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.

Anna
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.

Northern tart

Cheese and onion tart

This is a taste of my northern childhood. At birthday parties, church fêtes and cricket teas, cheese and onion tart held its own on tables crowded with sausages on sticks, mushroom vol-au-vents, egg sandwiches and butterfly cakes. It was almost as essential to weddings, christenings and funerals as the minister.

It probably also appeared as part of the feast (spread, they would have said spread) at my great-aunt Dolly and great-uncle Jos’s diamond wedding anniversary, the one where uncle Jos sang Danny Boy to a misty-eyed crowd in the sitting room while Auntie Dolly shuffled me into the kitchen, placed her hands on her Spirella-corseted, Windsmoor-clad hips and told me ‘Never get married, Debora, never get married,’ while sipping neat gin, no ice, out of a heavy crystal tumbler.

Well I did get married, though with no cheese and onion tart to mark our nuptials I hope it’s legal. But I have continued to make it for lunches, afternoon teas and picnics ever since, so hopefully that counts for something.

The tart you see here is a little different from the one of my childhood. I’ve acquired some fancy London ways since then. I add crème fraîche to the pastry which makes it deliciously short and flaky. I sauté the onions with thyme – I’m quite sure I was into my second decade before I met a fresh herb. And I cook the onions down until they’re really, really soft, not almost raw as was often the case in the original. I’ve added some bacon to the recipe here, though you can leave it out if you wish – just add a bit more butter to the sautéing onions.

Cheese and onion tart

In the tray, cooling....

For the pastry:

240g plain flour
120g unsalted butter
Good pinch of salt
2 tbsp crème fraîche
About 2-3tbsp iced water

For the filling:

3 rashers back bacon, cut into thin strips
3 onions, finely diced
¼ – ½ tsp fresh thyme leaves
150g Cheddar cheese, grated
3 eggs and 2 egg yolks, lightly beaten
100ml whole milk or single cream
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 190°C/375°F/Gas Mark 5.

Put the flour, butter and salt into a food processor and pulse briefly a few times – you still want little, pea-sized pieces of butter in the mix. Add the crème fraîche and pulse a few more times. Turn it out into a bowl and add the water a little at a time, stirring gently with your hands or a knife to bring it together into a ball – you may not need all of the water. Press it gently into a disc, wrap in cling film and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

Butter a loose-bottomed flan tin and dust it with flour. Turn out the pastry onto a lightly floured surface and roll out. Line the flan tin with the pastry, letting the excess hang over the sides, and place on a baking tray. Prick the base and sides with a fork. Line with baking parchment filled with baking beans, dried pulses or uncooked rice and bake for 15 minutes. Remove the paper and baking beans. Brush some of the beaten egg over the base and put it back into the oven for eight minutes (see COOK’S TIP). Reduce the oven temperature to 170°C/325°F/Gas Mark 3.

Trim off the excess pastry with a sharp knife.

While the tart shell is cooking, make the filling. Warm the butter in a large frying pan over a medium-high heat and fry the bacon until just turning crisp. Remove to a bowl. Reduce the heat to medium-low and sweat the onions with the thyme and a pinch of salt, stirring from time to time, until very soft, pulpy and translucent – you want them to reduce in volume by about half. Add them to the bowl with the bacon and cool slightly. Mix in two thirds of the cheese. Mix the milk or cream with the lightly beaten eggs and then combine with the bacon, onions and cheese. Season with salt and pepper and pour into the tart shell. Scatter the remaining cheese over the top and bake for 30 minutes until the tart is golden.

Lovely cold too

COOK’S TIP

Recipes often give quite short cooking times for blind baking tart shells. You want the base to be completely cooked to prevent the horror of a soggy bottom, so cook it for as long as it needs, whatever the instructions say. Also, a tip I picked up from Gill Meller, the entirely wonderful Head Chef at River Cottage , is to prick the sides of the tart as well as the base before you cook it.

Taking the lead

Carrot Cake

A dog gives you a great excuse to play truant while appearing to be busy. At 3pm, the sky cleared, looked blue for the first time in days. I grabbed the lead and took Barney for a walk in the cemetery. For his benefit, right? Not to get away from teetering piles of paper on my desk, books that defy shelving, the list of phone calls, the conked out dryer, the leaking washing machine and the problem of what to do about the vanished accountant.

Through the Egyptian gates, the air is heavy, damp. Barney weaves his own eightsome reel through the dripping nettles and worn tombstones. There is a sweet smell of rotting leaves, faintly spicy like gingerbread.

I have never seen a hound look quite as pathetic as mine does when wet. Fur sticks out in uneven clumps. His legs look spindly, his eyes huge, pleading. He could head up a Dogs’ Trust campaign. The hardest of hearts would read in his soft brown eyes a life tied to a lamppost, abandoned, not one of tweed-lined baskets, woollen blankets and organic dog food.

Barney

We get home and he runs along the hallway rubbing his head and body against the skirting as if possessed, a foxy little dervish drying himself on the carefully chosen Farrow & Ball (can it be long before Dirty Dog nestles on the paint chart between Mouse’s Back, Cat’s Paw, Dead Salmon and Pigeon?).

I make a cake. Barney sits on his favourite chair, the one that’s so tatty my friend’s eight-year-old daughter asked, worried, ‘What’s wrong with it?’. It’s been a busy afternoon.

CARROT AND WALNUT CAKE

Carrot & Walnut Cake

I created this recipe a couple of years ago for my friend Mark Diacono’s book, River Cottage Handbook No4 Veg . It’s not very refined, in the manner of grandly iced carrot cakes, but nor is it tiresomely worthy like those annoying confections whose highest ambition is to form one of you five a day. It’s spicy and rich and keeps very well for up to a week in a tin. Serve it warm as a pudding with a generous spoonful of crème fraiche, or cold anytime.

Either make your own apple sauce by simmering peeled, cored Bramley apples with a little water until light and fluffy or use good-quality ready made.

Makes 12 squares

80g sultanas
A slug of apple brandy or cognac (optional)
Knob of butter, softened, for greasing the tin
220g wholemeal self-raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground ginger
½ tsp salt
Good pinch of ground cloves
Pinch of ground cardamom (optional)
220g light muscovado sugar, plus an extra 3 tbsps for the syrup
120ml sunflower oil
Finely grated zest and juice of a large orange
2 eggs, lightly beaten
225g apple sauce
270g carrots, peeled and coarsely grated
80g walnuts, roughly chopped
1 tbsp lemon juice

Preheat the oven to 170C/Gas mark 3. Put the sultanas in a small bowl, pour on hot water to cover and leave to soak for 20 minutes or so. You can add a slug of apple brandy or cognac at this point if you like.

Lightly grease a loose-bottomed 20-22cm square cake tin, about 8cm deep. Line the base with greaseproof paper and butter the paper. Sift together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, salt, cloves and cardamom if using.

In a large bowl, whisk together the 220g of light muscovado sugar, oil and orange zest until well combined, then whisk in the eggs until the mixture is creamy. Fold in the apple sauce, followed by the flour mixture until just combined. Next fold in the grated carrots and walnuts. Finally, drain the sultanas and fold these in.

Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin and smooth the surface with a spatula. Bake for about 1 ¼ hours, until a fine skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean, without any crumbs clinging to it. If the cake appears to be overbrowning before it is done, cover the top loosely with foil.

While the cake is in the oven, make the syrup. Put the orange juice into a small pan with the 3tbsps of light muscovado sugar and 1 tbsp lemon juice. Warm over a low heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves, then increase the heat and simmer until slightly syrupy, about 4-5 minutes.

As you remove the cake from the oven, run a knife around the edge and pierce the top a few times with a fine skewer. Now pour over the syrup, trying to make sure that you cover the surface fairly evenly. Stand the cake tin on a wire rack and leave to cool for a while before cutting into squares.

French fries

All present and correct

Well the sun came out and, in the fickle way of holiday makers everywhere, I’m grateful for the house’s fortress-like basalt walls which keep the rooms shady and cool. Even on the brightest days, inside you need to turn on a light to read.

June is one of the happiest and most delicious of months in Adge. The market is full of peas and peaches, melons, tomatoes and cherries, everything du region. At one of my favourite stalls, a young man was selling courgette flowers. I bought all he had, about twenty or so, and from another stall enough soft goat’s cheese to stuff them.

Stuffed courgette flowers

Golden and ready to eat

Forgive me, TS Eliot, for saying that I measure out my life in measuring spoons. Quarter of a teaspoon, half a teaspoon, a teaspoon; half a tablespoon, a tablespoon. When I’m developing recipes, accuracy is everything. Measure and measure again. So when I’m on holiday, one of the purest of pleasures for me is to scatter, toss, fling ingredients around with a recklessness that would get me fired in my real life. Here, it just gets me fired up. So you need to forgive me, too, for having no proper measurements in this recipe. But hey, you’re a clever sort, you can figure it out.

Courgette flowers
Soft goat’s cheese
A cup of plain flour
Sparkling mineral water, chilled
Salt
An ice cube
Sunflower or groundnut oil for frying

Carefully peel back the petals of the courgette flowers and remove the stamens. Take a bit of soft goat’s cheese (I was going to say about a teaspoonful, but we’re doing this freestyle, no measuring aren’t we?) and tuck it inside each flower, twisting the petals to close around the cheese.

Stuff carefully

Pour about 10cm of oil into a heavy-bottomed, deep pan. It shouldn’t come more than a third of the way up the sides. Heat up the oil until it measures 180˚C on a thermometer, or, as we’re on holiday, a cube of bread turns golden in just less than a minute.

While it’s heating up, make the batter. In a bowl, mix the flour with a good pinch of salt and enough mineral water to give it the consistency of double cream. I like to throw in an ice cube too, to ensure it’s extra cold. When the fat is hot enough, dip the flowers by their stems into the batter and then carefully drop them into the oil. Don’t crowd the pan – in mine, I can cook about four at a time – and cook until golden, about 3-4 minutes. Scoop the cooked flowers out of the oil with tongs or a spider and leave to drain on kitchen paper while you cook the rest. Serve immediately, sprinkled with a little salt.

Smart as a carrot

Carrot Halwa seved with Ice Cream

My dad is the sweetest man, kind to his bones, but like lots of northern men of his generation, he can be a little short on the compliments (‘Don’t be daft.’) So it’s rather marvellous when your appearance garners his greatest accolade ‘smart as a carrot’. I’ve no idea where this phrase comes from, though I’ve never heard it outside of my native north east. What I do know, with absolute certainty, is that you don’t want to be its antithesis: ‘a bag of tripe’. When I was a kid, my dad’s Saturday afternoon treat while he listened to the football results was a bowl of tripe with vinegar. I used to think it looked like a crumpled heap of greying laundry. This isn’t usually what I’m aiming for when I leave the house.

Today’s smart as a carrot dish comes from Karuna, who works with Séan. When I’m testing recipes, a church fête’s worth of cakes, biscuits and tarts can come out of the Lickedspoon kitchen. It would be impossible for us to eat them all, so I take some of them to the park and the rest Séan takes with him to the office. They are a very good tasting panel. I get notes: too sweet, not sweet enough, too many nuts, or too few, love the coconut, hate it. I’m grateful for the feedback, but I’m thrilled to get my hands on this recipe. Several of you commented on the White Chocolate Cake saying you love cardamom, so I hope this appeals to you too.

Next week, tripe… Maybe.

Recipe all written out Karuna’s recipe, such neat writing, such a messy fridge.

Carrot Halwa

Served with gold-leaf!

I didn’t have jaggery (and, shamefully, couldn’t peel myself out of the kitchen, walk around the corner and buy some) so I used molasses sugar. It meant my halwa ended up quite dark. I also got a bit distracted and let it simmer a little too long, so it was very thick and intensely fudgy. No matter, I just sprinkled on a little gold leaf and it was delicious with the ice cream. But, note to self, next time jaggery and pay attention.

Serves 6-8

450g carrots, peeled and sliced
280ml semi skimmed or whole milk
280ml double cream
4tbsp shelled, unsalted pistachios
225g jaggery, raw sugar or molasses sugar
55g granulated sugar
10-15 cardamom seeds
½ tsp fennel seeds
200g ground almonds
4 tbsp ghee or clarified butter
4 tbsp almond pins

The ingredients

Put the carrots, milk and cream in a saucepan. Bring to the boil and stir well. Reduce the heat to a simmer and simmer for an hour, stirring occasionally, until the mixture has reduced to half the volume and has become thick and heavy.

Carrots away Carrots boiled in cream.

Molasses in Adding the molasses sugar.

While the carrots are cooking, roast the pistachios in the oven at 180˚C/350˚F/Gas mark 4 until just fragrant, about 8 minutes.

Put both sugars into the carrot mixture, stir to dissolve and simmer for 10 minutes.

With a small, sharp knife, halve the cardamom pods and remove the seeds. Discard the shells. Grind the cardamom and fennel seeds in a pestle and mortar, or in a bowl with the end of a rolling pin, until fine.

Reduce the heat under the carrot mixture and add the ground almonds and ghee or clarified butter. Stir for about 10 minutes until the halva starts to pull together into a solid mixture. Stir in the ground cardamom and fennel.

Serve in dishes at room temperature, or straight from the hob, with cream, ice cream or kulfi. Garnish with the toasted pistachios and almond pins.