for a day of relative tranquility with my gorgeous London hosts, Johnnie and Gus, to take my smallest godson to Clivedon House and then lunch at Bel & the Dragon in Cookham, a small chain of stylish restaurants in the south of England with some beautifully renovated rooms upstairs. The head chef is an old London friend, Ronnie, whose deceptively insouciant manner and charm give the restaurant a lovely, relaxed feel, all the while turning out great food, including a kiddie-friendly Sunday lunch menu. I suppose that all those years working under Gordon Ramsay is bound to either burn you out or make you super-chilled and highly talented, and it’s definitely the latter for Ronnie. For someone generally so unflustered, though, I did enjoy the look of utter shock and a few choice swear words when I unexpectedly stuck my head through the pass to say hello… always good to keep ’em on their toes.

Back in London and the eat-a-thon continued… lunch at Polpo was an utter treat in many ways. First off, my companions: the afore-mentioned Claire, this time off duty, and my dear friend and super-talented writer/director, Amit, who – as luck would have it – was in town and free for lunch. We walked in without a reservation, yet still they managed to find us a little spot near the bar at the back, giving us a great view of all the little dishes coming from the kitchen. The Venetian, tapas-style food is meant for sharing so we ordered Grilled fennel & white anchovy, Broad bean, ricotta & mint bruschetta, Spicy pork & fennel meatballs, Fritto misto, Zucchini, rocket & Parmesan salad and Rabbit & chicory tonnata salad, rounded off beautifully with a Flourless orange & almond cake and espressos that really hit the spot. I was pleasantly amazed that, including a half-litre of wine and the tip, the bill for three of us came to less than £75 (but then I have spent the past five months in Switzerland and my sense of “good value” may be a little skewed).

Polpo

Polpo

Not one to shirk a challenge, dinner that night was at Bar Shu with lovely friends Joe and Tom. I’ve known Joe for many years and he’s always great company, but I have to admit that there’s also another reason why I absolutely adore going to Asian restaurants with him. As a native of Singapore, now living in London, he knows his way around the menu so well that I can just close mine and let him order, which is a very exciting thing to happen to a chef, trust me. I would not usually get excited over a dish named “Boiled beef slices in an extremely spicy sauce”, but it was meltingly tender and fabulously fiery (bless Joe, he did pick out the most lethal-looking chillis before we got stuck in). The Minced chicken with preserved mustard greens were irresistible little parcels and the Spicy, whole sea bass was fresh, tangy and punchy. Even our side dish of Stir-fried water spinach with chilli was ridiculously moreish… let’s just say I didn’t end that particular day hungry.

Bear with me, there’s only so long even I can bang on about food, but I have to end with a special shout-out to my old stomping ground, Brixton Market, which has transformed from being a scruffy, sometimes ugly little duckling into a rather hip, food-tabulous swan (am I getting a bit fusion with my metaphors?) It’s a real joy, in particular, to spend a couple of hours wondering around Brixton Village, sampling different cuisines in the little cafés that line its avenues. There’s something about Federation Coffee that is instantly appealing – the way that certain spaces just feel right, with quirky touches and a cool but friendly vibe. Along the avenues, cuisines from across the world happily sit side by side, from Japan to Mexico, via Spain, Italy and Beijing. Gaby, Snow and I had set our sights on the excellent sourdough pizzas at Franco Manca and had more than our fill with two of their veggie options between the three of us. We left full and happy, with a couple of bottles of Prosecco from Market Row Wines for later. I can’t help wishing that the market had been this way when I lived on Acre Lane for all those years, but I am really happy to see such a welcome development in my old neighbourhood. Brixton has always had amazing spirit, heart and soul, as well as a great music scene, but now the food scene has evolved and it truly is worth shouting about.

Federation Coffee

Federation Coffee

I left London with my tummy full and my head packed to the brim with ideas, which I can’t wait to try out using the wonderful and fresh produce in Cornwall. But I barely even scratched the surface of what the city’s food scene has to offer and, now I’ve had my fix, resistance is futile… see you soon, London.

Golden Jubilee Bridge

Golden Jubilee Bridge

The raw truth

So my mission to find a better way of eating has continued throughout the summer… my initial forays into free-from cooking weren’t great, from my disastrous xylitol meringues to the rather disappointing dairy- and sugar-free wholewheat & courgette muffins. I did manage to make some delicious sorbets with lemon juice and a syrup made with xylitol and infused with herbs, but after 48 hours in the freezer they had all taken on the consistency of a glacier. An ice pick is not a good look when you’re trying to serve dessert.

But, nevertheless, fuelled by some excellent writing by cancer survivors and scientists, juicing enthusiasts and raw food cooks – and even a Michelin-starred chef turned vegan convert – I’m learning more about how and why foods affect our bodies in certain ways, and how to go about cooking and eating to make life not only healthier, but also tastier. The right diet and lifestyle may not be able to eliminate all chances of getting diseases like cancer, but I’ve realised that it is undoubtedly possible to significantly lower the odds.

Despite all my jibes about soy chai lattes, mung bean pancakes and tree hugging… I am steadily cutting out cow-derived dairy from my diet – and even the Big Swede (from a nation of dairy devotees) has followed suit. Instead of cow’s milk, we now buy either almond, soya or coconut milk (rice milk is fine if you like skimmed milk, but we both find it too watery) and, though I still have been using a bit of butter when cooking and on toast (out of habit more than anything), I am increasingly ignoring it in favour of olive, coconut and vegetable oils.

A big incentive to eating far better is the juicer we bought – it’s got a chute big enough to fit whole apples (so there’s not the faff of peeling, chopping or coring – we just chuck ’em straight on in there) and it’s a doddle to clean, which means that we actually use it at least once a day, instead of it gathering dust. Well, I say “we”… Big Swede has taken to juicing with a fervour bordering on the religious. His latest creation was called “Swamp Juice”, which was ridiculously healthy and a deep, rather lurid shade of green, but he’s a sucker for berries, so each morning I’m often handed something akin to an all-natural, virgin cocktail. It’s only a matter of time until there’s a cherry and umbrella on top…

Today is the start of another week cooking for the clients who set into motion my quest for a healthier diet. In anticipation of their arrival, my head is full of ideas, while the fridge is bursting with fruit, veggies and herbs, the larder is stocked with my Norwegian crisp breads, buckwheat noodles and cookies I’ve made without resorting to sugar, butter or white flour, and the freezer has about five different flavours of totally sugar- and dairy-free ice creams, including Brazil Nut & Vanilla, Rasbperry and Coconut. I really, really hope they’re hungry…

First course…

Chez Panisse continues to amaze and teach me more than I could have ever hoped. The chefs I work with are utterly inspiring, making the most incredible food night after night, with smiles on their faces and minimum fuss. Why aren’t all restaurants this way and how on earth did I get lucky enough to be here? I have been really fortunate that they have so much faith put in me, as they not only let me help prep the meals with them – teaching me about the fantastic produce they use and showing me lots of great techniques – but the head chef Jean-Pierre and and sous chef Jerome (yes, I am back in with the French) have put me on the line each night, which means that I am actually part of the team of cooks getting to execute and serve the dishes to our guests each night.













As the set menu changes every day, I am constantly seeing new dishes, from amazing fish such as Catalina spiny lobsters served in a ragout with leeks and chervil or grilled Monterey squid and scallions with grilled peppers, aioli and salad, to wonderful locally-sourced meats, like grilled Sonoma duck breast with roasted fig relish, green beans and turnip and potato gratin or grilled rack, leg and loin of Elliott Ranch lamb with autumn vegetable tian and rapini. It’s a masterclass in the best of Californian-French cuisine. Although I don’t work on the pastry section, the girls work alongside us, always happy and proud to show me what they’re making and offering samples. I didn’t think I had a sweet tooth, but they are doing a good job of changing my mind…



But it’s the core restaurant family to whom I will be eternally indebted: patient, wise, talented, brilliant and gracious (even with the relentless mocking of my English pronunciation, which seems to cause constant amusement, especially to the boys when I am calling out orders to the front-of-house team). Only a team of cooks as devoted to great food, to each other and to the restaurant that they love so much – and as confident and secure in their collective ability and experience – could be so generous with their time and energy. I am one very, very lucky line cook right now.

Back in the Bay

I’m back and have found San Francisco (and its inhabitants) as gorgeous as ever. Sunshine, beautiful views, wonderful people, great food and a few days of rest and fun before heading into my first stage at Chez Panisse. One of California’s best-loved and most-respected restaurants, it has an impeccable ethos, serving the finest sustainably-sourced, organic, and seasonal ingredients, prepared with love, talent and unwavering care. Simple, yet brilliant – and representative of everything I admire and aspire to as a chef. So, it wasn’t really a surprise to find myself shaking with nerves and excitement at the prospect of spending a fortnight in their kitchens. I had been assigned to work in the restaurant, which serves a set menu each night (as opposed to the upstairs café’s more informal, à la carte menu). At 1.30pm, I arrived to meet the restaurant team, who were relaxed and friendly, whilst awesomely knowledgeable and passionate about food. With one chef off sick, I was truly thrown in at the deep end – Jerome, the chef in charge that night, assigned the starter to me, which – under his guidance – I prepped and served up to 100 guests:


Monday, November 2, $60
  • Frisée and rocket salad with confit gesiers, hearts, pancetta, green beans and liver toast
  • Poulet à lestragon: spit-roasted Soul Food Farm chicken with tarragon, crème fraîche, wild mushrooms, and fried potatoes
  • Meyer lemon meringue tartlet with huckleberries
I’m learning that Chez Panisse not only makes its customers extremely happy, but it seems that you’d be hard-pushed to find a happier workforce, too. Unlike the grim-faced, ashen, exhausted creatures who inhabit some of London, Paris or New York’s leading restaurant kitchens, the cooks here genuinely love their work – this isn’t some ordeal to survive in order to bolster their CVs and to prove they can hack the worst that can possibly be thrown at them. Many have been Chez Panisse for two decades or more and obviously take enormous pleasure and pride in their work – and each other. I didn’t here a single raised voice or cross word – just encouragement and gentle, constructive criticism where needed, which was always received with grace. Split shifts (where you work two shifts back-to-back with a short break in between) are totally frowned upon as it’s genuinely understood that cooks working longer than a 9-hour day are too exhausted to work properly – and, more importantly, to have a life of their own outside of work. All very sensible, but sadly, all too rare in most restaurants. (The café chefs doing the early shift start at 7am, but go home at about 4pm, handing over to the evening team). Too perfect to be true? Time will tell, but it’s not just the food that they seem to be getting completely right here.


La Fin


After 182 days, 1,000 dinners, 700 breakfasts and 1,800 hours in the kitchen, my stint in France is coming to an end. I’m looking back at the past six months and trying to sum them up… but I just can’t. I arrived not really knowing what to expect, yet it became strangely familiar almost immediately as Peter, Orlando and Monique swept me up into their extraordinary Raynaudes existence. For six days a week I’ve been up early to make breakfast and have fallen into bed sometime after dinner is over, leaving me so tired at times that I could fall asleep standing up. That kind of exhaustion can leave you feeling raw and was sometimes made worse by intense loneliness – life can feel pretty empty when living somewhere so isolated, the only contact with friends and family is over the internet or phone and the excitement about a brief visit from someone is tinged with the premature dread of saying goodbye. But since leading this active life in the middle of the countryside, I’ve been healthier and fitter than ever and – for much of the time – happier. I have laughed more in this job than any other, as Peter oscillates between dry wit and high jinks and Orlando relentlessly regales me with his hilarious anecdotes and observations (when he takes a break from teasing Jude, who has popped back throughout the season to help with front-of-house. Her calm, warm charm has not only worked wonders with the guests and the team, but our girly chats have played a big part in keeping me vaguely sane). And I’ve never felt such a sense of achievement, amazement and satisfaction – and that makes it all worth it a hundred times over.











The visits from friends and family have really shown me how lucky I am to have lived and worked here – whilst also making me appreciate the people I love all the more. I had my youngest ever visitor in September – what he lacked in years, he made up for in extreme importance. Hunter Jefferson Crawford, my heavenly godson, born to my dear friend Cat on 4th July, made the journey from Edinburgh via Paris, accompanied by his gorgeous mummy, aunty Johnnie and Gus (over from Chicago) and Gus’ parents, Richard and Leonee. Staying in the Cévennes meant they were almost a four-hour drive away, but distance was not going to get in the way of coming to dinner at Le Manoir. Cooking for close friends is a nerve-wracking experience at the best of times… doing so for a fellow (and more experienced) chef (Cat) really ups the ante, but they made it one of the most special meals I have ever cooked and I was so proud and touched that they came all this way. We then drove all the way back to Valleraugue, arriving at the house at 4am. The next day was perfect – Johnnie, Cat and I made up for months of missing each other and catching up, with Hunter a peaceful, much-adored focus of all our attention.













Then back for more Toulouse fun to say goodbye to Jude… rather worryingly, I’ve now been back to my new favourite city there a few times and – despite walking around it for hours at a time – I still can’t get my bearings and spend half my time happily lost. We have, however, found a fantastic wine bar – I have no idea what street it’s on, but it’s called “Au Père Louis”. If you come across it, do stop in for a “quinquina” – their house apéritif that has something to do with quinine and wine. Whatever. After a couple of those, you won’t be able to get your bearings either, but you probably won’t care…












What next…? London, southern Italy and then California to do stages at Chez Panisse in Berkeley and Zuni Café in San Francisco. I’d love to tell you what the plan is after that, but right now I have absolutely no idea. Watch this space…



“C’est normal”…

… a frequently-heard phrase in these parts – but it doesn’t mean exactly what you’d think it does. For the French, it’s more a way of saying “of course” or “don’t mention it”. But I hear it so often that it has made me realise that what I hold as “normal” has taken on a whole new meaning since I’ve been here…

After being so accustomed to the hubbub of London, I’m now quite used to the tranquility of Raynaudes (ok, admittedly punctuated by the odd bellowing animal), although the stillness continues to captivate me, even after five months – I could listen to the cicadas for hours at night, their chirruping a continuous, soothing presence that I will sorely miss when I leave. And the bone-chilling, face-numbing, spirit-dampening cold and rain of home seems unimaginable as I am warmed every day by the blazing Occitan sunshine. I can’t imagine how my daily routine used to involve a cramped commute on London Underground into work, where I would then spend most of my 50 working hours a week sitting in front of a computer screen or trying to stay focused during a three-hour meeting. Now, of course, my working hours total more than 80 a week and are mainly spent in an infernally hot kitchen, trying not to give myself third-degree burns or chop any fingers off, but that’s my chosen life now – and I wouldn’t swap it for anything. I honestly can’t think of a better day’s work than one that involves cooking the produce I’ve selected from our local market and suppliers with vegetables, fruit and herbs that I’ve picked from our garden to create food for enthusiastic, lovely guests to enjoy. And then, of course, there’s the pool and sunshine to concentrate on for a couple of hours in the afternoon..

But the “norm” around here is not all pastoral, idyllic perfection. Despite the Brits returning from their French holidays full of praise for the more relaxed approach to life taken by our Gallic cousins, they can seem like a bunch of absolute slackers when you’ve got a short amount of time to get a lot done. I’m sure we’d all welcome the idea of a two-hour lunch break every day, with a working week capped at 35 hours, but trust me – it simply isn’t practical. Not an awful lot ever gets achieved around here – and nothing is ever open when you need it. After London’s 24-hour culture, where you can get almost anything anytime, we must now grit our teeth and bear rural France’s more “relaxed” attitude to business. Not only do many shops and restaurants close daily from 12-2pm – as well as all day on Sundays and Mondays – but many don’t open on Wednesdays as French children have the day off school in order to received the religious instruction of their parents’ choice (it isn’t provided as part of the secular school system. Of course, they don’t do anything of the sort – Wednesday is unofficially “teenage-loafing” day around town…) And, on the subject of shops – how on earth did the store-planners for our local supermarket decide that the dental floss belongs in amongst the condoms? The locals might have a good explanation (as did Jude, although I’m not repeating it here), but I’m still trying to figure that one out – and am rather worried about French attitudes to both oral hygiene and contraception…


And yet… if we think the local ways of life are a bit unusual, what on earth must Le Manoir’s guests think when they see Orlando paddling around the lake in a red kayak, hurling white powder all over the surface (and himself) or catch sight of Peter on the back on a tractor being driven around the field? And it’s not every hotel owner who sits down at the piano after dinner to sing “I am 16, going on 17” to the chef while she’s dressed in a candy-pink dirndl, doing her best Julie Andrews twirls? (Yes, there are photos. No, you can’t see them). If you think that’s a bit unusual… well, I never promised you normal, did I?




All creatures not so great and small

Mother Nature has a funny way of reminding you who’s boss… For any city-dwellers imagining that the countryside is the place for peace and quiet, think again. Once the hotel gets full, we ship out, so I have spent a number of nights staying with our lovely farming neighbours, Monsieur and Madame Regourd. They live next door to Georgette Cayre, a plump, no-nonsense widow with a living larder – not, as some of our guests innocently think, a bunch of pets. She keeps them for food, plain and simple. I used to feel sorry for the poor little things (non-sensical, I know, as I eat and cook meat), but having been woken up every morning at quarter to five by her pair of competing roosters, if she doesn’t do something about them soon, a new dish of “coq au vin” is appearing on the Raynaudes menu…


And once the roosters have had their early-morning crowing competition, the woeful braying from the Regourds’ donkies starts up – apparently they’re not deeply distressed, as we’d all feared – they just do it for the hell of it… Or maybe they, too, are being subjected to regular nibbles from the mosquitos? But nothing has come close to the recent fly infestation – the worst in living Raynaudes memory and of quite biblical proportions. Thankfully, as the heatwave has passed its worst (we hope), the flies have abated a bit – in the nick of time, as we were being driven completely insane by the constant buzzing and swatting. Teetering on the brink of insanity is not the time for shocks – luckily when I discovered the lizard having a swim in the loo, I was too exhausted to bat an eyelid….

There’s definitely mischief in the air – the Regourds’ Red Setter Sam has a new favourite nighttime”frolic”: he waits for the front door to open when I come home and then streaks out and off into the night, with me giving chase all over Raynaudes while he antagonises all the neighbourhood dogs, eliciting much snarling and barking from the dogs and much cursing from me. He comes back eventually, with a smirk on his face and a Mutley-style snigger…

To escape the crazy animal kingdom that is currently ruling Raynaudes, I went to the Sunday market at Saint Antonin Noble Val on the River Aveyron – a touristy kind of scene, but with a buzzy atmosphere and some lovely food stalls in amongst the over-priced, ubiquitous tie-die creations. I had a leisurely lunch in the dappled sunshine of the courtyard at Restaurant Beffroi – the staff were busy and I was happy to take my time, which meant that I spent more than two hours enjoying a glass of rosé, salmon with couscous and chocolate fondant. Apparently being patient and a French-speaker helps, though – after just a brief exchange with the waiter, who had expressed amazement when I told him I was English, my bill only listed the main course – “the pudding and wine are on me”, he said in perfect English, with a little smile as he sailed past me. I left with a big grin on my face. Never mind the discount and light flirting – he’d thought I was French…

The end of the world? No, just the start of August…


So, I’d been told that the weather can get a bit unpredictable in August, but this is truly ridiculous… Having been lured back to Toulouse, I spent the day roaming the city in glorious sunshine. When day gave way to dusk, it brought a change in the weather as the clouds rolled in and the wind picked up. By the time I was in the car driving home, the rain was falling hard – and then things really got interesting… Lighting bolts lit up the sky as I drove through the vineyards of Gaillac, but the full extent of the storm was wreaking havoc closer to home. My first hint was the foliage covering the road approaching Cordes-sur-Ciel and, by the time I reached the town itself, I was swerving to avoid whole trees that had fallen across the road.

 

Numerous diversions and a white-knuckle ride later, I finally made it back to Le Manoir de Raynaudes, trying not to run over the frogs hopping all over the driveway. I ran through the rain into the house, where Orlando, Peter and the guests were intact and jubilantly recounting the evening’s dramas and heroics, including chopping up trees that had fallen across the driveway (one guest even fell into the lake in the process), dodging flying roof tiles and giant hailstones, cooking dinner through an hour-long power cut and chasing after airborne pieces of garden furniture.
This morning saw another hurricane take us by storm: our housekeeper,
Monique. A force of nature in her own right, she came to us on her day off to help clear up the mess. Within hours, we had returned the place to a near-normal state, with no more lasting damage to the buildings than a few shattered roof tiles. However, many of our plants are wrecked and we’ll never be able to prove to the doubting French that you really can grow seedless grapes, since our especially-imported vines were destroyed. But we survived, the guests thought this was the best entertainment they’d had in ages – and life goes on. As planned, we’re still on to serve dinner in an hour’s time, but I think we’ll be eating indoors tonight…

The heat is on

Chefs have a complex relationship with heat…  Too much and the food burns, too little and nothing ever cooks.  A few degrees out and a dish can go horribly wrong – especially true when tempering chocolate or taking sugar syrup to the right stage, but also the difference between deliciously pink or overdone meat.  The source is also highly important (most cooks prefer gas, but I’ve been forced to convert to induction hobs here and they’re slowly seducing me, especially when it comes to cleaning).  A powerful fridge-freezer not only preserves our food, no matter how hot it is outside, but it can save a pastry dough that needs rapid chilling or set the perfect sorbet for that evening’s meal.

But the most interesting effect of the heat here isn’t on the food… it’s on the people.  The sun is high, the days are long, the evenings are balmy and our guests visibly start to relax and glow as the sunshine takes hold.  Given half a chance, I tend to gravitate towards a patch of sunlight, stretch out and read, my basking punctuated by a few lengths in the pool.  But the deeper we get into summer, the more guests come and therefore the more mouths there are to feed…  so in the kitchen I must stay.  “Hot” doesn’t even come close to describing the Manoir kitchen midway through service on a busy July night.  Foie gras slides, salads wilt, the flies go crazy and ice cream doesn’t just melt, it disintegrates if left out of the freezer for longer than a minute…  Only when service is over do we stop, exhausted, panting, a bewildered look and hopefully a satisfied smile on our faces.  I half-stumble, half-fall out of the kitchen – usually straight into the pool, which has become my sanctuary, especially when tempers rise along with the mercury.  We’re now mid-way through the season – nerves are frayed, sleep is scarce and cabin fever is setting in.  Tough, but only natural in a team of just four people striving to provide perfect service whilst working and living in such close proximity to one another, with no time and little opportunity for a life beyond these walls.










Thankfully, though I may not have much time to get out into the world (although I did manage two speedy trips back to the UK for weddings), occasionally it comes to me.  My latest visitors were Pete and Maggie, who made it to Raynaudes for a couple of days in the middle of their European extravaganza.  Having come all the way from San Francisco, I did my best to ensure that they saw the majestic cathedral in Albi, the castle in Najac and the ramparts in Cordes – yet I swear that Pete took most of his photos when I snuck him into the kitchen…

The guests have been particularly entertaining lately.  Although they don’t have to sing for their supper, they seem more than happy to, with Orlando accompanying anyone game enough on the piano, be it to “Cabaret”, “The Boyfriend”, Abba or “The Sound of Music”.  The high camp continued with the arrival of Peter’s youngest son, Andrew, whose stay happily coincided with his father’s birthday and Bastille Day, which of course necessitated Champagne, candlelight, poetry reading, dancing and skinny dipping.  Not sure that our noisy renditions of Julie Andrews’ songs at 1am in the depths of the garden were quite so necessary, though…

The view from here

All in all, it’s not a bad life, really…  The sun’s out, the guests are happy (they gave up worrying about their waistlines a couple of days ago- it’s best just to go with it, really) and the food’s working out nicely.  Orlando and I did our weekly cookery demonstration this morning – we showed them how to make confit of guinea fowl leg (tonight’s main course with saffron risotto), introduced them to tonka beans, got geeky about a few handy kitchen gadgets, explained the bread-making process with mashes and sourdough starters – and let them try their hand at sugar-spinning (thus turning our kitchen into the inside of a candy-floss bowl).

 

 

 

 

 

 

I then returned to the pool for more scrubbing.  And fell in.  Classy.  Peter and Orlando thought this was brilliant and have asked for a repeat performance – but when they and the guests are there to watch me.  And probably half of Raynaudes…

Despite my afternoon soaking, Orlando put me in charge of dinner tonight.  The menu was:

Canapés: asparagus, black olive and tomato cake; fried quail’s eggs with cured ham on toast; Bloody Mary cherry tomatoes

Starter: pork, duck and prune terrine with mâche and watercress salad and watermelon marmelade

Main course: confit of guinea fowl leg with saffron risotto

Cheese, seeded crackers and quince paste

Pudding: tonka crème brûlée with walnut powder puff biscuit 

And…?  The kitchen’s still in one piece, the food looked and tasted how it was meant to and the guests all loved it – in fact, they’re currently working their way through the house’s homemade liquors.  Breakfast should be amusing tomorrow…