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.

Thursday 20 August 2009

Chocolate, cherries and secrets

Cherry Clafoutis

My gorgeous nephew is coming to stay for a few days. We have a busy itinerary - a football match, a comedy show (Tom, we’re expecting big laughs. No pressure.), restaurants of course, and a day strolling around some of Oxford’s beautiful colleges. Naturally, there will be food, lots of it, given that this is the 4,000 calorie a day boy. Angus loves chocolate, so I’m planning on revisiting a pudding we made together in France. It’s decadent, delicious and easy. If you’re not on a 4,000 calorie a day diet, then my tip is not to eat the whole thing at once.

Chocolate and cherry clafoutis

I’ve tweaked this recipe from one I discovered in a heavenly book I bought on our trip to France, Le B.A-ba du Chocolat by France’s own Nigella, Julie Andrieu. I overcooked it slightly as I was waiting for the slivered almonds to brown a little. When I make it again, I’ll either leave them out altogether or toast them a bit before sprinkling them over the top.

Serves 4-6

The ingredients

80g of plain chocolate, about 70%
200ml single cream or crème fraîche
50g caster sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
30g plain flour
100g ground almonds
40 cherries
1tbsp Amaretto, kirsch or crème de cacao (optional)
20g slivered almonds, very lightly toasted (optional)
A little butter, softened, for greasing
A good pinch of salt

Whisking Whisking…

Stirring Stirring…

Folding Folding…

Pouring Pouring…

Serving Serving.

Preheat the oven to 150C/300F/Gas mark 2. Melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a pan of barely simmering water.

Beat together the cream and sugar in a bowl, then stir in the eggs and liqueur if using. Fold in the flour, salt and ground almonds, then the melted chocolate. Butter four ramequins or one baking dish and distribute the cherries evenly in the dish/es. Do not stone them, unless you are serving them to children or the very absent minded - the cherries are much more juicy and flavoursome cooked whole. You could even leave the stalks in, as they look quite marvellous sticking out of the batter, though I’d only do this if I weren’t adding the slivered almonds. Pour over the chocolate batter, sprinkle on the lightly toasted almonds if using, and cook for 18-20 minutes, until just set but still a bit wobbly. Allow to cool slightly before serving.

And now for the secrets. Two of my favourite bloggers, Catherine at The Unconfidential Cook , and Lady P at Madly Creative recently passed onto me these two lovely awards, the Kreativ Blogger Award and the Honest Scrap Award. I’m supposed to share seven things about myself and then pass on the award to seven bloggers I admire.

Kreativ Blogger Awardhonest_award-300x290 I hope you all enjoy my nominees as much as I do. They are:

Cookie Pie, because her blog is a warm, friendly place to land on a frantic day.
Gratinée, because she writes exquisitely and her deep understanding of and love for food shines from every paragraph.
Nora the Kitchen ‘Splorer, because I love her recipes and am near addicted to her Wednesday Round Up of Deliciousness.
Real Food Lover, because she makes you think, she makes you cook, what could be better?
Syrian Foodie in London, because I want to make every single one of his recipes.
Through My Kitchen Window, because Mariana is just wonderful, even though every trip to her blog gives me a severe case of lifestyle envy.
Writing Junkie, because Avril writes so inspirationally, so clearly, so beautifully about the writing life.

As I received two awards at around about the same time which require me to do the same thing, please take your pick of the one you would like to receive. If you don’t participate in awards, then do accept this as a very small thank you for the pleasure your blogs have given me over the past few months. If you would like to participate, then post the award, link back to me and send it on to seven more people. Finally, and most interestingly, list seven curious, crazy, interesting things about yourself…

Here are mine…

1. In 1990 and 1991, I lived in Moscow. I watched tanks roll down the street, heard Pavarotti sing in a sports hall, bribed policemen with cartons of red Marlborough and learned that -20C in dry-aired Moscow feels less cold than -1C in damp old London town. I went to tea parties at embassies and met jittery young anarchists in Gorky Park. I watched Soviet statues being pulled down and Tesco supermarkets going up. And this is where I really, really learned how to cook.

2. My secret vice is vice. If I hadn’t followed the ink-splattered path into journalism, I would have loved to be a detective. Instead, I’m addicted to cop shows, crime shows, and have an unsavoury weakness for anything billed ‘based on a true story’. If I go to bed before my husband, it’s testament to his courage that he’ll curl up beside me as I fall asleep watching Snapped: Women Who Kill.

3. I have a difficult relationship with change. Hot, angry tears pricked at my eyes when the balsa-headed philistines at Hackney Council replaced the lovely old lampposts in our high street with hideous modern ones. I realise this attitude has its drawbacks. If all humankind were like me, we’d still be living in caves. But what wonderfully appointed and well catered caves they would be.

4. Sean and I met and married so quickly, when I went to apply for our marriage licence, I had no idea what his middle name was.

5. After a lifetime of owning cats, two years ago we got a dog. When he snuggled onto my lap, I found myself questioning whether he was happy or not. Subconsciously I was waiting for him to purrrrrr.

6. I’m a pretty easy-going person but I feel primal, violent, seething rage when I see people dropping litter. Come the Licked Spoon Revolution, they’ll all be buried in a pit of their own filth.

7. As a young graduate working in the slave-wage environment of book publishing, my idea of wealth was being able to afford black taxis, good cheese, cut flowers and hardback books whenever I wanted them. Twenty years on, this is still my definition of luxury. I pinch myself every time I jump into a cab with a slab of Colston Bassett, a bunch of billowy roses and some artfully jacketed tome tucked into my market basket.

Tuesday 18 August 2009

In memory of Ma


Last week, we went to Sean’s grandmother’s funeral. There is a strange symmetry to someone who was born on 11/12/13 being laid to rest on 07/08/09. There’s a neatness to it which I am sure would have appealed to her steel-trap mind.

Sheila had a quintessentially Edwardian childhood and went on to live a thoroughly modern life. Her father was an eminent Harley Street ophthalmologist . The family lived in a Marylebone mansion block, Mr and Mrs Mayou occupying one flat and Sheila, her sisters and their nanny living in the flat next door. It was a case of the children being not seen and not heard. She was bright and destined for medical school when a bout of pleurisy derailed her plans. Still, a life of genteel indolence was not for her. Her father encouraged her to go into the family eye business.

P1170403 A young Sheila gives an even younger Queen an eye exam on a visit to Moorfields Eye Hospital

At 19, along with another young woman, Mary Maddox, Sheila set up the Maddox-Mayou Orthoptic Training School in Devonshire Street. At 20, she was invited to deliver two papers at a medical conference in Melbourne and she made the 14,000 mile trip by boat to America, by train across it and then boarded another boat to Australia. When she arrived, the medical establishment was astonished to see this girl before them. The conference was taking place in licensed premises and she was too young to speak there, so another hall was hastily arranged and she delivered her papers, and an impromptu third as an encore. She put British orthoptics on the medical map and students from Australia began coming to London for training. After the war, she ran the Orthoptic Department of Moorfields Eye Hospital and became the first chairman of the British Orthoptic Society. She retired, reluctantly, at 70. Still, it gave her more time for her other great passions, golf and gardening.

Sean and I spent the first year of our married life in the flat at the top of her London house which had once been the nursery floor for his mother Sue and her sister Carol. When Sheila sold the house seven years ago to live permanently in the country, lots of the furniture was distributed amongst the family. Each afternoon, I sit down to read on her cane-backed bergère. When we have dinner in the dining room, I reach into the mahogany linen press that was once in her bedroom to grab tablecloths and wine glasses. The richly patterned Chinese silk rug in my study was once in the hallway at Hallam Street. Much as I love all of these things and the stories attached to them, there is one possession of Sheila’s which I treasure and use at least once a week, more in the winter.

It’s her potato masher. Compared to the other lovely pieces, it’s a rather humble thing, but I love it. It is perfect. Chefs will tell you that to make perfect mash, you need to pass the potatoes through a mouli or ricer – and then perhaps through a tamis, in the most obsessive-compulsive kitchens. This is true, but who has the time? Particularly if you’re making mash for a crowd as we often are. Sheila’s little masher has round holes in it like a mouli and its surface is slightly concave so it rocks in the pan, delivering perfect mash every time. If I ever go into the kitchen equipment business, replicas of this great piece of kit will be my first product.

How to make perfect mashed potato

P1170386 You know what will make a bowl of mash even better? A little more butter…

You know why restaurant mashed potato tastes so good? Because it’s essentially a butter sauce held together with the odd potato. Delicious though this is, it’s not something for everyday, though butter and whole milk are essential to creamy, dreamy mash.

I was once on the judging panel of a mashed potato competition – yes, I know, my life is unutterably glamorous. Plates of mash were presented to us made with crème fraîche, olive oil, Greek yoghurt, with the addition of garlic and other fripperies. But the best one, the lightest and fluffiest one, was the simplest. It’s the one I present to you here.

Serves four.

1kg floury potatoes such as Desiree or Wilja, peeled and halved
100g unsalted butter
120-150ml whole milk
Salt and a grind or two of nutmeg and black pepper

P1170355 Potatoes steaming in the sink. I include this only because our friend Beth loves the colour of this colander.

P1170361 I love the dinky little grater that comes with the jar of nutmeg.

P1170369 Ma’s masher does sterling service, once again. You can see how it mimics the action of a much-more-labour-intensive ricer.


Heat a large pan of salted water until it’s almost boiling and add the potatoes. Bring back to the boil and cook until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain in a colander and leave to steam for a couple of minutes. While they’re steaming, heat the butter and milk in a pan with some nutmeg. It’s very important that the milk is hot. If it’s not, your mash will be gluey – fine, if you’re planning on a little light wallpapering, not so good if you’re intending them for dinner. Tip the potatoes back into the pan and mash the bejesus out of them. Pour in the hot milk mixture, some black pepper and a bit more salt if you like and beat them with a wooden spoon until smooth. Serve immediately.


If you want to make your mash a little ahead of serving, spoon it into a heatproof bowl, cover it with cling film and place it over a pan of barely simmering water. It will keep quite well like this for about an hour.

Sunday 2 August 2009

Treesons to be cheerful: Part one

A seed hidden in the heart of an apple is an orchard invisible.
Welsh proverb

Walthamstow Wonder Leaves Pink-tinged leaves of the Walthamstow Wonder

Our friend Phil went on a tree grafting course and the result was this apple sapling, variety Walthamstow Wonder. Never heard of it? No, neither had I. That’s because it’s a newly discovered variety and my little twig is one of only a handful in existence. Its mother tree was found growing in an old lady’s garden in Walthamstow and extensive investigations to discover what it was were, shall we say, fruitless - though the tree itself bore much fruit, delicious apples with juicy, pink-tinged flesh.

Walthamstow Wonder on M76 root stock
Phil grafted a scion from the old lady’s tree onto crab apple rootstock and the graft took. Unluckily for him but luckily for us, he doesn’t have space for it in his own garden so he gave it to us. I really think that if there are people on this earth whose innate beneficence matches the boundless generosity of cooks, it’s gardeners. Just as I’ve seldom visited the house of a keen cook without coming home with lovingly wrapped leftovers or at the very least a new recipe, so I’ve seldom said goodbye to a keen gardener without a few cuttings or seeds tucked into my bag.

So here I am with my rare specimen. I am delighted and terrified in equal measure. It needs to stay in a pot for a couple of years before it can be planted out and in that time, I have the onerous responsibility of protecting it from drought and flood, scorching sun and withering frost, pests and pets. But I’m thrilled. Is there any human activity more optimistic than planting a tree? Any more profound demonstration of trust in a benevolent future? My Walthamstow Wonder may be little more than a twig but - in its 20 or so leaves - I spy spring mornings sparkling with frothy blossom and autumn afternoons fragrant with pink-tinged pies, tarts and crumbles.

The Sapling

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