Wednesday, 26 August 2009


Gooseberries are a bit like ladies in comfortable shoes, not particularly trendy and with too much body hair. But just as everything enjoys a revival, including shoulder pads and stone-washed jeans, this berry has been causing a mild stir this summer. Seasonal chef Valentine Warner turned them into a classic fool in his book What to Eat Now. More Please and gooseberry pie is the stuff of many a modern British menu.

It's hard to find these hirsute fruits (I bought them from new food ordering website that brings together growers and producers from just the south east), and the season is so short that you can't help getting a little excited by their tempting tartness.

With just one small punnet, I was several gooseberries short of a pie, and with a hot August sun beating through my kitchen window, my thoughts turned to sorbet. I love a good ice, particularly a sharp, palate-cleansing one. Raspberry sorbet is a personal favourite and so easy to make - just pureed fruit, lemon juice, sugar and water. I've applied this same simple formula to gooseberries, adding some elderflower cordial to give a softer, sweeter floral note, and the result is fresh and delicious - a modern take on a stalwart English fruit. Enjoy.

Gooseberry and elderflower sorbet
Serves 6 (in shot glasses)

200g gooseberries
1 tbsp elderflower cordial
Splash water
90g caster sugar
70 ml water
Juice of ½ lemon

Put the gooseberries and elderflower cordial into a saucepan. Add a splash of water and poach the fruit on a gentle heat until soft and pulpy.

Push the gooseberries and juice through a fine sieve. Set aside to cool.

Into another pan, put the sugar and water then slowly bring up to the boil. Allow to bubble for 2 mins until syrupy. Take off the heat and allow to cool.

Mix the fruit and the cooled sugar syrup together with the lemon juice. Pour into a plastic tub then put into the freezer (or pour into an ice-cream maker). Stir with a metal spoon every hour for 3-4 hours to break up the ice crystals.
Serve in shot glasses with a spring of mint.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Sugar part 1

I hate wasting food. I know we're all meant to say that these days (it'd be a brave foodie who admits to lobbing out perfectly usable ingredients) but it feels like a dyed-in-the-wool quality of mine. It's been commented on that I'd have been good in the War, the sort of gal who could rustle up a nourishing meal from a scrag end and rotten potato. Fortunately, it's never been put to the test and I have the total luxury of buying whatever food I fancy.

But this posting is n't about scratch cooking, (let's save that for the middle of January) but using up every bit of an ingredient. Namely vanilla pods. Once you've split them and extracted all the supremely exotic seeds, you're left with a scented wand that will generously impart its flavour to sauces or sugar. So to the sugar, at last. This is my ingredient of the week because it's the backbone of so much cooking and can so easily be made more special.

In the full spirit of waste not, want not, I've made a trio of flavoured sugars using up ingredients from my store cupboard. First up, the vanilla. Leave the pod to dry out, then break into small pieces and push into a jar of sugar. Second, is lavender. With none growing in my garden, I used up a pack of dried flower heads bought from Norfolk Lavender during a Martha Stewart moment when lavender bags seemed like a reasonable home-made gift. Even in a credit crunch, that seems quite dull. And lastly, rose and cardamom. It's a flavour combination that works in ice cream but it could be over-egging the pudding (I have a tendency to do that). I mixed the sugar with some rose buds that I bought in Marrakech and lightly bashed the cardamom pods to release their aroma.

These jars will now sit and silently infuse for a month and then it'll be fragrant sugar experimentation time (look out for Sugar Part 2). And it's not camera trickerey - these kilner jars really are petits. I'm fast running out of cupboard space and flavoured sugars aren't top priority. They look cute though, perhaps a gift idea (Martha, here we go again).

Just a note about sugar - I've used unrefined caster sugar because it seems odd to me to bleach food. No need. Just like haddock dyed yellow - what is that all about? Apparently, it was orignally dyed to hide impurities and now it's become shopping habit. Supermarkets say that customers still ask for yellow fish so they still stock yellow fish, but the punters aren't always right. Keep your sugar clean and your cooking will taste the better for it.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Padrón peppers

If every food holds a unique memory (and I believe they do), then Padrón peppers are a warm late August afternoon in Mallorca. We've just swam to shore after anchoring a friend's boat in a quiet cove and sat down in damp bikinis to a long lunch. For our appetiser, a large plate of Padrón peppers arrives, blistered and glistening with olive oil. And the pepper roulette begins - by some fabulous quirk of nature a handful of the usually mild Padrón will have a fiery chilli kick, but which ones?

These cheery little senors put a smile on my face this week when I spotted them next to the ramiros in Waitrose. It was a Monday morning, grey and limp, when Mallorcan tapas was furthest from my mind. On the pack, Noelia Conde, a third generation grower, tells of how Padrón are unique to northwest Spain. These novelty peppers were first grown 400 years ago when Padrón roulette, in the absence of TV, electricity or pubs, must have been a godsend. Simple and delicious fun, the stuff of good food memories. Eat on their own or as part of a big tapas spread.

Padrón 'roulette' peppers

Simply heat some olive oil in a pan, add the whole peppers and fry for 3-4 minutes until the skin starts to blister. The peppers shimmy and shake a little in the pan because these Spanish brothers know how to have party.

Turn out into a bowl, sprinkle with lots of sea salt then let play commence.

Serve with something cool and crisp like a dry sherry, fruity white or light cerveza.

(The pack reckons only 1 in 30 has a kick but I struck hot first time).

Wednesday, 22 July 2009


I need vegetables. At the weekend, I went to two events, both prominent in the London social summer calendar but in very different ways. And I overdid it at both of them. On Saturday at the Lovebox weekender, I drunk pear cider until I was perspiring the stuff. And on Sunday at Lord’s (the home of cricket), Stewart and I tucked into a very porcine picnic – in fact there was a quartet of pork – a pie, Scotch egg, sausages and ham sandwiches. All very delicious but today, I need vegetables.

In this week’s veg box came three shiny courgettes, the pin-up in my vegetable calendar for late July. Courgettes sing seasonal and it’s an upbeat smokey Italian jazz club number straight out of The Talented Mr Ripley. I’ve been slightly obsessing about these legumes since a trip to the Amalfi coast (where that film was filmed) at Easter where we had the most delicious stuffed courgette flowers. Light as feather but oozing with creamy goat’s cheese, they were heaven. A quick web search reveals that to buy them is insanely expensive, so note to self, plant courgettes next year then eat the flowers (are they easy to grow?).

With vegetables and Italy on my mind, I’ve chosen a minestrone recipe from Ursula Ferrigno's book Trattoria. The ingredients of courgettes, fresh basil (harvested from the window-sill, did I mention I love my herbs?), tinned tomatoes, stock, pasta and Parmesan are reassuringly store cupboard for a weekday night. The recipe called for spaghetti but I went one better. A bag of zita pasta (meaning fiancee as it was traditionally served at weddings) given to us by the son of chef Don Alfonso, at their family-run Michelin-starred restaurant of the same name outside Sorrento. Given the cost of dinner, I don’t want to think how much the pasta actually cost but it’s fair to say it’s princely. The result is a fresh soup that’s a meal in a bowl, a vegetable meal and no pear or pork in sight.

The don’s minestrone di zucchini
Serves 4

500g courgettes, cut into 1cm cubes
1 medium onion, chopped
2 tbsp olive oil
1.5L vegetable stock
2 x 400g cans cherry or chopped tomatoes
A handful fresh basil leaves, torn
200g pasta, broken into pieces
Parmesan cheese, freshly grated

Put the courgettes, onion and olive oil in a saucepan, cover with stock and slowly bring to the boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook for 5 minutes.

Add the tinned tomatoes and basil, gently combine ingredients, then slowly bring to the boil. I added a Parmesan rind for extra flavour.

Add the pasta pieces, and cook on a medium to high heat until the pasta is cooked. Season to taste.

Sprinkle with grated Parmesan and serve.

Monday, 13 July 2009


In my book of life's little luxuries, English strawberries are up there with cashmere bedsocks and monthly facials. The short season and sense of occasion that hits you every time you eat one are two good reasons to love them. But this posting is less about love for strawberries and more about love as an ingredient.

This week, I made two birthday cakes for two special men in my life. My husband, Stewart, and Granpa Smith (yes, no 'd'. It's a family thing). And I made the same cake. With 60 years and one day between them, there was only one that would happily straddle the generations - the classic Victoria sandwich. A cake for all ages, as my Dad neatly coined.

In the spirit of a toe in both age camps, the recipe is derived from two sources - one modern (, and one old (my colleague Claire's recipe file, a piece of 'cakelore' handwritten in onzes) - perfectly mirroring the generational span between the two men for which the cakes were made.

The cake certainly has strawberries in it (both fresh and preserved in jam) but it also has a lot of love. That invisible extra ingredient that means shop-bought cakes will just never do. It's the reason to cream butter and sugar at 10pm on a Friday night, to buy a second lot of double cream (when the first lot goes off after sitting in a warm pub for 4 hours) and to walk the extra mile to find just the right jam (Peyton and Byrne's Essex Strawberry Jam) and the best English strawberries on the shelves. It's the reason people make cakes. Enjoy.

Classic Victoria sandwich (a cake for all ages)

Makes 10-12 slices

220g unsalted butter or margarine
220g unrefined caster sugar
220g self raising flour
11/2 tsp baking powder
4 medium eggs, lightly beaten
1 tsp natural vanilla essence
A whole lot of love

To decorate
Strawberry jam
Fresh strawberries, washed, dried and sliced
Icing sugar
Double cream, whipped

Preheat the oven to 160°C fan/180°C/Gas 4.

The butter or margarine needs to be really soft, so if yours is coming straight from the fridge or the supermarket chiller, follow my Mum’s brilliant tip – put the fat in a mixing bowl then stand it in a sink filled with hot water, along with the beater attachment if you’re using a freestanding mixer.

While that’s going on, grease and line two 8in (20 cm) sandwich tins. Triple sift the flour and baking powder (from Claire’s recipe for light-as-a-feather sponge), and lightly beat the eggs.

When the butter or margarine is soft enough, beat it with the sugar until it goes pale and fluffy. If it all sticks to the beater attachment, the fat is still too cold, so put the bowl back into the hot water.

Slowly add a little egg (about a tbsp) and then a little flour. If your mixture looks curdled, don’t throw away the whole bowlful (as I, ahem, have in the past). The cake will just come out a bit heavier as some of the air has been lost.

Keep adding egg and flour then add the vanilla essence. Buy the best you can or it will taste seriously artificial (there’s a reason why one bottle is 39p and the other is £3.90).

Pour the mixture into the two tins, giving them a little shake to level the mixture. Put them on the same shelf in the oven and cook for 20-25 minutes until a skewer comes out clean. Let someone you love lick the bowl.

Leave the cakes to cool for 10 minutes then turn out onto a rack. Put the cake you’re using as a base upside down, so the domed top flattens down. Leave them to cool completely.

Finish the cake by spreading the base with jam, then topping with strawberry slices (arranging them so the points stick out the sides). Smear cream over the other top part of the sandwich then put on top. Dust with icing sugar and decorate with a few strawberry slices.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Lemon thyme

I love my herb garden. Not in a passionate way but with a paternal tenderness that sees me pruning, watering and feeding at any time of day. A new infant to this nursery (in the tiniest incarnation of the word – we’re talking two window-boxes and a couple of pots) is lemon thyme. I found it at Clifton Nurseries, an upmarket garden centre in London’s Little Venice, densely stocked with elegant plants and beautiful accessories (the multi-coloured bistro chairs rock).

As the name suggests, this herb smells like lemon and tastes like lemon. I use it when I want Mediterranean flavour with added zing, like mixed into chicken or fish marinades or scattered over chargrilled vegetables. Pair it with goat’s cheese and the two will do an accomplished dance on your taste buds. But in a scone? Absolutely, and besides it’s time to lay a baking disaster to rest (we all have them, feel free to share yours).

The first time I made scones was a disaster. Flat and dry, my pallid offerings were a gift for Granny Smith, who was seriously ill with cancer. She gamely ate one and then gently dispatched me to the kitchen to unearth the Be-Ro Home Recipes book, a 1950s relic of simpler days when lard was plentiful and scones rose. ‘The woman who can cook well and bake well has every reason and every right to be proud of her cooking’, reads the intro. Sounds like a challenge.

Seven years later, I’ve dusted off that book to give this recipe a tried-and-tested backbone as well as some wholesome sentiment. ‘In 99 cases out of 100 she has a happy home’, it states, ‘because good cooking means good food, and good food means good health.’ I’ll butter a scone to that.

Lemon thyme and goat’s cheese scones

Makes up to 16

225g self raising flour
½ tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
40g margarine or butter
100g soft goat’s cheese
1 large handful lemon thyme
About ¼ pt milk

The oven needs to be hot so preheat to 220°C fan/200°C/Gas 6.

Sift the flour, salt and baking powder into a mixing bowl as this will get lots of air into the mixture.

Remove the hard stalks from the lemon thyme and roughly chop the leaves and soft stems. With a rolling pin, lightly bash the leaves to release the oil (this works brilliantly with mint leaves and I think it does the same with thyme), then stir them into the flour.

Add the margarine or butter to the bowl then rub into the flour until the mixture looks like fine breadcrumbs.

Cut 75g of soft goat’s cheese into cubes, add to the mixture and gently rub in. Pour in enough milk (around 80ml-100ml) until you have a soft dough.

Roll out on a floured surface to around 2cm thick then cut into rounds with a cutter. I used a 5cm one for bite-sized scones. Place onto an oiled baking tray and brush with milk. Bake for 8-10 minutes until golden.

Put onto a cooling rack. Lightly whip the rest of the goat’s cheese until it looks like cream then serve with the warm buttered scones.