We live in an era where occasionally you can take off to Europe at a moment’s notice and spend a long weekend in another country and, recently (just before Easter), that’s just what I did. A friend was visiting from Australia and suggested a European adventure, and shortly after we had booked tickets to visit Girona. Spain is such a classic British holiday destination (and Belgian one, for that matter) that it was hard for some of my colleagues to understand that this was my very first visit, ever.
Girona, which is close to Barcelona, is considered one of Catalonia’s major cities, but it’s population is – compared to London – tiny, with just under 100,000 people living there at last count. This accounts for the peacefulness and quiet of the town which I experienced; even at busy points it was pleasant and easy to walk around. Although the narrow alleyways and winding streets can make it confusing to navigate – all the stone walls merging into one – the size of the place makes it manageable (although I readily admit that I was entirely dependent on my friend, who had a homing pigeon’s instinct for finding our AirBnB).
It’s also easy to get to and from other areas – Barcelona is obviously close by, but we opted to take a day trip to Salvador Dali’s birthplace Figueres and visit the museum which he helped design (the entrance pictured just above). Dali is a somewhat controversial figure in the art world – the genius of his works is not doubted, but his changeable politics, which verged on outright support for Franco, can certainly be considered questionable – but the museum helped me to appreciate his body of work much more. His strange inventiveness, delicate skill and exquisite tenderness of his paintings was so much more than melting clocks.
In terms of food, there were, predictably, a lot of tapas. On the first night we ate a restaurant at the steps of the San Felix church, which made for an atmospheric setting but markedly average food which in some cases seemed extremely Americanised – think stodgy cheese batter studded with mild chilliest, served with a barbecue-style sauce (we expected jalapeños stuffed with cheese from the description of it). We also ate at a branch of König, a mini-chain with branches around the city which we had actually avoided on the first night there on account of its Germanic name and long and mostly not very local menu. However, during a walking tour the next day, our guide mentioned it had won an award for the best patatas bravas in Catalonia. The tour ended just outside one of their branches, so the small group (four of us were on the tour) ate some decent bravas – chunky and without excess grease – and some average, but decent, seafood croquetas, and also slightly better ham croquetas. None of it was revelatory but it was satisfying. We cooled off with ice cream from Candela afterwards. They had some innovative (and not, to my palate, successful) flavours such as tomato ice cream, but also more delicious classics such as coffee, chocolate and pistachio. I had a lovely local walnut ice cream completely studded with chopped nuts – no mimsy sprinkle here. They were happy to provide samples before we bought our cones, too – always a bonus.
We also had some excellent coffee at Espresso Mafia, an elegantly minimalist cafe where they roast the coffee beans in-house. The friend I was with, who is Australian and therefore highly attuned to quality coffee, approved heartily. The flat whites were delicious; the chai latte was spicy and flavourful with a good gingery kick, but a little cold. They also serve a ‘dirty chai’, which is a chai latte with a shot of espresso; not my cup of tea but interesting enough. The baked goods were tasty standards – coconut, chocolate and Oreo cakes, banana breads and a range of oatmeal-based cookies, as well as a vegan option.
The second time we went to Espresso Mafia, coffees in hand, I purchased a handful of churros (picture at the top) from the Montse l’Artesana, a small churreria just opposite, to nibble on during our walk to the train station. The churros are sold by weight so I was able to request only three, which was sufficient for a (shared) mid-morning snackette. They were not freshly fried to order and served with thick chocolate, as you might expect, but were fried in advance, some plain, some covered in a chocolate glaze and some in a veil of white icing. I chose plain ones sprinkled with granulated sugar. They were more like a crunchy cookie than a tender, moist fritter with cakey insides, but this actually meant they went well with the coffee. I don’t think they were exceptional, probably, and yet I really enjoyed them, and eating the last of the sugar from the tip of the cone with a moistened finger.
This post is part of my personal challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the signature challenge for week two (bread week) of series three: twelve flatbreads; six leavened and six unleavened)
I have not written about my baking challenge in a while.
I have not really been doing much with it for a while. Mostly because baking resulted in a plethora of delicious but high-calorie food which I have been loathe to consume en masse (the exceptionwasChristmas, but there’s so much going on then that there’s always someone to pass on baked goods to). My urges to create in the kitchen have been channelled through the medium of jams and marmalade, which have the virtue of not going stale.
My reluctance to make and then eat so much sugary food is why coming to the bread week challenges in the Bake-Off challenge is such a pleasure. For bread is often savoury, and even when sweetened, the sweetness is usually restrained enough for your loaf to be acceptable for breakfast. This particular signature challenge called for the making of two types of flatbreads, one leavened with yeast and one unleavened: six of each.
For the unleavened bread, I opted to make parathas, a buttery South Asian flatbread. I was guided, initially, by my friend Mehrunnisa’s guide and recipe on her blog. She uses wholewheat flour, which reflects the kind of parathas she grew up eating; interestingly, she mentions sweet applications, not something I have seen myself. However, I wanted to create the soft, butter-saturated, silky parathas of my childhood in Singapore. Curry and parathas with teh-oh (hot black tea without milk, but sweetened – and heavily at that – with sugar) was an infrequent ritual with my mother. There were numerous places we’d frequent; we actually liked the little hawker in the Botanical Gardens because we could then digest the rich, oily meal with a walk. For this reason I used white flour when making the parathas and used the proportions from Ruby Tandoh’s reliable baking book Crumb – although I used much more butter, more by accident than design at first. I served it with a fish curry, as I might have had in Singapore, although they were redder and richer in gravy, and more likely to be made with fish heads rather than fillets.
For the yeasted flatbreads, I adapted one of Nigella Lawson’s glorious bread recipes from How to be a Domestic Goddess. Often remembered for its cakes and biscuits, I think the savoury recipes in this book are all too easily overlooked, but they are wonderful. The original recipe is soft and pillowy as foccacia, baked with a warming, mellow topping of roast garlic and a paste of parsley. My version was altogether sprightlier, blending together parsley, coriander, raw garlic and a bit of lemon juice for a fresh, zingy paste. A dash of fresh chilli – green or red – would also not have gone amiss. They do tend to bake to a more muted green but the brightness of the flavour carried.
Parathas Recipe adapted from Crumb, by Ruby Tandoh
Note: almost every single step is illustrated in the collage images above.
250g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
1/4 tsp salt
125g unsalted butter, melted
Combine the salt and flour in a mixing bowl; add two TBS of melted butter and rub in to combine thoroughly. Add the water to the flour mixture and knead for a minute or so until well combined.
Set aside to rest for 15 minutes.
Divide the dough into six pieces. Roll each into a ball. Dust a work surface and rolling pin lightly with flour.
One by one, roll each ball out into a disc of about 15-20cm. Using a knife or bench scraper, cut two long incisions into each disc, but do not cut through the top, to leave three strips of dough joined together (see collage image). Using a pastry brush, brush over the surface with melted butter, generously (you will however be using some of the butter to cook the paratha, so don’t worry about using all of it).
Lightly twist each strand of the dough (see images above) and then roughly braid them together. Roll up the braids into a coil, like a snake, and tuck the ends under. Prepare all the parathas this way until ready to fry. You will probably need to lightly dust your work surface and folling pin between batches.
Once ready to cook, take one coiled braid of dough and roll out to 15-20cm diameter circle. Heat up a frying pan over medium-low and coat the pan with a light surface of your remaining butter. Lightly butter one side of your rolled-out paratha then cook in the pan for two minutes, buttered side down; lightly brush the top with butter. Once cooked on one side, flip and cook for an additional two minutes, until lightly speckled with dark brown spots on both sides. If they are darkening too quickly or blackening in any way, turn down the heat; if they are blonde and pale still, turn it up a smidgen.
While cooking the paratha, roll out the next circle. Repeat the cooking steps, adding more butter to the pan as required. Serve with curry; eat immediately
This makes six quite large flatbreads – big enough for sharing – rather than individually-sized ones, if I’m honest. You could easily halve them, but watch the baking time.
500g strong white flour
7g instant yeast
1 TBS flaky salt
5 TBS olive oil
3-8 TBS extra-virgin olive oil (if you really don’t want to use extra-virgin, you don’t have to)
1 bunch parsley
1 bunch coriander
10 cloves garlic, or even more if wished
Squeeze of lemon juice
seasoning for the herb paste
Combine the flour, yeast and salt in a bowl; mix together the five TBS olive oil with 300ml water in a jug and add to the flour mixture to make a firm but not stiff, supple-soft dough. If it is dry at all or very hard and stiff, add a little more water a bit at a time.
Turn out to a lightly oiled surface and knead for ten minutes until the dough is elastic and springy, very soft to the touch, and stretches out without breaking when you pull it. If you want, you can do the windowpane test.
Pat the fully kneaded dough into a ball and clean out your bowl (yes), dry it and lightly oil it. Turn the dough in the bowl so that it’s oiled all over. Cover the bowl with clingfilm and let rise for an hour or a bit more until doubled in size.
For the herb paste, combine the parsley, coriander and peeled garlic in a food processor and add three tablespoons of the extra-virgin olive oil; blitz until all is finely chopped. Add a little salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice, and then process with additional extra-virgin olive oil until it forms a runny paste. If you want chilli heat, add a chilli here too. I used about six tablespoons but you might need more or less depending on how big your bunches of herbs are. Taste the herb paste and if it’s lacking in anything – salt, garlic pungency, peppery heat, acidity – add salt, pepper, garlic or lemon juice to taste. This paste is the heart of the breads so it must taste delicious. Once you can’t stop tasting it, it’s ready to anoint your breads with.
Once the dough has risen, punch it down gently and let rest for 10 minutes. Line two or three baking sheets with baking paper. Divide the rested dough into six equal portions. Roll each portion out into a rough oval or oblong shape. Press them out a little more using your fingers.
Transfer the breads to the baking paper and cover with clingfilm; leave for 25 minutes for the second prove until they are puffy. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 200C.
Remove the clingfilm from the proved breads and, using your fingers, dimple the surface of the breads. Stir your herb paste together briskly in case any of it has settled, then divide over the flatbreads, smoothing it out evenly over the surface of each using the back of a spoon.
Bake for 15-20 minutes until the breads are cooked: the green paste will have dulled slightly in colour, and the dough will have deepened in colour and be golden and slightly bronzed in places. Remove from the oven, sprinkle over some good flaky salt, and eat, warm and comforting, as soon as cool enough to touch.
A few weeks ago, the internet presented me with an interview Tom Hiddleston gave for GQ. For a few hours, I could not avoid it, so I read it. I read it even though I have seen exactly one film in which Tom Hiddleston has acted (Midnight in Paris, a tiny part) (why no, I have not seen The Night Manager); even though I thought ‘Hiddleston’ had a second ‘e’ (at the end); even though according to me the whole ‘I heart TS’ thing will probably never not be funny (I get that he did the interview to move on from this but COME ON). I read it because I kept seeing people mention that the beating heart of the interview was…bolognese.
Bolognese? BOLOGNESE. There was a moment, a moment where every food media outlet was suddenly tumbling over itself to talk about Tom Hiddleston’s Bolognese, which he served to his interviewer, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, apparently with a huge helpful of evangelical enthusiasm (“Tom! Hiddleston! Loves! This! Bolognese!”) but not, as it turns out, pasta. To be honest, I find this a little antisocial. Possibly a carb-avoiding thing?
I came away from the interview feeling somewhat bemused. Like…was it a parody? Apparently it was not…but it read like one? Or am I doing that British thing (I am not British, but have adopted many of their ways to blend in to their society better) of misreading American sincerity? But I also came away thinking the following:
It is so cold and I want food to warm me and this will warm me
Baking this in the oven sounds like a very good idea
The thing that distinguished the Tom Hiddleston Bolognese was the Three Bs: the inclusion of butter and bacon, and the baking as the application of heat. Because I live in the UK, I did not face the confusion US magazine Bon Appetit faced when considering what the “tin of tomatoes” from Brodesser-Akner’s notes could mean. BA writer Alyse Whitney speculated: whole? crushed? diced? sauce? To which I can clarify: in the UK there are literally two tomato products that come in tins: chopped tomatoes, or whole peeled plum tomatoes. Passata and tomato sauce comes in glass jars or occasionally in tetra-packs. Tomato paste comes in metal tubes or very occasionally in small cans and no one would refer to paste as ‘a tin of tomatoes’.
For all that my interpretation of this bolognese is inspired by the world of celebrity, this recipe is in fact a celebration of slowness, of patient application, and of time. It has depth and provenance.
I started it almost as soon as I rolled out of bed in the morning, mincing onions and carrots and celery while sipping a cup of tea; as the milk and then the wine bubbled into the mixture of meat, I washed up the dishes and watched the late February snowfall; tiny white flecks that moved dizzily. Then I kneaded pasta dough and covered it, and then I put the big, heavy pot of sauce in the oven on a low, low heat, and put on my gym gear and went, for the first time in a while, to the gym.
And then I went for a walk around the neighbourhood and the snow started coming down in thick heavy flakes which landed on my nose and didn’t melt for a disconcertingly long time. And then I went home and showered and took down the pasta machine I bought years ago in a charity shop and started rolling the pasta dough and kneading it and rolling, thinner and thinner, and cutting it into fat wide ribbons. And then it was finally time to eat, and we sat down and the meat was silkily tender from the milk proteins and time – even the bacon lardons were soft all the way through. The fresh, just made, just cut, just cooked pappardelle noodles were soft and delicate as voile and yet somehow had that springy, toothy resilience which makes eating them such a pleasure and so worth the work, which is not inconsiderable. And the house was warm from the oven and it was all snowy and blustery outside and my nose which had been so very cold had warmed up and regained its feeling, and yes, eating delicious food that has involved time and care, sharing this food that you have made and nourished, on a cold day when fat icy flakes are coming down, is apt to make one feel grateful, and I felt enormously grateful and happy.
This recipe owes, so very much, and so obviously, to Marcella Hazan’s classic bolognese sauce, to her method, down to the addition of milk, the scrape of nutmeg. Yet for all that it’s not her recipe, but mine: the addition of bacon, the veal mince, the measurements and proportions, the longer, slower cooking in an oven, where the dry even heat means the meat cooks until exquisitely tender and moist without sticking.
You may wonder if there is enough tomato in the recipe below, even considering that traditionally bolognese sauce does not use a lot of tomatoes; and yes, it is. The flavour really does concentrate over the six-plus hours of cooking.
I served this with homemade egg papardelle but if you cannot be bothered with this, just use a good quality dried papardelle. I must say, the bolognese sauce, while time-consuming, is very simple to make; the pasta is much harder work.
Not Tom Hiddleston’s Bolognese, or, Slow-Cooked Six-Hour Bolognese Would serve 4-6. The leftovers are delightful
NOTE: I cooked this for about six hours: three at 100C (covered), two and a half (uncovered) at 120C and about half an hour (uncovered) at 180C, and it hung around in the oven while I was rolling and cutting the pasta.
1 TBS olive oil
200g smoked lardons or pancetta cubes
1 small onion, about 100-150g, finely chopped
2 carrots or 3 small carrots – between 150-180g, finely chopped
2-3 celery sticks – between 120-150g, finely chopped
800g beef mince (mine was 10% fat)
800g veal mince
500ml whole milk
500ml white wine (NOTE: TH apparently used red wine)
1 tin of plum tomatoes
Melt together the butter and olive oil on a medium-low heat. Add the lardons or pancetta and cook for around 5 minutes, until they have cooked through and slightly browned at the edges and the fat has rendered.
Increase heat to medium. Add the onion and stir around in the fat; cook for a few minutes until translucent. Add the celery and carrot and cook together for two minutes.
Add the beef and veal mince and add a large pinch of salt and grind in black pepper to taste. Crumble the meat about the pan with a wooden spoon and let colour, stirring occasionally, until it has browned a little (actually it goes a slightly greyish-beige colour beofre browning properly, which is what you should aim for, but this sounds horrible) and no longer looks red and raw. Return pan to medium-low or low heat.
Add the milk to the pan, stir together with the meat and let it simmer gently until the majority of the liquid has bubbled away. This will take 25-30 minutes. If it’s bubbling fiercely, turn down the heat.
Grate in a tiny smidgen – a grating or three, no more than an eighth of a teaspoon – of nutmeg
Add the wine and let it simmer gently until most of it has evaporated away – this will take 25-30 minutes. If it’s bubbling fiercely, turn the heat down
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to a low setting. If you want to eat within 3-4 hours you could preheat to 120C, but if you want to leave it for a good long while, around 100C is good.
Once the wine has bubbled away, for the most part, add the tinned tomatoes, crushing them in your fists as you add them. Right now you probably have a pale and unappetising mess, milky and insipid-looking and studded with red chunks of tomato. Take a deep breath, cover the pot, and put in the oven.
Now leave it. You want to cook it covered at this low heat for at least two hours, and three is better. Longer won’t hurt, either, as long as your temperature is around 100C. If you are hanging around at home and can give it the occasional stir, do so.
After several hours have passed, remove the lid from the pot. You will see a somewhat reduced, darker and more delicious looking sauce that has not yet achieved the heights of flavour, depth and concentration it has the potential to reach. Quite possibly the sauce has started to separate slightly, with the meat at the bottom and a red layer of fat at the top. Stir it all together. If your temperature is very low, increase to 120C and put the uncovered pan back in the oven. Leave for at least two hours.
Around an hour before, or at least halfan hour before, you want to eat, increase the heat to 180C. The purpose of this final blast of heat is to concentrate all the juices of the meat and tomatoes together and to ensure that it arrives at the table completely hot and delicious and bubbling. The fat will once again have separated from the meat in an oily layer on top. Personally, for serving, I don’t pour this off the pan, but I do pick up the meat with a slotted spoon so the fat returns to baste the remaining sauce rather than ending up as a greasy layer on the plate. If you prefer a thicker, more mouth-coating texture, pick up some of the fat with your serving spoon.
While the bolognese is cooking, you have time to make your own pasta dough. You don’t have to, but you can. I think homemade pasta is for special occasions but a six-hour sauce definitely deserves it, or at least the very best pasta you can get your hands on.
2 large eggs
200g Italian ’00’ flour (which is very fine) or plain flour
Place the flour in a bowl (or directly onto your kitchen surface if you want to look like an Italian grandmother in a travel programme!) and make a well in the centre. Pour the eggs into this well and beat them until smooth.
Combine the eggs and flour, mixing with the tips of your fingers, until everything comes together in a big, shaggy mess that doesn’t in any way resemble pasta.
Knead the dough onto your work surface until it has become a smooth, shiny ball that holds together and has a bit of stretch and give to it – this is a sign you have developed the gluten and will ensure you have pliable pasta with a little bit of bite rather than someything crumbly. Incidentally, this is very tough work.
Once kneaded, wrap tightly in plastic wrap and leave in the fridge to rest for at least an hour.
When you are ready to start rolling the pasta, clamp your pasta machine to a clean work surface (I often find the clamping to be the biggest challenge!) and divide the dough into halves or thirds, keeping the pieces you are not rolling well wrapped.
Dust the lump of dough you are using with a little flour, then set the pasta machine to its widest setting. Roll the dough through this setting, then fold it in half and roll again, doing this five or six times to work the dough and make it silky.
Dust the dough with a little more flour and roll it through the pasta machine at the widest setting, then fold it in half and set the machine to the next lowest setting. Run it through the machine again and repeat the process until you have run the pasta through to the narrowest setting. This can get quite difficult to juggle so do cut the pasta in half if you need to. (Note: if your dough is cracking and breaking horribly it’s probably become too dry over the course of rolling. Just roll it as thinly as you can).
Once the pasta has been rolled out to the thinnest setting, dust the sheet thoroughly with flour on both sides and roll it up like a Swiss roll or roulade on the short end. Take a knife and cut across the length of the pasta roll in 2-2.5cm intervals (depending on how wide you want the pappardelle). When you unravel the pasta to dry it out, you will have long strips of pappardelle. Hang them over a clean chair or similar to dry out while rolling the next batch of dough.
When ready to cook, bring an enormous pan of water to the boil and salt it generously. Add the pappardelle in batches and cook for 1-3 minutes, tops. Fish it out with a pasta/spaghetti spoon and mix it in to the sauce (or at least, the portion of sauce you will serve). Some of my pappardelle noodles stuck together a bit but they still tasted wonderful.
This winter I’ve had cause to reflect that no amount of meditation, mindfulness apps or aphorisms about living in the now will encourage you to inhabit the present as much as walking down an icy, frosted street will. The council will occasionally scatter a handful of salt onto the roads, but the pavements, untreated, remained glazed with a hard carapace of frost. The slick streets require focus and calm. Your world reduces to only the crunchy grey pavement and each footstep you take in order to avoid a fall. It’s risky to distract yourself even with the extraction of a tissue to blow a wintery nose.
These are days to forego your 10,000 steps and spend as much time as possible snuggled beneath thick fleecy blankets, under a lamp throwing a pool of welcome, warming yellow light, with a stack of cookbooks to leaf through (or maybe Laurie Colwin’s always-soothing ‘Home Cooking’) and the TV on low. Of course you’ll need something warming and filling to drink, because nothing else sends much-needed heat pouring into you in quite the same way. And while I am perennially devoted to tea – truly, madly, deeply in love, always and forever, with a strong and malty Assam – I have more recently been making myself the occasional cup of turmeric milk, usually before bed.
Also known – in English – as golden milk (and sometimes even referenced as a ‘turmeric latte’ when available to purchase in coffee shops, presumably to push up the price), this drink, a favoured cold remedy of [some] grandmothers of the Indian subcontinent (a friend described it as ‘the kind of thing our granny forces us to drink every time we cough’), has recently become trendy as turmeric secures its status in the global pantheon of superfoods. The co-optation of golden milk and its celebration in Western diets has been noted as potentially problematic, which a thoughtful piece by Tara O’Brady (brought to my attention by my friend Mehrunnisa) outlines, as has its growing symbolism as a representation of an idea of a monolithic, singular ‘Indian’ culture. The parcelling out of one acceptable piece of a traditional culture, divorced from wider acceptance, appreciation or integration of that culture or its people, is an ongoing process and an ongoing, sometimes uncomfortable, conversation which surely finds echoes whenever a ‘host’ and ‘immigrant’ culture meet. (I don’t think ‘host’ and ‘immigrant’ are quite right here, but it’s difficult to find something equally expressive and concise. During my MA, I studied a unit on migration to London and we discussed there terms such as ‘third generation immigrants’ and their problematic application to people who are by definition not immigrants at all). Whenever I read pieces like this I find myself reflecting on those lines between cultural appropriation, cultural appreciation and, in the case of food, the culinary adventurousness which compels people who love to cook and eat to explore different cultures through mealtimes, picking and choosing without regard for context beyond one’s own taste and dinner table. I’m not quite clear what the answer is. I know that when I drink a cup of turmeric milk, it is indeed “removed from its thousands-of-years-old provenance”, albeit without the promise of anything beyond its delightful taste, just as I certainly don’t eat quinoa as a Peruvian person would do. I am reminded of Nigella Lawson’soft-repeated phrase “I don’t know if it’s authentic, but it’s authentically good” – and am compelled to wondering if this is really enough, or even if I am the best person to reflect on these complex issues.
I know, however, that I’ve been intermittently drinking warm, spiced milk since I was a university student in an attempt to develop a good sleeping pattern, though the soporific effects of milk are debatable. With regular sleep eluding me and wanting to avoid the caffeine associated with tea straight before bed, I more recently returned to my occasional spiced milk habit in the evenings, albeit with a few twists; one of these is a dusting of bright turmeric. In addition to staining the milk a cheerful butter yellow, I admit it makes me feel good to ingest more of this spice, whose anti-inflammatory properties are increasingly subject to pharmacological scrutiny. I’m always sceptical of the claims that any food can cure dementia, arthritis or any other maladies, but evidence suggests a lot of foods (such as fish) have preventative, even if not curative, effects. And rest assured that I am as happy to drink my spiced turmeric milk for its mood-elevating properties, delivered by its soothing taste and pretty colour, as for any health reason (perhaps an example of ‘just eating’ and enjoying without thinking about and intellectualising the experience).
My spice mixture was always loosely based on the spices used in masala chai, albeit one brewed without tea leaves: I used cinnamon, black pepper, piney cloves, fragrant star anise and ginger (either the dried version, dusty and warm, or the spikey fresh root), maybe cardamom if I had it – but as a student my funds didn’t always stretch to all of these and sometimes it was just a short, sharp mixture of pepper, tooth-tingling cloves and cinnamon, which I tended to have in greater abundance. Over the Christmas break, I read a feature in Belgian (well, Flemish, anyway) newspaper De Standaard called ‘The favourite winter recipe of 25 foodies’ (‘het favoriete winterrecept van 25 foodies’), which did what it said on the tin and, in terms of combining food and personal stories, was pretty much my platonic ideal of a foodie magazine feature. It made for an incredibly absorbing and comforting reading on the Eurostar trip back home to London. A recipe from Dorien Knockaert – who is described as ‘without a doubt one of the most interesting culinary voices in Flanders’ – for masala chai was included and something about her voice caught my attention. I tried her recipe out and some elements from that crept into my own recipe. (I am fully aware – given the contours of the debate about cultural appropriation of food which I’ve tried to point to, albeit necessarily incompletely, above – of the many ironies of one white Belgian woman’s interpretation of a traditional drink from the Indian subcontinent inspiring another white Belgian woman’s interpretation of a traditional drink from the Indian subcontinent). Regardless of the politics of this cross-cultural exchange, the chief inheritance is the addition of a good sprinkle of fennel seeds; to me, the faint aniseed scent of fennel truly elevates the drink, and I now wouldn’t be without it.
Bones are funny things. A few years ago, my father broke his hip; he didn’t skid over an icy street or fall down the stairs. Instead, he stumbled slightly on his way to the kitchen, and that was enough. Our bodies can be strong and resilient so often, but there are times when we are physically fragile, even if otherwise healthy, and we remember how vulnerable and delicate our bones and joints really are. The other day, my boyfriend fell during a taekwondo class and landed with most of his body weight on his hand. What was thought to be a torn ligament turned out to be, in fact, two broken fingers, and he had to be fitted with a cast to keep them in place. He works at a hospital, which is the only convenient part of this story.
It’s been painful and uncomfortable, and we’ve also realised how many things we take for granted when going about our daily lives that we wouldn’t otherwise have given a second thought. Buttoning a coat, squeezing out toothpaste, eating a meal, tying shoelaces – all activities made much more difficult, and sometimes impossible, with only one hand. He’s been in to see a hand specialist (and it would be remiss here if I didn’t reference the excellence of the NHS; the competence and kindness of its patient, hard-working staff; and our great fortune in being able to access this excellent healthcare freely), but he won’t be able to have the cast off until at least next week.
To cheer him up over the weekend I made him chorizo and tomato scrambled eggs, a re-run of a recipe I threw together in the days between Christmas and New Year to use up the bits and pieces in our fridge before going away. David loved it and suggested I blog the recipe; I demurred because it seemed such an instinctive, easy, obvious way to prepare eggs if you have chorizo hanging about the house. However, I leafed through a copy of Dan Doherty’s comfort-food book ‘Toast Roast Hash Mash’ at a friend’s house and it’s just filled with these very simple, comforting recipes – and if he can justify selling a book with food as simple as this (think dishes like fried potatoes with black pudding), I’m sure I can justify posting this.
I splashed out on eggs from Burford Brown hens here and I do think the excellence of the eggs is important when they are the stars. The yolks are so deeply orange that they glow – it’s clear why Italians sometimes call yolks rosso d’uovo, the red of the egg (they also say giallo dell’uovo, the yellow of the egg, as in English). It is not just the paprika-hued chorizo oil which has given the plateful of eggs their sunset-orange colour. But the choice of egg is not merely cosmetic, it is also for their deeper, richer flavour, and it’s nothing to do with expense as such – the finest eggs I eat are those given to me by my grandfather from his backyard chickens.
The red of the egg
You can use whatever tomatoes you want and have to hand. When I first made it, I used around six quite small round winter tomatoes, coring them and removing the damp, seedy pulp before cutting them up finely. For the second round, I used bright Vittoria cherry tomatoes because they were the ripest looking in the supermarket (well, it is February) and were also grown in the UK (thanks to LED lighting and, presumably, polytunnel). I loved their sweet, bursting flavour and the texture. However, I’m sure that, if you really don’t want to use fresh tomatoes, you could drain and chop tinned plum tomatoes. Personally I don’t like the taste of tinned tomatoes unless they’ve been cooked down for a long time, as in a pasta sauce, so wouldn’t do this – but I know people who happily eat tinned plum tomatoes on toast, so tastes clearly vary in this respect.
I like to finish off these scrambled eggs with a flourish of finely-grated Parmesan cheese – it’s an optional step, but delicious. You could also use Cheddar or a hard goat’s cheese if you’d prefer that flavour profile.
Remember, when making this, that eggs cook quickly and go cold even faster. I don’t usually go in for fol-de-rol like warming plates but I would recommend it for this – and make sure you have everything else you need for breakfast (tea, toast, plates and cutlery) ready to go once the eggs hit the pan.
Chorizo and tomato scrambled eggs This recipe served two, but I honestly don’t know if that’s an obscenely huge portion. We didn’t eat it with bread – it will likely go further if you do.
130g chorizo sausage (the dried, cured kind which is usually sold in loops, not the salami-like slices or fresh chorizo-style sausages)
150g cherry tomatoes
Salt and pepper (optional)
Parmesan, for grating at the end (optional)
Cut the chorizo into thickish coins and cut each coin into quarters.
Cut the cherry tomatoes into quarters.
Crack the 6 eggs into a bowl or jug. If you wish, add some salt and pepper to them now. Remember, the chorizo will be salty already, and if you add Parmesan there will be a bit more saltiness, so be careful about how you season the eggs. I used pepper only but thought that the dish could have done with a touch of salt – but only the tiniest extra whisper of it.
Take a medium saucepan – I like my good black cast-iron pan, which also fries chorizo perfectly – and heat for a few minutes over a medium heat. Once hot, add the chorizo.
Cook the chorizo, stirring, until it has yielded its oil and is ever-so-slightly crisping up at the edges – about 5-6 minutes. If the edges are getting crispy too quickly, turn the heat down. If you cook the chorizo long enough it will yield up enough oil and you won’t have to add any other.
If you haven’t already lowered the heat, turn it down to as low as possible – for truly delicate eggs you may even want to move it to a lower-heat burner. Pour in the eggs and, using a wooden spoon or, even better, a wooden spoon with a flat bottom, cut through the egg mixture regularly, pulling them from the outside in, to form curds.
When the eggs are setting but are still quite wet – this is often the work of minutes – add in the quartered tomatoes and stir them through the eggs and chorizo evenly. Cook for a few minutes more, until the eggs are set but still soft and slightly runny.
Decant immediately onto warm plates. If liked, grate over some Parmesan using a fine grater.
I have come to develop strong views on greens. On kales and cabbages (and kings), and green beans and asparagus, and even Brussels sprouts.
Greens! No one likes an overcooked green thing, resigned to a grey and mushy existence following overenthusiastic acquaintance with a pan of hard-boiling water. But I think the growing middle-class dread of serving up a disintegrating plate of veg is resulting in the opposite problem, with vegetables far too often being served undercooked.
A green bean, say, tender and with a hint of crunch as your teeth break through the snappy skin, is a fine thing, perfectly balancing crispness with a soft, yielding interior. All too often, though, cooking instructions suggest as little as two minutes of cooking, resulting in hot beans with a suggestion of softness at the edges, a resolutely crisp interior, and, most unforgivably, hard, cold, mean little seeds at the centre. At that rate, you may as well give in and just served them cool, sweet and raw, so they retain that milky, sappy freshness.
Kale, too, is so often served barely cooked or raw, when its frilly edges are still spiny and throat-catching. Savoy cabbage is rarely shown to the heat long enough to allow its pebbled texture to become nubbled silk. As with vegetables, so too with pasta. Overcooked pasta is an unappestising, floppy mess, often pooled with water so thick with starch it is almost gelatinous. But undercooked pasta is crunchy and chalky and no good for winding round the fork or mopping up the sauce. Balance is essential.
Which leads me to this: cavolo nero pasta for one, in which the leaves of this deep dark Italian kale are cooked down in wine and butter and oil until delicate and submissive. Intertwined with some good bucatini – you can use spaghetti if that’s what you have – it makes a satisfying, iron-rich supper for those nights when, say, your partner in dining is trooping around the great garrison towns of Yorkshire.
I’m also sure this will sound like, look like, a lot of cavolo nero to start. And it is, enough to make this a hearty meal and give it plenty of body, because green things will happily cook down to nothing if you let them.
You’ll notice I said ‘good bucatini’. I’m no stranger to value packs of spaghetti from Lidl and would not turn my nose up at these ever, but given the relatively sparse ingredients in this dish, a good-quality pasta will make a difference to the final dish. Bucatini, incidentally, is like a slightly thicker spaghetti with a hollow running down the centre and is a little chewier and more resilient than spaghetti; I enjoy its robustness and it stands up well to the assertive kale. If your budget can stretch to it, I’d buy it here.
Cavolo nero with bucatini, for one
90g bucatini or spaghetti
300g pack of cavolo nero
1 tablespoon butter, plus extra to serve (optional)
1 TBS olive oil
4 fat cloves of garlic, smashed and roughly chopped
Big pinch of chilli flakes
a good glug of white wine – 60ml, if you want to measure
The zest and juice of half a lemon
Lots and lots of Parmesan – I like mine very finely grated on a Microplane so that it resembles cheese dust
Put a big pan of water for the pasta on the hob, bring to the boil, and salt it generously.
Strip the leaves of the cavolo nero from the stalks. I do this just by pinching the base of the stem between my index finger and thumb and pulling down the length of the stalk – they come away just as efficiently as if you’d used one of those plasticky kale strippersplasticky kale strippers. If you have any smaller leaves attached to slimmer, softer stems, these can just be chopped up without stripping them. Remove any yellowy bits of the kale because these will do you no favours.
Tear or roughly chop the large leaves into bite-sized pieces.
Add your pasta to the pan of water and bring back to the boil. Set your timer for eight minutes.
Heat the butter and oil together in a frying pan over a high heat. Add the garlic and fry until fragrant and just tinged with gold – up to thirty seconds, but as little as 10-15.
Add the chilli flakes and stir them around the pan for a bit, maybe 20 seconds, until you can smell their spicy fragrance.
Throw in the great pile of cavolo nero leaves and stir-fry in the pan for about two minutes. Add a pinch of salt here. Pour in the wine and let it bubble for thirty seconds. Turn the heat down to medium (or medium-low if things seem to be cooking fast) and continue to cook, pushing the leaves around the pan, until they wilt down. Throw in the odd splash of water if things are getting too dry and lower the hear once the cavolo nero is wilted down. Continue stirring.
When the timer for the pasta goes off, give it a test. It might need two more minutes.
Once ready, drain the pasta, not too thoroughly (you want a little of the clinging water). Stir the pasta through the cavolo nero in the frying pan and stir them around together for about thirty seconds to amalgamate. Remove the pan from the heat.
Zest and juice the lemon into the pan. Stir around and taste. Add some salt and pepper if you like and taste again. If you want, zest in more of the lemon and squeeze in more juice and add more salt and pepper. And, also if you want, melt in another pat of butter so the pasta become slick and glossy and the leaves tender and rich.
Pour the panful of pasta and vegetables into your bowl or plate of choice and dust with lots of Parmesan. Then grate over some more Parmesan, because you only live once.
Baking Advent: celebrating the festive season with baked goods.
In my last post I mused about being, becoming, a grown-up; and the changing tastes of adulthood were something I thought of when making, and then eating, this fruitcake.
For some tastes are the ones we grow rather than the ones which come to us instinctively. The liking of certain foods – the bitterness of wine and beer among then – mark the undeniable transition from picky child and wary adolescent. Jay Rayner predictably called it for the oyster, which, in a slightly icky (and, it must be said, heteronormative) 2011 article which I have never really liked (I like a lot of his other writing), he describes as “the truly female tastes of adulthood” (yawn). Then there are olives – salty, briny; blue cheese – pungent, moudly; even the raw, iron, undeniably fleshy taste of rare steak.
Fruitcake, to me, is a grown up food, too. As a child, its dense, sticky richness was something best avoided in favour of, say, a predictable slice of chocolate cake. It sits heavily on the stomach and coats the palate in a thick wave of raisiny sweetness almost as a dessert wine does. A fruitcake is assertive; it is strong; it is not really that sweet and can be nibbled with cheese as much as eaten as pudding after a meal. It requires a bitter drink of some kind – hot black coffee; unsweetened, tannic tea; even ale – to offset the rich taste and texture. After years of remembered aversion and dislike, those same failings have become, in my eyes, the fruitcake’s very virtues. It is filling, it is rich, it is unapologetically traditional in vine-fruited taste and dense, even at times stodgy, texture.
I wasn’t intending to post this recipe, mainly because the photos I took weren’t very good. But this cake is so very delicious; I brought it in to work (a rare enough event) and my colleagues were full of praise – one even said he feared it would put all other Christmas cakes this year in the shade. That’s the kind of thing someone who brings in a homemade cake likes to hear…
The dried apricots in the fruit mix add a lighter, sharper taste and texture than the traditional combination of raisins, currants and mixed peel alone, and the pulverised amaretti biscuits which are included in the batter mix replace the more conventional breadcrumbs: they are dryer and, again, lighter, as well as adding a delicate almond perfume which complements the marzipan shapes the cake is decorated with. A few biscuits are held back to decorate the top of the cake. The sweet Marsala wine which plumps up the fruit and is used to feed the cake at regular intervals naturally imbues it with moisture, but also sweetly echoes the taste of the dried fruit within the cake. The clementine buttercream is of course deeply seasonal and adds a burst of freshness to proceedings. I added a dash of cinnamon to it too.
I went for a ‘naked’ look for this cake, partly because naked cakes are so very fashionable; partly because I don’t really like the royal icing that usually tops fruitcakes; and partly to avoid the awkwardness of buying sufficient quantities of marizipan and carefully rolling it over to drape the cake. I liked the look very much, in the end – though having said that, the original cake, as decorated by BBC Good Food magazine, looked absolutely glorious – with a coating of (edible) gold spray paint, it was fantastically Louis Quatorze.