In praise of The Pauper’s Cookbook

I often tell people that I can cook because my mother couldn’t, or wouldn’t. She was far more interested in studying, writing, teaching and taking us to museums and bookshops, on walks along the riverbank in Durham and, importantly, instilling in my brother and me a love of whiling away afternoons in cafés. All of these are very important life skills.

But she did sometimes cook more than the usual, hasty beans on toast or egg and chips, and when she did, it was from Jocasta Innes’s The Pauper’s Cookbook.

I was just writing something about 70s food, which made me pick up my old, yellowing copy for the first time in years. Flipping through it, I can see it through my mother’s young eyes and understand why it must have been so appealing.

This book is about as far away from the 70s housewife world of perfect garnishes and dainty hors d’oeuvres as it’s possible to get. It’s crammed with recipes for the hurried, harried and skint. It has a let’s-get-on-with-it tone and a spirit of adventure, with recipes such as brandade of tuna fish, tortilla, and Suleiman’s Pilaff (bits of leftover cooked lamb, mixed with garlic, patna rice, tinned tomatoes and ‘a pinch of thyme or rosemary’ – the ‘pinch’ makes me think that the assumption is they’re inevitably dried, not fresh).

Welcome to the 70s, so many beans, so much brown earthenware.

I love the cover photograph, with its earthenware dish which would look quite at home in many of today’s faux-rustic East London restaurants. I love the trickle of burnt-on sauce from the pork and beans, and I love, love, love the blurb on the back cover:

‘So leave it to the affluent to court indigestion at the Waldorf-Ritz: here’s how to live it up in your own squalid tenement without recourse to poaching, rustling, guddling, scrumping or shop-lifting.’ How could you possibly resist? And now I need to go and find out what the hell ‘guddling’ is.

French onion soup

I wanted to make something from the book without having to run out to the shops (too cold, too lazy), so my eyes fell on Jocasta’s recipe for French onion soup. Her recipe was much simpler than the one I create here. Its ingredients are 1 quart basic stock, 4 large or 6 small onions, knob of butter, 1/4lb grated Cheddar, 4 slices toast, salt and pepper. But with my Twenty-First-Century fancy London ways, I have at my disposal wine and brandy, Gruyère cheese and an end of slightly stale baguette. But it is absolutely in the spirit of Jocasta, if not to the letter.


80g butter
4 large yellow or white onions, about 1kg prepared weight, halved and thinly sliced
100ml white wine
1 litre beef stock
1 tbsp brandy
About ¼ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
4-6 slices of baguette, about 1cm thick
100g Gruyère cheese, grated
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Warm the butter over a medium heat in a heavy-bottomed saucepan
 or casserole. When it stops foaming, add the onions and a good pinch of salt.  Fry gently, stirring often, until they are just beginning to turn golden – they shouldn’t caramelise at all. This could take at least 30 minutes, up to 45 minutes.

The raw sliced onions…
…transform into these soft, golden ones.

Pour in the wine and stir again for a couple of minutes until almost completely evaporated. Next add the stock and some salt and pepper and simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Grate in the nutmeg, pour in the brandy and season with more salt and pepper if necessary. 

Heat up the grill.

Ladle the soup into heatproof bowls. Place a slice of bread on top and scatter the cheese over the top. Grill until golden and bubbling. Serve immediately. 

I love the way Gruyère melts into delicious stringiness.

Something for the weekend

Weekend breakfasts, specifically Saturday morning breakfasts, are among my favourite of all meals. I love the easy, freewheeling slide into the pleasure of the weekend, slummocking about in pyjamas, spreading out the newspapers, flipping through a stack of new magazines with a wad of Post-Its, catching up on favourite telly. 

Séan usually makes the breakfast at weekends (A Very Good Thing), so it was in a rare burst of Saturday morning activity that I whisked together these pancakes. I had some roasted squash left over from dinner the night before and the slightly charred edges added a caramelised note to the end result which I liked, but you could certainly use simply steamed or lightly roasted and mashed veg. You could also mash and freeze small amounts of leftover roast squash so you have the essential ingredient ready to go should the mood strike. I used buckwheat flour but just use plain flour if that’s what you have to hand.

I served the pancakes with Toulouse sausages, fried eggs, a bit of fried sage and a splodge of apple sauce, but they would be great with anything of the things you like to fuel you through the weekend. Apart from baked beans. Please don’t do that.

Squash and sage pancakes

Makes 8-10 pancakes

300g cooked pumpkin or squash, mashed
150g buckwheat flour
5-6 sage leaves, finely shredded
2 tsps baking powder
1 tsp fine sea salt
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
¼ tsp nutmeg
260ml buttermilk
4 tbsp melted butter, cooled 
1 egg and 1 egg yolk

Some oil for frying

Mix together the first seven ingredients in a bowl until well blended. Make a well in the middle. Whisk together the remaining three ingredients in a jug. Pour the buttermilk mixture into the pumpkin mixture, stirring as you go until just combined.

Warm a splash of oil into a non-stick frying pan and warm over a medium-high heat. Spoon small ladelfuls of the batter into the frying pan – you will probably need to do this in batches. Cook each pancake for about 3-4 minutes per side, until golden and cooked through. Keep the first batch warm while you cook the rest of the mixture.

Serve immediately, with eggs, sausages, bacon, whatever you like for breakfast.

I give you this on one condition…

Mon petit potimarron.

I will only share this recipe with you on condition you do not use wretched leftover Hallowe’en pumpkin to make it. Yes, I know the world is noisy with magazines and papers and websites telling you, coaxing you, pleading with you – practically ordering you – to use this pitiful gourd in soups, cakes, curries and stir fries right now. But don’t. You’re better than that. Pumpkin ‘Jack of All Trades’, for it often he, is but tasteless, watery misery. His finest hour came when you shoved a candle into its sticky orifice and lit it. Let him go.

Instead, use practically any other small pumpkin or squash. I used a small, heavy potimarron (this would be an excellent name for a proud but accident prone dog), often sold as uchiki kuri or onion squash in England. Crown Prince or butternut squash would also be excellent.

A trip to Pézenas market
Across the vines to the oyster sheds and the sea.

So many beautiful mushrooms.

Gorgeous pink garlic.

If I were ever to be a princess, I would dearly love to be Princess Potato.

There has to be something wonderful about a region that has famous turnips. That’s my kind of celebrity obsession.

I love the colourful Chinese cushions and bedspreads you find on market stalls here. Their bright patterns remind me a little of traditional Provençal prints.

Pumpkin, mushroom and chard gratin
Serve hot, with a salad.

Remember, I’m on holiday so I’ve neither the inclination nor the equipment to weigh anything. These are approximate measurements but I’m pretty good at guessing. Just make sure you have enough crème fraiche mixture to lightly coat the vegetables and enough cheese to cover the top well and you’ll be fine

Serves 4-8, depending on whether it’s the main event or a side dish.

Butter, about 80g
About 600g prepared weight of pumpkin, a good-sized bowlful, peeled, deseeded and cut into cubes of about 1.5cm square
1 medium-large onion, diced
A couple of sprigs of thyme if you have them
The leaves from 2-3 pieces of chard (reserve the white part for another dish), shredded
A couple of handfuls of mushrooms, wiped clean, any tough ends trimmed, and larger ones halved
2 garlic cloves, minced
Some crème fraîche, about 250g
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 tsps Dijon mustard
About ½ tsp freshly ground nutmeg
About 140g gruyère cheese, coarsely grated
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Melt a generous knob of butter in a large frying pan over a medium heat. Add the pumpkin, onion, thyme if using, and some salt and pepper and sauté, partially covered and stirring from time to time, until the pumpkin is softened but still holds its shape. This should take about 20 minutes. Stir in the chard and stir until just wilted. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 190°C/170°C Fan/Gas 5. Butter a large gratin dish or Pyrex dish.

In a separate frying pan, warm another generous chunk of butter over a medium-high heat and when it stops foaming, toss in the mushrooms and a generous pinch of salt. Cook until a lot of their moisture has evaporated and they start to take on some colour. Add the garlic, fry for a further minute and remove from the heat.

In a bowl, beat together the crème fraîche, eggs, mustard and nutmeg. Season well with salt and pepper. Tip the pumpkin mixture into the gratin dish (remove the thyme sprigs if you’re using them) and scatter the mushrooms on top. Pour the crème fraiche mixture over evenly and give the dish a shake and a tap on the table to distribute the liquid evenly. Scatter the gruyère on top. Bake for about 30-35 minutes, until the mixture is bubbling and golden brown on top. Serve hot, with a green salad and some bread.

Pour on the crème fraiche mixture evenly.

Scatter on the cheese.

Remove from the oven when golden and bubbling.

All change


A nice, neat plait of violet garlic, which cost a satisfying €5.

Here’s the thing. As soon as I arrive in France, I transfer a credit card and some nice, crisp Euro notes from my large, London wallet to my small, zipped holiday purse. Within an hour of running about to buy fruit and yoghurt, loo paper, bottles of wine and water, and stopping to refuel with coffee, rosé or Ricard, with a reasonable aim and a little luck that little purse could take out a rhino. It weighs as much as a brick.

I suffer from a fear of change. Not merely an antipathy for altering circumstance (though I confess that I was embarrassingly tearful when our beloved hardware shop closed), but a fear of change, monnaie, coin.

I’ll be standing in a queue with my shopping basket, hopeful that this time I’ll make it, this time I will be able to suffer the patient or impatient gazes of the greengrocer, supermarket checkout man, lady in the newspaper shop, queue of locals snaking along behind me, for long enough to count out €2.87, €4.26 or €1.42. And in this fantasy of coin-based confidence, I will be able to perform these mathematical gymnastics without having to dig my glasses out of the very last, most secret and difficult-to-access compartment in my handbag. Ta da! Watch the amazing counting lady, marvel at her fearlessness.

Let’s forget for a minute the one, two and five cent coppery pieces, which surely must cost more to manufacture than they’re worth (Tip: they make excellent curtain weights). It’s the brassy 10, 20 and 50 cent pieces that push my queuing anxiety into overdrive. They’re of an almost identical size and colour and yes, yes, I know there is some tricksy system of grooves around the edge, a half-arsed attempt to help you to distinguish one from another, but really? Enough of this coin-based parlour game. Europe, please could you be the change I wish to see in the world and make the coins substantially different from one another? Perhaps cover the tens in glitter, make the twenties into a flower shape, the fifties play a happy tune (I suggest Ode to Joy is something we could all get behind)?

Until then, I have two choices. One, take on the habit of the very, very young or the very, very old – fill my hand with change and rely on the kindness, patience and honesty of strangers to pick out what the need. Two, my preferred method, just drag out another note and hope for the best. This works, but like all forms of instant gratification, there’s a price. In this case, a little zippy purse overflowing with a pirate’s ransom of coins.

The other day my mother, who is quite terrifyingly clever, said ‘Oh, I’ve cracked that.
‘What, what?’ I asked, excited over what was no doubt a terrifyingly clever solution.
‘I keep all of my notes in my wallet and five euro coins in my pocket,’ she said.
‘And what about all of the small change?’ I said.
‘That? I just leave all that on my dresser.’
Sometimes Terrifyingly Clever is no help at all.

Roasted garlic


Roasted garlic. Simply squeeze the softened cloves onto pieces of bread. So good. Don’t forget to mop up the cooking juices with more bread too.

I was very excited to buy plaits of garlic – rose garlic, violet garlic, regular garlic – from the stall in Agde market on my last trip, not just because it’s delicious, but also because they cost a nice, round €5 each. No change.

Roasting whole heads of garlic is so easy and it makes a good starter or easy lunch with some salad and bread.

Per person:
a whole head of garlic, unpeeled but outer papery layer removed
a splash of white wine
a small bay leaf
a sprig or two of thyme or lemon thyme
a knob of butter and/or a splash of olive oil
some salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 180°C/Gas 4.


Place a small bay leaf, some thyme, a splash of oil and a bit of white wine into the bottom of a small dish. Put a head of garlic on top. Place a knob of butter on top of the garlic or trickle on a little more olive oil. Sprinkle on some salt and pepper. Seal tightly with foil. (My little dishes have lids, so I bung these on top too. Belt and braces.) You can also do quite a few heads of garlic all together in one dish, of course, just make sure you cover it tightly with foil.

Bake for about 50 minutes to an hour, depending on the size of the cloves. The flesh should be very tender indeed when pierced with a small, sharp knife. If it’s not soft enough, just put it back into the oven for a bit and check again every 5 minutes or so. Remove the foil and lid if your dish has one, and return to the oven for a further 15 minutes. Serve hot.


I love the papery skins.

Welcome Home Breakfast Eggs


I spent most of the summer, with a little back and forth, in south west France. You’d think a person couldn’t live on oysters, peaches and rosé alone but I’m here to tell you if you try very hard and put in the hours, you really can. As delightful as that sounds and, hell, is, I miss Hackney – my dearest, dirty, cranky and sometimes just plain weird belovèd – when we’re apart too long. I miss being able to eat lunch whenever you want, a petition on every counter and a pop-up on every corner, I miss the bearded boys and the tattooed girls and being able to buy five different kinds of anything you want at midnight.

And I definitely miss Turkish food. When I come home, I like to have breakfast at one of the many cafés on Stoke Newington High Street. In summer, I’ll take the trad plate of olives, feta, tomatoes, cucumber, tomato, boiled egg and simit bread with honey. Around about now, I choose menemen, a combination of hot peppers, tomatoes and chillies with scrambled eggs.

Even on cold days, I sit at a pavement table. This isn’t just because I usually have my dog with me, but because it’s all the better to watch the neighbourhood theatre: the boys in the barbers’ having precise and elaborate patterns shaved into their hair, skateboarders whizzing past (cue Barney: ‘BARK BARK BARK’), young couples with buggies, old ladies wheeling bags of laundry, the women in the flower shop arranging their pavement display and old men absent-mindedly working colourful tesbih, or worry beads, through their fingers. If I’m really lucky, I might see a Turkish wedding – so much mascara, so much hair, so much satin, so many metres of ribbon looped into festive decoration on newly-polished cars.

This weekend, as I sat over my breakfast menemen, I thought about how I always feel more inclined to make new resolutions in autumn than I do in the dreary milk-thistle-laced days of January. I may not have name tapes, new socks and sharpened pencils but I have new ideas and intentions. One of these is to post more here about my favourite things: daily life here in east London and all of the time I spend in France. I hope you’ll come along with me, jump in, comment, and tell me about some of your own favourite things. I’d love to hear about them.

Autumn in East London

Graffiti in Abbot Street, Hackney.

Tree with a hole in it, Clissold Park.

The beginning of the football season, Emirates Stadium, when we still dare to hope.

Chillies, autumn flowers and leaves in the kitchen.

Yellows and Golds at Columbia Road Market

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Yellow mums.

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Chinese lanterns.

Turkish Breakfast Eggs


You can add spicy sausage or bacon to this if you like. You can also poach the eggs in the sauce rather than scramble them. You sometimes see this described as menemen, but it’s really shakshouka. If you’d like to make a poached version, make small wells in the thick sauce with the back of a spoon, tip an egg into each well and put a lid on the pan for a few minutes until the whites are just set.

1 tablespoon olive oil
A knob of butter
2 red onions, halved and finely sliced
2 red peppers, halved, cored, deseeded and sliced (it’s more usual to use a combination of red and green, but red its what I had and I prefer it anyway)
3 garlic cloves, finely grated
1 red chilli, finely chopped – leave in the seeds and membrane if you like a little heat
4 large, ripe tomatoes, cored and finely diced – don’t bother to skin or deseed them
A good pinch of sugar
Some chilli flakes (optional)
4 eggs, seasoned and lightly beaten
A small handful of parsley, tough stalks removed and chopped
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

Warm the olive oil and butter in a frying pan approximately 20cm diameter over a medium heat until the butter has melted and stopped foaming. Add the onion, peppers, garlic, chilli and a pinch of salt and fry, stirring from time to time, until everything is softened. This should take about 10 minutes.

Add the tomatoes and sugar. Stir and continue to cook, stirring from time to time, until the mixture is thickened – you want it to be rich, and not watery at all. Taste, season and add a pinch or two of chilli flakes if it’s not fiery enough for you.

Season the eggs with salt and pepper and pour them onto the vegetables. Don’t stir them at this point. You want them to set a little before you stir them into the eggs. At the last minute, just before serving, give everything a brief stir, scatter with parsley and eat with bread.