Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Cranberry Sauce

Bright red and shiny, cranberries are the very essence of Christmas. Not only do they look festive but they are the perfect accompaniment to turkey and many other meats eaten at this time.
Cranberry sauce is so easy to make, there really is no need to buy it in jars. Made fresh, it is zingy and pleasantly astringent, just the thing to perk up anything from chicken to ham or as a fruity partner to offset the richness of venison. It even goes well with cheese such as a well matured stilton.
Cranberries are now readily available at the supermarket in generously sized bags, so there'll be plenty to last throughout the winter feasts.

I use 300g of fresh cranberries, wash them and tip them into a saucepan along with the grated zest and juice of one orange. Placing the pan over a medium heat, I slowly bring them to a simmer, stirring occasionally, until the berries begin to pop and burst, releasing their juices. Then I add about five tablespoons of white sugar and stir in until dissolved. You could add more sugar if you wish the sauce to be sweeter.
It really is simple as that.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Getting more juice from your lemon

Put your lemon in the microwave. Just 30 seconds on 'high' will soften the fruit's internal membranes, releasing more juice as it's easier to squeeze.
If you don't have a microwave, five minutes in a warm oven works just as well.

Give your lemon a massage. Roll it backwards and forwards on the work surface applying a little pressure.

Selecting the best lemon. Don't judge them by their looks but their weight. For their size, they should feel heavy in in the hand.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Vote for The Artisan Food Trail in The Great Exhibition 2012 and help support British artisan food producers

The Great Exhibition 2012 is all about celebrating Britain at its best and it is creating innovative ways to work out what really makes Britain 'Great'. Rather than them telling you what makes the country 'Great' they want you to tell them who is making it in Britain? Who, What and Where makes Britain 'Great'?

The brilliant thing about this inititiave is that it encourages the great British public to nominate their 'Greats' not least the businesses themselves who are also urged to list themselves as a 'Great'.
After some deliberation they decided to put themselves forward.
The decision was not for vanity but because it was seen as the perfect opportuntiy to give their Artisan Food Trail members some more exposure.

I need your vote please
There's lots of information on
The Great Exhibition website, but in short, I need to get 100 votes or more for The Artisan Food Trail by the end of December to go through to the next round. Once through, they'll be placed in a head-to-head contest and will need to get more votes to stay in the running.

The competition closes on the
30th of June 2012, with the Top 10 of each sub-category being promoted online and throughout the media – to showcase what makes Britain 'Great'.
The business with the highest amount of votes will get the opportunity to win free space at the Live Event, so if they do get that far (fingers crossed) they would be able to exhibit on the big day and promote all of their Artisan Food Trail members.

Why am I doing this?
I don't normally do big plugs like this but I would really appreciate your support, as The Artisan Food Trail is something very close to my heart.
For those who don't know already, I set up the The Artisan Food Trail as I'm passionate about food, especially when it's made by artisan producers using traditional methods and great ingredients. Having got to know many small food producers over the years, I felt that they deserved to be recognised and many of them needed more promotion. In short, I raise awareness for them, giving support for their businesses.

Voting is simple – you just need to register with your email and a user name, that's it.

Vote here!

Thank you for supporting The Artisan Food Trail and all their British artisan food producers. – Cheeky Spouse x

More info: www.thegreatexhibition2012.co.uk

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Ginger & Apricot Tiffin

Photo: © childsdesign

Tiffin is a sweet treat that requires no baking and is quick and easy to make. It is often made with digestive biscuits but as I like to experiment with flavours, I tried using ginger nuts instead which made the tiffin taste quite indulgent. Actually this recipe is very indulgent as I used rich chocolate. Many tiffin recipes contain nuts too, but this one is rather simpler but the end result is luxurious and almost truffle-like without any nutty intrusions that I sometimes find can give a rather dry texture.

200g unsalted butter
200g plain chocolate (minimum 70% cocoa solids)
1tbsp runny honey
225g ginger nut biscuits
150g dried ready-to-eat apricots

Grease a loaf tin or square dish with butter and line with baking parchment.
Place a large bowl over a saucepan of barely simmering water. Put in the butter, chocolate and honey and allow to melt and stir briefly to combine.
Crush the biscuits coarsely. It is good to have a mixture of more finely crushed to just broken biscuit pieces.
Chop the apricots coarsely.
Add the biscuits and apricots to the now melted chocolate and butter mixture and stir really well, making sure the biscuit and apricot pieces are well coated and evenly distributed.
Pour the mixture into the tin and spread out evenly. Leave to cool then place in the fridge to set.
When set, turn out the tiffin on to a board and cut into slices.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Butternut Squash & Chickpea Curry

Sometimes I don't want a curry that is too rich or heavy, but I still want a good depth of flavour. I think this recipe is Bengali in origin. It uses an Indian five-spice blend called Panch Phoran. The spices are left whole so you get nice little flavour bursts with every mouthful that perfectly complement the fresh sweetness of the butternut squash and the round earthiness of the chickpeas.
The dash of fresh ground fennel seeds at the end really gives the dish a brightness and wonderful aniseed aroma.

Serves 4

1tbsp vegetable oil
1 bay leaf
1/2 tsp panch phoran (see my 'how to make it' if you'd like to make your own)
1-2 green chillies, cut in half lengthways and deseeded
1 small onion chopped
1/2 tsp tumeric
2 tsp ground cumin
1 heaped tsp ground coriander
thumb sized piece ginger, grated
salt to taste
sugar to taste
500g butternut squash, peeled, seeds removed and cut into 2cm pieces
200ml boiling water
200g cooked chickpeas
1 tsp ground garam masala
1 tsp fennel seeds, ground to a powder

In a large heavy frying pan, heat the oil and add the bay leaf, panch phoran, chillies and fry gently for 1-2 minutes until the seeds begin to pop

Add the chopped onion and stir well to coat with the spices. Fry gently until very soft and translucent.

Add the tumeric, ginger paste, cumin and coriander, salt and sugar and a splash of water and cook for 1-2 minutes

Add the butternut squash and the boiling water. Bring to the boil and then turn down the heat to a simmer and cook for 15 minutes. Cook until the squash is tender but don't allow it to become mushy.

Stir in the chickpeas, garam masala and ground fennel. Cook for about 1-2 minutes until the chickpeas are warmed through and everything is well combined.

Serve with basmati rice and yogurt.

Photo: ©childsdesign 2011

Panch Phoran

I have always kept a well stocked spice cupboard because I really enjoy making curries from scratch. I try to keep whole spices and grind them myself as they last longer and the flavour is much better than pre-ground spices. It is important that you keep them in airtight containers in a cool, dry and dark place. Wall mounted spice racks may look impressive and make for easier access but light is the enemy and blasts the oils from even the most robust of spices. This can leave you with nothing more than dust which is useless for cooking.

On one of my curry making quests I found a recipe that uses Panch Phoran. This is a blend of five Indian spices – fenugreek seeds, nigella (kalonji) seeds, fennel seeds, cumin seeds and black mustard seeds. You can buy it ready blended in the shops but as I already had these spices as separate entities, I thought why not mix my own.

It is very simple to put together as all the proportions are identical for each spice, so I measured a couple of teaspoons of each one into a bowl, stirred to mix well and tipped them into a jar ready to be used with ease in my cooking. Traditionally it is always used as whole spices and never ground.

Fenugreek – Buff coloured and looks like little stones.
Nigella (Kalonji) – Slightly irregular-shaped and deep black in colour.
Fennel – Elongated and green
Cumin – Elongated and brown
Black Mustard – Small, round and dark brown

Photo: ©childsdesign 2011

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Sweet Natured

Sweet, gooey and scented, I think I’m slightly obsessed with honey. Everywhere I go, I like to pick up a jar of local honey and I always like to keep a pot of it to hand in the pantry. Decent local honey may not be cheap, but it is the pure unadulterated product likely to carry the signature flavour of our indigenous countryside and even our gardens.
I’m forever amazed at just how those busy honey bees gather the nectar and turn it into such a seductive food for us to plunder.

Generally, bees can fly up to six miles from the hive but one or two is more common if food sources are close by. They collect the pollen and nectar in the spring (when most plants are in flower) and take it back to the hive where they process and store honey in honeycombs to be used as their winter sustenance. Bees make more honey than they actually need and a typical hive can hold up to around 25lb (11kg) surplus.

Depending on the types of plants that the bees forage on, the honey can be either runny and clear or opaque and set. The flowers also impart their unique flavour characteristics too, so honeys can vary considerably from region to region.

As well as spreading it on my toast in the morning, I love using honey in cooking – it is great for baking as it has hygroscopic qualities, meaning that it attracts water, thereby keeping cakes moist for longer.

Apart from the kitchen, honey also has a place in the medicine cabinet too. Its antiseptic properties make it a soother of sore throats and it is even good for the skin when applied externally.
Honey lasts practically forever too, (although not in my house!) an explorer found a 2000 year old jar of honey in an Egyptian tomb and they said it tasted delicious.

For my recipe, I have decided against the assumed route of a dessert and used honey in a delicious main course savoury dish instead, to demonstrate the versatility of this gorgeous substance.

Zingy Honey Chilli Chicken
Chicken really lends itself to the sweet stickiness of the honey and the recipe is really easy to make too.
Don’t be put off by the amount of chilli used as honey has the ability to tame the heat into an overall mellowness.
It can be served with rice or new potatoes with a crisp green salad.

Serves 4

6tbsp runny honey
2 red chillies, deseeded, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, crushed
2tbsp worcester sauce
1tbsp cider vinegar
1tbsp lemon juice
1tbsp fresh rosemary, finely chopped
salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 skinless chicken breasts
1 red capsicum pepper, cored and cut into chunks
1tbsp olive oil
1tsp cornflour

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

In a small bowl, mix the honey, chilli, worcester sauce, vinegar and lemon juice. Add the rosemary, garlic and season with salt and pepper.

Take each chicken breast and score the flesh diagonally 3 times. Place in an ovenproof dish along with the capsicum pepper and pour over the marinade. Leave for an hour or so to allow the flavours to mingle.

Drizzle the chicken with the olive oil and place in the oven for 20-30 mins, basting 2-3 times during cooking. As ovens vary check to make sure the chicken is cooked all the way through by inserting a skewer into the thickest part of a breast. The juice should run clear.

Take the dish from the oven and remove the chicken and peppers, using tongs to another dish and keep warm. Pour the juices into a small saucepan and bring to the boil and allow to cook until the liquid has reduced by half and has thickened slightly. Turn down the heat to low.

In a small bowl mix the cornflour with a small amount of cold water. Pour a little into the reduced marinade and stir until it has thickened, simmer gently for a minute. Pour over the chicken and serve.
Photo: ©childsdesign 2011

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Kitchen Scents: Using lavender in cooking

I love relaxing in the garden listening to the buzzing sound of bees bobbing about on the lavender while the sun releases the wonderful soothing scent in to the air. Although the lavender has finally finished flowering I can still enjoy it between now and next summer, as I have dried some bunches and crumbled the aroma packed blooms into jars to be used around the home and in the kitchen.

The mediterranean plant has long been utilised for its health and wellbeing qualities and is the essential oil is used by aromatherapists to promote relaxation. It is an antiseptic and also has anti-inflammatory properties and was even used to disinfect hospital floors during the First World War. A little of the oil applied to your temples will soothe a headache and I can certainly vouch for its ability to aid sleep and relieve anxiety.

Historically lavender can be traced as far back as ancient Egypt where it was used for embalming and cosmetics. The ancient Greeks fully appreciated its scent and the Romans fully made use of its healing attributes. In fact it has been used throughout history to the present day from medicine through to insect repellent to perfume.

When I’m out in my garden tending to the fruit bushes, vegetable plants, and herbs I often ponder how I could use flowers in my cooking, lavender being no exception. It is a strong flavour and should be used sparingly but lends itself to both sweet and savoury dishes.

A couple of sprigs of the flowers tucked into a jar full of caster sugar gently infuses to give you a wonderful ingredient for baking, the subtle fragrance is good in cakes and biscuits. It is also an unusual but interesting addition to rubs and marinades, perfectly complementing lamb or even chicken. A few of the dried flower buds can be dropped into milk or cream, gently warmed and left to allow their flavours to permeate to make a base for custard or ice cream.

I know there a few people who don’t like the smell of lavender as they associated it with elderly aunts’ handbags, but I would urge them to try it in cooking as it really is a different story. Just take care not to use too much and it can transform a dish in a subtle yet surprising way.

Lavender, Chilli & Rosemary Focaccia
Focaccia originates from Italy and is enriched with olive oil, which gives the bread a soft texture. It can be topped with a variety of things, but rosemary and sea salt is the most common. I chose to take that a step further and used chilli flakes and some dried lavender flowers taking the flavour into another dimension.

118ml pint hand hot water
1 tsp sugar
2 tsp dry active yeast
500g strong white flour
2 tsp salt
6 tbsp olive oil plus extra
225 ml tepid water (more may be needed)
sea salt flakes for sprinkling
a couple good pinches dried chilli flakes
a couple of pinches of dried lavender flowers
a few sprigs of fresh rosemary
some semolina or polenta for dusting

In large jug mix yeast and sugar into 118ml pint hand hot water, stir to dissolve. Set aside for about 10 minutes until the liquid turns frothy.

In a large bowl mix together the flour and salt. Stir in the olive oil.
Add the yeast liquid and the water and use you hand to mix into a soft dough. The dough should be quite moist and sticky at first.

Turn out on to a well floured surface and knead the dough for about 10 to 15 minutes until the it no longer sticks to your hands and becomes elastic and springy to the touch.
It is important to work the dough really well, making sure you stretch it and fold it back in on itself. This works the gluten from the flour so the dough rises.

Pour a couple of tablespoons of olive oil into a bowl and smear around, drop the dough ball in and cover with a damp tea towel and place in a warm place to rise, for around 11⁄2 hours. After this time the dough should have doubled in size.

Slip the dough out the bowl on to a floured surface, knock back (knead vigorously) to remove air bubbles – you should be able to hear and feel the air puffing out – and knead again for 5 minutes. Then roll it out in to a flat oval shape. Not thin but slightly less thick than you want it to be when it’s baked.

Place on an oiled baking sheet dusted with polenta or semolina, cover with a damp tea towel and place somewhere warm for about 30 minutes until it has risen and doubled again.
While it is rising, preheat the oven to 200C, Gas 6.

When the dough has risen, make indentations in it using your fingertips. Drizzle with olive oil and a little water. Sprinkle with sea salt to give an even and light coverage. Do the same again with the chilli flakes. Sprinkle over the pinch of lavender flowers, but be quite sparing as they have a strong flavour. Then pull of a few leaves at a time off the rosemary and push into the dough.

Bake for approximately 20 minutes until golden brown and the loaf moves freely on the baking sheet. Slip on to a wire rack to cool.
Photos: ©childsdesign 2011

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Restaurant quality food at home: David Oliver Fine Foods

As a home cook, I don't often buy ready meals, not because I think they're substandard or because I'm snobbish in any way, but I just love to cook, so it rather goes against one of the parts I enjoy about food.
On this occasion it may seem odd that I'm writing about pre-prepared meals, but I was given the opportunity to try some restaurant quality complete meals and give my feedback on them. It's not often that I get the chance to test out something as premium as these so obviously I was enthusiastic.

David Oliver Fine Foods produce a range of dishes using the finest ingredients from specially selected sources and prepare them using the same techniques that are used in quality restaurant kitchens.
The creators David Holliday and Oliver Shute, both chefs and friends, set up their business to make exceptional ready meals, recognising that there was a lack of good quality complete meals that led to them feeling frustrated by the mediocre offerings.

David has a wealth of experience in the world of food, he was the head chef at The Pot Kiln and later went on to run The Harwood Arms in Fulham, the first London pub to receive a Michelin Star. He now owns his own catering business, Season 2 Taste, based in Henley-on-Thames.
Oliver too is well experienced in food, he has worked with Clarissa Dickson Wright and as a private chef to distinguished guests at Scottish castles to chateaux in France and luxury chalets in Chamonix. He now runs his own outside catering company, The Pot Kiln Anywhere and co-owns The Game and Wild Food Cookery School.

Knowing about their background I was expecting something really good and I wasn't disappointed.
There are four meals in the range: British Beef & Dorset Ale, Guinea Fowl & Lentils, Rabbit & Flageolet Beans and Classic Venison Stew. All are complete meals which means you get a good balance of meat and vegetables in a satisfying sauce. No need to serve them with anything more than a piece of crusty bread.

British Beef & Dorset Ale
This stew is described as being able to take you back to the sort of meal that your grandmother used to make with its earthy root vegetables, melt in the mouth Yorkshire beef and deep rich beer gravy. I think I could agree. The beef is indeed meltingly tender and the vegetables (carrots, swede, turnip and mushrooms) are perfectly cooked and even after reheating they retain a good texture. The flavour is deeply savoury and comforting, enriched with butter and honey and flavoured with thyme, perfect for a cold evening.

Guinea Fowl & Lentils
Claiming to be be a "bit of a show stopper" because it contains a whole breast of guinea fowl in it. I loved it, not just beacause of the whole breast, but because of the moistness of the meat which is flavoursome and tender. The mixture of puy lentils, carrots and smokey pieces of bacon cooked with wine are the perfect accompaniment, wholesome and fulfilling. I maybe would have preferred the skin on the guinea fowl to have been crisp – but bearing in mind the way it has to be heated that wouldn't be achievable without drying out the meat – but it was fine nevertheless.

Rabbit & Flageolet Beans
The first thing that hits me is the lovely scented herbal flavour from the rosemary which gently suffuses the whole dish. As well as the beans, there are courgettes which are perfectly cooked. They have not turned to a mushy consistency which is very pleasing. The large pieces of rabbit have a good flavour although they are slightly on the chewy side. I haven't had rabbit very often, but I do know that it needs some long slow cooking to make it more tender.

Classic Venison Stew
David Oliver rightly declares venison as being the "king of meats" although I personally don't agree that it is underrated. This dish though, has certainly done it justice with big chunks of tender venison cooked in a red wine sauce, with sizeable pieces of sweet potato and new potato. It has a great flavour, not too gamey and the pieces of smoked bacon give it nice roundness. A good robust stew and my favourite.

They are all great meals if you're looking for high quality food that doesn't have any unnecessary ingredients or additives. They'd be fantastic for a dinner party and a sure fire way to impress your guests. Whether you choose to hide the packs or not, is up to you!

For more information and to order online visit: www.davidoliverfood.co.uk
Pictures taken from the David Oliver Fine Foods website

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

A Cherry's Time is Short but Sweet

The English cherry season is but a brief spell in summer, that peaks around mid July, so there's just a little time left to indulge in them.
Lately I've been pleasantly surprised to see British cherries in all the shops, especially as we're often overrun with foreign imports, it makes quite a change to see even the supermarkets displaying boxes proudly displaying the Union Jack flag label.

British cherries have been under threat of almost extinction due to various factors (which I detailed in an article I wrote for The Artisan Food Trail blog) so it is a good idea to take advantage of their seasonal abundance and exercise some patriotism, just to keep them thriving.

In the town, where I live, we are sadly lacking a decent proper market, but we do have a regular, almost daily, fruit and veg stall that 'lives' opposite a building society. It is a lonesome stall but the cheery lady running it, seems to do a fair amount of trade and the array of produce is always fresh and inviting. 'Fresh Local Cherries', says the sign wedged into the back of a box stuffed full of shiny red baubles. Well, how could I refuse? She scoops them up and drops them into a brown paper bag, and scrunches the top. That took me back to my childhood when I would eat them like sweets, straight from the bag.

Exercising more grownup restraint my fruity haul made it home intact, which is a good thing as I would have had some explaining to do.

Cherries are delicious just as they are, of course, but I like to try different things with food. I did make a clafoutis, which is a French dish consisting of a rich sweet batter with the cherries baked, suspended in the mixture. That did taste good, but no photo I'm afraid. My exacting standards on appearances meant it was not quite up to the mark.

A Quick and Tasty Summer Salad
I also put together a simple salad (which is pictured). Fruit and cheese are good partners, Think of cheddar and apple, stilton and pear or brie and grapes, so I made a fairly bold decision and set the cherries alongside some soft white goat's cheese, with a mixture of spinach, rocket and watercress leaves and a simple balsamic vinegar and olive oil dressing. Hunks of walnut bread were all that was needed to squash the cheese on to and to mop up all the lovely juices.

Photos: ©childsdesign 2011

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Seed Cake

Seed cake is a favourite of my parents and although I love it now, I do remember trying to enjoy it as a child. It seemed wrong not to like something that was cake, but somehow I had trouble with the unusual flavour and texture of the seeds. Please don't let this put you off as I'm sure it was a childhood finickiness that I eventually overcame through perseverance.

I like to use a basic madeira cake recipe for this one and the flourish of sugar over the top, before baking, gives a lovely crunchy texture. The cake is rich and buttery with a pleasing crumb and goes very well with a good cup of tea.
I find that the cake tastes better the next day and improves over time as the caraway seeds release their oils.

240g softened unsalted butter
200g caster sugar, plus extra for sprinking
1tsp vanilla extract
3 large eggs
210g self-raising flour
90g plain flour
1tbsp (generous) caraway seeds

Preheat oven at to 170 C / Gas mark 3. Grease a loaf tin with butter.
Cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, then add the vanilla extract.
Mix in the eggs, one at a time with a tablespoon of flour with each, then mix in all the remaining flour, then finally fold in the caraway seeds.
Sprinkle liberally with caster sugar just before putting it into the oven.
Bake for 1 hour or until a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean.
Leave to cool in the tin before turning out onto wire rack.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Serious Pig

I receive lots of requests from PR companies wanting me to review various food (and non-food) products for them, and I have to admit many of these aren’t suitable for inclusion in my blog. But this time I was asked to consider some Snacking Salami from Serious Pig. I had already sampled a tiny nibble when at the Real Food Festival recently and was impressed enough to take Ceres PR up on their offer, after which, they duly sent some in the post.

Serious Pig is a new British company that started out as most good ideas do, down the pub over a pint or two. George Rice and his friends were feeling peckish, but the bar they were at offered very few inspiring snacks to nibble. George being passionate about pigs and all things packed with porky goodness hit upon the idea of a wholly British Snacking Salmi.

After much legwork and research to find the most excellent British free-range pork and track down the best charcuterie experts, George finally developed the ultimate recipe.

Well, what did I think? It ain’t half bad, smokey, chewy, meaty with just the right amount of saltiness and packed full of flavour, enough to satisfy any ravenous carnivore.
There are two types to choose from, Classic which is lightly smoked and made with cracked black peppercorns and then there’s the Spiced, made with smoked paprika and a pinch of chilli flakes.
I liked both of them in equal measure, the Spiced isn’t too hot, but gives a nice savoury warmth. The Classic is spicy but in a different way with the peppercorns giving little bursts of fragrant bite.

Perhaps some of you are thinking that a Snacking Salmi is not a new idea and I’m more than aware that there is already something on the market that claims to be ‘a bit of an animal’, but Serious Pig is different. It is wholly British and made with free-range pork, a provenance I’d prefer over the other brand.

Because the salami doesn’t need to be refrigerated and has a long shelf life it is great for taking on trips, picnics and anywhere you care to eat it. The stripy packaging, echoing a butcher’s apron, is minimal and easy to open too, therefore lightweight with the minimum amount of fuss – no stray sausages shooting through the air as you try to rip open the packet!
A great grab ‘n’ go snack food with quality to boot.

Currently available in Selfridges, pubs, delis and farms shops across the country.
It is also availble online from: www.seriouspig.co.uk
Photo: ©childsdesign 2011

Monday, 20 June 2011

On a Stick!

I'm not sure I find the title of the book very appealing, but I suppose it does perfectly describe what lies within. Going beyond insipid party food that invariably clings to a short but sharp cocktail stick jabbed into a foil-covered grapefruit half, the recipes are are far more appetising. Drawing on cuisines from around the world and inspired by some of the most delicious street food, the 80 recipes for things on sticks are inspiring and dare I say, a little more sophisticated than a cube of cheese bedecked with a meagre piece of pineapple.

Savouries are good enough for the best of parties and many would add interest to a barbecue. The Bacon-wrapped Shrimp with a Honey Mustard Dipping Sauce looks particularly mouthwatering as does the Bó Lá Lôt, betel leaves stuffed with ground beef, spiced with lemongrass, ginger, chilli and five-spice.
Not only are there meaty mouthfuls but several vegetarian based options too. There are several takes on traditional foods which have been given a new twist for your amusement with Fish and Chips, Pizza Skewers and Spaghetti and Meatballs being no exception.

Of course the stick itself plays a very important part in the presentation of the food, as the page near the front of the book demonstrates. Laid out in an almost surgical fashion, there is everything from your usual bamboo or metal skewer to a rosemary stalk or a stick of sugar cane.
Dipping sauces get their own section too as they play an integral part in spicing up, adding zing or mellowing the various impaled delights.

If you want to take your sticks to the next course, you'll find recipes for desserts too, from the simple yet scrumptious Mango and Chilli Powder to the downright daftly named Frozen Elvis – don't ask!

On A Stick! by Matt Armendariz is published by Quirk Books in paperback.
Order yours now

Book kindly supplied by Mat Archer from PGUK

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Ripe for Picking

Summer has truly arrived when English strawberries are ripe and ready for picking and although they are now available all year round – with foreign countries supplying our needs – you really can’t beat the fruit from our own soil. For me, reserving them as a seasonal treat makes them so much more special.

I grow a few strawberry plants in my garden and there’s nothing more exciting when lifting up the leaves to find the stems swathed in red juicy jewels. If you’re not much of a gardener or simply lack the space, you can still experience the thrill of the strawberry hunt by visiting one of the many pick your own farms in the area.
When the sun is warm the sweet fragrant smell wafts into the air tempting even the most restrained of individuals to sneak a strawberry into their mouths whilst foraging.

The first berries are not often the sweetest though, I think they lack the depth of flavour that the prolonged spells of sun can give them, that said, I do still love to eat then unadorned. No sugar, no cream, just pure fruit bliss. Plucked straight from the plant whether homegrown or ‘stolen’ they just seem to taste better.
However, dairy produce does create a natural harmony, whether it’s cream, yogurt, creme fraiche or marscapone, you can’t go wrong, but I would never cook a strawberry unless it was in a jam of course.

Strawberries and Cream Sponge Cake
This is the sort of thing I like to make for a summer Sunday treat, just perfect for all the family to enjoy or for when you have friends over.
A light buttery sponge filled with the sweetest of English strawberries and billowing clouds of cream is hard to resist.

200g unsalted butter, softened
200g caster sugar
3 large eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
200g self raising flour
half teaspoon baking powder
1-2 tablespoons milk
strawberries, hulled and halved lengthways, reserve some whole for decorating the top of the cake
6 tbsp good quality strawberry jam
300ml double cream, lightly whipped
icing sugar to dust

Preheat the oven to 180C / Gas 4.

Grease two 18cm sandwich tins and place a circle of baking parchment in the bottom of each one.

With an electric food mixer beat together the softened butter and sugar until it becomes pale and creamy.

Whisk the eggs and vanilla extract in a jug until slightly frothy.

With the mixer still running, add the eggs by pouring very slowly in a thin stream into the butter and sugar mix. When the mixture is pale, and increased in volume, stop the mixer.

Sieve in a tablespoon of the flour and using a metal spoon carefully fold in to avoid knocking out any air.
Repeat, adding a spoonful at a time until all the flour and baking powder is incorporated.
The mixture should be of a soft dropping consistency. If it seems too stiff, gently fold in some milk.

Divide the mixture between the two cake tins and spread out evenly, smoothing off the tops.

Place in the centre of the oven for 25-30 minutes.
The cakes are ready when they're risen, golden brown and their edges are pulling away slightly from the sides of the tin.

Turn them out on to a cooling rack and carefully remove the baking paper. Leave until completely cool before filling.
Spread one half of the cake with strawberry jam and arrange the strawberry halves over it. Spread over the whipped cream and carefully place the other cake half on top. Arrange some whole strawberries on the top and dust lightly with sieved icing sugar.

Strawberry Facts
There are about 200 seeds in every strawberry.
A 100g serving contains just 50 calories.
In medieval times they were considered an aphrodisiac.
They can help to whiten your teeth.
They are full of a substance called ellagic acid which can help fight cancer.
Eight of them contain more vitamin C than an orange.
They are a member of the rose family.
They were cultivated by the Romans as early as 200 BC.
They can also be white or yellow and some even taste like pineapples.
Food photos: ©childsdesign 2011

My article previously published in Letchworth Living magazine. (June 2011 edition) www.letchworthliving.co.uk

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Kitchen Helper

For those who prefer metric to imperial measurements or vice versa, I've added a new section to the blog which allows you to download some handy conversion charts. So whether you like pounds, ounces or grams, kilograms, fluid ounces, pints or millilitres etc. I think I may have it covered.
There's also a useful oven temperatures guide too if you're getting hot headed over celsius, fahrenheit or gas marks.
Visit the Kitchen Helper page for all the info.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Farmers swing open their gates to the public

The opportunity to experience at first-hand what life is like on a real working farm is within reach for all of us on 12 June. Each year British farms open their gates as they take part in the event organised by LEAF (Linking Environment And Farming) and this year over 450 farms across the country are involved.

I see an event like this to be so educationally valuable in a time where many children seem to have no idea where their food comes from. The understanding of  our food's origins and how it finally gets to our plates is very important if British farming is to thrive.

Open Farm Sunday Facts
  • LEAF’s Open Farm Sunday is the only day in the year when farmers across the whole of the UK unite to open their farms to the public.
  • Hertfordshire LEAF Demonstration farmer, Ian Pigott took the idea from a similar event held in Denmark to LEAF (Linking Environment And Farming) and together they made the first event happen in 2006.
  • The public think farmers are more important to their everyday lives than teachers, politicians or bank managers. When asked to rank a list of professions and trades, the public ranked farmers fourth, just behind doctors and nurses, firefighters and police officers.
  • 29% adults say that they have never been on a working farm and only 31% have visited one in the past 4 years.
  • 20% children in England have never visited the countryside and 27% 8-9 year olds have never come close to touching farm animals.
  • A survey conducted as part of LEAF’s Open Farm Sunday 2007 showed that 35 per cent did not know that porridge comes from a British farm, 23 per cent of people did not realise that bread originates from a farm and 22 per cent did not believe that sausages and bacon originate there.
  • The knowledge was even lower with younger adults, with 29 per cent of 16-24 year olds failing to recognise that bread originates on a farm, 34 per cent that sausages and bacon come from a farm and a massive 47 per cent did not know farmers are responsible for producing porridge.
Not only is the day educational but it is most of all fun with lots to see and do from tractor and trailer rides, to farm walks and nature trails, and even discovering how worms are a farmer’s best friend. You might have the chance to see sheep being sheared, cows being milked or chicks hatching! You might also get the chance to build a bug-hotel, go pond-dipping or see pig racing. Every farm is different and many offer good food to eat and buy as well as live music.

So get out into the countryside, reconnect with nature, learn and have fun.
I know where I will be!

For information and to find a farm open near you visit: www.farmsunday.org
To keep up to date and share your farm experiences follow: twitter.com/openfarmsunday

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Beyond the Garnish

Could watercress be the next superfood? Historically it is known to be a blood cleanser and more recently there have been suggestions that it could help to suppress certain cancers. Watercress does indeed contain lots of vitamins and minerals as well as antioxidant properties which are all good for our health. That said, it tastes so good and is versatile enough to be used in so many ways that it shouldn’t need to be bolstered by a health PR campaign to make us eat it.

It may be an acquired taste for some people, the peppery flavour can be quite strong and might be a shock to younger palates. My Dad used to stuff it generously into sandwiches, but it was only after several tries that I grew to like it.

Hertfordshire has long been known for commercially cultivating watercress, the Sansom family have been doing so for five generations and Nine Wells Farm in Whitwell near Hitchin, is probably the closest producer to us here in Letchworth.
It is nice to think that we have a plentiful supply on our doorstep, so expect to find it in local delicatessens, farm shops and greengrocers. I have even found bags of supermarket watercress with ‘Herts’ as the place of origin, so you never know.

May sees watercress being celebrated with its very own ‘week’, the perfect time to explore this humble leafy plant. Experiment with it and don’t just leave it to languish as an undervalued salad garnish on the side of the plate.

Having such a robust almost mustard-like taste, it can be used very much as an ingredient, giving flavour as well as the crunchy juicy texture coming from the stalks.
Try it roughly chopped and stirred through mashed potatoes or it makes an interesting filling for an omlette along with some mushrooms and Stilton cheese.
I’ve even made pesto using it, instead of basil, which is lovely stirred through some pasta with smoked salmon.

Watercress Soup
To extract all the gorgeous green goodness, a watercress soup is refreshing and an ideal lunchtime treat, but it is also elegant enough to serve as a dinner party starter.
Take care not to overcook the soup once the watercress is added as this will destroy the flavour and the colour may not be so appealing.

1 onion, peeled and roughly chopped
25g butter
250g potatoes, peeled and diced
600ml chicken or vegetable stock
2 x bags (about 150g) of watercress, roughly chopped
50ml cream
a little milk if needed
salt and black pepper

In a large pan gently melt the butter, add the onion and cook the onion until soft and translucent but not browned.
Add the potatoes and stock and cook until the potatoes are soft, for approximately 15-20 minutes. When potatoes are almost cooked, add the watercress and cook no longer than 5 minutes. Tip into a liquidiser, add the cream and blend until smooth. Use a little extra milk if the soup seems too thick. Season with salt and black pepper and serve hot. Drizzle with some extra cream to serve.
Food photos: ©childsdesign 2011

My article previously published in Letchworth Living magazine. (May 2011 edition) www.letchworthliving.co.uk

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Seasonal Tips

The wonderful thing about eating seasonally is that it really makes an occasion out of consuming the best produce. The British asparagus season is finally upon us and I've enjoyed the building anticipation before it finally arrive in the shops.
Foreign asparagus is available all year round and I think it has diminished the specialness of it, plus, in my opinion, you really can't top the British variety.

Although I enjoy doing some kitchen gardening, I've never attempted growing asparagus myself as I confess I'm rather too impatient. From planting the crowns, I believe it takes around a cycle of two years before it reaches maturity and is good enough to harvest. I think I'll leave that to the experts. Once fully flourishing though, the spears can be cut after which it takes only 24 hours for a new shoot to appear and grow to an appreciable length. After a slow start it goes off like a rocket!
Recently I discovered that it tastes so much better if you roast it.
The flavour becomes concentrated, something that boiling takes away. Just get your oven nice and hot, put the spears into an ovenproof dish, drizzle with some olive oil, pop in the oven for about 10 minutes and you have perfectly cooked asparagus.
I made a dish, this way (recipe here) using wild venison chorizo from
Great Glen Game, which complements the minerally taste of the asparagus so well.

Asparagus Tip: To keep the spears fresh treat them as you would cut flowers. Trim off a small amount from the bottom of the stems, place them in a jug of water and store in the fridge.

Photos: ©childsdesign 2011

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Simnel Cake

There are many versions of the story of how the Simnel cake originated, but as I'm not sure which one is actually true, I'll save confusion and not go into the details. What I do know is that nowadays it is made for Easter and decorated with marzipan balls to represent the eleven disciples. Yes eleven not twelve, Judas is left out and if you know your Bible stories, I think you'll have worked out why.

Simnel cake is very much like a lighter version of Christmas cake and I think I prefer it. Dotted with juicy fruit and fragranced with a dash of cinnamon it's perfect for any celebration, but you need to like marzipan to enjoy it, there's lots of it – on the top – and my favourite part, the seam of gooeyness in the centre.

There probably isn't an authentic recipe left in existence as my research found a multitude of different ones using varying quantities of fruit and even nuts, but I've put together one that appeals to my tastes.

225g butter, softened
225g sugar
4 eggs
225g plain flour
335g dried mixed fruit
110g glacé cherries, quartered
grated zest of 2 lemons
2 tsp ground cinnamon
450g almond paste
2 tbsp orange marmalade
1 egg, beaten

Pre-heat oven to 150°C /Gas 2.
Butter a 20cm diameter deep round cake tin. Line with the bottom and sides with baking parchment making sure you leave a collar of paper sticking above the rim of the tin.

Place the butter, sugar, eggs, flour, mixed dried fruit, glace cherries, lemon zest and cinnamon in a large mixing bowl and beat together until thoroughly blended

Place half the mixture into the cake tin and smooth over the surface.

Take one-third of the almond paste and roll it out into a circle the size of the tin. Place it on top of the cake mixture. Spoon the remaining cake mixture over and smooth the surface.

Bake the cake for about 2 hours 30 minutes until well risen and firm to the touch. Cover with foil after 1 hour if the top is browning too quickly. Allow the cake to cool in the tin for 10 minutes before turning out on to a wire rack to cool completely.

When the cake has cooled, brush the top with the warmed marmalade and roll out half of the remaining almond paste to fit the top. Press firmly on the top and crimp the edges to decorate.

Mark a criss-cross pattern on the almond paste with a sharp knife. Form the remaining almond paste into 11 balls (to represent the 11 disciples). Arrange the balls around the outside.

Preheat the grill. Brush the marzipan with a little of the beaten egg. Place the cake under the preheated grill to turn the almond paste golden. Keep an eye on it and turn the cake around to prevent burning.

Photo: ©childsdesign 2011

Monday, 25 April 2011

Aromatic Spiced Chicken and Apricots with Giant Couscous

I think I prefer giant couscous to the usual fine grained type, it has an interesting texture with plenty of bite. I've never cooked it myself before and have only previously enjoyed it as a pre-prepared salad, so when I received a packet from Merchant Gourmet to try, I couldn't wait to make a full meal out of it.
Merchant Gourmet have an extensive recipe section on their website which gave me the opportunity to cook a dish recommended by them.
It was easy and very tasty, reminiscent of something Moroccan with the moist apricots adding sweetness to the earthy and zingy spices.

1 tbsp sunflower oil
2 onions, sliced
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp mild paprika
1 tsp chilli flakes
4 chicken breast fillets, cut into chunks
300ml warm chicken stock
200ml boiling water
250g pack dried apricots, halved
300g giant couscous
200g fine green beans
bunch of fresh coriander, roughly chopped
juice of half a lemon
grated lemon zest of 1 lemon

Coat the chicken in all the spices, and leave to marinade for 20 minutes.
Heat the oil in a medium pan and cook the onion for 3-4 minutes on a gentle heat until softened.
Add the chicken and fry for a further 3 minutes.
Pour in half of the stock, bring to the boil then cover and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add the apricots, giant couscous and remaining stock and simmer for a further 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to ensure the couscous doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan.
Add the beans and boiling water and cook with the lid on for a further 5 minutes until the beans are cooked to an al dente texture.
Season with salt and pepper, lemon juice, and then sprinkle the chopped coriander and lemon zest on top. Serve.

For more information about Merchant Gourmet's products, visit their website:

Food photos: ©childsdesign 2011

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Pure Pastures, Rare Flavour

My third article published in the local magazine, Letchworth Living. (April 2011 edition) www.letchworthliving.co.uk

Cheeky Spouse gets acquainted with her food at Offley Hoo Farm.

I wanted to find out just what a real farm is actually like, especially as I'm very much a 'towny', but I feel I need to see more than just an idyllic portrayal of one. Today was to be very educational, to say the least, as I set out to build more of a relationship with what I eat.

If you live in Letchworth, you'll no doubt have driven along the A505 between Hitchin and Luton and seen the wide expanses of countryside, with its undulations covered in lush green or the golden glow of oil seed rape, this landscape is the product of a good farming ethic carried out by Offley Hoo Farm’s award-winning farmer Jon Birchall. Of the 7000 acres covering the King's Walden estate, Jon manages 2000 acres following practices to fulfill the requirements of the High Level Stewardship Scheme.

Sunday morning is blessed with some fine sunshine, a brief but welcome brightness in what has been a largely dull week. Turning the car in to the entrance, I spot Jon hosing down the yard, as I get out, a friendly and inquisitive Border Collie trots up to greet me. When I bend down to stroke the dog, I get the feeling Jon nearly always takes second place when visitors arrive.

Jon is an extremely affable chap and is more than happy to tell me about the farm he manages. Although I've lived in the area for over 20 years, there's always something new and interesting to learn. The vast King's Walden estate covers two distinct soil terrains one lies just over the very end of the chalk of the Chilterns and both give rise to prime pasture.

I’m shown a map dating from around the 1920’s which clearly marks out all the fields. Knowing in the past, many fields were enlarged by grubbing up the hedgerows, I ask if the landscape has changed much over the years. Jon explains that even today, little has altered and in fact many of the smaller fields have endured modern farming.

We get into the truck for a tour of the estate, this is also a good time to check on the animals out in the fields – the native rare breed cattle, sheep and pigs produce some of the best local beef, lamb and pork. Our journey takes us out onto a muddy farm track past a rapeseed oil crop, where a clever device mimicking a bird of prey, swoops over the field to deter pigeons making a meal of the new shoots. When this crop is mature its seeds will be crushed to extract the oil which can be used for cooking or to make margarine.

The trip takes in a huge area and Jon points out his various fields describing how he’s transformed some of them from arable crop land to grass pasture. He explains how boundary margins (uncultivated strips around fields) prevent overspill of fertilisers and pesticides into the surrounding hedgerows and also points out a beetle bank, a long, low grassy mound. Areas like this are left to allow wildlife to flourish, particularly insects. Being part of the Stewardship Scheme means that farmers are actively involved in maintaining and improving countryside habitats throughout their work on the land.

It is easy to take our local landscape for granted, but only now do I fully appreciate how and why it looks the way it does. Hedge planting is carried out and land left to naturalise so that the native flora can return.

You may be asking, “what has this got to do with meat?” Well, good grazing and great care make for superior tasting meat.
At Offley Hoo, Jon has chosen livestock that are well suited to the environment. The animals are relatively easy to care for and economical to rear, but superior in every way.
Jon stops at a barn where Longhorn cattle have been brought in for the winter. They are truly magnificent animals. They do indeed have long horns, but seem gentle enough. Not often having had the opportunity to see cows this close up, I’m surprised at how thick and wavy their coats are. There are a few calves still suckling from their mothers and despite their cuteness I don’t feel at all fazed by the fact that I’m looking at what is potentially my dinner.

Offley Hoo’s Wiltshire Horn sheep roam happily in fields over the farm and when I visit, many of them are pregnant, so by the time you read this they may have already given birth to their lambs.
They grow to quite a heavy weight without putting on excess fat and the meat is full flavoured which makes it very desirable to discerning consumers.
After returning to the yard, Sarah (Jon’s wife) takes me to see the piglets. They are Large White/ Middle White crosses and perfectly adorable as they run around and climb all over one another. I’m relieved they are locked in a stable as mother pig looks quite protective.

It may seem odd to be eating rare breeds, but if we didn’t, they simply wouldn’t exist. The rearing of old native breeds for meat, is in effect a conservation programme which in turn is better for the animals, environment and us.

For more information about the farm and meat sales visit:

Open Farm Sunday
Each year Offley Hoo opens its gates to the public as part of a nationwide event to give people the opportunity to get in touch with the land that feeds us. There will be lots of activities including a chance to meet the animals, tractor rides and a food market.
This year it will be held on the 12th June and should be a great day out for all the family.

Photos: ©childsdesign 2011
Related Posts with Thumbnails