Sunday, 26 July 2009

The morning after the crime scene before

Courgette muffinSpice cookie

Last night we sat in our friends Riccardo and Alastair’s garden sipping watermelon martinis among the pots of lavender as the sun dipped behind St Mary’s church spire. Barney and Elliot, (the boys’ handsome black-and-white cocker spaniel and Barney’s most beloved friend) tumbled around the terrace. Candles flickered in lanterns and the Noisettes’ Wild Young Hearts drifted through the French windows. It was a perfect summer’s evening.


Then Lady de B’s phone rang. At that time on Saturday evening, it would normally be someone enquiring where the party was. But it wasn’t. It was the police saying the alarm was going off at her house a mile or so away. Sean and Lady de B took off to investigate, leaving the rest of us to finish off the martinis and speculate about what kind of athletic act Lady de B’s cat, Whisky, must have got up to to set off the alarm.

Sean called to say there really had been a break in. Nothing had been taken – the thief panicked when the alarm went off and had broken the large window at the front of the house in his haste to get away. They were waiting for someone to come and board up the window, so the five of us headed off down the Kingsland Road to keep them company.

We set the table and ordered takeaway from the local Thai restaurant, so by the time the boarding up men got there, we were sitting down to a feast of green chicken curry, beef satay and coconut rice. I’ve never been to a better catered crime scene, nor one where the champagne flowed so freely. Lady de B, you are a hostess to your bones and the perfidious fiend who attempted to breach the manoir last night is in for some seriously bad karma. At the very least, a life of sunken soufflés and wrinkled table linen, which I know is your own vision of purgatory.

This morning, I was feeling a bit fragile. I was good only for a long bubble bath with a fat paperback followed by a slightly wobbly attempt at a manicure. By this afternoon I was feeling a little brighter so some restorative baking was in order – a few muffins to snack on and cookies to nibble during the week. When the going gets tough, the tough get baking…

Courgette and Pine Nut Muffins


These were a bit experimental so this mixture makes 17, not a nice, neat dozen. If I were capable of complicated maths at this point, I would have played around with the quantities, but hey, it’s Sunday.

Just one bite

300g plain flour, sieved
40g jumbo oats
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
1-2 tsp flaky sea salt, depending on the saltiness of your Parmesan
A few grinds of black pepper
6 big leaves of basil, shredded
2 eggs
375ml whole milk yoghurt
60g unsalted butter, melted and cooled
90g Parmesan, coarsely grated, plus another 20g to sprinkle on the top
270g courgettes, coarsely grated
70g cup pine nuts, toasted
90g sultanas

Preheat the oven to 200C/400f/Gas mark 6. Line two muffin tins with 17 paper cases.

Grated courgette

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, oats, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, salt, pepper, basil and Parmesan. In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, yoghurt and butter. Pour over the dry ingredients and stir with a spatula until roughly combined – don’t overmix. Add the courgettes, pine nuts and sultanas and stir until just evenly distributed.

Stiring the batter Adding the cougettes, sultanas and pine nutsReady for the oven

Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin cups, filling each about ¾ full, and sprinkle over the rest of the Parmesan. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the middle of a muffin comes out clean, 16-18 minutes. Cool in the pan on a wire rack for a couple of minutes then turn out onto the rack. Eat them warm or store them, when they’re completely cooled, in an airtight container for up to two days. They freeze well for up to one month.

Spice cookies

Making cookies

It’s a miserable sort of day today. When I lived in Scotland, I learned to call this kind of weather ‘dreich’, a word that perfectly describes this wearisome combination of overcast, drizzly and cold. Spice cookies were the order of the day. I based this recipe in one I found in a French baking book. I upped the spice quota a bit and added some espresso and the combination was pretty good.

Makes about 28 cookies

90g unsalted butter
30g light Muscovado sugar
80g honey
200g plain flour
1tsp baking powder
1tsp ground cinnamon
1tsp ground ginger
½ tsp ground cardamom
¼ tsp espresso-ground coffee (optional)
A pinch of cloves
A good pinch of salt

For the glaze:

150g icing sugar, sieved
1tbsp lemon juice
1tbsp water

Preheat the oven to 150C/300F/Gas mark 2.

Measuring the batter Ready to bake

Melt together the butter, sugar and honey in a saucepan and let it cool a little. Tip in the flour, spices, espresso and salt and beat together until you have a smooth batter. Roll the batter into balls of about 1.5cm diameter. Place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment, a couple of centimetres apart. Bake for about 18 minutes until lightly golden. While they’re cooking, make the glaze by beating together the icing sugar, lemon juice and water. Brush the glaze onto the cookies while they’re still warm and leave to cool completely on a wire rack.

Glazed cookies

Thursday, 23 July 2009

A (fish) bone of contention…

Politeness is the flower of humanity.
Joseph Joubert

Maggie Beer's Salmon with Pea Salsa

I know, I know, I should have walked around the corner and bought my salmon from The Fishery on the High Street like I usually do. Not only would I have got a lovely piece of fish rather than the scraggy tail-end bits I ended up with, I also might have got a smile from Danny who owns the joint and shared a joke with his dad, Johnny, who seems to have been put upon this earth to increase the jollity of the masses. But what can I say? I was in a hurry, so I popped into Wholefoods on Church Street instead.

I just got Maggie Beer’s new book, Maggie’s Kitchen, and I was oh so keen to try her Salmon with Pea Salsa. All I needed were the salmon steaks and there they were in the chiller cabinet, not as thick as I’d like but hey, ho. I couldn’t tell if they had the skin on or not, so I asked a nearby assistant if they did.


Is that the merest suggestion of an eye roll, or is it just me being hypersensitive? Erm, no, I’m not. Apparently, I’m very stupid. ‘Well it doesn’t matter does it, as it only takes a second to take the skin off.’ She’s looking at me like I’m probably not to be trusted with sharp objects. ‘But I need it with the skin on,’ I explain meekly. More eye rolling (honey, you’ll get wrinkles) and much prodding of the packaging to try and flip the fish over. ‘There, it’s got skin, you can see it,’ she thrusts it at me and I’m sure she’s speaking a little slower to compensate for my dimness. ‘Perhaps they should put whether it’s skinned or not on the label,’ I brave. At this point, I am obviously a complete moron. ‘Why do you need that? When. You. Can. See. It.’ Hmmm.

I’d love to stay and explain that - in my 20 years of working around food, reading about it, writing about it, cooking it – encouraging customers to poke and prod at something as delicate as fish is probably not a good idea. But if I am to continue to enjoy the Wholefoods experience, I really need to get back to work to pay for it.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some great people filling the shelves there. The produce guy is lovely and you couldn’t buy shampoo from a more charming person than the German woman who’s queen of the natural remedies section. Forget the lavender oil, she makes me feel calmer just looking at her. But some of the others … As my friend Virginia would say, ‘I see we’re going to have to build an extension on that charm school’.

P.S. Danny, Johnny, please forgive my cheating heart, or wallet. I promise I won’t make the same mistake again.

Maggie Beer’s Salmon with Pea Salsa

Maggie Beer’s my Aussie food heroine. I love her bold flavours, passion for eating seasonally and must-make-it-right-now recipes. This salmon’s a winner – simple enough for a midweek dinner, elegant enough to place it in front of fussy guests without fear.

I came home to find my chervil had withered away and died - and in the recent combination of sweltering heat followed by torrential rain, even hailstones, who can blame it? So I hacked away at my seemingly invincible parsley instead and it tasted great. I think the salsa would also be good with mint in place of the chervil, a sort of posh mushy peas, but then I’m Northern.

4x140g salmon steaks, skin-on (Got that, skin on!)
Flaky sea salt
Extra virgin olive oil for trickling over the top
10g unsalted butter
Juice of 1 lemon
Chervil sprigs and lemon wedges to serve

30g unsalted butter
Extra virgin olive oil, for cooking
2 golden shallots, finely chopped
¾ cup chicken stock
1 ½ cups frozen peas
1 sprig chervil
Flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Pea cavalcade You know how sometimes you say things aloud which should probably have remained in your head? I once announced on a radio show that ‘A day without peas is like a day without sunshine,’ something my friends tease me about to this day. I don’t mind really. Because it’s true.

For the salsa, melt the butter in a deep frying pan with a little olive oil over a medium heat, then add the shallots and sauté for 10 minutes or until translucent. Meanwhile, bring the chicken stock to the boil in a small saucepan.

Add the peas and chervil (or parsley, or even mint) to the shallots, then, when the peas have thawed, add the hot chicken stock and bring to the boil. Remove from the heat and leave to cool slightly. Puree the pea mixture in a blender (or use a mouli if you have one), then season with salt and pepper if you like.

Peas in the mini chopper

Heat a large frying pan over a medium heat. Season the skin-sides of the steaks with salt. Add a splash of olive oil to the hot pan, then cook the fish, skin-side down, for two minutes or until the skin is crisp and you can see from the side that they are cooked at least halfway through.

Season the other side of the fish with salt, then quickly wipe the pan with a paper towel, drop in the butter and, when melted, gently turn the salmon over, using either a palette knife or spatula. Immediately remove the pan from the heat, then leave the steaks to sit in the hot pan for five minutes. The centre of the fish should be just set or a little rare.

Place the salmon steak on each plate, then top each with a spoonful of pea salsa. Squeeze over the lemon juice, sprinkle with chervil and drizzle with a little olive oil, then serve with lemon wedges on the side.

TIP To get a nice, crisp skin on fish, warm the pan over a medium-high heat, add a tiny splash of oil, and then put the fish into the pan, skin-side-down. Then wait. Don’t poke and prod at it. When it moves easily, the skin is seared and crisp and you can turn it over easily.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Dogs, biscuits and birthdays

Peanut Butter and Chocolate Chip Biscuits
The only thing I ever miss about working in an office is those sentences which begin ‘Oh my God, you won’t believe what happened last night’. I love working on my laptop at the kitchen counter while something delicious bubbles on the stove, popping out to water my herbs in between emails, catching an old episode of Gilmore Girls over lunch. (Have you seen Suki’s culinary marvels – I consider it essential research. At least that’s what I tried to explain to my accountant when I attempted to include a receipt for the Special Edition Box Set with my tax return.)
Since we got Barney, I don’t even have to miss out on those water cooler moments. Each morning, you can find me in the park with a dozen or so people and even more dogs catching up on local scandal, swapping recipes, scribbling down film and book recommendations, sharing expertise on anything from computers to ridding your wardrobe of cashmere-crazed moths – all the while trying to avoid the ducklings in spring and the deepest, muddiest puddles in winter.
We are plumbers and teachers, opera singers and mums, actors and life coaches, social workers and publicans, decorators and gardeners…All sorts really, a bit like the dogs, who range in size from Toy Terrier to Great Dane. Mark, king of the dog walkers, is our glorious leader and Clissold Park’s answer to Cesar Milan. He loves the odd drink, an occasional cigarette and has a passion for the choreography of Matthew Bourne. Actually, what I wanted to write was ‘booze, fags and ballet’ as it scans so nicely, but that makes him sound like a lush with a tutu fetish. This may or may not be true, but he’s the one I phone at nine o’clock at night begging for a bit of doggy day care for the next morning and he always says yes. This is not something I ever wish to jeopardise. For one thing, Barney would never forgive me. And for another, Michelin-starred chefs don’t really care for scruffy terriers in their dining rooms.
Strangely, my park popularity seems commensurate with the amount of baked good I have about my person. (On a couple of slobbery occasions, this has included treats for the dogs too.) It’s my birthday today, so I thought I might make something sweet to eat with our take-away cups of cappuccino. The coffee’s so wretched you need something to take the taste away. Brake fluid would do it, but I thought Peanut Butter and Chocolate Chip Biscuits would be better.
Peanut Butter and Chocolate Chip Biscuits

All racked up

This is one of my favourite recipes from one of my favourite baking books, Rose Carrarini’s Breakfast Lunch Tea: The Many Little Meals of the Rose Bakery. If you’re ever in Paris, do seek out this wonderful Anglo-French café. It’s tucked away on the rue des Martyrs, conveniently close to the Gare du Nord for refuelling before you get on the Eurostar.
I’ve doubled the quantities for the biscuits (25 wouldn’t have even got us close to completing essential discussions on the latest Hackney Council lunacy), so it was a bit of a struggle to get everything into my mixer by the time I added the chocolate. I just stirred it by hand and it was fine. At least I had no complaints and that park lot can be picky. They may, however, have had their critical faculties dulled by the sight of Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, Ed Balls, doing an enthusiastic Hokey Cokey at his kids’ sports day which was taking place in the dog-free area at the time. ‘You put your expense claim in, expense claim out. In, out, in out, your career is in doubt. You flip your secondary residence and you shake it all about…’
Makes about 50

400g (scant 2 cups) unsalted butter, softened, plus extra for greasing
400g (2 cups) crunchy peanut butter
500g (2 ½ cups) soft light brown sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
4 eggs
670g (4 ½ cups) plain flour, sieved, plus extra for dusting
2 tsp salt – I used Halen Môn vanilla salt as I love it with chocolaty things, but any salt will do
2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
500g chocolate, chopped
The ingredients
The observant among you may notice a little bowl of raisins in this collection of ingredients. I’d measured everything out and realised I was 100g short on the chocolate, so added a few raisins to make up the weight. Not bad, but not chocolate…
Pretty eggs
Lovely Burford Brown eggs from Clarence Court
Chunky chocolate
Make sure you keep the chocolate quite chunky. Use whole bars and chop them up rather than miserly chocolate chips.
Beat the butter with the peanut butter and sugar until light, then add the vanilla extract. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition and scraping down the bowl and beater between each egg. Fold in the flour and salt. Mix the bicarbonate of soda with two teaspoons of hot water and quickly add this to the mixture. Finally, fold in the chocolate. Try to stop yourself from eating too much of the dough.
Mix it upAdd an egg or fourMixing in the chocolate by hand
Divide the dough into batches of about 300g (11oz). On a lightly floured surface, roll each batch out into a log about 4cm (1 ½ inches) wide, wrap and chill in the fridge for a couple of hours until hard. If you don’t want to bake it all at once, wrap the extra logs in cling film and freeze. You can cook them straight from frozen, just add a minute or two to the cooking time.
Rolled up and ready to chillKeep the slices thick
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/ Gas mark 4. Butter your baking trays and line them with baking parchment. If you’re making the full amount, you’ll need to do this in batches, so only cut enough dough for each batch. Leave the rest in the fridge until you’re ready to bake them. Cut the dough into slices about 10mm thick (½ an inch) and place them well apart on the trays. Bake them for 10-12 minutes until pale golden – don’t overbake or the texture will be dry. Cool on a rack. Take to the park, to the office, anywhere a conversation is likely to begin with ‘Oh my God, you won’t believe what happened last night’.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Bottling joy, an every day experience

Apricot jam

What do you do when you have loads of fruit? Make jam. Lady de B and I bought most of the fruit for Stuart’s party at New Covent Garden Market as it was cheaper to buy a whole tray wholesale than a few punnets retail. This meant we had lots left over. So on Tuesday night, we got together for our own little preserves festival. In a few hours, we had a shelf full of strawberry jam, raspberry jam and apricot and vanilla jam, along with peach and almond chutney to go with the cheeses at Paula’s wedding in September. We were a two-woman WI.

Preparing peach and almond chutney.From this.

One of the (many) things I love about Lady de B is that she’s my autodial person for produce. When rhubarb, blackcurrants, quince, medlars or walnuts arrive in the market, I can call her in a high state of excitement and she doesn’t think I’m mad. And it’s a reciprocal agreement. In January, I got a near-breathless call from her announcing she’d seen Seville oranges in Borough Market. The marmalade season was upon us. I dug out the preserving pan, stocked up on sugar, fished out a box of jars from the cellar.

The day before our planned marmalade extravaganza, Séan was admitted to hospital and my life of gentle, joyful domesticity vanished for five sombre weeks. The ping of the kitchen timer was replaced with the beep-beep-beep of monitors. I was in a foreign land of blue linoleum corridors and waiting. Waiting for tests, waiting for results, waiting to speak to consultants, all the time my mouth filled with the sour taste of fear.

Our friends and families were wonderful. His room was filled with cards and visitors. Flowers and fruit arrived in amounts that would have done New Covent Garden proud. We watched movies, reruns of Friends, Obama’s joyful inauguration. We played Scrabble, read, held hands. Lady de B even smuggled Barney into the little garden at the back of the hospital so man and dog could share a few happy hours together. Friends invited me for supper, picked up laundry, walked the dog, fed the cats.

But each evening, home alone, I felt raw with longing for our ordinary life together. Eating dinner, going to the flower market, planning parties and holidays. It seemed like a distant country. Looking back was too painful; looking forward too full of terrifying uncertainty. Every night, as I spooned chopped fruit into Tupperware boxes and washed pyjamas for the next day, I felt numb.

Now he’s home and well and I feel a small rush of happiness every day at 7pm when I hear his key turn in the lock. He still drives me mad. Within a one metre radius of the laundry basket is not the same as in the laundry basket. Unless we’ve received some sort of nature reserve status of which I’m unaware, that lawn needs cutting. A few light bulbs in the hallway chandelier would be nice. It’s normal.

On Tuesday night - as Vanessa and I chopped and stirred, filling the kitchen with sweet, spicy clouds of steam - I felt joyful, as if I were bottling happiness. Forget fancy cars, diamonds and designer shoes. Curling up under our Moroccan blanket on the sofa to watch a film, breakfast together in the park on Saturday mornings, Sundays spent reading the paper, drinking tea and talking nonsense with friends, a few jars of jam. These are my riches, my bounty, my daily blessings.

Apricot and vanilla jam

Apricot jam on hot-buttered home-made toast Apricot jam on my homemade raisin and walnut bread.

We created this recipe from Lady de B’s copy of Mrs Beeton which was given to her mother by her grandmother and then passed on to her. I couldn’t resist adding a few tweaks, as I prefer French-style softer set jams which contain less sugar and really allow the fruit to shine. If you prefer a thicker, English-style jam, simply increase the weight of the sugar so you have the same amount of sugar as fruit and boil a little longer. We also added some vanilla because, well, how can that ever be a bad thing?

Makes about 20 jars

2kg apricots
1.8kg sugar
Juice of a lemon
250ml water
2 vanilla pods, split lengthways
A small knob of unsalted butter

Halve the apricots (reserving a small handful of kernels) and layer them in your pan with the sugar, lemon juice and vanilla pods. Pour over the water and leave to macerate for an hour or so. While you’re waiting, put a few saucers in the freezer and crack the reserved kernels. Blanch the white, almondy bit inside the kernels in some boiling water for a minute and put them on one side.

Warm the apricot mixture over a low heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar then boil rapidly until the setting point is reached. You know you’re there when a dollop of jam on one of the chilled saucers wrinkles when you push it with your finger. I like to take it off the heat when it just starts to wrinkle as it’s so hot it continues to cook a bit afterwards. Add the blanched kernels. Don't bother skimming off any scum that forms, just stir in a bit of butter at the end which will disperse it. Spoon into warm, sterilised jars and seal. We also retrieved the vanilla pods, snipped them into smaller pieces and added the pieces to some of the jars.

A good night's work

Our little harvest festival of chutneys and jams.

Monday, 6 July 2009

It takes a village …

Patriot jellies
Our friend Stuart could be the sweetest person I know. He has a supernatural ability to divine whether an occasion merits a cup of tea or a stiff gin, he remembers birthdays, charms small children, sends puppies and kittens into paroxysms of joy just by his gentle presence. He’s also gloriously handsome, a quality he wears as carelessly as an old overcoat. Stuart’s always taking care of everyone else so we couldn’t let his 30th birthday pass by without, for once, taking care of him, fêting his fortuitous presence in our lives in a fittingly exuberant manner.
Lady de B and I decided a few weeks ago that we would host a party for him in her garden. He’s Australian, so we thought a posh surf and turf barbecue would be appropriate, a late lunch starting at three o’clock. Simple.
Lady de B and I spent days connected by the umbilical cord of telephone, email and Blackberry discussing the merits of raspberries over passion fruit, marinades or rubs, platters or bowls. We knew we couldn’t do it alone, so we called in the troops. Helder and Steve wired the garden for lights and sound; Kim sent over a restaurant’s worth of white china; Séan got up at 5am to collect flowers and fruit from New Covent Garden market; James spent Saturday morning blowing up inflatable kangaroos and hanging them from the trees along with enough flags and bunting to do an ocean liner proud; Paul ran around town collecting loaves, meringues and prawns; Sarah graciously served up lychee martinis and elastoplasts into the early hours; Alex and the beautiful seňoritas washed a mountain of dishes. We ate and drank and danced until three in the morning.
P1160281Sunny startTime to stop taking pictures!
And then, on Sunday, we did it all again. Ten of us assembled to tidy up and rehash the scandals of the night before. It was a beautiful day so we laid the table in the garden and served up a banquet of leftovers and gossip. By seven o’clock, as we sipped reviving glasses of Sauternes and spooned soft Valençay cheese onto slices of walnut bread, I think we all felt very lucky indeed, blessed in the friendships that have steered us through heartbreak and triumph to find us all together, sitting in the dappled sunshine on a Sunday afternoon in July.
Feet up the next day…All relaxed

Stuart’s birthday menu
Stuart’s birthday spread ~
Bellinis and Kir Royale
Muhamarra ~
Bagna Cauda
Radishes with butter & sea salt
Marinated olives
Roasted Chickpeas
~Rib of beef with mustard & horseradish crust ~
Rib of beef with mustard & horseradish crust
Roasted Carliston chillies
Hard core prawns
Director & Lincolnshire sausages
Sweet potato gratin
Roasted aubergine & tahini salad
Roasted beetroot & feta salad
Mange tout, green bean, hazelnut & orange salad
Minted new potatoes
Green salad
Pavlova with summer fruits
Patriot jellies
Chocolate dipped strawberries
Lychee martinis
Colston Bassett Stilton
English & Irish goat cheeses
Homemade de Beauvoir pear chutney
Figs and sultana grapes
Saturday’s pavlova becomes Sunday’s Eton Mess, eaten from one big plate in the middle of the table, with ten spoons.
Eton messEton Mess going.......gone
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