Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A spice for kings, and a risotto with a difference

They say saffron is the most expensive spice in the world. Even if it weren’t, it wouldn’t be the one I use most often, but still there’s something special about it which I don’t think is just about perceptions of value.

There’s the golden colour, although you can get that from other spices like turmeric. For me it’s the aroma and flavour that’s special – sometimes described as hay-like, though I think it’s richer and more complex than that. (Not that I go round sniffing hay, you understand.) It's not the strongest-tasting spice, but there's a depth to it, like good wine. It deserves to take centre stage in a dish, and I think introducing other spices runs the risk of masking it too much. A saffron risotto is a wonderful thing, if not exactly the best way to get your five-a-day.

Friday, October 26, 2012

A pumpkin curry for Halloween

Has Halloween got bigger this year? Every pub I go to is decorated with fake cobwebs and giant plastic spiders. The traditional jack o'lantern, when it appears, looks positively tasteful compared to this lot, even if it is a bright orange colour, as bold as a can of Tango or a Sainsbury's carrier bag.

If you've bought a  pumpkin, either for carving or, like me, because you were carried away by the fact that you can buy such a big vegetable for just a pound or two, you may now be wondering what to do with it.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Cooking with love and the best brownie recipe

We cook for so many reasons: to appease hunger, to tantalise the tastebuds, sometimes for money, sometimes to feed others, and to express love.

I have been cooking for my grandmother recently (one of my astonishing duo of 100-year-old grandmothers) which has prompted my thoughts about the last of these. Until her health declined a few months ago she would make me rice pudding every time I visited, remembering that it was my favourite dessert as a child. Even after she largely stopped cooking she still found the energy to make rice pudding for me, and I was always touched by it, even the time she forgot the sugar.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Edible Bus Stop and a harvest-time tart

One of my favourite London grassroots projects is the Edible Bus Stop, a project which grows food on patches of waste land by bus stops in south London. So I'm pleased to see they're expanding beyond the original two bus stops in Stockwell and West Norwood. Brixton, Clapham Common and Crystal Palace are next. They are starting with the 322 bus route, but other bits of the transport network are on the cards. This weekend they're holding a harvest celebration in Stockwell. There's plenty to celebrate.

It started off as a guerilla gardening project and has gone on to win recognition and awards. I love the idea that a group of volunteers have transformed some derelict land into something attractive and productive. The benefits are numerous - exercise, community spirit,  nicer-looking neighbourhoods, fresh fruit and veg... Three cheers, I say.

In celebration of this, here's an easy harvest recipe. It looks smart but doesn't take too long. If your own harvest includes tomatoes but not courgettes, or vice versa, you can just include one of them.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Baked eggs and tomatoes

Autumn continues apace; mornings are darker and chillier, especially when I am a bit enthusiastically early getting on my bike.

I am enjoying the last of the early autumn veg while I can. Tomatoes and courgettes are what it's all about for me: squashes and pumpkins and chestnuts won't get a look-in for a little while yet.

Tomatoes can be one of my favourite vegetables. I say "can be" because they vary so much. I suppose botanically they are a fruit rather than a vegetable, and the spectrum between sweet lusciousness and pallid tastelessness is wider than, I think, any other vegetable - it is other members of the fruit world, like strawberries and peaches, that have such variability.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Of scones, sandwiches and sweet treats

Afternoon tea is having a bit of a moment. On a weekend afternoon the nicest hotels and tea-rooms all seem to be heaving with people (mostly female) sipping tea and nibbling on tiny cakes. There are variations: champagne afternoon tea, afternoon tea with cocktails, even low tea (a healthier version, apparently). Doggy bags seem almost compulsory, as all the chatting often always leave time for eating many of those cakes.

I wanted to take my aged grandmother for afternoon tea. I quite fancied the Ritz: she expressed a desire for countryside. I couldn't find many posh afternoon tea establishments in the Essex countryside, but we compromised on Brentwood. The Marygreen Manor Hotel came highly recommended. It took me weeks to get a reservation at the weekend, so my hopes were quite high.