Weightless Cooking Part Two: Not squirrel soup

I liked this cheesy advertising in Beziers.

Beziers is the closest city to us. It’s hilly. Even the water has to climb upward. Beziers is famous for the remarkable Fonserannes Lock, a staircase of eight locks which allows boats to rise more than 20m up the Canal du Midi in the least possible distance, with the least possible fuss. Every August over a million visitors come here to the Feria, the bull fighting festival, just one of the reminders of how close we are to Spain, and that this part of France perhaps has more in common with its southern neighbour than the buttery, apple-y North.

On Friday morning we drove the 20 or so kilometres to town, to do some shopping, have some lunch. We started with the covered market, where we bought two kinds of olive oil and some honey vinegar. We managed to steer clear of the magnificently-flagoned bottle of vinegar ‘de région’ which cost 80€, which, incidentally, is the price of a kilo of pine nuts these days. 

We walked down to the allées Paul Riquet, to explore the Friday flower market. Pierre-Paul Riquet was the mastermind behind the Canal du Midi, and Beziers favoured son. He certainly deserves his eponymous allées and the statue of him which stands proudly in the middle of the boulevard. 

At this time of year, the market’s dominated by fat cushions of chrysanths, traditionally the flower of All Saints Day which falls on November 1. This is when French families remember their dead relatives by placing bouquets on their graves and, for this reason, in France chrysanthemums are associated with death. Tip: Do not take them as a gift for your host when invited to dinner in a French house and expect a warm reception. 

Fat cushions of chrysanthemums, destined for family graves.

Our word ‘pansy’ comes from the French word, ‘pensée’, which means thought, probably because their pretty, velvety petals look like thoughtful little faces.
I like the French phrase for perennials, plantes vivaces.  

 Having previously found them redolent of dusty offices and school art rooms, I suddenly find myself yearning for a spider plant. The heart wants what it wants.

Walking back to the car, Séan lingered by the jewellery shop and then the posh handbag shop we’d passed on the way to lunch (steak frites at L’Orangerie. I highly recommend it). Would I like something, an anniversary present? I clutched the bunch of anemones we’d bought at the flower market and told him no, really, these were enough. I am not a saintly person. I had already ascertained that a puppy was out of the question. But what I wanted in that minute, more than pearls and fine, supple leather, was to lie on our bed with the doors open onto the balcony, to breathe the soft air from the étang until I fell asleep. Sleeping in the day is something I never do at home and it seems such a holiday luxury, I try to sneak a nap in whenever I can. It’s absolutely more precious than rubies. Nothing I desire can compare with it.

Proper coloured chips at L’Orangerie.

My anniversary bunch of anemones.

A couple of hours later, revived by sleep, entrecôte digested, it was time to think about dinner. I had some squid we’d bought in Agde market on Thursday, but I have none of the arsenal I have at home -the hundred or so pots of herbs and spices, the freezer bags of long-simmered stock, and every possible appliance to blend, grate, purée any ingredient to my will. Here I am in a kitchen with no stock, very few herbs, and because we’re only here for a week I don’t want to buy too much. 

This is when it becomes important to sauté the onions properly and for long enough to round out their flavour, to use the skin and seeds of the tomato to profit from their fresh sweetness, to simmer the wine until it’s properly reduced, to season with salt and pepper throughout the cooking, and not just at the end. If you build flavour like this, you can get away with not using stock and it will still taste wonderful. 

I think we can get too hung up on recipes and forget to trust our senses – does it look good, smell good and, most importantly, does it taste good? Does it need to simmer a bit more to intensify the flavours? Does it need some more salt (often it needs more salt – this is one of the reasons good restaurant food tastes so delicious)? Perhaps a pinch of sugar? Use-what-you-have cooking is the very best lesson I know in squeezing every atom of flavour out of your ingredients. And it’s a lesson we can carry into our full-arsenal everyday cooking too.

Things I have learned today:

This is the view from our bed as the sun comes up.
  • The sun comes up between 7.19am and 7.23am, rising swiftly from across the water and the road to Sète, turning the sky from pink to apricot to primrose, and filling the étang with rippled golden light.
  • In the autumn, none of the markets sell baskets, even in Pézenas, possibly the most basket-tucked-firmly-into-the-crook-of-an-arm place on the planet. This can only be because no one shops between la Rentrée and Easter. I am a fool not to know this.

Squid, sorrel and potato soup

When I posted a picture of this on Twitter, half a dozen people tweeted me ‘When I first saw that, I read it as squirrel’, something to do with the SQUId soRREL thing I imagine. It made me think about how we name recipes. I suppose the convention with recipe titles is: most important ingredient first, most interesting ingredient second and then a workhorse ingredient that’s seldom going to be the headliner but puts in a full shift to make it delicious. So there you have it: squid, sorrel and potato. No squirrels were harmed in the making of this soup.

The sorrel adds a deliciously sharp flavour which is terrific with the squid. If you can’t find sorrel, use spinach and finish with a good squeeze of lemon juice.

Serves 4-6

A slosh of olive oil

1 large-ish onion, halved and thinly sliced
A few sprigs of thyme
A bay leaf, if you have one
1 celery stick, finely diced, leaves reserved if you have them to use in the bouquet garni
1 large, ripe tomato, finely diced, skin, seeds and all – there’s lots of flavour in the skin and seeds
6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
About 200ml white wine
About 750ml fish or light chicken stock, or water (I used water)
A bouquet garni of a few sprigs of thyme, some parsley stalks, and a few leaves of celery and a bay leaf if you have them, tied together with kitchen string
1 kg squid, well cleaned and cut into thick slices, tentacles left whole if small (about 750-800g prepared weight)
1 large potato, peeled and cut into 1cm cubes
3-4 tbsps crème fraîche
1 bunch of sorrel, finely shredded, stalks and all
3-4 tbsps roughly chopped parsley leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a medium-large, heavy-bottomed pan, warm the olive oil over a medium-low heat. Add the onions, thyme, bay leaf if you have one, and a good pinch of salt. Cook until the onions are translucent, stirring from time to time, about 20 minutes. Add the celery and cook for a further 5 minutes, until it’s softened slightly, then add the tomato and garlic and stir for 5 minutes. Pour in the wine and simmer, stirring, until it’s reduced by half. Add the squid, then the water or stock – you want enough just to cover the quid by a couple of centimetres or so. Throw in the bouquet garni, season with salt and pepper, and simmer gently, partly covered, until the squid is tender, about an hour to an hour and 15 to 20 minutes. Add the potato and cook until soft, about 15 minutes or so. Turn off the heat and stir in the crème fraîche, sorrel and parsley. The heat of the soup is enough to wilt the sorrel. You don’t need to cook it further.

Remove the thyme, bay leaf and bouquet garni. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately, in warmed bowls.

A day out



An early morning in Rye.

Last week, Séan and I took a trip to Rye. It’s an hour and a half or so from London, and in those miles we swapped London brick for black-and-white timbers, shrieking sirens for squawking gulls, organic quinoa muffins for homemade Victoria sponge.

I don’t drive and, with the advent of SatNav am no longer called on to assist in the misery of navigation, so I gaze out of the window reading the road signs – local names Peasmarsh, Appledore, Pett, Guestling and Winchelsea, rolling around on my tongue, soft and sweet like honey.

We had the good fortune to be there in Scallop Week so we ate scallops for lunch in a little café and brought some more home to cook for dinner.

I don’t know about you, but around about now – the mornings are lighter, afternoons linger, I dare sometimes walk the dog without wearing a hat – I have had quite enough of brown food. All of those stews, daubes, braises and casseroles which were so appealing only a few weeks’ ago no longer appeal. Something sparky. Bright colours. Fresh. So I made this salsa almost as soon as I got through the door. It takes only a few minutes or so and is very good.


Church Square


Stained glass window, St Mary the Virgin Church


A more modest window. This lovely bookshop is, indeed, minute.


A pretty display of succulents in someone’s front window. I’m never knowingly undernosy.


I find myself in agreement with this sign in one of Rye’s many antique shops.


The fishmonger and game dealers’ where we bought our scallops.


Scallops with mango and avocado salsa


This serves 2

3 spring onions, white and pale green part only, finely chopped
1 mango, peeled and diced
1 avocado, peeled and diced
1 small red chilli
½ small cucumber, diced
Small handful coriander, tough stalks discarded, roughly chopped
1 tsp finely minced fresh ginger
Juice of a lime
Flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

As many scallops as you think you can eat – we went for 5 each
A bit of oil, a dab of butter
Wedges of lime to serve

To make the salsa, combine all of the ingredients, season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside while you cook the scallops.

Pat the scallops dry with kitchen paper. You can cut the coral off if you prefer. I don’t. I think it looks pretty, I like the taste and I’m not running a restaurant where such pernickertyness seems important.

Warm a large frying pan over a medium-high heat. Melt the butter and oil together. Season the scallops with salt and pepper and put them in the pan. The pan shouldn’t be crowded; do them in two pans if necessary. Fry for a couple of minutes until golden then turn and cook for a couple of minutes more. The most important thing is not to overcook them.

Serve the scallops immediately with some of the salsa and wedges of lime.

It takes a village …

Patriot jellies
Our friend Stuart could be the sweetest person I know. He has a supernatural ability to divine whether an occasion merits a cup of tea or a stiff gin, he remembers birthdays, charms small children, sends puppies and kittens into paroxysms of joy just by his gentle presence. He’s also gloriously handsome, a quality he wears as carelessly as an old overcoat. Stuart’s always taking care of everyone else so we couldn’t let his 30th birthday pass by without, for once, taking care of him, fêting his fortuitous presence in our lives in a fittingly exuberant manner.
Lady de B and I decided a few weeks ago that we would host a party for him in her garden. He’s Australian, so we thought a posh surf and turf barbecue would be appropriate, a late lunch starting at three o’clock. Simple.
Lady de B and I spent days connected by the umbilical cord of telephone, email and Blackberry discussing the merits of raspberries over passion fruit, marinades or rubs, platters or bowls. We knew we couldn’t do it alone, so we called in the troops. Helder and Steve wired the garden for lights and sound; Kim sent over a restaurant’s worth of white china; Séan got up at 5am to collect flowers and fruit from New Covent Garden market; James spent Saturday morning blowing up inflatable kangaroos and hanging them from the trees along with enough flags and bunting to do an ocean liner proud; Paul ran around town collecting loaves, meringues and prawns; Sarah graciously served up lychee martinis and elastoplasts into the early hours; Alex and the beautiful seňoritas washed a mountain of dishes. We ate and drank and danced until three in the morning.
P1160281Sunny startTime to stop taking pictures!
And then, on Sunday, we did it all again. Ten of us assembled to tidy up and rehash the scandals of the night before. It was a beautiful day so we laid the table in the garden and served up a banquet of leftovers and gossip. By seven o’clock, as we sipped reviving glasses of Sauternes and spooned soft Valençay cheese onto slices of walnut bread, I think we all felt very lucky indeed, blessed in the friendships that have steered us through heartbreak and triumph to find us all together, sitting in the dappled sunshine on a Sunday afternoon in July.

Feet up the next day…All relaxed
Stuart’s birthday menu
Stuart’s birthday spread ~
Bellinis and Kir Royale
Muhamarra ~
Bagna Cauda
Radishes with butter & sea salt
Marinated olives
Roasted Chickpeas
~Rib of beef with mustard & horseradish crust ~
Rib of beef with mustard & horseradish crust
Roasted Carliston chillies
Hard core prawns
Director & Lincolnshire sausages
Sweet potato gratin
Roasted aubergine & tahini salad
Roasted beetroot & feta salad
Mange tout, green bean, hazelnut & orange salad
Minted new potatoes
Green salad
Pavlova with summer fruits
Patriot jellies
Chocolate dipped strawberries
Lychee martinis
Colston Bassett Stilton
English & Irish goat cheeses
Homemade de Beauvoir pear chutney
Figs and sultana grapes
Saturday’s pavlova becomes Sunday’s Eton Mess, eaten from one big plate in the middle of the table, with ten spoons.
Eton messEton Mess going.......gone

Love me, tentacles

Stuffed baby squid

Are there any Freudian practitioners in the house? If so, could I trouble you to turn off the meter for a few minutes and not read too much into the fact that I’ve created two consecutive posts about stuffing things? I’m working on the principle that putting one delicious thing inside another delicious thing is a passport to heaven and I promise it goes no deeper than that. (Of course, this theory doesn’t really have legs. Passionfruit with chicken livers, avocado with cherry jam, melon with ox cheek don’t really appeal unless you’re a tiresomely experimental show-off chef stuck in some kind of 1980s gustatory hell.)

My wonderful sister-in-law Clare is down from Yorkshire for the night and we’ve persuaded our friend Sara Ellen to come over and join us too. It’s hot. The cats are passed out on the terrace, gently baking themselves by the pots of rosemary and mint. The dog is binge drinking his favourite sundowner cocktail: dirty water from a bucket rather than the fresh water in his bowl. I’ve pushed open the doors to the garden to give me a little air as I chop and fry and spoon green-speckled filling into tiny, pearl-fleshed squid.

Squid stuffed with spinach and ricotta

Remember to remove the toothpick...

It's all in the stuffing

Serves 4-6

2 tbsps olive oil
A small knob of unsalted butter
2 medium onions, finely chopped
About 1kg of small squid, cleaned, tentacles and wings reserved
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
A good few handfuls of baby spinach (a 250g bag would be perfect)
250g ricotta
3 hard-boiled eggs, quite finely chopped
1 egg, lightly beaten
75g pine nuts, toasted
1x400g tin of tomatoes or 400ml passata
About 125ml white wine
3 tbsps chopped parsley
About half a dozen basil leaves
A few grinds of nutmeg
A good pinch of chilli flakes
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper
Lemon wedges to serve




And stuff

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas mark 4.

Warm the olive oil and butter in a large frying pan over a medium-low heat and gently sauté the onion until soft and translucent, about 10-15 minutes. While they’re cooking, finely chop the tentacles and wings from the squid. When the onions are done, add the chopped squid and garlic to the pan and sauté for a minute. Next, add the spinach and stir until wilted (you might have to do a handful or so at a time). Put a sieve over a bowl and strain the spinach-squid mixture, reserving the liquid. Let the mixture cool.

In a large bowl, mix together the ricotta, chopped egg, beaten egg and pine nuts. Season well with a good pinch of salt, plenty of pepper, a few grinds of nutmeg and a sprinkling of chilli flakes. Fold in the cooled spinach and squid. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Use a teaspoon to fill the squids’ bodies with the stuffing, taking care not to overfill them as they expand a bit while cooking. Seal each little body with a toothpick. (At this point, they bore a rather striking resemblance to the sheeps’ testicles which are a great favourite at our local Turkish restaurant. I tried not to let this put me off.) Place them in a single layer in a large, ovenproof dish.

Nearly ready for the oven

Purée the tinned tomatoes and mix them with the reserved liquid from the spinach and the wine. Season well with salt and pepper, a little nutmeg, a pinch of chilli flakes and three or four big leaves of basil, finely chopped. Pour over the stuffed squid, cover with a lid or foil and bake for 45 minutes, removing the cover for the last 10 minutes. Serve sprinkled with basil and with lemon wedges on the side. We ate ours with roasted asparagus and lots of rice to soak up the lovely sauce.

Lady de B

I’d like to introduce you to Lady de Beauvoir. That’s not her real name – though Vanessa’s elevation to the peerage for services to the general jollity of the masses must surely be imminent? In the meantime, we all call her that because it’s the name of the part of London where she lives and because, while all around her are track suits and tower blocks, she negotiates those mean streets with velvet ballet slippers on her feet and a French market basket swinging from her arm. Her house sparkles with antique chandeliers and lovingly waxed floorboards.

At one point, Vanessa and I considered setting up our own business. We both spend an inordinate amount of time advising our many gay friends about the decoration and furnishing of their homes, obsessing over every detail, whether it’s what they should put on their perfect Matthew Hilton dining table or pour into their Jasper Conran wine glasses. We thought we could offer a one-stop queenly lifestyle advice service, everything from decorating and gardening to food, wine and flowers – the concept of GayCare was born. This wasn’t our only business idea – but given that our other flash of entrepreneurial brilliance was running a catering company out of the back of a vintage Bentley, we’re hardly beating a path to the Dragons’ Den.

Vanessa can throw a party for anything – a new job or new season’s asparagus, a good haircut or a surfeit of raspberries. So the sun coming out is definitely cause for celebration.

Yesterday, Vanessa held the inaugural barbecue of the season. Five of us sat amid pots of brightly coloured primulas and anemones on her pretty terrace, sipping the year’s first glasses of rosé and feasting on lamb chops, smoky baba ganoush and a mouth watering salad of crunchy cucumbers, hot, hot, hot red chillies and soothing dollops of mascarpone and crème fraîche. All definitely delicious, but by far the most spectacular dish of the day was a mountain of grilled prawns in a perky marinade. Lady de B says she based it on a Marcella Hazan recipe. She’s a braver woman than I to tinker with a recipe from that marvellous, and marvellously dictatorial, Italian food writer, but the results were addictively, messily wonderful.

Hard-core prawn

3-4 tbsps extra-virgin olive oil
3-4 tbsps vegetable oil
80g fine, dry breadcrumbs
1 small clove of garlic, finely chopped
3-4 tbsps finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
A good few pinches of sea salt
Plenty of freshly ground black pepper
1kg large prawns, unshelled but cut along the spine and the dark vein of intestines removed

Whisk together all of the marinade ingredients in a large bowl then add the prawns, mixing everything well with your hands and making sure you rub plenty of the tasty sauce into the cut part of the prawns. Marinate for about an hour in a cool place, ideally not the fridge.

Heat the barbecue until the coals glow red and are covered by a coating of white ash. Place the prawns on the grill in batches (use tongs – but you knew that, right?), turning after a couple of minutes and cooking until the prawns have taken on some colour and are just opaque in the middle. Don’t overcook – an overcooked prawn is a horrible thing, unless fish-flavoured chewing gum is something you crave. Make sure you have a mountain of napkins – they don’t have to be pretty little patches of Provençal linen like Lady de B’s, for the rest of us mere mortals, paper ones will do.