Autumn Nights

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Root vegetable and pearl barley stew (with ham hock)

The other day I went for an afternoon nap and awoke with a shock that I had slept long into the night.  It was only 6.30pm and yet it was already dark.  The recent rise in temperatures had led me into a false sense of security that we are back in the days of glorious summer, but alas, the seasons have definitely changed.  I’ve even started to mention the ‘C’ word (not that one… the one that ends with ‘hristmas’.)

The thing is that I am rather looking forward to a couple of months of hibernation before the party season begins, spending a lot of time at home and lazily meeting friends for walks in the park or drinks in the local pub.  No elaborate plans involving picnics or trips to roof terraces preceded by a nail-biting surveillance of the Met Office in case unseasonal rain threatens to scupper the plans.  The wedding invitations have been filed, the BBQ covered for the winter and the beachwear put into storage.  Time for some nights in.

With the threat of going out in beachwear in public now removed for a few months, it is also a time to indulge in some comfort food.  Huge bowls of things that can be eaten on the couch whilst watching television; and the roast meats and billowing Yorkshire puddings on offer in pubs that fuel a good stomp in the woods afterwards.  Custard on absolutely everything.  Not a time to get fat, exactly, but a time to nourish out the threat of the cold.

I make a lot of stews and soups in the cooler months.  The vegetables that are in abundance at this time of year lend themselves to being cooked in a broth until soft.  This particular stew can be adapted to use up almost any ingredients that you have in the fridge:  old potatoes, leftover carrots, leafy greens or just about anything else.  It is cooked very simply in a mixture of stock and white wine and made substantial by the addition of pearl barley.  45 minutes on the hob and its is ready.

Using vegetable stock in this stew will make it vegetarian, but recently I have developed a bit of a habit of adding some cold cooked meat to the top after it has been served up.  The contrast in temperatures does what a spoonful of sour cream does to a soup or chilli, and it just gives it that little extra robustness.  Leftover roasted meats are good for this, especially chicken or turkey, but I also love Waitrose’s pulled ham hock.  It costs about £2.90 for two small packets and is also fabulous in pies or sandwiches.

Root Vegetable Stew with Pearl Barley

40g butter
Olive oil
1 leek, sliced
2 carrots, peeled and diced into 2cm pieces
2 parsnips, peeled and diced into 2cm pieces
1 baking potato, peeled and diced into 2cm pieces
2 bay leaves
1 tsp dried thyme
100g pearl barley
75ml white wine
1l vegetable stock
1 tbsp tomato puree
2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley

Heat the butter in a large saucepan with a little olive oil.  Add the leek, carrots, parsnips and potatoes and cook over a medium heat for around five minutes, stirring occasionally.

Stir in the bay leaves, thyme, barley, white wine, vegetable stock and tomato puree.  Bring to a simmer and cook for around 45 minutes until the vegetables and barley are tender.  Remove the bay leaf, stir in the parsley and check the seasoning before serving.

Plum Upside Down Cake

Plum Upside Down Cake

Plum Upside Down Cake

There are a few specific things that start happening around the middle of September that signal that autumn has arrived in London.  As we are lucky enough to live in a city with so many beautiful parks, the colour change from green to amber makes the seasons so obvious and distinct.  As the last few of us return from our summer holidays, we start settling into this new routine of putting on warmer clothes, walking the streets hugging paper cups of coffee and going home earlier at night.  Fewer people go to the parks at lunchtime, and almost nobody sits at the once-crowded outside tables of the cafes.  We collectively move inside. 

For me, it is other small things that mark the beginning of autumn:  the arrival of the circus on Peckham Rye Common, the return of schoolchildren to my morning bus journey, the slow drip of Christmas products in to the supermarkets and the complaining about it getting earlier each year.  Most of all, though, it is the change in what we begin to cook.  Beautiful summer salads, bowls of berries and barbecues give way to a more comforting range of foods:  we start to embrace the winter fruits and veg and the stews and soups that protect us from the nip in the air.  Comfort food becomes the order of the day.

Plums are one of the most-used fruits in my kitchen throughout the autumn.  They start to make an appearance in mid-August, and by September they are everywhere.  There are a wide variety of plums available and they lend themselves to being used in a variety of ways.  Two of the winter dishes I love best are a plum and hazelnut crumble and a spiced plum chutney.

I had some plums leftover from a tart I made earlier in the week for some friends, so decided to use them to make a plum upside down cake.  Some friends on Twitter told me that this is very straightforward to do.  I actually feel a little silly writing up a recipe for what is essentially a basic sponge mix poured over some chopped fruit, but it really is an excellent way for using up any fruit you have.  Once baked, cooled and turned out, the plums become incredibly tender and almost melt into the sponge, creating a kind of plum jam topping.  It would be excellent as a pudding with custard.

Plum Upside Down Cake

3 plums, halved, then cut into thirds
225g unsalted butter, at room temperature
225g caster sugar
4 eggs
225g self-raising flour

Preheat the oven to 180ºc / 350ºf / gas 4.  Grease a 8-inch loose bottomed cake tin and line the base and sides with greaseproof paper. 

Arrange the plum slices in the base of the tin.  Try and squeeze in as many as you can.

In a bowl, or in the bowl of a freestanding mixer, beat together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.  Add the eggs, one at a time, beating until combined.  If the mixture looks like it is curdling at this point, add a tablespoon of the flour to bring it back together.  Fold in the flour until just mixed, be careful not to overwork it.

Scrape the batter into the prepared tin, being careful not to dislodge any of the plums underneath.  Bake in the oven for approximately 40 minutes until risen and a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean.  Allow to cool in the tin.

Once cool, remove the tin but keep the base intact.  If the cake has a dome, cut this off carefully using a serrated knife to create a flat surface.  This will be the bottom of the cake.  Turn upside down on to a plate or cake stand and carefully remove the base of the tin and the greaseproof paper.

Petitou, Peckham

Pain au Chocolat

Pain au Chocolat

Sometimes on Fridays I have a day of working from home.  As I am spared the 45-minute commute from East Dulwich to Portland Place, I allow myself a bit of extra time for a leisurely breakfast.  South east London has a myriad of breakfast options from little backstreet cafes that bake their own bread and serve excellent coffee, to acclaimed restaurants with gourmet, and well-priced morning menus.  As all of London seems to go out for breakfast and brunch at the weekend, a day off in the week is a gem of an opportunity to sample these places when they are at their quietest.

I first discovered Petitou a couple of years ago.  I was having a particularly stressful morning trying to shop on Rye Lane for last minute essentials for a trip to Australia, flying later that afternoon.  Almost on my knees from balancing shopping bags, trying to find Australian dollars and taking a barrage of work calls, I needed a coffee and there it was.  Two espressos and some homemade crumpets with Marmite later and I was good as new.  Petitou is a lovely little cafe on the backstreets of Peckham, just off of Bellenden Road.  In the summer, you can sit out on their mosaic-tiled terrace and people-watch and in the winter, the windows completely steam up to create a warm cave, cut off from the world.  Theirs is not an extensive menu, but has enough small and large dishes to satisfy the needs of their diners.

Scrambled eggs and ham on toast

Scrambled eggs and ham on toast

The breakfast menu has a selection of pastries and bread options, including the aforementioned crumpets – so good I had to mention them again.  We shared a pain au chocolat, that was fresh and warm with a decent amount of chocolate inside.  We also ordered scrambled eggs and ham on toast – you can subsitute the ham for other items, including smoked salmon if you wish.  The ham was sourced from the excellent local butcher, Flock and Herd, and had a subtle smoky flavour and a tender texture that didn’t even require a knife to cut through it.  You could just gently flake it with your fork.  The eggs were creamy and flecked with chive and the toast hearty with a good amount of butter.  We also drank rather a lot of tea.

I intend to go for lunch very soon, the salads on their website look fantastic.

Petitou, 63 Choumert Road, Peckham SE15 4AR.

Petitou on Urbanspoon

The Post Christmas Bulge

Homemade Soda Bread and Lentil Soup

Homemade Soda Bread and Lentil Soup

After a lovely Christmas break in Hampshire, we arrived home to find that five days of festive excess had made us considerably fatter than when we left.  Of course, eating and drinking is what Christmas is all about, but the endless roasts, bottomless tins of Quality Street and countless glasses of port are enough to tire out even the most committed glutton.  On the way home on the A3, car piled high with suitcases and gifts, Ollie and I agreed that we would not eat anything soaked in brandy for a very long time.

Coming home is always rather lovely: your own bed, full control over the remote and being able to cook in your own kitchen.  Inevitably, the fridge was bare, but we managed to pull together a lunch of toasted almost-stale bread, a packet of supermarket coleslaw lurking at the back and the last truckle of cheese, an applewood cheddar.  The last hurrah of excess before a few days of healthier eating, if only so we can squeeze back into our jeans in time for New Year’s Eve.

In the few days before Christmas and New Year, I always make a large batch of lentil soup.  I read somewhere that it is an Italian tradition to eat lentils on New Year’s Eve, their rounded shapes are said to resemble coins and encourage prosperity for the year ahead.  With my bank balance always severely depleted by the end of December, it can’t hurt, right? In any case, a wholesome lentil soup is the perfect tonic for several days of overindulgence – this particular recipe contains nothing more than vegetables, herbs, lentils, stock and the tiniest slosh of vinegar.  Homemade bread is always the perfect accompaniment for soup, but with all of those new Christmas presents to play with, who has time?  A loaf of soda bread can be made in a mere half an hour.  Saves a trip out to the bakery.

Lentil Soup

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 leek, finely chopped
  • 1 large carrot, finely chopped
  • 2 sticks celery, finely chopped
  • 350g brown lentils, rinsed
  • 2 large sage leaves, chopped
  • ½ tsp dried rosemary
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 litre vegetable stock
  • 2 tbsp cider vinegar
  • Sea salt and black pepper

Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan and cook the vegetables on a medium heat until soft.  The onions should be translucent but should not brown.  This will take about ten minutes.  Add the lentils and herbs and cook for a further few minutes.

Add the stock and bring to the boil, the reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, 35-45 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the lentils are soft.  Remove the pan from the heat and transfer two ladles of the mixture to a separate bowl.  Blend the remaining soup in the pan with a hand blender (or transfer to a stand blender if you don’t have one) until smooth.

Return the pan to the heat and stir in the reserved lentils and the cider vinegar.  Serve in warmed bowls with a drizzle of olive oil on top.

Adapted from a recipe by Giorgio Locatelli.  Serves four.

Soda Bread

  • 225g plain wholemeal flour
  • 225g plain flour
  • 75g porridge oats
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 tsp caster sugar
  • ½ tsp sea salt
  • 400ml buttermilk

Preheat the oven t0 220ºc / 425ºf / gas 7.  Lightly oil a baking sheet and dust with flour.

Place all of the dry ingredients in a large bowl and stir together.  Add the buttermilk and mix with your hands to make a smooth dough.  Turn out on to a floured side and shape into a round with your hands.  If you like, you can add the traditional cross using the blunt edge of a sharp knife.

Sprinkle a few porridge oats on the top and transfer to the baking sheet.  Bake in the oven for 25 minutes.  To test if the loaf is ready, take it out of the oven, turn it upside down and tap the bottom.  If it makes a hollow sound, it’s done.

Eating Away the Winter Chill

The ultimate comfort food: chicken 'n' dumplings

The ultimate comfort food: chicken ‘n’ dumplings

In this, the first weary week of December when we are all desperately craving our Christmas break, we all seem to be divided into two camps: those who have the sniffles and those who are trying to avoid catching the sniffles as best they can.  In our smoggy city with the recycled air circulating through our offices and the incredibly close proximity to our fellow Londoners on our public transport, it is inevitable that we will all end up with at least one cold during the winter months despite our attempts to evade the dreaded lurgy. In the depths of winter, a sneeze on a crowded train might generate the same reaction as pulling a pin from a hand grenade.

Of course, hot drinks and bed rest are the best remedy for a cold, but I have two other things I can’t live without: Lucozade and chicken ‘n’ dumplings. When laid out on the couch, coughing and making a general nuisance of myself, I will often send Ollie out for six bottles of Original Lucozade (never flavoured) and a whole chicken. Once the Lucozade has kicked in and I have mustered the energy to move, I head to the kitchen to make a huge pot of chicken ‘n’ dumplings: the ultimate in comfort food.

Chicken ‘n’ dumplings is exactly what it says: a brothy stew made with vegetables, white wine, and all of the joints of a chicken, topped with pillowy dumplings.  It is thought that chicken contains an enzyme that is effective at breaking up mucus, which goes to explain why chicken noodle soup is given the famous moniker ‘Jewish penicillin’ and why some studies have shown chicken soup to be more effective at treating symptoms of the common cold than some over-the-counter remedies.  After an hour in the oven, it will fill your kitchen with a smell that will alone make you feel better. If you can find somebody kind enough to bring you a chicken, you’re all set.

Chicken ‘n’ Dumplings

  • 1 whole chicken
  • Sea salt and cracked black pepper
  • Olive oil
  • 1 stalk celery, roughly chopped
  • 2 medium carrots, roughly chopped
  • 1 medium onion, roughly chopped
  • 2 slices smoked back bacon
  • 1 fresh bay leaf
  • ¾ tsp dried thyme leaves
  • 180ml dried white wine
  • 350ml chicken stock
  • 350ml water
  • 125g plain flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 150ml single cream

Preheat the oven to 200ºc / 400ºf / gas 6.

Joint the chicken into 10 pieces (two drumsticks, two thighs, two wings and two breasts, each halved) and season well with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a large saucepan and brown the chicken pieces, in batches if necessary. Set aside on a plate.

In the same pan, cook the vegetables and bacon for around 10 minutes on a medium heat until the bacon is brown and the vegetables are tender. Return the chicken to the pan.  Add the wine, turn up the heat and let it bubble away until reduced by a third. Add the stock and water and bring to the boil.  Transfer the contents of the pan to a large casserole dish, cover with a lid and cook in the oven for one hour.

Make the dumplings by combining the flour, baking powder and cream until a soft dough forms. Remove the casserole from the oven, divide the dumpling dough into eight balls and nestle them among the chicken pieces. Return the casserole to the oven, uncovered, and cook for a further 10-12 minutes until the dumplings are puffed up and brown on top.

Adapted from a recipe by Gwyneth Paltrow. Serves four.