Resolution Roundup: April and May 2017

Halva in Machne Yehuda market
Many flavours of halva at the Machane Yehuda market in Jerusalem

Easter came late this year and a late Easter (and consequently a late break from work) corresponds easily with a sense of general weariness, frayed tempers and impatience. I don’t tend to notice it much at the time but in retrospect concede I was probably at my snappish worst throughout late March and early April…

Once April hit, however, I felt like I was barely in the office or in this country. Firstly I was off to Girona, as written up here; then, thanks to a craftily-timed stretch of annual leave, I was off work and visiting Israel for around ten days (more on which soon, I hope!). It was an interesting holiday: Israel offers a lot in terms of history, beauty and, in Tel Aviv at least, sheer, indulgent relaxation (I also appreciate, as a destination, Israel is not without its controversies. But I’ll leave it at that). As ever when I go on holiday, I certainly felt the intense weight of my great fortune.

The consequence of course is all the catching up and sorting out that returning from holiday entails, but luckily April is a quiet time at work (in some ways less hectic than the summer, which always promises to be quiet but rarely is). The quiet of April is paid for with a quickening pace in the months thereafter, and before I knew it, May was over in a flash. They’ve not been months for reflection and adherence to resolutions – I know I’ve failed on some counts over the past two months – but overall I think it’s been okay.

Mediterranean sea from the Old City, Jaffa
Yes, Tel Aviv is nice (view of the sea from the Old City of Jaffa).

1) Eat fish at least once a week, preferably twice a week

This target was certainly not met in April – I don’t think I ate any fish while in Israel – and I barely scraped it in May, with only a single serving per week.

2) Bring a packed lunch to work at least three times a week

I was hardly at work in April, as above but, apart from that, I have been doing pretty well on this resolution so far this year, and April and May were no exceptions. Although I sometimes feel less than enthusiastic about whipping something up on a Sunday evening, it usually pays dividends – especially when the weather has been as windy and changeable as it has been recently, enabling me to avoid being caught in a lunchtime downpour in search of a sandwich.

3) Eat at least three vegetarian meals a week

I definitely achieved this goal while I was in London, but I’m a little less certain about the time spent in Israel, unless I count breakfast in the mix (which, when tallying this up, I usually don’t as breakfast is typically vegetarian for me by default). While I did eat a few meals of hummus and falafel in Israel (obvs) I also know I ate much more meat than I usually do, from spiced lamb kofta kebabs to barely-cooked chicken liver (not great).

4) Clear my archive of bookmarked recipes

I haven’t been relying on bookmarked recipes lately mostly because, on return from Israel, I felt the need to, er, recalibrate my food intake a little and eat healthier meals after several enjoyable, guilt-free weeks of indulgence. I’ve therefore turned to some of my reliable ‘diet’ cookbooks to feed myself since I came back. I will be returning to the never-ending bookmarks in due course…

5) Celebrate my heritage more

Not a chance, really…although…

When we were at Yad Vashem (Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Centre), a guide kindly told me to look out for some of the Belgian names in the memorial garden of the Righteous Among the Nations when we were there, which was really nice of her to mention (the Righteous Among the Nations are people who protected and saved Jewish people during the Holocaust; the most famous among them is probably Oskar Schindler, who saved over a thousand people, but the memorials also remember many of those who saved smaller numbers of people, sometimes one or two, usually by hiding them in their homes). It wasn’t a ‘celebration’ of my heritage, but provided an opportunity to reflect on European history and Belgium’s place within that, and to consider the inherent complexities associated with both the ideas of heritage and the celebration thereof – the things that are left out as well as left in.

6) Develop a good bedtime/sleeping routine

I slept pretty well while on holiday – free from stress and being forced awake for work regardless of when ready to be or not, but admittedly things haven’t been going so well since I’ve been back. More effort needed – started with going to bed at a fixed time in the evenings rather than knocking around the flat until past midnight for no fathomable reason.

7) Visit at least two (new) places in the UK outside of London

Obviously this wasn’t achieved, BUT I have actually planned a trip to Bath with some friends at the very end of June/start of July. I am absolutely thrilled.

8) Read at least one book a month

I’ve been doing really well on this front actually. I’ve started re-reading Agatha Christie’s Poirot mysteries, starting with The Mysterious Affair at Styles and going forward in order. They’re quick and breezy, which is a plus: perfect for the commute. I read this work by Helen McPhail about the German occupation of the north of France during the First World War (much less widely known about than the more widespread occupation of the Second World War). I also read Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last for my book group: it’s a dystopian work of speculative fiction (so far so Atwood) with an intriguing promise that ultimately tipped into the absurd and proved greatly disappointing. The significant contrast between the beginning, which chilled me deeply, and the end, which irritated me significantly, was marked. The characters were poorly drawn and their choices stretched credibility. The patchiness of this particular work is explained by the fact that it started off life as an e-book serial; it showcases Atwood at her best (the beginning) and quite possibly worst, quite unlike her seminal work The Handmaid’s Tale, which is uniformly excellent throughout.

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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.

Food and the Hungry Author/Edible Joanne Harris

This post is also in conjunction with my friend Ariadne’s run-down of food in novels at her funny and literary blog Ariadne’s World of Awesomeness. This post relates to her discussion of Joanne Harris’ trio of food-related books: Chocolat (the most famous); Blackberry Wine, and Five Quarters of the Orange. Blackberry Wine is sort of related to Chocolat in that some of the same characters crop up, but they basically function as stand-alone novels.

In all three books, food is actually a gateway for nostalgia. Blackberry Wine is narrated by a bottle of blackberry wine, and frequent references are made to how wines capture a moment, a particular year, and how drinking them can bring you back to that year. I’m not really a wine drinker and remain unconvinced, but I definitely agree that eating certain foods can transport you back to childhood, or other periods. Like cheese-and-tomato sandwiches inevitably remind me of school lunchboxes, slightly damp and crushed. As I wrote to Ariadne I planned to make blackberry cordial – recipes abound, though I was intrigued by this blackberry and orange one which I saw on Cook Yourself Thin – but the eye-watering expense of blackberries put me off the idea. Still, someone – someone with access to a blackberry bush – should try it. I loved blackberrying as a child (with my grand-dad), but the closest I got to it in London was pulling a few berries off a high bush near Holland Park.

Chocolat is a lovely book. I can understand why it’s the most popular and well-known of Harris’ food trilogy. It’s about chocolate, and it has romance and mystery as well. Still, compared to Five Quarters of the Orange, I find it a little bland and lacking depth. The descriptions of food are superlative, however. Since the whole point of the book is chocolate and its seductions, I made chocolate ginger-chunk cookies. Chocolate and ginger plays off deliciously and this recipe, based on one of Nigella Lawson’s, showcases the richness of chocolate and spicy heat of ginger to perfection. The trick is not to chop the crystallised ginger too finely. It seems a bit perverse to make something as all-American as a large, soft cookie in honour of a book which is all about France and sophisticated chocolate-eating habits, but such cookies are the perfect treat to nibble on while reading a good book (I may have eaten an entire batch of gingersnaps while reading Harry Potter book 5 as a teenager…but only maybe).

“You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.” — C.S. Lewis

Soft chocolate biscuits to eat while reading
Slightly adapted from Nigella Express

125g dark chocolate, melted in a bowl over a pan of simmering water
135g plain flour
45g cocoa
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda/baking soda
Large pinch salt
125g unsalted butter, softened
75g dark muscovado sugar
50g golden caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract or paste
1 egg, cold from the fridge
85g crystallised/candied ginger, excess sugar dusted off, cut into large chunks (if you like lots of ginger, add more – you could even double it. I just used what was in the cupboard)

1) Preheat oven to 170C

2) Cream together the butter and both sugars until fluffy. Gently mix in the cooled melted chocolate until combined

3) Mix in the vanilla and egg (on a very low setting if using an electric mixer). Sift together the flour, bicarb of soda, salt and cocoa, and stir into the mixture (I actually always sift dry ingredients straight into the mixing bowl). Mix until thoroughly combined – the mixture will be quite stiff. Stir in the ginger chunks.

4) Using a heaped tablespoon measure or ice cream scoop, scoop out portions of the dough onto a lined baking sheet. Place about 6cm apart and do not flatten. Bake for 15 – 18 minutes, until the tops look dry and they are firmer. Let cool on the baking sheet 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely

Five Quarters of the Orange is my favourite Harris book. Blackberry Wine and Chocolat had dark edges – in Chocolat, Harris shows that pleasure can involve pain and sacrifice, symbolised by one character’s love for chocolate and sweets despite the diabetes which is causing her to go blind. Five Quarters, though, is genuinely dark, set partly in Nazi-occupied France. The story of the occupation is told through a child’s eyes, and adult readers can imagine the pain and fear felt by the other adults, which the children are so cavalier about.

Oranges are obviously an important motif in the book. They are sweet and exotic, yet the scent of oranges drives the narrator’s mother mad, a fact that she exploits mercilessly. Harris is unflinching in describing the way children, especially young teenagers, can hate their parents. She is also unsparing in describing how adults can be bitterly disappointed by the children they have brought into the world. Although I thought of dishes involving oranges, at the end of the day the book is most concerned with the simple food of rural France and particularly the Loire.

A ‘cast iron’ reason to make this dessert

Nostalgia comes in the form of preserved cherries: narrator Framboise describes the process of steeping cherries in alcohol and sugar and letting them sit for years, until they’re bled white and the stones are soft enough to bite into. “Remember that time the river ran dry?”.

I made a cherry clafoutis, a French dessert involving cherries, using a recipe from Delicious magazine which was contributed by Debbie Major, a home economist who has worked regularly with Rick Stein. It was described as an untraditional clafoutis, as it involved separating the egg and beating the egg white, whereas usually the eggs are just beaten and poured into the pan, resulting in a custardy set. I thought the texture of this version was absolutely lovely, silky and tender and not too eggy. Also, you make a sauce by cooking the cherries in butter at first. I love butter, but the 50g suggested in the recipe for was far, far too much, completely overpowering the taste of the cherries and leaving an oily sheen, so I suggest halving it below. I also used frozen cherries, which were fine, and substituted sherry for the suggested kirsch. It was delicious and a beautiful dessert for company. It is a very fine, slim, elegant cake. I served it swimming in the buttery cherry sauce and spoonfuls of double cream.

An island in a sea of cream and sauce

Cherry clafoutis for company
Very slightly adapted from Delicious magazine, July 2011

25g unsalted butter
500g cherries, pitted, or 480g packet pitted frozen cherries
150g caster sugar
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon (i.e. 3 teaspoons) sherry (I used dry Amontillado)
2 eggs, separated
135ml double cream
40g plain flour
15g ground almonds/almond flour

1) Preheat oven to 180C

2) Melt butter in a 20cm cast-iron frying pan (mine is 25cm but needs must – it was fine) or flameproof baking dish. Add the cherries, 100g of the sugar, the lemon zest and 2 teaspoons of the sherry. Let bubble on a medium-low heat for about 15 mins, stirring occasionally.

3) Pour the syrup into a small pan; set aside. Distribute the cooked cherries evenly over the base of the frying pan or baking dish

4) Whisk together egg yolks and remaining 50g caster sugar in a small bowl for about five minutes until thick and pale (doing it by hand was fine). Stir in the cream, sift over the flour and gently stir in the ground almonds and remaining teaspoon sherry.

5) Using an electric mixer, whisk the egg whites into soft peaks and gently fold them into the batter

6) Pour batter evenly over the cherries and bake 20 minutes until slightly puffed up and golden brown. An inserted skewer should come up clean. (Note: I didn’t serve mine immediately and it collapsed slightly, but it wasn’t noticeable unless, like me, you’d actually seen the thing in the oven

7) Reheat the cherry syrup (I brought it to a boil and reduced it for a minute or so). Serve clafoutis with syrup and double cream

To serve: more double cream