Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Tropical trifle

Here's the last 'festive' dish of the holiday season. Normal (ie healthier) service will resume soon. Anyway, in case you're looking for some indulgence before grim January gets under way, I can recommend this trifle.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Festive veggie lunch

Here's my Christmas dinner - a fantastic squash and blue cheese Wellington. I hasten to add that I didn't make it (my talented mother-in-law did that).

You can make it ahead and freeze it, so it's ideal for entertaining when you've got lots of other things to sort out. Served with roast potatoes, parsnips, carrots and the obligatory Brussels sprouts, it was extremely good.

The filling is quite firm when cold...

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Simple, smoky broccoli and tomatoes

Here's an easy, healthy dish which is just the sort of thing I fancy in the run-up to Christmas, when there are too many other demands on your time to allow for elaborate cooking. And even if you haven't already been overindulging in mince pies, it's good to have something healthy and packed with veg now before the excesses that lie ahead.

If broccoli is the sort of thing you tend to have in the freezer, then you can throw the rest of it together from store-cupboard ingredients - so no need for extra shopping.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Pumpkin part 2 - pumpkin and bean curry

Perhaps not surprisingly, I hadn't managed to use a whole pumpkin in my previous pumpkin tagine. So I had some leftover cooked pumpkin to use up, and this Indian-inspired dish turned out to be the answer.

I was actually planning something quite different, but I discovered at the start of the cooking process that I'd left the tin opener at work (don't ask...) So I couldn't open most of the tins in the cupboard. Luckily the tins of kidney beans turned out to have ring pulls on them. (I usually save kidney beans for chilli rather than curry, but I couldn't see any reason not to put them in curry, and I didn't have too many other options.)

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Pumpkin part 1 - preparing a pumpkin the easy way, and pumpkin and chick pea tagine

My love for a bargain is alive and well, and in the days or weeks after Halloween you can usually pick up pumpkins for not much money. It's lucky that they keep quite well (especially if you store them somewhere cool) because it's taken me until now to cook something with it.

Peeling a pumpkin and removing the seeds and fibres from the middle can seem like a bit of a faff. My labour-saving tip for cooking a pumpkin is to cut it in half, take out all the seeds, and cut the whole thing into large wedges. Put the wedges on an oven tray (or two), skin side down, and bake in a medium-hot oven until the flesh feels soft when pierced with a fork (possibly 30-45 minutes, depending on the thickness of the wedges and the temperature of your oven).

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Split pea bolognaise

My meals seem to have taken a frugal turn recently (see also this chilli). Not for any particular reason (I've always taken the view that if you can make something delicious and it's inexpensive too, so much the better). Perhaps it's the cold weather that makes hearty dishes based on pulses seem particularly appropriate. And more often than not pulse-based dishes tend to work out pretty cheap. (Even if you buy beluga lentils, which are the caviar of the lentil world, the price still compares well to a lamb chop.)

This is a cheap and super-healthy pasta sauce. I made it with split peas, which keep more of their shape and texture, but you could make a quicker, slightly smoother version with red lentils.

This quantity should easily serve six. You could halve it if you like, but I like to make more than I need on the basis that it freezes well, or will keep in the fridge for a couple of days. And while it's not really any effort to soak split peas, the cooking time involved means I feel I may as well make a big pot of it.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Stuffed mini squash

Halloween may be a distant memory, but there are still some pumpkins and squashes around to brighten up the dark days. With different shades of orange, green and cream, they are among the most attractive of vegetables - a bowl of small ones is just as good as an ornament for the kitchen table as it is on the plate.

These miniature orange ones turned out to have a lovely, sweet flavour - much better than the larger ones sold for carving at Halloween. To make the most of their cute appearance, I decided to stuff them and serve them whole.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Cheap-as-chips chilli

People have been making meals for very little money for probably as long as money has existed. But it seems to be only recently that the idea of frugal food has made it into television programmes and cookbooks and newspaper columns.

This chilli is something I've been making on and off for years, in slightly different incarnations. As always, it depends on where you buy your ingredients from, but I costed this at about 40p a portion.

Friday, November 8, 2013

A spicy, sweet and smoky pie

Everyone loves a pie - the contrast of crisp pastry and soft filling, the comfort factor, the memories of childhood... My own childhood pie memories are mainly of the Fray Bentos variety, but I've noticed that commercial pies have been getting steadily posher. While the petrol station forecourt steak pie is alive and well, you can also go into a supermarket (or some pubs) and find venison and rabbit pie, or perhaps steak with chorizo and olives, or four cheese.

Sadly, pastry is not exactly a health food, but the good news is that filo pastry is considerably lighter in fat and calories. It might not be what you want in a traditional steak and kidney pie, but in a vegetarian pie like this it works really well.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

A tomato, onion and goats' cheese bake

I cook with onions most days, but it's rare that they move from a supporting role to a starring one. I think of them as a background ingredient. Yet when they take centre stage they can be wonderful.

There's plenty to love about onions - they're cheap, they grow well in this country, and they store quite well too (though the smell of a past-it onion is really not pleasant at all).

I particularly like the way some slow cooking makes them mellower than you would imagine, with a soft, almost melting texture. Baking onions whole in their skins, then peeling and eating them as a side vegetable, is a good way to make them more prominent in your meal.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Spicy aubergine with tomatoes and chick peas

Aubergines are a much underrated vegetable, I think. In the cuisines of the Middle East they often have a starring role, but the only aubergine dish that's ever really caught on in British cuisine is the stuffed aubergine, a dish which cannot even be described as unjustly maligned.

Yet aubergines are beautiful, with their glossy black skins, and quite unlike any other vegetable. They perhaps have some similarity to courgettes, with their mild flavour and soft texture when cooked, but the texture of a cooked aubergine has a velvety, melting quality all its own. And their ability to soak up flavours is unparalleled.

In this dish I've matched them with spices to make the most of this ability to soak up flavours, plus tomatoes and chick peas, both ingredients with which aubergines have a natural affinity (see also this recipe). The result is a healthy dish which is quick enough for a weekday supper. If you have leftovers, the flavours will develop so it's perhaps even better the next day.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The magic of slow-roasted tomatoes

I bought these tomatoes for a ridiculously small amount of money from a stall on Streatham High Road. Actually, loving a bargain as I do, I bought these and quite a few more besides.

When I couldn't use them all before they went soft, the answer was a long, slow spell in the oven. I'm aware this is hardly a recipe - but I loved how colourful they looked. And the result was exceptionally delicious.

Friday, October 4, 2013

An apple cake for autumn

If blackberries are the fruit that speak of late summer, then apples sum up autumn for me in all its fruitfulness. There's so much generosity about a tree that's laden with fruit, especially a fruit as versatile as an apple.

On a walk last weekend I gathered an armful of windfalls scattered along a footpath. They were a bit bruised, but after a bit of preparation, fine for cooking with. But what to make? I've got quite a few ways of using up a glut of apples - everything from crumble to chutney and even a savoury pie with cheese and onion.

But my all time favourite is apple cake. I've made this cake most autumns for the last ten years, and it was a real pleasure to make it again. It's full of fruit and spices - not the most elegant kind of cake perhaps, but very good.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Tomato and onion crumble

From a sweet crumble to a savoury one...

I'm quite fond of a savoury crumble. It may sound an odd concept, but it can be an easy way to turn a few ingredients into something that seems like a coherent dish. I'd recommend breadcrumbs for an easy savoury topping, though you could do something with oats and flour if you wanted.

I'm making the most of tomatoes while they are still in season. Not only that, one of my local convenience stores does a decent range of fruit and veg, including a 5kg box of vine tomatoes which works out significantly cheaper than if you buy them loose. As you may have noticed, I do like a bargain. Ok, it's not quite the same as having a superabundance of tomatoes from your own garden, but here's my first dish to tackle my tomato glut.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Wild berries and a healthy fruit crumble

I'm feeling replenished after a week on the beautiful Isle of Arran. And my timing was unintentionally brilliant. The blackberries might be on their last legs down south, but on Arran they were perfect. I don't think I have ever seen such a profusion of them. The bramble plants were everywhere, their thorny stems thrusting through fences and around bushes like an illustration of unstoppable life-force. And almost every hedgerow was studded with shiny black berries, most of them so large and plump it was almost impossible to pass by without picking a few.

Blackberies and apple in a pie dish

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Musings on blackberries

It's been a good year for blackberries. I think I've picked about 4kg of them in the last couple of weeks. Mostly, I admit, I've procrastinated by putting them in the freezer. But then there's nothing wrong with that. It means they're there for winter crumbles, pies, or my absolute favourite - blackberry caramel crumble tart.

In the mean time, I'm feeling lazy - so I'm eating blackberries scattered generously over home-made muesli for breakfast, or in a simple fruit salad with chunks of orange-fleshed Charentais melon.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Chick pea salad with tomato and goats' cheese

Apparently it's been the warmest, driest and sunniest summer since 2006. Despite the turn for the worse today, I'm hoping that summer's last hurrah may be yet to come.

What a difference a day makes, though. Tonight there's a chill in the air. Yesterday the warm evening demanded a picnic, just in case it should be the last of the year, and the park was full of others enjoying the last rays of sunshine.

Here's what I ate on the picnic. Tomatoes and aubergines are pretty much at the height of their season now, and tomatoes in particular are as cheap as they come. This dish partners them with chick peas and warming Middle Eastern spices, and is the kind of salad that is a meal in itself.

Making the salad

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Spicy eggs for a lazy weekend brunch

Here's a spicy, flavour-packed brunch for a lazy weekend morning. Or it could equally be a lunch or supper, if you're not keen on spices too early in the day.

This recipe is from Sunshine on a Plate by Masterchef winner Shelina Permalloo (£20; Ebury Press). It's a dish from Mauritius, whose global melting pot of flavours can be seen in the mixture of ginger and coriander with parsley and thyme, plus plenty of heat from the chilli.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

A salad of broccoli, beans, cheese and almonds

Here's a salad that has everything you could possibly need. Bright green broccoli with a bit of bite, crisp broad beans, chunks of creamy yet piquant cheese, plus chopped fresh dill for flavour and toasted flaked almonds for flavour and crunch.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Runner beans with mustard and a poached egg

Here's one for people who grow runner beans, or who are lucky enough to have friends or family who grow them.

It turns some runner beans (and an egg) into a light lunch, and it's so easy it doesn't really need a recipe. I always think of runner beans as a home-grown vegetable. While you can pick them up in a supermarket, they're definitely best freshly picked.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Spinach with rice and eggs

It's surprising how many dishes can be improved by a poached egg (toasted cheese sandwiches, spicy tomato sauce, various soups, most dishes involving pasta and pesto...). Spinach and eggs are one of those classic combinations which just seems right, whether it's in a salad, omelette, souffle or quiche. And if you add some cheese too, then you really have a match made in heaven.

I'm a big fan of spinach, with its mild but distinctive flavour and slight tang of iron. The frozen stuff is a handy ingredient to have in your freezer (and avoids the disappointment of watching fresh spinach shrink so dramatically) but sometimes only fresh will do. Having bought a couple of bunches of vivid green spinach from Brixton Farmers' Market, this dish is how I decided to celebrate.

Friday, August 2, 2013

A triple allium risotto

You realise you must be getting older when the highlight of your Friday evening is making an oozing, creamy risotto.

This one was born of a desire to use up some over-ripe Brie. I was at a farmers' market last weekend at the end of the hot day, and picked up a load of soft, almost molten Somerset Brie for not very much money. Slathered onto fresh bread that evening, it was almost buttery and we wolfed it down with glee. A few days later, however, it was noticeably stronger, and frankly at the point where it was better for cooking with than eating on its own.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Grilled courgettes with garlic and herbs

Courgettes are one of the real pleasures of summer. I know you can by them year-round, but a fresh English courgette has a sweetness and depth of flavour that the imported, glasshouse-grown kind just can't match up to.

Last week I found some for sale from a garden in East Dean, Sussex. This weekend they came from Kent, via Brixton farmers' market. When buying courgettes, look for smooth, glossy skins (duller ones may be past their best) and go for smaller specimens which have more flavour and are less watery.

Courgettes and garlic are a wonderful combination, and this easy, North African-inspired salad makes the most of that, with the addition of some warmth from the chilli and extra interest from the fresh herbs. Best served at room temperature or just warm, it's become a staple of recent picnics.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A cool green salad for a hot summer's day

It's still hot. The grass is turning beige in the parks, and the roses that looked so fresh and glorious last week are beginning to look faded. Who knew it was possible to have so many warm sunny days in a row?

I think I've enjoyed more picnics already than I had during the whole of last summer. Eating dinner in the sunshine, preferably in an open green space, seems like by far the most attractive option on evenings like these. The trick is to go for two or three dishes with bold flavours, that will travel well but don't require too much labouring over a hot stove, or take valuable time away for your picnic.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Roast Mediterranean vegetable soup

Still recovering from my dental surgery, home-made soup seemed like a good option. The weather demanded something a bit summery, though - something with flavours of the Mediterranean.This soup almost tastes like sunshine.

It's easy to make, too, though not the quickest soup ever due to the fact that you have to roast the vegetables. Sliced courgettes, red peppers, onions and whole cloves of garlic were roasted until soft. Then all that remained was to blend them with some tinned tomatoes, herbs and seasoning. I kept it thick and substantial, but you could add more water if you prefer a thinner stock. It's so full of ripe summery flavours that you don't need stock - water will do fine.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Pea 'risotto' with mushrooms and lemon

Some rather painful dental work means that it's soft food for me for the next few days. But I'm not going to view it as being confined to baby food - instead, this is an opportunity for some soothing, comforting, and still delicious meals.

First up was a risotto of sorts. Risotto is probably the most elegant dish that you don't actually have to chew. I was inspired by Nigel Slater's 'green pea rice', in which the rice is swollen with pea soup. I've added pureed vegetables to risotto a few times before - it's a technique that works particularly well with pumpkin or butternut squash, as well as tomato, but I hadn't tried it with peas before.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Probably the last asparagus dish: with goats' cheese on sun-dried tomato bread

Does the humble sandwich have to be humble? As a nation our favourites are chicken, cheese, ham or egg (depending on who you believe) nothing too posh, though exotic sandwiches are gaining in popularity. I'm a fan of the cheese sandwich myself, though the quality of the cheese is vital (extra mature cheddar or a lovely ripe Brie by preference).

The sandwich is such an everyday item that I feel almost guilty about turning it into anything too luxurious. But on this occasion I had a few spears of asparagus left. And with the end of the asparagus season sadly upon us, it seemed right to celebrate this prince of English vegetables.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Asparagus with halloumi and sweet potatoes

How can it be that the British asparagus season is nearly over? The miserable weather meant that it was so late in getting started this year, I've not made half my favourite dishes.

The official end of picking is the longest day on June 21. I'm hoping that the late start to the season will mean that farmers pick for a bit longer, but that might just be wishful thinking.

While steaming is my all-round favourite way to cook asparagus, I also love it griddled - the flavour seems more concentrated, and the seared stripes add smokiness to the flavour, as if it's been cooked on a barbecue.

Friday, June 7, 2013

A summer evening picnic

The first summer evening picnic of the year. May there be many more to come.

On the menu: Steamed asparagus with soft-boiled eggs for dipping; pea and cucumber salad; sweet potato salad. There were a few black olives too, but we hardly needed them.

The picnic venue was Tooting Bec Common, just a few minutes down the road, so the just-cooked asparagus and eggs stayed warm. But if yours is to be a cold picnic you could cool the asparagus in cold water once it's cooked, drizzle with a little balsamic vinegar, and simply eat hard-boiled eggs on the side.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The last wild garlic dish: potato and garlic cakes

I made good use of the bank holiday and picked one last crop of wild garlic. To be honest it was slightly past its best: the flowers are dying back now (or at least they were in this Surrey woodland), which is a sign that it's time to stop picking. The leaves lose their lushness and vibrancy; soon they'll be starting to wilt and turn yellow.

Having picked some just in time, I put it to good use by making a dish I'd never cooked before - wild garlic potato cakes. You could also call it wild garlic bubble-and-squeak. Mine is a healthy version without any butter or cream, though I suppose you could add butter to the mash if you really wanted to. I think the pungent garlic has flavour enough.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

On seeking inspiration, chutney and Moroccan stew

There are so many different starting points when creating a dish, or deciding what to eat that night. Sometimes you just have a craving for a particular ingredient or flavour. There's the "see what looks good in the market and start from there" approach, the less glamorous cousin of which is "see what is loitering at the back of the fridge and create something from that". A few ingredients have such a short season that they demand you eat them while they are available.

But on this occasion, well, I had some chutney to use up. Now creating a main dish that goes with an accompaniment might seem a little perverse. But this carrot and almond chutney had been looking neglected for a while. I could probably have put it in cheese sandwiches, but it seemed like it needed to be served alongside a North African dish to show it off at its best.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Seven ways with wild garlic

So I've had a few weeks of foraging for wild garlic now. I reckon it should be around for a week or so more at least (and longer up north).

This plant really is one of my favourite things to forage - easy to find, simple to prepare and delicious in a whole range of recipes. Just be careful who you breathe on afterwards!

Here's my hit parade of the best wild garlic recipes. As you'll be able to tell from the below, it loves mushrooms, cheese (especially creamy ones) and eggs. And although I haven't listed any recipes, I also like it with peas - their gentle sweetness seems to balance out the aggressiveness of the garlic.

1. Pizza with wild garlic, mushrooms and ricotta

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Here's what I did with the rest of the duck eggs

So I still had some lovely local, organic duck eggs, left over from making the wild garlic carbonara. For some reason I'm not a huge fan of poached duck eggs - the yolks are delicious but I'm less keen on the slightly translucent whites. So I made scrambled duck eggs, which is wonderfully rich as well as showing off their gorgeous golden colour.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Wild garlic pasta, duck eggs and local food in the Lakes

Sorry that I’ve gone a bit quiet recently – I was away in the lovely Lake District. Normal service will now resume.

I had a few exciting and inspirational food experiences while I was away. I love London and its food scene, but there are definitely some things you miss out on in a big city. We saw so many farms producing top-quality meat in particular but also vegetables, eggs and dairy produce, sometimes selling direct to the public too. There was the pub with its own vegetable garden supplying the kitchen. Nothing remarkable there you might think – but they also rear their own pigs, ducks and chickens – in fact all their meat, including the game, comes from their estate. Oh, and they make their own beer too. This place, the Brown Horse in Winster, near Windermere, might be exceptional, but even more run-of-the mill pubs seemed to take pride in serving local produce, whether Cumberland sausages or the Herdwick lamb from the fells.

Monday, April 22, 2013

The sweetness of onions

I have got a lot of love for onions at the moment. Which is just as well, because when I went to my local fruit and veg stall the other day, I was offered a small sack of them for a pound - the price I had expected to pay for six or eight. As well as loving onions, I also love a bargain - and it would have been churlish to refuse, surely?

This meant I had a lot of onions to use. Luckily, I was already getting into the habit of roasting a trayful of them. I love roasted onions. Red onions look a bit better but brown (or white) work just as well, I think. You just cut your peeled onions into eighths, or thereabouts, stick them in a baking tray and give them between 30 and 45 minutes in the oven, until the corners are blackened and the onion flesh is soft and juicy. Any kind of slow cooking of onions will caramelise the natural sugars in them, making them taste sweeter.

Onion and potato soup

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A double-headed pizza

A good pizza is one of my favourite things. Actually, I could probably eat pizza every day of the week without too much difficulty. A bad pizza, on the other hand, is as disappointing as a cold bath: whether it be a soggy, doughy base, a greasy topping, or (heaven forbid) a combination of the two.

One of the joys of moving to London has been the discovery of any number of good pizza restaurants, where the base is nearly thin enough to see through, crispy round the edges, and anointed with interesting toppings. Nothing, though, beats the satisfaction of making your own. I use a bread machine to make the dough, then give it a second rise after baking it, then a brief blast in an oven that is as hot as I can get it before adding the toppings.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

A very red stew

It's still cold. I've enjoyed the long-overdue sunshine this weekend, but the daffodils are barely out of hibernation. Yesterday I even saw some very late snowdrops, presumably put into a state of suspended animation by the low temperatures.

My current attitude to the weather is to embrace it. At least I can enjoy cosy dinners and make hearty, warming dishes. So, stew it is then. My eye was caught by an unusual recipe called "beet bourguignon" from David Frenkiel and  Luise Vindahl's Green Kitchen cookbook. The book looks fab - quite a few unusual combinations, and they've thought about dishes that are healthy as well as tasting good.

Friday, March 29, 2013

A victory for people power

It was William Blake that said: "A good local pub has much in common with a church, except that a pub is warmer, and there's more conversation."

You might think that the status of both venues as a hub of the community has fallen since Blake's days. Churchgoing is certainly not what it was, and the statistic from the Campaign from Real Ale that 18 pubs are closing every week is one of the more depressing figures I have heard.

The Ivy House, Nunhead

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The best millionaire's shortbread...ever

A visit to Brick Lane on a Sunday is a bewildering affair. So many things to eat...where do you start? A trip to one of the bagel shops or Bangladeshi restaurants is the traditional thing to do.

But the various markets are adding more and more options. American, Argentinean, Caribbean, Chinese, Ethiopian, Japanese, Malaysian, Mexican, Moroccan, Spanish, Thai, Turkish, all competing to display their wares in the most enticing way and attract the crowds of hungry young things.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

A hearty stew for a cold spring night

No matter how desperate I am for blue skies and warmer temperatures, winter shows no sign of going away. All I can do is get out my trusty stockpot and cook something big and warming.

I have to admit I've got a bit bored with winter vegetables. Yes, I know I could probably do something exciting with Jerusalem artichokes. But it's March. Root vegetables have lost their appeal. So frozen and tinned vegetables have become something of a lifesaver. Dried pulses, too. At least I can get some colour and flavour on my plate, and it has the advantage of costing mere pennies per plate of food.

This is some kind of loose adaptation of a minestrone soup. But it's got lentils instead of beans, making it a really thick, hearty stew. Onions, carrots and tinned tomato provide the flavour base, with peas and green beans for freshness and colour. You could vary it though - add celery or leek to the base, or swap the green beans for chopped courgettes. Some broccoli florets or finely chopped spring greens wouldn't go amiss, either.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Rice with dill and good things

So I warned you that my bunch of dill might be making a reappearance. And here it is. I'm pleased to say that I have now conquered it! The sticking-it-in-a-mug-of-water-in-the-fridge trick worked really well, meaning that it was still perfectly useable, well over a week after I bought it.

I was pleased with this dish - healthy, filling and economical. And pretty damn tasty too. The garlic yogurt adds another layer of flavour as well as temperature and texture contrasts, though I did eat some of the leftovers for lunch without any yogurt, and that was still good.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Carrot soup with dill risotto

I really like the big bunches of herbs you can get from ethnic supermarkets and some other independent food stores - so much more vibrant and generous than the few stems in a tiny plastic packet you can get in a supermarket. I put them in the fridge door a jam jar of water and as long as they were in good condition when I bought them, they stay fresh for a week or more.

I hate throwing food away, though, and sometimes devising uses for the whole of a large bunch of herbs is something of a challenge. On this occasion I bought bunches parsley and dill at the same time. The parsley has been finished off but the bunch of dill is proving more difficult to conquer. I bought it for a springlike Greek pie of spinach, feta and dill in filo pastry. This evening, though, it was chilly and decidedly less springlike. And I found a second use for my dill, in an old Rowley Leigh recipe from the Telegraph.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Everything but the buns in Bath

I've recently returned from my first trip to Bath - a beautiful city with a strong food and drink culture to match.

One of the highlights was the farmers' market at Green Park station. It was the first indoor farmers' market I've been to for a while, and being under cover seems like a definite advantage on cold February days.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Green soup with pasta

There's something soothing about a plate where the dominant colour is green. Or perhaps it's just me, after eating rather too many cakes, chips and suchlike in recent days. Anyway, this soup - or is it a stew - or a pasta dish? - looked appealingly healthy. And it tasted remarkably good, while being a simple dish to knock together.

You could vary the veg in this as you see fit, but I think it's nice to stick to a green palette. Next time I might add some peas.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Cake part 2: Ultimate carrot cake

This was a cake to mark a half-century. It had to look good. It had to taste better. Who does one turn to in these situations? Why, Delia, of course. I'm sure Nigella's and Lorraine's creations are wonderful, but I needed to know that it would turn out exactly as it was supposed to - and I reckon you can't beat Delia for that.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Cake part 1: Lower-fat lemon drizzle cake

I can barely remember when I last made a cake. I've admired the activities on Great British Bake-off with interest, but they haven't stirred me to create Sachertorte or Victoria sponge. I even met a man who takes pride in making French-style macarons, those dainty jewel-like objects in pastel colours, which possibly have the greatest ratio of effort to each mouthful of any food I can think of. All I could think of is, why? (Something about the need to master something really difficult, I think, although if I had that urge I'm not sure I'd use it for patisserie.)

Lower-fat lemon drizzle cake, with raspberries

Friday, January 25, 2013

The earliest Atkins

As it's January, the month of diets, I was interested to learn that fad diets are nothing new.

I was at the Wellcome Collection last week for a talk by historian Louise Cockcroft, author of Calories and Corsets: A History of Dieting over 2,000 Years.

The slightly depressing moral is that people have been thinking up more or less bizarre ways to lose weight over centuries, and most of them don't work. 

I was struck by the fact that the low-carbohydrate, high-protein diets which have become enormously fashionable in recent years (Atkins, Dukan, etc) had already been invented in the early 19th century. Jean Brillat-Savarin, whose name was mainly known to me from Brillat-Savarin cheese (and gateau Savarin) was a French foodie who insisted that avoiding carbohydrates is the secret of good health.

In his 1825 bestseller The Physiology of Taste, his response to his critics was: "Very well then; eat! Get fat! Become ugly and thick, and asthmatic, finally die in your own melted grease."

Strong words indeed. I can see why you'd lose weight on Brillat-Savarin's diet - if you can stick to it - simply because sugar is banned, along with cakes, biscuits, pastries and so on.  But I don't think I'll be giving up pasta or potatoes any time soon.

Bread: banned by Brillat-Savarin, Atkins and Dukan. Picture: rprata

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Love, loss and finding happiness in small things

I've mentioned my 100-year-old maternal grandmother and her adventurous eating habits a few times in recent months.

Sadly, I won't be cooking for her again, as she passed away last week.

There are so many ways in which I will miss her, so many small regrets for things I still wanted to share with her which feed into the larger sense of loss.

Some of them are food-related: I had already planned the trifle (one of her favourite foods) that I was going to make between Christmas and New Year. As it turned out, she was in hospital by then.

A few weeks ago she mentioned that she'd never eaten asparagus - a fact that surprised me. I wouldn't normally buy asparagus out of season, so this was a dilemma - buy the imported stuff so she could try it, or wait till May so she could eat fresh English asparagus and taste the vegetable at its best? Now I wish I'd just bought the stuff and given her that new experience.

Sometimes I was surprised by what she had or hadn't experienced. Aubergines were new territory, but she was familiar with pomegranates, said she used to eat them "years ago" and found them "a bit boring". So while I imagine them to be a modern import, it sounds like they were eaten in this country in the days when olive oil was something you only bought in the chemist.

Her enthusiasm for trying something new was one of the things that made her remarkable. Whether it was butternut squash, halloumi cheese or Indian food, she'd try it, and nearly always enjoy it. I mentioned in November that she never cooked with garlic in her life, but would happily eat it, whether in my risotto or the Chinese restaurant food she always enjoyed.

Even when frail and very limited in what she could do, she loved her meals. She liked to say: "I've decided to stop saying no to anything." This wasn't strictly true - she would refuse a second glass of wine, but she'd never say no to dessert.

As I observed here a few months ago, cooking for someone is a way of demonstrating your love. To have someone else appreciate it is to know that your efforts haven't been wasted - it's a vital part of the equation. My grandmother was never short of appreciation, love and the ability to take pleasure from the everyday things in life. I hope I can learn from that.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Home-made chocolate brazils

The festive period may have come to an end, but I don't believe in complete self-denial in January. No matter how many Toblerone bars or Terry's Chocolate Oranges or boxes of Roses you've consumed, a few home-made chocolate brazil nuts can still awaken interest.

I made these mainly as a birthday gift for a relative, but naturally, managed to make sure there were a few left over! I happen to think it's also a reminder of the difference in quality between home-made chocolates and most commercial chocolate boxes - the overwhelming majority of which I find too sweet and not chocolatey enough.