Autumn Nights


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.

The Best Meatballs Ever

Meatballs and spaghetti

Meatballs and spaghetti

As the days get shorter and the nights get cooler, I find that I spend more time at home than I did in the heady days of summer.  For one, pub gardens aren’t as fun if you have to put a coat on and huddle together.  Also, I find that my credit card bills from the holidays and living it up at a variety of weddings, festivals and trips to the seaside are so obscene that I reining it in seems the only option.

One thing I like to do on these cold evenings is fill up my freezer.  It’s probably the instinct for stocking up for winter kicking in, and all of a sudden I am digging out all of the Tupperware and filling it with things that I can eat later.  Hearty stews, soups and casseroles to be defrosted on a cold winter’s day when a trip to the supermarket is just too much to bear.  My two favourite things to keep in the freezer are meatballs and homemade tomato sauce.

Meatballs are a godsend as you can freeze them after they have been cooked and then, once defrosted, just heat them through in the sauce for about 10-15 minutes before serving.  A little fresh pasta and a sprinkle of parmesan and you have an excellent meal. 

I have tried a number of different meatball recipes, but these from the Polpo cookbook are my favourite.  They use pork and beef mince, which give them an excellent flavour, and the addition of a little pinch of chilli gives just a smidge of warmth.  The best thing about these meatballs is that they are cooked in the oven, rather than on the stovetop, which means that they do not have the crisp edges that frying gives and remain soft all the way through.  Because of this, they tend to break up less than other meatballs when cooked in the sauce.

The sauce is also from the same cookbook and uses both fresh and tinned tomatoes.  It too contains a bit of chilli for that extra warmth, which you can leave out or adjust to your own taste.  I have adapted the sauce from the original recipe by adding a little red wine vinegar and Worcestershire sauce to give it a little more depth. 

This recipe makes about 50 meatballs, which is more than any family can eat in one sitting.


1kg minced pork
500g minced beef
3 medium eggs
½ tbsp fine salt
1 tsp ground black pepper
150g breadcrumbs
Pinch dried chilli flakes
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
Handful flat leaf parsley, finely chopped

Preheat the oven to 220ºc / 425ºf / gas 7.  Lightly grease two baking trays.

In a large bowl, combine all of the ingredients by mixing together with your hands until fully combined.  You can make the meatballs any size you wish, but I always weigh out 35g of the mixture for each ball.  Roll into a sphere and place on the baking tray.  Repeat until all of the mixture has been used up.

Bake the meatballs in the oven for ten minutes, turning once.  When ready to serve, poach in the tomato sauce for 10-15 minutes until heated through.  The meatballs can also be refrigerated or frozen at this stage.


Tomato Sauce

100ml extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
½ tsp fine salt
¼ tsp black pepper
Pinch chilli flakes
750g fresh tomatoes, quartered
3 x 400g tins chopped tomatoes
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp caster sugar
1 tsp red wine vinegar
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce

Heat 50ml of the oil in a large pan and saute the onion and garlic until soft, approximately 10 minutes.  Add the salt, pepper and chilli and stir in.  Add the remaining 50ml of the oil and the fresh tomatoes and cook on a medium heat for a further 15 minutes.

Add the tinned tomatoes and simmer on a low heat for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the oregano, caster sugar, red wine vinegar and Worcestershire sauce.  Taste for seasoning.  Puree thoroughly using a hand blender.

Recipes adapted from ‘Polpo’ by Russell Norman

Stir Fried Squid with Ginger

Stir fried squid with ginger

Stir fried squid with ginger

I am finding being back in London a bit of a struggle.  Whilst it is something of a thrill being able to speak English to everybody, visiting favourite south-east London haunts and seeing comfortable old favourite London landmarks from the top deck of the number 12 bus, getting back into a regular routine is proving to be harder than I expected.  Getting up in the morning is by far the most difficult part, and I find myself needing several cups of coffee before I begin to feel normal.  By the evening, I am completely wiped out and good for no more than watching the Tour de France highlights and falling asleep on the couch.  I think it’s the sudden withdrawal of the lengthy afternoon naps I enjoyed on holiday.  Breakfast and dinner, as you can imagine, have suffered as a result.

Did I also mention that I am skint?  Whilst being a fairly cheap country in comparison to the rest of Europe, Spain will still put a dent in your wallet if you spend two weeks eating out and visiting local attractions.  All the more if you like wine.  If you like wine and gin, well, you can guess how this ends.

When on holiday, I have the best of intentions for my return home.  I will go to the market and buy lots of lovely fresh food and make wonderful, healthy dinners, I will exercise every day and will not eat chorizo with every meal.  I will not drink at lunchtime.  Of course, this is the guilt of eating chorizo with every meal and downing a couple of glasses of red before passing out on a lounger for an afternoon nap talking.  The reality is vastly different.  Tired and (albeit temporarily) poor, I want to sleep as much as possible and make meals that have inexpensive ingredients and take half an hour to make.  Tops.

Before going to Spain, I had the good sense to stock up the freezer which, considering how many errands I was running in those last few weeks, is nothing short of miraculous.  This included a £10 bag of frozen squid from my local fishmonger, Moxons.  Although I tend to only buy fresh or smoked fish, the frozen squid has proven itself on many occasions to be a godsend.  A bit short on a fish pie: defrost some squid.  Need a quick last-minute pasta: defrost some squid.  You get the idea.  Keeping a bag in the freezer means that in those cash-poor few days before pay day, you can make a decent meal without having to fork our your precious pennies on protein.

This squid stir fry is from a Thai food book that I picked up many years ago from a church fete book stall for about 50p.  I think it dates roughly from the early 2000s and I’m not sure how authentic it is, but there are a few gems in there, including some lemongrass pork on skewers that I have been meaning to try for a long time.  There are a lot of curries in there, but the stir fry recipes are the ones I struggled to resist.  This stir fry in particular is so simple and quick to make, and contains very few ingredients.  If you used dried noodles, you’re looking at ten minutes; if you use fresh noodles you can probably do it in less than five.  As well as the squid, the sauce is flavoured with a simple combination of garlic, ginger, soy, lime and sugar.  It is one of the few stir fry recipes I use that contain no chilli (although we tend to douse it in Sriracha afterwards), which is sometimes good to have on hand when you have houseguests that can’t handle the heat.

Stir Fried Squid with Ginger

3 nests noodles (I used Sharwood’s Medium Egg Noodles)
7 ready-prepared baby squid
1 tbsp vegetable oil
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 tbsp soy sauce
1 inch piece of root ginger, finely chopped
Juice of 1 lime
1 tsp granulated sugar
4 spring onions, finely sliced

Cook the noodles according to packet instructions, drain and divide between the two bowls. 

Rinse the squid and pat dry with kitchen paper.  Cut the bodies into rings and halve the larger tentacles.

Heat the oil in a wok and cook the garlic for 30 seconds until golden brown, being careful not to let it burn. Add the squid and stir fry over a high heat for a further 30 seconds.

Add the soy sauce, ginger, lime juice, sugar and spring onions and stir fry for another 30 seconds.  Serve over the noodles.

On the Subject of Ratatouille



It has been a very boozy and indulgent couple of weeks, not least because I have been the guest of BAFTA twice and have an uncontrollable penchant for free champagne and delicious canapes.  This has unfortunately coincided with my first wedding dress fitting which, whilst not a complete disaster, highlighted to me what I knew in the back of my mind already:  you would look a lot better in that dress if you dropped a few, love.

So with this in mind, I have set myself on a month of bleak deprivation, giving up cake, processed food, anything high in calories and my beloved booze (with a free pass, of course, for my hen night) in an attempt to be a leaner bride.  My consolation is that my just-booked honeymoon will be an opportunity to gorge on Spanish food and undo all of my good work:  pintxos in the Basque country, tapas in Andalucia and more Albarino and Rioja than I could ever drink.  In the meantime, I have had a complete purge of my fridge and cupboards and have replaced all of my favourite things with little more than fruits, vegetables and herbal teas.  The wine has gone into storage and Ollie has been under strict instructions to hide the gin in a place I will never find it.

On my first day of this regime, I decided to make myself a ratatouille.  Having become somewhat unfashionable in the mid-2000s and being merely an assembly of vegetables, I initially thought it unworthy of a blog post.  However, in these austere and health-conscious times, I reconsidered. 

The beauty of ratatouille is that it does not really have a set list of ingredients.  Of course, the traditional dish includes the usual combination of tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, courgettes and onions, peppered up with some basil, but there is no real rule to say that this has to be the case.  I have a friend who dislikes courgettes and, when I have made the dish for her in the past, it has not suffered for the lack of them.  I have also found a ratatouille the perfect excuse to use up any old veg that has been taking up space in the veg drawer for far too long.  Yesterday, my ratatouille included half a punnet of slightly browning old button mushrooms and a handful of pitted green olives, left over from the last round of martini-making, thrown in at the last minute to add a little vinegary punch.  This freedom with ingredients also has the potential to make it a cheap dish – Peckham has a number of shops and market stalls that sell bowls of the aforementioned veg for a very small cost, so you could end up making a huge batch for little more than a fiver.

The quickest way of making ratatouille, of course, is to chop all of the vegetables and stew them together in a pan until soft.  This was the way I used to cook it when I first left home and started cooking vegetarian meals for myself, and until I discovered that actually reading the cookbooks, rather than just pulling out random recipes, actually makes you a far better cook.  I started to realise that many cooks advocated the method of cooking each of the individual components separately to preserve the unique flavour and texture, rather than stewing them together.  This made sense to me, as one of the problems I encountered was that each ingredient had a different cooking time; the mushrooms would start to brown before the aubergines had barely softened; and I could never get the right consistency of the ratatouille as a whole.  This is, of course, a lot more time consuming than the all-in-one approach, but it does give a better result.  The separate components are then brought together as a whole with a short bake in a hot oven – not necessarily to cook them any further, more to allow the flavours to merge.

Chop up your vegetables into large pieces.  Start by frying some sliced onions with some finely chopped garlic, and then fry each of the vegetables in turn until golden.  Combine in an ovenproof dish with a sprinkle of dried thyme and a generous amount of seasoning.  Bake in an oven heated up to 180°c / 350°f/ gas 4 for around half an hour.  Top with torn fresh basil and fresh oregano and, if you’re really naughty, some parmesan.

Maille Culinary Challenge: Harissa and Lemon Mustard Chicken

Harissa and Lemon Mustard Chicken with Date and Almnd Cous Cous

Harissa and Lemon Mustard Chicken with Date and Almnd Cous Cous

If you were to take a look in my perpetually overloaded fridge, you may worry that I have something of a mustard obsession.  At the very minimum I will keep four types in the fridge:  good old English mustard for ham sandwiches, wholegrain for salad dressings, Dijon for sauces and a bright yellow tube of French’s American mustard for squeezing over burgers or zig-zagging over hotdogs.  As well as this, I have a tin of mustard powder in the cupboard, which often makes its way into shortcrust pastry and my favourite cheese, chive and mustard scones, and a stash of both horseradish and wasabi.  I love the kind of heat that you get from those ingredients, the kind that, unlike the heat from chillies, blasts you in the nose and sends a pulse of fire through your sinuses.  I love it to the point of addiction, so was very happy to be approached by Maille to take part in their culinary challenge.

Maille is a brand of mustards, sauces and oils from France that started in the eighteenth century.  Despite the fact that they have, in recent years, branched out into other ingredients, it is mainly for their mustard that they are known.  Their boutique in the Piccadilly Arcade is like a mecca for condiment lovers – I never thought I would covet a £29, 125g pot of mustard with chablis and black truffles, but somehow I managed.

From the list of products they sent me, the one that caught my eye was a mustard with white wine, lemon and harissa.  The prospect of the dry heat of mustard combined with the chilli pepper punch of harissa presented the opportunity for some exciting flavours.  This recipe is for a a simple chicken in mustard sauce with the middle eastern influences of harissa, mint, lemon and oregano. It is a quick and simple dish that can be made in under half an hour, so is perfect for a weeknight meal.  The tomato and harissa cut through the cream and mustard and the nuggets of pomegranate seeds and the dates in the cous cous provide a sweetness that matches the flavours surprisingly well.  The dish would work perfectly well without the additional teaspoon of harissa but, if you live with a chilli fiend, as I do, it adds just that little extra punch.

As if the condiment shelf in my fridge wasn’t full enough, it seems I may have to make room for another.

In the bowl

Harissa and Lemon Mustard Chicken with Date and Almond Cous Cous

For the chicken:

  • 6 boneless chicken thighs, cut into strips
  • 3 tbsp Maille Mustard with White Wine, Lemon and Harissa Spices
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 large onion, finely diced
  • ½ tsp dried mint
  • ½ tsp dried oregano
  • ½ tsp ground cumin
  • 3 tbsp tomato puree
  • 1 tsp harissa
  • 180ml hot water
  • Sea salt and ground black pepper
  • 3 tbsp double cream
  • 1 tsp fresh mint, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp pomegranate seeds

For the cous cous:

  • 125g cous cous
  • 10 dates, roughly chopped
  • Handful of almonds, roughly chopped
  • Sea salt and black pepper

Place the chicken thighs in a large shallow dish.  Spoon over the mustard and mix to coat the chicken thoroughly.  Cover with clingfilm and leave to marinate in the fridge for a minimum of two hours, but preferably overnight.

In a large saucepan over a medium heat, gently fry the onion in the olive oil until translucent, 5-10 minutes, be careful not to let it brown.  Once cooked, stir in the dried mint, dried oregano, tomato puree and harissa.  Pour over the hot water and stir until smooth.  Season with the salt and pepper and cook for 15-20 minutes until the chicken is cooked through.

Whilst the chicken is cooking, make the cous cous by placing it in a bowl and then covering it with just enough boiling water so that it is submerged.  Cover with clingfilm and leave for ten minutes or so, until the water is absorbed.  Fluff the cous cous with a fork and stir in the dates and almonds.  Season to taste with salt and pepper and set aside.

Once the chicken is cooked through, lower the heat and stir in the double cream.  Check the seasoning.  Remove from the heat and sprinkle over the fresh mint and pomegranate seeds to garnish. Serve with the cous cous.

Serves 2-3 as a main dish.

Mussels with Punk IPA, Curry Leaves and Coconut

Mussels with Punk IPA, curry leaves and coconut milk

Mussels with Punk IPA, curry leaves and coconut milk

As the year speeds along at a frightening rate, two things came to mind: next weekend the clocks go forward, stealing a precious hour in bed but giving us our beloved lighter evenings, and mussels season is coming to an end.  Back in November I posted the recipe for Ollie’s moules marinière and spoke about the rule of only eating mussels when there is an ‘r’ in the month.  Realising that this left me a mere six weeks or so to enjoy my favourite seafood, I popped along to the excellent Moxons in East Dulwich to pick up a bag of mussels for dinner.  A bit of a bargain at £4.50 a kilo.

I seldom make moules marinière at home as my attempt is always far inferior to Ollie’s spectacular efforts, so am often looking for new ways of cooking mussels.  The classic combination is, of course, white wine, creme fraiche and parsley, but what I had in the kitchen was a can of Brewdog Punk IPA, a can of coconut milk and a huge bag of curry leaves from SMBS Foods.  These, along with some shallots, ginger, garlic and chilli would go into make a very different moules dish altogether.

The cooking method is more or less the same with the mussels steaming in the hot liquid for a few minutes until they open.  The addition of a hefty amount of beer to the cooking broth cuts through the coconut milk and prevents it from having the sweet, cloying taste that some coconut based sauces have.  Due to the Indian influences in this dish, I thought it only right to choose an IPA (India Pale Ale) for inclusion in the dish.  Brewdog has been something of a religion in our family since, ahem, some shares were purchased, so their classic Punk IPA was the brew of choice.  You can use another beer if you prefer – IPA gives a wonderful ‘hoppiness’ to the broth, but another pale ale, or even a good-quality lager, would work just as well.

To be eaten with loads of chips and bread, and more Punk IPA, obvs.

Mussels with Punk IPA, Curry Leaves and Coconut

  • 1 tbsp vegtable oil
  • 2 eschalion shallots, finely chopped
  • Thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger, finely chopped
  • 5 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 12 fresh curry leaves, sliced
  • 2 dried green chillies (I used birds eye as we like the heat)
  • Pinch salt
  • 250ml Brewdog Punk IPA
  • 400ml can coconut milk
  • 1kg fresh mussels, cleaned and debearded
  • Coriander, roughly chopped

Put a large cooking pot with a lid over a medium heat and pour in the oil.  Gently sweat the shallots, ginger, garlic, curry leaves and chilli for around 5-10 minutes until the shallots are translucent.  Be careful not to let them brown.

Turn the heat up to high and add the beer, letting it bubble up vigorously for a few minutes to cook off the alcohol.  Turn down the heat and stir in the coconut milk, gently bringing it to a simmer.

Add the mussels to the pot, turn the heat up to high and put the lid firmly on.  Cook the mussels for about five minutes, occasionally gently shaking the pan stir them, until they have fully opened.

Ladle into serving bowls and sprinkle with the chopped coriander.  Be sure to discard any mussels that have not fully opened during cooking.

Adapted from a recipe by the Indian Culinary Centre.

Smoked Aubergine, Red Pepper and Spinach Strudel


Smoked aubergine, red pepper and spinach strudel

Smoked aubergine, red pepper and spinach strudel

Last year, I attempted to solve the age-old problem of what do you serve vegetarians for Christmas dinner? with a mushroom, chestnut and spinach Wellington.  I was happy to see that a couple of my friends did actually make this dish over the festive period and enjoyed it, but it was not to everybody’s taste.  A conversation thread on Facebook after posting the recipe alerted me to the fact that many vegetarians are exasperated by the prominence of mushrooms in meat-free recipes.  One friend, who is allergic to mushrooms, said that he often went hungry at weddings due to the never-ending mushroom risottos, mushroom stroganoffs and wild mushroom tarts that caterers tend to favour.  A couple of other vegetarian friends simply couldn’t stand them.  I can see why mushrooms are often the go-to for vegetarian dishes – they are cheap, have a strong savoury flavour and provide a robust, almost meaty texture to a dish that is difficult to achieve with other vegetables.  In this conversation, I mentioned that I once had an aubergine and red pepper strudel at a friend’s house, and they seemed far more interested in this.

It’s not a very seasonal recipe for the bleak mid-winter, but the ingredients are readily available and it’s a break from the abundance of root veg that I seem to be cooking with at the moment.  I had some filo pastry in the freezer from some samosa-like parcels I have been working on and half a bag of spinach from the weekend’s curry.  I also had a jar of red peppers and a jar of olives in the fridge.  Roasted red peppers in jars are one of my all-time favourite storecupboard staples – they taste great and take away the need to laboriously roasting and peeling fresh peppers.  My local shop, Barry’s Food Store in East Dulwich, sells a large jar for £1 and when you consider that one fresh pepper from a supermarket costs in the region of 85p, this is very cheap indeed.  This is also a very simple dish to make – the only tricky part is cooking the aubergine over the gas burner on the cooker, which can smoke out your kitchen if you don’t keep an eye on it.  The reason for doing this that it gives the aubergine flesh a wonderfully smoky flavour.  You can roast it in the oven instead, but you won’t get the same effect.

Strudel filling

Strudel filling

This recipe serves four, if you need to feed a larger group, I would suggest making two strudels, rather than trying to make one larger one as the filo sheets often come in a standard size.

Smoked Aubergine, Red Pepper and Spinach Strudel

  • 1 medium aubergine
  • 2 tbsp olive oil, plus extra for brushing the pastry
  • 1 red onion, halved and thinly sliced
  • 2 roasted red peppers (from a jar, see above)
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1 tsp ground allspice
  • 200g cherry tomatoes, halved
  • Zest of half a lemon
  • 75g green olives, roughly chopped
  • 150g baby spinach
  • 2 tbsp Greek yoghurt
  • Sea salt and black pepper
  • 6 sheets filo pastry
  • 1 egg, beaten

Pierce the aubergine a few times with a fork and place on the open flame of a gas cooker.  As the skin blackens, use tongs to keep turning the aubergine to make sure that it is cooked on all sides.  This should take around 10-15 minutes.  Alternatively, you can roast the aubergine in the oven for around 20 minutes.  Leave to cool slightly then peel off the blackened skin and roughly chop the flesh.  Seat aside.

Heat the oil in a large frying pan over a medium heat and cook the sliced onions until they soften, around 10 minutes.  Add the roasted red peppers, chopped aubergine, cherry tomatoes, garlic, cumin seeds and all-spice and cook for a few more minutes.  Remove from the heat and stir in the olives and lemon zest.

Wilt the spinach under boiling water, then drain and squeeze out any excess liquid.  Roughly chop and stir into the vegetables.  Stir in the Greek yoghurt, salt and pepper and check the seasoning, adding a little more if necessary.

Place a sheet of filo on a work surface and brush with olive oil.  Place another sheet on top and repeat the brushing.  Repeat this process until you have six layers of filo – do not brush the top layer with oil.  Spread the filling along the short end of the pastry, leaving a couple of inches at either side and a large space at the bottom.  Tuck in the sides and roll the pastry towards you until the filling is completely encased.  Carefully transfer to a baking sheet, seam side down, and brush with a little egg wash.  Bake in the oven for approximately 30 minutes until the pastry is golden.  Serve in slices.

Adapted from a recipe by Pieminister.

Prawn and Cashew Nut Summer Rolls

Prawn and Cashew Nut Summer Rolls

Prawn and Cashew Nut Summer Rolls

I first became addicted to summer rolls, or gòi cüon, on a trip to south-east Asia in the summer of 2009.  I had finished my exams, and with a long, study-free summer ahead of me, I took off for a four-week trip through Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand with some friends.  Unsurprisingly, this trip sparked my love of south-east Asian cuisine in general and has inspired a lot of my cooking and restaurant choices since.  We ate beef phò for breakfast, bought countless bánh mi prepared from little motoribke/hotplate combos by the side of the road in Saigon, drank little cups of Vietnamese coffee sweetened with condensed milk to help with our hangovers and tried to pluck up the courage to try the foul-smelling, but apparently delicious, durian fruit (I still, to this day, have not sampled this delicacy).  The weather was extremely hot – 46 degrees on the day we went to visit Angkor Wat – so we often wanted cold and refreshing food.  Shredded mango and papaya salads are ubiquitous in this region, usually laced with a lip-numbing amount of chilli.  Summer rolls are also common, and a great cool starter or snack.

Summer rolls are a very traditional Vietnamese dish, but are also widely found in Cambodia.  It was in Siem Reap, in fact, that we learned to make them; on a cooking course at Le Tigre de Papier restaurant.  Summer rolls consist of a filling of vermicelli noodles, vegetables – usually lettuce, finely julienned carrot and beansprouts, herbs – usually coriander, mint and chives and a protein such as pork, prawns, tofu or nuts.  They are wrapped in rice paper, dampened in hot water to make it malleable.  They have a similar shape to the more widely-known spring roll, but are not deep fried. Summer rolls are commonly served with a dipping sauce of soy sauce, fish sauce, lime and chilli, although it has become common in recent years, particularly in Vietnamese restaurants outside of south-east Asia, to serve them with hoisin sauce, Sriracha or even sweet chilli sauce.

Although relatively simple to make, summer rolls require quite a bit of patience as the rice-paper wrappers can be quite fiddly.  The best way to approach making summer rolls is to prep all of the ingredients in advance and lay them out in front of you so that you can take a bit from each of them for each roll.  Using pre-cooked vermicelli, often found in supermarket chillers next to the pre-prepared Asian vegetables, will also save you time.  The trickiest part is knowing how long to soak the rice paper rolls for:  not enough time and you will have rice paper that is too stiff to roll well, too long and you will have soggy rice paper that will split when you try to use it.  There is no specific timing with this and you simply have to use your judgement, although it does get easier with practice.

Prawn and Cashew Nut Summer Rolls

For the rolls:

  • 12 round rice paper wrappers
  • 2 little gem lettuces, tough stalks removed and leaves shredded
  • 100g pre-cooked vermicelli noodles
  • 50g beansprouts
  • 1 large carrot, cut into fine batons
  • 48 small cooked prawns
  • Handful chopped coriander
  • Handful chopped mint
  • Handful chopped cashew nuts

For the dipping sauce:

  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1 birds eye chilli, chopped
  • 1 tbsp chopped ginger
  • 1 tbsp granulated sugar
  • 3 tbsp fish sauce
  • 2 tbsp soy sauce
  • 2 tbsp lime juice

Prepare all of the ingredients for the rolls and set them out on boards in front of you.  This will make it easier when you come to assembling them.  Fill a large shallow bowl with boiling water.

To make each roll, place a rice paper wrapper into the bowl of boiling water until it has softened.  Remove it and place it flat on a board or work surface.  Leaving plenty of space around the edges, pile a small amount of the lettuce, noodles, bean sprouts, carrot, four of the prawns, coriander, mint and cashew nuts.  Fold in the paper on the left and right of the filling, fold over the piece of the rice paper closest to you and roll away from you until the roll is complete.  The moisture in the rice paper will create a seal.  (YouTube has some video guides on how to roll summer rolls, so it may be worth watching these if you aren’t sure.)

To make the dipping sauce, place the garlic, chilli, ginger and sugar in a pestle and mortar and pound until you have a smooth paste.  Stir in the fish sauce, soy sauce and lime juice.  Pour into small pots or ramekins and serve with the summer rolls.

Adapted from a recipe by BBC Good Food.  Makes 12 rolls.

Black Pudding and Savoy Cabbage Pasta Bake

Black pudding and savoy cabbage pasta bake

This first week back at work has been a bit of a shock to the system, hence why I haven’t been writing quite as much.  Considering that for two and a half weeks I have done little more than watch television, drink gin and wrestle the top off the tin of Quality Street, this new routine of turning up, logging on and grinding down is harder than I expected.  This, coupled with the constant talk of diets, sobriety and exercise, and the monumental rain storms that have hit London in recent days, is enough to make me want to crawl back under the duvet for another couple of weeks.  At least until the worst of new year pandemonium is over.

By the time I get home; drenched, knackered and bored to death by somebody’s detox plan; the prospect of doing anything is, frankly, unappealing.  My usual enthusiasm for getting into my kitchen, radio on, and cooking away the woes of the day, is somewhat diminished.  So much so that last night, if somebody had handed me a Pot Noodle and a kettle, I might have considered it as a viable dinner option.  I am certain that this phase will soon pass and my evangalism for cooking will soon return, probably after a good night’s sleep and a couple of days away from the tube, but in the meantime I need easy things I can make with a scowl.

The four things that always make me feel better when I’m in such a mood are old Cary Grant movies, tea, cheap milk chocolate and anything made with the magical combination of pasta and cheese.  I have the first three in abundance, so just had to set about making myself a comforting supper with the fourth.  I very seldom make a pasta bake, the memory of those awful jars that you slosh over dried pasta and stick in the oven still haunt me, but for some reason it just seemed to fit the occasion. Also, I had a ball of mozzarella in the fridge, leftover from the new years eve pizza, that was on its sell-by.  I was planning to add some sausage meat to this dish to make it more substantial – either by finding the huge packets of sausagemeat found in supermarkets around Christmas time or by taking the skins of regular sausages – but had a change of heart when I came across the black pudding.

I was convinced that the smoky meatiness of the black pudding would make a very flavoursome pasta bake.  Although it did not hold its shape as well as chunks of sausage would have, the way the black pudding breaks down into crumbs and almost coats the spirals of pasta is quite endearing.  It acts in a similar way to mince when you use a meat sauce or a ragu.  I also saw an opportunity to add a vegetable to this dish – inspired by my friend Mandy’s blog, Sneaky Veg, where she hides fruit and vegetables in more or less everything – and found a shredded savoy cabbage to have just the right level of robustness to stand up to the black pudding.  Although experimental, the result was very pleasing.  I put a portion into a large bowl, made a cup of Earl Grey, got the Dairy Milk out of the fridge and curled up on the couch to watch Operation Petticoat. And I immediately felt better.

Black Pudding and Savoy Cabbage Pasta Bake

  • 250g black pudding
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 500g passata
  • 2 tbsp tomato puree
  • ½ tsp dried rosemary
  • 300g fusilli pasta
  • ½ savoy cabbage, sliced
  • Sea salt and black pepper
  • 250g ball mozzarella
  • Handful grated parmesan
  • 2 tbsp breadcrumbs

Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan.  Crumble the black pudding into large pieces and  gently fry for 5 minutes until browned.  Add the passata, tomato puree and rosemary and simmer for about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta according to packet instructions.  Add the cabbage for the last few minutes of the cooking time, then drain well.

Preheat the oven to 200ºc / 400ºf / gas 6.  Add the tomato and black pudding mixture to the drained pasta.  Season with the salt and pepper and toss together well.  Spoon into a ovenproof dish.  Break up the mozzarella and scatter across the top, followed by the parmesan and breadcrumbs.  Bake in the centre of the oven for 20 minutes.

Rough Puff: a Quick Guide to Making Your Own

I just realised that this was my first post of 2014, so Happy New Year!

My Instagram feed has been filled with photos of the food shopping of people far more virtuous than I.  It seems that people have been out in their droves buying vegetables and fish for the new year’s detox.  Whilst I too have been on the scales and shocked into losing some of my festive plumpness, I have not been so quick off the mark.  My vicious hangover dominated what I ate on New Years’ Day and I ended up ordering a rather large Indian takeaway that I felt far too ashamed to post to my healthy-eating followers.  That being said, onion bhajis, chicken tikka masala, saag aloo and peshwari naan was exactly what we needed.

My plan then was to set about getting rid of the leftover cheese from the mountains I had bought for our New Year’s drinks.  We had the odds and ends of a Red Leicester, some Stilton and a range of festive cheddars.  Unable to face yet another meal of cheese, crackers and chutney, I decided to put them into a mushroom, cheese and potato pie.  With the London weather rapidly deteriorating into a mass of cold, wind and rain, and one of Ollie’s friends coming for supper, it seemed like just the thing.  I also had some flour and a whole pack of butter from some brioche buns I was supposed to make but didn’t, so also set about making my own rough puff pastry topping.

Mushroom, Cheese and Potato Pie

Mushroom, Cheese and Potato Pie

I always cringe a little when I see TV chefs advising the use of shop-bought pastry in their recipes.  Learning how to make pastry has been a bit of a lifelong journey, from making shortcrust in my Nan’s kitchen as a little girl to still fighting with collapsed choux some 25 years later. Don’t get me wrong, I will pick up some ready-made pastry when in a rush, but will always find unwrapping a beige block and dumping it on the work surface a little uninspiring.  Homemade pastry tastes so much better and I rather enjoy the process of making it. The only one that is a massively time-consuming pain in the neck is puff pastry.

I can honestly see why people buy ready made puff, for who has time in their everyday lives for the layering and buttering and maintaining the constant temperature that making puff pastry requires. It is a complete faff. However, making rough puff is an excellent substitute and far easier.  Instead of adding the butter between the layers, it is added to the flour at the very beginning in cubes and then simply rolled and folded repeatedly to form the layers.  Once cooked, the butter melts to form flaky ‘pockets’.  You don’t get the same rise as you would with puff pastry, nor are the layers as defined, but you still get a good flaky pastry that is good to use for a tart, pie lid or pasty.

Below is a recipe for rough puff pastry. Another good recipe to use if you want something different is Dan Lepard’s Rough Puff Dripping Crust, which uses a mixture of butter and beef dripping for a slightly more substantial flavour.  I have also added the recipe below for the cheese and potato pie.

Rough Puff Pastry

  • 250g plain flour
  • Pinch of salt
  • 250g cold butter, cut into small cubes
  • 150ml cold water
  • 1 tsp lemon juice

Put the flour and salt in a large bowl and stir in the cubes of butter, keeping them intact.  Mix the water with the lemon juice and gradually stir into the mixture until a shaggy dough forms.

Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and pat into a square.  Roll out into a rectangle, about 30cm x 12cm.  Fold the dough, like a letter, three times and turn so the long edge is facing you.  Roll out into a rectangle again and repeat the folding process.  Wrap the dough in clingfilm and chill in the fridge for 30 minutes.

Repeat this process three times and chill the pastry in the fridge until needed.


Mushroom, Cheese and Potato Pie

  • 1kg floury potatoes, peeled and sliced into ½cm slices
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 large onion, thinly sliced
  • 250g chestnut mushrooms, quartered
  • 250g portobello mushrooms, sliced
  • 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 4 tbsp creme fraiche
  • ½ tsp dried thyme
  • 200g hard cheese, cut into small cubes
  • Sea salt and black pepper
  • 1 quantity of rough puff pastry (see above)
  • 1 egg, for brushing

Preheat the oven to 180ºc / 350ºf / gas 4.

Cook the potato slices in a large pan of sightly salted water until they are tender. Drain and set aside.  Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan and sauté the onion until softened and translucent, about 5-10 minutes.  Add the mushrooms and the garlic, and a little more oil if necessary, and cook until the mushrooms are tender.  Add the creme fraiche, thyme and seasoning and simmer for a couple of minutes. Do not let the creme fraiche reduce too much.

Add the mushroom mixture and the cubed cheese to the potatoes and gently toss together, try not to break up the potatoes too much.  Spoon the mixture into a large pie dish.

Roll out the pastry and lay it over the top of the pie.  Trim off the excess pastry and firmly crimp the edges.  Make a small hole in the centre of the pie to let out steam and brush the whole of the pastry with egg wash.  Bake in the centre of the oven for 25 minutes until the pastry is golden brown.

Adapted from a recipe by Pieminister.  Serves six.