The weightless salad

Autumn: This morning’s haul from Agde market.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote this piece for the Independent on Sunday about my life as a recipe tester and food editor. I described the seemingly endless weighing, measuring, washing, drying, retesting, the tearing of hair and rending of garments (#MyStruggle) in pursuit of the flawless, foolproof recipe for something you might want to make for your dinner. (Or not. There’s a horrifying statistic – no doubt created by an especially sadistic manufacturer of ready meals – that readers never make more than three or four recipes from any book they buy.)

One of the things I love about being on holiday – along with sleeping late, reading a novel in a single gulp, and slummocking about with my hair lazily pulled back into a pony tail – is that holiday cooking is the opposite of work cooking. No measuring, note taking or trying to guess someone else’s intention, just the gentle pursuit of pleasure, inspired by wandering around the market or putting my nose round the cheese shop door and taking a good, life-affirming sniff. 

Today, on the first day of our little holiday, we got up early and made the short trip to Agde for market day. It’s a journey we’ve made many times before, but we’re always here in spring or summer. As we drove through fields of golden-leaved vines, it was almost like visiting a different place. In the market, instead of summer’s peaches, cherries, melons and asparagus there were crates of pumpkins, walnuts and quince. And I bought what I liked, with no idea of what I was going to do with it and no scales to weigh it on when I did, I was cooking by instinct and inclination, changing the recipe as I chopped and grilled. The culinary equivalent of a lie in and a messy pony tail, and certainly none the less delicious for that.

Cabbages and turnips

Pumpkins and chard.

Beautiful dates.

Rose and violet garlic.

My basket of greens and thyme.

After the market, the traditional 10.30am glasses of
beer and wine at the Plazza.
Considerably cheaper than coffee.

From now on, I’m matching my shoes and my vegetables. 
I suggest you do too.

When I’m not cooking, I’m mostly looking out at this.

Stargazy salad, AKA Sardine, black radish and mustard greens
Stargazy salad

As I arranged this salad on the plate, it reminded me of Stargazy pie, the Cornish dish where the heads of the fish poke out of the pastry lid as if caught mid leap. 

I am the very last person to send a salad to do a pie’s job, but if it’s salad you’re after this is a good one. The rich flesh of the fish goes well with the peppery mustard greens and crunchy, fiery black radish. If you can’t find black radish, just use pretty breakfast radishes sliced as thinly as you can.
Serves 2-4, depending on how hungry you are and how much bread you might be inclined to eat along with it.

1 smallish black radish, about 120g
Juice of half a lemon
Olive oil, not too strongly flavoured  
About 3 tbsps finely chopped parsley leaves
Finely grated zest of a small lemon  
1 garlic clove, minced  

10-12 sardines
A small bunch thyme or lemon thyme  
2 lemons  
The finely grated zest of a lemon plus couple of squeezes of lemon juice
80g pinenuts, lightly toasted, roughly chopped  
A handful of mustard greens, roughly torn
Flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper 

To serve 
Bread and butter, if you like

First, make the salad. Peel the black radish and either julienne it very finely or grate it on the coarse side of a box grater. Dress it with a couple of squeezes of lemon juice and a trickle of olive oil. Toss it with the parsley, lemon zest and garlic, and some salt and pepper. Set aside while you cook the sardines.
Preheat the grill as hot as it will go (turn it on at least 5 minutes before you want to cook the fish). You can also cook these on a barbecue if you like.
Ready to go under a hot grill

Line a baking tin with foil. Cut one of the lemons into thick slices and arrange them on the tin. Scatter some sprigs of thyme over the top (save a tablespoon or two of fresh, soft thyme leaves to finish the salad with). Place the sardines on top of the lemon and herbs, trickle over a little olive oil and sprinkle on some salt and pepper. Grill the sardines until just cooked through – this should take about 3-4 minutes per side, depending on their size.

Dress the mustard leaves very lightly in olive oil. Arrange them on a large plate. Heap the black radish salad in the middle and arrange the sardines around it. Scatter over the reserved thyme leaves, pine nuts and a good pinch or two of flaky sea salt. Serve immediately, with wedges of lemon.
Looks heavenly doesn’t it? 
But I never quite lost fear that seagulls would 
swoop in and steal our lunch…

Kipper pâté


When I was about six, I lived in a house where the kitchen had wooden saloon doors which swung out into the dining room. As I spent most Saturday afternoons watching cowboy films, I thought this was brilliant. It also allowed for a perfect ‘ta-daaaah!’ moment when I brought something out to the table. It’s hardly surprising I learned to love cooking early.

In that little kitchen, I performed my first experiments, mostly drawn from the pages of a free Be-Ro recipe booklet – rock cakes, fairy cakes, Victoria Sponge – the sugary, buttery, floury triumvirate of the 70s tea.

The first savoury dish I ever remember making was tuna fish pâté. I don’t recall there being any cookbooks in that house, other than the free pamphlet sort, so the recipe probably came from the back of the tuna tin.

It went something like this: Drain the tin of tuna then pound it together with half its weight in softened butter and season with black pepper and a little lemon juice (from a squeezy Jif plastic lemon, of course). Spoon into a bowl and arrange on a plate with some Jacob’s crackers. Leap through the saloon doors and serve to your flame-haired mum and flame-haired neighbour Bernice, who are probably drinking sherry and listening to Glen Campbell. They will try very hard to look pleased and not get too many buttery stains on their suede trouser suits as Glen trills, ‘And I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time…’ for the third time that afternoon.

I was thinking about my early kitchen experiments the other day when The Handpicked Collection sent me some oak-smoked kippers. I do a little consultancy work for them and they wanted me to try a few of the things from their new Foodstore Collection. I adore kippers for breakfast with a poached egg, but I also thought it might be time to revisit another 70s dinner party classic, kipper pâté. (Taaa-daaah! Door swing.)

Now if you, like me, love kippers but are sometimes put off cooking them because of the lingering smell, here are my top tips. For recipes like this one, ‘cook’ the fish in boiling water in a jug which dramatically reduces the whiffy-ness.

Of course, for breakfast kippers, you’ll want to brush them with melted butter, grind some black pepper on them and grill them. This is much more smelly but infinitely more delicious if you want to eat the kippers as they are. In this case, remove all of the fishy remnants, the bones and heads, from the house as soon as possible. Do not read the paper, do not finish the crossword, do not check your emails. Bag up all of the bits and put them in the outside bin. Dump the grill pan in a bowl of soapy water. Put a small pan of water on the stove with some chopped up lemon or orange, a cinnamon stick, some cloves, star anise – raid the spice drawer for anything which smells delicious, essentially – and let it bubble away for a bit. You might also consider making a cake. This is the best case scenario. You’ve had kippers for breakfast, your house smells delicious and you have cake for later. Or right now. As a reward for all of that hasty housekeeping.

Kipper pâté


1 pair of kippers, about 600g (which will produce about 350g flaked fish)
300g unsalted butter, cut into cubes and softened
¼ tsp cayenne pepper
Juice of half a lemon
A bay leaf
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Place the kippers heads down in a large jug and fill up with water from the kettle so that they are completely submerged, bar the tails. Leave them for 10 minutes and discard the water. (Fill the jug with soapy water.)

When the kippers have cooled down a little, remove the heads and bones. It will take a little while to pick out as many of the tiny bones as you can, but that’s what Radio 4 plays are made for.

Put the flaked fish into a food processor with 200g of the butter, the cayenne pepper and lemon juice and pulse until fairly smooth. Taste and season with salt and pepper (you may not need much, or any, salt as the kippers are already quite salty). Spoon into a pot or jar.

Melt the remaining butter in a small pan and let it cool slightly. Carefully pour into a small jug, trying your hardest to leave as much of the cloudy milk solids in the bottom of the pan as possible. Place the bay leaf in the middle of the pâté and pour the butter over the top. Cover and refrigerate until the butter is set. It’s even better the next day and will keep for about 4-5 days in the fridge if covered tightly with cling film or foil. Serve with hot toast. Or Jacob’s crackers. Taaa-daaah.

Recipes for Summer Rentals: II

2012-06-17 09-33-03-917 Applied slummocking

We slip easily into the holiday routine of slummocking around in pyjamas until late*, hasty individual breakfasts foraged from unfamiliar cabinets, large gin-and-tonics before lunch, books and naps after, followed by little excursions to a village, a monument, a garden, a beach or the bright lights of Skibbereen, then the inevitable slouch towards Campari-and-sodas or stouts in the pub and dinner.

One excursion to Union Hall included a trip to the excellent fishmonger, supplied daily by the town’s own small fishing fleet. If you’re nervous about cooking fish, especially for a crowd, especially if the only frying pan at your disposal is a mean and wretched thing, bake it in a roasting tin on top of all of your vegetables.

*DISCLAIMER I need to exclude my father from the slummocking business. A June baby, according to family legend he was born wearing a light-coloured checked shirt and a good sweater.

2012-06-22 02-15-09-493
Looking over Sandy Cove

2012-06-21 02-36-45-231 A boy, a dog, a bay

2012-06-21 02-40-37-682 A most delicious stick

One-dish white fish


You can scale this up or down, depending on the size of the oven and roasting tin at your disposal and the number of people around your table. I used whiting, but pollock or any other white fish would work well too. You can add a handful of black or green olives when you add the fish and mussels if you like.

Enough potatoes for 4 people, scrubbed and cut into wedges
3 red onions, peeled and cut into wedges
Olive oil
Juice and pared zest of 2 lemons (use a vegetable peeler to pare the lemons, making sure you scrape off any white pith)
2 red peppers, cored and cut into thin strips
2 yellow peppers, cored and cut into thin strips
4-6 cloves of garlic, sliced
4 fillets of whiting
A couple of handfuls of cleaned mussels
A handful of parsley, tough stalks removed and chopped
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper


Preheat the oven to 190ºC/370ºF/Gas mark 5. Scatter the potatoes and onions in a large roasting tin, pour over a glug or two of oil, the zest and juice of one of the lemons and season well with salt and pepper. Toss everything together with your hands and cover tightly with foil. Bake for about 30-40 minutes and remove the foil. If the potatoes are tender (if not, re-cover them and cook for a bit longer), mix with the peppers and garlic and return, uncovered, to the oven and bake until the peppers are soft and the potatoes start to take on some colour, about 25 minutes. Remove from the oven, stir in the parsley, and lay the seasoned fish fillets over the top. Scatter on the mussels, add the remaining lemon zest and juice and cover tightly with a double layer of foil. Return to the oven for about 10 minutes, until the fish is cooked through and the mussels opened. Serve with more lemon wedges on the side.

Today’s holiday reading:

Julia was making flaky pastry. Oliver liked to sit watching her folding in lard, rolling, folding, turning. The quick movements of her strong wrists, powdered with flour, pleased him. Mrs Lippincote’s old mixing-bowl pleased him, too. The creamy glazed earthenware was scribbled over faintly with sepia cracks, and a spiral of indigo wound thickly round it. He was probably the only person who had ever thought it beautiful. Julia stamped out the centres of the vol-au-vent cases and took the baking tray to the oven. She knelt there, sodding and blasting with the heat puffing over her red face, and brought out another tray of pastry. “Risen beautifully,” she told herself. She began to clear up and Oliver returned to his arithmetic book. “Nine and nine is eighteen,” he began to drone. Roddy had said he shouldn’t go to school until the next term, but get his strength up instead, run wild a bit. Oliver simply didn’t know how to run wild, so he sat in the kitchen and watched his mother. And five is twenty-three.

From At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor, 1945

Up and down the Kingsland Road


Sometimes, I imagine a shuttle running between Lady de B’s house and mine rather like the underground trains that once carried four million letters a day between Paddington and Whitechapel. Our zippy little shuttle wouldn’t transport the Royal Mail. It would carry such precious cargo as extra chairs, baskets, platters, ice cream makers, jelly bags, jam pans, barbecues, tablecloths, ice buckets, stick blenders, mandolins, baking sheets and roasting tins. A truly moveable feast – or the furnishings for one – running the mile or so between my house and hers. It’s not unheard of for me to admire a plate in her house and for her to say, ‘Well, you should like it, it’s yours’.

We cook together so often, plan parties together, eat at one another’s tables with such regularity, that I can find the cling film or cinnamon or colander in her kitchen as easily as I can in my own. I know where the hot spots are in her oven. (Well, at least I did. She’s just got a swanky new Lacanche, and though we’ve been formally introduced, we’re yet to get to know one another intimately over roasted meats, slow-cooked stews, bubbling gratins and biscuits.)

Vanessa and I share recipes obsessively, whether it’s excitably garbled descriptions of dishes we’ve eaten on holidays or in restaurants, inspirations ripped from magazines, or pristine, bookmarked perfection in the pages of the latest cook books.

When Vanessa said she was making gravadlax for Easter lunch, I’d quite forgotten that I’d lent her Falling Cloudberries: a world of family recipes, one of my favourite books because it is filled not just with lovely recipes, but family, history and stories. In her introduction, Tessa Kiros writes ‘These are the recipes I grew up with: the recipes that have woven their way through the neighbourhoods of my mind, past indifference and into love’

Falling Cloudberries Falling Cloudberries

Tessa's mother Tessa Kiros’s mother and a Finnish birch tree.

Born in London to a Greek Cypriot father and a Finnish mother, Kiros’s childhood in Africa was followed by stints cooking all over the world before settling in Tuscany with her Italian husband. It’s hardly surprising her cooking is as diverse as it is delicious. There’s skordalia and semifreddo, couscous and ceviche, tom ka gai and crème brûlée, and in the middle of all that, her mother’s recipe for gravadlax, the happiest of beginnings for our happy Easter feast.

Gravadlax with dill cucumbers

Gravadlax with dill cucumbers

Vanessa bought the salmon from Steve Hatt, fourth-generation fish monger and the north London fisheratti’s piscine purveyor of choice. He advises that for gravadlax, a larger, more mature salmon that had had a chance to build up some fat responds best to the salt and sugar cure. Get the best your pocket can stand, but after that it’s all very easy.

Salmon ready to be sliced

Serves about 20.

300g (10 ½ oz) caster (superfine) sugar
200g (7oz) coarse salt
150g (5oz) dill, chopped
2 whole fillets of salmon, skin left on, but cleaned and small bones removed

For the dill cucumbers:
1 cucumber
1 tbsp chopped dill
100ml (3 ½ fl oz) white wine vinegar
2 heaped tbsps caster (superfine) sugar
1 tsp salt

To serve:
Chopped dill
Finnish mustard (See below)

To make the gravadlax, combine the sugar, salt, dill and a few good grindings of black pepper in a bowl. Put a large piece of foil on your work surface. Onto this put about a third of the salt and sugar mixture. Put one of the fillets, skin side down, on top of the mix then top this with another third of the mixture. Top with the other salmon fillet, skin side up, and cover with the remaining mixture. Pat down so it is all covered nicely and wrap the foil around it to seal the salmon. Keep it in a container in the fridge (Vanessa used a fish kettle, perfect) for four days, turning it over every day. If you don’t have a container large enough, sit it on a tray or large dish to catch nay juices that may drip.

To make the dill cucumbers, cut the cucumber into very thin slices, slightly on the diagonal if you like, so that they are extra long and look good. Put them in a bowl where they will fit compactly in a few layers, sprinkling the dill between the layers. Combine the vinegar, sugar, salt and 2tbsps of water, stirring to dissolve the sugar and salt. Pour this over the cucumber and cover it. Keep in the fridge for at least a few hours before serving. Transfer to a jar and cover with its liquid and it will keep for up to a week.

To serve the gravadlax, remove the foil and scrape off as much of the sugar and salt mixture as possible. Slice the salmon very thinly, horizontally, and scatter with more fresh dill. Serve with the dill cucumbers and Finnish mustard.

Finnish mustard

This keeps really well, sealed in a jar, in the fridge for a few weeks. Its fiery fabulousness will perk up a plate of cold meats, sausages or, yes, cured fish no end.

Makes about 300ml/10 fl oz

45g (1/3 cup) hot English mustard powder
115g (1/2 cup) caster (superfine) sugar
1 tsp salt
250ml (1 cup) single (pouring) cream
1 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp apple cider (or other, white) vinegar
Juice of half a lemon

Mix the mustard powder, sugar and salt together in a bowl, squashing out the lumps with a wooden spoon. Put in a small saucepan over a low heat with cream, oil, vinegar and lemon juice and bring to the boil, stirring constantly. Cook for 7-8 minutes, stirring often, then remove from the heat when it darkens and thickens. Stir now and then while it cools and then pour into glass jars, seal and refrigerate.

A (fish) bone of contention…

Politeness is the flower of humanity.
Joseph Joubert

Maggie Beer's Salmon with Pea Salsa

I know, I know, I should have walked around the corner and bought my salmon from The Fishery on the High Street like I usually do. Not only would I have got a lovely piece of fish rather than the scraggy tail-end bits I ended up with, I also might have got a smile from Danny who owns the joint and shared a joke with his dad, Johnny, who seems to have been put upon this earth to increase the jollity of the masses. But what can I say? I was in a hurry, so I popped into Wholefoods on Church Street instead.

I just got Maggie Beer’s new book, Maggie’s Kitchen, and I was oh so keen to try her Salmon with Pea Salsa. All I needed were the salmon steaks and there they were in the chiller cabinet, not as thick as I’d like but hey, ho. I couldn’t tell if they had the skin on or not, so I asked a nearby assistant if they did.


Is that the merest suggestion of an eye roll, or is it just me being hypersensitive? Erm, no, I’m not. Apparently, I’m very stupid. ‘Well it doesn’t matter does it, as it only takes a second to take the skin off.’ She’s looking at me like I’m probably not to be trusted with sharp objects. ‘But I need it with the skin on,’ I explain meekly. More eye rolling (honey, you’ll get wrinkles) and much prodding of the packaging to try and flip the fish over. ‘There, it’s got skin, you can see it,’ she thrusts it at me and I’m sure she’s speaking a little slower to compensate for my dimness. ‘Perhaps they should put whether it’s skinned or not on the label,’ I brave. At this point, I am obviously a complete moron. ‘Why do you need that? When. You. Can. See. It.’ Hmmm.

I’d love to stay and explain that – in my 20 years of working around food, reading about it, writing about it, cooking it – encouraging customers to poke and prod at something as delicate as fish is probably not a good idea. But if I am to continue to enjoy the Wholefoods experience, I really need to get back to work to pay for it.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some great people filling the shelves there. The produce guy is lovely and you couldn’t buy shampoo from a more charming person than the German woman who’s queen of the natural remedies section. Forget the lavender oil, she makes me feel calmer just looking at her. But some of the others … As my friend Virginia would say, ‘I see we’re going to have to build an extension on that charm school’.

P.S. Danny, Johnny, please forgive my cheating heart, or wallet. I promise I won’t make the same mistake again.

Maggie Beer’s Salmon with Pea Salsa

Maggie Beer’s my Aussie food heroine. I love her bold flavours, passion for eating seasonally and must-make-it-right-now recipes. This salmon’s a winner – simple enough for a midweek dinner, elegant enough to place it in front of fussy guests without fear.

I came home to find my chervil had withered away and died – and in the recent combination of sweltering heat followed by torrential rain, even hailstones, who can blame it? So I hacked away at my seemingly invincible parsley instead and it tasted great. I think the salsa would also be good with mint in place of the chervil, a sort of posh mushy peas, but then I’m Northern.

4x140g salmon steaks, skin-on (Got that, skin on!)
Flaky sea salt
Extra virgin olive oil for trickling over the top
10g unsalted butter
Juice of 1 lemon
Chervil sprigs and lemon wedges to serve

30g unsalted butter
Extra virgin olive oil, for cooking
2 golden shallots, finely chopped
¾ cup chicken stock
1 ½ cups frozen peas
1 sprig chervil
Flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Pea cavalcade You know how sometimes you say things aloud which should probably have remained in your head? I once announced on a radio show that ‘A day without peas is like a day without sunshine,’ something my friends tease me about to this day. I don’t mind really. Because it’s true.

For the salsa, melt the butter in a deep frying pan with a little olive oil over a medium heat, then add the shallots and sauté for 10 minutes or until translucent. Meanwhile, bring the chicken stock to the boil in a small saucepan.

Add the peas and chervil (or parsley, or even mint) to the shallots, then, when the peas have thawed, add the hot chicken stock and bring to the boil. Remove from the heat and leave to cool slightly. Puree the pea mixture in a blender (or use a mouli if you have one), then season with salt and pepper if you like.

Peas in the mini chopper

Heat a large frying pan over a medium heat. Season the skin-sides of the steaks with salt. Add a splash of olive oil to the hot pan, then cook the fish, skin-side down, for two minutes or until the skin is crisp and you can see from the side that they are cooked at least halfway through.

Season the other side of the fish with salt, then quickly wipe the pan with a paper towel, drop in the butter and, when melted, gently turn the salmon over, using either a palette knife or spatula. Immediately remove the pan from the heat, then leave the steaks to sit in the hot pan for five minutes. The centre of the fish should be just set or a little rare.

Place the salmon steak on each plate, then top each with a spoonful of pea salsa. Squeeze over the lemon juice, sprinkle with chervil and drizzle with a little olive oil, then serve with lemon wedges on the side.

TIP To get a nice, crisp skin on fish, warm the pan over a medium-high heat, add a tiny splash of oil, and then put the fish into the pan, skin-side-down. Then wait. Don’t poke and prod at it. When it moves easily, the skin is seared and crisp and you can turn it over easily.