Tuesday 29 December 2009

Going home

 Snowy Tree

The River Gaunless

Bishop's Park

P1050244A snowy walk in the Bishop’s Park

  Auckland CastleA dozen years ago we were married in this chapel. Catching a glimpse of it in the winter sunshine always makes me smile.

So eventually we got here, the car packed with cat and dog and niece who needed a lift, gifts and galoshes, thermoses of coffee and orange-scented hot chocolate, sharp knives and soft blankets, bottles of port and jars of mincemeat, driving north through the snow and sleet with heating and Christmas carols on full blast.

We took a detour on our 300 mile journey to collect our Essex bird, that most important of Christmas guests. In the pre-Christmas frenzy to meet work deadlines, the one deadline I missed was the last mail order date for the turkey from Kelly Bronze. Years ago, I did a telephone interview with Paul Kelly for a magazine. After 20 minutes, I knew more about turkeys than I did about some members of my family. He was the perfect interviewee – passionate, informed, funny – and writing up the piece was a doddle. The next day, the picture editor rang. She asked, ‘Paul Kelly, did you interview him in person or over the phone?’ Oh God, I thought, the pictures have come in, he looks like Essex’s own Gollum and they won’t run the piece. ‘Erm, no, it was over the phone.’ ‘Well,’ she said, ‘I’m looking at the pictures now and I’m telling you, he’s the George Clooney of turkeys’.

The turkey collected from TGCOT has been devoured by a happy crowd, leftovers turned into pasta sauce and the bones into stock. Mountains of wrapping paper, so carefully and fleetingly folded around books and sweaters and bottles of scent, have been concertina’d into the recycling bin. The Christmas cake is down to its last, ragged slices.

I wanted a picture of my grandmother in her nurse’s uniform. This afternoon, mum and I hauled out boxes of old photographs and sat by the study fire going through them. A picture of my great grandfather, darkly handsome with his waxed moustache, stout great aunts in their Sunday best, my grandfather, smiling, in tennis whites, my parents looking impossibly young cutting their wedding cake, my mother in her fur-collared leather coat with me, a symphony to the 70s in a brightly coloured kilt and horizontal striped jumper, my brother with his first, miraculous, salmon, longer than his own arm. Time passing in the length of a hem, the curl of a fringe, the narrowing of a collar. Decades apart, a familiar curve of a brow or tilt of a nose, the same strong hands.

Family Photos

Sometimes, it’s the unpresents that are the best. My mother is more likely to cook up a good story than she is a cake. She cleared out a whole cupboard of glass cake plates, jugs and butter dishes and gave them to me in a big, glittering pile. Years ago, with two young children to care for, an old house to furnish and little money, my parents used to frequent the local auction house, where a book case might come complete with the previous owner’s Penguin classics, a sofa as a job lot with a box of china. These plates and jugs have graced tea tables not our own and have been hidden away for 30 years. I’m looking forward to giving them a brand new life in the big city.

Glass set for London

I hope you shared some old stories this Christmas, and made some new ones too. My great grandfather sent my great grandmother hundreds of postcards from France during the First World War. He always signed off in the same way. ‘I hope this finds you as it leaves me, in the pink.’ And I do. And I am.

Monday 9 November 2009

A bowl of cheerfulness

Lentil Soup
I spent a wonderful, woolly-jumpered day yesterday planting my tulips (fiery orange Ballerina and deepest purple Queen of Night for the back garden and pretty, stripy Spring Green for the front), lots of pom-pomy purple alliums and a huge basketful of Cheerfulness, that most appropriately named of daffodils.

And, thrillingly - to me, at least - I dug over beds, tugged out tough old roots and bits of rubble to make spaces for my new fruit bushes, Malling Jewel raspberries, Ben Lomond blackcurrants and Versailles Blanche whitecurrants. I could plant them for their names alone. I know, I know, it’s the horticultural equivalent of picking a horse because you like its name or the colours of the jockey’s silks, but I’ve funded many a day at the races that way (much to my form-following friends’ annoyance) so I hope this little experiment will prove just as successful.

It’s been a blustery old weekend so I retreated to the kitchen often, covered in muck and virtue, to warm up a bit and give my soup a stir.

Trolling the aisles of Waitrose the other day, I found an intriguing bag of pulses, Cerreto’s Organic Minestrone with Kamut Soup mixture. I love beans and pulses, not just for their beautiful names – adzuki, borlotti, cannellini, flageolet, haricot (cf plants, horses) – but for the way they look like tiny, brightly-coloured sea-washed pebbles while soaking in their bowl of water; their toothsome texture in soups and salads and the amiable way in which they take on the flavours of their culinary companions. They’re perfect for winter soups like this one…

Winter minestrone

Lentil Soup - Spooned

I hate to throw anything out until I’ve squeezed the last glimmer of possibility out of it. When I’ve grated Parmesan down to the rind, I bag the rind up and pop it in the freezer to add flavour to soups later on. And I’m afraid my thrift doesn’t end there – when I’ve fished it out of the soup, I dry it out and cut it into tiny morsels which become Barney's favourite treat ever, even better, I’m afraid to say, than Doggy Breath Bones.

You need to start this soup the day before, by soaking the beans and pulses, but after that it’s simplicity itself.

Serves 6.

1 tbsp olive oil
3 slices of unsmoked bacon or pancetta cut into 2cm pieces
2 onions, finely diced
2 carrots, finely diced
1 stick of celery, finely diced
3 cloves of garlic, halved and finely sliced
1 500g packet of Cerreto Organic Minestrone with Kamut Soup mixture (or your own favourite combination of dried peas, barley, lentils, red lentils, kamut, chickpeas, black beans, green adzuki beans, cannellini beans, haricot beans, red kidney beans) soaked in plenty of cold water for 12 hours
1 bouquet garni – a few stalks of parsley and some sprigs of thyme tied together with a bay leaf
2.25 l good chicken or vegetable stock
Parmesan – a rind for seasoning if possible, some more for grating over the top
A handful of parsley leaves, tough stalks removed and finely chopped
Some fruity extra virgin olive oil for trickling over the top
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Warm the olive oil in a large saucepan over a medium heat. Add the bacon or pancetta and fry until they just begin to take on some colour. Remove it from the pan and set aside while you sauté the vegetables in the oil and bacony fat. Lower the temperature a bit and add the onions. Cook them very gently until they’re soft and translucent, about 15 minutes. Add the carrots and celery and cook, stirring, for about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for a minute. Drain the beans and add to the pot with the bacon or pancetta, bouquet garni, stock and Parmesan rind if using. Simmer very gently, partially covered, for 2 hours. Stir the soup from time to time and top up with a little boiling water from the kettle if it looks a bit dry. The beans should be very tender. Remove the Parmesan rind and bouquet garni. Stir in the parsley and season well with salt and lots of black pepper. Ladle into warmed bowls, grate over some Parmesan and trickle on a little good olive oil.

Wednesday 4 November 2009

For Fawkes’ Sake

Chocolate Gingerbread

Remember, remember the fifth of November,
The gunpowder, treason and plot,
I know of no reason
Why the gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t'was his intent
To blow up King and Parli'ment.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England's overthrow;
By God's providence he was catch'd
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, let the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!

My seasonal sparkler of a friend, Sarah, is having a Bonfire Night party tomorrow. Séan’s shopping for the biggest firework he can find (it’s what men do to keep themselves busy once the barbecue season’s over) and I’ve been thinking about a sweet offering which will appeal to the grown ups as well as Sarah and Robert’s gorgeous kids, Louis, Rose and Sonny.

I’ve been dying to make Dorie Greenspan’s Fresh Ginger and Chocolate Gingerbread ever since Karen declared it the best she’d ever tasted. She is a woman whose judgment I trust in all things. And besides, it contains both of the major food groups, chocolate and ginger (fresh, ground and stem, oh glorious triumvirate). Just the thing to keep the cold out and the spirits up on a chilly November evening in North London.

You can find this recipe in Dorie’s bowl-lickingly wonderful book, Baking From My Home To Yours or online here, at Serious Eats.

P1170829I have 18 cute-orama mini tins, oval and rectangular, so I decided to use those rather than bake the gingerbread in one, big square. If you want to try this, bake them for 15-17 minutes until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean. Cool in the tins for four or five minutes before turning out onto a wire rack. You’ll need twice as much icing, too.

Sunday 25 October 2009

Doodles on a Saturday Morning

Mark cuts the cake Mark cuts the cake, the regalia of office around his neck. Love him. If I didn’t have a dog, I might have to pay him to walk me.

I fell down a rabbit hole. A rabbit hole with desks and computers and phones which, for the past two weeks, held me captive from morning ‘til night (some of you may recognise this strange phenomenon as the thing they call ‘a job’). I came home, ate dinner - something on toast, something swirled into pasta - and began my second shift, tackling my usual workload late into the evening. So blogging came a poor second or third or fourth after, oh, sleep and stumbling, bleary eyed, into the shower. But now I’m back in the room, or at least the kitchen. Normal service will be resumed.

Yesterday morning, our presence was required at a most unusual wedding breakfast. Our dear friend and dog walker, Mark, was celebrating his civil partnership ceremony with his dapper darling, Ian, at lunchtime. But dogs still need to be exercised, even on special days, so Lindsay and Chris had the inspired idea of hijacking Gomez and Nico’s walk with a little party in the park.

At 8.30am on a damp and misty morning, smoked salmon bagels, cake, champagne and juice were laid out on Mark’s favourite bench. A happy crowd of people and dogs gathered beneath the dripping oaks and chestnuts to surprise the normally stoical, unflappable Mark. It was touching to note his usual bellow - a bellow that can halt a speeding hound hell bent on raiding a shopping trolley or stealing a sandwich at 300 metres - was temporarily silenced.

Doggie Group

Doggie Group 2

Dogs at play Dogs aren’t quite as good at standing still as their owners.

Mark’s Wedding Breakfast Chocodoodles

Beth and a doodle Beth tucks into a doodle.

Lee is our hand model

You don’t think such an auspicious morning could pass without a baked offering from me do you? Given the rabbit hole situation, it had to be something I could throw together quickly, so I went for Nigella’s Snickerdoodles from How to be a Domestic Goddess. Substituting some of the flour for cocoa turns them into Chocodoodles, which seemed appropriate. Not just because chocolate is always a good thing, but because the park is full of labradoodles, chocolate and otherwise – they’re the Staffordshire Bull Terriers of the middle classes. Yes, Polly, I’m talking to you.

225g plain flour
25g cocoa
½ tsp ground nutmeg
¾ tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
125g unsalted butter, at room temperature
100g, plus 2 tbsps caster sugar
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tbsp ground cinnamon
2 baking sheets, lined or greased

Makes about 30.

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas mark 4.

Sift the flour, cocoa, nutmeg, baking powder and salt into a bowl. Set aside. In a large bowl, cream the butter and 100g sugar together until light, pale and fluffy, then beat in the egg and vanilla. Now stir in the dry ingredients until you have a smooth, coherent mixture. Spoon the remaining sugar and cinnamon onto a plate. Roll the dough into walnut sized pieces and then roll them in the cinnamon-sugar mixture and arrange on your baking sheets.

Bake for 13-15 minutes. Leave to rest on the baking sheets for a minute and then transfer to a rack to cool.

Monday 5 October 2009

Happy endings

Lemon Possets When I brought these to the table, Beth instantly took a picture and sent it to her husband Tom. As he was on stage trying to make people laugh at the time, I’m sure he was thrilled.

It was my turn to host my book club. Normally, we have a wild and wonderful smörgåsbord, with everyone bringing a dish, but what with it being at my house and me being a control freak and everything, I couldn’t resist making the whole meal.

Some of us had been to see Julie and Julia together, so I decided on a simple French feast which would give me a chance to make Julia’s Boeuf Bourguignon again. (Do you do this too? If I love a dish, I often make it a few times in quite rapid succession so that my hands and eyes can ‘learn’ it.)

Dining Table Reading is thirsty work.


As a nibble to go with drinks, I made warm Rosemary Cashews from Ina Garten’s Barefoot in Paris. They’re so simple, they’ve become a staple in this house - as essential to the cocktail hour as ice and good vodka. I scattered 500g of unsalted cashews on a baking sheet and toasted them at 180C/350F/Gas mark 4 for eight minutes or so until they were golden and then tossed them in a tablespoon of melted butter, a tablespoon of flaky sea salt, two teaspoons of light Muscovado sugar, two tablespoons of finely minced rosemary and half a teaspoon of sweet, smoked paprika (Ina uses cayenne, but I didn’t have any in the drawer, so paprika it was). Serve warm and watch them vanish.

To start, I made a quick salad of leaves dressed in mustardy vinaigrette and put a couple of little toasts topped with grilled goat’s cheese and some finely sliced pickled sweet chilli peppers scattered over the top. For our main event, of course it was the glorious boeuf bourguignon with boiled fir apple potatoes and buttered peas (thank you, Louisette Bertholle).

As a sweet finale, I made lemon posset, that most traditional of English puddings. To create a little entente cordiale on the plate, I served them in those little glass yoghurt pots I hauled back from France in the summer and David Lebovitz’s flawless Lemon-Glazed Madeleines on the side. Just like the boeuf bourguignon, they were so meltingly delicious, they sent me into obsessive-compulsive overdrive and I couldn’t resist making them again the next day. I took a batch to the park as a Friday treat for my 9am dog walking posse (pack?) and they vanished quicker than you can say ‘fetch’.

Madeleines 2 My second batch of madeleines in two days.

PS We read Raymond Chandler’s Farewell my Lovely. By some miracle, when Séan came home from the football (Arsenal 2 Olympiakos 0 – come on you Gooners!) at 10pm, we were actually talking about the book.

Lemon Posset

Lemon Posset ‘It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.’

I made 75 of these for Paula and Jack’s wedding a few weeks ago. They’re the perfect dessert in my opinion, tart and sweet, rich but refreshing, so simple to make and yet they taste as though you’ve spent hours in the kitchen. Also, you can make them the day before, which is always a good thing.

600ml double cream
150g caster sugar or vanilla sugar
The juice of 2 large lemons

Serves 6

Pour the cream into a large saucepan (it will bubble up very enthusiastically - you have been warned) and add the sugar. Warm gently, stirring to dissolve the sugar, then bring to the boil and boil for exactly 3 minutes, without stirring. Remove from the heat and whisk in the lemon juice. Strain the mixture into a jug then pour into 6 small glasses. Cool, cover then refrigerate for 4 hours before serving.

Monday 28 September 2009


Cranberry & White chocolate muffins

When I was walking the hound in the park this morning, my friend Howard called with a delicious enquiry. He’s got a stand at a conference tomorrow and wanted to make his display stand out. He is a very wise man. He knows that baked goods refresh the parts Powerpoint cannot reach.

As Barney played ‘now you see me now you don’t’ in the fallen leaves, Howard and I decided on mini muffins. White chocolate and cranberry mini muffins, to be precise. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of white chocolate – toooo sweet – but I thought tart little cranberries would provide the perfect counterpoint. Once home, a quick Google brought up this easy treat of a recipe from the Waitrose site. I hope Howard’s clients enjoy them. I hope you do too.

White chocolate and cranberry mini muffins

100g plain flour
1 tsp mixed spice
50g Demerara sugar
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
75g white chocolate chips

75g dried cranberries
1 medium egg, beaten
150ml milk
50g butter, melted and cooled

To finish
100g white chocolate
25g dried cranberries, roughly chopped

Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/Gas mark 6. Line two 12-hole mini muffin tins with mini muffin or petit four cases.

Mix the dry ingredients, chocolate and cranberries in a bowl. Make a well in the centre. Mix the wet ingredients, pour into the dry and stir for about 20 seconds until you have a lumpy batter. Don't overmix. Spoon into the cases and bake for 15 minutes. Cool on a rack.

To finish, melt the chocolate in the microwave or in a bain marie, scrape into a polythene bag and cool so it thickens a little. Cut a tiny hole in the corner of the bag. Drizzle the chocolate over the muffins and top with dried cranberries. I had chocolate left over, so I criss-crossed the tops with skinny little lines to add a final flourish. The secret to doing this is to start piping your lines about an inch or so to the side of the cooling rack so by the time they hit the muffins, your lines are skinny rather than gloopy. It’s gloriously messy.

Sunday 27 September 2009

When life gives you lemons (and butter)…

Bramley Lemon Curd

After the wedding, I had lots of lemons and some lovely French butter left over so I decided to make a few jars of lemon curd. Is there anything more delicious, spread onto hot toast or spooned under a pillow of meringue in a pie? Is there anything more cheerful than a line of golden jars stacked up on a shelf? And I’ll be honest, I was in need of a bit of cheering up.

Oscar (Admilbu Meridian Dancer) in the Garden.Oscar
3rd January 2000 – 14th September 2009

Our little cat Oscar died. He’d been ill for quite a while, his sturdy frame diminished so he was light and bony as a bird, his once-plush fur rough and dull. A few weeks ago, he jumped down from his chair and his back legs gave out. He sprawled across the floor. I stayed up all night with him cradled in my arms, his head damp with my tears. In the morning, Séan nestled him into a carrying basket, lined with his Arsenal towel, for his final trip to the vet. I busied myself with mindless tasks, loading the dishwasher, folding the laundry, sweeping the floor, my skin prickly with grief.

An hour later, Séan called to say ‘We’re coming home’. So, despite having said goodbye to him, there he was back in the kitchen, walking like a slightly drunken sailor but happily tucking into his breakfast. He’d had some kind of stroke but the vet said he was in no pain and would adjust, could improve. We treasured the bonus of his final few weeks. He nudged up beside us on the sofa, licking our hands with his sandpaper tongue. On bright days he would find a patch of sunshine on the terrace and stretch out his skinny frame on the warm slate.

Colette wrote ‘There are no ordinary cats’. Oscar wasn’t the least bit ordinary. He was beguilingly handsome, with cashmere-soft fur in the richest shade of chocolate brown and bewitching jade green eyes. He had a profound sense of his own importance and would call nosily if he felt that his court (Séan and I) weren’t sufficiently attentive.

Oscar & Liberty With Liberty.

Delphi, Liberty & Oscar With Delphi and Liberty. Another day, another sofa…

When we first brought him home, a tiny kitten you could fit into one hand, we already had two cats, Delphi and Liberty. They weren’t too thrilled with this interloper. He was desperate to play with them, edging towards them unabashed by their hissing hostility. So I was delighted one morning when, as he tumbled about on our bed, Liberty jumped up and gave him a tentative lick. Did he stretch out with pleasure? Give her an affectionate nudge? No, he jabbed her clean across the nose with his paw. In later life, his favourite game was to lurk on the stairs when we had visitors, seducing them with his glorious good looks so that they would ruffle his fur through the banisters. He would purr, his whole body vibrating with pleasure, until the moment when he had drawn them in sufficiently so that they would press their faces against the wooden rails. At this point, invariably, he would give them a quick swipe with his paw and, on one notable occasion, bite them on the nose.

In his final weeks, Oscar was too frail to climb the stairs and spent his time on the ground floor. One evening, as I was making dinner, I couldn’t find him. I searched the dining room and sitting room. Séan looked upstairs. He discovered him three flights up at the top of the house. He had scaled his personal Everest and died on our bed. And that was Oscar. Get where you need to be or die trying.

I still look for him in the house, wait for him to swirl his way around my ankles when I come in the door, jump onto my desk and head butt me as I type. But his chair is empty. Kiddo, I miss you, you furry little fury. Living with you was a ten-year seminar in the fierce pursuit of pleasure, in hunting down the sunniest spot, the cosiest blanket, the tastiest morsel and the highest branch. It was an honour to be your devoted friend and servant.

I'm ready for my close up...

Our lovely vet Caroline sent us a card following Oscar’s death: ‘It was a real pleasure and privilege to treat Oscar over the years. He was a real character and was always so stoical ...’

Bramley lemon curd


This recipe is from River Cottage Handbook No.2: Preserves. It’s been my great pleasure to meet the book’s author, Pam Corbin, a couple of times. She teaches wonderful preserving classes down at River Cottage, where she’s known affectionately as ‘Pam the Jam’. She says of this wonderful curd ‘It’s like eating apples and custard: softly sweet, tangy and quite, quite delicious’. She is quite, quite right. I hope you’ll enjoy it too.

Makes 5 x 225g jars.

450g Bramley apples, peeled, cored and chopped
Finely grated zest and juice of 2 unwaxed lemons (you need 100ml strained juice)
125g unsalted butter
450g granulated sugar
4-5 large eggs, well beaten (you need 200ml beaten egg)

Put the chopped apples into a pan with 100ml water and the lemon zest. Cook gently until soft and fluffy, then either beat to a purée with a wooden spoon or rub through a nylon sieve.

Put the butter, sugar, lemon juice and apple purée into a double boiler or heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water. As soon as the butter has melted and the mixture is hot and glossy, pour in the eggs through a sieve, and whisk with a balloon whisk. If the fruit puree is too hot when the beaten egg is added, the egg will ‘split’. One way to guard against this is to check the temperature of the puree with a sugar thermometer – it should be no higher than 55-60 ̊C when the egg is added.If your curd does split, take the pan off the heat and whisk vigorously until smooth.

Stir the mixture over a gentle heat, scraping down the sides of the bowl every few minutes, until thick and creamy. This will take 9-10 minutes; the temperature should reach 82-84 ̊C on a sugar thermometer. Immediately pour into warm, sterilised jars and seal. Use within four weeks. Once opened, keep in the fridge.

Tuesday 22 September 2009

Here’s the Boeuf…

Julia Child’s Boeuf Bourguignon

On my first trip to Paris, I stood in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles staring into the foxed glass. I imagined not my 12-year-old self gazing back, but some be-wigged and be-jewelled courtesan, the weary face of a servant or, who knows, perhaps the Sun King himself? It was as though all the faces that had ever stared into the glass were still captured there and I could see them as long as I looked hard enough. That morning, I felt the flimsy barriers of time and place dissolve.

On Sunday, as I stood in my kitchen, patting fat cubes of beef with kitchen paper, I felt a kinship with my brothers and sisters in spoons. I knew I was not alone. Up and down the country, at that very moment, I knew many of us were slicing onions and carrots, browning mushrooms, enjoying the sizzle as we tipped whole bottles of red into scorching hot pans.

I got an email from my darling friend Richard on Tuesday. ‘I went to see Julie &Julia on this inclement afternoon in the lowest of spirits and came out skipping. I can’t imagine a film that will resonate more with you both, even if at times it is a little sad. But c’est la vie, and that’s what it celebrates – that, and a beautiful, enviable, treasured coupling which, if I know you both as I think I do, it will be like looking in a mirror.’

I’d already planned to see Julie & Julia with Christine and Daphne that evening, but I quickly booked two more tickets for Séan and me on Friday night. I knew he would adore it too. (Food, France, Meryl and Stanley - what’s not to love?) And besides, he’s scarcely left the house for two weeks so he could do with a bit of a cheer up. (A long and itchy story involving an allergic reaction to antibiotics, since subsided, which is a relief to us both as it presented him with the longest ‘get out of washing up’ card in living memory.)

One of my favourite sequences in the film comes when Julia Child’s editor, Judith Jones, pours a bottle of red into the boeuf bourguignon, speckling Julia’s precious manuscript with booze and fat. It’s rather exciting to think of the moment when the recipe that launched a thousand (a million?) dinner parties had its first outing.

What I love about Julia Child’s recipes is that they are so long. The current vogue for short, fast, easy is a deceit, a conceit. Instructions are cut down to the barest bones to give an impression of ease, of simplicity, and the results disappoint because - without a considerable amount of knowledge and experience - the home cook has no chance of reproducing the glossy image they see before them.

There is an elegant, scholarly precision about Julia Child’s recipes and a comforting assurance that if you do as she says, the results will be perfect. Pat the meat dry, don’t crowd the pan, sauté for 2 to 3 minutes…these are the instructions you’d give a friend if you were cooking side by side. She is holding your hand. Peering from a considerable height over your shoulder.

As I did as she said and the ingredients behaved as she promised they would, I felt a connection that ran from her little third-floor kitchen on the ‘rue de Loo’ to mine in North London, on a cool September evening, half a century after the recipe was first written.

Julia Child’s Boeuf Bourguignon

Boeuf Bourguignon close-up

This is from Mastering the Art of French Cooking Volume One. I really, really can’t wait to make it again.

Serves 6-8

A 6oz chunk of bacon
1 tbsp olive oil or cooking oil
3lbs lean stewing beef, cut into 2 inch cubes
1 sliced carrot
1 sliced onion
1 tsp salt
¼ tsp black pepper
2 tbsps flour
3 cups of full-bodied, young red wine such as Beaujolais, Côtes du Rhone, Bordeaux-St Emilion or Burgundy
2-3 cups brown beef stock
1 tbsp tomato puree
2 cloves mashed garlic
½ tsp thyme leaves
A crumbled bay leaf
18-24 small white onions, peeled
1 ½ tbsp butter
1 ½ tbsp oil
½ cup brown beef stock, dry white wine, red wine or water
A bouquet of 4 parsley sprigs, 1 small bay leaf, 1 small sprig of thyme tied together with kitchen string
1lb mushrooms, quartered
4tbsps butter
2tbsps oil
Parsley, finely chopped

Remove the rind from the bacon and cut it into lardons, ¼ inch thick and 1 ½ inches long. Simmer the rind and bacon for 10 minutes in 1 ½ quarts of water. Drain and dry. (Actually, and I hope it isn’t woefully impertinent, I simmered the rind but I couldn’t bring myself to simmer the bacon. I understand the reasoning behind simmering the rind – you make it tender enough to melt into the stew, but my bacon, bought from the Learmonth brothers at our farmer’s market is so delicious and not over-salted, and I couldn’t bear to lose any of its delicious flavour.)

Preheat the oven to 230C/450F/Gas mark 8.

In a 9-10inch fireproof casserole, 3 inches deep, warm the oil over a moderate heat then sauté the bacon for 2 to 3 minutes to brown lightly. Remove to a side dish with a slotted spoon. Set the casserole aside. Reheat until the fat is almost smoking (you may need to add a little more oil at this point; I did.) before you sauté the beef.

Dry the beef in paper towels; it will not brown if it is damp. Sauté it, a few pieces at a time, in the hot oil and bacon fat until nicely browned on all sides. Add it to the bacon.

In the same fat, brown the sliced vegetables. Pour out any sautéing fat. Return the beef and bacon to the casserole and toss with the salt and pepper. Then sprinkle on the flour and toss again to coat the beef lightly with the flour. Set the casserole uncovered in the middle position of the preheated oven for 4 minutes. Toss the meat and return to the oven for 4 minutes more. (This browns the flour and covers the meat with a light crust.) Remove the casserole, and turn the oven down to 170C/325F/Gas mark 3.

Stir in the wine, and enough stock or bouillon so that the meat is barely covered. Add the tomato puree, garlic, herbs, and bacon rind. Bring to a simmer on top of the stove. Then cover the casserole and set in lower third of preheated oven. Regulate the heat so liquid simmers very slowly for 2 ½ to 3 hours. The meat is done when a fork pierces it easily.

While the beef is cooking, prepare the onions and mushrooms. Set them aside until needed. To prepare the onions, warm 1 ½ tbsps butter and 1 ½ tbsps oil in a 9-10 inch frying pan (you need to use one with a lid), add the onions and sauté over a moderate heat for about 10 minutes, rolling the onions about so they will brown as evenly as possible. Be careful not to break their skins. You cannot expect to brown them uniformly. Pour in the ½ cup of stock or wine, season to taste, add the herb bouquet. Cover and simmer slowly for 40 to 50 minutes until the onions are perfectly tender but retain their shape, and the liquid has evaporated. Remove herb bouquet.

(Here is Julia’s note on preparing the mushrooms: Successfully sautéed mushrooms are lightly browned and exude none of their juice while they are being cooked; to achieve this the mushrooms must be dry, the butter very hot, and the mushrooms must not be crowded in the pan. If you sauté too many at once they steam rather than fry; their juices escape and they do not brown. So if you are preparing a large amount, or if your heat source is feeble, sauté the mushrooms in several batches.)

To prepare the mushrooms, warm 2 tbsps butter and 1 tbsps oil (keep the rest back and use it as the pan gets a little dry) over a high heat in a 10 inch frying pan. As soon as you see that the butter foam has begun to subside, indicating it is hot enough, add the mushrooms. Toss and shale the pan for 4 to 5 minutes. During their sauté the mushrooms will at first absorb the fat. In 2 to 3 minutes the fat will reappear on their surface, and the mushrooms will begin to brown. As soon as they have browned lightly, remove them from the heat.

When the meat is tender, pour the contents of the casserole into a sieve set over a saucepan. Wash out the casserole and return the beef and bacon to it. Distribute the cooked onions and mushrooms over the meat.

Skim fat off the sauce. Simmer sauce for a minute or two, skimming off additional fat as it rises. You should have about 2 ½ cups of sauce thick enough to coat a spoon lightly. If too thin, boil it down rapidly. If too thick, mix in a few tablespoons of stock. Taste carefully for seasoning. Pour the sauce over the meat and vegetables. The recipe may be completed in advance to this point.

FOR IMMEDIATE SERVING: Cover the casserole and simmer for 2 to 3 minutes, basting the meat and vegetables with the sauce several times. Serve in its casserole, or arrange the stew on a platter surrounded with potatoes, noodles, or rice, and decorated with parsley.

FOR LATER SERVING: When cold, cover and refrigerate. About 15 to 20 minutes before serving, bring to the simmer, cover, and simmer very slowly for 10 minutes, occasionally basting the meat and vegetables with the sauce.

All gone...


Saturday 19 September 2009

Lost Postcards from the edge: Part III

All SetAll set…

Hallloooo out there. Did you think I’d fallen into a vat of butter, flambéed myself to ashes, run off with the groom? A combination of work crises and computer meltdowns and, oh, life has kept me away from you all these past two weeks and I’ve been a very bad blogger. Smack me then read on.

The wedding was heaven - ankle-swelling-bone-achingly-exhausting heaven. The sun shone, the bride looked ravishing, the guests glamorous and the band’s tunes drifted over the trees into the woodland late into the night.

If you’ve ever asked yourself ‘Can you get a wedding for 140 into a mini?’, I’m here to tell you, you can. Lady de B picked me up at 5am the day before the Big Day in her shiny blue car. (When Sean was ill , she used to drive me back and forth to the hospital so often, we christened it ‘The Glambulance’, now I think it needs an altogether more festive name – ‘The Marriage Mobile’ perhaps?)

The passenger seat was pushed so far forward to accommodate pans and plates, wooden spoons, newly-sharpened knives and plastic spatulas, heart-shaped cheeses and wooden trugs of French butter, I had to take out my hair slide to give me a little more room. But this wasn’t all. We had to stop off at New Covent Garden Market to pick up the fresh produce. As we pulled up, the man at the gate did a double take and laughed. Laughed so hard he had to wipe his eyes. You can hardly blame him – the Marriage Mobile is about the size of one of the tyres on the huge refrigerated wagons he normally ushers into the market. Somehow, we managed to load trays of raspberries, boxes of herbs and two litre bottles of cream into every spare crevice. But we still had two trays of lemons. In the end, we crammed them into pans and bowls, tucked them into baskets of tea towels and jammed them into the glove compartment. But it still wasn’t enough. We were reduced to throwing them into the back and hoping the dear little things would find their own cosy nests. I’m convinced, months from now, Lady de B will be driving along and the last little citrus will roll forward into the foot well.

We arrived at Paula and Jack’s at 9am and the following 48 hours were some of the most exhausting, exhilarating and blissfully exciting of my life. I didn’t sit down for two days. It was wonderful. I loved it. Everyone else seemed to love it too. When can we do it again?

Here are some snapshots of the day. I just hope I didn’t get too much butter on the lens and they’re not too out of focus – there wasn’t much time for pictures in the middle of assembling all of the deliciousness, so I hope you’ll forgive me. In the coming weeks, I’ll share with you some more of the recipes, but for now I give you…

Paula and Jack’s Wedding Menu


Three crostini:
Potted mackerel, crème fraîche and dill;
Goat’s cheese, figs and Parma ham;
Roast butternut squash with feta and thyme

Muhamarra, roast red pepper and walnut dip, with crudités

Persian lamb meatballs with a mint and yogurt dipping sauce

Spinach, ricotta and pine nut filo parcels



Spit roasted hog and lamb

Marinated aubergines with tahini sauce and oregano

Roasted beetroot salad with feta and chervil

Green bean, mange tout, orange and hazelnut salad

Roast butternut squash with apricots and couscous

Green salad with vinaigrette

Sweet potato gratin with sage and crème fraîche

Minted new potatoes



Lemon posset with blackberries and lemon shortbread biscuits

Chocolate, raspberry and almond brownies



Cropwell Bishop Stilton

Heart-shaped Neufchatel cheese

Hawes Wensleydale

Pears, grapes and figs

Paula and Jack’s apricot and ginger wedding chutney


The marqueeBunting ahoy…

Mismatched vintage china Mismatched vintage china.

The top tableGorgeous scabious, roses and stocks mixed with herbs in little posies. Note the olives in vintage teacups and you can just see the jars of wedding chutney on everyone’s seat.

The kitchen Getting ready for the wedding. Our little army of helpers and ‘waiters in waiting’ in Paula and Jack’s kitchen.

The meat roasts The hog and lamb roast.

The buffet The buffet.

 Green bean, mange tout, orange and hazelnut salad Green bean, mange tout, orange and hazelnut salad.

 Marinated aubergines with tahini sauce and oregano Marinated aubergines with tahini sauce and oregano

 Roast butternut squash with apricots and couscous Roast butternut squash with apricots and couscous

 Roasted beetroot salad with feta and chervil Roasted beetroot salad with feta and chervil

Tuesday 1 September 2009

Postcards from the edge: Part II

Herbs Herbs from the garden, ready to go into the
pork and chestnut stuffing.

In the countdown to Paula’s wedding on Saturday, I’m going to be cooking at all hours, fuelled by caffeine and panic, stirring as I scribble down essentials needed on our voyage to the country. So there’ll be little time for pretty pictures taken in natural light. But I do hope you’ll keep me company as I chop and sauté late into the night, trying to remember to breathe and wondering when I’ll have time to have my roots done so I don’t look like the oldest caterer in town.

The centrepiece of Paula and Jack’s wedding feast is a lamb and pork roast. Even 130 greedy guests can’t devour a whole sheep and a whole pig in one sitting, so our brilliant bride had the inspired idea to serve hefty sandwiches made up of the leftovers at 10.30pm to fuel enthusiastic dancers, steady the drunk and keep the band on top doh. Of course, Lady de B and I want to make these the best late-night treat any of the guests have ever tasted. We’ve already made a mountain of apple sauce to go with the pork and jars of sparkling mint jelly to accompany the lamb. For the very hungry, we’re making stuffing too, to create sandwiches so generously proportioned, they would make Homer Simpson proud.

This recipe for pork, apple and chestnut stuffing is a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall one. In the interests of full disclosure, I have to confess I work down at River Cottage sometimes, but it is a bloody good multi-purpose stuffing – herby, with a lovely zing from the lemon zest - so I feel no obligation to apologise for my bias. It’s great with Sunday roasts, for Thanksgiving celebrations or Christmas feasts. And weddings, don’t forget weddings.

Pork, apple and chestnut stuffing

All Packed up

50g butter
1 large onion, finely chopped
3 stems celery, plus leaves if possible, finely chopped
500g pork shoulder, coarsely minced
The liver of the bird you are stuffing (optional), finely chopped
200g peeled, cooked chestnuts, roughly chopped
1 large dessert apple, peeled and finely chopped
The finely grated zest of 1 large lemon
150g soft white breadcrumbs
2 tsp each thyme, sage and rosemary, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Pork, apple and chestnut stuffing Ready for the oven

Melt the butter in a frying pan, add the onion and celery, season and sweat gently for about 15 minutes, stirring from time to time, until soft and translucent. Leave to cool, then combine with the other ingredients for the stuffing. Season well with salt and pepper. Break off a bit and fry it off to taste for seasoning, add a bit more if necessary.

Bake the stuffing in a shallow, lightly buttered dish, or roll it into balls. Cook at 190C/375F/gas mark 5 for 35-45 minutes, depending on thickness, until cooked through.

Sunday 30 August 2009

Postcards from the edge: Part I

Lamb meatballs with minted yoghurt

If you are one of the rather lovely and incredibly discerning people who have followed my blog from the beginning, you may remember back in April when Lady de B and I took on the terrifying (did I say terrifying, obviously I meant exciting) task of catering for our friend Paula’s wedding . Well, the happy day has almost dawned. It’s next Saturday.

The last few weeks have been a blur of bunting and ribbon, table linen and vintage plates, cocktail try outs and canapé platters. And now the cooking is starting in earnest. This week, I’m going to be typing and prepping at breakneck speed, to share with you some of the dishes we’re hoping will launch Paula and Jack deliciously into married life.

If you are the praying sort, I’d be very grateful if you could throw up a few good wishes for a couple of more hours in a day and sunshine on September 5…

Lamb meatballs with minted yoghurt


I first made these tasty meatballs for my best friend Victoria’s thirtieth birthday and I’ve made them a million times since. They’re simple and delicious, full of the Middle Eastern flavours I love. I found them in the October 1995 issue of Gourmet and I’ve tinkered with them just a little bit. In the original, they’re rolled in black and white sesame seeds which makes for gorgeous presentation, but one of Paula’s guests is allergic to sesame so I’ve left them out. In the past, in a hurry, I’ve simply mixed the sesame seeds in with the meat rather than rolling them and they were great, too. So sesame, sans sesame, I hope you’ll get rolling and try these out yourself.

Makes about 50.

The Ingredients

1 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, finely minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1kg minced lamb
1 tbsp dried mint
1 tsp salt
½ tsp allspice
A good pinch of cinnamon
2 cups of breadcrumbs, about 140g
2 eggs, lightly beaten
4 tbsps currants
Freshly ground black pepper

For the yoghurt dip:
About 300ml whole milk Greek yoghurt
A good handful of fresh mint
A generous pinch or two of salt

Warm the olive oil in a small frying pan over a low heat and fry the onions, with a good pinch of salt, until very soft and slightly golden, about 15 minutes. Add the garlic and fry for a couple more minutes.

Transfer to a large bowl and cool slightly before mixing in the mint, salt, allspice and cinnamon – it’ll smell heavenly at this point. Add the lamb, breadcrumbs, currants and eggs and combine gently but thoroughly. It’s best to do this with your hands as you’re less likely to over-mix. Overmixing makes the meatballs a bit heavy, which is not what you want at all. At this point, break off a small piece of the mixture and fry it in a little oil until golden and cooked through. Taste for seasoning and add more salt and some black pepper if necessary.

Mixing Mixing…

Testing Testing…

Rolling Rolling

Ready Ready.

Take tablespoons of the mixture and roll them gently into balls. You can do this up to a day ahead, cover and chill them in the fridge, or you freeze them at this point as I’m doing.

You need to get the yoghurt dip going a few hours before you want to serve the meatballs. Line a sieve with muslin or kitchen paper and set it over a bowl. Tip the yoghurt into the lined sieve and let it drip, drip, drip away in the fridge for at least four hours or overnight. Just before serving, discard the liquid in the bowl and stir the mint and salt into the creamy yoghurt.

Preheat the oven to 220C/450F/Gas mark 8. Place the meatballs on a baking tray and bake for 8-10 minutes (15 minutes from frozen), rattling the tin half way through, until lightly browned and just cooked through. Serve warm with the yoghurt dipping sauce.

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