Wednesday 20 June 2012

For the Love of France

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Wednesday 13 June 2012


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walnut-stuffed figs in syrup

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


12-18 dried figs (soft as possible)

100g walnuts

½ litre of water

250g sugar

The juice and peel of ¼ lemon

12-18 cloves (approximately 1 for each fig)

Grated coconut and ground pistachio for serving


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

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

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

·         Close the fig back up making the sides stick together

·         Repeat the process with the rest of the figs

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

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

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

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

·         Decorate with ground pistachios and grated coconut

Sunday 3 June 2012

Toad-in-the-hole fit for a Queen

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

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

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

(serves 2-3 | prep and cooking time 1 hour)


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

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