Wednesday 30 May 2012

What type of cook are you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 24 May 2012

A Trifle Issue

I was born in the late 70s so I am essentially an 80s child. This means that trifle was as much part of my upbringing as Karate Kid, Wham and hair scrunchies. There was a phase where every dinner party my parents hosted my mum made a trifle, and every dinner party we went to they had made a trifle. I think I was all trifled out by the time I was 13. Then the trifle vanished and in our house it was replaced by Sara Lee Double Chocolate Gateau. That cake was so good I didn’t have a chance to miss its predecessor. But trifles made a comeback, or at least in my life they did. You see N and his brother T are still obsessed with trifle, I guess they never did quite grow out of the 80s! The problem is now they have taken the form of shop-bought trifles and these trifles never seem to be quite right. Either the balance of ingredients is wrong or there’s a key element missing - those little individual trifle pots often have the sponge missed out. Hello! That’s not a trifle!

So last Boxing Day I decided to go into my time machine and travel back to the 80s to make my own trifle, from scratch. Or perhaps assemble is a better description as some of the ingredients were shop-bought. There’s no way I’m making my own whipped cream and putting it in an aerosol can! I took inspiration from Lorraine Pascal’s Big Fat Tipsy Trifle but I didn’t want any modern twists in it. I’m a purist at heart; I just wanted a traditional English Trifle.
So here it is, My Big Fat 1980s Trifle. To me making it felt more like creating a work of art than making a desert. Thanks goes to T for helping scrape the jelly bowl and for guiding me on the correct order of the trifle layers. He really is a trifle connoisseur.

The Big Fat 1980s Trifle

(serves 8 | time to make – depends how quick you are but trust me it's worth the effort)


1 Madeira sponge loaf cake or similar – sliced

Small bottle of apple juice

1 large punnet of fresh strawberries – sliced (reserve 6-8 strawberries for decoration)

1 slab of strawberry jelly - made in advance according to packet instructions

Aerosol can of whipped cream

1 carton of custard


·         Line the base of a clear flat bottomed trifle bowl with half the slices of cake

·         Drizzle the sponge with apple juice making sure it is soaked through but there is no excess liquid in the bowl

·         Arrange the slices of strawberries against the side of the bowl so there are neatly visible from the outside (see photo)

·         Flake the jelly and evenly distribute it over the cake

·         Spray over an even layer of cream

·         Add another layer of cake slices and drizzle with apple juice

·         Arrange another layer of strawberry slices against the bowl

·         Pour over a layer of custard – remember some of it will sink down so be quite generous

·         Top with a generous layer of whipped cream

·         Decorate with the reserved whole strawberries

Sunday 20 May 2012

Cooking Memories (Risotto)

What is your first cooking memory?  For me it depends what you classify as cooking. I think my first ever kitchen memory is from when I was about five years old. I remember making cakes with my childminder, Margaret. After she had put the cakes into the oven she always let me scrape the bowl. This was of course long before the days of salmonella scares. I loved the taste of uncooked cake mixture. So buttery and creamy, with a subtle crunch from the sugar granules. I still get tempted to lick that spoon now!

However, my first experience of cooking a real meal came embarrassingly late in life. I am ashamed to say I was well into my twenties.  After putting all her belongings in to storage my friend Shamli decided to squat at my flat for two weeks before going travelling. One evening we decided to be very grown up and cook a meal…wait for it…from a recipe book! I had a copy of Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries, given to me as a Christmas present, which was gathering dust on my bookshelf. We decided to christen it by making his lemon and asparagus risotto. It was beautiful. Herb infused velvety stock delicately coating each grain of perfectly cooked Arborio rice. It is still, to this day, the dish I make the most. Only now, instead of cooking it as a main, I often serve it as an accompaniment to a fillet of pan-fried or grilled salmon.

The Nigel Slater recipe I started with has evolved considerably over the years so it now perfectly suits my palate. I no longer use any butter or parmesan cheese. The former because my doctor keeps trying to scare me with stories about the South Asian predisposition to high cholesterol and the latter because N has weird aversion to parmesan! So much so that if the person on the table next to us as a restaurant asks for parmesan I have to spend the rest of my dinner watching him hold his nose and roll his eyes.

My favourite risotto variation is a simple vegetarian one of mushrooms accompanied by leeks or asparagus. However I regularly add in whatever I have to hand – perhaps a bit of leftover roast chicken, or if I haven’t had a chance to go shopping I conjure up a pea and prawn version with ingredients straight from my freezer.

Before I get stuck in to the recipe, a couple of pointers on how to make a really good risotto. The best tip I have ever learnt is to always prepare all the stock, but never expect to use it all. How much you use on any given day just depends. It depends on the particular grains of rice that have found their way into your dish, the exact quantity of vegetables and how slowly and lovingly you have cooked and stirred it. The most important thing is to taste your rice. Each grain should be soft on the outside and slightly firm on the inside, or what the Italians call al dente. By this I mean just resisting your teeth rather than sending you for an emergency visit to your dentist! And my final point is that risotto has to be made when you have a bit of time on your hands, I would advise allowing a generous hour from start to finish. You must add the stock slowly and cook it on a low to medium heat. Keep tasting it as you go and you’ll soon know when it’s ready.

Mushroom and Leek Risotto

(serves 2 | total prep and cooking time approximately 1 hour)


2 tablespoons of olive oil

1 small onion – diced

2 cloves of garlic – finely chopped

120-150g risotto rice

100ml white wine (optional)

2 stock cubes (chicken or veg) dissolved in a total of 1 litre of boiling water

1 large leek – sliced

Approximately 160g mushrooms – sliced

Few handfuls of frozen peas (optional)

Sprinkling of Italian herbs (fresh or dried)

Teaspoon of truffle oil (optional)

Black pepper and parmesan cheese (optional) to serve


·         Heat the oil in a saucepan on a medium heat

·         Cook the onions until they soften and turn golden. Do not let them brown

·         Add the garlic and cook for a few minutes

·         Add the dry risotto rice and stir for a minute until all the rice grains are coated in the onion, garlic and oil

·         Add the wine and increase the heat slightly until the liquid bubbles. Cook it like this for a few minutes so the alcohol can evaporate from the wine. If you are not using wine just complete this step with 100ml of stock.

·         Add a few ladles of stock and the sliced mushrooms and leeks. If you are using peas you should add these much later (after about half the stock has been used). This stops them from becoming mushy

·         Stir in the herbs

·         Reduce the heat to medium. As the liquid starts to evaporate keep adding the stock a few ladles at a time. NOTE: if you add the stock too quickly the rice will absorb too much liquid and become very stodgy

·         When ¾ of the stock has been added taste the rice to see if it’s cooked. If not add a bit more stock accordingly

·         Just before the end stir through the truffle oil

·         Top with cracked black pepper and parmesan should you wish

Monday 14 May 2012

A Challenge of a Lifetime (Prawn, Tomato & Chilli Spaghetti)

This weekend I did one of the hardest things I have ever done. My friend Kaj and I pushed our bodies to their limit by taking part in the Moonwalk. A 26.2 mile walk through the night, in aid of breast cancer. Now I know what you’re thinking, what on earth has this got to do with food? Well right this moment not a lot! I promise I will make it relevant later but for now I am so proud of myself I need to spend a few moments blowing my own trumpet. I'm not going to lie to you, it wasn't easy and we've definitely got a few aches and pains to prove it. I know walking a marathon is not as hard as running one, but it wasn’t the distance that was the hardest part of this challenge, it was the timing. Walking through the night is a killer! At about 3 am your body starts to hibernate and you feel incredibly cold, no matter how well dressed you are. And that’s when it hits you, you’re only at the 13 mile marker and everything you’ve done so far you still have to do again!

Although I suspect I probably won't do something like this again I am really glad I've had the opportunity to do it once. It was an amazing night and definitely one of my biggest achievements. So far we've managed to raise over £1000 for this incredible cause, but there's still time to donate, so please help us raise even more by clicking on the link below:

I’d also like to use this opportunity to say a few quick thank yous. Firstly to my walking partner Kaj. You made the night so much fun. Without you and those snickers bars I’m not sure I could have made it to the finish line. Next, to N and to all my family and friends, thank you for your generous support, both and financially and otherwise! In particular a special thanks to my mum for doing such a spectacular job in decorating our bras. And finally thanks to the 30,000 men and women who donned their bras and walked the walk with us. You are all an inspiration. I hope the money we have collectively raised helps change the lives of thousands of people diagnosed with breast cancer every year.
And now for the important bit…the pre-walk meal. I needed something quick so I could spend my day resting rather than cooking but it also had to be filling enough to get me through the night. There was no question in my mind, it had to be pasta. I made my special prawn, tomato and chilli spaghetti, it worked a treat! The key thing about this dish is that the spaghetti is cooked in the sauce rather than cooked separately and then added at the end. It increases the flavour immensely (and also saves on washing up)! Please note, this dish does not have to be saved for the night before a marathon, it can bit eaten and enjoyed any night of the week!

Prawn, Tomato and Chilli Spaghetti
(serves 2 | total prep and cooking time approximately 20 minutes)


2 tablespoons of olive oil

½ an onion – diced

2 cloves of garlic – chopped finely

3 tomatoes – chopped

1 stock cube (chicken or vegetable) dissolved in 500ml boiling water

¼ teaspoon paprika

¼ - ½ teaspoon mild green chilli – finely chopped

150g dry spaghetti

200g cooked king prawns

Fresh parsley

2 lemon wedges


·         Heat the oil in a saucepan on a medium heat

·         Cook the onions for about 5 minutes until they soften

·         Add the garlic and cook for a few more minutes

·         Add the tomatoes, paprika, chilli and stock

·         Stir in the uncooked pasta, bring to the boil and cook for about 8 minutes

·         Add in the cooked prawns and stir. Cook for a further 3 or 4 minutes or until the pasta is cooked

·         Sprinkle with parsley and serve with lemon wedges

Saturday 5 May 2012

Roast Chicken without the Drama (Roast Chicken with Lemon, Garlic, Rosemary and Thyme)

Roast Chicken without the Drama (Roast Chicken with Lemon, Garlic, Rosemary and Thyme)

I had my first couple of recipe requests, which is a real milestone for a new food blogger. One of them was for low fat coleslaw. Unfortunately I don’t tend to eat much coleslaw as I have a degree of lactose intolerance. Being lactose sensitive is the bane of my life, so much so that I think it’s an issue that deserves a whole blog post to itself so I will save that for another time. So although I don’t have one right now, Chrissy, I promise I will work on it.

The second request was a lot easier. Priya from America requested a ‘good roast chicken recipe’. Now, roast chicken isn’t something I tend to make much as I always assume it has to be a whole chicken, take a whole day and be whole big drama. But actually I love roast chicken so I wanted to find a way it didn’t have to be quite so formal. And by Jove, I think I’ve found it. This roast chicken recipe ticks all the boxes, it tastes great, is easy to make, is a one-pot dish (unless you count the vegetables) and although it takes an hour to cook you don’t have to watch over it, which means it frees you up to have a cup of coffee and read the paper (or in my case write my next blog post).

Priya, I hope it’s what you’re looking for. Do try it out and let me know what you think (that goes for all of you). N loved it so it’s definitely one I’ll be making again and again.

Roast Chicken with Lemon, Garlic, Rosemary and Thyme

(serves 2| total prep and cooking time 1 hour 15 mins)

4 chicken thighs – skin on
6 garlic cloves – peeled but kept whole
Approximately 12-14 new potatoes
2 tablespoons olive oil
Juice and zest of ½ of an unwaxed lemon
3-4 sprigs of rosemary – leaves removed
3-4 sprigs of scented thyme – leaves removed
Black pepper
½ chicken stock cube dissolved in 125ml boiling water
·         Preheat the oven to 180 degrees fan
·         Trim the excess skin off the chicken thighs. Make sure you keep enough on so the chicken is protected from the heat and doesn’t dry out
·         Make the marinade – mix together the olive oil, lemon juice, lemon zest, black pepper, rosemary and thyme. NOTE: when you remove the leaves from the herb sprigs it’s ok if the small fine branches are left on, it’s the big ones you don’t want
·         Place the chicken thighs in an oven proof dish. Make sure the dish has enough space for you to add the potatoes
·         Prick the skin of the chicken with a knife and pour the marinade over each of the thighs equally. Try to rub it in to the skin a little if you can.
·         Wash the new potatoes and scatter around the chicken. It’s worth drizzling the potatoes in a little oil so they don’t dry out when cooking
·         Nestle in the cloves of garlic amongst the chicken and potatoes

·         Pour the chicken stock into the oven tray and place it in the oven for a total of 60 minutes
·         Half way through increase the oven temperature to approximately 200-210 degrees fan to make sure the skin becomes crispy

·         Serve with steamed vegetables or other seasonal vegetables
TIP: For a deeper flavour you can marinate the chicken thighs in the lemon garlic and herb marinade overnight in the fridge if you like.

Tuesday 1 May 2012

It’s All A Bit Fishy (Herb Crusted Fish with Cajun Spiced Potato Wedges)

Fish is good for you, how many times have you heard that. So N and I decided that, as recommended, we would try to incorporate fish into our diet at least twice a week. The problem is until a few years ago I only used to eat three types of fish – tuna, salmon and cod. It doesn’t take a statistician to work out that with only three choices you’re going to run out of combinations pretty quick. So I’ve had no choice but to open my mind up to new types of fish. My list now includes sea bass, haddock, monkfish, pollock, mackerel and sole. I’m generally open to trying anything once but I tend to avoid flat bony fish. I just don’t get the point, there’s not enough meat on it and even if they’re deboned you still get the tiny bones which makes eating dinner far too much hard work!
Now that I’m more comfortable with the fish world I thought I’d do a bit of research into which fish is best for you and which varieties are in limited supply. I warn you now it’s a minefield out there. Apparently you shouldn’t eat too much oily fish as they have low level pollutants. This goes for some types of white fish too. As for watching the world’s fish population the same types of fish can be endangered from one area and fine from another area. After reading this I was more confused than when I first started so as a result I’m not going to tell you what you should and shouldn’t eat, and to be honest I don’t think I really know enough to give you any educated advice! But what I have decided after my limited research is that you really need to mix and match as much as possible. In other words everything in moderation. I love that saying, it applies to everything in life and particularly to what you eat. N & I try to use the 80:20 rule. If you eat well 80% of the time you can eat what you like for the other 20%.

I think fish and chips would fall into the 20% bracket...or does it? Well the chip shop version definitely does. It always seems like a good idea at the time, especially when you’re starving. But half way through it I tend to regret it, especially when I remember it has no goodness in it and it’s actually pretty stodgy. So I’ve made my own version. It’s quick, tastes great and is pretty healthy. I like to think it falls into the 80% bracket. Actually it’s not completely my version, credit where credit is due. The co-creator of the crumb topping is a wonderful cook named Sheena. Strangely we use pretty much the same ingredients and we discussed how to make it beforehand yet our versions are quite different. Her's is very much a coating. It’s more moist, forms a paste and when cooked becomes part of the fish. Mine is more of a crispy crumb topping that sits happily on top of the fish. If anyone fancies Sheena’s version just post a message, I’m sure we can coerce her into writing a comment…

Herb Crusted Fish and Cajun Spiced Wedges

(serves 2| total prep and cooking time 50 mins)


For the wedges

3-4 floury potatoes e.g. Maris Piper

2-3 tablespoons of olive oil

1-2 tablespoons Cajun Spice

For the fish

2 white fish fillets (haddock or cod work well)

50g ciabatta (can be substituted for other bread e.g. baguette, sliced white bread etc.)

2 tablespoons of olive oil

Juice of ¼ of a lemon

2 garlic cloves – crushed or very finely chopped

1 spring onion – very finely chopped (optional)

1heaped tablespoon fresh herbs e.g. basil, parsley, tarragon, oregano or dry mixed Italian herbs

Salt & pepper


To make the wedges

·         Preheat the oven to 180 degrees fan

·         Cut each potato into approximately 8 wedges (lengthwise)

·         Spread them out in a an ovenproof tray

·         Pour over the olive oil and the Cajun spice. Toss the wedges so they are all coated as evenly as possible. Add a bit more olive oil or spice if you need to

·         Place uncovered in the middle shelf of the oven for 40 minutes or until the potatoes are cooked through. You should shake the tray and move the potatoes around about half way through. NOTE: this is also roughly the stage at which you will be adding the fish so you will need to move the wedges down to the bottom shelf

To make the fish

Whilst your wedges are cooking…

·         Chop the bread into smaller pieces and whizz in a food processor until they resemble breadcrumbs.

·         Heat the 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a small frying pan

·         Pan fry the breadcrumbs in the oil until they brown slightly

·         Add the garlic, spring onions and herbs, fry for a few minutes

·         Add salt & pepper to taste and the lemon juice

·         Fry for a few minutes, it should start to thicken slightly. Take off the hob

·         Place the fish fillets into an oven tray. Drizzle on some olive oil. I also add a little bit of dry tarragon and black pepper on to the fish but this is up to you

·         Spoon on the breadcrumb mixture evenly between the two fillets. Pat down so it sticks to the fish a little

·         Cover the oven tray with foil and place on the middle shelf of the oven. NOTE: you will need to move the wedges down to the bottom shelf at this stage

·         Cook for 15 minutes

·         Uncover the fish, it should be opaque now, if not put it back for a bit longer

·         Before serving it is nice to grill the fish uncovered on a medium setting for a few minutes in order to toast the breadcrumbs. The wedges can stay on the bottom shelf during this time without any problem.

Serve with steamed or boiled vegetables, tomato ketchup and tartar sauce (if you have it).