Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Key Lime Coconut Crumb Bars

My husband and I have this  deal, you see. He really isn’t into sweets, which is rather unfortunate since all I know how to do is bake.  He will, however, make an exception for several things that incorporate fruit, such as the thumbprint cookies from a previous posting. I promised, in keeping with the theme of the approaching summer, that all of my baking would include fruit until at least the end of August.
So when I saw this recipe on the Pioneer Woman Cooks, I knew I had to try it. After all, it’s Ree Drummond.  Have you met Ree? If not, then head on over to The Pioneer Woman ASAP. You’ll thank me. Not only does she bake, she cooks, and her recipes are insanely good, her writing is always entertaining, and her photos are gorgeous. 

Anyway, on Ree’s site, there was this darling recipe for lemon crumb squares. And it caught my eye, because I was just talking about lemon squares with my mother the other week. But we were talking about more traditional shortbread-bottomed, cooked pudding-topped lemon squares. Ree’s recipe is a variation that uses two layers of crumbs that are cousins to coffee cake crumbs, except without cinnamon…and way denser…and with oatmeal...with a delicious layer of lemon sandwiched between them. And then, the clincher:  Ree casually mentions at the bottom of her post that the recipe would also work for key limes.


I hoofed it over to the supermarket and grabbed a few limes, a can of sweetened condensed milk, and a bottle of Nellie and Joe’s Famous Key West Lime Juice. Sometimes this is in the juice aisle, and sometimes it is in the baking aisle, so you might have to look around for it.  Why didn’t I just squeeze the nice limes I grabbed at the supermarket, you ask? I don’t know, “key lime” just sounds a little sexier. Key lime pie, Florida, summer, and all those other lovely word associations I made in my head. Besides, key limes are tarter than the average lime. But, this recipe will also work fine with the juice from the typical Persian limes found in your supermarket. So if you feel really bad about pitching a perfectly good lime after zesting it, you can do this. Or you can do how I do and use the key lime juice from the bottle, zest from the Persian lime, and then cut up the Persian lime into wedges suitable for Coronas. Problem solved, no more qualms of conscious here. Phew.

So anyway, you zest the sucker (if you don’t already have a microplane zester, you should look into it. I much prefer it to traditional zesters with the holes on one end), which is a good way to wake up in the morning, by the way.  The smell is amazing.

Then you take all that lovely zest, a can of sweetened condensed milk, and about ½ C of the lime juice, and beat it together. I’ve already made these bars a few times, since there is way more than ½ C of lime juice in the bottle I bought, and I’ve used both the whisk and paddle attachments to do this, and they both work great. The mixture will be a little runny no matter how you mix it, don’t be alarmed.

Next up, the crumbs. You cream slightly softened butter with brown sugar until it is nice and combined. Then you add in some oats. At this point, I diverged from Ree’s original recipe a little further, because I made the command decision that I wanted coconut in my key lime bars. Because they go together. There’s even a song about it that Kermit sings (okay, Harry Nilsson sang it first, but who can resist Kermit the Frog?). So add about a cup and a half of shredded sweetened coconut at this point as well, and mix it up. Then, sift in the flour, salt and baking powder.

Half the crumbs go down on the bottom of the pan (I used a disposable 8X12 pan; Ree used an 8X11 casserole dish; a 9X13 pan can also be used, the bars will just be thinner).  You can push the crumbs down with your hands, or the back of a measuring cup. 

Then, dump on all of that lovely lime filling on, and spread it around. 

Then I decided to sprinkle more coconut on top of the lime layer, just by eye until I figured it was covered enough. 

And then, sprinkle on the other half of the crumbs. Don’t pat them down like with the bottom layer, just gently even them out. You don't want wayward crumbs standing tall, they will brown faster than the rest of the top layer, and may burn before the rest is done.

Then you bake it at 350F for about 25 minutes. When it comes out of the oven, let it rest at room temperature for about 30 minutes, to give the filling a chance to set up.   

Then, I would advise cutting the bars (leaving them in the pan) and then popping them in the fridge.  Trust me and cut them before you chill them – if you wait until after you chill the pan, the crumbs will be harder to cut through, and you will most likely destroy the top layer. 

 These bars are pretty fabulous, especially if you like citrus, and especially if you're ready for summer! They are easy to put together, and a definite crowd-pleaser! If you want lemon, that can be substituted as per Ree's original recipe. Personally, I'd like to try the lemon one with some blueberries sprinkled on top of the lemon layer, and maybe a dash of cinnamon in the crumbs.

  • 1-⅓ cup All-purpose Flour
  • ½ teaspoons Salt
  • 1 teaspoon Baking Powder
  • 1 stick (1/2 Cup) Butter, Slightly Softened
  • 1 cup Brown Sugar (lightly Packed)
  • 1 cup Oats
  • 1  ½ cup shredded Sweetened Coconut for crumbs, plus more for sprinkling
  • 1 can (14 Ounce) Sweetened Condensed Milk
  • ½ cups Key Lime Juice
  • Zest Of 1 Lime
Preparation Instructions

2. Mix butter and brown sugar until well combined. 

3. Add oats and coconut to the butter mixture and combine

4. Sift the flour, salt and baking powder together into the butter/sugar mixture and mix to combine. 

5. Press half of crumb mixture into the bottom of an 8 x 12 inch pan (or 8X11, 9X13, etc).

6. Mix together condensed milk, lemon juice, and lemon zest. Spread onto the bottom layer of the crumb mixture. 

7. Top with the other half of the crumb mixture, but don’t press.

8. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until golden brown. 

9. Allow pan to sit on counter for 30 minutes after baking. Cut into squares and refrigerate for a couple of hours or until cool.

Serve cool.


Coconut and rum cake

Now THIS is a fucking brilliant cake. I made a Nigella chocolate cake the other day and wasn't that impressed. All that ganache and stuff. Eugh. Didn't like it.

This, on the other hand, is absolutely wonderful. Light, crumbly, moist, coconutty. I can't recommend it highly enough. It's also an absolute cinch to make, as long as you've got a food processor or an electric hand whisk.

The recipe is from The New Penguin Cookery Book by Jill Norman, which along with Delia's Complete Cookery Course, is a real must for the novice/amateur cook.

So here we go:

200g butter
200g sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 eggs
75g cornflour
150g plain flour
3 tsp baking powder
100g dessicated coconut
2 tbs rum

1 Heat the oven to 180C and grease your cake tin. You'll need a normal-sized one (don't roll your eyes, you know what I mean. Not a massive one and not a tiny loaf tin, okay?)

2 Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and whisk with a hand whisk, or power round with a food processor for about 2 mins.

3 Turn the mixture out into your tin and bake for 1 hour. I know, seems a rather long time, but that's how long it takes.

4 For a very lovely, boozy icing, combine icing sugar with rum instead of water and pour over

Spiced pork belly

This is a nice thing to do with pork belly, as it can be quite rich and the spiciness of the coating cuts through the fat and the gloop and is really quite delicious.
So, get a boned piece of pork belly with the skin scored (again, you might have to venture to a butcher for this - but probably only the butcher counter at Waitrose).

Make up a spiced paste that consists of:
1 2cm piece of ginger
2 cloves garlic
3 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1 teaspoon of dried red chilli flakes (or more if you like it really spicy)
1 tablespoon honey

Chop roughly and then pound to a pulp in a pestle and mortar, or grind the whole thing up in a processfor for a bit. Put the pork skin-side up in a roasting tin and spread with the paste.

I bunged my bit of belly in the oven at 220C for 20 mins and then at 180C for 50 minutes with ten minutes' rest. If I hadn't had the paste on the top, which I didn't want to burn the shit out of, I'd have roasted it full pelt for maybe 30 minutes and then rested for 20 or something.

We had this with stir-fried long-stemmed brocolli, tossed with oyster sauce and it was a pretty cheerful protein-and-greens dinner.

Lamb sweetbreads

Continuing my occasional series on offal, today I'd like to talk about sweetbreads. Lamb sweetbreads in particular. These are the pancreas (I think) of a lamb and if you fry them and serve them with a parsely salad, I think you'll be very happy.

But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself, because first you actually have to get hold of some sweetbreads, which isn't that easy. They don't, alas, do them in Waitrose, so if you want some you have to haul ass to a butcher. But they may very well not have any either, so you'll have to ring ahead and check.

I got mine, purely by chance, from Frank Godfrey, a butcher with two shops in North London I went in for something else and they had sweetbreads on special, so I got some because they are Giles' absolute favourite. They do them at Tom Pemberton's place, Hereford Road and they are delish.

Once you have tracked down and purchased your sweetbreads, it's all quite easy. They have to be poached and skinned before frying, which I must say isn't an especially lovely job - it's for pretty hardcore animal-lovers only who are so pleased to be eating in such a nose-to-tail way that they can feel only love and gratitude for the piece of animal before them. Me? I just felt a bit queasy and Giles had to do it.

Anyway, you do this by washing and then placing the sweetbreads in some fresh unsalted water, bringing to the boil and simmering for 5 minutes only. Drain the sweetbreads and leave to cool - or at least cool enough to handle.

Then go over the sweetbreads, pulling off bits of grossness, grisle, connective tissue and all that other stuff. You can remove the thin membrane that covers the whole thing if you like, or leave it on. Hugh F-W recommends leaving it on but to be honest I can't really see what difference it makes.

If you encounter an especially large sweetbread you can cut it in half to cook.

This is what they look like raw and skinned. They smell faintly of fish. But don't let any of this put you off. Cooked, they are creamy and interesting and luscious.

There are a number of ways of cooking sweetbreads, but the way we did it was to coat the meat in heavily seasoned flour (just salt and pepper) and fry it for about 4-5 minutes in very hot oil until golden and crispy.

We ate it with a parsley salad that consisted of:

1 large bunch parsley

1/2 shallot, finely chopped


lemon juice

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Thumbprint Cookies (Strawberry Rhubarb and Raspberry)

Last month, my cousin Jennifer brought cookies to my house, delightful little thumbprint cookies. They were perfect, with their jeweled colors and melt-in-your-mouth buttery goodness. But do you know what made them extraordinary? My husband loved them. My husband, who is indifferent to almost all baked goods known to man, not only ate them, but pronounced them his favorite cookie of all time.


That was that, as they say. I've never had any desire to make fruit thumbprints before (I inevitably lean towards cookies filled with chocolate etc), but I immediately requested the recipe from my cousin, so I could take a look at it. A little searching turned up the fact that this recipe originally came from the book Williams-Sonoma Collection: Cookies, under the moniker of "Ruby Jewels."

The recipe itself is very simple to put together, with one brief spell in the refrigerator. The cookie dough is close to a basic shortbread dough, meaning that it has a 1:2:3 ratio of sugar to butter to flour and no leavening agent. Incidentally shortbread gets its name from one of the original meanings of the word "short" -- crumbly. To "shorten" literally used to mean to make something crumbly, which is why we now call any fat that can be used to make a crumbly texture "shortening." Shortcake (as in strawberry, etc) is almost exactly like shortbread, except with a leavening agent, and potentially with vegetable shortening replacing some or all of the butter.

A brief word about jam choices. My cousin made these cookies with Smucker's Seedless Red Raspberry jam. I used the same, but I also wanted to try some different flavors. I really had my heart set on strawberry rhubarb, because I love strawberry rhubarb pie in the summer, but the rhubarb season is so darn short. When I tasted my cousin's cookies for the first time, I thought how perfect it would be to capture that flavor in a cookie that could be enjoyed all year round. There are several recipes out there for homemade strawberry rhubarb jam, but I admit, I was intimidated. Luckily, I found what I was looking for in the mall of all places, at Harry and David's. They carry a strawberry rhubarb conserve which is available all year. It has chunks of fruit in it, but they can be reduced with a few seconds in the food processor if you want (or you can do what I did and just scoop the jam out from between the fruit bits). If you have a store in your local mall, check them out. Besides the strawberry rhubarb, there were a few other jam varieties in there that I had my eye on for future cookie-making, including: bing cherry, marionberry, blackberry, and blueberry. There are also some lovely apple and pumpkin butters that might be good for the autumn, I'll be looking into those in a few months.

I only took one picture, of the finished cookie, but believe me, they are easy. I used a spoon instead of my thumb to make the indentations because I found that this way produces a well with higher walls, and I lose less filling during baking.

The dark filling is raspberry, the lighter one is strawberry rhubarb.

1 C cold sweet butter, cut into pieces
2/3 C granulated sugar
2 1/4 C AP flour
2 egg yolks
1 tsp vanilla
fruit jam 

 * This recipe can be made entirely in a food processor, or with a stand mixer and paddle. I used the mixer because I didn't feel like cleaning my food processor. They came out great, so don't worry if you don't have a processor.*
  1. Preheat oven to 350°F
  2. In a small bowl, whisk the egg yolks and vanilla together, set aside.
  3. Combine the flour and granulated sugar in a mixer with the paddle attachment or in a food processor/mixer and process just to blend. For Mixer: Sprinkle the butter onto the flour/sugar mixture and mix on medium until the mixture looks crumbly, this won't take long. Add in the egg mixture and mix until the dough pulls away from the side of the bowl. For Processor: With the machine running, add the butter 2-3 pieces at a time and process until the mixture looks crumbly. With the machine still running, add the egg yolk mixture and process until blended and the dough begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl.
  4. Refrigerate until chilled, about 30 minutes. I leave it in the bowl and cover the top with saran wrap.
  5. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper.
  6. Using a #60 scoop, scoop out dough and roll it into a ball with your hands. Place dough balls on the sheet.
  7. Flour the back of a 1/2 tsp measuring spoon (you will have to keep reapplying the flour), and push the back of the spoon into the cookie until the dough is pushed up even with the rim of the spoon. Be careful not to push all the way through. The cookies will crack a little bit, which isn't tragic as long as the walls of the imprint are intact -- otherwise the filling will run out while baking. If they crack too much, repair as best you can, or re-roll the cookie and try again.
  8. Using a spoon or a pastry bag fitted with a plain tip, fill each indentation with about ¼ teaspoon jam.
  9. Bake the cookies until the edges are golden, 15-20 minutes.
  10. Let the cookies cool completely before transferring the cooled cookies to wire racks.
I had the fleeting thought that a dab of peanut butter underneath the jam would be perfection. My husband insists that this is over the top, but I think I will try it anyway...

    Monday, 29 March 2010

    Baba Ga-who?

    I've started thinking that cooking is a bit like getting dressed. You CAN just wear a pair of jeans with a white t-shirt and some flip flops. Or you can wear a pair of jeans and a white t-shirt and some Christian Louboutins. OR you can wear jeans, white t-shirt, Louboutins, massive necklace, sunglasses and, like, a Kelly bag or something.

    But that doesn't mean to say that you looked any the less fabulous in your plain jeans and t-shirt outift. It looks good, it's simple and it basically sends the same message.

    I take this approach in the kitchen quite often these days. If I'm making something and I don't have all the ingredients specified in a recipe I just sort of gloss over it and make a more basic version of whatever the recipe is suggesting. Similarly, if I'm making something and I happen to have a jar of kaffir lime leaves, an avocado, or some sour cream hanging about, whatever I'm cooking takes on a more spruced-up, Louboutins-and-Kelly-bag attitude.

    And so it went last night while making baba ganoush, which as you all know perfectly well is a mediterranean aubergine dip made with mashed grilled aubergines and tahini. But I didn't have any tahini. So I stood there looking at this damned aubergine that had been sitting in my larder for ages and needed to be eaten *somehow* and thought "Maybe I ought to just to a jeans and white t-shirt thing with this".

    The resulting dip was so unbelievably delicious, although again apologies for horrible-looking photo - that I urge you to make it very soon, as soon as the sun comes out again.
    Yes, okay, salting aubergines is boring but it's not labour-intensive and it's worth it.
    1 aubergine makes more than enough dip for 2 people. I've split the ingredients up into things that are essential for this dip - the jeans and white t-shirt, if you like - and the added extras that will turn heads.

    Jeans and t-shirt
    1 aubergine
    2 glugs olive oil
    lemon juice

    Jeans, t-shirt and Louboutins
    1 tablespoon yoghurt
    1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

    Jeans, t-shirt, Louboutins and Kelly bag
    garlic clove
    small bunch parsley
    small bunch mint

    1 So, you've got to salt your aubergines now - bad luck. I cut mine into rounds, but you can cut them lengthways if you like. Sprinkle both cut sides with salt, sandwich them between 2 chopping boards and then pile a few heavy cookbooks on top of the boards. Leave them for as long as you like, minimum 35 minutes.

    2 Now grill your aubergines. I fried mine on a griddle, but you can also stick them under a grill. It should take about 20 minutes for them to be soft all the way through and burnt and sticky on the outside.

    3 The recipe I was working to said to take the skins off but this was too fiddly, so I just chucked them in, skins and all, to a food processor with all the rest of the ingredients. If you do it, you may find that you need to add more or less of certain ingredients depending on how much you like paprika and raw garlic.

    Not strictly baba ganoush, but totally great. And, hey - if Patricia Field taught us anything, it's that there are no rules in fashion.

    Wednesday, 24 March 2010

    Mushroom quinoa with goat's cheese

    At a loss of what to make for lunch, I had to resort to re-creating a thing I had last night, which was mushrooms with melted goat's cheese on top. Anyway, it worked out quite well, with the addition of some quinoa to bolster it all up a bit. I didn't use garlic for this recipe because I didn't feel like eating it, but you can if you like. Sorry, crap photo again (although my manicure looks pretty good) but it was v tasty.

    So, for one robust, practically carb-free lunch you will need:

    1 handful of interesting mushrooms (I used shitake), roughly chopped

    1 bunch parsley

    1 shallot, chopped


    a round of goat's cheese

    about 40g quinoa

    1 Boil up the quinoa in some salted water for 15 minutes

    2 melt a knob of butter in a frying pan and cook the shallot gently for about 10 minutes, then add the mushrooms and cook until soft

    3 drain the quinoa and throw in with the mushrooms. Snip or chop in some parsley and stir round. Season.

    4 Turn it out in to a small gratin dish and place disks of goat's cheese on top. I cut mine too thin and they dissolved in a boring way. I reckon you should aim for disks about 1 cm thick.

    5 Slide under a very hot grill until the cheese is bubbling

    Home alone

    Giles has gone skiing until Sunday and I'm in the house all by myself. Actually, he hasn't gone skiing because he doesn't like skiing, he's just gone with some people to Switzerland who are skiing and he's vowing to stay inside and read books. But he also took some emergency ski kit with him. No, I don't understand either.

    It's always the way when Giles goes anywhere: I rather look forward to having the place to myself without his constant clattering, singing, shouting, cackling and raging, conducting his professional feuds and world-domination strategies in his massive office next door, fielding phone calls and hammering away at his laptop, which always sounds, when he is in full-cry, like a troop of teenaged boys galloping down the stairs.

    He leaves the house after consulting me eight times about every single thing he's packing "Are you sure? Are you sure the red socks and not the striped ones? Sure? They're going in... Sure?" and looking briefly miserable on the doorstep. After I close the door I punch the air and shout "YES" and vow to leave the bed unmade, do no washing up, watch Judge Judy all day and drink the kind of cheap white wine that burns holes through carpet.

    Within an hour I'm a gibbering wreck, wide-eyed at my spooky, silent house and jumping at small noises.

    And I don't don't know what the hell to eat. Working withing Giles' strict things-we-can-and-can't-eat thing means a trip to Waitrose is a logistical assault. Nothing non-organic, basically no fish at all because it's all endangered, nothing processed, nothing from abroad. It's why we're constantly eating roast chicken. Sometimes I think to myself "Gosh, wouldn't it be easy to go shopping if I didn't have to cook for Giles and all his arseholish ways" but then I GO to Waitrose as I did just now and I can't find, or think of, anything that I might want to eat. Not one thing.

    So I'm going to make a chocolate cake instead. Definitely something I can't do with him around.

    Last night

    I sat open-mouthed through the whole of The Delicious Miss Dahl last night. I think she's lovely and she's only trying to have a career for God's sake - but was any of that show her idea? Was all that stuff about the mozzarella and saying "luscious" every ten seconds and that Fifties frock and all that really, really what she's like? If so, then I guess that's all just fine.

    But I suspect from the way that she giggled in a slightly embarrassed way after delivering some of the more risque lines that there was a producer off screen going "Sorry, sorry - this is supposed to be a SELFISH day. Can you say selfish and indulgent a bit more, please? Thanks."

    I don't know, there was just something a bit contrived about it, like telly people can't fathom that you could just have a show called "Cooking with Sophie" where she makes some stuff and says "This is quite nice for breakfast." It has to be a massive themed performance, like a giant fancy-dress birthday party with clowns and a bouncy castle and a present table, rather than just jammy dodgers and crisps and a run round the garden.

    And the worst thing about it was that she doesn't know how to pronounce "bruschetta", which just made me feel sad.

    Tuesday, 23 March 2010

    Rack of lamb (WITHOUT a herb crust)

    When did it suddenly become mandatory to add a herb crust to a rack of lamb? You don't seem to be able to order one in a restaurant, or go round to someone's house for dinner (usually a single man who rather fancies himself as a chef) without encountering a rack of lamb with a herb crust.

    And I, too, was about to reach for my blender in order to whizz up some parsley, mint, garlic, breadcrumbs and whatever the hell else there is to a herb crust on Sunday when we were cooking a rack of lamb. But then I was struck with the very clear sensation that this was peer pressure, pure and simple.

    So, feeling very defiant I - (and when I say I, I mean Giles) - just roasted a seasoned rack of lamb, a snip at £34,000 from the farmer's market, in a 220C oven on a bed of rosemary and lemon for about 10 minutes, 10 minutes at 180C and then 10 minutes' rest. Giles says that if he was going to do it again he'd lightly brown it first. But there was nothing wrong with it.

    We had with it baked leeks, which were very easy. I parboiled some leeks for 5 minutes in salted water and then put them in a gratin dish, poured over a modest amount of extra thick single cream and a lot of grated gruyere and baked in a 180C oven for 25 minutes. They don't look very nice in the photo but they were great.

    Then we ate it dancing around the kitchen a bit to Cheryl Cole, who'd come on the radio. And when I say we, I mean I.

    Monday, 22 March 2010

    How to talk to a butcher

    Marrow bone and parsley salad

    This is the kind of thing that I would never in a million years cook if it weren't for Giles and his not-scared-of-anything eating. It's a recipe from Fergus Henderson's seminal cookbook Nose to Tail Eating, which was published in a tiny print run in 1999.

    It's a perfectly terrifying cookbook, advising on how to cook brains and brawn and pig's heads and other parts of animals you'd previously thought were totally un-eatable. Its saving grace for the amateur cook is how charmingly its written; you can tell that Fergus is a nice guy and just wants for you to do well and live a long and happy life. His exortation in his recipe for boiled gammon and carrots with parsley sauce that the sauce must be served in a jug so that guests can "express themselves" is an editorial tick that has entered into our daily cannon.

    Anyway, on Saturday we went to the vastly overpriced farmer's market near us and found a butcher who was selling marrowbones for about tuppence each. (Butchers often throw them out, or give them to people to feed to their dogs, but don't let that put you off. You might be able to pick some up for free if you're more charming and brave than I am.)

    We took them home and roasted them in a slightly too-hot oven for about 20 minutes. If you do this, I would advise you set your oven to about 200C and fashion little foil cups to sit the bottom of the bone in because otherwise stuff leaks out everywhere, which is a shame. Depending on the size of the marrow bone, people can eat three or four little ones and two or three big ones. You can tell the marrow bone is ready because the marrow will be sort of bouncy and slightly melted but hasn't entirely disappeared.

    You serve these roasted bones with toasted sourdough and also a parsley salad, which goes like this:

    1 large handful/bunch parsley, roughly chopped

    small handful capers, chopped or not, up to you

    half a shallot, chopped

    You then dress this salad with a large squeeze of lemon and a splash of olive oil. The idea is to spread the toast with some marrow, top it with parsley and eat.

    This isn't a meal, obviously, for anyone frightened of salt or fat as it's very greasy and an overindulgence can quickly make you feel queasy. But it IS delicious, modern and economical. And, I daresay, gives you a very shiny coat.

    Duck and beetroot

    Sometimes I surprise myself with the recipes I decide look nice. For example, this roast duck and beetroot thingy, which I picked out of Waitrose Food Illustrated the other day and tried out on Saturday, looks totally weird (doesn't help that I've put it on a black dish... should have used a white one to show up the colour). But something about it appealead to me. Often I think I'm lacking a vitamin supplied by an ingredient in the recipe. For a whole year, I went crazy for any recipe with eggs in it and I'm convinced it was because I was starved of B12.

    Anyway, this is a Gordon Ramsay recipe, although these days I think when things are said to be by Gordon Ramsay they've actually been rustled up by an ambitious sous-chef and given the okay by GR via an iPhone video link.

    But whoever made it up, this is jolly easy but looks pretty amazing. The sauce with the beetroot is quite sweet. Either just go with it, or reduce the sugar by a third.

    For 4

    800g beetroot, trimmed and peeled
    100g butter
    150g soft brown sugar
    150ml sherry vinegar
    75g sultanas (I didn't have any, so didn't use them)
    4 duck breasts with skins on. All duck recipes make a huge song and dance about Gressingham duck, but Waitrose only have them smothered in all kinds of digusting sauces so I just used normal free range duck.

    1 Cut the beetroot into thin slices. Melt the butter with the sugar and vinegar in a pan. When the sugar has dissolved, add the beetroot and toss to coat. Season then cover with crumpled piece of greaseproof paper. Simmer gently for 45 minutes.

    2 Stir in the sultanas if using and cook for another 10-15 minutes, until the beetroot is just tender (which, with beetroot, means a bit of bite still left). If you want the sauce really syrupy, remove the beetroot and boil the liquid until it's like chocolate sauce.

    3 Score the skin of the duck breasts with a sharp knife in a criss-cross pattern and season. Place skin-side down in a dry frying pan and cook gently for 8 minutes. Don't be tempted to use a non-stick frying pan because the skins won't go as crispy. Turn up the heat after the initial 8 minutes to give the skin a chance to really crisp up.

    The duck breasts will stick like glue to the bottom of the pan. This is annoying, but all it means is that you have to take a slim fish slice and really get under the breasts to separate them from the bottom of the pan. If you're genuinely spooked by stuff like this you could, before you put the breasts into the pan, brush the skins with the MEREST HINT of oil. And really, I mean a tiny cat's lick.

    After you flip the breasts, the recipe says to cook for another 3 minutes. This 8 min + 3 min cooking time doesn't give especially rare meat. If you want it rarer, I'd say cook for 6 + 2 mins. I guess commercial recipes don't want to recommend rare cooking times because they don't want to be accused of poisoning people.

    4 Spoon the beetroot and cooking juices into the centre of a plate or onto a large serving dish. Slice the breasts up quite thick and arrange them over the top.

    Friday, 19 March 2010

    White sauce - experienced cooks look away

    It took me years to master a white sauce. I was shown at an early age by my mother how to do it, but when trying to replicate it, it always went horribly wrong. Lumpy, floury and gross.

    My mother, in her haste to make food for 4 children, while repairing a wall that had fallen down in the middle of the night and fixing the car, had left out two quite important steps when she was talking me through it, which I later discovered when reading a cookbook. Can't remember which.

    So here we go, this is a white sauce. I'm not including exact amounts, because they don't really matter. The important thing is that you get the hang of the method and the idea.

    Take a knob of butter, approximately 50g and melt it gently in a pan

    Now take the pan off the heat (this is very important) and sprinkle over a tablespoon of flour. Stir in with a wooden spooon until there are no lumps. Add flour bit by bit until you have made a sort of butter-and-flour paste. Stop when it is still on the creamy side, rather than stiff and dry.

    Now add about two glugs of milk and with a wooden spoon or whisk (still with the pan off the heat) mess it about until it seems more or less mixed in. A couple of little lumps don't matter.

    Put the pan back on the heat and pour in the rest of the milk - eg. probably about 3/4 of a pint if you were doing a macaroni cheese for about 4-6 people.

    Heat it all over a medium flame, stirring often with a whisk or a wooden spoon - or a combination of both. About three or four minutes into this, you ought to find that the sauce starts to thicken. At this point you can add cheese if you are making a cheese sauce. Either way, throw in a pinch of salt and a few twists of pepper.

    After the sauce has thickened and you've added your extra ingredients cook the sauce for a bit - maybe 4 or 5 minutes or even more - over the lowest flame you've got, stirring all the time. This extra bit of cooking is what prevents the sauce from forming that horrible grainy floury texture that happens so often.

    If you wander off for a minute and then come back and it's formed a skin, don't worry, just stir this all in. If for some reason your sauce turns out much more thick than you wanted it, you can add more milk.

    And that ought to be that.

    Thursday, 18 March 2010

    Flexible gratin

    So I made it to Waitrose in the end and actually had a pretty nice time. I stopped to look at a cookbook I always see there, which is called "Do-Ahead Dishes for the Dinner Party Diva" or something. I had always thought it looked like my least favourite kind of cookbook - swirly cartoon drawings of stick-thin women on the front and then crappy boring recipes for roast chicken and salad dressings on the inside.

    But actually, it was quite good. I flicked through and happened to land on a recipe for Pork and Ginger potstickers, which sound from the description like little Chinese dumpling things, which I've always been curious about. So, to hell with it, I thought - this book can't be that bad and I tossed it into my trolley.

    Anyway, back to lunch. I decided to make a gratin. I love making gratins because they are a way of eating a meal consisting of mostly vegetables without wanting to hang yourself. I'm not one of those girls who thinks that fat and dairy are bad for you. I eat no processed food, nor do I often eat meals where carbohydrate is the focus (pasta, baked potato, rice), so I feel blithely entitled to cover everything I do eat in cream and cheese, fat and salt.

    This particular gratin was a variation of one in Nigel Slater's Tender. He describes it as being a white cabbage gratin with cheese and mustard, although he then forgets to include the mustard in the recipe or the method. But it's okay, I forgave him. I'm not so mojo-less that I can't add a bit of mustard to a damned white sauce.

    My take on Nigel's gratin was white cabbage based, but also included spinach, mushrooms and a lot of chopped up left over roast chicken covered with a pecorino/parmesan cheese sauce and topped off with two generous handfuls of breadcrumbs.

    So, here we go:
    1 pointed cabbage
    6 chestnut mushrooms, chopped
    2 large handfuls of spinach
    chopped up leftover roast chicken (or anything if you have it and not if not)
    pecorino and parmesan
    salt and pepper
    2 large handfuls breadcrumbs
    enough white sauce to cover the lot. Have we talked about white sauce? I kind of assume that if I can make it, anyone can - but if you can't, just shout.

    1 - Boil the cabbage for 2 mins in salted water
    2 - melt some butter in a pan and briskly toss round the chopped mushrooms and spinach until wilted but not totally surrendered
    2- Make up a white sauce, using about 300ml of milk and then throw in a very large handful of chopped or grated pecorino and two large pinches of parmesan, salt, pepper and some cream if you've got it
    3 - Add a level teaspoon of dijon mustard and stir until the cheese has melted
    4 - spread the cabbage out on the bottom of a gratin dish, then arrange over that the spinach and mushrooms, then over that the chicken if using, then the white sauce and finally the breadcrumbs.
    5 - shove in a 180C oven for 20-25 mins

    Cooking fatigue

    Ok, I lied. I AM bored with writing this blog. Or, rather, I'm bored with cooking. Bored as hell. I think it might be because I had a couple of things go wrong and there's nothing more dispiriting than failure. I've simply lost my mojo.

    I think this is might be what they call cooking fatigue, although it's more commonly experienced by working mothers of three than by lazy freelancers who can't be bothered to go to Waitrose. It's also maybe because of my diet. I rarely find exciting recipes that conform to my diet plans that aren't things you've heard about before: quinoa, broad bean salad, ceviche. Yawn.

    Or what happens is that I decide to "make things up", which are almost always disgusting because while I'm an OK cook, I'm no kind of chef. Maybe this is it? Maybe this is the end of my cooking "journey"? Now I know that if I follow a recipe it'll probably turn out okay and I've conquered (mostly) my fear of mass catering all that's left is to sit about eating leftover roast chicken until I die.

    But before I flake out completely I scoured Waitrose Food Illustrated and today's the table, which if you don't know is the Times' new food section thing and found some food that I can be almost bothered to slop downstairs and put my apron on for:

    Barbequed squid
    Roast pork with a muscovado crust
    Lamb tagine

    All that's missing are all the ingredients. Do they sell mojo at Waitrose?

    Tuesday, 16 March 2010

    Kale with garlic and chilli

    I didn't die, or get bored with writing the blog, or drink too many hot toddies and then drive into a lampost, while aiming for Waitrose. I went to France - the South of France. To Nice where it is nice. To kvetch about the wedding in French. "Sacre bleu! La robe! La robe N'EST PAS FINI!" And also, it felt like, to eat nothing but baguettes and cheese. Although there was one cheese that was so uric that it tasted exactly like I imagine pissy knickers might taste.

    A lot of the cooking was done by my friend Julia Churchill, a brilliant home cook who really ought to be writing about cooking but she's too busy being some kind of high-powered literary agent. Fact about Julia: she once cooked a vegan lemon tart for Lou Reed.

    So I came back from France late on Sunday night and dived back into my no-booze all-greens diet. Whoopee!!

    Above is some of Monday night's supper (out of shot is a huge, meltingly roasted chicken) and what you're looking at really is the green stuff, which is kale not the carrots, although they were nice too.

    I've cooked kale before but I was doing it wrong - I'm pretty sure I just boiled it and plonked it on a plate and it was absolutely disgusting. Beyond disgusting. Giles is a huge greens freak so I grudgingly bought some more last week but was secretly hoping that it would just sit in the larder and go gross and we'd eventually throw it away. But the game was up and he insisted on cooking it last night properly.

    This meant me pinching yet another idea off Henry, who braises kale with chilli and garlic. G heated some oil in a large heavy frying pan-thing and added lots of chopped chilli and garlic. Then he added the kale (no water or anything!) and cooked it until it all sort of wilted down like spinach, for about 5-10 minutes. And then we ate it, feeling like such good little citizens and it was actually really nice. Not as good as a hot toddy, but much better than pissy French cheese.

    Thursday, 11 March 2010

    Car Bomb Cake Balls. Boom.

    It's no secret that I am obsessed with Bakerella's cake balls. Obsessed, I tell you. As I mentioned in a previous post, I've made many different flavors over the past two years, and each one is better than the last (looking forward a few weeks, the carrot cake balls I mentioned at the bottom of the previous post would be great for Easter...just sayin'). I love them because they are delicious. I love them because they are easy. I love them because wherever I bring them, they are a hit.

    So I decided to give them a St. Patrick's Day twist. Using this guy:

    Last year on St. Patrick's Day, besides Irish Soda Bread, I rolled out Guinness Cake for the very first time, and it was fabulous. Dark, intense, chocolatey and yet Guinness-y, it had it all. And this year, I decided to use it as the foundation of brand-new cake balls. But not just Guinness cake balls. What I really craved were Car Bomb cake balls!

    Say hello to my little friend.

    A car bomb in cake form was too tempting an idea not to give it a whirl. But this juxtaposition of chocolate, Guinness and Bailey's presented its own unique set of issues, and I actually ended up spending a fair amount of time planning the logistics of making these cake balls, because there are so many options at every step. The most important thing to me was trying to make sure that the flavors blended, not competed, with each other, and avoiding one single flavor overpowering the others.

    There are 4 main steps during this process where creative decisions have to be made: the cake, the beer, the Bailey's, and the icing.

    The Cake

    Cake balls always start with the baking of a cake, just like any other cake you might make. I normally do this in a 9"x13" pan because it is easiest, but it honestly doesn't matter. For these balls, I had two options: the Guinness Cake from scratch that I've made in the past; or a modified cake mix. The from-scratch cake is fabulous, and I have no doubt it would make excellent cake balls...but I opted for the latter. I did this partly because I was leaving open the possibility of having to redo them if decisions I made at later steps didn't work out well, so I wanted to start with a cake that came together quickly. But I also used a mix because, to me at least, part of the spirit of the cake balls is that they are easy to make, and require little more than a boxed cake mix and a tub of icing (and in this case, a trip to the liquor store).

    So, the take-home message: if you want to make the cake from scratch, it definitely is worth the work if you have the time, and I'll paste relevant links and recipes at the bottom of this post. But if you want a quick, easy, and still yummy Guinness cake, here's what you do: get a chocolate cake boxed mix (something dark like Devil's Food), and just replace the water in the recipe for Guinness. It'll be almost (but not quite) a full bottle of beer. And that's it. You just bake it up like any other cake, and let it cool. Easy, huh?

    The Beer

    You might have noticed that in the above pictures, I am using the Guinness Extra Stout. However, when I made the from-scratch Guinness Cake, I used regular Guinness. If you want to use regular Guinness with the cake mix, you certainly can, and I'm sure it will be delicious. I chose to use the Extra Stout however, because I was looking for a sharper flavor that wouldn't be overpowered by the Bailey's. And, I think they turned out well, but you can use either one to make cake balls. But, and this is an important "but", if you are making either type of Guinness cake, and keeping it as an ordinary cake and/or cupcakes (in other words, no balls), I wouldn't use the Extra Stout. The cake will have a bitter aftertaste on its own, and it will need the icing mashed directly into it to counteract the bitterness. I almost pitched the plain cake when I taste tested it, but I decided to keep going. And I'm glad I did, because I think the Extra Stout flavor was just right for the cake balls, because then you can taste notes of every flavor. But trust me, if you're just after a cake to be sliced up and eaten, use regular Guinness.

    The Bailey's and the Icing

    Although Jameson's is traditionally a part of Irish Car Bombs, I don't personally like whiskey, so I chose not to include it in the cake balls. I also didn't want to try to pack too many different flavors into the little guys. But everything I talk about can be applied to a Bailey's/whiskey mixture if you wish.

    The main question is, how do you add the Bailey's flavor? Do you combine it into the cake and make homogenized balls, or do you layer it on? And if you layer it on, then what flavor icing do you mix the actual cake with? My mind jumped back and forth between all the possibilities: combining the cake with the cream cheese icing I originally made and rolling each ball into a Bailey's chocolate ganache first before dipping it in chocolate; or whipping up the Bailey's ganache into a frosting and using that to combine with the cake; or making a Bailey's buttercream for the frosting; or just dumping straight Bailey's directly into a cake/frosting see what I mean, there are so many ways you could combine the flavors, and I'm sure each one would be uniquely delicious.

    Me, I decided why break away from traditional cake ball methodology? I wanted to try and make this concept work as simply as possible. So I added Bailey's directly to the cake and used the Betty Crocker buttercream icing. I would normally choose the cream cheese icing, but I wanted something slightly sweeter to counteract any remaining bitterness in the cake. However, I do think that the Betty Crocker cream cheese icing or vanilla icing would also work great, it really comes down to your personal preference. 

    These will turn out great no matter what!

    The Nutshell

    So, in a nutshell, after all that decision-making, this is how you made the Car Bomb cake balls:

    1. Bake a Guinness cake -- -- either by the recipe below or by substituting Guinness for the water in a Devil's food cake mix, and follow the rest of the directions on the box.
    2.  Let the cake cool completely. You can even freeze it if you are going to roll and dip the balls on a different day. In fact, I've found that the balls are much easier to form if the cake is cold.

    3. Add a little less than half of the tub of icing to the cake and mix it in thoroughly. You can do this by a mixer or by hand. Then add the entire contents of a 50ml bottle of Bailey's into the mixture and combine. At this point, you need to see the consistency of the mixture. Ordinary cake balls use an entire tub of icing, but adding Bailey's changes this because an entire tub of icing on top of the liquor would be too loose. Add additional icing in dollops until the mixture seems to be coming together into something firm enough to hold a ball shape. I think I ended up using around 3/4 of the tub by the time I was done.

    4. Chill the balls in the freezer for about 30 minutes.

    5. Melt some chocolate or candy coating in the microwave for dipping. I normally thin it out with a little shortening, just a cap-full or so (I chose vanilla candy wafers for purely aesthetic reasons, the white on top of the dark looks like a pint of Guinness to me). Dip the balls into the chocolate, and wait for them to set up. If they are nice and chilled, it won't take too long.

    6. If you want, drizzle some additional chocolate on the top in a decorative manner. I usually melt candy wafer (with slightly less shortening) and put it in a ziplock bag, snipping a tiny bit off of one corner. I use it like a decorator's bag, and chuck it when I am done. No mess, no clean-up of decorator's tips -- easy. For these balls, I used white for the drizzle because I had my whole Guinness color scheme going on, but normally I drizzle on a contrasting color. It really helps distract the eye from imperfections in the dipping, trust me. I'm a horrible dipper, but drizzle on some decorations, and the cake balls look great!

    Remember, almost every step of this process is fungible, and there are tons of variations. I even toyed with the idea of injecting each ball with a Bailey's and Whiskey ganache -- I think I might try that next time, a cake ball version of Smitten Kitchen's amazing looking cupcakes. Actually, I'd love to try the cupcakes themselves sometime. 

    As promised, I have recipes and links for the from-scratch cake, and also a ganache and buttercream recipe, if you decide to go that route or customize your own cake and/or cake balls!

    From-Scratch Guinness Cake (tweaked from this Food Network recipe)
    3/4 C cocoa (recipe called for unsweeteded, all I had was dark and it worked fine)
    2 C sugar
    2 C flour
    1 tsp baking soda
    pinch of salt
    1 stick of butter, melted
    1 bottle of Guinness or other stout beer
    1 tbls vanilla
    3 eggs

    1. Preheat oven to 350F
    2. Combine all dry ingredients in a medium bowl (I hardly ever do this when it is directed, but I'm glad I did this today, because the cocoa had lumps. You could also sift the dry ingredients directly into the combined wet ingredients if you want)
    3. Combine beer, butter and vanilla in a separate bowl
    4. Beat in the eggs one at a time, then add the sour cream
    5. Gradually add the dry ingredients, mixing to remove any lumps
    6. Put in a 9"X13" pan (sprayed with butter spray) and bake for 30-35 minutes, until a toothpick in the center comes out clean
    7. Cool completely

    Bailey's Ganache (for rolling or use as frosting, this is a thick ganache)
    8 oz bittersweet chocolate chips
    1/2 cup heavy cream
    1 tbls Bailey's
    1.  Heat cream in a saucepan until almost boiling, then pour over chocolate in a heat-resistant bowl
    2.  Stir until the chocolate melts. Let cool for 10 minutes in the fridge (stirring occasionally), and then whisk in the Bailey's
    3. If you are going to roll balls in the ganache, you can do so at this point
    4. If you are going to use ganache as the frosting, put it into a mixing bowl, and mix it (with the whisk attachment if you have it, although the paddle will do) on medium until fluffy. Then mix it into the cake until the mixture is the proper consistency for making the balls.
    Bailey's and/or Jameson's Ganache (for filling, this is a thinner ganache, adapted from Smitten Kitchen)
    8 ounces bittersweet chocolate
    2/3 cup heavy cream
    2 tbls butter, room temperature
    2 tsp Irish whiskey and/or Bailey's (if you are using both liqours, either use one of each, or one of Jameson's and two of Bailey's) 
    1.  Heat cream in a saucepan until almost boiling, then pour over chocolate in a heat-resistant bowl
    2.  Stir until the chocolate melts. Add in the butter and whiskey. Let cool for about 10 minutes (stir occasionally), and then whisk in the Bailey's.
    3.  You need some special equipment for this because if you want to actually fill the balls, you need to inject them. The best thing would be a heat-resistant metal baster with the injection tip that you can thread on the end, because the ganache has to be warm enough to still be liquified. If you were filling cupcakes, you would cool it until much thicker, as per Smitten Kitchen's original directions. Fill the baster with the ganache and attach the injector tip. Plunge the tip in to the center of each undipped cake ball, squeeze out some ganache, and repeat. The you can dip the cake balls.

    Please note that if you use either of the above ganaches,  the cake balls must be stored in the refrigerator!

    Bailey's Buttercream Icing (Smitten Kitchen)
    3 to 4 cups confections sugar
    1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperatue
    3 to 4 tablespoons Baileys 
    1. Whip the butter in the mixer for a few minutes, until nice and fluffy
    2. Slowly add the sugar.  I mean really slowly, a few tablespoons at a time -- you will need less sugar this way, and the finished product will be far less grainy than the average quick buttercream frosting. Thanks for the tip, Smitten Kitchen!!
    3. When it looks spreadable, add the Bailey's. Then you can combine with the cake to make the cake balls, but add it in dollops an combine, so the mixture doesn't get too loose!
     Happy St Patrick's Day Baking!!

    Wednesday, 10 March 2010


    I spoke too soon, now I'M ill. There'll be a hot toddy tonight, no fear. Not drinking doesn't extend to this kind of emergency.

    So, last night, I had a disaster of epic proportions, involving over-salting a thai pork thing to such a degree that even Giles, the salt monster himself, half-man, half salt-lick, went "Burlagh!!" when he tasted it. What a waste. Whither my cooking mojo, damnit?

    So I approached the kitchen feeling depressed as hell at lunchtime today and stood for a long time staring at a shrink-wrapped packed of mackerel fillets (oily fish! So good for you! AND SO SCARY) and wondering whether to just end it all with my Victorinox paring knife.

    But I didn't. Instead I boiled up some quinoa and mixed it in with some baby spinach leaves, dijon mustard dressing and shredded mackerel and ate it feeling holy. As diet food goes, it's pretty hardcore. But I'm nothing if not a show-off.

    Tuesday, 9 March 2010

    March cold cure-all

    Everyone seems to be ill at the moment, except me. So I thought I'd post a reminder to everyone that the best cure for a nasty cold is a hot toddy and 12 hours in bed.

    This is how my mum used to make them for me. (That is my mum, above, in the pink Crocs).

    1 bottle whisky
    1 lemon
    1 bowl sugar
    1 hot kettle, about 5 mins off the boil
    1 mug or glass

    Stand next to the kettle and surround yourself with the ingredients. Start with a finger of whisky and half a spoonful of sugar, a squeeze of lemon and a slug of hot water.

    Mix artistically. Taste gingerly. Add ingredients as neccessary until you have something hot, sweet and lemony with a boozy kick.

    Whether or not you choose to take two painkillers of your choosing with this is entirely up to you. Obviously, I would never recommend mixing painkillers with alcohol, because it is dangerous.

    Anyway, drink this and then go to bed for 12 hours. Everyone always laughs at me and calls me a weakling when I go to bed as soon as I've got a sore throat but my great Uncle Jim always did it and he was in the army and lived until he was 100, so if it's good enough for him, it's good enough for me. And you.

    Liver and spinach

    I reckon I'm a pretty wide-ranging eater, but there are certain things I won't touch and, damnit all, I won't be judged for it.

    For example, I won't eat raw garlic, roast garlic, jerusalem artichokes, lemon puddings, aniseed or kidneys. And I'm not wild about tongue, either. And the attitude you get from people! It's as if you've announced you're a vegan. At least people probably don't give you shit for being a vegan because they assume that you've got enough problems as it is.

    A thing most people don't want to eat is offal and I absolutely defend anyone's right not to want to eat it without being labelled a white-bread eating food weakling. Offal really isn't actually that nice, most of the time. Kidney! ACK! Gag me with a spoon. It's just about tolerable cut up into minute chunks and then cooked for about three days and then put in a pie with gravy and steak and topped off with a slab of buttery pastry. Any more real than that and I break out into a sweat.

    But some offal is okay. Lamb sweetbreads: tick. Especially the way Tom Pemberton does them at Hereford Road, with some kind of parsley and barley salad thing. Calves' liver, with bacon and onions and mash (not allowed on my diet alas): tick.

    Chicken liver, turned into a pate OR cooked by Giles in a rich sauce of tomato and paprika: tick.

    The photo above doesn't really do this dish justice but it's DELICIOUS.
    And here's how he does it:

    1 packet organic chicken livers, washed and sorted for gross bits of sinew or any green bits (gall bladder! Augh!)
    1 onion, chopped
    2 cloves garlic
    1 tablespoon paprika
    about 100-150 marsala wine, or white wine. Or red wine, really
    some lemon juice
    a splash of chicken stock (if you've got it)
    2 large squeezes of tomato puree or a couple of long squeezes of tomato ketchup
    spinach or salad leaves
    some parsley if you've got it

    1 - Sweat the onions gently for about 10-15 minutes and then throw in the garlic. Cook that until you start to smell garlic and then throw in the livers.
    2 - turn up the heat a bit and cook for about 4 minutes. Then add the paprika, chicken stock, tomato puree, salt and pepper and cook for another 1 minute
    3 - pour over the wine and then turn the heat down a bit and simmer for about 4 more minutes with a lid on, stirring occasionally until the wine reduces a bit and you get a kind of tomatoey sauce.
    4 - "arrange" (i.e. plonk) some spinach leaves on a plate and then spoon over the livers and any juices left in the pan. Squeeze over some lemon juice and scatter parsley over the top.

    Instead of having a brownie afterwards, I had an apple. *SMUG*

    How not to drink

    As well as being on a diet for the wedding I'm not drinking. Well, I'm drinking LESS.

    I'm always a bit freaked out by those "Are you an alcoholic?" surveys, because whenever I do them, and answer them honestly, it always turns out that I ought to get myself to the Priory immediately. Do I drink by myself? Yes. Do I drink to forget my problems? Of course. Do I find it difficult to stop after one drink? Who doesn't? Do you scour the house in a rage for alcohol after a particularly trying day? (Ok I made that one up. But the answer is yes.)

    There are two times in my life when I've realised that I am going to end up actually an alcoholic if I didn't stop drinking immediately. There are alcoholics on both sides of my family, so I'm as "at risk" as a ming vase on the M4.

    The first one was when I was about 23 and working in a seriously lowly job and then my boyfriend ran off with another girl. Which I was doubly pissed off about because before he went out with me he was GAY - running off with a boy I could take but a girl was just beyond the pale. I would come home to my parents' house from work and sit at our kitchen table while my father, god bless him, would pour red wine down my throat until I passed out. I must say, it worked, because I didn't feel nearly so much like killing myself when I was drunk.

    In fact, I wrote 40,000 words of a really excellent comic novel, mostly in those evenings when I was drunk. Well, I say it's excellent but the first agent I showed it to hated it and the second didn't even write back. Bastard. And the restraining order means I can't EVEN push a molotov cocktail through his damn letterbox.

    Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, then one day my parents went on holiday and I was left in the house by myself. I wasn't so crazy about cooking and shopping back then and so after three days there was no more alcohol left in the house and I RAGED around it trying to find something to drink. As I stood in the laundry, contemplating a bottle of cherry brandy, I realised I needed to stop immediately.

    The second time was when I was working as a reporter for the Londoner's Diary, which is the gossip column in the Evening Standard. I was, for weeks at a time, either drunk or hungover. When I found myself slipping out for a Bloody Mary the second the afternoon edition had been sent (back when the Standard had different editions) I thought I should stop.

    I mean, I was hardly Anne Robinson, or George Best, but you don't need to hit rock bottom to be drinking too much, or too regularly. Anyway, my point is that stopping drinking is really boring, but I learnt that it's basically all about replacing the FIRST drink of the evening. (Not a new concept, but I'm pleased with how well it works).

    If you want to have an alcohol-free evening, all you need to do is replace the first drink you would normally have of the evening with something else. The plain fact is, I'm normally just thirsty. I'm not one of those people who drinks 18 pints of water a day. I would, but I'm too busy drinking 18 cups of tea. So, my dummy evening drink is usually a virgin Mary or a plain tonic water with ice and lemon.

    My brain is so incredibly stupid that it totally thinks it has been given a little drinky and Giles' stash of Chardonnay is left untroubled. If I can just stop Giles from pounding down the stairs at 6pm, rubbing his hands together, doing a little dance and shouting "Let's have a BEER!!!" then I might even make it to the altar sober.

    Diet time

    So, I'm on a diet. I'm getting married at the end of next month and I've just realised that the reason people get really thin before they get married is because they go on a diet. I thought the weight just miraculously fell off due to stress or something.

    But no, actually you have to stop drinking and go for a run and stop eating rounds of toast covered in Nutella while you watch 12 back-to-back episodes of Judge Judy that you recorded on the V+ box. For example.

    Yesterday I went shopping and bought diet food. That is, I bought cheese and a lot of vegetables like kale and spinach and bok choi and broccoli and some artichoke hearts in a jar. And I also bought some chicken livers and chorizo. Carb-free - that's the secret to upper arms like Sandra Bullock when you're 40. I am so pleased Sandra Bullock won an Oscar. I don't know why but I just think she's nice and is probably deserves it after all her hard work in movies like 28 Days, Speed and Miss Congeniality.

    Anyway so last night I had my first diet dinner of grilled chicken thighs and a broad bean salad.

    When I was younger, I always thought that the easy thing to cook was chicken breasts, under a grill. But it turns out that they are as dry as cotton wool and boring as hell if you grill them. The things to grill are chicken thighs, which stay juicy, but they are still relatively quick to cook - about 25-30 mins under a hot grill. And a broad bean salad can be cheered up with some feta, broccoli and artichoke hearts and a lemony, salty dressing with mint and dill.

    It's still freezing outside and this is rather a summery dinner but I just don't want to eat anymore GOD DAMNED stew.
    So here we go:

    For 2

    4 chicken thighs
    two large handfuls of broad beans
    about eight small florets of broccoli
    8 or so artichoke hearts
    100g of feta, cubed
    olive oil
    lemon juice

    There are a lot of herbs here, I know - I use herbs more when I'm on a diet to liven up boring diet food and bought a lorry-load especially on Monday morning. None of them are especially compulsary, this would still be okay without them. You might also notice that I haven't included any garlic - this is because I don't eat raw garlic, but feel free to add it in to the dressing or to the chicken marinade if you do.

    1 - Turn on the grill and marinade the chicken thighs (if you've got time) in some olive oil, lemon, salt and pepper and thyme. If you're just putting the chicken straight under the grill, sprinkle a bit of salt on the skin so it goes crispy. Grill these for about 25-30 minutes and check they're done before serving. I know, stupid thing to say, but I am constantly being caught out by slightly underdone chicken. It doesn't help that often in a pack of 4 chicken thighs, 2 will be enormous and 2 will be tiny, meaning differing cooking times.

    2 - Boil the broad beans and broccoli for about 5 minutes each and drain.

    3 - Mix together the oil, lemon, salt, pepper, mint and dill in a dressing according to your taste. If you're using a very grassy olive oil, you might like to mix in some ground nut oil as well. I hate it when recipes say "according to taste" but, genuinely, you might hate mint and love lemon - or something.

    4 - Put the broccoli, beans, artichoke hearts and feta in a salad bowl, pour over dressing and toss together.

    5 - Let the chicken thighs rest for 10-15 minutes to avoid post-cooking rubberiness. You may want to squeeze over the chicken some extra lemon, as Giles is doing in the picture above.

    Monday, 8 March 2010

    How not to make hot cross buns

    So, here they are in all their burnt glory: my hot cross buns. Thanks a bunch, Delia.

    Ok fine. It's not Delia's fault, it's my fault. I've got a fan oven and I always forget to adjust the temperature down by about 10-20C to prevent the oven setting fire to whatever it is I'm baking.

    I also blithely igored her warning not to use easy-blend dried yeast, which I think may have contributed to the rather hard outer-shells of my buns. So nul points to moi.

    Despite being burnt and rock-hard, these are mega-tasty. They take about 2 hours to make and if you've got any interest in trying them out, this is a very good recipe, flavour-wise. They really do taste just like hot cross buns.

    You can find the recipe here:

    Just remember to turn the temperature down a bit if you've got a fan oven...

    Sunday, 7 March 2010

    Egg poaching for dummies

    I can't poach eggs. I just can't - it's like I can't cook rice. It just doesn't work for me. Please don't tell me that I need to make sure the eggs are really fresh or to put vinegar in the water or swirl it round and make a vortex or any of that, because I've TRIED IT and it doesn't work. I think it takes a steadier hand, or more patience, or something, but it's just not in my nature. Maybe it's because I'm a Taurus.

    So I was intrigued when I was flicking through Peter Gordon's latest cookbook, fusion, by a recipe where he poaches eggs in a little cling-film parcel. I doubt it's because he, like me, can't poach eggs, but because he's poaching them with black vinegar (I had to look this up - it's a kind of Chinese rice vinegar), truffle oil, chilli and spring onion.

    It's a pretty neat idea and it works (although the above picture is of just a plain egg poached in cling film, without the chilli and other exciting things) - kind of. I found that the 8 minutes cooking time PG recommended was a bit too long, but that, at a guess, was because my eggs weren't hot-off-the-hay-fresh.

    Anyway here is the recipe for the poached eggs, found on p. 26 of Peter Gordon's excellent and exotic book. He serves the egg as a sort of starter-thing, on a bed of parmesan mashed potato and it goes like this:
    1 egg
    1 tsp black vinegar (you can get it from Waitrose...)
    1 tsp white truffle oil
    1 spring onion, chopped
    1/2 red chilli, de-seeded and chopped

    1 - Unroll about 40 cm of clingfilm and fold it over on itself to make a double thickness. Line a teacup with the film and put in the tsp of vinegar and the truffle oil.
    2 - Scatter in some of the spring onion and chilli. Then crack in one egg.
    3 - Gather up the sides of the cling film and tie at the top with a rubber band or a freezer bag tie. Here PG is keen you should leave no air bubbles inside (I guess so that the egg doesn't just float to the top of the pan when it's poaching, although I must have left some air in because mine did this, although it didn't affect its cooking much).
    4 - Drop the egg bag into some boiling water and rapidly simmer it for 8 minutes if your egg is really fresh and a bit less if more mature. To unwrap the eggs, snip the tied-up top with some scissors if it's easier.

    This method allows you to scatter all sorts of things that don't need a lot of cooking (or actually, even cooked things, little snippets of crispy bacon?) in with the egg and then poach it altogether in a little parcel, which looks pretty cool and clever. Which, come on admit it, is what we all long to be.