Back To School Broccoli

garlicky-broccoliMy eyes are hurting from looking at hundreds of photographs of children in school uniform. It’s Back To School time, when children engage in that September rite of passage: a photograph in the garden/by the front door, wearing a stiff shirt straight from the packet (which smells of polythene) and a pair of shoes which look like black Cornish pasties.

I wonder if it is a British thing, or a place-where-kids-wear-uniform thing. Somehow, photographs of children in casual clothes on their first day at school have less impact. These kids may well be going off to learn something important and become world/industry leaders, but when they are doing so in football shirts and jeans, they just look like children on any old day. Seeing a child in a miniature business suit, or a loud stripy blazer and flannels, or a severe pinafore dress, or itchy pleated kilt and starched blouse, brings home how little they are, and how grown up they are being asked to be -making for a more ‘poignant’ image.

I am hugely in favour of uniform. If I had any discipline whatsoever and weren’t a massively squeamish vegetarian, I might have joined the army: partly because I like weapons and being outside, but mostly because I hate thinking about clothes. I like the levelling effect uniform creates -particularly for school age children. Uniform removes the opportunity for unpleasant and competitive label-watching and associated bullying about money and status.

The return to school brings with it an inevitable string of infectious illnesses, and as the weather has turned unpleasant again, it is probably time to take defensive action. I think garlic is a wonderful winter ingredient and it seems to be something many children like. Broccoli currently has celebrity vegetable status as a superfood and also seems to be one of those vegetables which even quite fussy children will eat.

This very simple Chinese broccoli and garlic dish was one of the most popular with expats when I lived in Beijing. It is quite bland by Chinese standards, has no heat or exotic ingredients but is completely delicious. The sort of expats who would say: “The food in Beijing isn’t like the proper Chinese we get at home” (and plenty of them did, to my great amusement) would wolf down this dish without any complaints -as would my vegetable-dodging children.

Back To School Broccoli

I head broccoli cut into florets.

4 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped

3 tbsp. cooking oil

salt

Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Add 1 tbsp oil and the broccoli and cook for three minutes. Drain in a colander and plunge into a bowl of cold water. Drain again and set aside.

Heat the rest of the oil in a wok over a medium flame. Add the garlic and move it about, being very careful not to let it go brown. After about 45 seconds add the drained broccoli and stir for another 45 seconds to a minute, until hot and evenly covered in the sauce. The little heads of broccoli should be wearing the chopped garlic like dandruff. Season well with salt and taste. Serve immediately.

 

 

 

Green-Eyed Monsters

marrow gratin

This is halfway through the process. I had to stop and take deep, furious breaths before I finished…

 

Envy is a wasteful emotion. It eats into happiness, squanders time and frays relationships.  People become so consumed with envy they describe it wrongly ‘Ooh, I’m so jealous” they say. I am not entirely clear on the difference between these two negative emotions, but I think jealousy implies wishing ill on the person you envy, rather than simply thinking “You lucky beast! I wish I had a Ferrari/toy boy/ the ability to sing like a lark etc.”

I rarely feel envy, as I do consider it a waste of time, but at this time of year it clasps my better nature in an unfortunately firm hold. I am talking about when I encounter certain people. People who can grow courgettes.

I am hopeless at growing any vegetables, unless you count dandelions. I have tried and tried and tried and now accept it is not going to happen. I hide my envy behind a wan smile, as people talk about their garden bounty -but I struggle when they show off. “God, I am awash with courgettes” they say. “I have no idea what to do with them all”. And then, fairly often, they whip out a massive green object the size and shape of a mammoth’s willy. “The thing with courgettes,” they explain, “is that they can hide under one of the gloriously flourishing leaves I have nurtured on my healthy and magnificent plant and then grow to the size of a marrow! I mean what am I going to do with this whopper?”

The answer I give, between gritted teeth, is to make a savoury crumble/gratin -which makes a delicious vegetarian supper dish, or a diverting accompaniment to a meatier main event. I love the flavour of courgettes when they are tiny and sweet, but they still have a pleasant taste and texture when larger and older. Generally I just chop a large courgette into decent chunks and stew it with skinned fresh tomatoes and a jolly good amount of white wine.

If the courgette/marrow has grown really enormous, I tend to remove the skin, as it can be a little bitter and tough -and I might slice it in half lengthways and whip out the seeds while I am at it. I always look at the marrow seeds and fantasise about a day when I might be the one handing over a gargantuan green object to a talentless gardener -but then, with the resignation of someone who recognizes envy to be a poor use of time, I just put them in the bin.

Green-eyed Monster Gratin

1 lb oversized courgettes. If the diameter of the courgette is under three inches -I tend to just top and tail the thing, and cut into chunks. If the diameter is greater, then I peel the courgette, remove the seeds with a spoon, then cut the flesh into anaemic looking pieces. Up to you.

1 sweet white onion

2 lbs tomatoes, skinned, deseeded and chopped finely. You could use a tin of chopped tomatoes-but I really advise using fresh ones for a lovely, summery flavour. Plus -if you are a genius gardener -you are probably fighting your way through a tomato jungle just to get to the courgettes.

1 handful fresh parsley, roughly chopped

1/3 bottle white wine

100g brown breadcrumbs

100g almonds in their skins, chopped in the food processor, until they become fine chunks. (Don’t blitz them into a powder)

2 tbsp. sunflower seeds

Place 2 tbsp. good olive oil into a heavy-based saucepan and heat gently. Add the sweet onion and fry for a couple of minutes. Add the courgette, sweat the mixture until it starts to brown very slightly, then add the chopped tomato. Cook over a low heat, stirring occasionally to make sure nothing catches on the base of the pan, for around 15 minutes. Add the wine and turn the heat up for a minute, while it whooshes and fills the kitchen with steam. Turn it back down to a simmer, add salt, then cook for another five minutes.

Place the breadcrumbs and almonds into a bowl with the dried oregano. Pour over around two tablespoons of olive oil, season with salt and pepper and stir until combined (it should still look like breadcrumbs,  just with a little oily sheen).

When the courgette is cooked, add the chopped parsley, taste and season with pepper, adding more salt if needed.

Pour the courgette mixture into a greased pyrex dish. You want something reasonably deep -think a crumble dish rather than a shallow roasting pan. Top with the breadcrumb and almond mix, sprinkle with sunflower seeds and drizzle the top with a little more olive oil.

Place in a preheated oven 200c, near the top and cook until the breadcrumbs are nicely browned and toasty (around 10-15 minutes)

August Bank Holiday Atonement

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For many people in England, today will be the day they wake, after a weekend of debauchery, to survey the wasteland of their wild actions and impulsive behavior. The August Bank Holiday, home to the Notting Hill Carnival, Reading and Leeds festivals, amongst others, is a traditional weekend to do things one regrets.

However, if you are middle-aged, married, and even worse, have kids, the likelihood is that you are surveying the gnawed and tatty remains of a large roasted animal limb, after having the in-laws over, while wondering what on earth to do with the leftovers. In this warm, sunny weather it feels sensible to make something which can be used for a picnic, before the weather reverts to its normal, hideous cold.

Puff pastry is the solution to many culinary problems, so when I was faced with an enormous amount of leftover lamb leg meat, a couple of roast potatoes and some fine home-grown and home-made mint sauce -it made sense to wrap the whole lot up in small D-shaped parcels and cook them until golden brown. Although this is England, and we have the world famous Cornish Pasty, I decided to give these pasty-like creations a more exotic name -inspired by the empanada. Partly because there are very strict rules governing Cornish Pasties, which my little pies would not meet, and also because “Lambpanada” sounds more fun.

Delicious eaten straight away while hot, or cold as part of a picnic (don’t reheat them, as the meat has been cooked twice -to be sure of no Bank Holiday regrets)

Lambpanadas

The quantities for this recipe depend really on how much lamb meat you have left on your joint. Cut the meat into small cubes and trim away all the skin and fat. Use the choicest pieces and freeze any ropy looking bits for another, less classy recipe. One packet of ready rolled puff pastry will make six lambpanadas -so these quantities will make the filling for six. If you want more or less, as the Americans say: “Do the Math”.

100g roasted lamb meat, trimmed of fat cut into small cubes (slightly smaller than a sugar cube). Leg is best

3 leftover roast potatoes, mashed

2 carrots, peeled and cut into dice

2 handfuls frozen peas, left to defrost

1 crushed garlic clove

1/2 a large Spanish (or other mild) onion, finely chopped

1 tablespoon rosemary leaves, finely chopped

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 egg, beaten

Mint sauce, made from a small bunch of chopped fresh mint leaves (preferably the non-hairy kind -spearmint if you have it),  mixed with a little salt and 1 tablespoon of caster sugar, and then steeped in about 100ml boiling water. When the water is cool, add 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar. If you made mint sauce for the roast, use that -but please don’t use mint jelly. This is easy enough to make and you need the acidity from the vinegar to temper the other flavours.

Put the lamb in a bowl with the garlic, rosemary and a good slug of mint sauce. Stir well and leave to sit.

In another bowl put the mashed potato, carrot, onion, peas and oregano. Season with salt and pepper and cover with another decent slosh of mint sauce. Stir it all together.

Using a cutter or bowl, 5  inches in diameter, cut out circles from the puff pastry sheet. Gather the pastry remnants , then roll them out again to the same thickness and cut more. You should get 6 in total.

Take a spoonful of the vegetable mixture and place it on one half of the pastry circle leaving about 1/2 inch gap from the edge. Top with 1/6 of the meat mixture and then season with salt and pepper. Fold the  unfilled side of the circle over the filling and seal it. Use a fork to crimp the edges and make it look pretty. Brush the finished lambpanadas with beaten egg, then put them on a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper.

Bake in a preheated oven at 180C for about 30-40 minutes, until golden brown. Eat straight away, or leave to cool.

 

 

 

 

 

Handy Shandy Man Cake

 

man cake (2)

The weather in England has been peculiar: roasting hot, humid, with tropical night storms. I blame Brexit. This type of heat is lager shandy weather – too hot to drink pure beer, too exciting for boring old lemonade.

Today, I discovered that the definition of ‘shandy’ is more complicated than a simple beer and lemonade mixture. Shandy (actually short for shandygaff) can be a combination of beer, plus one other soft drink, from a selection which includes, rather disgustingly, apple juice.  I am not wild about beer, but do accept that lager shandy is a fine thing -the sugar and lemon tone down the bitterness of the beer and make a refreshing and delicious drink. However, could we please leave fruit juices out of shandy? The texture, I think, would be quite unpleasant, before we even get to ‘why? Why apple or orange with beer? What is the matter with some people?’ etc.

I was making a cake for Number One Son -who is difficult to bake for, as he only likes lemon-flavoured sweet things. He does, however, like beer very much -so with shandy as my inspiration, I nipped down to Aldi and bought a pack of those small bottles of French lager and started to experiment. This is not the first time I have used a strange alcoholic drink as a patisserie ingredient: I made cupcakes with Guinness as a St Patrick’s Day treat, and, although I can’t bear to drink stout, the cakes turned out fine. I reasoned that lager could be a plausible ingredient in a sponge cake-so I shoved some in the mix, tempered it with honey, added a little treacle sweetness with dark muscovado sugar and used lemon to sharpen up the flavours.

As the cake baked, there was a distinct whiff of beer. The sponge came out well: dusky blonde in colour; perfectly bouncy and squidgy in texture. The flavour was good: the beer added some dark notes and complexity, which countered the fresh, light taste of the lemon. I liked it.

The icing was a definite gamble. I am not fond of layers of buttercream or cream cheese on cakes at the best of times, so the idea of pepping up either of these thick, rich cake toppings with a shot of effervescent lager, did not appeal.  I decided to make a straightforward water icing, just switching the water for lager. To make the icing truly ‘shandy’, I added lemon zest (quite a lot) to the mixture. The icing sugar fizzed like an ominous chemistry project, as I poured the lager in. The surface of the damp icing became pockmarked as the lager worked its magic. Eventually the hissing and sizzling sounds settled down, I gave the icing a good stir and had a taste. Yes, it tasted like very sweet lemony beer -and it smelt lagerish but it was actually delicious.

This is quite a butch-looking cake cake and its laddish lager flavour was a definite hit with the males in my family. The only slightly odd quirk is that when you take the lid off the cake tin, you get a definite waft of pub…

 

Handy Shandy Man Cake

225 g self raising flour

125 g dark muscovado sugar

50g caster sugar

3 tbs non dairy spread

3 eggs

1 tbsp honey

juice and zest of 1 lemon

1 small bottle of lager (those mini French ones are ideal)

2 tbsp. light olive oil

sea salt

Icing sugar

Zest of one more lemon

 

Heat the oven to 180c

Beat the dairy free spread and sugars together until light and creamy. Add the lemon zest, then crack in the eggs, one by one and beat until smooth. Now add the honey and oil and stir briefly before sifting in the flour and a good pinch of sea salt. Fold the flour carefully into the fat and sugar mix.

Pour in half one of those mini bottles of lager (approximately 125 ml) together with the lemon juice. Stir to a smooth consistency.

Grease an 8 inch springform tin (one of those circular baking tins where the bottom pops out). Fill with the mixture and cook for about 30 to 40 minutes until golden brown and nicely firm to the touch. Check that a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean.

Remove from the tin and place on a wire rack to cool.

Make the icing by adding the remains of the lager bottle (not all of it) to a bowl filled with 8 tablespoons of sifted icing sugar, mixed with the zest of one lemon. Add enough lager to create icing with a thick, but not stiff consistency, then pour over the cooled cake. Allow to harden, then get stuck in. Not surprisingly, this cake pairs well with beer.

 

Vegans! Cream Yourselves

cashew cream

 

I do love a buffet. I think most people do. There is a delicious sense of freedom: the selection of dishes available is pleasing and the lack of plating liberating.

‘All-you-can-eat’ buffets are a magnificent opportunity for people-watching, especially buffets held in smart hotels. These events generate very particular stereotypes. Look closely next time you wander through a ‘free-flowing brunch’ or an ‘all-inclusive international  dinner’. It is enormously entertaining.

There is the flagrant ‘Moneysworth’, who builds a potato salad fence around their plate, so they can pile it high with king prawns and smoked salmon and other premium items. The buffet ‘Moneysworth’ is an artist, with the mind of an engineer, the deportment of a tightrope-walker and the steady hand of a neurosurgeon. The piled plate makes it to the table intact, where it is devoured in concentrated silence, before the ‘Moneysworth’ launches another raid. Then there is the ‘Dainty Diner’, hovering around the sashimi and salad, feverishly doing the calorie maths, until pudding, when all restraint goes to pot. The ‘Dainties’ have a special, tiptoeing gait, they mutter to themselves as they dither over lettuce leaves, until finally, their hands swoop onto the table in a nervous, ‘gosh-I-don’t-know-how-to-behave-around-so-much-food’ sort of way. And my favourite of all, the ‘Indiscriminate’, who will dollop curry next to a slice of perfectly rare roast beef, plop a couple of sushi rolls into the gravy and top with a thick slice of brie. Buffets are wonderful, wonderful things.

They are less wonderful if you are a vegan (unless you are at a vegan, all-you-can-eat buffet. If you know where one is, please tell me). Vegans are often stuck with the ‘build-your-own-salad’ option, which is fine, but boring when it comes to dressings. Mayonnaise is out, sour cream is out, blue cheese is out. Oil based dressings are acceptable, but they can be bland and boring. It is the same story with dips – most contain dairy. Yes, avocado based dips are fine, but they always taste so ‘clean-eating’. There is an urgent vacancy for a vegan ‘dirty dip’, so I have been working hard to create one.

Using the aphrodisiac power (and wonderful creamy texture) of the cashew together with the twin citrus freshness of lime and lemon juice -this dip is rich, interesting and versatile: you can change its texture simply by thinning with water. The quantities below will create a thick cream, which is delicious dolloped into a baked potato, or eaten with tortilla chips as a dip. A little runnier, and it makes a good dipping sauce for vegetable fritters. Thin it to the consistency of single cream and it becomes the perfect creamy salad dressing. The only bore is soaking the nuts and having to wait. It keeps for a few days in the fridge -that is, if you don’t eat it all at once…

 

Creamy Vegan Business

1 American measuring cup filled with raw cashews.

juice of one lime

4 tbsp  lemon juice

100 ml water

small bunch coriander

sea salt

Place the cashews in a bowl and cover with an American measuring cupful of water. Soak overnight. Drain the cashews and place in a blender with the other ingredients. Blitz for around 45 seconds until smooth and creamy. Taste and adjust the salt and lemon, if required. Add water, until the dip is the required consistency.

 

The Chinese Do Eat Potatoes.

IMG_1163‘Do the Chinese eat potatoes?’ I asked my husband hopefully, a week or so before moving to Beijing. I had never travelled outside Europe, loathed rice, found politics dull and was ambivalent about pandas. Honestly,  everything I knew about China came from a large 1970’s book with a painting of a dragon on the front, which I read as a child -full of useless facts like: ‘Children in China wear school uniforms just like you’ and, my personal favourite, ‘Chinese babies are born with blue marks on their bottoms’. In short -I was pretty ignorant about the place and I wasn’t overjoyed about moving out there – I knew I would miss my friends and family, and I was worried about what I would be able to eat.

‘They’ve got  McDonald’s’, he answered  ‘but I don’t think they have Chinese potatoes -they probably use American ones’. My husband had spent a summer holiday in Hong Kong the year before I met him -so to me he was a China expert, a Fellow Traveller, an East Anglian Sun Tzu. I was very relieved to hear about McDonald’s and not terribly worried about the provenance of my potatoes -there were potatoes in China and for me, that was good news.

Cursory googling informs me that China is actually the world’s biggest producer of potatoes with an increase over the last thirty years as farmers diversify their crops. The Chinese are also the greatest consumers of potatoes- but that has more to do with their enormous population,  than the Chinese actually being crazed spud-lovers like me – although the government are eyeing the potato as an antidote to food shortages in the future.

The cold Northern regions of China use potatoes in their cuisine-my husband once ate a delicious lamb and potato stew in freezing Heilongjiang province and there is a wonderful nightshade vegetable medley, where potatoes are teamed with aubergines and peppers in a sauce. However, my favourite Chinese potato dish is a strangely undercooked heap of thinly cut ‘chips’, soaked in vinegar and stir fried with chillies and salt: Suan La Tu Dou Si

Salt and vinegar is always the correct seasoning for potatoes.  I don’t trust people who put mayonnaise on their chips, and I really do trust the Chinese when it comes to condiments -they have magnificent vinegars and wonderful fermented things in jars which make our salad creams and brown sauces and malt vinegars taste cheap and bland and dull. This dish has the added excitement of fresh chilli and garlic, which gives an Asian dimension to the recipe. Like chips, but more exotic.

As you start to eat this dish,  the potatoes do seem a bit undercooked. They aren’t (well they shouldn’t be if you have cut them thinly enough and soaked them for the right amount of time). Once you get used to this different potato texture, they begin to taste slightly rich, despite only being cooked in a small amount of oil. This rich flavour is tempered with lovely light rice wine vinegar and elevated with some chilli heat – making the dish very addictive. If you do visit Beijing -give McDonald’s a miss -the local potato dishes are far better.

 

Suan La Tu Dou Si

(serves 2)

2 large potatoes  – I used Marfona. but have used different varieties and the difference is negligible

2 red and one green chilli, deseed and cut into thin strips. If you can’t tolerate heat, then you could substitute a thinly sliced red or green pepper -this is ideal if cooking for small children, who seem to enjoy this dish.

2 cloves garlic thinly sliced

Chinese rice wine vinegar

Cooking oil

Sea salt

Cut the potatoes into thin matchsticks. I slice them vertically as thinly as I can and then hand cut each thin slice into narrow strips. It’s weirdly satisfying. You can use a mandolin if you have one, but I quite enjoy the hand cut variation in thickness and the relaxing sense I get from chopping the potatoes myself. Up to you.

Place the potatoes into a bowl and cover with water. Add three tablespoons of rice wine vinegar to the bowl and swish it about. Leave the potatoes to soak for 20 minutes to half an hour, agitating them from time to time.

Place the oil in a wok and heat it until it is nearly smoking. Remove the potatoes from the soaking liquid and squeeze them dry using kitchen paper. Put them in the wok (and stand back as they will spit). Keep them moving over the heat and watch them become translucent. Add the chillies and garlic and keep the mixture moving for a good few minutes. If the potatoes start to stick, add the tiniest amount of boiling water from the kettle (technically cheating, but it does work). Add another tablespoon of rice wine vinegar into the wok along with a generous pinch of sea salt. Keep tasting, until the texture is firm but the flavour of the potatoes becomes ‘cooked’ -they should taste slightly buttery. Serve straight away

 

 

 

 

 

Golden Age

Looking back, perhaps it was unwise of me to take up Shaolin Kung Fu at the age of 43 and 1/2. At the time, it felt like a marvellous plan. I love Kung Fu films. I like fighting. I have strong bonds with China.

One of the irritating things about getting old, is that the body ages faster than the mind. In my head, I am a lithe fifteen year old, agile and energetic. However, my actual body is a creaking, groaning mess -which has borne and lugged children about, walked miles, broken bones and now is a saggy and wrinkly shell.

I took a Shaolin Kung Fu course a few months ago and felt the impact immediately. That same evening, I was finding walking down the street in heels extremely painful. ‘Bruce Lee never had to put up with this’ I grumbled to my friend. Perhaps that is why Shaolin warriors go barefoot, or wear those special plimsolls.

The following day, also wearing heels, I dropped a pile of papers on the floor and stooped down quickly to get them. As I did, something pinged in my hip and I found myself in the most excruciating pain. I had to go to a wine tasting, and I hobbled gingerly around, trying to spit wine out using as few muscles as possible.

After a few weeks the pain got better, but it has come back again, after I tried a few Kung Fu moves and now my chief kicking leg is pretty sore. I think it could be the universe telling me that I ought to act my age -but since most of my life has consisted of me getting into scrapes, and then owning them – instead of vowing never to fight again, I shall use the golden robe of the Shaolin monk as inspiration for a cake recipe.

As wonderful as chocolate is, this time of year can be chocolate overload. The comforting and gentle flavours of this easy tray bake can be served warm with ice cream for a nursery-style pudding, or cold as a pleasing contrast to the vast tons of chocolate at the Easter tea table.

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‘Defeat Is A State Of Mind’ Cake

225g dairy free spread

225g   50/50 mixture of caster and dark Muscavado sugar

450g golden syrup

450g self raising flour

2  eggs

300g plain soy yoghurt

4 extra tablespoons golden syrup -keep in reserve

Preheat the oven to 160C

Line a 12 inch long baking tray with greaseproof paper, making sure it comes up over the sides. You are going to ‘feed’ the cake with golden syrup, and the paper will ensure that it all gets sucked up into the hot sponge.

Melt the sugar, dairy-free spread and large quantity of golden syrup in a big saucepan (you are ultimately using this saucepan as a mixing bowl -so go large). Don’t let the sugary mixture boil -just melt it so everything is combined. Turn off the heat and set the saucepan on one side to cool.

In another bowl,  beat the eggs and stir in the yoghurt.

When the mixture in the saucepan is cool, pour in the egg and yoghurt mixture, stir it in carefully, and then add the flour. Give it all a jolly good mix, as it can clump together. Pour it into the greased and lined tin and bake until the sponge is bouncy and golden and a skewer poked into the middle comes out clean.

Remove from the oven and leave to cool for about 15 minutes. Then, taking the skewer, poke lots of holes into the cake and pour over the reserved syrup. It will sit stubbornly on the surface for a while -but eventually the heat will distribute the syrup across the surface of the cake and from there, down the holes into the cake.

Leave it to cool in the baking tin then store the cake, still on its greaseproof paper, to ensure it stays beautifully sticky. It will get more delicious with time.