Everything I Cooked from ‘Greedy Girl’s Diet’ by Nadia Sawalha

This post is a run-down of everything I cooked from Nadia Sawalha’s cookbook ‘Greedy Girl’s Diet’, and accompanies my full review of the book.

Beautiful berry pancakes [Come on, Break that Fast]

I think we can safely agree that this photo is overexposed...

This is an easy recipe to pull together – not quite one-bowl, because you need to separate the egg and beat the whites to soft peaks before folding into the batter, but all very easy to do by hand. They were delicate and tender and sweet enough without any toppings. My boyfriend liked them very much, which I think is important when cooking ‘diet food’ for someone not on a diet themselves.

Cinnamon chocolate banana shake027 [Come on, Break that Fast]

This is a blend of banana, semi-skimmed milk, cocoa powder and agave syrup, topped with grated dark chocolate. My bananas were so speckled that I left out the syrup, and they were more than sweet enough. The recipe reminded me that I don’t adore the combination of cinnamon and dark chocolate, personally. Fine but standard.

Jane Wake’s wide-awake seed bar [Come on, Break that Fast]

This is one of the few recipes I didn’t photograph. Think of a standard seed bar and you get the idea. Oats, nuts, seeds, coconut and dried fruit is mushed together with bananas, honey and light butter (I wasn’t too enamoured about buying this) before being patted into a baking tin, baked, cooled, and cut into bars. I substituted flaked coconut for the desiccated coconut (because that’s what was in the cupboard) and just chopped it up a bit; it was fine. I used one and a half large bananas instead of two small ones, and baked the bars a little longer than specified. They remained quite soft and prone to splitting, but held together. They were good: not too sweet, as you’d expect, and full of texture from the nubbly dry ingredients. These weren’t sensational but they quelled snacking urges reasonably well. I don’t think they would have fuelled me if I’d just had them for breakfast, though, as the bars were smallish.

Buckwheat pancakes [Come on, Break that Fast]

044 (2)Like most buckwheat pancakes, these were hearty, nutty, and filling, and could have had both savoury or sweet applications. The recipe doesn’t state what level of heat you should cook these over and actually the pan needed to be hotter than I expected to get these crepes to release. There’s a teaspoon of oil along with skimmed milk in these so they released decently once thoroughly cooked. They did have a tendency to be crisp rather than floppy as a silk scarf, however.

Creamy avocado soup [Let’s do Lunch]

016 (2)Sawalha suggests that this can be eaten as both a dip or a soup, and as I don’t like cold soup or yoghurt-based soup, I went for the dip option, and it was certainly thick enough to withstand scooping by pitta bread or vegetable crudités. Although the picture looks quite smooth, it was chunkier than it appeared because the cucumber didn’t blend entirely into the yoghurt and avocado.

Italian soup [Let’s do Lunch]

010 (2)This hearty soup is what I characterise as a ‘mealtime’ soup; one you could easily have as a meal, rather than as a starter. It is filling and well-flavoured with garlic and oregano (helpfully, you can use either fresh or dried in this). It is essentially a minestrone soup, save that it does not include pasta, and it was a little odd, to me anyway, that there’s a recipe both for this and for a minestrone in the book. I used less oil than called for, which was two tablespoons.

Leek and potato soup [Let’s do Lunch]

005The more I think of this soup, the more I think that it was actually one of the book’s complete failures, betraying its premise. Don’t get me wrong, this soup has a lovely flavour – you are allowed bacon as well as onion, leeks and potatoes – and the portion is a generous bowlful, but it’s so thin and insubstantial that, even after eating a double portion, I was bitterly hungry (and I had even thrown in an extra leek). Given that almost every single recipe is filling as well as tasty and that the whole premise of the book is that you don’t have to eat punishing ‘diet’ food to lose some weight, this struck an odd note. Maybe leek and potato soup just can’t be skimped on.

Marvellous minestrone soup [Let’s do Lunch]

263My opinions on this soup are virtually identical to my opinions on the Italian soup, and I also used less oil in this. The recipe only calls for half a pepper, annoyingly, and frankly I would just bung the whole thing in – it’s not going to radically distort the calorie count, after all! Another annoying point is that the pasta is supposed to be already cooked but I disobeyed this instruction and cooked it in the soup rather than separately. The ‘pasta’ I used was Israeli couscous – I consider it a pasta because it’s tiny balls of semolina and wheat flour.

The recipe calls for spinach and cabbage but I only used spinach, because I was bringing this to work (the picture was taken at my desk, in my little travel soup mug) and reheated cabbage smells vile and is deeply antisocial.

Cumin-spiced carrot and butternut squash soup [Let’s do Lunch]

021Butternut squash and carrots are both sweet vegetables and it was unsurprising that the finished soup was sweet, too. A red chopped chilli is included on the ingredients list; it is marked as optional but I think the heat is absolutely essential to counterbalance the intense sweetness of the vegetables. Some lemon or lime juice stirred through at the end would also not have gone amiss and skimping on salt would be a mistake here.

The recipe calls for one tablespoon of oil just to fry an onion and three garlic cloves; I used one teaspoon, which was plenty for the purpose.

Spicy lamb and hummus pitta [Let’s do Lunch]

020 (3)Now this, to me, was an absolute standout. An almost miniscule amount of lamb – 100g – is cut into tiny pieces, mixed with garlic and spice mix (the recipe calls for baharat, but as I didn’t have it I used ras el hanout), browned and served with a sauce made of hummus and coriander, as well as chopped lettuce and green pepper and flatbreads (the recipe calls for pitta, but I used flatbread). Light, spicy, refreshing, easy. It was utterly delicious and my boyfriend loved it, too. The only fly in the ointment is that the recipe is listed as serving four – four people who are watching their weight, maybe. I ate one portion, but my non-dieting boyfriend polished off the remainder easily.

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Chicken and avocado salad [Let’s do Lunch]

028Confession: I am not a lover of chicken and I characterised this as ‘fine’. As with all chicken-based recipes, I concluded that I would have much preferred it without the chicken, and the use of cooked skinless breasts is never going to be seductive. The recipe calls for four such chicken breasts, already cooked – is that realistic? Do people just have cooked chicken lying about? I certainly don’t. Having halved the recipe to serve just two, I baked the two breasts in the oven before adding to the salad. I didn’t have walnuts so used pecans, and toasted them before adding to the salad. Even if using walnuts, I would consider the toasting step compulsory, but the recipe just has you toss them in raw. Nuts are much crunchier and delicious when toasted – they taste much more of themselves and start to slightly give off their natural oils, allowing them to mix into the other flavours on the plate.

Beetroot and potato salad [Let’s do Lunch]

022This dish is intended as a side salad to serve four, but I ate half (two portions) as a main meal. The yoghurt-based dressing goes luridly pink as the beetroot juice seeps into it. This is a salad for beetroot lovers because there is double the beetroot to potato; unusually, for a British recipe, we are directed to not use the type pickled in vinegar, but plainly cooked. Fortunately, such plain beets are easy to find now, even in my local Lidl. The vinaigrette, which is poured over the beetroot and just-cooked potatoes, balances the earthy sweetness of the beetroot sufficiently.

Substitutes and omissions: I didn’t use either the fresh or dried dill called for in the recipe because I don’t like it enough to feel it’s worth buying. The recipe calls for low-fat Greek yoghurt, but I used 0% fat to no ill effect. I used English mustard instead of French and actually I think the fieriness of the English product is a good foil for the bland potatoes and sweet beetroot.

Spicy chickpea tagine [Let’s do Lunch]

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This is a nice, easy-to-put-together riff on a standard chana masala-style dish. Actually my version was a bit more chana masala-ish because I used garam masala instead of cumin (I’d run out of the latter). I used an extra cinnamon stick instead of the teaspoon of cinnamon called for (same reason).

I’m going to be a broken record on the use of oil in this cookbook; I cut it again in this recipe.

Broccoli, mushroom and chilli parmesan pasta [Let’s do Lunch]

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Notwithstanding the chapter this is from, I cooked it for dinner. It was fairly quick and satisfying. As someone who doesn’t love mushrooms, but can live with them, this was a pretty average dish. I used wholewheat spaghetti instead of the penne pictured.

I did wonder if the calorie count for this recipe was off – the portion of pasta is generous and the recipe calls for two whole tablespoons of oil – but given the rest of the dish is mushrooms and broccoli, it seems to be about right. I used only one tablespoon of oil myself and cooked the mushrooms for much longer than called for, so that they became properly soft and cooked down. The recipe asked for the quartered mushrooms to be cooked ‘for a minute or so’ over medium heat, then to add garlic and chilli and cook a further minute. They would have been far too raw for my taste with that cooking time. Also, because I had halved the oil called for, I used a little of the pasta cooking water to the mushrooms once the garlic had been added to stop it from catching. Adding pasta water also thickens the sauce and gives it some silky body.

All in all okay but not one I would make again.

Spaghetti with chilli, crab and lemon [Let’s do Lunch]

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As I mentioned in the full review, this dish was, for me, a stand-out disaster. There were a lot of lovely, fresh flavours in the dish: lemon, spiked with chilli and garlic, a refreshing and zesty combination. I could see how it would be lovely with proper, fresh seafood, but the tin of white crabmeat – as called for in the recipe, mind – was much too reminiscent of cat food. Sawalha does recommend using fresh crab if you can. I think fresh crab is essential for this. It’s perhaps not very homely and budget friendly to call for expensive fresh shellfish, but the tinned crab honestly made me want to cry. Don’t do it to yourself. Either use fresh crab, or don’t make the dish. I somehow doubt Sawalha makes this with tinned crab herself…

Substitutions: I couldn’t find a 200g tin of crabmeat so used one weighing 170g, which yielded 120g. A blessing, as it turned out. I didn’t add the parsley called for because I didn’t have any but if making this (with! fresh! crab!) I can see how the cool, herbal green would add an extra complementary note. I used much less oil than the two tablespoons called for so treated myself to an extra smidgen of wholewheat pasta. I also didn’t have any white wine so I borrowed a trick from Nigella Lawson and watered down 100ml of white vermouth with 100ml of water. The recipe, incidentally, calls for a ‘half glass’ of wine. I’m not sure what this means since wine is poured in varying measures. It really would have been no effort to add an approximate amount in millilitres so all in all, between the cat food meat and slapdash ingredients list, this recipe made me very cross.

Roasted pork meatballs in tomato sauce [Let’s do Lunch]

054 (2)The pork specified is lean, so of course the meatballs can tend towards slightly dense, even dry. The sauce is based on tomato paste and an annoyingly unspecific ‘teacup’ of boiling water (again, it would have served to recipe better to specify the size) and two tablespoons of olive oil (of course I used less). The sauce is consequently of quite a plain, sweet character – family friendly.

The recipe calls for the meatballs to be rolled into ‘hazelnut-sized’ balls. Not a chance. I made them small, but not THAT small.

Za’atar Chicken [Let’s do Lunch]

Chicken i236s marinated, not too long, in an acidic mixture of lemon, salt and garlic – enough to make the flesh take on that dense, slightly pickled look of fish prepared ceviche-style. Za’atar is hardly exotic now – any old supermarket seems to stock this pungent, aromatic combination of wild thyme, sumac and other herbs. The presence of za’atar in the world is a great help. Anyway, this is easy, quick (bar the marinating time) and fresh-tasting. The chicken is intensely lemony and herbal. If I’m going to eat chicken, this is the kind of flavour profile I like.

Chicken and preserved lemon tagine [Let’s do Lunch]

175As with za’atar, so with preserved lemons: little jars of them seem to be available everywhere now, and are even popping up as supermarket own-brand versions.

The recipe suggests using chicken breasts or thighs; I went for thighs, sacrificing a bit of leanness for dark, juicy flavour. The calorie count probably could have been shown for breasts or thighs, though, as there would have been a difference. I left out the green olives called for because I don’t care for olives. Anyway, this is a heady, aromatic and forgiving dish. I thought the cooking time was a bit long for thighs, but it did result in tender, melting meat and vegetables, and when you need comfort that falling-apart quality provides a great deal of it.

Sinless spaghetti Bolognaise [Delicious Dinner]

087Sinless this may be, but I confess to not loving this version of spag bol. The recipe suggests using turkey or beef mince; curious, I tried turkey, an intensely lean meat which, when ‘lightly brown’, takes on a firm, crumbly texture and the taste of sloppy cardboard. The meat was strangely dry despite the sauce being so wet (as can be seen by the pool of liquid on the plate) and the mushrooms were a slightly slimy, unwelcome presence in texture and taste terms – I don’t think they add anything (apart from low-calorie bulk, obviously) so what is meant to be a comforting and familiar family dish.

Creamy chicken curry in a hurry [Delicious Dinner]

051If you come across slightly older cookbooks, you will occasionally find a recipe for a sweet, mild curry which combines generic yellow ‘curry powder’ with a grated apple, handful of raisins and poached chicken breast. This reminded me a little of those recipes: mild yellow commercial korma paste is mixed with yoghurt and chicken is marinated in this bland mixture for as long as possible, then tipped into a pan and cooked in stock. The mixture is thickened with ground almonds and, although there is no apple to be seen, sultanas are stirred through. The result is very old-fashioned, almost flavourless and textureless but very sweet. It was not to my taste but might have pleased a young child, and indeed Sawalha describes this as ‘strictly a family dish’.

Marvellous macaroni cheese [Delicious Dinner]

052 (2)All macaroni cheese recipes seem to have in common that they use a million cooking implements and vessels, and this was no exception (pasta, bechamel, baking dish, vegetables…).

Substitutions: the recipe calls for leek to be fried in a little oil, but given that I had bought light butter, I tried using that. Stick to oil. I used ‘light’ extra-mature cheddar to cut the fat content (although the calorie difference between light and standard cheese is negligible). Instead of grilling the top of the dish I baked it for about half an hour so that everything could bubble together.

The bechamel (or white sauce) did split a little when I made this – I don’t think skimmed milk works for this since the nature of the sauce is that it relies on fat and flour to bind it.

The vegetable content of this dish was great but I don’t like cooked fresh tomatoes and, like most pasta dishes, it wasn’t filling for very long.

Betty’s beautiful burgers [Delicious Dinner]

No photograph of these. They look like smallish burger patties, so you’re not missing much. They are good! They’re based on lamb and have a bit of pomegranate molasses in them. You can bind them with an egg, egg and breadcrumbs or even ‘dried apricot stuffing, made up according to packet instructions’. Hmm. I used an egg.

Thai veggie curry [Delicious Dinner]

This was the first recipe I made from the book, before I decided to review it. The recipe uses 70g of Thai green curry paste so, unsurprisingly, the recipe depends on you using one which is of good quality and, more importantly, suits your tastes – mine tasted a little of anise, surprisingly. Frankly I don’t think carrots (called for in the recipe!) belong in a Thai green curry – pea aubergine would have been more suitable, though harder to get hold of. I didn’t use the fish sauce or beansprouts, on account of not loving either ingredient. I used soy sauce instead of the fish sauce.

Chicken shawarma [Delicious Dinner]

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What a great recipe. Juicy, spiced, flavourful grilled chicken which hearkens to Sawalha’s father’s Jordanian roots and is based on her favourite street food eaten on the streets of Amman. The spices include cinnamon, allspice, cardamom and even gum mastic, which is a spice I have sought out, and found, in London food shops which serve Turkish and Middle Eastern communities (I mean, they serve all communities, but they specialise in foods from these communities), but never seen in a ‘big four’ supermarket. This authenticity pays off in the fantastic flavour of this dish. Well worth making. It’s drizzled with tahini sauce upon serving.

Funky fish and chips [Delicious Dinner]

073 (2)The book shows an evenly-crumbed slab of yellow fish. Well, that’s not quite how it worked out for me. Admittedly, I used an egg white instead of an egg, but the chilli and basil-flecked polenta mixture clumped together horribly and adhered to the fish in lumps. The oven-baked chips stuck to the pan and didn’t brown properly, though that could have been down to me using a generic ‘white’ potato rather than one designed for roasting.

Vegetable makloubeh [Delicious Dinner]

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Another one of the first recipes from the book I tried. It wasn’t greatly promising because of the way the aubergine was cooked. Aubergine benefits from slow cooking in lots of good quality olive oil until it surrenders silkily, or roasting over open flame until the skin chars and the spongey flesh takes on deep, smokey flavour. I don’t think it benefits from a quick spray with as little olive oil as possible and roasting. The slices didn’t brown appetisingly and remained looking, and tasting, a little pallid. I think the dish could also have benefitted from deeper, richer spicing to bring the vegetables together into a harmonious whole; the cauliflower and aubergine didn’t really marry.

Prawn and chorizo rice pot [Delicious Dinner]

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This recipe was delicious and, given that chorizo is highly fatty and so something the dieter often must strike from her culinary register, unexpected. The combination of sweet juicy prawns and drier, firmer, salty, smoky chorizo is one of the most exemplary surf and turf pairings around, and certainly among the more accessible.It’s a recipe that’s ideal for a weeknight because it comes together quickly and is easy and stress-free, and doesn’t use up loads of pans or require obscure ingredients. I have made this one multiple times and for me it’s the standout recipe, worth holding on to the book for.

The recipe ekes out a tiny bit of very finely chopped chorizo – and the effort made to chop it truly small will reward you – which would, in other dishes, seem rather a mean amount. Albeit the quantity of chorizo is low, the amount of rice is generous. Although the recipe calls for 200g of prawns, I always end up using slightly less because packets bought in the supermarket are usually between 150-180g. As I have testified before, I prefer the Waitrose raw king prawn above others, for taste, textural, and environmental reasons.

Fancy fish pie [Delicious Dinner]

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Another recipe that took up a lot of cooking vessels and implements, but it yielded a really satisfying dinner, deeply comforting despite the use of light butter, light cream cheese and low-fat fromage frais. The recipe calls for a mix of smoked haddock, coley and prawns, but I used (sustainable, line-caught) cod as I was unable to find coley. I think you could also use pollack if you can find it.

Chilli con carne [Delicious Dinner]

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This is a great and satisfying chilli con carne based on lean minced beef and bulked out with beans and peppers, served with brown rice and a fresh, enlivening salsa. The only annoying thing about it was that the recipe called for a  200g tin of kidney beans, but I could only find standard-sized 400g tins, resulting in half a tin leftover in the fridge. Honestly, I would spare yourself the aggravation and just chuck in the whole tin.

Ratatouille with quinoa [Delicious Dinner]

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In many respects this is a very standard ratatouille – it’s bright, fresh, a good weeknight dinner. Personally the balance in this recipe was weighted too heavily in favour of the courgettes; I prefer a greater proportion of aubergine, although it’s true that their tendency to absorb oil means it might not have been easy to include more. Speaking of oil, this is another recipe where I used much less than originally called for – just under two teaspoons, a third of what was called for (two tablespoons).

Minor gripe about the instructions: the vegetables are placed in a casserole to bake together and it’s not clear if the casserole should be lidded or not.

Fabulous falafels [Delicious Dinner]

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Tinned chickpeas are whizzed together with seasoning, garlic and bicarbonate of soda and compressed into falafel balls. Sawalha asks you to make sixteen. I made eight and they were already small and falling-apart crumbly so I think making them smaller would be very difficult. The falafel were quite dry and hard and fell apart into crumbly dust. Traditionally falafel are made from chickpeas that have been soaked, but not cooked – maybe using cooked ones produces this more unsatisfactory result. I have had delicious, moist falafel that have rivalled lamb patties for juiciness; it is possible.

I used much less low-fat yoghurt for the dressing than called for in the recipe – by accident rather than design,because the amount I had left in the pot was much less than the 150g required. I blended it in a mini chopper to make it smooth. As a result my version of the rocket-based dressing was more pungently green and peppery-bright than it would have otherwise been, and I liked it.

Saffron prawns with rice [Delicious Dinner]

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Another good, solid, easy dinner with a delicious foundation of flavours. I mistakenly used brown rice instead of Basmati, only clocking the error when I realised how short the cooking time was. It was still tasty in its own right. God, I love prawns – their sweetness was perfect against the rice.

Moroccan-style fish [Delicious Dinner]

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Sawalha claims she created this recipe for herself and her father, who don’t favour fish. It’s true that white fish is often cooked lightly and delicately, and this richly spiced, tomatoey stew, flavoured with my favourites like paprika and cumin, enhanced with chickpeas, is a welcome change. It’s satisfying and, while I don’t know if it would convert someone who truly hates fish – I personally love fish, so this is alien to me – I think someone who is on the fence would enjoy it.

Coconut, prawn and mangetout curry [Delicious Dinner]

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A nice, easy curry, apparently based on a favoured takeaway dish, based on Madras curry paste, light coconut milk, mangetout  and prawns, thickened with ground almonds. The recipe asks for a tablespoon of brinjal pickle to be stirred into it at the end, but I skipped this step because I didn’t want to buy a jar of pickle specially for this recipe, as I doubted we’d eat the rest. I do think the pickle would have been a good addition, though, lifting and brightening the flavours with a sour edge. My version was a little bit soupier than the one photographed in the book. I served it with rice for a comforting, warming supper.

Lemony risotto [Delicious Dinner]

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This recipe serves two and so was extremely convenient for me, living as I do in a two-person household. The portion, while sufficient for me, was perhaps a little on the small side for a male non-dieter. The recipe is packed with vegetables: asparagus, petits pois, spring onions and watercress. I left out the watercress (I forgot to buy it, that’s all) and used a little bit of leek as the allium base instead of the spring onions. With the asparagus, peas, lemon and parmesan this recipe can’t be anything but bright, punchy and refreshing, despite the creaminess. I liked that parmesan cheese was included in the calorie count.

Risotto with seared scallops [Delicious Dinner]

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Another one that serves two. The portion is a decent-sized bowlful – the amount of rice is quite generous – sufficient for a non-dieter.

I used less oil than specified and skipped the light butter and the wine used to finish the scallops. The finished dish was perfectly rich-tasting and creamy without the fake butter so…why bother? Also, I didn’t have as much Arborio rice as required by the recipe – and hadn’t eaten all day – so added a little extra bacon. I used a whole pack of small Patagonian scallops instead of four larger ones.

Sirloin steak salad with creamy horeradish dressing [Delicious Dinner]

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I made a number of changes to this recipe of strips of griddled steak tossed with blanched green beans, salad, radishes and a dressing of horseradish and low-fat salad cream, served with grilled garlic bread. Firstly I shifted the register from English to French by using half-fat creme fraiche and instead of the salad cream and mustard instead of horseradish, which is not something I would ever ordinarily use. I also used baby leaf spinach instead of mixed leaf salad, rocket and watercress. I used more steak because the smallest packet I could buy in the supermarket was a little bigger than what was called for. This is a straightforward and undemanding salad to put together, but following the instructions for the garlic bread just resulted in the garlic falling off the bread and burning on the grill pan. However, grilling the bread did give it an amazing smokey flavour that made up for it not oozing with melted butter.

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Tandoori chicken with tzatziki [Delicious Dinner]

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A confession: I made this recipe in the evening after going to a friend’s birthday lunch, which had lasted about six hours and multiple rich, meaty courses. The chicken had marinated for about 36 hours and I cooked this up and fed it to my hungry boyfriend, but could not actually manage it myself. He liked it a lot and it smelled great. You marinate chicken in yoghurt, tandoori paste, ginger and spices, so the chicken is both tender and permeated with spice all the way through.

The recipe asks you to use two chicken breasts and two chicken drumsticks, but I only found drumsticks available in large, family-sized bags. Given that we don’t have a freezer, this would have been an impractical purchase, so I used four chicken breasts.

Pancakes with raspberry topping [Decadent Desserts]

010I had this for a more indulgent weekend breakfast rather than dessert and would characterise it as a ‘what’s not to love?’ kind of recipe, with flavours that almost anyone would enjoy. The pancakes – which are crepes, really, being thin – contain very little fat, just from the egg and the tiny bit of fat which remains in skimmed milk. As a result, despite cooking them on a very slick nonstick crepe pan, it was somewhat difficult to get them to release from the pan. Embrace the tears, I say – you’ll be slopping raspberry sauce over them anyway and that hides any imperfections.

For the raspberry topping, I used lemon juice instead of orange juice – orange juice would doubtless be better if you have a sweeter tooth or are serving to children. I also used frozen raspberries, as they were being cooked anyway and were cheaper than fresh; they broke down completely and became extremely liquid, but still tasted good. If you want a thicker, jammier sauce, use fresh.

Cookbook Review: ‘Greedy Girl’s Diet’, by Nadia Sawalha

Maintaining a calorie deficit is no joke. Between July 2015 and June 2016 I was consuming no more than between 1200-1400 calories a day while attempting to shed (what became) 24kg of weight. There were, obviously, exceptions to this rule – though surprisingly, I didn’t surpass my calorie allowance on my birthday or Christmas – but the majority of my days were in significant deficit, all faithfully tracked on MyFitnessPal.

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There are people who will disagree, but eating this way is actually quite exhausting. It makes work of what should be instinctive, turns meals into maths, and I found it very difficult to cook from my extensive cookbook collection simply because the calorie counts weren’t there, and sometimes it was too tiring and daunting to run it through MyFitnessPal’s recipe calculator only to discover it was well beyond my daily limit: the after-work conundrum of what to cook was magnified. On the other hand, I did need to eat with a very prescribed calorie limit in order to lose the weight I wanted to lose. This problem led to me buying up a lot of healthy-eating orientated cookbooks, the kind which are actually aimed at dieters and so will print the nutritional values on the recipe pages as a matter of course. (It also led me to multiple clean eating cookbooks. Enough said on that phase). While in this phase, desperately seeking inspiration, I found ‘Greedy Girl’s Diet’ in a charity shop and, after a bit of anxious leafing, was drawn in by the promise of quick meals where the hard work of calorie counting had been done for me.

img_0005I’d heard of Nadia Sawalha, the author of the book, but mostly know her as a winner of Celebrity Masterchef, and didn’t realise she was an actress (having acted in EastEnders, that perennial soap classic) and broadcaster prior to this. Notwithstanding popular cliches to the contrary, the cover of the book (see above), and it’s title and subtitle, really do say everything about what it will offer: a slim, happy Sawalha beaming, dressed in a (reasonably slinky) Little Black Dress, propped on the kitchen counter, whisking up what looks to be cupcakes, and the promise that you can ‘eat yourself slim with gorgeous, guilt-free food’. So this book is really, definitely, absolutely, unequivocally, aimed at women, then.

The introduction confirms it – in ‘My Secret’ Sawalha covers her dieting history, basically a potted history of “starving, bingeing, starving, bingeing and then starving and bingeing all over again, to no avail” and following every touted ‘miracle solution’ to the problem of an imperfect body, which, she verifies, have not worked for her. My own weight loss history is different – I have gained significant amounts of weight twice in my life as follows: I enter a stressful period of my life, eat to comfort myself, and then one day wake up loathing myself. I couldn’t entirely relate, but I think aspects of this story will resonate for most women. It was only when Sawalha realised she should be nourishing, not punishing, her body, that her approach to eating began to change. She also writes in a separate section about her relationship with exercise, characterised by dread, laziness and fear, and how she realised that, in order to start exercising, she would have to…start exercising. When I was very overweight, walking into the gym full of toned, ab-flashing women who were so expert on the machines made me tense and trembley, so yes, I could relate to this!

Moving on from the confessional, sisterly tone – you will like it or not, but you don’t have to read it either way – and on to the recipes, there are three sections: Come on, Break that Fast, which covers both quick weekday breakfasts and recipes more suited to weekends; Let’s Do Lunch, meals I characterise as slightly lighter and quicker, and Delicious Dinner.

Personally I found timg_0008he breakfast section the least inspiring. There are some nice recipe in there – I liked the berry pancakes, wide-awake seed bars and buckwheat pancakes – but most of them were not to my taste (scrambled egg and smoked trout, egg and bacon tomato pots) or weren’t really recipes, but more ideas (avocado toast, boiled eggs and soldiers, almond butter crumpets – literally just toasted crumpets and almond butter, but the recipe takes up a full page!). However, when it comes to breakfast I am one of those people who is very tied to a routine of eating the same things on a daily basis, punctuated by the occasional weekend variation, so for me, personally, this wasn’t so much of an issue. If you’re struggling to break out of a cereal and toast rut, however, other books may be better.

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So delicious – and I think it looks so appetising, too

Things did look up when it came to lunch. There’s a decent range of soups, which is important to me in almost any book, not just diet ones, because soup is what I typically take to work with me on a daily basis. Some of the recipes worked very well and were flavourful and filling, as advertised; the leek and potato soup, however, was miserably thin and could only really serve four if the four you were serving are very young children with tiny appetites (in fact its watery texture and pallid colour made me think of gruel, the Victorian invalid/workhouse staple). It didn’t fuel me at all and reminded me of ‘traditional’ diet food (the kind that sends you straight to the biscuit tin). However, the hearty Italian soup and the Marvellous minestrone (superlatives are common throughout the book) were brightly flavoured and kept me going for hours, so I can forgive the vichyssoise blip. Other lunch ideas were more suitable for someone who is lucky enough to work from home, such as the Lamb and Hummus pitta (I cooked it on a weekend), but, that being said, it was one of those punchy, filling dishes so full of flavour and texture that it truly belied the idea of diet food. It uses only 100g lean lamb for a recipe serving four but it was truly enough.

 

img_0015As with the breakfast recipes, the salad recipes were not really up my street, although the two I did try- chicken and avocado and beetroot and potato – were good enough. My boyfriend particularly raved about the chicken and avocado salad, which contains bacon (I do not really like chicken but I did like the dressing and avocado). The nice thing about this diet book is that you’re totally allowed to be eating bacon, chorizo, potatoes and cream – just used very moderately.

Most of the lunch recipes can be pulled together fairly snappily; the more time-consuming ones are appropriately under the heading of ‘Family Sunday Lunch’, albeit a small family; the recipes largely serve four. Most of them, again, were solid and definitely suitable for sharing, although the vegetarian comfort pie, a dish of stewed celery topped with mashed potatoes without butter, did not tempt me. It sounded a surprisingly austere and traditional note of deprivation and seemed quite old-fashioned amidst the pork meatballs and za’atar chicken and chicken tagine, so appetising and very delicious.

img_0017The Delicious Dinner chapter similarly includes different themes, including of course family-orientated recipes (serving four), such as Sinless Spaghetti Bolognaise (the twist is the use of turkey mince and addition of mushrooms) and Creamy Chicken Curry in a Hurry, a somewhat old-fashioned and unchallenging curry recipe which Sawalha admits is not one she would serve to guests. Based on korma paste, I imagine it’s a dish even the pickiest of children would eat. There’s also a chicken shawarma recipe which surprised me with its inclusion of gum mastic in the ingredients: despite the rise and rise of Middle Eastern food in the UK, this is still not something you can buy in standard supermarkets. Slightly fancier recipes are included in the ‘Dinner Party Goddess’ sub-section, including my stand-out dish of the book, the Prawn and Chorizo Rice Pot, which stretches 70g of chorizo among four diners in a way which will leave everyone satisfied. This dish is quick, it is utterly delicious, it combines my favourite things of prawn and chorizo and it clocks in at 367 calories per serving: I have made it many times and my boyfriend loves it, too. Finally, there’s a sub-section on ‘Dinner for Two’, which is always helpful for me given that typically I am serving just two. This section included such pleasing dinners as Coconut, Prawn and Mangetout Curry (Sawalha’s healthier remake of a takeaway dish, apparently!) and Lemony Risotto. The portions were generous and satisfying – in fact, the Tandoori Chicken recipe resulted in more chicken than I could eat, though this might speak more to my slightly reluctant relationship with chicken than anything else.

On the whole this is a very ‘accessible’ cookbook, by which I mean virtually every ingredient, with maybe two exceptions throughout the entire book, could be bought in a bog-standard supermarket; many of the ingredients could be ‘sourced’ from a corner shop or petrol station outlet if that’s all you had. However, sometimes this impulse to make things approachable rather than authentic does go too far, as when Sawalha calls for tinned crabmeat for her chilli, crab and lemon spaghetti. In fairness she does suggest using fresh rather than tinned in the head note, and do follow her advice: the tinned variety was an absolute abomination. It tasted like the smell of cat food. I am really not ‘above’ tinned fish – I am rather fond of tinned salmon, especially eaten with cut up fresh tomatoes and chips, as served in my grandparents’ home – but tinned crab just does not taste very nice. It would have served the book better if Sawalha had just acknowledged that this recipe should be made with a fresh, slightly more expensive shellfish.

img_0014My main quibble with a number of the recipes is that, for all that this is a diet book, Sawalha actually uses much more oil than would actually be needed – I’ve cut the oil asked for by as much as a third in her recipes and did not feel that they suffered. I was also not hugely delighted by the reliance on artificial ‘light’ products (such as light butter, light cream) in some recipes, but this was admittedly limited and understandable, given the publication’s raison d’etre.

Is this a must-have cookbook? I’m not so sure. Has it produced a series of solid meals, some of them outright delicious, which enabled me to stick to a restricted calorie plan without feeling deprived? Yes, most definitely. All diets require some element of balancing out, and this cookbook would help with that even if you’re not quite calorie counting on a regular basis. The recipes are accessible and the ingredients easy to get hold of. It is not a groundbreaking tome, but it is, barring exceptions, a reliable source for weeknight dinners, some of them very delicous and some reasonably unremarkable but good enough to eat. Whether that’s enough to give it a place on your bookshelf depends entirely on your priorities.

A full round-up of every recipe I cooked from the book will be posted soon.

Video: May 2016 Food Favourites

It’s late in the month – May is a memory – but I still wanted to share some of the great food, drink and cooking items which have crossed, or in some cases recrossed, my path in May. Once again featuring cookbooks (by Diana Henry and Thane Prince), my dish of the month (a really rather good Thai seafood salad), a spectacular restaurant, a new way to keep cut fruit and veg fresher, great breakfast items, a delicious snack and – of course – and new, excellent tea. I hope you all enjoy watching!

Me and my cookbooks – musings on recent acquisitions

If you’ve seen my Food Favourites video and want more, there’s some excellent news because you can watch me blather on about recent cookbook acquisitions!

Featuring Signe Johansen’s ‘Scandilicious Baking’, Gizzi Erskine’s ‘Skinny Weeks and Weekend Feasts’ and ‘Itsu 20-minute Suppers’ right into the zone of clean eating, with Ella Woodward and Madeleine Shaw (and my sceptical thoughts on their nutritional philosophies) and right back into pleasure with Nigel Slater’s ‘Thirst’.

It’s not exactly a short one so you might want to be drinking tea or ironing or something while you watch…

A new thing: my first food video!

I recently made a video where I talk about the food and food-related things I’ve been enjoying recently  – restaurants I’ve been to, dishes, and particular food products. It’s a new departure for me since I’ve always been very focused just on writing, but it was a lot of fun to make – although the editing process was admittedly a slog! Anyway, if you like discovering new food things it would be lovely if you’d take a look; I hope to make them a more regular thing as and when I have the time. I anticipate it will be a new and fun way to get to know the food community!

 

Cookbook Review: Everything I cooked from ‘Roast Figs, Sugar Snow’, by Diana Henry

I thought my cookbook review would get very long indeed if I gave a recap of every recipe I had made from Roast Figs, Sugar Snow, so I’ve separated the round-up into its own post. One of the things about cookbook reviews in magazines that gives me pause is that it’s rarely clear how many of the recipes the reviewer has actually cooked; in the absence of deadlines or space constraints, however, I can show you exactly how many. I hope it’s useful.

The photos aren’t the most beautiful; a lot of the food is quite brown/beige and, if I make something for dinner, I photograph it there and then under artificial overhead light, as quickly as possible so it doesn’t go cold. But hopefully this will help you see if the recipes are up your alley and whether you would want to make the investment of buying this cookbook. Ingredient adaptations and problems encountered along the way are recorded for your interest!

If you want to skip to my favourite and least favourite recipe: my favourite was a dessert, Peasant Girls in a Mist, which combines sharp apple and sweet, soft cream. It was so delicious, it actually sends shivers down my spine to recall it. My least favourite? The Russian smoked fish pie, because the combination of fish and mushrooms (which I don’t really love anyway) is not to much to my taste.

Onion and cider soup [From Chapter One: Ripe and Ready – cheese]

onion soup
I know some people would consider the toast to be burnt but I like it that way actually. So there

This is a classic recipe, classically rendered. Very good, very warming. I was grateful to have my food processor to slice a kilo and a half of onions, which saved me both time and tears. I admit that I didn’t use the best quality cider, so it was perhaps sweeter and less rounded than it might have been, but also I tend to prefer onion soups made with sherry. Onion soup is quite sweet, between the caramelised onions and alcohol. I might have preferred it a touch thicker but that’s just a personal thing. I personally think harder, more flavourful cheese, like extra mature cheddar, would actually be nicer on the toast, although doubtless this is blasphemy.

Tartiflette [From Chapter One: Ripe and Ready – cheese]

It’s hard to conceive of how a recipe consisting of potatoes, bacon and cheese could go wrong. This is delicious, very rich, very filling, very fatty. The combination of animal fat from the bacon and dairy fats from butter and cheese is perfect against the waxy, plain foil of the potatoes, spiked through with salty bacon. It’s definitely not an everyday meal.

Naughty substitution: I could not find Reblochon and, after much Googling, used Emmental cheese (the internet suggested Gruyere but I always substitute Gruyere with Emmental, which I prefer). Reblochon is soft and Emmenthal is medium-hard soft it’s obviously not a perfect substitute. Brie was also suggested but I really struggle psychologically with Brie so just went for the cheese I like.

I ate my portion of tartiflette with raw Belgian endive. I think it’s cold bitterness makes it the perfect foil for such a rich dish. Belgian endive is an acquired taste, though…Also, it’s more traditional to serve it sliced horizontally into rings, but I find this makes it very difficult to eat.

Galettes soubises [From Chapter One: Ripe and Ready – cheese]

galettes soubises

If you love a Croque Monsieur or Croque Madame, you will surely not find it hard to love this, which manages to be both elegant – thanks to the homemade buckwheat pancakes – and rustic, thanks to the pile of bacon and cheese the pancakes are topped with. The fried egg is the final flourish. I’ve never eaten buckwheat crepes apart from these and I love that round, hearty flavour that buckwheat provides. It’s heavier than plain white flour, which makes it a more perfect starchy base for the meat, cheese and egg.

Henry instructs you to cook the onions for 20 minutes without allowing them to colour, which I found impossible. The edges of each piece of onion was decidedly golden to brown, but this didn’t dishearten me as I much prefer the flavour when they have some colour. If you want to avoid the onions colouring, I’d suggest cooking the onions over a small gas ring or for a shorter period.

Incidentally I used a single cast-iron frying pan for the whole thing, from cooking the onions to the bacon to the crepes, and didn’t do more than wipe out any debris between cooking. I think it made the whole thing more flavourful. Henry suggests cooking the crepes in some extra oil but I strained the excess fat from cooking the bacon and used that to cook the pancakes, adding a little extra oil where necessary. The pancakes did tear quite easily so I left them untouched a little longer than I might a traditional plain flour pancake. I made this on a weeknight and there is a point with this recipe (as with many that require last-minute cooking) where everything seems to happen at once and you burn the side of your arm on your cast-iron frying pan. It was really delicious though.

I surely don’t need to tell you this recipe is not a dieter’s friend. I managed to fit it in my diet, just, by having only the one pancake. Fortunately it’s such an over-the-top dish, between the eggs and bacon and cheese, that you can achieve a good deal of satisfaction with it (though I think you could easily have seconds). My boyfriend had three crepes for dinner and I think he experienced some regret after.

Roast squash salad with lentils and goat’s cheese [From Chapter Three: Earthly Pleasures – pumpkin, squash, beans and lentils]

squash and lentil salad

There’s something marvellously zeitgeisty about the combination between earthy, nubbly lentils; sweet squash, roasted to silkiness, and the sharp, lactic tang of goat’s cheese. This recipe is not an earth-shattering or original combination, but things become classics for a reason: it’s a really nice salad, with a good, slightly tangy dressing to cut through the musky, sweet flavours. The recipe is also quite balanced and, while you could add extra goat’s cheese, it’s certainly not essential.

I’ve mentioned that sometimes Henry’s instructions seemed to me slightly perverse and her suggestion to halve the squash, cut it up into 2.5cm wedges and only then peel the butternut seemed to me to be the long way round since you have to peel each chunk of squash separately, whereas if you peel the squash while it’s intact you’re working with a much larger surface area. I did it her way the first time I made it and found it extremely frustrating. The second time, I halved and trimmed the squash and peeled it, using an ordinary, albeit sturdy, Y-shaped peeler, then cut it up, and the whole affair was much quicker.

Vermont baked beans [From Chapter Three: Earthly Pleasures – pumpkin, squash, beans and lentils]

I think this is the only recipe I didn’t photograph.

Every so often I stumble across a recipe for baked beans and, without reading through the recipe, think: ‘Great! Tomorrow’s dinner sorted’, without realising that they usually take between two to three hours to cook. Henry’s recipe is no exception: boil up soaked haricot beans for an hour; mix in the additional ingredients and slap the lid on; bake for two hours and remove the lid; bake for a further hour. You see where the problem lies when, like me, you start eagerly cooking this up at 7pm after returning from work. The consequence is that I ate this before it had the full cooking treatment. Baked beans really do need the long baking for the flavours to become mellow and meld together; take them out and eat prior to this and, although good eating, it is true that the sweetness of molasses and maple syrup will jar rather too much with the sharpness of mustard and vinegar and saltiness of pork. Time makes these ingredients good bedfellows. Give the dish the slow cooking it needs and you will be rewarded.

Very small procedural/ingredients gripe: Henry insists that you buy bacon in one piece, but then cut it up into chunks. Given that it’s harder to find bacon in one piece, especially of good quality, but it’s easy to find excellent lardons or normal back bacon, you might be able to substitute them.

Duck breast with aillade [From Chapter Two: Gathering In – chestnuts, hazelnuts, walnuts and pecans]

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Duck is a notoriously fatty meat, and I wouldn’t instinctively see the natural accompaniment of fatty meat being an oil-based sauce. But here, duck breasts, seared over high heat and finished in the oven, are paired with a cool aillade, a sauce not unlike pesto in texture, which is based on garlic, walnuts, walnut oil and parsley. The heat of the garlic and creaminess of the walnuts go nicely with the richness of duck, as it turns out.

I found the instructions for cooking the duck breast a little perverse. You slash the breasts and rub a generous amount of brandy, thyme and seasoning into them, but it’s unclear what the brandy actually provides, since most of it runs onto the dish holding the duck breasts (I didn’t detect it in the final flavour of the dish). Then you start the duck off in a pan over high heat until the fat renders and finish in the oven: great. They leave the oven well-cooked and with a perfect ripple of crisp, slightly bubbled duck crackling each where the skin baked crunchy and brittle, providing perfect contrast to the soft meat beneath. Then, Henry instructs you to wrap the cooked breasts in foil for a few minutes. I know the idea behind this kind of insulation is to let the meat cook outside the oven and let the juices run from the surface back into the meat, but the steam of the foil packet made the crackling limp, wilted and fatty – certainly not worth eating.

The aillade I found dangerously, painfully addictive: I could have eaten it with a spoon, with bread, drizzled over salad, anything.

Because of the multiple rich ingredients, a bed of sharp, pungent rocket was the way to serve it.

Russian smoked fish pie with cream cheese pastry [From Chapter Seven: Of Wood and Smoke – smoked food]

russian fish pie

An unusual dish, combining a base of pre-cooked white rice with white and smoked fish, mushrooms, and a white sauce jazzed up with lemon juice, sour cream and parsley, and finally topped with a delicate pastry lid. My boyfriend enjoyed this more than I did; I didn’t hate it by any means, but I discovered that I don’t love the combination of mushrooms and fish, which is as much a textural as a taste issue. The slight slipperiness of the mushrooms is perhaps a bit too reminiscent of a live fish in this context.

This is also definitely not one of those recipes you can serve up to fish avoiders: it’s very assertively fishy and smokey, and the smell lingers in the house and in your hair. It’s not a gentle introduction and I doubt it would make converts.

It uses a lot of pans.

Tagliatelle with roast pumpkin, sage, ricotta and smoked cheese [From Chapter Seven: Of Wood and Smoke – smoked food]

pasta with smoked cheese

I substituted butternut squash for the pumpkin, because squash is easier to find and prepare. Henry suggests a combination of ricotta and smoked cheese as a substitute for the smoked ricotta used in Friuli, where this dish originates, because smoked ricotta is difficult to find in the UK (very true). The only smoked cheese I could find, however, was a round of Bavarian smoked cheese and it just overwhelmed the flavour of the other components, so have a taste of the cheese you’re using and maybe cut down on the amount you use if the smoked flavour is very strong. I imagine some kind of smoke flavouring was used in the cheese I bought so you might also benefit from seeking out a properly smoked cheese.

West Country pot-roast chicken with apples and cider [From Chapter Eight: Apples in the Attic – apples, pears and quinces]

When I made this dish and served it up, I understood very clearly why it had not been photographed (it’s instead illustrated with an image of a hen and some apples), because it is really not the most attractive dish of stewed-together meat. It is cooked in the oven, after an initial blast of heat on the stove, which is handy as it keeps the majority of your work surfaces free if you want to cook up side dishes. It is a very classic stew which could easily be served to almost anyone who isn’t a vegetarian: I doubt even the fussiest child could find much to object to. The chicken is pot-roasted whole and at the end is so soft and delicate it comes off the bone and is as tender as anyone could wish. If you can afford a proper free-range chicken I would recommend it; with so few bold flavours in this dish it really is a celebration of chicken, and a properly flavourful bird will make a difference.

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Flabby, not very appetising-looking poached chicken. Easy to ‘carve’, though

I love the combination of chicken and apple, which is a very Belgian flavour profile; fittingly, my grandmother introduced this to me. There’s no better way of eating chicken, in my view, than a breast sauteed in butter until golden and slightly crispy, with a puddle of freshly-made applesauce steaming on the side, and a platter of boiled potatoes to go with. The sauteed apples Henry directs you to make obviously add a bit of sweetness but also lift the flavour of something which might otherwise be very plain and basic. The only slightly tricky part about this recipe was removing the chicken from the pot at the end of cooking in order to bring the juices in the pan to the boil for thickening. The meat was so tender it was coming apart and I think you will need an extra pair of hands for this.

Henry specifies using a chunk of bacon in one piece, but cutting it up into 2cm squares. Again, I’m fairly convinced you could use pre-cut lardons with no real detriment. Since it’s easy to find good-quality lardons where I live, but bacon in a piece tends to be watery and over-salted (and come in enormous chunks far exceeding the requirements of a single recipe) I would prefer to go down the lardon route.

Such a simple, rustic dish needs no real adornment nor fancy accompaniment. I served it with boiled up potatoes and carrots (not cooked to within an inch of their lives).

Hot Lightning [From Chapter Eight: Apples in the Attic – apples, pears and quinces]

Hete bliksem, as this dish is called in Dutch, is something I’ve been aware of most of my life, as versions of it are eaten in Belgium, but it’s never been served up to me in a family setting. In Henry’s recipe it’s new potatoes, apples and pears cooked together with bacon and a touch of fresh thyme. Most Belgian versions seem to combine layers of applesauce, mashed potato and beef mince into a casserole; the Dutch versions seem to mash the potatoes and apples together and add bacon. Apparently the addition of bacon and onion in the Netherlands turns this dish into hemel en aarde (heaven and earth), rather than simply hot lightning. Henry’s recipe is slightly rougher and chunkier because, although the apples and pears are cut quite thinly, and do break down into smaller chunks with the stewing and stirring, the new potatoes she specifies (in opposition to the Low Countries recipes I’ve looked at which specify ‘kruimige’ (floury) potatoes) retain their firmness and texture. In the Low Countries it’s definitely a family dish, served as a casserole without any challenging flavours or textures which young children often find quite objectionable; Henry’s version is a little more zeitgeisty and rustic, fitting in with the aesthetics and preferances of the British (cookbook-buying) public, and is definitely a side dish.

This is very hearty and the combination of pork and apple is tried and tested: nubbly, sweetish new potatoes, salty, slightly crispy bacon (it’s stewed so isn’t crunchy, sadly) and the sweetness and slightly graininess of the pears and sharpness of the green apples, both of which have not entirely cooked down to mush. Henry suggests serving with cabbage and sausages, which is delicious and feels very appropriate.

Peasant Girls in a Mist [From Chapter Eight: Apples in the Attic – apples, pears and quinces]

Like a rustic trifle, but infinitely more delicious in my eyes
Like a rustic trifle, but infinitely more delicious in my eyes

I was served this astounding dish at a Bonfire Night party a few years ago, and the extraordinary taste of it actually compelled me to go out and buy Roast Figs, Sugar Snow a week later. It’s such a simple, old-fashioned recipe, combining tart cooking apples, rye breadcrumbs and cream, as well as a little sugar and hazelnuts. The dessert has Danish/Norwegian origins and the name, Henry speculates, refers to the blanket of cream veiling the apples.

Considering how simple it is, how few the elements, I just find this extraordinarily delicious and compulsive, and I never thought I’d say that about any dessert whose starchy component was breadcrumbs. I couldn’t stop thinking about it until I’d made it myself, and I was worried, because I wasn’t sure it would live up to my memory, but actually it tasted just as wonderful, which is so rare when expectations are sky-high. The dish just really works: a hint of sourness from the apples, a faintly malty crunch from the fried breadcrumbs (I personally think sourdough rye crumbs work really well here for an additional smokiness and slight tang to cut through the sweetness of the cream), the generous and beautiful layer of cool, sweet, fluffy whipped cream, the nutty crunch of toasted hazelnuts on the very top.

I love Tipsy Baker’s cookbook reviews, and she always notes when she thinks a recipe is ‘worth the price of the book’. This is worth the price of the book to me. So delicious, so memorable.

Hungarian Lecso [From Chapter Ten: Winter on your Tongue – herbs, spices and sour cream]

lecso

Lecso is described by Henry as a Hungarian ratatouille in a genuinely charming headnote which captures the energy she experienced in Budapest and the bold flavours of Hungarian cooking – “big, unarguable-with”. I love flavours that pack a powerful punch and so I was expecting to like this dish of stewed-together peppers and tomatoes, punctuated with a mixture of sweet and hot paprika. I did, very much; the colour is gorgeous and the texture agreeably jammy. It’s a good side dish, though I served it on its own with boiled new potatoes. Henry suggests serving with sour cream and the soft, cold, tangy flavour would work very well (I didn’t because, calorie counting).

Swedish meatballs with cranberry sauce [From Hedgerow and Bog – cranberries, blackberries, sloes and rosehips]

swedish meatballs

If your highlight of a trip to IKEA is a plateful of meatballs, you’re not alone – the promise of meatballs is how I lure my boyfriend into accompanying me, carrying things back and, most importantly, building them – and your eyes would surely be attracted to this recipe. Henry name-checks IKEA in the headnote, and notes that in Sweden, the meatballs would be served with lingonberry jam, but that cranberries are a good substitute. If you want to try it with the authentic lingonberry jam, it can be bought in IKEA or from Scandi Kitchen in Central London.

Any meatball is a good meatball, in my view, but in truth I found Henry’s a little heavy in terms of texture and taste. I think this is down to her using a combination of pork and beef, whereas the usual combination in Europe is pork and veal. I know people in Britain get their knickers in a twist when it comes to consuming veal, which is probably why beef was used instead. For the animal-welfare record, veal crating is now banned in the EU and British veal is produced to the highest animal welfare standards in Europe. Since a lot of people eat lamb without qualm, I’m not entirely sure where the residual squeamishness about consuming veal comes from. And from a culinary perspective, veal is utterly delicious, much more tender and with a delicate flavour which works beautifully with pork. I think using veal instead of beef would be a marked improvement.

I accidentally didn’t make the cranberry sauce as per Henry’s instructions, since almost every recipe I’ve seen combines the cranberries and sugar from the start, and I did that on autopilot. But it worked anyway and I’m sure Henry’s method of cooking cranberries first is also perfectly sound.

Incidentally I think the order of cooking given was slightly odd and unnecessarily lengthened preparation time: make cranberry jam, then saute onions, then soak breadcrumbs in milk for half an hour, and only then mix the ingredients and form the meatballs. Instead I soaked the breadcrumbs, then made up the cranberry sauce and followed this up with frying the meatballs, which I thought was more efficient.

Maple-glazed poussins with cornbread and pancetta stuffing [From Chapter Twelve: Sugar snow – maple syrup]

Poussins

To make this recipe, you first bake up a cornbread, which is as easy as muffins and ranks among the quickest things you can make. It’s a little bit buttery and with a sweet edge from the hint of honey used, but not overwhelmingly so. Then you add cooked pancetta, celery and onion to the baked cornbread and add egg and seasoning; this goes inside your poussin. Henry says to wash and dry the poussin, but since washing poultry is one of the main ways campylobacter is spread in home kitchens, I skipped this step. I also did not truss up my poussin as instructed because the thought made me feel quite defeated. The resultant teeny chickens looked rather gauche, to be sure, flaunting their spread legs, but no further harm done. I have photographed them in profile to spare their blushes.

I enjoy poussin for their juiciness and their cuteness, and the ability to serve people a whole bird as a portion, and this was a nice way of cooking it. However, I felt it a little undistinguished; although glazed with maple syrup spiked with garlic and Tabasco, I would have preferred a hotter, saltier glaze and, possibly, a crisper skin. Definitely one to tweak around to my personal taste, though.

If you are wont to serve roast chicken with potatoes of some kind, this will be quite a stodgy meal, given the carbohydrate-rich stuffing. But oh well. Sometimes you just need to feel full.

Baba a Louis sticky buns [From Chapter Twelve: Sugar snow – maple syrup]

baba a louis

Sticky buns sounded so seductive and it was surprisingly easy to put together, considering it involves rolling and slicing, but I think the small fairy cake tins I used to bake these in were too small – Henry says ‘muffin tins’ and I think you will need ones which are pretty solid and deep. Also, perhaps my oven was running hot, or the cooking time was too long, or a combination of both, because the finish product was disappointingly dry and the sticky melted sugar had hardened to a crisp toffee. Keep an eye on them if you make them.

The things I didn’t cook

It occurred to me, when writing this round-up, that a cookbook is as much the recipes you don’t make as the ones you do choose. Obviously some are down to personal taste, such as the recipes including black pudding, which I don’t really like (and not because it makes me squeamish. I just don’t enjoy it), or opportunity, such as some roast dishes serving a vast quantity of people. But sometimes there’s a pattern of dishes, a chapter or two which entirely miss the mark or don’t fit in with your lifestyle.

Henry writes evocatively about the assertive taste of game and the pride of eating meat you’ve shot yourself, and the pleasures of eating freshly-gathered wild mushrooms, in her chapter ‘Tales from the Hunt: game and wild mushrooms’, but neither the experience of hunting nor gathering mushrooms is available to an urban creature such as myself. It perhaps points up my disconnection with food to admit that the idea of eating mushrooms gathered from the wild makes me fear deathly poisoning more than anything else. Anyway, I’m sure I could hunt down wild mushrooms at Borough Market and game at various central London butchers, but it’s not a part of my life or available to me within easy reach, so I didn’t end up making Roast Pheasant with quince, blackberries and heather honey, or Russian Partridge with beetroot and sour cream, or any of the other dishes from this chapter. If you live somewhere where it may be more difficult to get hold of wild, foraged and hunted ingredients, this chapter might be even less relevant. There are a few more recipes containing foraged ingredients scattered in other parts of the book, too, such as a recipe for sloe gin.

There’s a very charming recipe included for sugar-on-snow, described as a maple toffee, made by cooking together maple syrup and butter and pouring onto compacted snow so that it sets. Again, I live in London: the idea of eating city snow doesn’t appeal! But I appreciate this recipe was included for atmosphere rather than viability.

The recipes I still want to make

Although I spent a great deal of time with this cookbook, I still didn’t make everything I wanted to try. Here is a small selection of recipes I am earmarking for an appropriate occasion. The theme is mostly cheese, which is a struggle to fit in when practising calorie control. I know I bang on about calorie control but it was a genuine factor in not cooking up certain recipes.

Between ‘the recipes I didn’t make’ and the ones I still want to try out, there are a number of recipes which are recipes which didn’t really grab my attention either way at the moment (mostly side dishes) – I may come back to them later – so the book contains much more than what’s listed here.

Alsatian tarte flambee – I make what I consider to be the lushest tarte flambee ever and would like to see how Henry’s compares!

Georgian cheese pies – when I visited Geogia several years to visit my lovely friend Emma (who runs the informative blog Cookies and the Caucasus – and you can read my guest post here!), one of the highlights was definitely buying khachapuri from any street stall and eating it right there, fresh, hot and, undeniably, greasy. I’d love to cook this recipe up. Since the type of Georgian cheese (sulguni) used in khachapuri is unavailable in the UK, most recipes find a way to approximate its sharp, salty flavour and stringiness. Henry uses a typical combination of mozzarella for string factor and feta for salty sharpness.

Mile-high buttermilk pancakes with date and pecan butter and maple syrup – if the recipe isn’t making you quiver in anticipation, then…you probably don’t have a sweet tooth. London restaurant Oklava has been making waves for its Medjool date butter, but here Henry has pre-empted the trend. Frankly, Medjool date anything has me salivating and I hope to try this recipe if I host a brunch in the near future.

Pretty much all the cakes and bakes – from pecan and pear upside-down cake (the photograph exposing a rich, slightly damp, buttery crumb) to Italian Christmas chocolate cake (packed with chestnuts) to toasted gingerbread cake (I always love gingerbread) and Harvest moon cake with maple and pecans, all of Henry’s offerings sound up my street.

Little baked apples with maple and walnut ice cream – I don’t have an ice cream maker or a freezer (well, a little box in the fridge which is completely frosted over 95% of the time), so couldn’t make this, but should the day come when we move somewhere with a freezer, I definitely will.