Courgette humble-pie

My life has been consumed with creating the brochure for Birmingham Weekender. At this point in time I genuinely ask myself which is harder: delivering a major festival, or delivering a baby. I suspect the baby will win but at least labour is over within a day or two…. Brochure creation for festivals goes on for WEEKS, requires significant skills in diplomacy and organisation (there’s A LOT of people involved with festivals), and a level of attention to detail that provokes 3am wakefulness and a several-day-long headache (though this might all be good practice for the life-changes ahead). Every summer, without fail, I ask myself why on earth I work on festivals…and then the event happens, everyone has a great time, and the pain is forgotten. Incidentally, anyone spotting the typo on this sample page gets a proofing high-five from me.

2017-07-14 19.27.42

This has taken over my life but the end is in sight

Brochure is booked onto the presses Monday morning, after which I fully intend to get a bit more balance in my life. In the last week or two there’s been some rain (hurray!) and the allotment is actually perking up! The cornflowers and borage are beautiful, attracting a hum of bees, and we have the first zinnia and sunflowers.

2017-07-20 19.03.46

The cornflowers and borage attract a constant hum of bees

2017-07-20 19.04.11

Sunflowers are finally perking up

It’s the start of the courgette glut season so there’s several of these every visit, plus tubs of blueberries and enough greens now to keep us going.

2017-07-09 12.00.06

Despite my winging there are pickings!

2017-07-20 19.04.35

This is what happens when you plant courgettes too close together

I do need to eat some humble pie however. Every year my parents manage to grow some insane courgettes, at least a foot long, and every year I mock: “How do you let this happen?!”. Well. Work is preventing me from doing a daily courgette check and the result is this: veg as long as my foot, and pattypan bigger than my hand. This is not ideal: courgettes need to be small, in my view, about the length of my palm (and I have small hands). The big ones quickly turn mushy and are nowhere near as good.

2017-07-20 19.08.56

Courgettes on the left are a perfect size; courgettes in the middle are what happens when you ignore them for 48 hours! Plus a few patty-pan with the same issue

Thankfully the Greeks have a solution to the insane-courgette-glut: PIE. When I mentioned to Matt that I planned to make a courgette-based pastry he screwed up his nose and winged that he didn’t want to eat anything vegan. Fear not. This pie involves eggs, cream, cheese, butter…all the greats. It’s a bit like spanakopita, but made with slow-cooked courgettes rather than spinach, and it manages to be fresh and rich all at the same time. Eat is warm for dinner with a tomato salad and then have the leftovers cold during the week. They’re clever, the Greeks.

2017-07-21 18.41.49

Greek courgette pie

Greek Courgette Pie

From Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook

First, take a kilo of courgettes, grate them into a big bowl, add a good pinch of salt and leave them to sit for an hour or so. This helps get rid of excess moisture. Tip the courgettes into a colander and give them a good squeeze until they’re as dry as you can get them.

Meanwhile, chop an onion and fry gently in a little olive oil until soft. Tip the courgettes into a pan and cook for about 15 minutes until soft and the excess liquid has evaporated. Tip the veg into a bowl and leave to cool slightly.

Meanwhile, chop a small bunch of parsley, a small bunch of dill, a small handful of mint leaves and 3 spring onions, and add to the courgettes. In a separate bowl, whisk 3 eggs with 100ml double cream, and add to the courgettes. Crumble in 200g feta cheese. Season with pepper and a little salt, and stir gently to combine.

Now it’s time to make the pie! Melt about 100g butter and have ready a pack of filo pastry. Preheat the oven to 190c, and line a small roasting tray with foil and baking parchment, to make the pie easy to remove when it’s cooked.

To assemble the pie, lay a sheet of filo into the lined roasting tray, brush with butter, then top with another sheet of filo. Keep going until you have 4 layers of filo.

Gently tip the courgette mixture into the middle of the pastry and spread out slightly, leaving a good margin of pastry around the edges. Fold the edges of the pastry up over the courgettes.

Now top the courgettes with another 3 or 4 layers of filo, brushing each layer with butter as you go. Top the pie with another layer of butter and sprinkle with sesame seeds.

Bake for about 25 minutes – it may need longer. It’s done with the pie feels firm and is golden brown. Leave to cool for about 30 minutes before eating.

Also:

Harvesting: Courgettes, pattypan, lettuce, chard, oregano, sweetpeas, cornflowers, lavender, borage, blackcurrants, blueberries

Also cooking: Nectarine & blueberry muffins

Palak paneer

I found the courage on Sunday to head into the chill and take a look at the mid-winter allotment. I’m aware that it doesn’t sound remotely brave to go look at one’s land, but MY GOD that padlock gets cold in January. One touch and you are in fear of frostbite. Well, it’s all still there: the so-called ‘hardy’ chicories have not survived the frosts, and all of the remaining over-wintering chard and greens have been gnawed to their ribs by the pigeons. The raspberries are ready for their winter chop-back but that can wait for another day, when it’s a little warmer. As long as the waterbutts are frozen over, it’s too cold for any serious grafting.

2017-01-22 12.38.50

January on the allotment

2017-01-22 12.37.54

Frozen waterbutt

Last week we had friends for dinner and – we being 21st century metropolitans – this included 1 vegetarian, 1 nut allergy, 1 pregnant woman, 1 person-on-a-diet and 2 ‘normals’. There’s only one option in situations such as this: curry (the best vegetarian food on earth, in my view) & buffet (so everyone can help themselves). That may read like two options so I’ll write it again: CURRY BUFFET.

I whisked up a sizeable portion of Bengali egg curry, a batch of tandoori-style chicken, carrot salad and a pile of palak paneer. Add a few bags of samosa, pakora and chapati from the wonderful Chandigarh’s on Bearwood Road, and we had a good feed.

The palak paneer recipe is yet another that comes from my friend Tune, and is a great staple for curry nights. It’s a simple dish of spiced spinach cooked down with chunks of paneer (fresh cheese) and finished with cream or yoghurt. Incidentally, I always thought that saag paneer referred to the spinach-with-cheese combo but Tune put me right on that front: palak means spinach, whilst saag refers to general greens. Excellent knowledge from my Indian kitchen guru.

In summer I would use fresh spinach from the allotment for this but it’s January, so frozen will do just fine. To feed 6 as part of a buffet, take 8 ‘lumps’ of frozen spinach and leave at room temperature to defrost for an hour or two. If using fresh, take a large colander-full of leaves, blanch in boiling water and drain incredibly well.

2017-01-20 13.29.56

Frozen spinach is fine for this dish

To make the curry base, whizz up ginger and garlic in a mini food processor, then soften it over a low heat in ghee or vegetable oil with a large teaspoon of ground cumin. Once it’s fragrant, tip in the spinach – it doesn’t matter if it’s still a little frozen. Pop the lid on and cook down for ten minutes or so, until the spinach turns a shade darker in colour.

2017-01-20 14.06.53

Fry garlic, ginger and cumin

2017-01-20 14.07.47

Add the spinach and cook down for ten minutes

After ten minutes, tip in half a tin of chopped tomatoes (or three large, fresh tomatoes, chopped) with a good pinch of salt, pop the lid back on and cook for another ten minutes.

2017-01-20 14.18.12

Add half a tin of chopped tomatoes and cook for 10 more minutes

When it’s all cooked down, add a dollop of cream or yoghurt and stir through. The spinach can be kept like this (i.e. chunky) or for a more traditional finish, take your hand blender and blitz it to a puree.

2017-01-20 14.30.22

Then add a dollop of cream or yoghurt

2017-01-20 14.37.36

If you prefer a smooth texture, blitz with a hand blender

Meanwhile, take a block of paneer, cube it, then brown in a little oil for a few seconds until golden. Add the paneer to the spinach with a sprinkle of garam masala and ta da – palak paneer is yours.

2017-01-20 14.39.51

Add browned paneer to the spinach, heat through then serve

Eagle-eyed readers will note that there is no chilli in this, and no gluten for that matter, so it’s light and easy on the digestive system. I also suspect that it might be disturbingly good for you! Serve with rice and yoghurt for a weekday veggie dinner, or as a side as part of a more generous curry feast.

Tune’s Palak Paneer
Serves 6 as part of a substantial buffet

8 ‘cubes’ of frozen spinach, or large colander of fresh spinach

Ghee or vegetable oil

1 heaped teaspoon ground cumin

2 large cloves garlic (or more, to taste)

1 thumb-sized piece of ginger (or more, to taste)

Salt

Half tin chopped tomatoes, or 3 large fresh tomatoes, diced

Cream or yoghurt, to finish

1 block paneer

Scant half-teaspoon garam masala

If using fresh spinach, blanch it in boiling water, drain then squeeze until it is really, really dry. If using frozen, leave to defrost at room temperature for a few hours.

Blitz the ginger and garlic in a food processor, or grate it on a fine-grater, to make a paste.

In a lidded frying pan, warm the ghee or oil and fry the ginger-garlic paste over a low heat for a minute until softened. Add the cumin and cook for a further 30 seconds. Tip in the spinach with a pinch of salt, pop the lid on and cook down gently for ten minutes. Stir in the tomatoes and cook for another ten minutes. Taste for seasoning and add a dollop of cream or yoghurt to taste. Use a stick blender to blitz the vegetables to a thick puree.

Whilst the spinach is cooking, cut the paneer into cubes and brown in a little ghee in a non-stick pan until golden. Tip the paneer into the spinach with a scant half-teaspoon of garam masala. Heat through and adjust seasoning to taste. Serve.

Beef pudding

It’s the time of year when I want (need) to pour syrup, lard and gravy down my throat. I have never understood how people can go onto healthy eating stints in January; in this cold, dark month, buckwheat noodles and chia seeds are not going to provide the rib-sticking nourishment needed to get me through to spring. To underline the point: this week I’ve been at my desk wearing thermal vest, wool jumper, alpaca-wool cardigan and thick wool scarf on top. This is no time for messing around. This is the time for suet.

So it is timely that a wonderful book has come into my life. Pride and Pudding charts the history of the British pudding tradition (savoury and sweet) from its earliest medieval incarnations to the sticky toffee desserts promoted by a million 1990s gastropubs. Its author, Regula Ysewijn, is a photographer and blogger and – intriguingly – Belgian. I think the Brits have a tendency to laugh at their own cuisine, but here is someone from the Continent with a personal passion about British puddings so great that she’s devoted several years of her life researching the subject.

2016-12-08 10.20.51

Pride and Pudding by Regula Ysewijn

Pride and Pudding is a beautiful book and impressively well-researched: the bibliography runs to 7 pages, and I was spitting in envy looking at this weight of scholarly endeavour. The author is (I presume) bi-lingual and some of the writing is perhaps a little clunky – a good Editor could easily tighten this up – but frankly, if someone is going to give me a recipe for making clotted cream from scratch, then I love her instantly. And that’s before we get onto quaking pudding, poor knights of Windsor, apple tansy and sack posset.

Regula’s introduction is a recognition of the knowledge of our forebears and reflects so deeply how I feel about the cooks of yore that I repeat it in full: This book is a tribute to the cookery writers of the past: the master chefs to kings and queens; the female cookbook writers – of whom there are surprisingly plenty; the confectioners; the physicians; the poets; the cookery teachers; and those writers – usually ladies again – who were driven by a profound passion for British food. Thank you for writing everything down.

Inspired by my new-found literary friend, I’ll soon be having a go at jam roly-poly and spotted dick, but this week it was that classic suet-based rib-sticker: the steamed beef pudding.

Pride and Pudding informs me that beef pudding has been a favourite British meal for centuries and is an adaptation from the tradition of boiling meat puddings in cloth. Regula’s version uses the traditional method of placing raw meat, onions, herbs and beer into the suet crust, then steaming for several hours. I did have a go at making such a pudding several years ago, but upon turning it out, found the meat to still be raw. I’ve therefore chosen the slightly more reliable method of making my stew first, straining off and reserving the gravy, and then stuffing the cooked meat and vegetables into the pudding before steaming. This way you can be sure that the beef is seasoned to your liking, plus there is a  separate jug of gravy with which to moisten the plate.

The beef stew is straightforward and can be made a day ahead. Take around 500g of stewing steak chopped into bite-sized chunks, and brown in a hot, heavy-based frying pan until the pieces take on a deep colour (i.e. are not just ‘greyed’ with heat). Transfer the meat to a lidded casserole dish. In the same frying pan but on a cooler heat, soften a diced onion, throw in some thyme leaves and a bay leaf, then add 5 sliced mushrooms and colour slightly. Stir in 1 tablespoon plain flour, pour in around 200ml red wine (or a dark beer) and stir until thickened. Transfer the sauce to the beef, season well and top up with hot water to just cover the meat. Cook either on the lowest heat on the hob, or in the oven at 160c, for about two hours or until the meat is tender. When cooked, pour the stew onto a sieve or colander placed over a bowl, and save the gravy for later.

Now we get onto the pudding creation. As well as the strained stew, have ready plain flour, baking powder, suet, salt (not pictured), lemon juice and water. You’ll also need a 17cm pudding basin and a large lidded saucepan or steamer within which the basin fits neatly. I use a plastic basin with lid, but if using ceramic or glass basin, you’ll also need string, baking parchment and foil. I like to grease the inside of my basin with a little oil to ensure the pudding turns out easily.

2017-01-04 16.37.19

You need beef stew, plain flour, baking powder, suet and lemon juice

To make the suet pastry, place 300g plain flour in a bowl with 1 teaspoon baking powder, 1 teaspoon of salt and 130g shredded suet, then mix thoroughly.

2017-01-04 16.42.53

Combine the dry ingredients with the suet

Mix together 200ml water with the juice of half a lemon, then add the liquid to your dry ingredients. I think it’s best to do this in stages as you may not need it all. Work the liquid into the flour using a bread scraper or table knife until the pastry comes together into a ball. It should be firm and pliable but not sticky.

2017-01-04 16.44.47

Add water and lemon juice and work to a firm but not sticky dough

Work the dough gently on a lightly floured surface until smooth – we’re not kneading it, just bringing it together – and then remove a third to make the lid. Roll the remaining pastry into a circle and use to line the inside of your pudding basin, leaving an overhang of around 2cm around the top. If there are any holes just squidge them together with your fingers; suet makes for a wonderfully forgiving pastry.

2017-01-04 16.46.00

Remove a third of the dough for your lid

2017-01-04 16.49.31

Roll the larger piece into a circle and press into your pudding mould

Spoon the cooled beef stew into the mould and moisten the pastry ends with water. Roll the remaining pastry into a circle and use it to cover the beef, pressing the pastry ends together well so they are truly stuck. I like to ‘double-crimp’ – pressing the edges together, then folding the pastry in on itself to make a double seal.

2017-01-04 16.52.03

Fill the pudding mould with stew and then top with the remaining piece of dough

2017-01-04 16.54.09

Crimp the edges together, turn them over on themselves for a double-seal, cover and steam for 60-90 minutes

Place the lid on your pudding basin – or, if using paper and foil, you can follow the instructions here: www.bbcgoodfood.com/videos/techniques/how-steam-pudding.

Place your pudding into the saucepan or steamer (I use a pasta steamer for this). If using a regular saucepan, it’s wise to raise the basin from the base of a pan with a jam-jar lid. Pour in boiling water to reach half-way up the side of the basin, and set over a low heat to steam for 60-90 minutes. Check the pan a few times during steaming to ensure that it hasn’t boiled dry. All that’s needed is a gentle simmer; a rolling boil is too hot.

Once the pudding is done, remove the coverings and – with great trepidation – turn your creation out onto a pretty plate.

2017-01-04 19.24.12

Turn out onto a pretty plate and serve.

Re-heat the gravy and season to your liking (I like to thin mine with a little water) and serve alongside the pudding. I also think that a bowl of steamed greens, ideally savoy cabbage, is a must here.

2017-01-04 19.27.12-2

Slurp the gravy, relish the suet, eat up your greens: this is winter cooking at its best

The steamed beef pudding is real British winter cooking at its best. Suet: how I have missed thee.

The beef stew recipe is mine. Pastry recipe is from Pride and Pudding by Regula Ysewijn. The technique for steaming a pudding is how my mother taught me, and is all the more precious for that. Once again I apologise for the strange light on my photographs, the result of blogging in a dark Victorian house in January.

Gravlaks

…And exhale. The festivities are over and we’ve tipped into January, the quiet month. The cold is somehow more agreeable now, for it gives an excuse to make old-fashioned and emotionally-necessary classics involving lard and suet and beef. The dark is OK, for we can light candles, put the fire on and make a hole in the pile of books that’s been waiting for attention since the start of December. I rather like January: it’s usually reasonably quiet, work-wise and allotment-wise, which gives me time for reflection, a spot of planning, and some proper kitchen projects.

After all the running around of Christmas, it’s good to be still. This year we were in London for Christmas, and my brother flew in from Australia to join us.

2016-12-25 13.57.40

Christmas dinner with the Stallards

On Boxing Day we headed to Battersea Park for fresh air and exercise, and I was charmed by the Buddhist Peace Pagoda on the banks of the Thames. It was built in the 1980s to symbolise hope in the face of (nuclear) war, a sentiment that is sadly needed as badly today as it was then.

2016-12-26 13.34.16

Mum and Dad take a brisk boxing day walk in Battersea Park, overlooking the Thames

2016-12-26 13.27.40

The Peace Pagoda in Battersea Park

Back in Birmingham, the days after Christmas were beautifully bright. Warley Woods is only a few minutes from our house and is usually full of dogs taking their owners for a walk. On 29th December the shadows were long, and patches of woodland were still white with frost at 2 o’clock in the afternoon.

2016-12-29 14.15.54

Warley Woods on 29 December

We finished the year as we began, with a Park Run (Matt, not me) and lunch courtesy of the National Trust. Baddesley Clinton on New Years Eve was grey with freezing cloud, which I suppose some may find depressing, but I see great beauty in these dulled shades. We need a bit of dark in order to appreciate the light.

2016-12-31 14.09.29

Baddesley Clinton on the last day of 2016

Back to food projects. For the past few years my festive table has included a side of home-cured salmon, partly because it’s fun to make but also because it’s loads cheaper than purchasing a side of smoked salmon. My gravlaks recipe uses a traditional Scandinavian cure that is both sweet and salty, and punchy with herbal dill notes. And I say salmon, but this year I made it with trout and if anything, I preferred it. Sea-trout would also work well for this.

First, find yourself a side of quality salmon or trout, weighing about 1.5kg. If we were in America we’d ask for ‘sushi-grade’ salmon (which means that it’s considered safe to eat raw) but I don’t think that such a thing has been heard of in Birmingham. It’s therefore wise to freeze the fish for 24 hours and then defrost it before use, which helps to remove any nasty bacteria.

Slice the fish in half width-ways and remove any remaining pin bones. There’s no need to scale the fish, though you can if you wish.

2016-12-19 11.04.35

Find yourself a beautiful fillet of trout or salmon and remove any remaining pin bones. It’s wise to freeze the fish for 24 hours, then defrost before use. This helps remove any nasty bacteria.

Next make the cure. Using a pestle and mortar, crush 1 tablespoon black or white peppercorns with 2 tablespoon coriander seeds, then mix with 75g granulated sugar and 75g sea salt. I prefer to use Maldon salt for this.

2016-12-19 10.59.04

Measure salt, sugar and crushed pepper and coriander

Get yourself a big bunch of dill – about 25g – and finely chop, and measure 1 shot (25ml) of gin.

2016-12-19 11.00.57

Chop loads of dill and have ready a swig of gin

Now it’s an assembly job. Pour the gin over the flesh side of the fish, smear the salt mix over the gin, then pat the dill on top. Sandwich the two fillets together with the dill in the middle, then tightly wrap the fishy sandwich in several sheets of clingfilm so that it is entirely encased – if any cure falls out, which is likely, just shove it back in with your fingers. Pop the fish into a dish to catch any fishy brine, then place in the fridge for 48 hours.

2016-12-19 11.08.14

Spread the gin and salt over the flesh, press the dill on top and sandwich the two fillets together

2016-12-19 11.12.57

Wrap tightly with clingfilm, place in a high-sided container to catch the liquid, and place in the fridge for 48 hours

After two days, remove the clingfilm, wipe the cure from the fish as best you can and remove any excess moisture with kitchen paper. You’ll see that your fish has become a slightly darker shade and will have firmed up considerably.

2016-12-21 13.15.56

After its curing time, remove the clingfilm and scrape off all the spice and dill, then pat dry with kitchen towel

Chop some more dill and pat onto the flesh side of the fish, then finely slice the gravlaks into long lengths and place on a serving platter.

2016-12-21 13.20.04

Press more chopped dill onto each fillet

2016-12-29 13.15.40

Slice as thinly as possible, then serve with a wedge of lemon

Once cured, the gravlaks lasts for at least a week (it is a method of preservation after all). Serve with lemon and some form of carbohydrate, be it blinis, crackers or simple bread and butter. It is glorious, though I am biased.

This recipe is inspired by various published by Signe Johansen over the last few years, both online and in her How to Hygge book.

Oxtail rendang

‘Tis the weekend to deck the halls. In Lichfield they are taking this to extremes, with this extraordinary installation of paper angels in the Cathedral. They hang from the vaulted ceiling as if tumbling from the heavens. Simple but very effective.

2016-12-11 13.27.30

Angel installation in Lichfield Cathedral

In the more simple surroundings of Bearwood, someone’s been getting all hygge… At the advanced age of 2-and-a-half, Gertie is finally appreciating the joy of a naked flame. (Yes I know it’s gas and therefore not a real fire, but it’ll do.)

2016-12-06 20.42.01

Gertie enjoys the fire

These short, dark days demand warming food. I love to have stews, soups and pies squirreled away in the freezer, ready for a quick nourishing supper or lunch. I say ‘quick’, but that’s a misnomer. They’re quick to defrost, but certainly not to cook in the first place. And so I present oxtail rendang, a country-girl take on the traditional Malay classic. This takes hours to cook – even longer if you decide to use fresh coconut, as I did – but it’s simple enough and packs a punch of flavour on a cold Monday evening.

Rendang is usually made with braising steak (the Rick Stein recipe that I adapted recommends blade or chuck) but I had some oxtail in the freezer and an idea that its rich, gelatinous quality would suit this slow-cooked creamy coconut curry well. I was correct! This rendang is aromatic with lemongrass, lime leaves, chillies and cinnamon, but the most important ingredient is the coconut. It’s best to make this a day ahead so that it’s completely cold when you flake the meat from the bones – plus it tastes better this way. Make double, freeze the leftovers, and there’s a good meal waiting patiently for when it’s needed.

2016-12-09 12.43.14

Crack yourself a coconut

So dear reader, first, crack a coconut*. You can do this the hard way as I did, with a pruning saw (yes really), or the easy way, as shown on this video. Once you’re in, remove the flesh and pulse it to a pebbly-powder in the food processor.  *Or you could just buy some ready-prepared fresh coconut from the supermarket, your choice. I have tried this recipe with desiccated coconut and it’s not as good, so go fresh if you can.

2016-12-09 12.58.59

Pulse the coconut to a pebbly-powder in the food processor

The coconut is the basis for our curry paste. Measure out 50g blitzed coconut (freeze any leftovers) and toast in a dry frying pan until golden all over. Tip the now-aromatic coconut back into the food processor along with 4 dried Kashmiri chillies, a knob of fresh peeled ginger, 3 cloves of garlic, 1 small onion and 3 fresh red chillies. Blitz for a minute or two until finely chopped. In a pestle and mortar, bash 1 tbsp coriander seeds with 1/2 tsp cumin seeds until powdery, then add to the food processor with 1/2 tsp turmeric. Blitz the lot with 100ml or so of water until it reaches a smooth paste – you may need to keep the machine running for several minutes.

2016-12-09 13.18.17

Blitz the coconut with chillies, spice, garlic, chilli and onion to make the spice paste

That’s the hard bit done and we can get on with assembly! Brown your beef pieces in frying pan with a little oil. I used four pieces of oxtail that together weighed about 1.5kg, but you could use regular braising steak if preferred. When brown, remove the beef to a pot along with two cinnamon sticks, three bashed stalks of lemongrass and 12 kaffir lime leaves. You can buy frozen lime leaves from specialist Asian grocers and they’re waaaay better than the dried ones.

2016-12-09 13.24.15

Brown the oxtail, then pop in a pot along with lime leaves, cinnamon sticks and lemongrass

To make the sauce, heat a little oil in a frying pan, then add the curry paste and cook over a medium heat for about 10 minutes, until most of the water has evaporated. You’ll know this because the ‘hissing’ noise of the cooking paste will begin to sound different. Once you’re there, add two cans of coconut milk (800ml), 1 dsp of tamarind water (I use the ready-made kind) and 1 tbsp palm sugar or dark brown sugar and a pinch of salt. Bring to a simmer then add the sauce to the meat.

2016-12-09 13.25.13

Cook the spice paste over a medium heat…

2016-12-09 13.33.15

…add the coconut milk and bring to a simmer

2016-12-09 13.35.29

Add the sauce to the meat, along with a dollop of tamarind and sugar, then cook for three or more hours

The curry now needs cooking for a very long time. You can do this on the hob, but I always prefer to use the oven – 3 hours at 120c should do it, but longer wouldn’t hurt. Remove the lid for the last thirty minutes of cooking to reduce the sauce slightly. Once the meat is flaking from the bones, remove from the heat and leave the whole lot to cool.

At this point we have a photo fail, as it’s dark at 4pm and therefore impossible to take useful images without expensive kit that I don’t possess. So you’ll have to take my word for it: the next step is to remove the meat from the bones, and the only way to do this is with your fingers! So remove every scrap of meat that you can and add it back to the sauce. Check for seasoning, reheat and serve.

2016-12-12 20.18.00

BAD PICTURE APOLOGY. Shred the meat from the bones, add back to the sauce, and serve up with rice and sides.

As well as rice, I think this rendang needs some good sides to go with it. I usually make a little plate of  toasted peanuts, sliced red onions that I’ve tossed with rice vinegar, and a few slices of tomato and cucumber. You have a dinner that’s warm, vaguely familiar (it is a beef stew after all) but deliciously exotic for winter nights.

Oxtail rendang
Adapted from Rick Stein’s Far Eastern Odyssey. Serves 4-6.

For the curry paste:
5og fresh coconut
4 dried red Kashmiri chillies
1 tbsp coriander seeds
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 small onion
3 large cloves garlic
knob ginger
3 red chillies
100ml or so water

For the curry:
Vegetable oil
1.5kg oxtail (or braising steak, diced)
4 lemongrass stalks, bashed with a knife
12 keffir lime leaves
2 cinnamon sticks
800ml coconut milk
1 dessertspoon tamarind water
1 tablespoon palm sugar or dark brown sugar
Salt, to taste

For the paste, blitz the coconut in a food processor until fine. Toast the coconut in a dry frying pan until golden, then tip into the food processor and blitz with the dried and fresh chillies, onions, garlic and ginger. Bash the coriander and cumin in a pestle and mortar until fine, then add to the food processor. Add the turmeric. Blitz again with the water until it becomes a smooth paste.

Brown the meat in a little oil until browned on all sides, then place in a pot with the lemongrass, lime leaves and cinnamon.

Heat a little more oil in the frying pan and cook the curry paste for about 10 minutes, until the water evaporates. Add the coconut milk, tamarind, sugar and salt, bring to a simmer then pour over the meat.

Cook at 120c for at least three hours, until meat is tender. Leave the lid off the meat for the last half hour to thicken the sauce. When cooked, remove the oxtail from the curry and flake the meat from the bones. Add the meat back to the sauce, reheat and serve.

Mutton with quince

Slow-cooking comes into its own at this time of year. The days are grey, damp and overcast, and the need for nourishment goes right to the bone. The problem with stews, however, is that they can get a bit….samey. So when I was flicking through Claudia Roden’s compendium of recipes from the Middle East, Tamarind & Saffron, this Moroccan dish of lamb with quince caught my eye. Incredibly simple, yet compellingly exotic, it comprises merely onions, meat, ground ginger, saffron, quince, cinnamon and honey. I had a shoulder of mutton in the freezer, quince in the fruit bowl, and a taste for something new. And lo! A new favourite is born.

A word on quince: they are in season right now. I picked mine up from the vegetable stand in Ludlow market, but I’ve seen them in Middle Eastern grocery shops in Bearwood and on the Hagley Road in Birmingham. Quince is a difficult flavour to pin down. Raw, they are rock hard and inedible, but cooked with sugar they become fragrant and delicately pink in colour. In this dish they give a sour note that offsets the rich mutton, not unlike how the sharp acidity of apple cuts through a fatty cut of pork. If no quince are to be had, this dish would probably work with apple.

Note: the photography in this post is terrible, the low levels of November light having beaten my iPhone.

First, prep your meat and onions. I boned the mutton shoulder, removed the excess fat and diced the meat. The onions are simply sliced. The only spices that are needed are ground ginger and saffron.

2016-11-21 10.36.40

Slice some onions, dice the mutton and have ginger and saffron ready

Heat some oil in a tagine or casserole dish, soften the onions over a medium heat for a few minutes, then tip in the meat. Cook for five minutes, then add a teaspoon of ground ginger, pinch of saffron, salt and a fair amount of black pepper. We are not really browning the meat here as we would for a European-style stew; it’s more about softening the onions and getting some heat into the lamb. Then add water to cover, pop the lid on, and cook for two hours or so until the meat is totally tender.

2016-11-21 10.44.12

Brown meat and onions with spices for five minutes before covering with water and leaving to cook

Then it’s time to attack the quince. Using a heavy knife, for they are as hard as a squash, quarter the quince and tip them straight into boiling water to which you had added the juice of half a lemon.

2016-11-21 10.43.05

Quince, the mysterious & exotic star of the show

Simmer the quince until soft – mine took ten minutes but they can take up to thirty, so just keep an eye on them and test regularly (if the quince are overcooked they will collapse). Drain the quince and once they are cool, remove the cores and dice into chunks, keeping the skins intact.

2016-11-21 10.48.13

Simmer quince in lemon-water until soft, then core and dice

Then it’s merely an assembly job. Once the meat is cooked to your liking, remove the lid and bubble for a few more minutes to reduce the sauce. If there is a lot of excess fat spoon it off, then adjust the seasoning to taste. Tip the quince into the meat along with a teaspoon of cinnamon and a tablespoon of honey, then bubble for a few more minutes before serving.

This stew is a revelation. How can something so simple be so nourishingly delicious? The onions collapse down to make a thickish sauce, with the faintest hint of fragrant spice. It feels like real, honest peasant cooking, albeit from a different time and continent. We had ours with couscous and a simple salad of grated carrot, sliced mint, toasted almonds, feta and lemon.

2016-11-21 19.49.23

With apologies for this terrible photograph: serve the finished stew with a refreshing carrot salad

Mutton (or lamb) with quince

From Claudia Roden’s Tamarin & Saffron 

1kg shoulder of mutton (or lamb)

2 large onions

splash of oil

salt and black pepper

1 teaspoon ground ginger

pinch of saffron

water

1 or 2 quince

juice of 1 lemon

1 teaspoon ground ginger

honey, to finish

Bone the meat and dice into chunks, removing any excess fat. Slice the onions. Heat the oil in a tagine or stew pot, then soften the onions for a few minutes. Tip in the meat, salt, pepper, ginger and saffron, and cook for a few more minutes until the onions are soft. Tip in water to cover, pop the lid back on, and leave to cook on a low heat for 1 1/2 hours or until the meat is tender. Add water if it becomes too dry.

Prep the quince: Have ready a pan of boiling water with the juice of half a lemon. Cut the quince into quarters then tip them straight into the water. Simmer until soft – this can take 10 minutes or 30, so test regularly. Drain then remove the cores and dice into large-ish chunks, leaving the skins on.

When the meat is tender, remove the lid to reduce the sauce. Spoon off any excess fat. Add the quince to the meat with the cinnamon and 1 tablespoon of honey, cook for a further five minutes. Add more honey or lemon juice to taste, then serve.

Parsnip & cheddar soda bread

Tomatoes, be gone with thee! Courgettes, au revoir! With summer’s veg glut over, roots are making a return to my kitchen and amongst them, the humble trusty parsnip. Not that they’ve come from the allotment – we do have a few tiny plants, more seedlings really, that will stay in over winter to see if they fatten up (although my hopes are not high). Nope, farm shop parsnips it is and their rich, vaguely-spicy sweetness is a welcome addition to October dinners.

2015-10-04 16.00.06

One of last year’s allotment parsnips – this year’s didn’t germinate so well and are still tiny

It’s easy to see the parsnip as merely a useful adjunct to a winter roast – and a roasted parsnip chip is truly brilliant, provided that it’s not over-cooked…burnt parsnip being surprisingly easy to make, and horrid. But I’d urge all cooks to think a little more creatively: these roots are cheap-as-you like and their sweetness can take the strong flavours of chilli, spice and cheese with ease. Their dense texture makes for a creamy, satisfying soup, or try them baked in a creamy gratin to sit next to sausages or a pork chop.

Today I whipped up this soda bread, studded with strong cheddar and grated parsnip, which is great alongside a steaming bowl of soup for a nutritious and simple supper. It’s easy, inexpensive and vegetarian – and sometimes, that is just what it needed.

First, preheat the oven to 180c and prepare some baking parchment on top of a baking tray. Slice and sweat 1 onion in a drizzle of olive oil until it’s really soft – around 15 to 20 minutes. Meanwhile, grate 1 parsnip (I don’t bother to peel mine) and 50g strong cheddar using the coarse side of the grater. In a bowl, stir together 175g self-raising flour (white or wholemeal), a pinch of thyme leaves, a pinch of salt and a good grinding of black pepper. Add the vegetables and cheese to the bowl and give it a stir to combine.

2016-10-12 11.00.28

Mix flour, parsnip, cheese, onions, salt and pepper in a large bowl

Then whisk an egg with three tablespoons of milk, pour onto the dry ingredients and stir until you have quite a loose dough. Don’t overmix – it will stay a little craggy. Shape the dough into a rough ball and place on the baking tray.

2016-10-12 11.00.38

Add beaten egg and milk to bind to a soft dough

2016-10-12 11.03.07

Shape into a bowl and place on baking parchment

Using a sharp knife or a bread scraper, cut half-way down the dough to make a cross (don’t cut all the way through). Dust with a little flour and then bake for 40 minutes or so, until risen, golden and hollow-sounding with tapped.

2016-10-12 11.03.20

Make deep crosses with a knife or metal bread scraper, then bake

You’ll open the oven door to find this crunchy-topped light savoury loaf. Leave it to cool for a few minutes but have this warm, maybe with soup, and definitely with lots of butter! It doesn’t keep brilliantly so try to eat it the loaf in one sitting.

2016-10-12 11.47.38

Parsnip and cheddar soda bread

Recipe adapted from River Cottage Every Day.

Courgette, fennel and lemon pickle

We snuck away for a late summer holiday last weekend, albeit one that felt distinctly autumnal. The Lake District in September lies on the cusp of the seasonal turn, with golden bracken, reddening leaves and low afternoon sun. We had a day of culture in the brilliant Blackwell Arts & Crafts house, then a day of fresh air in the Borrowdale valley. Matt was transfixed by agile fleet-footed fell runners…and I reflected that love makes you do strange things (a few years ago I never would have gone out of my way to watch a running race).

2016-09-18 14.12.10

Fell-racing in Borrowdale

2016-09-18 14.50.23

Sheep amidst an abandoned mine building

2016-09-18 14.18.01

Water heads down the fell

I am grateful for the newly chilly days. It’s not cold as such, but the dreadful heaviness of August has been replaced with a more sprightly energy. On the allotment, the courgette glut has slowed down and the tomatoes are pretty much over, though there’s no end in sight to the late summer blooms.

In this September is-it-summer-or-is-it-autumn period, cooks and gardeners traditionally get down to pickling, chutneying and jamming, an activity that does indeed deal with the immediate problem of gluts – except that, in our house, we struggle to make a dent on even a few jars of preserves. I have several pints of ‘glutney’ from several years ago gathering dust in the bottom cupboard; they’ve now moved house twice. Undeterred, I still rustle up a few jars every year, transfixed by the knowledge that veg/fruit + sugar + vinegar = longlife food.

Anyone who eats out regularly knows that there’s a new fashion for pickles, inspired by the Scandi food craze. The fresh crunch of raw, pickled vegetable is everywhere, from a gherkin on your dirty burger to the chili-spiked carrot that adorned the pastrami bagel I enjoyed in Rotterdam back in May. Pickles are so much easier than chutneys or jams – there’s no boiling or finding setting points, it’s merely a question of brining some veg, making a vinegar-sugar pickling liquor, adding one to the other and hey presto, job done.

So when the courgettes were in full glut mode a few weeks back, I got busy making this fennel, lemon and chilli scented pickle. First I cleaned and sterilised my Kilner jars by washing in soapy water, rinsing, then putting them in a hot oven (200c) for 20 minutes. In the meantime, I chopped courgettes into batons, tossed them in salt and left them to drain for two hours.

2016-09-06 11.09.29

Take courgettes and a jar…

2016-09-06 11.12.01

Salt the courgette batons and leave to drain

Loads of water comes out of the courgettes, meaning that the end pickle has a pleasing crunch. The salt also begins the preserving process on the veg.

2016-09-06 15.02.26

Alot of liquid will seep out…

The courgettes were then rinsed and drained on kitchen paper to remove any excess water.

2016-09-06 15.05.33

Rinse and drain the courgettes

Now for the fun bit: the liquor, which both preserves and flavours the pickle. I used white wine vinegar, sugar (not shown), fennel seeds, lemon juice and peel, garlic and a red chilli.

2016-09-06 15.05.27

White wine vinegar, fennel seeds, red chilli, garlic and lemon

Simply heat the sugar, vinegar and lemon juice until just boiling, so that the sugar dissolves.

2016-09-06 15.09.06

Heat the vinegar, lemon juice and sugar

In the meantime, push the courgettes into the jar along with the fennel seeds, lemon peel, whole garlic (no need to peel) and the whole chilli. The hot liquor is poured over the top, pop the lid on and that’s it! The pickle cools in the jar and is then stored for a month or two to soften the vinegar flavour. I’ll report back in a few weeks as to if it’s any good or not…

2016-09-06 16.34.00

Pour the hot liquor onto the courgettes along with the fennel, garlic and lemon peel, then leave to cool

Courgette, fennel and lemon pickle

500g or thereabouts small courgettes

25g sea salt

250ml white wine vinegar

65g granulated sugar

1 red chilli (or more if you like it hot)

1 unwaxed lemon, juice and pared peel

1 tbsp fennel seeds

3 garlic cloves, unpeeled

1 or 2 Kilner jars or jam jars

First prep your Kilner jars: wash them thoroughly, rinse, then put into a hot oven for 200c for about 20 minutes.

Trim the courgettes and chop into sizeable batons. Toss them in the salt and leave to drain in a colander for at least two hours. Rinse under the cold tap then drain on kitchen paper.

In a small pan, heat the sugar, lemon juice and vinegar until the sugar has dissolved and it is just boiling. Remove from the heat. Layer the courgettes in your jar(s) with the fennel seeds, garlic, lemon peel and chilli. Pour the hot liquor over the top to cover the veg. Give the jar a tap to get rid of any air bubbles, put the lid on and leave to cool.

Leave for at least a month in a dark place before eating. Will last for months.

Bengali egg curry

Finally, our dahlias have come into their own. Labyrinth is particularly showy, with massive dinner-plate sized heads in sunset pink shades. Picked with the hot pink zinnia, they give a late summer holiday vibe to the vase.

2016-09-04 11.10.06

Dahlia and zinnia in sunset shades

Meanwhile the aubergines are ripe for picking, their glossy black skins looking beautiful against the red and yellow bowl of tomatoes.

2016-09-07 11.45.49

Greenhouse tomatoes and aubergines, looking gorgeous

It’s not just me who is harvesting: Matt carried out a late-night mission to remove the hopolisk, catching the hop corns at their perfect ripeness. He now has several trays of papery hops drying in his workshop and the pungent “aroma” is filling the room. (For the uninitiated, hops and cannabis are part of the same family. They both stink.) You actually need a bare handful of hops to make a good quantity of beer, so the fate of all these beauties remains unknown.

2016-09-14 10.42.19

Matt’s hops are now drying in the workshop

But enough of all the growing; let’s do some eating. Last weekend our friend Tune came round to cook up an Indian feast; Tune’s from Calcutta and is the most reliable source of proper Bengali home-cooking.

2016-09-11 13.34.23

Tune, our star guest chef!

Star of our Sunday vegetarian menu was this egg curry. EGG CURRY? Yes I know that sounds weird, but it’s dead good. Apparently back home in Calcutta egg curry is a regular ‘kiddie tea’, in the way that we might get beans on toast, and this makes sense: it’s inexpensive, full of protein and fibre, not too spicy and very straightforward. It does take a bit of time to make, of course, but none of the stages are too strenuous. Most importantly, it tastes great. Why can’t we get food like this in the local ‘Indian’ restaurants?

First, toss a few hard boiled eggs and diced potato in salt and turmeric.

2016-09-11 12.51.06

Toss hardboiled eggs and diced potatoes in salt and turmeric

The eggs are fryed in a splash of vegetable oil, in a wok or karahi. They will go vaguely crispy on the outside, which gives a nice texture to the finished dish and also helps to firm them up a little. Once the eggs are browned, the potatoes are treated the same way and cooked until half-done, then set both to one side whilst we make the sauce.

2016-09-11 12.57.52

Fry the eggs in a little vegetable oil

2016-09-11 13.02.24

Do the same with the spuds until they are half cooked

Next we need to get a couple of onions and whizz them up in the food processor to a proper puree. Sizzle some ground cumin, coriander and chilli powder in the pan, then dump in the onion mix along with garlic, ginger and bay leaves. Next is the important bit: it needs cooking down down down and can’t be rushed – it needs at least 15 minutes before we get to the next stage. Keep the heat low and give it a stir every now and then.

2016-09-11 13.12.01

Fry onion puree with garlic, ginger, bay and spices

2016-09-11 13.23.44

It needs to be REALLY cooked down, so don’t rush it. 15 minutes later, it looks like this.

Once the onions are heavily reduced, add a few chopped tomatoes (tinned is fine) and once again we have to reduce and cook it down. This lengthy pre-cooking stage helps turn the curry from a raw, runny, watery mess to a deeply flavoured, rich delight. Cook the mixture down until the oil begins to separate from the puree – it may take another 10 minutes or more.

2016-09-11 13.24.37

Add a few tomatoes and cook down even further, until the oil separates

Once the base sauce is ready, return the eggs and potatoes to the pan along with a splash of water, gently stir to combine, then cook through until the potatoes are soft.

2016-09-11 13.36.26

Put the eggs and potatoes back, along with a splash of water

And that is it! Simply finished with a sprinkle of coriander, then serve with rice or roti and a side vegetable or two.

2016-09-11 15.02.27

Cook the potatoes through and add chopped coriander to finish

Egg curry is one of the best vegetarian dishes you’ll find. The eggs have a firm yet creamy texture, the potatoes give substance and the onion-tomato sauce manages to be light, rich and comforting all at the same time. We enjoyed ours along with sag paneer (with home-grown spinach), rice, roti and an awesome salad made from sprouted mong beans – but that’s a recipe for another day.

2016-09-11 15.03.49

Egg curry, served with steamed rice and sag paneer

Bengali egg curry

Serves 4. Recipe courtesy Tune Roy.

8 hardboiled eggs

1 large floury potato, peeled and diced into sizeable chunks

large pinch salt

1 tsp turmeric

2 large onions

large ‘thumb’ of ginger

3 large garlic cloves

1 heaped tsp ground cumin

1 small tsp ground coriander

1/2 tsp ground chilli, or to taste (leave it out if you don’t like heat)

2 bay leaves

2 large tomatoes, diced, or about 200g tinned chopped tomatoes

water

Coriander leaf, to finish

vegetable oil, for frying

Toss the eggs and potatoes with the turmeric and salt. Heat a tablespoon of oil in a wok or karahi, then fry the eggs over a medium heat until they are golden and vaguely crisp. Remove the eggs. Fry the potatoes in the same oil over a low heat until they are half cooked, about 5 minutes. Remove the potatoes and set to one side. There’s no need to wash the pan out.

Whizz the onions, garlic and ginger in a food processor until you reach a very fine puree (you may need to do this in batches, depending on the size of your machine).

On a low heat, fry the cumin, coriander and chilli for a few seconds, then add the onion mixture to the pan. Add the bay leaves. Cook down on a low heat for about 15 minutes, until thick and heavily reduced. Add the tomatoes and cook down again for 10 to 15 minutes, until the oil separates from the vegetable mixture. It will look darker and may begin to stick to the pan.

Add the eggs and potatoes back to the pan with a splash of water, stir to combine and cook on a low heat until the potatoes are cooked through, around 10 minutes. The sauce should be thick enough to cover the eggs but loose enough to scoop with some bread, so add more water as you need to get the right consistency. Finish with chopped coriander leaf.

Raspberry vinaigrette

The sunflowers have gone mental. It’s a jungle out there – take a look at the contrast between the littlest and largest heads.

2016-08-20 16.02.36

Little and large

I saw whole sunflower heads being sold as bird food this week at an eye-watering price. But there’s no need for such extravagance: I’ve been saving up my heads and once they’ve dried, will string them up to hang in the garden. Next to them on the drying rack are the first ornamental squash – green rather than my preferred orange, though do I enjoy their exuberant striping.

2016-08-22 09.59.19

Seedheads and squash, the harbingers of autumn

It’s been a good summer for cut-flowers – here’s me with an armful of sunflowers and cosmos.

2016-08-20 17.39.52

An armful of blooms

But I have a feeling that the real bumper crop this year will be raspberries. Our autumn canes are heaving with swelling, ripening fruit. Currently I’m picking three punnets a week but give it a fortnight and, frankly, I will be overwhelmed.

A small punnet of berries is just enough to try out this raspberry vinaigrette, a recipe that I earmarked in the Jamie Magazine a few weeks ago and have only just got around to trying.

Raspberry salad dressing?! Really? Yes! At once sweet, sharp, fresh and warming, this one is a winner.

First, you heat red wine vinegar, water and sugar with the merest pinch of coriander and cumin. The original recipe calls for whole spices, and I am sure this would be better, but I only had ready-ground coriander and so that is what I used.

2016-08-24 09.14.56

Heat vinegar with cumin, coriander, sugar and water

The hot vinegar is poured onto raspberries and left to sit for an hour. The liquor turns colour from a vague peach to glorious, lurid pink.

2016-08-24 09.16.52

Leave the raspberries to macerate for an hour

2016-08-24 10.54.48

After an hour…lurid pink!

Then you whisk in some olive oil, and that’s it! Easy as anything.

2016-08-24 10.58.13

Whisk in olive oil and you have raspberry vinaigrette

Raspberries have a complicated flavour base, at once sweet, sharp and tangy, and as a result they work surprisingly well in savoury dishes. Use this dressing to offset the heat of mustardy salad leaves (mizuna, rocket, mustard) or, once the weather gets a little colder, it would be divine with rare grilled venison or duck, or even smoked meats. Plus it’s pretty, so what’s not to like?

2016-08-24 13.34.14

Pair it with mustard leaves or with game or smoked meats

Raspberry vinaigrette

Adapted from recipe by Robbin Holmgren in Jamie Magazine, July 2016

65g raspberries (fresh or defrosted)

Salt

15ml red wine vinegar

40ml water

7g caster sugar

10 whole coriander seeds, or a scant quarter teaspoon ground coriander

5 cumin seeds

25ml olive oil

Toss the raspberries in a small pinch of salt and leave to sit for twenty minutes or so. In a small saucepan, heat the vinegar, sugar, water, coriander and cumin until it comes to the boil. Pour the liquid over the raspberries and leave to macerate for an hour or more. Whisk in the olive oil and decant into a jar. Will keep for about 1 month in the fridge.