Sunshine in Winter


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Tooolips

My friend Laetitia came to lunch last week. On a cold and blustery day, she brought the sunshine with her in the form of a huge bunch of orange tulips. I’m afraid we call them tooolips, in recognition of our shared devotion to Ina Garten. Ina often uses them to adorn the table when entertaining her fabulous coterie of East Hampton decorators, cooks and party planners. They add a jolt of colour without requiring Constance-Spry-level flower arranging skills. As Ina would say, ‘How easy is that?’.

Laetitia and I spent a happy few hours laughing and chatting and talking about books and gardens, over a lunch of soup, salad and cake. In the middle of the week it felt indulgent, like playing truant from a life ruled by deadlines. It brought a bit of the weekend into the weekday, which is always a good thing.

 

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Cos, red amaranth, feta and toasted pumpkin salad.

If you love your garden, or would like to learn to love your garden, you should really have a bit of Laetitia in your life too. Her books, The Virgin Gardener and Sweetpeas for Summer are full of simple and beautiful ideas for transforming your outside space, and for bringing some of the outdoors indoors too. She’s that precious combination of practical and funny, honest and inspiring. She brings the sunshine with her, and in February we could all do with a little bit of that.

Ham Hock and Cannellini Bean Soup

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I love a ham hock. It’s one of the cheapest pieces of meat you can buy and is enormously versatile. Boil it, roast it, toss it in salads or sandwiches, use it in pasta dishes or pies, or shred it and add it to soups like this one.

Serves 6

For the ham hock:

1 ham hock
A bouquet garni of 2 parsley stalks, a couple of sprigs of thyme and a bay leaf tied together with kitchen string
¼ tsp black peppercorns


For the soup:

A generous knob of butter or couple of tablespoons of olive oil
2 onions, halved and thinly sliced
1 bay leaf
A sprig of thyme
2 medium-sized carrots, diced
1 medium-sized leek, halved lengthways, rinsed well and finely sliced
1 celery stick, finely diced
A few mushrooms, thinly sliced, optional
2 garlic cloves, minced
1x400g tin cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
About 1.3l ham cooking liquid
About 250g cooked ham
A small bunch of parsley, tough stalks removed and roughly chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper


To serve:

Extra virgin olive oil
Shavings of Parmesan

Place the ham hock in a large pan of cold water and leave to soak overnight. Drain and rinse. Place the hock in a pan with enough cold water to cover, the bouquet garni and peppercorns. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer gently for about 1 ½ hours until the meat is tender and pulling away from the bone, skimming off the scum from time to time. Strain, reserving the stock, and when it’s cool enough to handle, shred about 250g of the hock into large-ish chunks.

Melt the butter or warm the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over a medium-low heat and gently cook the onions with the bay leaf and thyme until the onions are soft and translucent, about 15 minutes. They shouldn’t take on any colour. Add the carrots, leek, celery and mushrooms if using and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes. Add the garlic, beans and ham and stir for a further minute. Pour in about 1.3 litres of the ham stock, bring to a simmer and cook for about 15 minutes. Remove from the heat, taste and add some grinds of black pepper. You probably won’t need to add salt as the ham itself is quite salty. Stir in the parsley. Serve in warmed bowls with a trickle of olive oil and some Parmesan shavings over the top.

Perfectly purple in every way

Prosperosa Aubergines & Purple fruits

You know I’m very easily led. I went into Stoke Newington Green on my way back from the park to pick up some lemons and within five minutes had a basket full. ‘I only came in for lemons,’ I said to the young Turkish man behind the counter. He smiled.
“Everybody does that, comes in for one thing, ends up with a lot more.”

Right by the counter (again, my downfall at the counter) was a box of round aubergines, labelled Rosa Bianca though to me they looked more like Prosperosa. With glossy, deep violet skins, these fat beauties are the most gorgeous aubergines of all. Their flesh is creamy and rich, with none of that mashed-tea bitterness that some aubergines have. Use them just as you would a normal aubergine in baba ganoush, ratatouille, or in thick slices on the grill. Or try this pretty salad. It really is enough for two but I’m afraid I ate it all myself.

Roasted aubergine and garlic salad

Roasted aubergine and garlic salad

Serves 2

1 large prosperosa or rosa bianca aubergine, or 2 ordinary aubergines
8-10 cloves of garlic
3-4 tbsp olive oil
¼ – ½ tsp chilli flakes
A few bay leaves
A few sprigs of thyme
70g pine nuts
Some pomegranate seeds, optional
A small bunch of coriander, tough stalks removed and roughly chopped
1 small red chilli, halved, seeds and membrane removed and diced
1 tsp pomegranate molasses, optional (if not using, a few wedges of lemon instead)

Flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


Yoghurt sauce

2 tbsp greek yoghurt
1 tbsp tahini
Pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 6.

Cut the aubergine/s into large wedges. Peel a few cloves of garlic. If they’re large, cut lengthways into quarters; if small, halve them. Use a small, sharp knife to cut into the fleshiest part of each aubergine wedge and push a piece of garlic into each little pocket. Bash the rest of the cloves to break the skin but don’t peel them.

Prosperosa Aubergines

Toss the aubergines in a large roasting tin with the olive oil until they’re well coated. Add the whole garlic cloves, chilli flakes, bay leaves and thyme, season well with salt and pepper and toss again. Roast in the oven until the aubergines are soft, golden and starting to char a bit around the edges, rattling the pan from time to time. This should take about 35-40 minutes.

While the aubergines are roasting, warm a dry frying pan over a medium heat and toast the pine nuts, rattling the pan to make sure they don’t burn.

Make the yoghurt sauce by whisking together the tahini, yoghurt and salt and thinning it to the consistency of single cream with a splash of hot water from the kettle.

When the aubergines are ready, remove the bay leaves and thyme. Toss the aubergines and whole garlic cloves in a large bowl with the pine nuts, pomegranate seeds if using, coriander, mint and fresh chilli. Season with a little more salt and pepper if you like. Spoon onto a platter and trickle over the pomegranate molasses or lemon juice and the yoghurt sauce. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Aubergine Salad

A fine pickle

Salted Vegetables
Salted vegetables, ready to be transformed into piccalilli.

For months now, a certain woman has followed me all over London. I don’t mean literally. There is no stalker skulking at the end of the path, unless you count that rather severe-looking woman with a bun and sensible shoes I see every morning by the bus stop, but then she’s probably just on her way to work.

No, I mean Anna Colquhoun. When I took his garden design course earlier in the year, Andrew said to me ‘Do you know Anna, she has a pizza oven in her garden?’ As we walked our dogs around Clissold Park, my friend Karen would describe to me a series of amazing preserving courses she took every quarter in a pretty house right by the Arsenal stadium. At parties, with remarkable frequency, people would ask me if I knew her.

So when Riverford invited me to a cooking class to promote their pickling kits, I was delighted to discover it was just a short distance from my house, at the home of the fabled Anna who is also Riverford’s preserving expert.

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Anna strains the apples for the sage jelly.

Half a dozen of us gathered in Anna’s kitchen to throw ourselves into the fine art of preserving, fuelled by wine and good ham. A self-confessed ‘food nerd’,  Anna imparts her wisdom with great charm and enthusiasm. We chopped and stirred, measured and sniffed, and watched carefully for the sage and garlic  jelly to reach its setting point. We made a fine green tomato chutney and, most excitingly for me, the best piccalilli I’ve ever tasted.

Tomato Chutney
Green tomato chutney

Sage and apple jelly
Sage and apple jelly

Piccalilli has a special place in my heart. It’s one of the few things I can remember my grandmother making. Every autumn, she would patiently chop up the produce from my Uncle Jos’s allotment and steam up the kitchen with the spicy aroma of vinegar, ginger and mustard. As a child, I marvelled at its eye-shocking yellowness. Barbara’s piccalilli perked up many a northern Sunday tea, sitting alongside wedges of pork pie or slabs of ham.

I hope the late and indomitable Barbara will forgive me, but Anna’s piccalilli is even better than hers. It’s hot, which I like, but also she chops the vegetables much smaller than usual. I would be perfectly happy to eat it greedily with a spoon, which is exactly what I plan to do when this batch is ready in a week or so. Patience, Debora, patience.

Book one of Anna’s fantastic, hands-on, cooking classes.

Check out Riverford’s  excellent, extensive range of produce.

Anna Colquhoun’s Amazing Piccalilli

jarred up piccalilli
The end of a delicious evening.

This is a hot piccalilli. You can use more or less spice, simply adjust it to your taste.

Makes 7-8 450g jars

2kg prepared vegetables: choose a colourful mix of cucumbers, carrots, onions/shallots, courgettes/marrows, bell peppers, cauliflowers, green beans, green tomatoes, sweetcorn kernels

About 8 tbsp fine pure salt
1050ml cider vinegar, white wine vinegar or malt vinegar
400g white granulated sugar
1tbsp coriander seeds, crushed
1 tbsp cumin seeds, crushed
1 tbsp celery seeds
2 tbsp yellow mustard seeds
40g cornflour, or 60g plain flour
2tbsp mustard powder
1tbsp turmeric
1tbsp powdered ginger

Cut all of the vegetables into matching 1cm dice, or larger if you prefer. You should have 2kg prepared weight. Layer them in a big bowl with the salt and leave for several hours or, preferably, overnight. Don’t skip this step – salting is important for drawing out excess water which would otherwise dilute the pickle. It also ensures the vegetables retain their crunch.

Place your clean jars in the oven and turn it on to 140˚C/275˚F/Gas mark 1 to sterilise them. Leave the jars in there until needed.

Rinse the vegetables in several changes of cold water and drain very well.

Reserve a little cup of vinegar and place the rest in a large pan with the sugar, coriander, cumin, celery seeds and mustard seeds. Heat to dissolve the sugar and simmer for 5 minutes.

Stir the cornflour, mustard powder, turmeric and ginger into the reserved vinegar to make a paste. Add some hot vinegar to this to loosen it, then pour the paste into the pan, stirring briskly as you go to avoid creating lumps. Simmer for a few minutes, stirring.

Bubbling away
Bubbling away.

Now add the drained vegetables and simmer everything together for 5 minutes, stirring often. Anna likes the vegetables half-cooked, so they retain a little crunch and I do too.

Pack the hot pickles into hot jars, making sure there are no large air pockets, and seal immediately. Wait one month before opening and use within a year. Once opened, store in the fridge.

Consider the squash

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Each year,  the Great Pumpkin rises out of the pumpkin patch that he thinks is the most sincere. He’s gotta pick this one. He’s got to. I don’t see how a pumpkin patch can be more sincere than this one. You can look around and there’s not a sign of hypocrisy. Nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see.

Linus, from It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, 1966

 

I know, I know. At this time of year, pumpkin and squash recipes are splattered all over the internet like spaghetti sauce over a sloppy diner’s shirt. I add to them only because – if I pick up a butternut squash on the way home – I pretty much always have the rest of the ingredients tucked away somewhere in my kitchen and garden.

To be honest, I’d rather call this pumpkin soup. ‘Pumpkin’ sounds round, inviting, friendly. ‘Squash’ sounds well, rather deflating and miserable. But I make it with butternut squash as you can buy them almost everywhere. Crown Prince squash is also delicious if you can get your hands on one.

Every time I enter our local pub quiz, I have a tiny but persistent fear. One day the question ‘What is the difference between a squash and a pumpkin?’ will come up and, as I’m the designated food person on our team, all eyes will fall on me. In my imagination this is how that scenario plays out: I flail about a bit and then draw to my team mates’ attention my outstanding performance in the show tunes section, throwing in some over-exuberant jazz hands as a distraction from my curcurbita-based ignorance. I draw comfort from my friend Mark Diacono’s  description in River Cottage Handbook No 4: Veg Patch

The distinction between pumpkins, squash and gourds is bizarrely vague, and even their botanical names provide little guidance. If it helps, I tend to think that pumpkins are generally orange, gourds and mostly inedible, squash are almost always delicious, So, concentrate on squash for the kitchen, a pumpkin or two for Hallowe’en, and decorative gourds to weird up your plot.’

Eat one, carve one, weird up your plot. Happy autumn!

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Peeled squash and garlic.

Roasted butternut squash and garlic soup

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I adapted Gordon Ramsay’s roasting method from this recipe. Roasting the squash and garlic together gives it a deeper, richer flavour which goes down well with those who sometimes find the sweetness of squash cloying (me).

Serves six

1 large butternut squash
4 tablespoons olive oil
A few sprigs of thyme
6 garlic cloves, unpeeled, 1 halved and the rest bashed to break the skin
1 tsp ground cumin
½ tsp ground coriander
1 small red or green chilli, membrane and seeds removed and finely chopped
2 onions, diced
1 – 1.2 l chicken or vegetable stock

Flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Some feta and fresh coriander or dill to finish

Preheat the oven to 190˚C/gas mark 5.

Halve the squash lengthways and scoop out the seeds. Place them in a roasting tin. Score the flesh with a small, sharp knife and brush with olive oil. Halve one of the garlic cloves and rub the flesh with the garlic then season with salt and pepper. Put the rest of the garlic in the hollows of the squash and scatter over the thyme. Trickle a bit more olive oil over the garlic and put them in the oven. Bake until the flesh is very tender and slightly charred, about 1 hour. A knife should pierce the flesh very easily. Remove from the oven and leave until cool enough to handle.

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While the squash is cooking, warm a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a medium-sized saucepan over a medium-low heat and sauté the onions gently with a pinch of salt until very soft and translucent, stirring from time to time. Don’t let them take on any colour. This should take about 20-30 minutes.

Scoop the flesh out of the squash into a bowl. It should come away very easily, leaving only the papery skin. Make sure you pour the garlicky oil from the squash’s hollows into the bowl into the bowl too. Squeeze the roasted garlic into the bowl with the squash. Discard the garlic skins and thyme.

Add the cumin, coriander and chilli to the onions and stir for a minute or two over a medium heat. Add the squash and garlic and stir well. Add the stock and bring to a simmer. Simmer gently for 15 minutes, remove from the heat and cool slightly. Whizz until smooth in a food processor or blender; you may need to do this in batches. Return to the pan and warm through. Add more salt and pepper if necessary.

Serve in warmed bowls with some crumbled feta and fresh coriander scattered over the top.

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Orage-ously good chicken

Orage-ously good chicken

Agde has been hot – the kind of humid heat that interferes with sleep, melts make up, frizzes hair. On the terrace of the Café Plazza, as tinny, consumptive Peter Gabriel or Police wheezed out from the speakers, locals muttered about ‘un orage’ over tiny cups of coffee and breakfast beers.

Well today the orage came, splashing, running, pelting down from the skies, spilling from the gutters, filling the age-smoothed grooves in the basalt terrace like tiny rockpools. It was a day to remain behind the wooden door.

Rain in Agde

Splashing rain in AgdeRain splashing on the basalt terrace.

Almost the very second we were due to leave London, the car rammed to the rafters with towels and straw hats, proper pillows, paperbacks and favourite knives, the postman delivered a parcel, a birthday present from my sister-in-law. It was Dorie Greenspan’s lovely  Around My French Table. It was my companion throughout our 17 hour journey, especially during the boring bits before you get to Clermont Ferrand where France begins to roll downhill to the south.

I gave the book to my nephew Angus to look at and told him we could make what he liked. He’s going to university in the autumn (biochemistry – what the hell?) and wants to learn to cook a bit. His mother’s from a Spanish Basque family so his heart, appetite and genes lead him to Dorie’s Chicken Basquaise, a colourful jumble of peppers, chillies, tomatoes and chicken, a perfectly sunny dish for an extravagantly rainy day.

Dorie Greenspan’s Chicken basquaise

Chicken basquaise in Agde

If you’re keen on French food, you really need to buy Dorie Greenspan’s book. Probably today, if it’s not too much trouble. In her introduction, she says ‘This is elbows-on-the-table food, dishes you don’t need a Grand Diplôme from Le Cordon Bleu to make’. ‘Elbows-on-the-table food’ is a pretty good description of the food I love and so many of my favourites are here, a whole banquet of rillettes, gratins, daubes and gougères, but also couscous and tagines, escabeches and ceviches, reflecting France’s more recent influences and passions.

Around My French Table is the kind of book you want to work your way through, devouring every carefully, cheerfully, deliciously constructed recipe. The recipes use American measurements, but you can buy cup measures all over the place now so that’s hardly an obstacle to enjoyment.

Serves four

For the pipérade:

2 big Spanish or Vidalia onions
3 tablespoons olive oil
4 green peppers, peeled if you like
2 red peppers, peeled if you like
3 mild chillies (or another red pepper)
6 tomatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
2-4 garlic cloves, to taste, split, green germ removed and minced
2 teaspoons sea salt or more to taste
Pinch of sugar
2 thyme sprigs
1 bay leaf
¼ – ½ teaspoon piment d’Esplette or chilli powder
Freshly ground black pepper

For the chicken:

1 large chicken, about 1.8kg, preferably organic, cut into 8 pieces, or 8 chicken thighs, at room temperature
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
¾ cup/190ml dry white wine
White rice, for serving
Minced fresh basil and/or cilantro/coriander, for garnish (optional)

To make the pipérade: Cut the onions in half from top to bottom. Lay each piece flat-side down and cut in half again from top to bottom, stopping just short of the root end: cut each half onion crosswise into thin slices.

Put a Dutch oven or large, high-sided frying pan with a cover over medium heat and pour in 2 tablespoons of oil. Warm the oil for a minute, then toss in the onions and cook, stirring, for 10 minutes, or until softened but not coloured.

Meanwhile, cut the peppers and chillies in half, trim the tops, remove the cores and remove the seeds. Cut the peppers lengthwise into strips about ½ inch/1cm wide. Thinly slice the chillies.

Add the remaining tablespoons of oil to the pot, stir in the peppers and chillies, cover, and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook and stir for another 20 minutes, or until the vegetables are quite soft.

Add the tomatoes, garlic, salt, sugar, thyme, bay leaf, piment d’Esplette or chilli powder, and freshly ground pepper to taste, stir well, cover and cook for 10 minutes more. Remove the cover and let the pipérade simmer for another 15 minutes. You’ll have a fair amount of liquid in the pot, and that’s fine. Remove the thyme and bay leaf. Taste and add more salt, pepper, or piment d’Esplette if you think it needs it.

If you would like to make the pipérade with eggs (see below), use a slotted spoon to transfer 2 cups of the pepper mixture into a bowl. Spoon in a little of the cooking liquid, and refrigerate until needed (you can pack all of the pipérade in an airtight container and keep it refrigerated for up to 4 days).

To make the chicken: Pat the chicken pieces dry. Warm the oil in a Dutch oven or other heavy casserole over a medium-high heat. Add a couple of chicken pieces, skin-side down (don’t crowd the chicken – do this in batches), and cook until the skin is golden, about 5 minutes. Turn the pieces over and cook for another 3 minutes. Transfer the pieces to a bowl, season with salt and pepper, and continue until all of the chicken is browned.

Discard the oil, set the pot over a high heat, pour in the wine, and use a wooden spoon to scrape up any bits that might have stuck to the bottom. Let the wine bubble away until it cooks down to about 2 tablespoons. Return the chicken to the pot, add any juices that have accumulated in the bowl, and spoon in the pipérade. Bring the mixture to the boil, then reduce the heat so that the pipérade just simmers, cover the pot, and simmer gently for 40 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through. Taste for salt and pepper and adjust the seasonings as needed.

Serve over white rice, sprinkled with basil and/or cilantro/coriander, if using.

Pipérade and eggs

Pipérade and Eggs in Agde

The traditional way to make pipérade and eggs is to heat the pipérade, stir beaten eggs into the mixture, and cook until the eggs are scrambled. Inevitably and invariably the egs curdle, but no one (at least no one Basque) seems to mind. If you’d like uncurdled eggs, warm 2 cups of pipérade in a saucepan. Meanwhile beat 6 eggs with a little salt and pepper in a bowl. Heat 2 tablespoons of butter in a large, non-stick pan over a medium heat, and when the bubbles subside, pour in the eggs, Cook the eggs, stirring, until they form soft curds. Spoon the pipérade into four shallow soup plates and, with the back of a spoon, make a little well in the centre of each. Fill each well with some scrambled eggs. Drizzle the eggs and pipérade sparingly with olive oil, dust with minced basil or coriander, if you’d like, and serve immediately, with slices of warm toasted country bread rubbed with garlic and moistened with oil.