rhubarb and cobblers

Living Within, February 2017

A bit of comfort and love might not go amiss this month; your kitchen may be a haven of tranquility, but I am not hermetically sealed from newsfeeds in mine, and it feels like there is something rotten in the state of Denmark.  So in search of the sweet, the soothing, the not too bad to look at but not out to impress either, or perhaps just a signifier that the rhythms of the world are still familiar and reliable in at least some parts of the landscape, this may be the perfect moment to pair the prettiness of pink forced February rhubarb and a little sugar coating with the glory of a name we can shout at the telly should the need arise.  I am talking, of course, about the family of deserts know as cobblers. Their origins an apparent mystery, but as far as I can discover, a good old-fashioned US import - and a very welcome one too - with plenty of scope regarding how it came about its moniker; cobbled together, cobble stones, cobblers awls, … I could keep going.

But here’s the “how to …”, for those who are still with me.  Grab some sticks of pink or red rhubarb, 6 or 7 should do.  Wash and cut into short lengths then toss together with 3 tablespoons of plain flour and about 150g caster sugar (this will be quite sweet - you can add a little less if you prefer your tastes tart).  Leave to macerate while you get on and do the rest (the rhubarb will start to give off a little juice and to work with the sugar while you do).  

Turn on your oven and pre-heat to 180ºC  (or equivalents).  

For the dough/biscuit topping: In a large bowl, weigh out 180g plain flour, add a pinch of salt, 4 teaspoons of caster sugar, and 2 teaspoons of baking powder - mix together with a fork or a whisk until the all the ingredients are blended roughly evenly.  

Cut 80g cold butter into small cubes; toss into the flour and then, using only fingertips, squeeze the butter with the flour (like you would for pastry, keeping your actions light and your hands high out of the bowl), just until the butter and flour looks a bit like breadcrumbs.  Don’t work too hard, don’t allow the butter to get hot and bothered, keep everything as light and airy as possible.  Now add in about 180ml of fluid cream or buttermilk - any cream will do, but a sour cream will help these biscuits (as they are known in the US - we would think of them more like little dumplings or scones) to have a nice rise - some acid in the mix helping the baking powder do it’s job.  Mix the cream through the flour and butter using a knife, or a pastry blender, or lightly use the fingers of one hand - until the mix just adheres as a shaggy dough (don’t overwork it, and it doesn’t matter one bit if the mix looks a bit rough around its edges - or even all over, so long as, broadly speaking, its centre will hold.)

Take the rhubarb and toss once again with the sugar and flour (so that it is all evenly coated) and place in an oven-proof pie or gratin dish that is of a size to allow the rhubarb to form a generous layer.  Then you can either take generous dollops of the dough and just dot them all over the top, or pat or roll the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface to a nice proud inch or so in height, and cut out small scone like shapes - being careful not to twist the dough as you remove the cutter or to overwork anything.  I cut mine in fluted heart shapes - although the shape, once they are cooked, is always going to be a little fuzzy, so I wouldn’t worry too much about how you put these together.

Place the biscuits on top of the rhubarb - the biscuits should not touch each other, and can form any pattern that you like, bearing in mind that they will expand on cooking and may join up a little as they do so.  From here they whole dish goes straight into the oven - you can brush the tops of the dough with a little more cream and sprinkle with a little sugar first if you want to help the colour develop to its full potential, but you don’t have to.

Bake on top of a baking sheet (don’t be surprised if the juices bubble over the edges of the dish if you have filled anywhere near to the top - and these bubbled over juices will, if your oven is left undefended by said baking sheet, otherwise stick to the bottom of your oven!).  The cobbler should be done - golden, bubbling, looking and smelling divine - in about 40 minutes, but start checking after about 30.

Eat while not piping hot, but at least properly warm, and I like mine with a dollop or a drizzle of cream on top.


Ne supra crepidam sutor judicaret
— a shoemaker should not judge beyond the sandal (lit.) Pliny the Elder
Cobbler stick to your last
— English Phrase


Living Within, December 2016


It is normal at this time year for a cook to consider what they might put on the table as the season turns festive.  But in a year where the verb “to normalise” comes with sinister undertones, I am putting my focus on bidding this year adieu - head down, hoping for no more shocks - literal or figurative - and safe passage out of 2016.  

Remembering how I welcomed this year in, I recall a wave of goodwill and B’stilla (aka Pastilla) - a sweet, salt, enfolding, enobling, Middle Eastern feasting dish - the recipe generously gifted in a gilt-edged cookbook.  Its authors warned that it would take time, effort and fine ingredients - a leap of faith was a part of the mix too - but the skills required are well within our grasp if basic principles are adhered to.  Read the instructions in advance, know what to expect, prepare all the various pieces in their own good time, allow their flavours and seasonings room to mingle; remain optimistic.  The recipe aims high, and hits its mark.

It’s not mine to share here, and my expectations and hope for 2017 in general are, in any case, a little lower than they were last year, but any b’stilla is based on years of tradition, history, experiment, and confidence, together with an expectation of a crowd.  It is a dish that requires a party and a celebration and, as it is well documented elsewhere, I have researched and adapted and am offering a more “back to basics” version below.  Traditionally made with a game fowl, it is sometimes adapted to be made with chicken, which is what I have done here - choose your fowl as you wish however.  

Thinly slice a couple of onions, sauté with a cinnamon stick in some olive oil over a gentle heat, until the onions start to soften; add in a some sliced or chopped garlic, a little salt and pepper, and cook until the garlic no longer smells raw.  Add in a scant teaspoon of powdered ginger, stir and allow to cook a little more.  

While the onions are cooking, take a handful of blanched almonds or pine nuts, and toast until just golden in either a dry frying pan or with a little oil.  Cool, drain on kitchen paper (if you used oil), and chop coarsely (no need to chop if you used pine nuts).  You can add some seasoning, a sprinkle of sugar even, and a little ground cinnamon if you want to up the sweet and spice of the dish; lay aside for later.

Back to the onions; add some bite sized pieces of chicken (bone free) to the onion mix (thighs are probably best as breast fillets may dry out).  You can season as you add them; all the better if you have thought ahead and added seasoning to them overnight, or at least a few hours earlier.  Stir to coat in the onion and spices and allow to take on a bit of colour, then add a small cup of liquid (stock or water) if the chicken is not likely to give off much water of its own, (you can also add some saffron here- pre-soaked with a few tablespoons of warm water - if you want some colour and additional flavour nuance; maybe also a non traditional bay leaf).  Bring to a point where you can leave all to simmer slowly (partially covered) for about half an hour ( or until the fillets are cooked through).  Remove the chicken at this stage, allow any remaining liquid to cook off (the mix needs to be relatively syrupy thick to avoid soggy filo layers later). 

Chop a bunch of coriander or parsley leaves and add to the onion mix - add the chicken back in, taste for seasoning, adjust as necessary, and leave to cool until you are ready to assemble the finished article.

Oil a 24cm/9” round oven-proof dish or pan, then start laying strips of filo pastry across it (read packet instructions to make sure they don’t dry out while you work).  Lay one base layer, then add - in petal formation - four or more additional layers to cover all sides of the dish (with excess filo overhanging).  Make sure you brush each and every layer generously with melted butter before you lay it down.

When the filo base is prepared, spread the chicken and onion mixture over the base, sprinkle over the nuts, then finish off the top of the b’stilla with another couple of layers of filo (buttering them before you add them).  Finally trim the edges to tidy, then fold them over and tuck them in, butter as you go, as you seal with a final layer of filo (which will eventually become the base of this pie).  Put it in a pre-heated oven, (180ºC or equivalents), for about 30-40 minutes (until golden brown), then give a further 10-15 minutes on the floor of the oven to allow the base layer a chance to crisp (cover the top with foil so it doesn’t overbrown) - the base will become the top layer later.  Once the pie is out of the oven, and you are ready to serve it, turn it over onto a serving dish.  Dust with icing sugar - in fancy patterns if you like - and serve, in wedges, to an appreciative audience.



Middle Eastern food was in fashion a long time ago. Interest in the cuisine has … depended on war and peace, on politics and commerce and also on the spirit of Europe…
— Claudia Roden, 1968

cornbread in the UofK

Living Within: November 2016

sunny side up? or …

sunny side up? or …

As we enter the final stretch of an election that, by now, almost dare not speak its name, the USofA is enabling at least some of the rest of the world to distract itself from its own worries.  I had toyed with writing about festival food, or pumpkins (at time of writing the latter are very much moving into the “culinary” part of the news) but instead I am distracted too with this US bias - they may not put on an election that I fully comprehend, but they sure do know how to put on a compelling show.  

So, while the US is leading from the front - not, sadly, in the field of highbrow political debate, but in psychological medicine - election anxiety being now very much “a thing” - it may be my safest moment to enter a different debate and give a UK take on a US comfort staple; cornbread.  

Cornbread can be served, like other kinds of bread, as part of, or with, almost any meal at any time of the day, and it exists, so my sources tell me, in various forms - north and south notably differ in whether to add wheat flour and, if so, how much - but the version that I am going to approximate is one from the southern states where cornmeal, in quantity, is essential.  And they mind, by the way, about the quality and the freshness of the cornmeal!

You can find cornmeal here in various “grinds” - from coarse to fine - and each will make a difference, but it is probably easiest to find as polenta - which is misnamed as an ingredient; it is more accurately the name of the cooked Italian dish.  However, it is a coarse ground cornmeal, and can be used to make a coarse grind cornbread.

Cornbread is cooked in a skillet (frying pan); it needs strong heat, and strong fat (fat that, even if it doesn’t add flavour, will take high heat) - bacon grease is often recommended.  The cream of the mostly tattoo-sleeved chef brigade who currently dominate much of the conversation about Southern cuisine disagree among themselves on whether to mix any flour or sugar with the corn, and the disputes and debates have extended in the past to whether eggs are allowed in the batter.

But as Brits we can probably avoid most of the controversy and do exactly as we please - nobody is likely to be looking; we have no grandmothers to disappoint, no family tradition to uphold, no heirloom recipes; so we can assimilate and appropriate and, even if we get it badly wrong, so long as we like the end result, nobody is likely to get hurt.

Weigh out your ingredients.  In a large bowl, add about 300g of cornmeal, 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda (baking soda), and a teaspoon of salt, and whisk all these dry ingredients together.

In another bowl, beat together 1 large egg with 350ml of buttermilk (or sour cream, or a mix of any kind of dairy that includes some “sour” - the acid helps the rise).  

Choose a skillet wisely - black, heavy, well-seasoned, preferably cast iron - render down some finely chopped bacon (smoked is good) - cook until the bacon is crisp, scoop the crisp bacon out of the pan and put to one side, and leave the rendered fat (topped up with a little oil or even butter if you haven’t got a generous coating).  Put the pan in a hot oven, for the fat to get “properly hot” (think “smoking” like for a Yorkshire pudding; remember that this bread should be beyond golden on its under side).  Meanwhile, mix your wet ingredients into the dry just like for any other batter - carefully,  so that the mixture does not become lumpy.

When the batter is ready; put your skillet over a flame (NB remember, it’s just come out of the oven; the handle will be HOT!), pour in the batter and listen to it sizzle.  Finish in a hot oven (200ºC or more); as for your Yorkshires, it will take about 20 minutes (it will be done when a fine skewer prodded into the centre comes out clean), and you want to serve it pretty much straight away, fluffy and warm.  You can cut it straight out of the pan - flip it upside down first if you want to see it’s crackly bottom - serve with butter, or whatever else you fancy - bacon bits and maple syrup went down well in my house - a true Southerner might prefer molasses.  It is a bread almost like any other, in that it will mop up juices well!

…world turned upside down.

…world turned upside down.


I… got up from the table to take my plate to the kitchen, it was clean as can be, sopped to a sheen with my last bit of cornbread
— John T Edge, Southern Belly

Plum Tart

From Living Within, October 2016

It may be autumn, but the last stone fruits of summer are still in season - plums notably - and where I have been recently not only do they form a large part of the scenery but also of the livelihood of many in the locale.  I learned something new about them this year.   Having grown used to the annual harvest with its all-enveloping “bat capes” fastened around the base of tree trunks accompanied by a mechanically assisted shakedown, giving this delicate crop both a nudge and a safe landing, what I had not understood were the niceties of timing - which are entirely plum dependent.  Plums not yet ready may shimmy and shake but will not drop from the tree.  You can put a skirt on a tree and make it dance, apparently, but the rhythm still belongs to nature.

I happened upon some beautiful blue-black Quetsches.  These Look a bit like large damsons, and taste like sweet plums, but any plum can be substituted for them in the tart that I have made here with them.

You will need a shell of sweet, crisp (blind-baked) pastry.  The pastry that I used was a pâte sucrée - a rich mix of flour, butter, egg yolks, sugar and a pinch of salt.  An admittedly hard-to-handle pastry, but you can substitute a simpler sweetened shortcrust without losing too much finesse.

raw ingredients; pâte sucrée (7oz flour; 3.5oz (each) sugar, butter; 3 egg yolks; salt)

raw ingredients; pâte sucrée (7oz flour; 3.5oz (each) sugar, butter; 3 egg yolks; salt)

bringing it together: pinch the middle to a paste; cut the flour through the paste

bringing it together: pinch the middle to a paste; cut the flour through the paste

Formed and ready to rest and roll (between sheets of clingfilm helps with the handling)

Formed and ready to rest and roll (between sheets of clingfilm helps with the handling)

just chilling

just chilling

Cut in half, lengthways, enough plums to make a pattern on the base of the tart shell; put them, skin side down, in a roasting tin, sprinkle with a little fine sugar, and roast in a pre-heated hot oven (at least 180ºC) for about 5 minutes - until the juices just start to run - make sure to remove them from the oven long before the plums might lose their shape.  Leave to cool on a rack, cut side down, allowing them to drain a little.

prepared plums in a prepared pastry

prepared plums in a prepared pastry

At the same time make a kind of custard by whisking together 1 whole egg (or, better still, 3 separated egg yolks to create a richer mix) with about 55g sugar; then whisk in approx 200ml crème fraîche (or thick cream) and 35g ground almonds (adjust quantities up or down and roughly in proportion according to the size of your tart shell and your own taste).  You can add other flavours if you like at this stage (vanilla, or a tablespoon of brandy or armagnac, for example), but you don’t have to.  Place the plum halves, still cut side down, around the base of the tart; pour over the custard so that it comes near to the top of the tart shell (it mustn’t spill over the top), then place, carefully so as not to tip the filling, into a pre-heated oven (180ºC or equivalent). 

oven ready

oven ready

Bake until the filling is set, and golden on the top (about 30 minutes).  Leave to cool; serve warm or at room temperature with additional cream to hand round.


What is more mortifying than to feel that you have missed the plum for want of the courage to shake the tree
— Logan Pearsall Smith

Berbere Brexit Blues

From Living Within: July/August 2016

Blood on the carpet, Vadot

Blood on the carpet, Vadot

In a week where politics dominate, cooking may be as relevant to the discourse as anything else.  Food is often the subject of the political but cooking seems to have entered the fray more recently too; there are flame wars going on around the world in areas of special interest that are divisive, deep-rooted and create difficult conversations - not my battles to fight, although their blueprints are reflected in the world I see around me.  

My recent interest has been closer to home.  I have been volunteering in a social enterprise where migrant and refugee women, from all parts of the globe, work together to provide employment opportunities, to educate each other, and to share their rich, developed food cultures via a roaming restaurant kitchen; a mutually beneficial exercise in generosity that enables all participants to live better lives in an inclusive world.  I have been proud to lend my hands to these hardworking, multi-talented, mutually supportive women whose lives have not been easy, whose interests and ambitions are far-reaching, and for whom kindness and compassion seem instinctive.   

On first meeting them I felt humbled and admiring; this last week or two I felt shame.  Cultural mix and exchange have always been a part of our history and I am sad to see the results of the referendum include a rise in racism and xenophobia.  A simple in/out referendum we are told has given a clear answer, even if the questions it answers are not yet clearly understood.

In response to all this I offer you not European fare - which is already a well established part of our food landscape and culture,  the UK is European by geography regardless of any EU treaties - but instead an Ethiopian favourite, inspired by one of these inspiring women - a refugee from Ethiopia many years ago, now living in the UK as a proud European citizen, although one also now understandably concerned for her future here.

Berbere Lentils start with a simple unassuming ingredient - the everyday lentil - and owe their nuance and depth of flavour to multi-layered ingredients, careful preparation, a little time and commitment, and a wealth of history - they seem appropriate right now.  I will keep the instructions to a minimum - this is not my recipe to give, I am borrowing it from those who are willing to share their culture and their skills and I am grateful for their generosity in so doing.

Wash and cover lentils generously with cold water, bring to a boil and simmer until they are on the al dente side of tender.  I used green lentils, but you can choose red, brown etc. - any lentils that will yield and soften eventually are appropriate - their cooking times will vary. 

Berbere Spice Mix

Berbere Spice Mix

Prepare some Berbere spice mix (it’s complicated!  I won’t give you a recipe here - there are many online to pick and choose and learn from).  When the lentils are cooked and with your spice mix ready, chop an onion and sauté it in lots of olive oil until softened and translucent.  Grate some garlic and fresh ginger root to create a rough paste and add this to the onion mix and sauté gently until these two ingredients lose their raw pungency and start to turn fragrant.  At this point, add a couple of tablespoons of Berbere spice, cook all together for a minute or two, add the drained lentils and a glass of water; season to taste, then cook, bubbling gently until you have a well homogenised stew that has absorbed most of the liquid (about 10 minutes).

Serve with a squeeze of lime, garnish with chopped coriander, and accompany with some salad or vegetables of your choice.  In Ethiopia they eat with injera (a kind of bread), but serve and share any way that you would like.


The complexity of our debate shows the difficulty of putting the matter to a referendum
— Ian Taylor, MP for Esher 1987 - 2010, Points of Order: Treaty of Lisbon, 30 Jan 2008, House of Commons.

Sicilian Sardines

From Living Within, June 2016

A creature of habit as a rule, travel-wise, I have just returned from a rare trip off my beaten track, meeting old friends in new scenery.  SE Sicily is Montalbano country (you would be AMAZED how much he gets about there); the commissario, so urban legend has it, has almost single handedly rejuvenated the local tourist industry by highlighting the Baroque architecture (molto barocco), fabulous scenery, and sublime food of the region.  It is hard to get food wrong in Sicily; great ingredients are plentiful, Sicilians know what they like, and what they like is very, very good.

We breakfasted on granita and brioche in Modica, we dined on seafood on the beach at Marina di Ragusa, where the locals found our English voices exotic (something that has never happened to me before).  They also laughed as we laughed at hand towel tablets that enlarged when anointed with a little water (viagra translates directly) - some reassurance there that they were laughing with and not at us.

The stage is set for an early bird.

The stage is set for an early bird.

One of our most memorable lunches was the one we had sitting on a traffic island - not an uncommon place to eat in Sicily apparently, but perhaps only in a quiet corner of a seaside Sicilian town could such a venue not only be almost entirely devoid of traffic, but also utterly charming in every detail; I long to go back for more. 

The real McCoy

The real McCoy

We ate, among other things, sardines flavoured with oranges - stuffed; rolled; tails fetchingly pointing upwards; bookended by orange slices - a little bit moorish, in every sense of the word.  I have tried to recreate a feeling of them for you here although oranges, I will caution, are just ending their long season in Sicily about now; you can, of course, always ignore that fact or substitute lemon instead.  We may not be within striking distance of a charming fishing village, but we do have Williams and Bunkell on The Parade in Claygate who can provide the necessary in terms of fresh fish of high quality prepared by experts - which is, perhaps, the next best thing.

You’ll need about a kilo of sardines - heads removed, cleaned, deboned and opened out butterfly style. Marinade them in the combined juice of one orange and one lemon (or either, or even neither, as you prefer) while you prepare the stuffing.  Zest the citrus before you juice it, and keep to one side.

For the stuffing: finely chop one medium onion and leave to soften gently in some good olive oil over a low heat.  Roberta, who looked after us and whose husband Antonio was our chef, explained that you should not be able to easily recognise onion as one of the ingredients - they need to sweat down so that they are almost melted before they are ready to play their part.  “Sudare” is the Italian verb denoting, in this case, a sensuous dissolve over plenty of time and a low, slow burning flame, as opposed to a frazzling experience played out with any sense of undue heat or urgency.  Add in a small handful each of breadcrumbs, pine nuts, and sultanas and cook until the former are beginning to look golden around the edges and the last is softening and sweetening the mix.  Finally stir in the reserved citrus zest and some chopped fresh parsley and mint leaves - combine well and adjust the seasoning (NB: it’s nearly always best to season gently as you add ingredients, then all you will have left to manage at this stage is minor adjustment).

Lightly oil a gratin dish and take your sardine fillets from their marinade - dry as best you can with kitchen paper, season very lightly if you think your stuffing is not seasoning enough, and add a spoonful of stuffing to what was the head end; roll carefully and as tightly and tidily as possible, and place into the prepared dish one by one so that all are packed together in traditional sardine style.  Sprinkle with a little more oil, or with some more breadcrumbs first (or the remains of the stuffing) if you want extra texture on top, and bake in a hot oven (at least 180ºC or equivalent) for about 15 to 20 minutes.  Serve warm from the oven or at room temperature, as antipasto, with citrus slices tucked all around.

sardine, caponata, pane

sardine, caponata, pane

Buon Appetito!


Before it passed from Persian into Arabic, “orange” was a poetic Sanskrit word meaning “where the elephant loves to go”…
— Roberta Corradin

chacun ses oignons

from "Living Within", March 2016

roscoff onions, well tressed

roscoff onions, well tressed

Since the early 1800’s there has been a vision of French commerce abroad that has become a part of legend in certain parts of the country.  Stripy shirted Breton men, in berets and on bicycles, bearing onions to sell door to door in Blighty.   Mostly long since consigned to history, there has been at least one surviving example of the species - once widely known as the “Onion Johnny” - who used to call at the doors of Esher, Molesey and Walton, as well as a fair few other venues not so far from our south coast.  He would sell strings of onions to my mother and to me, amongst other loyal fans - quite a highlight in fact as he made his tri-annual rounds, each one at just about the time the last string had given up its last onion.

What a lovely surprise a week ago when Pascal returned - he has been absent for about a decade!  A one off for the house to house, he informs, but he will be at various local markets in the weeks and months to come - do look out for him.

The onions that he sells are particularly special - sweet, pink, Roscoff, AOC branded - in a class of their own and tressed to thrill.  Long strings of them, in the traditional manner, suitable for shoulders and handlebars, should you ever need to transport them.

In honour of this rather special visit, I have baked a French speciality involving onions; this one from the Mediterranean end of France rather than the Northern coasts.  It is a Provençale Pissaladière, otherwise known as an onion tart.

northern light, but you get the picture.

northern light, but you get the picture.

Traditionally made with a bread dough base, I have substituted short crust pastry; I prefer it this way - it is also probably easier to make.  I will assume you have your favourite method for pastry (I will turn a blind eye if it is to buy it ready-made).  Whatever it is, make a quantity of pastry for a tart, roll it out - into a round, a square or a rectangle - place it on a baking sheet (lined with baking parchment) and then crimp up the edges in whatever way works best for you - turn it over, create a rope effect, use a fork or your fingers but give it a little ledge.  Chill (in the fridge) until needed.


Take about 1kg of onions - any variety will do, I, of course, used my newly acquired Roscoffs.  Peel and slice as thinly as you can.  Warm a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy based sauté pan (one with a lid), add the onions and a pinch or two of salt.  Cook, covered, on a low heat for an hour or so.  Stir occasionally with a wooden spoon or spatula.  The onions need to soften to almost a purée consistency, but you don’t want them to colour to anything more than a very pale gold.  It’s not necessarily traditional, but I like to add some thyme leaves to my onions while they are cooking too.  When the onions are soft and melting and very much reduced in volume, remove the cover from the pan, and allow any remaining liquid to cook away.  Allow to cool.


To finish you will need some anchovies and some olives (small, blackish niçoises if you can find them).  You can use both to decorate the top of your tart, but I prefer to chop two or three anchovies very finely (you could also use anchovy paste as substitute), and spread them evenly over the bottom of your pastry shell - this way you can distribute their flavour most evenly.  Top with the onions spread evenly into the pastry case, and decorate with a few olives.  Bake in a moderate oven (about 180ºC) for 25-30 minutes - until the pastry is cooked, and the onions look golden brown.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

Erica x

For those who believe that an onion is an onion is an onion, the pink onions from Roscoff are a revelation.
— Country Life, 1997, via http://pascalonions.pagesperso-orange.fr

hair shirts and hummus

from "Living Within", February, 2016

It is becoming traditional for the start of the year to bring encouragement to “atone” for excesses, perceived or otherwise, of the preceding festive season.  “Dry January” has become “a thing”, the papers link words like “health” and “detox” to their conversation about food and drink, and I may even have read somewhere this year something that equated veganism to virtue!  I try not to engage in ways of thinking that focus on fads or factoids - a little of what you fancy doesn’t have to be bad, and a balanced diet is not based on any form of deprivation in my book.  My normal instinct might be to voice such contrary opinion, loudly and boldly, but it rarely makes me popular, and as I am also having trouble this February working out what season we are in, I am going to write about something that feels like comfort and is unlikely to challenge anyone; it also happens to be weather proof - as comforting served in the depths of cold weather as it can be refreshing on a warm day - and, maybe importantly, it’s a long way from extravagant.

The humble chickpea - easily available in cans or jars, otherwise simple to cook from dried, albeit requiring a day’s forethought (and, like nearly everything else in cooking, with the end result likely to be at least marginally superior to its ready-to-go alternative) - is the staple ingredient for hummus; the “dip” that has come to dominate sections of the chilled cabinets in our supermarkets, and over which, if you have read your Yotam Ottolenghi you will know, wars have been fought and peaces negotiated.

It is very easy to make your own - although it does, almost always, require a food processor.  If you are cooking rather than buying in jars/tins, take a quantity of dried chickpeas - 250g will make a reasonable amount for a few people or a few days, and leave to soak overnight with a generous covering of cold water.  Drain the following day, and place in a saucepan covered with an equally generous amount of fresh water; bring to a boil.  You can, if you like, throw in a split garlic clove or two (or half a head even).  Skim off any scum that rises to the top, and then leave all to simmer skimming off later any loose skins that float to the top.  The chickpeas are cooked when they are soft but not mushy - start checking them from about 20 minutes onward, although they are likely to take more than 40 minutes and can take an hour and a half or more (much depends on how long they have been dried and/or hardness of cooking water).  Drain them but reserve their cooking water.  If you are using ready prepared chickpeas start from here by draining them and reserving their liquid.

Whichever way you have come by your cooked chickpeas, put them now into a food processor and blend until almost smooth.  At this stage add in some tahini (sesame seed paste) - you can start at about 4 tablespoons or go up to a part of tahini for every four parts of cooked chickpeas (everything about hummus is “according to personal taste”), and a clove or two of garlic (crushed to a smooth paste first with some salt).  Garlic will chop in a food processor but it will not be smooth unless you pre-crush it.  If you don’t like the strong taste of raw garlic in your hummus and you have cooked your own chickpeas with garlic cloves in the cooking water, don’t tell any purists that I said so, but you can either use the cooked garlic as substitute for raw, or just let the garlic taste that has already permeated the chickpeas be sufficient - it will be subtle, but that may suit your tastebuds.  Add in salt, and the juice of at least one lemon and blend again until the hummus is the consistency that you want - add in some of the reserved liquid if it is not looking smooth enough - it is OK, however, to like it thick and chunky or to want it super smooth.  Remember also to taste it, and adjust all of your flavours as seems right to you.

Serve dressed with olive oil and garnish with any or all of chopped parsley, lemon wedges, a sprinkle of paprika, cumin or sumac and some toasted or fried pine-nuts.  It should be left for at least half an hour to let the flavours find their level before serving, but can be kept in the fridge (covered closely with cling film) for a few days.  Serve at never less than room temperature and with crudités and/or bread.

Erica x

When I started out in restaurant kitchens, I didn’t think hummus or a chopped salad could ever be cool
— Michael Solomonov

lady marmalade

from "Living Within", January 2016 (abridged and adapted from earlier blog post, but with new method edit attached)

As the new year begins and summer jam supplies start to look a little depleted the preserving British faithful turn their thoughts to marmalade.  In spite of the fact that there are some countries where the word “marmalade” pretty much translates as “jam”, marmalade, at its bitter orange best, is pretty much exclusively a British obsession.  Seville Oranges - sour, coarse, pippy - arrive fleetingly on our shores from the beginning of the month; the Spanish seemingly happier to sell their crop to us than to use their own harvest.  No other oranges will really do to make proper marmalade, the bitterness of a Seville being essential to a sophisticated marmalade palate.

Marmalade making, like all preserving, is more science than art. A certain proportion of fruit to liquid to sugar is necessary, with the natural pectin of the fruit also put into service to provide a set; method and detail, however, will allow the maker to exercise both choice and skill.  The shred can be coarse and chunky or fine and delicate; marmalade can be very tangy with pith included in its body, or it can be clear gelled, pithless and shredded fine or, in extreme cases, shredless (although I think the fans of this last variety probably buy theirs off the supermarket shelf).

There are numerous techniques, preferences, and conflicting tips: there are those who boil whole oranges and then cool, peel and shred them before adding sugar, and there are those who juice and peel or slice raw fruit; there are fast workers who will typically have their marmalade made in a day and others who may take a couple of days over the affair.  There are those who swear by unrefined sugar to avoid ‘toxic froth’ (although I think that this may in fact be toxic tosh and the unrefined and brown sugar contingent simply prefer their marmalade darker and more caramel tasting); the opposing camp profess that a better colour and flavour will be created by white granulated sugar (never caster or icing which will give you problems), and there are those who warm their sugar while others think that this is a waste of time.  I am yet to find anyone who recommends using preserving sugar (with added pectin), although the choice is, of course, yours to make.

Having tried long drawn out methods in the hope of a superior product, I am now of the opinion that as long as the desired effect is achieved, there is no need to draw out the whole affair.  Recipes abound - you will find them in books and Sunday supplements, online and via supermarket giveaways - so long as you know the important principles to bear in mind there is more than one way to skin an orange.  The best advice might be to know what end result you want to achieve before you start and then set out to find a suitable recipe.

A basic recipe requires 1kg oranges to 2kg sugar to which you will add about 2 litres of water and the juice of a lemon*.   Before you start also make sure to have ready some sterilised jars (with lids or other suitable covers), and some small plates in the freezer together with a few frozen tea spoons.

A basic method might look like this:  squeeze the juice from the oranges and the lemon into a pan suitable for making preserves (ie large, wide at the top, and not made from aluminium or other reactive metal).  Gather together the remaining pulp and all the pips and put them into a muslin bag - tie it together with kitchen string leaving a longish tail.  Cut the orange peel into strips slightly bigger than the size you want to see in your marmalade (they will shrink during cooking).  Put the muslin bag into the pan along with 2 litres of cold water and all of the orange peel; bring to a boil and simmer for a couple of hours, or until the peel is softened.  Squeeze the muslin bag to extract as much pectin as you can from the pips and then remove it.  Add the sugar and, over a low heat, allow it to dissolve completely.  Turn up the heat, and boil rapidly for about 15 minutes before you start checking for a set - or alternately take its temperature and start to check for the set once it reaches 103ºC-104ºC.  A set is reached when a small drop of marmalade put onto a cold saucer with a cold teaspoon will wrinkle when pushed with a finger.  When your set is achieved, turn off the heat and move the pan away from the heat’s source; allow the marmalade to cool for ten minutes or so before transferring it into your waiting jars.

Erica x

I came all the way in a lifeboat, and ate marmalade. Bears like marmalade.
— "Paddington Bear" ~Michael Bond

* Later edit:

This year, my marmalade making did in fact take three days, and my quantities were 1.6kg seville oranges (9 oranges); 1 large + l small lemon; 2.4kg white granulated sugar (proportions 1 x fruit : 1.5 x sugar); 20cl water (approx) per citrus fruit (I counted 11), plus the juice of all the fruit (about half a litre).


Day 1:  Halve and juice all the fruit - reserve EVERYTHING! (including pips).  Slice the peel finely; put the pips in a muslin bag (made with bits of string and imagination), put juice, peel, pips, water into a large bowl - cover and leave for 24 hours - somewhere not too warm.  Do not leave a tail of muslin hanging over the bowl - it will siphon water onto your worktop. #Ilearnthelessonsoyoudon'thaveto

Day 2:  Bring all to the boil in a Maslin pan (or equivalent), and allow to simmer for about 20 minutes; transfer to a bowl, cover and leave for an additional 24 hours.

Day 3:  Strain the liquid from the peel (top up the liquid in the bowl first if it is looking a little dense in your bowl and you lack faith that there is enough - allow the liquid to just cover the peel to get the quantities about right).  Put strained liquid back into the Maslin pan; add the sugar - (Keep the faith! even at this scant ratio, the sugar looks monstrously generous, but Seville oranges are super bitter!). 

Over a gentle heat, allow the sugar to dissolve (stir from time to time - tap the bottom of the pan with a metal spoon to "hear" when the grit has softened).  Add the peel back in.  Squeeze out the muslin bag into the mix - extract every last bit of gelatinous pectin that you can, and then leave aside; it should have done it's job by now.  Pick out the bits of peel that cling to its sides.  You can leave it in for the final boiling if you like, but I find it gets in my way.  Bring all to a nice rolling boil - get your jars ready - and finish off as per usual - checking the temperature, testing for a set, etc, etc, etc …

walnut cake

from "Living Within", November 2015

For those of you who may have a walnut tree in the garden, you will already know that walnut season has been taking place since the end of September.  Unmistakeable in the litter of blackening shells on the lawn (if you fail to harvest your walnuts from the tree that is) and also, if you have ever tried to wrestle them from their fleshy green outer coatings with your bare hands, from the almost indelible stains that doing so will leave on your finger tips.  For the rest, they are now easily available in markets and supermarkets, in both shelled and unshelled form, ready for laying down for the winter.

willing hands, and specialist equipment, may be helpful

willing hands, and specialist equipment, may be helpful

Amongst all the nuts in the nut kingdom, walnuts are often considered sovereign; full of all kinds of “superfood” goodness, distinctive in taste with their slightly bitter after notes, and rather magnificent in looks with their brain-like form (which also adds to the challenge of cracking them in trying to keep the kernels whole!).  Make sure you buy your walnuts from somewhere you trust to have them fresh and well looked after - carelessly handled or stored they can turn unpleasantly rancid very quickly.

To celebrate the season, I have baked a walnut cake - a dense, moist one, with a bit of beta carotene added to the superfood mix in the form of a grated carrot and a little orange zest.  This cake will hold its own against a strong cup of coffee, or you may prefer a glass of something to compliment the complexity of the walnuts and their accompanying sweeteners - a dessert wine would be just perfect.

Ingredients:  110g unsalted butter (at room temperature); 225g caster sugar; zest of an orange; 5 eggs; 280g shelled walnuts, ground to a coarse meal in a food processor (or chopped with a sharp knife), plus a few extra whole ones to decorate the top (optional); 1 medium carrot (peeled and finely grated); 80g plain flour.

Pre-heat an oven to 160ºC; butter and base-line a 25cm cake tin.

Method:  Rub the orange zest into the sugar, then cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy.  Beat in the eggs, one at a time (if you add them all at once, the mixture will curdle).  Fold the ground walnuts and the grated carrots into the batter, and, finally, fold in the flour.  

Pour all of the mixture into the prepared cake tin, decorate with the whole nuts (if you have reserved any for that purpose), and bake the cake in the preheated oven for between 35 and 40 minutes - until a skewer inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean of mixture.

Leave the cake to cool on a rack in its tin, but un-mould it while the cake is still warm.  You can eat it while it still retains some heat, although I prefer it at room temperature, and sprinkle with some fine sugar or icing sugar before you serve it if you want to add a final flourish.

Erica x

A thing which I regret, and which I will try to remedy some time, is that I have never in my life planted a walnut.
— George Orwell




giving it some mussel

from "Living Within", October 2015

An Indian Summer is a good time to enjoy mussels and other bivalves; months without an “r” to their name are behind us which, convention has it, are the ones in which to avoid shellfish.  Mussel season traditionally starts in September/October and finishes in March/April (although they are available in other months too).  I have been enjoying some while on holiday in SW France - sourced in the North Atlantic - blue-black, easy to clean, delicious and without too many casualties to throw away.

Buy them fresh, bring them straight home and put them in the sink under cold running water.  Those that are cracked or broken or will not close when rapped sharply on the side with the back of a knife get thrown away before you start.  For the others, scrape off any barnacles, pull away any beards, wash them and either cook them immediately, or put them in a colander, cover with a cool damp cloth or some wetted newspaper, and keep in the bottom of the fridge until you are ready to use them later in the day.  Always buy them on the day you are going to cook them - they are alive, or should be when you buy them, and they will not keep!

Mussels are easy to cook; you will need about 500g per person, a large pan with a lid, a small glass of white wine, some chopped parsley stalks, a couple of cloves of sliced garlic, and strong heat underneath them.  Put the mussels in the pan with the wine, parsley and garlic, (give them a good shake about just before you and make sure they are all closed), fire up the heat under them place a lid on top of them (or some foil to trap in both heat and steam), and allow between 3 and 10 minutes for them to open in the steam that will be generated by the wine and their own juices.  Timing will depend on how many mussels and how deep the pan - a single layer will cook very quickly, a large panful will need a bit of shaking from time to time and a little bit longer.  There is no need for salt - they contain plenty of their own.  They are cooked when they have opened fully and the flesh inside looks plump - a few may not open in amongst the rest - throw these away!

You can serve these just like this, in bowls, with fresh bread and/or a soup spoon alongside with which to mop up the juices once you have finished eating the mussel flesh (and a plate or bowl for discarding the shells of course).  Alternatively, with a very small amount of extra time and patience, you can shell them and add them to the following pasta recipe - found by chance in a French magazine - that went down very well with those who helped to test it with me this week.

naked mussel

naked mussel

The pasta is the kind you would normally add to soup (or just wonder what to do with).  It looks like a bit like rice but cooks like pasta and goes by many different names in different parts of the world, from Italy through North Africa and France: risetti; risoni; puntalette; orzo; langues d’oiseau (birds’ tongues) and khritaraki, just a few.  In any case, whatever the name, the method is simple, and a 500g bag will serve about six people.  

Get the mussels cooking.  Put a big pan of water onto boil for the pasta and when it boils, skin three or four ripe tomatoes (this amount for a serving for 4-6 people) by plunging them into the water and scooping them out 30 seconds later; refresh them under cold water, peel off the skin, halve them and squeeze out as many seeds as you can - then chop into small dice.  When the mussels are cooked (again 500g, or thereabouts, per person), drain, strain, and reserve their cooking juices, put on one side and add a few strands of saffron while the juices are still hot.  

Next, heat 2 or 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large shallow pan and over a medium flame (large enough to accommodate all the pasta and the mussels in due course), and add the tomatoes - add a little salt and let them bubble until they have made a sauce (5-10 minutes).  Add the saffron-ed cooking liquor to the tomatoes and keep on a low heat, for a few minutes longer - don’t worry about the amount of cooking liquor, it might seem a lot, but the pasta will like it!

running on empty; still beautiful

running on empty; still beautiful

Meanwhile, cook the pasta in the boiling water to which you have now added salt; time it for a minute less than the packet advises.  Shell the mussels while the pasta is cooking.  When the pasta is cooked, drain it and add it to the tomato sauce and cooking liquor, stir, taste some, see if the pasta is cooked - if not, cook for a minute longer in this liquid.  Finally, stir through the mussels together with a little chopped parsley; season with some pepper (add more salt only if it needs it - taste first!).  Serve immediately!

Erica x

on mussels … they’re hard to screw up
— David Lebovitz




jamming (part deux)

from "Living Within" September 2015 (abridged and adapted from earlier blog version)

As summer eases into autumn we have our opportunity to preserve the fruit now abundantly in season.  I know you can buy jam in the supermarket, without needing to get your hands and kitchen surfaces sticky, but it is not the same thing at all as that which you can make in your own kitchen.  Supermarket varieties are typically top-heavy with sugar and set to the point of rigidity; homemade versions sharpen up the flavours and introduce possibility.  Here, I hope to get you started with some basics.

Most fruit can be “jammed”, but I will stick to plums for now; these will be everywhere soon - all sorts of varieties - and damsons, my personal favourite for jam, will disappear almost as soon as you first see them (if you are lucky enough to find any in the first place).  Plums make great jam, damsons make the best jam of any fruit that I know, but I won’t pretend that they can’t be a massive faff - they are small and fiddly and time consuming, and sometimes wormy.  Nigel Slater believes that it is masochism to stone a damson before you cook it, maybe especially for the quantity that you will need for jam, and there is talk amongst experts of how there is no real need - pits obligingly bobbing to the top of the jam pan to be relatively easily skimmed away after the jam is cooked.  But I think these experts may be telling half truths - not about the masochism aspect - it is a truly painstaking process to pit damsons (and will take about an hour per kilo) - but about the ease of managing the pits post cooking, especially if you want to be sure of the safety of your consumers’ teeth.  I also confess that I ignore their possibly wise counsel and take the time to pit them all before I start.

Jam making is not particularly complicated, but it does involve science, and it is shrouded in a bit of mystery and specialist language.  You need to know what is meant by a “set”, although some cooks also express preferences for “their” set, which can give a degree of leeway for when setting is proving difficult - a “soft” or “loose” set may be preferred to the “firm” version found in industrial varieties, and it may be a way of forgiving yourself for when your jam is looking a bit runnier than the kind that will win prizes (for perfectionists and experts it’s definitely not only about flavour).  

You will also need some equipment: an appropriate large pan - preferably one with outward sloping sides (not a necessity, but it speeds up the process); jam jars (sterilised ones) plus suitable lids; a thermometer can give a degree of security but is not a necessity either; saucers; teaspoons; a freezer shelf; a suitable stirring spoon (wooden, silicone or metal but, importantly, one that has no taint of anything like an onion lingering on it); a sharp edged skimmer, and a ladle.  Finally, you will need to find a quiet time of day and a measure of patience.

The ingredients are worked out in ratios -  roughly speaking, for plum jam (any variety) these can translate to 1.2kg of fruit (approximate net weight after stoning will be 1kg) to 800g sugar (granulated, white), and the juice of a lemon; you can scale up the quantities, but it is often easier to make several small batches than to attempt one large one.

Check your fruit - it should be ripe but firm and have no significant blemishes or mould.  Wash, halve and pit (big plums are typically easy, small ones not - use a small sharp knife to help coax pits from flesh).  Layer the fruit with the sugar in a large bowl and add the lemon juice (it will prevent the cut fruit from browning, and stop you from forgetting to add it later).  Cover closely with cling film, and leave to macerate - an hour will do if you are pushed for time, 24 hours is about your limit.  Meanwhile, prepare you jars and put a small stack of saucers and a few teaspoons into your freezer.

Transfer fruit and sugar to your (scrupulously clean) large pan - put it on a gentle heat and stir occasionally until ALL of the sugar has dissolved in the juices.  Turn up the heat and start to boil the jam vigorously.  Continue stirring occasionally (to distribute the heat evenly and to stop the jam from “catching” or burning on the bottom of the pan.  It will take about 10 minutes of vigorous boiling for the jam to reach setting point(technically, this should be when it reaches about 105ºC - in real life, for all sorts of reasons, the temperature registering may not indicate the jam is there just yet, so… take the pan off the heat, take out one of your saucers and spoons, dip the spoon into the jam and let a drop of jam fall onto the saucer.  If the jam spreads into a liquid it is not set, if it forms a neat pert bead that will wrinkle slightly if you push it, it is.  If it is not set, you need to repeat this process every few minutes until it is.  As the jam calms itself down, skim off any scum that is left at the surface and discard.  Leave the jam for a few minutes to cool and settle, but while it is still hot, ladle it into the jars, seal, allow to cool, and store until later; enjoy at will over the coming months.

Erica x

“That’s why I hate to get started in these jam sessions.  I’m always the last one to leave.”~ Elvis Presley